Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Attributes of God

We learnt, in the old days, of Mass and Distance, Duration and Energy; we learnt of the Fluid Electric and the Power Dynamic. These we learnt were the fibres and the sinews of the universe, the impulses and the machinery. And if there was a God, He had to be beyond all these things.

So as we learnt more and more, the boundary seemed further and further, our horizon wider and wider. And still we said, if there is a God, He has to be beyond all these things. Which seemed to us that, if true, it meant that God was further and further away, and had less and less space.

For we filled all the space of our thought with names and named things, and if what we named was not God, then why, of course, there was always 'beyond' for God to be in. This was when we were young and foolish; we thought of our powers to name and to identify as great powers and mighty.

But what we failed to see was that we could name every molecule in our little puddle (and for every 18 grams of it, there were 600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (or so) such molecules) and give names to every possible interaction between each one (and of those there were many more) — and this was not yet wisdom, nor power, nor majesty. For being part of a puddle, and knowing about water, and each molecule, and on our scale, the differences between them (for no two molecules can be the same, according to the High Priests of the Quantum) and what they did — these were nothing compared to the greater molecules beyond, and beyond, and beyond.

And still, we said, well, God is not a water molecule, and we can see all that is, it is all water molecules, and perhaps, the forces of van der Waals, the temporary loves and hates of evanescent dipoles, and above all, hydrogen bonding — and within all, covalent bonding, and around all, perhaps gravity. So God, if there is God, is beyond that.

One day, another puddle was consumed by fervent heat, and its elements laid bare. And in that one blinding moment, we realised that there was oxygen, and hydrogen, and smaller things than that, including a binding energy that we could not have known. And all these things we tried to name, even as the names sublimed in the radiance of the final moment. This fascinated us.

Yet another puddle was consumed by a plant, and photosynthesis occurred in the sunlight and carbon was added to the vocabulary. But though there were also magnesium and nitrogen and phosphorus and many other elements, the new universe of carbohydrates did not see them, and rejected them. We were quite sure that such things must exist, but they were beyond our experience, and we saw them not, and wondered at shadows.


The man sipped his black, black coffee. He wondered what they would think, if there were minds dwelling on the surface of water molecules, and a molecule of 2,4,6-trimethylxanthine hove into view. He wondered what they would think of his spoon, unused, if he were to plunge it into the atrament. They would probably understand sugar, and not like it much, he decided.

He blew across the face of the hot, hot coffee. And he had compassion upon them.

But no, he was not yet God, although very soon, the coffee would make its way through the marvellously complex world of his biochemistry.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Word of the Day: Ideolatry

We're all familiar with the horribly elided term 'idolatry', from Greek eidolon (often translated 'graven image') and latreia (often translated 'worship' or 'service'). The original Greek was eidololatria, but I guess it had one 'lol' too many for the English, who chopped the word short.

However, the lesser-known word 'ideolatry' actually comes from a more basic concept — it comes from the Greek idea, or 'form', or (almost literally) 'imagining'. The Greek idea carries with it the sense of constructing a visual image in the mind's eye. To indulge in 'ideolatry' is to worship an idea, something that exists in the internal workings of one's mind as a virtual image.

In what way is ideolatry different from ideology, which is more familiar to most of us?

Ideology in general is the science of putting ideas into a rational system. An ideology is a construct of ideas, a conceptual framework or system incorporating ideas which may or may not have a rational basis. A consistent ideology (which is what ideologies are supposed to be but sometimes are not) is one in which all the incorporated ideas are linked by a consistent internal logic within the ideological system. Whether it is a rational ideology is a different matter.

In what way is ideolatry different from idolatry, which is more obvious to most of us?

Ideolatry is more subtle. Instead of worshipping Mammon, we worship a concept of finance, or the idea of money. Instead of sacrificing children to Moloch, we worship a concept of education, or the idea of drill-and-practice. Instead of venerating Ishtar, we worship a concept of fashion, or the idea of beauty contests. Instead of giving things up to Belial, we worship a concept of modernity, or the idea of reductionism. We give service to ideas, and they become our reasonable worship.

Sometimes, it takes the analysis of a less-used word to bring out ideas that we forget to think about. Sometimes, it is good to think about whether a set of ideas has become an ideology, and whether ideology has become ideolatry.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stuff That Can't Be Explained

You know, it hit me that we thirst for explanations to the point where we assume that everything must have a rational explanation. All things have a cause, is the theory. But we don't actually have a reason as to why things have reasons, or even why things should have reasons.

Consider the workings of the mind. At our current state of knowledge, we know that action occurs when a certain potential in the brain is exceeded in a certain direction. It is possible to see how this might be so, but the causes are complex. In principle, we can predict how a person should behave; in practice, we cannot. To make matters worse, it seems that we decide upon acting long before we actually are conscious of the decision, and that we appear to act on knowledge before we are aware of this knowledge. This leads to the illusion known as intuition. The final insult to the idea that our minds are rational is the fact that memory is mutable, and that our brains reconfigure with some sort of biased randomness in the direction of whatever seems most convenient.

It seems that the very lack of constancy, consistency and/or dependability of our minds and our world is what drives us to want things that are rational and consistent. This is why we invent mathematical structures and rules, and pursue the scientific paradigm. The fact is that we see data points all around us, and we confer upon them significance so that they become information. We weave information into structures that seem useful, and once utility as been conferred upon these, they become knowledge. We weave related-looking bits of knowledge together into elaborate tapestries, and they become areas of knowledge, disciplines, and more complex structures.

But what in all this is useful? The very term 'useful' ranges in utility, from being indicative of necessity (food, water, air, shelter), to denoting the very important (communication, education, construction and synthesis), to labelling the stuff we can demonstrably live without but which we cannot imagine living without (electricity, information technology, powered mechanized transport). Everything has its uses, little is completely useless.

The power of reason overheats the brain in a world that is changing faster and has more and more complexity. A lot of that complexity is man-created; the volume of knowledge constructed follows an exponential curve, but the value of that knowledge is also exponentially less accessible — it consists of stuff that fewer and fewer people need to know or which requires even more stuff to be useful at all.

Why build a Large Hadron Collider? What utility value does it have? There is a long list of questions that it certainly will answer when fully deployed and once the myriad (yes, at least 10,000) scientists, engineers and mathematicians around it get to work. Will it feed the poor, make people happy, tell us right from wrong? Not yet, if at all. But it does cost ten billion US dollars, which is not small fish.

As a teacher of science, I've heard and understand all the reasons why we 'do science'. I understand how and why scientific principles and discoveries have improved the standard of living starting from very basic stuff like what an electron is, or how gravity appears to work. But you can't build a case for future benefits from past successes, especially when immediate needs (urgency) may outweigh the importance of such benefits.

In a sense, we are all necessarily hypocritical. We enjoy the fruits of science and the illusion of its necessity as an industry and costly endeavour, while turning a blind eye to the problems that could be rectified by altruism. But altruism doesn't gain points, and it doesn't work, until material resources have been accumulated (or the illusion thereof, as in money). Such points are real because we have made them so. It is no longer possible to quantify a person's work in load carried or bits generated, but only according to the market value. And the market is all in our interactions and in our heads. It can be explained, but only in terms of our sub-rationality.

In the end, all of it can be explained, but none of it can be explained away. We are full of motives and reasons, excuses and theories. Our propensity for violence has been relatively lowered for a few brief shining moments in a murky sea of disease, death and destruction. This, we call civilisation. I don't think there is a comprehensive explanation for that.

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Monday, September 27, 2010


I was looking at the three books of the Gnome's writings when I realised that they had very interesting acronyms. The first volume was called ThEM, and it was all about his not-so-private musings about Atlantean relationships with others. The second was called PEG, and it was mostly about how the practice of government had justified some theories and broken others, while establishing benchmarks. The third one was called WEAN, and it was all about how nations in this part of the world should be able to develop their own economies with decreasing recourse to external funds.

Enlightened by these interesting acronyms, I decided to go look for more. The latest installment of critiques on the development of Atlantis is called MoSs. A volume of essays on Anglophone Chinese is called PerCh in a Glob SEA.

Then I realised the fallacy. Of course it couldn't mean anything. If you have enough words, you can see anything you want! It's just like scientific research. Just because it all hangs together nicely doesn't mean anything — if you're looking for patterns, meanings, relationships, you will find them. Ho ho.


Some Enchanted Morning

It's been a decade since 'Some Enchanted Morning', as one wit called it, was visited upon the centres of education in Atlantis. Like many badly designed games ported over from one system to another, it contained many exploits that clever players could take advantage of; as a former 'clever player' and colleague to many such clever players, I feel entitled to comment.

The newly enchanted version is a much tougher deal. The old one allowed educators essentially to invent goals for which they had sufficient documentation of trend and success, and then score points for the goals they had invented. The new one sets some of those goals as standard and determines how they are to be validated in terms of evidence and process.

