Saturday, October 31, 2009

Responses 004 (2010-2011)

The fourth question in the list was, to me, a sign of examiner mental fatigue. It sets in around the fourth question in any list of ten. That question was: 'To what extent do we need evidence to support our beliefs in different areas of knowledge?' This is such a core epistemological question that to make it the fourth of ten is somehow lazy.

My first instinct with this question is to ask, "What do we use to justify belief in an area of knowledge?" For example, let's say you have an AOK like music. You assert that a symphony is beautiful. Why do you believe this? What is the evidence?

There are two opposing extreme approaches here. You can say that for a very subjective domain, there is no absolute way to justify any belief. This means that either you need extraordinary evidence (the 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' pseudo-rule) or that you don't need any evidence except your own subjective experience (the 'I know it when I see — or hear, or smell, or taste, or otherwise experience — it' philosophy).

The key to answering this question in a manageable way is to choose areas of knowledge that are well-established and well-defined. The criteria will then be obvious, as will the levels of evidence required for various levels of claims.

But there's a tiny little kink in the question, though. Perhaps in some areas of knowledge (if they can be called that), one needs no evidence at all to believe something. Is that possible at all? Can knowledge exist without justification of the evidential type? Heh.

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Relativism can be summarised in many ways, some of which are pithy, some of which are earthy, some of which are rather salty. The most important point about relativism is that it is the bastard child of the idea that there is no absolute reference point in the universe. That might be true of an infinite universe with no centre; it is not true of our human universe, which has no choice but to be anthropocentric.

That said, things like moral relativism can be compared to robot artificial intelligence when applied to shape/colour combinations and asked to make qualitative judgements about them. For example, consider a large blue sphere and a small red cube: which of them is closer to the ideal of a medium-sized blue cube? Or a medium-sized green cylinder?

This is the problem; given any complex single human concept such as morality, you can apply various schemata to decompose it into dimensions. Then you will find that it is hard to say which dimensions are more important, because if you've done it right, they should be orthogonal — that is, not related to each other at all.

For example, the classical idea of what ought to be learnt comprises three dimensions: what is truth, what is goodness, and what is beauty. Neil Postman and Howard Gardner between them pointed out that teaching mathematics, history and art would thus suffice for a full basic curriculum; in theory, the argument went, mathematics is all about defining truth and falsehood, a grasp of history would teach the difference between good and evil, and art (or music) would teach the difference between beauty and the lack of it.

That's obviously far too simplistic. You'd end up asking if art could be seen as false or evil, or if mathematics could be seen as beautiful, or if history could be false. These seem like legitimate questions, and the difficulty of answering them drives people into relativism (or insanity, which is about the same thing). The fact is that we believe in absolutes. A relativist must believe that there is a relationship of some sort between the things he connects by relativism; this relationship either exists or it does not, and if he claims that it is of unknown quality of existence, then he makes his own argument dubious.

In my last few months of research, looking at so-called Eastern and Western paradigms, I've found only two differences worth noting. Firstly, the original languages of thought expression were different; this made both sides believe that the other side had something fundamentally different. Secondly, the historical and cultural backgrounds were different, and each side made the most of it to claim exceptionalism or reverse exceptionalism.

That's all nonsense. As the Preacher said, there is nothing new under the sun. The same kinds of thoughts have been expressed in every civilisation, in every faith, and in every language. It is only the problem of information demodulation or decryption that has made it seem not so. The only different thoughts are thoughts linked to material objects or phenomena that have not been observed before by someone else.

A person who has watched the intense event of childbirth is not exactly the same as another one who has done so, but he is very much different from one who has not seen such a thing at all. A green ball may not be a blue ball, but it is definitely more of a kind than a red cube would be with either.

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Responses 003 (2010-2011)

The third question in the list was this: "'Doubt is the key to knowledge.'—Persian proverb. To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?" I laughed when I read it, because it so happened that I had just been reading Amartya Sen's amazing collection, The Argumentative Indian.

In the title essay, Sen argues that doubt, and actively heterodox doubt at that, is the basis of reason. The Indian is argumentative because he very early on realised that all things were dubious (i.e., 'doubtable'). It is the point of the quotation I mentioned earlier, in this post. Hinduism, as I learnt a long time ago, ranges from the pantheistic to the polytheistic to the agnostic to the atheistic; which is why it can sprout a religion like Buddhism, which is semi-atheistic (try comparing Mahayana with Theraveda), or any one of the many other Indian religions, and also obtain insights into reality and science (see, for example, Lokayata).

The point, to put it bluntly (haha) is that if you don't question your perceptions, there is nothing to think about. In modern educational parlance, we say that cognitive dissonance leads to learning; that is, when you have a situation in which things don't match what you know or believe, you have a de facto learning experience. You must doubt either the new input or the old basis. And whatever you decide about the new and the old, you are being presented with potential knowledge gain — either you will learn what's wrong with what you know, or you will learn what's wrong with what you have just received.

In fact, skepticism is a necessary tool in asking questions. This is true of all philosophical traditions, whether South Asian, East Asian, West Asian or Mediterranean. By the time these traditions had finally reached the western shores of the Eurasian continent, it had become firmly established as the single root of all lines of argument about knowledge.

The very idea of epistemology (theories of knowledge) is a list of four questions with their accompanying doubts:
  • What is knowledge?
  • How is knowledge acquired?
  • What do we know?
  • How do we know what we know?
The doubts that must underlie these questions are questions like 'Is it ever possible to define knowledge?' and 'Having defined it, how can we know we have it?' If you have no doubts, there is no point asking the questions, and there is no need to differentiate between knowledge and the lack of it.

Doubt, therefore, is indeed the basis of knowledge, in a general sort of way. The problem for someone trying to answer Q3 is to apply this argument to specific areas of knowledge. This is easy. Or maybe not. You should ask the Vedas. Haha...

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Responses 002 (2010-2011)

This is the second expansion of my thoughts on the most recent list of questions. The second question in that list says, "How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge?"

Of course, as most people would agree, you'd have to define 'expert' first, as well as 'important'. The word 'expert' was actually the adjectival form of the word 'experience' — it is the older form of the clunky 'experienced', now made into a noun. The word 'important' actually means 'having import (i.e., significance)'.

So what we're actually asking is, "How significant are the opinions of the experienced in the search for knowledge?"

I have a few thoughts here.
  1. It depends on whether they are experts in the domain where you are searching; generally, those who are more experienced in one domain have more useful things to say about it.
  2. On the other hand, remember what Arthur Clarke said: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." (Clarke's First Law, first published in Profiles of the Future, 1962.) This of course implies that expertise is only useful where experience has already been accrued; it is less useful when looking for something for which you have not much relevant prior experience, or which is contrary to prior experience.
  3. To link this to logic, consider the problem of induction. In induction, you observe a pattern and derive a law. For example, you watch swans go by: black swan, black swan, black swan, black swan... ah, all swans are black. But just one pink swan will break your law. A swan expert could never predict a pink swan, because his expertise tells him all swans are black.
  4. The problem of deduction, on the other hand, is that deduction proceeds from axioms — and axioms are foundational statements that are accepted without proof. An expert who is proceeding by deduction from rules could never conceive of a new axiom. It's like saying 'all black things are swans' and then seeing a raven; the axiom 'ravens exist' cannot be derived from a universe of swans, and so a raven must merely be a case of swan.
These thoughts, I suppose, lead to the conclusion that Clarke's First Law summarises the whole essay for the more convergent disciplines.

But what about the arts and humanities? I'd have to say that this is probably true of them as well. An expert can always tell you what has been experienced before and, on that basis, predict what will therefore be likely to occur in future. But this assumes the basis remains constant. For the arts, this is even more unlikely because the basis is emotional response; for the humanities, the basis is humanity and therefore vague where axioms are concerned.

So what do experts tell us about where to search next? The obvious major contribution is that experts can often tell us where we've already searched. That's why any paper or thesis normally includes a literature review — what the experts say or have said so far about the thing you are researching. Then you say why your research is different and goes to places where others haven't been before; you can also say how prior researchers have given you reasons or ideas for adopting this line of research.

And that's more or less what I think of Question 2. More to come later.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Responses 001 (2010-2011)

This is the first planned expansion to... no, not some MMORPG. Rather, it's the first follow-up to this post about the questions that plague some people.

In that list, Q1 reads, "Consider the extent to which knowledge issues in ethics are similar to those in at least one other area of knowledge."

What knowledge issues are these? The big one is, of course, "How do we know what is right?"

Any domain of human knowledge requires underpinnings, and a superficial look at the domain of ethics shows that people in general have a range of ideas about what constitutes the morally-correct response to any possible human situation. This in turn leads to the ugly spectre of relativism, in which it is claimed that there are no such things as absolute moral values.

The argument against absolute moral values points out that there are practices such as female circumcision and cannibalism that are sanctioned by some cultures and not by others. This is a daft argument for a simple reason: these are practices, but not values. They are indicative of values, but not descriptive or prescriptive.

