Monday, June 30, 2008

Beyond Excellence

The recently-concluded European football championships saw Spain scramble to a lauded victory over perennial title-chasers Germany. I watched that final match and saw little to applaud except that the 'nearly men' of European soccer had finally won something. Spain have too often flattered and frilled; even those who conceded that they were an excellent side in this year's proceedings worried about that at the end.

But really, the match was a terrible one. If anything, Holland's ruthless dispatching of championship pretenders Italy and France made for better theatre. In fact, the whole tournament was an expectedly patchy affair with brilliance far outweighed by mediocrity and uncertainty. Which is a lot like life. And so, this thought came to mind...

Maybe, excellence is not what we find at the end, at the peak, zenith or pinnacle. Maybe everyone exhausts themselves by producing excellence, and by the time we 'make it' or 'succeed' or whatever, it's only because we were once excellent and held an edge long enough to see off the opposition. Often, the opposition are better, but we are luckier or more stubborn or more favoured by powers beyond us, and we win. But we attribute this to our own excellence, since it would be painful to admit otherwise.

After all, success is only the outcome of process. A success is that which is logically expected as the decedent of process, and if the outcome is not to be logically expected from the process, it's only a fluke, a flash, a folly elevated to the realms of miracle.

So, when we say that the best is yet to be, we yearn for a just process that yields success. But we will take anything, of course. Even if what we get isn't excellence, but a miracle we never had any right to expect.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008


I had this dream image of something like the final scene from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' except that it was a warehouse of classical buns; the kind made from bread and with tasty fillings in them. When I get really awake I will attempt to describe what I saw. Wow. Vignettes follow, stublike.


001. God said, "Son of Heaven, what is this that thou hast made?" And Michael replied, "This is the food of angels. I thought 'sweetness', and it was so, just as Thou made it to be, but on a plate."

002. "What are these flakes?" "They are little scales, each forged from the finest skin of the best roast duck, with exactly 0.1 mm of duck fat left as an undercoat." "Oooooh. Mmm."





007. [Insert 'Quantum of Solace' and James Bunned joke.]






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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Word of the Day: Prosopon

It was to my amazement that I saw someone write that prosopon was a technical term in some aspects of literature and theology. The reason for this was that I first came across the word in my New Testament Greek days, a word that was translated from Koiné as 'face' or 'countenance'. I didn't know that it was in any normal English vocabulary. (Ah, yes, normal. Hmm.)

At that time, my research led me to capture the gist of prosopon as 'that which presents itself to the eye'; i.e. the surface manifestation of a person, the outward being or exterior humanity of someone. Then someone else introduced me to the idea of hypostasis, the 'underlying state' or 'fundamentally unchangeable state' as the complementary or oppositional concept to prosopon. Ai! All this from a culture only too productive of theologians, philosophers and philosophical theologians (and yes, these terms also are Greek).

So what is prosopon? Well, it is what is, in the sense of what appears to be there when you look at it. We would probably say, 'taking things at face value' is to apprehend and accept the prosopon. It is the countenance of things, regardless of what lies beneath. It is not the underlying reality, and indeed, sometimes it need not be. But mostly, it is; it is the undivided and proper surface manifestation, extendable by clothing and implements and creative prowess, of a specific person.

But as with much of Greek philosophy, it can lead you into error through considerations that modern Anglophile speakers would not necessarily think about. Was Jesus Christ one person (prosopon) with two natures (hypostases) or with a single hypostasis? The answer must be considered carefully, lest ye be charged with heresy. Heh, those early Church philosophers...

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Birthday Cake (Epilogue)

So it turned out to be an Oreo cheesecake, one of those fine confections with a base of ground up black chocolate cookies and a body of light cheesecake. Somewhere in there, we paid tribute to a forty-year veteran of life who still looks much as she always has, on the thin side of tall; on the graceful side of elegant; on the accomplished side of unassuming.

A good meal was had by all in the cellar room of the Jade Palace. That counts for a lot; and credit for that goes to the padawan, who has never ever disappointed in that category. The company was good. If I had to pick a list of 20 friends I would like to have invited to my 21st birthday party, almost every single one of them would have been there. Unfortunately, I'm now on the transalpine side of 40, so too bad.

And, oh yes, the fried cod was the most excellent fish ever.


Note: She liked the cake and said so. This was a very good thing. *griN*

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Birthday Cake

Today I am supposed to buy a birthday cake for a little dinner party that a few of us are having. It's the gazelle's birthday treat too. For those of you who know about the infamous spreadsheet, I will be remembering the contents of that spreadsheet through most of tonight. It will be one of those nights.

I have just recovered from one of those remorseless fevers that brings the ague to the bones and makes the head to throb for at least 18 hours. Every joint clamoured for attention and every little pulse brought dramatic realignment of aches and pains. It has been a terrible 24 hours. I woke up this morning with the fever broken; I suspect that yesterday's excitement and concomitant stress had a lot to do with my state.

But I am reasonably good for now. I will survive. Tonight, strangely enough, will be a stress of a different kind. What cake shall I buy? I think it should be something with a small amount of thin dark chocolate in it, for elegance. It must have something creative about it, for style. It must be unusual. It must be flavourful. It must be a cake for the memories. Haha.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Family Opinion

My family's opinion has always been very valuable to me. It's sometimes a problem though, when the entire body of family opinion is focused like a meson cannon upon a few key principles and doesn't bother with the rest. For some time now, I've actually thought of how the mending of a man's heart should be a moment for rejoicing regardless of context. The main problem is that not everyone thinks so. That's painful.

I think we should all be generous of spirit, regardless. People who have suffered a lot sometimes counter this argument by raising more and more outrageous examples (which sadly, are often true). Witness the intense and widespread suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust, for example. But most situations are not so dire, and that means that apart from extremes, we should honour the general principles of the human spirit: waste not, want not, weary not, wound not.

Sometimes, as is the case between the sons of Ishmael (firstborn of Abraham, in case people forget) and the sons of Isaac (the second, who was almost sacrificed), the divide is too deep to be bridged. The original situation was made untenable, and the foundations dissolved long ago. The only thing to do is to start afresh, not build from foundations which have crumbled. But the enmity between the bloodlines has become a meme, and those are difficult to erase as long as the collective heart of a people (or the collective hearts of two peoples, in this case) choose to actively remember and renew these things.

And who is to say that this is not the natural way of the world? Or that, sadly, we should ever be able to overcome it?

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Random Encounters

I used to live for random encounters. You travel from place to place. You roll a d100. BAM: 1-4 crocodiles, estuarine, giant. You fight, pointlessly and amusingly. You survive. You keep going. It was all wonderful, pointless fun. Then one day, I got to be management. I could look at a roll of 76 (turtle, snapping, colossal) and turn it into a beach barbecue not to be forgotten, as the island sunset turns into an island which is not amused at having its shell decorated with chicken bones.

It has always been fun to be management. But the cardinal rule is: never forget when you were a worker; better still, never forget what it's like to be a client. It makes things so much more fun. I will never forget the day I caught those scouts attempting to forage under the back gate. In my head, the memory of self as a guy who crawled under the athletic field's fence, warring with the concept of crime and requisite punishment.

But some people seem never to have had childhoods, or earnestly put all childish things behind in a literal sense. They would never be caught doing childish things, or thinking childish thoughts – and at some point, the restriction becomes 'I will never be a child in any way'. And then they are caught anyway, caught by that very interesting statement of the Messiah in one of those chapters of Matthew's gospel that serious people sometimes oddly forget to read.

Here it is:

And he called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them;
And said, "Truly I say unto you, unless you are changed, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
"Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
"And whosoever shall receive one such little child in my name also receives me.
"But whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
"Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!"

Yes, that's it. Along with the injunctions for fathers not to frustrate their children and such, there's this section about how moral offences against children are dire indeed. Sure, the old part of the Good Book also says that sparing the rod leads to spoiling the child, and hence recommends the precise use of the rod as a corrective; but it doesn't say that children in general must get the stick stuck to them unless there is good reason.

