Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sunday Morning Coffee

I've always looked forward to perfect Sunday mornings, cool and quiet with excellent coffee and something on the side. On Sundays, some of us take communion in churches; some of us drink coffee and commune with God in a different way; some of us do both or neither.

But as I sit listening to Chip Davis's excellent work once again, his Sunday Morning Coffee strikes that delicate chord of the soul. The resonance of the music summons forth an image of the perfect Sunday morning that seldom comes.

If you dream of such things, go ahead and purchase the work of Chip Davis and American Gramaphone. The Day Parts series, beginning with Sunday Morning Coffee and Sunday Morning Coffee II is pretty good. The other good stuff is even older; I was listening to Fresh Aire when I was a young teenager. Ah, the days of Mannheim Steamroller... may they never be forgotten!

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Scientia: Acknowledgements of Imperfection

About two and a half years ago, about the length of a conscript service or a part-time MBA, I remember writing about the (unjustified) divide between the humanities and the sciences.

In my examination of the sciences and my personal experience as a scientist, I always keep in mind the memory of Johannes Diderik van der Waals (1837-1923). In 1873, his doctoral thesis asserted the non-ideality of real gases in a time when even the molecular theory of matter was in dispute. Up to then, the ideal gas law (often expressed in the form of the equation PV=nRT) had been taken to be the underlying truth of things, made weak only by the limits of experimentation.

Van der Waals won the 1910 Nobel Prize for his admission that the real world was not ideal, and that the universe was in fact definitely to be treated as if ideality was unattainable in its reality. His work led to invaluable techniques in the compression and liquefaction of gases.

But the key point is this: with the physical thesis of van der Waals came the final disenchantment of the alchemists, a tradition which ended at Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Newton's assertion of the ideal, almost Platonic, nature of the world was in line with his beliefs as an alchemist. Those who worked with him and followed after him assumed the truth of the alchemical assertion, "As above, so below," which related earthly science with heavenly truths. Few now realise that Newton wrote more on alchemy, sorcery, religion and Biblical hermeneutics than on the science for which we inescapably remember him.

The line from van der Waals to Einstein is a short one: in fact, Einstein's 'miracle year', in which four of his most influential papers were published, was 1905. In slightly over 30 years from van der Waals' doctoral thesis to Einstein's annus mirabilis, we humans had come to discover just how uncertain and provisional our ideas about the universe could be.

Modern science is a striving after a perfection we know we cannot attain, unlike the natural philosophy or scientia of Newton and his age. It is a very human story of the attempt to control what we know we cannot but we dream we can. That dream goes back to the Promethean flame, the story of liberating fire, and the difficulties thereafter.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Tea & Globalism

This afternoon I had tea at a local watering-hole, courtesy of the Contessa and her literary assistant. It's interesting how many of the foreign outposts of the Atlantean educational system are suddenly alive and thriving in faraway places. There must be a lot of expatriate Atlanteans.

They've agreed to adopt my codex terrestrialis. For each chunk of the codex, I will receive something like a hundred eagles for every hour I spend crafting the material. It is quite a change to be doing something creative that I love and actually being paid what it's worth. It makes a great difference from being told to do it just because I would do it for nearly nothing.

I was given a foreshadowing of things to come. La Contessa tells me that there are many such ways in which a man can make his living, especially in this era of globalism. Apparently, there aren't many educators who can think in multiple disciplines, there aren't many who can draw up a curriculum. To be able to do both is supposed to be a rare talent indeed.

I am thankful for yet another instance of affirmation for my God-given gifts. Life is good, and free black coffee made it better.

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My sister recently sent over a cat in a box. Sexless and floppy, with a pale underbelly and a greenish cast, this fellow looked distinctly unappetizing. The wife said, "What is it?" And so, I read the instructions on the box.

It turned out to be a densely compacted and fairly heavy herb cushion in the shape of a cat. According to my sibling, you were supposed to drape it over your eyes to shut out the light, clear your sinuses, and have a good night's sleep.

And that is why I spent the night with a cat draped over my face. I have named him(?) Herbie.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009


Yesterday I began to assemble the final framework, a ten-year accounting of the work of the College of Wyverns from 1997 to 2007. In essence, these years constituted the final period of my 40-year wandering in the early world, and placed me in position to see something of the vision of William Butler Yeats.

It was in 1886 (yes, there's that year again!) that Yeats began to expound his terrifying, romantic, and painfully sad vision of the Celtic twilight. That was his public mythology, one of the seeds of a renaissance in humanity's remembering of the Irish world. In his private mythology, he spoke of Byzantium, the heart of the Eastern Empire of the Roman Age. In his Sailing to Byzantium, he wrote

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
—those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Yeats's Byzantium suffered from the slow ossification of excellence; the Emperor drowses on his throne while the soul dies wrapped in trappings of gold and silver. The Byzantium of Yeats is of course not the city known as Constantinople and then as Istanbul; rather, it is a confabulation—something like M John Harrison's Viriconium. Eventually, the story painted gets more and more fantastic, and only the lone poet is able to tell what is true. To do that, he must rewrite the story and in doing so, he destroys the dream.

Some of us prefer, like Yeats, to hang on to both: we try to preserve the vision as well as the mission of the ancient founders, while pointing out how far we have fallen. It is the pointing-out that terrifies the heavily-invested. Once the Emperor is shown to have no clothes, or is at best Yeats's "tattered coat upon a stick" towards the end of days, the barbarians are but one step away. It is hard to dream dreams; it is harder and much more painful to dream reality.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Global Themes (Part I): Belief Systems

It's funny. Just the other day I was musing about the new Granta Syndicate syllabus on Global Perspectives. Then I got an email requesting that I prepare an outline for the first theme in the syllabus, Belief Systems.

How does one go about this task? I realise that in the past, I used to sit down and churn these things out while my then-boss appropriated them and touted them as his own stuff. That was driven home to me in a big way when a report my colleagues and I wrote was submitted to the higher authorities with no changes at all, except that our names had been deleted and replaced with another name. Heh. Fortunately, while the hardcopy and softcopy may have been sold for a mess of pottage, the software and hardware are resident in this shell. I can still generate things like that, and I can do so more lucratively, as I was telling a friend not ten minutes ago.

I have now decided to adopt a 'Creative Commons' approach for any of my educational consulting projects in which I generate resource materials. Advice is given freely for reproduction in not-for-profit endeavours. But if you want to make money out of your customers by using my stuff, you will pay.

Digressions apart, here is how one goes about doing such things.

Any package of this kind has a structure consisting of five sequential parts, more or less. (The craft of knowing what other parts to add and when to add them is a separate issue, not covered here.) These five parts are: Overview & Intent, Key Points, Cases & Examples, Links & Extensions, Sources. Each part can be extended or elaborated into multiple sections. When you have exhausted all the sections, you have a package.

A package outline consists of a framing device which covers the five major parts so that your client can see what those parts look like and how they work together. If the client wants to know more, or if the client thinks he's smart enough to reverse engineer the package concept on sight, that's his choice. But you must ensure there is enough on display for such a choice to be made.

In the case of Belief Systems, the obvious approach is to begin with a quick historical survey of what people have believed and why. The intent would be to ask why people believe, and then explain the strands which make up different belief systems. The first part therefore contains an historical overview of animism, religion, magic and science as the four main kinds of belief and how these four strands of belief can be compared to the modern paradigms of faith and reason.

The second part must then give the key points of major belief systems and how they demonstrate their coherence. Marxism is as much a belief system as Buddhism, and you can probably say the same for any reasonably coherent philosophy which informs the way people think about life; a belief system is the system that underpins a worldview or a way of life.

The third part would probably include cases of religious, humanist and mathematical belief systems. But since this is a course on global perspectives and not one on philosophy, you'd have to show applicability to life choices and the impact of large movements based on these belief systems on things happening in the world today.

The fourth part would show links to the other fifteen themes; one good example would be how a belief system affects a people's belief in universal education and the form it should take.

The last part would reference some of the more useful or convenient available sources. I always begin by recommending other people's good packages. For example, J M Roberts has a knack for summarising huge historical ideas in a few pages. It isn't for the purists, but it does generate a greater sense of accessibility.

And there you have it: my belief system regarding the generation of educational curriculum packages.

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Moonlike Fortune

Carl Orff, inveterate collector of arcane drinking songs, must have had a soft spot for Fortune. Or at least, he must have noted that drinking songs tend to circle that theme.

The first and last song of his Carmina Burana cycle is O Fortuna!, a majestic (some say 'hysterical') piece whose words, when translated into English, say, "O Fortune, like the moon; always increasing and decreasing..."

