Saturday, June 30, 2007


Oh dear, Herr Ofannt has launched a very tempting bookmeme. I have no choice but to join in. I think a set of 20 questions is a bit too much, so... what are the ten sources of these last lines of (some of my favourite) books? Answers are below, in hard-to-see text.

1. "Do you think I paid any attention to what you said?"

2. "And they walked away, together through the hole in the wall, back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind them; not even the doorway."

3. "For this is where my story ends."

4. "...may your lives be blessed by the beauty that has touched mine. Farewell."

5. "The the parrot, startled perhaps by the clamour of the passing train, flew up into the rafters of the station roof, where, in flawless mockery of the voice of a woman whom none of them would ever meet or see again, it began, very sweetly, to sing."

6. "The two guns roared out almost simultaneously. Almost."

7. "Poor Eric came home to see his brother, only to find (Zap! Pow! Dams burst! Bombs go off! Wasps fry: ttssss!) he's got a sister."

8. "We may walk it ourselves, in time, in chance, in hope. Who knows?"

9. "Then he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl."

10. "...this side the grave, I will live as becomes the man whom she loves; and, for the other side, I must pray a dreamless sleep."

Answers: Yes, I did say there'd be answers. I even put them up for a while. But I decided I wanted to say more about these books later on... Heh.

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Ecumenical Internationalism

The International Baccalaureate Organisation has many ideals, and one of them is internationalism, quite appropriately.

I was quite struck with its new logo, announced on 20 Apr 2007. If you examine it carefully, you will see all kinds of things. I am not sure all of them were intended, but that logo seems to pay tribute to all kinds of cultures and traditions while being beholden to none.

For example, I see a distinct Yin-Yang motif, an elephant's head, the traditional colours of the Holy Spirit, and a three-quarter lunar disc. There are probably more, but it's an interesting effort; if these ideas were deliberately incorporated, I'm impressed at their imagination.

And lastly, if you reference the link above, you will read about the process by which they arrived at this new logo. It's interesting and impressive that anyone should spend this much energy and time in something they believe in. If I weren't already a supporter of IB-type ideals, I would be converted.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Ancient History And The Information Age

A very very long time ago, in an age away with time to spare, the Internet was a mysterious and terrifying entity even though it was whole orders of magnitude smaller than it is today. That was, I think, because its denizens were few and its mysteries many; the arcana of the old network were not as penetrable to the general public.

It was in those 'dark ages' of the Internet that I was commissioned to address a school principals' seminar in 1996. What was there to say in 1996? I shall, with care for both innocent and guilty, reproduce some of the speech I made, censored appropriately as a challenge to the modern reader. It is dated, pathetic, worn, tired, this decade after its birth, at least six generations of computer life later. But some of its points still have some value. Here it is.


The Internet and Education in [Country 01]

(Note: two versions of this talk were first presented at the 1996 Principals’ Seminar hosted by [Organisation 01].)

1. Personal History:

I first became interested in computers some time back in 1979. In those days, one could assemble a primitive but satisfying microcomputer on one’s own. It would have a few bytes of memory and be able to do primitive arithmetic and flash lights when ordered to. I learnt programming theory at school in [Country 02] and came back to [Country 01] towards the end of my [8th Grade] year, when I was introduced to the brand-new [Company 01] computers which [School 01] had bought for its computer club.

One thing led to another; I took up Computer Science at [Educational Level 01], played around with huge machines taller than a human (with an amazing 20 Mb of hard disk space on single 13-inch solid metal plate) and ended up attached to an [Organisation 02] unit which was setting up a school for computer-aided instruction in 1986. The even larger machine used there needed an operating temperature of <20°C and a relative humidity of under 50% to work properly, and for once, I was glad to be able to wear long-sleeved [Organisation 02] [Colour 01] uniforms. I continued at [Organisation 03], and by the time I’d finished at [Organisation 04], I had learnt to use machines ranging from the tiny [Company 02] micro (1k of RAM and a cassette drive), to the awful [Company 03]-compatible machines, to the [Company 01] computers which I have always preferred to use.

2. The Internet and its Nature:

In the early 80s, Alvin Toffler had already begun writing books like ‘Future Shock’, in which he talked about a world in which the main commodity would be information and the service sector would be the most important area. He wrote about computers in classrooms, followed ‘Future Shock’ with ‘The Third Wave’, and convinced me that computers could be very important in times not far ahead. He also convinced me that computers might be a dire threat to conventional ways of thinking — a good thing, possibly; also perhaps a bad thing.

When my then [Officer Level 01], [Officer 01] at [Organisation 05], nominated me to take part in a pilot Internet programme set up by [Organisation 06], I was very happy to accept. I developed contacts at [Organisation 01] (who had no clue at the time what ‘curriculum’ meant, as well as [Organisation 06] (who had no idea [Organisation 01] didn’t know what ‘curriculum’ meant), and began legally surfing the Internet in 1993.

The main purpose of the programme was really to see how the Internet could be incorporated into the normal school curriculum. With that in mind, [Organisation 05] asked me to redesign their computer education programme to accommodate this. I found myself asking: “What is the difference between the Internet and any other form of communications or computing?”

The answer needed an historical approach. Primitive communications could travel only as far as a human could shout or as far as that human could run, swim or travel; the limits were biological first, and then technological. Dissemination of information was slow and the target audience was necessarily small. Until Gütenberg popularised the printing-press in Europe, large amounts of information were the jealously-guarded province of the very rich and the very powerful, or of those who spent entire lives copying out the material by hand.

Only when the Industrial Revolution gave birth to steam machinery and reliable sea travel did communications begin to span the world. Electrical technology complemented this, and telephony and telegraphy could send urgent messages across the world by relay in a far shorter time. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world, receiving a personal message from a great distance ranged from impossible to miraculous.

World War II spawned new technologies. The post-War years saw the development of the transistor and the fruits of space research. The Cold War brought the need for fast and secure communications, and the Net was born.

The beginnings of the Net were humble: large machines joined to others by secure lines across [Country 03]. Within 30 years, as people found ways to hook up to the convenient (but very messy) network thus formed, the Internet as we now know it took on its present form.

The Internet had something no other form of communications, even TV and newspapers, could have. It promised unlimited access to information (from your home!), the power to retrieve and store that information for personal use, the possibility of modifying the contents of such information, and the ability to publish (or broadcast) your own information to a wider audience than ever before.

3. A New Syllabus:

With this in mind, the main question became: “How can we give such a terrifying gift to our students?” Many of my colleagues were wary of this, and counselled restricted access with [Officer Level 02] supervision. Events in [Country 03], the birthplace of the Net, showed the impossibility of this. It became a fact that any 12-year-old with the aptitude, will and intelligence, could access almost any information with a low-speed modem.

To me, it was no longer an issue of how to control access to the Internet, but how to educate students to use it without abusing it. It became clear that many [Officer Level 02]s, too long used to controlling the flow of information, were fearful and suspicious of the Internet. Students, only too happy to do things their [Officer Level 02]s were unhappy about, clamoured for access. The new computer education syllabus had to take these things into account, and school resource planning had to accommodate the changes. ([Organisation 05] now has four computer labs running [Technology Class 01] computers, a computer in every classroom, and a staff computer workroom; this began even before I began working there in 1993!)

The Internet syllabus as it developed was composed of six basic sections over a 10-week period. It then merged into the 20-week computer applications syllabus which included class IT projects and skills such as resumé-writing and desktop-publishing. These were the sections:

a) History of communications: showing Internet as an historical phenomenon

b) Structure of the Internet: showing the Internet as a technological phenomenon

c) Email: simple communications, smilies and icons, Netiquette; the Internet as a social phenomenon

d) Searching and FTP: responsible management of information and resources

e) HTTP (the Web): a visual link and an educational tool

f) Security and censorship: moral and ethical issues of responsibility and self-censorship

4. A New Classroom?

In 1996, when [Organisation 01] approached me, as someone familiar with the development of the Internet as an educational issue, to give this talk, the issue of how the use of computers affected human society had become a hot research topic. [Organisation 07] had begun giving symposia and hosting conferences on Human-Computer Interaction, the mathematician Roger Penrose at [Organisation 08] had warned against thinking that computers could ever replace humans, and Kent Norman at [Organisation 09] had written an internet book on the classroom of tomorrow. (With Dr Norman’s permission, I quoted parts of his book during the talk.)

