Saturday, May 31, 2008


Sometimes it is both interesting and useful to see the history of the world as a collection of arbitrary periods defined by the retrospective highlights. Lots of people do that, and to this chronological spectrography, they add the dimension of space. This means that you can say 'Early Bronze Age' and have it mean a different time period depending on where the artifacts have been found.

Of course, civilisation isn't really like that. Even this concession to the factual solidity embodied by an artifact does not allow us to adequately capture the movement of memes – symbols, ideas, concepts – and the people who carry them, the memephors (if you like). The problem does not go away as we come closer to our present age in time, simply because events have a larger footprint and the implications of each event (and the significance of such events) multiply beyond our horizon of understanding.

In the past, the ocean of history was large and relatively empty. A person invents a tool in what is modern Spain and there is a very long while before it has any impact in what is now Canada. In the present, this is not so. Canada and Spain are no distance away at all, in terms of the Information Age.

If you play games like Sid Meier's Civilisation (currently in its fourth edition), you will see this replicated to some extent. Until you encounter another civilisation, there is absolutely no mutual impact from technological or social innovation on your part or on someone else's part. However, as civilisations begin to encounter each other, exchanges of information and technology occur and the world is wrenched asunder for some, improved for others. Nobody benefits from insularity or from trying to maintain superiority alone.

There is one exception: a power that grows exponentially by conquest without pausing to consolidate can possibly win by eliminating all significant rivals within the sphere of consideration. Even for this exception, the effects of human social behaviour will sooner or later act to brake expansion and cause revolution. The resulting centripetal force and its consequents will cause civilisations that expand too rapidly to fracture, decline in quality, or disastrously contract.

And all this you get by playing computer games for hours. How come? Because good computer game designers learn from history and try to model things so that they happen as they always have (in general) with a bit of random and unexpected stuff (as in real life). The problem is trying to guess the right proportion.

My guess is that there is no right proportion. Nothing is new under the sun; what most people won't guess, somebody has already guessed. The correct guesses are always in the minority, and often made for the wrong reasons when you look at the specifics. The wrong answers are always the majority, and they are often bolstered by retroactive creativity and plain self-deception, so that they look somewhat right.

Eventually, most of us will shake our heads, wave our hands, give a wry smile, scribble something down and call it a day. This is the foundation of history.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

64 Reasons

The number 64 has always had broad significance for me. I remember that when I was four and learning how to play chess from my grandfather, I counted the squares on the chessboard and always came up with a total of 64. To four-year-old me, the fact that such a large number of squares always came to 64, and that the board was always eight squares across and eight squares deep, was a minor miracle.

When I later became a qualified computing teacher, I had already learnt the importance of 64 as 2 to the sixth power. Take a '2' and double it, and on the fifth doubling, you have a 64. Nowadays, and probably for a very small window in the years ahead, the term '64-bit computing' is in vogue. Moore's Law seems to predict that computing power will increase exponentially along those lines, but there are all kinds of caveats which make this less of a law and more of a benchmark to be exceeded.

But I do remember the days of computers with only 1 kilobyte of RAM, and that allows me to see things with some sort of less excitable perspective. Computing power does indeed double all the time, but the human capacity for intelligence or stupidity (the other side of the coin) does not. We remain stuck at the high watermark of complexity and the low watermark of linearity. Linear thinking does not come naturally to humans unless the situation is rigidly constrained.

The other thing I always remember when pondering cognitive development in students is the way my parents educated me. Whenever I asked for something or said something, I was first mostly cautiously encouraged (well, sometimes discouraged and sometimes enthusiastically encouraged) and then challenged to provide reasons. 'Ten good reasons' became something I realised I would have to prepare in advance before attempting certain things.

I also learnt the repetition or deviation (and sometimes hesitation) were bad things. You tried very hard to speak at length for a few minutes, coherently and in a deliberately ordered manner, on a relevant topic for discussion. It wasn't till later that Dad introduced me to the late Kenneth Williams (and others) and Just A Minute, and I learnt why.

It's not easy to come up with 64 reasons for anything. But I've found that a good reason can be split into 64 bits. At this moment, I'm thinking of chessboards and multi-dimensional strategic games. I'm also thankful for the 64 questionnaires I received in a very short fortnight or so. They are bits of a big and messy puzzle which looks like it will be 100k words long.


Oh yes. I have realised one thing for sure. The Age of Complacency concept applies in some pretty obvious ways to the education sector. And the fallout, while being harder to quantify, will be more severe.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008


Many of you know that I'm currently doing some research in educational reform in Southeast Asia. The focus is on Singapore, that peculiar poster-boy for Republican-style democracy and Democrat-style socialism. It is interesting to see what kind of educational system evolved here, what kind of reforms to the system have been attempted, the scope and effectiveness of those reforms, and the outcomes for the system as a whole.

The main problem of course is that information is not particularly free here. The authorities from the ruling party take great pains to make certain kinds of information free, so that they can say the climate is on the whole not totalitarian or authoritarian, but denies information to its critics with great panache. For examples of this, take a look at Nominated MP (now there's a term to conjure with) Siew Kum Hong's blog.

The contrast between a free society and one trying to look free (or 'yearning to be free') is not particularly stark here (no matter what people tell you), but it is a pretty tangled web and worth looking at very carefully. The muddledness of the situation was driven home to me when an officer of the system sent me an email telling me not to pursue a certain line of research. On consulting the lawyers, my supervisor and several other people with useful input, I was effectively told two things: 1) I had no legal, moral or ethical duty to comply with the request; and 2) it was a very interesting attempt – both in the way it was presented and the fact that it was presented at all.

Well, I have decided to backup my research materials in multiple locations and continue working, with my usual care for ethics and responsible research. I sense that what I have to say at the end of this may be a lot more interesting than I thought five years ago.

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Last night I was reading through old poetry, and I decided that maybe it was time again to review the Songs of Ascents, that ancient treasure-trove from the Hebrew psalms. The Songs, which we know as Psalms 120 to 134, are about pilgrimage and life's endeavours; they are the perfect accompaniment of eternal sanity to the daily insanity. There's a catch though; as with much of the Bible, the lens used is human, and therefore skewed towards trying to understand the Almighty with imperfect voice and vision.

That said, it is a good thing for us to read the Psalms for a lyrical counterpoint to the messy and jagged edges of life. And I will now continue the practice that I had in the past, of reading one of the Songs of Ascents each day in a 15-day cycle. This exercise sustained me through 30 months of army life right at the beginning of my national service; that was 20 years ago now.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008


When you study things like education and psychology, you are really delving into things that develop complexity far too quickly for many useful rules to be formed. Consider the flipping of a truly random coin. At the first flip, you have a 50-50 split as to whether it will come up heads or tails. At the second flip, you still have a 50-50 split. If you flip a coin twice, the four possibilities as to what you might see are HH, HT, TH, TT. There are only four possibilities. The envelope of probability is pretty straightforward, with the total number of possibilities doubling with each flip.

