Monday, November 30, 2009

Word of the Day: Travail

The etymology of this relatively common word is unusual and slightly macabre. It's originally from the French travailler, which in turn comes from the Latin tripalium. That last Latin word literally means 'three stakes' and refers to some ancient and now long-forgotten instrument of torture.

A travail is then, in the original sense, a period of prolonged suffering, inflicted by some external agency. If that external agency is geographical (weather, terrain, distance), then the 'travail' becomes 'travel'.

These days, however, travel is something many of us have learnt to enjoy. I am always somewhat bemused when people complain about air travel. It's one of the most comfortable sources of silent meditation in my life, in comparison with other means of mass transportation.

To enjoy that, the flight should be at least six hours long, a period sufficient for proper fluid intake, buffering, relaxation, reading, exercise and the odd amount of movie-watching. In particular, I like trans-Pacific or trans-Eurasian flights, which give you anywhere from 12 to 20 hours of peace and quiet — assuming you don't have fellow travellers who produce some sort of negative stimulus.

Today, my travels will include the final stage on my odyssey from non-driver to family chauffeur as I drive my father around for the day. Dad's always driven me around at various stages in my life. Now, I get to return the favour. I hope it will be mere travel, and not travail.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where I Live (Part II)

I live in that awkward zone for men, the time of life during which you feel young enough for the sports of your youth, while knowing that this is quite likely untrue. I console myself with thoughts of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, only to realise that I am older than either, and earn a minuscule fraction of their wages (and that's my annual wage against their monthly, it seems).

I live in the region just after spring, somewhere into summer, with a view of autumn and a dread of winter. Winter's faintest whispers are in my hair, my eyes, my sinews. I still feel young, but that is more a sign of how resilient my mental landscaping is, than a sign of how physically fit I am.

I live in that odd time when the old have passed away, but so have some of the young. Some of those I grew up with are dead, from heart failure, from misadventure, from a malaise of the soul. Just yesterday I received the news that a young man two-thirds of my age had died after a wasting disease. I knew him; he was a good man, a man of integrity — and he has gone away.

I have returned to the poetry of my youth. My mother, always one for the metaphysical poets, brought me up on John Donne. I found myself at Meditation XVII. And there, these words leapt out at me in violent ambush:

When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

And those great words are not even the most well-remembered of that meditation. Sometimes it seems that the talent of the world has died as well, that the world is like me; that old Dylan's 'green fuse' that drives my green age also drives the world, and both are less and less green by the day.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Where I Live (Part I)

Every day, I look around me, in the place in which I live, and realise what a peculiar and artificial state this is. It is the most heavily 'churched' area in this entire region; it is the most heavily Chinese; it is the most obviously Machiavellian; it is a synthesis of odd parts made unique by time and space, by commerce and grace.

Every part of the machine has been crafted by deliberate consideration. Even if at times that consideration has not been the smartest or wisest, it has been deliberate and the justifications clear. Whether the justifications were sufficient or even morally correct, is of course a different thing. But this little place is certainly the most artificial (in the original sense of 'made by art') place in this realm entire; it is the gateway between two very large and interesting oceans — large in culture, history and variety.

There is no other island in the world that bridges all the major civilisations of the past, as well as all the major ones of the present. Living here is sometimes like living in a panopticon, a central hub from which one sees everybody else more clearly than they see each other. It is interesting to see through Anglo-Chinese eyes, and Anglo-Indian eyes, and the relentless lenses of the American (and post-American) world.

Just the other day I was reflecting on how I made the transition from birth in the West to studies in the East; scholars from this island tend to make the reverse transition. It is all an enigma, but one I've begun to disentangle.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

The Gnome on his own Island

There is always danger in traduction of the established narrative tapestry to suit a specialized point of view. This is especially true when one examines the life of a person of multifarious viewpoints, a man who has had (apparently) something to say about everything even when he has claimed not to have anything to say about it. Then, the specific temptation is to try and find the one mind, the one strand of thought, that binds all the sayings together.

But as a moment’s reflection will establish, even for less complex persons such as ourselves, this is not possible. We are simply too different from ourselves when compared even at different times of day and in different company and different places and when speaking on diverse occasions.

The problem of the historian who aims at biography is therefore not to delve too deeply into the psychology of the individual — even when the personality is immediately presented, this can be problematic to a professional psychologist — but to determine what kind of picture one can paint in sure and uncontestable strokes while capturing the essence of a personality in such a way that those who may have known him, and those who read of him and examine his works, may say that this was quite likely the man.

The essay I am writing will therefore a be pen-sketch, perhaps a charcoal outline, of a specific perspective on the Gnome. It is an outline of his ideas on education, how these may have led to his acts of educational intent that are part of the history of Atlantean education up to the pre-university level, and the consequences of these actions which are part of the public record. It will not capture the man himself, but provide a single silhouette from a narrow viewpoint.

It is intended that In combination with other such silhouettes, a kind of hologram may be constructed that will be a kind of remembrance of the service of this inimitable and gnomic public servant. There are few who could withstand the Thunderer's blasts; yet the Gnome gave as good as he got, in good faith and genuine camaraderie. At the end of the Gnome's 25 years of ministerial service, we read a genuine sense of loss in what the Thunderer wrote to him:

Your biggest contribution to me personally was that you stood up to me whenever you held a contrary view. You challenged my decisions and forced me to re-examine the premises on which they were made. Thus we reached better decisions.

The Thunderer was later to write, in his own biography: "The one retirement I felt most keenly was [the Gnome's]... He [felt he] had done enough, and it was time to go."

To this day, it's still hard to capture the essence of the man who for so long was the Thunderer's true and faithful internal opposition. He was a myriad times more effective in this respect than any opposition party, having the gravitas and the intellectual ability to know his stuff better than anyone else. He was strangely blind to human personalities and characters, but that made him blunt enough to square off against the Wielder of Lightning himself, and survive.

I often wish that those authorities with authoritarian tendencies would at the very least have the brains or fortune to have a Gnome in their inner circle. Unfortunately, most such dictator-types or autocrats, principalities or powers, do not see the need for such a person.

From Donne's famous 'Meditation XVII':

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

And yet, some people are like peninsulas. The Gnome was one of them.

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I'm looking back at the day just past and thinking what a fine thing it is to have a family that is reasonably familiar and familial. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing that happened today, which made it a good day.

I was doing my weekly run to Serene and then I thought to call my father up. "Hoy dad, where are you?"

Grouchy perturbation. "Waiting for your mother, she's late, I don't know where she is. She's supposed to be here!"

