Monday, March 31, 2008


I remember the day it all went pear-shaped, although I did not want to believe it at that time. I sat before the man who had not recruited me, although he had certainly employed me. He had recently maligned his predecessor in public, and was now accusing me of empire-building. I remember feeling bemused; I had no idea such a thing was going on, or that such a thing was in his vocabulary, or that I was engaged in any way in any activity that could be construed as such.

This was many years ago. At that time, my lawyers and my friends said that I should leave. How could I work for such a person? And my Bible reading, today as it was all those years ago, was from the first chapter of Exodus. That word exodus of course means 'the way out' or 'leaving' in Greek. But I persevered. After all, I have never seen myself as a Moses contending against a Pharaoh. I am no Moses; my then-boss is no Pharaoh.

But how on Earth had I been empire-building? I knew nothing of it then, but I am beginning to suspect certain things as I gaze back upon Egypt with a stranger's eye.

The big ideas are the dangerous ones. They build an empire of the mind, which endures and ingrains itself within the bones of men. If you have a big idea, you are an empire-builder. And those with the smaller ideas will fear you. In the lecture I used to give every year on the nature of the scientific paradigm (how it both leads and misleads), I actually likened ideas to weapons in a war of paradigms. Sometimes, both sides can use an idea; sometimes, an idea only fits into the paradigm for one side.

Where I had gone wrong was this. I had neglected the iron discipline of a man under orders. As a lowly foot-soldier (or even a sergeant-at-arms), I should never have forgotten a few rules. To paraphrase Orson Scott Card (in his book, aptly enough entitled Empire), one should be able to stand in the same room as others with lesser ideas and say nothing, show nothing. One should be able to withhold threat or the appearance of threat when one is not intending a threat. In fact, the only thing I seem to have remembered was from Grimwood: "Never show surprise, never show fear, never even pretend to take anything seriously."

Well, now I need the discipline of a ronin, a mercenary soldier who yet adheres to a warrior code. And I am still not an empire-builder, although I must confess that the big ideas and the grand sweep of things are still in my mind. Some day, I would like to see the large ideas worked out in reality, upon the great foundation was established so long ago, to the glory of God the Father.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Prayer For Authorities

We pray for those in positions of authority, those who are thrones and principalities and powers of this age of humanity. We ask that they will do all things in truth, believing; that they will do all things necessary to the common good in the will of God; that they will aim for the betterment of all people.

We pray for those who are called ministers, that they will minister indeed; that they will be servant to all they profess to serve in fact; that they will be able to call upon higher powers and enlightened thinking as they serve the greater good.

We pray for those who command, that they will direct their subordinates aright, without fear or favour, with wisdom and care. We ask that they will continue to be accountable to all, in the light of the glory of God in whom they live and move and have their being; in whom their authority arises and from whom their authority is empowered.


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Sunrise is not always the 'rosy-fingered dawn' that Eos of the Greeks used to dispense across the land. Sometimes, sunrise is a rude, grim awakening. I was remembered of this phenomenon by this, which an ex-student reminded me of.

You can wake up to thunder, you can wake up to fog. You can wake up as if life has become a Dr Seuss story, and laugh at it a lot. Yesterday, I finally put all the pieces together. I realised why someone pulled the trigger, and who blinked first. And I laughed so loudly that I woke two ravens perched on a corner of my present home.

And I remembered what power is all about, and why the non-exercise of power is sometimes the greatest gift of God to men.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

First Principles: Negotiation

I have to admit that I'm a bit of a junkie for lists; I am somewhat of a lister myself. Some time ago, I realised that some politicians make clearly defined lists of interesting points which they claim to use. Some of these lists are particularly useful to think about.

Here is a list from New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, taken from his book, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life (pages 363-365), on negotiation:
    Richardson's Rules
  • Share the credit. Politics and diplomacy are team sports. Acknowledge it.
  • Be discreet and don't volunteer too much information.
  • Your style can be informal, but you must show proper respect.
  • Remember who your friends were when things weren't going so well.
  • Aim big. Always try to achieve more than you have to.
  • When you're about to make a major change, cover your bases.
  • It helps to be in good shape. You never know when you're going to be called to the negotiating table.
  • Deliver a strong message with dignity and without insults.
  • Never lie when negotiating, because lies catch up with you. Be direct.
  • Use the media if you need to, but keep your negotiations private.
  • Have others deliver bad news; it keeps you viable as a future negotiator.
  • In most meetings, the law of diminishing returns kicks in after five minutes.


Very useful rules indeed. I have also begun to look at Senator Barack Obama's speeches. He is good at identifying key points in very large discussion frameworks.

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Word Of The Day: Selah

The Hebrew word 'selah' is found more than 70 times in the Psalms. Its meaning is hidden, but in my studies, I have come to think of it as a word equivalent to the idea 'from here to eternity'. It is a kind of rainbow bridge, symbolic of permanence and yet of dynamism. It establishes a present moment, and yet indicates what certainly has been and is certainly to come.

In recent days I have heard exposition of Psalms 23, 90, 91, 94 and 127. The integrity and humanity of the Psalms, regardless of content, are obvious and yet unusual characteristics. Despite being divinely oriented and inspired, they are humanly crafted, with an occasional eye for vengeance and personal displeasure. There is something gleeful, for example, in the 23rd Psalm when it says, "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." But that particular statement deserves (and receives) no 'selah'.

