Friday, October 31, 2008


It is now 25 years since I passed through the hallowed portal of the old school on the hill, leaving its gate for the last time as a student of that august institution and heading out into December instead. Tonight, I am going to gather with a roomful of my former associates, now well-emplaced in all realms of life, and yarn.

We will talk about shoes and ships and sealing-wax, and cabbages and kings; and why the Sea of Faith is now boiling away, and whether pigs have lipstick. The oysters will slowly disappear, and the moon will come out, and All Hallows will come upon us like the very breath of God.

It will be pleasant to catch up and tell all the old jokes and add new ones. They will laugh when I recount my adventures with unclean birds and odd hobbits with hairy feet. I will laugh in return when they tell me about post-economic theory and why cheese is related to iron deposits in Germany.

It will have been a long time since I last hung out with the father of my first two god-children. He and I did all the usual things when young, from loitering with intent around the Emerald Gate at the House of Jade and Gold, to shooting the breeze while listening to Spyro Gyra and eating self-prepared sandwiches while trespassing on the grounds of the Tan Kah Kee Higher Institute of Candle-Burning.

Life is good now. It is so very good.

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Summer's End

Today is the day known as Summer's End. I realise that all good things come to an end; yet, their end is the beginning of more good things. I have two months left before I can launch the last aerofoil into the burning sunrise and catch the wind beneath my wings.

I spent time with many interesting people this week and learnt a lot. I learnt about why some people get eaten up by other people that they think are enemies. It is saddening to watch John McCain bumble and waffle and splutter his way through his hatred and distaste for Barack Obama. In the end, the Obama campaign launches a 30-minute video that is nearly as inspiring as Reagan's 'Morning in America' (which I still remember) and does not mention McCain even once.

It says a lot about leadership when it employs the politics of discontent and division to run a campaign, an institution, or an environment. I've watched the almost two years of the long campaign and seen how McCain, once respected as a possible Republican successor — an outsider who would make all things good — has deteriorated from maverick into mouth. He is frustrated; deep down inside he is all burned up, angry, bitter. He has no future, despite the sound, fury, indignation and powerful forces he still wields with a more erratic and dangerous hand.

To invigorate his flagging campaign (which at its peak once appeared to allow the junior Senator from Illinois no chance at all), he allows his principles to fall away. Instead of picking a steady and reliable running-mate (as Obama has with Joe Biden), he picks a person who is seriously not qualified should he fall away. It would be amusing, were it not for the fact that they are running for the White House, still the greatest centre of power in the world. What happens there will affect all of us.

And yet... without McCain (and in the primaries, Hilary Clinton), perhaps Obama would never have burned so brightly or had such opportunity to prove himself as a sane and level-headed leader. I thank God that we have seen Obama come out ahead so far through grueling fire and painful decisions. His detractors think he is untested. I think he has been tested quite a bit. The nature of the test is important. McCain was a war hero because he was shot down for his own folly, captured and survived it all. Obama went through tests for brains and organisational ability; he was a people-builder. The economy now requires that; the old and ungracious who have run out of ideas should at least have the grace to step aside.

I turn my eyes downwards to the earth. I am Number One Fire Goat, and I bow to the eight corners of the world. This is the small place of my heart, the place I stand. It is summer's end, and although winter comes, life will rise again in spring. I have had a great year, a wonderful year, a year of change and growth and mastery. I thank the Highest for all that He has tested me with, and hope that in my little space and time I will serve well.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008


Bread, with a thin crusty skin. In it, just enough thinly-sliced roast beef, ham, or salmon for a meal. Some vegetables, julienned or sliced thin. Lunch. Coffee.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by simple things.


The SPAA Sequence

This is a sequence that some of my more attentive students may remember. For a few years now I've been having to teach some sort of compressed philosophy course ostensibly leading to a more epistemological ('why do we think of this as knowledge') focus. But it occurs to me that there are a few helpful sequences that make certain distant ideas more understandable.

One of them is the SPAA sequence. A lot of people know it, although few people realise its significance. SPAA stands for Socrates-Plato-Aristotle-Alexander. It's an 'academic DNA' sort of sequence, in which the teacher and the student are linked. So Alexander was the student of Aristotle and so on.

But what's interesting is the narrow window through which each of these people is seen, now that we are so distant in time that it's like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. It leaves us with a bare-bones framework which cannot adequately reflect the genius of each individual (since we really can't see it all anyway) but yet is of some use. So here it is.
  • Socrates asked questions with the intention of not finding a specific answer. "There are no real answers!"
  • Plato, traumatised by that, decided that there must be definite answers, and tried to work them out. "There are absolute answers!"
  • Aristotle pointed out that there must be two answers to every question, and if they were extreme answers, it would be best to stay in the middle. "The truth is in there!"
  • Alexander, rather edgy at all this philosophy, decided that the answer to any philosophical question should be tried out practically, and proceeded to conquer half the known world. "The truth is out there!"
I'm sure there's a lesson there, somewhere. At this point, I must confess a bias. I like the name 'Alexander'; it means 'defender of men' in Greek. He was one of the case studies my father fed me with when I was a wee bairn, and what I liked about him was that he tried to minimise his own casualties by using strategic and tactical intelligence, speed, skill and timing. Unlike many philosophers of war, he actually committed himself to courses of action based on his answers to philosophical questions.

When presented with a complex knot (now known as the Gordian knot) and told that he would have to unravel it to pass, he drew his sword and unravelled it with one blow. Brutally decisive, but also in compliance with the terms of the problem. Most philosophers would have spent much time thinking of reasons to untie it or leave it be; mathematical philosophers would have been all knotted up in the heuristics of the untying or even of the structure of the knot.

I don't condone all of Alexander's actions or his lifestyle. But I do admire his ability to use philosophy as a practical basis for solving problems on the battlefield. He was one of the first to employ a tactical retreat to confound his foes, thus routing a superior force. The Battle of Gaugamela is particularly instructive; outnumbered, he won by having better-disciplined troops and playing on the battlefield psychology of a large mob led by a tyrant. (That's probably a bit unfair to Darius the 'Great King' of Persia, but that's what his troops thought of him.)

Alexander retreated his flanks and let Darius half-encircle him by using elite forces all over the place. Darius pursued and his troops got a little frustrated when Alexander's forces, compressed by the manoeuvre, failed to collapse. Alexander then punched through the spread-out Persians, using elite cavalry to rout them from behind. He could have slaughtered the lot, but he hung back to rescue his friend Parmenion, who had got into a bit of trouble. He won anyway.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Midweek Football Ruminations

If football be the love of food, play on;
I have excess of it, forfeiting
An appetite that sickens, so do I
Refrain again.

I have been watching way too much English Premier League football. I see that now. I have had a love-hate relationship with it for years. Grainy black-and-white Division One footage was my mainstay in the long and boring weekend afternoons. I supported Liverpool when I was young and knew no better. Ray Clemence's steady acrobatics between the sticks, Bruce Grobelaar's steady antics anywhere except between the sticks... I wondered at times why I ever supported a team which only seemed to run on interesting goalkeepers, and with Bruce I sort of gave up.

For a brief spell, I supported the quixotic behaviour of Nottingham Forest. I suppose I had dreams of Robin Hood and stuff like that. Well, least said is best.

I've been an Arsenal fan since the 1996/97 season I think. (I have always had an affinity for creative teams founded in 1886, like Coca-Cola and Mercedes-Benz.) The thing that caught my eye was not at first style and passion and all that stuff, but the fact that a team named Arsenal would have a coach named Arsène. A decade later, I am a great fan of Mr Wenger.

Wenger was born in 1949 (yes, he will be 60 next year, along with Billy Joel), a younger son who grew up to have an undistinguished playing career. He eventually surfaced with degrees in engineering and economics, and a manager's diploma. This was where his career really took off. Wandering around the world and ending up in Japan, he developed a sound resumé by displaying unflappable Gallic cool, an intellectual streak, and a penchant for rigorous philosophy backed by the test of hundreds of football matches. Eventually, he reached England.

Not many gave him a chance at first, but he proved his mettle by taking charge subtly and firmly. He never insulted his predecessors nor his players. He worked with the stingy and physically brutal 'boring, boring 1-0 Arsenal' sides of his earlier years and also with the 'Unbeatable' 2003/2004 side that lost no games. Along the way, he won over the fans and even had an asteroid named after him. He has received France's highest civilian honours and accolades from round the world. And his management style, while open to some criticism, could certainly not be worse than that of many other world-class leaders.

