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27 Nov 12:04

Am I a Blogger?

by zephoria

On July 25th, I was asked to address thousands of women (and some men) at the 10th annual Blogher conference. I was asked to reflect on what it meant to be a blogger and so I did. You can watch it here:

Or you can read an edited version of the remarks I offered below

I started blogging in 1997. I was 19 years old. I didn’t call it blogging then, and my blog didn’t look like it does now. It was a manually-created HTML site with a calendar made of tables (OMG tables) and Geocities-style forward and back buttons with terrible graphics. I posted entries a few times a week as part of an independent study on Buddhism as a Brown University student that involved both meditation and self-reflection. Each week, the monk I was working with would ask me to reflect on certain things, and I would write. And write. And write. He lived in Ohio and had originally proposed sending letters, but I thought pencils were a foreign concept. I decided to type my thoughts and that, if I was going to type them, I might as well put them up online. Ah, teen logic.

Most of those early reflections were deeply intense. I posted in detail about what it meant to navigate rape and abuse, to come into a sense of self in light of scarring situations. I have since deleted much of this material, not because I’m ashamed by it, but because I found that it created the wrong introduction. As my blog became more professional, people would flip back and look at those first posts and be like errr… uhh… While I’m completely open about my past, I’ve found that rape details are not the way that I want to start a conversation most of the time. So, in a heretical act, I deleted those posts.

What my blog is to me and to others has shifted tremendously over the years. For the first five years, my blog was read by roughly four people. That was fine because I wasn’t thinking about audience. I was blogging to think, to process, to understand. To understand myself and the world around me. I wasn’t really aware of or interested in community building so I didn’t really participate in the broader practice. Blogging was about me. Until things changed.

As research became more central to my life, my blog became more focused on my research. In December 2002, I started tracking Friendster. (Keep in mind that the first public news story was written about Friendster by the Village Voice in June of 2003.) I was documenting my understanding of the new technologies that were emerging because that’s what I was thinking about. But because I was writing about tech, my blog caught the eye of technology folks who were trying to track this new phenomenon.

I became a blogger because people who identified as bloggers called me a blogger. And they linked to my blog. And commented on it. And talked about what I posted. I was invited to blog on group sites, like Many-to-Many, and participate in blogger-related activities. I became a part of the nascent blogging world, kinda by accident.

As I became understood as a blogger, people started asking me about my blogging practice. Errrr… Blogging practice? And then people started asking me about my monetization plans. Woah nelly! So I did some reflection and made a few very intentional decisions. I valued blogging because it allowed me to express what was on my mind without anyone else editing me, but I understood that I was becoming part of the public. I valued the freedom to have a single place where my voice sat, where I was in control, but I also had power. So I struggled, but I concluded that at the end of the day, I couldn’t keep this up if this stopped being about me. And so I decided to never add advertisements, to never commercialize my personal blog, and to never let others post there. I needed boundaries. I’d blog elsewhere under other terms, by my blog was mine.

I started thinking a lot more about blogging, both personally and professionally, when I went to work for Ev Williams at Blogger (already acquired by Google). My title was “ethnographic engineer.” (Gotta love Google titles.) And my job was to help the Blogger team better understand the diversity of practices unfolding in Blogger. I interviewed numerous bloggers. I randomly sampled Blogger entries to get a sense of the diversity of posts that we were seeing. And I helped the engineering team think about different types of practices. I also became much more involved in the blogging community, attending blogging events like Blogher ten years ago.

I made a decision to live certain parts of my life in public in order not to hide from myself, in order to be human in a networked age where I am more comfortable behind a keyboard than at a bar. But I also had to contend with the fact that I was visible in ways that were de-humanizing. As a public speaker, I am regularly objectified, just a mouthpiece on stage with no feelings. I’ve smiled my way through catcalls and sexualized commentary. Sadly, it hasn’t just been men who have objectified me. At the second Blogher, I was stunned to read many women blog about my talk by dissecting my hairstyle and clothing choices in condescending ways. I may have been a blogger, but I didn’t feel like it was a community. I felt like I had become another digital artifact to be poked and prodded.

My experience with objectification took on a whole new level in 2009 when, at Web2.0 Expo, my experience on stage devolved. I wrote about this incident in gory detail on my blog, but the basic story is that I talk fast. And when I’m nervous, I talk even faster. I was nervous, it was a big stage, there were high-power lights so I couldn’t see anything. And there was a Twitter feed behind me that I couldn’t see. As I nervously started in on my talk, the audience began critiquing me on Twitter and then laughing at what others wrote. It devolved into outright misogyny—the Twitter stream was taken down and then put back up. The audience was loud but clearly not listening to what I had to say. I didn’t know what was going on, and I melted. I talked faster, I stared at the podium. I didn’t leave stage in tears, but I thought about doing so. It was humiliating.

When I finally got off stage and online, I learned that people were talking about me as though I had no feelings. And so I decided to explain what it was like to be on that stage in that moment. It was gut-wrenching to write but it hit a chord. And it allowed me to see the beauty and pain of being public in every sense of the word. Being in public. Being a public figure. Being public with my feelings. Being public.

I’ve spent the last decade studying teenagers and their relationship to social media — in effect, their relationship to public life. Through the process, I’ve watched many of them struggle with what it means to be public, what it means to have a public voice — all in an environment where young people are not encouraged to be a part of public life. Over the last 30 years, we’ve systematically eliminated young people’s ability to participate in public life. They turn to technology as a relief valve, as an opportunity to have a space of their own. As a chance to be public. And, of course, we shoo them away from there too.

Because teens want to be *in* public, we assume that they want to *be* public. Thus, we assume that they don’t want privacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teens want to be a part of public life, but they want privacy from those who hold power over them. Having both is often very difficult so teenagers develop sophisticated techniques to be public and to have privacy. They focus more on hiding access to meaning than hiding access to content. They use the technologies they have around them to navigate their identity and voice. They are growing up in a digital world and they try to make sense of it the best they can. But all too often, they’re blamed and shamed for what they do and adults don’t take the time to understand where they’re coming from and why.

In spending a decade with youth, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be public. I’ve learned how to encode what I’m saying, layer my messages to reveal different things to different people. I’ve learned how to appear to be open and still keep some things to myself. I’ve learned how to use different tools for different parts of my network. And I’ve learned just how significantly the internet has changed since I was a teen.

I grew up in an era when the internet was comprised of self-identified geeks, freaks, and queers. Claiming all three, I felt quite at home. Today’s internet is mainstream. Today’s youth are growing up in a world where technology is taken for granted. Traditional aspects of power are asserted through technology. It’s no longer the realm of the marginalized, but the new mechanisms by which marginalization happen.

A decade ago, people talked about the democratizing power of blogging, but even back then we all realized that some voices were more visible than others. This is what sparked the creation of Blogher in the first place. Women’s voices were often ignored online, even when they were participating. The mechanisms of structural inequality got reified, which went against what many people imagined the internet to be about. The conversation focused on how we could create a future based on common values, a future that challenged the status quo. We never imagined we would be the status quo.

As more and more people have embraced social media and blogging, normative societal values have dominated our cultural frames about these tools. It’s no longer about imagined communities, new mechanisms of enlightenment, or resisting institutional power. Technology is situated within a context of capitalism, traditional politics, and geoglobal power struggles.

With that in mind, what does it mean to be a blogger today? What does it mean to be public? Is value only derived by commercial acts of self-branding? How can we understand the work of identity and public culture development? Is there a coherent sense of being a blogger? What are the shared values that underpin the practice?

I started blogging to feel my humanity. I became a part of the blogging community to participate in shaping a society that I care about. I reflect and share publicly to engage others and build understanding. This is my blogging practice. What is yours?

(This post was originally posted on August 6, 2014 in The Message on Medium.)

06 Jan 04:58

Why 108 ?

by Koenraad Elst




            In the Hindu-Buddhist civilizational sphere, the number 108 is among the most sacred and appears as the true or fictitious cardinal number of all manner of philosophical sets and religious series.  What makes this number so special?  We will try to position ourselves as best as possible into the minds of profundity-oriented symbolists in order to extract their kind of meaning from this unusual number.



Insufficient reasons 


            Since matters of religious symbolism typically attract self-styled esotericists who have a dislike for serious logical ratiocination, the usual explanations of the sacred status of the number 108 don’t amount to much.  Just as those people “explain” the status of the number 12 by merely enumerating “the 12 months, the 12 apostles” etc., they will merely enumerate a number of instances where the number 108 is in evidence.

