Sunday, 30 December 2012

Herr Doctor Obama

A question just popped into my mind for which I have no answer at the moment. We address adult men, in formal occasions, as "Mister," unless they hold a doctorate, in which case we call them "Doctor." Americans like to address their President as "Mister President." However, what if he held a doctorate? Would he be "Doctor President"? Has there ever been an occasion where a choice between these forms of address had to be made?

Update: Well, Bill Clinton has a doctorate in Law. I guess "Doctor President" isn't going to happen. Unless an M.D. were elected President, perhaps?

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Star Trek Economics

Star Trek: A Child of its Times

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. The reasons for short-term pessimism were clear. When it first aired in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson had been given the power to declare war in Vietnam "if necessary," the American air force had been intensively bombing North Vietnam for a year, and the first U.S. troops had been in South Vietnam for about as long. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1964, which had brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, was a recent memory. Two popular movies with essentially the same plot of universal atomic destruction were both released in 1964, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, showing that knowledge of the world's precarious state was widely spread.

Given the time it was created, it is no surprise that nuclear standoffs and proxy wars feature in a number of Star Trek episodes; these include Balance of Terror and A Private Little War. Other episodes illustrate a subtle balance of good and evil in the human soul and the potential for one to become the other. These include Mirror Mirror and The Enemy Within. These encouraged Americans to question their righteous self-image.

In contrast, 1965 was the time of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" plans to eliminate poverty and racial inequality. Linus Pauling had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his work to end the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Subsequently, the "Ban the Bomb" movement spread throughout the United States as well as in other countries. The Civil Rights Movement was reaching its peak. Martin Luther King had led the March on Washington in 1963 and given his "I Have a Dream" speech. He had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Hopeful alternatives to a threatened world were as much in the air as fears of nuclear war. Star Trek had elements of both the hope and the fear.


However, the future history that Roddenberry plotted for Star Trek shows things becoming much worse before they get better. Accordingly, we learn in different Star Trek episodes that Earth survives the Cold War only to fight the Eugenics Wars of 1993 to 1996, which cause 30 million casualties. Later Star Trek series distinguish the Eugenics Wars from World War III, which lasts from 2026 to 2053. After this war, with its 600 million deaths, radiation poisoning, and nuclear winters, members of the Vulcan race make contact with humans in Brozeman, Montana (though Vulcan, Alberta, also celebrates the meeting).

The Vulcans are evidently what humans need: a race that had abandoned war in the fourth century and would provide the Earth with massive technological and humanitarian support. They help to bring it into recovery by the early 22nd century, though earlier in some parts than others.

As well as poverty and disease, war is conquered. A United Earth comes into being in 2150, followed by the United Federation of Planets in 2161. This is the historical and political background to the famous "five-year voyage" of the U.S.S. Enterprise that is the subject of the first Star Trek series. The voyage begins in 2265, so the Federation is a well-established fact at that time. Still, no-one knows its potential, but everyone senses that it is great.

Star Trek had to answer a question, though, or at least assume that an answer exists: if mankind had conquered war, want, and disease, what kind of economy would it have?

The Industrial Base in Star Trek

I don't believe that Roddenberry had any specific economic theory to push in Star Trek, but he did have the goal of presenting an economic system of universal affluence. His fictional universe included technologies that could enable this, though they would not guarantee it:
  • The replicator allows almost any object, from a machine to a meal, to be created from a template or pattern that is stored in a computer. A family with access to a replicator would have food and clothing, both basic and luxurious, at any time.
  • Matter and antimatter collisions would provide cheap energy that, eventually, might prove "too cheap to meter."
  • Although living space would remain a scarce good, competition for it would be lessened by the opening of colony worlds.
  • Holographic recreations of places and activities would decrease demand for access to unique locations and activities, since they could be experienced in perfect simulations. The potential for this technology in improving educational opportunities is, of course, immense.
Despite these technologies, skilled labour is still required for many specialized jobs, such as building or refitting spacecraft. The labour and the technologies, together, might allow a life with necessities as well as many luxuries being "too cheap to meter."

Star Trek and Money

If most goods are too cheap to charge for, though, why would we have money? In fact, Roddenberry was adamant that we would not. As a Star Trek writer and producer, Ronald D. Moore, said in an AOL chat in 1997,
By the time I joined TNG [Star Trek: The Next Generation], Gene had decreed that money most emphatically did NOT exist in the Federation, nor did 'credits' and that was that. Personally, I've always felt this was a bunch of hooey, but it was one of the rules and that's that.

So, the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (released in 1986) has this exchange:
Dr. Gillian Taylor: Don't tell me you don't use money in the 23rd Century.
Kirk: Well, we don't. 
Captain Picard (in Star Trek: First Contact) could be quite self-righteous on the lack of money.
The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.
Nevertheless, other species continued to use money of one form or another, and this difference could cause difficulties in exchanges between the parties, as this conversation between the human Jake Sisko and the Ferengi Nog makes clear.
Jake: "I'm Human, I don't have any money."
Nog: "It's not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement."
Jake: "Hey, watch it. There's nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity."
Nog: "What does that mean exactly?"
Jake: "It means... it means we don't need money!"
Nog :"Well if you don't need money then you certainly don't need mine."
To alleviate the problem of exchanges with species who do use money, Federation citizens have some access to Federation-backed "credit" on places like Vulcan and to gold-pressed latinum everywhere that the Ferengi trade in order to make exchanges happen. (I should mention that gold-pressed latinum cannot be created by replicators, nor can the dilithium crystals used in starship engines, so both remain scarce resources).

A few references exist of humans using "credits" with each other, especially where some scarce resource is being rationed. For example, Captain Sisko, Jake's father, tells us that he used up a month's supply of "transporter credits" because he was homesick after he entered the Starfleet Academy.

For those who want more detail on money in the Star Trek universe, this site has an exhaustive collection of quotations.

