An Aversion to Acronyms

I have a thing about acronyms. On the whole, I don’t like them. Perversely, however, I frequently find myself playing around with proverbs, phrases, exhortations and other word structures, turning them into acronyms on the off-chance that a fun word pops out. I am nearly always disappointed. Gafmo is an exception but its expansion is too impolite to spell out here.

One entertaining acronym that I have discovered through my mental games – along, no doubt with many other people – is joatmon. If you are not already familiar with it, you will quickly decode it, especially if I tell you that its opposite is the comparatively mundane dot. Note my odd lower case convention for acronyms, which I use because I treat them as words in their own right rather than as mere abbreviations. Both joatmon and dot, as words, seem to match their meaning well.

I have been reflecting on the underlying cause of my aversion to acronyms. Their purpose, I imagine, is economy of speech. Perhaps, in today’s fast moving world, this is a symptom of the abnormally hectic nature of corporate life. While attending meetings at work, my ears assaulted by a barrage of tiresome TLAs, I often need to interject with “Sorry, but what does XYZ mean?”. In the eyes of many, the ability to spout acromyns, especially in combination with buzzwords and other professional gobbledygook, conveys a sense of authority. If we can leverage the FBS then surely we know what we are talking about?

You don’t find many acronyms in literature. Shakespeare and Milton did not seem to need them and neither did mythical heroes such as Odysseus. Likewise they are not considered an attractive device for modern novelists beyond the occasional use of meaningful acronyms like NATO, which have gained universal acceptance through usage.

Acronyms may be convenient but they are also inherently diminutive. In some subtle way they seem to undermine the importance of the entities they represent. There are exceptions. The names of organisations or the bodies of work they produce are sometimes so awkward, unwieldy or obscure that the acronym is actually preferable to the full version. Imagine, for example, having to utter the overlong and confounding “Information Technology Infrastructure Library” every time you refer to the service management framework known as ITIL. Truly a waste of words.

A useful guideline for assessing acronyms is their length. The longer the better. So-called TLAs rarely stand out and their overuse promotes confusion. My brain rebels against them. Those composed of four letters are usually better, giving a higher degree of differentiation, greater economy and more scope for forming interesting and memorable words. The acronym QA, which I particularly dislike, trivialises quality by reducing it to a nasty little two letter abbreviation and persuading everyone that it means the same thing as testing – a quite distinct, but overlapping activity.

The Knot Garden does not seek to outlaw acronyms. But some discrimination is necessary. Where acronyms abound, we should question the value of the spoken – or written – material being presented. And, perhaps, the credentials of the presenter.

Creativity and Interconnectedness

As I so often do, partly to shut out the non-stop chitter-chatter of the less considerate passengers, I listened to some Beethoven symphonies while travelling home on the coach from Victoria a couple of days ago. For some reason, perhaps simply through musical association, I suddenly thought of the CDs of Handel’s pastoral ode L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato, which I had been given as a present less than two weeks earlier.

This composition, which I listened to for the first time today, holds more than one fascination for me. For, aside from the music’s ability to beguile us with its evocative images of the English landscape, it is based on two of Milton’s early poems. I am even less familiar with these than I am with the music but I am looking forward to getting to know them. I am inspired by the poetry of William Blake, having learned Auguries of Innocence, and Blake was greatly influenced by Milton, whom he revered.

While doing some brief research on the Internet, I discovered that the final duet and chorus from the third movement of Handel’s oratorio, a poem written by his friend and librettist Charles Jennens specifically for the composition, were adapted from words spoken by Prospero in act V scene I of The Tempest.  I read Shakespeare’s famous play several years ago and, while reminding myself of the story, I learned about some of its influences, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This remarkably influential work is another of which I am ignorant – but will not remain so for too much longer.

It has also come to my attention that Milton’s two poems inspired the Victorian romantic artist Thomas Cole, who emigrated from England to America, to produce two oil paintings that are named after them. John Milton was apparently the single greatest influence in Cole’s work and Milton’s ethical and political beliefs found expression in Cole’s allegorical depiction of landscapes.

