Monday, May 31, 2010

Lost Horizon

I grew up along the eastern coastal plain, where the sea licked at the beach outside my gate. My grandfather owned a boat, and an ancient salt-corroded binocular telescope from which you could see the ships. Below the viewing platform was a scrubby lawn which somehow repelled the salinity enough to allow my grandmother to grow all kinds of plants nearer the house, including those sweet peas whose purple flowers she used to dry and grind up to make food colouring for dumplings.

I remember when they began the piling works for the conquest of the sea. My mother, resting in the afternoons; her legs twitching and the house shaking each time the huge steel logs hammered the girders into the ground; it was a cacophony that never ended, but just drifted further seaward. As did the sea itself.

I watched the sea as they took it away, the daily dumpings of stone and sand, the concrete, the piling, the slow removal of the tide which went out and never came back. They 'reclaimed' the land from the sea, and when I was small, I hoped the sea would reclaim it back. Now I'm much older, and people are beginning to think of defences against the sea because of global warming. But everyone forgets where the huge limestone caves in the region came from, which show the tide levels a few centuries ago were as much as 10 metres higher than they are now.

There was a port way up in the north before it silted up. There were deeper harbours further south. The sea has fallen away. Proud humans have built entire high-rise complexes like a girdle around the land, a fence to keep the sea at bay, a new coast road, a barrage, a marina, an array of manmade fortifications, even an airport. But the sea is still there, twinkling, waiting.

Some day, the fish may swim through the gutted hollows of the tall towers. Some day, humans will go back to the boats and not the steel ships. I will be old by then, but I will also be a young boy, watching the tide at my back gate as the sun sets and the wild water rushes in.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Caffeine Serendipity

This, the serendipity of serendipities, happens when you walk into the local café and you find that the brew of the day is Sumatra Mandheling, an extract of that most mellow of beans. If Ethiopian coffee is like wine, Sumatra Mandheling is a liqueur.

I sat, I sipped. I smiled at the lady of the stars. I had a silly grin on my face. I was happy.

Coffee looks even better, day by day. For those of us who have been faithful, we have kept that faith through the studies that showed caffeine was implicated in heart disease (false), cancer (false), high cholesterol (false). We have survived to see the studies that show caffeine can stop Alzheimer's, keep cancer at bay, make you smarter and happier, and increase your capacity for enduring stress, pain and misery.

O blest source of 1,3,5-trimethylxanthine, O bean of power and subtle glory! We thank the Divine for His gift of this fruit, this vegetable substance, this zenith of plant growth, without which life would be that much less beautiful. Amen.


Saturday, May 29, 2010


I used to think that all real academics ended up unpopular. If you never ended up unpopular, you never stepped on anyone's toes, you never burnt bridges or inflamed sensibilities, you were probably never an academic. Or at least you were an academic who became an administrator before you got caught.

But I'm beginning to think that some people see it the other way round. There are some academics out there whose idea of burnishing their academic credentials is to be a pain. Then, when some negative response is produced, they will say, "See, I'm a real academic. I have been persecuted. There are people out to get me."

It's a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Apart from agreement, here are maybe three non-compliant responses to academic freedom (which in some circles is the freedom to say anything whether it is academic or not). One, you can ignore the noise. Two, you can attempt to educate the academic. Three, you can attempt to refute the academic.

In the first case, the academic may respond, "See? You are ignoring me. I am being persecuted!" In the second case, the academic may respond, "See? You are trying to brainwash me. I am being persecuted!" In the third case, the academic may respond, "See? You are trying to confuse the issue. I am being persecuted!" I think it may be possible that if you agree with the academic, he might respond, "See? You are merely humouring me. I am being persecuted!"

At this point, most people are already entertaining the thought that the academic ought to be persecuted, and some of them will put that thought into action.

To be sure, there are indeed at least two social forces that are dangers to real academic freedom. The Gnome, as I've repeated almost ad nauseam, identified them as the cult of obedience and the cult of secrecy. In academia, the first one manifests as unwillingness to contest a dominant narrative simply because it is asserted as dominant; it is also manifested when people defend a dominant narrative simply because that is what they were taught or conditioned to do. The second one manifests when people obstruct academic research either actively (by promoting secrecy and hiding information), or passively (by not saying things they know to be true), simply because they prefer things not to be known for the sake of keeping things unknown.

In that sense, academic work in the human domains, as opposed to work in domains which are less human-dependent (mathematics, science, engineering), is more difficult. It's not just nature and your peer community that you are up against, you are also up against Polyamnesia (the goddess of collective lack-of-memory) and other minor deities of the anti-academic persuasion.


Note: I was raised a university brat. That means I have actually seen all kinds of academics in both their private and public personae. It's all true. But there are also good academics, unfairly-treated academics, and forces that make academics turn on each other and devour themselves. It's a mad world; the ivory towers are sometimes abattoirs and arenas.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Silly Food Ideas

I first studied food chemistry in detail when I was a third-year undergraduate. This created a foundation from which I developed a certain perspective on food claims, based on chemical analysis.

I'm just going to take a quick look at some food decisions people are passionate about:
  1. honey vs refined sugar
  2. sea salt vs industrial salt
  3. 'organic' food vs normal food
  4. 'processed' food vs raw food
  5. monosodium glutamate vs 'natural' flavours
I am going to spend the rest of this post discussing the science behind making a rational choice to eat any of these things or not. Honey is a vastly favoured food, and quite often, it is spoken of in the same breath as 'royal jelly'. The ideas here are that a) honey is a natural sugar, and that b) stuff the queen bee feeds to baby bees to make them grow large fast will work for humans too. I think it's nonsense to say that honey is 'better' than refined sugar in any significant biochemical way.

Essentially, honey is about 80% sugar — mostly fructose (fruit sugar, about 40%), glucose (30%), maltose and sucrose. The rest is mostly water. If you ate 100 grams of sugar, you'd receive perhaps 1-3% of your daily requirement of some vitamins (e.g., for vitamin B2, you'd have to eat 3 kg to meet your daily requirement). As a sweetener, honey is approximately as sweet as table sugar. I must admit however that honey tastes a lot nicer. It is the one area in which I'd say honey is genuinely 'better'. It's good for baking too; being already a sugar syrup, it's easier to use than refined sugar or even castor sugar.

But honey can be worse. Since honey production is carried out by the random acts of insects, honey is never of a uniform composition. Sometimes, it contains allergens from pollen that some people are allergic to; sometimes, it can even contain the spores of nasty pathogens. It is basically impure sugar, and it has been marketed as if that impurity is a beneficial thing. Consider this: if pure water was analogous to pure sugar, would you drink water that was the colour of honey?

The same situation is true for sea salt. Sea salt is tastier than industrial salt or pure salt, sodium chloride. That's because it contains impurities, especially potassium salts. Potassium ions are the main reason why sea salt tastes different. For example, potassium bromide can taste sweet, salty or bitter at different concentrations; sodium chloride and bromide just taste salty at all concentrations.

However, potassium ions are what we call 'antagonistic' to sodium ions. This can be good or bad. Athletes consume potassium to relax muscles and prevent cramps; the bananas that tennis players snack on between sets are high in potassium — but the levels present in sea salt are much higher than those in bananas. Potassium salts have such a well-known relaxing effect that large doses of potassium bromide have long been used to make humans sleepy and susceptible to control. It's a good thing to read more about it.

'Organic' food is an interesting term. I don't like that term, since all the food I eat is organic (carbon-based) except perhaps mineral salts and water. People who eat 'organic' food normally mean that it's food grown with natural animal faeces instead of pure salts such as ammonium nitrate. Of course, the good part is that some 'organic' foods eschew the use of artificial insecticides in their making, which is certainly a healthy thing. I have nothing much else against 'organic' food except that I'd prefer they called it 'food grown without whatever chemicals it was grown without, and using natural faeces only'. Sometimes, 'normal' food is normal.

