Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Chamberpot Story (I)

It so happened that my most recent reading came from one of those Old Testament books that many claim not to be interested in. This was the First Book of the Kings, and the section I was reading was the enthralling tale of Jeroboam son of Nebat. This extremely hard-working and talented king was a bad hat through and through, successor to that tragic Solomon who was once the wisest man in the world.

The account was a dire one, but it had me in stitches, because it is one of the many parts of the Bible which displays a pithy sense of humour. Here I shall recount some of the choicest lines.

The Beginning (11:28-11:32)
, in which a prophet gives a parenthetical example of divine sentimentality:

"And the man Jeroboam was a mighty man of valour: and Solomon seeing the young man that he was industrious, he made him ruler over all the charge of the house of Joseph. And it came to pass at that time when Jeroboam went out of Jerusalem, that the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him in the way; and he had clad himself with a new garment; and they two were alone in the field: And Ahijah caught the new garment that was on him, and rent it in twelve pieces:

"And he said to Jeroboam, 'Take thee ten pieces: for thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee: (But he shall have one tribe for my servant David's sake, and for Jerusalem's sake, the city which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.)' "

The Idolatry (12:27-31)
, in which Jeroboam decides to distract the people with two idols so that they won't go to his rival Rehoboam:

"If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah. Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'

"And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi."

The Whistleblower and the Cronies (13:1-34)
, which I shall not quote verbatim but summarise — a prophet tells Jeroboam that his priests (see last section) would be destroyed; Jeroboam lays hands on the prophet and his hand withers up; the prophet prays for Jeroboam and Jeroboam is healed; another prophet says that nevertheless, these prophesies will come to pass, and yet (v33)...

"After this thing Jeroboam returned not from his evil way, but made again of the lowest of the people priests of the high places: whosoever would, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places."

The Doom (14:7-10)
, in which the prophet Ahijah has some remarkably pungent lines:

" 'Go, tell Jeroboam, 'Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, 'Forasmuch as I exalted thee from among the people, and made thee prince over my people Israel, and rent the kingdom away from the house of David, and gave it thee: and yet thou hast not been as my servant David, who kept my commandments, and who followed me with all his heart, to do that only which was right in mine eyes; but hast done evil above all that were before thee;

'For thou hast gone and made thee other gods, and molten images, to provoke me to anger, and hast cast me behind thy back: therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.' ' ' "

It's a remarkable story, with a truly interesting linguistic sequel. The word 'Jeroboam' later (c. 1816) became a word describing an oversized wine-bottle; that is, a 3-litre bottle of champagne or Burgundy, 4.5 litres if Bordeaux. In 1827, the word became slang for 'chamberpot', because of the large capacity involved. 'Jeroboam' got shortened to 'Jerry', and the word 'Jerry-can' was used to mean a large water container with a capacity of about 20 litres or so. Compare the history of the word 'Jeroboam' with the doom of the king, and you get the feeling that slang-merchants used to be a very educated lot.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Argumentative TOK Student

I've literally taught hundreds of students and maintained civil, even friendly, relationships with each of them. But once in a while you get these argumentative types, who are argumentative in the sense that they like picking intellectual fights while armed with the mental equivalent of an overcooked and rather slimy spinach leaf. This is the sense in which I shall use the word 'argumentative' for the purpose of this post.

I love the cut-and-thrust of discussion with students who are prepared to work from first principles most, followed by that of discussion with students who have done their readings and at least can work their way through someone else's thinking. But the worst kinds are those who are arguing on the spur of the moment without basing the argument either on principle or on reported fact.

My advice to all students is to develop the habit of curious and critical reading. Whether you get your brain food from the Internet or in print (or like some people, print stuff off the Internet), at least do yourselves the favour of reading stuff like John Brockman's the Edge, Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, and Michael Shermer's Skeptic magazine.

It's not my intention to champion the scientific paradigm over all other means of consolidating knowledge, but this is the most easily misused of all paradigms, because it treads a very narrow path and hence can be easily led astray. Therefore it must be used with the most care in order to avoid error. It is interesting to see what kinds of problems the avoidance of error (and the obsession with error) can produce. You learn to get rid of complexity the same way a very short-sighted person attempts to appreciate a tapestry — by making critical commentary on the stitchwork.

This contrasts with the humanities, where the detection of error is often a process involving much more ambiguity and a penumbral effect that casts non-verifiable doubt over many things. You can attempt all you want to avoid error or reduce error, but you know for sure that there will be errors. Information is seldom anywhere near complete, and the problems are seldom easily reducible. In the quantitative pseudohumanities (like econometrics, to name one egregious example), you work with numerical entities that quickly degenerate into farcical representations of reality.

The humanities are 'openers', whereas the sciences are 'closers', to borrow nomenclature from Roger Zelazny. The humanities open up cans of worms which seem to produce more worms; the sciences attempt to can everything (the 'everything can' idea, perhaps). The problem with the argumentative student is that he is going for a change of state — to open the closed and close the open — without thinking about whether this is an appropriate approach or not.

It's a bit like attempting to have a scientific discussion with some debaters. The debater's instinct is to probe with claims, counterclaims, and points of information. But most of them forget that negation is an asymmetric operation; to deny something requires a different kind of proof, as opposed to stating that something is true. And there is also the fact that the issues debated may have gone on for decades without resolution, simply because none of the positions have adequate support except for the fact that they might fit all the known data.

My own instincts tell me that I'd rather debate literature with a scientist than science with a literatus (or literato, if you prefer the Italian). Fortunately, I am blessed to have friends and students who are at home in both cultures. Even better, they are happy not to confine debates and discussions with the artifice of interdisciplinary boundaries.

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Phase Change

When next month begins, I will have entered a new phase of life. Like some sort of strange austenitic allotrope, I will suddenly develop the ability to absorb huge amounts of random carbide and then become tempered in many different ways to produce all kinds of useful versions of the base metal.

Or maybe not; that might just be pushing an interesting metaphor too far. But what is true is that I will suddenly find myself heading out of an intermediate phase of life, with a few months to make the complete transition. And I don't know, for the first time in my life, what I will end up doing.

It is magnificently, hair-raisingly, exhilarating.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Plagiarism (Redux)

A few months ago I mentioned plagiarism as an accidental phenomenon. The problem is that once in a while, it's a deliberate one.

I've tracked quite a few instances of students all round the world borrowing whole sentences and paragraphs from this blog for their TOK essays. Hey, if you want to cite my posts, go ahead. But don't use them without attribution, get hauled up for plagiarism, and suffer nasty consequences. Your teachers and professors can use Google too, you know.


Sunday, September 27, 2009


Recently I found myself in a discussion about that peculiar emotion known as 'yearning'. Someone said that yearning does not by itself prove that the thing yearned for exists. Someone else said that if a thing existed, we might yearn for it. For me, I've come to realise that sometimes we take our yearnings and we make a mental image of what it is that we yearn for.

