Monday, April 30, 2007

This Is Education, Nor Are We Out Of It

I look back on a mere fifteen years as a professional educator. I look forward, God willing, to many more. But in a historical context, I look back on four generations of professional educators – eight of my direct ancestors in those four generations bearing that gift and the associated calling.

Among them are the turbulent forces that in an ignorant time might have been called the human equivalent of 'principalities and powers'. Mere mortals, of course, all - just as I am, and without one plea - but mortals touched with a spirit of fire. As I reflect upon my ancestors and that lineage which alone in itself ought to humble me, I realise we are humbled by a common master. And that master is not Education, a process anthropomorphised.

Here for example is a fairly normal exegesis of Education in a small and infamous south-east Asian nation-state. The title of this post relates to that through the simple tactic of misquoting from this, or at least from Marlowe's Faustus if you want to read the whole thing.

For what we blithely call 'Education', that Roman ideal so anathematic to the Greeks before them and to generations thereafter, is actually one or the other of these: it makes a hell of the world, or a hell of a world. The Good Book never said, "Go and educate the masses." The word educaré means 'to draw out' in Latin; the word didaskein means 'to instil wisdom' in Greek. The directions of Roman and Greek philosophy are hence opposite in direction! The former sought to draw out from humanity, much as that educational heretic Socrates did; the latter sought to instil within humanity something greater.

But what does the Good Book say about the two directions of learning? Well, it says this about the Roman view and this about the Greek view. I leave you to judge. Think hard upon it; is it better to draw out from the instinctive and natural, or to drink in from the evidence of the eternal around us? Not an easy thing to ask, or to answer.

And yet, until it is answered, this is Education, nor are we out of it.

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Adversity Creates Success

I have been a fan of the old 'canonicals' for years. Founded in 1886, that group of mavericks continues to enthrall under the leadership of their foreign manager. Recently though, their form has seemed rocky at best. They have lost a formidable champion for a while, their board looks shaken up, the manager seems less than convincing on the issue of taking money in from outside... the list goes on.

It was with great joy, therefore that I watched a stupefied imitation of this part of my Western heritage trail stagger around blindly for one whole afternoon, almost lose it totally, and then recover in regal fashion to trounce the heathen on our home ground. While there are those who will still say, "Better Red than dead," I will continue to say that we are still much alive and that the best is yet to be. We might even beat the Blues. Ha.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Looking Back (Part 1)

Hey, look: an old folder with some scraps of paper in it...


Little islands in a sea of chaos burn with brazen sunset light. The Wanderer waits there, his hands full of weapons. A stone, a branch, the jawbone of an ass, they are as treasure to his cold eye, their cracked and jagged lines as beauty to his soul.

Other things catch this roving camera’s glance: the dead roses, the test-tubes filled with vicious oils, the keyboard. The keyboard snakes its cable under a rock, a rock which twinkles green in the setting sun. A shadow falls halfway across the green.

The Hunter is here. He wears a black cloak trimmed with silver thread. He unclips the Link from his belt, presses buttons, speaks. “Domine,” he says, “I have found him. He carries weapons.”

Whisper, whisper. Fizzle. The connection closes. The Hunter has been instructed. The Hunter walks up to the Wanderer.

“Wanderer, come home,” he says.

The Wanderer is a blind man now, old and weary. Yet, when intuition strikes, he sees with the flash of its lightning. Now, he looks sharply back from the edge of his cliff, notes the Link at the Hunter’s belt, sees the Hunter’s escargot shotgun (every slug a hit, say the advertisements). His dry lips crack open, oozing an unripe smile.

The Hunter watches warily.

The Wanderer strikes, his hands a blur of bone, and stone, and little splinters from a larger club. There is eventually some blood. The shotgun is firing. The Link crackles with powerful energies. The Hunter glazes over before his eyes do, and is gone.


That's how the first section goes. What on earth was I thinking of? Ah well... there will be time, there will be time. I was eighteen years old when I wrote that.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Grassroots Feedback

Yes, I do watch English football; I've done it all my life. And I will watch it even if Arsenal aren't playing (not that the Gunners are particularly English anyway).

I am happy with simple things. Ben Thatcher getting red-carded (any red card for him is overdue); Joey Barton not scoring a penalty (yes, bad things happen to bad people); Chelsea being held 2-2 at the Bridge by Bolton. I feel sorry (a little) for Everton, especially since one goal against them came from a MUFC alumnus and one came from one of their own alumni.

But that's the nature of things. Alumni from your greatest rivals will cause you as much pain as your own alumni. You can spend like Croesus and still not win the title. People will say nasty things about you (how come your man is in the FA as well as your board?) and sometimes mean them.

There are many similarities between English Premier League football and education in Singapore. And, of course, many differences too.

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Leaving Time

What a phrase!

Leaving time is Autumn, when trees leave.

Leaving time is entering Eternity.

Leaving time is the time just before you finishing binding a book.

Leaving time is tea time, when boils leaves in water.

And sometimes, leaving time is just that. Time to leave.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

This Island Race

Yes, I've been reading a lot of Churchill these days. A quintessential leader for dark times, his caustic wit and declamatory style burn through the fog like a beacon on a hill. It was he who appropriated the phrase 'this island race' for the British, he who said, "Do your worst, and we shall do our best."

I am a man of two parts, geographically and literarily; born on one island and living on another, I find the poetry of the first almost sufficient for all things and the poetry of the second infuriatingly sparse in resonant metaphor. Which island is it that goes with 'race'? It might seem a trivial issue. But listen to this, taken from Shakespeare's Richard II, II(1):

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands, –
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Who could read this, born upon the 'sceptred isle', and not wish that it were true in every detail? Then again, my second island too has poets. One of them wrote these lines:

Peoples settled here,
Brought to this island
The bounty of these seas,
Built towers topless as Ilium's.

They make, they serve,
They buy, they sell.

Despite unequal ways,
Together they mutate,
Explore the edges of harmony,
Search for a centre;
Have changed their gods,
Kept some memory of their race
In prayer, laughter, the way
Their women dress and greet.
They hold the bright, the beautiful,
Good ancestral dreams
Within new visions,
So shining, urgent,
Full of what is now.

