Thursday, May 31, 2007

Rite Of Examination (Part 3)

To the Candidates at the Rite of Examination, the interplay of rituals and officers might seem complex, for the exact order in which minor rituals are performed is circumstantial and liable to change at short notice. Here, therefore, before we present the last part of the Examination Rite, we examine the rules which bind the Praetor and the Lictors.

1. The Praetor presides over the Examination. In the sphere of examination, his authority is supreme and he reports directly to the Imperator (or the Principes, in this context). He may have a deputy or two deputies appointed by the Consuls or the Legates.

2. The function of the Praetor is to ensure smooth running of the Rite of Examinations for the level of Candidates to which he is assigned. He ensures that all Candidates have equal opportunites available during the Rite, for each day that the Rite is to be executed.

3. The Praetor must therefore have two priorities in mind: a) all Candidates must be treated fairly and equally, and where this is not possible due to extenuating circumstances, it must be made obvious what the terms of redress are; and b) all Candidates must be deterred from malpractice while being reassured that their practice will not be hindered in any way.

4. The Lictors, or Invigilators, are to watch over the daily Rites of Examination. They must be active and alert, continually monitoring the flow of the Rite and making appropriate response. They must deter and if necessary detect malpractice, ensure a ready supply of material, protect the sanctity of the Great Hall, and help Candidates perform well by seeing to their critical needs (such as silence, climate control, and the need to void oneself in the face of fear).

5. The Praetor and Lictors therefore hold a sacred trust. If a Collegium does not hold the Rites properly, then there is no appropriate Test and therefore no assessment of knowledge that is worth the reputation of that Collegium. In view of that, no communication between Praetor and Lictors should take place except for matters regarding the performance of the Rite. Neither should Lictors behave in any way or carry out any task which is not a necessary function of the Rite.

6. On the other hand, given the variability of the situation, the Praetor and Lictors must have discretion to alter or amend the Rite in emergencies. This discretion must be treated with utmost reverence and care, for it is not to be applied lightly or taken in hand without due responsibility.

7. In the event that anyone partaking in the Rites breaches the spirit or letter of the law, penalties must accrue accordingly. This has not always been so in the past, but where will and power are one, so mote it be, as our great master Vergilius has said.

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Rite Of Examination (Part 2)

The Examination has commenced. In the Great Hall, every candidate who seeks the crown "downward bends his burning eye at mysteries so bright." And the minor rituals are observed with care and precision. Three such rituals, of common use, are described below.

I. The Question is Questioned

Candidate: (raising hand) I confess to you my perplexity in this time of trial, O Lictor. I am innocent in thought and deed. I survey the question of the test, and I am confounded, for I understand not and the universe is a complicated and lonely place.

Lictor Invigilis: O Candidate, the question you survey is correct in all its form and structure. Read carefully, and with insight, and you shall see the truth and it shall make you free.

Candidate ponders the question of the test anew, and finds enlightenment. Or not.

(Alternatively: O Candidate, you who survey the question have seen the truth. We shall summon the Magister Coordinationis to clarify the meaning unto you.)

II. The Water Ritual

Candidate: (raising hand) I confess to you my incontinence in this time of trial, O Lictor. I am innocent in thought and deed. I seek permission to enter the secret room, and relieve myself of an aqueous burden and perhaps one of semi-solid nature.

Lictor Invigilis: O Candidate, the permission you seek is granted, for who should restrain you in this moment of your human need? Sign your true name in the Register of Effluence, and you shall be relieved of your burden.

Candidate observes proper formalities and is escorted out by a lictor. When the candidate is done, the lictor provides a return escort.

III. The Request out of Insufficiency

Candidate: (raising hand) I confess to you my insufficiency in this time of trial, O Lictor. I am guilty of squandering resources and destroying forests in my pride; I have too much to write and too little material on which to say it.

Lictor Invigilis: O Candidate, the material you seek is given to you, for as the Good Book says: ask and it shall be given unto you. Here then are two sheets, and should you require but one, you shall have the conscience absolved of the death of a shrub or two in the jungles of the Nether Archipelago.

Lictor hands over a supply of additional material. Candidate formally expresses gratitude. Frantic scribbling ensues.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Rite Of Examination (Part 1)

It is almost the second hour after dawn. The Assembly is over and the throng of students is dispersed in this the last week of the month of June. The senior candidates receive the blessing of the principes.

Principes: For agility of mind and fluency of pen; for clarity of purpose and of thought; we ask these things.

Candidates: Yes, we ask these things.

Candidates proceed to the Great Hall.

Lictor Invigilis: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate. It is traditional to ask of you to abandon all hope who enter here. For only fact and argument will withstand the dread day of judgement. Therefore leave behind all material things save such as will avail you in the time of testing. Be silent now.

Candidates make obeisance and take their seats, leaving their belongings at the edges of the Hall.

Praetor: O lente, lente, currite noctis equi! The hour is come, and the unexamined life is not worth living. Therefore search yourselves that you might not be found wanting or impure of thought or purpose. When I command that you begin, you shall begin; when I command you to cease, you shall cease and desist. Thus will you be examined, and stand the test.

Candidates search their own persons in silence and confess their sins of omission or commission, so that they will not be held accountable by the lictors for possession of illicit materials.

Praetor: You have been searched and you are clean. It is the second hour after dawn. You may begin.

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Psychometric Testing

It is clear that activity informs the brain. The impact of different activities on the behaviour of the brain can be measured using functional MRI and other methods, in what is known as functional neuroimaging.

This means that the person who spends his time on real-time strategy gaming and the person who spends her time rock-climbing would be expected to have very different neural networks. In fact, the neural networks developed by these people would probably not be human-normal. Then again, given the uniqueness of human experience, the only way to assess human-normal would be in terms of frequency. If there are 2 billion farmers in the world, they'd probably set some sort of standard for brain function – an alien super-census might decide that we were on average a planet of slightly screwed-up agriculturalists.