And yet, all that is not the point. The point is that while the Psalmist (whichever one wrote a particular psalm) occasionally takes digs at his personal foes, his reliance in God for all things in their good time is the bottom line. The Psalmist might wish all manner of nasty things to happen — and does indeed sometimes call upon the Lord to inflict them on his foes — but still believes that whatever God decides, it will be just and complete. It will bridge the past and the future while establishing the meaning of the present.

I have never publicly been accused of being a bad teacher before. Yes, I am conscious that I have not always been the best or most appropriate teacher to my students. For that, there is certainly some penalty to be paid, and I accept that. I have come out of classrooms sometimes with the horrible feeling that my lesson was not a very good one. But I don't think that I am totally a bad teacher. Yet, all that is just as much not the point. It is God who will judge how good or bad I was (am?) as a teacher, and I will leave it to Him. Selah.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Let It All Out

As we head towards another Sabbath, I find myself at peace. I think I have been at peace ever since I knew I had to go. Those who know me and have been with me since then will testify to that. So here is a shout-out to some particularly long-suffering people and others.

To the Huntress (my co-sufferer for almost 15 years), the Argonaut (my first wingman), the Historian (my wingman), my thanks for the neatest, tightest ship of all — and it moves so quickly! To my distant Admiralty, my thanks for fellowship in far places. To my fellow captains, a salute to those who deserve it (and to those with leaky ships, time to start plugging away!) To my ancestors and senior members of the Family, my thanks for provision of material needs.

To the Heifer (still with brown eyes) and others of the First, my thanks for the honour of working with you. To the Hierophant and the Tiger and others of the Second (like my TOKen class), my thanks for hours of amusement and pleasure at the wonder of it all. To those of the Third who I never really had time to work with, especially those three in that class and the Arsenal fan, my thanks for restoring hope that had been forgotten. To the Oldhamites, my thanks for many fruitful years which meant something precious to me.

To the Flower and the Eternal Hoodlums, my thanks for being such a cheerful bunch of co-conspirators. To bloggers with odd agenda, well, you know what you did and I suppose I have to be grateful. I'm not entirely sure I haven't mentioned you yet, unwittingly. To the Powers of the Back-Room, my thanks for your quiet support in the face of common sense and conventional wisdom (and the rumour mill).

To the Highest, who gave encouragement ex nihilo, I am amazed and thankful at the kind of support I have received. And to think I doubted. It was always above and beyond what I dreamt I would have needed.

And to Tears for Fears who gave me the title of this post: I may not fully agree with the lyrics, but it was a good song and I enjoyed it way back in 1984 (along with that other classic). Huh, how appropriate!

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Shadows Over Haven

Well, the Family is certainly an interesting entity. I stood there along the balcony listening to one of the Elder Brothers chiding me gently for imprudent activity. And then he tells me to hang in there (where?) for a while. He tells me stories of Time Past and Time Yet To Come. And how the Best Is Yet To Be. Then I am handed a set of Trumps.

It is all very Roger Zelazny. I feel like one of the Amber princes, memory loss and all, trapped in a tapestry of odd significance which everyone can see except me. And being gunned for by unknown agents who have an interest in disposing of me as quickly as possible despite the fact that I do not know why this should be so.

Somehow, I am very happy – and amused.



Yesterday I stretched my legs and made the long walk from the Eagle's Cage to Old Cathay. The path through what used to be an orchard in bygone days has never seemed so un-orchardlike. But it was pleasant to make that long, long walk.

I think I am in some sort of decline into a graceful middle age; I cannot bring myself to be outraged and may be trending towards indifference. This is very bad.

On the other hand, the most powerful neighbour of my old lord seems to have endorsed me. In one week, four job offers. What a week! The eagles may fly, but the ravens will win.


In other news, I was somewhat amused by the new book arrangement. The Hierophant might be a tad displeased. What happened was this: the packers were very efficient in numbering the bookcases and shelves, so that one box might be marked, 'Bookcase 1, Shelf 4,' for example. However, the unpackers were not always the same as the packers. So some of them differed in their interpretation of shelf number, counting from bottom up or top down as their conscience dictated.

This was not always a good thing. Some of my bookcases looked extremely top-heavy, almost dangerous. My dearest brother helped out by reshelving. But I suspect a certain professional and his friends might want to say something in June.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008


My mother-in-law paints ostrich shells if she can get them. An ostrich shell is a hell of a thing. It is about half the size of a basketball, and it is at least 5 mm thick. It is also highly textured, with what seems to be a badly-done spackle job. The thought that occupied my mind was this: if it's a large strong egg, the bird it produces must be pretty darned big too.

Quite often, I've heard sermons on how sin begins that way. It is a small thing, it grows, and voila! it becomes a large and monstrous hatchling. But the egg is also a symbol of new life and rebirth; that's why spring festivals use eggs, and so does Easter (former pagan festival, now Christian feast). The same thing still applies: if it's a terrifying egg, it hatches a terrifying bird.

Over the weekend, I've had opportunity to reflect and learn a bit more. It strikes me that while the eggshell I find myself in is a lot less terrifying than a cold Jerusalem hillside tomb, it is still pretty fearsome to a mortal. I can only hope that I will hatch as some interesting and useful bird.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"What Bloody Man Is This?"

