Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chess and the King

In my spare time, I play chess. Occasionally, I even think about the philosophical implications of the game. This time, the thought occurred to me that there is a reasonably clear divide between two kinds of chess, ancient and modern.

In the more ancient games, the piece standing next to the king has less mobility than the king; the vizier, minister or counsellor can only move one square at a time, normally along a diagonal. In the Chinese variant, even that movement is limited to the court around the king.

In modern rules, the major piece standing next to the king is the queen; the modern queen has unlimited movement potential either orthogonally or diagonally. This makes her immediately and obviously the most powerful piece on the board, especially as (or if) the game opens up. No longer shackled to the king and free to roam, she is a shining example of feminism in action.

But what is striking is the combination of absolute and relative roles of the king. The absolute role of the king is to avoid being trapped without escape. Once the king is en prise without escape, that's the end. One relative role of the king is that of a minor piece, but one that gains power as the board is denuded. A king-defended pawn is actually often better off than a pawn-defended pawn for one reason: the king is a flexible defender and an attacking piece in the later stages of the game. Another relative role of the king is that of central piece; but next to a queen, his power looks diminished — and next to an ancient-style counsellor or vizier, his power looks positively well-rounded.

There are life-lessons to be seen here. In life, the king often has the option to choose the kind of pieces he surrounds himself with. Some kings surround themselves with weaker pieces so that they will look stronger, while others (more visionary, more confident) surround themselves with stronger pieces so that their side as a whole is stronger. A clever king seeks to promote his pawns, so that he has even more powerful pieces, perhaps a second queen; a not-so-clever king hides behind his pawns and sacrifices them to keep his position. It all depends on whether there is strategic vision or not.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Lords of Creation

In the last few weeks, I've been researching a topic called 'Humans and Other Species'. On closer reading, the curriculum calls for analysis of the ways in which humans interact with other animals, so I threw out the material on plants and fungi. It's interesting to see how in our long history humans have assigned various roles (implicitly or explicitly) to animals. I think I can identify almost a dozen such roles:
  1. Predators: animals that eat humans.
  2. Food: animals eaten by humans or which produce food (e.g. milk, eggs).
  3. Vermin: animals that steal human food and do other irritating things.
  4. Material Production: animals that produce useful materials on a continuous basis (e.g. wool, feathers) or on a single basis (e.g. leather, ivory).
  5. Guards and Hunters: animals trained to stop predators or kill vermin.
  6. Guides and Herders: animals trained to look after other animals or assist humans.
  7. Transport and Labour: animals used to do work, or to move things and people faster.
  8. Companions and Pets: it's hard to tell the difference, sometimes (even between humans).
  9. Entertainment: ranging from caged birds to fighting fish and circuses.
  10. Experimental Subjects: using animals to test technology where using humans is risky, costly or both.
  11. Objects of Religion and Mysticism: in some cultures, certain animals are considered holy; sometimes, they are not worshipped, but their qualities are admired greatly and have special significance in a supernatural way.
  12. Creative Subjects: animals as metaphors or as protagonists (and other things) in human creative works.
It's a curious list, and I'd be obliged if anyone out there could add to it.

At the same time, human tendencies towards anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism tend to create attitudes that impact these roles significantly. We kill 11,000 sharks every HOUR just because they have a single tasty part or because they look like threats. That's 100 million sharks a year. The shark is of course the most intelligent and highly developed fish — the latest research shows that it has at least some ability for introspection and a lot of capacity for learning — but that doesn't save it from mass extermination. And we don't even eat most of the meat; a typical shark victim can provide perhaps 200 kg of meat, but this is eaten only in some countries (Australia and India being key consumers). East Asian consumers eat mainly the fins (which at USD220 per kg are a pretty expensive food source).

On the other hand, rodents like hamsters and prairie dogs can be bred quickly and relatively cheaply. But most humans wouldn't dream of breeding them for food. They're too cute.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009


Over the last few months, I've been helping students who are doing the International Baccalaureate Organisation's 'Theory of Knowledge' core subject. Along the way, I've heard from them the various things that their teachers and peers have had to say about the subject, some of which are wise, some of which are less so.

I suppose that in the manner of such exact musings, I should get to the point without drifting too much. Theory of Knowledge (TOK) as an IB core subject is not just about epistemology, although TOK is certainly that. Rather, the point for the student is both pragmatic as well as conceptual. It is practically important because the entire IB syllabus hinges around the question of how a practitioner knows that what he or she asserts is true (or at least, justifiable) and to what degree this is so, and the grades awarded often directly relate to this; it is conceptually important because education is all about knowledge, and if you don't know why you claim to know something, then you probably can't claim knowledge of it.

That leads to the practical use of knowing this. In the TOK core subject, a student is assessed in two ways: a written essay of about 1200-1600 words, answering the student's choice of one of ten offered questions (there's a sample list elsewhere in this blog); and a presentation that is offered to a panel of teachers who use rubrics to produce an internally-moderated score. Essentially, both of these assessment modes are designed to see how much a student knows about the pragmatic and conceptual importance of TOK, and whether that student can present this in a form that is sound and easily understood.

The problem I've faced is that a lot of the output I've seen is neither sound nor easily understood; or if one, not the other. I have no idea why some people can't help their students to do both. The ability to guide students in this is the difference between what I call TOKism and TOKenism. The former is the belief and capacity a teacher has in transmitting a love for knowledge that includes respect for truth and clarity in its presentation; the latter is the lip-service a person pays in acknowledging its importance while actually requiring things like aesthetic or moral prettiness in what the student offers.

I say this because I've seen for myself (having been a senior moderator), and heard from many witnesses and victims, the odd things that TOKenists look at when they claim to be assessing students' work in TOK. Not a few seem to be looking at literary merit and the ability to mount an argument, regardless of how clear or fair that argument is. Worse, some are looking at the quality of style of presentation rather than the content and structure of the presentation itself. I remember one panelist actually remarking, "Well it may be a good argument, very clear, but I just don't like the way he said it."

I guess that in a sense, the ideals of TOK teaching are somewhat injured by that kind of approach. Good clear arguments, covering the process of how somebody knows something and how that person can justify the claim of knowledge, are all that is needed. The introductory definitions must frame the arguments that follow, and the concluding statements must summarise those arguments while being closely derived from them. If this answers the question posed, then that is all that is required, in the main.

The rubrics do indeed award points for other more specific and technical qualities in the essay and presentation. But style never comes into it, and neither does the moral or social approval of the moderator or supervisor.

I look forward to seeing the grades awarded for the dozens of essays I've already read and commented on. It will be one way to sort the TOKists from the TOKenists. It's fortunate that the IBDP examiners themselves don't seem to be biased in this way. I suspect that some school cultures tend to build up groupthink, and that teachers from such schools tend to start believing that there's only one way to think (or that students ought to think).

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Saturday, March 28, 2009


There's this little tab on my dashboard that says [MONETIZE]. It's one of those things that reminds me about the pattern of the world. If you do anything, it's an economic activity. If you cash it in, it's called 'monetization', which means making money out of something (no, it doesn't mean forging French impressionist paintings).

The other word I've had to become familiar with is 'marketization'. My supervisor has spent many years investigating the marketization of Atlantean (and Lemurian) education. Essentially, education is no longer a public good provided from a common fund, but something to be hawked about, like bolts of cloth or whores at a brothel. You have to advertise. You have to promise all kinds of nebulous and enticing services. You have a stake in the marketplace of ideas, and ripping off other people's ideas is just one possible strategy.

In Atlantis, everything is monetized and marketized. The latest thing is kidneys. You can now legally accept inducements and bribes to sell a kidney.

I have no fears that this is a slippery slope though. It is more like a steep staircase down which somebody will likely fall and break his neck, thus at one fell stroke donating all his organs and miscellaneous body parts to the common good. It isn't a slippery slope because a live patient can only donate so many parts before ceasing to live. Skin and blood can be donated and they will regenerate, but until you develop a regen-drug for kidneys and livers and spleens and suchlike, similar organ harvesting will not happen — and if such a regen-drug is available, why should it happen?

What I fear (well not really, since I fear very little) is that people will note that you can now legally get lots of loot for selling a kidney, and that there probably isn't much percentage in allowing your parts (post-mortem) to go to the common pool. You might as well tell your family to keep your organs for the highest bidder, thus voiding your need for life insurance. Now, when Papa passes, you can sell all his parts and get far richer than by claiming his piddling little insurance — especially in these days when insurance companies seem to be decaying faster than such body parts.

Such is the pattern of the world. Wait for it. It will come to pass.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

A Blue Ocean Strategy (Redux)

The other day, I was asked, "So what do you think of so-and-so's 'blue ocean strategy' thing? He seems quite hot on it and he's wasted many hours telling us about it so that we can tell the Imperial Assessors about it too!"