You don't expect that sort of reply. So I went, "Errm, where exactly are you?"

"Buying lunch! And I've bought the lunch and I'm waiting for here because she went shopping! If she gets here, we'll be home in about ten minutes. Where are you?"

Well, at least I knew he was about ten minutes from home. Since he's a fast driver, that makes it a fairly large radius though. I made a fateful decision. "I'll be there at 1 pm, see you!" And I hung up.

I grabbed some food of my own and drove over. Yes, they were late. But that was compensated for by the chance to help my mother stash the groceries away, sit down over a meal, chat a bit, and in general do the sort of thing I haven't done for years — have lunch with my parents at home, instead of some restaurant somewhere; lunch instead of dinner, in a house that used to be my home.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thursday's Child

When I was young, my father taught me a rhyme that went like this:

Monday's child is fair of face;
Tuesday's child is full of grace;
Wednesday's child is full of woe;
Thursday's child has far to go;
Friday's child is loving and giving;
Saturday's child works hard for his living;
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

I was born on a Friday, and I suppose it would be nice to live up to that. But my life really has turned most frequently on the fulcrum of Thursday, which (as perhaps some of my old acquaintances from Oldham Hall will remember) has always been my longest day.

It is so even now. For some reason, I retain the urge to pack my Thursdays solidly. Thursdays are for early-morning lectures and workshops and teaching sessions; Thursdays are for working lunches and afternoon meetings; Thursdays are Serene days, on which the shipments come in; Thursdays are the days which only allow me to unwind after 11 pm. They need not be so, but they still are.

For some odd reason, the rhyme I quoted earlier on only has two known names: some people call it the Monday's Child rhyme, which is eminently logical; some other people call it the Thursday's Child rhyme, which isn't. I have always wondered why.

But I was born just before midnight on Friday, and unfortunately, I still have to work hard for my living — and, with Frost, I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. It's sad when a Friday's child ends up an hybrid of both Thursday and Saturday — sad, but all too expected.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Gnome's Tale (Redux)

It is with a sense of the utmost defeat in the face of poetic justice that I write this post. Some months ago, I wrote about that intriguing facet of the Atlantean myth which is The Gnome's Tale. In that post, I made reference to the two chapters in the annals of the Thunderer's lieutenants which were reserved for that august henchman and alter ego of the High Priest of Atlantis.

Now, I am stuck with the latest edition of the annals; indeed, for the sins of my house, my father and I are writing (please do not snigger) TWO CHAPTERS about the Gnome in what may well be his eulogy. My chapter, of course, is on his contribution to the Atlantean education system which sees little Atlanteans educated for 12 years (or more, if they are particularly intransigent) from the age of 6 (or thereabouts). My father will write about their fates thereafter.

How does one outline this particular aspect of the Gnome's career?

I suppose, although the material is all circumstantial, that one ought to begin by establishing his recorded perspective on such things and then trying to figure out what on earth he intended. Fortunately, in the 159th year since the Gambler founded Atlantis (or laid claim to having done so), the Gnome did us all the favour of actually producing a document in which he roundly excoriated the Priesthood of Learning for their uselessness and incompetence. He then laid out a long list of sweeping reforms, in which he restructured the Priesthood and the schools they administered, but pointedly and deliberately left the curriculum to 'specialists' under an 'effective management system'.

He then ruled with a titanium fist to ensure that good numbers were produced. It was like an educational version of his economic policy. If you couldn't count it, you couldn't count it as a success. Under the Gnome, literacy levels rose from an estimated <75% (he personally thought it was more like 30%) to more than 99%. The numbers of teachers rose. All the numbers looked better.

The tongue of the West established itself, rising in usage from <15% in the homes of the Celestials to its current >60%. And a cunning plan to destroy the Middle Kingdom's dialectical (haha) hold on language resulted in two things: the reduction of dialect usage to <1% as a primary tongue (although the Lucky variant is actually used by about 80% of the sons of the Celestials), and the rise (and stunning fall) of the Manchurian candidate's version to a peak of 80% and then down to <40%.

What a legacy! And yet, there are so many problems with the narrative and its significance that I don't quite know where to start and how deeply to dig. The corpses are still prone to rising up and walking around, as the Thunderer opens his mouth up and tells old war stories about education, more and more, as he grows mellow (and garrulous) with age.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Earth-Apple Zone

I was just looking at the latest quad-core 27" Apple iMac today, when suddenly my brain executed one of those famous intuitive free-association leaps. It was a short jump from Earth to Apple to Earth-Apple to pomme de terre, which is of course what the French call potatoes.

And it was in that blinding flash of a thought that I wondered: can one construct a spectrum from the whole and unadulterated potato to the slenderest and crispiest of French fries? And can one do that by walking around local restaurants and burger joints and such?

I shall try. It is my new mission in life.

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Monday, November 23, 2009


December is coming. The season of the rains is here, and it always reminds me of the start of Roger Zelazny's epic (but short) 1968 novel Lord of Light. The only difference is that my life is a lot less interesting than Sam's. The similarity lies in the fact that December is downtime for me; I feel that my essence is captured in a standing wave for about a month. Then, I am summoned back to the world of humanity in January.

Thinking about it, I realise that Herman Hesse's bildungsroman about Siddhartha the not-Buddha is not half as well constructed, nor as interesting, as Zelazny's.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Strangely Warmed

A few days ago, when the canal system failed (a 'once in 50 years' occurrence, according to Government spokespeople), the first thing I thought of was the 'global warming' phenomenon. It's instructive to take a careful look at the long view.

Yes, it's been getting warmer and more watery of late. Should you be concerned?

The answer is clearly 'yes'. But can we do anything about it?

The answer is clearly 'yes' — but here, we don't actually know what can be done in practice, and what the ultimate effect will be. It's probably the greatest game-changer of all, as far as human life for the next few decades or centuries is concerned. The problem is that the problem is too complicated for simple explication. We can't teach it in schools with any degree of the required nuance. We can only use extreme positions. It's all very unsatisfactory.

It is a strange new world we live in, that has such people in it. Misquoting the Bard helps, I suppose.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Doctor Evil

The archvillain in the story is always over-the-top. His nature encourages the audience of a melodrama to boo and hiss his every action. Slowly as he begins his fall, his acolytes and henchmen desert him or are eliminated because they fail him. He becomes sensitive to every implicit slight, no matter how slight or how imaginary.

And then comes the revisionism. Slowly, the story of how a plodding scientist wades in blood becomes the narrative of a brilliant scientist steeped in white robes and the holy sanctity of the laboratory. Slowly, the story of how a defiant chap mauls his mentors and badmouths them at every turn becomes the story of how his mentors were never good anyway, and besides, he too has his detractors who were once mentored by him.