One of the well-known, and to my mind somewhat spurious, arguments for the existence of God is that there seems to be a yearning for something higher and better than us. That is why, the argument goes, we invent gods. It's a ridiculous argument, because it's possible to yearn for stuff no one else has ever yearned for, and it's possible to have a yearning you cannot describe, and it's possible to claim that you have a yearning and never describe it the same way. And these are just three reasons why it's a ridiculous argument.

It's also possible to claim that when you meet something that satisfies you, you might realise that it is the object of your indescribable yearnings. Well, that's like saying you have no statement of hypothesis, you gather some experimental data, and amazingly the data supports the hypothesis that you didn't state.

Frankly, I believe that you can yearn for God, but I don't think it is proof of His existence. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, the main reason why you shouldn't indulge in arguments aimed at proof or disproof of God's existence is that God actually cannot objectively prove His existence within the strictures that He has created for himself.

I've expounded on this elsewhere. Briefly, one problem is that if God exists, it wouldn't be possible to have an objective proof related to him; another problem is that a comprehensive proof of His existence would render free will (as we conceive of it) and meaningful faith impossible; a third problem is that it isn't possible to prove the extent of the superset from the subset without common rules that bind both. There are even more problems than that.

Nevertheless, I will honestly say that for me, belief in God gives me a meaningful existence. Some will say that's very sad, and some will say that's very good. For me, it's just very true. I don't really feel yearning, what I feel is impatience to complete the examination that is this life, and move on to the postdoctoral stage.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Day of Small Things

Let's conduct a little thought experiment, a speculative look at a possible world. What if all our policies favoured the small at the expense of the weak?

It is not an impossibility. My first serious thoughts on this topic came in 1984, when I came across a hardly-borrowed copy of E F Schumacher's 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. But he wasn't the first to float these ideas past me; that claim goes to a much older text, the prophetic utterances of Zechariah, in the Old Testament. Indeed, "For who hath despised the day of small things?"

It is a thread that runs through much of our recorded history, that small has been more often beautiful than large. We appreciate miniatures more than megaliths, despite the grandeur and awe that come with the latter.

But let's make our thought experiment more explicit. What if, for example, we only manufactured small vehicles, and raised the price of fuel tenfold? What if we taxed air passengers for any weight above 80 kg (including their own body weight)? What if we made it illegal to use antibiotics on livestock, and ordered sick animals to be put down at the farmers' expense? What if we refused insurance to the obese (after all, it is a pre-existing condition that makes mortality rates higher)? In other words, what if we actively enforced an anti-fat-person policy across many fronts, making it expensive to be fat?

It isn't going to happen, for many reasons, not least of which is that the USA is the fattest country on earth. But it is a great idea, because the benefits far outweigh the penalties.

And let's consider the other side of the coin. What if we gave air passengers a rebate for any weight under 60 kg (thus making airfares for children and small adults cheaper)? What if we made public access corridors not higher than 180 cm? What if we actively pursued a 'small people'-friendly and 'big people'-unfriendly policy?

Yeah, yeah, it ain't gonna happen. But what a wonderful world it would be...


Scientific Endeavours

I recently had the occasion, guided by Gnomus, to look at the statistics for successful science scholarships issued from the Atlantean Star HQ. Those of you who have access to my prosopon will know what statistics I'm referring to.

It amazes me that for a similar outlay, it is quite clear that some Integrated Programmes are heavily anti-science while pretending to be pro-science. Have they no con-science? Or is it all a science-con?

These questions came to mind as I spent time teaching some young people from a certain school about alchemy this week. Especially when I was horrified by the fact that they were being examined in stuff they weren't supposed to have learnt.

I don't mind enrichment; this is a valuable part of education. But to force young people to take tests in stuff they aren't supposed to be tested in is some sort of intellectual rape. As one young man put it, "We pointed out that the stuff in the examination wasn't in the syllabus, and they said, haha, so sorry, it's good for you."

Let me make this clear. If you are teaching in an open-ended way that nurtures thought and argument from first principles (after first figuring out how to establish first principles), then that's good, keep it up. If the questions that you test them with are fair under those terms, that's great. But if you are cramming the students with stuff because it's more convenient to do that and call it 'talent development' or 'gifted enrichment' or some rubbish like that, then that's lax at best and immoral at worst.

You can tell that the school as a whole has quenched interest in science. It has a very roughly 1% success rate at the Atlantean Stars; others are showing a far higher rate than that.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Ways of Knowing (Part II)

This is a long-delayed follow-up (or perhaps it should be partly 'prequel') to this previous post. Like that post, it arises from a coffee-shop experience. During a professional chat I was having with a student, I asked, "So what do you think a 'Way of Knowing' is, since you have to write an essay on it?"

She promptly told me, "Sensory perception, emotion, language, reason. Those are the Ways of Knowing."

As you might realise, this is yet another case of definition by example. It's like defining 'life' as 'a quality possessed by all living things', and then proceeding to give me a list of things that are thought to be living things.

So I asked her, "What is the 'Knowing' defined as, in 'Ways of Knowing'?"

She replied, "Knowing is justified true belief."

This is a textbook answer, and a pretty good one, having been around for around 2400 years. Plato first formulated it somewhere in his dialogue Theaetetus, in which he discusses knowledge with that eponymous student. Unfortunately, the text shows that Plato felt this definition to be flawed, although it is the starting point for most discussions on epistemelogy (or 'the rationale for why we believe').

I'd have to say that knowledge minimally should meet these three criteria (i.e., something must be justified, true, and believed in order to be 'knowledge'). I also agree with Simon Blackburn in general that improperly meeting any of these conditions (that is, by accident, coincidence, or some flawed reasoning — or lack of reasoning) makes it 'not-knowledge'.

A 'Way of Knowing' must therefore be a process or mechanism that allows us to modify our quality of knowing (hopefully) for the better; that is, it is something we can use to develop justification, confirm truth, and/or increase belief in something. Quite clearly, if deployed incorrectly or inaccurately, it can also do the opposite: all the 'Ways of Knowing' this student quoted can give us false knowledge.

A good test of 'Ways of Knowing' is the question of whether they possess the values of validity, reliability and/or utility when used in a particular situation. That is to say, do they help us deal with the right thing, do it consistently, and do it within a useful set of circumstances (time-frame, comprehensibility etc).

Take 'sensory perception' for example, the first thing that Plato dismisses as insufficient in the dialogue mentioned earlier. It's a pretty valid 'Way of Knowing' in most circumstances; we more or less know what we are turning our senses towards, and multiple senses can give us a better knowledge of a given phenomenon. However, our senses, being intrinsic to our biology, are unreliable — they give results that are seldom exactly reproducible for one person, let alone between many people.

An example of this unreliability is taste. Nothing tastes exactly the same twice, although we might think so; and certainly no two people can experience exactly the same taste. This holds true for the other senses as well. Senses rely on physical stimuli mediated through random chemical action in a biological context; since the latter two are not strictly reproducible, the interpretation of the first is not reliable. To be more direct, if the brain and its associated sensory apparatus are always changing, what makes you think the system ever produces the same results twice?

