Sunday, January 31, 2010


I have the urge to tuck into a lovely thin-crust pizza with just enough tomato and cheese on top to make it recognizably one, and a few mushrooms, some tiny slices of red-hot chilli, perhaps a couple of other things but not too many of those. They make a mean one at the pizzeria down the road from my house, and picking one up after a short phone call and a ten-minute wait is one of the pleasures of my simple life.

I know I don't really have as simple a life as I might, had I pursued simplicity of life with greater determination. But I am quite certain that simplicity is partly a state of mind; something like having many degrees of freedom, and thus many possibilities for complicated interaction with other particles, and yet remaining relatively free of such.

It's all about what beliefs you recognize as extraneous to your self. Some might argue that you can't divide what you believe from what it is necessary to believe in order to be you. But plainly, that is circular logic, predicated on a certain concept of self. It is one of those beliefs you can recognize as extraneous to self.

What's tough is the crust, that developed glutenin-gliadin complex which you build up over the years to trap the bubbles of your thought into a risen dough.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010


I look at him and he looks at me. There is always something lazy there, which binds curiosity with disdain. On one hand, the cat contemplates me with a certain mild wonder as to whether I might indeed be coming by with food, a back-scratch or some other companionable activity; on the other hand, that lazy looks says, "I might care, or I might not; and in the end, it is all one."

I think of cats, and I think of God. With all the running around and theological infighting and heresies, heterodoxies, 'ways to God' or 'ways to Hell', theisms, atheisms and other God-related isms, it is all too likely that He, at the very instant of creation (or is it 'at every instant of creation'?) has decided that the the price of free will is worth the near-unbearable egocentrism of the human condition — just as we too have learnt to deal with the near-unbearable egocentrism of the feline condition.

I look at the cat: I, his nominal master. His entire existence is below the radar. I have no idea what he thinks and yet I think that God knows everything I think. The cat has his own anthropology, but what it is, we do not know. It might not even exist. In that sense, our forbearance of the cat is rooted in our ignorance. But God, ah, God is a different matter; His forbearance is rooted in the fact that we think He forbears.

In fact, we know less of God and His mysterious ways than the cat knows of us. His motives are arbitrary, as befits the Arbiter of All Creation. His ways are not our ways, and as the Bible shows us again and again, He is perfectly willing to let us be deceived while not being the immediate origin of deception. Most times, we deceive ourselves or each other. All times, we are fools.

I look at the cat. He is not now looking at me, but is flumphed across his cushion in the sun. And I laugh.

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Faith and Inexplicability

It is an article of our human faith that things should have explanations. We avert our minds from the idea that there might not be such. We have found many explanations, and even a way of making the explanations cohere by tossing out any explanations that don't fit the available data.

But that's all it is — a Procrustean idea of causality. We advance an explanation, it doesn't fit, we alter it to fit. And so on. But does it explain anything if it's all a jury-rigged model of what might be?

The reason I think this way is that I've been reading Disch's novelization of that hit 60s series, The Prisoner. In a sense, we are all prisoners of a world we cannot escape, with half-remembered (true or false) memories of a world that existed before. We clamour to prove that we are not mere numbers, while acting to make ourselves more number-like. It's horrifying to watch, but we aren't watching ourselves. We can't really do that, since we are all prisoners.

The worst part is that we can't know this is true either.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Getting Out

Sometimes you have to stop doing serious work and go out and meet people and enjoy life a bit. So today I will be more idle than usual and do things that have no academic value at all. So there!

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Catching Up

Sometimes you burn the days off one by one, and then the weeks and months. And then you realise you have submerged the promises of coffee and the meetings with old friends beneath the urgent tide of instantly required responses to other things. They are not yet drowned, but they are whelmed. They have been placed on the back-burner so long that the burner has gone out and what was hot is now old and cold.

Friendships should not be tacitly abused that way. I will therefore plan for more nasi lemak occasions, more kopi tiam sessions with old friends. The idea of the café is an ancient one, but a good one. And perhaps I shall salvage more from wrack and wreck, and be a better friend.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sooo... What Makes a Good School?

Let's just look at the question in terms of how a school is run, and not in the complex cultural terms that would entail a look at the roles of tradition, alumni, mission, philosophy, and other social dynamics that are often linked with a long history.

David Tyack in his landmark work The One Best System (Harvard University, 1974) cautioned us against looking for a magic formula that would apply to all schools. His survey covered the entire history of urban education in the US, and showed both the successes and failures of the various systems that the 'US education system' really was.

Much more recently, a consortium (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu & Easton) has come out with Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons From Chicago (University of Chicago, 2010), an interesting look at the Chicagoan educational landscape of about 500 schools from 1990 to 2005. They've identified five main points which lead to the success of urban schools (at least in Chicago):
  1. Strong leadership, in the sense that principals are “strategic, focused on instruction, and inclusive of others in their work”;
  2. A welcoming attitude toward parents, and formation of connections with the community;
  3. Development of professional capacity, which refers to the quality of the teaching staff, teachers’ belief that schools can change, and participation in good professional development and collaborative work;
  4. A learning climate that is safe, welcoming, stimulating, and nurturing to all students; and
  5. Strong instructional guidance and materials.
I think my immediate response (quite apart from the 'ah, another elite US university study that the innocent will think applies to urban centres worldwide' response) was that I didn't see anything new in this piece of work. Indeed, Education Week seems to say (subscription required) that what makes this book different is the level of detail and the amount of data collected.

How disappointing. But then again, what else could be expected?

There are several things that are missing from this list. Here's an example: controlling your intake. In these days of political correctness, the idea of elitism is a no-no. But let's face it, if you had some sort of meritocratic basis for selection, you could have nothing but students who are above-average in producing results. Then you would have a successful urban school. And if you have students who are good at it, a principal can pay less attention to those aspects they are good at and develop other aspects, thus enabling his school to tack on the 'holistic education' label which I find so reprehensible.

But just like any other post-colonial output (by which I mean that which is put out after the colon does its job), your intake is the key to the fragrance of success. Control that, and you will be able to produce good regular output. It will be a programme that is breath-taking in its simplicity, smooth in its processes, consistent (also coherent and cohesive) in its product quality. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Well, that was the gratuitous post-colonial joke out of the way. But seriously, there is nothing new at all in this latest book. It's probably an excellent piece of research that tells us a lot about Chicagoan elementary schools, but it tells us nothing that we have not already learnt about schools in general. And as usual, it leaves the special development of lead teaching staff who are also administrators to the realm of the implicit.

Almost every piece on school success talks about principals and teachers. The point is that in most schools, there are at least two extra layers: between the principal and the teachers, the senior teaching staff who are also educational leaders and who actually are directly responsible for large chunks of the five factors mentioned; and the service staff who support the physical endeavour — janitors, custodians, IT support professionals, the secretariat, PR, HR, finance staff, and so on.

As far as I know, the only paper that talks about the neglected first extra layer is here and I haven't actually found one on the neglected second extra layer. Anybody know where such things might be found?

