Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving Reasons

There is always a reason for the things we do. Of late, I've been thinking and writing about food even while part of my brain contemplates globalisation.

The first wave of globalisation was great, but landbound. Alexander's host swept out of Macedonia. By the time he died in Asia scant years later, the Hellenic wave of philosophy and understanding had reached India. The great empires of the time were Hellenized: the Egypt of the Ptolemies, Persia, the Rome that was growing from a seed. India and China felt it, but their masses of culture were more resistant.

In the light of that wave, the Pax Romana was a secondary wave. It built on the remains of the Greeks, for Alexander was heir to Aristotle, and Aristotle to Plato, and Plato to Socrates. And Rome was Plato's Republic writ large, but different from what the old sage would have thought. The Imperium filled a lot of Europe, and all the Mediterranean, with the language and the voice which we hear today echoed in Catalan, French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish.

Later, the third wave built on these two waves with the ascent from Elizabeth I of England to Victoria, Empress of India and, by the grace of God, Queen of England. It is this third wave, a tide of British vigor crossed with Graeco-Roman pollen, which spawned the bastard sons and daughters of Empire. To this day, the Venetian lion of the sea is echoed in the merlion of Singapore and the trident of Barbados.

And behind, and with, and through all these waves, we learned to eat many things. Bananas, chocolate, wheat, tea, prawns, coffee, cinnamon, rice; we learned to eat the flesh of all things that crawl and walk and swim and fly, the fruit of all things that sprout and bloom and spread. Not all of us eat all things. Many of us eat many things.

Today, I was at the eating house called Gastronomia da Paolo when it hit me. I eat the sun-dried tomatoes and the durum pasta of ancient Rome. I eat the chocolate and the fruit of countries distant, the scones of a British summer, the stuffed vine leaves of Greece. I am the son of the waves of change and empire crashing on the shores of the once-immutable and mysterious East.

All of these things are miracles of time and space and energy. All of these things are to be appreciated and enjoyed. I give thanks for every single bastard child of these phenomena of greed and gain, of adventure and daring, of life and empire. For we are all the world, and all the world is us.


From last lines of Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

From the last lines of Prometheus Unbound by Percy Shelley:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life; Joy, Empire, and Victory!

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You take some source of starch, normally a grain pounded into flour. You make it into a paste with some water, and hope it agglutinates nicely. You might have to add some chemical catalyst. You end up with a doughy mass.

You knead and massage this mass. You stretch it and squeeze it. Inevitably, polymerisation and cross-linking occur. The mass begins to take on a life of its own.

Then there are a few things you can do to this before it turns into a hard rock only fit for mass consumption (haha, sorry, bad joke). You can stretch it and restretch it into strands. You can roll it out flat into ribbons. You can add yeast and make bread later on in an oven.

But the most delightful thing is the transformation to strands or ribbons. You make starch into noodles, and noodles are nice.


Saturday, November 29, 2008


I like how three four-letter words can come together in such intimidating synergy. Face. Book. Meme.

It might seem trivial to you, but these three words represent three of the most powerful concepts known to the ancients. I've written about face before, as in the Greek prosopon; books I've written about before, and the Greek biblion more or less carries the kind of connotations we want. And 'meme', a conflation first coined by the egregious Dawkins from the Greek mimesis ('presentation', 'representation' or 'stage-acting') and mneme ('memory'), is a modernised variant of the mind-viruses that swept the world after the coming of the Classical Greek era. (Note: Dawkins denies that he'd ever heard of mneme when he came up with meme. Philistine.)

But enough with the etymology already. Here's a FaceBookMeme:

  1. Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
  2. Turn to page 57.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post your sentence in a comment here as well, including the title of book and author.
  5. Post that sentence along with these instructions in a note to your wall (or on your blog).
That's it!

Here's mine:

"After 6 d4 b5 7 Bb3 d5 8 dxe5 Be6 the most fashionable move is 9 Nbd2 (columns 43-45), immediately contesting the strong Black knight on e4." Modern Chess Openings (6th Ed), Nick de Firmian.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

A Close Brush with Death

I finally swapped my Frankenbrush back for a Pulsar.

The idea of an electrical toothbrush is an old one. It is a little more recent that the source of the electricity has become a battery in the handle. It is even more recent that light-weight synthetics and computer-aided design have minimised the number of moving parts and maximised the brushiness (oh, what a wolfberry word!) of the brush.

The Pulsar is a nice colour. It is mostly blue with golden-yellow vibrating bristles. It has clean and swelling lines that seem to say, "Brush with me, and I will make you clean."

All toothbrushes should say things like that.

My old Frankenbrush was a bad one; it used to say, "Brush with me, and I will make you pay for it in agonising ways; hold hard, or you might be found lying on the ground dead from acute entanglement with a geometry that man was not meant to see."

As you can see, I am beginning to develop an acute appreciation for the quotidian and mundane, for the things I see and use everyday.

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Marginal Note

Too soon, it is November's end; with that comes all the tumult of the last of time, the last of times, the running out of sand and fuel and life and noise and scant resources.

And here we are, watching over the dissolution of the old.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008


I had a really odd dream last night. It was all about my toilet-cleaning experiences while in the Army. Least said, soonest mended.

But the funny thing was that my old platoon sergeant's face and voice made guest appearances. And in that dream, he was saying something like, "The word 'latrine' has nothing to do with 'worship', you moron!"

Then the scene shifted to a meeting room that some people know altogether too well. In that meeting room, rounded rattan chairs have been known to cradle large-bottomed vessels to sleep, as they dock like sleepy barges on the banks of the stream of consciousness... whoops, almost docked myself there.

But the funny thing this time was that there was this guy who was going on and on and on in the most moronic way about short-term goals and long-term goals and stretch goals. And I was getting really angry with him, for some strange reason, and my blood pressure was rising and I felt my heart rate go up, and I drew out an ivory pointer which I just knew was a deadly weapon capable of taking out the most moronic foe with a blast of lightning... and I woke up, my heart pounding in the early hours of the morning.

Strangely enough, the 'latrine' part stuck in my mind. No, I don't have a toilet mind; but I do have an etymological mind. You see, latreuo in Greek means 'I worship'. But the word 'latrine' comes from the Latin, and is related to lavator, 'one who bathes (or washes)'. It's from the same Latin root as 'lavatory', 'a room in which one bathes (or washes)'. So...

Yes, Sergeant! 'Latrine' has nothing to do with 'worship', Sergeant! I am a moron if I think so, Sergeant!


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Disdaining Fire

You dig up funny things sometimes, like this story written 24 years ago while skipping lectures. For some reason, it seems to reference many things of the present. Maybe nothing has really changed, as the protagonist eventually shows.


Disdaining Fire

He woke, as usual, a little after midnight, the old dreams running from his mind like water, like horses of the night. The last fleeting darkness was of women: "From Dawn to dewy Eve," the poet had said, unknowing. Indeed had he fallen, mused the careless man to himself, though both were lovely girls. So many of us, so many dreamers dreaming; those were wondrous days indeed.

He stretched, rose, thought. His raiment was pale blue and appropriate; his eyes were darker, Mediterranean; his slightly curly hair and athlete's body were oddly lustrous with a brown that had the radiance of fallen gold. He sensed nothing in the air around him, felt comforted. What does the old man do now, all alone on the high mountain? Does he care?

He decided not, with a twinge of distant irony. He remembered laughing as Old Clubfoot was cast away, taken from the metal of fallen stars and made to work at copper in reminder of his disrespect. Fallen stars indeed; hah, now, they were all cast down alike, for an old man's paranoia. The light of his countenance could no longer be lifted up, and the careless man had long since passed Regret over in favour of Acceptance.

Is there anyone left to check the bridles, the bits? Do the golden horses wonder where their master is? The men of science, as they walk around my cell, they speak of a warming Earth, of holes in the Aegis of Zeus. Can it all be true?

The careless man asked himself a lot of questions each day. The thrill was not in answering them, but in the asking. In the old days, people had asked him questions, and he had received them all with gladness, happy at the varied flavours of every query, distinct and unalloyed.

He walked around, felt the warm cladding of his recent prison. No fixed abode, they'd said. He had wanted to laugh, tell them with a straight and honest face, hey, we are all wanderers. But something of his ancient cunning had stopped him, reminded him: hey yourself, don't you need a secure place to hide?

They had brought him to a place of lights and warmth and soft inquiring voices (he had enjoyed that familiar sensation), where men in blue worked with men in white, as in the temples long ago.

What's your name? the gentle man had asked.

Ask him if he's got any relatives, the stern woman had hissed.

The gentleman had tried English (insipid stuff), Spanish (rather entertaining), Italian (mellifluous, but spoken badly); in the end, he had decided to answer to Greek (not the jagged style of his youth, though).

The careless man felt Memory tug at him. O Mnemosyne, Mnemosyne, how art the flighty fallen! Releasing his recollection for a while, he fell back into the eternal past. There had been giants in the earth, then. He began to hear the ancient tongues. Why, he realised with some surprise, modern tongues are nowhere as elegant, nowhere as artfully crafted! So much for the intellect of man. They've given up communion for games.

