Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Today was the day Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam went to his just reward. He fought a good fight; he held on to his values and his ideas of truth and justice; he ended the race still strong in his beliefs. He is probably the last member of his generation, that group of socialists who believed that unbridled capitalism was a sin and that the hurts of the people should be addressed with the heart as well as the head. Now, old lion, rest in peace.

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Winding Down

I am sitting on the edge of the downs, the rolling hills between one world and another. Soon, things will come to an end and a new beginning. The question really is what kind of new beginning it will be.

In the end, when the wind has swept everything away, only eternity remains. It will not be a homogeneous eternity, but one with variance. In the end, we will have to forgive each other our trespasses, or it will be hell and not heaven. In the end, we will have to accept that we were all different, and even with all the imperfections blasted away, we will still be different.

But for now, I have to ask myself the question that many of my students do: "What shall I do next?"

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Making The Pond Bigger

I was a teenager not that long ago. Well, not that long ago. By that time, John McCain had entered the Senate. At that time, the internet was non-existent except in the highest levels of a small group of nodes. It was possible to look around me and take comfort in the false belief that I was really pretty smart compared to many people. Maybe even smarter than half the people around me, which would have made me one tiny spot above average.

The thing about statistics is that they are not easily mapped into properly meaningful ideas in the human brain. I use that word 'properly' for a reason – it is all too easy for them to be mapped into meaningful ideas with the wrong meaning. Take, for example, the last sentence in my first paragraph above. If I went around saying I was smarter than 50% of the population, I'd only be attributing slightly-above average intelligence to myself (however you measure that slippery concept of intelligence). But I'm sure it would be taken as some sort of elitist comment.

Let's be honest, though. I classify myself as 'pleasantly ugly' (i.e. a bit below average in looks), 'fairly intelligent' (i.e. at least about 1 standard deviation above the mean on most scales), 'normally fit' (i.e. within 1 standard deviation of the mean on most scales), and 'normally healthy' (i.e. within 1 standard deviation of the mean on most measurements of health).

All this self-assessment was not so easy to make when I was young. You only had the evidence of your immediate senses, and I had the disadvantage of going to a school in which lots of people seemed smarter and fitter than I did. As I grew up, however, I began to realise that the immediate population of my youth had been somewhat biased.

In other words, as the pond grew bigger, I realised that while there were amazingly huge numbers of people who were incredibly much smarter than I was, there were also perhaps more people who were not. This made me feel a lot better, although not that much better.

The point of all this really is that if you have spent your whole life in a small city-state, you should get out a bit. Look at as much of the whole pond as possible before you think of what kind of fish you are. This is increasingly important as access to the global pond opens up. This especially goes for people who are discontented with life after looking at their neighbours.

You know the kind: *grumble* *grumble* I only earn US$4000 a month and my monthly costs (after paying the bank and all the bills) are now US$3200 so I only save US$800 a month. My neighbour has US$16000 a month, so he can probably save US$12800 a month.

Well, that kind of pay probably puts you both in the top 2% of all wage earners in the world. In a small city-state, you can even determine very exact and accurate figures for what percentage of your pond-people earn more or less than you. What's scarier is that in this particular city-state which is the focus of my research into education reforms, it seems fair game to determine what the best primary schools are based on economic principles of supply and demand. That's not so bad, except that it might be true.

I guess the great thing about access to the whole pond via the Internet is that it's easier to find data about where you really are in life, if you need such things. I know a highly accomplished person who was #1 in everything, but ranked very poorly in the big pond; at the same time I knew one who was thought to be pretty low-ranked, but whose data when compared with the rest of the big pond made a big splash.

In the end, I suppose that the economically-minded fish will do the economically-minded rational thing and migrate to the parts of the pond with more food. Then they will grow bigger and fatter until the fishermen figure out where the big fish are.

Conclusion: somewhere between 1 and 2 standard deviations above the norm is fine; don't push your luck. Heh.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008


One very good thing about the Tropics is that it is generally warm. The downside is that my asthma sometimes wanders by, like a scholarly ghost, not particularly potent but slightly irritating. The upside is that my old shoulder injury is kept at bay; when he is active, it is more like some thuggish yob who puts you in an armlock just for the fun of it, all the while yelling, "Hur hur hur, who's a pre(tt)y boy then!" in some awful Lunnon accent.

Down here, my shoulder isn't often frozen. That's wonderful. Except when it is.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Food-Brain Synergy

I think that cafés are the most important social-intellectual invention of all time. They are better than debates, arenas, symposia, colloquia or any other social-interactive medium. Just yesterday I was with Wolfberry and Lioness and Elektra having breakfast. It was interesting to see how they had changed since they were new wyverns. There is more edge now, but the charm is still there. And their ideas about the world and how it should be and how they should be are all growing and becoming more solid.

Then there was lunch with the Red Magician, and how that managed to disinter lots of old long-buried interests I used to have in certain disciplines. It is very encouraging to me to see all these things.

I think the point is that the food is fuel, the caffeine is a catalyst that speeds things up towards eventual equilibrium. The time I spent earlier this week with Hierophant and Thinkpad was stimulating too. I hadn't realised how much stuff I'd picked up over the years until I actually tried to explain it to them. Which led me back to one of my favourite people, father Abraham.

All in all, this has been a good week for thinking. But now I have to get back to the grind of writing. Sigh. Thank God for the gift of theobromine and the other xanthines! Truly, theobromos, the 'essence of the Gods', is a wonderful thing!

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Friday, September 26, 2008

The Patriarchal Ranking System

Somebody asked me a question which has only just sunk home. That person said, "Why do you always have to think differently? Isn't it dangerous? You might be a heretic."

I must admit I was a little shaken, in the sense that it is obviously true that if you think differently, you might be a heretic. But this was with regard to my habit of saying odd things about biblical characters. (Incidentally, I don't like that phrase – it seems to imply that the people we're talking about are factitious personae in some drama.)

So I trawled through the deep-freeze of my organic datastore and realised that there are perhaps a few things that make me say things most other people wouldn't. Here they are, in order of influence:
  1. Family: My family has always been an amazing resource; my great-grandfather translated the Bible into Peranakan Malay, my grandfather did his daily bible study in Greek and Hebrew, and my father has always been able (as long as I've known him) to give the Bible chapter and verse for any quote read out to him (and vice versa).
  2. Database: The natural outcome of coming from an academic family is that you tend to have huge hands-on experience with data sourcing and processing. In the days before the Internet, and even now, the man with the library-trained brain will normally beat the untrained brain given the same software and hardware.
  3. Education: I was brought up as if my life would be spent teaching literature and history, but I was trained to teach chemistry and computing. The mixture of disciplines allows me to look at a given topic in many different ways.
I think the blend of these three elements makes me a little unconventional. However, any mistakes I have made are mine alone and should not be blamed on my family, my sources, or my education.

That said, I wondered how I actually put these things together. Well, perhaps this is a good time to say that I don't exactly know. However, I have a rough idea. My training in computing, which began a long time ago, makes me attempt to gather all the data I can find in a single brute force search (which is easy to do nowadays because you can find thousands of Bibles online) and then try to put them into a logical construct. The outcome of this construction process tends to be unusual. For example, doing an exhaustive search for anything to do with Jonah produces a psychological picture you won't see in Sunday School. Better still, it will be completely defensible since it is built by analysing everything in the text that has anything to do with the subject.

