Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Moment of Impact

Last night I saw two moments of impact. The first was enormous, the second was on a much more personal level. It seemed facetious to compare the two; only an accident of timing had brought them anywhere near each other and they shared little in common.

In the first, the Nazca plate off the coast of Chile thumped yet again into the underside of the South American plate. The result was an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale (about 10x the magnitude of the one that hit Haiti earlier). The reverberations resulted in tsunami warnings for places as far away as Japan. Despite the intensity of the quake, the death toll is not expected to cross 250.

In the second, promising Welsh player Aaron Ramsey took a hit from a horrified Ryan Shawcross in the Stoke City-Arsenal soccer match. Shawcross missed his tackle and fractured Ramsey's lower leg so badly that the foot was hanging loosely off the joint. It was clear that players from both teams were badly shaken. Ramsey is 19 years old, 5'11"; Shawcross is only 22, 6'5" and was just called up for England.

How can you compare the two? You can't. The first is a natural event in which more than 200 people lost their lives. The second is an unnatural event in which a young man has broken his leg. But the fact is that they are juxtaposed in our consciousness, and human empathy is such that it is easier to imagine breaking your own leg badly than to imagine the agony of 200 deaths.

When I saw the first event in the media, it was hard to assess my immediate emotional response. I must confess I felt relieved that relatively few people had died. When I saw the second, my heart sank. When the cameras pan away from the scene and the last thing you saw was a crunching impact that leaves someone's leg looking wrong, there's a more visceral sensation.

That highlights the difference between an objectified event and a subjectified one. The former was big, and you felt you ought to feel bad for victims of such a disaster. But the latter was more personal. You felt bad at once. You felt bad later when you realised you honestly felt worse for Aaron Ramsey than for Chile. Emotion is a funny thing.

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Defeasible Reasoning

For the last twenty-five years or so, students and colleagues (and colleagues who are fellow students, or students-turned-colleagues) have been asking me questions and which I've gamely tried to answer. We trade questions, mostly with civility, sometimes with a slightly jagged or sharp edge; it can get heated at times, but we learn a lot from each other.

There is one particular problem I've identified, which I personally call the 'textbook problem'. This is best stated as a subconscious tendency to adhere to 'textbook knowledge', which is not reprehensible or to be considered less lacking in authority simply because it is from a textbook, but is problematic because textbooks are always out of date. By the time a textbook is edited and published, it is often a year or two out of date. In some cases, because it is indeed a good textbook, serious revisions do not occur for longer periods of time.

One would think that the quicker publishing that online modes afford should eliminate or reduce the problem. This is not always the case. However, it does bring the horizon closer to the sailor, as it were.

The second part of the problem, however, is that this enhanced access to knowledge doesn't seem to be utilised by a lot of the people I encounter. This is not meant as an insult or belittlement, but is a fact based on my own perceptions. I interact with many people, and in my interactions, find that they haven't used something simple like Google or Wikipedia to find out more about whatever they are supposed to know.

The third part of the problem is that people assume that other people know how to use Google and Wikipedia and all the other wonderful iterations of the information age as manifest in the works of the internet. But because of the second part of the problem, these expectations are sometimes dangerously unfounded and may lead to awkward disappointment.

This is the case with the many people I encounter whose epistemology seems to be based on a stilted sort of hybrid of Plato and logical positivism. Or some vague spirituality. Or other ideas which they got from other people — and strangely enough, didn't bother to evaluate further using internet-based tools. I'm not saying that these tools are better, but they are certainly faster than the ones I grew up with, in most cases. In a pinch, speed has to be a substitute for depth, and often is.

Let's try an experiment. All you TOK students out there, looking for answers to your 2010-2011 TOK Essay Topics and suchlike, why don't you try working your way through this article from the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy first? I am very certain that it will yield dividends in the days ahead. I mean, just imagine what the following sentence might mean for the fate of your TOK essay:

"With the collapse of logical positivism in the mid twentieth century (and the abandonment of attempts to treat the physical world as a logical construction from facts about sense data), new attention was given to the relationship between sense perception and the external world."

Now imagine that I was setting the 2011-2012 TOK Essay Topics, and I used that quote, followed by, "Discuss the nature of this relationship, with respect to two different areas of knowledge." Are we having fun yet?

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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Tax-Collector's Gospel

It is some accident of history, if such are the narratives you believe in, that the first gospel of Jesus Christ is the one attributed to one Matthew, a tax-collector by profession. About thirteen years ago, I remember preaching about what this Matthew said about what his master said not. Here is what I found when I was reading up for it:

By taking a quick look at the verses which are designated to be Matthew 5:17, 9:13, 10:34, and 20:28, we learn that Jesus’ own words tell us about why He did not come, before he tells us why He did.
  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”
  • “But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
  • “...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
If you read these lines, and the context in which Matthew embedded them, the conclusion is inescapable. The Jesus many Christians think about is not the Jesus that the Christian Bible actually says he is. You have to tread very carefully indeed, to avoid the many traps that a person might fall into while making odd claims about Jesus.

For Matthew was a tax-collector, a professional at the art of extracting coinage from those who sought to hide it. He knew what words meant, and kept his meaning plain. If you trust the integrity of his text, you should read Matthew 10 before you talk about the Great Commission (a phrase not found in the original text) or anything else which might stir you to action in the world around you.

Thirteen years later, I have to remind myself about such things again.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010


Unicorn sightings are rare.

It was in college that I first met the young lady whom I thought of as 'the unicorn'. I have only a few vague ideas as to why. Unicorn lore (odd, fairly localised and sometimes contradictory) is no help. I suspect that part of it had to do with the very creative personality with odd sharp edges and sudden scintillating facets that I saw. I never got to know her very well.

Today I saw the unicorn again. Like all unicorn encounters, you come out of it wondering if it was real. And yet at least one thing has changed: you know more about unicorn encounters than you knew before. You too are different; you know more about life than you did before. When you put the two together, you are more able to make sense of the unicorn.

Today is a good day.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Secular Reason?

By some odd coincidence, I was going to write something about this because in the last few weeks, a lot of guff has been spewed forth about religion, lack of religion, society, religious impact on society, minimising this impact, and so on. Then Stanley Fish wrote this op-ed piece in the NYT.

It's by no means complete, and it has holes of vagueness in a few spots, but it highlights the problems of purely secular reasoning. These can be summarised like this: 1) it's not human to reason ONLY from 'what is known'; 2) 'what is known' is known only by the rules we form from 'what is known' — ahem; 3) if you reason from 'what is known', then how do you determine what to do with 'what is known', since that would mean that 'what is known' determines its own ends?

From this, one possible conclusion is that one should look for stuff that is not based on 'what is known' in order to figure out what we ought to do with 'what is known'. The problem with that is that there are many things which are by definition illogical and nonsensical (that is, they are inconsistent or incoherent with 'what is known'), and we can't know which (if any) of them actually provides the answer to what we ought to do with 'what is known'.

This leads us in the other direction. We have to figure out, if we want to reason secularly, what to do with 'what is known' based only on 'what is known'. Is this useful, or is this just saying that 'secular' is a mispronunciation of 'circular'?