And the stories come out all over the place, each one more fantastic than the one before. Where a distant figure attempts to manipulate a young person, now we have the father-figure who teaches the child every week, only to be betrayed. The lies accumulate. The evil doctor eliminates anyone who objects to the stories, and then tells more stories. He doctors reality, and indoctrinates the unwitting.

He hears tales he wants to believe, about imaginary crimes committed by otherwise hardworking and decent folk. These legitimise his own deeds, help him believe that he is not so evil, just misunderstood. And he weaves those tales into his narrative. He creates a hero myth for himself, for all villains deep down want to be heroes in this kind of drama.

Will he be believed? There's no doubt that some will believe out of the innocence of their hearts. There's no doubt that others will believe because it suits them to believe. We wait with bated breath, but sooner or later the denunciation comes — the truth will be spoken, and the evil which has clouded the minds of his tools begins to disperse.

But what's this? These tools love to have their minds clouded. It spares them the bright touch of reality, a reality in which they lose significance and power. They would rather the darkness, within which their poison has an impact that they perceive more fully, that they feel is more real.

It amuses us, we who are the audience. But for some of us, before the lights come up and the actors take a bow, we wonder: "What if it were true? And what if there really were people like that?"

And the reason we feel uneasy thereafter is that, yes, there are.

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Friday, November 20, 2009


Ah yes, today I gave my little talk on 'East and West: The Problems of Knowledge and Inquiry'. It was fascinating to realise that almost every single teacher there was a humanities teacher. It's as if the local system has spasmed and decided that math and science teachers don't have problems with knowledge and inquiry. It used to be the same thing in the local university: science majors weren't normally offered the Philosophy 101: Introduction to Logic course.

In my experience science, math and engineering majors need a lot more of that sort of thing. It's because many of them are very good at limited rule-sets and closed (well pseudo-closed) logic systems, but very bad at figuring them out in human terms. A lot of the problems of philosophical logic are human problems — problems of problem identification, problem definition, problem expression.

I hate simplifying stuff for students unless I can tell them, "This is the simplest I want to make it for you; it is much more complex than that and if you want a good map of reality, WORK FOR IT YOURSELF!"

Give them the tools, let them make art. And if it doesn't work, it's not your fault. But give them good tools, useful tools, interesting tools.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Flood of Thoughts

It is the greyest, wettest afternoon in a very long while. It's not just the sheer quantity of water falling from the sky — that is something quite common at this time of year here — but the amount that is unable to flow away because it's high tide. The old canal, widened at huge taxpayers' expense, has proven unable to fully cope. It's still a big improvement over the days of my youth though.

I remember that I was still a student when I last waded in hip-deep water through that stretch of the Road. You had to be very careful lest you step on something unpleasant, and you had to take off your shoes so that you could put them on again at the other end. It was very slow going.

Today was not like that. But the subdued light, the resigned-looking motorists, the sad headlamps that might flicker and go out soon — these were known of old. There was an ambulance stuck in the mess. But no amount of civic cooperation would float it across the little lake where even the 4WD vehicles dared not go. I found myself wondering if the person who needed it would be in trouble.

The light was astonishingly uniformly grey. It somehow contrasted nicely with the butterscotch-milk colour of the canal waters. At this rate, iron-tainted aluminosilicate clay deposits will be a thing of the past, and this island will be down to granite bedrock. But I have faith that this won't happen. I know the Patriarchy well: they'll just import topsoil from the Southern Archipelago as usual.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Exit Strategy

This morning I ended up reading the 21st chapter of Ezekiel. For those of you seldom (or never) end up prowling around such distant chambers, the book of Ezekiel the prophet is one of the most visually and viscerally dramatic of apocalyptic writings. Ezekiel 21 is not an exception.

And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,

"Son of man, set thy face toward Jerusalem, and drop thy word toward the holy places, and prophesy against the land of Israel, and say to the land of Israel, thus saith the LORD; 'Behold, I am against thee, and will draw forth my sword out of his sheath, and will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked. Seeing then that I will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked, therefore shall my sword go forth out of his sheath against all flesh from the south to the north: that all flesh may know that I the LORD have drawn forth my sword out of his sheath: it shall not return any more.'

"Sigh therefore, thou son of man, with the breaking of thy loins; and with bitterness sigh before their eyes. And it shall be, when they say unto thee,' Wherefore sighest thou?' that thou shalt answer, 'For the tidings; because it cometh: and every heart shall melt, and all hands shall be feeble, and every spirit shall faint, and all knees shall be weak as water: behold, it cometh, and shall be brought to pass, saith the Lord GOD.'

Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,

"Son of man, prophesy, and say, Thus saith the LORD; 'Say, A sword, a sword is sharpened, and also furbished: it is sharpened to make a sore slaughter; it is furbished that it may glitter: should we then make mirth? it contemneth the rod of my son, as every tree. And he hath given it to be furbished, that it may be handled: this sword is sharpened, and it is furbished, to give it into the hand of the slayer.'

"'Cry and howl, son of man: for it shall be upon my people, it shall be upon all the princes of Israel: terrors by reason of the sword shall be upon my people: smite therefore upon thy thigh. Because it is a trial, and what if the sword contemn even the rod? it shall be no more,' saith the Lord GOD.

"Thou therefore, son of man, prophesy, and smite thine hands together. and let the sword be doubled the third time, the sword of the slain: it is the sword of the great men that are slain, which entereth into their privy chambers. I have set the point of the sword against all their gates, that their heart may faint, and their ruins be multiplied: ah! it is made bright, it is wrapped up for the slaughter. Go thee one way or other, either on the right hand, or on the left, whithersoever thy face is set. I will also smite mine hands together, and I will cause my fury to rest: I the LORD have said it."

It is all in the sheer dynamism of the phrasing, the graphic nature of the word-hoard, the eccentricity of punctuation. It is the voice of He who wields a terrible swift sword, who makes hearts melt and hands become enfeebled. The trial comes, and then the judgement, and who shall withstand the wrath?

One is tempted to take such literature out of context, irrationally and antitheologically. But one should be conscious and cautious about what exactly one intends to do. What if the tolling of the bell is not for the wicked who are obviously so, but for those who claim to be righteous and are not? What if this warning to ancient Israel has nothing to do with modern Israel, or to any modern Jerusalem that sets up the abomination of desolation within its gates? But there it is; when the eagles of Zeus are mounted in the gates of the once-consecrated city, it is the end.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Musement

I spent this morning giving a little talk to the Friends of the local Museum. It was a talk about '200 Years of Atlantean Education'. One charming senior lady told me that Aristotle had mentioned it (I suppose that would have been more than 2000 years ago!) but refused to tell me exactly what he'd said.