I cannot stop thinking of Joab, ever since Der Springer invoked his name. "Do not let his hoary head go down to the grave in peace," said David the King of him (I Kings 2:2-9). But as I read through the Old Testament, it struck me how Joab (who was David's nephew) and David had danced through a precarious and deadly measure for many years. Joab was always the General, the Enforcer, the autonomous and powerful Right Hand. He did things how he wanted, was adept at pushing blame to the King (which, to be honest, was sometimes deserved), and was a pretty effective general. For years, especially as David began to decline, he was Kingmaker, Godfather, Chancellor.

So wherefore David's angst? Joab was the bane of any man who was promoted to equal rank (or even looked like it). He took out his rivals with summary ruthlessness, no matter what their quality or value to the Kingdom. In this way, he cost the Kingdom the lives of the two generals Abner and Amasa. And as David found his own place in the grave, Joab was still trying to escape.

Sometimes, we're like that, I guess — too locked in internecine strife to see the bigger picture. I realise that Joab's guile and choleric nature are also traits that I can find in myself if I look deep enough and hard enough. It is a humiliating experience to see yourself that way. But having seen yourself that way, it is also possible to find it in others. And that is why the Good Book says, "There is none righteous, no, not one."

I am reminded of the theme of blood in Macbeth. At the beginning, a nameless soldier stumbles towards Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, with bloody injuries that make him seem a likely harbinger of news of battle. There's also the moment at which Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost at the table ("Shake not thy gory locks at me! Thy bones are marrowless; thy blood is cold!") In all the other incarnadine moments of that Scottish play, the appearance of blood presages doom and the intimations thereof. At the very end, it is the 'untimely-ripped' MacDuff who is the bane of the self-made king.

These are disturbing thoughts. I thrust them aside. I need to look after bees in Sussex, or at the very least, prune the hydrangeas. Cataloguing a library also helps. Hierophant, are you out there?

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Word Of The Day: Meliorism

The Latin word 'melior' means 'better'. 'Meliorism' is the belief that the world can be made better by human effort. It is a pretty positive belief; the catch lies in the single word 'human'. Unfortunately, human endeavour has often been associated with failure: "human weakness", "human frailty", and other such phrases tend to support the idea that to be human is to be flawed. The idea of human shortcoming ('falling short of the glory of God') is an old one, and obviously a true one. Despite our claims to being the high point of creation (or of evolution, if you are so inclined), we are not particularly perfect.

In my study of the old Latin Vulgate text of the Bible, I came across three instances of melior ('better') or its equivalent in the fourth chapter of Ecclesiastes, which was my reading for this morning. They are interesting statements. I am meditating on each one of them today. They do seem to hold out hope for meliorism as long as that is approached with God-fearing prudence. I have much to learn.


Note: there are actually four instances of melior in the Vulgate text for Ecclesiastes 4. The fourth instance is found in what the modern Bible calls Ecclesiastes 5:1, which used to be Ecclesiastes 4:17.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008


I had a huge lunch with my two sets of parents and my brother. Then I fell asleep and I dreamt. I dreamt that I was reading the last book of all the historical books of the Old Testament, and a voice came from all around me. And the voice said, "All things are become new. What has been and what will be come together. Rise up with this book in your hands and speak."

And I dreamt that I rose up and spake to a sea of faces, past and present, old and young, without discrimination as to creed or race or division of any other human kind. And then I woke, and it was a hot afternoon, and I could not remember what I had said.

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Day 006

Today is Easter. It is a day of rejoicing and new beginnings — for everyone.

I am totally unpacked now. Unfortunately, somewhere between the wind and the west moon, my chargers were misplaced. I am no longer able to mount a charge until I find replacements. My friends, go out there and break a lance or two for me. Sigh! Such are the perils of indulging oneself in a moving experience.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Day 005

It is over. I have surrendered the keys, which some say were keys of binding and loosing. Well, at least one was a key of lifting, and another the key of preparation. I have surrendered everything and given up my long burden. I go now into the West, not to be seen by mortals for a time, a time, and more.

It is said that when the ravens no longer fly around the White Tower, the City that belongs to Lugh of the Long Hand is soon to fall. I do not know if wyverns will ever cease. I trust that they will continue to soar, on those wings framed in the deep blue tincture of the Spirit of God.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Day 004

Today is Good Friday, and it is the day to lay to rest what is over and done with, and yet prepare for what Bishop Oldham called "all the after life." I saw a fantastically efficient group of young men finish packing my life up and drive around distributing it to three different locations: the home I bought when I was young, the home I visited when I was younger, the high-security depot where the chrysalis awaits.

Through all these things, I have pondered how fortunate I have been to have two excellent wingmen in all my life – the Argonaut and the Elvish Historian. Both are so very different from me, and yet so very different from each other as well. I am glad for them; they have been my comfort and strength most among all my friends in these days.

I must also thank the men of the High Hall who, with the assent of their most puissant Lady, gave me a farewell raucous and powerful enough to raise the dead. They directed it across the sea of green, although I told them this was not wise. I said that I had to go, that I was grateful for this opportunity to build anew, and that I would try my best to serve in my new field of endeavour. I told them essentially that they must not only be good and excellent, but great in the world for the sake of service to all. I hope they remember this.

