Saturday, March 02, 2019

Questions for November 2019

Every May, I think of what may come; every November, I think of what might fall.
This year, what falls are questions, some looking a bit traditional, some looking a bit odd. Perhaps they are like traditional Anglo weddings — something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. And here they are, for young people to enjoy mulling over.
  1. “In the acquisition of knowledge, the responsibility for accuracy lies with the user not the producer.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. “Each human being is unique, unprecedented, unrepeatable” (René Dubos). Assuming this statement to be correct, what challenges does it create for knowledge production in two areas of knowledge?
  3. Shared knowledge often changes over time. Does this fact undermine our confidence in current shared knowledge?
  4. To produce knowledge just observe and then write down what you observe. Discuss the effectiveness of this strategy in two areas of knowledge.
  5. Is there a trade-off between scepticism and successful production of knowledge?
  6. “The pursuit of knowledge is not merely about finding truths; it is about finding significant truths" (adapted from P D Magnus). Discuss this statement.


Friday, March 01, 2019

St David's Day (2019)

And so it was that on the first day of March in 1886, a tall, thin, dyspeptic Anglo-Indian gentleman, late out of the wilderness of Pennsylvania, founded a beacon of truth and light in an island of the Main. There may it stand, from year to year, an emblem of grand endeavour.

That same gentleman was heard to say decades later that one main lesson of his life was that women did more of the work, and that one Blackmore did the most of all, in 1887. To her, he said, a statue should be raised if any should be raised at all.

These thoughts come to mind on St David's Day this year. For he too agreed that we should say who did the work, and all should do it well.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Questions for May 2019

As always, I am both amused and amazed by the questions that arise from certain Intentionally Byzantine organisations.
  1. "The quality of knowledge is best measured by how many people accept it." Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. "The production of knowledge is always a collaborative task and never solely a product of the individual." Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  3. Do good explanations have to be true?
  4. "Disinterestedness is essential in the pursuit of knowledge." Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. "The production of knowledge requires accepting conclusions that go beyond the evidence for them." Discuss this claim.
  6. "One way to assure the health of a discipline is to nurture contrasting perspectives." Discuss this claim.
These aren't as pungent as some of those from previous years, though.


Friday, August 10, 2018

Haiku for Mendeleev #002 — Helium

two of everything
alpha in the burning sun
lightness all alone

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Sunday, March 04, 2018

Questions for November 2018

I love the way the International Baccalaureate demands tough answers to tougher questions.
  1. “Existing classification systems steer the acquisition of new knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. “Technology provides ever-expanding access to shared knowledge. Therefore, the need to assimilate such knowledge personally is relentlessly diminishing.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  3. *Are disputes over knowledge claims within a discipline always resolvable? Answer this question by comparing and contrasting disciplines taken from two areas of knowledge.
  4. “Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge” (Lao Tzu). Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. “Too much relevant knowledge in a field might be a hindrance to the production of knowledge in that field.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  6. “The importance of establishing incontrovertible facts is overestimated. Most knowledge deals in ambiguity.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
* incidentally, the IB clarified that this should mean only one discipline from each of two different areas of knowledge, not 'one or more disciplines'.


Friday, August 04, 2017

Haiku for Mendeleev #001 — Hydrogen

in the darkness, light
on the face of the water
the spirit of god

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017


Cloudless Caramel Coloring (I): When it is perfectly understood that in the manufacture of caramel, sugar is to be deprived of the one molecule of its water of constitution, it will be apparent that heat must not be carried on to the point of carbonization. Cloudy caramel is due to the fact that part of the sugar has been dissociated and reduced to carbon, which is insoluble in water. Hence the cloudiness. Caramel may be made on a small scale in the following manner: Place 4 or 5 ounces of granulated sugar in a shallow porcelain-lined evaporating dish and apply either a direct heat or that of an oil bath, continuing the heat until caramelization takes place or until tumescence ceases and the mass has assumed a dark-brown color. Then carefully add sufficient water to bring the viscid mass to the consistence of a heavy syrup. Extreme care must be taken and the face and hands protected during the addition of the water, owing to the intensity of the heat of the mass, and consequent sputtering.
Henley's 20th Century Formulas &c, 146 (1914 edition)

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Sunday, May 07, 2017


Artificial Butter IV: 'Ankara' is a substance which in general appearance resembles a good article of butter, being rather firmer at ordinary temperatures than that substance, approaching the consistency of cocoa butter. It is quite odorless, but in taste it resembles that of a fair article of butter and, what is more, its behavior under heat is very similar to that of butter—it browns and forms a sort of spume like that of fat. Ankara consists of a base of cocoa butter, carrying about 10 per cent of milk, colored with yolk of egg.
Henley's 20th Century Formulas &c, 142 (1914 edition)

