Sunday, August 31, 2008


It's been a long time since I looked at a pencil. Do you remember the days when a good sharpener would peel of a curling swathe of fresh and aromatic wood, exposing sharp and shiny black pencil lead? It seems such a long time ago now.

I'm sure that I've sharpened many pencils and used many pencils since then, but my strongest memories of pencils come from primary school days. I remember what I thought of as 'pencil-sharpening parties', when kids would gather around the big waste bin in the corner of the classroom to sharpen pencils, gossip, and engage in discussions about whether long pencils were nicer than pencil stubs.

There was this guy who loved short pencils. He would either sharpen them repeatedly just to whittle them down to size, or he'd actually break his pencils in half when new and sharpen them into two half-size pencils. I asked him why he did this. He replied that he found long pencils to be a waste of length. Hrrrrm.

I remember my grandfather sharpening his 6B pencils with a knife. It was fascinating to watch him shape the tip with a few well-placed strokes. He never used a sharpener; he hated having pencils with tips that were too sharp and might break. He shuddered at the idea of a 0.5 mm mechanical pencil, although he didn't mind the older kind which could hold a thicker lead.

There is a kind of romance with pencils. They are like the last vestige of a time before efficiency drives and the hard, manic insanity of a certain kind of working life. Pencils seem to say that there is still a sort of space in the unfolding of time, that you can watch the world and record it through the imprecision of a pencil better than through the digital accuracy of a modern camera. To this day, I've not forgotten how to sketch with a pencil.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Closed Systems, No Real Winners

The peril of having a closed system is twofold: firstly, there are no really closed systems in real life, as far as we can tell; secondly, a system that is treated as closed will eventually fall into a state of either stasis or equilibrium in which no new outcomes are possible, or in which there is only a very limited set of outcomes.

This was highlighted in the local morning paper's editorial today. Atlantis, as we all know, claims that (and acts as if) it is a meritocracy. But the editorial today noted, quoting Amartya Sen, that "meritocracy is an intuitively appealing but 'essentially underdefined' principle. It is underdefined because much hinges on what counts as merit. And in a meritocracy, as in any other system, the idea of the good, and therefore of merit, is determined by that system's winners."

This is exacerbated, of course, if the system is essentially a closed system or is treated as such. It is a simple way to perdition: since the state is successful, the successors must have the same qualities as the existing winners. If they have different qualities, they must be losers (not to put too fine a point on it). Hence, just as with the College of Cardinals or any other cadre-type system, we should use the winners to select more winners by criteria similar to those by which they themselves were elected, selected, nominated, or chosen with divine imprimatur.

Why perdition? Because the system is not truly closed. As the world changes, if there is not some scope for variation, the unnatural selection will lead to 'winners' who actually cannot cope with the world as it turns out to be. It is even worse if your first iteration of winners was actually a class of 'winners by accident', 'winners by determination', or 'winners by default'. In the first case, you got lucky and are expecting to continue to be lucky. In the second case, you decide who should win and so they did. In the third case, you had nobody else, and what you had was sufficient for the win.

One problem is that the world is interconnected. It is not a purely statistical crapshoot. If you were a winner (and if you created losers, especially), the world will adapt to your win and attempt to emulate, dominate, or otherwise neutralise or defeat your strategy. What was an advantage in the first iteration may become a liability in successive situations. Winners by accident are not normally repeat winners unless they quickly figure out how they won.

Another problem is that the intellectual inbreeding or culling that is likely to occur is memetically fatal to most (if not all) cultures in the long run. You might argue that what succeeded in the past should succeed in the future with some legitimacy, using an inductive approach (an 'all swans I have seen so far are black, so the next one will also be black' approach). Even if it is true, the best you get is stasis. But what if the next swan is white, and you have killed all the observers who would look for a white swan? You might starve to death in the midst of plenty, deprived of your swan diet by disbelief. Winners by determination (or termination) are inherently limited.

And finally, there is the problem of mediocrity. People who win by not having opposition may eventually become unable to identify what is better or what is worse. After all, they are winners, and they never needed to be better than what they are. They never faced a credible and determined opposition, they were never exposed to serious intellectual cut and thrust in a public arena. If you select your future winners and leaders from people like these, you are doomed to the fate of the mediocre – being moderately successful in all things but never emerging from the middle of the statistical distribution appropriate to your situation.

What then is to be done? The first step is to aim for a perspective which treats systems as likely to be open. The second step is to develop talent with an eye to memetic diversity and distribution. And the third step is to stop selecting people who are either like yourself or who are predisposed to agree with you most of the time.

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Not Teaching?

I was in this fog of fatigue last night. At the same time, some sort of text conversation occurred on my phone.


Me: Hello dear... Thanks. It kinda feels like that was a very long time ago.

W: No it wasn't. Don't feel sad. You don't have to be in a school to be a teacher you know (:

Me: Heh. I feel oddly reassured. You might just have made my night.

W: That's great! But all I did was point out a fact. (It always helps to have someone on the outside to do these things.) It's true okay. Be happy (:

And yes, I am a lot happier now. And I am still a teacher, even in the cold light of the morning.


Note: How on earth do wolfberries figure out when someone is sad? Was it that obvious?

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Friday, August 29, 2008

42 Years Ago

Forty-two years ago to this very day, the Prime Minister of a small island nation gave a ground-breaking speech titled 'New Bearings in Our Education System'. The address was given to the principals of the schools which by that time were forming the foundation of what would be lauded as a world-class education system. Some of his words are of contemporary interest, outlining as they do they ghosts of what might have been.

Here are some choice excerpts:
  • At the National Day Parade, it became apparent that only the schools that did not expand managed to keep a core of professional teaching staff. What is more important, such schools had a group of dedicated senior masters and principals that could produce elan in their contingents.

  • The tragedy is that... we find we have produced a group of teachers who are undedicated, because of the nature of recruitment. Whilst this is being corrected, I am asking the principals to make a contribution and put in extra effort. After all those who are good enough to be promoted to principals must have had some dedication; otherwise, it is sheer lunacy to put a man in charge of a school.

  • It is no use having anonymous schools and equally anonymous teachers, but this was what we tended to do because we were expanding so rapidly.

  • No teacher can really perform his duty unless he feels he is doing something worthwhile. Every school teacher in the classroom must feel for and with his flock... unless he does that, the teacher cannot give the pupil something.

  • I can remember two categories of teachers... those who meant something and those who meant nothing. There were those who... mumbled, and one hour was past... some university lecturers were like that too. They were not interested in the students... They were not interested in imparting knowledge. Some of them were in fact very brilliant men who subsequently obtained very high degrees, such as doctorates and so on.

  • This is what ought to be done. If I could do it overnight with superhuman power, I would endow, first, every school with an identity and a character of its own; next, every teacher must feel the dedication and must understand where all this is leading.

  • I am extremely anxious about the generation that is growing up literate but uneducated. They can read; they can write; they can pass examinations. But they are not really educated: they have not formed, they have not developed.

  • Teachers must have human creativeness before they can bring it out in the pupil.
Interesting words from a far-sighted statesman; sadly, many of the problems he outlined are still there, like Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's feast.

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We all have those light and momentary crushes, those fleeting moments in which you thought you might just possibly have almost but not quite fallen for someone, but in which it was somehow decided that this was not the best and not to be. For a very short time this morning, I was reminded of that.

As most great stories begin, there was a boy, and there was a girl. She was really beautiful when she was 18, and continues to be. It's her birthday today, and suddenly we are all much older and I have realised that we never really got to know each other. Which is a fine thing, and probably a good thing. But of course, we will never know, having never really known.

The point really is that the large majority of our lives was lived in the last millennium. So far, seven years in this one (or eight by the count of some people) have passed, and that is not a lot; 20% or less of the lifetime we have lived so far. Somehow, it is easier to look at the arc of time, the span of years, the bridge already crossed – and say, hey, it was all in the last millennium. All is forgiven, mostly forgotten, the changing of 19xx to 20xx has washed things away.

And although in one's quieter and more melancholic moments one might think not, most of the time it is good, it is pleasant that things have worked out the way they have. In the past, as it is today, the best is yet to be.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Personal Vendettas

Wolff, a landless and lordless knight, ekes out his meagre living in taverns and inns along the Wanderer's Way. It seems to be winter now, with endless days of sleet and shadow. To keep body and soul together, he teaches philosophy and alchemy to the disaffected sons of local nobility. He has no end of job offers, but he is wary of masters now. And then one day...

Sir Wolff? I am...

Wolff has not had his kaava for the day yet, and is not inclined to be called by his former title(s).

Not 'Sir', and to you, not Wolff either.

The grey and somewhat ordinary-looking man winces slightly but carries on.

