Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Taint

It was during the onset of winter just past. Sir Blugo the Archivist was distinctly worried. He was being summoned by the Grand Inquisitor (or High Panjandrum, these titles meant little to him) for no reason that he could think of at all. He negotiated the deadly fish tanks and ominous trophy cabinets as he entered the inmost Sanctum of the Inquisition.


He was commanded the Grand Inquisitor himself. The black leather furnishings mocked the stolid knight. All around, the appurtenances of the Inquisition hung, symbols of the many ways in which truth could be elicited ab initio. The signs of authority and certificates of high-stress interrogation littered the walls.

In the year to come, you shall receive no portion of the tithe paid to this Order, as discipline for your soul, on which the Highest have mercy. You are an officer of the lowest quality and ability. Dismissed.

Sir Blugo was outraged. It was an unexpected and unjust attack. But he was calm, and composed, and most unlike the man he used to be.

My lord, I beg you to show me in what sense and to what extent I have shirked my calling and demonstrated a lack of quality and ability. Do this that I might learn, and grow.

It has come to Our attention that you have been seen in the company of our former Sir Wolff, he of the Great Taint. He was untrue to his calling, and a knight of low quality, so low that we stripped him of it altogether. Accordingly, you must be also tainted, and hence undeserving. We command you not to associate with such miscreants in future, and perhaps you will yet be a good knight.

Just that, my lord? Did I not teach the apprentices archival skills satisfactorily and without complaint? Have I not given a good account of myself in my attachment to the Knights Hospitaller?

No. No. No. There is more, and the apprentices were badly treated by you, and the Master of the Knights Hospitaller has submitted bad reports about you.

My lord! Do the apprentices say so? Did the Master indeed say such things? What more is there?

What the apprentices say is not the issue; it is well known that you are a rude varlet with a poisonous tongue. The Master confessed with such honeyed alacrity that we have given him a seat at the Middle Table and gold for his pains. And there is more. It is alleged that you consort with demons, that you offer papers to be read, that you teach falsely about the nature of the Inquisition and the deeds of State.

This is not true, my lord. Except for the papers, which indeed I have offered to be read, and they were approved by the Lords Intellectual of the realm. Where is the evidence that condemns me?

We need no evidence. The Inquisition is the Hand of the Divine Law. Words are carried to Us on the wind, and over the ether come the confidences of the damned. You are dismissed! Or shall We do this as We did to Sir Wolff?

It was with a heavy heart that the Archivist descended to his own deep cell. Three months later, he would leave the Order forever.

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A Need to Believe

People need to believe that order can be glimpsed in the chaos of events, begins one infamous question discussed elsewhere in this blog. At a time like this, with a pandemic starting and the concurrent panic setting in, it's a pretty relevant statement.

Already, I've got people telling me it is a sign of the end, of the apocalypse, of anthropogenic catastrophe. Meanwhile, people track disease vectors, do the biochemistry and virology, figure out solutions. Other people blame high pig-farming density, leading to a faster rate of viral mutation. Everyone has become slightly hypochondriac; then again, maybe they're really ill.

It's easier to believe that things are knowable and hence controllable or predictable. If I were to assert that this is really all random, and that viruses only appear to spread by obvious means such as respiratory droplets (e.g. sneezing and coughing in crowded places) but actually are spread by random and unpredictable plague daemons, then I'd be pilloried as some sort of heretic by most people. Which is odd, of course, because science admits no religion and hence no heresies.

The bottom line is that science is the faith that is most rational in terms of its apparent capacity to predict the course of events in the world around us, past, present and future. It's the predictive capacity that's important. Without that, scientists are merely like children who observe a spattering of paint and see the image of Isaac Newton's death mask in it. But to predict successfully that the next spattering will show Charles Darwin, ah, that is science (or at least, very advanced sorcery).

I've always respected the late Arthur C Clarke as a philosopher of science. Two of his most profound ideas are these: a) sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic; b) intelligence has not been shown to have any survival value. The corollary to the first is of course that sufficiently basic magic should be indistinguishable from science; to the second, that the capacity to analyse, rationalise and predict events will not save us from the final consequences of those events.

The thing is that at some point, we all have faith. The question, "What do you believe is true though you cannot prove it?" drew many wonderful responses from leading scientists and skeptics. It also generated much debate. You will find that most of the deepest underpinnings of modern rationalist thought fall heavily into this category, and the strongest champions of modern rationalism have had no choice (being rational) but to admit it.

The funny thing is that you need faith to believe in reason; you do not need reason to believe in faith. Which is dependent and which is independent? Food for thought, in times like this and at all times.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Qualitative and Quantitative

Recently, I've had to speak with various students on the subject of what 'qualitative' and 'quantitative' mean, in the sense of qualitative or quantitative data or research methodology. It's interesting how oversimplication (the subject of my previous post) creeps in.

For instance, one of them said, "Quantitative means you can put a number on it."

I replied, "Well, you can put a number on a marathon runner and it doesn't make her quantitative data. You can have a school survey with ratings on items (a 'Likert scale') from 1 to 5, and that doesn't make it quantitative research either."

Quantitative data is actually data that can be gathered and placed within a scale of measurement, and can legitimately be subjected to mathematical operations. Sometimes this definition works to confuse people.

Take for example the idea of 'an average age'. Suppose that we ask your class how old they are in years (number of birthdays passed), and your class replies "17!" (40%) and "18!" (60%). Does this mean that the average age of the class is (0.4 x 17 + 0.6 x 18) = 17.6? That would make the average member of the class roughly 17 years, 7 months and 6 days old. What do you think? I suspect not. But the problem here is one of insufficient resolution and definition, not one of illegitimacy. Age can indeed be used as quantitative data in some contexts.

Qualitative data is actually data that specifies a kind or a class of property without being subject to scalar manipulation. It cannot be subjected legitimately to mathematical operation, although it is possible to try. This also confuses people.

Take for example the idea of 'colour'. Suppose we ask your class what their favourite colours are, and your class replies "Blue!" (50%) and "Gold!" (50%). Does this mean that the average favourite colour is metallic green? What do you think? I suspect not. The problem here is not numerical, but conceptual. You can't find an 'average' of favourite colours, since the average is unlikely to be anybody's favourite in this context.

The thing about this colour example is that it can be treated both quantitatively and qualitatively, with different kinds of results. A person can say, "My favourite colour can be expressed as that produced by a photon source in which all the radiation has the wavelength 530 nm. It's a kind of green."

Well, the wavelength is a manipulatable scalar, as is the intensity of the source and so on. But the greenness of the colour is what we call an example of the qualia, those sensory occurrences which we find difficult to think about, and which are almost by definition the basis of qualitative data. It is extremely unlikely that any two people will see exactly the same shade of green when exposed to a light source at 530 nm. This can be due to biology, biography or biasedness of some unknown kind. In fact, it is even less likely that the colour will affect them in exactly the same way.

This is why the methodologies that handle quantitative and qualitative data tend to be, respectively, mathematical and social. The former manipulates numbers of the kind that can be manipulated (vectors, scalars, cardinals — but not most ordinals); if any explanatory power resides in numbers, it is of the statistical and correlative kind. The latter tries to come to humanly acceptable consensus on what qualia could possibly have been observed and what kinds of explanation would be sufficient to account for them.

Of course, books have been written on guidelines for research in both kinds of methodologies and their deployment in many different areas of knowledge. I myself used mixed methodologies when doing my 1999 Master's thesis on Why Teachers Quit Teacher Development in Atlantis. Most of it was qualitative though; qualitative data is a lot better at explaining social phenomena and general insanity than quantitative data is. You can find my research online if you know where to look. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009


In my time as a Theory of Knowledge teacher and supervisor, I've noticed an interesting trait in the local population. Students here love the security of absolute answers.

If you tell them that a discussion can end with multiple supported viewpoints, they always want to know 'which one is best', or 'which one is right'. If you say, "This is a paradox and hence has no real answers," they will be most unhappy and want to know why such things exist. If the question asks them to evaluate A and B in terms of X and Y, you will get some sort of ranking table and a conclusion which might as well read 'four legs good, two legs bad'.

This is an odd artifact of reason which I can only conclude is cultural. Empirically, these students see the same things that we do: they see that human variety is manifold and that there are a myriad viewpoints for most things. They struggle with faith and reason, they struggle with the opportunity cost of going to a concert vs going shopping or studying for a test. They KNOW there are few easy answers, but yet they hope for them.

I've found that by overwhelming consensus, the majority of them like math. It's good stuff; the answers always seem to come out either right or wrong. You can become a professional math problem-solver, almost. It is straightforward stuff; just do a thousand or two thousand problems a month and you're good.

What makes them like this? I suspect it is the sheer pressure of needing to get things right. Their world claims to be a meritocratic society, but all the merits are a) selected by those who were selected to begin with, and b) numerical in origin, type and quality. That is why the certainty of ranking and hierarchy, of numerical value and quantitative profit, of mechanical logic and economic outcome, appeals to them so much.

