Thursday, January 31, 2008


I have seen the evil that power brings. The stickler for rules becomes a fascist dictator; the literate teacher becomes a master of the poisonous phrase. Power is a force multiplier. It makes a normal response into a disproportionate one. If that response is a charitable one, then the blessings are great; if that response is loveless, then hatred is the fruit.

Pray for those in authority over you, the Good Book says. My knees will be broken from the prayer that is needed.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Word of the Day: Devoir

This is a rare word in English. The idea of devoir stems from medieval French, in which it connotes a duty to be carried out as a token of respect, whether from a superior to an inferior or vice versa. Perhaps one of the more common contexts in which I have seen this word is the motto, "Simple dans ma vertu, forte dans mon devoir." It is the motto of several religious orders, and can be found emblazoned on the crests of many Catholic schools and convents.

The phrase is often translated, "Simple in virtue, steadfast in duty." This translation is pretty good, as such things go, but I think it sometimes hides three key elements. The first is that 'simple virtue' is not as simple as it seems; the 'simple' here means 'without artifice or complication'. Perhaps the best way to think of it is to read Ecclesiastes 7:29, which says as if in counterpoint, "Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions."

The second is that 'forte' does indeed imply a kind of staying power, but it also can imply dynamic strength. 'Forte' has been translated as 'strong' in many texts, and 'strong in my devotion' is as good a translation as any – which brings us to the third point, and back to devoir.

Devoir is that service which is owed for reasons of respect. It is as much the duty of the inferior to serve the superior as it is the reverse. What irks me a great deal is to see this balance destroyed by superiors who forget that 'administration' means 'service'. To speak of an 'administrative service' is to speak with redundancy, for what else should administrators do but serve? I can only say that if the Golden Rule is a statement of eternal justice (or even if it is merely one of ethical philosophy), then many who act as lords and masters have a lot of unpleasantness coming their way.

This is because those who fail in devoir will fall into calumny for their gross negligence. Best then, that we all learn to respect one another, with that sense of devotion that comes from every person's human duty. For the third point really is that the motto makes it personal: it is my virtue, it is my devoir — mine, yours, and that of every blessed one of us all.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Word of the Day: Afanc

I think the sheer horror of the vasty deep, of all that is cold and wet and old and dead and ought to be buried, but isn't, can be hidden in the many visions that this word can evoke.

The afanc is a Celtic horror, one of the many ghastly terrors conjured up by this race of poets and dreamers and bards. In the older legends (or at least those forged by that master of the tall tale, Iolo Morganwg), it is a demonic presence of scales and slime and watery doom that roars forth from mist-wreathed Welsh lakes to consume (or at least panic, drown and otherwise frighten) the unwary and the unprepared. Arthur himself is supposed to have driven away the physical presence from Llyn Barfog, the Bearded Lake.

Sadly, like most legends, this one has dwindled over time. Modern Welsh uses afanc to mean 'beaver'. How art the mighty fallen, and with what a big splash too.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

General Mottos: There's Always Room For One More

I remember being young and eighteen. And at that age, we gorged on buffet spreads a lot. The best was Parrots Café, in the old Marco Polo Hotel on Grange Road. You could eat anything (and sometimes, it seemed like everything) in the course of a pleasant afternoon for only ten bucks.

Our motto in those days was, "There's always room for one more." What a marvellous thought!

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Kennedy Criterion

One of the touchstones of American presidential nomination in the last 50 years or so has been the likeness of the candidate to that Democratic icon, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It has never been easy, least of all for the relatives of that historical figure, to come out from under his shadow. That shadow is as long now as it was then, for legends behave that way.

Enter Caroline Kennedy in the New York Times, writing on Senator Barack Obama.

I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.

I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.

It is a powerful shot. It is much more powerful than saying, "You're not earnest enough, Mr Principal." It can certainly be compared to Lloyd Bentsen's famous retort, which made Dan Quayle look completely out of his depth. And it could spell the difference between a Clinton candidacy and an Obama one. If the luck of the Irish rides the storm out to the end, then the senator from Illinois might want to start spelling his surname O'Bama.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

General Mottos: Mundus Vult Decipi

This is a Latin motto made famous by James Branch Cabell. It means, "The world wants to be deceived." I saw a lot of that today. There were some blatant lies and some not so blatant lies. And the audience loved it all.


Friday, January 25, 2008

General Mottos: Mediocrity Hates Excellence

This is too true. I see it everywhere. And you know what? Mediocrity will delude itself a hell of a lot so that it can justify this hatred and call it something else.


Thursday, January 24, 2008


My comrade Il Duce today gave an interesting lecture on Art. He maintained that Art is essentially a contrivance designed to elicit response on one, some, many or any levels. It has a duty to attempt this feat and must be respected insofar as it makes this attempt. It must be respected as the Other or as an evocation of the Other. However, it need not respect any particular respondent. This is a very useful definition.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I was walking through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain. In the desert, you can't remember your name, and there ain't no one to give you no pain.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Kings & Ashes

From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.
– J R R Tolkien

It's been thirty days of night here at Zombie Central and we have smelled the exhaust of the passing of brimstone and the velocity of the fall. You shall know them by their redundant meticulation and the razor ice of their cold and barren wombs. We have won not by might nor by power but by the spirit and everyone is humbled, you can feel it by the fire of the light.

