Sunday, September 30, 2007

The War

I don't normally sell movies, TV series, stuff like that. And while I'm a fan of history as a discipline and a useful, entertaining area of knowledge, I tend to keep that part of my life reasonably private.

But Ken Burns's The War deserves advertising. Go take a look. It wasn't a Good War. It might have been a Just War. Whatever it was, it was the worst war of all time. Not as much senseless death and blood as the First World War, but horror. Lots of it.

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The Arbiter And The Butterfly

This post is the result of reading posts from two of my colleagues in the great endeavour. Hence the title.

I had a D H Lawrence moment (1) the other day, while walking in between the long columns of desks in the Great Hall. There was a certain quality of light upon the heads of the gathered students. Examination times are, in some sense, sanctified; there is some sort of holiness about the total silence offered to the powers of education. That moment was filed away in my head. I said nothing about it; perhaps the butterfly's internal censor interdicted it. Or maybe the arbiter's transcendent self squirrelled it away for future development. Whatever caused it, it took up residence to wait for today.

This morning it ambushed me.

It struck me that there is no human way to evaluate optimal behaviour in humans. What could you possibly consider optimal? An IB Diploma with 45 points out of 45? At what cost does it come? Can you compute that cost down the lonely years, the desecration, the loss, the triumph or the golden sunset? Do you amortize it or pay it off across the months? Can you mortgage your invested time? These measures, and indeed any measures of our lives, cannot possibly describe the value of each unforgiving minute, of each sixty seconds' worth of distance run (as Kipling writes).

In theory, there are two approaches.

One is to calculate everything; the ultimate computation of all human endeavour in the universal reference frame. Assign a single dimension along which you will seek the maximum value of that overall human function. If a single maximum exists (what an assumption to make!), that would be the resultant of all optimal behaviours.

The second is to assume that there is a maximum defined, and somehow determine all possible paths leading to it. Then, induce behaviour such that one of those paths is followed. It's a lot like game theory, in the sense that if you can determine all possible outcomes, you can even see if the optimum is not the maximum and go for that instead.

In practice, there are none. The information required to game the universe exceeds the capacity of the universe. This is why a single butterfly flapping its wings in the hills can cause a lowly underpaid minion of the state to blog a few thousand words and forget the blinding pain in his acromion. It's a kind of transcendence. At the same time, the realisation that the universe must be arbitrary in one way or another is also freedom.

Why should the universe be arbitrary? That's an odd question, and one which better minds than mine have toiled at for centuries. But I will use my usual tactics of etymology and gaming to produce a reasonable answer.

It is either arbitrary in the sense of having a solution (or lack of solution) which is not convincingly justifiable compared to other possible solutions, or it is arbitrary in the sense of being under an arbiter – some metauniversal entity or law which just happens to want things (or cause things to be) that way because it thinks (2) (or has got an intrinsic property that determines) that things should be that way.

If the universe were not arbitrary in either of these senses, then what would it be? There are even fewer satisfactory answers to that. Which brings me back down to Earth with an audible bump. As Alexander Pope said, "The proper study of mankind is man."

So why should we say anything, since everything is arbitrary? The answer, I suppose is because we are communicating animals, we are expressive animals, we are creative animals in the sense that we must synthesize and produce new things by nature. Some people say censorship (internal or external) defeats this basic right. I don't think that's true.

So why should we say anything nicely, if everything is arbitrary? For a start, without some kinds of censorship, some kinds of communication lose their power. The editorial process cuts crap, or at least makes it more palatable. This caters to the aesthetic sense of some audience or other, but what kind of communication doesn't? Even measures of communication in terms of efficiency (e.g. the minimum number of bits required to transmit data with 100% success) are an aesthetic decision; your aesthetic in this case is that less is better (or small is beautiful, as Schumacher used to say).

More to the butterfly's point, if we didn't take time to add value to our communications by censoring and/or packaging, we would have one fewer class of methods to show others how much we cared about them. The censorship that produces courtesy, politeness, and social etiquette is decried by some as hypocrisy – but the point is that all humans are hypocrites or psychotics, and the hypocrites outnumber the psychotics immensely.

But can we trust the internal censor? And do we need an external censor?

The answer is that we can never entirely trust any kind of censorship. In the human world, there are no perfect censors, polishers, or hypocrites. But that doesn't mean that we can't try, and some do.

The Christians have a solution for it. They call it grace. One part of it is a sort of mutual consent by which we overlook each others annoyingly bad attempts at self-censorship without being overly censorious. Another part of it is that we learn to say things not for others to approve, but in ways which express that we are taking time to be careful, to add value to our speech, to show that the persons we communicate with are valued and we will not waste their time or comprehension.

This is why we pray for 'grace to follow my Master and my Friend'. If Jesus is indeed the ultimate role model in some way that we can somewhat understand (or be granted understanding of), then it makes sense to gain that grace which makes our internal censors better. Then they will not be crude choppers and crafters, but a high-quality editorial staff that seasons our speech with just enough salt and illuminates our thoughts with just enough light so that we can all be the better for it.



1. D H Lawrence spent three years as a teacher. I remember learning about his poetry in high school and being haunted by his love-hate relationship with his students. The two poems The Best of School and The Last Lesson are diametrically opposed; the former is positive and the latter is painfully negative. I reproduce the former poem here to show what it is I actually mean by 'a D H Lawrence moment':

The Best of School

The blinds are drawn because of the sun.
And the boys and the room in a colourless gloom
Of underwater float: bright ripples run
Across the walls as the blinds are blown
To let the sunlight in: and I,
As I sit on the shores of the class, alone,
Watch the boys in their summer blouses
As they write, their round heads busily bowed:
And one after another rouses
His face to look at me
To ponder very quietly
As seeing, he does not see.

And then he turns again, with a little, glad
Glad thrill of his work he turns again from me
Having found what he wanted, having got what was to be had

And very sweet it is, while the sunlight waves
In the ripening morning, to sit alone with the class
And feel the stream of awakening ripple and pass
From me to the boys, whose brightening souls it laves
For this little hour.

The poem reminds me of Gnomus, whom some of you know.

2. Who can understand the mind of God? In terms of information theory, understanding the complete mind of God-the-arbiter is not possible, since it must necessarily exceed the capacity of the universe. Some would say that God-the-arbiter would therefore not be able to understand Himself, but that assumes information theory's underpinnings maintain their value outside the universe. [It isn't really a meaningful statement because any statements about 'beyond-our-universe' cannot have meaning to us. Such statements therefore are ignored by logical positivists such as Russell because there is no way to assess them as true or false. However, the fact that we can make them means we can consider their implications if they were true. And their implications are sometimes profound.]

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There was a time not too long ago when I felt totally betrayed by the guardians of the local flame. Deep in the fireheart, their ordinal superiors agreed that I'd been given rather the short end of the stick. And perhaps the greatest irony was that Lord Thunder felt moved to pray for my immortal soul, for after all, my discouragement might lead me into sin.

Strangely though, I was not discouraged. That story is told elsewhere. But now I will focus on the centre of the storm, and the words that held me fast amid the wrack and warp of hope. There is a hymn, you see, that my grandfathers (both chaplains of that particular Order of Midnight), were wont to sing. It is about an anchor. And here let me show you wolf and anchor, wanderer and fixed point, made one.


Wolf worried about the anchor. It was an unnatural mass of iron, from an unnatural world where wood was shaped and left to float constructively at sea. He himself had no quarrel with storms; the fall of rain soothed him as it failed against his fur. But there it was, an anchor in the middle of the wood. It had some special significance, but Wolf had forgotten it, being Wolf.

And there he was, sniffing at the anchor, trying to remember what it meant, when he smelt the man-smell a little too late. They had rifles, and although badly-trained, the myth of the wolf was potent. They had knives for the kill and the gutting, and were not inclined to see that the wolf was actually a noble kind of dog – not a slave, but a more independent creature.

The first shot cracked, whined against the iron cross of the anchor. Wolf spat in surprise and ducked, frantically seeking the enemy and looking for a bolt-hole. That saved him from the second shot, which raised his hackles as it groaned complaining off into the night. A hunter flung himself at Wolf, a long knife flashing. There was no time to howl. Wolf twisted, turned.

The snow steamed around them. Humans and wolf danced a deadly ballet around the unmoving iron in the midnight wood. In the distance were dim lights, a church where watchnight music was sung. The lights flickered in the wind. The trees were very old, and if they had sympathies, those were more with Wolf than with his pursuers.

Rain he could stand, but his fur was not proof against steel. His blood steamed on the ground. Wolf felt more irritated than afraid. The hunters cried out, unable to bring their guns to bear at close range, in the too-populated dark. It would be knife work. They were frustrated by ice, iron and night. Wolf felt their fear. He had weapons too. He struck, silently.

The music thrilled him. He heard it running like a horse, like fire or water. It informed his strategy. It made him feel more alive than the shadows who hunted him. Their nightmare was his strength. He laughed, and bit someone else. Everything got confused. Wolf heard the singing, and if he could have sung, he would have joined in. The hunters cursed.