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Overimportance of Objectivity

Friar Tuck reminded me that we are subject to curious fits of self-doubt, by which I mean that we can always set up thought experiments to doubt that the self exists. But the fact is that while there are many ways to distract you from yourself, there is much more that persuades you that you exist.

No matter what science tells you about the molecular, atomic, or subatomic composition of your too-mortal frame, the fact is that you wake up in the morning, you feel the hangover. You feel the aches and pains, the sensations of being. No matter how unearthly the scientist, how objective his intellectual sensibilities, if he has heartburn or a headache, it is hard to remain purely objective. The disinterested observer of self does not exist.

To me, science and mathematics are games. Neither of them impacts my sense of self. I can intellectually believe that I am soup, or as Asimov (I think) once put it, water with impurities. But no matter how much empathy I muster, how much sensitivity I have that makes me tear up during certain movie moments, I am centred around me. It is my pain that I feel in my aching feet, it is my heartache I feel when I am sad. Even when I am sad for someone else, I am sad in me.

But what then of religion, of faith and my own quirk (at least that's how my non-religious friends see it) of Christianity? Well, since subjectivity is all, I am sure God will forgive me for having the purely subjective belief in Him. Do I care if I am wrong about Christ? No. Does it then devalue Christianity to not care if I am wrong? No. All such reasoning is hypothetical. I believe, I believe 'in my heart', and that's it for me. Not that I can't defend my belief if that's the game to be played, of course.

Objectivity is the Great Lie. There is no such thing. One would have thought that Einstein's ideas on relativity, and Newton's ideas before that, and the entire chain of ideas (for those who claim objective belief or beliefs can exist) would dissuade people from believing in that which they cannot directly engage.

Which brings us to the last frontier. Do we directly engage what we think is the self? I have no idea. All I know is that my feet hurt, I like coffee, I do things that seem to me to be good things, and I enjoy the company of certain people — who appear to have a real existence to me that I cannot penetrate. I have dislikes, I have tastes, I have the desire to use what functions as a language. But it's all me, and no matter how you can discredit solipsism by intellectual reasoning (yes, I know how it's done), that's all a game.

As that famous sage once said, "How are we to know if our reason has anything to do with reality at all?" I don't know, but if the game comes round, I'll play it.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Unnatural Things (Part II)

In a previous post, I talked about some ideas of 'natural' and 'unnatural'. It struck me that if you defined 'natural' as 'found in nature', it still isn't a complete definition for some purposes.

For example, if you said, "That's natural behaviour," when watching young people at play, you would actually implicitly be saying, "... for young human beings in that particular cultural context." What's natural in one context is not necessarily natural in another, because it would not normally occur in that context.

Which brings me to the next point. Should we define 'natural' as 'occurs in nature, given a specific context', or as 'is the modal occurrence for that situation', or as 'is within the normal distribution of behaviours, to n standard deviations'? Or should we use yet another definition?

The problem is that etymology's main clue constrains our choice somewhat; 'natural' comes from the Latin and implies 'inborn' — something that proceeds from the course of events in the natural world without human intelligence intervening. It is natural that some people are born with genes which predispose one towards alcoholism; it is not natural that alcoholics should exist, because it is rare to find ethanol in large quantities in nature — there is no common natural process that could create large numbers of alcoholics.

Some might argue (as I have, playfully, in the past) that mankind is a fact of nature, and that therefore everything (cable TV, skyscrapers, space telescopes, iPhones, Gucci handbags etc) that we create is part of nature. Well, in that case, we should throw out the idea of artifice, of organic growth, of natural methods of doing anything and just accept that our sad lot is to defeat the rest of nature before we get round to understanding it.

But that's just dodging the argument. Why shouldn't we think of Man as part of nature? And why shouldn't we then think that any activity we indulge in, for which a sufficiently large number of us exist, is also a natural thing? Take the relatively innocuous cultural behaviour of wearing earrings so large that they distort the earlobes. This can be found in primitive (technology-wise) tribes as well as on the streets of New York or Singapore. Is this therefore a natural thing?

Is it natural to indulge in bodily mutilation by surgical removal of unsightly body parts? We do it with nails and hair, which regenerate; we do it with skin, which sometimes doesn't quite regenerate the same way. We do it with parts that don't regenerate, sometimes out of philanthropy and sometimes as some odd aesthetic or religious practice.

Think about circumcision, for example — some people say it is a healthy thing to do, some people say not, and it's impossible to say under what circumstances it is optimally healthy. Personally, I'd have the shuddering heebie-jeebies if anyone told me they were going to chop off the tip of one of my extremities. My fingers and toes cringe, that is.

So many questions, and so many answers. Sigh.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

World, Flesh and Development

A couple of thousand years ago, in Palestine, an infamous rabbi had an equally infamous disciple (at least, from a modern day perspective, for he was the one who gave us the modern sense of a Greek word that used to mean 'unveiling') who said, "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world."

Today I was sitting in a place in Somerset, watching the world go by, when the Meme said to me, "Y'know, the whole world depends on people spending a lot of money on what they don't need. If people only spent money on what they needed, everyone would be poor and the world would fall apart."

It makes a terrible kind of logical sense. And trying to reverse this pattern is not possible unless there is some sort of apocalypse first. Perhaps in 2012? Heh.

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Forever Colonial

I live in a former British colony. This is never so obvious as when a crowd of inebriated foreigners (formerly, colonials) has a big party that lasts till 3 in the morning, during which out-of-tune beery singing fills the night and smoke fills the air, and nobody is able to take them down.

I should imagine Saturday nights in former colonies throughout the world are like this. But I'm quite sure that in some countries, never colonised nor colonial, this kind of irritating behaviour would not be tolerated. Countries like Switzerland, perhaps.

I've no problems with parties that last till 1 or so. New Year's parties tend to fall into that category. But 3 am? Followed by incompetent clearing noises as people attempt to resolve the consequent mess and get their ungainly SUVs out of each other's ways and trundle off home? Hurrrr.

In my younger days, I would have deployed chemical solutions to the problem. The only thing that restrained me early this morning was the knowledge that my innocent family would have been aghast to know of the latent 'urban terrorist' living in their midst. But hey, the wonderful things you can do with bleach, cooking oil, potassium manganate(VII) and other simple things you can buy from any competent supermarket...

That's the one difference between the colonial and post-colonial phases: education. Wait, hold on. The post-colonial phase can also be called 'rectal'. Or maybe, 'anal'.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Name of the Day: Iskandar

The name 'Iskandar' has deep power; it resonates across the entire span of Eurasia, a name that speaks of conquest and dominion, of patriarchal protection and of the role of a hero. Iskandar is the old Persian version of the Greek name Ἀλέξανδρος or Alexander.