Basically, the most important educational and sociological views were that:

a) the classroom metaphor should be retained, with well-defined objectives to make sure that studying (not so much random browsing), and directed searching (less random exploring) occurred; that is, that students should be given a formal study structure, graded work, and fixed times and places for academic tasks;

b) search strategies and student-student communication (as the most important form of classroom communications) should be taught and developed as learning tools to give greater independence in pursuit of academic goals;

c) danger existed in the sense that computer technology was actually bad for people in three major ways: firstly, a diminished sense of responsibility (from the ease with which mistakes can be rectified and the distance at which an act of sabotage or indecency can be committed before a large audience); secondly, a weakening of reasoning ability because linkages between facts on the Internet are not shown explicitly and in detail (it was estimated that at least 60% of multimedia educational software suffered from this!); and thirdly, a deficiency in human interaction and communication skills since basic computer use requires neither; and

d) education should stress ways of avoiding such dangers and stress the fact that a computer, although very complex in many interesting ways, is only a powerful tool which can be used for a range of activities.

5. Conclusion:

After all that, it turns out although many people talk about computers replacing [Officer Level 02]s, the fact is that [Officer Level 02]s will actually be more important in time to come. Since the volume of accessible information is increasing faster than it can be processed, the task of the teacher must be to help reduce this volume to manageable levels, help students cope with information overload, and help everyone deal with the stresses and dangers that a computer-filled life can bring.

A great [Country 04] [Officer Level 00] once said, “Education is like a weapon: its effects depend on who holds it and at whom it is aimed.” This is true. We must remember who we are and why we are [Officer Level 02]s, we must remember that we have students to who we should teach skills and ways of thinking which will be useful in later life. We owe it to them, and we must never forget that — or why bother being [Officer Level 02]s?


All this came to mind when I received a certain electronic communication today which in effect told me that I had created a problem by exposing information sources which were intended for public information to public perusal. Life is even more complicated these days, it seems.

When I first delivered this speech in 1996, two [Officer Level 01]s approached me and said (with kind, noble, generous intent) that I sounded authoritative, like [Officer Level 00] of [Country 01]. I told them I was not sure it was a compliment, and they laughed somewhat uncertainly and left. All this is history.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Matter Of Principals

Today I was partaking of a leisurely rite of caffeination with a friend. Most unfortunately, that friend managed to press the 'Autobiography' button and I found myself rather impolitely dominating the conversation. Fortunately, I have very tolerant friends. Some thoughts, however, carried over into well after I had come home. And here they are...


It was in May 2004 that I was required to take a course on Principalship and Teacher Performance – an odd-sounding course, to be sure, but I've endured stranger than that. There were two assignments and three presentations to do, all before a class comprised mostly of senior educational officers and principals; the point of the course was to examine the link between what a principal did and how this affected the qualitative development of the teachers serving with that principal.

There was a certain quality of desperation to my efforts. I was scheduled to go on research leave to Columbia University, New York, just days before the course officially ended. The kind course managers said they would allow me to submit the unfinished business by email, as long as it was before the deadline – but it was rushed, rushed, very rushed.

It has been three years now. I survived, and I note with a slightly bemused air that I actually aced all my courses that year. It leaves me with an odd feeling; that year was, apart from Columbia and a few other things, quite a dead loss. Yet, when I look at what I wrote, I realise that I still stand by it to a large extent. Some of my coursemates might have submitted assignments just for the sake of earning their qualifications; I am certain only of my own motive, and that motive was that I believed sincerely in what I thought and wrote about educational leadership.

What follows is part of an essay I wrote in partial fulfilment of the course. It has been edited very slightly to protect the innocent, as well as the guilty.


Reflection On Educational Leadership

This module is about being an educator. Looking through my notes, it is only too easy to say that it boils down to ‘Know thyself’. If you were more sophisticated, perhaps, you might say, “Know thyself, know thine enemy; fight a thousand battles, win a thousand victories.”

But if you were to take this easy way out, you would probably not get the point. The role of educational leader is a lonely, exclusive, powerful, humbling, paradoxical role. It was never easy, and it was always sure to be double-edged.


The leader has to see further than those he leads. He is the man on the mountain, the Moses, the Mohammed, the Messiah. He has to be closest to the truth, most certain of the revelation, most daring of vision. Yet, because leadership is a double-edged role, he must be most honest of himself, most analytical of what he sees, most willing to gaze into the abyss. Tolkien writes in his fantasy masterpiece, The Lord of The Rings, ‘Hope I gave… I kept no hope for myself.’ And this is sometimes the whole raison d’etre of the leader.

Leadership begins small. The seed comes from within, the faint spark of inspiration with which one realises a sense of mission. Some are thrust into the role by circumstance, some by ‘accident of birth’. I believe in all three – in my personal context, I am defined by what I believe, what the world believes of me, and what my empirical experience has been.

Mini case study (very much shortened):

For example, I am the eldest of three siblings in an obviously hierarchical family – this is the ‘accident of birth’. It is supposed to predispose one towards leadership. (It seems not to be always a necessity – my principal is not the eldest in his family.) I became faculty dean four years into my teaching career, by sudden act of appointment; it was not obvious to many that I should be so honoured, and I myself felt rushed into it – this is circumstance. And yet, being made a leader by appointment, I had to do my best. I turned out to have some talent for this ‘visionary leadership’ thing that departments of education seem to love. Quote from one of my fellow heads: “I think you should be an administrator, you have the gift for it.”

The point is, you develop confidence as a leader when you realise that these factors can conspire to guarantee your effectiveness if you see them in a positive light. Yes, there are what appear to be accidents, sudden upheavals, sudden changes in direction (like my friend G who switched subjects overnight). But it is the way that people cope with the realisation that determines if they will make the best of their leadership or not. After all, the more the upheaval, the less likely it is that anyone will be in position to know what to do next, and the more likely it is that the one who becomes leader is the one who can do something about it.

So, there are three things the aspiring educational leader (or any other type of leader) must do: 1) assess the state of reality – what the current environment is like in terms of people and things and relationships; 2) assess the things you can do, or that you have done – you like encouraging others, people will do things for you when you ask them; 3) assess the ‘spark’ – do you feel the urge to do your best in the role, will people be inspired to do things because of you?

This sounds rather abstract still. Is it possible to define the three areas further?

The first area is reality in the external sense – what is the physical and political environment you will be exercising leadership in? You need to ask how many people will respond to your leadership, how many people will oppose it, what your tacit authority will be, what your appointed authority will be, what kind of well-defined material and environmental resources are available. This is the kind of environment all kinds of business and management books talk about when they discuss structural features of organizations. It really corresponds to the Greek word kratos – the authority which comes with circumstance.

The second area is reality in the way your internal set-up interacts with the external set-up. Do you have the strength to lead, the guts to make difficult decisions, and the instincts to make them wisely? You need to know what your capacity to move things is, how hard you can work and how much effort you are willing to pour into the environment. You need to know if you can apply leverage and shift people. This is the kind of authority that people talk about when they say, “She is a mover and shaker.” It corresponds to the Greek word bia – the authority which comes with employment of force.

The third area is reality in the way your internal set-up reacts with other people’s internal set-ups. Do people see what you do and feel driven to follow your example? Do you inspire, do you encourage, do you make people feel good when they do what is according to your vision? When they hear you coming by, do they think of the Angel of Death, or do they think of you as a source of light in a dark world? Or do they just think, “Let’s be compliant and he will leave us alone”? This area is the hardest to assess. It is the area of authority that corresponds with the Greek word dünamis – the authority that comes from personality projection.

The bottom line therefore must be that exploration of context is the necessary preamble to effective leadership. As Sunzi said, “Know thyself, know thine enemy; fight a thousand battles, win a thousand victories.” I quoted that at the very beginning, and I said it was too easy a statement to make.

Yes, it is too easy. It is a statement which cannot stand alone. Sunzi also describes appraisal of terrain, appraisal of resources and appraisal of men. To him, knowledge meant a pragmatic, practical grasp of every real factor in the environment, and the ability to find out more and see more than the other person.

This is why leaders are what they are. They have a job which never ends, a job which never gets easier. Yet, it is a job that they can grow into; it is like a burden that one learns to lift, and that one will eventually develop the muscles for.

Like any other burden, sometimes it may be too heavy, and you will need help; sometimes just watching another person with a heavier load may be good enough. And at the end of your days, like all good leaders, you must know when to lay your burden down and rejoice in a job well done.


