Thursday, December 31, 2009

Drinking Midnight Wine

This is of course the title of one of Simon R Green's quirky books, thematically related to his slightly creepier novel Shadows Fall. But it's also akin to the sensation one gets when sipping Hungarian wines, accentuated when you look across the cellar and see some Romanian wines which you are sure shouldn't have anything to do with Romanian consular staff, hit-and-run accidents, and mysterious goings-on in civilised side roads.

You wonder about the Magyars. You wonder about why Romanian sounds (and looks) so much like Catalan. You would like to blame miscellaneous Turks and Macedonians and Roman auxiliaries. You sip. And the wine sips you.

There is something about amber sweetness that recalls summers long gone or imaginary in nature. The bracing fruit of the midnight red (well, it's really purple) is something else altogether. You sip. And the wine sips you.

Suddenly, you wonder about that Romanian wine again, and the madness of moments that takes life from the silent streets. You wonder about justice and life and death and venality and incompetence. You sip. And the wine sips you.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Survival Guide to the Old Place (and Other Places)

Before we begin, realise that there is a fundamental difference between being a client and being a service provider. In the Old Place, or indeed in any other Place, it is quite likely that the service provider is more easily removed than the client.

This means that there is a delicate balance between service providers and clients. Ideally, the service provider should provide sufficient service such that the client doesn't feel stiffed. Similarly, the client should respect the service providers that provide sufficient service (or at least attempt to) and should be publicly annunciative (as opposed to denunciative) of both good and bad service providers.

There are a few problems, though.

It is clear that those who provide service providers have power over the service providers and do not necessarily provide useful services themselves, although they might delude themselves into thinking they do. Most times, they do, because they have made themselves useful. This is a good thing.

It is sometimes unclear as to who the real clients are. Are the clients the direct consumers of services, or the suppliers of direct consumers who hope that the direct consumers will be improved by consumption? If we were talking about a school, we'd be asking, "Are the students the clients, or their parents/guardians, or their states of origin, or the places which will benefit from their education?"

The worst problem really is that the definitions of what constitutes good service provision are not made as obvious in some institutions as they are in others. In some institutions, the clients are told things like, "If our [service provider designation] fails to carry out [service task designation], you should [perform client report function that notifies institution of service failure]." This is seldom true in educational circles, but catching on in healthcare circles and the civil service.

Currently, some service institutions are obliged to take in anyone who requests service (like hospitals) and some are allowed to pick and choose their clients (as in schools that are private or have occult recruiting practices or are allowed some discretion in student selection). This of course does not level the playing field. However, the intention was always to create an uneven playing field so as to concentrate resources appropriately according to market supply and demand. This in itself is not a problem until you stumble over the word 'appropriately' and wonder how this is determined.

The cure for enduring (if not solving) all such problems is to keep your head low and walk around vaguely smiling at everyone. This makes you look like a benign sort of tortoise, and like the tortoise, you are likely to have greater longevity. Remember to eat spicy noodles every morning, washed down with hot black coffee. This will boost your cognitive powers, sharpen your sense of danger, and make you realise that life is good even when the specifics fail.

At the same time, you should realise that you can't stay at the old place forever. We all move on, hopefully to better places. When you get to a new place, check out the noodles. If the food is bad, shake off the dust of your feet at their doorstep and keep moving. If the proprietor is shady, don't turn your back on him. But remember that life is often what you make of what you have been given; naked we came from our mothers' wombs, naked will we return to our peace, and so in all things give thanks to God.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How To Choose a Subject Combination or Course of Study

This is a far easier question to answer than the previous one, but it requires some technical work. You need to answer a few questions and then consider the consequences of following through on your answers if they are indeed accurate.

1. Have you already decided what you want to do with your life? If you have, then it's obvious that you need an education that will equip you for your life's work. If you are going to be a lawyer, you need a law degree; if you're going to be a politician it doesn't matter but it's probably good to go to a top-10 school (or top 3 if in Atlantis).

2. Do you really value education? This is hard to answer convincingly. However, most authorities agree that knowledge, and by extension education, requires that you know how to evaluate logical truth, aesthetic value, and moral reasoning by some sort of standard — preferably one that you have worked out for yourself. If that's the case, then you should apply yourself across a range of disciplines, beginning with those you have most difficulty with, since cognitive dissonance is the key to education.

3. Do you accurately value education? This isn't a dressier version of #2. Rather, it's a question of pragmatic evaluation. Generally, it's more expensive to pursue lab-based courses as a private student. It's more likely true that studying chemistry or medicine at a university allows you to get a better education than pursuing such disciplines on your own. It is more plausibly true that you can study languages, literature(s) and humanities profitably outside a university or school. Of course, the community you have available to you is important, and good schools tend to have more challenging communities. The issue here is that if you can't decide, it's better to first take a course that needs equipment you can't get at home.

4. Do you understand what subjects are about? Supposing you were being interviewed for a course in geography, and someone asked you, "How large is Africa relative to India?" what would you say? How would you approach the answer? What would a geographer think about instinctively? Would you be thinking of things like the idea of map projections, visual representations of economic and demographic data, physical structures of the earth's surface? Of greater importance, what differentiates a student of a given discipline from a non-student of that discipline in terms of mindset and perspective? If asked to defend your choice of subject, would you be able to defend it in terms of its internal rationale?

