Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shaping the Future

There's a book I've had on my shelves for a while; its title is 'Shaping the Future of Atlantis' (well, not actually, but you probably can do the translation). It's all about how educators are trying to reform a whole country, one that lies from sea to shining sea (or more prosaically, straddles two oceans). It's all very futuristic and full of shiny ideas.

The problem is that the findings are pretty indeterminate. After you subtract the propaganda, we still don't know what we've done. Nobody wants to do the big research just in case the unnamed Ministry cracks down on the researchers (or worse, ignores them totally). And that is what forty years of independence does for independent learning.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Armageddon Empires

A few days ago, I was reading the Spamblog when I came across this. Ah, it's wonderful. It's a turn-based hex-grid wargame that reminds me at the same time of Fallout and both its precursors and successors.

The problem is that about 20 turns into a game, I suddenly thought of my doctoral dissertation and how wonderful it would be to name it 'Armageddon Empires: Turn-Based Strategies, Semi-Independent Bases, and Integrated Programmes in Atlantis' or something like that.



Global Themes (Part II): Humans & Other Species

Our dealings with the other life-forms that share this world with us are tainted by the unavoidable biases we have. We are anthropocentric and anthropomorphic by nature; it is very hard, or even impossible, for us to put ourselves in the skin, scales, fur and/or feathers of another chordate species without basing the projected experience on our human template.

And this is where my adventure began.

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Friday, May 29, 2009


I have a neighbour. If you knew him and you had to name him, you might call him W/2. W/2 is an interesting kind of person; if you were an Atlantean sorcerer, you would characterize him as an orichalcean alchemist. In his youth, he earned his doctorate from the Dreaming Spires, and currently sits in his tower turning paper into gold.

W/2 and I spend a lot of time walking around and eating cheap lunches. In our early middle age (or our late youth, perhaps?) we have discovered that there is such a thing as needless ambition. So we sit around, talk about life, education, happiness... we dream of a better society, a pragmatic one which works and yet has space for the intricate and marvelous dreams of children.

Informed by our common education, we think the best is yet to be. Informed by our happenstance travels, we think that truth is strong, and it prevails. Informed by our limited understanding, we believe that the Lord is our light.

We have become part of the company of the freelancers; like the cavalry of old, we are fast, we are reserved, we are able to operate in more dimensions than others. We know that in our capabilities, we have been richly blessed. It fires in us a determination to help others, just as the cavalry occasionally would arrive to save the day.

Yet, we know we have our limitations. We can't hold ground, take up fixed appointments, withstand the shifting sands and tides. We find it hard to comprehend the singleminded search for blue oceans when blood fills the water and dust fills the air. A blue ocean turns red too fast, unless the world be made a safer and happier place for all.

We eat lunch together, and we look at each other, and we feel mortal, human, perhaps afraid. We hear the eternal footman snicker. We hear the bell toll. We dare not ask the obvious questions, sometimes. But we are free, and for that, we give thanks.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009


History (ἱστορία), as the Greeks defined it, was 'knowledge acquired by investigation' or 'that which is seen into'. It was the counterbalancing principle, though equally valued, to Aletheia (ἀλήθεια, 'that which is not forgotten, that which is not lost'). History is the active principle, it seeks to delve deeper so that more can be added to Aletheia. This latter word is at present most often translated as 'truth'.

Sometimes, however, you catch people thinking about 'what might have been' or 'what may yet be'. Neither of these things are related to either historia or aletheia. Such thoughts are sometimes called 'counterfactuals' because they do not go according to established facts, and actually go counter to the facts as we know them.

The reason I mention this is that I recently caught myself thinking along those lines. On Monday 17 Mar 2008, I was told that my contract would not be renewed, and the reasons given, as established by various other parties, were seen as vague and unjustifiable. Oddly enough, the evidence shows that on Sunday 16 Mar 2008, I had just posted on this blog an outline of the morning devotions I had intended to give on the morning of Tuesday 18 Mar 2008.

It will probably never be known if that was the precise breaking point or not. But just imagine, what would have happened if I had actually delivered those devotions on Tuesday morning, 18 Mar 2008? Would there have been interesting consequences? Would lightning have fallen from heaven?

We will never know; we can never know. But one thing to me is certain: whatever happens will always have happened for the best, in this world which is only possible world, as far as we can tell.

Why the certainty? Why the diminution of angst? Some things must be taken on faith; it is not too farfetched to reduce all things to the quality of faith simply because we can never directly know everything. Those are the limitations of both historia and aletheia — they cannot encompass all things; we can never know all that there is to know, or seek out all that we would like to know.

For me, trained as a scientist and a professional member of scientific organisations, trained in epistemology and amateur scholar of many disciplines, it still boils down to one irreducible statement. That statement begins, "Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem cæli et terræ, visibilium omnium et invisibilium..." — "I believe in one God, almighty Father, maker of heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible."

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Atlantean Myth (Part IV): Golden Mountain's Tale

In the glorious days of the Third Age, the Thunderer wrested control of Atlantis from the evil Lemurians and their predecessors the Empire. Or so the politically correct and factually negligent account goes.

What is for sure is that Atlantis had already begun to devolve. The Empire's grasp had been fatally weakened and yet, unlike previous empires, it was to prove itself able to fall from grace with a great deal of clever graciousness. It also attempted to tangle the world up in a ball of unpickable knots (some of which still exist in the darker continents, as the Imperials were wont to say).

One such knot was Lemuria, an agglomeration or loose confederation of minor princedoms and submonarchies. Within Greater Lemuria were several semi-independent or semi-autonomous cities, and Atlantis was the greatest of these. In fact, Atlantis inherited the bulk of the Empire's legacy, and if it hadn't been a success, then the Thunderer would have been judged a failure.

The cleverness of the Thunderer and his gang was that they turned this on its head: new line—Atlantis was a success because of the Thunderer. But what to do about the myriads of homeless and starving that any country in this region has had to cope with?

Here is where Golden Mountain's story begins. He was one of the First, and one of the most easily forgotten. He was the Gnome's predecessor in Education, but his forte was Nation-Building. Literally. Like a modern Hephaistos, he forged a dream from stone and metal and glass, and built the topless towers of a modern Ilium. If Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships, Golden Mountain's was the fist that piled the foundations of a myriad blocks of concrete.

For the Golden Mountain was a canny man, a clever and perceptive soul who wanted none of the limelight and all of the doing of things. He was pragmatic, definitive; for him praxis was the apotheosis of thought. He saw through most people and he sawed through most obstacles. And he housed 400,000 people in a year and a day (well, not quite, but this is myth we're talking about here).

Whereas the Thunderer was the Eminence of the Height, and the Gnome was the Brain of the Operation, and Black Diamond was the Voice of the Temple; Golden Mountain was the Builder of the Nation. It is impossible to think of modern Atlantis, the way it looks now, without him; yet it is only too possible not to think of him at all. He died in the heat of summer, in the same year as Black Diamond. In the aftermath of the Diamond's passing, the Mountain received some recognition.

And that was it.