Well, as a former eunuch of the Forbidden City (haha, the process is reversible, you know) I can say what I think. I am 99% sure that there are a few of my former colleagues who think it is a silly idea for that kind of institution, but who don't dare to comment on it simply because the axeman might come for them. I am 99% sure that there are also a few who don't know what is implied by a 'blue ocean' strategy. The reason I have used a 99% confidence level is that I am 100% certain that there is a 1% chance that you would be unable to prove either point definitively for 'a few' people.

I remember that I once asked, "Do we have any strategy that is based on our own principles exclusively and rationally?"

The reply was, "Why spend so much time to reinvent the wheel? We can adapt any strategy to our situation."

It is a 'lazy innovator' strategy. This isn't to say that 'lazy innovation' is a bad thing; it saves energy and effort when you stand on the shoulders of giants. However, if you don't rise above that level, then it actually wastes energy and effort. Think about it: you spend a lot of time and energy climbing up there on someone else's account but go no higher than you would have gone on your own... how sad!

This is what I predict for the fabled and fabulous 'blue ocean strategy': I predict that it will sink like a stone once the Imperial Assessors have walked away. A Grand Canal is not a blue ocean; and in this day and age, as I've said before, it is very hard indeed to find blue oceans anywhere.

Note (1): The 'lazy innovator' strategy is not a very well-known concept. However, you can think of it as a strategy in which an innovator deliberately and with forethought attempts to make the smallest possible innovation that will give the greatest possible useful strategic development (as opposed to tactical development or instrumental change) in the existing situation. This is unlike most 'continuous innovation' strategies in which the object is to maximize yield or improve things without looking at the 'doing almost nothing, zen-master style' possibility or the 'climb up on shoulders of giants' possibility and such. The problem in this case was that the old fellow was not deliberately applying the strategy; he was using it without thinking!

Note (2): Actually, it was instructive to listen to the old fellow tonight at the Parliament of Wyverns. It was amazing how much he was not telling. There is obviously a strategic brain in there, but it is almost totally engaged in self-preservation and not institutional progress. (Updated at 20:00.)

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cashing In

Today marks the 25th day of my new financial policy. Since St David's Day, I've decided to spend only as much money as finds its way into my wallet by direct physical transfer. If I need to use a Mammon Machine (also known as an Altar Teller), I restrict myself to using it only on the day after I have banked in a cheque that will more than cover the amount I'm withdrawing.

So far, I'm still at a nett positive income. And I have not touched the principal sum that I set aside since 2007. At current expense rates, this is likely to last me for the rest of my life. Hopefully, insurance will cover the healthcare that I'll need as I grow older.

But it's the little things that I realise are beginning to build up. When I go into a shop and pay for goods worth $27.64, for example, they charge me $27.60 in cash. If I had paid by electronic means, that would have been four cents more. Exact sums can be transacted by electronic means; but ever since they got rid of pennies, they have had to round down in favour of the customer.

Slowly, I am finding myself richer than I was before, even in these distressing times. I am beginning to set aside a sum for the education of future generations not my own. This was the habit of my ancestors, and I have resolved to make it mine as well. Education is important; in every school ever built to house wyverns, my family has planted at least one classroom and one teacher. It is too bad that the traditions of the School are fading and the flagship is at half-mast.

But the best is yet to be; and the prudent amongst us should endeavour that this best can be paid for in the end.

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Jade and Gold

Sometimes, you go past things that used to be part of your life and they surprise you because these things, now no longer part of your life, are still part of your memory. I remember the idea of jade and gold as a very wise lady once explained it to me; these things were precious and fine and beautiful, also resilient and tough, also symbols of culture, richness, depth. To be associated with these things was to be associated with the excellence of a world that was passing, and yet still remained.

Since that chat with the dancer who must now be in her late 70s (!) I have learnt more and more to appreciate those who are associated with such ideals. Many of them are (or were) dancers; many of them have the finest minds and the best manners of all the people I know. The thing is that these two substances are emblematic of a particular breed of overseas Chinese, a strand which left the country early and yet retained an stronger sense of heritage than those who left later.

As a chemist, I've come to appreciate these substances for their material properties as well as for their cultural significance.

Jade is beautiful, but also very hard and tough. The ancient Chinese used it for axeheads and armour; it is as hard as quartz, but its interlocking microcrystalline matrix makes it tough enough to turn a spearpoint. It was the kevlar of its age. The range of colour from green to red to brown to purple comes from the presence of transition metal ions, mainly iron(II) and iron(III).

Gold is beautiful, but also the most flexible, ductile, malleable and conductive of all metals. It can be spun into thread or flattened into foil, drawn into wire or used as paint. It is nearly incorruptible, and not dissolved by anything in nature at normal temperatures. It does form alloys with other metals over a longer period of time; these alloys are valuable for other reasons.

Passing by the Palace of Jade and Gold, I remember when it was on the Emerald Hill. I learnt many things in those years, and I realise that I still feel sad for what has passed away forever.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Relative Hardness

There is a famous anecdote about Voltaire and a whinger. The latter complained to the philosopher, "Life is hard!"

Voltaire replied, "Compared to what?"

It's an interesting reply, and one worth worrying about. It's possible to compare life to life in some ways. But what I've been thinking is that if you're a university student, you're already in the top 10% of the world's population. There simply aren't many people being educated in universities as a percentage of the world's masses.

One estimate of the current enrollment of students worldwide at the tertiary level is 150 million. Compared to the total world population of about 6.8 billion, that's 2.2% of the world. The current enrollment is the highest it's ever been; one forecast says that at this rate, India alone will need 2400 new universities to educate all those who might meet the current criteria for entry to a university.

It's probably quite accurate to say also that the top 2% of the world's population owns about 50% of the world's assets; that's what this UN study claimed about the world in the year 2000. The same study points out that if you had US$2,200 worth of assets, that made you richer than the average human being; US$61,000 would have put you in the top 10%.

My conclusion is that if you are debt-free (or tolerably so) and own a house or apartment in an alpha or beta world city (or you are a member of a small family that owns one), and if you also have a university education or are a university student, then you are blessed beyond any kind of complaint you might want to make.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Meditation on Entropy

I'm still reading the Old Testament book of 1st Samuel. It's about 30 chapters of pure action, interspersed with odd meditative episodes and powerful rhetoric, drama, emotion and the scent of death. What strikes me about this book is that it is one of the earliest books which is actually written like a novel. The characters have discernible motives and the plot shows signs of non-prophetic foreshadowing and other literary devices.

The whole thing is very different from the near-legendary exploits of the Israelites as they journeyed out from Egypt and into the Promised Land. Rather, it is the story of a people now linked to their land and behaving like ordinary people, yet touched with the shadow of the Almighty.

But as you read further into the text, you see entropy creeping in. People wind down, give in to lower-energy decision-making, to summary rather than expansion. They make bad choices which you know will get them in the long term. Worse, in the light of what we now know, the roots of the tragedy of the Jewish Holocaust were laid then; the seed was planted when they decided to get for themselves a king.

It lifts you up to see how much effort went into the avoidance of disaster, how much input was given to raise these people against the burden of entropy. That they took so long to self-destruct and lose their Promised Land is the miracle of the tale.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

'Inspiration' (Part II): Psychobabbleon (And On, And On...)

As Trivandrum pointed out, the bowels of that ancient city and one-time Babylon of the West have vomited forth a great edict concerning what they used to do and now swear never to do again... indulging in bureaucratese. The reason that this particular piece was so inspirational to so many is that this great city was once the headquarters of the largest corporate dominion ever created by humans.

Oh, do not blame the Americans; they are but a young and benighted nation compared to that great Lion of the Sea!

Unfortunately, I have yet to think of a version for the education sector that won't be immediately recognizable as proceeding from the mouth of... urgh. Let us not think about it, but pray. I shall leave this as a stub for now.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Outward Bound

Exactly a year ago, we loaded the boot of the old car a final time and drove off. I remember that the Gooner was the last to bid farewell, rushing up to us as we turned out of the car park to give us three Easter eggs as a present. I will never forget that moment.

But the second unforgettable moment from that last day was actually driving out of the gate. I saw the rust on the gate, the peeling paint, the cheaply tendered workmanship, and then like the light of the face of God, there was a sensation of — *snap* — freedom.

"You will never have to return," said the voice. It wasn't the voice of flaming cherubim at the gates of Eden; it was more like the voice of the descending seraphim at the devastation of the cities of the plain. I had the crawling sensation that if I had actually looked back, I would have turned into a pillar of salt (or at least, a pool of electrolytes).