The two "facts" we know about Star Trek's fictional economy--there is universal abundance but  no money--have attracted a great deal of attention and criticism. Many state that such an economy is contrary to human nature; many others, that it is contrary to economic science. A few add that, even if it could be achieved, it would only be a new form of some well-known and widely-despised economic system. Let us look at these criticisms in order.

Human Nature vs. Star Trek

There are two versions of the idea that Star Trek economics is contrary to human nature.
  1. The first objection is that people are naturally lazy so, if everyone were guaranteed a comfortable life, no matter what, then no-one would work. "A universe of unlimited resources would be packed with lazy slobs -- not intrepid explorers," says one site.

    The argument can be extended to include the idea that, even if people do work without financial incentives, they do not work hard. They certainly would not work to better themselves. In other words, "When a doctor and a garbage man are given the same paycheck, what could possibly motivate someone to go to college, get their masters, then their MD?"

    I find it interesting that money is considered the only motivator in the posts I've linked to. I cannot see, from my own life and motivations, that the posters are right. For example, I am working quite hard on this post, but expect no financial reward. I love my wife and son without reasonable expectation of financial profit. I'd happily spend much of my life back in university, if I could afford it, without hoping that the expense could be recouped. That last example shows, in fact, that the need for money kills dreams (since I can't afford to go back to university) just as it can inspire them.
  2. The second objection is that people are naturally greedy or, as William Blake puts it, the human heart is "a hungry gorge." This implies that, even in the presence of abundance, the desire to acquire objects and wealth in excess of one's neighbours' would remain. In fact, "There's no real bottom to human greed for more."

    It's true enough that we are a competitive species, but that competition is not always expressed in terms of wealth or possessions. When two young men compete for a young woman's affections, it takes a warped mind to think of her as a "possession." People compete for respect. People compete to leave a greater legacy. I compete to write a more convincing blog post than others have left on the same topic.

Response to the "Human Nature" Arguments, or Abraham Maslow to the Rescue!

The answer to the "human nature" arguments against a Star Trek-style economy lies, I think, in Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs."

The psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated that needs (and therefore motivation) comes in levels. The most basic needs are physiological, meaning food, shelter, and so on. If these are not met, an individual would die. Over these are the psychological needs for esteem, friendship, and love. If these are not met, the individual will feel anxious and tense. If all these lower levels of need are met, the individual will find motivation to achieve "self-actualization," which means to accomplish some latent potential for its own sake: to "be all that you can be." Here, from the Wikipedia page on the Hierarchy of Needs, is a representation of his theory.
The argument that "a universe with infinite resources would be packed with lazy slobs" implies that only the first two levels supply motivation to work. The argument that, without differential access to money, no one would work harder than necessary implies that all the levels up to esteem are at work. (A doctor would see his higher esteem in society reflected by a higher paycheque). However, the need for esteem may be met by means other than money, such as rank, honours, the confidence of others, and self-confidence.

Once the need for esteem has been met, the need for self-actualization, meaning self-development or self-improvement, kicks in as a motivation. We see it beginning in the young James T. Kirk in this clip from the 2009 Star Trek film.

The needs for esteem and self-actualization may not be as well-publicized as money, but they may be enough to power an economy.

Economics vs. Star Trek

If human nature allows a Star Trek style of economy, does the discipline of Economics also allow it? Perhaps not.

Economics is typically defined as "The science of how people make choices for the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy their unlimited desires," so there are those whose suspension of disbelief stalls before the idea that goods may not be scarce. When the cost of an article is zero, standard Economics has a literal or figurative "divide by zero" problem that prevents any analysis of production and distribution. As John Waring states (quoted here)
Economics in any and all forms rests on the assumption of conditions of natural or artificially enforced scarcity, far less than enough to supply everyone. The study of economics and its everyday business control and transactions tells you how each variation of the Price System makes an ideology of how to divide up that scarcity. You will find economics defined in terms of scarcity in every textbook on the subject, usually in the opening chapter. Without scarcity, some of them candidly admit, there would be no need for economics.
And yet there are portions of the economy, and important ones, that approximate a post-scarcity economics. One example is the Free Software Movement, which has produced the operating system on my computer, the web browser which I am using to type this, and much of the programming infrastructure of the Internet, all at no cost to the user. This is achieved through gratis labour. Some of it is genuinely altruistic labour from individuals, and some is enlightened self-interest of corporations.

 The discipline of Economics must simply expand to include post-scarcity economies. The only alternative is to hobble an increasing number of non-scarce goods with artificial scarcity and the "deadweight" loss to the economy this would imply.

What sort of Crazy Economic System is This? 

There have been a few suggestions that Star Trek exemplifies some type of economy that we have already experienced. Each explanation has its reasons, and each has its problems.
  • Communism--This is the most popular candidate. This is despite the fact that private property exists, such as the Picard family farm and the restaurant run by Captain Sisko's father.
  • Fascism--This is a less common argument, but it exists. The arguments are that only the state (in some versions, only the military) allocates resources and can direct their use. This is an assumption that the lack of money necessarily implies a command economy. It may not. 

Another View. It's Social Credit.

I am not an economist, and I have no idea if the economic theories of C.H. Douglas could achieve the goals he intended. It is quite clear, though, that the goals of his theory, called Social Credit, are consistent with those of Star Trek economics.
[Social Credit's] policies are designed ... to disperse economic and political power to individuals. Douglas once wrote, "Systems were made for men, and not men for systems, and the interest of man which is self-development, is above all systems, whether theological, political or economic." Douglas said that Social Crediters want to build a new civilization based upon "absolute economic security" for the individual, where "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid." In his words, "what we really demand of existence is not that we shall be put into somebody else's Utopia, but we shall be put in a position to construct a Utopia of our own."
Social Credit Theory approaches those goals through a comprehensive theory of economic production. It includes the traditional elements--capital and labour--and adds the collective experience, wisdom, and knowledge which comprise our culture. For example, we see Walt Disney combine capital and labour to create the first full-length animated film, Snow White, which was released in 1937. Of course he is economically rewarded for his investment of capital and labour, but he did not create the story. He took it from a book by the brothers Grimm, published in 1812. Of course they were economically rewarded for their investment of capital and labour, but they did not create the story, either. They collected it as a folk tale from people who had heard it from their parents and grandparents and told it to their children. The story on which the Disney empire was founded is a collective possession of the culture. Douglas says, in effect, why don't we all, as collective possessors of this culture, get paid for it. Let's say, a cheque every month, a guaranteed basic income, with which we can order ("buy") whatever we want.