Personally, I remember a shrewd and wise old patriarch who could say a lot and had a temper. But he was also a Wyvern, like the Gnome, and he remained true to his principles of necessity and pragmatism, directness and craft. We will not see his like again.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Atlantean Myth (Part III): Black Diamond's Tale

Black Diamond passed away in a February three years ago, aged 91. He was fading badly then, but his sharp journalistic wit and optic twinkle remained in flashes. He had been an able, crafty supporter of the Thunderer from the old days.

I remember writing this piece, which didn't see daylight. I remember thinking that nobody would remember him because he was the wrong kind of person for the wrong kind of age.


This day we woke, missing his smile;
The flags - each pentagram of stars
Hollow, gutted of their fire -
Half-mast mourning for their sire.

This new country will miss his guile;
The mind aflame, the steel of Mars
Follow their lord to hallowed soil
Of country forged from his own toil.

The tributes fall, the long exile
Has come to him who fought our wars
And won for us, with word and pen,
The right to be his countrymen.


Will anyone remember that he wrote our Pledge of Allegiance? Will anyone remember his brave and forceful speeches, his zesty cosmopolitanism, the fact that he (darkly agnostic to the end) married a Lutheran Magyar who taught English? He identified himself with the Descendants, and could easily have mixed with them on the strength of his urbane but fiery style.

It is impossible to tell his tale in full; the wounds are too raw, and yet long buried and forgotten. He was a very odd person, who somehow should never have been here, but was. And we should have been proud to have him, except that we weren't.

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It's been some time since I first started putting together my observations on the State of the Old Place. Fifteen years since my first observation, in fact. In the latest iteration, I've observed an interesting phenomenon with a huge amount of supporting data. I call it EEKS.

In brief, the phenomenon originates in two subprocesses, a kind of cherry-picking and a kind of 'no true Scotsman' thinking. The logical outcome of applying these two subprocesses is EEKS, a rather odd and educationally distasteful phenomenon.

What happens is that a bunch of presumably professional educators (PPEs) start the first process by setting a difficulty bar for admission to a certain course of study or the right to be assigned a supervisor for some form of assessment. So, for a cohort of say 400 students, 280 of them are cherry-picked to be in what is perceived (but may not be) an elite course. Of these 280, a second cherry-picking occurs in which (for example) 20 of them are assigned to do Subject XYZ (or any other area of knowledge in which an extended essay may be written). At this point, the 400 (initially cherry-picked from the top 10% of a cohort which is already in the top 50% of the world's population and thus nominally in the top 5% worldwide) have become 20. These 20 are a chosen 7.14% of the top 3.5% in the world, or a selective top 0.25% elite.

At this point, some of them fail to meet expectations. The PPEs, who in some cases have been neglecting the students all along (after all, they are the top 0.25% of population worldwide, aren't they?), then tell the not-so-good ones that they are not truly elite and it is all their fault. Since they have been cherry(cherry(cherry(cherry(picked)))), they can't be failures. So they must have faked their way into the system and should rectify their own shortcomings. A true cherry would not be underperforming. Hence they must be 'no true cherries'.

The typical 'no true Scotsman' fallacy is one in which a person sets up a definition. He is later exposed to a case outside his control which falsifies his definition. But rather than blame his defining process, he shifts his evaluative process and says that the case is true but not a case within the original definition. At no point does he consider the fact that he might be wrong.

This situation, the EEKS phenomenon, is even more egregious. Not only is the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy applied, but it is applied to cases that the defining agency has had many years to work on, and in fact, has a duty to do so. The cases, in short, are the outcome of a PPE agency working towards a definition that is well-publicised. Yet, the PPE agency has not been able to make the case meet the definition. In this situation, the cherries who fall short are re-labelled 'pomegranates' or something, despite them obviously being cherries which have been abused, misused or 'benignly' neglected by the system.

In one particular case, after a long period of benign neglect, in which a cherry had been allowed to turn into something approximating a cherry tomato, the supervisor said, "Well, I don't know what to do with you, so I'm giving you a 'D'." Fortunately, a Certifiably Professional Educator (CPE) was found who was able to rectify the situation somewhat. Actually, a lot of the agency's success can be plausibly attributed to CPEs — some of these are actually PPEs with genuine talent, and some of these are freelancing agents.


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Monday, May 25, 2009

TOKenism (Redux)

Over the last few days I've been looking at what the institutional machine has thought of the essays my many students have written. Some cogs of the machine actually have spent time and effort to make useful returns, and I am sure the students will benefit. Some are less useful, and the thought that sprang to my mind on reading their comments was, "What are they paying this bozo for?"

The point is a simple one (madness, here I am trying to make it simpler): there are so-called teachers who are not doing their work!

Feedback to a student cannot possibly consist of a few ticks, some gratuitous underlining without elaboration, and a few cryptic annotations consisting of things like 'E.g.??' and '?'. If the total number of symbols a marker puts on a student's essay is smaller than the number of fingers on both my hands combined, it tells me that this person either has nothing to say or is incapable of saying it. Either condition is sufficient for a rational administrator to consider getting rid of this deadwood.

There is another more general point, of course. This is that in any theory of knowledge, if data are minimal (just remember that the singular of 'data' is 'datum', although I once heard a student say 'dato'), the information burden shifts to the interpreter of the data. But even then, if the data are too sparse, no amount of interpretation can create adequate information.

This is where the poor students are now in some cases. Having done their conscientious self-evaluations with me dangling the rubrics in front of them, they are convinced some of the markers are wrong. So am I. What now, though? The institution has the machine, and the beans are ground by the grinder. One can only hope the final tasters can sense the underlying body and quality of the brew.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Atlantean Myth (Part II): The Gnome's Tale

Of all the Thunderer's lieutenants, the only one that deserved TWO chapters in those annals was the Gnome. Born in a dead old port of brown sugar and silver, the Gnome came from an odd branch of an odd family. He was disposed towards cleverness and impropriety from a young age, a cousin of cousins and a watcher from afar.

The Thunderer came to appreciate this older friend, the one entity who could turn the arguments of thunder upon their heads and make everyone see something new. For that, of course, is the way of the Gnome.

The myth of the Gnome has ever been that he dragged a team of mechanical engineers through the bowels of the Ministry of Education, much as one would drag a claw through the entrails of an enemy, thus killing the spirit of education of the Old Time and placing a new and soulless thing in the body. But it was not so.

Reading the accounts, it is clear that the Gnome brought with him a bunch of young and idealistic demiurges—systems engineers, not mechanics. They found inefficiency and silliness in the body of the beast, and purged it. Unfortunately, it was like trying to cut out a cancer in the bones, while hoping that the body would remain supported. It worked, to a large extent, but the essential nature of education in Atlantis would be changed forever.

It is recorded that the Gnome actually thought (for he never was much good at assessing the responses of human nature) that when he generously created a place for the less intelligent in his scheme of things, that they would be happy to have such a place. It is subsequently recorded that he flew into a rage when the parents of the less intelligent merely worked them harder so that they seemed more intelligent, met all the tests, and were given places for the more intelligent, thus jacking up the level of stress throughout the island. It was as if the Archmage Turing was laughing in his grave.

It is amusing that this should have happened; the Gnome was ever an economist, but he had failed to see how the market worked. When education is seen as a multiplier of wealth, a factor of economic prosperity, then who would want to have less of it? His plan failed while succeeding; in all his speeches concerning the matter, the Gnome laments the examination-driven life.

