Friday, April 30, 2010


Perhaps one of the most momentous phrases of the ancient and departed West are these words of Archimedes on levers — δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω — as reported by Pappos the Geometer. In English, they might be translated, "Give me a standing-place and the earth I shall move." It is an ambitious thought, to say the least.

But that really is the reach of the levers of our mind. Sitting where I am, linked to the web (or net, or whatever poor Ariadne's distant child has become), I am able to move thoughts a world away, provoke action and evoke emotion, invoke intangible concepts from the vasty deep. I am able to draw data from the cosmos and drink it, transforming it to information or speculation as it courses through the bowels of my mind.

We are makers of our own knowledge. Yet in some ways, that's a trap we should be wary of springing. Sometimes, the philosophy we manufacture is a false love; it is a love of sophistry and not of sophia, whom the Greeks called Wisdom. I laugh at the epistemology of science: it is so because it is so, and if it ain't so, we will muck around till it matches. The truth is that we have made our universe in the image of whatever we can keep whole in the collective cavity of our human minds — and it might not be the Universe entire.

Perhaps Blake's outrageous ramblings were correct: "To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour." You really have to sit through his Auguries of Innocence all the way to "God appears, and God is light, to those poor souls who dwell in night; but does a human form display to those who dwell in realms of day."

If you do that, you will pass by a lot of extremely odd lines, in which he talks about the triumph of empiricism and why states are doomed by licensed gambling and prostitution. But that was Blake, ever trying to shift the universe from the place where he stood in London. Poetry is a lever too, but the place it stands is really the mind of man.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cargo Cults

I have been somewhat amused in recent weeks to discover that some of my old material has been recycled with patchy amendments and other stuff tacked on. Appropriate somewhat-related ritual pronouncements are then made and the desired results fervently hoped for. It is all very much like a cargo cult.

As I've mentioned before, the three technical components of my educational delivery are notes, visuals, and activities (lectures, odd games, interactive sessions). In every case, I deliberately make them complementary; that is, the notes go with the visuals but they do not directly echo each other.

An ignorant barbarian who saw my notes and the slides that accompany them (or vice versa) would think the two were not linked. However, they are very much linked — by the living agency of the activity conducted by me. It is the live lecture or interaction that binds the two, and is not replaceable without some thought and foreknowledge of the role that the mediating intelligence must play.

This was why the cargo cults were developed: people using the paradigms of their old faiths and beliefs were trying to gain the fruits of new technology and thinking by constructing models of the more visible aspects, like wooden aircraft and wicker observation towers. A sort of intellectual voodoo, so to speak.

I laugh to myself, and continue teaching. The wealth of a student's development is not in the things — notes, slides, stuff — but in the active interaction with an intelligent facilitator and fellow-traveller.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fear of Aliens

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking recently expressed the idea that one ought to fear aliens. Here is the key passage in the Times article on his Discovery Channel show:

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach."

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is "a little too risky". He said: "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans."

The fallacy in this otherwise brilliant man's idea is clear. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop..." assumes that alien life is not alien. It is of course rational to base our concepts on how intelligent life MIGHT behave on the only clear example we have, the one on which we base all our concepts of intelligence — humanity. But to then say that aliens might develop like us ignores the very mathematical brain he cites earlier:

"To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," he said. "The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."

The numbers alone should make thinking about aliens also factor in the likelihood that aliens are extremely unlikely to be anything like us. But there are also a few other statistics that should be of importance: for example, given that we have encountered no recognizable trace of alien life so far, inductive reasoning should hold that there is no such thing as alien life in a form that we can recognize as such.

It is similar to the statistical idea here: the longer we exist, the more we are certain that a) humans are the only humanly-defined human-level intelligence around, and b) life only exists on our planet. How can that be? Surely the laws of probability must dictate that there is other life elsewhere?

Actually, here we run aground on the rocks of infinity, so to speak. In theory, anything is possible in an infinite universe. However, if there are any universal laws at all, this constrains certain events from happening; and empirically speaking, the 'certitude' that anything is possible does not mean that any specific thing has indeed occurred. It is unthinkable to some scientists that alien life does not exist, but that is the triumph of imagination over intellect (Einstein's definition of love, actually).

Here's another point to ponder: in an infinite universe, there can be an infinite number of intelligent alien races — but in an infinite universe, the 'quarantine distance' between them might be too great to overcome. Perhaps they are all out there, but too far away, like individual colonies of sulfur-loving bacteria near ocean vents, that will never ever meet members of other colonies.

I don't fear aliens. But I love cats, and fear sharks. I am neutral towards dogs in general, and dislike many kinds of insects. The chances that these biases will affect my future transactions with (for now) imaginary aliens are statistically nil in an infinite universe. Think about what that might mean.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Myth-Placed Identities

There is a single most frustrating thing about researching this little red dot which I've referred to as 'Atlantis' in most of my posts. This one thing is the problem of the monomyth. The traditional history of modern Atlantis, supposedly begun in 1819 (or perhaps 1965), is one that begins with a single hero who comes from an obscure background, battles through epic evils, and returns with some boon for mankind.

In the 1819 version, the ironically-named Gambler descends upon the benighted island, cuts a deal with the ignorant natives, and raises an obscure fishing village into prominence as the leading edge of the Empire's masterplan of globalization initiatives. Under the Imperial banner, this little red dot becomes an impregnable fortress in the East, and the paramount harbour of Eastern trade.

In the 1965 version (remake?), the Thunderer descends upon the benighted island, intervenes on behalf of the ignorant natives, and raises an obscure post-Imperial backwater (totally in contradiction of the earlier myth, of course) to the leading edge of worldwide globalization. Under the Moon-and-Stars banner, this little red dot becomes an impregnable fortress of the East, and the paramount harbour (supposedly) of all the world's trade.

In both myths, reality is neglected and the very strong supporting cast ignored.

The Gambler actually attempted to destroy all gambling; the appointed Resident, fondly known as the Progenitor, failed to do so. At that point, the Gambler (who in all his time supposedly in charge of Atlantis never spent more than a few months here) sent that worthy servant of the public trust back to Alba. It was only 1823. All accounts from that era show the Progenitor as being more worthy of the title 'Founder of Atlantis' than the Gambler. It was just, I suppose, that the Gambler's name was easier on the ears.

