Saturday, February 28, 2009


The oldest dog went to be with her Maker some time during the night. She was the one with the fluffy coat and the snuffling 'heh heh' style of greeting. Last night she was wandering blindly (cataracts) and restlessly (senility) all over the garden, more so than usual. This morning's sunlight greeted her lying stone cold and at peace beside a spreading bougainvillea bush. It was her favourite spot in the sun; I'm glad she found it in the dark.

We got her from the SPCA fifteen years ago, a light brown and white pup with a sort of innocently engaging gaze and a very undemanding nature (except when it came to sneaking food from the cat). She greeted people mostly with kindness and often with drool. She was a lovable dog, much more so than her two colleagues who tended towards over-exuberance and roughing up others for fun.She wasn't a particularly healthy or unusually beautiful creature. She survived surgery for a large tumour two years ago, and we thought we'd lost her then. She proved to be tougher than we thought. Then again, she's always been a surprise.

Some time later this morning, we thought to take a look at her license. Heh. It expires today. Goodbye, Sandy!

I still feel sad.

Ecclesiastes 3:20-21

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 27, 2009

The End of a Month

We come to the end of a month. It is also the end of an era at the College of Wyverns. In the autumnal stirrings of this time, we sense a restlessness of the sort that comes when a coterie of pigeons realises that it is getting cold on the streets; there are no more crumbs of comfort and the sun is setting on the bleak tarmac.

In the morning, at the beginning, was light and life and the pursuit of legitimate aims. As we wind down to the end of this era, we peer into a steadily increasing darkness. It was not always so. It will not always be so. But it is indeed getting darker. There is often no individual to blame for this sort of thing. It is just the end of an age.

What are the signs? In every milieu, different signs are said to portend the passing of an era. It is said that if the ravens leave the Tower of London, then Doom is at hand. Likewise, when the last Elvish Historian leaves the realm of Middle-Earth to head across the sea. After that, as Tolkien might have said, it is all about men and the loss of magic as heroism and mighty deeds become legend and then dust.

I spoke with the Lady the other day; she left long ago and went across the Sea. She said that the Dark Lord had put his hand across the face of the lands, and the world was no longer the place it had once been.

But I remember how the story works out. At the end of every age, it seems as if all hope is lost. But the one thing that does not disappoint us is hope. Hope and steady endurance prevail, as long as the faith is defended and the heart is right.

I thank God that I have worked among the elves and had a hand in the crafting of wondrous things. I know now that even if the Dark Lord crafts a single ring of power and uses it as an instrument of fell control, the good done by the others does not completely pass away.

There is still good in Middle-Earth, and the light of the sun will return one day to the College of Wyverns.

Labels: ,

Interesting Diseases

In all my life, I've enjoyed poring through reference books. After a while, reference books about the purely factual began to pall. I began to look at more interesting reference books, like Michael Newton's The Encyclopaedia of Cryptozoology and Diana Wynne Jones's A Tough Guide to Fantasyland. However, Jeff Vandermeer's The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, with contributions from a stellar cast of inventive and awfully creative people, was the zenith of the genre.

I find that I cannot do better. But I have some humble contributions, which I've discovered over my years as a teacher.
  1. Markosis: the dulling of the senses that comes with too much immersion in grading procedures.
  2. Rudella: the redness that descends when one's hand holds a red pen and the white paper is covered with diseased writing and you just have to write comments about it.
  3. Orthoporosis: painfully obvious holes in a supposedly structured argumentative essay because there is no meat on the bones.
  4. Appendocytosis: creating addenda to your main argument because you used up your word limit writing nonsense and have to squeeze in the real stuff somewhere.
Maybe I should stop here. Heh.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Holistic Delusion

All I can say about those holistic-education evangelists out there is that you must all be wrong in the head. There is no such thing. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. There is an ideal called 'holistic education', but the thing itself, in an actual and realised way, does not exist.

You have only to look at simpler constructs like Howard Gardner's 'Multiple Intelligences' scam. First he says there are five. Then seven. Then eight and a half. And so on. Meanwhile, he sells millions of books, and people run around designing curriculum and games and toys based on 'multiple intelligences'. Well, it's not a position he found tenable, and anyone worth his salt should have seen it.

Each brain is unique. You can reify and classify, analyse and debate all the possible outcomes of what the brain does (whether it's cognition, ideation, imagination, whatever). All you get is convenient categories. Some are too broad to be of use; some are too narrow to be useful. And any kind of categorisation militates against the ideal of holism, since such things argue that the brain can be splintered into orthogonal fragments of function and behaviour.

Sooner or later, the marketization of education will result in all kinds of educational con-men running rampant while they consume the diminishing supply of taxpayers' money. It has happened before and will happen again. No one person will be able to say, "Après moi, le déluge," because le déluge has already descended.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


In all my life, I've had very few extreme horror-movie type nightmares. My nightmares tend to be more subtle, and the subtle ones recur.

Here are two awful motifs.

The first one is the House on the Hill. Sometimes, it's a House on the Cliff. Either way, it's a very familiar house, externally a two-storey sprawling white mansion on a topographical high point. It's home to me, always. I am always comfortable with the house itself; it's not the house that's the enemy, but what happens inside.

I remember at least three of the House dreams in great detail. In one of them, I remember strolling along a long corridor with a lot of classically-executed oil paintings in bronze frames. Idly, I decided to look at them, and then I realised they were all nice portraits of my friends. Beautiful! I was happy until I looked down at the bottom of each frame and realised that the brass tags there said things like, "[Real Name Withheld] Lim, 6 Jan 1967 - 20 Jun 1995, Basal Cell Carcinoma." I woke up feeling rather odd.

The second one is what I call the Long Urban Meeting Sequence. You're doing something pretty normal, like doing your laundry at some Laundromat in a big city. Or shopping. And then... you keep encountering people from your past. It's like a story by Harlan Ellison (some of you will know which one). My most recent one was when I dreamt I was queueing up at a dry cleaners. Then a netball team came in and occupied the whole place. The odd thing was that I knew all the players, from a long, long time ago.

I'm not afraid of the blood and gore and dark terror things as much as I am of the odd human quirk incidents. I think Rod Serling's Twilight Zone TV series has a lot to do with that.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not Knowing

This is one of my rare rants at the sort of language people use. You can skip it if you want.


I've come to feel that one of the worst lines I can ever hear or read is, "I don't know how to respond to that." It may seem uncharitable to you, this reaction of mine, but that may be because you aren't trained to mount a serious response to any admission of ignorance on someone else's part.

This is not to say that I am making fun of the ignorant. I am saying that I respond like most educators. If someone says, "I don't know," my first instincts are to ask: a) what don't you know, b) what do you mean by know, c) are you sure you don't know, and d) how can I help you.

When a person says, "I don't know how to respond to that," it literally means that this person has no knowledge of how to respond to a given statement. On one level, as when confronted with a unique statement, the novelty of the experience means that there is no prior 'database' and hence no knowledge of how to respond. It is often true, for most of us.

But what it also says is that by making a statement that you don't know how to respond, you are stopping there. You are not going to respond, or take the effort to respond, or use your various talents and thinking processes to create a response. You are being idle, lazy, or incompetent; and if not, you are deliberately not bothering.

Worse, by saying, "I don't know how to respond to that," you have actually given a response which is one of self-proclaimed ignorance. You are saying, "Well, here's my non-response, and you're welcome to it."

When a student responds to my question with, "I don't know," I don't really mind. But sometimes I am able to elicit, by Socratic questioning, that the student is well able to figure out the answer for himself. It's just that it was more convenient to say he didn't know than to think about how he might come to know. It's always easier to watch the teacher tell you than to work it out for yourself.

My first face-to-face response tends to be silence. Sometimes, students just need to be given mental space to continue.

My second such response tends to be, "Think about it." Sometimes, students just need to be asked to do what ought to come naturally.

My third response is often, "Give it a try, " or "Guess!" Sometimes, students do already have an idea, but are too uncertain or shy to try it out. If they make random guesses, it's easy to tell; but if they make some kind of reasoned guess, or a pattern of guesses, you can also tell what their brains are doing.

Like I said, I don't really mind. I just don't like it that for some people, their very first response is to plead ignorance and stop there. Surely you'd think that people would want to move on and actually try to learn something.

Labels: ,

Grand Mastery

Just this morning I was reading the second part of a fascinating interview with Viswanathan Anand, the current World Chess Champion and one of the most pleasant human beings you might find at such an exalted level. What really intrigued me was his very historically-minded response to this question: "After 20 years of dedicating your life to the sport, a piece of code on a PC is your equal. After all your years of effort, a “mindless” program can match you. Do you feel that way sometimes?". Here's an extract:

"There must have been a point when the information in the libraries was more than that was contained in your head. There are lots of things that humans used to do, which we no longer do better than machines. It would be interesting to compare it with those moments.