The last paragraph proved prophetic; five months later, I would lay down that burden in (some say) dramatic fashion. There are days that I wish I had never sipped from the oft-poisoned chalice of positional leadership. There are days I wish I had drunk more from that spring. But most days, I know who I am and I see it all for what it truly is: one of the many games which God gives to people to occupy their lives and allow them to grow whichever way they can.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Renaissance Nightmares

The oddest things come to you in the night. You dream of Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol (neither word pronounced quite the way you might think), you dream of excellence in wall-decorating graffiti, you dream of endless corridors hacked through the substance of eternity by teams of blind and persistent mice. And from all this conflation of peculiar and disturbing essences, you distil nothing but gibberish. Well, not nothing. You might actually get some doggerel with it. And so, Findhorn Productions LLC present:

The Ballad of the Globalised Student

What brave bright spirit lit your mind
And fired up your eye?
Be this the beacon that defined
The circle of your sky?

Did you divine within your sphere
Of silent crystal wrought
The heavy hands of time and fear
Around the neck of thought?

Were you prepared within your heart
To drink this draught of woe,
To say farewell and then depart
For places none would go?

Yet here you are upon this strand
Of sixfold human strain
Between the roaring ocean and
The land of summer grain;

And here you strive against a host
From castles built in air,
Each lance extended essays past
A token of despair.

And still you parry every blow
And blunt each slashing blade,
Learning more each day to know
From every escapade.

For even as you think you think
And thought that you were taught,
The clever thing to which you drink
Is never getting caught.

And also raise a toast – you must! –
To all your fallen friends
Who missing deadlines came to dust
And other sticky ends.

Give voice to hope and hope to voice,
The sun is gold on blue!
Never regret your childhood choice
To do what you must do.

Remember dauntless heroes now
Who gave their hope to God
And flicked the sweat upon their brow
Upon this humble sod.

Rise up, young student, on the wings
Of eagles carved in stone
And hope the sunlit future brings
More than this rock alone.

For what brave heart and brilliant mind
Can stand the test of time,
Unless with pen and ear refined
They give it up to rhyme?

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Global Citizenship

Oh, very well. Here we go with another round of self-inflicted self-analysis. What follows is such a peculiar constellation of traits that I cannot believe myself. Or what I think of myself. Or what this test purports to tell me I think about myself. Whatever.

Advanced Global Personality Test Results
Extraversion |||||||||| 33%
Stability |||||||||||||||||||| 86%
Orderliness |||||||||||||| 53%
Accommodation |||||||||| 36%
Interdependence |||||||||||| 43%
Intellectual |||||||||||||| 56%
Mystical |||||||||||||| 56%
Artistic |||||||||||| 43%
Religious |||||||||||||||||| 76%
Hedonism || 10%
Materialism |||||||||||| 43%
Narcissism |||||||||||| 43%
Adventurousness |||||| 23%
Work ethic |||||||||||| 50%
Self absorbed |||||||||||| 50%
Conflict seeking |||||||||||| 43%
Need to dominate |||||||||||| 50%
Romantic |||||| 30%
Avoidant |||||||||||| 43%
Anti-authority |||||||||||||||| 63%
Wealth |||||||||||||| 56%
Dependency |||||| 23%
Change averse |||||| 23%
Cautiousness |||||||||||||| 56%
Individuality |||||||||||| 43%
Sexuality |||||||||||| 50%
Peter pan complex |||||||||| 36%
Physical security |||||||||||||||||||| 90%
Physical Fitness |||||||||||||||||| 77%
Histrionic |||||| 23%
Paranoia |||||| 23%
Vanity |||||||||||| 43%
Hypersensitivity |||| 16%
Indie |||||||||||| 50%
Take Free Advanced Global Personality Test
personality tests by

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Monday, June 25, 2007


A terminus is, of course, a boundary; and of all the boundaries we know, the most common are the boundary between self and non-self, the boundary between day and night, and the boundary between land and sea. There are termini which are more subtle: boundaries between love and hate, masculinity and femininity, time and space.

But today I saw a poem which called to mind an old friend. There are so many boundaries hid within these crucifying lines; each line targets the bird within us, which as Chesterton once wrote, "...went singing southward / when all the world was young." But this is no raven, no albatross, no phoenix or other legendary avian. This poem is about a member of that family Scolopacidae, who somehow finds himself in the exalted company of birds who have something to say about humanity.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop's 1949 poem, Sandpiper. I am thinking of breaking with tradition and adding commentary.

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

- Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.


Random Notes:

This remarkable poem seems to be about the boundary between chaos and order, perception and the lack of it. The protagonist struggles (despite himself? unknowingly?) to find meaning, and adopts several coping strategies.

In the first stanza, he ignores the background noise, tries escapism (runs), tries seeking refuge (traditionally, southward), tries to control the panic ('panic' from Greek 'pan'='all' – a response to immensity, terror), and seeks meaning in every grain of sand (student of Blake).

In the second stanza, he ignores the signs of apocalypse ('unveiling') in the form of 'sheets of interrupting water' and the sizzling of the sand as it shifts in the tide; although he has feet of clay (dark, brittle) he continues running as long as he sees he still has the means to run (watches his toes).

In the third stanza, he is actually watching a 'Red Queen's Race' – it is the sand that is shifting while his desperate efforts keep him above the instability. We remember that the Atlantic generally symbolises strife and violent disruption (cf. 'Pacific', ref. Atlantis myth) of order. He is fascinated by the fact that he survives while the world is in continual flux.

This flux is the theme of the fourth stanza; the world is mist – out of focus, huge and diffuse – and then minute, vast, clear. The contrast between minute and vast recalls Blake's line, "To see a world in a grain of sand..." It also brings to mind the phenomenon of focus - to see everything with a lack of detail or to see very little with great detail. The protagonist, however, seems to be only following his nose.

The first line of the last stanza creates a significant break in the rhyme-scheme. What is lost, and rhymes with 'gray'? Obviously, the protagonist has lost his way, and doesn't know that he has. In his obsession with the individual grains, he does not see the whole picture, the picture in which he is a single organism in a continually changing immensity.

Perhaps the poem as a whole is about existential terror, the fear that one might be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, be nothing, be overwhelmed by what is 'more real' and lose all identity and self. Hence, perhaps, there is the obsessive need to focus on small details and make worlds out of grains of sand. The sandpiper treads the terminus, the space between the void of the sea and the minutiae of the sandgrains which make up the volatile substrate of his existence.

Perhaps, also, the poem can be compared to Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, from the 'grating roar' as the ocean flings pebbles up the beach to the 'long, withdrawing roar' of the Sea of Faith. Sigh, so many random thoughts, each a grain of sand. Like Whitman, I contain multitudes.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Laurel Berries

Yes, that's where the term 'baccalaureate' comes from, the Latin bacca laurea ('berries of the laurel'). I Googled that phrase in Latin and found something quite unusual. Here is an interesting post showing the French Baccalaureate, or at least one aspect of it. I present to you le Baccalauréat Général – Anglais LV1. Enjoy!


Reel Life Superheroism

Even when we were much younger, we used to make fun of comicbook heroes. After all, to a large extent, the world before 1990 (or at least, before 1986-7's Watchmen) was full of colourful jokers who had largely optimistic worldviews. Even the death of Jean Grey changed little in terms of perky colours. That's not to say that pre-Watchmen superheroism was all goodness and light; there has always been some darkness in the derring-do, even the deepest derring-do contained some... do.

But the irritating thing about the last few days of my personal space-time continuum is that I can't get a few things out of my head with respect (or regard) to superheroes and the media. For one thing, I keep dreaming of a really bleak superhero movie called...

Fantastic Fear: The Rise of the Civil Service, in which four rather ordinary humans have been irradiated by some sort of cosmic radiation and are now fearsomely powerful and out-of-control administrative officers. They have to deal with a faceless entity who keeps reflecting every form of question, interrogation, probe or investigation back at the originators. This entity might destroy their world – which might not be such a bad thing.

Urgh. And that's not all...

The Leak of Extraordinary Scholars, Officers and Gentlemen, in which a shadowy figure recruits a dark cabal of unusual and semi-fictional characters to examine the strange disappearance of local talent in recent years from an institution of the utmost quality and prestige. Plenty of back-stabbing and betrayal from invisible sources, a few explosions, and tantalising sequelae involving monstrous abominations and gold medals (or is that Tiger Beer advertising?)

Help. My dream-life is being invaded by unhealthy cynicism. Not good.


