Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

The word 'resolution' is an even stranger word than 'dissolution', which I referred to in one of yesterday's posts. Resolutions can be things resolved upon, things dissolved, findings of a sharper grain, answers that unfold a problem, the subsidings of medical problems, returns to congruence or consonance in language or music, analyses that give a clearer picture, defining parameters of a clearer picture, decisions, obstacles, acuities. What does it mean to be 'resolute' anyway?

I resolve, and the answers come out different.

I resolve, and the precision is increased though the accuracy is not.

I resolve, and the universe spins around me. Oops, that was a typo.

This year comes to an end, and one thing is for sure: I have to make a list of things that I set firm in my heart to do. And these, we resolve, will be my resolutions:
  • I will finally get my work done and go back to a life of teaching, full-time. As always before, I find myself more a thinker than a scholar, more a teacher than an office-sir, more a gadfly than a gentle-man. These may be failings, but my gifts as I see them do not permit me to boast in my wisdom, strength or riches; I can only claim that I often tried my best, sometimes failed, but always got up to continue running.

  • I will brush up on my chess openings and end-games. So far, I've got enough stuff to cover a proper study of modern chess openings and survive most normal end-games. Playing chess online with old friends is helping somewhat. I'll never be a master, but I think chess is a good discipline and helps develop the other parts of my brain which aren't normally in use when I do my usual work.

  • I will embrace my white hairs. They will have their time and their place and I appreciate them a lot for what they are.

  • I will absorb all the annoyances of daily life. I shall assimilate them. We shall overcome some day.

  • I will learn to teach literature properly. Heh.

  • I will become an Apple certified trainer. Heh heh.

  • I will spend a lot more time praying for my past and present students, and my past and present colleagues. By name.
And thus endeth the lesson.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Animal States

Cats are fluid, dogs are solid, with all the semantic and semiotic nuances that these words entail.

Today I sat at breakfast watching the two animals I call 'Flumpy' and 'Frumpy' (names withheld to protect animal rights). Flumpy is a five year old male cat and Frumpy is a fifteen year old female dog, both of the gingerish persuasion and both as mongrelised as anything, being nice animals saved from the alleys, and very affectionate.

Flumpy was... flumphed. I guess there's no other word that adequately and onomatopoeically enough describes the boneless liquid pool of fur that a cat can become at an instant's notice. He had collapsed into a puddle at the bottom of his hammock, the indoor groundsheet we'd suspended above his home. If you looked hard and long, you could see one ear erect, like the fin of a particularly lazy shark swimming in a sea of ginger fur. Occasionally, it would twitch, as if the shark were changing direction.

Frumpy was just being a doorstop. If you missed the thing on the brown tiles that seemed a little like a cross between a small tent and a mousedeer, you would bump into it and fall down. But she had a clearly defined shape, was an obvious obstacle to ambulatory progress (i.e. walking around). Actually, nobody ever bumped into her because she was always in the same place at the same time, like a lighthouse or a shoal. Flumpy, on the other hand, tended to evaporate from sight, as is the way of all cats.

I think they are a little like that when up and about as well. Frumpy will bang into your leg. Flumpy will ooze over your foot. Again, the solid/liquid analogy maintains. Yes, there is a whole theory of physical states waiting out there for the intrepid researcher.


Old Year's Dissolutions

Dissolution has many meanings. It can mean the breaking down of something, or the integration of a substance into a solvent; it can mean the final rupture of a contract, or the lax profligacy of a way of life. It can be a dismissal, a disbanding, a transition from one phase to another. It is all these things, and more.

I will choose it to mean something personal today.

I will choose it to mean the things of this year that I would cast away, or would not want to carry over to the New Year. In this sense, a dissolution might very well mean the opposite of a resolution. That would be pleasing in effect.

But here is my list of dissolutions:
  • I don't like people who are late or who make people late for appointments. I hate it when I'm late. I'd rather be ridiculously early. I think I have to learn to be more tolerant. But I don't think it will be easy. I'd rather that late people just not turn up. I used to tell my students, "You're slower than my grandmother!" And I meant it; both my grandmothers have gone to glory, and they're thus my late grandmothers. Some students tried hard to be even later.

  • I am not a doggy person. I am a catty person. Argh. That didn't come out right. What I mean is that I don't particularly like dogs, compared to cats. Dogs are more obvious in their loyalties, that's true. But cats are more subtle, more self-reliant; they have more pride, and also the confidence to sleep through many crises that would keep a dog up late at night. But I have realised that domestication ruined the dog, but not the cat; the wolf is a proud beast, the cat is still a cat.

  • I am a terrible procrastinator. It takes me what seems like forever to do something that needs doing. Quite often, I know that it's not real procrastination. Rather, it's the need to not do things too early, so that things will be done just on time instead of making the anxiety queue shorter just for the sake of it. I hate rushing, but there's little worse than doing things today when you can do them tomorrow, only to find out tomorrow that they did not need doing at all.

  • I am too affectionate. I love my quirky relatives, my friends, and make friends easily out of complete strangers. I have spent 30 years trying to make this less, and I think I have almost succeeded. I think what might really have happened, though, is that I just internalise it. I have developed a large heap of fondness in my heart for all kinds of people who may or may not deserve it. But I am a rebel against myself. I think they all deserve it, even if they laugh at me for it.

  • I have a great antipathy towards some people who are deliberately unintelligent. These people have brains, but when confronted with data which should tell them something, their main reply is, "So what? It doesn't change the fact that..." Yes, it doesn't change the fact that they are determined to ignore the truth simply because their mindsets are more like concrete boots. It's either that or the atheists are right and the mind doesn't really exist at all, and there is no free will.
Well, that's something I'm glad I got off my chest. Tomorrow will be harder. Resolutions are often tougher to do than dissolutions. It's like watching crystals grow.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Serenity III: Firefly

Four years and four months ago, I was made very happy by Joss Whedon's Firefly. Up to this point, I think the only other TV series which made me this happy was The Lone Gunmen. I have enjoyed many other TV series, but these two have always given me the peace of mind that is marked by high good humour and a general (if sometimes slightly cynical) goodwill towards all people.

One of the many elements that makes Firefly so outstanding is the theme song, 'Serenity'. To this day, I think it is a song that speaks from my heart and to my heart about the world in which I have lived.


take my love
take my land
take me where i cannot stand
i don't care
i'm still free
you can't take the sky from me

take me out
to the black
tell 'em i ain't coming back
burn the land
and boil the sea
you can't take the sky from me

have no place
i can be
since I found Serenity
but you can't take the sky from me

-joss whedon, 'Serenity' (theme from Firefly)

Serenity indeed.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Serenity II: Watching The White Wheat

Today I sit here and sip my coffee, noticing in passing that about 200 mg of caffeine later, I still feel rather calm and settled. They say that caffeination dulls your response to adrenaline, and in consequence helps you to live a longer and stress-free life. It's only people who over-produce adrenaline and already have hypertension who shouldn't touch caffeine — they just get diseased by it.