... a magnate of the Order. Did you know that the Grand Inquisitor was malfeasant in his dealings with you?

The first statement alone would have aroused Wolff's interest. The second is beyond interest; it stinks of danger and betrayal. Wolff's ears prick up, despite himself. The world around him becomes more defined, sharper in tones of black and white and winter blue.

No... I did not know this, although I felt something was wrong.

Well, he attributed to you certain deeds which were not yours. He slandered you in front of witnesses. And we have taken this to mean that he exceeded the traditional bounds of his authority in dealing with you. We think of it as a personal vendetta, a means to a resolution of his own intent. We are asking you now, will you return to the Order?

Wolff is slightly shaken. And yet, he is filled with a sense of doom, an instinct that the Order might no longer be what he once thought of as his life's work. He has turned away, and must not turn back.

No, my lord. I have left, and will not return. I have no personal vendetta in me.

That is good. You have not lost conviction. We were thinking of a place for you in the Magistratum, but it is clear that you have made a choice. We will respect that. Good day! And we wish you the best that can yet be, in the will of the Highest.

As the grey man trudges away into the twilight morning, clad in shadows and anonymity, Wolff realises that it is true. There is sometimes no going home again. And there is also a way forward which, though once hidden, may yet reveal itself.


Note: The fictional adventures of Sir Wolff do provide much that is of interest. You can find them linked here. Just ignore the one about earwax. That was an accident.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Schools, one tends to think, must be places where scholars congregate. After all, a scholar is by definition a member of a school. There are other things we imagine to be true about schools – that learning takes place here, that cognitive and experiential progress is made as students are schooled, that all this is taking place in a systematic and orderly pattern, that it is all supported by a well-crafted physical plant and a human organisation that is thoughtfully laid out in ranks and hierarchies.

But in every school, not all of it is true all the time. There are good departures and bad departures. The narrative of departure is always melancholic for somebody, though. More worrisome is the idea that a school has departed from some of its foundational values; this kind of departure is akin to apostasy, though perhaps a lesser relative.

Think of it this way. The Atlantis we speak of is an island fiefdom. It has been a paramount and unrivalled trading centre for 600 years in this part of the world. Economic pragmatism is deep in the bones of all who have lived here and those who come here to live. Do you really think that philosophical and religious considerations will rise to the top?

It is clear that if we were to look at the institutions of learning in Atlantis, we would see that education would primarily be aimed at gaining legitimacy and controlling legitimacy with respect to the outside world. Educational principles and reforms in that area would thus made subordinate to economic principles. At the very least, it could be claimed that economic pragmatism was a large factor in any educational decision.

You could probably say that any educational institution in Atlantis would have the primary purpose of bestowing qualifications
with three main qualities: economic impact on the local arena, widespread acceptance in the global arena, and ease of control and dispensation within the social arena. The first would give the citizens a reason for falling in line, the second would make Atlantis a major provider of qualified talent, and the third would enable the government of the day to determine, control and reward those who should rise to the top.

This would be called meritocracy. Few would realise that in a meritocracy, someone (or some entity) always determines what 'merit' is, and that entity would therefore be the one determining where power should lie. After all, the linguistic bastard called 'meritocracy' is either better called 'aristocracy' (='power to those who are excellent') or 'meritopotence' (='power which one receives from deserving it'). Either way, it begs the question of who is excellent, or who deserves it.

This philosophical basis, no matter how well hidden, is actually not a problem for educational institutions which from the beginning were designed to be tools of the state. The most obvious example would be the Integrated Resortium (formerly the Atlantean Institute), an institution used to producing wielders of thunderbolts and holders of power and privilege.

At the same time, it is (or should be) a serious problem to educational institutions which once thought they had a religious mandate for the education of the young, with the intent of preparing them for all their later life (and afterlife). Playing the game of meritocracy would certainly make them co-conspirators with the wrong spirit, and playing it with great joy (in the style of the former AI) would just make it worse. This would be the last betrayal, the ultimate departure, the curtain falling as the dread Anarch bestrides the stage like a Colossus.

It would be interesting to see if this were true. That is what I've been doing for the last few years.

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Cheese Alert: Tomme de Savoie

I spent tonight slowly imbibing an undistinguished but nicely cherryish Pinot Noir from 2006. But the highlight was its pairing with an equally modest and yet delicious cheese, a Tomme de Savoie with the usual gritty grey-brown rind.

Tomme de Savoie means something like 'a Savoy cheese wheel'. It is made from raw cow's milk, packed and allowed to age nicely. In the process, it picks up little angular bubbles in its matrix, not the distended voids found in cheeses like Emmental. It has a smooth slightly creamy texture, but cuts well without any crumbling or smearing.

The flavour is vegetal, slightly nutty but more like autumn grass; it is an honest, straightforward cheese. It is nice to the tongue, it gives no offence to the nose. You could probably ferment it into something more formidable, but Tomme de Savoie is quite happy to be a minimalist accompaniment to other things. It leaves little lingering or cloying aftertaste, and even as it complements a moderate red wine, it smiles and disappears – just like a Cheshire cat, and not at all like a Cheshire cheese.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Globalisation & Its Malcontents

Sometimes you hear the most appalling exaggerations about the role of globalisation in bringing corruption to places hitherto deemed uncorrupted. What I heard yesterday from some lay 'preacher' seemed to imply a state of Edenic bliss on this sceptered isle prior to the advent of evil globalisation with all its wealth and power.

Tsk tsk. This island has never not been affected by globalisation except in the mythical past. Obviously such people, straitened by the adversity of preaching about something about which they appear to know little, just seize a convenient target which already has a bad reputation for other, completely different, reasons.

There are obviously at least two exceptions one must raise against Christian speakers who say such things.

The first one is to point them back at their own core theology, reminding them of original sin and the fact that Jesus himself is recorded as saying, "Nothing that enters a man from outside can make him unclean." The passage as a whole is in direct contradiction to anyone who would equate the consumption of rich food (for example in Daniel's account of his dealings with the court of Nebuchadnezzar) with the peril of sin from globalisation.

The second is to point out that if the argument is one about recent history and the corruption which arises from mercantilism, then ancient history must surely take precedence, as seen in the stirring condemnation in Ezekiel about the perils of islands indulging in globalisation. This is nothing new. The potentially corruptive environment of capitalism, which tempts people into making their own bad internal decisions on morality and negotiation, has been with us a long time. But even here, it is clear that the one who chooses to sully his hands is at fault, and not the trading environment itself.

The common reply to what I've just pointed out is that I'm being arrogant by daring to point out a speaker's egregious mistakes. Well, it's far worse for a person to mislead others from the pulpit.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Being Consoled

I'm sitting here in the cockpit of what is potentially a very powerful weapons platform. I look at the kinds of ordnance I can deploy and I wonder at this age of information and communication. With a few keystrokes, my force multipliers will allow me to take down a lumbering opponent whose minimal agility and obsolete components will never recover from the strain.

It is the age of the console, that conceptual and physical nexus of all functions. And new functions are added everyday. It is as if we were in some real-time game and we are deploying a building that lives off the data-stream and produces new memes and stuff every few hours. Nowadays, most online platforms deploy through something called a 'dashboard'. The analogy is complete.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Famous Dictators I Have Known

Years ago, when I first looked at the local history syllabus after a long while, I was somewhat surprised.

Modern history, apparently, began in 1939. Any prologue to that had to do with the rise of Hitler, the rise of Stalin, or the rise of Mao; Churchill and Roosevelt were parodied and/or left out as key figures of the period. If you fast-forwarded 20 years, you were exposed to the far more benignly-represented rise of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's strongman and unabashedly hard-hitting political leader. It does make you realise that Singapore is as much a dictatorship as Richard Dawkins is an atheist; to classify them as members of their respective (prospective) classes would be to take away the inherent power of their class definitions.

To call Singapore a dictatorship is to forget that the government has brought a fair amount of peace and prosperity; unhappiness has come in the wake of the latter, as the large middle-class finds itself much poorer than the top 1%. With ancestors who mostly came to Singapore to make money, everyone has a fine-tuned monetary instinct. This causes economic unhappiness to be the main unpleasantness here.

To call Singapore a dictatorship is to forget that the governing party has been returned to power voluntarily by the people. Of course, the fact that the opposition is fractious (and fairly often staffed by odd clowns at critical times in the national narrative) tends to help. It is certainly nowhere near the kind of police state that the former USSR was so good at maintaining.

No, Singapore is as much a dictatorship as Dawkins is an atheist. But wait a minute, you say, isn't Dawkins an atheist?