"In 1997-98 we felt this very strongly. Now there is hardly any interest. Because it is over, you know it is like running against a car. There are some things we do much better than computers but since most of chess is tactically based they do many things better than humans. And this imbalance remains. I no longer have any issues. It is a bit like asking an astronomer does he mind that a telescope does all the work. He takes an image, does image processing. He uses a computer which counts the pixels. Does he feel bad? He is used to it. It is just an incredible tool that you can use.

"Once you are past the initial tussle with your ego, then it just feels natural. Right now it is not an issue. I know my PC is stronger than me at any given time, and to have a chance against it I would spend a couple of weeks thinking about computer chess. How to play against machines. You stop doing anything imaginative, and you become very disciplined tactically. I can probably still compete against it, but what's the point?"

The World Chess Champion's answer is a manifestation of his mastery. The point, to him, is that to compete with a specialised instrument is pointless. In fact, you would have to degrade your imaginative human complexity in order to do so. Yes, it breeds discipline; but what he implicitly says is that the strategic imagination is compromised by the extreme tactical discipline.

To put it in another way, learning to react excellently in the short term leads to a kind of blindness in your strategic horizon. You lose long-term vision if you don't use your assets and skills properly.

I've seen this in real life. I've seen very bright people come to the end of the 20th century thinking that we were about to leave the 20th century behind. What happened subsequently was that the 21st century left them behind, trapped in some sort of conceptual limbo where you listened to gurus whose research was five years out of date and you never surfed the Internet for yourself but got some lackey to do it for you.

That is where the strategic vision died, for those people. Maybe they should play more chess.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 23, 2009

Emergent Cognition

I remember not too long ago that I had a plan for providing young people with career awareness, career guidance and career counselling, in that order. The plan was so good that I was approached by a local education authority for permission to use it, and for me to conduct workshops in it.

Being a decent sort, I told them to consult my employers. I never heard anything more about the matter, until my portfolio was quietly scrapped and replaced by other stuff. The funny thing was that I then got something like fifty or more irate messages about how the institution was failing to provide all these three things in sufficient quantity and quality.

Of course, I tactfully deflected the originators of these messages with the equivalent of a polite 'no comment'. It so happened, however, that a few months later, I left the institution. Somebody dug up my old plan and made a lot of noise about how come it had not been implemented. Haha, what a joke!

Anyway, for those of you who study emergent phenomena, there's a very useful resource which seems to have sprung up. All credit to the jade-green sea-tiger!

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 22, 2009

No Cylinders

When something is working at maximum yield, we say that it is 'firing on all cylinders'. What then to make of something that seems to be producing no yield or a declining yield?

In 1886, the venerable institution I speak of was founded with the highest of ideals. It has had many high points and low points. For the last few years, it has been at the top of the table and rarely fallen to anywhere below third place. There was one golden year in which the team could do no wrong, and they remained undefeated the whole season.

This year, however, with various stalwarts farmed out into the unknown and the untested and untried brought in to replace them, the team seems to have been firing on no cylinders at all. We have a player who claims he is the best of his kind; well, we are thankful that there is only one of him, then. We have a captain who is forever mouthing off inappropriately and causing dissension in the ranks; sometimes all he seems to think about is his position and his pride.

We are decimated by injuries and by the need to wait too long for the next generation to rise up and lead. In fact, while we were waiting, some of the better players of that generation have gone on to other institutions and done very well. Occasionally, they get the opportunity to 'stick the boot in', as it were, against our side. It must give them some pleasure to return to the Emirates and win.

There is no point in appointing vice-captains who don't play and can't lead. There is no point in picking players without the guile to unlock the defences of teams like Sunderland. Sadly, even the inventive and eccentric talent of the Persian (haha) is now linked to an ultimatum that the club should show ambition. Well, people like him should show some spine. Rome wasn't built in a day, although you apparently can raise a Villa in a few months.

Time to build up the Arsenal and stand United. Or something like that.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Almost There

I have a sense of elation. I am feeling lifted, light. There are so many things rushing to their conclusion, and everything looks positive. Soon, the last of my wingmen will have pulled out from his dive and joined the formation of the free, the Blackhawk Squadron of the education sector.

I have only about 120,000 words to write, and I have written half of them. I will rewrite, and restructure, and soon I will be free. I have time, and even fewer things retain their hold on me. I wish I could give some of this essence of freedom to some of my friends out there.

Yes, my friends, we're almost there.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Illegal Operations

Over the last 35 months or so, I've become a lot more acquainted with the local penal code than I'd ever thought I would be after I put my dreams of law school away so very long ago. That has relevance to my current research as I look at the motivations and actions of many of the key players. You see, following on from my previous post in which I wrote about the punishment-reward and the altruistic motivations of the human brain, it only remains for me to make the connection between those concepts and the concepts of traditional virtue.

The punishment-reward motivation is dominated by the virtue called justice or fairness; the altruistic motivation is dominated by the virtue called mercy or grace. Each virtue has two faces.

In the former, two manifestations dominate: justice, in which people want everyone to suffer equally as some benchmark, rule or code allows; and fairness, in which people want everyone to suffer proportionally with respect to some other standard or benchmark. These manifestations can result in injustice or unfairness simply because the scale is actually bipolar and extensible in either direction; negative justice (in which not everyone suffers appropriately) is seen as injustice.

The latter also has two manifestations: mercy, in which an appropriate punishment is withheld; and grace, in which an inappropriate reward is given. 'Appropriate' and 'inappropriate' here of course are seen in comparison with the codes or laws implicit in what we have referred to as justice or fairness. In other words, mercy is unjust and grace is unfair, as far as strict legalistic approaches are concerned.

In practice, humans tend to temper one approach with the other. The problem is that as far as humans are concerned, overuse of one approach tends to corrupt the accuracy of the other.

This extends into the realm of explanations which people give for various phenomena. For example, consider the case of a man who has had a narrow escape from death. A justice/fairness explanation would be, "I survived because it would not be just or fair if I died just yet." A mercy/grace explanation would be, "I survived not through any personal virtue and I should be grateful."

In both cases, the man can rightly say that he has in effect a 'second chance'. It would be clear to observers exactly what kind of second chance he thinks he has from the way he behaves. If it is business as usual, then he clearly feels that he has the 'mandate', because of natural justice, to continue in his usual behaviour. If it is a radical change in favour of more qualitative approaches, then he clearly has a bit more of an altruistic approach.

It is of course not as cut and dried as all that. People are a lot more complex, and most of us will not adhere strictly to a code of rules or laws; neither will most of us totally scorn such regulations. Which brings us to the question of what an illegal operation is, given such a human context.

In computer science or mathematics, an illegal operation is one which is either proscribed by definition, or which has no definition at all. In medicine, I suppose an illegal operation would be surgery in which the release papers have not been signed or other conditions have yet to be met. The term 'illegal' can actually mean 'unlawful' as well as 'for which there is no law', unless it is in law, where 'illegal' means 'proscribed by the legal code'. In the more complex human context of occupational interaction, there are comparatively fewer clear-cut cases.

It's interesting though to see that for altruistic institutions, case-by-case illegalities tend to be more common. If the theory is correct, this is because an altruistic institution has to function more on a mercy/grace paradigm than a justice/fairness one. The problem is when the altruistic institution is no longer altruistic, but still retains the counterlegal paradigm. At this point, it become a hotbed of deliberately illegal operations justified by all kinds of wild claims about the greater good.

These last 12 months have been an education in that regard. I've had all kinds of illegal threats and manipulations observed and catalogued, with apparently no end in sight, within my research area. They don't fit into my dissertation, but they might one day fit into some beautiful paper on institutional dynamics.

Labels: , , , , ,

Belief (in) Systems (Part I)

Over the last few weeks, I've had to review what I know about belief systems while cobbling together a model for systems of educational change. The two kinds of systems run headlong into a third phenomenon known as 'systems engineering'; all three are vastly different and yet tangentially related.

Without doubt, one of the most unusual and perturbing phenomena in the modern globalised world is that of the synchronous and inexplicable (except in retrospect, in which direction everyone sees more clearly) disruption of an otherwise semi-stable and relatively prosperous range of institutions. This disruption (and in some cases, near-fatal immolation) is often glossed over with a few familiar phrases: 'tipping point', 'domino theory', 'pyramid scheme', 'inevitable meltdown', and so on. It is like sticking tiny plasters (Band-Aids) over a huge and ugly fracture that has torn a hole in the overlying muscle and skin—these terms don't quite cover it, and they don't help in the analytical or physical reduction of the problem.

The problem really is that people are greedy and self-serving; that is all there is to it. The degree to which people are greedy and self-serving varies, but wherever there are quantitative (or to be a little bit more accurate, point-scoring) mechanisms in place for benchmarking or rewards, these will override other considerations. The overriding may be subtle or immense, but it will be there.

This is not just idle theorising; some examples are found in places like Ivan Png's 2008 paper on how giving more incentives for blood donation actually reduces the amount of voluntary blood donation. The relevant theory is summarised here; essentially, it is a phenomenon in which competing drives (for altruistic behaviour and for engaging in a reward-based system) crowd each other, to nobody's optimal benefit.

