Five Brothers

And as a boy, I wandered through the forests of the south,
Those strange forests with trees of giant extension,
And musky fern residing beneath
whose geometric delivery I realised later to be my oblivion.

Those forests delighted me with stories:
the five brothers of my father’s breath of my mother’s kiss danced before me,
an immense wayang kulit of dried bark and branch,
a shimmering children’s theatre, in battle, in conversation,
unfolding a cycle of gamelan.

And these spirits followed me into our house.
And I said to my mother: look at these five, dancing in front of us.
And I said to my father: look at these five, battling, conversing,
unfolding a cycle of gamelan.

And we were delighted.

Then I forgot this, and learnt the sciences and learnt how to speak.

Then I passed through youth and, and recalled, and thought through the filter of my aquired sciences:
“I must travel now to the north, to the Asian city, my father’s city,
to study this culture. The culture of the five: this will crown
my science, this will crown my speech.”

And so I travelled north to the Asian city, my father’s city,
from which these stories are said to have their origin,
to study my father’s culture, the science of the five to crown my vision,
to study my people’s gamelan, that its cycles might run through my speech.

I searched for the gamelan, but found it broken and forsaken.
I looked for my dhalang, but found only impoverished tricksters.
I found my cousins to aid my search: and they showed me their
markets in towers of steel, their electrified music halls.
And I perceived the purity of their Western acquisition.

I went with my cousins and appreciated: I understood myself to be an entirely
southern soul, an uncouth oriental projection upon the purity
of their western acquisition.
I remarked on this to them and they affirmed, and we
laughed at this paradox, that my west might be their east and their east my west.

But, looking out from the car window, into the dark jungle humidity of the
I perceived within the perfectly manicured, encased trees of that city,
the five brothers again, calling
out to me, dancing in multiplied wayang kulit of delicate Asian branch and leaf,
a shimmering children’s theatre, in battle, in conversation,
unfolding a cycle of gamelan.

And I said to my cousins: look at these five, dancing in front of us.
And I said to my cousins: look at these five, battling, conversing,
unfolding a cycle of gamelan.
But my cousins laughed and said: we see nothing, this is your imagination.

And I became sad, looking out from the window,
because now I understood: these spirits were from my father’s breath,
from my mother’s kiss.
They were not located in this city.
They were born only of my mind
and I had not travelled to find them here,
These five had followed me alone, pictures born of my mind.

And I understood this meant I was alone,
even as my mind filled the entire city now with these stories,
this conversation, this cycle of gamelan,
The material reality of the land was for my cousins, for I understood
that my vision and their material did not meet.
And so I wept at the beauty of my folly.


Open day at the invisible college

The Professor said:

Yesterday was open day at the Invisible College. The way the university undergraduate admissions process works in Great Britain is almost counter-intuitive: at least when compared to the straightforward approach of the Australian system, in which students define their preferences for institution, finish their exams and get a single offer to their highest preference depending on institutions’ cut-off grades, which again are dictated by demand and quota. Under the British system, students apply for a place, including in their application a list of their predicted final grades. That is, their application includes within it the anticipated result. An admissions tutor (in the case of our College, me) then makes them an offer, making the decision with respect to a flexible notion of cut-off grade. Grades are flexible in the sense that the tutor must examine each borderline application on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the personal background and experience of each potential student, making for a very personal approach, but a massive administration load for me. The number of offers to be made is also only predicted, based on an anticipation of how many students are likely to take up an offer. And this is where open day comes in, because the best students are likely to receive several offers from rival institutions — they are completely free to select which of these offers they  will take up. We (and our competitors) therefore run a post-offer open day, where we try to sell the advantages of studying at our school to students and their parents.

There is another professor who usually speaks at this event: but he recently received a job offer at a rival college (Godless College London). And so at short notice it became my job to give a speech during our post-offer open day, to convince this bright cohort that the Invisible College should be their final choice.