Which brings me to this odd idea about 'processed' food. I think humans process their food a lot, compared to other animals. We are the only species that regularly subjects food to thermal shock, charring, denaturing and tool-based mechanical alteration. Why should that be? Shouldn't food fit for all the other species on this planet be fit for us too? Maybe the raw food advocates have a point.

But can you imagine not eating processed food? No cereals, no bread, no baked goods. No cooked eggs, no steamed fish, no grilled meat. No blanched vegetables, no jams, no butter. No milk unless you get it straight from an 'organic' cow. No wine, no beer, no salted dishes. No ground pepper, no cheese, no olive oil. Haha, no thanks.

And yet, some people like to add processed flavours to their food; things like cinnamon, vanilla and umami. All these require processing (often heating and/or extraction with alcohol) to bring out the taste. Which brings me to that contentious last item.

Why are people against MSG? Some people claim to be sensitive to it with resultant bad symptoms of all kinds, but we haven't actually been able to reproduce this effect. Natural MSG occurs whenever salt encounters proteins; glutamic acid is a common amino acid present in most protein sources. Let's be clear about this: without glutamate, the brain CANNOT WORK. It is the most abundant triggering (excitatory) neurotransmitter chemical in your nervous system. And MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid.

At that point, some people come up to me and say, "Yeah, but sodium is bad." Sodium is bad?? No, sodium is essential. You can't think or move without sodium ions. And your body contains a bit less than 1000 mg for every kilogram of your body weight; if you weigh 60 kg, you probably have 55,000 mg of sodium in there. You need to maintain this with about 1500 mg of sodium intake a day.

So what's bad about MSG? Is it the glutamate? Is it the sodium? Can't be either. The only thing bad is consuming too much of it, just as it would be bad to drink too much water or eat too much salt or beef. It would be fatal to eat nothing but lettuce, for example. The key is moderation. I'll be honest with you. If you eat large tennis-ball sized lumps of MSG every day, you might get very sick. Then again, I can think of many other food substances of which this might be true too.

I can only believe that bad PR skills have led us to this point. The reason why MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is called that in hospitals but called 'Nuclear Magnetic Resonance' (NMR) in chemistry labs is that nobody wants to imagine being 'nuked' even though the 'nuclear' in NMR has nothing to do with radioactivity. MSG just sounds too much like a 'chemical', by which humans mean something awful and artificial, like plastic.

If we had stuck to calling MSG 'umami' from the beginning, everyone would have lauded it as an exotic oriental ingredient. But it was not to be.

All food is made of chemicals, and all cooking is chemistry. It is good for students to study food chemistry, so that all the nonsense that they read in advertisements and on boxes and labels can be purged, filtered, eliminated. Then there'll be fewer silly food ideas to go around.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Irresponsible Musings about Atheism and Science

The only scientific evidence I have that I am responsible for anything I do is the feeling that I am. Some people, whom we classify as psychotics, do not feel such things. In fact, some of them don't classify other people as anything except objects. Does this mean that I am indeed responsible for what I do, or that they are not, for what they do?

The only scientific evidence I have in favour of the existence of God is that I feel I am entitled to value judgements that have meaning. If I can feel such things, and they have an existence beyond mere chemical biology, then there can only be something that material analysis cannot detect.

To assert that there is a God is a special claim, a claim for which no affirmative evidence has been shown to exist. I say this despite the many claims of affirmative evidence that people have made; if you are inclined to put all these claims to the test, they are circumstantial at best, and not at all direct.

To assert that we are responsible for our actions is likewise a special claim. After all, we don't hold any other mechanism responsible for its actions. We don't hold animals or babies responsible for their actions. The only thing that allows us to claim responsibility is our own authority, our own belief, our own claims to intelligence, our own collection of chemical interactions.

We create predictions for how the universe should behave, and because this seems a specialised and valuable interaction to us, it leads us to think that this ability allows us to decide that believing in our intelligence and responsibility is somehow more defensible than believing in God. But it all boils down to feelings, value judgements, the favouring of one paradigm over another; it boils down to saying that our capacity to balk entropy is objectively important and shows that we are a significant anomaly. That is a value judgement, and it is as empty as believing in God.

I say this, however, in the sense that two full glasses are as empty as each other.


Further reading: I've spent some pleasant hours at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. The entry on 'Free Will' is of interest; how can we claim to have judgement and volition if we claim to be part of the universe of natural order and not more? Likewise, the entry on 'Moral Arguments for the Existence of God', which merely concludes, "Moral considerations give all a reason to examine the proposition that there is a God very seriously. For if there is no God, morality is a more perilous enterprise than if there is."

Disclaimer: Yes, I am a scientist of some sort. Also an historian of some sort. And some sort of some sort else. Does it matter? I am as much a bag of chemicals as you are.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why Student Output Should Be Better (But Isn't)

25 years ago, I was an 18 year old person in senior high. If we did research at all, it was mainly in a reasonably well-stocked library, or from our own collections of material. We sometimes had files of newspaper clippings, sorted by topic and date.

A lot of that (though not all) has now been made redundant simply because most schools now purchase online access to journals and newspapers. Simple search functions linking to any of those databases will produce a plethora of peer-reviewed journal articles. In conjunction with Google™ Scholar and Wikipedia, a student can literally research and produce a paper on any topic, running at around 2000 words, in less than 400 minutes, maybe even less than six hours.

25 years ago, this was just barely possible, except that you would have to read piles of material because there was no search function and you'd have to rely on the occasional annual index of topics that kind journal-publishers might produce, or on the experience (and philanthropy) of the person manning the morgue at the newspaper office. If you were fortunate, you had a knowledgeable librarian.

And yet, the quality of student work these days is poor. Each paper is generally poorly referenced, and the references selected are often poor themselves. The argument doesn't hang together, and neither does the structure.

Why is this so?

I have an idea, developed after many years of talking to high school students and asking them about their work processes. It's a pretty sad idea.

I think that students don't read enough.

Search functions identify quotes which they can use in their papers, but they have seldom read the entire book or chapter from which these quotes have been lifted. Because the context has not been read through and analysed, the quotes are unjustified or simply taken out of context in the worst way possible.

Students don't read around the topic anymore, because instead of homing in on their material, they jump straight to it. It's like the subway or MRT. If you pop up in the middle of a neighbourhood, you only know the area around the station, and your knowledge of context and related material diminishes sharply as the distance increases.

Students don't read enough often because their teachers and librarians don't read enough. My personal library consists of about 8000 books. This is small, and in the age of the Internet, it ought to be redundant (and often is). But when I research a paper, I end up with a bibliography; a 25-page paper with perhaps 8000-10000 words in it takes a week for first draft because I have normally read an average of 500 pages from various sources while planning and writing that paper.

If a student comes to me with a topic, I can often recommend books or journal articles or websites because I've seen them, read them, or know someone who has. And if I can't recommend sources, I use Google™ like everybody else, or Wikipedia. But if I do, I take the additional step of trying to triangulate my sources to see if they agree. If I can find only one source, and it is not linked to any other, I can't in good conscience recommend it as an authority unless there are seriously good reasons to do so.

It all boils down to three things: receive a lot of input, think a lot about it, structure it into consistent output. That provides basic quality. Style, grammar, neatness — all this provides extended quality. But any kind of quality requires hard work.

The final bit of hard work is reading your own stuff critically. You need to read it aloud, if possible. This exposes the silly stuff better. Sometimes, under the influence of sleep deprivation or bad environmental pollution, you write silly things. It's best to pretend your paper was written by someone you hate and that you will get a cash reward for finding mistakes in it, arm yourself with a red pen for hard copy or something like those awful comment flags in MS Word™, and attack your own work.

This phase takes a lot of time, for me. I literally read and re-read everything I publish, several times. Unfortunately (as some of you have noticed) I do this less for my blog posts. I don't like making mistakes, though. That means I make some attempt to find mistakes, will amend them as soon as I find them, and will confess them if some poor sod has already been subjected to them.

