Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stressful Times

I've had a rich and complex life, and if this were to be the end of it, I would still be happy. As I sit here watching the plague across the earth, I realise it probably isn't yet the end. Things can always get worse, things can always get better. People can always get worse, people can always get better.

Sometimes, I realise that a life in F&SF has allowed me to roll with life's stormy weather without getting seasick. Sometimes, I realise that being anchored to the Rock has meant that I've not rolled too much. I am almost always in a state of contemplation. I am almost always in a state of active reflection. I realise that, along with everyone else, I am many things and yet one. I realise that not everyone realises this.

Sometimes I realise that I am remembering odd things. I woke up today remembering this:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Some of you will immediately recognize this. It is the Bene Gesserit 'Litany Against Fear', from Frank Herbert's Dune. In Latin, bene gesserit means 'to carry oneself well', or 'to bear one's responsibilities well'. It implies good conduct within the framework of a regulated world.

I am reminded that St Paul, in his various epistles, enjoyed quoting from pagan sources. I suspect that one of his flaws was the need to show off his scholarly erudition. It shows in his liberal employment of rhetoric and arcane quotations.

I realise that during times of stress, I can hear the laughter of God. He sometimes says, "Just remember, you must take Me seriously, and yourself not so much."

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Monday, June 29, 2009


Today's post was triggered by something somebody said about how worship comes with a sense of one's personal unworthiness. I think that's partly justifiable; after all, you are indeed facing the Infinite and Eternal — compared to such things, you might feel finite and timebound. But further examination proves that the position of unworthiness is philosophically and theologically untenable beyond certain limits.

Let's begin with some simple assumptions. Let's say you are conscious that God is infinitely greater than you, and not bound by time, space or any physical limitation. This makes you feel infinitely small. I would say that you have a perception problem. Why? How on earth are you perceiving (or conceptualising) infinity (whether infinitely great or small)? The Good Book says that God has set the idea of the infinite universe in the hearts of men (see Ecclesiastes 3:11). If this is true (I am assuming you must believe it is so), then you have a piece of that infinity and eternity in you. You are only a smaller infinity, a kind of aleph-null (for the mathematically inclined, look here).

You cannot therefore be thinking of yourself as worthless, only less worthy than you think you ought to be.

But that's wrong too.

Let's go to another assumption. The standard of 'worth' must be external to the things being assigned a value of 'worth', or else it can't be used as a benchmark. God must be the source of this standard, or else 'worthiness' with respect to God is a useless measure. So either you are not worthy enough (according to God), in which case you can't even aspire to come before Him or worship Him or even interact in any other way with Him; or you are worthy enough — and it's not because of you, but because He has assigned you a sufficient value of 'worth' so that you may approach Him.

You cannot therefore be too unworthy, and to think you are is actually some sort of negative pride or false humility (or humility based on false assumptions).

There are hymns with lines like, "I, though so unworthy, still am a child of His care..." and those have quite another meaning. It means that you are indeed unworthy of your own merit, but you are thankful that he has assigned you sufficient merit to be worthy of grace.

But what is the textual evidence for all this? Many Christians think that philosophy is the next worst thing to sorcery, and the textual evidence for it is that human philosophy (the philosophy of men, human philosophers, the philosophy of the world etc) is quite soundly rejected as long as the basis does not accept the major premise. That major premise is of course that God exists and interacts with us, and St Paul, for example, uses philosophy based on this premise quite shamelessly and extensively (his own words, not mine).

So let's look at the text. From searching the Good Book in its many versions, I have yet to see a human claim unworthiness successfully. God does say that many things are worthless or of no value, but the text says even physical training has value. The text also says that humans have been given (or will be given, conditional on their free-willed request or acceptance) many things — gifts, grace, wisdom, peace... the list is very long, and all of it confers and implies God-assigned worth.

Hebrews 12:3 does caution against the peril of considering oneself more highly than one ought (after all, that was the sin of the greatest of the Kherubim), but it also enjoins us to consider ourselves with sober judgement, and the next few verses talk about our gifts. The implication here is clear: don't think too highly of yourself, but do evaluate your worth according to the standards of God.

A similar concept arises when humans are told that the wise man should not boast of his wisdom, the strong man of his strength, or the rich man of his riches; rather if they must boast, they should boast of how well they know God, specifically in terms of the countervailing virtues of kindness (a scholar should be kind and teach, not mock, the less-educated), justice (an officer should be just and not tyrannical in his exercise of power) and righteousness (a gentleman should be righteous in his use of wealth, and be generous, not hold on to it out of avarice).

In other words, you can hold on to your sense of self-worth, provided you know how that worth is calibrated and what it is measured against. It is no sin to be honest, but it is a sin to bear false witness; in this context, 'bearing false witness' means to either inflate or deflate your actual worth. The Good Book tells us not to use dishonest scales or measures. And this is why we have to soberly judge ourselves.

Have we done what we are told to do? Are we fit (as in exactly a match for) the tasks we have been given? The point is that we fail these tests often, but we do succeed sometimes. And when we fail, we suffer the consequences, but we also know that the Master does not hold most failures to be the be-all and end-all.

So, we're not so worthless after all. What we need to do is figure out how much we're worth and then use that capital to do what we're supposed to do.

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Pandemic (Redux)

Yes, yes, I know I have talked about disasters and pandemics and all that sort of thing way too much. From now on, if you haven't already been doing so, you can keep track of the 2009 influenza 'they said it would not be one' pandemic on your own at this reliable and frequently updated webpage.

Atlantis has about 600 casualties as of this hour. Someone should do a per capita analysis. I think, that as Jared Diamond has pointed out before, city living is a prime cause of the spread of contagion. Cities are reservoirs for this sort of thing, since people have little or no choice but to come into range of the diseased. If your entire country is a city-state, then you can expect to be pretty much doomed to suffer the complexities of pandemic management.

Meanwhile, the Southern Cross tribe has claimed that their own high figures are due to better detection of disease, and that if everyone else (especially the people of the Beautiful Land) were as honest as they, the figures would be much higher. Someone said that about a million of the Beautiful People have got it, although they say they only have about 25,000.

Currently, things aren't too bad. But way back in 1918, things got really bad. An estimated 3-6% of the world's population died then, from the 1918 H1N1 influenza virus. Almost a century later, could the bad old times be set to roll once more?

Meanwhile, the Indic Syndics have claimed that their billions of people have only suffered about 70 casualties and no deaths. Statistically interesting, I'd say. The 1918 bug killed 17 million of them.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Words of the Day: Blame/Fault

It is very interesting to see how people assign blame or fault, sometimes not realising that the two are very different things in deed. "It's your fault!" or "You are to blame!" are not equivalent.

To begin with, 'blame' (c.1200) seems to come from Greek blasphemein, 'to utter evil'. If you blame someone, you are therefore speaking evil about them, blaspheming them. The fault may be theirs, but the sin is yours. The Greek word blasphemein has a strange and mysterious etymology. The first part of it seems related to blema, 'wound'; it has been also linked to blaptikos ('hurtful') or blax ('slack in body and/or mind').

But the blema etymology is even more interesting; it is linked to the Frankish blesmir which means 'to injure or to make pale'. It is the word from which we get 'blemish' — an impurity, a spot of white, a blanched portion. With the earth sciences term 'astrobleme', the whole thing comes full circle. 'Astrobleme' is the geological term for a meteorite impact crater that has 'scarred over' with time. The word, from Greek aster ('star') and blema, means 'star wound'.

So when we talk about 'blame', we imply 'blemish', and we also indirectly imply that the situation involves us casting an aspersion at someone else. It may or may not be their fault, but we are actively assigning the penalty, the cause, anything bad that comes out of it, to the person(s) we blame.