Thus,  I have seen it claimed by Western esotericists that 108 = 6² + 6² + 6², the sum of the squares of the three equal numerals making up the Biblical-Apocalyptic “number of the Beast”, 666.  The calculation isn’t incorrect, but it remains unclear why squares should be counted, or why 666 should be of any importance.  This number has some strange numerical properties in its own right, but they are not the reason for its popularity among the mystery-minded.  The real reason is that through a numerical-alphabetical manipulation best known by its kabbalistic name gematria, the number refers to a  Roman emperor disliked by the first Christians who called him “the Beast”.  Emperor or “Caesar” seems to be the meaning of the component 60, this being the numerical value of the Greek letter Ksi, shorthand for its Greek rendering Kaisar.  This probably doesn’t refer to Nero, as has been assumed for long, but to “Divus Claudius”, the 6th emperor, who came after Julius Caesar, Octavian August, Tiberius, Germanicus (who received the imperium maius but was murdered; his caesarian status is shown by the fact that the succession devolved to his son:), Caligula.  Even Claudius’ mother considered Claudius ugly like a beast, and his initials DC were read in Latin as the number 500 + 100 = 600.  So, probably 666 means “the 6th Caesar/60, named D.C./600”. 

Admittedly, there are other explanations, but whatever the details, the reference to “the number of the Beast” is merely an expression of the abysmal hatred of Rome by some early Christians, a mere footnote in history.  At any rate, the abusive religio-political slogan “666” is totally irrelevant to any serious philosophy.  It is equally irrelevant to Hindu-Buddhist culture, and relating it to the status of 108 is anachronistic since it appeared on the scene centuries after the number 108 gained its aura of sacredness.

            Even where the explainers try to prove their point with proper Hindu-Buddhist examples, they fail to get to the bottom of the matter.  Thus, the Upanishads (philosophical texts completing the Vedic corpus) are classically counted as 108, eventhough their actual number, depending on which ones you include, can range from 13 to more than 200.  Rosaries east of the Indus have 108 beads, the Nepalese parliament has 108 seats.  The poses of Bhârata Natyam dancing, the number of gopî-s (cowgirls) enamoured of Krishna, the number of sacred sites in the tradition of Vishnu worship, the number of Buddhist arhat-s (realized saints), and many other sacred sets are all conventionally counted as 108.  Likewise with derived numbers, e.g. the Rg-Vedic verses are conventionally counted as very approximately 10800, the Purâna-s as 18, the Bhagavad-Gîtâ has 18 chapters, and many Hindu monks carry titles like “Swâmi 1008 Padmânanda”

All very fine, but that list doesn’t explainanything.  The number 108 has been chosen in these instances, and often forced upon rather unwilling sets as their cardinal number, because it was already a sacred number to begin with.  We need something more objective as a basis for the special status of this number.

Among attempts to find a more solid basis, we still have to be wary of cheap and easy proposals.  Thus, I have seen it claimed that “108 x 20 = 2160, the number of years spent by the equinox in each Zodiac sector”, on the assumption that the total precessional cycle takes 2160 x 12 years, i.e. 25,920 years or neatly 1° per 72 years (and the extra assumption that the Vedic seers knew and cared about the precessional cycle).  But in reality, the cycle takes ca. 25,791 years, which doesn’t yield any round number when divided by 108.

It is already better to note that 108 lurks in a corner of the Hindu (or actually Indo-European) number 432 with any number of zeroes added.  Thus, 432,000, the number of years sometimes attributed to a Yuga, a world age, which happens to be equal to the number of guardians of the Germanic Walhalla or heaven (viz. 800 for every one of its 540 gates), can be analysed as 108 x 4000.  Or as 18 x 24000, for that matter.  This is true, but is it important?  Many numbers are related to other numbers.  Is it relevant to anything?

So, we will try to do better than that and give correct data which underlie the special status of our sacred number in a more compelling manner.  We will distinguish between a pair of contingent astronomical facts singling out the number 108 and four mathematical properties of the number 108, two of these conditional and two unconditional.



Solar and lunar distances


It could have been otherwise, but it so happens that the distance between the earth and the sun equals about 108 (actually 107-odd) times the sun’s diameter.  Likewise, it so happens that the distance between the earth and the moon equals about 108 (actually 109-odd) times the moon’s diameter.  That sun and moon look equally big in the earthly sky is the immediate result of their having the same ratio between distance and diameter.  Moreover, it so happens that the sun’s diameter approximately equals 108 times the earth’s diameter.

These are contingent data, which means that they could have been different.  And they are subject to change, meaning that if you look deep enough into the past or the future, you find values considerably different from the present ones of ca. 108.  While the distance between the sun and its planets is fairly stable, the distance between the earth and the moon is subject to steady and ultimately very sizable changes.  In the times of the dinosaurs, the moon was so close to the earth that a lunar revolution (i.e. a month) took only a few earthly days, with the days themselves also being shorter than today.  In the future, the lunar revolution will take thirty days, forty days, etc.  Its distance from the earth will then equal 110 lunar diameters, 120 etc. 

It is a cosmic stroke of luck that the solar and lunar distances happen to match the number 108, a remarkable number for non-contingent reasons we will discuss below, right at the time when life on earth was reaching a level of intelligence sufficient to start astronomical observations and wonder at this coincidence.  Just as it is a cosmic stroke of luck that in this same age, the moon is at such a distance from the earth that its annual number of revolutions is approximately 12, another number with unique non-contingent properties.

Can we be sure that this remarkable astronomical state of affairs has played a role in the selection of 108 as a sacred number?  Did the ancient Indians know about the moon’s diameter or its distance from the earth?  According to Richard L. Thompson (Mysteries of the Sacred Universe, Govardhan Hill Publ. 2000, p.16, p.76), the medieval Sûrya-Siddhânta gives an unrealistically small estimate for the distance earth-sun, but the estimate for the distance earth-moon and the lunar diameter differs less than 10% from the modern value.  The ratio between distance and diameter of the moon is implicitly given there as 107.5, admittedly a very good approximation. 

However, I have never heard of any text, whether from the Vedic or the medieval period, that explicitly derives the importance of the number 108 from these or any other astronomical data.  But this is merely an argument from silence, with limited proof value.  For on the other hand, the estimation of the relative distance of sun or moon isn’t that difficult to calculate even without any instruments: “Take a pole, mark its height, and then remove it to a place 108 times its height.  The pole will look exactly of the same angular size as the moon or the sun.” (Subhash Kak: “Shri 108 and Other Mysteries”,, 27 Nov. 2001)  Also, in some respects the Vedic-age astronomers were more advanced than their medieval successors, who had jettisoned part of their own tradition in favour of Hellenistic import. 

So, it remains speculative but quite possible that the solar and lunar data were estimated with a good degree of accuracy at the time when 108 was selected as a sacred number.  But it is also possible that the selection was made purely on the basis of the non-astronomical considerations discussed in the following sections.   



Big 1, little 8


            One of the arithmetical properties of 108 is dependent on the choice of counting system.  In the near-universally used decimal counting system, the quantity 108 is expressed as “108”, meaning “1 hundred, 0 tens, 8 units”.  In other counting systems, it would look different, e.g. in a duodecimal (12-based) system, it would be written as “90”, and in the binary system, it is written as “1101100”.  Assuming the conventional decimal system, what is remarkable about “1-0-8”?

            Like 18, it brings together the numerals 1 and 8, with the former in the leading and the latter in the lowly position.  The main difference (valid even more in subsequent numbers like 1008) is merely that an abyss of worshipful distance is created between the regal 1 and the servile 8.  So, let us briefly focus on this symbolism of 1 and 8.  It is chiefly remarkable as a reference to yet other important symbols.


                        8  1  6

                        3  5  7

                        4  9  2


            In the magic square of 9, there is 1 little square in the middle and 8 on the periphery.  Also, the 1 central number is 5, the sum of the 8 peripheral numbers is 40, yielding a ratio of 1:8.  The magic square itself, with equal sums of the three numerals on every line, is an important symbol of cosmic order, balance and integration.  Painted on walls or wrought into little metal plates it is used as a luck-charm. 

Moreover, consider the sums in the magic square, adding the central number and a number in the middle of the sides, yielding the number in an adjoining corner (counting only the units):  5 + 1 = 6; 5 + 7 = 2 (12 modulo 10, as it were); 5 + 9 = 4 (14 modulo 10); 5 + 3 = 8.  If you draw lines following the numerals in these sums, you get the Swastika, yet another lucky symbol in Hindu-Buddhist culture.

            The “nine planets” of Hindu astronomy are also often depicted in a square arrangement for ritual purposes such as the Navagraha Agnihotra (nine-planet fire ceremony), with the sun in the middle and the 8 others around it: moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Râhu (northward intersection of lunar orbit and ecliptic, “Dragon’s head”) and Ketu (southward intersection, “Dragon’s tail”).  So, 18 or 108 may add some detail to the symbolism of 9 as representing the planets.  This is, however, of lesser importance than the magic square because the number of planets is contingent and changeable whereas mathematical properties are intrinsic and forever.