Students these days claim they haven't enough time. I just wonder how much less time they would have had in the days before advanced search and online databases, before YouTube and Wikipedia, before the ability to download digital versions of key documents within minutes. They have less excuse for mediocrity than I had.

One final rant about reading: why can't students bother to look things up for themselves, given all the online help they currently have? I hate it when students ask me for definitions of things, places, people or ideas. It's all online!

Yesterday, I had coffee with a young man who lamented the difficulty of training educators. He asked how I would go about it. Well, I told him that each person should be educated in a different way, but that there were some key requirements.

I told him that first of all, a person should have read all the fundamental texts (or at least, enough texts to cover the fundamentals) of the subject to be taught. A general educator should have a broader and more difficult reading list than a specialised educator.

Secondly, the person to be 'trained' (I hate that word in this context; it reminds me of dog obedience school) needs to develop the capacity for interacting with people, listening to feedback (verbal or non-verbal) and tweaking the interaction as it progresses. You need to try as hard as you can to understand the people you're teaching, and you need to feel apologetic if you don't quite 'get' them.

Thirdly, the person needs to be able to detect bullshit both in what is taught and in the responses of students. Yes, self-critical as well as other-critical analysis is required. You shouldn't lie to students even by accident. If you don't know something, say so. If you have made a mistake, admit it and apologize.

If students are badly taught, then their role-models of learning are deficient. This is another reason why student output is bad; their input and learning models are bad too. As my grandfather used to say, "Why do children misbehave? Because their parents do!"

In most parts of the world that I've seen, I estimate that perhaps one teacher out of every 20 is a good one. The quality tends to be worse if the organization is larger, unless a lot of money is spent and a lot of research and evaluation is carried out in the attempt to 'buy' good staff. That means students have to be good self-teachers most of the time.

I wish my own students all the best. I try to give them my best, being fully aware that it's never enough. But they should also aim to do better, by reading, thinking, and being self-critical — and by remembering that the best is always yet to be.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Other Invisible Hand

Everyone knows about Adam Smith's 'invisible hand', one of the seminal metaphors in economics. To be more exact, it is the idea that the forces of competition, self-interest, and supply/demand will work together to produce the most efficient allocation of resources. This is the basis of the 'free market'.

But if that is the right hand of human social impulses, the left hand is Robert Michels' hand of the bureaucratic impulse, the idea that keeping things tightly controlled is a good thing. This is the basis of the 'market square', the framework in which and through which the 'free market' is forced to operate.

John Taylor Gatto, in his book Weapons of Mass Instruction, mentions what sounds awfully like the other invisible hand in the context of education. He says: and women who staff institutional schooling are very like those in other complex institutions — if they exercise significant free will they will become outlaws who must be sanctioned, and things which improve performance are hardly more welcome than things which impair it. Deviations from a steady state jeopardize the 'system mission'... innovation was powerfully resisted; independent practitioners were sanctioned — ostracized if they persisted

This sounds so much like the old place. Essentially, teaching the way I did was considered 'bad teaching'. Ironically, when I did the boring stuff, I was praised for it. When I did the interesting stuff, a few enlightened people in distant powerful places thought it was good, but the immediate hierarchy squirmed. And because I was one of the 'interesting people' (of which there were really quite a few; I wasn't the only one), whenever something suspicious happened, I was immediately on the shortlist of people to blame.

I realise now that essentially old men running bureaucracies always want to hold on to power. It is a deep-seated impulse which is perfectly natural, since to lose their grip (or to appear to) is to admit uselessness and impotence. Sometimes it is also for very good reasons; these people perceive that they are the best persons for the job and cannot imagine anyone would be as good at being them. In that sense, they are right — nobody is so alike them that replacement would be exact.

Robert Michels said that the key function of bureaucracies is never their publicly-stated primary mission, but the protection and maintenance of the bureaucracy itself. In that light, it is quite obvious why most innovation is a sham, a shoving around of things designed to look like advancement and progress, but masking the truth.

In an educational context, this truth is that students are not smarter than before, not wiser, not more capable; they are just as good as ever, except that schools take credit for their work and subtly persuade them that without school, they would not be as successful. Instead of empowering them and setting them free, as schools claim, they are actually applying invisible shackles with an invisible hand, so that the majority of students never grow up to become the insurrectionists that society really needs for true progress.

One of those shackles is called 'debt to society', which over the last few decades has overtaken the perfectly legitimate debt to parents. In this era, parents often feel incompetent to educate their own children, a feeling enhanced and intensified by constantly changing syllabi which in some cases teach less than those parents learnt when they were in school. That is why students can imagine that their debt to society is greater than their debt to parents; society provides schools that provide grades and certificates and jobs based on those, and money beside.

When Smith's invisible hand meets Michels' invisible hand, students are flattened in between and become two-dimensional. The combination of 'free market' and 'controlling framework' leads to dominance by those capable of brachiating through the social jungle, the monkeys best able to follow monkey rules. Those who would change those rules or make their own rules are few because many think they would fail.

Yet even supposedly conservative texts like the Bible say things like, "Do not be conformed to the system of the world." The Biblical Jesus paid tribute to the Law, but he said that the fulfillment of the Law was beyond the Law itself. He was the independent insurrectionist of his time: the Sabbath was made for Man, and not Man for the Sabbath — the Laws were made because of the hardness of men's hearts. But it is Man who is more important than Law.

We who live in the framework should be aware of both invisible hands. It is Michels' bureaucratic hand that is more pernicious, more deadly. It preserves a population pyramid in which craftsmanship is denied a proper place, and administrative power is king. I suspect that if even 10% of the teachers of the nation were to aim beyond the framework, at least 50% of their students would be lifted beyond the limits of their current horizons.


Note: I think the major difference between Smith's hand and Michels' hand is that Smith thought the invisible economic hand was a good thing in general, whereas Michels thought the invisible bureaucratic hand was an evil thing.

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Not Doing

It's one of those days when you look at your desk and the piles of books and papers and you tell yourself no I'm not doing anymore work. And it's worse than that, it's one of those days when you don't want to do any work but you aren't happy with yourself for it. And it's worse than that, you left the airconditioning on all night and you ache all over and who can you blame for that?

Coffee. Cures all ills.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

The Ten Not-Commandments

Occasionally I think about the vast body of myth and legend that accretes on top of other stuff, like the layers of an ever-increasing pearl. Ever since the time the Israelites wandered in the desert, the story has been retold in Sunday schools an youth fellowships until what is 'known' bears no resemblance to the original text. Bear in mind that modern English chapters and verses have little relation to the original textual divisions, which were generally found in continuous scrolls.

In Exodus 20, God tells Moses a few things. He starts by making a few general statements, which have for some reason been elevated to commandments. They are actually a preamble to a legal contract, and are found in Exodus 20:2-17.

Thus, a good reading of the material that follows will clearly demonstrate that Exodus 20:22-26 amplifies and clarifies Exodus 20:2-7, about what exactly constitutes the authority and status of the first party in this contract. This form is repeated; in Exodus 21-23, amplification and detail are added. People who don't read this don't get it.

That's why people misinterpret Exodus 20:12, for example. The verse reads, "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee." It is meant to be clarified by Exodus 21:15,17: "And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death... And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death." Obviously, if you do either of these two things, that is what constitutes actively dishonouring your parents, and your days will therefore be short.

The same is true for Exodus 20:13, the much-misunderstood "Thou shalt not kill." This is used as a prime directive, without differentiation, by a lot of bad readers of the Bible. However, this is clarified in Exodus 21:12-22:2; these verses clearly distinguish between murder and accidental killing — for example, if a man 'lies in wait' for another and then kills him, that's murder. It even talks about death resulting from accidental causes and under what circumstances a man can be held reliable — if an ox gores a person to death, then the ox will be stoned to death, but if the ox had a previous history of aggression, then the owner will also be put to death. Similarly, kidnappers and slavers (21:16), and thieves who break and enter (22:2), can be put to death. A person who has read these verses would not be such a sloppy handler of 'Thou shalt not kill' since the subsequent chapters make it obvious how that verse should be interpreted.