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Today I took the brave step of scrubbing part of the old programming and replacing the nanobots. Years of caffeine dependency don't peel easily away from the walls of the mind, but once you begin to peel, all you have to worry about are scabs. I am no longer dependent on caffeine. Rather, I have weaponised it. My nanobots are continually destroying caffeine dependency plaques and replenishing caffeine levels.

I am now a stainless steel cafetierre. I admit that the image of being a stainless steel cafetierre is not as appealing to the rebel mind as that of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, but it is a step up from being a mere vessel to both vessel and source (or at least, intermediary).

At the same time, I have scrubbed all semiotic greenery from my heraldic codes. All you people out there who think my heraldry contains any tinctures save azure and gules, and any metals save or, should go scrub yourselves too. I am not one for the vertical or viridian. Sometimes I despair at the intelligence community; signs and symbols are not so difficult to read.

Yes, it does seem as if the caffeine boost has made this posting a tad jumperitical, but I assure you I am not channeling the ghost of Robert Silverberg the Science Fiction Writer of the 1960s. I am just doing what comes naturally when one's blood as significantly deviant in content from the norm. Three cheers for serratiopeptides and capsaicin oleoresin. And another two and a half for the nanobot collection I inherited from my precursor entities. Hoo-hah!!

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Capsaicin Cream

When I was little, I used to play amongst the chili plants. My grandmother was an inveterate horticulturist who grew everything ranging from custard-apple to tea roses to sweet pea and orchids, and she dearly loved being self-reliant in the matter of spices and other things (though they were never in enough profusion to please her).

So there I was, helping dearest grandma to pluck chilis, the small little red ones known locally as 'chili padi'. That evening, I felt a most awesome sensation, as if of a thousand red ants slowly working their jaws through the skin on my back. I had inadvertently got the sap or juice of the plant onto my skin. Water did not quench the burn; profuse sweating (incidental and certainly not by choice) did not help. Grandpa recommended milk, which would have helped, but I demurred.

Finally, I chose to endure and survive. It was a close thing. Exhaustion led to sleep, and on waking, I was mostly OK. There was a little side-effect: my migraines for the day stopped, flabbergasted by a superior show of pain. My grandmother, in her usual cup-is-half-full-of-something-else-anyway mode, said, "Lucky not in your eyes." Yes, indeed.

Flash forward another thirty-odd years (or thirty very odd years, if you must), and here I am, with the same chemical substance on my back, deliberately smeared on. It costs $20 a tube, unlike the five cents I would have paid for the chilis at the local market. Why? To combat middle-aged back pain (or the back pains of middle age). I feel the pain bring clarity and an age of enlightenment. Argh. Ah. Aaaaaaaaah. Why didn't I start this earlier?

Pain is sometimes very good.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Time Passing

I remember being 18 years old and writing this line in a poem: "Time, pass us by; pick on some other pair of lovers." Well, the pairs have changed a lot, time has changed a lot, and even the word 'pick' has got several meanings.

Time has passed, and with it, so has the entire range of perspectives which one had as an 18-year-old. Everything seems overwhelmingly less serious or more serious; little has remained untouched. Time itself, and the perception of it, seems to have come unglued.

And so it goes, and so it goes.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Small Change

It only takes a little bit of change to make a system run better. Sometimes, we get disgusted with friction and stiction and other reasons why things don't work or work slowly. But often these factors require just a bit of polishing or lubrication. The one thing that cannot be so easily overcome is inertia, which is an innate property of all matter regardless of surface condition.

The only way one can overcome inertia is to develop control over the moment associated with it. There are two plausible and applicable definitions of inertia: 1) the tendency for something to maintain a particular momentum, and 2) the difficulty of altering the direction or other quality of that momentum.

These definitions are particularly plausible and applicable to human institutions of various sorts. Accordingly, the idea of inertia is now in frequent use within the economic, political, social and cultural spheres. The problem in many of the areas within these overlapping spheres of humanity is that free action tends to be opposed by mass action, or by hierarchical control.

Accordingly, inertia can be the product of random mass action or the irrational purposes of hierarchies. As Quentin Skinner writes in his analysis of Milton and what it means to be a free person, "If you are to be your own master, two conditions must in turn be satisfied. You must first of all succeed in mastering your self. By this Milton means that you must be able to control your passions and act in accordance with the dictates of reason at all times. If you instead allow yourself, as he puts it at the beginning of The Tenure, to be governed by blind affections, then your actions will not be an expression of liberty but of mere licentiousness."

Unfortunately, in the absence of a proper research programe, analysis, reflection and careful deep self-examination, institutions can obviously remain ungoverned by the dictates of any reason except affectation – and not admit to it. And the consequences for the system are dire in the extreme. I will end by quoting Skinner's piece on Milton (from the London Review of Books, 30(10), p.16; 22 May 2008) at length:

...he [i.e. Milton] does not in the least dispute that your standing as a free person will be lessened or taken away if you are impeded in the exercise of a choice. To be a free person is to be able to act according to your autonomous will; if you are constrained from exercising your will by force or the threat of it, then your liberty will to that degree be lost. Of greater importance, however, is the fact that it is equally possible according to Milton for your freedom of action to be curtailed even if no one subjects you to the least degree of interference. The reason is that, if you fall into a condition of dependence, your mere awareness of this predicament will have the effect of limiting your choices. This claim admittedly sounds strange, and has often been dismissed as confused. But Milton is making an important point about one of the ways in which liberty can be lost. He is asking you to reflect on what will happen if you come to realise that you are living at the mercy of someone else. As soon as you recognise your condition of dependence, he claims, this will be sufficient to cause you to censor yourself, thereby setting limits to your own freedom of action. You will now take care to do everything, however abject, to minimise the risk that your master or ruler will intervene in your life in a detrimental way, and you will at the same time take care to do nothing that might arouse their envy or rage.

These contentions about the psychological impact of living in slavery are also classical in provenance. Tacitus had illustrated them in a number of passages, always with the implication that servitude can be expected to breed servility, and that servility helps to entrench servitude. Sallust in his
Conspiracy of Catiline goes still further, pointing to the baleful implications of the fact that rulers tend to be especially envious of their most outstanding subjects. The opening of Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates echoes the passage so closely as to be almost a translation of it. ‘Tyrants are not oft offended, nor stand much in doubt of bad men, as being all naturally servile; but in whom virtue and true worth most is eminent, them they fear in earnest, as by right their masters; against them lies all their hatred and suspicion.’ The consequence, as Sallust had stressed, is that such subjects find themselves condemned to curbing their most valuable talents for fear of what could happen if they were to display them too visibly.

This is one reason, Sallust goes on, why the citizens of republics always outperform the subjects of monarchs in the glory of their deeds as well as in the originality of their thought. Kings prefer flatterers and time-servers, whereas in republics the most creative spirits can soar unchecked by any craven anxieties. A further reason, he adds, is that there are few civic duties to be performed under kings, with the result that their subjects readily slide into a state of lazy and torpid acquiescence.

Indeed. Perhaps this is why we should read the classics from time to time; not because they are old, but because they remind us that certain things never change about the human condition, its rights, freedoms, and failings.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Being A Teacher

Anybody out there wants to be a teacher? If so, you need to watch this short video first. The United States have 3.2 million public school teachers. Within the next 8 years, 2.8 million more are needed. But who's going to take up a job that, by all accounts, is badly-paid, tiring, and leaves you with an everyday sense of "I could have done more, but I didn't" ?

I was a teacher in the local system for exactly fifteen years, from March 1993 to March this year. It ended with accusations that I was a bad teacher, termination of contract, and severance pay. I'll leave it to my students to decide if that was true. But I can honestly say that I enjoyed teaching, I enjoyed being a teacher, and I felt that I was a good one and was doing a valuable job. Given another time around in some alternate reality, I'd probably want to do everything I did again, but better.

