Archive for category poetry

Love in terms of music, actuarial science, finance and programming

Friends of mine recently got married. One of them has a background in actuarial science and computer science and the other has a masters degree in music. I thought it would be fun to write them a poem that needed both these backgrounds to appreciate fully, and thus I came up with the following:

Love is like a symphony, a Beethoven symphony
(no 7 of course)
its present value cannot be determined
(no hypothecation allowed )
it has more power than compound interest
able to decipher even the most inscrutable VB code
love can make life feel like a stroll 
through country gardens
but sometimes, one must face 
nights on a bare mountain or even
the isle of the dead
but love is a commitment
a contract writ before God
it is a long-term investment, that
rides out short-term fluctuations
(it beats any human benchmark)
with not even death as a decrement

Here are the specific references if you want to look them up. Actuarial science: hypothecation, decrement, contract.  Finance: compound interest, present value, long-term investment, short-term fluctuations. Programming: VB. Music: Beethoven symphony, country gardens, isle of the dead, night on the bare the mountain.

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Public grief

A bench dedicated to a dead grandparent

I was walking around a little dam near my home and I saw that some new benches had been constructed in honour of deceased grandparents.  Having recently lost one of my grandparents and not having had the urge to construct a bench for them, I wondered why one would do so. Why do we build monuments to honour the dead? It isn’t for the dead. It’s for ourselves, of course, but it’s also for others.

Here are some possible reasons (some are positive, some are negative)

  1. We want to assuage our guilt (this one is a bit cynical, I know)
  2. We want people to know we cared (about our dead loved one) – self-gratification
  3. We want to spread the deceased’s ideals (think about hospitals, charities, trusts, erected in honour of certain people)
  4. We want them to become important to others – we impose the memory of this person on other people and with every person that is touched by it or just notices it, our loved one gains importance, an importance we feel is deserved
  5. We want their death to have meaning, to make some kind of difference
  6. We want to honour their last wishes (perhaps they wanted to have bench erected in their memory)
  7. We inform people they should appreciate their loved ones while they still can – we remind them of the inevitability and finality of death.
  8. We want to say something about the manner of their death, which should never be repeated (think of the holocaust and 9/11)
  9. It is not enough to feel our grief. We feel we need to do something with it, we need to act, we need to give it an outward expression. It is perhaps only a by-product of this that the grief becomes public and shared in some measure with the world.

One cannot walk past a bench or a monument dedicated to someone no longer living and not be moved in some way. I wonder if we’re more willing to listen to the dead than the living. We listen when it’s too late, when there is the most to regret and we realise what we’ve taken for granted. The living are less interesting because they can still fail us and there are still ample opportunities to listen, to make right. We build monuments to the dead, because we wish to hear them speak once more. We give them a stone substitute for a voice and we can’t help but listen.

A little plaque on a park bench
is your voice now
touching strangers
who sit and listen to the cold letters
they can’t help but listen
to the dead

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Some (not so) humble poetry

Ironic self-aggrandisement is a peculiar form of humour. I use it all the time, but it may be quite irritating to tell everyone how wonderful you are, even if you do so in an ironic tone, because, just maybe, a little part of you believes what you say.

By rights the world should worship me
I saved it just the other day
but of course I’m too humble to admit it
I’m actually a very charming person
but I’m afraid my charm only works
on intelligent people
I have many good characteristics
a razor-sharp wit, for one
and I’m really good in the sack
when I rule the world
you can be in my harem
you should be honoured 
many other people will die
everyone should just do what I say
the world would be a better place
why not go into politics?
no, no, politics is for people
with superiority complexes
I’ll make you my queen
you could rule the world
with an iron hand
or the household at least
I’ll rule the world
god and I are buddies
he asks Me for advice sometimes
the rain of fire that destroyed the world
my idea, or was that the previous world?

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Marriage: the scariest, most beautiful thing

I’m getting to that age, that age where your friends start pairing off into couples and becoming married. Do not worry, this post is not about how mortified I am that I am still single and how there’s no end in sight. Instead I want to say something about the incredible commitment that marriage is.

I can think of nothing more beautiful and more terrifying than marriage. If you’re a Christian, then, in theory at least, marriage is for life. The certainty you must have to make that commitment… I think I might have to wait till I’m a hundred before I am that certain about anything (except death and taxes).

