Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Three Questions

How do we know things, and how do we know that we know? That's what epistemology is all about, and in the process of figuring it out, we all come up with theories of knowledge.

I think there are three main questions.
  1. What led up to this?
  2. Where does this lead to?
  3. Is it good?
I suspect that no matter how humans think, it all boils down to these three things because I haven't found any paradigm that needs any other questions. In itself, this isn't proof that there aren't any other key questions, of course. I'm just saying that you need three for human inquiry.

Why these three? The first one establishes cause. The second one establishes effect. And the third requires value judgement, whether relative ("Is this good compared to... ?") or absolute ("Is this good in itself?").

It is certainly possible to use fewer questions in some disciplines. However, it doesn't seem profitable to use more except as elaborations or refinements of these three, for a specific purpose within a specific kind of inquiry.

Oddly enough, the 'Rule of Three' is one of the rules of human stories; things always come in threes. Maybe the Rule of Three is like Finagle's Law, one of the great meta rules of human existence.

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It is today, says Wolff to himself. Today is the last day of a wicked age. Incompetence rewarded, arrogance cosseted, silliness encouraged — these were the things of that age. It was not always so. And he remembers.


What is that blade you bear, Sir Wolff?

It is named Perdurias, milord. It was sanctified by Bishop William.

What are its properties? Know you that no blade may be brought into the Citadel without our inspection?

I had not heard that, milord. As to your question on its properties, it is perdurable. And hence, the one who forged it called it 'Perdurias'. It is merely an instrument, although somewhat potent.

Put it away. This is a new age, and a better one. We will not have relics of the past in our way, where we might trip over them.

I shall hang it up next to my door, then, milord.

Better you hang it behind the door, Sir Wolff.

But that is where I hang the shield of my ancestors, milord.

You call us 'milord' and yet you disobey us?

Milord, by virtue of your office, I call you thus. But by virtue of it being true, I tell you what I tell you. For that is the nature of truth, milord.


And in Wolff's mind, he weighed two things. Primus, Wolff was no longer Sir Wolff. Secundus, 'milord' would never be anyone's lord again. Looking up at the ravens, he smiled.


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

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Monday, November 29, 2010


There is yellow wood, which once was white; there is pale pink wood, that once was red like meat. There is soft, pliant wood with hidden strength and hard, heavy brutal wood which wears its armour with pride.

I used to think of wood as teak, rosewood, meranti, chengal, jelutong, balsa. As I aged, I found oak and ash and thorn; I dreamt of apple and willow, of larch and spruce and pine. I began to live in cypress, with fir and cherry, redwood and maple.

There are more woods than the world can hold, it seems. And yet, the woods are dying as the trees are going. The sapwood of the world is drying out; the heartwood of the world has rotted away.

If you have enough wood, you can make a bundle. Even the wormiest, most brittle, fragile, flammable twigs can bear weight for a time when bundled. But when the heat is on, you will see the thin smoke of water vapour and dust rise from the wood. You will see it blacken as it changes from cellulose to the skeleton thereof.

And then, it will be heat, and light, and the memory of wood. In the morning, cold and grey residues remain to remind one of the body of a tree.

Where I used to work, a tree was cut into. We found the heartwood long gone, but the sapwood acted as if nothing had changed. The outer rings held up the dead tree for a while, but over the weeks, it became clear that the rotten tree had to be removed, and all its termite-infested branches. We were afraid the infestation would spread.

When it was done, we promised ourselves that never would we use such maladapted wood again. But you never know. Sometimes, a tree can look solid from the outside, and even bear good fruit. Yet, if you build your house around it, great might be the ruin of it in latter days.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010


She always had possessed a certain place in his heart—not always a happy one, but one which was certainly hers, a sure and abiding portion. That was how he thought of her as the endless traffic streamed headlight-golden before him on a warm grey evening.

Purple came now, and dinner's last faint tang was swallowed and gone. He looked at the dim dial of his antique silver pocket-watch and began the long walk. It was his only hope of the moment that he might somehow encounter her once more before he left.


What odd things one writes when one is young! And stranger still, that some things become heavier and more meaningful when one knows one did not mean it then, but has come to appreciate it now.