5. Who recommended this course of study/subject combination to you? It's best to think about why people recommend courses. Quite often, parents and people from that generation are about 5-30 years (5d6, for those who like such things) behind the curve. Employers think most frequently of what they need now, not what they will need when you graduate. If you speak to a visionary with a proven track record, like Steve Jobs, then you might get a better idea. Or not. But it's always good to try to understand the biases behind recommendations — even in this post and this blog as a whole.

Again, if you're having problems answering these questions, the answers to some problems may be found elsewhere in this blog. If not, don't hesitate to contact me. I don't bite. Much.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

How Not To Choose a Subject Combination or Course of Study

These days, when young people pick subject modules, classes, or whatever they're called in various institutes of higher, middle, nondescript or banal education, they tend to make a few errors which are in general common to humanity. There are only a handful of these errors, but having committed some of them myself and watched in creeping horror as others have also succumbed, I am fairly well qualified to comment on them.

The main errors are:

1. Choosing a subject based on department strength or teacher ability. There is more than one problem here. You could be looking at a department that seems strong because of self-selection (everyone here only took the subject because they were greatly enthusiastic about it, so the results are always good), correlation which is not directly causation (everyone here was picked because they did well in some prior test, and so the department's results look good because the students are good), or good PR (the department looks good because they are adept at reflecting the good statistics and deflecting the bad ones). You could be looking at teachers which behave like these kinds of departments, or you might pin your hopes on a particular instructor only to find that you end up with an inferior colleague.

2. Choosing a subject because you are already good at it. This can be convenient, and you ought to do well regardless of instruction. However, note that at a different level, your preconceptions about a subject (reinforced by the fact that you think you know it well) may actually make you a slower learner. And if you are already good at it, what have you really learnt?

3. Choosing a subject because other people do well at it. Maybe it's a really easy subject, or maybe it's not very strictly evaluated. Maybe others do well, but that's because they are smarter than you, different from you, or they (like you) think that others do well at it and so they should too.

4. Choosing a subject because it looks related to what you think you'll be doing in six years' time. In the past, you could be fairly confident that a degree in Economics would set you up for life. Now, Economics degree-holders are cannon-fodder for MBA programmes. Nobody trusts economists, everyone knows that economics is one form of shamanism that doesn't work reliably, and if you're going to be a serious economist, you should do a basic degree in something else first. Only in the professional disciplines do people slave away at a six- or seven-year degree (including apprenticeship in whatever sense that discipline uses it) and almost always find themselves actually working at what they planned to work at. The rule ought to be: learn as broadly as you can first, and then specialise. Note, however, that some universities specialise in using the glory of their reputation to hoodwink employers in this respect: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale... you know which ones I'm talking about, especially when you can pay them a small fee and be given an MA.

5. Choosing a subject (combination) that your friends have chosen. This is probably the best reason of the five possibly erroneous reasons. If this is what it takes to keep the fellowship going, go ahead. It worked for the hobbits, it might work for you. Later on, when you are all doctors and need a lawyer... well, let's not go there. It is enough to say that networking span depends on dispersion of nodes rather than duplication.

There are other problems. If you know where to reach me, email me and I'll give you personal advice. I'll even talk to your parents if you need them to help you make a decision. Or if you're parents, I'll talk with your children (but I won't necessarily agree with you or them).

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Sunday, December 27, 2009


It's been a while since I formally became a guardian in a spiritual as well as a legal sense. In previous meditations, I pondered the role of a godfather, the role of a defender, the role of a person standing in the breach to hold a wall against the foe.

The words of the prophet Isaiah, as they have in the past, come back to remind me of my name and what its burden really is. IN Isaiah 32, the prophet says:

Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment.
And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
And the eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear shall hearken.
The heart also of the rash shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly.
The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful.

He is describing the utopia that is the kingdom of heaven. He tells us that unrighteous princes will no longer rule, and every man shall be a shelter from the storm, a source of supply and support, the shadow of the image of God. In my own small way, I see my duty as a great one. If a man is to be a shelter, what kind of shelter am I? Some time ago, I purposed in my heart that I would be like a purgatory and sanatorium between the ills of the world and the hills of heaven.

What I mean by 'purgatory' carries the sense of being a helper alongside (parakletos) in the art of catharsis. What I mean by 'sanatorium' carries the sense of being an anchoring-point for people to become well who were not well before.

My father named me with a guardian's name and the name of a warrior and the name of a particular kind of devotion; it is my hope that I will live up to that foreshadowed destiny.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bad Poetry

I started writing poems when I was just about a teenager. I wrote nearly a thousand poems from the time I was a teenager to the time I started working. Then I looked back, appalled at about 99.5% at what I'd written. I think only about five of those poems were any good to me.

But how did I decide they were 'good' or 'bad'?

I think that when you look at a poem you've written, it's hard not to think about it in the personal context in which you wrote it. Quite apart from that, though, if a poem creates a fresh personal context when you read it — if it makes a new landscape, if it shifts your perspectives, if it makes you think thoughts you'd never thought before — then it has fulfilled what I think is one criterion of 'good'. This is all hard to evaluate if it's your own poem.

Another, more technical, criterion is the idea of whether you could think of better ways to express a given thought. If you can think of many such ways, then either you have missed the point of the poem or the poet's word choice was not 'good' to you. I cringe at some of my attempts because I was hopelessly clumsy with language in some of them.

