By lake Mjøsa, July 2015

Soft rain draws circles on lake Mjøsa, no fishes jumping.
Thirty years ago they were. The new normal,
our accustomed poverty

When Alf sang of Mjøsa, fireflies flashed like city lights,
this evening's darkness a witness of
July's lush deception

Ecological impoverishment is invisible, camouflaged poverty.
Culture takes nature for granted, with
short-term memory

(Thu, 16 Jul 2015 14:25:42 -0700). ->>

Thoughts on Harris-Chomsky emails

So, I haven't really read anything by Noam Chomsky nor by Sam Harris, but it was fascinating to read through their recent email exchange http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-limits-of-discourse . Two clever men, obviously well regarded American intellectuals, and yet they fail to really understand their differences..

Like half of the Internet, I hereby step in with my interpretations..

«Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story» - Sam Harris

«As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general...benign intentions are virtually always professed» - Noam Chomsky

These quotes are definitely close to the core assumptions of their disagreement. Fundamentally, it looks like another battle in that old discourse between consequentialism (judge actions by their consequences) and virtue ethics – with Chomsky being the consequentialist and Harris the virtue ethicist. For example, the former argues that through Bill Clinton's authorization of the 1998 bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan, the Clinton administration is guilty of the deaths of thousands of Somalis that were deprived of access to medicine, while the latter argues (as far as I can tell) that it was a justified decision because the intention was to prevent the possible development of chemical weapons. (And Somalia definitely has groups you don't want to see in possession of chemical weapons..)

Chomsky cites the short duration between the bombing of the U. S. Embassy in Somalia and the Al-Shifa attack as proof that it was simply an act of revenge. I think this somehow is a surprisingly naïve view of how decisions are made. I assume it was more an act of opportunism – most likely, the government intelligence bureaucrats have lists of perceived «threats» in various countries. Some intelligence (which we do not know anything about) had placed Al-Shifa on this list, and when the embassy was bombed, when media and congress attention was directed towards Somalia with sufficient anger and turmoil, the administration sensed an opportunity, got backing in congress, and went on to destroy one of their high priority targets..

I do agree with Harris that intentions have some weight and that it's a good sign of progress that U.S. politicians and the electorate generally are ashamed of old cruelty.

However, the way Harris presents these signs of progress he seems to conclude that we've reached a sort of «peak empathy», that because we (and by «we» I now mean the Western democracies and their electorates) are better than we used to, we are now perfect:

«As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.» - Sam Harris

I think that's the core assumption Chomsky is ineffectively trying to dismantle, and the failure is not really surprising – Chomsky's own emotions get in the way, he substitutes forcefulness for explanation.

But Harris's statement may be telling only half of the story. The other half: exactly because we don't tolerate violence against innocents we nowadays prefer to look away when it is done in our name or by our allies. We don't really want to know.

A question Harris and those who share his world view might want to ponder: If we have reached a peak point of ethical perfection, why wasn't the Al-Shifa bombing preceded by a thorough analysis of the humanitarian consequences? Why isn't such an analysis already routine every time we consider using military violence, complete with a list of actions that can be taken to lessen the humanitarian impact?

Finally, there's some fine irony in the fact that the way Chomsky thinks contributes to keeping the U.S. a global superpower. I'm pretty sure that the American president when dealing with other countries must keep dissecting their public statements and try to uncover their real intentions and study the consequences of their actions and inactions. If past presidents thought like Sam Harris, focusing on intentions and statements, the U.S. would presumably be a less powerful country.

(Mon, 01 Jun 2015 14:52:35 -0700). ->>

Learning to read: a problem of rhythm?

Recently I've spent some time trying to help children learn to read, working with children at various stages of fluency. It strikes me that an important part of the process of learning to read is learning to «tokenize» or divide a written word into syllables.

This problem depends on a given language's phonetics – but is also a function of how our roman alphabet works. In for example the Japanese Hiragana alphabet, each letter is a syllable. The alphabet starts A, I, U, E, O, KA, KI, KU, KE, KO etc. The division into syllables is thus built into the spelling, being a property of the alphabet itself. It's quite common for a Japanese child to be able to read simple texts before 1st grade – maybe because syllables and phrasing isn't a problem to overcome when learning to read like it is in a Norwegian or English text?