However, in things like psychology or education, you flip a human. Humans may not be totally unpredictable, but they certainly have more than two states. After flipping a human once, you already have many possibilities. These include some which you never thought of, some which are unique to that human, and some which that human never thought of. The possibilities branch dramatically after that, limited only by larger bulk probabilities like those mandated by physical laws.

In the social sciences, you take many humans, on the principle that if you have a lot of them, their differences cancel out statistically and you can predict their mass behaviour. The 'lot of them' part is where you get 'social'; the 'predict' part is where you get 'sciences'. These disciplines include sociology, economics and anthropology as well; some would include geography, history and political science. It is hard to decide where to place philosophy.

But I digress. The main thing about these disciplines is that they attempt to reduce the complexity of human behaviour to the level of particle physics or coin tossing. Statistics are employed to show that correlation is quite likely destiny. All this has a corrosive effect on what we think humans are all about. It is somewhat to do with Richard Dawkins's 'blind watchmaker' idea, that environmental randomness accounts for humanity. Even if we think this is true, the secret to being human is to act as if humans are not statistical elements.

There ought to be a 'treat people as people' movement in intellectual and practical life. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world of the social sciences and lose the soul of the humanities?

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Distinguished Visitation

So I woke up at a quarter past eight, for the third time (or perhaps the fourth) this morning. I shot myself up with coffee, black and unvarnished as a chunk of ebony. Then I sat back and waited for the customers.

The first thought to enter my brain was, "Is Obama going to win the Democratic presidential nomination and will he be the next US President?" Not a surprise, that one. It's been a frequent visitor. But why Obama, and not Clinton or McCain?

There is a fairly good reason, as reasons go. Kishore Mahbubani, now Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and once Singapore's ambassador to the UN, offers an unusual one. Mr Mahbubani tends to love his neat little patterns a lot, so for him the three candidates can be neatly placed into a past-present-future model. I'm sure you could guess which candidate fit where without reading the whole thing. Mr M got a couple of details wrong; he tends to leave out the fragments that don't fit, but he is otherwise lucid and entertaining.

Well, a morning visit from the Ghosts of US Presidential Elections Past, Present and Future is nothing to be sniffed at. I wasn't taking it sitting down. So I stood up and went for a long walk.

By the time I got back, I was still mulling over the Mahbubani piece. The important question for anybody else in the world is, "Which candidate is likely to benefit us the most?" In Southeast Asia, a mixture of Muslim and Communist and Secular Pseudo-Democratic and Catholic and Mindless Dictatorial nations, this isn't likely to have a unanimous answer. Even in 'tiny red dot' Singapore, the Old Man said 'McCain' while Kishore says 'Obama'.

Why? The Old Man had McCain as the pragmatic realist, while Obama is too much a man of the uncertain future. But the most likely thing about the future (besides the fact of it not having happened yet) is that it will be uncertain and surprising. Best then, as far as I can see, to pick the most flexible of the lot. So Obama it is.

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Morning Has Broken

I woke up all over the place this morning. In one ear, a ringing noise; in the other, a cold blast of air. I was on the left side and it was not the right side, being the wrong side. Sometimes you have mornings like that: unsettling, disjointed awakenings with pains in odd places.

The reasons may be simple: lack of proper sleep, a thermostat set too low (or too high), the dogs having a fit downstairs at 4 am, the cat having a hissy fit at the dogs, the wrong coffee (or too much of the right one). But the effect is to parlay a normal day into a surreal one, one in which a layer of magic realism seems to loom all over the quotidian landscape.

Well, I've had enough of this. I'm going back to sleep for a few minutes, and I hope that when I wake up, everything will have reset itself back to what it ought to be. Or something else less disconcerting. Heh.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Prime Cuts

Family dinners are sometimes full of eccentricity. I have a family which puns all the time; it drives non-members and honorary members crazy once in a while. Last night though, the announcement that my siblings and I would be observing a rare occasion – the fact that we'd all be having prime birthdays (i.e., birthdays celebrating a prime number of years lived) in the same year – met with silence as people either tried to work it out or failed.

I have a sister who is ten years younger and a brother who is four years younger. If I were x years old, you'd be looking for a set of positive integers {x, x-4, x-10} such that these three numbers were all prime. The interesting thing about this set, of course, is that it seems impossible to prove how many sets there are which will meet the requirement.

Fortunately (as some people would say, God being one of them), we are not immortal and hence there is a limited range of possible solutions in the real world. And the real world offers at least one other benefit; many of you already know approximately how old I am and are thus able to narrow the search down considerably.

This is an example of reducing complicated problems to simple ones, a useful (but not always applicable) skill. Sometimes, life favours us with problems that are obviously and/or immediately reducible; sometimes, it doesn't. All I know is that we're glad we're in the primes of our lives.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008


Tomorrow, my baby brother turns 37. It will be one of those rare years that both our ages are prime numbers, but that's beside the point. The point is that he's grown up, but he's still my younger brother, and I feel an abiding affection for him. I don't feel responsible for him, but I feel proud of him, happy that he's around, grateful for 37 years of sibling rivalry and togetherness.

Sometimes, it isn't so. Brother does turn against brother, although this is not one of the three fractious relationships that Jesus mentions. But the blessings of a dynamic and happy brotherhood are significant. In Psalm 133, unity in brotherhood is linked to eternal life.

I'm always sad when I see brothers who don't get along. Behind such an unhappy state, you will find ambition, greed, inadequacy, and the other myriad human failings, just as in any other relationship. Being brothers doesn't protect you from such things. There were periods of time as long as 5 years when my brother and I were happy not to be anywhere near each other. Those days are gone, and I am glad for that. Happy birthday, my brother!

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Things Not Done

There is something to be feared about old memories; there is something even more fearsome about the memories of things not done. If you had the gift (by no means only a French talent) of writing reams of narrative about lost time, you would still not be able to capture the essence of that fear.

The distinction between a) gaining that which was done (or obtaining that which was gained) by someone else, and b) gaining that which was never done (or finding out what never happened), is thus the difference between the Faustian bargain and the Proustian bargain. The former finds you with plenty of time and mighty things done but all wasted, and results in brief but poignant narratives; the latter finds you wondering what could have been done and thinking that everything is art, and results in long and seemingly pointless narratives.

[If you're wondering what on earth I'm writing about, take some time to browse this site, which is dedicated to Marcel Proust's amazing(ly long) book, À la recherche du temps perdu, conveniently translated as 'In Search of Lost Time' or mistranslated as 'Remembrance of Things Past'. I've heard someone say it actually means 'Research is a Waste of Time', but that's a bad mistranslation, I think.]