Fortunately, when my collegial acquaintance Wolff left the Citadel of the Wyverns, he brought out with him a huge quantity of evidence, including the originals and forgeries he found. His story is an amazing one, and it should some day be told in great detail so that it can provide a very necessary education to those who would seek to administrate (urgh, ugly word) educators.

'Some Enchanted Morning' provided a means of turning 'Scarcely Quantifiable Attainments' into signs of major success. For some, this was unwarranted. Now, it looks like the pinnacles of excellence may yet be gilded with real metal.

I wonder, though, if all this can be attained through honesty and hard work alone. Or will it be as it was before, with virtuous gluten leavened by dishonest gas? I am truly interested in the outcomes, and am glad to be provided at every turn with the voluminous reports of the faithful.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fear is the Lock

At the back of certain kinds of success is the fear, not of failure, but of less success. In Atlantis, where the Priests of the White have held sway for fifty years and more, the loss of even one small district out of the Eighty is occasion for breast-beating (or chest-thumping, which is even more distasteful). Accordingly, as with all normal humans, the fear of a negative sensation has led the Priesthood to find better ways of reducing the likelihood of such.

As we learnt in the Halls of Training, in the Priesthood of Learning, there are four ways of supplying motive (I shall not say 'motivate' here):
  • reward — supplying what is desired when the subject meets positive criteria
  • punishment — supplying what is undesired when the subject meets negative criteria
  • withholding reward — not supplying what is desired when the subject meets negative criteria
  • withholding punishment — not supplying what is undesired when the subject meets positive criteria
It is always good to teach people such things so that they know how they might be manipulated. It is clear that the situation that I outlined at the beginning of this post is one based on fear of not having enough success, and being punished for it in terms of loss of ego, and perhaps sense of entitlement and/or privilege.

Till this day, amused outsider that I am, I have failed to see how increasing the size of authority blocs helps bring better representation and flexibility to those under authority. It is like saying that putting more generals in one room makes their armies work better, even though all the generals were chosen to think the same way. I've seen this in the Citadel of the Wyverns before, and those who have passed through its portals in the last few years will know what I mean.

I remember sitting at a meeting in which I said the f-word. Immediately, the Boss pounced on it. "What? Who is frightened? We are not frightened! What do you mean?!"

I was amazed at the response. I had meant that the general population might not be as sanguine about new directions as we were. And then it clicked: he was genuinely afraid and angry that I had apparently noticed it. Ho ho. Such is life.

It's all about fear. And you can smell the metallic, acidic tang of it in the air at certain times. Those times are beginning again. I shall need more Earl Grey tea.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Everybody Wants To Rule The World

The world is as big as the limits of vision. When the Greeks said 'kosmos', they meant whatever was within the limits of existence. But for some, the world is very small; for some, their grasp is greater than their mind's reach.

On Thursday, I was at a ceremony somewhere in the clement reaches of Atlantis. It was funny to see two people whose exaltations (with all due respect, really) still evoke from my colleagues elsewhere a 'what? really?' response when I speak of them. It was slightly sad to hear people nearby muse about whether those two were lesser servitors or whatever; it was embarrassing to see certain things happen on stage. I guess the 'what? really?' response I got was even sadder.

But the thing is that these people are very different. They don't really want to rule their microcosm, but they are agents of rulership now. One has a big erratic vision, a bit like too much lipstick on lips too thin; the other has a narrow vision, like trying to see the world outside through a keyhole.

The problem back in the high tower of the Inquisition is that some people do indeed want to rule that world, or at least have the power of life and death. It brings to mind the key themes of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, itself based partly on Hesse's Siddhartha. The insect has six legs. Some of those legs want to be mandibles.

High above, the boot descends.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Authoritativeness is not Authoritarianism

Wolff has been in Atlantis for nigh-on forty years. It always puzzles him why people think of Atlantis as if it were mainland Eurasia, that hotbed of scurvy Staleninomarxism, uptight Natsocifascitis, and other natural ills of political man. He looks at Atlantis as the natural heir of Rome (without the legions), Byzantium (without the richness), and Venice (without the charm). It is no Londinium, nor is it Novo Eboracum, but what it is is a drastically small island, about one and a half times the size of Andorra but a lot less beautiful.

Atlantis is an authoritative state. It speaks firmly. It believes in firm principles. It just hasn't had a couple of centuries (or more) to work out how its conflicting principles should interact, unlike some much larger confederacies and conspiracies. It is therefore disparaged for not being libertarian (a philosophy, which Wolff claims, requires less than 200 people per square kilometre in order to really work).

Wolff is quite amazed, actually, that Atlantis works at all. It has the dark brothers of Sind and the brown brothers of Cathay and the pale brothers of Hyborea and perfidious Albion all in one place. It has gallant knights of the Wyvern, studious monks of the Torch, and pasty scholars of the Gryphon. It has great food, although people will tell you that there are other places with far better (which is always true, no matter where you live), and awful rats. It floods about once or twice a year on average (legends say once in fifty years, but obviously they are wrong).

But he is happy that he doesn't have to execute purveyors of the poppy or occultists of the opiates himself — the state will do it for him. He is happy he doesn't have to draw arms against rapists and gangsters, villains (not villeins, that's different) and vigilantes. He can live in relative peace because the state acts with authority.

Yes, it sometimes exceeds its authority. He notes that the people are ill-represented, but he also realises that the better the representation, the more taxes you pay for that honour. He notes that the high priests receive a large tithe. He is happy that they do not take more and pretend that they aren't. He feels that he is comfortable, and that most people here are not because their ancestors were driven by the urge to be better off than their fellow men.

He is somewhere in the middle. He chats with his friends; some serve the State and are not villains, a rare combination in some other places. He drinks kava with them; the kava comes in many varieties. He eats of the fried oyster omelette, and of the rice-sheets in dark sauce, and of the porridge of the sea. He is happy.

He suspects that moving the population to somewhere like Novosibirsk or Pyongyang might be a healthily educational experience. But he knows better than to bother. Atlanteans will learn in time that there have been other islands in other times, not all of them physically so. It is better, he feels to understand the basis of authority and try to steer it gently along the rightful path, than to think that it is all evil.

It is odd, he feels, that the rationalists and scientists want to make the world ordered and tidy, but not their own society. He suspects hypocrisy. But he is willing to live and let live.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Science is not Omniscience

There are many things that science does not see, and cannot by its nature see. It cannot see beauty, or suffering, or anything which requires a human value judgement. It cannot afford human value judgements. And yet, it is used as a tool to affirm and support human value judgements. This is like getting a set of tools and then deciding on the fitness of human hands by seeing how well they fit the tools.

The problems really arise when men, having created tools like the scientific method, then turn their tools upon themselves. Materialism and naturalism, having spawned such tools, are then investigated by these tools. It leads to paradox; how does the observer avoid seeing what he already knows he will see?

Look at psychological studies. The majority of those used to propound or defend widely debated and circulated views in the last 20 years have been carried out on Americans. It is like saying the brain is purely biological, and the biological American is representative of the human race because we are all human. Yes, this is true, but with caveats: the brain is shaped by environment, and as Americans never tire of telling the rest of the world, America is exceptional and exceptionalist.

The response might be, "Why not look at something more 'hard science', like physics?" Yes, but the harder the science, the less it applies to the mystery of why we should think what we think. The more we break apart the biochemical (or, at a higher level of structure, neurological) basis of thought, the less we find about what the point of it ought to be. If it is all a legacy of survival, then we no longer need artistry and comfort. We no longer need to think about evil, since it is hard to imagine why we would carry any moral responsibility at all.

It boils down to aesthetics. Either there is an aesthetic sense or there isn't. The aesthetic sense would say, "Evil is ugly, it is wrong, it feels bad." Science might say, all these are the chemical stirrings of survival traits. Well, then evil is an artifact, and debating the ideal society and the life of man and the destiny of humanity is about as good as studying metallurgy.

Where is the survival value in this huge overcapacity to debate the 'unnecessary'? We seem to be coming up with value-judgement excuses about why this might be necessary. We have built a huge armillary sphere of science-based arguments about how values arise from evolved processes designed to cope with the environment, and this is projected into a future where computing power allows us to cope with larger-scale and even larger-scale environments. And this, we can calculate, leads to something even more complicated, which will be indistinguishable from God.

It is far easier to think like a child and believe in God. But I don't think adult pride accepts such things. Even when they are in line with the sharpest edge of Ockham's Razor. Science is the tool of our self-justification, when it should just be our most useful tool for the physical and material world. We don't use the screwdriver to justify the hand.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Research Engines, Morality and Ethics

What pains me, a child of the 1960s, is that this age of humanity provides so many more resources than the age of my birth — but people don't seem to use them as much as they should. Take for example this choice paragraph that an acquaintance of mine (to my thinly disguised horror) produced in the course of a discussion:
You say there is 'medical ethics' and 'legal ethics' but no 'medical morality' and 'legal morality' but I say we use 'medically moral' and 'legally moral'. I raise the possibility that this may be that due to Zipfian distributions in English, leading to the words being used interchangeably in when sentences are constructed differently.
The discussion was about the distinction between morality and ethics. I asserted that there were clear empirical distinctions; that is, humans in general have a sense that the terms are not completely interchangeable. Behind my assertion is my belief, on empirical grounds, that the two terms have nuances that are sufficiently different that they overlap somewhat but far from completely.

