Thursday, September 30, 2004

Wanderer's Wisdom

Wanderer walks where white water washes, where west wind whistles, where wild wasteland writhes with weary woodlands. Why Wanderer wanders, who would write with wisdom? Wanderer walks where Wanderer wants.

Wanderer waits, watches weather. Will Wanderer wait without wriggling? When witless wights witter, Wanderer wields words without wilting. When women wax wrathful, Wanderer walks without waiting.

Wanderer wrecks what Wanderer will. Worlds wane, wither wheatlike, where Wanderer wages war. Where Wanderer withdraws wisdom, warriors' weapons weaken, wizards' wands warp, workers whiten with wounded wits. Who withstands Wanderer? Who would? When Wanderer winnows, widows wail.

Wanderer weaves webs; what Wanderer wreaks, Wanderer wreaks well. Wanderer wreaks worthy works. Where willow weeps, Wanderer wends wistfully. When wolf whelps, Wanderer welcomes wolflings. Where weary whale winters, Wanderer whispers warmly. Wanderer's way with weaverbirds works wonders.

Why 'Wanderer'? We wonder. We wait, we watch, we wash windows. Whatever we wish, Wanderer walks where Wanderer will, where Wanderer wants, with Wanderer's ways.


Wednesday, September 29, 2004


I'm an inquisitive person. Mum says that I used to lean over her shoulder all the time to look at the newspaper when I was a baby; she says that I, just born, turned around and glared at the doctor so fiercely that he almost dropped me. It's a trait that has stood me in good stead and helped obtain a very broad education.

There is a down side, though. When I was younger, having many interests and juggling them all was easy - I had energy and a fully-functional memory. Now, older, I have even more interests over a wider range, and I can't remember what's in my library anymore. I can just barely follow a game of chess without a board; I can't read more than two or three books at a time without forgetting which one is next in the queue. I have become a jack-of-all-trades and master of some; the really sad part is that there are people who think I know a lot about everything I know something about. If I did, I'd be a true genius.

The truth is, I know a bit about everything I know something about. I use things I don't know much about to fill in holes in things I know a lot about - and vice versa. It's a weird process. I wish I could control it better.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Your Computer & You

They say that your choice of machines reveals a lot about you. Cynics normally deride my chosen life support system as expensive and exclusive. But it isn't so, as fellow users will testify - and even non-users. In general, the sort of person who would use this machine is creative, intelligent and sophisticated. I haven't got one. Sigh.

Nemo, a 15" cinema screen notebook with 768 Mb of memory, is the latest machine in a long line of those who have handled my peculiar computing needs. It's a long lineage. Still occupying my desktop and handling strategic planning is Judith, a swivelling flatscreen desktop with great speakers and a 17" cinema screen. Out on the 'public' desk is Cami, a compact purple machine which handles the cable hub. Mothballed for now is Gentry, the last machine I have with a SCSI port anywhere. Before him, there were four others, all made by the same company, in an unbroken line stretching back from Perseus to Calvin (my first full-colour machine) to Adam to Ancient Eric, who had 128K of RAM and was a great hero of the Computing Revolution. Eight machines, all from the same company, well-known for innovation. I've seen all of it.

People who don't know me tend to think I've no other computing experience. I guess you can break computing experience down into hardware, software and programming (and no, I won't turn this into a games column as well).

Hardware: I started with little wire-it-yourself-and-program-it-by-changing-the-connections devices, making my own little gates from transistors. My first computer with a monitor still had its organs displayed in a jury-rigged wooden case. There was a VIC-20, an Acorn Atom, a Sinclair ZX80. I have handled Prime, Honeywell and IBM mainframes; I've operated Silicon Graphics workstations. And of course, in school, I have some won-the-cheapest-tender WinXP machine.

Software: Hmmm. I remember using WordStar and VisiCalc, the premier word-processing and spreadsheet software of their day. I remember that software was pirated in vast quantities because people couldn't imagine why it cost so much. I first used MS Word on Adam, a small monochrome grey machine which was probably the first computer of its age to not have a 5.25-inch floppy disk drive. I used ClarisWorks for a very long time, with Paint, Draw and other stuff. In those days, we often made our own software.

Programming: I guess I could sort of call myself multilingual here. Machine language was an improvement over binary, and Assembly was better. BASIC, LOGO, COBOL and PASCAL followed, in that order. Then LISP. I can read C++ and stuff like that, because of PASCAL and LISP. I think when software started becoming big and complex and you needed a lot of memory not to compile code but just to display it. that's when I stopped bothering with programming. Easier to buy the stuff or pay a programmer.

And that's all about computers and me.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

T42 N 24T

trichinobezoar teratogenesis triskaidekaphobia titanomachia

Yes, today is one of those days when I suddenly wake up imbued with the urge to t'se someone, over a nice hot cuppa, just as the old song goes. You know how it is. Suddenly, in one hellish glimpse into the abyss, it isn't your life or your diary which unfolds before your mind's eye. Instead, it's your thesaurus, or your technobiblion, or wherever you store words which resonate with ideas (or ideas which resonate with words - terrifying!)

It all began with a furball lying in the corridor. The word trichinobezoar took the opportunity to leap into my head, and that set off a cascade. This is a nifty word - it describes the product of a process in which hair accumulates in the system and compacts itself into a disgusting mass of material which cannot really be digested. Other similar words are keratobezoar (fingernails and/or toenails) and phytobezoar (plant material, like what happens when you eat too many persimmons at one go).

Yep, it's one of those days.

One Word

I can't think of any quicker way to fry your mind than to do this once a week just for kicks. Go to ONE WORD, a site which is supremely minimalist in outlook. When you hit the GO button, you have 60 seconds to respond to the one word which is at the top of your entry field. Then you post your response to this pseudoblog/tagboard and look at the hundreds of other entries. It is interesting to see what sorts of associations people make, and how alike they are. Try to be original, and you will find that others have tried to be original in exactly the same way. Quite a scary idea.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Old Leysian

For a very brief while, I was a student at The Leys School, Cambridge. It is a Methodist institution possessed of (frankly) quite ugly buildings in assorted stony colours, almost difficult to identify as a school at all. In that brief time (late 1980-1981), I learnt a fair bit about life, economics, pottery, first aid, self-defence, rugby, computers, Monte Carlo simulations, the Treaty of Tordesillas, Dylan Thomas, washing milk bottles, making toast on a gas toaster, Australian mathematics teachers, and the benefits (to mind, body and soul) of choral singing. I also learnt (not so nice, this) that as a Chink, no matter how good my grasp of English (spelling, grammar, syntax), I might still be treated as a second-language user of the tongue of Albion.

