Saturday, July 31, 2010

Antiholics Anonymous

I think it is amusing that one great source of hits upon this blog is the question, "What is the opposite of holistic education?" I don't think I quite intended that. The problem is that I did intend to point out the flaws in the concept, and perhaps I have done too well in that regard.

So here I must set the record somewhat straighter: I think that holistic education is a wonderful ideal; but, like the idea of the 'reasonable person' or the 'economically rational person', it is an impossibility which is to be hoped for but never realised. Nobody will ever receive an holistic education; nobody should (if they want to be honest) claim to deliver such a thing.

Furthermore, I will lay down a challenge: define 'holistic' and then prove that you have delivered an holistic education to any particular person using specifically described means and methods. If you can do so, I will recant and become a crusader for your brand of holistic education.

Please note that you should give a complete description of the process, including modules like 'standing in the rain to build character' if you have such advanced ideas in your armamentarium. I will gladly disabuse you of such fantasies if I can.


Note: This seems to be the first use of 'antiholic' in the sense of 'opposed to the idea or acceptance of holism or things said to be holistic' anywhere on the web. It's a true neologism, and one that works. The word has been used before as a sort of contraction of 'anti-alcoholic', either as a substitute for 'teetotal'/'teetotaller' or for 'anti-alcohol crusader' — but that's not an obvious usage nor one that makes sense etymologically.

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Friday, July 30, 2010


It rains again. It rains on the just and the unjust. It precipitates on all. This is the time of the monsoon. And as one master story-teller began his tale:

It was the season of rains...

It was well into the time of the great wetness...

It was in the days of the rains that their prayers went up, not from the fingering of knotted prayer cords or the spinning of prayer wheels, but from the pray-machine in the monastery of Ratri, goddess of the Night.

The high-frequency prayers were directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond it, passing into that golden cloud called the Bridge of Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as a bronze rainbow at night and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday.

Some of the monks doubted the orthodoxy of this prayer technique, but the machine had been built and operated by Yama-Dharma, fallen, of the Celestial City; and, it was told, he had ages ago built the mighty thunder-chariot of Lord Shiva: that engine that fled across the heavens belching gouts of fire in its wake.

These lines, of course, come from Roger Zelazny's epic 1967 novel, often said to have been his best, Lord of Light. And right now, as I surf the wet net, reading about the mundane complaints of men against water and foreign imports and longevity-mad emperors, I think about the sense of wonder we used to have, all mushed up and shredding into the flood like discarded tissue paper.

There is so little left to withstand the storm. It is not so much revival that we need, but growth. You do not plant saplings every few years as a defence against erosion; you nurture saplings into mighty trees with roots that dig deep. And to do that, you have to feed them well.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

With Respect to Naming

This morning I had a friendly disagreement with a guy whom we shall call 'Jake' for now. Jake's thing was that people shouldn't make fun of other people's names; the cue for his discontent was my statement that someone else's name sounded as if it had come from the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Jake said that to make fun of a name was disrespectful to a person and the parents who presumably bestowed that name.

I suppose I am inured to that particular perspective. I've grown up with a name that has too many syllables, too many alternative spellings, and too many rhymes — not all of them pretty. But when people make fun of my name(s), as so many have, and as so many will, I don't think of it as disrespect towards me or my ancestors.

I mean, supposing I had a son and I named him 'Defender of Men, He Who is Like Unto the God of War, Showing Piety and Undeserved Favour to Others', wouldn't you find it somewhat unusual? Or if I named my daughter 'Pure Parsley'? (Etymological note here: do not confuse 'Selina' with 'Selene'.) And people who name their daughters 'Linda' (= 'serpent') are fairly easy to find.

The point is that the names we adopt are just tags. Some tags have odd origins, some sound peculiar. People with nice names have better lives, people with odd names may stand out in a positive or negative way. But a lot of it depends on context, and sometimes, as with so many things, we feel for the person with the odd name, forgetting that this person has lived with it for decades and has come to terms with it — those who haven't normally get it changed as soon as they can.

That leads me to the case of a former classmate of mine. She had a name which sounded lovely in Mandarin but was transliterated into English with truly unfortunate consequences. Her name even went around the Internet as a sort of urban legend of naming awfulness. Yet, she's learnt to live with it, and has gone on record as saying she won't change it. If I had her name, I would be doing the deed poll thing faster than a speeding bullet; because she won't change it, I have enormous extra respect for that already respectable classmate.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010


In the life of man are many difficult things. One of them is to mix duty with pleasure; another one is to mix pleasure with honour. Somehow, duty and honour often (though not always) seem to go together; occasionally, you will find that curious menage á trois of duty, honour and country — the last being something like a lamp-post at a date.

But there are places where these things can indeed be found together, and many of those places are shrines. Some shrines are for the worship of God; some are for the general acknowledgment of His blessings; and some are for the enjoyment of specific blessings. That is where the cafés of this world come in, for to me they are shrines for the enjoyment of that particular blessing which is the essence of the bean. [Here you may find the fundamentals of this rite.]

It seems I am going to do a few other impossible things as well: I will see June in July and I will be surveying the land for better rice than I thought there was. And with all that, coffee. Of all kinds. (I had Tanzanian the other day, and it was pleasant, although Kenyan seems more fragrant — almost like a fine wine.) Life is good.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Tangled Web

At the Citadel of the Wyverns yesterday, the congregation of the faithful was summoned to the Auditorium (for there is now no Chapel at the Citadel, but only a place for listening to the Inquisition). The sorrowful knight, heir to those who had gone before, sat listening. And when he had listened, he could control himself no more, and his mind went out in search of the Wolff...


Wolff, no longer Sir Wolff, sits sipping his atrament with old friends. It is the season of prevarication again, and deceit like a cloud of flies hovers over the Citadel. He speaks.

I have heard from the sorrowful, and though the Grand Inquisitor is not in residence, it is said that his consortium makes words as from his mouth. They have told the faithful to speak the truth of the Citadel, but only the truth that suits the Lords of the Magistratum.

In particular, one of them has said most plainly, "I am confident that you will respond in the way we want you to," and also, "The lenses and prisms that spy upon you are for your safety, and not because we wish to scry upon your deeds through sorcery," and also, "We do not want you to lie for the Citadel."

His friends stir. One points out that this particular one-who-speaks-for-the-Magistratum is adept at misdirection and manipulation. Another points out that she is also adept at threatening without actually saying so. Wolff laughs. He remembers the taint. He knows what is in his book. He replies.

I remember speaking the truth with intent to misdirect, on the orders of the Grand Inquisitor himself. He said to me, "Sir Wolff, tell of the glories of the Citadel, but do not bring down wrath, nor lead us into difficulty, by telling the kind of truth that does not bring us reward. Do not search too deeply, nor research again, for life can be very short, and you must live well."

This is what the Faithful are told in the Auditorium-that-is-not-quite-a-Chapel. And some have learnt that loyalty to the Brotherhood is only loyalty to the Citadel, that loyalty is the clever silence and the beautified truth. For the Grand Inquisitor and his High Lords of the Magistratum seek to hold truth by power, knowing that they have not the excellence of the unvarnished truth.