Sometimes, technical expertise can be found in the way words are used to evoke qualities like atmosphere, mood, pace, tone and style. You can tell when you're reading Auden or Hopkins, Blake or Milligan, Kipling or Chesterton. If you can parody a poet, he must be good in the sense of sufficiently exact expression to convey at least his core character. It is this I find lacking in much of my early poetry — it wasn't me, it was someone else I was imitating.

I became a much better poet after I stopped trying to use poetry as a weapon or a tool. I think some of my best poetry came late in life, a clear indicator that I'll never be a 'good' poet. But at least, I don't think I'm such a 'bad' one anymore. I'm also quite aware that all this is subjective to a large extent. That doesn't worry me.

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Friday, December 25, 2009


'Twas the feast of St Spyridon
And all through the house...

St Spyridon, you say? Well, it's one of the artifacts of the world's convoluted history that the world's most widespread religion is also the most fragmented; on one hand, Christianity dominates the world's processes — and on the other hand, it sabotages all semblance of universal order. It is a religion born out of division, and made for division. It is both inclusive and exclusive.

As Jesus himself said, "I came not to bring peace, but a sword."

So in what sense is Christmas about peace on earth and goodwill towards men?

I think it's about Christmas as a marker of sorts. It doesn't matter what day it ought to be; it matters that there is such a day. Why? Because it is all about a promise of hope, of faith, of love. It says that we look forward with faith, in hope. We know it isn't in this world, but in the next; it isn't in this time, but in time to come, or beyond time.

And meanwhile, we strive to remain content with what we have, and do what we must do. And we wish each other all the best that is yet to be, and a happy St Spyridon's Day!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unnatural Things (Part I)

Sometimes when you look at the news or read the latest polemics, you hear people talking about things as 'natural' or 'unnatural'. This is something interesting to me. What constitutes 'natural' or 'unnatural'?

To me, 'natural' connotes lack of human artifice. Human technology is somehow less natural than, say, termite archaeology or the coconut tool use of certain octopi. We make tools not only by directed physical action, but by directed chemical action 'with malice aforethought', so to speak.

But there's another way of looking at things that I find fascinating. This is the statistically natural approach — somewhat akin to the rule of the majority or the rule of large numbers. By this approach, if something is a) found to occur in real life, b) found to occur in real life in large numbers (relatively speaking) or c) found to occur in real life in a majority of cases, then that something is considered natural. It's like the way some people look at giraffe behaviour.

For example, male giraffes are known to indulge in blatant, common, and majority homosexual behaviour. This is a point in favour, some say, of such things being natural. Well, they also sleep an average of 1.9 hours a day, have very long necks, and use their heads as flails. Are some behaviours natural and the others not?

The answer is an obvious one. All are natural for giraffes but not necessarily at all for humans. In fact, I suspect none of these things is natural for humans except under unnatural (perhaps giraffe-like?) conditions.

So what is 'natural'? Yes, I'll handle that soon...

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Atlantean Biography

I have just been exposed to a volume on the life and times of the local Atlantis. It's a cheery book, but for some reason, it reminds me of what people used to call 'Regency Romance' and which most people who know such things associate with that grand old dame, Georgette Heyer.

It's full of those 'more about this person later' moments and the whole thing somehow feels like a comedy of manners rather than the reasonably serious history it really is. It really is. There's a lot of meat on these bones, but it still reminds me of a paper I once heard on the seamy underside of Atlantean history (yes, madame, you know who you are... *grin* )

The production values of this tome are pretty good. It is hefty but not overly so. The layout and illustrations work reasonably well and you feel that it's a book you can settle down with. The book cover has an amusing collage of legendary Atlanteans and proto-Atlanteans, all juxtaposed to make things spicier than they ought to be. The Thunderer leans out over the book title, the Gnome is at his left elbow, and so on.

It's a good read. I recommend it. Don't worry about the amazing-looking author names. Treat the book on its own merits.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Little Bits

Today I was paying excruciating attention to my pasta. The word 'excruciating' of course hints at the agony of being crucified; crux is 'cross' in Latin. In this case, I was crosseyed by the delightful hotness of the real chillies I found in my screws (well, fusilli if you prefer). I don't normally get crosseyed like that, but it happens when chilli which is hot and yet tolerable in itself gets into the back of your throat and up your nose instead of down towards the gut.

It took a lot of effort not to ejaculate ('launch forward', from Latin iaculator — '(javelin/spear) thrower') through my contrary nostrils. Fortunately, I have large nostrils and can therefore vent pressure easily.

The thing about all this is that, in life, it's the small things which really matter. A chilli seed, a grain of gunpowder, grit in a gear-train, stuff like that. Big things matter only because small things do. The small things of the world confound the great.

So I looked closely at my pasta, at the thinly shaved parmesan, the small and very hot chillies, the flakes of dried Italian seasoning. And all at once, I felt that yes, one should have faith in small things; without faithfulness in the small things, where is the faithfulness in large?

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Monday, December 21, 2009


The problem with the Imperial Eagle of times past is that it has two heads. Traditionally, the two heads represent the avaricious vision of an empire that looks both east and west, claiming the whole world for itself. My observation is that some people prefer to think in terms of time rather than space — so the two heads look backwards and forwards in time, as in a balance between traditions and progress — and some other people prefer to think in terms of other things.

What really irritates me is this: You can choose to be a traditionalist or a progressivist, you can even choose to be both if you cleave to the values of the past and use them as a basis for future development; what you should not do is be neither, reacting against both tradition (oh, it is a hindrance and most of it is an old boys' club) and progress (why should we try new things unless we can manipulate them to make us look good without actually doing anything). Yet, this is the case from where I look out upon the world of education.

