Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Here's an interesting URL to look at. It's all about why swordplay is still relevant in this day and age. I have an abnormal number of fencing acquaintances, and they aren't the Tom Sawyer kind. Rather, they're the épée, foil and sabre kind. And you know what?

Good fencers make good neighbours.



These are little glimpses into the secret life of us all.


Morning meditations. The tale is a familiar one. The leader of the people vanishes up the mountain to commune with his God. His people fret in his absence. They indulge in abhorrent practices. The leader returns. He mobilises a few hundred of the sanctified to kill three thousand people in the name of his God.


The end of the day at the College of Wyverns. Gathered in the scriptorium beneath the aedificium, the warrior monks and nuns of the Grand Order are engaged in serious philosophical debate. Today's topic: ethics and discipline. This is how the conversation ends.

"I, sir, am a paragon of moral rectitude!"

"Moral turpitude, more likely!"

"My rectum is perpendicular to the ground!"

"So is your turpentine!"

"Gentlemen, you're all being a bit..."

"Sorry, madam."


In quite another section of the College, fifty young men and women – some of senior and exalted station, some of junior and less exalted estate – stand in wait for the mysterious Knights of the Old Republic, servants of the Black Order. They will wait for a long time, but they do not mind, for they also serve who only stand and wait.

The lines stretch out forever, orderly, active, disciplined. They wait, they wait. Is there any use to the waiting? They assume so; their faith is like armour.


The Grey Man walks the white corridors and appears in the Plaza. Students call out to him, "Sir, entertain us!" It is an unusual request, but the Grey Man is feeling uncharacteristically beneficient and he complies.

"Entertaining yourself is very simple. You need to start with boredom. Perfect boredom creates heightened self-awareness."

The students quieten, realising that one of his rare public performances is in the offing.

"You stand upright, life and death in your hands, left and right. It is at the moment of equilibrium that you will realise your hands are different."

They stare at him. Is he serious? The Grey Man is not known for straight talk.

"Left and right. You will begin to see that they are different, feel that they are not the same."

He sees that some of them are looking at his hands, or at their own. He lifts his hands: plain, ordinary-looking hands.

"Select a hand and look at it. You will suddenly know that it is not your hand, that it is an alien object, separated from you, not you at all."

He takes a breath, and so do they.

"And at that moment, you will have entertained yourself."

He smiles, steps away, and vanishes.


He has a daughter. She has a father. When did they grow to be this far apart? Not that far apart though; merely at arm's length. But far enough. He is feeling old; the white hairs depress him, with their little antimelanic messages. She is feeling old because things irritate her which shouldn't. She shouldn't feel old. She is less than half his age.

But it's there, and what can you do about it?

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Here Be Dragons

I wrote this story 20 years ago, when I was young and the memories were fresh. Shiv has spoken of magic-realism. There is some truth in this; the supernal is everywhere, and all things possess a surreal nature which transcends the mundane. This is a very long post, and if I apologise for it, it is because it might not be good enough. But it's mine. I wrote it in 1987 and it was first published in Tesseract, the Science Fiction Association (Singapore) magazine, 1st Quarter 1991. This version is almost completely free of edits. Almost.



Al, as usual, was a bronze dragon: intelligent, romantic but a little cynical, satisfied with the quality of his life. We sat in a pizza restaurant somewhere along Bukit Timah Road with wine and pasta before us, and journeys behind us. We spoke of futures, as mythical figures often do. I was trying my hardest to be a sorcerer: mysterious but unsure, skilled but unwise. I looked sidelong at him, trying to read his careful expression.

"When you're out of national service, what will you do?"

"Become a geologist," he replied. "I've been reading this book on the tropical rain-forest.

"What's that got to do with geology?"

"Nothing, really. Why?"

I sighed. A dragon should know better, was what I thought; although, of course, you shouldn't say such things to them. This one was a friend, though. I waited for the explanation.

He continued, as if unveiling a surprise, "Really, I'm interested in plate tectonics." He paused for a while, looked at me expectantly. I remained, inscrutably, a sorcerer.

"Continental drift, earthquakes, that sort of thing." Musingly, he said, mostly to himself, "The rain-forest book had some very good photographs in it; I would have bought it, but it was rather expensive."

Dragons are like that - they window-shop a lot. What they do buy, they hoard. Bronze dragons have an entertaining little quirk: unlike most other dragons, they don't believe so much in possessing things. Intellectual property is more their sort of stuff. When looking at grimoires or enchiridia, if the price asked is too great, they'll haunt the book, but not buy it unless they must. They'd rather visit it respectfully from time to time, memorizing it in little bits. The reason dragons keep the company of sorcerers is that they find it convenient to borrow books from them. And why do sorcerers keep the company of dragons? Ah, because they make marvellously entertaining companions, of course.

The conversation faded into the background. It went on while the rain came outside, borne by the thin wind and the storm. Amber light glinted through the sharp and rainy night on the windowpanes. I was thinking of dragons. Maybe, dragons were thinking of me. I'd known lots of them. It's always useful for a magician to be able to understand and speak to dragons.

Mentally, a review.

My friend Shen, a silver dragon: without certain purpose though of great rational intelligence, a good friend but subject to temperamental instability, lethal when roused. Like most of his kind, he excelled at games of skill and reason. He'd been one of our best chess-players until he'd gone seeking wisdom elsewhere: the arts of healing, in the English midlands. Shen still writes with great conviction mixed with many questions on the nature of things.

Sean, on the other hand, is a red dragon, one of a bright and savage race. He's got typical red traits: a tendency towards violent solutions and fiery resolutions, gracefully aesthetic artistic abilities, extraordinary strength and endurance. The red dragon is a beast of a thousand contradictions. This fellow plays the piano, behaves impeccably in unfamiliar company. He's also been known to run after people, knife in hand.

Al's saying something about Sean.

"... so I gave him a lift to this girl's house. He said she had reddish hair, which he thought was rather exotic. I misheard him: I thought he'd said 'erotic'."

Indeed, Sean's a red, even down to his colour sensitivity.

The bronze dragon looks curiously at me. "Did you say something?"

I speak almost by reflex. "Two days ago, I met a female unicorn. I asked her to marry me, and she told me to wait five years, and she'd consider it then. It's hard to snare a unicorn, even if you are a virgin."

Al snorts. He's definitely got a streak of the horse dragon in him: a passive, almost docile, disregard for authority. He's not the rapacious sort of dragon, stocking up on bright gems and fair maidens. Several pretty girls have caught his eye, but only one has caught his heart. He's the sort who will wait, regardless of how many graduate and remain unmarried.

Likewise, Shen. The heart of the silver dragon is a noble one; once lit by a spark of idealism, its flame will not die. They mate for life, and so, the other must be perfect in the dragon's eyes. The friendship of a silver is legendary: a flood would not quench it. And I, a sorcerer, only wonder that I have known such a one.

The wine dwindles in the candlelight, as if it fuels those distant flames. We let it flow away untapped, although it was within our talents to have taken that magic for our use. I smile reflectively. Perhaps I should've been a dragon too, forever chasing after a precious pearl and never knowing its true beauty for my own. A sea-dragon, then, glinting copper-gold on deep armour forged of greenness and of light? She'd not have cared, no, not for dragon, not for the sorcerer within, not for the man in sorcerer's guise. She'd have wanted to know it all, mercilessly all, exceedingly well. There's a formula to these things, and most sorcerers know it: when a sorcerer is no longer inscrutable, he is no more a magician.

"What shall we do after this?" he asks, as dinner draws to a close. (Time has passed. The mind hides between times; it hides in the bones of things, iron in tall buildings, granite in my country's spine, our own bones. The underlying reality is mightier than the obvious. It is a larger, more complete world.)

Time kept passing by for a while. We were passengers waiting for an altogether different train, and it was a sluggish river full of fish and winter ice. As the wine disappeared, along with the pasta, I cast a line into the water. "Whatever. The vehicle is yours; let it carry what it will, to wherever it will go."

The river rolled on, serene. It was too lazy to care.

I found myself outside, on the main road with Al. The rain had tapered off to a thin, whispering drizzle. The old white chariot, a driving-instructor's oldest vehicle it seemed, was waiting as always, and it sighed with chill and impatience. A mellow knocking rose about us as Al ignited the flame within, and as its sweet breath caught fire, we fell away into the outer ring. The world receded, a pebble in the pond.

The night was cold, and dry despite the rain. It was as if the world were a vast eternal sponge, absorbing softly all the waters of the upper air. Al said to me, not really questioning, "You've been thinking about dragons again?"

"Yes," I answered, "And I've decided you're a bronze."

He kept his hands on the wheel, mulling it over. Then, "Let's go visit Pat," he said, chuckling. "She won't mind entertaining a dragon, although his wizardly friend may be a matter for doubt."

I remained inscrutable. My profession would serve me well for a while yet, I knew. In the darkness, under deep shadow, the sorcerer's heart sang like an iron bell, and stopped.


Pat. A fire rises, yellow, normal, friendly, an enemy, a tree, a diamond. As Amergin, bard of bards, said, I have been many things. Yet, Pat has been nothing save whatever she has wanted to be, and occasionally, I look for her, hoping to find my place.

Tonight, the night melts in parts. Like a womb, a shaft of light, a chariot of flame, Al's old nag carries the darkness before her. Darkness looming, blooming. Darkness. Amber light growing, glowing. Amber fading. Darkness comes again. Every few moments, each time the cycles come and go, the same cycles. How many revolutions per minute, of death and rebirth? The chariot lunges on, forever chasing its lost horses, the golden destriers of the sun.

We talk to Pat because it is convenient, and if not, we don't.

I am the Magician, I told myself once, juggler of the metaphysical, he who reassures others of their innocence. I might have been wrong. I might be the Sun, triumphant always, yet ever constrained to repeat the cycle of his life over the endless circles of the world.