Carefully, he disengaged Memory's fingers, came back to the immediate past with her hand lightly held in his. Yes, the gentle man had spoken in halting Greek, and he had answered. My name? Aristopoulos. A-R-I... yah. Yes? Oh, I was antique dealer... par don? No, I look quite young, yes. My family, they all look young on my mother's side. Yes, I have father and mother. Where are they, you ask me? Father still in Greece. Mother living somewhere else.

The stern woman looks at the paper where the gentle man scribbles. She whispers harshly, Ask this hard-luck kid what he does for a living now, what happened to his job.

Oh, recession nowadays. Not easy to live. Nobody afford antiques, now no money. I also no money. No place to live. Go unemployment office. (He smiled, remembering his imitation of a bewildered immigrant Greek youth.)

And then the gentle man had said, Mr Aristopoulos, we will give you a place to sleep in tonight, OK? and he had replied, Please, yes.

He spent the night in a barred room, a prison cell. And then, he had scented the Seeker behind the walls. It had walked into view, also dressed in blue, but a darker blue, wearing emblems of authority. Of course, it looked exactly as it was supposed to. The Seeker had walked straight to his cell as he ducked into the corner, hoping it was a mistake, and knowing it was not.

The Seeker unlocked his cell, looked at him as he sat in the corner.

Come, said the Seeker, and the steel-barred gate had begun to open (oh, slowly, creakily—needs oiling—and slightly grittily. Time was sluggish, and he needed it all. He would not be taken, would not go home even if the old man begged, threatened, commanded. A loud scream, blood, commotion. Shit, he killed the lieutenant!

Lieutenant? Hah, that thing hadn't even been human.

Then, weeks of incarceration, stupid tests (look at this black picture, what do you see; tell me about your father; why did you kill the lieutenant), measuring of his bodily functions. He had taken care to be completely mad, and they did not dispute it.

Now, they had locked him up, fed him through a door guarded by burly men each day. And he was happy with the walls painted in thick, cheap, peeling lead paint, for they hid his aura. He was marginally unhappy with the creature comforts (especially the abominable lack of good music; muzak, forsooth!)

But the time was upon him. Six-seventeen, today. He was prepared, waiting in the confines of his new locus. Soon, the Atlantic seaboard would receive the waves of the stormy sea, and he would hear 'old Triton blowing his wreathèd horn'.

In the distance came a booming so faint that no mortal heard it above the noise of the cosmos. Yet, it reached through the interstices of the void, trickled through his ears to trigger the ringing in his cochlea, the striking of an ancient hammer against an anvil of bone. The summons to obey his ancient duty, to bear his share of the long burden of his distant brothers, had arrived. Time. No time. And where, called the careless man, O where, Lord Helios, are the golden destriers of the sun?

Skyclad and powerful, in the dark just on the edge of dawn, Apollo smiled. Disdaining fire, he reached out with the immortal fingers of his soul, and, as in every other day in his handful of millennia, brought the sun to life.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Potato Crisps

Slowly, slowly, the tide began to shift.

In the beginning was the Crisp (or the Chip). And salt (in small amounts or great) was sprinkled upon the face of the Tuber Slice (whatever you call it), and it was good.

Then the Brits said, let there be Vinegar, and there was vinegar in the soggy stuff that came with the fish. And also, the virtue of sodium ethanoate as a salt that came with vinegar. And so came the Salt & Vinegar flavoured crisp.

And on the third instance came two flavours from the sacred cow, and one was of the meat and called Beef & Onion, and the other was of the milk and called Sour Cream & Onion. And the Americans said, let us take this one step further, and made Barbecue-flavoured crisps.

And apart from the terrible schism that precipitated the Prawn Cocktail flavour (which was neither prawn nor cocktail), there was peace in the lands for many years, apart from minor outbreaks of Honey Dijon and Black Pepper.

Then came the Creative Thinking Programmes, and the crisp-makers who used to tell their junior staff not to taste of the fruit thereof were all retired, and no-one remained to stop the abominations. And so came the Cheese & Onion, which became Roquefort Cheese & Red Onion; and also the Dill & Mint, and the Roast Lamb & Mint, and the Sweet Red Chili & Sour Cream, and the Jalapeño, and the Seafood, and the Tomato Salsa, and the Wildspice (for there were now few real flavours and imaginary ones had to be made).

And this year I have seen the splendour of the Buffalo Hot Wings, and the Guacamole, and the Full 12-Course Chinese Dinner Laden With MSG. And maybe, I am going to switch to some other source of vegetable fibre in my snacks.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Due Diligence

It's interesting to read official documentation. In the transition period between a closed and secretive system and an open and informative one, stuff falls into the cracks. In 1997, the 7th International Conference on Thinking was held in Singapore. Shortly thereafter, Singapore's Ministry of Education began to put all speeches, press releases and other documents online. The same thing began to occur at other institutions in this country.

This change was profound because some decades prior to this, founding father and leading politician Goh Keng Swee had already vented his spleen at the two things which, in his view, were retarding the progress of the country: the 'cult of secrecy' and the 'cult of obedience'. His venting did not change things much, outside his own offices.

But what I think is the problem is that a culture that is not used to information handling tends to fall into two kinds of error. In the first kind, the lack of sufficient information (or the tradition of providing such) makes people think that information is being concealed when actually it isn't. The second kind is that the information provided may be copious and yet presented badly, thus giving a false impression of incompetence or incoherence.

It is not that this happens a lot. It's just that when you look at the documents produced by certain institutions, you are irritated to find yourself asking questions like, "Who on earth vetted this?" or "Who did the proof-reading?" or "What is this person trying (not) to say?" The underlying problem is one of narrative; people are so concerned with getting the facts out that the story connecting them and making them relevant is totally missing.

Purveyors of information really ought to exercise due diligence in their craft. Errors of fact are one thing; errors of presentation leading to a presumed state of factitiousness are quite another. This is especially relevant now.

Why the increased relevance? Obviously, with the economy the way it is, anything that shakes confidence is a BAD thing. If people knew exactly how much they could rely on information, and how much not, then confidence would be more stable. In an information vacuum, or perceived vacuum (such as that caused by a can't-believe-everything-they-say attitude), erratic behaviour dominates and confidence is unstable.

This is one reason why people are cynical when they look at institutions calling themselves 'world-class'. The world is not in such a good shape, it seems — and 'world-class' tends to put such institutions in the same class as Citigroup and General Motors (and Lehman Brothers, and AIG, and so on).



Some people have pointed out that this post is evidence that I am some sort of demented anarchist who is seeking to haul down the venerable institutions of our time. I don't think so, for two reasons.

Firstly, none of these venerable institutions started out by claiming 'world-class' status. They earned their own recognition based on the sound vision and policies of their founders, and were only later labelled 'world-class' by others. Being 'world-class' is not an intrinsic property of a successful organisation, but an extrinsic one, sometimes attached by libellous associates who are in the habit of using ill-defined labels. I don't think that removing this label makes an institution less worthy.

Secondly, the damage that some of these institutions have suffered (in terms of reputation, worth, quality, prospects etc) is mostly of their own making. Anyone in his right mind would agree. Or anyone in the real world.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Nine Muses (Redux)

Just a while ago, someone actually looked at this old post of mine and wondered if I had invented the names that I used to describe the Nine, or taken them from some Chinese mythological source. No, I didn't. The names are just Anglicised versions of the originals.

Just to tie up that one loose end, here is the list.
  • Beautiful Voice is Calliope (Καλλιόπη), whose name is most frequently translated as 'Beautiful (of) Speech'.
  • Heavenly Lady is Urania (Οὐρανία), whose name is indeed most frequently translated as 'Celestial One'.
  • Recounter of Tales is Clio (Κλειώ), whose name is often translated as 'Making Glorious' (or 'Making Famous'); here I have deviated the most, because she is the muse of history, and history is not always glorious.
  • Flourishing Stem is Thalia (Θάλεια), whose name really does mean 'Freshly Shooting' (or 'Blossoming').
  • Inspiring Loveliness is Erato (Ἐρατώ), whose name really means 'Amorous'; the key here is the Greek word eros, which covers all kinds of sensual love.
  • Delightful Dancer is Terpsichore (Τερψιχόρη), whose name really means 'Delighting in Dance'; here I have changed the focus to the muse, for consistency.
  • Pleasantly Delighting is Euterpe (Eὐτέρπη), whose name is often translated 'Well-Pleasing'; yet, as you can see by comparison with the previous lady's name, they are somewhat related in origin.
  • Many Songs is Polyhymnia (Πολυύμνια), and that is indeed what her name means.
  • Sweet Singer is Melpomene (Μελπομένη), whose name is often translated as 'the Chanting One', but (I think) is better translated as 'Melodious (Singer)'; the root mel- connotes sweetness.
As I mentioned before, they are all lovely ladies and myths in their own right; although I have indeed met women who are like them in their traditional guise, the two kinds are very different in quality of essence.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Self-Help Book Titles

Self-help books seem to have titles that follow a certain sort of template. One of these templates looks something like this: "Everything I Know About [ABC] I Learned From [QRS]" — where [ABC] is the topic which you might need help with and [QRS] is the source of the prognosticator's wisdom.

