Friday, July 31, 2009

Gravity and Sorcery

For all that science is, it still has problems dealing with reality. As a teacher of science and of the epistemology that comes with it, I've found that teaching people the difference between reality and representations of reality is very tough.

Take for example the idea of an atom. With things like X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy we can vicariously perceive things that purport to be atoms, or at least, the positions, the wraiths, the ghosts of atoms. Limited by time and space, we still cannot know atoms except at one remove, or more. But the evidence is clear that something is there, and we know its properties well.

The same thing occurs with gravity. We know how it seems to work; we are pretty good at estimating its effects and predicting its behaviour. But how does it work the way it works? Here is where we slip into hand-waving and analogies. Gravitons? Just a name for the supernatural entities that we hang our dreams of gravity on.

The list goes on. Dark matter, dark energy, string theory... our knowledge of the universe has become increasingly tenuous. By what criteria do we call it knowledge now? By the fact that we have found a connect-the-dots theory to account for everything we think we see? By the fact that we can use the theory to predict other things? But how does it work?

That's where we enter the realm of the sorcerer's construct. A sorcerer who knows nothing of science, given a modern gadget (say, a laptop computer with a solar-cell recharger), will eventually come up with an hypothesis of its workings that will account for its behaviour and, because the machine's logic is internally consistent, also account for future behaviours. But does he know how it works?

Think about it. He learns to launch a word-processor by clicking on its icon. He learns that when he presses the 'A' key, an 'A' appears on the screen. This behaviour is reliable, and it will hold true for all the keys — whatever is on the key is what appears on the screen. The simplest hypothesis is that there is a sympathetic link between the symbol on the key and the graphic on the screen. The nature of that link is so complicated that if this were a scientific experiment, scientists would throw out the real explanation by using Occam's razor. It would be far simpler to hypothesize that it works like a typewriter: mechanical action on keyboard impresses the screen with images.

We're in that position. We attempt to name ourselves the lords of creation, writing out our account of how the universe works. But we'll never get into the workings. Even with our analogies, our metaphors, our formulae, the universe is still a black box. We put stuff in, we see stuff, we figure out what stuff produces what stuff. But why does it produce stuff? All we have is the idea that the universe is consistent. And worse, we assume the simplest explanation is probably true.

And now, not even that. The more we know, the more we begin to suspect that the consistencies we find in the laws of physics are merely a local aberration. It's like when you first see a colour change during a titration, before you swirl the mixture. The local concentration has spiked, and the indicator has changed colour, but that situation is not true for the rest of the solution.

We're all sorcerers, just as Isaac Newton was proud to be. We have no idea of what is real, we advance no hypothesis that is worthy of the name; we only report what we see, predict what we think we will see, and are happy if it turns out right. That is what science is about; it is the predictable toy in the bag of jokes.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Public Housing in Atlantis

In Atlantis, there are all kinds of pyramid games. These aren't your usual distributed sales or Ponzi scheme pyramid games, but games that have to do with the distribution of wealth.

I'm a poor boy, and my little apartment in the outskirts of the Swamp was cheap. In fact, I paid for it entirely with the government-backed savings plan. I never touched any of my own liquidity. The price of that apartment has gone up about 70% recently.

Does it mean that people are getting wealthier? No, I'm afraid to think what I think, but I think that it's because the upper middle class are thinking twice about expensive property and are starting to encroach on the cheaper stuff. This is raising the price of the cheaper stuff.

It's the same with education. Education ought to be a public good. But it's become stratified by class to a very measurable extent, both in terms of money as well as in attitudes. It has led to an odd equilibrium similar to that found in schools founded some time in the 19th and early 20th centuries all over the world.

The equilibrium is multipolar. It goes like this. Consider an hypothetical school A.

School A has average teachers but the scions of rich families go there. The senior members of those families sit on the board. They give the school a sense of importance, of national-level destiny. They allow the school to create expensive programmes with (as is the case with many social phenomena) difficult-to-measure outcomes. We don't know if these programmes would work for everyone, or only for the scions of rich families who have too much spare time and energy on their hands.

The 'scion' students in this school would not dream of going to 'real' publicly-funded schools, as you won't find such networks there, or such a brand name. In fact, they look down on other students who do, although they will not admit it (and indeed, it might be subconscious). These scions even look down on students in their own school who haven't the multiple swimming pools, horse-riding lessons, or holiday ranches. However, there is some grudging admiration for brains, since after all this is supposed to be a school.

Actually, most of these scions have been hothoused, so they themselves are pretty smart compared to the national average. And if not. there's always private tuition, paid for at about $150 per hour or more, which is a pittance to their parents (or even, to them). Eventually, none of them actually needs good teachers, and for the price of one good teacher, you can hire maybe two not-so-good teachers. What do you think happens?

Well, as some people once told me, you can get about three new recruits for one 15-year teacher. Quality can be developed and your ROI is better if you invest in new recruits. After all, a good teacher can only be improved a tiny bit, while a new one can be improved by adding rims, spoilers, and a flashy paint job training and development. The absolute quality does not matter. And you can plough the extra cash into aesthetics like pagan statuary.

Eventually, the school is taking in 'students with lives' (as in 'come on, get a life'), who have some brains. You might call their philosophy of education, 'brands and brains'. The school will then label this 'holistic education', since it's quite obvious that these students 'have a life' and 'live it to the full'.

But this is an unfair caricature. Most of the students aren't really like that (although they would be if they could). The school isn't really like that (it could be worse). And the teachers aren't really like that (actually, it's hard to tell what the teachers are like).

And so, the cost of public schooling goes up on the side. Fortunately, public housing and schooling are both reasonably good in Atlantis. But sometimes I think they're a bit too expensive for what they're supposed to deliver.

This thought is a Bad One. It is an Ungrateful Thought. The correct response to such a thought is, "Why are you complaining, after all, your nett value goes up because of all these things, since you are from School A and you also have an apartment that has gone up 70% in value?"

Well, I just hope that people will be able to afford more of the good stuff and that there are more good years ahead for everyone. It's kind of hard to see how this can be when money is buying less and less in terms of real value.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Low Firepower

I haven't had the time to update my book blog with the last six months of reading, but I have to write this down. It concerns the single worst waste of my book funds this whole year.

Katherine Neville's latest book, The Fire, is the worst and most plotless piece of iridescent claptrap I've read. It has almost no character development (apart from unintended caricature), purports to be based in a chess framework where the opening move Nd4 can be made by white, and contains the most absurd mystical calabash (haha, O gourd!) that I've read for years including Dan Brown's stuff.

I have no idea why some reviewers said nice things about it. It's probably because they hadn't really read it but were enthused by the theme and the concept of the story, like I was. But what a cheat! The 'secret history' in this book lacks all conviction and ability to convince, except perhaps where it borrows from the usual conspiracy theories about how Washington DC was constructed and why Iraq was invaded.

It's total rubbish and it isn't even funny rubbish. It took me four nights to digest, when I can normally do a book in half the time. It is that boring. Actually, the one bit of amusement I got out of it was that some of the characters in it remind me of people I used to work with.

Stay away from The Fire. It would be like setting your money aflame.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Creative Boredom

In 1969, Ursula Le Guin wrote, "When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep." I realise that I've always believed implicitly in this.

What I think is that many of the young people I've met — by 'young', I mean roughly anyone born around 1984 or later — are not good at coping with boredom. They find it hard to detect when action grows unprofitable, are bad at (or disinclined toward) gathering information, and are hopeless at tactical sleeping.