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift and the cables strain,
Will your anchor drift, or firm remain?

We have an anchor that keeps the soul
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.

Morning came. It rolled out white and clean, like lightning in the hills. Wolf licked his silent, empty wounds. He was still alive. The hunters had gone, taking their guns, their knives, their casualties. Wolf had no idea of what it was he had forgotten, but he knew it was right. Turning his back on carnage, but remembering the anchor, he wandered off into the cheerful day.


Saturday, September 29, 2007


Y'know, I've decided it is probably a disadvantage 80% of the time. As Arthur Clarke put it, "It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value." This is a remarkable statement, especially coming as it does from the author of Profiles of the Future, a man who first authored the concept of the geosynchronous satellite (without which much of our global communications network would be crippled).

People have said a lot about emotional intelligence, different kinds of intelligence, different kinds of minds... the list goes on and on (at least as long as Howard Gardner has tenure). But one thing is fairly certain: it will never be possible to consider the many thinking options as unique and individual phenomena. Why not? Simple: the number of possible neural networks a human brain can generate is larger than the total number of atoms in the universe.

Let me attempt to justify that. There are about 100,000,000,000 neurons in the brain. A neuron may have up to 10,000 connections (but let's assume something smaller - say 1,000 for example). Not every neuron is so blessed with connectivity, so this is a reasonable assumption. And some are physically too far apart (although you'd be surprised at how long a neuron can be - the long motor neurons which extend from the spine to the feet are about 1 to 1.5 metres long) to connect easily. If the neurons were to line up in random order to form a chain of 100,000,000,000 random elements, the number of possible chains would already be (100,000,000,000 x 99,999,999,999 x 99,999,999,998 x ... x 3 x 2 x 1), the factorial of 100 billion. That huge number assumes every neuron (except the end ones) has only TWO connections, let alone a thousand.

The universe, as we know it right now, in contrast has about 100,000,000,000 galaxies and fewer than 10^80 atoms. That is a number smaller than the factorial of 59 (i.e., 59 x 58 x 57 x ... x 3 x 2 x 1). This has always led me to wonder what the Preacher meant when he said, "God has put eternity into the hearts of men."

These are the large numbers to crunch when we think of lines like Shakespeare's "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety." Nobody seriously thinks that Cleopatra's variability was without ending or beginning in a numerical sense, but it is certainly true that if we had lifespans as long as that of the universe, we would not necessarily have to be bored. Think about it: there are more brain configurations possible than the sum total of every atom in existence from the beginning of time to the end of it. Conceivably, there might even be enough useful brain configurations to last us into the end of time (for of course not all our brain configurations are viable or useful).

And that brings me back to the beginning. Is intelligence useful at all? Can it be cultivated? The answer seems to be yes or, at least, that we live in a world where we think this is true. That is the crux of the problem. It is our intelligence that tells us that intelligence is useful. It is our intelligence that tells us that to be more intelligent is a better thing. How self-serving this purely abstract concept is! How beautifully subversive!

Because, you see, it allows us to classify ourselves and others by a pseudoscientific concept which inevitably makes half of us feel better (yes, the perils of assuming a normal distribution) than the other half who don't get it (and thus are not necessarily made to feel worse). In such a world, I am very cautious when accepting my own intelligence, because it might not really be there; it might not exist or it might be a misattributed or inaccurate identifier for something else. For the snark was a boojum, you see.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Honours Day

"Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!"

Thus spake the apostle, and have we any reason to mistrust his words? It is said that in a great house there are many vessels, some of gold and silver and honourable in disposition, some of clay and wood and made for humble purposes. Yet besides honour, there is use; for there are things of honour with no use and things of use that we do not honour.

"Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man," said his brother apostle.

Those apostles were really good. Good as gold. And it is quite clear from their words that there are two meanings of silver and gold (and neither has to do with my own pocket-money funds). The first connotes nobility of value and use; it is used to speak of the purity of divine purpose and of the foundations built in our lives by the workings of the Spirit. The second is what another apostle calls 'filthy lucre', the cancerous desire for scoring more worthless points than our fellow humans.

Today I felt happy that young people were being honoured for what they had done, what they had earnestly striven for (and in some case, got away with). All of that has value in this world, and the Word does not refute that this is true. But in the end, the most important points were in the hymns that were sung: leadership, dedication, glory. All of it, to God and His holy purposes. Which is why I wince when I see and hear the behaviour and language of some of our athletes, and remember that I too was sometimes like that when I was young.

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Along The Shelves

If the book is Mao
Then it is red
If the book is read
Then it is done
If the book is Donne
Then poetry.

If the thought is kind
Then it is young
If the thought is Jung
Then it is typed
If it is typed
Then document.

If you love some one
Then two or more
If you love some More
Then seasons all
Blur into one
Poetic intent.

And there I leave you
With my cold coffee
And a dish of roses.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Perfect Storm (In A Teacup)

I remember this phrase leaping out at me from the pages of the movie review section, some time ago. It sounded so Platonic, so beautifully complete in itself (yes, that's one of my themes these days, sorry for boring you). But then I realised that it's hard to define 'perfect storm' when you don't know what a perfect storm is and have never seen one. Sure, you can extrapolate; sure you can imagine and calculate and invent an ideal storm – but you will never know perfection, or indeed, if such a thing can be made perfect at all.

It's like people who want to be the perfect star, the perfect cyclist, the perfect fencer, the perfect clown. Perhaps these are indeed their destinies; most probably, not. But God has wrought in each the potential to be the person perfectable, the person who will be made perfect in weakness. Not for humans the perfect symmetry – your left lung has two lobes, your right lung has three; your liver is on one side, your stomach the other. Rather, an asymmetric whole, which God will have His own opinion on, whatever you might think about it.

We are all perfectable, and we may not know why, or how, or in what way. But He does, and that whole perfection is worth all the wait. As a famous poet wrote in one of his not-so-famous moments:

Fool! All that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What entered into thee,
That was, is, and shall be:
Time’s wheel runs back or stops: potter and clay endure.

We are clay, and clay does not define its final shape. But if God is the potter, God will, and does. And that is what makes purpose; not what the clay chooses, but what the potter makes of it. Even a teacup will do.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Animistic Scientism

Oh yes, before I forget, every science-studier (if not science student) should look at this. (Thanks, Hiero!)

It's an all too familiar abuse of language, to assign the qualities and motivations of living minds to inanimate or theoretical entities. For example, "The chlorine atom loves electrons and its desire is greater than that of the iodine atom." Sounds almost as if we're putting up electrons for adoption and the two halogen atoms are competing prospective parents.

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Can Holistic Education Exist? (Part 2)

I'm not a very theological person, or a very philosophical one. But I do believe in the relative sanctity of language - the idea that words are meant to describe and detail things to some degree of precision and accuracy. This means that while common usage can shift meaning over time, the time period is normally a fairly long one. Words in general keep their meanings within a time-scale sufficient for one generation to (just about) communicate with the previous or the next.

For technical language, this span has to be a little longer, so that the discourse can extend back and forth through time in such a way that the foundations of a discipline can still be seen (or at least, alluded to reasonably). In this context, 'span' refers not only to a range within time, but also to connectivity (as in a bridge or a tapestry).

And here is Exhibit One: the word 'holistic'. Holism is a property possessed by things which are complete in themselves, and which if decomposed to their elements, would be of less value than the sum of those elements. The kind of value is not the point, although it helps to know what it is. The point is that the whole before decomposition was more valuable to the person doing the evaluation.

Take, for example, a marble bust and the bucket of tiny marble pieces resulting from demolition of that marble bust. To an evaluator who uses an aesthetic baseline, the whole bust has incalculably more value than the marble gravel. To a chemist looking for a source of granular crystalline calcium carbonate, the marble pieces may have more value in a catalytic or kinetic sense (although the mass of substance is the same). The hologram version (i.e., the bust), however, can be thought of as having less entropy. It took effort to get the marble to look exactly like the man whose head it represented. That effort gave the bust a value which is now lost. The chemist can use any other marble source; he need not use the bust.

The same thing applies to a cake, a book, a car – any whole that is made from smaller components which do not spontaneously combine, and which requires an ordering anti-entropic process to produce. The problem lies in the reverse process, from the information-deficient raw materials (materials which do not themselves contain a plan for further development) to the information-rich product (a product which was made through a process that required information). The problem is that when we have unformed substance (or uninformed substance), we do not definitely know what the final form should be, can be, or ought to be.

This is true of people who are being educated. Educaré is Latin for 'drawing-out', as wire is drawn out (whence 'ductility') from raw metal. But what do we want to draw out? The raw material itself offers no clue, and wire without form is merely wire. Of course, wire can have uses in itself, but it can also be made into much more valuable products through progressively more complex processing sequences. An holistic education would be one which could take into account the end-product. And that is something the wire does not define.

So is it all lost? Is an holistic education genuinely beyond us? It all depends. As a Christian, I'd defer to something along these lines. If there is a divine purpose, then that must inform us as to what we must be 'drawn out' to be. An holistic education in a Christian mission school must therefore be based solidly on at least this much.