George Holyoake in 1896 defined secularism in terms of 1) improving the present life by material means, 2) science determining the range of benefits available through material means, and 3) doing good for your present life is good, whether or not you can determine other forms of 'good'. Nietzsche defined it in terms of something more empirical — what is strong survives and is therefore better than what does not survive (and is therefore 'weak'). Kant said that the test of a moral assertion or maxim was whether a viable world could be imagined in which everyone behaved according to this — the 'categorical imperative' test.

Later, the idea of utilitarianism (measured numerically, statistically or economically in circles of ever-increasing complexity) was championed by people like Bentham and then J S Mill. This was Kantianism upside-down — you assess if the end is good, not bothering with the principle or practice leading to it. Marx was dead against this, pointing out that such assessment, based on humans, would change in each era and circumstance of mankind.

The latest word on secular reasoning is probably that of Ayn Rand. She said essentially that you should live for yourself only and that keeping yourself alive in certain ways, because of the pleasure of being alive, should be the main principle of existence. It provides a strong and readily-available basis for a secular life.

So it turns out that yes, there are secular reasons for doing things. Whether they are good reasons or not is arguable. They are probably the best reasons that reason can produce from what reason affirms to exist. Still, the sense of the order of the world being nothing but a circular orbit is sometimes painful. From an information science point of view, can data determine information? Can information determine knowledge? It all seems the wrong way round.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Thirty Years' War

From approximately 1980 to 2010, American educators seem to have reversed every opinion they've ever had about education in general. I say 'seem' because it's only a few of them, but they're very loud, and also because some of them are Canadian, which means they are American, but not quite.

In the past, you could focus on the huge centres of Chicago and New York and write a pretty convincing piece of educational research that would convince people around the world that this was the way to go. Somewhere around the mid-1980s, the World Bank and other iffy bodies with access to lots of data and opinions figured out that whatever worked for America wouldn't work in most other places elsewhere.

In fact, whatever worked for Chicago and New York probably wouldn't work for most other places in North America, let alone South America or any other continent. And then came increasing crises of confidence, with chroniclers such as Tyack, Cuban, Ravitch and commentators like Gardner and Fullan. 'Back to the basics' + 'look to the future' became 'back to the future while looking at the basics'. The whole thing started going back-to-front, culminating with endless refinements as Fullan gilded his lily with more and more pretty touches and Gardner's descent into the orthogonal aspects of intelligence became his ascent to the clearer state of enlightenment known as 'well I guess we don't know'.

Then from the mid-1990s, the idea of using functional MRI and other tools to probe the mysteries of the brain finally blossomed. We suddenly thought we knew a lot more about the brain, and started doing things based on that.

Unfortunately, the premise that the mind in the brain functioned separately from the rest of the body in the social context turned out to be yet another iffy proposition. It turns out that, as far as we now know, the way the mind works is embedded first in the body and then in the family unit and then in the surrounding culture. Our classroom assumptions are based on whatever stage of this argument we decided to stop at.

In fact, there is no complete theory of mind without everything including the liver, the skin, the words your neighbour whispered in your ear, and so on. The sheer vastness of this landscape tends to cause two equal and nominally opposed reactions.

Firstly, we have the idea of 'classical principles', which normally means a fall-back to Plato, goodness, truth and beauty. Secondly, we have the idea of 'man the naked ape', which normally means a fall-back to some near-animistic holism. The two are not completely irreconcilable (hence my use of 'nominally') but they tend to be characterized as 'civilised' (well, city-dwelling at any rate) and 'savage' (or naturalist, if you prefer) even if those words aren't directly used.

As we hit the 30-year mark in the 'modern discourse about education', one obvious problem is that education cannot exist without ends and tests, but we have no idea what these ought to be. The tests (and ends) have ranged from silly to pragmatic, from theoretical to practical, from numerical to aesthetic. But you have to test for something, and you have to make sure that testing for whatever you're testing has some sort of relationship to usefulness in society. Yet even testing has come under fire — testing of any kind.

The real problem of actually doing something about it, however, is that the one best system that could possibly have worked — the apprenticeship model (or the model apprenticeship) — no longer works because of the rate of change. Humans don't really change, but the things of the world around us do, and with increasing velocity. It's possible that you can no longer apprentice yourself or be apprenticed to a master because what he has mastered may no longer be relevant to what you will need to do.

As in the original Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648, the landscape around us is now full of barren wastelands, death, destruction, the upheaval of the world of states and the state of the world. But just like that war, a huge amount of opportunity and possibility may lie around the next corner. It all hinges on what we have learnt, what we might yet learn, and how we learn it.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Reversal

I've realised that back at the old place, I loathed and loved Mondays in equal measure. I loved Mondays for the singing of songs and the renewed contact with people in the classroom; I loathed Mondays for the delivery of jargonistic phrases and the renewed contact with some people outside the classroom.

Now I love Mondays without reservation. It's a return to work that I love; I get to meet people who want to learn and who I want to teach. And I don't have to meet the people that used to irritate the heck out of me with their lack of professionalism. What a win!


Sunday, February 21, 2010



I am not aesthetically pleasing. I had a sharp face with a large nose. Now everything broadens. I am nondescript. My hair was fine, grows coarse; was brown, grows grey. My lips split in the winter of 1980 and the dark scars remain. My right shoulder is lower than my left; the muscles holding it in place were warped when the ligaments tore in 1985. My neck hurts all the time because of this, my tendons and the sternocleidomastoid have hypertrophied over 25 years.

My fingers are like mushrooms, knobby, at odds with each other. Cupping my hands for water merely spills it inefficiently. I bruised knuckles, twisted joints, hit walls with fists one time too many. I wrote too much, and the contact points of pen and hand are shiny with elision. I have not wrinkled yet; I fear I am too parched to do that, the small scars of glass and stone like pebbles in a pond of rippling skin.

My hips creak alarmingly; I sense the firing of my knees a scant second before they sound off like pistol shots. The X-rays show no permanent damage from shoulder to ankle; even the childhood asthma and TB have left no trace. I stand relatively upright, having learnt to hide my deformities.

My legs are different. Each knee has different contours, is an imperfect reflection of its twin. My big toes are bunioned at the joint, swelling most in the afternoon, desperate nodes of compensation for flat feet. More scars line my shins and ankles, the legacy of barefoot games and bad healing. I used to have a mole beneath one sole, but it too has gone away with time.

The toe I broke, should a more alert reader inquire, still stands aloof from its peers. It had a taste of near-freedom, and now sulks and twinges in remembrance of the past.

And this is all I see, but how can I describe what I feel of me? "Much has been lost, and there is yet much to lose." "We are not now that strength which in old days..." "I am old." But it is not me that I fear, nor yet the failing of the light, but that I will be trapped in the ruins as they collapse one day.

I have gained four kilos, almost nine pounds since I was a teenager. It has not settled well. It is the same with all the books, nearly 15,000 of them; all the thoughts, far more than that; all the knowledge, so useless at times; all the memories that I kept in the hope that they might some day be something in reserve.