As we turned the corner, I heard the harsh and knowing caw. I looked up into the gnarly tree at the edge of the old place, and there they were, two huge ravens. I had seen them many times before, and they had inspired me much. The look in their eyes wasn't so much a goodbye-farewell, as a zaijian, an auf weidersehen. "We will be seeing you again," it said, "but not here. We have to wrap things up first."

I felt oddly reassured. Months later, when the news began to trickle out of the place, I knew I had left in time. Chesterton describes the purge of the faithful in beautiful lines:

And he saith, "Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not
Kismet; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth."

Except that of course, some people (heh) had not the language to say such things. Yet indeed they were sifting the sands and shifting the saints and harrying the faithful to the uttermost ends of the earth. I can only wonder at what was on their minds. It made no sense, and the vast network of the brothers and sisters of the Wyvern gave me encouragement and told me it looked senseless to them too.

From what I hear, some people still claim the wisdom of Solomon, but merely attempt to seal up power for themselves. I feel like a djinn who escaped the bonds of lead and clay created by an apostate king; or perhaps like a David who has avoided being hit by two quick spearcasts in succession at the hands of Saul.

But enough of that. "Courage was mine, and I had mystery; Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery," said a poor sad poet of the trenches. I feel like adding, "Freedom was mine, and I had both." I was outward bound, that bright and azure day. It was the first day of the rest of my professional life, and the scent of the burning grass and the billowing trees was the scent of the light of dawn.

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'Inspiration' (Part I): Psychobabbleon

The following 'quotation' is from a very wise man I know. Let's call him 'Adobe'. Yes, he has appeared in these posts before, and he is an endless source of reassurance to me, although we don't have coffee as often as we ought to. Be prepared though; it is truly a wondrous and terrifying piece of prose.

In the overarching paradigm, prioritization should be on the mainsteaming of across-the-piece interface and blue-sky thinking to edge-fit, downstream, a level playing field where pooled resources and holistic governance may be an enabler of an early win direction of travel to facilitate the promulgation of good practice in putting a menu of options on the fast track. I iterate that we have the management capacity to go forward in a gateway review of core developments that would model rebaselining for a quick-hit, quick-win protocol that would procure the engagement of multi-agencies and municipalities networks in order to plot an exemplar of normalizing outcomes. We have a can-do culture with social contracts and capabilities which, with empowerment and contextual engagement, will leverage double devolution to embed a path-finding democratic mandate to benchmark proactive streams among practitioners and populace alike.

Well, I'm going to try to do better than this. Really. Meanwhile, are there any favoured catchphrases that any of you would like me to include in version 2.0?

Oh yes, and can anybody out there summarise this scintillating piece of prose in fewer than 20 words?

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Subcompetence and Splinter Cultures

The last few days have been days in which I've managed to catch up with old friends as well as young friends. I've also managed to make ends meet by sitting around at the local Starbucks and dispensing advice for a fee. This has not been easy, since I am normally pretty serious about the advice I dispense, and I try my best to give useful material.

But in between sessions of advice-dispensing and consequent fee-taking, I found myself musing on two tangentially related themes. Subcompetence is one; the Dicksonian idea of 'splinter cultures' is the other.

Subcompetence is an interesting word; it is related to both 'competition' and 'competence' through the common Latin origin competere, which means 'to strive together (towards a common goal)'. When one says a person is 'competent', we mean that his faculties are coherently focussed when he undertakes a specific task. Nowadays, it also implies that he is able to carry out that task, whatever it is. The odd thing of course is that modern competition is far from a common striving; perhaps it is antagonistic striving towards the same prize, which only one competitor can win.

But what is subcompetence? It is the state of being just about unable to complete or excel in one's chosen task, or the task one has been given. I was thinking about it because there are a whole bunch of people out there who have seemingly been dragooned into teaching a subject that none of them is fit to teach (as far as the evidence seems to show). They all come from one discipline, in which it is possible to believe they are competent, and inflict themselves (or are inflicted) upon innocent students who find that they have not learnt very much from the experience.

How do I know this? I know this because whenever I ask the students why they don't seem to have learnt the right stuff, they keep referring to the same people. And these people all have at least one thing in common.

It put me in mind of the Splinter Cultures first described by Gordon Dickson in his Childe Cycle, beginning with 'The Tactics of Mistake'. In that sequence, humanity forms highly specialised cultures which farm out their skills with varying degrees of success. Since specialists are paid so much more than general 'baseline' humans, the market drives ever more specialised culturalisation. Eventually, the cycle shows that this results in peculiar dysfunctions, as the specialists prove incapable of holistic synthesis (or anything remotely similar).

When faced with a subject like 'Theory of Knowledge', which by its nature requires the ability to roam back and forth comfortably across the world of all the disciplines and areas of knowledge, people with a highly specialised training tend to fail. They can only see things from their specialist perspective, which makes their ability to educate others somewhat lacking.

The whole thing leads to one thought. If you claim you are going to try to provide (or worse, that you DO provide) an holistic education, you cannot afford to dispense with a) skilled generalists, b) structures that bring specialists together in common endeavours of cross-disciplinary learning. If you make such an error, you might possibly still claim multidisciplinarity, but you certainly will not be able to provide an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary education. And once you go there, there is no way you can even claim an holistic perspective or pretensions to providing an holistic education.

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I like this poem. The more I read it, the more it appeals to me. There is an image that goes with it, if you want to look at the original.

The Sky Over Archbishop Becket

all flesh is as light
two thousand golden apples
are a memory

a cross encircled
did the unremembered laugh
celtic to the last?

grey flowers display
masons bow beneath the sky
that their hammers wrought

shield ringed with fire
eight gates pierced with light above
what rough beast was made?

pilgrimage ends here
the century’s weary hands
play a nave of swords

old stone holds old air
a thousand years of sainthood
stained glass, empty vaults

shielded from the sky
this sanctity will survive
the meaning of god

Then I thought of Wolfberry. Madame Wolff, you have gained your crown this day; my prayers go out to you.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Quantum Mechanics

The problem, when all's said and done, is the concept of the quantum. In life, as in physics, the quantum is the smallest unit of anything that makes sense in a given context. Once you have this idea of quantity, the idea that all things can be reduced to discrete and finite elements, then it becomes tempting to launch a barrage of mathematical rules in an attempt to reduce the target known as life to its quivering naked essentials.

And that is why holistic education is doomed.

Once people get their hands on numbers and the limited intelligence required to manipulate them, the idea of a whole becomes fragmentable. If a whole can be reduced to numbers, then each numbered item can be dealt with as a single part. If the whole can be reduced to single parts, then it's not holism we're talking about, but the idea of engineering, the idea that you can have specialists and specific things and not have all-round development.

Actually, I don't think that all-round development is desirable as an end unto itself. I believe in the multiplicity of gifts. I believe in the difference of individuals. I believe in the irreducibility of the mystery of life. I mock the idea of the quantum as applied to the reality of the human. And I will stop at nothing to educate without the illusion of holism to lure people to their doom.

I do not want quantum mechanics, people who tinker around with numbers and reduce things to units. I do not want the zeitgeists, people who seek to kill time by diminishing its power against the backdrop of eternity. I want to know that our universe is immune from the spirit of reductionism and the spirit of trivialism and the spirit of fluffiness without cuteness (oops, well, stuff like that). I want a cosmos (not just a world, a secularity that terminates) that goes on forever and ever in the light of God, worlds without end, amen.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Subjects Cambridge Does Not Want You To Take (Part II): Things Man Was Not Meant To Know

It's always fascinating to delve into the encyclopaedic tomes which form 'core' or 'accessory' rulebooks in role-playing games and RPG systems. You learn about all kinds of things that your character can develop awareness, knowledge, skill, proficiency, talent or manifestation of and in. The lists come, literally, to thousands of these things, if not myriads. Some of these things are real, and I have relatives and friends who actually have some proficiency in them.

Here are a few you have to be careful with.

1. Orchidology: This would seem obvious. It has to be the study of orchids, right? Well... it turns out that the Greek orchis means 'testicle'. If I offer you an orchidectomy, it is not an offer to prune your Vandas. An orchidologist studies orchids, and not testicles; an orchidomaniac studies testicles, and not orchids. Go figure.

2. Inductive Divination: This one's not so obvious. It's actually the practice of making many observations and then recording the consequent events following those observations. A pattern that develops is then applied in forecasting. This is the way a lot of predictive sciences (e.g. broadcast meteorology – weather services and petrochemical assessment) work.

3. Necrophilology: No, this has nothing to do with the science of necrophilia. It's the study of dead languages. Somewhat unfortunately, it can be translated in a few ways depending on how you break it up. The three Greek elements here are nekron ('corpse'), philia ('liking') and logos ('structure, language, word, words').

4. Demonoology: Yes, this one is spelt coorectly correctly. The Greek nous means 'mind', 'noology' is the study of the phenomenon of mind. Greek demos means 'the people (of a state, for example)' and hence 'demonoology' means 'the study of the collective mind of a population'. That extra 'o' in the middle, very important.

