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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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Responses (November 2014) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for November 2014 (with some of my personal brief responses) is collected in this post.

Topic Titles
  1. “Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.  
  2. “Knowledge takes the form of a combination of stories and facts.” How accurate is this claim in two areas of knowledge?  
  3. “In the production of knowledge, it is only because emotion works so well that reason can work at all.” To what extent would you agree with this claim in two areas of knowledge?  
  4. “To gain an understanding of the world we need to make use of stereotypes.” With reference to two areas of knowledge, to what extent do you agree with this statement?  
  5. “The task of history is the discovering of the constant and universal principles of human nature.” To what extent are history and one other area of knowledge successful in this task?  
  6. “We may agree about general standards in the arts but disagree as to whether a particular work has artistic merit. In ethics the situation is reversed: we may disagree about ethical theories but we all know an unethical action when we see one.” Discuss.  


There are two general frameworks that may be of use here. The first is to consider the uses of information: describe, explain, predict, invent/imagine, connect, transform; these can be remembered using the acronym DEPICT. The second is the hierarchy of knowledge construction and use: data given context or value is information; information that is tested for validity, reliability and utility becomes knowledge; knowledge used in the best possible way in a certain situation is called wisdom — these can be remembered using the mnemonic DIKW.

I will, as usual frame some responses here after a decent period of time.


That time having passed, here are some useful notes.

T1 really requires a clear understanding of description vs transformation, as well as a simple definition of the world. To describe is to detail one's apprehension (sensory perception, emotional response etc) of things in a way that contains some kind of truth—the truth that is inherent in a particular AOK. For example, from the AOK viewpoint of the arts, the truth is largely aesthetic, based on how good a work is at evoking a desired response from its audience. To transform is to change things in a way that is contingent on the working-out of the AOK; to use the same example of the arts, this would mean that the arts not only seek to describe an aesthetic truth but to present it in a way that forces people to react to it, to acknowledge it, to change in response to it.

T2 is pretty basic—stories are narratives, facts are the singular elements used to fill out and construct the narratives. A fact need not be true in all senses; after all, 'fact' comes from the Latin word meaning 'to make' (e.g. as in 'manufacture' = 'make by hand', 'factory' = a place where things are made, 'factor' = an element, component or guiding principle used in making something). Hence, in Gothic novels, you might say 'vampires drink blood' is a fact. All forms of knowledge are composed of narrative structures (hence there is a 'literature' in any discipline) given substance by their own facts. The question really requires some kind of analysis about how (much) these two things combine in two specific AOKs in order to create the knowledge we associated with those AOKs.

T3 looks difficult, but the key to it is to understand what emotion is. Emotion is the set of biochemical and physiological responses that accompany a change in psychological state. The inputs that trigger such responses can be sensory (i.e. via the nervous system) or mnemonic (from memories) or imaginative (from consideration of non-actual scenarios and ideas). Reasoning, on the other hand, is a process by which a person decides or attempts to form logical connections between things—events, facts, processes, data, and so on. The impulse to actually do such a thing is almost always emotional. This is the basic level of the argument. However, at a more advanced level, emotion allows humans to make quick judgements (cf. 'gut feel') when digesting huge amounts of data, thus simplifying the situation (whether accurately or not) when considering complex cases. In different AOKs, these things have different levels of application, and that should be discussed.

T4 requires an understanding of stereotypes. The original meaning of the term is that of a solid object used to make an imprint or used as a mould for producing identical copies. 'Stereo' is from the Greek for 3D (as in 'stereophonic' = having the properties of 3D-sound) and 'type' has one of its usual meanings—the original form of something (as in 'typeface', 'typical'). The question therefore is asking us to evaluate how useful the deployment of 'master images' or 'standard prototypes' is in different AOKs. The usual social definition of stereotypes as rudimentary descriptive templates for groups of people can only be used in the humanities/human sciences AOKs, so beware.