The last example I'll give is Exodus 20:15, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." This has nothing to do with lying in general and everything to do with perversion of justice, as Exodus 23:1-9 makes clear: "Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment: Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause."

That last line means that you should not let someone off just because he is poor, and sounds terribly unjust to the modern ear. However, reading the rest of it shows that the burden is placed primarily on the landowners and owners of animals. And verse 8 is an explicit injunction not to take bribes.

All in all, anyone who thinks that a moral code is based primarily on something called the Ten Commandments is not making sense. It is quite clear that the Ten Commandments are not the be-all and end-all of the Mosaic covenant; they are only a preamble, a list of key points, a sort of introductory PowerPoint slide, to be elaborated upon at length and not to be treated as the main presentation.

It is also clear that Moses broke the tablets of the law (Exodus 32:19) with only Joshua as a witness to this perfidy, and then proceeded to kill 3000 Israelites without God telling him to do so (read Exodus 32:14-28). It was one of many sins of anger that Moses perpetrated, but which God forgave.

Perhaps it's a good thing for professing Christians to read more carefully the entire burden of their scriptural heritage before engaging in unedifying arguments about all kinds of strange things.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Unnatural Things (Part III)

It was back in January and, before that, December, that I last pondered the odd divide between what humans think of as 'natural' and 'unnatural'. This round was triggered by a brief conversation yesterday about 'organic' food.

I think humans are bonkers about food. We're the only species that routinely subjects food to unnatural thermal processing. No other animal species boils, roasts, bakes or chars their food except by accident. There must be something wrong with that. It's terribly unnatural.

The same thing goes for mechanical processing. We beat our food, churn it, mash it, blend it, slice it up with precision-designed metal tools, mix it up and stretch it out, dice and slice it, roll it up, arrange it for display.

We apply odd chemical and biological processes to our food: we salt, emulsify, combine, agglutinate, caramelize (as in subject to Maillard browning deliberately, in order to produce what some of us call carcinogens), hydrolyse, ferment. We do things of awkward and toxic nature, such as deliberately getting bacteria to infect our dairy products, and call it 'natural'.

I think that foodwise, we are the most unnatural species on the planet. And if people are talking about 'organic' food, that's seriously wrong. What foods are 'inorganic'? Only common salt, water, and other mineral substances like ferrous sulphate. What foods are natural? Maybe only stuff that grows in remote regions where human manipulation has not directly occurred.

Yes, humans are an unnatural lot, who have this daft yearning for a 'natural' that they can never possess.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Word of the Day: Carnivaluator

This was inspired by an article I just read on the taxonomy of the hamburger. It struck me that people who rate their food are evaluators, people who eat mainly meat are carnivores, so people who entertain other people by evaluating their meat must be carnivaluators — a kind of combination of three Latinate words in one. Like a hamburger.

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Sometimes, I need a cocoon. I find that enjoy myself stuck in plane flights lasting longer than 16 hours. I don't like short flights. They make me feel like one of those badly-folded paper airplanes that come down to earth too soon.

I like the fact that I can do my own thing and not have to worry about what is happening for a while. Just eat. Drink a lot of juice — apple and tomato especially — sample wines, drink coffee. Get up, stroll around, visit the toilet, hang out at the back of the plane where the savvier flyers go to do their workouts.

Yes, I fly cattle class if I do fly. I feel painfully extravagant if I can stretch my legs while remaining seated. I am a plebeian. I like airline food. I like airline blankets.

(I also like small rooms where I have just enough space to stretch out, where all my belongings are not more than a lazy step away. I feel lost in large bathrooms. Maybe it's because there are more places for monsters to hide.)

I always get off planes feeling refreshed. I have had my sleep, watched my movies, done my readings. I have been in control of my schedule, I have negotiated with the inflight professionals. I am content.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Remembering Golden Mountain

In the wake of the Gnome's departure, a small but incredibly powerful vacuum has been created in the lost myths of Atlantis. How could whole generations of Atlanteans claim, as they have over the last seven days, that they knew nothing whatsoever about the Gnome? Was the Thunderer's PR machine so all-devouring, so all-encompassing?

The 2008 book, 'The Scripting of a National History' (printed in the Fragrant Harbour), by two incisive and daring academics, tells us of the Thunderer's apotheosis (or transformation to godhood) and the subsidiary roles his lieutenants played (transformed to demigods or high priests). The authors compare the Thunderer to the Gambler — the only two important personalities in Atlantis. Somehow, the Thunderer's biography became 'The Atlantean Story' and the cornerstone of the island nation's history textbooks.

But as I fell towards the black hole of the Gnome's death, I picked up a book about his schoolmate and friend, Golden Mountain. The book was called 'Golden Mountain: A Builder of Atlantis'. In the book, the Thunderer says that the Gnome and Golden Mountain were opposites: the former was cerebral, the thinker par excellence, with an excellent grasp of the abstruse and the abstract; the latter was not only smart but visceral, able to tell the characters of men at sight and understand their inherent capacity for good or evil, though not so good at abstract conceptualisation.

So who was Golden Mountain? In his day, the cost of public housing was eight Atlantean thalers to the square foot, including the cost of power, water and modern sanitation (p.67). This was in 1960, when $8 would have bought you 400 bowls of noodles. Fifty years later, 400 bowls of noodles would cost perhaps $1200. However, salaries have not risen by a factor of 150, or teachers would be earning $45,000 a month. Golden Mountain kept things not so much cheap as affordable. He was the one member of the Thunderer's pantheon who worked for free and accepted no worship.

He literally got modern Atlantis to be built. The soaring towers of the Land are his monument and his legacy. When you see these structures, they are as much Golden Mountain's as the structures of finance and education belong to the Gnome. They are all a mixed legacy; all Atlanteans are somewhat grateful, some still make a fuss. But rarely do Atlanteans credit either Golden Mountain or the Gnome.

Even when they do, the Gnome is preeminent in that consideration. Yet few realise that they both ran the portfolios of Finance and Education, alternating. They trusted each other, brothers of the Wyvern. They had a bond based on service to their nation, but of greater importance, to their people, their countrymen.

This was unlike the bond between the Thunderer and the people. The Thunderer was always the wielder of lightning, the surpassing majesty whose prerogatives could not be infringed. The people saw him as deity, as lightbringer, as psychopomp in a world of darkness.

But I remember Golden Mountain today. Like gold, he appeared soft but was strong. He could spread himself thinly, be flexible, but remain incorruptible. He did what was necessary, he facilitated work by providing rewards more quickly when the work was done well and promptly. He was a silent conductor in an orchestra of cut-rate architects, engineers, builders, contractors. Yet he also made brutal assessments, though he was kind to everyone who needed it. He was a complex man who was a simple man; he enjoyed food and fine living, but would not inflict high costs on people. He was outspoken in defence of his principles; he was blunt when saying things others would not have dared to say. He was no politician, but he was a faithful servant to the people because he chose to be.

We who sit in relative comfort in Atlantis, grousing about high prices and (relatively) low wages; we who turn the wheel and look to windward; we should remember Golden Mountain, for he was one of the best of us. We should remember Golden Mountain because we live in towers and not in slums, and therefore have a clearer view of what it means to hope.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Squirrel Secrets (Part II)

Their network is vast. In the old arboreal wilderness of Atlantis past, a squirrel could run from one end of the island to the other without once coming to the ground. Wait. I'm pretty sure Tolkien said something like that about western Middle-Earth, and maybe it was never true here.