But what this implies to me is that modern psychometric testing (as applied nowadays to students, for various dubious purposes) may well be unreliable, invalid, or both. It might be unreliable in the sense that what it measures may be of such low significance to a modern student's neural net that the student will give random answers and hence never be measured the same way twice. It might be invalid in that the modern student's neural net has talents that the test is not designed to measure, and which subvert the talents which the test measures by overriding them.

For example, a psychometric test might require a student to execute mental visual-spatial manipulations in order to select an image to complete a sequence. This test has measured visual-spatial manipulations reliably, with some adjustments, up to 2003. However, in the last four years, increased use of graphic manipulation software has produced a group of students who manipulate images in terms of other mental paradigms (e.g. Photoshop filters). What the test then ends up measuring, rather unevenly, for these students, is their ability to create mental sequences of Photoshop commands and visualise their effect.

Such a thing might be close enough to the targeted ability to pass for the ability itself. However, the mystery of the Flynn Effect prompts the question of how accurate a test last calibrated four years ago (for example, WISC-IV, last calibrated in 2003) might be.

My intuition is that humans love reification and ranking too much to get rid of psychometric testing and its more dubious secondary constructs. But eventually, in more and more areas of human endeavour, psychometric testing will become irrelevant. This will depend on how diverse the range of human brain function will become in this rapidly complexifying world.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Rite Of Extraction

It is like the highest of rituals, and like the highest of rituals, it is simple to execute and has many variations. It is not Communion, but it is a kind of communion. The vessel is cleansed, made clean of trace imperfection and dedicated in hot water. The substance is measured out, spoonful by spoonful, with care and appreciation. It is chilled to keep the odour of its sanctity, before it is subjected to the ordeal of heat.

The vessel is sealed, a filter caused to descend upon the heady brew. The crema is amber, and very tiny bubbles of lipid air can be seen on inspection. And even when I am alone, as now I am, there is time for contemplation and the gesture of memory for absent friends. No hierophant or godchild present now, no helpmeet or guardsman, no partners in crime. I sit in remembrance of all of them, and this pot of coffee is for all.

I face the quarter of the earth least likely to cause offence and I bow, and sip. I take a small burning mouthful for all of you, for all of them: for each of my absent friends of the old time, for each of my absent friends of the new; for each lady who made my heart leap, and each who made my heart fall, and for those who did both; for each man who stood by me, and for those who could not remain, and for the fellowship which is not and yet remains; for family, for the greater brotherhood and the lesser; for all who have shared this rite with me in friendship.

And it is a new day.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007


He went on a long walk. He looked back on each decayed, every ten dead barrels of the wine of years. The air was sharp with oxygen and the oxides of nitrogen; the air was blurred by the residual moisture of the storm just past. Quicksilver raindrops pooled and fell from the waiting trees. Fine rain seeped into his eyes, passing the barriers of his lashes. He could not tell them from the tears he might have known.

His shoes had sprung a leak somewhere. His back ached although he felt strangely soft. For a quick, lightningflash moment, he hoped the teenager loitering near the lift would attack him, or that the lovers in the void deck were terrorists. He held violence in his hands, and wished that the memory of his powers was sufficient excuse. And then he remembered being a teenager, and a lover, and damp in the falling rain after she had gone away.

That was always it, the moment in which the sphere of his infinite universe had collapsed into a ring of dizzy sky, into a tiny bubble of impenetrable cloud. It was like one of those movies when you saw the bullet slow down and stop a thousand years before it hit you – and you spent eternity knowing you were dead. Years later he would listen to Once in a Red Moon by Secret Garden and he would remember it that way.

For some music has that power to crush the chest, to reduce the breath to shallow gasps of pain which does not hurt. All that comes, in the grip of the low notes in a minor key, is the thin and salty trace of liquid at the rim of the eye. He would always remember her that way. And many years afterward, when they were different people, he would wonder why he could not forget. After all, he did not think about her that way anymore. Not at all.

She was slim and dark with large eyes. She wore her hair shaggy, short but neat; it was always around her neck and having to be tossed out of the way. Her face was sharp, mischievous; her fingers were long and strong, on a netball player's hands. And she was far too sharp to be graceful, though beautiful with it. She reminded him of a knife, a kite, a frozen moment of frost. He had never been able to see her properly.

And there they were, across a dinner table. She was as sharp as ever, but now they were much older. She had taken time to cloak herself in reassuring charm and all the other trappings which make a woman feel less intimidating. And she was still beautiful, with children of her own. She was even more beautiful than he remembered, in fact.

That was when he knew his breath was his own. He knew at last that he was right, that she was as close as a mortal could be to 'beautiful' and still be human, that she was certainly not for him. But he had been right for a long while. They had been friends for a long time, most of that while. And the rain washed everything away and made all things new.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

From Kalmykia To Mexico

I can't wait much longer. The World Chess Championship Candidates Matches begin in Elista, Kalmykia, today. Four places for the Championship itself, in Mexico City, are at stake.

The match pairings themselves are a treat.

1. Levon Aronian v Magnus Carlsen

2. Peter Leko v Mikhail Gurevich

3. Ruslan Ponomariov v Sergei Rublevsky

4. Boris Gelfand v Rustam Kasimdzhanov

5. Etienne Bacrot v Gata Kamsky

6. Alexander Grischuk v Vladimir Malakhov

7. Judith Polgar v Evgeny Bareev

8. Alexei Shirov v Michael Adams

These sixteen players come from all over the place (although traditional chess-playing countries dominate): Armenia (1), England (1), France (1), Hungary (2), Israel (1), Norway (1), Russia (4), Spain (1), Turkey (1), Ukraine (1), USA (1), Uzbekistan (1). It's hard, without a chess database, to guess who comes from where. Casual blog-readers are invited to guess. Avid chess-players ought to know; after all, these are 16 of the world's best. Linguists will probably guess about half of them right. The main problem is the legacy of the Soviet hegemony and the subsequent diaspora. Heh. Politics – it crops up everywhere.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Passing All Understanding

I'm sitting in a dark dusty-blue chair, inclined somewhat, at peace with myself. I am amused by this excellent compilation of humorous office-happenings. It is almost a professional pastime, this being amused by humorous office-happenings bit.