The best way to explain is to do it on the spot and see how it works (since I don't know what I specifically do, I should just do it and blog about it). So without further ado, let me leave you with yet another construct (or the outline of one). Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the Patriarchal Ranking System! (Please don't take this too seriously; I don't actually prepare sermons or bible studies this way.)

Let us begin by defining 'patriarch'. Essentially, we begin with node 001 (i.e. Adam, the 'son of God' – see Luke 3:38) and note that the term is used rather narrowly if defined solely by the text. Such a definition could conceivably cover Abraham (see previous post), Isaac, Jacob and his twelve approximately immediate male descendants. That gives 15 candidates. However, a slightly broader interpretation is given from an historical survey of usage, which would include the line of Adam via Seth and Noah to Abraham.

Since all the subsequent nodes are contingent on node 001, it looks as if we must rank Adam as #1. But this would mean that you would then be numbering them off in genealogical order, which is a trivial solution. Surely we can do better than that.

Aha, the Bible compares Jesus to Adam directly. Surely that trumps everything? Well, not quite. If it were so, we'd have to look at all the various people Jesus is compared to, and this would include that infamous psalmist David and a score of others. Besides, it's only Paul who is doing that comparison.

Maybe we should consider the amount of space given to them. Actually, this would mean that Abraham would win hands-down in a head-to-head fight (argh, this is why you should never mix metaphors). But this solution tends to make the Jews unhappy because it would mean that the next patriarch on the list ought to be his eldest son, Ishmael (and there goes the West Bank haha).

By this time, you can tell that it isn't easy being me. I don't really have a patriarchal ranking system, and I apologise for being a little offensive along the way – but I must say that anybody who thinks I think differently from anybody else is making a very trivial statement. After all, each of us must demonstrably think differently from each other one of us. Nobody has exactly the same neural net, right?

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Thursday, September 25, 2008


These days, I have been moving through the patriarchs of old, trying to see how they conducted themselves in the face of the Almighty. In the last few days, and apparently for a few days in almost every month, I have been thinking of Abraham. On a trivial level, his name is interesting in English because it uses the symbol 'a' for three distinctly different vowel sounds. But on a non-trivial level, it is interesting to see what kinds of man he was – for he was certainly a man of many facets.

Abraham's story is taken from the Old Testament, and it spans the narrative from the end of the 11th chapter of Genesis to the beginning of the 25th chapter. According to this narrative, his story begins at the age of 75 and goes on till his 175th year. In this 100-year career, the patriarch and his wife (his half-sister Sarah) travelled the entire Fertile Crescent, from Mesopotamia up into the foothills and down into Egypt (and up again).

We tend to think of this man as a wanderer travelling light and fast, with a few good servants and a number of relatives. But the account is more specific than that. When Abraham's hapless nephew Lot is captured, Abraham raises an army of 318 trained warriors of his household and goes in pursuit, smites the ungodly, and then disdains the loot. After his Egyptian adventure, he is said to be extremely rich in gold and livestock. No, Abraham is at least a major warlord. His name must have been mentioned with fear and trembling across the entire Crescent.

Similarly, he is an opportunistic politician. Not once, but twice, does he present his wife as his sister for political gain. In both cases, the ruse is somewhat successful and brings great trouble to his opponents. His first victim is the Pharaoh of Egypt, in chapter 12; his second is Abimelech of Gerar in chapter 20. In both cases, huge embarrassment ensues, but not for Abraham.

This streak of limit-pushing is not confined to earthly sovereigns. He enters into discussion with God about how many righteous men it would take to save Sodom from destruction. He has political capital in there, having saved the King of Sodom's sorry ass in the previously mentioned military venture. Furthermore, his nephew Lot and the household thereof are living there.

Along the way, Abraham spawns a truly all-star cast of descendants. There is Isaac, who will be the father of the Israelites. There is Ishmael, who will be father of the desert tribes. There are also the Midianites, from his second listed wife. And apparently, after he was 'well stricken in age', he had many concubines and he sent them all away with gifts in the direction of his ancestral homeland!

After reading these fifteen chapters or so, I am inclined to think of Abraham not merely as some pious patriarch, but perhaps more like an ethically more-or-less correct Mafia godfather. He has the street-smarts and sense of justice, the business acumen and the foot-soldiers, the opportunism and the prolific generosity. What a role-model!

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I was just reflecting, in my endless peregrinations over the Periodic Table, that it is fitting to see the elements that have the honour of being #10, #25, #50, #60, #75 and #100 – all the numbers we like to celebrate in major anniversaries.

#10 is of course neon, the 'new one' as its name means in Greek. When ionised hot, it glows red. How cheerful and symbolic of good fortune!

#25 is manganese, that oddly unappealing neighbour of iron, found in nodules and probably best known for its oxo-salt compound, the ferocious potassium permanganate.

#50 is tin, and not gold; that seems like a sterling reminder of how the hand can deceive the eye.

#60 is neodymium, the 'new twin' – one of those elements nobody ever remembers.

#75 is rhenium, for once a truly valuable metal – it is probably the rarest metal that can be used in engineering and metalwork.

#100 is fermium, named for Enrico Fermi – a rare talent, this; his name is found in an element, a class of subatomic particles, and a rather famous laboratory.

Oh very well, you've caught me out. I was just being idle and entertaining myself again.

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Yes, there's too much gold around. Actually, I've always wondered why people put so much in gold. The fact is that so much gold is hoarded around the world that if you wanted to reduce the value of it, you could almost do it at will. Gold, once the most precious of metals and the touchstone of wealth, is now just a glistering illusion.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Difficult Passages

I love this phrase: it characterizes many parts of my life.

The first 'difficult passage' in my life must have been my birth. This, fortunately, leaves me with little sense of guilt because my mother maintains that I was an easy birth (no, not an easy lay; my mother is not a hen) and that I "wanted to come out and look around". She was well pleased, as most people think the first birth is the most difficult. But that, I suppose, was not really that difficult a passage to her; it was a difficult passage to me and I am glad I remember none of it.

My mother, however, delights in telling the story of my midnight birth, at which the doctor delivered me and (as was then traditional) was about to whack me on the bum in order to start my breathing. According to her account, I twisted around, looked him in the eye as if to say, "Nothing doing, buster!" and shocked him into almost dropping me. I am sure there is a lot of exaggeration there, but I'm not sure where.

The second kind of difficult passage is the familial trait of spending too much time reading and thinking and thus developing a bad case of the piles, those dreadlocks of the annulus with the spiffy Greek label of 'haemorrhoids'. I am not so unfortunate, but I have had moments of near-misses. (Yes, I am conscious, dear reader, that this post so far has been nothing but an exploration of the nether regions and the odd problems that flesh-and-blood is heir to.)

The third kind of difficult passage is the kind of passage you find in a text which leads you to believe that people are selling you a load of codswallop wrapped up in a tender sheath of baloney. I remember the time I came across this passage in the Bible, in which the hosts of heaven are gathered to the left and right of God. God asks for one of them to volunteer to deceive Ahab into going to his death, and they discuss it. Finally, one brave (and unnamed) spirit of the Host volunteers to be a lying spirit in God's service. God says, "You will persuade him, and prevail; go forth and do so."

That's when I realised that the sons of men are not supposed to bear false witness, but God may do what He wants because he is God. We are told to accept both good and evil from him, but there is no darkness in him. Neither is He a man that He should lie: the answer is given in the form of Balaam's question, which is ambiguous to say the least. The point of all this, which I believe most bible scholars miss, is that the lesson of the Book of Job is the most important lesson. God is never constrained. He has no rules that make any sense; who would set rules for God? You either trust human sense and logic (or faith, or wisdom, or whatever) or you accept that He gave you some rules and never set any for HImself.