Note: No confusion should arise from cross-dimensional leakage between this post and movie exhibits A and B, which you may examine at your leisure.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ex Libris

I have just come from what used to be my library, and now is merely the most well-behaved part of my parents' storeroom. There are about 5000 books there, and most of them are fiction. How are they organised?

It's an interesting process. When I was young, my mother made me unshelve all my books, clean the bookshelves, wait for them to dry, apply insecticide, and replace the books. I did that once or twice every year until I got married and moved out. I no longer do this as religiously as I used to (although recent history has allowed me to recant).

I had three methods, working sometimes at cross-purposes. My father (no mean bibliophile, and originator of my habit) taught me to arrange by author, subject, and (for practical reasons) by size and shape. However, he never dictated which should be of top priority. This led to many interesting hours of bibliophilic angst, as whole sections of books had to be rotated and moved around in order to accommodate shifting priorities.

There were times I thought of arranging them by the Dewey system. That way, you don't have to think so hard, except in rare cases of classification deadlock. But I resisted this cowardly way out.

The result: I have more than 5000 books (and my parents own more than that) in that house. They are almost always arranged by author, sometimes by subject, and least of all by size. Generally, my reasoning has followed these lines: most of my books are fiction paperbacks. This means their subject is roughly the same: fictional characters and universes. Best to classify by author, and while paperbacks may be of different sizes, this is not normally a problem. My reference books are either very large (and have to be stuffed in teak bookshelves of sufficient strength) or very small (and sit above what used to be my desk – and sometimes, bed).

I am thinking of giving about 300-500 of them away. Some are very old, very dusty, classics. Some are hard to find or out of print altogether. And they are a large slice of my older life, when I was actually an interesting person. Any takers?

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Friday, June 22, 2007


It's getting out of hand. Vast acres of land converted to corn growing for the sake of ethanol production. Here's an article about it which really would have been titled, by a less polite author, "Ethanol – the bullshit product."

The solutions are simple, but difficult to attain.

1) Use less energy. Ha. Haha. North America, China, India. Forget it.

2) Burn less petroleum. Ha. Haha. See above.

3) Use solar-derived or earth-derived sources (wind, geothermal, hydro). This will work in the very long term.

End of summary.


More entertaining, though, is this list of the ten worst jobs in science. It must really suck to be a professional scientist (as opposed, I suppose, to an unprofessional one) these days.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Time To Study

It's always so amusing to see people running around proclaiming their indifference (both feigned and real) to studying, their fatalism (both feigned and real) with regard to studying, their iniquities and transgressions of omission and commission in the area of studies. I have been there before, repeatedly and sometimes with unneeded and unsought excess.

And yet, I've never felt I had insufficient time to study. Sports and games (three), societies (four), and a purposeful avoidance of all things more regimented than that, kept me sane and balanced. My grades were never great, but I always achieved my objectives – sometimes to the chagrin of teachers who felt I should have aimed higher.

But here is a simple recipe based on the latest in neurobiology and cognitive science.

1. Wake up. Your body's blood pressure rises dramatically and you will sometimes have the sensation of falling. This is almost like shock, as your engine shudders to life. It is not good to sleep too much. My old friend, a sleep specialist with fourteen degrees and qualifications in medicine, recommends not fewer than five hours and not more than eight hours.

2. Begin the day by flexing the limbs and their servitor muscles. Nothing too traumatic, but light weights in supine position followed by a gradual shift to a more upright posture will do wonders to bring the surges of the body's tides into proper equilibrium. 15-20 minutes, perhaps.

3. Try for a run. 2-3 km would be a bit much, given that you are a student first and an athlete a distant second (save for some of those who are either more deluded or far more talented than the rest of us). Skipping, simple calisthenics, these are fine.

4. Cool down. Your body has to be persuaded that you are indeed about to settle into a resting state of some sort. Or at least, one without so much adrenaline, activity, and angst.

5. Watch your diet. Have a good coffee. Coffee maintains metabolic tone, rekindles the brain, and speeds everything up. It is also virtually non-toxic. Have some carbohydrates. Your brain runs on glucose and indeed consumes more than most muscles. Make sure you get some glutamate. You cannot initiate thoughts without it.

6. Prepare your mind. Read the newspapers. You need to re-train your brain to handle text, not images. Text is a higher-order symbolic medium. Just what you need for studying.

7. Swear off all moving visuals - TV, RTS games; turn-based without excessive animation is fine. But I would recommend turning off the visuals entirely. Your brain is like Caesar's Gaul – it is split into three parts, one which handles moving things (like mosquitoes and other people, threats and menaces), one which handles symbols, and one which tries to forge memories (which is why there is no such thing as a true memory). You need to use two and switch off one. Guess which one.

8. Make sure that for your entire period of studying, all your stationery is present and neatly arranged. Ditto all study materials and textbooks. The body will cunningly plot to make you take a break while you search for missing stuff – especially missing stuff you don't really need but will allow you to absent yourself from your desk.

9. Follow this sequence all the time: wake up, exercise, rest, eat, rest, read relaxing stuff, study, eat, rest, read relaxing stuff, study, eat, rest, read relaxing stuff, study, take a break, study, eat a bit, study, sleep the sleep of the just. This doesn't work so hard if you have to go to school. It works great during holidays, weekends, and self-declared compensatory off-days. Studying like this gives you about 8 hours of rest and 10 hours of study, with recreation added. Great, isn't it?

10. If you have to go to school, make sure teachers don't distract you from your plan of study. They are there to serve you in your quest; make sure they work hard. In your studies, you will have taken careful and detailed notes about what you don't know. Make the teachers answer your questions and make the material clearer to you. If they can't do this, either you are not smart enough or they aren't good enough. It is sometimes hard to tell which it is.

11. Condense your study materials. If you have 250 pages of notes, there should not be more than five by the time you are done. The rest is either derivable or recallable using logic, mnemonics, or creative artistry. This is because you only have time to do last-minute reminders and refreshers for about five pages of solid material.

12. Ace the exams you want and pass the rest. It is very easy and you will not overstrain your brain. Remember that while your heart may go on and on (like Celine Dion), it is your brain which is the core of your being and the organ whose death means your own death. Protect it well; don't let it work too hard, or have too easy a time.

And that's all there is to it. Really. If you need a reading list (as if you haven't enough to read already!) do let me know.

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For today's episode of beautiful distraction, we turn to the work of Peter Bird, Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He has a map which juxtaposes Tolkien's Middle-Earth with modern Europe. View it in all its glory: a copy can be found HERE. Don't mind the typos; it's good enough that someone made the attempt. And it all makes a lot more sense. Or is that 'lotr' more sense. Heh.


Acknowledgement: Never would have found it without this guy. Well, this post anyway. And ignore the stuff about Bali; wrong archipelago.

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Examination Priorities

When I was much younger, I was admonished often about the importance of setting priorities and considering the likely consequences of my actions. This was because it was assumed (often quite rightly) that I was prone to not thinking about either of these activities. When I became older, it became inconceivable that I should not be thinking about these activities, so I was scolded often for not doing them right. This was because my priorities and my approach to consequences tended to differ a lot from other people's.

So here are a few episodes which might serve as discussion points for people thinking about examination priorities and suchlike, especially in a school or university situation.

1. What is it that you need most?

When I was in university, I was required to take three majors. Let's call them Alchemy, Numeromancy, and Synthetic Cognition. I was pretty sure I wanted to be an alchemist, so I made sure I did reasonably well in that. In the years I studied Alchemy, I never let it get lower than 'Very Good'. However, in the second year of my tertiary existence, I was told that we had to spend 80 hours doing an exercise in 'Designing Runes of Synthetic Cognition for the Empowerment of Useful Homunculi' (or something like that). The documentation for the SC project ran to 120 pages, for some people. I was also told, "Fail the project and you will have to do a re-examination in SC."

So I did. I refused to hand up a project, was forced to take a re-examination, passed that, and continued on to the next year. This saved me 80 hours (at least).

2. What are the likely consequences of a sacrifice?

In chess, the sacrifice of a piece or an exchange normally has compensation in one of the following aspects: time, space, or practical chances. If you get your material back, that's a pseudo-sacrifice. This is also true in your studies. Let's return to the previous episode.

When the time came for me to sign up for my courses for the next year, I faced the redoubtable Professor Lee. He looked at me and said, "Of course you will not do Higher Synthetic Alchemical Instrumentalism. Your grades are so horrible, except for those in Alchemy."