'Fault', on the other hand, comes (through some evolution) from the Latin fallere, from which we get 'false' and 'fallible'. To say that someone is at fault is to imply that they deceived you (or you were deceived) by looking as if they could do something that they didn't or couldn't (or wouldn't). In geology (again), and in many other areas of knowledge, 'fault' means a lapse, a gap, or rift in the continuum, process or routine. It implies that things looked good until evil was found in them (well, maybe that's too dramatic).

Where 'blame' implies active participation on the part of the person blamed, and requires an active accusation, 'fault' implies negative or passive participation on the part of the person faulted. To clarify, you really ought to blame people for what they did, and fault people for what they did not do. So when we say that some hypothetical Mr K is to blame for the chaos affecting some area of society, we mean that he did something to cause this state; when we fault him, we mean that he should have done something but didn't.

At this point, you can probably tell that you can both blame and fault people in certain situations — if they did the wrong thing and then failed to do the right thing (or vice versa).


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Of Human Bondage (and other stuff)

Ah, today is a milestone day. Herr Hierophant finally got his dative covalent bond (although highly polarised and almost ironic) within the amorphous State. Meanwhile, the rest of us got to endure (if we were so minded) a whole news cycle on the life and times of the late Michael Jackson.

I've ignored MJ apart from the peculiar and singular highlight of his 1982 album, Thriller. I suppose you had to be there. But MJ never really had any impact on me. It's not that MJ wasn't part of my musical upbringing; he was everywhere during the years of my youth. Rather, it's more a reflection on the fact that in the early 1980s, when I was attending secondary school, even Marvel Comics' Power Man, Iron Fist had more impact on me.

By the time I was really musically aware, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, and even the retroactively-discovered Beatles had more influence on what I thought good popular music was about. With characters like Madonna and bands like America around, I think I completely ignored MJ during that period.

And now he's gone, aged 50 and a bit. So also is Farrah Fawcett, aged 62, and I think she had more influence on my growing-up years than he did.


In other news, about two hours ago I became an uncle for the third time. Heh.

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A Life of Archivement

I once read an answer in a chemistry test that went like this: "An atom of fluorine accepts one electron easily to archive a stable configuration." I remember thinking to myself, "That's a cheap librarian for you." How ionic.

But it's not such a joke when you realise that your male ancestor has succumbed to the creeping danger of all those who live in academia, especially historians and their ilk. There are literally hundreds and thousands of books stashed in unruly piles and plastic bags all around the house. There are papers dating back to the time of Constantine (well, John Constantine, maybe). The whole thing is like an archaeological dig, not a house. You need to grid and measure, take notes, examine the trash.

There is buried treasure too. I found a battered little blue book which, to my mixed mortification and excitement, turned out to contain a record of my first few months. Apparently, my first words to the world were, "Hiyo!" instead of the more common "Mama!" It seems to have perturbed my mother, and my sister observed with a ghoulish satisfaction that my niece has followed suit.

There are unopened bills dating back to the last millennium, and minutes of meetings best left unremembered. There are literally STACKS of old correspondence. Buried at the back of it all, I found a drawer containing the letters I received from old friends. And the photo albums from the days before there was an internet. Old memories.

Older still, my ancestor has kept VIDEOTAPES. And a cassette player! Argh! I need to help him clear all this up soon, before he retires and brings back yet another few thousand books. I have returned to dust, just as the Good Book says.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

White Space

Ah, yes, I've noticed some of you were actually looking for the hidden message in the white space created on Monday 22 June on this blog. Yes, there is a hidden message. No, it isn't in that space; I shifted it out of time and space in order to confound some people.

The facts of the matter are laid out in fair detail elsewhere. Lector, si argumentum requiris, circumspice.



It must be a statistical thing. I keep bumping into people from McKinsey. McKinsey, of course, is to consulting as McDonald's is to fast food. But I am meeting up with McKinseyites as often as I meet McDonald's crew.

I thought about it for a while, and I came to the conclusion that I have a natural affinity for people doing that kind of job. The thing is that McKinsey is basically a firm that solves problems for other people. They synthesize solutions based on whatever their clients want done. And they are reasonably clever about it.

For a taste of what kinds of skills are required for this sort of job, you can go to the website and check out the Careers section. They're remarkably like the skills a good teacher ought to have. Sadly, as in real life, 95% of the candidates (or teachers, come to think of it) won't have these skills to a significant extent.

Modern society is heading towards the idea of teachers as consultants; if you really believe in slogans like 'Teach Less, Learn More' or 'No Child Left Behind' and such, you also have to believe that teachers can be intelligent personal coaches who can help their clients come up with competitive solutions that preserve quality of life.

It's going to be a hard thing to sell. Most teachers are content to not do that kind of thing.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two Ravens

Over the last three days, by some strange synchronicity, several very different and probably unrelated people have expressed interest in the little project I designed and implemented at the end of 2004. It's an odd little project, combining as it does threads from C S Lewis, Neil Gaiman, various mythologies, modern technology and computer science, and half a dozen other peculiar things that have been known to run through my head.

The project revolves around two entities of dubious provenance who call themselves Huginn and Muninn, or Thought and Memory. On one level, they are the two ravens said to accompany Odin All-Father. On another, they are two angelic beings neither fallen nor unfallen; on a third level they are powerful archetypes and key elements of the universe in which we live. In fact, there are other levels, and part of the interesting thing about these levels is that Thought, of course, doesn't remember very well — and Memory sometimes lets Thought do all the thinking, or not.

The form is unusual; there is a short poem followed by two snippets of dialogue. This doesn't vary, although the style and shape of each triptych does. A lot of it probably requires explanatory notes, but it's more fun to just read through the whole thing in the way prescribed (that is, scrolling up from the bottom of the very long page). There are 180 proper entries. You can ignore all the embedded links if you want — they're not particularly interesting or important.

I think it is possibly one of the best pieces of work I've ever created. Some of you will realise from this how limited I am, while others might be kind enough to say nice things. But it's mine and I like it. So there. Heh.

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Yesterday Once More

I spent yesterday evening at a refurbished shophouse. Actually, it wasn't so much refurbished as restored. I walked in and was struck by the odd dissonance of seeing old things made new. The chairs were just as they were in the days that my grandfather had his clinic on the borders of Chinatown, the windows, the carvings, the floors, the details... they were my childhood come again.

But somehow, when you take the past and make it live again, it doesn't seem quite right. It wars with your memory and you begin to doubt your sense of history. I appreciate the excellent work done to bring it back to life though; the curators and experts were actually very clever in NOT restoring certain things so that you could see what time had done and compare it with what they had done to time.

It was not quite like that when I came to the new campus of the College of Wyverns, after having spent a large and memorable chunk of my adolescence on the Hill of Dogs. Somehow, everything had changed and was not the same. It was a new thing, with none of the old, and over the twelve years I spent in this new place, I grew more and more to realise that you could never have some things back again.

Sometimes, old things pass away and you behold the new; sometimes, old things fade away and you see the desperate attempt to keep them new. And sometimes, you get insidious forces of darkness telling everyone that the new things are the old things come again; it was like that with the Big Institute of the Southern Ocean, and it seems almost that way with the new wyvern nest.

At least, some of the hatchlings are real wyverns. And I hope they will find their wings.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009


I spent most of yesterday morning and this morning shredding documents — piles and piles of them. It occurred to me that about 80% of what is shredded is part of 'defensive shredding'. This is stuff you don't need to keep but which you feel you don't want to have running about outside, probably because if people got their hands on it, they'd spam you with subscriptions for odd magazines and advertisements for (haha) unit trusts or property.

About 20% of it, however, can be truly tempting. Minutes of institutional meetings at which people discuss sensitive things, archival data which you know some future historian would give his right arm (or at least a finger) for, innocent statements by incautious people which you could someday take out of context and use... thank God I am not exposed to such documents on a regular basis.