The Golden Section and 108°


            A conditional geometrical property of 108 is dependent on the conventional division of the circle into 360°.  This division is arithmetically very practical, it also alludes to the division of the year in ca. 365 days, it is now universally accepted, yet it is contingent and essentially only the result of a human convention.  At least one alternative division is known, viz. the division into 400° introduced during the French Revolution on the assumption that the division into religion-tainted numbers like 7 and 360 was less “rational” than the division into 10 or 100 or their multiples.  Hence also the Revolutionary replacement of the 7-day week by a 10-day week and the definitional choice of the meter as one hundred-thousandth of one “decimal degree” measured on the earth’s equator of 40,000 km.

            But for now, we may settle for the division in 360°.  In that case, the angle of 108° has a unique property: the ratio between the straight line uniting two points at 108° from each other on a circle’s circumference (in effect one of the sides of a 10-pointed star) and the radius of that circle equals the Golden Section.  Likewise, the inside of every angle of a pentagon measures 108°, and the pentagon is a veritable embodiment of the Golden Section, e.g. the ratio between a side of the 5-pointed star and a side of the pentagon is the Golden Section.  So, there is an intimate link between the number 108 and the Golden Section.  But why should this be important?

            The Golden Section means a proportion between two magnitudes, the major and the minor, such that the minor is to the major as the major is to the whole, i.e. to the sum of minor and major.  The general equation yielding the Golden Section is A/B = (A + B)/A, or alternatively but equivalently, X = 1 + 1/X.  In numbers, X = (1 + square root 5)/2; or decimally, X = 1, 618…  This infinite series of decimals can be replaced with a more predictable infinite series of numbers, viz. X equals the limit of the series G/F in which F is any member and G is the very next member of the Fibonacci series, i.e. the series in which every member equals the sum of the two preceding members: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144,…  This means that every next fraction G/F, i.e. 1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 5/3, 8/5 etc. forms a better approximation of the Golden Section, whose value can be approximated to any desired degree of precision if fractions of sufficiently highly-placed members of the Fibonacci series are considered.

            In art and architecture, it is found that the Golden Proportion is naturally pleasing to our inborn tastes.  In living nature, there are plenty of sequences where every member stands to the preceding member in a Golden Proportion or its derivatives (square root etc.), e.g. the distances between or the sizes of the successive twigs growing on a branch, the layers of petals on a flower, the rings of a conch, the generations of a multiplying rabbit population, etc.  What this symbolizes is the law of invariance: in every stage of a development, the same pattern repeats itself.  The son is to the father as the father was to the grandfather.  Wheels within wheels: every whole consisting of parts is itself likewise part of a larger whole.  And the principle of order: the underling obeys the orders of his master to the same extent that the master obeys the requirements of the whole.  Or with a pre-feminist maxim: “he for God alone, she for God in him”, i.e. the wife serves the husband because (and to the extent that) the husband serves the cosmic order defining his duties.  As Confucius said, the authority of the ruler, his capability of making the people willingly obey him, is that he himself obeys the Laws of Heaven.

            So, the Golden Section is a meaningful symbol in the cosmological, aesthetical and ethical realms.  And somewhere in a corner of Golden Section lore, in the pentagon and decagon, we see the number 108 participating.  This is meritorious though perhaps a bit too indirect to count as sensational.



Sacred 9 times sacred 12


An intrinsic and ever-unchangeable property of 108 is that it equals 9 times 12, the product of two smaller sacred numbers.  It is the number of divisions in the Zodiac in the so-called Navamsha horoscope, a horoscope which Hindu astrologers always calculate along with the basic horoscope, and in which all original positions expressed in angular distance from the beginning point of the Zodiac are multiplied by 9.  This implies, for example, that a planet at 8° Aries is projected to 72°, meaning 12° Gemini.  In effect, the whole sector between 6°40’ and 10° Aries is projected onto Gemini (i.e. between 60° and 90°) and given a Gemini colouring, just as the sector between 10° and 13°20 Aries is navamsha-projected onto Cancer, etc.  This way, every one of the 12 signs is subdivided into 9 sectors, or 108 in total.  But of course, this doesn’t explain the status of 108, as the idea of subdividing the Zodiac this way apparently results from the awe in which 108 or 9 x 12 was already held.

As we have seen, 9 is the Hindu number of planets, and 12 is the Zodiac, so 108 is the total number of planet-in-Zodiacal-sign combinations.  This makes it into the total set of all possible planetary influences taken separately, or in a more generalized symbolism, the matrix containing all possibilities.  However, to purists, 9 as the number of planets isn’t good enough.  For one thing, the Hindu definition of a planet is pre-heliocentric, counting sun and moon and their two eclipse points as planets all while failing to count the earth as a planet (though it so happens that planets by the modern astronomical definition are again counted as 9, from Mercury to Pluto including the earth).  Also, planets may be added through empirical discovery, as some have indeed been in astronomy and in Western astrology; and in some rare but not-impossible catastrophe, a planet may disappear. They are only creatures, born from dust and returning to dust.  If we’re looking for intrinsic properties of numbers, we should not settle for contingent data such as the present number of Hindu “planets”.

To the unique properties of 12, revealing it to be a logical symbol of cosmic order, we have devoted a separate paper, Why Twelve?, where we have focused on its unconditional properties, both arithmetical and geometrical.  We may add that, conditional upon the choice of the decimal system, 12 is structured as 1 tenfold plus 2 units: 1 big, 2 small.  Which to a freely-associating symbolist mind can mean: 1 precedes 2 (as indeed it does, in fact it is the most elementary observation to be made in the number series, e.g. long preceding the realization that there must be a zero), unity is superior to division, oneness precedes and underlies polarity, the odd/yang dominates the even/yin.  Note however that for all their inequality, the numbers 1 and 2 and all that they symbolize are at any rate united and synthesized in the number 12 and in whatever the latter symbolizes.  Meanwhile, this conditional arithmetical property of 12 must remain inferior to the unconditional properties of 12, especially those of 12 conceived geometrically as the regular dodecagon, e.g. the fact that its construction uniquely flows automatically from the construction of the circle, keeping the same compass width; and the fact that it bridges the gap between straight/radius and round/circumference by dividing both rationally in a single move (the radius into 2, the quarter-circumference into 3).

Like 12, the number 9 has its unusual properties.  Once more, we cannot be satisfied with simply enumerating instances where 9 has been used in a sacred context: the 9 worlds of Germanic cosmology, the 9 Muses, etc.  We want objective properties, and when looking for these, we must again distinguish between conditional and unconditional properties.  Thus, it is often remarked that 9 is the highest among the decimal numerals, and hence symbolizes anything that is highest, including God, who, in comparison with anything you may propose, is always Greater.  However, this property is conditional upon our choice of numeral system, i.c. decimal rather than binary or any other: in the binary system, the number 1 would have this property, and in the duodecimal one, the number eleven would.  Likewise, 9’s property of equalling the sum of the numerals in its own multiples (e.g. in 9 x 8 = 72, we find that 7 + 2 = 9) is again dependent on our choice of the decimal system. 

For unconditional properties, we might look at some characteristics of the enneagon (9 x 40°).  This is the first polygon with a non-prime base (as distinct from the heptagon, 7 being a prime number) that eludes construction with ruler and compass.  This contrasts sharply with the division of the circle into 4 or 6 or 12, which is so simple and natural, or with its division into 5 or 10, which is more complicated but very rewarding (yielding the Golden Section) and at any rate possible.  So, 9, though analysable as 3 x 3, is elusive.  Does anyone care to read some symbolism into this property?  If 7 represents the mystical eluding the rational, what should be represented by 9, which is more structured yet equally eludes rational construction?  Let’s see: how about God, who always eludes our concepts?  Allahu Akbar, God is greater!

But we need not look that far.  Whatever else 9 may be, its most immediate arithmetical property is certainly that it equals 3², or 3 x 3.  Unlike the neat balance of even numbers like 2 or 4, suggesting stability and a waiting matrix of potentialities, the number 3 expresses motion, as even the most vulgar book on number symbolism will tell you.  The number 9, therefore, is a movement affecting the movement, i.e. acceleration.  It is dynamic par excellence, Shakti as the dynamic expression of static Shiva.  The primal form of acceleration is the change from rest to motion, i.e. setting things in motion, starting the whole process from zero.  This, of course, is the doing of the Creator who is Greater.  Or as the Scholastics used to say: God is not Potency, God is pure Act.

So, whereas 12 represents synthesis of opposites within an ordered cosmos (3 x 4, time-space, motion-structure) and harmonization of self and non-self, 9 represents unfettered dynamism, pure self-expression riding roughshod over the non-self, the joy of being entirely oneself.  It transcends and leaves behind all compromise in favour of purity and absorption.  Its structure as 3 x 3 actually explains its elusiveness: whereas divisions of any angle into 2 and its multiples are always feasible and simple, the division into 3 is impossible, though very good approximative techniques have been developed.   Even folding a letter into three requires a manual jump, an approximation rather than a slow but sure technique guaranteeing an exact division into equal parts.  The enneagon is the first regular polygon which requires for its construction the trisectionof a known angle (120°, itself easily constructed though not by trisecting the “angle” of 360°), an impossible operation with ruler and compass.  Likewise, according to poets, the Absolute cannot be caught in a conceptual net but can only be approximated, hinted at, spoken of in parables and metaphors.