I thank God I have friends. Perhaps something of me will survive because of them. Perhaps they will remind me who I am, and who I might yet be. I choose, at this point, to end the examination before it does more than scratch the surface.


Candidate takes himself too seriously. Fortunately, he does not know the rubrics by which we judge him. Then again, he would probably laugh them off. He is quite convinced that God heals all scars, and has faith that he will pass because of this. Since this is the case, I concur with the opinion of the preliminary panel. Keep his status unclear until some future time. He has been a naughty man.


Planting rice is never fun.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010


About a week and a half ago, I was having a conversation with the WSM. We were discussing Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, and the WSM came up with something truly interesting. This is what he said:

I have this theory too: that organisations are pre-dominantly collectives of producers and police.

People get together to form organisations for the purpose of pooling, redistributing and re-purposing (production/manufacturing) resources efficiently... anything from governments, schools, corporations, to the religious, etc.

As organisations get larger, processes (laws/rules) are put into place to remove ambiguity and create fairer redistribution (or treatment of its members). But as exceptions to policies (naturally) occur, further alteration or amendment of processes is required to cater for those exceptions. However, processes and policy exceptions (e.g. amendments + codification of laws) require policing.

An organisation (organism) then reaches a kind of tipping point when there are more police than producers, and revolution ensues. (Because police/politicians/policiers(?) only improve processes but can't affect production once you go past some point of marginal utility/economy of scale.)

At this point the matrix resets itself.

The WSM is a very profound person at times. Here he has managed to encapsulate the behaviour of a lot of organisations all at once. I told him I would quote him as an unpublished source, and he very kindly assented.

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My working day used to begin around 6 am and end around 1 am, with breaks in between. Now it begins around 8 am and ends around 7 pm, with breaks in between. Less work is getting done. I am a more relaxed person (then again, some who know me might want to know how that's even possible).

But I don't think, on reflection, that I'm that much happier. I just have fewer reasons to be melancholic about my working life.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Stub in a Season of Winter

Coal is for the reckless — solar for the slow —
Wind is for the deserts which will never grow.

"Good!" said the Alien, looking down from high,
"But Fusion — Cold Fusion — is master of the sky."

...with apologies to Rudyard Kipling.

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Field Stripping

It's been a very long while since I did this. But last night, I had an incredibly detailed dream about it.

I dreamt I was happily field stripping and cleaning an M16 rifle. I was using flannelette, I could smell the gun oil. I remember looking along the barrel for 'elephants'.

It was so vivid that when I woke up at 4.30 am, I could see, imprinted in my vision, the ghostly outlines of the parts of the rifle action laid out neatly on a cloth background. For some reason, this was highly disturbing.

I guess there was one good thing about this. After all these years, I can still field strip an M16 in my sleep. Literally.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Toyota Parable

Bill Saporito at (4 Feb 2010) provides the story from which this 'digest' version comes:

Toyota built its reputation and market share through its renowned "continuous improvement" method. The Toyota mantra was "Quality First" because it led to lower costs, and hence to higher market share.

But in the '90s, Toyota set out to become the world's top auto company. Being the best and being the biggest created a tension that Toyota couldn't resolve, says MIT operations expert Steven Spear: "If quality is first, it drives a certain set of behaviors. If market share is the goal, it drives a different set of behaviors."

Even as Toyota was catching up to the global No. 1, General Motors, the reputation of its cars was slipping. Spear, who has apprenticed in Toyota factories, says the problem was that the "Toyota way" — in which knowledge accumulated by élite cadres of engineers and assembly workers over many years is shared across the company — was diluted by the demands of production. "In the late '90s, people in Toyota would say, 'This is going to bite us in the ass,' " says Spear. "They just didn't know when."

Now they do. "We have to strengthen quality control," says Shinichi Sasaki, executive vice president for quality. It's a startling admission from a company that made reliability its quest. Toyota will fix its manufacturing problem. Restoring its reputation is going to take a lot longer.

This reminds me a lot of the Old Place. You can see how 'the demands of production' are leading to the dispersion of the knowledge assets of the corporate body, the loss of quality as quantity production is ramped up. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Truth or Dare?

Today, I had the opportunity to catch up on some reading and I read these immortal lines: "In a free society, independent journalists and scholars will invariably emerge to write stories and accounts they honestly believe."

The problem is that, as in other free societies, there are morons who honestly believe that aliens are cloning Elvis up a kangaroo's arse, and so on. Thus we get stories and accounts they honestly believe but which we shouldn't.

I find this typical of many 'truth in journalism' and 'open society' publications and websites. 10% sycophancy or whatever becomes 100% untruth on the principle that unless something is completely truth, it is all falsehood. The problem has always been at least twofold in journalism:

1) Since total objectivity and completeness of knowledge are impossible, how objective and complete is the account? (And if you go for 100%, then it's ALL lies no matter what, no matter where.)

2) How qualified is the interpretation of data? And what is the significance of any particular datum?

The questions that the public should ask of ALL sides are: Does any of this drive society forward or is it just manure stirring/spreading to prove one's anti-/pro- establishment or academic scholar/shrewd man-in-the-street credentials?

In my own research on educational reform and globalization, my intention is clear, as is the intention of some others toiling in the same field: if we can figure out what works and duplicate it with the least cost, perhaps educational practice will improve; if we can figure out what is just window-dressing and rah-rah circuses, perhaps we can reduce costs and still get as useful an education or better. We will never know all the truth, because there are too many filters, too many facts, too many opinions and perspectives. But we can make some pretty good guesses based on criteria which we can present openly for other people to think about.

And subsequently, we can stand before an open and rationally-directed assault on our conclusions and attempt to answer the assault with rational defence, or admit that we were wrong.

That's not to say that the field of educational research is always being turned over and dug into with honest intentions. Sometimes, as in ALL human endeavours, there is a political aim that is being concealed. In mine, to be fair, the political aim is to show that we can get a better education without a lot of things that people say are needed but which aren't. For me, I sometimes think that modern education is still like an alchemical approach to science — we carry out activities that aren't relevant (along with the necessary processes) on the way to producing the desired outcomes, and sometimes we produce serendipitous outcomes that we claim we were aiming at all along (but weren't really).

In the end, truth in matters concerning human societies is as much a matter of conscience, ethics, and hard work as anything else. We don't get the pure 'truth' (i.e. axiomatic consistency) of mathematics, but the messy constructions of literature. What we need to do is educate people to figure out how honest we were, whether a more reasonable and honest account can be justified, and to write the upgrade version themselves instead of berating the original writers for not being so good. I for one would be only too happy to have any of my writings corrected after a fair reading.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Music Lives On

I used to wake up every morning to my grandfather's odd habit of playing Chopin nocturnes after his early breakfast and before his morning house calls. Sometimes it would be Mozart, rarely Beethoven; on one memorable occasion, I heard Moonlight at sunrise.

Tonight I am listening to some of those pieces performed by my brother-in-law on an old and warped piano. But the music still sounds lovely, and my grandfather's memory lives on in that music.

I am sure that the music has kept the memories and lives of many of its players fresh. Not that long ago, I heard the music played by hands long dead but preserved in the plastic medium of vinyl grooves.