Then it struck me that what I was doing was limiting the future options for other people. By destroying material which I knew would never otherwise see the light of day, material which probably was the last of its kind, I was protecting some people from future harm, protecting unborn people from having opprobrium visited upon their ancestors, protecting an image of the past by editing it, sculpting it, trimming it.

I was shrediting. I was making sure that innocent pieces of information never got the chance to be dangerous. They would never grow up and become part of some narrative tapestry, but remain forever threads, smaller and smaller, dustier and dustier, motives into motes.

I wonder if my memories are going to go that way too.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009


So there we were, last night. The funny thing was that we had a complete wyvern chess team present at the wake, with assorted others. One man had just got back from WHO Geneva, another had been making trips down to London to provide advice on the new influenza strain, the third was back from Harvard. Lawyers, doctors, and unusual others — including the headmistress of the Green Atlanteans. It was an interesting night.

They expect the worst to hit within the next few months, possibly. Winter in the Northern hemisphere tends to be the time of influenza explosions as people sneeze their little virus-carrying droplets all over the place. If mutations occur, those are more likely in the warm and fecund tropics.

Meanwhile, in Atlantis, for the sake of gold we shall pretend it isn't happening.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Time's Dark Wings

Tonight I attended a funeral wake for a lovely lady who used to call me 'godson' (as she did so many others). It was an odd reunion of old and very different friends, brought together by an instant of mutual experience. Time had moved a dark wing over us, and the light of eternity had been shadowed for a while.

It was all very sudden. Sometimes, it's just like Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach — the world seems full of chaotic clashes and dissonances, and then we are gone.

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It just so happens that this post is the 1500th I've made since I started blogging five years ago. It's been a quick five years. In fact, it was less than a year ago that I made my 1000th (sort of) post, and four and a half years (or so) since I made my 100th post. Here's a nice big space. Think of it as a metaphor for whatever you want to read into it or write into it. Enjoy.

Space: the Final Frontier.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009


This morning I remembered a phase of our contentious social history with which I somehow found myself involved. I just woke up, and there it was, patiently standing there, waiting for me to do something.

soc.culture.singapore.moderated is a moderated newsgroup which passed its vote for creation by 192:48 as reported in news.announce.newgroups on 8 Oct 1996.

The guidelines below are currently still being revised but nonetheless will be placed here as a quick reference for your basic dos and don'ts when carrying out your moderating duties. Please feel free to feedback or contribute to these guidelines as you proceed with your tour of duty.

I suddenly realised what it wanted me to do. It wanted to be moderated, and had joined the queue. I felt a wave of melancholy for things long past. It is painful to be growing old, sometimes.

Hosted on SInterCom

The Internet is not anarchic, it is self-organising.

If you would like to volunteer your services and/or contribute information to the archives, please send an email to SUR. Last updated 7th Nov 1996.

That was a long time ago, and SInterCom is dead now. Its heirs survive, though, and those who killed SInterCom will not win again.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Counterclaims and the Theory of Knowledge

Recently, I've had a lot of people asking me whether when propounding an argument, one should create a counterclaim. This, to me, is a rather odd question to ask. When you create an argument, a counterclaim automatically arises. This is because of the asymmetry between positive and negative, in terms of burden of proof and other aspects of knowledge.

But let's look at a concrete example. Let's say that a student argues that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Obviously then, whether this student says it or not, the counterclaim is that there is. How do we evaluate these two statements?

The answer in this case is appallingly simple and comes from the fact that positive assertions and negative assertions are not symmetrical. Let's assume that the student is right. If so, then it is an absolute truth that there is no such thing as absolute truth. The statement is then false, because there is at least (now) one such thing that is absolutely true.

If we assume the student is wrong, there is no contradiction. Therefore it is easier to say that there is such a thing as absolute truth, whether we can prove it or not — after all, we can prove that the counterclaim to the existence of absolute truth must be wrong.

When a student asks me about 'creating' a counterclaim, what they often mean is, "Can we set up a straw man argument so that we can knock it down?" A proper counterclaim doesn't need creation; it is the negation of the original claim. In conventional logic, either the claim or counterclaim is true (in principle or theory) but not both. The problem lies in establishing which one is true.

In some case, it is hard or impossible to do this for either case. Sometimes the key difficulty is definition, and sometimes the key difficulty is replicability. This leads to problems with validity of evidence (are we talking about the right thing?) and reliability of evidence (does the same phenomenon occur under the same circumstances?) — which is why people ought to avoid such arguments.

One such problem is the, "Is there a God?" argument. If you could definitively describe 'God', then you could establish that the points describing 'God' could be said to exist for a particular entity, and thus say that this entity was 'God' or that at least one entity had the properties of 'God'. If you could duplicate a signature 'God phenomenon' exactly, then you'd have reliability too. But you can't do either. In fact, if you could, it would be evidence that a certain kind of God did not exist, since this 'God' you would have found would be subject to (or at least, behaves as if subject to) the logic of natural laws.

That's why I don't believe you can prove (in the modern sense) the existence of God. In the original sense, of course, the sense of the Latin probare, you can (in theory) attempt to test God with your own probing as much as you want. It is unlikely you will get definitive answers, but you may get personally satisfactory answers — which may be unpleasant, but at least sufficient for you.

Again, the asymmetry between positive and negative surfaces. It is possible in most cases to prove that you can't logically be an atheist, although you cannot in most cases prove that you can logically be a theist (except that it can be reasonable to be one because it is not unreasonable).

If all this stuff is something you can easily understand, then it should not be a problem to write a tiny (1200-1600 words, perhaps?) piece on some knowledge claim and its counterclaim. Right?

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Shooting Craps

I've never been a big fan of dice games, gambling, stuff like that. A small fan maybe, but not a big fan. I prefer card games like bridge or board games like chess, and occasionally I obsess over various computer-based games. I was there when Warcraft first came out.

But recently, some friends of mine (like Khaos and the Wiccan Wonder — which makes it sound like some superhero team-up) got me thinking about one particular probability phenomenon: the sweepstakes or raffle. I started wondering about the etymology. So I looked here and read the following:

c.1386, from O.Fr. rafle "dice game," also "plundering," perhaps from a Gmc. source (cf. M.Du. raffel "dice game," O.Fris. hreppa "to move," O.N. hreppa "to reach, get," Ger. raffen "to snatch away, sweep off"), from P.Gmc. *khrap- "to pluck out, snatch off." The notion would be "to sweep up (the stakes), to snatch (the winnings)." Dietz connects the O.Fr. word with the Gmc. root, but OED is against this. Meaning "sale of chances" first recorded 1766.

It's an interesting little piece of research there, something to while away a lazy Thursday night and wake you up on Friday morning feeling cheerful and full of energy...

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

卧虎藏龙 is a classic of Chinese mythmaking at the cinematic level. At another level, however, as a certain scholar has pointed out, it makes a great way to summarize the shenanigans in and around Southeast Asia.

Actually, it's a great way to look at Atlantis as well. The hidden forces that create a vortex around the sinkhole of destiny roil violently in the island. Two dragons fight, a white one and a red one; the red one is slain and the white one lives on — surely this is the stuff of epic legend. Some people prefer the lion and the tiger in mortal combat. But whatever it is, what survives is the very material of myth.

Right now, I am looking at schools as instruments of public policy dissemination and execution. In a city-state, as in not many other kinds of states, the relationship between education and public policy is very intimate. You propagandise the students, you elevate the schools to the status of the temples you have sidelined, and in a generation, 90% of the populace is primed for the policy you want.

Reduce the population? Reinvent the biotech wheel? Apotheosize gifted education and then fling it into the outer darkness? All these things can be done and have been done (and presumably, similar things will continue to be done). All you have to do is make sure that all drink deep of the Pierian spring.