In the library of the heart, I strain the metaphor, and nothing much is left behind. Pat is a Wheel of Fortune, Chance, the smallest of God's fingers. There too, I was nearly wrong: I thought of her as Temperance once. But Temperance, her dreams are less troubled, and her blessings more comfortable.

Looking out of the left window, the National Junior College sits easily, like a colony of petrified monks after vespers, more befuddled than sinister. Al says, "Have you read anything interesting recently?"

The sorcerer looks at the inquisitive dragon. Indeed he has, he thinks. He has read The White Goddess, by that flawed but brilliant master, Robert Graves. The sorcerer parts his lips; I speak.

" 'I was with my Lord in the highest sphere / On the fall of Lucifer into the depths of Hell, / I have borne a banner before Alexander; / I know the names of the stars from North to South...' and it goes on, Al; Graves works a new tapestry from Taliesin the bard, and you might be interested. I'll lend the book to you some day."

Gentle smoke curls from the bronze nostrils. The dragon is appeased. Absent-mindedly, he sweeps past Watten Estate, leaving cold grey smoke scudding like baby fog behind him. "Graves, hmm? He wrote some interesting poetry, but I preferred Frost."

A creature of refinement and culture, though hard as nails. I smile. Hard as frost, perhaps. Idly, my thoughts uncurl, stand up, and wander. They too have miles to go before they sleep, and I, I have promises to keep.

Yesterday, as always, I was in the Army. Today, as always, I am a sorcerer, a power of music and of verse. It is hard, and it gets worse. The Army, by the nature of the creature, is cautious about creativity. Everything must be tested, evaluated, weighed and metered before tentative acceptance, careful adoption, before the gods who rule in Tanglin (now, no more even there!) smile and give their blessings. Thirty months, it has been, my life like a fish in a closed pond.

Now? 'They shall seek me, but they shall not find me. They shall call for me, but I shall not answer them.' For (almost) a thousand nights and one night, we dream of the Army, we dream of the jolly green giant, the titanic defender, the career commanding respect. Some others dream of Spartans at a pass. The Army watered us, and in the darkest night, like mandrakes, we grew. Another cycle thus unfolds.

This night was a dark night not too long ago. In it, Al was saying, "How many more days do you have?" and I was replying, as if by conditioned reflex, "Four hundred and thirteen." I had been a defender of men for five hundred days. Although we had counted our days with such care, our dreams were still intact, the dreams of a sorcerer and his friend, the dragon.

Dreaming is a human thing. Along with it comes Myth, the tenuous condensation of Dream, like a cloud of hypnotic vapours. The first among the myths is Creation. The libraries of Man are filled with remnants of failed and partially-succeeding creation myths: Ginnungagap and the Ice-Cow, Ouranos and Gaia, the Five Universes, the World as Illusion, the First Principle, Ea, Nun, Varuna, and all their successors.

The Road was never this long! The night is endless, with lamps lighting our way a short while before and after, but never all the way to the end or back to the beginning. Indeed, some lights have been disconnected, and most travellers don't even miss them when they're gone. If each light were a deity, a pantheon, an idea, or a philosophy, it's almost as if many of them have been lost through their own inadequacy, and no-one wants them back because no-one needs them. How sad! How... necessary.

The bronze dragon mutters. Al says, "There's been an accident ahead. We'll have to turn around and enter the Court from the other side. I hope you know the way."

This is simple. I nod, assenting - wizards are used to the other side, the hidden ways. Al brakes, breaks the golden river, creates a tributary. White in the golden light, we turn towards the distance and are gone, pale in the many shadows under the wide trees.

The Dream takes worldly responsibility away from the Dreamer. A true Dreamer has only the responsibilities given by the Dream. The Dream is all-inspiring, all-devouring, all-powerful, like an emanation of the Most High, although not all are such. It inhabits, indwells the Dreamer utterly, and the Dreamer becomes priest, warlock, champion of his Dream, the Dream, the only Dreamt. There are many types of dream, but for each of us, normally only one Dream. Each Dream is light to its Dreamer, but most of us are trapped in the lighting.

Al laughs to himself, the dragon like a kingfisher flashing over a green lake. I look questioningly at him. He sees this, and replies to the unspoken, "You know, you were once so spellbound by that girl that everyone knew it. One night, I was speaking with Sean, and he said you spent an entire Applied Maths lecture drawing hearts with her name in each of them. Were you really so much in love with Pat?"

The Dream gets most of us at one time or another; in my case, while idling my way through Numeromancy 102 classes. The magician's only foe is the Dream of Woman, his only failing the Dream of Power; yet, his only goal should be the True Dream, and that is, while hard for all men, harder for him.

"I suppose I was. She is such a nice person to be with, even now. There were others, you know, who were just as enamoured."
The bronze dragon risks an equine snicker, to which the sorcerer can only raise a mildly embarrassed eyebrow. The night falls away, and three years ago, it falls into day, a lazy Wednesday, in the leaf-light dappled heaven-haven of the College of Wyverns.


The college is a grey lichen-white, resembles a rectangular eggshell, made into a dwelling from wood and glass and stone and people. There are many people. All of them have been hatched, it seems, from the same egg, for their plumage is mostly identical. There is also a breeze.

Bronze-green and ash-brown, undernourished tenacious trees stand apart from the building. A girl, one among many others, walks from the foyer. My friend Burn says, "That's a classmate."

I turn to look. History, now, has poured its ocean over the facts, and some have dissolved. Of them all, very few, stubborn rocks in the lashing salt-spray, have retained their shape. She was Pat. There was something pleasant about her, which I liked. I don't know what it was. I don't know where she is. The pages have turned, the trapdoor has closed.

Even the college has changed now, or will have once been changed, or twice. We must avoid being perfectly tense. Things change, and the tense is seldom immutable.

Al and I are in his old vehicle. Burn and I are out on the bleachers, and Burn tells me about his class, three years ago. Al and I walk purposefully up the brick path, a deep purple night wheeling above us, hunter-starred. Burn and I walk leisurely across the asphalt, on a warm and dusty day; the sky is a pale half-electrified blue.

The lift arrives, we enter, and it rises. The trapdoor falls away. Three years ago, Burn says, "This is Pat." Three years ago: "Hello, I'm Alex." She is a strange mixture of embarrassed and pragmatic. I open the door, look into the house, and find no-one really at home, although signs of habitation are evident.

Three years later, I have been lifted up, and the bronze dragon with me. We stand on level ground, overlooking the city of a million souls, the amber stars, the grim greening of the night. I am a very young man, but feel a very old sorcerer. The bluish-grey smoke-scented wind twists into a zero and cancels out, while its careworn rain renews the shadow of the heart. The entrance is inviting, a simple metal grille outside an unornamented wood door. The plain figures of the apartment number remind me of her. I grasp Al's shoulder, hear a dragon's exhalation of surprise.

As we leave, nothing has seemingly changed, but I am different. By rejecting one thing forever, I have become more than I was before, but less than a magician. I will become a wanderer. Al is silent all the way to the waiting car.

In my several years of exploration, I made many friends. Literally, you understand; I made them from words and craft and poetry - their sinews were prose and their flesh was story. None of them had 'real' names - after all, these days, which of all the people have real names anymore ?

Well, there are a few. Soldiers whose names are 'known only to God', they rest as reminders of war, as our guilt-price. These are the Unknown Soldiers of a score of nations, the only ones with true names; and those, hidden by gunshots and smoke, poison gas and blood-smears.

My unknown soldiers were the crystals of my saturated imagination. As the heat of my age diminished, they were forced out, through the filtering paper of my writing, through the careful tubing of my pens. They had names (oh, all so false, and yet so true to me) like Tom Aquine and Maradaine Chase. They lived the lives I could not lead, the lives I dreamt.

Al asks, "Where to, now?"

He turns a restless eye on me, sees I am on the edge of nothing once again, asks carefully, "And what are you thinking about, then? You still thinking about Pat?"

"No, not Pat; she's out tonight, I've only just remembered. I was thinking of those who 'saved the sum of things for pay'. Do you remember all those characters we wrote about in the bad old days? I think they're all dead now; wouldn't write about them these days at all, now that so much time has passed. Except to make a bit of money, perhaps."

The bronze dragon chuckles, like the sucking of a summer river past winding banks. "You, at least have an art you can prostitute. I shall be content with photography, taking private photographs of the last hidden places of the world."

And that's the way of memories. We cultivate them until the fateful day in which they take on lives of their own and colour the processes of our reason (writers who can only write about one set of characters, actors who will always be known for only one role...). Then, we have no more need of them and must destroy them utterly.

Somewhere in time, we move out into the roaring river of light which is the Road at night. The track of each hurtling headlight-bearer burns an image on the retina of each eye. 'I knew a girl, and she went away / And the rain came down the face of my day.' Memories inhabit us, inhibit us. They are lessons we have learnt, whether for good or for ill. They burn their tracks into the screens of our minds. To learn some things properly, we must forget everything else, which looks like a waste.

Down in the dark brightness of this autumnal day, Al's heading home. I go with him, for the security of his home is a minor, but very marvellous thing. It's a very short trip from the Court to the Garden. The time-and-space bending properties of an old flame which still carries much weight must still be in effect, for the journey is short, and the warm house far nearer than it really is.

Why dragons? Why should I, failed magician, keep the dream of a lost race forever? It's like this: once upon a time, there was a dragon coiled on the hill near Al's house. It was another time, a summer day, and the predominant scents were dry grass and haze. I walked up the hill, wondering, and came upon him. The poor old thing, he was ancient but powerless, huge but decrepit, the sorry ruin of a mighty hunter.

I spoke to it; it winked sightless eyes at me and said, "Soon, the Village will be all commerce, and no one will dream the dragon-dream anymore. I will be less and less, your people more and more. One day, a little boy will weep for loss, and not know why, because there will be no more dragons, and no memory of them."