Now, I had some ambiguous feelings about this. Invisible College, like all universities at the moment, has a number of … let’s call them administrative and funding difficulties at the higher level. Generally she is internationally respected in research, but the research quality of our Science faculty has been thrown into doubt by the last government audit. Science’s weak output has been blamed on tarnishing the generally excellent research quality of the place. This has resulted in a difficult atmosphere and a lot of uncertainty with respect to the structural stability of the science faculty in particular. I am unsure to date exactly what form science research at the Invisible College is likely to take now: instead, I generally keep my head down and continue running my own little research group (which is, by the Grace, doing ok).

Nevertheless, I still believe in the overall quality of our undergraduate programme — at least, I believe we produce excellent graduates. So my argument on open day was sincerely meant and, I think, not bad. The summary was as follows:

  1. Our programme has a strong emphasis on the logical foundations of computing: the pure mathematics that defines exactly what a function is, prior to even considering how to programme it. The former polytechs do not cover this material, preferring to immediately jump into Microsoft or SAP languages, teaching students almost from first week how to develop the kinds of applications businesses require. While it might not immediately be clear why such foundational material will be of practical benefit in industry, the point is that computing is still an engineering discipline. Just as engineers have a mathematics that allows them to build bridges that are guaranteed not collapse, computer scientists should also have such a mathematics. Being the youngest of sciences, it has some way to go for this mathematics to be generally understood by all industry practitioners — instead it is largely the province of researchers like myself — nevertheless, we teach this at the Invisible College, with the ambition that eventually the mathematics will be more widespread, just as it has become in more established antecedent engineering disciplines. This will ultimately have a real benefit for our information society: imagine a world where an operating system failure on a home computer is as uncommon as a bridge collapsing!
  2. Of course, all the elite universities in the UK provide a similar foundational training. However, we are also unusual in two ways. First, we have a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence, from the start of the course. The question of constructing autonomous computer systems: not so much as to replace human beings, but rather to enhance our own lives. It is unusual to “jump into” AI so early, but we’ve found a way to introduce the concepts. Second, thanks to my own particular research interests, we deliver modules on what might be called meta-programming: the question of writing code that itself writes code. Systems that produce other systems. It’s a fascinating and useful paradigm that, I believe, will change the way we do computing in the long term (imagine the science fiction scenario of a child wanting to learn the alphabet, and a parent asking a program to automatically write a bespoke program that is specifically tailored to the particular child’s educational needs, instead of going out to the shops and purchasing one of these generic educational software packages). Because I run the only group doing this type of research in Britain (for some reason, all the focus is either in industrial R&D firms or European universities), we are the only university in this country able to offer this material.
  3. The Invisible College is located the heart of the city. This makes it a great place to work and play. There are numerous nightclubs and bars located in the south and west, if that’s your scene. In fact, the College union itself has a fantastic bar located on the third floor of our original building. And immediately to the north and east are the financial and media heartlands, a proximity that we exploit in our industrial engagement, both in research collaboration and in the student internships (which are typical for the very best of our second years).

Yesterday, the Professor finished his sales pitch and opened to questions from the somewhat overwhelmed faces of parents and children (curious, he momentarily observed, to be standing at this sea of family resemblance, each teenager a nervous, tentative variation upon a theme anticipated in the older visage of their mother or father).

One question in particular struck a chord. One applicant asked: “Do you teach hardware at all?”

The professor: “Er … no, we only get to the level of assembly code, the languages that reside on microchips, not the hardware detail of how microchips are built.” (Difficult question, as the department dealing with such issues had been recently wiped from the College’s institutional memory. Where was the Builder when you needed him?)

Another student asked: “Do I need to know how to program before starting the course? Because my high school didn’t offer computing as an A level.”

“No, we’ve structured the course so that a student need not have any programming experience. We actually begin with a completely different programming language, higher-order typed lambda calculus, which puts everyone on a level footing so to speak, because it’s still largely untaught.”

Generally the vibe from the applicants seemed quite positive, although, from the professor’s perspective, it was impossible to anticipate at this moment how the open days at the rival institutions were being conducted. He had been somewhat aggressive in his comparisons … What would they then be saying about their benefits over the IC?

“Any other questions? No? Well, I hope I’ve brought across the merits of choosing Invisible College: don’t hesitate to contact me by phone if you have any further questions. I hope to see you all again here in seven months time!”