Actually, I suspect one of the greatest lessons of life ever taught at The Leys School was this: Lord Cromer, invited to give a speech to the boys, fixed the audience with his gaze and intoned, "Love your country, tell the truth, and don't dawdle!" In saying this, he followed the excellent British tradition of condensing national education, moral education, and practical education (don't procrastinate!) in a few short, pithy phrases.

Teach less, learn more. What a great way to live!

Friday, September 24, 2004

Disdaining Fire

He woke this morning, cold. He thought he heard the music of a previous night. There was the taste of sour wine in his mouth, which once was sweet. What was left could be washed out with water. The clocks had all stopped.

There was broken glass all over the floor. The cat lifted one eyelid reproachfully. There was a faint beeping sound in the distance, as if someone's heart rate monitor had broken down from nervous tension. Caffeine was in his veins, and the triumph of cognitive stimulus made free of charge and not illegal like the others. The Economist said so, and he believed. It was all too fast. He could not sustain the flow. It would drown him and his bones would be coral and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were dead and...

Then he awoke.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Music Alert: The Queen Symphony

OK, this is the eleventh time I'm listening to Tolga Kashif's Queen Symphony. I have never heard such a majestic rendering of We Are The Champions and other classics. The music somehow speaks to me from down below, deep in the ringing chambers of the mournful deep. Whales, waterfalls, the essential distance of time and space between England and the rest of the world - all this is in it. Enough. I need to sleep.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A Man Of Colour

I grew up being able to distinguish bronze-green from olive-green and an aquamarine from a zircon. Eleven years of age, I knew a hundred names for red. And I also knew I was colour-blind. It was September. My grandfather, always curious, always wondering and wonderful, asked me, "Do you see those orange flowers?"

My fateful answer was, "What orange flowers?"

Some tests later, I knew I had a rare form of colour-blindness. It looked superficially like standard red-green, but was almost equally bad whenever colours were pale or very dark, and seemed curable by intense concentration. Grandfather, the first person in Singapore ever to use penicillin on carbuncles, was intrigued enough to start me on stamp-collecting.

"What difference do you see between this stamp and that stamp?"

"Errr... one is fuchsia and the other one is some sort of orchid pink?"

"Do you mean fuchsia pink, fuchsia purple, fuchsia red or fuchsia rose? Is it more rose or orchid?"

And so, I became a man of colour. It took me years to figure out that there were tricks that a colour-challenged person could use to overcome his disability. Careful concentration allows a person to make better use of what remaining colour sensitivity he has. I got fairly good at it; I actually managed to pass chemistry and act as if I wasn't colour-blind at all. Mostly.

Army basic training, second month. "Soldier, run to that fence and come back! Go! Go!"

"Yes, sergeant! No, sergeant! What fence is that, sergeant?!"

BAM! My helmet reverberated like a gong. "That green fence with the yellow building behind it, soldier! Don't be a #&$^*&@*, soldier! Get your %(^&$)%# (*^*) and all your gear over there now, soldier!"

Of course, bright afternoon sunlight on a green chainlink fence + same sunlight on a straw-coloured building = recipe for disaster. There went all my remaining fighter pilot chances. I was posted a few months later to communications specialist school.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Greying Of The Year

As an anonymous voice said some days ago, we were chatting. During that chat, I mentioned a small but significant truth - just as April is the cruellest month, so September is the greyest. Why? Because it is the end of the year, but not quite. Because it is the end of hope, just before hope returns. It is the first of four embers, and when all the embers are gone, it is the bleak midwinter. It is the oldest month before dying, for October is the month of the dying of the year. And so, grey, a saturnine month, ponderous, slouching its way towards Bethlehem. Good night.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Book Alert: The Atrocity Archives

Necromancy is the popular reason which conspiracy theorists of the magical world use to explain Auschwitz and all the other manifestations of human darkness in this world. After all, what else could all that pain and suffering be used for? The theme of a supernatural backdrop to the whole soul-destroying morass recurs in Hellboy, Planetary, The Red Magician, and many others in a long litany of guilt and suspicion.

And so, secret histories grow up, from the stoic vermetica of John Whitbourn's Popes and Phantoms to the comic universe of Robert Rankin's Brentford sort-of-trilogy. There is always the strange feeling that somewhere, somebody knows the truth. I think that feeling is most effectively parodied in John Constantine, Hellblazer #143 - in general, wherever Warren Ellis steps, he will leave traces of the kind.

But that's a long preamble to the point of this entry. And that point is: Charles Stross's The Atrocity Archives, now reissued in a beautiful hardcover edition by Golden Gryphon Press, is about 80000 words of pure entertainment in which information technology is the root of all evil. The intelligence agencies of the world have secrets so bizarre, so outré, so mindblasting that Cthulhoid beings from the void are the least of the problem.

Bob Howard is a hacker who somehow finds himself drafted into the SAS because of certain things Man was not meant to know. His is a world where pentacles have power, and the coder of computers controls the geometry of that power. Topology and information are the source code of the universe, and something might be trying to rewrite it - something indescribable using existing code. In the end, as it was with U2 and the Beatles, it's always the British who are closest to the root of the problem. Centuries of accretive myth-modification have to end up somewhere, I suppose.

Sometimes, the Library of Congress record for a book can be most revealing. The record for this one lists five subjects: Computer Hackers; Turing, Alan Mathison 1912-1954 Influence; World War 1939-1945 Atrocities; World War 1939-1945 Germany; and Nazis - Fiction. Stross also credits Len Deighton, H P Lovecraft, and Neal Stephenson. He specifically omits Tim Powers, whose supernatural spy thriller tour-de-force Declare also describes the same era of human history, saying that it was a total coincidence.

I believe him. Powers writes secret histories in an inimitable way, and Declare is to Archives as John Le Carré is to William Gibson. Sort of. Maybe you should just read both.

The School of Life

Life is a school - not of fish, but of experience. Instead of netting fish when you live life, you gain from experience. Sometimes, as a fish will, an experience will escape you. That's fine, as long as you get enough to eat, and aren't harvesting endangered species.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Testing Time

It's that time of year again, when September is confused with April, and my poor younger brethren are subjected to the rigours of conventional mass testing.


A great cave this, four hundred souls
Address a common task,
Bow down towards their common goals,
Wear discipline and honour like a mask.

To circumvent their circumstance,
Bend paper to their wills,
They wrestle mightily, each glance
A hope of meaning to this trial instils.

The lights glare down, seek to expose
A certain fact of skill;
Yet bowed as they, confined in rows
Their shadowed faces hide their secrets still.



Latin has always been a source-language with powerful resonances and an uncompromising spirit (well, mostly). Today, as I walked around, invigilating over the alchemical trials of my younger brethren, I was struck by the concept of invigilation itself.