Now, anyone can check our claims using Google as a measure of modern usage. If the terms used receive roughly the same order of magnitude of hits, you can assume that they are roughly as frequently used. Furthermore, Zipf's law is an empirical finding that the frequency rank of popularity is inversely proportionate to the number of hits in a sample. With this information, anyone can carry out a crude test of his own or someone else's assertion very easily.

Obviously, my interlocutor didn't think of doing this. Here is what I found with Google alone:
  • medical ethics (1.84 m hits)
  • legal ethics (1.44 m hits)
  • medically moral (103 hits)
  • medical morality (27.4 k hits)
  • legally moral (575 hits)
  • legal morality (11.3 k hits)
Clearly, ethics and morality are not interchangeable in terms of frequency of use. But what about Zipfian distribution? Perhaps what he was trying to say was that 'morality' was the 2nd or 3rd ranked term (in order of preference) after 'ethics' in this context. That is, it should appear with 1/2 the frequency or 1/3 the frequency.

Well, a quick look at the data shows that the relative frequency is 1/100 or so, which is clearly a) of a different order of magnitude, and b) would rank the terms as somewhere roughly between 64 and 128 positions apart. In other words, his assertion is probably false at a high level of confidence — morality cannot be substituted for ethics in such cases.

So why do people conflate morality and ethics? It boils down to a lack of historical context. The Romans translated the Greek ethikos as Latin mores without realising that to the Greeks, ethikos implied the customary conduct of a person within a polis as imposed by a city-state's sociocultural milieu. That is where the confusion came from, because to a Roman, mores/moralis was more about individual character and self-moderated behaviour towards society.

That is why 'morality' should refer to attitudes and behaviours towards society, arising from the basis of personal choice — the term is aesthetic or 1st person in nature, whereas 'ethics' should refer to the behaviours and conduct that a group of people consider normally acceptable (whether or not individuals might have reservations). It is as easy as that, and while etymologists and philosophers still have some hairs to split, the point remains that these distinctions are validated by extremely widespread usage.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wolff, Watching

Wolff has been watching events at the Citadel from afar. He heard the courier's news early, as has been mentioned elsewhere. Of course the Grand Inquisitor would be granted extra years; that man had never sold his soul all at once, but in increments. And this time, the price he had charged for his forced alliance with the Sisters was three years more, squatting upon the seat that the Dauntless Hero had left empty.

Wolff had turned to the life of an itinerant scholar. After the Hero, twenty-one others had held the chair of the Citadel before this one. Wolff had been forced to admit he was not the worst of them. But he was the least loyal, and perhaps about as worthy of trust as Kelso, or Pease, and not more.

Three years more. Wolff looked to windward and turned the wheel. He considered Phlebas, and grinned into the towering clouds.


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.


Monday, September 20, 2010

When does Science become a Religion?

Over the years, I've thought quite a bit about the place of science in modern life. I think that science was once what it claimed to be, and now has become both quite a lot more and quite a lot less. Let me explain.

In the 19th century, and for a fair bit of the 20th, it was possible for any reasonably resourceful and intelligent human to get the equipment together for an attempt at empirical verification of any scientific principle, theory or statement. You could make your own telescope. You could build your own car or telephone. I have old children's books in which these projects are found.

I think the point at which it all collapsed was when the idea of atomism and the atom was examined further and the true natures (as far as we know) of the nucleus and electron were revealed. You see, not everyone has access to radioactive material or reliable sources of subatomic particles and the means of manipulating, tracking, and identifying them. Not everyone has an x-ray crystallography set-up or a nuclear magnetic resonance machine at home.

What this means is that a lot of modern science is now taken on faith. In principle, you can still go and see for yourself what seems to be happening. In practice, what you see is a digital readout which tells you what is happening. When an apple falls from a tree, you see it, you can catch it, taste it; the fall of an apple is empirical experience. When a radioisotope decays, you have a theory that is consistent with the facts of indirect detection; if you are lucky (or unlucky), you may have visible photon emission or some compound that will fluoresce when struck with the otherwise unseen emission.

In the old science magazines I read when I was a child, you could make your own batteries, taste the increasing tingle as you stacked the cells, correlate that with the increasing glow of an incandescent bulb. But electromagnetism was already something you had to take somewhat on faith, the invisible fields that prickled your hair and moved iron filings were things with no obvious material correlation. The only thing was that you could replicate the experiment at will, and thus persuade yourself that it was true — it was a bit like being able to read the Bible in a vernacular tongue.

Modern technology, the stuff that drives computers and cars, catalytic convertors and chemiluminescence, is something very distant from that practical level. It is disconnected from its scientific principles as far as human society is concerned. As my father-in-law said the other day, "You cannot fix your own car anymore, you can't even find out what is wrong until they plug it into the computer at the workshop."

Science is indeed becoming a new religion, one in which its acolytes and priests rule over a large laity of supposedly science-literate people and, by fiat, an even larger flock of agnostic semi-believers who have no choice but to go along. It is a lot of 'hand-waving' and quoting from researchers.

These researchers have published their findings and the findings can be replicated given enough time and money; this is why we believe in those findings. But increasingly, it is practically impossible to verify those findings, let alone the interpretations grounded in those findings. It is like having to read through a religious text and its commentaries in order to join in a debate, and the reading period gets longer and longer each day.

Right now, training a cutting-edge organometallic chemist probably takes about as long as it used to — six years after O-levels, for a bright young person. However, that person is basing a lot of practice (or praxis) on the shoulders of giants, so to speak; that person has conducted very few of the classic experiments of the past with the detachment that comes from genuinely not knowing the outcome. In many cases, the cutting-edge researcher is taking the entire argument as it is currently established without question simply because everyone agrees it is so and tells the student that it is beyond reasonable doubt.

Thus, science moves forward, like the reclamation of land from the sea, with layers of sand, stone and concrete covering up the foundations of the past that everyone takes for granted. Here is the first question I learnt from four decades of reading science fiction: "If some terrible disaster destroyed all technologies based on electricity and electronics right now, how long would it take for the human race to recover?"

In the past, this would not have included transport technologies — there was a point when land, sea and air transport used no electrical or electronic technologies. This would not have included food-processing technologies to the extent it does now. It would not have led to near-universal starvation, as it might now.

The second question is like unto it: "Would human progress slow noticeably if we waved a magic wand or alien abduction device or other McGuffin and removed the world's top 1000 scientists?"

The answer is probably, "No." But this would not have been true in any age up to about 1914 or somewhere thereafter. We have had an explosion of priests, so to speak, and there is now a large scientific 'middle class'. However, the gap between artisan and technocrat is huge and getting wider. You could make a crystal radio set at home; try making an MP3 player at home and you will see the futility of closing that gap.

Will the means of production catch up in some future nanotech age? Unlikely, unless we can craft intelligent agents to act for us. It would be too complicated, otherwise, for most humans to understand. We are looking into a future where men would be as gods. But the paradox is that none of our descendant futures seems to have transcended time and come back to visit us. Unless... that is what our gods are all about.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Agricultural Thoughts

Today I was chatting with Gnomus. We were bandying agricultural ideas, like 'the tree that outgrows its roots will fall over,' and 'if the coconuts are too heavy, the palm will sway; the man below will kena hoot.'

It was fun remembering our roots. In fact, we cling to them in very odd ways. Mine are so far away that I have to keep digging up history in order to fix them in place; his are so near and yet always seem precariously balanced. But one thing we have in common is that our parents spent a lot of time and effort reminding us of our roots, which makes them easy to remember and to remain connected with.

We continued exchanging lines like, 'the turnip does not fall down' and 'the sweet potato always remains rooted.' In all the jocularity, there was an element of sobriety. We both know many of our contemporaries, juniors, students and former students, who have turned away from their roots. They don't think they have; they think they have adapted or evolved to 'face the challenges of a new age'.

But when a plant has learnt to walk in order to pursue a different kind of water or soil, is it still the same plant?

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Gonville Joke

I've come to realise that much of my life for the last thirty years has been dominated by that modern child of Gutenberg, Turing and Christopher Latham Sholes — the computer keyboard. We have come a long way, from mechanical typewriters with their jamming type levers, to the electrical 'golfball' machines, to tape punchers and teletext, and now, in this age, to holographic or membrane keyboards that occupy little or no physical space.

In my head, the keyboards come and go; and if they talk, it is not of Michelangelo.

I remember thinking that the extra keys on a keyboard were a lot like life, each with a rich history behind them which has since been forgotten. The ESC key really did let you escape from an otherwise unproductive sequence of events; the CTRL key really did allow you to take control of processes. There used to be a difference between ENTER (as in data entry) and RETURN (as in CR, or carriage return) and LF (as in line feed, adding a line).

