Monday, August 31, 2009


Shamelessness is the state of being in the wrong but feeling no reaction to that fact. It is like a man who says his conscience is clear simply because that is the truth: his conscience is vanished, is gone, is as clear as the air on a mountain peak. Shamelessness is not having any sense of shame at all.

Shamelessness is spending time to recount your triumphs without acknowledging your disasters, spending time developing hubris without arete; it is something to do with always talking about excellence but never about improvement.

Shamelessness is when you trifle with lives and blame it on the lives you are trifling with; shamelessness is when you play favourites and show respect only to certain persons, and then claim that you are doing it all for the best.

But there are truly shameless people. They have surgically excised it from themselves, with a scalpel, cauterising the resultant wound and letting a keloid form where the capacity for shame once was. They can now be as loyal as they like to those who are greater than they in shamelessness, and never feel a twinge.

It is fitting then that the word 'shame' and 'sham' are from the same root, as are 'scum' and 'scam'. The idea is one of covering up the truth, whitewashing the evidence, letting something grow over the corpses. But I can still hear it in memory and in imagination, the sound of voices telling the necromancer, "O lord, you are so clever, so very clever, so very bright and right!"

And it amuses me, although it makes me sad.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

We Now Need Opportunities To Think

Some of you will be aware that I've been working my way through the new CIE IGCSE course on Global Perspectives, preparing resources for teaching it. It's a pretty interesting syllabus, and it's spiced up with material that looks like it's been taken directly from the IB. For example, on page 5 of the 2010 syllabus guide, you'll find this:


Young people in countries across the world face unprecedented challenges in the 21st century – not least in how they will come to terms with accelerating changes in that world, that will impact on their life chances and life choices.

The rationale behind this syllabus is to provide opportunities for enquiry into, and reflection on, those changes. A prime emphasis will be on developing the sorts of skills and dispositions of thinking that active citizens of the future will need.

This rationale accords not only with the international ethos that underpins all of the IGCSE syllabuses but also with the thinking expressed by UNESCO in its seminal reports on education:

Education must include activities and processes that encourage awareness of, and commitment to, the solutions of global problems. This should be done in such ways that people learn solutions are possible through cooperation at all levels – at the levels of individuals, organisations and nations.
— UNESCO (cited by Walker, 2002)

It should be particularly noted that developing awareness of this sort is not a question of how to get everybody to think identically. On the contrary, it is a matter of opening minds to the great complexity of the world and of human thought, and opening hearts to the diversity of human experience and feeling.

Students undertaking this course must consider the themes and issues from local, national and global angles whilst developing their own personal perspective.


It's obvious to me that this is nothing more than what internationalists have been saying all along, their voices now made more urgently commanding (some say 'shrill') by the weight of that huge and badly-defined phenomenon known as 'globalisation'. If the rationale behind this syllabus is indeed to provide opportunities for "enquiry into, and reflection on, these changes", then I can only mourn the fact that we live in an age when people need pre-packaged opportunities to think about life and the world around them.

Do we really need to have this syllabus? Or is it just a great sales opportunity thought up by the clever people who toil in that glass-fronted building along Hills Road in Cambridge? I used to pass by that building every day on the way to school, and wonder what these people did. I wonder no more.

It was at the last paragraph quoted, though, that I really began again to wonder about something. What are 'angles' and what is a 'perspective' in this context? If you consider all these "themes and issues from local, national and global angles", you are obviously considering them from someone else's perspective. This implies, therefore, that the students doing this subject have to learn how to synthesize their own point of view after examining other people's points of views.

And yet, here I am, synthesizing material from many different points of view so that people teaching this course will have a place on which to stand while shoehorning students into an acceptable frame of mind. It's one of life's little ironies, I suppose.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009


I remember looking at the list of books, and it had Siddhartha and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in it. I remember reading both as a child, and I was interested to see what the First would make of it (and the Second, as well). What these books have in common is the idea of a River.

I've always had this idle preoccupation for rivers; one of the first pieces of trivia I picked up was which rivers were the longest and biggest, and which civilisations depended on them. When books like PJF's The Magic Riverboat came along, I was greatly cheered. Every great city needs a proper river; the Thames is a small one relative to its great city of London — but as the lifeblood of that city, and with its many hidden tributaries and rivulets, it is one of great mythic power.

But as I read various riparian stories, I came to realise that in the end, Heraclitus the Ephesian was right when he said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice: for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man."

All the riparian tales are the same: a man (and sometimes his friends with him) proceeds down a river, and by the end, he is changed. If his is a classical hero's quest, he will return home, only to discover that home is no longer home and he has to 'sail beyond the sunset', as Tennyson wrote of Odysseus, in order to find his rest. This is as true of Huck Finn as it is of Odysseus, and it is true (in a metaphorical sense, of an allegorical character!) of Hesse's Siddhartha.

Life, it seems, is only an excursion down a river and back again. And like Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien's magnum opus, a person can try to go 'there and back again', but the sunset lands are everyone's last, true home.

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Word of the Day: Adjutant

I recently came across this somewhat old-fashioned term (first used c. 1600) in the course of my research. I had thought this word (at least in the former colonies) to have disappeared along with the British Empire, but it seems to have been resurrected. In fact, my first experience of the word was when exposed to Kipling at a relatively young age.

The word 'adjutant' is possibly an adjective as well as a noun. It comes from Latin adiuvare, which literally means 'to add youthful vigour' (cf. 'rejuvenation', which means 'to restore youthful vigour'; see also Juventus FC). What's interesting is the context in which it was adopted into the English language. In English, it is almost only ever used in a military context.

