Friday, February 29, 2008

Watch His Lips

My friend the Moustache said yesterday that the Sabbath was sacrosanct. He elaborated on this by saying that if some people wanted other people to work on Saturdays, this should be limited to four Saturdays a year. He further elaborated on this by saying that if some people wanted all the other people to come down and work on Saturday, they should ask nicely first.

I laughed when I heard this. I told the Moustache that some people had used up two (well, maybe at least one) Saturdays in January, one Saturday in February, and one Saturday in March. This would leave them no space to summon the people anymore, in theory. The Moustache nodded, but you could see that his intelligence was already grappling with the consequences. "Ye-es," he said, "I can see that there are still loopholes though. Some people might call some of you back, but not all. They might even have a roster of departments coming back to work or having meetings.

"But I also told some people that you shouldn't have the same people come down every weekend. If they did, why on earth should we give them an award for staff welfare? Going against the spirit of the thing is very old-style, very Soviet Union. Some people do it a lot."

Well, far be it from me to intervene in matters between the Powers, but I did promise I'd keep in touch with the Moustache, whose former guru is my direct male ancestor. Somehow, despite his history, we've remained in friendly contact. He's quite amazed at the fact that I continue to work where I work, despite his predecessor having asked me three times to switch sides. He laughs at me sometimes, and says, "When you want to speak of professional careers, give me a call."

I am tempted once in roughly every 18 months. But I have not succumbed yet. It is hard to read lips when they are hidden by facial hair.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008


It struck me today that some people are not malevolent in doing things that have negative effect or impact on you. It might seem so, and it may even seem directed. But after a lot of thinking and pondering on a long list of silly things, I have realised that quite often, it is not directed and of ill intent (and hence malevolent) but undirected and with wrong intent or with silly basis.

I hereby coin a new word, malincompetence. It is incompetence which produces evil and seems to be of evil intent. Its affective payload is negative, its effects are disastrous or look like sabotage. It produces ill-will or appears to be spawned from a grouchy and/or sadistic mind. It is also very common among some people.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I woke up this morning thinking of cinnamon rolls. Cinnamon has a long and illustrious history as a spice of choice, but this was not what entered my mind at all. Rather, it was the fragrance of a hot sweet cinnamon roll (with plump raisins and sugary bits) that wafted across the face of my mind and escaped.

I spent the rest of the day feeling a little disgruntled. Maybe tomorrow I will get to taste what I could only dream of the night before. Then again, this is what I tell myself every day at work.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008


This was the man whom Shakespeare recreated as a villain. But what if he actually had been a hero, a wise and farsighted king who kept his fractious demesne from fracturing? Then it is not beyond belief that his southern neighbours, envious of his firm and clever rule, should have left a legacy of subtle propaganda that would forevermore taint him 'villain'.

Sometimes, it is hard ploughing through the legacies and counter-legacies, as each successor attempts to make himself look better than the one before him. It might be worse: you could be the one doing the rewrite, under pain of death. It might be better: you could end up writing the truth for all to see.

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Monday, February 25, 2008


If anything can be anything, and everything is an educational experience, then an holistic education is life, no matter how badly lived. That is what I heard a great wise one say today. I have to say I am disappointed.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Substitute Assassins

My clansman starred in a film called The Replacement Killers once. It was quite a hit. One day, I overheard an old man trying to recall the title, and the title of this post is what he came up with. And that leads me to my present state of mind.

Right now, where I work, are many substitute officers. They were our former trainees, now qualified, who are in between states of life and jobs and the beginnings of their careers. I amuse myself by trying to think how their own trainees must see them, and what they must seem like to those who do not know that they are only substitute officers.

Here is what I've thought. They look pretty solid (mostly) for ersatz workmates. You might be forgiven on first look for thinking that some of them are indeed entry-level officers. Then again, maybe not. And sometimes, unfortunately, you look at them and unflattering or peculiar nicknames spring to mind.

There's one I call the Loafer. Seemingly loafing around all the time, this substitute has a sheepish and yet somehow guileful look which shades to potential malevolence when in the wrong shadow. There's another I think of as Bond movie material, but who has a pervasive air of innocent charm. There's one more who looks positively elegant despite some altitudinal compromise, and another who persists in calling me 'sir' in tones of mingled outrage and despair. There's one who struggles to put on a no-nonsense look, even as our most junior trainees misbehave. There is one more who ghosts around the place looking like the beautiful but vengeful spirit of some artistic muse.

They walk around the place, as if still not quite sure whether they are officers or trainees.