It went back to sleep - perhaps, forever. The sun set behind its apartment-crowned ears, and its placid breath was dilute in the fires of the burning leaves. There I stood, and there promised: always, dragons. No little boys crying. No worlds lost.
I seal the portal, but it will not hold for me, no longer magician. My hands find edges, but are blind, will not grasp the whole, too late. Somewhere, we have come home, to love and family comforts. Here, the trapdoor opens on infinity.


We sit in the patio, with carefully-distilled coffee and the hospitality of shortest notice. Out there, the wind giggles, pirouetting through palm and vast canopy. Inside, Al and I sit, muse, caffeinate and reminisce. We talk rubbish. We, together, dream. And the product is the old world, lost forever except by the seldom and infrequent windowing of this world through to that.

High school days, another summer, the season of Clavell's Shogun. Al sees, retrospectively, says, "Remember Sean's act, his famous mock suicide in courtly Japanese tradition? A broom for a sword, and fake poetry!"

How could we forget? Sean looked funny, there on his knees atop the teacher's table. A broken broomstick, ancient chairs in formidable array, and apart from them but in the same time, an old piano, a dusty laboratory full of apprentice glassblowers, a broken window. They stick in the corners of the mind, like cobwebs.

Let them stay. They do not hurt or hinder anyone. They were never harbingers of doom, but the slow sedimentation of the wind, the tide, the flow of years. They are a benign past, made desolate by ceaseless passages.

In that background, a desk slams shut, and a German submarine from the Second World War sneaks through the trapdoor. At its helm, five of us, captain and crew. We order the torpedoing of an enemy ship, we are sonar, hull, and tired submariners all at once. There are many other times within that time, and the spaces are infinite as well. There are no horizons, and our imaginations swim wide.

Then, we have grown, and the walls of the cup appear, leaving us like coffee-sodden ants within. Confinees of a new confine, most of us will drown somewhere here. In the present, as I reply to Al over coffee and cookies, many of that company have already gone, swept aside and down, into the abyss or the wasteland, and the roses have all died.

"What was it between Pat and you, back in college?" Al asks. He is genuinely curious, although not very much so.

There is a book of old roses, locked up in old rooms. In it, you may find almost every variety of beauty, any hue, any form, any texture. All around, the smell of antique wood, books, leather; everywhere, the rich and heavy aura of age upon age piled deep, like a carpet. I come here once in a while to visit old roses, to live apart from stainless steel and white cement.

Looking back, it is hard to decide whether I ever really loved them; harder still to know if ever they loved me. Of all things, one thing is sure: when a rose blooms in the watching hand, the heart might burst with joy.

In the cool darkness of the memory's mausoleum, my heart grows large, my body too small for its happiness. Here in the dusk, scribbled in the dust, are some haiku. One reads: 'One slim girl smiles here / Bright eyes burn and walk away / I am happy now'.

These lines are the potent image made into words, life and beauty molten in the forge, shaped in the cylinder of the heart. Even on the greyest of days, the cadences are not robbed of their power; each wise bright thought - though made less wise, less bright by mortal pen and vision - is still a fragment of the song.

I have learnt, I tell Al, that one love can foster many other friendships. The dragon nods, waits for me to continue.

"Love is the excelling way, the only one through the wilderness of the human heart," I say aloud. The coffee's aroma is still in the back of my nose.

Al looks at me with half-amusement. "You should know."

Once again, conversation fades into a buzz as the lower air unfolds around me. I feel tomorrow in my hand, an unknown weapon. It's time to get up. Ahead of me, the half-minute which is the wall of sleep looms. Struggling, I climb over it, land on the floor. I am awake. No. I am awake! No! I place feet carefully on their way to the bathroom. Noooooo... oh, very well then, have it your way. I am awake.

Thinking these thoughts in one year, in love with the last (and best) of all my roses, is hard. Three years ago, another year, and in love elsewise with an older rose, I hurt in my innermost parts. The only thing which firms the fastnesses of my life is the awareness I feel of God. In my mind, ideas of God unfurl, flutter like defiant banners. Bright love, word of creation made flesh, whose Spirit roars like a mighty wind among the towers of my thought - may this day be Yours, I say, brushing my teeth, washing my face.

In the corner of the mind's eye, December will be coming soon. We can expect showers in several areas in the mornings and in the late afternoons (are they always late?), and perhaps at night... and back in time, Al says, "Go on; what exactly did Pat say to you?"

Long ago, in the first quarter of 1984, we spoke for the third time. Her voice was soft. Her eyes were big, intelligent, careful and shy. She was gently dark, slim, and walked without care.

There was something I had to tell her. My heart beat in tympanic reverberation. It was grey and cool and quiet, for the rains had come and gone. I said all I had to say to her, quietly, distantly. My voice returned to me like the singing of a lone whale in the ocean. Of what had happened that day, I told no one.

Somewhere, in the deeps, my botanical brother whispers, "Old roses are the best." I agree. Before Pat, there were others; after her, others again. One thing differences them, makes their stories different, though: after Pat, my poetry would not be the same again.

The bronze dragon snorts, crunches chocolate chips. He chews, swallows, drinks, asks, "And that was how it all began? I would've thought something more dramatic might have happened, seeing your subsequent behaviour. I'm sure you're not telling me everything, O necromantic one!"

I'm sure I have most definitely not told him everything. I am also entirely sure of not being a necromancer at all. I continue. I tell him of the days which came after. He makes few interruptions, and I come eventually to December, and the painful wisdom of the dying year.

The coffee has gone, and the story ends, its last notes trailing away into despair, and a heart as heavy as the sea. Softly, the dragon's voice whispers, "We thought it was a pity too, you know. Nevertheless, it's better for you this way. Your life is different from hers. You are too... unalike. Now that all that is over, you're friends again, and what could be better?"

Indeed, not much could be better. I am happy, I am still in love, which is 'a great way to be', as Pik the brass dragon says.

Someday, I shall end my wanderings, join my princess, and be free... and old roses will bloom.


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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Word of the Day: Propinquity

Propinquity is often mistaken for proximity, which just happens to be an approximate (i.e. closely-approaching) synonym. But propinquity is a lot more than that – propinquity is reserved for entities which by virtue of their physical closeness exert special influence over each other or develop other emergent properties as a consequence of association. Probably the easiest way to describe it is interactive nearness which leads to more intensive relationships.

This is applicable to groups such as army units, classes in a school, people who work on the same floor, and army units who take the same classes together and work on the same floor in the same building in the same camp.

Where does this odd-looking word come from, though?

It comes from the Latin prope- ('near') and -inquus ('having the property of residence or tenancy'). It thus literarily means, 'having the property of being a near neighbour'.

Proximity, from the superlative form of prope- (i.e. proximitas), just means 'very near' in terms of distance. It carries no other properties implying a relationship. Two non-interacting bodies can be very close; these would have proximity but not propinquity.

In modern usage, propinquity has picked up connotations that go beyond relationships in general, first implying the existence of social relationships and then narrowing this down to a sexual or possibly-sexual relationship. This sets the stage for administrators to advise officers: "Maintain proximity to clients, but beware of propinquity either real or assumed."

Perhaps the next WotD should therefore be the Greek prophylaxis.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Disciplinary Philosophies 101

Just for a moment, if I were asked to be in charge of teaching a course like The Disciplines: Philosophies of Knowledge, I would take a deep breath and then say, "No." Or maybe, just say, "Know."


Because it has occurred to me that teaching this to students guarantees, under the majority of present systems of education, that they become largely independent of all but the best teachers. The rest would be superfluous, and that would upset them for various reasons – loss of authority, power or control; loss of prestige; loss of meaningful exertion (or pretense thereat); and of course, loss of income, logically speaking.

But let's just for the sake of argument say that I was going to do it. What would I include?

I think it would be hard. We'd have to begin with the earliest forms of knowledge, forms dating back to times before formal education (or at least, literate formal education). How to see. How to listen. How to tell a story. How to remember. How to hunt and/or find something. Magic. Cooking. Sex. Life. Farming. How to make stuff. How to make things out of the stuff you made.

And then, we'd have to look at literacy and numeracy, and their descendants. Then systems, patterns, relationships – and how to invent them, create them, modify and confuse them. The art of religion, the religion of art. The alchemy of beauty, the beauty of alchemy.

Then it occurs to me. We of the old pantheon did try very hard to do it. And it was all set aside. Too difficult for the children, some people said. Whoever they were. And that brings me back to the beginning of this odd post. "No."

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Moon Knight

I was very young when I first encountered Marc Spector. Some of you will not remember the (originally) black-and-white graphic periodical called Epic. It was produced by Marvel Comics, had achingly beautiful artwork... and I wish I hadn't sold my copies off in the great comics inflation of the 1980s.

I have just read the latest incarnation of Moon Knight, the heroic alter-ego of the mysterious Spector. The odd thing is that just before that, I read the latest installment of Martian Manhunter. And the message I got from both books is that the one fundamental constant of basic human nature (whether mediated by alienness or alien gods) is the desire and drive for revenge.

But vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I shall repay.

Perhaps that is why Batman is never about revenge, and neither is Superman. Or Wonder Woman. Or Green Lantern. It's only the odd and alien who are. Because while it is human to desire revenge, it isn't very productive. Perhaps it is best to leave it to the gods, God, and their proxies.

I have never felt comfortable with revenge. It's something I used to earnestly desire, as a small kid often beaten up. Then I learnt violence and ways of hitting people painfully, with many body parts and impromptu tools. This was fun at first. Then I realised that true power consists of being able to do it, but never showing it, never actually doing it. For it is not for us to take revenge, but to reach the understanding that it will one day be payback time, and everyone gets some – including ourselves.

Such odd thoughts on a Saturday night. Hmph.