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I've met a number of coaches throughout my chequered career. They fall into a few types which bear mentioning.

1. "I am your father!" No, you're not. This kind of coach has a fatherhood complex which makes him want to treat you as his son. It is perfectly OK to treat your charges in loco parentis – in the place of parents – but it is quite another to act as if you are one. It is a short step from some sort of odd Messianic complex. Which leads us to...

2. "Follow me, and I will make you..." Yes, this is a developing or full-blown Messiah complex. In a coach, it manifests as an odd tendency to see visions, make prophecies, and make announcements regarding the state of one's conscience and one's divine mandate. The intent seems to be to produce a spiritual legacy of some sort.

3. "You are a soldier!" This is a sort of general assault on the private individual, often involving corporal punishment. This kind of coach has watched too many military movies. Far too many. Given a choice of training plans, he will choose one that sounds as if it is a Normandy beach landing or something involving archers, elephants and heavily armed warriors.

4. "This may seem a bit complicated, but..." Ah, the coach who has played too many simulations. He genuinely believes that trainees can be programmed to do intricate and interactive choreography, and that it will work right the first time. You can see the diagrams forming in the virtual space above his head; sometimes, he will terrorize you with PowerPoints.

5. "Don't worry, just play." Not always a bad coach. However, one variant is totally clueless and is relying on you to know enough about the situation to pull rabbits out of the hat when necessary. Another kind is very good at counselling (especially in the wake of your trauma), but not so good at teaching you what to do under the circumstances.

If you can think of any others, do let me know. I'm trying very hard not to be a bad coach.

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Cast your bread on the waters, and you shall receive it again after many days, says the Preacher, king in Jerusalem.

But that is not what I mean at all.


What I meant was something else, entirely. I was looking at John Travolta and realising that if we ever had to make a 25th-anniversary movie, I know who could play the leading role. Heh.

Which led me to wonder who else could be played to advantage by someone else. My conclusion: although many staff could be replaced Hollywood- (or Bollywood-) style, students would have to play themselves. They're better than actors as themselves.

That said, some of them do look as if they could be replaced by actor stunt-doubles.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007


An icosahedron is a Platonic solid with 20 triangular faces. And that is all, said the Penguin.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Can Holistic Education Exist? (Part 1)

I don't believe in holistic education. It's a sham. Nobody can be educated as a whole while the model of education is still divided into individual processes and disciplines. And I'm not sure you can be said to be educated if the model of education were to be made so transdisciplinary that no individual processes and disciplines existed (except of course the one process called holistic education).

This is probably an unpopular stance. But it is probably a necessary one, given the odd climate of this age. Go to Google. Type define: holistic in the search box. You will quickly begin to grasp why I say an holistic education is not possible.

How can it be that we tout such a thing? To do so would require that our education take into account the whole system that is a human being; we would have to consider the academic, spiritual, social, mental, and emotional aspects of the hologram entity – as one being. And since we cannot even fully understand ONE of these aspects, how can we do this?

The answer: we cannot. We can only pretend to it.

That said, can we aspire to it? We can certainly try. Now that I have brought us all down to earth in this endeavour, let us try to think about what an holistic education could possibly be like.

Firstly, it isn't about mens sana in corpore sano, that old Latin mantra of the dualistic mind/body idea. If it is genuinely holistic, we have to treat the mind and body and spirit as one. Each student should have a special diet of food and drink and exercise that caters to the needs of intellectual and spiritual activity. Prayer and fasting, alternating and interwoven spiritual and mental exercises, these should be the framework of activity. Example: you eat chocolate, you should taste it and consider the spiritual consequences of the act, and how it raises your game and your understanding of economics – and then you dance, you sing, you exude the act which is chocolate-eating. And it is both worship and study, at once.

Secondly, it cannot be a school in which the disciplines are ring-fenced from each other. The subjects must be allowed to percolate, to merge, submerge, and re-emerge. And through it all, for each student, fluctuat nec mergitur – the changing tides do not drown the consciousness, but enhance it. Perception sharpens and zooms out to dimness; the universe is one, and yet the eye sees a particular detail. Learning meanders through the broad lands of the dominion of mind, and as the starter's gun fires, the athlete's spirit burns. This sprint could be metaphor, could be act, could be valour of mind and body and spirit all in one. And as the tape is breasted at the 100m mark, the physics tutorial is over.

Thirdly, the process must constantly seek to offer physical, social, spiritual, mental, and emotional growth to the student. This five-fold model was one the religious taught me fifteen years ago, when I was learning from them how to use my gifts. You cannot develop the mental without considering its impact on the spiritual, the light is casts on emotion and society and the habits of the body; and that is but one interpretation of how all five might work together.

And lastly, the teacher must constantly work at all five aspects too. The teacher mirrors the student, offers an ideal; the student shows the teacher that the teacher has more to learn. Two mirrors opposing each other into infinity, leading to greater and deeper reflections. At the end and at the beginning is God, who knows how much we do not see.

Can we try to make this happen? I fear it. I fear that the wisdom of man is not sufficient and that it leads to despair. And yet, I do not fear at all. We will never achieve holistic education in the world of men. But the Spirit enfolds us in bright wings, leading us to take on more of the image of Christ, to the glory of God the Father. And then, we shall be whole.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Nobody Expects

This is a dark room, in an unlisted building, on a nondescript street – one of many such in an unnamed and imaginary state. A few people (it is hard to tell how many are in this dark room) are present: an Inquisitor, a Subject, a supervising medical officer, and some other figures with brutal silhouettes.


Inquisitor: What is your name, rank and serial number?

Subject: Wolf, Lone, 008.

I: (motions to unseen presences)

Beating ensues.

I: (pleasantly) Let's begin again. What is your name, rank and serial number?

S: E Rhodes Stitt, Rear-Admiral, 18671948.

I: Whoever you really are, you will address me as sir, sir.

S: Sir, sir.

I: (motions to unseen presences)

Beating ensues.

I: (pleasantly) Let's continue, sir.

[This sequence, from the motion to unseen presences to the continuation, repeats several times. We will henceforth refer to it in this transcript as Refrain, by which is meant that the sequence repeats as transcribed with no deviation.]

I: What is your primary mission, sir?

S: As stated in my deposition. Sir.

I: Please state it again for the record, sir.

S: To carry out an holistic programme of education resulting in the development of premier doctors, scientists, authors, and suchlike. As in my deposition. Sir.

I: Why do you use the article 'an', sir?

S: The Greeks used a small mark to indicate the presence or absence of the aspirate and so the 'h' in words like 'historian' and 'hologram' does not exist as a proper letter. Indulge an old man in this. It is nothing more than...


I: I put it to you that it is not consonant with the vows you have made to this country that you should use invisible letters thusly, sir. And furthermore, you are wasting public funds in providing extraneous and irrelevant educational components. Sir. Why do you use the word 'premier', sir?

S: We seek to produce graduates who are in the top 0.02325% of the national population. This is considered by many to be 'premier' grade education. Sir.

I: This is elitism, and we are a democracy, sir. But who do you mean by 'we' and 'many'? Sir.

S: I mean myself. There are no others. And 'many' is statistical...


I: Who are 'we', sir? Who are the 'many'? Sir.

S: [Transcript shows heavy censorship here.]

I: Thank you, sir. And what is your main activity in pursuing your mission? Sir.

S: (sounds a little dazed) We groom these young people to be...

I: (interrupting) What did you say you do to them? You groom them? Unspeakable. Vile.

Refrain (x3) [At this point, the supervising medical officer intervened.]

I: We will return to these issues again, whoever-you-are sir. And it will not go well for you if you continue to digress. I am not here to be educated by the likes of you. Sir.

Exeunt Inquisitor and entourage.

S: (to himself) Heh, at least I got him to beat me up so that I could avoid calling him sir.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007


The other day, a client asked me, "So why did you step down in 2004?"

As usual, I made no conclusive reply. The evidence is very clear. Read all my posts from August to October 2004, see what might have caused it, decide for yourself. I keep every bit of evidence from that time in a hard-copy file. Every bit. I was trained as a qualitative researcher, and I recorded many things. In twelve sets of files, too.

People might say things, but it is what they wrote that survives, and I will not publish it. Here, or anywhere else. Yet. And I have published nothing, have written no anonymous letters, and am occasionally furious (a sinful state, for which I am sorry) at the idea (conceived of, I am sure, by the ignorant and unreasonable) that I have done such things.

I never doubted my allegiances, my qualities, or my directions. I never lost respect for the respectable, or courage for the challenge. I have always been answerable in full for my own actions. I have always taken full responsibility. And I have never harmed my institution in any demonstrable way. I carry no burden of shame or guilt, because what God has forgiven and justified need not burden you once it is gone, and because sometimes there is no reason for it. This is what I call a holistic re-education.

But these clients keep asking questions like, "So why did you step down in 2006?"

The answers are the same.