But it need not be so! Surely?

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There's a certain pleasure to be engaged in constructive work with fellow professionals. It's perhaps one of the oft-remembered joys of school life, whether as a teacher or a student.

'Constructive', of course, does not necessarily imply a lack of fun. I think that the associative constellation of meaning (the 'tag cloud' if you like) that surrounds words can sometimes be full of nonsense. 'Constructive', to me, implies something that at the literal end of the day will give you a sense of accomplishment, a sense of having cobbled together something that makes sense.

Recently, I suppose I would characterize my workgroups more or less as 'the little TOK classes', 'the Preservation of Things That Need Preservation', 'the Gaming Group' and 'Dad, Bro and Me'. Every time I come out of one of those sessions, there is that sense of having constructed something that has significance and meaning.

The one that is most poignant to me on reflection is that last. It's really an unusual feeling to realise that Dad (soon to be 70) and Bro (soon to be 40) are the fellow professionals in your workgroup. You toss ideas around. You realise that you get sharp advice from both, but Dad is a lot better at making it sting less. And you learn from it, and refine it... and everyone makes money!

Haha, I was kidding about the last part.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

A Theory of Theory of Knowledge

It is interesting to read what concerned citizens (of the United States, which sometimes seems to have a monopoly on those) have to say about the IBDP curriculum from another perspective. Over the last few weeks, I've had a good look at the website known as The Truth About IB. It's interesting in particular because it clearly and openly declares its intent, and then attempts to defend that intent through various means.

Here is what they have to say about the TOK curriculum. In particular, this is an interesting piece of rhetoric, which I shall quote in full (with one tiny spelling correction, if you can spot it) below:

According to the IBO website, "IB puts everything in perspective". But WHOSE perspective? That is the question. Delivered from the perspective of secular humanists, is it fair to ask minors to put aside religious and family values and rely solely upon the opinions of philosophical atheists such as Nietszche and Kant to determine what correct knowledge is?

I'm not sure whether an objective reader would characterize this as a fair position concerning the IBDP TOK curriculum. I am quite certain that asking people to justify their religious and family values is not part of the TOK curriculum, but I think it is a valuable exercise. After all, the Good Book itself is full of injunctions to give defence of the faith; Paul himself uses Hellenic logic to argue his position, but says in Romans 14:22, "Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth."

Having taught TOK myself, I am quite certain that a fair account must also include the fact that we argue about the limits to science and all other human areas of knowledge; that we discuss the ways of knowing and their limitations; that we often conclude faith to be a matter not for logic and yet for belief. The idea of TOK is explicitly not to fall into the fallacies of postmodernism, but to at least have a grasp of the kind of issues that can be justified with the tools at hand.

TOK, in the final analysis, is about learning to argue positions, and what the limits of those positions are. It has not persuaded me to lose my faith; rather, I do not see how it can weaken my faith. And as for it being fair to ask minors to rely solely upon the opinions of anybody, I have two points to make: 1) "Let no man despise your youth, but be thou an example...", says Paul to Timothy; 2) have you known any minor of IBDP candidate age to rely solely on the opinions of anybody?

The reason that TOK is at the core of the IBDP is a simple one. It is a healthy control over the need to respond to the teachings of this world with uncritical acceptance. That is why it must be central. It tells us to evaluate philosophy and philosophers not as the idols and touchstones of knowledgeism, but on their own merits and failings. If anyone teaches TOK in any other way, then it's probably not being done right. I mean, Nietzsche and Kant, forsooth!

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Flu in a Time of Globalism

The shrinking of the world is not a good thing always. As the circle of our horizon seems to close in on us, as it takes less and less time to go from place to place, so also does the distance between threat and target, between danger and death.

Mutant H1N1 swine flu has now reached Canada, France, Hong Kong, Israel, New Zealand, and Spain.

I suspect everyone will be (if they're not already) at Yellow Alert by the end of today. To quote from CNN, "Keiji Fukuda, the assistant director-general of the World Health Organization, called the outbreak "serious" on Sunday. Researchers are still trying to determine how easily the virus is transmitted person to person and it's too early to predict whether there will be a mild or serious pandemic, said Fukuda."

Yeah, your choices are between a mild pandemic and a serious one. Way to go, mutant. You'll go far.

At the same time, what intrigues me is how long authorities take to decide this is bad. I'm waiting to see when Singapore Atlantis caves in. It's a sort of globalism benchmark, being an alpha world city and all that. The decision to declare an emergency status is a bit like a move in a game of chicken. If you chicken out too early, you might lose things like tourism revenues. If you chicken out too late, you might lose things like lives. Heh.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

When Pigs Fly

I will always remember one of the rhymes of my childhood, picked up in what used to be a green and pleasant land (and still is, in parts):

Little birdie flying high
Dropped a message from the sky
Angry farmer wiping eye
Thanking God that cows don't fly

But cows jump over the moon; they don't fly. Rather, we often talk about 'when pigs fly', and we talk of cabbages and kings while thinking of whether pigs have wings. Unfortunately, as events of the last 48 hours have unfolded in all their diseased authority, it's not about whether pigs fly, but whither swine flu.

The basic facts can be found at the CDC website and the WHO website. Swine flu is an old disease; it has been known for almost a century. But the virus that has manifested in Mexico City, killed nearly a hundred people and migrated for parts unknown, ah, well... that H1N1 virus is a mutant which seems to have combined avian, pig and human flu viruses in one multipotent package that won't do humans, pigs, birds (or pigs with wings) any good.

Think of it this way: it is like the SARS virus of recent memory, with one difference. That difference is a significant one. SARS victims who were infectious could be detected by their high fevers. The new mutant makes you infectious possibly before anything can be detected. It also seems to spread just as quickly.

Even as I type this, I am conscious that confirmed cases have now spread from Mexico into their large and internationally-connected northern neighbour. The United States now has confirmed and suspected cases from California in the West, to Kansas in the Midwest, Texas in the South and New York in the East. Sea to shining sea, indeed.

The genie is out of the bottle while the disease centres of the world (like failing lymph nodes or flailing neurons) attempt to play catch-up. It is obvious that since the virus first emerged in March, nobody knew how bad it would be. And now, suddenly, it is bad, and it is everywhere.

Maybe we're wrong and it will peter out under our careful and widespread measures. But maybe not. Maybe the huge reserves of Tamiflu™ and suchlike will indeed conquer all. But maybe not.

What is probably true is that somewhere, the gnomes of this world are attempting to figure out what the impact of this latest blow will be on the world's economies. Or the world economy. It won't be good.


Note: Some states have already gone to yellow emergency: screening at airports. The WHO has "agreed that the current situation constitutes a public health emergency of international concern". Heh.

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It's all about fragmenting personalities, and the things that we think dreams are made of — but which prove to be the we that are made of dreams that things think. All that went through my mind as I was filling in the 'Title' box for this post.

The link, of course, is Harlan Ellison's incredibly fertile imagination. In his short story 'Shatterday', Ellison imagines the way a man might come to terms with himself by elimination.

The days of the protagonist's week are Someday, Moansday, Duesday, Woundsday, Thornsday, Freeday and Shatterday. We know his life (as we see it) begins Someday, and by Shatterday everything is resolved. It is quite a work, although the other stories in Ellison's long and chequered history are often more potent.

Well, today is the end of a chronological week in which I did my part for various orchid species. As I've always wanted on my tombstone, "He tried his best."



Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire has got to be one of the funniest things around right now. It needs to be made into a DVD quick so that you can get all the juicy goodness in ONE package. For at the moment, it is YouTube which is hosting most of it. Probably illegally.

This show is all about a hero. And his kinky girlfriend. And his malfunctioning warlock other friend. And the big oafish Journey to the West kind of servant friend who hits the wrong people with his weapon. And so on. It is otherwise hard to describe, unless you like snorting food.

In other news, not so funny at all, there's been an outbreak of swine flu, this season's version of SARS. I remember writing this huge document on contagious disease protocols in a boarding school setting back in 2003. Somewhere out there, someone probably ought to be dusting it off and looking at it soon.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

One Day

One day, I will not have to water the strange hybrids that my brother has planted ever again. On that day, I will feel regret as well as relief. For they are indeed strange, and yet they are beautiful. It is as if one gazes upon something rare which does not quite fit in one's experience, but which is not ugly; one is drawn to it to verify or to falsify one's strange attraction, but one is able to do neither, and so one repeats the attempt. And again. And again.

It was the Hierophant who made me think of it. In H G Wells's The Strange Orchid or in Arthur Clarke's The Reluctant Orchid, the ghastly tropisms and odd consciousnesses of the plants in question have that sort of attraction. Orchids are the rare and terrifying keynote in the seminar of the plant kingdom.

I have one day more to go. If I never post again, you can refer to Wells (1894) or Clarke (1956) for clues. Good day.