It was of course the Thunderer, less intelligent but more perceptive, who realised what a great tool the Gnome's 'streaming system' was. You could have a pluralistic society, a multiracial society, whatever... but if the examination system with all its numerical and linguistic biases was seen as a fair gatekeeper, you could forge a nation from that alone. And he did.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Dead Sea Strategy

Over the last few months, I've been listening to 'Blue Ocean' rhetoric coming from a Red Ocean personality. Slowly though, as the data comes trickling back to me, I've learnt exactly what that entails.

It seems that the man has been poisoning the roots and sources of the ocean he already has. Not content with removing the indigenous elements of the College of Wyverns, he has been terminating young wyverns at source by allowing (and perhaps encouraging) them to fly to other nests. In the meantime, he has been desperately inviting cuckoos to the college, but not with any degree of success.

It isn't the only egregious thing. As the vast Descendant network closes ranks, they've decided that the man is becoming more of a liability and less of a trump. In the beginning, they hoped he would be an Emperor; now, they are looking at a Lightning-Struck Tower.

What has been happening is that, just like the salt in the Dead Sea, the man has been building up huge mineral resources and not allowing them to circulate freely. Good teachers are balked, confined by lesser talents, constrained by silly regulations. Fresh water has not been coming in, but has been evaporating away. Slowly, the gelid, tepid, halide fluid has killed all but some rare weeds. The end will never really come, but the sea is already lifeless.

You can float in it forever, though; having a lot of dead salty water makes for great buoyancy.

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The Last Minute

Over the last few days, more so than in the last few years, I've had many students lament to me about the arduous nature of an academic life and the pain of getting things done in the last minute. It's a curious thing, that.


Because life, by its nature, whether from a chemical, social, physical, emotional or economic (or indeed, any other) perspective is arduous. If it weren't, it wouldn't be life; it would just be existence.

And everything, by definition, is accomplished at the last minute.

That's not to say you can't spread the work out or do some things that will make it feel better. I've realised that when a student pulls an all-nighter with the aid of 1,3,5-trimethylxanthine, that student sometimes really means the work has all been done in that night alone: reading, thought, writing, everything. That's madness.

For me, a last-minute job, even a theobromine- or caffeine-assisted one, normally starts earlier. It's the writing that is completed by that time; the reading and thinking started much earlier. I have the memory of one horrible occasion in which a project gestated for five years of part-time study and the bulk of it was written up (all 60,000 words of it) in four nights. That was my Master's thesis. Heh.

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Friday, May 22, 2009


I am sitting around slacking after going through a long full-day conference on the Descendants. The problem of defining a Descendant is knottier than it seems. At first, a genetic definition seems to work, until you realise it has to be a culture-based definition of some sort; the son of an artist isn't always an artist and the son of a radical isn't always one either.

You could try language, except that like any other human group, some are more proficient and some are less proficient at a whole range of languages. You could try wealth, except that this sounds silly. You could try many things, and yet in the end, only the most odd and distasteful seem to make sense.

I am tired. But it was fun. Met JJ's mother there. Ha... she's as nice as ever, and says the darndest things.

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The Descendants

Today I'll be presenting a paper at a conference on the Descendants. This group of people have the same relationship to Atlantis that Jews have to New York, except that theirs was a deliberate diaspora.

Over the years, they became responsible for a lot of things. When I've said it at the conference, I'll come back and say it here. But if you go back to the founding of modern Atlantis, you'll see that almost all of the modern founders were Descendants.

Perhaps the most educational thing the Descendants could have done, whether or not they wanted to do it, was to fade into the comforting shadows of history. It was only that which made them less obvious targets for everyone else.

As I said, it's a lot like being a Jew in New York...

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Celestial Reasoning

Picture this, if you will. A man walks down a street... in an episode that sounds a lot like:

A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound
The sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says 'Amen!' and 'Hallelujah!'

This is of course the third verse from Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al. But it actually happened, in 1885...

On one day in that year, a man named Oldham has recently arrived in a distant Third-World country. As he walks down the street, he sees a mysterious sign, announcing the presence in a shophouse on Amoy Street of 'The Celestial Reasoning Society'. It is completely fortuitous, for this man has been seeking a sign from God as to how to proceed in his quest.

He enters the open room, and finds himself surrounded by foreign skintones (in this era, there are such things) and alien sounds. Inexplicably, as his ear strains to resolve the voices, he realises that they are speaking his own language, but in an oddly formal and rhythmic pattern.

It turns out that this Society was formed specifically for its members to learn to speak his language better, through discussion and debate (hence, 'Reasoning'). Intrigued, he engages them in such exchanges, and they are impressed by his scholarly demeanour. By the time they're done, he has been asked to provide schooling for their children.

On St David's Day, 1 Mar 1886, the new school is opened. There are 13 students, and within a year, there will be 104. 123 years later, there are more than 10,000 students each year in the institutions that spawned thereafter from this event.

I suppose we could do a lot worse than have schools that begin as a Celestial Reasoning Society.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chocolate Sauce

There is something beautiful about atrament, the essence of darkness.

At most times, I equate it to black coffee, steaming gently and redolent of unnamed flowers and spices. Sometimes, though, most heretically and perhaps disloyally, I think of chocolate sauce; not the stuff of which Hershey made a fortune, but the true and black and deep and rich and silky liquid which one drizzles as a backdrop to dessert perfection.

These days, with the increasing availability of single-source chocolate, it is even possible to choose your kind of darkness.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Curious Consequences

Those who are responsible for education can only carry out their task effectively if they act in a fair and proper manner and sincerely dedicate themselves to it. How could the school be used as a vehicle for personal glorification? Regardless of whether such an act as that described above took place in China or abroad, it is a practice that should not be allowed to be repeated.

These words were taken from the memoirs of TKK, the man who founded the Pyromancers' Guild. On further reading, the story becomes even more interesting.

Apparently, during the time of the Great War, a foreign priest asked TKK if he would contribute money for the establishment of a Wyvern College. TKK replied that he would, laid down some conditions, and pledged ten myriad thalers (a princely sum even in these benighted times). The Atlantean High Council, at that time consisting of European colonials, kept balking them. In the end, the University was not built.

It later turned out that the High Council wanted to commemorate the centennial of the founding of Atlantis as a colonial trading port by building a college named after the Gambler (a name ironically given to the absentee founder who on his infrequent visits to the port cracked down on all games of chance). It was this edifice that was built instead of the proposed Wyvern College.

Rather miffed at this turn of events, TKK granted three myriad thalers to the foreign priest to help fund the existing School of Wyverns, and turned his attention to founding another school. That is how the Pyromancers' Guild was founded.

Not long after that, the Chairman of the Board of the Guild decided to place two huge stone gates at the entrances of the Guild on the road upon the Hill of Tin. On the pillars of the gates, this shameless fellow caused to be engraved runes saying that he had donated them. TKK noted that this made it seem that the whole Guild was the child of this egregious person, and launched a campaign to have him taken down. And that is where the quotation at the beginning of this post comes in.

