Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Statistical Problem

It is amazing how much data you can tease out of the Internet without spearing yourself on the Official Secrets Act. Right now, I am contemplating putting up full data sets (all publicly available data) on the usual page. Then people with better statistical know-how can have some fun (especially those of you who have nothing better to do with your wonderful but now totally wasted minds). What do you think?

On a more directed note, let's consider this situation.

An institution generates data for about 1500-4000 individual humans working in it over a period of about 20 years, with the mean being somewhere around 2200 humans. These data take the form of appraisals of each of these individuals, with at least 80% of it being made available to members of the public. Of particular interest are the data on the longitudinal development of the appraised individuals.

The longitudinal development process is called 'education', and etymologically consistent with that term, it is a long drawn-out process. During this process, various interventions are applied. This is sometimes called 'teaching', but a lot of it is also 'coaching', 'mentoring' and 'having fun locally or overseas'; there are in all something like 120 definitively different interventions. The outcomes are reported in public documents in a reified statement to the effect of: "Success has been achieved. Holistic upgrading for the win."

[digression] Actually, this is pretty true in a literal sense. Success has been achieved, as defined in some ways; remember that etymologically speaking, 'success' means 'the chronological outcomes of a process' — hence the phrase 'a succession of events'. which means each event succeeds (is the successor to) a predecessor event. And of course, holistic upgrading is always for the win, or it would pretty pointless. [/digression]

What do you think a conscientious researcher would do in an attempt to improve future outcomes in such an institution?

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Vision And Mission

I've been speculating on the nature of organisational progress. The hardcore stuff will of course be work, but here is what I think: I think that you need at least two kinds of people, in a roughly 1:5 ratio — the vision types and the mission types. It is tempting to suggest that the former are primarily divergent thinkers and the latter are convergent thinkers; I shall fall into that temptation because it is convenient.

We can review organisational effectiveness in terms of a) expanding the core competency or b) expanding the legitimate reach of the organisation. This is predicated on the assumption that organisational effectiveness means that the organisation becomes more effective with time at spreading whatever it is that it is supposed to be spreading. Of course, some people do not think an organisation should spread, but external pressures must at the very least be resisted or the organisation will shrink.

This is not to say that the organisation necessarily has to expand in terms of expenditure, physical size, or number of staff. The focus here is on the size of the organisation's self-image. Does it think of becoming more influential? Does it think of using data to inform its processes, thus making them more effective (or efficient, if the two coincide)? Does it think of new ways of doing these things? This is about vision.

Neither is this to say that an organisation necessarily have to think of new things to do or new things to mess around in. The focus here is on the shape of the organisation's self image. Does it retain its fundamentals — its reason for existence, its orientation towards the world, its approach to doing things, its ideas on what ought to be done? This is about mission.

Three kinds of organisational problems can arise in this model.

Firstly, if there is low vision, then there is low real growth. The organisation will not become a benchmark for its industry, or if it does, it is based not on quality, but on quantity. Conversely, an organisation with vision may not be #1 in size (in staff or physical plant) but may be #1 in qualitatively substantial ways (brand name, style etc). The staff will stay on because they are enthused by this vision (and not merely attracted by being able to tout the brand on their CVs). They will stay on because the organisation is developing them as people. Another common problem is some people don't know what a vision is, or that vision can be refocussed.

Secondly, if there is random departure from the mission, then there may be bloat and overdiversification. The sense of direction towards the visionary horizon is thwarted. But because most people are used to convergent thinking (consider the phrases 'staying on task', 'toeing the line', 'keeping the faith' and other defensive options), this is seldom a problem. The more serious problem may be deliberate departure from the mission, in which case the organisation may succeed, but not in terms of its original intent. This can be considered to be mission failure; it is as if a 30-day lunar probe were to end up sending data back from Venus for 30 seconds. Some people might consider this a great success though.

Thirdly, if the 1:5 ratio is significantly off (e.g. too few visionaries or too many missionaries), then the organisation may become a provincial circus, in which the same acts with minor variations are repeated everyday to the easily-impressed. The organisation may also become a marching band, in which impressive acts of trained synchronic movement are carried out. There is then the semblance of creativity, where the term 'choreography' is more apt. The organisation may also become a kaleidoscope. This produces pretty pictures all the time, but the pictures are unrelated except by the fact that the production process automatically imposes visual symmetry on what is essentially a chaotic process with chaotic outcomes.

All these problems can be seen as small states with large budgets gear up to take advantage of large states with no common sense. This is an artifact of globalisation. What I'm waiting for is when standards become truly global, with inspection teams walking into all kinds of organisations at random and information control becomes near-impossible. Then the nimblest and most focussed tight-rope walkers and lion-tamers will survive; the rest may have to become human cannonballs or clowns.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008


A state is a description of all the elements in a specific set, sufficiently complete for the purposes of its informational context. My definition is deliberately broad in order to include such diverse entities as 'nation-state', 'state of matter', 'halting state', 'state of chaos', and 'state of mind'.

The thing to note, I suppose, is that informational context is the limiting factor in all our communications. This is because it is that context which determines how much data is sufficient for the purposes of effective communication, and hence how low a signal-to-noise ratio is minimally necessary for efficient communication.

For example, to convey a state of mind from one person to another is incredibly complex. My mental state, simply put, is the description of all the neurons in my brain: their number, individual characteristics and condition, possible combined effects, and probabilities of those effects. Yet, given another person whose mind is mostly able to interface with my own (i.e. we have some kind of understanding, or more specifically, a rapport), much of this description is superfluous or would generate too much noise in the process of transmission. A simple, "ARGHHHHH!!!!" might suffice, and additional data might lower the efficiency without increasing the effectiveness.

It is the same with any kind of state; a full description of state is the atomist's dream. Some speculate that a sufficiently complete description of state would change the universe; these are the people who think the world is nothing but information. This may be true, as countless books and movies have attempted to convince us. But at the same time, there may not be enough time for a complete description of state, since any sufficiently complete description of state is dependent on its context — a condition which might imply the necessity of describing the describer as well as the description itself.

No matter how impossible such things might be, they are interesting to think about. They are practical problems mixed with large-scale conceptual ideas. The difficulty in many communities of ostensibly thinking people is that they are intent on solving practical problems without dealing with the informational context at the larger scale. Solving problems without looking at the big concepts woven into and around them is like polishing gemstones in a crown without considering the importance of that crown as a whole.

Shakespeare was a master at describing the problems of kingship, a situation often obsessed about to the detriment of the state as a whole. In Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar and scores of other plays, a common theme is present: uneasy lies the head which wears the crown; how much worse the head which obsesses about the practical details of kingship (how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it) — forgetting that the king is the chief servant and key element of the state.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Statistical Scores

I've been accumulating twenty years' worth of detailed statistics and statistical analysis. This comprehensive archive has been of great value to me in my work and beyond, as the facts are always useful for rebutting reckless allegations and falsehoods about how good or bad some programmes or programme directors have been.