Social Credit does not, therefore, renounce money, though it redefines it. Instead of thinking of money as a commodity, a thing valuable in itself, that is used as a "medium of exchange," Social Credit thinks of it as a "ticketing system" with which consumers place orders for products. If more consumers can order more products, it says, then the entire economy would benefit.

If we add pervasive computing to a Social Credit economy, though, it is possible that money would become less meaningful. The consumer would have access to purchasing power, as would everyone else. The producer would receive orders for a good and receive, behind the scenes, without his intervention, purchasing power for all the resources he needs to create the product. Eventually, as a rule, neither the consumer who orders a good nor the producer who supplies it would have to handle, or even think about, money. It would "wither away."


Star Trek provided an image of a society that is more egalitarian and more humanitarian than our own. C.H. Douglas provided an economic theory that was designed to achieve the same goals. I am not saying, in any way, that Star Trek is based on the theories of Social Credit, but I am saying that it could have been.

Social Credit, by the way, is not a discredited theory. A theory that has never been tested cannot be discredited. I was interested to discover, though, that the United States came close to trying out something very similar, a "Guaranteed Annual Income" (GAI) proposed by Richard Nixon but never passed into law.

Update: An article on ("The Utopian Economics of Star Trek" by Andrew Leonard" begins:
There are many clever moments in the thoroughly satisfying new “Star Trek” movie, but the one that has economists chattering is more than just smart: It strikes right to the core of what the Star Trek future is all about.

The scene comes early, when a pre-pubescent Spock is undergoing the formidable educational process inflicted on all Vulcan children. We see and hear him say the words “nonrival” and “nonexcludable” (and we can imagine his computer tutor nodding encouragingly).

And then we move on, without explanation. To my children, and, I imagine, to most Trekkies, the moment was just one more jargonistic outburst in a franchise that has always delighted in excessive indulgence in meaningless techno-gibberish. But the economists in the audience all started high-fiving each other: Whoa, who could have expected a shout-out to economist Paul Romer’s breakthrough paper, “Endogenous Technological Change,” in a “Star Trek” movie? Awesome!
A "nonrivalous" good "can be shared without losing anything. An apple, say, is a rival good: If one person eats it, the other person can’t." Knowledge is nonrivalous, as Thomas Jefferson illustrates in a letter:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
On the other hand, Leonard says, "Excludability refers to whether you can prevent someone from sharing, as with, for example, copy protection or a jail sentence."

Leonard has another article, an interview with David Warsh, author of "Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations," that says that Romer's mathematics has been greatly influential in the field of economics. That's something to look into. To start, here's a Paul Rohmer TED talk on his concept of "Charter Cities." Here's an article in The Atlantic on his views: "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty" by Sebastian Mallaby.

James Merrill Sonnet. Who Says the Sonnet is Dead?

Here's one of the best poems I've read in recent years. I stumbled on it here by accident. I want to spread knowledge of it more broadly.
My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.
Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze
(Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six)
The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex
And business; time was money in those days.
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit --- rings, cars, permanent waves.
We'd felt him warming up for a green bride.
He could afford it. He was "in his prime"
At three score ten. But money was not time.
The phrase "in sable orbit" is a wonderful pun, with the reference to a "stable orbit" adding to the meaning. "Invest his life/In cloud banks...," equally lovely. The poem as a whole is both clear-eyed and bitter. Its perfection of expression is set off by its perfection of form.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Adventures of Alfredo

The most fun computer I've ever owned was an Apple IIe. I didn't say the most powerful, I said the most fun. There are many things that I knew how to do on that machine, thanks to its built-in BASIC language, that I don't know how to do on modern machines. At the amazing processor speed of 1 MHz, it kept up with my fastest typing, and what more could I want than that?

In addition, I obtained programs in a variety of ways that the Internet has made obsolete. I could buy a copy of Compute! or Nibble magazines and type in the programs that filled their pages. I could also spring for a copy of Softdisk, a monthly "Magazine on Disk." When I later exchanged my IIe for the more advanced Apple IIgs, I also started collecting Softdisk GS. Some of the games and utilities and even lightweight productivity programs were worth the money, but the process of discovering what was on the disk was worth even more. Anyone who enjoys unwrapping gifts at Christmas will understand what I mean.

A recurring feature of the original Softdisks were "The Adventures of Alfredo." These were completely non-interactive stories in which a stick figure, "Alfredo," undergoes surreal misadventures. The style was the ultimate in minimalism.

Here, without, further ado, is one of the Adventures of Alfredo.

A few others are also available on Youtube. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Music and Movies: A Few Favourites

Combining the power of movies with the power of music can create some of the most memorable moments in film. One example should make my point. In the very sweet and critically underrated movie Princess Caraboo (1994), the princess, played by Phoebe Cates, is treated to her first experience of classical music, specifically a chamber performance of of the second movement of the Trio, Opus 99, by Franz Schubert. She is overwhelmed by the music. She rises from her seat, walks among the musicians, then cries. The concerned hostess tries to stop the music, but Caraboo will not allow it. Equally moved, the director of the orchestra rises to say that he is honoured to have such an appreciative listener.

Now dry your eyes and let's move on.