It is all very amusing, and yet very touching. I am happy to see them around, but they also make me conscious of my dispensability, my mortality, and the fact that seasons change and times pass; and we are as the flower of the field that fades and blows away. In a way, these young people have brought my death that much closer to me. By that, I am sobered, and yet made happy and oddly thankful.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

To Be Or Not To Be

I keep mulling it over in my mind, that odd English thing, the verb 'to be' which is, and was, and evermore will be 'be', implicit and complicit in all our dealings. What is it to be? Is it a continuous operation, requiring maintenance, like some sort of existential red queen's race? Is it a passive state, the state of existing without transformation or translocation? Is it what it is? Or is it just 'is'? I find myself baffled by the Hamletian assertion that 'to be or not to be' is indeed the question – was Shakespeare a bare existentialist?

To be is to live, it implies, and not to be is to die. Cessation of consciousness is cessation of being. And if one's mission is to be, then that is all. If one shifts to another state, does one continue to be? And if one's personal motto is to be better and better, for the rest is yet to become, then one's self is not always what one was, and one is not what one would have been in the past.

This is bad. And it may yet get worse.

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Friday, February 22, 2008


Can you imagine if my mission statement was this?

"To be a very large tree under which all kinds of nuts could be developed in all kinds of ways."


That's just the amusing part of my day though. What came to mind as the day progressed was the second chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel. Slowly, I saw it in my mind's eye, that exposition of the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. I am not ashamed to say that I was terrified. The clues are all there: a king of kings who is a head of gold, and the subsequent unfolding history of the world.

You, O king, are a king of kings: for the God of Heaven has given you a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory.

And wherever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven has He given into your hand, and has made you ruler over them all. You are this head of gold.

And after you shall arise another kingdom inferior to you, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth.

And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: for as much as iron breaks in pieces and subdus all things: and as iron that breaks all these, so shall it break in pieces and bruise.

And whereas you saw the feet and toes, part of potters' clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, for as much as you saw the iron mixed with miry clay.

And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.

And whereas you saw iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.

And in the days of these kings shall the God of Heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.

For as much as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God has made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof is sure.


I have been told that I have a small part of the gift of prophecy. Whatever it is that makes people say that, I often wish it would stop. And I am sure that all these things will go away, and that only love will abide.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Project Work

Let me propose to you a new project.

Suppose you had to do something abstract like 'nurture an holistic education'. Where would you start?

I find myself grasping at straw(s).

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Word of the Day: Canaliculus

I'm sure that some of my readers will immediately have odd qualms about admitting this word to their individual vocabularies. It will probably sound 'wrong' to some of them. And indeed, on muttering it to myself repeatedly several hundred times in the local café, I have begun to think that this is true – that 'canaliculus' is indeed a word that sounds as if it is on the verge of being a porneme.

The word canaliculus is of course easily etymologised. Like any of the modern words ending in -cule, it has its roots in the diminutive end of Latin grammar. A canulus is a channel, and the English word 'canal' is somewhat related to it in this sense. A canaliculus in its most general sense is therefore a very tiny channel.

In anatomy, the word refers to the path tears take to a tear duct; in cytology, it refers to a folding in a membrane that creates a groove, thereby resulting in increased surface area (think about the folded-looking surface of a human brain). But I think the definition that resonates with me most acutely is this: a canaliculus is a microscopic channel that connects the lacunae in an ossification.

Before you give up in disgust, let me explain. 'Lacunae' are voids, little holes. In my educational universe (please, not the horrible 'eduverse'), a lacuna is a gap in knowledge or data; it is that wonderful thing which research seeks to obliterate by filling up. Of course, an 'ossification' is a structure that has hardened and is no longer flexible – also a part of that universe. Canaliculi are therefore wonderful things that allow you to move from space to space within a structure that no longer allows for flexibility.

And that is why 'canaliculus', for all its quasi-pornemic qualities, is my Word of the Day.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mission: Implausible

I grew up, as did my ancestors and much of my family, in what some would call a 'mission' school and others might call a 'parochial' school. I used to think (or was brought up to believe) that the 'mission' of such a school would look something like this: "To provide young men an education that will suffice for all their later life, to the glory of God the Father."

I don't mean to say that another mission statement might not serve better, nor that other words might not sound better or be more apt. However, I do think that the kinds of mission statement which educational institutions serve up nowadays are a little flat. They sound more like engineering mottos ('Vorsprung durch technik' comes to mind, from my favourite car marque) or like some secular smorgasbord (see this for an example).

The problem might not be one purely of aesthetics or style or even of content, but of plausibility. Consider this: "Our mission is to provide excellent holistic education through quality human technology in an innovative working environment." It is as if they held a competition to see how many buzzwords they could cram into a single line; you couldn't remove a single phrase without feeling a little less than perfect, it seems to say. But is it a do-able mission? Can it be done?