Actually, it's more like Mimir's well. You drink deep to quench the deepest desire, and the price is one eye and there goes your depth of vision. Atlantis is successful at what it wants to do, and unsuccessful at what it should have done. It is more the former than the latter, but it is very bad at admitting the latter. If the High Priest takes your money in huge amounts to avert the destruction of the land by tsunami, but the tsunami does not yet come and you lose the money instead, that's bad. If your enemies then take the money you lost and make more money, it's not only bad but painful.

But life goes on, with a crouching tiger at every corner and a hidden dragon in every shadow. It is marvelous to see what a Mandarin movie can teach you about the making of public policy. You can read it in the book; the local university press printed it three years ago.

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Contextualising the Numinous

I found this quote in a Wikipedia entry for some sad school somewhere:

"Despite references to Prometheus and God in the Institution Anthem, the school is secular. The inclusion of Prometheus is due to the literary allusion to passing the torch, signifying the importance of education while 'God' in this context is a historical legacy of the school's British roots."

So Prometheus, that great Titan who brought fire to mankind, is now a metaphor for education; my opinion is that God fares worse — He has become a post-colonial embarrassment. What can one say about an institution in which the numinous has become, well, institutionalised? Why bother to have a school anthem then?

Did anyone consult the composer of the anthem before saying these things? Why not just remove references to mythical and/or supernatural beings? The last lines of the anthem read:

Let comradeship and fervent hope
With one voice make us pray
Auspicium Melioris Aevi
With God to guide the way.

I guess with all that Latin and stuff, they probably do think that God is British. I mean, just do the substitution: "With 'a historical legacy of the school's British roots' to guide the way." Ho ho, it sounds odd, doesn't it?

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Waxing Philosophical

One of the questions everyone asks me these days is: "How is your PhD coming along?"

The thing about a PhD is that it doesn't 'come along'. It's a qualification, like any other, that says you know enough about a particular sub-area of knowledge to probably lecture anyone else about it. It says nothing about how much more competent or useful you might be. It does, however, imply that you have the 'iron backside' to work at something until it's done.

This has always been my problem. I don't have the 'iron backside' nor the 'brass spheres' to sit down and hammer at something until it's done. I need to get up and walk around, look at the problem from all angles, learn things about the things that are about the things that are about my topic, and so on.

I finished my PhD module exams about five years ago, getting an 'A' for each module. It's the dissertation, that 120,000 word monster, that is occupying about 60% of my resources! As many people will tell you, it's not the length, but the strength. I believe that when I'm done, the thesis will stand as a fairly strong and interesting one. It might even be useful. But it is agony to churn out five thousand words and then spend the next day rewriting four thousand of them.

Even at that rate, people might say, "Shouldn't your dissertation then take 120 days to write?" Heh. It doesn't quite work that way. As the length of the thing grows, its complexity also increases. In order for it to remain coherent, you need to check more things. And as you check more things, things get more complicated because of new input.

They say it should take you not more than 80 hours to do a 4000-word extended essay. That's about right. For 120,000 words you would probably need 2400 hours, with about 12 really solid productive hours a week. It will take about 200 weeks, or four years working full-time, to do a proper PhD unless you have it set up just right.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets it right from the beginning. Some of us start from scratch or from scanty foundations. This isn't always a bad thing, since you explore a lot of new ground. But it can be terrible when you find yourself out in the wasteland and wondering what on earth (or where on earth) you are, metaphorically speaking.

Right now, I sense I have reached critical mass. I have explored my tiny microcosmic space and I know it fairly well. I now need to write the travelogue, and I'm done. I will no longer have to make Atlantean digressions or summon forth spirits from the vasty deeps. But it's hard work. It's labour and toil and suffering and not a week passes when I don't think at least once, "Why am I doing this???!!!"

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One Week

At this rate, everyone will get one extra week to contemplate their sins. The hierarchs have stumbled their way to a decision, and it is clear that the plague is sufficiently irritating as to constitute a reason for extra measures.

This is the way of the influence. It spreads its viral network and laughs; as you deal with one aspect of it, it reconfigures and chuckles quietly in the hidden corners of the world.

I guess everyone will stay at home and try to educate themselves through television and computer. If I were a thinking parent, I'd stock up on books.

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It's one of those hot and undecided days that the tropics throw up every now and then. Like warm puke, it is humid, stinky, offensive, neither hot nor cold, so lukewarm that it just could not be tolerated anywhere near the mouth.

It isn't that bad a day, and I have seen many like it. But it is one of those days that leaves you sticky and wondering why on earth you have bothered to try to do anything. It started out well, with rain, but did not continue.

I watered the plants again this morning. Everywhere was packed mud. The old steading has a roof corner about to fall apart. We'll have termites next, again, the damned things. They are truly like the lemures of legend, mindless and misbegotten cockroach-cousins of some nether Hell. Worse, they eat books.

I think I have done some work today, but it is ghastly, patchy, with holes in it. You can see right through it, and it makes you feel queasy, much as driving in a rust bucket might.

Today is one of those days. I'm sure it is better than it looks. I will go and take a look, and maybe report back.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Unfinished Business

It's often the case that after people face a crisis and come through relatively victorious (or at least ahead of their low expectations) they then stop trying so hard. Paul Krugman mentions this today, about how stimulus measures provide a modicum of hope and some Indian Summer tidings and already people are prepared to say, "Stop now, we're in the black!"

But the experience of the world, in every dimension, in every aspect, in both the material and spiritual realm, is that nothing is over until it's over. We fight the good fight in order to complete the race, not instead of completing the race. And we keep striving. If you burn all your resources to reach what is almost the peak of the world, and then fall away slowly, it is a terrible thing.

I look at the figures and I see how the College of Wyverns has reached a peak simply by numbers and effort, but with a discernible lack of cleverness, and I realise that there are limits to how much a small band of tireless workers can do to overhaul a huge machine that no longer has a unified mission. It can yet be saved; but the brains are falling to pieces, and the work has not been done that will keep it alive.

Time for another envisioning exercise, I suppose. We all pray it will work out.

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Running Down

About five years ago, when I'd just stepped down as Chief Technology Officer Chief Intelligence Officer submagnate of the College of Wyverns, I bought myself a pair of running shoes. I thought I'd have more time to run, and I did, at first. Then people noticed I had more time and gave me more work.

It crossed my mind that efficiency was not the way to go. If you were more efficient, you saved company time. This, however, was often taken to be you saving time for your own miserable ends. Efficiency=idleness, the equation said. If you were truly efficient, you'd do MORE things in LESS time, not the same number of things in less time.

You got quite run down that way, because you noticed that the people who got the big bonuses never did much work, but always looked busy doing something that really had nothing to do with the main educational mission of the school. Those who taught well and drove the machine of the institution just burned out slowly and quietly somewhere.

The old pair of running shoes died today, in a total blowout somewhere near the local Botanic Gardens. Pow! Utter disintegration of one sole. It wasn't the sole casualty; the other side, on further inspection, proved to be on the point of terminal material failure as well. Took a cab home, and regretfully consigned the last vestige of that particular organisational past to the trash heap of history.

It felt good though. Time to buy a new pair!

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Sunday, June 14, 2009


It's interesting, this new world we live in. It's not particularly brave, because bravura will get you dead more often than not. Rather, we have limits on everything while pretending we have limits on nothing. We think of air travel as essential (which it is), forgetting that it is sometimes the only reason for certain problems. Air travel, for one, is probably the largest source of radiation exposure (besides regular hospital diagnostic radiology) that most people receive in their lifetimes.

But the interesting thing is the 2009 strain of Influenza A-H1N1, tha odd hybrid of 25% human, 25% avian and 50% porcine strains. It has hit almost 40,000 victims so far; in fact, it has certainly surpassed that number even as I type this. China has produced a vaccine (which many say they won't risk taking, considering the reputation for chemical and biological contamination that China's products have gained in recent months), the West is trying to produce one too.