Take female circumcision, for example. The point, from various perspectives, is to amend sexual behaviour in a way that a particular society prefers it. This is something every society does; it's just that it's not so extreme in most cases. I in no way condone the practice, but it should be understood as a purely cultural approach (barbaric though it is) to the idea of appropriate sexual constraint or restraint. Most mainstream cultures support the general moral idea of restricting sexual behaviour.

The example of cannibalism varies from culture to culture as well — in fact, Fernandez-Armesto lists it as the very first idea in his excellent survey, Ideas that Changed the World. In all cultures, eating your fellow men for nutritional purposes is a bad thing; in those cultures that practise cannibalism, the idea is either a) to honour the dead, or b) to conserve the life-force of the society. In all cases it is a ritual thing, much caricatured by societies that don't practise it. Note again, that the general ideas are unexceptional.

What all this means that the domain of ethics can be compared to something like mathematics, in that it has fixed axioms which require working out to give a consistent answer. (See, for example, my previous post on why mathematics and theology are similar.) It can also be compared to something like history, in that there is empirical evidence, but this evidence tends to be interpreted in some kind of context which may seem horribly alien from another frame of reference.

So to what extent are knowledge issues in ethics similar to those in other domains? Well, pretty much the same: "How do you know?" "How can you justify your beliefs in this domain?" "What is it necessary to know?" "How does it apply to your life?" and so on.

The danger here is that at the shallowest level, there is no difference between ethics and any other domain, especially if you confuse the domains by some philosophical paradigm such as utilitarianism or attempt to conflate economics (or law) with ethics. Perhaps the greatest threat to all such domains, anyway, is the attempt to apply a materialist paradigm — the so-called scientification of all things.

Well, that's my response. It is deliberately supposed not to be a guide to writing an answer to the question. It's meant to provoke some thought, and I hope it's done that.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I can't read Sanskrit, but I am grateful for translations. Here is the last part of the Hymn of Creation:

Who really knows? Who here will proclaim it? Whence was it produced?
  Whence is this creation?
  The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
  Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen — perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps not — the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows — or perhaps, not.

It is quite interesting to read through old pre-Hindu texts and realise just how much perfected agnosticism there is in them. The Indians have a long tradition of skepticism, both against divine and human authority. Even Hinduism, from an empirical perspective, ranges from heavily supernatural and almost polytheistic to agnostic to atheist. Buddhism, that most agnostic of religions, is part of that tradition too.

The more one reads older texts, the more one realises that the philosophers of the classical world borrowed heavily from the philosophers of the earliest civilisations. One goes back in time, and in returning to one's roots, one finds oneself. From whence did all this come? Nobody really knows — or perhaps, not.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Faith is Weak

It was not always that way. As Matthew Arnold once wrote, the Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full. But since then has come the Enlightenment and the rewriting of the histories and lives of men.

In the past, you could believe. These days, belief is so weak that you need proof, without which you cannot believe. These days, faith is so weak that you need signs. I watch my fellow journeymen, my fellow Christians, and I realise that our common danger is that we are either Judaists or Graeco-Roman philosophers, just as is implied in this passage.

The key verses from the first epistle to the Corinthians read:

For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom — but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

This is it. The Judaists require signs to establish faith; the Greeks require philosophy (sophia means 'wisdom') — but the Christian faith in its strength needs neither. There is no need for proof; only defence of belief and reliability of witness.

To the material world, which I sometimes spend time debating, I have one main argument: how do you know what you know? The answer normally is either given in terms of signs (sensory perception, data) or by sophistry and logic. But none of these is reliable except by itself; it is reason that makes us trust reason, and our senses that lead us to trust our senses. All these things are circular in nature.

But I assert that which I believe: that though I am doomed in my sins, I am saved by God through no inherent virtue of my own. At which point, the materialist says, "You make this assertion, you have to prove it." And I reply, "No, I need not prove it except to convince you. And only the Spirit of God can do that. I need not prove it to myself, because flawed as I am, I believe."

The materialist says, "Your God is inconsistent, he defies logic." My answer is, "If He were consistent, then He could not be God." But isn't consistency a virtue? Isn't it true that God says He is the same always? No, He never says He is logically consistent; He is always the same but He is never quite perceivable as the same, being infinite.

How else would an infinite deity behave? Any of the proofs a materialist might demand would immediately make a not-God. Any limitation on His morality, His powers, His behaviour, His reason, this would make Him the slave of the material.

And so, I rest in a faith that is stronger than I. My own faith does not avail, for I am a scientist, a teacher, a philosopher, a person who must learn to put all that aside for this most important single matter. Then only, can I believe.

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Alarums and Excursions

"Every sufficiently complex institution will produce sufficient paranoia and rumour-mongering to create an alternative reality of that institution that is at least the same size as the original." There, that's one of the laws I'm going to put in my book. The evidence is irrefutable that once an institution hits about 60 people or more, it is certain to be 'sufficiently complex'.

You thought I was joking, didn't you? Well, the old place has erupted once more with rumours that, quite possibly, originated at a higher level than before. Somebody who knows a lot is talking about changes in the principalities and powers, the dominions and authorities. Amazing.

Consider this scenario. Let's say that... I've been listening in on some of the discussions held in the little rooms behind the glass. Obviously, nobody thought to look for electronic aids when I left, so until the little batteries run out, the transcripts produced are an endless source of entertainment.

Now, if this were true, what should I do next? The answer is obvious. I should laugh a lot and wait until the principal actors retire. Then, like other people in official capacity who have stepped down, I should publish the real story.

But obviously, it would be paranoid to think that this scenario was true. I'm not that kind of person, contrary to what at least one young person suggested, after looking in the wrong direction.

Yet, listening to who-said-what-to-whom, there are days that I feel a vague desire to have been that kind of person. This is why you should be alert and keep evil at bay. The desire to 'do others before they do you', as Simon Templar once said, can be irresistible.

In the meantime, just sit back and watch the fun. Shakespeare was good at manufacturing this kind of scene. He normally gave the stage directions as 'alarums and excursions', followed by lots of cast movement.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Intermediates and Paradigms

Over the last few months, I've seen debates between various stripes of atheists and various stripes of religionists. Those aren't the only kinds of debates. But it strikes me that real-life debates are a lot more contentious and shifty than the sterile closed debates of the Worlds championships, university competitions, and the like — simply because the limits to argument are fewer and less restrictive.

This doesn't mean the debates are more focussed, or that the quality of debate is better. But it does highlight the point that whereas competitive debate is designed to win by achieving a higher score, real-life debate may have real consequences (for example, whether the US gets proper health care or not) or at least, real but unquantifiable effects (for example, whether some religionist reassesses his faith or not).

Sometimes however, I find myself irked by the fact that historical evidence is taken so lightly by both sides. Christians, in particular, are terrible at accepting the awful parts of Christian history. They aren't much better at using the good parts of their history in defence. In general, Christians (and often their cousins the Muslims) tend to have this illusion that their faith has been unchanged for centuries. They share one trait in common with scientists: what I call psychological archaeology.

By psychological archaeology, I mean that these people are convinced that as they unearth more and more of reality, the underlying structure will be revealed and shorn of all distractions until it is a perfect and untainted revelation. For Christians, the phrase, "we see as through a glass darkly, but then face to face" comes to mind; for scientists, the idea that reduction to ever more basic principles, unto grand unification, is a holy grail.

Both look at the world with this in mind; if you tell a Christian that Christian principles don't apply to all aspects of life — or if you tell a scientist that scientific principles don't — the rejection of your statement would be nearly automatic. Both are reductionist in their philosophy; the former will say that for everything God has a purpose, the latter will say that there is nothing that cannot be explained in principle. It is the common idea that 'in the end' or 'as time goes by', we will see more and more clearly.

What I believe, historically, is that science has never been possible without religion. Their close ideological kinship, in the sense of assuming that explanations for certain phenomena must exist, and that it is possible to think logically about what they might be, is made obvious when the historical record is invoked. Mathematics arises from one aspect of religion — the need to measure the world and its changes, such as seasons, tides, and food production. Technology arises from another aspect of religion — the assumption that the world has been given to us to manipulate, or that the world can indeed be manipulated by superior force.

The modern world, from a non-theistic perspective, tends to think that religion doesn't ask questions, that religion makes no tests or advances no theories about reality. Historically, that's untrue. The Bible, for example, is a most contention-riddled book; its protagonists often engage in debate with their God, apply tests by experimental comparison, and advance theories about why God does this or that. Sometimes, God refutes them; sometimes God answers in the affirmative.

Similarly, the track-record of Islamic science is only exceeded by the track-record of technology from the more Asian side of the Eurasian continent. Until the great disruptions engendered by the eventual Western renaissance, and the unfortunate temporary descent of China into introspective feebleness, religion and the philosophy engendered by it were the main driving force of civilisation.