Let’s put ourselves into the mood of god-seekers in order to understand this.  As 9 x 12, the number 108 infuses the cosmic order represented by 12 with the god-drunkenness, the enthusiasm free of all doubts, the pure dedication represented by 9.  That makes it an excellent number for the prayer-wheel or rosary, which is used in a disciplined and systematic manner in order to lift up the spirit towards god-absorption.



Square times cube


Among other intrinsic and ever-unchangeable properties, it may be hard to choose which one is sufficiently relevant.  Thus, 108 equals the sum of the first 9 multiples of 3, viz. 0, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21 and 24.  This reconfirms its intimate relation with the richly symbolic number 9, but then, so what?

Slightly more remarkable is that 108 equals the product of the second power of 2 and the third power of 3, i.e. the first non-trivial even and odd numbers multiplied by themselves as many times as themselves.  In figures: 108 = 2² x 3³, or 108 = 2 x 2 x 3 x 3 x 3.  This way, it unites on their own terms the polar opposites of even and odd, the numerical counterparts of female and male, yin and yang, etc.  If nothing else, at least it’s cute, is it not?  That may well be the most we can expect of number symbolism.



(copyright: author, October 2003)


(in case we have missed some important symbolically-charged properties of the number 108, we welcome feedback)

06 Jan 04:56

Gandhi the Englishman

by Koenraad Elst

 (The Pioneer, 1 January 2014)


Shortly before independence, Mahatma Gandhi asked Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to step down as candidate for the Congress leadership and hence for the upcoming job of Prime Minister. It was the only way to foist Jawaharlal Nehru on India, as Sardar Patel would easily have gotten a majority behind him. Yet, Nehru was overtly Westernized and known to be in favour of industrialization and modernization, while Gandhi was reputedly opposed to this approach.

Was Patel’s outlook not more capable, more popular and more Gandhian? With the benefit of hindsight, we can moreover say that the choice for Nehru ultimately led to the festering Kashmir problem, to proverbial socialist poverty, and to the communalization of the polity. Yet, when Gandhi made his fateful pro-Nehru move, he tried to minimize its importance and laughed it off: “Jawaharlal is the only Englishman in my camp.” This was a most curious reason, as Gandhism was popularly taken to imply a choice for native culture and against Westernization. But then, Gandhi himself was not really a votary of Gandhism.



Superficially, of course, with his spinning-wheel, he seemed to be the colourful paragon of Indian swadeshi (native produce) ideals. But there already, the problem starts. Indian culture had never opted for willful backwardness. In its time, the Harappan culture played a vanguard role in industry and trade. When you compare the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, you find decisive technological progress: Arjuna has abandoned Rama’s bow and arrow (not to speak of Hanuman’s mace, the primitive weapon par excellence) for a sword and a chariot. Jokes about Hindus highlight their uptight and greedy nature, but none would question their entrepreneurial skills. Indeed, Indian emigrants to more libertarian countries, and now also the native Indians relatively freed from socialist controls, have surprised everyone with their economic success.

It is the British who de-industrialized India, thus dooming it to backwardness and poverty. In order to give some justification to their policy, they fostered the idea of a “spiritual” India, uninterested in material progress. Gandhi proved to be a faithful propagator of this British notion. He also tapped into an anti-modern fashion in the West, where some intellectuals got tired of industrialization and set up autarchic communes.

Although Gandhi led the Freedom Movement, he was also a British loyalist. He volunteered for military service in the Boer War and in the suppression of the Zulu rebellion, and recruited for the British war effort in the First World War. From 1920 onwards, as the formal leader of the Indian National Congress, he got crowds marching but didn’t achieve much in reality. He let his enthusiastic foot-soldiers down. Initially, it was still possible to be both pro-British and pro-Indian, e.g. Annie Besant’s Home Rule League aimed for autonomy (swaraj) within the British Empire, on a par with “grown-up” states like Canada and Australia. In 1929, however, Congress redefined its goal as “complete independence” (purna swaraj). Mass agitation highlighted and popularized this goal, but Gandhi’s subsequent conclusion of a far less ambitious pact with Viceroy Lord Irwin betrayed his own pro-British feelings, not shared by his disappointed younger followers. In 1927, he had indeed blocked a similar resolution for full independence, pleading for dominion status instead. From 1942 onwards, as India’s independence was being prepared, he was relegated to the sidelines. When Prime Minister Clement Attlee finally announced the transfer of power, the memory of Gandhi’s mediagenic mass campaigns was only a “minimal” factor, as he confided later in an interview.

Being a loyalist of a world-spanning empire, Gandhi was at least immune to a rival Western fashion: nationalism. His opponent Vinayak Damodar Savarkar took inspiration from small nations seeking their nationhood, like the Czechs and Irish wanting independence, or Germany and Italy forging their unity, as exemplified by Savarkar’s translation of Giuseppe Mazzini’s book championing Italian nationalism. His “Hindu nation” was numerous enough, but centuries of oppression had given it the psychology of a defensive nation. Gandhi, by contrast, had the outlook of the multinational empire. That helps explain why in 1920 he could become enamoured of the Caliphate movement, defending the Muslim empire from which the Arabs had just freed themselves. It certainly explains his incomprehension for the founding of Hindu nationalist organizations (Hindu Mahasabha 1922, RSS 1925) in reaction against his tragicomical Caliphate agitation.



In his youth, Gandhi had been influenced by Jain and Vaishnava saints, but as an adult, he mainly took inspiration from Christian writers like Leo Tolstoi and befriended Westerners like architect Hermann Kallenbach. His name was elevated into an international synonym of non-violent agitation by American journalists. It is logical to suspect a direct transmission from the West for his voguish doctrines, like this political non-violence or his slogan of sarva-dharma-samabhava, “equal respect for all religions”.

The marriage of non-violence and political agitation seems an innovative interpretation of Hinduism’s old virtue of Ahimsa. But Hinduism had tended to keep ascetic virtues separate from Raja Dharma, a politician’s duties. When the Jain Oswal community decided to opt for uncomproming Ahimsa, it gave up its Kshatriya status and adopted Vaishya dharma, the bloodless duties of the entrepreneur. The personal practice of virtues was always deemed different from the hard action that politics sometimes necessitates. From the start, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was tinged with the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice, of being killed rather than killing. Not that many Christian rulers had ever applied this principle, but at least it existed in certain Gospel passages such as the Sermon on the Mount. When, during the Partition massacres, Gandhi told Hindu refugees to go back to Pakistan and willingly get killed, he did not rely on any principle taught in the wide variety of Hindu scriptures. But in certain exalted Christian circles, it would be applauded.

This is even clearer in Gandhi’s religious version of what Indians call “secularism”, i.e. religious pluralism. This was a growing value in the modern anglosphere. Within Christianity, Unitarianism had set out to eliminate all doctrinal points deemed divisive between Christians, even the fundamental dogma of the Trinity. On the fringes, the Theosophists and Perennialists sought common ground between “authentic” Christianity, Vedicism and “esoteric” Buddhism as expressions of the global “perennial” truth. Gandhi’s contemporary Aldous Huxley juxtaposed the goody-goody points of all religions in a book aptly titled The Perennial Philosophy. Outside the West, this trend was imitated by progressive circles, such as the Bahai reform movement in Iran, harbinger of modern values like egalitarianism and internationalism (e.g. promotor of Esperanto, the linguistic embodiment of the globalist ideal). In India, the British-influenced Brahmo Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission had promoted the idea of a universal religion transcending the existing denominations. Hinduism had always practised pluralism as a pragmatic way to live and let live, but these movements turned it into an ideological dogma.



So, Gandhi’s religious pluralism, today his main claim to fame, was essentially  the transposition of a Western ideological fashion. Of Vivekananda, it is routinely claimed that he was besieged by alternative religionists as soon as he set foot in the USA, and that this influence coloured his view and presentation of Hinduism. Gandhi’s worldview too was determined by Western contacts, starting in his student days in England, when he frequented vegetarian eateries, the meeting-place par excellence of various utopians and Theosophists. It must be emphasized that he borrowed from one current in Western culture while ignoring another, viz. the critical questioning of religion. Historical Bible studies had reduced Jesus to a mere accident in human history, neither the Divine incarnation worshiped by Christians nor the spiritual teacher venerated by many Hindus. In the pious Mahatma, this very promising rational approach to religion was wholly absent.   

Hindus themselves are partly to blame, having long abandoned their own tradition of philosophical debate, embracing sentimental devotion instead. This has led to a great flowering of the arts but to a decline in their power of discrimination. Great debaters like Yajnavalkya or Shankara would not be proud to see modern Hindus fall for anti-intellectual soundbites like “equal respect for all religions”. Very Gandhian, but logically completely untenable. For example, Christianity believes that Jesus was God’s Son while Islam teaches that he was merely God’s spokesman: if one is right, the other is wrong, and nobody has equal respect for a true and a false statement (least of all Christians and Muslims themselves). Add to this their common scapegoat Paganism, in India represented by “idolatrous” Hinduism, and the common truth of all three becomes unthinkable. It takes a permanent suspension of the power of discrimination to believe in the syrupy Gandhian syncretism which still prevails in India.