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I had better sleep soon. None of it makes sense to me. I'm a plain kind of guy under the layers of hard-earned knowledge, skill and power. I delve to the root of fact and hack away at it, and sometimes I fall asleep doing that. I'm at the heart of it a moron. Not that anyone believes me.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Rainfall Feedings

This is going to be an odd post. I have to say that all these people are legally imaginary but mythopoetically real. You can ask them about it if you want to, and if you are genuine enough. All events really happened, but if you are like Trivandrum (see below) and cannot leave well enough alone, you know they might not have quite happened the way they are described.


The average rainfall in Eden is zero. There is no rain at all, just a mist which rises in the night and waters the land, disappearing in the dawn. Perhaps Eden no longer exists, in damned Mesopotamia or ruined Ceylon, and I should speak in the past tense. But even after Eden, no rain – the separated waters were a vault, an astrological crystal dome, an hieromancer's crystal sphere. But now, in this fallen world, it rains.

I am remembering one particular day. It might have been today, it might be tomorrow – it resonates of all the rainy days I've had. Consciousness was a heavy burden and perception worse. My percipience was like a leaf-blade, sharp on both edges, thin as paper and without a hilt. I cut myself badly on that deadly lamina. Everything was so acute that I almost felt my nerves telling each other that they would kill me if I hit the caffeine again within six hours.

I had several meals. The first was with the General. Nobody calls him that, of course, and a barking snort of derisory laughter would probably greet any attempt. But he looks like a general of the old and diplomatic kind, with a warmonger's taste balanced with a warrior's honour. He speaks at least four languages and teaches one, a dead waste of talent if I ever saw such. But who cares about him? Not his boss, who routinely hazards his career with a carelessly shouted phrase or two.

A shadow's heartbeat later, as we stewed over noodles and traded historical fragments, the Stork dropped in. Not the progenitive or paragenitive Stork of legend, but the tall and elegant one given to much whimsy and the occasional sly jibe at the ill-considered silliness of the time. Stork was in fine form. The friends appointed for morning-meal had decided not to show at the moment assigned. Stork preferred the company at our table, and I didn't mind.

Time passed and my irascibility was dispersed and dispensed across my long-suffering acolytes for a while.

Then was time for payback. Gnomus was always busy rubbing his diet (metaphorically, of course) in my face. So I tried behaving like him for a while. Along the way, we picked up a little audience and some victims. The god-daughter suffered silently and fairly not-so-unhappily as we plucked the balls from little boys with no common sense and set them aside on a rainy day. We were aiming for five, but the quality of the soccer fraternity produced three excellent samples.

God-daughter had experienced tragedy in Twelfth Night, which is unusual but not unheard-of. The play is second only to The Merchant of Venice in being misapprehended with consequent misfortune for all associated. We advised that tragedy should be left to goats, and left it at that. Very often, I wish that the young and prone-to-misfortune could be shielded somewhat from the consequences of others' awkward ideas. But that kind does not come out except by fasting and prayer.

Off again to chastise the acolytes. Not an excellent chastisement this time, for the second group were a hard-working bunch of toilers, affording sophisticated amusement but lacking the vim and pepper of the first (well, mostly). I spent some time in the adjoining room pretending not to eyelid a bat, and generally being odd.

And then it was lunch with excellent little slices of roast pork in rich stock and angel-hair pasta (I wanted fettucine, but no dice). There were two sub-sections of this meal: the first was with a bunch of the charming young men (who reminded me of the gang in our time) and the second was with the charming young ladies and two of the lads with the nice eyelashes. [Oh dear, I suppose at this point I must assert my heterosexuality once and for all just in case my (have I really written such an odd paragraph?) writing stirs aspersions and indignities are visited upon me.]

God-daughter was there, and also the Lioness. Romana, Trivandrum, and Angster (arbitrary names just for this particular post) were also there. Plenty of entertainingly mindless fun was had by all – games of 'confuse the compass' and 'which lad is the lady most like' were played. Sweet milky tea was imbibed while others consumed chunky chips and watched the words sail overhead. Gnomus was his usual capricious intelligent self, making copious scatological (sociological) notes in a little book. We had fun.

The sad part, of course, is that this might well have been the last hurrah. It must end soon. Perhaps it already has. It is a very fin-de-siécle feeling.

After that I and the Disciple went off to thrash the younger gentlemen at cards. Won handily. Not our finest hour, but a good time was had by all. Of course, no money exchanged hands. No hands exchanged money either.

What a day. So few of such pass our way, with equal measure of pain and pleasure and sadness and joy all rolled into a wet blanket of the kind Noah would have appreciated. I am happy for now.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

The 2007 A.sian Financial Crisis

At the current moment, it is clear that property, production and capital investment are all on the upswing. Share prices appear to be rising (as usual) towards record-breaking levels. It is clear that no serious crash will come to those who hang on to their investments for the long term. Growth looks like a given, and in some areas, this growth has exceeded 67%.

However, it is equally clear that some of this local growth is based on heavy capital investment with no gain in total factor productivity. It is possible to keep building plant and so on without actually making significant value-added progress. This is akin to taking all your available land, hiring extra workers and planting it with crops, thus stopping crop rotation policies and using up all available nutrients for the next cycle. You will have a nett increase in production in the short term, and starvation in the long term.

When the land is exhausted and no new techniques or technologies intervene, a rapid downturn in effectiveness is inevitable. Where procrastination in acting suddenly seems like a good idea, we know that the situation is a bad one. It is far better to examine sub-sectors for areas which can be qualitatively improved, letting some other areas which are approaching minimal gain lie fallow.

Increased research expenditure can be a good idea, provided that the start-up cost is not prohibitive. In some extreme cases, however, institutions seeking to maximise control and standardisation at the expense of innovation have slashed R&D budgets, retrenched R&D personnel (or even outsourced R&D), and directed corporate policy away from both basic and applied research. This augurs badly for the long term.

The most important determinant of success is open education and relevant training, sprinkled with some dashes of structured memetic randomness (e.g. research programmes with broad mandates). The reason for this is that just as genetic diversity protects a species from dying out, so too does memetic diversity protect a society. It is possible to have a highly-educated population which is just undergoing repeated iterations of the same upgrade. This will eventually lead to minimal gains. What is needed is investment in structures that will research and implement new upgrades in many different directions, or make the possibility of such upgrades an acceptable option.

Frankly, institutions which have supported large capital investment should look carefully at how diversified their outputs, portfolios, and processes are. If there is no diversity, a sudden collapse of key markets can lead to total failure; if the market is guaranteed, it still means that profits may not be optimised. If there is diversity, but the diversity is artificially maintained and not synergistic, then whatever investment is being made is wasteful and suboptimal. The best case is diversity which produces synergistic effects frequently because of well-chosen overlaps, nexi, and key personnel.

This kind of diversity, with strong fundamentals and awareness of markets, technological and memetic horizons, and emergency outlets/alternatives, will produce superior performance even against strong competition. It is strongly advised that cash-rich investors seek out institutions capable of such diversification and shun their less-astute rivals.

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Today I was meditating on anomie, that quality of meaninglessness and lack of order or priority (lawlessness?) that characterises a life not worth living. It came to me that my blog, lacking a clear direction, might well have the digiliterate equivalent of anomie.

Normally, a life heavily afflicted by anomie is terminated by suicide or some other form of autolysis. In like fashion, this blog seemed slated for the Great WordPress in the Sky. But then, my hand poised to strike the mortal blow, I paused.

For there is indeed a direction to this blog. It skirts some issues, effectively creating an apron or cordon sanitaire around matters which cannot be dealt with head-on or explicitly. It meanders past some interesting oxbow lakes. It takes a remote and elliptical view of some other events. And it is home to some execrable nonsense at times. But yes, there is a direction.

This blog is convinced that humans can read truth amidst phantasm, can understand the elliptical and arcane, and apprehend the structures of the world which are hidden for political and venal reasons. And its direction is one which reveals things to those who can see.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007


I must confess I have written a lot of poetry. Some of it is pretty bad. Some of it is here. A lot of it is over there.

But I am certain I have written a lot of good poetry too.

It doesn't have much meaning anyway, because even if you are a practitioner, it does not guarantee you any influence in the teaching of the form or genre. But it hurts terribly to see language abused and broken on the wheel, stretched on the rack, by those who cannot handle it aright.

Argh. In pain.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Wine Alert: Seppelt Moyston Late Harvest Muscat 1999

I never thought I would go into the wine-blog madness, but sometimes you get reflective; and after all, I have blogged about absinthe before.

The flesh is tired, and the mind withdrawn. Think then of happiness, mature and bottled up!

Tonight I am sipping the pale golden fluid which is a late-harvest wine. These wines are made by letting grapes mature in long firm heat until their sugars reach mythopoeic (aha, take that, my friend Hierophant!) levels. The resultant wine contains a veritable cornucopia (some say pharmacopoeia) of complex non-sugar organics and odd sugars.

There are 31 of them, and the world cannot label them at all...

This particular late-harvest wine comes from the village of Moyston, where the sunlight is intense but strangely blunted as if by the gentle hand of a goddess who conspires to allow the grape to mature without scorching.

Look at it! See how it catches the light! There are dragons dancing in the depths.

I taste fruit. Bruised peaches with their odd bitterness; berries from a forgotten summer; a delicate and evanescent fragrance, as if of pears; a bold note at the bottom, as if the grape had honeydew accomplices. And the lychees are blooming in my mouth...

She of Moyston, lady most austral, conspires to bless. Praise be to the Highest who allows such conspiracies!

I taste the fruit of a hard day's labour, and it is all worth it. Each drop is gold, the oil of surcease from pain. Good night.

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From the rising of the sun, until its setting, we sat by the rivers of Babylon and remembered Zion. How proud we were, how beautiful the feet of them who brought good news! It was as a fire within us which could not be contained. And we shall come to the centre of Jerusalem, and see the abomination of desolation, and weep.