I look out on the prospects of the year ahead, and I feel contented and altogether too happy, as one of my friends recently remarked (or 'emarked', a new coining I have made to describe online remarks). I have the peace of the man who watched the white wheat grow. That tale is found in the Welsh song Bugeilio Gwenith Gwyn, which means 'Watching the White Wheat'; it is all about watching something that you sowed grow, while someone else reaps the harvest. If you can accept that (and it is a most Christian ideal to do so), then serenity can be yours.

There are so many kinds of serenity, and so little time we make for ourselves to enjoy them.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Serenity I: Agreeable Disagreement

I have been deriving much inspiration and comfort from a re-reading of Alistair Cooke's Letters from America. Mr Cooke was of course a man whom my parents held up as a role-model to me from a very early age, and his Letters were a nonpareil among the journalistic broadcasts of all time.

Recently, I have been moved to quote (and not the first time) a line from one of his Letters. This is from 7 Dec 1956, a long time before I was born.

"What I admire most in a man is his serenity of spirit... when he fights, he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon."

In all my life, I have tried to follow this principle of disagreement. I have always duelled like a gentleman, and not come after someone like a lout. It is this essential characteristic that distinguishes, in my mind, the spirit of a true leader — a scholar, an officer, and a gentleman — from the ersatz variety that we only too often find in charge of our venerable institutions.

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How many things can you put in one place? It depends on how much leeway you are allowed in other dimensions besides the one(s) that determine the location of the place. I remember all this stuff by reading people like Donald Knuth a long time ago, in my other life as a computer scientist. To this day, I have not found a better computer science textbook (i.e. a textbook about any particular aspect of that field) better than the first three volumes of his TAoCP.

Some time ago, a student asked me how the various things I have studied in my life affect the kind of behaviour I evince while living the rest of my life. I think I've mentioned some of those behavioural quirks before (for example, here). You can probably find more by searching for 'life' and 'computer' or whatever in this blog.

I think that all of the things I've learnt stack in my brainspace, and provide bonuses which are independent of each other. But you'll have to ask my Master if that is true.

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Sucker Shark

I don't know whether anyone still remembers the poem about the monkey crossing the river, which seemed to say a lot about the education system.

Well, here's another poem by the same poet, Thomas Lux. It has a tone very like the first, and yet a totally different colour.

Remora, Remora

Clinging to the shark
is a sucker shark,
attached to which
and feeding off its crumbs
is one still tinier,
inch or two,
and on top of that one,
one the size of a nick of gauze;
smaller and smaller
(moron, idiot, imbecile, nincompoop)
until on top of that
is the last, a microdot sucker shark,
a filament’s tip – with a heartbeat – sliced off,
and the great sea
all around feeding
his host and thus him.
He’s too small
to be eaten himself
(though some things swim
with open mouths) so
he just rides along in the blue current,
the invisible point of the pyramid,
the top beneath all else.

It seems to say something else about more or less the same thing. Heh.


Note: Hmm. The Library of Congress 'Poetry 180' site rotates poems in and out, so the links might not work after a few months. Get it now while you can. But there are a lot of other nice poems there too!

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Friday, December 26, 2008


It's going to be the first time in 35 years that I will enter the first working day of the year without having to do any work at all. The realisation of this landmark hit me with stunning force just a few hours ago and I have not quite recovered. Then again, it offers a truly clean slate, a chance to do things left undone before.

Wish me all the best, old friends.


Taking Stock

This year has been too good a year. Financially stable, some work has been done (well, about 20,000 words or so), a lot of reading has been covered, my friends are still my friends (and old friendships have been renewed). All in all, more than anyone needs to feel that this has been a good year.

I am glad for the many thousands of small moments that made this year memorable. I started this post with the intent of listing them, despite the fact that the list would probably be in the dozens, nearer the hundreds. Then I realised that it would have to wait for 31 December, for obvious reasons.

The list of people to thank is very long. Being thankful for the divine providence is one thing; it is something you don't stop doing, and hopefully, you don't forget to keep doing. But sometimes one forgets to thank friends. I will always begin with family, without who I literally would not be around to thank anyone else; thus do I also honour the Fifth Commandment (these days far less respected, it seems, than the Fifth Amendment).

Among my friends, I must remember my three ex-wingmen, who can still be counted on in a fight. They have always been great support. I've never had female wingmen (haha) but I must say that you can find superior ladyship in this blog elsewhere.

I'll continue later.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Carol?

Haha, for some strange reason, it wasn't quite a Christmas carol that was coursing through my brain just now. I was thinking of the year just past and this nursery rhyme came to mind, I have no idea why:

Goosey goosey gander
Where do you wander?

Upstairs and downstairs
In my ladies' chamber.

There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers
So I took him by the left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

How peculiar... perhaps my friends from the old place might understand.


Christmas Posting

I am mildly surprised to realise that my first Christmas post was only last year, in December 2007. It was preceded by this post, which I think is somehow more memorable to me. Actually, I do remember my feelings last Christmas. I was a little distraught at the passage of the First, which is odd because the older teachers will tell you to try not to get too attached to any of your student batches.

Over the last few days I've had occasion to remember my First, the 1993 batch at the Light on the Hill; as well as the First, the 2007 batch at the College of Wyverns. I think these two batches have to be the ones which really marked out my days for me. I cast my mind further back to the 1983 batch of the College, and am alarmed to realise that it was mine. Heh.

Yet there's another thing to remember. Every single batch I've helped to graduate in December has been a unique present to me, and much appreciated. And thus do I exorcise the ghosts of Christmas Past, and Christmas Present (or Christmas presents). Christmas Futures, however, will have to wait till the market is less volatile.

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Today will always be a beautiful day because it belongs to the class of days I have always called Christmas, the Mass of the Redeemer. As a scientist, my job is to demystify; as a teacher, my job is to teach people how to demystify. As in the dilemma of capitalism-driven education, the act of demystification eventually leads to sterility, logically speaking, unless the universe is ever-expanding. If it is, then there will always be mystery. If it isn't, then we will have to create it.

And today, even more so than on all my other days in the year, I feel free of the human and the humanly-constructed. It is odd, since you can't really be free of it. But the human mind is good at contrary behaviour.

So to all my friends, of whatever creed and race and tongue, of whatever genetic or memetic disposition, of whatever gender or species or category, I wish a blessed Christmas. I wish that you will have as much God as you really need. And to my wishes I give the breath of prayer, and I ask for all the forgiveness I can bear.