T5 requires an understanding of history as a discipline. History is a purely descriptive and explanatory art. It does NOT make predictions; once it does, it is treading the ground of the human sciences. For example, economic history is the history of human evaluation, transaction and resource allocation in the realm of goods and services. Once this is used to predict human behaviour, it becomes economics. Same for social history and sociology, political history and political science, and many others. The question then is whether such an approach (description and explanation of human events in a chronological matrix) can actually uncover general principles applicable to all humans, and whether another AOK's approach might be better or worse at this.

T6 is hard only for students who cannot define 'the arts'—or those who cannot differentiate between morality, law, ethics and similar constructs. Since the arts are all forms of human action designed to produce something that conveys emotion or produces a desired emotional response, the question is whether humans do indeed have general artistic standards or can produce specific evaluations of merit. The answer is, as always, in between—you can have scores in gymnastics, choir competitions, karate, platform diving, dance, pottery... and they will all have some variance. But some have very tight rubrics of performance, relative to others. Ethics, being a socially-constructed sometimes-philosophical basis for evaluating 'right behaviour' in a human social context, suffers similar issues. It is clearly wrong to steal in a society which has property rights; it is impossible to steal in a society that doesn't have such rights. It's the student's job to define both these areas and craft a nice debate.

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Saturday, March 01, 2014

St David's Day (2014)

I remember saying this on St David's Day this year: that education is what holds the world of humanity together, and it is not only carried out in schools — but schools have chosen that task, and must be held accountable.

I used to feel a mystical sensation about this day. But what I feel, mostly, is a kind of sadness for an era that has been passing for a while. From 1886 to 1986, a century of work and toilsome labour in the vineyards. After 1986, the slow despoiling of a realm.

Then again, the soil remains fertile and I see many new shoots.

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Monday, February 17, 2014


When I was much younger, there were choose-your-own-adventure stories. But those weren't very impressive to me; I used to map them out as trees and colour the trees for the heck of it just to see how they might look.

And once in a while, you realise the only story you really know is your own.

That tree looks really strange. Over the last two years, I've realised how strange. So what I'm going to do now is show the un-strange parts, because they frame the concept in a different way.As is common these days, you might want to move backwards in time, explore the 'nodes' in the 'adventure'. But life is a lot more complicated than that.

In about a quarter of the options, I am still living with my parents. In about a third of the options, I'm in a stable relationship with a significant other. These two sets of options seldom overlap.

Quite often, I'm not living with my parents, but I see them with a frequency ranging from once a week to once a year. There are extremes — living nearby, or not living. Yes, I am quite sure there are terminal options in the tree, and I've already nearly experienced a few.

This is not The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock or any parody of it. Unlike Prufrock, I've not wondered very much about the time, women who don't notice me, or old age.

But there were key moments. Stick, or twist. Stay, or go. Stand and fight, run and skirmish. The thing about life is that it offers no replays of which the protagonist can be aware. You have to be happy with what you have in the awareness that you could have had better, or far worse. There is no way of knowing what the story might have been.

Sometimes, I still go through branch-narrative stories and games. Sometimes, they do make me feel a little wistful, as of lost sunsets and faded opals, dew gone with the sun, brandy gone with the moon. But in the end, it's back to the working out of this branch, the branch on which I perch and from which I look out over the vast landscape of the forest.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Words In Wolff's Head

And here is Wolff, once 'Sir Wolff', but now a leader of his own Order, the way the St John's Ambulance people are a pale shadow of the Hospitaller Knights of Malta, of the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem. These days, he trains novices to be Wyverns, even if they are not of that Order. And his old Order appears to approve. Yet, there are still those who make him tetchy. Like the parents of some novices, who after having given them into his care, still make sideline noises.

By what right do you tell me how to handle my children?

The right of the novice master, thinks Wolff. His right, who wields the sword which cuts away all that will not endure. But all he says is the very simple and true:

I am the one who teaches them.

And this gives you the right to tell them I am wrong?

Yes, thinks Wolff. Because I was brought up to tell right from wrong, and teach others right from wrong. But all he says is the very simple and true:

What I have said, I have said.