But we have been promised that the time will come, when old men will dream their old dreams and young men will see new visions. We will soar as on the wings of eagles, yet not partake of the flesh of that unclean bird. We will not be silent, and the fragrance of our praise will go up to the Highest, and the words of our mouths, the meditations of our heart, made up of broken bones from the valley of the shadow of death, will be whole again.

And there will no longer be weeping, and we shall have no need of the words of the prophets. For now we see as through a glass darkly, and then face to face. That which is incorruptible shall replace that which is corrupt, and the lilies shall bloom in the valley. For we have no words, except those that have been given unto us for a time, two times, and half a time.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

No Good Teachers? (Part 2)

It wasn't until I had typed that title that I realised the ambiguity which careless punctuation might have introduced. "No-good teachers?" is of course the questionable (plaintive?) alternative. But we are reasonable people who at this stage in our lives have many paradigms (deploying whole batteries of methodology and theory) to analyse the question as it stands.

Are there really no good teachers? Is it even possible (as the Mademoiselle seems to suggest) that we can even define 'good' well enough to answer the question? What is a good teacher? Am I crazy for trying to define that?

No. I don't think I'm crazy. I might be asking a bit much from language, but I haven't gone off the deep end yet. And here is my reasoning.

Let me first assert that 'good' in this context means 'more than merely fit (for a given purpose)'. Further, I assert that the nature of this excess fitness is a positive thing, so much so that it is reasonably clear (or clear to the reasonable person) that there is competence in excess of what is merely required.

I justify my assertions by saying that when we find something to be good, it implies that this thing has intrinsic virtue within the context of its function, location, or other existential context. The nature of virtue is essence of positive contribution to the context. Hence, a 'good' thing is one which not only meets requirements, but clearly exceeds them in recognizable and desirable ways.

Let me next state that 'teacher' in this context means 'one who teaches', but we must now define 'teach'. I assert that to teach is to prescribe and enforce a course of action which leads to a gain in knowledge; to do this consciously, deliberately, and with prior consideration and planning; to do this systematically, repeatedly and consistently; to do this by direct interaction with the person(s) being taught; and to do it in a way that is transparent as to methodology and related outcomes.

I justify these assertions by reference to the common uses of the word 'teach', and now proceed to combine the two sets of assertions into a definition of the phrase 'good teacher'.

A good teacher must therefore exceed the parameters of the 'teacher' definition in such a way that this 'excess virtue' is recognizable and desirable, makes a positive contribution, and fulfils the requirements of society. That is:
  • The good teacher has an interactive armamentarium which, when systematically, repeatedly and consistently deployed, will lead to gains in knowledge beyond what would be reasonably expected by mere self-study or personal inspiration.
  • The good teacher deploys this armamentarium in a properly considered and intelligent way – and his students know this, recognize this, are convinced of its effectiveness and desire its effects.
  • The good teacher knows how and when to vary the means and types of deployment, is a convincing practitioner, and has mastery over his material (and failing complete mastery, at least knows how it might be gained).
I'm sure that this isn't all there is to it. I think it's a serviceable description, though, and I hope my readers might feel moved to comment on it.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

No Good Teachers? (Part 1)

Yesterday, I was listening to my younger brother, the Immortal. He's a bass-baritone with a de profundis kind of voice, especially when suffering from the 'flu – but that's a purely incidental factor in this post. The Immortal said, "I can tell you that there are hardly any good teachers in this part of the world."

Shock. Horror. Outrage. These are common responses to such a statement. The Elvish Historian responded first, "Yes, but you have to decide first on what makes a good teacher, and that's exactly what I was asked the day before." You will note that the Elvish Historian, no mean teacher himself, showed none of the common responses.

All this was interesting to me. With the ghosts (and present spirits) of many economists looming over me, I began to ponder on whether armchair economic theory might, through 'common-sense' reasoning lead to this assertion on teacher quality. My conclusion was that it might very well be true in some ways and for certain reasons.

For a decade now, I've been researching the concepts of teacher quality and the philosophy of education. These concepts are actually whole areas of knowledge (or unknowledge) and notoriously intractable to intellectual efforts. But my basic argument works like this.

Imprimis, students in this part of the world are told these days that sheer hard work, determination and other personal qualities of character, when applied to books and physical endeavour, will result in success. They are also taught that this is the foundation for creativity. If this is so, then the student can generate successful outcomes without the aid of external factors. In fact, in some states, the idea seems to be that the state depends only on itself for success (despite having educational institutions that show this is not possible); and hence by extension, the student must count only on intrinsic ability and the willingness to work like a slave. If this is not true, then how is it not true?

Secundus, if the first point is not completely true, then some people say that the student needs a coach or mentor to show them how to produce (and by extension, creatively produce) such successful outcomes. If this is so, then the coach must know how to produce such successful outcomes. Coaching, to be seen as effective, must therefore produce results with significantly less effort. However, it is quite possible that coaching and mentoring can only raise the outcome quality (beyond that produced by maximal hard work and character) by a small degree; i.e. the external effect is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Tertius, from empirical observation, the first point is largely true; if one sets a distinction grade or equivalent at 85%, and character-driven hard work will get you 90%, then all a teacher has to do is ensure that the candidate works hard. The candidate need not reflect or cogitate much, since there is an opportunity cost (how many problems can you drill yourself through vs the amount of time you spend thinking deeply on material which is not tested in that form). If you set up a system in which teachers are enforcers of work ethic, and peer and societal pressure maintain that ethic, then deep thinking is wasteful at the 90% level and economics dictate that the system's typical level is sufficient. Consumers will not pay much for more than what is required.

Quartus, having established in point 1 that students are encouraged to think of the factors of production as being largely under their control, and in point 2 that premium teaching may not raise quality beyond that which hard work and character produces, point 3 really says that most teachers do not need to teach in order to bring about a reasonably successful result. This means that a system set up such that 1, 2 and 3 are true will automatically generate a largely mediocre teaching force. So how is it possible to produce premium teacher quality?

Here are some possibilities, if you want to produce a premium 'brand' of teacher quality which is economically viable.
  • Treat it like a luxury good with special outcomes. For example, say that 10% of your cohort will go to the top 1% of educational institutions in the world. This is no idle boast if you have rigged the cohort. Consider what happens when a population rated at top 5% in the world is winnowed down to the top 5% of that 5%. That would put them in the top 0.25% in the world. 10% of that is 0.025%. You can claim 'luxury good status' with minimal additional effort, charge a premium, and label it 'premium brand teacher quality'.
  • Just charge more and provide more opportunities with the funds that are raised by charging more. The fact is that individuals in a given elite group will vary in terms of where their potential is most usefully deployed. By offering more opportunities, you increase the chance that members of the group will find their optimal deployment of effort. This means more successful outcomes of different kinds. Since there are more successful outcomes, you must be using premium effectuators of such success, presumably teachers.
  • Use simple statistics. Your students produce results generally in the top 5% (see first bullet above). The average teacher in your school might be considered to produce at that level, within a normal distribution. These assumptions mean that 50% of your teaching force is producing within the top 5%, and quite possibly, the remaining 50% of your teaching force is still producing in a very flat, long distribution which is effectively overwhelmingly above-average for the world. You can then claim premium effectuator quality.
The bottom line is that making a large educational budget available and employing complex marketing strategies will make it seem that teaching quality is 'premium' when in reality it is merely average and possibly does not add value.

Could this terrible scenario be true? By economic theory, if humans can get away with it, and it brings corporate or personal gains, they will do it. And if economic results are used to justify the claim of success, then the complex and meandering economic argument becomes circular and automatically wins. It is therefore possible for the scenario to be true.

Yes, but is it true?

Let's look at it from point of view of Teacher X, an hypothetical homo economicus teacher.

"If I make them do sufficient homework and cover the syllabus in class, not encouraging too much reflection but allowing enough so that the marginal cost is justifiable, my students will score in the top 10%. I will get at least a C grade which will give me a premium above the base pay for minimal effort. To get a B grade requires me to read and digest the equivalent of $200 worth of books a month and spend time equivalent to another $600. It is not worth it. However, if I do things which are seen to be above and beyond my teaching duties but are not as wasteful as reading, digesting and thinking, I might even get an A grade. Hmmm..."

How about Teacher Y, an hypothetical homo habilis teacher?

"If I use a lot of technology, it will show that I am up-to-date and that students who have not made the grade are not putting in enough effort. If I make use of whatever comes to hand to accomplish my tasks, regardless of whether it is I who have accomplished those tasks, if the provenance is unseen, I will look good. If I apply statistical measures and assign 2x the amount of necessary work, knowing that at least .57 of the work will be done (and hence 1.14x the necessary), I will have successfully managed the success of my students to everyone's delight."

And perhaps, let's look at Teacher Z, an hypothetical homo mentalis teacher.

"If I encourage my students through the use of visual and oral 'evidence' to show them that they can all conceivably be in the top 1%, they will think they are abnormal not to be in the top 1%. After all, if one member in the class can do it, all have that potential. And if they slip up, they will still be in the top 2%. It cannot be wrong to use positive imagery and other psychological effects; studies have shown that they will work, especially when deployed en masse and that they will all likely end up with better self-esteem anyway – the more brutal the course survived, the stronger the survivor boost."

It is true, I suppose, that some renegade teachers adopt extreme positions on what constitutes teaching and educational quality. But none of these three hypothetical examples is based on a specific real individual. My argument is not that teachers are incompetent. My argument is that given sufficient economic support, teaching competency may not be the most important determinant of the success of a given institution in producing successful educational outcomes. If it isn't so important, people won't bother developing it. Incentives go some distance towards correcting the potential problem, but they might not be sufficient.