I suspect in the whole island, there are only about eight good principals. Of these, about half are power-hungry mad people, half are game-players seeking to win some imaginary zero-sum game, half are educators (and half are not) and half are seeking to entrench themselves by making a kingdom in this world. Yes, those are indeed multiple halves. But with eight, you can see how easily that can work out.

A cube can be divided into eight smaller cubes. It has six faces, and it has a centre that is equidistant from all faces, and also equidistant from all vertices. It contains both the tetrahedron and the octahedron within it. You can do complicated rotations and other symmetry operations with it, and it is good at returning to its original state. Unfortunately, this is what education is like sometimes.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kicking Young Wyverns Out

I heard this most amazing series of accounts, over the past few weeks, about how a certain principality made loud noises about being forced to admit young wyverns to the Wyverns' Nest along the white cliffs. His claim, made in public to a large number of parents, was that the Archangels made him do it, but given his druthers, he wouldn't have. He then told them to take a good look at themselves and sign a rejection slip if they agreed that they didn't deserve to enter the College.

After that scathing and ill-considered speech by the eminence, about a third of those young wyverns decided to grow an extra head and head off in search of a good time elsewhere. I guess 'looking for a good time' is better than 'the best is yet to be', for some people.

I've always felt that the main mission of a 'mission school' is to take in all and sundry and make good (or at least, better) people out of them. To deny your mission by taking in only good students at the very beginning is anathema. If I were in the right position, I'd excommunicate said principality to wander the earth from pole to pole.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Two Ravens (Redux)

Recently, TIME magazine called the last ten years 'The Decade From Hell'. At the end of the last millennium, the Gnome called the last century 'The Age of Violence'. By all accounts, then, what we've been living through would seem to be the worst of times. And yet, human life has never been so valued, so extended, so enriched.

It isn't a paradox. The human condition is such that when we are exposed to pain, suffering and hardship, human life becomes correspondingly more valued as long as there is a reservoir of capital (human or material) to measure that valuation against. We have become more aware of, more sensitive to suffering simply because we can be.

It's been almost a year since my last maintenance upgrade to Two Ravens. I suppose I said it all there, and there isn't much need to go on.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

High Tea

I was looking around for places to have a good high tea at, the kind with finger sandwiches and a buffet. Google is your friend, right? The search results, or one search result in particular, astounded me: "Don't go around expecting all the profs to take you to high tea! Only one of them the lit department...she's famous for doing that."

I know this person. Some of you might too. I've known her for 42 years, 4 months and 7 days now.

And she still takes me out for high teas!


Thursday, December 17, 2009


In some texts, discernment and wisdom are given equivalent value. The reason for this is a simple one: discernment is the act of distinguishing by sifting; that is, given a number of entities, the man of discernment can separate what is desirable (wanted, useful, good etc) from what is not (unwanted, useless, bad etc).

However, these two things are etymologically unequal. Discernment is from the Latin discernere, which means 'to separate one from another, to distinguish and set apart'. Wisdom comes from the older wis (from which we also get 'wit' and 'vision') + -dom; it is about having the ability or capacity for knowing or seeing something.

The problem really is whether a person has the discernment to discern between discernment and wisdom. Or perhaps, the wisdom to see the difference between discernment and wisdom. Hmm...

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Moving pictures. Moving things. Moving sounds.

You feel moved. And moved again. Removed, in fact.

And everything moves, and nothing is still. But you can command relativity. You can make it all revolve around you. To do that, though, you need an anchor.

If your anchor holds, everything will move relative to you. You will be still. It doesn't mean other people can't be still as well. All they need is an anchor like yours.

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ministerial Ignorance

In 1981, the Gnome decided that between doing nothing and doing something odd, he would do the odd thing. For the Gnome was of course a Wyvern, and Wyverns make that kind of choices.

In his argument, delivered at the inauguration of the Council which he had just created, the Gnome said these interesting words:

There is one extraordinary fact about a government minister — here or elsewhere — which few members of the public are aware of. This is that his ignorance of the subject he is in charge of greatly exceeds his knowledge of it. Ministers naturally seldom draw attention to this, but I assure you that this is true; anyway, in my case, it is.

This is not a public confession and the position is not as alarming as it looks. In modern society, it is not possible for the head of an organisation to know more than a small fraction of what goes on within it. It may be otherwise in primitive societies. The chief of a small group of primitive savages is better informed of what goes on in his village than, say, the President of General Motors is about his corporation.

The modern executive chief may be armed with a whole battery of computers while the village chief is not, but he knows less. Even so, the village chief may not understand everything, and so he usually has a witch doctor upon whom he depends when events pass his comprehension. Perhaps the only creature who possesses a total information system of which he has complete grasp is the patriarch of a troop of baboons. I have not come across any reference in the literature to the practice of witchcraft among baboons.