And talk moved on to other things, such as how come the Gryphons had convened a conference on the Science of Sport, while the Grand Inquisitor had six years past decided to do no such thing at all.


Note: The fictional adventures of Sir Wolff do provide much that is of interest. You can find them linked here. Just ignore the one about earwax. That was an accident.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Marriage and Casinos

It was the late, much-lamented Sir Alan Patrick Herbert, the last independent MP for Oxford University and extreme lateral thinker, who examined the definition of 'gaming transaction' and decided that marriage closely resembled a game of chance. His conclusion, therefore, was that the law should not assist people in settling their marital problems, since these proceeded from what in essence were wagers based on chance. He spent his latter years in Parliament agitating for the reform of divorce laws.

I will outline his argument from the humorous piece 'Is Marriage Lawful?', first published some time in the 1930s, and then quote his conclusion. Herbert begins with stating that "the common characteristic of every class of gaming transaction is this — that a person makes a sacrifice in the hope of receiving a benefit, but the reception of this benefit depends on the operation of chance and not upon the exercise of his own skill and judgment."

He then goes on to talk about racehorses and pronounces: "...the case of the prospective husband is ex hypothesi completely opposite. He is backing a horse that has never run before, or if his fancy be a widow, has never run over the same course in the same company. The form of a racehorse is public property, but the form of a bride is of necessity concealed."

His concluding argument went: "It follows that no experience, however extensive, is a certain guide, and no man's judgment, however profound, is in this department reliable. In all matrimonial transactions, therefore, the element of skill is negligible and the element of chance predominates. This brings all marriages into the category of gaming, and therefore I hold that the Court cannot according to law assist or relieve the victims of these arrangements, whether by way of restitution, separation, or divorce. Therefore it will be idle for married parties to bring their grievances before us, and in short, this Court will never sit again... any persons who want a divorce will be compelled in future to divorce themselves."

There will be many who read this and wonder if I espouse (ahem) Herbert's interesting legal philosophy on the institution of marriage. No, I am quite happy with the institution as it currently stands. But I was greatly amused when I first read his work decades ago, and continue to enjoy the products of that fertile and perspicacious imagination.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Labless Defines Me

Teaching chemistry without a lab is a pain. Yes, I do tutor students in that subject, but most of the time, these tutorials aren't carried out in any place remotely usable as a lab. I miss my labs.

The thing is that the chemistry lab is a place of professional, personal, public and priestly functions, just as any other dedicated human space is. Professionally, it is where chemistry teachers, lab technicians or technical officers work; personally, it is redolent with familiar smells, contains the experiences that remind one of discovery and scientific achievement; publicly it is the domain where students come to learn something about the substances of this world and their interactions; hierophantically, it is where the holy mysteries of alchemy are illuminated through rites and rituals that go back to Hermes Trismegistos.

All these things were part of my identity as an Adept of the Hermetic Arts. Now, without a lab, I am reduced in power and identity; I am no longer so much an alchemist; I am less, in one way, than I was before.

And so, I must turn to cooking, where the Great Art gives way to the Great Craft, and the alembic gives way to the saucepan.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Secular Heresy?

The word 'secular' means 'of this age' or 'of this world', from the Latin saecularis. In Atlantis, where the watchful eyes and mighty thunderbolts of the secular priesthood are ubiquitous, it is interesting to see how the population has been mobilised to partake of the responsibilities of that priesthood.

Of late, the voice that has gone out has been one of, "If you want better education, you should take more responsibility; if you want the poor to be fed, feed them yourselves; if you want religious extremism stopped, do your own self-policing or else the wrathful gauntlets of the thunder shall squeeze the neck of free expression."

Well, if we are to be self-policing, let us have public heresy trials. For opinions against science, let us be allowed to haul people up before the justiciars and examined before the experts; for religious opinions, let us be allowed to drag them in for theological sanction. And should any be found excommunicate thereafter, let them not practise their heresies either in labs or in churches, in pulpits or in classrooms. Let them be taxed, banned, or cast out. Why not?

And let no politician be immune. Perhaps in this way, we might actually cull the spirits of stupidity from among us. Or will other, more evilly daft, spirits come in to take those vacated places?

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We're about to hit a stormfront running, but for now, all is quiet on the pagan front. The things we think and the things we do, all these are nothing besides the jam and the teapots. Eat while you can, sleep while you can. Think, do, think, do, do without thinking, think without doing.

And soon, the questions will arise. Will the heroes do likewise?

Everything churns. Cream is what you get.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Missing Days

Somebody asked me how many people read this blog. I thought for a while, and told him it must be only about 100 hits a day, and maybe only 20 regular 'customers'. He said, "So why do you bother to post something everyday?"

It was a good question. I had to think for a while.

Honestly, I think that this blog is a bit of an umbilical. It is a lifeline that connects me to my own thoughts, my own past; it is in a sense a tribute to people I have known who might no longer be in touch with me and whom I've not seen in years.

Blogging, at the beginning of its web-log identity, its genesis, was all about journalling the present. But like all things dealing in presents, it eventually becomes an archive of the past. This leads some people to close down old blogs, to delete them, to put them into eternal digital sleep.

I write stuff because I like writing stuff. And there's a lot of stuff that won't fit into my dissertation, that won't fit on birthday cards or in other things that I write. This blog is about stuff. It may not be very good stuff, but it's my stuff.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Paradox of Elite Education on a Small Island (Part III)

Today some of us on Facebook were having a little discussion on how the Education minister on a small island was saying that one method of countering extremism (and hence terrorism) was to use students (presumably educated correctly) to counter extremist propaganda. That, of course, is what all states do in terms of national education. Small islands don't have a lien on that concept.

One person seemed to be asserting that you could teach people to comprehend, analyse and execute (presumably algorithms or procedures, not people) without using ideology or by imposing views through force or mandate. I don't think that assertion flies, because all forms of comprehension, analysis and execution contain intrinsic ideologies. One reason for reflective analysis is to know what those intrinsics are.

That said, it is obvious that if you are educating to produce elites, based on some concept of what 'elite' means to a small island, you must be providing different educational methods, modes, and/or materials. You can't produce an elite unless there is a quantitative or qualitative difference. If you prefer to just wait for things to float to the top, you must remember that both scum and cream will rise to the surface.

But once you couple the ideal of public education and equal rights of access to that education, you are just inviting people to develop the skills to game your selection process and turn themselves (or their descendants) into potential members of the elite. Then you may have selected not for highly-educated or qualitatively better people, but for those who can convince you that they are. You may get both scum and cream, and be unable to differentiate the two.

Why can't you differentiate the two? Because if the underlying ideology of your state is Machiavellian pragmatism, the people you think are cream might be people others think are scum. The two might really be two sides of the same silver pieces you have paid to Judas Iscariot.