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Hot Nights

Sweltering, the air bakes itself into a meringue around you, somehow dry but sticky given the slightest chance. It seems churlish, temperamental, maleficent. It is a Hot Night, one of those in which every few minutes brings a flash of heat that makes you wonder if menopausality is to be your fate.

And then the corner of your eye is tugged towards Seth Grahame-Smith's sublime effort. If 'prosaic' is to prose as 'poetic' is to poetry, then this man has ennobled the former and raised it to the realms of the latter.

Why all of that?

For the spawn of Grahame and of Smith hath wrought a mighty deed. He hath co-opted that doyenne of ancient chick-lit, Jane Austen, and created from her carrion a true classic in a Mary Shelley Frankenstein sense. He hath taken up his pen to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I do not speak in jest. It is classic. It is wondrous, and Bingley will never seem the same again to you.

Read it! The first paragraph alone is worth the price of admission.

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.

Glorious, glorious prose. Even in the hot and heavy dead of night, it glows.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Two Days

Well, we're almost there... I figure that if I have shifted something like 50 litres of water a day over a distance of about 50 metres, that makes it 2500 kg-metres. Since I have been lifting it against gravity, I have therefore burnt something like 25 kJ of energy. That's about 6 food calories, and one Oreo™ cookie would feed me back another 40-50 food calories anyway. ARGH.

Fortunately, I am an inefficient human being, and I therefore know that I have burnt a lot more than 25 kJ of personal energy. In fact, I am so inefficient that I have probably burnt a whole lot more than that. Yay, me. I can now go for dinner tonight and eat a lot with minimum stress and lots of joy.

I have also managed to spend enough time at the flat to put part of my library into functional order. That makes me happy, and if the Hierophant were there, I am sure he would have been happy too. The only problem is that the flat has NO coffee in it, unless you count those frozen beans which are a little useless without a grinder of some sort. Sigh.

In breaking news, I am about to embark on the writing of two new modules. Just to refresh everyone's memory, I recently finsihed writing modules on 'Belief Systems' and 'Humans and Other Species' for the new IGCSE subject, 'Global Perspectives'. I am about to begin on 'Water' and 'Conflict and Peace'. I wanted to do 'Law and Criminality', but that's off the agenda for now.

Life is good. My brain has worked very hard, and it is happy.

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Anonymous Seeds

In my recounting of the days, I realise that I cannot merely number them off as if they were racehorses. Rather, I must insert, here and there, like the raisins in a pudding, a few nuggets of immortal factuality. And so, here is one such.

The plants that I nurture, that I cultivate crudely in lieu of my missing sibling, are most peculiar in their reproductive process. The Orchidaceae (or 'plants that look like testicles') are particular in this respect; they spawn uncountable numbers of minuscule seeds, spore-like in appearance and almost spore-like in their proclivities.

But unlike the spore, that merely seeks water, the seed of the orchid seeks a fungus. Not just any fungus, but one into which in can enter into some sort of carnal connection. For the juxtaposition of orchid seed with mycorrhizal basidiomyceteous fungus will produce a plant, where the seed alone will not.

You see, Nature has played the poor orchid a sad little trick. The seeds of the testiculiform Orchidaceae do not contain endosperm, and hence have no fuel for their green fuse. And, as that bard of Wales once wrote:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer...

The sad orchid must perforce draw upon the vitality of the gross fungus to fuel its future endeavours and its incipient beauty. It is a partnership that one might think is forged in Hell, but no, no, it is forged in Nature, which is (I assure you most seriously) probably worse.

So what can we do to help the orchid along? Why, we can provide artificially natural seed-cultivating media. All it takes is an agar matrix, in which we suspend the sterile (oh, what irony) but tasty extracts of some fleshy sugar-fruit (papaya perhaps, or coconut, or banana, or peach), and voila, we have created that in which the seed can grow!

Poor anonymous seeds! But now, with the medium provided by the deaths of their distant relatives, they can thrive and blossom! And who knows, perhaps some day they too will have their own names, and their own faces...

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Three Days

Well, wielding a mighty five-litre watering can or two does wonders for the musculature in theory, but is hell on the aging citizen in practice. Not to mention the hose that I am sure has the resilient obstinacy of a boa constrictor minus the homicidal tendencies, this gardening business gives me an idea why Eden might not have been Paradise (actually, it wasn't anyway).

Last night's convos were alarming and wonderful. It was interesting to see people thinking about truth as an artifact rather than as an axiomatic and undeniable baseline for our existence. It was even more interesting to see the ways in which reality was being manipulated. As I incautiously let out, this group is one of the finest, most interesting and entertaining bunches of young people I have ever had the honour to teach.

I think in all my life, groups of four to five students have been plentiful, and I am grateful for that. But once in a while comes a group that, by some odd quirk of chemistry or biology or history or something, will forever etch themselves into your memory. You know who you are, I will not name names here. *grin*

Anyway, I've done five rounds of watering so far, with one more to come this evening. I hope the dendrobia and vandas and the lone oncidium in the corner and phaelanopses and all the others are happy. If anything, speaking to them (what am I doing, have I gone mad) is doing wonders for my Latin and some of my Greek.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Four Days

This is going to be an odd period for me. I am going to have to take care of horticultural duties for four days while my parents and my brother swan off to some distant corner of the world where the fauna and flora (by all accounts) are completely different from anywhere else in the world. Apparently, you can see what's left of the aurora australis there.

What duties are these?

Well, there's a complicated regimen involving automatic sprayers, manual spraying, about fifty varieties of orchids (some rare and some unique) — and it all takes place twice a day. In between, I shall sit around using my laptop and ordering my library. It's so true, that part about humans needing to believe that they can glimpse order in the chaos of events... something that I have had pounded into my brain by one particular young lady over the last few days... *grin*

So this morning, off I go with about 50 kg of books and assorted reading material to my home in the west and the home of my parents. Then I shall run around a lot and lose a lot of weight while madly spraying water all over the roots of orchids. May a thousand flowers bloom.

And if they don't, it's not going to be a pretty sight. Bwahahahahaha!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Heat-Oppressed Brain

The main gripe I have with the PowerBook on which I am typing this post is the heat level. In recent days, with ambient temperatures high even in reasonably well air-conditioned rooms, the machine just runs too hot. I suspect I am getting heatstroke in my keystrokes.

Worse, the aluminium frame is corroding. I've always had corrosive perspiration; this is one reason why I wear a watch with a titanium wristband. But the combination of pressure (wrists on machine) and temperature (hot machine) is enhancing the reaction rate. My sweat is dissolving my computer.

I don't know if Apple ever realised what would happen if you had an all-metal frame under such conditions. The titanium-coated machine helped, but it wasn't a single titanium block, and probably would have cost too much if it were. Aluminium, much as it is a reasonably tough metal (they use it to make airplane skins) just isn't titanium.

All that leaves me with this odd feeling that some good things just don't last as long as we might want them to.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

A Blue Ocean Strategy (Again)

It's interesting to see how some people have seized on Kim and Mauborgne's Blue Ocean Strategy to disguise their strategic flimsiness, enhance their fading looks, or baffle the outside world. Kim and Mauborgne are respectable researchers from INSEAD, and they have spent a lot of time looking at 150 case studies in retrospect.

As with any historical or psychohistorical research, it's possible to frame the past in a paradigm of our own choosing. That's why the Dark Ages never quite lost that sense of desolate misadventure even though they were never really dark. Of course, modern scholars try not to use that abused term.

The same thing seems to apply to Kim and Mauborgne. It is of course clear that a competitive approach accrues to the company (or state, or institution) which markets a product (or uses a process, or makes a tool) that nobody else does. It is equally clear that a 'blue ocean' — the conceptual zone (or area of knowledge, or way of knowing) in which one has no competitors — will one day turn red as multiple competitors appear.

So what is new? Well, the answer seems to be that you can publish old stories in 41 languages if you're from INSEAD and sell hundreds of millions of copies.

The problem, as I've said before (I think in two other posts), is that in this age of globalism, blue oceans are more like blue puddles. They turn muddy and then red in no time at all. But the heinous and subtle criminality of likening an educational institution to a company using a blue ocean strategy has serious consequences.

Why? Because if you run a school and say you are using a 'blue ocean strategy', it means that you are deliberately seeking to avoid competition and make profits from your monopoly. Anyone who has read the Kim & Mauborgne book would see that straight away. In some cases, we've come to accept that some institutions (like Harvard, for example) may indeed seem to want to become supreme players and thus suck even more capital out of their global 'neighbourhood'.

But only a vastly cynical person would run a high school with this kind of idea in mind, especially when one has already a superior brand. Rather, such an institution should go for self-sustaining excellence which doesn't come from doing the educational equivalent of manipulating dubious derivatives. Dressing up somebody else's wine in new bottles is not quite the same as a blue ocean strategy.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The English Opening

I've been playing chess again. Of late, my studies have led me into something called the English Opening. It's a deceptively quiet-looking opening, in which the White player plays an odd flank move and the Black player is then faced with a multitude of choices, each of which spawns its own alternate world of manoeuvre, threat and counter-threat.