In the end, it's all about the idea of perdition. Our physical memories are such that if we are the sum of our memories, we are the equivalent of modern Singaporean urban landscape: torn down and reconstructed ceaselessly and interminably. After a while, the narrative we think we are about is actually a story invented to keep us sane and simple-minded. In Singapore, it is far easier to say that history began with the ending of chaos in 1965 and is all about the establishment of order and discipline and continuous progress from 1965 onwards, than to say that the whole story begins in the long lost depths of time with Atlantis (or Temasek) and has no discernible increase in structural integrity as it unfolds.

This is exactly the reason why you can produce something like a thousand pages of Five-Year Plans in (for example) an independent school, make of it a Twenty-Year Narrative, and yet realise (if you actually get through all those pages) that none of those Five-Year Plans was ever completed; we always rolled over some parts, left some parts undone, invented parts that never happened, created parts to fit the empty spaces, and forged a narrative of unending and progressive excellence. We are reluctant to look at the evidence with a cold, hard, fish-eyed stare and say, "It did not quite happen this way." We prefer to take the Proustian bargain and say, "Some day we will write a big book about how clever we were to make it happen the way we say it did."

In some sense, the Faustian bargain seems preferable: at least the things of the narrative actually happened. What you wished for, you got – even though you did sell your soul to get them. Your final writings, in the form of the Twenty-Year Narrative, would be an account of things done, not things imaginarily done or speculated upon or done in a sense other than done.

Frequently, we attempt to do both. I suspect both bargains lead to perdition, and even if these seem like two different kinds of perdition, the outcome is the same. Perhaps research is not so much a waste of time at all, if we can light the way for future generations not to succumb. Then again, as the Preacher said, "Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

It also leaves many things which are more important undone.

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From Hawk To Wolf

I recently came across an old article on Ted Hughes in which the poet's work is described in terms of primitive energies, shamanism, spirit-journeys, and other related anthropological terms. I think that's what I would describe as 'literary primitivism' – the idea that we should look at poetry as something that can be trapped and described in terms of anthropological history. Robert Graves overdid it, and so do many others.

But that kind of jargon obscures the simple fact that poetry is just human language describing human feelings for other humans. Even if it is urban poetry or steampunk, it will come back to the naked eye, the naked heart, the sense of loss or of beauty or of exposure to the elements. The primitive can't be isolated by time ('it was long ago when we were living in caves') or space ('on a savage island far away') or both ('a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'). It is in us, always, in the sense of it being the original material of the soul, the prima materia, the tissue of our basic needs and hopes and dreams.

When one reads a poem like Penelope Shuttle's "Three Lunulae, Truro Museum", one tends to think of something ancient, a hidden animistic or shamanistic past locked up and archived and put behind glass. But the female nature, the mysteries of beauty and of human touch across the years, these are always with us.

And here I sit, sometimes a hawk roosting, sometimes a wolf watching, sometimes even two ravens or a herd of goats – and yet, always human.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Family Feedback

Yesterday I was standing around chatting with two acquaintances at the place I usually hang out. One of these people is a ranking officer in the Monastery, while the other was a High Lord of the Family. I told them that I was engaged in research and was exploring both the role of the Monastery and the Family Crown in national education. Their responses were interestingly similar.

The monk said, "Hey, of course I will help out. Here's my arcane sigil; just send word to me and I will help you. Somebody ought to do this sort of thing, and if not you, who?"

The lord said, "Hey, it's about time. Any right-thinking persons should want feedback on their performance, no matter how good the agricultural output looks. How can I help?"

The consensus, after half an hour, was that institutions of public character should be under public scrutiny, or have that status revoked. Transparency and good corporate governance are the order of the day. Back-room deals and lousy human resource management should be things of the past. And the light of the morning should banish the obfuscation of the dark.

The instrumentalities of the night are powerful, says Glen Cook. But we have the wherewithal to baulk them and perhaps diminish or scatter them. And if they engage in open warfare, then the stakes are high indeed.

My two companions concur; one man said, "Silver and faith can turn the tide."

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Educational Pointers

Today I was most amused by something I saw on the Hierophant's space. I was especially amused because it echoed my thoughts about some recent incidents in my life.

It is no secret that I have certain views about what education and educators should be like. It is probably also no secret that some people don't like those views or feel slighted by those opinions. Fair enough. However, to read into my views a sort of personal animosity or negative attitude is probably not fair at all.

I've decided not to mention anything about what's been happening over the last few days. I am studiously neutral on such things and I do not respond well to goading or harassment. So I continue to be happy in what I do, and to seek the guidance of the Highest and those he has placed around and over me as allies and friends.

But to get back to my amusement, here's a quotation that sums it up well. I found it on Wikipedia, while trying to figure out what was odd about the Hierophant's post. That post alludes to Hanlon's Razor, which I always thought of as Heinlein's Razor. We're both right, so it's OK. What got me was this interesting quote further down in the article, from a German general in 1933:

"I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!" [1]

Well, sometimes real life is not like that.


[1] Hammerstein-Equord, Truppenführung (1933).

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Geographical Node

I am a little node in the system of the world. And it is wonderful to see where the traffic comes from, that stops at my little port for a brief stopover averaging a minute or so. I got curious and had a quick look; here is the list of origins (in alphabetical order) that my readers come from:

Anonymous Proxy, Argentina, Asia/Pacific Region, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Europe, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Satellite Provider, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Unknown, Vietnam

What I'm really curious about is how they got here and why some of them return. There's someone in Oslo who visits once in a while, someone else in Imperial College (London) and someone in Toronto. My friend in Birmingham is obvious; so is the man in Sydney. But why Adelaide? And who is the dedicated Linux user with the unknown browser? The Internet is a lot more interesting now than it was 20 years ago...

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

All Is Vanity

Vanity is a curious kind of failing. It strikes in unexpected places, at unexpected times. Very few are immune to it, no matter how wise. There is always the little voice in the head that says, "There but for the grace of God go I," and immediately, we stumble. Today I was reading from one of the books of the wise, and mourning the fact that so many of us are like this, so many things are like that, and everything in the end is indeed vanity.

Sometimes, we read things into events and into writings that are just not there at all. Recently, some controversy arose about whether President Bush was pointing a subtle finger at Senator Barack Obama when he spoke about appeasement before Israel's Knesset. To some, it was obviously so and a terrible thing to have done; to others, it was not so obvious, especially since the obvious reference was made about a Republican Senator and not a Democrat. All of that was quickly put into a more human perspective (although it may very well come back on the global front) by the news of Senator Ted Kennedy's malignant brain tumour. I observed all this through the daily updates of the New York Times.

The whole course of events reminded me about the much older controversy surrounding Carly Simon's (in)famous song, You're So Vain. In that song, she says the immortal lines:

You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you.
You're so vain, I'll bet you think this song is about you...
Don't you? Don't you?

The problem is of course that the answer to those lines might be, "Yes," and that answer might be true for at least one person. It is interesting though that people interviewed Ms Simon over a 35-year span to actually find out who the true subject of the song was. I think that's a valid approach; if the song's originator can't tell you, who can?