The roots of the name are interesting to explore. It comes from alexein-, which means 'to defend, protect, ward, keep safely (against something); to turn away, avert or repel (something harmful)', and -andros, which is 'man'. It is therefore an epithet which describes a messianic quality, that of protecting humanity from its unnamed enemies. The most common English translation is 'defender of men', but it should be made clear that the defence alluded to is both active as well as passive.

It is said that when Alexander III of Macedon was born, his mother dreamt that a comet had struck her womb, which absorbed the blast. Then the seal of a lion appeared over it, glowing golden like a mark of kingship. It was from this image that Alexander the Great received the title, 'Lion of Macedon'.

In Scotland, the name underwent two changes; Scots Gaelic has it as 'Alastair' (or Alasdair, or Alistair, or half a dozen other regional variations), while the natural contraction was 'Sandy'. Similarly, the feminine 'Alexandra' has been shortened to 'Sandra'. This curious inability of the Scots to spell things right has led to confusion with another Greek word, alastor.

Naming someone 'Alastor', however, would be a rather unusual thing to do. The etymology of 'Alastor' is very different; it comes from the Greek alathein, which means 'to not forget', 'to not allow to be forgotten', or 'to not allow to go away'. This name was assigned to the Greek spirits of vengeance, giving it the sense of 'avenger'. That's an interesting thing; the name 'Alethea' is a feminine form and means 'truth' — 'that which is not forgotten', 'that which you do not forget' or 'that which does not go away'.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Indirect Thinking

Let's take a look at a hypothetical case, the subject of a thesis in the field of education. Supposing you have a school whose results are among the best in the world, statistically speaking. To what might you attribute the cause of this happy state?

Asking this about the results is somewhat similar to evaluation of any product. The logical causes are the management, manpower, materials, machines, or methods. There might be some overlap, but these generally fall into separate categories.

Then five kinds of research problems might be said to arise, one for each of these putative causes. You need to see if any of these is sufficiently and provably superior to the equivalent somewhere else in order to possibly attribute good results to it.

In the case of my research, extensive brain-contorting (and sometimes brain-convulsing) work has shown that I can only prove the case for one of these categories.

And yet, in the general media and in our general way of thinking, we tend to attribute success to the other four categories more than we attribute success to this one. Why?

Perhaps, the problem with schools is the self-fulfilling nature of education. It's easy to show that superior students produce superior results. What we'd like to know is if they are superior in any other ways besides previous results, and how they got that way. Are they smarter, do they drink more coffee, have they got richer parents, are they motivated by fear (or pride, or greed, or any other one of a thousand human motivations)?

When a school spends huge amounts of money on staff, structures, and administrators, how can it be shown that this has any impact on the final result? And yet, people assume that it has.

In some cases, this is easier to show: a science lab or a dance studio are strongly facilitating aids to improvement in their respective disciplines. In some cases, this is harder to show: can a 35-year-old ex-government policy wonk do better than a grizzled 67-year-old matriarch as a school leader? Do oak panels depicting past triumphs and famous alumni encourage modern students to do better? Or is all of this simply reducible to the ancient axiom, 'Money Breeds Success'?

It would be kind of sad if I had to reduce my answers to the two ideas that a) people with good previous results tend to produce good future results in the same general area, and b) money breeds success. I would have done no better than many previous generations of researchers, then.

But hold on, you might say. How about all the examples that buck the trend? The poor minority kid who becomes valedictorian, the uncouth gangster who becomes a leader, the ramshackle makeshift hut that becomes a centre of great learning? What about the rich kids that flunk out, the expensive schools that flop?

I'd have to say, "Exactly." They buck the trend, they are newsworthy precisely because they are some distance away from the norm. The statistics don't lie. Live in a rich estate, go to an expensive school, you'll do better academically. You'll do better in life too.

Yet, there is one small factor that gives hope to the rest of us. It's sometimes the case that a person from a less-advantaged background can show superlative success because of a rare confluence of factors: seizing a rare opportunity, showing great personal drive, having enough coffee, and so on. This success may have vastly disproportionate effect across time, thus shifting things enough for society to change somewhat.

It is this sort of success story that partly drives the altruist in us. The human altruist (teacher, doctor, pastor) doesn't mind providing services to anyone. But somehow, it's a lot more satisfying when someone makes maximal use of such services to do far more than you'd expect from the statistics. I don't mind teaching smart kids who assume they are smart all day — it's great if they learn to be smarter or if they learn that 'smart' is something that they were taking too much for granted. It's even better, though, when people who kept telling themselves they weren't smart suddenly realise that they are smarter, and can be even smarter. (Yes, however you want to define 'smart'. What I mean is 'good at something'.)

And it's best when the norms are shifted so that there is a broader range of successes. Which leads me to one last point about schools. A school should be able to take in anybody and help that person become a better person. What a school shouldn't be doing (unless compelled to by higher authority) is to deliberately deny students who look like they are going to be harder to teach. Without these students, how on earth are teachers going to learn? Heh.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010


A short while ago, I told Adobe that I was not a political sort of person. He chuckled a bit, misspelled my name yet once more, and said, "The word is not 'political', the word is 'strategic'."

He was right. It's true to a very large extent that humans are political animals. Given any society at all, they will learn the social behaviours that are considered polite, they will build cohesive units that will eventually bloom into cities.

But 'strategic' is a whole different class of animal. To admit that I am not a strategic sort of person is a painful thing. On further examination, I think that this is true. I am not 'strategic' without a lot of effort. I can approximate the planning and leadership necessary for such a role, but it is not natural to me, and indeed, rather difficult.

It's not that I'm not a team player. Rather, I resent being made to be part of a team when it is obvious that it isn't really one. I've been in teams where the behaviour of some of the members has nothing to do with the explicit goals of the team, but has in fact been in a different direction altogether.

I've had to work with people whose main aim in life is to lead a comfortable existence, not the difficult one which their role demands. This inevitably made some of them toadies, flunkies, and other boot-licking types. The gratuitous rear-grooming kind of behaviour still appalls me, but at least I no longer have to walk past such people and pretend that they are esteemed partners in a high calling.

I'm sure some of my readers have experienced the company of such people too. I'm sure you have cringed whenever one of them tells the boss how great he is because of a dull (or garish) efflorescence of wit. It is akin to people clapping when a certain government minister told the public that a 'final solution' was on the way in the context of national healthcare. You might as well laud the opening of 'concentration camps' or the related improvement in 'mass transit'.

But that's all political stuff, and even if I can't help but being humanly political, I never was able to be strategic about showing my distaste. And that can get a person into trouble, as I've found out several times. What a world we live in!

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010


My working year actually starts today, more or less. It's that time of year when some people finally get down to work, which in my context means that people come looking for me to teach them how to get work done.

It's not that these people are idle, but that they are not fully competent. There is a lot of potential there, and it only needs a little tweaking to bring it out.

Recently, someone asked how you would encourage someone with more talent than yourself. I think you have to do it whole-heartedly. You can't stint on judicious (i.e. critically exact, but erring on the positive side) encouragement.