What is that context? The Romans used the word adiutor for the officer who was the principle field admin support to the Commanding Officer. In the British army, this man is given a rank equivalent to that of captain and essentially was the battlefield controller of operations. As such, he is superior to all the other captains in a battalion's order of precedence.

Off the battlefield, the adjutant is the chief staff officer to a colonel or regimental commander. As such, in conjunction with the Regimental Sergeant Major, he handles awards, evaluations, ceremonies, and the other minutiae of a regiment's yearly routine. He stalks around, looking serious, and even may be called upon to handle discipline matters. Occasionally, this may lead to awkwardness, since he is technically outranked by majors, and yet closer to the Commanding Officer than they are.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Emotion and Reason

Quite often, I have mystified students. It's almost as if they have embraced mysticism rather than rationality as far as thinking about themselves is concerned. One thing which triggers this state is when they have to think about emotion.

"What's emotion?"

"Err... it's feelings, right?"

"OK, it's feelings. So how come we think of emotion as a way of knowing?"

"It helps you know how you feel!"

"OK, so your feelings teach you how you feel?"

And so on.

The point is a really simple one. An emotion is a physiological response to a situation, that is linked to a change in psychological perspective. It distills a situation down to a complex but concentrated social package, based initially on 'feelings' (but also on the input of your senses) and tells you whether something is 'good', 'bad', or any one of maybe five or six other basic categories. Sometimes it does this very quickly for something that the reasoning mind cannot cope with easily, simply because the situation is too complex.

At this point, students often ask, "What about love? It's only a physiological response?!"

Well, not only that, but the emotion one calls 'love' certainly does not exist without a physiological response that is linked to a change in psychological perspective. If X says he loves Y and you hook him up to a machine that measures these responses, he will certainly show certain kinds of physiological changes when he's asked to think about Y. If he doesn't show any of the known likely changes, then he doesn't love Y in any sense, simple as that.

But is it possible to love someone purely rationally, without messy emotions getting in the way?

No, actually. Even loving some thing requires emotion. If a person truly loves money, then the sight of a $50k cheque made out to bearer will trigger a bunch of physiological responses linked to a change in psychological perspective. With loving someone, it engages the social parts of the brain even more.

Some say that it's emotion, the social response package, that has made the human brain the size it is; we spend a lot more time feeling than using logic. We make snap judgements about how we feel about people (and things, and situations) almost all the time, and it's so much a part of us that we don't consciously think about it. In short, our feelings are actually the brain making sense of our physiological responses (the 'gut feel', the 'sinking feeling', the uneasiness which you can't pinpoint, the chill down your spine, the crawling of the skin, the hair standing on end, the blush of the cheek, and many more).

We aren't creatures of pure reason. We can't be. The brain is too heavily involved in emotion for any of our thoughts not to have any feelings associated with them at all. An honest person will admit it; only the worst kind of pseudo-scientific thinker will assert otherwise.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Time Capsule

I've discovered that when my father reclaimed possession of my room, once I'd moved out, he also decided to leave everything on it more or less untouched. I used to be a fanatically tidy desk user; my desk was custom-made to my design and has lots of storage space. One long stretch was spacious enough for me to stretch out and sleep on, using my textbooks as a makeshift pillow.

So when I grew up and moved out, I cleared most of my desk and Dad took over. Over the last 15 years or so, he's accreted and accumulated many things. There are several strata rising from my old desk's surface.

This morning, I finally dug through to the original surface level. In my excavations, I began to realise that a lot of my stuff was still there. Old stamps, old souvenirs, old gaming equipment, my very first deck of cards (which I had to discard as it was all fallen to bits), class lists from the student batch of 1994, things like that. I spent far too much time looking at what I was supposed to clear away.

But it was a cathartic experience. I got to meet the man I used to be, and realised in some sort of strange meeting that no, there was no cause to mourn.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Paper Trail

After many months of digging slowly and carefully through the accumulated debris of years, I finally came to a place of beginning and ending. There are only two short years in what some might call senior high and others might call junior college; for many of us, it's a period in which the child bows out to the uncertainty of adulthood.

I found the little archive in which I'd packed the notes and letters of old friends from that time. They are pre-adult, adolescent, post-childhood things. Having kept them over the years as mementos of my youth has ensured that I retain perspective. I've never laughed mockingly at teenage crushes and the other minor affairs of the heart that my students experience; I've been to that kind of place in life before.

I remember it all, and when I forget, I remember again, looking at the green ink one person used, the paper, the cards, the decorated envelopes and the innocent photographs. Which ones loved, and were loved? Which ones loved, and went away? The emotions are long buried, but like a summer in the south of France, can be evoked, ghostly, in the dim light or the deep red wine.

It's only paper. It ought to be discarded. But it is still there, and every time I return, I know what I have lost, and what I have gained.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Postmodernism and the Void

It's fascinating to watch the blind watchmakers at work. Everyday, I see people, I read people, I hear people say very proudly how good it would be if people would just accept that there is no God.

The thing about this is that we think there's meaning. That bugs me. If thinking that meaning must exist is just a random chemical phenomenon, then intellectually speaking, I shouldn't be irritated about my thinking, which is a concerted process that will achieve nothing. Yes, it's like spontaneous order-generation, which happens in limited anti-entropic circumstances. But it's not meaning, it's just a complex process issuing from simple rules, like a Mandelbrot set.

If there's nothing that thinking is for, then why do we say suicide is a crime, or that democracy is good, or that ice-cream is wonderful, or any of a multiplicity of sensations and experiences, catalogued, filed, named, defined, outlined, silhouetted, engraved... Why?