This is why you cannot actually say that rewarding ministers or teachers financially will make them better people. At a certain point, the vocation becomes a job simply because you are being paid for it. No matter what, the reward system makes you want to evaluate your performance in terms of 'whether it is worth the points', and not 'whether it is good regardless of points'. There is a difference there, and anyone who can't see it will confuse the good/evil axis of with the profit/loss axis of socio-economic behaviour.

What the research seems to say is that the human animal still believes in the unknown, in the complexity of the world, in doing good for others despite the lack of reward. At the same time, since the Age of Enlightenment began, the human animal is being educated to think in a logical, and then a mathematical/statistical, and then a point-scoring way. The two kinds of belief systems clash and tangle each other up; this makes people think that by creating dubious financial instruments and channeling wealth to the top 1% of the population at the expense of the bottom 55%, they are honouring God or their own altruistic principles.

It is the same thing which makes powerful CEOs (or those who think they are powerful) put their own well-being first while honestly believing that it is for the good of all. I saw this in the media the other day: some unbelievable jerk was saying that CEOs should receive much larger compensation and benefit packages than President Obama was willing to give. His argument was that if the financial sector didn't provide these things, the CEO types would go elsewhere for their goodies and the people would benefit less in the long run. It is the most amazing kind of self-delusion.

It happens in altruistic institutions too—hospitals and schools are not immune. The politics in the antiseptic and academic corridors are just as rife with germs and miasmas as the corridors of political and financial power. Since hospitals and schools pay less than other institutions, they used to have more professional courage and altruistic tendencies. Nowadays, however, the hospital superintendent has been replaced by a CEO; the school principal likewise. These birds have hardly or never treated a patient nor taught a student in the way and settings that the true doctors and teachers have.

So how did they get to be in charge? Simple: point-scoring systems. You make such a person boss because he has proven that he can deliver numbers which you like. You never employ a CEO for the stuff he can produce which you either a) don't want or never knew you wanted to know about, or b) cannot define clearly enough to write an unequivocal job description. Or at least, you aren't supposed to, going by modern conventions in most systems.

If you hire a CEO to execute policy and set clearly defined, time-based benchmarks and all the rest of it, you can count on it that any altruism he may once have professed will drain away within five years or so. He might still think he has it, but the quantitative data parasites will have eaten it away and replaced it with their own RNA or DNA, much like some sort of memetic virus.

The only way out that I can see, after reviewing a wide range of papers, is that you can actually make the CEO so rich that money becomes a sort of gaseous fluid. He breathes it, lives it, and has no more idea of counting it than a fish has of counting water molecules. At this point, the top 5 richest people on earth begin to give it away in well-considered and altruistic chunks. They probably will never be able to give it all away personally and still be responsible human beings, so they set up funds and trusts and other institutions. And so the cycle begins again.

This is not to say that paying your CEO $2m a year or $30k a month or (like certain football players) £130k a week will make him regain his altruism. Firstly, you need much more than that—perhaps $1b a year or something. Secondly, it's not so much altruism regained as quantitative perception lost. When you can't count the loot, it becomes meaningless. Thirdly, there are other proxies which may be more alluring: the £130k a week football player might only find life meaningful if he is also made team captain, for example.

Which leads us back to institutions such as hospitals and schools. I've realised that the #1 corrupter of senior doctors is the type of incentive scheme known as the 'points system'. Doctors get points for doing procedures. The more points, the more bonuses. See where that goes? Meanwhile, the #1 corrupter of senior teachers is either administrative power (or tenure, in some systems) or giving them results-based bonuses. I have a ton of research to show that this is true, sadly.

The outcome of such corruption is that the altruistic institution declines. Its vigour has been turned to a quantitative purpose. While such an institution might still have the trappings of its vocation and its hallowed past (like having murals with the Hippocratic Oath in them, or mottos extolling the benefits of holistic education and the primacy of holiness) all over the place, it is a whited sepulchre as far as its original mission is concerned.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Annual Infarction (Part IV): Human Sciences

Not such a very long time ago, I was approached by an agent of the Imperium. On that occasion, I was asked if I would become an Imperial Assessor, essentially a person who would be tasked to enter institutions and compile a report on their fitness to continue administering funds from the Imperial fisc. Of course, I turned this opportunity down; having long been an independent agent, I was not one to return like a wolf to the Imperial fold.

It did occur to me though just how unique my perspective on such institutions was, and how valuable my experience could be to certain kinds of organisations. There aren't many Imperial Assessors with a doctorate in the specific and detailed assessment of the institutions they are supposed to assess. Apparently this occurred to somebody else as well, because a few months later, another agent of the Imperium asked if I could just assist in an advisory role, supplying recommendations on what should be looked at with respect to institutions undergoing the Quintessential Infarct.

"Hey," you might be saying now, "This post is straying from the straight and narrow and heading towards the sort of movie in which chainmail bikinis and barbarians clad in buffalo fur figure a lot!"

Oh, no it isn't. What's happening here is that I am trying to be educational without embarrassing specific people. The Quintessential Infarct is a form of Quality Assessment, in which the Imperium tasks a specific agency (hence all these agents in my tale) to look into an institution to see if it is worthy of wearing the Imperial Laurels and half-a-dozen legionary eagles on its brazen epaulettes. It is a step up from just wearing four legionary eagles on bronze-green epaulettes, trust me.

I turned both requests down for a simple reason. I am not one to be beholden to any side in a debate, no matter how collegial or professional. Either I am on one side as a champion for a cause, or I am not. I don't do hatchet jobs with the venerable axes bundled with my sticks. If I am to write anything, it will be fair, and if I am to float a recommendation, it is for re-commending something, and not secretly undermining anything.

The basis of all such assessments which call themselves 'quality assessments' is a mish-mash of what we conveniently and (unfortunately) accurately describe as the 'human sciences'. It is a kind of wisdom grounded in the eternally variable nature of humanity, and hence can be trusted on general human principles and not trusted at all in specific cases.

To my hypothetical young civil servant, I now offer some humble pieces of advice concerning the process of appraisal and the human sciences used in that process.
  1. It is far better to give than to receive; better to appraise than to be appraised.
  2. If you are to be appraised, best you do it to yourself first, exhaustively and exactly, hewing closely to the grain of your profession. By this, I mean that you should outline in very certain terms what it is that you are expected to do, appraise it thoroughly, and remind any external appraiser what is within his scope and what is not before he starts to do his job.
  3. Do not trust qualitative data unless you can triangulate it from base points far outside the institution producing it; one corollary to this is that you should never believe your own institutional hype.
  4. Realise that there is nothing to trust about quantitative data; it either comes from a reliable source or it doesn't, and so you must zero in on whether the source is trustworthy or not.
  5. It's the interpretation of the data which you have to be wary about, especially when you see a drop in standards across the board but are assured that the average performance is better (or you see standards rise but higher levels do worse): this indicates a flattening of performance and a loss of excellence.
  6. Be rigorous even when you are being treated to gratuitous ad hominem attacks. There is no such thing as being too thorough where money, power and/or reputation are at stake.
  7. Ask the difficult questions: what is the logical chain connecting an institution's actual practices and its outcomes? How strong is that chain?
  8. If you are going to apply something called 'human sciences', better for you to make it more scientific and less human.
Actually, I was going to list even more points—then I realised that I could just take all this and write a book, with very detailed examples. Shouldn't do that here. My poor readers! Ah, the humanity!

I think I will just offer a couple more points. When looking for documentary evidence, you should realise how easy it is these days to forge these documents. Any document without an independent time-stamp should be considered provisionally tainted, which makes the assessor's task much harder. I know a former hierarch who used to tell subordinates to create documents which did not exist before and back-date them in order to present a better picture. I was told by impeccable sources that this individual also directed others to modify other documents in confidential files.

Remember, therefore, what I said about trusting the human sciences from a general viewpoint and not a specific one. If you look at EVERY document and they say the same thing... well, it's hard to forge a decade of material, and it's more likely to be a true picture. But if your conclusion depends on a handful of documents, then you need to look very very carefully. This is why a three-year or five-year baseline is inadequate for a really superior appraisal; it is worse when the institution has had the same helmsman for more than a decade, because your baseline cannot easily be extended outside his reach.

To end this series, I will say that I have a genuine desire to help those who will one day be called upon to be both civil and serving. There is a lot of advice out there that is far better than what I've given so far; very little of it, though, is better than these ancient lines, some of which I have quoted before:

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
  and to walk humbly with your God.

Listen! The LORD is calling to the city—
  and to fear your name is wisdom—
"Heed the rod and the One who appointed it.
Am I still to forget, O wicked house,
  your ill-gotten treasures
  and the short measure, which is accursed?
Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales,
  with a bag of false weights?"

Wise advice indeed. So, my hypothetical young civil servant, remember not to be swayed from the basic principles, no matter what your boss tells you are 'basic principles'. As Dunnett's patriarch says, the problem is often in your choice of master.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Annual Infarction (Part III): Ways Of Unknowing

A few readers pointed out that my last post on this subject didn't seem to give much advice to the 'young civil servant' who was supposed to be learning from this series of posts. On reflection, I've realised that this is true; this post will therefore attempt to give more such advice.