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The Atlantean Myth (Part I): The Thunderer's Tale

I was re-reading, for the fourth or fifth time, the autobiography of that great hierophant, the Thunderer. I still, to this day, marvel at the audacity that led him to name his own story, The Story Of Atlantis. It is the capstone to the Atlantean myth, that the island between the oceans was formed by the will of men, and not of the gods; more exactly, it is the capstone of the Thunderer's legend.

That is not to say the Thunderer does not deserve to have a legend. Far from it; it is well-chronicled even in the tomes of the barbarians that he has been a formidable leader who indeed made Atlantis into a legend far beyond its limited shores. The footprint of the island makes it seem as if it is not a little green dot, but something as big as Australia. The numerous ambassadors and diplomats he sent forth from this island nation were (and continue to be) all very good at enlarging her boundaries in the minds of men.

It's always amusing to me to see how he delicately skirts around the issues of the Gnome, the Howler, Black Diamond, the Misfit, and all the other sorcerers and magi of his cohort. Of them all, he was certainly the one most prepared to lead; of them all, he was the one who most understood legend and what constitutes the makings of a myth.

I still think of him with respect. I would venture to say that the majority of present-day Atlanteans think of him with the kind of awe their ancestors would have reserved for the Highest; a kind of fearful respect for supernatural authority and dynamic manifestation, occasionally tinged with impiety in the kava shops and opium dens.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Asymmetrical (Redux)

Apart from information asymmetry (which the High Priest of Atlantis mentioned on Saturday night as well), there is another kind of asymmetry I've come to think about more and more. This is somatic asymmetry.

The word 'somatic' comes from Greek soma, which means 'body'. 'Psychosomatic' means 'pertaining to the link between mind and body', for example.

We're often taught that the body has bilateral symmetry; that is, the left side is a mirror image of the right. Various studies have shown that people think of symmetrical body-forms (somatotypes) as being more beautiful or aesthetically pleasing. So far, so good.

However, the body is actually asymmetrical from the beginning. Wherever the heart forms, the lung on that side becomes smaller; most people have a two-lobed left lung and a three-lobed right lung. On the side where the heart has formed, the stomach also grows; on the opposite side is the liver.

A careful look at all of your body will reveal that the body is actually casually and superficially symmetrical, but internally and on close examination slightly asymmetrical everywhere. Most people have one leg slightly shorter than the other, a preference for the right side over the left, and asymmetrical placement of organs one would think should occupy mirror-image locations. (Think of all the organs, glands etc which are paired. Now look at them and compare, where possible. You'll see this is true.)

This is consequences for many of the activities we take for granted. Our shoes wear away slightly more on one side, our musculature eventually suffers from compensating for different angles and masses on either side of the body. As the knees and other joints develop differently, the effect becomes more pronounced. By 40, most of us will be lopsided and think it perfectly normal.

It's part of diversity, I suppose. Diversity begins at home.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009


When I first saw the word 'Exilim', I thought it was some sort of Hebraic plural for 'Exile'. The words 'exile' and 'diaspora' have occupied my mind a lot these days. It's an interesting idea, the thought of a small minority without a homeland, immigrating to a new place and planting themselves there.

The reason I've been thinking about this so much is that not so long ago, my immediate male ancestor and my male sibling both decided to ask me a bunch of questions about a paper I was writing that had to do with diasporites, the children of a diaspora — or 'exilim', if you choose to think of it that way.

The question that I found greatest difficulty with was this: Do diasporites all form the same sort of community when they land in a new place and put down roots? Put another way, are there specific genetic or cultural traits that make diasporites different in the way they set up educational and business communities? Or is each such community unique in its effects? I say 'effects', because it is self-evident that the cultural trappings and practices are going to be different, but it is not so clear that the sociological traits (diasporites are hard-working, industrious, conscientious, academically-inclined etc) are significantly unalike.

I have until Thursday night. Friday I present the paper, at the Atlantean Bibliotheque.

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When City & State Are One (Part III)

Tonight I was at the Atlantean Chirurgeons' Society 50th Anniversary Dinner. The physicians and surgeons of this professional association had their celebrations graced by the High Priest of the White Order himself, and his associated bodyguard of battle sorcerers armed with clairaudience, clairvoyance, and wands of ballistic opposition.

The High Priest gave an interesting sermon, which was full of intelligent comments about the place of professional associations with respect to priesthoods (or at least, as most will say, the White Order which is dominant in this land). Despite the fact that his father is the Thunderer, feared and beloved by the masses, his elitism tonight was focussed on the many physicians in his immediate consanguinity — uncles, cousins at various removes, his sister.

It is a benign and active elitism which prevents Atlantis from sinking beneath the waves. Despite cynicism (the dogs!) and skepticism (the agnosticism!) it is widely acknowledged that most of it is benign, has benign motives, has brought universal education and healthcare and shelter to the populace. It is also a kind of elitism that only a city-state can produce.

What is unique about city-state elitism? In one word, consanguinity. If the talent pool and the gene pool are both small, then the natural or social selection of mating pairs leads to elitism that seems to be nepotistic, but really isn't. It is a fact that the talent is concentrated to a large extent in a bunch of people who happen to share a lot of genes. The small talent and gene pool simply means that those with the genes to succeed at optimal levels will do so and will also be related.

They will also ascend to the top of the meritocracy insofar as intelligence is both an environmental and genetic trait. And the perks of position, the kratos and bia, will ensure that many of those who are similar in outlook (possibly because of shared traits both social and genetic) will continue to stay in the running for such apical positions.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009


Losing your cellphone is traumatic, but as my friend the Lawman said, you can retrieve 70% of the data by online means. What's cool is finding a cellphone you thought had been long lost, with a working subscription which you set aside for emergencies. There is obviously a part of me which is paranoid and used to working in the shadows.

And so I now have a working phone, and it has 50% of the numbers I had because that same paranoid me actually backed the numbers up on the phone itself, and not the SIM card in it.

I am occasionally frightened of me.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

When City & State Are One (Part II)

When the city and the state are one, the focus tends to be on urban geography and urban economics. In a sense, the hinterland of the state is outsourced, and negotiations between the city-state and her neighbours create the embedding environment of countryside and sources of physical sustenance.

Atlantis used to have pig farms and vegetable farms. It still experiments with horticulture and minor agriculture, but the vast majority of its inputs are from outside. Atlantis itself is mostly tall towers filled with wizards and would-be wizards; even the peasants and farmers deal in minor enchantments and live in towers. Most of Atlantis now appears to be what some people might call a service economy: an economic state based mainly on the trading of services of one kind or another.

What has this got to do with education? Well, standardised quantitative education is an excellent tool for stratification. You can actually use grades to create a gradient, from those who do well in national examinations and will one day be priests and wizards, sorcerers and generals; to those who do not do so well and will become hedge-wizards and kitchen magicians, drivers and cooks. Note, however, that even a cook can become rich if he is a great cook.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

When City & State Are One (Part I)

I have always found it easier to write of Atlantis than of Temasek. When one writes of Temasek in this day and age, there is seldom an emotional or cultural resonance of any kind. However, when one writes of Atlantis, one thinks of a great island kingdom, a regional trading centre, a technology hub, all put together by a kind of Hellenic republicanism headed by priests and sorcerers. And in a day and a night, as the many dire predictions and admonitions say, it can be consumed and destroyed by fire and the sword. "The work of generations can be destroyed in a day," as some would-be famous philosopher once wrote.