Well, yes, sort of. An atheist doesn't believe in god or God, singular, distributed, parallel or multiple. But Dawkins is a prostituted atheist; he loves to talk, make money, sell his own brand and ram it down other people's throats. Instead of merely not believing in god (God, sing., dist., para., or mult.) he believes he should make other people not believe, and it has become a religion to him. It is a game, an entertainment, and he isn't doing it as a charitable service or philosophical discourse.

It's a fad these days to do all that. You can see it by walking around some place like Borders and looking at the book displays. Meanwhile, God continues to work in mysterious ways, as the Hierophant points out.

You might wonder why I launched into this post. Well, it's yet another one of those mysterious things. I was musing on how a lot of very reactionary students in one particular educational institution were aggrandizing their current regime with labels like 'Stalinist' or 'Hitlerian' (contradictory in most ways except authoritarianism, I suppose). I don't think they're right. I would choose a lesser dictator, a man of many dimensions and talents who always thought he was an aesthete, an almost-religious and accomplished man... one like Nicolae Ceauşescu, perhaps.

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Silver & Iron

Yesterday I received an interesting communication. A fellow alumnus had mass-emailed us to say that since it was the 25th anniversary of our graduation, we should all turn up on All Hallows' Eve at the Island of Death-From-Behind. I'm not kidding about any of these details; even the name of the island is true and fairly well-known in this part of the world.

But mixed with the silver memories are strands of irony. I suppose years of avoiding 'death from behind' have made this location seem especially amusing. It is even funnier when you consider the date; my life these years has been all about deciding whether to go for trick or treat, quite often knowing that one might actually be the other.

The final piece of humour fell into place when my friend added, "We must get hold of the hugely respected Old Man and invite him; someone must inform him and make sure he comes."

The Old Man, of course, has been respected by every batch of students for the last 30 years, despite only presiding over the school for seven years, and being unknown to many for most of the rest. But seven is a mystical, a magical number; and in those seven years, our school was hugely blessed.

It got me to thinking: will anyone ever desire the presence of his successors as much? Or will they think of Hallowe'en unhallowed – and dark, dangerous death from behind?

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Library Litany

The litany verse-form relies on repetition for impact and tends to have a religious focus. Recently, I had the occasion to write one as part of the regular shenanigans on this site. I reproduce that piece here below, noting that it has something to do with my previous post.


The Library Litany

I gather in the shelves, through dewey eyes;
I am childhood fears made into pictures;
I am the maps of paths that bring surprise;
I am wood and stone and metal fixtures;

I am the courses of the months and years;
I am feasts that you have not learnt to make;
I am a poet's loss and evening tears;
I am a chronicle of grave mistake;

I am a war made cold and dry and stale;
I am technology of flame and steel;
I am a peace in blood to make you pale;
I am supposed to try and make you feel;

I am the heart of criminal intent;
I am a science-fiction trope gone wild;
I am the voice of beaten jailed dissent;
I am a manual for a new-born child;

I am about the monsters of the id;
I am a stakeholder report made plain;
I am a pleasure maybe better hid;
I am machinery but used in vain;

I am conspiracy built out of fact;
I am a yearbook of a vanished school;
I am a tale of presidential act;
I am a teacher's words used as a tool;

I am sections periodically bound;
I am a guide to other guides not found;
I am a country travelogue, now see!
I am a shopping catalogue, choose me!

(librarian's response)

I know you all want dearly to be read
But nightfall comes; I'm putting you to bed.

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If I had a lot of time and money, I'd descend into librarianism. I would just get myself a really large library, hire a professional librarian, and start to do three things: 1) catalogue existing volumes (at last count, I think about 8000); 2) add volumes to fill up gaps (probably another 12000 at least); 3) update volumes so that out-of-date material would be replaced by up-to-date stuff.

I guess it is one of my 'geek dreams', the kind of thing which goes along with teaching qualifications in computer science and other such wonkery. What a life!

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Six Secrets of Change

Michael Fullan has been at it again. In his 2008 work, The Six Secrets of Change, he writes about six key factors which have brought success to all kinds of institutions in his almost 30 years of research on change, reform and leadership.

Here are the six secrets, as listed in the contents page of that book (which proper CEOs of proper learning institutions would do well to read):
  1. Love your employees
  2. Connect peers with purpose
  3. Capacity building prevails
  4. Learning is the work
  5. Transparency rules
  6. Systems learn
It is a sobering and wonderful list, especially as explicated in the usual clear Fullan style.

It is also one of the many reasons why I was laughing so hard today. I think Fullan is wrong in one sense; if context is everything, and drama (and other sleights-of-hand and trompe l'oeil tricks) can prevail over reality, then sufficient unplanned and chaotic action with hyped-up positive outcomes will lead to true success. Then there is no need for any of these factors, and a theory can be put forward which uses this key finding as a fulcrum.

I mean, aren't you afraid that what I've said is true? What if an organisation which displays none of these six secrets evinces all kinds of successful change? Then there are only four main possible conclusions: 1) the secrets are there, but well-concealed; 2) the successful changes are an illusion; 3) the secrets are not necessary for successful change; 4) the kind of success Fullan is talking about is not real success.

See? Nothing to be afraid of: just another opportunity for educational research.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Taxonomy II

I was looking at the word 'cabinet' just now when it suddenly occurred to me that it could mean an interactive web of taxi drivers. Can you imagine it? Thousands of Roads Scholars, all deployed gainfully, sharing knowledge of the hidden ways and the secret arts (such as manual gearshifting).

I learn a lot from these brave people who ply the roads bringing all kinds of human traffic from place to place in time and out of time. They tell me a lot in their grumblings, ramblings and political discourse.

At the end of the trip, I always tip them for what I have learnt, unless they have been terribly obnoxious. Most of the time, they get tipped. The end of the trip is therefore a tipping point. Things change after every ride.

Sometimes, though, the cabinet takes you for ride. You find yourself paying and paying more and more as the death of a thousand tiny tolls mounts up and charges at you on its limited horsepower. You could be in a serious jam. Especially if you have not the currency or the change. It is times like that which make you pray for more change agents.



A careful look at the dominant education system shows that it lacks various kinds of integrity. By integrity, we mean a quality of consistency with a) qualified standards, b) rational thought, and c) overarching philosophy. Simply put, I am saying that the education system I am examining appears to contradict itself frequently, and fails to deploy consistent assumptions.

Let's take a simple pair of ideas. Firstly, consider the stated idea of an ability-driven education. This is taken to mean that education should be supplied based on the kind and amount of ability a student is somehow determined to have; i.e. the student's qualities determine the education given. Secondly, consider the stated idea of an holistic education. This is taken to mean that a student should be educated across a broad spectrum regardless of a student's preferences or abilities.

This pair of ideas is sold as a linked couplet. Do you think this shows a consistent philosophy?

Let's take another pair of ideas. Firstly, from observation, promotion to the post of principal must come before the age of about 45, or else I suppose that the so-called 'current estimated potential' (which is actually not current and badly estimated) is considered unfulfilled and the officer is a failure. Secondly, a man can be promoted to extremely high office at an age way beyond 60 and receive a huge salary increase, thus inviting speculation that a sudden store of potential has been unlocked.

Plato, of course, does say that philosopher-kings shouldn't begin to deploy their talents till 50, but what can you say about consistency? A famous local philosopher has a detailed exposé of this policy for those of you who still want to work here.

I could go on. I've seen people without proper qualifications for a post suddenly become heads of departments; I've seen people who would fail communications tests through irrelevance, inaccuracy or incompetence suddenly become senior management. The fact is that rapid expansion has one drawback, just as on the battlefield: a lack of qualified manpower that creates a vacuum and some serious vulnerabilities in the rear. This is what happens when 'estimated potential' is equated with 'relevant ability'.

As a whole, the system contains a mish-mash of conflicting, contradictory and sometimes antagonistic policies, papered over and blended with an emulsion of glossy rhetoric and extensive public communications. This is not to say that it is altogether bad; rather, it should be recognised that the compromises that have had to be made have given rise to philosophical and directional inconsistencies. Only when we decide to look at such problems will we begin to reduce the cognitive inefficiencies despite which we have come so far and so quickly.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cheese Alert: Comté

I've resumed my exploration of the world of interesting food and drink. It's expensive, but I am now making enough to cover costs.

Over the last three days, I consumed a small portion of a brown-crusted cheese named Comté, which the etymologist in me assumes has to do with the English word 'county'. It is therefore a county cheese, defined geographically as well as methodologically. The block I exhumed looked much like its Wikipedia image.

I cut into it with a heavy steel knife, and it separated into slices without decrepitation or scuffing. The fat content appeared moderate; it was still pretty stiff, but smooth in texture. It was possible to make thin, almost translucent yellow slices. The slightly greyish brown rind had a mildly salty odour and was minimally pungent.

