What Is Quality?

Given The Knot Garden’s interest in quality, it may seem surprising that after an entire year of writing this blog, the subject has hardly been touched – the post High Quality Income being an exception. Perhaps, as 2017 draws to a close, I should set the record straight on the reasons behind this apparent neglect.

A number of years ago, in common with Robert Pirsig and countless others before me, I asked the question “What is quality?”. In order to find the answer I started writing a blog, which I maintained for a little more than three years. After publishing one hundred and seventy two posts, I suddenly stopped writing for Quality Blog in August 2015. I did so because, ironically, I failed to meet one of my quality criteria – to always publish on time by midnight on every Sunday of the year.

You might think that stopping the blog altogether on account of such an infraction was an overly drastic measure. But certain principles should be held inviolate. There was no adequate excuse for failing to meet the deadline and so the price had to be paid. After all, if we do not have principles that we are prepared to back up with action, what do we have?

Does this mean that Quality Blog cannot be resumed? No – that really would be taking things too far. But if I restart it, I must first determine its precise relationship to The Knot Garden. The goal is to build on integrity, not to erode it. The two writing projects would need to reinforce each other. And my feeling is that if I am to get Quality Blog going again, I must start on the first Sunday in the new year. I believe this is my last opportunity to resurrect the project.

Quality is a subject of such critical importance to me, and of such a wide scope, that it merits its own website. My original idea was to gain worthwhile insights into the true nature of quality by publishing one thousand posts over a period of twenty years. I see no reason to change that goal.

I am not really one for new year resolutions. Why should we delay until the beginning of January the business of improving our lives? My impatient nature implores me to go ahead and implement changes immediately rather than waiting for some arbitrary date to arrive. However, we naturally approach the new year with ideas about how we can live better lives. I am no exception to this, although I do try to look beyond fad diets towards sustainable themes.

I need to do more writing. And, while I have in mind some more ambitious projects, I feel compelled to crank up the stalled engine of Quality Blog once more. I will start in a week’s time with an explanation of why I brought it to such an abrupt halt. And I will set out my stall afresh, reiterating my reasons and my goals. I am resolved to it.

My Favourite Word

The idea of having a favourite word seems ludicrous. Especially for someone like me, who does not really believe in having favourites of anything. And, just to make matters worse, I hardly ever use the word that best qualifies for this dubious title. What then are my reasons for holding the word in such high esteem?

I should make it perfectly clear at the outset that I have never set out to find a word that I like more than any other. Rather than emerging from a formal assessment process, applied rigorously to all of the words in my (albeit narrow) vocabulary, the word has achieved its coveted status unobtrusively by seducing me with its understated charms over a long period of time.

In line with my well-established practice of doing things backwards, I decided to identify the criteria after I had chosen the word. I consider myself a bit of an expert at putting the cart in front of the horse. Precisely what factors have I applied ex post facto?

As you have already learned, the word scores low on utilisation. But there are more important indicators of quality than frequency of use. After all, we can easily tire of something if we do not restrict our exposure to it. One complementary pair of factors can be found in the aesthetic appeal of the word and the degree  to which its sound matches its meaning. The closely related property of onomatopoeia (what a gruesome word that is!), however, does not apply in this case.

Then there is the theme that the word represents. As you might imagine, this is an important consideration for The Knot Garden. We must also take into account the virtue of elegant simplicity – The Knot Garden tends to avoid long, complicated words – often used merely for effect – preferring ones with fewer syllables.

My nominated word gets a high rating when measured against these yardsticks. However there is a further, decisive factor to consider. The word possesses a peculiar characteristic that, as far as I can see, is not shared by any other words of similar length. Unlike the word queue, for example, eighty percent of which is composed of vowels, my favourite word contains none. All six of its letters are consonants.

I am sticking my neck out a bit here, as I have not carried out the brief research necessary to establish the uniqueness of this property. But I am reasonably certain that I stand on firm ground. And, if I am wrong, then my position remains unaltered, for it is still a rare trait.

Should I ever feel inclined to apply the principle of favouritism to words, my chosen one expresses a universally important concept that can be found in both the human and the natural worlds. And it is phonetically alluring. The word is rhythm.

The Meaning Of Christmas

The Knot Garden wonders how the meaning of Christmas has changed in modern times with the advent of a different type of miracle – technological innovation powered by Moore’s law. The traditional trappings of the religious celebration remain in some diminished way but what do people actually think about during the festive times?

We found ourselves sitting in a local pub yesterday, enjoying a meal in an intimate, well-furnished space. The small dining room was quiet and so, even though we are not eavesdroppers, it was hard to avoid hearing the conversation of the well-to-do couple who sat nearby. Snippets drifted through to our ears in spite of our attempts to shut them out.

I am often struck by how commonplace it is to find that people who exude charm, self-assurance and sophistication spend so much of their time, while ensconced in attractive social settings, discussing matters that are mundane, trivial and unimportant.

The couple’s discourse was of particular interest because it was concerned with Christmas. Their dialogue conveyed, through the manner and tone in which it was conducted, a sense that something profound was being explored. The illusion was shattered, however, when one listened to the actual words.

The confident, well-spoken man and woman were debating nothing more than the buying of Christmas presents, by and for their various family members – and especially their children. The banal intercourse occupied the entire duration of our stay at the inn. At times it became intense, heated even, verging on outright criticism and threatening to degenerate into an argument.