The first kind of difficult passage gave me life; the third kind gave me a deeper kind of life. The point of all that stuff is that God has never made it easy; in fact, the easier it looks, the tougher it gets. Those people out there who are happy to receive material wealth and call it the blessing of God are right; but they must also realise it is the poorest blessing of God. Those who receive wisdom and power, likewise. The best gift is the gift of being able to accept that God is God, and every man who says more is a liar.


Yeah, I realise that some people out there will take offence. But what is beyond doubt is that God allows us to be deceived. In fact, in at least two cases, He allows angelic beings to tempt humans into self-delusion or self-deception. Job wins by sheer stubbornness, Ahab loses by the same but in the wrong direction. No, God never lies. But He certainly makes use of deceivers and other villains: Moses the murderer, Jacob the deceiver, Abraham the Machiavellian warlord, the list is a long one. God is not one for the Pharisees much, He is the God of you and me, the painfully and morally 'normal' members of the human race.

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Haha, today I picked up yet another way of explaining this Greek word. The wolf has a driving license now.


Flights Into The Unknown

I've been watching the financial markets these days with a fair amount of amusement, coupled with a sort of empathetic sadness for the millions of people who have been taken for a ride by those at the top. This blend of emotions is not new to me.

Quite often, people who know what is good for themselves – whether in education, finance, or any other area of service expertise – don't see how others might not be able to stomach that kind of medicine, succeed in such an area, or otherwise emulate them. It's quite telling that many of these people will say, "Don't do as I did; do what I say; I know better than you."

At the most cynical, you can say of some people that they are acting to protect their monopoly of experience. If you fail, they will say, "See, I have learnt lessons from my past and I know you couldn't have made it my way." If you succeed, they will say, "You are fortunate, not many people would have succeeded in this way." Either way, they end up looking good.

The thing is that quite often, the stuff that is on the table is not real stuff. The supposed knowledge, experience and superior talent is as much an artifact for some people as lipstick on a pig. The stuff didn't get there because of the pig, but in spite of the pig. History is a pastiche of many such accidents, adding up to something that looks meaningful.

That's not to say that sometimes the knowledge, experience and superior talent can't be more like a moustache on a musketeer. In this latter case, the musketeer has of course grown the stuff himself. More importantly, he nurtured it, groomed it, trimmed it when necessary, and capitalises on it. History's framework also contains many such.

In the end, the important thing for me and my students is that one should test everything. Is the knowledge valid? Is the experience useful? Is the talent reliable? In other words (which my poor students have heard many times before), is what is offered the right thing? Is it going to be of use to you even if it is? And can you trust it to give the same results again and again?

Otherwise, you might as well jump off into the unknown – and worse, into someone else's unknown.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dreams & Visions

Over the last six months I have accepted that the dream is over. I am certain that whatever is left of the Family where it is needed is not enough to reform the curriculum the way it should be reformed. Yet there is time still for prayer, and perhaps not the tissue-paper and fluff of dreams, but the cool glass and steel of vision.

So I go back to the chapel of the heart, that "hidden room in Man's house where God sits all the year / the secret window whence the world looks small and very dear." In the darkest night, I see light through that window. And I can smell the wind of change. The leaves are rustling, the figs are falling. We may not be "that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven", but we are agents of a greater strength.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Word of the Day: Consanguinity

Well, it's been a long time since we had a Word of the Day; I think the last one was 'disgruntle', and that was months ago!

Today's word is an interesting one, again not because of its rarity but because of its unusual antecedents and eventual accepted meaning. 'Consanguinity' comes from Latin con- + sanguinis, meaning something like 'together (in/with)' + '(the) blood'. Modern science has driven the meaning inexorably towards the sense of genetic sharing of the same bloodline, and often confines it to the genetic relationship between first cousins. Traditionally, people who are of that relationship or closer should not be producing offspring together, hence the test of consanguinity in mediaeval times.

However, a closer reading of the Latin sanguinis does seem to allow for 'blood' to be interpreted in a more symbolic way, as in the idea of bloody-mindedness, of a passion for life, and a generally positive outlook. It is plausible to interpret the 14th-century formation consanguineus, used originally by the Church, in a different way (although not an orthodox one, I fear). You might say it could describe someone who does things 'with the blood'; that is to say, with passion and a positive attitude. In a negative sense, you could say it means 'with bloody-mindedness'. And in a modern 'Gothic' sense, you could say that two people who are 'consanguineous' are vampires with the same origin.

The way the modern world uses information (my theme in many of the last few posts) ensures that language develops shades of meaning much faster than it would otherwise do. This enhances the merry confusion that is English, literally a fusion of many other languages brought together in an intimate shindig.


In nominally unrelated news, my closest female relative celebrates her birthday today... happy birthday, mother! *grin*

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Information Age

Personally, I think that I experience the greatest discomfort (or sometimes, a frisson of schadenfreude) when watching authority figures talk nonsense in public because information is running ahead of (or has escaped from) them. Sometimes, the old and well-worn (or still well-wearing) opinions of past pundits or an earlier generation of authority figures are trotted out on parade, now woefully inadequate except for a museum.

Yes, people should keep updated at least in the areas they profess to talk about. That's the very least that the information revolution should be good for. I shiver when I look at John McCain's campaign, running as if their boss has not a clue about the nature of the internet or the technology that enables it. It is not good when a maverick boss, one who professes to bring change to an establishment by virtue of his outsider status, proves to be a maverick in terms of being behind the normal curve of information.

I would answer such people by saying that perhaps the answer is not generally (there are some exceptions) to be found in those approaching their 60s or 70s. This is sadly because the information revolution of the 1980s and 1990s came when they were already maturing or happy to be 'matured'. I've seen leaders in their mid to late 40s and 50s totally clueless about information technology and yet acting in the capacity of CEOs and CIOs without missing the missing beats (or even hearing the beat).

It is also tough for those in the 50s, 60s and 70s because most of them missed the neurobiological and cognitive advances of the last decade – or at least they might mouth the words and catchphrases but not have bothered to look at the research in detail. At this point, I will probably be accused of ageist bias.

Well, perhaps. My last memory of my paternal grandfather studying anything was when he was in his 80s. He was reading a book on cloning and the moral issues involved. As a medical doctor who retired at the age of 78, he was astonishingly well-read and could hold his own in conversation about current issues in almost any field which he was interested in. I wish more were like him.

But that brings me to my main point. The key lies in the phrase 'information age'. I've been to libraries where they look at the average copyright date for reference books. The more current that average figure, the more likely the reference section is up to date.

Those who are older need not be disadvantaged. They already have more experience, and all things being equal, that is an advantage. They should probably have developed more wisdom, and all things being equal, that is certainly an advantage. They quite likely have some advantages in resources found in networks, community, material wealth, and so on.

Sadly, not all things are equal. But the library analogy remains useful. More senior members of society can keep themselves up-to-date. They can learn how things work, using the stored experience, wisdom and peer-to-peer networks (and other resources) accumulated over their longer lives. They can keep in touch (even as the peers drop out by attrition). And they can continue to be more productive, by leveraging against these advantages, than many of their juniors.