The predominant taste was nutty; I suppose that most people would be familiar with the taste of the Swiss cheese with characteristic holes named Emmental, and it has some similarity. However, there is a faint underlying tang of the sort associated with other cheeses with greenish or bluish mold in them. It is generally a sweet and accommodating cheese, which would work well on a dessert cheese platter with a Riesling on the side.

I quote from the Wikipedia article: " The texture is relatively hard and flexible, and the taste is mild, slightly sweet, and 'nutty'." It reminds me of me, somehow.


Notes From A Battlefield 003

There is a cast of characters which you find in many 'entertainments' ostensibly with the theme of War. You might be watching Hogan's Heroes or Dad's Army or 'Allo, 'Allo and some of the stereotypes remain the same.

But the main theme is the use of humour as something which undermines the ridiculously authoritarian regimes under which the characters live out their hopeful existence. In Hogan's Heroes, the dastardly and incompetent Colonel Klink is continually being chivvied around with good humour by Colonel Hogan and his men, although he is the commandant of their POW camp. In Dad's Army, the infamous theme song lays out a determined resistance, despite the fact that the Home Guard platoon in the show would never have survived a German attack (or so they thought). And in 'Allo, 'Allo, the French just carry on making their living (or is that make their living carrying on?) around the café while the Germans attempt to loot everything and destroy their culture.

All that reminds us that despite the purges, shootings (and other live firing), and general chaos (or major, corporal or private chaos) which make muck of the countryside, those who resist may someday survive to make a better world. The wounds (as in the scouring of the Shire from Tolkien's Return of the King) may never really heal in the short term, but a new age may be around the corner. If there is still a king with all the powers, nature and instruments of true kingship, that new age may yet be blessed for all who live in it.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Static Dynamics

Get moving get moving get it moving get yo' aaaaaaaaaaarghhhhhhhhhhhhhh...

It is that moment in the movie when it all falls apart for the first time and you see a hidden presence dismember the elite team of marines, commandoes or whatever you think is more elite than that. The video and audio feeds are suddenly cut, and everything is overwhelmed by a hiss of static. The true story of the hidden world is here, buried in the informational distress.

In 1952, Raymond F Jones wrote a seminal SF short story, Noise Level. In that story, a group of world-class scientists are shown a grainy video of a man levitating with no visible means of support or propulsion except a small backpack. The pack explodes and pieces of the pilot are strewn all over the place just as the video feed is cut. The authorities tell them that they must not reveal what they have seen, and that the remains of the pilot and the equipment have all been disposed of because they were completely destroyed.

The scientists are then set this problem: recreate the antigravity machine from scratch, given access only to the dead man's lab. It is a classic in vacuo problem-solving situation. Fortunately, they are world-class scientists.

They visit the lab, only to find a well-equipped building with no notes, papers, drafts or any other evidence. They are told, "Don't speculate on classified material. Just see what is there and come to your own conclusions." The library contains every book there is on a wide range of fields, including the occult, which makes some of the scientists rebel at what they say is a joke. This is close to the truth, as the video was a complete fake, and the scientists figure that out eventually.

But in the end, they invent an antigravity machine. It is huge, half the size of a building, but it works. The moral of the story is that if you think it can be built, you will build it. But there is another moral: the faceless authorities can fool you into doing work of an amazing kind which you will not be credited for and which even they did not know could be done. It is all a matter of using the static dynamic to create a pattern of noise from which any information can be created.

There is a cure to this kind of reckless experimentation and manipulation though. It can be found in one of Frank Herbert's lesser-known creations, the Bureau of Sabotage. Essentially, somebody must throw a wrench into the juggernaut's inner workings. This gives everyone time to figure out what ought to be done. The enforced and temporary stasis gives dynamism to a chaotic state.

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Education Reform

It is quite amazing that in the entire history of education on this enchanted isle, only one piece was ever written here that bears this title. It is the title of a speech made on 1 March 1967 by the Gnome. The significance of that, as far as I can tell, was that the Gnome was invited to give a St David's Day address to the faithful. He saw an opportunity to plant some seeds.

This is part of what the Gnome had to say:

The preoccupation... with examination results is unnatural and unhealthy, and we should bring it to an end as soon as possible. After all, good performance in examinations only proves one thing – ability to answer examination questions. This ability is, presumably, related in some way to intelligence. It is also related to the possession of good examination techniques. And it does not tell us a lot of other things about a person, for instance, his integrity, his character and so on, which are just as important as intelligence and more important than the mastering of examination technique.

That was 40 years ago, and a bit. Since then, what has happened to those seeds?

Well, the gestation period has been unnaturally long, and the results are mixed. The amount of time (always a useful indicator) spent cultivating the Gnome's alternatives to examination technique is approximately (and nominally) about three hours a week on the timetable and about maybe four hours a week outside the timetable. The rest of the timetable contains about 27 hours of instruction. The ratio therefore, depending on how one chooses to look at it, is about 4:1 or maybe 9:1 in favour of examination-based learning.

But certainly, as someone has said, that is the core competency of a school – the academic rigour and curricular structure. Fair enough. Yet, as the Gnome went on to say, the problem is to instil creative thinking, character and consistency in moral values over and above the core. You can't have an apple that is only a core; nobody except a cow would want to eat it.

Or would they? In a world in which the most important thing becomes apple-seeds producing more apple-trees ad infinitum (or at least, ad plenitatem), the idea of a well-rounded apple which is sweet and juicy and nice to look at and has adequate oral fibre becomes moot. You might as well just have a core with seeds and dump it in a bunch of cow excrement, thus closing the circle.

This is coming to pass. You can see that feeding the cow more grass so that input balances output has become the main focus of the system by default. It is not to say that education reform isn't happening, but that about 95% of the people in the system are fixated on issues of how much grass to feed the cow and how much apple you need to support a viable apple core.

In Atlantis, our present and previous High Lords of the Aedificium are graduates of the College of Wyverns. They must have been about 10 years old when the Gnome (also an alumnus) made his address. So far, their Lordships have spent years discussing the grass levels, and even the apple quality. In the last few years, there has been a focus on making more kinds of apples available; now there seems to be a focus on making more grass available.

But the focus on making a more nutritious apple, a more integrated and palatable apple, an apple with the might of epic and legend behind it, an apple with soul... ah well, let's just say that it's not often a discussion about apples per se, but on cows, cores, and commercial rates.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Helicopter Traffic

I posted about helicopter vision some time ago, and I suppose that over the last few years I was corrupted by circumstances to the point that I could only think of a certain kind of helicopter. In fact, in that period of time, I think I started thinking of all aircraft as weapons. Terrible.

But someone pointed out to me that there is at least one other kind of helicopter that those-who-appraise might have been thinking about when they put 'helicopter vision' down as an appraisable trait. He said that they might have been thinking of traffic helicopters. Hmm. Yes.

I think he might have been right. Traffic helicopters are flimsy lightweight craft designed to spot unusual land traffic behaviours and tell people about it. For example, an eye in the sky might report heavy traffic in a specific direction, track criminal activity, and so on. (In a place like London or Singapore, they use ubiquitous live cameras instead.) That kind of helicopter does, somewhat unfortunately, fit the bill.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why is the Garden Full of Footballs?

Yes, that's an interesting question, isn't it? I first asked this question back in 2001, as part of a project about developing inter- and multi-disciplinary education modules. A few years later, I received an award from the Education Ministry for this and other projects; it was in the same year that I was asked to stop being Dean of Sciences. But that's not important really; the key question is: "What has happened to inter- and multi-disciplinary education?"

The thing is that the rot began with C P Snow's infamous disquisition on 'The Two Cultures' in which he wrote about a divide between the sciences and the humanities. Later hands dug deep to widen the crevice into a crevasse, and then into a grand canyon.

It is of course all rubbish. Whereas in retrospective cynicism one may describe two different sets of paradigms and assign one kind to 'sciences' and another to 'humanities', the fact is that science stems from 'natural philosophy' and 'natural history' before it becomes 'natural sciences' and then 'applied sciences' or 'technology'. The sciences are a small and over-specialised area of the humanities; this is their proper relationship, and not one of opposed equals.

To give an obvious example: consider medicine as a 'science'. As a physician (haha, yes, that is the right term), you establish a personal confidential relationship with the patient. You then proceed to act as an historian, interviewing either the patient (if lucid and conscious) or his neighbours, relatives etc (if patient is not lucid or conscious) and perhaps resorting to eyewitness accounts or physical evidence. Then you make an hypothesis, adjusting it in the light of geographical, biological, racial, and perhaps economic evidence. Then you act on the hypothesis and seek to effect a corrective regime.