Understanding syllables depends on a knowledge of the language – but perhaps it also is partly a function of musicality, of phrasing. Might knowledge and practise of music help children learn to read?

(I've just seen «The King's Speech» again – I recall the scene where Lionel says «Sing it!» to help King George VI express himself.)

Around a century ago, learning poetry by heart and reading it out loud was a well integrated activity in school curricula. (It still is in Iceland, as well as still being practised in the Suttung movement). It strikes me that this is a way to practise closely the rhythm and phrasing of language. Maybe it helped pupils learn to read? It would be really interesting to see research on whether performing spoken poetry and/or practising music has an impact on the fluency of reading.

Drawing: Gerald Hoffnung

(Thu, 25 Dec 2014 21:13:28 -0800). ->>

DV8: John (preview)

Seen at Dansens hus, Oslo, June 2014 (I also did a class/workshop with the company)

On leaving this performance, I caught myself wondering why I had not changed. Maybe I didn't feel any change yet because I was being too impatient, expecting to be challenged and sort of mentally re-engineered with immediate impact?

The very question said something about my high expectations of Lloyd Newson's and DV8's work. Some of his pieces have indeed changed my thinking. Watching "John", I kept thinking it was good, solid quality work, awesome set, strong performers, dramatic stories - and yet I was watching it as if from the outside, not really feeling touched, not sensing dilemmas to think about or be challenged by.

DV8's method for the last few years is described as "verbatim" - they build on research and interviews, and use real-life stories and quotes extensively as part of the performance. The texts are often illustrated or interpreted by movement - somewhere between physical theatre and dance. This whole approach means they must consider their "responsibility to portray" (their phrase, used during workshop - I love it!) and consider how their sources want to be used. It requires a very high level of trust from their sources, and it's amazing that they have been able to keep using this method for so many years and pieces.

For "John", they interviewed more than 50 men for a piece about "masculinity" or "men's place in society". One of them is the performance's main character, a person with a lot of "baggage" - crime, drugs, sentences. We hear his story, in his words, and it's a dramatic and strong one. Yet I feel like his problems remain his problems and have nothing to do with "Masculinity" or me as a male, I'm merely peeping into a 75 minute representation of a particularly troubled life.

The performance in Oslo was labelled a "preview" - seems Lloyd himself didn't consider the piece really finished. Certainly, the memories or impressions might still change me. But here are some of the possible reasons I felt like a neutral observer:

It's still a well-crafted piece full of interesting moments, so if I'm slightly disappointed it may simply be mostly due to oversized expectations.

(Sat, 07 Jun 2014 16:59:35 -0700). ->>

Conflicting advice regarding raising children

It's not hard to find advice on how to raise children. In Norway the best known guru might be Jesper Juul these days, but there are many others. The advice is often presented in very normative language with plenty of moral imperative, leaving confused parents feeling inadequate. Especially when the advice is self-contradictive: it's very important to Draw Clear Boundaries and it's very important to Listen To Your Child. (So when your darling crosses the Clear Boundary - are you supposed to Listen or to implement the Consequences?)

Parents (and their Gurus) need however to keep in mind that raising children is not a branch of applied mathematics. In math, all axioms and theories must be consistent. No principles can contradict others. However, while raising children we have to live with conflicting advice - because we're trying to develop several different aspects of a child's character simultaneously. We want to raise self-sufficient, confident, independent yet social and collaborative humans. We want them to be strong, yet kind, empathic and intuitive yet reflective string thinkers. Keep in mind that all children are different, have different strengths and need different guidance, and it's easy to see why we risk missing sight of the children among all the theory.

And that's when we stop practising the principle that in my opinion should trump all others: seeing the child, observing the reactions to what you say and do. If you are able to adjust your practise depending on reactions, I believe it's not all that important what grand theories of upbringing you start from.

(Sun, 31 Mar 2013 08:42:17 -0700). ->>

Regarding the Høiness/Urdahl case

This article comments on a high-profile Norwegian court case regarding the inheritance of Synnøve Alver Urdahl. I'm arguing that some parts of the media have had a slanted coverage due to their lack of understandig of dementia.

As I believe this article is mostly of interest in Norway, I won't do a full translation for now.