Why bother to write something extolling atheism of all things? It's like saying, "(meaningless term denoting individuality, 'I') (meaningless state of meaningless activity, 'am writing') (meaningless identifier implying meaning despite entire argument of meaninglessness, 'a book') (meaningless preposition implying relationship, likewise a meaningless concept, 'about') (meaningless string of meaninglessness words all of which contain too many concepts, which are of course meaningless too, 'why you shouldn't believe in God')."

I mean, what is it to an atheist that he should write any books? Why not let the rest of us get on with our sequence of pseudorandom events? After all, what can be done about the fact that there is no script, no plan, no director or producer to this appalling film? Why go around yelling?

Postmodernism is a void. It says nothing useful, but argues a lot. It is like something so black that you see everything and nothing in it, all at once. And it goes nicely together with atheism, which in effect is the same thing.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Folio 2009/2010

It's that time of year again, when I have to make decisions between Impossible Journeys (Matthew Lyons) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John Le Carré), between The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (Geza Vermes) and The Persian Expedition (Xenophon), between Lord of the Flies (William Golding) and The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton), between James Watson's The Double Helix and Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines.

How does one choose between Dorian Gray and Robin Hood? Or The Great Game (Peter Hopkirk) and Empires of the Word (Nicholas Ostler)? It is always difficult, and yet it is always easy. You buy them all, realising that for the earnings of two hours' work, you will gain eight hours of pleasure, repeatable at will.

So now... Bede or Xenophone? Short stories or poetry? Argh... those who have always sneered at the hypothetical choice of books or food have obviously never been enthralled by a book that keeps you reading until you forget you're supposed to have had dinner, gone to bed, or met your date.

But those are other stories, and I shall not say more for now.

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Where Have All...

... the flowers gone? The other day, I sat down with old books of bygone days. Believe it or not, I once was a high school student, a junior collegian, a person with a life. I looked through the pages of the fading yearbook, and I saw many gaps. Everyone is old now, and some are dead. Some of us are old but look young, but the past is a country barred and gated against our free transit.

I have a visitor's pass though. I have a secret visa. That visa is a privilege granted to those of us who have the fortune to teach those who are younger. In a way, as these people grow up, you get to see glimpses of the old country.

You remember sports and heartbreak; you remember crowded cafeteriae and corridors outside classrooms. You remember hostility and love, misunderstanding and black comedy. You remember crushes and being crushed. You remember the space under the stairs where you lounged around with someone you never saw again.

I am fortunate in many ways. I have seen things and I have loved and I have fought a good fight and I have been happy. I only wish, and know that it will never all be granted, that those who came after me will also have been happy. And every day I wish, I pray, that some lessons learnt will be good ones, worth the learning — and not bad ones, hardly worth the pain.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009


It thunders, it is like the blood of angels, the tears of silence, it is cold and wet like a dead lover's embrace, it is sharp and bracing, like a pike. Tonight, we sit, we drink the memory of time gone down the drain, we laugh at the past, we raise our eyes to the future. And it rains.

It rains, it rains, the wind blows and the dogs are silent. On a night in the distance, the planet was lonely, the travellers were stale, the wisdom was pilloried in the desert. Who knows whether a countenance is mournful without cause?

Tonight I will sleep the sleep of the just, and if I am squeezed flat flush against a wall, I will wake justified. Tomorrow is here already and it was only yesterday once more. When you have eaten the chocolate of the ancient continent, nothing is ever the same. Strawberries and Mrs Field's forever.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Annual Restart

It isn't necessarily the first day of January on which the year starts. Some kinds of years start up elsewhere; the Folio Society and the English Premier League both start to show signs of life in late April.

Both of these institutions are reminders that once upon a time Britannia did indeed rule the waves, of both air and water, and that interesting and powerful things can come in relatively small packages. You marvel both at the tenacity of Stoke and Hull and staying in the top division, as well as the intricate power of a work like Golding's The Lord of the Flies. There is cruelty and pleasure, entertainment and grim knowledge of the human condition; there is always something for anyone and everyone.

It's like that in other areas of life as well. However, the League evolves in cycles and tables, while the Folio Society depends first on society, and then on folios. Other areas of life can be alike in one or both or neither of these aspects.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Theories of 'Knowledge'

The funny thing about the word 'knowledge' is that it's not really known how the word came about. The first part is pretty simple; in older tongues all the way back to theoretical proto-IndoEuropean, the root *gno- is the same. That is, the English know is related very closely to the Greek gnosis, which means 'knowing'. It must be one of the oldest words, because almost every European language has a similar formation.

But it's the second part that gives people a headache. Why is there a '-ledge' at the end? Some people think that it's like the -lich at the end of German words, which roughly indicates an adverb (e.g. German natürlich = English 'naturally'). By that token, German kenntliche should mean 'know-ly', that is, with the property of 'knowing' as applied to an action. But it doesn't quite work that way; I think kenntliche means 'identifiable' — that is, 'known'.

If that's the way it works, then 'knowledge' must mean 'that which is known'. To extrapolate, then, a word 'X-ledge' must mean 'that which is X-ed'. But what other words in English have that '-ledge' bit at the end? Of course, there's 'acknowledge', but that's cheating, since it's obvious that 'acknowledge' is related and simply means that you admit you know. (The one I hope nobody has come up with yet is 'priviledge'. There isn't such a word.)

So here we are, stuck on a ledge. No, not allegedly, or privilegedly, but just ledge-lich. Urk. I really need to sleep earlier, or I shall become uninterledgible. Oops. I mean, unintelligible. Argh.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another Neighbour

One of my former neighbours wrote a book which turned out, in a rare surprise for him, to be a bestseller. The title of the book was A Brief History of Time. This was the same neighbour who used to speculate on whether God existed or not, pointing out that Gödel had famously proven that He ought to exist but not proven it well enough to show that He indeed existed.