You might as well be a politician, or a judge, or a restorer of paintings. You would follow similar steps. This is because human knowledge and human inclinations drive all human inquiries. Science is as much a product of the fertile human cerebral engine as any other area of knowledge. We define these areas and the paradigms by which we research and examine them. We decide what evidence is valid and what is rational or not.

There is no external validator that we trust; we place much more trust in our own experience based on the results of our actions or how closely things match our predictions. We tend to trust in our own understanding without question as to the basis of that understanding, its origins, or its relevance to the universe as a whole. And here is where the educated man collapses as a being of straw and light and mirrors, of smoke without fire and fact without context. It is all very sad.

But what can be done?

I refer you back to the original question. "Why is the garden full of footballs?" When this question was posed, the first reaction from the educators was, "What a stupid question!" The reaction from the students was slightly more encouraging, "What a strange question! Let's give you some answers."

To date, I have actually received more than a hundred different answers. But the point, as the students eventually discovered and the educators struggled to realise, was that each answer (whether intended to be trivial, serious, comic, or sarcastic) was capable of generating an entire universe. For example, one bright spark said, "Because there are none elsewhere." Can you imagine what kind of universe would place footballs in the garden outside but nowhere else in all infinity? It boggles the mind.

Similarly, and on a different scale, the response, "The boys were playing an April Fool's joke on the gardener." The questions here are even more interesting: "Why boys?" "Why assume that there is something called an 'April Fool's joke' ?" "Must a garden have a gardener?" and so on.

Every response we make towards every source of response-provocation generates worlds. This is why the narrow-minded should have their brains forcibly expanded. Cognitive dissonance is a key tool of this enterprise, and any educational leader (de jure, de facto, or de profundis) to be worth his salt must engage in exercises which unsettle his own lofty perch so that he can learn. The educator who will not learn is like the teacher of literature who cannot write, yet another joker who cannot practice what he preaches. But I've spoken of the cure elsewhere.

Sometimes, I have felt like changing the question to "Why is the School Full of Idiots?" because that would be more provocative as the title of a presentation made to educators. The main problem is that this is never completely true (with respect to 'full') and it is always partly true of any institution (with respect to 'idiots'). We are always plagued by the narrow and tiny-minded. But it is our Sisyphean work to make sure we are not like that ourselves, and to help others toil towards the same end alongside.


Note: Oh yes, I must say that the comments to this memetic post were all very amusing too. I note that many of them make reference to me as a teacher. And many of them are delighted to mention that I was not a very 'good' teacher either, although apparently able to teach half a dozen different things. Haha, I'm sorry!

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Month 005

Today I had just finished another tuition session (yes, sadly, that is how a teacher can really make a living in this day and age) when the Maverick reminded me that it had been five months. And what a wonderful five months it has been!

I don't know why exactly I feel this way, but the words from a song I first heard when I was ten years old came to mind. (Well, not only the words, but the riffs and harmony and all, even!) I shall reproduce the words below for those of you who (somehow) have not yet encountered the world of Freddy Mercury.

The point, however, is not one about vainglory and the rise of a hero. The point (well, a triple point, heh heh) is that settling up leads to settling down, being victorious is a state of mind, and solid is a state of matter.

We Are The Champions

I've paid my dues
Time after time
I've done my sentence
But committed no crime
And bad mistakes
I've made a few
I've had my share
Of sand kicked in my face
But I've come through

We are the champions, my friends
And we'll keep on fighting till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
'Cause we are the champions – of the world

I've taken my bows
And my curtain calls
You brought me fame and fortune
And everything that goes with it
I thank you all
But it's been no bed of roses
No pleasure cruise
I consider it a challenge
Before the whole human race
And I ain't gonna lose

We are the champions, my friends
And we'll keep on fighting till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
'Cause we are the champions – of the world

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No Joking Matter

I've had been present at many occasions that felt that they were the set-up for some sort of joke: you know, the kind that begins with, "An Englishman, a Welshman and an Irishman walk into a canteen..." or perhaps "A teacher, a judge and a politician walk into a bar..." or something like that.

It strikes me that in real life, the matters discussed at such meetings tend to be more serious than that. Whenever two or three (or four, or five) people gather together in the name of gold, guns, graft, gin, government, or God; that name is like a guiding spirit hovering over the discussion. Most times it is barely more serious that what it looks like; sometimes, it is deadly serious. The conversation tends to move with a kind of adept facility into channels which are more portentous.

I remember a few counting rhymes which seem to conceal that kind of sinister dexterity. These include the relatively simple, "One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go!" Of course, the one which is a classic to me is the one I quoted just a month ago, "One for the morning glory..."

But one looks for signs and portents, and finds them. In the Bible there are some famous examples: "But when you shall see the abomination of desolation... standing where it ought not, then let them that be in Judaea flee to the high mountains..." is a clear one related to graven images and symbols of pagan power; likewise, the preoccupations of Nebuchadnezzar and the dreams which resulted (it is always fascinating to read the first few chapters of the book of the prophet Daniel if you have the time).

And at first, those too look like jokes: "Two Roman eagles meet in the courtyard of the temple..." or "A statue with a head of gold and feet of clay..." and so on. But of course, there are always lessons to be learnt, and prices to be paid.

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Friday, August 15, 2008


After I propagated this meme, I realised that I had learned many things. It's amazing how many different people I've come to know, how many different ways I tried to teach and how I succeeded (and failed). I am forever indebted to my students for allowing me to teach them, thus teaching me a lot about myself and about the true business of life. I am sorry to any of them to whom I was a bad teacher who gave nothing and/or took too much. I am no longer a teacher at the present time, occupationally speaking. I hope one day to be a teacher again, and to be a much better one too.

If anyone wants to add to the pile, both good and bad, I would be very grateful. These memories are all precious to me, and reading what you remember helps me recall those moments won at great price and often too easily lost for no gain.

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Jürgen was one of James Branch Cabell's classic works. I re-read it a few months back, and it struck me how appropriate the subject matter was. Actually, the entire tone of Cabell's work, dripping with irony and the rather relaxed urge to skewer public institutions (and private ones), is appropriate bed-time reading for the modern young person who has been feed a steady drip diet of mainstream opinion and media.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Helicopter Vision

I've always been amused by the 'helicopter vision' which is the key personal quality demanded by some organisations when looking at human potential and ability. The metaphor is a terribly inexact one; in this day and age, the helicopter (whether a light passenger craft, a huge heavy military lifter, a gunship, or a surveillance/recon platform) is not likely to give you a significantly bigger picture of anything on a strategic scale.

In fact, a person with too much 'helicopter vision' will be confined to some sort of narrow-band tactical intelligence. In all likelihood, this 'helicopter' will fail to see the big picture unless at least other kinds of vision are used. To continue with this vaguely military metaphor, you need 'satellite vision' for a really big picture, 'infantry vision' for the man-on-the-spot picture, and 'infonet vision' for the data picture. Of all these four 'visionaries', the helicopter is most likely to be shot down, hardest to control, and most difficult to conceal in the battlefield. It is also easiest to deceive and most irritating to the people doing their job below.

Frankly, any organisation still touting 'helicopter vision' is obviously not good at assessing metaphors. I would think that such organisations need to be left behind somewhere in the 1980s. That kind of laziness will get you killed when you are up against superior conceptual and informational skills. It explains why an organisation filled with young helicopters will eventually find its mission going nowhere because of bad weather, low visibility and sparse knowledge of ground conditions (not to mention high fuel prices).

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Meme-oriam

Here's a meme that's propagated from two pearls of great price...

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don’t speak often, please post a comment with a memory of you and me. It can be anything you want — good or bad. When you’re finished, post this little paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people remember about you.


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Etymological studies are often fraught with irony, as I've shown in the common root of 'slug' and 'slog' earlier on. Sometimes, the irony approaches a step at a time; this is the case with 'congress'. The Latin word gradus means 'step'; it can be seen in the words like 'gradual' (='stepwise') or 'graduate' (='move up a step').

But there's a whole bunch of words based around a modified version of gradus, the '-gress' version which is found in 'congress', 'progress', 'egress', 'digress', and 'regress'. 'Congress' has to do with 'step together'; 'progress' is 'step forward'; 'egress' is 'step out'; 'digress' is 'step away' and 'regress' is 'step backwards'.

That's probably why I once said, "I prefer egress to regress, and egrets to regrets." There is a whole ball of meaning in there which is best captured via haiku or some such. It is fascinating when a whole bunch of things congress and progress is thus made.

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This has always been an intriguing word to me. In the entertainment industry hereabouts, it has come to mean 'a bit-part character' (or charitably, 'a member of the supporting cast'). But it has the look of a word from some Romance language in it, and if it were Latin, it would probably mean 'to keep warm' – just as California means 'a warm oven'. Used in a modern world, perhaps calefare would mean 'a hot ticket', or 'stuff you eat which has a high energy value'. In its present context, it probably means 'seat-warmer'. That's the thing about neologisms; you never know when they might rise up from their primordial past and bite you.

