Thursday, July 31, 2008

Last Day

The theme of 'nightfall', or the less daunting but also pessimistic 'fin de siècle', is an old but effective meme. It is human to think that after every Enlightenment comes an Age of Darkness, or that after every Golden Age comes a descent through Silver to Iron. This is what past history has shown us, and this is what we therefore continue to believe.

The sweep of human history tends to catch us up in these large chunks. We say, "In the Middle Ages," forgetting that this was not a period of decades, but a conflation of centuries, a round half-millennium's worth. We say, "In the Modern Era," seduced into behaving as if this means the last two decades or so. It is a reverse telescopic effect; we look back at the past and compress whole ages of civilisation into footnotes and endnotes. In the end, such practices lead us to only one obvious conclusion: "This, too, shall pass."

But that is not a very useful conclusion. Given a lengthy enough period of time and the assurance (if such exists) that time will continue to pass, everything passes. The more useful ideas involve thinking about what has happened, what just happened, and what is going to happen – and how these are connected. This conceptual focus is necessary when looking at a broad sweep of history; the useful (if not outright good) historians all do this, enabling us to appreciate to some extent how one movement leads to another without getting bogged down in too many personal details. The hinges of history might very well be greased by one man's inferiority complex, but the door that swings open or shut was crafted by an epoch of previous events.

Today, for example, marks the last stage of the end of an era at an educational institution whose progress I've tracked for a very short period of time. It has only been around for 122 years, which is about three times as long as the history of the state in which it resides, and a bit more than half the span of years that the United States of America has existed.

When you look at educational institutions, it is like looking at some sort of very system-specific scan of the human body. We tend to divide history and progress along the lines of what is easily seen as a specific concept. A look at school websites shows that school histories tend to follow one or more of the following: 1) changes to buildings, location, or physical size; 2) changes of leadership; 3) changes of curriculum; and (least likely) 4) changes of educational philosophy. It is very much like the way we do a general physical examination of a person, as laymen.

The first obvious feature is the integument, the skin or outward appearance. An unhealthy-looking skin can often mean internal disorders; a healthy and glowing skin can mean either good cosmetic treatment or genuine good health. The skin is the largest organ, and it is sometimes neglected. Sometimes we see only the large areas and the more prominent parts of it: face, hands, deliberately-exposed areas; hidden areas might have ringworm, but we do not see that at all. The same goes for school buildings.

We then progress to evaluating (if we haven't already) the shape and size and hair (yes, colour, volume, distribution, style) of the person before us. It is all what some people might call superficial, but it is also natural to do this. Big people always impress us more, by sheer size if by nothing else. The same goes for school enrolment and demographics, and also campus acreage.

A longer period of contact allows us to evaluate other systems and their changes, especially to neurology and cognition, senses and perception. Looking at schools, this is equivalent to watching the command-and-control system, and whether proper communication and intelligence exists, and to what extent. When peripheral instability appears, it is clear the system needs treatment at the cerebral level. Perhaps a tumour exists? Perhaps there is unwanted chemical interference or imbalance? Over time, the history of a school can be tracked on a large scale by changes in administration and leadership.

But that is certainly not the whole story. Examining the muscles, bones, and areas of articulation – joints, tendons, ligaments – we can see other things. We might detect a loss of flexibility, a loss of effective power and coordination, or a gain in strength and stability. These things can give the semblance of fitness even when the brain is otherwise occupied.

Laymen can also detect to some extent whether there are aberrations in the functioning of the heart and lungs and other parts of the body which rely on obvious physical action. Can the heart take the stress? Are the lungs delivering enough oxygen? Is the stomach flatulent or otherwise engorged? Does reflux action begin to cause heartburn? In a school, when the more obvious departments and functions fail to deliver, it is time for immediate (and often successful) remediation.

Finally, where laymen do not see things so well, there is the realm of the less-obvious organs. The liver, spleen, bone marrow; it is hard to deduce malfunction until things are well on their way to ruin: a terribly jaundiced look, a perpetual state of illness – these are certainly not the heralds of a better age. Loss of healthy-looking tissue, bloat without obvious reason – these are signs that a deeper and more penetrating examination might be required.

Of course, if the institution, like the human, has been having regular medical checkups by a team of trained physicians and technicians all along, it is less likely to be entering what looks like a fin de siècle era or a time of precipitous decline. But like most of us humans, it is only too easy to put off the difficult examinations and the necessary but onerous treatments that will make the not-really-ill better.

So one day, we find ourselves going the way of all history. The overwhelming pressure on the door forces the hinges, and the door slams on yet another era – or if you are optimistic, opens onto a new era, leaving us peering backwards (if we should desire) into the ever-diminishing passages of the past.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008


It struck me many years ago that the word 'postcolonial' might mean very different things to a gastroenterologist and a historian. And yet, the same coprolithic conclusion might be reached: after all is said and done (or eaten and digested), you have to live with the consequences after the main events.

Right now, I'm looking at a tiny red dot in South-East Asia. It amazes me that the budding and blooming of its education system actually took place in the 19th century. Apart from the early 20th century influx of Chinese philanthropy targeted at securing a cultural outpost of Sinicism on this valuable frontier, most of the institutions underpinning the dramatic modern-day development of this red dot were set up a long, long time ago, in far-flung corners of an Empire that has melted away.

Since that era, less forgotten than rudely thrust out of the local consciousness with variable affect, the single-party government has said many things which are generally true but somewhat dissimulating about the local past. The myth of the present time is that until the present governing party took over, this place was a sleepy fishing village and perhaps a somewhat lackadaisical, occasionally piratical, port. It was not of any consequence and, on handover from the British to the locals, actually was a great burden to bear in terms of finance and lack of opportunities. Without the present government and its forerunners, this place would not have succeeded.

Actually, the problem with alternative histories is that there is no real test. The history we have and what we are today is all that we can look at. But it should be said that the past history of the little red dot has always been one of being a powerful trading centre and strategic location for the projection of naval and economic power. 'Fishing village' doesn't quite cut it. In fact, the mark of its capable governance is really that it has fulfilled its potential in some very obvious and significant ways; whether it has done better than expected is really debateable, considering the assets it has always had.