The point about 'information age' is that your information age need not be as old as your physical or chronological age. Grandpa was doing his own readings and research until the cancer that killed him got to his brain. My grandparents (now sadly all gone) read the newspapers (a main information source) avidly. They saw things happen, they felt the patterns of the world.

There is still plenty of the game to be played, plenty of the race to be run. It isn't over till it's over, and who knows what happens then?

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No Clue

We live in a world that is full of information. That is nothing new. What is new is that there are three factors that have increased so quickly over the last 8 years that they are on the verge of precipitous descent into uncontrolled states. The three factors are pretty obvious:
  • increasingly free access to information
  • increasing complexity of information items
  • increasing complexity of relationships between information items
A note here: the first is often taken as a good thing; this is not true for the simple reason that the free access is not equal, ubiquitous, instantaneous or rational.

We've been fed a mantra that the information age is good for you. This is true only by comparison to what can happen with insufficient information. The problem is an old one and has two components: 1) we are happy when we have enough information to solve existing problems or answer existing questions; 2) we are happier when we can find new problems to solve and new questions to answer. The two form a cycle, although the viciousness or virtuousity of the cycle is debatable, depending on the kind of problems. There is therefore never enough information, we always want more, and hence an age of increasing access to information is a Good Thing.

The sticking point perhaps is that there is a point at which we can no longer be our own data specialists. In the not-too-recent past, it was possible essentially to have restricted information access (or to restrict information access) and still be expert enough to get the job done. But people have incentives to stand out and hence earn greater rewards. So they recast the roles of professional, expert, master of a discipline, until they stand out. It is a question of whether your information brokerage level (whether it's a skill, a talent, a knowledge base, a database, a process, a capacity for synthesis etc) is outstanding enough.

It never will be, and that will eventually be because the human mind, no matter how complex or augmented, will never know enough. To address this based on my first three points, let's begin with access.

Access to information is a good thing when the information requirement is known in advance. For example, I need to know the best place for beer and pork knuckles in town. I ask people, search websites, do other information-gathering activities, until I have an answer I am satisfied with. Then I go and try out my search results physically. At the end of the experience, I will have updated my own database and am now qualified to offer my own opinion.

However, the questions of "What shall I eat?" (which according to Douglas Adams, is a relatively sophisticated question) and "Where shall I eat?" (which according to Adams is the most sophisticated question in this domain) are a lot more complex if I have no idea at all – or if I have too many ideas, brought on by a vastly greater access to information and travel capability than my ancestors had. With this, and the fact of human variability in opinion, I might face the centipede problem. That's often described as asking a centipede, "Which foot do you first move when you start to move?" and watching it attempt an answer, fail, and never walk again.

Access to information is inherently unfair, as it leverages off information sources and technology in depth, scale, range and speed. We keep talking about free markets, free speech and ideas, things like that; we fail to realise that unless information is ubiquitous, instantaneous, immediately processed, appropriately processed, and acted upon at once, all this is a very shady approximation to anything that could possibly be considered realistic. And yet we persist, perhaps beyond the limit of humanity's ability to make sense of it.

Which leads me to the second point. The information packages and 'chunks' we are presented with are sometimes far too complex. They cannot be evaluated fully or sometimes even usefully by us, our expert systems, or any other information processing tool we have. When the education system was a master teaching five apprentices in a workshop, the possible interactions and processes were far more limited that when the education system became a teacher teaching 25 students in a modern chemistry lab with internet access.

Where in the past, a sound-bite (like 'atoms are indivisible particles which our material universe is made of') could essentially be a workable fragment of reality, the present nature of education and information demands much more (like 'atoms are social constructs which can be considered to be statistical models of...') and sometimes too much more.

The modern sound-bite is of course not just a fragment of text encapsulating a key idea. Watching viral videos on YouTube or looking at campaign slogans and advertising literature, you will see that the entire semiotic domain is exploited at deeper and deeper levels. This is intended to affect us in ways that increasingly complicated analysis say might just be useful as the psychological leverage to push us into buying (into) things. We can no longer evaluate any of this easily; what's interesting is that neither can the merchants of materialism, the nabobs of nationalism, or the emirs of entertainmentism.

My third point is that as information chunks become more complex and more accessible, the number, kind and usefulness level of all their possible relationships spirals way out of control. Who is to know what might possibly be tangentially useful or critically useful? Only in very well-defined domains is this possible; domains such as a deliberately-limited math textbook or an intentionally-limited chemistry lab. With people inventing derivatives of data (information), second derivatives of data (information chunks and packages), third derivatives of data (knowledge packages and information systems), and fourth derivatives of data (information networks and dynamic knowledge bases), we are seeing an approach to the (we think) final level of the true artificial intelligence.

The likelihood is that this 'final' level will probably be centipeded after a while. Yes, it will be like us but smarter in some ways (mostly by more coherent and more rapid processing and access); yes, it will be like us in not knowing what questions to profitably ask for the unknown future.

And so, the correct thing to say is that unless one looks for some other standard by which to look at life, the universe and everything, the answer might as well be '42'. Information doesn't provide us, on its own, with answers to some questions. You might say, "I'm sorry, but I haven't a clue," to the question of what life is all about. Then, I would direct you to try some useful games.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008


Recently I had the occasion to think about what it means to run a race. I came to some simple conclusions that probably need no elaboration:
  1. You must run the right race in the first place.
  2. You must obey the rules.
  3. You shouldn't stop half-way.
  4. You should continue on to the end.
I think most people have problems with the first one, though.

You see, the only really worthwhile race is one that starts at the beginning and goes on to the end. All other races are either distractions or subsidiary events. While some of us have our favourite distractions and/or subsidiary events, those aren't the main thing. A decathlete can't just keep persevering at the 100m hurdles while neglecting his other events.

That's what life is about.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Stealth Mode

I have to confess something that you're all going to find out sooner or later, if you haven't already done so. You probably already know what this is all about, so it shouldn't be too great a shock.

I'm a closet literature teacher. It's been like that ever since high school, when I faced the decision of whether to teach chemistry or literature and conned myself (or was conned) into thinking I could do the former before the latter. The last 15 years have therefore been a little aggravating to me, as I tried very hard to come out of the closet, only to be rejected and told to stick to my subject.

But those who have heard my lectures and the stuff I cough up in class know that I have what I think of as a sensible view of the sciences which doesn't inflate their role into that of a metacognitive über-descriptive all-devouring philosophy of life. Rather, I think of the whole kit and caboodle as merely a powerful set of tools, agencies, and connected knowledge bases. It is a lump of stuff that is easy to apply directly and directedly.

The other side of it is the stuff that isn't so obvious, the stealth side, the dark matter or human thought. And that is where I live, the closet of literature, the humanities, the arts and the imaginings of the human minds that don't fall easily into cognitive sequence or interconnected frameworks. They don't do it easily, but with complexity, and in doing so, make humanity richer and more beautiful to higher-level sentients like we're supposed to be.

So now I teach A-Level literature. Haha.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jewellers & Master Craftsmen

I'm sitting at my desk today, deliberately with all the doors and windows closed and with no ventilation. It's like some sort of sweat lodge but not as hot and humid.

The reason for this is to attempt to breach the barriers of discomfort in order to actually get some work done. I realise that, even though an environment can be inimical or caustic or painful to the mind or body, personal discomfort can actually trigger creativity and productivity. It's something one tends to forget.

