Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Empirical Problem

The problem, thought Wolff (once, he had been Sir Wolff) to himself, was unusual. In most empires of the past, large or small, the issue of who would inherit the poisoned chalice (or sanctified mantle) always arose. Even if there were no direct heirs, at least there were generals of prowess who would raise competing standards over the kingdom-sized fragments of the dying realm.

But here, there were none. The Emperor had pretty much burned the earth and salted the soil. There were no heirs to split, and the problem would not be settled by general solutions.

Wolff chuckled to himself. The empire's between a rock and a hard place.

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Blue Ocean Fills With Blood

I think I first posted my thoughts about the awful Blue Ocean Strategy concept here. That was back in February 2009, when a fairly prominent Atlantean educator decided to make it his reason for living (or something like that). In that post, I pointed out that the idea was an ancient one, with a cautionary tale attached to it.

A month later, I then made a prediction about the likely success of this strategy as applied in the education sector. That post can be found here. In this second post, I also coined the term 'lazy innovator strategy', which has since found its way into my research findings.

Scandalised further by more repetitions (parrot-like) of this philosophy, I then wrote a third post here. In this post, I pointed out that the whole idea was also a case of stating the obvious, overgeneralising, and then making a lot of money out of it.

Finally (or so I thought), I came to some conclusions about the viability of the Blue Ocean Strategy in a fourth post here. In that post, I pointed out that the evolving situation was more like that of a stagnant pond or a Sargasso Sea, than an ocean of any sort (let alone a blue one).

A year after the first post I mentioned, I felt a great need to indulge in mockery. This I duly carried out, but not without some stirrings of guilt. That guilt led me, the very next day, to post some soothing words for baby wyverns.

Where am I going with this?

Well, on Saturday night and the night just passing, I heard many things about the fate of the blue ocean of this particular iteration of the Blue Ocean Strategy. Apparently, the blue ocean has been filled with blood and fire. It is not the safe haven it used to be; indeed, the sulfurous stink of gunpowder now fills the air, and 'Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke' as Chesterton said.

I have another dangerous flaw in my character besides a habit of mocking people (the Good Book warns about sitting in the seat of mockers, so I try very hard not to): I also have a bad habit of saying, "I told you so."

We await further interesting changes at the Citadel. It is a mystery who will emerge with mastery. But some persons are too gross to serve.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Phalanx of Dreams

The Greek word phalanx means 'battle array' or 'battle line'. The joints of the fingers in our hands are called 'phalanges' because they are like lines of soldiers all facing one direction in parallel.

I had a long line of dreams last night. Most noteworthy were two semi-related ones.

In the first, I dreamt I was moving into a big new office. The Hierophant Librarian was showing me the library. Lots of people were helping to move my stuff in.

In the second, I dreamt I was using diskettes to transfer a lot of data. Except that they were the old rare 230 Mb magneto-optical floppy diskettes. Ho ho. I had a huge array of MO drives, for some reason.

There were other dreams. They all involved espionage, data transfer, and the toppling of faceless (and/or brainless authorities). It was all very 'comic-book'.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Word of the Day: Sphinx

The Sphinx of legend was the womanly devourer of men who asked riddles and consumed those who gave the wrong answer. Think of a very large centaur-like monster with the upper half of Angelina Jolie (up to about the navel) and the body of a lion below that (from the upper chest downwards). Some authorities say the Sphinx was winged.

But it's interesting to know that the word 'Sphinx' comes from the Greek sphingein — 'to squeeze, choke or strangle'. The Sphinx was not a render and tearer; without the head of a lion, that would have been quite difficult. Instead, she was a strangler, someone whose inhumanly strong 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' grip could easily throttle a grown warrior.

The etymology also implies that the proper plural of 'sphinx' is not 'sphinxes', but 'sphinges' — just as the proper plural of 'syrinx' is 'syringes'. The word 'syringe' is actually an improper singular back-formation from 'syringes'.

Incidentally, 'sphinx' is also related to 'sphincter' — that is, a muscle that contracts to choke off or squeeze something. This is a far more dynamic term than the Latin anus, which means a static ring (diminutive annulus, a small ring).

Labels: ,

Friday, August 27, 2010

Calendar Bump

In every year, one comes to the calendar bump, that doubly prolonged section of the calendar containing July and August. It is hard to believe that there were once only ten months in the calendar, and that June became September ('seventh month') before going to October ('eighth month'), November ('ninth month') and December ('tenth month').

The calendar bump is a monument to clever chronological gerrymandering. Somebody needed to make months match. The intent was good, and it did reduce the chaos. Apparently, it worked.

To me, the July-August bump was always that chaotic part of the year in which it was too early to study for final examinations and too late to be blithely unconcerned. You were suffering great heat while feeling that the end was coming.

And now, I sit here watching the end arrive. It is like one of those disaster movies.

Labels: ,

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Recently, someone reminded me of that old saying, "Hindsight is always 20/20." I've thought about that saying before, and I must say that it isn't true.