It is hard to choose between one island race and another, at times. One has a surfeit of history, a long and tangled tale told in dark rooms; the other has an earnest of history to come, but the shadow of doom upon it, that it might fade before that earnest comes to pass. It is hard; it is hard. Sometimes, though, it is worse.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007


Even before the advent of The Sims, there were games purporting to simulate the complexities of a person's life. This one, for example, was first designed in 1860 – and there are other more venerable and ancient traditional games. For the idea of a person's life, lived vicariously and without real risk, has always captivated us. Hence, novels. Hence, movies. Hence, every kind of 'reality' show which places our chosen proxies at risk and in danger.

Here you will find one of the more recent incarnations. Having watched my virtual house fill with virtual files (or flies) and my virtual friends get slightly unhappy at my virtually perpetual virtual penury, I can say with some authority that if you like living the life of a virtual British bum (no, not what some of you are thinking), you will find this little gem intriguing. The demo is free; the upgrade is US$19.95.

But back to the idea of life-simulation. 'Simulism' is the slightly unwieldy word which handles the concept of life in simulation. Two divergent trees result: one path is through solipsism – the first-person personal approach; the other is through immersion - the Second Life option beloved of online gamers.

My intent was originally to explore the history of life-simulation from the perspective of one who has experimented with a lot of games of this kind. Upon further consideration, this isn't feasible; the fault is not so much in the medium, which is ubiquitous and varied, but in myself – I have had bouts of gaming obsession in my youth, followed by long periods of complete disinterest – and I have no desire to repeat that kind of cycle again.

Instead, let's explore just one line of thought: what does it mean for us as humans that we are getting so much better at simulating ourselves? Do we bring these skills, this arcane knowledge, to our real-life interactions? Do we play our own roles so well that we cannot distinguish self from persona? Or is self but the sum of personae? Yes, perhaps we are all sum people, easily divided in our duplicity.

"Kansas, I've a feeling we're not in toto any more!" said Dorothy.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Old Soldiers

Today I had a lovely breakfast with an old friend and companion. We worked well together for almost ten years before he decided to leave our corporation and find his own dream. He told me that I should have left years ago, that the existing situation was not big enough for the breadth of my restless vision, that there were still virtually unbounded opportunities in other areas.

I have always admired this friend of mine. I was once his reporting officer, but I long-ago realised that he would always be a greater success than I in the murky world in which we live. I remember with wry humour the day I wondered if I should hive off some of my own salary to grant him a better bonus. Some people were pretty unhappy that I should suggest such a thing. But I said, "He did the work, not I; it is not right that a useful man should go unrewarded just because he reports to me."

Months later, he and all those in similar situations got a raise. But the whole episode, and many other episodes since, have convinced me about one particular thing. It came to mind over breakfast.

There are at least three kinds of old soldiers in the area of conflict in which we serve. The first kind continues to be of use, is loyal in all things, may be eventually discarded as fading powers are eclipsed by rising stars. The second type has been of use, continues to fight with the tactics and strategies of the last war, extols conservatism so that the last war may continue. The third type is a fully competent soldier who realises that his forte is to be a general, and changes theatres in order to use his gift. (In some countries there is a fourth type who knows he will be a general no matter what and is in a hurry to become one, becomes one, and then is made CEO of a different kind of endeavour altogether.)

I don't know if I clearly fit into any of these categories. Categories, in the end, are only as good as the context in which they arise – and sometimes not even then. But old soldiers never really die; their memories live on for good or ill after them.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Beyond Thunderdome

There is always the rebel alliance, there are always the unwanted and unwashed lords of misrule beyond the pale. Somewhere out there, the twisted mutants bring life to the scorched post-apocalyptic desert. And the ravens laugh.

The signs are there. The effete world of the eugenicists, the controllers, the artificial and synthetic intelligences – this too will pass. For raw blood and the knife of the mind conspire to turn the order of the world upon its head, to what it should have been. It is a time for heroes.

Will you be one?


Reading List:

1. The Book of Seth
2. A Book of Gaiman
3. Grandmaster-Level Courage
4. A High-Class Reply to a Low-Class Insult

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Monday, April 23, 2007

The Asymmetry Of Evil

This afternoon one of my favourite colleagues got me thinking about one of my least favourite topics. She was telling me about literary analysis that wasn't quite literary enough, and about something to do with the nature of evil.

And then it hit me: good and evil, just like yes and no, are asymmetric. They are not symmetrical opposites at all.

Evil can be defined in terms of the commission of evil deeds and the omission of good deeds that one might have done.

Good can be defined only in terms of the commission of good deeds. The omission of evil deeds that one might have done but failed to do is seldom thought of as good, but as default behaviour.

It is therefore easier to be evil than to be good. Perhaps it is the effort that one puts into being good which defines good, humanly speaking. It is too easy to put effort into doing evil; perhaps it is too easy to do evil by not doing anything at all.

And then it becomes obvious: evil is only defined in terms of deviation from good, and not vice versa. This is the true asymmetry of it all.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Not Knowing Jack

I don't often make political commentary in this blog. Once in a while, however, I find myself sufficiently perturbed to comment on political matters.

Recently, the lawfully-elected parliament of the urbanised Machiavellian city-state of Singapore has decided that its ministers should be granted a salary increase of about S$1m over and above their existing salary of about S$1.2m. (At the time of this writing, US$1 is about S$1.50.) The arguments for the pay increase range from dubious to clever, to competent and valid. It is not my place to discuss whether or not these ministers should have their pay increased - that issue has been adequately covered elsewhere in the blogosphere and I shan't be providing links: you can easily find them in the world of Tomorrow, for example.

But there was one particular argument which stood out for what I felt was its inherent... hubris, perhaps? This argument came from the otherwise relatively competent, relatively erudite and relatively informative mouth of Member of Parliament K Shanmugam. You can find his speech here in its entirety.