Why do you confuse them by saying that their other teachers are wrong?

Because some of them are, thinks Wolff. And I would not give them a chance in a millstone, should the Highest wish to apply the law against leading children astray. But all he says is the very simple and true:

I speak things as I see them.


And thus it is that the parent goes away confounded even though the truth has been spoken. All Wolff can think is this: forte dans mon devoir, simple dans ma vertu. It is perhaps one of the strongest principles he has obeyed in his long journey, and he has miles to go before he sleeps — miles to go, and promises to keep.


If you wish to read more of the tales of the Wolff, look here.

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Autarky, Illusion Of

People fall increasingly under the illusion of autarky as information becomes more readily available. These days, anyone with access to a search engine thinks he's an expert. And these beglamoured folk then spread the cloud of unknowing further and farther.

This is why in the past you could accept 'mechanical failure' as a reason for a tragic accident but now many are pundits on the topic of how mechanical failure need never happen. And those who aren't pundits are pundit-echoers. And if not, they are pundits on how mechanical failure is an erosion of civil liberties, or on how the state is covering it up, or on how shocking it is that we aren't shown the proton-emission tomographic scans of the failed parts under discussion.

Not that many could interpret the latter even if they existed. It is all an illusion, this informational autarky. Almost nobody is informationally self-sufficient. There is still a role for the expert, or the well-educated generalist, or the amateurs who have taken time to know their stuff.

But the public sphere, the so-called marketplace of ideas, the whole 'civil society' construct? These are now polluted by people who have no ideas to market, who think the public sphere is a constraining box, who have no concept of civility (let alone civitas), or who think society lives to serve individuals rather than serves to keep individuals alive.

It is as the Good Book says; men have become lovers of themselves more than anything else. Professing wisdom, they have become fools.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013


In my few decades in this world, I have seen a few kinds of would-be Anarchs, some less tiresome, some more. Here are some of them.

1. The simplest kind is the kind that covers its ears and yells loudly that it doesn't care and you can't change its mind. It is self-defeating sort, since it thinks to elude the rule of law by imposing an even sterner law on itself. So be it, then.

2. Another kind claims to be anti-establishment and pro-people. This political animal dresses in the robes of vendetta and the mask of anonymity; unfortunately, it overuses the former and abuses the latter. It really wants to bully or coerce, but retain moral high ground by presuming that individuals do indeed want to form anonymous mobs to take down social institutions, and that they will be led by such an animal.

3. A true anarch, such as Thanos the Mad, courts destruction of all things. This is the only philosophically self-consistent view. However, it is (to me) far better that this is combined with 1 above, in which case I will remain but the anarch will self-destruct, thus achieving mutually satisfying goals.

I first encountered Alexander Pope's Dunciad when I was very small; I think I was about ten years old at the time, maybe older. My aunt had lots of her old literature texts lying around, and I used to hide in her house and read when I thought I had nothing better to do after school. Almost forty years later, I recall these lines and find them an apt description of one perspective on our modern world:
See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heaped o'er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private , dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine !
Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.

Law is a good thing. It is a facile (cheap, shallow, easy) argument to say that all law is repressive or oppressive. In a sense, it is, since it limits action (actual, potential, desired or desirable) by threat. But so too does awareness of the natural sciences. You know that ingesting chromic acid will kill you, that gravity and time are not your friends. This doesn't make you attempt to undermine them.

Yes, I admit that's an extreme position; after all, human law is not like nature. Well, humans do make laws for the governance of larger groups. A good body of law allows for law to be changed reasonably, whether this is onerous or not (there are arguments that seek to establish how onerous this should be — too easy and we get frivolity, too hard and we get draconism). Humans always get to where they're going, for good or bad, but there should be some degree of predictability. It gives a sense of security and mental well-being to know that you can carry on without the fabric of reality warping unpredictably around you.