There are historical analogies here, I suppose. English history is full of these quiet moves in the Great Game, in which the other player suddenly finds himself with too many alternatives, all of which seem alternately promising and dangerous.

The other day, I saw a book by former World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov on the English Opening. In that book, he more or less says, "Here are a bunch of games. Play through them with my comments as your guide. It's the only way you will ever begin to understand the English Opening."

To some extent, that's true. Unless you spend what seems to be a lifetime playing through such games with an experienced guide, it is hard to understand the English. The whole matter is too rich, too multifarious and transpositional, to understand in a short time.

After a lot of thought, I've decided that being English is about as complicated as being Chinese. About the only thing the two have in common, though, is the sense of imperial privilege that occasionally peeks out after a bit of manoeuvring around on the board.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009


The concept of asymmetry is an interesting one, for one would expect it to be the natural state of a random universe. At the same time, the idea of randomness is that it should eventually be chaotic all round, and hence oddly symmetrical. The two concepts have always been at odds, sort of.

Here's an illustration. Throw 20 coins in the air and let them land randomly. Odds are that you will get 10 heads and 10 tails, right? Actually, not quite. The odds are higher that you will get a 9-11 split; that is, the combined odds of getting 9 heads and 11 tails or 9 tails and 11 heads are higher than that of the 10-10 split.

It's this phenomenon that bridge players exploit when thinking about who has what cards. If you have five cards in a suit and your partner has none, then it's more likely that of the eight remaining cards, your opponents have a 5-3 split than a 4-4 split. That dictates your pattern of play: they are more likely to run out in 3 rounds than in 4.

The universe, paradoxically, is like that. The average is like a 10-10 split, but the reality is normally a 9-11 split out of 20 coins.


Meanwhile, elsewhere, THIS is a brilliant idea. Jane Austen and the undead, all in one. Wow, what a classic!

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Just Man Just Is

The title of this post is actually derived almost directly from a famous poem. The point of the line really is that it's a pun based firmly on etymology.

The Latin jus means 'right' — that is, something which a person is entitled to obtain, have and/or possess. Justice is therefore the process by which a right is upheld. However, the Latin juxta means 'near' or even 'joined to'. It is this latter word that we get 'adjust' from. The problem is that sometime during the Middle Ages and with the later arrival of the printing press, 'just' as in 'upright or fitting in terms of the maintenance of rights' became conflated with 'exactly or very close to something'.

It's now pretty difficult to decide which sense was meant when we say something like 'make this text right-justified'. Nevertheless, it's important to think about it, because it might make the difference between being 'just a man' and being 'a just man'. It is the difference between 'justice' and 'adjustment'.

That leads me to realise that perhaps there are, indeed, two kinds of justice. The first kind, spelt 'justice', means something like 'fair dealing based on a code that maintains rights'. The second kind, spelt 'justice' as well, means something like 'shifting things around until everyone is equally unhappy or as nearly equally unhappy as possible'.

What? Two words with different meanings spelt the same way? Well, there are ample examples of that in English. Just the other day, I was reading an IB text proof in which the author had written, "Drugs are often derived from lead compounds extracted from natural sources."

Excuse me? Lead compounds??

Then it dawned on me. 'Lead' not as in 'dense grey metal' but 'lead' as in 'being foremost'. It made me realise that 'leader' too can have several meanings, and one of them is 'a person who covers things in lead (metal)'.

Why is English like that? Well, many people have written excellent books on this phenomenon. For me, it just is.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Traditional Jestice

It was the Hierophant who reminded me of the work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. The two men are (were, Milgram died in 1984) both New Yorkers, born in 1933 and schoolmates from an interesting era.

More relevantly, the two are (were) psychologists who examined the psychology behind the way the exercise of power corrupts authority. Authority by itself is a neutral given. It is conferred by position and status in human societies; the Greeks called it kratos, and that word is still in common English usage, as the suffixes -crat and -cracy. 'Aristocracy', for example, means 'the ruling authority of the highborn', while 'democracy' of course means 'the ruling authority of the population at large'.

I've posted several times about power, and I continue to believe that it comes in three forms: kratos, dünamis and bia. An English equivalent would be to call them 'authority', 'inspiring motivation' and 'coercive force'. It's not possible, as far as I can tell, for humans to use just one or two; all three tend to come in together eventually. This tripartite division of power is thus a somewhat common motif (and a problematic one) in human societies.

The problem really is that they undermine while magnifying each other. If you have authority, real authority, people would do things because they accept that authority. But one is often tempted to add the suasion of personal motivation and/or the application of force in order to get things done faster. One is often tempted to add titles and honours to one's resumé in order to justify one's use of superior physical or numerical force. And so on. The three thus tend to form an unholy constellation even when they start off pure and unsullied. This is what I mean by 'undermine' (in the sense of 'erode the moral and ethical basis of') and 'magnify' (in these sense of 'increase the perceived importance or necessity of').

Conventionally, the idea is that powers should be separated (e.g. 'Church and State', or 'Legislative, Executive and Judicial'). This separation of powers thus reduces the quantities of power (kratos, dünamis and bia) to manageable little pieces, thus preventing abuse. Or so the theory goes. The problem is that in many states, it's really not possible to separate the powers; power tends to agglomerate, to agglutinate, to clump together in big and dangerous masses which then go critical to everyone's confused dismay.

The solution really is therefore not so much that they should balance each other, but be balanced by something else. In old and historically messy countries like the United Kingdom, you have so many competing traditions that even the law draws upon at least three main strands (Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Hebrew) and many others. In some places, hierarchy is so dispersed that it's hard to know who is really boss, so everyone is (like some small states or autonomous entities). In some places, like Vatican City, everyone is an employee of a higher authority and that is supposed to diffuse power while concentrating it.

Different balancing solutions thus exist. But I think two of them tend to be more successful than most, based on their longevity and their ubiquity.

The first is tradition (although some might say it comes later than the other). The force of tradition tends to keep new powers from consolidating, and it tends to check uncultured power with a cultural authority of its own. Tradition alone cannot stop a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao from abusing their authority and consolidating their power, but it can keep some things alive, and it can create a viable alternative, counterculture, or resistance. It hasn't always worked that way, but it keeps cropping up. Of course, 'bad' tradition can resist 'good' power; but power tends to corrupt anyway, so it doesn't remain good for long.

The second is humour (although some might say it comes first). The force of humour seems to sustain people even when power is being used on them. It is a common thread of humanity which by its nature ameliorates and alleviates the heaviness and awe of myth and tradition. It is the reason why rulers need jesters; rulers can't (don't, or won't) do self-criticism because to do so would be to undermine the effect of power (to which they must be beholden). A self-critical ruler, if such a creature exists, must subvert himself by laughing at himself; but in these times, such a ruler runs the risk of looking ridiculous — if he can laugh at himself, surely someone else can laugh at him.

I live in a state where to make jokes about judges (or to mock the Magistratum, haha) is to commit the offence of trivialising, scandalising, or undermining the judiciary. If you make a politician or judge look like a figure of fun, it is a problem for the Internal Security Act. After all, if you undermine the sources of power, doesn't it weaken the security of the realm? This key argument is what runs many states the way they're run. It is just that some states and institutions are better at hiding it than others.

The sad corollary to all of this is that almost all rulers can't actually have a real sense of humour. If they do, it is 'humour lite' or 'humour without slapstick' or some other dignified (and here I use the word in a similar way to 'gentrified' or 'bowdlerised') form of it. It is as if a ruler's humour is something from ancient philosophy, and not something which alleviates the gloom and ameliorates bitterness.

The good corollary to all of this is that power can be balanced by mechanical (or at least, procedural) means. If you enforce a rotation of authority, which itself cannot be undermined by authority (good luck there!) then rulers have a chance to recover their sense of humour and become human once more. Some other poor sap can have the job. You can also insert a professional subversion agency: a jester, or as Frank Herbert suggested, a 'Bureau of Sabotage'.

In the end, it boils down to this. An institution or a state cannot thrive morally, aesthetically or creatively unless power is subvertible. Humour, for this purpose, is more flexible and useful than tradition. If the king will not have a jester, he should be adjested. That way, jestice will be served.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wolf Watching

Wolff (no longer Sir) has been masterless for more than a year. Yet in the streets he used to guard with his life and his calling, he is still 'Sir Wolff'. But there is unrest in the villages. Some of them feel that the knights of the Imperium no longer protect their interests. It is into this mess that Wolff (no longer Sir) finds himself drawn — it is a drawing-in, where there should be a drawing-out.

Sir Wolff! Milord! We need you to protect us! We are being assailed by the dark arts and no guidance comes from the Magistratum in the Citadel!

What dark arts are these? asks Wolff, his curiosity curiously stirred.