It is easy to say, as many non-theists do, that barbaric things have been done in the name of religion, or that religion predisposes humans to such things. It is also easy to say, as many religionists do, that barbaric things have been done in the name of science, or that science predisposes humans to such things. Both are right, for a simple reason: both are human constructs based on either an implicit or explicit belief that there really is a fundamental truth, and humans are predisposed to occasional acts of barbarism (since by definition, all barbarians are humans).

But it is better to take the historical approach and dig into the heart of all these practices and how their paradigms can be described. They are remarkably similar. And all of them have intermediate stages. All of them have fundamental tenets which are adapted for new realities, and have these adaptations 'written into' canon or at least footnotes.

Proponents of Islam and Judaism may disagree, because their fundamental tenets (or at least, texts) are closely guarded in the original form (or as close as centuries of human guardianship can make it). But new interpretations for new technologies and new ideas happen all the time. Are painkillers prohibited or proscribed? Is evolutionary psychology evil? Do we have free will even if we seem not to have?

In the secular world, these questions are equivalent to the question of whether the United Nations has been a good thing. The answer, quite obviously is 'yes' with the caveat 'but not yet good enough'. It is the same, on a different timescale, with science. Consider the life of the UN from 24 Oct 1945 till today. Based on 54 years of uneven performance, some of us judge its results and make mocking noises. What then do we do with science, based on (conservatively) 500 years of uneven performance? Or Christianity, with about 2000 years of uneven performance?

The answer has to be a historical one. What was the state of the world when X was started? What is the state of the world now? Is it possible to directly attribute any of the changes to X? What is the evidence? Is it unequivocal? And so on. These questions are difficult to answer, and the answers we get may be equivocal or ambiguous.

But more likely, what you will find is that the historical argument will show that science is an evolutionary offshoot of religion, and that both branches continue to thrive in their own niches. Competition between the two is fierce, and yet in the fertile savannas of the mind, there is likely to be more than enough food and water to sustain them both for a long time more to come.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

The World is Not Flat

No, contrary to what many learned men have said, and others have frequently parroted, the world is not flat. With inequity and inequality of all kinds everywhere you look; with barriers to information, capital, services, and materials; the world is only flat looking down from Olympus. As Chesterton said so well, "One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak."

It is tempting to use the quote blandly as it is, without context. But the amazing story from which it comes, one of the finest detective tales of the entire English canon, was Chesterton's 'Hammer of God', in the collection The Innocence of Father Brown. It is a tale that bears reading, that demands you take the time to have a look.

The lesson in it is clear. Moral forces are as much part of the universe as physical forces. One may be tempered by conscience or thrown awry by the lack of it; the other seems immutable but may be misperceived. Both are incredible miracles when closely examined. But one is more of a miracle than the other.

The world is not flat. It is capable of both rotation and revolution as an oblate spheroid that moves in space. And this is true both morally and physically.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Love in a Time of Choler

The current age of man is neither reflective nor intellectual; since it is not sanguine either, it must be an age of choler — an age, as the ancients might say if exposed to modern jargon, dominated by the yellow bile of intemperate drive and antipathetic task orientation. In such an environment, our concerns become curiously short-sighted. Our priorities become curiously ill-defined and long-term. In short, there is a gap between what concerns us and what has prior claim on our vision.

It is this, I suspect, which makes love so difficult for some people. I've come to that suspicion not only by looking at others, but also at myself. It is easy to say in a vague sort of way that you love someone, that you will miss them when they're gone, and so on. It is harder to be concrete in the medium term.

For example, it's easy to say something like, "Today I'll give X a treat," or, "Today (or tomorrow), we'll go to Destination Y and do Z." It's easy to think of birthday presents and even the writing of a poem or two. It is also easy to say, "I'll be waiting for you after you finish university; it's only four years more," or, "Someday, we'll look back and think about all the times we've spent together."

But what are our concrete plans for developing the thick layer of affection between the seed of passion and the skin of compatibility? What are the things we work towards together? If we can have 5-year plans for schools that are never carried out, yet call this progress, is there hope for 5-year plans for human relationships that are carried out and are the true workings of a conscious and deliberate love?

Yes, I realise that some people do shy away from linking 'conscious' and 'deliberate' to 'love'. But 'love' is not just a noun, a thing, an emotion; 'love' is also a verb, an act, a process.

In my experience, to treat love purely as an emotion is to dilute its power and its impact, to make it vague and somehow thematic but not concrete. It makes the question of whether you love someone one of whether you feel that you love someone. And that makes it easier to confuse or deceive yourself.

It's not that we don't love the people we say we love; rather, it makes it harder because our emotions change with time, temperature, distance and the concentration of caffeine in our bodies. But things done are done; things to be done are things that you can objectively see will be (or won't be) done.

That's not to say, either, that you must measure love only in terms of things done and objectives attained, plans carried out and 'areas for improvement' improved. That would make it something like one of those schools-run-like-a-business.

What I think love is, to borrow the analogy of the four temperaments again, is that it has to have the short-term enthusiasm of the sanguine, the short-term focus of the choleric, the long-term persistence of the phlegmatic, and the long-term introspection of the melancholic. But it can't be four separate things, because the medium-term gap appears. It has to be an integrated programme.

This means that the enthusiasm and focus must be stretched, while the persistence and introspection must be anchored to the near future. Think about the next year, the next two years. Look back at the last year or so. And learn to enjoy every bit of it, without anxiety for the next day or the next ten years.

If you're in love, love will abide. But it also needs some deliberate positive cultivation, not just the deliberate negative avoidance of bad things. And somehow, your relationship will stretch to bridge the gap; before you know it, you will have loved someone for a year, two years, five years, ten years, twenty years and more. But that's as far as I've got.

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Friday, October 23, 2009


"They were born in poverty, but they should stay in school." I saw this line in one of those little Facebook ads that pops up at the side while you're thinking of something else.

I wondered what if you swapped the nouns. "They were born in school, but they should stay in poverty."

Or what if you changed the verbs around. "They were staying in school, but they should have been born in poverty."

Of course, what if staying in school IS being in poverty? No no, can't think that way, we're all taught that people with more education earn more. The statistics seem to shown that. Then again, maybe rich people go to school more.

Urgh. I must learn not to think so hard about advertisements.

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I had this odd dream. I was looking at the inside of my head. It had little Transformer-like bots crawling around polishing stuff, optimising neurons, laying down special nanotubule arrays, adding odd processing modules. Or nodules. Or something. There was a sign posted near my sinuses: Maintenance and upgrading in progress. We apologize for the inconvenience.

I remember saying something like, "Hey that's my brain, I need to use it!"

A small blue and gold bot said, "Sorry sir, we need to maintain it. Besides, it will work better next year."


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Thursday, October 22, 2009


Today my father's sister's husband died. To me he was a shepherd, one of few, always a rock and a pillar around which I clung as a child when in need of consolation. For he always attempted to be cheerful, and yet he was always firm about what ought to be, and what ought not to be; to a child, these are powerful things. He too was a teacher, in many ways and to many people.

I am persuaded that he — like a great ship of war in times of war, a great ship of trade in times of peace — has come to anchor at last in a safe and secure harbour. It was a harbour he had always sought, like a pilot seeks the light of port, whether in tower or lighthouse or burning beacon of flame. In the epistle to the Hebrews it is said, "Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath; that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast — and which (the soul) enters into that (hope) within the veil."

I think of bagpipes and comfort, I think of the shepherd who enters into the shepherd's rest, I think of how good it was to see him last, and as a Christian, how good it will be to see him again. Goodbye uncle, not only adieu, but au revoir. For that is the hope in which we live.

The first hymn I thought of is the one I shall reproduce below, in memory of my uncle's life:

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift and the cables strain,
Will your anchor drift, or firm remain?

    We have an anchor that keeps the soul
    Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
    Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
    Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.

It is safely moored, ’twill the storm withstand,
For ’tis well secured by the Saviour’s hand;
And the cables, passed from His heart to mine,
Can defy that blast, thro’ strength divine.


It will surely hold in the Straits of Fear—
When the breakers have told that the reef is near;
Though the tempest rave and the wild winds blow,
Not an angry wave shall our bark o’erflow.


It will firmly hold in the Floods of Death—
When the waters cold chill our latest breath,
On the rising tide it can never fail,
While our hopes abide within the Veil.


When our eyes behold through the gath’ring night
The city of gold, our harbour bright,
We shall anchor fast by the heav’nly shore,
With the storms all past forevermore.


(Words by P J Owens, 1882)

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One Size, Fits All

In Atlantis, it is well-known from the literature that the High Priests discern the fit from the unfit by a method derived from the Shell Game. For so are all appraised, that must be appraised; for so are all upraised, that must be upraised; and so are all praised, that must be praised. And this is what is well-known.

However, it occurs to me that not all can effectively be appraised by the same Game. The High Priests are not St Paul, that they should say, "I am made all things to all men." For there are many parts of the body of those who should be civil in service — but not all parts are the same. The parts that should be hidden should be treated with honour, and yet those that are of use, are of use. But all the parts are different, and surely one would not appraise a foot the same way one would appraise an eye?