But the heroic myth always requires the transition from darkness into light; and if the other psychopomps of the journey are cast by the wayside and forgotten, what is that to the promulgation of the myth? I note that the steersmen, the helmsmen, the captains and the kings have mostly departed, and the past they used to straddle like colossi is now populated with many caricatures and monuments.

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I was looking at a delicious bowl of mushroom pasta in white wine sauce the other day. And as I reduced the contents of that bowl to as close to nothing as I could manage, I couldn't help but form associations between what I was doing and what I am doing.

Looking at the historical past is a bit like dealing with that bowl of pasta. The pasta is a bunch of intertwined strands, all looking very similar. Somewhere in there are the juicy bits. You consume those strands, occasionally teasing out a particular strand which seems unexpectedly and unmanageably long. You savour the juicy bits. You taste the sauce in which these strands are embedded, realising that in some ways, this amorphous liquid adds to the texture of the strands, and the enjoyment with which you consume them.

It is a magnificent repast. And when it is gone, you remember it, and realise that there are many bowls of pasta out there, waiting to be enjoyed and emptied of their glorious contents, all different, and yet all the same in some past-oral way. It is a wonderful pastime to have.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008


There is just not enough time in one day to do all the things you want and so you just cruise around picking up the little things when you ought to be saving up your cash and energy and resources for the big things. But sometimes scoring little points seems more fulfilling than not scoring anything for a long while as you wait for the big ones. It's a matter of which game you're playing.

Take word games for example: I've realised that the brain power required to find a 12-letter word just doesn't provide the rewards equivalent to finding five 4-letter words in the same time. So the small scores win in things like Scramble. But in Scrabble, even with time limits, a 7-letter word has a huge bonus and is worth thinking about.

Then there are the long-term planning games which allow you to stockpile stuff. Stockpiling without doing anything is the best policy. But that human itch that makes us want to check our stockpiles every few hours and do something with them is the greatest enemy of rational policy. I noticed today that somebody, by stockpiling without fighting, had built up a huge personal resource level while remaining at a low accomplishment level. This fellow was thus able to remain under the radar, immune to harassment and happy to just bum around doing... nothing.

There are implications in these small, perhaps petty, games that we play on Facebook or in real life. These implications are all part of game theory, that esoteric combination of psychology and statistics. They are played out on a larger scale in diplomacy, politics, economics and various social milieux. Do you work on safety? Is it better to emphasize health? Entertainment or culture, which is better and can they be the same thing? What role does science play? Or a huge workforce? Shall we go for prosperity at all costs, hoping that the others will follow?

And the biggie: if you give up all things for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, how does that change the world?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Morning Has Broken

This morning, I had the privilege to hear from the 12th chapter of the Gospel of St Luke. Luke's gospel, I must confess, has not been a book I've read for some time. As the resonant words echoed in my head, I appreciated once more the beauty of his words, and the skill with which King James's translators turned them into English.

This is of course one of the three synoptic accounts of Jesus' teaching regarding 'the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy'. What is interesting is that you can tell quite often whether a person has read this passage (and other like passages from the synoptic gospels) from the way in which that person views Jesus' response to the world. In Luke 12, as in other parts of this gospel and the other gospels, Jesus shows his role as social catalyst in the original Greek sense of the word 'catalysis', the agent of a sudden breaking-up of the status quo.

He came not to bring peace, but a sword; he came to kindle a fire, to baptise with water, to make the power of the Spirit more freely available. His is not, has never been, should not ever be, the way of incremental and plodding change and shifting ground; rather, as he says elsewhere, his is the way that establishes the past and fulfils it in for the future. In doing so, he avoids the twin traps of sticking to the uninterpreted and misunderstood past, and of charging into the future without the firm foundation built by those before us.

The term status quo is often misunderstood. In this exact form, it means 'the state of things which is'; it does not mean 'the state of things as it has always been'. Quite often, a rude shock to the system is required to shift it out of the low depression into which it has sunk and stalled for a while; sometimes, the state is one of physical and material expansion but spiritual degradation. It is the case in Luke 12: this chapter mentions the fate of a rich man who had so much that he did not know where to put it, and so tore down his barns to make way for larger barns. As the story goes, that night, God required the man's soul, and so sic transit gloria mundi.

We are then enjoined to consider the ravens, who neither sow nor reap, and yet are provided for by their Father in heaven. It isn't that ravens are faithful, quiet, innocent birds; ravens are inquisitive and clever, possibly the most intelligent birds on the planet. What the message here seems to be, throughout this morning's reading, is that God gives us all certain gifts; use them wisely and it will result in a fair provision. And just as in the story of the manna in the wilderness, greed and a desire for more than what God provides results in a messy state of affairs. I like the punishment inflicted on the Israelites here: when they complained about a lack of meat (notwithstanding that God gave them quail to eat), God fed them a huge superfluity of meat till it came out of their nostrils. Beware what you wish for: you might get it!

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Another Look

A reply (though not a rebuttal, nor even a rejoinder) to Second Class.

Sometimes, I suspect visual metaphors for knowledge come with too great a facility to the sons of men. From a literal looking back, as in my post this morning, people think of looking into the past. That's not necessarily the case, but let's consider both possibilities, and one more for the fun of it.

The literal act of looking back, the need to turn one's head to look, is of use only if one is going backwards, or if one is using that act to fix in one's mind the visual image of something one has already turned away from. We've heard phrases like 'to look back in anger' or 'to look back in regret'; these are metaphors engaging the visual aspects of memory, and not the optical aspects or the associated cognitive and perceptive aspects of using one's eyes. When Lot's wife and Orpheus looked back, the act was a prohibited one, not the thought; the physical look, not the memory.

The second case is the Second Class viewpoint. To look back at the past is an honourable occupation, and a wise one; without knowledge of the past, one is doomed to a meaningless present and an implicitly useless future; after all, if your future is not engaged with your present, why are you looking forward to it? It would have no relationship to you at all (or you do not think that relationship is important), since in the future, you would not be looking back to the 'you' of now. I agree with the gist of that post, although I don't think it is quite a rejoinder, but a complement.