Just the other day I was pondering the sort of self-help books I might write using this template; titles like Everything I Know About Weasels I Learned From XYZ, or Everything I Know About Self-Destructive Actions I Learned From XYZ. Fortunately for humanity, I decided that writing such books wouldn't really help anybody.

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Corners begin with three sides; if you have two sides or fewer, there are no corners. The word 'corner' means 'projection' and is etymologically related to the word 'horn'. One can only feel cornered if framed by at least three points of reference.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008


Sometimes you realise that people who lived and died a long time ago have still got something to say about the times in which we live. This is of course an obvious sort of observation. But when I say 'realise', I use it here in the sense of 'make real (to yourself)'. This is the sort of epiphany you get when you idly leaf through the poems of long-dead people like Chesterton, Blake, Donne or Kipling, stuff you used to read as part of an English Lit course or just for background atmosphere.

And then it hits you how some of these poems line up; how sometimes it becomes clear that the issue being written about was something that may actually have consumed the author in his search for meaning.

Take for example the third stanza of Kipling's 1897 Recessional:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!

And the first lines of Kipling's 1895 Ballad of East and West:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

It's quite clear that Kipling, for all his jingoistic reputation and tendencies, was conflicted between his appreciation of non-white humanity and his inborn (inbred?) urge to see his own nation as the crown of all humanity. The caution he sounds for his own people and the readiness to praise the qualities he found elsewhere don't quite jibe with the idea that he was an out-an-out racist.

The conditional 'if' also gets a full measure of elaboration in this famous poem of his. To my mind, this piece perhaps shows that perhaps Kipling's idea of real dichotomy was not that between different kinds of race, in that Victorian sense; rather, it was that between the real person working and getting his hands dirty and living life, and the person who was not so exposed. It was, to him, a real issue that a man should know how to use power and not be corrupted by it; it was a real issue about how people should strive to be more than their natural inclinations would have seemed to allow.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Novembral Knight

"Hail and well-met," Wolff said, greeting the formidable old lady. "It seems you have the advantage of me."

"Ha, Sir Wolff, I take no advantage. I am so senior a lady that I need not. But yes, what you foretold has come to pass, and I am most entertained as I watch! Thank you for unleashing such spectacle!"

"It was not my doing. The Grand Inquisitor did it all himself, and I merely followed his script in whatever way a poor player could. And do not call me 'Sir' for I am no longer knight."

"Ah, it is all a farrago. If you are no knight, then there is no day. They are all ends up now, truly a game of soldiers. He claims you seek to destroy him and the Order."

Wolff wrinkles his brow in incredulity. "That, my lady, is the most unlikely of charges!"

"True, true. It is as unlikely as a two-headed gryphon upon a field of gold with little weasel tails on it. I know you and your family are strong supporters and defenders of the Order."

"What has that got to do with that?"

"La, la, la... good Sir, for knight you still are even in November, you are far too discreet. But I must admit, that is not a gryphon that we see; gryphons have no tail feathers, and that one does. It must be a double-headed eagle."

"Lady, the Good Book says that the double-minded man is unstable in all his ways."

"Well, that is why it needs wings, surely. For if it is unstable on the ground, it can hide this in flight!"

"My lady, you see too many things! I would never be so bold to think of that."

"But not too bold, Sir, to continue thinking about it, surely? Give my regards to your sire and the Family. They are a precious resource in resource-poor times."

"Good night, Lady."

"Good knight, November."


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

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The Cultural Capital of the World

In the conversations of the week that is passing, I have been forced to confront a specific truth that I have always shied away from. It's the fact that in some ways I possess (through little fault of my own) a whole lot of cultural capital of a certain kind. As various chthonians have suggested, this capital is something to be envied by others, and is possibly a source of provocation and inflammation.

In the last few months, I've had people come up to me and tell me why they remembered my work and my teaching. Quite often (where the memories are positive), their memories centre around the appropriate deployment of cultural capital, and/or the investment of that capital in young people so that they will gain interest from it. They mention the choice of words, the kind of language, the perspectives, the presentation of content, the devotionals, the ideas of the sacred and profane, and the way in which I seemed to see things differently from some people.

I am deeply grateful. Yet, as I mentioned before, I have always shied away from the fact of cultural capital. Somehow, it seems like an unfair advantage, and I have always favoured fair and open exchanges of ideas. The problem has sometimes been that cultural capital gives a person the power to speak as if from the seat of authority in a particular cultural environment, even if he does not intend to do so. For example, a person who has been identified with a certain cause (such as the advancement of African-American rights) might not be descended from African-Americans, and yet speak with such authority that people will listen to and take to heart whatever is said on the topic.

If you are envious of such capital, then three solutions are most obvious.
  1. Eliminate the person. If you can dispose of the holder of the cultural capital, this renders the effect of such capital moot.
  2. Eliminate the culture. If you can somehow dispose of the tangible and intangible structures that give this capital its value, then the capital is devalued.
  3. Gain cultural capital of your own. For various reasons, this is very difficult. As Bourdieu says, you have to inherit it, buy artifacts that represent it, or gain certification or institutional approval that symbolises it. Sometimes, you may have negative cultural capital (such as having been a disciple of Hitler) that disqualifies you no matter what you do.
Obviously, these solutions are very risky. Failure to succeed will lead to successful failure. There is, however, one option that is not so obvious. You can borrow cultural capital by close positive association with those who have it. You can attempt to understand where it's coming from, and why you haven't been to that place. You can be culturally humble; if you feel humiliated, then this course of action is not for you. Eventually, assiduous devotion to the source of capital will gain you some.

This last option is seldom embarked upon. Anyone powerful enough to want to resist or channel cultural capital is unlikely to be a humble person. But in the end, as Kipling wrote in Recessional, 'an humble and a contrite heart' may be the source of our salvation. Such thoughts have ever been close to my own heart.


Note: Kipling's line is of course not his own; some will recall its origin in the Book — for example in Isaiah 57 and in Psalm 51.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Power of Names (Part II)

In the previous post I mentioned five names which I'd more or less pulled out randomly from my mental 'hat'. (I've also added notes on a whole bunch of other names suggested by various commenters, and I'll add more if you suggest more!)

To those names I'd like to add Darwinian, Dickensian and Nietzschean. I think the first has become one of those terribly misused labels applied indiscriminately to any form of selective process (how ironic!) while the second is only slightly misused for all manner of descriptive and picaresque writings. The last has, unfortunately, seen too much accurate use in this age — although the misuse of the label is still quite common.

It's interesting to see how we define whole periods by some people. The most obvious case in modern history is Victoria, Queen of England. She was born in 1819 and died in 1901; from her ascension to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1837, she more or less presided over the bulk of the 'long' 19th century. I've always preferred to define that period as being from 1776 to 1914, seeing the modern importance of the USA, but Hobsbawm (no we are NOT having 'Hobsbawmian', what an abomination) is a Marxist and prefers the French revolution in 1789 as the starting point. In 1914, the First World War broke out, and the major culprits were all her junior kinsmen.

That period gave rise to the majority of names on our list, which is serious food for thought.


From NBL: Yes, that is quite an impressive list of mathematicians and physicists; but I think Copernican, Pythagorean, Platonic (now horribly misused to mean 'neutral' or 'regularised' rather than 'ideal'), and Euclidean probably have sufficient cultural capital — the rest aren't definitive of a large enough idea (by which I mean culturally far-reaching). I suppose we have to add Cartesian, for Descartes, as suggested elsewhere. Einsteinian is OK, but seriously, what would you mean by it in public?

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Power of Names (Part I)

There are some almost-forgotten people who in their lives have made a far-reaching impact on history. Quite often, this comes from the intensity of effect produced by superhuman conviction that they are right and that what they have done is righteous. Eventually, these people become adjectives, some by mere invention, some by enormous vision, some by serendipity.

In the years that have passed by, I have collected a few of these adjectival formations that speak to me specially, and a few that everyone is acquainted with. I have a little list, and if you like, you can add to it. Some of these are here for more than one reason; some are here for a reason that most people wouldn't think of using. I'll begin with five, and an obvious English bias.

Cromwellian, Orwellian, Churchillian, Keynesian, Newtonian

There. Comments?


From Speedcuber: 'Machiavellian' — excellent, because it shifts the bias and I should have thought of that one myself; after all, he is the only one on the list so far to be quoted in my Master's thesis!

From Stark: a slew of musicians; but seriously, Rachmaninovian? I can deal with Wagnerian, and its associations with the Hitlerian, but the problem with musicians is that they tend not to define large swathes of history or cultural capital. And the problem with Bachian is... which Bach? Well, I tell you what, I'll scratch your Bach if you scratch mine. (The same problem occurs with Georgian, Edwardian and, to a lesser extent, Jacobean; Elizabethan and Victorian are fine.)