5. Demonoology: Yep, here we go again... 'oology' is the study of eggs. I'm not kidding. The Greek daimon(ion) means 'a spirit (manifesting personally and locally)'. So this particular formulation means 'a study of the physical origins of spiritual things'. The problem, of course, is distinguishing between the two; careful pronunciation required.

After five such helpings, perhaps it's good to take a break. As I dig around, I begin to realise that there are ways of saying things in Greek that cannot be said exactly in English. In fact, there are some things best said in Tibetan.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Subjects Cambridge Does Not Want You To Take (Part I): Soft Landings

What a tasty morsel for a person who is curious about the term 'areas of knowledge'!

Although this news article is almost venerable, being dated 7 Jan 2008, it is interesting to see that Cambridge University actually produced a list of 20 'A'-Level or IB subjects which it advised students not to take if they wanted to get in. The article says, quoting them: "Applying with two of these A-levels 'would not normally be considered to be acceptable.' "

What is this list of the sub-academic? Here, have a look.

Art and Design
Business Studies
Communication Studies
Design and Technology
Drama and Theatre Studies
Film Studies
Health and Social Care
Home Economics
Information and Communication Technology
Leisure Studies
Media Studies
Music Technology
Performance Studies
Performing Arts
Physical Education
Sports Studies
Travel and Tourism

Interesting, isn't it? I wonder if any school actually tells its students about these things?

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The Perils of Goal-Setting

In every local organisation that has come to pay tribute to the new form of evaluation, the practice of goal-setting is considered laudatory, and in fact, the pinnacle of excellence in process management. This is especially prevalent in organisations going for so-called quality awards (which ought to be debunked forthwith).

Last night, I had the opportunity, thanks to a certain elf, to read an article by four academics concerning the perils of goal-setting. These four are from the Eller College of Management, the Wharton School of Business, the Kellogg School of Management, and Harvard Business School. It is an eye-opener, this paper entitled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal-Setting.

Their conclusion is summarised in the form of a 'warning label' which they would like people to use more often. The text on that bright yellow warning label says:


Goals may cause systematic problems in organizations
due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking,
decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation.

Use care when applying goals in your organization.

It immediately put in me in checklist mode. I realised that the organisation I've been looking at is very much like that. And the details in the paper (especially those on page 11, thanks to the elf!) make it very clear where the blame should lie.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day 366

This is the day, last year, on which the Highest decreed that I should come out of where I was. It was an unsettling time; the Israelites out of Egypt, Abraham out of Ur, Odysseus out of Ithaca or Aeneas out of Troy must have felt it worse. In each case, the idea of staying with what one knows and has known, the idea of settling down for good — these ideas of familiarity and routine tend to keep one in the same place.

But there I was, uprooted. Fortunately, the Potter repotted the plant, and I am thriving in a far larger environment.

Yet, the Potter, the Highest, the Lord of Hosts, has many to do His bidding. He has supplied all my needs abundantly, and any shortfall in anything has been my doing and not His. This short post is to thank a few people who kept me sane, and to mention an uncountable horde who kept me alive and happy.

Besides my family, the most supportive and powerful agents of my regeneration — yes, bro, credo ut intelligam indeed! — I have to thank a bunch of fellow professionals:

Argonaut, wingman, then first employer and bridgehead into the world of self-sustainable work;
Historian, wingman, then second victim and valiant comrade in trenches and under heavy shelling and poison gas;
The Secret Society, ex-colleagues who were particularly active in countering the activities of the wild yak;
Boss Lady, who was always a great help and reassurance in professional matters;
Flower Lady, who sold flowers (just kidding) and made time to introduce contacts and find new eating places;
Guru Lady, who was always good for an academic chat and marvellously steady even when flooded with her own work;
Stoneface and the Old Gang, who were professional throughout and went out of their way to keep in touch;
The New Guardsmen, assorted and unnameable, who saved the sum of things for something less than a worthy fee.

I also have to mention a bunch of students, many of who must still remain anonymous:

Trivandrum, whose sorting algorithms were amusing and yet intelligent, for being absolutely marvellous in keeping the dream alive;
The One and the Other One, whose rather obsessed combined brainpower produced much thought;
The Debators, who provided endless encouragement just through their own odd journeys (especially the one who doesn't have green eyes);
Wolfberry, whose dialogues with me taught me as much as anything else I could have learnt;
The Librarian, for meticulous arguments, inspiration and assistance;
The Dancers, who somehow provided a bunch of uplifting experiences I could never have found elsewhere (like nasi lemak and funny trips);
Various animals from Serendip and other mysterious and legendary places (and the ninja ferret!), for showing that hope remains in the darkest of times (like a proof-of-concept);
The others who were my students and came visiting, both the 'geeks' (beware them bearing gifts, haha) and the 'non-geeks' (self-declared, in most cases);
The wolfpack and the hounds, who were always free with information and informative indeed;
The Second, Third and Fourth for continuing the great traditions of the First;
The First, for being the pinnacle of my short career in secondary education.

I also bow to the five corners of the earth and pay tribute to those who have gone before me in the particular journey that begins in the College of Wyverns and never seems to end as long as the best is yet to be. God save our land, and heaven bless. The faith was never lost except in that one dark corner of the legend.

In all things, I give thanks. I will always rejoice. My ambition has ever been to lead a quiet life and not be an encumbrance to anybody. Maybe it hasn't been so quiet, but it's getting there. I hope. *grin*

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It has been a year since Wolff, no longer a knight, was exiled from the Citadel of the Magistratum. He dresses simply now, no longer in the armour and colours of his ancient lineage or his knighthood. Although, of course, his blood runs coldly in those very colours, deep in the arterial wells and veinous labyrinths of his ageing frame. It is by chance that he comes upon a valiant veteran from another war — a 'lean and foolish knight', as the great Chesterton once called him.

Hail, my lord of the windmill! What brings you out of your sainted memory to this pleasant café?

That worthy knight grimaces, his long mustachios twirling gently as if they might catch the wind and make wheat into flour. He looks down into his espresso con panna and looks up again, a spark of icy fire in each eye. His tone is courteous as always. Unlike the so-called Lords of the Magistratum, he shows all the virtues of a knight, even in his late age.

Sir Wolff. I have been following your adventures from afar. Did you know that you have now a wolfpack behind you? "Don John's hunting, and his hounds have bayed."

Wolff is about to deny, for the hundredth time it seems, his knightly title. But he thinks better of that, realising that denying the word of such a famous knight as this worthy would be to sink even lower than the Magistratum desires him to sink.

No, my lord. I had not heard this news. Do you mix metaphors here? Or do both wolves and hounds hunt me now?

The old knight gives a lopsided grin. It is as if he relishes the cut-and-thrust, both implicit and explicit, even though he is not quite in a position to be the champion he used to be.

No... the wolves are your pups, so to say. There are dozens of them howling in the hills around the Citadel. They scent blood. They spread tidings of the indiscretions of the Grand Inquisitor and his cabal. And the hounds of Don John, the hounds of heaven, are with them. "It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!"

Wolff smiles. This is no longer his fight. He is beyond that, and now that he is not a knight, he cares less than he used to.

And this is supposed to mean something to me? The Will and the Power of the Highest, they will prevail. "St Michael's on his mountain in the sea-roads of the north"; he can shake his lance of iron and clap his wings of stone as much as he wants, for that is an archangel's right.

Then the old knight says something before he fades away, with a sad look in his eye that chills even Wolff.

Remember the little dwarfs and the crystal phial. Remember who you once were. "It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth." The wyverns will fly, but only if the wyvern-keeper is bold and gives them wings.

'What did he mean by that?' Wolff ponders. But deep inside, he thinks he knows. And like an iron bell, the chambers of his heart toll deeply within him.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Long Journeys (Part II)

The poetry of Thomas Stearns Eliot is a lot about long, cold journeyings and the things that one finds on arrival. Sometimes, the arrival is the arrival of one's self within one's self, so to speak; sometimes, the destination is the anti-climax to the journey itself. 'Little Gidding' is the fourth of the Four Quartets he wrote. It is the one that I recommend all visitors to England read, either before or after the visit.

In that poem, the last words are as follow. I couldn't find a shorter excerpt that would convey the beautiful weight of time and humanity conveyed by it all.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

It is stuff like that which makes one despair of ever being a poet. When you read this kind of poetry, there is the sensation that somehow, the deepest root of language has been tapped; the wellsprings of human history and legend are being drawn from and drawn upon.