Then there is embarrassment and the urge to rewrite, edit, delete or obliterate. But if one did that with everything one wrote, would one then be lessened by it? It is bad enough that natural processes destroy the templates and emplates of memory daily.

And so, one keeps these somewhat quaint vignettes, bits of memory like the odd crumbs of pistachio that can be found in a block of nougat.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010


The Greek word from which we get the English 'tragedy' is τραγῳδία; it is best translated as 'a song of the he-goat'. Most people believe that this is because such performances were carried out just before a goat was sacrificed to the gods.

I was having one of those fractured chats with the Hierophant, about current events, when we noticed the similarities between some of those events and a traditional Greek tragedy: there is a heroic figure with a flaw (hamartia, ἁμαρτία), which blossoms into overweening pride (hubris, ὕβρις); there is a Greek chorus of wailing women; there are aspersions and dispersions with interspersions; there is an agent of retribution (nemesis, νέμεσις). There was only one thing missing.

We wondered if there would be a modern Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides to write the play. It would probably have been a smash hit in some circles.

As it is, in local circles, already some supporters have made mention of the terrible opposition this figure has faced since he dropped the green and black for the blue and gold, and found favour with neither. It is like invoking the Angry Ones (Erinyes, Ἐρινύες) to say such things.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Random Thoughts After Several Interesting Meals

Sometimes after many meals, you sit replete, with the memory of black cod fillet and garlic, or thinly-sliced green apple pie and cinnamon, or a delicate cappucino of mushrooms, in the part of the brain that contains the sensations of your mouth.

And sometimes, your brain rambles on with random words that intersect, dissect or transect the world around you.

If you are singularly fortunate, you end up like James Joyce and 'stream of consciousness' becomes part of the literary vocabulary. If you are singularly unfortunate, people delve into the Greek to describe your output, and find the word logorrhoea. What you might get may also be somewhere in between:
dies irae ides marching on not framed many web pattern man internet camwhore no methodism in madness citadel stalin bathtub shower trotsky escaped mexico this time of reckoning pe teachers and young lambs kids ogles and ogres and vivisection bio chemistry physics you may be asked to go china for your health breaking news like porcelain silk road silk route oh dear inappropriate questions and answers responses like watching a train wreck in slow motion across the deck of the ark royal with no harriers lear had three daughters good one sent away did not betray two favoured but not good old man had so much blood in him most unkindest leather office chairs fish tank tank tank no more programme how to ah the sisters and brothers better get along run along now boys no conspiracy theory the beer was flat what an idiot you must pay bill if you want service well hole in the ground has water needs pail fell down broke crown see what tumblring after this what you get for notchecking this i give tevya this your problem too lazar wolff the butcher take it on the chin doom doom in the depths fly you fools looking for good time in latin
It is all an indigestion and a pain really, especially if you flash back too many years and the forward likewise. Then how do you know what is stream of consciousness and what is merely self-consciousness?

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Secret Histories

Powers: Secret Histories is of course the title of John Berlyne's most excellent bibliography of Tim Powers's complete works. It is hard to get copies these days, so if you find one, hang on to it.

The whole idea of secret histories seems to date back at least to the Secret History of the 6th-century historian Procopius, a rather explicit account of the reign of Justinian Imperator. Procopius was, by accident of history, the last major historian of the ancient world.

Last night I sat in the lofty atmosphere of a rooftop reunion and absorbed the details of more secret history. We live in an age of hugely entangled information networks. So, once it is known that a certain history exists, it becomes hard to keep it secret. And that is what has happened to a specific secret history that has lain hidden in the depths of a certain scholastic institution.

It appears that some possibilities of human behaviour seem so at odds with conservative ideas of human behaviour that they become unbelievable. This is not an indictment of what liberals call a 'conservative mindset'. Rather, it is a fact that human thinking is inherently conservative. When things happen to challenge those conceptions, cognitive dissonance is produced; when that is resolved, learning occurs.

So it is with secret histories. From morning to night, I learnt many things which fit well with my own carefully compiled institutional history. The term 'principal researcher' has taken on a new meaning, these days.

But some will argue, why keep secret histories? Why not just bury the facts or expose them all?