He always had that sort of turn of phrase. But somehow, I scent something autobiographical about this short extract — for the Gnome was (as all good little Atlantean children know) witch doctor to the Thunderer.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Mental Monday

Today is all about journeys. Many things to do, much travelling. It is all a travail and a vexation of spirit, and yet a lot of happiness in actually getting things done. The human mind is a weird place to be. And yet, in some ways, it is the only place to be.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lazy Sunday

Today is a lazy Sunday, one which involves going for long walks and having leisurely time with other people. Everyone should have a lazy Sunday once in a while. People have Sundays which are way too busy sometimes. They go to church and bustle around and forget about contemplation and meditation and the recharging of the soul.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Discrimination Rules

The modern humanist world often paints discrimination as a bad thing. I don't think it is. Discrimination is the basis of all our senses, of all our decisions insofar as we are confident that some neurological process underpins them all. Institutions shouldn't be bullied into allowing equal access, equal rights, equal mindlessness.

There are limits to fairness, just as there are to equality; all humans are NOT born equal, although in some abstract ways (such as the right to be alive) they might be. The idea that they are is hogwash, or perhaps bullshit, or some other animal-related thing. You will never find two people with exactly the same characteristics; why might you find two people with exactly the same balance of rights and responsibilities?

A person certified at a specific level of low mental function is treated specially in both positive and negative ways; a person with one arm is in theory (and often in practice) less able to do certain things. Women are different from men; men are different from men as much as women are different from women. The whole idea of equal rights is a shifting, unstable chimera simply because a close inspection of any rights you might care to bestow shows that they cannot be equally bestowed in a way that makes the effect just.

That's because justice (the exact balance of rights and responsibilities) is not the same as fairness (the idea that either a sense of subjective equity or a fact of objective equality should prevail). God is not fair, but He is always just. The problem is that our perceptions are fairness-biased because we have no objective way to determine our position on a universal scale. All this just makes our laws (more recriminatory or just criminalizing, hardly undiscriminating) the locally objective socioculturally-subjective codification of some general principles of jurisprudence.

Discrimination is a fact of the human condition. There is no warm fuzzy 'it need not be so' business about it. Indeed, it must be so, or there would be no basis on which to stand when making choices. While some bases might seem fairer than others, there is actually no choice that would be fair except by subjective agreement. The division of a circular pie might be mathematically fair, but the division of a real budget into actual domains of expenditure will never please everyone.

After running a few years of tests on my own perceptions, I have come to realise that I discriminate against people with darker skin, people with fairer skin, people of a different gender (however defined), people of a different age, people who drive a different car, people who drive the same car. I discriminate on every level and in every dimension that I can. I realise, in fact, that I discriminate against every person who is not me; I also have realised that if I had to live with someone exactly like me, I'd have to discriminate against him just to remain sane.

To those people out there who would have me believe that I should espouse some people's agenda, and call it 'acting against discrimination', all I can say is, "What? You want me to support some bunch of people so that they have the same rights as another bunch of people despite not being the same bunch of people? First prove to me that they have not the same rights, then prove to me that they should have the same rights, then prove to me that I should care."

It's the last part that gets most people. You can only care about this sort of thing if you have an empathic stake in it. You have to feel that one group is discriminated against to the point at which you yourself would feel uncomfortable. And you can only feel that way if you have an uncanny level (or an undiscriminating level) of empathy. That is why Jesus said you ought to love your neighbour as yourself, and not more than yourself; it's not possible in a real sense to have more empathy for others than you have for yourself because by definition, empathy for self is 100%.

That's not to say that I don't believe people should in general and in abstract be treated as equals. I think it's a laudable idea. I just don't think it will, or should, ever happen in a literal sense.

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Friday, December 11, 2009


Some time ago, somebody said I should gather my entries from all my blogs and the places where I submit poetry, edit it a bit, structure the mass, and make it into a book. Occasionally, I think it might work, and I toy with that idea a bit.

Once in a while, I shelve the idea semipermanently because somebody's writing has impressed me so much that it rubs my face into the inferiority of my writing. This has happened so far with both Iain Banks (see official site) and Neil Gaiman (official site here).

However, with Neal Stephenson, what gets to me is the sheer baroque exuberance and depth of construction that he is able to muster. His writing is sometimes too dense, too full of half-ideas and full-ideas. Of late, however, I've been digesting his latest book, Anathem.

I think that it's a beautiful ideas book. Any student of epistemology or of ideas about knowledge, in general, should read this book very carefully. Go to the website and explore the links. It's not easy work, but if you can digest this book, it becomes a lot easier to understand the ideas people have come up with about reality.

I don't think I've ever recommended a work of fiction as a textbook for anything except literature. This is one rare exception; I think all serious students of mathematics (as opposed to those who do math just because they have to) should read this book. In fact students of philosophy, history, and the natural sciences would also benefit a lot.

Well, at this point you'll notice I haven't actually said anything about the plot or the characters. I think that if you're not going to read the book, it won't matter; if you do, it's best you find everything out for yourself. Or go to Stephenson's site and explore, before you decide to take the plunge.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Not So Regimented

I was much amused by a speech given by the Gnome on 17 October 1973 at the Grand Convocation of Educators. In that speech, while encouraging and exhorting the new stalwarts of the education system, he entertained as well. Here is one of the anecdotes he told, and which I hereby dedicate to my wingmen and companions in 'wayward habits'.

Let me relate to you an incident, a real one, which occurred in [a renowned warrior regiment of Albion] and which is recorded in a recent history of the regiment.

The regiment is noted for its unconventional fighting methods. Partly as a consequence of this, it was able to score glorious victories by doing the unexpected, thereby surprising and overwhelming the enemy. But while its battlefield record is illustrious, its peacetime activities posed a problem to top military brass. Top-ranking military officers, other than those of the highest level of genius, often have conventional minds with little liking for unorthodox behaviour. So Generals in peacetime looked with disfavour upon what they regarded as the wayward habits of this regiment.