I used to fall into a sleep-like reverie in meetings, a bit like that of Tolkien's Middle-Earth elves. My former boss once asked, "Are you getting enough sleep? You keep falling asleep at my meetings."

I replied, "My brain has learnt to go into sleep mode whenever it's not being stimulated and I can't do anything about it."

Which brings me to Savielly Tartakower (the original Professor X!) and his distinction between tactics and strategy. The man who once said, "It is always better to sacrifice your opponent's men," also said, "Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do."

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, July 27, 2009


My latest project has to do with water. Again and again, we are told that the Earth's surface is mostly water, that our bodies are mostly water, that everything we associate with life is mainly water. And it's all true.

Water as a physical medium effects change in the surface of the earth, conveys trade and piracy, is the object of political machination and outright violence. The location of a harbour, access to the sea or to a mighty river, or the ability to block any of these features — these things have determined the rise and fall of settlements, cities, civilisations.

Water as a concept is the most ubiquitous of metaphors. It has been used to talk about sex, electricity, music, finance, demographics and change. It is still, it is moving, it is pacific, it is violent, it is stored, it is harnessed, it is drunk, it is open, it is all things to all, and there is nothing like it. It is poetry in itself, and makes poetry in others.

Water as a chemical compound is the universal solvent; its combination of strong dipolar character and molecular integrity makes it a stable compound that renders other structures less stable and more willing to react. It is the medium for more necessary biochemical reactions than can be counted, and it alone allows nutrients to spread farther than they normally would.

Water, I have just realised, is not a topic that can easily be compressed into twenty pages or so. But I will have to try not to write a book about it, or I shall surely be... up the creek without a paddle.


Vicarious, Wakeful

I'm sitting around at 3 am figuring out why it is that I am elated for the sake of some student I haven't really come to know very well. This student posts that the Extended Essay, all 4000 words of it, which has been festering like some radiant pustule for a very long time, is done. It is 'ready to ship', as they say.

I realise that this is a good thing. And although I am not quite experiencing the same thing, I am happy for that student. I can only hope that on the day my own dissertation is done, all 120000 words of it, which has been festering like some radioactive boil for a very long time, that people are equally happy for me.

OK, back to work.

Labels: ,

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Out of Commission

Over the last year or so, I've had ample opportunity to kibitz on the goings-on involving the Joint Commission International. This interesting organisation does accreditation for many hospitals worldwide, using standards that seem pretty rigorous and certainly work towards enhancing patient safety, security and survival. It's sufficiently well-known that is has a disputed Wikipedia page, which means it must have some sort of celebrity status such that people can make disputable or arguable claims about it.

But I'm not so much interested in the healthcare ramifications of JCI as in the idea that it might be possible to have something like that for schools. As long-time readers of this blog know, I've looked at fish-tanks and Petri dishes while researching education, and I have many ideas about what constitutes a good education or a good school.

The JCI, if I'm not wrong, sets ONE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED criteria for a hospital. They get extremely sharp healthcare people to come down, physically check random items, interview random people, run around all over the shop, and then write a report on how well your hospital did by those measureables.

I wish they did it for schools, because I can imagine some worthy objects of this fantastic evaluation strategy.

Labels: ,

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Dorothy Parker once infamously quipped, "You can bring a horticulture but you can't make her think." It's interesting to hear stories from old uncles in the Family.

I've mentioned this before, but here it is again, because I keep hearing it. Apparently some people who didn't actually do an orchid cross got hold of samples of someone else's orchid cross and registered that with the Royal Horticultural Society. The aggrieved person keeps mentioning it, but he's too nice to do anything about it. He said he was a man, he'd just take it on the chin. My brother replied that this was what came of not checking.

Ah, the flagrant dishonesty. I'm sure there's something deeply unethical about a supposed orchid hybridisation programme which doesn't quite produce what it's meant to produce and has to fake the results. This same uncle said, "You know that one which they hastily named after the Wyverns? Well, the bugger won't flower, look I have a whole field of pots of the stuff and I can't get more than a few to bloom. Lousy thing."

Meanwhile, my parents' backyard is full of the stuff, which my brother decided to grow as a challenge. In the meantime, he's been successfully hybridising his own. He's got a few that look a lot more like Wyvern colours, and are a lot more profuse in their flowering. He hopes to produce one with my mother's initials.

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 24, 2009

Freedom of Information

I like the idea of freedom of information. To 'inform' means to shape knowledge; just as knowledge is data given meaning, information is knowledge given usefulness. But 'information' carries with it the sense of being bound. You have shaped it, like clay is made into a pot — how then can it be free?

Freedom of information, I suppose, simply means that usefully shaped meaningful data is made public, so that anyone who can use it may use it. Because the data are most often linked to real-world phenomena and real-world organisations, such stuff can be used to keep a handle on reality. If Atlantis loses 35 billion gold crowns, how much is that? Is it something that could have been used to save the world?

It is therefore with great happiness that I have been delving away on the banks of the river, mining information. What did people do? What did they say they did? Did they know what they were doing?

You see, when an agency declares that they have done X1 and X2, and you point out that X1 is not consistent with X2, then you have caught them. They have no choice but to admit to a) inconsistency, b) falsehood, and/or c) incompetence. Sometimes it's just laziness, which I'd put under c) for corporate incompetence.

I remember all too well the day that I received an email from a ministry requesting a list of all the awards issued to us by that same ministry. I told them to go get it themselves, since it was on their own website. I even provided links. Some people were not happy. I replied, "If these people are too lazy to pick up their own stuff which is lying around in public, why should we encourage it?"

A certain person said, "Help them, why not?" I replied, "Yes I am, I am helping them to stop looking like lazy idiots."

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mindlessness in Atlantis

Chronologies are funny things. I remember my 2004 post on All Hallows' Eve, about how disappointed I had been, in more than one sense. It was the last day of my almost eight years as the commander of the largest of all Atlantis's alchemical divisions, and I had been asked to step down.

Shortly thereafter, the whole College was told that blogging was evil, unprofessional, a useless and mindless activity. And so on. It was a dark time, a time for only those of true conviction and greatness of spirit to survive.

Fast forward about seven months, and miraculous things happened. I remember speaking in a very restrained and non-committal way with the Mustache some time before the first miracle. He was glad that I remained positive and happy; he was incredulous that such a thing had happened (as were many who knew).

Four months after that, as we approached the first anniversary of my disappointment, the advent of 'white space' was announced. Obviously, some people implemented it in a silly and haphazard way, but it was a good idea.

In December 2005, I was promoted again. Some day, I will tell the whole story. It is a fascinating one.

Labels: ,


The funny thing about uncritical perception is that it leads to a kind of groupthink on the part of whole groups of students. If you have ten students, that's not so bad; if you have 400, that's going to be a large clump; and if you have 400 elite students (or socioculturally elite in a meritocratic plutocracy or plutocratic meritocracy) then that is a large clump with a huge potential societal impact.

There are several such novitiates in Atlantis. They practise the practice of reflection — that is, they reflect because they are told to do so, and most of the time, when they are illuminated, they just reflect the illumination and feel good about it.

The problem with this light-scattering effect is that it eventually looks a lot like plagiarism when it isn't really so. This is because the entire armamentarium of these novitiates has become standardised. They all wear the same kind of armour, use the same kinds of weapons, follow the same sort of drills. Then they customise these things for their own personal ambition and comfort, but as in most cases, customisation amounts to a 5% difference (or less) between morphologies.