The last case is the peculiar one of modern heraldic interpretations. I've been resident on the island of Singapore for some time now, a city-state which in some historical accounts was founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. One of his legacies is an educational institution, which has a version of the Raffles arms bearing a two-headed gryphon, which is said to be looking back to the past and forward to the future.

This is clearly wrong; the two-headed eagle is a symbol of Empire, looking both east and west with rapacious eyes and greedy claws. That the Rafflesian eagle was made into a gryphon (an even hungrier, horse-eating beast) is merely tribute to the meaning of 'Singapore': 'Lion City'. In this case, the eagle is now grounded in a lion; the Raffles Institution has claws firmly planted on the island, never to take off again (as Raffles used to do, frequently).

If the modern Rafflesian interpretation is correct then, to be consistent with the trappings of Empire that the school still uses (Latin motto, baronet's helm etc) on its heraldry, the two eagle heads must symbolise a Western past and an Eastern future. It looks back into the West, just as Tolkien's elves do. It cannot let go of its colonial past. That's why it needs two heads.

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Looking Back

If you look back, it is never a good thing; Orpheus did it, unable any longer to withstand the gloom of the underworld on his own, and he lost his wife Eurydice forever. Lot's wife, whose name we do not know, turned back to look upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and was turned into a pillar of salt. And who knows what happens to pillars of salt who turn back? Perhaps they become sea water, and their identity is lost forever.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Change Forces

Things have changed: the College of the Wyverns is larger within its crammed confines, and the School that feeds it feeds it much less than before.

Things have not changed: the young people are the same, idealistic without knowing why and cynical for much the same reasons.

Things have changed: the people who worked for the God first, and the youth of the island next, then Family and society, and lastly themselves – these people have a different order of priorities.

Things have not changed: the same people are behaving the same way, as always; it is only that there are more of some kinds of people and fewer of some other kinds.

Things have changed: the education we provide is a new, post-colonial, globalist, rationalist, multicultural, holistic... (et cetera) kind of education.

Things have not changed: the students treat their education as cavalierly as ever.

Things have changed: the vision and mission are not the same.

Things have not changed: the real vision and mission are the same; it is only that they are not up there in big letters of wood and stone.

The equilibrium has shifted, but not as far as some people think. The game has still got much to play for, and it is only just after the opening stage.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Millennial Angst

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!"

This quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson was the seed of Isaac Asimov's 1941 short story, Nightfall. That amazing (well, Astounding, really) short story draws upon a rich tradition of millennial literature; humans do unfortunately seem to have an untidy and uncanny knack of falling into confusion every thousand years or so. It is a far cry from Emerson's divine and theocentric vision.

There is an uncertainty that comes with changing certain numbers. With the change of centuries, you change a digit in the 100s position; it is not inconceivable that a person might actually manage to live through two of those, say from 1795 to 1902. But it is completely beyond human experience to live through two changes in the 1000s position; even the biblical Methuselah lived only 969 years.

A similar phenomenon reaches out to me from the back of beyond in this blog. We have lived through a thousand posts; what can we do now? What should we do now? Should things change? Should this blog become more focussed or diversify further? It is all a mystery to me; it is like growing up all over again in a developmental sense – we have learnt much and yet we have fallen into some bad habits, we have become more fluent and yet perhaps too facile.

And so, for the rest of today, I shall think about what to do next.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008


This is my 999th post on this blog. It would have been my 1000th, except that a long time ago I actually deleted one post.


It is not the first time I have had reason to think about the fortunate family circumstances I was brought up in. Life is too short, and the arts are too many, for a man to learn his way around the fantastic palace of imagination and knowledge that inspired humans have lunatically spliced together over the centuries. But my family, and the Family to which I was apprenticed, have taught me much.

They, and They, have taught me that no man is an island; that the sea is an apt metaphor for life; that a circus is not life, but artifice. They, and They, have taught me that a man may be peninsular, but not insular; a navigator or a captain; a ringmaster or a clown, or even a human cannonball. But in all these things, remember that God is your Master, whether you like it or not.

For all things come to the person who serves in faith, who continues on in hope, and trusts in love. It does not matter if you endure mortal pain and hurt; it does not matter if history or persons conspire against you, or blame you for things not of your making, or fault you for omissions that were never meant to be committed. In the end, all that matters is that you believed things would turn out for the best, even if you did not think of it as best, in your limited human mind.

We are all frail, weak organisms with curiously imaginative, adaptive and powerful minds. What we need is a healthy disregard for the contrary ideas that we are either the Lords of Creation or the random output of chance. In the former case, it is easily disproved by the things we have no control over; in the latter case, it is clear that either the randomness if supremely self-organising, or that we have no real thought or ideation, and hence it does not matter. If we can disregard these two impositions or impostors, we can start developing an honest opinion of ourselves.

I've learnt that by playing Facebook games, one can eventually draw conclusions about how good one's natural talent is at a variety of mind-boggling exercises. Many years ago, my maternal grandfather conducted a range of intelligence tests on me. His conclusion was that I was pretty smart; probably one of that 1% or so in the topmost percentile of the human population. Well, if that population is 10 billion people, then there could be 100m who are smarter than I. And given the vagaries of test construction, test distribution, and geographical range, it probably means that all those smart people are sitting ahead of me in the highly academic and political society in which I live.

So I don't take myself very seriously. I am serious about being alive, and being human, and having a sense of humour; that is about where the seriousness ends. Life is too short; the arts are too many; and God, above all, is too great.

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You look around you, and everything does not move. Has time stopped? Or are you just moving too quickly? Stand there, on the balance point between hyperactivity and stasis, and you will know the pleasure of stillness. For if you do not move, you are faster than you think.