I've dealt with precocious and high-potential young people all my life. I can't offer them what I am as a goal, because that would be cheating them. I can only offer them what I am as a spur to higher achievement, much as a mountain shoulder can be used as a base camp for an assault on the summit.

I don't envy them, have never envied them. Their world is different from what mine was, and their heirs and successors will find it different again. In that light, there's no point having regrets about the past or casting a jaundiced eye over the future.

What I can bequeath to them however, are the lessons of age: patience, but not too much; cleverness, but not too much; faith, hope and love. Some come to these lessons early, some later. I always pray that the learning of such lessons comes sooner for most.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Recently, an Atlantean sect proposed to build a most glorious temple with built-in eateries and other entertainments, for the goodly harvest of about 300 million Atlantean thalers. Not to be outdone was another sect, which purposed in their hearts to set up a project costing about 1,000 million Atlantean thalers in total.

Across the world came a horrendous earthquake. 200,000 people died. The Atlantean priesthood sent 50,000 thalers in aid. Some people protested at what they saw was a petty response.

I didn't think it was petty at all. For decades, the priesthood of Atlantis has said that aid is partly from the people and partly from the priesthood. If the people can afford to spend 1,300,000,000 thalers on temples, they can surely spend a few thalers on the disaster-stricken on the other side of the world.

I did some calculations. Even in rich Atlantis, it costs 20,000 thalers to build a classroom in a school. In an expensive school, it can cost 60,000 thalers — I should know, since my family overpaid for one and were never acknowledged for it. But this madness is even greater, because public housing costs about 2-300,000 thalers if you're looking for a reasonable size.

On the other side of the world, a few thalers will buy medicine, security, survival, life. The priesthood has saved at least a thousand lives, while the faithful have built temples. Glorious temples. Great temples. Money-spinning temples designed to entrap more faithful while creaming off their sinful gold. To build more temples. More glorious temples. Greater temples. (And over the years, many, many temples of all kinds, all over the face of the world.)

Temples that will wink from their golden eyes in their titanium faces, while the poor across the world lie dead in a muddy ditch. And one day, the Judge will walk the hallways of history, and He will see this, and He will strike the temples and their memory from the minds of men as He once promised — "I never knew you," He will say.

And the dead will rise. Glorious.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Five Years Ago

Five years ago, this post came up on Two Ravens:

Huginn: What the Three Sisters said to him had two meanings.

Muninn: Or six, if I remember correctly.

H: He wants to be King Hereafter and also Afterhere.

M: He is making his world into his own image. It will not be as we recall.

H: But he has said he does not want the kingdoms of the world.

M: Of course not. He only wants his own.

It's turning out to be true, as the two ravens have often been. I remember that when I left the old place two years ago, two large ravens up in a tree looked at me and said their usual, "Ark!"

The signs are everywhere, and all you have to do is listen. After all, the patriarchs and prophets worked with the ravens too.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Disaster Philosophy

Suppose a natural disaster occurs, and thousands of people are instantly rendered homeless, hurt, horrified. Some are beyond that. Then an atheist says, "These people need help."

Why is this so? From what first principles is this derived?

Perhaps it's the principle of empathy. "You can imagine yourself in their position, so you should help." But this is a position based on an imaginary situation, one that not only does not exist, but which you are deliberately imagining in order to rationalise your behaviour.

Perhaps it's the principle of equivalence. "Something like this might happen to you, and when it happens (if it happens), you would be glad for others to help you." But this is a position based on a hypothetical situation, one that does not exist and one which you imagine might exist because you hope that it is true. This one's more serious, with two possible replies. Firstly, people will help you anyway, because people help people they don't know — this is an empirical finding. Secondly, this is a bad justification for helping others; it's like pretending there's a heaven so that people will behave themselves on earth.

Perhaps it's the principle of emotion. "Oh, that's a bad thing! Here, have some money. Now I feel good." Ah, this one doesn't deserve comment. Doing things so that you feel good? Isn't that hedonism of some sort, thinly disguised?

Perhaps it's the principle of economics. "If I help people, then the nett economic power of the world increases and everyone's life gets better." Sounds plausible. But can you prove it?

Actually, the more you think about it, the more you realise that the rational atheist has no real reasons to help anybody.

But what about the rational Christian? The Christian is told essentially that he should help others because he is saved for no particular reason, and this point is rubbed in so that nobody can boast about being saved. Get this: you don't deserve it, so you should be happy with what you have — and you should help others whether or not you think they deserve it, and especially if you don't think they deserve it, because you were helped when you didn't deserve it.

It's a strangely compelling argument. It turns all the other arguments on their head. It's a WINNER.

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Stubby Sunday

If the week were a blogpost, Sunday would be a stub. When did Sunday become so stubby? Sigh.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010


Spread out like a starfish, the sense of spine is gone; all I am is centred in the gut-responses. Warmth and light turn around me. I am as much a creature of the atmospheric sea as the starfish is of the ocean. I lie in the sun, and the star lies in me.

I am aware of my mindfulness, and if I am invertebrate, it is octopoid in its curious playfulness. Head-foot, soft-shell, beaky, beady, not a sucker but mostly suckers — that is what I feel. Oddly alien, a cling-on, almost a barnacle.

What need is there for bone and spleen? I am bloodless but not colourless; I have emotions too, but they are subtle, of the water and not of the flame. I have no fat to store or burn; I have no need for bile.

Oh, the horror of it all, as I surface from the deep! The dreaming sea parts and departs, my consciousness rises into the dryness of the air, the heat and pressure of the airy world.

It is terrible to wake and find oneself merely human.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Memory Foam

I had an interesting dream last night. I dreamt that our universe was like memory foam. It has a shape, it has substance and information and form and everything — but it only retains that shape because of what the random entities in it impress upon it. Particularly intense entities leave deeper impression in their field or domain of intensity.

And that is why everything exists, why limited free will and perception exists, why the whole thing is one piece and yet not. Occasionally, our interactions within the foam spawn other entities, or other perturbations in the foam. Larger perturbations are obvious to more of us, smaller ones may go unnoticed forever.

I woke up lying on my back, feeling strangely comfortable. My first conscious thought was, "What a movie that might make!"

My enthusiasm lasted for just enough seconds until I realised that this movie would obviously have to be called 'The Mattress'.

Oh Neo.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010


ARGH. The plural of 'talisman' is NOT 'talismen'. Just because a noun ends in 'man' doesn't mean the plural ends in 'men', unless the word originally indicates some sort of 'man'. I mean, the plural of 'Roman' isn't 'Romen', is it? And neither is the plural of 'shaman' 'shamen'.

The plurals of 'talisman' and 'shaman' are 'talismans' and 'shamans' respectively, just as the plural of 'Roman' is 'Romans'. I am incredibly irritated by people who get the obvious plurals wrong. I don't mind if people think the plural of 'octopus' is 'octopi' or 'octopuses' (it ought to be 'octopodes') because nobody ever uses the real plural; the same goes for 'cyclops' (singular) and 'cyclopes' (plural).