The Thunderer, on the other hand, has readily attributed much of the success of his dominion to the clever thinking of his chief lieutenant, the Gnome. In a touching tribute published in the local press on 29 Dec 1984, the Thunderer said, "No panegyric can do justice to you." Yet, even after subsequent reinforcement in the Thunderer's own biography, textbooks still attribute (or blame) Atlantean development on the wielder of the lightning, and not the genius loci.

It is hard to restructure or replace the monomyth, especially when the historical basis is concealed by generations of bards who think they have been paid to sing the praises of the myth and not the truth. Such bards, of course, do not quite deserve the title and indeed should be targeted by scathing satires, as is the great Celtic tradition.

It is my hope to trace the educational history of Atlantis through those who made a genuine difference, and not through those who received credit for not really doing much in this area. It requires restructuring the monomyth and, perhaps, slaying a few dragons (gryphons?) along the way.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 26, 2010

Thoughts on Game 2 of the World Chess Championship (2010)

"Strong contradiction which ruins all the illusions," said GM Sergei Shipov after Chess World Champion GM Viswanathan Anand played his knight to b4. With that, the overly aggressive and hence unsound play of the challenger, GM Veselin Topalov, was refuted.

In life, sometimes our views of reality can be rudely exposed as illusions. Moses was a murderer (and kept that tendency even after 'Thou shalt not murder' was given to him), David was a cunning physicist who wrote psychopathic lines into his psalms, Abraham (as mentioned before in several posts) was a ruthless warlord. Newton was a mystic, Einstein was religious, Hawking is afraid of aliens.

The bare facts are incontrovertible in each case. Yet the mythic versions of our own narratives continue to compel. Until, of course, 'strong contradiction ruins all the illusions.'

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 25, 2010

El Toro

I was sitting down with my better half for a meal at Tombola Centre today, when I heard a man call out my name. Right at the next table sat El Toro, his wife of the lovely smile, and their two good-looking offspring.

It's been a long time since I first met El Toro in secondary school. He was one of the thin and scholarly-looking prefects assigned to look after classes in my neck of the barbarous woods. Now, he is still slim, but his scholarship and prowess (and professional acumen in his chosen field) are highly respected. In fact, he is one of the Grand Paladins of the Court now.

He is still a modest and hardworking man. We exchanged details, talked about life, and I discovered that his son was at the Wyverns' Nest. This triggered some more reflections on life and the pursuit of excellence.

Lunch, it must be said, was enhanced by this catching-up with old friends. I am always thankful for such. I think the next paladin I should catch up with is Old Hum-Sup, probably named for his habit of droning while eating. Heh heh.

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Way back in 1980, Irene 'Flashdance' Cara came up with one of the truly iconic songs of the 1980s boom generation — Fame. The song, with its adrenaline-laden lyrics and vibes, soared to #1 and has never quite been forgotten. I remember waking up as a teenager and walking around with it echoing in my ears.

Many years have passed. Since then, I've learnt to detect the signs of fame-hunger in myself and others — a need to see one's name on everything, from notes to papers to slides to blogs to tweets to... and of course, the opposite reaction, a shunning of any spotlight whatsoever. Fame is fleeting, but many of us seize what we can get, it seems.

I think that the right way is a simple acknowledgement of work done. You don't muzzle the ox when treading the grain; the workman is worthy of his hire. If somebody did stuff for you, acknowledge the doing of it. No need for glitz and neon, just the simple naming of who was responsible for what.

Beyond that of course, we learn to be decreased that others might increase. This is a harder lesson; it is one that humans existentially resist — very few normal humans have a desire to be diminished. And yet, John Donne wrote, "... each man's death diminishes me." It implies that each life that you enrich will have the opposite effect.

And that's the sort of fame I guess I personally cannot resist: I want to have done something for other people. It doesn't matter if nobody else remembers, but I can't help but hope that people I have helped will remember that I helped them, even after I myself no longer live and breathe.

I wish I could be more humble than that, sometimes. But even the patriarchs and heroes of the Bible were not resistant to this; in fact, that dashing 'James Bond' character of the Old Testament, the man called Nehemiah, keeps repeating the phrase, "Remember me, O my God..." (see especially Nehemiah 13.)

Some things don't change very much. But I should hope to resist the overweening kind of fame-seeking that ends up in pathetic defeat — the lesson of Shelley's Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Labels: , ,

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fire and Forget

After a long period of data-gathering and analysis, we sat by the River and wept, because we remembered Zion. Or something like that.

The results of the seven-year long study showed that the two big problems of the otherwise extremely successful institution were these:
  1. Academic success based more on quality of intake (and adjustment of internal assessment) than on staff quality and developmental processes (no matter what certain spurious quality-control awards might have implied).
  2. Inability or lack of desire to supply proper aftercare and upgrading of product offerings.
Frankly, one would not attach too much credence to such assertions, except that these findings were vetted by the very highest echelons of the body controlling this institution and its fellow subsidiaries. In all, an end-run for the research team and a can of worms for the searched team.

Also, a sad moment as we sat by the River. The eldest of us turned around and looked at the rest, and he said, This must not continue. It must not be seen that this nest specialises in kicking the fledglings out and measuring their success based on how great the kick is and not on whether the fledglings have been taught to fly. The counter-argument, of course, is that if the fledglings can fly, why bother about how they learn it? Well, it's all about integrity. This isn't nature; this is an institution of public character (as my tax accountant assured me). The point is to take in fledglings who would not normally learn how to fly and teach them to use their wings.

Ah well, I suppose that one can always hope for a better age.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 22, 2010


In my father's mouth are many receptors. As he has aged, many of them have closed down and no longer receive guests. Food has to have a stronger flavour to appeal to him. Some basic taste sensations are magnified, their impact carried by simpler substances — salt, sweet. The complex aromas of his earlier years have diminished, undone by time.

It will no doubt be the same for me, as it has been for generation after generation of those under the sun. And I suspect this is why we are often so much less discerning of food when we are young than when we are older.

It's not that the young are less picky, but that their pickiness towards food is in terms of simpler things — texture, colour. When very young, bitterness is poorly tolerated, but sourness is fine. As the palate matures, all kinds of odd flavour sources have to be savoured and analysed — umame, menthol, tannins, vanilla, pink peppercorns, sea salt... — and the tongue is able to feel the difference as it acts as the platform that eventually brings in the powers of the nose.

One day, this is gone, as the palate ages to simplicity. But the memory of taste makes us search for what has been lost, and we have often gained the spending power to go looking for it. Sadly, it is gone forever.