The previous post concentrated on how the organisational knowledge base can be either corrupted or lacking in terms of how it handles staff, strategy, or the sanctified principles (or 'flag', to use a naval metaphor) under which the organisation supposedly sails. I suppose the advice for an aspiring civil servant to be gleaned from all that should be: a) treat staff as individual and valuable, and if you ever reach the point when you cannot (because, for example, there are too many of them), you should get out of the place; b) work with a detailed strategy in mind, based on a clear vision of what should come to pass; and c) remember the basic principles under which your vocation operates, which make it a calling rather than a pastime, occupation, or profession.

I say 'should be' because the fact is that, for a young civil servant to thrive in many institutions, it is often more convenient to a) treat staff as units which contribute various things to your comfort and/or success; b) work tactically based on whatever your superiors seem to require (some call it a retrograde defensive position, or 'covering your rear'); and c) do whatever seems to work and have no sense of mission besides the missions you are sent on. I am not advocating any of these convenient approaches, but merely noting that this is what about 80% of civil servants (the percentage is often larger and varies depending on country, system, institution and leadership) seem to practice.

The remaining 20% (often, in practice, a much smaller percentage) actually drive reform and positive change, work towards a mission, and end up doing their own thing in the private sector. Ha, got you there. You probably think I'm being cynical. Well, I'm not. In a free-market and reasonably prosperous country, this is exactly what happens; in the majority of nations, this is not an option and so it doesn't happen.

The reason for all this is that in order to survive and thrive in the global era, two extremes may be practised. One is much easier; the other is much more fiddly and difficult. I am writing, of course, about approaches to knowledge.

The second approach is all about knowledge management. I delivered a workshop on this in June 2002; in the seven years since, I regret to say that the material has become more relevant and yet less widely accepted. I will save all that for my next post. Instead, for today, we'll look at the much easier way: avoiding the issue of knowledge management altogether.

Here are some possibilities which I've seen in action:
  1. Handle data and spin its presentation, so that it doesn't amount to real information but has enough coherence to fake it.
  2. Ignore the reality of human experience and stick to buzzwords as the main pillars of a constructed reality.
  3. Neglect the careful use of language and stick to platitudes, non sequiturs and banalities.
  4. Debase and denigrate the complexities of the abstract by demanding the simplicity of the concrete.
  5. Micromanage at a level that requires too much information and fake it when you realise you can't handle it.
  6. Macromanage at a level that allows you to play golf or take many overseas trips while letting someone else do your job.
  7. Throw money at a consultant so that your staff don't have to think.
  8. Spend money on statuary and other physical trimmings so that it looks as if you are doing something impressive.
  9. Manage history so that you can obliterate inconvenient facts with a sweeping statement such as, "My predecessors spent years doing nothing, so let's begin with 19xx, the year that I first accepted this appointment."
The problem with these approaches is that anyone with half a functioning brain and the functions that come with such a brain can see what is happening, or at least intuit that something is not happening. Quite often, the results will keep showing up as strong positives right up to the day that everything collapses; this is the lesson of the 2008 financial crisis and many other such events.

So what is a young civil servant to do about these ways of unknowing? Well, as usual, here are two kinds of advice.

The harder course is to relentlessly but carefully weed out such practices as far as you can. You may not be powerful enough to take on your superiors, but you certainly have some scope: use it. Be authentic, be caring, maintain standards. That will lead to my next post, which I suppose should cover 'how not to be unknowing'.

The easier course is to become an expert at the practice of unknowing. It is easy. Take one of the practices, say 'debase and denigrate the complexities of the abstract by demanding the simplicity of the concrete'. Here's an example: you go up to your boss and say, "Errm, I think that we need to give poor people more money." He replies, "That's very caring of you, it is a visionary idea, but I tell you, it's all about details! How much can you give a person before he becomes dependent on the state? How can we tax people fairly? Where do we get all that money? Go and do the research and find out all the details, and then come back and talk to me! Maybe the poor are not so poor and the rich are not so rich! Give me facts, not ideas!"

Notice, the boss is very competent. Nowhere has he said he will do anything about it, and he seems to have told you that it's your job to implement an entire policy starting with research and information-gathering. Actually, it's not your job. It's his job to accept or reject your idea and help you work it out in conjunction with other people. He's called the Chief Executive Officer, not the Chief Executioner or the Chief Let's-Not-Execute-Anything-Unless-It's-My-Idea Officer.

So, my hypothetical young civil servant friend, just remember that you have choices. You can do many things. You can make life a lot better for others, remembering that 'administration' means 'provision of service', just as 'minister' is Latin for 'one who acts on authority from above'. The opposite of the Latin minister is magister ('master' or 'great one'); a minister or administrator is not the master, but the servant of all.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Annual Infarction (Part II): What Is Unknown

This post is going to grow much longer, I think.

I started the morning thinking about why institutions tend to hive off their best staff especially at critical points in their history. It comes down to two areas of lack of knowledge: 1) Not knowing how good their staff are, or not knowing just how good they are; and 2) not realising how critical the moment is, historically and strategically speaking.

Back in a while. Need to go and see the madness up close.


Well, I think I was wrong. It comes down to THREE areas of lack of knowledge: 1) staff, 2) strategy, 3) sanctity. Heh, I look as if I did that just to have a convenient sibilance in the alliteration. But I think an elaboration will make it clearer.

Firstly, staff. Quite often an organisation chooses the wrong rubric or wrong reasons for deciding to eliminate staff. Very often, it comes down to an experienced administrator deciding on the basis of personal experience what should be done. This is a key mistake. Why, you ask, since the administrator is experienced?

As a wise man once told the whole local civil service, experience is the least of at least five factors that make a man fit for his job. The reason is that experience functions best when inductive logic is called for: if you see five black swans in a row, you will think the rule is that the next swan will also be black. It is the same reasoning that uses the weight of past events to predict future results, and it fails in some very common situations.

One of them is this: flip a fair coin, and if it comes up heads the first time, what is the probability that it will have one head and one tail in the first two flips? The answer is still 50%, since the first one was heads and the second one has a 50% chance either way. In fact, it doesn't matter if the you flip two fair coins at once, flip one and it comes up tails first time, whatever. The chance is still 50%.

When an experienced adminstrator decides to retrench (or provoke into resignation) some member of the staff, it is normally because a comparison is being drawn, using past experience, between the staff member and other people. But these other people cannot in any sense be part of a fair comparison unless they are also a fair sample. And my friends, this never ever happens. In fact, most of the time these exercises are conducted with minimal (or no) transparency, with spurious, dubious or otherwise contestable reasons being advanced.

A former boss of mine used to say, "Can't trust the whites because they are not reliable; can't trust Indians because they're Indian." If he sees himself here and is upset, well, there are literally dozens of witnesses who have heard this more than once. Obviously, this is an example of inappropriate use of past experience or (frankly) personal prejudice, carried over into the staff selection (or deselection) process.

Very often, a senior administration team will look at all the wrong factors because they are not doing it as a strategic planning or vision exercise. They are doing it as a) a cost-cutting exercise, b) a deadwood-ablation exercise, c) an enemy-removal exercise, or d) a discomfort-amelioration or comfort-increasing exercise. What they are not doing is putting the institution first; rather they are claiming that they and the institution are one, or that they have special claim to be identified with the needs of the institution. This is what happens when people think of themselves as masters and not as servants of a greater cause... which brings me to the second point.

Secondly, strategy. The obvious thing for any institution claiming to pursue some kind of strategy (whether blue ocean, coloured hat, rainbow, or any other kind of chromatic legerdemain) is to actually publish the benchmarks and targets for things which can be quantified, and post videos or portfolios or other more qualitative evidence for things which are not so easy to quantify. In other words, use quantitative measures for quantitative processes and qualitative examples for qualitative concepts.

Most institutions don't do this. Rather, they will measure work done and value added by whatever means suits them or helps individual senior officers entrench themselves in more secure positions. Examples of this are legion in the institutional annals of the world.

Think, for example, of how a good teacher is determined to be one. The very best systems actually compare a candidate's portfolio of achievement to that of an officer who has been assessed in detail, in every area of practice, and whose acts and achievements have been archived for comparison. In a good system, all stakeholders are asked about their reasoned opinions and conclusions concerning that teacher. The worst systems are those which use restrictive and inappropriate selection as part of the methodology; for example, those that ask if a teacher can get along with other colleagues while failing to ask the students if they have learnt well because of that teacher.

Consider the strategy that emerges if there is a lack of strategy, but lots of tactical behaviour designed to weed out staff that make us uncomfortable and promote staff that make us feel good. It will be a 'green ocean strategy' or 'red sea strategy', one in which the algae bloom all over the place and all the other organisms die for lack of nutrients. Eventually, the whole area suffers ecological limitation or death. This leads to my third point.