One way the music can be used is to unify a mosaic of scenes, giving them a common mood and meaning. A wonderful example is from The Lord of the Rings. In this scene, Lord Denethor has knowingly ordered a hopeless attack, weakening his city to guarantee the death of his son and the end of his own line. The visuals shift from Denethor to the attacking forces to the defending forces to Pippin, a hobbit, who sings a song from the perspective of eternity, that everything must "fade" and end.

The ultimate montage to music, though, is the second scene in the film The Watchmen (2009). It contains a sequence of images from May 1939 to some time in the 1980's, when the story itself is set. They show a world that is subtly altered from our own. For example, the plane that bombs Hiroshima is called the "Miss. Jupiter" instead of the Enola Gay; for example, the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse on VJ Day has a superhero(ine) replacing the sailor; for example, the Zapruder film of John Kennedy's assassination now shows the identity of the assassin. The music that ties this together, reflecting the changes from our timeline, is, of course, Bob Dylan's "The Times They are A-Changin'."

I'd embed a clip of this, but these clips are being aggressively taken down from Youtube. Here is a link to it on Vimeo instead.

Another way to use the music is to match the mood of a wordless scene, as in the excellent movie Truly, Madly Deeply (1990). The story is of a woman whose husband has died, and she is not coping at all well. Her grief is intense and unrelenting, to the point that her husband returns to her from the dead as she plays a piece of music that they must have often played together, Bach's Sonata No. 3 for Cello (Viol de Gamba) & Piano.


When she's had time to adjust to his return, the two celebrate with wordplay, music, and remarkably eccentric dance.

The romantic comedy LA Story (1991) also has two musical highlights, both performed by Enya. The first is when the two main characters realize that they have fallen in love.

The next is when she is about to leave, and all the elements rise up to prevent her flight.

My last video in this post is from a fairly obscure movie called Iceman (1984), in which a neanderthal is brought back to life. The scientist and his subject have no language in common, of course. Any communication has to be emotional. For example, through Neil Young's music.

I could go on. These film clips are a selection of moments in film where music rolls up its sleeves and reveals its strength. If there are other moments that come to mind, let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

My "Author's Spotlight Page"

I just set up a "Spotlight Page" on You can order my Poetry Guide and Workbook from there now, but I hope to have other books for sale there soon. Come visit me!

I have put up part of my chapter on Alliterative verse on my other blog. Have a look at that if Beowulf or other Old English verse interests you.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

LCARS, Tablet Computers, and the Undying Spirit of Star Trek

This is a time when tablet computers are beginning to bite into the sales of both desktop and laptop computers. It is also a time when CBS Enterprises is forgoing some easy income and surefire advertising by not licensing a tablet interface that was first seen in 1987 on the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. This interface is called LCARS, which stands for "Library Computer Access/Retrieval System." It uses bold, curving lines, sometimes holding buttons, to separate the screen into functional areas. It was sometimes shown on large screens, similar to computer monitors, like this:

(Thank you Wikipedia). It was, at other times, on 7" tablet computers called PADDs (Personal Access Display Device).

Let us put the year in a little perspective. The year 1989 is about 11 years before Microsoft tried selling tablet computers. It is 21 years before Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. Nevertheless, these Star Trek PADDs are not the first appearance of tablet computers either in real life or fiction. The Acorn Newspad of 1997 has that honour in real life, but it was inspired by the tablets on the spacecraft Discovery in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This scene, in fact, was used in court to contest Apple's design patents for the iPad.

Unlike the tablets in 2001, the Star Trek PADDs have a unique, easily-distinguished user interface that is unlike anything being offered by tablet manufacturers. Accordingly, all of the large manufacturers--Apple, Google, even RIM and Microsoft--would have no interest in making an LCARS tablet; they have invested too much in convincing us that theirs is the better way. However, would Asus or some other, smaller manufacturer of Android-powered fondleslabs be interested in releasing one? They would receive, in return, a galaxy of free publicity, possible tie-ins to the upcoming Star Trek movies, and the undying love of geeks and nerds.

The tablet would almost market itself. PADD would be the best name for it, of course but, if that were not possible, it could be the "Data," named after the genial mechanical man in the Star Trek series.

Majel Barrett, the voice of the Star Trek computers, unfortunately died in 2008, but the tablet could speak in the voice of Brent Spiner, who played Data. It could have an option to only respond to voice commands and queries if you say, in a Scottish accent, "Computer!" or "Hello, Computer."

There would be something very appropriate to this product because many other flights of fancy, especially from Star Trek, have inspired real-world products. (cell phones, anyone? but most particularly this one; the Space Shuttle Enterprise?) and emerging technologies (cloaking device, tractor beam, warp drive, shields, tricorder, transporter).

But it will not happen unless CBS says yes. Then, once that is out, the LCARS interface can begin to make the 24th-century computing experience available even now in the 21st century. Yes, even put LCARS in cars.

I think that Lieutenant-Commander Jadzia Dax speaks for many of us when she says, "I love classic 23rd century design!"

Incidental fact: the team that created the on-line Star Trek movie Of Gods and Men, including many who were involved in the Star Trek tv shows, have recently completed a Kickstarter effort to raise money for a new Star Trek show. They will produce a pilot episode called Star Trek: Renegades. If CBS does not want to purchase the show, the team will release the pilot on a non-profit basis and carry on making shows through donations. They say, "we have a five year story arc planned."

Of Gods and Men is an interesting movie, of interest to anyone who enjoyed any of the various Star Trek series over the years, but especially those who watched the original series (1966-1969).