Maybe, maybe, maybe it is time for a new wave. Fluctuat nec mergitur, we shall surf and not be serfs, we shall ride and not be ridden, we shall be a wild hunt and a brave one. And the armies of memory, the hosts of twilight, they shall be with us, and the past shall win a glorious victory. For the best is yet to be.

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Monday, January 21, 2008


My senses are insufficient. I don't know the people I work with anywhere as well as I knew the previous lot. And that leads to me being less sensitive than I ought to be. It's hard. From people you've worked with 2, 4, 6 years continuously – to people you've seen for a bit and worked with hardly at all. I feel blind, deaf, dumb.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Plan: Part I – Criterion 1 Situational Appraisal (Reprise)

When I wore a younger man's shoes, as the song goes, I had an odd ambition. I wanted to one day become somebody like my school principal; someone with a sense of rightness, a systematic and deliberate approach to planning, a keen feel for the true priorities in life, the ability to deliver morning devotions every day without repeats or loss in quality, the ability to speak his mind in flawless and considered prose. He was an inspiration, and in his usual deliberate way, he set out to share that with us.

I remember how he would always support the head prefect in public, and speak with him man-to-man in private. I remember that he dealt with all men as equals, with secular regard for their positional status and with respect only for their character. Yet, he assumed that there was always good to be gained from people, to be drawn out from them – and that was the essence of education, that drawing out of virtue to a place and state of being where it would become character.

He used to summon individuals with problems and difficulties for quiet chats in his office, where face to face across a covered desk, he would interrogate them as to their well-being and prospects. He was never one to flinch from debate, but always one to be generous and kind. You could sit and watch him spin a problem slowly in his hands as he looked up at the ceiling. You knew he was trying his best to do the right thing in the right way. He was that kind of man.

I remember him saying to a teacher, "You're a graduate! You should be able to learn things for yourself!" Yet he held us all to a code of learning from others, no matter who or what they seemed to be. And he would always ask us to test what we had learnt, and to be a man about it, fearless, exact, courteous. It did not rule out 'intimidating' or 'sharp' or 'sarcastic' – but he was at pains to stress that this was not the aim, but a side-effect which we should try to ameliorate.

The other day he spoke, and someone near me who had never known him said, "That's how a principal should sound." Indeed. I have often gone back to visit him in his office, for he has never retired despite being into his eighth decade. And every time I speak with him, I know that he is my principal, and with a leader like that, anyone would do better than they otherwise would.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Plan: Part I – Criterion 4 Situational Appraisal

Today I sat in a large and beautiful lecture theatre listening to some excellent speakers who knew what education was all about. One statement in particular caught my ear: "If we could deliver an excellent education in a shophouse with 13 students, we can deliver an excellent education regardless of physical immensity and grand buildings, because an excellent education has less to do with the quality of the buildings than with the quality of the teachers."

I have many thoughts passing through my headspace now. One of them is: there is something about certain people which makes them inspiring and powerful mentors. Some people lack it, and they will never have it.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

King Fischer

Robert James Fischer (1943-2008) was the least expected of proxy cold warriors in an age of confrontation. When he became the first American world chess champion in 1972 by beating the Russian world champion Boris Spassky in Iceland's capital of Reykjavik, he began a whole new era of professionalism in chess and heralded an age of daring and innovative chessboard manoeuvres.

I remember learning to play chess in 1971 and being totally consumed by the frenzy of the Candidates matches and the clash of the titans in Iceland. I followed every rare news article with avid attention, and played through almost every game of the match with my grandfather. Fischer was the ultimate development of Capablanca and Nimzovich as far as his era was concerned. He brought life and convincingly dramatic struggle to the chessboard.

Bobby Fischer died of unknown causes some hours ago in the Reykjavik which brought him global acclaim. Rest in peace, old friend.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008


It is midnight and there is light everywhere in the mineral fragrance of the rain.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Plan: Part I – Criterion 3 Situational Appraisal

The staffing of a school is always important. If the human resource department is doing its job, staff are recruited in an open and transparent process which is effective at bringing in quality at rates which are competitive both for the employer and employee. Once recruited, staff develop high morale, perform well in open appraisal, are acknowledged by their colleagues for their successes and contributions, and have access to all necessary training.

This state is maintained by careful needs analysis, interviews which are constructive and open-ended, and developmental sessions which are helpful and non-threatening. This state is improved by fulfillment of training needs in a convenient and effective way, genuine team-building, proper acculturation and mentoring processes that are directed and helpful.

A negative state is often indicated, created or maintained by several obvious things. These include low but persistent unhappiness, lack of financial support, dysfunctional teams, uninspiring management or leadership, closed or opaque processes for evaluation and appraisal, and excessive effort for minimal returns in terms of acknowledgement and bonuses. A high staff turnover rate, say in excess of 5%, is also a pretty obvious indicator.