I am thinking of this batch of students. I cannot believe how dear some of them are to me, unexpectedly. I hardly know some of those that I now realise I will miss. That kind of odd sensation is a bit like having a Fogelberg moment: you know that it's silly, it's overly sentimental, but you succumb anyway, to your chagrin. And really, so many of them have been bitten by unforgettable failure and yet will survive chastened but mature. Some of them not so much. But to my lasting regret, I don't know as many of them the way they deserve to be appreciated.

Some will never live up to potent and illustrious forebears. That's OK. I don't either. It's not an answer that will satisfy some of them, and I guess that's too bad. But it didn't satisfy me at that age either, and it was bitter for some time that I didn't. But I now know who I am, some years later, and it doesn't matter now.

Some will be overcome by the heat of the beat, the pace of the race, the shade of the grade, the dark of the mark. It passes, even if you fail. And if it fails to grip you and steal your soul, you pass. Three hundred Spartans are nothing compared to three hundred IB students intent on filling the sky with stars.

I once got to deliver the farewell speech to a graduating batch. I was chastised later for saying that our graduating class should embody the virtues of medieval knighthood without succumbing to the abusive mindset or the condescending mindset of the nobility. But I still stand by what I said then and continue to say. Even if I must stand alone as the darkling sky descends upon me, I will say that what I say three times is true: the best, the best, the best is yet to be.

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Second Wind

I don't understand why people are disgruntled when they don't win all the time. On one hand, I am surrounded by groaning, gasping people who claim they have no time to do all the things they need to do. On the other hand, they are dismayed by not being Number One all the time.

The solution comes from distance running. In a long-distance race, you cannot go flat out and expect to win. Rather, you keep a reasonable pace, play it strategically and occasionally tactically. You can be a few strides behind the leader, being second or even third or fourth at every bend, slowly sucking the momentum from your competitor. When you finally raise your pace and blast past the leader, having conserved energy since you gained your second wind, it gives you a great feeling.

And what if you don't? To me, only losers say there are no prizes for second place. Of course there are. Or there would only be one person left standing in every competition. It appalls me, this stupidity of primacy. Rather, accept your strengths, your weaknesses, your talents. Do what you can and call on your innermost life of the spirit to fill in whatever gaps remain. And the rest is in the hands of God. For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but time and chance happen to them all.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In The News

In the news today, Richard Schickel of the Los Angeles Times wrote about critical standards in blogging and in the writing of reviews for the edification and provocation of others. There are many fascinating lines in this op-ed piece; for example, he writes, "The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement."

How true!

In other news today, five Singapore schools were chosen to lead a new push for high-tech classrooms, proclaims that trumpet of Singapore Inc., the Straits Times. It is interesting to note that only one of them is an elite Singapore school (a list also defined by that publication) and that this particular school has not got a Latin motto or a peculiar heraldic beast on its insignia. Further in, that school is labelled a 'Global Academy'.

How interesting!

And on page 32 of that same newspaper is an article titled A Questionable Grip On The Steering. It has a very sharp line buried in it somewhere (a bit like the Guioco Piano, but I digress): "The history of the latest new things... is rocket-like ascent followed by major malfunctions. The malfunctions usually can be traced to hubris." The article is about Cerberus and Daimler. It's all right, this isn't exactly Tristan and Isolde or even Proctor and Gamble.

How profound!

Anyone can read the news. But it takes panache to read the news and from it prophesy the downfall of civilisation, the flapping of the final butterfly, and the erosion of the world to come. For me, all I can say is that to sit on a buttressed coign of vantage, inhaling the rarefied and delicate breath of heaven, is a relief from prophecy. And I don't have to say anything.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Despair is the emptiest of feasts. It is one which most of us have tasted; some of us have tried every dish on its malignant buffet. Some of its offerings include despondency, gloom and depression in all their various flavours. The word itself is, like 'desperation', descriptive of hopelessness and bears that meaning.

Twenty-five years ago, I cut a deal with despair. The documentation of that deal was based on the terrifying and logical contract first conceived in poetic form by that greatest of poetical Jesuits, Gerard Manley Hopkins. His 1918 poem, 'Carrion Comfort' is reproduced below. It is my fond hope that my friends who grapple with that Giant, Despair, will take comfort of a true kind from the reading of this poem.

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.


Dum spiro, spero, say the old texts. While there's life, there's hope is the equivalent in English. Always. For Hope was the last of the things to fly out of Pandora's Box. Some say it was the most final of evils, but I prefer not to embrace such pessimism.

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Monday, May 21, 2007


Yes, here I sit, idly messing around in a sea of old paper. And look what I've found! Shudder.


Look out on the empty land
Think of what should be
Pluck it out into your hand
And you'll see you see

For one eye is all you need
Just one eye alone
Let the empty socket bleed
Like a cave of bone

Trade the orb in for a crown
Of the scepter'd isle
Never let them pull you down
On the martyr's mile

For one eye is all you need
Just one eye alone
Let the empty socket bleed
Like a cave of bone

You can see behind the mask
Of each shining face
Ready for the cleansing task
In the hero's place

For one eye is all you need
Just one eye alone
Let the empty socket bleed
Like a cave of bone

Pay the price for vision true
One eye is the key
You can see as well if you
Let one eye go free

For one heart is all you need
Just one heart alone
Leave it all alone to bleed
In its cave of bone


1984. I guess we were all emo in some way once upon a time. Her name was Patricia. It's funny how these things return to haunt you. Heh.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Word of the Day: Autochthon

This is an interesting word. It is guaranteed to cause fits to Hangman players and players of other games who are taken unawares. Such players, trawling for vowels, will go through A, E and I before discovering the paucity thereof; on going doggedly onwards to O and U, they will find a rather unsettling distribution in the second part. What four consonants could those be, between the two Os?