A TAB was the little metal marker you put on a mechanical keyboard to force the machine to stop at a particular point. CAPS LOCK used to be SHIFT LOCK, giving the upper set of characters for levers with two characters at their tips. You could feel the SHIFT when you held the SHIFT key down; the whole keyboard mechanism was shifted.

There were no function keys until software came along. I remember using a dedicated word processor which you could program so that each code would print an entire paragraph or document. There were no COMMAND keys until Apple put them there, and for decades, Windows machines continued using CTRL for that, and sometimes ALT.

The space bar was a lovely thing, in the old days. You depressed it, and the entire carriage moved one space. If you kept pressing it, the carriage would sound like a little lawnmower, chugging one space at a time to the left so that your next key would print one more space to the right.

Nowadays, the idea of a mechanical typewriter would be labelled 'steampunk' or 'retro'. But I will miss the nights I was lulled to sleep by my insomniac father's two-fingered typing, his long, strong fingers jabbing down at the keys as they clacked away on the paper mounted in front of him.

The Gonville Joke, he once referred to it as. That too is part of my past.

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I had a very funny conversation just yesterday on that ubiquitous vehicle of social communication, FacePalm (well, that's what it might be called when books are dead). A certain fellow made the statement, "Apparently fatness is a worse sin than embezzlement." I replied, "...fatness is normally judged to be a minor flaw... ."

And then, the unhappy fellow decided to have an argument. He does that a lot, this young man. He told me, "Fatness is not a flaw. Of any kind."

For those of you who don't quite see the contradiction, it is one Aristotle would have spotted at once. For that old Greek used the word hamartia (ἁμαρτία) to denote a flaw. That same word was translated 'sin' in the New Testament.

Someone who says that fatness is apparently a sin of any sort must a) hold that opinion, b) believe that someone else holds that opinion, c) imagine that such an opinion exists, or d) be putting words together without reason and coming up with a line that implies one of the first three without him knowing it.

I was therefore very amused when this fellow then told me that I was equivocating or dodging his point when I justified my use of 'flaw'. He hadn't actually advanced any point except that he seemed to be upset with my use of 'flaw' with regard to his own use of 'sin'.

Sometimes, because of the way FacePalm hides earlier comments, it is genuinely possible to lose self-awareness and talk rubbish. This is a serious flaw, and I blame FacePalm and its ilk for making people like me and that poor fellow vulnerable to it.

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Friday, September 17, 2010


Perhaps it is because we are colonials that we do not make public display of affection; perhaps it is because we are orientals, disoriented; perhaps occidentals, accidentally. Whatever it is, our displays of affection tend to be somewhat chaste, furtive, subdued. The exceptions prove the rule — that is, they test the rule and show that it is indeed a rule.

When we see public displays of affection, it stirs feelings ranging from a subtle disquiet to a deeper unease to a sense of outrage or despair. When we are the object of such displays, we have to make excuses (some might say reasons) for it, ourselves, or those affectionate to us.

The word 'affect' used to mean 'aiming towards [something]'. It is of course related to words like 'effect' ('the outcome of [something]'), 'defect' ('negation, or lack of, [something]') and 'perfect' ('having arrived at, or having completed, [something]'). To show affection is to show that you have an affinity towards the object of affection, a fondness or a good disposition toward that person.

When I was at the Citadel, I treated almost every single one of my students with affection, which to me meant a judicious amount of positive good-feeling and the hope that they would be well, go well, turn out well. There were a few for whom I had a larger supply of fondness — I got to know them better, and they were likable, and there was more affinity. This, unfortunately, clashed with 'judicious' — a teacher should strive to be fair, and yet all humans are not.

Looking back, I must say that there are no former students to whom I wish ill. I still am fond of all of them to various degrees, even the ones who posted nasty things about me on their blogs, or who hated my lessons, or who decided I was a bad teacher. I know these people, and I am sure they had good reasons for what they thought. To those I am grateful, for having pointed out my defects.

It is of course easier to like the people who posted nice things, or who liked my lessons, or who decided I was a good teacher. To these I am grateful, for seeing the good things and encouraging me.

But there are, here and there, a few to whom I showed little affection and perhaps a bit more wrath or disaffection than I should have. If you, reading this, recall such things, I am really sorry. I think I meant well. Probably wasn't very good at showing it.

To all of you, you know that these words, this post, is one of those things you can put in a blog but not say face to face. It would be most un-English, or even un-Chinese, or un-natural (haha) to actually do such a thing. It is customary at this point to say, "You know who you are." Except that I'm not sure you do. I can only hope that apologies go to those who deserve them, and good wishes go to all.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gnosis and Inkery

In Atlantis for the last few years, there has been a course of study in which novices may elude the crassness of general papery and switch to inkery instead. For those who are less informed, papery is the process of wielding paper, whereas inkery is the superior art of wielding ink, which defeats and dominates all paper (except perhaps blotting paper).

This inkery learning is a subtil (as our forefathers would have said) beast. By careful questioning, as if from the mouth of that ugly Socrates, one is to somehow draw out (Latin: educare) meaning from knowledge (Greek: gnosis). This is thus supposed to make one less agnostic (or more gnostic, if you think that way) through a process of diagnostics (which does not mean two agnostics reasoning together).

But because of the historical origins and biases of Atlantean education, most of the wise men quoted and imbibed (metaphorically) are of Greek origin; and if not Greek, otherwise Mediterranean; and if not otherwise Mediterranean, European. This has led some to misperceive the nature of the world and assume that there are no wise men of Sind or of Cathay.

On the contrary, it has to be said that all our Atlantean wisdom is primarily the legacy of Mu and Lemuria, of the chilling Plateau of Leng, and of long lost cities buried deep in the history of the greatest of continents, Asia. This is what the novices are missing, as they pursue gnosis and inkery.

The disconnect between where wisdom lies, and where superficial knowledge lies more heinously, is what leads to the horrible lacunae that commentators find in the minds of these novices. They are extremely good at spouting Teutonic names, steeped in primitive barbarism, but extremely bad at quoting the Sanskrit masters who gave us words. This means that their idea of the Logos is one based on mnemonics, and not on the essential nature of language, structure, form and being.

It leads to nihilism, abolitionism, and other forms of reductionist philosophy which make the task of thinking less important. It is like the famous proof that invokes the idea that all numbers are nothing compared to infinity, and hence numbers have no significance — or the obverse, that all numbers are so much greater than zero, and hence all numbers have equal significance.

I think that any novice wishing to prepare for the higher levels of education should begin with simple things. Start with epistemology, the basic ideas of how things are known, before you try elaborate games with paper and ink. People who seek wisdom through inkery often come to a sticky end.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Privacy has always been an illusion, but a necessary one. The word comes from Latin privus, which means "one's own". The idea that we can own something that nobody else can touch is what makes us persons; if everything we had was shared to some extent, then the only unique thing about us would be the specific configuration of things we shared.

But this age of free information flow is beginning to deprive (to separate, to alienate) us of privacy's illusion. The logical consequence of everything about you being shared to some extent by others is that you may no longer be a unique identity; your information can be duplicated and the sum of what you are may be shared.

Hold on, though. Most people would agree that a person is more than just a state of being, but a time-bound entity filled with memories and experiences. That, unfortunately, is more accurately described as 'an entity with the perception of being time-bound, filled with edited information purporting to be a record of past events, bearing the marks of experiences which are ill-defined and sometimes imaginary.'

The problem, as we have learnt over the last 20 years, is that our brains are always shifting. The curse of humanity, we have come to know, is not that our brains don't regenerate, but that they do, and they also shift configurations and modify memories and change the nuances of what we think, even before we know anything is there to be thought. We are the sum of mental processes we can't control, if we are the sum of such things at all.

In fact, some people have come to realise that the more people share a person, the more that person lives on in more dimensions. A person who is 'larger than life' is simply one whose total impact on others is much more than the usual. My grandparents, all deceased, live on in some legendary sense — people who were taught by them, who had experiences with them, tell me stories that seem true to me (and probably are true as far as those people know) about them. When we say that memories live on, that is true; but like living things, they change and mutate before reproducing again.

This is a problem of cultural anthropology and ethnography. You grow up in an environment. You tacitly learn its rules. You learn what you can say, what you should do, and so on. But if you don't commit all these things meticulously to another medium, it remains tacit knowledge, shifty and ill-defined. It becomes private knowledge, set apart only for you, and perhaps applicable only to you; in the extreme, there's something schizoid about it.

But all cultures thrive on shared experiences and shared rules, no matter how untrue or unreal they are. That is how myths and legends define societies — in this day and age, none more so than the myths and legends of science and information technology. 'Privacy' used to mean 'deprivation' — it may yet come full cycle in this age.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Hundred-Years' War

It was only a few hours ago that I was transcribing from digital microfilm (yes, you heard me) a letter sent to the press by someone claiming to be a teacher. It was a very interesting letter, sneaking up quietly with elliptical sentences and suchlike before braining you with a couple of main points. With minor editing, I shall present the letter and you can decide what to make of it.