I am very tired, but it is like the recovery after a long illness. I am alive again.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Day 003

Today is the third day. By the end of today, my last twelve years will have been crated up and distributed out. It is a sobering thing, to realise that all you have done and all that you own can be packaged in about 40 cubic metres of space, most of it filled with paper and emptiness.

It is like watching a play: five acts, maybe twenty scenes. Then it is over as the lights come up across the theatre. Yet, there will have been highs and lows, comedy and tragedy, fantasy and farce, serious issues and intangible ones. Love, war, power, destiny, hate, rivalry, ambition, kindness and generosity, the will to survive, the desire for peace — all these things can be revealed to us in a play.

For those of you who study business and management, who think about balance sheets and inputs and outputs, I have some advice. In life, as in business, assets should be put to work early and made to produce a return on investment. If assets held produce too little return on investment, and the overheads and downside are too great, then it is time to diversify or to divest. But all that is head knowledge. Sometimes, it has to be applied.

By tonight, I shall have filled in the boxes. By tomorrow, I will rejoin the community of believers as a penitent, for tomorrow is Good Friday. It will be time to remember the transition that is death — and also to begin to hope for all the life to come.


Update at 5 pm: All my books are packed now. There are so many empty shelves. I have a box that contains nothing but the things my students have written about me. I spent a few hours looking through these for bad things. To those of you who felt my sarcasm, anger, or intolerance — I apologise to you for not being a better man. It is Holy Thursday now. Happy birthday to my Dutch god-daughter. Oddly enough, it's just a few days after my first god-daughter's birthday, she who is now in San Francisco.


Update at 10 pm: I just threw out about 8 kg of materials pertaining to the past. It's amazing how much documentation exists, testifying to what I spent my youth on, signed by venerable authorities; it just amazes me. The past is truly another country, one whose borders I shall no longer transgress. Sometimes, I shall gaze forlorn across the barbed wire. It is like the experience of 20th century emigré Russians. It is still in my blood. You can take the boy out of Russia, but not Russia out of the boy.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day 002

It's the second day. I have been busy learning about storage facilities and security. It's amazing how the old skills and perceptions come back. Old friends too. Unexpected old friends of sterling character and quality.

I have been very very busy and have hardly any time to spare for replies and other communication. I apologise to those of you I have let down in any way. I wish I could have done better by you and for you.

I feel appropriately mortified at the situation I unwittingly and stupidly engineered for myself, however it has come about. I accept that what has been done is for the best and I am determined to move on in the grace of God.

Onward to the next phase of life! Again, pray for me at this time. I am grateful for all of you.



Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem.
Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.
Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis.

Thanks to Sprezzatura, and some ill-remembered Vergilius from my youth.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Day 001

Yes, this is Day 001.

I'm not unhappy. Actually, it's been coming for a long time, this change in life. It is a chance to move on, to work on my doctorate, to try to come to grips with myself.

I will be busy for the next few days, very busy indeed. But know that I will always remember you who worked with me and were my friends. My mission remains unchanged. I do hope that I will become a wiser man, though.

That's it for now. Remember that by the grace of God, I am happy, healthy, moving on and doing my PhD. Pray for me, my friends.


Update: I really appreciate every single comment posted. I am encouraged by them, and while I cannot yet reply to these wonderful communications, I thank all of you who have posted.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Breaking News

It's all broken now. Heh.

Morning has broken, chains are broken, links are broken, and so are many other things.

Today was the breaking point.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Roman Devotional

Sometimes, one is driven by the exigencies of service to speak about things that come abruptly to one's sparsely prepared mind. The response is difficult, the pressure is dire, the words seem too small to convey and contain what is too large. And thus it came to me while in the shower today, that the Romans have a lot to answer for, and have a lot of answers for which there are no questions.


Here is the Roman meditation that I am about to say something about. It comes from the letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 1-6a.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.

What is clear is that we are all gifted. And the tragedy on display is that this is masked, defeated, debilitated. By conforming to the statistical, logical, socially-constructed patterns of this world, we ensure that the laws of 'normal distribution' require us to describe each one of us as 'above the mean', 'below the mean' or 'within n standard deviations of the mean' – as if these mean something. The truth is simple: we are multifactorial, talented in a myriad ways. To put ourselves into any of the world's reific and disintegrative ways is to deny an holistic truth and to make atoms out of whole people. It is the Bertrand Russell way, but it is not the way of God.

For we are all, once we subject ourselves to sober judgement, gifted to an exact degree which only God knows – but the assurance of faith is that we ARE gifted. In fact, we are gifted so much that we need not think of ourselves too highly, or too lowly; to do either would be to spurn the gracious power that has been given to us for a lie of our own device. We must renew our minds, banish all thoughts of numerical ratings, and be transformed.

At this point, everyone will rise up and condemn what seems to be my misplaced idealism. Well, I don't think that God calls for a lower standard, and I am not saying that. I believe that numerical ratings cannot capture the excellence that comes with being your best. It is not possible that your best is worse than any grade the world can give you. If you are an IB student capable (as far as God knows) of scoring 44 points at best, then 44 points is honourable, distinguished, powerful; the same goes if your God-given limit is 34, though – then 34 would be excellent. With this reasoning, I hold all my students to a higher standard than I can possibly demand on my own: can you be the best that you can be? Can you see yourself as being licensed to touch the face of God and be a finger of His hand in this world?