To this day, remembering Ms Simon's song and its lyrics, I try very hard not to 'read myself into things' when someone writes something that would offend me if I were indeed the target of those writings. I try to be a skeptical empiricist about it. And perhaps, that kind of thinking is indeed the lesson to be learnt in the book of the Preacher, who was King in Jerusalem.

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In an odd quirk of fate, I found myself on YouTube last night (and early this morning) in a very retro mood. Although I looked at many clips of TV themes from a bygone era, two in particular stuck with me for no particular reason.

The first one was Dad's Army, with its oddly cheerful lyrics. This show was a 70s hit about the British Home Guard. It's probably worth it (if you're a WW2 buff) to have a quick look at the opening sequence. The lyrics go as follows:

Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think we’re on the run...
We are the boys who will stop your little game,
We are the boys who will make you think again.

Cos, who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think old England’s done.
Mr Brown goes off to town on the 8:21,
But he comes home each evenin’ and he’s ready with his gun.

So watch out Mr. Hitler
You have met your match in us.
If you think you can push us
We're afraid you've missed the bus.

So, who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think old England’s done.

It's gems like that which make me remember my childhood in England with sometimes unnerving fondness. Quite a different gem (from quite a different bunch of islands), however, came in the person of the imperious Jack Lord and the 12-season hit detective series, Hawaii Five-O. If you have never seen and heard the famous intro sequence, here it is. I remember the later seasons showed a closing sequence of a bunch of canoeists battling through the waves. Stirring stuff.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Today I lay on the grass and felt the earth turning beneath me in a hot summery haze. It's only May, and the ground is sere, the leaves are browning, the air trembles as if afraid to move on to its natural destinations. And oddly enough, I found myself contemplating King Lear again, that play which is my father's favourite and also one of mine.

I have always had sympathies for Kent. He was always concerned for the Old Man, even when things were all pear-shaped. His was a rather robust and unforgiving loyalty in some ways; and yet, he had that quality which the medieval called puissance. He was a lion, and never forgot it.

There are many alternative interpretations of the story though; the earliest ones are typical fairy tales that end happily ever after, more or less. Those are the Celtic tales of Leir (or Llyr), the legendary king. But one which really pushes the envelope of cross-cultural tragedy is Kurosawa's Ran. It is worth looking up. Those who can read Chinese characters are likely to recognise the pictogram of the title.

Anyway, it is all the same. The Greeks may have tried to put a distinctive stamp on tragedy, but it is part of the human condition and everyone is likely to have a unique taste of it sooner or later. What goes round, comes around, and it isn't always love that makes it do that.

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The other day, somebody asked me why the questions I asked seemed to be rather pointed and/or double-edged. Quite apart from the difficulty of continuing in the same strain of metaphorical weaponry, I chose to reply by asking, "Don't all questions have points? And surely, if the questions are open-ended, the answers should be likewise..."

The problem of course is an old one. It is the problem of anticipation. A few things come to mind when a man is faced with a question such as "What are your politics?" He would tend to ask himself, "How much can I safely say?" or "What is the intention of this question?" These questions are metacognitive; they are not about the answer to the question, but about the kind of response it should appear to be to the questioner. If the man can anticipate the required kind of answer (or worse, the answer required), it makes his job a lot easier.

It is not difficult to rig a survey to give good answers or bad. You can propose a five-point Likert scale assessing some quality X as 'excellent, very good, good, average, below average' for example. This is positively biased; if the distribution is even and/or random, then you will get 60% of the respondents saying that X is good or better than good. In fact, since in most cases some respondents tend to give random answers, you will probably have a positive bias no matter what.

You can also propose a four-point Likert scale, with something like 'very good, good, bad, very bad'. This has the virtue of disallowing the 'sitting on the fence' strategy. However, it tends to polarise answers into good/bad without allowing for 'undecided' or 'genuinely average'. And if there is a bias as in the first example, you will get at a 75% to 25% split, worse than 60/40.

There are of course many other strategies, and much more subtle ones as well. It is good for the researcher to declare these possible sources of bias and how they might have been overcome; not to do so is an impediment to sound conclusions and appropriate peer criticism.

But the root of finding out is the asking of questions. And the root of the asking of questions is the crafting of questions. And there is no end, no end at all to the making of books and the finding out of things – as many have found out to their sorrow.


Monday, May 19, 2008


I was always happy to sit in a mediative role, between the embattled man in the field and the stakeholders baying for his throat. I thought I had successfully reached out to both constituencies and I was happy to go about it quietly. It was good for the party. And the party was quite entertaining in its own way.

Then it all fell apart in the space of a month. I suppose it had been brewing for years. But while things fell apart and the centre could not hold, I found new purpose, new relevance, new life and happiness. I didn't fall apart, and things held together for me. For the first time in years, I had days without physical pain.

Sixty days since I found myself in a better and previously unknown state of existence, the old farm is in crisis once again. I find myself curiously incurious as to the outcomes. I just pray that things turn out well for the institution. But I no longer feel like I am being juggled between two constituencies. No man can serve two masters, says the Good Book, and it is true.

I have been comforted for the last two months with other words, though. In my ascent to peace, I fell back on the words from the Psalms that guided me through my army life so long ago. Here they are. God bless you who read them.

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You dig around in all that storage, and sometimes you find fragments. Here is one such:

She always had possessed a certain place in his heart—not always a happy one, but one which was certainly hers, a sure and abiding portion. That was how he thought of her as the endless traffic streamed headlight-golden before him on a cool grey Singapore evening.

Purple came now, and the afternoon’s last faint tang was swallowed and gone. He looked at the dim dial of his antique silver pocket-watch and began the long walk to Sixth Avenue. It was his only hope of the moment that he might somehow encounter her once more before the end.

I have no idea where that came from and where it was going; I only know that it was written about 20 years ago. I wonder who 'she' was supposed to be though.


Sunday, May 18, 2008


This is my 900th post on this blog.

Fortified by the excrescence of the bean, I have decided to press on with work and ignore the ineffectual pressures which some people have attempted to apply. I mean, if I could not be manipulated and controlled all those years, why should I be any less independent now? Actually, sitting down and thinking of the reasons for which I blog helped to clarify things a lot.

I blog because I am inherently open and information-friendly as far as sharing my thoughts and experiences goes. I do it in class; I do it with friends, colleagues, at Ministry of Education briefings, and wherever there is the chance that communication will occur. I learn from what people tell me; I hope people learn from what I say — it is always an exchange, a trade, an extension to education for all parties.

I believe that if you were to read every single one of my 900 posts, you would learn at least a few things. And if you were to tell me what you thought, in exchange, I would learn even more. That's what education is about.