If you look at that linked document and scroll down to paragraphs 33 and 34 (don't worry, they're numbered very nicely in the document), you will find this:

After the 17th Century, the British reformed their system and by early 20th Century, a top Minister like Churchill was earning £5,000. I am told that that would be about £350,000 in today’s terms. That is roughly what our MR4 was. But British Ministerial salaries have however not kept pace with inflation. It is probably not politically feasible in the UK. But that does not make it right. As an aside, if you read Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill, you will see that Churchill also made money by writing. For example, he received an advance of £8,000 for a book (about £550,000 now) in early 20th Century just before he took office. He wrote several books, and was a good, sought after writer.

Likewise in the US. In 1960, President Kennedy was getting US$150,000. If Presidential salaries had kept pace with inflation, the salary would be higher than the US$450,000 that the US President now gets.

What's wrong with those two paragraphs? I guess I instinctively shy away from comparing the gentlemen who run Singapore with Sir Winston Churchill and President John F Kennedy. The problems tackled by Churchill (for example, the threat of Hitler and the isolation of Britain) and Kennedy (the Cold War and the Cuban incident) seem somehow larger than the economic concerns of a small nation-state, no matter how important it has made itself to the global community.

I am sure that Singapore has always punched above its weight, ever since Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam declared that intent to the United Nations in the early years of Singapore's existence as an independent state. I am sure that for many people it is a nice place to live. But I am not at all sure that Singapore's former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and Singapore's current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, are comparable in terms of ability or potential with Churchill or Kennedy.

Don't get me wrong. There are lots of sources which will tell you about the negative sides of these leaders. It is always fashionable to demythologize in hindsight, and it is always a good thing for history that this is done. It is difficult to say what Lee (or Lee) would have done as the leader of Britain under siege by Hitler's Luftwaffe, or as the leader of the US when Soviet missiles began to appear on Cuba. It is easy to say unflattering things about any of the politicians in this post; they are all human beings with various virtues, flaws and other qualities. We can make any number of powerful but irrelevant ad hominem attacks on the historical reputations of these men, and a few might be legal as well as true.

But some points of direct comparison can be made, based on Shanmugam's speech as cited above. He doesn't tell us much, but he tells us that Churchill was a good writer. Churchill had a 60-year political career. These two points - political longevity and literary prowess - are the only points Shanmugam raises. Correction: he raises the latter and very tangentially implies the former, but the former point holds, nevertheless.

In Singapore, PM-emeritus Lee Kuan Yew still continues to draw a Churchillian salary, continues to have an extended political career, and has written a few books. The first volume of his political autobiography is called The Singapore Story.

Well, here is a reasonably fair account of Churchill's writings. The article seems to say that his historical writings are of obvious value although tainted with some equally obvious flaws. He wrote histories which were ennobled by his gift of rhetoric and demeaned by his subjectivity, but they were such good books that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature on their strength. Churchill's honours (and his legacy) can be evaluated against Lee's by any reader here, and you can form your own judgement about whether one deserves the pay of the other.

Somehow though, when I evaluate paragraph 34, Lloyd Bentsen's one quote-that-will-live-forever comes to mind. For all JFK's flaws, a fair portion of the subsequent fate of the world was in his hands. And history would probably have to say to any one of Singapore's ministers, "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Minister, you're no Jack Kennedy."

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

In Taberna

I have been a fan of Carl Orff since I first heard his grand cycle of mediaeval Latin drinking songs set to music, Carmina Burana. This dramatic musical production is named after an eponymous collection of mediaeval drinking songs (about 200 of them!) which was put together over the years by the amoral scholars of central and western Europe as they wandered from town to town. Some are still familiar tunes. Who can forget the opening and closing song in Orff's version, O Fortuna, for example?

But why did this come to mind on a balmy Saturday night? Well, because Saturday to me is both the Old Testament Sabbath as well as a night for gastronomy, astronomy and oenology. And when a night is all these things and more, one suddenly notices unusual connections. As they say, "In vino, veritas." In wine, (there is) truth. Yes, indeed. I was looking up from a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon when it hit me. (No, not the wine, the thought.)

The word 'tabernacle' and the word 'tavern' are directly related. In fact, 'tabernacle' means 'a small tavern' in Latin. I knew these things all along, but the two words had never juxtaposed themselves in my mind for all the years of my life. How... odd. As is the case with such incidents, you "see with blinding sight" as old Dylan used to say, and you ask yourself (should you be of religious persuasion) why on earth God is showing you such a thing.

So that "blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay" [note: I'm sure he meant 'extravagantly cheerful' here], I think. Sometimes, wrapped in the concerns of the world, the flesh and the Devil, we fail to remember that the general will of God is seldom shown explicitly (i.e. in the form, "this is the will of God...") in the Good Book. And one very explicit statement of that will is found here – it tells us to "be joyful always".

And perhaps, that is why I sit here, looking into a small glass of pale yellow fluid, and think, "This too is the fruit of the vine."

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Statistical Validity

I must say that I loathe it when people use statistical reasoning to 'prove' that God created the universe. It is an old and silly argument. The fact that I exist makes it 100% certain that I exist and that conditions were such as to produce me. If I don't exist, then it is 100% certain that I don't exist and it doesn't matter one bit.

People who invoke 'unlikeliness' explanations such as dubious calculations of odds forget one thing. If it happens, it happens, no matter how statistically unlikely. Better, probabilities are always calculated before an event; if an event occurs and you calculate the probability and say, "How rare!" then you might be mistaken. It is only theoretically rare – in practice, it has happened. In fact, while we might be able to determine exact odds for a finite set of outcomes (e.g. the chance of drawing a blue ball from a bag containing seven red and three blue balls), we cannot determine any real odds for events in an infinite universe – or at least, any odds that make sense except in very tightly defined local situations (analogous to that bag).