'Invigilator' comes from the Latin invigilare, 'to watch over'; an invigilator is therefore 'one who watches over (others)'. The sense is that of one keeping a watch or a vigil in an alert state, so that malefactors (Latin, 'evil-makers') will be caught and punished, while the innocent (Latin, 'those lacking in wickedness') are protected. The job of an invigilator of examinations is therefore one of maintaining fairness - of maintaining an environment in which those inclined to cheat will be less so, and those who seek to do their best will be supported in doing so.

Think of it as being a shepherd, so that 'sheep may safely graze'.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Green Age

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Dylan Thomas, high bard of Wales, was struck down on 9 November 1953 by drink and dissolution, his voice still thundering out the silences between his inimitable vowels. Of all the poets I heard in my youth, it was he who informed my teenage angst the most. The first encounters I had with him were at the Leys School, Cambridge, where I spent a short but very fruitful period of my education; the first poem of his that I met was The Hand That Signed The Paper. It begins like this:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

And it becomes more eloquent as it sinks into the contemplative stillness of its final quatrain. In many of his poems, one finds a structure which begins with birth foreshadowing death, and a body of the tension which must then follow, with an ending which is final yet bittersweet, because it is hard to tell if he opens a window for hope or closes a door to eternity.

The most wonderful experience is to hear the poet - public-domain recordings of his radio broadcasts of Under Milk Wood still can be found. From these, you can imagine him, all Brythonic power and sadness, reading out immortality as an alchemist might measure out tincture of orpiment.

What made me remember Dylan Thomas? A combination of a few very odd factors, really. Students telling me they find the study of literature exasperating, Arsenal beating PSV Eindhoven 1-0 at Highbury in north London, September and a cold grey rain - these came together, blended like a rare perfume which recalls the faint presence of someone deeply loved and gone.

I will never forget two of his poems, etched in my mind. They are Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and And Death Shall Have No Dominion. I have long dedicated them to the memory of those I have known who are only with me in that memory. I shall quote only one verse of each.


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (last verse)

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


And Death Shall Have No Dominion (first verse)

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.


Amen. Thank you, Master Dylan.

Book Alert: Novelties & Souvenirs

The first time that I read John Crowley was when I encountered Little, Big as a teenager. It was a bemusing, fantastic, numinous experience. Somehow that story of young lovers and a land beyond the mundane was framed in a lens so utterly familial and homely that at the end of it, I wanted to be there.

This volume contains fifteen of his short stories, spanning twenty-five years. They range in chronological order from Antiquities with its perverse but strangely sad ailurophilia, to the particularly Kafkaesque The War between the Subjects and the Objects. I will single out just one of the stories in the middle for particular mention (after all, these columns are alerts, not reviews).

The Nightingale Sings at Night is, quite simply put, one of the most beautiful creation-myths I've ever read. It is at least as beautiful as those by Ted Hughes, is probably at least as tragic as the Celtic Twilight, and is as charming as Lang's retellings of the ancient folktales. Here's how it begins:

The Nightingale is called a Nightingale because it sings at night.

There are other birds who cry in the night: the whippoorwill complains and the owl hoots, the loon screams and the nightjar calls. But the Nightingale is the only one that sings: as beautifully as the lark sings in the morning and the thrush at evening, the Nightingale sings at night.

But the Nightingale didn't always sing at night.


And this is how it ends; well, almost. I've taken a section from near the end.

"It's all right," sang the Nightingale.

"It's all right," said the Man, and he held the Woman in his arms. "I think it will be all right." He closed his eyes, too. "Anyway," he said, "I don't think the story's over yet."

And so, from that day to this, the Nightingale has sung his song at night.

In the spring and summer, when his heart is full and the nights are soft and warm, he sings his song of hope and remembrance, his song that no one can imitate and no one can describe.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Easier Reading Than You Thought

The following feeds off an anonymous voice... it turns out that you'd have to be about 10 years old or so to have a decent chance of not understanding what I'm saying. Haha... Then again, some parts of the analysis peg it at around 16 years.


Readability report for

readability grades:
Kincaid: 6.5
ARI: 7.0
Coleman-Liau: 9.6
Flesch Index: 77.0
Fog Index: 9.6
Lix: 33.8 = below school year 5
SMOG-Grading: 9.2
sentence info:
15435 characters
3573 words, average length 4.32 characters = 1.34 syllables
222 sentences, average length 16.1 words
45% (100) short sentences (at most 11 words)
18% (41) long sentences (at least 26 words)
14 paragraphs, average length 15.9 sentences
6% (14) questions
43% (97) passive sentences
longest sent 70 wds at sent 99; shortest sent 1 wds at sent 14
word usage:
verb types:
to be (131) auxiliary (42)
types as % of total:
conjunctions 6(198) pronouns 10(365) prepositions 11(387)
nominalizations 1(29)
sentence beginnings:
pronoun (51) interrogative pronoun (9) article (21)
subordinating conjunction (7) conjunction (21) preposition (8)

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Leaving Time

Yep, sometimes you know when the sky is just that shade of grey, and the wind is just that shade of cold. There's the scent of curing tobacco, or crushed flowers, or the sea. And at the end, you know you have to go.


Trees grow everywhere.
And in the land I was born,
Summer goes and leaves a cloak -
A cloak of leaves -
Green into red,
Life into fire.

And I think I know
Why these things falling are called
Leaves. They leave us, leave behind
Their ancient trees -
Life into ground,
Ground into life.

What life? Well, I think
These leaves, now left, are transformed,
Become the food of futures -
Of future things -
Maybe not trees,
Maybe flowers.

God's wind blows, strange wind;
We know not where it whistles.
Maybe you, a leaf, leaving
Will make flowers
Bloom somewhere in
Other gardens.

Storm Symbols

It's easy to forge myths.


Newsgroup: soc.culture.singapore
Date: 22 Oct 1995 10:38:41 GMT

Listen, my children, and I shall tell you the ghost of a tale... a tale so dark and shrouded in mystery that only the elite know of its existence at all (yes, prepare to join the elite).

Way back in the 1950s, a young lawyer named Harry used to hang out with his LibSoc friends and suchlike others. He also drank lots of beer (and once had to be swept out of a house by my grandmother, who was more a Baba Naga than a Baba Yaga). In such a mood as succeeds such a sweeping statement, he came one day to Bukit Timah.

In those days, the Tin Hill was an even wilder place than it is now. (Actually, there are precious few vestiges of the wilderness left in Bukit Timah nowadays.) But the storms were almost the same: raging titans that swept up and down the Indian and Pacific Oceans, stubbed their toes on the main rockhill of Singapore, and cursed in blinding torrents of tears.