I told him, "You might have better students applying for HSAI, but you will not have such a single-minded one. It is true that I did rather less than well for both Numeromancy and SC, but it is also true that I only studied the areas of Numeromancy and SC which pertain to Alchemy. Go ahead, test me."

He replied, "Maybe you have a point. Let me tell you what is happening. I have 30 places for HSAI. There is a waiting list. I will put you at the bottom, you are number 36. If enough people drop out in the next five days, you will get your place. Otherwise you will have to regret your selective stupidity."

It was interesting. I went home and slept a lot. Then I was summoned. "Congratulations, young man, you are number 25 now. That is good because we decided to shift the cut-off to 25 places."

Sometimes, single-mindedness is a good thing. Sometimes, fortune favours the brave. And sometimes, you can hear the swelling theme of divine purpose in the background.

3. What are the positive interactions between your courses of action?

My third year of study commenced. We had to do two majors. Mine were Higher Alchemy and HSAI, so I really had only one BIG subject. For two years, I had sacrificed practice of Numeromancy and SC (except where they dovetailed nicely with Alchemy), so that I could spend time in the library working out my alchemical practical experiments and documenting them. The hard work paid off when I topped the class for the Grand Alchemical Practice examination.

"I got 99.5," I told the Professor. "See, my sacrifices have some compensation."

Sourly, he looked me in the eye and said, "The test was upon 110. But yes, you topped the class. It doesn't mean you're a good student though. Although you could have been an excellent one. You are too distracted by all the other things you do."

There was some justification for his sourness. I had just won the Rhetorician's Prize in the annual debate between the practitioners of the Human Arts and the practitioners of the Dark Arts. I also spent many hours staring into the green illumination of the crystal screens at the SC laboratoria. Many, many hours. They nicknamed me Wanderer, so often was I found traversing the trees of knowledge for the fruit of wisdom in the net of the universe.

Result? When I finally graduated from the Ordeals, my Master wrote, "...interacts well with his colleagues, and has a dry sense of humour... advanced courses in group theory, [analysis of the spectral world, daedalian alchemy]... ...command of the [ ] Language, both spoken and written, is excellent... ...gifted in literary matters... ...has my full support in any future undertaking that requires dedication, initiative and creativity."

These were generous words from one I respected much, and thus even more valuable to me. But I would not have had this peculiar synergy if I had not made sacrifices earlier on. And that leads me to one final question.

4. What is the best you can do with your talents?

The answer is seldom, "Be the best-ranked candidate in every course you take." If this were true, then the overwhelming majority of people would be failures. Such an answer is suited to one-dimensional people living in a one-dimensional mechanistic universe with no Spirit, no Life, no Eternal Landscape.

Rather, as the Good Book says, "The race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong... but time and chance happen to them all." We must then live wisely, being conscious that the time does not permit us to be the best in everything, but to allow us pass the tests presented to us. Yes, the terminology is not, "Be the best!" but "Pass the test!" Show yourself a workman approved, an athlete who has finished the race, a soldier who has fought the good fight. That you were not the first in everything is no grounds for thinking of yourself as a failure. That you are the least of all might make you the greatest.

Remember, the test is survival. For those who have survived and passed the tests, there are crowns for each test passed. Often, if we are to read the Book literally, the return on investment is minimally 100% in the final analysis, and a 10% dividend to investors for each period in which you have received income. It is not so bad; you will do well if you are not greedy for fame, fortune, and the ability to impress the weak-minded.


I am not boasting. What I have written, I have written to show you how one man's way has produced a good harvest. But it is certainly not for everyone, and it is certainly not the best of all possible routes. Yet I am confident that my return on investment is sufficient, and as long as I can keep this true, I will be satisfied; and of course, if I cannot, I must work a lot harder - and more wisely.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007


"Liberté, egalité, fraternité!" says the old war-cry of revolutionary democracy. It has always been otherwise. No man is free except when he is in chains, no man is equal unless the claim to be equal supersedes other claims, no brotherhood exists except where that distinction makes sense.

And here is an interesting article on what to observe when you are analysing the invisible hierarchies of the world.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thought And Memory

Thought and memory are both functions of the brain. Each of them uses nodes in what is a massive but finite biological environment. And so, as 21st-century neurophysiologists have confirmed, you can have thought or memory, but not often large amounts of both at the same time. And if you do have both in large amounts, social interaction is probably the next thing to go.

This is probably why Odin, the All-Father of Norse mythology had two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) on his shoulders. And yet, even with those two powerful adjunct assistants, he could not see enough of Ragnarok to save his people or his world. He attempted sacrificing one eye (sensory deprivation can focus other modes of thought) and even hanging on the world-tree to the point of death (privation, ditto). Thought and Memory are insufficient in the end.

Thought and memory, sight and insight; the human brain encompasses the universe, and that not of itself.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

What Kind Of A...

...superhero are you?

I've always wondered about this one – probably a lot more so than wondering about what kind of theologian I would make. For a long while, I was caught up in the superhero genre; I still am a fan of some sort, with a memory that goes back to the original Avengers #23 (for example). So I was understandably tempted when this quiz came my way...


Your results:

You are Spider-Man.

You are intelligent, witty, a bit geeky and have great power and responsibility.

Green Lantern
Iron Man
The Flash
Wonder Woman

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz


'Nuff said?


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Big Words

There are some large words in our vocabulary: colossal, titanic, gigantic, tremendous, huge, enormous, vast, immense; the interesting thing, I realise, is that most people cannot differentiate between them. It would be an excellent test to see whether a candidate could create a sentence in which one word would work while another could not.

So what are the differences between these words?

Colossal: From Greek kolossos, first found in Herodotos and used to describe the large Egyptian statues found in temples and as statuary guardians. The Colossus of Rhodes was the 33-metre tall statue of Helios the sun-god which stood near the harbour from which Rhodes derived its income and which was its only defensive weakness. From the mid-18th century, colossal was used to denote something unimaginably vast (in terms of space and size) but not necessarily of human aspect, as had previously been the case.

Titanic: From Greek titan, 'one who strains mightily'; the male plural is titanes and the female plural titanides. They were the youngest (and thus most human-looking) of the children of Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Gaia). To call something titanic is to evoke the sense of godlike struggle and use of physical power and energy.

For those who want to know, their names were Ókeanos ('Ocean'), Téthys ('Divine Sea'), Hüperion ('Excellence'), Théia ('Divine Light'), Koios ('Intelligence'), Mnemosüné ('Memory'), Krios ('Horned One' - he seems to have been male lunar power), Phoibé ('Brightness'), Iapetus ('Spearcaster' or 'Piercing One'), Themis ('Natural Justice'), Kronos ('Time Passing'), and Rhea ('Fertile Ground').

Gigantic: From Greek gigas ('enormous one'), one of a member of the monstrous cousins of the gods, the Gigantes. The word carries with it the sense of abnormal size, deformed largeness and brute strength. Some of the Gigantes had multiple limbs and extraordinary senses; Argus was said to have a thousand eyes and the Hekatoncheires had a hundred hands and fifty heads each.

Tremendous: From Latin tremens; literally 'causing one to shake'. Originally had the sense of 'terrifying' or 'awesome'. Now, it just means 'very good, and I'm happy for you'.

Huge: From some distant Indo-European root (see, for example, Old French ahuge), meaning 'very large in scale or stature'. Describes physical size.

Enormous: From Latin e- + -normis; implies something that is beyond the ordinary and completely abnormal. The sense of 'outside nature' (perhaps outrageously so) can be seen in the related word 'enormity'.

Vast: From Latin vastus, 'wasteland'. The words 'vast' and 'waste' are originally the same. 'Vast' denotes an empty space, a void or other featureless expanse. 'Vast knowledge' would mean something like 'a lot of information, within which individual facts are of negligible importance', I suppose.

Immense: From Latin meaning 'not measurable' (cf. 'mensuration', 'commensurate'). The idea is that of something so big that it is beyond conventional measurement.

Some day when you have to describe something beyond normal experience, take a few moments. Think about the kind of excess you are experiencing. And pick the right word to describe it.

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Dire Gambits

In Tim Powers's The Drawing of the Dark, the wizard Aurelianus reveals to Brian Duffy one of the ways in which the contending powers can break the deadlock between Christian and Heathen. He describes Didius' Dire Gambit Overwhelming as the darkest of sorceries, requiring the sacrifice of a thousand baptised souls upon the field of war. The consequences? The ruination of the caster's soul and intellect, and the tainting of the entire West. "A connoisseur would be able to taste the difference in the very beer," concludes the wizard, not entirely in jest.