My next paper will therefore be one on the morphology of mass customisation. It is a lot like that ubiquitous computer game, Spore.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Some time ago, I found myself reading something like this:

Waffles are, in essence, breakfast. Among the early scholars of the waffle industry are many who later played key roles in breakfast menu construction. The movers, shapers and architects of modern breakfast include clown hero Ronald M and various assorted expensive cafés where they charge five bucks for a shot of joe. They all have one thing in common, the capacity to spawn unlimited copies. That is why when you visit Atlantis, the natives look at you and say, "Let's go to a 'copy time' for breakfast."

To be a waffle has been a dream of many breakfasts. Those privileged enough to be one know that they carry with them a sense of butteriness, occasionally tinged with cinnamon or blueberry essence. To be a waffle means having the 'dare' to bread an unbeaten egg. To be a waffle is to be a carbohydrate source, a fat resource, a way of life.

In an advanced breakfast shop, we work hard at harnessing the best resources available to nurture breakfasts which have fresh eggs, butter and dough. We want our waffles to be strong in their basic stuff, so that when you apply condiments across them they will not crumble but remain relatively crisp. We want our waffles be pursued relentlessly and inspire in others the passion to create something new. We want them to be curious and peculiar, filled with hidden insights and ingredients. We want our waffles to show courage and fortitude in the face of challenging customers, to go down well with other foods, and invite empathy and a genuine respect (even from those whose views on breakfast, cultures and backgrounds differ).

In an advanced breakfast shop, we aim at making our breakfasts not just a good experience but a remarkable one. The stuff that we have extracted, the comprehensive combinations that we have designed, are meant to give breakfasts with diverse strengths, interests and aspirations pathways to digestion which they are best at. Breakfasts come with menus to help navigate the challenging and complex contexts of today. They are exposed to industry and leaders of industry to help them understand what it takes to be successful. They have many opportunities to learn to be served to the community and understand the qualities that make a waffle great.

This is our way of ensuring that waffles continue to embody the hope of a better age. Journey with us and feel your arteries respond to waffles.

No, I didn't quite believe it either.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The World is Round and Very Small

Imagine a sphere about the size of a tennis ball. Imagine the thin film of adsorbed water molecules just barely clinging to its surface. If this sphere were analogous to our planet, that layer would be our ecosphere. We'd be living in that layer.

Now imagine the solar wind, a dry hot radiant blast of desert air, all ions, all heat, all light. It gusts suddenly with abnormal violence across the face of the tennis ball, and in one umbral sweep, the phosphorescence engendered by the dwellers in the thin film of water goes out.

Hah, not in my lifetime, everyone says.

I remember Chesterton describing the meditation of the heart as, "The hidden room in man's house where God sits all the year / The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear."

Sometimes we forget how small we are, and how great our smallness. Of course, man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for? But sometimes, we grasp too little, too late. Sometimes, our reach goes where it is of no bloody use at all.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, July 20, 2009

Chocolate Truffles

I love chocolate truffles. I like the high percentage of real chocolate, the dusting of cocoa powder, the occasional spicing-up with some other compatible flavour. If I had the metabolism of a man half my age, I'd eat more of them.

But I remember the scandals of the past, in which horrible people with uncouth and disgusting ways adulterated their chocolate truffles with vegetable oil. I grimace at the thought, and beg the pardon of all those who just grimaced with me. Such an idea simply offends the sensibilities of the normal chocolate consumer, let alone someone who has his heart set on truffles.

It's like that with the various research targets that I've been looking at so far. Without naming names, I've seen a few that can be usefully seen through the lens of a chocolate-lover.

There's the one with the beautiful box touting liqueur-filled truffles, but which is a bit past its sell-by date. The contents are dry, the liqueur (if there ever was any) has left a ghost of its presence which might as well have been artificial flavouring. Fortunately, the quality of the chocolate is undoubtedly good, so despite the false advertising, you can still enjoy the base material.

There's the one which says it is chocolate-flavoured truffles. That particular line has already lowered your expectations, but forunately, they are being honest and if you imagine that what you are eating is not chocolate to begin with, then it tastes a lot better than not-chocolate and you don't mind that it tastes quite ordinary.

There's the one which comes with a nice package which doesn't quite say what's in the box. But you assume it must be something good, given the artist's impression. Inside, you find truffles. They smell like truffles and taste like truffles. The outside is dark, firm, smooth. You take your first bite, and it feels right. Then as the stuff melts on your tongue, you realise that it contains what is probably vegetable oil. It's too late to spit it out in polite company, so you are already committed. Smile, and say it isn't bad.

By the way, technically speaking, cocoa butter is indeed a vegetable fat. But it isn't a vegetable oil. Yuck. I am off to eat some good Euro-truffles from the age after the European Community did something to fix standards for chocolate. None of that terrible Hershey's or Van Houten for me, thank you very much.


Imperial Overstretch

No, this has nothing to do with eating too much, although I must say that I've had a bit of that over the weekend just past. Actually, it's all about the old hypothesis that, like Rome and Britain, the maintenance of empire can lead to the collapse of commitment.

This can be seen in any sufficiently large organisation. The bread and circuses are still abundant, long after the driving force has turned into some sort of zombified parody of the original. In fact, to this day the memories of Rome and of Britain are dear to some people. We still have the mottos of elite schools in Latin, with British heraldry.

Why is this so? I think that we all fall in love with the greatest pomp in the direst circumstances. When it is gone, we remember the good times, but not the bad. And when overstretch has turned into decay, like the collapse of a soufflé, we still dream of an imperial zenith that perhaps never really was.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Midnight 18

It's the midnight hour between the 18th of July and the 19th, and I'm sitting here letting iTunes channel my consciousness, from Classical Gas to Scheherazade, from America to U2, from London to New York City and into the plains of Mongolia. For tonight is one of those nights.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like when your nostril hair turns white? Yes, today's great and empowering meditation is on the indescribable feeling one gets as one hits the early forties only to find that some things that you used to rely on are no longer there. One of my former students once wrote:

However, he's still some sort of puzzle outside the class. It's like you have all the various pieces of information about him, and yet you don't really know what to think about him. But that's what's so fascinating about him, he doesn't tell you about himself or chemistry in the conventional way. He lets you find out for yourself.

It's bizarre when you feel that way about yourself. And so, it's the midnight hour between the 18th of July and the 19th, and I'm listening to old Mannheim Steamroller performances of Christmas carols. And a lot of John Williams cinematic soundtracks.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Head Pain

Some days you wake up with a great and blinding pain in the head. I woke up this morning asking myself why Angelina Jolie's father was Richard Clayderman. And then I really woke up and spent some time wondering why I thought that was true. And now my head hurts.

Oh yes. I was on a Billy Joel binge last night (and that has nothing to do with my head pain, by the way). I came away laughing and feeling high after finishing off with The Downeaster, Alexa — especially this verse:

So if you see my Downeaster "Alexa"
And if you work with the rod and the reel
Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis
And I still have my hands on the wheel...

There's a marvelous thought hidden in there, one of the many in that song.

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 17, 2009


I was listening to the car radio as usual with my 'peripheral hearing'. To my amusement, it was a Mandarin-language broadcast of rather soppy (and clichéd) content.

There was a woman who was obviously telling a man some home truths: "If I love you, I love you because I love you and not because you're wealthy; if I don't love you, I don't love you because I don't love you, even if you're wealthy. But I don't love you because in the depths of your heart all you care about is money and not love."