A simple question can be asked, which if answered truthfully, will reveal the perceived staff quality at all levels: "Would you recommend your immediate superior/subordinate/cubicle neighbour for a promotion in grade?" The fewer positive answers are received, the worse the situation; conversely, if everyone says yes, either they all have no clue or they are all happy with the existing quality. In any case, positive returns should mean that the school has reached steady state in morale.

Negative answers are more useful because they reveal what can be done to improve the school as a whole. In general, any problems with staff morale, welfare, competence and ability should be examined carefully to see if related school processes are inadequate or lacking. Staff should be happy, healthy, effective and clever. Sometimes, a relative lack in one of these traits as compared to the rest is enough to cause problems. The HR department must be perceptive and handle this as best as they can. At the same time, it is probably the principal or CEO of the institution who has the greatest part to play.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Plan: Part I – Criterion 2 Situational Appraisal

It strikes me that quite often, success is a matter of throwing time, effort and resources at a problem until the mission objectives are achieved. The question of sustainable success or elegance in success requires a different solution.

For example, having bottomless pockets may allow a football club to have the best pick of available players, but having managerial intelligence allows another football club to grow the best players. In the predominant worldview, the first club is the grand success; the second is a qualified success, and that most often described in faint praise.

This idea can be somewhat generalised to schools; some schools will always have a large hinterland and the luxury of advantages in time, space, men, money and machines. With the pick of the available population, it would be a surprise if they achieved less than they do.

But let's just suppose that some of these schools are Catholic or Protestant mission schools. Surely their success should be measured in terms of the quality produced with the most effective, most efficient, most human policies and stratagems. There is something pretty unethical, perhaps immoral, about such an institution solving its problems by continually expending vast amounts of filthy lucre. It smacks of the golden calf, the den of thieves, the love of money and the prestige which that money buys.

The counterargument might sound like this: Our mission is to produce students with properties X, Y and Z; in order to do this, we must use methods which produce better results than secular agencies A, B and C. We are therefore being good stewards of the blessings of God when we spend His money copiously, because it is a trade of Caesar's gold for God's kingdom.

It sounds pretty reasonable. But I don't think that the kingdom of God can be bought with silver and gold (although of course treachery can be paid for in silver). Perhaps it is better to focus on the careful examination of means and methodology through the spiritual lens, counting the cost in human kindness, justice and mercy. The gross exertion of effort without serious thought, coupled with the gross expenditure of money without spiritual guidance, leads to the gross capitulation of an organisation to the subtle charms of the world.

Even in the secular world, it is unusual to find ethical and successful organisations which lack transparency, resort to case-by-case analysis with unclear guidelines, and are bereft opf detailed after-action reporting. The overall picture of an ethical and successful organisation is normally one which takes pains to analyse its successes and failures with full and transparent internal auditing, research, and both quantitative and qualitative evaluation.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Word of the Day: Giaour

'Giaour', quite apart from its usefulness in Scrabble (where it can dispose of four vowels otherwise quite hard to get rid of at once), is a word with deep connotations. It is found almost exclusively in the region between the Indus and the Eastern Mediterranean, which argues for its Indo-Aryan origin, possibly in some proto-Sanskrit language.

It's interesting to me because it means 'fire-worshipper' (i.e., Zoroastrian), 'man of strength', and sometimes 'infidel'. From a Persian term for a religious personage, to a cultural term implying 'heathen' or 'heretic', to a word implying 'most horrible kind of offender against our faith' seems to be a fairly short journey.

It is interesting to essay a journey in the opposite direction: Turkish giaour = 'infidel (Christian or Greek)' to Persian gaur (or gavr or gabr) = 'fire-bearer' to Hebrew gabr = 'man (young, strong as an ox)' to Bengali gaur = 'ox'. It almost corresponds with the symbolic transformation of 'fire' to 'horns' to 'power' to 'man of influence' found elsewhere.

What an odd little word!

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Plan: Part I – Criterion 1 Situational Appraisal

Every organisation needs a plan, as Nodachi and I were talking about over the last few weeks. Coincidentally, as I was visiting the Great Powers at their little base far away from the White Tower, I bumped into a little book by John C Maxwell. Yes, there are many books by John C Maxwell, and I've read many of them in my career, but this one struck a chord.

As a leader, what kind of people are in your inner circle? That was one of the questions Maxwell posed in that book. He said a few interesting things:
  1. If the organisation is to grow, the leader has to develop his inner circle.

  2. If the leader doesn't develop his inner circle, the organisation will stop growing effectively and efficiently – although it may continue to grow in size and in terms of accretions.