This is why wine reviews must be one of the greatest scams on earth. Nobody has the same tongue or palate, and it is quite obvious that wine reviewers have (or at least claim to have) a more sensitive tongue and/or palate than 99.9999999% (yes, that would make the top wine reviewers one in a billion) of the population. This means their sensory perceptions are even less reproducible than those of normal people, which means their reviews are nonsense since hardly anybody will ever experience what they experience.

See how easy it is to think about 'Ways of Knowing'? The real challenge is to actually work out a valid, reliable and useful definition of your own and then continue onwards from that point.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Areas of Knowledge (Redux)

Last night, one of my former students who knows me well enough decided to play the game. He asked me, "So, how do you define 'area of knowledge'?"

So I told him how I defined it, from an information point of view. An area of knowledge is a set of interpreted data points which broadly share the same kind of origin and/or derivation, and the same kind of methodology of collection, retention and interpretation. The means of justification for each of these interpreted data points (information 'bits') is also reasonably similar, and the points are related to form a coherent body of information. This body therefore consists of knowledge and can be considered to be a somewhat continuous space in the knowledge realm — hence, 'area of knowledge'.

Of course, it is quite possible to define 'area of knowledge' based on empirical evidence. You can look at constructs that people say are areas of knowledge and then say that an area of knowledge is something which is similar to those constructs. This method is like teaching people what a triangle is by looking at things which are triangles, rather than defining 'triangle' and seeing if the construct under examination matches the definition.

By this second method, you can say History, Chemistry, Computing, Law (and so on) are areas of knowledge. Then if you encountered something like Theology, you would have to decide if it were an area of knowledge or not based on its similarity to the others. That's actually not as easy as it seems, although I have in the past demonstrated how Theology is like Mathematics (or vice versa).

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Areas of Knowledge

This topic came up again while I was in discussion mode with a student. "What's an Area of Knowledge?" I asked.

The young person in front of me looked terrifyingly blank. "They didn't teach us that!"

"Come on, I'm sure they did. You can't have a Theory of Knowledge course without defining 'Area of Knowledge', surely."

"Oh, you mean things like History, Art, Chemistry... ?"

"That's called 'attempting to define by example'. You're expecting ME to define AoK by looking at things you claim are AoKs. But you can't claim they are distinct AoKs without some benchmark to compare them to!"

"So, sir, what's an AoK?"

"That would be telling. Let's make it your homework. Meanwhile... what's a Way of Knowing?"

"They told us what things were Ways of Knowing, but they didn't define 'Way of Knowing' so we didn't have a benchmark to determine if the things they claimed were 'Ways of Knowing' were actually 'Ways of Knowing'."

(Rolling eyes.)

"At least we're making some progress here..."


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cultural Mandate

I was musing on the term 'Cultural Mandate' recently. Like the phrase 'Cultural Revolution', it has a completely different sense from its normal semantic burden when placed in context. In the context to which I am referring, it is the idea that there is an explicit religious directive or 'permission' to engage the world of secular culture from the viewpoint of a specific religion.

I think that this particular idea is relatively meaningless except when contrasted against another idea. This would be the idea that religion is a private thing to be kept out of the mainstream and out of other people's faces as much as possible.

The point I'd make is that no interpretation of religion should assert a 'Cultural Mandate'. Religion is a social phenomenon, and automatically engages culture. It should automatically engage present-day issues and current affairs. This is not to say that it should have the dominant say, but that it will always have some say. Let me show you why I say this.

(I will use the term 'Church' to represent any organised religion in the following points.) Societies that demand the separation of spiritual and secular tend to fall into four logical areas:
  1. You can have the 'Church vs State' model in which you do not let churchmen into the state or statesmen into the church. This makes the country effectively a bipartite state. Historically, this idea could be seen in countries like Andorra, which was ruled by a French duke and a Spanish bishop.
  2. You can have the 'Church above State' model in which the churchmen are statesmen but first churchmen (often called a theocracy). In such cases, since the Church makes almost everything its business, the secular state is very small in scope.
  3. You can have the 'Church below State' model in which the State has all the powers and the Church is tolerated but is not allowed to express itself in all ways, since some of these ways might be detrimental to public order. This is the case for modern France, for example, which protects religious practice as long as it doesn't interfere with public order.
  4. You can have the 'neither Church nor State, or whichever is more advantageous' model in which the State professes to also have an official Church. Historically, England and many other European states were like this; you will still find that the ruler of England has the title Fidei Defensor ('Defender of the Faith').
What I am saying with these four cases is that there is no case in which you can take the Church out of the State completely, and there will always be scope for the religious to place their views on offer in the marketplace of ideas.

But hold on, you say, what about those states which actively suppress religious activity?

Well, that is not the separation of spiritual and secular, but the separation of spiritual from secular, with the intent of abolishing the former entirely. In such states, even secular culture suffers and takes on near-religious mythological significance.

My point is that the only reason one might claim to have a 'Cultural Mandate' is that there is actually some force (possibly even from within, such as religious conservatism) that says that people of a certain religion should not act as cultural agents in the secular world. The acts of such a cultural agent would possibly include singing in a nightclub, posting sensual (but not obscene, speaking with cultural relativity) music videos, writing philosophy textbooks, teaching history, or running a wine shop (or coffee house) without posting the relevant scriptural justifications all over the place.

If these activities are seen as inappropriate for practising religionists, I'd probably add being a lawyer (in some religions, it is said that 'the strength of sin is the law'), being a banker or working in many financial organisations (in some religions, it is a sin to charge usurious rates), or trading in any tainted (by religious definition) goods — such as images, foodstuffs, books, or education (depending on what religion it is, and with specifics different for each).

Does a religionist need a 'Commercial Mandate' too? Apparently, it is not so popular a topic, and in fact I've noticed that movements who make noise about cultural sinfulness tend to be very happy and make big justifications for commercial sinfulness (although the reverse is not normally so true).

Well, these are some of my thoughts. There's no solid, meaty, whack-on-the-head conclusion here, except that I don't think a cultural phenomenon needs a cultural mandate.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Rationalising Football

Let's for a moment put aside personal philosophies and such, and say that based on likelihood of winning the English Premier League, Manchester United Football Club is often said to be the #1 club in England. It is tempting to say, therefore, that it is a 'better' club than others, since the statistics don't lie, supposedly.

This is exactly the problem that academic league tables face. If a club is successful, or a school is successful, as a matter of fact, then it is assumed that whatever it does must be somehow cleverer than what its rivals do. This is called ex post facto rationalisation; you invent reasons for victory and/or loss after the result is determined.

I have no quarrel with this practice in terms of its entertainment value, but I will point out that it is actually a sort of pseudo-science. What happens on a pitch is a social event; the interactions are too complex to map adequately and the rules (and their enforcement) are unevenly implemented. The difference between defeat and victory, often irrevocably etched, can go down to one man's opinion about whether enough time has passed, or whether another man fell, dived, or was pushed.