So I am all for civil disobedience, but against uncivil and personal attacks. I am for the rule of law, but as a living thing with the bare minimum of stone pylons, tablets and other unyielding principles (or principalities and powers). I am not an anarchist, but I am not an overarchist. And there we leave it.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Responses (May 2014) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for May 2014 (with some of my personal brief responses) is collected in this post.

Topic Titles

  1. Ethical judgments limit the methods available in the production of knowledge in both the arts and the natural sciences. Discuss.  
  2. "When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails” (Abraham Maslow). How might this apply to ways of knowing, as tools, in the pursuit of knowledge?  
  3. "Knowledge is nothing more the systematic organization of facts.” Discuss this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge.  
  4. "That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.” Consider some of the knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.  
  5. "The historian’s task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future.” To what extent is this true in these two areas of knowledge?  
  6. "A skeptic is one who is willing to question any knowledge claim, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic and adequacy of evidence” (adapted from Paul Kurtz, 1994). Evaluate this approach in two areas of knowledge.  


Clearly, the emphasis on specific areas of knowledge and ways of knowing has almost completely disappeared as the IB prepares to transit to their new TOK model. This means a return to basics. Here are some deliberately short responses.

1. An ethical judgment is a judgment based on the composite morality of a social environment. That is, you can argue that any method that can legitimately be used in knowledge production (based on what a discipline considers to be legitimate) is also bound by what society deems legitimate. We are thus talking about the intersection between what methodologies fit the definition of an area of knowledge (e.g. the various forms of scientific method in the AOK of the natural sciences) and what methodologies fit the range of actions which a society considers to be moral actions.

2. Consider a way of knowing (e.g. sensory perception) and the associated methodologies linked to it (in this case, mostly empirical observation and related methods). If this is your only tool, then you would think that only empirical observation would allow you to pursue knowledge. You would dismiss all other phenomena as being less valid and/or less reliable.

3. Is knowledge just 'stamp collecting'? (I invite students to look for the source of this idea.) If so, then all you need to do is find the right organisation of facts and you have an area of knowledge. But what defines an area of knowledge? This is a key knowledge issue, and it can be resolved by asking questions (similar to those I have answered elsewhere in this blog) such as, "What is the difference between the humanities and the arts?"

4. Well, clearly we need to know what knowledge is, and whether it can be said to become not-knowledge. One argument is that, if you 'know' something and it is later found to be false, you never really 'knew' it. For example, if you thought that lead and gold atoms behaved the way they do because of purely classical reasons, and then learnt (as we did only about 20 years ago) that they did so because of effects related to Einsteinian relativity, did you ever know anything about these atoms?

5. This is an interesting question. History, unlike the sciences, has only descriptive and explanatory theories. Once it develops predictive theories, we call it sociology or political science — examples of human sciences. Why is this so? Again, I've answered that question elsewhere in this blog.

6. I really don't like this kind of question. Consider what would happen if a) you failed to define 'skeptic' properly, and/or b) you considered this approach skeptically (i.e. being skeptical about skepticism). Can you be skeptical about skepticism at all? If so, why not? And if not, why so?

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Empty Space

In the aftermath of M John Harrison's Empty Space, I dreamt a strange reversal of my own. In my dream, I was cleaning up the rheumy eyes of the very young and the very old, and a voice whispered to me, "Remove the dirt from others' eyes, now that you have cleaned your own."

And the world overflowed with people with dirty eyes, and my own eyes overflowed with tears.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

The Long Day Wanes

Where to begin, now? There is a happy man who sits in the pale golden light of the IKEA lamp, looking back with satisfaction on six months' work. So perhaps we begin with the present moment, or that range of self-knowledge which masquerades as time.

I live in Atlantis, a city of millions, with runnels and swards of water and grass and life woven throughout its wonderful fabric. Some Atlanteans, in particular the rich or the culturista-liberalist, profess disgust at the degree of government control, sanctimony, antimony, antinomy, economy — it is as if their inability to bend reality to their tastes makes Atlantis a dump.