The music lives on, and those who play live on as well with it.

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Why is Atlantean Education Bad? (Part I)

Numerous posts and much thought later, I've come to realise that to answer this question, you have to think about what you really want from an education system. This means that asking Atlanteans why their education system is bad doesn't work, since most of them give silly reasons. Why so? Because they are products of their own education system.

Here is the key then. A system that produces rational reflection, coherent and critical self-analysis, fair comparison with other cases, and fair consideration of the limitations of a given case, is likely to be a better system than one which doesn't. In the case of typical Atlantean complainants, they are likely to not have spent much time or effort reflecting, produce incoherent but critical self-analysis, some exaggerated comparison with other cases, and unfair consideration of the limitations involved in any case.

On the other hand, the Atlantean-in-the-street is generally happy with it, and the local system is often held up as one of the better ones worldwide. But many of the more vocal ones seem to think it's bad. Why is this?

I think that the more vocal ones are those who have had education outside the system, thus allowing them more scope for the various approaches to criticism. Yet these are often non-participant observers, who have therefore given up part of their right to interpretive accuracy. It's a double-edged sword, this gift of perception; if you stand outside, you might miss the introspective vision, while if you stand inside, you might miss the more objective view.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Consistency and Logic

Ah well, here I go rehashing old points again...

The thing about logic is that it doesn't indicate what's right or wrong. Rather, a body of logic is consistent or inconsistent; if inconsistent, it leads to contradiction or paradox. A body of knowledge is information held together by logic; if the knowledge is inconsistent with itself, it will likewise be self-contradictory or paradoxical.

However, as in all human domains of knowledge, there are areas which can be flagged as 'unknown' or 'insufficient data'. In some domains, such as those called 'science', we build an edifice that is consistent with everything we think we know, and if that doesn't work, we change the edifice to fit. (Note that 'edifice' roughly means 'thing used to edify', just as 'sacrifice' roughly means 'thing used to make sacred'.)

The only difference between good theology and good science is that theology makes axiomatic the idea of a non-human superior intelligence that is dominant in the universe. This intelligence is not provable within the logic of science, and hence not testable.

A scientist who says he doesn't accept theology is in roughly the same position as a physicist who doesn't accept that life exists — physics doesn't 'do' life and there is no way to use physics to define life or prove it exists because life-proving stuff is not built into physics just as theology isn't built into modern science. It's as simple as that.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ulysses and the Scientists

Of all poems, perhaps the one that has spoken most (and most frequently) to me from all the world of secular literature is Tennyson's Ulysses. To me, it is one of the markers of that curious cusp of time around which the worlds of science and mysticism and religion met and churned alight the fires of this present age.

We meet the aging king, Odysseus of ancient fame and wiliness, grandson of crafty Autolycus, musing at his home. He wants something to do before the lights go out across his world.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

For him, the quest has always been about knowledge, not war or fame or fortune, not even progeny or technology, even though he has succeeded at both. It is the quest for the new, for the unthought-of, for the saving of things against the tide of night and silence. He sees the game coming to an end, and he is restless to just let it come to that end without a fight. He sees men as active participants in that game, not just pawns:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

He does not dispute the Gods or dispute with them; he just wants to do what he can with his active end of the board. It is what impels his quest for knowledge, the idea that he can save something, do something, contend with God if he has to. The idea is not new: even the Old Testament is full of that. What's interesting is that he acknowledges both Time and Fate, Chronos and Ananke, just as the writer of Ecclesiastes does:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It is the rash scientist who scorns such things or who tries to say that wonder can stem from science alone; wonder is a child of Time and Fate. It is the impulse that sets the wanderer off on his journey to seek what can be sought.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Knowledge-Baseless Society

I always feel privileged to have lived through such an interesting period. It began with the Vietnam War, the Six-Day War, the death of Che Guevara and the launch of the Magical Mystery Tour, the unveiling of the Concorde supersonic jet and the discovery of the lost city of Thera. It was the Summer of Love that year.

I also lived through a time of punchcards as a programming mode, tape drives as main storage, crude mathematical programming that launched the Apollos into space. And when I was growing up, all the information in a library was either in the huge heavy volumes of the Britannica's Propaedia, Micropaedia and Macropaedia, or in 3" x 5" index cards in little steel cabinets from which you found books on shelves.

It was a time in which knowledge was ubiquitous but not easy to access. From Gutenberg's time, knowledge had been less ubiquitous and even harder to access. But I was born at the dawn of the microcomputer age.

In the four decades (and some) since then, I've realised that things have changed a lot on the information front. Young people have often been fobbed off (or allowed themselves to be deluded by) the idea that since knowledge is so readily available, you need only look for it when you know you need it. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of people don't bother to stock up on it 'just in case'. The raven mind which sought juicy bits to devour and digest gave way to the magpie mind which kept the shiny trinkets for display; the magpie mind has given way to the peacock mind which displays its own stuff but can't be bothered to look for other stuff unless peculiarly moved.

In a sense, information is still accreted, if you think of information in the IS sense of ordered data. In quite another sense, there is far too much non-information — stuff that will never lead to effective praxis and growth. It's quite possible, and in fact probable, that many people hold a view different from (or to, depending on the direction) this. But let me tell you what I have seen.

In Atlantis, I have had the privilege to work with many bright people, the heirs of the bright people of the same institution in ages past. In the old days, those bright people dug up their own information and poked and probed at the fabric of knowledge. Some bright people made things and found hacks through the wall of reality. These kinds of bright people are fewer now. If you ask them a question, the response is not one of 'let me find the answer' but one of 'how the hell would I know'. In an age of Wikipedia and Google, it is appalling how much slower the average student is at digging up facts than my father, who still uses a physical library.

Modern society has been touted as knowledge-based. It isn't really so. It seems more disinformation-based, dysfunction-based, category-based but using false and fishy categories. It is a knowledge-baseless society, save for the sub-societies in which knowledge structures are carefully built and examined for cracks and holes. The centre cannot hold; this was true long ago. But what is left?

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Friday, February 12, 2010


The Marquis said, "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

Wolff, no longer Sir, replied, "That's why the hymn of the order uses the language of stable unity: 'planted a beacon', 'here may it stand', 'our hearts, our hopes, our aims are one'. Ours is not to find blue oceans to spread into, but to find red oceans and invite them towards truth and light."

The Marquis grinned. "And if those oceans should be green or white?"

Wolff grinned back, his canines glinting in the moonlight. "Then we will turn them red."


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Atlantean Educational Ethics

Sometimes, I peer back into that small and narrow, yet sometimes sinister and pervasive, world of Atlantean education. I see all kinds of things. There are flashes of the teaching spirit and all that is noble in that; most often, a kind of pearly grey shimmer suffuses the landscape, obviously expensive and not at all typical of the rest of the world, but not subject to analysis nor inspiring of further efforts. But sometimes, you see horrors which man was not meant to see.