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Saturday, May 06, 2017

Cheesy Fake

Roquefort, Imitation: The gluten of wheat is kneaded with a little salt and a small portion of a solution of starch, and made up into cheeses. It is said that this mixture soon acquires the taste, smell, and unctuosity of cheese, and when kept a certain time is not to be distinguished from the celebrated Roquefort cheese, of which it possesses all the peculiar pungency. By slightly varying the process other kinds of cheese may be imitated.
Henley's 20th Century Formulas &c, 177 (1914 edition)

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Friday, May 05, 2017

Colours In The Steel

Alloys for drawing Colours on Steel: Alloys of various composition are successfully used for drawing colors on steel. To draw to a straw color use 2 parts of lead and 1 part of tin, and melt in an iron ladle. Hold the steel piece to be drawn in the alloy as it melts and it will turn to straw color. This mixture melts at a temperature of about 437°F. For darker yellow use 9 parts of lead to 4 parts of tin, which melts at 458°F. For purple, use 3 parts of lead to 1 part of tin, the melting temperature being 482°F. For violet, use 9 parts of lead to 2 parts of tin, which melts at 494°F. Lead without any alloy will draw steel to a dark blue.
Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas &c, 80 (1903, revised).


Thursday, May 04, 2017

Blood Oil

'Shio Liao': Under this name the Chinese manufacture an excellent cement which takes the place of glue, and with which gypsum, marble, porcelain, stone, and stoneware can be cemented. It consists of the following parts (by weight): Slaked powdered lime, 54 parts; powdered alum, 6 parts; and fresh, well-strained blood, 40 parts.
Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas &c, 32 (1903, revised).


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Atlantean Cosmogony: The Ancient Dragon

I live in Atlantis, where centuries have boiled away to leave a bare-husk residue with entailments and derailments, amusements and bemusements. It is as if you had thrown random ingredients into the village's common pot and offered the soup to all and sundry, until the bones were left—and then you added water and began the process again.

But the oldest maps we have tell us of the Gate of the Dragon's Teeth. It is a portal through which men have sailed both ways, this ancient fossil whose prominences remain elided, eroded, or abridged into larger masses. If the teeth were this huge, imagine the size of the monster!

It may not be long before imagination is no longer needed. The ancient dragon is long gone, but her gigantic heir has stirred to life. One by one, the tiny islands in the Dragon Sea are being devoured. Soon, the dragon will return to the Dragon Gate, and we will either be its prey or its doorkeeper.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Smallest System

I remember being interrogated by an old family friend and former babysitter. This eminent professor of the dark arts asked me, "Why is hydrogen so important for our entire discipline?"

At that time, I had no idea, so I blathered on for a while.

Eventually, he got frustrated enough to say this: "Because it's the simplest atom. Just one proton and one electron."

And thus did the young man of three decades gone become the old man of today.

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Monday, May 01, 2017

Labour Day

As T S Eliot puts it,
The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
Since the last time I posted here, two years have passed. In that period, I've entered an enterprise, missed two St David's Days, taught countless classes (by which I mean I haven't counted them) in literature, history, and hard sciences. I have read many books, wearied of many writers, and settled into a life of comfortable obscurity—only to be unsettled by various events.

I have walked as much as ever, but covered more ground. Whereas in the past I walked the same blocks, the same corridors, again and again in each interminable day for twelve years, I have been walking the streets and the drains, the hills and the hawker-stalls, and the small corners of the wide earth for almost a decade since.

Time wounds all heels, as an old saying goes. Your sole is hardened by much beating against the ground, like wheat threshed to remove chaff, or iron pounded in a flame.

And here it is Labour Day, and the idea of retirement irks me. After all, it was an idea invented by the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck of relatively ancient fame: he decided it would be good to support the infirm and insane in their old age. He excluded those still fit for work, which for the largest span of human history has been the norm. My forefathers trod their winepresses till they could tread no more, and I dearly wish to do the same. When a person will no longer work, there is no need for that person to eat.

But that state is, God willing, decades hence. And even if not, I'm happy to go when properly gone. For now, I'll just think my thoughts and measure out my life in coffee spoons.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Responses (Nov 2015) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for November 2015 will be collected in this post.

Topic Titles:
  1. “The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  2. Assess the advantages and disadvantages of using models to produce knowledge of the world.
  3. “Without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible.” Discuss.
  4. “In some areas of knowledge we try to reduce a complex whole to simple components, but in others we try to integrate simple components into a complex whole.” Discuss this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. “No knowledge can be produced by a single way of knowing.” Discuss.
  6. Is explanation a prerequisite for prediction? Explore this question in relation to two areas of knowledge.

This list is even more intriguing than the previous one because the questions adopt a more contentious slant. The emphasis seems to be one of debate, in which Yes/No positions are key for questions 3-6, whereas questions 1-2 are general and broadly discursive.