The oddest thing is that I never really noticed how successful I had been until I was told I had been unsuccessful. It wasn't pride that drove me to analysis, but curiosity. Had I really been that bad? Then I had a good hard look at the data and was pleasantly surprised to see that I had presided over the most successful span of years in the history of that institution.

These are the facts: the year preceding my first year in office was the nadir of the entire operation, and my final year was the zenith. The lie had been told that institutional results under me had been on a downward trend. I have very good reasons to believe otherwise, and that we actually maintained a positive record against other institutions of like profile. The national data supporting this were assiduously compiled by me, and some people were just not interested at looking at it in all that time.

The thing is that the data are the data. Statistics may be used to obfuscate the facts, but there are some data which under any reasonable analysis look good, some which just look bad. Although it has been said that there are 'three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics', it is not necessarily implicit that statistics are more false than lies.

Statistics are still susceptible to careful analysis and have the possibility of truth; a lie is untruth by definition while statistics are only untruthful by implication, and only in this one quotation (for which, we apparently have Benjamin Disraeli and Sam Clemens, to thank). It is of course true that statistics can lie in the application and in the explication as well as the implication, but we as reasonable human beings can attempt to make them lie less or even tell a story that is true enough for honest use.

Twenty years' worth of data, all in my hands. Are these a score to settle scores? Of course not. I would not stoop so low, unless dragged down into the gutter by some of those damned lies. Instead, one might seek to soar instead, above the hurly-burly of the mud-slinging. Then again, as someone said to me, it is good to keep a sharp knife and a sharper wit.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Avoidance As A Leadership Strategy

Today I was reading a passage on kingship and its failings. It came to me that I had missed an essential part of the theory of leadership, and that is the message that avoidance of wrath is an integral part of the whole circus.

In the passage above, Saul attempts to avoid the wrath of God and the people, while David attempts to avoid Saul's wrath. It is all a terribly intricate pas de deux, performed by two men, the old grizzled powerful warrior and the young slightly naïve one who is trying to serve him faithfully. That naïveté is what plagues David for years thereafter, even when he himself has become the grizzled power in the land, but has to deal with the scheming puissance of Joab.

But David learns that evil lesson well. Joab does not survive David's vengeance as executed by Solomon, even though he tries hiding behind the altar of God. The whole thing is a mess. Perhaps it is best in the end to forgive, forget, avoid, and keep a sharp knife nearby for self-defence; I think it's a strategy most valuable.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008


Over the last seven weeks, I have been thinking about this year and the number seven. No, this is not a paean to numerology or some sort of alchemical code. But I have been thinking about an eternal city founded on seven hills, seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and seven brothers who bicker but who each have a power that will help the rest.

It was last year that the head of my order in the Family said that we were seven brothers, seven scholae, seven pillars of an ancient mission in a dark and weary land. He intimated that the pillars should bear an equal burden, that no one pillar, no matter how central, should act as if the rest were less worthy. There are always main pillars, but no single pillar can bear the burden alone.

It put me in mind of an old Chinese tale, as usual set in that semi-mythical age of Qin Shi Huang, the mighty unifier and autocrat of China. The tale I refer to is that of a number of brothers, commonly five, sometimes seven. The theme of seven brothers can be found in Finland, Britain, Eastern Europe, Africa, and other places far afield. Each brother has a special ability, a superhuman power such as the capacity to drink up the sea or to be as hard as iron. The powers vary from place to place, but the story often revolves around a threat which attempts to eliminate the 'weaker brothers'. The strongest brother feels immune to this threat, and this makes him remain aloof while the rest get into difficulties. Fortunately, he himself gets into trouble, and it is only a combined effort by the rest, with the proper use of his own considerable power, which saves the whole bunch.

Such stories inspire me. There are some people who do not care for myth, for the power of symbol and the real working-out of symbolic forces in the world. They do not see beyond the limited walls and horizons of the immediate and quotidian. But these symbols and the forces they represent are real and potent. It is our duty to use them, to wield them, to demand the truth from them. As an article in today's newspapers pointed out, if you do not define yourself in all the dimensions of the world, the world will define you.

Yes, it will. And it will also force you to conform to its pattern, against the call of the higher things. By the time you realise that you have been twisted into its image, you will be playing its game as if it is the only one you can play. How, then, are the mighty fallen! Like Nebuchadnezzar, who lost his mind but retained his crown for a while, we must be careful about the gilded symbols that we elevate in stature, in favour with our gods and our men, but of specious value in all our life hereafter.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

The Paradox Of Power

I've just finished studying a large chunk of the Pentateuch, also called the Torah. It has struck me (as it no doubt has struck millions before me) that these books of the early Old Testament say a lot more about power and humanity than many of the others do. They say it in a way that is more raw, more naked than commonly seen or perceived.

Almost always, it is a struggle between legitimate power which must not be overused and subversive power which pushes its limits. Sometimes, other kinds of power and shades of the three main kinds of power compete.

One of my juniors has it right about the circumscribing paradox of power. You can either use it or not; its misuse means loss of power, and so does its rightful use when perceived as unjust. Then again, can rightful use ever be unjust? It is hard to know. In the book of Job, it always appears unfair, that the deck is stacked against a humanity that can never find the right answer to the paradox. At the same time, acceptance of the conclusion found therein leads us to believe that there is a right answer—power can only be fully used where knowledge and wisdom are complete.

This is where we humans muck things up. We have a love of ultimate power that is unrivalled by any love of ultimate knowledge or ultimate wisdom in its ubiquity. We will never attain any of these ultimates, but the quest for the first has been the source of corruption and the undoing of many since the very beginning. What a burden, this paradox of power is for a fallen humanity!


Note: No, I am not the senior that my junior is blogging about. And yes, I am slowly becoming a source of knowledge about the legitimate and illegitimate uses of power within complex organisations. Not that it will ever be enough.

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I woke up this morning realising that I had seven good years, not for myself, but for that venerable institution in which I worked. Those seven years produced a sheaf of original papers and professional awards. And then, after that, the lean years came. The pattern was a familiar one, to those who read the signs.

And yet, not all pharaohs are Pharaoh; not all caesars are Caesar. In the Genesis account of Joseph's work for his Pharaoh, it is clear that Joseph was given a free hand to work on the basis of his prophetic interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams. The account shows positive consequences; seven years of surplus gains were banked and parlayed into a world-class lead. This lead was such that when the world was in famine, all countries came to Egypt to buy grain.

It is always tempting to draw lessons from the inverse story: for example, to say that if Joseph had not been given free reign, the Egyptians would have joined the rest of the world in world-class famine. But we must avoid such temptations because we do not know what would have happened, we are only given the account of what did happen. Drawing adverse conclusions from the imaginary inverse can create a sort of anti-universe in which everything is in reverse.

The lessons of history are reasonably clear though. There are indeed a few pivotal events which might seem earth-shaking to people of those times, but which in retrospect (and more so as the chronological distance increases) diminish in importance. There are also those which increase in significance as the big picture becomes clearer.