For some years now, I've wondered how it is that a teacher in the system can end the day's work (or the week's work) and then make money in his spare time training the rivals to his school team. If he were merely teaching the students of rival schools, it would be odd, a bit like a lawyer deciding to do paid work for some other firm's clients but a lot less unethical (since education is a universal good, while legal consultation — as opposed to justice — is not).

Let's look at the career of one particular teacher. This is a gestalt apparition, a construct that many teachers in Atlantis would swear exists in reality.

This guy is pretty good. He recklessly scans or photocopies notes from other institutions, puts them together, and makes sure his name is printed at the bottom. He is renowned for 'his' notes. He is good at drilling into students that which will make their foundations appear strong, and they will do well. It's not education, but it teaches to the test, and is therefore successful in the short run. Since parents and students like short-term successes and scorn the long-term (especially in Atlantis), this is considered a very good thing.

He has a tuition centre that operates from behind an MRT station or (as he makes more money) a room in his own house. This doubles his monthly salary at the very least. At some point, even the cachet of working for a premier school in the Atlantean system will pall, and he will go completely into the private sector. Long before that, the school will think it needs him more than he thinks he needs the school.

How would you identify that particular point? The signs are clear: he is no longer concerned with the welfare of individual students, he doesn't take time to sit down with and nurture colleagues, he takes long holidays independent of the school's needs.

You will notice that I use 'he' exclusively: in general, this kind of person is seldom a 'she' because women tend to be more conscientious and maternal; even if they do 'go private' and set up a tuition centre, they continue to be 'caring and sharing' towards their charges. And if they are 'part-time', they seldom fall into ethics violations; they are not often the ones who copy the work of others and pass it of as their own.

What's interesting is that this kind of free enterprise is tacitly condoned by the priesthood. There are even rules governing such behaviour, thus condoning the behaviour but limiting it. This is like the rules governing prostitution in Atlantis; it's not legal, and thus not ethical by virtue of extralegality, but there is sufficient space provided within the machine for it to continue.

So which part of our gestalt teacher's career is the worst? I think it boils down to one thing, the lack of integrity that is shown by plagiarism and also in the lack of dedication to the craft of teaching. Sadly, this gestalt teacher draws upon many for his gestalt existence — for such are the underpinnings of a large sector of the Atlantean educational system.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Watching the Clox

This is actually Day Three of my cloxacillin odyssey. I am quietly amused every time I try a new drug, attempt to predict its effects on my body, which has an alarming genetic payload of internal problems, and get it right. It helps that I've always been interested in chemistry, and pharmacology in particular, from a very young age.

When I was in primary school, my grandfather used to (well, this is what they'd call it nowadays) 'dispense pharmaceuticals' from a little dispensary called the United Pharmacy along North Bridge Road. I used to walk there after school, little boy with a hefty schoolbag, and deposit myself behind the counter. I'd generally get underfoot, attempt to avoid dangerous collisions, and try to figure out what was in those odd porcelain and glass jars lined up in impressive ornate rows on every wall.

Grandfather always was one for education, so he'd let me explore the dusty, plant-colonised areas of the rooms upstairs, read anything I found, examine the long-dead X-ray machine in the side room, and in general learn stuff I couldn't have learnt anywhere else. His Hainanese factotum, Ah Siew, looked every inch the sage as he interpreted, carried out various odd tasks, and conveyed instructions.

But the drugs were the important part of my life. My grandaunts used to produce them, grinding out odd powders and pressing tablets, mixing up strange-looking potions from arcane ingredients, making up whatever was directed from the airy chamber from whence Grandfather handed down instructions in a language that seemed wholly unnatural.

It was this that led me to explore the interactions between organic materials — this, following Grandfather on his daily rounds, and wandering around the open-air wards at the hospital which was Eldest Uncle's domain. Yet, it was never the practice of medicine, but the art of making medicines, that intrigued me most.

And so now, decades later, I look at my drugs, figure out their molecular structures, predict their effects, and am childishly happy when I am right. Cloxacillin, with its big fat chlorophenyl-oxazole defensive sidechain, is a penicillin designed to defeat naughty bacteria which would normally be able to destroy penicillins. But that very defence is what makes it mild and slow, like a warrior armed with a shield that is too large. Nevertheless, it is helping to deny the enemy its footing in my upper right arm, while not seriously messing with my guts.

Why is it so important for me to know all that? It's because when you feel not quite yourself (as some people do after losing their gustatory virginity to caffeine), it helps to have expectations of future sensation and the ability to explain what's happening to yourself. Knowledge is not only power, but sometimes a tower of strength in times of uncertainty.

That's why teachers should always go through examination rubrics (the administrative basis) and curriculum underpinnings (the academic basis) before getting too far into the intricacies of the course they are teaching. If students don't know where you're going, they might not follow you all the way. Best then to provide a map of some sort, so they can catch up if lost, or find their own way around.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010


It occurs to me that the human organism cannot possibly be designed for large amounts of grain products. Where on earth are we supposed to digest it? The mouth is small, the saliva production capacity limited, and gluten is an abnormality to many of us. In fact, I doubt we were designed (or evolved) to drink non-human milk; the closest mammalian milks to human are whale and pig, in terms of content (although of course Romulus and Remus were supposedly suckled by a she-wolf).

So what then is a healthy human diet based on what apparatus we have?

I think that there must be a major role for meat and fat. Why else do we have this big meat-protein digestive unit called a stomach? And why the concentrated fat emulsifier called a gall-bladder? I suspect that based on such considerations, the typical human should be eating a diet based on meat and fruit. Relatively few people have allergies to meat and fruit, compared to those with allergies or disabilities with respect to gluten and lactose.

Put another way, if you walked around in the wild, without the supposedly civilising benefits of a good oven, what would you eat? Probably grasses and leaves, fungi, fruit and meat. Tubers perhaps. But not the current deluge of baked goods, high in sodium (yes, because baking uses sodium bicarbonate) and other additives designed to make stuff that feels nice to the mouth but is artificial as hell to the gut. You don't find bread growing on trees.

Maybe we should ignore the pithy daft wisdom of the food pyramid which says eat more starch than anything else. Maybe a diet that prolongs life for Mediterranean people or Ainu is one that would kill other people. Maybe the Chinese really are adapted to eat rice.

Most horrifying, humans are obviously evolving towards a bread-based diet. Eventually, the sufferers of coeliac disease and lactose intolerance will perish from the earth and everyone will drink the breast secretions of animals and eat the overcooked remnants of artificially-cultivated grains. I laugh when I see people protesting about 'Frankenfoods'. Your ancestors, dear children, and you yourselves, have made foods a thousand times more artificial than these.

I mean, think about it, we COOK our food. This doesn't happen in nature. It is terribly unnatural. Worse, we sit around chewing the cooked cud that we don't have the ruminant apparatus for digesting. That's just disgusting.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Ageing Population

Last night's reunion dinner was hilarious. It all began when one of my uncles somehow failed to realise that he was a senior citizen. A man of the diving-camping-roughing it out kind, he isn't particularly frail. But he is a septuagenarian. Of course, Eldest Aunt, into her rather vibrant and active 80s, laughed at him with all the aplomb of someone who looks sub-60 and feels even younger (apart from the wisdom of ages). At one point, she made the crack, "So I don't get to go (camping) anymore because you think it's too tough for the old lady eh?"