From Khayce: Shakespearean (which I've been trying to avoid, just having taught three of his blasted plays in the last few weeks), Hobbesian (remember the Leviathan!) and Kafkaesque. It seems that authors are more potent than composers.

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Sunset Boulevard

There we were, on Sunset Boulevard. I must say that Adobe was an entertaining and gracious host. You could sense the intelligence and the care, the thoughtfulness and restraint, much like the effort that goes into his productions.

It has never been about Stalin, in the long run; it has always been about the rich and beautiful country that he ruled for a while. Despite the ruins and the anti-intellectualism and the unstable cronyism and the misuse of cultural capital, the country is a great one. It has been a sad one, a devastated one, a nation whose sons died by the millions in service of the Motherland. But it is still great, and Stalin was just one episode in its long and colourful life.

And so, we pray for the Rodina and the space and time it occupies. Sometimes, as a wise man noted, we pray for the wrong things. It is no wonder then that we get the 'wrong' answers to our prayers.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Word of the Day: Gnomon

The other day I was having lunch with the Gnome (the younger one, not the old and now unfortunately gaga one) when I realised that the origins of the name would make good material for a WotD post. Indeed, the Greek word gnomon has its roots in the much more familiar gnosis.

What is gnosis? It is the Greek word for 'knowledge'. It's found in modern English words such as 'diagnosis' ('knowledge across the area'), 'prognosis' ('forward knowledge'), and 'agnostic' ('without knowledge'). Gnomon therefore means 'the thing that knows', or 'the thing that points towards knowledge'.

In a technical sense, gnomon normally refers to the pointer on a sundial, which indicates the time. This pointer can be a wedge-shaped, rod-shaped, or fin-shaped object; the only requirement is that it casts a shadow. I hear that NASA has a more sophisticated version; the thing hangs from a surveyor's tripod and has a colour scale, a size scale and a reflectance scale. This version can be set up on any other body in space and used to determine (by remote viewing) the colour, reflectance and size of its surroundings.

The word gnomon comes to us also as 'gnome'. This simply means 'one who knows', or perhaps 'one who leads to or shows knowledge'. A 'gnomic utterance' is something like an oracle, a saying of the wise. I have been listening a lot to various gnomes these days; they dig around and come up with the most amazing facts and ideas. Traditionally and mythologically, gnomes have always been small earth-dwelling beings; in that sense, they are chthonian, and thus (you might say) very down-to-earth.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Human Rights & Government

Having a chat the other day with the Hierophant, we went over some old ground. I realise that I've not actually explicitly said much about basic human rights, except perhaps in places like here, where the context was how human professions cater to the support of human rights.

Let's apply some simple reasoning based on human politics. This isn't new, and many people have wandered down these roads before, so bear with me (and that includes Wolfberry, whose study of the law is related). I'm not considering moral issues via a religious perspective per se.

All political states consist of people and subsist in people. Without people, there would be no state. Since the first implicit duty of a state has to be self-preservation (or it wouldn't exist to have any other duties), the state has a duty to preserve its people. The main duty of law is to regularise and/or formalise the transactions between people for the good of the state.

This means that basic laws deal with the support and maintenance of basic rights. As I've said before, one plausible definition of a basic human right is the maintenance of a condition that, in general, all humans are born with and that a human would be considered deficient if born without. The most obvious right, and the most basic, is therefore the right to supported life outside the womb. If life exists on birth, the right to have it continued is paramount.

This is why there are laws and social barriers against killing in general, indiscriminate killing, and deliberate killing. There should also be laws against negligence or other behaviours that result directly in death.

The next step down is to have laws which protect the individual against physical incapacitation. The individual can't really be protected against the state of which he is a part, but the state can be protected against individuals who have become renegade elements. Law, after all (and in the long-term view), is created and sustained not by individuals, but by social groups (and at the political level, states).

At some level however, the choice becomes one between protection of all individuals and discrimination between some individuals and others. This was the choice that faced Athenian democracy — pure democracies discriminate as little as possible, while republican democracies discriminate 'for the greater good'. In the former, a distinguished physician would be treated with the same weight as a peon; in the latter, the rights of the physician would be considered to some extent superior to the rights of the peon, or might be better defended, or might have laws defending certain things the physician might be able to do (or not do) as opposed to the things a peon could do. There are no pure democracies.

This means that the duty of government essentially is to enforce (and secondarily, maintain and/or support) interactions that are beneficial to survival of the state in a form which allows for continued enforcement of interactions that are beneficial to survival of the state...

The more private an individual's behaviours and the less they have to do with interacting with other people, the less important they should be to government. Reading a book of any sort should therefore not be as constrained by government as sharing the contents of that book in such a way as to provoke disruptive behaviour against that government. In this, I do not make any judgements about the type or kind of government involved; I am only saying that this is the perspective a rational government should have.

Following this logic, growing of cannabis sativa for personal research (and consumption) is a 10,000-year-old hobby that has had little negative impact on some states. However, the dissemination of the plant to others is a legitimate concern for some governments, since it is an interaction between individuals within the state. This is why the possession of small amounts of certain drugs for personal use is considered allowable or less of an offence than the possession of larger quantities beyond the typical amount an individual would be expected to use. Trafficking in such drugs is most definitely a province of government, whereas personal consumption is normally (but not always) only indirectly so.

That said, some governments also consider it their duty to protect individuals from themselves. This is probably based on the idea that not all humans are able to determine whether something is good for themselves or not. This is a terribly grey area. For example, what if the government of a state decides that any other form of government would be fatal to the continued optimal behaviour of the state? That opens the door to restricted participation in the governance of the state.

As you can see, once we stray away from basic human rights and start considering second- and third-order interactions and beyond, the law rapidly convolutes and metastasizes into something rich and strange. It is a wonderful world we live in.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Examiner (Part III)

There I am, minding my own business at yet another Family gathering, when Cousin #1 comes up to me. "Eh, how have you been?"

I say the usual things, all of them true. I am happy, I am productive, I have actually gained a lot from my sabbatical.

He says, "So when are you giving us that report?"

My first thought is, "What report?" My second thought is, "Oh no, you weren't serious!" My third thought is, "Well, I actually do have a lot of data."

I say to him, "Surely you don't expect me to cough up so soon? Rome wasn't built in a day!"

He gives me that I-am-one-of-the-few-surviving-great-bankers-in-town look and says, "Well, you can set Rome up in a few years, it seems. Have you examined the whole thing yet?"

Examine? Examine?! "No, of course not. I don't have direct access anyway."

"You're a qualitative researcher, and you're smart. We actually know a lot more because of you. So hurry up!"

Later in the evening, the men in dark suits come round. It is funny to think that one day I might very well be one of those.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008


Some time ago, my family very willingly donated a large sum of money to an educational institution. The only request was that my grandparents' names be honoured, a tradition that has been maintained by the gift of educational facilities in every school in the main line of those which fly a wyvern.

The current family patriarch broke silence the other day. "Where," he asked, "is the plaque?" We all knew what he meant. It doesn't require a whole lot of talent to set up something as straightforward as that. Then again, there are larger donors whose contributions still go uncommemorated, which I pointed out in fair mitigation.

I think it boils down to efficiency. At a smaller institution in the Houses of the Wyvern, detailed and rather beautiful plaques are already up. So is a heritage gallery. Every contribution has been remembered, in a tasteful way, and rather promptly. Well, that's life, I guess. Maybe the intended plaque is already up, and nobody told us. I make no judgement here.

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Examiner (Part II)

There's something obvious about 'examiner' meaning 'one who examines', which is why I hesitate to say that this is exactly what I do. I look at things. A lot.

Yet that's one of the things a lot of examiners don't do around here. I get the feeling that a number of local examiners are more interested in getting the process over and done with (and then going off on their holidays) than in actually getting the work done well. Looking at the marking process and the marking outcomes, and then checking them for consistency, reliability, exactitude and suchlike — these are onerous but necessary to uphold the integrity of any examination system.

How do I reach such conclusions? I look very hard at things like the way rubrics are deployed, the range of error in specific systems, the margin of error that is allowable, the outcomes for students. In all my years of looking carefully, I have come to two possible conclusions: either the system is designed in an unwieldy manner, or the examiners are not uniformly well-trained. Or both, of course.

Again, this kind of thinking would not have been allowed in public if I were still a bound agent. But I am a free agent, and I can speak my mind, especially when I have the evidence of dereliction scattered all throughout my copious files. Actually, there is one more possibility; the range of error might have been magnified by intentional subversion. In other words, the ghastly spectre of grade moderation for no reason except to establish one's ability to do so at will.


Friday, November 14, 2008


I was reviewing my research documents today, in the company of the kind and systematic people at my research institution. That's when one of them, old in years and wise in experience, pointed out that given the documentation I had accumulated, it was quite obvious that some people were 'playing a game of soldiers'.