The fact is that if nothing disproves God, you are free to believe or not. To some, that's silly, since it is not parsimonious (i.e. it is not the simplest necessary belief); to others that's very important since it is the very definition of parsimony. If you don't believe, it isn't human agency that will sway you, and if there are no supernatural agencies, then too bad. If you do believe, the issue of what kind of God becomes important – but reason isn't likely to give you a complete picture of God; that would be akin to the axioms of a system giving rise to a full description of the person who chose the axioms. Very unlikely.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fear Is The Key

One of the most interesting verses in the Bible, in the context of fear (and in particular, the fear of God), is Psalm 130:4. It says that God is feared because there is forgiveness with Him.

That's interesting because of what is implied. In almost all texts of that era, gods are feared because they are mighty, vengeful, violent and final in their judgement. There are parts of the Bible which say such things about the God of Israel as well. But this particular chapter stands out because of its novel description of fear. The chapter is all about redemption and hope in the promise of unfailing love. And therefore are You feared.

My father often says, if there's a therefore, ask yourself what it is there for.

It is there because the writer feels that some kind of logic (theologic?) makes fear consistent with the idea that God is forgiving and unfailing in His ability to love. At first glance, this seems rather unlikely to us. Most of us think of love and forgiveness as things which no normal person would fear. But I think I have an answer.

My answer to the riddle is this: people fear what they do not understand, people fear absolutes, people fear things greater than they are in any respect. Take something as mundane as a classical singer. A person who finds himself standing next to a world-class tenor would feel apprehensive about singing anything, even in a karaoke lounge. And it need not be such a large gap in proficiency, competency, acuity, capacity, or virtue. Even a small gap, perceived as large enough, causes apprehension. What more an infinitely large gap?

A God who can forgive anything should He so desire shows such a gap in one aspect. That one aspect alone is enough to inspire fear in a person who can apprehend the existence of such a gap. It is equivalent to an ant recognizing in a sudden enlightening moment how much bigger a rhino is, and how easy it is for that rhino to accidentally or deliberately crush any number of ants.

It was in such a moment that I realised how much a person who is not afraid of being vulnerable can paradoxically be a threat to another person. People who have no fear are feared by those who rely on fear; as Nimzovich said, "The threat of execution is more powerful than the execution of threat." And the odd thing is that if you love someone very much, or if you are loved very much, there will (since we are all human and imperfect) be some episodes of intense fear. Yes, perfect love casts out fear, but in all of common humanity there is no such thing to be found.

Fear is the key. It is not death that is the final frontier, but fear.


There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
T S Eliot, The Waste Land, 25-30

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Spare Time

Time is a spare thing, an old stickman, a skeletal reaper with a rusty scythe. And yet, as spare as time is, we waste it further. This was my somewhat morbid reflection today. I hear from many parents that their children spend time in a profligate and perhaps rather heedless manner. They seek my advice. Yet, in the background what I hear is my own past – a past filled with joyful memories of computer games and endless trashy novels, slowly being refined towards an education in computer science and the ability to distinguish good writing from bad.

But I didn't set out to make this a long post (pointless, pointed or disappointing). I set out merely to provide links to a series of articles which my filters somehow missed. Here they are. Welcome to The History of Computer Role-Playing Games:

The Early Years (1980-1983)
Yes, I actually played Akallabeth by Lord British. These were my secondary school years.

The Golden Age (1985-1993)
This was the heyday of piracy, and weird computer exploits and other lovely things.

The Platinum & Modern Age (1994-2004)
The age that most of my students grew up in – an age of heresy mixed with iron, blood and innocence. every other age of humanity.


And on quite another note, here is a brilliant story which deserves to win more than one award.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007


You sit in peace and calm upon the rock of your faith. You have divested yourself of worldly power, and authority is given unto you of a different kind. You exercise your gift and learn to strengthen it. And you realise that the race that you are to run is not the race that others wanted you to run. For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happen to them all. For you might soar on wings like those of an eagle, but you must remember Moses said the eagle is a detestable bird, and Obadiah prophesied that Edom, soaring like an eagle, would fall from the stars of heaven. You need not soar, except when the power above you sends rescue on such wings.

Resignation is seen as avoidance of worldly duty, resignation is seen as loss and failure. But to be resigned to the inevitable and the glory of the infinite is wisdom. For a servant who has served well, who has done his duty and has been acknowledged as such, can indeed resign; there is no shame in it. For after a tour of duty in the burdensome heat of the desert, who will blame the servant who takes up a cross for a crown? For that yoke is easy, and that burden is light; and uneasy is the head that wears a crown. Why do you chafe against the noose and kick against the goad? The worker is worthy of his hire, and the ox should not be muzzled when treading out the grain. You are humble, humbled, and yet in a strong and exalted place.

And there you should rest, until you are called once more to serve.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Spiritual Matters

A slightly off-centre view of the title of this post is that it verges on oxymoron. Most traditions would have it that spirit and matter are not the same, either in abstract or in nature. But this particular topic was brought up by a certain young lady who asked me why my spiritual beliefs (or beliefs in spiritual matters) were the way they were. My first instinct on telling myself this was to think of Barbra Streisand, which perhaps dates me somewhat (and also leads on to worse jokes).

My considered response was that I would think about it. And so I have.

I won't state my beliefs in detail, but what I will try to do here is attribute them to various influences in a kind of Rabelaisian catalogue, minus the scatological references. I assure you that this does not leave nothing behind, as more cynical readers of that great French author might say.

I come from a family of mavericks, in some senses. The great-grandfather who donated my Y-chromosome was a stern and demanding scholar who translated his religious text into the local dialect of the Kra peninsula. His wife, the eldest of a string of young ladies, came from a family line which had been disinherited for their religious beliefs. She was one of the first local teachers of the Methodist variety; the local school was first set up in her house. Of my eight ancestors of that generation, five were of that ethnic group known as 'Asian gypsies'.

Their son, my grandfather, has been described elsewhere in this blog. He was a very talented person, and knew it; his struggle with pride and wrath occupied him often, and he generally triumphed over them. He found the time to be a doctor, a scholar, a person who was always learning from others. His wife was a great one for managing his finances; I remember going on shopping expeditions with her and learning many things about saving and spending. She ruled in domestic matters: diet, the household, the privy purse - traditional elements of oikonomia.