Monday, 10 December 2012

A Rich Jewel in an Ethiop's Ear

The obligatory Wikipedia visit tells me that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet about 1597 when he was still quite a young man, about 33  years old. The most beautiful lines in that play, to me, are
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear-
The image of a bright diamond or ruby against black skin is gorgeous. However, my search for a painting or photograph to illustrate the image came up with little. Here's the closest so far:

Coincidentally,  I came up empty-handed in a search for a painting or photograph to illustrate these equally lovely lines from Kubla Khan by Coleridge:
A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw,
It was an Abyssinian maid, and on the dulcimer she played
Singing of Mount Abora...
Since there aren't that many positive portrayals of blacks in older English drama or verse, I would have thought that many painters would have been inspired by the ones that exist.

Some sites on the web state (with disturbing confidence) that Shakespeare's image is far from a positive portrayal. For example, this page states,
In this speech, Ethiope is an allusion for Ethiopia. Shakespeare alludes [sic] the Ethiopian slaves who often dwelt in Moorish harems, decking themselves with expensive jewelry in their ears to impress upon all who saw them the wealth of their masters.
Or Shakespeare may simply have found the contrast of light and dark beautiful, much as Hieronymus Bosch did in The Garden of Earthly Delights, dating from about 1500.

We certainly cannot assume that Shakespeare immediately associated black skin with slavery. He knew of blacks who were not slaves. In fact, he wrote a play about one, Othello, a self-made man with heroic qualities, albeit one brought down by racism and jealousy

Other sites wonder if Shakespeare's words were entirely original. The Folger Shakespeare Library website has a page pointing to a 1639 work called The Academy of Complements by John Gough. It contains these words:
It seems she hangs upon the cheeks of night
As a rich Jewel in the Ethiop's ear
Did Gough copy Shakespeare, or both copy some previous source? Shakespeare wouldn't be above a bit of swiping, any more than Gough was. Does that make him a talentless plagiarist? Oh, I don't think so. There's the small matter of all the other lines in the play to argue against that.

The meme of the bright jewel in a dark woman's (or man's) ear eventually took hold in the mind of a Canadian songwriter, Joni Mitchell. In "That Song About the Midway," she wrote,
I met you on a midway at a fair last year
And you stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear
Was she thinking of Shakespeare at the time? Oh, yes. Does that lessen her work? Oh, no. In fact, a little jerk of joy passed through me when I caught the allusion. As I've written before, the word "allusion" comes from the Latin word meaning "to play." Allusions are creative play.

Sunday, 2 December 2012


I've written before about the importance of the public domain, the massive assemblage of all works for which ownership has expired. It includes the works of Shakespeare, of course, and the musical scores of Bach and Brahms and, in Canada, music recordings from fifty years ago and before. Governments sometimes carve out odd exceptions to the rules that govern the public domain. So, in Britain, Peter Pan is still the property of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the King James translation of the Bible is controlled by the Crown even now, 401 years after its first publication.

I've also mentioned a number of good web sites to find public domain books in e-book formats. These are Project Gutenberg and its spinoffs, such as the Australian and Canadian projects, and the Internet Archive.

However, the point of this post is to recommend a site called Feedbooks. It is a purveyor of commercial e-books, but the main page gives equal prominence to public domain and self-published books. There are many fewer books under the public domain heading than at Project Gutenberg (about a tenth as many), but the books are more attractive. They come with cover pictures, which are often the covers of the first print edition of the book; they lack the long legal text at the beginning of a Project Gutenberg book, and in its place is a biography of the author. Finally, the chapter headings are differentiated from the text in a more professional-looking way. See for yourself: the Gutenberg e-book is on the left, the Feedbooks, on the right.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Wayland Smith

I was just listening to Leslie Fish's setting of Kipling's poem "The Runes on Weland's Sword," from the book Puck of Pook's Hill. The magic runes foretell the sword's destiny.
A Smith makes me
To betray my Man
In my first fight.
To gather Gold
At the world's end
I am sent.
The Gold I gather
Comes into England
Out of deep Water. 
Like a shining Fish
Then it descends
Into deep Water. 
It is not given
For goods or gear,
But for The Thing.
The Gold I gather
A King covets
For an ill use.
The Gold I gather
Is drawn up
Out of deep Water.
Like a shining Fish
Then it descends
Into deep Water.
It is not given
For goods or gear,
But for The Thing.
I see some subtle patterns in the poem.  Notice the last words of the second lines of the stanzas: man, end, England, descend. There is consonance in the "n." In the third line--fight, sent, water, water--there is consonance on the "t." Water almost rhymes with gather, as well. In the third lines of stanzas 3 and 4, 7 and 8, the ending word is water whence gold is drawn up and then descends. Notice the alliteration in first lines, too: gear, gather, gather (again), and given. The similarity of end, sent and descends is also deliberate, I am sure. There is nothing as obvious as rhyme here, but the patterns of sound make each word choice seem inevitable. Fated, one could say.

I don't know about you, but this poem gives me shivers. In that, it suits the story of Wayland Smith, who was seven years wed to a Valkyrie, a chooser of the slain. He was captured and hamstrung by a Swedish king, who forced him to work at the forge. Wayland, despite being crippled, killed the king's two sons and made wonderful, beautiful, but terrible objects from their bones. He raped or seduced (she was drunk at the time) the king's daughter, then he escaped using wings he had built.

Wayland's story was reproduced on the Franks Casket:

He is on the left, at the forge, holding something like a human head in the fire, with a dead body at his feet. He is holding out a cup to a woman. On the left, his brother is catching geese to take their feathers for the wings that Wayland will make.

There is more about him here.

Reading this again, I realized that the Iain Banks book The Use of Weapons is, or contains, an adaptation of the story of Wayland in the character of "the Chairmaker." More than that, I should not say.

Fighter Purchase Review--The F-35 Purchase Must Justify Itself

Finally, some positive steps to resolve the scandal attending the order of F-35 Fighter Jets for the RCAF. There is more background on it here.