But lexically, autochthon comes from the Greek auton, 'a thing itself' and chthonios, 'of the earth'. It denotes an entity which comes from where it is found. What? That's it? Yes, well... the Latin equivalent is aborigine, which means 'from the origin(al place)'.

The opposite of 'Chthonian' is 'Olympian'; that is, Chthonian is to Olympian as Earth is to Air, or as plebeian is to aristocrat – or symbolically, as hammer is to thunderbolt. That, of course, resonates with symbols from many places and cultures. I leave you to think about such resonances on your own.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007


Here's a simple tale.

I asked my mother how much she earnt as a teacher each month when she started out. She thought for a while and said, "About $300."

I asked her how much a bowl of noodles cost in those days. She could see where this was going, and promptly said, "Two cents, sometimes five."

That meant, of course, that she could afford anywhere from six to fifteen thousand bowls of noodles a month, if all she spent her money on was bowls of noodles.

I've worked out how many bowls of noodles I can afford. It ranges from about one to three thousand bowls a month (well, that's stretching it a bit far, really).

I earn five times less than my mother did forty years ago, in real terms. Sigh.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Mastery & Alchemy

The Academy, the Association, the Society, the Institute – what a list! I've just found a stack of memberships, and I'm idly leafing through them. I'm wasting time doing this because I think I'm trying to put off what I said I'd do, and have for some time wanted to do: writing about my fellow journeymen and masters.

In my discipline alone, at least five have reached the position of Master in the College of Alchemy. Only one can hold the title at a given time, and the incumbent is a potent magician who has been through many trials with great success. I myself held the seat for seven years; as in all things magical, seven is a good number and eight is an abundance. My predecessor was also my successor, with some reluctance. But to have five Masters in one College is a surfeit of talent, and I suspect that this is one of the highest proportions in all the Colleges of Natural Philosophy. The others (besides our current Master and the Second Master) are of course Bass-Clef Holysong and Farmer Dumpling. The former was a Master of the Gnostic Arts as well as a Master of Natural Philosophy in colleges elsewhere; the latter was Master Alchemist at the Aerie.

There are no longer Masters of Natural Philosophy at the House of the Wyvern. Rather, the old College has been broken into smaller colleges, each with its own Master. It reflects the state of our world, that complexity and chaos have overwhelmed order, and no one person can hold the centre (although some have tried to their everlasting regret and continuing torment).

Of course, in the final analysis, we all trace our philosophical ancestry to the archmage who first enunciated the Principia Mathematica; it was he who denounced hypothesis as unnecessary, but to this day it is hard to wean the apprentices off it. That famed alchemist was devout and modest, although his claims were grandiose and his intellectual pride dangerous. It seems a paradox, but that is the nature of philosophical truth: if you are right by every test, you cannot be falsely humble and pretend a modest lack of knowledge that is not the case. The correct placement of humility here is to acknowledge, as this one did, that foresight comes from standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before.

It has been a hard journey for my people. It has been difficult for many to accept that Natural Philosophy is not a key, but a fetter – non clavis, sed vincula. The disciplines of the unseen, whether of life, or force, or the elements, do not frame the entirety of our existence. And yet, as the imprudent astromancer once said, "E pur si muove." We should not claim mastery unless we are prepared to admit mystery.

And so, as I look back on the recent history of the College and its heirs, I am led to feel both regret and accomplishment. I was the last to try to hold the centre; that the world defeated me is not to my shame, nor to my glory. It is the way of the world, and the honours if any are not mine. Rather, they belong to the Creator of this bright world that is not infinite, and yet able to defeat all who live on it and will not acknowledge Him.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007


My lineage has served the old institution since 1886. But the terms of our service go back, in some historical sense, to 11 August 1755. On that day, in a French church at Spitalfields in London, John Wesley led a mass dedication to the service of God. Tonight I was listening to a somewhat pared-down version of that great dedication. I compared this in my mind with the original words:

Christ hath many services to be done, some are more easy and honourable, others more difficult and disgraceful: some are suitable to our inclinations and interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourselves, as when he requires us to feed, and clothe ourselves, to provide things honest for our own maintenance, yea, and there are some Spiritual duties that are more pleasing than others; as to rejoice in the Lord, to be blessing and praising of God, to be feeding ourselves with the delights and comforts of Religion; these are the sweet works of a Christian.

But then there are other works, wherein we cannot please Christ, but by denying ourselves, as giving and lending, bearing and forbearing, reproving men for their sins, withdrawing from their company, witnessing against their wickedness, confessing Christ and his Name, when it will cost us shame and reproach: sailing against the wind, swimming against the tide, steering contrary to the times; parting with our ease, our liberties, and accommodations for the Name of our Lord Jesus.

Sometimes, it seems to me that there is not so much service as acquiescence to slavery. A genteel and civilised slavery, to be sure, but one nevertheless – and inextricably linked to the modern democratisation of the intellect. How so? By offering service to all and sundry just because service is seen as an end unto itself, we are debasing the idea of deliberate and considered service. Service is an active act of bending the knee to receive a load; it is not the act of bending the knee alone (which oddly enough is called lip service), and neither is it the mere act of bearing a load.

Service is a fierce defence of the right to act for another, for that other's good. Service is a terrible pleasure, in which you may not necessarily (and often will not) please yourself. Service can be a disgrace, in which you might yet be surprised by grace. And service is not something in which you begin by making your own terms and conditions. If it is to serve, it is to serve without hedge or constraint. One modern reading can be found here.