It happened that when a General visited one of the units of the regiment, he drew attention to various shortcomings which he had observed. The unit's commanding officer was left in no doubt as to the poor impression he had made on the General. After the General's departure, the CO gathered his officers and men together and addressed them as follows:

"Men, I am afraid the General does not like us. But that doesn't matter as long as we like ourselves."

The men cheered their CO to the echo. And so, an episode that could have proved harmful to their morale was instead turned into something that boosted morale. The soldiers in this regiment were able to do this because they knew they were good soldiers...

Put in simple terms, it means this. If you want to hold yourself in esteem when you believe that some people do not, you must believe that you are proficient in your work. And the best way to cultivate this belief in your proficiency is to be proficient.

And that is all I have to say, in the time-honoured formula used to end military reports in the Atlantean army.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Adam Smith and the Facebook Gnomes

Actually, I was going to call this post Adam Smith and the Facebook Gnomes: Productivity Theft and the Wealth of Nations but it was too long a title to capture anyone's attention seriously. The reason for this post is that the time has come for self-flagellation and sad introspection on the demerits of modern online life.

Adam Smith wrote, in his 1776 masterpiece The Wealth of Nations, "When [a worker] first begins his new work, he is seldom very keen and hearty... for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. Rural workmen obliged to change work and tool every half hour develop slothful and lazy habits."

In other words, multitasking (the doing of many things in an intertwined way) is a productivity sink. Many studies have shown that quick distractions result in long-term time wasting as the brain attempts to reorient itself. Work breaks actually break work. It is better, for example, to develop the habit of working 4-6 hour stretches on one objective than to work an hour, take a breather, and return to work.

However, the personal experience of modern man is such that most people find it psychologically impossible to work for long stretches. Rather, we make a virtue of short attention spans and call it multitasking. This, as Adam Smith points out, reduces productivity and the quality of work.

On the other hand, there are some specific areas of work which require true multitasking — the seamless perception of reality and its manipulation towards multiple ends through common activity. True multitasking is about doing many things at the same time, not doing bits of things in quick rotation or succession. Most of these areas of work require multiple people: think of the way a restaurant (or an orchestra) works, for example.

I've been letting myself take Facebook breaks too often, I think. I spent a day monitoring my productivity and was aghast to find that a day without Facebook adds about five hours of work at least! Going out for lunch actually takes two hours unless you are very focussed — and further downtime may be added if you then feel dozy after a heavy meal. In one day, I realise that unless I am actually teaching, making notes while reading, or doing active and specific research (as opposed to flitting through the internet) I might be wasting up to eight (!!) hours of my 12-hour working day just doing nothing specifically useful.

Woe is me... I feel a sudden urge to take a good look at the dour Scottish Protestantism that made a virtue of hard and unstinting labour without distractions between sunrise and sunset.

I hear it got a lot less dour and more fun after sunset though.

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Writing a TOK Essay (Part V): Structuring the Argument

One might argue that unfolding an argument is as good as structuring it. That's not quite true. You can unfold a dress, but structuring it so that it unfolds nicely is a fine art.

In general, writing any essay begins with a quick survey of the key ideas. What is the question explicitly about? What is it implicitly about? Are you imagining the implicit? (Strictly speaking, what is implicit is what you can infer from the bare text, by use of logic alone, but within the ToK context.)

For example, supposing you're looking at a question that talks about language and reason being important in history. The choice of history as the area of knowledge or discipline is not unexpected; after all, history is one of the key disciplines in the overarching framework of human knowledge. However, the choice of language and reason implies that they are being set up as two interlocking parts of the definition of history; they're not necessarily in opposition, but they at the very least to be seen as complementary.

Defining history, language and reason is simple. Just take care to define history as an area of knowledge and the other two as ways of knowing — after all, this is in the context of writing a ToK essay. You also need to know that the main problem of history is veracity — how do you know that history is real? What are the tests for valid histories?

Once you've laid the definitional groundwork, you need to see how language and reason interact in the construction of history. Language is the medium that supplies (or conveys) much of the raw material, reason is the process through which the material is assembled into a useful structure.

Then point out the several problems of language in terms of information loss (at the source, during transmission, failure of recording, failure of reception, etc) and do a few paragraphs with examples about that. Follow that with the problems of reason in terms of information construction (validity, reliability, utility etc) and do a few paragraphs with examples as well.

You can now write about how these problems might be overcome, then summarise the roles of language and reason in the domain of history. Point out how histories can be improved by the proper application of the historian's discernment and artifice, as a conclusion based on your earlier paragraphs dealing with problems.

And... you're done.

Structure is easy: definitions, issues, problems, disposing of problems, conclusions based on what has been raised. You've probably got weeks to do it, and you probably only need two or three days. Anyone who is using more time than that is obviously wasting time somewhere.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Writing a TOK Essay (Part IV): Unfolding the Argument

In my previous post on this subject, I wrote about the importance of definitions and some approaches to the definition of terms. The thing about definitions is that they lead, by various forms of reason, to certain arguments. As such arguments unfold, we have to be careful to examine them to see if we are not blinded by preconceptions (constructed frameworks) or prejudices (judgements in advance).

For example, a student recently told me that there was the case of a girl whose mental age was fixed in early childhood (I think it was three months) by a biological defect. A case was advanced for keeping her, by elective surgery, at a pre-adolescent stage of physical development. One argument against this was that it would deprive her of her sexual rights.