Thirdly, sanctity. In every profession, things are professed; in every occupation, one's time is occupied. But in a vocation, one is called to serve, and one's enthusiasm takes on the patina of sanctity. This sanctity need not be a religious one; the Hippocratic injunction to 'do no harm' has taken on the force of of holy writ in most medical circles. This is because every true and worthwhile calling has got underlying ethical principles.

Most people don't know what these principles are, or if they do know them, have managed to conflate them with other rubbish such that even their mothers wouldn't recognize them. An institution is only as strong as its principles when it comes to having the kind of quality that lasts for generations. The worst thing is that the adulterated principles are then applied to staff and strategy, and dire consequences creep up on you like a thief in the night.

Let's say you have a very good officer in your institution, which is a big law firm. He brings in cases, acts as a model ambassador to clients and their relatives, educates them completely and discreetly, wins for the team, serves the firm well as a member of the legal entity that is the firm. He also disagrees with you about 5% of the time, and reserves the right to say so and to reply to what you have to say. He associates with lawyers from the government and from other firms, and has good relationships with them. Should you fire him?

Ethically, there are no grounds for his removal or for provoking him into resignation or any of the other sanctions a senior partner can employ. Then again, some people might say that the profession of law does not amount to a vocation and is not known for that kind of ethics.

I don't know. But it seems to me that in the annual infarctions of our lives, one way to clear the blockages is to make sure that staff are treated as staff, strategy is treated as strategy, and sanctity is treated as sanctity. None of these should be substituted by a Punch & Judy show, a Monty Python Flying Circus, or a wild yak from Tibet.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 16, 2009

Annual Infarction (Part I): What Is Known

In every human appraisal system, a complex net of checks and balances must be woven so that a fair appraisal is guaranteed. This is not as easy as it seems.

Here are a few questions that a young civil servant should ask before being appraised.
  1. Do I get to know everything that is said about me?
  2. Do I have the right to publish a reply to what is said about me?
  3. Can I take legal action for defamation of character if my appraisal looks as if it defames my character?
  4. What is the theoretical basis for this method of appraisal?
  5. Does it work when converted into a ranking system?
  6. Do the practitioners of this appraisal system understand a) the difference between qualitative and quantitative data, and b) the idea of reification leading to loss of accuracy?
  7. If the data about me are presented to a neutral third party who uses this appraisal system, will the same grade be awarded?
  8. If my reporting officer presents the complete appraisal to the countersigning officer, will amendments be made?
  9. If I present an argument for adjustment of my appraisal, will it be answered point by point before a neutral arbiter and will it be taken into account if it cannot be rebutted?
The first three points speak about social validity, the next three speak about scientific validity, and the last three speak about the reliability of the system.

There are a lot more questions, but these will do for Part I of this interesting subject. In fact, this part is titled 'What Is Known' because the only thing about an appraisal system that is known is the documentation produced about it and produced by it. The exact thought processes that go through the mind of the appraiser or reporting officer are never recorded and impossible to access. The final outcome is never in doubt. This falls far short of the rigour which is obtained, for example, in mathematics or good science, where the working-out of the process leading to a conclusion can be examined step by step for error.

In fact, although many systems have tried to compensate for it, the only system that can be said to really work for social situations is one of massive peer review, or so-called 'open appraisal'. In such a system, everyone gets to debate the outcome, and their thinking is recorded for posterity. When the final appraisal is produced, the signatories are clearly identified along with their comments. In addition, contrary opinions which arose in the minority population are also recorded in full. This is the system used by the Supreme Court of the United States.

One might argue that this is too much a burden of time and effort. Yes, I agree.

Why do I agree? In my previous employment, I realised that such a system indeed takes up too much time and effort if the people administering the system have one or more of the following problems (not necessarily in order of importance):
  1. Limited resources: that is, insufficient processing power, time, clerical assistance and/or administrative ability.
  2. Mediocrity: that is, an insufficient interest in a just outcome, lack of intellectual rigour, lip-service to excellence while not actually being concerned about it.
  3. Lack of transparency: that is, an incidental or a deliberate need to conceal a) a minority opinion which cannot be defended, b) interests which ought to be irrelevant to the case but are influencing the outcomes, c) personal ideology or other traits which cannot be publicly enunciated, d) a ranking outcome which looks invalid despite the validity of the appraisal, and/or e) irregular manipulation of reward systems (such as bonuses and awards).
These are not the only problems, but they are the more common ones. I have seen with my own eyes the maladministration of appraisal systems to take into account any or all of these factors.

So what advice, at this stage, do I have for a young civil servant? Well, to be honest, if you want to succeed you will need to work like a dog, remain civil at all times, show unswerving loyalty, never speak your mind no matter how much people claim they value your opinion or intellectual approach, and remember that you are a servant first and foremost. Even when they tell you that you are a leader, remember that you are also a follower of some other leader. Remember that you can be head of the civil service, but unless you have strong personal ties with many other nodes of power, you will merely be chief servant.

As such, your duty (even though it does not make me happy to have to say it) is to be perfectly obedient and close-mouthed. Before you come up with an opinion, make sure at least one superior will also have this opinion in mind. Before you write anything, remember that exceptional brilliance is a threat to your superiors and will catch their eye. Above all, never try to take credit for your own work if credit is due. That will come much later; for now, it is all to your superiors' credit that they have cleverly employed you.

I've heard many times at very high levels the exact opposite of all this. Very senior and powerful people have said that this kind of civil service behaviour is reprehensible and slows progress. They are right. But unfortunately, the majority of civil servants will need to behave this way in order to survive and prosper in their jobs.

For me, I have always tried to be my own man. I am not beholden to special interests or the need for whatever dangly bits have been offered to me as incentives. I don't travel gratuitously overseas at government expense or place personal considerations foremost when dealing with colleagues. I have never bothered with attempting to manipulate my appraisal, and for whatever appraisals of my subordinates have been manipulated against my intention, I have kept copious notes in a sealed archive. Since those notes constitute my own opinions and contain no official documentation, I think they are happy to remain sealed up.

If you, a young civil servant, have read all this carefully, then you can probably figure out that 'what is known' is a rather hazy and ill-defined construct. You may well be someone to whom all these ideas of mine do not apply. You may be right as well. The history of mankind shows that the wisest of thoughts may have the most unintended of outcomes, and that no one is really wise. One of the ancients had this opinion. It makes a good conclusion, and I'm sure he intended it that way.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Annual Infarction (Preliminary Statement)

Every year, around this time, there is some sort of necrosis as the blood supply to the institutional brain or muscle is cut off. There are actually two annual infarctions, which more or less correspond to the two equinoxes.

In March, institutions prepare for the great accounting which they must make to the Grey Lords. In September, institutions prepare to defraud appraise their staff and give meaningless what they think is appropriate feedback to various underlings.

After almost three decades of conscious and deliberate examination of educational institutions, from within and without, as a participant and as a spectator (and sometimes even as a participant observer), I suppose that in many ways I am qualified to comment on the process.

In the next few days, I think I shall publish a guide for young teachers and students intending to become teachers. I think it will be... ahem... educational for everyone; an education for living, if you like.

Labels: , ,


I woke up this morning and realised I missed Trivandrum. The man was always one of the good guys, no matter how off-kilter he sometimes a) pretended to be, b) decided to be, c) alarmedly found himself to be, d) avoided being. I have not spoken to him for months.

This odd sense of missing someone you haven't had contact with for months hits you normally on waking if it doesn't hit you after morning coffee or during introspective meditation.

I think it's got something to do with either a) an oversupply of blood to the brain or b) the brain needing less and thus being relatively oversupplied even at normal levels.

In the last few months, I've had sudden 'missing persons' attacks involving people I've not seen or 20 years. It's getting worse. I'm starting to miss people I never met. I miss Isaac Asimov.


Word of the Day: Valentine

It's a word with many strong associations for me. I used to write St Valentine's Day letters to a very few young ladies (all of who are now not so young, but as wonderful as ever). If I could digress a bit, I would remember them here and now in this blog; sadly, I suspect most of them would be less than thrilled.

But the word 'valentine' literally means 'an adherent of valentia' — and valentia is the Latin word that means 'the constant capacity for showing strength and power in an appropriate fashion'. You can sense the aura of this word in hymns such as the one that begins: "He who would valiant be 'gainst all disaster / Let him in constancy follow his Master."

A valentine is therefore one who is valiant, who shows valour, who has the property known as 'valency'. Aha, now you know why an alchemist would be so interested in this word. We now use 'valency' to mean 'the maximal or typical combining power of a chemical entity'.

We could just as easily have used another form of the word. Yes, indeed — if not for the occasional banality of scientific terminology, we would be saying things like, "The carbon atom is quadruply valentine."

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, February 14, 2009


And so it came to pass that in the year of the Earthen Cow, a proclamation went out from the throne at the Estuary of Dour, that a census should be taken for the sake of the Imperial Health. For those whose names were not written in the Book of Doom, they should be cast out into the ways of the world to find their own sustenance.