Take for example the dropping of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On one hand, it has been fairly argued that Japan would have capitulated anyway, and that the lives saved by nuking two cities to hasten the war's end were insufficient compensation to the human race as a whole. On the other hand, it is clear that since 1945, nobody has dared use such weapons in anger; we have kept the nuclear peace for almost 63 years. What other lethal weapons has the human race had, itchy fingers and all, and yet refused to deploy for that long? Perhaps, in some unfathomable way, the unfortunate citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were sacrificed so that humanity would take a valuable step back from the brink.

Then again, too far a step back from the brink, and we might never make an important crossing. This was what happened to the first generation of Israel, just out from Egypt. They lost their nerve on the brink and subsequently failed to enter the Promised Land. Only the two pioneers Joshua and Caleb were alive to make the second attempt, decades later. Where there is insufficient vision, insufficient faith to see a larger future, the people perish. Selah.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Other Countries

I was mulling over one of the hymns of my youth the other day. This was Cecil Spring-Rice's 1918 nationalist piece, I Vow To Thee, My Country. Its words read:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago
most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
and her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

As is traditional in these politically-correct days, there is an omitted middle verse no longer considered suitable for modern audiences. You can find it here.

In August 2004, around the time this blog was first set up, the Anglican Bishop of Hulme raised his voice against this hymn as an emblem of heretical (his word) nationalism (his other word). He claimed that it set love of country above love of God. This latter assertion is a rather odd claim, no matter how you read the first line — the verse is explicit that love of country is all earthly things above. There is no doubt about its flagrant nationalism though.

But there is indeed another (part of) history I've heard of long ago, which the Bishop was not taking into account. The first verse was written in 1908 and, along with the excluded middle verse, updated in January 1918. These verses were written in the throes of British (well, English) nationalism before the end of the First World War. The last verse was written at the end of the War, and it is heartening to see how the author had come to acknowledge that other, greater country — the one which we can be faithful to despite not being British.

I've always maintained that people who sing anthems are implicitly claiming to live by them. And if they make such implicit claims, they should be careful to remain true to the values and virtues explicit in such verses. Sometimes, these verses may be old, outdated, untrue. They are then perhaps rightly expunged from what is sung. Sometimes, they are all too relevant, cannot be expurgated, and must be sung loudly, with feeling, and in the true spirit which comes from faithful allegiance.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Teachers' Handbooks

I spent a lot of today reading teachers' handbooks. These are a kind of esoteric document visited upon professional teachers in real-life schools.

They are long, systematically-structured documents, nowadays found as often online as not. They have incredible detail. They talk about relationships and practices and all kinds of stuff. And they contradict themselves a lot. And no school is ever run according to the teachers' handbook. In fact, I am quite certain that no school is ever run according to the principals' handbook either. I have looked, and I have found none upright — no, not one.

In fact, it is amusing, interesting and instructive to see where the handbooks make it impossible to actually run a school. The most obvious problem is too much detail; lay down a complex enough code, and a whole class of interpreters must spring up just to handle the error functions. Worse still, if the code is cumbersome enough, by the time one cycle completes, the next is already competing for processing time. Then everything locks up.

Fortunately, humans are clever. They can rank tasks by some sort of internal priority, and while giving minimal compliance, they just discard tasks which block up the process or slow it down. The end-product is close to the desired perfection, most times.

I will be more specific in future posts. Or at least, in my doctoral thesis.

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It's long been held in social and political life that getting things done requires a hard-headed approach. Although the literature shows that a 'nice first, then tit-for-tat' approach is a winning game rule in most cases, this is sometimes spun to show that the last person to act in a heavy-handed way should win.

This is very close to deficit thinking, by which I mean a philosophy of life in which avoiding losses is better than achieving gains, and in which risk avoidance trumps risk-taking. It is also somewhat related to the idea of achieving incremental gains (sums of very small increments, like an integration problem in calculus) as opposed to higher-risk quantum gains (large jumps, but be careful that you land safely).

But the long-term payoffs are interesting to see. Because human faith and sight are limited, we tend to look at the near horizons, like bacteria in petri dishes. Contrary to this, the fact is that if we leap out of the petri dish, we will find it hard to ever go back. This is the key point about long-term payoffs in optimistic strategies: that if you succeed, there will not be sufficient losses to bring you back to square one. On the other hand, short-term payoffs with pessimistic strategies tend to keep you mired in the petri dish.

One last caveat though: great leaps forward can often be traumatic. There is often an 'implementation dip' and this may be followed by a short-sighted purge of the leading strategists. Some years later, as abundant gains develop, these gains are then consolidated incrementally, with the incrementalists taking the credit for the abundance.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I am so amused. I think it is a testament to the eclectic nature of my upbringing and education that this humble blog has been a top search result for a whole bunch of almost totally unconnected topics. To whit:

  • 20 Apr, Sun, 18:34:53 Google: Trebuchet findings
  • 20 Apr, Sun, 21:12:13 Yahoo: three ladies
  • 21 Apr, Mon, 12:09:22 Google: **Principles of negotiation**
  • 21 Apr, Mon, 21:49:04 Google: economics-dismal science
  • 21 Apr, Mon, 21:52:09 Google: cold iron rudyard kipling
  • 22 Apr, Tue, 02:02:02 Google: Prometheus and Icarus Paradise Lost
  • 22 Apr, Tue, 03:14:45 Google: strange meeting owen and shelley
  • 22 Apr, Tue, 04:12:11 Google: strange meeting link shelley
  • 22 Apr, Tue, 06:33:13 Google: Four Emus Shiraz 2004
  • 22 Apr, Tue, 06:56:59 Google: "portable curmudgeon"
  • 22 Apr, Tue, 07:30:19 Google: fifty six laws of good teaching
  • 22 Apr, Tue, 10:03:37 Google: "Richardson's Rules"

No kidding.

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Word of the Day: Birefringence

What a wonderful word! I first encountered birefringence in Physics lessons. Its etymology reveals that it is best explained as 'refraction in two different ways'. In other words, a birefringent material is able to take a ray of electromagnetic radiation and split it into two parts, each part emerging in a different direction.

In some more specialised disciplines (e.g. gemology), this can refer to a property that some crystals have of producing two different polarisations or even two different apparent colours when viewed with a single light source. Sometimes, birefringence is taken to be the maximum difference between the two refractive indices in the material.

But you know what made me remember the word? Norse mythology, of all things. The Bifrost Bridge, which links Asgard of the Norse gods with Midgard where we mortals dwell, is also called 'The Rainbow Bridge'. It's not such a large optical leap between birefringent and Bifrost, between a two-way split and a full spectrum, is it?

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Monday, April 21, 2008

A Service, With Lessons

Today I sat in a high place, denying myself the kingdoms of the world in faith. And the reading for today was taken from that tumultuous book of the Torah which is called Shemot. In that book are many stirring words, and none more so than these, which I shall take as a remembrance of Charlton Heston as well as guidance for myself:

Then they said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.”

And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.”

And the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. And I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honour over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen."

And when I came down from that high place of memory, I was left with thought, and then with forgetfulness, but never with regret.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008


The resultant is the sum of its constituent vectors; it is the statically equivalent result of what would happen if all vectors were applied individually to a body. More generally, the resultant is the final product of the application of a function to a set of data.