That's a kind way of putting it. The people I've been working with have been involved with the Ministry of Education at various levels of appraisal, evaluation, policy, and suchlike. They know what constitutes evidence and what doesn't. And they are alternately repulsed and amused by the kind of stuff that passes for legitimation and legitimacy at some educational institutions.

They were particularly entertained by my policy/personnel/programme graph, which charts on the same layout the movement of personnel, the implementation of policy, and the programmes carried out in ostensible support of such policies. One, an educator who is sometimes mistaken for a member of the intelligence services, went so far as to say that the alignment was significantly out of phase in some cases to make the anonymous institution look something like China during the Cultural Revolution, or Stalin's Russia.

Not being an historian myself, I pointed out that while such comparisons were useful as frameworks for comparison, I could hardly be expected to deploy the equivalent of the reductio ad Stalinum while trying to maintain an objective stance on the subject. The quasi-historian who had pointed the resemblances out then laughed and said, "Of course you shouldn't. That can wait till our book next year."

No, I am not one for the drama. I think that anyone who knows me well would be able to sift through every word I have written, whether credited to me or not, and realise that I am a writer of integrity. If the evidence is there, I'll say it. If the evidence is not, I will refrain. And I don't go out of my way to do hatchet jobs, despite the actions of others.

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Examiner (Part I)

It occurred to me, as my life as an examinee continued on, that there was some sort of irony at work as I taught others to be model examinees while I myself was not always confident that I was such. At the same time I was an examiner, and through the years, I learnt a lot about being one.

Essentially, an examiner has three duties.
  1. The examiner must communicate to the examinees exactly what is being tested and how.
  2. The examiner must construct a valid, reliable and useful test.
  3. The examiner must mark the test exactly, accurately and precisely.
If the examiner does all these things, the examination will be consistent and appropriate for its role as an instrument measuring human skill and knowledge.

It is also a great asset if the examiner is an excellent communicator, proofreader and fact-checker. This means that the tests constructed are more likely to be free of ambiguity, repetition and/or impossibility. This makes the examination more valid, reliable and useful; it also makes it easier to assess the returns.

Essentially, the examiner can take one of two paths.

The first is better for entrance examinations and lower-level tests: an examiner attempts to find out what is not known by a process involving brute force. This means that papers are set requiring direct responses (such at the filling-in of blanks). If the candidate does not give an appropriate response, it is easy to see this and eliminate the candidate.

The second is complicated and better for high-level testing: an examiner attempts to find out what is known while keeping the bounds of examination within the syllabus. This means that questions are open-ended, and that wily candidates may escape the net by judicious ambiguity and cleverness of phrase, the use of obvious structures (such as neat paragraphs and tables) designed to disguise the lack of real information, and other such manoeuvres.

The first kind does not require a very intelligent examiner. A machine (or another human) can be programmed to assess the candidate's responses. The second requires an examiner who knows his material, the syllabus, and the structure of the paper and its rubrics exceedingly well. Sadly, this kind of examiner is rare.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Examinee (Part VII)

The last examinations of my life so far were in 2004. They were both rather odd examinations.

The first was on advanced research methods and fieldwork. I found myself returning to the same café every week at the same times and sitting in the same places. I sat there and observed people and what they did until I had enough data to come up with a sort of anthropological hypothesis about café culture. Then I sat around some more until I was reasonably sure I was right. After a few months, I wrote up my research and submitted it.

The second was about principalship and school management. I attended this module with a bunch of soon-to-be and hoping-to-be principals, some staff officers, and some very interesting other people. For the final submission, we were given huge amounts of data about some fictitious school and asked to come up with a plan for solving all the problems in the school within the first few months of (hypothetically) taking office as principal.

This one was a bit difficult; towards the end of the course, I was bound for New York and I would have to submit my answers by email while settling in at Columbia. It was an odd time but a good time. I decided to ignore all the theory in terms of specifics and go for the odd solution of retraining a few personnel in different and unexpected areas, and then shuffling a few of the others around.

Months passed before I got my grades. I completely forgot about the whole thing and focussed on my research into blood substitutes. It wasn't until I got back that my supervisor contacted me with mixed news. After dealing with some difficulties of the kind that ensue when you're away and cannot protect yourself, I received a pleasant surprise. Straight As, and it was time to give up the taking of examinations for the rest of my life, and focus on my thesis-writing.

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Today something occurred to me that never quite occurred to me before. Rain can't possibly fall straight down. It just appears to do that, but every drop is spinning, smearing, stretching, straining, buffeted by wind and the movement of the earth and the intervention of objects. If rain were to fall straight down, it would look and feel rather odd.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Examinee (Part VI)

It wasn't until 1996 that I faced my next round of examinations. These were held during humid nights in a campus surrounded by what was effectively swampland. If you didn't move enough, you'd be eaten by mosquitoes while writing your answers down.

I had six papers to sit for, and I took them over a period of about a year. Two of them were on quantitative and qualitative research methods; two were on science and language education; one was on human resource management and leadership; the last one was on current perspectives in educational research. I got into serious arguments with the lecturers in two of these, and eventually got Cs; I got A grades for the rest. Apart from my A in HRM during my university days, these were the first As I'd scored since 1985 in a major examination.

That was how bad a student I had been, I realised. But what had caused the turnaround? I think that it all boils down to this: at tertiary level, you express your ideas clearly in a complex field. If your answer is rational and the viewpoint you propound is reasonably sound based on the evidence you marshal, you will get an A. However, if you find that there is no evidence to work with, or if the perspective you are forced to swallow is too nebulous to defend or attack, your grade is at the mercy of the instructor.

All I can remember of the examinations themselves were that they involved 3-hour bouts of writing, some on an open-book basis, some not. You had to tear apart the case before you and answer it one way or the other or 'all ends up' at once. I remember staggering out into the damp night air, feeling absolutely exhausted. It was not a pleasant feeling.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


My previous two posts sort of juxtaposed in such a way that people started asking me if the Sewer Rehabilitation Project had anything to do with the Great Visionary Eulogy Statute. No, no, not at all. Just God showing me what life is sometimes about.

But it isn't always rubbish that suffers confluence. Sometimes, good managers and leaders from very different backgrounds also come together in synergy. As in this piece, pointed out to me by the man named Henry. It brings both Arsène Wenger and Barack Obama together in one piece — two great visionary leaders of true class and quality.

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Mythology For Some People

And it came to pass that, one night in the chilly November, the Chancellor of the College took it upon himself to set up a great statute of himself (no, not statue, that was Nebuchadnezzar) and claim the title of Great Visionary. For this was one of the few titles not in common use since the time of the Great Helmsman. And many saw this, and some were made to bow down before it, but it was all in jest, although those who ingested were not all of good digestion thereafter.

Outside, the leaves turned red in embarrassment and the skeletons knocked their bones together in the closet. Many who had worked on earlier statutes were in uproar and disquiet. But some smirked merrily to themselves.

Then the wise men of the Family came together, and some younger of the wise men asked, "Should this be done with the lucre that we have raised for the youth of the nation?" But the older and wiser said, "Is it not great theatre and a worthy appendage to the year? For how else should we gain entertainment and have something to laugh at during the dying days of the year?"

And the younger men went away appeased, for they saw the truth, and the truth made them laugh quite a bit.

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Today I saw a marvellous spectacle which quite displaced my flow of thoughts on examinations for a while. So this is a post that has nothing to do with being an examinee. Rather, it has to do with a flow of a different kind.

As I was walking up the hill, I realised that the last few days of loud machines and aromatic diesel fumes had been because of something called (according to a large blue official-looking sign) the 'Sewer Rehabilitation Program Phase 3'. Not only that, but the agency responsible for it was named the 'Water Reclamation Board'.

I was alternately amused and horrified — amused at the thought of the criminal sewer undergoing interrogation, debriefing, and rehabilitation in some isolated waterway; horrified at the thought of what the juxtaposition of 'sewer rehabilitation' and 'water reclamation' meant. Did it mean that once-criminal sewers had been purged of their water, which in turn was to be given back to society as in Frank Herbert's Dune sequence? Or did it mean that the sewers were being converted to marinas? Or what?

Life is wonderful when you stop to sniff the diesel and read the signs.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Examinee (Part V)

"Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!" Whenever I reach the fifth installment of something, I cannot help but recall the days of my youth, and my father reading Shakespeare's Henry V to me. The quote is, of course, taken from Act III, Scene I.

But yes, after a year of mucking around with 2-bromobenzyl bromide and silanes and phosphines and triosmium clusters and the fatal lure of x-ray crystallography, I went back into school to do my postgraduate qualifications in education.

I will never forget my early introduction to silliness in the educational world. At my entrance interview, the chairman and then-director of the Institute of Education asked me, "Are you trying to tell us that your father is Professor [name omitted]?"

I replied rather heatedly, "On the contrary, I have been trying hard to not bring up the topic of my heritage. It was not my choice to be born into such a family, and I think it is not right for you to keep trying to bring it up." I think I looked sufficiently disgusted that heads began nodding round the semi-circle and I was told, "Thank you, we are sure you will make a good teacher."