And I still haven't answered my brother's assertion. Which I believe is untrue in the sense that I have personally observed a number of pretty good teachers. Then again, if I am a subcompetent observer, those teachers might not be good at all.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Lear & Present Anger

There are always strange things in Kent. A low but noble estate, some think of Kent as but a satellite of the grandeur that is London. But, yes, there are always strange things to be found in Kent, in its legends, in the minds of those who have served that almost-imaginary but all-too-real place. And here is Kent.


You, O King, are the patriarch, the anointed leader of the green country, the pleasant land. At the zenith of your majesty, life and death, wealth and power, innocence and savage wrath, are in your mighty hand. Nobody gainsays your excellence, your achievement, your range of virtue and skill. You have called the beasts of the field to your service and the beasts of the wild to your hunt. All instruments of peace and war are subject to your intellect and will.

And you have surrendered land and, latterly, your dignity to the womenfolk of your high estate. Beneficience falls like summer lightning on the eldest; your malediction falls like winter hail upon the youngest. You exile those who serve you best, retain those who might secretly use you worst. And this is tragedy, a goat-song of the earth for all – for the king is the land, and the land is the king, as it has been since Adam's time.

I would be a disciple of that rarest of prophets, William of the Bleak House. Listen to what he has said, O King! Listen to the words of the prophets on the subway walls. Listen, and when the watchman has said that the day comes, and also the night, beware!



Jerusalem by William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

The Sound of Silence by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turn my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools," said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows;
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you..."
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence

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Friday, July 20, 2007


I had a 500th post, but it got too big. It's escaped, it's out there, and it thinks it's a book. Worse, it thinks it can compete with Deathly Hallows. It calls itself Lively Goodbyes.


Thursday, July 19, 2007


I've just had a night out at King Lear, with a bunch of absolutely lovely people and with Ian McKellen acting the lead role. The Tragedy of King Lear is one of Shakespeare's most powerful and emotionally intense plays. It is elemental to the extreme; lightning and storm are used elsewhere in Shakespeare (as in the Scottish play), but never with the sense of overwhelming chaos, the overthrow of the natural order, that is found herein.

I've a few thoughts on this play, one of my father's favourites and a long-time staple of family discussions.

1. Lear is a mythological figure, an elemental source himself – he is originally Llyr or Leir, the Celtic sea-god. It is thus obvious why his insanity leads to the elemental disruption of the natural order.

2. The folkloric idea of a powerful solar or elemental deity who distributes his powers among his womenfolk is a fairly common one. So also are the fairy-tale tropes of the youngest daughter who is mistreated while actually being the most loyal, and the faithful and talented servitor who attempts to defend that daughter and is exiled.

3. When I am old, I hope the god-daughter doesn't mind helping to look after the decrepit ruin I will by then have become. Sigh.

The Company were wonderful. The company was wonderful. I am thankful for all I've received from the Great Hand.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007


You can compose all kinds of things about the number thirty-one. For example, you could write your own little rhyme (not a very good one) about the days of each month in the calendar.

Thirty-one days hath January,
March/May have, July annually;
August October December be
As rich, but the others have thirty
And saddest is poor February
Who by the seasons was done dirty,
Cruelly shortened by two or three.

Some people have said that February's shortness has to do with limiting the winter months to 90 days, so that while two of those months have 31 days, February exceeds budget. A long March follows with a springy feel, while April compensates by being shorter, and so on.

Or you could imagine some sort of terribly intensified low-budget Battle of Thermopylae, with only 31 Spartan warriors dying at the hands of a horde of Persian invaders. Or you could note that 31 is a Mersenne prime, of the form 2n-1, where n = 5.

Or you could just combine them all. Thirty-one interesting people, some more heroic than others, some more expansive and some more intense than their peers. Thirty-one heroes, some dying inside for the cause, some avoiding death by miracle or by teflon-style slipperiness. And perhaps thirty-one, prime and indivisible from now till the ending of days.

Today I was sitting through one of those painful but necessary meetings that all flesh is heir to, when I realised I was suffering a serious, almost psychedelic, migraine headache. It was short but intense (oh no, those words again!) and left me knowing that my mind had very sharp visual images of every single one of the thirty-one. I was going to describe those images here. Then I realised that I should find a special place for them. All of them. We'll see.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Assessing Your Teachers

I was musing about such heavy matters when I came across this post courtesy of my IP Hosting agent.

Let me summarise the matter for you.

There are two kinds of assessment available, criterion-based assessment and normative assessment. In the former, you must meet concrete objectives (e.g. has demonstrated ability to stand on the head without other bodily support, sip hot black coffee and mark 25 ELA1 answer scripts without breaks while singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Der Messias backwards). In the latter, you are ranked against others who are put through equivalent trials and you score points (normally with little attention paid to where you score them as long as you score them).

Organisations such as the International Baccalaureate Organisation prefer the former. Other organisations (including some without websites) prefer the latter. (For those of you who have recently watched a certain Godfarthur video clip, you know what I mean.)

Some institutions concentrate on the production of grades, irrespective of how those grades are produced and what raw material these grades originate from. Some concentrate on other things either to obscure the grade data or to show that they can do plenty of other tricks as well. In such institutions, officers will be appraised on anything and everything; this is called 'open-ended appraisal'.

In some institutions where there is too much to appraise, the person who can present the most convincing case will net the booty. It doesn't always mean that the best teacher will get the largest bonus; if bonus funds are limited, even good teachers may be paid less. Furthermore, as teaching ability is a non-linear convex curve which plateaus off, it might be rapidly outstripped by the non-linear non-continuous functions available in other areas. How does one compare a gold in some violent territorial spheroid-transfer sport with a fair crop of distinctions from a once-idle class?

It strikes me that this 'profession' is one in which the direct clients have little structured feedback into the remuneration of their assigned officers. Rather, feedback from competing officers is sometimes used to assign bonuses. I use inverted commas around the word 'profession' because in many cases there is no local body which licenses teachers in a criterion-referenced approach. Lawyers, doctors and engineers have professional organisations which provide discipline and professional enhancement; teachers do not, and frankly would not welcome criterion-based assessment.

In my previous life, I once compared the assessment criteria of a large national healthcare institution with that of a large national educational institution. Here is a very brief summary.

  • A = international or regional reputation/standards met (lists follow) in clinical competence, clinical workload, teaching, research, and administrative ability
  • B = regional to national, high impact output...
  • C = good quality, regular professional output...
  • D = meets departmental standards, some professional output...
  • E = below departmental standards, poor output for time spent...
Having seen the full document, I am impressed at the amount of work done in the attempt to set criteria for grading.

  • A = performs at two grades above current level in academic work, para-academic work and non-academic work
  • B = performs at one grade above...
  • C = performs at...
  • D = meets requirements...
  • E = does not meet requirements...
Having seen a huge sample of these documents, I am not impressed by the accuracy or effectiveness of many such documents. I am not alone, and so national education agencies have changed the format. I am still somewhat unmoved.

So, do you think we will be a better healthcare or a better education hub? And can you propose better ways of ranking teachers?

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Central Event

He is moved, this young ruler. In the year just past, he has grown tall and brave. He shows no hesitation as he approaches the rostrum. His voice will fail him, partly, exactly twice today. But he begins to speak.

Some of us have watched him and his people; some of us have watched over them from the quiet places, some of us have watched their enemies in the marketplace. Yet, not all of us have seen them grow into the people they are today – not all of us have seen so clearly.

And the young ruler evokes the vision of a year (386 days?) of joy and anguish, of the rites of passage and of pain; his words are direct and his meaning is plain, but together they call up memory and thought. You can almost see the ravens hovering near backstage. He speaks of things promised and undone, of people whose humour and patience carried him through dark times. He speaks with love for those who toiled with him, with respect for those who worked alongside.

He is no longer as young as we knew him. It is today, with the silences and the unspeaking gaze, with the face of the waters and the humid, gentle breeze, that we know things have changed. Today his people become men and women. Today, they have grown to a greater height, transcended what they were before. Some of them might have thought in terms of manhood and womanhood. Now, however, they know what it is all about.

For this is loss, great loss; not all of it is unwelcome, but all of it is memory, and summons thought, and will forever be a shining moment in their hearts. And it is gain, great gain, now that it is done. It is all done, it is almost finished, they will graduate in a scant few months' time. And his words say all of this, and more than he thinks he says. His words bind them all together and heal old wounds.

They will walk away, into the light of moon and sun, beneath the tall trees and across the broad lands. Some will become legends in their own time, some will become the memories of legends in another time. But for today, as they stand at the end of his speech, and divest themselves of the aura of power, they are young men and women at last.

Hours later, the rain has gathered. There is no one left here. The buildings are empty. And tomorrow will be another time.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Ari Potter

Aristotelian logic normally allows for only the binary decision true/false. Most internet quizzes are like that too. Here's one.

Which Hogwarts house will you be sorted into?

Your in-depth results are:
  • Ravenclaw - 14
  • Hufflepuff - 12
  • Gryffindor - 9
  • Slytherin - 6
But the god-daughter knew that all along, I'm sure. Even if the Sorting Hat had a little trouble.

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User Feedback

This is insane, and yet oddly appealing, as a problem of sorts. I've had this blog up for a few years now; I never ever thought of migrating countless Usenet posts, BBS posts from before that, or anything else into this blog. I'm not about to start now. But I was thinking of adding tags/labels to some of the older posts. And then I realised the magnitude of the task. I append a list of labels below (I don't normally use the sidebar widget for this, but I'll think of doing it some day) to prove to you that I am a terrible post-tag writer.