The plural of 'cow' ought to be 'kine', just as the plural of 'sow' is 'swine'. But 'cows' and 'sows' do fine. Modern English is forgiving of those who just tack on an 's' to the end of a noun to make a plural. You only come a cropper when you get too clever and experiment with the irregular forms.

It's like the old problem of finding a plural for 'Lexus'. 'Lexuses' should be OK. If you want forms that are irregular to English, you'd have to worry about using 'Lexi', since the -us ending is normally pluralised by changing it to -i (as in 'radius' and 'radii'). However, if you want to be pedantic about it, you might want to refer to this relatively complicated section which will show you the mysteries of Latin and Greek plurals, and may initiate you into the study of supposedly more logical languages than English.

If you looked carefully at the page linked to in the previous paragraph, you may have realised (if you don't already know) that the plural of 'datum' is 'data', just as the plural of 'stratum' is 'strata'. This means that you ought to say, 'The data are bad,' and not 'The data is bad.' You would also come to the conclusion that the plural of 'Mercedes' (itself irregular in that context) should be 'Mercedei' (which sounds better than 'Mercedeses' anyway).

And, oh yes, to my friends who have just left school, an alumnus is a male ex-student; 'alumna' is the female form. The plurals of 'alumnus' and 'alumna' are respectively 'alumni' and 'alumnae'. Clear? *grin*


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Public Service

I realised not too far back that I made a big mistake more than a decade ago. It's not easily recognisable as such, which perhaps explains why I made it and never felt I had made a mistake for so many years.

It is said that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it (or at least, some of its more horrible iterations). I have realised that those who know history might still not learn their lessons in time. (Think Trotsky and Stalin, and how old Stalin was obsessed with Trotsky all his life, even after getting him icepicked to death.)

My grandfather had five sons (four and one adopted). One died young, but the other four flourished. Three became civil servants, in two of the great areas of altruistic service: health and education. One took a more direct approach to service, and went into an area that all would recognize as God's work.

I look at my students, and I look at myself. And I see that if you begin with the premise that the chief end of man is to love God and serve Him forever, then your career must be the movement from one act of service to another. It is not a trajectory to be plotted by men, nor a plan of self-aggrandizement to be plotted by you; although you might not see either of these coming, they are common traps.

My grandfather died in harness, working to the last dregs of his full consciousness as a medical man and a churchman. His career was not one of endless promotions and what others might consider milestones, although his sons, in time, eventually were granted such honours.

It's not wealth or honour, but the life of service that is the key. My mistake was when I left the service of the larger community to become a servant to an institution that kept tempting me with promotions in exchange for integrity. Fortunately, God granted me amelioration through service that could make use of my gifts. I might have served better elsewhere, amongst the less affluent and those who needed more of my time.

But I am free now, and I will try to serve. For those of my students who might chance across this sad little post, I hope that you too will remember that the service comes first and the honours and stuff come later. If you hear your relatives tell you, "Look at Uncle So-and-So, he drives an Aston Martin Lagonda now!" and try to con you into adopting a career that allows for such a lifestyle, remember that you must first choose a career that will allow you to serve and change lives for the better.

The other trap is a more insidious one. It's the one where you label yourself 'Doctor' or 'Teacher' or 'Lawman' and feel good that you are serving God. Remember, you only serve God as much as you are serving others. It isn't given to you to rule over others or to be proud that you have the role you have. It is given to you to work out a life of service, regardless of the label hung around your neck. If people label you, you might reply, "And so I am," but you are also more than that.

We are all more than what labels convey. We are children of the Highest, born for service and for mutual survival against the might of the Enemy, the blandishment of the World, the weakness of the Flesh. And because we are more than what labels convey, words are not enough to say it all — but they will serve, and so must we.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dragon Gate — A Zen Parable

I quote the following from Tricks of the Trade by Howard S Becker, pp. 218-9:

"In the middle of the ocean, there is a special place, which is a Dragon Gate. It has this wonderful property: any fish that swims through it immediately turns into a dragon.

"However, the Dragon Gate does not look any different from any other part of the ocean. So you can never find it by looking for it. The only way to know where it is is to notice that the fish who swim through it become dragons.

"However, when a fish swims through the Dragon Gate, and becomes a dragon, it doesn't look any different. It just looks like the same fish it was before. So you can't tell where the Dragon Gate is by looking closely to find just where the change takes place.

"Furthermore, when fish swim through the Dragon Gate and become dragons, they don't feel any different, so they don't know that they have changed into dragons. They just ARE dragons from then on."

It used to be thus when we were wyverns, and the Wyvern Gate was not the province of a king who never was a wyvern.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Word of the Day: Teratogenesis

This is one of those words you hardly ever see, and when you come across them you realise you wouldn't want to use them even if you had occasion to do so. The most common place to find this word is in the biological or chemical sciences.

'Teratogenesis' really means 'giving birth to monsters'. It comes from Greek teras which means 'something monstrous' or 'a marvel' (of the perverse sort), and 'genesis' which is now an English word adopted from the Greek for 'beginning'.

The thing is that for the last two decades or so, I've been studying education. And I never cease to marvel at the monstrosities that arise from the best of ideals. What better ideal is there but to educate the young in order to help them attain a better quality of life? (Yes, rhetorical question; yes, there are better ideals, but not many.)

But at the same time, the pathways to educating the young have spawned many monsters. One of the keys can be found in the utilitarian and pragmatic philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. In 1785, in an age of revolutions, he came up with the idea of the panoptikon, a prison in which the inmates could be observed with great efficiency. That word comes from the Greek for 'all-seeing'.

Modern schools are often designed, conceptually or physically, like Bentham's Panopticon (that's how it was transliterated into English). They tend to be surveillance-oriented, whether in terms of actual visual interdiction or in terms of what they call 'monitoring'. Every student is 'monitored' in many different ways, watched and tracked and so on.

It's important to note two points that come out of this narrative.

The first is that 'monitor' comes from the same root as 'admonish' — i.e., a monitor is 'one who warns'. This meaning became 'one who warns with intent to control behaviour', then 'one who warns with intent to check (as in restrain or block) behaviour', then 'a thing that warns you of certain behaviours', then 'a thing that watches other things'. When you monitor someone else, you are a thing, and so is the other person.

The second is that the adjective 'all-seeing' is normally applied to monsters. Argus Panoptes, the Greek titan with many eyes, was a monster; so too was Sauron, epic villain of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and known as the 'All-Seeing Eye'.

By creating a system that fosters this concept of subjecting students to close monitoring, we have brought new life to old monsters. Surely it is time to stop treating schools as prisons or lunatic asylums. And yes, I am sure many educators and principals (the two are not always the same thing) will object to what I've said. To them, I can only say, "You can object to the truth, but the truth is objective to you."