Most of all, Mr Wenger has shown competence, fairness and stability in all his dealings. I am sure he has had a few lapses here and there; most of these have been at those junctures where competence, fairness and stability clash. He has had to be ruthless in building up his side repeatedly after the loss of key senior players, but he has always been consistent in nurturing the young into leaders, movers and shakers. He is not one for drama or Byzantine dealings.

This midweek, surfeited with football, I reflect on Liverpool and Arsenal. I have long been a fan of Liverpool FC and never of its managers; I have long been a fan of Arsène Wenger, and also of his club. When the two meet in battle, I find it hard to be partisan; when the two battle other foes, I am firmly in the red.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Three Institutional Sins

Someone asked me yesterday about my post on necessary traits for running a good institution. Does it follow that, if you need competence, fairness and stability, the things you least want are incompetence, unfairness and instability? Well, yes and no.

It's quite clear that incompetence, unfairness and instability are breakers of the perfect game, so to speak. I've seen institutions with one or more of these traits thrive for a while though. That's because it depends on the mission of the institution. As implied in the previous post, you can run a thinktank, a prison, or a pleasant but low-quality service provider — or anything else which doesn't need to be great — even if you have one or more of these traits.

But some things will corrupt people and places from the get-go, and great will be the fall thereof. The three sins (apart from generic evil) which tend to ruin the long-term viability of institutions are:

1. Greed. Greed kills. It leads to overreach and a mentality that overvalues the quantitative. Essentially, the greedy mind is a point-scoring mind. The greedy mind, after a while, begins to invent its own scoring system. Greed isn't always about consumption, but about wanting more than is needed — much more. It tends to breed unfairness.

2. Stupidity. Stupidity deadens. No institution can function when there is an internal resistance to information transfer, accumulation and processing. This is especially true in an age where the edge is sometimes defined completely in terms of information quality and the quality of information use. Stupidity tends to breed incompetence.

3. Mediocrity. Mediocrity sucks. That is, it sucks everyone towards some sort of mean at which people begin to tolerate the first two. A penchant for mediocrity is sometimes disguised as tolerance, wanting to get along, not wanting to rock the boat or move too quickly, desire for caution in an age of change... and so on. It can breed the wrong kind of stability, the kind of stability a ship has when it is touching the ground in a sheltered position.

You can still find surviving institutions with all three of these negative traits. But they quickly dinosaur themselves out of existence or lumber around as bad examples of throwbacks to some other era in which they could thrive unnoticed for what they are.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Three Necessary Traits

I think Obama's winning because of three key traits: competence, fairness and stability. In my sociological observations of classrooms, management teams, businesses and academia, these three traits in combination have always won the highest accolades and inspired the most added value and dedication.

The reason you have to group all three together is in these three statements:

1. If you have competence and fairness but not stability, you have some sort of laissez-faire wonkery going on. You cannot have long-term vision. This works for some kinds of teams, bit not for all.

2. If you have competence and stability but not fairness, you have an authoritarian situation. It describes not only hard-working bureaucracies in positive situations, but also gulags and prisons.

3. If you have fairness and stability but no competence, that's when you have a mediocre bunch of well-meaning bumblers. It is fun to watch, and even to work in. But it won't get you results.

Thinking about this has helped me to see why educational and political reforms sometimes turn out the way they do. It all depends on the teams that are built and deployed. Somebody, or some bodies, must be deployed to handle these three aspects such that all three are sufficient to the task at hand.

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Today is the Festival of Lights. I will always remember that my childhood introduction to religion came with Christianity as a family practice, with professional interests in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. What a learning environment!


Sunday, October 26, 2008


I read with interest recently of Alan Greenspan's recantation. He has finally admitted that the economic policies he presided over were some sort of pyramid-selling scheme in which the assets and worth of future generations were traded away under the assumption that wealth would never dissipate. This humans-conquer-the-cosmos thing has long been an SF trope: you can find the idea that man will run out of time before they run out of space and matter in most science fiction of the 1960s to 1980s.

Timothy Rutten, in the Los Angeles Times, has an interesting take which does not only address issues of time, space and matter. This is what he has to say:

No one begrudges a company about to go out of business the right to cut payroll, but now nobody blinks when a CEO throws people out of work for an uptick in the stock price or to ease the service of ill-considered debt. It's been a long time since anyone who analyzes the economy has been willing to say that it's immoral for a profitable firm to deprive families of their income and health insurance, to strip hardworking men and women of labor's dignity.

"I did not forecast a significant decline [in the housing market] because we had never had a significant decline in prices," Greenspan told the committee, adding that the Fed's record of economic foresight remains unequaled. "We can try to do better, but forecasting ... never gets to the point where it's 100% accurate."

Perhaps only an economic education prepares a man to draw as his conclusion from catastrophe the gnomic declaration that fallible human beings are not infallible. Some things, however, are true 100% of the time: Societies in which the few are allowed to fatten themselves without limit on the labor of many are not just; they aren't even particularly productive for very long. Countries -- like companies -- that cling to notions that allow some to pursue their own interests by behaving indecently toward others come to bad ends.

There is no recovery from moral bankruptcy.

The full article can be found here. It's just one of the many pieces now available in journals and newspapers around the world. Can we have only just woken up?

The answer is NO. Simply put, the voices championing rights for the employee and a fair deal have been drowned out by the voices of wealth, prosperity gospels, and the idea that wealth will always trickle down to the bottom (like the collector tray at the bottom of some vast hydroponic tank).

The operative word there was always 'trickle'. Wealth was associated for far too long with moral dominance. It was never supposed to be so; Jesus would have been the first to identify the need to keep the love of money away from the hearts of men, and to always tie responsibility to power. The Bible is full of it: the scholar, officer and gentleman are not to boast of wisdom, power and wealth — they are to boast (if they must) in terms of how well they know God and His ideals of mercy, justice and righteousness. And of course, to know Him is to do His will not according to the understanding of men, but according to the Word and the Spirit.

You who read this might not subscribe to that sort of theology or any kind of deicentric belief. But it does seem that, as Rutten puts it, some people actually can be found who believe that doing nasty things to your underlings makes the world a better place for everyone. That folly is now being exposed. Maybe altruism is indeed a survival trait after all, and the dinosaurs of this age will perish.

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The World

It's a fragile thing, this thing the Greeks called 'Cosmos'. It is all we have, it is all we think we make of it and all we see. But it is tissue thin, and dissolves for us at the moment of our passing.

The World is not the only real; it is the thin shell of reality, much as we tend to view the Sea as only its surface and perhaps the next five metres down. But the Sea is a thin skin over a progressively hot and molten ball of iron, a furnace made for powers like Hephaestus and the myth of the phoenix. So too is this Cosmos, this World that we see.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008


Sometimes theology, sociology and economics make strange bedfellows. We've seen this in the ideas and ideals of 'liberation theology' and of the 'prosperity gospel' – the former more about liberation than theology, the latter more about prosperity than the gospel.

I was struck by the image of ultimate accountability presented to us in the Bible. "As the eyes of servants look to the hands of their masters... so too do we look to the Lord our God," the psalmist says. It is the accountability of the master to the hireling, the slave and the servant that we find in stark words throughout the entire Mosaic code. It extends to lines like, "Do not muzzle the ox when he treads out the corn" – an injunction to allow labourers a cut of the proceeds and a reward for their toil.

In the Book of Job, we further learn that a man whom God considers upright has this to say about what comes from God: "Shall we not receive good at hands of God, and shall we not (also) receive evil?" It is clear that the argument, as it develops through the book, lays the responsibility for ultimate events in the hands of ultimate authority. What seems to be good or ill to us, the ultimate authority has chosen to be accountable for, and faith is a matter of accepting that.

What gets to me sometimes is the cavalier fashion in which the instinctively authoritarian react to good and bad news. I've seen in government officials and educational administrators the attitude that good comes from their actions and responses to the world, while bad comes from the people they are supposedly serving or responsible for. It is only too common to see a school laud the top scorers and claim their excellence as a sign of school prowess, while blaming the tail end on parents, society and computer games. It is also common to see government officials ask for huge personal salaries because the economy is booming while blaming investor panic and events beyond their control when the economy tanks.