They say it is epistemology and ontology and even biology! It is a dire thing, milord. We cannot stand against their ways of knowing and areas of knowledge and subjective objectivism and utilitarian pragmatism and...

Wolff's eyes narrow. He does not like being played for a fool, and he has not known the peasant who would so fluently bandy such words around with such alarming facility. For these are dark matters, and for physicists, not just physicians.

You seem too well educated to be a peasant. Who are you really? Wolff asks, his gauntlet of black iridium steel flexing gently as he prepares for action. There is increasing alarm on the man's face as he realises that perhaps the legends are true.

Milord? I am...

Out with it, boy.

Milord. I am a junior member of the College, milord. We lack guidance. The Grand Inquisitor talks of the Sea, and how blue it is, but we are besieged by darkness and even etymology. There is something squamous about the whole thing, and we know not what it is, and you used to be a senior member of the College, milord, and we will pay good coin for your help!

Something rings true here, even through the forbidden words. Wolff, once a knight and senior member of the college (and perhaps even a junior member of the Magistratum) feels a twinge of sympathy.

Once a member, always a member, boy. Remember that. For you can take the man from the College, but not the College from the man. I will help you.

Over the next few weeks, Wolff will come to regret it. For the forces of darkness, armed with theories of knowledge that man was not meant to know, are hunting. They take no prisoners, and the Magistratum appears to do as much harm as good, for they are unfamiliar with these evils. Epistemology, forsooth. Wolff sets his jaw grimly and perseveres.

He teaches the 'peasants', who are actually young knights and squires, both men and women, of the College. He teaches them to present themselves, to essay boldly into the realms of the enemy, to acquit themselves with full justification, with validity, reliability, utility — and even compassion, justice and humility. It is hard work, but he knows that it is well worth it.

True, they pay him in coin. He feels at first like each pouch of hard-won copper is a bag of thirty silver pieces. But in time, as he gives back to the hidden communities and the centres of trade, he realises that this is what the true economy has come to be. Give it back, give it back; for God makes a man rich only so that he can use it for good.

And one day, Wolff will no longer need to watch over the young, for they shall inherit the earth.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Note About This Blog

What is this blog about anyway?

Well, if I were a bird, I'd be a corvid by nature. I'm curious. I like finding things out. I like using what I find, if that's possible.

Of late, my environment changed to produce an endless supply of associates who were interested in epistemology (or who had no choice but to act as if they were). So I dug into my hoard of material on this, and produced a few nice shiny bits.

That's what I am. If you're looking for something interesting, there's probably something about it on this blog. If there isn't anything about it on this blog, I might be interested enough to post something about it. See below for a list of topics, or stop right now and have greater peace of mind. Heh.


Currently, the list of tags/labels I've used in this blog is too long to form a nice tag cloud or list in the sidebar. So here it is, without hyperlinking:

1 Thessalonians (1), 1886 (6), 1960s (2), 1970s (2), 1980s (4), 1990s (2), 2 Timothy (1), 2000s (1), Abraham (2), Accountability (2), Acronyms (2), ACS (1), Acting (1), Actuarial Science (1), Adjectives (2), Administration (4), Adolescence (3), Adulthood (1), Adventure (1), Advertising (1), Aesthetics (3), Age (2), Agriculture (3), Akunin (1), Albion (1), Alchemy (5), Alcohol (2), Alexander (2), Alexandria (1), Alfred Duggan (1), Alistair Cooke (1), Alliteration (1), Altruism (2), Alumni (1), Ambidexterity (1), Ambiguity (1), Ambition (1), America (3), American Politics (10), Analysis (12), Anand (3), Anatomy (7), Ancestors (3), Anchors (1), Ancient of Days (7), Andrew Lloyd Webber (2), Angelology (1), Angels (3), Animals (7), Animism (1), Annie Lennox (2), Anniversary (1), Announcements (1), Anomie (1), Anonymity (2), Answers (2), Anthems (1), Anthony Hope (1), Anthony Price (1), Anthropomorphism (1), Apocalypse (6), Appraisal (11), Appropriateness (1), Archaeology (3), Archangel (1), Archilochus (1), Archiving (2), Argument (2), Aristotle (1), Arms Race (1), Army Life (2), Arsenal (5), Art (3), Arts (1), Assessment (2), Astrology (1), Astronomy (2), Asymmetry (1), Atheism (2), Atomism (3), Attainment (1), Auden (1), August (1), Australia (1), Authority (6), Autobiography (3), Autumn (3), Avoidance (1), Awakening (2), Awards (2), Babylon (1), Balance (2), Ballad (1), Baptist (1), Barry Hughart (1), Batman (3), Bears (1), Beatles (3), Beauty (3), Bee Gees (1), Beginnings (1), Behaviour (3), Being (1), Belief (7), Benjamin Franklin (1), Bentley (1), Betrayal (1), Bible (44), Biden (1), Billy Joel (6), Biochemistry (1), Biography (1), Biology (3), Birthday (7), Blades (1), Blake (2), Blessings (2), Blogosphere (11), Blogs (6), Blood (2), Boarding (1), Bonnie Tyler (1), Books (32), Botany (1), Brain (4), Breakfast (4), British (1), Brotherhood (5), Browning (1), Business (1), Butterfly (1), Byron (1), Byzantium (1), C Northcote Parkinson (1), C S Lewis (1), C W McCall 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(1), Professionalism (7), Profiling (5), Progress (5), Project (1), Prometheus (2), Propaganda (2), Prophecy (6), Proust (1), Providence (1), Prufrock (1), Psalms (18), Pseudonyms (1), Psychology (18), Psychosis (5), Punishment (2), Puzzles (1), Quakers (1), Qualitative Research (8), Quality (1), Quantum Mechanics (2), Queen (1), Quirks (1), Quiz (18), Racism (1), Rain (5), Random (7), Ranking (1), Ravens (9), Reading (5), Reality (6), Reason (9), Recessional (3), References (1), Reflection (38), Reflections (24), Reflective (5), Reindeer (1), Relationships (4), Relatives (3), Relaxation (1), Religion (20), Remembrance (73), Renegade (1), Renewal (2), Requiem (3), Research (20), Resignation (1), Resources (5), Response (1), Rest (1), Returning (1), Reunion (1), Revelation (5), Revenge (1), Review (1), Rhyme (2), Rhymes (3), Richard II (1), Richardson (1), Riddles (1), Rite (3), Ritual (5), Roads (1), Robert Bridges (1), Robert Browning (3), Robert Burns (2), Robert Frost (1), Robert Graves (2), Robots (1), Roman Empire (3), Roman Philosophy (1), Romance (2), Romans (3), Rugby (1), Rules (1), Russia (6), Ruth Solomon (1), Sabbath (1), Saberhagen (1), Sacrament (1), Sacrifice (1), Sadness (2), Safety (1), Saints (3), Sallust (1), Salmon (1), Salvation (1), Samuel (1), Sanctus (1), Sand-Jensen (1), Sanity (1), Satan (2), Satire (1), Saul (1), Sauternes (1), Savannah (1), Scheduling (1), Schizophrenia (2), School (5), Schools (1), Science (10), Science Fiction (5), Scotland (1), Scott Lynch (1), Search Engines (1), Seasons (3), Second World War (3), Secrecy (1), Secret Garden (1), Secrets (2), Self-Help (3), Senses (2), Serenity (3), Servanthood (2), Service (5), setti (1), Seven (1), Shadow (1), Shaggy-Dog (1), Shakespeare (8), Shelley (3), Sheri Tepper (2), Shostakovich (1), Shoulder (1), Shoutout (1), Silliness (1), Silver (1), Simmons (1), Simon and Garfunkel (2), Simplicity (3), Simulation (1), Singapore (7), Size (1), Skepticism (1), Skills (4), Skinner (1), Sleep (6), Slings (1), Small Things (2), Smiles (1), Smuggling (1), Social Sciences (9), Society (15), Socrates (1), Software (1), Songs (4), Sonnet (2), Soul (2), Sound (1), Space (1), Speech (1), Spin (1), Spirit (3), Spiritual Gifts (3), Spirituality (3), Sports (5), St David (1), St Etienne (1), St Jude (1), Staffing (1), Stalin (2), Standards (1), Star Wars (1), Stardust (2), Stasis (2), Statesmen (1), Statistics (16), Stephen Spender (1), Stoicism (1), Stories (10), Storms (1), Story (8), Strategic Planning (3), Strategic Thinking (14), Strategy (2), Strength (1), Structure (1), Stub (1), Students (16), Study (4), Stuff (1), Stupidity (1), Style (1), Subjects (3), Subversion (1), Succession (2), Suffixes (1), Suitability (1), Sun (1), Sunrise (1), Sunset (1), Supergrass (1), Superheroism (3), Superman (1), Supernatural (1), Supertramp (1), Surrender (1), Symbolism (54), Symbols (6), Symptoms (1), Synthesis (1), Tabernacle (1), Tacitus (1), Tactics (1), Tagore (2), Taleb (1), Talent Development (3), Taste (1), Taverns (1), Taxonomy (2), Tea (2), Teacher (3), Teaching (20), Tears For Fears (1), Technology (2), Ted Hughes (3), Temasek (1), Temper (1), Temperance (1), Temptation (1), Tennyson (2), Terminus (2), Tesla (1), Tessa Farmer (1), Testing (7), Thailand (1), Thanksgiving (8), Thatcher (1), Thaumaturgy (1), The Hundred (5), The Saint (1), Theology (10), Therapy (2), Things (2), Thinking (1), Thought (13), Thumboo (1), Thursday (1), Tim Powers (1), Time (22), Titans (1), Tolkien (2), Tools (2), Topalov (1), Totemism (1), Towers (1), Toys (1), Tragedy (1), Training (1), Transformation (1), Translation (1), Transmetropolitan (1), Transmission (1), Transparency (1), Travel (2), Trinity (1), Triumph (3), Trivia (2), Trucking (1), Truth (9), Tufte (1), TV (2), U2 (1), UK (1), Ulysses (1), Unambiguity (1), Unfulfilled Potential (1), Universality (1), Universe (4), University Life (10), UNSC (1), Urban Life (2), Use (1), Usefulness (1), Values (3), Vampires 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Monday, April 13, 2009