But I know where the local squirrel headquarters is. It is in one large old tree, one which is often surrounded by purple berries at the right time of the year. If you walk by quietly, you will hear the bickering, contentious chatter, and interactive outrage of a horde of intensely exercised squirrels.

If you should then stop and look up, there will be a moment's silence, as they realise they have a visitor. Then there is a sudden burst of chatter and a lot of running around — alarums and excursions, as the Bard used to say. Then, silence.

They no longer use the networks of the trees. Now, their network is fence and wall, hedge and post. They have squirrel internet. They probably tap into microwave dishes. I know they steal papayas left unattended. What a mafia!


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Squirrel Secrets (Part I)

Every morning, if you time it right, just as the sun clears the immaculate hedges, you will see the squirrel. He's dark brown, wiry and trim, a speedster in a world of fat cats. He not so much runs, as sprints with undulation, along the fenceline. He is a little cheetah of the suburban savannah, that low-rise edge of the concrete jungle.

I wonder what he is running from. I wonder where he is running to. Perhaps he is running for the love of it. Perhaps he is a she.

The other day, I was awestruck by a particularly scintillating run. The squirrel flowed like muddy quicksilver up and down several trees. I had no idea (as usual) what he was looking for. Or she.

I don't know what squirrel families are like, but one sunny afternoon, in broiling heat, I saw the squirrel doing his run (or her run) this time, part of the road was included. And there were two smaller squirrels following close behind, doing the same route, but with a little less skill, a more tentative approach.

It was squirrel school, and I was privileged to be able to watch. And in the bright heat of the late day, I saw that their fur tinted red. It was like watching streaks of camouflaged fire zip through my quiet world.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How Legends Pass

Roland is missing; his grave near Bordeaux is long destroyed. Where is the bearer of that mighty horn, where the bearer of the sword Durandal? He who was Lord of the Breton Marches, he who passed on the Ides of August in 778, is gone. They say he may yet rise, a paladin in the service of men.

Arthur is lost; Who is Arthur?, say the voices of the learned. We know that someone shut the voices of the Saxons in the 6th Century after Christ. Some say he sits, resting with his knights, until Britain needs him once more.

The Thunderer once said that even if he were to be lowered into his grave, he would rise up if anything went wrong with Atlantis. He still lives, but one can tell when a legend is passing, and when the device of foreshadowing is being employed.

But the Gnome has passed. And this one will not return. For like many elemental spirits of earth and matter, of coin and gem, of earthy humour and down-to-earth ways, he has built himself into the land and returns his body thereto. His sinews are in our institutions, his mind is in our processes, his veins are in our roads and tunnels. His historical record will be everywhere, like Arthur; his memory will survive his grave, like Roland.

And like Sir Christopher Wren, "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice!" — if you require a memorial, look around you!

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Back to Work

Obviously, a fair number of people had to take a break from whatever they were doing to say their goodbyes to the Gnome. The thing is that part of my work was writing a commemorative tribute to his life in public service.

This means, of course, that I have to cope with the aftermath of loss at closer quarters than most. But I can imagine what he would have to say about that, because he said so much about so many things...


The Strategos of the Atlantean military said, "He frightened a lot of people, he was a very demanding boss, but really if you knew him well, he was a very kind man, a very caring man and he actually had the welfare of the soldiers at heart... the Thunderer would never have made a good Gnome, and the Gnome would never have made a good Thunderer."

These two very different men were distantly related. But I will always remember the story that the Strategos once told. Apparently, the Gnome, in his capacity as High Priest of War, once summoned him. A summons from the Gnome was always a fearsome thing. Quaking, our hero ascended to the Spartan (heh) office in which his boss held sway.

"Yes, lord, what may I do for you?"

"General, I want you to tell me something. If you know the answer, feel free to elaborate. Otherwise find me someone else."

"Yes, lord." It was at this point that our hero claims he felt true fear. The Gnome was never known to ask simple questions.

"What, general, is the reason that these white balls that we hit around are made with all these little dimples on them?"

The Strategos explained that it was something to do with helping them fly straight. As our hero said later, "I was pretty sure I was right, but I felt a twinge of uncertainty as he looked quizzically at me."

The Gnome then told him that it sounded like a reasonable explanation and thanked him. Another memorable moment in the history of Atlantis had occurred.

There is a sequel to this. It is said that the Gnome decided that all his general staff needed to be smarter. That is how the Strategos ended up going to Duke University to do a Master's degree in Military History.

My father was one of those tasked to prepare these military men for their higher education. It was an interesting task, teaching highly-motivated but somewhat senior officers about subversion and warfare. (He recalls that the Strategos had been bright but playful when he was a young man in the College of Wyverns. In fact, he used to copy my mother's notes; always a man of action, he didn't think he was academically bright enough, which was why he'd joined the army.)

But the Gnome would not be denied. And that is why all the senior officers of the various services now have to have Master's degrees in some relevant subject. And then, they go back to work. Just like I am doing now.


I think the Gnome would have said to me, "Well, we're all human, so we do these things. But after getting such things done, quickly and with little fuss and minimal expense, let's remember that there is real work to do."

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Insight into the Practice of Government, Baboon Leadership and Witchcraft

The Gnome's recent death provoked me into re-reading his speeches and writings, especially since the Thunderer's son has come out in public, referring to the Gnome as 'master builder of [Atlantis]' (in condolences) and 'like a god' (in the Sunday papers). Was the man I remember really such a 'titan' (as the Saturday papers said)?

Whatever he was, he was a perspicacious individual. He was sharp-minded and not prone to wasting time. Like all members of his family, if presented with boring and irrelevant material at a meeting, he would retreat into crossword puzzles and his own thoughts. And most of the time, he observed his colleagues and thought about how work could best be carried out.

Here is a sample of his thought, taken from a 1981 address to leaders in education:

I have therefore to explain how a Ministry works. I shall explain this not in [structural] terms, but in terms of management principles and practice. I shall not describe these principles in the abstract. Not having obtained a degree in Business Management, I am diffident about doing this. I shall therefore describe how my colleagues and I make management decisions.

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

This is not a public confession and the position is not as alarming as it looks. In modern society, it is not possible for the head of an organisation to know more than a small fraction of what goes on within it. It may be otherwise in primitive societies. The chief of a small group of primitive savages is better informed of what goes on in his village than, say, the President of General Motors is about his corporation. The modern executive chief may be armed with a whole battery of computers while the village chief is not, but he knows less. Even so, the village chief may not understand everything, and so he usually has a witch doctor upon whom he depends when events pass his comprehension.

Perhaps the only creature who possesses a total information system of which he has complete grasp is the patriarch of a troop of baboons. I have not come across any reference in the literature to the practice of witchcraft among baboons.

A government minister or a chief executive in business obviously cannot use management systems appropriate to primitive societies or baboon troops... [Gives well-known local examples of success, e.g. 'Golden Mountain'.] How did we get by? Let me explain how my colleagues and I do our work. Since we are not tribal chiefs or baboon patriarchs, we do not try to know everything about everything, an impossible and foolish task. But a minister cannot function effectively if he remains in a state of total ignorance of his subject. He acquires knowledge partly by reading the professional literature (or rather, that part of it of value to him), and partly by engaging expert consultants; but mainly he depends on his professional and administrative staffs.

He went on to talk about how problems were solved, and about how the main difficulty was not the range of information required for their solution, but obtaining that information. And then he spoke about the two areas of weakness he found most dreadful ('there is no other word for it'): the cult of obedience and the cult of secrecy.

What did he expect from subordinates? He told them this, towards the end of that very intelligent speech:

Please remember the following. Your comments should be clear and concise. Do discriminate between wisdom and verbosity. If you must write more than two pages, send in a one page summary. You must not use the occasion to ventilate your grievances... finally, please do not pick an argument for the sake of arguing. The professional literature I have read reveals that teachers, principals and education experts in the West are only too prone to do this. These experts don't seem to agree on anything; so let us not be too dogmatic about our own opinions. But if you are convinced that what we are doing is wrong, do not be afraid to say so.