There are many arguments you could advance, but this is definitely (and definitively) not one of them. The counter-argument is obvious: in almost all jurisdictions, the mentally incompetent are protected from abuse by law. This child will never have the ability to give legal consent to sexual behaviour, and hence will never have the legal capacity to exercise sexual rights.

The point of this example is that definitions constrain us, but we can choose which set of definitions to apply. In this case, we might argue that all humans in general have a right to sexual enjoyment. That's very abstract; in practice, society governs this by laws which protect the vulnerable. Once we define which humans are allowed these rights, and under what conditions, the case becomes much clearer.

Similarly, the argument that history is fundamentally different from science is not an easy one to make. I've mentioned this before. If you define history accurately, you will see that it is, if you like, the grandfather of science (philosophy is the grandmother). Science as we know it was once divided into natural history (observations of reality) and natural philosophy (theories of reality).

Because of this definitional background, if asked to choose two disciplines (or areas of knowledge) as examples of different approaches, you should choose things that are more unalike. It's possible to argue that history and geography are less alike than history and science (or than geography and science, heh).

The primary reason that I've used the phrase 'unfolding the argument' here, therefore, is that if you've already started by defining the terms, sometimes those definitions will automatically unfold into points of argument. It's like a battlefield; the disposition of terrain features and forces on both sides will make certain tactical options more likely and others less likely. In some cases (for example, the one ford over a river that one side must cross), it's quite clear that there is one obvious option.

The secondary argument is that one should be careful to 'unfold the argument' step by step. It's like reverse origami; you have a crane, can you decompose the crane into folds? If you do it correctly, the logic of the argument will be clear and the examiner will be less irritated by it. Sloppy folding leads to sloppy unfolding; sloppy unfolding can lead to tearing of the material that was folded.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Things To Do

I remember writing about my ambition, or lack of it, five years ago in this post. Despite being talked of as ambitious, I am quite certain that those who talked never knew me — I don't think I am. Rather, as I said then, my ambition as a teacher has always been "to warn the idle, encourage the timid, help the weak and be patient with everyone." Those lines are quoted from Paul's final instructions to the church at Thessalonica.

It was with some amusement therefore that I read the Gnome's version of June 1977, in which he said, "We had to exhort the faithful, encourage the faint-hearted, and censure the ungodly." That, he said, was the task of the Atlantean leadership.

It occurs to me that both lists are the outlines of some sort of philosophy. Both can be seen as lists of 'things to do'. For me, Paul's list is ideal for a teaching philosophy: you will always have three kinds of poor students — the lazy, the fearful and the less academically inclined — and you must be patient with all of them. For the Gnome, it was a question of political importance: what to do with those on your side, those on the other side, and those sitting on the fence.

The key difference is that I've never seen any kind of student as being 'on the other side'. If anything, I've always been on their side (whether they thought so or not, heh). I've felt frustration, but never contempt; I've felt irritation, but never hatred. Students are people trying to get on in life; it's the duty of a teacher to help them in whatever way a teacher can, and not to hinder them.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Gnome in Your Head

Urgh. I overslept this morning and found myself dreaming. (Apparently the only time I dream, or at least remember that I've dreamt, is when I've been ill or when I've slept too much.) In this literal daydream, I found myself explaining to a group of people just why our civil service was both good and bad. I remember summing it up as 'good structures, bad implementation; planning evolves but people degenerate.'

I woke up with tumultuous applause ringing in my years, only to realise that all my best rhetorical efforts had come to naught — in the time-honoured let-down, "It was only a dream." How sad!

But all that did underscore the importance that the Gnome has been having in my life recently. I can't help but wonder when he will pass on, and what dire or wondrous revelations will come forth when he does.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Brotherless and Fatherless

In the old world of the Wyverns, we were all brothers. We kept our differences private and we were united by the common flag, the common emblems, the common ideas. We were all very different people and very proud of it, but there were some depths to which we would not descend.

No longer, it seems. Just tonight I was listening to a man who sat on the interview panels of the College of Physicians. He told me that he was interviewing a young Wyvern who was seeking admission to the College as a trainee. This Wyvern (if you can still call him that) was asked, "Why should we admit you, and not your brothers?"

At which point, the degenerate replied, "Because I am smarter and better." He then proceeded to run down his brothers in no uncertain terms. The interviewer was aghast. He asked me tonight, "How is it that such an attitude could ever be cultivated among Wyverns? They have always been closely knit."

It was another man who replied, "The Wyverns nest in a place where the ruling principality himself displays such traits of unseemly competition between brothers. He is known to make public statements denigrating his own mentors, his peers and fellow principalities, and even the other nests of the Wyverns."

And there you have it. Where there is no true father-figure, and no allegiance to the Father either, brotherhood will fail, and so will the Brotherhood.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Meditation on Psalm 124

This is the dominion, Darkness,
That thy hand is glad to find;
Though the world hath light and laughter,
Thou art never far behind.

While the thoughts of men continue
In materialistic vein,
Thou shalt ever be exalted
Through a haze of human pain.

Therefore we shall still resist thee
Though we be the last to stand;
We are really not too sorry
That we shall escape thy hand.