And to those of you out there who still want to be a teacher, I can only tell you what I told a class of graduating teachers in 1995, when the system still thought of me as a good teacher. There are five things you need to think about, as a teacher:
  1. Students — the people you serve; at the very least, know them by face, if not by name; read about their backgrounds, absorb information from their behaviour and speech; use whatever you can for the students’ growth.
  2. Subject — what you teach; you should always know why you teach it, why it should be studied, and what it is all about; keep up with the latest, expand the scope and depth of your knowledge.
  3. Society — your role; dealing with what society, in the form of parents and the public (and the local educational authority), expects teachers to do.
  4. Staff — your colleagues; understand the school culture, and what the school expects of you; pay attention to the interactions in the staff-room and how they can help or hinder you; politics is a bummer but it is also a reality.
  5. Self — who you are; know what you stand for and why; know what real abilities and skills you have; reflect on your performance often.
In various situations, these five things will change in priority, but they are all important. You must never forget your students, you should keep a handle on your subject, you have to continue to be hopeful about society, you need to work with other staff, and you must not lose your sense of self.

Always remain true to your mission statement. If you have to change it, change it only after thinking about it for a long time. It cannot be something you do lightly, either when crafting that statement or re-crafting it. It took me a very intense two days at a retreat to craft mine, and since then I have not changed it. Again, I'll leave it for my students to decide if I lived by it.

Lastly, whatever happens, you will always be a teacher. When you walk out of your last classroom and your last school, the habits of mind you developed will stay. You will catch yourself being didactic, pedagogical, cognitively aware, and liable to provoke cognitive dissonance. Still want to be a teacher?

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Out Of Mind

The beautiful articulation of my mind enables me to move, to flex, to wrap myself around ideas and pour myself over them. My mind gives me the ability to change the direction of an impulse, to shift my perspective, to display a kind of heterodoxy of thought. My brain is a defining factor, pyscho over physio, mobile over static, higher animal over barnacle or tree.

And on a cold wet morning, sometimes I'd rather be a tree. I have just come to realise that the bearings of my mind are not forever. The knowledge has always been there, especially since the time I went crazy and decided to do a PhD. But realisation, the event of something becoming real, is a different matter. I ache on such mornings. My mind is the main culprit. And being articulate is sometimes more of a curse than one might ever have imagined.

Wait. This reminds me of something I posted not too long ago.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Out Of Joint

The beautiful articulation of my bones enables me to move, to flex, to wrap myself around terrain and pour myself over it. My joints give me the ability to change the direction of an impulse, to shift my mass, to display a kind of heterodoxy of movement. My skeleton is a defining factor, endo over exo, mobile over static, higher animal over barnacle or tree.

And on a cold wet morning, sometimes I'd rather be a tree. I have just come to realise that the bearings of my joints are not forever. The knowledge has always been there, especially since the time I tore the ligaments in my shoulder. But realisation, the event of something becoming real, is a different matter. I ache on such mornings. My joints are the main culprits. And being articulate is sometimes more of a curse than one might ever have imagined.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008


Sometimes I think that faith has lost its meaning in the world. It used to be that faith was about making the daring assertion, in the absence of complete data, that things would turn out right in the long run. It has been supplanted in many places by the deliberate belief that 'things will turn out right for me' or that 'things will turn out the way I want it' or that 'everything will suit my idea of good' or that 'everything that happens is a good thing'. I've seen the phrase, 'people of faith', used to describe people who believe in some codified supernatural concept of any kind.

All these beliefs are not necessarily true, and the more general ones may actually be meaningless in a theological sense – 'theological' here meaning 'derived from arguments logically consistent with the corpus of the individual's beliefs'. Even that one assumes that the individual's beliefs are consistent and not arbitrary, something like economic theory but on steroids.

So from what I can see, a lot of people are lacking in faith without knowing it; some are lacking in faith because they think they have it but haven't. A lot of people do have faith but haven't got round to articulating it clearly for themselves. And some have just 'bought a package' and assume it will be fine.

Me, I think that if those of the Christian persuasion read St Paul's Letter to the Hebrews, it tends to clear things up a bit. It's just like reading Matthew 10 and then thinking about the 'Great Commission'.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Dragon Waxing

Scaly and golden, the dragon grew. In the damp, hot weather, it accumulated mass and concomitant weight. In the cave of its birth, its hardening amber armour gave it strength and confidence. It wondered when it would see the light of day again. It stirred briefly, and the cave moved around it.

In the outside world, its stirrings were eventually felt. For days, the guardian of the cave felt discomfort, almost pain. He prepared a lance, and oiled it with care.

The dragon woke in the body, and began to stretch wings, fine and delicate webs of dragon-stuff. Those webs also became thicker with time and hot weather.

The guardian felt a buzzing. For a moment, he felt disoriented. Then he knew. And he prepared to search the cave.


An hour later, it was done. Sir Wolff withdrew his lance, examining it critically with an experienced eye. The container was full of dark brown and amber fragments. "Wax!" he muttered to himself. "Thank God I can hear properly again."

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Professional Impact

Over the last few days I've been mulling over what the girl who likes lying on the grass said. She's been thinking about education, profession, and career choices. She's been wondering about the responsibilities attached to or associated with various professional roles. And I remembered, because of what she said, the process that eventually led me to where I have been.

The obvious thing is that, just as with basic rights and basic skills, the identification of 'basic professions' must come from looking at the basic human condition. This is what I mean. Consider what you're like as a newborn:
  1. you need protection from the elements; hence one of the basic human rights is shelter from exposure, one of the basic skills is learning to find shelter, and one of the basic professions is making shelters.
  2. you need food and drink; hence one of the basic human rights is the right to sustenance, one of the basic skills is feeding oneself, and one of the basic professions is providing sustenance.
  3. you need to communicate; hence one of the basic human rights is the right to communication, one of the basic skills is communication, and one of the basic professions is helping others to communicate.
  4. you need to learn; hence one of the basic human rights is education, one of the basic skills is teaching oneself, and one of the basic professions is teaching others.
The list goes on, but these four cover most of the fundamentals. The next level up would be the interactive level which develops once communication is present – social needs, self-actualisation, dominance, combat, movement.

How do we consider various professions in the light of this? Here are some examples.

If you're a builder or an architect, a weaver or an insurance agent, you're obviously one of the first-group providers – you provide the means by which people survive their environmental challenges. If you're a farmer or a cook, a hunter or a fast food chain operator, you're in the second group – you provide the means by which people can be sustained physically. If you're going to be an artist or a politician, a lawyer or an advertising executive, you fall into the third group – you're a person who speaks for others when they cannot communicate. The last group is obvious; educators of all kinds are here.

Three things become obvious to me as I look at such lists. Firstly, parents do all these things for you, especially mothers. Secondly, certain professions – e.g. economists, doctors, car manufacturers – rely a lot on people developing secondary vulnerabilities, things which they are not normally born with. Thirdly, some professions are able to fulfil elements of many needs – those with creative, communicative and catechistic roles being obvious examples.

The last thing, not immediately obvious, is that the role you play after being educated and adopting a profession is yours alone. Each of us develops our own sense of mission and our own scope of deeds. Each of us chooses to provide services or goods or intangibles which fall somewhere in between. But the most important part of this is that we should think about this frequently, adjust our perceptions and perspectives, and aim for the best that we can do.

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Occasionally, I am overwhelmed with kindness from those who have known me briefly or not at all. Acquaintances over a few distant years, supervisors and subordinates of a few short months, peers of nodding acquaintance, students of long-forgotten classes – all these people have shown me kindness, and as I sit here counting my blessings, I realise that quite often, the amount of debt we can owe others is far more than we can pay.

There is only one way to balance the books: if each of us returns kindness for kindness, if each of us creates more kindness spontaneously, the 'kindness economy' will boom and the bread cast upon the waters will return manifold to each of us.

Thank you to all of you who have helped me, responded to me, shone light upon my path, and fended darkness away from me. Each of you, no matter how long our contact or acquaintance, occupies a place of value in my heart.

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Red Star

When I saw the invitation I was pleasantly amused. What a name for a restaurant!