It's no secret that Atlantis, in any era of the imagination or of fact, is one of the last surviving city-states, a city whose borders are the same as those of the state it represents. But this gives those who analyse it both problems and opportunities.

In most countries, the political arena of the school is not so openly conflated with the political arena of the state. With an Atlantean city-state, this is inevitable; not only does the state drive the school curriculum, but what happens in the most instrumental schools can also drive the machinations of state. The College of Wyverns is an example of this.

The College is an unusual gladiator in the political arena. As has been mentioned before, the Pyromancers' Guild (whose sigil is that of a flaming torch and a book) and the Imperial Institute are the agencies of choice for the development and grooming of the Atlantean priesthood.

Yet, whenever examples of innovative and enterprising practice are raised, it is the graduates of the College who stand in the place of honour; Chief Liturgists, Great Generals, Lords of the Realm, Merchant Princes — all are Wyverns, and proud of it. I have estimated that whereas 95% of candidate priests are Pyromancers or Imperials, the 5% that are not make disproportionately greater contribution in this age.

This may yet continue. Or it may not. The curse of the Atlantean city-state has always been hübris, and it is sometimes hard to tell where pride in excellence ends, and overweening arrogance begins.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009


They are all getting fatter, said the Walrus to me.
(We were sitting around by the side of the sea.)
It's as if all the stress that was once spread around
Has now come roaring back like revenge on rebound.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Drawing Lines (Part V): Elitism vs Meritocratism

A meritocracy is a power structure in which ruling authority is delivered by those deemed most meritorious. The problem of course lies in the definition of merit. History shows us that merit tends to be defined by those in power; the trick then is to 'sell' the idea that merit can be made definitive and objective.

This trick is of course best executed through the use of numbers and statistics, since (for some reason) they are seen as more objective than words and ideas. This means that a proper meritocracy needs a national or global statistic-delivering system which produces statistics correlated to performance in things seen to be of utilitarian value. Examinations are a possible example of one such system.

An elite is of course the most meritorious or most powerful subgroup in a sociocultural entity. Looking at the previous two paragraphs, it is obvious that meritocracy can be used to establish an elite, and that an elite has by definition a large stake in establishing a meritocracy.

The difference between elitism and meritocratism is therefore a subtle one. An elitist believes that there is nothing inherently wrong with cultivating, developing, nurturing, maintaining, and establishing an elite. A meritocrat believes that there is nothing inherently wrong with using a system that identifies elites and then cultivates, develops, nurtures, maintains and establishes them. The difference lies in the fact that an elitist assumes the presence of an elite a priori, while a meritocrat believes that starting from whatever you have, you can develop one.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Elitism in Atlantis

Atlantis, socioculturally speaking, is metaphorically a lot like Australia. It is a huge island with civilisation on its margins and a vast desert inland. Occasionally, in that vast desert, you come across desert-adapted humans and animals.

This is what leads people to look at Atlantis and say, pseudo-knowingly, "Ah, I know what makes Atlantis tick! Its governance proceeds entirely from two kinds of elite cultures — the green and black edge of civilisation inherited from a colonial past, and the aboriginal desert in shades of brown. After all, these places are where all their most powerful officials come from, and there is nothing else."

This is the consequence of not drilling deeper into the history and sociocultural underpinnings of a particular society. The elite cultures (or sources of the elite, just as bacterial cultures are sources of bacteria) of Atlantis actually are three in number, for things do tend to come in threes. It is something many academic observers overlook, even while they are mouthing their reasonable and extensive conjectures about what makes Atlantis run.

You see, like Australia, the land (whether the green and black edge or the brown desert vastness) is illuminated and made magical by blue sea and sky, golden sunlight, and the rich and peculiar red rocks of the depths. It is a foolhardy academic who looks only at the land, and not at what makes that land come alive.

Why am I saying all this? Well, over the weekend, I was re-reading a few books written by some Australian academics (or journalists, or other people with a propensity for writing). They looked at the statistics on Atlantean scholarhoods (no, one should not abuse the word 'scholarships') and came to the conclusion that 95% or so of the ruling elite came from either the green and black edge or the brown desert. They then raised examples of the ruling elite, especially in the areas of education, culture and finance, the administrative service, the military, and so on.

At which point, I keeled over laughing, because the only persons they mentioned who were actually from those two large kinds of elites were the Thunderer and his get; the rest either were immigrants (well, one was) or were proud children of the blue, gold and red. (And even the Thunderer's brothers and some of his descendants fall into this group.) These researchers had used a statistical probability to assume (incorrectly) that there was a 95% chance that all these examples should come from the two 'main' elites'.

What they hadn't taken into account was that the true elite in this huge Atlantean population are very rare: they are occur with a statistical frequency of about 1 in 20,000. And the most powerful network within this true elite, the source of what makes this whole place sing with life, is from the third elite source. All you have to do is open the Scroll of the Priesthood, whose every edition lists the places of power (about 500-600) and who controls them (about 250-300), and you will see that this is true.

So how does one develop that kind of rare but extremely powerful influence? It is quite simple, like most things of this kind. You are born to it, you buy into it (increasingly popular and not to be denigrated), or you serve faithfully for a while until you become eligible for membership (easier than you think). You can also study really hard and try not to be tempted by the sheer quantitative dominance of the other elites.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Drawing Lines (Part IV): Mathematics and Theology

At first sight, this seems to be an odd choice of disciplines between which to draw a line. Surely it is obvious that the two have nothing in common? Well, not so fast...

Here's a list of what they do have in common. Both of them
  • construct knowledge based on fundamental axioms which are supposedly self-evident but unproven and nevertheless taken to be true;
  • use rigorous logic to derive secondary propositions from those axioms;
  • claim to explain the underlying structure of reality;
  • handle entities which the human mind cannot visualise nor find material analogy for;
  • have been shown to have questions for which there are no answers;
  • can be demonstrated to obey Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems (or at least, their extension to sets of logical propositions);
  • seem to be obsessed with numbers and symbols;
  • have a long tradition of philosophy and religious conceptualisation;
  • have been considered necessary disciplines for the pursuit of an ordered life.
So... what don't they have in common? Actually, that part is pretty easy. Theology prefers words to numbers. Ha, yes, I was only teasing. Theology of course requires the existence of God as axiomatic. Mathematics requires the existence of a universe in which things remain consistent (but unprovably so). The two are not quite the same thing, I suppose.


Afterword: As BL has pointed out, there is an entertaining episode in the history of mathematics, involving mathematicians David Hilbert and Paul Gordan. Hilbert's work on the Basis Theorem elicited Gordan's response, "Das ist nicht Mathematik. Das ist Theologie." If that were the case, Gordan was to recant eventually, for he later said, "Even theology has its merits."

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Drawing Lines (Part IIIa): Technology, History and Science

Last night the Archivist reminded me that some people like using the phrase, 'this age of technology'. I got his point at once. It's a silly phrase. I don't think there has ever been an age which wasn't an age of some technology or other.

Technologies define ages, not the other way round. While there is some dispute at this end of history, we are quite happy to name the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic), New Stone Age (Neolithic), Bronze Age and Iron Age after the dominant material technology of a particular place at a particular time. This of course means that these ages occur at different times in different places, but the intent is clear.