A Theory about Theories of Knowledge

I have a theory about the various people who use the word 'know'. Most of them don't know how tenuous the idea of 'know' is. In various cultures, at various times, the idea of knowledge has been one of arriving at a destination, becoming aware of a path, finding out where the boundaries are, differentiating one thing from another, and so on.

In most cases, there are two main processes. The first one is that of covering ground or uncovering the hidden. You traverse a space (whether real, literal, abstract, metaphorical, procedural or whatever). If it has not been traversed before in the way you have traversed it, something different has entered the world (kosmos, universe).

The problem then is getting others to traverse the space in the same way. If you can, then it is replicable, it is reliable, people are more inclined to accept this traversal as new knowledge. In some disciplines, this is not easy, or may be completely impossible.

In mathematics, if I can get you to accept my axioms (statements about the universe without proof), then the subsequent paths are in theory all replicable. Anybody can in theory follow mathematical reasoning; it is completely transparent within the limits of understanding the processes involved in traversal, and in the universality of the symbols used to communicate such processes.

In the arts, dependent as they are on the emotional response to sensory perception, the paths of traversal are by definition impossible to replicate. Everybody has senses that are slightly different.

In vision, this ranges from the difference between blindness and sight to the difference between the inability to see a particular shade of colour and being able to see it. Some women have a fourth colour pigment that gives them the ability to see more colours than the rest of us; some men lack a pigment and see fewer colours. Analogous phenomena exist for hearing, touch, taste, balance, smell and all the other senses that we have.

It is all about paths, in the end. Whether there are rules for the paths, we do not know. But when someone says something that seems to make sense, sometimes we are moved to say, "Ah, that makes sense!" or "This is indeed justified!" ("这是有道理!")

It means that a reasonable path has been found, one that we think can be traversed as someone else has already done.


Sunday, April 12, 2009


It's one of those things that can be extremely enjoyable in some contexts but incredibly alarming when it comes upon you unprepared. I love ginger when it's distilled into syrup and stirred into milky tea or coffee. I love crystallized ginger, especially in dark chocolate. I like ginger biscuits and ginger ale.

But I don't like ginger jumping out at me when I bite down into the contents of a plate of spaghetti or a bowl of soup. It just doesn't feel right, and tastes too strident in the mouth. It's OK if it stays there, flavouring the food with its curious aroma.

Nevertheless, when many years ago I was diagnosed with extreme G6PD deficiency, I was rather sad to see ginger on the list of foods to be avoided. This was in the 1970s, and since then, most of the modern lists have moved towards specific chemicals rather than the all-encompassing 'strange vegetation to be found in Oriental food' kind of designation.

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Just The One

I am listening to the roar of the fans singing, "One Arsène Wenger, there's only one Arsène Wenger..." to the tune of Guantanamera. The game is now over and Arsenal have beaten Wigan 4-1 after lagging 0-1 at half-time.

Actually, I heard, for a moment, something completely different and associated with the College of Wyverns where I used to work. Ah, the illusion of understanding...


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why I Am Not An Atheist

As Trivandrum proposes, I should set forth Terms and Definitions, and Argument related thereto, and thus develop a Position on which I take my Stand. So here is that Stand, and may You who read enjoy It.


Terms and Definitions

  • A God is a Thing which exercises Powers which are beyond Human Analysis, practically, theoretically, or rationally, with respect to the Limits of those Powers in Terms of Origin, Manifestation, Aspect, Occasion, Quantity, Quality or Perceptibility, and with no Likelihood or Chance of Human Analysis.
  • An Atheist, in simple Form, is One who does not believe in Gods, in any Kind, Quantity, or Equivalent.
  • An Atheist, in active Form, is One who explicitly rejects the Belief that there are Gods, in any Kind, Quantity or Equivalent.
I am not an Atheist in either simple or active Sense. If the Reader wishes to take Issue with any other Term defined in this Section or other Sections in this Post, please do so Elsewhere.



  • Let Us assume that Humans are Moral Animals, which I am personally inclined to believe. If this is a Failing on My Part, so be It.
  • This Morality has a Nature that is either relative or absolute. If the Nature is relative, It can only be seen to exist if measured by a Yardstick. If It is Absolute, then It has no Exceptions and hence partakes of the Quality of Natural Law.
  • If the Nature of Morality is relative, the Yardstick (or at least the System of Measurement) must be Absolute if the Analysis of Morality is to have Meaning. Without Yardstick, or Benchmark, or Touchstone, the Idea of Morality is defunct as We cannot then say, "This is a Good Thing," or, "This is a Bad Thing."
  • If the Nature of Morality is an Absolute, then We need no Yardstick, or Benchmark, or Touchstone, but merely Observation and Hypothesis Testing as is the Way of Natural Law. We need but create a Scale of Units such as proposed in the Philosophy of Utilitarianism.
  • From Evidence of the Empirical Kind, that is, from History and hence the Observations of Humanity, We can see that the Nature of Morality is not yet to be claimed an Absolute, for It has heretofore not been resolved by any Human Agency into a System adherent to a Scale of Units.
  • Hence Morality is likely relative and requires a Yardstick.
  • The Yardstick cannot be Human, for this is an Empirical Finding that Humans disagree on Morality.
  • The Yardstick cannot be a Natural Law or Anything that proceeds from Natural Law, as this is Our Observation as well.
  • Hence the Yardstick must be beyond Human Analysis.
  • Hence It is a God (at least one). (Alternatively, Humans are not Moral Animals.)
  • In Fact, the Only Plausible Alternative to the Existence of Godhood is to apply This Reasoning to all such Qualities. Then the Universe must be purely quantitative and subject to Rational Laws alone.
  • If the Universe is so, then It is a Deterministic Universe.
  • Hence all Human Actions have no Attached Moral Responsibility or Choice or any Such.
  • Hence it is a Meaningless Thing for Me to have done This Post. (Or for You to be reading It.)
And yet, to paraphrase Galileo Galilei, still I have posted.



  • This Post has Meaning, or It has not. (Unless Meaning has no Meaning.)
  • If It has Meaning, then at least one God exists.
  • If It has no Meaning, then We do not know from It whether God exists or not.
  • But We do know that if It has no Meaning, and You have been reading It, then You have either been conned, or there is no God and the Act of Reading does not matter.
  • Regardless then, it leads Us to conclude that reading Richard Dawkins (or any Explicitly Atheist Statement of Unbelief in Gods) is meaningless.
I would rather believe that this Post has Meaning. If You disagree, then for Your Disagreement to be meaningful, at least one God must also exist.


I rest my Case. And drink my Coffee.

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Salt and Pepper

Looking into the mirror over the last few days (you need to do that to shave), I've noticed a distinctively salt-and-pepper appearance beginning to develop. I now have sufficient white in my hair so that the stubble looks like markedly heterogeneous. At the same time, an objective count shows that less than 0.1% of the population (yes, I counted more than a thousand hairs, vanity of vanities) has gone white.

But it's good to have more salt, I guess. If you're going to be the salt of the earth, maybe too much pepper is a bad thing. That was the thought that came to me as I heard incoming news from my social aggregator (Wyvernet) about the goings-on at the old place.

You see, they're hosting the local Odyssey of the Mind competition. This year's different though. The seasoned old veteran lady with the mad skillz has been replaced by a team which knows naught about OM set-up. No taped-off areas, no waiting areas, a lack of planning... sigh. It's not that I want to denigrate the place, but two things occur to me at this point.