My maternal grandparents were both teachers, of English and Geography and much else beside. I remember my maternal grandfather feeling rather elated ('chuffed' is probably the best equivalent) on determining to his satisfaction that all his grandchildren were intellectually 'gifted' - the debates as to what this meant, and whether this was true, notwithstanding. He was a dedicated teacher who did his teaching diploma in London, a rarity at the time; he became principal of his school. His wife, my rather exciting and excitable grandmother, claimed to have been a biker chick in her youth (which I took to be some sort of anachronism – perhaps I was wrong).

My parents teach as well; my father's an historian, mum taught English and Literature. They aren't the only practitioners in my family - my brother and sister have followed those lines as well. Medicine, business, engineering, real estate and economics are some of the other disciplines embraced by family members; some don't really have an easily classifiable job, and at least one is a journalist. We're an eclectic bunch. This set the stage for my childhood and my upbringing.

Dad and mum essentially homeschooled me while I was attending the local school. This gave me two kinds of education – the kind that you learn to endure in a classroom, and the kind you learn to seize for yourself given an opportunity or two. Which brings me to spiritual matters. I was exposed to Hinduism and various forms of Chinese religion at an early age. Islam followed, and I also remember my father teaching me to count in Punjabi. (This affinity for Indian languages extends to my sister, who learnt Malayalam in university). I grew up speaking three Chinese dialects very badly, along with English (which by any test is my mother tongue).

It was my father who introduced me to science through the medium of aged stacks of Understanding Science magazines. This would have a profound and painful influence on my life. I was never very good as a theoretical scientist, having picked up 'bad' mathematical habits (chiefly the use of intuitive shortcuts) from the talented numerati in my mother's family. I have been a far better practical scientist, but that isn't really saying much.

In the end, my experiences with death decided me. There had to be some kinds of beliefs that survived death, although information doesn't survive singularity, as Stephen Hawking (my erstwhile neighbour from Cambridge days) once said. If there were such, it would of course be good to find out what they could reasonably be. I picked monotheism in the end – if there is a God, then Occam's razor almost mandates there should be only one.

That's a terrible account of how I came to faith. I am not very sure how else I could put it. Applying a scientific method to religious documents? Interrogating those around me in some sort of qualititative research exercise? I don't know. Perhaps God was humouring me. I wouldn't be the first.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Leadership & Princess Diana

Like most people of my generation, I heard of her long before I heard of him. Unlike most of my generation, I was curious enough to find out more about the mysterious Dr Marston.

I was rather amused by the realisation that Dr William Marston was the true name of 'Charles Moulton', the creator of Princess Diana of Themyscira – the Wonder Woman of DC Comics fame. As I delved further into his past, I learned that Marston was the originator of the DISC profile as well as the inventor of the systolic blood pressure test for truth-telling. He had not only invented Wonder Woman, but he had invented her magic lasso of truth as well!

In fact, the 'modern' DISC profiling system was invented by Marston in 1924, and he had published two books on it in 1928 and 1932. DISC stands for Dominance, Influence, Submission, Compliance – and the significance of these four traits becomes truly apparent and highly entertaining when you put them together with his theory about Wonder Woman. For Marston said this about the male fans of his comic-book creation: "Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves!" And this wasn't the only thing that the inventor of DISC said about bondage, young people, discipline and submission. I shall leave you to examine my sources and follow the tale wherever it leads you.

My conclusion after reading all this was that seemingly innocuous personality profiling exercises can have extremely sinister possibilities when one is well-read enough or curious enough to discover the implicit philosophy embedded in them. It is part of the terrible reifying myth of personality testing. In this day and age, when people are too lazy to discover themselves and only too willing to let online tests or simple pencil-and-paper exercises perform the task of self-revelation, personality testing has reached something like cult status.

Sadly, I have to admit that I have been DISC-tested too.

My profile claims that I am an influencer/advancer/inspirer, with high 'D' and 'I', below-average 'S' and extremely low 'C'. The profile includes this quotation from Baroness Thatcher, a leader of the Reagan era: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't. I'm extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end. I don't mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say." I think that one of those sentences is true of me, and I'm not sure of the rest.

I have an alternative profile, according to the kind colleague who introduced me to this test. This profile stresses the fact that I have a slightly higher 'I' score than 'D' score. This second profile claims that I am a leader/decider/strengthener, and it invokes the late Sir Winston Churchill. I cannot say much more about this great statesman than what he says himself.

I must end by saying that no matter how flattering it is, I do not place myself anywhere near the same area of comparison as these titanic compatriots of mine. But it is something to think about; that if Marston was correct, I could harness the steely obduracy of Mrs Thatcher or the iron will and mercurial rhetoric of Sir Winston. Well, we live in hope. And if these things be gifted to me in any way, I shall be too grateful for words.

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I think of two sets of lyrics, I suppose, when I see or hear the word 'humbled'.

The way I've been wired over the years (or the way my genes betray me, take your pick), one set is religious in origin, one is familial (pehaps tribal) in nature. And both are very English, I think.

The first one is A E Housman's 1887. It's a moving poem on Queen Victoria's jubilee year. But more than that, it is a celebration of the virtues that Housman looked for and described in the men of his time and his country. Here's the fourth verse.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

I don't think I'm as good as any of the ancestors I've known. I think I'm less competent, more wicked, inclined more often to steer away from onerous responsibilities. Which brings me to the 1870 hymn, At The Name Of Jesus. This is the fourth verse.

Humbled for a season, to receive a name
From the lips of sinners unto whom He came,
Faithfully He bore it, spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious when from death He passed.

The Victorians are often mocked for their social traits. But they were surprisingly full-blooded, and their era was full of literary triumphs and tempered optimism. They could meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat them both just the same, as Kipling wrote in 1895. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, an age preeminent in significance to the 20th and 21st centuries died with her. And that humbles me too.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Cat's Cradle

I will miss this old man, this venerable and ever-kind paragon of modern literature. For Kurt Vonnegut is dead, is dead, and all the trees are barren now. He wrote fourteen novels, each a crystal of painful satire, each a gem of distilled Zeitgeist. He witnessed the firebombing of Dresden at first hand. And yet, he was a free man in his mind, never overcome by the weight of life.