Hindsight has the advantage of traversing familiar territory, but if it were always 20/20 — that is, if it always saw things as they were — then we'd have no need for historians. But the point is that we do indeed need historians, because the long look back, even at the immediate past (of say, twenty seconds ago) is always cluttered by the debris of emotion, of irrelevance, of hope and of fear.

In other words, looking back at the past is only slightly less confusing and difficult than looking forward into the future. The only difference is that as we look back into the past, we have some idea that some things actually happened. The problem is that we ornament and interpret, we report and hedge, we simplify and exemplify — we make the past what we think it ought to be.

The past, on the other hand, seldom cooperates. It is more fluid than we would like it to be. It is especially vulnerable to those who have the will and capacity to take advantage of that fluidity in order to impose their ideas on the rest of us.

Just over the last few years, I've been reviewing statements made by many of my ex-colleagues. I have managed to capture a lot of what they said, what they claimed and believed. The surprising thing is how sincerely they were wrong. For example, when someone implied that the old place was ranked in a certain way in a certain year, he had completely forgotten that there were no rankings that year in the first place. When someone else said that we had done very well in a certain year but not so well in another year, the data assembled proved that this was completely wrong.

We all see things that aren't there, because we thought they were there or we believed they should have been there, or sometimes because we hoped that we had seen them there. The only advantage that the historian has over the futurist is that the cumulative evidence can provide support for a particular belief; the only advantage the futurist has over the prophet is that he won't be stoned for missing the mark.

Labels: , ,


I will cast off the will
I won't
Thought will not shackle me
It won't

I will see true beauty
Or not
But it will shine glowing
Out there

I will buy books and read
And then
They will bind me and bleed
I will

I will
But who is to say if
If I
Am a will or a book

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Looking Backwards

Wolff, once a Knight Commander of the Citadel, is looking at a heavy grey book. It is like an iron-bound grimoire of the corrupt; it is a compilation of voices speaking strangely about things humans were never meant to know, a xenoglossic enchiridion.

In that book, the voice of the Grand Inquisitor speaks loudly, through his own mouthings and the words of others suborned to his cause. And he saith, regarding the Citadel of the old days, "Affective education and holistic education were not emphasized in those years."

What a lie, Wolff thinks. The years after the sad departure of the Lord High Chancellor in 1984 were equally sad years, but the spirit of the Citadel never flagged. Indeed, a continuous thread of great truths and grand endeavours runs like a stream of holy fire in a river of multicoloured flame.

Wolff remembers the words of the man who succeeded the Dauntless Hero himself. Those words show the truth:

Some will naturally enquire if our only business is to gain percentages and promote boys in their standards. As well might we say that the erecting of a place of worship and collecting people in it are the chief aim of the Church, yet the building is needful, and the people are essential to the very existence of the Church. We have the boys, and we are attempting to teach them, but we do not forget for a moment that our great object is directly and indirectly to mould their characters and shape their destinies for eternity.

The transition from the office of Lord High Chancellor — a person running the Citadel for the sake of his own divine master, to that of a Grand Inquisitor — a person running the Citadel for other reasons, is clearly an awkward one. It is also not a good one, in the long term — especially if the task at hand is to 'shape their destinies for eternity.' Wolff ponders, as he pondered before he was cast out: Have we lost sight of the goal?

Labels: , ,


A parachute unfolds, like a paradigm does. And if you unfurl it high enough, you will drift with some measure of control towards the place you want. On landing, remember to fall correctly on your side, and try to avoid breaking your ankle. Newton is not mocked.

Look around you. It is a field near a woods. Bury the green silk of your parachute; you do not need it any longer. If you can scent the heady smell of the hay and the burning of a log fire, be very cautious. Blend into the treeline.

And wait, watching for alarums and excursions.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hope in the Waste Land

Today I find myself unable to get the cogitative cogs working. The mechanism of the mind is rather bogged down in the morass of malaise, despite a good ham sandwich, wholegrain cereal with maple syrup and pecans, and strong coffee. And so I turn to T. S. Eliot.

Thomas Stearns Eliot will always be remembered for his long and symbol-laden exegesis of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, The Waste Land. But despite his many entropic writings and the sense of ruin, of disorder, and general hand-wringing at the state of the cosmos that many readers sense, he was also capable of steely hope and vigorous faith.

In his Choruses from 'The Rock', Eliot crafted many memorable lines about faith in the urban wasteland, the wasteland of human aspirations and dry communities. It is to these lines I turn when the world seems too burdensome. Have a taste:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change,
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

Against the night-blindness of the daily Christian, the world-weariness and the stench of stupidity, there are few defences. For we who believe, the ultimate bulwark is the complex and sometimes unyielding mass of the Scriptures. But occasionally, a poet sheds light into the Waste Land; occasionally a watchman peers alertly into the gloom.