These days I have had an odd confluence of stray thoughts, juxtaposing 'moon', 'money' and 'moonie' all in one. It takes me through unusual dreams and I wake up laughing. Silver discs, round faces, light and pineapple tarts. The associations are splendidly random, and yet not.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Secrets of Educational Success

I have to thank a person I don't know for a sudden flash of insight as to how educational success is attained. An article in written by Lin Zhigen claims that there are seven possible 'secrets' to chess success.

In order of obtrusiveness (or something), he lists them as:
  1. Computers will solve everything.
  2. Maximise the opportunities for your opponents to make mistakes.
  3. Dress like a grandmaster and you will play like one.
  4. Use computers for analysis, especially of your own games.
  5. Team chemistry.
  6. Caffeine.
  7. Chinese chess.
And that list immediately leapt into my brain as the essential list of things that students should consider when trying to ace examinations.

Now we know why Asian scholars are so efficient once you get them into a good school (or any formal structure at all). They all use computers, hang around waiting for others to screw up, dress alike, analyse their performance, have odd social chemistry, drink tea (or coffee) in large amounts, and play chinese chess. Haha...

It makes me proud to share that inheritance.

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Global Geometry

When Thomas Friedman says that the world is flat, it puts one in mind of an alluvial floodplain, so flat and silty that it poses no obstacle to the relentless spread of water, again and again, redistributing the chemical wealth for those inclined to take risks. And indeed, the major civilisations of the world have lived, died, spawned, suffered and spread by the dangerous wealth of the floodplains.

Globalisation, as Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and others have pointed out, is a phenomenon that has its roots in the human past of about 60 millennia ago. Humans spread. They move and bring culture, community, commerce and conflict. Where a dominant group meets one less dominant, the less dominant group learns more. This ensures that civilisations endure cycles of boom and bust; except that larger ones tend to go bust more slowly. The corollary to that is that when they do go bust, they tend to go bust with a boom.

For Atlantis, our small city-state whose insignium of the Lion of the Sea has spread to places like Venezia and Londinium, globalisation reared its head at least 700 years ago. Yet we treat the phenomenon as if it is ultra-modern, a thing of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in this age of humanity.

There is a kind of secret that the Masons knew and which is also hidden behind the warning on the gateway to Plato's Academy. That warning reads, "Let no man enter here who knows no geometry."

That secret is this. The world is not really flat; neither is it really round. It is not an oblate spheroid as the geographers have it, nor an odd polyhedron as the geometers and cartographers require. It is a lump of rock, physically. But memetically, in terms of the ideas that drive the world of humanity, it is a furious and irregular tempest that is subject to no laws that humans have yet been able to discern.

As Qoheleth says in the book known as Ecclesiastes, "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but time and chance happen to them all." The marketplace of ideas is not dominated by the swift or the strong, or even the durable or diffuse; it is an agora where millions cry out and not all is understood, and even when anything is understood, it is sometimes understood too late.

Blake wrote about a 'fearful symmetry'. This is true to life. The symmetrical, the neatly-ordered ideas of MBA school and the human sciences of politics, economics and sociology — these are dangerous because they are not entirely true, but true enough to lead to disaster.

It is like a stack of bricks, each one placed slightly out of true; each is almost exactly in place, but not quite. That stack will eventually fall as the centre of its gravity is displaced further and further away from the centre of the foundation. Eventually, it will hang over nothing; as it says in the book of Job, "He hangeth the world over nothingness." What an image! What an idea!

I just wonder how true a description it is.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Pooled Resources

Here's a quote from the infamous DwarfWiki.

Murky pools are small pools of water one Z-Level deep on the surface of the map. Dwarves with the fishing job active will attempt to fish in them. Murky pools can evaporate completely in summer in sufficiently hot climates, or can be drained manually, but in either case can be refilled by rainwater or melting snow or ice.

Drinking from a murky pool will give dwarves an unhappy thought. Dwarves will not normally drink from murky pools if they can at all help it; they will prefer to remain thirsty instead of drinking from a murky pool, holding out for the hope that well water or some alcohol will be produced in the mean time. However, if there are no other water sources that present themselves, dwarves will eventually force themselves to drink from a murky pool when they become very thirsty.

On reflection, I am very happy I no longer have to drink from murky pools.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009


It's funny how little artifacts of the Digital Age affect our lives. The venerable American Standard Code for Information Interchange received its last revision in 1986. It is a simple code, with 128 characters in it: 33 control characters which are non-printing, the 'Space' character (ASCII 32 or HEX 20) which is technically printing but leaves no trace, and 94 printable symbols. The codes are designed to fit a scheme using binary numbers 0000000 to 1111111 (zero to 127), with an extra bit (or binary digit) used for various other purposes.

ASCII was really conceived in 1960. Since then, generations of programmers have grown up having fun with the 128 characters, many of which we have come to know and love like close friends. You can find a family photograph here.

For a long while, these were the only characters anyone ever used in computer games, computer graphics, and other kinds of interesting stuff. A lot of the graphics constructed with letters are beautiful works of art, making use of the relative density and ink distribution in each character to act as shaded blocks of monochromatic tint. You can find some of it here, and at various archival websites. (For many years, I used an ASCII wolfshead as my signature.)

Recently, I rediscovered the pleasures of ASCII and ASCII art when I took a long-delayed break to play a game called Dwarf Fortress. I'd long abandoned such games, which are called 'Rogue-like' games after a particularly seminal example of the genre. But I found myself enthralled by the terrible little graphic sprites, remembering through a mist of nostalgia all the times I had in the old computer labs of my past.

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Year Of The Earthen Cow

Monday brings the Chinese calendar's Year of the Earthen Cow. A quick look at the Chinese Lunar Calendar will tell you that from 26 Jan 2009 onwards, the male Rat gives way to the female Buffalo. Apparently, the sign allocated to those born in the solilunar year that is mostly in 1949 and also in 2009 is feminine/earth/ox. Heh.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cold Coffee

The problem with cold coffee is that it lacks the freedom to express itself. The character of the coffee bean shines forth only when reasonably hot water or steam is used to extract the flavours. Long cold extraction probably leads to a better yield, but the transformative nature of pressure and heat, the same combination that produces diamond from coal and sapphire from bauxite, is not to be underestimated.

Wonderful qualities emerge when the coffee is hot; only quantities when the coffee is cold.

Education is a lot like that.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Ways of Knowing (Part I)

I was having a mini-tutorial the other day, at a most congenial spot, with very congenial people. The idea of 'ways of knowing' came up, somewhat pixilated by the standard textbook approaches which you can find in various systems of study.

It has always struck me that there are some key ways of distinguishing the ways that we know (or claim to know) things. The most important of these (in terms of thinking about thinking) is probably whether the means of knowing is intrinsic or extrinsic. The test of this is whether the method and means are part of you or not.

While some nits can be picked, the fact is that sensory perception and emotion are intrinsic; the former arises from your personal anatomy and the latter from your personal physiology. In the former, some sort of environmental effect impinges on an element of your sensorium (your ear, eye, skin, hair, cell membrane, whatever) and triggers a response which you perceive. Whether this perception is real or not is another matter, but it is tentatively added to what you label 'knowledge'. (Note: throughout this post, we'll assume there is some sort of reality that correlates to perception.)

On the other hand, language and other forms of reasonably reliable person-to-person communication (let's just call it 'language'), and reasoning structures (codes, relational axioms etc — let's just call it 'reason') are extrinsic. There's no way to tell what your intrinsic reasoning is unless you codify it, and the way you codify it makes it communicable. If you can't communicate or codify it (can't express it through language or reason), then it's an intuitive response — something intrinsic until made more explicit (if ever). But the hallmark of an extrinsic means of knowing is that is designed so that one person can reliably share knowledge with another and both can agree on the approximate value of that knowledge.

Some people think of faith as a way of knowing; I'd say that faith is easily defined as belief in something while lacking in sufficient evidence for it. If you had sufficient evidence for it, it wouldn't be faith — it would be reason. Faith is intrinsic; there is no way to share it directly, just as in the case of sensory perception or emotion.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reducing Complexity

Those of you who watched the Obama inauguration might have been listening to the elegant classical piece (Simple Gifts, by John Williams) played by that very talented quartet of Perlman, Ma, Montero and McGill. What struck me, besides the cinematic orchestration that is Williams's trademark, was the 19th-century 'Simple Gifts' theme, first used by the Quakers and popularised by Copland in his Appalachian Spring.

What's important about that piece is the beginning: the lyrics to that tune begin with, "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free..."

The Quakers, unlike the usual stereotype of a stiff and humourless people, were a reactionary and revolutionary Christian sect who believed that a lot of Christians could do with a lot less 'stuff and baggage'. They had a lively sense of humour and a solid sense of being; this combination led them to the key philosophy (as opposed to doctrine) of simplicity. Simply put, they believed that life could be reduced to simple elements and everybody would be happier for it.