I think that what's right is that those who claim authority must also claim responsibility, for both good and bad. In my tenure, I took my departments results out of a level below national average and fixed it firmly ahead of the national average. At the same time, I was also pretty much an irritant and rather tactless in dealing with colleagues. It was perhaps divisive, and rightly seen to be in some quarters. I was young then, but to this day, I will take responsibility for both things. But I do not think that I have met many authorities who would publicly admit their flaws and failings. I have shirked that responsibility myself in some areas, to my shame; I am not so sure that those authorities would feel any shame at all.

The city-state in which I work has one of the highest government salary scales in the world. The rationale for that is that the local system, in many ways, has displayed great success even when measured against far larger powers.

But in education, for example, there is a problem: we give the same kind of homework as educational superpowers like Thailand, Rumania, Hungary and Iran, as well as like Hong Kong, Cyprus and the Russian Federation. Officially, only 9% of the homework given was ever used to grade students. These are the findings of the Third International Maths and Science Survey. Yet, we rank far higher than any of the other nations using similar systems of classroom pedagogy. One interesting difference is that we pay our private tutors a lot more than we pay our teachers; the average tutor at high school level possibly earns about US$1.20 per minute while the average teacher at high school earns about US$0.35 per minute of work.

There is nothing wrong with having a large tuition industry; Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong all have that too. But surely there must be some contribution to results from the shadow sector, and we would be terribly dishonest not to admit it.

Similarly, when the economy booms, ministers get huge salaries; when it tanks, the cost of electricity goes up 20% and employer contributions to employees' retirement funds are reduced. I've seen ministers' pay frozen but not reduced in line with the economic performance of the nation as a whole. But haven't they accepted blame for both good and bad by claiming such high salaries in the first place? Is there no two-way moral hazard thing? I don't see it.

All this leads me to one main conclusion: if good things happen, I'm not responsible; the authorities are — and if bad things happen, the authorities aren't responsible; I am. That happens whether it is in school or in the financial sector. I don't believe it's true, but the people in power do, and that's what counts.

I could be wrong; I would really love to be wrong about all this. But I don't see much evidence against my hypothesis. I have so much evidence for my hypothesis that I might as well write a book, except that I'm not so minded.

So how do I feel? Actually I feel very happy. It brings home one main point to me about the conclusion I have come to in the previous paragraph. Whoever the authorities are, they are nothing like the God I believe in. And that is why I rejoice all the time in whatever I have received.

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Friday, October 24, 2008


I first came across that word in the context of Warren Ellis's dystopian urban milieu, chronicled here. Spider Jerusalem is the antihero of the narrative, a 'gonzo journalism' reporter dedicated to uprooting corruption and mendacity in the world around him, while being some sort of perverse technological victim of all of it.

As I carry out my research and delve deeper into the phenomena associated with globalisation in this era, I see many developments in the world of concepts and ideas that are assonant with Spider's world. I see many venal and corrupt political animals who call themselves pundits, economists, educators, and suchlike. Like Spider, I accumulate their words and sayings, the data trail of their acts and deeds, and prepare my acts of mindful journalism.

I call it educational research. Some people call it irresponsible terrorism. Haha.

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You spread it all out on the table of days, your buffet of 3600 seconds per hour, 86400 seconds per day.

You type 'GMT', and it tells you that even Greenwich isn't doing GMT till Sunday 26 October 2008 01:00 GMT (02:00 BST). The Wolfberry came by at 4:37:51 local time. Time is a river, an illusion brought into play by existence.

It's as Omar Khayyam said: life's but a checkerboard of nights and days/where Destiny with men for pieces plays.

You shuffle the pieces around. One is you. Anand draws with Kramnik in round 7 of the World Chess Championships. Neither is either. Are you a pawn? You never sought to be a king. You might be a knight. Knights and daze.

Time is perhaps that patient etherised upon a table, vide Prufrock. That poem always insists there will be time. But who is this who comes around to tidy up the table and clear the dishes away?

I sip my coffee. My life is measured out in coffee spoons.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shifting Bricks

One of the most peculiar incidents in the Bible occurs in Exodus 5 and 6. In that passage, the Egyptian Pharaoh gets rather irritated at the requests coming from the Israelite side. So he says, "You guys want a break? Lazy, idle, good-for-nothings! Instead, I will give you more work... and make it harder!"

A lot of people question the veracity of the Biblical account of the Israelites in Egypt. They point out that there is no explicit mention of the Israelites in Egyptian records. Well, I think that just as modern Americans don't particularly talk about where in Africa some of them came from, so also the Egyptians didn't particularly care where the slaves came from as long as they did the work.

But what has the ring of truth about it, no matter how displaced in space or time, is the vindictive pressure brought to bear on the Israelites by Pharaoh. He tells them to make as many bricks as they did before, but without the reinforcement of straw. He says that they make noise because they are lazy, and the cure for that is to do more work so that they have no time to make noise. The reasoning is askew, the logic is faulty; these are elements in a grand psychosis.

He is Pharaoh, and he is a God-King. He has no interest in treating them fairly, and takes malicious delight in showing his power over them. It is this very trait, the desire to display power over others, that God uses to set the Israelites free in the end. Pharaoh just cannot let go. Even after he has allowed the Israelites to leave, he will pursue them to the destruction of his own army. And later, he will expunge those records that show his colossal lack of judgement. That is how some people have always done such things.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Night In The Lonesome October

That's the title of a little-known 1994 gem of a book by Roger Zelazny. I was reminded of it when She-Who-Knows said that this time of year was sad. In a sense, it is. It's the bleak mid-Autumn, at the very least; if the leaves haven't fallen, they will — and if the people haven't left, they're leaving.

It has occurred to me that perhaps this batch of students may be the last batch of teenagers to whom I will ever be saying farewell at the end of a school year. That reinforces two things to me: 1) that the young phase of my life was over, as with many people, at forty; 2) that the new phase has genuinely begun.

Once again, I have to thank all those who made it possible; from those who were great but thought little of themselves, to those who were small but thought great things of themselves; from those who finagled their way into the counsels of the mighty, to those who contrived to make light of the burdensome; from those who were Family and hence stood by me, to those who were not and still did.

It's not a lonesome October for me. But it must be a lonesome October for the friendless people who have to balance the books while seeing the deficits mount; it must be terribly lonely for the big people "in the high houses that are shuttered from the day" as Chesterton said. Where did summer go for them?

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Aegyptum

And it came to pass that Wolff, once a knight, made his way to the land of Egypt. He had not been there long when he found to his dismay that stepping into another river may yet bring one strangely almost home. For denial is not just the source of annual floods and wet fertility, and and good pharaohs are hard to find.

While he ponders these truths about rivers and gypsies, he is interrupted by a fellow with a pointy hairdo.

Ho! What are you doing here in the land of the God Of The Burning Gaze, He Who Gives And Takes Away, He Who Has The Divine Spark In His Colon Which Must Be Cleaned By A Special Slave Each Day, Upon Whom The Sun Rises And Sets For He Is The Son And Avatar Of The Sun?

Wolff found all this rather hard to digest. He was about to frame a reply, when the impatient functionary cracked a whip at him and said, Make haste to answer, else the Slayer Of Set will wreak a terrible havoc upon you! Do you wish this to happen?

Nasser! But I am sad at this invasion of my privacy. I am a quiet man, a warrior by training but a teacher by choice.

A warrior! Ha! I will beat and berate and bastinado you, you son of a slave! I will take all bonus, benefit and benevolence from you and leave your tortured corpse for the vultures!

Wolff, now a man of peace, resigned himself to a beating. As the first blows fell, he put his pain into a far place and surrendered to the will of the Highest. And so it was, for a distantly painful while. Then, surprisingly, the blows stopped and there was blood everywhere.

Hello, stranger! I cannot stand for a son of the serpent to be beating fellow Israelites. Unfortunately, I have killed him. I hope you are able to walk?

He was looking at a slim, well-built and slightly choleric fellow. He felt an immediate kinship.

My name is Moses.

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Down Under

I was reading this interesting report on schooling in Australia, from about 20 years ago. Educational researcher Peter Kell summarises it thus:

Curriculum planning was linked to financial cycles, while the initial concerns about genuine educational qualities shifted to concerns about auditing school performance, thereby making the participation of community and teachers very difficult. The cycle of financially-driven curriculum planning intensified teachers' work, proving to be onerous and time-consuming and revealing the serious lack of adequate resources to meet the government's political and economic objectives. Further, teachers were not assisted by other government policies designed to restructure and destructure workplace entitlements and industrial relations by aligning these with the 'international standards' framed by neoliberal globalism.

