Propertius III.v

Love and those of us who like fucking love peace;

and I, for my part, am happy enough with a favor

won in a virtual spat from a chatroom dominatrix.

I’ve not got one thousand nodding donkeys

pumping crude from the fat of the land in East Texas;

I’m not interested in snapping up Liz Taylor’s

cast-off diamond necklaces; and you won’t find me

done up like a ponce in Armani or Pierre Cardin.

But that is not to say that I am ready to slap on a flak-jacket

and go kick the ass off the axis of evil for the good of good old Uncle Sam.

Some foreign egg-head’s at the back of all the ills in the world,

I know. But he’ll end up with 2,000 volts, courtesy of

Enron and the Federal government, thumping through his liver

on a prison hospital bed one day for sure. So, I don’t care.

What are brains worth when they’re fried, mister? The only way

is the righteousness of the born-again dumb-assed soul. God bless!

*

Now, the anchor with the blond bob and the tits on CBS

says it’s getting rough in the sandstorms out there

but we’ve got the bastards on the run, of course,

and superiority in the air and technological stealth

and smart bombs and sensitivity to collateral damage

and depleted-Uranium-tipped tomahawks

and an overwhelming sense of right will always prevail.

But I say, after a beer or three, on the sofa

that you can have or have yourself a gilded bathtap

from a Presidential palace in Baghdad,

but you can’t take it with you, can you,

if you end up some skeleton in uniform

with your bare dumb ass sticking out of a dune.

The bones and the stinking sun-dried flesh

of homeboys and aspirant blue-eyed all-American superheroes

get ground up all the same by the eroding desert winds and mixed

with those of the Fedayeen.

Howard Hughes, Adolf Hitler, Marilyn and JFK

wind up in the same sorry shipwrecked boat

as the rest of us, once they’re dead.

That’s why I prefer heavy metal music

and working out my adrenalin in the crush

of a Kiss concert and, while I’m still young,

dedicating myself to Stolichnaya and Peter Stuyvesant

and long-necked Buds and long hair

and head-banging and amphetamines

and a fuck for the groupies who didn’t get lucky that night.

Till I’m too old and bald for that sort of thing.

Then I’ll mellow out and enrol

on a night-school course as a mature student

and study astronomy, and weather science or law.

Because I’ve always wondered why the moon

rises and falls and grows fat or thin by the month,

and how we used gravity to visit it

and why twisters come from time to time

to trash trailer homes and why there is always clouds and rain

over our holy land and why God paints a rainbow

through the sky when sun shines through purple haze

and why the tops of the pines sigh and shake in the wind

in National Parks and why, lying stoned on your back

all night on Summer Camp, the Plough goes round and round

the Northern Star and never dips into the lake and why the Seven Sisters

stick so shiningly and close together like Motown sistas

and why the sea doesn’t fly off into space

like an Apollo rocket

and why seasons and moods come and go.

And in Church I’ll learn of the hell

Where whores are broken on wheels,

and evil Nazi doctors are chained to crags

and operated on, without anesthesia,

and the unfairly wealthy are forced

to endure an eternal thirst

to the sound of Evian water dripping out of reach;

and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

are constantly a-sowing a pandemic of AIDs, rattle-snake bites,

bipolar disorders, anorexia, smoking, obesity and diabetes

over that shady, inescapable place

guarded by Rottweilers and sharks.

But I’ll know, because by then I will be an educated person

and wise through age, that all of this is merely a necessary

illusion for the dim-witted and the blessed,

who, of course, can’t handle the grim reality of cremation,

oblivion and death.

When I die what will remain of me

will be simply this simple life that I have led, am leading

and will lead.

And I leave it you who

like crew-cuts and guns and the stars and stripes

close to your breast

to do the very worthy job of National Defense.

 

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For the Love of Prepositions (Part 7) And…

Someone once asked me whether ‘and’ is a preposition or a conjunction. I thought this was an odd question at the time but, with the wisdom of experience and age, I have come to wonder whether there might indeed be some doubt as to the classification of this little functional word.