Case in point, the late and unlamented airtropolis, that bastard child of 'metropolis' and 'airport' which some idiot bureaucrat thought would be a good idea. Never ever combine different languages in the same word in such a way that they look terribly disjoint. You cannot help the reader to suspend his disbelief when you do that, whether or not the reader is completely ignorant about the languages concerned; some things just look too wrong.


Note: Classical Latin's equivalent of calefare does exist; originally, calefacere meant 'to make heat' or 'to generate warmth'. Classical Greek's equivalent of the terrible airtropolis would probably be aeropolis, 'city of (the) air'.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

A Cunning Plan

Oh yes, there are already those of you who are thinking of Baldrick and Blackadder when you see the phrase 'a cunning plan'. It is no accident, however, that these three words are associated with power and the promulgation of perilous plans.

That's because the words 'king' and 'cunning' come from the same root. The qualities of a king are, taken as one group, something called 'cunning' or 'kingship'. This is probably why the Bible as a whole is not too keen on human kings, since these tend to display the more venal side of kingship.

Take for example the duties of a king as set out provisionally in Deuteronomy 17. It's very clear; do not set up as king one who is not your brother, make sure he is not imperialistic or grasping in any sense. These are all restrictions on human kingship, designed to pave the way for an ideal which was the plan from the first Adam.

But the consequences of not keeping within these restrictions are interesting. God tells Samuel what will happen in I Samuel 8. A king whose prowess is not fettered will make use of the state to further his goals. Such a king is no servant, but a tyrant. The ideal vision is quite different; it can be found in Isaiah 32; here is a king who reigns in justice and is a shelter, a nurturer, the source of good things and the greener of a barren land.

Sometimes I think that the limitation of reading tiny bits of the Bible each day is that one doesn't see the whole picture. Once in a while, many small bits should be put together to give the overall picture. Simple logic can be used in hermeneutic context. For example: a) the eagle is an unclean bird, b) you should not put up graven images of any kinds of animals... oops, but I've said enough about such things in other posts.

To summarise, cunning is kingship; kingship is cunning. But when you engineer your cunning plans, O leaders of this world, make sure that they are plans worthy of a King.

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Not Checking

Yes, I'm not going to check the time or the date. The practice of this blog has never to been to unduly glamorize this particular date in any given year. I shall let the shock pass for a while before attempting a proper post.


Today I was thinking of the German word verschlagen. This is an interesting word to me because it is actually pretty... versatile. The root schlag- is where we get the good old English words 'slug' = 'to hit', 'slog' = 'to hit many times', 'slag' = 'to hit until pieces fly off', 'slack' = 'the state of having hit or been hit until pieces have flown off', 'slay' = 'to hit until slack', 'slaughter' = 'to hit until very slack or plurally slack', and 'sly' = 'to be very good at hitting (without being hit back)' (= German schlagfertig). It is pretty amusing to me that 'slogger' and 'slacker' should come from the same thing in the end, not to mention that it is the same thing as 'slayer' and 'slugger'.

Take that, you friends! *grin*

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

On the Care of Lordship

It was in the shower this morning that I suddenly realised that the English word 'curiosity' is horribly close to the Greek word κύριος; in fact, transliterated, they share the same first six letters. The catch is that the latter means 'lord', and I couldn't at first see the connection. So I sat down while drying my hair and thought a bit more.

The origin of 'curiosity' as an object of attention comes from Latin curare, 'to have the care of'. It is where we get 'curate' (one who has care of souls) and 'curator' (one who looks after things). The things looked after are therefore curated, and the process of curation is called the 'cure'. If it is raw meat that is to be kept, it must be cured with salt; if it is a patient, it must be cured with medicine. But the thing cared for is a 'curiosity'.

This is actually the middle step. It is now quite clear how this acts as a link between 'lord' and 'the faculty of being inquisitive'.

Taking one step back, a lord or master (as κύριος is sometimes translated) must have care over his people; the property of being a curator comes with the status of being boss. Taking one step forward, the interest over things that are looked after is called 'curiosity'. Therefore, the human properties of lordship (being a lord) and curiosity (interest over the things before you) are intertwined and inextricable.

A lord must have care for the things and people entrusted to him; this is true whether they are things physical, spiritual, cultural, social, intellectual, emotional or anything else. A lord without curiosity, that deep and abiding interest in the things that are entrusted to him, is a lord who is missing true lordship, what an ancient Greek, brought forward to this age, would have called κύριος-ity.


This wasn't the only matter of etymological interest which came to mind today, but having dealt with 'curiosity', I will save 'cunning', 'calefare' and 'congress' for a later date. And then I will cease.

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Kuru (Part 2)

The dream I had was very real. I remember the texture of the stone slabs, concrete with large jagged bits of stone and big grains of sand in it. I remember the smell of the sewers, the hissing of the drains; and as I walked the concrete paths between round-pillared façades, I smelled Chinese herbs and Indian spices, the smell of fat pork sausages and curing roast pork. I saw the cracks in the cement-coated floors, the grimy paint and grey whitewash; I saw the men in white singlets with holes in them, and khaki shorts.

When you have a dream like this, it is very real. It makes you think about labyrinthine ways that lead you back to where you were before, of the hollowing-out of small shops, the cramped quarters and the high houses which are falling apart. You think of what the mission used to be and what it has become. And you know that without the clean air, the fresh wind, it will all fall apart.

It is almost like extreme fear or like enlightenment; you wake up laughing and you wonder if you are crying and whether it matters or not. And you wonder if, with all those years left behind, washed away, washed up on another beach too far from home, you are not already too old to do anything about it.

Perhaps, nobody wants to do anything about it. Some people just want to move on, out of their lost neighbourhoods. They won't look back until somebody else has levelled the shameful old places and built new glass and steel and stone to replace them. It may have been home; then it became just a place, not even a memory. This is what progress is all about.

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In Georgia, a country which I first visited in 1969, there is a place that is now a smoking ruin. That country, ironically enough, was the birthplace of the Man of Steel, that feckless and ruthless figure who piloted Russia into the torturesome modernity of the Atomic Age.

Through the smoking ruin move the tanks, landcrawling fish of the sort that Oswald Bastable would immediately know and loathe with a bitter hatred and a wondering distaste. Georgia has partly its own folly to blame. But a large part of that is trusting the promises of the West. Like all clever Caucasians, the true ones who live in the Caucasus and its environs, they ought to have known better. The Caucasians have always been crushed between hammer and anvil, divided by fire and sword, fixed by stake and noose.

And I think of one great lesson. A country is as great as the dictators it births, and whatever those dictators in turn create will one day return home; if not in body, then in spirit, in some sort of returning doom.


I think of something else. I shall wear my trousers rolled. Haha. There is shadow under this read Prufrock. Haha. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih.

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Kuru (Part 1)

There was this rare disease called kuru, formerly prevalent in a tribe in Papua New Guinea. It was also called the laughing disease because of insane bouts of laughter triggered by it; thankfully, it is now almost extinct, as it was caused primarily by eating other people's brains and thus being infected by evil prions.

I thought of it this morning, coming out of an exceptionally detailed dream-state in which the Archivalist and the Argonaut and I were wandering around in the rain, through a seedy complex of old shophouses and ramshackle tuition centres. In the middle of the maze, we bumped into former students who told us with a tinge of regret that this was what remained of the grand endeavour. Quite a shock to me, and part of a plot that could have been part of a great SF novel.

It also involved gyroscopes, a sports complex commandeered by students dressed in white (the boys) and white with green skirts (the girls), sharks and a hunting boat, two young men named Philip (and one named Ronald) who were involved in three-dimensional puzzles and four-dimensional computing, the quality control of chipboard walls, bad paint jobs, the difficulty of SUV parking in underground labyrinths, and for some strange reason, a cheap pair of blue and white slippers that kept turning up everywhere.

At the end of the dream, as I emerged from the narcosis, I heard a voice saying, "It's not the journey, but the departure, that matters. Go out into the world." It was a very odd dream.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

The New Emperor's Clothes

In recent news, the Americans have discovered that their government has been looking at ways of effectively ruling the world. (You can even download the PDF of that briefing document, if you want.) Such fools, these mortals be.

The problem with the American (well, Republican American) point of view is that Empire is a silly thing to have. About the only thing that our historical experience of empires (and, yes, our empirical experience) has shown is that they are hard to manage and bring few long-term benefits to the dominant political entity. In fact, history shows us that only when great powers come to dynamic equilibrium do benefits accrue significantly to all.

