Sunday, July 30, 2006


It's a big word, but once in a while it has to be dragged out and given a shot. The Latin iuris prudentia roughly means 'the wise provision of law'; jurisprudence is thus the study of how the law is best constructed and applied. Sometimes, people who make rules and people who adjudicate based on those rules both need to take a look at how and why those rules were made.

Human beings are famed lawmakers, both for good and ill. History has etched into its steles of chronicled time the names of Hammurabi, Asoka, Moses — those whose legal codes have resonated down the ages to the present day. Our concepts of good and evil, of justice and fairness, are hopelessly entangled with our concepts of law and order. When God (or a god, or a pantheon of gods) set a code of law into stone tablets, it was possible to equate legal to moral, ethical and necessary. The impact of this mindset made it impossible to ask the question, "Can a law be immoral, unethical or unnecessary?"

But the present age is full of man-made laws. And if the laws are made by mortal men, it becomes necessary to ask that question and deal appropriately with whatever comes of the asking. Aquinas distinguished firmly between eternal, divine, natural and human law (see reading at bottom) and like Plato and Aristotle, set reasonable limits on the last.

To begin with, there are two quotes firmly associated with the concept of jurisprudence. I think they are Roman, but I have yet to find solid attribution, not being a classical scholar. The first is: "civilization presupposes respect for the law" — that is, law is a foundation of civilisation and dictates the tone and colour of what we suppose to be civilisation. The second is: "the great problem for jurisprudence is to allow freedom while enforcing order" — that is, the wise provision of law must allow for the interplay of human free will (whether it exists or not) while acting as a bulwark against chaos. The first quote refers to analytic jurisprudence, in which we study law as it defines society and societal behaviour; the second refers to normative jurisprudence, in which we study what the law ought to be, and not just what it is.

Take, for example, the concept of 'entrapment'. This is a legal procedure within certain limits — police are allowed to set traps to catch criminals. But what happens if a person who is not ordinarily criminal is enticed into criminal activity by the police and then arrested and charged for this? The analytic case says that if the enticement was not illegal and the activity was illegal, throw the book at that person. The normative case says, "Hold on... isn't there something wrong with the creation of criminal activity? Even if the person has free will, it is not right to offer a choice he would never otherwise had — else many more criminals would be made from 'criminal potentials' than otherwise would exist." So how should we define 'entrapment', and how far should the police be allowed to go?

Similarly, consider a person who builds a house in a vacant plot which he owns, with no neighbours. He is used to singing loudly in his shower, but there are no neighbours, so he is not making a nuisance of himself. Over time, the government acquires part of his land and builds houses around him. He is now a nuisance even though his behaviour has not changed. It is clearly true that his role has changed even though his behaviour has not; this case defines how humans should respond to the law in one sense - that is, we are creatures of will who can choose to comply to a law which has come to affect us.

Lastly, consider a law against possessing visible tattoos. Taking a reasonable approach before the proposed law is passed, Jack gets a butterfly tattooed on his scalp, arguing that he has no intention of shaving himself bald, and if his hair falls out he will wear a cap or a wig. Then something terrible happens. A law requiring all to be bald and another one prohibiting the use of artificial headgear are both passed without prior warning. Now Jack has to go for laser surgery...

That last example sounds extreme. But what if we were to reasonably request that people should not distract others by showing garish undergarments — and then decided that people should wear clear plastic clothes? Then, de facto we have prohibited the wearing of garish undergarments, which is certainly an infringement of personal choice, even if it does protect the more sensitive among us.

The bottom line, according to Aquinas and others, is that a law seen to be unreasonable undermines societal respect for the law, to the detriment of public order and eventually society itself. Hence lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure that laws are reasonable, fair, enforceable with clear penalties, and not unnecessarily restrictive.

Iuris prudentia - the wise provision of law. May law remain wise, and wisdom remain law!

Further Readings:
Philosophy of Law
Thomas Aquinas on Law

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Reel Life

Millions of hours of archival footage which you can look through, a vast range of subjects and a research request function; this is indeed the BBC. The BBC Motion Gallery includes content not only from that venerable British institution, but the Japanese and Australian Broadcasting Corporations, and CBS.