My first response to this was, "Surely this piece of writing can be re-shaped into shorter sentences? The jargon level must be reduced."

My second response to this was, "Wow, sounds like life was bad for a whole bunch of people."

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Monday, October 20, 2008

In Fide Fiducia

Many years ago, I had the great good fortune (as has been mentioned elsewhere) to spend some time at a great school, at which I learnt many things. The school is a Methodist institution founded at the end of the 19th century. Like many schools of its kind, it is forward-looking and right next to one of the greatest universities in the world. On the school's crest is a wyvern statant (i.e. firmly planted and facing the right of the shield, which is the viewer's left). I left the school with many fond memories and a healthy respect for its motto. To this day, the school keeps in touch by sending me newsletters, and also provides the means by which I can update my CV for the school alumni yearbook.

That school is of course The Leys School, founded in 1875 and found on Trumpington Street in Cambridge, England. I have mentioned it before. Its motto, which is the title of this post, is In Fide Fiducia, which means "In Faith, (there is) Trust", or colloquially perhaps, "In Faith, Believing".

That motto has had a profound influence on me. It reminds me that the establishment of faith is the most important thing in chronological sequence; only if there is faith in something can there be hope in anything, and only if there is hope does the heart begin to believe in love. Of course, I Corinthians 13 says these three abide, but the greatest of them is love. This is true, but it does not change the sequence of human experience.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Joke of the Day

I was having dinner with the family last night. Somehow, this came out of my mouth and the family was stunned. Poor family.

There's a new role for the US Secret Service. It will appear in their Christmas cards later this year.

The Secret Service: shepherds a Biden in the field.


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I've noticed an interesting trend in my personal life of late, as I sit here pondering the outcome of the English Premier League's latest round of farcical and amazing results.

That trend has nothing to do with the EPL, but a lot more to do with what I do when not thinking too hard about it.

I tend to give books away as birthday presents; in the past, I used to read them first and then give them away. I'm one of those who treats books well – most people say my old books look brand-new. But of late, I've realised that I'm giving away books I haven't read, some nicely sealed in plastic, some being unread copies of books I have already read.

I suspect that somewhere along the line, personal affluence made me slowly slip into this new mode. In the past, I used to budget $10 or so for gifts. I'm not rich, and I come from a line of thrifty merchants. Now, I tend to aim at £20 as a limit for casual gifts, and for those who mean more to me, it goes as high as £200. Madness.

I don't think it's purely the affluence. I think it's also relative affluence and an awareness of what that means. Most people I know are in the top 5% of the world's population in terms of earnings. That might sound outrageous, but the average person in my city is in the top 5%. Think about the billions of poor agricultural workers in the third world nations, and you will see why this is true.

What does it all mean? I guess when the Bible repeatedly tells us not to be consumed by love of money, that the love of money is the root of all evil, that rich men find it hard to squeak through into heaven, and that we are to be good stewards who give everything back to our master... it's good to just spend money on other people.

We who are people of the Book ought to pay up out of our own wealth for people who need it. I have been perturbed in the past to watch Christian institutions raise millions of dollars in funds just to build nice buildings. It's all very un-Christian. Just take a look at this passage, if you need to know why I say this.

The prosperity gospel is a sham. Whether you end up with wealth or not, understand this: wealth is a burden, to be given away wisely and easily. When you cannot shed wealth easily, then it is as good as a shackle of rusty iron.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008


Last night (local time) I was watching the latest installment of the World Chess Championships. The first two games had been fairly exciting, not so boring, and drawn. But Game 3 was different; Kramnik-Anand (WCC Bonn) Game 3 is a kind of instant classic. You can find the game and supporting stuff here. But that isn't the main point of this post.

What I really admire about Anand is the way he pulls all kinds of rabbits out of hats. At the end of some of his games, you feel that odd sense of The Other. He is a guy you could enjoy bumming around with. But he is also this guy who plays extremely skillful lightning chess and ends up in positions that just don't look right.

Yes, he loses once in a while. Yes, he has pretty bad patches too, as in his previous tournament) where he came in last. But somehow, he seems to balance the normal and the excessively brilliant in a way many chess grandmasters are simply incapable of doing.

Just think of the Bulgarian archfiend Veselin Topalov, with bulging-eyed intensity and an almost vibratory anticipation of things to come. Just think of the once-fiery (and still fairly so) Alexei Shirov, or that political maverick from Baku, Garry Kasparov. Or even that great one, the totally unbalanced Robert James Fischer. The last two are heroes of mine, chessboard-wise. But I think I'd be uneasy to be sitting in the same room as either of them (well, the late Fischer much more so than Kasparov, I must admit). Not so Anand.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Things Not To Do

Now I live in a place where my bathroom is directly above the kitchen, I must learn to avoid showering before dinner. The lovely smell of frying fish is inappropriate when one is shampooing.

I must also remember that eating jalapeños with the fingers should not be followed by scratching oneself without regard to the likely consequences.

There are more things. But these two things are bad enough for now.


Note to self: You are beginning to sound like Wolfberry. Better get house-trained again. *grin*



It was not so very long ago that one of my duties was to speak to young men and women and try to inspire them. I wasn't always very good at it, and it was difficult and painful and arduous and altogether quite a burden. Yet, at the same time, it was a burden which I thought was important, meaningful, worth bearing.

When I left my last job, I threw away all my notes. There was a time when I would have thought of keeping them and perhaps some day compiling them into a book about the fifteen years in which I had that duty. But I think I made this conscious decision in the knowledge that the basis for all those words remains the same, that what I might have thought was good could always be made better, and that whatever I said could always be said again.

If I still had that duty this year (and actually, it was to have been my duty the day after I left), I would have continued to speak about the pursuit of truth and about seeing with blinding sight. I would have noted that a positive outlook is based on St Paul's list in the letter to the Philippians: "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

At the same time, I think I would have referred to the First Commission in Matthew's gospel. That passage has inspired me for ages; whether you are a Christian or not, the window of vision is enormous. It really says, "Go out and change society. Be a force for the division of good from evil, of justice from injustice. Be wise as serpents, harmless as doves. You will prevail."

I have sometimes likened the offspring of a school to arrows fired from a bow in the hands of a strong archer. This is an old view, most recently echoed by Stalin in his statement that education is like a weapon – it depends on who holds it and at whom it is aimed. Once an arrow has left the bow, it is the remorseless influence of anonymous forces that holds it to its course. The artistry is in the aiming and firing, the archer's control.

But students aren't inanimate. They have souls, they have spirits and emotions. They may resist or accept guidance, but never with exactitude and Newtonian compliance. They can be influenced, and they can influence. The only thing one can do is watch and pray, and hope with all one's heart that for each of them, the best is yet to be.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gryphon Rising (Part II)

The Old Road is a hard one, and we who wander it hear many things which are about as welcome as a sudden scream in the night. I was with the Padre when we heard the call of the heralds. They were announcing that the Gryphon would take back under its wings the Gryphlet that it had shed so many years ago.

What did not surprise us was that the High Mistress of the Gryphlet, that industrious and point-scoring madam who once ruled the Atlantean College, had been placed as First in the roll of those who would rule. I believe in her prowess. She is not quite totipotent, but she is valiant in war. She is also a darned sight more intelligent than many of those we have seen rising like winter gaslights in the realms.

What amused us was that the Mistress has been pursuing, it seems, an even higher status. The doctoral scrolls are poised to rack up another victim at the Educational Academy of the Southern Ocean.

All that taken together seems to express a stand explicitly denied by her. She will rise to rival her counterpart at the College of Wyverns, and she will have a well-oiled machine of undoubted vigour and size to help her in that endeavour. Will she come to reign supreme in every sphere? Only time will tell.

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An expressway is a modern contrivance designed to reduce the probability that you will indeed take time to smell the roses. In fact, it probably reduces the probability of roses.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Discovery Channel Blues

I was just leafing through my awfully tall stack of unread reading material. Journals, magazines, books... about 30 items all told. Then I came across the October issue of the Discovery Channel magazine. Interesting headlines.
  • EVOLUTION GONE WILD: Spore Takes Gaming To New Heights
  • MAN vs NATURE: Jungle Survival Tips For The Urban Male
  • WATER WORLD: The Rise And Fall Of The Angkor Kingdom
  • HIGH-RISE FARMING: Agriculture Grows Up
For some reason, I thought immediately of Singapore, a city-state to which all these headlines seemed to point.