You are also the meanest, the most practical water-conserver and course-racer of them all. For that is what a dromedary is: a race-bred and somewhat intractable steed (if that is what you must be), a violator of norms and of aesthetic conventions.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Full Court Press – School Version

I remember from my short time with sports such as water-polo and basketball the idea of a 'full court press'. Essentially, in games where possession and scoring are important and it is allowable to exert pressure on all or almost all of the opposing team at once, this is the strategy of exerting that pressure in order to force errors and hasty play. This post is dedicated to LKW and HYC, the guys who taught me everything I know (which is sadly a lot less than I had the time for) about water-polo. As I was reading Huberman on classroom teaching, I happened to bump into one of these guys online. That's why this post exists.

Huberman, in his 1983 piece 'Recipes for Busy Kitchens', pointed out that teachers face at least four major pressurising factors in their working life:
  • the press for immediate responsive action, estimated at 200k interchanges per year with students, staff and stakeholders, all of them wanting something 'right now';
  • the press for simultaneous multiplex action, in which teachers must do many things, monitor, evaluate, provide different levels of interaction – all at once;
  • the press for continuous adaptation to changing circumstances, because every student and every batch and every year's situation is different;
  • the press for meaningful personal interaction, because education is a human thing.
This is the 'full court press' – school version.

The problem of facing this battery of pressures is that education is very much a human, personal art, even though we may try to see it as an extremely complex science. Any science that is too complex must necessarily be handled by qualitative, human-intensive approaches. Therefore, each of these pressures is made more debilitating by a corresponding truth about the teaching environment:
  • immediate responses may be tactically useful but seldom make for a coherent strategic vision;
  • humans are not good at handling more than a handful of simultaneous tasks with the degree of excellence required;
  • it takes time to change and adapt effectively;
  • meaningful personal interaction falls off rapidly as numbers of interactions increase.
This is what makes the 'full court press' a terrible thing. The debilitative effects on teachers in general spawn not from these truths, but from the pressures that make us deny or attempt to compromise them.

What are these debilitating effects? The question might very well be asked in a different way: "Why are we losing the game?"

We are losing in four ways related to the four pressures which act against the four truths I've mentioned:
  • we are forced to focus on short-term gains, perspectives and results at the expense of the long-term view;
  • our energy is exhausted by a drunkard's walk kind of approach to getting things done in all directions and ways;
  • we are not given time for reflection on what is and is not, but are forced to survive rapid change and consider that a victory;
  • we are deprived of collegiate fellowship and the true development of whole persons because of the lack of quality interaction.
Most schools end up like slightly dysfunctional factories, while remaining half-effective as schools.

This is what the full court press is like in the school context. It's a lot like water-polo or basketball: four quarters per game, and if you are continually under pressure, you will lose unless you are very, very talented. And even then, how long will you last?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gryphon Rising (Part I)

It was inevitable that the College of Gryphons should rise to the challenge. Long considered the premier institution of lore on the Isle of the Sea-Traders, they must have been miffed to see their green glory eclipsed by the Wyvern's children last year. "We are not now that strength, which in old days moved Earth and Heaven," they must have lamented then.

But they have just decided to take to the wine-dark seas again. They will offer what ever the Wyverns offer, and more. They will bring their three-times greater strength to bear. And the scales, fur and feathers will fly. It will be interesting to watch.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008


Apparently, the eponymous akunin is a Japanese word that translates to 'malefactor' or 'rogue' in English and '悪人' in Chinese. I have, unusually, become a fan of a certain Boris Akunin who has written novels of an intriguing and witty complexity. These novels, translated from Russian to English, are now on sale at all the best bookstores.

I don't normally review books here. You can go look at Bookbinding if you want capsule reviews of the stuff I've read that is of the generally entertaining mass-market (or not) variety. But I think that Akunin deserves an entry every now and then, the rogue.

I began with his first two Sister Pelagia books. Bookbinding has brief details. They were pretty good, in the G K Chesterton style of outrageous crime hidden by religious and psychological misdirection. I enjoyed them. And then, I encountered Erast Petrovich Fandorin, hero of this Akunin's Erast Fandorin series of thrillers.

Sigh. I read through the first book, The Winter Queen, at one sitting. It introduces a romantic young junior clerk in the police, develops his character, matures him, and gives him a life-long sense of tragedy, all at once. It is like Ian Fleming's James Bond novels less the gadgets and womanising, and with more character development, wit and style. And that's not to mention the style with which this Akunin paints everything in pre-Revolution Imperial Russian colours. And the plot twists, turns, and peculiar machinations of terrible foes. And why 'American roulette' was renamed 'Russian roulette'. The ending is particularly poignant.

Now I am working on the second book, Turkish Gambit. This one is written more as an historical/political adventure novel. The Akunin has decided that he will showcase one kind of thriller/crime/mystery/adventure genre in each book of the series. I am being greatly entertained by his riffs (some quite deliberately anachronistic) on other authors and classics of each genre. I shall end by showcasing two unfortunately very brief excerpts of his interesting sociopolitical commentary from Gambit, of the sort totally absent from Winter Queen. Enjoy!


[Fandorin] buttoned up his collar and replied seriously, "If you live in a state, you should either cherish it or leave it — anything else is either parasitism or mere servants'-room gossip."

"There is a third possibility," Varya parried, stung by the phrase 'servants'-room gossip'. "An unjust state can be demolished and a new one built in its place."

"Unfortunately, Varvana Andreevna, a state is not a house; it is more like a tree. It is not built, it grows of its own accord, following the laws of nature, and it is a long business. It is not a stonemason who is required, but a gardener."


The double-headed eagle that serves the Russian Empire as its crest illuminates quite magnificently the entire system of government of that country, where any matter of even the slightest importance is not entrusted to a single authority but at least two, and these authorities hamper each other's efforts while taking no ultimate responsibility for anything.

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Inquiry Learning

Sometimes the best way to learn is by inquiry, by asking questions. But you must be prepared to want answers. There is nothing worse for a learning institution than not asking questions, except not wanting answers.

I had a good afternoon snooze. And while I was snoozing, I had an interesting dream. I dreamt that I had stopped questioning things about ten years ago, and I was starting to garner national honours and high rank and all the kingdoms of the world. The bread was pretty good, and I was a high flier.

Then a voice said to me, don't these things look familiar, and weren't they written so that you might believe?