If food is the music of love, then love too may go this way. We play games when younger, like strong sensations when very young, and aim for complex blends when we think we have matured. But at the end, all we need is the simple, direct stuff and the wisdom to appreciate it for what it is. Sometimes, old love is strong but consists of a limited palette: plain affection, basic respect, a sense of humour that will overcome daily difficulties.

Getting old, one should divest; one should become simpler, more appreciative of things. Food is food; love is love; music is music. The last of life is the best of life, because it all heads towards one point, that which keeps us all human and the same — the boundary between sensation and the lack thereof. There is no food beyond that line.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Twenty-Five Years

Twenty-five years are like a morning gone in seconds. And yet, there are indelible traces; in 1987 I wrote this, but in 2007 I wrote this. In the first, I was sure of what I was writing when I was writing it; now, I am quite sure I didn't know what I was writing about, and the words seem weak. In the second, I wasn't so sure about the writing, but I was far more sure of what I was writing about, and I think the lines are stronger for that.

Yesterday, hearing at first hand about personal pain and sorrow, and the shaping of lives, I felt inadequate. My own burdens are lighter, spread out over time and now thinned by distance and the weakness of the mind's eye. But sometimes God does let you roll back the curtains of the theatre of memory, even though those revels are ended.

And there it is, the canteen with the creaky benches, the cracked cement floor, the noise and smell of breakfasts and lunches to be paid for and consumed. You see some details very clearly, and some not at all. The unicorn is still a unicorn, and that is a wonderful thing; the rugby lads are bankers and lawyers and teachers now, and who's to say what has been gained or lost?

Was it all worthwhile? Certainly not. Was some of it worth anything? Some of it was worth a lot, and very precious even, in its time and time thereafter. What we retrieved from the old ruins is what we have for now. There are old roses locked up in old rooms; old letters in old drawers — they fade and fall apart, and they blow away in the wind.

In the end, only a very few things abide. But friendship is one of those things that can brighten the pathway to that end, and I am glad for it.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


The citizenry of Atlantis have become more inclined to dispute the systems of the world around them, especially in the last two decades or so. The ruling priesthood have often responded by pointing out that it is through their mediation that Atlantis and the world interact, often to the benefit of Atlanteans.

But this is a two-edged blade with one edge occluded to the benefit of that priesthood. Surely, when Atlantis and the world interact to the detriment of Atlanteans, it is likewise through the mediation of the priesthood?

In some ways, that is true; in some other ways, it is not. The State has a greater role to play if Atlantis seems arrogant and hence odious in the sight of others, and it is all too convenient for Atlanteans to blame a nanny-like State for the way they were brought up. But I think that Atlantean adults (those aged 40 and above) should bear the major responsibility for their own actions.

Likewise, the wealth of Atlanteans stems mostly from State interventions and interactions. Concretely speaking, a cubicle of stone with a floor area of around a hundred square metrons is nothing to boast about. But in Atlantis, due to clever manipulation, such a space can be made to cost 300,000 Atlantean thalers, or at the present rate of exchange, 200,000 Columbian eagles. It is ridiculous, but an obvious benefit should any Atlantean wish to sell up and emigrate.

The point one could make after writing many such books on many such topics is that if the State is your father and your mother, your teacher and your guide, your mentor and your archon, then the State can be made responsible for both Good and Evil. At which point, having arrogated unto themselves the role of the Highest, one can ask the same question as one often asks the Highest, "If Thou be all-powerful, all-wise and all-present, whence cometh Evil?"

But at that point, the State can always fall into the heresy of the Manichaeans or otherwise and claim that they alone are not the Highest, but subject to the will of others. It might be illogical, but it is certainly convenient.

I call this kind of reasoning 'overstatism'. It is the idea of a Strong State which can claim weakness, ignorance and impotence when convenient — and then (not so) subtly hint that the people should educate themselves and make themselves strong and powerful and influential to compensate for this. The burden is thus shared between State and People: what is good comes from the State and what is ill is the fault of the People or to be blamed on the People.

Then again, maybe I am overstating the case. Maybe the People ought to be blamed because they have established too strong a State. Maybe it is their fault, their lapse, that this generation looks headed towards leaderlessness. I wouldn't know; I am merely a little dot in the matrix of the State.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 19, 2010

An Hourly Wage

Some time ago, I joined the ranks of the hourly-rated workers, one of the many elderly who while away their time in minor episodes between bouts of extreme excitement and terror. The life of an hourly-rated worker is a difficult one; you only earn wages for each hour of work completed.

This means that you don't draw a salary for doing nothing. A long time ago, I observed that if I were ill, sub-par, or otherwise temporarily incapacitated, I would continue to draw a salary which I did not deserve. This was a perk of the inefficiency of the workplace. Some people I knew, despite being hopelessly incompetent, nevertheless continued to draw a healthy draught of cash from the circulatory system of the world.

Nowadays, a sore throat or a strained back, and my earnings are somewhat curtailed. This gives me a huge incentive to stay healthy. It also inspires me to look for other projects and assignments — tasks to which I can turn my resources (which a few nice people tell me are sometimes formidable, sometimes even intimidating) and my interests, with some advantage.

Despite such difficulties, I am happy. At least I now know I am earning a fair wage and not being a parasite on the body of the masses, unlike some people. At the same time, I feel for those of my former colleagues and peers who, despite working hard and well, do not receive the emoluments nor recognition for a job well done.

Ah well. I am off to earn some wages now.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 18, 2010

David's Meditation on Isaac Newton

Sometimes, you wonder about the less obvious story behind the obvious story. You read the accounts, you see the humans and their intimate tales of sorrow and loss, triumph and power, blessings and curses. And you wonder. A lot. Here is one of my wonderings.

The Rock That God Moved

I have such stupid brothers.
They could not wait to pass
the sheepwatch duties on to me
and get out of the grass.

I am smarter and I learnt.
A five-pound lump of stone
and a leather thong, ballistics
and boredom set the tone.

Israel is full of morons.
They're all archers, you know.
To stand and fight in armoured might?
A stupid way to go.

Why is everyone surprised?
Twenty-five centuries
more and Isaac Newton will lay bare
the force-fed mysteries.

Radial acceleration
And a single solid rock.
The book won't ever really say
Goliath died from shock.

You wonder why the real story was never written. And then you realise that you are looking down Time's wrong-way telescope. The old stories are truly the best. My more prosaic meditation can be found here.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Examining the Examiners

There are simple tests for competency, when it comes to examiners. One of these is the consistency test.