See? There are perils in any undertaking, and none more so than when you move away from easily measured educational goals (e.g. ability to construct a mortise joint) and toward goals that are measured by what you can't really see (e.g. ability to appreciate the concept of political hegemony).

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Paradox of Elite Education on a Small Island (Part II)

Let us take the same island, all five million souls. Think about what an elite is: it is that group of individual people who are 'the best', the aristocracy (how ever defined) of the population.

The problem is that if you want to control everything that is useful to an artificially sustained environment, you need a lot of controllers. That's because in a natural environment with natural buffers, a lot of natural feedback loops exist. Couple that with the problem of having a small environment (and hence less buffer space and room for error) and you have to have a lot of 'elite' in various grades.

That is why an education programme designed to develop the gifted elite of the island must be extended from the top 0.1% to the top 0.5% to the top 1% and so on to the top 5-10%. This is the only way to cast your net wide enough to pull in the necessary 'elite'. Of course, now that your 'elite' are taken from the top 10% of population, they are only 'elite' in a very (ahem) broad sense.

Think about it; if you are graduating 50,000 secondary school students a year (aged 16 or so) — or to make your net smaller, say 35,000 high school/junior college students a year — your elite will be drawn from somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 promising young people every year. In 40 years (say from 1969 to 2009), allowing for different populations and programmes and rates of loss each year, you must have extracted at least 50,000 people (1% of present population) to be the elite of the nation.

The true elite number about 250 (0.5% of that 1%, or the top 0.005%). But at this point, they are fairly homogeneous, having been selected more or less by the same set of filters and criteria and encouraged to stay in the same social circles (and bond, and get married, and be fruitful and multiply). It is the tip of the pyramid, so to speak. It is a very narrow tip, almost a tipping point.

And you know what? Everyone in that group receives (broadly speaking) the same briefings. They all believe the same things and will say (or not say) the same things. They also believe that they are broad-minded enough to not say (or not not say) the same things, because they are all the same kind of people.

In some ways, this is a refutation of the idea that education broadens the mind. In fact, it is possible that by having elite education on a small island, you are actually neutralizing the effects that education is supposed to produce.

Outsourcing doesn't help, because the 'elitely educated' go to the same overseas institutions for further polishing. They all smirk the same way, if you catch them on video. It is a bit like watching an Asian post-colonial version of the British government, but with an overlay of pseudo-Confucian superiority.

How do I know all this? It's by watching too many of them, people that I know, go down the same road. Some, to their credit, are able to remain unshackled. Most bind themselves in contracts of the mind as powerful as the one that dragged Faustus to his doom. And as their minds contract, so too does the future reality of a small island.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Paradox of Elite Education on a Small Island (Part I)

Let us take an island of five million souls. They are used to mercantile behaviour; make education into a market, where ability is your capital, and clever use of it will reap profit. Although the intellectual capital is not pegged to obvious material value, for some years, the more such capital you generate, the more access to goods and services you get: a better teacher-student ratio, more facilities, a more effective social network.

Some of these elite intellectual capital management funds, while not directly adding value, create value by ingenious schemes based on investor confidence. Since people are sure that value is added, they see participation in such funds as adding value to the capital, and so the capital appreciates in value while not being backed by anything tangible. The funds use this increased participation to pay for fancier derivatives.

So it is with schools. Assert that all your intake are in the top percentiles, and you will get extra funding. You can use this funding to hire more teachers. If you are smart, you will hire teachers from the top percentiles; if you are desperate, you will hire teachers so that you have more teachers. The theory is that if investors see many warm bodies, they will assume there is fire.

But this is not true. In fact, the clever and more perceptive students will quickly see that many of their teachers, not being top-of-the-range, are disguising (some not so well) insecurity, inadequacy and incompetency — the three I-terms on every good educational adviser's list of things to look out for. Occasionally, these traits are parlayed into idiocy, irrationality and intransigence, where mere indolence was insufficient to irritate.

The math is simple. Your top percentiles are in the professions: law, medicine, some kinds of engineering, banking, politics (yes, on this small island, that too is pegged to professional rates). Rare are the people who are good enough to earn the big bucks but who prefer to be teachers. As the Main Man once said, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach, teach teachers."

What a litany of woe that is. And yet, as a modern educational Galileo might have said, still it moves.

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Monday, July 19, 2010


In my 100th post, which now seems so long ago, I quoted Leibniz's words: "Whatever acts cannot be destroyed." If a thing has motion, it exists and continues to do so.

As I grow older, this has become more and more important. When not in motion, muscles tire from inactivity and get stiff. When stiff, they seem harder to coax back to life. I am turning into a rock, a fossil, an ossuary of my own bones.

I need to keep moving. It is not elegantly expressed, that thought. I do not want to become an abandoned house while still alive, I do not want to become a waterfall of stone.

Tennyson expressed it with more passion, more beauty:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone...

I must keep moving. I must.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sloth (and Bailey's Irish Cream on a Bun)

The problem is not reconnaissance but recognition. It is not that one wants to be lazy, but that one cannot recognize that one is being indolent.

This morning I heard the alarm ring as if from afar off. I knew it was the alarm. I got up, I turned it off. I realized there were things to do. I knew they could wait till later. I lay down. And two hours melted away.

It's a bit like watching the local Public Utilities Board. They know this is a flood-prone region. They know the likely throughput. But they can't see the failure; they have done the walk, done the talk, and still can't see the problem — the problem is one of seeing but not seeing.

Think about a little granite knob in the sea. It is coated with lateritic clay soil, a bit like a rock bun covered in sticky icing. Very well, imagine a bun, then.

On top of the bun are grooves, inside the bun is limited porosity. Inside the bun are raisins, nuts, and (for some reason or other) tubes of water-proof chocolate which don't let water flow through them. Many tubes. Many raisins, many nuts. And strands of carrot, sometimes coconut. Whole sugar-lined trenches of delicious stuff.

Now do the unexpected. Have a flood, a deluge, make a mud-pie!

Pour something nice, like Bailey's Irish Cream, all over the bun. See how fast it drains away? Not. Yes, it pours down the sides. Yes, it pours into the grooves and the holes you make in the bun. But it doesn't flow through the bun the way it would flow through a sponge cake.

Why? Because we've put too much liquid-proof stuff in the bun, stuff that doesn't let the lovely creamy liqueur flow through the bun. It just puddles in the bun until it evaporates. Which would take a long time, even if we poked more holes in the bun. It will drown the raisins, float the nuts. Or drown the nuts and float the raisins.

I have such a great imagination. Even if I am half-asleep on what is now Sunday afternoon. Or maybe, because of it. Time to go on reconnaissance, while trying for recognition.

No, nobody said precognition. I'm sure of that.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010


It is raining this morning, raining with dark grey sheets in a scudding roil of the sky. Yet somewhere out there some cheerful bird is improvising themes on his daily chweet-chweet tune. It's not flooding yet, and there is much to laugh about.