Even in those dim and uncertain days, Harry had an uncommon perspicacity. He saw the thunderheads and heard the thunder rumbling, and observed how a whole island could be prostrated by the storms that rolled down from the mighty Hill of Tin. And as he mused, he heard a deep and distant voice in the thundering. It seemed to say, "If you *rumble rumble*, I will give you *rumble* kingdoms *rumble* power *rumble rumble*." To this day, only Harry himself (and maybe his redoubtable wife) know exactly what monstrous compact was struck upon the Hill of Tin.

Politics grew upon our tiny isle. Forest was cut back, kampongs were levelled. And through it all, many tried to unravel the labyrinthine secret of the Hill of Tin. What was the secret symbol of the Titans on the Hill?

Interested parties guessed it might be a triangle (hill-shaped), or a hammer (traditional for thunder gods), or a lightning-bolt. The power on the Hill of Tin ensured the prosperity of those who chose aright. And to this day, despite the many broken promises and lawyerly evasions with which a certain lawyer dealt with the ancient powers, the sacred symbol remains dominant over Singapore.

Monday, September 13, 2004

A Sense Of Wonder

I spent most of today marking essays. Tall ones, short ones, long ones, brief ones. It struck me that they all lacked one thing: a sense of wonder. I mean, here you have young men writing about God and philosophy and transformation and power and technology - and yet it sounds so dry, so dispassionate, so bloodless. The Greek word is anaimosarke - lacking blood and fleshly substance, and it is the adjective used in a very famous classical poem to describe the cicada, who is happy to be that way.

Yes, they lack a sense of wonder - a sense of numinosity - that deitropic sense which seeks and finds a hidden fundamental glory behind the apparent firmament of this world. Agnostic physicists have it; Feynman could marvel at how his simple diagrams of the subatomic world were so apt, so descriptive of the unseen. But where to find it, if they don't have it?

That's a serious problem. It goes beyond philosophy and sometimes, even religion. It goes beyond modern culture or society or whatever. I think that a sense of wonder only forms when two things happen: 1) the human entity realises how small it is, and 2) the same entity realises how big everything else might be. Note: 'might be' and ' not 'is'. If you know how big something is, then it isn't big enough, or perhaps it's really big and all that, but you have set the seal of finity on it, and it will someday end.

So I tried delving deep in me to find instances of that sense of the numinous. Where have I ever felt that, when, and why?

I found numerous examples. I shall share just one, though.

In my life of idle wandering, I have seen many comicbook heroes die. Some companies kill them off in huge numbers (maiming is sometimes almost as good) just to raise sales. I will talk about three. I saw Jean Grey (Phoenix) die - we all did, in X-Men #137 all those years ago; I saw Superman die, beaten and pounded to a pulp by Doomsday, on 18 Nov 1992. And I saw the Batman die, at the hands of his best friend, at the stroke of midnight and Frank Miller's pen.

I was saddened greatly by Phoenix's death, but she had killed a world, and besides, her Cyclops was there to mourn her and I closed the book and it was never as sad again. I was stunned by Superman's brutal demise, because he was Superman - Last Son of Krypton - and could never die; and of course, he didn't. But the one which kicked me in the guts was when a bruised Wayne crumpled in his armoured exoskeleton, the ultimate knight felled in his defence of a free land.


Because Batman was human, purely so. He had triumphed over evil, both within and without, with nothing but bare humanity and the excellence that can come with it. If he had ever taught anything to any of his colleagues, it was that humans can be much more than anythng humans can imagine; that a driven, focused, intelligent perseverance could be more telling than X-ray vision, an emerald ring or a golden lasso. I wept when Batman fell. He was the darkness in us that was also the dark before the dawn. Unlike Superman and Phoenix, he was really one of us - perhaps not the neighbour of our choice, but the defender who would always have our concerns at heart.

I saw a lot of the Batman in the defenders of New York three years ago. Helplessly, they watched loved ones die. Tirelessly, they fought to save the living, and they swore, 'Never again.' It was one shining moment which could only come out the darkness, the cape blackly flapping in the midnight wind of Gotham. And it was that moment, when humanity in all its frailty looked into the darkness and found light, that I felt again a certain sense of wonder - not certain, as in 'specific'; but certain as in 'sure and steadfast'.

As long as a sense of wonder remains to be evoked, humanity has hope. The true heroes are among us.

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Sunday, September 12, 2004

A Piece Of My Mind

I think that once in a while, with Mnemosyne alongside, I am taken down the strangest pathways of my mind. Retrograde analysis. Pastwatching. Sometimes, I unearth stuff I used to think about, some of which I thought I had discarded decades ago, some of which has been merely lurking in ambush for all that time. Here's a statement I made a long time ago, unearthed from some ancient archive, a piece of my mind:

Date: Tue, 31 Oct 1995 16:46:02 GMT
>Specifically, societies always have problems.
>When there are enough of them, specific problems form societies.

I remember saying this. But I'm still curious. I wonder how people would respond (if they ever bothered) to such a statement. In fact, given the >15 years I've been online, I probably have enough of this stuff to forge a curriculum of my own. Now that I've started, doing it will probably be the only way to achieve one of the great goals of civilisation: true peace of mind.

What I Was Doing On 11 September 2001

I remember that we were having a meeting. Then someone rushed in and said, "A plane's crashed into the World Trade Center. It's on TV now." The whole thing was just surreal - or at the very least, like one of those magic-realist or Man Who Was Thursday anarchist nightmares.

The meeting was adjourned and I returned to my flat, five minutes away. Switched on the TV (something I hardly ever do, since it tends to rot the brain) - and there it was, the second hit, live. I just couldn't believe it. I sat there watching as the towers collapsed on live TV. It wasn't real. It couldn't be. The dust and smoke filled the city, blossomed like malevolent foliage across the avenues and streets.

I remember that my friend Jason and I had been watching a rock concert just the year before at the WTC plaza. All that was gone now, bare memory all that remained. The worst part, I think, was that I had preached a sermon way back in May 1998 on the relevance of the prophet Jeremiah and his message; its title was A Burning Fire In My Heart (this line taken from Jeremiah 20:9).

In that sermon, I quoted the many verses in Jeremiah's prophecies which referred to a mighty nation struck down by fire in the heart of its military strength and economic prosperity - the images he used were an olive tree kindled by fire (11:16), a fire in the places of trade (17:27) consuming the fortresses, a people secure in their refuge but attacked by fire (21:13-14). (Ezekiel had similar things to say about the great trading and military powers of his time as well.)

Jeremiah's prophecy was specific to his time and his people. Yet, the message is one which warns all generations and peoples of the retribution that accompanies hubris. Any prosperous and militarily secure nation may invite this retribution, unless it seeks to develop the conscience of its people, the willingness to serve justice and mercy equally well, the attitude that what counts is not the pride of knowledge but the humility of wisdom. All it takes is a counter-dream, the hate of a rival or a victim turned into intense heat, and fire will fall from the sky. May it not happen again, we pray; make no mistake though, it will.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Clock Meditations

As Auden said, 'Time is not your friend.'