But how would we know what our best is? There are two things to ponder. The eagle is a symbol of Roman might; the prophet Isaiah also used it in his inspirational message: "You will soar on wings like eagles." Note: you will not soar on eagles' wings, but on wings like eagles. It is the difference between the numerical grades of this world (mere wings) and the excellence of God (something like wings, but better). It is only on the wings of the spirit and of the Spirit, that you can reach above the surly bonds of earth. You were all made for better things; the best is yet to be. You were all made gifted and talented; why should you despise yourself? And lastly, there is nothing normal about your distribution.

Forget the patterns of this world. Transcend them. Think of the box, because you are constrained to; think beyond the box into the vault of the heavens, because you are more than atoms. You are what you are, and that is no mean thing at all.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008


Sometimes, words are so right, so apt, so perfect. Such words should be called 'appropriations'; often, they are both appropriate as well as somebody else's – i.e., 'appropriated'.

It was what came to mind when I realised that this code fragment was it. It is very appropriate for my day. It is certainly more appropriate than the Harlan Ellison version. Which is not to say that Ellison's version is totally inappropriate, though.




        I IZ SLEEPIN!!10
        VISIBLE "Z!"




If you don't already know, this is a famous instance of LOLCODE. I have yet to figure out if 'All Your Base Is Belong To Us' is actually grammatical.


In other breaking news, Archilochos of Paros has just become my latest poet of choice (read the examples given and you will see why). Some of you will probably have already identified T S Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and G K Chesterton as belonging to this small group. I wonder if you can guess who the others are.

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Friday, March 14, 2008


It is a sad but enduring truth that sometimes some people think of a concept and then espouse it without considering the concomitant problems. One of those concepts is holism, or an holistic education (which is one of the many kinds of holism on sale these days).

In several of my previous posts, I have pointed out the shortcomings and difficulties of current 'holistic' thinking in education. Now, I am going to take a different tack. Let's consider things which are manifestly not holistic.

The first candidate is obvious. It is compartmentalism. If you can segregate or ring-fence anything within an educational system or programme, then by definition, the resultant structure is no longer holistic. For example, if you say that student discipline will be run independent of student academic achievement (whether explicitly or implicitly), then you are denying the holistic. Of course it is possible to claim till your face is purple that by putting discipline and achievement together – in the same forum, boat or igloo – that you are conducting holistic education. You would be wrong, since having two peas in a pod does not make a single bean out of them.

The second (and often more insidious, stubborn and recalcitrant) is not so obvious. It is departmentalism, that modern bureaucratic descendant of feudalism. In departmentalism, it is often assumed that a school needs to be separated into independent fiefdoms (oops, I mean departments) in order to function like a school. It is also assumed that if you get the department chairs in the same room for a few hours (in what is called a school steering committee meeting, or the equivalent), you will get a miraculously holistic transdisciplinary outcome.

Well, you won't. This would be like putting different flavours of jelly beans in one bag, shaking the lot up, wagging your finger at them and saying, "Play nice, now!" and then expecting them to become a single large lump of jelly which evokes all the possible separate flavours while not being completely indigestible.

But the skeptical administrator will argue (and rightly so, in a sense) that there is no alternative to departmentalism. Fine. Then you can have two possible types of responses. The first response to this is, "Since there's no alternative to departmentalism, there is no possibility of holism." The second response to this is, "There are a few alternatives. Here are some."

Alternatives to departmentalism? Really? Well, yes. They might not be very good, but they are decent alternatives.

There's the concept of holistic units. In some large schools, small consortia are formed, comprising teachers who together offer all the necessary subjects for an all-round education. Each consortium holds to its own philosophy while seeking to fulfill the overall mission of the school. The idea is akin to that of combined-arms assault teams. A team that combines counselling, discipline, academic, service, sports and dietary elements (among others) in a single seamless programme would be delivering one variety of holistic education. In a small enough school, this approach would include all members of the school.

There's the concept of interdisciplinary units. Immediately, you might say that this is obviously not an holistic approach. Hmmm, maybe not. But it can be brought quite close. For example, consider a team of teachers, each offering a discrete area of interest, subject, approach or course. Then think of them working together flexibly to deliver a combined programme in which they actively worked to reinforce and support each other while retaining their own perspectives and biases. In a sports analogy, this would be a lot like basketball rather than American football – you don't have special teams, but you do have players with specific functions and you can rotate elements around for different team purposes.

There's the concept of knowledge webs. A clever 'spider' can spin connections between all the separate nodes in such a system. You could still have discrete areas, but the 'strand coordinator' is an agent who has enough of an holistic perspective that she (women tend to see more holistically) or he can tweak them until they appear to flow freely across the old functional boundaries.

Now here's a last point. 'Departmentalism' doesn't mean 'departments'. In reality, you might still need departments of some sort, just to reassure the masses and to handle some admin functions. The point is that you cannot make department chairs the cornerstones of the admin system. You need deputy principals or strand coordinators or programme coordinators with the genuine ability to think across disciplines and help weave them together into a functional whole.

Life is messy, sometimes miasmic. Nothing in reality can be easily shoved into a departmental box or a box labelled 'Discipline H'. At the very least we owe it to learners to give them an educational experience that, even if it does consist of discrete elements, includes pointers towards ways of combining them into holistic approaches for handling all their later life.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008


It rears its ugly head. Whomever looks is struck dead. This is the state we're in. It is a single party state. Couples get their own parties.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Sometimes I feel like a salamander, a denizen of the flames, a being of white-hot fire, now having to act like some sort of constipated newt, clammy and cold-blooded. How are the mighty fallen. But do not mistake me; the fire remains.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Here we are, doing our work, going about our business, making ends meet. And still our lives are guided firmly and patronisingly by the people in the smoke-filled back room. I know this, having seen many such rooms.