Fortunately, I started asking questions again. And listening to the answers.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008


The word 'distribution' is not unfamiliar enough to deserve a Word of the Day post. But it is a word with a curious history. The root of 'distribution' is the Latin word tribus, which means 'one of three divisions'. It is said to derive from the fact that the Romans were always divided into three factions (hence a relationship exists with things like 'tribune', one of three magistrates, and 'trivia', the three-fold path of knowledge).

The English descendant of tribus is of course the word 'tribe', and a 'tribute' is the payment or dispensation given to a tribe. A 'contribution' is the amount given, an 'attribution' is the given source of what is contributed, and a 'distribution' is the way in which the contributions are divided.

Today I was looking at examination papers and the distribution of questions therein. It struck me that a hefty toll had been demanded, and that many had paid their way in blood, sweat, toil and tears — a thoroughly Churchillian phrase which left me thinking of his great work The Island Race and the many tribes which had merged to make one mighty stream of history.

And then the vision passed and I could only think of the sediment deposited and the rubble strewn across the banks of time.

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At 6.30 am, everything looks oddly purple, with discordant yellow light lancing into the darkness from faraway houses. The smells are different and there is an odd disjunct between people who like getting up at that time and those desperately hanging onto blankets and the cloak of sleep.

The aroma of coffee, necessary for some, anathema to others, percolates around the stubborn houses. I scent fried eggs, butter, mushrooms. Occasionally, there are less-pleasant smells: wet dog, garbage truck. Someone with a strong floral perfume has passed by recently. The air smells cleaner, and the chocolate-tobacco smell of night-time industrial venting is much reduced.

It all seems pretty alien. And then I realise the main thing that makes all of it so strange: I used to be awake at this time most days, and now it is a special occasion. Heh.

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Friday, July 18, 2008


I've had the privilege, in my time, of being a squadron leader with some of the most peculiar flights of imagination. Today's post is a shout-out to those who, however briefly, were my wingmen and my fellow leaders in the fight against intellectual terrorism.

The first wingman I ever had in professional life was Mr T. No, not the one with the big gold chains, but the quiet Malayali Christian with the razor-sharp sense of humour and the penetrating pragmatic skepticism of a true scientist. An odd person, but a genuine friend; we had many late-night suppers together with the music teacher, and when we could leave school early, evening teas. There was an excellent evening with unlimited chili crab, I remember.

A few years later, the Argonaut came along, with his ability to get work done and set things in their places. Another national of the same great northern state, he established a pattern which has not changed much; the vast majority of my professional colleagues who are friends seem to come from one specific discipline and hail from one specific country. I remember thinking, as I worked with him, that this was the beginning of a great team. Pity that it did not last.

I've never quite referred to my third wingman in this way, but he's a troll at heart: lives under bridges and forces entirely new and interesting perspectives on passers-by. Is also very capable at extracting a toll from said passers-by, thus developing the logical economy of the aforementioned bridge. He is also prone to provocative behaviour and yet has a very finely-tuned intellectual capacity; these two things come together more often than many people might think.

And I have served as wingman to several very interesting people in my time, but that post will have to wait till another time.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008


There I was, sitting in the farther road from the Hill of Tin. And I was hearing a truly peculiar story involving a hybrid orchid, the man who ran off with its name, and the myriad (in the literal sense of ten thousand) clones that the local Methodist church council intended to make of that orchid. All in the name of charity, I heard.

It was an interesting tale. I remember the dreams we had of an orchid hybridisation programme. My brother, fortunately, knows all about it and is able to provide me with access to the insider secrets of the dog-eat-dog (?!) world of the orchid.

Just one last factoid: you do know, don't you, that 'orchid' comes from the Greek orchis which means 'testicle', right?

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Journey to the West (Part 3)

I've wondered about whether instilling discipline in the gifted is the same as any other kind of discipline. If you select the gifted and talented on the basis of one set of measurements, is it then valid to differentiate your approach to them in an area that is largely unrelated?

I suspect the answer does not lie in the brains of the gifted, but in the brains of the institution that seeks to educate them. There are always clever approaches and there are always approaches that can be made to look clever. The former will have genuine positive impact; the latter may work for some clients and may attract derision from others. Caveat emptor, as the Romans would have said.

And there's always the issue of 'leadership training'. Should all those who are identified as 'gifted and talented' automatically be presumed to have the potential to be excellent leaders? Does a more integrative brain with more drive and determination make a person a better leader?

It is tempting to affirm this and assert that all such students have a higher leadership potential. But there is one problem that would entertain Hippocrates and his ilk: what if interventions to unlock that potential actually have a negative effect on those who do not (by nature, temperament, breeding or inclination) have significantly higher potential than the mean?

And how would you define that potential anyway? It seems rather circular, something along the lines of: "People with traits A, B and C are better at X, Y and Z which we have found to be traits of people who we have identified as successful leaders because we say so. And you must believe us because we are leaders in our field of leadership studies."

I've found that leadership potential is a lot like intelligence; some of that ability is enhanced and made to look better by environmental context. If you need a person good at hitting targets with a javelin, then that javelin-throwing skill might make the javelin-thrower look smarter and a better leader. Again, it comes back to the kind of society we live in. The kind of information-processing skills once derided as 'wonkish' is a set of skills now very much in demand.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008


'At one sitting' is a phrase I've not thought about very much. I think it must be a reference to old-time portraiture, in which a subject had to be with the artist for multiple sittings, and a hack job or an inspired work of genius would result if the painting was done 'at one sitting'.

Then again, you could be creative about what the 'sitting' might refer to as well. It might be consumption of a large meal, like the legendary excesses of Gargantua and Pantagruel; it might be the legendary consequences of such large meals; it might be work done at a desk, like a scholarly paper dashed out without the author ever standing up.

I am sure you can think of more sittings. Currently, I am in my third round of sittings.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Journey to the West (Part 2)

It strikes me that you can sell snake oil in many ways, but that a few are somewhat eliminated if your clientele does its research. For example, if you sell Programme A that will make your wrinkles go away, but five years later, everyone is wrinkly and worse, then it isn't good to ride into town announcing that Programme A is very good and you should try it too.