1. Psalm 124 is one of the Songs of Ascents, essentially hymns of pilgrimage.
2. My notes show me that I first wrote this as Part VI of a longer meditation back in the days of the online Poetry Room — this was on Friday 25 Aug 1989, apparently.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Justifiable Assumptions and their Consequences

I'm still ploughing through the hefty tomes that constitute the Gnome's wise sayings from his apical position at the top of the Atlantean hierarchy from 1959 to at least 1984. He makes an awful lot of assumptions, and sometimes, you have to take into account his weaknesses as well as his colossal strengths.

For example, the Thunderer once said that the Gnome was a bad judge of character, able to spot talent but not able to sense the constitutional underpinnings of it within each individual. From various readings, you can probably guess that the Gnome assumed something like a 1 in 3000 success rate at finding world-class candidates for the Atlantean High Command. The Thunderer's pragmatic assessment would reduce that to perhaps 1 in 10,000.

The Atlantean education system currently contains a shade under 30,000 educators up to the high school level. Of these, about 800 are principalities or deputy principalities. This means that if we are to take the founding fathers of modern Atlantis seriously as to the level of available talent, there are not likely to be more than three world-class educators in the whole lot.

The commonly-held assumption is that the best talent is actually sucked into the Administrative Service, the priesthood which controls all the highest functions of Atlantean society. Approximately 300 officers occupy about 600 posts; a large number of these officers run the commercial arm of Atlantean government.

The current Atlantean population is about 5,000,000 souls. If 1 in 10,000 is a candidate for the high Command, then there are only 500 people who can run the show. 300 of them are in the Administrative Service; that leaves 200 for everyone else.

Of these 200, we assume that 3 are somewhere in the education service, swamped by about 29,000 other officers of variable but lesser abilities. Yet somehow, we have managed to cultivate a 'world-class education system'.

My conclusion at this point is that if this education system is 'world-class' (whatever that means), it's a triumph of systems engineering over human leadership. It must be a system that works regardless of the manpower available. In fact, as I've published elsewhere, it is a system which has extremely fluid manpower characteristics but extremely rigid structural characteristics.

It is like a system of concrete channels within which seawater and all kinds of marine life circulate. The channels are fixed, but what kind of 'catch of the day' you get depends a lot on luck — the quality of your fish is not guaranteed, except that it is the kind which will thrive in such a system.

If I were less charitable, or willfully cynical, I'd call it a goldfish bowl system. But there is one key difference: with a goldfish bowl, the fish see each other and the observer can see them all — but in this system, the fish do not all see each other, and the observer can't see them all either. It's concrete and steel, not glass and light.

I can't wait to get to my final conclusion.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Dividing the Day

When midnight's shift divides the day
I look within — and what is saved?
Or what is gone, and not to be?
But sleep has come, and all is dark.

When morning's wall remains to climb
The first step's getting out of bed
More choices open up again
And boil away under the sun.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Educational Values

On a warm August morning in 1963, 144 years after the Gambler, the Gnome pronounced these fateful words: "I have always regarded the pursuit of knowledge as the noblest and the most rewarding activity of mankind... If I were asked what is the most important single criterion by which to judge the prospects of any underdeveloped country, I would have no hesitation in saying that it is its attitude towards education." He said this in the context of a talk entitled 'Industrial Growth and Political Stability'.

The problem of course is that defining development is the difficult part. The Gnome grappled with it all his life; he said early on that you would need to look at it sociologically, psychologically, culturally, economically, historically — and you would still be like the blind men and the elephant. In fact, he said, you would be reduced to the maxim of, "I'll know it when I see it."

The issue is perhaps more clearly delineated as one of what kind of development you are looking for. The Gnome's world was primarily an economic one, although in his writings you can sense the frustration he had in realising that his beloved economic precepts were inadequate. In fact, he once said (firmly tongue in cheek) on the eve of a trip to the Annual Conference of the World Bank and IMF that he had to abstain from saying certain things because a) it would not be prudent for a small state to cause unnecessary offence to the great, and b) one should not go to the College of Cardinals reeking of heresy.

He always believed that education was the root of success. The problem was that it was inexorably linked in his mind to economic success, as well as cultural depth and political stability. He linked it to many other things, but the one thing that comes across was that he believed his people to be economically rational, perhaps to the exclusion of other things.

To this day, this is still the problem. Even those who lament the dearth of non-economic values in the national discourse are trammelled by the fact that Atlantis was a state born out of entrepreneurial migration and entrepot trade. The measure of man in modern Atlantis is his effectiveness as some sort of economic factor — how effective, how influential, how good a leader, how able to defend what has been raised.

The great thing about the Gnome, on closer reading, is that he was indeed decidedly heretical in his economic insights. He believed that state control was a good thing in parallel with a free market. That sounds odd, but in the 1960s, when he first said it, it sounded perilously like crypto-Marxism to some in the West. But the Gnome was really an avowed pragmatic socialist, if anything else. His was the world of Weber as well as Marx, of Adam Smith but only as far as an appropriate scale for the exercise of the invisible hand. He believed that the invisible world was all well and good, but it went with a visible glove, at the very least.

All that has crept into the metrics by which we measure local education. It is all very numerical, and if not, it is quantitatively qualitative. We have awards for things like 'Character Development', and schools list these awards — the more awards for qualitative development, the better. It is all very disturbing to those who look at the system from outside.

People, however, deserve the education they desire. For all the bitching, people here love the reliability of the system in the sense of its replicable behaviour, schedules, and concepts. They might dispute the validity, but seldom the utility. And that is probably how the Gnome would have wanted it.

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