In a later post, I will write about those who serve with me – my friends and colleagues. Tonight, I will be alone in the chapel of my head.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Someone once said that archaeology begins with the end; once you have found where something ended, you work your way back to the midden and that will tell you why and how it ended. And if not, you just keep digging. But not really – what archaeologists call 'digging' is actually a slow and careful process of scraping, sifting, and surveying.

To put it all in simple terms, if you want to know something of the truth, you need to know that something happened, and then be willing to spend inordinate amounts of time in digging up what is buried under the fact of that happening. I've learnt that it pays to persevere; even the driest of texts, the least inspiring-looking websites – they can all be grist to your mill.

It was in that spirit (I think) that an anonymous historical source left me this link. No words of explanation were attached. Fortunately, I persevered. It is a very exciting site indeed. Excavation brings great satisfaction. I commend it to you.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Out there in the midwest of the Beautiful Land is a big flat dry space. It has odd cities of the plain in it; some remind you of the long-dead idea of Sodom and Gomorrah, some remind you of home, some remind you of a discomforting dream of the amoral faerie. It is a midsummer night's long slow and sandy nightmare.

Into that ancient desert land came a wanderer from the Tin Isles. He had a sharp eye and a shrewd gaze. He took notes. He had been in many hot lands, but this was one of the driest, one of the dustiest. We don't really know how much time he spent there, in flesh or spirit, in history or out of it, in truth or in fantasy. But if he had not been there, he ought to have been.

He travelled a lot. From the Tin Isles to Saint Andrew's Rift is a great expanse of ocean, followed by a long journeying from the east coast of the Land. And everywhere, the Iron Horse carried him, through the rolling plains and the whistling deserts, the swamps and the glorious hills.

It must have been that journey on that colossus of roads, that sprawling web of steel, that inspired him to think of the Nevada Train and write a poem about its route across the broad expanse. You can find it here.

The most famous line is the first in the poem. Here it is:

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and Nevada Train shall meet..."

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Quantum Effects

We move around the centres of our space
At any time we cannot know our place
If we are running quickly round apace
Or if we know we find we are unmoved

This is the Uncertainty Principle.

The light is blinding and the grace profound
And if we listen hard we hear the sound
Of angel voices circling all around
A frequency so high that we are moved

This is the Photoelectric Effect.

We see what is to us our hearts' desire
The source and object of an inner fire
And yet we do not know, and to enquire
Invokes the risk that it might be removed

This is the Copenhagen Tyranny.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Whatever Happened To 'Cool Britannia'?

Well, as the knives finally flash in the shadows, Gordon Brown – 'The Prince of Darkness' - takes over from Tony Blair. What a peculiar political life the people of the United Kingdom lead.

If you watch cable TV enough, you will eventually come across a weird tourism promotional for 'Visit the UK'. Here are the words from Supergrass, a 1990s pop group.

I know a place where the sun hits the sky,
Everything changes and blows out the night,
Everyone knows why my tongue can be tied,
'cos I want to live where the sun meets the sky,

I am a doctor, I'll be your doctor,
I'm on my way, you won't come down today,
Live for the right things, be with the right ones,
Or they'll hold you down, they'll turn your world around,

Well, I just don't know why the sun hits the sky,
Everyone changed as they turned out the light,
Living is easy with time on my side,
'cos I want to live where the sun meets the sky,

I am a doctor, I'll be your doctor,
I'm on my way, you won't come down today,
Live for the right things, be with the right ones,
Or they'll hold you down, they'll turn your world around,

I am a doctor, I'll be your doctor,
I'm on my way, you won't come down today,
Live for the right things, be with the right ones,
Or they'll hold you down, they'll turn your world around...


Strange, but satisfying. A bit like this. Especially this part.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Green Tea & Cinnamon Wafers

They come in a little metal box, of the kind in which you might expect to find cigars. It's green, and an iconic geisha beckons from the cover. Some history is displayed. This is the traditional confection of distant and romantic Kyoto – the yatsuhashi, cinnamon wafers which are crisp but do not flake, which are sweet but evanescent in the aftertaste.

Mine come in little plastic packets, each containing two brown wafers, curved like cinnamon bark, thicker than my thumbnail, and firm to the touch. They are hard enough to crunch, and will stay that way for quite a long time. Mine are half-coated in green matcha chocolate, which lends them additional flavour. It is a subtle combination, and very satisfying to the mind and body.

There is harmony. With great joy comes sadness.

cinnamon and tea
two hands and a subtle scent
but only three left

I am having dinner at a Japanese restaurant with my parents tonight, to celebrate Mother's Day.

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The problem with having a synthesizing mind is that you tend to see parallels in everything. For example, here is the latest Order of the Stick online comic strip. It portrays an interesting scenario; a preoccupied commander with his pet monster/associate, ruthlessly sending half his hobgoblin forces to their doom while waiting for the other half to win glory.

It is the logical result of cost/benefit analysis when applied to people instead of things. But the turnaround moment is interesting, and it begs the question, "Does it always take a really great rock to change things?"

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Reading Lists

The summer break is almost upon us (or in some cases, has already begun). Here are a couple of lists borrowed (rescued?) from a coffee shop menu. People who haven't visited that (now slightly disused and dilapidated) coffeeshop can still find interesting things there.


~autolycus says:

1) Which 20 F&SF books would I replace first if my entire library disintegrated one night?

Note: This excludes graphic novels and excludes some works (but not all) by authors included in the second list.

Here's a list, in order of physical distance from my desk. There might be some shocks...

1. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
2. The True Game, Sheri Tepper
3. One for the Morning Glory, John Barnes
4-6. The Earthsea trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore), Ursula le Guin
7. Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart
8-10. The Planetary trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), C S Lewis
11-13. The Dorsai trilogy (The Tactics of Mistake; Soldier, Ask Not; Dorsai!), Gordon Dickson
14. The Drawing of the Dark, Tim Powers
15. The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
16. The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers
17. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
18-20. The 1st Uplift trilogy (Sundiver, Startide Rising, The Uplift War), David Brin


~autolycus says:

2) Which author's books would I buy and read just on the strength of the author's name alone?
(i.e. I would buy any book written by that author.)