In other news, I have been accumulating copies of The London Review of Books, Science and Scientific American. I used to donate them to the teachers in the school at which I used to work. I wonder if anyone else wants them now. I still think teachers ought to learn as much as they can for as long as they can.

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New York State Of Mind

The funny thing is that I never thought of myself as particularly enamoured of America, or at least the United States thereof. But I have visited several of the 48 contiguous mainland states, and I've tasted life there in the West, the East and the Middle (or is that the East, the West and the Midwest?) and Tennessee (I guess that's South, or is it 'mid-South'?)

But I miss New York the most, I think. Its amazing variety of peculiar life, deep history and melting-pot culture continues to inform and surprise me. It was the gateway to America for many people, many peoples; it continues to be one of the maybe two or three greatest cities of the world.

Part of it, I suppose, has to do with people like Billy Joel. Part of it has to do with odd stuff like this: a cheat-sheet to life in NYC. The only other city I've met which has enough depth for a multi-cultural mythology of its own is London, and that isn't fair because it was probably a Stone Age settlement along the Thames, occupied by wave after wave of immigrants or invaders.

Well, here's Mr Joel's take on his hometown:

Some folks like to get away, take a holiday
From the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami beach or Hollywood.
I'm taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line—
I'm in a New York state of mind.

I've seen all the movie stars in their fancy cars
And their limousines,
Been high in the Rockies under the evergreens,
But I know what I'm needing and I don't want to waste more time—
I'm in a New York state of mind.

It was so easy living day by day
Out of touch with the rhythm and the blues,
But now I need a little give and take,
The New York Times, the Daily News...

It comes down to reality—and it's fine with me
'Cause I've let it slide,
Don't care if it's Chinatown or Riverside
I don't have any reasons, I've left them all behind—
I'm in a New York state of mind.

Well, there you have it.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008


It took two hundred and thirty-two years for this article to be written in what is now the United States of America. Charles Firestone has essayed a look at what literacies should be de rigeur for someone attempting to be a modern citizen of a modern state.

To some, this kind of thing is elitist. But another way to look at it is this: we actually have certification procedures for many things requiring responsibility. Voting, on the other hand, as a citizen of a state normally requires only two things: being born in a certain place and living long enough to vote. In many places, that vote doesn't even require you to be able to read or to understand the language of politics (or any language for that matter).

It is as if voting is on par with other human activities that don't require other certification: becoming a parent, purchasing alcohol, owning a pet. In these three cases, abuse of the privilege (by parenting badly, getting drunk and doing something stupid, mistreating an animal) can be an offence in the eyes of the law. But voting badly is not possible, it seems. You can vote for anyone you like, and there is no penalty; in fact, voting for a moron or spoiling your vote may (in many states) incur less of a penalty than not voting at all.

But Firestone's list is a pretty good place to start if you want to aim towards an educated population. His list is one of information-related literacies: how to get information, how to check it and understand what it means, how to apply it in a way which you can rationally justify as good for your fellow citizens. He has contextualised it to the present day — for him, the first has to do with the mass media and digital information sources; the second has to do with understanding civic processes and integrating knowledge into the social framework produced by them; the third has to do with understanding modern finances, the environment, and other large-scale concepts which have impact on the whole world.

To all that, he adds cultural literacy, but shies away from actually going there. It's probably the most contentious element of the lot, but yet it is one which many states actually use as a test for adopting citizenship. The odd thing is that if you have citizenship by birth, nobody bothers to test you for that kind of knowledge. This, to me, is not a good thing.

Can you imagine how much more significant history and social studies would be if you had to pass an examination in the relevant topics in those subjects before you could become a full citizen? Imagine if you could not get a driver's license or vote in elections; imagine if you could not work without a work permit just because you never passed history... ah, what an interesting world it would be!

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Thermodynamics & Computing

The one thing I have always had problems with in my pursuit of computing power is... heat.

I used a Prime computer in the early 1980s; it needed air-conditioning to function well, and the whole room had less computing power than my old iBook. By 1986 I was using a Honeywell. That machine needed constant cooling, huge vents, and a dehumidifier. It was said that you couldn't get any work done over 290K, where the K stands for degrees Kelvin.

The problem seems to be that thinking is exothermic. Most of the energy consumed by my machines is emitted as waste heat. My friends tell me to use fans, coolants, all kinds of heat sinks. But that doesn't change the fundamental problem: heat has to be disposed of somewhere, and all those devices (which I've been using since 1980!) are just heat-transfer machines. They don't reduce the wastage, they just make you waste more energy elsewhere.

I suppose I could try to harness the heat flow to drive a turbine or something. But that would probably mean a loss of portability, and also a loss of convenience, elegance and simplicity. The coolness factor might go up a bit, but that doesn't reduce the heat.

Sigh. In such moments, I am drawn to the prophetic talent of William Shakespeare, who penned these lines, unforgettable since my schooldays:

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still...

Indeed, this is an apt description of life at the terminal end.

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Monday, October 13, 2008


The tip is just that. It's a little thing, etymologically the diminutive of 'tap' (in the sense of a something that stops up or delivers a stopping impulse). Over time, the sense of 'little thing' came to dominate, and perhaps the sense of 'little but important thing'.

Nowadays, people speak of 'tipping points'. That term has always amused me. I used to think of restaurants, hotels, and other service-related institutions as 'tipping points'. You go there, you give tips. You top up with a tip up. Haha.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Beyond The Pale

This is an interesting phrase. Everyone knows what it means, but why does it mean what it means?

First, its meaning is indisputable: everyone agrees that it refers to something that is outside the norms for civilised behaviour. From this comes the extended meaning of referring to something that is beyond normal human experience and expectation.

The word 'pale' here comes from Latin palus which means 'stake' – a long pointy piece of wood. It is from this that we get words like 'impale' (to put up on a long pointy piece of wood) and palisade (a fence-like defensive row of long pointy stakes). The other meaning of 'pale', i.e. 'less dark', actually comes from a totally different word which meant 'not so illuminated' or 'greyish' (actually, it used to mean dusky or dark, haha).

That's why some people think 'beyond the pale' means 'into the dark side of humanity'. Well, I suppose it might.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Four Kinds of Findings

I don't normally address political issues in this blog. Sometimes, however, something catches my eyes which may have greater applications beyond their mundane frame. In this case, it's the Branchflower Report (colloquially referred to as the 'Troopergate' Report).

Friday, 10 October 2008, will probably be remembered (if at all) as the day on which the Palindromic Crusade bit itself in the tail. Mrs Sarah Palin, Alaska's Governor and Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate in 2008, was under an ethics investigation. Branchflower and his Republican-heavy (8 to 4!) committee voted 12-0 to release the findings as planned. Overall, the consensus was that Palin had violated state ethics law by trying to have her brother-in-law fired as state trooper.

The interesting thing, to me, was the release of the report with four main findings, which I am summarising below:
  1. Governor Palin abused her power as a public officer by exerting efforts to benefit her personal interest in firing the trooper.
  2. However, the firing itself was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional authority. This is because it is the right of the Governor to hire and fire state employees.
  3. The trooper received all his entitlements, so no wrongdoing was done after the fact.
  4. The state Attorney-General's office failed to comply with Branchflower's request for information pertinent to the case.
It's the same in any political arena. Given the right to hire and fire, since the dawn of time, some people have taken this right to be an absolute and untrammelled power. With such an attitude, no justification or reason needs to be advanced. To the Palins of the world, findings 2 & 3 are full excuses for the abuses stated in findings 1 and 4.

But the point of the report is a simple one: it was an abuse of power, and hence a violation of ethics; it was not an abuse of authority. Some people must learn the difference between power or force (Greek dünamis or bia) and authority (Greek kratos). Whereas the latter can be taken mostly as granted by legal structure and terms of appointment, the former always requires moral checks and balances.

This is especially true in the education circles that are more familiar to me. But I've blogged about that before.

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The Discworld and the Singapore MRT System

I was just looking through a bibliography of Terry Pratchett's wonderful Discworld novels. That's when I noticed that the titles have an odd synchronicity with the stations of the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit System.

I am quite certain that if Pratchett lives long enough, every single one of his novels will match up, one-to-one, with a station on the Singapore MRT network. If I disappear one day while on the MRT, you will know why.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Word of the Day: Ephemeris

This is another word related to time. The Greek hemera means 'day'; if you go to Greece you will hear people greeting each other with "Kalémera!" which comes from kalli- meaning 'good, beautiful' and hemera — that is, 'Good day!'