At first, things did not look good. After the Auditor-General criticized the purchase, the government defended it. More bad publicity led to the creation of a Commons Committee to consider what to do, but the Committee's name, according to some, showed that its conclusion was foregone, and perhaps forgone*: After all, why name it the "F-35 Secretariat" if it could choose any plane other than an F-35? More bad press, and it was renamed the "National Fighter Procurement Secretariat." Then the Conservatives tried to make its meetings secret. And rush its conclusions.

Now the CBC has an article on the next turn of the worm, turn of the screw, turn of events, titled "Canada to consult allies, competitors to replace CF-18s." Here is the key section:
The agency overseeing the replacement of the country's CF-18s intends to talk to the U.S., Australia and Britain as it conducts a wide-ranging analysis into the future of Canada's fast fighter fleet, defence sources tell The Canadian Press.
That review, which will also include consultation with competitors to the oft-maligned F-35 stealth fighter, will get underway soon and could last several months.
In the House of Commons this week, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose said that the air force's statement of requirements — the document that set out what the military says it needs for selected pieces of equipment — will be set aside until an options analysis is completed.
"The options' analysis is a full evaluation of choices, not simply a refresh of the work that was done before," Ambrose told the House of Commons. "That review of options will not be constrained by the previous statement of requirements."
The process usually happens in reverse. The military defines what it needs and then, in conjunction with public works, conducts an analysis of what is out there and how the capability can be filled.
The decision to restart the purchase process is a change from the government's previous vigorous defence of the process and the decision. However reluctantly, it has made the right decision. The decision to talk to Australia is especially interesting. That country has reacted to the delays in producing its F-35's by buying a number of Boeing F-18 "Super Hornets" as well. Canada, of course, has had decades of experience flying F-18's, and the Super Hornet is a substantial and logical upgrade to those planes.

*forgone, meaning done without; foregone, meaning preceding. "A foregone conclusion" is one that is predetermined, but in this case "a forgone conclusion" would be one that is never made.

UPDATE, 1 December 2012: The new Chief of the Defence Staff,  Gen. Tom Lawson, told the Commons Defence Committee that the F-35 is not the only plane that can meet the military's need for stealth. In this, he seems to be contradicting the Defence Minister, Peter MacKay. Here's the meat taken from the CBC story on this:
The military's original statement of requirements for the purchase included some level of stealth capability, but not a particular, "necessary" element of stealth, Lawson said.

Lawson said that while other fighter jets offer an "element" of stealth capability, the F-35 is "better."

But when asked by Liberal defence critic John McKay whether there is only one airplane that can meet the standard of stealth set out in the Canadian military's requirements, Lawson said "no."

"All options are on the table," Lawson told MPs.
I used to live in the Yukon, and remember how the thick sheet of ice that covers the Yukon River during the winter would start to show cracks before breaking up. Hearing General Lawson's words feels similar to seeing cracks in the ice.

UPDATE, 13 December 2012: The government is re-opening the F-35 purchase decision. All options, it says, are on the table.
Officials also said that all fighter jets currently in production or scheduled to be in production will be considered to replace the CF-18s. That includes the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Boeing Super Hornet and others.
The CBC also has an editorial explaining how the high cost of each F-35, coupled with American pressure to buy it, is actually weakening Western defence.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Concession Speeches

                                       But I have spoke
With one that saw him die; who did report
That very frankly he confessed his treasons,
Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.

                                  Macbeth 1(4):3-8
The best thing about party politics, though good things are few, is the tradition of the concession speech. After a season of self-serving hyperbole and mean-spirited denigration, all leading up to a moment of personal and collective humiliation, a candidate has the opportunity to reverse the damage he has done and restore the honour he has lost.

Mr. Romney provided a number of examples of "damage done" and "honour lost" during his campaign. His "47% speech" insulted almost half of his potential electorate; he later called it "completely wrong"; his promise to be a "pro-life president" by restricting access to abortion arguably put him in the same camp as the anti-abortion extremists in his party, such as Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Paul Ryan; his joke that "No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate" was a nod to lunatic-fringe conspiracists called "birthers," whether or not he agreed with them. His reputation as a businessman, of which he was proud, was blackened (and here).

He had a chance to serve his country by bowing out with grace after the election was lost. On the whole, he took it.

However, historian Scott Farris argues that that this speech does not match the quality of others.
"It was a speech that sounded as if he did not emerge from the election with much respect, let alone affection, for the president.  He sounded as if he really expected to win and was immensely disappointed in the result—even more so than usual.”
Now, if Mr. Romney wished to have the full benefit of the speech, he would have to follow it with a befitting lack of bitterness. Unfortunately, he may not be up to this challenge.

Still, that speech could have been much worse. For example, Canadians will remember this travesty when Jacques Parizeau, the Premier of Quebec, blamed "money and the ethnic vote" for his side's loss in a referendum on his province's independence.

Although Romney's speech could have been worse, it could also have been much better. It could have risen to the level of graciousness that Michael Ignatieff showed after a decisive defeat relegated his once-proud political party to third-party status.

Notice how different Ignatieff's tone is from Romney's, especially in the opening and closing remarks. Shakepeare could have been describing him when he wrote, "Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it." The quotation continues, "he died/As one that had been studied in his death,/To throw away the dearest thing he owed/As ’twere a careless trifle."

Concession speeches are important because an election is a public Rite of Passage. As such, it has a process that leads the celebrants away from normal life, a process that transforms a celebrant from one status to another, and a process that reintegrates the celebrants into normal life again. Arnold van Gennep, the author of Rites of Passage, named these stages: 
I propose to call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world postliminal rites.
The concession speech and the acceptance speech that follows it are the postliminal rites of the election ritual. As such, they are as important to do well as any other part of the ritual. Otherwise, a country could remain divided after an election, as the Ivory Coast was divided when both President Laurent Gbagbo and his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, each refused to concede the election to the other. An alternative ritual eventually brought closure to that election: the French military arrested President Gbagbo and sent him to the International Criminal Court.