And so, I entered the admittedly comforting halls of what used to be the local university and had by then been converted to the sole institution of teacher development in the land. Examinations were interesting. They were held in a converted lecture theatre, where the heat prompted me to complete my examinations even more quickly than the cold of the previous experience.

It was in this milieu that I made friends among senior staff only to find that they were already friends of the family. I made friends with classmates who to this day continue to struggle on bravely and "close the wall up with our English dead". I was very fond of my classmates, and we went to each other's weddings and later in life got to attend courses together.

But examination technique became a very different animal at this level. I had no idea why I hated the textbooks so much, but I swore to build a philosophy of education by learning from what my tutors and lecturers taught and what they did which worked — rather than what they might have said which didn't seem to work on us who were their students. They were a mixed bunch, but they taught from their hearts and their deep experience. And when I sat down to examinations, I was pretty sure that textbook learning didn't come into it.

I was proven right. In the examinations we got, the papers required answers that were reasonable, sound and showed effort on the part of the student to make coherent sense out of a chaotic mess of theory. The psychologists warred with the sociologists, the anthropologists with the historians, the linguists with the biologists. The grades went to anyone who made a cake out of the grungy bits, and somehow along the way, I learnt the art of baking a good one.

The recipe was pretty straightforward. You wrote about existing theory. You showed how existing theories contradicted each other. You offered a better metaphor and pursued the metaphor to its logical conclusion. You designed a plan for executing the implied strategy resulting from that pursuit. You broke it down into steps, tactics, learning points. And you linked the whole package with careful welds and joints, making it as steady as possible while flexible enough to work.

It was a great game. But it was also deadly serious. I never lost sight of the fact that all that knowledge engineering had eventually to do something useful. I prayed hard that one day I would be of benefit to my students, and not let them down.

I had a bit of a shock on the day the results came out. My name wasn't there. Then someone said, "Hey, it's on that list over there." The list looked ominously brief. In fact, it looked like the list of people who for one reason or other had to retake papers in order to pass. Then I realised it was the Distinction Award list, and I crept away to a quiet corner to laugh.

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Examinee (Part IV)

A curious gap in my academic career appears between high school and university life. This was because I enlisted in December 1985 and found myself, after basic training, in some walled-up compound where they taught us about information and how to disseminate, confuse, control and protect it. I took exams there too, and passed them all. At the end of it, I was tasked to look after a small cluster of information systems. And that is all you will learn about it here.

After that was done with, I went back to university life. The main problem was that examinations were deadly things, set at the whim of the lecturers, with a syllabus far more mutable and perverse than any previous examination I had endured before. A somewhat less than sterling performance ensued, with a constellation of Bs, Cs and Ds lighting up the night rather dimly. I digressed into astronomy (NOT astrology) and relearnt my OBAFGKMN main sequence (which is easily remembered by the rather dubious and amusing mnemonic "Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me Now!") which describes the fate of stars.

But of course, the fault is not in the stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

I learned a few interesting things in those years. One is that when proselytized on campus, you should pretend to be a Buddhist, not an atheist. It's safer. More importantly, one should stay calm during examinations and relax in the library. The fact that everyone is studying makes you either a) want to study more, or b) think of a morgue. Either way, the atmosphere is pleasant if you can stop imagining the stress other people are going through.

I also found that the kind of study habits that can get you through exams at the rate of a day or two per subject are just not good enough in the university. I was a terrible undergraduate, and several veiled ultimati were launched in my general direction. Each time I sat down in the bone-chillingly cold exam hall, I would remind myself, "This too shall pass, even if I don't. I had better pass though, else I shall develop arthritis before I am done."

Exam technique then devolved towards attending the last few lectures in every sequence just to figure out what the lecturer's pet topics were, then scrounging questions from your seniors (some of who were in themselves interesting distractions) about those topics. That got me a consistent B in pure chemistry. At which point I must digress and talk about the semi-fatal pull of one's convictions.

When sitting for English Literature examinations in my youth, I was firmly convinced that nothing good could come out of studying 'Africa' novels like Cry, The Beloved Country. The problem with novels of the Third World was that they were uniformly depressing and, while probably somewhat accurate in their descriptions of poverty and pain, seemed to have been chosen as a form of moral education. I therefore gravitated towards the poetry of Hopkins and Auden, and plays such as King Lear and Macbeth, since I figured I might as well have some entertainment with my moral education.

My Literature teacher told me, "You will not pass unless you study the novel, since 40% of the marks comes from two questions on the novel." Well, I got 55% in the preliminary exams, and then freed of the burden of having to follow the school syllabus, got myself an A1 in the finals. In neither case did I answer any questions to do with the novel(s).

This habit was only partly sustainable in my university life. I was not so hot on physical or analytical chemistry, but enjoyed inorganic chemistry and revelled in organic chemistry. I settled for a brief career in organometallic chemistry — at which point I realised that analytical technique, at the very least, was a useful thing to have. And so, it was back to studying hard enough to map it down on paper at the rate of 30 minutes per question. Fortunately, analytical chemistry was easy if you had been paying attention during practicals; while I was a terrible lecture attendee, I was a 100% practical worker.

And so I passed, passed on, passed out. I was now ready for... further examinations in faraway places.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Examinee (Part III)

I remember that the first A I got in a major examination during my pre-university days was for something called the General Paper (GP). It's a simple thing, an essay and a comprehension passage for analysis, normally based on current affairs and general knowledge. My mode of operation for this paper was I suppose an odd one, since my classmates used to tell me odd things about what I used to do during the examination.

This is how it used to be.

I used to get the comprehension passage done first. This would take half an hour to read and answer. It's basically a test of language understanding and rephrasing, so there is nothing unusual, and I used to treat it the way one would treat some sort of food that was not very tasty, but essential for life: get it over as quickly as possible.

Then came the challenging part. I used to play a little game with myself. The typical GP essay is an answer to one of about ten different questions. It's your choice which one you answer, and I used to pick the least interesting-looking one and try to make it interesting. The essay covers about three sheets of writing paper, and is all about structuring an argument and the use of language. I would cover the first two sheets (about four pages) and make sure that the last sentence was complete at the end of the last page of this section. I would then write the third sheet, starting a new paragraph at the top of the sheet.

At this point, I was really done. I would snooze for about 30 minutes in case of inspiration, then wake up and write a fourth sheet. The game was to design this fourth sheet so that it would could be seamlessly inserted between the last sentence of Sheet 2 and the first paragraph of Sheet 3. This made the essay unbalanced unless you were very careful. However, when done right, you could insert a third perspective or go off (but not too far off) on an interesting tangent that could be shown to relate to the other material.

I would then read through both versions, the one with the extra sheet and the way it looked without. Normally, I kept the extra sheet; it's amazing what good ideas you can come up with after a bit of sleep.

My classmate Ruth, who used to sit behind me during exams and was (and is) a very nice lady, used to say that it was somewhat disconcerting to watch me doze off and then suddenly come to life again. She once said the worst part was having examiners converge on our area just in case something was wrong with me. But she got used to it, and we're still friends.

Nevertheless, those days of playing games during exams came to an end. GP was the only paper for which I scored an A1 that year, and as I headed towards my army service, I told myself, "Whoops. Ought to work a bit harder in future."


Examinee (Part II)

I always was a terrible student in some ways. If you were to plot a curve of my academic achievements, my low point was probably the time from high school to university. I remember my grades only too well; in my final year of pre-university education, I was averaging a C and my grades spanned the whole spectrum from A to E.

That's when I went off to the army for a while. My grades were a lot better there, I had a lot more fun, and I learnt a lot.

Then I came back to academic life at the university. Big mistake, in some ways. I had always been a 'humanities person' as some people might put it. Quixotically, I opted for a career in the sciences — mathematics, chemistry, computing, that kind of stuff. Big, big mistake. The low point was the second year, in which I did well at chemistry, flunked math, and deliberately failed computing (the story is told elsewhere) before provisionally passing the latter two subjects after re-examinations.

The high point that year was getting 99.5 for the chemistry practical exam. Heh. It was what propelled me into a final-year course in pure and applied chemistry, what some other people might call a double major. This was fun. I think we had 18 hours of practicals a week, maybe 15. I enjoyed everything except the examinations, which were held in a cavernous room with the thermostat set to 'ultra cold'. The other fun bit was taking the Human Resource Management examinations. Too easy.

I got slack, and after a stint as a research technologist, it was off to the local Institute of Education for postgraduate studies. Examinations could only get better! Or so I thought.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Examinee (Part I)

I've been preparing young people for examinations. At this most intense period of their lives, it's interesting and perhaps somewhat sobering to see how they're coping. None of us 'old people' can avoid drawing a few comparisons consciously or subconsciously with our own personal experience of exams, so that's where I'll begin.

I've never been one for treating examinations as a particularly important part of the year, although they're a very important part of the calendar. That seems odd, so let me elaborate. The year goes on, and most parts of it are more important to my life; yet, the exams seem to take up a disproportionate chunk of time and bring down upon me the various inputs of other people who don't normally make noises at me.