I will miss him because, with his friend Joseph Heller, through the mediating influence of my maternal grandfather, I learnt about life. Not the platitudinous or the scurrilous, not the acrimonious or the cynical, but life as a raw deal which just might turn a profit for you. And all about taking flying leaps at a doughnut, or the moon, or a B-52 bomber.

And although I could include many links at this point, I will not. He made the reader think independently; in his memory, go and find your own links.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007


Over the last few months, I have come to detest the Platonic definition of knowledge. This is the definition which claims that knowledge is justified, true belief (JTB). Why the strong dislike and distaste for it?

I am tired of reading this silly definition over and over again, literally hundreds of times, regurgitated by people who don't know any Plato except this, and could not be bothered to find out. In fact, I am certain that many of these people, defining knowledge as JTB, don't know enough to justify the definition. Hence the definition, by its own essence, is not knowledge as far as its users are concerned. In fact, I would go so far as to claim that it cannot possibly be a correct definition.

I think there are a few simple places to start assessing my claim. Firstly, do a Google search on 'define: knowledge'. This is where you should end up. Secondly, read this Wikipedia article. It might not be the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but it is a good place to start.

Let's up the stakes. Suppose that I begin to persecute people who use the JTB definition without showing me that the definition itself is JTB. This will lead to great suffering. Does anyone think this is a bad idea? Or have we strayed from epistemology into moral philosophy at this point? Heh.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

They Are Both Spheroids

The question of course is a trivial one: "What is the main similarity between the Earth and a football?"

Of course, a lot of people speak of football (soccer to the odd-shaped ball fans) as a global sport (which it is). Some even say that the world revolves around football (well, if it did, then football would revolve around the world too). But there is no doubt that a large population is interested in the game, and sometimes finds auguries as to the state of the world in it.

Well if football is prophetic, then we're in trouble: just last night, the men of the Eternal City crashed and burned 1-7 at the hands of the Red Devils.

Ah well. It's all balls anyway.

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Anand Ascending

I have great regard for Viswanathan Anand. Almost in my age group but still leading the pack, he is to me the true heir to the legendary Ogre of Baku – Russian opposition figure and World Chess Champion emeritus Garry Kasparov.

Anand is very different from Kasparov. He has a more holistic view of the board, but is less inclined to be a tactical fiend. Anand is, instead, a speed demon - one of those rare individuals who plays as well at high speeds as at normal speeds.

And now, I am extremely happy at the turn of events that has forced FIDE to acknowledge Vishy Anand as world #1 for once. Here is the article at

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Generally, I'm happy to be doing what I do. I must confess I feel perturbed that so many people are asking about my plans for next year as if I haven't any. It has in fact triggered an unusual response in me. I am seriously considering change now.


Edit: Well, at least someone thinks I have a choice of careers. Check out the beautiful art of Justin Michael Jenkins. Especially you, dancer(s). You know who you are.

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Monday, April 09, 2007


When I began the theological and philosophical narrative found here, I was quite certain from personal observation that the eponymous corvids were the smartest birds I'd ever seen. I am glad to see that Scientific American thinks so too!

At any rate, they are possibly much smarter than doves, as a careful reading of Noah's story in Genesis will show. In that story, Noah sent out a raven, but the raven kept flying back and forth and we do not know what happened to it after that. (Maybe it was cursed with a guilty conscience and that is why ravens to this day screech, "Ark! Ark!") But after that he sent out a dove, which returned to him twice. When Noah landed, he made a burnt offering using the some of the kosher animals and birds he had with him. So much for the doves...

Ravens are territorial creatures known to be the most creative and playful of all birds. As it is, they come from the group of birds called the Corvidae or 'crows' – a family which includes the common crow, jackdaw, and jay – which probably contains the most inquisitive and acquisitive birds that we know. Measuring 1.25 metres in wingspan, they are fairly large birds who mate for life and hunt in pairs. They are also very adept at interpreting social behaviours, and are able to remember what other ravens know. They are also able to figure out complex tasks by observation and logic, and then execute them without trial or error.

Odin of the Norse pantheon kept two, named Huginn and Muninn ('Thought' and 'Memory') on his shoulders and used them as his scouts. These are the two ravens which you can go and read about. Just remember what I've said so far about ravens in general.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ars Magna, Vita Brevis

Yes yes, this is an utterly pagan Easter night post.

As everyone knows, I am a loyal and extremely patriotic adherent of a venerable institution founded in 1886. It has won many awards and medals over the years, and its fan base is wide - covering several continents and many other cities besides its own. My blood flows freely in its colours.

The problem is that this institution can be so much greater than it is. It has everything: young and enthusiastic talent who contain world-class award-winners within their ranks, a developmental system touted as holistic and complete, management once considered enlightened and academically supreme. But it is not indubitably championship material any more. It tends to win enough to make pundits say that it might be the best, and then falter in certain key areas.

They have a brand-new expansion, costing millions in donations and investments. They will be paying off the creditors for years to come. The new site is huger than the old one by far. It should bring with it dominion and power, majesty, honour... argh, all right, I have gone too far and verge on blasphemy now. For the new site has recently been the venue of horrible defeat at the hands of the enemy.

It is an unhappy situation for me. It makes me suffer. I remain loyal and patriotic. I will not let go of this old lady who has provided me with so many thrilling experiences over the years. Yet I am sad, I am hurting. We have become the laughing-stock of millions, our captain appears to be out of the action for months at a time (and even when active, seems a little out of sync with everyone else despite his native talent).

But what can I do? I have suffered long enough as a fan of Arsenal FC. This venerable North London football club has seen highs and lows, and to be truthful, is not doing as badly as it might. It is currently fourth in the English Premier League. Manchester United and Chelsea, however, have an insurmountable lead. And Bolton and Everton are not far behind. Let's not talk about Liverpool though. And we lost to West Ham 0-1 at Emirates Stadium yesterday. Woe, woe, woe.