Transparency is anathema to those who are addicted to power and control. It is perfectly all right for a leader to take the reins which have been bestowed upon him and to use them well and openly. It is not so when you cannot see who else is guiding the reins, or when their uses are kept secret and undocumented.

There are a few tests in any corporate environment. Is work appraisal based on pre-agreed terms? Is every part of it transparent and open to critique and resolution thereof? Are salaries and compensations, bonuses and perquisites all part of an open plan, bestowed based on documented criteria? Is information open to the use of anyone who needs it? Is fair comment allowed? Is there, conversely, a preference that commentary be kept in smoke-filled rooms and not released for general discussion?

We see change to the north of us and to the south of us, change to the east and west. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. But even the tenets of the moldering and corrupt past agree that, in principle, people should be empowered by information and by the wherewithal to work out its best use – and the tools to implement such.

We stand on the cusp of worldwide change. Whether we elect to remain shadowy figures in the wasteland, or come into the light, will determine whether we become changelings or change-agents. While it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, it is also true that when one has been kept in the dark for a long time, the light makes a welcome change.

Feel the wind. Is it freedom that you smell? Or is it the blast of armageddon?

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Cool ACS Mug

I've always felt that one ought to maintain good professional awareness, readiness, knowledge base and affiliation. So of course, when I became eligible, I joined the usual societies and organisations. Eventually, I was invited to join the American Chemical Society, and I became a somewhat peripheral member who did what he could to publicise the Great Work (the ars magna of Simon Magus, Raymond Lully, John Dee, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton).

A year later, I received a wholly unsolicited and totally nifty gift, packed in a styrofoam cube. The cube contained a lovely 'Happy 1st Anniversary' mug, sealed with the ACS emblem in blue and gold, and with a picture of a hydrogen atom on it. The geek part of me was ecstatic. I went off to show it to my neighbour, the Cat, who was also quite appreciative.

Of course, I continue to be a happy member of the worldwide ACS fraternity. Long may the alchemical world prosper!

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Crossing The River

'Crossing The River' is an old meme, and a profound one. I have written about the significance of the Latin word terminus before – 'boundary', which we now think of only as a discrete end or a discrete beginning (whether discreet as well is a different matter). The point really is that we tend to think of life's rites of passage according to one of very few metaphors: the Terminus, as a gate in a wall or a river crossing, is the pre-eminent one.

With that in mind, I spent this morning thinking of the various crossings I've made over the years. It strikes me that these years are critical in that the river to be crossed is the widest I've ever seen. I once had a dream, when I was about six, and it went something like this: a small boy crosses a drain by jumping over it; he becomes older and it is a sewer with a bridge across; he is even older, but now he is crossing a crocodile-infested river while hanging onto a thin rope. I woke up in a fervid sweat.

Right now, it seems that I have been hanging in a reasonably comfortable lodge overlooking a turbulent stream. I am doing well here; I do my job as a jungle guide and all that, and the customers are mostly satisfied and have a fair amount of fun. But perhaps one night I will be shot in the back or knifed by someone I ought to be able to trust. That being so, my nice secure job at the lodge is likely to get me killed; it is where my enemies know where to find me.

Regarding enemies, there are two schools of thought: the first says, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer"; the second says, "God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!" I have seen both these quotes in novels, plays and musicals; they are very much part of our common humanity.

And perhaps that is why I dither on this side of the river. I know my enemies and my friends, and I know that all that saves me from damnation is the conscience that restrains. It is very hard to realise that the only reward I get is a stay of execution, and yet I have to trust that it will count for something in the end – on the other side of another river.

River of Dreams

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
From the mountains of faith
To the river so deep
I must be lookin' for something
Something sacred I lost
But the river is wide
And it's too hard to cross
even though I know the river is wide
I walk down every evening and stand on the shore
I try to cross to the opposite side
So I can finally find what I've been looking for

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the valley of fear
To a river so deep
I've been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I'd never lose
Something somebody stole
I don't know why I go walking at night
But now I'm tired and I don't want to walk anymore
I hope it doesn't take the rest of my life
Until I find what it is I've been looking for...

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the jungle of doubt
To the river so deep
I know I'm searching for something
Something so undefined
That it can only be seen
By the eyes of the blind
In the middle of the night...

I’m not sure about a life after this
God knows I've never been a spiritual man
Baptized by the fire, I wade into the river
That is runnin' to the promised land...

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the desert of truth
To the river so deep
We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We're all carried along
By the river of dreams
In the middle of the night...

by Billy Joel, in River of Dreams (10 Aug 1993)

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Furious Intelligence

When I was very young, it irritated me a lot that my relatives would say things like, "You're very smart, you should do better in your studies!" or "You're so clever, how could you do such a stupid thing!" or "You're a genius, why can't you teach other people to be like that!" or "Don't say you didn't do this naughty thing, only you could have done it!"

See, the problem is that terrible spectre of generalised intelligence. If you are good at a few key skills (often cited as "reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic" – three Rs which aren't really all Rs – or the better "comprehension, composition and computation") it is assumed that you are good at all other things, ranging from giving talks to regurgitating facts to criminal activity.