Yet this is what is done. All are appraised for 'helicopter vision', yet not all need such lofty sight. Even where the specifics are different (for teachers, indeed are appraised in terms of teaching), the method of appraisal is the same. It is what makes all Atlantean teachers good only if they have, in their souls, the daimons of politics and bureaucracy. A teacher with neither of these will never be considered a good teacher, no matter how many positive strokes that teacher receives.

And so, slowly, slowly, the principalships are mostly filled with people who, if they are good at analysis and leadership, developed such skills by accident and not by design. And since now they are recruited when young, and not allowed to be elevated when older, they ofttimes have not the mentored experience to be principalities and powers. Rather, they are placeholders and props, designed to support the creaking mass of the Atlantean system without undermining it.

Ah, there are still powers and principalities among them, true. But there are precious few. The principle behind their selection, Procrustean in essence, makes those with long legs shorter, those with mighty arms feebler. It is all one size. And fits.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Skill-Based Technical Change

There's this loony hypothesis in economic circles that had me in stitches (especially after reading what I've been reading for the last 18 months on technological history). It's apparently a fairly entrenched idea that economic inequality stems to a large extent from technological change; the reasoning is that those with technical skills can parlay those skills into economic force multipliers or something, so they get richer faster. This is called 'skill-based technical change' (SBTC) theory.

I don't think so. That's not how technology (not itself a well-understood term) works. But apart from that, there are actually two models of technological spread that are very different, and work against the SBTC model.

Firstly, there's the 'ubiquity' model. In this model, technology spreads very quickly until everyone has the tech. This is the empirical case with many technologies — washing machines, refrigerators, toasters, radios, MP3 players, pottery, the plough, road-building, brick-making. Given a general technological level in a society, some techs will become ubiquitous very quickly. Once the coiled-coil tungsten wire technology became available, incandescent bulbs became ubiquitous within years.

Secondly, there's the 'patent control' model in which the tech originator deliberately makes it hard for the tech to become ubiquitous. But because the only way that's possible is if the tech requires a very high level of tech (e.g. stealth materials tech (and in the past, steel), requiring a large industrial base to be economically viable) or it is very arcane (e.g. stealth materials tech (and in the past, steel), which very few people understand in detail). Such tech is too expensive to give people an advantage.

Real-life examples are doctors and lawyers. The two are oft-cited examples of professional middle-to-upper class prosperity. But as my doctor and lawyer friends will tell you, the economic benefits aren't as obvious as you might think. Doctors have it worse; they tend to get sued more often and need far more supporting tech — lawyers only need information and brains.

The real money-makers often don't have a tech advantage at all; if anything, they are really good at networking and deal-making, which are social advantages. They make use of technology, but the advantage of technology is unclear at best. Any tech they do use doesn't enable them to get rich faster then the next 40% of population, simply because tech of that kind is ubiquitous tech — computerised trading systems etc. It's again brain and skill.

So is inequity accelerated by technology? I don't think so. The same people who argue for SBTC models also acknowledge that a large middle class is created by tech ubiquity, which means the bottom moves up faster than the top. Which, in turn, means technology should actually work against wealth inequity. Maybe some economist can correct me on this point.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Forgotten Lands

It's taken me a long time, but I've finally found my way through Parag Khanna's The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-First Century. It's all about the new geopolitics and the new maps of the world.

Many amazing things that we've all forgotten come back to light; the fact of how big Xinjiang and Tibet are compared to the rest of China; the size of Brazil compared to that of the USA (8.5 million sq km vs 9.8 million sq km); how many pieces of desert with oil under them can be found in central Asia; the fact that on a clear day you can see Pakistan from Oman; the list goes on. It is a fantastic survey of all the world.

Quite often, in our obsession with the First World and the Third World, we forget that there was a Second World, once full of life and humanity, but drained by the First World over the last 150 years or so. As we head towards a new multipolarity, the mass of China, the European Union and the American hegemony will set these up as the new powers. True, the USA has a huge military edge — but what can it do with that edge?

Meanwhile, China and the EU chip and chisel away at the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact, Africa, west Asia, and even South America. It all depends on which way the remaining lesser powers of the First and Second World decide to go; huge Brazil, innovative Japan, massive India and its neighbour Pakistan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and others. What a wonderful world!

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Gangsterism in Schools

I spent some time thinking about this topic recently. A lot of sociologists and psychologists give the standard reason that gangs and tribes are part of normal human behaviour, so it's all a question of how these groups are formed and to what ends they act. But it seems to me that, if schools are indeed agents of socialisation, they should be determining the way gangs behave.

What troubles me more is the equivalent of white-collar gangs. Intellectual gangs. Debater gangs. Children-of-privilege gangs. Scholarship-leads-to-power gangs. This kind of gangsterism is what drives the big crimes, the ones that aren't really crimes and are condoned by society. There are dark imperatives building in that area between black and white, where you can't tell which are the men in either colour.

Get your scholarship. Get an advanced degree. Become a boss. Treat people like crap and eliminate your rivals using everything they taught you at the local civil service training centre, and some things they didn't dare teach you. At any sign that an employee is unhappy, that's disloyalty, for why would he be unhappy with your regime? After all, you have the God-given wisdom to know what's best for him. Best get rid of him then, no need to find out why he is unhappy because that would surely be his lack of wisdom, not yours.

The mafia of the new academic world are not sub-educated grunts, but over-educated villains. And like the stereotypical Bond villain, they have no sense of humour but make you feel like laughing. Of course, if you do, you will suffer drastic consequences.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Mechanical East

About two weeks ago, I think I made a bad mistake. I was reading Cyril Aydon's A Brief History of Mankind and I looked at his comments about how the Industrial Revolution never came to China, and I said that it sounded right to me. That's what I posted, because that's what I thought.

But as my readers know, I've never been one to leave stuff like that alone. Something didn't seem right, because I knew that China had all the ingredients for an Industrial Revolution, and in fact had invented all those things centuries before the western barbarian tribes could even think of such things as non-magical.

So I dug around, dutifully and assiduously, for old books and newer ones. I found Arthur Cotterell's Western Power in Asia: Its Slow Rise and Swift Fall (1415-1999), Simon Winchester's Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China, and John M Hobson's The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, among others. After digesting about a dozen books on related material, and re-reading what Fernand Braudel and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto had to say about it (often in contrast with other scholars such as J M Roberts) I came to a new conclusion.

The past is a world too tangled to be disentangled. But the same methodology that tells us who King Arthur must have been also tells us that China's influence on the past of the world is a lot more significant than most historians (especially those of the Anglo-American sphere) would have us believe. The artifacts and the documents, the weight of commercial and technological history, all point us to the fact that the Chinese were innovators, that the world's first major industrial revolution was that of the Song Dynasty, and that the Chinese fell upon hard times through terrible mismanagement on the part of the Manchus.

The view in 1975 was already turning against the colonial views of the preceding century. Documents from that time, such as this one, point out (although in Western terms) the things which led to China's debasement and which were leading to its resurrection.

(It's also interesting to see what they had to say about a certain 'Prime Minister Yew' of a tiny city-state further south. Spiro Agnew found in Singapore "one of the most advanced societies on earth," and John Connolly called the city-state "the best-run country in the world." Prime Minister Yew's formula was simple: "Nothing is free.")

As China completes its rise to great power, perhaps the words of John Hay, US Secretary of State in 1899, will be remembered: "The storm center of the world has gradually shifted to China... whoever understands that mighty Empire... has a key to world politics for the next five hundred years."

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Responses 000 (2010-2011)

After a quick first look at yesterday's list of questions, my intuitive response was that questions 4 and 5 are far too general; each of them is a major chunk of epistemology, and no particular focus is provided. Question 2 looks as if you'd have to define 'expert' first, and since that's not susceptible to a useful definition in this context, I wouldn't touch it.

Questions 1, 3, and 7 are traditional, with the advantage that they are straightforward comparisons. Q1 goes so far as to give you one of the knowledge domains to be compared, so it's marginally easier.

Question 6 is a variant of the 'there are no absolute truths' trick. Since you can't say the statement is true, you have to say it is false. Then you discuss why it is false, which is a waste of time to me, since there really isn't much of a counterclaim.

Questions 8 and 9 limit the discussion to specific domains of knowledge. However, they are also kind enough to tell you what to discuss, which makes them good candidates. Don't overstretch on either, though; it's possible to read these questions in such a way that you come up with too many answers or no answer at all.

Left to my own devices, I'd answer Q10. It is easily structured, yet complex enough to provide lots of good points and examples. Ah well, if anyone remembers my lectures, I used to do this one implicitly all the time!

And so, those are my initial responses in 2009 for questions to be answered by 2010-2011. Enjoy!

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Saturday, October 17, 2009


I'm looking at the report on Barrow Island, Australia. They've got a saltwater reservoir 2.3 km underneath it, into which they're injecting 3.3 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year in an attempt to sequester the stuff and reduce global warming. This sequestration experiment is called Gorgon, after the Greek mythological entities who could turn humans to crystalline calcium carbonate statues.