That clock is still ticking.
It sits there, its inimical face
Marks out the ambit of my years.

My night is your morning -
In deep noon, they seem as if the same;
But I am young, and growing old.

The rabbits are breeding.
The country swarms with them now, it seems;
Perfidy fills the sour land.

And you are still waiting
Like the clock, mainspring unwinding slow
Older or younger, unknowing.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Into The Thinking Kingdoms

Yes, you caught me. That's the title of the second book in Alan Dean Foster's extremely under-rated Journey of the Catechist trilogy. What's it doing here? Well, the book itself is a very pointed and very amusing diversion which makes riffs on the theme of 'interrogating the cosmos', as are its two companions in the set. The title crawled quietly into my head while I was discussing Aristotle and the idea of questions as aids to pragmatic understanding. Suddenly, I knew what would be the ideal textbook for the sort of people I work with. Sadly, I think it's out of print.

So we'll do the next best thing, my subversive inner self suggests. Why not do something totally unalike? It's 3 am in the morning, you are about to leave the Thinking Kingdoms for the Shadowlands, come on boss, you can do it. Oh very well, I mutter crossly. I used to have four personalities, and occasionally, they mimic each other. Fortunately, my mind is now held together by an Integrated Program.

The question of the night is: which science fiction novels have disguised themselves most successfully as fantasy? I don't know why this particular question; take it up with my innards. Here's my list of the top three, and if you really want a challenge, see if you can find your own. (By the way, the first two books are still in print! The third should be around somewhere.)

1) Zelazny, Roger. (1967) Lord of Light. New York: Doubleday.

The book proper begins with the immortal lines:
His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. he preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

2) McCaffrey, Anne. (1968) Dragonflight. New York: Del Rey.

It took several books before many of us even caught on:
Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the prescience of a danger stronger than the one ten full Turns ago that had then sent her, whimpering with terror, to hide in the watch-wher's odorous lair.

3) Tepper, Sheri S. (1983) The True Game, London: Corgi.

This book throws you straight into the Game:
'Totem to King's Blood Four.' The moment I said it, I knew it was wrong. I said 'No!'
Gamesmaster Gervaise tapped the stone floor with his iron-tipped staff, impatiently searching our faces for a lifted eye or a raised hand. 'No?' he echoed me.

The Cyborg Name Generator

The Cyborg Name Generator is probably a bit lame to some people. But it has a kind of cute lameness. Names are important: John, Yahya, Ivan, Sean and Johannes are all brothers from the beginning of language. I get synonyms like Iskandar and Xander. Sometimes, names have the weight of myth and legend behind them. Which is why Wanderer became Autolycus - but that's a story for another time.

Book Alert: Scarecrow

Shane Schofield, USMC, is a hero. The protagonist of two of Matthew Reilly's other books (Ice Station, Area 7) is fast, rugged, peculiarly talented, and a lot more solid (read: has more character) than the rapidly-aging James Bond whom I grew up with. The books just mentioned are also fast, rugged, perhaps a bit over-the-top, and lots of fun. Quick cerebral, for the concentration-challenged. Think of blitz vs standard chess.

So what's new about Scarecrow?

Well, think of a bounty hunt worth about US$20m per head, with 15 names on the target list. Think of teams of the best bounty-hunters in the world and a secret that is literally 'to die for'. Think of a thousand litres of boiling oil and a group of mysterious industrialists who own the world. Think terrorists, a new cold war, nuclear threats, laser-guided massive ordnance, an exploding aircraft carrier, and car chases that are just begging to be made into movie fillers. This book is a movie in book form. Maybe three, altogether. The only problem is that you need both hands to read it, so no popcorn unless you want to miss out on details.

And, oh yes, wait till you see who dies half-way through the book.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Heavy Metals

Gold is for the mistress—silver for the maid—
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron—Cold Iron—is master of them all.”

Rudyard Kipling


I've always loved poetry and how it fits in just nicely with all my other interests. The theological point to the poem quoted above is an interesting one, but to me, the alchemical point is even more so. Iron and the noble metals in Group 11 of the modern periodic table have been with us since the beginning of language - gol and iren are recognizable from the very roots of the Indo-Aryan languages.

But I'll save the lesson for my students. It'll be in their handouts. What passed through my mind in this age of iron-substitutes (aluminium, titanium, manganese) is more that the later metals have no sense of identity about them. People can somehow comprehend what a 'golden moment' is, or what 'ruling with an iron fist' is, or what to be 'born with a silver tongue' means. Yet, if I were to say, "Oh, what a scandium (light, flexible) way of treating the homeless!" or "His osmium (heavy, malodorous) nature emanated the stench of evil," or "She ran the class with a ruthenium (strong, inflexible) hand," I don't think many people would respond (fellow alchemists excepted).

Perhaps there should be a concerted effort to bring some of these other metals more into the public consciousness. We could have an Iridium Award for innovations with long-lasting effects, or a Vanadium Prize for the most multifaceted production. Maybe a Polonium Day, at which we could invite His Excellency the Polish Ambassador to speak? Or a Rhodium Seminar, where Rhodes Scholars could be persuaded to debate important issues...

Then again, maybe the classical metals are still the best. Let me quote just the first and last verses from W H Auden's The Shield of Achilles:

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away;
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Eye Winks At The Hand

Sometimes one just has to be envious of someone else's eye. I took a look at Fred Lucas on a tip-off from ChessBase. Sigh. I love his shots. Look out for the war-weariness of the older players - the fading Karpov, the doughty Timman - and the desperation of the younger ones (see if you can find the one I call, "I may be a WGM with too little sleep but I'm still beautiful, dammit!") His other pictures are beautiful too.

Icarus, Prometheus & Satan

The tales of forbidden knowledge are often the most poignant, and the most costly, of all human myths. Some brave souls might assert that all quest stories are basically tales of forbidden knowledge, but that's just not true - some things are hidden, some things are guarded, but there are very few things which have big fiery markings or divine pronouncements around them, saying "Thou shalt not pass!" "Thou shalt not taste!" or the equivalent.

And once in a while, there is transgression. (Often, linked with tragedy.)

Transgression in mythology comes in three flavours: dumb, daft and diabolical. Hence the three in my title. We'll take the cases one by one, as the Sinn Fein man said to the Kalashnikov dealer.