But it's a terribly asymmetric thing, this 'generalised intelligence'. For example, I can always be accused of doing something (say, blogging) as if I were less intelligent, less stylish, less careful with language than I normally show. But someone who is indeed less intelligent or stylish or careful with language could never be accused of blogging like me. The presumption is that you can scale intelligence and other manifestations of skill down, but never up.

To some extent, that is true. But it leads to the idea that to be of outstanding intelligence is to open yourself up to assault from any quarter which can't be bothered to think more deeply into a situation. It is akin to saying, "A crime has been committed, so the instigator must be the most intelligent criminal available, especially since we can't tell whether he was there or not, and there are no traces of him!"

It's called the Macavity Syndrome, and even if it weren't, I would call it that. Macavity's story is told here, but for the benefit of those who might not get there, I have reproduced the source poem by T S Eliot at the end of this post. Essentially, it is the complex of suspicion, paranoia and disregard for evidence that leads people to attribute a crime (or thoughtcrime) to any person who might seem capable even if there is no evidence for it. This is because paranoid metacognition will say at least two things: 1) there is no evidence because the perpetrator is too clever, 2) there is a concealed crime despite the lack of evidence simply because whatever was done was too clever for us to understand.

The pernicious thing about this is that less discerning people will actually believe this. It appeals to the reptilian hindbrain that responds viscerally to fear. Whether there is indeed something to fear is moot – threats, nightmares, vague apprehensions, the unknown, all these things can be there or not; it doesn't matter to the hindbrain. It is the most primitive part of ourselves, and the part most needing control in a higher-level society. I have no doubt that the hindbrain is best in situations of likely violence and immediate danger, but in other situations, it is a poor substitute for considered judgement and reason.

And that is why I feel dire discomfort and even simmering anger when the Macavity Syndrome surfaces. My own hindbrain plays off the fears of my forebrain. My forebrain tries to stay faithful to my mission statement, but wrath and pride threaten to dominate. I feel compromised simply by the fact that my society so readily Macavitises. Ah, me. Alas. But I am no Macavity, and therein lies the rub.


Macavity: The Mystery Cat

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw -
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air -
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!

Mcavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square -
But when a crime's discovered, then Macavity's not there!

He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard's.
And when the larder's looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke's been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair -
Ay, there's the wonder of the thing! Macavity's not there!

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair -
But it's useless to investigate - Macavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
`It must have been Macavity!' - but he's a mile away.
You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long-division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
At whatever time the deed took place - MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

by Thomas Stearns Eliot, in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939)

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Friday, March 07, 2008


Everything is a discourse, the relentless flow of words leading to the sea. Who will find a lost molecule of water in that torrent? Today I watched the a-ha! moment that came when my students realised that words carry their own meaning.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

De Profundis

How can we continue to say that access to knowledge and information is one of our educational targets?

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Prometheus (Again)

Today I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes, from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound:

Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance--
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction's strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length,
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o'er the disentangled doom.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life; Joy, Empire, and Victory!

Of course, these verses describe a peculiar combination of strengths that makes man able to survive the whims of those who would be gods, but are not. They show an optimism that, in its sidelong glance, mocks the powers who would suppress freedom of thought and information. Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, Endurance – seals against Destruction's abyssal power, spells which will create order against the fall of Night.

Tonight, I am weary to the bone. But Shelley's Prometheus inspires me to live another day, perhaps holding on for some long-deferred victory.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008


English, altogether Germanic in its bones and sinews, took on infusions of its father-tongue in further installments. With the psychopomps and psychogogues of the Viennese age, for example, the Anglo-Saxon bastard child adopted (co-opted?) words like schadenfreude and angst, along with secondhand Latin imports like anima and superego. Words like zeitgeist and the rarer zeitnot and zugzwang (and zusammen, for the organische chemists) duly joined the throng. But the not-so-surprising fact is that much of the German remains understandable, and some of it is pretty universal.

Take for example the erdgeist of Paracelsus (he who once said, "All substances are poisons.") Like all the other geists, the erdgeist is a spirit (cf. poltergeist). Whereas the zeitgeist is the prevalent spirit of the time in which it manifests, the erdgeist is the dominant spirit of the place which it represents.

All that went through my mind as I was listening to this song. It's an old song by Jefferson Starship, and it's about Los Angeles in the early 1970s. The lyrics are inspired, the music pounds a hole in your head, and you are left wondering (unless you do a bit of research) why Marconi plays the mamba.

And there are many other examples of the kind of music which summons more of the erdgeist than the zeitgeist. One of my particular favourites is Billy Joel's New York State of Mind, a moving tribute to a man's hometown (and what a hometown it is!) And there was this very old song, which unaccountably brought a tear to my eyes. Liverpool fans will recognize the group – after all, they came up with You'll Never Walk Alone.

That's when I realised: here where I am, there is no real erdgeist. We are culturally adrift, in an empty space. And the moment we sense an evolving erdgeist, we make it silly and commercial, trendy, nifty, flashy – all the things that kill the ephemeral realities of the hidden world.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Knowing Looks

I cannot stand this broad unfocussed sweep
the hasty generalisations
I can but wield my angry pen and weep
at failing civilisations


We need to teach our students about knowledge, the careful use of the senses, the understanding of the emotional impulses, the nuances of language, the consistency of reason. And that is but the least of it.