You can say of a team that always wins 1-0 that they have no plan B, and if the '1' doesn't materialise, they'll be down to 0-0 or 0-1. But if they always win 1-0, and another team alternates between 4-0 and 0-1, the 1-0 people will win the competition. The 'no plan B' argument never takes into account the fact that every stadium is different, the team itself is different from day to day, the weather is different, and the plan itself, on closer inspection, is never the same. There is no plan B, because there is no plan A; there is just an endless cavalcade of different plans, tweaked on the spur of the moment.

It's the same with schools. You can buy a team, spend money on buildings, and so on. But attention to each student, a plan for each student — these are the things that make a school great. If each student is a winner, then the school wins. The school shouldn't be aiming to 'win the championship' by making some big wins and some small losses out of its students; it should aim to make them all winners.

Sometimes, it seems like a matter of luck. Sometimes, there are allegations of referee bias or undetected fouls. But the fact remains that despite the detailed analysis, sometimes all we have is the factual situation, and no deep explanation as to why it is so. Ask Manchester United how they beat their City rivals last night, and how they lost to Burnley at Turf Moor, and you will hear a tonne of explanations that do not amount to truth.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Literature By Formula

I remember that in my second lecture on Science (which I've mentioned a couple of times in my last few posts), I had occasion to talk about the science of literature. Famous fellows like Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell (and of course, their great thematic ancestor, Sir James Frazer) have of course attempted to codify the origins of human narrative in their own ways. You can also add to their number people such as Robert Heinlein of SF fame and many others.

But here is a summary of the various basic plots that a story can consist of, and what they might mean in terms of the seasons of a man's life, or the tone of it, or the politics of it. It makes for bitter-sweet reading, but also farce and beauty. Without further ado, I present to you...

Literary Formulae

  • Boy meets girl
  • Spring
  • Comedy
  • Liberal-Conservative
This is the most innocent phase of the hero's life; it's all about beginnings, ideals, and youth.

  • Boy grows up
  • Early Summer
  • Comedy-Romance
  • Conservative
This part is mostly innocent, but it's also the season in which things begin to get serious.

  • Boy goes questing
  • Late Summer
  • Romance
  • Anarchistic
This is the phase in which things begin to turn, and the hero questions his identity and purpose.

  • Boy saves world
  • Autumn
  • Tragedy
  • Anarchistic-Radical
This is when the hero discovers what he thinks his purpose is, and his ideals and ideas are tempered by bitter experience.

  • Boy comes home
  • Early Winter
  • Tragedy-Satire
  • Radical
Of course, when the boy returns, he is not the same boy, and neither is his home the same home...

  • Boy grows old/dies
  • Late Winter
  • Satire
  • Liberal
By this time, our boy has reached the point in what's left of his life at which he feels he can say anything and do anything.

(Sources: Campbell, Frye, Gellis, Heinlein, White et al)

There's an interesting afternote to all this. The infamous David Eddings was very frank about how his best-selling novels were written to prove that books could be written to a formula and make lots of money. To prove it, he wrote five fat books, then wrote the same thing again a different way, and made twice as much money. If you were one of those suckers who enjoyed the Belgariad and the Malloreon as much as I did, consider yourself a victim of literary science.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009


Over the last few months, I've discovered an answer to an interesting question which I first posed in my Master's thesis. When I first posed this question, it was something along the lines of, 'Why do teachers quit?' I was advised that this was not a good title for political reasons, so I changed it to 'Why do teachers stay?' and was told that I was a sarcastic person.

But my findings in that area have not changed significantly since 1997. They still stay or quit for the same reasons. Of all the teachers I interviewed back then, none are the same. They've adopted the various staying strategies I discussed, some to the great detriment of their constituencies, or they've left the trenches for greener pastures.

I was chatting with Gnomus the other night. The man is fulfilled now, kept alive and prospering in a healthy nutrient-stream of talent development and new inputs. He works with colleagues who are professionals, who don't do ethically dubious things, and who are serious about applying research findings to the education of the young. There is no chicanery, there is no deceit justified by some warped idea of religion, no retroactive forgery of documents, no disguising of banal and irrelevant (or crass and commercial) interests under 'staff welfare' or 'holistic education'.

Well, that's one thing that might make a good teacher stay in the system. It almost makes me want to do another tour in the trenches. Heh.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Input-Driven Education Systems (IDES)

It was just two weeks ago that I was mulling over the following oft-quoted passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The Family capo who sat with me was chortling over some curious similarities that he, a venerable and powerful individual, saw between the eponymous leader and a certain local educator. Let me supply the quotation first, before I tell you the rest. This is from Act I, Scene II.

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

What man is that?

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

I pointed out to my associate that it was I who should have feared the ides of March, a year and a half gone. He shook his head. He said, "Well, you weren't assassinated. And besides, I think you should be in another play!" To which I replied, "No Prince Hamlet, I."

The conversation moved on. But I was made to recall how, in a fit of blatant stupidity, some people had actually been confused about the Church/State dichotomy expressed in the quotation, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (See Matthew 22:15-22.) I was told that by quoting this line, I was making reference to that same local educator and calling him Caesar. Haha, it was one of the most Kafkaesque moments of my life!

But the way that this conversation turned towards that same man was rather instructive. Several episodes were quoted about how this person was running an institution without adequate spirit, innovation, intelligence, or attention to educational principles. It was pointed out that the only reason good results were still being produced was that the students were being culled early and often, so that only the best students were being allowed to take key examinations.

Alternatively, internally-moderated assessments were rigged to allow for better results to be posted; an assessment designed to be given once was thus carried out a second time for students who were deemed not to have met the minimum grade desired. This was defended as 'being good for the students', which of course was true in a grade-oriented sense but certainly was not something done in a spirit of fairness. Students were therefore graded not on the strength of their natural performances, but on the strength of the performances that the executives decided they should be producing.

The last episode quoted to me was one in which the CEO told students that if they did not meet the equivalent of a Cambridge admission grade in the middle of the second year of their secondary education, they would be dropped from the programme. This bar was raised even higher for the final examination.

What to make of such stories? I've seen these things happen for years, throughout the system, in isolated hotspots of chicanery. To my everlasting shame, I suppose I have been part of such things, though on the periphery, without making sufficient noise, letting off steam, or blowing whistles. A misplaced sense of loyalty can be a terrible thing.

Yet there are important lessons to be drawn from this kind of episode. The learning points become more obvious by analogy especially when looking back at economic situations like the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 (now more than a decade ago), and the more recent events of the year just past.

In the former situation, economic results were boosted by the extreme ratio of input-driven vs productivity-driven processes. Essentially, throwing effort into making more and more things, rather than making better things, or making things better, screwed up the system and brought about a crash. In the latter situation, borrowing based on imaginary money (well, more imaginary than usual, that is) eventually led to attenuation of belief, a crisis of disbelief, a failure of suspension of disbelief, and a hefty and terrible dose of consequent reality therapy.

I've seen both of these things developing for a while now. He who has ears, let him hear.

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One Feline Perspective on Knowledge

At the end of my second lecture on Science as an area of knowledge, I remember returning to an older time. It was a time in which knowledge was being (re)assembled daily by people dedicated to the task, working in relative isolation. It was a time which established the monastery model of education, a model which still exists and is commonly found in schools to this day.