It's this kind of thing which leads me to believe that humans are basically irrational, and therefore when we invent things like science and mathematics and logic and so on, it's a sort of attempt to deny that fact. When we say 'human' we imply subjective and irrational; when we say 'mathematical' or 'scientific', we imply objective and rational.

A moment's reflection should disabuse you of these pretensions to rationality. Mathematics is only objective within the terms it has defined for itself; basically it says, "Here are my rules, and if we all play by my rules, I will always win." Science is less than that, because it says, "I assert the universe can make sense, now let's observe it and figure out what that sense is; I don't know what the rules are, but I am going to assume that all the games in the universe follow the same basic rules."

When humans attempt to use mathematics and science to solve problems, they can only solve the simple ones. That's OK, because if you build complex-looking problems out of simple ones, you can solve pretty complex-looking ones. It's like saying proteins are very complex molecules, and then asking someone to compare the molecular structure of haemoglobin to that of DNA, and then to that of a champagne diamond.

Then you take all that knowledge about molecular entities and say, "Yes, here is a cure for human stupidity, venality, and intransigence." Haha, so funny.

That's what I like about random radio shows. They have their own logic and it's not a very consistent one, but it shows human thinking. It's kind of radio-logical; you can use it to look into the human condition. In that sense, I suppose I can call myself a diagnostic radiologist...

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, July 16, 2009


It always amuses me when people reason from cause-and-effect as if it is the only reasonable paradigm. It's not that I mind, since part of my livelihood stems from teaching that cause-and-effect can be the basis of knowledge. But I'd like people to think about it a bit more.

Just imagine, if you will, that X is a character in a novel. Now look at X and ask the usual questions:
  • Does X have free will?
  • Does cause-and-effect apply to X and X's actions?
  • Does reading the novel backwards have any effect on X's reality?
and so on.

You might have the illusion that 'cause-and-effect' works because the author of your novel is extremely meticulous about internal consistency. Perhaps he is infinitely meticulous, but is not averse to breaking the rules for the sake of the plot.

Think about it.

Labels: , , ,

Guitars and Education

Yes, I know it dates me. But one of my favourite songs, which in its time used to be called a rock ballad, is George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It's a song that I've had running in my head sometimes during the time I was teaching in various classrooms. Here are the words:

I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps
I don't know why nobody told you how to unfold your love
I don't know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you.

I look at the world and I notice it's turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps
I don't know how you were diverted
You were perverted too
I don't know how you were inverted
No one alerted you.

I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
Look at you all...
Still my guitar gently weeps.

The song has to be heard to be believed. You can get it here. Just try to remember that I was there when the White Album was launched.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

There's No Logical Proof of God

There are a few ways we can show this. Here's the most basic:

If a system of logic is created that does not have the existence of God as an axiom, it cannot show that God exists. This is because by definition, God is of an order of complexity beyond other axioms (else He would be subject to, and limited by, such axioms). If a system of logic is created that has the existence of God as an axiom, it cannot show that God exists either, since that existence is treated as axiomatic and hence not to be proven. If we use any kind of reasoning in which X and not-X covers all the possibilities (principle of bivalence), then God cannot be shown to exist by logic.

Here's a theological proof:

If God requires belief, then that belief must be volitional (free-willed). Otherwise, it has no significance. Therefore God cannot present a complete proof of His existence, because if such were to exist, then the option to not believe would be irrational. That would mean that belief would be the only rational choice, thus removing the option of free-willed rational belief. This also means that if anyone tells you that they can prove the existence of God, they are either lying, or they are advancing an argument that is sufficient for them to believe but does not necessarily compel belief in anyone else.

That said, I believe I have good grounds for belief in God, and I am not ashamed to say that I can give a good account of my faith.

Labels: , , ,

Timing Problems

I've encountered serious timing problems in my daily life. It seems that my sleep cycle has shifted so much that 0300-1100 is the preferred down time, 1100-1900 is the time during which I'm supposed to be working but during which I'm not inclined to think too hard, and 1900-0300 is the time during which I'm most inclined to work.

It's not an exceptionally serious problem right now, but it does call into question my future viability in a regular job. If a typical working life runs from, say, 0800 to 1730, then I will be pretty sub-efficient on the job and much more efficient away from work.

The question really is, "Do I want a regular job?"

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Strange Searching

Looking at the statistics for this blog, I am amazed by the most common keywords which return a hit here. They have obvious connections, some of them; but some of them are just peculiar.

Excluding words like 'are', 'the', 'and' and so on, the highest ranking search keyword is 'knowledge'. That's probably inflated by people looking for something that will help them with TOK essays or something.

But the next highest ranking search keyword is 'Frankenstein', which must be linked to 'Victor' at #6. I don't know what I've said about Victor Frankenstein which is unique and makes so many people from around the world visit my blog. The relevant article, victim of many hits, is this one.

#3, 4 and 5 are 'different', 'areas' and 'extent'. #7, 8 and 9 are 'truth', 'meeting' and 'strange'. #10, 11 and 12 are 'ethics', 'arts' and 'mathematics'. #13, 14 and 15 are 'God', 'discovered' and 'invented'. #16 and 17 are 'claim' and 'discuss'. #18, 19 and 20 are 'order', 'glimpsed' and 'chaos'.

It's like some sort of peculiar message from the back of beyond, a strange message in half-seen, half-heard poetry. It probably reads something like this:

Victor Frankenstein,
Different areas extend truth;
Meeting strange ethics,
Arts, mathematics.
God discovered, invented
Claim, discuss
Order glimpsed chaos.

Sometimes I think there is something to be said for emergent meaning in the midst of apparent randomness. It is the holy grail of qualitative research; it is also a limitation of human cognition, making us see meaning where there may be none at all.


Note: Hmm, I suspect that 'strange' and 'meeting' come from my citation of Wilfred Owen's poem here and also here. The latter is probably more useful to literature students.

Labels: ,


I suspect I am a chimera, not just a wyvern. Actually, I've suspected it for a very long time.

The evidence can be found in the not-quite-so-obvious lines that form 'armbands' on my forearms. Under diffuse light at a shallow angle, they're quite obvious; most people can't see them unless they look hard. Only a very small number of my friends have gotten close enough to know that they're there.

I've also got a terrible mixture of genes. My mother used to say I blamed everything on her. That's not true; I merely said that they all appeared to be sex-linked recessives.

One alternative hypothesis is that I'm an alien sleeper agent. Hence my previous post. I've been experiencing too much alien sleep.

In other news Sam Brownback thinks that someday human-animal genetics may become blurred. He has found 20 other morons to gang up with him and try to ban that kind of stuff. It's mind-boggling.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Oneirological Analysis, or 'How Do You Know If You Are Dreaming?'

Once in a while, you have a truly disturbing series of events. It happens fairly often — perhaps once a year or somewhat less frequently — but it happens nevertheless. You dream, and waking from it, realise you are still dreaming; or you dream, and waking from it, fail to realise you are still dreaming until you wake again. It's disturbing because when you really are awake, you remain uncertain about it.

Let me illustrate.

I woke up, whereupon I felt a curious paralysis — either an inability to move or a lack of volition to move. I could just about feel around with my fingers and attempt to identify where I was by looking around. The problem was that I could only look forward in the 60° arc in front of me, but my hands were at my side. I felt various objects which felt like railings padded with foam, but I could not grip them. In front of me was a scene lit by artificial lighting, but although I could see everything quite clearly, my brain just refused to identify anything.