Firstly, the tacit working knowledge of a place and a system is something that really runs the show. You can lose the old staff but you will also lose the practical working knowledge that they carried in their heads. This will eventually show up if you don't put a plan in place to transmit, record and store it while it's still available.

Secondly, I actually have a citation for my services (as part of a group) to this programme. The whole bunch of us are mostly no longer there. If you're going to get rid of elements in your organisation, it's probably not a good idea to uproot an organ without proper replacement.

Connected with that is the idea of what an organ really is. Some organs are more obvious than others: the liver, the kidneys, these things look like concentrated bundles of stuff. But the skin, the lymph network, these things are distributed organs. If you were to eliminate sizeable chunks of them, you'd die in a most uncomfortable way. Think about what would happen if you lost a third of your skin or a third of your blood vessels, or a third (distributed) of your guts...

So... more salt, a bit less pepper. Life is good.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Full Marx?

There's this wonderful argument going on here. I feel like joining in, simply because it is centred around that horrible and uneducated person, Richard Dawkins. There's a good critique of his work here, based on that woolly-minded (and best-selling) tome, The God Delusion.

Ah well. Temptations, temptations.

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There are some things which lift you when you're not feeling particularly 'up'. Tonight I was quayside with a bunch of young men I used to teach, and it was a wonderful experience, thanks to the Mongol and his cohorts.

I suppose what was endearing about this experience was that the fellows were in many ways so recognizably themselves. Cornerman was still sitting at the periphery thinking inscrutable thoughts and working out his own stuff while everything else was happening around him. Leo was still the slightly out-of-touch leader with the inability to make the accounts tally. Fortunately for him, he didn't have to pay the balance the way he used to have to.

One difference was the beer. Another difference was that these were men now, not boys. It was good. It was amazing to see who had become a teacher, who was indulging in entrepreneurship, who was working at a dockyard.

I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and when the Winner, now the proud father of a six-month-old girl, decided to be kind and give me a lift home, I enjoyed that too.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Doctoral Inquisition

Yesterday I attended one of these events; they are quite common and come in several varieties and flavours. By variety, I imply a difference in intent ranging from exploration to confirmation of candidature to defence of thesis. By flavour, I imply a difference in the nature of the panel applying the instruments of inquisition.

Yesterday's was a confirmation of candidature, in which some slightly nervous or incompletely prepared proto-candidate is subjected to the intellectual equivalent of a gentle grilling and racking (which makes me think of lamb, somehow). I and my neighbour enjoyed it quite a bit, probably because I've already gone through that stage and was looking for points of interest applicable to my end-stage; my neighbour was interested because of the nature of the evolving dissertation.

The real problem wasn't that everything seemed to be anchored to the überzeitgeist of Foucault and his merry sociology, or Fullan and his equally merry 'change is simple, look you can break it down into eight bullet points' approach. The problem was that there seemed to be some sort of empty space between ground-level micro analysis and global-level macro analysis. The scope was too great in range; it was analogous to doing research with one eye on an electron microscope and the other on a radio telescope.

As an aside I am so glad that the inquisitors panel pointed out that you couldn't take for granted that any old innovation (say 'Understanding by Design', for example) was necessarily innovative, useful, successful or educationally good just because a bunch of people spent a lot of time on it.

On a smaller scale, I've noticed this in TOK presentations and other kinds of presentations. Some candidate will zero in on two minor Scandinavian authors like Ibsen and Strindberg, call it 'World Literature' and generalise the findings to include literature in general. And the worst part is that the examiner will merrily (I'm using that a lot today, aren't I?) accept it.

It is like some sort of stream of consciousness robin hoodwink with one eye up and the other down in the dirt where the dead men have their bones and good is oft interdiction is important because without it Rome was not built in a day in the life I miss the Beatles. Heh.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Just yesterday a friend of mine remarked, "How do you know all this stuff?" Without going into all that 'how do I know I know' business, it's of course a comment on how much clutter seems to have accumulated on the shelves of my brain.

It's also the kind of comment I've heard a number of times before. I've wondered about that myself. My conclusion is that the sheer mass of bits and pieces in the storeroom comes from two tendencies. One is the corvid tendency to go (as Khayce might say), "Oooh look, shineeeeeeee!" and pick up yet another piece of mental bling. The other is the corvid tendency to go, "Eh, what's this..." and end up spending hours of a perfectly useful day delving deep into some esoteric subject.

The two things are related in some ways, but the former tends to increase breadth and the latter depth. It's acquisitiveness and inquisitiveness, or (to the more sinister-minded) acquisition and inquisition. Or Memory and Thought, but that's another thing altogether.

There is a third thing, the urge to deliberately fill in spaces in one's education that seem to be void for one reason or another. This is relatively rare; I'm happy with some of those voids, never having had the urge to try things like colonic cleansing (for example).

I think that all these put together make me a good research partner to have. I tend to do all the random-correlation, what-if, how-about-this stuff while someone else does all the heavy lifting. It's not that I can't do structure, but that I can more or less do the basic stuff and the value-added stuff too. I'm far less efficient than other people, though. Too easily distracted...

"Eh, what's this... oooh look, shineeeeeeee!"

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

In the Shortness of Time (and Distance)

In my head, I hear the phrase, "In the fullness of time." It is one of those biblical phrases which connotes the slow, rich, full and mature development of something. It reminds me of the way a bud forms, a flower blossoms, and a fruit ripens to full sweetness. If only education could be that way — in the human context a deliberate, engaged, maturing process of learning and developing towards some higher goal.

But the problem is that we are always cajoled and harassed into the idea that time is short, that thinking should be instinctively correct, that reflex is more powerful than reason. We look at the (ahem) firearms control debate that has raged for 250 years in America, and the solution is obvious: in English law, there is a traditional (how traditional? try looking back to before the age of the Vikings for its antecedents!) presumption that a citizen has the duty to bear arms and be capable of self-defence, hence all citizens should be allowed to keep weapons for certain purposes. These purposes include defence of property, protection of individual rights, and carrying out the intent of the state where this does not infringe on the first two.

However, that's only one half of the solution. The nutcases which sprout in spring (or summer, autumn or winter) and shoot people could certainly not kill so many people at once without access to explosive technology (chemical explosives and firearms). You can't blow up a building or mow down a crowd easily with a 4-inch blade. The other half of the solution must be some form of regulation or education that prevents these incidents. In all history, it's never been possible to completely eliminate the psychotic and over-stressed.

The solution then is to allow everyone to carry weapons of limited reach, while educating everyone in the rigorous limits and techniques of their use. We have the technology, we claim we can educate, so why not?

There are some states that call themselves republics in which there is a right — nay, a duty — to bear arms. Because the state is run by its citizens, the duty is that of a citizen army. And a citizen police force. And private citizen law-enforcement. And a strong rule of law which makes the use of ranged weapons illegal without a license and an official responsibility to go with it. If half the country is in the armed forces, then why would you be defending yourselves against the armed forces?

There are solutions out there. Most of them will either focus on restricting individual freedoms, or on allowing the free and open mutual contestation of freedoms. That is, in the extreme, either people don't carry ranged weapons at all, or they shoot each other until the only ones left are those who by definition are survivors.

I am so proud that up to this point, I've not mentioned that three-letter word that begins with 'g', ends with 'n', and is an anagram of 'gnu'. I just hope that everyone can be trained (when angry) to count up to more letters than are found in that word before acting. Perhaps to be trained to count up to 'semi-automatic machine pistol' is a good thing, then.

Time is short, education is long. This is the fearful asymmetry that plagues us all, no matter what the issue at hand.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Everything in Moderation, Everything in Flux

I remember this post fondly. In fact, all I have of it is memories, because I was told to censor it, and it is no more. However, I remember what was in it, and I suppose it is about time I remembered it here.

In that post, one of those which led to an unpleasant episode at the hands of certain interests, I pointed out that a lot of grade adjustment (what was called 'moderation' at a place I used to work in) was arbitrary. In fact, students would have been horrified to see what went on in those closed rooms.

Essentially, a list of potential targets for moderation was drawn up. Teachers would plead a case for specific targets to gain x points so that they would move across a grade boundary. Some teachers would fall asleep, bemused by the machinations of their colleagues; some would be rabidly alert, watching out for students they felt were undeserving of such ascension. A sideboard laden with food rich in sugars and fats stood by, along with appalling coffee, many months gone sour in its 'instant' glass jar.

The whole thing was more like a bourse or a slave-trading station than anything else. It was also clear that some people favoured other people. It was clear that the ability of the student, or even the potential ability, was not the deciding factor. Rather, it was whether people agreed with the idea of a particular student getting the bounty of a free mark (or three, or five, or in many cases, more than ten). In some cases, as boredom, ennui and fatigue set in, the main factor became stamina and the threat of having to stay in a room full of the temporarily insane for more than an hour or two in excess of the time already wasted.