One of the things I am laughing at is the idea of the decline and fall and rising again of China. When people talk about such things, they should take the long historical view. China has always been on the rise. Only in the roughly 200 years of most of the 19th and 20th centuries has it not quite been its usual self.

Yes, it's not flooding yet. But the deluge will come. Hahahaha...

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Decline and Fall

When historians write about the decline and fall of great empires, or even of institutions that are much much smaller, they often do so from a safe distance — as much as more than a thousand years. When people construct accounts of current events, especially from an insider's perspective, it is often sensational and hurried, without the larger sweep of history.

The problem when seeking to construct a narrative of a phenomenon which began about a decade ago is that one is too close. There is no safe distance. You could come to conclusions and then be rudely shocked by a sudden denouement that casts those conclusions into the dust-heap. It is a bit like following a car at under the safe distance and then watching helplessly as its driver brakes suddenly and you are too close to avoid impact.

It is even worse if you have just got out of the car and are watching helplessly as it careens towards destruction. Which brings me to another point about such histories and accounts.

When an historian is too close to his subject material, there is inevitably some sort of bias. One is being shaped by historical forces and sociocultural tensions, even while trying to retain objectivity. In fact, one's concept of objectivity may have been shaped by those very forces that one is trying to be objective about. It is like gravity, in that two bodies of knowledge — the historian with his presumably self-aware professional identity and knowledge base, and the phenomenon he is attempting to discuss — distort each other's natural course.

It is the effort to avoid such distortions that requires contortions of the natural tendencies. The tortuous path to writing good, clear narratives is a very narrow one. A good narrative may be a complicated, nuanced one; a clear narrative may be oversimplified.

In my personal life, I have struggled into the corridors of the humanities, feeling at once both a friend and a stranger. I have tried to be a better exponent of these complex areas of uncertain knowledge, but I find that they sometimes seem beyond me. Sometimes, I feel that I am chronicling my own decline and fall.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Curiously Incensed

It seems like a long time ago that I was doing research on medicines and drugs as part of a course I was teaching. I came across some interesting information on the origins of the word cannabis. All sources seem to agree that it was the Greeks who first used the word in the form kannabis but that it seems to be descended from or related to words such as the Assyrian qunubu, Hebrew qanneb and so on (transliterations vary).

All this seemed oddly familiar to me. The Sanskrit cana (and its derivatives) eventually became the English 'cane', and via hana-, became 'hemp'. It's also related to 'canvas', which was originally made from hemp. And right smack in the middle of the Book of Exodus, in Exodus 30:22-25, I came across this passage:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cane, 500 shekels of cassia — all according to the sanctuary shekel — and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.

The emphasized phrase 'fragrant cane' is the standard English translation of the Hebrew kaneh bosm. The King James Version substitutes 'calamus' instead, but I don't see how you can make incense from that.

Verses 30-33 of that chapter continue with:

"Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as priests. Say to the Israelites, 'This is to be my sacred anointing oil for the generations to come. Do not pour it on men's bodies and do not make any oil with the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred. Whoever makes perfume [or 'compounds material'] like it and whoever puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from his people.' "

It sounds like an early instance of drug control by centralised authority. However, it should be noted that until the last century, the use of the plant Cannabis sativa was a widespread phenomenon. The plant is the second most nutritious crop after soya beans, and it grows almost anywhere, even in Siberia. Every part of the plant is useful as a food or material product. Of course, some have recreational uses for it too.


Note: I do not endorse, and would actually caution against, the indiscriminate bodily intake of any kinds of pharmaceutical compounds without adequate medical controls or advice. This post should not be taken as an endorsement of consumption or overconsumption of intoxicating or hallucinogenic chemicals, whether they are phenylethylamine derivatives (including opiates and ergot derivatives), cannabinols or very small molecules such as ethanol.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Gospel of Food

I'm sitting for my allotted 45 minutes in the storm-darkened shadow of my small room, reading the latest Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Volumes 1190 and 1191 have just arrived in the mail. It is Volume 1190, Foods for Health in the 21st Century: A Roadmap for the Future, that has my attention now.

One of the papers is by de Vere White, Hackman and Kugelmass. It's about the belief that about 33% of all cancers can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle and appropriate diet. And it points out that there is largely no specific evidence, despite many claims, that a particular food will help with a particular cancer. Worse is the tendency to extract what is seen as the key chemical compound and consume pills of it — a reductionist practice that can actually lead to bad outcomes.

Here is what we do know: don't be overweight, don't be sedentary, eat a low-calorie diet with especially low amounts of fats and sugars. Here is what else we know: human genetic backgrounds are hugely varied, a healthy diet costs 10x more than an unhealthy one, humans like pills because they're less troublesome than lifestyle changes.

We also know that dietary supplements are mostly untested, that the studies testing them are poor, based mainly on correlation rather than mechanism of causation. We know that what is good in a raw fruit can turn deadly when concentrated in a pill minus the fruit's other contents. Lastly, we know that what reduces the risk of one cancer can raise the risk of another.

So what should we do?

The Good Book says, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? ... Who of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to his life?"

That is very good advice, and looking better each day.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Bad Poets' Society

I confess to writing poems.
Most of them are sad slices
of words, layered like sandwiches,
bread-meat-bread and other schemes.

Sometimes I am more ambitious,
and they become like Big Macs™:
bread-meat-bread-meat-bread, some lettuce
with pickles and special sauce.

This was not a poem. Then I thought
it would be fun to break it
into slices and pretend that
I was really a poet.

If this were a poem, my friend,
it would be really so bad.
But it is not, so not so sad;
better still, this is its end.

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Monday, July 12, 2010


The party's over, the teams return from whence they came, the 2010 World Cup is done. Hovering behind the games is the image of the octopus named Paul, who predicted the correct outcome of eight matches and ensured himself a place in history.

It is a somewhat Cthulhoid idea, that in the whorled snarls of the octopus's tentacles there is a mysterious apparatus which transcends human senses and can plot, prophesy, scry, or see as through a glass darkly, the results of World Cup football matches. But it is a compelling and evocative picture.

After all, the octopus is the smartest of all invertebrates, the only one of that enormous array of life-forms to use tools. If we count in binary through our twofold surface symmetry, an octopus can count in octal; if we count in denary through our ten digits (thus making our hands both digital as well as analogue, denary as well as binary), an octopus can count in the most useful factors of its 240 suckers per arm.

To make matters more complicated, an octopus has 2/3 of its brains in its limbs, which are really outgrowths of its neck. Each of those tentacles is much smarter than our own limbs. They are not mere feet, as the word 'octopod' might imply.

An octopod drummer would have eight intelligent limbs, each capable of autonomous action, a veritable orchestra of musicians linked to a single conducting node. Think of the complexity of sound, of aural texture, of colour and echo!

Think of what feats of computation are available to an intelligent creature who has so many more combinations and permutations of 'digits' than we have. Is it any wonder that an otherwise undistinguished member of that species can predict the outcomes of World Cup matches? Would we be able to predict the outcomes of octopus sports?