To assess that, you'd have to define the terms first. And as with so many other buzzword-laden statements, the meaning of the line melts into nothingness when brought under rigorous scrutiny. I thought I might start out by attempting to parse that line, but I find myself bereft of the necessary stamina at this point. Oh well.

At least it is not a motto like that of an ambitious secondary school I once saw. That school had placed on all available surfaces the portentous words 'Who Dares Wins'. That is, of course, the motto of the SAS, those excellent and truly world-class British commandoes. I shudder to think what goes on behind the pristine chain-link fence of that quiet neighbourhood school.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

It's As Easy As...

This is called the 123 meme.

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.


Very well.

I'm still reading Ink by Hal Duncan.

"Russia fell to the Futurists because in Stalin's hands in had become Futurist; it only needed his death to mark the finality of the transformation, close the chapter, turn the page."

That's at least three sentences, I think. Actually, four. And all very ironic to me.

And I'm tagging people I know read enough to do this: Wolfberry, RGT, Hiero, ARGH, and KC.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

National Service

A couple of days ago, I read a letter in the Singapore newspapers (which I still read once in a while despite having little to do with that country). This letter seemed to be from a lady whose son was likely to undergo National Service (NS), the two years of compulsory military training which all male permanent residents and citizens must undergo from the age of 18. In it, she said that it was "two years of non-educational experience".

I actually underwent 30 months of it when I was a part-time Singapore citizen. And this letter irritated me a lot, since I learnt a lot while I was going through it. It is possibly one of the most educational experiences a Singaporean can go through. Looking at the situation from the outside in, as it were, I know that NS cannot be non-educational.


Apart from learning how to swear in your real mother tongue and to use weapons of individual and small-group destruction, you actually do learn a lot about human organisations and behaviour, especially if you were either a jock or a geek, a bum or a nerd, when you were in high school.

You learn when to keep your big mouth shut and when to clench your various body parts and bear it. You learn who is boss, and that 'boss' isn't always the one nominally at the top of the heap. You learn about absolute and situational ethics, and the complications thereof. You learn that brave and subtle is a good combination, because brave and brash gets people killed unnecessarily – and not even on the battlefield.

You learn that you sometimes have to abase yourself before people who are not as good as you, but also that to be humble in the presence of those who are better than you is no shame. You might even learn that it is possible, as you look around, that everyone has something in them that is better than the equivalent in you. And you learn to appreciate that strength in diversity and the power of having a broad talent-base.

You learn that 'regardless of race, language or religion' can actually work when the task is extreme and there is no time to be pondering the imponderable. In fact, you might even learn that none of those three things can be defined exactly, and that to try it is to destroy whatever meaning they might hold. You learn that justice and equality aren't the same thing, and may even oppose each other; but the synthesis of the two can work.

And best of all, you learn how to persevere under both the deliberately stressful and the accidentally stressful, under both the pressure exerted by idiocy and the pressure exerted by professionalism. You learn to be an adult, if you haven't already done so.

But there is a caveat here. It is indeed possible to learn very little from NS. This will happen if you refuse to learn. It's just like spending two years in a peculiar kind of university. You might learn, or not. The choice is yours.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008


There are many things in life which are inevitable or nearly so: death, disease, disaster, delirium, dementia, despair – just to name a few. But they are things most of us hope will never happen. We don't normally think about the thin line between the inevitable and the unthinkable. But it is there, and it is breached once in a while.

There are all these boundaries we don't think about. How much do you push someone before they crash through? How much do you abuse the environment before it collapses into a different phase?



we turn in dwindling inclusion
to define where we are at,
trapped in narrower seclusion
by tightening legal caveat -
for the threat of execution
dwarfs the execution of threat

from the height see how the land lies,
each hazard hid within its bower;
clad in white men with clubs realise
importance of four holes an hour -
for the power of joint exercise
masks the joint exercise of power

we - scorpion race that raises fire
(venom of stars in sting of faith;
the tighter turn in heat of ire,
the closer stilling of our breath) -
know: the death of all desire
follows all desire of death

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Friday, February 15, 2008


Was it important that they met? No.

Was anything accomplished? No.

Did anything become better? No.