It is not. It tries very hard not to be. Just the other day, I realised that potable water costs one and a fifth Atlantean thalers per tonne. That is a thousand litres of water, four thousand glasses. Each glass an Atlantean drinks will cost him only three-hundredths of a cent — up to a limit of forty tonnes a month. And this, in what the fashionable call a concrete wasteland of economic soullessness.

And so, I am happy. I am happy that only the rich can have multiple cars, and that it costs the earth if you want to be a heavy consumer. For all I need is books, and that to the tune of not more than 500 Atlantean thalers a month. Knowledge begets knowledge; I earn that much by weaving new knowledge out of old and feeding it to the hungry. Indeed, I earn enough even to pay for my water, and my food.

My current estimate is that in Atlantis, it is possible to get by on ten thalers a day. The question then becomes, "How much work does one need to earn that much?" The answer is: very little. A more important question is: "How much does one need to do to earn enough for a home AND ten thalers a day?" A tiny leasehold of two rooms over 99 years will set you back the enormous sum of 76,000 thalers, or 16,000 if you are poor and qualify for grants. That is about two thalers a day, or perhaps as little as forty cents.

I would therefore try to earn at least fifty thalers a day, were I young again. Heck, why not throw in everything else modern life might consider necessary (the internet, distractions from life which are referred to as 'having a life', and suchlike) — the sum might rise to two hundred thalers a day.

Do you know how much work will earn you that much? Surprisingly, selling coffee will do that for you. There are many avenues for the unskilled to earn that much. What people won't say is that they don't want to tell others about that because such jobs are limited — too many baristas and each barista will earn less.

The entire shebang is run by the Gnome's successor. Atlantis is not poor. It is only the half-rich who tell the half-poor how terrible their (either side's) lot in life is. In the end, 60% of the population remain sufficiently clear of mind to keep the priests of the Thunderer in business. The cult of the Hammer is rising though; people think that perhaps lightning proceeds better from a Hammer than a Bolt.

They are of course mistaken. Lightning is the cause of thunder, and thunder is a sound similar to the echo of a hammer. Nothing rules the lightning, but it does tend to pass through the highest point in the forest. Only the hardiest spire can control the flash of doom.

And here I sit, drinking pale gold wine in a pale gold room. I think that the main problem of all problems is that there are people wealthy enough to waste time trolling and surfing the Net, who have the gall to complain that they are too poor. I laugh sadly, and think about the goldenly unbearable lightning-ness of being.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Chorus from a Little Red Dot

They slash, they burn
They farm the peat
And then repeat
The cycle turns
Over the days
They make a haze

What have we learnt across the centuries?
That prosperity can be poison
Distilled by exploitation?

No, that is not what we have come to know:
Our forefathers worked by sweat and toil,
But we by unconfessed guile.

How do city-states fatten in their years?
Gold comes from ash and blood and tears.

They slash, they burn
They farm the peat
And then repeat
The cycle turns
Over the days
They make a haze

Here in Atlantis the crying and blame
Have begun—perverse incense—to rise,
As once did in Tyre's skies.

We claim we are poor because we seek wealth.
But we are not farming barren soil,
Do not need to sweat at all.

Why do city-states anger at their kings?
We vote for them to give us things.

They slash, they burn
They farm the peat
And then repeat
The cycle turns
Over the days
They make a haze


With apologies to il miglior fabbro, for this comes from a rock that is waste land.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Limited Toolkit

"When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." This quotation is normally used by liberals to decry a conservative tendency towards monolinear thinking.

However, political and social liberals like myself tend to have an equivalent (or perhaps hypervalent) tendency that may be worse: "When all you have is a toolbox, everything looks like a tool."

Which is to say, we tend to see every effort by an authority-holding entity to be one aimed at curtailing liberties. In that, we make ourselves libertarians, not liberals. True liberals should be in most (if not all) cases prepared to critique and criticise everything - including their own assumptions about power, the state, truth, expression, and other such constructs.