In the area of the mind, the key thing is to seek cognitive dissonance. I think that teachers tend to spoonfeed because it is easy to do. If you relent and give students ready answers, they tend not to show growth in their neural networks. Rather, they learn the wrong thing; i.e., that if you wait the teacher out, you will get answers without having to think from first principles.

This is why from the beginning, the master teachers have always taught in parables. (The 13th chapter of St Matthew's Gospel has quite a bit to say about it, if you are so minded.) The point is that unless you make people realise what they don't know, unless you unsettle their secure underpinnings and foundations, you actually aren't going to shift them into a new place and thus educate them. Education is literally a 'drawing-out', not a 'putting-in'.

This is why master teachers make carefully-crafted disturbing remarks. Jesus said, "I came not to bring peace, but a sword," and then proceeded to outline the kinds of division that his legacy would provide. The point is that all students have preconceptions of how they want the teacher, the class, and the subject to behave. A good teacher will break all those preconceptions first, not work with them as some people recommend. It's a bad teacher who relies on bullet points and direct process teaching from the beginning.

After much thought about the present state of education in Atlantis, I've decided that maybe 90% of the teachers I've seen are good at 'putting-in', 'grinding and polishing' and 'metal shaping' – all the skills necessary to be a good jeweller. Some institutions are also very good at 'stone selection', which always ensures a minimum value (since you can always re-cut a good stone later on).

But there are very few who will take otherwise unvalued or undervalued pieces, and point out how good they can be, and what the fundamentals of value and worth really are. Most will cater to the mass market, and not to the collectors who can really make the difference. A true education is one that changes perception and moves it to a new and better place.

As Jesus said, "For these people's hearts have become callused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes... Blessed are your eyes because you see; blessed are your ears because you hear." The heart is easily callused, made callous, especially when it is young and tender. This leads to cynicism and discontent. But if the calluses can be abraded with sufficient violence or skill, the heart can be made to burn with a passion for outrageous levels of learning and understanding.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Atomised Thought, or 'So, You Are An Undergraduate'

See them all go away, into rapidly specialising streams of thought, alone. They pour into the universities, where in theory all knowledge becomes one, and they pour out again, specialised. They graduate with degrees, each degree describing more what they are not supposed to know than what they do; so much for the holistic view of education.

For the students who have just completed the IB, or the A-levels, or any other high school diploma, the process has begun. It is a process that will divide soul from spirit and make new things look old and painful. Many ideals will fall by the wayside, to be replaced by better-defined, but not better-inspired, new ideals. Where once a man sought to share his life with others, he will graduate a socialist or a crypto-Marxist. Where once a woman sought to share her life with others, she will graduate an expert in jurisprudence or a master of trade negotiations.

Of course, it doesn't have to happen this way. But one should beware of the universities of this world, even while one takes advantage of their unique offerings. For a degree at any level is not a small accomplishment; even so, one should realise that it is not the 300-kg gorilla in the room. A degree is just that; one tiny arc in 360 for a circle, or even one part in 90 for the corner of a square. If you think education will fit you for the whole, think again – it is more likely to fit you for a hole.

Here are some of the poet Wordsworth's thoughts on the matter, from his eyrie in the cold corners of Cambridge (taken from his Prelude, Book III, lines 58-82 – full text here):

From my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

Of College labours, of the Lecturer's room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces—of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad—
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won. Yet from the first crude days
Of settling time in this untried abode,
I was disturbed at times by prudent thoughts,
Wishing to hope without a hope, some fears
About my future worldly maintenance,
And, more than all, a strangeness in the mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.

Yes, this is how the university student has always felt. Wordsworth was not so long ago; he lived from 1770 to 1850, and that period is but a drop in the bucket of recorded time. His fears, his thoughts and feelings about the post-graduation future, all these are the same as the thoughts the students of the present think.

Take heart, young men and women! Persevere and keep the faith, run the race and remain sure and steadfast. A billion others have trod upon the same paths that you tread, in spirit if not in exact substance. Some day, you too might measure yourself against the marble index and, like Newton, say, "If I have seen further than certain other men, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Name Value

Today I was at a classic New York deli; you know, the sort with sandwiches about the size of a large brick, with pickles and cheese and maybe anything else you want in it? It was a good feeling. At the end of it, I saw that the 'New York, New York' logo had been trademarked. It made me think about something else.

Think about the great cities of the world. Ten are on the 'alpha' list; of which four are rated as higher alpha – London, New York, Paris, Tokyo. Why is the branding of these cities so dominant?

It's because they are old, mythic, full of ancient cultural resonances. They have a BRAND, not just a brand. Their names evoke longings, feelings, images, ideas, concepts, legendary dramas. A New York cheesecake, a London cab, a Parisian evening, a Tokyo shopping spree, these can be imagined even if you never go there. The value in their names is something that has seeped into the foundations of the modern world. It has economic value; it has cultural value.

The remaining six cities – Chicago, Frankfurt, Hongkong, Los Angeles, Milan, Singapore – they have drastically less resonance for many people. Hongkong perhaps looks exotic; Singapore perhaps gives wildly diverse impressions; Milan is cars, leather, glass; Los Angeles and Chicago remind people of crime and politics; Frankfurt is... oh no, not hot dogs! They are less iconic, less mythic, less legendary.

It is sad; Hongkong, Milan and Singapore have had history as city-states – now, only the last remains so. The first has to reinvent itself a little; the second has failed; the third is in the throes of mad re-invention to the extent of casinoes and waterside resorts and Formula One (like Monaco, all these things). And with the re-invention, it remains to be seen how much value is created, retained, distorted or lost.

But I will still read the New York Times and the Times of London. I will still have dreams of Paris and Tokyo. And I earnestly await the rise of the 'beta' world cities into a brave new world.

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Order In The House

There has been precious little to be truly amused about this past week. On the other side of the world are hurricanes and a truly awkward political disaster in the making, not to mention wonkiness in the financial world and insanity in the media. It is knockabout comic funny but not productive of calm amusement.

Meanwhile, I went off to my home in the west (unlike that son of Cain, I do indeed know how many houses I own) to do some tidying up. I was pretty unhappy to find that the erstwhile tenant had allowed the ceramic surfaces to develop an unaesthetic crustiness. And this was not the only symptom of disorder!

Alas, the library suffered in the move and needed to be rearranged. Whole chunks of it had been misplaced, displaced and randomly unplaced. I spent a profitable couple of afternoons setting things right. It was the least I could do for uncomfortable neighbours like C S Lewis and Charlie Stross.

Finally, I packed up the niece's belongings into neat plastic bags and the mostly disused wardrobe in one corner of the extra room. That young lady won't be in residence for a while, enjoying herself for the next few years somewhere between southern France and northern Spain.

At last, there is order in the house. The dread Anarch has been baulked of its prey and Chaos has been successfully withstood. It helps that Liverpool won 2-1 at Anfield and Arsenal won 0-4 at Ewood Park. A good weekend was had by me, if not by all.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Common Scents

It's rained again this morning, and the air is redolent with the somewhat annoying scent of wet dog. The wet-dog smell is one of the three or four primary odours which raises my hackles. The sense of smell is like that; associations bond intimately from smell to brain to memory, and you recall much more than you would through text or cerebration alone.

I remember people by scent sometimes. To this day, specific perfumes or fragrances will trigger a cascade of images about a particular person and what that person meant (or means) to me. It happens without warning, much of the time. The fragrance need not be particularly rare; all it has to do is be there.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Gnomic Utterances

It is an intimidating task to write about my illustrious relative, the Gnome. As others have pointed out before, it is this man who played the globalisation game so well that his island nation moved up the leader board from third world to first in record time.