The Mahatma’s outlook was neither realistic nor Indian. Not even the Jain doctrine of Anekantavada, “pluralism”, had been as mushy and anti-intellectual as the suspension of logic that is propagated in India under Gandhi’s name. It could only come about among post-Christian Westerners tired of doctrinal debates, and from their circles, Gandhi transplanted it to India.  


06 Jan 04:49

January 04, 2014

Hey geeks! Some of you asked if Patreon could take paypal. As of this week they do :) Thank you all so much! We're well on our way to making the website prettier!
06 Jan 04:48

Black Friday 2013

by Matthew Inman
Black Friday 2013

Stuff on sale.

06 Jan 04:33

Leading in to Machine Code: Why?

by MarkCC

I'm going to write a few posts about programming in machine language. It seems that many more people are interested in learning about the ARM processor, so that's what I'll be writing about. In particular, I'm going to be working with the Raspberry Pi running Raspbian linux. For those who aren't familiar with it, the Pi is a super-inexpensive computer that's very easy to program, and very easy to interface with the outside world. It's a delightful little machine, and you can get one for around $50!

Anyway, before getting started, I wanted to talk about a few things. First of all, why learn machine language? And then, just what the heck is the ARM thing anyway?

Why learn machine code?

My answer might surprise you. Or, if you've been reading this blog for a while, it might not.

Let's start with the wrong reason. Most of the time, people say that you should learn machine language for speed: programming at the machine code level gets you right down to the hardware, eliminating any layers of junk that would slow you down. For example, one of the books that I bought to learn ARM assembly (Raspberry Pi Assembly Language RASPBIAN Beginners: Hands On Guide) said:

even the most efficient languages can be over 30 times
slower than their machine code equivalent, and that’s on a good

This is pure, utter rubbish. I have no idea where he came up with that 30x figure, but it's got no relationship to reality. (It's a decent book, if a bit elementary in approach; this silly statement isn't representative of the book as a whole!)

In modern CPUs - and the ARM definitely does count as modern! - the fact is, for real world programs, writing code by hand in machine language will probably result in slower code!

If you're talking about writing a single small routine, humans can be very good at that, and they often do beat compilers. Butonce you get beyond that, and start looking at whole programs, any human advantage in machine language goes out the window. The constraints that actually affect performance have become incredibly complex - too complex for us to juggle effectively. We'll look at some of these in more detail, but I'll explain one example.

The CPU needs to fetch instructions from memory. But memory is dead slow compared to the CPU! In the best case, your CPU can execute a couple of instructions in the time it takes to fetch a single value from memory. This leads to an obvious problem: it can execute (or at least start executing) one instruction for each clock tick, but it takes several ticks to fetch an instruction!

To get around this, CPUs play a couple of tricks. Basically, they don't fetch single instructions, but instead grab entire blocks of instructions; and they start retrieving instructions before they're needed, so that by the time the CPU is ready to execute an instruction, it's already been fetched.

So the instruction-fetching hardware is constantly looking ahead, and fetching instructions so that they'll be ready when the CPU needs them. What happens when your code contains a conditional branch instruction?

The fetch hardware doesn't know whether the branch will be taken or not. It can make an educated guess by a process called branch prediction. But if it guesses wrong, then the CPU is stalled until the correct instructions can be fetched! So you want to make sure that your code is written so that the CPUs branch prediction hardware is more likely to guess correctly. Many of the tricks that humans use to hand-optimize code actually have the effect of confusing branch prediction! They shave off a couple of instructions, but by doing so, they also force the CPU to sit idle while it waits for instructions to be fetched. That branch prediction failure penalty frequently outweighs the cycles that they saved!

That's one simple example. There are many more, and they're much more complicated. And to write efficient code, you need to keep all of those in mind, and fully understand every tradeoff. That's incredibly hard, and no matter how smart you are, you'll probably blow it for large programs.

If not for efficiency, then why learn machine code? Because it's how your computer really works! You might never actually use it, but it's interesting and valuable to know what's happening under the covers. Think of it like your car: most of us will never actually modify the engine, but it's still good to understand how the engine and transmission work.

Your computer is an amazingly complex machine. It's literally got billions of tiny little parts, all working together in an intricate dance to do what you tell it to. Learning machine code gives you an idea of just how it does that. When you're programming in another language, understanding machine code lets you understand what your program is really doing under the covers. That's a useful and fascinating thing to know!

What is this ARM thing?

As I said, we're going to look at machine language coding on the
ARM processor. What is this ARM beast anyway?

It's probably not the CPU in your laptop. Most desktop and laptop computers today are based on a direct descendant of the first microprocessor: the Intel 4004.

Yes, seriously: the Intel CPUs that drive most PCs are, really, direct descendants of the first CPU designed for desktop calculators! That's not an insult to the intel CPUs, but rather a testament to the value of a good design: they've just kept on growing and enhancing. It's hard to see the resemblance unless you follow the design path, where each step follows directly on its predecessors.

The Intel 4004, released in 1971, was a 4-bit processor designed for use in calculators. Nifty chip, state of the art in 1971, but not exactly what we'd call flexible by modern standards. Even by the standards of the day, they recognized its limits. So following on its success, they created an 8-bit version, which they called the 8008. And then they extended the instruction set, and called the result the 8080. The 8080, in turn, yielded successors in the 8088 and 8086 (and the Z80, from a rival chipmaker).

The 8086 was the processor chosen by IBM for its newfangled personal computers. Chip designers kept making it better, producing the 80286, 386, Pentium, and so on - up to todays CPUs, like the Core i7 that drives my MacBook.

The ARM comes from a different design path. At the time that Intel was producing the 8008 and 8080, other companies were getting into the same game. From the PC perspective, the most important was the 6502, which
was used by the original Apple, Commodore, and BBC microcomputers. The
6502 was, incidentally, the first CPU that I learned to program!

The ARM isn't a descendant of the 6502, but it is a product of the 6502 based family of computers. In the early 1980s, the BBC decided to create an educational computer to promote computer literacy. They hired a company called Acorn to develop a computer for their program. Acorn developed a
beautiful little system that they called the BBC Micro.

The BBC micro was a huge success. Acorn wanted to capitalize on its success, and try to move it from the educational market to the business market. But the 6502 was underpowered for what they wanted to do. So they decided to add a companion processor: they'd have a computer which could still run all of the BBC Micro programs, but which could do fancy graphics and fast computation with this other processor.

In a typical tech-industry NIH (Not Invented Here) moment, they decided that none of the other commercially available CPUs were good enough, so they set out to design their own. They were impressed by the work done by the Berkeley RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) project, and so they adopted the RISC principles, and designed their own CPU, which they called the Acorn RISC Microprocessor, or ARM.

The ARM design was absolutely gorgeous. It was simple but flexible
and powerful, able to operate on very low power and generating very little heat. It had lots of registers and an extremely simple instruction set, which made it a pleasure to program. Acorn built a lovely computer with a great operating system called RiscOS around the ARM, but it never really caught on. (If you'd like to try RiscOS, you can run it on your Raspberry Pi!)

But the ARM didn't disappear. Tt didn't catch on in the desktop computing world, but it rapidly took over the world of embedded devices. Everything from your cellphone to your dishwasher to your iPad are all running on ARM CPUs.

Just like the Intel family, the ARM has continued to evolve: the ARM family has gone through 8 major design changes, and dozens of smaller variations. They're no longer just produced by Acorn - the ARM design is maintained by a consortium, and ARM chips are now produced by dozens of different manufacturers - Motorola, Apple, Samsung, and many others.

Recently, they've even starting to expand even beyond embedded platforms: the Chromebook laptops are ARM based, and several companies are starting to market server boxes for datacenters that are ARM based! I'm looking forward to the day when I can buy a nice high-powered ARM laptop.

16 Dec 18:08

How the NSA Tracks Mobile Phone Data

by Bruce Schneier

Last week the Washington Post reported on how the NSA tracks mobile phones worldwide, and this week they followed up with source documents and more detail.

Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani are doing some fantastic reporting on the Snowden NSA documents. I hope to be able to do the same again, once Pierre Omidyar's media venture gets up and running.

25 Sep 13:05

Google Knows Every Wi-Fi Password in the World

by Bruce Schneier

This article points out that as people are logging into Wi-Fi networks from their Android phones, and backing up those passwords along with everything else into Google's cloud, that Google is amassing an enormous database of the world's Wi-Fi passwords. And while it's not every Wi-Fi password in the world, it's almost certainly a large percentage of them.

Leaving aside Google's intentions regarding this database, it is certainly something that the US government could force Google to turn over with a National Security Letter.