Marriages do not always last. When you enter into one, you must (even if you are a Christian) be aware that it may end prematurely. That does not mean you should not try. And marriages that do not end in divorce, end in death. There must be no greater grief (except the loss of a child) than the loss of your life partner. If you’re a woman that is most likely what you will experience (women live longer and marry younger), but men are not exempt of course.

Still, a life shared is a beautiful thing. I am thinking beyond the wedding and the honeymoon. It is in every day’s living, in the little joys, in the dull, the dreary, in toil, strife and hardship, that a marriage is built. It is in saying “I love you” every day, to mean it even if you’re in the middle of a heated argument.

Marriage is not a cure for a lonely life. It does not make a broken person complete. But it does, sometimes, make of two people, a single being, inseparable, a force of joy and love and an inspiration to all. It is truly a gift from God (one that like a plant must be nurtured if it is to last).  I hope that all my friends who are married and soon to be married (and those who will marry later) experience this gift.

I wrote this poem for you:

Love is grand – it deserves a festival
and a honeymoon
and a yearly anniversary
romantic dinners and flowers and gifts
perfume and makeup

Love starts with a beating heart
and sweaty palms
with grandiose gestures
but it is in everyday things
that love is made complete
in two lives that become
in  every day’s living
a life shared
in little joys
in leaving for work
in weekday dinners
in the love (or hate) of football
in the dull, the dreary
in shopping
in the choice of asymmetric carpets and paint
in toil, strife and hardship
in paying the bills

Love is quiet and unrelenting
its strength is the strength of God
its weakness is the weakness of man
love matures with its hosts
becomes the finer for their wrinkles
and frailty

Love is a gift from God

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What would you pay for immortality?

There are people who (or claim to) have accepted their mortality. They are perfectly comfortable with the idea of dying. They may be Christians certain of their salvation or atheists certain of nothingness (which as one of my atheist friends has pointed out is not something to be feared because you won’t be around to experience it). I am not one of these people. Death – no matter where it leads – is scary and I would like to avoid it. There are people who think that we may able to do just that pretty soon, for instance Aubrey de Grey in this Ted talk.

Throughout time people have been obsessed with the idea of immortality. And it always comes at a cost.

Would you make a pact with the devil? (In the Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman the Neocount of Merentha ritually sacrifices his family to dark forces to attain immortality). Even if this were possible, I do not think I would do this. I don’t want to be evil.

Would you become a vampire? I would consider this. What would I give up: food, sun, heat, fertility. I would need to find a way to drink blood without killing anyone, of course. But all in all, it’s a bargain I could make.

Would you give up your future wages? Probably not all of your wages. But if life-extension therapies were possible,  they would come at a cost. If they were privately funded, a payment of a part of one’s future wages seems likely (this could also be via a loan you take out). I would do so. My guess is, though, that should rejuvenation therapies be invented there would be a period in which only the rich can afford them – during this time the cost of the therapies would relate to willingness to pay – i.e. they would be extremely expensive because some millionaires would give up much of their wealth.  But eventually the therapies would be seen as a right, and government would step in, set up some kind of insurance, probably with taxation funding everything.

Would you give up movement? What if the only way to be immortal would be to become a brain in a jar, hooked up to some computer that accepts your input? If I could be ensured of enough stimulation, I would in fact consider this, if I were near the end of my life. But think, if the stimulus were turned off, what hell would you be living?

Would you give up an organic body? Robin Hanson, an economist, thinks that we may soon be able to copy human consciousness into machines. So technically, not you, but a robot copy of you could live forever (in fact many millions of robot copies of you could live forever). Would you care about this robot-you? Would it have a soul? It would think like you, feel like you, act like you. Would it be alive?

Would you accept living in harsh conditions? I mean would you be willing to take a drastic drop in your living standard. This may be because you have to give up much of your future wages. In the world envisioned by Hanson, living standards would fall because these robots could potentially be mass-produced, drastically increasing the supply of labour.  You may find yourself a miniaturised robot confined to work in a kind of farm with billions of other little robots. You may never see nature again. To live forever, I would be willing to accept rather drastic reductions in lifestyle, I think.