An age ago, before any of my students was born, the Red Star was the emblem of the Evil Empire that would consume the world unless held back by the clean-cut boys of the CIA and other mythological figures. It was half my lifetime away, and America was still pretty beautiful to those who thought of a free world, open skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties and stuff like that.

But those days, the Reaganesque days of the 1980s, the days of harlequin happiness and a powerful economic legerdemain that shuffled the world's priorities and threw money into the air, are gone. It was an interesting era. At the end of it, the time of Star Wars come to life and the threshold of a brilliant human future, we were full of optimism. To a large extent, the ghosts of Saigon and Berlin were thinned out by time, even if not fully exorcised. The red birthmark on Gorbachev's head became a sign of how far the Red Star had declined, if not fallen totally like a meteor in the mud.

I lived through the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush Jr administrations. No matter how much the United States agonises and pretends that it is no longer a superpower, we still benchmark ourselves against the myth and reality of America. The emblems of liberty and freedom still seem to paper over the cracks of Guantanamo and genocide.

I wonder how long it will last. Maybe some day I will limp into a Holocaust Restaurant, appalled that nobody remembers enough to think about why it was once unimaginable to name an eatery that way. This is the way of the world.


Edit: Actually, someone pointed out that there was a themed restaurant like this in Taipei a few years back. I believe that they changed the decor and name after people complained. As always, the unimaginable is only too imaginable.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Me(n)tal Fatigue

You know how it is: you bend one way and then the other, and then you snap. One way to avoid the fatigue is to bend slowly, infinitely slowly; another way is not to bend at all. Sometimes, I'm in two minds about what to do. But one thing not to do is to bend both ways. Or worse, both ways at once!

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Change We Should Believe In

It's of course one of those things that gets to me, that although I support Senator Barack Obama for President of the United States of America, I will not be able to vote for him in November. That's because I'm (according to various authorities) a citizen of the European Union, for one.

But I'm also a citizen of the world, and a teacher. And as a teacher, I find myself reflecting a lot on what the big nations get up to when they publicly take up positions on education. Senator Obama's position on education, as on November 2007, is something that I can believe in: a well-rounded education, proper support for teachers and schools, accountability of teachers, accountability to the future of all our children, specifics which he occasionally elaborates on in other speeches. He has obviously thought about what educational outcomes ought to be, not just the first-stage and second-stage arguments about what education is and how it should be carried out.

Even if, as some cynics charge, this is all a pipe-dream, it is a good thing to dream about. And it is certainly a better thing to work towards in the long term. I wish the Senator all the best, especially in the face of cynicism masquerading as experiential wisdom. I can just imagine what some of my previous superiors in many different institutions might have said; I am fairly certain most of them are McCain types, and at least one is very much a William Jefferson Clinton person in both good and not-so-good ways.

But as my grandfather used to say, "Everybody has something good about them; it's just that for some people you have to look harder."

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Psalm 134: In Darkest Night

There's always something about men in dark times that makes them think of the darkest night, with no sign of dawn, no surcease from pain, no hope for redemption. But the 134th Psalm, the last of the Songs of Ascents, has a subtly different take on this theme:

Behold, bless ye the LORD, all ye servants of the LORD, which by night stand in the house of the LORD.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the LORD.
The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.

In the night, we stand firm, and we are blessed. Sometimes, I trawl through the oceanic depths of the Old Testament, and I find gems and nuggets of mysterious metal. One of the chapters that seems to tell me what to look for in the midst of chaos casts me as a watchman, and is breathtaking in its oracular scope. In darkest night, the visions are most colourful.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008


The problem with living with an archivist is that everything is kept and nothing is thrown away. Anything with text on it is piled in archaeological layers which one is afraid to disturb or otherwise disrupt. And one fears that the removal of a single item will bring about catastrophe.

Today we removed 20 kg of what we thought was likely to be disposable fissile material: disposable in the sense that it could be bagged and thrown away, fissile in the sense that it was likely to spread in some sort of proliferative manner by falling apart spontaneously, material in the sense that it was only too tangible.

After that, brother and I looked at each other with a strong sense of 'mission accomplished'. Yes, another satisfying male-bonding sibling moment. Heh.

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Psalm 133: Peace In Our Time?

Peace is a useful illusion; it is just like the present, that evanescent moment between past and future. Peace is that balance point between conflict and confusion, between chaos that can be contended against and chaos that has not yet been grappled with. But the 133rd Psalm in all its brevity has an important point: unity is also a weapon against chaos, and it will do in place of peace.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

It is salutary to note that Jesus said, "I came not to bring peace, but a sword." He knew that religion, which by its nature is a lifestyle choice, has the potential to divide; as with any human potential, that potential is sure to be achieved somewhere by someone. But the lesson of this psalm is simple; a blessed life is the reward for living together in harmony. A sword may be present, but it need not always be used to divide.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

A Long Time Watching

When I turned 18, my mother bought me a watch. It took a long time, because she said to take my time and make sure it was one that I liked and that would last. I ended up buying a Citizen Quartz Titanium. Very light-weight, with some gold highlights and no ostentatious features beyond that, the watch has served me well. Its analogue face and insistence on 31-day months have grown to be part of the way I see time.

Today something disastrous happened. The piece of titanium that guards the clasp fell off, its hinge unbalanced by a small amount of dirt and corrosion. I don't know where it went. But for the first time since a hockey stick smashed its face 15 years ago, my watch is wounded and incomplete. I'm sad. My life has gone awry.

The watch has always been a survivor. It has only had to change its batteries twice in more than 20 years. I have always found some place that might repair it, put in new glass, put in a new battery, clean it in an ultrasound bath. But this piece? I'm not so sure they stock it anywhere anymore. I don't know what to do.

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Psalm 132: Triumphant

There's a fine balance in social matters today that has all to do with the rise of democracy on a sociopolitical level while capitalism increases on a socioeconomic level. The problem is that voting suffrage and cash cannot be the only fundamentals for a robust and humane society.

A large proportion of humans still have qualms about universal suffrage, just as the Athenians did in more exclusive form: does a vote out of ignorance carry the same value as a vote from an informed perspective, and why should the burden of information be on those wanting to be elected as opposed to those doing the electing? Similarly, should the more economically able have any legal (as opposed to moral) liability to the less able (e.g. through taxation, social benefit plans)?

The 132nd Psalm is unabashedly theocratic. The argument goes that if God is indeed all-wise and all-powerful, then theocracy trumps all forms of human government and politics. The problem is that human ideas about wisdom and power infect (as well as inform) our perspectives on God. We'd rather not have anyone (human or divine or whatever) be the boss of us, so to speak. That would be elitist (a meaningless tag because of its ambiguity). Here's the psalm:

Lord, remember David, and all his afflictions:
How he sware unto the LORD, and vowed unto the mighty God of Jacob;
"Surely I will not come into the tabernacle of my house, nor go up into my bed;
I will not give sleep to mine eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids,
Until I find out a place for the LORD, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob."
Lo, we heard of it at Ephratah: we found it in the fields of the wood.
We will go into his tabernacles: we will worship at his footstool.
Arise, O LORD, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy strength.
Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness; and let thy saints shout for joy.
For thy servant David's sake turn not away the face of thine anointed.
The LORD hath sworn in truth unto David; he will not turn from it; Of the fruit of thy body will I set upon thy throne.
If thy children will keep my covenant and my testimony that I shall teach them, their children shall also sit upon thy throne for evermore.
For the LORD hath chosen Zion; he hath desired it for his habitation.
This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it.
I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread.
I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy.
There will I make the horn of David to bud: I have ordained a lamp for mine anointed.
His enemies will I clothe with shame: but upon himself shall his crown flourish.

It is a powerful and reassuring psalm of triumph for those on the right side of the anointed theocracy. The victory does not come for free; you find a place for God at the expense of your own rest and the effort of your days. But how does it apply to those who are not the inheritors of the blessing, but who are also not enemies of David?