The thing about deadly facts (such as how to make a doomsday device) is that to keep them safe but not forgotten is better than to have them forgotten and accidentally misused, or to have them widely disseminated and deliberately abused.

The behaviours of individuals may taint an institution, but that should not always detract significantly from the reputation of that institution. As a wise man once said, "All houses have privies, but that does not make the houses privies."

We keep the secret places secret and honoured, because that is what some things are meant to be. By analogy with the human body, most humans do not insist that there are only two states of being: fully covered or fully exposed. Most of us resort to partial coverings, and many of us cover up the same places.

Now all that remains to be done is to clear up the mess that has been left behind. Of which, more will be made clear in the days ahead.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What Humans Should Eat

I've been inundated with dietary data ever since I first took a course in food chemistry about 20 years ago. Back and forth the dieticians go, muttering about what should be low.

But I've noticed some interesting points in all the data.
  1. Try to eat food in its natural state; unless the food is bad or is carrying a bacterial load, raw food is fine.
  2. Try to eat whole foods. A complete fruit is normally better than an extract from it, even if that extract is Vitamin C.
  3. If you feel full or you don't feel like eating anymore, go with the feeling.
  4. If the food source looks unnatural compared to natural variants you've seen before, don't eat it.
  5. Fat is often better than sugar, just as whole grains are better than wholemeal (or instant cereal, or flour); the slower your body processes energy foods, the better they are.
  6. You need a whole lot less protein than you think you do.
  7. Leaves and berries are good, so salad leaves and coffee are great.
  8. The only treatment that consistently extends life in mammals seems to be calorie reduction.
Afterthought: is it only me, or does nobody notice that besides humans, no other animal in existence likes to eat burnt food?


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Replies from the Temple Oracles

I've spent many years researching Atlantean education. The most useful thing that the Temple of Learning did for me is that they began to put their archives online in 1997. Speeches by the hierarchs, replies in the Chamber of the People, words dispensed to the media, and so on.

But there is a game we researchers play. It's called "Spot the Answer" and it is very hard to play, because you are up against the cryptic oracular (as opposed to vernacular, I suppose) of the Temple of Learning.

What happens is this. Once in a while, a Representative of the People will ask a question about educational statistics. The High Priest of the Temple of Learning, having received the question weeks before, has a response prepared. But it is one that has gone through the oracular system of the junior priests, hierophants, sycophants, whatever phantasmal entities live in the ecosystem below him.

So the question might be: "Were the results of the last examination satisfactory?"

And the response might be: "They were neither better nor worse than those of the year before. Here they are, that you might see for yourself."

Now, one might fault the questioner for asking a question that prompted an irrelevant response (or semi-relevant response). However, sometimes the question too is altered in the interests of not providing an answer in the response.

It is true that the Temples of Atlantis are now more open to the people. But this openness is one akin to that of a large department store, which having more space, decides to put all its stock on display.

There is no new stock, and sometimes there are no directions (although one generally knows what stock is on which floor). The most irritating thing is asking a question like, "Where do I find cotton shirts?" and receiving the response, "Shirts we have many, and cotton we have much, and we will show many things to you, for lo and behold there are indeed many wonderful things and we will list them for you, but cotton-picking is not our forte."

You can imagine my dismay when many asked the question, "When can we withdraw our Completely Protected Funds?" and were told, "As you age, so do you receive. Yet not all that glisters is gold, and not all that is yours is yours. But be happy, O people, that what you thought was yours is given to other people to be theirs and not theirs at the same time."

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Monday, November 22, 2010

What Young Wyverns Should Know

Wolff shook his head. He heard that the young wyverns at the Citadel, despite the evil of the Grand Inquisitor, still pined for his firm and leathery dark hand. Yet, he knew it was natural for the immature to seek guidance. It was just that their former Dark Master had rid the place of many who were qualified to guide.

And so, many of the Council of the young wyverns were deceived, for they knew not the truth, or if they knew it, did not recognize or want to accept its import. Wolff wondered if they would think differently had they known that the Old Man had been an inappropriate leader to other young wyverns in the past.