And then I woke up. Or rather, my wife woke me up, full of comments about how I was being idle on a work day, how I should be having breakfast (to which I replied woozily that I already had had breakfast), and so on. I remember feeling oddly irritable, and I turned over onto my stomach and folded my arms so I could rest my head on my forearms and go back to sleep. Then a thought occurred to me: "Errm, how come you aren't at work?" Things unravelled a bit after that.

And then I woke up. I was lying in bed, and conscious of the fact that I'd spent two hours having dreams about waking up. No sign of wife; apparently she had indeed gone to work and I was right about having said goodbye to her earlier in the day. I laughed a bit, and got up and turned on the computer and did some work. I actually remember the points I had decided to work on, and apart from the fact that things seemed somewhat quiet and the light was a little bit subdued... and I dozed off in my chair.

And then I woke up. I was in bed, with my head on my arms, in the position I had been when I'd asked my wife why she hadn't been at work. I turned over, and realised I was dreaming; I was in bed, but I had this odd feeling that I was vertical, and so was my bed. I could feel something like a padded rail behind me, and the ceiling in front of me looked oddly cluttered. I said, come on, there's got to be a way to wake up. If Wolfberry can do it, so can you.

And then I woke up. And here I am typing this, and it has taken quite a few minutes, and if I haven't actually been typing this post, I shall be most upset.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 12, 2009


And it came to pass that in the seventh month of the second year of Exile, that leaders of the Theobromine heresy made camp. On the place where they rested, they built a house of worship, and they called it Crf.


I have been there, and I have seen it. And behold, my eyes were dazzled with the many temptations that could be found there. O, woe is me, that I have lived to see the sight!

Labels: ,

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Abraham the Hierarch

Over the last few days, I've been listening to people who tell me that Abraham the Hierarch's theory is only a theory, and not empirically true. It has caused me to recoil in horror and then look very carefully at what they've said and why they've said it.

First of all, empirical observations are empirical by definition. You see things. If your perceptual apparatus is biased or otherwise returning false data, then those observations are empirical to you but untrue. But based on what normal human beings do, it is quite clear that biology tends to trump sociology or theology for the majority of us. It is the rare human who spends more time praying than eating (not that there aren't such people, of course).

Secondly, even Maslow admitted that his theory needed greater scrutiny, as it was only a generalisation based on his observations of selected people. But there is very little opposition to his theory; about the only serious contenders are a) Max-Neef's theory of fundamental human needs, and b) the somewhat arbitrary idea that there is no real hierarchy at all.

The reason that this issue is important is that there's been a lot of attention paid to 'human rights' — women's rights, gay rights, the rights of the poor and the sick and infants and children and students and teachers and unfortunate burglars and so on. But in order to think usefully about human rights, one has to ask how those rights arise.

There are a lot of theories about that, but I find myself standing back-to-back with Maslow's hierarchy when thinking about the priority one should assign to various rights. I've not said much about these things before, but I remember that in this post I related the rights issue with the idea of professional roles, and in this post I wrote about law and government with respect to basic rights.

The key idea is that a right (whether you're with Maslow or Max-Neef) stems from the ontological condition of being human. From a biological and developmental perspective, some rights are potential to begin with and conferred by the state of being a human in a human society (e.g. the right to communicate freely), while some rights are actual from the beginning and created by the fact of being a living organism (e.g. the right to have adequate sustenance and the right to have protection from environmental hazards). These rights are not granted by natural laws (that is, there are no physical laws which prevent you from starving or being hit by lightning) but are based on the 'given adequate resources, we should maintain these' principle.

If you're a starving artist, I think I would prefer to feed you before you starve if I had to choose between giving you food or art materials. In fact, if I had only one choice or the other, and I chose to give you the latter, most societies would consider me a little negligent. A minority would argue that art is more valuable than life. Well, it seems true enough for some people, but I don't think it is true for a majority. That's not just opinion; the empirical fact is that humans (even little kids in the mall) fight about food more than about art. People who fight about art are almost always at least at subsistence level for food.

One comment I read was this: "At the end of the day, when it comes to the crunch, what really drives and motivates life are values and causes. Entire civilisations have come and gone because of them. Our continued survival on this planet depends on them."

I found this dubious. I think food and physical resources are primary motivators. Values and causes are secondary. Empire-building is tertiary. You're welcome to disagree, of course, but I suspect when you get hungry and tired enough, you will prefer to eat or sleep instead of argue with me.

Labels: , , ,

Word of the Day: Ничья

I've picked up a little bit of Russian by accident. You can't avoid it if you play chess, since for decades of Soviet dominance it has been one of the major chess languages. I always knew that the ничья at the end of a game score meant 'drawn' because the score would be 0.5-0.5 or 0,5-0,5 (some Europeans do this), or ½-½.

After learning Greek, I began to realise that the impenetrable thicket of Russian alphabetical symbols was somewhat related. Those letters can be more or less transliterated nechya, and yes, they do mean that the game is drawn.

But nechya doesn't literally mean 'draw'. It means ' nobody's ', which does provide an interesting insight into the Russian mind.


As an aside, do you know why a game is said to be 'drawn'?

The word 'draw' comes from things like Old English dragan and is related to Latin 'tractus' (from which we get 'traction', 'extract', 'subtract' and so on). It is even related to the word 'trek' which is some Western European version. In all these senses, it implies 'to draw out' or 'to exhaust'. A drawn look is an exhausted look.

A drawn game is therefore one that has been exhausted. Everything's been extracted and nothing's left.

Labels: ,

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Thousand Ships, A Thousand Stars

I remember I was still a small boy when I found myself a copy of Marlowe's Faustus in the corner of my literary aunt's house. It was a tattered old Penguin book, with a simple brown cover. The worms had been at it.

And then I found these lines:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

(Skipped some soppy stuff here)

O thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter...

For a small boy brought up on classical myths and astronomy, the imagery was astounding. I could not imagine what kind of beauty the woman possessed, but I could imagine it was something I could not quite imagine, an intensity equivalent to that of a supernova, a nebula, a galaxy of stars.

As the years went by, I met many women, even some Greek ones. I found myself wondering whether these were faces that could launch a thousand ships or not. Of course, I was not the first in this endeavour; I wonder who it was who first considered the implications of the verse and deduced that if a Helen could launch a thousand ships, a millihelen was sufficient to launch one.

But then I did high school math, physics and chemistry. It became clear to me that Marlowe was describing an energy-related phenomenon; Helen's beauty was related to the impulse sufficient to launch a thousand ships, the energy transfer rate sufficient to consume the towers of Troy, the luminous intensity of a thousand stars and a brightness greater than that of Jupiter.

And in my final pre-university year, it finally clicked. Wow, I said to myself, she must have been one HOT chick! :D

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Thousand Ages

It has seemed that long. I remember when my previous employer ghoulishly decided that enforced remedial classes should be called 'concentration camps' ("'s a camp, and they have to concentrate!") I was pretty sure that nobody would take it seriously. But to my horror, a bunch of sycophants told him it was a great idea, and there we were, the first Atlantean educational institution to run 'concentration camps'.

I remember thinking to myself that there were words for this kind of thing, mostly in German and written by victims of the Third Reich. I'm sure Herr Hierophant can translate.

Stacheldraht, mit Tod geladen,
ist um unsre Welt gespannt.

Drauf ein Himmel ohne Gnaden
sendet Frost und Sonnenbrand.

Fern von uns sind alle Freuden,
fern die Heimat, fern die Fraun,
wenn wir stumm zur Arbeit schreiten,
Tausende im Morgengraun.