What I can't stand is when some people think irrational things and act on them in a way that seriously affects other people's lives. Such action-linked irrationality is all right if it is vented in private; it is another matter when it is vented in a destructive way. It is terrible when paranoia triumphs over rigorous thinking; when human fiat triumphs over fair discussion.

As always, I continue to challenge myself with my mission statement. I trust that my readers will bear with me as I continue my blogospheric journey across the face of man's limited knowledge and through the universe of God. Thank you!


Oh yes, those of you from the First, could you please have a look at this and answer it? Much obliged! Could you also tell your classmates about it? Help a suffering PhD candidate out...

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Examination History

I've been reading a recently-published book on the history of local examinations from 1891 to 2007. It is fascinating to know we've had these test regimes in place for so long; the Ordinary and Advanced Level examinations have been around since 1971 and 1975 respectively. During the Second World War, interned educators actually conducted ersatz Cambridge exams in the POW quarters, eventually getting them certified as the equivalent of the real thing, taken under real duress.

It is, yes, a fascinating narrative. But at the end of this slim volume, I was still no closer to understanding what the links between examinations, state policy and education really were. It is clear that stuff was being tested, at first in subject groups and then in individual disciplines. It is clear that examinations in four languages eventually became an examination largely in English. It is all very clear, that this testing was meant to evaluate certain human functions and the level of learning attained.

But the book never clearly answers whether the examinations were valid or reliable with respect to the higher level skills allegedly being the target of the examination machine. In fact, Chapter 6 deals with the idea of the examinations as a response to the challenges of a rapidly changing and globalising world. It is a complete failure of a chapter, in the sense that it never rises to attempt an answer to the issue of whether the examinations were a good response. It only asserts things like 'thinking skills were infused in the curriculum', which seems to imply that before the last few years, the curriculum had no necessity for thought.

What a disappointment. Then again, should I have expected more?

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Druidic Alphabet

Sometimes there are forgotten things at the corners of our lives.

B is for Beth, whose tree is the Birch and whose power is Birth.
L is for Luis, whose tree is the Rowan and whose power is Life.
N is for Nion, whose tree is the Ash and whose power is Water.
F is for Fearn, whose tree is the Alder and whose power is Fire.
S is for Saille, whose tree is the Willow and whose power is Enchantment.
H is for Uath, whose tree is the Hawthorn and whose power is Chastity.
D is for Duir, whose tree is the Oak and whose power is Triumph.
T is for Tinne, whose tree is the Holly and whose power is the Sword.
C is for Coll, whose tree is the Hazel and whose power is Wisdom.
M is for Muin, whose tree is the Vine and whose power is Joy mixed with Wrath.
G is for Gort, whose tree is the Ivy and whose power is Resurrection.
P is for Peith (or NG is for Ngetal), whose tree is the Dwarf Elder or Reed and whose power is Establishment.
R is for Ruis, whose tree is the Elder and whose power is Doom.

I dug this out of an old folder of mine, from the days when I was Wanderer, and interested in such things.

I hope I got them right.

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Grad School

At least once a week now, I take the long road to the university at the end of this tiny world. It is often a Thursday morning; it is mostly a Friday morning. I go to meet my supervisor, to work with thought, to read and try to understand the ideas that others have had about education.

Occasionally, I am disappointed; the emperor has no clothes after all, when it comes to specific areas of education. Sometimes, I am enthralled; the emperor is fully clothed and flaunting it. This is more often the case with stuff coming out of the British Isles and some of its nearer neighbours in the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Sometimes, the emperor is dressed as something else, or dressed with something else, beyond the grasp of my creativity. Perhaps it is an emperor penguin I'm looking at, or an emperor waltz; perhaps it is a gem of the empirical. I sit here and read, and am amazed by what I read. Sometimes, I am not sure these people aren't having me on.

When such a thing happens, when it all looks like it's gone pear-shaped in the reasoning or (worse) pie-shaped in the statistics, I retreat to the café, where at least some people are pretending to be human. I actually got an A once in a module on café analysis. I'm not kidding. It's one of those things you must be able to do, in the social sciences.

And here we are. So much to know, and no idea whether we ever will.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Soothing Stories

Over the last ten years, during the period that I completed my Master's degree in Education and began on my doctoral campaign, I have come to realise a few interesting things about the world of research in this field. Here are some brief notes, not designed for completeness but as a sort of quick overview.

Firstly, method. A lot of discourse in the social sciences is neither particularly social nor scientific. It's all about competing narratives, often constructed 'bass-ackward' — that is, you see all that you can see and work backwards to find a reason for why things turned out the way they did. In the realm of qualitative methodology, you can adopt social explanations by questioning participants, on the assumption that if all the witnesses saw the same thing or felt the same thing, it is likely to have been a real phenomenon. But this is only true if you assume that what may be illusory is also vulnerable to mortal discernment. The fact is that if everyone saw or felt the same thing, it might only prove that the illusion was impenetrable. Mere numbers cannot overcome that, even though some people say the probability of being deceived drops as you increase the sample size. Once you start thinking in terms of numbers, you may no longer be a qualitative researcher; besides, all this assumes that the normal distribution is of use to research aimed at detecting anomalies and useful outliers.

Secondly, material. A lot of the discussion in education is oriented heavily around the United States. They probably have more researchers per square mile than anywhere else in the world, and it shows. They do have many distinct threads of research, some diversity and a high rate of growth, but there is a clear narrative bias. While the Asia-Pacific region is probably growing more quickly, the research fraternity on the Asian end is a lot more constrained in terms of information flow, disclosure and accountability. This doesn't make for an excellent research environment in the social sciences either. I know that many will point to the increasing rate of research paper generation in East and Southeast Asia (ESEA), but as far as I can see, a lot of these papers explain little and break little ground in ideas or methodology — just as in other parts of the world, most of it is padding. I actually have documentation proving that some people submit the same paper for different conferences with minor amendments and updates; it's like the undead monster that refuses to die.

Thirdly, message. In ESEA, a lot of social research is government-funded and/or government-approved. A lot of governments have an agenda to push, and the longer that government has been in power, the more it knows what it wants to push. (Alternatively, its lengthy dominance might be a result of knowing the right things to push before the opposition figures it out, or of being able to control the information flow, or of manufacturing a superior narrative from available components.) I have observed that governmental agencies sometimes ignore local research (unless it's their own and favourable) while pointing to irrelevant foreign research on completely different milieux. This can be true for agencies worldwide, but there do tend to be more checks and balances elsewhere — or at least, more independent commentary on social issues. That said, ESEA is changing and has been changing in more information-friendly ways for a while. The fact is that the sociopolitical and sociocultural environment is always complex; simple messages aren't so simple.

All this is not to say that the research is producing bad outcomes. Unlike some areas of knowledge (e.g. engineering) where an hypothesis can be tested by construction of a working prototype that showcases the principle underlying the hypothesis, it is more difficult for the social sciences. Education theory varies over a wide range, from the personal to the political, and sometimes the conclusions at opposite ends of the spectrum come to a practical impasse. It is a bit like the difference between quantum mechanics and astrophysics; two ends of physics with not much rapport.