In a world that seems to be spiralling out of control in terms of its complexity and diversity, perhaps the antidote is to take a couple of steps back and realise that there are indeed certain fundamental truths, and a position taken based on fundamentals — consistency, decency, thrift, industry, the right to life and the maintenance of life — is very hard to diminish or destroy.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Word of the Day: Inauguration

An inauguration is an interesting event. I have just watched the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama. I'm glad he has a name like that, and I am even happier that unlike many men of power I've heard, he actually knows how to write and deliver a speech.

Traditionally and etymologically, an inauguration is an august occasion on which something or someone is consecrated and installed while the omens of a flight of birds are read and analysed. Most of the time, this is a good thing. But one must be careful with meanings and rituals.

The word 'augur' is related to the root aug-, as in 'augment'. It descended from some ancient Indo-Aryan root, via the Greek aux- (as in 'auxillary'). It means something like 'the priest whose divinations increase our prosperity'. An inauguration is therefore an event aimed at the increase of prosperity of the state.

But what about the flight of birds? Well, that comes from the Latin auspex, literally 'one who watches birds'. If the auspices (i.e. the way in which the birds behave) were good, then the inauguration would be a success. We can relate this to the motto of the English adventurer Raffles, Auspicium Melioris Aevi, which when taken in a completely literal sense would mean, "Watching the birds to see if good times are coming," or more simply, "Looking for a good time."

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gaming the System: Why Not?

I think the interesting thing about being human is the capacity to make deliberate sub-optimal decisions. This only occurred to me after spending a decade or so in pursuit of helping other people make optimal decisions. The question then arises: why not? Why would you want to make a deliberately sub-optimal decision?

The answer comes in two flavours, the romantic and the pragmatic.

The romantic reply is that we're human. We aren't designed to game the system, especially when in the longer run, there may be no system, or a system too complex for us to game. We can game specific systems: that's how tiny hairless chihuahuas and pug-nosed pekes can come from the same stock as Russian wolfhounds. Breeding (and all other eugenic-type programmes) are just one example. But purebred show dogs tend to be vulnerable to things that mongrels aren't; if you optimise for 'best of show', you may also be sub-optimising for 'having a good life'.

The pragmatic answer is that the system can't be gamed. We never know enough; so how can we posit an optimal response? Heh, that sounds like the first answer.

But I did say that the answer comes in two flavours. Same ice-cream underlying both, but two flavours nevertheless. The first version stresses that keeping human by avoiding soulless optimisation is good. The second version stresses that systems are not human, despite many of them being anthropogenic. We made them; let's not let them make us.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Gaming the System: A Brief Introduction

The rise of Atlantis has always been predicated on quantitative sorcery. The numeromancers and numerologists of the Thunderbolt Circle have always looked back to the time of the Gnome and his infamous 1954 thesis on 'How to Look Rich by the Standards of the World'.

Let me put it to you in simpler terms. It's not how much you own, or how much you have, or how much you can move, that necessarily makes you rich. It's how 'rich' is defined. So if you want your country to look rich, you ask around and see how people define 'rich'. Then you rig the outputs (not in the sense of 'bias the game', but more in the sense of 'setting the sails') so that the nation (or the game, or the ship) appears to be heading towards the right direction as far as 'rich' is defined.

This prestidigitation (also known as 'extremely fast number-management process'), if successful, will give rise to the impeccable claim that you are rich by any official measure. Whether you are rich or not in reality does not matter, since all that matters is what the numbers are supposed to say; all else is ineffable, immeasurable, beyond the terms of the discussion.

Let me put it to you in more relevant (to some of us) terms. Let's say your bank balance is US$500,000. You put the card into the machine and ask for a statement of account, and that is what is shown. But how do you know how much that money is? How do you know if you are rich? What if, unbeknownst to you, you have slipped into some sort of timewarp, and US$1,000,000 is actually the cost of a loaf of bread? Well, you'd have to ruefully remind yourself that half a loaf is better than none.

It's all about numbers, to some people.

But let's think about what happens when an education system begins to experience this sort of numerical subversion (or subvention, as some inventive people have called it).

In order to establish how good an education system you have, you decide that only quantitative measures are used. Even when you bring qualitative measures in, you use numerical rubrics and a final score expressed as some number. Worse, you require trend lines for everything, including the development of human virtue or social behaviour (for example, what percentage of the student population expresses confidence in the long-term prospects of your nation).

You decide to create an examination system that is vulnerable to the same prestidigitation. Everyone gets a number. The smaller, the number, the closer to Number One you are. The minimum magic number is 6. But if you are clever, this becomes 4, or 2, or zero. Or perhaps you make it the other way round; the higher the number, the more you've scored. If you get 45, that's the highest; if you get anything approaching 24 and below, time to start looking at the fine print.

The problem is of course that while numbers are good things to have in analysis, a lot of their relevance depends on two things: the assurance that the system is not being gamed in such a way that it fails to measure the quality of education (validity), and the assurance that everyone who does the same thing gets the same mark (reliability). If you look at these two things, you will realise that gaming the system — by doing things which are not educational but are number-manipulating or system-gaming — can give you marvelous results.

It's a bit like parents who insist on helping their kids with homework projects which are graded. You're not measuring the child's ability, but something else (the ability of the child to con the parents into doing it, the pressure society exerts on parents to do unethical things, etc). And if you build the whole edifice on it, the edification is not real.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Breakfast (Again)

The last time I wrote about breakfast, JS reminded me that there are indeed some far-flung corners of the world where minced-pork noodles and other wonderful morning meals are not readily available. You might have to cook them yourself, and you might not be able to find the right ingredients even then. This is a tragic truth.

I suppose the discontentment of globalisation is that it requires all to have equal access, forgetting that without barriers, what remains is mush. It is so in every organic structure. Can you imagine if your whole body decided to do away with its selectively-permeable membranes and mix everything up? You'd not be a viable organism anymore. It is just as true for the world; unless you can maintain some barriers, the virtue of separate qualities is lost.

Think for example of President Obama (well, in a couple of days, that's what he'll be). Much is made of the fact that he is half-Kenyan, half-white-American. Or that he spent his childhood in exotic locales like Kansas, Indonesia and Hawaii. But if everyone was of an indeterminate race or every place had the same quota of McDonald's or Starbucks or Lucky Coffee Shop Braised Pork Noodles, all this would have NO significance at all!

It is all very well to say that one shouldn't care about gender, race, or any of the other primitively simple differentiating elements in human society. But we still choose one breakfast over another. We don't choose to mush everything up in one flat grey or brown disc of homogenised nutrients. We actually spend time preparing food, and write essays that make sense. Homogeneity is rubbish, the lack of discrimination is an enemy.

What? So illiberal and uneducated a view from this blog?

Perhaps. But I'd like to point out that I much prefer the way humour integrates us all. There are Jewish jokes, there are Polish jokes, there are jokes about Englishmen, Irishmen, Welshmen, Scotsmen, Chinese, Japanese... they are all racist jokes. But the interesting thing is that they are all the same jokes. We just re-label them to make fun of someone else. There are very few jokes that can't be transferred to someone else (maybe some Sikh jokes or jokes about unpronounceable Polish or Celtic names); a lot of these are puns that rely on proficiency with a specific language.

The point is that we eventually learn to blend without making too much of similarity or difference, but rather complementarity and a harmony of differences. That's why we eat bacon and eggs, or salted eggs and congee, or bagels with lox. We know the digestive system (from the lips and teeth, down to the other end) will mix everything up and produce a final lump of homogenised crap, but at the input end, we still like to be able to distinguish individual and mixed flavours and aromas all at once.

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My sanity has been retrieved. For a while, I thought I had lost my mind. Then I saw the eight golden retriever puppies, all furry and beautiful like a gift of the morning, like the sons and daughters of summer. My mind has been goldenly retrieved.

The sake and fine Japanese dining helped a lot too. I am truly grateful to know such wonderful people, and although we stayed up very late, it was all worthwhile.


Afternote: Arsenal beat Hull City 3-1 away, so the night ended perfectly well. Haha!

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Research Crystallization

After a month of admittedly sporadic and disrupted thought, I have finally managed to hammer the many pieces of my research sculpture (I hesitate to call it a scaffolding or a structure) into some sort of shape. From now on, the working title of my project will be, Brave New World: Atlantean Secondary Education Responses to Globalisation (1997-2007).

The pieces are still relatively distinct, even though combined into a giant mechanism of destruction (no, not really). Each piece has a thematic weight: piece #1 shows that education is a valid response to, and indeed an engine of, globalisation; piece #2 shows that Atlantis in the years 1997-2007 has indeed stepped up its educational response to globalisation; piece #3 shows that certain institutions are legitimate indicators and harbingers of the kind of changes that have begun and are yet to come.

But what value does this research have?