Of course, the true story, as you trawl through the oceans of his speeches and works, is that this country was a first-world oasis (although somewhat decrepit and imperilled) in a third-world setting. All he did was to burnish and cement its reputation in ways that would look good on the global stage. The systems engineering he carried out worked well too.

We can't say that what he did was all to the good. But there isn't enough evidence for the reverse. History will probably judge him as the real brain of the outfit, the one who cut to the chase and did the planning. His boss was the enforcer, who handled the politics, and that was all.

Nothing new here. Except that I am beginning to wonder, oddly enough, whether he ever really existed the way we thought he did.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dog Meets Wolf

The lone wolf was walking around this morning when he was picked up by a low-slung grey sports car. Beige upholstery. Lovely young lady. And a sweet black dog named Chelsea (you would never name a dog like that 'Arsenal'). It was a good way to start the working day, he thought.


Seven Years

It's been seven years since I saw, live on television, a disaster that changed the world. It panicked the nations, shook the markets, and made rubbish of the Manhattan skyline. I had been listening to an evening rock concert with the Argonaut on the World Trade Centre plaza the year before; I would not be back till 2004.

We watched in horror as the first plane's hit was replayed. And while we were watching that, a second plane, laden with fuel and passengers, smashed into the building. Then the towers fell, like a demolition that had gone badly wrong in perfect time.

We heard more about the other targets and the other planes later. Around the world, many people believed, but did not say, that the Americans deserved it. The problem then, as it is now, was that American economic power and arrogance was perceived to be the yoke across the neck of the developing world. In the West, most people were branded traitors and worse for saying anything like that.

Nothing can condone the mass murder of thousands, wherever it is done. But the terror of realising that a mode of transport is a lethal weapon is matched only by the statistics that say the car is the most lethal weapon of all. Nothing can make you think it was ever right to destroy the towers with the people in them and some just outside them. But many things can make people bitter enough to think that it was adequate payback.

When I went back to NYC in 2004, people were more friendly and less abrasive. They were still Noo Yawkers. But they actually bothered with the rest of us. Things had changed, the world had moved.

Now, in the world of 2008, America has its quadrennial choice to make again.

What is change? Who is change? Do we really want it? Yes, we do? Or will the Americans raise that son of Cain to highest office, a Nimrod come to judgement?


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Responses 000 (2009-2010)

Heh. Well, after yesterday's post, someone commented that if I finished the series, there might be difficulties. If you have a list of ten questions, with a large number of people all trying their hands at the same list, then after a while, the effect of plagiarism may occur. I say 'effect' because if you have a sufficiently large number of people thinking about the same problems, eventually some of them may duplicate the work of others. Of course, short commonalities are to be expected. The plagiarism effect arises not by coincidence, but by unconscious mental copying (the 'notebook in the head' effect).

True plagiarism, of course, is extremely difficult in this age of the Internet. It is just too easy to tap into a database and find matches. It is slightly more difficult to find paraphrases of ideas. But the student should be aware that plagiarism and breaching copyright are two different things. The latter subsists in making copies or derivatives of the form in which an idea is expressed; the former subsists in making copies or derivatives of the idea itself, without attribution.

It's considered very bad form, despite defences such as 'parallel evolution' and 'uncanny mystical coincidence'.

So in order to reduce the difficulty level, perhaps I shouldn't meditate at great length on the ideas I have concerning that list of questions...

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Responses 001 (2009-2010)

This is the first of a series of brief responses to the list of questions given earlier.


To what extent is truth different in mathematics, the arts and ethics?


My instinct at first was to note that mathematics seeks consistency and hence 'rigs' the game to ensure that the premises and rules are always consistent. The answer to any problem in mathematics should therefore always be the same (or at least, consist of the same set of outcomes). In mathematics, truth is the state of having come to a conclusion that is fully and exhaustively consistent with all the initial rules and parameters. The tool for evaluating this state is reason; other tools are peripheral, although some have said that mathematics tries for linguistic consistency. Haha. The point about mathematics, I suppose, is that if you accept the initial conditions (the rules, logic, elements etc) then you are forced to accept the conclusion(s). Most people do.

In the arts, this 'truth' definition is not true; the rules are fully mutable and the elements are inconsistent in effect. Consider aesthetics: symmetry is pleasing, too much is not; contrast is pleasing, too much is not; harmony is pleasing, too much is not... and so on. It is always possible to debate the conclusions. Generally the first impact of the arts is to produce a reflexive physiological response. Reason comes later, and is often used to justify that initial response. This means that the first input is sensory, but the first response is emotional; the reason kicks in later, already biased (and allowed to remain so because of the mutability of the rules); and if you must, you try to convert this to language in order to communicate your response. Truth thus consists of subjective consistency, and perhaps not even that.

Ethics occupies some sort of middle ground. An ethical code is the integration of individual moral codes; this is why morality shades into ethics – a common morality simply means that each person's individual values and moral responses tallies with each other person's. The point at which realisation of this common morality occurs, and hence defines a code of responses common to the community, is the point at which an ethical basis emerges. Ethics is the study of the interaction of individual moralities in order to determine what everyone will agree to be the 'best' outcome. The problem with 'best' is that this is debateable, and the grounds for debate tend to stem from empathy and emotion as much as from reason. However, since it requires multiple perspectives, it tends to have a more broadly accepted 'truth' than the arts.


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Monday, September 08, 2008

Atomic Thought (Part 4)

This follows on from the previous post and its antecedents.

I suppose that in line with Wittgenstein, we should limit the context for every discipline if we are to find any useful atomic concepts at all. There are some pretty good ones which are near-universal, but the purists will probably say that since they aren't universal, they are not atomic.

But why have this discussion at all? How is it useful in a practical sense?

I think the main point is that in a discourse within a discipline, we pretty much have to be able to use a vocabulary with some basic building blocks or concepts. To describe every outcome in its own terms means that you are actually creating a situation in which there is no basis for comparison.

For example, if you compare a poem by Wilfred Owen (e.g. Strange Meeting) and a poem by Robert Frost (e.g. Mending Wall), you must have some basis in the first place for identifying them as poems. Then you must have some specific things to look at within the structure of each poem. And lastly, you need to look at the language used and its effects. If you use a different set of criteria for each poem, then you have created two sub-disciplines which you might as well call Wilfredowenology and Robertfrostology. So some criteria or critical principles should remain constant. This is the idea behind traditional literary criticism. Postmodern literary criticism has attempted to bypass this, but has ended up merely creating a different basis.

The same argument applies to establishing meaning in music, dance or art. Somehow, we need to use a language with enough common descriptive basis to show points of similarity or difference. Sure, we can describe each individual performance or piece, but without a comparison to something else, that description is probably not meaningful (or not as usefully meaningful as it should be).

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Atomic Thought (Part 3)

This follows on from the previous post and comments made there.

The question that was implicit and is now explicit is, "What do we mean when we talk about 'atomism' – and more exactly, the 'atomic concept' of a discipline?"

I think so far we've come up with several points which must be included in our definition of an 'atomic concept' within a discipline:
  1. It is part of the rational basis of that discipline, as one of the entities that virtually all transactions or ideas within a discipline must include.
  2. It has social currency – it must be easily grasped; intuitively, people should be able to accept it as a conceptual building-block.
  3. It has cultural currency; that is, people can use it in everyday communication without seeming unbearably wonkish, geekish or nerdish.
  4. It has iconic currency; that is, if used as a symbolic instance (or converted into a graphic symbol), it stands a good chance of representing its discipline.
The list can probably be extended.