More important, the sensation of his 'midwinter spring' at Little Gidding is one of having found the destination, that the journey has ended and we await the welcome of the King. It makes one realise one's weariness in the place of the world, and just how long a journeying it can seem.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Long Journeys (Part I)

Long journeys are the main course of a literary diet. In some cases, the journey is such an epic one that it takes on a life and significance of its own, eventually settling down as the cultural ballast for an entire civilisation.

This was the case with the Hebrews and Moses' sojourn in the wilderness (and to some extent his antecedent in Abraham, whose journey from Ur covered the entire Fertile Crescent and the Nile Delta), with the Greeks and Odysseus' eponymous voyage around the Aegean Sea and parts unknown, and with Aeneas and his flight from Troy (funny version here) which ends up with being the basis for both a legend of Rome and one particular dream of Ancient Britain (vide Geoffrey of Monmouth). It is even the case with Dante's phantasmagoric La Divina Commedia, and its resonances (or reverberations) on Italian culture.

In each case, the idea of the journey is that of a great and complex and divinely-inspired test of the protagonist. By the ordeal of the journey, he is made fit to assume legendary stature as the leader of a people and the founder of a nation. By contrast, modern nation-building myths are not so heroic, and have to be conflated, inflated and insufflated (by the adoring masses, of courses) before they reach the same effective stature (if ever).

The old-fashioned heroic story-telling, I think, was about excellence: the protagonists looked larger because their peers and accomplices and friends (like the Paladins of Roland, or the Fellowship of the Ring) were great in their own right or grew to greatness with them. Since the protagonists excelled even these, they were champions and heroes of even greater merit.

Nowadays, sadly, the norm is to make the protagonist look bigger by tearing down his rivals and diminishing his peers. It is all very depressing.

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Soon it will be the anniversary of my leave-taking. I never thought I would leave the College of Wyverns; after all, my line stretches back to the beginning of the College, and my ancestors and family are steeped in its heritage.

When I left, I suppose I was a little unhappy. That unhappiness I think could not have lasted more than 60 days; it could possibly have lasted for fewer than 60 hours. Unhappiness is the state of being struck by misfortune, as the Anglo-Saxons in days of yore might have said. And within a very short while, I did not think it was misfortune.

From the well-wishes of the many well-wishers, I realised I needed no wishing-well to be fortunate. I had been slowly stifled, suffocated in the steeping and odorous toxic venom of the place for too long, not realising. There were many sign that the old goodness was seeping out and the foul humours soaking in. There was too much shopping, too much gossip, too much stuff irrelevant to the life of education.

And so a year has passed. In that one year, I wrote 45000 words of prose; I prepared four papers and read ten times that number. I collected certificates, testimonials; I stretched, and in some places broke, the narrow confines of my world.

I have learnt much and been humbled much and felt the worth of things that were once hidden from me. I see that the ideals of the Wyvern Shield live on, though darkness and foulness and madness hunt almost unchecked.

There is light in every corner, sometimes hidden, sometimes in unexpected places. For there are wyverns still. On the Road of the Dogs, on the Eastern Approaches, over the Sea and in the Village, you will find them. Not all are as they were or as we were, but they are there. There may yet be hope.

But above all, there is nothing higher than the Highest. There is nothing greater than to live the life of service and to walk away from Egypt, from the cities of the plain, from Babylon — and yet into Nineveh, and into the service of the heathen, and the pagan, and the wielders of Mammon.

I am sorry for the comrades who took grievous wounds for what was good and right. I am glad that they live still, that many have found places of honour and a second life. It has not all been easy and noble; I have learnt that I too can succumb to vindictiveness and schadenfreude.

It is all adventure, and growth, and in the end, to be counted all as joy. We give thanks in all circumstances, and for all things. And we forgive others not because we are higher than they and can afford to condescend, or because we are lower and are afraid of consequence, but because we too have been forgiven.

I never thought I would have left the College of Wyverns. But there wasn't much of it to leave; only some newish buildings, few friends from the old good days, a tyranny of pale injustice, and oppression of belief. If the young wyverns are to fly, someone should tell them what the past was like, what the present can be made to yield, and what best is yet to be.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Theory of Unknowledge

For all the students I've taught anything to (in terms of anything they thought was knowledge), here is the ultimate proof of futility. David Wolpert, computer scientist and physicist, has finally come up with what we all suspected to be true: even without limits as to the nature or power of a computational device or intellect, except that it is physically a part of this universe, it will never know everything. And this extends to the laws that govern everything. So, good night to the grand unified theories and suchlike.

No, indeed you cannot know it all. But Solomon, once known as the wisest man in all the earth, was the first to think about that. It's in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that we read: "He has made everything beautiful in its time; and He has put eternity in the hearts of men, except that no one can find out what God does, from beginning to end."

These are the two sides of the gift of knowing: that we are always seeking to know, that we intuitively realise there is an infinity of knowledge; and also that we cannot know it all.

Happy Pi Day (3.14), everyone!

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The Institutional Organization of Knowledge

To the acronyms TOK (Theory of Knowledge), WOK (Way of Knowing) and AOK (Area of Knowledge), I shall add IOK (Institutional Organization of Knowledge). It is not that new a concept; from about 2005, several books I came across spoke in detail of the tacit and detailed internal knowledge structures of large organizations.

However, my New York link sprouted an email in my direction pointing me to Amnon Karmon, an Israeli specialist (no, not that kind, you servicepeople!) in alternative methods of teaching. He's the director of the Kerem Institute of Jewish Humanistic Teacher Training in Jerusalem. This is how he begins his 2007 article:

For over a hundred years, there have been efforts to change the way that schools transmit knowledge. Most of these efforts have failed. The most common explanations found in educational research for this are either: 1) macro-social, according to which social interests and powers hinder these changes. 2) teacher-oriented, according to which the teachers themselves either resist those changes or/and lack the training and qualifications necessary to carry them out. Although these explanations have a lot of truth to them, they ignore a crucial point, a “missing link” between teaching and subject matter, and society. Every educational institution has a special structure for organizing knowledge. This structure is independent in many respects from macro-social factors, as well as from teacher behavior, and it has important effects on the ways educational institutions deal with knowledge. Educational research has not yet provided a detailed and focused examination of “the institutional organization of knowledge” in education.

Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 3, 2007, p.603. http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12826, Date Accessed: 3/14/2009

Wow, some abstract eh? Fear not. Abstract of abstract: "Don't just look too big, at national and international scale; don't just look too small, at the teacher level. Look instead at the educational institutions which occupy the space in between. Those are the things which need looking at."

This is exactly the kind of research I'm doing, and probably the reason why some people don't want me to do it. You see, the problem in some institutions is that they have no idea what kind of knowledge structures they're using. When the head is missing, there is no alternative to the complex snarl wrapped up in that unit. Well, actually, there is — but those in authority do not like being 'undermined' by things like tradition and thought.

When my long 'disqusition' comes to an end, it is my hope that we'll all know more about how an institution can either a) function at a high level without a proper IOK, or fake it so well that you can't tell the difference for all practical intents and purposes. Then again, there may be any number of other options. Amazing stuff!

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Happiness is Blue, Gold is Guilt?

There are two fairly large and overlapping groups of people I know. One group believes that affluence contributes towards happiness, the other group believes that affluence contributes to poverty in the spiritual realm. The overlap causes a genuine disconnect: is spiritual richness then exclusive of material happiness?

Of course, there is a large group where there is no such problem. These believe that richness in the spiritual realm creates wealth in the material realm and therefore nobody needs to be guilty about being materially affluent.

The problem, I think, is that these two realms have often been seen as mutually exclusive, even opposite to each other. What I believe is nothing new: I believe that the material realm is a lower order reflection of the spiritual realm. For those who don't believe in a spiritual realm, it's analogous to using description theory as a higher-level construct that deals with material things when it has to.

It is probably also easier to argue that the material realm proceeds from the immaterial than vice versa. But that's not the point. The point is that seeing things like beauty or niceness or happiness or anything like that requires physical apparatus. If the physical apparatus is functioning better and more healthily, so much the better.

It's not so much the sound mind in sound body thing; I don't think it's possible except in a theoretical sense to separate the two. I think that any analysis or appraisal or evaluation of the material realm is impossible without what some people call the spiritual realm and others call the abstract realm (whether correctly, usefully, consistently or not).

This is why the crest of the College of Wyverns is half in blue, for the spiritual things, and half in gold, for the material things. Yet it's not a clean division, the two are mixed in the chief of the shield, where the wyvern itself is placed as the dominant charge. What holds the two halves together are the blood-red letters, which signify in this plane that all humanity shares a common physical heritage (blood) — and in the teachings of that school, the idea that the blood of the Divine binds heaven and earth as one.

This is why you don't need to be guilty, defensive, offensive, or overly joyful about material pleasures and the material life. All that is merely the lower level output of the higher level structure. That's why some people aren't happy although enormously wealthy, while some people are. Perhaps at the highest possible level of the ineffable hierarchy, we'll finally figure it out.