Meanwhile, the department heads sat there, first to arrive (well, some were) and last to leave (well, most were). They manipulated, avoided, or counterattacked as their personalities allowed. Essentially, each one struck some sort of balance between being 'too easy' or being 'too difficult'. You had to show you were a team player — for the right team. You also had to maintain some semblance of integrity, although some were no longer capable of it. Occasionally, there'd be unedifying spectacle of several teachers and heads ganging up on another one just to make that person cough up a mark or two for a favourite son.

I sat through twenty-five sessions like that, and others of similar nature. At the back of my mind, I used to think, "How unreal this is. There are grades here that could never exist in real life, and some for which there is no justification at all. We are giving students resumés that are fake just as an exercise in bestowing largesse upon the favoured and showing who the fount of every blessing is supposed to be."

After the operation, most of the candidates would have survived. The post-op phase would begin, with people desperately running around to rig the scores, adjust the grades, calculate new distributions, re-mark some papers. Being somewhat computer literate, my projections were always done even before this phase. It was easy to see in advance who would be promoted, having powerful allies. I remember one head saying, "He's quite a cute boy, very well-behaved!" as if that had anything to do with academic potential. I noted such comments, since they were often clues as to what grades would be changed in the end.

And so, after a few hours, with some self-congratulatory comments about how kind we were, the whole party would be dismissed like a bunch of vacationing prostitutes no longer giving out favours to all and sundry. The problem, I suppose, is that if you accede to such practices even tacitly, you are joining the party. You may feel unclean for a while, but eventually you will feel better and begin to justify the whole process. I remember the chief of the operation saying, "If we don't do it, remember that other schools will, and that will disadvantage our students!"

Ah well, no point complaining. If the taint covers enough people, it ceases to be a taint, but a norm. No wonder we are told not to conform to the pattern of the world. It is very hard indeed to escape it. Even as I write this, arbitrary moderation is in full swing where wyverns once ruled their world. After all, if you have continuous assessment, you can have continuous moderation too!

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Sinister Dexterity

Over the years, some people have asked me why I seem so critical of 'the system', whether in the general sense of what happens in the world, or in the more specific sense of what happens in the country, or in the even more specific and painful sense of what happens in some institutions. I wonder why this question is asked without the reflection that should logically precede it.

The point is that if 'the system' works, there is at least one clear way to make it work better. That is to look at it critically (from Greek kritias, 'a judge') and evaluate its successes (how can these be improved) and its failures (how can these be reduced or avoided). There are other ways, including changing the system altogether — surely a much more radical (from Latin radix, 'a root') step.

In the 12th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, St Paul warns us against conforming to the patterns of the world. There is a simple reason for this which I've mentioned before: the world is too limited. Excellence goes, almost by definition, beyond the limits of the known world.

This is why I look at things critically. The Good Book also says, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." But this injunction is about moral judgement; taken together with the rest of that Book, it warns that the morally flawed should not presume to sit in judgement over the rest of the equally flawed. Here, when I say 'critically' and as 'a judge', I am only applying the simple tests of consistency and reason, just as any analyst might.

It is probably best that we attempt to rectify (from Latin rectus, 'righthanded') anything that is awry while making sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. This allows you to make a two-handed catch, which is normally preferable to a one-handed catch where catching is appropriate. (As the saying goes, "Catch no ball, good if you're not the goalie.") But to do this, one must necessarily appear at least somewhat sinister ('lefthanded').

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

White House

That's a problem. I grew up in the 70s and 80s of the last century, and when people mention 'White House', I immediately think of a mailbox and a house made of wooden planks. You need a bit of thinking to get in, and a lantern to avoid grues. Before long, you find yourself visiting the Great Underground Empire, and hopefully, armed with a sword that glows fitfully, you will deal with the troll, and the maze of twisty little passages all alike, and the guy who keeps stealing your stuff.

Well, a lot of it is back, like nostalgia. You don't have to map it yourself, which is what we used to do with pencil and paper. But there it is. And now you too can relive the glory days of J Pierpont Flathead and his ilk, run along the White Cliffs, enter the Dark Forest, and in general make a nuisance of yourself.


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Saturday, April 04, 2009

May The Fours Be With You

Every time this date in the year comes round, I think apocalyptic thoughts. It's 4/4, that mystical time or timing, whether you are oriental or occidental, or purely accidental. The world divides into four ages, the apocalypse has four horseman, and the four gospels and their four evangelists are signified by four different beasts. There are four archangels, and four corners of the world and four cardinal directions and four elements of the material world.

But most of all, there were four Beatles. And once in a while I dig up the old music and go on a magical mystery tour. It is with that in mind that I present to you the lyrics to one of the few songs that was ever written deliberately to both communicate and confuse. I also indulge in a little bit of Shakespearean taming; it was an intelligent and largely pleasing session I had this morning, with you-know-who-you-are. Enjoy.

I am He as You are He as You are Me
And We are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun
See how they fly
I'm crying
Sitting on a cornflake
Waiting for the van to come
Corporation T-Shirt
Stupid Bloody Tuesday
Man, you been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long

I am the Eggman
They are the Eggmen
I am the Walrus

Mr. City Policeman
Sitting pretty little policemen in a row
See how they fly
Like Lucy in the sky
See how they run
I'm Crying
I'm Crying
I'm Crying
I'm Crying
Yellow matter custard
Dripping from a dead dog's eye
Crabalocker fishwife
Pornographic Priestess
Boy, you've been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down


Sitting in an English garden
Waiting for the sun
If the sun don't come
You'll get a tan from
Standing in the English Rain


Expert Texpert
Choking smokers
Don't you think the Joker
Laughs at You?
See how they smile
Like pigs in a sty
See how they snide
I'm Crying
Semolina Pilchard
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower
Elementary Penguin
Singing Hare Krishna
Man you shoulda seen them
Kicking Edgar Allen Poe


(Oompah, oompah stick in your jumper!
Everyone has one, everybody has one!)

If you listen carefully to the whole song, you'll hear a lot more random stuff and even a few lines from King Lear...

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The Shock of the New

There is a fundamental disconnect some times, as I walk through familiar places. I see the people, the uniforms; I hear the voices and sense the movements; and yet these are not the same people. It has been disconcerting enough that we dream dreams about the old and the new, merging and submerging, somehow like the voices of mermaids calling.

Things have come to a pretty pass when I find myself waking up and writing bad poetry. Then I sip my coffee and I wonder what on earth I have written at three o'clock in the morning.

They have new names now, are not the heroes that I used to know.
They walk the hills of heaven, they wear the armour and the arms,
But their grace is unfamiliar and the subluminal glow
Shows other seas of faces, and other kinds of charms.

Now the voice inside my head says He is like the Fist of Flame;
And this one you spoke to briefly has the voice of She Who Laughed,
And this other is a double for the Bloke Without A Name;
While his friend reminds you chiefly of the River and the Raft.

But I sit down at the tavern where the yellow meets the red,
And I watch these heroes as they deal with existential dread;
And I know the story changes not though heroes come and go,
For the wyverns of the Gold and Blue still rampage in the flow.

They may hunt in different colours and may serve a different lord,
For the college of the wyverns has known fire and the sword;
But they know the ancient vision, and they hail St David's Day,
And the best is ever yet to be, in every kind of way.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Presentation Skills (Part III): Structured Instruments

A presentation is a structured instrument. Most of us cannot just enter the room, dazzle everyone, and take their loot. Some of us can, but that doesn't make it a presentation.

Essentially, a presentation has perhaps three common components. First, there is some sort of visual device: in the old days, there were chalkboards, flipcharts, and physical models; now, there are those ubiquitous PowerPoint and Keynote slideshows. Second, there may be handouts and other physical takeaways so that those with a slower intellectual digestive system can get their fibre. Third, there is the lecture, exposition or other form of oral presentation.

The key is that all three should be nearly orthogonal: the three components should not overlap except where they reinforce key points in different ways. They should all tell the same story, but the forte of each mode is not the same. The visual device shows something that can best be shown visually; the handout gives details that would otherwise bog the presentation down (and stuff that may need a longer cognitive process, like some kinds of numbers); the exposition provides a narrative that inducts the audience and conducts them through the domain under examination.

Within this combined triadic process, the presenter must say what the topic is, why it is important to the audience, and what to do about it. This can be further enlarged in some cases to be a section on definitions, a section on concepts and principles, a section on the situation and how it is to be improved, a section on actions to be taken, and a simple summary conclusion. In an argumentative presentation, the slant is more prescriptive — perhaps 'actions to be taken' becomes 'why you should do something rather than something else'. But in general, this tends to be an effective narrative flow.

As your grasp of presentation technique develops, you'll realise that it's a bit like music. With control over the basics, you will find exceptions to most rules. The one rule that is most unlikely to be broken is that presentation is a form of communication. The presenter intends to communicate something, most of all, and everything else follows that. All the points I've given are actually guidelines for the clueless; some who read this will already know that they can do other things and still perform outrageously well.

That too is in the nature of human communication. That is why our neocortex is such a complicated mass of neurons.

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