This is very much the man I remember, the one who told me that being a teacher would be a difficult job. It is because of him that the job became a professional vocation in modern Atlantis; it will be because of those who prefer the cults of obedience and secrecy that this calling is diminished and denigrated.

In time to come, the Gnome's place is assured in history. Yet, I have found inspiration to be part of that assurance. I too will write about him, and try to share the lessons I learnt from him with others.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Day After

So he is gone. That reality sinks in, but what is changed? For some he was gone in 1984; for some it was 1991. When someone wants to be gone, he goes.

But now he is not coming back. Then again, he was never coming back. He was moving on, always moving on. And so should we.

But you know what? I will always remember the quirky man who just wanted to find solutions to make the world a better place. He thought of it, in part, as a technical problem. He bent his genius to it.

He could be raucous, learned, creative — sometimes all three at the same time. He lost it all, a bit at a time. And now he is gone.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Gnome Man Is An Island

The Gnome has passed on. We will remember him in the prosperity and education system he left behind, in the defence arrangements, the zoo and the bird park, the many things which he touched and made but which we did not see.

We will remember him even though we complain so much about what he did. Because, in the end, he really did try his best. His wizardly brain went west a long time ago, but the thoughts he thought in his prime were wiser than the thoughts of most others.

If anyone should be named the father of modern Atlantis, it is he. Or at least, that is what my students thought after I told his story.

His chapter is ended now. I must quote Donne's famous lines from Meditation XVII, not the ones that most think of, but these:

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

Autumn has now come upon Atlantis.

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Working Days

My days are very different now. I used to wake up with the sun, struggling up from the depths of the dark and into the half-light. Forced to interact, one took what pleasure one could. There was a lot of enjoyment in what I did, but it had little to do with the 10,000 steps (measured by pedometer) I walked each day, up and down the winding and baroque geometry of the old place; nor had it much to do with the random 12 hours of work, a lot of it mindless, that had to be done in every day. Badly planned, or not at all, seemed to be the order of those days.

But now, it is a lot more contingent on what I think. I have to structure my days. Generally, an early start, but not too early. A quick catching up with nutrients and the world's events. A couple of hours of work on my own projects. Lunch and time with people, or more work on my own. Then the students, miniature case-studies of cognition and despair. Dinner. Reading, perhaps a little work, rest. Relaxation.

I have a better awareness of who I am, and not how I am defined by the collective. I contain multitudes, as Whitman said. And yet, I am me.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tweaking the Meritocracy

Supposing you had a meritocratic state, and you wanted to adjust the academic inclinations of the populace. The best way would be to adjust the examination system so that study in specific areas would be rewarded by perceived economic or social advantage, normally conveyed by that well-established proxy, aggregate test scores.

So let's look at Atlantis. This is a state in which the young, just before they enter their teenage years, are tested to the brink of destruction (but mostly, not beyond) by a test called the Phased Stress Loading Exercise. In this test, the candidates are subjected to four kinds of load.

The first kind is linguistic; it is a double-weighted test (at least at the raw score level) designed to evaluate a candidate's competence in the language that he or she will have no choice but to use in almost every public area of life (and in 60% of the cases, every private area of life too) for the forseeable future.

The second is pseudocultural; it is also double-weighted at the raw score level, but it evaluates a candidate's competence in a language that is sometimes touted as a future trade opportunity, and which is otherwise used by less than 40% of the population. The double-weighting here is a political tool which was used to eliminate that language's dialect rivals decades ago, thus severing links between the modern population and its ancestors.

The third kind is mathematical; this is supposedly easy to test, and so it is. However, the test itself has been made to discriminate better simply because it doesn't have double-weighting at the raw level and yet is probably more important than test two. This of course has inspired furious rants from those who feel discriminated against — which is what the test is designed to do.

The last kind is scientific; this is arbitrary, as most tests of scientific ability are at that age. What it does test is scientific knowledge at a simplified level, coupled with capacity for absorbing advanced concepts at an abstracted level. This is somehow supposed to be correlated strongly to future performance in science. However, this is not true except in the general sense that students who are good at memorizing things at the age of 12 are often good at doing that at age 18.

Eventually, the final aggregate score is calculated. This is the sum of the t-scores for each test. The t-scores are calculated like this:
  1. Take the candidate's raw score for any test, r, and find the difference between that and the average score of the population, m.
  2. Divide this difference, r-m, by the standard deviation (roughly, the spread), z.
  3. Multiply this number, (r-m)/z, by 10 and add 50.
  4. This gives the total test score for that test, t = 10[(r-m)/z]+50.
  5. Add up all the t-scores for the four tests.
This gives the candidate an aggregate score which will be higher if the candidate does well in every test and everyone else does worse (and especially if everyone else does a lot worse with a relatively narrow spread). Note that after this process is completed, tests 1 and 2 will no longer likely be double-weighted, since the process 'normalizes' things in a way.

How do you tweak this?

Well, if you set a very tough paper, you will see record aggregate scores and be able to separate the best from the less good by a larger margin. However, it is probably easier to just adjust the marks awarded. After all, people will complain, "The paper was so tough that even I wouldn't be able to answer it!" Which of course says more about these people than it does about the paper.

A simpler paper is easier to grade, and since we haven't got enough competent markers in most populations, that's a bonus in time saved — less adjudication or moderation will be required. But you'll see lower aggregate scores and less-informed people will say, "Oh look, we've had a bad year!" and plot silly graphs which predict the downfall of society.

Actually, I have no idea how exactly any such tweaking would occur. But tweakability exists for any system, and I have just shown how this might manifest in the mythical Atlantean system. Think of it as an imaginary service for an imaginary public.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Metempsychosis without Reincarnation

Inspired by unicorns and suchlike, I come again to Donne. My summer fades into autumn, but is still heated enough for summer. I am in myself entire and yet not whole. I feel that a lot is going on in me which I have little control over, and that all the dietary advice and chemical knowledge and suchlike is just a human way to pretend that one has control over the microcosm, while being subject to the vagaries of nature.

I think I should just exercise when I feel dull, eat when hungry, sleep when tired, work when enthused. To those who would complain that I have choices they don't, too bad then. Sometimes you make your own situation, sometimes you make of it whatever you can.

Here are two fragments which have occupied my thoughts of late; the first is of Donne, the second of Tennyson. Each has his own way of struggling with human frailty.

Extract from 'Meditation I'

  by John Donne

Is this the honour which Man hath by being a little world,
that he hath these earthquakes in himself, sudden shakings;
these lightnings, sudden flashes;
these thunders, sudden noises;
these eclipses, sudden obfuscations, and darkenings of his senses;
these blazing stars, sudden fiery exhalations;
these rivers of blood, sudden red waters?

Is he a world to himself only therefore, that he hath enough in himself,
not only to destroy, and execute himself,
but to presage that execution upon himself;
to assist the sickness,
to antedate the sickness,
to make the sickness the more irremediable, by sad apprehensions,
and as if he would make a fire the more vehement,
by sprinkling water upon the coals,
so to wrap a hot fever in cold melancholy,
lest the fever alone should not destroy fast enough,
without this contribution nor perfect the work (which is destruction)
except we joined an artificial sickness, of our own melancholy,
to our natural, our unnatural fever?

O perplex'd discomposition,
O riddling distemper,
O miserable condition of Man!


Extract from 'Ulysses'

  by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life pil’d on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is sav’d
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 gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010


This morning's newspapers brought yet another pustule to the boil (so to speak) as an educational leader in eastern Atlantis was removed pending investigation. Allegedly (and perhaps apparently), he had hired a consultant for his temple to education, and used that consultant, a friend of his, to intimidate the staff (or maybe, they just felt intimidated). It is all murky, as Shakespeare might have said in Macbeth.