There's also a large amount of HD content and more potentially fascinating chunks of visual entertainment than the normal human mind can encompass. For history buffs who just have to see what really happened (or at least, what the camera says happened), this site is invaluable. A search widget is provided for Mac users, but the Search function is clean and simple.

You can also license original clips for your own use. Licensing information is friendly and complete. Licensing is also very flexible.

I've always had moments of serious affection for the BBC. Occasionally, it comes to life again, and the love is renewed. For a public institution that has been run mainly as a non-profit service, it has delivered much joy for free.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Book Alert: Troy (I) Lord Of The Silver Bow

I suppose David Gemmell is often thought of as some sort of fantasy (well, perhaps sword and sorcery to be more definite) hack. There must be scores of readers who look at his impressive oeuvre and decide (as they sometimes do with Terry Pratchett) that he can't be worth much, since he seems to churn out a book or two every year.

Yes, he does. Perhaps not every year, yet often enough to make it seem that way. But most of them are very good books. He uses similar structures and formulae each time, but it is more a limitation of the genre than of his ability to bring interesting characters to life. They're not always the easiest books to get into - it took me ages to essay the daunting task - but some of them are remarkably difficult to leave once entered.

This latest offering is a case in point. The protagonist is Helikaon, Lord of the Silver Bow (typical fantasy title, scoff scoff, some will say); he is a typical Gemmell hero haunted by a painful past, and this combines with the ubiquity of the subject matter (as, for example, in the terrible movie which was the Pitt's) to form a slight prejudice that this can't be any good. But Helikaon is also Aeneas of Dardania, that odd and slightly peripheral character in Homer's Iliad who turns into the grand hero of Virgil's Aeneid. The choice of focus alone alerts the mind to the likelihood that not all is as it seems.

Indeed, we see a lot more of Troy, that great Asian city of the Age of Heroes, than we normally do in other books on that matter. The Trojan War is but a cloud on the horizon as Gemmell painstakingly sets the stage for the showdown between cruel Agamemnon, lord of the Mykene and haughty Priam, father of Troy. All the motivations we never saw are here, in many subtle shades. Aeneas falls in love with Andromache, who is to wed doomed Hektor; Paris, still a little boy, makes friends with the young princess Helen and wonders why she might have to go home and marry someone else.

Along the way, political intrigue and the dark promptings which drive men into horror and barbarism are woven like black fire into the golden tapestry of the age. Swarthy Moses of Egypt stands besides bright Helikaon as they repel assassins and Mycenaean shock troops in the throne room of Troy. Acts of heroism flash against atrocities which are made more evil by contrast. We often forget that the past was frequently far more unrestrained than the present when it came to bloodshed and torment.

The plot is halfway familiar to us. We have seen too many bad movies and read too many bad novels for it not to be at all familiar. But Harold Bloom once pointed out that it was Shakespeare who improved on all other writers and bards before him by inventing the three-dimensional human character in literature. David Gemmell has taken up the challenge of improving on Homer, and he is succeeding - Lord of the Silver Bow is the first of a trilogy, and unlike the tendency of most trilogies, it appears that Part II (Shield of Thunder) might well be even better than Part I. The prose is modern and less elegant than Homer's; it is not even near Derek Walcott's rendition or that of E V Rieu. But Gemmell is his own man, and it is the story that carries the day without need for classical classiness or finicky finesse.

Minor character Banokles says this about Odysseus, king of Ithaka, "I swear he could weave a magical tale about taking a sh-- in a swamp." Typical soldier's humour, that - and yet, I suspect it might also be true of David Gemmell, who put those words in that mouth.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Water and wind, the gasp of falling night
The fading warmth, the last caress of light
Hope tossed like leaves upon the failing flame
We turn again to speak the other's name

I walked alone. There was the faint scent of curing tobacco, of sweet evening flowers crushed by tired feet. The storm had come, had gone. Everything felt transient, and nothing felt permanent except the never-ending scent of rain. Or so it seemed.

The age of trees, the moss upon the stone
A dreaming dog, his little mind a bone
The houses filled with sleeping death of life
A night of rain that puts an end to strife

This journey has always been mine alone. The family dozes in the tired weariness of the working world. My brother tosses, the agony of adolescence upon him; my sister turns with the new knowledge of what stress really means. It is twenty years gone.