But before I do that, let me ask those of you who honour me by reading this blog a few questions:
  1. What is it about the content that invites you here?
  2. What is it about the writing that invites you here?
  3. What kind of posts do you tend to spend more time on?
  4. And how would you describe this blog?
  5. It's a blog that's supposed to be about "inspired mysteries, mysterious inspirations"; how does it measure up?
Your feedback is (as always) most welcome and most appreciated. And here's the label list:

Acronyms (1), Actuarial Science (1), Adolescence (2), Adventure (1), Advertising (1), Aesthetics (1), Agriculture (1), Albion (1), Alchemy (3), Alcohol (1), Alexandria (1), Alfred Duggan (1), Alumni (1), America (1), Anand (1), Anchors (1), Ancient of Days (1), Angels (3), Animals (1), Annie Lennox (1), Announcements (1), Anonymity (2), Anthony Hope (1), Anthony Price (1), Apocalypse (3), Appraisal (2), Archaeology (1), Argument (1), Arsenal (2), Art (2), Astrology (1), Asymmetry (1), Attainment (1), Authority (2), Autobiography (1), Ballad (1), Baptist (1), Barry Hughart (1), Batman (2), Beatles (1), Beauty (1), Bee Gees (1), Belief (2), Benjamin Franklin (1), Bentley (1), Betrayal (1), Bible (20), Billy Joel (1), Birthday (1), Blogosphere (2), Blogs (3), Books (15), British (1), Butterfly (1), Byron (1), C W McCall (1), Calendar (3), Carl Orff (1), Carols (1), Carpets (1), Cataloguing (1), Cathedrals (1), Change (5), Chaos (1), Character (1), Charles Stross (1), Chemistry (2), Chess (3), Chesterton (2), Childhood (2), Chocolate (1), Christianity (2), Christina Rosetti (1), Christmas (4), Churchill (3), Classical Music (1), Coffee (7), Cognition (1), Comedy (1), Comics (1), Communications (1), Community (2), Competition (2), Completion (2), Complexity (1), Compromise (1), Computing (3), Conflict (1), Consequences (1), Conspiracy Theories (1), Consumption (1), Contentment (2), Context (1), Convoy (1), Cookies (1), Coughing (1), Covenant (1), Cows (1), Creativity (2), Culture (2), Curriculum Development (1), Cynicism (1), Darkness (4), Dating (1), Dawn (1), Days (1), De Niro (1), Death (4), Deception (1), Decision (2), Decline (1), Dedication (1), Despair (1), Desserts (1), Destruction (1), Disaster (2), Dispensability (1), Divination (1), Divine Will (1), Divinity (1), Dogma (1), Dorothy Dunnett (1), Drama (2), Dreams (2), Drinking Songs (1), Drugs (1), Duality (1), Dylan Thomas (4), Eagle (1), Eagles (2), Easter (2), Ecclesiastes (1), Economics (3), Education (19), Egypt (1), Elephants (1), Eliot (4), Elizabeth Bishop (1), Emotion (5), Energy (1), England (1), Entertainment (2), Environment (1), Epistemology (1), Equinox (1), Escher (1), Eternity (1), Etymology (12), Evangelism (1), Evil (1), Examinations (7), Exodus (3), Experience (1), Eye (2), Faith (3), Family (6), Fantasy (2), Fatalism (1), Fear (3), Feedback (1), Fellowship (1), Fire (1), Folklore (1), Folly (1), Food (2), Football (4), Forty (1), Fraud (1), Freakonomics (1), Freedom (4), French (1), Friendship (3), Future (1), Futurism (1), Gaiman (8), Games (3), Gatiss (1), Gene Wolfe (1), Generosity (1), Gentlemen (1), Geography (1), Globalism (1), Gnosticism (1), God (20), Goddess (1), Godfather (2), Good (1), Gordon Dickson (1), Gospels (1), Graceland (1), Grandfather (1), Graphics (1), Gratitude (1), Greater Trumps (31), Greek (3), Greek Philosophy (1), Grimwood (1), Guy Kawasaki (2), Hades (1), Haiku (2), Hamlet (1), Handel (1), Happiness (1), Harmony (1), Harrison Ford (1), Harrow (1), Heart (2), Heat (1), Heller (1), Henry V (1), Heraldry (1), Heresy (1), Hermeneutics (1), Heroism (3), Hierarchy (1), Historical Veracity (1), History (4), Hobgoblins (1), Holidays (1), Holiness (1), Hollywood (1), Holst (1), Hope (5), Hopkins (2), Housman (1), Hubris (1), Human Rights (1), Humanity (4), Humility (1), Humour (7), Hunter (2), Hydra (1), Hymnal (1), Iain Banks (1), IB (3), Idealism (1), Identity (1), Ideology (2), Illusion (2), Imagery (3), Imagination (2), Influences (1), Information (4), Information Technology (1), Insanity (1), Insects (1), Insight (1), Insomnia (1), Intellect (3), Intelligence (1), Internet (4), Interpretation (1), Invocation (1), Isaiah (3), Isidore of Seville (1), Jesus (2), JFK (1), John Dunning (1), John Wesley (1), Jokes (3), Journey (1), Joy (1), Judgement (2), Justice (1), Kasparov (1), Khonsu (1), Kim Stanley Robinson (1), Kipling (4), Knowledge (7), Labels (1), Language (3), Latin (1), Laughter (2), Law (2), Leadership (3), Learning (1), Leaving (1), Legacy (1), Legends (1), Lennon (1), Lewis Carroll (1), Libraries (1), Life (11), Light (4), Lists (1), Literature (8), Logic (3), Logos (2), Loss (2), Love (6), Loyalty (2), Lyte (1), Macbeth (1), Magrs (1), Management (2), Mannheim Steamroller (2), Market Forces (1), Marvell (1), Mathematics (1), Matthew Arnold (1), Media (1), Medicine (1), Medusa (1), Memes (2), Memory (3), Mentorship (1), Metaphor (2), Metaphors (8), Miasma (1), Michael Chabon (1), Milk (3), Milton (1), Mind (1), Mission (4), Money (2), Moses (7), Movement (1), Movies (3), Mozart (1), Mysteries (1), Myth (3), Mythology (6), Münchener Freiheit (1), Namelessness (1), Names (3), Natural Philosophy (1), Neander (1), Networking (1), Neurobiology (2), New York (3), News (1), Newton (1), Night (1), Nightmares (1), Nimzovich (1), Noah (1), Nobility (1), Nostalgia (5), Numinosity (2), O'Toole (1), Obituary (1), Operating Systems (1), Organic Chemistry (1), Paganism (2), Parables (2), Parody (1), Patriotism (1), Pattern (2), Paul Anka (1), Paul Simon (1), Peace (3), Perception (6), Periodicity (1), Perseverance (1), Personality (6), Perspective (1), Perturbation (1), Pfeiffer (1), Pharaoh (1), Philosophy (14), Phoenix (1), Physics (2), Physiology (1), Pilgrimage (1), Plato (1), Poetry (50), Politics (8), Possibility (2), Post-Modernism (1), Power (2), Prayer (1), Presentation (1), Pride (1), Principles (1), Professionalism (3), Profiling (4), Prometheus (1), Prophecy (4), Psalms (3), Psychology (4), Qualitative Research (1), Quantum Mechanics (1), Quiz (1), Rain (1), Random (1), Ravens (2), Reading (3), Reality (2), Reason (5), Reflection (12), Reindeer (1), Relationships (2), Religion (9), Remembrance (17), Renewal (2), Requiem (1), Research (2), Resignation (1), Response (1), Revelation (3), Richard II (1), Rite (1), Ritual (5), Roads (1), Robert Bridges (1), Robert Browning (2), Robert Burns (2), Robert Frost (1), Robert Graves (1), Roman Empire (2), Roman Philosophy (1), Sabbath (1), Sacrifice (1), Safety (1), Saints (2), Salvation (1), Satan (2), Scheduling (1), Science (3), Science Fiction (2), Scott Lynch (1), Seasons (1), Secrecy (1), Secret Garden (1), Servanthood (1), Service (1), Shadow (1), Shaggy-Dog (1), Shakespeare (5), Shelley (1), Sheri Tepper (1), Shostakovich (1), Simon and Garfunkel (1), Simplicity (1), Simulation (1), Singapore (4), Size (1), Social Sciences (2), Sonnet (2), Soul (1), Sound (1), Speech (1), Spirit (2), Spiritual Gifts (1), Spirituality (2), Standards (1), Stardust (2), Stasis (1), Statesmen (1), Statistics (2), Stories (3), Storms (1), Strategic Thinking (1), Strength (1), Students (3), Study (2), Subversion (1), Sunrise (1), Sunset (1), Supergrass (1), Superheroism (3), Superman (1), Supernatural (1), Surrender (1), Symbolism (45), Symptoms (1), Synthesis (1), Tabernacle (1), Tagore (2), Talent Development (1), Taverns (1), Taxonomy (1), Tea (2), Teaching (1), Technology (1), Ted Hughes (1), Temasek (1), Tennyson (1), Terminus (1), Tessa Farmer (1), Testing (4), Thanksgiving (2), Thatcher (1), Thaumaturgy (1), Theology (4), Thought (6), Thumboo (1), Thursday (1), Tim Powers (1), Time (7), Titans (1), Tolkien (2), Totemism (1), Transformation (1), Translation (1), Transmission (1), Transparency (1), Trinity (1), Triumph (1), Trivia (1), Trucking (1), Truth (3), Tufte (1), UK (1), Ulysses (1), Unambiguity (1), Unfulfilled Potential (1), Universe (1), University Life (1), UNSC (1), Victorian Era (1), Violence (1), Virtue (1), Virtues (1), Vision (5), Visual Arts (1), Voices (1), Vonnegut (1), Walker (1), Walter Moers (2), Wanderer (2), War (1), Weapons (1), White (1), Wilfred Owen (1), Wine (1), Wisdom (5), Wizardry (2), Womanhood (1), Wonder Woman (1), Words (1), Work (4), WotD (6), Writing (1), X-Men (1), Yeats (1), Youth (2), Zamonia (1), Zechariah (1), Zerubbabel (1), Zodiac (1), Zoology (1)

Edit: made it more manageable for people who hate scrolling...