But I doubt the solution will please those who in this life are purely quantitative or purely qualitative researchers. In fact, I doubt that such a solution will please anyone completely, for this is the nature of our humanity.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Private Education Markets

The difference, we used to think, between Hong Kong and Singapore, was freedom of the markets. But Hong Kong ended up regulating some sectors more than Singapore. And now, Singapore wants to do this. Or rather, it is about to do this.

I think the main problem is that everyone in Singapore seems to want to make money more than anything else. Ranked 131 out of 178 for happiness, we're still going for the loot rather than the laughter. I've heard time and time again, "Don't be naïve, nobody thinks like that; bottom line is everyone wants to make some money, and you must be like that too."

If the whole state is a private market with invisible rules behind visible rules, what's freedom like?

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How do people survive in these dark Financial Times?

Here's one of many suggestions. Give tuition. And I don't mean just taking students through the homework they ought to be doing whether you are there or not.

I mean, take on students with the intention of providing value-added education. Get to know them well. Give them good advice and be generous with your time and attention. Nurture them.

Remember, you are doing 1-on-1 education, and you can provide what the 1-on-30 (or 1-on-40) public education sector can't provide. Even if it claims to be 1-on-25-with-smaller-groups-possible. It's just not likely that there are enough good teachers to go around.

If you are good at providing the extras that cost you nothing financially (attention, encouragement, patient understanding, a sound basis for future learning) then people will pay you enough per hour to make it worthwhile.

The general principles are the same. Whether you're an undertaker or a tutor or a lawyer, you can be a better service provider and earn more per hour or per case, even in these hard times. More importantly, you are helping to build a better world and a brighter future.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Quality Awards (Part I): Unwise and Misplaced

A lot of young people I've been meeting these days (and some older ones) seem totally confused by what one of them referred to as the 'SQuAre Award'. That's just the local manifestation of the typical business quality award conferred by some local agency on some local business which has shown a high level of self-defined excellence.

What? No! Really? What do I mean by 'self-defined excellence'?

What I mean is that the organisation to be assessed for such an award has to define what its key performance indicators (KPIs) are and show that its principles, planning and process (in that order) lead inexorably to high-level achievement. By 'high-level', we mean 'in comparison with competitors and also in an absolute sense' — but as asserted and defined by the organisation being appraised.

It's interesting, because as an insider I can testify as to the validity and reliability of such awards. Validity low, reliability high, would be a fair summary when applied to certain institutions. The problem is that such awards depend on three things, really. The three things are a) establishment of rules and compliance with those rules; b) establishment of incentives as a benchmark for approved excesses (or successes, or whatever is above the rule-established norm); and c) honesty in declaring the exact processes by which the rules are established, complied with, and related to incentives.

This was what was in my head when my Inbox beeped. I received an interesting and terribly relevant email from my friend the Exchemist. Exchemist and his wife are both high-class taxi-drivers (students of the roads) and brilliant at what they do. Exchemist hardly ever emails me; mostly it's a short message suggesting breakfast or lunch. The link that he sent to me was to a talk by Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom.

It boggled my mind to hear my ideas so much more clearly and cleanly presented. The studies I'd been looking at, the ways I'd tried to describe the College of Wyverns in sensible form, all this had been summarised in a short talk by this sharp and kindly old man. He says things like, "A wise person learns to... serve other people and not manipulate other people."

Essentially, his entire talk (in 20 minutes) condensed for me the idea of how wisdom is more important than quality awards when it comes to the provision of a proper education. It is the common storehouse of humanity, unlike the business/management paradigms which are essentially ways to pillage that common storehouse for short-term gains and long-term ills.

Knowing what I know (and which I'll discuss in a subsequent post), I wouldn't say a school with a fleet of quality awards was necessarily a better school. I have produced (and helped to produce) documents which allow a school to receive such awards, and I know how much of such stuff is real and how much is window-dressing. As Umberto Eco once described it in 1975, humans quite often have 'faith in fakes'. It makes them happy, if not wise; this misplaced faith creates mediocrity and leads to a loss of gifts through disuse and misuse.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lucid Dreaming

Last night was very tiring. Or at least, the dreaming part of it. It was a rather 1970s or 1980s kind of episode, with rather Cold War-ish undertones and overtones. Everything was in steel blue and rust red and long featureless grey corridors.

To begin with, I was looking for a document purportedly signed by Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, the 4th Prime Minister of Malaysia. In that document, he had said something rather awful during his days in Cambridge. (In real life, as far as I know, he was educated as a doctor in Singapore.) The whole balance of power in Southeast Asia was at stake.

Working with me was a fellow named Igor Kuznetsov. I don't know where I got that name from, but he's an historian, a sportsman or a doctor in real life. There are lots of people with that name, apparently.

Igor was a bit of a mad driver; we used a right-hand-drive American car of the big boxy kind that used to get beat up in action movies until they switched to blowing up Lamborghinis. The whole dream was spent running around chasing down this document which would have plunged the world into satellite warfare (or something equally apocalyptic).

There were bombs (and explosions), mortar rounds, car chases, big red buttons and glowing lights, computers, mayhem and a lot of spilt and flaming oil. The final scene had Dr Mahathir putting a garland around our (rather scorched) necks and congratulating us on preventing world domination by the Singapore Examination and Assessment Board.

I woke up rather amused. It's not often I dream and remember it; it's even rarer that my dreams are like action movies.


Monday, March 09, 2009

The 'Midnight' Scam

This is a little piece that's been on my mind (and on my notebook) for a while. I've called it the 'Midnight' scam when perhaps it should actually be called the 'Memory' scam.

I'm sure that a lot of people have heard or seen the musical CATS before; it's one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's greatest hits. The songs in that musical are taken from T S Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. All of them have their genesis in that most peculiar book, except for one. The odd one out is the song 'Memory', which is actually a terribly cut-and-pasted revamp of one of Eliot's other poems, 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night', from Prufrock and Other Observations, a terribly angsty collection about unrequited love and entropy.

The original poems take you through a kaleidoscope of sad lives, through the hours of the day, to midnight and beyond. It is a very depressing collection, but it contains some of Eliot's best images and lines.

I wonder why they purloined this particular poem for the musical. The two are completely different: the poem is mystical, takes us from midnight to four in the morning, and leaves us hanging at knifepoint (to mix a metaphor somewhat); the song is fairly catchy and designed for someone like Elaine Paige to yowl through. I can only conclude that the song was grafted in to give her something to do while she was standing in for Judi Dench.

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My agent in place showed me the document. Like Sauron's Ring, it had been forged to confound the complacent Lords of the West and create dominion over the thinking races. I read through the whole thing.

There was little new. Since the original document had been forged and the original tapestries designed, nothing much had changed. It was as if the new regime was just parroting the masterwork of the old.

I found it amusing. I asked Mustache about it. He said, "Frankly, that is not within our purview. If a prince chooses to administer his city in such a way, that is up to him. He will not earn respect for it, but he will receive the award for his diligence."

This I found hilarious. And also a little sad.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Green Eggs and Red Monoliths

I had a most curious dream last night. I dreamt that the First and a few of their departed mentors were building a huge monolith out of a strange mixture of red-bean ice cream and strawberry gelato. Everywhere there were banners saying things like, "Beware The Pinko Scum!" and "Better Red Than Dead!" and "Chill In, Chill Out!"

In the midst of the purposeful chaos were people like Trivandrum and Green Eggs. What was really interesting was that the latter was setting up chess boards, making cryptic comments about the Sicilian Defence throughout and playing multiple games with me. The former kept spraying water all over an ominously threatening cage made from bars of ice. The empty cage had a little hand-lettered wooden sign next to it, saying, "Wild Yak, Do Not Feed Gratuitously."

There was an accidental historian wandering by. He muttered randomly to people he met and to pillars (of which the area had an inordinate number), "My initials are YW and not WY! I have no X anywhere!" He had a few confederates with him, who were plotting the overthrow of the one-party state.

Lastly, there were two tall, thin subcontinentals. They had a placard saying, "From the Little Green Spot, not the Big Black Hole." One was dressed in spotless white uniform with medals all over it. The other one was dressed in spotless red uniform with trophies all over it. He was carrying a shield that said '1886' in huge golden numbers, but had a truly diabolical image in the centre. This one had "Gunning For You" in the middle.

It was the last image that made me wake up gasping. I've never seen my former CEO wielding a trident and brandishing a forked tail before.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

The One-Bookie Leader (Coda): Intellectual Descent

On re-reading the last few posts, I realised that I mentioned one loose end which I have not yet tied off. What kind of person mentors a future monobibliarch (or One-Bookie Leader)?