One week more to a new year: that has been in modern history one of the nice things of the Great Mass. May it be a good year in effect and affect.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

States of Repulsion

Recently, a medical student I know posed a question about the undead. I can safely say that I understand the question, and also that I think I know the answer. That is, I am certain that I think I know the answer, but I am not so certain that I actually know the answer. You will immediately see the gap that I am using as a hedge.

His question was, "I wonder why we have such a deep seated primal fear about zombies. Is it an innate instinct to fear the Mindless Masses that humans can become in mobs?"

I think that part of it comes from the 'Uncanny Valley', that zone of human perception at which the close-to-known becomes the repulsive unknown. The unknown here is what the Hierophant would call das Unheimliche, that sensation of looking at the familiar and suddenly recognizing that it is not.

Here's an experiment you can try. I've done it many times before, and the capacity to successfully carry it out is a mark of the ability to successfully bisociate — that is, to bridge two similar states while recognizing they are not at all the same. It is a fundamental component of humour (and this concept was also part of my education thesis for the postgrad diploma in education, heh heh).

The experiment goes like this. Hold out your hand, palm down, slightly to one side. Stare at it so that almost your entire visual field is filled by the hand, with its fingers and extending as far back as your wrist. At some point, you will realise that your hand looks strange and unfamiliar. You may even begin to think of it as an alien structure. When you reach this stage, congratulate yourself for two things. You have achieved bisociational perspective, and you have also realised why knowing something as well as the back of your hand is not an easy thing.

But back to the 'Uncanny Valley'. Look at this graph, proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Not everyone agrees with it, but it explains why animated films like The Polar Express met with such mixed reactions.

Now compare that graph to this one. Although this one is actually a graph of the interaction between two hydrogen atoms that are dancing into a covalent bond, there are obvious similarities. In the case of the robot (or zombie, which should be similar — haha), perfect similarity to a human would result in most normal affective response; in the case of the atoms, perfect similarity (i.e. overlap) causes most repulsion (since two atoms can't occupy the same space). It turns out that there are many such similar phenomena in the universe.

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I remember when McDonald's™ first came to this part of the world. I was one of the first to hang out there after school, and I remember the kinds of things we did there to the tune of no small embarrassment. I was then about 10 kg lighter, due to a vastly superior metabolism. Those things were all far in the past.

Of late, however, there has been a trend towards all kinds of 'upsize' and 'outsize' offers. One of them boasts double the number of beef patties, the so-called 'MegaMac™'.

You know what? It's about the same size as the Big Mac™ used to be. It is certainly not as large and far from anywhere as juicy as the Wendy's Triple I used to hungrily gobble about twice a week. I feel sad for the deprived youths of today.


Science Centre?

I brought my niece, a very intelligent and somewhat perspicacious child, to the local Science Centre. She had a lot of fun, and although she was disappointed at certain things, showed unusual and precocious maturity in choosing to highlight the positives in her report to her parents and grandparents.

She was very impressed by the Omnimax theatre, although she was sad at not getting a planetarium show; she enjoyed the Wild Ocean film that we got instead. She asked to see stars, but since it was daylight, accepted the fact that the observatory (small and often treated to horrible back-scatter from the high-rise public housing and industrial buildings nearby) would not be showing her anything of the sort. So we had a look at the Astronomy section.

First real disappointment. Shoddy exhibits, disabled functions, uninspiring and almost star-less. Not what you would call astronomy at all; more like a consequence of economy, it seemed. I felt sad for her, and for the Science Centre as it once had been.

The rest of the place wasn't that bad. We hit the Kinetic Garden next, with lots of things that young and agile people could have fun with. She had fun, I had fun. What was disappointing was that some of the exhibits were rather badly maintained, encrusted with lime and dirt and sometimes out of alignment. She took it in her stride. I am sometimes very happy for the innocence of youth, but her experience could have been better.

The local Science Centre sees a lot of throughput. For a population (including tourists) of perhaps 10 million (or more), it loses outright to New York and London though. I wonder why exhibits are so much better maintained in other cities which have the same claim to be world-class. I question the validity of 'world class' as an appropriate term to describe a city with 3 universities of which the best seems to be ranked about 30th in the world, and whose Science Centre and museums and other institutions of cultural knowledge transmission must be ranked about 200th or so.

But you know what? My niece enjoyed herself, and so I did too. We had fun. We could have had more fun without the tackiness and the missing pieces, but we had enough fun for one day. I just wish that we had a proper Science Santa...

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I had dinner last night with some ladies — I have always called them ladies, even when not everyone thought they were — from a long time ago, from almost the very beginning of my official teaching career. Not all of them were there; the weather was full of faraway voices dimmed by the roar of time. They will always remain my very first batch.

I listened to their stories, and their stories of their friends. I see how much was lost, and how much more was gained. I laughed when I realised that my recent students would look at some of them and think the age-difference negligible; by now, the gap is a dozen years, a bridge probably (or improbably) too far.

The bright are still bright, the fire is still hot, the life in them undimmed. I felt a lot younger with them; I was ten years older than they when I taught them and they were only as old as my 'baby' sister. Now they have entered their thirties, and I am wearing the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

I am thankful for them, for all they taught me about the craft of life, the craft of building in the wasteland. They always have reminded me of that master of the English word who wrote in his 1934 opus, The Rock:

The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

It is all half a life away for them; for me it is more like a third of my life, now gone to dust. But the dust remembers, and the dust was once alive, and life was made from dust. I thank God for all the great things He has given me, and among these great things, the memories of being a teacher, of having that privilege of teaching and knowing those I taught.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Not Right?

Since ex-Senator Obama became President-elect of the USA, a miniature cyclone has been brewing about the right that homosexuals are claiming: marriage identical to that of heterosexuals. I say 'miniature' because it is actually very small, and puffed up by numbers of people who do not understand what rights are, and 'cyclone' because it feeds circularly on itself.

I've already pointed out in several posts, such as this one, and this one, what basic human rights are. Any other rights (historically and philosophically speaking) must be established by an enforceable statute; that is, an explicit formulation must be crafted by some people, ratified by some people, enforced or protected by some people, supported by people until it becomes something considered to be similar to a natural right.

I am against the idea of homosexual marriages as legally identical to heterosexual marriages for a simple reason: you can't have it both ways. By giving dissimilar parties similar rights, you dilute rights and confuse the rule of law. It is like saying that bus lanes shouldn't exist because both buses and cars share the roads and carry passengers. Or like saying that all bridges should be rebuilt to allow M1 Abrams tanks to pass freely. Or that all vehicles should be designed to burn any kind of fuel that any other vehicle can burn.