But are there really such 'atomic concepts' in common use?

I think that for chemistry, the simple model of the atom is one such atomic concept. It passes all four tests. In biology, the simple model of the cell also passes all these tests (more or less). In mathematics, the idea of number; in history, the idea of a 'date' – a specific time-marker for a given event. In language or literature, the idea of a 'word' can probably fulfill that function, but this might vary between languages or literary forms. Universal constants, as the Galoisien has queried, probably don't meet these criteria, except for π, which is a fairly universal iconic representation of 'numerical symbol'.

So, how about economics, sociology, music, and other human activities?



1) NBL offers this page of ring icons which shows the kind of iconography that MIT graduate students believe should meet the fourth test above. It's interesting to see that in some cases, the rationale for adopting such an icon can also be used to meet other tests. But most icons don't. What's interesting is that at this page you can also see what other ideas were proposed and rejected. All this helps with the sciences, but do the arts remain mysterious?

2) Augie raises the idea of iconic colours. You do tend to see this in university graduation robes and institutions. For example, the blue/gold pair is often seen as descriptive of the spiritual/material dichotomy, or sky/earth or sea/sun and so on. The main problem is that colour by itself conveys too many things. At the same time, some colour combinations are pretty commonly used. I'm sure Peter and other artistic people would have something to say here.

3) Phil raises the idea of the pawn as a symbol for chess. It's a good point; the pawn is the basic unit of material value calculation in chess (although space and time are as important in different ways). I would say the pawn indeed fulfills all the criteria for a chess 'atom', but I'm not so sure it directly fulfills all the criteria for 'atomic concept', which in such a game is probably 'square' (i.e. a space) or 'move' (i.e. a game dynamic and unit of time) – unless you use 'pawn' as synonymous with 'basic unit of material value'.

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I spent the night listening to Clannad. What remains haunting me is the the theme from 'Last of the Mohicans', a piece titled 'I Will Find You'. Here it is.

Hope is your survival
A captive path I lead

No matter where you go
I will find you
If it takes a long long time
No matter where you go
I will find you
If it takes a thousand years


No matter where you go
I will find you
In the place with no frontiers
No matter where you go
I will find you
If it takes a thousand years


It evokes the best and worst of all my times, this song. Absolutely chilling.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Atomic Thought (Part 2)

In a previous post, we looked at the conjecture that in every discipline, some basic elements should exist. In chemistry, it is probably conceptually and culturally accurate to say that this is the atom – even when thinking about what an atom is, and what it is made of, we still see the concept of 'atom' as a baseline. In biology, this position is occupied by the cell, although the idea of 'DNA' as a more valid fundamental is gaining currency.

But what are the equivalents for mathematics, geography, history, literature, visual arts, physics, dancing, fencing, and a host of other disciplines? Can we say 'number' is an atomic concept for mathematics, or that 'space' is the equivalent for geography? It would be interesting to see what readers think.


Update: NBL comments that, for mathematics, the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms should be atomic. I am sure that they are; I am also sure that they are difficult to see as such. For physics, he suggests 'field'; I think that this is also a good choice, but once we get into string theory, which basically represents the universe as a huge ball of string, most people will not be able to imagine this.

I suppose that one of the key things about the atomism I am talking about is that anyone with a high-school education should be able to say something meaningful about the basic concepts used. For example, in drama, one might choose 'actor', 'action', and 'scene' as atomic concepts. Most people can intuitively see that any play would be comprised of these elements strung together, with the plot (if any) or other structure as the implicit string linking the elements. The fact that there need not be a plot in a play actually excludes 'plot' as a basic element.

More comments please!

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Sometimes, it's good to take a very long walk. The direction of this walk should be perpendicular to other directions, like those of life, of thought, of boredom or of pain. Thus aimed, one is straightened and yet not straitened; one is made free.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Questions (2009-2010)

There are many questions. Here is a familiar set. We'll look at them in greater detail soon.
  1. To what extent is truth different in mathematics, the arts and ethics?
  2. Examine the ways empirical evidence should be used to make progress in different areas of knowledge.
  3. Discuss the strengths and limitations of quantitative and qualitative data in supporting knowledge claims in the human sciences and at least one other area of knowledge.
  4. How can the different ways of knowing help us to distinguish between something that is true and something that is believed to be true?
  5. 'What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions.' (Michael Shermer, www.edge.com). Critically evaluate this way of distinguishing the sciences from other areas of knowledge.
  6. 'All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism.' On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?
  7. 'We see and understand things not as they are but as we are.' Discuss this claim in relation to at least two ways of knowing.
  8. 'People need to believe that order can be glimpsed in the chaos of events' (adapted from John Gray, Heresies, 2004). In what ways and to what extent would you say this claim is relevant in at least two areas of knowledge.
  9. Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented.
  10. What similarities and differences are there between historical and scientific explanations?
This is a stub. So far.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Uncles

When you live with a Family, when you are part of a Family, it is inevitable that you will have Dinners with the Family. Last night there was one such dinner. And here I must highlight my encounters with two members of the huge clan which is my adopted Family.

Uncle #1, aka 'The Fisherman', recounts a story to me about his experiences in Thailand, where senior officers of the most powerful force in the country (except for the King, most revered and potent) told him that assassination was not a problem because 'nobody gets assassinated without approval from us'. The details I shall leave alone; at times like this, we do not want to know or bruit it about that we know. Having powerful people offer to terminate your opponents according to a tariff is something fundamentally blood-curdling; I was told that you can contract for individual body parts, careers, relatives, and other assorted people, places and things.

Uncle #2, aka 'The Don', lifts a few slender beverages while we chat. He really looks like one, and his voice is a gentle and soothing baritone. His hair is silver, his demeanour is aristocratic, his bearing is graceful. He tells stories about how family should stick together, and why the Family is important, and what the significance of family gatherings (or Family Dinners) and genealogies really is all about. He smiles, he chats; he is one of those you instinctively like and have an affinity for. And then later, other Family members take you aside and tell you about his interesting history of tactical elimination and other diplomatic activities for the Family.

It is heartening to know that such people have got your back. It is disheartening too, as one desperately tries to value oneself as having value apart from that conferred by the Family, to learn how much extra power and prestige can accrue simply by being a member. This is something that is hard for many to understand: after all, why not use it if you have it?

I suppose, very tentatively, my reply is: if I had used it, there would have been ichor all over the floor, in all its viridian majesty. But I've never been that sort, and the Family is too polite, as a whole, to do things for members who don't want them done.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Atomic Thought (Part 1)

The idea that things can be reduced to 'indivisibles' has been around for millennia. Two kinds of 'indivisible' concept predominate: either you find things so small that nothing is smaller (i.e. fundamental particles and the concomitant idea of 'quantum' – the smallest gap or difference in things) or you find that the whole universe is one thing expressed in different ways (i.e. one indivisible continuum with odd snarls in it like a twisted multidimensional blanket).

In more recent times, people like Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein sought in various ways to reduce thought to basic elements, with which all other thoughts could be expressed – forlorn endeavours but still an interesting kind of project.

But there must be some basics, surely?