What a statement that is! I have been researching the results of various schools and how they are reported in public documentation. I think that, quite often, the most commonly applied function is called 'spin'.

Essentially, the function spin transforms a set of data describing a negative trend into one that can look positive when viewed from the direction of the spin. This effect is not scalable; if the magnitude of the negative trend is very great, spin provides for very minimal difference. However, the effect of spin also magnifies the value of the largest positive trend. Since the function centres on such a value, it is entirely possible for spin to make things look better.

A careful look at spin shows that there must be some sort of critical point beyond which, no matter how much spin is applied, everything looks bad. A more careful look shows that since spin destroys information, applying an inverse spin function will not recover the original data. This means that you need to keep the original data if you want to see what existed before spin was applied. If you spin something enough, nobody will know how bad things really were.

Of course, it does not always suit some people to keep the original data. I have seen, in my time, the most outrageous misdirections being used so that bad results will appear good and good results will appear bad. Thank goodness I always keep the original data so that I can check my second-order (or greater) results.

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The Hundred: Khorduniak

It is hard to say what differentiates this weapon from any of the other broadswords in a well-stocked armoury. But there are those who are attuned by nature to the odd aura that it radiates; to those who are so attuned, this blade is discomfiting indeed. Out of the corner of your attuned eye, you will see a battleaxe — a traditional labrys, double-bladed, four feet from edge to edge, with superb finishing in blue and green steel. Yet, it is obviously a broadsword.

The blade Khorduniak is the crafted dream of Khairin, the Swordhand of Ystrond. Not one for traditional crafts, this dwarven master was said to have indulged in swordcraft, oenophilia, and balladry. In her early years, Khairin was sought by the Silver Elves for her exquisite and extremely lethal mechanisms. (Sadly for those most suicide-prone of immortals, they were never lethal enough, although some went close.)

Khairin was also a master alchemist and a panoptikon, in the parlance of the Metapsychic Guild. As only a dwarven craftsman could, she wove these peculiar skills into the making of her life's work. Khorduniak seeks out the five most potent dooms of the mind it faces, and then it attacks in five correlated ways through physical as well as psychic reality, taking on a form appropriate for each attack.

Somehow, it always appears to be a beautiful axe when not looked at directly, but dwarves will never see it as such no matter how they suspect it to be one. The rest of the time, it is obviously a sword, and it works hard to remain that way. Khairin too had to work hard to be a dwarf — for at heart, she was an elf.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Siege Projectors: A Primer

This is just an old post dug up from the pre-1990 halcyon days of my online existence. I think I wrote the original in 1981!


Ballista: From the Greek word for 'thrower'. This device fired large bolts in a reasonably straight line. It was really a giant crossbow, relying on a combination of torsion and springs to store energy. The scorpion is a smaller version, still quite large, but operated by a single 'sniper'. In theory, a ballista could fire ten bolts, massing several kilograms each, per minute. The effective range was as high as 500m. With Roman technology, that would have been the norm, and their accuracy was impressive. With modern steel, a ballista should be able to fire lighter and stronger bolts over four times that distance.

Catapult: From the Greek word for 'flinger'. Another device using torsion to project a load in a ballistic trajectory. Although the catapult and the ballista were indistinguishable at some point in their common Greek military history, the catapult (and its kin, the onager and mangonel) evolved terminologically to be a sling-like device firing round shot. Siege catapults traditionally fired loads such as rocks with less than a hundred kilograms of mass. A slightly more advanced grasp of mathematics was required than that needed for the operation of a ballista.

Trebuchet: From an Old French root, meaning 'to throw over'. A device using a counterweight mechanism to rotate an opposing arm, which would fling the load in a trajectory dictated by the mechanism design. The trebuchet was invented by the Chinese in the 3rd Century BC, and used by the English in the 11th Century to devastating effect; the machine could throw loads of 150 kilograms more than 200 metres. One such device, the Warwolf, so intimidated Scottish defenders that they tried to surrender when they saw it being assembled.


I actually wrote more on onagers, mangonels, and scorpions; over the years, I simplified things a lot in my mind. It helped that my illustrious father was (and still is) a military historian. Plenty of source material there!

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Morning Devotions — Secrets Revealed

Recently, two things happened which led to the writing of this particular post. The first thing was that one of my former students pointed out an ancient post on another blog which mentioned that I used to deliver morning meditations without reference to notes, thus leading the blogger to believe that I was either particularly religious or some sort of cyborg. The second thing was that about a month ago, I found an envelope containing those notes, and promptly threw them all away.

Here then is the secret history of my morning meditations.

To begin with, I've always found it difficult to do justice to any part of the Bible without recourse to a shelf of books. In preparing for a half-hour sermon, I normally refer to a stack of books that comes up to my waist. In preparing for morning devotionals, I need slightly less than that, but this is because a lot of it has stuck in my curious and slightly eccentric neural network. I never delivered a 'canned' devotion; every single one was an original. How did I do it? Here is an outline.

I spent time in prayer. The most important thing to me about speaking in public on questions of faith and practice is that the message is universal and slightly less than totally focussed. Why? Because if it were totally focussed, it would probably hit only one or two people, and morning devotions and such are meant to reach as many people as they can (and make their day better, hopefully). The problem with universality is that I'm not God. So I've always believed it is best to ask for help.

I would then write out the reading for the day, the thoughts that were related to it, and the logic that linked them all. I cut and erased till the 'script' fit a ten-minute maximum. And then I looked through once for mistakes. I always slept well. When I woke up, I would read through the notes (always written on a small piece of paper from a notepad or a 3 x 5 inch index card) once. I would read them again about ten minutes before delivery. And then, I delivered. And it was never quite the same as what I wrote out the night before.

This was the same routine I followed for chemistry lessons, TOK lessons, and any lesson except those for which I had no preparation for whatsoever. (Last year's batch of Year 4 students from a certain class will remember the unprepared one on graphic novels, Shakespeare, Homer and the three dimensions of literature. It wasn't that bad, right, guys?) The routine for the long lectures was of course different; I never had a written script since all the notes I needed were on-screen.

But the colleague who helped me cart the last material vestiges of my previous life away immediately understood why I was also throwing my devotional notes away. It wasn't to conceal the truth about the myth of my 'no notes' ability, or out of bitterness, or out of a desire to perpetuate the myth. It was because I realised (as I should have, earlier) that such notes are instants captured on paper. You can never deliver the same message twice. In fact, I never even once delivered the message as it was written out in my notes.

Which is probably why people never saw me referring to any notes during all my years of morning devotions. Well, that's the true story. And no, I am not an unusually pious human, nor a cyborg.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Ambition (Redux)

It's interesting that, three and a half years ago, I wrote this particular post about ambition. Since I wrote that piece, I have not changed in this particular respect. It is still as perverse or as inexplicable (or incredible) to others that I should think this way, but it is true.

Out of curiousity, I decided to search for 'ambition' within this blog. The findings were interesting. It's not that I've never been ambitious before, but I have held most peculiar ambitions. As the Good Book says, "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands..." (I Thessalonians 4:11a). If anything, my major flaw in pursuing this set of ambitions is an insatiable curiosity (aforesaid), often at war with the second point in the set.