Something else to think about.

05 Sep 08:37

Thinking is knowing is thinking

by Nick


With lots of kids heading to school this week, an old question comes back to the fore: Can thinking be separated from knowing?

Many people, and not a few educators, believe that the answer is yes. Schools, they suggest, should focus on developing students’ “critical thinking skills” rather than on helping them beef up their memories with facts and other knowledge about the world. With the Internet, they point out, facts are always within easy reach. Why bother to make the effort to cram stuff into your own long-term memory when there’s such a capacious store of external, or “transactive,” memory to draw on? A kid can google the facts she needs, plug them into those well-honed “critical thinking skills,” and – voila! – brilliance ensues.

That sounds good, but it’s wrong. The idea that thinking and knowing can be separated is a fallacy, as the University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham explains in his book Why Don’t Students Like School. This excerpt from Willingham’s book seems timely:

I defined thinking as combining information in new ways. The information can come from long-term memory — facts you’ve memorized — or from the environment. In today’s world, is there a reason to memorize anything? You can find any factual information you need in seconds via the Internet. Then too, things change so quickly that half of the information you commit to memory will be out of date in five years — or so the argument goes. Perhaps instead of learning facts, it’s better to practice critical thinking, to have students work at evaluating all that information available on the Internet, rather than trying to commit some small part of it to memory.

This argument is false. Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).

It’s hard for many people to conceive of thinking processes as intertwined with knowledge. Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has available a set of procedures  (addition, multiplication, and so on) that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers. The data (the numbers) and the operations that manipulate the data are separate. Thus, if you learn a new thinking operation (for example, how to critically analyze historical documents), it seems like that operation should be applicable to all historical documents, just as a fancier calculator that computes sines can do so for all numbers.

But the human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, it does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game or about the current situation in the Middle East or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. Critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge. The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge with practicing critical thinking skills.

Willingham goes on the explain that once a student has mastered a subject — once she’s become an expert — her mind will become fine-tuned to her field of expertise and she’ll be able to fluently combine transactive memory with biological memory. But that takes years of study and practice. During the K – 12 years, developing a solid store of knowledge is essential to learning how to think. There’s still no substitute for a well-furnished mind.

27 Aug 03:02

FDA study: Do added nutrients sell products? (Of course they do)

by Marion

The FDA has announced that it will be studying the effects of nutrient-content claims on consumers attitudes about food products.

FDA does not encourage the addition of nutrients to certain food products (including sugars or snack foods such as [cookies] candies, and carbonated beverages). FDA is interested in studying whether fortification of these foods could cause consumers to believe that substituting fortified snack foods for more nutritious foods would ensure a nutritionally sound diet.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of what the FDA is talking about.

New Picture


I’m guessing the FDA’s new research project is a response to increasing pressure from food companies to be allowed to add nutrients to cookies, candies, and soft drinks.

Food marketers know perfectly well that nutrients sell food products.  The whole point of doing so is to be able to make nutrient-content claims on package labels.

The FDA has never been happy about the practice of adding nutrients to junk foods just to make them seem healthy.   Its guidance includes what is commonly known as the “jelly bean rule.”   You may not add nutrients to jelly beans to make them eligible to be used in school lunches.

But this does not stop food manufacturers—especially soft drink manufacturers—from trying.  Hence: Vitamin Water (now owned by Coca-Cola).

Plenty of research demonstrates that nutrients sell food products.  Any health or health-like claim on a food product—vitamins added, no trans fats, organic—makes people believe that the product has fewer calories and is a health food.

As I keep saying, added vitamins are about marketing, not health.

22 Jul 16:39

The Half-naked Fakir and his Loin cloth

by Maddy
Mahatma Gandhi’s scanty dressing and its reaction in the West

“A proper dress keeps up decorum and shows our regard for others. If I had to go to a foreign land, I would by all means put away my loin-cloth in a trunk.” Can you guess who said this? None other than our own Mahatma Gandhi - But since 1924, after he originally wrote this, Gandhij changed his mind and went to Britain in a loin cloth. Care to find out why and how? Read on….

Appearances count – says the management guru. You must be properly attired and you should carry yourself well ,walking purposefully, upright – but not necessarily ramrod straight, and do not slouch. Another researcher admits that having a Mont Blanc in your pocket has been associated with a good possibility of getting an airline upgrade or getting off the waitlist. I have seen often that if you are tall, smart and somewhat fair, you can get away with a lot at certain places. If you are well dressed, then shift it yet another notch. Now with that background consider the situation presented by the half-naked Gandhiji to some of those snobby John bulls of the Blighty.

Interesting usage, for it was Churchill who coined it in 1930. In fact he said - "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhiji, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor."  So you can see that Winston Churchill was one who first referred to Mohandas Gandhiji in public as half -naked and a fakir, though not necessarily as a half-naked fakir. Gandhiji regarded the expression as a compliment. He felt unworthy of being called “a fakir and that (too) naked – a more difficult task.”

But why and how did Gandhiji change his mind and move from a ‘western style attired’ person to the dhoti clad person?  Why did he take to dropping off the appearances and wearing what for example was the attire of a warring Nair in medieval Malabar? Simply put, it was as he explained to a journalist from the News Chronicle: “In India several millions wear only a loin cloth. That is why I wear a loin cloth myself. They call me half-naked. I do it deliberately to identify myself with the poorest poor in India”. People who have studied him and his life have pretty good answers, though one or two of the pertinent catalysts have perhaps been missed out now and then.

Perhaps by definition, a loincloth is a one-piece garment – sometimes kept in place by a belt – which covers the genitals and, at least partially, the buttocks, so the dhoti fits into that description and can be called a loin cloth. But let it not be confused with underwear for some people have written that Gandhiji’s loin cloth is the most aired undergarment in history. Nevertheless, as Gandhiji clarified in his young India article, that he adopted a short version dhoti compared to the flowing dhoti since the latter could not be afforded by the poor. At that time many fakirs and Sufi pirs also wore such garb, so you can see where Churchill came from when he made his oft repeated comment. Somebody clarified in posterity – he was not one half naked, but more like 2/3rd.

Born in 1869, the young Gandhiji wore a dhoti and a coat (Rifle brand material) over it like many other middle class Khatiawadi’s of Gujarat. Interestingly he did not favor the full suit as it represented a Christian European to him, at that time. But when he found himself destined for London (the center of civilization according to him) in 1888, to do his studies, he equipped himself with just those types of clothes and cut of his tuft of hair so as not to look a barbarian and to blend in, though remarking that the short coat was somewhat immodest. The days that followed taught the 19 year old how difficult it was going to be to get the acceptance which he so much desired. He tried various things, like learning to play the violin, dancing, French and elocution in addition to wearing the latest clothes, but the distances between him and the English gentleman never reduced.
In 1890, Sachidananda Sinha described Gandhiji walking down Piccadilly – wearing a silk top hat, starched Gladstonian collar, a flashy tie with all the colors of the rainbow under which he wore a fine silk striped shirt. To complete the ensemble, he wore a morning coat, a double breasted vest, dark striped trousers and patent leather boots with spats over them. In addition he had leather gloves and a silver mounted stick. As one said in those days, he was a nut, a masher and a blood – slang for a student more interested in fashion and frivolities than studies!! But as we see, it did not quite have the desired effect in projecting him to the top of the London pile.

These events dented his pride and remained in his mind for decades to follow. Nevertheless when he came back to India in 1891, he looked a pukka Englishman and he also persuaded his Rajkot family to dress alike. The only change was that he did not wear a hat, but a turban. In 193, he moved to Durban to practice law and while he saw most other people of Indian origin in Islamic attire or dhotis, he himself wore western garb to the disappointment of his brethren. But it was in court that he was asked by a magistrate to remove his turban. Gandhiji replaced it with a hat to avoid issues, though he wrote a letter of complaint in a paper.

This was the event that triggered a turning point in his life when it came to western clothes. In 1908 when he was arrested and put in jail with prison clothes stamped with N for native, Gandhiji was horrified, but submitted and protested by shaving and removing his hair. By 1910 the protest resulted in his changing from his smart and well pressed clothes to baggy lounge suits and sloppy shoes. These, under the influence of Ruskin’s ‘Unto the last’, then changed to trousers, loose cotton shirts and chappals. He continued to wear European style clothes until 1913 after which he wore Indian clothes (lungi/dhoti and kurta) for the first time mourning for the Indian coal miners in Africa who had been shot. It was the first time that he publically associated reduction of clothes to grief.

Arriving back in Bombay in 1915, Gandhiji was seen to wear Kathiawadi peasant clothes. Most Indian upper class politicians considered this English returned lawyer pretty odd, queer, and quixotic or cranky due to his clothes and appearance. He was soon to try out various types of gear such as dhoti’s, shawls, Kashmiri caps, sola topi’s , pyjamas and finally his version of the Kashmiri cap – the khadi folding Gandhiji cap. But the final frontier was the short dhoti or loin cloth and his previous veiled threats at adopting it were only made to get over a shortage of khadi woven dhotis. He did make mention of using the shorter dhoti a few times later, but never went that far fearing sharp reaction from the public.

