My Blog List

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mash Gas


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Friday, April 20, 2007 might go down in the recorded history of Antigua and Barbuda as a day to understand who we are and what sort of society we want to become. Long lines of vehicles driven by all classes of people including robots, vulgarians and elites were inching into petrol stations and obstructing many of us from driving to our yards. I was one of the robots until Radio Observer clarified the matter as one of a temporary nature and advised that, based on information from the national supplier of petrol, normality would be restored in less than 24 hours.

I have asked a few persons why drivers with an adequate amount of petrol to last until the next day would remain in the long lines despite the assurance that the minor, temporary setback would be over long before they could drive around the island twenty four times. The answers ranged from not hearing the clarification on radio or cell phone, not believing the clarification, being safe rather than sorry if the setback worsened, to sheer panic.

James Surowiecki, a business columnist of the New Yorker magazine, has written a highly acclaimed book called The Wisdom of Crowds. His argument is that contrary to what many of us believe, a large crowd of diverse people is smarter than a small number of brilliant, expert individuals. What great wisdom did the crowd of drivers display on Friday, April 20, 2007?

Surowiecki provides many examples to support his claim. One example is that in the television series Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the audience is right 91 percent of the time compared to 65 percent for the experts who are called on the phone when the player is stumped for an answer.

A wise crowd must meet four criteria. It should be noted that crowds are not good for every problem, especially ones involving skills such as performing surgery or flying a plane. West Indies cricket would have a very wise crowd were it not for one of the four criteria.

One: The crowd must have a variety of people. The idea is based on statistical sampling theory. A small group of experts working together tend to think alike and reinforce each other. The outcome will be based on their collective wisdom, right or wrong. Their individual mistakes will add up and give the wrong answer more often than the answer from a larger, mixed group. A larger, mixed group will include experts but the errors of the very unwise will cancel out the errors of the very smart. A larger, mixed group is more representative of all the possible answers including the best answer. It is probably safe to assume that the Friday gas crowd met this criterion. Which is the most diverse political party in the state?

Two: The members of the crowd must be independent thinkers. They must pay attention to their own information. The opinions of other members of the crowd should not determine the opinion of any one individual member. Let’s leave this one for last. Which local political party qualifies best for this criterion?

Three: The crowd must be decentralized. No dictators are allowed. It may be that great leaders master the art of not appearing to be dictators. One of our three Prime Ministers is considered the supreme qualifier. Drivers in the Friday crowd might have reacted negatively to the suggestion that they should come out of the line if they had sufficient petrol and leave the space for those with near empty tanks. Some people resent being told what to do even if it is the right thing.

Four: The crowd must be able to turn the individual judgments into a collective action. Which political party does this best? Drivers in the Friday crowd could have driven away or stayed in line. Drivers who wanted to leave might have been obstructed by the traffic. Others probably were too ashamed to be seen leaving the line and be accused of having had sufficient petrol all along.

Perhaps most of the drivers were not acting independently and were responding to the action of each other. It cannot be that what happened on gas-Friday was the action of our wisest crowd. Can it be? If a large, diverse crowd of independent individuals gives the smartest answers then such a crowded political tent with disagreement and even conflict must be the smartest political ensemble. But all four criteria must be met, including number four.

There are times when politicians want wise constituents and times when they want compliant ones. If independent thought and action remain a national mirage, do not be surprised to see a repeat performance of gas-Friday just before the next general election.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Is English We Speaking


Dr. Lester CN Simon

One find day, destined to be made wretched by a vacuous salesgirl, I was in a delicious dilemma in a department store on my maiden visit to London, trying to explain myself to an assemblage of fine English women. I was buying a reading lamp. The bulb was sold separately. Since I was set for some hard studying long into the night for one year, I decided to purchase two bulbs instead of one. The smiling salesgirl seemed bemused and amused by my West Indian English twang. She beckoned to another perky salesgirl who waltzed up to the counter allegro con moto and asked me to repeat my request.

By this time, the music in the store had changed to Air on a G string by Johann Sebastian Bach. I have to confess that it did occur to me that Bach’s pleasing Air on a G string might have modulated from the G string of the violin to its perfect meaning had she been sunbathing on Dark Wood Beach in Antigua. But by then I was so distraught I simply repeated, slowly, that I wanted two bulbs. To my unforgettable amazement, the airy, fairy one said, “Did you say toe?” Between my two and her toe, I heard myself exclaiming, exasperatingly (in central London), “Lady, why don’t you speak English!”

The concern about not speaking dialect in school is opening up a debate that we must entertain. The paradox of colonial identity haunts every West Indian from the teenager in the sex video who spoke in abject dialect to the 1992 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Derek Alton Walcott. Yes, A West Indian was valorized by the Swedish Academy for discovering the English language 500 years after we discovered Christopher Columbus.

All of us in post-colonial societies in general, and school children in particular, are caught on the horns of the dialectics of dialect. The creativity in our native dialect is being asked to be sacrificed in lieu of the creativity of an imitative tongue. Surely the solution to this dilemma must include removing the bastardization of our natural dialect and officially embracing it whilst we embrace English, Spanish and all languages.

Louise Bennett told us through her Aunty Roachy that if dialect is a corruption of English then English is a corruption of Norman French and Latin etc. Here’s one for the school pikiniega: The great Shakespeare, Chaucer and Robert Burns whom we revere so much, (Who you trying to fool with your ploy?) wrote dialect that to an Antigua Grammar School head boy, sounded like Dutch.

This does not mean that English must not be our official language of communication. You have to know both English and dialect well to know when and when not to confuse but to suffuse the two. We cannot love English and hate dialect. If we do, Walcott suggests that our bodies will think in one language and move in another. What an awful discordant sight that would be on parade.