There are other pieces not widely known to the world. Piece #4 shows the policy aims and objectives of the responses described; piece #5 shows a theory of the enabling factors that make such responses possible; piece #6 shows another theory, with learning points that can be applied elsewhere; piece #7 shows the theoretical future prospects for global education that can be extracted from the study of Atlantean magocracy. Together, these pieces are a kind of epitaph, a marker dividing the age just past from the age to come.

I hope to finish all this very soon.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

No Child Left Unexamined

The current (and not for long) US President once instituted an educational plan with the tagname 'No Child Left Behind'. In that, he seemed to be creating a hugely magnified echo of the Atlantean examination system. (For more about Atlantis, search this blog for 'Atlantis' or 'Atlantean'.)

The Atlantean examination system came from obvious origins. Atlantis was colonised by a sea power of old, a leviathan that once encircled the world with its mighty lamps and scales. From that power, the prescribed examinations for the elite were borrowed. An examination meant for the top 10% of the population became the norm. In saying this, I am merely recounting what the official story has proclaimed. There is nothing scurrilous here.

But take a moment to reflect. Right at the beginning, the form and substance of examination was already pegged to the top 10% of the world-spanning elite. This very same examination was then refined, made tougher, made more substantial, tweaked in arcane and dangerous ways. It is the current means of testing in present-day Atlantis. And hardly anyone complains that it is hard.

The warlords and savants of Atlantis (sometimes, they are one and the same) have so deeply ingrained a culture of imperial national examinations in the populace that local students are on average far better educated in technical subjects than their peers overseas. This happy state of affairs means that almost any child of Atlantis can, if he wishes to and finds it affordable, go elsewhere to make a living.

In that sense, no child has been left behind; every child is exposed to the system early, and hardly anyone is left on the hillside for the wolves. But there are still gaps. The cost of overclocking the central processing units of an entire nation has yet to manifest fully; let us hope the burnout is containable, and that there is indeed a better age ahead.



There is nothing better in life than to saunter down to the local noodle shop for a bite and a dose of strong black coffee in a little chipped ceramic cup. It doesn't really matter where 'local' is, in these days of globalisation. Of course, the problem is sometimes that the quality hasn't globalised, so you find yourself in odd corners of the world where you cannot really get a good breakfast — or worse, where you cannot really get good coffee.

That said, these odd corners are now fewer and farther between. Which means that breakfast is more likely to be a treat!

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thinking Globally

In all the talk of globalisation, glocalisation and other kinds of 'the world is flat' discussions, not much attention has been lavished on how exactly the younger generations are being educated to deal with this phenomenon. I was wondering how much of the typical school curriculum has been adapted to take this into account, so I took a look around the net.

One of the first resources I bumped into was this one. Pretty fast off the blocks, compared to its competitors, the University of Cambridge International Examinations 'syndicate' (note to self: will cover etymology of the word some other time) has decided to actually run a course on Global Perspectives.

It is a cunning plan, as some British comedy fans might observe. If you read through the prospectus for the course, it is all about exposing students to a wider range of perspectives and sources of knowledge (etc) and then getting them to cobble the stuff together to form a portfolio-based submission and other output. The content is prepared by teachers and students, the themes are provided by CIE. Ho ho... first time I've seen this approach to curriculum design.

Anyway, the sixteen themes are: Belief Systems; Biodiversity and Ecosystem Loss; Climate Change; Conflict and Peace; Disease and Health; Education for All; Employment; Family and Demographic Change; Fuel and Energy; Humans and Other Species; Law and Criminality; Technology and the Economic Divide; Trade and Aid; Tradition, Culture and Language; Urbanisation; and Water.

It's as if a Monty Python cast sat down and decided to be serious for once. I'm not sure why these themes are named the way they are. And from reading the other materials on the website, I'm not sure they're sure either. Which is fine, since the syllabus is supposed to promote active, as opposed to passive, learning. Well, the candidates can start by actively figuring out what they're supposed to do.

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Two Ravens

Recently, I received a spate of communications from various students who wanted to know more about epistemology. It was all very mysterious to me, since I thought that (at least for this season), all of them had finished dealing with that part of the syllabus.

I would have continued in that blissful state, except for one event. That was when one of them spilt the beans. She said, "Errrm, we were supposed to submit our drafts but some got carried away."

What got carried away? The students? The drafts? I didn't really resolve the answer to that question, since it became a confabulated mishmash of "the teacher took it away and didn't give it back" (how likely that is, I leave it to you to determine), "my classmates wrote one essay for each question" (I call that insanity), and "I spent all my holidays writing this 4000-word monster thingie, how could I be bothered with 1600 words?"

Well, when the 1600 words in question have as much weight as the 4000-word monster, perhaps priorities should be adjusted, no? A good way to adjust priorities is really to go back and look at an old literary project of mine that I've mentioned before. After reading Two Ravens in its entirety, you will probably have a better grasp of epistemology, confabulation, romance, theology and priorities than you had before.

Just a note of explanation: the two ravens of this project are Thought and Memory, or as the Norse sagas have it, Huginn and Muninn. In the invented mythology of this narrative, they are a pair of angels who are close friends and perhaps lovers. They did not disobey God but were too involved with humanity to listen to Him when Satan rebelled. For that, they were given a unique fate, which is alluded to in parts throughout the story. They also mix around with other powers that 'the Highest' allows to operate in Middle-Earth (or Midgard) and in general make comments about everything they see.

The second post was written on 11/11/2004 and, taking a cue from T S Eliot, was titled What the Thunder Said. You can find it here. The first post is of course Two Ravens 001, which is at the bottom of the blog page, and can be found here.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Examiner (Part V): Questioning the Questions

Last night, I had an interesting (though brief) discussion with the Hierophant. He asked, if I recall correctly, which of the questions on the list, in my opinion, would I leave out.

In some ways, the gurus of epistemology (or the theory of knowledge, as some prefer) would say that it depends on your world-view, your assumptions, your tolerance for relativity and your ideas of the underlying truth of the world. (If you think there is such a thing at all, that is.)

To me, however, all that is too much. I am a simple man in many ways. Faced with such an enormous question, I tackled the enormity head-on by falling back (haha) on the comforting trinity of validity, reliability and utility.

I therefore applied the simple idea that a question in any form of assessment must display all three traits. A question must test what it's supposed to test, it must return the same score (or grade, or mark, or examiner's response) for the same answer each time, and it must be do-able within the expected limit of the examinee's education while eliciting a sufficient response.

In my opinion (which I confess is that of a young hothead who has only a fair amount of experience at this), I would take out questions 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9. I'd keep the rest, which seem to me to be pitched at the right level, target, competency and scope. Remember, this is only my opinion, and perhaps shows nothing more than the inner workings of my own brain.

What's wrong (if anything) with these questions in my view?

Let's have a look at question 2: "Examine the ways empirical evidence should be used to make progress in different areas of knowledge."

The words that grab me here are 'examine', 'should', and 'progress'. It's a very difficult question because it places too much responsibility in the hands of the examinee. For a start, any attempt to 'examine the ways' would be infinite in scope; the examinee therefore has to do a solid enough survey within 1600 words or so, being careful to cover all the major kinds of ways. Secondly, 'should' requires the examinee to prescribe rather than describe; even 'can' or 'might' or 'could' would be easier than this, because now the candidate must establish sufficient grounds for his prescription. Thirdly, 'progress' — always a difficult word to define, and certain to be contentious in many disciplines. When you combine all three, difficulties, it is not a question I'd want to tackle in 1600 words.

Now take a look at question 6: "'All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism.' On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?"

I'm immediately a little suspicious of the 'rational criticism' part. The problem of course is that there are as many kinds of valid reasoning as there are disciplines that define reason. Should a claim in one area of knowledge be open to rational criticism based on another area of knowledge? Simple example: should scientists argue theological claims? This doesn't quite kill the question, but it does require the candidate to worry about what 'rational' means (and no, it doesn't necessarily mean 'reasonable', 'reasoning' or 'logical'), and to a lesser extent, 'open'. The examinee must also lay out the grounds for his position, which is not an easy thing to do, since such a laying-out is also a knowledge claim...

Question 8 is this: "'People need to believe that order can be glimpsed in the chaos of events' (adapted from John Gray, Heresies, 2004). In what ways and to what extent would you say this claim is relevant in at least two areas of knowledge."

You could write a book about this. Gleick and Talib (and to a lesser and rather skewed extent, Dawkins) are among the many people who have already done it. The crux is 'need'. Is it really a necessity? Is it biologically hard-wired into us? Is something that is hard-wired a need or a drive? And what is meant by 'chaos' — do we use a mathematical, social, or aesthetic definition? Ho ho, the student attempting this is like the curators of large museums such as the Smithsonian, who from the largest collections of specimens in the world must then decide what to display in order to best meet the unknown predilections and tastes of myriads of visitors. Not easy, and possibly unfair.