Sometimes, you wonder whether the dinner conversations and suchlike that whirl around you in your younger years actually shape your older years to such a great extent. All I can say is that. if anything, listening to such things makes you curious about particular things if you are already a curious child.

The first step is therefore to bring up a child to be curious. Then he will look for answers both within and without. And he will develop methodologies for finding those answers. Later, he will develop methodologies for evaluating those answers, and even methodologies for evaluating methodologies. If you happen to be able to provide examples and exemplars, then the child is on his way to having a lot of useful experiences.

Bear in mind, however, that the form of the answer can be physical as well as conceptual, spatial as well as numerical. There are many questions, and their answers come in many shapes, sizes, sounds, smells, savours and sensations.

All I can say is the study of falconry and of falcons can sometimes be of inestimable value in a later life bereft of both. You never know what might turn up, that will turn both salesmanship and hunting into a single word, and make a singularity out of many things.

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A Neighbour

My former boss, the petite lady who lives down the street, moves her professorial self past the garden once in a while. My sibling reports that this time she asked about me, having heard about my career 'movement'.

I've always had respect for the acuity and perspicacity of that lady. She has always had that capacity to zero in on a specific target and ask the sharpest questions. This time, it was all good. She pointed out why I couldn't have done certain things I was said to have done, and what she thought of me. Then she added her good (and much-appreciated) wishes for my future prospects.

The lady I've come to call 'Aunty' over the years, and people like her — these have been my true neighbours in a trying time. It is this kind of thing that makes me want to stay in Atlantis, and not decamp to Lemuria or some such fantastic other place.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Generational Politics

I've always wondered about charging schemes (pardon the pun) for electricity. When we were young, they taught us that the electricity bill was calculated in terms of kilowatt-hours (kWh); that is, the amount of electricity used to do work multiplied by the amount of time. This looked perfectly reasonable; after all, with terms like 'flow' and 'current', it was almost as if electricity was like water, something turned on and off at the tap.

But I was just thinking in recent months... what is the main difference between water and electricity? The main difference is that it is easier to store water; you generate electricity and if it's not used, nothing happens and the electricity is 'wasted'. In fact, it doesn't matter how many people use mains electricity as long as the load limit isn't exceeded; excess capacity is just excess.

There is a case for conservation of water, of course. We should keep as much reserve water as possible and not waste it. But domestic electricity is just a sideshow compared to what's used in industry. We should be allowed to use electricity as much as we can, up to a certain limit, for a flat fee. I'm sure the reason we don't get this privilege is a political one and not a scientific one.

In fact, the main opposition to Edison's electrical lines was Tesla's wireless effect, first patented in 1904. The difference between the two is a simple one. Edison's wires received financing simply because you can put a meter on a wire and charge for usage (like a tollbooth on a highway), while Tesla's approach would have made it impossible to charge for electricity at all.

Yes, it all comes down to this. Econs students, take note. The only way to really make money is through inefficiencies. If the free market had no failures at all, you'd be paying exactly how much something was worth, and in a sense, nobody would be making qualitatively outrageous profits.

In the case of electricity, if practically infinite energy was to be produced, as Tesla hoped when he studied the harvesting of universal energy, then eventually, everything would be free except craftsmanship, style and imagination. Edison won because people could understand how money could be made from his system of electricity distribution. But Nikola Tesla was a far better scientist, a visionary and a genius.

Then again, nobody has ever been able to prove that intelligence is a winner.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Buried Memory

It's been almost fifteen years since my grandfather passed beyond the veil. I am reminded of this because I was digging. In my spare time, I have become an amateur archaeologist, sifting through the strata of the dig that is my parental digs.

In a stratum near the bottom of the area south of the big desk, I found a single sheet, preserved by some chemical accident. It was from my best friend from the old days. On that sheet, preserving a single email from a long-lost server, was his tribute to my grandfather. In it, he mentioned the first time he met my grandfather, and how the man had summed him up quickly and accurately but kindly.

But the funny thing was the connection between my best friend and my grandfather; it was summed up in terms of the school that all three of us called our alma mater. He said that it was that honour which linked us together, the older man and the boys. And he never forgot that.

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Monday, August 17, 2009


It's like sitting in the tail-gunner's turret. You look behind you and see the world spread out, all its kingdoms and powers. And then you launch a hail of fire, and part of that is obscured, but not for long. Meanwhile, you remember the sermons good and bad, the self-aggrandizement and the self-humiliation, the true humility and the true grace, the many flavours and varieties of service and of style.

Like many wyverns who have left the nest, the Monday service is what we miss. It isn't for the substance always, but for the fact of its existence, the fact that there is an anchor that begins the week with the opportunity for reflection, for meditation, and for those who believe, God.

It's a lot like sitting in the tail-gunner's turret. Your parachute is just outside and you have a bunch of .50 cal heavy machine guns in front of you. If anything serious happens, you just might not get out in time. But you will go down with guns blazing, active till the last, just before your ascension into the heat of the day.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009


A lot of stuff has been said about the nearly supernatural properties of water. Some people believe that you have to drink eight glasses of the stuff every day or all manner of dreadful things will happen to you.

But water is one of the most likely molecules to form, one of the most ubiquitous. If any biology were to develop, the odds are high that water molecules would be part of it; the stuff is a universal solvent, with a curious spread of thermal and electrostatic characteristics.