The sad thing is that as far as I can tell, the mentor of a future monobibliarch (FUMBA) is normally an innocent professional educator. The ones I've met are innocent in the sense that they are non-toxic (that's what 'innocent' means in Latin). They thought they were trying their best, and in at least 95% of the time, those they mentored turned out right. The main problem, as I see it is that they produce another 5% who are even greater monsters than the average monster.

This is the penalty for selfless endeavour in a fallen world. The thing is that if you are a particularly intelligent person who doesn't mind who you teach stuff to, there will always be a small percentage who will take what you teach, turn it to some less-than-benign purpose, laugh at you, and then deny that you ever taught them anything of consequence.

I think that if you're a FUMBA mentor, you should thank God for small mercies. The fact that he will deny your teaching lets you off the hook because nobody will blame you for being part of the MBA's intellectual journey. You will not have to live with, "You taught Hitler how to paint, how come he turned out the way he did? Did you teach him to paint with human blood and agony?"

I am sure that is how Aristotle felt when he taught Alexander the Great about the 'Golden Mean' and was later told that the fellow had gone and conquered the world just to spread Aristotelian thinking and other aspects of Greek culture. So take heart, FUMBA mentor, you are in good company. The intellectual antecedents of an MBA, the line of his intellectual descent, all this will be purged from the files and reviled in public so that the MBA can go on with his one-track cognitive cycle.

I once had the privilege of dealing with every single one of a certain One-Bookie Leader's mentors. For more than 40 years, I have known his supervisor, his mentor, the man who gave him his big opportunity, the man who tried to teach him by role-modeling... I knew them all. And you know what? In each case, I got the same response: "He's smart, but he has no principles, he's very ungrateful to those who taught him, he doesn't value other people and his very suspicious of anyone who doesn't repeatedly prove his loyalty to whatever new idea he has. He once said he doesn't even trust his wife, in public."

Well, that ends my sequence on the OBL, or MBA, or whatever you call this kind of person. It's an interesting study; expanded to 50 pages, it won't compete with Who Moved My Cheese? or The Iceberg Is Melting!. I wonder if I could give it a catchy slogan-like title and con the man into adopting it as his credo for the year though... Heh.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

The One-Bookie Leader (Part III): Right Makes Might

To wrap up this entertaining diversion on the Monobibliarch (the OBL of legend, or One-Track Cogitator), we must take a look at the kind of sloganeering or one-sentence-reductionism that has been indulged in by such creatures. It is educational, sometimes entertaining, but always a warning for us to heed...

In the beginning was "Arbeit macht frei", apparently related to the mounting of striking eagle statues to keep watch over prisoners the inhabitants of the gulag workplace (although it must be said that hundreds will attest that the Leader in question used the term 'concentration camp' proudly, frequently and with brio). This slogan, well... least said, soonest mended. I refer you to a link that may be of use.

This was not the only familiar slogan to those of us who wondered what was going on in the once-hallowed corridors of the academic gulag workplace. Occasionally, we thought we heard "Jedem das Seine" instead. Or maybe it was "Recht macht Macht" or something like that. Oddly enough, the name that came to mind for most of us was Iosif Vissarionovich, which seemed quite counter-intuitive.

The problem is of course that OBLs in general have a rather unfortunate way with words. Not having any of their own, they tend to pluck lines out of context and 'reveal' them to the populace as veins of gold and banners of light. In fact, he of the 'concentration camp' was prone to get upset when corrected at all, which made some of his utterances rather painful to most civilised people.

The problem is a holistic one in a certain sense. Given a slogan or vision, OBLs in general tend to make everything line up to suit them, even if inappropriate. To 'soar on wings like eagles' becomes to 'strike like an eagle' and eventually degenerates into apocryphal tales and symbolic hodgepodges about eagles. Eventually, without intending it, the OBL may think of himself as an OBerstLeutnant and then the commander of some holocaustic education establishment.

It is sad. But he has the right, and hence the might. And so we have to let it go on. The most important thing is to not become like that ourselves.

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The One-Bookie Leader (Part II): Timing the Tables

It is a fascinating thing to be watching the Monobibliarch (or 'One-Bookie Leader) in action. This is because most of us seldom see a reasonably bright person enslaved totally by dedication to slogans and quick-fix pseudointellectual writings. In my previous post, I mentioned some signs by which you can tell if you are watching an OBL in action.

Here is one obvious corollary sign: the Monobibliarch cannot see when his thoughts contradict other thoughts in his head, since he has by nature a one-track mind. Quite often, when presented with a multifaceted situation, he can only grasp it when it is reduced to a single idea (e.g. 'make more money', or 'assign more periods', or 'holistic education'). I present to you a couple of tableaux from my extensive past experience with such a person.

Situation 1: OBL says, "I want you to make sure that there is a gap of at least two days between PE lessons for each class. Should be no problem, since we have five days to work with, right?" Of course there was no problem, so a beautiful timetable was created. Then I get summoned downstairs. "Why are all PE teachers free on Wednesday?" Well, I must admit I was totally flabbergasted by that question. So flabbergasted that I actually replied (probably a mistake), "Errm, if you have PE lessons on Wednesday, then you can't have any more PE lessons for those classes except on Sunday and/or Saturday." Dead silence. You could see the gears whirring and getting stuck.

Situation 2: OBL says, "Make sure that every department gets as many lessons as they want. Every student should have one break a day, normally recess is at 10 am." Some computational exertion later, every student group has a break. The problem is that some groups have days that start at 7.30 am and go on to 4.40 pm. And they only have ONE break around 10 am... OBL's solution is, "Make the day longer so we can squeeze in another break somewhere." Haha, I remember increasing the length of the day several times. I still have the statistics and data to prove it. I am pretty sure nobody needed so many hours of lessons (and sometimes, non-lessons).

The problem of course is that things like integrated programmes (and real attempts at holistic education) cannot be simplified to a single line without looking rather threadbare and awkward. It's like those people who say, "God is love," and stop there without anything else. The worst part is that things like OBLs can't see it and get rather upset if you imply they are not seeing something. That does lead to the idea that you can detect an OBL by his aversion to chess (or his inability to play it). He will stick to one line regardless of consequences, then switch to another and forget the first altogether.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

The One-Bookie Leader (Part I): Defining the State

In my time analysing leadership styles, I've come across the usual papers and books on leadership. Inspirational, motivational, service-based, values-based, innovative, creative, flexible, authoritative, and so on (and on, and on).

It strikes me however that modern leadership has seldom been placed in an informational context within the matrix of history. What I mean by this is that leadership is assumed to be a quality borne and bred entirely within the individual; it is seldom a case of looking at that individual's intellectual context and antecedents, his sources and his journey towards understanding.

Rather, we look at the person and say, "Oh, he has this and this and this, let's compare and contrast with what others have, let's figure out what he does with it and how he does it." We don't consider how he got that way, not in the sense of general biographical influences, but in the sense of bibliographical and informational influences. Who taught him? Who mentored him? What exactly was transferred and transacted? How did he respond to these people? What books did he read? What did he get from those books?

In the parts of world we consider to be Westernised and Christianised, many of these leaders will say that the Bible has been a great influence on them. But on pressing them further, it's hard to discern any intellectual relationship or engagement. They will say it's a spiritual relationship, and not an intellectual one; then they will start talking about 'holism'. In this area, they intend 'holism' to mean, "If you focus on the intellectual, you are not holistic, because I am anything but intellectual and I'm proud of it. There are so many things besides the intellectual! Let's look at everything else!"

Out of their own mouths... if they were truly holistic, they would realise the intellectual relationship or engagement is as much part of the process as anything else. Why are they differentiating between emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical etc if they are so keen on 'holistic'? They probably mean 'prismatic' or 'wide-spectrum': to them, 'holistic' really means 'shotgun' — a wide spread of perspectives and approaches, selected for range rather than for wholeness.

And so, in this age, we come to the 'One-Bookie Leader'.

Some people are like that. A book hits the NYT non-fiction bestseller list, and its author becomes a management guru (or is labelled as such). Your friendly local leader grabs the book. He pounds his desk, rostrum, or pulpit with it, preaches his own summary of it, and attempts to make everyone buy his idea of the month (or quarter, or year).

The odd thing is that it is ONE book at a time. The man has no ability to synthesize, and when he switches books, it's a case of, "The old has passed away, behold — the new has come!" and not in the way it was meant to be. It is a case of new wine in old bottles, the bottle having long ago hardened to a state in which it cannot hold more than one idea without cracking up.

This is the reason that such people are easily hooked on themes (because this fits the 'One Book' system) or the idea of 'holistic' (because you can then dump your one idea in and say it encompasses everything). Any attempt to make them see in more than one dimension (or more than one point in that dimension, in extreme cases) is doomed to fail.