Later on, of course, we see the Age of Sail, the Age of Steam, the Age of the Ironclad — all naval ideas. The Space Age overlaps the Atomic Age (which never truly came to pass except as a hope and a fear). The Age of Silicon brings us full circle; it is probably the Modern Stone Age, haha. Our history is broken up conveniently by either technologies or wars.

Then again, we have odd divisions like the Dark Ages (a strange sociohistorical construct), the Middle Ages (which people invented to fill up the space between the 'darkening' fall of Rome and the Renaissance), the Renaissance (another odd sociohistorical construct that is hard to pin down) and the Age of Revolutions (I suppose from 1776-1914 or so, what some people call the 'long 19th century'). Hobsbawm places the last between 1789 (the French Revolution) and 1914 (the First World War) though.

The thing is that history, with its ceaseless reinterpretation of empirical (and not-so-empirical) observations, its re-hypothesizing and re-structuring, does seem to resemble science a lot. It even claims some sort of predictive capability, as in Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The line between history and science here is probably that of experimentation or technology; testing historical hypotheses by experiment is really, really difficult. It is said that some people like Stalin tried. Most people say that his was a failed experiment, whatever it was supposed to be. In Edgerton's The Shock of the Old, he innovatively divides history by difference in killing technologies. It is a sobering and gruesome perspective.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Drawing Lines (Part III): Technology vs Science

In my last post, I drew a faint line between the Arts and the Humanities. This post attempts to draw a very similar line between Technology and Science.

I have said before that disciplines can be distinguished somewhat by looking at approach, intent, content and methodology (and perhaps output, if you substitute that for 'content' in some instances). In the Arts vs Humanities case the line is one of approach via sensory perception and resultant emotional response, intent to trigger emotional response, content that is designed to do so, and methodology of performance and display — all of which are present in the former and normally absent in the latter.

In the Technology vs Science case, the line seems clearer but is actually less clear. Technology can be distinguished from science with this guideline: it has a functional physical approach, with intent to make something as a proof-of-concept or proof-of-utility, content that is the thing made, and methodology of refining the physical presentation until the form best meets a kind of functionality — either a) the proof of concept itself, or b) the proof that the concept is useful.

There is a grey area here, of course, just as in the previous case. This grey area ranges between the bounds of what we call 'engineering' and what we call 'applied sciences'. It's relatively easy to discuss. However (and much more complicating), there is also a somewhat kaleidoscopic (from Greek kalë = 'beautiful' + eidos = 'form' or 'image' + skopein = 'to look') area which comes from the fact the 'technology' itself is a Greek word, meaning something like 'the structure of craft' or 'the study of art' or any one of a dozen other possible meanings.

You see, the Greek word technë can mean 'art', 'craft' or 'skill'; it can mean 'method' or 'making' or 'shaping'. It is a concept that has to do with the deliberate shaping of something to serve a particular function or promote a specific idea. It is, unfortunately, very much like any definition we can craft (ha) for what we referred to previously as 'the Arts'.

In recent years, the word 'technology' has been appropriated by the Sciences. But technologies existed long before science; technë precedes scientia by thousands of years. Think of the kinds of technology we've used: levers and other simple tools like the wedge and the wheel; pottery and other ceramic technologies (brick-making, glass-making); weaving and other fibre technologies (rope-making, basket-making); carpentry and woodcrafting; blacksmithing and metalworking. these are not often thought of as sciences, even though some of them may be thought of as some kind of engineering.

In many cases, once functionality has been met, the quest for more aesthetic or economic forms has continued. Brick-making becomes house-building and then architecture, before turning into urban planning.

Sometimes, new functionalities are hived off from old ones. Pottery leads to kiln design and then refractory coatings and space-shuttle protective shielding. Tile-making and glazing, glass-making and etching, eventually lead to semiconductor manufacturing.

Is this science? If anything, it is craft, that ancient and powerful Anglo-Saxon word. Humans are a crafty people; they have been so long before some of them became rational and scientific. Sometimes, it seems to me, science is only the anaemic psychobiography of the life of things and tasks. Science is like the theory of technology, although scientists prefer to think of technology as the outgrowth of science.

I look at my father's Audi and smile. "Vorsprung durch Technik," I say to myself.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Drawing Lines (Part II): Arts vs Humanities

In dividing the disciplines, it's sometimes convenient to find some way to draw a line between two groups. The line need not be a complete division; it only has to provide some way to allow a person to say, "This is more likely X," or, "This is more likely Y."

Between the Arts and Humanities, such a line seems simple enough to construct.

The Arts are a group of disciplines in which there is primary intent to provoke an emotional response from a constructed sensory stimulus. Some of them are occasionally referred to as 'aesthetics', from the Greek word for 'sensation' — these are more direct stimulus constructs such as sculpture (tactile, visual), dance (kinetic, visual), painting (visual), music (auditory) and gastronomy (taste). Some are labelled according to their medium — language arts, for example. Some would call torture an art, since it fulfils the requirements. I don't exclude that, but I do realise that cultural significance and social agreement do play some part in deciding which disciplines, after meeting the definition, can still be considered 'arts'.

The Humanities are a group of disciplines designed around the idea of humanity. That is, they are centred around the doings of mankind and would not exist without that species. They are attempts to observe, describe, record, explain and predict the behaviours of human beings — with a deliberate bias towards excluding emotional response (although not completely). Literature, under this definition, would only be classified as a Humanities subject if the construction of literary texts and evolution of literary ideas were the core of the discipline. Geography in this context would only include the human aspects and exclude the physical aspects (which we could put in the sciences, as geology or geomorphology).

At this point, it becomes obvious that some disciplines have aspects of the Arts, the Humanities and/or the Sciences. It all boils down to a few key criteria: approach, intent, content, methodology. These criteria ('judgement points') are further refined to include things like subjectivity vs objectivity, qualitative vs quantitative, and so on.

In the next post, I'll probably be talking about technology, and what it really means.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Drawing Lines (Part I)

Sometimes, you get the most peculiar things said by academics about their own disciplines. The only thing more peculiar of that general kind is the stuff they say about other people's disciplines.

In 1959, C P Snow created a big problem by delivering his infamous 'The Two Cultures' lecture. This created (or highlighted) a divide between the disciplines (or the 'philosophies of the disciplines' as one wag has called it) that has been a problem in the integration and cross-referencing of human knowledge ever since.

To summarise the problem, let me quote Snow himself:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: "Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?"

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, "What do you mean by mass, or acceleration?" which is the scientific equivalent of saying, "Can you read?" — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.

In a technocratic and meritocratic society (i.e. one based heavily on engineering, science, statistics, and other generally quantitative and objectivising disciplines), a parallel but completely different problem may emerge. This problem is one in which the majority (nine in ten of the highly educated) would not recognize names such as Sartre or Kierkegaard, or would scoff at anyone bothering to read J G Ballard, or would wonder why on earth anyone would read plays by Shakespeare for fun and not for the purposes of some official examination.