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My grandfather, as I'm sure some of you have heard before, saw four phases in human life. These can be listed briefly as
  • innocent idealism: as of a child

  • ignorant cynicism: as of an adolescent

  • knowledgeable cynicism: as of an adult

  • enlightened idealism: as of an adult adult
Here, the adjectives used are not meant to be either complimentary or pejorative. Rather, they describe the literal state of mind: 'innocent' literally means 'without poison, toxin or venom'; 'ignorant' means 'lacking knowledge'; 'knowledgeable' means 'possessing useful information'; 'enlightened' means 'enhanced by the light of knowledge'.

However, regression is possible. It is possible, for example, for an otherwise fairly enlightened and idealistic man to write something like this:


Education : A Cynical Science

Enclosed and numbered
Beasts in cages
They crouch awaiting the bell
The next lesson
The next trainer

This is our challenge:
Break their spirit
Teach them to perform instead
Make them unlearn
And learn again

Agile and restless
Their minds, their limbs
Undisciplined and incorrect
Train them fiercely
Work them harder

Elegant hunter
Now herd grazer
Where natural fire burnt
The light is quenched
The eyes are dull

Success now measured
Numbers written
Release the broken, see in them
A discipline
Now set in stone


I don't believe educators ought to be this cynical though. We don't have to demolish our idealism just because some people say we are 'too idealistic'. That phrase alone is somewhat silly, perhaps oxymoronic; how can anyone be 'too idealistic' since idealism by its nature deals with extremes? It is always possible to be 'not idealistic enough', but oddly, it shouldn't be possible to be 'too idealistic'. In the 'real world' however, where 'idealism' is used as shorthand for 'extremism' or even 'terrorism', it might be true.

But for all you Bible-thumping types out there: what if I were to say, "You are too Christian!" bearing in mind that Christlikeness is one of your ideals? Is it possible to be 'too Christian'? Likewise, idealism.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bookbinding (2007/7)

I've decided that writing book reviews is pointless, maybe egoistic. What I'm doing is less pointless and less egoistic, so I'll do this instead. Here is a list of some of the stuff I've read in the last few weeks. Short notes follow.

1. John Dunning's The Sign of the Book and The Bookwoman's Last Fling: Dunning writes about the world of bookselling and crime. Very good if you like that sort of thing, dubious value (apart from excellent writing) otherwise.

2. Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below: Yes, novels about global warming and disaster; in the first, low-lying island state drowns; in the second, Washington DC freezes. Ecothrillers, I guess. Not bad.

3. Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora: Excellent; echoes of Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber, but certainly all his own. He is not like Terry Pratchett (who is a satirical humorist) – rather, Lynch is more about stylish burlesque.

4. Mark Gatiss's The Vesuvius Club and The Devil in Amber: Very amusing if you like what reads like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Conan Doyle (for want of a better description). You should be 18 and above or have a great sense of humour to read this and not be totally bawdified.

5. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 9Tail Fox and Stamping Butterflies: Something like Iain M Banks's SF, but with a lot of cyberpunkish and odd mythopoeia. Ruthlessly effective; if they were made into movies, they'd be better than the Matrix trilogy.

6. Paul Magrs's Never The Bride: I liked this one as much as I did the rest, or even more. The heroine is a really sweet person, and though you might be wondering what on earth I was doing reading this book, I class it thematically with Michael Chabon's The Final Solution (unnamed protagonist is actually classic hero) and Philip José Farmer's Tarzan Alive! (protagonist is stolen from somebody else's classic novel and given interesting back-story).

Yep, that's it. See, short and simple. If you want to know what comics I read, you need to be comicsmart. Heh. The rest is all about chemistry, quantum physics, and cooking. And all from the nearest high-quality bookshop (Borders or B&N included).

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Friday, July 13, 2007

All My Hope

This morning I was seized by a sense of great joy. I am a naturally joyful person, but this was different. I felt a sudden urge to dispense with analogies and metaphors and just bow to the ineffable. In my heart I knew this: "For we see as through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face."

I knew this as well: We are no mere instruments of a master musician or craftsman, we were made by the Master to contribute of our own free will, to rise to the highest excellence that our nature allows. And the hope that we can achieve this is one of the great hopes of our hearts.

It was the fact that this hope existed which raised my 'joy level'. Halfway through a fairly eventful life, my game might still be raised. I might have wasted some potential somewhere, but I might still be able to turn in a few mighty performances for the One who holds me in the palm of His hand. And then suddenly, I felt like a harmonica. It was very odd, very amusing. I only know two people who treat the harmonica as a primary instrument (apart from Billy Joel, and I don't know him personally).

Here is a hymn that has been one of my favorites for thirty years or so.


All My Hope On God Is Founded

All my hope on God is founded;
He doth still my trust renew:
  me through change and chance He guideth,
  only good and only true.
God unknown,
  He alone
  calls my heart to be His own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust:
  what with care and toil he buildeth,
  tower and temple fall to dust.
But God's power,
  hour by hour,
  is my temple and my tower.

God's great goodness aye endureth;
Deep His wisdom, passing thought:
  splendour, light and life attend Him,
  beauty springeth out of naught.
  from his store
  newborn worlds rise and adore.

Daily doth the almighty Giver
  bounteous gifts on us bestow;
His desire our soul delighteth,
  pleasure leads us where we go.
Love doth stand
  at his hand;
  joy doth wait on his command.

Still from man to God eternal
  sacrifice of praise be done;
High above all praises praising
  for the gift of Christ, His Son.
Christ doth call
  one and all:
  ye who follow shall not fall.

Robert Bridges (1844-1930); based on the German by Joachim Neander (1650-1680)

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The Alexandrian Key

It is said that the Great Library at Alexandria...
  • was the largest collection of learning of its time or any time before it

  • was one of many libraries all established in cities called Alexandria

  • was indexed by complex cryptography because it was so large

  • was razed by a truly literate conqueror

  • was a threat to world peace

  • was a necessary evil

  • was

Egypt is a mysterious land. God works in mysterious ways.

Celebrant: Open the gates of your heart. This is the morning. The blood of the sun is within us and the light of the dawn covers the land with its heat.

Congregation: This is the eye of the day.

Celebrant: Open the gates of your breast. This is the morning. The breath of the sun is upon us and the light of the dawn brings life.

Congregation: Behold the eye of the day.

Celebrant: Open the gates of your mouth. This is the morning. The word of the sun is upon us and the light of the dawn calls us to praise the Ancient of Days.

Congregation: Praise the Ancient of Days!

All: For the sun has He set as a light from dawn to dusk and as an arbiter of season and sign, of promise and of hope.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thursday Again

It is so tiring to sit here sometimes. For most of the days in the month, I am content; when they retired us, we went freely and with a sense of relief. Ragnarok had been averted, now was the age of men, and old warriors like me could hang up our hammers and play chess. (I play a mean game; nothing I like better than hacking off a man's two bishops and leaving him to suffer. And I have no qualms about sacrificing a queen for rook-and-three-pawns. But I digress.)

I was sipping coffee and reading the Annals Assessing An Aggravated Age And Auditing Antagonistic Adults (yes, typical alliteration) in peace, when my hammer, so long mounted on the wall, began to glow. This is not an everyday occurrence. My hammer is forged of uru and it only glows when in the presence of the svartalfar, the undead, or an imp of the perverse.

Naturally, I stood up. The wielding of storm and lightning requires space (and time, of course) and I was not used to dealing with things sitting down. "Mjolnir, what is it?" I asked the hammer. Silly question. Most hammers are too dumb to answer questions, although not dumb in the sense of 'lacking vocal ability'. Lacking an aural answer, I looked around.

And there it was. On my carpet, someone had flung a pamphlet. It had a characteristically lurid cover and title for that kind of tract. Across its polychromatic cover was plastered the phrase Why Your God Does Not Exist. I smiled grimly to myself. Feeding its author to Huginn and Muninn would be fun, although a ravenous indigestion (or two) would probably be the result.

I opened the tract, knowing what I would find. As usual, the commonplace arguments. Let me summarise them for you; you, in this twenty-first century of the days of the Christ, have probably heard them in various forms before.
  1. A natural occurrence is by definition that which happens regularly and frequently. A miracle is by definition something that happens rarely and unpredictably. Evidence for the former is by definition more common than evidence for the latter. A reasonable person accepts that for which there is more evidence rather than that for which there is less. Hence reasonable persons prefer natural occurrences over miracles.

  2. If God is fully good, He would destroy evil. If God is fully powerful, He could destroy evil. Since evil exists, God is either not fully good or not fully powerful.

I laughed. There are gods, and there are gods. And there are spurious arguments. Huginn and Muninn, in the absence of my late (although, some say early) ancestor's continuing absence, had frequently parodied these arguments over my head. Let me summarise Huginn and Muninn.
  1. Humans are a natural phenomenon. They frequently use their intelligence to modify their environment to support their continuing existence. Yet it is clear that the spontaneous emergence of humanity has happened only once, and also that humans have an increasing tendency to not believe that a superior intelligence has adjusted cosmological constants to support their continuing existence. They prefer to believe that it a unique sequence of events occurred instead. Of course, there is no evidence that either is a superior case, since both look to be miraculous. Who is fooling whom?

  2. Let us assert that evil exists. Then if God is fully good, He would want evil to be destroyed. And if God is fully powerful, He would have the power to do so. Hence the fact that evil continues to exist implies that if God exists, evil will be destroyed one day.

Birds, birds. Those two are so funny. I told Mjolnir to switch itself off, took the pamphlet to the shredder, and went back to my journal and some Taiwanese coffee. I muttered to myself (or is that 'my self'?) the mystic phrase, "Lim peh ka li kong..." I am sure that there is plenty of implicit deity in that phrase.

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