But Wolff laughed when he saw the last line of the letters of fire upon the wall. "November 30th," the flame-writing said. Fewer than a thousand days had passed.


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

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Resident Evil

The word 'reside' comes from the Latin for 'to remain behind'. This is why, in Chemistry, a residue is 'that which remains behind' after a process (e.g. thermal decomposition, filtration) has been carried out.

A resident, therefore, is a person who remains behind, or who continues to dwell in a specific place. Some residents are biohazards; as they remain behind or continue to dwell in a specific place, they continue to exert the effect of their residency on the local environment.

It was a poet who wrote into the mouth of Marcus Antonius, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." The fact is that monuments always remain, both good and bad. Of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul's Cathedral in London, it was engraved, "Si monumentum requires, circumspice." Indeed, if you seek a monument to that great man, you only have to look around you in London.

But as the superior Archon said to me about somewhere else, "You look around in that place and you see all kinds of nonsense, eagles and rubbish." Those too are monuments, set up in a moment of vainglory. One might say, "You do not know the worth of a man until you see the monuments he leaves behind."

Besides Prometheus Unbound, my next most favourite piece of Shelley is Ozymandias. From that poem:
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
I must say that I have seen all that in person. And yet, short years after I last saw that visage, it is passing — like the Egypt of Cleopatra, a proud but fading eminence.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Claims and Arguments

You know, there are days on which I feel a twinge of despair about the process of education. It seems that some parts of the mechanism are just not working the way they should. So here are some helpful comments for students, based on the sort of questions they ask me.

1. A claim is an assertion. It is something that is said to be true. If you are asked to discuss a claim, you are being asked to talk about arguments (see below) which show that the claim is upheld (that is, it is true), or rejected (that is, it is false), or some state in between (that is, more likely to be true or false, or not provable either way).

2. An argument is a series of statements which start from premises or assumptions, are logically linked in sequence, and are aimed at some sort of conclusion. Preferably, that conclusion has to do with what you are discussing, debating, or arguing about. More usefully, it is used to say something about a claim (see above). Most usefully, it provides definitive help in deciding whether the claim is true or not.

Be happy. Life is good.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010


This is the testimony of Wolff, who was once Sir Wolff:


The Citadel emerges from the shadows cast by the Grand Inquisitor. Yet, there are many who cannot believe that the Inquisitor cast such a dark shadow at all. Many were duped, many were deceived, many were too polite to say anything; few escaped unscathed. But the fact remains that even from his early years, he was carefully abusing people. The records, now brought together because the time for goodwill is past, show an abominable picture altogether.

For those who cannot believe it, you must understand that fifteen pages do not even begin to encompass the extent of his abuses. They merely sketch a single aspect of it. And yet that faint sketchwork is sufficient to strongly reinforce the single material allegation that has come to light. If all those who had been abused came forward, there would be hours of testimony. I know this because I have broken bread with many of them.

The second echelon abetted it. There is no doubt about that. Some of course were more innocent of direct assistance; they merely spread around the idea that it was not possible for such a person to have done such a thing. Their own faith in their leader made it difficult for others to believe in the unpleasantness that lurked inside the door. And when others were abused, it was taken that they invited it, they wanted it, they deserved it.

The paper trail itself is damning. On the instructions, hinted or otherwise, of the Grand Inquisitor and his cronies, records were changed, rankings were altered, and the transparency of fairness was clouded by the pollution of self-interest. What I brought out of the Citadel when I left is evidence of it all. And that is why the Citadel sent agents to dog my footsteps, and evicted those who had been kind to me.

From day to day, I accumulated evidence. Fearful acquaintances of the distant past who had tried to tell the truth beneath a shield of anonymity had wasted their time because the old Archon had protected his Inquisitor with both eyes closed and hands folded. But the weight of evidence eventually told, and now those who stand in authority should dispense with pride and ask themselves hard questions.

You who turn the wheel and look to windward, know this. Your former leader was guilty of many things. He was great in many ways, but his power corrupted him, and he fell. And many will yet fall because of him, if they will not search themselves and realise what lies they have believed.

The time has come, and the Citadel must emerge from its tainted history. Its emergency must be as clean as that of a well-oiled sword from its scabbard. Or what beacon of truth and light can it be?