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Whose World? What Cup? (Day 25)

This is the last day of the 2010 World Cup. Lots has been said about how neither of the two teams, the Dutch and the Spanish, have contested this final fixture before. For me, I think the interesting thing is that this is the first time we've seen two monarchies contend on the field of battle for a very long time, and certainly, the first time at the World Cup.


At the end of a nervy first half in which Mark van Bommel was lucky not to already be off, the score is 0-0. Arjen van Robben has been his usual threatening but sometimes lazy self on the right, and the Dutch have somehow contrived to look both awful and yet dangerous. Spain always look good in possession, but being tackled painfully a few times seems to have slowed them down a bit. Not a nice half at all. Rather ungentlemanly in spots. Perhaps the main talking point was a Dutch attempt to return the ball to the Spanish, almost ending up as an accidental goal!


Amd here we are at the end of extra time, and Spain have won 1-0 thanks to a neatly taken goal by Andres Iniesta. I'm glad my pre-Cup prediction came true, although I am astonished by how few goals Spain scored to make it come true — only 8 goals!

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Sunday, July 11, 2010


The cuckoo is an obligate brood parasite. That is, it survives only by deceiving a host into rearing the cuckoo's offspring. Essentially, the cuckoo hatches in the nest first and then proceeds to boot the host's own eggs out. This means it gets all the food and nurture. On maturity, it then flies off to do its own thing. It probably thinks that in some way, it is a member of the host species.

I've seen this happen with wyverns too. Except that in the case I'm thinking of, one of the members of the host species made the serious mistake of importing a cuckoo. Said cuckoo then proceeded to attempt to mimic a wyvern. Although nobody was really convinced, such is the power of resident incumbency that the cuckoo was able to kick the wyvern's own children out.

Fortunately, wyverns are independent creatures and seem to be able to set up their own nests almost from birth. Yes, I know this whole post is screwed-up mythology. You had to be there.

Meanwhile, we await the real event of the night: the final game of the 2010 World Cup.

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Whose World? What Cup? (Day 24)

And here we come to the dark alleyway of the 2010 World Cup. No, it's not one of the early spin-off side-dramas of those who fell by the wayside; it's the late, slack, near-forgotten drama of who gets to come in third place — whether the cheating Uruguayans or escheating Germans.

So here I am, waiting for this non-show. But I dearly want to see the Germans beat up the Uruguayans, metaphorically speaking. I am so unregenerate at times. Sigh.


When Thomas Müller nudged the ball gently into the net, I had high hopes. There has been a lot of ebb and flow since then, and Edison Cavani has equalized. I suppose I should be thankful it wasn't that Suarez fellow. 1-1 at half-time, then.


At full time, the score is 3-2 to Germany. They didn't play as well as Uruguay most of the time, but they played much better some of the time — especially when it counted. I felt a little sorry for Diego Forlan; he hit the crossbar with the last strike of the game. Too bad.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

How To Be A Good Teacher (Part II)

This is a sequel to an earlier post. Recently, the Dove brought to my attention a piece in the Guardian where David Cameron was called out on his elitist approach to teacher recruitment. He seemed to think that being a teacher was first of all an academic calling, which is, I suppose, what most people who aren't teachers would think without further reflection.

The article says that "there are four types of teacher who are effective: the despot, the carer, the charmer, and the rebel." I agree as to the types, but I also believe that combinations of these types can be effective as well.

To be honest, a lot of young people I hardly know now think of me as the rebel who fell out of the firmament. But that's not how I was. I think I was just a teacher who tried in many ways to do his best, was good at some things and not-so-good at others, but who always tried to remain true to my calling, my mission, and my creed.

Yes, you can be a good teacher by enforcing discipline and providing clear direction; this is what the tyrants of old were elected (yes, elected, even in Athens) to do. You can be a good teacher by caring a lot and making sure each student is given a fair chance in life. You can be one by charming people into being interested in life and learning. And you can be one by trying hard to help students deprogramme themselves, making them more aware of what life is really about and what it's not — a 'rage against the machine' approach.

But to be great teacher somehow requires one to meld these approaches, to treat them as ingredients in a greater endeavour, and pray that somehow the Divine will sanctify one's efforts and complete the work of one's hands.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

A Brief Taxonomy of Ill-Speaking

When people say they are cursing, swearing, or otherwise indulging in whatever we tend to acknowledge as 'bad speech' or 'verbal insults', what possible kinds of activity are they discussing? There are actually academic tomes and histories of such maledictory arts, and having read a few, I know that a mere blog post cannot adequately describe the range. Yet, I will now attempt to give a brief account of how to classify such activities, while supplying mild and non-lethal examples.

1. Verbal insults can be classified firstly by parts of speech. Generally, a noun is applied with the intention of giving an unflattering image of the target (e.g. 'Pig!') Similarly, an adjective attributes an unflattering characteristic to the target (e.g. 'Ugly!') A verb is normally an action that you hope will result in negative outcome (e.g. 'Die!'). These are the main ones. However, note that centuries of bad grammar and misuse have made some words take on the properties of several different parts of speech — one such word, now taken to connote the act of defaecation, is discussed here.

2. Verbal insults can be classified by conversational function. An expletive is an exclamation that serves to fill a lacuna or void in conversation, when the speaker cannot think of anything else that will serve. For example, 'My pet snail died yesterday...' is a sad observation to which the expletive reply might be, 'Damn!' — a word that has no meaning but expresses the negative (possibly sympathetic) response of the respondent. On the other hand, an ejaculation is more forceful, and occurs when the respondent is taken by surprise. You can hear such ejaculative responses, for example, when a person using a hammer misses and hits a finger instead. A third kind of conversational function is insulting banter, in which friends trade random insults as a means of re-establishing old ties; for example, 'Hey, you old cow, I haven't seen you in ages!'

3. Verbal insults can also have rhetorical function. However, these are more elaborate cases, such as satire, sarcasm, and other forms of witty assault. I shall not attempt to cover this.

4. Verbal insults can be classified by their material content. If an insult has to do with bodily functions that are normally executed in private (I'm sure you need no elaboration), then technically, it is obscenity. If an insult has to do with irreligious (or secular) matters or behaviours (e.g. 'Dammit!') then it is profanity. If an insult involves taking the Divine name (or any other revered spiritual being's name) in vain, then it is blasphemy. If the insult contains aspersions intended to defame the target, then it is denigration: often, the denigration is indirect and has to do with the target's ancestry (which is why so many insults begin with 'your mother'). Lastly, if the insult contains material that is intended to invoke ill-fortune or other negative consequences upon someone, then it is malediction. [Note: technically, all 'bad speech' is malediction, but from an historical point of view, the word 'malediction' has slowly come to mean 'cursing' in the sense of inviting bad things to happen to someone.]

5. Finally, there are legal classifications of verbal insults. The most well-known is 'slander', which is interpreted differently in different jurisdictions. I won't go there, since I am not a legal scholar.