However, I realise that I have also had other ambitions, which can be discerned from reading through the post first linked. Further down, it quotes another section of that epistle. Specifically, I Thessalonians 5:14 says, "And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the fearful, help the incapable, be patient with everyone." To me, this has always been a brief summary of the Teacher's Approach.

In those four points, the bulk of my earthly ambitions has been described. And here, for those of you who have been taught by me, I would like to apologise if at any time I failed to observe these things when teaching you.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Archangel Of The Perverse

I have known for a very long time what the 'imp of the perverse' is. The term crops up in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, and is a figure of speech that describes a self-destructive impulse in which one does what one should specifically not do.

But just this other day, a wingman raises the term 'The Archangel of the Perverse'. Neither he nor I could imagine whence it came, and so I did some digging. It isn't to be googled (although I imagine it soon will be). But I do find the two words in distant and uneasy relationship in the very short epistle to St Jude (patron saint of lost causes), in the New Testament, and the Old Testament book of Numbers.

In the former book, the canonical Bible's sole archangel, Michael, is inspired to rebuke Satan in a paragraph that seems to imply that there is only one Archangel, and if Satan ever was one, he is one no longer. In the latter book, the Angel of the Lord stops Balaam the false prophet and arraigns him for animal abuse ('Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times?' says the King James Version), making it clear that whatever Balaam's intended course of action, it is perverse.

It would seem that the commonality between the two passages is one of self-destructive behaviour, in both cases rebuked by the highest of divinely-aligned powers. Michael, the power who is said to oversee Israel's historical course, must surely have his hands full in these dark days.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Editorial Mind

I remember that when I was very young, my mother the lang/lit teacher and my father the historian used to show me their students' work. I was five years old when they started me on 'find the mistake' and 'correct the error' games. By the time I was eight, I had a full-blown case of grammar/punctuation/style/spelling/etymology Nazism. In retrospect, I was a terrible student to have in class.

The thing to note is that such an education tends to shape an attitude to one's peers and teachers that is rather problematic. People tend to shy away from lectures on how bad their language use is. Fortunately, as I grew older, I learnt to keep my instincts cloaked. I couldn't quite hide them completely, but I could act as if I wasn't twitching inside at every mistake I saw.

However, the editorial mind tends to self-edit a lot. It goes against my grain to write in a way that violates the rules and guidelines accumulated over more than three decades of hard-won linguistic skill attainment. You will find that there's plenty of stylistic consistency in my various blogs: Bookbinding (my book review site), Two Ravens (sadly, now complete and completed), Elemental (unfortunately, not frequently updated), and Dark-Adapted Eyes (a sequel to Two Ravens). I think that I am unable to write in any other way.

I still remember one incident from about two years ago. We had just submitted a large project for some award or other. My former English/Lit teacher took one look at it and said, "You wrote this, didn't you?" She noted that the style was distinctively mine, even though I pointed out that others had worked on it too. Eventually, I had to confess to the fact that 95% of it was my writing. The editorial mind had tripped me up again.

Looking at the corpus of my work in my previous job, I am pretty satisfied at what I have accomplished. To this day, brochures and publications, papers and other documents from the institution in which I used to work, all bear my marks. The style is distinctively and distinctly mine. Where it has been altered, amended and added to, the results are obvious. Although I do not assert a legal right (and have never asserted such) to be acknowledged as author, I am amused by the continued recycling of my original text.

It is something we do not encourage students to do, this 'cut-and-paste' thing. In fact, we would dock marks from a student caught presenting a paper (for example) with substantive unmodified 'cut-and-paste' sections, insufficiently cited and/or acknowledged. But, ah well, what can you do in this day and age? Is it too much to ask for some degree of originality, and (because true originality is very difficult to find) some effort towards using language in a loving, thoughtful and well-crafted way?

Perhaps it is indeed too much, in this age of men. I blame the hastiness of the world and the need to produce papers and other documents post-haste. Add to that the overwhelming use of word-processing software and its accompanying paradigm of reusing and recycling, and everything falls into place. The same place. My editorial mind sees these things, and is sad.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008


There it is, blue and glorious but so small. It darts around; its small compass of being is sufficient to keep it centred in reality as if it were a gyroscope in flight. To do this, it expends energy quickly; its heart must be as much a metronome as the quartz crystal in my titanium watch.

Sometimes, caught up in the moment of my work, I feel the same way. The horizons of my vision shrink, everything is blue-shifted as it comes towards the singularity which is being, doing, moving, thinking, feeling — all in one. I am in the zone. My work hums along.

Like the hummingbird, the integrated action, the integrated purpose, the integrated focus all lead to a single product. For the bird, it is life. For me, it is the writing. I feel like the famous swordsman, played by the White Lion, who once said, "Don't force me to defend myself; it might force you to defend yourself." All he wanted was to be left alone to write poetry, as I recall.

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Monday, April 14, 2008


Not too long ago, one of my female colleagues told me that one of the blogs linked on this blog was a fatal mistake. I had no idea what she was talking about. I still have no idea. So I am open to suggestions. I have not deleted any of the links here (well, not for the last year or maybe more, I don't keep track of such things). Why don't you, loyal readers (especially those who read this before 6 AM local time, wow), have a good look and tell me which ones you think are fatal visions, daggers of the mind?

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The sheer amount of data that human observers can accumulate just by watching a single moderately-sized environment is staggering. Supposing your observation unit is a small state of five million souls. Already, the number of theoretical interactions beggars the power of any computer on the face of this earth. You can record simple things like power consumption, water usage, tonnage of rice imported, stuff like that.

But to use the data to prove that people are happy (and how much so), that people are moral (and how much, and in what way), that people are kind or gentle or emotional, or relaxed or stressed — this is not so easy, even though it might seem so at first glance. In the scientific paradigm, it is best to have questions that give you some idea of what kind of answer is sought, and how certain those answers might be, and why.

People trained in such disciplines can make assertions, and test them. Sometimes, however, the training is misapplied. When scientists ask whether God exists, the question is a bad one. How would you know? Given the proposed characteristics of God, why do you think that the data we have access to can define His existence or lack of it? What level of evidence would you require to prove God existed, and if you knew, would God allow you to prove His existence? Why would He; why would He not?

The thing about assertions, I suppose, is that if you were to present your evidence to a panel of reasonable human beings, and then contrary evidence of superior quantity and quality were presented, you should be able to reject your hypothesis. If you cannot reject your hypothesis, you're not being very scientific. On the other hand, this is asymmetric. Presenting refutations in advance without knowing what is to be refuted is slightly odd. Not that it cannot be done, but it isn't often done.

In the end, the huge mass of data will be interpreted by those who mine it best, who extract the ore carefully, reduce it to its true metal, and make useful implements from it. As I sit here, I sometimes find myself at a loss as to what the eventual fate of this data should be. I try to be as painstaking as possible. I try not to make statements I can't support with the full burden of data. It kills me, sometimes. But it is useful to marshal the facts in neat formations before sending them out to do battle against the unknown.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

50 Facts That Should Change The World

That's the title of Jessica Williams's book of powerful and intriguing truths. Others have summarised this list elsewhere. But sometimes it is also important to juxtapose various truths and see how they work with (or against) each other.