Sometimes, when I think of these things, I am reminded of this verse by mostly-forgotten journalist William Norman Ewer (1885-1976). He devised a little clerihew that went, "How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews." In these days, we'd think of it as anti-Semitic, since it seems that whenever someone cracks a Jewish joke these days, it's anti-Semitic. But the point of the question is still valid. As a race, as a people, they are as unlikely as any other race or people to be specifically chosen by a supreme deity. Why not the Navajo, for example?

At the fundamental level of reality, we will never know why. This is what galls us; in a world of capitalism and democracy, we uphold the self-assigned rights of all men to own all things and to know all things equally. That it will never be so does not deter us from seeking some sort of philosophical ideal. But the universe is a lot more arbitrary than we are in this respect: effort and hard work are rewarded in linear fashion most times, but surprise and ingenuity win big too.

And that is why people turn away from the sociopolitical idea of God, the theocratic ideal; the perceived inequalities and externalities are too big for human economic and political thought to handle.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Two Dishes

I have two particular foods in mind. They aren't particularly common outside Asia, so I'll describe them for the benefit of those who want to give them a try.

The first is kaya toast. Kaya is a kind of paste made from sugar, eggs, and coconut. Other ingredients are sometimes added to flavour the mix. Essentially, an eggy kind of jam is produced, which on cooking (while stirring to prevent burning) caramelises to a lovely brown. I've seen blue, green and greyish kaya before; the blue variety coloured by the flowers of indigenous sweet pea plants, the green kind often involving pandan leaves.

Kaya toast is made when very thin slices of bread are toasted to a biscuit-like hardness, spread with kaya, and loaded with chunks of slightly salty butter. The right proportions make for a heavenly and calorie-laden breakfast, often consumed with two half-boiled eggs (with pepper and black soy sauce added to taste) and black coffee.

The second is apricot kernel and pear soup. Apricot kernels contain amygdalin, which generates a small amount of cyanide in the body. You'd have to eat a quarter pound of the kernels all at once to kill yourself, though. You boil the kernels (which you can buy in half-pound packages with no health warnings on them) with sweet pears and rock sugar (to taste). Add a bit of orange zest or a small tangerine to the mixture for a blend of bitter, tangy, and mostly sweet and soothing liquid nutrition. It's supposed to calm you down.

Sometimes I have foodie thoughts. Sigh. All the ills that the flesh is heir to, I must endure.


Psalm 131: Avoidance Play

The 131st Psalm is a tiny vignette of what it must mean to stay out of certain kinds of politics. This psalm says:

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.
Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.

It is all about being as a child in some things. As I've quoted from the Book many times before, "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life." Sometimes, getting involved in things that are of a low priority for you and of too high a priority for others is a dangerous thing. But what about storming the Senate or other such romantic adventures that democratic people think about?

Well, I've come to realise that a part of humility that takes nothing away from the practice of democracy is to refrain from action or involvement unless truly qualified. Participation is one thing; exercising oneself in great matters above one's legitimate reach is another. One can comment, lobby, or otherwise persuade; doing the work of a senator or judge unless one is of that quality of experience, skill or training is not a good idea otherwise.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Last night, I put my books back on the shelf and cleared my desk. Hold the congratulations though; it's not that I've suddenly reached apotheosis and need no longer work at my doctoral thesis.

Rather, it was a sudden attack of the rare and debilitating malady known as Alfie-itis, also known as What's-it-all-about syndrome. Sometimes it hits you, this creeping malaise which leaves you wondering whether it is worth doing anything at all. Because the same old things continue to happen, no matter what you do.

[Yes, the same old things. For those of you who are wondering why it's called Alfie-itis, I will just chuck a few more old things at you. Burt Bacharach. Cilla Black. Cher. Michael Caine. Dionne Warwick. Trivia. History. Haha.]

So for a couple of days, I am making retrograde progress. Why should I care about education, improving things, or finding out what can be improved and how? I am making money. I am earning my keep. I am thinking like Homo economicus, the very model of a modern major materially-minded man.

Or so I would like to think. Even in my retrograde progress, I am retrograde. I can't help thinking of words, books, literature, philosophy, music, all the things that some people find valueless and effete. In fact, I have this overwhelming urge to spend money in a totally useless way far removed from the cleverness of Homo economicus. I feel like splurging on Folio Society editions, fine chocolate, good wine, and comfortingly vague graphic prints.

Madness, again.

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Psalm 130: A Fearsome Forgiveness

The nature of forgiveness is often taken for granted. But forgiveness can be a fearsome thing, and that's the oft-neglected point of the 130th Psalm.

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.
My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

The key is in the fourth verse, which can be translated as, "But there is forgiveness with you, and therefore you are feared." How odd, you might think; how do we parse this line?

The thing is that the power to forgive is like the defence of vulnerability. It is a potent engine of change. There is no opposing it, since it isn't an aggressive weapon. Over time, I've learnt a lot about powerful things that aren't weapons, and they're all good – and they are all fearsome as well. Nevertheless, the yearning in this psalm is palpable; the hope overrides the fear, the promise of redemption may yet be granted, the morning is on its way.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Where I'm sitting right now, the average temperature is about 33°C and the droning of grasscutting equipment fills the distant air. It's a vengeful onslaught presaging a really hot summer. Or so you would think, if you hadn't just had a really cold rainy few days prior to this.

It's hard to think about higher average temperatures when you've been having the occasional bout of record-breaking lowest-ever local temperatures. It's hard to think about global warming when everyone seems to be wondering about nuclear fireballs. It's easy to think of American strategy in the Middle East as an aberration of foreign policy.

But the average temperature is going up, the desire for nuclear playthings likewise, and American strategy in the Middle East is something we've come to expect from certain kinds of administrations. Back in the latter part of the 20th century, America backed India with arms shipments (which India then used to absorb the smaller states of Goa, Hyderabad and so on) then switched to Pakistan as a counterbalance (and supplied them F-15s, believe it or not). Thus, the two big South Asian democracies (yes, India is indeed the largest democracy in the world) were put at each other's throats to the benefit of the US military-industrial complex.

Who do you think is to blame for the fact that both Pakistan and India have some kind of nuclear capability? Maybe China; it's convenient to blame them. But the first arms traders to make a killing in South Asia were the British, followed by the Russians and Americans. And the killing hasn't stopped.

I think the problem that Americans have in seeing all this is that Americans don't have a very detailed mental map of the world. The Onion's Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth (73rd Edition) is a masterpiece of lampoonery directed at mainly American stereotypical perceptions. Unfortunately, the fragments which substitute for a mental map are indeed a lot like the funny bits lovingly assembled by The Onion's team.

And so outside my window, the heatwave continues. The haze rises off the ground, and you can see little of clarity beyond it. The drone of the grasscutting machines fills the air with white noise and green flecks. And everything hangs, uncertain.

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Psalm 129: In Affliction

Today's reading comes from the 129th Psalm, a piece which seems like a rather stern indictment of oppressors, but is actually mild and regretful in tone. Even the last few curses are framed as things which do not happen, rather than things which do.

Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, may Israel now say:
Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth: yet they have not prevailed against me.
The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows.
The LORD is righteous: he hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked.
Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion.
Let them be as the grass upon the housetops, which withereth afore it groweth up:
Wherewith the mower filleth not his hand; nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom.
Neither do they which go by say, "The blessing of the LORD be upon you: we bless you in the name of the LORD."

The idea of Zion, now a political flashpoint to many, is all about the holy mountain, the object of the quest. This psalm is about the fate of those who refuse the dream, and thus deprive themselves of blessings. Slowly, those who deny the quest fall by the wayside, and the pilgrims who carry on no longer bless them. It urges us, indirectly, to continue on in the pilgrimage lest we become those who are empty of inspiration and of the true life.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Psalm 128: Establishing The Dream

Today's reading is the 128th Psalm. Building on the previous psalms, it reassures us that the future we built will yet come to pass: that we will indeed receive the fruits of our labour and see the establishment of the holy city, in whatever form we hoped for.

Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD; that walketh in his ways.
For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.
Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.
Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the LORD.
The LORD shall bless thee out of Zion: and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.
Yea, thou shalt see thy children's children, and peace upon Israel.

It is reassurance based on one thing though: that these blessings accrue to those who have an abiding respect and fear of the Lord of Hosts. What form does this fear take? Why do we fear? Is it an unreasoning terror or the sinister horror of the dark? The answers to these questions about fear come in the next few psalms.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Baker Downstairs

She made mini apple strudels this week: trays full of delicious stewed apple-raisin mix packed into palm-sized pastry shells. It's been banana bread, pecan pie, turkey-meat curry puffs; it's been mini pizzas and cheese toasties with bacon and...

My mother-in-law is fantastic. She runs the household in sublime balance with the appetites of its residents. And she paints, and she watches Oprah, and she does a million other things, some of which we marvel at and some of which we don't really see.

And this post is brief, but it is long overdue. Thanks, Mom!

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Psalms 126-127: Building The Future

The previous readings from the Songs of Ascents talked about looking upwards. To some extent, that's what the faithful do all the time. But the readings for yesterday and today speak a lot about looking forward once the upward dimension has been acknowledged. Psalm 126, for example, says this:

When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them.
The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.
Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.

It is a song of release from the past; things done of old have had their consequences, but the penance is over and the work can begin. The work is not that of slavery, with no reward save the ending of pain; it is the work that bears fruit and builds for the future.

That theme of building is even stronger in today's reading, the well-loved 127th Psalm, which is a foundational hymn to many:

Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.
Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

The main point here, however, is that progress towards the future is dependent on trust in the blessings of youth. As a more modern translation has it, "Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain," and "He brings sleep to those He loves." There is no point in rising early or toiling late without the understanding that you do it in a secure faith and a good conscience.

I've been blessed with the ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, in any place. Very rarely do I find myself too awake to sleep; and these occasions are certain indicators that whatever is wrong has to do with my own errors. The downside also comes in that when others are talking without an end in sight, I tend to fall asleep as well. As Earthsea author Ursula Le Guin once famously said, "When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep."

Of course, one shouldn't sleep too much; that way lies the defeat of the sluggard. But hoarding one's energies while all other avenues are fruitless is wise.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Taxonomy & Traffic Engineering

Today I met by semi-accident with three young men, an event with mythic resonances as always. We collided on the Borderlands, where you will always find these people or people very much like them. And while I was enjoying lunch, we came across a new way of describing a particular kind of 'wisdom of crowds'. It's called taxonomy.

The etymology of this term is interesting. The suffix nomos of course means 'management' or 'law' in the sense of 'rules of action and transaction'. The prefix comes from the Greek taxis, which means 'arrangement' or 'formal structure'; this word is the basis for other words like syntax, which means 'together-arrangement'. Quite often, taxis is placed in opposition to praxis, which means 'doing' or 'acting'. The nature of the opposition is that taxis implies laying things out in sequence while praxis implies carrying things out in sequence.

But the taxonomy I speak of, which I associate with traffic engineering, is the wisdom of listening to taxi drivers. Are the two words 'taxi' and 'taxonomy' related? Yes, they are. 'Taxi' comes from 'taxicab', a cabined vehicle operated by automatic fare arrangements – the Latin word 'taxa' from which we get 'taxes' refers to this arrangement of cash flow. 'Taxonomy' means 'managing the order of things', or 'the law by which we arrange things'.

I would propose a new etymology. From today onwards, I introduce an alternative meaning of 'taxonomy'. It shall mean 'letting what taxi drivers say be an input into your decision-making'.

Why? Because I've come to realise that taxi-drivers get input from many sources and they act like powerful computers which synthesize an opinion from these sources. When you have enough taxi-drivers as inputs, you are receiving multiple nuanced inputs which are all syntheses from many secondary (and in some cases, primary) sources. It is a 'wisdom of crowds' situation.

In fact, if you get them all together, processing in parallel, you have the quintessential ('fifth estate') source of knowledge, the neighbourhood coffee shop or kopi tiam. That particular social node must be acknowledged as the forerunner of the internet in terms of its information-transfer role. The role of the coffee shop and similar establishments is well-documented in Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Americas. It is a hub.

See, if you will, a vision of the mind's eye. Here is a hub. Attached to it are the many carriers of information and people. New ones come and go, fleets of similarly-labelled and blazoned vehicles, following the cycles day after day. Are we looking at a server? An airport? A coffee shop? It could be any of these, but behind them all looms the invisible spectre of my new taxonomy.

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Psalm 125: The Audacity Of Faith

Anyone interested in Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the White House in 2008 would probably have read his book, The Audacity of Hope. In it, the Senator speaks about what it means to live in a pluralistic democracy and having to cope with perilous issues such as religious orthodoxy and political expediency. He concludes that in many areas, Americans have no choice but to admit a freer and broader discourse at a personal level – and then elevate this discourse to a higher level without rancour.

This is always going to be hard for some people to take. As I was reading Psalm 125 yesterday, I could see only too easily how an abiding faith might possibly turn into the stubbornness of faith, rather than the audacity of hope.

They that trust in the LORD shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever.
As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the LORD is round about his people from henceforth even for ever.
For the rod of the wicked shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous; lest the righteous put forth their hands unto iniquity.
Do good, O LORD, unto those that be good, and to them that are upright in their hearts.
As for such as turn aside unto their crooked ways, the LORD shall lead them forth with the workers of iniquity: but peace shall be upon Israel.

To me, it has always been of near-paramount interest and wonder that the name 'Israel' means 'he who wrestles (or contends) with God'. To have a nation rooted in an abiding faith that one has been granted the right, as Jacob was, to contend with the Almighty, is to have a unique status indeed. It is a status that needs the countervailing weight of even more graciousness and humility than usual.

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Friday, June 06, 2008


In the grey stone canyons I saw the wolf. It was hard to see his pelt against the smoke and haze, but he was there. He was for a moment more concrete, more solid, than the aggregate of civilisation's experience. And then he winked, and was gone.

I stood for a moment in surprise. Then I heard a mocking caw, the cry of ravens since Noah, "Ark! Ark!"

I looked up, and for a moment there was an amber eye laughing in the darkness. There were amber eyes laughing in the grey. And I felt almost like an insect trapped in that amber. Until I too saw wolf and raven clearly, and was free.

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Psalm 124: The Fowler's Snare

Yesterday's reading came from the 124th Psalm. I have been reading these psalms in the context of Barack Obama's sterling run for the presidency of the United States of America. What strikes me is that he has learnt so much and so well. His three commandments to his team – always show respect, do things from the bottom up, no drama – are a brief and powerful body of advice that every organisation should at the very least consider thinking about.

It is these qualities that deliver one from the fowler's snare. As Psalm 124 says:

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, now may Israel say;
If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us:
Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul:
Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

In Christian symbolism, the fowler is the hand of the Accuser. The Accuser's main tools are pride and wrath among all others, for these were his greatest weaknesses. Obama seems to have been saved from these by his friends and confidantes and the team which serves him. I feel humbled and I think I should learn from that too.

So I am going to do what is right and show respect to those who should be respected for what they do and why they do it. Sometimes, it is when I think I am right that I can fall most headlong into error. The only way to escape? Be respectful, do things from the bottom up, and no drama.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008


Taste is three-dimensional. You can measure the taste of something along one of three axes; these three axes are somewhat analogous to the three main kinds of chemical bonding – covalent, ionic, metallic.

The first axis is bitter-sweet. A bitter substance can be diluted until it tastes sweet; many organic compounds are like that, and conversely, many sweeteners are bitter in high concentration. Life is like that; too much sweet and you will taste bitterness, but how sweet the taste of good coffee!

The second axis is salt-sour. At the extremes of this axis lie ionic solutions, ions set free in a world of water. You will find that taking a very salty liquid provokes a similar response to taking a very sour one. But this axis scales to zero – if the liquid is very very faintly salty or sour, it quenches thirst better and makes you want to drink more.