In conclusion, I have to say that this is not intended as a manual for the would-be maledictor. Rather, it's a list of personal observations about the creative use of language when the human animal is feeling negative about something and needs to vent. I don't recommend any of this, but being human, I have occasionally fallen prey to such verbal behaviours. It's probably best to try to control the tongue; perhaps reciting this post before saying anything will engage the brain enough to prevent anything else from emerging. And may you indulge in better speech, 'with God to guide the way', as a certain school's anthem says.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Academic Exercises and Lazy Supervisors

I look back on my years as an academic supervisor with some fondness; I look back at some kinds of academic supervisors with a kind of visceral disgust. I once taught in a school where we had more than 350 graduates each year, each one having to do an academic exercise as part of their graduating requirements. It was interesting to see how supervisors attempted to manipulate the process.

To begin with, not all supervisors are educators. They are in academia for research funding, or to do their own stuff, or both. They think of students as cannon fodder, grunts who can do the work; they think of themselves as generals who shouldn't be getting their hands dirty, and of supervision as a chore because the 'best' students don't need any supervision.

It's that which arouses my disgust. If you're an educator, you shouldn't assume that just because a student is interested in something, he is automatically postgraduate material and needs no help from you. On the contrary, you should feed his interest just as you feed a flame — provide a bit of fuel (not so much that you smother the flame), some oxygen (not so much that the flame flares and burns out too quickly), and some sparks whenever the flame looks a little weak.

The current philosophy of some of these 'educators' at the old farm is that prospective candidates for their exalted assistance should have already done all the work. Basically, a lot of those academic sods who claim to be supervisors are a collectively lazy disgrace which couldn't even use the Internet to come up with a good reading list if their lives depended on it.

It's not that there aren't good supervisors. Some will even go out of their way to read up on the student's area of interest if they don't know it well. Some will point to likely starting points on the Web. Some will lend the student an out-of-print but important text from their own collections. But the rest are more interested in sucking on the institutional teat than in helping their students to learn something new.

These are the scum who will tell a candidate that his proposal is rejected because it lacks credibility or 'lustre' simply because they can't be bothered to help him come up with something, or because the project won't add to their own glamour. These are the scum who say they are not confident of a candidate's ability because they realise their own ability to supervise (or the time it would take) is insufficient. These are the bums who want proposals in (or even pre-drafts of research that hasn't even been carried out!) a month to three months before the actual deadline for proposals; if you were to submit one on the day of the deadline, I can imagine the sneering look and the venomous, "Not interested enough in your research to submit your proposal earlier?"

The problem is that there are too many incompetent supervisors out there who are being paid a lot to supervise, and too few competent supervisors, most of which are not paid as much as they're worth.

The solution is simple. Provide CVs for all the potential supervisors online. Then let the students ballot for their choice; for example, vote in preferential order for their choice of five supervisors. The supervisors ranked first may opt to accept or reject candidates up to half the maximum number they can supervise. This means that the most popular supervisors (probably the most effective and helpful — students aren't dumb) get to choose candidates for supervision first.

It also means that highly specialised supervisors can also be picked by candidates who have unusual topics, knowing that these supervisors are less likely to be picked for anything else. Market forces can thus be brought to bear on bad supervisors; they're the ones who will end up having to do more work (and hopefully learn from it).

However, the remaining candidates should be randomly assigned to the supervisor pool. This is so that all supervisors will at least have some sort of range of candidature; nobody will end up living off his reputation forever in some sort of overly tight positive feedback loop.

The last part of the solution is the cull. Candidates should be allowed to evaluate their supervisors' competency. Supervisor bonuses should be raised or lowered depending on their consistent excellence or lack of it with regard to supervision of candidates. Really bad supervisors should have reduced funding and perhaps even be asked to leave; after all, if educational guidance is not a major function of academic institutions, what is it?

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Whose World? What Cup? (Day 23)

Tonight the team I support, Spain, meets the team I wished I supported, Germany. Either way, it's an invitation to heartbreak. I can only hope it turns out to be an interesting one and not one of those penalty-kick farces after a 0-0 scoreline after extra time.


Well, that first half was mostly like watching two sponges try to waterboard each other. Spain was more self-possessed, I suppose. Germany was just... dispossessed?

I think that the Spaniards looked less dangerous than usual when it came to finishing. Their possession made them seem more dangerous; after all, if you don't have the ball, you can't score and you can't win.

By the end of the half, I felt as if I were watching a particularly dangerous fractional distillation in which the temperature was being raised by about a tenth of a degree every minute.


And in the 73rd minute, it's Puyol who scores, from a scarce-contested header. About par for the course so far.


Haha, I've been telling people I support Spain, with a rather pained and apologetic look. No more. They're through and into the Final! 1-0! Viva España! Vivat Hispania!

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

613 >> 10

There are three places in the Book which mention the Hebrew words עשרת הדברים (roughly, Aseret ha-Dvarîm, or 'ten words'). The Greek translation of this is δεκάλογος (mostly transliterated 'decalogue'). For some reason, ever since the English got their hands on the Bible, these phrases have been translated 'The Ten Commandments'.

The problem, of course, is that these ten words are not numbered explicitly anywhere in the Bible. In fact, there is considerable dispute about what the Ten Commandments are supposed to be. Catholics, Protestants and Jews all count them differently, with most Orthodox agreeing with the Protestant stand. A summary of the whole mess can be found here.

One thing is for sure though. There are certainly more than ten commandments in the long form of the law laid down from the holy mountain by God. The full list, or 613 mitzvot, can be found here.

The account given in the Bible about the writing of these commandments is also quite interesting. Nowhere does it say that Moses wrote only ten words. In fact, by Exodus 24, it is already 'The Book of the Covenant' that Moses reads to the people after transcribing all God's words. And in Exodus 31:18, it is the finger of God that has engraved all of the Testimony (which would be every commandment given from Exodus 20 to Exodus 31) on two tablets of stone (traditionally, each tablet would have a complete set for legal purposes).

But in Exodus 32, the Israelites make a golden calf, and this angers God (32:7-10), who had just told Moses that one of the ten points of the covenant was not to make idols. Moses begs God to reconsider and God relents completely (32:11-14).

Then the unthinkable happens. Moses descends the mountain with the two copies of the Law in his hands, and then he completely loses his temper. He smashes the tablets and orders the deaths of 3000 people, saying that this is what God wants (although God says nothing of the sort).

In the aftermath (Exodus 34), Moses is commanded to receive another set of tablets, again engraved by God. It takes forty days and forty nights (34:27-28), during which God actually tells Moses to do some writing. This is certainly more than ten words. It is the entirety of the Law.

When Jesus, in the New Testament, refers to the Law, he means the complete set of 613 commandments. The ten words that start the set are a kind of summary, the main headings, so to speak. A careful reading of the sections of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy that follow the 'ten words' will show that the rest of the Law is the main body. Jesus, an assiduous scholar of the Law, knew every bit of it.

So for those who like quoting the Ten Commandments as if they are all of the Law, I'd like to challenge you to do the full set of 613. And if you can't, remember the grace of God is mighty indeed.