Would you give up your faith? Living forever does not quite fit with the Bible. Being able to copy the human conscience into machines seriously undermines faith. I think this is a bit of a reverse Pascal’s wager: if living forever being possible means there is no God, then it’s better to try to live forever. If you fail, you could still go to heaven (That is, unless God decides to punish the doubters, but I don’t think God works like that). Otherwise, you’re still alive. If you’re an atheist, this is not a problem for you. But for theists, faith may be an integral part of their lives. An immortal life without meaning – is that a life at all? Nevertheless, I would rather wrestle with the existential implications of a very long-lived life than have no life at all. I would, after-all, have a very long time to figure things out.

Would you give up those closest to you? What if your spouse felt the path to immortality was wrong, immoral, or for some reason the therapies would not work on them? Would you carry on your life alone? I think I would. Life goes on, after all.

I do not know if humans will ever be able to achieve an indefinite lifespan. I am also not particularly keen on being the first guinea pig for these therapies. However, if they become viable, and if I can afford them, I will be standing in line. I am of course just presenting just one point of view (a mostly rational one, I think). I find the religious questions raised by the possibility of immortal or artificial life interesting, but I am not about to give up Faith any time soon.

If the devil offered me forever
	I would consider
If I could pay for a drink from the water of life
	I would sell all I had
If I had to give up bread and drink your blood instead
	I could do that
If I had to live in a body of metal and circuits, without limbs
	I would, if it delayed oblivion
If I had to leave you behind, if I had to leave everyone behind
	my heart would break, but I would do it
I would take
	eternal life
	jump into the singularity
even if it cost me
	Faith and Heaven
		yes, even the reality of my soul

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The power of girls in groups

(What follows is some as yet unmatured generalisation about the nature of the sexes. Feel free to differ.)

Girls seem to flock together in a way that boys never do. At school, it always seemed like girls grouped together – impenetrable to any male influence.  Chances are, if you were a boy, you wanted to have an opportunity to speak to some girl, alone. But girls were never alone and approaching an entire flock of girls is a bit like approaching a pride of lions. A group of boys seems like a pack of meerkats in comparison – entirely innocuous.  I sometimes wonder if girls were surprised when boys didn’t approach them. They were unapproachable, except to the most brave (or the most stupid), or I suppose, the most popular.

It’s strange – girls seem to be both more false in their affections toward each other ( I remember girls always giving each other hugs at every opportunity and thinking that most of those hugs meant nothing) and have stronger group bonds. Boys seem unsophisticated by comparison, more honest, both more amicable and less gregarious.

I was thinking about this when I wrote the following poem (some years ago and after having left school):

Flocks of girls
Packs of girls
never Herds of girls – herds are controlled, led
Clusters of girls
not a Swarm – though girls do sting
Coalitions Consortiums Gangs Teams Broods
perhaps best to say
	a Charm of girls
a Bevy
a secret Cult to which no man or boy is admitted
a girl alone is a ploy
the giggle Covey is not far away
	and kisses
			and smiles
					and furtive looks
					(never stares)
beware the alpha female
	who tears off balls like cotton fluff
every man is alone when faced by
		the reactive
				alluring power
		of that social molecular structure
all bonds between men are broken
they are dissolved in calm ocean eyes
trapped by the pack
		cast off as a brute
	“men are such cowards
		would that they would
			stand up
				and fight
					for us.”

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Help me into that good night

Are there circumstances under which you would consider suicide?

I want to live forever, but there are circumstances in which I think I would rather die. I believe that should be my right.

The 2004 film “The Sea Inside”  showcases (this is a true story) the life a quadriplegic man, Ramón, who fought for the right to be euthanized. His court cases failed and he eventually did manage to kill himself by procuring a solution of cyanide. Through his life (ironically) and his fight to die he inspired many, and later his death inspired more.

The writer Terry Pratchett is considering his own death, having been diagnosed with Alzheimers. He is featured in the documentary “Choosing to die”, which one can watch here (if this is not in fact a legal means of watching this please let me know. I was not sure).

I’m too much of a coward to try to kill myself unassisted, I think. I’d very much appreciate someone else to push the button, or at least hand me the final deadly tonic. Many people, like Ramón, need someone else to help them die – it’s hard to kill yourself if you can’t move.