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sleeping Too Much

Yes, I know it's possible to get too much sleep. Your lifespan and prospects actually go down once you cross the ten-hour mark for sleep sessions. Unfortunately, I've done that two days in a row and am feeling the ill effects. Sigh.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Educational Research is a Crapshoot

In my inbox today, I found a piece of educational research which made me gasp in delighted horror:

Whiteboards' Impact on Teaching Seen as Uneven: While experts see whiteboards as powerful tools for improving instruction, teachers vary widely in their ability to use them effectively.

No, really? Haha, you could substitute 'whiteboards' with anything used in the classroom, and get the same conclusion. It's the teachers' ability to use anything effectively that is the main factor in teaching impact, not the type of tool. Morons.

Which leads me to the other thing that caught my eye — the use of the word 'crapshoot'. The etymology of this term is fascinating. 'Crap', like 'scrap', is one of a bunch of words that describe cast-offs, stuff thrown away after separation from the stuff that is useful. 'Shooting craps' is playing a dice game in which rolling the right numbers gets you something and all else is 'crap' — normally a roll of 2 or 3 on two dice.

It's also interesting to compare this to the etymology of 'raffles': late 14c., from O.Fr. rafle "dice game," also "plundering," perhaps from a Gmc. source (cf. M.Du. raffel "dice game," O.Fris. hreppa "to move," O.N. hreppa "to reach, get," Ger. raffen "to snatch away, sweep off"), from P.Gmc. *khrap- "to pluck out, snatch off." The notion would be "to sweep up (the stakes), to snatch (the winnings)." (Taken from my favourite etymology site.)

The reason this is related to educational research is Thomas Kühn, famed for his ideas on paradigmatic change in the sciences. Kühn talked about a situation in which there were plenty of scientists but no science, occurring when the vocabulary used by people doing research had not stabilised (i.e. not enough common definitions) and hence there was no way to conduct peer-reviewed or objective (objectivised?) analysis.

In other words, you have to restrict meaning artificially (and remove the rest as 'crap') or else you have no meaning. But you never know if your restrictions are meaningful — you restrict meaning solely so that you can conduct fruitful dialogues with others.

This is the real reason why educational research is a crapshoot. You throw the dice, discard what looks unnecessary, keep the good rolls. You record all the good rolls and pretend that this is all you need. On the face of it, there are more non-bad rolls than bad rolls. But what people often don't realise is that there are a lot of rolls that don't do anything at all, or which terminate a sequence but don't add value.

Nobody really knows how much value education adds to people except in terms of other social constructs which we don't really know the value of either — things like money, reputation, knowledge, power. But we have to assign values to all of these, because otherwise, our tenuous hold on human reality weakens and we either spin free of the maelstrom or are sucked under. Most of us prefer to just spin around in the whirlpool until our time is up.

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Friday, January 08, 2010


It's sometimes possible to see the world as a trap. Here you are, a transmaterial entity, stuck in a world where your corporeal behaviour is dictated (and dictated to) by mere physicality.

Then again, modern philosophers have also tried taking the ghost out of the machine by saying that this perception (along with all your sense of self and such) is just an emergent property of physicality. This is of course science at the it's-all-I-can-see-and-all-else-is-vaporware level, which to be honest is about all science should aspire to (which is why philosophy is its metacognitive overview).

In this latter view, you can't possibly be trapped. Rather, your emergence is just that and signifies nothing. It's an illusion of self-awareness because there isn't really a self, just a corridor of mirrors. It's not so much a butterfly from a cocoon as one of those stereo images that you don't see until you've focussed on them just right. And you're the image.

What's always bugged me is that of course everything I use to evaluate anything is pinned to this emergent (or pre-existent) sense of self. All your tests are circumscribed by this sense of self. There is literally nothing that can be objective without being acknowledged as such by the subjective. And if the subjective is illusory, the objective may be more so, since it is merely the subjective at one level (or any number of levels, if you like) removed.

This is all old stuff, but it hits you sometimes that for all the illusory nature (or not), you can't escape from the self. You're stuck with you. Best make the best of it.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Democracy and Dimensionality

Last night, narcotized by common drugs and the general ennui of modern life (here, we call it sian), I fell asleep at my desk. While imprinting a standard Qwerty keyboard onto my face, I had some odd thoughts in that fleeting moment in which you aren't sure whether you're asleep or not.

The first thought was nothing new. 'Democracy is a sham,' said the Ghost of Politics Past. I sniggered in my mind while my body drooled mindlessly.

'Democracy doesn't work, or it works by not working,' said the Ghost of Politics Present. I thought of how India and the USA worked. Huge confederations of many states, each with conflicting interests, with any democrats in them united by the urge to mobilise large bodies of people to produce narrow ends (something like a serious workout regime). My mind nodded vigorously.

'Democracy is a multidimensional construct which people fail to understand because they map it to at most two dimensions, which is far too few dimensions for any mapping to succeed,' said the Ghost of Politics Progressive. 'But with the advent of quantum computing nodes interfaced to human brains, we will have the ultimate democracy, and it will prove to be the most useless thing ever constructed because it will reduce the solution space for any problem to nothing.'

At that point, I was sure I was asleep because the conscious mind cannot handle such thoughts without thinking of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. But I was also sure that there was a great deal of truth in what the last GPP had said. When you predicate ideology and consequent action on something which is meant to represent the largest possible range of human opinion, you are actually painting yourself into a corner because humans are by nature complex and contrary. The more degrees of freedom you allow, the less actual progress there is.

It's enough to make you an authoritarian, it is. Sigh.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Violence is necessary even at the atomic or molecular level. There can be no transactions of energy or matter without enormous violence at the submicroscopic scale. This violence continues all the way up into biology at any scale, and thence to sociology and other more macro-level constructs.

The problem with much of the humanities is that they are elaborate narrative artifices or narrative factories designed to allow us to pretend as well as to mask such pretense or pretensions. The simpler (or earlier) the narratives, the less they mask the violence (see the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, for example; also compare Genesis to the Gospels).

The reason we tend to confuse all narratives with religion is that the whole thing is a seamless body of interwoven narratives. There is no literature or avenue of inquiry in the humanities that isn't religious in its roots.

That puts us in a parlous position when discussing violence. Everything is tainted with it, a fact which is as much acknowledged in the old stories (like Cain and Abel) as in the modern narratives.

The argument, therefore, that religious impulses are a major cause of violence (as people like Sam Harris seem to believe) is impossible to test. It is like saying, "Being human makes you prone to violence." The only way to test that is to remove what makes you human and see if you are still prone to violence; since we don't know what it is that we have to remove, and the causes of violence (in general) are too many and too different, we can't really test this assertion.

Likewise, to test the assertion that religious belief is a major cause of violence requires one to believe in turn that the human tendency to be violent is one level higher than the human tendency to have beliefs that can be considered religious. That has to be wrong; it's easier for humans to apprehend and comprehend violence than religion, and requires the use of less brain. Evolutionary biologists would have to agree — it's easier to observe violence in animals (and figure out why and whence this tendency arises) than to observe religion in animals.