And as Wolff left, I heard him mutter to me: "Now, the Ides of December approach."


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.


Friday, November 19, 2010


My reflections, or perhaps peregrinations, are inspired by a former colleague's brief but very meaningful meditations during Eid ul-Adha. Some days, it seems as if the metaphor of journey is tiresome because every transition seems to be part of a journey — if the metaphor is seen everywhere, it becomes meaningless.

But the idea of pilgrimage is different; whereas some might argue that the journey is the whole point, with a pilgrimage, the destination is the point. In the English-speaking world, there is one particular piece of allegorical literature that is all about that — I refer, of course, to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

The story isn't quite one for every faith, and it is horribly ponderous in parts. Yet, as Bunyan's allegory unwinds, the journey and the eventual destination of Mr Christian become more and more familiar, like something frequently seen out of the corner of your eye.

I think that the part that grabs me most is the hymn somewhere in the middle of the journey. It is the only one Bunyan is known to have written, and I first knew it as He Who Would Valiant Be. The first verse goes:
He who would valiant be
  'gainst all disaster,
  let him in constancy
  follow the Master.
There's no discouragement
  shall make him once relent
  his first avowed intent
  to be a pilgrim.
It is a stirring piece, but more than that, it contains good advice for any pilgrim. For a pilgrim who doesn't quite reach his destination is only a wanderer, and perhaps that much less for it.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Man Is Born To Trouble

Given that every one of us experiences life in a different way, is it not strange that there are strong commonalities between us all? We can discuss so much, having experienced so little of it in common.

It is the same with states and cities, countries and domains. We think there are bases for comparison, and that what works for the goose will work for the gander. And yet each place has its own history; what is acceptable in one place might not work at all somewhere else.

Still, humans hanker after what they never had, strive to obtain things that others have, make comparisons which seem in abstract useful but in practice are not at all. They do this regardless of historical or social or geographical context?

In the last few days, people have compared Atlantis to Cuba — after all, both are islands, are they not? — and to New York — both are cities, are they not? — and to Cambridge — both were once small swampy places, no?

Crazy, this urge to compare what cannot be compared. And yet, do we not assume there must be universal standards? For example, from a moral perspective, we think killing is bad. Yet, for many reasons, every society will kill given the right conditions. Individuals might protest this, but there is always some line; perhaps only the Jains will try their best not to kill anything at all.

The countries that protest the death penalty the most seem to have the fewest scruples when it comes to gratuitously unleashing engines of death on other nations. Perhaps only the Scandinavians seem virtuous in this regard, in recent history. And yet, they too were once feared — we get 'berserker' and 'viking' from those northern lands after all.

The idea is that humanity has left its long adolescence and now rises towards moral adulthood. Many people have said this, in many places. Yet, is this possible at all? Or is it only something that we believe because it is more pleasant to believe it?

These questions trouble me. I know I can kill. I exterminate insects without qualms, and rub my hands in alcoholic gels to kill germs. In a world where otherwise sane people relegate humans to just another link in the natural order, why should there be special dispensation for complex brains? They too will pickle well in alcohol, after all.

Perhaps it is all human vanity. For who knows whether the spirit of man rises upward or that of the animal sinks downward to the earth?

These questions trouble me, but not as much as they should. And that too troubles me.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I like this acronym. It stands for 'Towards A New Definitive Educational Mantra'. I've just coined it (at least, I think I have, because it returns no hits on Google™). It allows me to fairly, with respect to certain dimensions, describe the practice of education in Atlantis.

It was a short time ago that someone told me about the latest educational mantra from the edicts of the Priesthood of Learning. It was, "Top-Down Support For A Bottom-Up Approach."

The picture that immediately and reflexively came to mind was not a flattering one. Indeed, it was rather scurrilous, if not slightly obscene.

On further analysis, however, it is clear what is going on in Atlantis: more feudalism of the 'serf-and-turf' type. In other words, "Crawl on your knees to Us and We will deign to grant you support. And should you not come to Us, there will be NO SUPPORT. And if it come to pass that you do not approach Us with your wants, then do not say We did not tell you."