The discussion meandered through multiple strands of medical lore and the high politics of the Atlantean priesthoods, chiefly because we eventually figured out who his camping partners were. Through it all, I was thinking, "If this is old age, I should be preparing to carry a reasonably high level of physical and mental fitness into my next forty years or so."

Meanwhile, however, I'm nursing some sort of deep tissue upper arm injury. There's a certain point (Eldest Aunt says it's 40) at which the human body naturally develops all kinds of random susceptibilities. Arrhythmias, bad eyesight, odd fluctuations of the senses and the metabolism, that kind of thing. This injury probably comes from acting like you're in your 20s when you are actually a lot older.

I've also been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. He's entertainingly agnostic and one of the most humane writers I know. He writes like Ray Bradbury, but with less of Bradbury's sometimes poisonous sting. I began reading Vonnegut in my teenage years, and books like Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-5 were an integral part of my adolescent experience. It was partly from him that I've developed a remarkable level of sanguinity about my infirmities. They don't matter as long as I'm not a parasite and I can help others be happier than they'd otherwise be.

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Rice Memories

Last night I had a wonderful time with an old fellow-traveller. We sat up late with some excellent biryani with its traditional accompaniments and traded stories until it was time to go home.

I have many memories of bumming around with this gentleman. I remember him telling me, "You are indeed a bum," at least once. We were all bums then, when we were not being professionals. He remains in-service, and I am now not in the same service, but it was a fantastic time.

The memories of food between friends serve to keep us connected. Good meals never entirely leave the digestive system of the brain. Their residues remain, allowing us to compare current intake with the intake of bygone eras, or our faint recollections of them.

The same goes for our students. We remember all of them in faint echoes and resonances, by their shadows and fragments of their names. But they are our staple diet, our common bond. Some are particular piquant in the impressions they have left. Some we can remember in unique instances of memory the way we remember the unique meals of surpassing excellence; some we remember in a general sense because they were so much a part of our lives — like the corner shop which used to sell the most excellent murtabak everyday, and which we savoured frequently, or the fiery noodles that were our most common breakfast and the anchor of our diet.

And there are few meals I have hated or disliked enough to remember in a negative way. In fact, as with students, there are none.

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What sometimes bugs me is the curious thing about Sunday being part of the weekend and yet being the first day of the week. It's difficult for humans to think of it as the first day of the week while thinking of it as the end of the break before another period of toil begins.

I've always thought that Sunday should be a day of preparation, a day spent in cloistered meditation or unfettered bumming-around or whatever it is that burns the last remaining toxins of the previous week away and lets you start a fresh week feeling good. But it doesn't always work that way, some people won't let it work that way, and good Sundays are sometimes hard to find.

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Busy Weekend

Sometimes, you accumulate stuff to do, and the natural time to do it is the weekend, that narrow slip of time between work and work. It can be good to get lots of things done in a weekend, but you risk feeling unrested on Monday morning, wondering where the time disappeared to, time in which you might have got respite from the burden of doing things.

Why would anyone want such a weekend? And yet, many of us seem to live for it.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Areas and Dimensions

I've been talking to a lot of students in the last few days, and it strikes me that many of them are telling me the same thing. Essentially, they are telling me that a lot of their teachers have never actually discussed what areas of knowledge are, and how they might be different from dimensions of knowledge. Apparently, this is especially a problem for teachers of English literature.

Why is this so? What exactly is the problem?

Let's begin with defining that difference. A dimension of knowledge is something a bit like a physical dimension. It is an approach to a body of knowledge that is essential to that body of knowledge but is 'orthogonal' in the sense that it does not overlap with other such approaches. An area of knowledge, on the other hand, can overlap with other areas of knowledge, and is quite often carved up and distributed around; it can also evolve into several related (and also overlapping) areas of knowledge.

Sometimes, a dimension in an area may be the part of another area that overlaps or coincides with that area. A mathematical example of this is the square of a triangle's hypotenuse. Both shapes share a common edge which helps to define each shape, but they are not the same shape; that common edge is a dimension of each area, but is not itself one.

Another example of this is the human rights dimension of ethics. While 'human rights' may plausibly be considered as an area of knowledge that overlaps ethics, the biological (or religious, or legal) basis of those rights comes from other areas outside ethics. In thinking about what human communities ought to establish as a common moral basis (i.e. 'ethics'), human rights are only one dimension to be considered. This becomes clearer when one realises that ethical standards are not necessarily anything to do with human rights — for example, cheating at cards or using elements of desire to enhance advertising might be considered unethical, but they don't necessarily have anything to do with human rights. At the same time, you can't remove that dimension without crippling the whole idea of ethics.

This is not the case with areas of knowledge such as biology, chemistry or physics, considered as sciences. These are not dimensions of science because it is quite clear that you can't completely define any of them in such a way that they have nothing to do with any of the others. At the same time, it's quite clear that these entire areas of knowledge fall completely within 'science'; if any part of them was 'not science', it would be a logical contradiction.

This brings us to one of the key problems with mathematics and language. Mathematics and language are essential tools in many other areas of knowledge, but it is obvious that they are also considered to be areas of knowledge in their own right. At the same time, it's also pretty obvious that most universities issue degrees in science or the arts, but not specifically in mathematics or language. It's very common to find a BSc in Mathematical Sciences or in Mathematics, or even a BA in Mathematics, but far less common to find a BMath. The same is true for language; it's very common to find a BA in English or a BSc in Linguistics, but you don't often find a BLit or a BLing. Mathematics is a key component of engineering, but graduates get a BEng. Mathematics and language have therefore been subsumed by other disciplines.

After a while, it becomes clear that some areas of knowledge are axiomatic; they generate their own stuff independent of other areas. These include language, mathematics, and aesthetics. At the same time, some areas of knowledge are more derivative than others — science for example cannot exist without drawing on history, mathematics and philosophy; literature must have language to survive.

The difficulties are now more obvious, but why is this a problem for some teachers? I suspect it has to do not with the nature of their primary discipline(s) but more with the breadth of their exposure to other disciplines. Disciplines with internal conflicts about what other disciplines they are part of (or not part of), such as geography, force their exponents to know something about the humanities as well as the sciences, statistics as well as physics and sociology. Disciplines with internal conflicts about subjective experience, such as literature and visual arts, tend to separate themselves from other disciplines because their exponents become ever more specialised and less knowledgeable about other disciplines.

These are of course generalisations, tendencies but not necessities. Your choice of discipline may tend to limit you, but you can always choose to transcend those limits. If a statistician were to confine herself to mathematical descriptions of statistical distributions, that would be one thing; it would be quite another (and perhaps more exciting) if that statistician were to seek further knowledge in all the other domains in which her area of knowledge is used. Unfortunately for teachers of English literature, it isn't a subject used much in (or with) other disciplines.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Losers

I was just looking at this trailer for the 2010 movie release, Andy Diggle's The Losers. It strikes me that this is a very ancient tale; elite troops who might know too much, and are not trusted with what they might know, and therefore become targets for elimination.