Doch wir haben die Losung von Dachau gelernt
und wurden stahlhart dabei:

Sei ein Mann, Kamerad,
bleib ein Mensch, Kamerad,
mach ganze Arbeit, pack an, Kamerad,
denn Arbeit, Arbeit macht frei!

Quietly, that awful name has faded. I think they call them 'study camps' now. It's a lot better and less provocative to many of greater social and cultural sensitivities. I wonder what would have happened if that person had proposed this idea anywhere in the Euro-American world.

One last thing. I remember him saying, "We will stretch them as much as we can." At that moment, in the temporary unhinging of my brain, I felt some sort of separation of identity. I felt as if I was looking at myself from a distant height, and saying, "How can you think of silly translingual puns at a time like this?!" For the word that had dropped into my brain was the word Dachshund.

Labels: , , ,

A Thousand Flowers

And there they were, all in bloom, a garden full of exotic plants; a thousand plants, a thousand flowers. In these days of financial shenanigans and difficulties, liquidity is king.

If you were to take a walk past the garden of my father's house, you would see what a few hundred denarii could buy in terms of labour and consequent beauty. In that garden, my brother is attempting to make hybrids of a rich dark bluish tinge, balanced by golden hues and a small amount of deep red. He says they will be 'the real thing'.

The other day I walked into the house to find more flasks and sealed bags. There were more flasks in the house than in my old lab. I asked him what was happening. He grinned (white teeth in a sun-darkened face, startling in the gloom) and said, "Crosses."

I had this vision of a huge cemetery. But of course, it was the other way round. Each of those crosses held the magnificent potential of new life; each was a plant that perhaps the world had never seen before.

They only need watering twice a day, and no hothousing.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


It struck me the other day, as I was reviewing the statistics on school performance, that something was going rather wrong with certain calculations. Let me explain.

Here is how we calculate something called value-addedness in a nationwide high-stakes standardized examination:
  1. You get everyone in Grade 6 to be tested in Math, Science, English and a second language. This gives you a score for the entire country.
  2. Then you test them again at Grade 10 and Grade 12 (well some skip the Grade 10 test).
  3. This gives you a statistical measure of what kind of performance at Grade 10 or Grade 12 students ought to produce, relative to their score at Grade 6.
  4. If a student has got a significantly higher score than this expectation, this is called 'value-addedness'.
For example, if Jack scores 250/300 at Grade 6, he is in the top 10% and is expected to get straight As at Grade 10, and so on. The method is a bit more well-refined than that, and a little worse. For a start, they don't actually factor how well Jack did in individual subjects at Grade 6, but they do track how well Jack's seniors did in individual subjects at Grades 10 and 12. They use a rolling average over n years to computed the expected score, which is only useful if there is no clear upward or downward trend.

If the trend is upward, then the rolling average is actually lower than the current expectation; if the trend is downward, then the rolling average is actually higher. If a school policy means that everyone must take subject X, the chances are that X will regress towards a mean; if a school policy means that only the elite can take subject Y, the chances are that Y will have so high a mean score that it becomes meaningless to think about what value-addedness means.

What if, however, the results for the whole country are said to be better than before, every year? Well, then that's very odd. It means that value-addedness should be declining. Actually, if the statistic is distributed normally, then half the population should be above the mean and half below. If the country is doing better AND the value-addedness is rising, then there must be a very long tail or something.

But the interesting thing is, what if the entire national population is in the top 50% of the world at Grade 6 (or 10, or 12), and it isn't anymore after Grade 12? Does that mean the system is screwy (or screwed)? Something to think about...

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Towards a Less-Dubious Quality Teaching Service

For some time now, I've had an ethics problem with the way education in Atlantis has been conducted. I spent many years thinking about this problem; it's been ten years now. The problem, simply stated, is this: "How do you know that the proposed (and often very expensive) in(ter)vention actually is of educational benefit to its target?"

To be clear about this, let's look at three Atlantean educational in(ter)ventions: ITMP (It Takes More Power, or Industrial Technologists Make Profit, or Ingenious Tablet-Marketing Process), TLLM (Total Literacy-Lowering Mechanism) and NE (Notional Entertainment). OK, I was joking there, these acronyms from the same era all mean something different from what I've said.

Without saying which is which, let me introduce the three in(ter)ventions to you. If you don't believe these things exist, I have a little text file filled with wonderful press releases and speeches which will prove to you that these were actually launched, implemented, and then... not quite evaluated.

In(ter)vention 1: If we spend less time teaching and cut the amount of basic information to be learnt by about 30%, then everyone will learn more and be smarter. You can have field trips instead, with the added time. In this age of the Internet, why bother teaching facts? In fact, let's begin by deleting 'silicon' from the curriculum. And let's get rid of Churchill and Roosevelt too, those no-good non-dictators.

In(ter)vention 2: Our young must know the Thunderer's Story. We will create a whole new subject which will showcase how things get screwed up elsewhere and derive the truth that we must therefore not do things like that here, even though everyone should know that we are different. "The Thunderer's Story is based on historical facts. We are not talking about an idealised legendary account or a founding myth, but of an accurate understanding of what happened in the past, and what this history means for us today. It is objective history, seen from an Atlantean standpoint."

In(ter)vention 3: We will put a lot of money into making machines available for students. This will make them better able to compete with the big country over there which has sunk lots of money into taking schooling attitude tests (not their real name) by computer. This will be the wave of the future, bwahahaha, and it will cost about A$12 bn overall (at first). A lot of the cost will be hardware (including wiring) and a lot less will be spent on educating the facilitators. This, despite the fact that the wired hardware will be obsolete by the time we deploy it, and so will the facilitators. Please do not let the students laugh at you.

Years later, these in(ter)ventions are said to be successful. It is hard to say that they are not. But if they were clinical trials of some medical procedure, I would call them abject failures. Let's have a look at the problems.

1) The first problem is that we don't know what would have happened if we had not done these things. We assumed they would be a good use of scarce resources and money. If implemented correctly, the theory showed that they would be. But public accountability as to whether these were indeed a good thing is sorely lacking. The assumption is that they were, or else we would not have done them. A counterargument is often given in this form: a) if we had not done these things, it would have been worse; and b) we didn't see you propose an alternative. My reply is simple: a) I am not saying they aren't good, I am only saying you need to show the public why they are better than b) the alternatives which should be coming from the people we are paying millions of Atlantean gold pieces to every year. I'm not one of them.

2) The second problem is that it was assumed that supplying resources (time and machines and propaganda a correct societal standpoint) would automatically lead to a better-educated society. The jury is out on that. I am not a fan of the intense knowledge-funneling procedures used in the past, which caused many casualties from exploded brains; I am on the other hand wondering if the entire education system was able to use those resources well, and what the REAL outcomes were, apart from the outcomes created by other processes at work in the larger world.

3) The third problem was that nobody knew the nature of the ailment to be treated. It was like applying medicine to ameliorate symptoms without actually studying the unique nature of the patient. In a sense, we had looked at the patient's history, redacted what we did not think relevant, and attempted a prognosis based on yet-to-be-invented drugs and limited diagnosis. Way back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Gnome's analysis showed the flaws of the system; the new thinking was not directly aimed at rectifying the flaws, but at reducing the symptoms. It's a bit like saying a person is obese from lack of exercise, so we should feed that person less and hope that someone thinks of a useful exercise plan by watching the tai-chi experts in the next block who are actually watching us.