Do I then deny rights to homosexuals by my position? Yes, and no. By creating bus lanes, we create a right for buses that cars don't have. Buses can travel on car lanes, but cars can't travel on bus lanes. Then again, buses can't use certain roads or parking lots at all, while roads and parking lots must be designed to accommodate cars. We have different sets of rights for buses and cars. We can (and often do) have different sets of rights for men and women, for homosexuals and heterosexuals.

Ha, this is where the outrage multiplies. What do I mean by different sets of rights for men and women? I mean, factually and empirically, that the law makes different provisions, in some cases and in some jurisdictions, for men and women. In some places, women are favoured with a right to take maternity leave, while fathers are not. In some places, both have that right. This is where the last part of my second paragraph comes in. Society tends to weight these rights in ways that the law doesn't quite touch. The law can't force you to approve of something. It can only make it legal until people don't disapprove.

In general, because of human history's course, we tend to be more upset when women's rights, now mostly equal (and in some cases superior) to men's rights, are transgressed. It is perceived as unfair to a group who in the past, especially under certain lenses, have been less-advantaged or disadvantaged. At the same time, there have also been female-dominated societies. But equal rights based on gender are not all basic human rights; we need to understand and accept that. The way society is right now, the politics of victimhood make it easier to target a man for being anti-anything than a woman for saying the same things. It is the same for any group of victims, past victims, or perceived victims.

That is what made the US elections this year so entertaining. One of the odd questions thrown up was whether it was easier for a woman or an African-American to become President. Actually, we still don't know...

Finally, I have to say that since I'm not homosexual, I can't put myself quite in such a person's shoes. But I can't quite imagine myself exactly, completely and convincingly as a cat, a Brazilian, a god, a parrot, a turnip, a cow, an egg or anything else that I am not. Am I a bigot? No, I don't think so. I like cats, but not so much dogs; I like eggs, but not so much turnips. I discriminate out of individual preference, in individual cases.

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Sleeping Positions III: Down & Out

Sometimes when totally exhausted, I flop out face down and have some marvellous sleep. It's not just anyone who can sleep face-down: you need to have the means of breathing. Fortunately, I have huge nostrils and they always allow me to get enough oxygen even when sprawled on my face.

There is one exception: if the bed is too soft, I find that a not-completely-face-down position is necessary for the continuation of life without oxygen deprivation.

Apart from such considerations, face down and dead to the world is quite a pleasant thing.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sleeping Positions II: Fearful Asymmetry

I used to sleep flat on my back. I find it hard to tilt and twist my spine; it's funny that my torso should be so averse to torsion. But these days, people say I snore when flat on my back. Heh, it has never troubled me before.

I've seen others curled up in foetal position, like little prawns wrapped in cloth skins. I wonder how this can be comfortable, while uneasily realising that I must have spent quite some time in that position too.

I see advertisements showing mattresses and pillows that let you sleep naturally on your side. That always profoundly upsets me in some atavistic way. Can it be natural for one to sleep on one's side? My pets do that once in a while. But they look more alive sleeping on their bellies. It must be as natural either way.

For chordates who are also vertebrates, it seems odd that one should lie sideways, instead of symmetrically. It seems much more natural to put even stress on your organs, even if the human inside is less symmetrical than the human outside. I fear that when I sleep on my left side, my liver will smack into my heart and make it work harder; when I sleep on my right, I guess it helps gastric drainage, but I always feel that things are hanging over my gall bladder and as-yet-unremoved appendix.

Oh well. I'm sure Hamlet never thought of this when wondering about the sleep of death.

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Sleeping Positions I: Suspension

Last night as I dozed off, my last thought (I think) was that I was falling asleep in an oddly familiar and iconic position. I sensed that I was lying with one leg crooked under the knee of the other, rather as if I were in the shape of the number '4'. I didn't think about it again until this evening.

Well, I remembered why that position seemed so familiar. It's an old one, and you can find an image of it here. It's the Hanged Man from the old decks, an image I've commented on before.

Don't take me for some sort of occultist. I just look at symbols and try to unravel their meaning. My sleeping position last night was very natural to me, but it doesn't mean I think of myself as Odin hanging from Yggdrasil or something like that! You might however recall that this grim wanderer was also the master of two ravens.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Radio Gaga

Sometimes terrible jokes come out of meetings between friends when some sort of critical mass is achieved. Wyverns from the old nest tend to do this; one or two wyverns will make a bad joke, but several will generate a spontaneous barrage.

It all started with an old joke from years ago. Nuclear medicine, the practice of injecting small doses of radioactive isotopes into humans for diagnostic and interventional purposes, became known as 'unclear medicine' because of the fuzzy returns generated.

Then the Abyss came up with "all lines look unclear" over a chess game. And I replied, "Yes... we shall exercise our unclear options!" At which point he said, "Unclear options. Like those unreliable Pak or N Korean nukes. Haha!"

Which made me think... We call nuclear weapons 'nukes', so does that make unclear weapons 'uncles'? It all reminds me of that old 1960s TV comedy thriller series starring Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin.


Progressive Education

I've been reading far too much literature on the politics and marketisation of education. It seems to me that the political left in the US has come to dominate this discourse so throughly that, despite their dominance of the education sector, many of them can blanket-blame capitalism for the ills of their education system(s) and get away with it in a blaze of self-righteous fury.

The argument seems to go like this: capitalism requires free markets, free markets ensure that only the sort of educational practices that make money will be supported, educational practice is thus constrained, the market ties up innovation eventually because the capital is locked into a narrower range of educational practices, capitalism dies. And is reborn, in some sort of ghastly Marxist historical parody.

So on one hand, they're complaining about the marketisation of education, and on the other hand, they're not telling us why it should be otherwise. Well, not quite. They say that encouraging breadth and innovation in education and other practices which the market doesn't handle so well are essential to make people more competitive and develop human capital. This makes us all better people and unlocks the market. Which thus encourages capitalism to burgeon and... that's a good thing.

Hmm. Seems to me that either way, the leftists have locked themselves into a death-embrace with the capitalist right. Madness. We should all just be Machiavellian and confess to that. Better than some horrible Adam Smith- Karl Marx hybrid, which I have today decided to dub the Groucho Marx Theory of Education.

On second thoughts, Groucho was a much better educator than either of them.

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Sigh. If it isn't Chess or Scramble, it's one of those silly collection games that consumes your time. These days, I am having a lot of fun building robots. Terrible. At least it's not as addictive as the rest. So far.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Empire Building

On 6 May 1946, the renowned journalist Alistair Cooke said this on Letter from America, his decades-long radio broadcast programme:

"Americans are not particularly good at sensing the real elements of another people's culture. It helps them to approach foreigners with carefree warmth and an animated lack of misgiving. It also makes them, on the whole, terrible administrators on foreign soil. They find it almost impossible to believe that poorer peoples, far from the Statue of Liberty, should not want in their heart of hearts to become Americans. If it should happen that America, in its new period of world power, comes to do what every other world power has done: if Americans should have to govern large numbers of foreigners, you must expect that Americans will be well hated before they are admired for themselves."