Let's say that you have an examinee who presents a short work, not more than 10 minutes in length. He is examined by examiner A and this examiner gives him 16/20 according to a specific rubric. He is examined by examiner B and that examiner gives him 11/20 according to the same rubric. What can we conclude?

We can conclude that at least one of the following is likely to be true:
  • the examiners are inconsistent
  • at least one examiner is fraudulent
  • at least one examiner is incompetent
  • the rubric allows too much subjectivity
  • the work presented allows for multiple interpretations
But what can we do about the examinee's situation? How good is his work?

The answer is that we can't tell. We no longer have a point of reference. The system has become incompetent to judge the work presented.

We can only appeal to a known authority who has somehow been certified 'more competent', whether by previous performance or by fiat. This happens in the legal system, in which appeal can normally be made to a higher court.

Recently, though, I came across an interesting example in the education system. Should the system produce a bad result for an examinee, that examinee gets to appeal to higher authority. But there's a wrinkle: he has about a week or so to come up with a NEW presentation.

But that's stupid, since now you don't even have the original presentation to act as a benchmark. You're starting from scratch. It is as if a person on trial in the legal system is considered guilty of X and then appeals, only to be examined in a higher court as to whether he is guilty of Y. Madness, or at the very least, injustice.

Labels: ,

Friday, April 16, 2010

Contextualising Heteroglossic Discourses

Amazing title for a post, for which I have to thank Potash, that most caustic and clever of commentators. I nicked it off the first chapter of his dissertation.

What it really means, of course, is that we take all the wonderfully varied things that different people say about a particular topic and we put them all into some kind of context. It is a rewarding activity; you synthesize stuff, and if you are good, the stuff speaks to you.

By analysing Potash's work, I've come to realise that I am incapable of using that level of discourse in which five-syllable words are routinely bandied about and used in artful ambush of the innocent intellect. He is just too good at it, and I think I need a few more years to catch up — years that I don't have.

But I don't think I need to use five-syllable words. I've come to realise that just as in the stories of primitive societies, great complexity can be found in simple ideas, couched in simple words.

For example, these lines from the great bard of modern Wales:

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true 
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon 
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood. 
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Too beautiful for words, almost. The miracle is that he was able to put all that blood and fire into the water of his voice.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Word of the Day: Frust

A long long time ago, when I was in school, I used to think that 'frust' was a convenient way of shortening the word 'frustrated'. Little did I know how appropriate this particular formation really was.

The word 'frustrate' comes from the Latin fraus, which means 'injury' or 'harm'. That word descends into English as 'fraud'. Fraus was the Latin goddess of treachery and deceit; essentially, if something failed to happen or some objective was not reached, it was her fault — you were 'Fraused', I suppose.

However, the intermediate stage between fraus and 'frustrate' is the word frustum. Whether in Latin or English, the word means 'a piece broken off, normally the lower remnant of a perpendicular object'. That is, if you have something upright, and you break the top and bottom apart, the remaining stump is the frustum. In mathematics, this applies to cones; you divide a cone in two by a plane parallel to the base and remove the top (apical section) — what remains is a frustum, a frustrated cone which no longer has an apex.

And that really is the definition of 'frustrated': you are chopped off and prevented from progressing towards your apical goal. The emotional state that you are in when you have been frustrated is best described as 'frust'.


Note: 'To frustrate' is in some ways synonymous with 'to disappoint'. You will note that 'disappoint' can mean 'to remove a (better, higher) point (that was already given)'; it is very similar to chopping off the top of a cone.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Elitism Fails

In my previous post I pointed out how egalitarianism fails. Because all humans are different, giving humans equal rights on the basis of a presumed 'core humanity' is actually a distortion of logical contracts, since you are then dispensing something in an inequitable fashion. If all people regardless of virtue, performance, skill, or potential are to be treated the same way and have the same rights, you are looking at something which is exactly identical to the core tenets of some religions — salvation is by a single act and the afterlife is available to all who believe. Except, of course, that this problem is compounded by trying to do it in the all-to-obviously-inequitable material world.

But if all humans are not equal except in some specious idealistic sense, then logically some humans may be 'game-winners'; that is, given all the scenarios that they are exposed to, they have the qualities to achieve a 'win' condition in each of them. There may be no such humans, but there will certainly be humans who are game-winners in some situations. Conversely, there may be some humans who are 'game-losers' in every situation, and certainly, some who are game-losers in at least one situation. In fact, some game-winners for some situations might be game-losers in different situations.

This means that for each simple situation, there will be an elite of those more likely to win. For complex situations, there will be an elite of those more likely to win in all the possible sub-scenarios within the complex situation.

So elites automatically form, and therefore, we have to say elitism must exist — at least in the sense that we recognize that elites are winners and by that fact worthy of being recognized as such. In human societies, if those winners also happen to make us winners (e.g. a very successful hunter in a hunter-gatherer society), then we give them bonuses such as status and power (or huge salaries), medals and awards, stuff like that.

But elitism fails us at one remove, and that is if we unwittingly allow transference of elite privilege — we automatically allow a kind of halo effect to give unwarranted prestige to those associated with the true elite human by kinship, network, clan, or other relationship that is not relevant. There would then be people in the elite group who have not done anything for the community in which they have been raised to the elite.

The only way to compensate for this failure is if they are, after being raised to the elite, able to make others winners using the status or acquired privileges that they now have. So, for example, a poor man who marries into a rich family and is given rich-family associations and privileges could use any influence he has thus attained or accrued to benefit the poor. A son of a rich merchant, landholder, or industrialist, having inherited power and wealth not through his own doing could then use that inheritance to benefit others.

Given the human situation, all these advantages actually come from having people 'below you' in elite status (i.e. the various 'scorecharts' that determine how elite you are). Therefore there is conceivably a moral obligation for elite status to be justified if you didn't earn that status yourself, because your status depends on other people. In the old days, they called this noblesse oblige, the obligation of nobility.

In the modern age of egalitarianism, the use of that term is often shrouded in sarcasm and even an air of impropriety. But there are indeed modern nobles, dispensing state-level power and patronage sometimes because of unearned status. Consider the case of a member of Parliament or equivalent representative in a parliamentary democracy or equivalent state. Supposing he runs for office and is returned unopposed. Then he now has elite status without having done anything for anybody. He now has a moral obligation to do things for people.