What I propose is that there should be more analysis. If a school is going to spend huge and disproportionate amounts of money creating (for example) a Thorough Training Pogrom Programme, then they should publish their literature review, their analysis, their proposed evaluation regime etc in advance, such that the public has access to these documents 15 month before the launch. The evaluation should then take place as planned, without alterations, and the results published 15 months after the launch.

If the school does not have a research programme to analyse their initiative and its outcomes, then you shouldn't give them any money. Think of it as the sort of procedure a drug company should be made to go through before their drug appears on the open market.

I've just read an excellent book by Ben Goldacre, Bad Science. It has its own website. In the book, Dr Goldacre exposes the various methodologies that institutions use to hype their products, including the use of deliberately flawed trials designed to make their in(ter)ventions look better than others (or just better).

One of these methods is to take a bunch of patients who are likely to do well and treat them with an experimental drug. Since they are likely to do well, the outcomes are normally positive and reported faithfully as such. This is used to provide leverage in advertising the drug as a fantastic new addition to the universal pharmacopoeia. I've seen this in Atlantis too, along with the other kind of mistrial, the one in which negative results are rejected as 'outliers'. Sigh; it's difficult to outlie some people.

If we all took harder looks at such things, and if the principal researchers were less biased about their products, we'd be on the way to having a teaching service of less dubious quality. At the moment, this is still problematic.

Labels: , , ,

Towards a Better Quality Teaching Service

In my previous post, commenter Lone Rifle asked if I had alternative suggestions for evaluating teaching quality. Yes, indeed I do.

They're all in this blog, I think. I'll confine myself to more recent posts, because that's about all one can expect people to have read.

Firstly, does the candidate have awareness of the demands of the profession, as well as the ability and capacity to meet those demands? One outline of the requirements can be found here.

Secondly, does the candidate have a sense of what professional mastery entails, so that he or she can work towards it? One possible way of looking at this can be found here.

Thirdly, is the candidate dedicated to the idea of the profession? One vision of such a professional ideal can be found here (along with some hazards encountered).

Actually, I've covered the points in many different ways in many different places. Here's another one. Suggestions? Heh, I think I might have made too many. Ah, hell, why not just use this search?

Labels: ,

Monday, July 06, 2009

Towards a Higher Quality Teaching Service

Let us suppose that you wanted to create a higher quality teaching service. What then would you decide to do?

The obvious thing, I would say, would be to develop the quality of teaching; that is, the ability of a teacher to teach — to make things easily understandable, to develop students' understanding of these things, and to develop student ability to understand any future material that they might have to understand. But this has not always been so obvious.

There is one very deep and profound approach that I've unearthed (from where it has been hiding in plain sight). You can start by picking people who can (by some proxy measure) be said to understand things better. They are therefore (this is the implicit argument) likely to be able to teach people; that is, make these things easily understandable (since they seem to have found them so), develop students' understanding of these things (because they themselves understand), and develop student ability to understand future material (which they themselves may or may not have encountered). Then you can pay them more.

Really? Yes; the evidence is here. About eleven and a half years ago, pay was explicitly raised for teachers in a certain city-state, but only if they had a good honours degree. This was supposed to create a higher quality teaching service.

It seems a dubious argument to me. It is a bit like saying, "Since you know so much about restaurant menus, you must be a good cook too."

Labels: ,


I don't know when I became one of those people who write peculiar treatises on the world as it is conceptualised by others. But I am quite sure it happened to me at some point within the last ten years. The other day I was looking at my notes:

Globalisation has been variously defined as ‘the closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world’ (Stiglitz, 2003: 9), ‘the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies’ (Friedman, 2000: 9), and ‘the conviction that a plurality of cultures… could be accommodated on terms of equality in a single society’ (Fernández-Armesto, 2004: 391) – always driven by the lowering of barriers to transport and the free flow of goods and services through technology and legislation. The first definition is general, the second specific, and the third idealistic.

You see? But all this is what I've come to call 'the new globalisation'. It's a very American free-market sort of idea. To elaborate, Americans believe free trade is good unless they're making a loss; then free trade is called 'dumping' or something like that. If your workers are paid less than Americans, then your crime is 'human rights violations'. In other words, globalisation is now a one-way street (as far as possible) from the New World to the Old.

But it was not always so. At some point before the 19th century, globalisation was a matter of equally mysterious traditions. As cultures collided, they were wary and yet intrigued by other cultures. It wasn't until Darwin's bastard children decided that you could classify other races as inferior or underdeveloped that they felt they had the right to impose without nurturing whatever crops had already been planted in faraway lands.

Take for example the fates of the Maoris and the Australian aborigines. Since the former had established agriculture, a very obvious culture, large buildings and fermentation, they were considered to be more civilised. The Maoris got a treaty with the White Man, the aboriginal peoples of Australia got short shrift and lost everything.

Fortunately, this age sees the rise of China and India as counterweights to the West. You won't see a sudden change, but it will be faster than expected. Eventually, the world will become more multipolar, and then globalisation will become something richer than the rapid onslaught of America-friendly memes and their subsequent integration.

I'm not knocking the USA for some sort of amoral colonial approach, though. I'm saying that a richer memetic inheritance benefits us all. The chance of human survival as a race rises in proportion to its adaptability, and memetic variation is part of that. It is better to have a mixture that is mulled than a stagnant pool.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 05, 2009


One of the hardest things to do is establish the truth. Somebody a few days ago told me, "The truth is whatever corresponds to the facts." This is of course a venerable approach to determining (and I use this word precisely) the truth. But what is it that makes a fact actually a fact?

You can't say that a fact is what is known to be true if you're defining truth as what corresponds to the facts. That's circular reasoning. It's like mathematics; you know what is true in mathematics because a statement that is mathematically true follows all the laws that develop out of the axioms. But you cannot say that axioms are true because everything that they determine turns out to be true.

A lot of 'truth' these days is taken for granted. That is, it is seen as if something a person describes as a fact is indeed a fact. But very few people actually realise that the word 'fact' comes from the Latin facere ('to do') and means 'something that is done'. In some contexts, it has come to mean 'something that is made'. For example, what do you think a 'factory' does? What is a 'factor of production'? And 'manufacture' means 'to make something by hand (manually)'.

Many of the 'facts' that students present to me are actually constructs of varying degrees of verifiability. The word 'verify' itself, coming from Latin verus ('true') and facere ('to make', in this context), means 'to make true'. It doesn't mean 'to determine if it is true or not'; it means 'to make it such that it is true'. If I ask you to verify something, I am asking you to prove that it is true, and not tell me if it isn't.

Some of them are downright amusing. The '100 Eskimo words for snow' meme in particular is rather durable and entertaining. It started with 7 (in 1911), became 50 (in 1978), and turned to 100 (in 1984). The fewer the native speakers of Eskimo tongues (of which there are several), the more the words for snow, it seems.

It turned out that someone was having too much fun. Eskimo words can be compound polysynthetics; that is, they can be made of many little units strung together like a polymer chain. In that respect, they're a bit like some Welsh and German words. So if you said, "Snow that looks like the fine dust of my skin when I scratch and let it fall on the dark floor," that could be one word in Eskimo, and yet another one for the lexicon.

I read an essay in which the 'fact' of there being 100 words for snow in Eskimo was presented as evidence for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That's a bit like saying that English is obsessed with blue because there are more than 100 words for 'blue' in English. I shall leave that 'fact' as an exercise for the student, noting that in some sense it is more true than the Eskimo 'snow' meme.

Labels: , ,


There was a day not so long ago when my niece turned to me and said, "Mon papa est un champignon." It amused me a lot. "Your father is a mushroom? Really?"