Truth #20, for example, says that cars kill two people every minute. Truth #22 says that 150,000 people are killed by global warming every year. Do some calculations. #20 will show you that 120 people are killed by cars per hour; 2,880 per day; 1,051,200 per year. In other words, cars kill almost exactly 7 times as many people per year than global warming does. And since cars also contribute to global warming, we should just eliminate cars!


Well, there are about 6.8 billion people on this planet today. I checked here. This means that approximately 0.015% of the world's population dies because of cars. And if you examine the ticker on that site, the rate of births far outweighs the rate of deaths from ALL sources of death. And nobody has bothered, as far as I know, to measure how many lives are saved by combustion-engine-driven transport every day.

If you were particularly callous, you might conclude that #20 and #22 do not matter as much as finding ways to provide a better life for those still living. But I'm not quite so callous, I think; as Donne wrote, "Each man's death diminishes me." Yet, I am also quite sure that most of us don't think of such things much. Even when we do, the breadth and range of vision required are too great for comfort, the ability to do significantly much seems too small.

The niggling voice of one Robert Browning, however, still speaks to me. He said, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp; or what's a heaven for?" Ah, that Browning. He bugs me all the time, an incurable optimist about humanity who also once wrote, "The best is yet to be; the last of life, for which the first was made."

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Saturday, April 12, 2008


The one response to my previous post so far asked whether it would not simply be better for me to declare that all my posts should be taken with a pinch of salt. That's an interesting point.

Actually, I don't think I can declare that and remain honest. Some of those posts are satire, some are metaphorical or literary in nature, some are humour (albeit of a mordant and somewhat peculiar kind). Those can perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. But there's serious stuff here too: when I speculate from first principles and from direct findings as to what should be done or what was really done, that's fairly serious. When I look into etymology, that's mostly serious too. Not all of this stuff is humour.

But, son of men, I take your point. Satisfied? Heh.

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Friday, April 11, 2008


For those of you who are wondering, I'm happily busy digging into the wonderful ethnographic world of education. As with many areas of the humanities and social sciences, the data obtained are subject to a wide range of interpretations. The trick is to try to see what really is there (a construct which is very elusive) and what is not (which is sometimes easier). The problem is when there are contested or contestable interpretations.

Actually, the contesting of interpretations or narratives is a good problem. It tends to allow for clarification of definitions, positions, and theories. The outcome may be polarised (for example, two diametrically opposed camps) or it may be reduced to some sort of compromise or consensus. All of these things can be dealt with in reasonable manner, although the debate may get heated at times.

The more serious problem occurs when the interpretation of data or a constructed narrative is not openly engaged. Suppose I say, "State A began life with more privileges than State B and that is the cause of A's later success." If we can define privilege satisfactorily and build a case, we can engage in a debate on the side that agrees or the side that disagrees with that statement. However, if we do not attempt this engagement, State B may feel victimised (or rarely, State A may feel its accomplishments are underestimated). These feelings may lead to bad blood.

It is the responsibility of the researcher to hedge some kinds of declarations with some form of reader guidance. For example, if something is said to be a metaphor, it can be assumed that the reader should know that metaphors are imperfect and should not have more read into them than necessary. On the other hand, the researcher can explain the metaphor and where it fails. The problem, of course, is that the strength of a metaphor is greater than mere explication; likewise, its weaknesses can be assumed but are not so easy to determine. After all, it is a metaphor and not an explicit statement of fact.

Even after a researcher has spent (for example) decades of researching the same environment and taking down notes on everything that was said and done, the fact remains that there will still be lacunae, gaps in understanding and knowledge. The honest researcher will state what these lacunae are and why they exist, wherever possible.

Similarly, in this blog, you will find things that are clearly stories, narratives, fragments of poetry, songs. There are tags, keywords, and conventions of usage that will allow the reader to understand whether something is meant to be taken literally, whether it is some undirected rambling through the corridors of my mind, or whatever. I have feelings in response to what I hear, what I read, what people tell me. Sometimes, I write about those feelings.

It is somewhat disingenuous to assume that I write for publicity. I am quite certain that on average, a handful of people read this, and even fewer are driven to interact (link, comment etc) with this blog (although of late that number seems to have risen). People who go to Google looking for odd snatches of poetry tend to end up here, people who wonder what odd Latin phrases mean end up here. I write here because over the years, the paradigm of handwritten journals has been replaced to a large extent by the paradigm of self-published text. The thing is that the former has extremely small circulation while the latter has potentially unlimited circulation. This can be a dangerous thing.

Particularly dangerous is the fact that I cannot reply to responses which are false but which I do not know about. For example, in January, I wrote this piece on an old Latin saying. I think I was looking at something that happened on CNN, but I cannot remember what it was. But I can imagine someone reading this and saying, "Huh, this must be about XYZ, what an evil thing to write about XYZ."

Then again, there are also the problems of parallelism. I am occasionally exercised by the parallels I see between some of the excesses of the present US administration and some of the behaviours of the former Soviet Union. This is because I see the US as continuing to be a big player in the world where I live, and it can't be good (in principle) for certain things to happen. So people ask me, "Why do you bother what Senator McCain or President Bush say or do? Why do you blog about them?" Well, I do have a distant concern; these men's deeds can affect my life, my work, my finances. I am more concerned with what the US President says about monitoring information than I am about most other people.

But what if some other people think I am referring to them when I refer to a parallel case? I have no good answer for that. Literature shows us that certain symbols, tropes, patterns work themselves out across eras and across lands. Sometimes, it is tempting even to me to draw parallels or leave them to be drawn. It is a temptation to be resisted. Quite often, at a certain point, the parallelism, analogy or metaphor breaks down. Then it is obvious that the relationship is false. Sometimes, it is harder to see if this is true or not.

I think that there is some recourse to truth in the blogosphere. You can see it on any major newsblog. Any user can reply with a comment. Only certain kinds of abusive and/or obscene comments are deleted. The rest are given face time. The writer can respond in particular or in general. The writer can correct his post. This is how a civilised community behaves. Let me put it more bluntly. If in any of my posts I have made factual errors or unjustly maligned specific persons, I will take down that post and issue an apology. In public. On this blog.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Doing Up

Work, work, work. I am only these days recovering my capacity for grinding out serious material. A colleague of mine refers to it as 'doing up the tables' – the hard work of looking at stuff and structuring it so that it means something more important than just the sum of its words.


In other news, I've been listening to Annie Lennox again. The Medusa collection is really one of her best. I wrote about one of the songs in that collection last year — almost exactly a year ago! It was a coincidence that I wound up listening to it again today; but as one of my ancient colleagues once said, "We talk about coincidences a lot, but we never ask 'Who makes the incidences co?' "

Ha. Anyway, here is a link to one of her live performances, 13 years ago in Poland. You should really think about those lyrics while you listen to her smoky, chilling voice burning your false-consciousness away. There's a much better recording here, but without the live performance, audio only. Enjoy!