The third axis is minty-meaty. At one end you will find peppermint and other sharp aromatic buzzers of the nose; at the other end you will find the taste of amino acid compounds – glutamate and his friends. At high concentrations, they taste metallic, like crystals of the smell of reacting metal.

It is always interesting to see how our little worlds of sense and sensation are so easily reduced to theory in few dimensions. Quite often though, while the numbers and bullet points are adequate description, they are unable to capture explanation or meaning.

You drink a soup of forest mushrooms: as the glutamates and aromatics intermingle, as the salt closes circuits in your tongue, you feel pleasure. But what kind of pleasure, and why does the aroma of mushroom make you feel comfortable and intelligent? The truth may lie in your past experiences, or in your present company, or in the future expectation of garlic bread. And you may know none of this, except that the soup is great.

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Psalms 121-123: Looking Up

This was Monday's reading; it was one of the earliest psalms I learnt in my childhood.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

In this modern age, the archaic elegance of the King James Version doesn't always allow the meaning of some of these phrases to shine forth. The last line is often translated as 'the LORD will watch over your comings and goings...' The psalm thus transits from God's help in times of dynamic equilibrium ('He will not let your foot slip' is how the third line can be translated, and is related to wrestling) to times of movement and change. It has spoken to me a lot in the last few weeks.

Psalm 122 was Tuesday's reading; it spoke to me about something completely different: not so much about the state of the journey, but the object of the journey. Every one of us has Jerusalems, cities at the edge of time, places of the Grail. For much of my life, I aimed to serve and be nothing more than a servant in the streets of my own Jerusalem. This was not to be. However, the 122nd Psalm says:

I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:
Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.
For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.
For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.
Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.

I was indeed glad when I was asked to go to my Jerusalem; I remain glad to have served there, and I continue to wish it well. The combination of peace and prosperity that one wishes for a city that one may no longer enter or which one has been exiled from is a rare thing. But as another psalm (the 137th) says, "If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill."

When one has been part of the uncommonly great, one is touched with a little magic of that time. And one never forgets. And that is what leads us to Wednesday's reading, the 123rd Psalm:

Unto thee lift I up mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens.
Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; so our eyes wait upon the LORD our God, until that he have mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us: for we have endured much contempt.
Our soul has been filled with the scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud.

Sometimes, it's easy for masters to forget that almost everything their servants receive might come from them: housing and food and funding and life, in the days of the Bible. It is easy to write off a poor servant as bad forever, and to think of him as an unworthy slave. While the indenture is secure, this may well be true.

But how can one treat a free man in the same way? Should those who act as fathers continue to frustrate their children? As Dorothy Dunnett once wrote, " 'God is my Master,' the Patriarch said. 'It makes for simplicity. I commend it. For that is your trouble, isn't it?' "

I know I've been prideful and wrathful in the past and it continues to be a weakness. Those of you who read this and believe in prayer can continue to pray for me in these areas. But never once have I failed to believe in my Jerusalem and my God, in ascending order of trust.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Interesting Times

So I sat down late last night with old friends and companions from the days of my youth. The topic was an interesting one. It involved lawyers, politics and education.

To begin with, let's consider education. Education as a field of study tends to suffer from the 'closed classroom' problem. Teachers don't like invasion of the classroom via the 'fourth wall' or any other way in general. This is because teaching is often seen as a personal relationship, and also because some people just don't like being watched doing what they do. This leads to all kinds of creative research methodologies aimed at finding out exactly what happens in a school (as opposed to what all schools will tell you about what they are doing).

Of course, the main point of education research is to find out what we did right and how to scale it up, broaden its reach, and/or deepen its level of philosophical justification. Sometimes we can't do all three, but we try to make it better because education is our gift to future generations (and nobody wants to be handed a booby prize). The problem of the closed classroom is that we can't find out what we need to find out, so we don't know if what was done actually added value or not.

It is actually in the interest of institutions to do their own rigorous research or allow themselves to be researched so that they can improve. The next problem is that given the closed classroom, some people tend to a) not do their own research because they don't have, can't provide or won't use the required resources; and b) won't allow 'outsiders' to help them with it, thinking that any external viewpoint will lack understanding of the local context (which of course can be a real difficulty) or worse, be inimical to the interests of the school.

So how does a school improve? It is possible for a school to improve by evolution: what works and what doesn't work eventually ought to result in a larger proportion of what works if sufficient penalties for bad stuff and rewards for good stuff are available. It is possible for a school to improve by incrementalism: adding more of the same or adjusting the same things in very small ways in a fixed policy direction that just happens to be right.

But neither of these methods is superior to a real, deep, searching appraisal that can identify systemic problems and attempt to clear them up. So why don't we do such appraisals, why don't we 'downward bend [a] burning eye'?

The first part, identification of problems, is already seen as negative and hence is not likely to be supported. Risk-averse people call them 'areas for improvement' because this allows you to believe they are good and can be better (rather than bad and can be made good). A variant of this is the 'we can't do anything about it anyway, so why bring it up?' response.

The second part, clearing them up, will always bump into smoke, bushes and other obfuscatory devices. This is because survival in the original situation probably requires people to learn survival skills which they are too heavily invested in to throw away. It's like clearing rocks away to make a space available for agriculture. The organisms who live under the rocks and benefit from the rocks are likely to be very upset.

Over the last few weeks, I've heard all this from some people who are not so happy that I am doing research at all. But my history of research (short though it may be) shows nothing but a respectful approach to the institutions in question. Yes, I do recommend improvements; quite often, I highlight what can be learnt in a positive fashion from what I have found. I have never engaged in destructive research simply because that's not what education is about. People who suggest, either implicitly or explicitly, that I will do such things regardless of what I have actually done are actually defaming me.

And so, we live in interesting times. Despite what some people think, I am not averse to engaging legal opinion or adopting a martial stance. It is even more interesting to see that when I do this, people who have been harassing me take offence at my decision to draw a line. That way is the way of bullies and opportunists.

My grandfather once said, "If people don't make use of you, you must be useless." I totally agree; my problem here is with people who would like me to be useless in the first place. That, I will not be. As an educational researcher, one of my duties is to the useful truth; substance that can be used to make people's lives better, stuff that can be used to improve teaching and learning. Why would anyone not want that?

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Psalm 120: The Pilgrimage Begins

Sunday's reading was Psalm 120, which could very well be known to some people as the short one that comes after the longest ever one, the infamous and repetitive meditation known as Psalm 119. Not that the 119th Psalm is a bad piece of literature, but it is better known for length and the repeated thesaurical exposition on the Word than it is for beauty or style.

Psalm 120 reads:

In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.
Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.

It was the first psalm I ever read in my military service, and it immediately raises the spectre of two ethical dilemmas: firstly, the dilemma of dealing with deceit (avoidance or confrontation); secondly, the problem of the warmonger mentality (coexistence or opposition).

The psalmist cries out for delivery from both. But it's to be noted that he sojourns in Mesech (or Meshech), the land associated with the sons of Nimrod, crafters of metal and machines of war. He dwells in the tents of Kedar, the tribe associated with stealthy hunting. And he has dwelt there a long time, a peacemaker in the midst of warmongers.

Sometimes, we too feel his pain. Attempting to be reasonable in a world of unreasonable people, attempting to solve problems rather than ignore their existence, attempting to be truthful in a world that denies the validity of the factual, we often feel beleaguered and beset by dark pressures and comic insanity.

The 120th Psalm has no explicit resolution for this. In the first verse, we are told that God hears, but not what He says in reply. This psalm therefore stands well as the opening statement in the Songs of Ascents, which I mentioned some time ago – meditations on pilgrimage through the spiritually barren landscape of the world.

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Elective Agriculture

Sometimes you keep planting the same stuff in the same place. It wears out the soil by consuming the same nutrients until the rate of replenishment falls below the rate of extraction. Then the crops start coming out 'weeny, weedy and weaky', as that great Roman once said.