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Notes From A Battlefield 001

Taking it easy. Watching my fellow soldiers cut down to the left and right. In the midst of the battle, everything is in slow motion. My old war wound aches. But I still think being a platoon sergeant is better than being an officer cadet promoted to a captain or major through battlefield attrition. Watching them fall is sadly amusing because the impact of the battlefield is to numb one's finer sensibilities.

After a while, everything is funny. You have become psychotic. You are suffering loss of affect.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Dramatis Personae

This morning I woke up as usual, and everything had changed. It was a hot day, just as many before it, and so it was not the heat that raised my hackles. Rather, it was the sudden crushing awareness that though much is taken, not so much abides. Though we are not now that strength which in old days moved Earth and Heaven, we are not any useful strength anymore. We are caught up in toil, labour, the inadequate apprehension of an inadequate world.

Greet the criteria. Meet the criteria. Act as if the criteria are everything. And die by the criteria, proud in your triumph. What a sad lot we are, what a violated mission we pursue. In some sense, we are the guardians of Hermetic mysteries, for Hermes was the great father of Autolycus 'Lone Wolf', and Autolycus of Anticlea 'Withstanding Glory', and Anticlea was mother to Odysseus 'Much Hated'. But that is just mythologizing.

In reality, I was born into the family of the Registrar. And he said, the Mission is that all should be good, all should be God-fearing, all should be grown into manhood and womanhood. Not for my ancestor the tinkly chimes of buzzwords, shifted and redefined at will. No. He was blunt and violent with it. A ruthless man, he, who scorned both the Presbyter and Method of his youth and love, naming himself but one of many Brethren.

He would have spat upon the feet of heathen images, he would have asked, "What fills the spaces? What place is this which claims to value what its values no longer know to name?" But sadly, I am not him, I am not him at all. I come from an effete and paltry generation. We no longer stand up for what is bright and hot and deep and of the Spirit. We fall to the wayside, attracting candidates because we no longer have faith that the Spirit will send them to us.

We make our own mission. We no longer value manhood and womanhood, but we value some imaginary holism. For who among us is whole? What is whole? It is folly and rampaging humanistic pride to seek a whole which only God can provide. We are whole despite our flaws because we are defined as whole, because the Logos writes us whole, not because we can dance a minuet over two crossed swords while declaiming the merits of a maritime climate when making economic gains.

Here we are. We should ask, is our God a Gardner, a Goleman, a Golem, a Csíkszentmihályi? Or is He God, ineffable, incorruptible, all-wise and terrible in His wrath? We should ask many things. But one thing is not in doubt: the mission that we have is not the mission that we began with.

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How Should I Presume?

I know this poem very well, have known it very well for a long time. Every bit of it is part of the foundation of my heart, even at the hour of doom or any other hour; even at the hour for tea, for coffee, or for nothing at all.

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

I cannot presume, and I never have. I am always alone in this, as is each who does this task, though mostly not lonely. Adults become old and stale, or tough, or any one of a thousand states of agedness. And yet we too were young, like Phlebas or like you. We no longer live in the same realms; what is life and death and joy or terrible pain to you is not the same for me. But we are human too, and sometimes we have met at the tangential touching of our worlds, mostly to the good, though sometimes to the bad.

And in the dying days of the year, I remember the fallen and the risen, the quick and the dead, the brave and the timorous. I write testimonials; I keep a copy of every one of them just for the distant and unlikely eventuality that someday somebody might want another copy. Though nobody sees it, the seasoned mercenaries of the shadow world are not mercenary enough to take money for lives. We are daft that way.

We do not have to write songs that nobody hears or watch for dangers that nobody sees. It is enough that the songs are sung and the dangers are baulked. It is enough that we make ourselves small and disposable so that we can be forgotten without loss. It is always enough because it has to be; if there were rewards, it might tempt us too much. And yet, we do gain, we do receive, we are rewarded. And it is very sweet although we must learn never to think in anticipation of it.

The year dies. With it, some hopes fade, some faces elope. It will never be the same again, but then it never has been. We learn to live on through the loss. And one more state of age passes. We must forgive each other for what was well-intended but not well-accomplished, for what was well-accomplished but not well-executed, for what was well-executed but not well-intended. We are all faithless to some extent. But God remains true, and to Him we must turn. Alone.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

ADDing & Subtracting

A short time ago, I mentioned how the most favourable diagnosis of the most kindly psychonomist would probably still have diagnosed me with ADHD (minus the hyperactivity to some extent). That would have been true for me up till the age of 15.

And yet, I note that whatever Freud got wrong, the superego has a role to play. If I were left unchecked by my own discipline and will, empowered by what I know to be the Spirit (and what others might decide is the environment or something else), I would certainly still act ADHD. Traces of it leak out when I give lectures, for example.

But most of the time I don't. Some aspects of what people call ADHD are utterly controllable with practice and determination. Some are not. When you have subtracted the things which are controllable, you aren't left with much of a disorder. What are you left with?

1) I still sleep at will, and sometimes, by accident. All it takes is someone droning on without engaging my brains, and I will sleep. You can ask my boss, he's seen it and commented on it. You can ask my wife, who is envious. I tell her all it takes is a good conscience and this: '...for He grants sleep to those He loves. (Psalm 127:2). It is one of those things I cannot prove to be true, but I certainly hope is true.

2) I still get very restless unless obsessively engaged in a task. Sometimes, I have to work myself into an obsession before I can finish a task. When I have created the obsessive fixation, I can churn out 10-20 pages in one evening; maybe 10000 words or more. When I cannot find it in me to be obsessed, I'm lucky to get a tenth of that, if at all.

3) I have great temptations to jump up and down and call boring stupid people names. Thank God I have been blessed with a great reduction in those temptations (or a great increase in temperamental fortitude)!

4) I am still easily distracted by snatches of conversation, bars of music, interesting books, the idea of food, the need to experiment. Some time ago, one of my younger acquaintances made a small and messy fire which was pretty much a disaster. The funny thing is that I completely understood why he did it, and I might have done it too at that age.

It's my conclusion, however, that ADHD as a description of a problem with the holistic physical state is a lousy description. There are nine descriptors in Part A. You have ADHD if you have six of those. Simple math tells you that this is (literally) dozens of possible versions of ADHD. I would prefer my grandfather's answer to why kids behave badly: "Because their parents do."

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Witch Mac?

Argh. I seldom, if ever, advertise software. But how could I ever have done without this?

I routinely open 5-10 windows in a given application because I'm a bit of a data juggler. Witch from Many Tricks is a very smooth, very useful application. Especially when you've opened a whole folder of PDFs to compare questions from the last ten exam cycles or something.

Highly recommended.



I was looking through this grand account a short while ago when I came across one particular post which reminded me briefly of the savannah and the smell of the wild and open lands. And through it all runs that immortal, omnipresent entity – the River.


The River runs through the Land. Huge herbivores wallow in the mud along its slower banks. This is the home of Hippo, the bulky eater of reeds. You find little birds grooming her. These little birds eat parasites and groom the mighty beast. The mighty creature booms lazily, a warning to nearby rivals and predators. Little hippo calves snuggle nearby, happy in the knowledge that big hippo will protect them out of pure genetic imperative.

The River gives rise to pools of water, pools of life and death. A herd of horned ruminants (springboks, wildebeest, whatever) is normally found at one of them. While the more paranoid and dutiful elements look out for a predator, the rest drink, demudifying themselves and remudifying themselves as the great spirit takes them. There may be a gazelle, sleek and graceful but ready to bolt at any opportunity; there might be a rugged old kudu or eland or gnu.

Eventually, though, you will face one of the Big Five (really, the Big Six, but one is almost extinct).

The African lion is the first on any list. The male of the species is a heavyweight, massing at least 180 kg and sometimes reaching a quarter-ton. Occasionally he is assisted by a junior male, and a large pride can have up to six males in it. Male lions defend territory but never hunt; the females form a cooperative sisterhood which hunts and nurtures the young. When you meet a male lion, with his distinctive mane and posture, recognize that his thoughts about you are: 1) Are you a threat? 2) How big a threat are you? 3) How do I dispose of this threat? – in that sequence. By 'threat', he means 'an entity which will take territory and food supplies from my pride'. However, if he thinks you are food and not a threat, he will leave you to the womenfolk.

The African elephant is famed for its huge ears and invulnerable appearance. The adult elephant is a grazer with an excellent sense of smell, but with poor sight and hearing. Predators take advantage of this fact to harass and kill the smaller elephants from the downwind zone. No serious animal predator goes for the adult; the record for an adult tusk mass is about 103 kg and each tusk is a deadly weapon somewhat akin to an entrenching tool on steroids. Remember that typical adult can weigh five tons or more.

The leopard is one of the Big Five by virtue of ubiquity. The most striking of the lot, it is an opportunistic hunter which goes after any prey presenting itself as somehow being injured or having lost its way. It isn't a very nice beast, or a very clever one, but it will drag down and kill smaller animals and be very happy about it. The leopard won't take on larger prey; it knows only too well the dangers of having to defend a kill after expending too much energy. The lion might just come along and appropriate the food without a struggle.