We have, it is hoped, seen the end for 1910, of the frivolities attending the demonstrations attaching to the education of the rising local generation. Anyone who follows these intelligently, cannot but be struck by the note that pervades them all. The proceedings in all cases, some slightly more ostentatious than others, are the puerile decorations, the gathering of those interested, and, let it not be told in Gath, of those who are not.

A programme at the cost of much labour is prepared and unappreciated. Then follows the reading of the departmental report which is supposed to convey much information to the audience and apparently does so, but of which the writer is, in his heart of hearts, very doubtful. The manager of the establishment then contributes his quota which has been prepared with infinite misgiving, and, in fact, is largely listened to with much the same emotion, though courtesy veils any expression of it. Through the medium of the manager's report everything connected with the matter it deals with is presented in rosy hue, and is blindly accepted by those who possess the faith that removes mountains, though wearying to a degree to the enlightened portion of the audience who accept it for what it is worth.

Among these is, as a rule, to be found Sir John Anderson, who, good man, is by virtue of his official position, practically compelled to be there, though harassed and worried by a hundred matters, more important to the general community. He is, of course, accompanied by Miss Anderson, who graciously receives the eternal bouquet, wreathes her countenance with smiles and with suppressed yawns, follows the programme with heroic fortitude to the point of her ordeal, the "distribution" which she faces without flinching. Then Sir John extricates himself from the trying position as best he can.

What is quite apparent to the few, though unperceived by the many, is the obvious insincerity of it all. It ought not to be necessary to resort to such demonstrations. If education is making headway among the juvenile population, it will proclaim itself, and due credit will be given to those who impart it without the aid of these annual trumpetings. The soil, however, does not lend itself to the growth of intelligence except under abnormal conditions. This was realised a quarter of a century ago, when Sir Clementi Smith in a moment of sentiment felt that very unusual encouragement must be given to the youths of the place, if their dormant intellectual faculties were to be awakened, and involved the colony in an expenditure which has been a burden for a considerable time and finally cancelled.

The expense incurred in maintaining the "Queen's Scholarships" need not be regretted, as it has produced to the colony a number of able men, but it is disappointing to find, after such a lapse of years, that the object of Sir Clementi, which was to stimulate with a view to future self-exertion, has not been realised, and that the youths are now as much in need of a wet-nurse as in their time. Judging from a recent utterance of a manager of a large local educational establishment, it would seem that both teachers and pupils had come to look upon the "Scholarships" as a boon in perpetuity, and depended upon them accordingly. It does not speak well for local youths that it should continue to depend upon an aid intended solely as a temporary stimulant to intelligent self-effort.

Apropos of the subject, it will perhaps be easy to recall to the minds of your readers, a childish exhibition of elation manifested by a certain local school over another at an apparent momentary success at the last annual examination. The whole thing was farcical in the extreme and had it not been seriously supported by the [Vespucian] Consul and the Presiding Elder of the local [Vespucian] Mission, it might have been passed by as a boyish demonstration.

This is what happened:—The Inspector of Schools was said to have entered in his report that the result of the examination of Standard VII in the [Citadel of the Wyverns] occupied the first place. There was surely nothing in this to trumpet about. Perhaps, it is not known to the gentlemen who conducted this puerile performance that they gratuitously supplied the discerning public with a subject of much amusement.

It may be admitted that the [Academy of the Gryphons] has always maintained a fairly good reputation. Its masters in the past have been men of ability. Its chief is a university man, as was his predecessor. As long as it was under the management of a committee, it held the premier position. But recently it became solely a Government establishment, with the result that with the exception of the Headmaster, the best men on the staff have been sent to the Native States or have left the service. This explains how it comes about that the other school accidentally scored a point; but this will recur unless the Government maintains an efficient staff for the so-called higher education.

Practically speaking, local education is of a very elementary character and sadly lacks in the practical. If this were freely admitted the people would know the position and it would not be necessary to resort to artifice and subterfuge to cover the fact.

Yours, etc.,

I found it very amusing. This letter, describing events a hundred years ago, was a snarky attack by a miffed gryphon on a typically too self-congratulatory wyvern event. Things have not changed, except for the general literacy level of the overclass.

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Monday, September 13, 2010


A long time ago, Wolff remembered, they had hidden the sulfur and the charcoal and the nitre in little cases of wrought iron. They had scored the metal and made snowflakes into jet. They had disguised it all in the room of the Grand Inquisitor by making it something that he loved to think about.

And then Wolff had been cast out of the Citadel. He had renounced all ties to the Inquisition and their minions, and they thought this meant everything. But they were wrong. Wolff had not renounced the secrets of the Citadel. He knew where the bodies and the bombs were hidden.

One day, a tired man came riding up the road on a dispirited nag. Wolff saw him from afar off, and declined to command the wolves or the man-traps into action. They greeted each other, acquaintances but not allies or friends. "How go the windmills?" asked Wolff.

The man replied, "Those of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine."

Wolff could sense the sand trickling through the hourglass. He knew the time was coming when the sulfur and the charcoal and the nitre would come to life. He brought out the very good liquor of Jerez and the two of them sat down to a small glass each. With stewed pears and blue cheese.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Word of the Day: Wake

Sometimes, contrary to popular belief, I indulge in the etymology not of very odd words, or invented words, but of simple words whose roots have been lost. Today's word is one such. What is it to 'wake' something, or to attend a 'wake', or to be a 'wake', or to leave a 'wake'?

The original root of the word seems to be the Sanskrit vaja, which has the sense later transmitted to the Latin vigor—that is, the quality of being vigorous, lively, driven. To wake somebody is to make him come alive, to invigorate or to drive him onwards (hence a 'wake-up call' is a peremptory summons to 'look alive').

At the same time, the essence of the word's meaning mutated with time, from 'lively', to 'alert', to 'watchful'. And so, we got 'vigil' and 'vigilant', in which the protagonist had to be awake and alive to be watching out. To nobody's surprise, it was the Irish who converted the sense of 'wake'='on watch' to 'an occasion of keeping watch over dead bodies to make sure they don't come back to life.' Nowadays, of course, we use it in the sense of watching over the dead to remember them when they were alive.

On the other hand, the great Anglo-Danish hero, Hereward, was also called 'the Wake'. In that sense, he was a watcher, a watchful one, a watchman over the evils of this world. I have some sort of historical kinship with him; the man's base was on the Isle of Ely, whose name is on my birth certificate.

The last sense of wake is the trail left by something moving through a fluid. In this sense, the word comes from the same root as Latin vacuum, 'a void'. The Old Norse vaka means 'a hole in the ice', and it was probably from this that the word entered the English language to mean the hollow space left astern as a seagoing vessel goes forward. When we say that we are 'left behind in the wake' or are 'trailing in the wake' of someone, we imply that this person moves so quickly and massively that people behind are sucked into the vacuum of movement.

I'd just like to end by noting the fact that 'vacuum' has three syllables. It is pronounced 'vac-u-um' and not 'vac-ium' as I've heard before. The latter irritates me, unreasonably I suppose, but a lot nevertheless.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Tenth Year of the War

And it came to pass that on the eleventh day of the ninth month of the first year of the new millennium, which the Gregorians call September 2001, violent men stretched forth their wings and toppled the great towers of Mammon which soared from shoreline to sky. In all that came to pass that day, fewer than a myriad souls met their deaths in the flesh. But a cry went up into the heavens, and the lord of the Western hosts made ready to war against the sons of Ishmael.

And of the sons of Ishmael were slain a million, of warriors and women, of priests and children, for the lord of the West waxed wroth, and spittle flew out of his mouth, and he would that for each one dead among his people, a hundred should die from the metal locusts of the wind. So it was done, and to this day it continues.

Thus ends the Lesson.

But not yet the War. For the heart of man is desperately wicked: like a bad candle it fouls the air, but does not die; it gutters but is not put out.

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Friday, September 10, 2010


I think it was Winston Churchill who once said that he had not gone through school so much as gone under it. It is a flimsy strand to join oneself to such a renowned figure, but it is one nevertheless — for to this day, I am quite bemused as to how I survived school.

About the earliest memory I have of learning anything was through the agency of my mother. This lady has always had a soft spot for me, I think because I was her first child. I remember her pointing at things and naming them. I remember reading the beautiful books of Richard Scarry with her, and making her turn the pages.

I think this kind of thing is what builds an underpass. A fair number of us don't need to go through school much. All we need is concerned parents who are able to teach us how to find out and use and apply whatever we need to. The problem, and the tragedy, is that there are so few such parents, although most would want to be like that.

The greatest gift of my entire learning life was to have parents who could build that underpass for me. I never needed school except for its paper qualifications. I don't think I am being arrogant here; I think I am being honest. And I will always thank my parents for that, because it is true.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Epilogue): Disintegrated

I was sitting with two wild men in the rainy lunchtime half a day and half a world ago. We were library-bound, like books or students. We wondered, with all the wealth of our small experience, more than a century combined, why the integrated was not.