It was a remarkably prescient piece of his inimitable mind, and his trans-Atlantic thought should inform American policy on adventures in Iraq and other parts of the wide world. I cannot help but think that unless you have the genuine blood of Empire in your veins, to the point that you understand you live to serve the Empire and not to dictate terms over it, you will never be a good administrator in a foreign land.

Worse still, you may be hung up to twist in the wind by those you tried to rule.

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Letting Go

I remember that 23 years ago, I sat in the stillness and contemplated the loss of all my hair. We laughed at each other then. Today, we laugh at the future. But the fact is that we are old, and they are young. They are new subalterns, and we are alternates and perhaps not even alternatives.

The future is now yours, you who stand in our footsteps and scuff them away and build new worlds. As Isaiah 58:12 says, "And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Paths of Habitation."

Nine months have passed since I left the College of Wyverns. I am glad the wyverns have taken wing. I am happy, and even more so now. It is like coming to the end of a particularly long gestation.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Strategic Stabilisation

The worst thing a person can do is to enter an environment without any form of stability and no plan for managing the situation. I mean 'manage' in the literal etymological sense — that is, 'take in hand'. If the situation is not brought to some sort of temporal and temporary equilbrium (whether static or dynamic), then the whole idea of leadership is called into question: you cannot lead where management is impossible because a true leader takes things in hand.

The problem is that in any situation, the new leader (or the impulsive or choleric one) will find internal psychological and external not-so-psychological pressure to do something, anything. Most of the time, this is silly if the thing to be done is not an attempt to create a stable basis for future doings. Some leaders lurch from crisis to crisis, blaming the crises for their own incapability and inability to manage. Some leaders try to make everything look good with whitewash, much as the white lead on an Elizabethan lady's face would have made her look good until the flesh was finally eaten away.

I remember my first major appointment and the silly set of advice I was given: eat with the right people, say the right things, appease the parents, don't be too adventurous, be more adventurous, don't offend people, don't give in to the wrong people. The set taken as a whole, without a stable and rational basis, was silly; the individual pieces of advice may have been of use if a context or framework had been supplied.

In my first year, I took standardised test results in my department to a place above the national average for the first time in a few years. It was not very far above the national average, but it was a good place to seek temporary (and temporal) stability. Subsequently, I found that the person ostensibly directing me did not know that we had been below the national average in the first place, and was goading me into aiming even higher.

Of course, higher was plausibly a better place to be. But what irked me was that this person didn't know anything about the statistical situation at a national level, and seemed not to care for whether a good education was being provided except in the most general and platitudinous terms.

In fact, there was no strategy of in-house stabilisation, and apart from standardised test results, there was not much analysis. I was astounded to realise that there were committees and officers which submitted no reports at all, except the occasional verbal report without hard data (or even soft data). Because of this lack of information, a deliberate process of strategic stabilisation was an impossibility, since nobody knew whether we were anywhere near a state of stability or not.

I realised quickly that what was in effect was either a bicycle or a helicopter paradigm; that is, as long as we were moving, we were all right. The metaphor also meant that if we suddenly found ourselves moving in a disastrous direction, the likelihood of correcting our trajectory would begin slim and head towards tenuous before hitting non-existent. Fortunately, the density of the medium helped to correct by providing a modicum of inertia, and we survived quite a long while by general flailing.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


This month's issue of Scientific American has a brief and entertaining article on crash prevention technologies. One of them is TSR — Traffic Sign Recognition — which recognizes when a driver "enters a zone where traffic rules have changed". Of course, long-time aficionados of wargaming and other such recondite pastimes will recognize the acronym immediately as referring to other situations in which people 'enter a zone where traffic rules have changed'...

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Ordinal v Cardinal

The other day I was chatting with a hummingbird. Said hummingbird asked, "What's the difference between 'ordinal' and 'cardinal'?"

I was tempted to reply in the manner of my immediate male ancestor, "The former comes mostly in black, the latter comes mostly in red — like in roulette, you know. The zero is both black and red and hence is neither ordinal nor cardinal, or could be both."

Fortunately for the hummingbird, I chose to give a less spurious and more serious reply.

'Ordinal' comes from Latin ordo, a sequence or progression (hence, 'order'). 'Cardinal' comes from Latin cardo, a hinge (and hence, a critical point). Ordinals are therefore things which depend on sequence and do not stand on their own, while cardinals are things that stand on their own.

For example, 'first', 'second', and 'third' are ordinals which are linked to the cardinals 'one', 'two' and 'three' respectively. If you think of 'one', 'two' and 'three' as 'counting numbers', then they are being thought of in an ordinal sense, since they are being thought of as part of a counting sequence. But if you think of them as 'integers', then they are being thought of in a cardinal sense, since an integer is literally 'intact', 'whole' or 'untouched' (with a secondary sense of 'standing upright and alone').

Here is where we find the idea of 'extraordinary' — something which is beyond or outside the normal order or sequence of things. Related to the same root is 'coordination' — having sequences of events that are related to each other.

But beware of false etymologies: 'cardinal' has nothing to do with 'cardiological', despite the common association with the colour red. The latter comes from the Greek kardia, which means 'heart'.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Strategic Direction

You can be a policeman at a busy street junction where the traffic lights are down. This means you direct traffic, but this is only tactical direction. It is a coping strategy. You just try to make sure the intersection doesn't get totally blocked, that gridlock is not an option under your watch. This is what most people are doing in today's knowledge economy (and yes, the 'real' economy too).

But quite often, a strategic vision is needed: not just a list of fancy-sounding bullet points cobbled together after lunch in your office, but a genuine plan for making sure traffic is always smooth (and indeed, even better) when you're the officer in charge. This is true for every part of life. Otherwise, your resource expenditure, since it is based on short-term goals, becomes wasteful. It becomes drudgery, slavery to the mundane and quotidian.

Good strategic direction is normally resented by about 20% of the people. This is because that's the fraction who understand that a) you're doing something they're not, b) you're doing something they can't, c) you're doing something they don't understand, and d) it's something they don't know about but know they won't like it.

A lot of management books say you have to bring people on board, enthuse them, and so on. Yes, you can do all of that. There will always be that 20%. Just neutralise them and get on with it, or get on with it and ignore them. And in the end, if that 20% causes you problems, you just have to remember that good strategic direction sometimes won't win either. Heh.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

London Bookshops (Redux)

The original post mentioning the Highbury incident is this one. However it wasn't the only odd incident I've had in London. You always get the sense that you are watched by those who would rather not be seen.