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Great Eastern Life

All things are made new. There is nothing in that old shell, that old place, for you. There is instead the powerful life, the enormous potential, the noise of the crusade.

And every person's conscience must decide what is worth it and what is not.

For He is risen, and the clock of the world began its final circuit a long time ago. It could be 11:53 pm right now.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007


Nice things have been happening to me, in between the interminable marking of internal assessments (and internally-moderated or internally-predicted assessments - this sounds like haruspimancy to me, auspicium melioris aevi and all that). These nice things include finally getting down to Burning Tower by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the immediate sequel to The Burning City and the thematic sequel to Niven's The Magic Goes Away.

This venerable science-fantasy series (started in 1969!) is about a world in which mana is the finite essence of magical power. It can be used up; powerful army-destroying and city-building spells will make whole areas mana-depleted. Yes, it was a metaphor for the 1970s oil crisis; yes, it will probably continue to be relevant.

But that wasn't all that was happy-making. Last night, my three-volume omnibus edition of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series arrived! Yes, here are all 21 books of this seafaring historical-fiction adventure, in three lovely hardcovers. As a consequence, I shall either donate my softcovers to a friend or the school library. Friends come first...

I still have a list of books to buy and read though. Topping it at the moment is Kim Stanley Robinson's global warming trilogy - Science in the Capital. It's divided into three books: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. Sea levels rise, the next Ice Age is precipitated, and people are left stuck in awkward positions around the world while everyone pretends they don't know what caused it all.

I am also still looking for a Del Rey edition of Barry Hughart's The Story of the Stone. This is the macabre sequel to Bridge of Birds and is quite a worthwhile read. However, someone borrowed mine and I can't remember where it is now. How sad. It's very hard to find.

Sigh. Back to the marking. Red ink and stacks of paper, the tension of having to squeeze out a painful result - it all sounds like a bad case of the piles.


Update: Ah, here is a relatively interesting link about the practice of reading.

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Friday, April 06, 2007


It has always struck me that the Easter week fills the role of 'pagan fertility rite' very well. It is uncannily resonant (if not downright consonant in parts) with Robert Burns's version of the old British folksong, John Barleycorn, for example.

I have seen many movies of the crucifixion before, some compassionate, some agonized (or agonizing), some artistic, and some all of the above. To me, the best representations are those that don't highlight the gore and bloodshed. They cut to the essence of it; the sacrifice of the holy for the unhallowed.

I have good historical reasons for feeling this way. If we were to be historically accurate (for example) about pre-industrial England, we'd have to put more horseshit on the ground than can be found in any film. You wouldn't be able to see Sherlock and Watson in the London fog. And Arthur's brave defence of Celtic Britain would be bogged down by poor equine breeding stock. The story of the Christ doesn't need historical accuracy because no matter how much gore we put in (yes, we know about Roman crucifixions) the blood on-screen cannot sanctify the story any more than it is already sanctified.

John's gospel puts in succinctly. At the end of John's account of the latter part of Easter week, he says that what has been written is 'that you might believe.' That is all there is; the crucifixion and burial occupy a scant, terse 26 verses or so. Read the account yourself to see the difference between Bible and Hollywood.

Hence I am going to go out on the limb of a tree and say this: the accounts given are terse for a reason. They do not sensationalise because of two reasons: 1) it is not necessary to do so - the story speaks for itself; 2) it is not possible to deliver the true impact of Jesus' death and its aftermath, no matter how hard you try. Emotional impact, yes. Spiritual impact, no. The problem is that the former can act as a counterfeit for the latter, and it often does.

So away with all these gloomy meditations on the death of Jesus of Nazareth. "He is not here; He is risen!" says the Good Book. It is a time of joy. With the brethren of the Eastern Churches, we should greet each other thus:

"Χριστος ἀνεστη !"
Christ is risen!

And the response is "Ἀληθως ἀνεστη !"
In truth, (He is) risen.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007


It's funny what kind of reflections one makes on Maundy Thursday, when thinking of a garden named Gethsemane.

True nobility is an odd thing. It elevates those exposed to it. In a group of people dedicated towards a goal, a noble leader raises each one up, so that a peer becomes peerless, and a peerage is an exaltation. I have met very few such leaders before; I think that in one's life, to have even met one of these great leaders.

There are those who may not be so exalted in the way that society measures it, but they make you a better person just by being around. This also is ennobling, which I have realised is a better, more powerful version of the weak and profligately used 'enabling'. To ennoble someone makes you a bringer of transcendance, makes you a source of light and inspiration (or at least, a conduit of such).

I have known one person of the first kind and perhaps three of the second kind. And somewhere out there is that person I know whose name means 'nobility' and who is indeed appropriately named.


On another note, there is also a kind of nobility associated with not letting others grind you down (oft expressed in the pseudo-Latin phrase illegitimi non carborundum). One of my favourite songs about this phenomenon is the one most eloquently delivered by Annie Lennox in her 1995 album Medusa, Neil Young's Don't Let It Bring You Down.

Old man lyin'
By the side of the road
With the lorries rollin' by
Blue moon sinkin'
From the weight of the load
And the buildings scrape the sky
Cold wind rippin'
Down the valley at dawn
And the morning paper flies
Dead man lyin'
By the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes

Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around

Blind man runnin'
Through the light of the night
With an answer in his hand
Come on down to the river of sight
And you can really understand
Red lights flashin'
Through the window in the rain
Can you hear the sirens moan
White cane lyin'
In a gutter in the lane
And you're walkin' home alone

Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around...

You will come around...

Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around...

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007


And this is the story of the second plague which was sent upon the land of Egypt. And after each of these two plagues, first of blood and then of frogs, Pharaoh hardened his heart because he saw that there was an end to each plague.

There is a difference between determination and obduracy. To determine is to define a terminus, to set boundaries or fix conditions, to find the extent of something in exactitude; to show determination is to be definite about something. However 'obduracy' comes from the Latin root dura- which implies hardness as of solid wood: tough, inflexible and unyielding.