This is the same kind of phenomenon as can be observed when an institution begins to feed on itself. If the same structures and powers have been in place too long, the amount of profitable divergence begins to drop. Like the crops, the gene pool is too small for adaptation; the same resource burdens begin to consume ever-decreasing resources, and the crop starts coming out tainted with mediocrity.

It then becomes time to practice elective agriculture. This is like elective surgery but applied to plants. You need to prune plants that can survive it; remove or rotate crops that are leaching out the last resources, so that the soil can recover; and if you are desperate, cut down and burn some plants to return the resources to the soil.

I've always believed that self-selecting cabals (such as the College of Cardinals, many political parties with a cadre system, some administrative teams in some corporate entities) can be very focussed and powerful. However, if the talent pool begins to thin out, this essentially propagative strategy can become self-defeating. That's because limiting your choice to a small pool in a social context normally results in a fall in memetic diversity. The same people say the same things, and 'thinking outside the box' becomes 'thinking more fantastically within the same box under the illusion that it is becoming larger'.

The result is that you begin with powerful leaders who are replaced by shadows of themselves who are then replaced by shadows of shadows. If the powerful leaders outlive (or purge, or otherwise eliminate) their shadows, they will be replaced by the shadows of shadows. A simple and crude mathematical analogy is to consider a 'shadow' as the 40% version of its original. Then the 'shadow of a shadow' is a 16% version of the original. It will take about six of these to replace the original, and that will still only be 96%, assuming that these shadows are additive and do not overlap.

This is why elective agriculture must be practiced. Crop rotation and the selection of new strains must be de rigeur for any organisation seeking to retain its growth potential. At the same time, that selection process is difficult. You can't be choosing new strains for the sake of having something new; you might plant weeds instead. Or the shadows of the shadows of crops.

From crops to outcrops – that is what will happen when wrong-headed replacement policies (either poor or no replacement) are followed. It's always a good thing for the farmers to have a look now and then at their livelihood, before it's all gone.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Selective Agriculture

The interesting thing about my new lease of life is that I get to choose the crops I cultivate, and earn quite a bit more with these boutique crops. The reason that I can charge more is that I genuinely feel I am putting specific personal effort into each of these plantings, and the quality shows.

In the past, I occasionally felt like a rice farmer. In the faraway days of my youth, we used to sing this song, which I think is possible Filipino in origin:

Planting rice is never fun,
Bent from morn till set of sun:
Cannot stand and cannot sit,
Cannot rest a little bit.

Of course, being naughty little primary school boys, we used to modify the line to take into account the possible discharge of natural fertiliser and other things like that. But the key point about feeling like a rice farmer is that in rice farming, you more or less have a huge acreage with what seems like little control over quality because it is such hard work and you have little time for reflection over individual stalks or plots.

In some ways, my previous life reminds me also of Auden's infamous poem, Roman Wall Blues. In that poem, he constructs simple doggerel which bears a huge burden of existential angst, much as any soldier on duty in a distant and inimical place must feel. It's not that I am ungrateful for comrades and shared striving and the wonderful manifold fruits of our labours over the years; I am quite happy to remember all those times.

The similarity lies in the feeling that there never seemed to be an end in sight. You just served tour after tour for years until you were invalided out, invalidated out, or otherwise reduced in validity. And at the end of it, like the Roman on Hadrian's Wall, you would like down on the turf in some more summery clime and look up at heaven's eye with your own single eye.

Currently though, I feel I have caught my second wind. Like the great detective Sherlock Holmes, a retirement to bee-keeping on the Sussex Downs is only the beginning of another story. This time, it is one that is largely off the books and into the mists of legend.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Moon In June Swoons Only On The Loon

For some reason, I got stuck into a re-run of Alan Jay Lerner's My Fair Lady, that most excellent musical based on GBS's Pygmalion. I have read both the musical and the play, thanks to my mother who was a fan of both (and my father, whose memory for trivia and ability to sing all the songs still amaze me to this day). But tonight, I was ambushed by 'The Rain in Spain' yet again.

For those who don't know, this song isn't one of the good ones in the musical. But it is certainly one of the great ones, because it is terribly addictive. It is one of those songs that inserts talons into your brain and refuses to let go. The key phrase in it is, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." That phrase has the long 'a' sound repeated five times in some sort of phonetic exercise.

But what if the song is not sung in English? I used to worry about that a lot, and in the days before I learnt anything much more about languages (I was about 9 years old, I think), I had auditory hallucinations of phrases like, "La rana en Espana estana mana en la plana." Now of course I know that this isn't a proper translation of the original phrase. In fact, it probably (ungrammatically) means something like, "The frog in Spain is flowing into the flat." If you made it grammatical, it would probably be 'los ranas' or something, but wouldn't sound so beautiful.

You see the problem? Fortunately, has... the answers, nicely assembled. I reproduce them here:
  • Czech: "Déšť dští ve Španělsku zvlášť tam kde je pláň"
  • Danish: "En snegl på vejen er tegn på regn i Spanien"
  • Dutch (Version 1): "Het Spaanse graan heeft de orkaan doorstaan"
  • Dutch (Version 2): "De franje in Spanje is meestal niet oranje"
  • Finnish: "Vie fiestaan hienon miekkamiehen tie"
  • French: "Le ciel serein d'Espagne est sans embrun"
  • German: "Es grünt so grün wenn Spaniens Blüten blühen"
  • Hebrew: "ברד ירד בדרום ספרד הערב" ("Barad yarad bidrom sfarad haerev")
  • Hungarian: "Lent délen édes éjen édent remélsz"
  • Icelandic: "A Spáni hundur lá við lund á grund"
  • Italian (Version 1): "La rana in Spagna gracida in campagna"
  • Italian (Version 2): "La pioggia in Spagna bagna la campagna"
  • Norwegian (Version 1): "Det gol og mol i sola en spannjol"
  • Norwegian (Version 2): "De spanske land har altid manglet vand"
  • Polish: "W Hiszpanii mży, gdy dżdżyste przyjdą dni"
  • Portuguese (Version 1): "O rei de roma ruma a Madrid"
  • Portuguese (Version 2): "Atrás do trem as tropas vem trotando"
  • Russian (Version 1): "На дворе трава а на траве дрова" ("Na dvorye trava a na travye drova")
  • Russian (Version 2:) "Карл у Клары украл коралы" ("Karl ooh Klary ukral koraly")
  • Spanish (Version 1): "La lluvia en Sevilla es una pura maravilla"
  • Spanish (Version 2): "La lluvia en España los bellos valles baña"
  • Swedish: "Den spanska räven rev en annan räv"
It's quite a beautiful list. I note with pleasure that my version of the Spanish line is much less meaningful but a lot more mellifluous than what exists. You may feel differently, though. Or 'think different', if you're the kind who prefers, "The apple in chapel taps happily a capella."

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The Silliness Of The Cat

Sometimes, you sit in the world which is the world of a kitten. It is full of spiky things and interesting things and thread and balls of wool and stuff to bat about. And it is all a game and in the end you curl up in it and pull it around you and fall asleep. Then everything is all right.

What does the kitten dream about? It dreams about more wool, and more interesting things, and saves its energy for the real version of its dreams. And at the back of its mind, it begins to dream the dream of the cat, and perhaps in its primordial Nimrod myth, it realises it will one day be a mighty hunter.

Then again, some day it might grow up to realise it has hunted nothing but string, chased nothing but little chittering lizards, and terrorised the odd bird or two. It will on that day grow wise in one of two ways. The first way is that it will realise it is still big in its own way, and decide never to grow up.

The second choice is harder. It can decide to go off and die, knowing that out there, God will make it into a Cat; not just a cat, but a Cat. It's harder, and most cats take at least 9 years to get there, one year for each of their lives. It is surprisingly very difficult to give up a life that you cannot keep for one that you cannot lose.

But there you have it.

It's been a funny kind of afternoon.

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Bookbinding Update (May 2008)

Once in a while, I surprise even me. My readings in the month of May overshot previous estimates. You can find the whole lot here at my other blog, if you like that sort of thing. Enjoy!