These apparently intelligent, accomplished people were spending their evening trying to figure out who should buy what for whom. Was it acceptable for a daughter to buy such and such a gift for her father? The lady at one point stated petulantly that she would buy the jumper she wanted herself – presumably because nobody else could be persuaded to buy it for her. The talk was highly judgemental and possibly a little manipulative.

That is what Christmas meant for these people. Getting what they wanted and imposing their will on others. If they had placed a proper value on their time they would surely have realised that the cost of their discussions would far exceed the value of the presents that they would receive.

What has happened to the idea of dispensing goodwill to all mankind? This creed surely still finds expression in isolated pockets of humanity but appears to be swamped by commercially-driven considerations. Perhaps, in an inversion of values, the idea of truly giving to others has been replaced by one of egotism and selfishness.

Even as a non-worshipper I can appreciate the generosity of spirit that Christmas should, and sometimes does, bring forth. As I write this I am once again listening to the opening part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, performed by John Eliot Gardiner and the Moteverdi Choir, which truly engenders feelings of joy and exaltation. And so I say unto you, in this season of celebration and compassion, Jauchzet Frohlocket!

The Wrong Kind Of Power

Picture the scene. The terrorists, holed-up with their hostages, are becoming increasingly desperate. At the very moment when all seems lost, the heroic special forces agents burst into the hideaway and all hell breaks loose.

There can only be one outcome to the firefight. Most of the criminals meet a sticky end and their leader is taken into custody. The hostages are reunited with their loving families and their rescuers stagger into the sunlight, blinking and clutching their wounds, to receive the adulation of those who are dear to them.

Unless you are a hermit, you will probably have watched such scenes played out many times at the cinema or on television. Perhaps you got caught up in the emotional artifice that film makers employ and you were surely drawn to the star actors. You may be forgiven for overlooking the surprising fact that the gun is the true box office star for these lurid screenings, a truth recognised by Abigail Disney.

Why do so many people love guns? Especially Americans? The United States, whose Constitutional Second Amendment opens the door to gun ownership – in the interests of freedom, you understand – has nearly 90 firearms per 100 residents. That is almost one gun per member of the population. Enough to equip every baby with an AK-47, should the law be changed to bring the minimum age for ownership down. As a percentage of all unlawful homicides, gun-related killings in the US are 14 times higher than they are in the UK.

The civilians of most countries are not allowed to own firearms. But crowds will nevertheless flock to cinemas to revel in the firearm-wrought carnage around which the latest blockbuster revolves.

You may think that guns confer power on those who wield them. And in a way they do. But it is a base, cowardly sort of power born out of anger, hatred and a twisted psyche. Guns are crude weapons that have a single purpose – to kill a person or force them to act against their will under threat of killing them. What sort of belief system does such perverted motivation have at its core?

You might believe, based on your visits to the cinema, that guns are an indispensable force for good in the hands of law enforcement officers and soldiers when dealing with criminals. Chris Voss’s engaging book “Never Split The Difference” paints a different picture. It highlights the innate superiority – on many levels –  of the subtle and patient use of empathy over the brute force of firearms. Voss writes with the authority you would expect from someone who worked as the FBI’s chief international hostage negotiator for many years.

The psychology of negotiation, a subject of fundamental importance spanning all areas of our daily lives, perhaps does not make good viewing on the big screen. Unless, of course, it is augmented with gunfire-induced mayhem.

The Knot Garden understands that uninventing things (the verb, tellingly, does not actually exist in many dictionaries) is very much more difficult than inventing them. And it believes that, as we might consider the pen to be mightier than the sword, the tongue is infinitely more powerful than the gun.

 

Vision

Arabella awakens suddenly, rudely dragged into consciousness by the harsh metallic greeting of her alarm or the piercing cry of her young child – she cannot remember which came first. It is dark outside and freezing within.

On waking, Arabella’s head starts to fill with a familiar anxiety. The plumbing is broken, the stack of unpaid bills mocks her silently from the hall table and her unfaithful husband, now estranged, continues to make ludicrously unreasonable demands, treating her with contempt. She is sailing a stormy sea in a boatload of worries.

Arabella slowly and deliberately pushes the bothersome thoughts away in the manner of a hostess dismissing unwelcome guests. The unruly intruders will need to take their place at the back of the queue, making room for more constructive agents.

How is she able to deal with such an array of distractions? Arabella has a vision. She has been building it for a few years, nurturing it but keeping it hidden from the malicious eyes of others who like nothing more than to heap scorn on people’s dreams.

Arabella’s model of a future world, fabricated entirely from her imagination and built upon her beliefs and aspirations, drives her forward against formidable headwinds.

Perhaps our vision defines us more than any other aspect of our life. It is surely more important than our present circumstances, that superficial set of conditions by which others are quick to judge us. The unseen is truly a greater force than the outwardly visible, displayed in broad daylight for all with an eye for such things to see.

Our vision is inseparable from our soul and determines our character. As it gradually evolves we can ask ourselves some insightful questions. What belief system lies at its core? How well are we living up to the principles it embodies? How constant is the vision – does it maintain its form, glowing ever brighter or does it oscillate like a wayward child and fade one day only to grow bright again the next? And, most important of all, to what extent are we manifesting it in our life?

You might think that the most powerful visions are based on a single, laser-focused goal. I believe instead that they are composed of multiple elements that represent a set of mutually reinforcing themes, acting in concert to create an integrated system.

The Knot Garden understands that the greatest visions ultimately make a lasting contribution to humankind. They have at their centre the ideal of permanent value creation. Surely nothing can be more fulfilling than that?