I was absolutely entertained. It makes me want to propose that educational leaders in other parts of Atlantis should also be investigated. Should one hire a full-time chauffeur and 'personal assistant' to drive one's golden chariot? Should one hire a retiree at high pay-rates to order food for one's official functions? It is amazing! I should get my list of 'The Top 50 Initiatives of a Creative King of Moral Progress' and send it to the powers on the Beautiful View!

But whatever for? After all, the subtle screw is already at work, ready to pop the cork on the vintage wine that has been fermenting for the last two years. Ah, the sweet fragrance of success! The powers deserve a quality award for all their hard work. They actually have been doing the due diligence.

Rest assured, of course, that I shall never ever seek to be such a leader. I, in keeping with the admonishment to those of Thessaly, seek only to lead a quiet life and not bother with affairs of such great public weight and pressure. But I am amused, entertained, and wholly joyful.

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Monday, May 10, 2010


A chimera is what you get when you graft separate entities together and make them one, and yet still semi-autonomous. When confronted with a beast that has the head of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the body of a two-legged dragon, you might be tempted to think of it as a chimera, but you would be wrong. Such a beast is merely a wyvern; that is, a winged dragon with only two legs.

A chimera, on the other hand, has a head in front, a head in the middle, and a head at the end. This leads to interesting conflicts, with the three heads corresponding roughly to Freud's ego, id and superego.

The front end has a lion's head, and most of the body is a lion's body too; this is courageous and bold, but not very bright. It breathes fire, according to Homer, "A terrible flame of bright fire." It sometimes thinks it is the only head, and is somewhat irked when the others hijack its agenda.

The middle head is that of a goat, with a brain of typical mortal lusts and hungers, mainly for food and sex. It is only interested in whatever makes it feel better, which isn't much, considering it feeds straight into the reflexes and guts of the overall animal, and wants everything all of the time.

The tail turns into a snake's head. The snake is crafty and devious, always trying to look forward and make clever plans for the long term. Unfortunately, it's facing the wrong way, and sometimes dares not venture in the other direction in case it gets eaten by the goat. It thinks it can control the others.

The chimera is altogether an unfortunate creature. Divided in all its ways, it is a fearsome enemy, but a silly one. The goat eats almost anything, the lion's flame burns almost anything, the snake's venom kills almost anything — and yet, it is always at war with itself.

The best strategy for dealing with it is to bait the individual heads into arguing with each other, or to slay it from a distance using arrows of lead, as Bellerophon did — the expression 'eat lead and die' is an old one. It was hot lead too; apparently the lion's breath melted the lead and the goat ate the hot lead while lead vapour poisoned the snake.

And as I look back at the wyvern, and the chimera, I laugh a lot. The world was ever a complex place. The classics have much to teach us. Homer's wine-dark sea long pre-dates the red ocean/blue ocean dichotomy of modern folly, and his chimera long pre-dates various gryphon/wyvern hybrids of dubious long-term viability.

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Sunday, May 09, 2010


People are afraid of books, people worship books blindly, people are attempting to do away with books, the tide of young people who are not comfortable with books is rising. These are some impressions I've received over the last few years.

I think a lot of this stems from one common root. People are unfamiliar with books.

The child who doesn't like to read is one who has had the reading behaviour displaced, most often by some other kind of visual and/or tactile input. If you keep a child bored and put him in a library, he will eventually succumb to bibliophilia because that is his only useful choice.

Instinctively, most parents resist such manipulation when it comes to books, although they are not averse to using other kinds of manipulation with respect to food, sleep and toilet training. It is part of the mystique of the book — some will worship, some will fear, most will set aside as special.

But the book is still the best way to deliver content. It is a compact and persistent data source in which comprehension is delivered not by point-and-click but by the enforcement of a specific kind of cognitive process that is the foundation of the entire education system of the world. It requires symbol recognition and processing at several levels, and metacognition above that.

My prescription is that if you want a child to have a lower chance of being ADHD, subliterate, or just plain barbaric, you should take most of the toys and games away and leave him in a library or bookstore. When you meet, talk about books, model the intelligent reader, and (if you like) teach him to discard trash about Blue Ocean Strategies and suchlike.

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Hold (Part II)

I think the greatest part of being on hiatus, so to speak, is that one gets the chance to savour moments you would never have been able to enjoy while working. The best moments, aside from the long walks and sheer pleasure of being able to do stuff at any time of the day, have been with old friends made new.

I've been able to meet people I've hardly been able to sit around and chat with for years; valued friendships have been re-established, with unicorns and strange poets, with ladies and laddies, with food and drink. My life is richer now.

It's like cold-drip coffee. You let the vital aromas and essences leach out slowly, concentrated to the fullest and darkest limit of alchemical enterprise. Then you imbibe the fuliginous essence, the atrament, the lightless liquid distillate and excrescence of the bean.

Don't let the moment run; let it flow like the slowest of honeys in the richest of sunlights. Diamonds may sparkle, but amber glows, and the polish of jet — of obsidian, of ebony, of night — goes on forever.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

On Hold (Part I)

I realised some time ago that I put a large chunk of my life in limbo when I decided to go for the posthuman division. In 2004 I aced the examinations for that, and then began the long slog for the dissertation.

Some people are fast dissertation-writers; I'm not. It runs in the family. Or perhaps, one might say it overruns. I know a man who got his staff to gather the data for him and was very proud about the subsequent achievement; I'm not like that, and neither is my family.

It's almost there though. In a sense, it began to kick off when I became an historian in 2005. Then my academic mentor made me write two chapters in a 2007 book which, to my delight, turned out rather well. 2008 brought more work; 2009 even more. This year, I think I'll see another two book chapters, in two different books.

I still want to continue being a teacher. I think that if you were to read what I've written, you'd feel a sense of the didactic narrative there. I write to teach, to inform, to dig up the hidden underbelly of history and count the wriggly things.

This is why I sometimes feel like Elijah Snow, an archaeologist of the impossible, a person out of time, often being lied to, sometimes unknowingly conscripted into other people's games, once in a while heartsick, fundamentally optimistic though not without a large dose of sardonic cynicism (yes, that's a rare phrase that relates both dogs and sardines).

But as I've said before, "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be..." as Eliot puts it so well in the one section of Prufrock that speaks most to me. And in a while, when all this is done, my life will resume with a new vigour.


Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Argument from Lack-of-Design

I'm not an advocate of intelligent design. If God decided to make His design look incomprehensible to us, He could do it if He wanted. Just because anybody thinks something is designed doesn't mean it is.

However, I am opposed to what I call the argument from lack-of-design. To counter the idea that the appearance of design implies a designer (clearly, it can't), some people say that enough things are so badly designed that their ostensible designer can't have been very intelligent. Cue examples such as weird DNA sequences, knee joints, the apparatus of the human eye.

Actually, this is a very amusing argument. Let's see why this is so.

To begin with, let's define design as a process in which a situation of lower statistical entropy is planned and executed. By this we mean that the number of possible routes to reach a specific configuration of particles is deliberately decreased by the application of intelligence to action. Ideally, if there is only one possible route and there are many particles, then entropy is minimised for that set of particles.

This assumes a few things, mostly non-provable: an intelligence that can design, a will that can execute a design, a perceptive apparatus that can rate design as 'more intelligent' or 'less intelligent' and the power to execute a design without contravening its own logical underpinnings.

But the logical continuation is fascinating. Suppose we had a perfect intelligence (however defined) and it created a zero-entropy universe (by definition, a perfect design). Then what would it be like? The answer, I suppose, in the context of what we seem to know, is that it would immediately begin to fall apart into a random state of higher entropy. It would unwind, with patches of relatively higher and lower entropy randomly distributed.