I'm sure this will be controversial to some, but I have never felt endangered in New York City, but I have often felt that London is dangerous. I think London is so much older that it can't help but be dangerous. It is a Great Old One among cities.

I know people from the tiny city-state of Singapore who are flabbergasted to find out that London, with its 1577 square kilometres of area, dwarfs the 707 square kilometres of the city-state by a factor of 2:1. Singaporeans think that London is 'just a city', not realising that the mega-cities of the world are huger in population than many nations. They also have far longer histories; Roman London was founded in AD 43, Singapore in AD 1819. Some will tell you that Singapore was actually founded far earlier, as the town of Temasek, in AD 1299. Well, by that token, London as a town must have existed from pre-Roman times, perhaps as far back as 1000 BC.

It is with that sense of history that one trawls through London bookshops, catching glimpses of the orthography (and steganography) of the ancients: Aleister Crowley rubbing fingers with Dylan Thomas, Lord Byron with Lord Tennyson... the list goes on. Just carefully lifting the covers of the old leather-bound enchiridia and other tomes is enough to reveal the layers of the hidden past which modern London just barely forms a surface film upon.

Singapore hasn't got that. New York is getting there; in some ways, it has already entered that era. Paris is probably a good candidate too. Beijing is an odd place. A lot more of the past has been destroyed there, and a selective sample retained.

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Small Places

I remember a long time ago when I was about six and I read the immortal textbook line, "Atoms are mostly empty space." The idea of space being empty had never crossed my mind, somehow. In real life, what we call 'empty space' in our living environment tends to contain stuff like dust, air, light, and the presence of life. Even if it were physically empty, it would be full of psychological depth, or fear, or night, or darkness, or something.

It's only much later in life that you find out about the small places.

The small places are those things that live in empty space, thus making it apparently not empty. But they don't exist except as psychological or mystical constructs, and it's hard to prove they ever were. Some small places are actually huge realms, but extremely compressible without loss (since the information content is tenuous at best, there can't be any loss). Such are the myriad Golden Ages of humanity, the secret alleys of the old cities, the mythical stations of the world's underground transit systems, the bookshops that you see only once and never again.

I encountered all four of these one windy winter morning in north London. It was during the time that I met my godchildren, who were still small and young and tender and very creative people. (Now, they're bigger and older and tougher but even more creative.) I decided to go for a walk down the road to Highbury, the heart of that wonderful 1886 football club, Arsenal.

On the way there, I found a large old bookshop, full of ancient F&SF books of all kinds. It was opposite the Highbury underground station, and I walked in and was very happy to purchase a couple of books. I promised myself I'd come back for a longer visit on the way back.

I walked back later. I never passed the bookshop again, even though it was along the main road and large and visible. Heh.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Goings On

Sometimes the stuff you know is true and that underpins the fabric of reality is not the stuff in the hardbound grey and brown covers of the books they sell to you. The real story is gold, and blue, and red.


Going On

Sometimes it's going on. Sometimes it's coming on. Sometimes it's just on, and that's very cool.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas Competitions

I think my favourite Christmas competition is this one, which started only last year. 64 puzzles are published online at random intervals. The interesting thing is that although the puzzles are chess-related, you probably need to know more things about other things besides chess.

Take for example clues #13 and #14. I'm happy I managed to solve clue #4 first! Haha, facility with word games helps.

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Daily Punishment

A really bad joke with classical antecedents appeared fully-armed from my head tonight.

αυτολϋκος - flow reversed
like Helen of Troy
her face launched a thousand ships; it was a fleeting beauty.

Oh dear. And it happens at least once a day, this kind of joke.

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Friday, December 12, 2008


I walked a long way today, my first long walk in a long while. The physical exertion of walking great distances generates better thinking than the mental exertion of attempting to generate better thinking. It's like this: you think about globalisation, and there is no reward for it. You walk around the globe, and you find that you know a lot about globalisation.

I am reading Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen stories, about an Oxford don who has a remarkable breadth of learning and a truly irritating way of using it. He solves mysteries, normally backwards and upside-down. Apparently, Crispin (not his real name) wrote nine detective novels from 1946 onwards. He listed his recreations as excessive smoking, Shakespeare, idleness and cats (among others). He also listed his antipathies, and made sure that his characters displayed interesting traits.

Reading Crispin is like taking a long walk in somebody else's head. Taking long walks in Singapore is like taking a long walk in Lee Kuan Yew's head. It is all very terrifying and reminds me of Escher prints, especially the one in which the monks walk around in endless circles; I think it's called Castrovalva.

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"If only I had..." must be one of the most ruefully overused phrases in English, next to "If I were..." and other such iffiness.

It takes a lot of foresight to not have to use such lines, and it is almost a certainty that even if we manage to suppress our saying of them, such thoughts have crossed our minds before.

There are very few regrets in my life. I will say that I have not regretted anything I've done this year, except perhaps that I spent a bit too much time enjoying myself. Heh.


Thursday, December 11, 2008


Fire has always been a hypnotist to humans. You sit there and look into the flames, and in those flames you see visions and imaginings, old roses and sealed rooms, fields of gold and gates of horn and ivory. I was going to write about the older flames, but a voice from the past reminded me about things best you should remember to forget and things you should forget to remember.

And I think I will write more, but not just yet.

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I dreamt that I walked the streets of the oldest of cities, and I was going to die, and I saw them all, one by one, and they were bidding me goodbye. I dreamt that Harlan Ellison smiled as I dreamt something a lot like one of his dreams but thankfully was not exactly that.


I looked into her eyes and she looked into mine. I saw a fleet of ships, she saw a career calling.

I looked into another pair of eyes and they looked into mine. I saw a house of many doors, she saw many corridors.

I looked. There were five handsome children, one named Cassandra.

I looked and there was a cold winter and a warm return.

I turned the corner, and her hand was on my shoulder and I understood that I was forgiven.

I crossed the street, and this time she stopped and said farewell.

It sank in that I was going on a long journey, and she told me what to pack, having been there before.

The streets began to peter out, from large thoroughfares to narrow ones, where she smiled from her bookshop.

She was the ninth, and she danced but nobody knew it.