Back to the idea of work. A colleague at the Institute showed me this wolf-writing and said, "Do you think you can work it into your matrix?" I hesitated at this. I mean, look at the list: it has gulags in it!

I don't think that the American fascism described here is quite the right metaphorical construct. However, single-party states do have many things in common. And as another colleague pointed out today, educational institutions do tend to be authoritarian rather than authoritative, and they very strongly defend their right to be that way. This is not true of all of them; rather, places where this is true venerate the relics of what some of us call Fordist position. Like Henry Ford's customers, clients of some educational systems can have a car of any colour – provided it is black.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Promise Of Rain

Yesterday, someone said casually to me, "Ah well, within months they'll all have forgotten you anyway. The young never remember such things."

I don't think that's entirely true, but I don't hope that it is entirely false either. Making an impact is not what education is about; rather, it is more about influence. Quite often, people forget that the two are not normally interchangeable. An impact may have influence; influence may have an impact – but one tends to think of impact as singular and brief, while influence is a multiplex and has prolonged effect. In a world of soundbites, it is too easy to confuse the two.

'Education' means 'a drawing-out'. You cannot use an impact to draw things out; the response of a substance to impact is either malleability or brittleness, not ductility or flexibility. 'Influence' means 'a flowing-in'. When you contribute, there is more to draw out; that is all there is to it. My philosophy of education has always been tripartite: 1) identify what each student has in terms of 'capital'; 2) identify areas in which it can be grown (painful or not); 3) contribute to those areas. The important thing is that it is not 'the philosophy of me doing the education'; I much prefer it when the persons undergoing education learn to do it to themselves.

This has opened me up to charges of being a 'bad teacher' who walks into class armed with nothing but a drawing instrument, with lessons which are alternately described as 'complex' and 'vague'. Well, if I had 20 clones in a class, lessons would be easy: I'd only need to teach a single thing in a single way. But here I would like to defend myself.

Firstly, I think that this style trains the mind to rehearse and think through what is being taught so that some kind of framework is retained in the teacher's mind without further recourse to external sources. This is how examinations are run; why should teachers be allowed to refer to notes when their students won't be allowed to in exams? Secondly, why should education always be piped in via multimedia when in real life people don't always receive input (or produce output) that way? Thirdly, why should one eschew the complex for the simple when the complex is the truth and simplicity is just reification?

Please note that I do not necessarily espouse complexity over simplicity. I simplify when it is justified. I don't think I am a perfect teacher, but I do think that on average I raise the game for most students. They have to learn to think for themselves; at the same time, I show them how I think for myself and offer suggestions as to how they can improve in certain ways. Often, the process is not simple. It is a constant (sometimes seemingly random) barrage of tricks, tips, oddities – all woven into a big tapestry which seems as messy as real life. Yet, I am confident that I have provided some structure, some substance to the overall process of learning.

But that is the promise of rain. The rains fall where they may; you can predict their general behaviour but not their specific behaviour. The influence of rain is not in a single impact – that would be a crop-killing flood. The influence of rain is subtle, long-term, integral to the drawing-out of a crop's potential. I would rather be like rain than like hailstones. I would rather be grey and amorphous in form but life-giving in substance, than lively in form but grey and amorphous in substance. At the same time, I hope I have provided sufficient liveliness of form to help the crops absorb the substance.

My educational model has always been that of the Teacher, who taught with authority, with only His voice and with the occasional illustration. He taught in parables, and was able to say, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Nowadays, He'd probably be hauled up for being a bad teacher in not providing earphones for His students and in teaching by metaphor and quotation rather than by direct input of factual substance. It says a lot about the system of the world, which we are not supposed to be conformed to, but which we tacitly allow to take root in our lives.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008


As a qualitative researcher in the social sciences, I'm not one to form hypotheses about social situations without cross-checking among the members of a given milieu. So recently, when I polled The Family's senior officers about the events of the last month or so, I was amused to find out the places where the stories matched and did not match. It all depended on who told what to whom, and very often, what was told to one was not what was told to another. The whole thing was a very complex web of interwoven narratives boiling down to several foci of consensus.

It strikes me that life is indeed less of a life-and-death struggle than many would have you think. It's just that all these interwoven narratives tend to convince us that the immediate milieu and the local interactions are paramount, of the same scale as the clash of civilisations. The big picture and the massive externals are often ignored in our up-close-and-personal knife-fights. To the big fish in a small pond, the idea of human intervention against them must be particularly threatening; to us, the idea of divine intervention against us is as terrible. We'd rather just keep our parochial mindsets, thank you very much.

People who squat in the same pond for years tend to get possessive of their pond and their way of squatting. I am no exception; most of us are not. We do tend to become increasingly more alert to some minor changes in our environment, while less sensitive to other changes. In intrinsically more social animals, this takes the form of sensitivity towards social phenomena such as relative dominance, patronage, symbolic posturing, and so on. Some speculate the human brain has developed to such a large size simply because of the need to keep track of such social interactions.

This is why convincing people of the big picture is such a difficult thing. Until the price of rice rises 350% in 5 years, until the price of soyabeans makes that crop the most expensive food crop in the world, until people begin to find out that cannabis sativa is the second best (and most reviled) food crop available to humans, things just don't have an impact on us. We continue to reinforce our socially-constructed myths and power structures while the physical and spiritual facts of the world dictate their obsolescence. How sad.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Engineering Failure

Sometimes I think that zero-tolerance (or at least, very low tolerance) engineering is the downfall of many things in the modern world. Here is an excellent quotation from Henry Petroski's To Engineer Is Human (Vintage Books, 1992), p220.

The successful transportation of men to the moon and back has demonstrated that lack of experience alone does not necessarily condemn a design to failure. It is rather
the combination of inexperience, distracted by overly restrictive requirements, coupled with the pressures of deadlines, and aggravated by concerns for profit margins that initiates the cracking up of bus frames and designers. [stress added by me]

It is the same set of stressors that drives men to multitask, a special talent which men are far less suited to possess effectively than women. Women, after all, are able to locate missing children and animals without so much as line of sight and even in the absence of noise (which is as effective a signal as noise itself, to many of them). Men aren't very good at multiple targets, due to the easily-focussed (some say 'distracted') nature of the male brain.

The American Psychological Association, often the focus of much contentious debate as to its pronouncements, has something to say about the matter which makes a certain amount of sense. They contend that multitasking has a built-in cost associated with switching rule-sets on and off, back and forth. A few tenths of a second are required to activate such switching, and this can make a life-and-death difference in efficiency of response.

I used to feel lousy about not being good at multitasking. I'm glad, for once, to feel normal.

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Alliteration In F Major

Fear, failure, fatigue and fraud were all around. For many years, Wolff walked with weariness. In the councils of the mighty, he sniffed the taint and wondered why he was being party to the Potemkin pictures. He had always preferred the uncluttered simplicity of adrenalin, with its own responses in F.