It is interesting to see people make a purse out of a sow's ear. My very first thought on observing this ancient skill being practised again was that the plural of 'sow' is 'swine' and the plural of 'cow' is 'kine' and I am so lucky to be alive to see it all come to pastoral fruition in the fields of barley. I note that the Germans are very good at leatherwork, and their wallets of pigskin are actually quite lovely and last a long time.

The main problem, I suppose is that it is hard to show that a programme aimed at the top 10% is actually useful for the top 1%. In a large population, ideally, schools should cater to the top 0.01%, 0.1%, 1%, and 10%. This is because each group really has different needs. A person in the top 0.01% is more different from a person at the 1% level than a person at the 1% level is from a person in the 5% level or perhaps the 10% level. You can't use the same programmes for chemical engineers as well as sanitary engineers, and wordsmiths as well as locksmiths, unless both groups are equally competent or incompetent at the skill to be taught.

And that hasn't even touched the area of what learning really is, and how we can help differently-intelligenced (haha, I can be politically correct too) people do their best.

This then was Day Two. Oh yes, I actually bumped into the Head of Government and a couple of ministers. Unfortunately, this was at a rather sad event, at which we were all bidding farewell to a loyal and very loud-spoken servant of the state. Sigh.

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Milton's 400th

This day marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton in 1608. Milton was a famous poet whose Paradise Lost is one of the seminal works of the English religious literature canon. In a literary sense, he was a precursor to Shakespeare; whereas Shakespeare was the first writer to consistently give his characters psychological dimensionality (intention, motivation, character and complexity), Milton did give it a shot, especially in his diabolical exegesis of the character of Satan.

But Milton isn't literature that every student of English comes across in this day and age, although I am sure many traditionalists would prefer it. It is sadly far more likely that the advice given to the unknown Terence should hold true:

Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.

One wonders, however, if seeing "the world as the world's not" would do us any lasting mischief – or whether a little bit of fantasy might indeed be a useful coping strategy, profitably deployed as we build castles in the air as templates for an ideal future.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Journey to the West (Part 1)

Today was hilarious. It is hard to set out on a journey to a mythical land, sans maps, sans cartographer, sans everything except ships, men and weapons. However, if Columbus did it, so can other landlubbers.

I was amused by the fact that whatever one presents may be just a bare package, a present that is never present, so to speak. The ribbons and wrapping paper serve to make a box into the gift itself. Enlightenment, one presumes, is attained when one has reached a state of total emptiness. Zen is one key approach to opening the lock.

I have a professional review to write for homework. Each day I will write something and I shall combine the whole into a little piece for some small peer-reviewed journal. The West awaits with bated breath. Speaking to Kishore Mahbubani is a bonus.


Sunday, July 13, 2008


Had a very peculiar dream last night. I dreamt I was a private investigator looking for a data dump from a spurious educational institution operating from a container complex near a rapid transit station. That's the gist of it. Some vignettes follow.


I remember walking through the containers and realising all I could hear were distant cackles and hoots and the sound of busy secretaries. A little girl kept popping up and saying, "There's nobody there!" The containers were all beige with grey highlights. They had once had other colours, which had been whitewashed over.


I found myself at a hospitality office. The hospitality officer said to me, "Why did you pick up the ten-cent coin and put it on my desk?" And i replied, "Because you need it..."


I remember walking through a crowded transit area, reminiscent of a cross between Grand Central Station in NYC and Raffles Square in Singapore. People were hawking things everywhere. On closer inspection, a lot of them were artifacts looted from an educational institution I used to know.


But the punchline just before I woke up was a man named Kani saying to me, "Sir, you have to stop this! The X-Men are buying up all our paintings and getting away with it!"


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Saturday, July 12, 2008


I watched them fly away, to warmer places and better times. Today I sat with two of them, now thriving in another garden. We had the makings of a golden generation, but the gold was adulterated and the meaning was lost. This is what happened in pre-Elizabethan England, when the king made money by shaving his own gold to finance spurious endeavours. O Henry, Henry, if it were not for your ghastly sense of economic policy, England would never have learnt the mastery of the world.

What an odd history it is, that spawned the merlion.

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It's worse than being twirly. I used to play this game called Boggle. You roll 16 dice, each with letters on it, placing them into a 4 by 4 grid. Then you search for words which you can form by moving through the grid vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, from one die to an adjacent die.

Now there's Scramble on Facebook, with an option for a 5x5 grid and automatic lists and scoring. And analysis. Urgh. This is terrible. I shall limit myself to three rounds a day.

And by the way, you can also visit my city and add a Polish Vodka distiller. I seem to be collecting those. Ho ho.

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Friday, July 11, 2008


From out of the constellation of Leo come many strange things eponymously named. One of those can be seen in mid-November every year: the famous Leonid meteor shower. To see a falling star is one thing; for people of the past to have seen many at one time must have been terrifying, provoking thoughts that the sky was falling. But the firmament remains.

It is the same with many things. Reagan was hailed as one of the greats, of Rushmorean eminence, for his part in taking down the 'Evil Empire' of which a certain Leonid was the last great exponent. But despite the falling of many stars in that crimson sky, Vladimir Putin appears to have somehow managed to jury-rig an apparatus that holds together.

Many strange things come out of Leo. It is a pre-eminent constellation in the northern sky starting a short time from now. It only remains to be seen what strange Leonids will bring awe, startlement and excitement to our mundane lives.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008


I speak with the Argonaut much more frequently these days, and we look back across space and time, across the parade square which is no longer there, across the staff room that is no longer what it was, across the days that look as if they were turning to evening and night, across the seasons of what may yet prove to be an indian summer.

And we count the poppies, row on row. Perhaps they should be some other flower though. As John Barnes's elegant fairy-tale has it:

One for the morning glory;
Two for the evening dew;
Three for the man who will stand his ground;
And four for the love of you.

We count them all. It is a story of countability, if not accountability. It is an interesting story, with many little threads, some of which look large to some participants, some of which look small, and all of which seem to be of different colours to different people. It begins with 'once upon a time' like most fairy-tales do, and we do not yet see the 'happily ever after'.