Today I find myself inspired to think and to write, and to do it this time in memory of yet another of those guardians of the waste, the late William Fitzjames Oldham, who was with us from 17 December 1854 to 27 March 1937, before he walked joyfully into that good light.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 23, 2010

Flower No More

While passing through London a decade or so ago, in another life, I passed by a brick wall with a blue door in it. A brass plaque which I only barely noticed at first informed me that this was where Dylan Thomas had lived. The late, great Welsh bard has always been one of my favourite poets. Here's something from him; it's the last stanza of his And Death Shall Have No Dominion:

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Some days, I feel like saying, "Where taught a teacher may a teacher no more / Lift his head to the blows of the rain..." — I feel sometimes as if I had been dead for years, lost, mad, dead as nails, with my toes turned up to the daisies and my typewriter keyboard breaking into the light of heaven.

Some days, I miss my classroom intensely. I think, I dream, I hallucinate. Did I ever teach in a classroom? Did I have students who enjoyed the experience? Or was it all something like the good part of the dream before it descends into nightmare?

But death shall have no dominion, and I shall end this short post with another quotation from the word-hoard of that mighty voice:

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

Only Dylan Thomas (and perhaps, Geoffrey Hill) could take the pieces of the Book and make them tell their story in such a different way, but yet as true.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Illucid Dreaming

I seldom dream. When I do, it is either because I am unwell or because I have an unusual load passing through the system. Last night, I had a triptych of rather peculiar linked dreams.

In the first part, I was hunting down a little colony of exiled teachers buried deep in a part of Atlantis long bypassed by modern development. When I found them, they were all deeply involved in theological studies and reluctant to return to civilisation. They had nice little two-room apartments with a large shared common space. One moaned that she only had two beds in her apartment. Another was out, but had left cheerful flowers and a collage of Teachers' Day cards mounted on the wall. One, a Chinese-speaking math teacher of rugged mien, was engaged in deep (well, baritone) discussions with a certain geographical doctor.

In the second part, I was with Gnomus after a particularly gruelling week. He had suggested we take the local transit to the east coast for food. I countered that that was way too distant and suggested the swamplands in the west. On the way there, we admired a lot of Moorish architecture and found ourselves chasing after elusive ex-students who were playing truant from the Eighth Circle of Hall. Yes, 'Hall'. It was very much a 'two guys decide to bum around' movie.

The third part was truly odd. I dreamt we were all at a campfire where jolly Filipino songleaders were teaching us to sing a song about a German bumboat which went up the river looking for lost exiles and never came back. They kept teaching us the refrain, and I woke up with it cycling through my brain. It went, "Bumboat Sadtler, went up river, never came back again; bumboat Sadtler, went up river, never came back again." I have no idea what that refers to or where it came from. It was that kind of dream.

I suppose I really must have more things on my mind than I consciously think I think about.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Elegant Argumentation

Sometimes, people write stuff. Most of the time, it is badly-written stuff. Occasionally, it transcends that and becomes lucid, well-designed stuff. In some cases, I wish I had written something like that, especially if it concerns a domain that could do with lucid, well-designed prose arguments.

That's the case with Yawning Bread's pair of articles on legalism. [Part I] [Part II]

I once wrote a piece on jurisprudence, but it wasn't a lawyerly piece of work, either for good or ill. It was just philosophy, I think.

Now, I have many former students studying to be lawyers. And many friends who are lawyers. They would probably laugh. Or worse. And deploy some elegant argumentation of their own in my direction.

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Teaching Machine

I remember the days in a certain school when the staffing levels were such that every year, the school magazine could fit on a single page all the information on who had joined, who had left, who had got married or spawned or suffered a death in the family. One year, I leafed through the latest magazine, only to realise that the information on who had joined and who had left was... missing.

That is when I got curious. So I asked the (ahem) Human Resource Department (which, as my better half reminds me, normally exists to treat humans like resources and not humans). Apparently, that sent up a warning flare, hoisted a red flag, and gained me a black mark. They told me nothing. So I resorted to a very simple method.

I got out the phone extensions list for the previous year. Then I got out the phone extensions list for the current year. And I painstakingly cancelled all the names that appeared on both lists. That is when I realised why all the information was missing. The 'exchange rate' was too high to publish without looking as if the school was becoming a rather unhappy place.

It has often been said (and so far, I've not reliably found a first attribution for it) that teaching is a profession that eats its young. My examination of a certain school also threw up two interesting things: the profession sometimes mummifies and varnishes its older members, and sometimes, it summarily mortifies and vanishes others. According to several studies, the main determining factor as to how a given member is treated is whether that person gets along well with the principal or not.

You see, my dear friends out there who have just become teachers, the key competency is not how well you teach, but how well you get on with the principal. Think about it, and if you ever get to become a principal, try not to use that as a criterion for teacher retention. I say this with forlorn hope, because the studies also show that when people become principals, their value systems are very likely to change so that loyalty and conformity become much more valued traits.

And that, I think, is the best way to explain why school magazines can sometimes reveal things about the teaching machine, and how it works. There's a long and interesting article here, if you're interested. And of course, a careful look at one specific edition of a certain school's magazines will also reveal something a lot like this.