And one day, after many more warpings of the truth, after one more admonition from the Magistratum to suppress the truth so as to boost the bottom line, he just snapped. "It is not dishonesty," his superior had insisted. "It's just that we do not want to say we have problems if there are no ways to solve them. Then it is pointless. Every year we would have to declare the same problem and our inability to solve it. What will people think of us?"

And Wolff, knowing full well that the simple art of blood-letting would have solved some problems, had always chosen to remain silent. That day, it was one silence too many. He sat at his desk, one of the last few scholar knights, with his head in his hands. If he looked up, the sword Perdurias, consecrated by Bishop William himself and mouldering in the corner, would look accusingly back. The stress was intolerable. And so it was.

The moment he found his freedom, he saw the flood. Someone else had started it first. Fright and flight were never options. The fight was on, but where the foe? And what (his single fear) if foe were friend? Forsooth.


We rest on Thee,
Our Shield and our Defender;
We go not forth
Alone against the Foe.
Strong in Thy strength,
And in Thy keeping tender,
We rest on Thee,
And in Thy Name we go.

Edith Cherry, c.1895


All men dream: but not equally.
Those who dream by night
In the dusty recesses of their minds
Awake to find that it was vanity;
But the dreamers of day are dangerous men,
For they may act their dream with open eyes
To make it possible.

T E Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1922

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Notes From A Battlefield 002

There are many names for this kind of injury. The effect is best described as 'invalided out'. Battlefield triage has determined that you can no longer be patched up enough to fight the way they want you to. This is a good ending though, one of the better ones that might possibly succeed the phase mentioned earlier.

More often, the injury is permanent. More often, the last phase involves heroic insanity such as charging a machine gun post with no grenades and only a fixed bayonet. More often, the invalidation involves long and tiresome recuperation.

Here, this is not the case. I have no physical problems. I have some exhaustion and some reorganisation to do. But I will be back in fighting condition shortly.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Lethal Mutation

Last year, a grand experiment in education was completed. The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) was used as a 'magnet' programme to attract a cohort of more than 350 specially-selected students from within the top 10% of a specific population. The results of that experiment are now a matter of public record, and they were outstanding by almost any measure of quantitative excellence.

Recently, however, a paper was written in which the words 'lethal mutation' were used to describe this kind of highly elitist approach to the deployment of such a programme. The author, an alumna of the IBDP herself, compared the ostensible objectives of the IBDP and some of the writings of its founder with certain tendencies and practices in US education. She concluded that such an elitist approach was not congruent with the basic principles of the IBDP, since access to all students was a founding principle.

This discussion is an open one. I am not sure that the IBDP can at all be deployed within the local context without some form of elitism involved. After all, the country in which I work has one of the most highly streamed populations in the world and is generally very proud of that fact. It also has both the political will and the political strength to ensure that most things work as well as possible in terms of measurable results.

So... is a highly elitist approach to the IBDP indeed a lethal mutation? Or is it a beneficial one in the short, long or middle term?

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Friday, April 04, 2008


I woke up this morning feeling a little cold, a little tired. It's part of the new physical development. I'm not a young person anymore, and walking ten kilometres a day is probably doing me some harm as well as good. Then again, there are all those people who are older than I am who swear by it.

The weather is getting to me too. I'm one of those 'sit around in the afternoon and watch the world go by' types. But it has been raining pretty heavily, mostly in the afternoon. Watching the world go by appears more to be a matter of watching it get flushed away at such times.

That's not to say that life is particularly bad. It is good. I have had time to reflect and to gather my thoughts in many ways, sometimes in little cardboard boxes, sometimes in little pieces like this one. Back in January, I already knew I'd have to do all this. The wolves always know, as do the ravens, when the time is right for pickings.

And I shall be meeting up with old friends today. I've just realised again that it's been 25 years since I took my O-level exams. It's yesterday once more.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Family Tree

Sometimes people tell me the strangest things. One said, your Family and The Family, they are inextricably intertwined. I laughed. It is quite clear that since the Old One left South China eight generations ago, my Family has established itself far more deeply than people think. The clan is a large one, and while it is not as large as The Family, it is diverse and wonderful in its ways.

Classic pronouncements:
  • "While I am not a member of The Family, I would say that some people who make statements in public are certainly a lot more indiscreet than you ever were."
  • "As a member of The Family, I would say that it is amusing to watch people mess themselves up while you idle around outside."
  • "As someone who does not particularly like The Family, but who has put one son through its mill, I think what has happened is perfectly normal."
  • "As someone who does not have a high opinion of The Family, let me tell you that you got what you deserved by not listening to me and leaving that branch of The Family's business four years ago."
  • "As one of The Family's leaders, I think you should have just stayed outside that business, like many of The Family's junior members."
I am amazed by the diversity indeed.

My Family I was born into. It sometimes seems that I was also born into The Family. But I am intrigued by the differences, and humbled by the facts. In the end, I concede that I cannot really leave either. When I go to the annual gatherings of The Family, I will still be on first-name basis with all but the most senior (who I must call 'Uncle' and 'Aunty'). They will not let me go, despite all that has happened so far.


Update: Logging the IP addresses of people reading this shows an unusual fact. Why do so many people from that branch of The Family's business keep accessing these pages? Surely they have better things to do. I do this in my spare time, not during working hours. Heh.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Family Roots

One should never forget that Families are seldom perfect. Even in a Family that holds together well, there will always be dissenting voices. What is difficult to understand is that sometimes the head of a Family might bring in a consigliere from outside to help impose order. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

If the consigliere is loyal to the Family, it becomes an instant asset; an infusion of new blood, perhaps new enthusiasm and the possible bonus that this man might want to prove himself (and thus perform far above the mean). However, such an asset must always be checked against certain criteria and balanced by other Family members. A marriage helps; a marriage of convenience is suspicious.

Yesterday I heard from a gathering of the Family Elders. I was included in the conversation as a loyal consigliere from within the Family. What I heard was interesting, to say the least. You can take the boy out of the Family, but never the Family out of the boy. This is true. But does the converse hold true as well? Can you really put the boy into a Family such that the Family is put into a boy?

You can, especially if the boy is aged 6-18 or so. The prognosis is somewhat uncertain beyond that.

I heard the rumours of civil war, and then the Elders said to me: No. There will be no war. We will settle this.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008


When I walked out that door, I realised that I was carrying in my head a lot of intellectual capital. The ethical question was how much of it belonged to the institution and how much I ought to give back. My conclusion, arrived at after a fairly long period of self-inquisition, was that the answer was probably none. Why so? Was I being ungrateful?

The answer to that is simple. I specifically asked if the training, skills and ideas would go to waste, and the answer given to me was that I should use the training elsewhere, use the skills to get a better position elsewhere, and that the ideas had already been paid for and used up. I did not fully realise the magnanimity folded into that answer until I saw that it was a blanket absolution covering any notion of indebtedness.

It has dawned on me that I can now make my ideas public domain. I can even make my internal commentaries public domain. I signed nothing to the contrary, and have indeed been asked to go out and perhaps publish a book "since I am good at writing". All this amounts to valuable advice. I must now prepare to use that advice well.

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