It took me years to pass through the stages of response to exams. I hated them to begin with; I came eventually to be resigned, and then accepting. I actually enjoy them now, with a "Take that, foul fiends of examination!" attitude whenever I sit down to answer the questions.

At this point, some younger persons might scoff, asking when it was that I actually last sat for examinations. Ha, it was in 2004. I sat for two papers: one in Principalship and School Management, the other in Qualitative Research Methodology. I was excused from 4 other papers by virtue of turning in a reasonably good Master's thesis, and I was happy to actually get an 'A' for each of the two papers I sat for.

But the funniest thing was that the whole thing was FUN. Haha!


Friday, November 07, 2008

Generation XYZ

We think in terms of generations and generation gaps. But the flow of generations is like a river; it never ceases, it is a continuous stream, it is not as clearly defined as some people would have you believe.

In the latest US presidential elections, the youthful demographic segment aged 18-29 broke for President-Elect Obama by a margin of 66-31. It was the largest proportion since pollsters had begun to collect such data. In a generation's time, they will be aged 48-59. It will still be too broad a demographic segment to say anything much about, except that they will be no longer youthful.

I was reading a book about the globalisation of education last night (yes, yet another one). This line caught my eye: educationists should learn to take seriously the pleasures and power of the young. It was a very thought-provoking statement.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

President Obama & Global Connectivity

While visiting the Washington Post, I realised that the map I was looking at looked a lot like another map I'd seen in my research. So I went back to it and had a good look.

Do you know which cities are ALPHA, BETA and GAMMA-class Globally-Interconnected Cities? Is your city one of them? And what is the link between being a Global City and supporting Barack Obama for President of the USA?

First of all, you can look at the list of GaWC Global Cities here: [MAP] [TEXT]


(UPDATE): A brief note of explanation here, as requested. A Global City is one which for economic, cultural, social or other reasons takes a disproportionate role in the affairs of the world. Currently, the four top (Level 12) ALPHA-class world cities are London, New York, Paris and Tokyo (in alphabetical order). These are followed by six other ALPHA-rated cities at Level 10: Chicago, Frankfurt, Hongkong, Los Angeles, Milan, Singapore. The GaWC ranking I've used here is based on the levels at which the city provides advanced services (e.g. law, medicine, media, finance) to the rest of the world. There are other rankings; Foreign Policy journal's October 2008 issue has one based on 24 metrics, but the top ten are roughly the same. (/UPDATE)


Next, you can look at a graphic representation from the Washington Post of which counties went for whom and by how much here: [LINK to WaPo Interactive Map]

Here's some numerical data.

In alphabetical order, the three ALPHA world cities on the US map are Chicago (O +1,001,099), Los Angeles (O +662,350) and New York (O +411,186).

The one BETA world city on the US map is San Francisco (O +168,101).

The GAMMA cities on that map are, in alphabetical order, Atlanta (O +182,030), Boston (O +139,072), Dallas (O +114,991), Houston (O +18,468, which is rather low in comparison to the rest), Miami (O +243,567), Minneapolis (O +190,657), and Washington DC (O +218,195).

I then went to the text list, which gives DELTA cities: Baltimore, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Richmond, Seattle. Denver was added recently and isn't on the 2004 list.

Every single one of those cities went for Senator (now President-Elect) Obama in a big way. But there are two possible objections to this simple analysis. Firstly, the big cities have always been projected as pro-Obama; secondly, this looks like cherry-picking with no basis in fact.

These objections are easily dealt with: look at the maps; there are largeish cities which went for McCain (e.g. Salt Lake City by 90,000) and some that went red in previous elections. But none of the most globally-interconnected cities are in red; all of them went blue this year. Barack Obama won in almost every demographic category; the largest category of people who voted against him were old white Protestant males in rural areas.

There does indeed seem to be a link that shows President Obama's support is large in cities that are well-connected to the rest of the world. And that bodes well for the future of the US in the global milieu.

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Shifting blame, shifting responsibility, shifting one's stand — these are all the habits of a complex world. I don't think of them as egregious character flaws, but as the necessary behaviours of a fallen race. It is not possible to live a life in a world that is constantly contradicting itself without either pandering to these sneaky angels of our nature or becoming a quiet schizophrenic sitting in a corner and metaphorically (or literally) drooling in slack-jawed incontinence.

But there are a few ways to reduce the shiftiness. One is to stake out one's claims in public and let others openly declare how shifty you are being. Unless you are a sociopath, this will curb the habit a little. Similarly, you can key your behaviour to a public standard such as a holy book; whether or not the book is consistent, people can check the book to see if you are sticking to it insofar as it is humanly possible.

Accountability, standards... two legs were never enough for complete stability, although better than one. The third leg of the tripos is principle. This is how it works: you must be able to give an account of yourself (work, life, faith, whatever) in relation to certain fixed standards. But because standards are fixed and the world moves, there must be leeway for interpretation. At the same time, interpretation also has its rules, and these are called principles. This ensures that the standards are interpreted at least according to some meta-rules that you can also be held accountable to.

One example is a legal system: one is held accountable to standards called laws, which result in yes/no consequences; i.e. if you breached the law, you get punished and if you didn't you don't. However, the interpretation of the law by agreed principle is the basis of two parts of the system — is the evidence sufficient to confirm or deny a breach, and how much punishment should then ensue if the breach is confirmed.

Similarly, religious life should also show these three things: one is held accountable to one's religious dogmas, which should then allow people to hold you accountable in social, cultural or legal ways (it depends on how advanced a society you live in). However, those dogmas (technically 'dogmata', I suppose) normally require interpretation, and this is the logical domain of consistent principles called 'hermeneutics'.

Educational systems are not exempt. Any system must be explicable in terms of clear standards and accountability to those standards. The interpretation of those standards by established principles which are also agreed upon provides some flexibility. However, some behaviours are clearly beyond the pale: forging documents and making unjustified claims, removal of evidence, ill-treatment of students.

Here's a final note on 'arbitrariness'. Quite often, people complain about 'arbitrary' behaviour. Well, this is perfectly all right to me as long as the person displaying arbitrary judgement is indeed qualified to be an arbiter in the given situation. A good arbiter knows all the rules and has extensive knowledge of how to apply accepted principles of interpretation to those rules in cases where the operation of the rules may seem insufficient, unusual or inaccurate. He is accountable for his arbitrations in a way that is open to public debate. This can be seen in mostly in transnational bodies, where arbitration is a respectable activity.

In religion, of course, co-religionists should at least agree that their God, gods, or cosmic principles will in time carry out the required arbitration. In Christianity, we are all accountable to God for our actions and intentions. The unusual thing about religion is that by definition, eternal verities and sagacities are not accountable to the adherents of a faith; in that sense, God is 'allowed' and even defined to be the ultimate Arbiter, beyond accountability and hence fully arbitrary.

Which brings us back to the beginning. In a universe in which more than one thing exists, the potential for a shift in state exists and is hence part of the universe. Shifting then becomes an established principle. It does not mean we have to condone every shift, or that all shifts are morally or logically equal. But they must exist, and they must be appraised by a critical mind. Unless mind is an illusion, in which case it doesn't matter. As some anonymous sage once said, "Mind over matter: if you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Random Thoughts on US Election Day 2008 (Part III)

Polls just closed over the entire great country (excepting the secessionists of Alaska). More random thoughts come to mind...
  • Alaska is a huge place. It's the largest state in America, about 1.7 million square kilometres of mineral goodness. The Yanks bought it for what in this year's US dollars would be $360m. It boggles the mind.
  • Haha, the moment polls closed, they gave the West Coast to Senator Obama. He's at 324 electoral votes now and counting.
  • In retrospect, this marks the true beginning of the Internet Era. The anti-Internet, anti-blogging, anti-freedom-of-speech, anti-intellectual cabals and agencies of the past age have just lost one major battle in the culture wars.
  • Apple machines are very cool. And so is Apple stock.
  • The senator from Illinois may yet hit 378 EV. They haven't quite called Indiana, North Carolina, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, or Nevada yet. Soon.
  • Obama will have won a victory 'from sea to shining sea'.
Actually, you might as well have the full lyrics. America isn't always quite so beautiful, but it sometimes can be.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion'd stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes prov'd
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

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Random Thoughts on US Election Day 2008 (Part II)

Woke up early enough (ha, that sounds odd) to catch the beginning of the election results stream. I've always marvelled at the way pollsters and pundits extract solid opinions by extrapolation from virtually nothing. In Vermont, the data from less than 1% of the voting results allows CNN to call it for Senator Obama, while in Kentucky, it takes 13% to call it for Senator McCain.