Yes, I suppose there are. Having had the occasion to teach literature, economics, history, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science over the years, I must confess to a few bad habits.

Firstly, I've always tried to figure out what the basics (or 'first things') of each discipline are.

Secondly, I've always tried to link them together in some sort of coherent narrative for each discipline.

Thirdly, I've always tried to link these basics across disciplines.

Why 'bad habits'? I think that in many cases, even if I was successful, elements of the narrative constitute wishful thinking. You can create a beautiful narrative that works on many levels, but it still might not be true. Take a simple conceptualisation of science, for example.

Supposing I observe a million things and craft a theory that accounts for all these observations. Well, what I've done is join the dots, which doesn't necessarily constitute truth. But what if I then predict the next 100,000 observations successfully using my theory? Well, then I might still be joining more of the same dots. But what if I then create an experiment specifically to disprove my theory and fail? Wow, that's... science, for now.

The problem is that a lot of our criteria are flagrantly metaphysical, and we don't acknowledge that. The ideas of what to observe, what to eliminate, what to build upon, what to try and prove incorrect; a lot of these things require us to make value judgements and use our intuition. The reason people get conflicted and find error in science is that at the heart of it, science is a human endeavour. It has all the variability of the human condition, desperately kept under some sort of control.

So where do we go from here? I'll be taking a quick look at basics as I scan this year's Theory of Knowledge essay questions and leave some thoughts on them.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Sometimes I sit here and read and then I stumble across what I call a lurchpoint. It's a line or paragraph or section (see how it moves from one to three dimensions?) of a book that cuts to the chase, that provokes and evokes all at once. You suddenly find yourself lurching out over empty space, vertiginous, seeing things which are suddenly all too obvious.

This is from Sheri Tepper's The Margarets:

People on Earth engaged in ritual repetition; most of them thought as little as possible; most of them occupied themselves with things and events that were not very important... in school, the stupid students got the same grades as the smart ones, except for the tiny secret marks the educational archivists made in their records—in case a VIP needed a truthful reference.

It is uncanny how often Tepper does this. Although it is clear that she's got a feminist bias, I don't think that this is a bad thing. It's about the same as saying that Jane Austen is a feminist; the literature escapes such a snare and soars on its own.

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Spanish Caprice

Sometimes, the oddest musical events bring a tear to the eye and a salute to the heart. They might remind you of friends no longer onstage, but who may yet walk on for a scene or two, or take a final bow at the curtain call.

This evening before dinner, I am sitting in my study listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. The man who brought us his amusing Flight of the Bumble-Bee and Scheherazade pulled off what was probably his most entertaining tour-de-force when he wrote this piece, essentially an amusement designed around Spanish themes.

It begins with what feels to me like an early-morning fishing scene in the Asturias. The whole drama unfolds here, from sunrise to sunset and beyond. It isn't really Spanish as a whole; the piece is all about Asturians going about their daily business while taking part in the pageant of life, with full richness, majesty and shades of intense colour. "Who cares about the rest of Spain?" the imaginary denizens of this powerful piece seem to be saying with good humour.

What's remarkable from a musical point of view is the fact that Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov seems to have performed many rare feats all at once, such as that of making an orchestra play the guitar without any guitars. It is akin to a ringmaster forcing the human cannonball to clown around while the lion-tamer swings calmly across the trapeze arena. Although such ideas, as they came into my mind, reminded me of old days in quite another organisation, one must still think of what amazing skill (or perversity) this act of creative imagination betrays.

But back to the idea of absent friends. I remember this piece because it is one of the pieces from the time 25 years ago when I first conceived of a love for what I thought of as nationalist music. To my mind, such music was music that showed a particular affinity or affiliation for a specific national cause. What got to me was the idea that a piece like the Capriccio Espagnol commemorated a lost kingdom, now barely a principality and no longer remembered for anything much (I mean, how many of you are Sporting Gijon football club supporters?)

It is for this reason that I memorised Kipling's Recessional and the poetry of Chesterton and Housman. I played through the forgotten art of that canny stage-composer Ketelbey and the odder moments of Russian nationalism. What mysteries were hidden in the nation-forging bravado of Sibelius's Finlandia? Why was Chinese music so much like Celtic music?

And all the while, I was hanging out with a bunch of close friends who till today are still close to my heart. The emotional and physical distance is there and yes, we have grown apart. But somewhere in the lost years is a bunch of guys hanging out in a small room listening to odd music and making Spyro Gyra, Mannheim Steamroller, and furtive piano performances in empty halls, all a part of their lives.

This post, I suppose, is for them all. It's about time.

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Morning Unbroken

It's in the wee hours of the morning that I find myself most productive, coaxed through the hardest parts of work by cold air and odd scents. I smell the effluvia of a thousand night-venting factories, redolent of spices and yeast, tobacco and faux-chocolate. I feel the silence, like a comfortable cloak. The bond between keyboard, monitor and me is never as close as it is in the early hours.

The dogs scuffle around outside, momentarily dreaming or disturbed by doggy instincts. A distant clatter causes the cat to prick one ear and then subside into the usual lazy slump. Dim throbs of the early roadworks crews resonate faintly almost beyond consciousness, as they unpick the seams of our daily workways.

I feel the tension in my neck subside. There is less stress, less urgency to produce clever work and perfect sentences. I stretch my stiffened neck muscles and make my uneasy head lighter as I breathe a different air. It's easier to hunt and disable the mosquitoes that seek my blood. It is easier to see the things normally unseen – the things that in another age and place would have been called house-gnomes or other odd excrescences of the universal id.

I finish my chapter summaries for the latest book on globalisation and education. I finish another game of Scramble on Facebook. I finish this and that. I finish, I feel like the finisher I was meant to be. If I were any more Finnish, I'd be Nokia. Or Santa Claus.

And I head to bed before the dawn, feeling very satisfied indeed.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Still A Teacher

It's Teachers' Day today, in the city-state which became my home many years ago. I was a teacher for 15 years; I taught at my last school for more than 12 years and only left this March. I felt that I had left a large chunk of my life behind, but in a sense it had been falling apart, falling away, since December last year.

Looking back, I was already burning out; like many of my colleagues, we'd burned hot and fast for the first graduating high-school batch we'd ever had since 1977. Our students of the 2007 batch would be going on to universities, if not into compulsory national service or into a gap year for the growth of the soul.

So this Teachers' Day meant a few things to me. It meant that I was officially (or so I thought) no longer a teacher. It meant that old things had passed away, that things I used to value had to be locked up in old rooms. It meant that those who didn't want me to teach the way I had been teaching could be allowed their victory at long last.

But since Friday I've been receiving messages from former students who were mine as long ago as 1993. They all tell me a few things which make me re-examine myself. (Heh, it must be some sort of retribution for me examining them all those years ago.) They say, most of all, in all kinds of touching ways, that a) I'm still a teacher to them, and b) I was a teacher who changed things for them.

Of course, those who never felt that way would not say anything, so my sample is biased. But that's not the point. The point is that I have many things to thank my students for. There are still those who remember what was good, and are willing to overlook the mediocre. And I must thank them all for reminding me that I'm still a teacher, and nobody can take that away from me.


Note: I must also thank my colleagues, ranging from the 20-somethings to the 60-somethings, for all the encouragement. Yes, the best is yet to be. Yes, I may someday teach in school again. Yes, I will work harder on my PhD and try and get it over with. Heh. And to the ivy that grows in colder clime, I thank you for the gift of flowers and cheer!

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