Rather, what I am saying is that the whole idea of educational research seems to be to replicate successes which by their nature are unique. In the end, it all devolves down into simple bullet points like 'Teach Better' or 'Spend More Money' or something. Not many (although there are some) will write a paper with the point, 'All is Chaos' or 'Learning is not Random but too Diverse to Pin Down'.

This is because we all want to know that the story will turn out right in the end. We all want our nursery narratives, our soothing stories, our 'once upon a time' that leads to 'happily ever after'. But life isn't always like that; it is a messy narrative with no end, and no clear beginning, with key characters which aren't always identifiable as such until their chapter is far in the past. And of course, fairy tales can be rather Grimm.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Black Swan

Those of you who have heard me speak before might remember the mentions of black swans, chaos and catastrophe theory. This all came back to me as I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It is an interesting book; it is, as far as I know, pretty ground-breaking in exposing the facts people don't often think about.

Taleb destroys, with great finesse and remorseless logic, the idea that the normal distribution is a useful predictor for the big movements in history and in life. In fact, statistical arguments depending on the normal distribution and its proxies seem to end up giving us more-of-the-same, mediocre possibilities. History may have these as her staple diet, but the muscles and bones of history require sterner stuff.

But this is not all of his argument. He goes after Platonicism and other models that seek to shoehorn data into ideal models. He comes out in favour of the legitimate imagination and the knowledge of unknowledge, this last typified by Umberto Eco's antilibrary. An antilibrary, as he deftly explains, is that portion of a person's library which has not been read and yet is an integral part of that library; it is thus the mobile resource on the intellectual battlefield. People who don't read are one thing; people who have nothing they want to read are quite another.

The problem is that the world tends to seek to find consoling and conforming narratives to explain chaos, catastrophe and crisis. St Paul's epistle to the Romans mentions as much: be not conformed to the world. I remember very distinctly my meditations on this the day before my career was elevated to a different plane. I only read Taleb's book yesterday. To my surprise, I found myself feeling validated.

I do believe firmly that vision must be broad and imaginative. I also believe firmly that contrasting and outlying views must be fully examined before the decision is taken to reject them. There is, as many have said before, a bias against those who solve problems that haven't occurred yet, or who invent problems which might never happen. This bias favours those who solve problems that have come to be; the problem about such problems is that once they have already arisen, they are much more expensive to deal with than when they were merely imaginative possibilities.

That is why we must be transformed by the renewal of our mind. That is why we must see with 'blinding sight', with inspiration and not with the conventional wisdom. That is why we must not conform to the normal distribution of the world. We are all, in potential, far better than that; it is mediocrity that creates the curve and treats the outliers and possibilities of excellence as fantastic and irresponsible. On the contrary, it is the mediocre mind which is being irresponsible, which holds back the flowering and blasts the stalk before a bloom unfolds. How sad it is, to see the garden burn.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Heh. Some time ago, we bought a lovely Quentin Blake birthday card for our elder niece. She's a sharp one, she is; I remember several occasions on which she managed to outwit her father and her uncles, who are not exactly brainless.

You can imagine my horror in the wee hours of the morning, as I was writing in that card, when I discovered that the birthday cake portrayed in the card (three times!) had only five candles. And she will be seven this year.

Hrrrm. With that finely-tuned aesthetic creativity that comes free with a boat-load of desperation, this uncle sketched in an extra two perfectly good and difficult-to-detect little candles on each instance of that cake. I figure it is a win-win proposition. If the niece fails to detect the ringers, so far, so good. If she does, she should appreciate that Uncle Autolycus actually bothered to draw such excellent candles. I hope.

The theme for this month, I suspect, will be 'The Audacity of Hope'.

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Archival Instincts

I am very glad for the archival instincts that genetic and environmental factors seem to have planted in me. This was the thought that crossed my mind as I read through the text at this site. I have always felt some affinity for the people of Russia – not the apparently monolithic colossus of the Soviet state, but the warm and troubled people of a wide and richly-endowed country.

But why that sudden urge to celebrate the archival instinct? It was the simple joy very much like that of a man who, while being made into a non-person by the State, suddenly realises he has the State by the goolies and a vise in his hand. For 20 years after the Glorious Revolution, a mighty tome was written, and in that tome (and in the hundreds of other documents in the archives), the truth was hidden.

The State might have said that the Commissar was a bad one and that during his time in office, grain production dropped. But the official statistics of the State show that they were never higher than during his reign! The State might have said that he had said subversive things. But these things were attested by later historians to be true. The State might have done many things to disguise his star, but the facts were too obvious, too many, too bright. Perhaps they should never have made him the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs or for War; his efforts there cemented his legend. Even in his most difficult year, he was a hard worker and a voice of neutrality.

In the end, they exiled him, held show trials, and sent an assassin with an ice-pick for him. The assassin succeeded where the State had failed: the Commissar was transformed from a minor legend to an iconic myth. How had it all come to pass? It came to pass because the Commissar had in his head an archivist's mind. He was prolific in his exile and spoke too much truth against too much power. Fortunately for posterity, much of what he said has been preserved.

The same is true of good men or bad. It is a truth of the Bible as well. The archives of the written word hold truth; and the truth will (someday, and perhaps posthumously) set you free.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Eternal Rome

From a colossus of wondrous fame to a colosseum of dark renown, iron curtains are not what they have been. Bundles of rods revolve around their axes, and who sits wielding them in the seat of the scornful to judge? For those of you who have seen me in the book of the face, interesting writing appears on the wall. And in the thinly-veiled forest of the adverse, an infernal light dawns upon those who deserve it.

This time, there will be no Vergilius to guide.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Politics Of Hope

It's been a long time since I last wrote much about US politics. In that time, I've seen the incumbent president preside over terrible things in the name of hope. He has not been the success that many hoped for; he has had the worst ratings of any sitting Commander-In-Chief in history. It is a waste. He has not done a completely bad job, but most of it has been a stench in the nostrils of the American people.

And in the last year or so, I've come to support Senator Barack Obama. The points against him are manifold – people say he is too smart, too devious, too inexperienced, too angry, too mixed-up (in many ways). The points for him are that he learns fast, that he is disciplined, intelligent and willing to learn from everyone who contributes positively. Most of all, he advocates hope and a more inclusive position on political affairs. As an educator, used to dealing with young people of all kinds, I believe that the points against him are not damaging. The points in his favour tilt the balance to the positive.

You see, if Senator Obama triumphs, he will have done it by being a good student and a good teacher. He will have done it by educating and being educated. He will have transcended the difficulties of his past, dealt with the angry seniors (Rev Wright, President and Mrs Clinton, Senator McCain) and worked with the rest for the future that is to come. Of course, only time will tell whether the audacity of hope will win out in the end.