But one of the warlords of Atlantis has decreed that the alert status of the air-conditioned isle will never be raised again. When he said it, it was like God saying the world would not perish by flood again. Then too, the symbol of covenant was a spectrum of colours.

I wonder what will happen as the infection spreads. Will Atlantis stand firm in its belief that its sorcerous strength and walls of invisible defiance will repel the viral horde? Or will schools be closed even as June comes to an end? I'm sure that particular warlord will find some way to get his work done without raising alert levels. In Atlantis, any sign of weakness is tantamount to gross disrespect for the institution of the State and its governing powers.

I think that this whole idea of mockery being unacceptable is the sign of a terrible disease. If no one will mock the powerful, then when will the powerful learn that they are doing silly things? The idea in this neo-neo-Confucian state that the State of Atlantis now finds itself in by declaration and default is that the powerful are superior and should not be mocked lest confidence in them is reduced and the value of the State's assets plunges.

It is so pandemic that if you were to say, "I think the legal system here includes a few judges with cognitive problems," then you would be considered a mocker. In fact, it could be construed (whether true or not) as an attempt to diminish confidence in the State, and lower the value of its assets. This would in turn be considered traitorous, and you could be detained without trial for it.

Ah well, as someone said to me, "This whole thing arose because we weren't monitoring the swine carefully enough." Yes, this should be a lesson to us all. Wherever you suspect swinish influence, look out, be on your guard, keep watch. Don't let the swine get to you.

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Of Gambles and Gambits

This afternoon I was at Gambler's Town. This two-building edifice in the old administrative centre of Atlantis once boasted the tallest hotel in the region, and is a stone's throw away from the infamous Gambler Inn, Silver Saint Art Museum, New Library, and other such structures of human and social capital.

We were having lunch there, on my side a curious package of tenderly done minced meat, egg and caramelised onions; on the other side a wrapped up but tasty mess of butter prawns in aromatic leaves. Then we saw the couple, and knew them at once. They were old friends.

The slightly corpulent man had been my senior in my younger days as a wyvern. He was now the Old Man's Oldness Man; some people have Wellness Men, some people have Richness Men, the Old Man has an Oldness Man. His wife was (and still is) Nobility personified, with a cheeky smile which goes back almost to the beginning of my life.

We chatted, with their two children B & K hanging off their parents' various limbs. The boy has that smile, and the dimples too.

I noticed the white hair, which somehow bears little relation to the idea of oldness. I think they're a great couple and those children are charming. Sometimes things look like gambles, sometimes they look like gambits. The difference in them is this: with the former you often think you'll win, which is why you lose; with the latter, you deliberately lose in order to win.

Life is full of that sort of choice. That's why when I see happy people, I feel happy for them too.

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We are almost completely water; we are walking swamps. 80% of the human body is water and the rest is stuff. There are metal ions and proteins and fats and complex little molecules that are deadly in their own little ways. There are giant molecules trying to hold the whole mad show together. Somehow, we have integrity; somehow that integrity relies on impurity.

We are impure water, and we are the highest order of all creation.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Word of the Day: Brythain

For some strange reason, people keep asking me what this word means. I shall attempt not to digress too much as I dwell on its convoluted history.

The word brythain is actually cognate with the Welsh prydain, from Celtic pritani — 'painted people'. This came from the habit of the original inhabitants of the British Isles of painting themselves with various plant dyes (especially blue woad). If this etymology is true, it's probably related in parallel to the Roman term Pict for the northern 'barbarians' who painted themselves likewise. Pict, of course, is related to 'picture' — a painted thing.

Some etymologists propose that the Romans used the term Britannia as somehow related to the mythical founder of the island realm, Brutus of Troy. I think that's nonsense. It's a sort of post facto brutalisation.

The problem with the British Isles is that they are the most hospitable lands in the northwest of Europe. Britain itself, on which most of Scotland, Wales and England can be found, is the ninth largest island in the world and currently hosts about 60 million people. Over the centuries, they've been invaded by just about every tribe that migrated north and west, ran out of mainland space, and decided to cross the North Sea or the English Channel. This makes etymology hazardous and has spectacularly enriched the English language, which now seems to have about five different words (at least) for everything.

Britain itself is said to mean 'the Isle of the Blessed', and brythain therefore must mean 'man of the Blessed Isle'. In 1884, Professor Sir John Rhys introduced the word 'Brythonic' as a specific term of reference for matters related to the ancient cultures (pre-Saxon, pre-Norman, non-Roman) that inhabited the island of Britain.

At this point, it's good to get the geography sorted out. 'Britain' is the island which has Scotland (capital: Edinburgh) in the north and Cornwall at the southwestern tip, England (capital: London) in the southeast, and a lump in the west called Wales (capital: Cardiff). Great Britain is the term used to differentiate it from Brittany, the former British holdings in what is now France which were called 'Lesser Britain'. 'The British Isles' refers to all the thousands of islands in the region, including (well, that's a touchy issue for some) Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Shetlands, the Scillies, the Channel Islands, and the Orkneys.

The 'United Kingdom' is actually the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the old days, it would have been the United Kingdom of Great Britain (under the Act of Union, 1707, in which the kingdoms of Scotland and England became politically a single unit). In 1801, Ireland was taken over by the UK, a most unhappy turn of events which was undone some time later.

It is this curious history which allows the British Isles to field more football teams than some confederations (it seems): Republic of Ireland (capital: Dublin), Northern Ireland (capital: Belfast), Wales, Scotland, and England each have their own teams.

Oh yes, one more thing about England. 'England' literally means 'land of the Angles', and for some time, it was more or less the area called 'Anglia'. Somehow, Alfred the Great managed to manipulate everyone into giving him more space, and England became larger than that. If not for old Alfred, the Pritani would probably be fielding nine soccer teams or more. Haha.

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The Umbrella

Today my umbrella died. It had been ailing for a while; its joints and spokes were bent from fatigue and the burden of fighting the elements for many years. In one last furious storm, it snapped a spoke, bust a rivet, and gave up the ghost.

The word 'umbrella' is actually a diminutive. It comes from a word which should be familiar to any physics (well, optics) student. When you study eclipses, you learn about the umbra, or 'shadow', and the penumbra, or 'almost-shadow'. An umbrella is a smaller umbra, a portable shade.

Well, ombra mai fù, as old Xerxes used to say.


Friday, June 12, 2009

How To Be A Good Teacher (Part I)

If I were actually to answer the questions implicit in the title of this post, I would probably have to exhaust the server space and then point out that I hadn't given a definitive (let alone exhaustive, heh) answer. But the thing is that new, young, and/or probationary teachers have asked me this kind of question before, and I have tried my level best to answer it.

If I had to give a really short tutorial in teaching, I'd probably focus on a few points, all of which are almost equally important.

1. Respect your calling: You need to remember you're a teacher. You're someone who has to bias students in favour of wanting to learn, and show them how and where and why they should, can, or might want to do it. You are a communicator, a motivator, a coach; if you can't do these things, get out of the profession. If you can't create an environment for disciplined, informed and intelligent learning, then you have your task cut out for you. You must be competent, fair, and flexible where necessary. You are lighting lamps in the darkness, leading expeditions into the unknown; you are the shadow of a mighty rock within a burning land, and a stream of water in a desert.

2. Respect your students: You need to remember that you were sitting there once, and yet none of them is exactly (or sometimes even remotely) like what you used to be. Each student is special, has a biographical and biological context, has moods and emotions, has a style of reasoning, has a brain and a heart and all the diversity that the many years between being born and coming to your class can bring. Each one is a gem, but one that can be cut and polished, or that can be set uncut, or displayed or made useful in many different ways. One difference, though, is that these gems transmute and change themselves as well. They will reflect their surroundings, but they will also ennoble and illuminate their settings if treated right. They have their own nature; your job is to help them shine and only cut and reform if absolutely necessary.