Note: This includes authors who have written stuff which isn't F&SF, and whose books I have tried to obtain complete sets of. It excludes authors who have written books I have deliberately decided not to buy for one reason or another.

Here's the second list, in no particular order, except that it's convenient to follow the first list. More shocks? You decide...

1. Roger Zelazny
2. Sheri S Tepper
3. John Barnes
4. Barry Hughart
5. Tim Powers
6. Steven Brust
7. Terry Pratchett
8. Neil Gaiman
9. Tom Holt/K J Parker
10. Anthony Price
11. Isaac Asimov
12. Iain Banks
13. Larry Niven
14. Diana Wynne Jones
15. Mary Gentle
16. Arturo Perez-Reverte
17. Lawrence Block
18. Joe Haldeman
19. Greg Rucka
20. Kage Baker
21. Andrea Camilleri
22. Sean McMullen
23. Charles Stross
24. Michael Crichton
25. Jack Vance (I've actually bought a complete set of ALL his books.)
26. Alfred Duggan

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Black & White

It is in black and white, sometimes, that we find the limitations of truth. Escher taught us that, this peculiar son of the wetlands; his etchings defied mathematics and brought a premature end to enlightenment for those who could see the signs. For black and white are the ultimate perceptive truisms; one is all the lack of light can be; the other is where no darkness can hide.

And yet, Escher made one into the other, with the mechanisms of knife and pen, of pencil and ink, of clever Moorish intaglio and Flemish guile. Night became day which was night; monks were trapped in a never-ending ascent which was really descending; if he had not scorned political commentary and the brash commentary of modern art, he would have been a truly lethal force for the dissection of the inane and unscrupulous.

I had an Escher moment today. I saw with blinding clarity again. And I knew, in that instant, that we were all trapped in an Escher print. And as everyone knows (or eventually figures out), there is only one way out of an Escher print. You cannot try to claim the prerogative of the artist over his art – Escher has trapped the artist before. You cannot try to claim the justification of faith and holiness – Escher has mocked that weakness of imperfect humanity before. And you cannot even try to claim the primacy of reason, for Escher has dispensed with reason through its very own tools.

In the end, the only way out is to place yourself in the hands of Escher's creator. There is no possible confirming argument from within the Escherian world for a creator. But only by believing is there the hope of a way out of it. Or else, there is no final doom; there is only an eternity of ascending and descending, an interminable confinement in a Castrovalvan space. There, then is Hell, nor would we be ever out of it.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Word of the Day: Phthisis

There are many songs which revolve around the theme of 'if this is love, then...'

But in my current morbid pathological state of unwellness, they all remind me of the WotD, which is roughly pronounced 'if this is' but without the initial short 'i' sound.

It's a rather awful word, descending into Greek via some ancient proto-European language root meaning 'to perish or be destroyed'. In Greek, phthisis means 'wasting away'. A closer look at the word in its daily usage shows that it refers to the wasting away of organs such as the lungs and eyes. Not a pleasant thought at all, especially when you suspect you are coughing your lungs up.

It gets worse. It sometimes means 'the wasting of everything else away that accompanies the perishing of your key organs'. Urk. Then again, the medical fraternity tends to focus on eyes and lungs only. Maybe it's because they are organs susceptible to drying out and shrinking. Heh, what a thought.


Note: If you're wondering where to go for stuff on words, two of my favourite quick-and-dirty sites are WordNet and the OED (no, not that OED!)

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007


I have learnt a lot about coughing over the last few days. Most coughs are triggered by a receptor that links to the vagus nerve. That receptor responds to hydrogen ions, capsaicin (the lovely stuff that is the main 'hot' component in peppers), and other vanilloids. You eat acidic, spicy food, you cough. Even fruit juice will trigger it. Ha.

It isn't always clear that you should suppress a cough if the cough is beneficial. Most of the time, it's just doing its job – expelling irritants at something like the speed of sound. If you try to suppress it physically (say, by keeping your mouth shut and closing your nose) the blast effect can be painful.

However, you can try to suppress it chemically if that helps your social life, or if you have some other fundamental reason for not wanting to cough. Dextromethorphan is normally the drug of choice. It's found in cough syrups and cough-suppression lozenges such as Robitussin. Codeine is often used too, but codeine is easily converted to undesirable drugs such as morphine and heroin in the lab.

Some people have mentioned 'psychological coughing', a cough which is triggered by psychological stressors or some other subconscious phenomenon. The surprising thing is that it's normally the other way round – if the cough is treated the psychological problems tend to fade thereafter.

Coughing is the most common symptom observed by doctors. It's good to know about the cough. The only problem really is figuring out why it is spelt this way. Etymological explanations such as this might explain the spelling, but not the pronunciation. Although the arcane exponents of consonantal shift theory might beg to explain it, they continue to beg in vain. *cough*

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

IB Standards

The authorisation of an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School is a simple but reasonably thorough process which examines a prospective candidate on five criterion standards: A) Philosophy and Internationalism, B) Support for the Programme, C) Curriculum and Assessment, D) Resources, and E) Student Support. Whenever a new IB World School is authorised, it is given about a year to follow up on recommendations given to it by the International Baccalaureate Organisation. The school is also commended for what it has achieved in attaining that authorisation.