Some critics complain that Senator Obama says too much about the intangibles. To me, this is the good part; that he has said anything about the intangibles puts him head and shoulders above many of his peers. Why? Because he also has detailed and interesting policy statements on many issues. These statements show that he has given many issues deep thought while looking forward positively. And if we do not look towards a better age, how will we live in faith that the best is yet to be?

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Saturday, May 10, 2008


It all happens at the same time. My brother, that incisive historical wit, is blazing a trail backwards into the dark ages of globalisation – as he puts it, the Pax Romana, the Pax Indica, the Pax Sinica, the Pax Islamica, the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana. I myself am trying to gaze into the future of globalisation, especially in terms of education.

But the same ideas predominate: European, Indian, Chinese, Islamic, British, American. And while they now engage (on the face of it) in civil discourse more often than before, the prognosis for the future is unclear and sometimes morbid. Has the mind of man changed so much that it needs a new pathway to education? Or is it already there, buried by blood and politics and treasure?

Time to think more about this. It's good when brothers live in harmony together.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Concerto In E Minor

Today I had a chat with a Family member about the astounding significance of the 'E' appellation. The lady I spoke with was most incensed that good officers of the family were getting E-liminated whenever the foreign consigliere started feeling tetchy. I laughed. I told her, our records in the private domain go back very far. But we are not only scholars but gentlemen as well, so we do not pursue internecine strife.

However, the legal findings also make such entertaining pursuits impossible. The situation is akin to two people with weapons drawn who are peace-bonded and thus unable to use them to inflict damage. Or so it seems. All I can say is that sometimes when this situation occurs, the man with the main-gauche is the man with the balance of power.

And so, allegro con fuoco towards the dismal denouément.

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London Bookshops

I still have dim memories of odd moments in and around London, things to do with books and bookshops. I remember walking down to the Forbidden Planet from somewhere north of Highbury (a long walk!) and finding a little F&SF second-hand bookshop with a red façade. On the way back, I never saw it again.

I also remember taking a wrong turn and finding myself face to face with a brass plate which said, "Dylan Thomas lived here." It was a powerful moment for me; the last bard of Wales was a towering influence on my early attempts at poetry.

Over the last few years, I have been a frequent browser at the Folio Society, with offices still at 44 Eagle Street. But only recently have I become a curious visitor at the London Review of Books. I have long been a subscriber with both. In fact, I am now looking longingly at the Folio edition of Newton's Principia Mathematica, with guide, and am only a little deterred by the discount price of GBP 75.00 — and the fact that the postage will be hefty too.

Some day, I will dig up my London diaries and do a more detailed travelogue. Perhaps I will have a Neil Gaiman or Christopher Fowler or China Miéville moment and write about the secret London that I discovered, the dark mirror-image of the living power. But I know I still have time; the ravens still haunt the Tower of London, and I may yet return to the Isles of the Blessed.

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The House Of The Seasons

I live in an old two-storey house now, beautifully renovated just recently. It is not as large as the huge bauhaus-type monstrosities sometimes found in the area, but it is spacious and largely uncluttered. I am comfortable here, and despite having a few other options, I am very happy to be living here.

After a couple of months, I've also noticed that this house faces north (which is tolerable feng shui for a house just north of the Equator) and thus offers a daily cycle of seasons.

It is cool and sightly damp in the early morning, as the sun begins to light the eastern approaches, bringing sounds from the road across the patio to the breakfast table. The world is shaded, ripe with possibility, but still a little chill and dim.

It is a bit warmer and drier approaching noon, as the sun rises above the hedgerow and is rebuffed by the shielding eaves and the high roof. Heat rises from the garden and the world is thrown into a frenzy of movement and evolution. But the inside of the house is still cool, because the sun is actually shining less into the building.

It is really hot in the afternoon, as the sun reaches its zenith and begins to shine on the other side of the house. That side of the house is where the workroom, kitchen and study are. But we are normally away from home working, and if not, there is always the air-conditioning.

In the evening, as the sun is hidden by our neighbours' houses to the west, it is cool again. It gets dark quickly. And the house settles down to watch us eat, amuse ourselves, and get some creative work done, far from the hubbub of the day and into the silence of the night.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Funny Reasons For Sacking A Teacher #10

This really cracked me up. A teacher in Pasco County, Florida, just got sacked for practising wizardry in class. Apparently, he executed a feat of sinister legerdemain or prestidigitation, making a toothpick disappear in 30 seconds. A few days later, he was made to disappear too.

Full story here. Enjoy.

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Globalisation has been variously defined in at least three ways:
  • the closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world (Stiglitz)
  • the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies (Friedman)
  • the conviction that a plurality of cultures… could be accommodated on terms of equality in a single society (Fernández-Armesto)
In each case, it is driven by the lowering of barriers to transport and the free flow of goods and services through technology and legislation.

The difference between these definitions is that the first is general, the second specific, and the third idealistic. In the first case, we can argue that the globalisation phenomenon must date back to Alexander the Great, and certainly at least to the Pax Romana. In the second case, we can cite the wave of integrative colonialisation of the 19th and early 20th century, in which the Pax Britannica with its forcible integration of a third of the world's resources was the prime suspect. The third case, however, is one for the United Nations and the very modern idea of a multicultural and multipolar world.

This last definition is very difficult to work with. Such a conviction does, of course, exist. But it is probably by far the minority view of the nations and peoples of this earth right now. Most organisations, for example, would only be able to live with the first definition, no matter how integrated their programmes are. It is laudable that educational organisations such as the International Baccalaureate Organisation seek to move education towards the last one.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Annular Inspection

The Latin word annulus means 'ring'. This was one of the many fascinating facts that bubbled to the surface in a virtual chat with my fellow Family assassin and healthcare hotshot, the Hobbit. Actually, the Hobbit was fulminating in his dry, wry, and painfully humorous witty way about 'aesthetic haemorrhoidectomies'.

To spare you a long trawl with many misspellings through a Google search, here is a link which may have relevance. You will get the point if you think about it (or around it) carefully.

In a nutshell (haha), the Hobbit was complaining about how people were doing certain procedures just to make themselves more appealing in rather outré ways. I cut off his fulminations by asking, "So you mean that people actually cut out their you-know-whats in order to..."

He cut back in. "Yes, to make themselves perfect *******s." Ho ho.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Publish, And Conceal Not

For some reason, I got up in the middle of the night and was drawn to an odd leaf sticking out of the Book. And under the leaf was the fiftieth chapter of the words of Jeremiah the prophet. So I saw the words that were written in the first verses therein, and I went back to sleep, and deep was my rest and of a good conscience.

The word that the LORD spake against Babylon and against the land of the Chaldeans by Jeremiah the prophet. Declare ye among the nations, and publish, and set up a standard; publish, and conceal not: say, Babylon is taken, Bel is confounded, Merodach is broken in pieces; her idols are confounded, her images are broken in pieces.