I've already addressed question 5 and question 9 elsewhere, so we'll stop there. Again, I must say that the five questions I've highlighted are questions I'd have qualms about either setting or doing, as examiner or candidate. This is not at all to say that I have official standing or that my opinions are valid; but this is what I think, and I'd be grateful for any input.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Potato Crisps (Part II)

Today I am finishing my first bag of Hot Potatoes: Spicy Bloody Mary Potato Chips™. They aren't too tongue-blasting, but the flavour is rich and the bag itself is worth reading. It has labels on it like 'For Internal Use Only' and 'Careful: Eating Will Cause Side, Front and Backwards Effects'. This is a bag of crisps with the genuine bite of worcestershire sauce and all kinds of other vegetable goodness. There are a couple of other flavours too. And the crunch is superb, even three days after opening the bag.

Unrelated Note: I bumped into the Fighter the other day, at Guth. Most important was that his lady was looking for Poppycock™ popcorn/nut clusters. You may find many fine young ladies across the many lands, but one trait that you might want to look out for is a love of Poppycock™. It indicates a particular sensitivity that comes in handy when trying to have a party just for two.


Responses 009 (2009-2010)

It was quite by random that my earlier post on examinations included "Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented," which was the 9th question in this set.

My gut instinct was to say immediately that there are NO areas of knowledge that are discovered. Period. The question, at first sight, stinks.


It's simple. Areas of knowledge can never define themselves. Any way we have of saying that something is an area of knowledge requires us to define it. And the act of defining an area of knowledge automatically means we have invented it.

We don't even have to walk anywhere near the murky area of whether knowledge itself is discovered or invented. There is a case to be made either way, for different kinds of knowledge. That's a traditional philosopher's problem. But when we come to areas of knowledge, haha.

Try this experiment. Think of an area of knowledge that defines itself, independent of humanity. I am certain that you will fail. At which point, you must confess that all areas of knowledge depend on human invention of definition.

However, there is one way out. If you can successfully assert that humans are machines that actually don't know anything (but are complex enough to have the sensation that they do), then there is no such thing as knowledge. This is actually a trivial case, since all this argument is moot if that is the case, and we can't live our lives as if it is true (even if we are living our lives that way but don't know it).

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Snakes & Ladders

I have always liked the throbbing tunes and spiky lyrics of the group called Men at Work. They took it upon themselves, years ago, to talk about life in the perfectly normal working world—except that there is a timeless quality about their thoughts. Here, for example, are the lyrics of 'Snakes and Ladders':

I could stand but I don't like the feeling
I could fall but I'm always on the floor
You could make a million staring at the ceiling
You could break your back and still be poor

One for the liar
One for the cheat
One for the man who you'll never meet
Piece of the action and a portion of pie
They'll be there waiting when your big chance comes by

There's a snake on top of every ladder
Who will tell you that he's your best friend
Everyone important needs an adder
But subtraction gets you in the end

One for the liar
One for the cheat
One for the man who you'll never meet
Piece of the action and a portion of pie
They'll be there waiting when your big chance comes by

They don't care, they don't mind
The in-betweens will steal you blind
I don't know, I can't say
It seems it's always been this way
You won't feel or complain
The gentle leech will cause no pain

It's one sharp vignette of working life. There's always someone creaming off your work and not attributing it to you; this is seen as right and fair by some people. They fish you out when they need good work done; they bury you when you are inconvenient; this is the way of the world.

I've been reading the interesting and hair-raising accounts in the first book of Samuel the prophet. Things were the same then too.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Examiner (Part IV)

This is for YH, who added the first comment to the previous post. He asked that question which people outside the Dunwich-esque community of educators always innocently ask: "Do you mark for good answers or do you mark for 'good' points?"

Let me explain the difference.

Consider a game of tennis. The first player serves, the ball hits the ground once and flashes past her opponent. Score: 15-love. The second player questions the point. After some inspection, the umpire decides the point is 'good'; that is, the point will be counted since it meets the definition of what a point is. This is a 'good' point.

On the other hand, let us suppose that the return of service is a bullet that no reasonable human being stands any chance of intercepting. But the player isn't reasonable. Putting on superhuman effort, she breaks the record for a 10-metre sprint, retrieves the ball, and somehow sends it approximately back the way it came. On the way back, the ball hits the net, does a wheelie along the net, somehow flies in an arc that takes it in a great circle route over a post, and takes a long time looping back into the opponent's court. Whereupon the opponent, having plenty of time to prepare, puts it away for a point against the first player.

In this latter case, according to USTA rules 2, 24, 25 and 26, the first player made a good return (a good 'answer), but failed to score a point. It was also great entertainment from the spectators' point of view. The journalists are enthusiastic, thus ensuring that the spectacular return is forever enshrined in tennis lore. But sorry, no point.

I have seen many such scripts in my time as an examiner. The answers in all these cases meet all the criteria for good answers to their respective questions. But the marking scheme is fixed, and if you give a mark for what is not in the marking scheme, it either goes to adjudication or the examiner is told that he has made a mistake himself.

This is for a simple reason. Some questions just have too many answers. It would take too long to adjudicate them fairly to a 99.9% level of confidence.

A question such as, "Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented," and requiring an answer of 1200-1600 words (for example), may be answered in a practically infinite number of ways. It is therefore certain that of those many ways, some will be perfectly good answers, but fail to score the points one might think they deserve. Even a question like, "What does the phrase 'basic compound' mean?" is likely to produce many good answers some of which will fail to score any points, depending on the subject being examined.

In a perfect examination system, the examination would have 100% validity (i.e., it only tests what it's supposed to test), 100% reliability (i.e., it always gives the same score for the same level of performance) and 100% utility (i.e., it is easy to administer and grade, and serves its ostensible purpose faithfully).

But there are no perfect exams. We have to make do with reasonably good exams that work at anywhere from an 80% to a 95% confidence level. And when we no longer have any idea what the usefulness of the material being tested is, in real life, we have reached a point at which we must consider changing the examination.

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Things I Don't Have To Do

What a wonderful thought, that there are onerous things that one had to do before which one no longer has to do! Things like giving the time of day to false gods and stuff like that...

Tonight I am listening to the Peter Malick/Norah Jones song, 'Things You Don't Have To Do', from the excellent album New York City. The words go like this:

I walk down the diamond studded concrete canyon
Nobody looked me in the eye
Tried to fly to the moon
Only made it to the sky
I was looking, looking for
I couldn't find a friend
Searching for a clear connection
Without a digital send

Ain't it just a little scary sometimes
To find the lies that you know to be true
I'll find you smiling about
Things you don't have to do

Bill doesn't call me anymore
I hear he's found religion
Big haired blonde apprentice beautician
And all the words and gesticulations that came before
Don't seem to mean a thing
You can feel fine to drop a dime
If you're ever hanging by a string

Ain't it just a little scary sometimes
To find the lies that you know to be true
I'll find you smiling about
Things you don't have to do

I hear voices crying out
Echoes on the boulevard
Contentious rambling incantations
Of some senile bard
There's too much going on around here
To keep my head from spinning
And this constant acceleration
Blurs any ties to the beginning

Ain't it just a little scary sometimes
To find the lies that you know to be true
I'll find you smiling about
Things you don't have to do

It's a very amusing song, and I found myself laughing at certain points. Do try to find the album; excellent mood music for hard times, uneven times, or times when you just want to hear good music.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

SG Wages

I was watching a phenomenon last night. There was a young man, certainly not an investment broker but with the sort of income and tastes that you might associate with one. He was dressed in a blue outfit, not his usual one, and looked rather harassed, as if he had come home one day to find that all his leather shoes had turned to sandals.

Out of idle curiosity, I decided to see if my memories of his chosen sporting environment were correct. Yes, indeed; this young man named 'SG' was paid approximately £120,000 a week; which works out to about £17,300 a day. It is a mindboggling figure. If you were to type it into the little Google window and convert it to SG dollars, that would be about SGD 40,000 a day.

It put me in mind of a certain unsavoury incident that SG was involved in. Apparently, he was accused of participation in the sort of thing young men get up to when soused, and carted off to the local nick. The amount of income SG would have earned for 3 days in jail would have been 120,000 in SG dollars, just for sitting at Her Majesty's convenience for a while. I'm sure his fellow detainees would have been in awe.

These days, it seems that the wages of being a good ball-kicker are far greater than anything a conventional education might bring. That said, watching SG perform in his chosen colours, or even in his away kit (which makes him look as if he is from the other team in town), is an education all of its own. He is a great sportsman, even on a reasonably bad day; and in mitigation, there are about ten other sportsmen in his field who are paid more than he is throughout the world.