I first read this book in 1982; it was first published in 1979 and it took a long time before I found in it in the Del Rey paperback edition. As I obtained, one by one, each of the redoubtable author's books, I realised that what Tim Powers had done was to lay bare the underlying structure of reality in a way that linked it closely to every myth. I had read Robert Graves on the White Goddess before, and Joseph Campbell's The Hero of a Thousand Faces; the mythopoeic nature of history and human endeavour was nothing new.

But Mr Powers had opened an altogether different kettle of fish. Humanity and all its powers are such that the chaos of the hidden world must bend before the ordering effects of the human observer, he seemed to say. In The Stress of Her Regard and subsequent novels, including that espionage tour-de-force, Declare, he showed this again and again. And I believe that to be true, both in the realm of human experience and in the realm of theology.

For it was Man whom God asked to name the animals and fix the nature of their being; it was Man to whom God gave the Garden and the World. And as I sit here and think deeply on the forces each mighty human soul unleashes daily – without thinking of reasons, without counting the cost – I am appalled at the waste and fearful of the consequences. O God, teach us to number our days aright, that we might develop a heart of wisdom!

And help us to remember that it is not the sacrifice of thousands of innocents that you desire, but the worship of our souls.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Call Me Al

This is from Paul Simon's classic Graceland.


A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don't want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard
Bonedigger Bonedigger
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away my well-lit door
Mr Beerbelly Beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me
You know I don't find this stuff
Amusing anymore

If you'll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al

A man walks down the street
He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention
And wo my nights are so long
Where's my wife and family
What if I die here
Who'll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
Gone Gone
He ducked back down the alley
With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
All along along
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations

If you'll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al
Call me Al

A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound
The sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen! and Hallelujah!

If you'll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al
Call me Al

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Friday, June 15, 2007


Today I was studying the taxonomy of cryptozoology. A few thoughts came to mind, and perhaps they are not sufficient for a proper post. So here are some stubs.

1. Equus: horses, zebras, donkeys, mules, quagga, unicorns, pegasi – at which point is a horse not a horse?

2. Canis: dogs (canis familiaris), wolves (canis lupus), coyotes, but not hyenas – why the distinctions, when all canines can interbreed without sterility?

3. What would the taxonomic elements and vocabulary of my environment be? Ah, this one I shall sequester.

4. Homo: homo educator would be the drawing-out man, just as homo habilis is tool-using man and homo ludens is game-playing man; they aren't necessarily homo sapiens (intelligent man), which seems like wishful thinking sometimes.

5. Apocalypse and eucalyptus are related. The former means 'unveiling' while the latter means 'well-veiled'.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

We Will Berry You

Oh, THIS is such a lovely post. I'm off to eat a few of these things now.

Personally, I have yearnings for useless knowledge. I do, however, try to make such knowledge useful. In particular, I enjoy making such knowledge available to those who can make better use of it than I can. So this short post is dedicated to that self-flagellating and angst-ridden young lady who really shouldn't be abusing her neurotransmitters so much.

Ah, the chemistry, the chemistry of it all.

Update: I've often found interesting things at Here are two.

1) Ah, everyone must look at THIS masterpiece of culinary exegesis. Oh, dessert-lovers of the world unite for this is the Grand Unifying Theory (what an apposite acronym assigned!) of Desserts.

2) And oh yes, young lady (see above), I've picked up this excellent phrase: "Je te vois venir avec tes gros sabots." Heh heh.

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What Kind Of A...

...theologian are you?


You scored as Anselm, Anselm is the outstanding theologian of the medieval period.He sees man's primary problem as having failed to render unto God what we owe him, so God becomes man in Christ and gives God what he is due. You should read 'Cur Deus Homo?'



Jürgen Moltmann


Karl Barth


John Calvin


Martin Luther


Charles Finney


Paul Tillich




Friedrich Schleiermacher


Jonathan Edwards


Which theologian are you?
created with


I suppose what's interesting is the number of 50% bars and who they represent. How odd. And I seem to be positively mediaeval in my theological leanings as well. I must be a relic.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dirty Big Service

In my country there is a bank, neither bonny nor related to Loch Lomond. However, it is a dirty big service provider with intimate ties (like a corset) to the nation. What is appalling is (to follow the train of thought begun in my previous post) that this large bank has apparently switched over to some new software. Some people have not had their accounts credited promptly, others have been sent letters saying that their loan installments have not been paid on time.

It happened to my father recently. I was most surprised; he's not the sort to be late with payments. We scrambled to pay up. The bank sent another letter. We were a little alarmed. We opened the letter. It was an apology for the previous letter, which had been 'sent out by mistake'.

The roots of the matter are complex. Suffice it to say that the more interactions are available, the more possibilities for chaos exist. Where the space of interaction is limited, the severity of chaotic effect in terms of impact on the interacting entities will be large. As the number of entities and possible interactions multiplies out of control, the only way to have a functional polity is to censor the available information and interactions.

I'm reading Charles Stross's intelligent and dynamic Glasshouse right now. Almost done. What struck me in a few pages was that the world Stross writes about, in which historians are targeted by assassins and revisionism is a system-wide disease carried by humans, is very much like the world I live in. Except that Glasshouse is also about an experiment in living like we do, from the perspective of a future generation in the more-distant future (well, after the Acceleration, that is).

My country is a microcosm of the Strossian universe. I read Stross and think about how he would be so at home here. We should get him in as expatriate talent. He could be our chronicler. Haha.

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Going Out

You can...

Go out in a blaze of glory
Go out in the midday sun
Go out from an inner circle
Go out with anyone

Go out like a dying candle
Go out from a closet stark
Go out of line with convention
Go out into the dark

Go out on a limb for a friend
Go out beyond what's allowed
Go out and get them, grasshopper
Go out under a cloud


'Out' is an expansive word. There is much less room at the 'In'.

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Monday, June 11, 2007


I've said it before and I will say it again... network security is a losing game in any large organisation. Some more evidence here. And I will never forget the time a CEO told me that Apple was a dead company and that wireless would never work anyway. So much for IT strategy.


50: Previews

It dawned on me a few moments ago that I've been writing previews of 50, the moment in your life when you say, "Half-century!" and immediately wonder why you thought, "Gold!" A lot of the angst-ridden moments in this blog are '50 Previews'. I would probably have looked at 52 as well, except that DC Comics had already got there.

But within a couple of months, this particular blog will probably have reached its 500th post. It would have got there much sooner, except that there were intermittent disruptions along the route. When I first started blogging, it was an odd experience. The blogosphere was tiny and we didn't know it was called blogging. That was a long time ago. Then I started this one. I was amazed to find how different the experience of the 21st century was compared to the 20th. And a lot of people are uncomfortable with it. Hence, intermittent disruptions.

I've decided, however, to reveal a small secret. I've been keeping very detailed observations about the microcosm in which I operate. That's in keeping with my background as a qualitative researcher. But I think that it would be appropriate for me to (in my usual shadowy way) give 50 little pen-sketches of the bloggers and other personalities of this microcosm who have made these last few years so memorable. It should be a great 500th post. Heh.

And I promise to try not to persecute those who have already suffered from my observations thus far.

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Creative Literature

I must admit I've been reading again. It tires and exhilarates the mind and body. It's a bit like full-contact swordplay.

But my two most time-wasting link additions are bonkworld and the great F&SF blog La Explanada de Avente which introduced bonkworld to me. Wherein lies their fascination?

Well, bonkworld has weird stuff, like this amazing tool amongst others. It will take the chore out of reading Dostoevsky. If only they had one for Tolstoy... and of course, it has nifty little plays like this one, which should have been a Theory of Knowledge introduction sketch.

La Explanada de Avente, on the other hand, is pure entertainment and commentary. It's also bilingual, written by a person named Tim R Mortiss. You have to suspect such a name though. It sounds too much like this.

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It's the hill that all men reach; in Psalm 90, the years of our life are three-score-and-ten, and if by reason of strength they are four score, yet all their days are trouble and sorrow. Forty years is the mid-point of the titration that separates the 'growing up' from the 'growing old'. I will be at that mark in fewer days than I think. Perhaps, in fewer days than anyone else thinks. I give myself about two months.

I suppose what makes this particular year so rich and powerful in all its nuanced and secret ways (like Tim Powers's Drawing of the Dark) is that I've had so many brilliant and unusual co-stars. If this were a soap opera, it would be far more eloquent and action-packed than anything seen on the silver screen or the plasma screen. I've felt a lot like Harrison Ford though, with only two facial expressions at times: pained, and more-pained-than-usual.