Well, it wasn't quite like that. But as part of my very deep research into the lives and times of the rich and infamous, I have come to realise that some people are dangerous because they are venal, corrupt and incompetent. Actually, it only takes one of these things to make someone an angry and/or frightened person whose sole aim in life then becomes the intimidation and exaction of tributary sycophancy from all who will hear.

I eagerly await the unfolding events of the next 15 months. If they unfold as predicted, my fortune is made; if not, then in the spirit of true research, I will have to adjust my hypothesis... heh.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Blue Ocean Strategy

In the last few weeks, by some sort of synchronicity, I've met with many senior and junior members (associate, naturalised, affiliated, and many other kinds) of the College of Wyverns. The news coming out from there is about what seems to be called a 'blue ocean strategy'.

I haven't heard this ancient term for years. In Homer's Odyssey, he sings of the 'wine-dark sea', that complex melange of trading and naval relationships and rivalries that was the Aegean Sea of his time. (There's a great summary article about it here.)

The point about a blue ocean, as opposed to a wine-dark (or 'incarnadine', as Shakespeare puts it) one, is that a blue ocean has no rivalries or contentions and often no complex history. The perspective is that of a navigator and explorer who for the first time chances upon what seems to be a virgin sea.

In a blue ocean strategy, one actively seeks out areas in which one has uncontested supremacy (a famous school song has the line 'to reign supreme in every sphere', and that's a similar idea, but not quite). It is not really like de Bono's idea of surpetition, surpassing and bypassing the opposition by qualitative difference. It's more like a fantasy that doesn't work in a globalised world.

The problem of course is that of the Aegean; if you have many geographical neighbours (or conceptual neighbours), then the ocean is unlikely to be uncontested. You will waste endless resources until you get to something like the Pacific Ocean — only to discover that as you get further away from your civilised roots, you encounter other rivalries, problems and difficulties. You might even be killed and eaten by cannibals on friendly-looking islands.

Meanwhile, your lines of supply run short, and as you head westward (or eastward) for the fabled treasures of the Orient, you find yourself back at your starting place after much hardship. Then people who have learnt from your difficulties come along and do the same thing without the mistakes, thus ensuring larger profits for themselves.

Blue ocean strategising is a fairy-tale. Ask the Portuguese about the Treaty of Tordesillas, and who got a better deal. That treaty has had great relevance to the history of Asia, Africa and South America. But consider the long-term fate of Portuguese and Spanish sea-power. Heh.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Word of the Day: Brunei

At this point, I must be getting quite a lot of quizzical looks as the identity of this Word of the Day appears on various Google Reader pages and suchlike. Most people (or at least those with geographical affinity or instinct) already know of Brunei, the little Sultanate on the island of Kalimantan (or more commonly, Borneo) which is one of the world's richest states.

But that country is not what I'm talking about here...

The word brunei is the plural of Latin bruneus, which means 'a brown thing'. Brunei therefore means 'brown things'. It's related to the (also) Latin name Bruno, which means 'Brown'. If you knew a Mr Brown, you could refer to him as Magister Bruno in Latin!

...and this is still not quite the point of this post.

I was caught in reflection over the Hierophant's recent post in which he quoted, "Stat crux, dum volvitur orbis." It seemed to me that I remembered this line from my old friend named after the saint of the golden mouth. In the days when that friend of mine was considering the priesthood and a life of scholarly contemplation, this line came up and I never forgot it.

It has always seemed to me that Latin has a tendency to produce remarkable statements, because its structure is (by and large) a rational one, unlike that of English. If you are to be creative in a logical language (like computer languages), the effect has to be more than the sum of the code.

I've said this, because Stat crux, dum volvitur orbis can best be translated as "The cross stays, while the world turns." It carries with it the connotation of stability against chaos, reliability against caprice, validity against variability, a firm anchor against the whims of the sea. It doesn't imply stasis, but rather a steady perspective from which to stand and respond to change.

But what has this got to do with the word brunei?

The quote is actually the motto of the Order of Carthusians. This is a monastic order of hermits, who think and read and publish their writings while maintaining minimal contact with the world. Their monasteries are set up so that monks don't have to see much of each other, with individual cells and gardens. The Order was founded by St Bruno, and it is not stretching the use of Latin to say that these monks can be referred to collectively as the Brunei.

This post is dedicated to my friends and colleagues in the world out there, buffeted by the dictates of society, government, culture, academic life and... well, dictators, I suppose. Remember that whatever your beliefs and whatever your faith, a true faith is always more stable than the systems of the world (apologies to Sir Isaac for that dig, haha) or of the secular masters of this world.



Yes, I have many TOK students who read these posts and will ask, "Haha, what do you mean by 'true'?" Well, I like the anagrammatic quality of this question-and-response:

Q. Quid est veritas?
A. Est vir qui adest.

Labels: , , ,


I find myself playing six games of chess at once. Because of synchronicity, I am White in five of them; Black in only one. In that sixth game, I am playing some odd variant of the Queen Pawn openings, a Trompowsky Attack or some such, on the defending side.

In my five White games, I am apparently playing the King's Indian Attack against the French Defence, two Bishop's Openings (one a classical Berlin, one not), an awkward and dragonish Sicilian, and a symmetrical English.

I never used to be this flexible. I am now. Not good at everything, but learning a lot and improving. If chess is a metaphor for life, then my life is rich indeed.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


The people of Israel were an interesting lot, as the account given in the first book of Samuel shows. Not liking the idea of having God-appointed judges over them, they asked for a secular king. God told Samuel, the last judge of Israel, to tell them what a bad deal they would be getting; the people of Israel said, yeah, yeah, and asked for one anyway.

So God told Samuel to find one and give them a new king.

That king was Saul: impressive in his own way, extremely secular in many ways, and prone to interpreting God any way he felt like doing so. Saul was also the sort who liked to gain praise from other people's actions. And that kind of thing.

It did not end well.

Labels: ,


A lot of processes in life are like sausage-making. You need a core protein, whether vegetable or animal; you need binder, filler, and a good casing. Whether it's a doctoral thesis, or a school policy, or a house, the ingredients and process are largely the same. The only difference is that many things are more structured than sausage-making when it comes to details.

But as they say, the devil is in the details—and the name is on the casing.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Global Consciousness

Listening to Howard Gardner is like the modern equivalent of the 1960s psychedelic era. These days he is touting his vision of global consciousness and how it should be nurtured in students. Everyone should have a working knowledge of how the world works, he says. Everyone should have access to the Internet and make use of it. Socioeconomic competencies and flexible skills, that's the way to go.

Well, he's right. But there is one small problem which we need to grapple with. How long does it take the billions of the world's population to transit successfully from one mindset to another? In the old days, you could sequester populations because travel was not easy. The technology gap could be steadily exploited and one population could dominate another that way.

The problem now is not a wide technology gap in the sense of how we navigate physical space. The old days of ships and planes as conduits for information are largely done, except for courier services and packages from Amazon and other niche areas. The problem now is a wide technology gap in the sense of how we navigate cognitive space.

This gap is an oscillating one. As the world progresses at its current pace, everyone will eventually have broadband access. Technological development is so rapid that whole societies can jump forward in time, from landline phones with plug-in exchanges to broadband wireless in five years. But the human cognitive gap is unpredictable.

These days, I struggle with Google and all the other paraphernalia of modern Internet life. Don't get me wrong: I've lived more than half my life on the Internet and I'm not that bad for an old fogey. The searchable infosphere makes information retrieval so much easier than it used to be. Everyone can now call up expert help. But the skills required to determine the validity, reliability and utility of the information are harder and harder to teach. There seems little point in constructing an excellent bullshit detector only to have it fail under the sheer weight of the ox-dung.

It leads to some sort of anomie in which people don't want to memorise anything because the information is always out there.

Somehow, the idea that having the data in your head for processing is faster than getting online to retrieve it has not quite sunk in. About the only area where this is too obvious to avoid is what I call art-form physicalities: things like dancing, fencing, sculpture—the more tactile and physical arts. You can't plan your next move online in such things yet, or if you can (as in some of the graphic or language arts), you will still not be able to compete with the mercurial power of the human instinct.

You can have the whole Library of Congress online, but the skill required to research a topic and mould it into something that will influence others is as elusive as the attempt to pin down an approach that will work for everyone. You can have the entire history of the world online, only to discover that it comprises many histories, and it's difficult to tell which ones are more reliable than the others, and where.

These are the limitations that Gardner and gang are trying to address. But I suspect that every school and every individual must craft their own approach to knowledge. Now that we're all drowning in data, the issues we need to deal with are far more complex than they used to be. The questions still sound the same though: What is truth, and where can we find it? If we think it's true, what do we do with it? And how can we communicate this truth, this quicksilver ephemeral thing, to someone else?

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 09, 2009


In 2008, I had the enormous but somewhat guilty pleasure of buying a big chrome-yellow book. People who know me, of course, will not find this unusual: "...enormous but guilty pleasure? big book? bah, that's normal!"

But what book was this, that it deserves a special place in this blog (and not the other)?