Atlantean education — oh, how I appreciate it for the amusement it brings to me!

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I am somewhat a failed poet, in the sense that I don't work hard at it, have a slightly tin ear, and get by only because I have an uncommon facility with words. But my words don't have that plangency nor mordant power which some real poets have.

Nevertheless, I celebrate my somewhat failed art once in a while. Here is a short one that I've published elsewhere.

Anniversary will do for me
I am eclectic

Will go for any rhyme scheme
Gloss, literary flourish
A sucker for metric potency
Or low-hanging punnets

Annually cryptic
Anniversary will do for me


On reflection, it is in tone a lot like this previous one. The difference is that this one is me, while the other one is me pretending to be a computer pretending to be me. There are differences... I think.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Measures of School System Success

Over the last few weeks, an interesting debate about the success of the Atlantean educational system has sprung up. So far, people have weighed in with various ways of measuring that success: some have mentioned behavioral qualities such as filial piety, some have mentioned awards such as Nobel prizes. Some have said the system is unsuccessful since it has produced neither.

It is with amusement that I note that a national system of education normally has only two real criteria for success: 1) that it produces the kind of people the state wants, and 2) that it produces the kind of people the state needs. You can divide this another way: schools must produce the people needed to run the country from within (at all levels) and the people needed to preserve and defend the state's interests against the interests of other states.

That means that by any measure, social cohesion is a more useful 'product' of a school system than are Nobel prizes. Most students have some sort of bond to their classmates, to their schoolmates. This is natural, and it is useful. Then again, social cohesion within a group or institution is not necessarily harnessed to the needs of the state — gangs and multinational companies come to mind, as examples that are not necessarily positive with regard to the states they operate in.

Useful skills help too. A system that produces lots of lawyers and doctors in a state that fancies itself a legal and medical hub is a system that is doing its job. However, a system that is producing hundreds of mediocre teachers in a state that fancies itself an educational hub is a system that is dysfunctional in at least one aspect — especially since breeding bad teachers leads to breeding worse teachers down the road.

So how does one measure the success of a system such as the Atlantean School System? Perhaps the most fun way of doing it is to see how others think of the system. It has become legendary in many other 'advanced' nations that the Atlantean system is horrifyingly great (or greatly horrifying, depending on what your political tendencies are).

So yes, it must be pretty successful. But perhaps not successfully pretty.


Note: actually, Nobel Prize winning is most strongly correlated to a) the power and influence of a state in the worldwide community (see here), and b) whether you are Jewish (Jews account for about 25-30% of the prizes).

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Black & White

Things hardly ever, are they?

Look to the Citadel, and you will see it a house divided. Some will say, the evil that men do lives on after them; some will say the good is oft enurned in the ashes (since there is now not much room for burials). There are many opinions, and in a constituency so varied, surely some will be disappointed.

But we must have faith in the vision of the hero who started the endeavour. If it is indeed consecrated work, no mere human can desecrate it; if it is indeed truth and light, nothing will defeat it. As a wise man said to me today, "It may take time, but the Citadel will be stronger for it."

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, remember that the ocean may be red with blood, and the wine-dark sea may pull us all into its depths — but somewhere, the sky is shining and the sun is blue, and the sea is crystalline in clarity. Although much has been lost and there is yet more to lose, there is also much that has yet to come to pass.

So to my friends who look upon the ending of an era, think about the other words of Browning's Rabbi ben Ezra:
Trust God, see all, nor be afraid!



When chemists think of spontaneity, if at all they do, they tend to think of this equation:
∆G = ∆H - T∆S
Sometimes, however, they think of something different. This evening, I received an email which reminded me of this incident, for which I had the Tailor to thank.

These days, I wake up on some mornings with a spring of spontaneous happiness welling up from within. Other days, it's not so spontaneous. But it is there anyway. I think that it all comes from a sense that "God's in his heaven / All's right with the world!" as Browning put it.

It is hard for humans not to think of retribution, "what goes round comes round", poetic justice, and other such tit-for-tattery. But sometimes things resolve in such a satisfactory way that spontaneous celebration seems in order.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Soft in the Head

I think students need to be taught to access information the hard way. Somehow, teaching them to access information through easy ways like hitting the internet doesn't seem to work well.