The human organism is (like most other terrestrial life forms) a complicated agglomeration of impurities in a blob of water, with interactions defined by the aqueous medium. These impurities — fats, proteins, minerals, and other kinds of molecules — interact with water either positively (hydrophilic) or negatively (hydrophobic); their interactions with each other are often enhanced by mutual hydrophilia or hydrophobia.

Some parts of us repel water; this is not unnatural, because if we didn't repel water, we'd quickly dissolve. In a sense, our continued existence is due to the residual equilibrium and other equilibria we have with water. I remember a medical case some years ago in which a person drank too much isotonic fluid and destroyed his muscles. Sometimes you need a hypertonic solution, sometimes you need a hypotonic one; these are defined by the amount of water relative to the amount of solvent.

Remember, your cells exist in balance with water levels. Too much water, and they will function as badly as if they had too little. The body excretes excess water, because it's bad for you. So perhaps the best rule is what I've learnt over the years: if you're hungry, eat; if you're thirsty, drink; if you need to excrete, do it with celerity.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Christian Monolithism

Sometimes, but not frequently, I walk around the religious sections of bookstores. While there, I am reminded of why atheists target Christianity preferentially when ranting against religion in general. The fact is that Christianity is the biggest target. Fully represented on every continent and with its religious book the world's best-selling volume in history and every year since inception, Christianity is a big business.

In a sense, Christianity as a monolithic institution, a kind of religious abstraction, has nothing to fear from atheism. The percentage of atheists might grow, but in absolute terms the Christians willing to buy Christian books will always outnumber the atheists willing to buy atheist books.

Atheism is too weak a faith, too contrary a belief unto itself. The point is that it is an anti-faith faith. It relies on the idea that a specific paradigm is more useful to humans because of greater reliability, validity and utility — which are themselves the underpinnings of that paradigm. It is the ultimate (and pretty convincing) demonstration of circular reasoning, much as mathematical axioms, unquestioned and ineffable, will always lead to 'right' answers.

But back to Christianity...

In these bookstores, I find literally hundreds of titles purporting to be 'A Christian Perspective on [some current topic]', 'The Christian (and) [whatever]', 'Christianity and [some other thing]' and so on. Each of them assumes a monolithic perspective, totally disregarding in most cases the fact that Christianity is certainly the most diverse of all the major religions except for Hinduism, in matters of creed and practice.

St Paul was the ultimate exponent of that diversity. In his first epistle to the believers at Corinth, he hammered home the point that while there was one faith, yet each person was to build their own work on the foundation of Christ. Subsequently, "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God."

The credo of the early church was minimal in its conformity; in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he writes, "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ."

In letter after letter, line after line, the apostles preached organisational unity, but diversity in practice and interpretation. They had frequent disagreements, made compromises, and agreed a very little list of key beliefs— although that 'very little' was the central essence of the faith. Much of the rest — for example, observances of feast days, ideas about eating, proper ethical conduct, the importance of gifts — was treated with apostolic disdain. In fact, it's amazing how much Paul said was NOT important.

The point is that EVERY Christian is entitled to have her or his own personal opinion on global warming, dancing, smoking pot, listening to loud and discordant music (especially in 'charismatic' churches, I suppose) and many other issues. Some of these opinions may be right and some may be wrong; but Christians are told that there is freedom until the final judgement. That means that they should be careful with their freedom and they ought to try and get things right, but that's what we tell our children anyway, and there's nothing exceptional there.

There are immutables and firm guidelines, but not as many as the prescriptions in the bookstores seem to imply. For Christianity is no monolith; rather it stresses diversity of perspectives and gifts revolving around a single source of illumination. In that sense, it is more like Stonehenge than Babel, and the world ought to be the richer for that.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Programme Evaluation

It's seldom that I see educational programmes properly evaluated. In many schools, programmes that are touted as cutting-edge, large-scale, innovative, holistic (etc) are left to run at enormous expense without rigorous evaluation. It all comes down to a sort of epistemological problem. The problem is: How do you know that the programme actually works to produce the effects you claim?

In most cases, the claim is supported indirectly:
  • Someone else said it works somewhere else, so it must work here too.
  • Our results are good, so it works.
  • The relevant literature is...
  • The students we get are poor, and they get better.
  • The teachers are good.
  • We do better than other schools using other programmes.
... and so on. But any student of the theory of knowledge (or equivalent) can easily see the loopholes in these varieties of 'supporting evidence'. The fact is that most such programmes are theoretical constructs designed to squeeze funds out of overburdened budgets.

Is there a way out? Yes, there is. But it requires more spine than some people have.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ten Reasons Why You Might Want To Get Rid Of A Teacher

Interesting topic, no? The surprising thing, I suppose, is that very often percentage-wise it is not because the teacher is a bad teacher, but because the teacher is a good one.

In my recent research on teacher evaluation strategies, the meta-analysis has proven truly educational. Most teachers are encouraged to leave because of reasons other than bad teaching. In fact, because this is so hard to prove objectively, it is easier to find fault with things like style, dress sense, teamwork issues — equally subjective but something that the public feels it can understand better.

This will remain a stub for now. Some people might think I'm lining up the old missile launchers again.


Early at the Corner Shop

For once in a very long while, I am meeting up with an old friend for coffee at some ungodly hour before 8 am. I used to do that every day, almost. Now it is such a rare occurrence that I have to commit it to text. I can imagine the morning assemblies at places all round the island, with the ritual unfurlings and recitations.

Hey, that's a good title for a book! Unfurlings & Recitations; it has a nice ring to it.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I should do a countdown. DC Comics had this series called 52 in which the episodes unfolded from 52 downwards, and it was a nifty gag, but not one that helped very much in cataloguing. If I were to do a countdown, it would take 42 days. And by that time, I'd be far too busy to do a good job.