Or perhaps, it all began when we collectively started losing our heads. Old heads, younger heads, most of those with the blue and gold. Former heads were not exempt; uneasy lies the head which wore a crown (or more than one head, or more than one crown). I watched, a passer-by, a chronicler, a man with everything archived. He watched, a man to be trusted, a clever man, a man with everything to live for. And we counted, and continue to count.

We have not seen such heavy losses ever. It is the end of the age of men, and the beginning of the age of the machine-gun, the trench, the barbed wire and the pillbox. Verdun and the Somme. "In Flanders fields, the poppies blow..." We haven't written an epitaph yet, because there is yet time for more to come.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dover Road

Tonight I feel an aching melancholy. It is almost as if the elves are going back into the uttermost west and I shall not see them again. I sat in a wood-panelled room on the High Hill, with my kinsfolk. The red wine was deep with spiced oak, and so was the light. We ate, we talked, and I was homesick for the isles and the cold and the damp.

And behind it all, I realised that here too was part of the Family. In the things they said and the secret knowledge that they shared, the Family traits and the family traits shone clear. I felt at home, and yet I knew that I was not, and unlikely ever to go home. Part of me wanted to follow them across the seas, but they wanted me to stay and keep the flame burning.

And that great old masterful poem came to mind, that anchor and touchstone of the long, melancholy, faithless 19th century. You can see for yourself what significance has been attributed to it.

That poem has always filled me with wanderlust and discontent. I remember one evening, having just thrown the garbage out for the night, it came to mind. Before I could stop, I had walked to the boundary of the north and was looking at the narrow causeway to another land.

Why should I stay? I stayed in this country to the loss of my citizenship in the Far Place. I worked, I strove, I used my mind and wasted my body for the cause. I fought under the banner of the Wyvern, I wore the blue and red and gold, I was both hero and champion, and eventually, ronin. I watched as things lost their meaning and their shape.

And so, I leave you with Matthew Arnold, as he watches one form of thought take the meaning out of another.


Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why the Caged Bird Sings

I've lived in a highly-regulated nation for some time now; most of my decades have been spent here and by now I must be thoroughly decadent. But this experience is one which has always made me look at the title of Maya Angelou's book with a slightly cynical gaze.

The birds here are not really caged. Many of the birds are free to fly. The real cage comprises three familiar elements: 1) it is comfortable to remain here as long as you're not vastly interested in the world beyond; 2) safe, regular and stable environments are preferred to unknown and possibly chaotic substitutes; 3) perception is everything, and that is a matter of the mindset. So: comfort, stability, perception.

But what if you heard something like this?

"Your small apartment is worth US$150k. You could emigrate and buy a proper house and a better class of cultural life for that sum. You could get a better-paying job, and with some clever and legal manipulations, you could get a better tax regime and a comfortable retirement fund. Come to [insert adjective] [insert country name] and enjoy your new life!"

You see, every place is a cage, and the cages are now competing for individuals, who are acting more and more like miniature sovereign wealth funds. In an ideal world, the birds would fly free. In such a world, however, the birds would leave random residual deposits everywhere, with little nett efficiency. Perhaps it is not such a good idea to let birds fly too freely.

So here I sit. I am beginning to think that if everyone is caged, even in the 'Land of the Free', then nobody is really caged. I should just sing because I feel free. And if nobody is really caged, perhaps I am free indeed.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Life Changes

Yes, so it does. In The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell points out that the changes of life are standard stations in the path to becoming something greater than merely human. This is true in all the great narratives. It is only in the last couple of centuries that life-changes, i.e. events which seriously perturb the course of life, have been given greater psychological weight.

We've all seen these lists of stressors before: moving house, death of spouse, other deaths, violent crime, change of partner, change of job, birth of child – all these things are added up by some sort of tally of points, and the total is supposed to say how stressed you are.

But the fact is that some people rise to the occasion, some are occasionally buried. Some survive and thrive, some arrive and dive. We are all different; some of us are apparently destined to be yet another of the thousand faces of the hero, while some of us are lucky if we feel a thousandth of the hero's face.

I have to say that I've experienced only a few of the major changes on the stressor list. I've been at the deaths of each of my four grandparents; I've moved house a few times; I've changed job several times, and changed workplace five times at least. Recently, I left a place I'd been working at for 12 years; but even then, I'd changed cubicle several times, changed apartment a few times, lost colleagues, gained colleagues... got used to changes, perhaps.

But recently, the question was asked, indirectly and indeterminately: "What if you were never a teacher again?"

I don't know. I feel unsettled. What if?

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I hereby declare that today will be a day in which no useful work gets done, and in which the stress and strain will no longer modulate the young. We must take a firm stand against the kind of work that benefits nobody and yet sets itself up with a kind of ergogenic moral righteousness. No, my brothers and sisters, work must be exquisite toil, properly productive and fuelled by emotion, passion, curiosity and intention.

The rest should just be slack. You can buy slack just as you can buy any other material; you go to a slack dealer and say, "Cut me some slack."

Three cheers for the slack!

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

The End of the Age of Metals

Robert Silverberg, famed science fiction author and novelist, has finally let the caterwauling cat out of the bag. In his detailed and thought-provoking piece in Asimov's, he gives a rundown on what metals are running out, why, and when.

For years I've been advocating investing in metals based simply on what every high school chemistry teacher should know: most metals are consumed faster than they are produced, and some are actually pretty rare - even common-sounding ones like lead, tin, zinc and copper. Well, here we go.

Let's begin with the metal prices as of 1998. These are available at the US Geological Survey website, here. Let's take copper for example. Copper is somewhat of a benchmark metal for the economy. The price of copper in 1998 was US$0.7864 per pound; the highest price had been in 1995 with US$1.3833. (1995 was something of a high water mark for metal prices in the 20th century.) Presently, copper is trading for about $3 (or more) a pound. You can't really stockpile it, but demand is high, and copper is used everywhere by everybody for many things. With power industries eating copper by the kilometre, you can bet on a copper nett demand and steady increases in the value of copper mining shares.