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Responses 005 (2009-2010)

This is a response to the fifth question in this list of interesting questions. The reason I'm posting it is that I had a nice long discussion with a person who wanted to answer it, and I'm not sure if I have any answers myself.

The question is: "What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions. (Michael Shermer, Critically evaluate this way of distinguishing the sciences from other areas of knowledge."

The first thing I noticed is that the quote is from Michael Shermer, which does provide a sort of clue as to where one might start. Shermer is the person who writes the Skeptic column in Scientific American, and you can therefore consider the quote to be somewhat equivalent to, "Science is different from all other areas of knowledge because it is skeptical (and the rest are not)."

Shermer is also known to argue (see for example the December 2008 issue of Scientific American) that humans have a tendency to see patterns in noise, and so you should be careful that what you're seeing isn't merely this patternicity at work.

I think you might approach the topic like this. Once you have defined the terms, ask these questions:
  1. Is science distinguished by skepticism? Do any other disciplines believe in the provisional nature of all conclusions? If you can find any other human activity that requires this belief, either it is also (a) science, or the statement is false.
  2. Is it true in the first place that science has a belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions? It strikes me as odd that this should be so, since the 'provisional' part is more likely a postmodern idea; earlier scientists believed that you could reach absolute conclusions. Either they were not scientists (and what they did was not really science), or postmodernism is what science is.
I think that answering these questions does help to clarify any response that can reasonably be made.

I tend to think that you can divide the areas of knowledge, based on Shermer's statement, into at least three groups. The first group would be science(s), disciplines characterised by a belief that all conclusions are provisional (i.e., that they are only true up to the present point of knowledge and may subsequently prove untrue). The second group would be things like mathematics and theology, in which conclusions are automatically true within the system used. The third group would be things like art and music, in which there are no objective conclusions.

If you said that art and music had conclusions, then it would be obvious that all such conclusions would be provisional, and thus art and music would be Shermerian sciences. I think most artists would agree that they believed that all conclusions about the arts were provisional.

After thinking all these thoughts, I've decided Shermer should be treated with extreme skepticism. Pass the salt, please.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Power of Number

I came home yesterday and promptly fell asleep. It's been a gruelling three days or so, at the Temple of the Red Queen's Race. Let me digress a bit before I continue.


I don't know why people give such awful names to places. I have in mind two specific names: 'Cineleisure' and 'Leisuredrome'. I shall now enlarge on this digression etymologically.

'Cineleisure' is a sort of reverse-portmanteau-abomination-construct. It is a contraction, I think, of 'cinema' + 'leisure'. 'Cinema' comes from the Greek kinema ('movement') and hence 'cine' comes from Greek kinein ('to move'), while 'leisure' is related to 'lease', 'license', and other words which imply a relaxation of control. 'Cineleisure' means something like 'a loss of control over one's movement', and even in modern English, it should mean something like 'moving while not really bothering to move'.

'Leisuredrome' is just as bad. The Greek dromos means 'a running track' or 'a race course'. This of course is something like a reversed version of 'Cineleisure'. It probably means 'a place to run around recklessly'. I seem to remember that it had a skating rink in it, so I suppose that might have been part of the idea.

The Red Queen's Race is, of course, a concept taken from Lewis Carroll. The Red Queen had to keep running just to stay in the same place; it's somewhat related to the concept of Red Tape, which is created to keep people in the same place despite running around a lot.


Digression over, let me just say why I was so sleepy when I got home. I've had to use my brain a lot, and the food supplied was simple and extremely good. I had a sublime pastrami-on-onion-rye sandwich, a wonderfully thin apple tart with fresh vanilla ice-cream, and a host of other treats, all washed down with delicious caffeine sources. All this makes one sleepy in a pleasant sort of way.

The upshot of the whole experience was that I am now a certified provider of 'digital literacy' and 'technology infused learning'. This amuses me a lot, although I am happy to have obtained the certification; I've always felt that 'digital literacy' should mean 'the ability to talk by using one's fingers'.

But what really hit me in the head this afternoon was the thought that if not for an accident (or incident) of number, we would be ten years faster in adopting many good practices. What I'm referring to is the phenomenon known as 'Y2K' or 'the year 2000'.

The year 2000 AD was the last year of the second millennium (which ran from 1001 to 2000, just as the first one ran from 1 to 1000). A lot of people had invested into the memetic package known as 'the 21st century', in which all things were supposed to be different and the future was supposed to have arrived.

Simply because of this cultural illusion fostered by the calendar, people waited till the year 2000 (when the first digit of the year designation changed) or 2001 (especially after Clarke and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) to do new stuff. A lot of the new stuff came out in the late 1980s or the 1990s, but many people didn't bother with it, because they were subconsciously awaiting the new millennium. That is why a former superior of mine claimed Apple was dead and refused to do anything useful with IT until 2001, for example.

Because of the power of number (or at least, the terrible illusion this calendar case engendered), we wasted a decade or more.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

National Education(al Technology Standards)

No, this is not about National Education.

Today as part of our course, we're being asked to take a look at the 2007 ISTE NETS.S — the National Educational Technology Standards for Students. (Link here.) I think these standards make perfect sense in a world where the primary information technologies are essentially digital and which are now a part of daily life.

We were asked to respond to the question, "What surprises you most about these standards? Why?"

I don't think much surprises me anymore. Looking at these standards, I am instead struck by a sense of how inevitable every one of them is. They are not just core ethical principles, but rather principles of a core ethic: the world in which we live has to be handled this way, or all will be chaos. Actually, the chaos bit is inevitable too, come to think of it; it's the management of the chaos which is important. As in the older Greek myths, and before that the Babylonian, power and will mould chaos into substance—and from substance comes the promise of better things.

We look towards a better age, it seems. The way we look at this age, however, is rather interesting. By the sheer fact of calendar change, the start of the 21st century is seen as some sort of incredible watershed in human progress. Organisations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills seem to believe that human nature has changed so much that the kind of skills that would have been important in any century have been appropriated entirely by the 21st. Just look at this!

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The Analysis That Should Not Exist (Part III)

It is interesting to see that even though the analysis that should not exist does not really exist, it is largely correct. The world is full of intangible presences made strong by suspicion and presumption, by pride and humour, by the odd determination that one's perspective is the only thing that makes the world make sense.

The predicted trend has indeed materialised; that which was bad is worse and that which was good is better. Those who were out of their depth are stranded (haha, a word with great import) and those who took to the water made it to the finish on a grand scale. As I said to the Heffalump last year, the results bear analysis for both good and bad; while he was not happy with the idea, it is clear that such analysis was necessary.

The problem with hidden interests is that they bear hidden costs. In the end, the undermining of the system and the flight of capital become critical; no institution can survive such a double blow, even if the senior workers are now encouraged to work until they are 65, as is becoming the norm in many modern states.

And thus do we conclude the analysis that should not (and indeed does not) exist.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009


Well, the non-disclosure agreement probably makes it prudent for me not to publicly say anything about what training I am now receiving. But it's interesting to note that about eight years ago, I actually presented a paper on it to an assembly of my peers; 13 years ago, I presented my thoughts to a jury of my superiors. Whatever it is, I have mentioned it elsewhere in this blog.

I am gratified to be receiving a refresher course plus upgrade and hands-on practice. It is a rejuvenating experience. I find myself both pedagogue and student at once, and learning a lot of new stuff. Amazing. It makes me happy. If happiness is insanity, I shall soon be certified non compos mentis. Grin.

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Thinking Thoughts

Today I'm on course, learning to help deliver professional development in the digital era. One of the quotations I came across that really sticks a knife in and turns it is from American philosopher Eric Hoffer:

"In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."


The Analysis That Should Not Exist (Part II)

This should probably be called 'The Analysis That Will Not Exist'. It is interesting to compare the information released by the best schools in the world about their performance in the International Baccalaureate Diploma examinations. It is even more interesting to see what information is no longer being released.

On one hand, the best IB school in the UK has released its usual simple statistical bulletin. There is no interpretation; only the facts of the case are presented, and it is clear that they have done well. The source PDF can be found here and was linked in my previous post. It is easy to see where the school has improved, and that over the years, the school has done well indeed. The Times Educational Supplement listed this school as the best independent school in the country, and it is clear why.

On the other hand, the best IB school in Singapore has released its usual report. There is some interpretation of the facts, it is clear that they have done superlatively well... but hey, the subject statistics are missing. I wonder if this has anything to do with my previous post(s). You can compare the 2008 results (PDF here) with the 2007 results (PDF here) and see how the data presentation has changed since the last time. In aggregate, it is clear that this school has improved; it is not so clear how this change has come about (although my last post has a theory which I don't think they want me to test).