These lines were found scrawled in the margin of a handwritten document. No doubt, even the dedicated seeker of knowledge had to take a break once in a while... and in this case, he wrote about the differences and similarities between him and his cat.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect at his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

from ‘Pangur Bán’,
by an anonymous 8th century Gaelic monk

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Science and its Pyrrhic Victory

When I first gave the TOK lectures on Sciences back in 2006, I deliberately and with 'malice aforethought' presented the case that the scientific paradigm (note: not science itself) had devoured all other disciplines convincingly. Science, in effect, had won by debasing itself into the lowest common denominator.

I shan't recapitulate the arguments here, since I don't intend (as I've said before) to give that lecture again. But what heartened me so much was that the 2006-2007 IB batch at the College of Wyverns spawned a lot of debate, sometimes rather contentious, about whether I was right or not. There were many sophisticated arguments propounded in opposition to my case, some of which were difficult to defeat.

The trick, as always, was to choose a pillar of modern thought (or two, or three) which had been taken for granted (as a given) by everyone. Using this as the basis for an argument resulted in the sure-win case that I propounded. What my very dear (and often very capable) students really needed to do was to rid themselves of their own quotidian perceptions and preconceptions and question everything I'd said from first principles.

Very few came close to succeeding, but I admired the attempts, futile or not. I can only hope that future wyverns will display as much fighting spirit against overwhelming cunning, age-fermented intellectual treachery, and deliberately crafty propaganda as those of the First Flight did.

Meanwhile, I have to note that the Hive has responded in the latest round of evaluations. It's amusing that of all the highly-integrated programmes, only one institution failed to garner an award at the pre-university level. I am highly entertained, and yes, I am seriously amused. It is the triumph of the scientific paradigm over the abuse of intelligence.

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The Inconstant Gardner

Quite a while ago, I remember reading a book by John Le Carré called The Constant Gardener. At that time, it struck me that something was wrong about the title. It wasn't until a while had passed that I realised what had been bugging me.

The thing that was bugging me was the beatification of 'St Howard Gardner', a phenomenon which is truly catholic in its application over a wide range of school systems and abortive attempts at educational enhancement. In Gardner's book, Intelligence Reframed, he confesses his alarm at seeing the implementation of a mishmash of his own ideas. This, to my mind, was one of the pieces of evidence that Gardner never intended to be this far down the road to canonization.

That book, published in 2000, was yet another of his many revised standard versions of his one big idea — that of multiple intelligences. He began by deciding there were roughly three areas of intelligence, more or less corresponding to the ancient criteria of truth, beauty and goodness. Then he extended this to five, then seven, then eight and a half, and so on. The only thing that remained constant about his idea was the concept that there were several (an indeterminate number of) kinds of intelligences.

The empirical fact, as anyone can tell you, is that humanity is so varied and complex that there are an infinite number of expressions of intelligence, all of which fit one criterion: the thing done is considered by other humans to be an intelligent deed. It is so circularly defined that there is actually no meaningful standard for intelligence; Arthur Clarke, inventor of the geosynchronous satellite, was moved to say, "It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value."

The only reason we continue to attempt to canonize the blessed Howard is that it is so much more convenient to categorize subjects and intelligences. The two things are related. We tend to say things like, "He's a genius at organic chemistry," and, "She's brilliant at thermal physics."

Such statements imply that the intelligence involved is highly specialised, and that perhaps the person referred to could be differently competent in some other area. But these areas themselves are artificial subdivisions of artificial divisions of knowledge. It is always amusing to get teachers, for example, to define their areas of knowledge — and then without pause, to goad them into explaining what is defined by these areas, and what they contain that is qualitatively different in terms of values and ideas related to humanity.

(For example, ask a teacher to define 'Chemistry' and then ask what Chemistry defines, and what it is about Chemistry that makes it different from any other subject in terms of values and the useful general skills. Most of them wouldn't be able to give you a definitive answer — that is, one which did not require further elaboration.)

When writing student references, the most useless thing is actually the students' grades in different subjects. These tell you nothing at all about the person as a human being. On the face of it, they should be able to tell you how industrious or intelligent the student is; actually, some reflection will tell you that they tell you nothing of the sort. Consider a person who gets a top grade for History: what does it tell you about this person, apart from the naked fact that this person was able to give answers on a specific day of a specific year that met a certain arbitrary standard?

This is why anyone who tries to sell you a multiple intelligences model should be slapped around a few times. All you need to do is ask him, "Would you consent to be evaluated in terms of this model?" Then you make him do a bunch of random meaningless things and ask him to evaluate himself by questionnaire. The result will have more in common with his self-image than with his actual level of performance when measured against the population at large.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Brief History Of Weaponry

I've just realised that two whole batches of students have not had the experience of enduring my standard TOK lecture on the sciences. The slides are available in my public folder, but here is an excerpt from the text, on the matter of the human tendency to indulge in arms races.

Example: Historical Trajectory (Narrative)

“I have a fist.”
   “I have a rock.”
“I have a sharp rock."
   “I have a rock on a stick.”
“I have a flying rock.”
   “I have a rock launcher.”
“I have a rock-on-a-stick launcher.”
   “I have a rocket launcher.”

To be exact, this came from Slide 30 of Lecture II. Lecture II was also titled Scientia — Humanities through a Narrow Window: Conscience and Non-Science, and was used to compare, contrast and correlate the sciences to all other disciplines, one group at a time.

Since I had 47 slides in that lecture, there's a lot more to come. Of course, I regret that I will not be delivering the full lecture again anytime soon, so there'll be no extemporaneous jokes and bad puns to accompany the slides even if you do download the original presentation slides.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Writing a TOK Essay (Part I): Before You Begin

TOK, of course, stands for 'Theory of Knowledge'; this is the title of what is perhaps the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme's most notorious element. I used to teach people how to write TOK essays. I still do. I've done it myself a fair number of times. What impels me most forcefully into the writing of this post is the hash that some people make of it (either the teaching or the writing).

It's not a difficult task. It's just one that needs reasonably careful, self-critical and accurate writing, for fewer than ten hours of your time. The TOK essay-writing process can be broken into three general parts: surveying, writing it out, and evaluating your own work. The latter two feed off each other until you reach the final version.

Here is a list of things to do (and questions to ask) before you begin, in the survey phase.
  1. Read the list of prescribed essay titles carefully. Do any of them look interesting? Can you outline a five-sentence argument (definition, approach, elaboration, examples, conclusion — or the equivalents, which are many) for one of them without looking up any sources? If so, you can cautiously conclude that this topic is a good candidate for your further attention.
  2. Looking at the topic, can you pick out the key words and define them succinctly and exactly to your own satisfaction? If so, you are either very easily satisfied or you are good enough at thinking up definitions. Don't fall back on a dictionary or encyclopaedia; if you need to, you don't know the material well enough.
  3. Based on the topic, are there any obvious knower's approaches, ways of knowing, or areas of knowledge that need to be addressed? If so, are you familiar with the issues associated with each of them? Which knowledge issues are implicated?
  4. Do you have first-hand experience of anything related to these issues? What were your thoughts and responses like?
  5. Based on the definitions you've used, can you trace a thread of argument that links the definitions, key points, and your own responses into a consistent and coherent structure?
  6. If so, what conclusion will you probably reach, and is it likely to answer the question you began with?
These are very general points, but I am certain I've addressed specific issues elsewhere in this blog.