Thursday, February 14, 2008


He shut the windows of his face and drew the curtains of his mind. In himself he mustered the secret happiness and the night wind and the autumn equinox. In his heart he drew weapons, and drew heart from weapons. They had called him Sir Wolff before; now they called him Wolff only. He had learnt not to care.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

In Vocation

I am the Watcher at the Threshold
I guard the House of Heaven's gate
I am the least of the brave and bold
I hold the emblems of their fate

Further or farther, I am a line
From which Destiny's weight depends
Heavier or higher, not my design
Through which the working-out descends

I am a fire upon the Hill
I sear the gaze of Shadow's spawn
I am the knight at the old windmill
I wait the coming of the morn

Leaner or longer, my life extends
The contrast burns in every line
Darker or deeper, the flame transcends
The half-light of the dark design

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Haha today was a very amusing day. I realised that sometimes, you hold onto 'useless' knowledge which secretly accumulates interest until one day it becomes useful. And on that day, you suddenly realise you wield the thunderbolt.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

The Shadow Of Wings

The darkness comes in quickly these days. It wraps its wings around these buildings as if they are eggs. You can only wonder what will hatch from the calcific fecundity of this nest.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cautionary Verses (Part III)

If you must take to coffee,
Just do it with a smile;
You'll feel the jitters coming,
Just stop and rest a while.
With shuddering and creaking,
Your engine starts to shake:
Just grin a lot and bear it
As your body comes awake.

If you are hooked on caffeine
(A normal human state)
Remember that the bitter
Is often sweeter late.
Your mind will last far longer,
Your heart will never break;
Just grin a lot and bear it
As your body comes awake.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Cautionary Verses (Part II)

If you must fly the wyvern
In blue and gold and red
Remember what your mother
For many years has said:
Beware the two-faced other thing
That looks both east and west;
Do not trust whatever speaks
As an unwelcome guest.

If undaunted you will be
And bear a hero's name,
Remember how your father
Won his undying fame:
Guarded ears and opened eyes
And kept alert at rest;
Did not trust the honeyed words
Of the unwelcome guest.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Cautionary Verses (Part I)

If you wake up at midnight,
And hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blinds,
Nor looking in the street.
Them that do ask no questions
Will never hear a lie;
So watch the wall, my darling,
When the gentlemen go by.

For five and twenty ponies
Are trotting through the dark
With brandy for the parson,
Tobacco for the clerk,
With laces for the ladies
And letters for a spy;
So watch the wall, my darling,
When the gentlemen go by.

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The Plan: Part I – Criterion 3 Situational Appraisal (Reprise)

Criterion 3 has long been the domain of staff welfare and other staff-related enablers of action. Just recently, I had the opportunity to work with and review and international standard for staff-related matters. This standard is applied far more widely than the anaemic stuff we work with in educational circles.

Briefly, and reworded to retain confidentiality, the three subcriteria in the standard are: a plan designed to ensure rational staff recruitment procedures and follow-up; a plan designed to ensure a high level of staff retention that acknowledges the value of the staff knowledge base and loyalty; and a plan designed to provide individual coaching, staff development, and the meeting of staff aspirations (not the aspiration of staff meetings, ha ha). A close examination of this international standard reveals that international standards for fair staff appraisal, transparency and compensation are higher than local ones.

That is not to say that the actual application of those standards results in better staff-related policies. In fact, it is not common that this is so. However, the fact that such standards exist (as, for example, the human rights standards promulgated by the UN) can act as an inspiration towards better things.

Here, for example, are four maxims from the New York Academy of Sciences, regarding the making of legendary research teams (Burke, 2008). It's probably applicable to many knowledge-based enterprises.
  • Hire well
  • Be more guide than boss
  • Do your best to foster an open, congenial, collaborative culture
  • Put teaching and career development first, research second

This year the Chinese celebrate the Year of the Rat, associated with wealth, intelligence, charm, cunning and double-edged weapons. I wonder how these attributes will play out when applied to the world of human resource management. It would be very short-sighted for any institution to continue to operate with a 15-20% staff turnover rate without significant overhaul of its internal procedures.


Reference: Burke, A.; NYAS Mag., Winter 2008, p.21.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Family

I sat in the park. It was a warm, bright, humid day. The trees and grass and flowers provided a beautiful, very restful backdrop. The Emissary sat down next to me. Where there was old scarred wood and a touch of age, an elder statesman in smart casuals now sat. I gave a little start, waking from the daydream of the afternoon.

"Well, young wolf, will you stand forth in the hour of need?"

I was silent. It is hard for a wolf to break clan just for clanship. It is an odd and contrary thing for wolves, even the lone ones.

"You do not ally with the bear just because he claims to have nurtured you."

"I don't; I make it a point to tell the bear that I don't treat him as my defender or my nurturer or my personal ifrit."

"Then take up the cause of the family. Be a leader. And be the master of the bear."

"It is nothing new that you say to me. But to be what you would have me be, I will have to give up the nurture of young wyverns."