3. Respect your subject: Know why your subject is different from other subjects, and what its 'secret agenda' really is. Know in what ways your subject is like some others, how it is linked, why it matters and is relevant in today's world and the world to come. Remember that all subjects and subject boundaries change with time; know the history of your subject and its cultural context. Understand why it can be boring in some places, and don't gloss over the difficult parts. Inculcate the habits of mind that are most important for your subject, while not neglecting other good habits; an aesthetic appreciation for science is often a valuable asset, for example.

4. Respect the context: Yes, this means the school, the hierarchy, the dominion and power (oops, got carried away there). All teachers work in a sociocultural context. Look out for socioeconomic factors, school culture, political underpinnings. Respecting these things doesn't necessarily mean you buy into them or participate in the kind of hierarchical games that such systems engender. It means you should appreciate the cost of participation as well as the cost of non-participation; you need to know how much latitude you have and how much that will affect your longitude. If you are going to be a rebel, just look around and count the cost. If you respect the context enough to want to reform it, that is going to take time, energy and capital (in allies, funds, and many other hidden forms).

All these are attitudes. You need to have these tendencies built in even before you start considering the technical aspects of being a teacher, a professional unlike any other kind. Teaching as a profession is the highest point of all professions because no other profession can exist, survive and propagate itself without it.

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Zero Tolerance

Recently, to a fairly large extent, the Chinese National Chess Championship was decided by application of a zero-tolerance rule. If you weren't sitting at the board when the time arrived, you were immediately forfeited, regardless of what you were doing, whether you had already signed in, or whatever.

Life in a deterministic universe, if not already here, is going to be imposed. Enjoy.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Three Months

This is going to be a critical quarter. By 'critical', I'm using the Greek sense of the word; it is a time that will require a lot of good judgement.

For a start, if I can't get my dissertation done within the period July-September, I might as well not bother anymore, because it will have become obvious that the knot I have tied myself in is far too difficult to unravel. The dissertation topic is like an overlay which covers several minefields. You read Tony Wagner and other North American pundits and they say how good the education system is that you're writing about. But what if it is good but not that good?

My parents are away too. For three months, it will be about house management, bills, gardening, doing the mail, watching out for serious documents from places like the USP and the various agencies that somehow have a lien on the pater's time. And interacting with my very interesting brother, who can be quirky, is always intelligent, and likes things done in certain ways.

Meanwhile, my students approach their penultimate or ultimate deadlines and examinations. And I need to help some of them a lot, because habits of mind are not so easily inculcated when for years they've been let off lightly by a system that a) doesn't push them very hard, or b) pushes them hard but provides them with unnatural assistance in getting there.

The obvious case is the TOK essays I've been marking. I used to write these things when I was primary school simply because the #1 method of dealing with the brat I used to be was to give him work to do, no assistance except answering questions with more questions (or a gesture towards the family library), and set him a deadline — something like two pages in one morning, four pages by the end of the day.

There was a marked lack of coddling when it came to intellectual problems: I remember teaching myself algebra and calculus from my maternal grandfather's library, biology and bridge from my paternal grandfather's. You learn it, you earn it.

That attitude rubbed off on me as a teacher; I'm sure a lot of my students will remember that my favourite response to a question raised in class was, "What do you think?" (I must say that Big Ben was the best exponent of all time at answering this question. He actually could think on the fly and would come up with answers on the spot. I appreciated that.)

I believe that three months of intensive teaching in questioning techniques — how to come up with good questions, how to redirect questions, how to change the focus of a question and ask it another way, stuff like that — would certainly make a cohort capable of answering epistemological questions on their own. The problem is that nobody wants to do it.

So. Three months. We should all stoke the furnaces and go for broke.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Seven (?) Survival Skills

Yes, I'm still on Tony Wagner. It strikes me that while people in North America wake up and smell the coffee (or are woken up by the smell of coffee), an instinct kicks in to start a process known as list-making. In the past, three points sufficed to define a plane; nowadays, you need at least seven to define a theory.

Wagner's seven points for the survival of the West are:
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneuralism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analysing information
  • Curiosity and imagination
As usual, it is a hodge-podge of adjectives, nouns and verbs. But more than that, they are very useful points in a generic sense. Unfortunately, I am quite certain that these same points won't help close the global achievement gap for a very simple reason: these are the very same talents which the human race has ALWAYS needed. If a school doesn't help to teach these things, it's a bad school, simple as that.

Michael Fullan, in 2001, came up with his own list for leaders. He has five points, which may look pretty similar to you:
  • Moral purpose
  • Understanding change
  • Relationship building
  • Knowledge creation and sharing
  • Coherence making
The lists overlap, but this one at least has fewer words. Again, it's pretty much something that leaders of the past ten millennia have probably needed. With Ecclesiastes, you would have to agree that there is nothing new under the sun.

Whether it's seven, or five, or (horrors, in this age of complexity) three, the essentials remain the same. You've got to find out what to do, why you should do it, and just do it. You can't do it alone; you need to be good with other people. The world has changed enormously, but the world hasn't changed much in some ways.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Global Achievement Gap

Just last year, Tony Wagner published a book with this title. In the book, he pointed out that the high school graduation rate in the US is about 70%. In most other developed countries, that's closer to 90%. 40% of those who do enter college need remedial courses, and 50% of those who enter college never graduate at all.

Wagner thinks that the US school system is not merely failing, but obsolete. If you've followed the figures, it means that only 35% of those who complete high school education make it out with a basic degree. The United States makes up for it by importing talent in huge quantities to fill up the great universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Caltech, Stanford and so on.

But the point of all this is that talent is blossoming all over the world. And that talent can travel as fast as an aircraft, or alternatively, as fast as data can be moved for the people with the right talent to process it. In such a milieu, the country with the nimblest minds will make it big; the country with the artificial and unthinking conservatism will decay from the inside out.

The knowledge economy is of course not the only economy in the game. Raw materials and the performing arts, sports, games, and sociocultural structures are hard to shift around as quickly. But these too have economic rules bent out of shape by the warping of time and space called globalisation.

Take Skype and all the other forms of electronic communication for example. They have allowed for distributed family networks across the world. The debility of age is now less of a barrier for the wisdom of the ancients. Modernity has something to contribute to tradition and the idea of family. My parents can now afford to disappear to another country for three months while I handle their stuff by remote control.

Yet the plants still need watering. Even though my brother the plant genius has hooked up an automatic sprinkler system (and would probably add CCTV if he had the time and talent), plants need personal attention. In that respect, plants are like pople.

In this age of mass differentiation, the personal touch is required, and bespoke goods are the greatest of luxuries. Never mind that our ancestors all needed tailors and shoemakers in the narrow streets of the old city; now if you have a personal tailor, people think you must be of a higher social class. Cars are designed with the ability to remember your ideal posture (or lack of it), and perhaps do this for every driver in your family.

All this seems to be part of a world where opposing trends come into conflict, and the centre cannot hold. But that's nothing. What is the problem is that everyone wants to keep the past static and stagnant. What people are not doing is thinking about the past and what should be kept — and what should be discarded.

The global achievement gap is not a thing by itself. It is the manifestation of difference between people forced to discard some of the old stuff so that they can travel fast and light, and those who want to hold on to everything until they collapse under the weight of history. And the sad thing is that neither bunch knows what is going on.

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Decadent Wyverns

In the decade 1997-2007, a few things became clearer, a few things became murkier. I would have said, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times," except that someone has already used those lines. The thing is that this is a tale of two city-states that are the same city-state. By now, readers of this blog know that I'm referring to both the mythical Atlantis and the legendary Temasek, both lions of the sea, island kingdoms, centres of regional trade and power.

In 1997, when the Undertaker undertook to revise the philosophical underpinnings of this state towards greater creativity, greater entrepreneurship, greater mastery of thinking skills, he gave a great speech. That speech can be found here.