One thing is for sure. I stand by my contention that the first school probably has far better results in English HL—it is hard to beat a 90% distinction rate. They have a history of it, and statistically, I believe at a 99% confidence level that I am right. It is to be expected. Maybe, they did better in History and Economics as well.

Similarly, by analysing last year's results, I expect that the second school did far better in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics HL, and that a far larger proportion of the student body 'majored' in these disciplines (i.e., took them at Higher Level rather than Standard Level). They probably did better in Business & Management too.

These are not contentions which slight either school or are designed to insult or deride the efforts of the hard-working teachers and students. Rather, they are efforts to evaluate school strengths as they vary across the world. If my theory is correct, the Singapore Science/Math effect shown by TIMSS is a product of the local educational culture and affects the results even in other kinds of testing.

I am sure that both schools will do even better over time (unlikely though it might seem, since they have already done so well). I congratulate both schools (although I don't think I have the standing for either to take notice) on a job well done, and I do indeed believe that the best is yet to be!

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Analysis That Should Not Exist (Part I)

There is an insatiable curiosity in educational researchers that leads them to defy social norms and say the darndest things about the societies in which they live and the societies in which other people live. No doubt, this is a pronounced tendency of researchers in other disciplines in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

However, education is different; like history, it is a discipline that almost every human partakes in from birth. It is a discipline whose right of practice is almost certainly very close to being a basic human right. This is not so for many other disciplines, and in fact, if it were not for education, there would not be many other disciplines.

I have said all this to explain why educational researchers tend to strike more at our core beliefs (and with less accuracy) than most other kinds of researchers. Having said this, I am going to commit myself as one of that reckless crowd and say some things about the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) and the city-state of Singapore.

Here are some basics. The IBDP is a pre-university (or senior high school) educational programme. Full details can be found at the IBO website. It is progressive, has many things going for it, and is an ideal education system (well, at least, it is one based on ideals which are clear and widely disseminated). There are some detractors, with interesting arguments linked to malignant globalism and suchlike, but the Programme is generally taken to be A Good Thing (as far as the Asia-Pacific region is concerned, at least, and well beyond).

The main curricular structure of the Programme (besides its ideals and worldwide goals) revolves around three core disciplines. These are Theory of Knowledge (TOK), the Extended Essay (EE) and Creativity, Action, Service (CAS). There are six academic groups which can be summarised briefly thus: Literature, Language, Humanities, Sciences, Mathematics, Aesthetics. Students must take a discipline from each group (although the last group can be replaced by another of the first five groups). I've written more about this in a previous post.

Singapore is known to do well in Mathematics and Sciences. This is a key finding that has been repeated many times; the Third International Mathematics & Science Survey (TIMSS) has provided evidence that this is so (and yes, it has been much proclaimed in PR pieces like this). My conclusion would be that a Singapore school that takes in average Singapore students should outperform (on average) most schools overseas in the IBDP groups 4 and 5 (Sciences and Mathematics). Perhaps more accurately, if the students from Singapore's top 5% are matched against the students from anyone else's top 5%, then the Singaporeans should outscore them in standardised testing.

This leads to a predictable situation. A majority of Singapore students taking the IBDP would take two Science subjects and one Mathematics subject; having done so, the quality of the average grade in these areas would outweigh any deficits in any other areas. Singapore students should do very well then, but only if they concentrate on scoring in the sciences and mathematics. I am not so sure they would do as well in the humanities, literatures and languages which the IBDP offers.

Again, this prediction is made based on very general statistics. However, it is possible to pit the best independent IB school in the UK against the best independent IB school in Singapore. The head-to-head analysis looked interesting, so I carried it out. Guess what I found...

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

IB Results

Whenever the International Baccalaureate Diploma results come out each year, I invariably take a look at the longest-serving of the true IB schools. I always find that in the spirit of transparency and information awareness, they have posted their results with impeccable formatting and a minimum of showiness, as befits a mature institution. I am glad that these habits are taking root elsewhere in the world.

I would like to wish all those who have just received their IB Diploma results the best of all worlds, collectively and individually. I hope that those who have been through the course will indeed help to bring better times to the world around them, trusting in the hope that the best is yet to be.


Nation-Building Education

One of the more convoluted threads that has spun out of my research is the story of national education in this part of the world. You might think that the whole matter is simple: teach the young about what the city-state is, why it exists, what its values are, how it should continue. The problem of course is that when a nation is also a city-state, a polis, then a single political viewpoint is likely to dominate.

What's wrong with that?

Well, in the abstract, the main problem is that a single political viewpoint has a single memetic payload. All too often, a list of bullet points is produced which are plausible, rational, and easy to justify. Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a consistent message. But the real difficulty comes when the single package has to contend with the messy array of parallel and contrary memes in the world outside. There is very little scope for adaptation, since policy positions are fixed.

As I'm fond of saying, there are now only three real city-states left, and they are all very different. They are Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City (in alphabetical order).

In the principality of Monaco, the focus is clear; this is a place for the rich leisured class. "Welcome to Monaco. Seven centuries of monarchial heritage. A Riviera gem. An international cultural centre. One unique principality... Monaco." That's what the official website says. The state occupies two square kilometres, and is the most densely populated independent nation on earth. The same family, the House of Grimaldi, has ruled it since 1297. Yes, they're proud of it too; unparalleled continuity in a sea of change is nothing to be scoffed at. The original land grant for modern Monaco was bestowed in 1191, and the temple of Heracles which was the centre of the original settlement was built in the 6th century AD. Its motto is, "With God's Help."

Vatican City has an even clearer focus. It is a small state, only about 0.44 square kilometres in area, and can best be described as an 'elective absolute monarchy' or perhaps theocracy. It is the only state in the world that is the absolute controlling centre of a major world religion. It's hard to say when the Vatican mount was first settled, but Rome made it fit for habitation somewhere around AD 33.

Neither of these states needs much by way of national education; they have been doing their jobs for a long time, and their memetic packages, refined by centuries of global memetic warfare, are probably highly evolved 'brand names' that need little protection or active defence.

Singapore, though, is different. It's a newish place, and much larger than the other two. It has a full military, said to be the most advanced in its region. It is also an exporter of memes, guns, and biologically-related goods and services. It has a National Education website called Nexus, which tells you how to do National Education and why. It reduces its memetic package to six bullet points. It is hosted and administered by the Ministry of Defence, as far as I can figure out. The whole experience is interesting, and worth examining to understand the necessary psychology of a city-state under memetic siege.

That's all for now... I have to go deconstruct American education now. Heh.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Over the last five years or so, a lot of people have come up to me and in one way or another asked, "So, how many blogs do you have?" The 'clever' answer is of course, "As many as I need."

But to be quite honest with those people who can't be bothered to actually take a look, I am the sole owner of very few real blogs. The one you're reading is the main one, while Bookbinding is my capsule book review blog which covers all the light fiction I've read (and some non-fiction). By now everyone ought to know about Two Ravens, my experiment in literary 'bloggery' which isn't really a blog; there's a sequel which is linked to it but incomplete because I realised that Two Ravens didn't need a sequel.

All these links are in the sidebar of this blog anyway. It doesn't take much effort to go take a look! However, some people do think I have written other stuff. And that is of course very true; you can find my now temporarily defunct Chemistry resources blog, Elemental, still out there somewhere. There's useful stuff in it, but I don't update it anymore.

There are also several poetry resources out there with one of my names on each of them. If you like poetry, go look around. My various digital incarnations go back to 1988 or so, but the older ones are very hard to track down.

Lastly, there are blogs shared with others; however, since they are professionals with busy lives and value their privacy, I'm not listing them here. A suspicious number of these are lawyers; it's good to have respected lawyers on your side, in this age of dubious information transfers.

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Batman Returns

I was brought up partly on Kipling by my father's judicious intervention, as I've mentioned before. (It brings to mind an old British cartoon which I've always found amusing, but I digress.)

It occurs to me that because of this kind of paternal education, I actually came across the word 'Batman' a long time before I came across the Caped Crusader in comics or on TV. A batman is a commissioned officer's orderly — his runner, valet, and general dogsbody all in one. There's also a Batman province in Turkey and all kinds of other Batmen (Batmans?), including one that has a mass of 16.4 metric tons.

This kind of education has an odd effect on the young. It makes them grow up with a terrible urge to make funny associations that nobody else will get, laugh like a maniac at a particularly pleasing but abstruse joke, and ask riddles with answers that will either elicit groans or require explanations (this latter then makes the riddle lose its humour and die).

All this came to mind when my 7-year-old niece started asking me riddles from one of those '1001 Riddles' jokebooks (like 'jukebox' but with different vowel sounds in it). We had a lot of fun inventing better answers than those provided. My niece approves of that kind of thing. She has said to me before, "Uncle, you're a tricky man!"