Of course, by that time, I'd be in the realm of vague guesswork. The earliest memories I have are of playpen days in 1968. That means I can sort of remember 40 years of history or so, but not as far back as the Kennedy assassination. I can remember Vietnam, and SALT, and the deployment of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. I can remember when disco began. I can remember the Jackson Five and how cute MJ's nose used to be before he filed it off.

I can remember lots of things, and I am thankful for most of them. In the next few weeks, I'll be digging up (literally) the old stuff spanning my late adolescence and early adulthood. Those things need to be cleared; they're occupying space that Dad needs for retirement. I guess that the people I used to receive letters from are long gone, long forgotten, still so close that I don't need all those letters... I don't know. I have physical artifacts in writing from people who meant a lot to me. Some still do.

What do I do with those?

It strikes me that looking into the past makes you think of the futures that might have been, and maybe it helps you accept the future that was, and is now the present.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Over The Hill

I'm still charging over the top, in many ways. I'm over the point that people call 40, and into the ages beyond. I remember that I once described my life in terms of decades: my first, second, third and fourth decades are all here.

The funny thing about my post on the fourth decade is that I actually thought, almost exactly two years ago, that my last place of regular work would be a more permanent abode than most; barely seven months later, I left it. I was made to charge over the hill, in a manner of speaking.

This present age is a strange one, symbolically. If one becomes an adult at 21, what then can one say about 42? Is it an answer to a question? An answer to a question that is unknown? A symbol of life, the universe and everything? A cross-product of sixes and sevens? I don't know. But I'm strangely warmed by the hundred or so people who this day spent some time to make a link between their busy lives and the life of a person who for some of them was almost a stranger, and who for some of them (hopefully) played a useful or cheerful part in those lives.

Well, stranger things have happened. And I'm still a happy person. Very.

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Nesting Tendencies

The other night, in the company of both family and Family, I heard a terrible story. It concerned a venerable ancestor of mine, who had hoarding tendencies.

The uncle who recounted the tale spoke of how this old man, who was both family and Family, accumulated newspapers. He stacked them neatly against all the walls of his palatial room, and then stacked them against the previous stacks when he ran out of room.

"When he died," said my uncle with ghoulish relish, "He was all cooped up in this tiny space in his formerly huge room, sipping stout all day and being grumpy.

"They had to hire a fleet of trucks to cart the newspapers away, and when they did, they uncovered nests of scorpions and snakes and rats, some dead, some alive and wriggling."

If that's the fate of those with the archival gene in my family, I am doomed. What a way to approach one's 42nd birthday.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Follow the Water

My latest research sidetrack has come in the form of water analysis. Dallas Murphy's interesting account of the work of oceanography, To Follow The Water, has many interesting things to say about the movement of water. He points out that the Gulf Stream causes something like 36 Sverdrup units to go northward from the Caribbean region to the North Atlantic, keeping Europe warm and preventing an Ice Age. A Sverdrup unit is one million cubic metres of water per second. It's an awe-inspiring figure.

More to the point, while we can measure the large movements, the currents and vortices, they still remain susceptible to chaos at the local level. In late 2004, the meridional overturning circulation (in which cooling high-density salt water sinks and less-dense salt water rises in the ocean) appeared to have slowed for a while. Headlines saying that the Gulf Stream had stopped sprouted like a virulent disease. Of course, if the Gulf Stream really had stopped, we'd all be in serious trouble.

All the major oceans have these huge currents, one cycle in each hemisphere, with branches. If these currents were rivers, they'd be really huge rivers. The Gulf Stream is about 100 km wide and 1.2 km deep. It transports 1.4 petawatts of heat; that's a million billion joules per second and is about 100 times the energy consumption of the entire human race. If only we could tap it!

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Sunday, August 09, 2009


After a lot of mind-grinding research, consideration and thought, I have decided that it must be true. There can't be any sort of succession plan at the place of the wyverns, simply because it is clear that the second tier cannot handle the academy at the level required. The third tier has insufficient experience, skill or desire to lead.

Conclusion: if there is a succession plan, it is either a very bad one or it is a very cunning one, designed to destroy the institution from within.

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The kookaburra is a cheerful and raucous bird, a sort of large kingfisher. When I was very young, my father taught me this song:

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Merry merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, kookaburra!
Sing, kookaburra!
Gay your life must be!

Poor kookaburra. Would have a tough time in Atlantis, for many reasons.


Note: Excerpted from the Wikipedia article, "Kookaburras are best known for their unmistakable call, which is uncannily like loud, echoing human laughter — good-natured, but rather hysterical, merriment in the case of the well-known Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae); and maniacal cackling in the case of the slightly smaller Blue-winged Kookaburra (D. leachii). They are generally not closely associated with water, and can be found in habitats ranging from humid forest to arid savanna, but also in suburban and residential areas near running water and where food can be searched for easily."

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You sit in the dark, realising something is wrong. You arise, realising that you used to lie, but are now sitting up, in bed. You are drawn to the window, to the gentle tap of the yellow fog. You sniff the air, and you know.

It is the time of the burning.

All things that can burn will burn. The air is redolent of burnt tyres, burnt Tyre, and all you know is that while it smells oh-so-fragrantly oh-so-flagrantly of that... it is actually the smell of burnt trees, of the dying of forests, of the surrender of branch and root before the force of fire.

It is the time of the haze.

My life locks into focus, my nostrils are burning. I smell the smell of loss, the scent of defeat, the aroma of the knowledge that man is not ever going to be good, this far from Eden. We need a kind of grace, a kind of amelioration of a bleak and bad-ass nature. We are not going to get there on our own.