(Sat, 29 Sep 2012 14:36:26 -0700). ->>

Bye, Facebook

For both personal and political reasons I've decided to deactivate my Facebook account. Time will show if I some day want to log in again. Meanwhile, please contact me by E-mail or on Twitter (accounts @hallvors for personal miscellany and @hallvord for public and often work-related stuff.

(Wed, 14 Dec 2011 16:15:43 -0800). ->>

Scary fairytales

Are fairytales too scary for children?

Scary things happen in fairytales. H. C. Andersen's Tin Soldier is threatened by a rat and swallowed by a fish. Can it be harmful to a child to listen to such things?

There are lots of children's books that are nothing but sweet and kind throughout. Some of them - for example some of Elsa Beskow's books - are beautiful books that I'm fond of and use. It's perhaps easy for a parent to choose to read only the kind and easy books with their children. You can also likely find experts who recommend doing just that, and view traditional fairytales with a certain scepticism. But I think that the "all-sweet" books don't have the same purpose - or don't do the same job for the child - as for example "The Steadfast Tin Soldier". Hence, in my view, one should read both. Here is my reasoning:

Thus, I believe it's not harmful - on the contrary, I think it is beneficial to a child to listen to a fairly tale with scary moments: it's a way to get to know feelings that one simply must know and master to live.

When we read fairytales for children, we first arrange the safest possible situation: on the lap or in bed, next to mom or dad. The time is dedicated to being together, time the parent enjoys and the child enjoys. It could hardly be a safer and more enjoyable framework.

Then we get the imagination going, and enter the story together.

Imagination is important. Imagination is the ability that allows humans to use even difficult and negative feelings in a positive way. When we read fairytales, we are in the realms of fantasy before the scary feelings occur. A child who is used to listening to stories might respond by suggesting ways to resolve or avoid the difficulties. For me, that is a sign that reading fairytales "works" - the child who can use its imagination to help the story's hero, might one day be able to use that same ability to help himself or others resolve difficult states or feelings?

(That said, even though I listen to, respond to and enjoy suggestions and statements from the listeners during reading, it might get too distracting. I and the other listeners must also be allowed to keep our focus on the story as it is. In that case, the response will be "yes, that was a good idea but now let's get on with the tale".)

It's important that it is suitably scary. I don't read "Kjæresten i skogen" (a Norwegian tale about a man who befriends and kills women) or the more gruesome Grimm stories at bedtime. If the children browse the book and want that story, they will be told "that's too scary to read in bed, we'll read that another day during daytime". But I emphasize: the good fairytales give you a "taste" of the scary, in a safe situation and an imagination-igniting context. I believe this is useful and necessary for a child's emotional and mental development.

Regarding "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", for me the very meaning of the fairytale is that he is so true to his own character, no matter what scary things happen around him. When I read the tale aloud, that is my focus. Even when he dies in the fire, he becomes a heart - a sad but final victory over evil. The children will of course not understand allegory - but they don't need to, because our brain and imagination is so constructed that it can store symbols which we can not interpret at the time, for later use. I think the tale still gives them an intuitive experience of the value of being true to themselves and their own characteristics.

Now, what about the violence? H. C. Andersen's soldier kills the witch to get the tinder box. Some stories are rather grotesque: the Norwegian hero Askeladden steals the troll's silver ducks, and proceeds to cut of the troll's daughter's head, boil her and serve the troll for dinner! Isn't such rather extreme violence harmful?

Well, I liked that fairytale a lot as a child and strangely enough my experience back then was very different from reading it as a grown-up. The violence was never graphical or gruesome in my imagination. This is why I confidently read it for my children, in the same way my grandfather read it to his grandchildren by the open fire some twenty-five years ago: in a calm way, without dramatising or calling attention to the violence, but without censoring it either. Such battle against trolls might well be or become an allegory of winning over depression or anger within one's mind, and when the story says that so extreme measures are required I guess the reason is that many people have experienced that.

Because the really old stories - those being passed from mouth to ear and from mind to mind for centuries before they ended up in books - are naturally the sum of many minds' experiences. It must be the case that the stories that many people found were enjoyable and useful had better odds for surviving their long journeys in time. As Sigrid Undset famously wrote, "the hearts of men are not changed by the flow of days" (my translation), and thus we can hope and believe that those old stories are also enjoyable and useful for our modern children - and grandchildren, once we get that far.

(Sun, 30 Jan 2011 20:13:43 -0800). ->>