So what does 'ephemeris' mean?

The forms 'ephemera' and 'ephemeral' are probably more common. They come from the Greek preposition ep(i)- which means 'on' or 'on the surface of', and hemera. 'Ephemeral' therefore means '(only) on the day' and 'ephemera' literally means 'things that are (only) on the day'. Figuratively, they refer to things that are transient, that pass quickly and are gone, that touch us lightly and thus have less value in terms of durability and impact.

An ephemeris, however, is a book of days. Technically, it's an astronomer's guidebook which lists data related to known celestial bodies for a given day, and gives calculations and calculated information based on that data.

It's a lovely word, isn't it? You could call your diary an ephemeris if you were so minded. Until the next time, Kalémera!

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

God and Victor Frankenstein

It just so happened that today I got bored while thinking about education, globalisation and reform. So I looked at things I have always been slightly more interested in, and I came across the essay I quote in full at the bottom of this post. Essentially, the essay says that Dr Victor Frankenstein and his monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein resemble two other characters from another famous novel. So I had a closer look.

It turned out that this other famous novel was a certain 'Lost Paradise' (sic) by John Milton, and Dr Frankenstein and his monster are supposed to resemble God and Satan. It is an interesting hypothesis. You should read right on to the bottom to see how the anonymous author ('bigshaggy') proves his point.

I disagree with bigshaggy's point somewhat. It is clear that God and Dr Frankenstein are both creators in their respective tales, the epic poem of mankind's fall and the epic novel of inhuman horror and pity. However, the resemblance ends there, for it is quite clear that Frankenstein is a cautionary tale warning of the consequences that might ensue should man attempt to emulate God.

Frankenstein's monster, like Lucifer, has no hope of redemption. That perdition, as developed in their respective mythic contexts, has more to do with Lucifer's pride and the monster's subhuman status than to any other resemblance (spiritual or metaphysical) between them. Lucifer is a monster because of his pride; the monster is a monster because he isn't human. Lucifer has rejected God; the monster was rejected by his maker.

In Lucifer's revolt against heaven, he suborns a third of the Host to his purposes, turning them away from the face of God. The monster's revolt against Dr Frankenstein has nothing to do with politics or a difference of opinions – it has instead everything to do with the animus of the monster.

The author of this piece says it is quite remarkable that the characters in these two texts should resemble each other (although in the first line he seems to think it is common in any two novels). Actually, in this particular comparison, it is not remarkable at all. Shelley's Frankenstein is subtitled 'The New Prometheus'; it is a response to her husband's epic poem Prometheus Unbound, in itself a response to the traditional Christian story of the revolt in heaven. If you like, Frankenstein is a response to a response to a retelling of the Fall of Mankind.

(It is also quite unremarkable that bigshaggy thinks the characters are similar because he picked two texts with what he thought were very similar characters in them. It is remarkable because they are actually very unalike. And so it goes.)

If anything here has any degree of truth about it, it probably comes from the fact that Dr Frankenstein is likened to Prometheus, and Prometheus has a lot of similarities (and at least one major difference) to Satan. I've compared Prometheus and Satan before; there is indeed some meat there. Maybe the problem is that Shelley's novel has got both a Prometheus-type and a Satan-type running around, but the former is a failed Prometheus and the latter is more like Caliban than Lucifer.

Bigshaggy says in his last line, "...if you look deep enough, you can see similarities between many things you wouldn’t expect." Well, in this case, if you look superficially enough, you will see a resemblance. On closer examination, the resemblance is not really there at all.


Before you read what follows, I must caution that this post is taken verbatim from an essay farm – that is, a place where they produce essays for students to (ahem) learn from other students who may have written papers on similar (or identical) subjects. I have preserved the exact text for your pleasure. I reproduce it as a service to students of literature who should be learning what NOT to write. Enjoy.

Frankenstein vs. Paradise Lost - How characters are similar
Written by: bigshaggy

Striking similarities between a duo of novels are not unusual. The novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelly, deals with a scientist named Victor Frankenstein who embodies a creature, who eventually wreaks havoc on his life. The novel Lost Paradise, by John Milton, exposes the cruelty of Christianity or the Christian God within the characters God, Satan, Adam, and Eve. Victor Frankenstein and God have many similarities, as they are both creators of incarnations. Victor’s creature known as the monster shows striking similarities with Satan and Adam. Characters from different novels have similar personalities.

As creators of another creature, God and Victor Frankenstein are very similar, in that they both lose part of their “family,” and they let the war between them and their creations go on too long. Victor says, “ I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.” This shows that he creates the monster out of corpses, just as God creates Satan. Furthermore, Victor is disgusted with his own creation, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Victor rejects the monster, similar to God’s disgust with Satan’s pride. The monster wreaks havoc on the Victor’s life, “; I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval,” leaving him with a burden of guilt, just as God loses his angels to Satan, Victor loses his family and friends to the monster. Victor at some point feels even more guilt because he didn’t destroy the monster earlier. If God could so easily order the fallen angels to be pushed out of Heaven, why did he let the war go on for three days? This truly is remarkable, two novels of different time periods, with characters of startling resemblance.

God and Frankenstein’s creations stunningly resemble each other. The monster relates to Satan, Adam, and Eve. Victor quotes, “You may render me the most miserable of men, but you shall never make me base in my own eyes,” this is when the monster asks for a companion, Victor refuses. The monster also shows that he will go to any extent to be happy and complete vengeance when he goes on a murder spree. Adam quotes “ for with thee/ Certain my resolution is to die; /How can I live without thee?” Resembling the monster, hence he wants a companion, Eve. Moreover, the monster is much more like Satan, then he is like Adam. The monster cites, “ I, too, can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable,” when he decides to rip Victor of his family and friends. Satan moreover does the alike, when he “takes” God’s angels. In addition, “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded,” the monster is rejected, as his second, excluded on account of his pride and envy of God. This shows that both commit improper acts caused by their own creators. Both, the monster and Satan are rejected by society because of looks and attitude.

Remarkably enough, two novels from way different time period are very much alike in personalities of characters. God and Frankenstein are very much alike by reason of both are creators of “unfit” beings. The monster and Satan similar on the account of both being rejected creations. This shows society that if you look deep enough, you can see similarities between many things you wouldn’t expect.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Word of the Day: Crepuscular

It's been a long time since we had a Word of the Day. Today's word is appropriate for our times; it is in fact a word describing a particular period of time.

'Crepuscular' means 'of, or pertaining to, that period between daylight and night'. The word has an interesting origin: Latin crepurus means 'uncertain', or 'of unknown purity' — 'crepuscular' therefore has a slightly negative connotation and could be taken to describe 'a time about which we are not quite certain, and which is tainted by something we are not sure about'.

Technically, a crepuscular animal is one most active between daylight and nightfall. This period of time is itself multifaceted: we hear it described as dusk, evening, twilight, and (most archaic, I think) 'gloaming'.

Perhaps our sense of crepuscular might be enhanced by looking at those four words.

'Dusk' means 'misty-ish' in northern languages; it connotes a lacking in light quality and thus probably refers to the time at which the sun only indirectly lights up the land – after sunset, perhaps.

'Evening' is surprisingly pretty exact. The original sense of 'eve' or 'evening' was 'the period just before something'; in this case, the period before 6 pm. Sometimes there is sun, sometimes not. It is a chronological thing in the original sense, and perhaps best described as halfway between midday and midnight.

'Twilight' is an interesting one. It's almost directly related to the German zwielicht, or 'two-lights'. That's because there is a morning twilight as well as an evening twilight; it corresponds to the balance-point (occurring twice a day) between full light and darkness. It can mean the time just before light overtakes darkness; its more sinister sense denotes the time just after darkness has overtaken light.

'Gloaming' means 'the glowing' and denotes the period during which light can still be seen; either the afterglow of evening twilight or the pre-glow before morning twilight.

Crepuscularity is therefore a complex thing; it is a thing of light and darkness, shadows and greys and half-tones. What I like about the word is its onomatopoeic quality: it is something that creeps elegantly toward you.

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A River Of Poetry

If you want something to do and it must involve the reading of much that is excellent, eclectic and elegant, look at the Library of Congress's 180-poem spread. It's also a useful source for 'unseen poem' critical commentary quizzes and examinations.