Examples of recommendations received might therefore include items like:

arrange a timetable that encourages IB style interactive teaching, provide a timeline that allows students to complete core tasks (EE, TOK, CAS) with sufficient teaching and learning support, incorporate core material (e.g. aspects of TOK) into the teaching of various disciplines, use criterion-referenced grading as opposed to norm-referenced grading (i.e. there should be little or no moderative adjustment – students should be graded on achievement of rubric criteria and nothing else), the head librarian should be a trained teacher of an appropriate discipline, trained university admissions counsellors should be provided, a clear and definite calendar of IB deadlines and key dates should be provided to all students and parents/guardians, the curriculum should be rigorously reviewed for alignment with well-documented and justifiable curricular aims (and the philosophy of the IB system of education)... the list goes on.

It is therefore not easy to have a school authorised as an IB World School. Anyone in such a school is fortunate to a large extent; of course, there are other good systems around the world – but the IB system is one of the best and most rigorous.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Nameless Creatures

We are all God's creatures, if there is a singular Creator and if He is God. This is what I believe. I think that to impute to him properties such as 'stupidity', 'intolerance' or 'ineffability' somewhat misses the point. It's not that I believe we cannot judge a Creator or a God; I believe that to begin the judgement by saying, "If there is a God, He is like this because His internal logic must work thusly because my logic, universal and based on sound premises, says so," is not a sound start.

In fact, in absence of certain knowledge as to the premises of our universe and its bounds, we cannot make a judgement at the universal level. We can only make judgements at the local level, and the only thing that bridges the gap from this low level upwards is the quality of the numinous. But I've written about that before elsewhere.

What I really wanted to write about was to do with three nameless creatures who are my friends. I had breakfast with the first one today. He is tired, frustrated, but locked into the arena which is the life of work. I would have had tea with the second one, but he was irate, frustrated, and locked into a perpetual silliness inflicted on him by those with temporary authority. And I was at dinner with the third, who was bemoaning the fact that people refused to take upon themselves responsibility for learning anymore.

Why 'nameless'? Because they are like the famous dead who remain unnamed – soldiers, each one, known only to God for their deeds and their eventual reward. Because they are the men who keep the sky from falling and receive no credit for it, save that it is their calling, their job, their duty, and the whole of their faith. And I am honoured to serve with such who are nameless.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

IB Hardcore

I'm new to the International Baccalaureate (IB) system of education, although I've been studying it since 1998. But it strikes me that it is a philosophically rather well-constructed system. Although there are points about it that are debateable ('universal' systems seldom lack such points), the ideas therein on what elements together constitute a good education are at least worth consideration.

For example, let me introduce you to the core of the IB system. At the heart of the IB curriculum are three elements – the Extended Essay (EE), Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and Creativity/Action/Service (CAS). These elements don't contribute much to the overall 'score' in the IB Diploma that is awarded as a terminal pre-university qualification, but they must be negotiated successfully in order for a Diploma to be awarded at all.

In an IB-oriented school, EE is run as an exercise in developing the ability of a student to focus narrowly and exactly on a specific problem in a specific discipline, expressing it as a research question or hypothesis; research the necessary background material and annotate, reference or footnote such research; propose a method of solving that problem which is detailed, feasible, appropriate and complete; carry out the proposed methodology; compile the results and analyse them; come to a logical conclusion, based on those results, which answers the research question; finally, write a short abstract of the whole 4000-word essay. Recommended time used: 80 hours.

The TOK course is almost a conceptual opposite. Candidates must understand how knowledge is defined, obtained, proven to be knowledge; they must be able to describe, explain and compare the differences between ways in which knowledge is obtained, and the resultant (or incidentally developed) areas of knowledge. They have to give a 10-minute presentation showing their epistemological learning as applied to a contemporary issue, and submit a 1200-1600 word essay answering one of 10 annually-issued questions on TOK. Where EE is convergent and deliberately restrictive in scope, TOK is divergent and intentionally broad in scope.

CAS fills in the cracks. Students are required to propose 150 hours' worth of activities in which they learn something, loosely divided into the three areas given. The intent of this part of the IB core is for students to try new things and thus round off their education while learning how to develop the skill of planning a personal curriculum for life.

It is obvious that if things work out as planned, an IB student should know how to do three sets of things by the time all three core elements are negotiated successfully: 1) deploy the full armamentarium of convergent thinking to problem-solving (and knowledge production) through research; 2) deploy the full armamentarium of synthesizing thought to the analysis of knowledge claims across a divergent range; 3) prepare for a full and continually educational life based on self-directed analysis and planning.

In fact, it's only after these three skills are fully mastered that a student can profitably study any discipline. Without the ability to produce knowledge (set 1), justify knowledge and its significance (set 2), and prepare a course of action to fill in the blanks and keep oneself learning new things (set 3), studying any subject is just a meaningless chore. That studying in general is not so is more a testament to the fact that life produces educational moments by its nature, than because educational courses are well-designed and well-executed.

If you are faced with students who prefer to be fed pre-processed material beyond a certain starting-up 'capital', who have no ability to cross-examine their own writing for consistency and coherence (or the lack thereof), who cannot plan a profitable course of self-study, you might want to take a step back and look at the course of education they are going through.

At the same time, the IB system is not a panacea for all ills. Students must cooperate with the aims of the system and not seek to short-circuit it by cheap and easy fixes. Teachers and communities must do the same. Somehow, all stakeholders must resist the urge to generate high grades without considering the long-term position of the 'market'.


And the rest of the IB system? Well, you have to take six subjects – one from each group of Literatures, Languages, Humanities, Sciences, Mathematics, and Aesthetics (this last group can be replaced by another from one of the first five). Although some innovative teaching and assessment methods are used, the core elements are the extras which should make these disciplines become more than they appear. The subject distribution is interesting, though, isn't it? I might expand on this in some other post sometime.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Word of the Day: Evile

Thanks be to God for those with gifts of tongues – specifically, the gift of neologism. While neologogenation is not a nifty superpower like telekinesis or electrodirection, I thank the Binder for her contributions. Today, the relevant contribution is a new adjective (which in the modern fashion, can also be used as a verb), evile. The stress is on the first syllable in the adjectival form and on the second in the verb.