Well, it's the first installment of a reprinting of works starring the Saint. Over the last few years, heroes of yesteryear have been coming out of the woodwork: the Shadow, Bulldog Drummond, Flash Gordon, Modesty Blaise, the Spider, Doc Savage, even Tarzan. But the Saint was one from the lineage of Richard Hannay and his ilk: a gentleman amateur with brains and a good punch.

The steely-eyed Saint, once acted by Roger Moore, liked fast cars, vigilante justice, beautiful women and unusual wines. He was a hero far ahead of his time, and he was the brainchild of Singapore's greatest literary phenomenon. Sadly, thrillers and mad adventure novels don't make it to the holy canon of literary orthodoxy, so unless you do a bit of digging, it's hard to know who this was.

And so, 16 years after his death, I present to you Leslie Charteris!

Labels: , ,

Warm Thoughts

I was just meditating this morning on the news out of Britain and parts of the US, which seem to have frozen over or at the very least been dusted by frost. Those people out in Alaska may laugh at this, of course. But cold in the wrong place or time can be debilitating.

The psychological and emotional aspect of cold are the worst part. You tend to think thoughts like, "I'm cold. I feel lethargic. Or tired. Or sad." The initial nip of the cold may be fun, and so is playing in the snow. But when you have work to do, or you're travelling away from home, or you're just already a little miserable inside, the cold just makes it worse.

The secret key to dealing with this is twofold. You need warmth on the outside and warmth on the inside. You need a bit of sun on your face and exposure to human life; that will do for the outside. For the inside... well, wolfberries make good soup; but any sufficiently rich and savoury and hot soup will help. Something with salt and protein in it is good.

And finally, think warm thoughts. Think of all the people who might actually have good thoughts towards you, and remember that those are WARM thoughts. And don't forget to trap the heat in with you when you go out...

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Two Heads

There were two heads. Let's keep them disembodied for now. Wouldn't do to identify them; they'd get killed. Or at least, more killed than they already are. Haha.

One said to the other, "He's looking really tired. But manic."

"Yeah, all that talk about blue sky, blue ocean and other blue things must be turning him blue."

"Does he know what he's talking about?"

"He always seems to sound as if he knows what he's talking about."

"But he doesn't really, right?"

"Yeah, after working for him so long, we all know where he gets his ideas from. Mostly from DOS meetings and Howard Gardner. Heh."


I sense an interesting time ahead. Already the globalisation theorists are saying that the total number of jobs (i.e. well-defined fixed work appointments) will fall drastically while the opportunities for entrepreneurship, consultancy, and project-based endeavours will rise commensurately. I've seen this in action: a person with a broad range of skills (trans-, inter- and multi-disciplinary) can now command a huge premium for flexibility. Such a person can command a price of USD2400/day to begin with. Amazing.


In other news, I was reading Dean Koontz's latest offering, Odd Hours. Then I came across an innocent looking passage that had interesting resonances for me, somehow.

The MYSTERY TRAIN sweatshirt had been lost to the sea. A similar thrift shop purchase featured the word WYVERN across the chest, in gold letters on the dark blue fabric.

I assumed Wyvern must be the name of a small college. Wearing it did not make me feel any smarter.

All at once, I laughed. I startled the two ravens outside my window and they gave me dirty looks. That's life...

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Lessons From Games

Over the last few decades, I've had both opportunity and reason to compare rugby, chess, soccer and water polo. These are more traditional games, compared to the rash of strategic boardgames and role-playing games I've also had the pleasure to examine and try out.

A few things stand out. All four of these games have a strategy best described as 'hold up the centre and infiltrate round the flanks'. They also have 'open up your opponent by shifting the thrust to the other flank'. They have 'dominate the key player by cutting off his supply and support', 'defend your links' and 'protect your home rank'. Of course, they don't all use this terminology, and the circumstances are different in each case—but the concepts are the same, and strong analogies and consequent lessons can be drawn from this.

You see, all four games are about spatial control and getting your stuff from one end to the other after mixing it up in the centre (or avoiding the mix-up in the centre). Dominance can be unit-on-unit, group-on-group, by local outnumbering at some minor sacrifice elsewhere, and so on.

I realise that I've benefited a lot from all the sports and games I've managed to get a taste of. By watching the professionals in action live and in videos, I've learnt much about strategy that has transferred from one game to another. What I'm not about to try, though, is chessboxing, that peculiar alternating chess+boxing contest which ends up either by checkmate or knockout.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 06, 2009


There's something comforting about dryness. If you shake hands with someone, you don't want a clammy grip; if you are out walking, you don't want wet socks. I always have a warm, dry grip; I had a boss who had a problem with clamminess. When I was in the army, I remembered the advice of numerous veterans from millennia past and stocked up on foot powder. It was a habit I would never lose, keeping my feet dry.

I remember one afternoon in China, a trip that encompassed Shanghai and regions around. We had a cold day and it rained a lot. Everyone was somewhat wet. Back in the bus, I whipped out a bottle of foot powder and began to methodically dust down and dry my feet and socks. Foot powder is designed to absorb huge amounts of water.

My colleagues watched me with alarm, consternation, or incredulity. Some who thought they knew me well put it down to my usual lack of reasonable behaviour. Some were just amused.

But I was happy. My feet were dry. My socks were drying out. Everyone else was looking at and feeling their own wet feet. I offered some to the Iron Doc. He chuckled in his trademark way and accepted. He asked, "Do you always carry this around with you?" and I told him the story of my army life.

With the usual slightly mocking look, the Amazon took some. In that moment, as she rubbed the stuff in between her toes, I knew that dryness had won again.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Educating for Globalism

Over the last few months, I've been reading a host of authors on how they see education reforms in this age of globalism. Almost unanimously, they say a few things:
  1. Teach young people to be more aware of current affairs.
  2. Let them participate in more discussions.
  3. Give them opportunities to examine the key forces that drive the world.
  4. Make them politically aware.
  5. Allow them to be politically active.
  6. Help them discover complex modes of thinking and doing.
  7. Prepare them for a world with far fewer fixed jobs and far more independent opportunities.
The list goes on, and on, and on.

But what I see is that it really reduces to three very old points. What education is all about, as Howard Gardner used to point out before he got sucked into the jargon-making apparatus, is:
  1. Teaching people how to figure out what is true.
  2. Teaching people how to figure out what is right.
  3. Giving them opportunities to decide for themselves what is fitting and beautiful (since you can't really teach that).
Truth, goodness, beauty. That's the main thing in terms of content. In the world of today, everything is a lot more accessible. There is an increasing information burden, and the effort required to turn this into knowledge is immense. But it is the same kind of effort as it always has been: the effort to decide what is true, what is the right thing to do given what is true, and how to make the best of what we have.

Young people today will be as politically engaged or disengaged as they want to be. They will know as much as they want. They will discuss things with you if they want. You can guide them as any other generation has been guided, but young people are young people and the kind of guidance required will not change much. Technology and the high information density of the converging world are about the only differences now.

One last word from even further back in time: how do we know what is good? A fellow named Micah once said, "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" Whether you believe in God or not, the principles of justice, mercy and humility are certainly key signposts on the road of human existence—whether global or local, in the wide world or in the streets where we live.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Literary Formulae

Last night I was discussing literature and thermodynamics with the Palindrome. She'd asserted that juxtaposition of time (as in the flashback/flashforward with simultaneous foreshadowing bit) was the literary technique driving a particular play. Her argument contained bits of the infamous Second Law of Thermodynamics and a mention of the heat death of the universe.

It strikes me that post-Newtonian literature has that painful hard margin to walk next to. After Newton, there was a conscious sense that the universe was subject to description, if not outright circumscription. As the implications of Newton's Law's of Thermodynamics were worked out, a sense of what I can only call 'enlightened defeatism' seemed to set in: after all, if everything runs down (and downhill) to an inevitable end, there is never going to be a 'happily ever after'.

I don't think that literature was ever uniformly seen that way, although some commentators have attributed this zeitgeist to 'postmodern literature'. What I think is that there are literary formulae which turn on two things: 1) the fact that humans in general have a commonality of behaviours (or if you like, a commonwealth of stereotypes), and 2) the laws that frame the universe are deliberately to be balked.

For example, if time is a one-way arrow, then literary media (in any form — graphic novels, radio shows, poems) gain power by showing the author's power to bend time in the narrative; he can have all things at once, or out of sequence, or in multiple possible branches. Similarly, the author can play God, can play a fly on the wall, can read minds. Literature is the triumph of creativity over the constraints of the science we have made.

When we start with, "Once upon a time," and end with "... happily ever after," we are likewise asserting that time has no value to us; it does not really matter, and shouldn't. We overcome the heat death of the universe by preserving the information of the story without corruptibility and loss, or by laughing at it when it happens. The entropy becomes controllable, the fall is no longer inevitable.

The art of the author overcomes all, and because his counter-formula is uniquely tinted by his personal lens and artistic temperament, it is not perfectly reproducible. Even his formula is not subject to science; we will never know if he really intended to do what he did to us by his act of creation, even if he says that is how it was. Attempts to analyse by the standards of the scientific method are doomed to fail. Literature has its own vocabulary, and it is sacred in its catholicism.