This Atlantis, of course, is not the Mediterranean vision of Plato and Herodotus, but the distinctly different one of Old Thumbs. It was amazing and amusing to all of us that I was able, in my allotted hour, to cover all 200 years of the educational history of the place.

The main concept, as always, is the use of education as more than (but also) a tool for commercial gain. It is the basis of a state's security — whether social, military, or economic — and should not be seen as merely something that gives people a generic kind of value-added quality. Rather, the careful and directed application of education is, just as Stalin said, like a weapon. And Wisdom, as the Preacher said in the book that bears his title, is actually better than weapons of war.

So there I was, at the brand new Museum, having a perfectly civilised discussion about how Atlantis had come up with the superb piece of social engineering called the Education System. I began with the whims and fancies of the Gambler, fast-forwarded through the efforts of the various religious orders and the tight-fisted Cathayans of my ancestry, and ended up with the sweeping reforms of the Gnome and his successors.

Everyone enjoyed themselves. So did I.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Dreams of Steel

Had a bad night. Dreamt that I was back at the old place, in the post-Stalinist era. The place was in lockdown mode. I was visiting with the warden, who was my old friend Dhónall. We had porridge for breakfast down in the steamy benches of the workers' canteen. Steel fences were everywhere, and the local blue-and-gold bank had set up shop. The bank tellers were the only bit of glamour in a mass of industrial concrete.

Dhónall told me that everything had gone this way after the Old Man had bought it in the bathtub and his successors had proven too weak to hold the centre. A purge had followed, with revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, revisionists and post-modernists all taking part in the bloodshed. Women were not spared. In fact, some had been blamed for the greatest atrocities.

Below everything was a large sewer with stone slabs covering up most of it. The stench was far enough away that it had little effect. It was all starkly, frighteningly detailed. It was real. All along the perimeter of the fence were the old awards. Best for this, best for that, quality this and that. Above them all were the words, "Work makes you free."

Everyone looked tired. The teachers punched cards to book in and out. The students just marched from place to place, the chips in their necks telling everyone who they were and where they were. From a green glass module suspended by a crane in the middle, a monitor station kept tabs on each person, lighting up the truants and delinquents with various colours of laser beam. The PE department consisted of ex-rugbymen with truncheons and water-polo caps.

I woke up feeling bothered.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Prisoner

Today, for some reason, I felt a sudden urge to go even further back in time than usual, to a time just before the Beatles. It was the time of that great Patrick McGoohan series, The Prisoner.

One of the quotes that kept yammering at me was this one: "Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages." It was a dark time, the late 60s — but it was also a fantastic time of baroque invention around the theme of Orwell's 1984.

I have a sudden sense of loss for those early TV shows — The Prisoner, Ultraman, Space: 1999, The Man from UNCLE, Mission: Impossible, The Wild, Wild West, Sapphire and Steel, The Avengers, and of course, the early Doctor Who. There are at least a dozen more I could mention. Somehow, the sheer quantity of interesting TV programmes seems larger than it is today, even in the days of cable TV.


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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Legacies in the Rain

It's one of those melancholic nights. You sit in the shushing rush of the rain around your cold walls and you sit in the warm light that does not warm you, and you ask if anything is left of you when all of you is gone.

And then, you read the little comments and traces from people like the Teaman and the Wyvern Girl, and the older ones from people like Wolfberry and the Dancer, and those that came in between and before.

Perhaps, at that moment, you feel a little happiness. It is not little in a quantitative sense, but it is small and compact and fits under your breastbone and will never leave you. It is more powerful than a pacemaker, it is more powerful than a Peacemaker. It is the little grain of faith that God gives you to tell you that at some point, you made a difference, and it doesn't matter if you are forgotten or not.

Because the memory that streams away in the cold and midnight rain is a nothingness, beside the fact that it is draining into the rivers of the world and all the after life of it. O God, I am so grateful!

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Narrative Troubles

Over the last 18 months or so, I've come to realise the truth of a problem which I thought might just have been a mirage. The problem with some of the brightest young people I've met is that they don't read enough. They are a throwback to the idea that ingesting the quintessence is equivalent to ingesting the rest of the materia mundi.

So when discussing literature with one young person, I was not appalled, or even saddened, to realise that he'd not read any literature at all. He had been reading the pre-digested pap of other people's commercial notes, and using their insights and analysis to procure a grade that was a reasonable one.

Ah well. It's too early to tell, but my gut feeling is that people who can't construct and deconstruct a narrative for themselves are doomed to follow other people's narratives. It's like a sort of metaliterary Huck Finn idea; Huck follows the river 'there and back' because Samuel Clemens, or 'Mark Twain', makes him do it. Huck really has no control over his destiny.

These thoughts do bug me at times; if God is a narrator, the author and perfector of my faith, then have I no control over what I should be doing? Am I merely a character in a narrative myself? Should I just go look for some pre-digested pap that will tell me what my significance and the themes of the story are?

Then it occurred to me. At the very least, as I've found when writing, and other writers have found too, you can have characters that seem to write themselves — they are entertaining, they are easy to write about. I will try (if it is at all possible) to be an entertaining character that will give other people pleasure when they read about me, and hopefully, that will give pleasure to my Author when He deigns to mention me in the narrative.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Writing a TOK Essay (Part III): Definitions

Quite often, students ask me how terms ought to be defined. Most of them will just take a whack at a dictionary and pick one of the definitions therein. That approach is fine, but it doesn't show evidence of thought other than that required to crack open a dictionary and search it alphabetically.

There are several ways to define a term without simply copying its definition from a dictionary. Here are a few.

1. Etymological approach: Going to a website like the Online Etymology Dictionary will give you an insight as to what a word has meant in the past. This comes from its roots — its 'genealogy' if you like. The OEtD shows how the word came to be the way it is, and thus what its original sense used to be and still is. Careful use allows you to differentiate between generally synonymous words like 'fault' and 'blame', which in many other dictionaries come up looking the same. See, for example, this post and any with the 'Etymology' tag.

2. Historical approach: This is like the etymological approach, except that you look at past usages of a word, and also other words or phrases used in its place. For example, the word 'science' has been used to denote technical skill, technology, engineering and other applications of a rigorous methodology. Its antecedents include terms like 'natural history' (that is, the observation and analysis of material phenomena) and 'natural philosophy' (that is, the consideration of abstract reasoning based on actual events). All this gives you a rough idea of what science really is.