Sometimes, the problem is actually one of misapprehension (or apprehension from false causes). The engineer or physicist simply doesn't realise that the basis of his discipline is also a narrative, or relies on the incontrovertible meaning of words in a specialised context. Nobody has bothered to show them Macbeth as a problem in particle kinetics. Nobody bothers to take a work such as Hawking's A Brief History of Time and show how it is science, humanities and the arts all at once.

To do such a thing, lines have to be drawn between disciplines to divide them as well as to make bridges between them. Someone with a passion for both sides of the divide and who is familiar with its sociocultural basis must be the bridge builder. He must literally be a pontifex, someone who can pontificate in the ancient sense, and not the modern.

Take for example the question of the divide between the arts and the humanities. Is there one? Yes. What is its nature? Aha, I can bet you not one in a myriad has bothered to think about it.

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The Hippo in the Room

Over the years, one sees the mauling of language at every level. Sometimes, this is part of the natural progression of things. Shakespeare spelt his own name many different ways, and if he were to spell 'theatre' at all, he spelt it 'theater'. In fact, the way Americans spell English words is often a snapshot of the way things were spelt in the 17th century, before the insidious pseudo-Classicism of the language by the clueless Brits took place.

It's quite clear, for example, that 'colour' is an awkward hybrid of 'color' and 'couleur'. That awkwardness stems from the fact that the Brits never seemed quite clear on how to transliterate Greek and Latin. The development of Latin into Romanian, Italian and Spanish offers some clues, which of course the world-spanning Imperials overlooked.

That legacy of linguistic neglect has come down to haunt us in a time when people can't tell the difference between Hippocrates, hypocrisy, and hypocracy. They all sound equally hip.

But the Greek hippos means 'horse'; a hippopotamos is a 'horse of the river'. Hippocrates actually means something like 'horsepower' (haha, cue private in-joke). The name 'Philip', from Greek phil- + hippos means 'lover of horses'.

The Greek hüpo- means 'under'. 'Hypocrisy' comes from the Greek hüpo- + krinesthai, 'to give answer (or make decision) underneath' (i.e. to speak in secret, metaphorically). The term actually came to mean 'to act on a stage', which stresses the overt part of performance instead of the underlying, covert nature. Some people who can't spell or with an odd idea of Greek use the spelling 'hypocracy'. This would literally mean 'underauthority' or 'the authority of whatever is underneath'. Haha.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Gnomic Utterances (Redux)

The Gnome, as you may have gathered by now, is my first cousin twice removed. That is, he is my grandfather's first cousin and hence two generations away from me. I have always watched his words very carefully; the Gnome has always been intellectually precise and never obfuscatory about what he means.

This, for example, was his statement concerning the Atlantean post-colonial era: "It might have been politically tempting to rid ourselves of institutions and practices that bore, or seemed to bear, the taint of colonial association. Had we done so, we would have thrown away a priceless advantage for the sake of empty rhetoric."

Look at the power in those lines, but look also at the sheer economy and cleverness of word choice. He interweaves (as Sir Ernest Gowers might have put it) the Latinate and the Germanic to good effect. Simple short English words ('might', 'rid', 'ourselves', 'bear', 'taint', 'thrown', 'sake') are mixed with the longer Greek or Roman ('politically', 'tempting', 'institutions', 'practices', 'colonial', 'association', 'advantage', 'rhetoric'). He even throws in the word 'priceless', which is Latin via Middle English and Old French.

This was not that rare a skill in the Court of the Thunderer. The Gnome's colleague, Black Diamond, had been heard to use diplomatic understatement in his address to the Great Assembly: "...though we are a small country not endowed with ample natural resources and though we cannot be counted among the advanced nations of the world, we are nevertheless a highly urbanised community that has acquired experience and knowledge, which we are prepared to share with others in... regional co-operation schemes..."

Note the difference in balance. Black Diamond's words are on the average far longer, and the astute reader (or hearer) would immediately ask, "What exactly is he trying to say about his country, which we all know is the most advanced in the region?"

Sometimes, watching the masters of the ancient world duel and feint and strike with the movement of words and phrases is almost like watching a sabre dance or some stylised martial arts display. The styles may differ, but the impact is undoubted.

Forty years later, the seeds sown in those paragraphs have all borne fruit. The power of Atlantis stands reasonably secure despite the depredations of pirates and other barbarians. But what will Atlantis do, now that the genius of the past is exhausted or defunct?

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Sitting Here

A former student of mine reminded me, not too long ago, that I once conducted a pastoral care session in class that was based on the songs of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Memory served him well, and my own memory tells me that the songs in question were 'I Am A Rock', 'Homeward Bound', 'The Sound of Silence', 'Scarborough Fair/Canticle', and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'.

I think that the best songwriters in terms of longevity (and their infiltration into the memetic web of society) are those who craft songs that speak to general states of being, but in such a way that they seem to speak to specific instances, specific feelings (such as a particular kind of melancholy) and specific personae. When I was with that class (and all the other classes which I inflicted this particular kind of lesson on), I genuinely believed that given good songs, students would respond (even if these songs were first performed way before they were born).

More importantly, good songs make us examine ourselves, not just look at ourselves. When you're sitting there in a railway station, do you think about it as a stop on the journey of life? When you listen to the percussive triumph-against-the-odds mood of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', do you feel your spirits rise as you contemplate the blessings of only-death-will-part-us-now friends? These songs won't make everyone do this; for each person there are songs, and other songs, and different songs — but there are always songs.

So I'm sitting here in an Internet station, backing up my iTunes library on a beautiful blue LaCie brick drive...

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Monday, May 04, 2009

A Civil Society Forever!

Over the last few days, the idea of civil society and civil institutions has taken a hammering, or at least been struck like a gong. The reverberations still continue, but I think it is a kind of healthy clangour.

Let me describe the situation. A local women's-rights organisation was taken over at its AGM by a group of women who turned out to have a general commonality: a bunch of them were from the same Christian church from down the road. As the details emerged through the cloud of fine spittle that tends to develop around the hissing of the faucets, it turned out that a number of emails had been exchanged among some members of this latter group describing the original institution as... well, perverse in terms of sexual mores, I suppose.

This was deemed reason enough for a takeover. Many days and mutual recriminations (some probably slanderous) later, an EOGM was held and vociferously attended. The newly elected executive committee was roundly defeated in a vote of no-confidence and the old organisation, newly overturned, was back to its old self again.

The vote of no-confidence succeeded by the large margin it did simply because it had a huge and even newer coalition supporting it. Apparently, the threat of a church-based takeover of a secular organisation had stirred the pot so much that secular forces had decided to get their own back. And so they did.

Personally, what I found alarming was the fact that persons X, Y, Z and so on could just blithely take over an established institution and decide to destroy its culture because they thought it was a good idea. It happens a lot, but never with such naked and unrepentant zealotry.

So, who was right and who was wrong? Or, who was right and who was left? It is tempting to cast everything in some sort of Foucaultian power/society/sexuality/institutionality sort of model. But I think that quite simply, it is generally a good sign for those who are hoping that Atlantean society develops balls the capacity for a healthy degree of internal disagreement, debate and discussion.

What I don't agree with is that churches should be tainting themselves by taking over secular organisations. There is no Biblical precedent for it; rather, Christians are exhorted to be in the world but not of it, and to free themselves from conformity to the world and its institutions. In this, I use the word 'taint' in the sense of 'tint, colour or dye', a perfectly legitimate usage from the 16th century. Christians aren't supposed to be part of secular sides, but separate from all to the same degree.