The Swadeshi movement was on by now and Gandhijiji had hoped that Indian would soon embrace Khadi clothes, discard British clothing or material, but found that the poor laborer could hardly afford Khadi while at Madras while many others were quite happy and contended wearing European made clothes (This takes me to the beautiful scenes from RK Narayan’s ‘Swami and friends’ where Swami decides to burn his cap, exhorted by Gandhiji’s appeals to discard Lancashire cloth).

22nd Sept 1921 Thyagaraja (now Meenakshi) college Maduari – Gandhiji decides to take the plunge and discard all his clothes except for the loin cloth, for a period of five weeks, the Swaraj deadline of 31st Oct, connecting it with leading by example and by calling it a sign of deep mourning. The morning meeting was called off as it was too noisy, and so that evening he gets his head shaved and the next day he sets out in his new attire which would become famous - a short dhoti four cubits long, to address the Madurai weavers (Rajaji and TSS Rajan try to dissuade him at the last minute but fail), deeply worried if his attire would be accepted by Indians. He also wanted to convey his demand for use of Swadeshi goods and to show the deep poverty in India caused by the British colonizer. Following the event, he writes letters to the Hindu, Bombay Chronicle and the Independent explaining his actions.

Let us now get to the scene where he re-clothes himself – On September 21, 1921, Mahatma Gandhi, who was staying at the residence of Ramji and Kalyanji on 251 A West Masi Street (now a Khadi kraft office), renounced his formal dress to identify himself with the common man. Another mention with a 1925 date can be seen in Congressman George Jospeh’s ( I mentioned him in the Syud Hossain article – Pothen Joseph’s brother) autobiography, where we understand that Gandhiji, staying as his guest,  asked him about the scantiness of public costumes of dhoti and turban (thorthu mundu) and was told that they lived in abject poverty. The dates are somewhat wrong; it appears he stayed with Joseph in 1919 or 1921. Hindu in their 2008 article clarifies that Gandhiji, during his second visit, stayed as Karumuttu Thiagarajar Chettiar’s guest at his residence, 175 A West Masi Street. Rajmohan Gandhi his son in his book states that the decision was taken not only because of the poverty of the wearer, but also to protest the arrest of Muhammed Ali and for the shorter dhothi to compete in price with imported clothes.

Sept – Dec 1931 - London – Round table conference

While many a mention can be found about the peculiar and non-conforming attire of this leader, none more than his 1931 London visit brought it to mainstream Western public notice. He had been to Britain on four previous occasions, dressed in western tradition, but not this time and it proved to be quite a spectacle.

Representing the Congress party, Gandhiji went to London to participate in the round- table conference. He travelled in his dhoti and shawl, refusing heavier clothes (even though many of them were smuggled in the ship SS Rajputana for emergencies by well-wishers – unknown to the irritated Gandhiji until much later). It is not my intention to write about the political angles and the conference, but the British press went after the loin cloth with glee and much fervor.

Saklatwala a British MP of Indian origin, had implored ‘For God’s sake Gandhiji, wear a pair of trousers’, appalled that the country of his own origin would be subjected to much ridicule by the event. Earlier another French journalist had asked Gandhiji if he would make the visit clad in the loincloth and Gandhiji said – ‘You in your country wear plus fours, I prefer minus fours’. As he walked around the slums of Londoan many a kid would shout ‘where are your trousers?’ Gandhiji would patiently reply to formal questions that he wore the dress of his principals, the millions of Indian poor. However Jad Adams in his book provides a quote that Gandhiji was prepared to add additional layers of clothing in Britain if the climate so demanded it. Much is also written about his meeting with King George V and how he had stated when asked about the inadequacy of his clothes, that that the king had enough clothes for both of them. He was termed a humbug by newspapers like the Truth, or even a simpleton. Silly stuff was reported – like the comments by an even sillier maid working in a house which Gandhiji was to visit, threatening to quit if Gandhiji did not wear proper clothes.

Gandhiji added to the press after explaining his reasons that conversely he did not see any European forsaking his dress when they came to the hot and humid India, wearing instead clothes immensely unsuitable for the climate there. He also stated that his dress was symbolic of the level to which the British had stripped his once prosperous country. American press responded stating that he was a dramatist. Nevertheless, he had stern views what women should or should not do - Interestingly he did attend a lunch reception with Lady Astor and seeing the low necked clothing of the ladies present stated that he was shocked by the shameless dress of the modern British women.

Visit to Vatican

On his way home he stopped in Rome and spent some time with Premier Mussolini, but because of his scanty costume was not allowed an interview with the Pope Pius XI. That by itself is an interesting story and details are not easily forthcoming, with newspaper reports stating that the Pope cancelled the meeting due to other pressing engagements and that he did not want to indelicately ask the little mystic to change his clothes for the meeting( Milwaukee sentinel 12/13/31) . The Vatican had apparently replied that the pope would not have a meeting on Sunday as it was his day of silence. The Daily Chronicle also states that while the pope was anxious to meet him, was worried more that he might face criticism if he did so! The Rudolph essays indicate that Gandhiji made the request twice.

However Gandhiji who stated -  Jesus  preached not a new religion but a new life, was also the man whom the same Pope Pius XI called "a man of providence", so why did he not meet him? It appears that there were complaints about Gandhiji’s attitude to the Catholic church and was more in support of the Protestant and less so for Catholics (also Gandhiji’s 1931 church declaration) according to Chandra Malampalli. Another reason was Gandhiji’s snubbing of Archbishop Paneerselvam, the Catholic representative at the round table.And thus we note that Mr. Winston Churchill and Pius XI were perhaps the only persons, in the annals of history, who refused a conversation with Gandhiji.

I cannot help adding this quote about the very same Churchill, considered by many a great leader,  who as we read here also got the loin cloth famous - Mehdi Hasan writing about Churchillin the Guardian - Here is a man, after all, who opposed votes for women and independence for India; who described Mahatma Gandhiji as a "half-naked fakir" and Hindus as a "foul race"; laid the foundations for apartheid in South Africa; supported the compulsory sterilisation and segregation of the "feeble-minded" and the "insane"; accused Jews of being behind a "worldwide [Communist] conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation"; and, anticipating the crimes of Saddam Hussein more than 60 years later, said he didn't understand the "squeamishness about the use of gas .I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes [in Iraq]."

The loin cloth stories did not stop there or until 1947. Gandhiji’s wedding gift for Prince Philip’s royal wedding in 1947 is even more interesting as he presented him (on Mountbatten’s recommendation) with what is termed as ‘fringed lacework cloth made of yarn spun by the donor on his own spinning wheel’. The royal family was reviewing the presents later and Queen Mary was horrified when she saw it, mistaking it for Gandhiji’s loin cloth, not knowing it was Khadi!! She stated to her lady (Pamela Hicks, Mountbatten’s daughter, confirms this event in her telegraph article) in waiting – ‘Such an indelicate gift, what a horrible thing’!! Prince Philip stated that it was not and that Gandhiji was a great man, but Queen Mary had by then moved to stony silence…It is not known what happened to the fringed lacework cloth, and if it remains in the Royal family that now has been found to have even more Indian connections. Wonder what Q Mary would have had to say about these recent events!

Gandhiji is a very interesting person and his actual self is covered in many layers, much like the many layers of western clothing that he loved and hated. Most knew him from what is written for public consumption, though there was a simple and at the same time complex persona under these layers. Early in his political career he realized that he had only himself, mass appeal and little else to work out his agenda. Each of his moves were therefore meticulously thought out and planned. They were not just passionate and impulsive actions. The act of wearing a loin cloth was also one such and aptly carried his ideology in the most humble fashion, to the confused, bemused and controlling west. And as we saw, they understood, all too soon!!


Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India - Emma Tarlo (Chapter 3), my main source

Madras Miscellany - Muthiah S

Mahatama Gandhiji  - Sankar Ghose

Gandhiji Versus the Empire - Haridas T. Muzumdar

Routledge Handbook of Indian Politics edited by Atul Kohli, Prerna Singh

Prince Philip: The Turbulent Early Life of the Man Who Married Queen Elizabeth II - Philip Eade

Gandhiji: The Man, His People, and the Empire - Rajmohan Gandhiji

Gandhiji: The True Man behind Modern India - Jad Adams

Christians and Public Life in Colonial South India, 1863-1937:  Chandra Mallampalli

06 Jul 10:26

Why did the Universe start off with Hydrogen, Helium, and not much else? [Starts With A Bang]

by Ethan

“I see a lot of new faces. But, you know the old saying, ‘out with the old, in with the nucleus.’” -The Simpsons

Looking around the Universe today, there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of hydrogen and helium around; after all, it’s the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium that powers the vast majority of stars illuminating the entire cosmos!