Look around you, as the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in St Paul's Cathedral says. You will find many hidden memorials to this ancient tale, even in the workplace you thought was safe and bright. For there is no haven which doesn't have a dark side; a haven is designed to keep you safe, and to do that, it must keep itself safe. What then if the haven-keepers think you are a threat to them?

It is the same with altruism and philanthropy. All philanthropists must constrain their giving. All you have to do is to analyse the patterns of their giving, and you will know what kind of world they prefer. And by preferring one kind of world over another, they are using money to create the world they want. Should they have the right, simply because they have the cash? The answer is beyond us, and perhaps there is no real answer.

That's because in any situation, the one with the motive and the power will force the issue. Resistance is futile; be assimilated or eliminated. As Dante wrote in Vergilius's mouth, "Where will and power are one, so let it be; ask now no more."

There will always be losers, no matter how 'win-win' our narratives and hopeful publicity brochures are. As Jesus said, "The poor you will have with you always."

Does this then mean that we should abandon the hypocrisy of altruism? No. It should mean that even in dark times, we can help others. The light may be faint, and enlightenment therefore dim; but some light is infinitely better than none — for a time anyway, and in this world of all worlds, world without end.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Seldon Crises

I typed out the title of this post. Then it occurred to me that it looked like a typo. Shortly thereafter, it looked like the name of a character from a book by Terry Pratchett or Jasper fforde (whose last name also looks like a typo anyway). The title of this post is self-referential, it seems; it has an existential crisis from within as well as without.

What is a 'Seldon Crisis'? Fans of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (begun in 1951) and its sequels will immediately identify the term as one belonging to Asimov's invented field of psychohistory. A Seldon crisis, according to Asimov, is an event predicted by the psychohistorian Hari Seldon which is a pivotal moment in history. Normally, there is an external threat as well as an internal one; both of these threats are also likely to be fatal if not neutralised. Fortunately, both threats can be resolved by a single action, sometimes by setting these threats against one another, sometimes by conjuring up a previously unseen perspective.

Why are Seldon crises important to us six decades after Foundation? That's a harder question, but one to which some of the many answers must already begin to be obvious.

For a start, the paradigms of the modern world tend to be based on 'systems'. Ever since Newton's time, the idea that the world could be apprehended and then comprehended in terms of interlocking systems, or even a single overarching system, has been a persuasive one. Humans like to believe that everything is causally interlinked, and that nothing is purely random and beyond reason. Even random events can be bound by statistical distributions, and all things have their causes. This is the root of the 'systems thinking' approach, which leads then to 'systems engineering' — the idea that you can therefore cause anything you want if you know the right processes to engage. (The Atlantean educational system, so often pilloried in this blog, is an example of this.)

More chilling though is that this kind of psychohistorical reasoning is at the root of many influential programmes that spring from minds we would think are vastly different and whose impact on ordinary people seems distant to many of us. US economist and Nobel winner Paul Krugman, with a little embarrassment, admitted in 2008 that Asimov's Foundation trilogy "in which the social scientists who understand the true dynamics save civilization" was the trigger for his interest in economics. At the same time, Al-Qaeda, an organization with a name that can be translated as 'The Foundation', seems to be following the apocalyptic parts of Asimov's script too.

The problem is that systems engineering is a problematic field. Joseph Kasser, speaking in Atlantis in 2009, had a few interesting points to make about this. In slide 7 of his presentation, his first few points read as follows:
  • Systems engineering is poorly practiced (in general)
  • Systems engineering is poorly taught (in general)
  • No universally accepted definition and body of knowledge
  • No universal agreement on role of systems engineer
  • Systems engineering has failed to meet its promises of the 50s and 60s
The consequent problem of this problematic status is that many of the processes begun in the 50s and 60s, such as the Atlantean education system, were 'engineered' based on this problematic field which doesn't quite seem to exist as a coherent area of knowledge. (By the way, although Kasser's presentation is a little technical in parts, I strongly recommend at least one quick viewing.)

The world is now officially in what would in the past have been called a science-fictional situation. Arthur Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey was a prediction of what 2001 might have been; more chilling to me is that his sequel was called 2010: Odyssey Two, and so far neither looks like a successful prediction of much. Rather, the world has gone behind as well as ahead of all predictions — we have incredible access to information (which most of us don't think is sufficient) and yet are as deliberately ignorant as ever.

My personal experiences (and the experiences of others) seem to provide examples of this. It seems that very few people are adept at using search engines to track down information, let alone to correlate that information and synthesize it into a coherent whole. Even in the area of presenting their findings, they don't know how to use simple tools like Microsoft's PowerPoint — most of them don't know there is a 'presenter view' and they have this annoying habit of using excess text and text modifiers. Some don't bother with checking information sources by triangulation and/or logic either. In general, the surfeit of information has been occluded and eclipsed by the even greater surfeit of entertainment and non-information.

If this is the grist that the already shaky 'systems engineering' mill has to work with, we are in deeper trouble than anyone thinks. No matter how much work is done, if the premises are bad, the output is junk. In the Foundation trilogy, nothing is more chilling than when Hari Seldon gets it wrong and his successors have to figure out what should be done instead — based on what they think he thought.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Atlantean Standards (Part II)

In the mighty shadow of legendary Atlantis is a tiny residue named the City of Lions, Sñgapur in the tongue of the Ancients. Today, I sat in Sñgapur along the concrete orchard with Gnomus and we meditated on the perversity of local standards. The once-colonial residents of the residue still have it in their cash-besotted heads that an overseas education at an institute with a Greater Name is always going to be superior.

Sadly, that is a myth in all kinds of cases except perhaps three. The local universities (actually, there are now four of them) are more than adequate for a serviceable education that is of relevance to the region. The only reasons you might profitably 'go overseas' are a) because the life in the metropolis of your destination is significantly more interesting and you will therefore learn more of the kinds of things which interest you and are actually nothing to do with what you are studying; b) because the quality of intellectual stimulation from unusual people and professors is very high, and it actually trickles down (as is not always the case) to the undergraduate population; and c) because you intend to live and work and have your being there, so you are actually halfway through the export process and will only come back (I'm not saying 'come home', note) as an expatriate of your new country.

Even sadder, there is one major reason why people want to 'go overseas', and it has nothing to do with education. In Sñgapur, there is a sizeable proportion of wealthy people who have had the accumulation and/or retention of wealth as one of their main existential pillars. The problem is that if you choose this as an existential pillar, it makes you feel more secure when that pillar is showing. It is hard to live for it (or with it as a given) and not defend its display (or display it as a defence of your existence).

That means, as Gnomus and I have found out to mixed sensations of hilarity and sober melancholy, that people spend money for ostentation's sake. If your education takes place somewhere which requires you to spend 200,000 local thalers, it is far more demonstrative of status than if it takes place here and costs you a tenth of that. Education is one of the few ways that a person can spend ostentatiously and still feel good about it, as well as defend the practice in any of the social circles that 'matter'. (Oddly, giving the same amount — for example, the 180,000 thalers saved — to charity feels wrong to most people here.)