Beware of the smarter ones though. They will pretend to consider other viewpoints or dimensions, and they may even sound reasonable about 15% of the time. Don't let this fool you. The One-Bookie Leaders of this world have only one thing on their mind. And if you challenge that one thing (for example, by pointing out that the previous book and the present book don't agree), they will say that you aren't focussed enough or not flexible enough.

The concept of the One-Bookie Leader is, as far as I can tell, a novel one. I am sure that when I publish it, some people will not be happy to think that I have been writing about them. The truth, of course, is that there are many such people, not just one. It's the sad fact of our Book-of-the-Month existence; you could read at least six books a month if you really wanted; some people just prefer one a year.

What's important to us is that we learn to recognize the symptoms of Monobibliarchism (a fancy Greek neologism which I have just coined for 'One-Bookie Leader Syndrome'). Such a leader spouts the same catchphrase for months, making use of whatever influence and time he has to say the same thing again and again. It is sometimes painfully obvious which book it is, or which guru wrote it. And often, the man will not even credit his source, since it has become holistically integrated into his psyche.

Beware the monobibliarch. What he really needs is a powerful librarian to help him out.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Academic Humour

Q. What do you call a student who copies another's work without citation and submits it as his own?

A. An entrepreneur.

Q. What do you call a teacher who copies another's work without citation and submits it as his own?

A. A head of department.

Q. What do you call an education officer who copies many people's work without citation and submits it as his own?

A. A principal.

Q. What do you call a student who cites somebody's work without reading it first?

A. A moron (well, that's what a certain biology teacher I know would say).

Q. What do you call a teacher who cites somebody's work without reading it first?

A. An educational researcher.

Q. What do you call an education officer who cites many people's works without reading them first?

A. Same principal, but higher on the superscale.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Belief (in) Systems (Part III): East vs West

Yes, I'm still going on and on about belief systems. But there is method in this madness, or this method would be madness...

For a long while, some people I've met have had this slightly absurd idea that there is an insurmountable East-West divide. The idea of an East-West divide is actually a British idea, from the same megacorporate constitutional monarchy that gave us the phrases 'East India Company' and 'East of Suez', that rewrote Latin and Greek to suit their own labial and lingual incompetence, that created the idea of currency, and that set up the first global empire.

It was Kipling who wrote that, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet..." and then contradicted himself in the next three lines and the rest of the poem. It is easy to see the obviousness of the misdirection when you know what you are looking for.

Take for example the idea of 'Western Religions' and 'Eastern Religions'. It's ludicrous to think that there is any such divide. There are no major Western religions at all, nothing remotely close to the great arc of religions beginning on the west coast of Asia (Palestine, on the Mediterranean) and ending on the east coast of Asia (in China). You would be going from the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity (about 2.1 billion adherents) and Islam (about 1.8 billion adherents, from Arabia) — to Zoroastrianism (the world's first revelation-based religion, from Persia), and then Hinduism (about a billion more, from India), before going on to Buddhism (about 500 million, starting in India and heading north and east), Confucianism and Taoism. Together, this is about 80% of the world's population.

The majority of the remainder are secular humanists, who claim not to be religionists at all, animists, and suchlike. If you can find a major present-day religion with more than a million adherents that has an origin in any other continent besides Asia, and a community in every other continent besides that of its origin, it will be a minor miracle. I suppose it's possible, if you count some faiths that began as local offshoots of one of those I've already mentioned, but it isn't the norm.

In fact, one is tempted to think that Asian religions are more enduring than most, and that if there is such a thing as Western religion, it consists of modifying Eastern religions by about 5%, Western variants of a global practice such as totemism or shamanism, or some technology-based idea that has the fervent impulse of a religion. If anything, deliberately irreligious philosophy seems to be a hallmark of the European or American 'Western World'.

Besides religion, I think Eastern and Western values go beyond generalities. Universal human values are universal; if they're not universal then they are religious, and that leads us back to the argument that all modern religions are Asian in origin.

Perhaps the reason that East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, is that East and West are a false dichotomy, something thought of by the Brits to divide the world conveniently, just as the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world for the Spanish and Portuguese.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Belief (in) Systems (Part II)

This is a sort of thematic sequel to a previous post, in which I wrote about some fundamental underpinnings of worldviews. In that post, it turned out that the punishment-reward or scoring sub-system tended to trump the altruism sub-system in human individuals. Some people think that is natural (it's like the concept of 'original sin') and some people think it is unfortunate (it's like evolutionary biology going up a dead end).

The world today is messy, but the thing about history is that we could have seen it coming a long time ago. Right now, there are five key belief systems out of the thousands of belief systems there are. These five key belief systems may not be important to everyone, but their sheer size (in terms of numbers of adherents), ubiquity (in terms of geographic spread) and significance (in terms of people and policies affected by adherents) make them worth looking at.

The five belief systems I am referring to are (in alphabetical order): Capitalism, Christianity, Globalism, Racism and Secular Humanism. It is quite possible for a person to believe in more than one of these, but it is unlikely that any given person will believe in all five, especially since some of them don't 'play nice' with the others.

Why are these five systems so important?

Capitalism, to begin with, is the child of that long and painful era known as the industrial revolution. Descended from the merchant cartels of the 16th century, it eventually became the guiding economic philosophy of empire-building. Its assertions that people should strive to control the means of production individually, in an environment of free choice (the 'market') and thus create prosperity for all, have been tested and sometimes found wanting. Nevertheless, it has been the dominant economic belief system of the 20th and 21st centuries so far.

Christianity, an eastern religion which sprouted from Palestine about 2000 years ago, is now the world's most widespread and influential religion. Monotheistic and proselytizing, it has butted heads with almost every other belief system on the planet. Although Jesus and his followers seemed somewhat socialist (if not communist) in ideology, for some reason American Republicans seem to conflate extreme capitalism with empire-building AND fundamentalist Protestant (there's an oxymoron for you) Christianity. It blows the mind.

Globalism seems like a modern trend. But it is a venerable belief system espoused by most ancient civilisations; it believes in things like the unity of the world under a single integrated programme (philosophy, creed, religion, whatever) in which individual cultures and ideas can flourish. The Pax Romana and Pax Britannica were pretty supportive of this ideal; the Pax Americana not so much. The United Nations and other international umbrella organisations are all children of this belief system.

Racism, unfortunately, is the extreme and somewhat common response to the Other. In racism, a group of humans believes that by virtue of their narrowly-defined genetic pool, they are superior to all others. This genetic virtue, already a somewhat dubious construct, is supposed to provide intellectual, moral, and even aesthetic superiority. It often co-opts other belief systems to establish itself, and has been shown to have a neurobiological origin in terms of the way humans differentiate between like and not-like.

Secular Humanism (as opposed to other kinds of humanism) is a creed which believes that a rational human, free of all supernatural influences and ideas, is a happy human. Although there are many flavours of secular humanism, the core ideals are a) secular—i.e. without religions or non-rational constructs, and b) humanist—putting human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness first. It is an ancient creed, often veiled by the fact that earlier societies tended to pay at least lip-service to the idea of the divine, and to frown on those who didn't.

All five of these will crop up as the shadowy or not-so-shadowy influences behind almost every piece of news you encounter, in every medium of communication. I think it is not possible to find any news source which isn't influenced by at least one of these forces. This means that an educated human must at least be able to state and understand the basics of these belief systems, whether he or she (or zie) believes in them or not.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

St David's Day (2009) Retrospective Prospects

It's St David's Day again, a day which ought to have some significance for non-green-eyed heifers and suchlike. It is a day that never fails to evoke mixed feelings from me. I remember writing, two years ago, about how it took more than 50 years to invite one man to speak at the St David's Day service, simply because he was not a meritocrat. It was the first time I'd thought specifically about posting on that particular day.

In retrospect, it was my next St David's Day post which might have convinced certain powers that I ought to leave as soon as possible. Then again, there is nothing harmful in what I wrote then, or in the next two weeks or so leading to the end of my contract.

Sometimes, it is in looking backwards that we end up looking forwards. We don't want to always be looking backwards, and sometimes faith insists that we do not at all. But occasionally, the broad sweep of history requires a firm grasp of the broom handle that precedes the brush.

Here is what I see. I see an institution of learning that is failing to learn anything. It is in many ways a lot like the Republican presidency of recent to-be-forgotten-ness, full of old and dangerous ideas possessed by an alarming and unnatural vitality and executed by people somewhat lacking in either introspection or scruples. I am quite sure that the majority of the present administration in that institution would have voted for John McCain over Barack Obama anytime. It is obvious why, just as it is equally obvious that they are capable enough to drag out the years as some sort of triumph when they are actually undermining the principles of the founders.

We can but look forward and think about the prospects; after our retrospective look, regretful and slightly melancholic, we are assured that it's more likely that the best is yet to be, but first the worst must come.

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