I look at the stack of scripts upon my happy desk, and I refuse to continue – for tonight at least. If this is becoming a knowledge economy, the next generation will be impoverished beyond belief.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008


Long-time readers of this blog, and those who know such things, will appreciate this post.

Ah, we were all young once. I began to grow old in the winter of 2004.

Read the blog. The story might have ended, but thought and memory go on, world without end.

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The Hedgehog And The Fox

In one of those weird bursts of synchronicity, I was thinking about hedgehogs, foxes and education; moments later, I read Ariana Huffington's recent post on microtrends vs macrotrends, and why Barack Obama seems to be winning the Democratic nomination in the US Presidential Campaign.

Isaiah Berlin died more than a decade ago, just as I was completing my first year as an educational administrator in the black arts. He was famous, in particular, for an essay entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. It was based on a poem by Archilochos – a Greek poet who wrote, πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

Poll' oid' alópéx, all' echinos hen mega is a complex little idea. It means, "The fox knows many things; but the hedgehog knows one great thing." Berlin used this as the basis for a division of human thinkers into two categories, those who look at the world as an irreducible mass of conflicting and ambiguous ideas, and those who think in terms of grand unified theories – the so-called Big Ideas.

In the end, of course, you need both. The hedgehog's single great idea might only bear fruit if coupled with the duplicity and guile of the fox and his many little cunning ways. But the cycle seems to work this way: a hedgehog-style big idea launches a revolution that picks up speed but may have little concrete application or systematic development; the foxes come in to pursue their own agenda and to make sure that small ideas hiding in the shadow of the big idea find their proper place. Eventually, a new big idea will come along, and the cycle repeats.

A problem arises when one of these two is in the ascendant for too long. An institution intent on leading a foxy, duplicitous, mendacious and misleading life will sometimes lose sight completely of any big idea at all. Instead, its 'big idea replacement programme' is to adopt the motto mundus vult decipi. The world wants to be deceived, and since we can do it, why not?

It all ties in with my musings on holism. The modern holism seems to be a foxlike one: if we think in many directions all at once, it is holism. But that is not holism; rather, it is pluralism wrapped in a neat blanket and masquerading as an integrated whole. The true holism is that of the hedgehog; there is one idea, and everything else serves it. The practice of education, for example, must lie somewhere between the two: we have classes, but individuals who must be respected as such; we have departments, but they exist to carry out the mission of the school. We are multicultural and multidisciplinary, but sometimes we forget the intercultural and the interdisciplinary, and we have never really known the transcultural and transdisciplinary.

Finally, we need to examine the fox and the hedgehog a little more closely. The former is a predator; its problem-solving is geared towards rapine and murder. The latter is prey, but well-defended with barbs in every direction except at the soft underbelly. Eventually, what we know of nature tells us that the fox will win, given enough time. The hedgehog's main salvation lies in the fact that the fox is impatient and choleric; it has a short attention span.

Now imagine what we could do to enhance the two. Give the hedgehog the ability to poison its spines, or even grow specialist spines with unusual abilities: narcotic effects, psychotropic effects, projectile capability. Give the fox the ability to make long-term plans and stay focussed for more than one period of time. I still suspect the hedgehog will win in the long run. If it were faster, there would be no foxes left. For the hedgehog is not only a unified agent, it is also a disruptive force par excellence just by being what it is. Then again, if the fox tried its hand at honest work, or evolved an opposable thumb, thus leading to the invention of tools, it would be the end of the hedgehog.

The last possibility is to combine the two. But nature has already done that, although the combination is not obvious. The answer to the hedgehog/fox dilemma is a simple one. Man is the animal that combines the two, and that is where we return, at last, to Berlin.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

St David's Day (2008)

Today is St David's Day again. The last time I wrote about it, I wondered about the prophetic power of verse. Today I shall write about what I heard today, and did not hear.

I cannot imagine that St David was a neglectful shepherd. I do not think he would have left his sheep in the rain and damp. I cannot believe that he would have taken them to task for being sheep, nor make them to be as "huddled masses yearning to breathe free". I cannot imagine him to have been a dark and violent figure, booming imprecations at the innocent. I do not think that these are limitations imposed by my lack of imagination; rather, these are logical limitations imposed, one way or another, by what little we know of him.

In fact, I look at what he said in his last moments. "Do the little things in life," he said. It makes me humble and focussed on my task. I am no administrator, no lord or baron, no assassin or mercenary, no blood-stained man of the sword. If I ever have been, it was a false role. I am no shepherd either, but I must hold true to that which is my gift. My gift is all about little things done well, and the small made greater.

For there are none of us who are 'gifted' except by the humanist pattern of this world – and yet we are all gifted with the powers of the Spirit that is within us. God grants each person something unique that is that person's own self, and He also gifts us with what we do not deserve, something rare and useful in a specific and special way. So for all that, we must be humble and do the little things. If our gifts should be made glorious by what they have helped to build, so be it. He who bestowed those gifts shall be glorified, while the flesh which is as grass will find its rightful end.

David of Glyn Rhosyn, be our inspiration this day, for as long as the first day of March be a remembrance of you. For the departed saints, often forgotten in the fires of this world, are given to us as encouragement. And we thank God for them all.

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