This is especially true if such a person ends up with far greater access to 'elite bonuses' such as communication with higher powers, material resources, information and suchlike. Every bit of those trappings of the elite status should carry with it a concomitant and commensurate responsibility towards those in general who don't have such things.

So does elitism fail? Well, there is a tendency for humans to be very happy with privileges and not so happy with sharing them around or making use of them for other people. That is why altruism should be more widely appreciated, since it is at the very least a sign of the realisation that elites need a community to be elite in.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Egalitarianism Fails

Egalitarianism is one of those philosophies of the community that defeats itself. In principle, it's a lovely ideal: equality in the social, political, economic, and legal sense. For all to be equal under the law, in society; for all to have the same access and the same treatment; these are the hopes of egalitarianism.

But the problem can be reduced to a simple point. There are only two levels at which all humanity can be said to be equal: all or nothing. At any other level, there would be differences. So, as many philosophers have pointed out, Death is the great leveller — it makes all things equal, whether by complete loss of all things or by the attainment of all things.

It's of course possible for society to make the vain attempt to defeat the natural biological tendency to discriminate and differentiate. It never works out, because all humans are not equal and never will be.

But, hang on, someone might argue, why can't we do things like make the poor richer and feed the hungry? If everyone were equally well-off, that would be good, wouldn't it?

Actually, yes, it would be. But humans aren't like that. Godliness with contentment is great gain, said a 1st-century philosopher. But humans in general are not gods, and are never content. Nobody wants to be equally well-off; at the very best, we want to be differently well-off. Give any two people the same amount of resources, and they will definitely do different things with them, for all humans are not equal.

So at what level are humans equal? Surely we have a common humanity?

No, we don't. We can try for things like equal opportunities and equal rights, but the most adept (in both good and bad ways) among us will always come out on top because they are better at manipulating things. No two humans are the same; ergo, no two humans are equal. Forcibly making things equal has Harrison Bergeron consequences.

But even in a Harrison Bergeron society, where the authorities make everyone behave as if they were equal, having that authority makes a person different. Only in utter anarchy would things be equal, if you define anarchy as having no person in authority over another. That, however, is worse. The removal of societal hierarchies leads to biological competition, which is even less forgiving and less egalitarian.

Which brings us to the debate on elitism in education. If egalitarianism fails, then elitism triumphs. Education systems must be set up to channel the elite, not corral them or confine them or Harrison-Bergeron them. If people are 'more fit' for some purposes, so be it. It doesn't mean the rest have to make themselves worse by spending time in envy and discontent.

But they will. Because humans are like that.

Labels: , ,

Monday, April 12, 2010

One Best Education System

After a lot of research and a lot of analysis, it seems quite obvious that everyone would love to have an education system that would miraculously produce the best education for each individual child. Well, it's not going to happen.

Why? Because we have no way to determine the optimal contribution of each child, since that in turn is determined by the context that child will be in. In fact, each time we educate a child, we create a different universe for all that child's peers.

Imagine if we had Lego seeds, little plastic widgets that could be educated to become any particular building block. The catch is that you would have to start the process 12 years in advance, making cumulative adjustments along the way but with some potential irreversible steps.

At the end of that time, if all the blocks were the same (worst case), you'd be in trouble. On the other hand, if all the blocks were different, you might also be in trouble. And to find out if all the blocks were in optimal proportion for each kind, you'd have to know what you were building.

That's the problem with ALL educational systems. It would mean that in theory, the One Best System would be one which could make any person be anything at anytime with no lag. It also happens to be the one advantage that amoebas have over more organised life-forms — they can take up any shape they like and live forever.

There's a lesson to be learnt there. Ahem.

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I've been reading Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere again, for perhaps the sixth or seventh time. It's the story, in part, of a man who does a good deed and loses his entire world.

The story of soul-for-world exchange is an old one. But it doesn't go away. I've felt like this before. I realise that, like Brian Duffy in Tim Powers's The Drawing of the Dark, "Much has been lost, and there is much yet to lose."

I walked away from things I thought I would miss, and in the walking away, learned how to walk. I walked away in anger and perplexity, and into the bright morning of a new world. I found old friendships that endured, and I found bridges and stairways into new places.

It is all there; the world is only the most current skin on the surface of the World. What is under that skin, the world-skin we think we know, is World. And under the World is something more real still.

In the end, it is all God. It requires an act of ultimate imagination to realise that for God to make anything independent of Himself must be something like how a force acting against gravity can make something seem weightless.

If God is sovereign, then our world, and the World beneath that skin, are both existing only because He makes it so. Without that Will, everything would just collapse back into God like a vacuum collapses into space.

And somehow, I am blessed to have walked out of one life, two years ago, and into a new world filled with old friends. It amazes me, it awes me, it makes me feel oddly happy at funny times of the night, and in the day.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 10, 2010


It's not possible to live a life without regrets, because by the time you realise that things are regrettable, they've happened. You can choose not to regret things, I suppose, but choosing not to regret the regrettable is rather too metaphysical for me.

What you can do, I think, is choose to live with those regrets, to learn from them, and to act in a way that uses them in positive manner. This is roughly what I try to do, all the time.

Because, of course, there are decisions I will always regret, as well as things I once regretted but no longer regret. I regret many of those things which were rightly but not wisely done, and hence not as right as they could have been.

There are days I've wondered why I did so many things out of pride, or anger, or being a stroppy young punk with shoes that were too large or too tight or too glossy. You can really hate yourself. You can talk to people born 20 years or so after you and realise that they have 20 years to look forward to that you have already lost.

Sometimes, there is the risk of throwing out the whole for the sake of the part. There are days I've asked myself why I ever became a teacher. But I'm sure that not ever having been a teacher, while it would have saved me a lot of grief, would also have prevented me from knowing a lot of joy.

I don't know. And where I don't know that it would have been better, I suppose I shouldn't regret anything. But I do still have a few regrets. Sometimes, it's all very painful.

Labels: ,

Friday, April 09, 2010


Sometimes I listen idly to the flow of words around me, more often truncated than not. As an educator, I realise that subjects get abbreviated — biology is 'bio', 'geography' is 'geog', chemistry is 'chem', and so on.

But sometimes, this truncation is a state of mind. Some of these young people are actually studying bio, not biology. What is in their heads is more akin to bios, just the things of life itself, without the accompanying logos or conceptual structure.