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

St David's Day (2015)

Today is St David's Day. David of Glyn Rhosyn is the patron saint of Wales. He once said, "Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things." It reminds me that this is why the best is yet to be: the little things come first, so that greater things can happen in the years ahead.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Responses (May 2015) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for May 2015 (with some of my personal brief responses) will be collected in this post.

Topic Titles:
  1. There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. “There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  3. “There is no reason why we cannot link facts and theories across disciplines and create a common groundwork of explanation.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  4. With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge.
  5. “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgments.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  6. “The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

This list is intriguing because the questions are a lot broader and more interesting than usual. The emphasis continues to move in a direction away from specific disciplines/AOKs and toward more holistic challenges. I'll add specific responses after a decent period of time has elapsed, as usual.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mass Education

After watching the effects of multiple generations of teacher activity in the small but densely populated Petri dish of Atlantis, I can safely make some oracular pronouncements about mass education.

1. The education of the masses reaches a minimum level of competence for 90% of the population and then stalls. Of this 90%, the lower 50% will be below the mean and hence seen as 'poorly educated'. The remaining upper 40% will fight to be seen as educated.

2. The top 10% is the limit for 'good education'. The reason is simple. As the world gets more complex, you need more educational resources to teach people enough to get along. Don't be deluded by what people seem to know—the old 'wow, kids these days know a lot of stuff' fallacy—rather, see what they do with it to change the world for the better.

3. Which leads to the next point: as the world becomes more complex, it is harder to make a clear change for the better that will affect the same proportion of the world. It will be even harder to determine if a putative change for the better is indeed a change for the better, and if so, what the cause of it was.

4. What seems to work better is not education but removal of poverty and penury. And yet again, that too has its limits—the nature of humanity is to always want to be competitive with the top 10%. Some will say that the more educated you are, the more well-off you'll be. Highly doubtful. There's a general correlation, often related to the way society (from a Marxist paradigm) values education as a way of either a) maintaining a class divide, or b) allowing people to breach the class divide.

5. The way education maintains a class divide is through labels and certifications. Some will have them, some won't. The way education allows breaches of such divisions is that most people have some chance, no matter how small, to earn such labels and certifications. But again, mass education can also be seen as a system that fosters the value (sometimes artificial and even misleading) of such things.

6. The best implementations of mass education are thus those that realise these problems and do a few things— a) set simple goals and force people to work hard and miserably to achieve them, which makes these things valuable yet attainable; b) review goals periodically and rigorously so that people don't fall too far behind a true education (i.e. world-functional) level; c) make use of turnkey systems so that even the worst teacher can deliver some crude and useful education; d) place faith in students to survive a robust delivery and teachers to provide at least some delivery; e) allow cynicism to temper the idealism so that people treat the system realistically.

Atlantean education works. It must work because it produces people able to pass every test and yet complain about everything. It produces passionate idiots and erudite genii. It is firmly normed, and normally firm. It is widely criticised and even bastinadoed (figuratively speaking) by some, but praised and emulated by others. It's a very mean system.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

April to September

April has always been the cruellest month, according to Eliot at least. But life has been filled with a never-ending stream of new environmental pressures, forcing adaptation and perhaps evolution. All this, and much more.

I used to give advice to people about how to write essays, how to see the world, and all kinds of stuff like that. Unfortunately, as certain examiners of certain examining boards have pointed out, perhaps the problem is that this is merely a blog, and yet is being used by too many students for a specific purpose. It plays havoc with their output, and then comes the denouement, the suspicion of some kind of plagiarism because they have begun to sound the same.

It's not this blog's purpose to create a voice that is a template for other people. It's not my purpose, anyway. So life is difficult, but life will give you a voice of your own. This blog isn't supposed to.


Thursday, April 24, 2014


I keep wanting to tell parents this:

"Your child's potential is not a trained dog that it should be unleashed. It is the patient accumulation of skill and ability that can be made to do useful work over time. Children have no potential at birth; they have possible futures in which they accumulate potential."

It's the duty of parents and teachers to help them develop those futures so that they can build up the potential with which to do wonderful works — thaumaturgeia, as the Greeks might have said.

What I've been musing on is how the word 'potential', which used to mean 'power, authority or might' became twisted into 'possible use of power, authority or might' in the early 1800s, and now merely means 'possibility regardless of how silly it looks'. Everywhere, you read about 'unleashing potential' without really thinking about how this comes about.

It's more useful to look at the equally common 'developing potential', which actually has more meaning. You can't 'unleash potential' without accumulating some first. Anyway, 'unleashing' is more along the lines of Shakespeare's immortal line — "Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war!" It's as if you can train potential so that once you let its leash slip, it will automatically do what is right, useful, purposeful and wise.

Sorry, that's not how it works. Potential needs to be worked at, and then used wisely and carefully. And once it's gone actual or kinetic, it's gone.

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