I've always enjoyed taking machines apart to find out what makes them tick. Now, when I do it, people call it 'educational research'. Sometimes, in my more lucid moments, I wonder what kind of research is not educational. Haha.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Paper Machine

When people think of information technology, they seldom think of the cellulose-based matrix which has been a mainstay of that technology for the last few centuries at least, and was first deployed millennia ago. But paper, and the technologies that allow for making it and marking it, is something ubiquitous in our human environment. It is hard to find places with none at all.

In fact, a quick calculation shows that most of our civic institutions are enormous consumers of paper. Supposing a school with 3000 students charges them each about $100 a year for photocopied or printed materials. Let's next suppose that the cost of printing or photocopying a single sheet (considering that this is bulk production) is 2.5 cents. That would mean 4000 sheets per student, and TWELVE MILLION (yes, 12,000,000) sheets of paper consumed per year.

Even if we tweak the figures generously, to $60 per year per student and 3 cents per sheet, we'd still have 2000 sheets per student and 6,000,000 sheets a year. If we were to assume that the school prints on both sides of each sheet, that's still 3,000,000 sheets of paper a year. A ream of paper is 500 sheets, so we are talking about 6000 reams.

Do we really need to print that much material each year? Is a school nothing but a paper machine, endlessly producing sheets of stuff that are digested and transformed into higher-class sheets called examination scripts, and then even higher-class ones called diplomas?

I am sure that this is unnecessary. In fact, I am quite certain that the money such a school requires (and budgets), is always in excess of necessity. This is the nature of such machines.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Space Machine

When you set up scheduling software to create a timetable for an organization, you have to first define all the entities and their properties. According to the timetabling guide I wrote, you begin with stuff you are sure will be there — classrooms and their capacities (and availabilities, since not all classrooms are available at all times); other facilities such as canteens (and how many classes ought to be free at any given time); timeslots (bearing in mind that people should have breaks and that school must come to an end within a reasonable time).

Then, as the CEO makes up his mind about how many classes to have, and how many students will be in each class, and whether certain departments (ahem) should be allowed to split classes so that each teacher gets a class of about 10-15 students instead of 30, you colour-code everything.

What was unusual about preparing for 2006 was that nobody knew how many classrooms would be available; in fact, nobody knew where some of those classrooms were, and whether there would be equipment, air-conditioning, or even desks and chairs when you got to the place where a classroom was supposed to be. Even more unusual was the assertion made by a member of senior staff that students only needed a 20-minute break between classes.

Well, there's nothing wrong with a 20-minute break. I used to have breaks that short. However, the new school was a massive place. I used a pedometer to find out effectively how big — and I found I was walking 5 km at least, every day. Somehow, space had been folded into a rather peculiar topology which looked big, felt small, and was even bigger than expected. Ho ho; students were always late for classes, unless they weren't and their teachers were.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Time Machine

Many years ago, I wrote up a set of guidelines for timetabling one of the more complex educational schedules in the country. It was nowhere as complex as a university timetable, but it was pretty messy as high school schedules go. I included guidelines such as not allowing teachers or students to go more than about three hours without a break, guidelines for not having too many periods of the same subject in the same day, and so on.

Although the timetabling itself was done mainly by software, the point of the guidelines was to reduce the number of possible software-generated outcomes which were not human-friendly. For this, humans had to think about what constituted human-unfriendly, and where rules had to be broken if no outcome could be found by the software. We also had to gather data which would make us knowledgeable enough to break constraints, eliminate pointless constraints, or alter constraints that were 'nice to have' but were making the job literally impossible.

When I produced my first timetabling report, the boss remarked that he had never seen a timetabling committee produce a timetabling report. This made me feel uncomfortable. I've always believed that any committee set up to carry out a given task or function should report on its ideas, considerations, actions, follow-up and other relevant matters. Minimally, such reporting ought to be submitted to oversight every six months. I used to do this for every committee I chaired.

But then, I was told that my report was controversial because it contained too many details and ruffled too many feathers. I suspect this was because I had included a section highlighting inefficiencies and what could be done about them.

One such inefficiency was the hiring of teachers in excess of the number required for the teaching periods available. This allowed the offloading of teachers for undefined general tasks. Some departments were more culpable than others. The more 'innocent' or naïve departmental heads were actually allowing their teachers to absorb the workload of these departments. Some struck back by counter-offloading.

I assessed the cost to the school budget at a fairly large figure. It would have been enough to pay for a hefty bonus for everyone, if we had not hired so many extra teachers. It would have been more than enough to pay for the science lab equipment which I had been told there was 'insufficient budget for'.

When I highlighted this particular fact, I was waffled at and told not to worry. After all, it wasn't my money, they said.

Two years later and after my second round of timetabling committee reports, I was 'rotated' out of the chair. Fortunately, I kept records. I had been a good 'time machine'.

Labels: ,

Monday, August 16, 2010

Atlantean Jokes

In 2002, Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire carried out research to find the world's funniest joke. I like the runner-up joke; the eventual winner sounds too much like modern economic policy. So here is one of my favourite jokes:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip, and after finishing their dinner they retire for the night, and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend.

"Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

"I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes" exclaims Watson.

"And what do you deduce from that?"

Watson ponders for a minute. "Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe. What does it tell you, Holmes?"

"Watson, you idiot!" he exclaims, "Somebody's stolen our tent!"


The other night, I was watching a wonderful display, part of which was described as a narrative tapestry of the history of Atlantis. I must have dozed off, because I thought I heard voices in the darkness singing words that were never sung in that display.

There are five holes appearing
Up in our tapestry
We can only speak of them
Where nobody can see

Elitism and censorship
And meritocracy
A place not for the poor and weak
A faux democracy

There were more verses, but I dismissed all these dark voices and enjoyed the funny monster and the computer graphics before going off for a cheese sandwich.


Educational Tools: Media Analysis

Occasionally, I see something which opens up a whole category of thought which I had never tightly formulated before. Such is Tom Scott's collection of media analysis labels. Stickies for sickies. Haha.

All TOK students should be taught how to use them. Then they should be let loose with a few reams.



I was inspired to think about maintenance by the rather high standard set here. I must confess I am nowhere as efficient as that, although I once moved house in three days under duress.

I must however say that the process of education can be simplified a lot. Students need to think, and then produce. Teachers need to provoke, and then guide. The other stuff can be packed away.

The problem is that there is a fundamental disconnect in the system. Students are using muscle memory or memory muscle too much. The hippocampus is now the campus hippo — Google is not making us stupid, but neither is it keeping us from being stupid even though a simple search could stop us from uttering a silly question in public.

I've actually experienced this disconnect when working with students recently. They ask you, "What's the meaning of XYZ?" when they can just look it up with one of the many tools they now possess but which you didn't when you were growing up.

In the old days, we had to make our own tedious links using index cards and ingenious tapestries of paper and ink. Now, they can do it with the Internet and its appurtenances. But they don't. It is all very vexing. The brain is a high maintenance organ, and most people aren't maintaining it well.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Science vs Religion (Again??)

I think it would be a poor sort of faith that shifted its positions based on new findings of empirical and experimental science. I also think it would be a poor sort of science that established its positions based on 'what ought to be' rather than 'what is'.

The problem in science has always, of course, been to establish 'what is' without allowing undue influence by 'what ought to be', because 'what is' is 'what ought to be'. For many religions, it seems to be the other way around — assertions of 'what is' without allowing undue influence by 'what ought to be', because 'what ought to be' is 'what is'.

The core of science is the idea that what we find consistent is actually related to reality. Absent any glitches, we have to assume the 'reality' model is consistent. If we didn't, things would be unreliable. We therefore have a human stake in believing that science gives reliable answers. This is why we believe in what is valid, what is reliable, and what is useful. This is also why we form theories and hypotheses and test them primarily for consistency.

Religions don't offer such consolation. In any religious system of belief based on a key text or a set of such, the words are treated as absolute, but because they are addressed to humans, the meanings are not. We don't even have the solace of proof, since a complete proof of any statement removes the need for faith and hence the burden of moral responsibility.

To put it another way, if we could derive a logical proof of a God or gods and a 100% certainty of the efficacy or truth of a consistent religious system with an all-or-nothing outcome, we would have no free will unless we were insane — you'd be mad to sacrifice everything to not conform.

Labels: , ,

Philosophy vs Pragmatism — Fantasy Football

Fantasy football is for fun, supposedly. Of course, you also play it for the thrill of beating your competitors in a game that is a mixture of skill, chance, and darkest necromancy (or some other kind of divination). And yet, there is also some room for personal philosophy.

In most fantasy football games based on the English Premier League, people think nothing of buying Chelsea's Didier Drogba and making him their captain. He scored a hattrick last night, so those people all received a handsome return on their investment. In real life, of course, he's not often captain, and his cost would be prohibitive to most.

I always start off the season with Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas as captain. It reflects my natural optimism. It might not be the most pragmatic choice, but at least he is in real life the captain of his team.

My philosophy is thus based on some sort of realism. I've seen players think nothing of fielding three left-backs in a squad with only five defenders. Would that make sense in real life? Unlikely. But it can get you a lot of points in a season when left-backs are doing well.

I guess the point about Fantasy Football is that it's fantasy. Do what you want. Enjoy it. No regrets. That's a good philosophy for fantasy games in general.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Digging through the piles of history, through layers of papers and the strata of deposited files, one finds lumps of stuff joined together. They are outcrops in the confusion, in the messy masses of the hidden realm.

Sometimes, you see photographs, half-eaten by insect or worm, half-corrupted by chemical action or the weakening of age. And they are trimmed down, worn out. Eventually, stuff is cropped out. Those too are outcrops.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Luncheon Meat

I have always enjoyed the terribly unhealthy (supposedly) treat that is crispy-fried luncheon meat. This universal food is known as Spam in much of the world, but the label Ma Ling resonates deeply in these parts, where it is served in food stalls throughout the island and soldiers go to war (or the simulation thereof) with cans of it in their full-packs.