Sam Harris and those of his ilk must be wrong. They have been overwhelmed by their own narrative and rhetoric, and have now turned the universe firmly on its head in order to squat in the ruins of the New Atheism.


Note: Harris is particularly against Islam in terms of one kind of violence. He seems to say that if an increased tendency to commit acts of terrorism can be linked statistically to being Muslim, then all Muslims should submit to the indignity of their ethnicity being used as a tool for profiling. Actually, the statistics can be shown to be distorted by the unique case of the 9/11 incident, which was indeed carried out by terrorists who were Muslims.

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After the Results

I've been an aficionado of Atlantean educational programmes for a while; that is to say, I have an affection for them that is born of close and lengthy acquaintance, and that familiarity which does not necessarily lead to contempt. Today, the results of one of those programmes were released, as is usual, on the 12th day of Christmas at 12 noon.

There is nothing unexpected here. The excellence follows the trend outlined in my thesis; effective strategies, efficient consolidation of strengths, clever compensation for weaknesses, no long-term vision apart from that which can be pragmatically handled without the use of philosophy. There is much to be learnt here about the effective use of resources; one point that stands out is the fact that if you have a large excess of certain resources, the market will forgive inefficiencies.

To me, however, the crucial point is this: such an event is a terminus and not an ending. It is at this point, if they haven't already done so, that students should launch an incisive appraisal of all their possibilities and try to make good choices about 'all their after life', as the great and dauntless hero once said.

Yes, they should ask their seniors. But more important, they should synthesize and reconcile the views of as many people as possible. The world out there is incredibly complex and subject to lunatic vagaries. They should get the opinions of freshmen and sophomores, graduate students and postdocs, industry players and employers, professionals and managers. Be curious. Be bold. Be inquisitive where mere curiosity does not suffice.

It will save a lot of uncertainty, even if it doesn't entirely remove it. It will be a Good Thing.

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I amused myself this morning, to the detriment of productivity, by looking at ugly words while anticipating even uglier ones. Although there are many ugly words in circulation, and people have taken to banning what they think are the more egregious ones (like 'czar' when used to denote a multidisciplinary bureaucrat, or the equivalent), there are few that actually hurt the brain and the eyes which are the windows thereto.

One such word is the title of this post. It is aesthetically ugly. It has hidden connotations which are etymologically unsound. It has nothing to do with innocents, incense, cents, or the like. It has to be considered cautiously in order to be parsed correctly. Yes, indeed, it does refer to the practice, process or state of having incentive(s) removed.

Surely the disciples of Gowers et al can mount an effective response? If not, we are all doomed. Or at the very least, disincentivized.


Note: Technically, it should be 'disincentivised', since the core word (incentivus, 'to strike up a tune') is Latin and shouldn't have a suffix equivalent to Greek -izein, which does have a 'z'.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Word of the Day: Cholecystectomy

For some reason, this particular word is very much on my mind. It must be to do with the time I've spent talking to Gnomus.

'Cholecystectomy' is one of those words that medical professionals coin from elements of classical Greek in order to perpetuate their control over the hoi polloi by jargonistic prowess. Essentially, it comes from Greek khole- + küstis + ek- + tomos.

Khole comes from khloë, the Greek word for 'spring green' that is also the root of 'chlorine'. (Anyone named Chloë will now realise that they have a vegetable adjective for a name.) It means 'that green stuff' which is actually 'bile pigment' — the stuff that makes some of the body's excrescences look yellow. It's not easy being green — the word khole also alludes to waste pipes.

Küstis means 'bladder' or 'pouch'. The modern compound word kholeküstis therefore means nothing more than 'gall bladder'.

The prefix ek- sometimes means 'not' but often means 'out', as in exodos, which means 'way out'. Tomos means 'a cutting', so anything '-ectomy' means something is being cut out.

Put it all together, as you probably have by now, and you have 'cholecystectomy' = 'gall-bladder-out-cutting'. That is, an operation in which the gall bladder is removed, most often to prevent recurrence of gallstones and the awful symptoms that come with that.


Update: Yes, they have removed the thing, just before inflammation caused it to explode. The stone was of the size and granular demeanour of an olive; the method of removal was that of multiple portals — what is called the laparoscopic method. The object of the operation is doing well, and is in high spirits.

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Monday, January 04, 2010


I got to talking with Gnomus the other night. We had a brief but poignant chat about what we really missed about the old place. We missed the students, the culture, the ideals most of all; the politics and the shady deals, the vulgar and somewhat tawdry attitudes not at all. The buildings were just buildings, of course. We missed the noodles. And of all things, we missed singing the Anthem, that uplifting paean to a vanished age, almost every Monday morning.

Yet, that age of mankind is not yet completely vanished, not yet vanquished or dishonoured. We still have heroes from foreign shores, we still have many sons and daughters from all the world's wide lands. We still stand together for the cause, with the hearts, the hopes, and the aims still one. It is a fellowship not to be broken, even if you have outside influences baring their malign fangs and inside influences like viruses trying to infiltrate a cell and spawn copies of themselves.

We will always remember the words of Robert Browning in Rabbi Ben Ezra:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be —
The last of life, for which the first was made.
Our lives are in His hand,
Who saith, "A whole I planned —
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid."

The years have passed: some have been kind, some less kind, some rather cruel. But there is still a fellowship. We might not all believe in the same God, or a God at all. But deep inside, there is the sense that there is more to come, that the best is yet to be, that there is a higher purpose or a higher calling — and even if there weren't, it would be our duty or our destiny to make it so.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010


I will hit the second prime of the decade in a few months' time. And since it is a new year, I have resorted to cataloguing my infirmities for two reasons: primus, in order to make decisions concerning their cure, removal, or amelioration; secundus, in order to chart my progress towards decrepitude, or if this body be indeed a temple of the Holy Spirit, towards dilapidation.

Head: I have always been colour-blind and there is no help for that. My hearing is slightly worse, my eyesight has begun to approach the edge of presbyopia while the astigmatism has made me shortsighted in many environments. Smell is still a good sense, improving with age for some unknown reason. I have occasional tension headaches, with accompanying clenching of the muscles temporalis, which does not help my temper and makes me even more aware of the passing of time.

Upper Limbs: My wrist muscles need more work. I still strain them too easily. The pain from my right shoulder, in particular, tends to create phantom pain in my right wrist. I can no longer differentiate the two. I am beginning to get pains in the joints of the phalanges. The acromoclavicular joint injury I had 25 years ago is still a nagging pain once or twice a year.

Upper Body: The little growth I had, just off the sternum, stabilised years ago. My lungs are clear despite various scares. My back hurts more quickly when I adopt unnatural postures. This is a warning sign. I try to keep flexible.

Lower Body: Things are OK. Despite the many recessive genes I carry, nothing's gone too badly wrong hereabouts. My lower back has a little wear and tear, but less than my upper back. I have a fat butt.