Why isn't Empire, empirically speaking, a good idea? The obvious thing is that Empire is by nature inefficient. As Empire grows, the only thing that keeps it borderline efficient is the promulgation of universal values (i.e. the values, language(s), culture, religion etc of the Imperial overlord). If the imperial power fails to clone itself into the cultural DNA of every one of its subsidiary centres of authority, the day of imperial overstretch will arrive. Just as a rubber-band comes to grief more violently the greater the degree of overstretch, so too goes an empire.

One simple chain of reasoning will suffice to show why Empire doesn't work (and we won't even have to go to Edward Gibbon or Isaac Asimov for this). Consider a resource that occupies space and must be moved (which is most of them). The more locations that produce it, and to which it must be moved (and its consequent products as well), the more roads you need to build and maintain. This is why sea-lanes and air-routes are strategically vital for an empire; land empires have serious logistic problems. However, eventually even sea and air routes will fail, as the total transactions in physical terms multiply.

The solution is either to find transport with zero logistic cost (or close to it), or resources which require no transport (or close to none). In real terms, this means you develop teleportation or you became an information-driven empire. The former is not within our reach above the scale of the sub-atomic for now. The latter... ah ha, you might say.

No, information empires don't work either. Consider the necessity to store and process data. If you have a single datum, then it has no relationships with anything except the 'identity' relationship. It just is. You store it, and you need at least one more bit to store the information 'identity'. It therefore needs at least two bits to store one piece of information (as opposed to data). Consider two data points. They will have at least one relationship between them, and one 'identity' relationship each. So to store two points as information, you need five bits at least. For three data points, you have three 'identity' bits, three 1-to-1 bits, and perhaps three 1-to-2 bits and maybe a 'this is a chain' bit. It is obvious that for an empire of data, you would quickly bog down in a morass of unprocessed information.

But it is still possible for a pseudo-empire to flourish. If there are wise and intuitive leaders (or powerfully controlled decentralised authorities), they can decide what to throw away by rule of thumb. They might actually be able to cut the information load down to a minimum and wing it. This seems to be the driving force behind any empire that actually succeeds: willful ignorance. Paradoxically, a desire for unknowing may save a glutted empire. It is certainly no long-term solution, existing as it does on a wing and a prayer. But it may last long enough for the imperial power to put an eagle up in every courtyard before the whole shebang collapses.

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This Is Rome, Truly

If it were not for laughter, we would all be undone by madness. It is like standing at the gates of a holy city and seeing the abomination of desolation set up within it and not being able to do anything about it. And the people in that city go about their business; some are uncaring because they lack awareness of the divine, some are inured to the maleficient by the constant darkness, some are happy because they have found a spiritual home.

For in such a city, the standards and flags are not of the heavens and the legions of the Divine, but of the world and the world's pain; the light of daily life is not the imminence of the Presence, but the effusion of the shiny. The conduits are leaden; the wine is sour; the grasshopper drags its legs to an empty well and finds no balm in Gilead.

Our dreams have become traps. We think of One Integrated Formula Resort, probably with One Formula Integrated Programmes. We cruise to nowhere, delighted by the journey which never ends and the shiny nuggets on the table. It is always night. Always.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Word of the Day: Disgruntle

Yes, this is a far cry from the usual arcana which you find in the occasional 'Word of the Day' post. After all, 'disgruntle' is such a commonplace word, isn't it?

Well, not really. I think it has been misused quite a lot by people who think of the equation 'disgruntled=unhappy'. The reason I call it a misusage is that 'unhappy' really means 'unfortunate, and aware of it'. Disgruntlement, on the other hand, is the induced tendency or state to grumble in general.

But 'disgruntle' is a verb; you can disgruntle someone. How does that work? According to various sources, you do this by putting people into a state of dissatisfaction or discontent, into a bad mood or a sulky unhappiness. Recently (well, now not so recently), I was told that to continue working at a certain place would make my colleagues disgruntled. I was also told that I was a disgruntled person.

Haha! I am sure that about the only interpretation of that word, in that context, would be that some people thought I would make people aware of their misfortune, induce dissatisfaction and/or discontent, and generally provoke a state of sulkiness.

There are three problems with that, though. 1) I'm not a disgruntled kind of person; I might have moments of unhappiness, but I am actually quite cheerful about making entertaining commentary about my situation, bad or good; 2) surely my esteemed (ex)colleagues have more willpower than to allow me, Svengali-like, to con them into feeling unfortunate or dissatisfied when they have no reason at all to be; 3) mature people cope with their unhappiness; they do this by voicing it out, and if their entirely reasonable claims are rejected, they move on.

In short, disgruntlement works best when self-induced; only a general atmosphere of misfortune, mishap and malaise (if not outright mayhem) should be able to provoke this kind of sordid introspective decline. And I am sure that such an atmosphere is hard to come by, even if you deliberately attempted to create one.

As an aside, I have to point out that 'gruntle' is not the opposite of 'disgruntle'; 'gruntle' means 'grumble', and 'disgruntle' means 'to make entirely grumbly'. These are very amusing words, you must agree; their onomatopoeic qualities shine.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Heils Are Alive

This is from Hammerstein-Equord's Truppenführung. I remember der Hierophant showing me the words that follow, and I shall post this in memory of a valiant colleague who is (as I am) no longer with the Collegium.

„Ich unterscheide vier Arten. Es gibt kluge, fleißige, dumme und faule Offiziere. Meist treffen zwei Eigenschaften zusammen. Die einen sind klug und fleißig, die müssen in den Generalstab. Die nächsten sind dumm und faul; sie machen in jeder Armee 90% aus und sind für Routineaufgaben geeignet. Wer klug ist und gleichzeitig faul, qualifiziert sich für die höchsten Führungsaufgaben, denn er bringt die geistige Klarheit und die Nervenstärke für schwere Entscheidungen mit. Hüten muss man sich vor dem, der gleichzeitig dumm und fleißig ist; dem darf man keine Verantwortung übertragen, denn er wird immer nur Unheil anrichten.“

It is a reminder of what to do when you have four kinds of things to examine. Der Hierophant's morphemic loquaciousness can help you out there, but I shall not provoke him to excitement.

Then again, seeing how many of my friends are now in some sort of U2 state of mind, here are the lyrics from one of my favourites at the present time, because of its tangential relevance. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...

All Along The Watchtower

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion here
I can’t get no relief
Businessmen they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them know along the line
What any of this is worth

No reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who think that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that
And that is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
Because the hour is getting late

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While horsemen came and went
Barefoot servants too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were aproaching
And the wind began to howl

All I got is a red guitar
Three chords
And the truth

All I got is a red guitar
The rest is up to you

There’s no reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are some among us here
Say that life is just a joke
You and I, we’ve been through that
And that is not our fate (at least today)
So let us not talk falsely now
Because the hour is getting late

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The Inconsistency of Growing Old

Recently, a raven told me that there would be an age requirement for principalities and powers. "Ark! If thou hast excess of two score years and but a little more, thou wilt not be granted ascension, and thou shalt perish as a small power unsated and beneath contempt."

Haha, it is one of those rare and silly things. If you are too old, you cannot ascend to the seat of the wise. It would be ludicrous to think of this except in an exceptionally foolish society. Especially when in the highest realms of the City, it is said that you must be at least of two score years and a little more in order to reach the seats of the great. In fact, it is said that the highest of the wise and great should be of four-score years, proven strength and indispensable wisdom all in one.

It beggars belief that the raven's croakings might be true, but sadly, it is not beyond my creative and imaginative powers to imagine how it might be true. I am quite sure that a society which thinks it is ossifying in the middle has got two main views: 1) that the oldest and wisest are legendary and hence beyond ossification; 2) that the youngest and most efficient have not ossified yet. Hence you must have young powers of their third decade and a bit, and old powers after their fifth decade. The rest need not apply.

Truly, I say, a case of scorer, ossifer, general-men.

I used to believe that a society that valued education should have values respecting the wisdom and effectiveness of the old, rather than the energetic efficiency of the young alone. Then I realised that seniority could also fall into the trap of selective banding. The really old are in power, ergo, that is a natural state to be continued. The middle-aged are not energetic enough; neither are they in power, ergo, anyone at that level who is not in power should never be. The young are a different generation and manipulatable, let us put them in power beneath the ones who are in power.

Two phrases come to mind. Firstly, that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds; secondly, that things should be done on a case-by-case basis. The two mean the same thing: that power and wisdom trump the rule of law and order. This would be perfectly acceptable, if you could ensure that power and wisdom together are indeed right. The problem in this world is that this is seldom true; instead, the flight from consistency towards individualism and flexibility can overshoot the mark and lead to chaos, favoritism, nepotism, and other corruptive ills of society.