In recent years, I have been lumping all conjunctions, prepositions and referential words (like ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘who’, ‘that’ etc.) together and just calling them all ‘link-words’. They all do more or less the same kind of job and, although it is a humble one, it is vitally important. Consider the heavy lifting the word ‘it’ does (twice) in my last sentence. These lexical manual laborers account for around 25% of all written text in English and far outnumber verbs.

“And” is used in two distinct but obviously related ways. First to join two noun phrases or qualifiers (adjectives and the like) together (‘apples and pears’, ‘red and white stripes’); and, secondly, to indicate that one action follows or is accompanied by another (‘she closed the door and left’). In the case of the first of these uses, it behaves in a manner similar to the category of words described as ‘prepositions’ in the traditional nomenclature. However, when linking two phrases, it fits more comfortably into the ‘conjunctions’ category.

The hybrid nature of ‘and’ goes way back. Etymologically, it is a fusion of a variant of the very ancient ‘en/in’ preposition/prefix and the spatially referential word ‘da’=’there’. Literally, therefore, it originally meant ‘in there’ or ‘thereupon’ and was a far fancier formulation than it appears to be now, shorn even of its vowel and final consonantal cluster in ‘fish ‘n’ chips’ and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. This etymology also shows that its original usage tended to be conjunctive rather than merely additive.

Being used simply to link nouns and adjectives into a chain was a big step down in the world for once haughty ‘and’. And its fall from grace has been so steep that some modern-day prescriptivist grammarians would forbid its use at the start of a sentence, even though (or perhaps because) this was its main and much nobler function in pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon England.

Propertius III iv

[I am becoming increasingly aware that various phases of my poetic production over the years are nearing completion (or at least exhaustion). Earlier this year, I published ‘final versions’ of 64 and Sonnets on Autism and, over the next few days or weeks I shall be publishing the ‘final versions’ of my series of Propertius ‘translations,’ along with one more light-hearted translation of an Ovid poem, making eight in total.

This week, I re-read all of Propertius’s oeuvre and concluded that I have already produced versions of all the poems that are at all amenable to my own peculiar treatment. The others are great poems also, but I am interested only in working on those in which the over-riding theme of love and sex overtly overlaps with politics.

The first of these poems, which I publish today, was originally written in 2003. Unlike most of my work, it is an explicitly political piece, protesting George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Like many of Propertius’s poems, it is written ironically in the voice of someone who purports to support the war. Sadly, it still seems very fresh in these Trumpian times, fourteen years later.

All of these poems contain vulgar language and opinions (not my own) that may upset some people. Reader discretion is advised.]

George the Third is at war again in the filthy, rich middle

of the world to the east. Aircraft carriers

have carved up the seven already dirtied seas. Our Dear

First American Citizen is worthy of great deeds,

planning to unfurl the flag of freedom over the ends of the Earth,

bringing rivers that breastfed the first civilized

peoples and the first dictatorships

under the sway and yoke of the mid-west way of life.

Shi’a cedes to chapel and hypocrisy.

*

State-of-the-art fighters and frigates are sent out

and armed men in harm’s way

do their daily duty as drilled.

And the fact that I am even able to write this poem

is already testimony to the freedom we will win

for others and the vengeance we will do

the Manhattan dead.

*

Do your bit, boys, for our history books!

And—by the stern Puritan Lord of the Torah,

and by our mother Mary of candles and limpid eyes—

I pray I see, before I burn myself out,

the oil flowing back along the highways of righteousness

into our limousines and SUVs;

proven weapons programs laid to rest

by wild captives

broken in by interrogation;

and fanatics in turbans and skirts put away

forever in the penitentiary system,

or simply put to death; old allies

making the right noises of obedience

as we march them up to press-conferences

in the Rose Garden after tea to atone.

*

And I’ll be there to watch and applaud,

with a girl’s breasts resting against me,

as we read  the names of the dead off

the black stones and the names of the cities overthrown

from the sofa on CNN.

*

For we know

that the most important right bequeathed us

by the Founding Fathers, and the movie starlets

and the heroes of war, is the right to fuck.

*

The oil-wealth goes (rightly) to those

who wheedled and fought for it. And we, in turn,

get the right to pop-corn and a pair of tits,

and to line the Sacred Way from White House

to Congress, and to sing the praises

(we the bigoted and the obese)

of our leaders and our heroes,

and happy (under the comfort of a heavy police presence)

laud our holy way of life.