It would produce situations in which any subordinate intelligence would have the potential for suffering, since such intelligences would be subject to local differences in entropy and probably able to recognize if they were 'better off' or 'worse off'. Those that were 'worse off' by any criterion would be 'suffering' from an objective point of view, and also 'suffering' from a subjective point of view if there were what we would call a time-based emotional component.

The inescapable conclusion is that the perfect design would necessarily create an imperfect universe in which suffering was one of many logical outcomes. What a bummer, you'd think, except that the fact of existence is a pretty good trade-off for some people.


Random Notes:

Wait a minute, some Lack-of-Design enthusiasts might say. Isn't there evidence that the human eye is evolved to be better than, say, a mere photosensitive patch? Actually, no. It's more vulnerable to injury. But it's not worse. It can't see into far UV or receive radio waves for decoding. But it's not worse. It's not anything except what you want it for (or what you already have). If it could do better than it does, it wouldn't necessarily be a human eye. But humans are greedy and want X-ray vision. You'd need something like metal nerves for that. Could God have made it better? Well, my question would be, "What ever for?"

Also, the human knee (for example) could be in many states, some better, some worse. There would be no perfect knee. There would only be subjectively better knees and subjectively worse knees. For every 'better knee', some criterion could be located for which it would be a 'worse knee'. A zero-entropy knee would not be a knee at all. Think about it.

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The Demise of the Local

For a very long time, I used to get my weekly entertainment from the comics shop just down the road. Advice and opinions were free, and you could easily meet old friends and fellow regulars. The food in the area wasn't bad either.

One day, no explanations, they went down. Insolvent, I guess.

Local expertise, whether pharmaceutical or literary, is always trumped in the long run by mass-production and huge operations which are financially cost-effective. That's the way of the world.

The paradox is that because humans are rational people, we will indeed do what is less than best for ourselves. That's because most humans will go for the good of the short term rather than the best of the long term. A bird in the hand, as they say, is worth two in the bush.

This is why the world is the way it is. Banks and similar institutions created short-term profit instruments based on long-term fantasies. Rational humans went for them. There was just enough to cover short-term rationality, like the lure at the end of a very long fishing-rod.

Our experiences with the long-term, however, are seldom encouraging. After all, you could die before you get to the end of the line. That's why humans are only rational with respect to the kinds of payout you get when you can see the end of the line — that's why people will sacrifice the life they will likely lose anyway when it will save more lives, and that's why you get deathbed conversions.

And that's why the local mum-and-pop shops down the road will just keep failing unless they find themselves a truly integral niche in the local ecology, one that provides benefits for many without particularly high overheads and with sufficient profit to continue, one day at a time, regardless of trend. Something like professional tuition, maybe.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Nanny State

It is indeed possible to enjoy life living in a country where anything bad can apparently be remedied by immediate recourse to a legal system that is armed with mighty codices, grimoires and tomes of high complexity. Such a place has many ways of spanking the evildoer for a multitude of crimeless crimes, with long and involved litigation at great expense to the taxpayers.

Such a place would be most of the United States of America. It is one of the few countries in the world that requires people to label anything potentially dangerous (even if this danger is patently obvious) as dangerous. Even then, using a product labelled in this way and inflicting such danger upon yourself still allows you to sue for mental anguish and suchlike.

I'd rather live in Atlantis. Frivolous lawsuits get thrown out really fast. Litigation clears quickly too. Sometimes, the justice system seems much too peremptory, too interested in efficiency. But when you look at it close-up, most justice is quickly and correctly delivered. The only problem is that some people think they are living in a nanny state.

No. Atlanteans should know by now that the priesthood has only one main goal for themselves and one main goal for the country: immortality and prosperity — the main difficulty in this formulation is figuring out which goal is for which entity.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Old Thoughts

Donne's famous Meditation XVII tends to eclipse his other works in the mind of modern man, perhaps because the phrase 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' was etched by Hemingway on the modern literary consciousness. But Donne wrote profusely and entertainingly, and what he wrote is good basis material for people professing to know anything about 'Knowledge and Inquiry', as some in Atlantis do these days.

For example, in Meditation XX, he writes:

The arts and sciences are most properly referred to the head; that is their proper element and sphere; but yet the art of proving, Logic, and the art of persuading, Rhetoric, are deduced to the hand, and that expressed by a hand contracted into a fist, and this by a hand enlarged, and expanded; and evermore the power of man, and the power of God himself is expressed so, 'All things are in his hand'. Neither is God so often presented to us, by names that carry our consideration upon counsel, as upon execution of counsel; he is oftener called the Lord of Hosts, than by all other names, that may be referred to the other signification.

Such thoughts are interesting. They dig deep into the heart of language and the hidden assumptions we make in the use of metaphor and image. It would be valuable even for those who care nothing for Christianity and its range of cultures and cultural history, to undertake the equivalent exercise into their own ideas, models, tropes and schemata.

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Experimental Politics

Sometimes — not all the time, mind you — I think of the centuries of experimentation with politics and come to conclusions that are not particularly congenial. Humans are messy, and their social structures are messy, and the fictionalised idealisms of some forms of sociology and cultural relativism do little to change that.

Humans are good people sometimes, when there's nothing at stake or when too much is at stake. In between, there are mixed reviews. If all humans are corrupt, then democracy differs from authoritarianism only in the number of people who tacitly or outspokenly support corruption.

In the US, you pay the officials and call it 'lobbying' or 'political action' or 'supreme court fiat'. In Indonesia, you pay the officials and the US calls it corruption. In Atlantis, you pay the officials and it's called 'market adjusted salary'. (God alone knows why it is legitimate in Atlantis to peg ministerial pay to the highest professional and business pay rates while deliberately ignoring those whose pay rates drop due to economic climate. Maybe they should peg ministerial salaries to the salaries of dustmen and taxi drivers.)

All politics is experimentation, a trade-off between the solid state and the gaseous state. In a solid state, everyone is repressing everyone else, whether or not they admit it; in a gaseous state, everybody runs around acting busy and doing work on the environment, but not much else gets done as diffusion takes its toll and entropy reaches its zenith (everyone else's nadir).

I think mankind is fundamentally ungovernable except by force. Reason doesn't work simply because the majority of humans would rather not reason. Education doesn't work as a backstop because unless there is an economic payoff for it, the majority of humans would rather not be educated either.

This conclusion doesn't make me happy. And I'd rather not be governed by force. But I suppose I'd rather be governed by the fascists I voted for than the fascists I didn't vote for. Sieg Heil, Demokratie!


Monday, May 03, 2010


It wasn't really her fault, you know. Poseidon seduced her, she was cursed, the rest of the story was mostly unfortunate, almost completely unfair.

And having a head covered in snakes can't have been very pleasant. The stench must have been awful.

The more I think of it, the sorrier I feel for that poor gorgon.


Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sailing To Byzantium

Events of the last few weeks have further hardened my convictions that the 'Blue Ocean Strategy' is indeed total rubbish. Handpicked studies etc — the so-called research is equivalent to saying that 'what works, works' or that 'what is new, is new'. ANY successful technology is successful because others did not achieve that particular success. The best part is the hypocrisy of it all; the 'Blue Ocean Strategy' is marketed by 'Red Ocean' means. That's because you need the entire Red Sea to sustain a blue pond, if you're being honest with yourself.

But away from this evil and ugly rubbish; let's look at a considerably more beautiful picture of a dying and decadent society upheld by freakish hierophants in nominal service to a besotted emperor. Let me present to you a vision from Yeats:

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

It was a long time ago, when I was a wee bairn, that I first copied out the words of this poem. I have never forgotten it, through the days of my life and the dark nights of the soul. It goes together with the dozen or so others which have enriched the barren wastelands of a long journeying.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010


Gorgonzola and mozzarella, baby spinach and caramelized onion. Or Parma ham and rocket with freshly-shaved parmesan on mozzarella. Or maybe seafood. Or French sausage.

I've been eating too much pizza of late, my brain tells me. My heart must go on.