When we contemplate important works of creative genius we have the opportunity, beyond enjoying them in their own right, of branching out in many directions in order to discover the products of human imagination that influenced them – or were influenced by them. In making these excursions, we find ourselves moving through an intricate network of interconnected ideas, themes and artefacts, travelling backwards and forwards in time, across continents and between different artistic fields.

The Knot Garden takes a great interest in the interconnectivity of things. Nowhere is this theme more worthy of pursuit than in the related fields of music, literature, art and philosophy. An exploration of the relations between, and within, these spheres can help us to construct an integrated, multi-dimensional view of the world.



A Great British Obsession

When it comes to conversational opportunities, the British have a clear advantage over many other nations. We have the weather to talk about. Or, as is more often the case, to moan about.

I encounter people every day who whinge about the British weather. It’s too wet, too windy, too cold, too hot or too humid. Perhaps we should be known as the Goldilocks Nation. When the weather is just right there are expressions of pleasure and even joy. But these are usually tempered by the cheery warning that we should make the most of it because it won’t last long.

I respond to those who remark that “It is miserable out there” with “Well, you may be miserable but the weather is not and neither am I”.  I embrace the darkest of days when the threatening billows mass overhead and erupt into a cats and dogs style downpour. It matters not where I am – city, village, countryside, hill or vale. Or rugged, undulating coastal path, with the sea breeze turning to a gale and blasting the raindrops at me in a horizontal volley.

While those around me scurry around, urgently seeking shelter and warding of the elements with a briefcase or folded newspaper held aloft, I revel in the deluge. Contrary to popular belief, humans are actually waterproof, although their city suits usually are not.

Many natives of the British Isles yearn for a climate that exhibits no variation. Warm sunny days unblemished by bothersome clouds, without the pesky wind that ruffles their well groomed hair. And positively no nasty rain. Of course, there are countries where such consistent climate conditions can be found. One wonders what the British visitors find to talk about when they visit these places.

While The Knot Garden welcomes consistency in many walks of life, it prefers variability – even unpredictability – in climate. And it appreciates the role that climate plays in differentiating the four seasons. This is where we do want to see consistency – in the cycle that sees spring follow winter and yield to summer, to be replaced in its turn by splendidly hued autumn.

So how, you may ask, do I feel about the bright days filled with sunshine and dainty little powder puff clouds drifting serenely across a sky of impossibly pure pastel blue? I enjoy them no less than anyone does – all the more so if there is a cooling breeze to gently caress the skin of my face. The free supplies of vitamin D are most welcome too.

But where would we be without the gloriously fickle British weather, disappointing us one day and creating the opportunity for a delightful excursion on the next? It is an essential part of our national identity. And for all the griping about the rain, it waters our gardens, cleans the polluted air, washes away our cares and soothes our volatile tempers.

The infinitely variable days provide contrast and balance in our hectic lives, important elements that are absent in lands where the sun shines monotonously every day without relief until darkness falls.

I never complain about the British weather. In a perverse form of patriotism, I celebrate it unreservedly. It gives us much more than perhaps we realise. Including something to talk about.


The Lie of Equality

I agree with Gary Keller’s view that “Equality is a worthy ideal pursued in the name of justice and human rights”. Beyond this, I find it hard to comprehend why so many people promote the idea of human equality – but a little easier to understand why politicians, so often consummate liars, continue to peddle the myth.

It is fashionable for the significant political parties in the UK to adopt equality as a central pillar of their manifestos. Equality, whatever that means, is presumably what most people want (except perhaps for some of the most wealthy). When we look beneath the thin veneer of the politician’s rhetoric, however, we can find levels of hypocrisy that make our skin crawl.

Human equality is a lie. Be careful when you preach it that you are not merely indulging in self-righteousness and seeking to create an effect – as the politicians do. An ex prime minister, head of the party that apparently stands for equality above all else, deployed a large part of his substantial personal fortune in properties located in the most privileged areas of London. I wonder how this form of business activity can be reconciled with his promise, made during a highly acclaimed speech, that our nation would be based on “the equal worth of all“.