"Not really. Slay the bear and you can have all the wyverns you want."


It was a warm, bright, humid day. I sat up with a start. I was still sitting alone on my bench. Nothing had changed. Really.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Second Guessing

C Northcote Parkinson was a scholar, an officer and a gentleman. A naval officer and instructor, and then after World War II, the Raffles Professor of History at the (then) University of Malaya, he was most renowned for a slim little book of sociological observations called Parkinson's Law. I have made it a point to collect every one of his books that I can find. They are models of clarity, good humour, and acutely intelligent perception.

I recently came into possession (thank you, Herr Hierophant) of one of his older books, In-Laws & Outlaws, first published in 1962. While reading it late in the night, I came across this section and laughed out loud, whereupon the local environment gave me a dirty look with elements of slight puzzlement. Here is the offending (well, amusing and entertaining) paragraph:

[Extracted from 'Secundity', p.142]
But does every organisation have an acknowledged Number Two? No, there is a significant exception. In a political despotism or dictatorship there is no real deputy and no named successor. For the whole strength of the régime rests on the assumption that the current ruler is impossible to replace. After all, an effective deputy makes the ruler less indispensable. A known successor makes him less secure. It is part of the techniques, therefore, of dictatorship to leave the second throne unfilled. Instead of Number Two there are several people in competition, the position of each weakened by the jealousy of the rest.

I think one of the most amusing things about local education is that vice-principals are never vice in the sense that a viceroy was. The Latin vice is best translated in such contexts as 'in place of'; it denotes a secondary power with the ability and/or capacity to replace the primary authority on any and every occasion. Quite often, however, there are professional secondaries with no hope of attaining apotheosis. This is a sad fact that Parkinson also addresses later in his book.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008


There are two kinds of paperwork.

The first type is work that has to do with paper. Moving paper from one place to another is work. Force has been exerted over a distance; a mass of missives (a miss of massives?) has been accelerated to the height of its path and then decelerated, to appear on someone else's desk.

The second type is paperwork in the sense that delicate carving is woodwork. The Japanese call it origami, and it is considered a high art, sometimes a performing art, sometimes a visual art, sometimes something that goes beyond either.

It is possible to reconcile the two. There are arcane talents, which when properly deployed, make the first into the second.

One such talent is that of the sieve. The correct mental sieve will sort paper into useful and useless; it will then convey the former away from oneself to the area in which it is best placed, and convey the latter into the wastepaper basket.

Another such talent is that of the knife. The correct mental knife will slash excess verbiage, apply correct punctuation, and delicately alter grammar until it more closely resembles the most desirable placement of each part of written speech. Thereafter, the text is more compact, more easily understood, and less able to generate bleats, snarls and other odd noises.

The last talent I shall mention here (although you might want to correspond directly with me as to the others) is that of the oracle. The wise oracle reads the text, interprets it as necessary (or reinterprets it) to cause maximum clarity where clarity is needed in the turbidity of life, or to cause maximum confusion where confusion is necessary to sanity. In the latter case, some will never understand how this might be possible. I assure you, it is.

Take the case of the missive from a government body that ended up on my desk one day. It requested all kinds of information. I replied, "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man." (This is of course the famous opening couplet of Alexander Pope's second epistle in An Essay on Man.) I duly footnoted this as: Pope (1734). Back came the reply, "How come the Pope is involved?" Mission accomplished, you might think. But sometimes, not so.

I replied, "The information required is on your own website [URL given, but suppressed here to protect the easily embarrassed]. God sees all, although man does not."

As I have said before, my mission in life is to find reason and bring it where it is needed. Truly, mission accomplished.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Plan: Part I – Criterion 5 Situational Appraisal

I keep looking at the hundreds of pages of notes I have amassed on the terrible things done here, in the Dungeon. There are good things as well, but some days it is easier to remember the evil and let the good go. So I shall not continue with this just yet.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Plan: Part I – Criterion 5 Situational Appraisal

Criterion 5 refers to student-centred processes. Vide Lessing, let us prepare for a descent into hell. We might as well be alien representatives. These are not the droids we are looking for.

We shall begin again.


Saturday, February 02, 2008


(with apologies to Helen Reddy)

I am idle, watch me chill
In slumbers too strong for your will
And I know too much to go back and pretend...
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna make me slave again!


And that is what working life sometimes is all about. When I step out there on Monday 11 February, the Lockheed SR-71s will dip their wings and I will speak.

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Friday, February 01, 2008


To be sober is sometimes to be in great pain. There is something to be said for inebriation. That is why we are so happy; it is not that we are drunk, but that the excesses of the day leave us no choice but to lack sobriety.

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