The empty rooms, the hand of love grown cold
The widened pocket with a trace of mold
A memory of you so slim and tall
And we who once danced proudly at the ball

Do you ever think of some other world where things were as we once wished they would be? Can we paint the sadness of another time which never was, and map the geography of delight in a world which never could be? And are those mountains for real?

The dead-end street with useless lamps alight
An old flame gutters lonely and alone
And we tonight are separately old
Each half-formed line reminds us what is not

Sunday, July 16, 2006


One of my readers has pointed out that besides Descartes and Da Vinci, I left out Dodgson. Dodgson? Yes, the infamous cleric who wrote stories about little girls and invisible monsters and unexpected logical consequences. Alice in Wonderland is probably the keyword clue you seek, I suppose. For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The same reader used another 'd' word — dabble. Said reader: "In the times of Descartes, Da Vinci, and all the other people you named, it was a lot more common to dabble in several professions rather than focusing on one particular field of work." Hmmm. No. I don't think so, not quite. For two reasons, one trivial and one not.

First reason: the majority of people in those times were engaged in agricultural production. They did of course dabble in several fields (it's partly a consequence of chemistry - crop rotation is needed - and partly a consequence of political economy - feudalism is 'serf and turf'), but most focussed on one particular group of fields.

Second reason: professions per se did not quite exist. There were guilds and schools, philosophies and ideas, specialisations and technologies. Accountancy, for example, was born in 1494 with the publication of Luca Pacioli's Summa. Pacioli was a geometer who was the first to describe in detail (though not to use) the double-entry accounting system. You could use the same mathematics to be a surveyor, a siege engineer, or a captain of mercenaries; it depended on who was fighting whom, or on what season it was, or what you were being paid to do.

Reading documents such as the autobiographical The Life of Benevenuto Cellini convinces me that the great names of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment didn't really dabble in several professions, although I understand the idea sympathetically. The thing boils down to that Greek word technë again - which can mean 'craft' or 'art' or 'making' or anything to do with distilling thought into substance.

You see, people like Da Vinci were never bound by the artificial area-of-knowledge distinctions we throw up nowadays. They thought, they acted on their thinking and the philosophy that developed from it. They were thinkers, aesthetes, engineers, sculptors, scientists, limners, carpenters, artillerists - whatever - as an expression of their personal beliefs and the wherewithal to do something about those beliefs. If you had a well-defined 'profession' ('crossbowman', 'silversmith', 'wainwright'), it was probably linked to your contract or guild. If you were a scholar, officer or gentleman, it was expected that you would know how to do about twenty different things reasonably well.

There is a reason why we call a person with many talents a Renaissance man, and one who merely dabbles a dilettante. The two are not the same. My personal wish for the flowering of Singapore (if ever it comes) is that we see more of the light of the Renaissance, the full glory of the Enlightenment, than the murky glamour of the Post-Modern. Until then, we can only strive to keep our own little flames alive.

It is true that the bright ages have always seemed brighter than they really were, in contrast with the darker times before them. But what does it say about us that we often look toward a future that seems as dark as it has always been? Take heart, take heart; as Rabbi ben Ezra said, "The best is yet to be!"

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Badly Defined

This morning brought a wave of pain. I looked at the daily newspaper's letters page and found a sad missive (not even a missile) in which the author declared, "Mathematicians and engineers are, unfortunately, not known to be great creative thinkers." You can read this online, should you wish to trawl the murky waters of the Internet, somewhere along the Straits of Malacca.

In that one line, Descartes, Da Vinci, Liebniz, Newton, and perhaps another round thousand or so of the greatest ever human minds (some of who remain anonymous, and excluding another million or so who are good but not great) have been relegated to the dust-heap of misconception. Why would anyone say something like this? For a moment, I classified the incident as a 'brain-fart' — something variously defined as a moment of extreme forgetfulness or a quick-and-dirty brain output.

And then, the fingers of dawn stabbed through the fog. Ouch.

This letter-writer had probably made a mistake very similar to one which is becoming more frequent in the world of today. He had in all likelihood confused 'mathematician' with 'calculator' and 'engineer' with 'assembler' (or worse, 'maintenance drone'). He had, as far as I can imagine, committed the gross fallacy of equating a complex entity with its most obvious (but not only) descriptor. He had, it seems, done the equivalent of confusing 'leader' with 'manager' or 'footballer' with 'ball-picker'.