Dumb. "Do not turn around or else..." applied to Orpheus as well as Lot's wife. The reasons were probably metaphysical, but the results were disastrous. Icarus however did not have the excuse of things being too metaphysical - he was told by his father in no uncertain terms, "Fly too high and your wings will MELT. So don't do something which you will regret." Of course, flight brings its own arrogance (cf Bellerophon, Pegasus, destination: Olympus). So young Ikaros decides to be a high-flyer, goes so high that the naked sun melts the resin/wax that holds his feathers together, and... the rest is captured by that cynical chronicler of the human condition, Pieter Breughel. There's a nice page here, cunningly labelled 'Art Poems'. Have a look. Bonus: the first poem is W H Auden's take on it - and his poet's ear is always painfully exact. Read it and weep, or not.

Daft. Daft is a bit better. Daft is what people used to call 'touched in the head' when they were being polite. Now they call it ADD, ADHD, or some other incomprehensible acronym. It all boils down to 'behaviour which the subject thinks is appropriate which nobody else seems grateful for'. Shelley's Prometheus is a near-divine grandness of a Titan, nobility and all. His name means 'forethought'. In a fit of glorious altruism, so that Man might have a chance of survival, he steals the gift of fire from Zeus (whose very name means 'The God', Sanskrit Dyaus, Latin Deus). Some claim the real gift was that of brewing - flame, song, ethanol and knowledge are one cluster of magical nouns in the language of myth. The punishment is swift and severe. Prometheus is staked out in the Caucasus, his titanic frame pinned by unbreakable chains. The eagle of Zeus (yes, the same one we have all over our IP materials) will come to rip out the immortal's liver every morning. It will grow back again by night.

Diabolical. Ah, an innocent circumlocution, as so many of his titles are. "He who casts against" is what diabolos means. He never has a real name - he is Lightbringer, Adversary, Accuser. His crime, for which he lost his name and his rank, is that of insurrection. Specifically, the sin of casting himself in the role of God, by reason of his personal glory, power and capacity for interaction - and then inciting a third of the stars of heaven to follow him. He was the anointed guardian of the places of the holy fire, and betrayed that trust by attempting to appropriate them all. He gambled big, for the highest of stakes, and lost. Neil Gaiman, as usual, has the most interesting takes on these things: Murder Mysteries is one of them, as is his work in the Sandman cycle as far as it relates to the Lightbringer. Again, note the burning, the tragedy... and read Milton's Paradise Lost.

So what is the difference between these three? Icarus falls because he is overcome by his partial ascension and can't stop himself - he is almost purely a victim of inexperience and atmosphere. Prometheus falls in perfect knowledge that he does this out of altruism, and that some day, a son of Man (who is also son of God) will come to free him. And the last one falls in the perfect knowledge that it is better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven - but oh, how bitter the taste of brimstone.

Three kinds of tragedy: the tragedy of folly, the tragedy of altruism, and the tragedy of excellence. Which is your flavour of choice?


In closing, three views, snapshots from each text: I present these as a service to those who can't be bothered to surf further.


View One: Auden, of Icarus - from Museé des Beaux Arts

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


View Two: Shelley, of Prometheus - from Prometheus Unbound

All things are still: alas! how heavily
This quiet morning weighs upon my heart;
Though I should dream I could even sleep with grief
If slumber were denied not. I would fain
Be what it is my destiny to be,
The saviour and the strength of suffering man,
Or sink into the original gulf of things:
There is no agony, and no solace left;
Earth can console, Heaven can torment no more.


View Three: Milton, of Satan - from Paradise Lost

The mind is its own place, and in itself 
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. 
What matter where, if I be still the same, 
And what I should be, all but less than he 
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least 
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built 
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice, 
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: 
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.


Monday, September 06, 2004

The Political Compass

One of the places you should go every few weeks or so is The Political Compass. The reason that I mention it here is a long and tortuous one, but essentially, I think that it comes from reading SF and fantasy novels as political novels. It's interesting, for example, to look at Julian May's The Many-Coloured Land - the first book in the Saga of the Pleistocene Exile, and a book which presents an SF basis for European folktales - and speculate to what extent a Canadian perspective informs the author about how people ought to work together in a star-spanning community.

It's difficult to do the postmodern 'French thing' and say that narratives have no meaning except for the context that we create for them, and despite whatever meaning their authors intended. It's difficult because humanity insists on finding meaning, and on creating things on the back of their own perceptions of meaning. Like some great turtle supporting worlds, each person's biography subtly anchors the meaning of what they write; often, more so than the elephants on that turtle which are intermediaries between it and the world. Of course, in our present age, this includes teachers of literature, who for some reason persist in interpreting Shakespeare through Elizabethan lenses or worse, modern 20th/21st century eyes.

What then can one make of Tolkien's grand narrative, The Lord of the Rings? Is it based on a snapshot of the noble island race against their distant cousin who is attempting to grind the face of the world in the dust of history? Or is it just good vs evil, or what? I don't claim to know, but if Tolkien himself says it was not meant to be allegorical, we should take the man at his own word. Not that it isn't allegorical at all, but that he did not intend it to be. Is it possible then that it is unintentional allegory? No. I think that allegory requires deliberate intent; allos implies a side-by-side relationship, one of a high degree of congruence. But it is safe, I think, to say that Tolkien's culture and his education and all the aspects of his biography conspire to make his magnum opus something that nobody can imitate simply because they're not him.

So, what of the Political Compass? I think that it's possible for us to examine the underlying premises of any fantasy or SF novel and classify them according to any of a huge number of bipolar axes. But the Compass, which classifies by social axis (Fascist vs Libertarian) and economic axis (Laissez-Faire vs Controlled) is a useful start. i find it so because it is always amusing to read US authors in that light - they have awful issues about what 'Good' is about. Is it Law and Order, or is it Freedom and Individualism? I suspect that most of them think more in terms of the latter than the former, which is why the typical US press op-ed tends to heap scorn or disdain on countries like Singapore.

Yet when you look at people like Kerry, Bush and all the other people that US voters think of electing once every four years, you find that inevitably, they are less in favour of freedom and individualism and the free market than they claim to be. American leaders are at heart a little more Fascist, a little more in favour of central control than they let on. Whether Democrat or Republican, they who turn the wheel and look to windward all love to manipulate the economy and the lives of their citizens. Some are more obvious, some less. The more obvious ones, at least, are honest.

How did I score on the test? Economic Left/Right: -1.38; Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.15. That makes me a slightly liberal person both socially and economically. Not much, but enough to be on the other side of the graph from most of America's politicians. Sigh... this will be a very long decade.

Sunday, September 05, 2004


It's been almost exactly twenty years since I wrote this piece. For the sake of amateur historians, this is the original of a poem which can be found in the college magazine for that year. Which college? To some, it will be obvious.


Old roses locked up in old rooms:
The older, the more concealed
Are oftentimes in better tombs,
And much the easier unrevealed.

I am alive on sea-surface;
My fins cut surf, ploughing waves.
Hard-yielding sea-waters displace
Windy underwater caves.