Lower Limbs: These get abused the most. I have tried many kinds of shoes, but the fact remains that I walk too much and I have flat feet. I have had a small fracture or two in the past. I am quite sure that it is well with my soles these days.

Internal Organs: All's well. Brain not so good these days, but guts still functional. Blood has actually improved since the days of my youth.

Integument: Skin as bad as ever, which is to say not so bad. Some coloured spots, but not unusual ones. Hair going slightly grey as the maternal genes dictate. White in some spots which are not open to the public.

Ah well, we all grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Seeing the World through X-Ray Glasses

I've just read one of those irritating American articles by columnists that can't be bothered to even check things up before agitating the populace. Such people explain why there is very intelligent stuff coming out of the States as well as ridiculous moronic stuff. In this case, one Carol Felsenthal tries to liken airport scanners to 1950s fluoroscopy — a bit like saying your iPhone is like a chest x-ray.

For the benefit of those who like it pictorial, look at this picture. The millimetre-wave scanners suggested for use in airport scans produce radiation in the EHF range (wavelength roughly 10 mm), while x-rays are typically about 10 million to 100 million times stronger. You would get about 0.5 to 1.5 chest x-rays worth of radiation just by flying across the Pacific, as even the EPA admits.

In short, choosing to fly already exposes you to millions of times more radiation than being scanned at airport security. Heck, they could scan Carol Felsenthal a million times and she'd still receive less radiation than she would flying from her office to her holiday home. As for privacy concerns, I'd rather pass through the scanner than be patted down.

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A medieval bestiary is a wonderful thing to behold. From the fertile imagination of homo mediaevalis, desperately using bird flight-pattern divination to seek a better age than the one he found himself in (auspicium melioris aevi, as they say), came glorious pictures of creatures that never existed or overly creative pictures of real creatures.

One of my readers requested that I provide a little guide to differentiating between Gryphons, Wyverns and Torchbearers. Well, let's assume that the rest of my readers have no ideas or preconceptions about Atlantean education. Then the task is simple, and I shall do it the easy way first.

The gryphon and the wyvern are etymologically related according to some accounts. This is because as in many word-pairs (such as 'guard' and 'ward', 'guardian' and 'warden', 'Guillaume' and 'William', 'guile' and 'wile') it is obvious that the Norman 'gu' and the Saxon 'w' are somewhat interchangeable. However, a closer inspection of the two shows significant differences.

It is more likely that 'gryphon' comes from Greek grypos, or 'hook-nosed', 'beaky'. It was a term used for the birdlike guardian spirits of the East, which in various accounts ranged from tiny brazen birds with very sharp beaks and teeth(!) to huge winged sphinx-like monsters like those depicted in Assyrian statuary. Eventually, it was linked to creatures which were eagle from chest up and lion from torso down, with the nasty habit of eating horses. The Atlantean gryphon however seems to have lost its way; it is a two-headed eagle (Aquila imperialis Rafflesii) rather than a true gryphon. That being so, it is often seen as a greedy, grasping, ambitious carrion-eater which looks both ways so that it might eat everything; not for nothing did the imperial monarchies of Austria and Russia adopt a two-headed eagle for their dubious heraldry.

The wyvern, however, has a less auspicious origin. It's quite likely that 'wyvern' comes from various Western European languages (e.g. OFr guivre which, as hinted at above, became Saxon wivre, plural wivren) which distorted the original Latin vipera, which is a particularly nasty snake. However, that perspective is slightly short-sighted. The Latin vipera comes from viviparere, a word that survives almost unchanged as English 'viviparous' — 'bringing forth live young' (as opposed to hatching them from eggs as an eagle would, I suppose). The wyvern's offspring are therefore a lot more lively than the eagle's.

But what really is a a wyvern? Well, most heralds agree that a wyvern refers to a beast that has two clawed feet and a dragon's body and wings. The details may vary; a fair number of these wyverns have the barbed tail that indicates serpentine (and poisonous) character. It is quite clear that the creature depicted here, for example, is indeed a wyvern by definition and cannot be a gryphon, since the nether parts are draconian and not leonine.

Where do torchbearers come into this mess? Well, it would seem that in modern Atlantis, there are those who use a logo that depicts a Promethean flame; that is, it is a flame that indicates knowledge — in the case of this logo, by associating the flame with what looks like a book.

The Promethean myth is intimately associated with flying beasts of all mythological kinds, as well as the myths of knowledge. More than five years ago, I posted this, if you wish to know more.

Within the modern Atlantean context, however, it might be of interest for me to quote a fable that a wise man, once a Power of the Torchbearers, told to a mixed group of educators one fine day in the Educators' Guild:

Once upon a time, there were three young men standing on the Hill of Tin. One was a Wyvern, one was a Gryphon, and one was a Torchbearer.

They were told by the Thunderer to find a way from the top of the Hill to the bottom without using wings or fire, thus blazing (haha) a trail for others to follow. It was interesting to see what transpired once the echoes of the thunder had died away.

The Gryphon (or at least, the two-headed eagle masquerading as one) looked left and right, forward and back, up and down, East and West. It then quartered the terrain visually, calculated the optimal path, and started down. Since he had already calculated the path, all he needed to do was proceed relentlessly to the end.

The Wyvern, a well-rounded but slightly odd character like all of his ilk, tucked his wings and tail around him, ignored the obstacles, and rolled downhill, reaching the bottom first. He had yielded completely to Newton's Laws except when he got stuck, at which point he thrashed around randomly with his wings and tail until he got unstuck.

The Thunderer rewarded him with the right to do whatever he wanted, but with no further support. The Gryphon, who arrived (as usual) slightly later than that, was promised full support as long as he stuck to the Thunderer's rules. The Torchbearer also got to do what he wanted, for he never reached the bottom of the Hill and the Thunderer gave up on him.

At this point, we all expressed curiosity as to why the Torchbearer never got to the bottom. The wise man told us, "Torchbearers are very bright, but they often cannot see further than their own flames. Worse, since they are very square, they can't roll down the hill at all."

We had a good laugh. Shortly thereafter, the wise man transferred and is now a Power at the Artisans' School that has just got a new campus downtown.

I'll just end with an interesting little factoid. If you take a good look at the Atlantean priesthoods, you'll find that the majority of the priests are either Gryphons or Torchbearers. However, the number that get promoted to archpriests is disproportionately biased in favour of Wyverns. This is especially true in the priesthoods that control money and education, since these were once the domains of the Gnome, that ancient and talented Wyvern who was the Thunderer's alter ego.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

Word of the Day: Ooft

'Ooft' is something like the past perfect tense of 'oof'. It can be used as an adjective describing a state of slight deflation, the sensation of being unable to quite wake up and get going after a New Year's Eve dinner. You get up in the morning, slightly disoriented, realising that you are stiff in the muscles and need to loosen up, but somehow lacking the power to do this loosening.

Young people are seldom ooft. But when you hit 40 and beyond, ooftiness is more frequent.

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