What is not so commonly known is that the Syndic also gave an equally powerful speech, perhaps even more so, on that occasion. In the West, this second speech was given much wider circulation, for it asked a deeper and much more searching question. In fact, the question got so deep and spawned so many sequelae that it was made into a book. An interview with the Syndic about all this can be found here.

But this all brings me to the fact that my thesis is called Brave New World: The Atlantean Educational Response to Globalization 1997-2007. I chose that title because I was genuinely interested in whether the city-state had done anything in response to all these powerful speeches (for the two I've mentioned were not the only ones). Specifically, the school that made the most noise about everything, and that decided to go the most Internationalist route — what did that school actually do?

Can wyverns think? If you look at the original question, it becomes obvious what question I am really asking.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Phosphate Thoughts

There are very few drinks with phosphoric acid in them. For a start, it looks intimidating as a chemical component of any mixture, let alone a drink consumed daily by millions around the world. Yet that's what you get when you drink Coke™.

I've always enjoyed a good Coke™. Over the last few years, in my studies on human consciousness, I keep coming across papers on how hypophosphatemia (the state of not having enough phosphate ions in your bloodstream) perturbs your consciousness. Apparently it makes you less clever and more sluggish if you haven't enough of it; one source refers to the condition with words like 'stupor' and 'comatose'.

Some people say that drinking the brown stuff helps to neutralise the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome that some people suffer after taking too much MSG. I can believe that, to some extent. I'd just like to point out the glutamate is essential for brain function too; I suppose you need to balance glucose with glutamate and phosphate and... ha, who ever said consciousness was an easy thing to discuss?

What makes Coke™ a clear winner, however, is that it's a caffeine, glucose, AND phosphate source. In the old days, it had coca extract (ahem) as well. That one factor alone made it the Red Bull™ of its day, and it still would out-bull the Red one if it was allowed to have that edge.

One last thought. Phosphate rock is the major source of phosphate in the world today. I wonder if anyone knows where the largest source of phosphate is located? Scientific American says that China has reserves of 4.1 million metric tonnes of the stuff, which is impressive as an absolute number but not so impressive considering China's land area. China is 2nd. South Africa is 3rd, with 1.5 million tonnes; the USA is 4th, with 1.2 million tonnes.

Clear and amazing winner, however, is... [drumroll] ... Morocco. The North African state seems to be a major bird migration stopover or something. Morocco has 5.7 million tonnes of the stuff! Maybe I should reconsider my investment strategy, considering that the world supply of phosphate is projected to last at most 90 years more, and that the price of phosphate rock per ton has risen from US$21.38 in 1993 to about US$40 in 2007 to a mindboggling US$113 last year.

Meet Morocco, the new Saudi Arabia of North Africa. They've got at least US$640 million in condensed bird droppings. What a way to stir the consciousness!

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Advice for the Perplexed

I have a simple piece of advice for the twenty or so of you who have asked me the same kind of question. That question, roughly put, is this: "What if my supervisor/reader looks at my essay and grades me according to measures I can't see in the rubrics?"

In this particular context, your supervisor/reader actually is only assigning a preliminary grade and someone out there will independently be marking your essay and assigning a real grade. Therefore my advice is this: ask for an explanation based on the rubrics, and if such is not forthcoming or the person begins to blather, prevaricate, or otherwise show ignorance of the influence of the rubrics, ignore this person. On the other hand, if the comments he/she makes are linked (validly and usefully) to specific items in the marking rubric, pay careful attention.

It's that simple. I have little patience for people who forget the use of marking rubrics and decide they want to shape your stuff according to other considerations.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Three Amigos

I suppose it had to come one day. A former student of mine recently remarked at the staffing situation in a tuition centre on the east coast. He said, "Hey, the three of you were the most outrageous science teachers in our year!" He paused, and added ruminatively, "And in many years before and after..."

I looked at the biologist, who growled, "Bloody hell!" as usual. The physicist was off giving a lesson and he chuckled erratically and menacingly when I told him. As for me, I just laughed and laughed and laughed.

The thing is that we actually were a pretty good team. And it is a great thing that a great team sticks together somehow, even when everything else falls apart.

It is good to have friends. It is great to have friends who make a good team. And being part of an even bigger team is a nice extra. Professional development, I suppose you could call it.

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TOKenism (Once More)

It's yesterday once more in the Halls of the Mountain King, or so it seems...

And my question is: Why do people pick essay topics they don't understand?

There must be at least two answers. Maybe it's bravado. Maybe they've not enough training. And maybe they just don't know what they're in for.


Friday, June 05, 2009


Today I ended up talking to QC. QC is a lawyer at a very prestigious law firm which might be characterised as a lily-pad. He was telling me about his accidental walk with someone with whom I would rather not walk myself. Some people, it seems, told QC that whatever happened to this humble writer was all a misunderstanding. Someone also said to QC that some people regretted the misunderstanding and bore no ill-will to the target of the misunderstanding.

QC told me many things about that someone. They were amusing to me, and I was able to remain calm and cheerful throughout. It helps that QC is also a good friend of my own immediate male ancestor and hence relatively trustworthy.

Haha, well, I feel like a djinni who has been released from some imprisoning lamp by a 'misunderstanding' and is not very keen on returning no matter what. After weathering much ill-will, malice and other inappropriate feelings from some people, it is good to be free. It is almost as if, now that the djinni is out of the lamp and able to wield his powers to his own advantage, the previous lampoons are regretting the misunderstanding. (I don't really think so, but you never know.)

Well, I understood every word quite clearly. If you tell me in simple words, and then repeat to my wife those words, "...not a good teacher, so might as well go elsewhere..." well then I am happy to be elsewhere. I don't think I misunderstood anything, and I am quite certain that accepting the nice big payoff and leaving was in my best interests at the time.

I myself bear no malice or ill-will. I must confess that I have had episodes of Schadenfreude at certain happenings, but I try not to feel that way. I told QC so. He laughed and asked me to do what he thought I did best: teach his offspring. Haha.

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Friday Thankfulness, Why?

It's customary for workers in many parts of the world to heave a sigh of relief or make other general expressions of good cheer regarding Friday, which is often the last working day in a week. TGIF, they say, thank God it's Friday.

It amuses me because many of the people I've heard saying this don't seem to believe in God, or in Freya, the goddess after whom Friday is named. But the sentiment is clearly akin to saying how happy one is that the weekend is about to come round.

Well, I'm not always so happy sometimes that the weekend is about to come round. It takes away the one advantage I have over many other people: I'm freer on weekdays! Heh.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Envisioning Exercise

Once in a while, established institutions decide that they want to reinvent themselves. It's interesting to look at the reasons why they want to do it, the way they go about it, and the kinds of outcomes they expect or manufacture.

Why do they do it?

The most obvious reason is boredom or staleness. Having done the same thing for so long, and perhaps never ever having come close to their previous idea of a Promised Land, they have decided to change things around. Instead of some great and powerful vision, they want something easier, lighter, or more accessible; most of all, it must be different. It's a sort of itchy-backside syndrome, symptomatic of this modern age in which attention span lapses easily and people want to be entertained rather than think about how to do things right.

The second most common reason is relevance. Somehow, they feel they are not as relevant to the times as they ought to be. So they look at present-day trends and near-future trends in a very scientific-looking way and say, "Hey these are trends which we should be targeting our envisioning processes at!" or some such guff. It's guff because a vision is independent of relevance. For example, if a school has the vision, "Every Atlantean a superior being!" then the means of getting there can be tailored to be relevant but the vision need not be changed. A good vision is always relevant.

The third reason is that various rubrics for measuring institutional capability and institutional excellence seem to require it. "Hey we need an envisioning exercise so that the quality-control inspectors will see that we actually have a process for perverting distorting prostituting enhancing our original vision, mission, and philosophy!" Never mind that doing so probably means that you are altering the objectives of your five-year plan every three years and hence never achieving anything serious. But it maintains cash-flow, cynically speaking.