 

For the Love of Prepositions Part 6–On ‘on’

“On” is an overlooked preposition. It does so much linguistic housework for us, but we tend (if we are native speakers) just to watch it working as onlookers and take its work for granted, or (if we are language learners) to be infuriated by its seemingly arbitrary distribution compared to ‘at’ and ‘in.’

‘On’ is belittled from the outset by grammar books that present it in hackneyed ‘the book is on the table’ type phrases, suggesting that it is just about something resting passively on top of something else, depending lazily on gravity the way drug addicts depend on drugs. But, if my cat is ‘on television’, it means that my Facebook pictures of her have gone viral and she has appeared regularly in one of the more light-hearted segments of the Nine o’clock News. If she is ‘on the television’, on the other hand, she is just slumbering on top of an old-fashioned television apparatus, enjoying its warmth. Cats must hate flat-screen TVs.

Humble little housekeeper of a word that it is, ‘on’ still has a certain arrogance about it. It is always ‘on top of things’, ‘on to things’, ‘on the way somewhere’: a resourceful upwardly-mobile little word. “On’ always arrives ‘on time’, neither too early nor too late. It is always ‘on message’, always ‘on the job;’ it just goes ‘on and on’.

Catalonia, Scotland and Kurdistan

All nation-states are oppressive artificial constructs, but some are far more oppressive and artificial than others.

In the relatively short history of the nation-state-based world system, few artificially engineered national units have been more oppressive than those of Spain, the United Kingdom and Iraq. Despite recasting themselves in recent years as liberal democracies, these supposed nations are still at root brutal ethnocentric hegemonies. Scratch the surface and you get a nasty response, as was plain for everyone to see in the ugly events that unfurled in otherwise super-civilized Spain last weekend.

Spain was never meant to be unified. The Greeks, Carthaginians and later Romans and Vandals wisely colonized only the Southern part of the peninsula and this geopolitically savvy foreign policy was continued by the Muslim régimes that ruled southern Spain well into the middle ages.

The so-called unification of Spain was an event of great cruelty and brutality, involving ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, mini-genocides and the imposition of a system of cultural engineering based on inquisition and torture. You could be arrested in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella for eating aubergines.

This unholy legacy persisted on the peninsula well into the 20th century, with the focus of opposition to the centralized Catholic authoritarian state shifting from traditionally multi-faith Andalusia to nascent socialist and Republican movements in Catalonia and the Basque Region. These regions were subsequently brutalized by the Franco régime. Guernica has become, thanks to Pablo Picasso, a by-word for man’s inhumanity to man, but few remember that it was chosen as a target because it lay within the ‘troublesome’ Basque Region.

Franco’s régime persisted, unlike those of Hitler and Mussolini, down until the mid-1970s. Philip K. Dick’s fantasy alternative history, in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War, was very much the reality in Spain. You could be arrested for reading Lorca; the beautiful and culturally enriching Basque and Catalan languages were discouraged or banned.

Since then, Spain has attempted to reconstitute itself, somewhat clumsily, as a quasi-Federal state organized around an artificially restored national monarchy. Tensions, however, remain. While the Basque Country has become the rust belt of the peninsula, Barcelona and its environs has flourished and regained much of its former glory, while the rest of Spain languishes under the aftermath of a government-induced debt crisis. Catalonia has its own local cultural heroes, quite distinct from those of Spain—Gaudí, Miró, Tapiès. The skills of the Barcelona football team—the unofficial Catalonian national team—are greatly admired around the world and, unlike most other successful international football teams, Barcelona FC is owned, not by a Russian oligarch or Thai businessman, but by its fans.
*
Scotland and England have a long history of being bickering neighbors. Scotland, being smaller, less populous, and colder, has generally come out worse in the long series of conflicts. Nevertheless, there have been periods during which Scottish culture and science and government have been far in advance of that of England or what would later become the UK. Scotland was a resilient pioneer of Protestant reform and religious tolerance, while England’s Bloody Mary was sending clerics to the stake. In the 18th century, the intellectual Enlightenment took root in Scotland far sooner and more deep-rootedly than it did in its sister-nation. Adam Smith, David Hume and James Watt were all Scots. Scottish technocrats, however, have been routinely excluded from power and relegated to the engine-room (like ‘Scottie’ in Star Trek), both during the British Empire and in subsequent London-centered regimes. Look what happened to Gordon Brown when he was elevated from the ‘engine room’ of the Treasury to the ‘bridge’ of the Premiership. Scots have recently come into the ascendant again—upholding basic Scandinavian-style human rights, tolerance and social justice against English elitism and neoliberalism and affirming their commitment to the ideal of European Union, while England languishes in nostalgia for a more illiberal, militaristic, mercantilist age.
*
The history of Kurdistan is perhaps less well known, perhaps because these people have never enjoyed the comforts of their own nation-state. The Kurds are the largest ethnically and linguistically homogeneous group in the world not to have a nation-state of their own. This is a huge gash of injustice that vitiates and destabilizes the whole Middle East and threatens the wider world.