What an odd experience. But Jeremiah has always been my favourite book, from ever since I can remember anything about the Bible. Yet I was brought up with a careful historian's thinking, and that meant I found myself wading through other books as well, of other religions and creeds, including the grey West Point manuals of old, and Kipling, and Eliot. Heh.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man

Today was a good day. Met up with Tony Stark. We discussed wayward self-described father figures. He began a sentence with, "You know, those men who think they're your father, or who say 'father' when they mean 'master', and who therefore assume the right to..."

He noticed I was smirking. So I completed the sentence for him, "...treat you like a slave while calling you 'son'."

You should have seen his face. So I continued, "Yeah, I too have my own Obadiah Stane. Uses your technology behind your back as if it is his own, goes to the press, goes to the board, goes overboard... it's the same story, Tony."

That's how we became friends. Now all I have to do is get him to sign up with the Avenger Initiative. My name is Nicholas Fury, and I am Director of SHIELD.

Ha, got you there. You should always wait around for the end of the credits. You might learn something.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Avoiding The Family

I've written many times about The Family, so much so that people ask me which family I mean, whether it is my gens or my family; my kind, kin, bloodline, consanguinity or house. I suspect that gens in the sense described (follow that link) is probably closest to it; in this city-state, we are of the gentes maiores.

But these few weeks I have been avoiding The Family in a specific sense. The thing about the gens relationship is that it heeds most of all the ties of familial ritual, law, reflexive relationship. When one member takes a hit, the gens rises up around him, regardless of individual preferences. Even if individuals do not approve of that member, the general feeling is that blood is thicker than plasma, acid, or suspended scum.

An elder of the clan said this to me, "Oh, it is all right for young people like you to pretend that nothing has happened, forgive and move on despite the umbrage, the inconsistency, the fact that our name was used in vain and with deceit. But The Family remembers all these things. Just because some of us have an infatuation for certain things does not mean that we forget a wrong. If these lies are told in public, we will burn the tower to the ground."

Well, I am a man of peace. And so, with due respect, I am posting formal avoidance. Thank you very much for your support, each one of you. It is hard to hear lies said about the good you have done and the people close to you. But magna est veritas, et praevalet, and while I am no saint, I am sure that I am far less deceitful than some. I am also better at documentation (the real stuff, not the forgeries that some people create). Heh.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008


Today I visited the High College of the Art, whose sigil is a flaming torch. I was impressed by the dedication of its craftsmen and of the journeymen they trained. Most impressive was the pervasive sense of honesty; there was an abiding belief in good hard toil that was leavened by a desire to do things intelligently.

Many years have passed since I saw the High College as the most likely rivals for the crown. I have not changed my assessment. They are a passionate lot, with a rich and powerful pedigree. They have cast their arms abroad not out of agony and loss, nor for swords about the Cross, but out of a desire to make East and West meet on terms more favourable to the East. (And in case you're wondering about those odd phrases, read this.)

At the same time, in these wild days of global famine and global synthesis, who is to say which is East and which is West? It is a good thing to remember that the major religions of this earth are ALL Eastern religions, if one treats 'East' as a matter of geography and not of attitude. If you are a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Taoist or a member of any of the variants or sects thereof, you are an adherent of an Eastern religion – one that was first seen in Asia.

It reminds me of reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and realising that he had all but left out one of the most powerful dynamics of all: the idea of God, a flame that has never gone out.


In other news, I woke up this afternoon and for some reason immediately thought of Woodward & Bernstein's 1974 account, All The President's Men and its interesting (but far less famous) sequel, The Final Days. What an odd way to wake up! Yet another reason to abandon afternoon naps except when absolutely necessary.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Career Guidance

It seems like only two years ago that I sat with friends and discussed what to do about career guidance for teenagers. The plan was this:
  • two years of career awareness (what is a career, what in one's life prepares one for a career etc)
  • two years of career guidance (these are the skills one needs to pick up as one starts working on career fundamentals, this is how to write a proper targeted CV, this is how one prepares for an interview etc)
  • two years of career counselling (sessions with a dedicated specialist career counsellor, discussions on picking an appropriate university, planning a trajectory towards one's ideals and aspirations being fulfilled etc)
I must say I was rather surprised to receive no feedback at all when I first submitted this plan.

About three months later, I received a couple of salutory (as in shots fired across one's bow are salutory) pieces of advice. The first came from the Grey Men, who were very happy with The Plan and wanted to appropriate it. The second came from some people who didn't want it, wouldn't use it, and warned me against trying to do things other than what I was told to do. I held off the Grey Men, worried about some people, and in the end decided to put my thoughts down on paper. In the light of subsequent events, I was glad to have documented everything. It was an enlightening experience, one for the books really.

It took more than a year for the chickens to come home to roost. I documented that as well. In fact, by that time, some of the cows had come home, and the foxes had their foxholes too. It was a fantastic time, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I don't know if this enjoyment was universal. In fact, I am quite sure it was not.

So why am I writing about this now? Well, it is time for the books. A new chapter has begun. And as I wander around the Hill, I observe that the pagan tribes have very useful and powerful ideas and practices in this area. Maybe all these explain their success against the Roman legions.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008


Hurrrrr. The picture I'm assembling in my mind is not anywhere as pleasant as the cardboard jigsaw puzzles of my youth. Rather, it is a litany of obfuscatory, mendacious and ill-considered pagan rituals. It reminds me of my bedtime reading from that long-lost youth: The Glory that was Greece, The Grandeur that was Rome and other such archaeological tributes to civilisations that no longer occupy the lands which now contain their descendants.

The buildings stand, the chronological heritage stands, perhaps the legal occupancy is indisputable. But the heirs cheated and lied and stole and thought to befuddle the historians (if they ever thought of such at all). And as it was with Agamemnon, that most ambitious of the Atreides (beautiful word, that, in all four syllables), the end will be ignominious and rather sad.

I suppose that's what you get for writing stories and poems when sitting around feeling bleak. Then again, there is always a bright spot. As Hopkins says in The Windhover: embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

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Labour Day

Here are some good words:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

I thought that it was a fitting conclusion to last night's cell group meeting. It reminded me of this show I saw on the History Channel, about life after the humans had gone. I think we tend to see the Creation account as ending on the sixth day, with Man the capstone of creation. Well, yes, it does seem that way, especially to Man.

But 'six' has always been the number of imperfection; 'seven' is perfection. And what God did on the seventh day was that he created the sanctity of rest, which had not been seen in the universe up till then. God did not end creation at the end of the sixth day, but on the seventh day, by establishing an end to work and the hope of a better life beyond mere humanity.

We all need to learn this; if a man will not work, neither let him eat, says the Good Book. But if a man will not rest, he deserves whatever he gets for thinking that the be-all and end-all of Mankind is Man.

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