3.3 megatonnes is a lot. it's 3.3 million million grams. 3,300,000,000,000 g of carbon dioxide. If that much carbon dioxide escapes, it will form a bubble with a volume of 1.8 billion cubic metres at room temperature and pressure. The land area of Australia is about 8000 billion square metres. That's great, because it means that if Barrow Island goes off after one year, it will only cover Australia to a depth of 0.225 centimetres. No big deal.

Atlantis, on the other hand, would be overwhelmed. At only about 0.7 billion square metres, we'd be covered to a depth of more than 250 centimetres in carbon dioxide. Most of us would be dead.

This is all crazy reasoning, actually. What is more likely is that the dense bubble of 1.8 billion cubic metres would move bloblike, shoved around by the winds, randomly killing people by asphyxiation. Who would it kill? I don't know; maybe people running the Gorgon Gas Project.

What's that, you ask? Haha, well it's funny, but carbon sequestration tends to coexist with petrochemical plants. The Gorgon Gas Project is designed to produce 1.1 billion billion cubic metres of natural gas a year. That's a billion times larger than the carbon dioxide annual input.

Amazing, those Aussies. You should go look at their top-secret wind turbines in the desert too.

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Questions (2010-2011)

There are many questions. Here is a set, which if not familiar, soon will be very much so.
  1. Consider the extent to which knowledge issues in ethics are similar to those in at least one other area of knowledge.
  2. How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge?
  3. “Doubt is the key to knowledge.”—Persian proverb. To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?
  4. To what extent do we need evidence to support our beliefs in different areas of knowledge?
  5. To what extent are the various areas of knowledge defined by their methodologies rather than their content?
  6. “There are no absolute distinctions between what is true and what is false”. Discuss this claim.
  7. How can we recognise when we have made progress in the search for knowledge? Consider two contrasting areas of knowledge.
  8. “Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth.”—Pablo Picasso. Evaluate this claim in relation to a specific art form (for example, visual arts, literature, theatre).
  9. Discuss the roles of language and reason in history.
  10. A model is a simplified representation of some aspect of the world. In what ways may models help or hinder the search for knowledge?
This, like the previous set, is also a stub for now. It will likely grow as the other one did. I am particularly struck by how questions 3 and 8 echo each other.

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Debating Meaning

In true St Paul style, I have to show a few bona fides so that it looks as if I know something about debate. I think I've had more debate training, both formal and informal than most; my parents were both high school debaters (from the College of Wyverns), and they brought that into their marriage, and then into their later family life.

I dabbled in debate when young, and was even a debate adjudicator in the early days of the modern three-man debates which are now favoured over the much more entertaining parliamentary free-for-alls and others. To my everlasting shock, I was once Best Speaker at some university debate. And so on.

It strikes me that debate training is singularly bad prep for life.

In debate, you define your terms, you set your case, you develop lines of argument, you learn to root out fallacies (or at least convince the adjudicators that you have exposed the other side's fallacies whether or not such exist), and so on. In life, it doesn't happen. The morons with the fallacies are often winners.

I've learnt to be schizophrenic about it. In my head, one of me tots up the score, adjudicating the event in debate terms. In my head, one other of me smiles a lot. And a third of me (at least) delivers canned responses, noting that despite the stupidity of the situation (or the absurdity of it), nobody else notices or affects to notice.

I remember being called up by the Inquisition. They were being laughably inept interrogators. (Example: "Your post was made at 1100, which is during office hours." "Err, my posts are in EST, which means that was actually 2300, which is not office hours.")

Finally, they triumphed over me. "You may be right, but if you were right, it is obvious that you were confusing. How else could we have been wrong if you were not being ambiguous and confusing? You should apologise!"

I almost burst out laughing. But that's not good form in debate or in life. I almost said, "Maybe because you weren't thinking properly?" But that's not good form in debate or in life either.

Debate, debate. It is a silly fish that goes for debate. Debate is horrible prep for life. It's like mucking around instead of really trying to find something.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Wasting Time

I was amused and entertained by this post by a young man who's about to finish the first active phase of his working life. I feel he's learnt a lot, especially about time management and disinformation management. I am happy for him.

I think that time's one-way arrow does indeed make it a murderous crime to waste someone else's time. In all my life, I've encountered people who tried not to waste your time, but those were in the minority. Some were not actively seeking to waste your time, but did it anyway because they didn't know any better. And some were deliberate time-wasters who loved the sound of their own voice, although they wouldn't have admitted it.

Sadly, I think the best experience in my life was teaching young people, while the worst experience was dealing with older people who should have known better (while I was teaching those young people). The political bullshit was appalling; the clearing up after the defaecation was worse. The worst was the time spent attempting to prettify the ugly.

I make no bones about it; I know I was a victim of political behaviour. But as my father taught me long ago, it is sufficient to recognize it for what it is and not to get involved, no matter what it costs you.

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Olfactory Confusion

I bought some store-branded liquid hand-soap a short while back. On the label, it said 'Chamomile'. I washed my hands with it. I thought to myself, Passionfruit.

I had the sudden urge to run outside and sniff everything in my garden. Fortunately, I suppressed that urge, or my nose would probably be twice the (admittedly large) size it already is.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Bible — Unique or Synthetic?

Much of the criticism of the Bible as a religious text (that happens to be the basis for the most influential religion in the world) comes from a few interesting arguments:
  • It is just another religious book.
  • It is mythical and/or legendary in content, at best ahistorical.
  • It is inconsistent.
  • It is arbitrarily assembled.
  • It is a piece of artfully-assembled cold-blooded propaganda.
And so on. Frankly, I find that all of these arguments are somewhat spurious; I also find the claim that the Bible possesses a supernatural aura or built-in divine imprimatur to be spurious too.

Let me explain, from a purely literary point of view.

To deal with claims of being just another religious book, I would like to ask just one question. Do you know any other religious tradition in which the moral exemplars are such bad people? The only good one is Jesus, and he is totally unlike anybody's idea of what he ought to be. These characters possess true-to-life traits, something you can only appreciate by reading literature contemporaneous with the Bible. Such psychological consistency comes only with modern literature, with the first instances found in Shakespeare (compare his contemporaries, such as Marlowe, and you will see it at once).

To the idea of it being mythical, legendary etc, I freely admit that it sure sounds like it in parts. However, I am sure that if there were such things as angels and God and so on, any objective record would sound like it was mythical, legendary etc. As for ahistorical, I think there is far too much history in it for my liking. However, I suspect that part of the history was cobbled together from incomplete records, much as our own histories of the much-more-recent Cold War will never be definitive.

To the charge of inconsistency, I think it is inconsistent in the literary sense, as would be any collection of 66 books written by different authors. It's a bit like opening a Penguin Classics collection and expecting the style and content to be uniform throughout. Is it inconsistent in a moral sense? Actually, I'm not sure that question can be asked and answered so easily. If God says that whatever God does is right, what if he appears to contradict himself? Is he still right? By definition, yes. God tells humans not to bear false witness, but he assents to the enterprise of lying spirits (angels bearing tidings of great, err, incorrectness of fact). He himself doesn't lie, though.

The last two claims contradict each other. My opinion is that the Bible was assembled by clear criteria, and hence was not arbitrarily assembled. At which point, some people would say, "Aha! Humans assembled it, how can it be the work of God?" and I would reply, "Aha! I assembled the bookshelf, how can it be the work of Ikea?" The same people might say, "Aha! Humans assembled it, it must be propaganda, subject to human bias!" and I would reply, "Well, I needed a bookshelf, and Ikea makes good cheap ones. It's better than looking for random driftwood and rocks and building a bookshelf."

These are all just starting thoughts. Or maybe, startling thoughts for some of you. But whatever they are, I am 100% certain that the Bible is not just another religious book. It is a weird book. It is not holy by virtue of itself as a printed text, neither does God craft some runes of power into every printed copy. But it is a life-changer for anyone who can stir themselves to read it. I mean, what 1st-century book would record that the resurrected man ate bread, and then broiled fish? Bread might be symbolic, so is fish, but broiled fish? Quirky!

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Science vs Reality

Recently, I had the opportunity to engage in a fascinating discussion with two ironically-named gentlemen (who I will leave unnamed here in case irony overcomes my readers). Both are eminently reasonable, but Gentleman #1 took issue with my definition of 'reasonable' and Gentlemen #2 took issue with my view of science.

According to Gentleman #1, it is better to define 'reasonable' as 'just; fair; agreeable to reason' than to use the 'argument of popularity'. Actually, in the context of what a reasonable belief is, it is perfectly normal to define 'reasonable' as 'something a majority of the population are in agreement with'. This is of course a legalistic position, akin to the idea of 'the man in the street' or 'the reasonable man'. But the problem with Gentleman #1's stand is that we as humans define 'just' as 'that which fits the common sensibility', 'fair' as 'that which seems balanced to the common sensibility', and 'agreeable' as 'that which most people agree with'.