Ah, I hear you say, there are far more important forms of worth than mere money. Well, be that as it may, how does investment in highly prestigious real estate promote equality of human worth?

People talk about the importance of equality because they wish to appear virtuous. But I can tell you that the goal of achieving equality between people is a worthless and futile one. How will you go about achieving equality between a Beethoven and a convicted murderer? Do you sincerely believe that their contribution to the world, and hence their worth, could ever be  equal? Even in the case of Caravaggio?

Communism, which aimed at achieving only a very narrow form of equality, failed miserably, although elements survive in countries such as China, which demonstrates astronomical levels of financial – and hence social – inequality and equally evident capitalistic excesses.

Do not get the wrong idea about me. I feel passionately about the importance  of human rights and the noble goals of combatting racism and reducing poverty. And I absolutely embrace the ideal of fairness in all walks of life. But these aspirations can only take us some way towards a certain limited form of equality in a few important areas.

I believe that in the domains of livelihood and financial security, which play a crucial role in our lives, the Internet has done more for achieving a level playing field than any politician could, with all their spin and sophistry. Technology, rather than government, lies at the heart of universal opportunity. The Internet does not care what colour you are, whether you have a disability or what race or religion you belong to. And, together with many of its resources, it is free.

The Knot Garden supports fairness, human rights, the freedom to pursue creative fulfilment and the facilitation of individual development. It does not recognise the concept of absolute equality. Such a state of affairs exists only in mathematics and as a cynical political device.

Where Tradition and Technology Meet

Although you might think The Knot Garden somewhat abstract, it has its roots very much in the soil as the original idea sprang from our desire to construct a herb garden. This was always much more than just a practical proposition but nevertheless has at its core the goal of growing plants for the kitchen.

For all its lofty principles and talk about belief systems, The Knot Garden is ultimately concerned with the down-to-earth business of growing herbs – an activity that I have so far neglected to cover in this blog. This is in part deliberate because, as I have mentioned previously, my general approach is to move gradually from  the conceptual to the concrete, starting out by exploring ideas and ending up creating things.

While we are a few years away from realising the horticultural aspirations of The Knot Garden, I feel compelled to invest some time in the study of herbs. For, while I find myself attracted to them for gastronomic, nutritional and medical reasons, I am not sure to what extent scientific research validates the much vaunted health benefits.

In order to develop an informed view of the therapeutic value of herbs, we can look to the powerful intersection between the forces of tradition and technology. Over long periods of time, people have developed pattern languages, analogous to those described by Christopher Alexander for building houses, that are used in the application of herbal remedies to health problems. However, while we do not need rigorous scientific technique to assess the effectiveness of architectural patterns, we do need it to fully understand the therapeutic properties of plants, fungi and algae.

Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science alerts us to the presence of distorting influences in the spheres of health journalism, alternative medicine and pharmaceuticals, sectors that are heavily skewed towards commercialism. But the activities of modern day snake oil salesmen and other charlatans should not persuade us that plants cannot provide potent health benefits.

On my desk I have “The Complete Herbal Tutor”, a beautifully designed and executed book by Anne McIntyre, which I have so far barely glanced at since buying it a year or two ago. It contains many claims for health improvements based on centuries – or even millennia – of herbal medicine tradition.

The key question remains: are we dealing with old wives tales rather than observations that have a sound scientific basis? The level of financial resources devoted to clinical trials of new drugs is not generally available for research into herbal remedies. Significant scientific studies are nevertheless taking place as interest in the natural medicine field continues to grow.

A week ago I discovered a National Institute of Health website called the PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset. Having started to review the free abstracts of recent research studies I am encouraged – at first glance – by the volume of high quality scientific material supporting the use of plant-derived substances in health applications.

While there is a great deal of analysis to be done, this feels like the beginning of a long and interesting journey.