Beneath searing sky, sun-scourging,
Walk sand-endless dunes of pain,
Mirage and hope tired merging
With reality, each grain.

Long journeys, far roads, dark nights trod;
Broken faith, dead hope, old love;
Dreaming knights, slain dreams, dreams of God;
Black heights, cold stars all above.

Below lies the valley of keys.
The rooms should not show again
What we hide. And do not release
Old roses precious once to men.


Life As A Game Of Chess

It's often been said either that Life is like a game of Chess, or that Chess is like Life. Sometimes, we nod our heads sagely and just accept that this is a truism (either because Life is so vaguely defined, or because Chess is defined so generally). But sometimes I lean back and look at life, chess and my library and I think about how true this statement is.

Some preliminaries first. Logically, it's quite clear that Chess != Life and vice versa. So it's OK to say that one is like the other provided we don't make the degree of congruence too high. Some people also think that it's a bit facetious to equate a game with something as important as Life. Some think that the only degree of resemblance is analogous to that between a leaf and the tree it grow from - some sort of magical similarity, so to speak. But all these just ignore the fact that until we state exactly what we mean when we say Chess is like Life, there is nothing to debate.

So, what exactly is the case for Chess being like Life? (And since I'm being kind, I will even add the ways in which I think Chess is not like Life.)

To begin with, historically, chess (or its ancient ancestor, chaturanga - the 'four-armed game') was designed to reflect one particular aspect of Life - armed conflict between two equal armies, one with the barest initiative, and the whole battlefield influenced by chaos simulated through dice. Points to note: the armies are equal to begin with; and the original game, the 'proto-chaturanga', used dice. The present version of course, is more deterministic - it doesn't use dice.

As Chess spread westward to Byzantium, the pieces began to take on the burden of archetypal perception - the King came to symbolise the Guardian of the Faith, the Bishops came to symbolise the Church and its dominion over moral darkness and light, the Knights came to symbolise the machinations and ambitions of the junior nobility. Chess was seen as a metaphor for the 'order of things' - with the King having the highest value and the lowly peons being cannon-fodder (or canon-fodder, if we are to believe Martin Luther).

Chess suffered a lot in those days though - games were played with little regard for strategy as long as they reflected the 'truth' of the world, that peons never get to defeat bishops, for example. Sets were designed to reflect Muslims vs Christians, with the Sultan on one side and the Emperor on the other. An interesting treatment of this situation can be found in Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark. At the end, the Western powers play a tremendous gambit in which the King takes to the battlefield and the Eastern powers are utterly routed.

At this point, we can safely say, as we stagger under the weight of historical evidence, that Chess is like Life at least because it was designed to reflect certain societal aspects of conflict, culture and community.

But is Chess something more than that? Are the philosophical underpinnings of the game anything like the reality of Life?

Sadly, no. Chess is bipolar; Life is multipolar. Chess is in black and white; Life might be monochrome, but in millions of greys. Chess assumes an ending, and its laws ensure this; Life occasionally asserts endings, but it goes on regardless. In Life, the pieces wield a vast continuum of powers, from the least to the greatest and the plain unclassifiable; Chess is contained, almost repressed, in its bare order of battle.

True, an understanding of the elements of Chess does give one an additional perspective on Life and problem-solving - but this is true too of any exercise of human ability, whether it's rock-climbing or forensic chemistry. We have to conclude that Chess is only superficially and crudely like Life, just as Star Wars is only superficially and crudely science fiction, despite its obvious SF tropes.

Then again, the literature of the chessboard is vast and beautiful, and it is here that one begins to develop a new appreciation for the ways in which human thought may express itself in chesslike fashion. Take for example Carroll's Through The Looking-Glass, in which the whole tale is a rather perverse game of chess. Or Brunner's The Squares of the City, in which the City itself is a chessboard on which its population works out a rather extreme game of living chess. My favourite is probably Tepper's The True Game, which will drive you insane while you try to figure out how come fantasy genetics could possibly lead to a whole world of players - and pieces.

What I propose to do, though, sometime in the next few days, is to dissect the workings of the school in which I live and move and have my being, and represent the major players as fantasy chesspieces. School - the collectible miniatures game. It has a sort of peculiar savour to it.

Friday, September 03, 2004


When I was ten, I had a favourite colour, a favourite food, the usual. When I was twenty, I was surprised how little had changed. When I was thirty, I was depressed at how little had changed. Soon, I'll be forty. How much really has changed?

Favourite colour: dark blue - dark green - midnight blue - midnight blue
Favourite gemstone: blue sapphire - black opal - fire opal - cat's eye chrysoberyl
Favourite food: pasta/noodles - pasta/noodle - pasta/noodles - pasta/noodles
Favourite fruit: cherries - black cherries - black cherries - blueberries
Favourite TV show: Space:1999 - Sapphire&Steel - BTVS - Firefly
Favourite author: Isaac Asimov - Robert Silverberg - Tim Powers - Neil Gaiman
Favourite mammal: wolf - wolf - wolf - wolf
Favourite bird: eagle - crow - raven - raven

Tempus mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis...

Your belonging in The Mysteries of Udolpho is quite
evident; a world of intrigue, melancholy,
sublimity and terror. You belong where there
are danger, gloomy edifices, and evil Italian
guardians. Your passion for the passion of the
Mediterranean, the divine contemplation of
nature, and for adventure stories, makes you a
prime contender for a spot in a gothic romance.
Which Classic Novel do You Belong In?
brought to you by Quizilla

Leiber und Einstein

Of course, in a hole in my father's library, there lived a hobbit. Over time, he became a bad hobbit of mine, progressively more dog-eared as I grew older and then got brained by the ultra-fat one-volume Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien has never been all of fantasy to me, and while he was doing the high stuff, one Fritz Leiber was doing the low stuff.

Leiber died not too long ago, wise and full of years. Although he did weird and wonderful jobs with books like A Spectre is Haunting Texas and Our Lady of Darkness, it will always be for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser that he must be remembered. Who?

Fafhrd was the archetypal Northman berserker type, except that he had grown up a singing skald, which made him a sort of berserk choirboy whom everyone underestimated in matters of culture and knowledge - often to their detriment. The Grey Mouser was his partner in crime, the archetypal Southerner rogue, all charm and curiosity - except that he was also a romantic who fancied himself as a bit of a sorcerer.

In one of their adventures - I forget which - Leiber describes their world of Nehwon (a parallel to Butler's Erewhon one has to suspect) as a bubble rising through the depths of space forever, a bubble among many other bubbles.

Fade and dissolve... cut to this month's issue of Scientific American - the Einstein issue. Well, whaddya know... There's an article titled The String Theory Landscape: the merger of general relativity and quantum mechanics posits bubble universes within bubble universes. And suddenly, I'm reading Leiber again.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Firefly - Some Comments

Take a look at The SF Site: Babylon 5.1 by Rick Norwood.
It's nice to know when someone else agrees with you.