It set her off in peals of laughter. I wondered what had started her thinking that way. So I asked, "Why is your father a mushroom?"

She looked at me the way only the young and intelligent can and replied, "Cos he is not a toadstool! Hahaha!"


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Philosophical Misdirection

Looking at a particular Mancunian's blog, I realised that my ideas on the governance of Atlantis had actually changed over the years. At the end of the last millennium, when I became a Master of (certain unspecified but useful) Arts, I published these thoughts as part of my thesis. Then, I believed that Atlantis was governed by Machiavellian pragmatism; old Nick had described his vision of both principalities and republics in a way consonant with what we know of Atlantis.

Of course, Atlantis, infected by a need to attach its anchor to a more perdurable rock, has in the last decade or so claimed the blessing of Master Kong, he of the scholarly bent and crystal-clear ethical arguments. In this regard, I am quite certain that the claim does not match the facts. Master Kong distinguished between right conduct and gainful conduct; the Thunderer and other Atlantean rulers and priests have never done so. When I say this, I am certainly not saying that Atlantean rulers run around garnering bribes and filthy lucre (although they are very well paid); rather, I am saying that they do not distinguish, on one hand, between conduct that produces practical and useful outcomes for the state; and, on the other, conduct that is morally and ethically unquestionable according to Master Kong's reasoning.

So, if Atlantis is neither an adherent of Master Machiavelli nor of Master Kong, what philosophy is it that drives the island state?

I suspect it is really a sort of Neo-Platonic Republicanism. I will not elaborate much further, except to say that the cardinal features of the Atlantean city-state can indeed be found (in great and mordant detail) within the pages of Plato's Republic. Atlantis is not founded on rational (and perhaps cynical) political pragmatism; neither is it founded on a code of morality and ethics. It is really founded on the proto-Fascist jokes that Plato embedded in his dialogues.

How do we know? Well, think about the breeding programme of the elite that Socrates talks about in the book. State-engineered and state-sponsored education leads to state-engineered and state-sponsored marriages to produce eugenically and philosophically qualified guardian-warriors for the city-state. There are many other examples. It is actually a very entertaining book, especially when you realise that this might not have been a manual for how to run a city-state, but a cleverly written pamphlet on how not to do it.

I must confess, however, that I do think all three of these philosophical models have something to contribute to Atlantis. In fact, I sometimes wish that the philosopher-kings of the city-state had actually thought through the materials from which they claim inspiration. Nobody ought to be running an elite based solely on what that elite thinks is elite; that is the way to groupthink, and then decay.

Labels: ,

Friday, July 03, 2009

Word of the Day: Necrophoresis

I remember that one of the most moving parts of Neil Gaiman's Sandman sequence was the storytelling part (collected as Worlds' End) which comes before the climax of the series and the death of Dream. In that collection is a story about the many ways in which bodies are prepared for dissolution after death. Oddly enough, the word that doesn't appear in that story is 'necrophoresis'.

'Necrophoresis' means 'the removal of corpses', from Greek nekron, 'corpse' and pherein, 'to carry or bear (away)'. It is explicitly used to describe the removal of dead ants from a colony by those still alive, a mysterious phenomenon because somehow ants know another ant is dead even before it starts producing death-related chemical compounds.

The mystery has been solved (there was a paper published by UC Riverside researchers in May earlier this year on it). Apparently, ants emit a couple of chemicals that proclaim, "I'm not dead yet!" These chemicals are called dolichodial (a dialdehyde whose name comes from the Greek word for 'long foot-race') and iridomyrmecin (from the Greek words for 'rainbow' and 'ant').

As long as the ant is alive, it keeps producing these, "Hey I'm still alive!" chemicals. Once it stops, its friends sense this lack-of-life state and carry the carcass out; the chemicals dissipate with a half-life of less than 10 minutes.

Somehow, this process reminded me of academia. Academics publish papers to proclaim their continuing academic life. Once they stop publishing, or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves, they are considered academically dead.

The process also occurs in schools. Some schools are very bad at necrophoresis; the deadwood lingers on, afflicting students with a marked lack of inspiration and the sensation that being taught is a horrible thing. I think that once a teacher stops inspiring students (in a positive way, of course), that teacher should be carried out and dumped. Occasionally, however, just as in some ant colonies, the wrong signals are sent and perfectly functional ants teachers are dumped.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Emigration in an Age of Globalisation

Where would you go, said the Black Lily to me, if you had all the resources and qualifications to go anywhere you wanted and make a living there?

It's a good question. I know I wouldn't go to the Fragmented States, for sure. Too harsh a tax regime and too uneven a cultural environment. I love some parts of it; I am indifferent and sometimes dislike other parts. If I had all those resources, I am sure I'd be ripped off.

The Southern Cross Dominions have pretty good healthcare for senior citizens. Taking a long view, I guess it looks like a good option. They speak some sort of Anglo-Saxon tongue there too, which is about as mutually (un)intelligible to us as Atlantean Creole English is to them. The same argument, I suppose, applies to the Land of the Maple Leaf; however, that is a colder land. And you'd have the Appalling Princess as your neighbour.

I've often thought about some place in Europe. Best thing is, I'm already a citizen. Finding a place to live conveniently is not as easy as you think, though. Too much demographic insanity.

The funny thing is that I am quite happy to live out my exile in Atlantis while Atlanteans run around thinking of alternatives. A strange people, this.

Labels: ,

Everyman Overboard

It's probably a sign of how old I am that the death of Karl Malden (dead today at the age of 97) hit me harder than the death of Michael Jackson. There's no doubt that the latter was more famous by a few orders of magnitude, and more talented by the same factor.

But Malden was more a part of my life. I learnt about car chases, interrogating suspects, figuring things out and being phlegmatic under pressure by watching him in The Streets of San Francisco. In that five-year TV series, he acted as Detective-Lieutenant Mike Stone, the senior partner to Inspector Keller, acted by Michael Douglas.

He actually did win an Oscar; like his Emmy, it was for being a great supporting actor. Here's to Karl Malden, an everyman who taught us nameless people how to be supporting actors!

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Sometimes, when you're playing a new game, perhaps for the first few times, you come to several realisations about what you might be doing wrong and have no clue as to what to do about it. Or sometimes you have a very good clue and then you find out that doing something about one problem actually causes worse problems (or 'suboptimalities') elsewhere.

The solution to this is called 'minimaxing'. In most games, some sort of optimal expectation-based strategy allows you to figure out what a good solution might be, in terms of maximising your gains while minimising your losses.

But in complex games (or worse, games which you aren't sure are games, or games which don't seem to have success conditions, or games which you have a sneaky feeling are set up so that success might actually be failure), this strategy may not work. It might even work against you.

Once in a while I look at the world in which I live and I realise that if it is a game, or game-like, then it probably can't be optimised by minimaxing. It's too complicated, and if you think about it too much, your thoughts and theories degenerate into handwaving and other gestures of uncertainty. Eventually, things come to a gridlock; they don't work out because too many goals and interests have come into conflict.

There may be no solution; there may never have been a solution. The world may be solid, opaque, intractable all the way through, insolvent and insoluble, inscrutable but pretending to scrutability. All we can do is work things out the best we think we can, and trust that there is some validity to what we're doing.

The most important idea behind all this metagame theory is: are the rules spontaneous and hence random in origin, or are the rules imposed deliberately by an external agency? And one nagging thought beyond that is: are there any other options?

It is all terribly fascinating.

Labels: ,