According to Gentleman #2, reality is a the objective test of science. The problem is that this is a circular argument. In scientific circles, it is common to find the argument that reality is that which is verified by some form of the scientific method (as borrowed by Francis Bacon from the Islamic world). If this is true, that reality is verified by science, then how can reality be the objective test of science? The fact is that we can only trust our reason and our perception to the extent that it keeps producing exactly the same answer. This, of course, means that the inductive fallacy lies in wait.

My point is that a properly scientific skeptic would indeed be only provisionally certain, and even then only in the pragmatic sense, about any scientific claim to knowledge. If computers work because of applied science, that's great. Whether this is true or real, that's for the philosophers.

It is utterly possible to (as the humorist Terry Pratchett has done) postulate a science that works by little psychic beings of immaterial (and hence non-space limited) 'substance'. This would have the advantage of making the entities we call 'subatomic particles' and 'atoms' (and base much of our science on) explainable in terms of inherent intelligence; it would also explain action at a distance.

Unfortunately, it would also be unsatisfactory to scientists because the next question would be, "How do we understand the minds of these little psychic beings?" In fact, scientists dig until they hit 'fundament', and then they call what they've found 'fundamental' until they get better shovels. The problem is the 'better shovels' part.

What if you reach the point at which no better shovel is possible? This is apparently the case with the Planck constant, which describes the level of quantization of energy. Other physical constants (for example, the rest mass of the electron, Avogadro's number) depend on it to some extent; the fine-structure constant is interdependent with it in establishing the nature of our universe.

Well, having reaching that kind of fundament, I suppose the next question would be, "Why it is that value and not another value?" A true scientist would never accept the 'because it is, and that's all' explanation. But to me (and logically, anyone else), it is the explanation which must eventually suffice, and it would be unreasonable to think otherwise, simply because of the gap in orders of magnitude between our perceptions (and their proxies) and what lies beneath Planck's constant.

That would lead to the conclusion that true scientists are unreasonable, which must be irksome to them — if there were any such people at all. However, there is hope. As GBS once said (in Man and Superman, 1903), "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Perhaps that progress will (as it often has) redefine our concept of what is reasonable. It is now reasonable to believe in flying steel machines, as it might not have been five centuries ago. But flying steel machines operate at the same level of perceptual reality as we do, while quantum electrodynamics (and other such theories) don't.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Old Jokes in New Jokings

Wolff (no longer Sir Wolff) is having kaveh with an old acquaintance. He wonders who had come up with this abomination, neither kava nor coffee, and named after a mythical Persian. He listens to the acquaintance blather on about quality awards and other toys, and then he decides to tell a joke.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

At first, the secret police came for those who were making too much money (and not sharing it with them). And of course, we said nothing, for we too wanted more money.

His acquaintance smiles, makes a gesture that shows he thinks he already knows the joke but is willing to let Wolff continue.

Then the secret police came for those who were too clever (and tended to show the bosses in unflattering light). And of course, we said nothing, for we thought we were clever too.

Then the secret police came for those who taught well (and told them they were bad teachers). And of course, we said nothing, for we said, "Who are these people who think they are good teachers?"

Then the secret police came for those who spoke up (or who had meals with condemned men). And of course, we said nothing, since we were not inclined to speak up anyway.

And finally, the secret police came for us...

The acquaintance obviously finds this boring. He interrupts.

...and there was no one left to speak up for us, right? I've heard this before.

Wolff laughs. He knows that's not how it goes, in this case.

No, this is how it ends, my friend.

And finally, the secret police came for you, and you said...

"Comrade! Isn't it great to be a member of the secret police?"

Wolff enjoys the look of stunned surprise on his erstwhile colleague's face. He takes pleasure in throwing money on the table and walking away. And most of all, he carries a deep-rooted and ecstatic mirth in him, because he knows what always happens to members of Stalinist organisations.


You can find other adventures of Sir Wolff like this. They're all historical fiction, except the one about the dragon, which is real.

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The Rubbish Problem

You know what my biggest problem has always been? It's difficult to admit it, and it's painfully funny to think about it.

When I was young, my parents made me take out the trash every evening. I'd collect all the trash bags from around the house, consolidate them, and pack them into as tight a space as possible without bursting any bags. If a bag wasn't particularly full, I'd empty its contents into another bag and keep the original in its bin.

One evening, I took out the trash as usual. The air was redolent with the scent of cured tobacco from the Rothmans factory nearby, or at least something that smelt suspiciously like it. And then I realised two things.

The first thing was that I could walk north, and by morning, be in another country.

The second thing was that I actually liked taking out the trash. I'd grown into a person who liked exposing useless things, bagging them, and throwing them away. I never saw a piece of junk that didn't seem to say to me, "Bag me up and throw me away."

Well, you now know the kinds of thoughts that go through my head when people talk rubbish. Sometimes, they publish rubbish. Or summon large numbers of people and lie to them. Whoever 'they' are, they are masters of junk.

And I have this great urge to say it is junk, to expose it, bag it, and throw it away. It never fails to get me into trouble. And that's the problem.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Them 'Phones WILL Fry Your Brain

Studies have shown that using a mobile phone close to your head for ten years will double your chances of brain tumours. This is borne out by the fact that the chance of the tumour occurring is greater on the side which you normally use the phone. So far so good. At this point, the key thing we want to know is: what is the chance of a person getting a brain tumour after using a cellphone for the NEXT ten years?

You see, there is one BIG flaw in all these studies. I am 100% certain that nobody has used the SAME phone at the SAME distance from the centre of the the tumour that was found for the SAME amount of time over the SAME ten years in the SAME environment. I am willing to concede that you can control for at least one of these conditions, perhaps two, but not three or more or anywhere near all (which would include all the other things a good scientist can imagine).

In fact, since such phones use less radiation these days (the US limit is 1.6 watts/kg, the European limit is 2.0 watts/kg) and more users are resorting to hands-free connections which move the phone some distance away from the head, the risk is dropping faster than it is increasing.

So why is the title of this post so alarmist?

Well, I was just thinking about the other kinds of radiation. Radio waves are actually very low-frequency emissions that take forever to do anything to your body. At the other end of the spectrum are things like cosmic rays and gamma rays, that are even more high-energy than x-rays, and will KILL you (I was going to say KILL you DEAD, but most people get that point quite easily). You will get literally thousands of times more deadly radiation from climbing ONE mountain at high altitude or flying ONCE from New York to Singapore, than by using a mobile phone for ten years.

Actually, I cheated there. We know that cosmic radiation is deadly, but we don't know that radio waves are. We know that humans have been exposed to radio signals for decades without suffering directly-related damage from them. We know that people have turned into green superheroes died from gamma-ray exposure, and we can even watch it happening if we want.

So those phones will fry your brain, I guess, but only if you think so hard about them that you forget to shield your head from the sun, that obvious fusion-powered source of lethal radiation.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

East vs West

It seems as if this theme has been around for ages. But if you look at the maps and the histories, it's always been about the selective pressures that drove western Eurasian survivors, wave after wave, into a bunch of offshore islands. There, they would fight the previous wave, get smarter, and plot to take over the world.

And they've managed it, by a mixture of good fortune, opportunism, savagery, and public relations.

Up till perhaps 1800, the most powerful country, with the largest economy, and the highest production levels, was China. China's iron output in 1078 was about 125,000 tonnes; Britain would only hit 76,000 tonnes in 1788 — about 700 years later. Japan was pretty close; up to 1850, the standard of living in the offshore islands on the eastern Eurasian coast was higher than that in the offshore islands on the western Eurasian coast — in fact, the agricultural efficiency of Japanese farmers has never been beaten.

Other research has shown that India outproduced the West in quantity and quality of steel, cloth, and wood products before it became, and even when it was, part of the British Empire. In fact, 80% of the Empire's GDP was from the subcontinent. India made better guns, produced more iron and better steel — it was India that supplied the raw materials for the legendary Damascus steels.

So what went wrong?

John Hobson, in his 2004 book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, makes the point that Western civilisation would have been impossible without the multipolar globalization that took place between 500 and 1800 AD. The major players were Africans, Middle Eastern Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Southeast Asians and Japanese.

Walter Russell Mead, in his 2006 God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, tries to justify the present world situation by saying that the Anglo-American West had certain advantages. He attributes their success to a balance between respect for three things: tradition, revelation and reason. I think all he's saying is that these are Anglo-American traits; whether they are winning traits is to confuse causation and correlation.

Perhaps nothing went wrong. What we have seen is a brief oscillation of the globalization pendulum. China was the dominant power in most of the last millennium; it may yet be the dominant power for most of this millennium. A future footnote to the Anglo-American dominion might read: "A global empire, dominant from late 20th to early 21st century; not much remains."

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Scientia: The Great Refusal (Introduction)

The word 'science', as used in the modern sense, is a very recent one. As a kind of methodology which seeks consistency in the definition of truth, it dates back to the 18th century; its origins lie perhaps a century earlier, in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon.