3. Contextual/metaphorical approach: This is a look at the cultural context, often combined with some ability to handle a term metaphorically. Sometimes, words are defined counter-intuitively and the solid technical approaches of (1) and (2) above won't quite work. This is true for terms like 'social sciences', of which some professor I know once said, "They are neither social, nor sciences." (It's true for terms like 'independent schools' in the Atlantean context too — somebody once said, "They are neither independent nor schools." I thought that was a little bit much though.) Of course, it all depends on what you mean by 'independent' and 'school' — and that is where the contextual approach is required: you look into the usage within the context and ask, "In what sense is economics (for example) 'social', and in what sense is it a 'science'?" You can do fantastic things with questions like, "In what ways is a cauliflower a flower?"

I'll stop here. But the basic principles of defining terms, and then a whole question, rely on the student using the brain to identify the key words that need definitions first, and then applying a few common-sense principles (like those above) to seek definitions favourable to the forthcoming argument/discussion.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing a TOK Essay (Part II): The Pattern

This post is a follow-up to the previous (and rather long-ago) one on this subject.

There are many people, I've noticed from site traffic analysis, looking through this blog for help in meeting unreasonable deadlines and other such animals. A lot of them seem to be using search engines to find help with specific questions (normally typed in verbatim from the list. But using search engines on the questions themselves tends to turn up a rather mixed bag of stuff, from the useful to the not-so useful.

My own responses to the questions on that list can be found here and in the links appended at the end of that post. However, they are responses and not answers. (And oh yes, by the way, do read the copyright notice in the sidebar — the rules are here; essentially, you can copy anything on this blog as long as you cite it properly in this format: [URL] on the blog 'Findings' by AMC (last accessed on [date]) .)

The intention of this post, therefore, is to shed some light on how I arrived at those responses and how I would have proceeded if I had the job of answering the questions instead.

Essentially, if you've read through my responses, you'll realise that quite apart from the personal level at which those responses are written (and the odd and sometimes personal examples provided), there is a certain general sequence or pattern:
  1. Define the terms and attempt to identify the obvious meaning, any implicit meanings, and any linguistic/logical potential traps in the question.
  2. Write a paragraph in which you expose the intention of the question as far as you are concerned.
  3. The key intention is normally a relation of questions like 'How do you know something?' — this is a knowledge issue. The issue might be something else, but it is always epistemological; it is something to do with the reasons for thinking that something is 'knowledge'.
  4. The answer to such a question would then be of the form 'I know something because...' — this is a knowledge claim. The claim might be something else, but it is always a working theory or argument that resolves the issue earlier identified as the key intention of the question.
  5. If the question has identified a specific area of knowledge (or more than one) and/or a specific way of knowing (or more than one), then determine how these are related to the issue and the proof of the claim that resolves the issue.
  6. If the question seems somewhat unbounded by such considerations, choose your own areas of knowledge and ways of knowing, taking care to ensure that you can define them exactly. Bear in mind that some disciplines (e.g. history, language, philosophy, mathematics) are master disciplines from which others are derived — science, for example, used to be a combination of natural history and natural philosophy, expressed in language and explicated in mathematical terms.
  7. Now show how your thinking about these areas and ways of knowing proves the claim.
  8. Since this is quite tough to do rigorously, you might also want to show how you may be able to disprove the claim or show that you can't really prove it no matter how you try (for some logical reason). These things are counterclaims, and they show that you have thought through at least two sides of the issue.
  9. Look at what you've written, and summarise the argument as tightly as possible, showing how you've attempted to answer the question. Then state your conclusion, which logically follows from all you've written and is the direct answer to the question, and you're done.
All schools which teach this kind of stuff give you a general template or some ideas like these about how to answer such questions. What you have to do is work hard on the material that you're using to answer the question. Filling in a template haphazardly will probably get you a C; showing careful thought in fluent and coherent manner will help you do much better.

Well, that's the pattern. I remember that I drew this in great and colourful detail in class once; someone actually took a photograph of it, and I wonder if that person still has it. Haha...

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So there I stood, at the northernmost point of the island, and stared through the wreathing mist and the cold salt air. in such places, the briny vapour curls around you like a living thing. It is like being in the heartless belly of an aerostat; it is like being enveloped in something which fails to digest you only because it doesn't care.

At ten at night, the atmosphere was surreal; sharpened perceptions at very short range composed my universe. There were some lights, blurred to stars by the watery breeze. There were chill, hard, metal things which you could see and touch and feel; there was a sense of being on the edge of reality — which you could not see or touch or feel.

Things like this remind you of how tenuous, how faint, how inconsequential your grasp of logic and thought and the processes of mind can be. You know you are nothing and that any thoughts you have are possibly only self-confirming chemical impulses. These roil in a more concentrated chemical mass, one that is shielded from the more diffuse medium of your environment by a barrier of bone and thin membranes.

You are like a barnacle on a great whale. The moment of stillness engulfs you. If you could hang suspended in this space, and in this time, you would be as immortal as such a parasite.

But you cannot, and you are not.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Time Passing

There are some days when 24 hours just fly away. The will to dominate the minutes and seconds is not there. And time flows like water through your hands, and seeps away through the cracks in the floor.

Some days are sixty seconds per minute, sixty minutes per hour, a full twenty-four of them. Every moment is something done, something endured, something experienced. And a day later, it is a full day, whether for good or bad.

Time is plastic, and time is fluid. Like plastics, it can be more crystalline or more amorphous. Like fluids, it can flow as completely as an ideal gas or as slowly as honey. There are tests to determine the smallest unit of it, the gaps between the grains of time in Destiny's hourglass.

Today I am having one of these days during which you do a lot, and yet so little; you see a long day ahead, and also a short one. Tomorrow will always come; but ask not for whom it comes — it might not come for you.


Monday, November 09, 2009

Selective Senility

Yes, I'm still a fairly young man. But I was looking at my sister-in-law's profile when I noticed a rather enchanting quote which I shall now reproduce:

Grant me the senility
To forget the people I never liked anyway,
The good fortune
To run into the ones I do,
And the eyesight to tell the difference.

I'm not in favour of real senility, even if selective, but I would like the effects. Thank God, however, that recent instances have shown me that He gives to each of us only as much vision as we need.

The other day, for example, I was at my favourite hangout when some unaccountable reflection caught my eye. I saw a single shrivelled foot peeping out at me from behind the otherwise shuttered dark environs of a pedicurist's. Immediately, I knew it was someone I did not want to meet — and this proved to be true. Up to that point, I hadn't known I could identify this particular old lady from her left foot; in fact, I hadn't known I could identify anyone from either of their feet!