Sometimes, some people can be told that their ways lead to disaster. You can tell them about incremental vs revolutionary progress, you can tell them that attempting to hold the same old ground against the advent of chaos is like whistling in the dark. You can watch them fail, and continue to paper the cracks over; you can watch them suffer from lack of vision and purpose, and pretend to have insight and vitality; you can see them decline from fatigue of the imagination, of the will, of the heart; you can see them age, and replace fallen cohorts and legions with mercenary troops.

'Decline and fall' is an old theme. All kinds of institutions, including the Pax Romana and its greater descendant, the Pax Britannica, fall into ruin once they fail to stem the fissures of chaos, and invite the barbarians into the gates. Sometimes, the barbarians have learnt the lessons well, and might even return as teachers and masters. But the empire will not rise again, and although civilisation is never really lost, the vision of a better age turns into the irritatingly-forgotten dream of a bad night.

There are ten more plagues after the plague of frogs. When does Pharaoh learn? The answer never changes, sadly.

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April Frauds' Day

The fourth of April is the day conventionally dedicated to St Isidore of Seville, bishop, philosopher, and encyclopaedist. He is the saint assigned to the exposure of frauds (presumably especially those perpetrated three days earlier).

It is exceptionally fitting, then, that I dedicate this post, containing this Gaiman link, to the memory of St Isidore. I think the holy Bishop would have enjoyed that particular jest.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007


The last few days have been sultry, and not in the alluring kind of way, but like a humid and suffocating embrace. The heat is on, as the classic says. And I am beginning to wilt.

It isn't the heat on its own, of course. The killer is the high humidity. I remember in my younger days, when I was running a computer centre. To enhance performance, we sealed the CPU room, and turned on two airconditioners and two dehumidifiers. The temperature fell to 12 C on average, with a humidity way below the normal 99% or so. Those times were the best times in my life.

Nowadays, my advice to computer users is still the same. Keep the room cold, dry and dust-free. Insulate it from sunlight with curtains and suchlike. In the long run, it will pay off in terms of the longevity and effectiveness of your computer. And you know what? I would give the same advice for silicon-based machines.

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Monday, April 02, 2007


Vox populis, vox Dei say the old texts, and it is at the most unnerving times that we might believe it. It is always so seductive to hear that the voice of the people is the voice of God, especially when you are a member of a mob of thousands streaming down the Appian Way to destroy the heresies of the senators.

But we must always be careful to make sure we aren't hearing voices – or if we are hearing voices, we should at least know where they come from. Sometimes, the single voice of a messenger in the night can make hay of the kingdoms of men. Sometimes, the voice crying in the wilderness can raise up a vision of eternity that is mightily compelling.

Yet it isn't the vox populi I'm thinking of here, in that ancient Roman sense. I'm thinking of the voices of those I know, who are dear to my heart in their various ways. I have been blessed with a terrible memory for names, but with an acute one for faces and patterns. My friends, and those of you who think of yourself as mere acquaintances but who share with me a friendly amity, please forgive my selective anomia in the knowledge that you are closely remembered. Words you have said will be with me for a very long time - and if you have spoken your name to me with intent for me to remember it, I will link face to voice in memory.

I treasure each one of you. And I treasure each kind of time I have spent with each of you - a range which includes mutual moments of many types: morning fellow-blurness and irascibility, noontide respite from the heat of the day and the hour and the tyranny of time, evening decline and exhausted disinclination, midnight subversiveness and wicked laughter. And I just had to say this against the day when one of us is beyond hearing or speaking or the continuing knowledge of humanity, in the hope that none of us will be beyond the love of God.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

An Unusual Journeying (Part 3)

What I tell you three times is true, says the old formula beloved of fairy-tales. And so, here is the third and last 'fit' as Lewis Carroll might have said.

I have no discernible fear of death. I have a list of things I think I fear; here are some of them: pain, torture, prolonged awareness of incapacity, the debilitation of disease and old age, the loss of loved ones in an untimely and/or senseless-seeming way.

Over the years, I have discovered that the material rewards of an attitude which does not cling to this life are great. They are not positive material rewards (free cars, extra loot, a larger house) but rewards in the breach; these are rewards which make material things less inviting.

The first of these rewards is peace of mind. A major source of anxiety seems to be removed when someone is without a fear for the ending of life. Does it really matter what a person does to you? Yes, it might and often does; but it might matter less when you realise that he is for the maggots as much as you, that some things can be easily laughed off because they are not even as frightening as death. You can afford to take the long view and realise that if you were to die that night, a lot of things would shift in significance and value. You can afford to be at peace with yourself and with others.

The second of these rewards is contentment. When you have peace of mind, you can be content – and happy with what you have to live on. I know my work is worth a lot more than I'm paid. But it does not matter at all. It is enough that I have the tools of my work and the ability to relax and enjoy them. You can take act towards goals: contentment is not necessarily immobility, inertia, incapacity or lack of desire to do something new and different. But you can decide firmly that enough is enough, sit down and stick to your own mission statement.

The last of these rewards is a sense of perspective. [It's hard to define that, but the link I've just given might help. Heh.] Investing recently with a friend of mine, I was a little surprised to find that he rated me at the high-end of risk-taking. I asked him why. He said that my answers to his questions had shown that I really did not care if I lost the entire "fortune" that I had invested with him. He's right. If a man can live on less than $300 a month (as some people say), then a man who earns $1.2m a year certainly has more than enough. That man is now able to give away at least $1m a year. It is probably true that few such people do, because they might have forgotten how to survive on $200k a year, let alone $3600 a year with no bonuses. I make less than $100k a year myself, but I am extremely aware that that puts me in the top 10% of all the world's people (I think you need about US$60,000 for that).

Ah, take time to delight in life while you have it! It's the one online game you can really play in character. While the penalties for character death seem awful for an online game, bear in mind that leaving your computer to have dinner can be a good idea. Peace, contentment, a sense of perspective - what great gifts I have received!

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