Image credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA and H. Ebeling.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA and H. Ebeling.

But here on Earth, hydrogen and helium are only a small part of the world we inhabit. By mass, hydrogen and helium combined make up far less than 1% of the Earth, and even if we restrict ourselves to the Earth’s crust, it’s still just a tiny percentage compared to the other, heavier elements.

Image credit: Gordon B. Haxel, Sara Boore, and Susan Mayfield from USGS / Wikimedia user michbich.

Image credit: Gordon B. Haxel, Sara Boore, and Susan Mayfield from USGS / Wikimedia user michbich.

Practically all of these heavy elements were formed in generations of stars: stars that lived, burned their fuel into heavier elements, died and shed their heavy, enriched elements back into the cosmos, and were incorporated into the next generations of stars and — when the heavier elements became abundant enough — rocky planets.

Image credit: NASA / Lynette Cook.

Image credit: NASA / Lynette Cook.

But the Universe didn’t start off with these heavier elements at all. In fact, if you’ll remember what the Big Bang says, the Universe is expanding (and cooling) now, meaning that all the matter in it was closer together — and the radiation in it was hotter — in the past. If you go back to a sufficiently early time, you’ll find that the density was high enough and the temperature was hot enough that you couldn’t even form neutral atoms without them immediately being blasted apart! When the Universe cooled through that phase, that’s when neutral atoms formed for the first time, and where the cosmic microwave background comes from.

Image credit: Pearson / Addison Wesley, retrieved from Jill Bechtold.

Image credit: Pearson / Addison Wesley, retrieved from Jill Bechtold.

At that time, the Universe was made out of about 92% hydrogen atoms and 8% helium atoms by number (or about 75-76% hydrogen and 24-25% helium by mass), with trace amounts of lithium and beryllium, but not much else. But you might wonder how it got to have exactly that ratio? After all, it didn’t have to be that way; if the Universe was hot and dense enough to undergo nuclear fusion early on, why did it only fuse atoms up to helium, and why didn’t more of the Universe become helium than it did?

To find the answer, we need to go way back in time. Not just to the first few hundred thousand years of the Universe, when it was making the first atoms, nor even to the first years, days, or hours. No, we need to go back to when the temperatures were so high, when the Universe was so hot, that not only could atomic nuclei not form (for they’d be immediately be blasted apart), but to a time when the Universe was so hot that the Universe was filled with nearly equal amount of matter-and-antimatter, when it was just a fraction of a second old!

Image credit: James Schombert of the University of Oregon.

Image credit: James Schombert of the University of Oregon.

It was once so hot that the Universe was filled with nearly equal amount of matter and antimatter: protons and antiprotons, neutrons and antineutrons, electrons and positrons, neutrinos and antineutrinos, and of course photons (which are their own antiparticle), among others. (They’re not exactly equal; see here for more on that.) When the Universe is hot — and by hot, I mean above the temperature needed to spontaneously create a matter/antimatter pair from two typical photons — you get huge amounts of that form of matter and antimatter. They get spontaneously created from photons just as quickly as they find one another and annihilate back into photons. But as the Universe cools, those matter/antimatter pairs begin to annihilate faster, and it becomes more difficult to find photons energetic enough to make them. Eventually, it cools enough that all the exotic particles go away, and all the antiprotons and antineutrons annihilate with protons and neutrons, leaving only a small asymmetry of matter (in the form of protons and neutrons) over antimatter, bathed in a sea of radiation.

Image credit: me, background by Christoph Schaefer.

Image credit: me, background by Christoph Schaefer.

At this point, when the Universe is a fraction of a second old, there are roughly equal amounts of protons and neutrons: about a 50/50 split. These protons and neutrons will eventually become the atoms in our Universe, but they’ve got a lot to go through first. On the other hand, electrons (and positrons) are much lighter, so they still exist in huge numbers (and at great energies) for a while longer.

Image credit: Addison-Wesley, retrieved from J. Imamura / U. of Oregon.

Image credit: Addison-Wesley, retrieved from J. Imamura / U. of Oregon.

It’s still hot enough that protons and neutrons can convert into one another very easily: a proton can combine with an electron to make a neutron and (an electron) neutrino, while a neutron can combine with (an electron) neutrino to make a proton and an electron. While there aren’t that many protons and neutrons in the Universe at this time, electrons and neutrinos outnumber them by around a billion-to-one. This is why, early on, there’s about a 50/50 split of protons and neutrons.

Neutrons, as you’ll remember, are slightly heavier than protons: by about 0.2%. As the Universe cools (and the excess positrons annihilate away), it becomes rarer and rarer to find a proton-electron pair with enough energy to create a neutron, while it’s still relatively easy for a neutron-neutrino pair to create a proton-electron pair. This converts a substantial fraction of neutrons into protons during the first one-to-three seconds of the Universe. By time these interactions have become insignificant, the proton-to-neutron ratio has changed from about 50/50 to 85/15!

Image credit: Smith, Christel J. et al. Phys.Rev. D81 (2010) 065027 .

Image credit: Smith, Christel J. et al. Phys.Rev. D81 (2010) 065027.

Now, these protons and neutrons are abundant, hot, and dense enough that they can fuse together into heavier elements, and believe me, they’d love to. But photons — particles of radiation – outnumber protons-and-neutrons by more than a billion to one, so for minutes of the Universe expanding and cooling, it’s still energetic enough that every time a proton and neutron fuse together to form deuterium, the first stepping-stone in nuclear fusion, a high-enough energy photon immediately comes along and blasts them apart! This is known as the deuterium bottleneck, as deuterium is relatively fragile, and its fragility prevents further nuclear reactions from occurring.

Image credit: me, modified from Lawrence Berkeley Labs.

Image credit: me, modified from Lawrence Berkeley Labs.

In the meantime, while the minutes tick by, something else is going on. A free proton is stable, so nothing happens to them, but a free neutron is unstable; it will decay into a proton, electron, and an (electron) antineutrino with a half-life of about ten minutes. By time the Universe has cooled enough that the created deuterium wouldn’t be immediately be blasted back apart, more than three minutes have gone by, further changing the 85%-proton/15%-neutron split to nearly 88% protons and just a hair over 12% neutrons.

Image credit: Ronaldo E. de Souza.

Image credit: Ronaldo E. de Souza.

Finally, with deuterium forming, nuclear fusion can proceed, and it proceeds extremely rapidly! Through a couple of different fusion chains, the Universe is still hot and dense enough that pretty much every neutron around wind up combining with one other neutron and two protons to form helium-4, an isotope of helium that’s much more energetically stable than deuterium, tritium, or helium-3!

Images taken from LBL, stitched together by me.

Images taken from LBL, stitched together by me.

By time this happens, though, the Universe is nearly four minutes old, and is far too diffuse and cold to undergo the next major step of fusion that happens in stars, which is to fuse three helium-4 atoms into carbon-12; that process will have to wait tens of millions of years until the Universe’s first stars form!

But these nuclei are stable, and there will also be a trace amount of helium-3 (which tritium will also decay into, eventually), deuterium (hydrogen-2), and very small amounts of lithium (and probably even smaller amounts of beryllium) formed by very rare fusion reactions.

Image credit: NASA, WMAP Science Team and Gary Steigman.

Image credit: NASA, WMAP Science Team and Gary Steigman.

But the overwhelming majority of neutrons — 99.9%+ of them — wind up locked up in helium-4 nuclei. If the matter in the Universe contained just a hair over 12% neutrons and just a hair under 88% protons just prior to nucleosynthesis (the fusion into heavier elements), that means that all of those neutrons and and equal amount (just over 12% of the Universe) of protons winds up becoming helium-4: a total of 24-to-25% of the mass, leaving 75-to-76% of the Universe as protons, or hydrogen nuclei.

Image credit: Ned Wright, via his excellent Cosmology tutorial at UCLA.

Image credit: Ned Wright, via his excellent Cosmology tutorial at UCLA.

So that’s why, by mass, we say 75-76% was hydrogen and 24-25% was helium. But each helium nucleus is around four times the mass of a hydrogen nucleus, which means that, by number of atoms, the Universe is around 92% hydrogen and 8% helium.

This primordial, unprocessed material has actually been detected observationally, and is one of the three cornerstones of the Big Bang, along with Hubble expansion and the cosmic microwave background. And that’s where all the elements in the Universe started from! Everything you are, everything you know, and every material object you’ve ever interacted with came from this primordial sea of protons and neutrons, and was once a mere collections of hydrogen and helium atoms. And then the Universe happened…

Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Spitzer / IRAC / N. Flagley and the MIPSGAL team.

Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Spitzer / IRAC / N. Flagley and the MIPSGAL team.

and here it all is! And that’s where — if you go way, way back — all the atoms came from.

03 Jul 03:07

As Texas G.O.P. Revives Abortion Ban, a Look at Public Opinion

Public opinion surveys consistently find a majority of Americans support a right to an abortion, but also show that support narrows further into a pregnancy.