  3. If this happens, the leader is not being a leader.

  4. Hence, true leadership involves the correct development of the inner circle.

  5. And therefore, you can predict the future direction of an institution by looking at this inner circle.

So, what kinds of people should be in a leader's inner circle?
  • People who are always improving themselves in terms of effectiveness and ability – self-starters

  • People who are always improving the organisation in the same way – change managers

  • People who are able to improve others likewise – mentors

  • People who are able to improve the leader himself, by giving honest feedback – mirrors

  • People who are going to develop all the other kinds of people – leaders

It is interesting to use this list as a rating guide for any institution that you might be in. If all five are not present, the inner circle is incomplete.

Too many leaders surround themselves with people they are comfortable with, reasoning that people who are comfortable with each other make a better team, and therefore all are 'team players'. But the 'comfortable' part is probably the least important part of being a team; the most important part is that the team carries out the functions required while ensuring that they can be replaced at short notice. This is one principle of highly effective teams.

A team that cannot be replaced with a functional unit in a short time might be an elite team, but it is certainly not good for the organisation in one specific way: it cannot ensure a smooth transition to an equal or higher level of performance in event of disruption to itself.

A team that is too comfortable internally has probably become a clique. Like any good mechanism, it functions smoothly but will be disrupted when the environment changes. But the environment changes all the time; therefore, such a team needs to be disrupted by honest and uncompromising feedback, perhaps from unlikely sources who come from one of the five 'inner circle' categories listed above.

A team that is comfortable is likely to be incomplete, because a complete inner circle is full of people who cannot accept the existing level of performance. If they did, they would not be improvers; they would be comfortable. "Iron sharpens iron, as one man sharpens another," as the Good Book says. (This is not to say that uncomfortable teams are complete – discomfort can come from dysfunction as well.)

Kipling used to say that part of growing up includes the ability to "meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same." It is particularly instructive to see how leadership copes with triumph, since 'disaster management' is the normal order of the day but 'triumph management' is not. Good triumph management fuels better performance, and not a falling-off into 'same old same old' or other mediocrity. It fuels learning and a renaissance at every corner and every step.

Lastly, leadership communicates in a way that inspires. Without at least the inspiration at human level that leads to better change management and improvement, the organisation starts to stiffen up as the leadership tries to codify previous triumphs and avoid disaster. This is not to say that reckless inspiration wins, but that inspiration should be available which does not draw upon past triumphs or the fear of future failure.

These were some random thoughts as I sat in front of the 50000-word overview of situation that came my way. I wonder if any of them will be of use. And for now, I will append Kipling's admonitory and inspirational words, as my father gave them to me.


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master,
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And — which is more — you'll be a Man, my son!

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Things To Do

The tumult and the shouting dies,
The captains and the kings depart;
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice:
An humble and a contrite heart.

Kipling wrote these line a very long time ago, it seems, in his masterly poem Recessional. But as I walked out of the venerable hallways (a mere one-sixth the age of the Old Home itself) I realised that this is one of the foundation stones of the whole edifice. We as an institution have done well, but there are still areas for improvement.

Here are a few notes buzzing inside my head.

1. Surely we need not be so wasteful and inefficient in terms of time management. The effectiveness is there, but the pontificating should not take a week. (Etymological note: Latin pontifex, modern 'pontiff', means 'bridge-builder'.) In fact, the more we approach the 'just in time' paradigm, the more we will become like Toyota and other successful and intelligent corporations, where there is little unnecessary make-work.

2. The skills need to be taught more effectively. It cannot be true that extremely close and detailed supervision is something that is a sign of the self-directed learner. And it isn't always successful either. Sometimes, you need to have more experience as a supervisor and the student needs to require less supervision. Idle bums.

3. Knowledge can be over-compartmentalised. And also spammed. It is ridiculous for humans to chew up food, digest it, make it into neat lumps, and then feed it to others to eat. But this is what happens in most academic classes worldwide. Need it be that way here as well? I hope not.

4. Knowledge is a vast net, a great tapestry. But what happens is that people are making snapshots and passing them off as the real thing. The idea of weaving a large tapestry appears too daunting simply because the likely instructors are limited to hand-waving and knitting of small baby items, it can appear. Thank goodness this is not always true.

5. I am very optimistic about the future. I have great respect for the past. What presents itself as the truth tends to require both these perspectives in order for people to understand it and to feel secure about it. Only insecure people seek to control information without spending the necessary time to teach people about information in the first place. If anything, that is the one thing I am not so optimistic about.

Towards the end of Kipling's poem, he writes:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe –
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law –

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!


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Friday, January 11, 2008

Fading Ghosts

For three years, the battalion was senior to all the rest. They had occupied the same barracks for a large part of that time, and as the former major walked along the company lines, he could not help but feel a twinge of emptiness. He was used to taking the salutes from certain faces, the tactful avoidance of others; he could not help but feel unease when those salutes came from soldiers he did not know.

"But their names are known to God," he told himself. And so, he steeled himself and learnt the new names. He could not help, on occasion, but to draw comparisons between those who had marched off never to return, and those who were their replacements. It was odd, strangely dissatisfying. He had not felt that way for many years.