The buffalo is the fourth of these great animals. Massing 800 kg or so, this squat-looking monster ruminant with terrifying horns is actually surprisingly light on its feet. They're odd animals, being gregarious and able to form herds of non-productive singles. When unsettled, they become nocturnal. The main thing to note about the buffalo is that it gets angry, and when infuriated or injured, it will attempt to utterly destroy the perceived source of its discomfort. It takes little to infuriate one, and many hunters have shot and injured the buffalo without killing it – to their subsequent discomfort and eventual demise.

The last (two?) of the Big Five (Six?) is the rhinoceros. The rhino comes in two varieties. The black rhino would be extinct without the excellent care of national parks. It is small (well, only up to 1400 kg), shy, solitary and nocturnal – it is almost a ghost presence. It is secretive and will browse in bushy and wooded riverine areas, using its hooked lips to great effect as it selects, strips, and consumes various plant munchies. The white rhino is a far bigger and more common animal, massing up to 2500 kg and able to strip entire areas bare. The white will eat anything (and looks like it too) – it has a square jaw and a belligerent attitude. Both species are notable for their large nasal horn, a slashing and stabbing weapon which can be used to slice through vegetation or spear a predator.


I have always been enthralled by the idea of the veldt, the vast sea of grassy plains and the shrubby woodlands around them. The savannah to me is typified not so much by Kruger National Park, but by the Serengeti. Yet, it is neither. The idea of the huge tapestry of animals interacting in their vast and savage ecosystem is great enough for me. It echoes in my head.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves...

And other such lawless characters, I suppose. This is of course the title of Cher's hit song first sung (I think) in the 1970s, although my memory is, understandably, a bit hazy. But I heard it tonight on the radio, and something made me think of my schooldays.

I've written before about what people call 'attention deficit hyperactivity disorder'. Yes, I do suffer from it. According to DSM-IV-TR, that venerable and interesting tome in which you may find any form of mental oddness known to American humanity, I have ADHD – Predominantly Inattentive Type. ADHD-PIT. Dear me. Of course, it was worse when I was younger and suffered from every one of the symptoms listed.

But what are the symptoms I suffer from? I suffer from all nine of the symptoms listed in Part A:
  • does not give close attention to details and/or makes careless mistakes
  • has trouble keeping attention on tasks – yes, I have been known to fall asleep in meetings that are not stimulating my brain
  • often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly – yes, I've had to work on that, which is why I tend to stare deliberately at people who are talking to me
  • often does not follow instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions) – I'm notorious for this
  • often has trouble organizing activities – which is why one should always marry a spouse who can
  • often avoids, dislikes, or doesn't want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework) – heh, probably why I find it repugnant to inflict homework on people
  • often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools) – hence the need for shelves and organisers and spreadsheets and catalogues
  • is often easily distracted
  • is often forgetful in daily activities
Basically, I get bored easily. Tremendously, mind-numbingly bored. It has taken me 30 years to learn how to pay attention to people, and I still fall asleep in meetings. I even suffer from a few of the symptoms in Part B (as some of you know).

What does living with ADHD mean? Well, it's relatively easy to deal with through behavioural and pharmacological therapies (hence my interest in both). Most pharmacological therapy uses stimulants. I've found caffeine useful, and doctors have used amphetamines. The thing about stimulants is that they focus the mind, making it easier for the ADHD sufferer to pay attention in class and in general act normal. It doesn't make them much more physically 'hyper'.

And now we come to the controversial part: behavioural therapy. Well, everytime I was naughty I was caned. It made me very nimble, and more circumspect in my actions. The thing is that I wasn't beaten gratuitously, but enough to keep me focussed and aware of wrongdoing. When I got old enough to understand things, I learnt a few useful behaviours:
  • look at people who are talking to you
  • when you think people are boring you, do math in your head
  • smile a lot
  • sit down until you have written something or done one unit of work
  • organise things in boxes and with labels
  • write down lists of things to do and to buy (etc)
And so on. Very useful. I think the most important point for me is that ADHD could be beaten. I still took five years to complete my Master's degree (excuse: it was done part-time, haha), but I remember that in June 1999, just before the deadline, I wrote 30000 words in four days.

What does living with ADHD not mean? I learnt early on that being an ADHD sufferer was not a license to be rude, disruptive, violent, or discourteous. I was trained that way, with firm admonition and a few sharp strokes which marked but did not bruise me. These days, we tend to shy away from the 'hard' part of training, preferring to educate in some soft and human-respecting style. I think we should respect the fact that hard training, severe counsel, and pain are all important for the proper development of the individual. I learnt that way, and it made me better than I might have been.

Which brings me back to Cher, and Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. Here's the refrain to that song:

Gypsies, tramps, and thieves
We'd hear it from the people of the town
They'd call us gypsies, tramps, and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

As a student, I was called many things when young. 'Rogue' would probably have been one of the kinder and more decorous ones. I was a terribly disruptive kid in primary school. I was passive-aggressive from 12-13, then weird thereafter. I learned to restrain a tendency to violence by 15. After that, I think I was old enough to not show it, and having an effective brain was a bonus that helped me to disguise my inability to do work.

But for all you ADHD sufferers out there, just bear in mind: I was a hopeless student until I was about 30 years old. No wonder the Jews insist that manhood begins then. There is hope yet. All you have to do is work for it.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

A Sinister Dexterity

I was trundling around the workplace today when I noticed something decidedly sinister. The clients I was serving in one section were... hmm... displaying a preponderance of left-handed behaviour. I was intrigued. Was it a purely local phenomenon? Was the cosmic order under siege? I had to know more.


I was ruthlessly empirical about my next step. Yes, one had to design an hypothesis and gather relevant data to disprove it! (Note: data have been rounded to prevent allegations of security violation.)

Null hypothesis: there is no significant statistical difference between the proportion of left-handers in population A and that in population B. All come from the same demographics, and are indeed selected for this. Despite the fact that population A has n=250 and population B has n=100, there should be no difference in terms of proportion.

Data gathering procedure: clients were examined by visual means; this examination was then crosschecked once by observation of tool location, limb preference and digital behaviour when at rest.

Data and Data Processing:
  • Population A contained 20 LH plus one ambiguous out of 250, %LH = 8%
  • Population B contained 10 LH out of 90, %LH = 11.1%
This meant that the two populations had different proportions of left-handers. Ah, but was this statistically significant? How would you know?

I shall skip the subsequent steps and keep the conclusion to myself. It is safer that way.


At this point, it might be wise, lest I be overwhelmed by sinister forces, to say that I am the direct descendant, on both sides of my family tree, of ambidextrous people. It shows to this day: I play tennis left-handed, use my left hand when gathering information, use my right hand when transcribing or writing, use my left eye when aiming and under-use my right eye. All the tests I've taken so far place me as almost (if not exactly) halfway between left-brained and right-brained orientation (if these are valid descriptors at all). For fine work I use my left hand; for crude work I use my right. I can sketch with my left hand, but my right hand is aesthetically challenged. And so on.

Readers who can identify populations A and B, please note that a certain population C comprising about 10 individuals also contained 2.5 left-handers, for a %LH of 25%. Now, assuming that the three populations A, B and C are listed in order of mathematical ability (or preference for doing mathematics at a more rarefied level), which population do you think was most mathematically inclined?

Interesting what mental activity goes on when you have an ambidextrous mind...

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Sunday, September 16, 2007


It is hard to enunciate anything without vowels, although a thick Scots accent comes close in some cases. I remember Celine Dion singing that her heart would go on (and on and on and on to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars).

These two things eat at me sometimes. They don't irritate me, but they are things which are of interest. And they hardly ever come together. Except, today.

I don't think I am suffering from a splintered mind. I think I am suffering from an abbreviated heart.

My heart is normally large enough to give a space to almost anyone who needs or wants it, and even to those who don't believe that anyone would want to provide some. This is of course altogether different from the romantic ideal (or idyll, for the more romantic) of the single heart given to another – or else how on earth could we love the others we are supposed to love?

(It is unlike my mind, which operates under a different paradigm. I am known to give a piece of my mind even to people who do not want one (or have one of their own, poor things). My mind is clever. It regenerates what it has given away by transcriptive and descriptive crypto-cloning.)

But of late, with the heavy end of the last bright year descending, the whole thing is just a claustrophobic blackness which squeezes what's left of my heart into a lump the way the Scots accent squeezes what's left of your tongue into a haggis. It will pass. Of course it will. Yet, this is one of those times you just need to let go. You need to let it out and away. And over the sea to Skye.


No soy el hombre más piadoso ni más honesto, sino que soy un hombre valiente, said Captain Alatriste in the wonderful novels by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Not I a man most pious nor most honest, but I am a brave man. And that courage comes not by force of arms or force of will, not by passion or by mighty striving, but by the grace of God.

Ha. My heart will go on...

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Split II

And now I see, as if with blinding sight, what this poem really means. It must be about schizophrenia.

When I quote Dylan, last bard of Wales, these days, everyone thinks I mean Bob Dylan.

But death shall have no dominion.