Sometimes, the majority of people do want simple things - not to be bombarded with advertisements, not to have faux news inflicted on them. Is that censorship? If the state speaks for the people who created it or who elected the governing moiety of that state, do they have a right to rein in special interests on behalf of those people? Is this tyranny by majority (an oxymoron for those who know their history)?

Ah, questions, questions. But remember: the toolbox must have tools in it, and the more, the better. I'd rather not have only a set of really big power tools at the expense of my jewellers' screwdrivers and other diverse and mismatched tools.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The End of Politics?

It wasn't so long ago that you could look at a political landscape and feel all kinds of ire at the repression of political freedom. And it is still true today that you can do that. But there are fewer kinds of ire now. In a world without borders and states, the individual will and action become more important and yet less so, since there will be fewer instruments to leverage that power.

What happens as we sink (or rise) towards greater equipotential is that each person will have more space and less effect. Suppose that information, energy, time and material resources are all distributed evenly. Then there are fewer or no gradients, and work cannot be done. This is why great works require great inequities.

But no, this is not a politically safe statement to make.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Urgency is not Agency

I have a lot of students. For some reason, they wait until their assignments are almost due, and then they consult me. They seem to feel that unless there is urgency, there is no emergency. They forget that 'emerge' in its original sense implies the rise of that which is submerged, and the deeper it is submerged, the longer it takes to emerge.

It's for that reason that I must remind them that urgency is not agency. Just because the matter is of some urgency to a student doesn't mean that I must be spurred into action. Indeed, the closer it is to a deadline, the busier I seem to be. What used to be a same-day or eight-hour maximum turnaround time is now about 72 hours or three days simply because the queue for consultations is very long.

Advice for future students: get yours early to avoid disappointment — those who consult me now may be paying as much as a 100% premium over my usual rates. I can't help it; I want to help, but I won't die for my students, and the extra earnings go towards my medical insurance and maintaining the resources I use to help solve their problems.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Imaginary Friends

When we were very young, we had friends who were toys, whom we assigned lives to, and who were what we now call imaginary friends. And supposedly, as adults we are supposed to grow out of such imaginings. But that is not it at all.

You see, the imaginary is the most powerful form of cognition. Whether it is a formal (in several senses) construct like a memory palace, used to recall a myriad facts, or a stuffed bear with a too-small red shirt and now become a cultural icon, we use the hologram images of our imagination to store an abundance of our lives.

Here's the thing. Even if (as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris assert) our cognition of self and the world is merely an emergent illusion stemming from chemical complexity, all that illusory richness retains structure better if the basis of illusion is more complex. It is like having a back-story that is never published, but forms the basis for a fantasy realm.

And so, Christopher Robin and Pooh, Calvin and Hobbes, and a host of other half-real and half-imagined friends, here's to you! May you never fade except as the tired old illusion of life fades, and may you greet us as we pass from illusory existence to illusory ending.

My previous cat was a smokey darkness with white socks. He waited on the roof, with only the shadow of his pricking ears to show his presence. Then you opened the door, and that would galvanise him into some frantic process of descent which would end with him in the house at your feet, hoping for a rub-and-scratch. He is gone now, buried in a little plot to the side of the house. But I, the illusory resident in this illusory realm, still look up seeking pointy ears some evenings. That illusion of memory, of life other than my own, it makes me seem more real even though Dennett and Harris might very well be right.

Who's to know? These days, marmalade sun-cat looks upon me with curious green eyes, miaows softly, comes for his morning head-rub. Over the years, I have come to associate intelligence and warmth with that cat. It is no doubt an illusion. But it gives me an illusory warmth far greater than the chilly sad confusion of Sam Harris's Free Will, in which he asserts that he had none when he wrote the book and I had none, reading it.

And so again, here's to imaginary friends, even those we have the luxurious illusion of thinking are real. Here's to the friends of my childhood: Darwin, Tesla, Newton, and the powerful ghosts who once lived within an imaginary five-mile radius of my imaginary birthplace in that great imaginary, the Isle of Ely. Cheers, and a solemn sherry to you all.

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