Sometimes, this happens with the best of intentions. Modern history is taught in part through skill-based learning. Sources are given, the task is to evaluate them and determine their relative credibility and come to some conclusions — acts of an historian. Yet, at the same time, we mustn't neglect the big sweep of things, the river within which these are molecules and droplets.

We all know stuff in different ways. There are things like functional knowledge, technical knowledge, academic knowledge — they serve different needs and fill different cognitive niches. You can know 'how to' (in theory or practice), you can know 'what is' (in the affirmative or negative) — knowledge is an answer to something that needs an answer.

And how to obtain knowledge is one of the knowledge-handling skills, just as 'how to disseminate it', 'how to construct it', an 'how to validate it' also are. We need the knowledge of things we can do with knowledge, and things we can do to knowledge, as well as the knowledge itself.

This whole matrix is joined together by the art of the connection, the weaving of tight connections between parts of knowledge. To make bigger areas of knowledge, something called a logic must be used to connect smaller bits up. When you have connected enough parts up, 'bio' becomes biology.

It's a pity about 'astrology' though. Haha.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Rebirth (or 'What Rough Beast')

I spent a couple of days reading Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. It's a very interesting book, written by a solid academic who actually used to be pro-testing and pro-choice. I'm going to be mentioning a few of her points. (It's also an interesting kind of book to read on the Easter weekend.)

In order to appreciate what Ravitch is saying, one has to have had a quick run-through on the subject of US education systems. Traditionally, each political sub-unit of the USA has had a lot of latitude in deciding what should be taught, how, and to whom. David Tyack's The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (1974) is a good study of the drive towards mega-systems at a state and national level, as people moved from the agricultural hinterland to the cities. Subsequently, Tyack and Larry Cuban's Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1995) is an excellent crash-course that brings the account up to date towards the end of the last millennium. At that point, things looked pretty optimistic.

The millennial presidency, of course, went to George W Bush. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, President Bush managed to come up with the 'No Child Left Behind' reforms. The intent was laudable, but the details were appalling. NCLB left it to states to set tests and then mandated action based on the percentage of students doing well in those tests. Not surprisingly, the temptation to lower test standards hit almost all the states, as subsequent research showed.

Students did better, test-wise, and proficiency levels fell. Mandatory tests covered reading and mathematics, and nothing else. In the famed New York 'Regents' exams, it was found that you could score 65 by obtaining 34.5% of the possible points. The graduation rate soared. This happened in Chicago as well; pass rates doubled and performance levels remained horribly flat from 2001 to 2008.

Meanwhile, tuition centres (test-preparation farms and suchlike) flourished. Students learned to game the steadily less rigorous tests at state level. Essentially, students were cheated of a good education while the administrators took credit for better results.

Thus Campbell's Law kicked in. In 1975, Donald T Campbell formulated this social science principle: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decison-making, the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." In this case, teachers and administrators were held accountable for better results, so they learned how to produce better results without producing better education — 'by coaching, cheating, or manipulating the pool of test-takers' as Ravitch puts it.

She continues, 'As long as the state or district superintendent continues to report good news about student performance, the public seems satisfied, and the media usually sees no reason to investigate whether the gains are real. State and local leaders want to claim credit for improvement, rather than determine whether the improvement was meaningful.'

It is instructive to read all those books and then compare and contrast the unfolding of such events with the considerably more controlled and politically well-directed development of the Atlantean education system. The Atlantean system makes no bones about its origin as a way to boost economic growth. The Gnome, who masterminded the economic expansion of modern Atlantis, was very clear about that.

The Gnome also said many things about the non-material aspects of education. They are very altruistic, very laudable things, these other things are. Unfortunately, these non-material ideals proved less robust than the drive for quantitative measures. It was as if the Gnome's architectural and cultural heirs lost to the Gnome's engineering and accounting heirs.

The resultant education system is fantastic. Local test scores are as high as the highest American test scores (normally from the state of Massachusetts). Actually, local test scores are often the highest in the world. This is a good thing, with the only caveat being that these performances are mostly in the quantitative disciplines — mathematics and science. I say 'mostly' because many detractors somehow fail to remember that local students also top the Commonwealth in English Literature and win numerous international debating and legal awards.

But that one caveat is a pretty serious one. It is a symptom that mechanistic learning is the main operating mode in Atlantean society. The country is riddled with the equivalent of American test-preparation centres. The situation has reached the point at which people are giving private tuition to university undergraduates. Most of these centres are cramming stations for the sciences, mathematics and economics, with basic language skills thrown in. Students are also taught mechanical ways of framing and writing essays.

All this means that Atlantean basic education is extremely solid. But it is also resistant to creativity. Since performance is primarily evaluated by test scores, most people get good at producing test scores in the most efficient possible way, not the most interesting, flexible, or adventurous possible way.

Nevertheless, the Atlantean system hasn't had the same kind of problems with testing or choice that the American system has. In the case of testing, this has been because the Atlantean test regime has a strongly centralised and rigorous testing bureau which tries very hard to measure process skills as well as product. It has its weaknesses, but not so many, overall.

But what about 'choice'? In the American system, this refers to students being able to change schools and courses at will. Private education service providers can compete with public schools in a free-market system. At this point in time, the jury is still out; no statistically-solid gains can be seen as an overall trend — although some of these providers have posted sterling results, some have crashed and burned with alarming alacrity.

In Atlantis, choice depends on your academic prowess (test-taking skill?) at the age of 12 or so. This allows you to pick a secondary school, which mostly admits on the basis of that score. The fundamental flaw in the system is of course that in the last 30 years, the best secondary schools have built their reputations on having had the best students and hence having posted the best results.

The market has failed because we can't determine how effective these schools really are except by a spurious measure known as 'rolling value-added score', which measures efficiency as a function of test scores (again). The market has failed even more drastically because the better schools are now allowed to admit talent even without looking at the test scores — and there is no public disclosure as to how this talent is selected or how much is thus absorbed.

Even worse, since test scores correlate well to socioeconomic status (SES), the better schools have developed an elite demographic character in which top earners predominate. The schools can of course disguise this by taking in foreign students without declared antecedents, or by reclassification (or secure classification) of parental SES. But it is pretty clear that the per capita cost of education in the elite schools is much higher than that in the neighbourhood schools.

Principals of such schools are now major fund-raisers and scourers of the hinterland for academic talent. They administer a test designed to discover proficiency in mathematics and language, skim off the cream from nearby countries and big states like China and India, and bring them to Atlantis for conversion education. Then they bask in the academic successes which such talented young people will inevitably produce.