But copper has a few advantages that gallium, ruthenium, and many other less critical but more specialist metals don't have. It is easy to find, easy to extract, and we know where most of it is (Chile, with about one-third of world production). More reactive and comparatively rare metals are running out right now; there was little or no use for gallium in the early 20th century, but semiconductors and computer interfaces use a lot of it now. Dr Armin Reller at Augsburg has been giving estimates for such materials; he thinks many of them will be gone between 10 to 30 years from now.

The bad news is that this is old news. By the time the media got hold of it, it was already last year's news. And not many people bothered. Back in 2003, my forecast was that certain heavy metals (zirconium, hafnium; niobium, tantalum; molybdenum, tungsten; rhenium; ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium; osmium, iridium and platinum) should be held in reserve. Do these names look familiar? They would be to former students who have seen me draw Periodic Tables all over their whiteboards in various classrooms.

Maybe that's what a chemical education is useful for, after all!

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Saturday, July 05, 2008


Yes, I am unashamed of it. I assembled and kept 20 years of historical records based on public documents. This is what historians do. And nobody else has this stuff. I am not ashamed of that either. Haha.


OK, that was wicked. Actually, that first paragraph was just designed to tweak the beards of trawling bots looking for certain things and trying to inspire their masters to virulent campaigns of verbal denunciation.

The real point is that I suddenly felt the urge to celebrate the lives of two very earnest young men who grew up to be very earnest old men, still (after many decades) holding true to their archival instincts and looking after large amounts of historical material. I learnt perhaps 60% of all my craft from these two men and I salute them and remember them fondly all the time.

I also visit them when I can. Both are spritely and vigorous, sane in mind and fit in body. And since one of them is my father and one of them was in loco parentis to me, it's very pleasing to the filial part of my psyche as well.

Lastly, this is also a shout-out to that guy who often spends his Saturdays at the National Archives, a building which used to be a home to me. May he find inspiration amidst the stacks of ancient raw material and once-processed stuff, and may he feel the benign spiritual residues of generations of archivists before him over his shoulder. Heh!


Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Thesis

If globalisation is indeed driven by economics, and economics relies upon perfect information, then globalisation is controlled by information. That is to say, the power of globalisation is controlled by those who can best obtain, process, shape and present information such that it can be used the way it was meant to be: to inform their decisions.

So what determines who can best obtain, process, shape and present information?

Obviously, the level of useful skills related to obtaining, processing, shaping and presenting information.

Where do we learn such skills?

Through a process of education.

At which point, it becomes a recursive sort of phenomenon, all things being equal.

However, education is a double-edged self-limiting sword. It allows one entity to do all those things; it also allows that entity's competitors to do those things and other things. And if one is too educated or too long educated, one pays opportunity costs for not actually using that education.

So how?

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Urk. Sometimes one unexpectedly enters a cycle of somewhat obsessive gaming behaviour. It happens with mahjong players, actors, musicians, teachers, anybody who has ever demonstrated the traits of homo ludens – game-playing humanity.

And it appears that on Facebook, I have not really become obsessed with 'Text Twirl', except that every time I see a random sequence of about six letters, I feel this great urge to form them into a six-letter word. It is a sort of throwback to my Scrabble-playing days, a situation brought about by dear parents who love anagrams, wordplay (especially punnery), and the romance of the unexpected linguistic denouement.

So, faced with a bunch of miscellaneous letters, I make anagrams. The funny part is that someone then tells me, "Hey, you make anagrams. You must be responsible for the infamous anagrammatical wild yak blog."

To which I then reply, after taking some time to drink my coffee, "Macavity Syndrome. Please."

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Alice Riddle

The riddle to which I allude is of course the one taken from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It's the one which goes, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" As the author himself pointed out, it was a riddle designed not to have an answer. But such riddles frustrate readers, who often read too much into any given text. I suppose the best answer is that both are covered with inky quills.

A lot of false etymology and grammar goes this way. Is it 'an uncle' or 'a nuncle'? Is it 'an (h)istorian' or 'a historian'? Does 'grammar' itself come from 'grandma' and what she taught the grandkids? Whatever it is, a raven does not rave; neither does the craven crave. The depraved has nothing to do with abstinence from pravda. And so on.

I am vastly amused by the contortions we inflict on ourselves when we try to attribute meaning where there is none, or to make a false meaning fit the facts. It is human nature, made so by the fact that neurobiology is like that and our brains are deceptive. The human heart is desperately wicked – but so is a candle when you urgently need it to catch fire. It is all a matter of being careful with your speech.

So, why is a raven like a writing desk? Follow the link I supplied above, and if you don't like those answers, come up with your own.

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Secret Histories

Every institution has a secret history. And every institution will always have people 'negotiating' the terms of that secret history. Nation-states are no different; even a young collective of states like the 232-year-old United States of America (started with 13 members, has 50 members and a few protectorates now) has innumerable secret histories, with the 'negotiation' beginning even before the ink on the Declaration of Independence was dry.

All of that shows that history is not always the immutable megalith that some people think it is; history is but the organised perspective that a person or group of people have of a large body of events and processes. Even determining the parameters of a historical domain can be difficult: witness for example the idea of the 'long' 19th century, which some say spans the period 1776-1914, from the outbreak of the American Revolution to the outbreak of the Great War.

A long 20th century has passed, but is it really over? The histories are still scrambling and being scrambled. More on this later.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008


There comes a time in everyone's life that they look back in whatever the temper of the age (or of their own age) and attempt to assess their legacy. In some cases, they build a monument. The Egyptian hierarchs and pharaohs were good at these exercises in legacy establishment; the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx remain as markers of an ancient and otherwise forgotten regime.

It's interesting that these ancients also engraved steles and massive walls of hieroglyphs in which they laid out their claims and denounced their foes and rivals. But what do we remember? Only their fair claims, viewed through the lenses of history and archaeology. That's how we remember their rivals too.

We forget the rest as a waste of space and time. We shake our heads, looking at the bricks, the labour, the lost talent. We sometimes remember the outrageous claims, as just that: the excesses of mighty people who lived long enough to do such things.