It is the time of ash and thorn.

I am sitting on the floor. I am searching for something that has been taken. Though much is taken, much abides. And though we are not now that strength... I do not know what I have lost. Is it my mind?

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Remediation and Eccentricity

I think these two words are antonyms. They are two opposing concepts, and yet seldom thought of as such.

The word 'remediation' comes from the old Greek word medos which means 'counsel' or 'best path'; it later came to mean, via Latin medialis, 'to make right again' or 'to make better' or 'to return to the normal path'.

However, the word 'eccentricity' comes from the Greek for 'out of the centre' or 'uncentredness'. It is a tendency to not be in the medium or the median, but to be 'far out'. To be eccentric means to depart from the norm, to be abnormal.

The interesting thing is that normal people are neither remediable nor eccentric. If they are normal, they need not be remediated, and if they are normal, they are by definition not eccentric. But for some reason, we persist in remediating the normal, as if somehow everyone should be made better than before and thus create a new norm.

But that way lies madness. How much more supranormal can normal become? It's like watching those horrendous specimens of human form, the bodybuilders and weightlifters. This is pushing the envelope of functionality; creating muscles for the sake of it, and actually reducing one's human functional capacity. How... eccentric.

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Friday, August 07, 2009


At some stage in my life, I was trained to convert processes into algorithms. The great thing about this training is that it is of great utility in many other disciplines besides the one in which I learnt this.

Take for example the definition of a natural number. It is easy (although it might be tedious) to prove if a number is a natural number by using this algorithm (which is something I just came up with, but which I'm sure anyone can do likewise):
  1. Accept a given real number, x.
  2. Is the number zero? If so, the number is/was a natural number and you terminate.
  3. Subtract 1. Is the number less than zero? If so, the number was not a natural number and you terminate.
  4. Repeat step 3.
Of course, there are possibly more efficient ways of doing this, but this way is 100% effective. Note: some mathematicians don't treat zero as a natural number; if you're one of them, just change 'zero' in steps 2 and 3 to read '1' instead.

You can do this with all kinds of things for the sake of fun, profit, indulgence, curiosity or perversity. It helps you do things like mentally convert any kind of distribution to one that can be compared to a normal distribution, for example. It can even help you write the minutes of meetings before the meeting is carried out. Seriously. Used to do that all the time, they were that predictable...

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Responses 005 (2008) (Redux)

About seven months ago, I posted a response to a specific question about the nature of knowledge. Since then, the question has come back to life, and I've been asked whether that was my entire response.

Well, looking at it again, I still haven't found an area of knowledge that defines itself, in the strict sense of the term (but read through to the end of this post). Some people have said, well, what about set theory? Aren't some sets obviously self-defining? For example, certain numbers have certain properties (like being a prime number). Then the set of all prime numbers can be defined, and it is obviously a set of knowledge points. Prime numbers are THERE, they just need to be found.

Actually, that's true in some sort of way. Number properties, such as the inability to be divided exactly by any other number (except 1), are pre-existent in some sense. It's also true that some people have no concept of number in the first place. Is the concept of 'number' invented or discovered? This one's a hard thing to call, especially bearing in mind that the idea of 'nothing' is obviously pre-existent, and so is the idea of 'one thing' — after that, the concept of number is just adding onto that.

What about art? Are some things already beautiful (well, 'aesthetically pleasing' might be better) and waiting to be discovered as such? But the problem is, the set of things that are beautiful is not automatically and completely self-defining. There is always a bit of uncertainty at the edges, unlike with prime numbers. This means that an area of knowledge such as art or literature requires humans to define it, and hence is not pre-existent. It cannot be discovered, it can only be invented.

Some people say physics is like math and pre-existent. But the thing is that we create constructs to explain effects, and we work out formulae, but those formulae are our descriptions of replicable events, that's all. In fact, there are NO such things as replicable events in the sciences, although we try very hard to make them so because that would be ideal science. Science, therefore, consists of 'best guess' collation of results with an acceptable uncertainty built in. Because we like round numbers, if x is proportional to y^1.9999546, we would probably assume that it is actually y^2 and leave it at that. Science is a pure construct; it claims to discover, but it actually describes and explains in human terms.

Consider the discovery of penicillin as opposed to the invention of the telephone. The penicillium organism existed before we found it and used it; the telephone did not until we made one. But the decision to study the organism in certain ways and describe its behaviour in certain ways is an invention, not a discovery. So knowledge can be discovered, but an area of knowledge (in this case, antibiotics) must be invented.

Actually, the whole idea of 'discovering' an area of knowledge still seems spurious to me. It's like stumbling upon a layout for knowledge relationships that is automatic and complete without any human agency being involved. Even in biology (the area of knowledge concerning all living things), where you can argue that 'life' is a pre-existent defining focus, the point still remains that someone has to stand up and say, "Come, let's define an area of knowledge concerning all living things and call it 'biology'."

However, I've realised something. When we invent a machine, we do indeed discover an area of knowledge that is automatically implied by the existence of that machine. For example, you can't have computer science without computers. (And yes, you can't have zymurgy without having discovered brewer's yeast first.) But once you invent a computer, you automatically begin to discover the things a computer can do, the theories that govern information structuring and transfer based on the idea of digital computation and logic, and so on. The area is indeed self-defining even though the machine was invented...

Oooh. I have to go and think this through again...

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Unifying Factors

Regardless of the complexities of science and psychology, there are some common experiences that affect the vast majority of people. The death of a child, the death of a parent or a spouse, these things cut to the essence of our lives and bring us together, even if it's only for a brief moment in the surge of the tides.