We figured it out. You can only have multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary education when the people delivering it are like that. But too many are happy to be in their safe zones, happy to build up barricades and lie that disciplines are cleanly separated, clearly different, and that the value of one will not transfer into the success of another.

We figured it out. It's those dang mathematicians. The old ones were philosophers, visionaries, architects and surveyors for the vaults of creation. The modern ones are accountants, statisticians, people to whom ranking and numerical scores are more important than what is learnt, what is dreamt. The new ones forget that mathematics is no longer a discipline, but a tool.

The reason the Integrated Programmes don't work is that they don't teach synthesis of ideas. Or if they do, it is the incestuous synthesis of thoughts that are siblings, ideas brought forth from the same womb. Everyone is still a brick-layer, not a sculptor.

The only way the Integrated Programmes can work is if the teachers are multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary; the teachers must be able to discuss any discipline, or mash them up together and deal with that. Because in this new world we are in, the pure disciplines no longer are as useful as the ability to meld them in various proportions.

Strangely enough, it was Alexander, the best remembered student of Aristotle, who pioneered this. It is the combined-arms approach. Hannibal at Cannae did it too, and generation after generation until war bled into the sea and sky, and smashed bullets across the face of the earth and into her eyeballs.

If your teacher cannot move through the walls of the disciplines like a ghost, or juggle them like a conjurer, or craft a deck of many things from them, then your education is all wrong. It would be like learning to play a piano one note at a time, with each note taught by a different master, and each one insisting that his note is not related to the rest, or if it is, it is by accidental placement on the same keyboard.

And those dang math teachers (not even mathematicians)? Well, apart from the rare few, most of them are masters of hitting the same note repeatedly, about a hundred times each session, with holiday homework and remedials raising the number into the thousands. It's called 'drill and practice'.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part V): Psychological Spacecraft

The title of this last part of my little 'space programme' series has an unusual genesis. It comes from the first line of a recent article in the venerable NYT. In that article, Benedict Carey summarizes the difference between modern findings about the student brain and peculiar but long-accepted ideas which amount to little more than 'psychological witchcraft'. Among these ideas are the concepts of 'learning styles' and 'multiple intelligences'.

I have mentioned Howard Gardner before, here and here. I have reconsidered my feelings then. I no longer think Gardner was scamming people, because I have read more of his stuff and I perceive that he genuinely worked his way from irreproachable truth about what education should be, to 'psychological witchcraft', and then recantation of such things. Then again, he's off on another tangent lately.

But in Atlantis, all too many people fell prey to the cult of Polygnostic Gardnerism and or that of Learning Styles. They both sounded so logical, so reifying. At that point, most people should have paused to think. As in Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, there are two main fallacies in all of educational and cognitive research — the fallacy of ranking and the fallacy of reification. In the former, we rank things that cannot or should not be ranked, because our sensory input is based on the comparison of values. In the latter, we simplify the complex overmuch because our brains are adept at eliminating detail in order to preserve focus.

The Integrated Programme of the Citadel fell easy prey to these cults. Instead of working on a solid foundation, the Citadel ended up deciding to build castles on sand, or in air, or out of cloud and light.

In a document I remember attempting to present at a convocation of the Magistratum, my team had attempted to point out that we should define a relatively compact core of content material, while also focussing on methodology of delivery and supporting activity. The sequence of material was to have been coordinated across all disciplines and woven explicitly into a whole by means of deliberately-crafted links and through specific teaching modes.

While trying to work on this basis from 1999 to 2004, the core team was assailed by people who wanted to secede from the integrated model. They found it too tiresome to justify each unit in terms of theoretical grounding and relationships with other units. They found it too tiresome to put together the exhaustive documentation we wanted. And finally, they went to the Grand Inquisitor and told him to disband us tiresome people. And so he did.

The consequence, as Gnomus put it in runes of fire that appeared upon my scrying-glass one day, was: "Inferior product. Dodgy curriculum [content]. No oversight. Unsound assessment policy. No review mechanism. No curriculum model. How to use?"

Gnomus was absolutely right. The spaceships that we were to launch had been cut down to shuttles. And the shuttles, according to the Grand Inquisitor, were to take us to the stars. "Per ardua, ad astra!" we could imagine him saying (although he took pains to tell us that he was not into 'flowery language').

What he then did was a very simple thing. As in C M Kornbluth's infamous prize-winning SF short story, The Marching Morons, the Grand Inquisitor launched the equivalent of a spacecraft design competition, in which many spacecraft were designed and decoratively advertised. Our in-house designer was kept busy producing lovely artwork for non-existent starships that were actually something like submarines. The spacecraft were purely psychological. They existed only to blast people into space. Whether they would actually get anywhere because of the spacecraft was doubtful.

The only thing that saved the programme, in the end, was that the young astronauts came with their own personal spacecraft. Some could fly unassisted, some lacked only fuel or guidance systems. Fortunately, some of us were good at supplying the missing parts. I have to say, though, that those young astronauts of the 2006-2007 batch were far better than the Grand Inquisitor could ever have dreamt. You should have seen the look of sick relief on his face when the results came out.

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part IV): Towards a Golden Age

In 1972, the official press release for the Apollo XVII mission included this sentence: "The colors of the emblem are red, white and blue, the colors of the U.S. flag; with the addition of gold, to symbolize the golden age of space flight that will begin with this Apollo 17 lunar landing."

It was a horribly cynical statement, even by American standards. Two years earlier, it had been decided that the 17th Apollo mission would be the last. Man would stop at the moon; operations would be suspended for the forseeable future. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that the myth of the 'golden age of space flight' would evolve from the history that ended on 19 December 1972, the day the America command module splashed down in the Pacific, off Samoa.

I remember the sensations of the 21st century, as Integrated Programmes launched all over Atlantis. The Argonaut left in 2004, Gnomus arrived. We were all hoping that our 'Apollo 17 mission' would usher in a golden age of education. And in that year, after five years of planning, it all began to fall apart at the Citadel.

The programme was being driven towards accountability and a strong theoretical basis by two members of the working group (or Commissariat, as some of us joked). However, some people realised they would be sidelined because of their lack of one or both of these elements. They began a counter-revolution.

Using the structures and terminology prepared for the new programme, they began to institute a newer programme that looked exactly like the old one, but had been gutted of its main systems. In the messy coup that followed, the intelligentsia were purged from the Commissariat and the true Stalinist era began. The golden age had been erased and replaced with an age of steel.

Nobody outside the Citadel noticed. After all, the advertising material was still the same. Yet, as careful examination shows, the advertising hype no longer matched the programme as deployed. Teacher development for the IP ended in 2004, with subsequent development completely outsourced (except for one last-gasp training effort nominally led by Iron Man in late 2007).

Meanwhile, at the Gryphon Academy, big plans were afoot. The Sith Lord in residence called me up and asked for my opinions. Treading on dangerous ground, I offered some. After all, it was not as if I was doing useful work anymore at the Citadel. It was the beginning of my life as a consultant.

Back at the Citadel, the main idea had crystallized. Instead of teaching the students, the focus would be on producing results. That sounds odd, but you who read this should understand that the two need not necessary be coupled together.

There are some decoupling strategies: 1) you can make the students teach themselves, by dumping huge amounts of material on them and insinuating that any real IP student should know all of it; 2) you can focus on meeting examination rubrics as disconnected objectives rather than as a whole; 3) you can take in students likely to succeed and maintain that likelihood till the endpoint arrives. There are some others, but these are the main ones.

Up to the time I left the Citadel, I had not seen a serious official discussion of the theoretical basis of teaching, the methodology of teaching, nor the art of classroom teaching, in the Citadel. It was assumed that teachers were proficient, and if not, that the system could compensate by administrative fiat.

Accordingly, teachers were assessed largely by political utility, under the guise of 'pastoral care' (which meant how well they got along with the right people and projected the right image) and 'co-curricular activities' (which meant the ability to win gold medals and complete projects). There was no open appraisal; such a thing would have exposed certain deficiencies.

This was why the 'Apollo 17 mission' of the Citadel's IP heralded a golden age that would result in space shuttles and Skylab rather than in spaceships and starships. We ended up with an orbiting experimental station, instead of Moonbase Alpha — although at times, especially in the basement staff room, it felt like the latter.

To cut a long story short, I stayed behind in Samoa. The life was better there.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part III): Shuttles, Not Spaceships

You will probably have noticed by now that my posts on the Integrated Programmes of Atlantis have titles reminiscent of 1960s American space programmes. This is true for a very good reason. I grew up in that era; I was two years old when the Apollo 11 mission delivered Eagle to the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on it. "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." The memes are still alive for me.