Some of my readers will recognize some of those poems; all I can say is, "You have the Internet. Use it well." *grin*

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Ideal Gas

I think my brain functions like a gas. The hotter it runs, the greater the concentration in memes per volumetric unit, the greater the intracranial pressure. Like a gas, it needs a pressure valve. This I know from the throbbing in the support structures around my skull.

At the same time, it is a very non-ideal gas. Its contents are not easy to compress. Its particles occupy space and deny it to other particles. It is not susceptible to simple equations of state. It drive me nuts. Then again, since this is my brain we're talking about, it must be driving itself nuts. It must be carrying out some sort of Carnot cycle.

But it is also the apparent source of my creativity and my ideation. It spawns ideas. It shuffles them around and synthesizes new ones. Just as the mens rea gives rise to the real, so the mens idea must give rise to the ideal. Haha.

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Education Reform: Le Resistance

In my long trawl through the history of educational reform, I've come across some interesting little strands. One of them is the incredible resistance to decentralisation in French education mounted by unions, entrenched interests, and other elements of the indigenous social fabric. Apparently, a central theme in this resistance is the French ideal of egalité — some people fear that if decentralisation takes hold, the universality of French education will be imperilled. Richer districts or more perspicacious authorities might very well start local systems which would be elitist (or elite) compared to others.

That's interesting, because a similar trend can be seen in the local discourse. Creating pseudo-, quasi- or semi-independent schools tends to raise hackles in the city in which I work. Calling them 'autonomous' seems to help, even though not many people can tell me the difference between independent and autonomous.

[Note: Actually, the word 'autonomous' is somewhat etymologically suspect, since it means 'with a law unto itself'. By contrast, 'independent', which means 'without support', seems positively limp (or is that negatively limp?) and generates odd responses of its own.]

Essentially, when you sell the people a bill of rights or a list of values, in the context of calling yourself a democratic state, you also implicitly support some kind of equality. Although this equality subsists only in the one-man one-vote ideal, it is assumed to support a whole bunch of other things — such as a level playing-field (whatever that means), equal opportunities (whatever those are), and stuff like that which will be endlessly debated.

Human societies being what they are, this is what normally happens: society creates and maintains a points system, people score points, the ones with most points win and are happy so they help to maintain the existing system. As for the ones who don't win, they normally deride the system and try to change it. Eventually, a new points system may emerge.

If the idea of egalité is strongly entrenched, then the idea is to make universal differences as imperceptible as possible. Unfortunately, in an age of globalisation, this is very difficult. A clever leader would try a different tack, such as 'equal opportunities, different talents, meritocracy for all'. This allows the system to look somewhat open to everyone, make the playing field so statistically large that small bumps would be unnoticed, and leave the definition of merit to the people who have already shown such merit.

Such a system works. The problem is that, as with all such systems, it can be gamed — and not to everyone's benefit. The gaming which all the 'players' indulge in is certain to take efficiency out of the system somewhere. If merit is based on academic achievement and brain power primarily, then cognitive coaching as a shadow industry must be huge. As the burden absorbed by this shadow industry gets larger, the overt education system will suffer since nobody knows how much it is really doing and hence how accountable it is for the overall education level. This may already be happening in some highly competitive meritocracies.

Essentially, I think, the idealist would say that since education is seen as a human right and a universal benefit, we ought to maximise its availability to everyone. The problem has always been twofold: how do we define education, and how much can each individual benefit from it? Market-force solutions may not be the best, but what is better?


Monday, October 06, 2008

Modeling The World: Part III

After looking at the hypothetical-predictive and historical-legal models of the world, it would seem that we should stop there. This is because these models of the world are eminently reasonable; they correspond to our experience and there is no aspect of our experience that cannot be brutalised into submission by one of these models until it fits nicely.

That said, some aspects of our experience have proven rather resistant to brutalisation, and in some cases have given as good as they got. I tend to lump them together, for the purposes of discussion and not out of personal belief or bias, into a single model which I call the aesthetic-religious model. The key point of this kind of model is that it looks at the world and fills in the blanks.

"What blanks?" the skeptic from another model's perspective would ask. "After all, we can either research the blank till it is not blank anymore, or we can dig into our experience until we fill it in."

The problem with that, of course, is that it would involve extrapolation or interpolation; in other words, whatever we fill the blanks with, it must be something we already know something about. This leaves little space for pure intuition, inspiration or invention. The third kind of model supplies all three; such a model shows the world as we would instinctively want it to be — in terms of meaning, structure, and belief.

The aforementioned skeptic will scoff. To such a person, intuition is only subconscious correlation of known material, inspiration is the same but with religious taint, and invention is the creative engineering outcome of interpolation/extrapolation. But the fact is that everything we say is 'subconscious' or 'religious' or 'creative' has no known basis in either model. We are asked to assume that they do, but we cannot prove it under the terms of either model.

Look at art, music, religion and dozens of other disciplines and ideas which spring from the human psyche. There have been multitudinous attempts to relate them to brain function, neurobiology, genetic tendency, social behaviour, economic reward, mathematical strange attractors and other chunks of the other two models. Yet the attempt to relate and correlate without actual proof of complete relationship is egregiously flawed.

For a start, it assumes that either of the first two models is already a successful model. Hence it must be true that the third model is redundant. Since the third model does not aim to predict, interpolate or extrapolate from 'known fact', it must be inferior since it cannot be tested in that way. And if you test it by human 'feeling' then it must be an artifact of neurochemistry. And so on. In other words, the third model is constantly being derided and denigrated simply because it isn't susceptible to the kind of proving or testing associated with the first two.

The second problem is that this aesthetic-religious kind of model is not consistent. If it were consistent, it would be a subset of one of the other models. But true creativity, inspiration, or intuition can only be justified in terms of the other two models retrospectively. You cannot use the other two models to 'make' creativity, inspiration or intuition — by their own definition, you cannot predict such things, and if they were predictable or patternable, they'd not be what they are.

The third problem is one used by many skeptics; it isn't really a problem, it's more of an ad hominem attack. It follows this line, more or less: "What has your aesthetic-religious model done for mankind? In fact, it seems to have made matters worse, or not improved things at best." That's a silly argument. It isn't particularly scientific or historical, since it all boils down to human behaviour. The human history of warfare shows the first two models at their worst. It is hard to say whether religion or art makes the human experience feel better, but it seems to work.

In the long run, for better or worse, we look at the world through these three lenses. They are all incomplete despite having strong advantages of their own. It is perhaps better to use all three in different proportions to see how we can make the world a better place. And if that sounds weak, consider what happens if we were to stick to only one model and follow it headlong to its obvious denouement.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Dangers Of Being Organic

I think that everyone should be taught chemistry at least at high-school level. It would avoid a lot of the egregious crap that's been thrown around for the last few decades. (What?! He used the word 'crap'!)

Let's start with the basics. Type "define: organic" into your Google search box. You should get a whole bunch of definitions of the word 'organic'. Probably, you will get something like this in the first few hits:
  • relating or belonging to the class of chemical compounds having a carbon basis; "hydrocarbons are organic compounds"
  • being or relating to or derived from or having properties characteristic of living organisms; "organic life"; "organic growth"; "organic remains found in rock"
  • involving or affecting physiology or bodily organs; "an organic disease"
  • of or relating to foodstuff grown or raised without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides or hormones; "organic eggs"; "organic vegetables"; "organic chicken"
  • simple and healthful and close to nature; "an organic lifestyle"
  • constituent(a): constitutional in the structure of something (especially your physical makeup)
Do you see the problem?

It strikes me that one very obvious class of substances that is related to all these definitions is the class of substances that humans excrete. Yep, definitely organic and relating to foodstuff grown or raised without synthetic fertilizers.

But take the other direction of approach. Can you imagine eating 'inorganic chicken'? Or 'inorganic eggs'? It sounds like eating aluminium foil or manganese nodules. Like a von Neumann machine devouring resources to spawn more machines.

The truth is that the word 'organic' is now officially overused. One day, we'll teach organic chemistry and it will be all about using natural fertilizers, pesticides and/or hormones. Ho ho ho.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008


In a certain city-state, not so far away, the wise men raised the price of electricity by 21%.

The public representative asked, "Why was this done?"

The reply from the electricity man was, "Because the price of oil has gone up quite a bit."

The public representative said, "But 80% of our electricity comes from natural gas."

The electricity man replied with a perfectly straight face, "But we don't know how to price gas; however, we do know how to price oil. And oil is high, so you will all have to pay 21% more."