And slowly, a little at a time, he learnt to be trusted and to give trust again. He learnt the names. He read them as he used to read their seniors. While at times he would see the ghostly vanguard or the spectral knights, and once even an Arthurian wraith, he learned to carry on, giving the old lecture with new jokes, teaching the new equipment as he had taught the old.

Very slowly, he blended with his craft. In time, though he did not know it, he would himself become one of them, a fading memory on a field of blue and gold.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008


I'm an amphibian these days, halfway suspended between the old world that is passing and the new world that has arrived. I find it hard to shake the memories of voices and places, poises and faces, noises and spaces. I miss them all and yet I am learning to love their replacements. It is a terrible task, but I am working on it.

I feel like a newt, a neotenous salamander, that which should be fiery but which is now watery and squidgy. I am neither here nor there; I breathe air, and I might as well be tunnelling through the earth. It is horribly unfair to the memories of those who are gone and it is horribly unfair to the people who are really here now.

Today I was in a corridor when I bumped into one young lady of the present. I greeted her, "Madame." And I suddenly felt a twinge of pain, almost like angina. It is not her fault she now stands in the feet of power. But it is her position now, and I cannot begrudge her that place, despite the fact that it once belonged to someone whose memory still walks the corridors. I cannot quite bring myself to exorcise that ghost. It is all very silly, I suppose.

And then Trivandrum and Spam came visiting. That was even more painful. They too are now amphibian, not here or there, not even allowed the transforming power of the Green Mile.

We are all caught for now, caught like flies in amber, stuck in halflife between one state and another, somehow unable to move on. It isn't that we can't, I think. It is probably that we fear the pain of an ultimate parting, a confession of unprofessional weakness, a heretical impulse to actually disburse the wealth of our shrunken hearts and write off the loss forever.

In the meantime, a special alchemy must serve. I slowly denewtify. The degree of amphibiosity, of newtness, can be measured and is shrinking by the day, I hope. This quantity must, I suppose, be measured in its smallest quantum. I shall invent a unit of this new thing, this quantum of newtness. I will call it the newton.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Berrying Time

It seems so long ago that I talked about wolfberries, those powerful little things which are really good for your health. I realised this morning that I'd forgotten to say goodbye to the wolfberry. Goodbye wolfberry! All grown up now, who was already pretty grown up. I don't think I ever expected more than could be expected, and I must say the wolfberry met every expection grandly.

Glory be to God for the small things of the world, for they shall confound the wise and powerful!

While I hope it is au revoir, I suppose it will be adieu. These things happen and we should not be sad. It is life, even if it sometimes seems like a kind of death.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Batch Processing – Last Post

Well, it's time to move on. I realised yesterday at the great celebrations (well for most people, for some it looked like a wake) that we had already been forgotten by many and that whatever glimmers of remembrance were left were like last farewells at the the Grey Havens a la Tolkien. Of course, for the few who decided to hang around to say proper farewells, we're very appreciative.

But we're not ungrateful to any of you actually. It is all your life now, and you will someday realise you owe us nothing more than you have already paid. Like A E Housman's mercenaries, we've done our job, you've done yours, and good joss on everyone for a job well done. The words of that poem I shall leave at the bottom of this post.

I suppose this is the last time to say anything, after which professionally speaking we have to shift our focus to the next generation. So here it is.

Our professional lives revolved around you; for some of us, the odyssey began in 1999 and we prepared for you without even knowing who you would be. From 2000, the few of us who remain began to attend conferences, seminars, workshops, training sessions; we read up, read down, read widely. We worked like hell, and even hell was daunted, for we were dauntless. By the time the eve of rollout came, on 1 Jan 2004, we had written tremendous amounts of justifiable new material and were somewhat ready to begin.

Let's be frank, none of us knew what we were really doing. We knew what we did, but had little data to figure out the long-term effects. There were about four researchers out of a bunch of 30 pioneers. All you have to do is use Google to search for relevant publications and you will know who they were. Or maybe not, we were pretty self-effacing despite what some people say.

We were pretty darned enthusiastic too. Ask the men who suffered through 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. But by the end of 2004 we had significant casualties, and by 2006, the entire delivery system was rolling on by sheer willpower and inability to accept failure. For every one of you who worked hard and decided we were incompetent or irrelevant, there was a huge invisible machine at work trying to prove otherwise. Some of us perhaps were better at it, but most of us gave it our best.

And now, our best has burned to ash; those who burned brightest have burnt out. From this ash, a phoenix has risen that is terrible, is aweful, is mesmerising to a world unused to such obvious displays of power and glory. The truth, of course, is that the phoenix was always there, hidden in the egg of the wyvern. The phoenix has nothing in common with eagles; it does not eat carrion, it does not waste time soaring. It has only one purpose in life: to be reborn again and again as a symbol of hope.

It is not the incidental appearance of power or glory that counts, but the fact that the cycle exists. We could not have done it without each other, and this is also true. Some of us will go on to other things now, for those made aromatic by the phoenix-birth are greatly valued in other nests. Avram Davidson had much to say about it, and you can go research that too.