Ah well, I always leave it to the wise and powerful who claim they know what they are doing. That is because, eventually, the All-Wise and All-Powerful will have His say in the End.

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Maiden Voyage

I suppose it must be a first to see the good ship Titan slip off the lines and into the water on a voyage into the unknown. I had a dream last night in which the crew list was published and I looked up and saw the mug shots and realised that it was good and fitting that the people there remained the people there. The theme seems to be one of consistency with existing policy. That kind of thing has benefits. Nominating a small slate with clear plusses and minuses helps the board make its decisions and takes the pressure off the nominator too. The maiden voyage was not unexpected. I am all in favour of the spectacle.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Wolf in Flight

Wolff does not have to look back to know that they glower down upon him from afar. The tall towers of the Magistratum host nothing but hostile eyes in the upper reaches, for the last spark of kindness has been exiled from the heights. He remembers one of his last conversations, one of those which made it certain that he must leave.

The setting is the infamous Black Chamber, named after the evil altar that serves as a central table, not round, but rectangular – and shaped in an aspect ratio designed to disturb the rational mind.

Sir Wolff! What is this that you have been saying? We have heard that you have spoken out against the doctrine of holism!

Another one of these charges. False definition of terms, followed by accusations that the original doctrine is defamed. It happens again, and Wolff is weary to the death of it.

No, my lords, I have not. I have spoken against false holism, but never against true. For the Book tells us that we should make use of all that is given unto us.

And yet, we have word that you say we practise a false holism, and that the development of the young in all aspects is a sin against the Master!

My lords, you have my writings before you. I must speak to the point you make. Primus, holism is a good thing; it is good that the young are developed in all major aspects, from the gifts of the Spirit to all the other gifts they have been given. Secundus, holism is not completism, my lords; we cannot develop that which is not given by the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. Tertius, to assert that we develop all in human dimensions which are not balanced and founded by the temper of the Word is vanity, and I will have none of it.

They mutter amongst themselves. One says, what is it he accuses us of? Vanity? Arrogance? We are neither of these, surely. Another replies, surely we are neither. A third glares, silent.

Sir Wolff, you condemn yourself by your lack of understanding. You are a confused man who has lost his way. Do you think you are one of the Great come amongst us?

No, my lords. I have never thought that, though others like yourselves have said it many times. But I must say that as God gave wings to birds to fly, and we give wings of steel for men to fly, still it is not possible in this life for a man to be taught to flap his arms a thousand times a year and be able to fly like a bird using his arms alone. Neither is it possible, though we work hard at it, for us to make a student live in the water a hundred times a year and thus give him gills to breathe the stuff of life from a medium in which it is scarce.

Certainly, by dressing the young in robes of military appearance, one runs into the danger of offering them the kingdoms of the world in lieu of true leadership; by teaching them about bread, you make them think they have mastery over famine; by teaching them about wealth, you make them think they have dominion over poverty; by the making (and reading) of many books, you make them think they have monopoly over scholarship. I think this is wrong; it is all vanity, a weariness to the body, a pain in the spirit.

The Grand Inquisitor rises, his robes of scholarship billowing around him. He fumes, and the light of the smoking torches gleams within his eyes.

Are you saying, Wolff, that we are heretics ourselves, and that the truth is not in us? Are you saying that we harm the young placed in our care?

Grand Lord of the Magistratum, I do not say there is no truth in what you do, or that you seek to harm the young placed in our care. I merely look to the word of God as in the book of the prophet Ieremias, in which the Highest addresses exactly the three things you seek to instill in our young people. I have spoken on this before, and not against you. If I have given offence, so be it; I shall accept your punishment.

For a moment, in the silence, Wolff feels as if he has wings. There is lightness in his being. And he knows that the Master is saying, "Who is this who multiplies words without meaning? Know that even a wolf can fly." He is confounded, caught by the sovereignty of the Highest. But he is also sharply aware that so is the Magistratum.


Note: The fictional adventures of Sir Wolff do provide much that is of interest. You can find them linked here. Just ignore the one about earwax. That was an accident.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

The Education Act

For the last five years or so, something has been gnawing at me. The problem is that when you speak to some people who claim they are educators, they can't define education in ways that actually tell you what they are trying to do when they educate. It isn't helped by the fact that the local Education Act (last revised in 1985) doesn't define education very well except by indirect means.

Take, for example, some of the definitions that are provided by that Act:
  • "higher education" means education beyond the standard normally required for admission to a university;
  • "pupil" means a person of any age receiving instruction in a school;
  • "school" means according to the context — a) an organisation for the provision of education for 10 or more persons; or b) a place where 10 or more persons are being or are habitually taught whether in one or more classes, or in the case of a correspondence school, the place or places where instruction is prepared or where answers are examined or corrected;
  • "teacher" means a person who teaches pupils in a school or who prepares or issues lessons or corrects written answers in a correspondence school and includes a principal.
So, what is 'education', and what does it mean to 'educate'?

I am still grappling with the answers to that in the local context. Stay tuned; updates will come.


Sunday, August 03, 2008


Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Looking into the future of an over-extended empire is not a new thing. Looking into history to see what normally happens is also not new. But I think it's fascinating how well the British managed it. Although the Brits always seem to be flailing around like an amputee with a phantom limb which used to be an empire, at least they can say that English is not a dead language, and that their literature is still fairly widely respected.

It takes skill, nerve, and no small amount of self-esteem to survive the loss of empire. Some just don't have it; some fake it. But in the end, a few markers serve to test the quality of the once-imperial. How broad and deep does the linguistic influence remain? What happened to the institutions and establishments? Are the fallen imperials remembered fondly? Many years down the road, would you still want to take them out for lunch? Heh, I am fascinated at the implications of these questions, and many related to them.


Update: You can find a more detailed response to the questions I have been idly pondering here. There have been many works discussing the various world empires of the past; the legacy of the first real world-spanning empire, the Pax Britannica, is the most interesting one. This is possibly because it was the first to show significant signs of what we now call 'globalisation'. Literally, the sun never set on this empire; administrative offices of the Empire, that were doing the same business in largely the same way, were open at any time somewhere in the world.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Without Fear Or Favour

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of reading an article by a senior physician at a local institution. In it, she said that the fear of having one's career path negatively affected often makes people less inclined to speak out. She continued, saying that this reflected poorly on leadership, and in many organisations, superiors did not like being contradicted by their subordinates, to the detriment of all. She found this deplorable. She should know; many organisations her family members have been in have suffered such problems.

Her detractors frequently point out that if she were less privileged in terms of family members, she might not be so inclined to speak her mind. I have a feeling that it is partly the other way around; one reason some families rise to pre-eminence is that the family culture invites them to speak their minds, and in the familial sparring (and the trials of in-house debate) the mind is honed and developed. Because people cannot understand why a member of a Family disagrees publicly with the perceived business policies of that Family, she is termed a maverick and (sometimes, in dark places) worse.

These people don't know how the Families work. When you look at an 'establishment family', a Family, you should realise that barring the more extreme cases of royal bloodlines, these clans have worked themselves into pre-eminence over time. They overthrew their establishments, they have become 'establishment', and one day, someone else will be there in their place.

But the strongest Families are those with a high level of fierce, coherent, well-considered, structured and deliberate internal debate. Those which brook no dissent are merely sowing the seeds of their own disintegration; those which only allow controllable dissent and debate are just playing with forms and will meet a similar fate.

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Alexander's Legacy

Yesterday it so happened that I ended up giving a tiny little linguistic lesson online. And one of the words involved was the Greek Alexander, which means 'Defender of Men'. Well, we all know how the historical Alexander turned out: conquered the world in his youth, overachieved handily, reached India, became old while still young, caught a disease and never went home again. But the interesting part, as always, was the legacy he left behind.

The age that lived on long after him was called the Hellenistic Age, a mad and wonderful fusion of Greek, Indo-Aryan and Middle Eastern cultures all thrown together into a brew and divvied up among people with vastly-different interests and ideas. As the tumult and the shouting died, as the generals carved up the body of Empire, the greater generals fought themselves into a synthesis that would one day bloom into the greater Roman Empire.

It is sometimes that way; a strong leader who leaves no obvious successor behind (or too many obvious successors) will have made possible the final exhaustion and collapse of his direct legacy. Like a phoenix, though, the fragments often kindle and come together again in some unexpected way.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Crossing The Bar

Something very significant is going to happen as Sunday night gives way to Monday morning in a few days' time. However, it will only be noticed by fans of certain bar charts. A long-standing spike indicating high traffic will suddenly disappear, heralding the establishment of normality in at least one way. I just thought I'd mention it. Heh.

And a happy August to all, especially the August personages out there!

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