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Whose World? What Cup? (Day 22)

So it has come down to the Netherlands meeting Uruguay in the first semi-final of the 2010 World Cup. It is like watching a polished and wary assassin fighting for his life against a skilled street fighter who will do anything to win. The do-or-die heroism implicit in both can turn ugly—for both.

I have an instinctive preference for the Oranje tonight. They've cheated less. I wonder if Robben's hoods will leave Diego forlorn.


And in the 17th minute, Giovanni von Bronckhorst, of ALL people, scores a long-range strike a la David Villa. 1-0 to the Orangemen!


In the 40th minute, Diego Forlan, surely in the form of his life, equalises with a long-range up-the-middle shot. Stekelenburg is caught flat-footed by the power and slight rightward curve on the shot. 1-1, and this is shaping up into a tight fight...


At half-time, I still think Uruguay are marginally dirtier and more reckless. But they're dangerous. They are, after all, the last South American team from a federation in which the lowest-ranked team (Peru, I think) is about #55 worldwide.


A lot of weaving and ducking, with Forlan firing on all cylinders. But it's Wesley Sneijder who pulls the trigger in the 69th minute, after a wave of dangerous Oranje attacks. 2-1 to the Dutch, and perhaps more to come, at this rate.

Ha, I had just typed the previous line when Robben made it 3-1. Looks like the assassin beats the street-fighter tonight...

Maxi makes it 3-2, but the Dutch are through! Maybe it will be Dutch vs Deutsch. Heh.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Humorous Manifold

I've spent many years on the Internet In that time I've come to realise that a lot of people don't distinguish between terms which are within the same area but otherwise completely different. These include pairs such as 'cynical' and 'skeptical', 'sardonic' and 'ironic', 'sarcastic' and 'witty'.

It turns out that the great Fowler, in the 1926 edition of his 'Modern English Usage', managed to produce a table which will be of great help to many of these people. I like this table because it classifies forms of humour by motive/aim, province, method/means and audience.

For example, he shows that cynicism has the motive/aim of self-justification in the province of morality, using the method/means of exposure of nakedness (as in the story of the Emperor's new clothes), with the intended audience being the respectable (or those who think they are).

On the other hand, he gives satire as having the motive/aim of amendment in the province of morals/manners, by the method/means of accentuation, with the intended audience being the self-satisfied.

All this appeals to my love of lists and interesting relationships. A lister by nature, a linker by trade, that's who I am.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

The Legacy of Simon Magus

I think Christian education, sadly, is becoming an oxymoron. To be Christian is more and more to deliberately embrace ignorance of the Word because 'knowledge puffs up'. But knowledge of the Word is specifically seen as one of the marks of a believer's maturity (even though it is not the only mark).

To be exact, the phrase quoted comes from I Corinthians 8, and it is part of a longer argument. What is argued is that some people are not as learned, and have simpler consciences, so what is acceptable practice to the learned may be injurious to the less learned. Therefore if you find that you can adopt a pagan practice and there is actually nothing in the scriptures against it (for example, smoking cannabis), you may be free to indulge, but this might cause those with a more sensitive or less educated conscience to sin in one of several ways. Paul says that he would even stop eating meat, if eating meat would make his brother stumble in the faith.

The problem of course lies in the context. If there is knowledge which the Scriptures confirm to be theologically true (for example, that Jesus is Saviour for all Christians), then it is not the kind of knowledge that puffs up, but the kind that must be used for teaching (i.e., doctrine), for correction, for reproof, and for training (i.e. instruction) in righteousness (see II Timothy 3:10-4:5).

This is where many who espouse some form of prosperity gospel are completely and sinfully wrong. The warnings against it are absolutely clear, whether in Greek or in English. Here is I Timothy 6:3-10, the words of the apostle Paul himself:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.

Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

If the apostle argues 'we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out', what could he possibly be saying about the prosperity gospel? Do you think he is in favour of such a doctrine or not? And what 'all kinds of evil' is he talking about?

One particular word that modern Christians should retain in their (in recent years) emaciated lexicon is the word 'simony'. For some reason, it seems to have been forgotten; I suspect it is because this word seems rather unpleasant to the modern materialist ear. Simony is actually one of the great sins which the Lutheran reformation was opposed to. It comes from the attempt of Simon Magus to procure the gifts of the Spirit by purchasing them with money, as recorded in Acts 8:9-24.

I mention it here because it is very clear that the apostles were quite contemptuous of money and material wealth. In fact, they were pretty much proto-Communists in that they believed in redistribution of wealth from those who had excess to those who needed it (see Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:34-35).

In fact, there is no scriptural justification at all that wealth is the necessary consequence of God's favour, although wealth (like any other material thing) can be a blessing. It is easier to argue that martyrdom is a more common reward for using the gift of prophecy, for example, or that the gift of tongues is the least important of all gifts, used more for a sign to the unbelieving than for the edification (i.e. 'building up') of the faithful.

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Conventional Education

This morning, I was made to remember some of the best years of my life, all over again. The catalyst was a little note from one of my former students, from the first batch of young people which I taught through the full O-Level (grades 9-10) course.

Why were those years so good to me? I think it was because I learnt so much and I felt useful. As my former vice-principal Mrs M said to me once, "Always be useful. Work hard because one day when people don't ask you to do things, you'll realise how much you enjoyed working before you became useless."

Those young ladies meant a lot to me, both because they were my students and because I was their teacher. Sometimes it was the other way around; they taught me a lot about how to be fair and how to negotiate the tricky business of being a male teacher in a girls' school. I learnt how to be kinder. I learnt more about sympathy.

What we learn is never enough, and sometimes it is far from sufficient. But we keep learning, in the hope that learning will become practice, and maybe even teaching. That is why we 'learn to learn', and make it a lifetime's work.

For the young ladies I worked with from 1993 to 1995, here are my thanks. They will never be sufficient, but they are heartfelt. I've always wished the best for you, and I am glad to have lived long enough to see some of it come to pass for many of you. Just remember, the best is yet to be — the last of life, for which the first was made.

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Whose World? What Cup? (Day 21)

It was a day which some punningly-minded might call 'Angela's Miracle' after the dumpy German leader who supported her team so actively. The German team, cohesive and deliberately lacking in individual personalities, trounced Diego Maradona's selection 4-0 within 90 minutes.

You will note a complete lack of elaboration, as compared to my notes of the previous match. I spent the entire time taking in the sight of an exciting (yes, indeed) German team demolish a team that tried very hard and ended up doing very little. When Germany beat England 4-1, there were a few isolated cries of how the England defeat might be explained away by a referee's bad call. Tonight, it was clear that die Mannschaft were a far superior outfit to the Albiceleste.


Now, I head off, suitably fortified by hot blackcurrant tea and supper, to watch Spain play Paraguay. I am more certain that Spain will win than I was that Germany would manage to get rid of the Argentines. I might be wrong, and that thought makes me grin.