There are more subtle examples. I've seen 'chef' confused with 'cook' and 'historian' confused with 'someone forced to teach history by economic pressures'. At various times in my life of education, I have seen 'chemist' confused with 'stink-maker' and 'student' treated as 'multi-purpose course-taking prestige-multiplying worker unit'.

Then again, there are also reverse examples. Some people are indeed only managers, and are thought of as leaders when they are not. Some are indeed only workers with numbers, not mathematicians. Some are largely test-tube washers, not scientists (well, some are test-tube breakers as well). And some students think they exist to memorise, when they ought to remember they think to exist (not, of course, 'exist to think').

All this showcases the need for careful exploration of definitions. What is a scientist? Where are the heroes? Which are the terrorists? How can we know? Sometimes, usage changes with time (for example, 'computer' once meant a person who does computations). Sometimes, usage broadens to make a term less useful (everyone's a hero nowadays). And sometimes, it is the studied incomprehension of the majority that irritates the actual users of a key term — remember, 'infinity' isn't just a very large number.

"Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of the age?" says St Paul in the first epistle to the Corinthians, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" Sometimes, sadly, one has to be honest in replying that it is the wisdom of the world that makes itself foolish. There are those who will essay the broad, bold sweep of history; there are those among these who will fall short and leave debris to be swept away. That is why the conscientious writer must examine his own work, edit it well, proof it for honesty and compassion, and hope that it retains some style.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


My last post, Bubbles (see below), attracted an elegantly pointed missile. In that missile, the artillerist wondered why an alchemist would be so harsh on the sciences.

I have to reply, mildly (and hopefully as elegantly), that to say science or mathematics is beautiful requires one to first appreciate what beauty is. We appreciate the beauty of Euler or Einstein, Newton or Liebniz, only because they are islands of symmetry and simplicity in an ocean of chaos. And to make that distinction - that isolated symmetry is beauty but pervasive symmetry is stasis - requires that we see more than the islands themselves. In fact, we require a cartographic knowledge of the shores and coastlines of human endeavour before we can say, "This, this is a beautiful island; this is a peninsula of note."

An equation or a theorem of itself has no elegance or beauty except in comparison with what it describes, or with its own context. Science is not beautiful unless one can see what is indeed not beautiful, not elegant, not true. Science is unclear (and even nuclear, as the old radiologists' joke goes) and imprecise simply because it is the process of making the unclear clear and the imprecise precise, with a limit which approaches an unknowable extreme. It is still clearer than its antecedents in the business of the lower-order truths (primitive deism, animism, atomism, magic - all these come to mind), but it is only clear by contrast. It is only elegant by contrast, and sometimes it is not even that. Consider Newtonian mechanics and the considerations of the quantum and relativistic extremes; consider the ideal gas law and the work of Johannes Diderik van der Waals.

Firstly: I am saying that yes, emphatically, science and mathematics are profound and beautiful. I am also saying that our appreciation of that beauty does not come from something intrinsic to them, but from a higher-order awareness of aesthetics, of the interplay of reason and vision, of reality and dream. The Greek word technë probably comes closest to bridging the grand divide. It is a word which means 'art', 'craft', 'engineering' and 'precision' all in one. And of course, it is the root of our words 'technique', 'technical', and 'technology'. It is a far more powerful word than the Latin scientia or even its own compatriot, sophia.

Secondly: I am also saying that I understand what my friend means when wondering about alchemists. But I must sternly say that the fundamental and discrete elements of this world lack meaning on their own; they need the grand perspective, the great unifying gaze, in order to be of value to us all. Alchemy itself is based on one key tenet - as above, so below. The alchemists of old, and the last great member of that brotherhood, Sir Isaac Newton himself, realised that to understand the role of the smallest of elements, one had to seek understanding of the masterplan.

Thirdly: I agree that the sciences should not be condemned or consigned to the slush-heap. I do not quite say that anywhere, despite my insistence that the sciences provide no meaning on their own. I am merely pointing out that the sciences are small elements of a large tapestry, and that when we pit the humanities against the sciences, as so many have done (e.g. C P Snow), we tend to lose out as a species. The picture begins when we register the world around us, it continues as we analyse its smallest elements, and continues when we expand our vision to larger and more complex things. Without language and art, the sciences per se are in fact of no significance to the majority of the human race.