There is no place for contention at such times, or ought not to be.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Historical and Revisionist

Well, it's been an amazing run so far, and it shows no signs of letting up. Yesterday I met the charming NMS coordinator who took me on a guided tour of the new museum and gave me ideas on what to say when I have to brief the docents later this year. She showed me how the museum now divides some of its exhibits into an Events Path and a Personal Path, thus covering both the macro-history of national and international events and the micro-history of personal triumph and tragedy. It's a lovely blend of two visions (or maybe, as Eliot would have said, 'visions and revisions').

Somehow, I have slipped into the family profession and am now some kind of historian.

At the same time, I'm digging up family history in archaeological style as I unearth treasures such as my male ancestor's first appointment letter from that creaky and venerable institution where he worked for about 45 years. Also the anniversary card that he bought but somehow forgot to give to my mother. Hmm.

It's things like this which remind one that official histories and personal histories may not always go together. Slowly, the web that is crafted may combine both, and they may join at points, but what comes out in the books about the big things is always not the same as what the diaries and journals and letters say.

I am fortunate, as they say, to have got my licks in before the bar came down. The official histories, to some extent, have my fingerprints on them. The subsequent revisionism cannot take that away. In fact, it is amusing to see the errors and inanities that crop up when the clumsy figure of the bumbling censor doddles and doodles its way across the ages of the pages as it tries to reinvent the truth. More on this later, I think.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I smell blood in the water. If I were a shark I'd be pretty agitated by now. But I'm not a shark. I'm just watching from a quiet place in the coral reef, as the beast thrashes around in mortal anguish, not knowing that it is doomed.

All this, it is presentiment. The beast may not yet be a beast. Then again, who knows? Maybe the beast is yet to be.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Literary Reserves

It's like the fine wines that one keeps in the cellar for a first and special opening during a grand occasion. I have a stash of books, still in pristine condition, that I have kept for times when I really need a good book.

Sometimes, I already have a copy of the book, well-thumbed, much loved and much read. In such a case, the book in the stash is normally a Folio edition, sometimes a numbered copy, still in its shrink-wrapped virginity.

Sometimes, I have very much wanted to spend the time the book requires, but I have not found that time yet. In such a case, the book is new, but often large and/or complex.

Sometimes, I know the book in the stash is not one of those classics, nor is destined to be. But I know I will have fun with it, and enjoy it, given the right circumstances.

Sometimes, I don't keep the book in the stash very long, because it just begs to be read at the nearest available opportunity. These books help me to stay away from those that need to be 'aged' a little longer.

Right now, my stash includes these:
  • Powers: Secret Histories, compiled and edited by John Berlyne; limited edition, #881 of 1000;
  • The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery; paperback;
  • Bomb, Book and Compass, by Simon Winchester; mass market paperback;
  • Stories, by John Buchan; Folio edition;
  • Practical Endgame Play—Beyond the Basics, by Glenn Flear; paperback;
  • You Can Understand The Bible, by Peter Kreeft; paperback;
  • A Thousand Deaths, by George Alec Effinger; hardback;
  • Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, by Chua Beng Huat; hardback;
  • The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds; mass market paperback;
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon; mass market paperback.
It's a terrifying list, and there are at least 15 more books in the stash.

The great thing is that there are books for every occasion! I feel truly blessed to be able to reach out and entertain any of my varied interests from the small space around my desk. Only in this age of mankind has the written word been so available to so many with so little effort. But that's both a blessing and a curse.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009


Sometimes, it is good to mock people. It is good to point out that they are really really silly, take themselves far too seriously, and deserve to be laughed at. Some people think this is a rather unchristian sort of attitude to take, but that's mainly because they don't read the Bible themselves. The Bible is full of mockery.

One of the stories I remember from my childhood is from 1 Kings 18. In that chapter, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a trial by fire. Both sides were to place a sacrifice on a hill and pray, and see which sacrifice was devoured by fire. Like Daniel's nutritional trial, this was some sort of scientific experiment.

While the priests of Baal danced around unsuccessfully, Elijah mocked them and their religious practices. He said, "Cry aloud, for he is a god, and maybe he is busy talking or hunting or journeying or sleeping, and must be awakened!" When it came to his turn, he drenched his own sacrifice and its altar in water, and when he prayed, fire fell upon the altar and consumed everything including the water and the stones of the altar.

Mockery, you see, must be followed by action. It is good to laugh at silly people, but you have to show that you are not a silly person yourself.

Also, the target of mockery must be the right target. God is not mocked, and neither should you mock your parents or those who don't deserve it. But people who set up idols in the places of God and who have no idea what they are doing? Ah, those you should mock indeed.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Joshua, Admin Hero

I was looking at the biblical Joshua, successor to Moses. Amazing guy won battles by pure logistics. Just by marching his entire army across the Jordan without any loud Mosaic threats of fire and brimstone, he made his opponents' morale collapse. His farewell speech, just chapter 24 of the book that bears his name, is succinct and boring, but it contains a masterpiece of reverse psychology that ensured his people never strayed from the straight and narrow in that short period between his death and the death of the last of his peers.

That short speech is tiny compared to Moses' huge rambling farewell that is the book of Deuteronomy. The style is markedly different. Moses is all about blame and guilt; Joshua is all about getting a good job done. Moses is inspiring at times, a psalmist, lawgiver, prophet, master of rhetoric and friend of God. Joshua is not inspiring, but he is solid, dependable, convincing.

I can't help thinking of the difference between certain founding fathers and their immediate successors. Heh.

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