You will never know how much you meant to us. It seems almost as much as the phoenix is the entire reason for the aromatic fuels that hasten its rebirth. But in the end, it is goodbye in the oldest sense: God be with you, and you, and you... forever and ever, we hope; and amen.

And after this, with the first departed, everything will have to be for the next.


Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

A E Housman

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Game Over – Wine Alert: Four Emus 2004 Shiraz

I will miss the young men that they used to be, the ones that hated their boring teacher, the ones that loved the entertainment but hated the subject; the pragmatic, idealist, insane, unusual, peculiar and distracted ones. I will miss the ones that somehow grew to enjoy the thinking, the sudden apprehension of nothingness, the extreme 'duhhhhh' moments, the photographic starkness of the meaning that eluded us all.

I have kept, as I always have, the name lists. I look at them, knowing exactly who was diffident, irritable, hostile, keen, engaged, epileptic, happy. I will remember the First and their precursors, the guinea-pig batch of Pribs. And while part of me is sad that I will now never see them lining the grey corridors again, most of me is glad that they have found their wings to a multitude of various places both near and far.

And I suppose I will not forget the young ladies who came along later in the course, who proved fearsomely competent and refused to be overshadowed by testosterone and blight. I will not forget their brittle strength which firmed into deep and enduring power. Yes, many lacked certainty, but so did we all; many were apprehensive, but so were we. And they were of a kind we have not yet seen again.

Tonight we are mellow. We look at wine which is somehow appropriate. The label says, "Four Emus. Deranged and intelligent. 2004 Shiraz, South Australia." It is exactly what I would drink to remember that batch, 2004-2007, the centre of my life although they never knew it. The wine is wonderful. It starts slightly raw, just a shade mellower than new. Then it unearths odd textures of fruit – the aroma of berries. And it ends in a blazing finish that stays with you.

I hereby name that wine, Four Emus 2004 Shiraz, the official wine of the First. Haha! I am so happy now.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008


This place is where I write, and it is a dangerous place. What you see as fact is almost always fact, and yet it must be hedged around to protect the innocuous and innocent. However, the hedging-about is itself a danger to such. What then should the writer do, since all is danger? There are two solutions: to not write (which is a lot like not breathing) and to warn.

So I can speak freely, since it is the morning of the day itself. But I must warn that what I say is hedged about.

At this point, as the sun rises in some distant realm of the peaceful ocean, it is around midnight where the College of Wyverns stands. It is a cold afternoon at Burnley, where the Gunners have just triumphed in a lackadaisical manner. And the results of the Great Examination are free over the cables.

Yet I am bound. Master of rituals, observer of rites, keeper of archives and writer of rhymes, I am bound. I cannot tell what is already free. Which leaves me to ask the questions that nobody will, since I do not know the answers. Whether it is true or not that half a legion can find the answer to the life, the universe and everything (or even more) is unknown. Whether it is true or not that Hooke's law (F=kx) was violated is also unknown.

Why is it that we must grub and dig for scraps of information when it is so free, so rich, so useful and ameliorative of stress? Why should young people be made to rub their troubled brows when a moment's largesse would set them at liberty to laugh and love and have a life? Are we indeed so cribbed and cabined, bound by saucy doubts and fears, that we must deprive others?

My grand-uncle said it well, that old and crafty gnome. This is what he said. And perhaps although his light has long since dimmed, its ancient residues might illumine your path a little, as it has mine. I am Number One Goat and I bow to the four corners of the earth (as Barry Hughart might have written), unknowing, innocent, a sacrifice to the craftiness of the powers above and the powers below.

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What Cannot Be Said

The Magistratum glowers down upon him. Heavily hooded, guised in dark robes that none might know them, the officers of the Arcanum are a law unto themselves. Not even the Hierophant, holy and distant, knows what they do. Sir Wolff has been here before, many times. He is inured to the scathing stares which he does not return. In his mind, he knows they cannot scratch his armour, and killing him is not an option.

You have spoken out against the Rule, Sir Wolff. We are gathered here to judge you.

He feels an odd frisson of hilarity. Of all attacks, this? He is tempted, very briefly, to act in a jocular fashion.

I have only spoken out against the rule, my lords.

Only? Only, you say? We note your confession with due diligence.

Wolff is still tempted, but he quells that sensation. The irony in the Grand Inquisitor's voice has not eluded him.

I have only spoken out against the rule of the Magistratum and not the Rule of the Order. Before you say any more, my lords, let me make my position clear. I am grateful that you are enlightened enough in the disciplines that the brothers of the Order have generally benefited under your care. I am glad to serve the Order, and if that means serving the Magistratum, so be it. I wield a sword I do not deserve, I am made a champion of things I have little love for, I eat the scraps from your table and ask not for more. Why, just the other day, I was asked for the fourth time if I would ascend to a higher seat! And I declined.

But I insist that we do not contend against other Orders or against the powers of the secular realm. We must speak truth to power and teach the brothers of the Order not only to be skilled, but as skilled as they can be. We can do more with less, my lords, and it does not make the states around us happy to see us lord it over them through gold and graft.