I suppose that it's not so much selective senility but selective perceptivity. As the bandwidth decreases and the processors wear out, what remains should be the most useful stuff — if you could ever know what would be the most useful. Since you can't ever know (even if you could guess), it's good to ask God for His most selective guidance.

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200 Years of Education

In about a week's time, I'll be giving a talk on 200 years of local education. I've only been around for about a fifth of those years; so... what should I say and how should I say it?

I think that I've actually lived through one of the two great phases of local education, though. The first great phase was from about 1880 to 1920, when the missions and clans started sprouting the schools which are still the mainstay of local education. The second one is the modern era, perhaps beginning with 1987 and the idea that you could create quasi-independent schools.

Somehow, I shall have to convey a lot of peculiar ideas to the largely expatriate group I'll be talking to. They're very dedicated people who want to know about the history of local education so that they can tell others about it in great detail.

One of those ideas is that quasi-independent school (QIS) idea. How can you finance a school, lay down limits on its governance and its general direction, and then say the school is independent? Yet, somehow, these QIS-lings produce a range of responses from 'I am a national flagship' to 'I am a frigate' to 'I am a pirate king'.

It is a lot like how Britain gained an empire — by accident and deceit, coupled with the intrepid doings of some very dedicated men. It is a lot like Japan too, thumbing its nose at the Great Powers and relentlessly industrialising while they continue to denigrate the idea of a smaller power growing great.

And yet, the story lacks cohesion simply because the architecture is fantastic but the plumbing leaks. How to convey all that? It is a mystery to me, but let's hope it will no longer be a mystery in a very short while.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Clients and Customers

The lazy man takes another man's ideas and uses them as his own. This is not necessarily unintelligent, and it may be economically rational. But sometimes it is hilarious. I was most amused to see a school principal saying in the national press, "...we are able to use the processes and system to meet the needs of our students, we nowadays refer to as clients or customers."

Quite apart from the awkward phrasing, this is a common idea. Schools provide a service called education, students receive that service. Therefore, students are clients or customers.

But I'd like to suggest that there is something not quite right about that idea. Let us, for example, consider prisons. Prisons provide a service called incarceration (and also, lodgings, food and sometimes education of all kinds) which keep their residents out of trouble. Convicted criminals receive that service. Therefore criminals are clients or customers.

The truth must lie somewhere in there. The problem is that the whole business idea is full of related platitudes such as, "The customer is always right." It's also a common idea that if your services are good, you will get repeat customers. And if you provide inadequate service, your customers should be allowed to sue for compensation.

Schools are a totally different kind of business though. The customer is being provided a service that is designed to show that he is wrong, because if he is always right, he wouldn't need the service. The customer is to be discouraged from repeating the experience, no matter how much he wants to. And if the school provides inadequate service, the example of happy customers will be used to show that the student is a bad one and the school owes him nothing in compensation.

As some of my former students pointed out, not every business gets to incarcerate its clients, dictate their mode of behaviour, and beat them if it feels necessary. The closest you get to this is a rather kinky kind of establishment.

And yet, schools are good things. They are institutional pillars of modern society. One wonders how these contradictions arise, and if anything ought to be done about them.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Responses 010 (2010-2011)

Making ten long responses to ten shorter stems is not a new thing; Moses did it by putting ten commandments in Exodus 20 and then explicating them in Exodus 21-23. (Yes, you can't understand the Ten Commandments unless you realise that they're the executive summary of the next three chapters.)

Well, this is the tenth response to a list of ten questions that I first posted on 17 October. (I'll give a link-list at the end just to be helpful.) Question 10 in the list says, "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 is in many ways my favourite question. It's quite clear that by 'simplified' and 'representation', you should already know where the question might lead. There are two main points: a model is designed to simplify things, therefore making it easier to grasp the main points and understand something; a model is a representation, a sort of working miniature of something.

What then are the ways that a model can help or hinder the search for knowledge? (I'll note here that the phrase 'search for knowledge' also occurs in Questions 2 and 7, which is an unusual repetition and can be useful.)

You can analyse this in terms of a) simplicity and its pros and cons, and b) representations and their pros and cons. Let's look at simplicity first, and then representations.

Simplicity is of course a great tool for analysis; the reductio arguments are almost always helpful in cutting away the deadwood. However, oversimplification is a problem. This can occur in two ways: a) elimination of too much, thus making the model lose its power as a representation; and b) reification (or conflation), in which we take many elements of a model and reduce them to one. Examples: a) modeling the human brain as a digital computer of great complexity — which won't capture the various gradient effects of the human nervous system and its chemical environment; b) the infamous IQ model which reduces human intelligence to a single score, despite the fact that intelligence varies by environmental context, can be defined in many ways, and has never been proven to be a survival trait (haha, let us pause here in memory of Arthur C Clarke).

Representations range, of course, from symbols to icons to pictures and so on, scaling upwards. Representations are useful the way that substituting a simpler term for a more complex one can be useful; they are more portable and easier to manipulate. But in this case, we're talking about representations of aspects of the world. The problem in any discipline is whether the representation is valid; that is, does this scaled-down description of the world behave the way the real world should? You may also have the problems of transferability (can you use the model to represent other, similar things?) or reproducibility (can you transplant the model and have it work somewhere else). Representations are also problematic in that when you work with a representation, you may come to believe that it is the real thing; it's like mistaking a glossy brochure about holistic education for the actual attempt to provide an holistic education.

Obviously, there are many more problems and advantages to talk about, but this should provide a good start. Just remember that in science, for example, Ockham's Razor is often taken to be a necessity (the 'principle of parsimony') but there is no logical reason to think that this is true. Justifiable reduction and unjustifiable simplification are very, very close neighbours.


Here's a list of links:

Question List for 2010-2011

Response to Question 1
Response to Question 2
Response to Question 3
Response to Question 4
Response to Question 5
Response to Question 6
Response to Question 7
Response to Question 8
Response to Question 9

You might also want to check the tags below, and any other tags which the linked posts might have in addition to these.


Note: To all IBDP students who wish to borrow any text from my blog, do make appropriate citations in your essays. People keep Googling lines that are obviously taken from this blog and that might mean some of you are already getting into trouble. I had a few Turnitin hits too!

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Responses 009 (2010-2011)

Question 9 in the recent list was a shocker in its blandness — or at least, its perceived simplicity. "Discuss the roles of language and reason in history." That was all, and of course, to students who think that history is just another discipline, this would look easy.