As a modern religion, however, it is even more recent. In discussions with many people over the last few years, I've come to realise that it is something that some people put their trust in without any understanding whatsoever. It is even worse when every young person in a country is made to study science, and this thus confers upon it great prestige and value in the mind, and yet the majority of these people don't know what it really is.

What science is, in essence, is a refusal to countenance anything which isn't science. It is a closer's game, as opposed to an opener's invitation. More about this later.

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I remember a really dire movie about global warming. It was called Waterworld and starred Kevin Costner. Essentially, after a bad bout of global warming, humanity is literally all at sea. Finding land is like finding the Holy Grail.

It was a very humid night. I woke up having dreamt something like that. It was a chilling experience.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

University Rankings

Well, the 2010 Sunday Times University Rankings came out about a month ago, thematically a sort of update on the Times Higher Education figures here. This of course will make people with academic desires, predilections, or pretensions lust after places at renowned Cambridge, Oxford and the Ivy League schools.

Someone (well, many people, deprived of commentary) asked me what I thought of these rankings. Frankly, they are all what I call pseudo-quantitative exercises. Without looking at what the numbers measure, we already know that these are dubious exercises. Why?

Firstly, the numbers you see rely a lot on either qualitative inputs converted to numerical form (like the infamous and hugely popular Likert scales). In theory, a large enough collection of inputs should work to minimise error; in practice, we simply do not know if this is true, considering that the inputs are non-random. How random can the respondents to a survey on universities be?

Other forms of non-linear 'hashing' such as converting raw data to a normalised index have also been used. An example of this is to take the 'best' value and convert it to 100/100, and then pro-rate the other values accordingly. Slightly geeky example follows:

Supposing you have a Physics test, and the best student scores 25/100. We have a few ways to convert this to 100/100: we can 1) multiply by 4, 2) take the square root and multiply by 20, 3) divide the score by 25, take the arcsine of that (in radians) and multiply by 200/π, and so on. A score of 10 on that test would get you 1) 40, 2) 63.3 or 3) 26.2 marks respectively.

Secondly, a lot of it depends on subjective data. By subjective data, I mean that the data originates from people who have no means of comparison with other institutions. For example, supposing I ask you to rank your experience in Institution A on a scale of 1-10. You give me an '8'. Four years later, you are at Institution B, which you now rank as '8' and you express the thought that perhaps you should have given Institution A a '6' instead because it is not half as good as B. Well, you are entitled to your opinion, but if it weren't half as good as B, perhaps you should have given it at most a '4'?

The 220,000 students surveyed in the Sunday Times version are like that; they are rating their degree of satisfaction without comparison, without objective measures, without reliability. Can we assume that the presumable error will cancel out? No...

Thirdly, many ranking systems rely on measuring awards. If we were to follow the silly example of this Professor of Economics, we'd be measuring universities in terms of Nobel Prizes. What's so bad about that? Well, the Nobel Prizes are one-off, first past the post awards. There are no prizes for second or third place, so we have no idea how close any given university came to getting one. It is like saying an MP is infinitely better than his defeated opponent even though he got 49.1% of the vote and his opponent got 48.7%. It is also like saying that all MPs are equal.

Fourthly, methodologies change from year to year and there's nothing that can be done about it. Ideally, they should improve; but in point of fact, the market that wants ranking data will require different measures each year, and hence require different methodologies in terms of data collection, weighting, cross-comparison and so on. Such a state has been passed off as 'good news', but I don't think that's necessarily true.

I could go on and on about how flawed everything is. But my readers are practical people, so what can we do about it? What I would say is that if you can live without brand names, most universities are fine.

A student should really be evaluating the environment in which that university is in, as well as what that student is going to university for. If university is a disguised career move, then you need a brand name. If university is a preparation for academic life, check out the research statistics and whether leading researchers are there. If university is an excuse to bum around, check out the social statistics. If university is a balance between personal finance and a reasonably sound education, check out the educational cost and its average returns (i.e. how much does a graduate in your chosen course of study earn within 1, 3, 5, or 10 years after graduating, ceteris paribus?)

There's lot's to say, really. I try to provide educational advice if anybody wants to ask, but here are my initial caveats.
  1. Good advice requires good information, and to advise you, I'd need to know you intrusively well;
  2. I come from an academic family, so I have a bias in certain directions;
  3. I didn't graduate from a top 10 university, and never felt the need to have done so;
  4. I believe that history and culture should have some weight;
  5. I believe that a lot of students are attracted by the dream or ideal of a particular place, and not the hard data.
And, oh yes, I quite enjoyed living in Cambridge, but then again, I also enjoyed living in Columbia University. Your mileage might vary.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009


This is a brief note directed at some friends who have made queries about specific procedures in specific Atlantean institutions.

Essentially, Article 14 of the Constitution of the specified institution says that no member of staff may be dismissed without the following steps: a) recommendation submitted to Board, b) committee of inquiry appointed, c) committee to report to Board with their own recommendation if any.

However, it is clear that this is not a transparent process, and should the member of staff wish to say anything, there is actually no guarantee that a) he will get to say it, b) he will not face further disciplinary internal action because of saying it, c) that the public will come to know of any irregularities in said process. In fact, there is no guarantee that he will even know anything about the process which decides his fate, nor that he will get to defend himself at all.

In other words, if this kind of proceeding were to be held in other realms, it would constitute a lack of due process. But as we have seen before, Atlantis is a different place — there is a doctrine of Atlantean exceptionalism, and sadly, its institutions are not exceptional in that regard.

My advice to those who are advised to leave or be dismissed is that you should leave as quickly as possible. Transplanting yourself from a big pond to the sea is a wrenching step and a disorienting one, but it can be done. "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly" as the Scottish play says.

There is another consequence. If you save your ammunition, you can use it later with less constraint. The a posteriori (or as some might call it with humour, ex post facto) defence is a safer one, because you can easily construct theory that fits prior facts, and reveal those facts as necessary. They have fired their ammunition and remain constrained by the institution. You, on the other hand, have a choice of lawyers and courts (including that of public opinion), and you need hold nothing back except for the personal restraint engendered by being a scholar and a gentleman.

To stand and fight merely impugns the honour of the institution, which is certainly a different thing from the honour of its executive officers. So my humble recommendation to those under threat, at whom irrational attacks have been launched with the flimsiest of reasons, is to pack up and go. Be like Abraham, and not like his nephew's wife.

And (as military reports are wont to conclude), that is all I have to say.

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This is for two special sets of friends I have out there. The first kind worries that I have not enough work to do; the second worries that I am wasting my capacity. The two kinds sometimes overlap.

Actually, I'm pretty much submerged by work. It never ends.

Various agencies have asked me to help them out in various domains which I am reasonably qualified to help them out in. I also provide educational advice on a regular basis to many young people (and occasionally, their parents); that alone is about 12-20 hours of my time each week.

I thought I would have time to work on a pretty linear thesis. It turns out that it is a less linear, more complex entity altogether. It is driving me nuts. But it is unfolding with crazy Mandelbrot fractal precision. You think you have it, then it goes deeper, and then you realise that the deeper level is similar to the surface level, more or less.

Take for example the issue of competence or the idea of structure. Competence — in individuals, communities, institutions or bodies politic — is always measured the same way, even if the criteria differ. Structure — in schools or businesses, in the state or in the world — shows itself in the same ways and is perceived (or misperceived) the same way too.

When I come up for air, I will be like a whale from out of the vasty deep. I hope there will be no harpooners nearby.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Dynamic Tension

I've realised something interesting about friendship. It is by necessity an oscillation about a mean. The ideal state of friendship is one that lacks tension, and yet it is impossible to call it friendship unless there is a certain kind of tension that leads to engagement.

Take, for example, my friendship with Gnomus. It is great to sit around at a local coffee shop and 'shoot the breeze' or just hang out, happy to have a friend that is like a brother. But it cannot be only that; sometimes, there is duelling with lightsabres and displays of angst. Without those, it wouldn't be half as much a friendship.

Or my friendship with Flower Lady. It's great to sit around and sigh at the pleasure of being alive and just not do anything. But if not for the perpetual teasing I get (and I return), the tension of knowing each other's sadnesses and joys, the jumping-up-and-down irritation of having to choose a place to eat, it wouldn't be so good.

It is the same with the friendship element of my relationships with family. My parents and my siblings are friends as well as family, but without our shared history of gut-curling tensions and fighting-mad pissed-off moments, it wouldn't be so enjoyable to be that way. It is a hard-won friendship, this thing with family.

All these examples, and hundreds more, lead me to think of the difference between dynamic and static equilibrium. A static equilibrium is a broken thing; it is stasis, statehood without change. A dynamic equilibrium embodies dünamis, shifting conditions with force and energy, control and the almost-lack of it.