Enough. We are gathered here to judge you and not for you to judge.

Wolff tries hard not to smile. He reminds himself that these are dangerous people who have had him up on false charges before, attempted to terminate his career, and tried to disarm him...

We are here to discuss your unhealthy need to bruit about the knowledge that should remain sacred to the Order.

I have not revealed knowledge to others that they have not already known from your hand. For every fact which others know, I can account for it from your hands to the hands of others. Look to your own, Grand Lord of the Magistratum! If those you trust cannot keep secrets or keep the wrong secrets, while those you do not are faithful, whither goes the Order?

An air of simmering embarrassment fills the room. Judgement is suspended from the point of a sword. And Wolff, having inadvertently blurted out the truth, is suddenly satisfied that he did.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Cheers For Fears

Cheers to the first, who will not be last.
Cheers to the thirst for the things of the past.
Cheers to the eminent and the misused,
For things both evident and somehow confused.

Cheers to the forgotten ones who have left,
Though we are not always the ones so bereft.
Cheers to Charisma, elegant, wise;
Cheers to Christina, for strength in disguise.
Cheers to Chanticleer, for chortlesome glee;
Cheers to the Phyllum, for iron and tea.
Cheers to the Steersmen, that group no one knows,
Who never will sit in their former repose.

Huzzah, I say, huzzah! And more huzzahs yet!
And let us be humble, lest we forget.


This is what happens when you do your best:
You drink like a fish and pass out with the rest.

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Word of the Day: Oneiromancy

The word 'oneiromancy' is just one of many related words ending with what would be -manteia in Greek. That particular suffix comes from the Greek mantis, which means prophet (and by extension, a holy man or hierophant). A 'manteia' of any kind is thus an oracle or form of divination.

So what is 'oneiromancy'? The first half of the word, oneiros, means 'dream'. Oneiromancy thus is the practice of divination through dreams, either directly (as in a prophetic dream in which events proceed as dreamt) or symbolically (as in a dream in which the images represent something else).

Oneiromancy, like all the other manteia, is subject to ethical and moral difficulties. In nekromanteia or 'necromancy', the form of divination requires interaction with the bodies or spirits of the dead. Most cultures find this, if not a little outré, rather vile or unnatural. The whole idea of divination does not sit well with humans, who would like to believe that free will is superior to predestination – although of course humans would love to know if nobody else did, being selfishly curious in general.

In oneiromantic history, several oracles have purportedly dreamt accurate dreams of events which came to pass. The question of utility rears its ugly head: if you should dream a 'useful' dream (e.g. that an identifiable terrorist is going to carry out an act of terrorism in a specific place at a specific time), should you tell anyone? There is no scientific justification in advance that you are right, and if you were correct about the prospective details, you'd be a suspect too.

And what if you dream the details of an examination paper or a bunch of examination results? Are you ethically bound to remain silent? Or can you share your dream under the defence of 'it was only a dream'?

Decisions, decisions...

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Friday, January 04, 2008


"Seven is perfect," said the Old Man. "Six is not so good; it is the mark of mortal men."

Glaring a little in the dim light, he looked down upon us from his place at the bottom of the room. "Five," he said with an air of doom and apocalypse, "is not good at all."


Strangers In Paradise

There was something like Eden in the place. It had sprung up overnight, and in the first days of its being, the Powers That Claimed Power installed a woman and a man to look after it. It wasn't Paradise, for this was many thousands of years after the Fall, and it was already Winter. But it was a nice little garden, nevertheless. And two ravens flew by...


Huginn: Look, they have made a big place in a small place, and half of it is filled with innocent children!

Muninn: I remember they built a tower almost unto heaven, and it was filled with half-innocent children.

H: There is a mighty tree in the middle, and also some really odd landscaping.

M: I remember we had two trees, and two people, and a lot of animals.

H: Hey, they've made two statues in memory of us.

M: (looking sharply downward) Oh, please! Those are meant to be eagles, and pretty ugly ones at that.


Another Day In Paradise

She calls out to the man on the street,
Sir, can you help me?
It is cold and I've nowhere to sleep,
Is there somewhere you can tell me ?

He walks on, doesn't look back,
he pretends he can't hear her;
starts to whistle as he crosses the street
seems embarrassed to be there.

Oh, think twice:
it's another day for
you and me in paradise...
Oh, think twice:
it's just another day for you,
you and me in paradise...

She calls out to the man on the street,
he can see she's been crying;
she's got blisters on the soles of her feet,
she can't walk, but she's trying

Oh, think twice...

Oh Lord, is there nothing more anybody can do
Oh Lord, there must be something you can say

You can tell from the lines on her face,
you can see that she's been there;
probably been moved on from every place,
'cos she didn't fit in there

Oh think twice...


But there are no more days in this little place which was a bit like Paradise, and it is empty now.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Alternating Current

When I was much much younger, I remember asking where my cousin had gone. I received the somewhat peculiar answer, from my aunt, "Probably with one of the blackcurrants."