If I find myself with an incurable disease that would destroy mind – that would either cause me to lose my memory, or my ability to think and reason – I would like to die before that happens, by my own hand if that is the only way. To have less than my full reason, to be anything less than me, that is a fate I cannot countenance. I would like to go to God (or nothingness) with all my mental faculties intact – I want to be me.  I only hope I have the time and the opportunity to decide.

I want to make a similar argument to the one I presented with regard to abortion  . Whether assisted suicide or euthanasia is right or wrong is not the issue. I do not agree with Ramón’s decision to end his life. I think he had much to offer the world even in his paralysed state and that his life did have meaning. But I also believe that it was his right to decide to die and that he should have been allowed the assistance he needed to make it so.

We’re willing to put horses, dogs, and cats out of their misery, without their consent. Why will we not do the same for people who beg us to give them this mercy? Perhaps we put out dogs and cats for our ourselves – to cut the costs, to put an end to the troubles we must endure in having a debilitatingly sick pet. But our religious dogma or our (selfish) love will not allow us to do the same for a human being. These are cynical statements, I know, but they are accusations we must face.

before your name is lost from my lips
help me into that good night
before I cannot form words
help me into that good night
before your face is just another face
help me into that good night
before the beauty and mystery of numbers become unintelligible
help me into that good night
before I lose all that I am
and become some lesser thing
help me into that good night
before you look into my eyes
and see not me staring back
help me into that good night

if you love me, you will help me
before I leave you
help me into that good night

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Tank, angel, hitler

I question the idea that people know themselves best. I think our perception of ourselves is probably as skewed as our perception of others, not least because we have an intrinsic incentive to view ourselves in the way that allows us to feel most comfortable. You are stuck in your own little head. You can see your face in the bathroom mirror – there is no mirror for your soul. I hit on this idea many years ago and wrote a poem using the metaphor of a tank. It’s exaggerated, but it illustrates the basic idea – we live in semi-darkness regarding ourselves, because we cannot distance ourselves from ourselves.

tank? angel? hitler?

I wish I could see myself,
I cannot figure who I am so close:
Like sitting in an armour plated tank
with little slits
and you can’t quite see through them
and you cannot see the tank
because you’re
inside it
and because it’s dark inside
How would you know
if there’s
a bird on the hatch;
you’re painted black;
you’re not even a tank,
you’re an angel
or maybe you’re Hitler himself

I wish I could see myself
through the eyes of others
other tanks,
then maybe I would know
who I am
whether I am painted black
if I shoot bombs
or cupid arrows

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Bookish temptation

Do your books ever call out to you? Well, I recently bought some books at the wrong time, just before a period of exams. The little temptresses would not leave me alone.


This is what happened:


My books are winking at me
baring their supple covers, saying,
 “place your hands along my spine
stroke my elegant, smooth, cover
feel the weight of my ample pages
pull apart my covers 
and admire my naked pages
plunge yourself
into my depths
lose yourself in otherworldly pleasure
read me

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A deeper silence

One of the most striking differences for me between my home in South Africa and Amsterdam is something I find hard to describe. It has something to do with sound or at least an impression of sound. It feels to me that Amsterdam is (almost) always silent. But this silence seems to not only be in the sounds of the city – even when I am next to a road and I hear the cars drive by, still it feels quiet. In the Centrum, in the midst of the bustle of tourists, it is not quiet, but mostly everywhere else, this quiet is like a thick fog, dulling all the other sounds.

Perhaps there are sounds from home that I am used that are just not present here – I lived near a dam with geese and ducks, so perhaps an absence of bird sounds. Somehow it strikes me as something deeper though – something in the nature of this city, the nature of Dutchness, that is more aloof and, yes, even more cold (and I’m not referring to temperature) than home. But also peaceful and calm, despite of cars and traffic and people.

I think there are few cities as quiet as Amsterdam. And Amsterdam on a Sunday morning (when almost no one is awake or about), when I bike to church, is as quiet as an undisturbed meadow or a forest. The sounds of people seem more like the sounds of birds and deer or other wildlife.

Not long after arriving in Amsterdam, I remember thinking about this quiet, trying to draw inspiration from it and I could only find the following lines:

In this quiet city
	music lights the darkness
and i feel a little less lonely

If you want to read about my other impressions of Amsterdam, see the posts The church in the redlight district and Being a mathematician in Amsterdam. My thanks to all those who have liked, reblogged or commented on previous posts. As always, any comments on this post are welcome.

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