Virgil quite rightly said, "Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas." But one should note the counterpoint that the great scholar added, and agree at last with Aquinas, "The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things."

That is why I teach, least of all, the sciences; I teach what I can grasp of philosophy; and I look as much as I dare upon the vast fields of human endeavour and try my best to contribute what I can to that enormous tapestry. No betrayer of the sciences, I - but rather, a scientist and sportsman who dares say that we might know much of the rules, but lose sight of how the game is played.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


A bubble is the thin veil between the world inside it and the world outside it, the world within and the world without. It is rare that the volume occupied by the substance of the veil is comparable to either the volume it encloses or the volume it excludes. The late Fritz Leiber famously once speculated (through the voice of Fafhrd the barbarian) that our worlds might be bubbles forever rising through the sea of the cosmos.

Maybe, as someone I know recently said, "our lives are just little drifting bubbles... and all we do is bounce off each other."

It's that 'all we do' that misleads in its simplicity. Surely, that's not all. Reality is not ideality; each collision of our personal spheres does something to us. The old and jaded receive challenge and energy from the young and newly cynical; and sometimes those same young receive inspiration from the old. The system becomes something more than the sum of its parts, or than some of its parts. The physical constraints of the universe fail to be absolute, and new things are born from the odd and particular interactions between us all.

We are not particles subject merely to natural laws of action and reaction, of conservation, of perfect elasticity and of negligible volume, of assumed total randomness and inconsequential interaction. Such a system would be breathtakingly ideal, and emotionally sterile. And it is somewhere here that C S Lewis's thin and potent tome, The Abolition of Man, comes to mind.

Lewis's thesis, shorn of its complexity and rhetorical trimmings, says something which is also misleading in its simplicity. It is the thesis of the magician, and oddly, also of the scientist: the purchase of knowledge may leave the buyer in debt to its source. As man seeks to conquer nature, it may be nature that is conquering man.

Consider what we mean by 'natural sciences'. When we use that phrase, we mean the world of particles and laws that is observable and describable and somehow subject to our understanding. But the more we learn to control this lower-order world, the more we learn to describe ourselves in terms of physics, chemistry and biology, the less we see the grand sweep of human love, and life, and learning. We turn the living, breathing world of human interaction into the dry statistical world of the social sciences (famously described as neither social nor science).

What we forget is that higher-order complexity, at some point, must be indescribable and unpredictable in terms of the lower-order elements. This is one aspect of what we call Chaos Theory. (Strangely, it is the Greek chaos from which the English word gas is derived.)

Our lives are not to be merely subject to gross physical law; neither should our lives be dedicated to the pursuit of the purely mathematical, physical, and statistical. Rather, it is our duty to make higher-order sense out of the inchoate and unformed world of particles, to perceive patterns, to see visions, to dream dreams. Unless we inject passion and perception into the world around us, we are merely abolishing whatever makes us human, sinking (as our bodies do after we're dead) into the lower realm of chemistry and physics.

That is why I have always maintained that the sciences are but a narrow window into the humanities. We should never forget that the sciences are a rarefied strand of natural philosophy, itself an outgrowth of human thinking on the elements of our complex world. The sciences, if you will, are a barnacle on the skin of a whale, and not the whale itself, no matter what scientists (barnacle-dwellers) think. Time, then, to stop contemplating bubbles qua bubbles; time to start savouring the champagne in which those bubbles become something more — the champagne which is the stuff of life itself.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Instant Blogging 101

This is experiment 101 in instant blogging, a gift of the minor power named Flooble. It has generated the following post, and I am making it my own through minor alterations (spotting them would be an interesting exercise for my discerning readers):

A couple of days ago I was writing an essay about seasons in today's cut-throat corporate world. I was a little interested by the subject, so I tell my friend Alexandros about it, and he screamed:

"Dammo! Dude! Don't tell me you're into today's cut-throat corporate world too!"

But then when I got to the part about the seasons, Alexandros shut up and started grinding his teeth. Later, Alexandros's father told me that the reason Alexandros was so freaked out was because he used to write a lot about seasons. There are days when Alexandros can be quite strange like that; it got a little stranger when he proceeded to burn Vivaldi in effigy, muttering, "Il Quattro Stagioni is a rip-off of ancient Greek rites."

Link of the day: Project Genesis
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