I like fruit (one of my nicknames in university was 'Tasmanian fruit-bat'), and I am insatiably curious. So I asked, "What do you mean?"

My aunt, honours graduate in Literature etc etc, replied, "Well, they're black, and they're current. She's out with one of them."

It took a few minutes to realise (I was really young then!) that the 'blackcurrant' was really a date. At that time, I suppose I wouldn't have given a fig.


But all that's irrelevant to the matter of today. I was feeling oddly disconcerted and ill at ease as I sauntered (with my old pre-broken-toe saunter) down the familiar corridors on the fifth level (which housed the First for two years). Then I saw a colleague (he's been with the school pretty long, so let's call him BC) leaning over the balcony railings. It's not a thing he does much, so I wished him a happy new year and asked him how he was.

He replied, "It's terrible. It's like a parallel universe. The buildings are all the same, the classrooms, the corridors, but the people are, are, are... dif-fer-ennnnnt." He sounded almost plaintive, and although that is not uncommon with him, it was genuine this time. And at that moment, I sympathized utterly.

You see, he was absolutely right. He had placed his finger on the very thing that was disconcerting me. After two years of seeing the same faces along those corridors and in those classrooms, I was walking the old pathways and not seeing any of those faces at all. We were both (as were others of our company) walking around in psychotraumatic shock. He was being uncharacteristically reflective; I was being uncharacteristically purposeless.

It will pass. But the sense of being transported into an alternate timeline or a different dimension will persist for a while. The ghostly memories still hold fast, and the wraiths of two (or four, or six) excellent years of common enterprise are not so easily banished. The current reality has not quite established itself as a powerful enough rival.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Imprints In The Sand

You teach people, the same people for two, three, four years. You would like to think something of you (hopefully something good) stays with them. It is like mana, the excrescence of numinosity.

But one day, they're gone. The link is gone, and if not gone, is stretched by trail and contrail, or trial or mistrial, to a tenuous something that isn't even quite there. With time, the associated ideas and memories will fade. And the essence of you will be lost; after all, they owe you nothing, and you have paid your debt.

Sometimes, though, the magic may return. The mana reforms, is magnified or transformed oddly. The old wolf, decrepit but dangerous in his lair, is remembered; the egg of the dead phoenix is reborn. This is how a sword is forged: tenuous strands of metal are hammered, rebonded, recrystallized, broken and remade.

And although the steps you walked those months and years ago are washed clean by the salt water on the sea strand, the fact that you once made them is not lost. It has a mana of its own. Hence, the Eternal Hoodlums. Hence, the many faces on the Book of Faces.

You sit on the stony margin of the beach and watch the footprints wash away. There is regret, perhaps, but that too washes away. And the new years begin, one, another, a third. They end, and time ends with them. What remains is joy.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Rainbow Club: The Year In Review

I wasn't really awake until about noon today, having stayed up to welcome in the new year, been subjected to an indignity which was actually quite fun, and then collapsed totally unconscious into bed. The power supply was cut around 3 am, according to some accounts from reliable sources, but I knew nothing till this morning.

The noon bells are pealing now, from a renowned coastal church. I love those noonday bells; they are almost as iconic to me as the noonday gun in Hongkong. But my vision of the world is a splintered kaleidoscope of a myriad (Greek: 'ten thousand') colours, all shifting and somehow managing a tolerable, even if not entirely beautiful, blend.

Of all things, I was awoken by this article about colours. Amazing. I'd always thought that the reason blue was an outstanding hero costume colour was that early colour separation had no true black. Perhaps I was wrong. I always enjoyed Power Man, Iron Fist though. It was even cooler than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon decades later.

If I had a superhero costume, I'd dress in shades of grey and greyed colours. Dirty-winter colours – dove grey, arctic fox, ermine, vair; dashes and blotches of pale disenchanted blues, slate, dusty green, dusky rose and raven to break up the silhouette. I think I might even be invisible in public housing, the way things are these days. I would be the ultimate urban ghillie, armed with ballistic wrath and shiny steel sharpness. Ha, then again, I'd feel more comfortable taking down the symbols of empire from the shadows of the catacombs.

Perhaps it is easier to expose fables from the corridors of cyberspace, as the 'stainless steel rat' so beloved of Harry Harrison. Sometimes one feels sympathy for one's fellow inmates in the institution one has been committed to for so long. Sometimes one feels the need to take a stand on the shifting ground.

And of course, sometimes one despairs of the world, only to find delight in the light – as, for example, when one thinks of the egregious uses to which the word 'holistic' has been put. Sometimes one notices that some people seem to have turned their eyes upon the wrong kind of shininess. And of course, then one turns to the fellow-workers who shine by doing their work well, and one celebrates them; for like Housman's mercenaries, what God sometimes seems to have abandoned, we defend, and save the sum of things for pay.

Thank God that He does not truly abandon. Thank God that the world remains a kaleidoscope – a 'vision of beautiful images' as the direct transliteration might show. And thank God for rainbows, which assure us that the world will not be whelmed by water ever again.

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