Insanity In A Dead Language

I remember there was a time when I was 16 and I was studying for exams and we played Orff's Carmina Burana non-stop for 5 days. Worse was to come. We couldn't stop humming bits of it in class. And even worse, they were the -loud- bits. Like 'O Fortuna' for example.

But one part of it stuck in my mind and wouldn't let go.

Feror ego veluti
Sine nauta navis
Ut per vias aeris
Vaga fertur avis

Non me tenent vincula
Non me tenet clavis
Quero mihi similes
Et adiungor pravis

In those days, we did our own translations, which is how we figured out that 'Auspicium Melioris Aevi' means 'looking for a good time', and 'Filiae Melioris Aevi' means 'good time girls'. What follows is our translation of the words of that ancient drinking song...

I am like a wild thing
A ship without sailors
On the paths of the air
A wandering bird

No chain can keep me
No key can bind me
I seek my own kind
And other reckless men

And that's why I firmly believe that youth must have its day - and that day is always the same, with all its glories, all its darkness, its fire and its singing and its passion.


Retrospection & The Waste Land

[Don't click on the link yet, even if you're looking for the greatest poem of the millennium just past.]

I'm glad for the encouragement I receive from fellow ACSians, whether they're self-named cows or avenging angels. Of course, there's still some sort of divide - I believe I'm right when I say that students see me as the product of a different generation. And of course, they'd be right. But what is the nature of this divide, this memetic gap?

I think that as in all the eras of Man's history, the same things divide us. They're a combination of technological and social factors. In every age of Man, the qualitative generational divide is the same - all parents in general believe theirs was a golden age, and that their offspring hail from a less cultured one. Why is this so? It's because our nature as a species is to remember either extreme trauma or extreme pleasure - anything extreme - and to slowly lose the rest. So it is always 'the best of times... the worst of times' and Great Expectations. So let's forget about the qualitative divide, because we can't do anything about it except grow up, suddenly realise we're the older generation (or worse, the oldest) and seek forgiveness.

Let's look at the quantitative divide, though. Most of my readers know Moore's 'Law' very well. Essentially, it says that computer capacity doubles for every succeeding identical period of time. What does this mean in real, human terms?

I grew up learning BASIC and Pascal. I did programming in binary, hexadecimal, and assembly language. At the worst, I had to program 1-bit (we're talking about the register storage capacity here) machines by switching things on and off manually. In 1980, the Sinclair ZX80 had an onboard memory of 1K. It was huge. By 1983, my Apple II Europlus had as much as 128K if you closed one eye and opened one page. It did this at a speed of about 8 kHz, on a good day. In 1985, the last of the 8-inch diskettes were being phased out together with dedicated word-processing machines.

In 1988, I established an Internet identity. I was Wanderer, and there wasn't much anyone else could do about it as I prowled through unguarded university and government systems. In 1992, you still couldn't access many large databases, genomics was a faint and disturbing whisper, and I was on my third Mac. If you had a 20 Mb hard disk, you were pretty happy (I remember when a 1 Mb HD cost almost $10k). But I had my own webpage, which was cool. Machines were hitting the heavy kHz speeds, though far away from the GHz level.

I'm typing this on a 1.5GHz PowerBook G4. It has 768 Mb of SDRAM. This excludes the video memory, which wasn't the case 20 years ago (in those days, your program could collide with video RAM and do weird things; sometimes this was deliberate).

Qualitatively, a geek these days is as obsessive as a geek in those days. But what we obsessed about was different. I don't know if anybody still remembers the Beagle Brothers' 'what is the coolest program you can make in one line of code' competitions. A big, complicated CRPG might take up 256K of space on your HD and provide 6 weeks of entertainment. We had so little space that we obsessed about elegance and miniaturization of code. This is less common now; there is a lot more space.

In the early 1980s, we still used stencils for printing. If you made an error, you had to patch it up by plastering pink eradicator fluid over the mistake so that ink wouldn't get through. Word processing was in its infancy. You might as well have been making cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets. This meant that we tried to be a whole lot more careful. Nowadays, it's a lot easier, so people don't care so much about errors, and it shows.

So what has all this 'you young people don't know about the bad old days' stuff got to do with the greatest English-language poem of the 20th century? Here's a quotation from it. Part 4 of 'The Waste Land', text:


Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Yes, every generation looks at the dying of its elders, often with pity, sometimes with confusion, or even with affective dissonance. But remember, O you who will someday be turning the wheel into the gathering storm, we were once handsome and as tall as you.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Saving The World vs Moulding The Future

The Santa Fe Institute vs MOE

One of the things that has always been irritating to me is the MOE motto found anywhere that some valuable land is being appropriated for 'educational expansion': "Ministry of Education - Moulding The Future Of Our Nation".

It just stinks of hubris. I mean, it would be so much more honest if it were to say "Helping to mould the future of Singapore", for example. Let's explore the logic, debate-style, assuming that the monolithic government makes consistent statements. Firstly: if our National Education is to be believed, "No one owes us a living." This reasonably means that there are forces beyond our control, which may or may not necessarily be deployed in our favour. Secondly: 'Moulding the Future of our Nation' implies that MOE is at present engaged in exerting forces that will shape the nation's future definitively - after all, that's what 'moulding' means. The absence of any implied disclaimers gives the impression that MOE alone (not the EDB, not Temasek Holdings etc) is doing the job.

Obviously, the two points aren't consistent. So our initial assumption is wrong somewhere and the Government is in some way inconsistent. The question is, which of the two (if either) is likely to be true? Probably the first. So MOE is as usual attempting to pull a fast one - and it's all over the hoardings they put up at every MOE building site!

Tharman, if you can hear me, please take away the awful hoarding blurb. I mean, now that there are two of our alumni looking after MOE, things ought to improve - or at least, become more reasonable.

Outside MOE is a 'sculpture', right behind the bus stop. It shows a hand and a humanoid figure. The hand is spread palm up (if it weren't, it'd be pretty deformed, the way it's bent). Closer inspection shows that it is a left hand. On it, the humanoid figure is about to walk off the base of the palm, in the direction of the wrist. This figure has the proportions of a child. Taken as a whole, the sculpture seems to say, "There is a sinister hand active in Singapore education. At the slightest provocation, it will shove your kids off the edge."

Some final thoughts. The link above is connected to the Santa Fe Institute's website. The Insititute has no small aim - its vision requires it to define and understand the frontiers of science, with the goal of solving long-term human problems which are amenable to scientific solutions. Through some of the biggest names in science and commerce, they have a fighting chance of actually helping significantly in moulding the future of the world.

I wonder if any of my students are thinking that far ahead.