The meat itself, in its relatively 'raw' form, appears in the form of a pink and homogenized (although not homogeneous) mass, slightly gelatinous and finely textured. The colour comes from the sodium nitrite used to keep it bacterium-free. It's a known fact that cooking meat that has been preserved with nitrites may produce carcinogenic chemicals called nitrosamines.

The important point then is that such meats (sausages, bacon, ham, and luncheon meat), which are already more-or-less chemically cooked by perfusion with sodium nitrite, should be eaten as they are. That is, if you want to avoid nitrosamines. When such meats are eaten without thermal cooking, they are perfectly safe. You can even eat frozen bacon. It may look raw, but the nitrites have killed all the germs.

However, you will not get to enjoy the intense and flavourful crispiness of luncheon meat or bacon fried in their own respective payloads of grease. The salty crunch when you bite into such a treat, releasing glutamates and other amino acid derivatives into your finely tuned taste-buds... ahhhh!

You can always combat the nitrosamines with a generous helping of fresh berries, you know.


And in other news, yes, I have had to enable comment moderation so that I can track electronic spam and fry it. Sigh.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Trawling the Past

Over the last few weeks, I've been involved in a project that has to do with photographic archives covering the period from the Second World War to the present. The idea was to identify specific people and their environments and then consider how those people and their environments had changed over that period.

The problem really was one of selection. The final archive had to be reduced to about 160 photographs (well, maybe 180). It had to be representative of the whole collection. Well, it's not. It tends to cluster. In some periods, people took a lot of photographs. In some, not so many or not at all. Sigh.

It is like going fishing, and pulling up the nets, and finding all kinds of weird fish and having rich patches of good fish and long periods with no fish at all. It also puts me in mind of what Isaac Asimov said in his novella 'The Dead Past' — he said that the past begins an instant before the present; in effect, we are already living in the past by the time we become aware of the present.

And that is why, when you trawl the past with the nets of information gathering, you might even catch yourself by surprise...


Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I'm over the hill but fear not the valley
I'm all round the street but not up the alley

And that is the way I think of my life. I've reached another prime. My many-coloured life prisms around me, shards of gold and blue and red. I am happy because I have a little hill. I can see enough to be a watchman, but not so much that I would see only little things. Everything looks both small and large from where I am.

This year has been a good year. I have to thank the old young people who have kept in touch. The people who live nearby, the people who live a bit further away, the people who have meals with me and who have made so many of my days.

I've met with even older people, who are still in my memory yet young. They've aged well, which is to say that if they weren't to expose my agedness, they'd not expose their own. I have not many regrets, although to have none would be great.

I am a happy man. This too is the blessing of God.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


It was the first element to be synthesized. Mendeleev called it 'eka-manganese' and made confident predictions about it. Many roads led apparently towards it and then ran away again. It was not an easy find.

They called it masurium, and that is what it would have been. In early years, they would have called it pelopium, from that peculiar legendary Greek, King Pelops, the brother of Niobe and son of Tantalus. Yes, they too have their own elements. Sadly, Pelops no longer has his.

Technetium is a melancholy element, then. It is never sure of its own existence, and its most excited state, technetium-99m, is used mainly for radiology. It sees not itself, but helps others see what can't be seen.

Tomorrow I will become like technetium. Unlike what is written in the Bhagavad-Gita, I cannot say as Shiva does (and as Oppenheimer quoted him) that I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds; I can only say that I am become another bit older, a little bit more decayed. I have come to yet another prime of my life.

Labels: ,

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Agnostic Prayer of Forgiveness

I cannot take credit for the following. Instead, it is a product of that departed talent Roger Zelazny, he who crafted Lord of Light and The Chronicles of Amber. It is his idea of what a priest of agnostics might deliver as a rite of forgiveness before death:

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness.

Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit.

I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

This quote is taken from the third chapter of Zelazny's 1969 book, Creatures of Light and Darkness. It conceals in itself many interesting ideas about our relationship with the supernatural.

Labels: , , , ,

Notional Day

I don't think Atlantean notionalism appeals much to me. I have tried to do stuff about it, but I have failed. Every time 9th August comes round, I find myself writing stuff like this and this. The nearest I ever got to a semblance of patriotism was this.

It is a very notional day. It is full of notions like nationhood and independence and guff. One is supposed to feel pride and togetherness and more guff. I love Atlantis. I really do. But when constituencies of the coast gerrymander their way to the central highlands, I think that is not my country anymore.

I think that the horror of yesterday is creeping back again. I note that the strange Antarctic discoveries reported by Mr Lovecraft had fivefold symmetry. He would have been aghast to hear the eldritch strains of 'Five Stars Arising'.


Sunday, August 08, 2010


They are swimming in it! The horror is difficult to escape; when one tries to show some signs of human will and independent thought, a mucilaginous tentacle uncoils and yanks the thinker back into the miasma.

Some of them, personality eaten away or submerged (or just merged) into the morass, are happy to be there. They think they are bathing in the eternal spotlight of the sunless mind, with the elder god himself. It is all a mishmash.