Always culturally and linguistically distinct from other parts of the region, Kurdistan has historically been overwhelmed by more powerful surrounding nations and empires. Vied over by the Persian Safavids and Ottoman Turks in the early modern period, after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the peoples of this region were first promised independence by the Treaty of Sèvres. The Allies soon, however, reneged on this deal, bullied by Atatürk’s growing nationalist movement in Turkey and preferring to incorporate the rest of the Kurdish population into their own recently created artificial imperial ‘protectorates’ of Syria (overseen by France) and Iraq (overseen by the UK).

Despite the brutal politics of the region, this arrangement has persisted more or less intact to this day. Kurds in Turkey have been routinely excluded from power and denied the use of their native language. In Iraq, they were brutalized by Saddam Hussein, before being corralled into a US-protected, but not independent, zone, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War. Up to and including the recent referendum, appeals for Kurdish independence have been met with deaf ears or outright hostility by surrounding nations and global powers alike. Kurdistan’s only ‘friend’ in the region is Israel, a nation with which it shares a somewhat similar history and projected destiny.

In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish Peshmerga has been instrumental in putting down the vicious religious bigotry of the so-called Islamic State uprising. Different from almost every other nation in the region, Kurdistan promotes genuine democracy, egalitarian social policy, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality, and the true values of Islam. It is a baffling miscarriage of international justice that the soi-disant liberal ‘international community’ has consistently refused to support the Kurdish cause.
*
In a famous essay, Tom Nairn described nationalism as being Janus-faced. There is a good kind of nationalism, looking forwards towards the future, promoting freedom for oppressed peoples and cultures, without fear of sharing this future with other cultures and peoples different from their own. On the other hand, there is the bad face of nationalism, which looks backwards towards imperialism and intolerance and forges nation-states as empires writ small and attempts to impose hegemony over cultural diversity.

This subjacent ideological divide, more emotionally powerful than the struggles between capitalism and communism, liberalism and authoritarianism, has always been the defining ideological conflict of the modern age and it is one that recent events in Catalonia, Scotland, Kurdistan and elsewhere suggest is coming to a head. Let us hope and pray that it does so in a manner that is more liberating and inspirational than marred by tragedy and violence.

Markov Chains

I recently tried watching a movie on YouTube with the automatic subtitles feature turned on. The result was hilarious. “Good bye!” was routinely transcribed as “Good behind!” And the exercise confirmed my belief/prejudice that there is no such thing as ‘artificial intelligence’. All intelligence is natural and all living creatures possess it in equal and abundant measure. All computers by contrast are obstinately dumb.

The frustration of watching a film with computer-generated subtitles also provides some solace for language learners who struggle with listening skills. Complex algorithms developed by the boffins at Google suck at this much worse than you do!

I subsequently went online and did a little research into how the coddled techies at Google come up with these ‘speech recognition’ algorithms and I discovered that they use something called Markov chains. So I had to Google that too, fully aware that, by the very act of doing so, I might be entering into a perilous feedback-loop sample bias.

Not being a techie person myself, I spent my first evening of research reading up about Prof. Markov himself and wondering at 1) how Markov originally discovered this mathematical truth by examining patterns of alliteration in classic Russian literature; 2) how this late 19th century entitled nerd and his protégés somehow all managed to escape Stalin’s purges; and 3) how this arcane marvel of Soviet mathematical discovery somehow made its way across the Atlantic (or the Arctic) to become a mainstay of modern-day Western informatics.