The problem is that history, like art, is one of the BIG core disciplines of knowledge. History is one of the two parents of science; as late as the 19th century, science was either called 'natural history' or 'natural philosophy'. As I've mentioned before, in the posts of the 'Drawing Lines' series back in May 2009 in this blog, there is a very very thin line between history and science, and they are much more alike than people seem to think.

Consider this scenario. A community of professionals obtains and accumulates data. Then they select the most reliable data points by a mixture of methodologies such as critical comparison, cross-referencing, and context. Then they collate these data points and synthesize a body of data which is converted by analysis into a body of information and then knowledge. A critical appraisal follows, and then a conclusion is reached. While all this is going on, elements of the same community keep testing the analysis and conclusions by obtaining new data. Regular publishing and peer review keep the discussion alive and healthy.

Question: is this community composed of historians or scientists? Answer: you can't tell.

But wait, some will say, where is the hypothesis, where is the experiment, where is the inductive or deductive process? They must be historians!

Ha, I would have to say that if your idea of science is purely Baconian (i.e. stolen from Arab and Indian science) or Aristotelian (i.e. stolen from misinterpreted Greek texts) or Popperian (i.e. a negative definition of reality), then Newton and Hawking and Feynman would have harsh words with you. The fact is that there are many areas of science not susceptible to conventional hypothesis or experiment; and all areas of historical research use induction or deduction in various phases.

The thing about history is that its final output, the historical narrative, is a synthesis of historical data points. The most important data points are accounts (oral or written) and artifacts. With Aristotle (who claimed that all things consist of substance given structure), one can argue that these are the substance of history; the process which forms the narrative is the structural principle of history.

By direct comparison, a large part of the substance of history is therefore language, and it is the form in which the narrative is delivered as well. Since language is subject to the classical communication model (i.e. something is put into code, the code is transmitted, the transmission is received, the receipt is decoded, the decoding should give the original something) it is subject to the usual errors (bad coding, bad transmission and/or bad decoding), made worse by time and cultural bias. This is most true of cultural history and least true of scientific history, although there may be localised exceptions. Because historical narratives are in danger of being seen as narratives first and history second, extra pains must be taken to evaluate whether the style and presentation of content are being manipulated (consciously or not) so as to bias the receiver's perception of what the narrative means.

By the same comparison, the structural principle of history is a kind of reason that is mainly to do with chronological sequencing, cause-and-effect, evidence for conjectures about social phenomena, and deduction from empirical findings. Since historical reason may suffer from the problems (in this case) of incomplete data and error from data sources (i.e. the data are there but may be compromised in some way), there may be gaps filled in by plausible conjecture. This kind of reasoning is found in evaluations, for example, of the King Arthur legend — we know somebody (or some bodies) balked the Saxon colonization of Britain for a time, and we can deduce a lot from the accounts and artifacts, but we'll never know the real Arthur. When examining historical narratives, pains must be taken to identify the gaps and evaluate how much is conjecture and how well supported such conjectures may be.

It's interesting to evaluate Samuel Huntington's 1993 book The Clash of Civilisations along these lines. It's not a good historical narrative, although it's a brilliant conceptual trick. He's wrong about some key things, because his historical underpinnings are very shaky. It's an example of how linguistic manipulation can lead to false reasoning and be used to create an iffy narrative. (That book was published 16 years ago, so any IB student who wants to clobber Huntington in a History extended essay can do it now.)

So... what are the roles of language and reason in History? Ha, I think there's enough here to act as a starting-point.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Responses 008 (2010-2011)

Question 8 really looks intriguing. " '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). " Of course, it is an example of hyperbole, in some sense; the word 'lie' here is not used in the way that we normally use it.

In what sense then is it used? With only a passing reference to Picasso's own works, art can be seen as a way of constructing a physical metaphor for a mental or physical reality. A photograph, for example, is an image of something and not the thing itself; a ballet expresses something but is not itself that thing.

The second part of that quote is 'nearer to the truth'. It is one of those bait-and-switch things, viewed uncharitably. What Picasso implies is that the artist's modality is to make a representation of reality that brings out some underlying truth in that reality which you wouldn't otherwise perceive. In that sense, it is 'nearer to the truth' because you wouldn't otherwise see the truth by looking at the original thing.

An artist's eye (or ear, or tongue, or whatever) is then a specialised tool for bringing out reality by stripping a real thing of elements that conceal other elements; the concealed elements, whether genuinely hidden or implicit or inferrable, are the truth(s) to which the artist seeks to bring you closer.

After that hurdle, everything else is easier...

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Impressions of Two Nobel Economists

I've been reading stuff by two winners of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences: Amartya Sen (1998) and Paul Krugman (2008). They are separated by about 20 years of age and 10 years between prizes.

I have to say that I find Sen much more readable; Krugman's style is dry to me, hard to get into. Sen's subject matter is more universal: what is the role of reason in ethics, what is justice, what kind of balance should we seek between human freedoms and economic development.

I find myself slipping Sen-ward. Not that Krugman is bad; he is very alive in his own way, although not lively. I read his The Accidental Theorist years ago; I am still working through The Conscience of a Liberal. But I would put Krugman aside for Glen Cook, which I wouldn't do with Sen.

Meanwhile, I've had another look at Sam Huntington. Oh dear, he's full of nonsense.

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Responses 007 (2010-2011)

This particular question got to me. On the surface, it seems reasonable: "How can we recognise when we have made progress in the search for knowledge? Consider two contrasting areas of knowledge." Closer inspection shows that it is one of those minefields that is dangerous because of the underlying, real, question.

What is the real question here? I'd say that it's, "How do we know when we know more than we used to know?" And since the problems begin with the definition of 'know', you're in triple jeopardy when answering this question — especially if the 'know' in each case is a different 'know'.

The second and less important issue is, "What constitutes two contrasting areas of knowledge?" To put this into perspective, if I asked you what the main difference was between a red sphere and a green cube, what would you say? And if I asked in what ways they contrasted, would you be able to convince me that they did? What if I said that my criteria were a) is the object coloured (i.e. not uniformly wavelength-distributed as in black, grey or white) and b) is the object a regular geometric solid (i.e. with rotational symmetry on the x, y and z axes)? If those were my criteria, they aren't contrasting objects at all.

Let's take the simplest approach first, though. I'll illustrate with an example, which you really shouldn't adopt without due consideration of the problems it entails.