An old classmate of mine died yesterday. At such times, we remember everything.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007


Today's local newspapers declared that 1 out of every 100 young people suffered from schizophrenia (from Greek schizo, 'I divide'; and phrenos, 'mind') - a 'shattered mind'. I am now driven by my inner workings to look around the place I work and try to identify the 30 or so people who (statistically speaking) must be schizophrenics (or should that be schizophrenes?)

Schizophrenia is an interesting condition. I am not so sure it is an illness, although it is certainly considered to be a bad thing in the world we live in. It is commonly defined as debilitating, with onset during adolescence and resulting in bad misperceptions of reality and of human social interaction. Some say it is an emotional disorder; most consider it a psychotic condition. Some of it seems treatable with drugs or surgery – there is certainly some physiological basis for it.

The reason it is interesting to me is that this is a condition which, as described, seems present in many who are otherwise considered intellectually or spiritually enlightened. They see things differently from other people, and are strongly fixed in their views. They are often amenable to listening to reason, but reason seldom shifts their deeply-engrained positions. People have theorised that schizophrenia accounts for hallucinations of the divine, and that many of the world's religious people who claim to hear God speaking to them are actually schizophrenic.

At 1 in every 100, this seems plausible. That's not to say that God can't speak to you, or that schizophrenia is a gift designed to make it easier for Him. Either position seems dangerous, limited, or... well, schizophrenic. But really, I don't see the fuss. It would make sense that if you want to be able to communicate with the world beyond, you'd want to install a broadband connection in your house. In the era that most people were using telephone modems at 56 kbps, broadband connections were considered a luxury; before that, when the maximum speed was about 14400 bps, broadband users were thought to be insane.

I need to think more about this. It's always good to see more than one side to a problem. Hrrrrm.

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Friday, September 14, 2007


Today was notable for two things.

The first thing was that, since sunset yesterday, my head has been echoing with the sound of the Tuba Mirum. Some of my more assiduous readers will recognize that this is possibly a bad thing, indicative of some creeping insanity visited upon the too-religious of this world. In fact, a month ago, I ended a post by quoting the words of the Dies Irae, the section which precedes the Tuba Mirum in the Requiem Mass.

It is a grand piece that has been booming slowly and majestically in my head. Translated from the Latin (more or less), it begins with:

The wondrous sound of the trumpet comes forth
Through the land of the graves;
It summons all before the throne.

I have no idea why this sequence is progressing thusly in my head. I can only hope that by the time my students graduate, it will have come to the end, with the "Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in æternum, quia pius es." For I should certainly hope that the eternal light shines upon them, the special ones forever, because He is merciful.

The second thing is that one of my former students had a quick chat with me while I was morosely having a rushed breakfast alone between invigilations. Said student's voice sounded odd amidst the thundering of the last trump, so I looked up. To my surprise, he thanked me for teaching him many years ago. (I had taught him the use of the Martial Voice, the Rhetorical Voice, and the Argumentative Voice. Also the kinds of debate, and how to be a gentleman in the course of a debate.) He remembered all of that, and he had been telling his own students about it. And recommending me to them!

I felt oddly shy, and perhaps a little wistful that those days were long gone. I said something about that. He looked at me, not very embarrassed, and replied with some very nice things. Then he wished me belated Teachers' Day happiness. I could have sworn my general immunity to extreme spiciness was malfunctioning. The chili in my food was making the sweat run down the side of my nose.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007


Today was all about ice-cream. I was looking at the literati doing their thing all over the virgin examination stationery (and thinking up words like 'invirgination', the process of introducing something as virgin which had not been thought of as such before - like Virgin Airlines), when it hit me. It's all about ice-cream.

Ice cream is a fairly uniform and hence exploitable matrix. It has been known a long time that making a semi-solid aggregate of ice and cream, sometimes with sugar and other ingredients, gives you something really delicious. It is hard (though not impossible) to make a disgusting ice-cream flavour, although it is possible to make many indifferent ones.

And that is really what novels are about. All novels have some sort of plot, characters, character development. They generally have a start and an end, no matter how disjointed and non-sequential. It is possible to have novels that don't look like novels, but that's just a disguise. A good novel, like a good gelato, has a savour at first taste, a depth that hits you with the continuation of the experience, and an aftertaste which lingers even when the last drop has vanished. It leaves you longing for more, and if someone said, "That was the last one that company ever produced," you would mourn.

The same can be said of poetry or drama, except that drama is more like an ice-cream that forces you to take it at its pace (not so much a gelato, as a sherbet). Poetry of course varies. I suspect that poetry comes first, like a raw material of expressed imagination, extruded onto the page or into the listening air. Pictures are as much a raw material too. Graphic novels combine both.

Occasionally, you get a short story. Short stories are sometimes like potato chips, individually remarkable or unremarkable, but it's hard to stop at one. Some are like chocolates. You can stop, but you might keep eating them till you feel sick.

If literature be the food of love, we're in for a torrid autumn and a terrifying winter.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Autumn Tests

A test.

Everything fails.

The greens turn amber, then red,
then brown and dead.

The flowers bloomed and fruited,
their seeds rooted.

Everything falls.


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Old Injuries

All of you have shoulderblades. The technical term for 'shoulderblade' is scapula, which means 'cloak' in Latin. Place your left hand on your right shoulder. You can feel the top of the shoulderblade, a bony lump where your arm connects. The topmost bony process is called the acromion.

If you feel around it, you will realise that it seems connected to the end of your collarbone. That's a good thing. Your collarbone is also known as the clavicle, which means 'small key' in Latin. The connection you feel is called the acromioclavicular joint. (Anatomical language is a lot like that, and if you want to be a doctor, you'll probably talk like that too.) But it means simply that it is the joint between the acromion and the clavicle.

Seasoned doctors call it the a/c joint, unless they want to impress younger colleagues and medically ignorant friends. Or patients. Yes, patients, which is where this story is heading. Please, be patient.

Here's a very short story. Patient used to play rugby. Accident. Extremely hard impact on the point of the a/c joint. Sudden blackout. Odd thing for the pale blue sky to do, that. It turned purple at the edges, and then black.

Later, one doctor would apply force against the ligaments holding the a/c joint together, just to find out what had happened. He learnt two things: 1) patient is very resistant to pain; and 2) patient had actually separated the two bones of the joint.

The patient learnt two things as well: 1) patient is very resistant to pain and even if not, he would never allow some two-bit torturer the pleasure of hearing him express that; and 2) exactly what patient's immediate maternal ancestor meant when she said, "If you get injured, no more rugby."

Patient took six months to recover. He learnt two very important facts that would stay with him all his life: 1) it is hard to change clothes, sleep, or do many other things with only one mobile arm; and 2) girls can be very kind to an injured boy.

Patient didn't get much out of that season. One bronze medal. Three sets of torn ligaments. 22 years of shoulder pain in cold weather. And the determination to do lots of chin-ups, just to prove that he could.

Later on, the myalgia would balance the nostalgia. He would consider this a blessing. And he would smile each time it hurt, for pain is a reminder of sensation, life, mortality and love.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Ho. I got home, turned on my network, and BANG! FIZZT. Smoke plumed outward and upward from my cable modem.

Three hours later, it's been replaced. Moral of the story: do not use components for 12 years in a row without refurbishment or regeneration in part or in whole.

Costly in time (though not money), that. I am now bound to the service provider for two years. Representative of said service provider was astounded that I had brought in this museum piece and also that somehow I had not been under contract for ten years. I got the replacement free.


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An Educational Sentence

Yes, I must say that the day just passed was educational.

I read two poems. The first was Billy Collins's brilliant black-on-white crowsight poem, Winter Syntax. The second was the very naughty exposé of education by Thomas Lux (it would be a wonderful irony if this were his pseudonym, really, but it isn't – I checked), To Help The Monkey Cross The River.

It was amazing to see people toil over the poems, striving hard to say something about them, and thus fulfilling both. Like a traveller in winter, the words eventually came to their (sometimes) illuminating end. Sometimes, it was more like a suspended sentence. And always, one got the sense that if you fired a few bullets (metaphorically) behind them, the arduous crossing of the river would be accomplished apace.

I don't think anyone wants comments now, except maybe Ken. D'ye ken it, then? Heh. Maybe not.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Mundane Aspects Of Daily Life

Get up early get up early oh why on earth it's only four o'clock thirsty thirsty slowly carefully can't wake anyone else up and drink and why can't I taste anything oh it's only water and not wine this is a negative miracle back to bed back to bed...

It's six o'clock really yes it's six o'clock she wakes me up by sitting on my legs until I am sure I exist and there is a weight at one end of me and surely that's the load-bearing end and not the loaded end brush those furry teeth I am sure were not furry after I brushed them after dinner last night but furry now and don't forget to shave you'll be late no I won't it is seven twenty am and I will just about make it why were you up so late last night I was finishing up some work for a student it's always the students isn't it no no no sometimes it's just me...