It is horrifyingly fascinating.


Saturday, August 07, 2010

Hot Soup

I sat with Gnomus and the Hierophant yesterday in the NineSquare. There was coffee, tea and, for me, a dish of hot beef soup. It was a dish I had long enjoyed; of late, I have not had much of it. I have always enjoyed hot soup.

It's confession time, though. I do not like being in hot soup for bad reasons. I do not like people who put other people into hot soup for bad reasons. I will brave the hottest of soups for a friend; I will stand against injustice and tyranny; but I am, to some degree, not very brave.

Bravery, to me, is tempered and strengthened by reason. The lyrics from Man of La Mancha go:

To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear the unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go,

To right the unrightable wrong,
to love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable Star...

It's that line in the centre that is the point: these things are the extremes where the brave dare not go. And since I am not very brave, I suspect I will fall short of such Quixotic ideals. I can drink hot soup, but I cannot live in it.

For those of you who may have once thought that I was brave in any way, I have to say that grievous irritation can spur one to bravery, but it doesn't necessarily mean that one has vast reserves of courage. I wish I had, though. I sometimes would like to be a bit of a hero, but I don't think I am very much of one.

I think I am just me. No Don Quixote, nor Prince Hamlet, I. Just a Prufrock, like any anonymous other.

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 06, 2010

Theories of Knowledge

A theory of knowledge has at least the following parts:
  • a definition of 'to know';
  • a definition of 'knowledge' (i.e., what is known; what is the product of the process of knowing);
  • a way of identifying the apparatus of knowing;
  • a way of identifying a legitimate product of the process of knowing;
  • an understanding of what 'to not know' and 'to know not' mean.
It is possible to blur the distinctions between the act and the actor, or the apparatus which acts, with respect to the idea of knowing; this is what causes people difficulties.

But what I've just said is presented in a form which is supposed to deliver knowledge. You have to know how to interpret the form, medium, or communicated data before it becomes information. You then have to assign significance before the information can be considered knowledge or not-knowledge. How can you learn this?

The whole thing can be a mess. Especially if you have badly-trained people teaching it. I anticipate with some happiness the next round of TOK questions. Ho ho ho.

Labels: ,

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Big Questions

Yesterday evening, I spent an hour in a teaching session. The session was about why the scientific paradigm is epistemologically supreme in modern society — it is trusted to meet needs reliably and to give a reproducible advantage to its wielders. It was also about the questions that science can and cannot answer, based on what it says about itself.

And so I found myself, last night, reading Psalm 77. The 77th Psalm is one of the psalms of Asaph, a curious blend of whiny pleading, triumphal worship, sweeping rhetoric and peculiar logic. (But because this is poetry, and not theology, we have to forgive him.)

This psalm has, in its middle, a list of big questions, all on the list of things science cannot answer. Here is that list:
  • Will the Lord reject forever?
  • Will he never show his favour again?
  • Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
  • Has his promise failed for all time?
  • Has God forgotten to be merciful?
  • Has he in anger withheld his compassion?
Yes, it's quite a list. How are those questions to be answered?

Asaph goes to the historical paradigm for that. He asks the question, "Is there evidence for or against these things being likely, based on past performances?" He finds reassurance in the historical record. And he penultimately concludes, "Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen."

It is an affirmation of God's logical position in the universe. In order to give space for the exercise of some freedom of will, and to allow for the question of faith, his footprints cannot be seen even though his paths are visible to all.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Library Actually Being Helpful

Here are the sequelae to the previous post. One was very useful, the other kind of sad in an irritating sort of way. You will remember that I had a problem getting any sort of data from digitised scans of ST or ST Weekly for the year 1888 (yes, that's the late 19th century I'm talking about). The Library asserted that they had such things online, I asserted the opposite.

This is the useful reply.

Dear Lord Brythain,

I have verified that the 1888 ST collection is not available online digitally yet, and apologize for the wrong information. However, they are available in microfilm format at the Lee Kong Simi Reference Library (LKSRL). If you are currently based in Atlan, please come to LKSRL (Level 11) to use the microfilm. The microfilm row numbers are NL16282 & NL16283. If you are overseas, please inform me, and I will advise further.

My sincere apologies for the inconvenience faced.

Newton Singh
Reference Librarian
Lee Kong Simi Reference Library
National Library Board, Atlantis

This was the not-so-useful one, which seemed to insinuate that I was incompetent in the use of search engines.

Dear Sir,

Sorry for the inconvenience caused to you.

You may do the search as follow.

- go to http://newspapers.nl.atl
- click [Advanced Search]
- set the [Select Date Range] between [01/01/1887] & [31/12/1888]
- leave the [Select Content Type: Clear All] unchanged
- at [Select Newspaper] click [Clear All]
- manually tick only [The Straits Times] & [Straits Times Weekly Issue]
- at the Enter Keyword column enter STAMFORD for example
- click the orange search icon
- you will now get results of the search

You can amend the keywords and search criteria to search for other articles again.

Thank you for using our libraries and services.