For those of you who know who I am and where my public folder is, there are some resources available in the TOK subfolder. Copyright is retained by me for some of those, so please don't abuse your public access. Apart from that, you are welcome to look around and use them to help you plan your line of attack. In the days ahead, I'll look at the writing phase and the evaluation phase. But I won't do that yet, since those of you who need to pick a topic should do that first.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Last Legs

It's always been a quirk of human thought (and of some languages, in particular) that verbs and nouns can take the same form and be confused (or at least commingled) in the mind. In other words, the thing to be done or the thing doing it are mixed up.

This is the case when we say that entity A is on its last legs, while also saying that entity A's journey is on its last leg. The leg is the instrument of entity A's movement, but it is also the distance coverable by the leg, as well as the act of doing said covering by said instrument (i.e., 'legging it').

Take for example the case where entity A is a horse. The horse 'on its last legs' is a horse that has little capacity left in its legs for legging it over the last leg. The 'last leg' of the horse's journey is the last lap, the last bit of the distance, which will consume the last part of the horse's capacity for legging it.

In such form, I say that a whole lot of my students are on the last legs of their journeys. In fact, the whole school is on its last legs as it approaches the end of the year. But here we run into another source of confusion.

A scholar (or student, in modern parlance) is an element, a member, of a school. If the scholars are confused with the school, then if the scholars are on their last legs (of capacity or of chronological distance), the school must also be, right? No, not when the school is a corporate entity. Such an entity lives on, technically, whether or not it has any students whatsoever.

In fact, you can tell which schools are legally immortal while rubbing your face in it. These are the schools whose principals (no longer the first among equals, as in the Latin principes) call themselves Chief Executive Officers and are very proud of it. To the credit of certain principals, they cringe at the idea of being referred to in such wise. Such wisdom.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Painful to Read

Over the last few months, I've been reading personal statements of the kind supposedly designed to get students into prestigious institutions of higher learning. I've noticed a disturbing and painful trend.

In the statements emanating from the College of Wyverns (especially the products of the Ghastly Eloquence Process), I've found rambling, disjointed, badly-focussed, slightly-concussed, irrelevant, self-indulgent, and ill-chosen helpings of thrown-together verbiage. If this were a salad, it would be light on content and poor in presentation. Even if not a salad, it would be that as well.

Why are these students, supposedly more eloquent and compelling and creative than those from the other great high schools of Atlantis, producing such dung-heaps of subliteracy? I suspect it is to do with lack of corrective rigour. If they were my students, I'd whack them up the head with a large blunt object (metaphorically) or slice them to pieces with the red pen that is mightier than any sword.

But it looks like NOBODY has ever attempted to teach them how to write a personal statement, NOBODY has sat down with them to discuss their aims and hopes and ambitions in later life. That is just plain sad, and very painful. The founder of the College, Ankh-Morpork himself, once said that the mission of the College was to prepare its students for 'all their after life' — that is, their life after leaving the school, and not their eternal trajectory.

It looks as if this isn't being done. Perhaps people need reminding about what Career Guidance means. 'Career' means a headlong progression over a constrained course, much as a racing or dressage circuit. 'To guide' means 'to show the way (from the perspective of knowledge)'. If the way is not being shown, how is it guidance?

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Painful to Watch

Last night in Manchester, a strange sense of déjà vu must have filtered through the Professor's mind. Watching your chief export do the dirty on your team, in an excellent performance of the sort he didn't give when he was last with you, must be a painful experience. And losing a match you shouldn't have lost, courtesy of an own goal and a sorry loss of concentration — that must be all too familiar in this part of the country.

It's the same with other former champions that have to rebuild. They'll deny it a lot at first, but the rebuilding takes time and effort, and isn't always successful. Sometimes, it never is. One has hopes for the future, and that the best is still yet to be. But one also worries about the present, and signs of familiar degeneracy.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tidal Forces

The Sea is always receding. It was Matthew Arnold who moaned about the Sea of Faith that once was full and isn't anymore. But I've realised that it's not a closed system. The tide is moving out, as it always is. But other things are coming in, and faith is always there.

It's literally true that humans need faith in order to believe in anything. In fact, the harder the forces of reason push, the more logic tells us faith should thrive.


It's simple. Faith is belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. Since the level of evidence required is getting more stringent, it is harder to obtain 'sufficient' evidence. The evidentiary requirements for discovering a new element, for example, were never met when establishing the nature of 'ancient' elements such as iron and tin. In fact, quite a lot of things we have come to believe based on past evidence would no longer meet modern standards.

This means that the number of things justified by modern standards of evidence is actually falling. The tide is going out, but that's because the Sea of Reason is drying up, trying desperately to reduce itself to Grand Unified Theories and suchlike.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Family Realignment

Over the last three years, the Family has begun regrouping. For more than a decade, corrupt and greedy officials have undermined the Family by all kinds of curious means. In one case, a perfectly good clock tower was demolished to make way for a less perfectly good (but larger and more lucrative) replacement. The old one was iconic; the new one was big and empty.

I say this as one who has read the transcripts of the big Family meeting that was held in Parliament House. I was reminded of this only yesterday when I met up with Adobe and Rocky. The meeting that ensued restored some of my faith in the direction of the Family. When 'our dark ages' was mentioned, I could sense that the healing might begin.

The thing is that we've always had cuckoos in our nests. Some turned out to be very fine birds indeed, men of integrity and creativity. Some, not so fine. It's painful to see that a good hard look at history can turn up some of the latter with very real influence.

And yet, that's what is to be expected. In every large Family, tests, trials and tribulations must be part of the process which has made them Family in the first place and continues to shape them. A Family that overcomes these and somehow retains its values is one that is stronger and collectively wiser.

I smell change in the air. Paradoxically, acts which are designed to stop this kind of change are those which eventually, with hindsight (or in retrospect, if you prefer), lead to a speeding-up of change itself. And then those who have been obstructionist to preserve their own little fiefdoms will be swept aside in the tide of history.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thin But Tough

Thin, but tough, is the holy grail of many areas of material substance. The point is obviously to have as little bulk as possible, but with as much of its usefulness as you can pack into that small volume. It's an idea that holds sway in things as diverse as microelectronics, bridge construction, and furniture laminates.

If you have refined your bulk material to 'thin but tough', you can build up any amount of resilience and flexibility. If you are stuck with 'tough and huge', you have a lot less flexibility, while if you have 'thin and fragile', you are similarly disadvantaged with respect to resilience.