How do they do it?

The obvious method is the eponymous 'envisioning exercise' (or EE for short). A good EE starts with nice music, a fanfare, a keynote address. It is held in some place which feels prestigious (if meant to be a public display) or pleasantly conspiratorial (if meant to be an inner-circle bonding exercise). It continues by posing irrelevant questions (see previous section for some hints as to what these might be) and the mass dropping of keywords like some sort of cluster bombing. It has an all-encompassing theme, like "Envisioning the Role of the Ministry of Education Security Services [insert Name here] in the New Millennium".

Occasionally, this exercise is outsourced to a think-tank, what Churchill might have referred to as, "Boffins on tap, but not on top." This is surprisingly sometimes better with regard to the outcomes, since an external think-tank is less subject to groupthink relative to the original group. But this is a bit like saying, "I can't see clearly, so why don't you describe to me what I'm supposed to be seeing?"

In detail, what happens is this:
  • the Boss (or boss-proxy) will call the cluster-bombing meeting or conference to attention and stress the great importance of this congregation to the future of the institution, the nation, and the world (not always in this order);
  • a keynote address or opening statement will be given, that subtly (or not so subtly) incorporates all the buzzwords, terms, and propaganda required ideals;
  • there may be secondary speakers, shouts of "Hear, hear!" and other sounds of agreement and support;
  • time will be given for discussion (although it is often quite clear what outcomes are desired from the keynote speech or opening statement);
  • break-out groups (not to be confused with break-dancing) will be formed to give the sense that everyone is involved in an intense search for grand unifying theories or overarching ideas or some such;
  • the conclave will be reassembled and a quest for the holy grail meeting will be reconvened to give the Boss an opportunity to 'synthesize' a vision that he will emphasize is the product of much effort on the part of the participants.
It is all rather exciting for some people.

What are the expected outcomes?

To be blunt, the main outcome is what might be called the construction of a 'professionally relevant concept'. a sentence of modern (hence 'relevant') jargon (hence 'professional') which is sufficiently structured but indefinite (hence 'concept') as to look visionary. It is often hard to differentiate the truly visionary from the delusional; in this case, it is easy because the people playing at 'envisioning exercises' tend not to be delusional but cynical.

I've had my share of envisioning exercises over the years. You can find my thoughts on 'holistic education' by searching this blog, for example; I raise that particular phrase because it is one of the targets of modern envisioning in educational circles.

For me, I don't expect much from envisioning exercises. It strikes me that to be powerful and moving and relevant for all times and all ages, a vision must be obvious and yet ineffable. When we say 'grand endeavour' it is something a lot more than 'lots of work' or 'helluva job'. When we say 'signs of a better age', we aren't saying 'ads promising a good time'. Similarly, "Each man a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm" sounds a lot better than "Each man a scholar, officer and gentleman."

Of course, your mileage (and vision) may vary.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Pain, Brain, Train

Just as the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, so also when we train we hear all the time, "No pain, no gain." But associations aside, it's actually hard to disentangle the brain from the pain when we train and so on.

It's very simple. The concept of mind that we have is a very iffy one. 'Mind' to us involves emotions (which are the result of your whole body's physiological changes) and reasoning (which often involves the immediate biasing effect of both internal and external environments). It gets even iffier when we look at the fact that physical action biases sensory and emotional perception.

In a recent experiment involving 38 subjects, Psychological Science reports that people who took four steps backwards before attempting a task did better than people who took four steps forwards. Similarly, in this month's Scientific American, another experiment showed (not for the first time) that the configuration of the mouth and lips affects how a person hears things; if you are smiling, you are more positive than when you are not!

The body's input to the brain's filters is significant. When I pull my shoulders back, I know I still feel pain, but the pain gets more bearable. In fact, it's easier to forget the pain when I breathe deeply and slowly and smile a lot.

For all those students of mine who wondered why I used to walk so stiffly upright and smile so much, well, that's one answer right there. Then again, I prefer to walk properly and I'm a generally happy person, so perhaps it's not the only answer.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Asymmetric Haunting

These things come back to haunt you.

I've realised that over the years, every unilateral injury I've ever taken has been on the right side of my body. Shoulder, foot, various ungainly ruptures of connective tissue and integument, either to the right side alone or to both sides.

It's a bit like what they used to call 'warrior wounds', mostly on the non-shield side. The thing they never tell you is that the muscles develop warped, trying to compensate for problems of balance and mobility.

Some of my right neck muscles, for some reason, are about double the diameter of their left neck counterparts. My right shoulder has an annoying habit of moving forward faster than my left shoulder, and my right knee is bigger than my left.

I would never have noticed, actually. One day, though, I was doing stretching exercises on the floor when I realised one reason I couldn't stretch as far in one direction was that one of my legs was about 8 mm longer than the other and the other was chunkier.

Over the years, my back muscles have tried to compensate for the slight skew in posture. As a result, almost all my back pains are on the right side, both upper and lower back. The only time I have no back pains is when I've been relaxing in the water a long time or when I've had a particularly good massage.

Nowadays, when I hear about the injuries people like JJ and Tim have suffered, I feel sorry not because of the immediate trauma, but because I can just imagine what it will be like two decades or more later.

These things never really go away. But the haunting intensifies, as if they keep reminding you, "Hey, you killed us when you were younger; now, you will never be free of us." Sigh.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

The Rock

I first encountered The Rock when I was researching a short workshop on urban poetry. It seemed an unlikely basis for further adventures at first: the poem can appear to be a sort of mixture of Greek tragedy and archaic Christian theology dressed up to look like a modern hybrid of Blake and Auden.

But it isn't really that. It's a lot more powerful than that.

In a previous post, I quoted these lines. They reminded me about where my reward for my endeavours really lies, and what form it might take — and what form I should not expect it to take.

I have two more quotes that I will not comment on further:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

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The Write Stuff

There's a problem with craftsmanship and complexity; there's a problem with the 3 Cs — comprehension, composition and computation; there's a problem with consideration and cogitation. That's 7 Cs altogether, and not a single ocean.

The thing is this: you can get simple hacks to teach how to write sentences. You can get simple hacks to teach how to string them together in some order. And you can get these simple hacks to be English teachers, and everyone will be satisfied if only simple constructs are to be expressed. I mean, "See Spot run!" is pretty easy, and if you want to make Spot go through some adventures too, that's fine.

But the thing is that if you're going to craft a rock, there is large margin for error; if you want to make a sundial, there's a whole lot less; and if you want to assemble a clock, there's preferably as little error as humanly possible. The same applies to the writing of complex essays.

And that's where things have begun to go wrong. A simple essay with the only restriction that you write about the topic given can be hacked out of raw stone (so to speak) in about 20 minutes or less. A literary essay can be designed, sourced and hacked out in about a day or so. But an essay which discusses epistemology and requires more than passing acquaintance with several fields of knowledge, an understanding of various ways of knowing, and a personal engagement with the material that shines out from the murkiness — ha, this is not so easy, especially if the word limit is brutally tight.

If you want to teach people to write these things, you can't be just an ordinary hack. The apprenticeship model for clockmakers is a lot more rigorous than the apprenticeship model for brickmakers. For both, composition of the raw material and comprehension of what it can do (and how it should do it) are essential. But the former requires a lot more computation, a lot more exactitude, and a lot more craft than the latter. You need to be able to handle complexity with tighter tolerances.

If you want to learn how to make something, look at the craftsmanship of the person who is going to teach you. If you want a person to teach something, you should ask them to show that they can do it first. In a school system, if a person gets to university and qualifies in a subject, that normally means they can make bricks and even houses. But it doesn't mean they can build windmills and television sets and clocks.

If making the simplest brick house is tough, making the simplest working mechanical clock is tougher. And if you get brickmakers to make both, the first will be functional and the second will be crap.

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