Walk fast walk fast heh not so bad for an old man oh please you're not old yes I am my feet are hey they are not killing me after all and here we are on the first shift of the invilating day and we give out five sheets of paper someone snorts is that all young people these days can't write for peanuts and I think to myself well obviously young people in those days also and hey this is an extraordinary batch you might be surprised...

Oh here they are filing in looking apprehensive and some bored and and some just looking forward to it and you have to check their pencilcases just in case they are smuggling explosives I always feel kind of silly doing this and already she puts up her hand and wants more paper and I think to myself might as well give her more she's capable of using it anyway and she looks morose and she looks chirpy and she over there looks as if the sky has grown another eye...

And he gives me that mischievous smile I have known for years and he gives me that manic smile I have known as well and he looks all business and he is going to say the pledge and the other he over there is just waiting to respond to the examination questions you can see it in the way he handles his pencilcase...

There is only so much you can do in five minutes but some people are very good at using their five minutes gently now do not disturb do not break the slender thread of consciousness of concentration of critical appraisal oh my goodness they chose that poem of all things the winter syntax of a monkey crossing the river it all blurs together...

Breakfast noodles new crop of dynamic powerful super overachieving chili padi sliced thin each one is a ring of fire that erupts several times over your continental palate by the time you finish you realise that today is a hell of a day and all of it is exciting and yet isn't this what a day is supposed to be...

Back into the fray recharged it is so long and yet it is only the first paper and this huge group is already almost almost almost already done and you collect the papers amused at how it is in this age of nuclear energy and HDTV people still tie scripts with string as if intricately they tie the knots of their lives in the tapestry of the fates and here you are even more amused that you are genuflecting or something on your knees at the front of the great hall like a monastic ascetic and you wonder if anyone notices the...

It is the end of the day someone noticed well it wasn't that bad a day for being on your knees and aware that without prayer nothing really can be done and even then you have to believe else what do you think will happen?

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Severely Weekend

One week.
18253 words.
42 pages of stuff.
Excluding the marking.
Excluding the references.
Excluding the internal assessments.
These are the statistics.
Watch them grow.

One face.
Six pimples.
Nine white hairs.
A shaver gone berserk; two cuts.
40 minutes to a replacement.
Really close shave.

One Lord.
One faith, one baptism.
One week gone by, not so bad.
Life, going on despite the chaos.
Madness flows past.
I am whole.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Vox Urbana

Two years ago, I ran a poetry workshop for a bunch of teenagers. By accident, I opened a folder and... here it all is. Or whatever remains of it. I present to you...

A Wilderness of Stone and Steel


“In the vacant places / We will build with new bricks.” T S Eliot, The Rock (1934)


The urban landscape has features which no other landscape has in abundance – throngs of people, the roar of commerce, the tall houses and great towers of the mighty all jostling side by side with the raggedness of the poor and indifferent, vehicular transport and, everywhere, the condition of humanity (both good and evil) concentrated and distilled into gleaming diamonds. Just as settings highlight diamonds, so too the urban landscape highlights the human spirit.


Hard, rough-edged words dominate: ‘concrete’, ‘slum’, ‘dirt’. Where the city is lyrical, it is like the flow of traffic along a major artery – and where it is evocative, it is full of smoke, rain, darkness, and hot metal. Urban life is gritty; it is full of lumps, bumps, contractions and contradictions. Stress, shortness of time and breath and space, all cry out beneath the broad sweep of the steel sky. It is here that ‘one’ is the loneliest number; it is also here that all languages become one.


She looked at me, an old woman; her face was a map of all her days. If you traced the veins back to her heart, you would know all her descendants and their lives. The young man with her was her grandson; his language of choice was not hers and his calling was one she admired, but did not understand. To him, life was stainless steel and antiseptic and translucent plastic which one threw away after use; to her, life was old wood and incense and bright oranges on a cold day.


They passed each other by, they passed by each other every day. He was a man of the briefcase, she was a lady of the towers. They rode in parallel elevators to the 57th floor. They lunched in adjacent restaurants. They were equally kind, equally ignorant of genuine suffering, equally devoted to the urban sprawl. They would have loved, their love would have resounded throughout all generations. But they never met, and love, hovering and waiting, was disappointed.


What is the vocabulary of urban poetry?

Urban poetry is the combined voice of buildings, industry, and people. Traffic roars and the people move in tides across the city and back again, from sunrise to sunset and beyond.

How does a building speak? If it did, what would it say? What are the songs of machines, roads, and streetlights? What rough music does the daily grind of the workplace produce?

Urban poetry, the vox urbana, attempts to see into the spirit of the city. It evokes every passion of stone and the grittiness of tar, all ruthlessly exposed by the white glare of old lamps and the blue flash of MRT safety lights.

And most of all, it is the voice of faceless humanity, brought together by the forces of economic necessity and historical destiny to perform roles which nobody fully understands.

The vocabulary of urban poetry is therefore the language of city people, the sounds of traffic and machinery, dirt, steel, and windows. It creates lines like:

In restless dreams I walked alone
On narrow streets of cobbled stone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned 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…”

Paul Simon, The Sound of Silence

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Numbering The Days

There are 114 days left in this year. The day after that 114th day, I become eligible for some enhanced benefits. Things come due. I will have served the state for long enough. That day will be 1 January 2008.

Many of those I have served have asked me this question (or variants thereof): "So, will you stay on in harness after that?"

To the older ones who should know better, I have said the obvious things: there are few who can serve as I have, and fewer who will; I have a greater stake in the fortunes of the apparatus than some of the apparatchiks; I have enough to not care how little I am paid (save that I have enough for giving); nobody is indispensable, but some are pensionable; and I really have no interest in playing silly games like 'treat me better or I will quit'. I live for the challenge of my gifts, and that is really it.

To the younger ones who cannot know better, because of the accident of their youth, because they have no access to relevant knowledge, I will say the less obvious things: simplicity is not a gift, but a cultivated state of mind; service is the natural state of the gifted – and all have some gift(s); senility is not a necessary consequence of time; intelligence is merely the ability to pay attention and craft understanding; spoonfeeding is for babies. I love my students; they are the future and I am not.

I am going for a long journey someday. This I know to be true. But before I go, I must do a few more things. Here is a link to a poem that might help. It is one of the greatest human works of all the years. To save time, I will quote part of it that I seldom quote:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

My ancestors never really retired; God took them in their elder prime and I trust that I will follow too that way. I was brought up in the spirit of the last few lines of this poem (you might see them scrolling by below, if your browser works that way). Go and read, if you will.

Who am I? Is that a valid question for a time like this? I am fortunate; I am blessed at least that I can answer the question, "Who am I not?" The answer is here, in yet another great poem of the age:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

At the end of the play, when the great are ended too, what is left but to applaud the playwright? And perhaps, give thanks that you had a part at all.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Spreadsheets In Love

This is a part of my life that sometimes seems silly, a little bit unreal, a little bit odd even to me now. But sometimes you learn things that nobody believes. And so this post is one I make knowing that it will not be believed, and that really, I am free.

It concerns the process and practice of loving, and learning what is not love, and what is. It concerns the making of bonds, and the discovery that whatever bond was formed in ages past, it no longer exists. And perhaps, it is about discernment and the use of computers.


I was once eighteen and full of it. It's something sublethal that happens to most boys. For it is true (although we don't learn how true till we are twice that age) that our physical and mental powers are in full bloom at that age. You will never eat so much again, you will never recover so quickly from injury, as when you are in that magical zone from about 17 to 23. And the peak of it all is 18.

I had been dating (well, those social engagements fraught with peril and silliness that we called 'dates' were part of it) since I was fourteen. And one day, it was more than four years later, and I sat down with an old computer named 'Ancient Eric' and tried to work out, with a spreadsheet and about 256k of memory, what it was that made some of my relationships last longer and some last a lot shorter.

No surprises. I used many parameters, but only a few seemed statistically significant at all. And here, to my everlasting regret and consternation (mixed with a little personal triumph and perverse happiness), are the empirical results.

The most important predictor seems to be socioeconomic compatibility. That seems mercenary, materialistic even. But it turns out to be true for various reasons: people with the same SES live in similar areas, come from similar backgrounds, talk about similar things and know the same people. I had relationships which were far more stable when the SES was within about one standard deviation of mine. It's important to remember that religion is sometimes part of SE compatibility too.

The next most important predictor is time spent in communication. I used to log all my phonecalls, my face-to-face talk and walk time, stuff like that. It's obviously true that time spent together, in which actual communication occurs, helps a relationship develop (whether for good or bad). In fact, the act of recording these things makes you more aware of them. That's always good. It's a habit I maintained deep into married life.

And the third, and least significant of the most significant, is the number of times a week that you say nice things to each other which are specific and meaningful and... randomly distributed, I think. It helps, but it isn't as powerful as the first two. But it's good to make a habit of it.


At this point, a number of you will say, "All this is common sense, we don't need you to tell us that, and besides, God's will prevails (or something like that)." I guess my point is that I was gathering empirical data. God does tend to pick winners, and the winners have some correlations somewhere. Where He picks really odd couples, we notice because they are unusual and don't fit the normal correlations. They're outliers, and special cases. They don't perturb the data much.