Note to self: Van Gennep died in 1957. That means his book Rites of Passage, which I very much enjoyed reading, is public domain in Canada. I should find a way to get it onto Project Gutenberg Canada when I have the time.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Whole Earth Catalog and The Global Village Construction Set

When I was young and impressionable--an entirely different state of being than my current old and impressionable state--I bought a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Younger folk may not know about the importance that catalogues held when I was young and impressionable. Our household, like just about every one else's, received two department store catalogues in the mail, Simpsons-Sears' and Eaton's. These were phone-book-sized tomes that had, it seemed, everything: ladies' underclothing, silver rings with an embedded Tiger's Eye stone, major household appliances, furniture, toys, and so on, all through the material inventory of modern culture. Looking through it carefully, placing bookmarks or dogearing pages, we planned our Christmas Lists, made our Christmas purchases, and laid our plans for future purchases. We received, no doubt, a sense of the multifariousness of our material culture from those books.

In 1968 appeared another catalog, on sale for $5.  It was even bigger than the others, just as varied, and seemed to contain nothing that the other books had. I bought a copy, I don't know when, and it fascinated me. It was called The Whole Earth Catalog and was subtitled Access to Tools. It had mini-reviews on books about building dome houses, classics about the relation of math and design, waterproof fabrics that made safer motorcycle clothing than mere leather, the address for ordering a poster of Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion Map, and more. It was like a Sears' or Eaton's catalog but intended for back-to-the-land or urban, free-thinking geeks. You can still find the content on-line, but that misses out the heft of the book, the size of the pages, and the texture and smell of the off-white pages.

One of the TED Talks brought back strong memories of that catalog. The speaker is Marcin Jakubowski, a farmer with a PhD in fusion physics. He, too, is concerned that people have "Access to Tools."

His story is a powerful argument for the value of education. As he says in the video, he found that his attempts to farm were disastrously stymied by the need for heavy equipment that broke and then broke ("and then I was broke, too"), so he designed and built his own equipment.

This being the age of the Internet, he attracted a supportive community that helped to improve his work. It is working towards the goal of inexpensive, local, repairable designs for the "50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts." These are listed on his Open Source Ecology website as "The Global Village Construction Set."

These machines may make their way onto farms in the developed world because of simple economic advantage. A new tractor that can be built for $12,000 in six days of work compares very well with a commercial equivalent for twice the price. I expect that the developing world would be even more receptive to his ideas and inventions. Small businesses in Africa or Brazil could start to provide machines and parts, and machines to make the parts, and machines to power the machines, all for much less than First World companies could do.

Could the effort be shut down by litigation, through patent lawsuits and SLAPP suits? Perhaps, but the bottom-up nature of the effort might make it too hard to shut down. A single company making tractors can be sued into bankruptcy; a thousand companies making a few tractors each, not so easily. Ten thousand farmers making one tractor each for personal use, not at all.

Businessweek has just published an update on the project, and Slashdot is weighing in with comments on it. There has been funding from individuals and a big whack of it from the Shuttleworth Foundation. Jakubowski's farm looks and smells like a shambles, but a turning point may be reached in December, when Jakubowski starts selling copies of one of his machines, a "a DIY compressed-earth brick press":
[he] is hopeful he can turn it into something the farm can sell for $9,000 each. “The closest competitor is $45,000,” he says.
If it goes as planned, he hopes to prove "that the farm can make a profit of $5,000 per day from one of its machines." I hope that he does, and even more on the other forty-nine machines in his Construction Set.

I hope, at any rate, that his dream develops more quickly than another project that I have been following, on and off, for decades: Arcosanti. Like the Construction Set, Arcosanti combines idealism, education, and volunteer labour. Unlike the Construction Set's, its progress has been glacially slow. Any hope that Arcosanti can improve the world is now, I'd have to say, minimal to the point of nonexistant; that the Construction Set will do so is much, much greater.

Hurricane Sandy and Answering Religious Critics

I was reading an interesting Popular Science article that I found through the Ars Technica website: Meet the Climate Change Denier Who Became the Voice of Hurricane Sandy On Wikipedia by Dan Nosowitz. It tells about, and includes quotations from an interview with, Ken Mampel, a Wikipedia editor. This gentleman has a background as a journalistic stringer in Florida but, being currently unemployed, had time to spend documenting Hurricane Sandy. Spend it he did, and liberally: "When I talked to him," Nosowitz writes, "I believe he had slept for maybe 15 hours in the past five days."

Some other contributors, though, found that Mapel was deleting any references to Climate Change or, as it used to be known, Global Warming. Why?
Without my prompting, Ken mentioned that New York City's Mayor Mike Bloomberg had endorsed Obama for president based on his handling of the hurricane. This is true, and Mampel planned to add this to the Wikipedia entry. "But I don't believe that climate change bullcrap," he said. Bloomberg had specifically mentioned climate change in his endorsement speech, but Mampel wouldn't add that to the Wikipedia entry. That's despite dozens of articles pointing out the connection--not a causation, necessarily, but certainly a connection worth exploring. I myself spoke to a hurricane expert about three hours before I spoke to Mampel who told me that the roughly two-degree increase in the water temperature in the Atlantic could have had a major effect on Hurricane Sandy's strength in the northeast. Mampel doesn't care. He wasn't going to mention climate change.
By Wikipedia standards, he didn't have the right to exclude a major element in the discussion of Hurricane Sandy. This magazine cover sums up the controversy that Mapel would not allow to be mentioned on the page:

One lovely aspect of Wikipedia that its critics often ignore is that you can click on the "Talk" tab of an article to follow the debates about the article's content.