Assume that there are two kinds of progress in the search for knowledge (however defined) — quantitative and qualitative. 'Quantitative' here means 'more facts' and 'qualitative' here means 'facts approached differently'. Assume also that we are going to say something like 'science and the arts are contrasting areas of knowledge'. Note that this is what I call the naïve approach — it's simple and you can decide (at your own risk) to ignore complications.

Then we have four cases to present, analyse, exemplify, explicate, summarise, and draw a conclusion from. These would be:
  1. quantitative progress in science
  2. qualitative progress in science
  3. quantitative progress in the arts
  4. qualitative progress in the arts
How would we know if we'd managed any (or all) of these four kinds of progress?

Again, to simplify:
  1. do we have more data? did we convert that data into information? is that information like what we had before, but more so, or does it affect our consideration of previous information? if yes, then progress achieved.
  2. do we have more data? did we convert that data into information? is that information of a different category from previous information? if yes, then progress achieved.
  3. have we done more of the same kinds of art that we've been doing? do we have more data about how people respond to this? did we convert all this into information? does it affect our consideration of previous information? if yes, then progress achieved.
  4. have we done a different kind of art? if so, then progress achieved.
Now all you have to do is illustrate with real-life examples, do your explication, summarise, and go on to your conclusion.

But it's obviously not that easy. How do your different ways of knowing relate to these areas of knowledge? How do you define 'data' and 'information'? Is this a valid way to consider 'progress'? And are science and the arts truly contrasting — and if so, in what way? (Some help in thinking about contrasts can be obtained from this post and its predecessors.) And what about the big picture of 'the search for knowledge' and not just bits and pieces of knowledge?

For that last bit, I'd say that you would have to analyse paradigms. At what point do we recognize that a seismic shift (in the underpinnings of an area of knowledge) has occurred? How is this process or event of recognition different in two very unalike areas of knowledge? This is the advanced version of the simple line of reasoning I employed earlier.

Enjoy yourself. But keeping it under 1600 words is not easy.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Responses 006 (2010-2011)

Just past the halfway mark in the new list, you'll see the egregious Question 6: " 'There are no absolute distinctions between what is true and what is false'. Discuss this claim. " It makes you wonder if Alchin and gang, setting these questions, were out to entrap the most easily gulled students.

Let's consider the possibilities.

If the claim is absolutely true, then you would have to say that some things can be partially true. For things to be partially true (i.e. true to a limited extent) then there must be some things that are completely true (so that the extent can be limited). This would require you to draw an absolute distinction between truth and falsehood. In fact, by asserting that the claim is true, you are making a statement of absolute truth.

If the claim is not absolutely true, then there must be, in some cases, absolute distinctions between what is true and what is false. Which means, of course, that you can define absolute distinctions, and it can't be true that there are none.

If the claim is indistinct — that is, we cannot evaluate it to be absolutely true or not absolutely true — then there exists at least one thing (this claim) for which the claim is true (i.e. that there are no absolute distinctions between true and not true, or false). Since in the case of this claim, it can be shown that it must be true, the claim is false. This is a paradox, which means the statement is linguistically inexact or something like that. It must therefore be a bad statement, and this is a bad question.

I wouldn't advise anyone to answer this question without ammunition related to ambiguity and paradox, especially as it pertains to ways of knowing such as language and logical reasoning, and as it pertains to disciplines such as mathematics, history and art.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Responses 005 (2010-2011)

The fifth installment already? My, my, how time flies!

Question 5 in that long list is, "To what extent are the various areas of knowledge defined by their methodologies rather than their content?" It's a question that's quite related to the older one about whether areas of knowledge are discovered or invented.

In this case, however, the question can possibly be rewritten to read, "To what extent is an area of knowledge defined by 'how you know' rather than 'what you know'?" This means that, in order to answer it, you'd have to explain your judgement as to what position to take between two extremes. These extremes are: a) when you apply a certain methodology or approach to finding out things, all the things you find out in that way form a unified body of knowledge; or b) a unified body of knowledge consists of all the things you decided to put together.

The question's relationship to the discovery/invention problem is now more obvious. If you apply a methodology and discover facts by means of this methodology, and then say that your facts form an area of knowledge, this is the 'discovered area of knowledge' idea. If you have a lot of facts discovered in (presumably) different ways, and you put them together to form an area of knowledge, this is the 'invented area of knowledge' idea.

The answer is not a clear-cut one; that is why this question really does require a 'to what extent' in it. When scientists say that science consists only of knowledge obtained and justified by the scientific method, they are saying that the methodology creates an area of knowledge. When artists say that whatever they do is art, no matter how they do it, they are saying that the content defines an area of knowledge — you know it when you see it, it doesn't matter how it came about.

To some extent, you also have to ask yourself the question, "Is knowledge assembled from facts (like a house is made from bricks — haha, some of you might remember that question) or is knowledge constructed by a method, regardless of what that method produces?" For every area of knowledge, this will be different — and for some areas of knowledge, it will be hard to tell anyway.

The problem, I suppose, with this question, is that it requires a general argument which defines the situation and offers guidelines for dealing with any area of knowledge; you then need to apply that argument to a wide enough range of areas of knowledge. These example will then show how your argument works and help you give an answer to the question of to what extent one approach or the other defines an area of knowledge.

This question isn't one I'd tackle without a good working knowledge of how areas of knowledge are defined. Then again, all students of courses like the IB are supposed to have that working knowledge, instilled by months of working with highly intelligent and dedicated teachers who know all about the paradigms of knowledge construction/collation. Right?

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Short Dynasty

Last night I was reading about the Qin (or Ch'in) Dynasty. Ruthless and powerful, it swept to power on a pragmatic philosophy based on ignoring the norms of civilised behaviour.

Qin Shi Huang Di, the first Qin emperor, was the first unifier of what we now call China in his short-lived dynasty's honour. He was persuaded by his chancellor to carry out the first Burning of Books, a purge of scholars and knowledge that established a pattern for ruthless anti-intellectuals throughout future ages.

He became paranoid, ordering metal objects to be melted down and converted to baroque statues, drinking mercury to prolong his life, and desperately searching for alchemy that would make him immortal. Nevertheless, he also instituted great works; his was the fist that started the building of the Great Wall and the Lingqu Canal. The famous terra-cotta army was just one of his crazy projects that we now look upon with awe.

He never planned a succession, being afraid that he would be supplanted prematurely. This was to lead to chaos when he died in 210 BC.

The appalling dynasty had lasted just fifteen years. Squabbling among the key figures of power behind the throne resulted in calamity and collapse; by that time, all moderating and stabilising influences had been rooted out and purged. The chief rebel won, and the Han Dynasty was born, and with it, modern China really began.

You can learn a lot from such things.