I woke up, and I realised that all of it was a dream. But it was nice to know that things turned out the way they did. One can't help dreaming of what might have been, but one can continue to trust that what is, is good.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Age of Dislightenment

After reading something like 10,000 pages on education theory and policy, it strikes me that some generalisations can be made about the state of research and discussion, by continent if by nothing else. The generalisations are probably like the reasonable man or the perfect mean, emergent concepts with no exact basis in reality. But here they are:
  1. Europe: The birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment still thinks that there is such a thing as rational correctness; that is, the idea that something is absolutely true or likely to be true for all human beings. This is why educational theory coming out of France or England or Germany, despite all the postmodernism and other nonsense, is still focussed on dictating a discourse. Even those odd continentals who say that meaning is contextual etc are prone to establishing a context that is uniform; they don't allow for a situation in which meaning is not merely contextual. Haha.
  2. North America: The Canadians are somewhat in between Europe and the USA, and take the best of both sides. The US is in general very different from Europe. Some of them think they are right to say that every culture creates its own valid context, and if you chase them down the road, they say evolution has made it such that every geographical group or tribe or race thinks differently and therefore there are many ways to reason and no one correct way. The other idea that seems prevalent is that the Renaissance-Enlightenment-Globalisation historical path has subverted or destroyed other valid paths, mostly by focussing on the quantitative and the economic. Pseudo-Orientalists, all.
  3. South America: They don't think they're right in public. They think a bit like Europeans. They resent the North Americans. Haha, I told you this would be about generalisations.
  4. Africa: Sadly, not much research comes out of here. Survival is more important.
  5. Asia: Too caught up in their colonial past and their even more illustrious ancient past. No new theory, despite all the window-dressing.
  6. Antarctica: I'm sure there is a lot of educational theory here. It's mostly about international lack of cooperation and penguins.
And this is the sad state of educational research these days; shadow sectors and fuzzy logic, hazy ideas and cloudy prospects. Truly, an age of dislightenment looms.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008


The word 'incredible' means 'unbelievable'; credo means 'I believe' in Latin. I report today that I do not believe in the spiritual realm.

At this point, I suppose some of you will give up on me in horrid (from Latin horribilis, 'bristling with fear') indignation. I can imagine the cries of, "Yes we knew you were a heretic all along!"

But I sincerely do not believe that there is a spiritual realm as distinct from a material, secular, or temporal realm (a caveat follows later). I do not think that any of the world's great religions, let alone mine, have ever made the distinction in the way post-Enlightenment so-called Christians sometimes do.

In the Good Book, which is where many of my readers of all credulities and dispositions orient from, the secular is seen as that which exists in the present age, in a fixed time, in that slice of eternity which is sequential and bound. The temporal is much the same. And the material is just the physical manifestation of the immaterial. To think that you can separate them from the spiritual is like saying that my body does not include my kidneys or my liver. Or like saying that my mind exists outside and apart from my body.

I believe, however, in the material, secular and temporal realms as plausibly and possibly distinct among themselves. One age succeeds another, one nation is not another, one substance is distinct from another. But to me, they are all part of the 'spiritual realm'. And if that realm is everything, then it is not a realm (from Old French reaume, 'kingdom, political unit'), but the cosmos, the university of all.

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A Brief History Of Some Rock

Well, here I am back from the Bay of Bengal, the tsunami amplifier of the region. On a clear day you think you can see forever, but what you are seeing is inestimable beauty mixed with a poverty that is induced by the globalisation of a certain kind of wealth-concept.

Because certain people over the globalisation history of the last 200 years have successfully imposed certain wealth values on others, to their own benefit, those others have become poorer. Sri Lanka, the Ceylonese centre of great wealth and marvellous gems; the various city-states of the Indian sub-continent; the mysterious outskirts of Indochina... all of these have been exploited to their own detriment by the powers of the world, minor pieces and pawns in the Great Game.

Why else are gems mined in this region marked up 10x in their journey to the markets of Bangkok, marked up 10x again en route to Hongkong, and 10x again as they fly their clattering journey to London? The miners are as poor as dirt; the dirt is perhaps richer. The society belles with the outsize carbon and impure alumina and other Mammon-sanctified rocks — they live on the backs of the poor. And why ever should this have come to pass? These aren't even useful rocks in their shiny metal cages.

I sat by the Bay of Bengal. And I laughed, and the waters answered me.

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Monday, December 08, 2008


Personally, I like hexagons. They come together in perfectly tesselating formations, with three of them meeting in perfect unison like the symbol of a Mercedes-Benz. They are perfect for grids, for isometric planning, for wargames and peacegames. They're a bit complicated as maps of human interaction, but once you see them as projections of the octahedral they are fine.

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In my previous post I was talking about triangles. If tragedies are triangular, comedies are square, or at least quadrilateral in some way. In a comedy, everyone ends up with somebody else, unless they are really minor characters. Look at Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream! Shakespeare goes to really extreme pains to make everyone end up nicely, all squared away...

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Sunday, December 07, 2008


While teaching literature this year, I was discussing with my students the idea that a tragedy always has leftovers, and hence tends towards triangular relationships. Three sisters, three rivals, three corners of a love affair... all these make relationships impossible to balance and produce disasters.

In fact, even if you have pentagons, they will reduce to triangles and then to tragedies. Someone will be hurt, left out, unbalanced. Oddness is bad. Haha.

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Bad pun, for those who can spot it... very sorry! But tonight, I was eighteen years old again. The music was ABBA, Duran Duran, the really old stuff, and more. And four hours of dancing to stuff like 'Saturday Night Fever' and 'I Will Survive' and all the things that were new when I was young.

The funniest part must have been when they played 'It's Raining Men' by the Weathergirls. A bunch of us perfectly respectable men, not one of who was under the age of 41, and some of who were far older, jumped hyperkinetically onto the floor at the appropriate moments. The performances entertained everyone. It surprised me how fit some of us still were. Haha!

I am sure that various young dancers must be laughing their heads off by now at the idea. Oh well.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008


There are many ways to link a multiplicity of points. Consider a number of points all at the same distance d from an original point. If you link them all in sequence you will get a polygon approximating a circle if there are enough points spaced out regularly along that circumference. If you link them alternatingly, you get a cycloid if there are many of them and a star if there are few enough.

This is one of those odd thoughts one gets as one sits along the Bay of Bengal and thinks of all the treachery and romance, the arms-trading and the gem-trading that these shores have seen. Tragedy and pain, piracy and profit, war and the elements of a fantasy novel. I think I might come back here after all, one day when I am retired and can finally write the book I have been thinking of all along.


Note: Thanks, NBL, for that comment... I definitely meant cycloid (as written), of the spirograph type. Sorry, wasn't clear enough. A cardioid (means 'heart-shaped thing') has only one cusp.

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Things circle around, like vultures. It is said that what goes round comes round, or that the centre cannot hold. But sometimes there are circles within circles. Dante's hell has nine, and it is an eye-opener to see who he puts in which circle.

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The name does not sound good in any Anglo-Saxon tongue. It is an OK place. The food is good. The shore is nice. It is pleasant enough. And I would not come back here ever again if I had the choice.