She means it in a good sense, I think. At least, she laughs a lot when saying it.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Startling Revelations

Tomorrow, school really starts for a bunch of people. In some countries, they are humane and start on Wednesday 7 Jan; in some they start on 12 Jan; in at least one case I know a bunch who don't start school till 2 Feb. Some people start school on 2 Jan or earlier, perhaps in the last week of December.

But whatever it is, it is always a time for reflection and meditation, and for those of us so inclined, thanksgiving and prayer. Always.

I was speaking to Adobe about this not long ago, and he exclaimed, "I have been praying for the wrong things!"

I asked him why. He replied, "I should be praying for the best to happen, not for the bad to be removed! And if the bad has to be removed for the best to happen, so be it."

Which put me in mind of that old Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, in which a young man asks the village rabbi, "Is there a proper blessing for the Czar of Russia?"

Surprisingly, there was. You can read the whole story here. Essentially, prayer changes the person praying for the better. It's an interesting and very Jewish answer.

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Seasonal Change

My father is getting old. And he is no longer skinny the way we used to take for granted. Mother hasn't aged at all very much, except that if you look carefully, my maternal grandfather's hair genes have tolled/told the final story there. And I, I have about ten times the amount of white hair I had last year. I put it down to December stress.

I think the safest course of action for anyone in December is to cut and run. Pretend you have minimal family, no in-laws or outlaws or relations of dubious genetic provenance. I am all for spending family time with the two, three, four, five, six or (stretching things a bit, are we, much?) seven people who really mean something to you in the warm and intimate family sense; the rest ought to be silence and contemplation of the old year's passing and the new year's uncertain squalls.

Then again, it is impossible to separate your availability to those you love from your availability to those who you don't feel so charitably inclined towards. Especially when you may be seeing both in the same place and at the same time.

The biggest change in me, I suppose, is oddly bipolar. On one hand, I have a much larger tolerance for things I used to hate; on the other, I have a greater ability for doing without the things I like. It all makes for a less unnerving season, a less dramatic one.

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Summer, In Winter

I sit here with the better part of a bottle of 2005 Moscato and a very small glass. This allows me to successfully absorb the late and dying heat of an Italian summer which I have never experienced, turned into a flowery bouquet and the aftertaste of fruit which I am now experiencing.

At the same time, I am reading Dave Gibbons's Watching the Watchmen, the behind-the-scenes exposé of how the Hugo Award-winning graphic novel came to be. I read of John Higgins's hand-calibrated colouring, using the limited print technology of the 1980s to produce murky, bleached, hues which were somehow suitable for the noir atmosphere of the final product, but yet not good enough. I read of the quirky Alan Moore yet again, that most extraordinary gentleman with the Moorcock-era New Wave creative streak a mile wide.

And I remember what it was like, being a lad in the Army and reading issues of Watchmen as they came out — and reflecting on how different on a psychological scale the rushing about with M16S1s and modified ex-Israeli armour was, compared to the threat of nuclear armageddon. I reflect that since then I have enjoyed many a summer, and the swan has not yet sung.

Tomorrow, I am certain that some people will get up on some podiums somewhere, arrange their notes on some lectern and read some blithering nonsense. And some part of the world will cringe before each of them. But others will speak words that seem given by a higher authority, not merely a higher power. These latter words will shape the world through the hearts and minds of their listeners.

"Who watches the watchmen?" goes the old Latin saying. "Watchman, what of the night?" is found in the book of Isaiah the prophet. We watch the watchmen; they watch the night. And if nobody watches the night, and if nobody watches the watchmen, then Chaos and Old Night and all the other powers of the Fall will steal the last breath of summer forever.

But here I sit, my half-bottle of Moscato and I. We read together the story that Moore and Gibbons told so long ago. We remember an even older tale, involving watchmen in a field, angels, sheep and new beginnings. There is the promise we hold close; out of every winter comes summer, and summer can be bottled for darker days.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Nuclear Family

I've always wondered about how nuclear a nuclear family really is. Do the parents undergo pion-pion interaction? Is each parent a mass of quarks (or quirks?) and are they both protons or is one a neutron?

Perhaps more worrisome is the question of how far one of the offspring can go before the nuclear family ionizes. Does the family then become positively charged if the lost one was negative? If a marriage occurs, do two nuclear families bond? And is it more an ionic bond or a covalent bond? If you follow the analogy, ionic bonds occur when one family accommodates the 'overflow' from another; covalent bonds occur when both families become closer as a result of the interaction; metallic bonds occur when nobody really cares where the kids end up.

I think my family is a large molecule. It routinely surprises me with its various configurations and responses to changes in the environment and attacks on its elements.

It is a wonderful thing to see the world of humanity as a chemical environment. I thank God for such a peculiar blessing!

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Half A Day

Twelve hours after I woke up today, I find myself having had a leisurely NYC-style breakfast (a nice bagel with cream cheese and black coffee), a good round of wandering around on foot and by train, and a good massage by a hefty masseur with no idea about what pain is. Then I walked home and had a good hot shower and a couple of games of chess.

I did some reading, some assiduous note-taking, and wrote out a list of people I have to see some time in the next few days. I am on a roll. I feel very good.


Dear Diary...

Today I woke up feeling odd. The sunlight was far too bright, and the taste in my mouth seemed rather too redolent of an adrenaline state. I turned over and looked at my desk calendar, and it said, "2 Jan." And the clock said, "07:00." And together, they said, "You'll be late for school."

And I laughed to myself because it wasn't true anymore.

In fact, I will be going out today to bum around before I start work again, at my own pace, enjoying myself.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

Freedom's Call: The Year In Review

I think what sums up this year the most, in terms of life changes and processes, is that for the first time in a long while, I have been a free agent. In the past, like a good Party member, I had to toe the party line to some extent. Sanctions were available, as in the old Politburo, such as demotion, public denunciation, bonus reduction, having one's privileges withheld, and so on. I suffered all of these things, despite the fact that there was no objective reason for any of them.

Then in March, I was freed of all obligations to keep my mouth shut and my eyes closed.

The effect on me was almost intoxicating. For once, I could earn fair market value for my work and do untrammelled (well, less-trammelled) research on what made the education system really tick (or tock). From an approximate rate of a dollar per educational man-hour (a bit more than $30 to teach a class of almost 30 students for an hour), the valuation of my time rose to giddy heights. I was not aware I was worth so much on the open market!

Better than that, I was now free to eat wherever I wanted at any time I wanted. This is no small privilege; there are some companies that won't let their staff go out for lunch because they don't see why adults should be treated like adults. I used to have to sign out at the office if I wanted to take a walk across the road; I suddenly found myself able to walk like a free man.

I became a lot more productive in unexpected ways, and I learnt a lot more; I finally found the time to do things like write poetry and make things with my hands. I listened to more music, did more work, served as a writer and consultant, made information freely available to others, advised people who wanted advice. I read huge chunks of the Bible twice over, in two versions; I cleared a stack of long-abandoned reading. I started teaching Literature.

I began to make time for old friends and colleagues, to talk, to stay up late at night, to chat and have happy meals (no, not the mass-produced Golden Arches kind). I developed a finer sense for wine and cheese. I found a greater appreciation for my juniors and their lives; although I saw a lot less of my former students, I remembered a lot more. I realised that lurking in me was a deep spirit of gratitude for what I had learnt from each one of them.

The funny thing was that these people (bless their hearts!) made time for me too! I had lots of good moments, some of intense madness, some really sweet, and all memorable. I found that I missed people like Trivandrum and Wolfberry a lot more than I thought I would; I found myself missing the classes I taught for all of three months before I had to abandon them. I was consoled by the company of those who stayed around, and I watched in concern as they went through the trial of examinations.

Then I made contact with some of my students from the time I used to teach in a convent. Goodness! Some of these young ladies are now mothers (and in some cases, twice or three times over!) and yet they still seem not to have changed much. They are all as pleasant as ever, but with the edge that comes from time and the grind of working life.

In September, I got myself a driving license. Haha, a lot of you will laugh that this seemed to be such a major achievement to me. Well, let me just remind you that the counter clerk looked up from my application filing to say, "Sir, your last driving test was before I was born!" That's life, I guess.

I got a lot fitter. I started taking five-mile walks again. I remember dancing for 3 hours one night in Thailand. That was a really odd thing to do, since it was out in the open, on a warm tropical night. The sea-breeze helped a lot. I got a bit dehydrated, but the seaside massage the next day compensated a lot for it. Somehow, there are fewer things in life finer than desiccating by the beach with a mild sun and a cool breeze and air that doesn't smell of rotting fish.

This year has been one of renewal. Sometimes, when you come up for air, you realise that you have been running on the last bubbles of oxygen for too long in the sewer-pit of life. I have never had such a sense of rejuvenation. I thank God for it, and I can only hope that 2009 will be more of the same.

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