A village elder said, "Hey, wait a minute, the gas price is now about 20% of the oil price and hardly bears any relationship to it anyway! It is like monitoring the price of gold and using it to price silver!"

The electricity man said, "In the absence of evidence, we are forced by market forces to charge what the market will bear."

And that is how bears came to the city.

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Ah, now I know why the existentialist introspective and consequent angst descended upon me in the last few days. Ha, I am down with the flu. Actually, I am quite certain that I am a totally different person when ill (which is itself a topic for philosophical debate). I sleep more. I dream more (or at least have more recall of my dreams). I think in monochrome with odd flashes of colour, and I hear odd sounds which I don't normally hear. I smell different. My senses alter in acuity, both positively and negatively. I forget to shave and I write longer sentences as well as shorter ones. I type in incredible bursts before coming to a stop appalled at what I have typed. Is this for good or for ill? And I am forced to conclude that good or not, it is from ill.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Modeling The World: Part II

The last post was about the hypothetical-predictive kind of model. In that post, I talked about the three basic problems you find in that kind of model. But the main thing going for such a model is that it seems to be the best you have; it has utility value as far as it can be shown that it appears to correlate with experiences, events and expectations.

But there are at least two other models that a well-rounded education should consider. The second model is the historical-legal model, and the basis for this model is the correlation of singular pieces of evidence.

Consider the earlier model and what might be a science experiment: in such a case, the scientist records as much as he can about pertinent (as far as he knows) conditions and what was done – then if necessary, the experiment can be reproduced, and if the results agree, it can be seen as a verified event.

In the historical-legal model, it is accepted that it is unlikely to have two pieces of evidence being exactly the same, which is the holy grail of the first. The second model provides for multiple pieces of evidence being different but corroborative. It also assumes that there is no possibility of repeating the scenario exactly, since the human world is involved and this is famously fluid, far too complex for the first kind of model.

So what kind of truth derives from this model? Mostly the truth of what happened, and what events transpired after something happened. A chronology is established. Whether cause can be attributed may not be the point, but broad phenomena and broad origins can be postulated looking back. We can talk about the causes of the Second World War not because we have done 100 simulations of it and they all behave the same way; we can talk about these causes because we have had a single instance, and it is richly attested to by a wealth of facts.

But what caused the Second World War? It is a complex phenomenon, not a single thing. It is beyond reproduction. It is beyond the analysis of forensic science. Come to think of it, it is like asking what caused the Great Depression or the Alexandrian Empire to happen. We can advance an hypothesis, if you like, against earnest of future discovery of the past. We can say that the evidence shows that events X and Y happened, and that the connection between them was one of direct or indirect consequence, or not. And we can say, if Z happened because of X and/or Y, we should be able to find a document or artifact which shows this to be true or not true.

Essentially, the historical-legal method is one in which you set up a case and display the supporting exhibits. Someone else will display other exhibits. Eventually, you will develop a model which accounts well for all the exhibits. But remember, the past is a different country, and you may not have the required visa for a long stay. You may never be acculturated to it, or understand its difficulties. But you can build up a tapestry of how it might have been, based on the threads of evidence that you can find: primary accounts and second-hand reports; remains of what was used, consumed, made and lot; deeply-buried archives.

Then we subject everything to the inquisition: show the evidence that constitutes the proof of event A; the circumstantial likelihood of event B; the weight of positive evidence against the sharp edge of negative evidence. What does the jury say? Can we know what actually happened? It is not so much different from what happens in most courts of law.

How does this model the world we live in? Well, some assumptions can be made. The nature of humanity changes little; the nature of the world neither. Although the past is a different country with a different culture, it is what came before we did. In understanding the distance between the past and the present, we find the trajectory of human endeavour and all its passions.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Modeling The World: Part I

The problem I've been facing is that it looks as if everyone these days wants a hypothetical-predictive model of the world. This desire masquerades under many guises; I've heard it called the scientific method (despite sometimes not being particularly scientific or methodical). When pressed on the assumptions of the models produced, many scientists turn snarky and say, "Well, this is the best we have; it models reality, it predicts outcomes. What more do you want?"

There are a few difficulties with that. First of all, we can all agree that we use this model by simplification (the doctrine of parsimony, sometimes tagged as 'the Razor of Occam (or Ockham)'), and by induction (so far it's all been like this, why should it change), and by deduction (here is my rule, and if that is the rule, here is how it applies to everything).

The difficulty with parsimony is that it's a useless rule. It seems to be aesthetic (the idea of elegance being sparse) or convenient (the fewer entities we have, the simpler it is) or philosophical (nature tends to be fundamentally simple). But there is actually no reason to believe that the simplest hypothesis is the best, or to assume that what we're cutting away is non-essential. Of course, we should always try to cut away the non-essential, but the more complex the problem, the less we can identify what is non-essential.

The difficulty with induction is what most people call the black swan problem. Having seen that all swans so far are black (or that the sun rises everyday), we assume that all subsequent swans will be black (or that the sun will also appear as scheduled tomorrow). We know that this isn't necessarily true – it amounts to nothing more than an argument from experience until we figure out why this is true (swan genetics or celestial mechanics).

Which brings us to the third point. The difficulty with deduction is that you have to find a starting point from which things are deduced. This is called 'setting up the axioms'. Axioms are things that are self-evidently true. The problem is that there isn't much that is self-evidently true, on closer inspection. In fact, if we invoke parsimony, the best universal model begins with ONE self-evident truth and continues from there. If it began with NO self-evident truths, then the model would not exist and hence would not be 'best' – or anything else for that matter.

The tripos on which the scientific method is based is therefore aesthetically pleasing, convenient and useful, and philosophically satisfying to a lot of people. It is rightfully a majority point of view. Which does not make it right, but it's the best we have for simple problems. For complex problems, and for determination of what is true and what is axiomatic, it will run into difficulties.

And the most complex problem is this: we exist. It is the only truth that has to be axiomatic, for without it, there are no models and no reason to create models. If only one of us existed, ditto. But as a multiplicity of entities, we are actually intolerable to the scientific method, and some other kind of modeling philosophy must be used to handle the problems of our existence. The alternative is what philosophers call the reductio, and which Hitler called 'the final solution'.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Children's Day

You know, the problem with my research is that the more I dig, the more like a graveyard it looks. I feel that I'm some sort of archaeologist of the educational past – a palaeoeducationist (see note 2 below), if you like. But the evidence is all in the bones, buried long ago. Sometimes you dig into the ground and you think you've found a midden. But sometimes, you realise the bones don't indicate food or cooking or waste dumps. You realise it's a cemetery.

I'm beginning to think that in Singapore's necessary haste to get education up to a high standard quickly, the country has overprimed the shotgun. When the 'O'-Levels were selected to be Singapore's basic level of educational qualification, nobody told the people that this was an examination for the top 20% of the UK population (1). Nobody pointed out that this was designed for a five-year secondary education course. And since the general population didn't know this, everyone prepared to do it in four years and many did very well. The Primary School Leaving Examination, that other pillar of the system, was designed (and probably still is) to be tough enough to eliminate 20% of all students. It was set at a level known to allow only 80% to pass (2).

All this added up to educational pressure beyond conventional belief. But there was another consequence. Since Singapore now had near-universal high-stakes education, the situation became one in which everyone was competitive. Since everyone was a viable high-stakes competitor, and this was the basis of the meritocratic society, the only way to climb to the top was to be significantly more competitive. Which meant that the schools were not considered excellent unless they provided a lot of 'extras'.

That in turn set the school system up for serious re-engineering difficulties. Niche programmes, holistic education, multiple intelligences, ability-driven education – all of which contradict each other philosophically – were used to 'sell' schools to the masses. The shadow education sector bloomed, since private tuition was now the main area in which cash-rich families could stamp their superiority. And that is where we are today.

Happy Children's Day! And God bless each and every one of you!



1. Citations are all from Tan, Chow & Goh (2008), Examinations in Singapore – Change and Continuity (1891-2007), World Scientific Publishing (ISBN: 978-981-279-313-0). (1) is from page 66 and (2) is from page 75.

2. I suppose I should point out that 'palaeoeducationist' is a bastardised Graeco-Roman hybrid. My bad. It should be 'palaeopedagogist' in order to be properly Greek. 'Pedagogy' of course comes from the Greek words meaning 'leadership of children'. It is interesting to contrast that with 'education', which means 'drawing-out'.

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Some days it just doesn't seem right to be working away like a busy little serf. Unfortunately, that seems like most days these days. Urgh.