The Tailor’s recent media engagement

A cut-up reading:

A prolonged transcript:

Postscript: Some notes in response to the kind feedback I have been receiving from folk on the net and in RL.

First, I’d like to address the concerns some people have had with my relationship to the rather infamous journalist in the first “cut-up” clip.

Regarding the context of the cut-up … I didn’t actually realise who the journalist was (being a recent migrant to the UK): but I’ve been filled in on his importance (particularly to the assistance he gave the Tories in previous decades). Basically, his full position (edited out here) was that I should be out of a job and not allowed into the the UK in the first place. Nothing personal, so to speak, he believes in zero immigration (irrespective of whether they are academics or not, Muslim or not), with the argument that, while most are law abiding individuals, there is a real possibility that at least one might be a terrorist. He was arguing for a blanket ban on all immigrants — particularly to universities. But, in addition, I guess he kind of implied that he would be “happy” if I left the country, just because he isn’t a big fan of Muslims.

It was filmed just after Christmas so I saw his role as more of a kind of pantomime dame more than anything else. But some friends were quite upset that the BBC let him say that on TV — and, given I was invited only to speak about miracles, some thought I was trapped into it — something that certainly did not happen (I was invited before the underwear bomber, and would happily return to the same programme, having quite enjoyed the whole “1 min sound bite” challenge of getting a point across).

In general, however, my criticism is still leveled internally to the Body of the Ummah, rather than that which is on the Other Side.

I will say the following about anger, however. The journalist’s anger derives not from the fire of judgement (and, we might say, individuality). But, rather, it derives from the waters of Love, and the Southern dangers located therein. The danger of Love, its flipside (rather than its dialectic opposite) is Fear. His anger (justifiable or not) is fear of Islam in his home, fear of the immigrant.

Now, it is absolutely essential that we relate to all angry people appropriately — with adab: adab in the literal (“ordinary”) sense of good manners. The reason is not some prosaic understanding of diplomacy or promoting good relations with non-Muslims. The reason is cosmic: adab in relation to people — intersubjective adab — mirrors the deeper Fires of extra-subjective Adab that a seeker must cultivate in order to enter the Eternal Aeon of Light and become one of the higher generation. If we lose our decorum and manners in relation to others — irrespective of how they behave to us — then we lose ourselves in the Loving waters of Creation and suffer a real danger of finding ourselves drowning, like Pharoah or our right wing friend here. We will cease to be individual, and be only Water (“full fathoms five thy father lies … those were pearls that were his eyes”).

The Sufistic irony is that this man’s anger — like all anger — is not one of Hateful attachment to some ego — but, rather, it is a fearful loss of selfhood (a breakage of the “perfect mould” gifted to us by the Hand of the Craftsman) into Love. Imam Ali could handle such a fana. The rest of us cannot and are consumed by the Leviathan below: observe how this form of anger speaks — think about ourselves, when we have been really angry — it is like a flow of anger, a torrent of anger, there is no longer an indiviual human being speaking behind it.

We must cultivate, therefore, the Fires of Adab in our judgement through the mirror of personal adab: in this way, the Seas of Love will part for us and we will consume the flesh of the Leviathan in the next world.

A second point, concerning a few more details regarding reading the Book of Creation. This whole blog (and what will come from it) is essentially my understanding of what constitutes a “correct reading” of this Book.

In a nutshell, I believe that all things in the world (including us) are like theorems, and our lives/interactions are like proofs that “inhabit” these theorems (in the sense of constructive logic). The status of religious texts is that they are circular in the coinductive sense: they always refer to the way in which they can be “inhabited” by our reading. They are like books that refer to the way in which we read them (and, actually, to nothing else). They have the same circular, coinductive status as this painting.

Of course, even acknowledging that (which I grant is a stretch for many) is not a proof of God’s existence: but the acknowledgement is what I see as how the final judgement works …

Apologies, my esotericism is runs rampant given a rein freed from the constraint of the soundbite (which is the benefit of television such as this). I could simply say, as I did there, that a Muslim should perceive all ayat as communication acts from God, and the world as a text to be read as such.