Actually, proto-Christians were also supposed to be proto-Marxists, if you read this passage (and this one) clearly. I've always thought that Marx had cribbed his famous 1875 slogan off somebody. Naughty man.

But I don't think I saw any of the church people rushing to sell their stuff for redistribution. The American religious right tends to talk about Godless communism. I wonder if they've ever considered Godly communism before. What a powerful social framework it would be! Heh.

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An Angry Man

Sometimes, in a quiet fuguish (a nice word, both blowfish and music) state, I hear the voice of reason like a catechist and a catechumen.

Why is he angry?

Because all he has is the sense of his achievements.

Why is he angry?

He is not angry if his achievements are the defeat of others.

Why is he angry?

Because you never admit defeat, never have, and never will. And you seem to laugh at his achievements.

But I do not mock his achievements; he has more than most others, and adds to them each year.

There, you see? You seem to laugh, even when you do not. It is why the Lady said he had to get rid of you, and 'good riddance' were his exact and bitter words. We all heard them.

Well, I am happy.

And that too, he cannot forgive you for. You are neither penitent, not conscious of what he thinks of as your crimes. You laughed at him, and he reserves that right unto himself.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Provisional vs Conditional

While reading through a bunch of essays on various aspects of epistemology, I began to realise that a lot of students were using the words 'provisional' and 'conditional' interchangeably. It irked me, for a few reasons which will become apparent in this post.

The word 'provisional' comes from Latin providere, 'to look ahead'. It developed towards its present meaning by first adopting the sense of 'to put forward in expectation (of a future state of affairs)'. When we use it in a religious manner, as in, "God's providence has supplied our needs," we are actually using it in the old sense of God's 'foresight'.

The word 'conditional' comes from Latin condicere, 'to talk together' or 'to speak with'. It assumes that there is an agreement between two parties, and as it became a legal term, it came to imply a state (condition) which would automatically arise given a certain situation or prior state (pre-condition).

The first term therefore assumes the future, the second term assumes the past. They are very different. To be exact, a provisional conclusion is one which is considered to be true and will continue to be true unless the situation changes to make it not true; it is a conclusion in advance of future events. A conditional conclusion is one which will be true as long as every precondition is met; it is a conclusion arrived at as long as specific prior events have occurred.

You can think of the two as follows. A provisional conclusion is stated in the form, "Provided that things remain the same, this is the conclusion." A conditional conclusion is stated in the form, "Since these preconditions have occurred, we have no choice but to conclude that this condition now exists."

After this point, the two may behave somewhat alike, because if something new and significant happens, both kinds of conclusion may change. A provisional conclusion can become definite if a fact arises that verifies it, or it can be nullified if a fact arises that falsifies it. A conditional conclusion remains true, but if something significant happens after the conclusion is made, then it is time to make a new conclusion as a condition of the previous state plus whatever just happened.

In the English language, there are no true synonyms. Where two words may be used interchangeably, one is normally better than the other. Clarity in communication is important, and good word-choice aids in the clarification of ideas.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Chance Encounter

Yes, there we were at the bread counter this afternoon. I was on the dole, with the pursestrings under someone else's control. Then I felt a tap on the shoulder.

It was Gnomus. He too had decided to go for the bread.

The afternoon became one notch better at once. Life is good.

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I used to attend a lot of meetings at which I would find my brain in some sort of peculiar gear, not quite neutral, but without much transmission of power into action despite the incredible energy going into running other things.

One day, the boss asked, "Why do you keep falling asleep at meetings? Not enough sleep?"

I was torn between the truth and the other truth. So I gave him both barrels. "Working too hard, so my brain switches off to save energy when not engaged."

There was a curious mix of outrage and confusion on his face.

The thing is that both these things were true. I was working far too hard, with too little of consequence to show for it, doing things that resulted in other meaningless things. At the same time, my brain was terribly disengaged during meetings because every now and then, we'd be listening to the latest gossip and irrelevancies just spun off from the rumour mill.

It got so bad that I took to hooking my laptop up to the room projector so that I could refute the sort of nonsense people were spouting. Things like "Hey, the results were soooo bad that year..." or "Last year we said that..." could be refuted just by pulling up the relevant minutes of past meetings, or statistics with comparisons and graphs.

That's when I realised the second thing. You could be right, but it wouldn't save you. That's a bit like the Republican party in the United States now. Alternatively, it was a bit like what I call the Half-Assed Theory of Leadership: 'You are either right behind or left behind.'

You see the thing is that when people think up wild fantasies and crazy theories, they hate being shot down immediately after take-off. The idea of contention as a mechanism for disposing of the trash before it begins to fruit seems to be anathema to such people. It makes them feel bad, and somebody (normally the shooter) will have to pay.

Fortunately, the shooter was also the de facto minute-taker for some of these meetings. This second mechanism helped to preserve a record of true proceedings in a handful of important cases.

You see, meetings are for people to come together to do work. They should never be rambling story-telling sessions in which people essentially say, "Methinks that..." and the whole lot of 'methinks' form a body of literature for further development. It's not about opinions alone, but about informed and considered opinions, preferably with sound justifications.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Noo Yawker

I was sitting in a little deli opposite the local Hilton just yesterday. Sitting opposite me was my corvid friend from NYC. He was telling me things I hadn't heard before.

"There's a kind of controlling, power-hungry authoritarianism in charge at that place. Well, you had a learning experience, and everything's good now! I'm glad that you've moved on."

He went on to describe the details of a few things. As always, he offered a balanced view. Claim, counterclaim, justification, defence, everything. Then he told me, "This may be the last year of the program. It's kinda sad because this is our 20th year. But funding's low. The NYT might be closing down."

It was a sad moment. I felt despondent — for a fraction of a second.

He continued, "I'll be retiring soon though, and so will my wife, and I'll be coming out to visit old friends and I might even bring my dawwter with me, she's all grown-up now. We'll do a kind of retirement world tour..."

And the world looked right again.

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Labour Day (Redux)

A year ago, I wrote something about labour and surcease from it. It has always seemed to me that the end of labour is the fit ending to any endeavour.

For rest, the 'ground state' of being, is the baseline from which all things are measured. An object at rest remains at rest; an object in motion cannot be said to be in motion unless compared to an object at rest. If two or more objects are in motion, define one to be at rest, and the system remains unchanged as long as you haven't already defined the space they are in.

It is altogether fitting and beautiful that Labour Day should be made a day of rest, a day on which things normally in motion realise that without a resting state, their motion is in vain. It is like atheism; how can it be defined without the idea of God? And if it were to be defined as the lack of God, how sad should it be that it must be defined as an absence of essence, rather than an essence itself?

Rest defines the universe of motion and action, just as God defines the Universe. To say that there is no God is an assertion of faith equivalent to saying that things move without something to measure their movement by. To say that an atheist believes in one less God than a theist is to deny the difference between one and zero, and to say that all other numbers partake of the same essence that is 'one'. For 'one' is the first of something that is not nothing; of 'one' all other numbers are made, and their identity sustained. This is not true of any other number for that kind of process.

And so, we rest our case, and case our rest.

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