I collected 43 sets of data. I got my friends to give me more input. I started on sociological research when I was pretty young, I think. And human nature remains (more or less) constant over the generations. Some day I will tell you more about that. But for now, this is all I have to say.

And of course, I am sure no one will believe me anyway. Heh.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

$FF: A Node To Autumn

This verse in solemn memory of John Keats
In case he turns beneath the island streets.


Today we write about this island land.
We write and write until we understand
About white men and whiter who have planned
Our island destiny carved out from sand,
Our chaos mastered by a single brand
Controlled by some clever doctrinal gland.
Now we have found the many rhymes with 'and'
Let us restart and do the work at hand.


We live within the tropic zone of heat
Where seasons blend into a single haze
Neither too cold nor comfortably neat;
Seasonless we, unseasoned all our days.

Sometimes it rains; this too we must endure,
Our iron rusts beneath the wet abuse.
Such times it spawns within the deep verdure
The fragrant stench of enervate refuse.

Most times it chunders on in blissful damp
Neither like hell nor purgatorial friend;
Life here does not impose too great a cramp
Upon the lifestyles which we do subtend.

We have descent from proud Oriental line,
Our fathers wrought from coolie status this:
A pleasure-dome of rigorous design
Which shows what was, and can be, also is.

And ending here we must defy the odds
To mention not as most parochials would
Some tribute mighty to the leeward gods
Who from our fathers took what praise they could.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Autumn Tides

I am an empirical observer, in part. While other parts of me are magic-realist or metaphysical, there is part of me that sees and writes. And after the empiricist has seen and written, the thinker thinks. The last act is that of the bricoleur, the part of me that pieces the thought-fragments together into a narrative.

This is one such narrative. One of those stories which is like a folktale: sparsely true if at all, and truly sparse.


I was a reverse immigrant once. When I reached the old country, I saw hope and vision, and many young people who were willing to help build it into a new country. I worked hard and I was good and bright and creative, and so were they. And all of us were rewarded and we grew in our powers, and we made bridges and communities and towns upon the landscape.

And then the Blight came. It was not a very obvious blight, just rust and dust and a smut upon the leaves. My brothers and sisters, full of light and talent and raw mastery and great heart, they began to feel the shadow upon them. We encouraged each other of course, as siblings do. But one by one, the Blight marked us.

It is the way of all grand endeavours, that there are periods of great revival and of headlong descent. We were young and we did not see this. Eldest brother marked the time, but he had no answer, and no solution. He said, "If we are clever, we will survive. But we cannot be too clever." (Ah well, he still survives. One day they say he might be king.)

My eldest sisters were clever, and passionate, and did a lot of work. They made new houses and mills. And one day they were taken away. Eldest brother nodded wisely and said, "They were too clever. They will be made to do work elsewhere." And he stroked his beard.

My elder brothers were machines. They made great show of their powers, or they made great powers show, and they were idealistic and cynical and mighty in the land. But they grew tired at last, and their wives nagged them, and nagged them, and nagged them, and they went to other places too. And very quickly, there were few of us left.

There were only a few aunties and uncles of the old time, who had never left, and thus never returned. They kept things working, but not much else. They were good at cleaning up the mess, and making things work normally. But they were not so good at new things.

And suddenly, when I looked around, I saw my brothers and sisters had fallen. Some had become like the aunties and uncles, some looked wistfully at the other lands where our other brothers and sisters had gone. And I, who was once young and hopeful and bright and creative, was no longer so.

Now, I sit in the town square I helped to build. My hands are old; they shake, spilling coffee (what a waste!) on the dirty stones. I have some young cousins, from other lands, the Ausländer types. They will build new coffee shops and maybe mills and houses. But my time is done. Nobody knows me.

The children gather round to hear my stories sometimes. They never believe them. Because, of course, they are wise and my stories are not true.

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Nine Muses

When I was a little boy, I used to sing that verse of The Twelve Days of Christmas that had nine ladies dancing and wonder why such a heathen image was used in a Christmas carol. The ten lords a-leaping who followed were a mystery but, to me, the nine ladies were the nine Muses (Greek Μοῦσαι), the patron goddesses of the classical arts. To me, 'amusement' was what happened when you availed yourself of a Muse, and 'bemusement' what happened when she availed herself of you. 'Musings' of course were what a person did when thinking with (or of) one's Muse, and a 'museum' was where artifacts dedicated to the Muses were displayed. I always knew the Muses were the daughters of Thought and Memory.

Wrong, of course, very wrong, as far as some of my teachers taught. But here I shall speak of at least nine Muses, and you shall be my judges (or critics, as the Greeks would have said).


Beautiful Voice is the first of the Muses, and she is goddess of the epic and the heroic. The sagas are hers, and the heroes therein. Quest and travail, enormous odds and fire and steel and the sinking of ships, the last stand and the first charge, these are the things of this Muse. To mortals she presents herself as an innocent, ever a girl, ever incorruptible. But a look into her eyes will tell you that she has seen all epics from beginning to end, and glory has a darker side. So has she.

Heavenly Lady is the second of the Muses, and she is goddess of the astronomical and astrological. The music of the spheres and the inspiration of the stars are hers. The far look which goes beyond the immediate material of reality, the philosophical inquisition which man deploys against the universe, these are the things of this Muse. To mortals she is ethereal, someone not quite with us, but always supportive of our outward-going endeavours into the unknown.

Recounter of Tales is the third of the Muses, and she is goddess of the stories of our lives. The daily journal and the common affairs of humanity are hers. History and reportage, cold wars and hot tempers, the deeds of the man in the street and the demagogue in the assembly, these are the things of this Muse. To mortals she is a child, ever young, but severe. She brooks no sloppiness, for the account must always be as true as it can be, whether it is a tale of the powerful or of the poor.

Flourishing Stem is the fourth of the Muses, and she is goddess of the happy and comic. The bawdy ballad and the rustic joke, the funny song and limerick are hers. For her, the feast-hall is always full; it is full with the abundance of warmth and hospitality, of humour and irrelevance, which are the things of this Muse. To mortals she is a farmgirl, a wild sweet thing with a hefty clout. She carries the mask of the laugher, the wreath of the drunkard, the staff of the shepherd, and little else.

Inspiring Loveliness is the fifth of the Muses, and she is goddess of love-songs and poetic lovers. The urge to celebrate beauty (in words, music, dance – and more!) is hers. The breaking of hearts and the winning of them, the line which speaks affection and the one which speaks of affliction, these are the things of this Muse. To mortals she is beautiful, slightly teasing, mature; she is not obviously experienced, but she is a deep one. Experience her works at your peril!

Delightful Dancer is the sixth of the Muses, and she is goddess of the dance and the chorus. The dance-hall and the grand ballet, the lyrical strivings of bodies and voices, are hers. Gatherings in which movement of sound and of body are exchanged, and all who see are swept up in it, these are the things of this Muse. To mortals she appears driven, her long hair windswept without being wild. She is alive in the little stirrings and the broad movements, always in motion.

Pleasantly Delighting is the seventh of the Muses, and she is goddess of music and the orchestra. The concert and the instruments are hers, as are all those who dedicate themselves to music. Scoring and melody, rhythm and beat, counterpoint and technique, these are the things of this Muse. To mortals she appears a little whimsical, a little too interested in mechanisms and techniques, a difficult and intelligent woman to court; yet, she can be passionate as well.

Many Songs is the eighth of the Muses, and she is goddess of the sacred and the unusual. Geometry and mime are hers, and yet so are the oratorio and the rite of agriculture. It is hard to tell what the things of this Muse are, but where you will find hidden structure, intricacy and a love of invention, so too you will find her. To mortals she dresses plainly, and appears unremarkable. Yet she is lovely, with a terrible beauty which can be seen only out of the corner of the eye.

Sweet Singer is the ninth of the Muses, and she is goddess of melodious invention and tragedy. Those plays that end with everyone dead, those songs which will not leave your mind, are hers. A moment that is bittersweet, two lovers parting forever, young hopes crushed, these are the things of this Muse. To mortals she appears tall and elegant, soft of voice but sharp of tongue. She seems approachable, and even willing to chat; but she will never be yours, nor anybody else's.


I know people who resemble these. I know that these resemble people. But one should remember that girls are girls, and goddesses are goddesses. We respect what we do not understand, and welcome (very cautiously) that which we do. And for all good things that these archetypes represent, we give thanks.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Nokia Owen Hopkins: A Triptych

Here are three extracts. They have two main things in common. Discuss.

There's a thing in my pocket.
But it’s not one thing – it’s many.
It’s the same as other things but exactly like nothing else.
It has an eye and an ear that shares what billions hear and see.
It’s not a living thing but if you feed it, it will grow.
It can speak a thousand words but it has no voice.
It can rally the masses; it can silence a crowd.
It can find you places so you can get lost.
It can go out and get without getting out.
And, it can let others feel what you’ve just been touched by.
There’s a thing in my pocket but it’s not one thing: it’s many.


Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.


I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
   dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
   As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
   Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

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