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Friday, December 05, 2008


Sometimes you lose something. If that is the case, it is gone. You might have to find it. If you find it, it is no longer lost. You can lose many things, and some things cannot be found again. These may or may not include life, love, liberty, and other things you cannot really find around Christmas (since it is the season of 'no-L' haha).

But sometimes, things are merely misplaced in space or time. You may eventually find your lost love. You may eventually regain your lost life. You may shift a little bit to the west or across the seas, and find the missing person or missing thing or whatever else you are missing.

Sometimes, though, it is you who are misplaced. It is hard to find yourself if you don't know that this is the case.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008


Some distant chronicler will note that along the way, I left sealed notes concerning people with odd appellations. Who, for example, is Wolfberry? Who on earth was Trivandrum?

The answer to these questions, and many more, is that in some sense they are all figments of my imagination. I should hate to think that people might think of them in a way wholly informed by my strange imaginings. But, on the subject of 'strange imaginings'... well, I was once accused of using 'smearing innuendo'. Well, read through the whole blog and see if you can find any. No longer constrained by gentlemanly civility, I will say outright that there is none here.

Rather, I suspect that some people are prone to projection, a phenomenon in which people tend to attribute to others the habits of mind and body that they themselves possess. Then again, it might also be displacement, a phenomenon in which people tend to pick on harmless victims so as to disperse their rage (and other negative affect) towards objects which are dangerous or untouchable.



1. I have given many of my associates odd little names like 'Wolfberry' or 'Trivandrum'. I do this because I am genuinely fond of them despite my shortcomings and theirs. Haha. On the other hand, should I have accidentally referred to any specific person as 'Grand Inquisitor', I would probably not have meant it kindly.

2. This is my 1200th post! Wow, it's been a long journey indeed.

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It's funny watching the development of a siege mentality. You see the 'fortress of paranoia' begin to develop, with the inward massacres and the purges, the gulags and the gratuitous moral violence. You hear people repeating in a panicked tone, "My conscience is clear!" and some other people saying, "We did what we thought was right!" (even if they would never have known anything of the sort).

The guns are emplaced, but facing the wrong way. The planes are a fair number, but their quality is depressingly out-of-date. Two battleships show up, but are sunk without adequate cover. The errors multiply, the blame increases. Some poor Lieutenant-General will be screwed over for a situation not his fault but totally attributable to him by design. The reason we remember him now is that he was born on 26 Dec 1887, and in December, we remember the helpless dead.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008


To place again, to pace again; to creep in petty pace from day to day. Here we are again. Polish the weapons. Next year will be a grand year for a grand endeavour.



Just aim it. Hold your breath. Release that breath slowly until equilibrium is reached. Squeeze. At a certain point, things change. And unusual things happen; the living become dead, for example.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008


One of my favourite priests has always been G K Chesterton's sleuth of human nature, Father Brown. I grew up in a fairly catholic environment myself, where reading about such interesting characters was not frowned upon; indeed, we were encouraged, through the influence of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, to explore the realms outside the narrow frame of reference employed by many conservatives.

But what has always intrigued me about Catholicism (Roman and otherwise) is that the word has a wonderful etymology. The Latin catholicus comes from Greek kata ('encompassing' or 'about') and holos ('whole', or 'all'). To say that something is catholic is to say that something is not merely eclectic (from Greek eklegein, 'to specially select' or 'to call out'), but all-encompassing.

To call someone a Roman Catholic is to say that that person believes in one holy apostolic and catholic church, and also that he or she subscribes to it being led by the Bishop of Rome, which is to say the Pope.

But I am not Catholic in that sense. I am catholic (with nothing 'merely' about it) and happy with that. 'Catholicism' actually is equivalent to 'Cata-holism', with all the implications that you might sense from the catalytic and catastrophic. It is an interesting state to be in.

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The sense of the word 'adventure' has changed over the years. Originally meaning 'the prospect of something about to happen', it became 'the chance of something happening', and then 'hazarding or risking the future'. It slowly mutated into 'a perilous undertaking' (around 1314!) and then 'a novel or exciting incident' (around 1570!) before becoming what it is today, a literary genre, a detour that brings entertainment to our boring lives.

It's the same thing with the word 'emergency'. Originally meaning 'something rising (from a liquid medium)' and related to 'submerge' (to place below the surface of a liquid) and 'merge' (to blend into a liquid), it became 'something happening in a fluid situation' ('emergent' appears around 1450) and then 'an unforeseen occurrence'. Now it connotes disaster and danger, having blended in our minds with 'urgency'.

But looking forward and backward, as a social historian is wont to do, one sees things sometimes a little differently. Whether or not you believe in the theological claims of Jesus Christ, something emerged about 2000 years ago. Its advent was apparently prophesied, and at the very least it was keenly anticipated. Out of Bethlehem, that phenomenon would come to change the world.

Such change phenomena always have their detractors. But the change they inspire is incontrovertible. The reason that many have come to suspect others of thinking that President-elect Obama is like a messiah is a simple one. He has campaigned on a message of 'change that you can believe in' and 'the audacity of hope'. It is a timeless message, and one that appeals to all kinds of humans. Not all who believe are uncritical, swept up by the audacity of hopeful change. Many see the possibilities of the adventure, and are glad that it has come in their time.

Me, I'm just looking forward to seeing people this December who I've not seen for a while. I wonder what it's like for those who are not coming home, and those who are coming home after their first extended period of being away from home. I wonder about those who have no homes to return too. I wonder as I wander.

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Monday, December 01, 2008


A wise man once said:

He who has a thousand friends
Has not a friend to spare;
And he who has one enemy
Will meet him everywhere

How true! Thank goodness I have only met friends in this part of my journey, from spring this year and into winter.

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And so we come to winter and the dying end of the year. It has been a long travelling, as Eliot might have said, and at the end of it, a confusion of outcomes and a profusion of alternatives. What do we do, as year succeeds to year? The answer of the ancients was a simple one; they laid up stores, hunkered down, and waited till the new year had really started. (For many of us, this will be on 20th January, when finally the long drawn-out lack-of-government in Washington comes to an end.)

But this year has always been redolent of the fin-de-siècle. Again and again, that French phrase connoting the end of an era and new hope for the future seems to come up. At the same time, one thinks of Zeitgeist and Aufklärung; one thinks of light and clarity and time and spirit and how mankind does tend to screw it up.

The last time things felt this way was probably on 22 January 1901, when Victoria of England died. That will have been 108 years ago, when Barack Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States of America, that entity that began as a group of British colonies way back in the 18th century.

This, then, is a December of the world and its times. Old things have passed away, and looking forward in faith, we hope that new things will come that are not old things repackaged. If faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the change we want is change we can believe in, then we should really open up the armouries of the soul and the arsenals of the heart for our assault on the present darkness. God be with us.

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