In my long-running survey of education systems in Atlantis, I've come to realise that we don't have much choice. The talent density is insufficient for us to develop 'thin but tough' layers of intelligent education. We have to make do with composites that are non-ideal.

But that doesn't mean we have to aim for low or mediocre quality. We can still optimise for 'thin but tough' as far as possible, by ruthlessly examining our components for quality and reassigning the weak and strong points so that they are dispersed in a way that has maximum positive impact on the milieu.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Hired Out

Over the last few months, a fair number of people have asked me what it's like to be a private practitioner. It's a fair question.

I think that I most often feel like a hired gun. When someone needs help, they turn to me because the public services seem inadequate. (Whether they really are or not is moot, since if they were seen to be, I wouldn't be getting paid.)

More specifically, I tend to be hired to handle difficult situations in which the sharks of the education service are swimming around the spreading blood traces in the water. Deadlines are looming, the situation seems intractable; call up the hero-for-hire. Heh. It's a status I never thought I would have.

It's this kind of hazardous service that allows me to charge a higher fee than the usual. It has to be like that because otherwise, it's a thankless task. If the job was easy, I'd do it for free (or leave it to the public services).

Occasionally, I actually do reject assignments. The 'one man saves three people at the very last minute from what they think is certain death' is just not my kind of act. Give me a few months, maybe. But if you have a key examination in two days' time, that's going to cost us (both you and me) way too much.

Today it's 09-09-09. That's what makes me think of emergency services.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Cold Shoulder

It's one of those mornings when you wake up and are conscious of the fact that you are comfortable. Then you realise that your body is immobile for a reason: it would hurt too much if you moved.

It was a quarter-century ago that I injured my shoulder. It is payback time now. The joint will ambush me on random mornings, holding my entire body painful hostage to that earlier trauma. It takes a lot of effort to move at all, when you know it can only hurt.

So you summon up the will-power. Or not, if some people are to be believed about the absence of free will. And you get out of bed.

The simple philosophical answer to the question of free will is this: whether I have free will or not, moving that shoulder hurts like hell. If I do not have free will, then the logical consequence is that pain is a necessary phenomenon, and must be endured. Or not. If I do have free will, tough, because I have to get up anyway, if I'm going to do what I want to do.

So it seems that my so-called free-will is circumscribed no matter what. And the shoulder reminds me of that. It mocks me. It makes it hard to think, if I have free will; it makes it hard to think, even if I haven't the will. Ah well.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Entropy in Real Life House Clearance

There are many things that students of chemistry learn about entropy. One of the more famous equations is the Gibbs Free Energy Equation: ∆G=∆H - T∆S. Essentially, this says that things are more likely to happen when you don't have to put effort into them and you just let them degenerate.

This applies to house clearing and spring cleaning too. If you just keep records of how much mail is received by a single (especially, academic) household, you will realise that in a finite time, the house will be full of old mail.

This mail of course has an expiry date; special offers and coupons run out, magazine subscriptions expire, magazines themselves are no longer current. But if the household does not acknowledge these sensible boundary conditions, the mail accumulates, becoming more and more useless and taking up more and more space.

It is a spontaneous accumulation of stuff within the little universe of the home. But it isn't actually a good example of entropy because the system isn't closed. There are, after all, garbage collectors and offspring who will help get rid of stuff. There are rag-and-bone men, there are house-cleaning services. For a little outlay, which is not quite the same as energy, you can get it all cleaned up for you.

What is more worrying, I think, is the idea of entopy. I define 'entopy' as running out of space before you run out of anything else. The state of ultimate or relative entopy can be called 'entopia', I suppose.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

When 'More Class' Does Not Mean 'More Class'

It is that time of year in Atlantis when some kind of perversion overtakes the education system. It is perverse because a one-week respite from the arduous and wearisome life of the school suddenly turns into a nightmare of extra classes for purported remediation of the student body's collective shortcomings.

This is how it works.

At the end of Year N, the teachers in each school have worked out beautiful and professional departmental workplans and schemes of work. By Week X of Year N+1, these documents say in incredible detail, the teachers shall have covered syllabus sections A1, A2... ...An, using the following tools and strategies, and so on.

By Week X-2, however, there is the sinking feeling that the syllabus has not been adequately covered. And hence, by September, frantic plans to force students to stay back to cover syllabus sections An (and possibly A(n-1), A(n-2) as well) have been put in place. So the one-week break becomes a couple of days' worth (12-16 hours) of extra classes.

The reasons are many, both the explicitly announced ones and the secret ones that no one dares to mention. Let me attempt to draw back the veil (the Greek word apocalüpsis, which means exactly that, is quite appropriate here). Here are some possibilities which I have seen in real life during my time:
  • It's actually quite likely that the school has, as a mega-entity, put so many extra activities in its calendar that the scheme of work has failed for lack of days in which to execute it. Of course, the sub-entities (i.e. teachers and heads) often have no clue how many days this will be. Most know to subtract available days around public holidays and such, but many don't compensate for the odd extra concerts, emergency briefings, meetings which take good teachers away from their classes, and suchlike.
  • Some teachers are incompetent. You can tell when every class has got a different schedule and they're all learning different things, and yet sitting for the same papers. Somebody is probably teaching too slowly. I know this because topics that should have taken two weeks (or 7 teaching sessions) have ended up taking five weeks because some teachers can't get their lessons to work.
  • Some teachers are subcompetent. You can tell they know their stuff. But they're not good at handling a class well enough to cover the material sufficiently within the time given.
  • You can often blame the students, but my experience is that students will take whatever they can get. Most of them don't keep tabs on the scheme of work, which rightly should be executed well by the department concerned.
  • Teachers sometimes have a reluctance to teach too quickly because then students might fail their tests and blame the teacher. I think this is nonsense. Students ought to learn quickly if the teachers are competent. If they refuse to learn quickly, then there are several possibilities — here are three: the scheme of work is screwed up because it doesn't take into account the student body; the teacher is not doing a good job of assessing student weaknesses and dealing with them; the school is in denial because it thinks its students (or teachers) are very smart, but they're not. That said, teaching slowly doesn't often help as much as teaching quickly and getting down to application of what has been taught.
These are some of the main reasons why I've got students going back to school during their break. Of course, the real reason might be something better or worse. You could always ask the right people, and you might learn something too.

My personal opinion is that students spend too much time in school. I am certain that you can have them spend two-thirds of the time in school and still get them a proper education. It doesn't make sense to produce statistics saying that these young people are the best in the world and then say implicitly that it's because you keep them in school so long. That's not value-addedness. It's more like expanding your economy without upgrading it. 'More class' certainly doesn't mean 'more class'; it might not even end up 'world class'.

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China's Hidden History

I am taking a break from my usual work to read through recent issues of my long-neglected core journal, Science. As a member of the AAAS, I get this huge journal every week, 52 weeks a year. It's full of stuff I can't digest, but it also contains stuff I can either digest profitably and with relative ease, as well as stuff I can digest if I work hard.

However, my historical instincts were hooked by pp 930-940 of the 21 Aug 2009 issue. In those pages, a summary of the findings about Chinese civilisation is presented, with nice charts and pictures.