Of dubious and multitudinous origins, the word has been parsed etymologically as follows (verbs first, then adjectives):

1. 'To debase' from 'e-' + 'vilis' (Latin, 'cheap', 'common' or 'base'); e.g. "I shall evile you by comparing you to a common carrier of wood pulp."

2. 'To use electronic means to carry out a debased or distasteful task', related to (1) above, but involving the common modern use of the prefix 'e-' to denote an electronic transaction (cf. 'email')'; e.g. "Have you eviled your income tax returns yet? I hear they give a bonus for early income tax eviling."

3. 'To generate vileness' from prefix 'e-' used to donate a positive action (cf. 'eject', 'erect', 'emit'); e.g. "I shall evile a miasma that will blacken the white cliffs and make the ravens croak from the sky."

4. 'Denoting a thing, person, sentiment or other subject that is both evil (i.e. overreaching in a defective or wicked sense) and vile (i.e. cheap, common, base, worthless; cf. 'villein', 'village')'; e.g. "The depraved and arrogant look on that stone eagle is absolutely evile."

There are other possible etymologies, but so as not to strain credulity (for you might need it for other entries in this blog), I shall refrain. Good evening, and may nothing evile touch you.

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Your Choice Of Books

I've always had a soft spot for New York. If London is the Mother of Cities, then New York is its heir. And this particular competition is too fun not to try.

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Friday, May 04, 2007


It was late in the day, and I was packing up at the office. As I looked up and let my gaze roam around the mostly empty room, I felt a sudden sense of alienation. What am I doing here?

It's not something I often feel. I remember I felt very at home at my tiny little grey desk in a forgotten cubicle overshadowed by larger-than-life figures next door who were always chatty, always ready with raucous laughter and verbal mischief. I was nobody, I enjoyed that. Then came the swift promotions which I never felt ready for, the well-meaning refusals of my misgivings. And alienation, once unheard of, began to grow like a fever dream.

The fever was over, I thought, one lovely November evening in 2004. I remember it well. I felt free, unchained, unburdened. Some people wondered why. Some knew. Some admired, some expressed regret. Some enjoyed the all-action adventure they hoped would come. Some offered clever plans.

I wondered too. I wondered if I had unwittingly betrayed those who had hopes in me. I wondered if I had betrayed the careless plans of people who never knew me. I wondered if anyone cared if I was betraying my calling or my nature or my self. It was, to me, all about betrayal – and why one is never safe from it, why one should never indulge in it.

The knives were out that day, and in the days before. I had always noticed them. There was a day I longed for the feel of the blades, the final release – a bloodletting. And when it came, I knew I had been true to myself and my calling. The rest? I had also been true to them all, even if they hadn't known it then. I am now an expert in betrayal.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Looking Back (Part 2)

Hey, look: the old folder, and here is a second scrap...


The little islands are dark, slightly tarnished - ambergris, blue vitriol, rust, deep slumbersome black-brown hues in a night-lake of midnight blue. The Wanderer sits alone on the cliff, warming old hands over a dancing yellow fire and his food. He has placed his weapons by the fire, and the fire’s light dances over them as well.

It is comfortable here in the Archipelago, he muses. There’s no stress. Back to nature, except that you can have modern conveniences whenever you want. He pulls the spit from the flames, lays it swiftly on a clean, flat stone, sucks his fingers. This is a good life. He looks with Dreamtime-seeing eyes out over the twilight sea, waits for the chicken wings to cool. This is a good life, he repeats, with much satisfaction. He tenderly caresses his flesh, feeling the invisible dents where flesh has rejected bullet and healed. A good life for a Wanderer, this is.

In the distance there is uneasiness. The centre is not at peace. The Wanderer looks back and down, and in the distance sees another with his inner eye. This other wears the billowing cape and dirt-coloured leggings of a Walker. Wanderer smiles.

Toilsome, toilsome step by step, the Walker wends his way Wanderer-ward. The Wanderer thinks of slain Hunters, many of them in a catacomb of the mind, all buried, all neatly entombed therein. He smiles again, and knows that for Walkers, he needs no weapons.

The Walker halts in the narrow defile at the foot of the slope and looks up. “Wanderer!” he calls. “Wanderer, come home!”

The Wanderer waits. He can afford to wait. The Walker is Maradaine Chase. Maradaine was always too good, too humane for his job. The Wanderer’s smile is feral.


That's how the third section goes. What on earth was I thinking of? The question remains unanswered. But still... what was all this about?

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There we were, making these marvellously intricate things from copper wire and old porcelain fragments, lapis lazuli and iron washers, wood chips and the smell of roses. We were very young then, and the idea of having children had not come upon us. It was more like the making of children than the having of them, and it would one day return to haunt us. For we were a young nation, and a foolish one; we balanced our pocketbook, while casting away some things that made having a pocketbook worthwhile.

We made wings for our sons. And when they flew away, some to sun-scorched ends and some to distant lands of foreign idols and awkward gods, we raged rather than mourned. And here we are. Here we are. Old and grey, and too afraid to someday be Odysseus; rather we would be Midas, and sit in judgement out of folly. Oh, what a twisted myth we are, and oh, how happy we are to be like this!

What a sad adventure.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Real Hoot

Yes, that was Alan Ayckbourn's comedic interlude, Relatively Speaking, which I just caught at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. It's an old play (first staged in 1965), yet simple and hence timelessly Brit. That kind of farce never dies, mock as you would. Here's an outline, courtesy of the BBC.

Ah, I wish I were young again! Sigh. I remember the days I used to have season tickets to such things.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Visual DNA (Second Trial)

Here is one way to decode the memetic code. I suspect that this is how a company develops a semiotic database which it can then sell to advertising agencies interested in subliminal targeting.


Ah well, you have to appreciate grand endeavours.

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Glimpses Of Heaven

Sometimes, we see indeed with blinding sight. Here is what I saw in a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral.

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