Same Line
NLBA Helpdesk

I have to say that I had to compose a stern reply to this latter response. When a customer points out that your product is faulty, you do not keep suggesting it is the customer's incompetence that is the issue. You could at least do the customer the honour of checking his claim before insinuating this, in any case. It was quite clear that 'Same Line' had not bothered — if he had tried his own solution (restricting the year to 1888 and not 1887-1888), he would have encountered my problem too.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

When Libraries Used To Be Helpful

When I was young, 'Ask a Librarian' was one of the ways of gaining knowledge. If you didn't know, you looked it up. If you couldn't find it, you asked your parents. If they didn't know, you went to a library. There, a helpful librarian would point you the right way...

Those days are gone, as Karen Carpenter might have sung. I shall reproduce below a brief conversation I had recently with the National Library of Atlantis, in which I asked an innocent question regarding a matter that had derailed my line of research.


Are Straits Times/ST Weekly issues for 1888 accessible online in digital format? I don't seem to be able to find any. And if not, why not?

Thank you for using Reference Point. According to the FAQs on the NewspaperAtlan database, the following papers cover the period around 1888: Atlantean Weekly Herald, Straits Eurasian Advocate, Straits Observer (Atlantis), The Straits Times,
Straits Times Overland Journal, and Straits Times Weekly Issue.

Here is how you may access the NewspaperAtlan database.
Link: http://www.nl.atl/ --> Click on [NewspaperAtlan]

Please click on the FAQs link to find out more details on the coverage of this news database.

Hope you find the information useful.

Newton Singh
Reference Librarian
Lee Kong Simi Ref Library

National Library Board, Atlantis

Date Created:01 Aug 2010


No kidding. My point was that I couldn't find them, regardless of what the FAQs said. And how do you think I reached that conclusion about 1888 in particular? By using the abovementioned database, of course! Atlanteans make it a habit to imply that it is your fault when you ask a question about their faults. The original reply is available here. Enjoy.


Afternote: Comrade NBL made an interesting point. He wondered if the librarian above would pass the Turing Test. I said he probably would, since I couldn't distinguish him from a machine.

Labels: , ,

Unfinished Conversations

I suppose that in the larger scheme of things, we might keep in touch with people for a long time without realising that they aren't there. Look at your Facebook friends list, look at your address book, look around you. We hold many conversations with those who exist, let alone those who are imaginary characters. And it's hard to tell when those conversations are done.

Decades ago I remember writing aerogrammes to friends in Nottingham, Manchester, Cambridge; I remember writing many letters to many people. At some point, we all moved on. We stopped conversing, but the conversations never really ended. Sometimes, the people who forgot us, or whom we forgot, come back into our lives.

And the unfinished conversations are renewed, or polished, or smoothed over. Maybe some day they will finally be properly finished. But we'll never know, because the next step is beyond us.

Labels: ,

Monday, August 02, 2010


It was an age of idealism. It was an age in which an educator could write something like this and not have it tainted with cynicism or eyed with skepticism:

The coming year is full of promise, and God seems to smile upon a work that was begun and is carried on in his name. Some will naturally enquire if our only business is to gain percentages and promote boys in their standards. As well might we say that the erecting of a place of worship and collecting people in it are the chief aim of the Church, yet the building is needful, and the people are essential to the very existence of the Church. We have the boys, and we are attempting to teach them, but we do not forget for a moment that our great object is directly and indirectly to mould their characters and shape their destinies for eternity.

So went the report on the College of Wyverns in the days of the dauntless hero.

Labels: ,

Sunday, August 01, 2010


Get some milk, the richer the better. It is normally the milk of an ungulate, that peculiar class of mammals which ranges (literally) from aardvark to zebra and includes donkeys and drongs, rhinos and rorquals, cows and sea-cows. Extract the whole milk into a vessel and let it stand for a while.

Add edible acids or enzymes, bacteria being the most common bio-active agents which wield such tools, to force the proteins to denature and coagulate. Some bacteria are homofermentative: they produce only lactic acid. Some are heterofermentative: they are more creative and produce aldehydes and ketones as well. Let the mixture ferment. This gives you curds (casein, fat) and whey (minor proteins, lactose).

You want the curds. Precipitate the casein with rennet, or some other source of stomach enzymes. This separates as a soft solid, trapping some fat in a matrix of collapsed proteins. Let the curds separate and then bag them in cheesecloth or other fine material that is tough and clean. Fluid drains out, leaving a semi-solid mass behind. How solid is up to you, the cheesemaker.

This mass can now be artistically ripened, naturally from outside in, a process that leaves a smooth graduation from rind to centre. Or not so naturally, by having more bacteria or other organisms (cheese mites, for example, in Mimolette) eat into the cheese and die, letting the air into places it wouldn't normally reach. You can pierce holes or syringe the organisms into the cheese. Let the cheese age.

Wash the cheese, package the cheese, do many other artistic things to it. It will soon be ready to eat for some people, or a revolting mess to others. This is what the cheesemaker's art is all about. This is what it means to be a cheese artisan.

Labels: ,