Before the World Cup started, I was rooting for Spain to finally throw off the mantle of chronic underachievement and at least end up in the grand final. After 45 minutes tonight, I don't see them as much better than a rather uncreative Paraguay side. Both teams have been exchanging a lack of possession. The passing stinks and they can't hang on to the ball.

Based on this game so far, the winner will meet Germany in the next round and get killed 4-0. I just can't see Germany not taking advantage of the generosity of these two teams of clowns.

Spain, in particular, is still playing a certain Fernando Torres up front who looks like a particularly pained ghost. He's useless, and has been useless so far throughout the entire World Cup. Unpicking the Paraguayan defence requires accurate passing and more creativity. Perhaps they should have started with Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Llorente instead.


Now I really have seen it all. From trading lack-of-possession, the two teams have gone on to the sublime heights of trading lack-of-penalties.


Well, Spain are through. I'm happy for them, but not happy with them. They'll never get past Germany at this rate, and I'm not sure I'd want them to. 1-0 to David Villa!

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

On the Preservation of Books

The Player of Games recently asked me a question that I'd not thought too much about. He asked how I keep my books from yellowing.

Over forty years of book-collecting, I've learnt that cheap books will crumble within your lifetime, or even half your lifetime (one has to be optimistic). But there are some things that retard the aging process for common stuff in a tropical environment.

Here are some things that seem to work. But many of you probably know of them already, and may have some of your own to share. (If you do, please comment!)


To keep tomes from yellowing, keep them in air-conditioned dim rooms. This keeps humidity normal, since the local humidity usually ranges from 40%-85%. Lighting should be low-energy, like diffuse yellow stuff; indirect and not focussed on the books themselves. The human eye works best in low-light conditions anyway.

Like oxidation of metal, oxidation of books is fastest when energy, oxygen and water are present in large quantities. Take away the damp and the heat (or light), and the paper lasts longer. Note however that total dryness will age books too, by dehydration of the bulk material.

I find that dusting books with those Magiclean lint-free disposable cloths is best. Never use damp material, and if you are cleaning shelves, use a dust-lifting soapy solution and make sure all the dirt and soap are removed, and the shelves completely dried, before putting books back.

Leave rows of books with at least 1 cm of breathing space in between. If you pack books very tightly, heat is not so easily dispersed. If you leave too much space, dust accumulates.

Books near the roof get more heat because of conduction and convection. Try to have one of those dead insulating spaces or a well-ventilated open space between your top shelf and the ceiling. Of course, open space also collects dust.

I have a catalogue of about 8,000 books of all shapes and sizes. My immediate male ancestor has more. This makes for a house that somehow was never completely tidy at its best, and is now not even anywhere near its best — since I moved out, my progenitor has expanded his territory and I have transferred most of my holdings into the West. Thank goodness we got rid of all the Reader's Digests.

Be careful, all ye who seek to make yourselves a library. The life of a librarian is not an easy one, whether accidental or incidental.

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Whose World? What Cup? (Day 20a)

Ghana v Uruguay. A lot like Japan v Paraguay. Industrious non-South American non-European side meets South American side. Penalties decide in favour of the South American side, who didn't really deserve to win.

But it's just like the little pigs fairy-tale: no matter how hard you huff and puff, it doesn't matter unless you can blow the house down. And neither Japan nor Ghana were able to.

I feel bad for Ghana. But hey, if your star striker is presented with a penalty in the last minute of extra time, and he MISSES, well, you don't deserve to win either. And for the neutrals, at least the buccaneering Diego Forlan is still around for the next round, the one classy bit in Uruguay, apart from his co-conspirator Suarez.

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Friday, July 02, 2010

Whose World? What Cup? (Day 20)

Does so much come down to this? The distillation of two groups, the heart and sinew of the game, the Orange play the... Blue? Brazil in unfamiliar colours. The Dutch were unbeaten; the Brazilians likewise. And now, at half time, we have Brazil up by one.

Michel Bastos enacts bastardy and is not sent off for a second yellow card. But justice is done from a lovely kick from Sneijder that sends the ball into the Brazilian net via some deflections. It is 1-1. I am happy. Bastardly deeds should not go unpunished.

Some people at this point might quibble and say, "Surely you meant 'dastardly'?" No no no, I meant 'bastardly'. It was a very low and illegitimate act to tackle an opponent like that and not get a second yellow card. I hope Bastos gets bastinadoed, figuratively speaking.

I sit back, sip my coffee, and watch on.


At 67 minutes, Sneijder takes on the Lords of Karma and cashes a chip. Or rather, converts it to a goal in post-Kuytal activity. 2-1 to the Netherlands! Double, Dutch! Haha!


At 73 minutes, Felipe Melo gets red-carded for a terrible stamp on Robben. I am happy with that too. Good football needs nothing of that sort.


At 84 minutes, I see wizardry from Kaka; it is not born of inspiration, but desperation. And it is ultimately fruitless.


This is fascinating. Will the Orange peel? Or will the Nuts crack? A few minutes remain... three extra ones to be precise.


YES the Dutch have won!!!!!!!!!!!! I am more than happy now.

My headline would read, "ORANGE PIPS BRAZIL NUTS".

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Word of the Day: Anosognosia

An interesting world opened (or perhaps I should say 'reopened') up for me after reading this illuminating series of five pieces in the New York Times. This world was the curious world of anosognosia.

The word, according to Part 2, was first coined by Joseph Babinski (1857-1932), a French-Polish (oh dear, that sounds like furniture treatment) neurologist of some note. It is derived from the Greek nosos, or 'disease', and gnosis, or 'knowledge'. It seems to be intended to mean 'knowledge of not having disease', but really means the state of being diseased but acting as if you know you're not.

This kind of self-reflective blindness is common. The only cure for it is for people to tell you something is wrong with you and for you to trust that they are right. Unfortunately, you don't think you need a cure, and you don't believe it when they tell you something is wrong.

It seems to be a conundrum common to the human race. It is like having a huge blind spot; in fact it is as if all humans walk around with cognitive blind spots of different shapes and sizes. Some are odd, like the one about the bank robber who thought lemon juice made him invisible and who claimed to have tested it by taking photos of himself which didn't turn out.

I know a lot of leaders who have serious anosognosia. But I have come to realise that when you see others with the syndrome, you are most likely a victim yourself.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Each Death Diminishes Me

At the start of the 20th century, there were perhaps 150,000 tigers in the world. There are now 3,500. Half of those are in zoos. In 1900, there were roughly 1.5 billion people in the world; there are now 7 billion. Each day, my significance decreases; each day, somewhere, a last tree frog, a last beetle, a last hummingbird perishes, its significance much greater than mine.

I don't know for whom the bell tolls. But for the other species on this planet, it must now be a howling siren, each second announcing the departure of some unknown genotype to the great beyond. For humanity, arrivals exceed departures. The airport is filling up, and we have nowhere to go.

I visited the zoo yesterday. There are fewer animals to see. For some, their only hope of survival is in zoos; they have ceased to exist anywhere else. Cuteness has become a survival trait. It is sad in the sense of watching something leave the world forever.

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