After this year, there will be no such confluence of factors. The ladies will no longer be compared to those I met in my years in the convent on the hill; successive generations will have to bear the burden of comparison with the excellent quality of those who have graduated before. Arthur will no longer sit sleeping, awaiting the call of his country, a once and future king. Neither will clever Hans make light work. Evanescence will be the order of the day, and the numinous qualities of butterflies will no longer ennoble the assemblies of dawn.

And in days to come, the 370 men and women I have come to know with pride and humour will become legends in their own days. They don't personally feel like legends now. They may not ever feel they have deserved that right. (And I am somewhat limited in my capacity to extol their individual virtues without sacrificing whatever is left of their private lives.)

But from my hill, I look out upon the plain where ignorant armies clash by night and I see that what they have written in the water will still illuminate the shadows. I will remain, locked in one place and time of their perception and memory, while they go on to other things. As the years go by, everything fades.

As often before, I feel the ghost, that spirit of portrait-painting poets once named Robert Browning, looking over my shoulder. But there are no unkind words from this wraith – only a benediction of sorts. Rather, I head downhill into the valley of shadow knowing that my eternal Guide has nothing but the best for me.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Britannia Still Rules The Waves

THIS is certainly a dramatic way of getting a message across... Ah, how wonderful it is to see British eccentricity at work!

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Keepers Of The Dream

The other day I was having breakfast and listening to the godchild. Godchild was telling me about the last days of Pompeii and the fall of the Roman Empire, all rolled into one, but on a slightly smaller and more human scale. I sympathised, and while I was listening, I felt distant echoes of the same pain.

The dreams of the godchildren are the precious dreams that God has given them, made into exquisitely detailed and fragile miniatures. Some of them will become templates for huge blueprints of grand futures; some will merely be kept hidden in lockets, treasures never to see the direct light of the sun again. But behind them, sometimes in the shadows and sometimes offstage, some of us stand our vigil, our watch against the fall of night.

For every dream which is born to waking needs a midwife and a guarantor, a person willing to stand in the gap and share the burden. Not every bearer of a dream will stand the test. But the colours of the day that each dreamer wears, the blues and reds and golds of morning, shine against the coming of twilight. They are our future. Though we too are weak and mortal, we have to try and help the children who are the hope of that future, polish their armour and guard them in their vulnerable moments.

One day they shall be great in the land. Though some may fail, and lose heart, some will rise to the height of their God-given powers. We pray for these, our godchildren, that even where we fail, God will sustain them and keep enough of us around that their dreams will live.


Listening to the godchild reminded me of an old song. And here it is.

Münchener Freiheit
– Keeping The Dream Alive

Full of memories of people and places
And while the past is calling
In my fantasy I remember their faces

The hopes we had were much too high
Way out of reach but we had to try
The game will never be over
Because we're keeping the dream alive

I hear myself recalling
Things you said to me
The night it all started
And still the rain is falling
Makes me feel the way
I felt when we parted

The hopes we had were much too high
Way out of reach but we have to try
No need to hide no need to run
'Cause all the answers come one by one
The game will never be over
Because we're keeping the dream alive

I need you
I love you

The game will never be over
Because we're keeping the dream alive

The hopes we had were much too high
Way out of reach but we had to try
No need to hide no need to run
'Cause all the answers come one by one

The hopes we had were much too high
Way out of reach but we had to try
No need to hide no need to run
'Cause all the answers come one by one

The game will never be over
Because we're keeping the dream alive

The game will never be over
Because we're keeping the dream alive

The game will never be over...

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The Ineffable Qualities Of Friendship

The other day I had a sudden urge to contact an old friend of mine, someone I've known for 25 years now. So I SMSed him – a short, casual message asking how he was and when he'd be in the neighbourhood. I received a reply a few hours later. He was surprised that I was asking at this particular time: he had just dreamt about the way we used to be, and he would be visiting our tiny state this very weekend.

It has been a long road. Somewhere amidst the tomfoolery, the visits to odd parts of the country, the late-night sessions, the banter about life and girls, the practical (and impractical) jokes, you can still find the thread the holds it all together. But the nature of that thread is a difficult one to perceive, let alone describe.

You see the cut-scenes, you remember the insane moments, and yet you cannot quite say what strange weapon was tempered, what familial defence was proofed, what dread chain was forged. I still remember the first long walk we took, around the shopping district. Right in the middle of it was a girls' school well known for its spirit of sincerity, courage, generosity and service. And inaccessibility. We walked around it three times before he figured out I was leading him in circles.

He demanded to know why we were doing this. Then I found the right moment and we were in the school grounds, making friends. Of course, it was a completely illegal activity. But you can't have a school in the middle of a shopping district and not have such goings-on, surely? Well, the defenders of the gate were quite serious about evicting us. Years later, he would recall that we had not appeared to make much progress in our sad little social lives, and yet... there was this incredible database.

Databases were new in that long-ago era. It is difficult now to remember just how long ago VisiCalc and dBase were, how wonderful it was to programme in Assembly, to use a Z80, to touch the face of CP/M. And there I was, assiduously keying in every little bit of data I could find, creating profiles of everyone we knew.

It was odd that nobody thought of me as a geek; it was a relief that I had enough social life not be thought of as a nerd. The database saved me, in a sense. I became a computer-assisted social coordinator in a time when this was uncommon. I wrote little programs to assess compatibility; I devised ranking formulae for acceptability and style. It was a grand endeavour, great fun, and almost completely useless. We never took it seriously, but it was serious enough to consume a fair amount of time.

And 25 years later, with high school and university and other major events behind us, what did all that accomplish? What traits, qualities, behaviours did such a life develop in those who shared this peculiar friendship? I have a few ideas.

Apparently, one of these qualities is the capacity to forge 'psychic' links. I don't mean something paranormal (or at least, I don't think so). We had no cellphones, hardly any internet capability, fast modems ran at 300 baud. It made us compensate in ingenious ways. It was a kind of information tradecraft, the ability to exchange very compressed useful information and have enough redundancy to make it work. Inevitably but inexplicably, some of us developed the ability to communicate without saying anything, or to leave the equivalent of post-hypnotic messages.

Another one of these qualities is the sense of being connected into a huge safety-net. Somehow, in any major city of the world, there is the odd sensation that resources are always available. And they are, often just around the corner. Parachuted into NYC a few years after 9/11, I met up with friends I hadn't seen for years. You turn a corner, and there they are. Walking down a lonely London lane, you find another one. It isn't something you rely on, of course; but in a sense, it has come to be something you almost expect.

These two qualities together really forged the equivalent of a universal knowledge resource. You always know whom to call when you need something esoteric or a person with the right professional skills (intellectual-property lawyer, dermatologist, uranium toxicologist, coastguard commander, and so on). The modern equivalents, I am sure, are not lacking. But I think of the odd talents we found in ourselves as the equivalent of steampunk – not quite cybernetic, but close enough and considerably more romantic.

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Friday, June 08, 2007


Hermeneutics is the discipline of interpreting a text. Specifically, it is most often used to mean the discipline of interpreting the Bible. The general principles make a lot of sense though for many texts, and I reproduce them below.

Here are 24 hermeneutic rules for interpreting the Bible, taken from A Layman’s Guide to Interpreting the Bible (pp17-91), by Walter Henrichsen. This is an orthodox Christian view, and from other perspectives may seem a bit self-serving – but this is a list of rules for Christians to interpret Christian scriptures. It doesn't work in its raw form for other texts or creeds.


1. Work from the assumption that the Bible is authoritative.
2. The Bible best interprets itself; Scripture best explains Scripture.
3. Saving faith and the Holy Spirit are necessary for us to understand and properly interpret the Scriptures.
4. Interpret personal experience in the light of Scripture and not Scripture in the light of personal experience.
5. Biblical examples are authoritative only when supported by a command.
6. The primary purpose of the Bible is to change our lives, not increase our knowledge.
7. Each Christian has the right and responsibility to investigate and interpret the Word of God for himself.
8. Church history is important but not decisive in the interpretation of Scripture.
9. The promises of God throughout the Bible are available to the Holy Spirit for the believers of every generaation.