I've mentioned what my grandfather said about the stages of life before: innocent idealism, innocent cynicism, informed cynicism and informed idealism. Literature is not like life; it is always artifice and never innocence. It is designed to disturb the comfortable, and seldom to comfort the disturbed. At the very core, literature is rebellion against the ills that flesh is heir to; it is the desire to not go gently into that good night, no matter how innocently it is clad.

This is why I view Jane Austen with such admiring suspicion and fear. She perfectly preserved, in a closed system, the dynamic interactions of a limited cast of particles, each with acutely measured momentum and ability to react against others. She broke all the laws of science, and kept alive that which all the refrigerating systems of the world could not: a cleverly-wrought vision of a specific way of life. That way of life will no longer go into the night, even though its historical mould has fallen away.

Humanity can never alone be perfectly measured, interrogated and quantified by humans. People simply do not fall easily into many categories (which is why we categorise them to reduce our cognitive load), observations are never perfect. Literature accepts all this, science denies it in principle. But there has never been a consensus on 'happily ever after', and as Moorcock used to point out implicitly and explicitly, there will be dancers even at the end of time.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Lanchester City

I first came across John Lanchester's writing in the London Review of Books, where he's a frequent contributor. His stuff is always sharp, playful and curiously wise; it is sleepy and yet profound and witty. In short, it has the soul of a cat. That's not say Lanchester is 'catty' in the spiteful way in which people use the word. No; he is feline, with that odd juxtaposition of random letters that makes you think of both felis and felix— 'cat' and 'happy'.

In Lanchester's 2000 novel, Mr Phillips, are found many wise (etc, etc) things. Unfortunately, because there are so many gems in the overall presentation, it is easy to forget specific gems and get lazy and tell others to just read the whole book themselves.

But for today, I shall leave you with a quote from the end of Chapter 2.5 which I found humorous then and prophetic now.

Mr Phillips presses on up the road, past the nasty modern building where the Labour Party has its headquarters, into which a despatch rider has just stridden, past the dwarfing, monolithic government buildings along the Embankment. Further along the road he can see the beginnings of Westminster, all grand and Gothic and trying to look a million years old.

If banks try to look all secure and posh and safe and stable and big and respectable and stuffy and built to last for all time, for the simple reason that at heart they are all just casinos, what is it that these government buildings were concealing? Probably that they tried to make people feel small, so that the actions of the people in these buildings will seem far beyond their understanding, impersonal and authoritative and independent of anything so trivial as the consent of the governed.

There is a reason why we continue to study literature. It teaches us more about seeing the world than science does; science can only tell us what is or will be seen, while literature gently lures us to consider what may yet be seen.

Labels: , ,


Palindromic excellence taught me yesterday that not all hope is dead for the future of of Group 1 Extended Essays in that place which bears her name. I was greatly heartened to learn more about Tom Stoppard than I have learnt for the last decade or so. I think I need to think about what I think I have learnt. Haha, if this goes on I will start talking like one of his characters.


Monday, February 02, 2009

Private Lives

Sometimes I wonder how some authors can so convincingly get us into the heads and private internal lives of their characters. John Lanchester does it somewhat scatologically in his Mr Phillips, that old hack and wonderful enchanter James Joyce does it surpassingly and mystifyingly well in Ulysses; other examples abound (mostly in metropolitan life, and often in Irish literature — or literature written by the Irish).

One of the most acute examples, which at first sight or hearing doesn't seem to do much (and yet does enormously much, on a second or third hearing) is this one from that great London indie Brit-pop band, St Etienne:

The Milk Bottle Symphony by St Etienne

Tony leaves the Depot late.
Seventeen years with the Unigate,
Drives his float down Goswell Road at twenty-five to eight.

Number Nine, Mrs Doris Brown.
Pulls on her quilted dressing gown,
Shuts the fridge and boils the kettle,
Wipes the table down.

La la la la la la
Just as she pours the tea,
She's whistling randomly,
The Milk Bottle Symphony.

Milk Bottle Symphony

Number Twelve, there's Amy Chan.
Writing down a line for the CandyMan,
About the time she saw Tom Baker,
Drinking down the Hat and Fan.

The man next door is Gary Stead.
Shuffles downstairs with heavy head,
Scans the paper, takes a pill,
And stumbles back to bed.

La la la la la la
Didn't get home till Three
Singing appallingly
A Milk Bottle Symphony

Milk Bottle Symphony

Emily Roe's at Thirty-One,
Twenty minutes left to get her homework done.
Leaves her cornflakes on the sofa,
Says good-bye to Mum.

La la la la la la
Jumps on the Forty-Three,
Humming unconsciously,
A Milk Bottle Symphony

Milk Bottle Symphony...

A Milk Bottle Symphony is of course that great and subtle random orchestration of early morning noises one is treated to in a the early morning, if you live in a country (as I used to) which still has morning milk deliveries in glass bottles that clink as the milkman puts them outside your door. Delicious milk, fond memories. Being a student in England was one of the best times of my life.

Labels: , ,

2008 IB Results (Coda)

The International Baccalaureate Organisation has been commendable in its approach to keeping IB results announcements at a civilised and low-key level. It makes it hard to dig around and get specific data for schools unless you go to the schools themselves. At which point, you find some lovely surprises.

Let me introduce you to a school somewhere near the heart of my education (which these days is but a faint memory of Highbury in North London). This North London school, founded in 1850, has posted an average IB score of about 42 out of 45 points over the last THREE years. (As a benchmark, 40 points will get you into Cambridge, Oxford or just about any university in the world.) This year, I hear they had an average of 41.3, which I suppose is a bit lower than usual. That average comes from a results distribution in which 90.1% of ALL their grades were 7 on a scale of 1-7.

They do have the advantage of a small cohort. But I think that from what I've heard, they have the greater advantage of being a small, well-knit and positive community, full of interesting educators and even more interesting students. They're also, interestingly enough for an IB school, a girls-only school. I'm sure some people might consider that an advantage too.

What I'd really like to know is what their subject statistics are. My guess is that they must be exceedingly good at Groups 1 & 2 (Literature/Language) and Groups 3 & 6 (Humanities and Aesthetics). That's not to say their other results are not good; I'm just speculating here about where the highest of their many high points might be.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Note On Birthdays

So what happens if the calendar changes so that it no longer has the same months or days as it used to have? What happens to your birthday?

In 1582, the Julian calendar was superseded by the Gregorian calendar, in yet another attempt to rectify calendar drift. At one fell swoop, Pope Gregory XIII added a 10-day correction and gave us the modern solar calendar — the one we use to this day.

Why was it so contentious? Gregory, not one to do things slowly or by halves, decided to do the correction all at once. That meant the last day of the Julian calendar was Thursday 4 Oct 1582, and the first day of the Gregorian calendar was Friday 15 Oct 1582. The days 5 Oct-14 Oct 1582 were gone forever.

So what happened to those people with birthdays which fell during those missing days? Well, there were riots and mass uprisings of course, with people clamouring to be given back the ten missing days of their lives. Somehow, a lot of people thought they'd been cheated of ten days. If you could think that, it shouldn't have been too hard to think that your lifespan had also been extended ten days, but no... human nature is infallibly bent and few thought of that point of view.

The Romans, during the time when the Julian calendar added more than a hundred days in one year, had been more sanguine. Some changed their birthdays, some kept their old ones in some abstruse mathematical conversion, some decided to go without a birthday, and some just set their birthday to be the first day of the year (on the principle that every year should have at least one day).

The Chinese are a little like that. Today is Man's Birthday, the seventh day of the Chinese calendar. Whoever doesn't have a birthday can have one today, and whoever already has one can adopt a spare one. Seems like a good idea to me! Happy birthday, everyone!

Labels: ,


The story goes that the Roman calendar had gone so badly out of touch with the natural solar calendar that Julius Caesar had to make the year 46 BC a total of 445 days long, the longest year in recorded history. In doing so, some other stories say, the great Caesar took days from February and added them to some of his other favourite months (such as Julius, the seventh month) in order to give them 31 instead of 30 days.

The truth is a lot kinder to that Caesar than all this sounds. What happened was that he actually extended many of the months and kept the rest the same length; the original Roman calendar had 355 days and some sort of random adjustment. When the soothsayers said, "Add 23 days," the calendar was given a 'leap month' to catch up with the sun and the seasons.

February used to be only 23 days long during leap years and 28 the rest of the time. Now, it's 28 days long and 29 during leap years. That's a gain of six days every four years! Which goes to show that the great Caesar was a pretty fair man when it came to adjusting the calendar, and not the evil manipulator who stole days from February to give to Julius, Augustus and the rest. In fact, in his time, Julius was actually called Quintilis ('fifth') and Augustus was Sextilis ('sixth'). The later Romans renamed the months a lot, but eventually, they left us with what we have today.

Happy February!

Labels: , ,