I am glad I have so many dynamic friendships, tensions and all. I live with the tensions; sometimes it may be more accurate to say I live for the tensions, or even because of them.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009


In 1937, W H Auden wrote his Letter to Lord Byron, an odd and playful piece of doggerel addressed to one of the most mercurial talents of English literature. In that longish poem, he says:

The Higher Mind’s outgrowing the Barbarian,
  It’s hardly thought hygienic now to kiss;
The world is surely turning vegetarian;
  And as it grows too sensitive for this,
  It won’t be long before we find there is
A Society of Everybody’s Aunts
For the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants.

In a place along the Dover coast, what really happened was that the Barbarians outgrew (or at least temporarily outmanoeuvred) the Higher Mind, which unfortunately consisted of those interested in supplying a proper education. However, there were indeed Aunts, except that they were carnivorous and interested only in preventing cruelty to their own plants. And yes, there were also plants. They sat glumly in the common room and then at the end of the day folded themselves up and went off to report to the Chief Barbarian.

I have always found Auden a wonder. He was a master at mocking the totalitarian state, but he also feared that it would come to pass in his lifetime. In times past, I often felt like his Unknown Citizen, of whom he wrote:

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The voice of Wystan Hugh Auden continues to resonate with us because, like George Orwell, he cared a lot for humanity, and was willing to share his words on the topic with his fellow humans.

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The Bible — Conservative or Liberal?

The United States of America is the largest and most influential state in the world in terms of meme-propagation and economic impact. It is that which makes us look on in awe, fascination, horror or incomprehension (in alphabetical order) as we look at the clashes of ideas that take place there.

One of them is the idea that somehow the Bible has been translated badly and no longer serves the people well. It must therefore be made more conservative, say some people. The odd thing is that the methods used seem to be the kind that conservatives often attribute to liberals (and vice versa) — a deliberate use of biased terms, an agenda that shapes the interpretation (see point 7 on making sure that the Bible expresses free-market ideas properly, for example!), and the idea that such interpretation will make people more open-minded.

This propagandism, witting or unwitting, is true of any two sides in an argument. Bound by our words, we have no choice but to be biased. Purely rational languages are stilted and inadequate; Wittgenstein and Russell both surrendered in the end, defeated by the fact that in the end, humans must communicate, whether or not language is used rationally.

And so, to the Bible. Is it conservative or liberal? I think the Bible mocks both sides just by existing. Abraham is a free-market warlord who liberally distributes wealth and lies about his wife; Jesus is an arch-conservative who says that not an iota of the Law will pass away, while the book of Acts notes that early Christians (following Jesus in Matthew 10) sold all they had, pooled their wealth and shared it out according to each one's need (proto-Marxism?).

A close reading of the Bible, attempting to apply the same rules throughout to everything it says, will result in a kind of revelation. The Bible is not about ideal humans, but about fallen humans. Noah is a drunk, Abraham a deceiver, Israel a liar, Moses a murderer, David a philanderer, Solomon a cynic.

It is not the rise of the Republican-styled elite (read Plato to understand what this means) nor the rise of the Democratic-styled masses that is the concern of this book. Rather, it is all about making your aim to lead a quiet and peaceable life, to pursue with excellence the work of your hands, and to live in moderation. The Bible asserts that this is only possible through a right relationship with God. Given any effective definition of God, this is self-evident.

The Bible transcends ideas like conservatism or liberalism simply because it is (in a sense) statistically honest. It makes both mundane and extraordinary claims, dishes the dirt out equally on saints and sinners, and is wise enough to deal in ambiguity and apparent contradiction. A book claiming to have the divine imprimatur but which didn't take into account the mutability of our world would be suspicious indeed.

What I believe, personally, about the Bible is that it is the inerrant word of God. I believe not that it (as a text) doesn't contain errors of some sort (since manifestly anything in language must err by inaccuracy, imprecision, omission or false impression), but that it is inerrant just as an arrow that slays a man is inerrant. It doesn't matter how crude that arrow is as long as it fulfils its deadly task. No mere text can encompass reality or be the entire word of God.

What I believe, personally, about the Bible is that it is the sufficient word of God. It is enough for anyone who reads it to come to any conclusion God might want that person to reach. This is why it is such a complex text. Imagine a textbook designed to teach any student anything that a teacher might want to teach. It would vary in style, form, content, terminology, approach, and many other ways as well.

What I believe, personally, about the Bible is that it is the efficient word of God. I don't mean that it has a high output-over-input ratio, but that it has efficacy, that it has a high signal-to-noise ratio for what it is intended to do. True, many will say it is all noise and no signal, but that is true too of many things that are efficient, simply because what they are efficient at does not meet the specific need of the critic concerned.

I am aware that logic is often seen as the enemy of faith. I believe, however, that faith has a definite logic. In fact, faith is necessary for belief in any system that serves us rationally and/or reasonably. You can't do science, for example, without the belief that your intellectual cognition is related to perception is related to reality; you have to believe that the noumenon (the thing-of-the-mind) and the phenomenon (the thing-of-the-world) have some connection, even though there is no necessary link between them.

The Bible, for me, is a bridge of faith. As a rational being, I recognize that it doesn't contain specific answers to everything — what book could? But as an epistemological being, I recognize that there is truth in it, of a rather penetrating, definitive and assiduous kind.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

How to Prepare for an Examination

Some time ago, a student asked me how I prepared for my own examinations, since (to this student) I was obviously an example of someone who had been successful in examinations. I thought about it for a while, and then decided to come clean.

I've never been particularly solidly prepared for an examination. There are, however, two exceptions to state and then put aside.

Firstly, I have always been prepared for practical examinations by virtue of being interested in the details of praxis. That is, I pay attention to things that need to be done and how the results are processed where material objects and actions are concerned. I'm good with lab work. I once scored a near-perfect score and topped my batch in it, while still being crap elsewhere.

Secondly, I have often been well-prepared (relative to others) for examinations requiring an ability to solve problems from first principles without having to study a lot of material. The kind of questions you have probably found in this blog, questions like, "How would you run a school?" tend to appear in these examinations. So too do all the questions in a typical Theory of Knowledge Prescribed Essay Titles list.

Those two exceptions aside, I've always prepared for examinations in three inter-related modes: chemical, biological, psychological.

Essentially, you wake up and remember that the body needs glucose and glutamate (more or less) in order to think. You also need a good circulation and metabolism to get things going. Caffeine is good for this, and has never shown any provable negative side-effects as long as you keep intake (very approximately, and subject to things like your natural metabolism and fat percentage) to less than 200 mg per 60 kg body-mass per day (that's about three normal-sized cups a day, or four if you have a mass of 80 kg). So snack healthily, and maintain good fitness.

You need to do some running or aerobics or something. The brain needs oxygenated blood, or else all the other stuff doesn't quite work.

You need to programme your brain to handle text and conceptual diagrams. This means you should NEVER play video-based games or watch television while preparing for examinations, unless you intend to do transition programming in between sessions. Transition programming is like warming down; it's like switching from full video to CNN to newspapers before studying textbook material or notes, and it takes quite a bit of time.

That said, never study for more than an hour at a time. Your brain has a 20-min warm-up cycle, a 20-min warm-down cycle. It is independent of your conscious desire to study. Some people have an 'iron backside' which enables them to work for hours apparently without ceasing. This is possible, but has a detrimental effect on sanity. The best textbook learners also tend to be despotic, unstable and of peculiar psychological tendencies in social situations.

Don't study for less than 30 minutes either; it will never be profitable unless you are doing the mental equivalent of anaerobic respiration — i.e., the last minute short-term cramming just before a paper, which takes 10 min, lasts 20 min, and is forgotten totally within 24 hours. My advice to you, if you are taking an examination which uses a data booklet, is to become very familiar with the data booklet and thus remove much of the need for certain kinds of memory work.

When it comes to literature and the humanities (or the inhuman social sciences such as economics), it is best to study while walking around and/or drawing little diagrams. This is because these domains of knowledge are uncertain and shifty; you can score by writing answers from one perspective and also score by writing answers from a diametrically opposed perspective in some cases.

You therefore need to loosen up your brain so that in can handle ambiguity, and the best way to absorb the impact of ambiguity is through subconscious subcontracting out to the rest of your body. Watch a person twirling his pen one way, and then another, during an English paper, and you will get what I mean. Dancers and gymnasts have an advantage here, since their performances require physical flexibility, and that allows extension of mental flexibility.

If you can keep this up for about five days, you will have studied at least 40 hours profitably. I know this because I plan such schedules for people who can't do it for themselves. Heh heh...


Sunday, October 04, 2009


Today I had a surprise message appearing in my cellphone. A most noble lady had texted me to say, "I find comfort in the knowledge that friends I care about are well."

It really made my day. I doubt this person will read this blog, but from the bottom of my heart, I am grateful for people like that. This person was always a pleasure to work with; no politics to mess about with, just a good heart for students, a level head, and a desire to get things done right.

A teacher as an environmental unit must be like that. The calling is already tough enough without having to mess around with morons espousing an imaginary blue ocean or blue sky strategy.

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