10. Scripture has only one meaning and should be taken literally (but see below).
11. Interpret words in harmony with their meaning in the times of the author.
12. Interpret a word in relation to its sentence and context.
13. Interpret a passage in harmony with its context.
14. When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement may be considered figurative.
15. When an expression is out of character with the thing described, the statement may be considered figurative.
16. The principal parts and figures of a parable represent certain realities. Consider only these principal parts and figures when drawing conclusions.
17. Interpret the words of the prophets in their usual, literal and historical sense, unless the context in which they are fulfilled clearly indicates they have a symbolic meaning. Their fulfilment may be in installments, each fulfilment being a pledge of that which is to follow.


18. Since Scripture originated in an historical context, it can be understood only in the light of Biblical history.
19. Though God’s revelation in the Scriptures is progressive, both Old and New Testaments are essential parts of this revelation and form a unit.
20. Historical facts or events become symbols of spiritual truth only if the Scriptures so designate them.


21. You must understand the Bible grammatically before you understand it theologically.
22. A doctrine cannot be considered Biblical unless it sums up and includes all that the Scriptures say about it.
23. When two doctrines taught in the Bible appear to be contradictory, accept both as Scriptural in the confident belief that they resolve themselves into a higher unity.
24. A teaching merely implied in the Scriptures may be considered Biblical when a comparison of related passages supports it.


There are few things more distressing than to see people quote Scripture out of context. Take for example the commonplace use of Jeremiah 29:11 at Christian weddings. That verse says, "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Yes, it sounds good, especially with its context removed. Reading verse 10 before it should be sufficient warning: This is what the LORD says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place." In other words, it's all about captivity and exile for 70 years before the good part begins. Hardly what you really want in a marriage...

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Very Old Archival Material

A long time ago, there was a young and idealistic (but by no means naïve) teacher. He came from a family of teachers who were always telling him that teaching was an excellent but terrible vocation. He found out how terrible when he was made to write essays like that which follows. It was a very long time ago.

Question No 2

“Teachers and pupils are seen by researchers to engage in a variety of classroom strategies with a view to gaining control in the classroom.” — R Burgess

“Whatever the dispositions of classroom participants, they have to live within classroom social reality and cope with it. In facing this common problem… teachers and pupils adopt a range of strategies.” — I Reid

Drawing on studies of the classroom, give two examples of such teacher strategies and two of pupil strategies. Discuss how the concept of strategy helps you to understand how classroom order is achieved and maintained.

When one comes across the word ‘strategy’, one tends to think in terms of games such as chess, where considered manoeuvring is carried out for the achie vement of relatively long-term goals. (This is to be contrasted with ‘tactics’, the manoeuvres themselves. For example, little Kenneth’s throwing of paper balls in class is a tactic used to distract the teacher; the use of distraction to escape the boredom of his lessons is his strategy for coping with school.) In the classroom, the teacher’s goals and those of his students may come from wide-ranging spectra and be individually very different. The interplay of the strategies used in pursuit of those goals quite often determines the classroom environment, from a sociological perspective.

With that in mind, let’s consider two strategies used by teachers in the classroom, and two used by pupils.

Lefrançois (1) divides teacher strategies into two types, preventive and corrective. The former is more closely associated with ‘classroom management’ than with discipline, and its goal is that of facilitating teaching and learning in the classroom.

One sort of preventive strategy is the establishment of routine. Routines are indispensable to the smooth running of the class because they define the details of classroom activity: where to, how to, and when to do which things. Doyle (2) says that effective classroom management depends on the establishment of rules and procedures early in the school year.

Corrective strategies are associated with classroom discipline; the goal here is to change or eliminate a particular behaviour, with resultant benefits to teacher and class. One sort of corrective strategy is, of course, punishment. The swifter and more appropriate, the better; nevertheless, it should be noted that there are cases both for (3) and against (4) various types of punishment.

Pupil strategies are, like teacher strategies, aimed at the general goal of ‘dealing with classroom life’. To this end, the spectrum of pupil strategies ranges from those which are socially ‘positive’ to those which are socially ‘negative’. Socially neutral behaviour can mask negative attitudes, as in the case of the apathetic pupils known as ‘puddings’ (5).

‘Positive’ pupil strategies include that of conformist coöperation with the teacher, i.e. discovering what the teacher’s goals are and working overtly towards them in an acceptable (to the teacher) way. Reid classifies this as one of the more positive types of adaptive behaviour in the classroom context (6). ‘Negative’ pupil strategies include the use of ‘subversive’ humour, i.e. humour which is directed against authority and in support of the interests of pupil peer-groups (7).

The concept of ‘strategy’ (fr. Gk. strategos, ‘general’), as used in a classroom context, leads one to think of the classroom as similar to a geopolitical battlefield, on which two forces or power blocs manoeuvre in pursuit of personal gain. On one side is the teacher, whose power comes from socially-legitimated authority (kratos), or less often from personal force (dünamis) or threat of violence (bia). On the other side are the pupils, whose socially-approved power sources are apathy and inertia (and whose socially-disapproved ones include dünamis and bia as well). The possible spoils of victory include increased morale, peace and quiet, job success, and other things that will make the side concerned more happy in the classroom environment.

The pursuit of personal gain in the classroom is not a zero-sum game, however, and it must be noted that either side or both sides can ‘win’ or ‘lose’, or neither, depending on which strategies are used. Classroom order (or the lack of it) is a result of the classroom reality that is derived from the interplay of these strategies. As in much of human social behaviour, negotiation typifies most of these interactions, although some strategies do not allow it at all (for example, excessive authoritarianism or complete apathy).

Normally, both sides realise that classroom order is a good thing. Just as it is impossible for meaningful negotiations to be carried out unless the parties concerned have agreed to a set of rules, so the conduct of classroom life is stressful and even hazardous if the rules are not implicitly or explicitly known and agreed to by both sides.

The first and most important step towards meaningful dialogue is the proposal of rules by the teacher, representative of higher authority. The teacher’s choice of strategy here is very important. If the strategy is one of authoritarian order which admits no negotiation, then revolt could be the response, and the eventual result loss for both sides. On the other hand, if the strategy is one of capricious and seemingly random reward and punishment, then fear and distress will lead to a similar outcome.

To continue with the analogy, the first side to resort to behaviour considered unjustifiable by the other side runs the risk of severe retaliation or provoking serious guerilla activity. Lesser provocations may be glossed over by diplomacy or other coping strategies. Negotiation is thus the premier vehicle of meaningful interaction in a civilised classroom, including as it does a host of faintly provocative or uncomfortable behaviours and the appropriate responses thereto.

In the normal course of events, once the teacher has drawn the boundaries and the pupils have countered by testing and disputing some of them, the teacher then adopts new strategies to respond to the testing and redefine the boundaries where necessary. This continues until everyone is more-or-less equally happy (or unhappy), whereupon a new set of strategies (sometimes analogous to the mutually-assured destruction strategies of the Cold War) aimed at preserving the newly-engineered status quo is brought into play. Thus is classroom order achieved and subsequently maintained.

From all this, it can clearly be seen that the concept of ‘strategy’ is one which leads to an adequate understanding of how classroom order is achieved (and why), and how it is maintained. As Swift said, “Every creature lives in a state of war by nature.” If the battle for education is to be won by both sides, the nature of the classroom reality must be fully understood and exploited.


1) Lefrancois, G R (1991); Chapter 12 - ‘Classroom Management and Discipline’, in Psychology For Teaching (7th ed.) (pp.312-339). California: Wadsworth.
2) Doyle, W (1986); ‘Classroom Organization and Management’, in M C Wittrock (ed.), Handbook Of Research On Teaching (3rd ed.) (pp. 392-431). New York: Macmillan.
3) Parke, R D (1974); ‘Rules, Roles, and Resistance to Deviati Gon: Recent Advances in Punishment, Discipline and Self-Control’, in A Pick (ed.), Minnesota Symposia On Child Psychology (vol.8). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
4) Clarizio, H E and Yelon, S L (1974); ‘Learning Theory Approaches to Classroom Management: Rationale and Intervention Techniques’, in A R Brown and C Avery (eds.), Modifying Children’s Behaviour: A Book Of Readings (p. 50). Springfield, Illinois: Thomas.
5) Sharpe, L (1992); ‘The Sociology of the Classroom’, unpublished lecture given at the National Institute of Education, Singapore.
6) Reid, I (1986); Chapter 4 - ‘The Culture of Schools’, in The Sociology Of School And Education (pp. 77-80). London: Fontana.
7) (ibid.); Chapter 5 - ‘Pupils, Teachers, and Classrooms’ (p. 131)

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