Similarly, the launch of the Atlantean Integrated Programmes occasioned much fanfare. When the Temple of the Flaming Book consolidated under its Chinese name on the Hill of Tin, allying with the Ladies of the Southern Ocean, it was a big thing (and a very clever move by the latter, for those who were observing closely). When the Hall of the Gryphons reunited with their sisters to form the Gryphon Academy, it was a big thing (and the Jade-Green Hill is now covered with a sprawling campus in black, white and green, although the sisters remain at a distance). But the convoluted mess that evolved organically from the Citadel of Wyverns and its titular masters of methodology was quite something else.

The thing is that everything was launched as if on Boeing Saturn V rockets. We were promised spaceships, but we ended up with shuttles. From the promise of deep blue ocean navies, we ended up fishing along the littoral in tiny boats (and one fast schooner, which I will get to some time in the next few posts). What do I mean, and how did this come to be? Let me bring you behind the scenes.

On the evening of 28 October 1999, the Argonaut and I drafted the first proposal for the Wyvern Programme. It was entitled 'More, Not Less' and it was a direct riff off the 1997 'Teach Less, Learn More' slogan. In that first draft, we were thinking big, and were encouraged to do so. In our minds, we had nothing less than a grand unification theory, in which every member of the Grand Congregation would have a role to play.

By 2002, things had bogged down. (Of course, by then our names had been removed from the front of the proposal and somebody else's name was on it.) We sat around 'writing songs that voices never shared.' The Hierarchs had been mulling over our proposal for more than a year. And then the Thaumaturge summoned us for two meetings, in April and again in July.

In those meeting, he chastised the Grand Inquisitor for pusillanimous behaviour. He wondered aloud why we had so constrained our great vision. The Thaumaturge was himself a Wyvern, and you could tell that his patience was wearing thin. I watched the Grand Inquisitor sweat. He blustered a bit. I continued taking notes.

We found ourselves in a mighty city upon the Southern Ocean in March 2003. That was when I was stunned when the Grand Inquisitor told me to begin preparing a course in the humanities. It was the beginning of the end—not because the humanities are less than the sciences, but because they are greater, and he had just made me a very large target.

Some time after, we began on the project codenamed 'In His Service'. The original vision was to create a gateway course that would prepare all our students for gainful work in any humanities discipline. After planning a broad and challenging outline, the draft went to committee. I will never forget what happened next.

One by one, various teachers complained the material was too difficult to prepare, and that the students would not be able to handle it. Others complained it was too different from the ordinary courses already being taught. And then, I was accused of empire-building. The course was shredded, reduced, and a new chairperson appointed. The rockets were going to launch shuttles, not spaceships.

The other project I worked on was codenamed 'Capsule'. The Grand Inquisitor had almost named it 'iPod', but we had had to tell him about the penalties for infringement of trademark. He wanted to know who had dared to use that name. We sniggered.

Unfortunately, the other project was taken over by philosophers who fancied themselves mathematicians. Even more unfortunately, Iron Man, who was nominally in charge of the project, found himself blindsided by other people's enthusiasms. I have only one thing to say, and it is found in the writings of St Augustine: "The good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell." Not that I have anything personal against most mathematicians, you understand.

And so, we entered into the Dark Ages, bearing bright torches that we hoped would illuminate the way. And they did, despite the huge amounts of smoke they gave off.

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part II): Problems With Mission Control

One of the more iconic man-machine SF movies of my time was 1987's Robocop, directed by Paul Verhoeven. In that movie, an unjustly slain policeman is brought back from death as a cyborg with three key aims:

"What are your Prime Directives?"

"To serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law."

And that, in a nutshell, was Robocop's mission. It would be great if institutions could make mission statements as sweeping and elegant in conception and content, but as simple and direct in structure and style.

This was the problem with the Integrated Programmes of Atlantis. The mission, in general, was defined as preparing students to take terminal examinations at Grade 12 without an intervening high-stakes examination at Grade 10. The exact form of preparation was left to the schools, but the High Priest of Learning (at that time, the Thaumaturge) was rather specific about what the kind of preparation should lead to:

These new programmes are not just a matter of setting up new structures or pathways. Diversity only goes so far if it is just about different curricula or specializations, or taking one less set of examinations, without changes in how we teach and learn. The real shifts have to be in how teachers interact with students, and in the breadth of experiences we open up for our students. At the end of the day, nothing we are doing with respect to new structures and pathways matters as much as the student's experiences and encounters in the classroom, playing field and auditorium. It is the quality of these experiences, in every school, that will determine if we nurture future generations with the boldness to question, the desire to keep learning through their lives, the compassion for their fellow citizens, and the capacity to lead.

The IP schools themselves are seeking to provide students with an educational experience that goes beyond preparing them for their final examinations when they reach [Grade 12]. They will seek to use the time freed up in through the Integrated Programme to provide students with a more broad-based education that develops their capacities for critical thinking and experimentation, and build teamworking and leadership skills.

A similar endeavour is taking shape across the school system, which each school looking at new ways of developing these skills, taking into account the needs of its own pupils. Every school has to continuously reexamine its current pratices and norms, provide its pupils with more broad-based experiences, and think of more innovative and effective ways of delivering the desired outcomes of education. Every school has to look long term, and develop its pupils holistically.

Centres of learning without much imagination (which was, to be honest, almost all of them) merely selected their favourite buzzwords from the proclamation of the Thaumaturge and crafted a new mission statement. The evidence of this is readily apparent; just walk into any of those schools and look at the walls.

The problem really was that all those schools already had their own mission statements. In the Citadel of the Wyverns, that mission was to provide an education for life in a way that served the greater glory of God. In the Temple of the Flaming Book, it was to create a resilient and enduring scholar. And at the Hall of the Gryphons, it was to reign supreme in every sphere.

What happened next, as these great old schools bowed to serve the new directives, was what we moderns call 'mission creep'. The old ideas were still there, but they were like the faint marking left after scraping a palimpsest. The old marks would always remain, accusatory guidelines in the deeper matrix, but the new words would hold sway, no matter how much less meaningful they were compared to the old ones.

Don't get me wrong. The new words of the Thaumaturge were far from meaningless themselves. They would provide valuable service in directing the ways of newer schools and schools yet to be built. But they had not the visceral and spiritual power of the ancient runes by which the souls of men had been shaped in decades past, the fire of grand endeavour which drove the older schools.

As many generations of explorers and men of action have learnt, if you fail to control the mission, the mission will succeed in controlling you. To clarify, if the mission is not clearly outlined with terms embedded firmly in culture and history, the mission will take over and define a new culture—one that may well be at odds with what an institution used to stand for.

So, in at least one school, the mission of turning a red ocean into a sea of faith has become the mission of seeking blue oceans where there are none to be had. It is no longer the work of redemption, but the work of novelty-seeking, that is the mission of that place; it is no longer saving souls and steadying lives, but developing voluntary trumpets and waltzing emperors. How sad.

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Saturday, September 04, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part I): We Had Lift-Off Or So We Thought

Integration is the opposite of differentiation. What then can we make of a system that creates integrated programmes for students while claiming to differentiate students? Analogically, it would seem that the programme is designed to reduce the amount of information by letting students go through more years of undifferentiating education.

In Atlantis, an 'integrated programme' is one which removes high-stakes examinations between primary school and university, so that only two main examinations remain: a primary school streaming examination and a senior high terminal examination such as the A-levels or IB Diploma. The results of the former examination are now often circumvented by something called the DSA (Direct School Admissions, not to be confused with the ISA, which does not stand for Indirect School Admissions), which are criteria cooked up by individual schools to allow them to admit students they like and exclude students they don't.

Three integrated programmes were launched at the end of 2003. The Citadel of the Wyverns, the Gryphon Academy, and the Temple of Flaming Books (recalling a certain Chinese Emperor) all started off with their own quaint notions of what they could do with time not spent preparing for a third main examination at the end of the 10th grade. I say quaint, because not much was new about these new programmes—some of their features were Victorian and some even more antiquarian than that.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was the degree to which educators, given free rein and liberty to be creative, failed to do much that was extraordinary or novel. Rather, a lot of stuff was lifted from other sources, repackaged, and smushed (for want of a better, more aptly onomatopoeic word) together to create something very much like existing Grade 10 programmes with a few extra bells and whistles but not so many tassels and hassles.

The second most interesting thing was the research that came out of it. The Citadel was dead against having any research done (especially by its own people), but the Hierarchs of Atlantean Learning had decreed that some research should be — and so, some was. The Academy was just as resistant, but quietly did some of their own. The Temple did a lot of their own, and made sure every one of their students could recite the key information points (KIPs) when asked.

This research had not been released to the public yet, when it was claimed by the Hierarchs that such programmes were all brilliant, exciting, stimulating, good for the youth of Athens Atlantis and so on. And because they were so good, all remaining major high schools should be made to do the same thing.

The resultant Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, a jerky and discombobulating affair (and a true Nutcracker Suite) which is still unfolding, has been (and will continue to be) affording educational observers with much amusement.