Day 2 of my research into Markov chains, I started watching a series of lectures on them that were easy enough for me to understand. On YouTube of course—but with the subtitles firmly in the off setting.

Three days later, I feel I have a fairly good grasp of the basics of what Markov chains are, although I am still puzzled and highly skeptical as to how they relate to speech recognition algorithms.

Markov chains concern chains of probability over time. In classical probability theory, each event is independent of the other, so that, however many times you toss a coin, the probability of it coming up heads or tails (providing the coin is not doctored) is more or less 50% either way.

In Markov chains, however, each iteration of an event changes the probability of the next in a predictable way. So, rather than each toss of the coin being independent of the others, throwing heads once, for example, increases the likelihood of throwing heads again on the next throw. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that throwing heads on one throw makes throwing heads on the next throw 10 percentage points more likely. So the probability of throwing heads the next time is 60%, while the probability of either result after throwing tails remains the same. So, the probability of throwing heads followed by heads is 0.6, that of heads followed by tails 0.4, while the odds of throwing heads or tails after throwing tails remains 0.5 either way. [Ideally, I would insert a matrix here, but I haven’t been able to work out how to do matrices on WordPress, so you’ll just have to imagine that, if you can.]

Supposing that the first toss was 50:50 (actually it doesn’t matter what the initial odds are), the odds on the second toss will be 0.3 for heads to heads, 0.2 for heads to tails, 0.25 for tails to heads and 0.25 for tails to tails. [Again, this looks nicer or at least neater in matrix form.]

Adding up the probabilities for heads and tails on the second throw, we get 0.55 for heads and 0.45 for tails. The probability of throwing heads, unsurprisingly, has gone up.

But what will happen, if we repeat this process over and over again? Intuition seems to tell us that heads will become increasingly more likely. But intuition is a bad guide in mathematics, just as mathematics is a bad guide in real life.
In fact, if we repeat the process just 20 times, the probability of either outcome stabilizes and thereafter remains the same ad infinitum. You will get heads 5 times out of 9 and tails 4 times out of nine. That is the magic of Markov chains…

We can go further and other patterns emerge. If we increase the likelihood of a throw of heads generating a subsequent identical throw steadily from 0 to 1 by increments of 0.1, while holding the probability of tails to tails steady at fifty-fifty, we get the following sequence of steady end-state probabilities for each scenario, as we approach an infinite number of chained subsequent throws: {5/15, 5/14, 5/13 ,5/12 ,5/11 ,5/10 ,5/9 ,5/8 ,5/7 ,5/6 ,5/5}. The pattern is clear.

We can even project the Markov chain for this series backwards and forwards into ‘imaginary’ realms of probability, in which odds can be negative (i.e. less than zero) or more than 100%, and we get the following graph, which looks like some kind of logo or religious symbol.

Markov logo

I never cease to be enchanted by the beauty of mathematics, but it is a cold and cruel beauty and, if we are not wary, it is wont to entrap us forever, Circe-like, on its fantasy island and turn us into dumb beasts.

Markov chains have taken us off on a flight of fancy. Most of the positions on this beautifully symmetrical graph do not and cannot exist. It is very doubtful, to say the least, whether the simple Markov assumption that one state directly determines the state of the next, without taking into account previous states, is at all valid for anything approaching real life.

Besides, numbers do not even exist in real life. They are just a figment of our imagination.

But, “Hey!” I hear you collectively saying. Didn’t mathematics enable us to build pyramids and develop the internal combustion engine and send men (but not women) to the moon? Yes it did. But these things—pyramidal monuments, motor cars and space rockets—are in themselves embodiments of abstractions and, if we look into the social history that engendered them, we will find that they depended for their invention on some very human, very emotional, (usually very masculine) and ultimately very perverse will or whim.

Note to self and others: Markov chains, for all their cold enchanting beauty, will never replace the messy, flawed, ambiguous process of two or more people sitting down and listening to one another. Turn off your Markov-chain-based prostheses; listen imperfectly to the imperfect churning chaos of the real human world, not the Siren song.