Well well well, as the farmer said, looking at the three holes in the ground.

What we call 'Chinese civilisation' is widely supposed to have erupted from the Yellow River region and spread inland. At least, that's what most of us learnt. But the evidence shows multiple high-level cultures all over that part of the world. In fact, for the last 30 years, people have been setting out the idea that this civilisation 'grew out of a complex interweaving of many regional cultures' (p 932).

In 1987, archaeologists at a site called Sanxingdui, north of Chengdu, found traces of a previously unknown civilisation. Gold, jade and huge bronze statues were found. The site was not even hinted at in texts or myths. Later, a culture that appears to be the predecessor of that civilisation was discovered by people digging elsewhere on the Chengdu plain. The history of the Sichuan region is now not the same anymore. That's on p 935.

And so on, and so on. If this sort of discovery can still be made, what else is there to be found in the hidden history of mankind? Stuff like this keeps my sense of wonder alive. I am happy just to read about it; I would be overjoyed to someday have a part to play in it.

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Saturday, September 05, 2009


It's amazing to see what kind of racket has taken the place of the old gangsters and pirates. Nowadays, it's something like this, which is as evil as it sounds. What you do is submit your own papers, and whenever someone purchases a copy of it (at a price of something like US$30 and up), the 'information facilitator' takes 50% and you take 50%.

I can see how someone else's term paper might be useful to me if I needed one in a hurry. What really boggles the mind is how bad the US$30 papers (and even the US$50 papers) really are. I would say that trawling through this blog will get you better stuff for free. In fact, I know that I can write 24 pages of stuff and earn about US$800 for it, which makes it US$100 for 3 pages.

This means that the paper mill is actually pretty cheap. And that is what you get; cheap American (well, mostly) swill with bad grammar, bad spelling, bad ideas — all palmed off on an unsuspecting but desperate public.

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Friday, September 04, 2009


It is a custom amongst the denizens of Atlantis, that in the month of the great heat, they should make it hotter by burning paper sacrifices. Quite apart from the effect on the ecology, these so-called 'hell money' events have a dubious theological effect as well. The problem is that simple translational symbolism is giving way to more formal thaumaturgy.

Let me explain. The concept behind this burning is that if your relative is in the afterlife, burning a representation of an asset (e.g. a car or some money) will translate that asset to the afterlife, thus enriching said relative. In the past, if you labelled a piece of paper "ONE MILLION DUCATS" and made it look reasonably presentable and burned it, your deceased would then be considered e-ducat-ed enriched to the tune of a million bucks.

However, in these days, the 'hell money' purveyors have learnt to make a quick buck by making ever more elaborate tokens. Now all the stuff looks like a literal representation, with very official gold leaf and such.

The point really is information. The bureaucracy of the local hell would appear not to be literalist but tokenist. Information transfer is effected by just telling the afterlife, "Ahoy there, a $1m token comes your way, prepare to receive." It doesn't matter what it looks like, as long as it's authentic. In this theological milieu, it really IS the thought that counts.

You don't need the fancy stuff. And you certainly do not need to generate foul vapours and smokes and then complain about the relatively natural smokes your neighbours produce.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Overcrowded in a Fun Way

Today my niece and her parents flew into Singapore, together with a whole bunch of cardiologists. Suddenly the house seems overcrowded, but in a fun way. And this weekend my own parents are back too. Their house should now be less overcrowded, seeing that I've cleared something like fifty bags worth of archaeological evidence.

Life is interesting. Sometimes it is overcrowded with what seems like significant events. But a careful look at the overarching design shows that it is amazingly beautiful.

Then again, some would argue that there is no such thing as an overarching historical design. These would be the same people who cannot imagine that beauty is anything other than a neurological glitch.

Such people would probably have to acknowledge that life can't be fun either, since 'fun', like 'beauty' and 'design', are only incidental or accidental to them. Poor things.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Seven Centuries, Badly Edited

I have in my hands a volume which should have been a very good book. This tome is a 700-year history of Atlantis, from its days as an early pirate colony mercantile stopover (see appropriate etymology here) to its days as a global city and light of the south.

The choice of material is excellent. The layout is fine. The format is accessible. The whole enterprise is digestible. But the one big problem is the editing. Whoever edited this book was not very concerned about typos and grammar; was not very concerned about style and vigor of expression.

For example:

"We hope that this long-sighted view of the Atlantean past will provide a corrective perspective to the myopic view of what is Atlantis after 1965."

Dire, dire, bad, bad, stuff. Attempted joke, major fail. And 'post-1965 Atlantis' would sound so much better than the clunky 'what is Atlantis after 1965.' It's like that all over the place; this quote was taken from the preface.

I very much wanted to like this book. I am afraid that I can't.

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Transfer Mechanisms

Transfer deadline day has come and gone over at the English Premier League. It's all about which club moves what players either incoming or outgoing, and it provides lots of entertainment.

At moments such as this, I wonder what an education system would be like if classroom lessons were televised 'live' with analysis in between classes. "So will he sign a new utility player to replace the teacher he free-transferred for what is looking to be a really bad reason?" "It looks like his back four (or is it five) is keeping the balls out well. But are they learning anything out there?" "Oh it's definitely a disaster, that own goal, but he has to pick himself up and do his best." "The fourth official is not having a good day. Surely that student was offside." "Did you see the chemistry in that class? Superb qualitative analysis under pressure!"

And so on.

Actually, it would be fun to see transfer fees for teachers, with ESPN (Education Service Professional Nationwide) tracking them by blogs and suchlike. It would be even more fun if promotions and appointments at all level were made public. "What? Titus B for team captain?" "The manager's gone berserk!" "£160k a week for that kind of performance isn't going to make the fans happy." "It looks like the Gryphons have made a record signing this year and their Integrated Programme will benefit."

It would be even more amusing to do it like Fantasy Football. Every school in the country would be given a fixed budget and they'd have to choose their teachers within the budget. Ho ho ho.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Not-Teacher's Day

I suppose I eventually had to face up to this fact. Today, a year and a half after the machine stopped me, I am no longer fulfilling my former ecological role. In the ecology of society, there are places for the 'mass ability developers' known as teachers, and I'm not one of those anymore.

But in some sense, I have migrated to another niche in the ecology. I'm now a 'force multiplier', able to leap tall buildings at a single bound work diligently on 1-6 (or as some of my friends would say, d6) students and produce massive non-linear improvements. It's a specialised niche; I now earn a hundred times more per student per hour than I used to.

In fact, it's a lot like a medical doctor chained to the wheel of existence in a busy general hospital who, after many a summer spent not taking a holiday, suddenly decides to go into private practice. Then, serendipitously, he discovers that many of his former patients have decided to either continue having him for specialist care or recommend him to their friends.

Of course, there's still a sense of loss; there's a sense of being out of the bustle of things. It's not a big loss though, although I miss interacting with the huge and wonderful variety of patients students I used to see. I miss the classroom quite badly. But I'm no longer there.

Today is therefore Not-Teacher's Day for me. :(

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