But I would like to point out one very important finding: people who have gone through an Integrated Programme do not show significant superiority (and that's putting it mildly) over those who have not when they sit for their terminal qualification examinations. The superiority of Integrated Programmes must therefore be in non-academic areas, but that is even more difficult to prove — perhaps almost as difficult to prove as the contention that having a programme specially for Gifted and Talented Atlanteans will prevent some final catastrophic crisis.

Only time will tell. And Khronos, unlike Kronos, is a very quiet and subtle Power.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Talking of Hawking

Tonight, I am in a somewhat Shakespearean mood:
Why, how now, uncle Gloucester!
Talking of hawking; nothing else, my lord.
(From Henry VI Part II, Act 2 Scene 1, a rather apposite passage.)

The discussion on this page has been on my old neighbour's somewhat indiscreet (perhaps deliberately so?) comment on the necessity of God as far as the existence of this universe is concerned. The comments in particular are amusing grist for the student of epistemology. Some outright howlers have been perpetrated, along with ancient chestnuts so hoary as to be dangerous conkers.

Take for example the following supposedly logical argument for the danger of being a theist, presented by a commenter called 'Natman':
  1. If you believe in a single God, you will have to choose one out of infinite possible varieties.
  2. If any percent of the possible gods will punish you eternally, then there are an infinite number of hypothetical gods who, if they exist, would punish you for eternity.
  3. If there is only one god, then your chance of worshipping it, and not a nonexistent entity instead, is one out of infinity.
  4. Therefore you will almost surely fail to pick up the correct "One True God".
  5. So if a god does exist, the chance of you going to any variety of heaven is infinitesimal, regardless of whether you are religious or not.
What do you think of this reasoning? Personally, I think that my argument for not being an atheist is better, and certainly more entertaining. In my next post, I will probably discuss why I find Natman's 'logic' so funny, and will link that to why 'integrated programmes' are also very amusing. Cheers!


Update: I've put some responses to Natman's argument in the comments section. Those are better there than in a separate post of their own.

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Emerging Disquisitions

The stuff the young people say is the usual stuff. It is fueled by frantic hormones and raging culture-savviness; genes and memes. It is the frenetic commentary of the young when faced by the tipping-point of the pendulum. You see, the older ones have seen the pendulum swing from A to B and back again; some older than that have seen this happen more than once. But the young have seen only the pendulum swing towards its nadir and twitch up again, and marvel at the change in direction.

Let me tell you a story.


Once upon a time, there was a charming prince. His name was Sundark Anthony. He wasn't very handsome, but he was fabulously wealthy, and he was incredibly smart. And the thought came to him one year, as thoughts sometimes do, telling him, "Hey, why not make places where the rich, smart people (like yourself) can learn to be princes?"

But this was Atlantis, and Atlanteans need reasons. And statistics. And study committees, if possible. So the prince got his people together, and they had all these things, and they went to faraway places to collect those things they didn't have, and if I were to tell you all the things they really did and the meals they ate and the words they threw out of their reports, I would never get to the end of this story.

In their final report, they said that if you had something that was good, you could tell everyone that it was good, and make a fence of goodiness (yes, goodiness) around it, and call it goody goody good. Then it would be more good than any good. You could make people pay more for such goods.

A year later, there were seven dwarfs. Actually, there were eight, and they weren't really dwarfs. But whatever they were, they shared one thing in common. There was a lady named Mo, and whatever she told them to do, they did. Each in their own way, of course, but they did it.

Two of them spoke Neo-Classical Latin, and they were the Gambler's son and daughter. One spoke only Church Latin, and his name was Joe. Two wore blue and gold, but one wore jade and gold. One wore brown, and carried a flaming book. And the last was always clad in white. Four of them were male, and four were female, for the balance had to be maintained.

And they were to be fenced around with goodiness, and they would be more good than good, and everyone would come to them to learn how to be good. For if they were good to begin with, how much more goody would they be when they had been goodified?

The years passed, and those who were good were treated as good, and their children were told they were good, and everyone saw the signs of goodiness, and said, "Good! Good!" But honestly, a good look would have told you all you needed to know about looking good.

Sundark Anthony prospered, but he was getting older, and the white streak in his dark hair was getting whiter, and his belly was broadening. He was a very nice man, and a very clever man, but he wondered a lot about why his goody goody goodies were not really as goodified as he thought they would be. And he wondered those wonderful thoughts until he finally retired to his home on the crest of the hill.

But before he left all that behind, he had some provocative words with the managers of the goody estates. Or at least, some of them. And so, goodification gave way to greatification. Into greated programmes, to be exact, with nearly instantaneous greatification too.


It is traditional to tell of wonders and youngest sons, dragons and magic swords, marvelous artifacts and flying ships, blue oceans and two-headed gryphons. However, you would never believe the whole story anyway, if I put all those things in. It is also traditional to wind the story down and say, "And they lived happily ever after." Yet I cannot bring myself to say it, because I don't think it has happened yet.

In fact, like a typical B&M case study, the eight goodies messed around a bit too much, got into bad ways, played with mergers and inquisitions, hired and fired, highered and lowered, went multinational (some say international), and in general created a story that sounded like a China that never was.


I'm done for now. But I am going to tell the story of at least some of those goodies over the next few days.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Mergers and Inquisitions

As of half past six, yesterday evening, Atlantean time, my mouth was loosened as to the saying of certain things. And yet, it was hard to say what could be said. From 1997 to the present day, the motion of the Atlantean Education System had been peripatetic, peregrine, perambulatory in its pursuit of the 'wholly' grail — the ideal of the Integrated Programme as the structural embodiment of one kind of holism.

The local internet is buzzing with all kinds of sounds of outrage and the clamour of threat, accusation and confusion. Essentially, schools that are forming unusual-looking partnerships are being lambasted for entering into forced marriages. But this is not the case; as the two-headed gryphons know, a single monster can have two heads, and it can also have two bodies that are geographically separated and pretty independent of each other.

What I would caution against is the making of many words without wisdom, as the LORD said unto Job. At least, while the details are still being worked out and the principalities and powers are having their arms and tongues twisted, people should forbear to make unsavoury comments. The point is that mergers of minds need not mean the submergence of tradition nor the emergence of unseemly chimeras.

Historically speaking, there are many undercurrents that people fail to recognize. The same people who set up the beautiful halls of the Jade and Gold were also the ones who financed schools like the first citadels of the Wyvern Knights. It is all in my writings, and the writings of many before me. And if sibling schools cannot share secrets as members of the same family, who then should they share secrets with?

There are yet more secrets which are known only to a few. But these shall become plain in the course of the next few months. For what has been done cannot be hidden, and all that is done shall be laid bare in the light of day. None of us comes out looking particularly clever, but some will unfortunately look more venal than others.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Word of the Day: Performativity

This term was introduced to me by he who oversees my work in this mortal plane. He described it almost as if it were some loathsome, noxious potion best identified by the stench of 'accountability' and 'competition'. The word is derived from 13th-century Anglo-French performir, meaning 'accomplish' or 'fully provide'. However, from Latin it could mean something like 'for appearances' sake'.

The first point about 'performativity' is that it allows for simplistic and selective ranking. You create (or obtain) a rubric or a checklist or some other simple method of evaluation. This allows you to carry out ranked value judgements, assign numeric or quantitative value, and/or plot trend lines so that you can compare the performance of one institution with that of another.

The second point about 'performativity' is that it is all about performance. Nobody cares what is done, how it is done, or why it is done, as long as the rubrics, checklists, and methods of evaluation allow the institution to come up with values indicating success. These values, despite the selective and subjective nature of their origin, are touted as objective indicators of quality.

The third point about 'performativity' is that it allows for performers to act in such a way that they can be seen to be successful without actually thinking very hard. Think about the following example:

In Atlantis, elite students regularly win international awards for performance in English Literature. This is seen as a sign that Atlantean education is performing well in that domain. However, no mention is made of the fact that many Atlanteans schools don't offer the subject or offer it only to select individuals — it is considered difficult to teach and difficult to learn and thus not very good for a school's performance statistics. In some schools, it isn't even given that name, but styled as something else: 'Language Arts', perhaps.

The performers in this case are institutions who cultivate elite classes of students by streaming, and then, after weeding out the undesirables, proclaim the wonders of those who are 'left on the island' (so to speak). Similarly, you can have institutions who take in the top 10% of the population, eliminate 40% of those, and then use test-retest methods to ensure that the students have done enough work to do well.

Students who have not done so may be prevented from registering for examinations, thus ensuring that good results are always obtained. Thus, no matter how good or bad the quality of the teaching, administrative fiat can compensate for it — the authorities merely have to control who takes the exams better than who prepares the students for exams, and ensure that no matter how they are taught, they work hard on their own. Some of them, of course, find private tutors to enhance their performativity, so that they don't have to go to special study camps where they are taught to concentrate (supposedly).

Oh yes, to my Atlantean colleagues, have a very happy Teachers' Day! And may your performance statistics always appease the savage powers of your citadels of learning.

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