The "Talk" on the page recorded a lively debate that tried to converge on a consensus about if and how Global Warming should be mentioned. The if viewpoint, Mapel's own, was a minority. The how has been resolved by this paragraph under the section "Meterological History":
According to Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "natural variability and weather has provided the perhaps optimal conditions of a hurricane running into extra-tropical conditions to make for a huge intense storm, enhanced by global warming influences."[34] Unusually warm ocean surface temperatures contributed to the size and strength of the storm, and the storm lingered due to a strong blocking pattern.[34][35] According to their analysis, global warming is expected to continue to increase ocean surface temperatures and the frequency of blocking patterns in the future.[34][35] Mark Fischetti of Scientific American proposed a more explicit link, arguing that the melting of Arctic ice caused a negative North Atlantic Oscillation, which fueled the expansion of Sandy by pushing the jet stream south.[36]
This is probably enough, given that there is also a link to another Wikipedia article, Meteorological history of Hurricane Sandy, which includes a section on Global Warming.

I am glad that there are critics of Wikipedia who help to keep the project honest. Certainly, some of the comments in the Talk about Hurricane Sandy were aware that the omission of Global Warming from the page was being scrutinized by outside media. However, the community of editors and other contributors came together, spoke civilly, and provided a quick and fairly adequate fix to a problem with the page. On the whole, Wikipedia is a public good.

One slight exception to the "spoke civilly" part was provided by Ken Mampel himself, under his username of Kennvido. Here it is, along with the response.
I can only respond to you with Proverbs 26:4 Kennvido (talk) 13:12, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
As a Christian, what Proverbs 26:4 suggests to me is that you, sir, should be indefinitely blocked from any further contributions to this article. Your behavior is embarrassing to all of us who believe, as did Einstein, both in the scientific method as well as the infinite wonders of God's Creation. The more relevant piece of scripture that comes to mind, is 2 Corinthians 11:19. Garth of the Forest (talk) 23:10, 4 November 2012 (UTC)
Facepalm3.svg Facepalm IRWolfie- (talk) 13:20, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
Kennvido your attempt to hide incivility (calling some of us fools) behind the words of the Holy Bible just make your incivility more offensive. I am not going to bother initiating an ANI proceeding but I would support one. NewsAndEventsGuy (talk) 14:29, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
I think it's just Kennvido's poor grasp of WP policies, particularly WP:CONSENSUS. There's no need to start a fuss at ANI ... at least at this point. --Vejvančický (talk | contribs) 14:54, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
Agree, I think it was done more for rhetoric than actual incivility (and so I did not take it as such). IRWolfie- (talk) 15:02, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
Proverbs 26:4 reads, "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him."

The reference to 2 Corinthians 11:19 is to "For you suffer fools gladly, seeing you yourselves are wise."

The comments under that are an example of "Turning the other cheek."

One interesting but minor lesson from this is that a good way to respond to a religious person who asserts a point with a scriptural reference is to answer back with a scriptural reference. Your opponent certainly cannot say, "you're wrong" to the Holy Word itself.  This rhetorical technique is available to believers and unbelievers alike.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

"Instructions" by Neil Gaiman

My posts have followed the junction between society and technology for a while, so I would like to put in something poetic. My choice is by Neil Gaiman.

If you don't know his name, you may know some of his books, graphic novels, or screenplays. The novel American Gods won the Hugo and Nebula awards. (If you follow the science fiction or fantasy genres, you will know the awards). According to that Wikipedia article, it will be made into a television series for HBO. His children's novels Coraline and Stardust were made into movies. His graphic novel project, The Sandman, grew to ten volumes over seven years of effort. It was a New York Times best-seller, and yet is worth reading.

The only work of Neil Gaiman that has disappointed me was the script he co-wrote for the film Beowulf. The seal of death on that project, as far as I am concerned is that the film's director "did not like the poem, but enjoyed reading the screenplay." That implies, of course, that anyone who did like the poem, as I do, would hate the screenplay.

What I enjoy in Gaiman is that myth seems to be a language to him, rather than a decoration. He creates new myths and alludes to old ones to speak about human nature and the universe. His poem "Instructions" shows how this works.


by Neil Gaiman
Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's realm;
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the wood.
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.

Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.
One myth alluded to in this poem is a Russian story about a cannibalistic witch, Baba Yaga. In it, the heroine helps a gate, a tree, and a cat who later save her life. It matches even more closely a Norwegian story, "The Giant Who Had No Heart in his Body." (Its full text is here). During his quest, its hero helps a raven, a salmon, and a wolf, and each of them later help him.
if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
If you do this,
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
He needs their help because "hearts can be well-hidden." (Truer words were never written). The form of that help is also mentioned.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).
These are almost exactly the creatures featured in the Norwegian story.

The Ferryman is Charon. The river he takes you over is the Styx, which separates the living and the dead. He demands payment from those whom he ferries, and is often not to be trusted.

 The twisted oak? The oak was sacred to the gods of sky or thunder throughout ancient Europe: to Zeus in Greece, to Thor in the Northlands. The name of the oak formed part of the name of a druid among the Celts. It carried the sacred mistletoe that still works a kind of magic on New Year's Eve. The woman below the tree must be a wise woman, spirit, or even goddess.

Three princesses, twelve months. Three and its multiples have magic. How many stories (starting with Cinderella) have three princes or princesses?

"Diamonds and roses that tumble from your lips...." I do not know where the tumbling roses come from, but diamonds from the lips feature in James Thurber's book The Thirteen Clocks. I know that Gaiman has read this book because he wrote the introduction in the edition that I have of it and calls it "the best book in the world."
There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.
 In the King Arthur stories, Merlin tells Uther Pendragon something very similar to this. Two dragons sleep under the castle he is trying to build. The dragons emerge, a white dragon and a red, and battle to the death. This is a sign of Uther's own death. However, before he dies, he fathers Arthur.

The "wild wood" is life. It is the wood in which Lancelot lost his mind. It is the wood in which Dante lost his way. It is filled with our collective dreams in Robert Holdstock's excellent novel Mythago Wood. Making our way through this wood demands courage, courtesy, and knowledge.

"Instructions" was first published in the book A Wolf at the Door. In 2010, it was published as an illustrated book.