In a sense, the Atlantean system has already had the rebirth that the American system needs. However, what has been birthed is not necessarily a paragon of educational virtue. Whatever it is, though, is pretty efficient at producing test scores. Scorers, not scholars, are the output of the system. Aficionados of W B Yeats might be right to wonder what rough beast slouches towards Atlantis to be born.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Core of Education

Over the last few years, I've been exposed to many education debates. These debates have been about whether 'holistic education' is a viable educational concept, what an education ought to consist of, how educational results should be interpreted, how educational reform should be carried out and what its objectives should be, and many other related matters.

I've mentioned a lot of these matters on this blog. Some of them have exercised me more than others, and some have infuriated me or amused me more than others. But I think that there are still some basic questions that all educators should think about before they debate the more specific issues.

For me, the basic questions are: "Who do we educate?", "To what end(s)?", "With what curriculum?" Questions that are also very important but not so basic are: "In what way?", "Developing what skills?", "How do we evaluate success?" and "Where are the material resources?"

We educate students. This means we need to know what the range of human ability is, and how such ability is developed. Lots of new disciplines have developed in the 1990s and 2000s. We now know more about how the brain works, and how flexible it is in achieving goals, for example. We know it adapts dynamically in many ways.

The ends of education are almost always rooted in usefulness to society. In a fishing village, catching fish for survival and trade is a main objective. For our society, we should think carefully about what ends serve it best. We can't just say, 'Everything!'

The curriculum must be carefully constructed. You can teach skills like chewing, but without food, this skill is a lot less useful. It follows that skills are less important than context, ability and content — because of the adaptability of the brain. Learning to read, for example, is different for many people; there is no one specific technique. What's important is that there is something to read, and that there is a lot of it. Preferably, what there is to read will be useful in attaining other objectives.

Once we know who we're educating, why we are doing it, and along what lines, then only should we think about whether we can evaluate success. Logically, given sufficient education, students should be able, at some point, to continue their own education on whatever foundations have been built. They should also be able to do the equivalent of catching fish in a fishing village context.

As for material resources, it's surprising how much you can do with limited resources. Isaac Newton's work on light, gravity and calculus (among many other things) did not have the benefit of the more than 300 years of technology accumulated since his time; yet, we still study a lot of it.

A few years back, I posted some thoughts on an ideal education. Since then, I've thought a lot more, but not deviated significantly from those ideas. (Well, actually there is one deviation: I no longer think that all educational outcomes necessarily imply the presence of an education that is designed to produce those specific outcomes. It's a bit like thinking about intelligent beings, realising that 'intelligent' is a self-bestowed term, and that it doesn't necessarily indicate an intelligent designer. Haha.)

The bottom-line has to be increased functionality. We teach reading because we converted spoken language to symbols millennia ago, and the main method of effective persistent communication between humans relies on decoding those symbols. It's dysfunctional to be illiterate or sub-literate in this human context. But teaching something like chemistry is a lot less generally applicable, although it may be a lot more powerful for those who will be using it for something specific.

What we need, therefore, is reading material that will challenge the student's ability to decode symbols and derive meaning in as lossless a way as possible. Finnegan's Wake might be too extreme, but a fairly high standard of competence in at least one language should be developed.

The next stage is the ability to compose using these symbols, in such a way that effective communication is achieved. This is attained when a majority of people reading your stuff can understand it or at least decode it enough to see what you intend to communicate. The closer they get to your intended message, the better you are. After that, of course, you can write for elegance and beauty and stuff like that; it's just like building a house — walls and roof first, other stuff later.

Looking back at 2007 and the young people I taught in that bygone era, I realise that they were already good. What on earth were we teaching them, then? If the bottom-line was increased functionality, did we give them that? Or were the examinations just a way to rubber-stamp existing proficiency? Questions, questions...

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Word of the Day: Cauldron

There are many legends about cauldrons. The infamous Black Cauldron of Celtic myth (and Disney appropriation via Lloyd Alexander) which spawned undead warriors was once the healing cauldron of Diancecht, physician of the gods. A cauldron brewed knowledge, divination, mysteries. A cauldron was used for brewing potions, elixirs, draughts of magical power. A Chinese legend holds that the same cauldron has been brewing the same soup for centuries in a certain village; the villagers just top it up with water when the level drops or add more fuel if it's getting cold. But a cauldron can be all of that because of its origin.

The word 'cauldron', like Spanish calderon or Italian calderone comes from Latin calor ('heat'), to calidus ('warm', 'heated'), to calidarium ('hot bath', 'heat sink'). The word 'scald' comes from Latin excaldare — 'to seethe, to immerse in hot water'. A cauldron is therefore a large vessel where things are immersed and left to cook as their essences diffuse and mix within fire-heated fluid. A cauldron is a melting-pot, a mixing-pot, a messing-pot.

My head feels like that sometimes. Right now, on my desk, are books I am currently reading. I don't know how my brain works, but it's restless and its menu of the moment consists of
  • Garry Kasparov's On Modern Chess: Part 3 — Kasparov vs Karpov 1986-87
  • Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System
  • Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman edited by Wagner, Golden and Bissette
  • Peter Kreeft's illuminating commentary on Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans
  • a bunch of papers I'm supposed to read and integrate into my thesis by tomorrow
  • a long delayed notice of dental appointment
  • the latest issue of Science
which is a whole lot too much. The cauldron overflows, and my feet hurt. Maybe I need a hot bath.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Human Overlord

Caught up in Tolkiensian imaginings, you might think of the overlord who is beyond redemption, a fallen angel turned into a lidless eye, a thing you knew was never human and always to be feared. It is easy to hate what you have demonized.

But the truth in human reality is always messier. Over the years, I've had difficulties with human hierarchs and they have had problems with me. I am not one for giving respect where it is not due.

Neither am I one to withhold respect where it is due. I've put on record, and meant it each time, what I have said of former overlords. Of one, I said she was hardworking, determined, willing to get her hands dirty; of another, I said he was the most focused educational administrator I'd ever met and the best student when attempting to learn something new. I have served many earthly masters, and I have never met a single one who didn't have something good in them.

You see, everyone has at least one gift. The only problem in using that gift is when it is not used the right way; either it is overshadowed by evil weeds, or its light is dimmer than the shadows. When a leader decides to do evil, whether out of ignorance or spite, we call it 'turning to the Dark Side' ever since George Lucas made that iconic. When a leader decides not to do good, whether out of meanness or out of caution, it is a move away from the light and down into the shadows.