More random thoughts:
  • More women vote than men; it is the crowning glory of the suffragette movement.
  • I'm struck by how stable the Biden and Obama families look; in contrast, the Palins look manic and the McCains look synthetic.
  • There'll be a whole new generation of young people singing along with John Denver, "Where's Virginia? Mountain mama, take me home..." (OK, that was a bad pun.)
  • Then again, some people might confuse John Denver with Denver, Colorado.
  • In South Carolina, McCain is projected to win from the fact that at the moment, Obama is leading 55-44 with 1% counted.
  • I have sinned; I am drinking ginger extract with my coffee.
  • The stock market seems to have made me some money.
  • I kept having dreams of stuffed bird toys; it is all Speedcuber's fault.
  • I'm wondering what McCain will say at his concession speech, and at what time Obama will make his victory speech.
  • Michael Fullan's The New Meaning of Educational Change is on my desk; the title is beginning to take on new significance.
I'll be adding more to this list.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Random Thoughts on US Election Day 2008 (Part I)

I've been having random thoughts all day, in between assembling my review on global educational reform. Educational reform and national policy may be very interesting, but it can't compete with one of the largest quadrennial shows on earth (bar the Olympics).

So here are my thoughts:
  • James Carville looks perpetually malevolent; he ought to act in fantasy horror movies.
  • Sarah Palin reminds me of the Nanny (Fran Drescher) in the eponymous comedy TV series. Fran's more attractive, though. And she's from Queens.
  • Obama is actually pretty buff compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger (the evidence is here).
  • The majority of American states have 'minority' language names, i.e. non-English.
  • McCain v Obama reminds me of any number of ancient dinosaurs desperately holding on against the tide of change and trying to establish a legacy based on quicksand.
  • I am predicting that Obama will get 393 electoral votes. I'm probably wrong, but one ought to dream big dreams.
I'll update the list as we go along...

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Democracy has always meant 'authority of the people'. The problem in defining it more clearly is threefold: what is 'authority', what is 'of', and what is 'the people'? Some people have never even thought about any of these terms; most have not thought about all of them.

Democracy as it came out of Greece was pretty straightforward. Freemen who had completed national service and were not under criminal suspension voted; it was a duty for all adult (above 18) males who were not disqualified to do so. The rest (about 80-90% of the population) were not 'the people'. The majority (or plurality) won, and the minority was not represented at all. Voting was by hands if the group was small enough, or by black and white balls cast into a clay jar. At the end of vote casting, the jar was broken open for public counting of votes.

The assembly of the people was called the ekklesia. There were no limits to what they could and did vote on, although most of their business involved commercial, social and legal order. After about 400 BC, the first 6000 citizens to arrive at the assembly became the quorum, and received a payment for attendance. Their authority was not subject to review or investigation; if somehow they were shown to have made a mistake, it was commonly put out that they were 'misled' by the information or evidence provided for a decision.

For legal decisions, a juror panel was appointed from a pool of 6000 voters; these panels were large, numbering in the hundreds (commonly 201 or 501 jurors) and sometimes thousands. You had to be 30 years of age and older to vote in one of these panels. Speakers were timed by water-clock, with time limit proportional to the amount at stake or importance of the case. This was normally three hours, prosecution first, then defence. The jury had to say 'yes' or 'no' collectively, with no time limit on deliberation.

More important as a consequence of all this was that two philosophies contended over the fate of the ancient world. Democrats favoured the demos: the people who qualified as citizens regardless of further characteristics. Republicans favoured rule by the elite: the people who were more qualified by reason of wealth, descent, or education. The former believed it was unjust not to enfranchise all legal citizens; the latter believed it was against the nature of the world to not reward manifest success. The former attempted to broaden the voting franchise; the latter attempted to create barriers which would make the effective pool smaller.

Which brings us to the present day, and why it is obvious that we are a Republic. For now.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Mission: Jerusalem

It's been a while since I last looked at that most mysterious of the agents of the Highest, that man Nehemiah, chief of the Great King's secret service. A lot of people don't think of him that way, and perhaps that's because his station in life is so remote to us. But he, as he never tires of reminding us, was cupbearer to the king; he was the man who was trusted with figuring out the intrigues of the court, the gossip of the day, and the toxicity of the king's food.

His tale is full of intrigue and daring. Based on intelligence gleaned from exile sources, he petitions the king for resources and so founds the ancient equivalent of the modern CIA. Given resources, a mandate and a commando squad, this is an account of his first reconnaissance into occupied territory:

And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire.

Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned.

And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.

See? This is a gripping first-hand account of his traversal of a ruined city by night, and the admission that it was undertaken as a covert mission. The intrigue multiplies; before long, he is dealing with the ruthless villains Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian. What names those are to conjure with!

Nehemiah is a brave and brilliant man. The only deficiency he has is the fear that God will forget all about him and what he has done in the secret service. This is the one problem with such a role: you are more unknown than the unknown soldier — there will be people actively seeking to keep you unknown.

Thanks to the written record of this book, however, we can still remember this original spymaster and double agent. He got his request and his work was not forgotten.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Tactics Of Mistake (Redux)

Recently, I took up playing chess again. A very very long time ago, I used to spend my time doing a lot more other stuff besides studying. Some teachers thought that I spent more time running, debating, playing chess, playing rugby, playing the fool, loafing in the canteen or in the library than I ever did in class. They were probably right.

The last competitive match I ever played was in 1985, I think. Since then, chess has changed a lot; increases in processing power have allowed chess programs to teach us a lot about what a safe position really is. Modern games now look more like extreme sports events, with players hanging on for dear life in unbalanced positions.

So I decided to lurk around for a while at the 1200 level of the pond and play a bit. The experiment began about a month ago, and I've played 45 games since then, and am now around the 1800 level or so. 3 still in progress; 41 won, 1 drawn. It's not that I'm good. I've been analysing my games and I know I made serious mistakes in 6 of them and fatal mistakes in 3.

But most important to me is that I still have the same philosophy of play that I have always had, something that is a part-distillate of what my father and grandfather taught me over the board. My grandfather introduced me to chess and his chess library. We had many great moments over his beautiful (and alas, now seriously old and somewhat damaged) wooden Staunton set and board.

It's all about development, positioning, flexibility; it's about time, space, material and movement. It teaches you a lot. But oddly enough, it's also about personal style and temperament. At deeper levels of analysis, not everything is objective. TIme and time again, commentators have said things like, "Black is objectively better," while noting that over-the-board chances favour the other player given the subjective nature of both players, the environment, the time factor and the kind of position.

This short post is just to remind myself and point out to some people that I have always been very open on this blog about my ideas, philosophy, and strategic approach to life. It breeds measurable consistency, whether on the chessboard or in any other game environment. By that, I specifically mean that you can look at what I've said about my approach and see if that is indeed the way I do things.

Which finally brings us to the tactics of mistake, which I first blogged about more than two years ago. Apparently, some people never listen to what I say. If they had, they'd know what kind of response to expect from me in a strategic environment.

Looking at my 45 games, I realise it's all about the practical execution of the tactics of mistake. Play a stable game, be creative, absorb pressure, invite error, provoke mistakes, and deploy the reserve energy of the position to win in the long run. In a large proportion of the games, I realise that the winning move was not objectively a winner. It was instead a provocative move that sowed doubt, created opportunity for mistake, or invited an ill-considered attack. Quite often, it didn't look particularly wild or provocative, but just acted that way.

In at least two cases, the move played was objectively a loser (or at least, something which would lower the chances of winning a lot). But those moves led to rapid wins. Life is funny, and often downright amusing.

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The theme of that book is that nothing really changes, that randomness and chance are dominant in the world of real things. The book says that the only place in which this is different is the place of the mind, where one can think about why this is so, and why the world is nothing but the vanity of illusion.

That book is the book of Qoheleth, which a younger civilisation now calls Ecclesiastes. As we look towards a change in paradigm come November 4 this year, a change which seems profound in the world of men, it is instructive to read this old book.

Here is Ecclesiastes 8:8-9:

There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it. All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt.

Perhaps this is one of those times, in which those who have power over others, or who gain that power, will find that it is bitter indeed in the end. But as the Preacher said, there is nothing new under the sun. The change that we can believe in is fleeting unless it is a change in the hearts and minds of men; our historical awareness tells us that overall there will never be such a thing.

In the end, it boils down to the audacity of hope; a generation must desire to believe that things can be made better even though the institutions of the world have failed, are failing, will fail or are themselves 'epic fail'. Yet even this belief may not save us from the near-certainty that somehow, some people will screw things up, and that will balance the books of life.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008


I woke up this evening in the cool dimness of a rainy evening. I had been dreaming. Somehow, all my ex-classmates from supper the night before were in one land-rover driving up into the highlands of a neighbouring state. And along the way, we were continuously treated to scenes of third-world incompetence and poverty. Odd dream.

Cut to the next segment, a vignette involving Nikola Tesla, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the White Lion. (Yes, Morningblade, there is such an order, and Tesla was a recipient.) In that segment, I was dreaming about electricity prices being raised 21%. And Tesla was shouting at me, "How can they say you're wasting electricity?! If you don't use it but it's being generated, THAT is waste!"

And I woke up, and it was all true. Urk.

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