But defences of practice are very strongly and quickly erected. Talk to any of the young people who are victims of this particular ostentation, and they will say, "Overseas education is good for you. You will be less narrow-minded and you will become a more effective human being, able to appreciate more things and understand more about life!"

Bollocks, really. Take a moment to reflect on the logical and empirical reality.

If overseas education (in general principle) is good for you, then the people at your destination should come down to the various states in this region for their education. If they don't, then they are narrow-minded. Hence you will be surrounded by narrow-minded people. Of course, if they all come here, and your friends all go there, then you will be surrounded by the same people that you have been with all along, which is hardly a recipe for learning something new about people.

More to the point, if you believe that people educated in local universities are narrow-minded, then this blog must be written by a singularly narrow-minded person who hangs out with other narrow-minded people (like the Policeman and my own Lady) who have all been educated here. I would love to see a student walk up to Gnomus and accuse him of having too narrow an education. And I would genuinely be glad if a student, after reading every post in this blog, came up to me and said, "Findings-writer, I think your education is narrower than mine." I would learn something new, then.

Why then are people in Sñgapur seen as narrow-minded? Is the writer of this blog an exceptional case?

Let me try to answer these questions in the context of higher education.

In general (and I must stress, IN GENERAL), Sñgapurians are very focussed individuals who don't realise that even when we are being (or trying to be) avant-garde, artistic, creative, iconoclastic (etc, etc), we are still chained by their colonial past and our mercantile ancestry.

When it comes to education, the former makes us tend to rank other cultures tacitly in this order: 1) Western because of the Enlightenment, with Anglo-Americans first because they speak English, the colonial Master-Tongue, and with special dispensations for other Europeans in various areas of snob appeal; 2) Asian because all major civilisations and religions spring from the zone between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean; 3) others because they are 'other than'. Some will dispute this, but it's quite clear from university choices that we are overwhelmingly Anglophone in higher education because of our common colonial legacy of language. Most often, people here are just bored and want something new. Anything will do.

The latter, our mercantile ancestry and related familial culture makes us tend to evaluate everything in terms of economic factors — the consequent mental ranking does not normally conflict with the other ranking. This is why Sñgapurians are often narrow-minded. A lot of us can't escape our chains. Especially if we are chained by economics (such as government bonds, personal wealth and the need to display it, and the idea of financial value).

Am I an exceptional case? Actually, we are all exceptional cases if we choose to be. It only takes a bit of effort to stop living life as if analysis consists of polling your relatives and friends and favourite websites, and start thinking about who you really are and what you intend to do with your life.

In this post, I have only outlined a general situation. It is not true that all Sñgapurians are like this, or that those who go overseas have no legitimate reason for doing so. Some have very good reasons for doing so; some of them have excellent reasons without even knowing what these might be. Some will gain a lot from an overseas education, even if you exclude the bonuses that a Greater Name education can bring because of the associated memetic payload. It is also true that Sñgapurians can be narrow-minded for many other reasons, sometimes to do with religion or mental capacity.

All that Gnomus and I want is for the students who we taught and who we still teach to be able to choose their course based on firm principles (whether materialist or spiritual or otherwise) and be honest about those principles. If you are bored with being a resident in a residue, say so. If you want the status associated with a Greater Name, say so. That's the least that anyone can ask of you.

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Atlantean Standards (Part I)

I am beset with images from my past as a young man in a world of crusades and crusaders. I remember the hymns: in one, exhortation to lift high the Constantinian standard; in another, to follow 'standards of worth, o'er all the earth'. In all of these, the idea of a standard is literally that of a rallying-point, a banner, a flag, a sign that will 'stand hard' against all enemies.

It was in the age of the moderns, from the 18th century or so, that the meaning of 'standard' finally fell into the sense of 'a definite level of attainment or achievement'. No more knights keeping watch on the mountain heights, no more banners unfurled o'er all the world.

Tonight I was with family, and not for the first time, the talk drifted into the realms of a curious statistic that all present had cause to track out of interest. It was something to do with standards, in the latter, weaker sense.

In Atlantis, split the healers into two groups. For every hundred, take fifty into the first group and put fifty in the second group. Call the first group 'private healthcare' and the second 'public healthcare'. This is the Atlantean healing ministry. Now take all those who are ill and unwell, who suspect their bodies are failing and who are sick in the organic sense. Divide them, for every hundred, into twenty and eighty. Put the twenty into the first group, the eighty into the second group. Yes, this is true; in Atlantis, half the healers attend to one fifth of the unwell — this is the private sector. It follows therefore that the healers in the second group work four times as hard, normally for about half the pay (or less). The main consequence of this is that healers in public service often want to move to the private sector, where their quality of life will improve eightfold or more.

It is the same in the teaching ministry, although the pay differential is not that great. Rather, the independent fiefdoms of education may sometimes generate gross inequities. There are idle sods in some of those fields who cultivate and nurture a bare fraction of the crops that others do, but yet earn twice as much for their clever neglect of the more difficult crops.

It is this which makes me pessimistic for the future of Atlantean standards. An infamous study shows that whereas the mighty mercantile arm of Atlantis generates a whopping GDP on par with some more-established mercenary economies, her people's prosperity payload (PPP) is more akin to that of some of the poorer pirate 'nations'. Atlanteans are mostly poor; it takes them decades to pay off the burden of their 'public housing' which once was a beacon of hope in that island of the main. As my mother pointed out (and as I have mentioned before), her salary in days of yore would have bought six thousand bowls of noodles a month, of which she only needed sixty or fewer (since they were BIG bowls) — for me, her poor firstborn, my far larger salary would not have sufficed for a thousand, and those rather scanty unless concocted by the generous couple at the noodle stall in the old place.

Our money, it seems, is not up to the standard it used to be. And neither is the quality of our striving. What is the point, then, of throwing inferior money at superior problems? Most of us have already surrendered to economic temptation and fallen into the ways of the dark side. Just consider how many professionally unqualified scum are out there making easy pickings from people who want their flab surgically removed, while the poor and sick get treatment of a much lower level than they would otherwise have got from these greedy louts called aesthetic physicians.

Free market? 'Faugh!' I say. No market is free when the information symmetry and the level of intelligence (and greed) are so disparate. We should string the self-advertising, pocket-enhancing buggers up to dry, from the highest of our standards, and let real surgeons do real work for those who need it. Perhaps the teachers should do their part too, so that the daft will know that sucking the fat out of the abused body confers no health benefit at all, but increases the chance of an ignominious death.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Word of the Month: February

The month of February, always a victim of the Caesars in their relentless quest for days with which to beef up their own months (July and August, for Julius and Augustus — although to be fair to Julius it wasn't his fault), has an interesting origin. Its name comes from the Latin phrase februarius mensis — 'purification month'.

Apparently, the word februarius has something in common with the Latin word febris ('fever'): they are rooted in even more ancient words that denote heat, restlessness, vibration. February is a feverish month.

And so it will be. This month is going to be relentless, or unrelenting, if you like. But yet it is the season of Lent, if not of lentils. What is a body to do, then?

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