The steps of a man's faith are simple. Find your gift. Use it to serve. Remember all that is asked of you is to use that gift in ministry to others. The bargain is: for each gift, the use of that gift. The other things are always forgiven, as long as the gift was used aright and the mission served.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 04, 2010


It came even down into the little island and its little hills. The rain fell like spears. The wings of angels beat like shields. The fire was out this cold morning. But Christ is risen indeed, and the world is not the same.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 03, 2010


'Simplify me when I'm dead,' go the words in one particularly memorable modern poem (which I've appended at the bottom of this post). At this time of year I think of the two-way simplification of the man named Jesus, son of God, son of Man.

There are indeed at least two ways to look at the person of Jesus Christ. The first is "Time's wrong-way telescope", which makes him look smaller, less distinct, a vague image which is conveniently distant and far from us all; the second is the simplification of death and aftermath, a cold but dynamic logic given to us by Paul the apostle.

In the first, we find it convenient to distance him by virtue of alien experience. He died for the sins of all the world, a thought so large that we can run around saying that we are too small, that it is so big, that we are not worthy, that there must be some sort of calculus that is beyond us. So we put it far away from us, and we bow down and sing hymns, and because of that well-known phenomenon called 'diminished responsibility (or sense of moral agency) due to being in a large group', we feel a lot better, marvelling from afar.

The second is terribly inconvenient. If the Christ is not dead and risen again, then you are still in your sins. If it didn't happen, you are pitiful because you believe it did. If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain. And in this second model, the Christ walks up to you and very inconveniently tells you, as one man to another, "Do not be faithless, but believe.' Having provided the physical proof to Thomas the apostle, he turns round and says, "Because you have seen me (and stuck your hand into this big hole in my ribs), you have believed; blessed are those who haven't and yet believe."

It's easier to surrender far away from the battlefield, as it were. It is easy to sing hymns once a year, remember the death on Friday and the resurrection on Sunday. That can be a good thing. It's not so easy though to be forever standing witness (in all our own fallen glory of fallibility and shame) to something that you have not much rational evidence for. But there it is. Simplify your choice.


Simplify Me When I'm Dead

Remember me when I am dead
Simplify me when I am dead.

As the process of earth
strip off the colour and the skin
take the brown hair and the blue eye

and leave me simpler than at birth,
when hairless I came howling in
as the moon came in the cold sky.

Of my skeleton perhaps
so stripped, a learned man may say
"He was of such a type and intelligence," no more.

Thus when in a year collapse
particular memories, you may
deduce from the long pain I bore

the opinion I held, who was my foe
and what I left, even my appearance
but incidents will be no guide.

Time's wrong way telescope will show
a minute man the years hence
and by distance simplified.

Through the lens see if I seem
substance or nothing: of the world
deserving mention or charitable oblivion

not by momentary spleen
or love into decision hurled
leisurely arrive at an opinion.

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I am dead.

Keith Douglas
(died in France, 9th June 1944, under enemy mortar fire)

Labels: , , , , ,

Sore Throat Remedy

A sore throat is one of the most irritating conditions simply because it prevents sleep, reduces the enjoyment of food and even of breathing or talking. It is one of those things that relentlessly bugs you.

Fortunately I've learnt that there is one remedial treatment that always works — the old-fashioned salt-water gargle. Put one teaspoon of salt in a large mug of warm water kept by the sink. Whenever your throat bugs you, gargle with some of the mixture and then spit it all out. Make sure the throat gets bathed in it.

The throat will feel strangely soothed, and you will also feel less inclined to cough or otherwise make life more painful for yourself. Salt water is also an antiseptic of sorts. If you have mouth ulcers as well, it will help.

Labels: ,

Friday, April 02, 2010


Today one of my professional colleagues paid me the compliment of saying that I was a 'real pro at synthesizing'. Coming from this person, I took it in the spirit intended; that is to say, 'a professional at reconciling multiple viewpoints and presenting them as a seamless tapestry'.

Yes, at the very least, I have become an essayist with historical tendencies. That's not so bad. I stand in good company with many who I would otherwise not qualify to stand with by virtue of quality. But like Newton, I suppose I can say that if I have seen further, it has been by standing on the shoulders of giants.

I've had two of my papers enter the final pre-publication phase in one week. I've come to realise that if I string all the beads together in the right way, I will be able to make the big deadline soon. The problem is that there are so many beads.

Well, maybe I'll be able to put them together like the facets of an insect's eye and produce, miraculously, some sort of coherent vision. When that happens, I shall have won this war. I shall feel most Maccabaean.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 01, 2010


A very long time ago, as it now seems, Murray Gell-Mann named the quark after a curious line (one of many) in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Over the years, six quarks were discovered — the prosaic 'up' and 'down' quarks, the odd 'strange' and 'charm' quarks, and the elegant (and very large) 'truth' and 'beauty' quarks. They formed part of the 'Standard Model' of particle physics.

The properties of quarks became more and more interesting the more research was carried out. Quarks had colour — red, green and blue; they also had anticolours — antired, antigreen, antiblue (or cyan, magenta and yellow). If you added coloured quarks together so that their nominal colour was 'white', you'd get a meson, baryon or antibaryon.

Philosophically, some scientists were wondering if the Aristotelian model of knowledge would hold — would we find 'truth', 'beauty' AND 'goodness'? By the time the Standard Model was established, it seemed that there was no place for 'goodness' in the world. Besides, if you had seven quarks, it would seem oddly asymmetric, not to mention probably result in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' jokes of dubious quality and content.

The 'truth' quark alone was a beast, almost the size of a gold atom. With its partner 'beauty', some people already had visions of the Disney versions of old folk tales. Surely one had to be enough? The problem with the Standard Model, or Eightfold Path, was that it was too neat. Too tidy.

The antithesis to the Aristotelian view was of course the Zurvanite perspective, explicitly considered as a Sassanid response to Roman Christianity with its Aristotelian reasoning. If you had three quarks named 'truth', 'beauty' and 'goodness', then your Zurvanite antitrinity of quarks would be 'unimpeachability', 'passionlessness' and 'aloofness'.

Thank God that today's many interesting Large Hadron Collider news items haven't mentioned these new particles at all. Quarks with seven-syllable names just don't fit into the natural scheme of things. 'Aloofness' might just about pass.

Labels: ,