When Walcott writes of how schizophrenic it is to be wrenched by two styles, he is warning us not to satisfy the notion that to change our language we must change our lives, or (I would add), that to change our lives we must completely change our language and irreverently abandon our native tongue. The very nature of a developing West Indian society is constitutively, politely schizophrenic. Walcott himself denies that he has a great original voice. He concedes that it is the chorus of voices, including dialect (I would add), that allows him to make that one beautiful song.

English and dialect are solo as well as harmonic instruments of unique timbre in an orchestra of melodious, symphonic sounds. When someone says they love English and hate dialect or vice versa or that they love songs with words and dislike songs without words, run from them fast, like a crazy man, for they are the real lunatics and are decidedly not of sound mind (if you get the pun, run).

We must be clear and sober about the uniqueness, duality, independence and interdependence of English and dialect. Another Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, reminded us that civilizations are finite and when they begin to fall, it is not legions but language that keeps the center of civilization from disintegrating. He contends that the job of holding the center often belongs to those at the periphery. (Pay attention West Indies Cricket). In this context and to paraphrase Brodsky in reference to Walcott, and to us all, the throbbing and relentless lines of anyone who values and respects the sound of language must keep arriving on the English language like tidal waves. The outcome will be the most logical thematic and stylistic evolution of the English language.

A final word of warning to those who, in desperation, want to kill dialect to save English. In a poem called The Spoiler’s Return (in reference to the calypsonian, Spoiler, “Ah Wanna Fall”), the love for the sound of languages and a musical ear for the play on words ignite Derek Walcott to write what I think is the fitting epitaph for dialect: “Tell Desperados when you reach the hill, I decompose, but I composing still”. This, a real spoiler might say, to settle the score and to try a ting, takes us back to Bach in the department store and Air on a G String.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ducks! Ducks! Ducks Man!


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Sometimes, when you are overwhelmed, as one of my maternal aunts (King Obstinate’s mother) was wont to become, your only recourse is to stand akimbo and shout, “I will lift up my eyes onto the hills”. But when you live on a relatively flat island like Antigua or Barbuda, you cannot look to an exhaustible number of hills forever. Sooner or later, you have to look elsewhere to find a rational explanation for what on earth is going on in West Indies Cricket.

Having made the bold assertion, in newsprint “to rahtid”, that there was a divine and rational explanation for the conjoining of the Cricket World Cup and the bicentenary of the legal end of the British Empire Atlantic Slave Trade (BEAST), I feel compelled to find a divine and rational explanation for the dismal performance of our cricket team.

Divine and rational explanations demand a careful study of mathematics. After all, it was Euclid, the Greek mathematician, who said, “The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God.”

Imagine if you can, 242 runs divided equally amongst 11 West Indian cricketers. Each player makes an average of 22 runs. More realistically for the West Indies Cricket Team, divide zero runs by 11 players. The obvious answer is an average of zero runs per player. Division is all about sharing or distribution. When there is little or nothing to share or distribute, there is little or nothing to get. We West Indians know this very well. Sharing a little or sharing a lot is predicated on good management, realistic expectations and cooperation between management and workers. Some of us West Indians do not know this at all.

Now that you are versed in the practice of divisional mathematics, imagine that the legacy of West Indies cricket and the expectations of West Indian people are represented by a very large number. If, after watching the West Indies Cricket Team, you cannot imagine a very large number, consider the same 242 runs you imagined before. The prize-winning question becomes what is the result of dividing our legacy and expectations, or the number 242, or any number greater than zero, by zero itself? The quotient or answer is not zero. You cannot share or distribute something amongst nothing. It is a mathematical and absolute absurdity. This is what the West Indies Cricket Team has become. But wait; there is more; so rally round, according to Lara, the “Rest Indies”. By the bye, if the allegation is true that our cricketers perform better at night, in relative darkness, why can’t they bat? Do you think they are smart enough to get that?

The natural destination of our mathematical journey is the enigma of dividing the zero West Indies Cricket Team by the nothingness or zero of the West Indies Cricket Board, or vice versa. In mathematical terms, this idea is said to go beyond absolute absurdity and to become indefinable. If it is an absolute absurdity to divide a positive integer, like our legacy and expectations, amongst nothing, which is personified by either the West Indies Cricket Team or the West Indies Cricket Board, then to divide or share or distribute the zero Board amongst the zero cricketers, or vice versa, must be an indefinable, alienable thought.

To redefine ourselves in sports, as in life, 200 years after we have wrestled legal freedom from the BEAST, the two zeros in our sporting life, which mirrors our entire West Indian life, must be disbanded. We must continue to question the competence of those so called successful business managers who perform so poorly when they are removed from the trappings of hereditary, social and political connections.

Yet these are the very same business gorgons who are barefaced enough to talk about ordinary West Indian people being afraid to take risks in business ventures. The little sugar cake and lollipop vendor at the side of the road takes more risk relatively, every single, blessed day and would have done infinitely better. Incarcerate the kings! Incinerate the keys! And may the good Lord have mercy on your torrid soul if you confuse these instructions.

Nought into nought not only just cannot compute; it is mathematical heresy. Try it on a calculator. The better ones will give “error” for an answer. It is not just that you cannot divide zero by zero. It is that the very thought of it is truly the quintessential, incomprehensible and indefinable absurdity of West Indian life. My beloved aunt taught me this fundamental mathematical fact, probably because she knew that even Christopher Columbus, bearing maiden gifts of shiny things, can-cups and all, understood precisely that.