Perhaps, the journey is indeed more important than the destination. Hunting for information through a nearly impenetrable thicket of bookshelves and librarians, without easy cheats and aids, trains the mind to the questing paradigm.

In the questing paradigm, the quester knows that a number of trials (three is common, but the number may be as high as twelve) must be completed successfully before the objective is achieved. Then the quester gets to access the next level of the game, whatever the game is.

The problem with students these days is that hugely superior access to information makes most information-finding problems too easy-looking. Students think that information is as easy to obtain as dirt, and hence don't bother.

If you confront modern students with this, they will raise all kinds of examples to prove this isn't so. Two main possibilities then emerge.

The first is that they are indeed self-aware and it is true that they are able to work through the quest paradigm, finding value in what they find, keeping useful stuff for later use, and so on. They use this paradigm all the time.

The second is that they don't know what they're talking about. They can't tell you how to evaluate information yield from data, or information value. But they are good at telling stories about information which may or may not be true.

Sometimes, the old practices of index card searching, manual note-taking, and document collection through physical curation, are more useful than this. Physical arrangements challenge the brain better than purely abstract formulations; hard copy is better than soft, as far as the mind is concerned.

Perhaps, people need to be more hard-headed about information processing.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Clashing Symbols

He dreamt that night of the deep ocean and the flood below. Nameless things spoke, in voices that grated beautifully on the edge of his hearing, just as their physical forms moved ever at the edge of his vision. He dreamt that Churchill said, "Little Eichmanns, all pursuing their banalities of evil," but it was the wrong Churchill, and that confused him.

In the morning he visited the Citadel. He saw the eagles, and realised that the floorplan of the headquarters was patterned on the arms of of a swastika. He saw the Black Table, and the Black Throne. He saw the small but unaccountably hungry fish, and the deep black loam that would never grow anything but stank of rubber even on the coldest days.

There was a bust of a holy man. It had been chained upon a black pedestal. Sightlessly, the disembodied statue gazed out upon the empty space where the angles were all wrong. The archives below had all been removed. The air stank of mould and damp rot. Somehow, the new was already corrupt.

He listened, as he walked through the oddly-angled rooms. There were tinkling sounds like the invisible shadow of glass in the wind. He got the impression that change was coming, but uncertain. Something huge was waiting to be (re)born.

He drew his sword, and watched as the pawns aligned. It was the Kalashnikov variation of the Sicilian. He had to reload his sword, and do it quietly.

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Friday, November 12, 2010


After probing a problem, one might realise that after nailing the main premises, one then has a choice of contentions that can be derived from the premises. The choice of contentions is itself a problem.

And so it is that after having left the premises alone for more than two and a half years, I am frequently being asked to look at them, make a choice of contentions, and come up with even more contentions from the choices I have made. As someone once said, a lemma is simultaneously a contention from premises and a premise leading to more contentions. And two lemmas (or lemmata, to be pedantic, but not 'lemmings') form a...

What to choose is itself determined by how to choose, or what criteria we could use to choose whatever has to be chosen. And who to choose is likewise determined by what we think we should look for in choosing.

The interrogators often pose the problem this way, "You cannot choose from existing choices; rather, do away with all such entities of privileged status, treat them all as heads at the same level, and then choose again." What then can you choose? What should you choose? And if you contend that you have no right to choose, there is no defence against being assured that you have such a right.

To me, I must simplify. I will look for competencies and the character to wield those competencies. And if there is culture, I will think of it as a plus. And if there is not, that will be sad. But I have many many many stepping stones to look at before a solution is reached.

And what if I am part of the problem?

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Thursday, November 11, 2010


Wolff sat wrapped in fuligin, the heavy blade of his profession once more in his hands. By midday, the news had escaped, and what he knew no longer mattered so much as a weapon in his hand.

The Grand Inquisitor had been tracked down, and the lictors and pursuivants had hunted him into his deep earth. Now the former Master of the Darkness stood enchained by negative light, and reinforced legations bound him to an iron post.

And the Autarch had sent word that the sword of Wolff's forefathers was needed once again. "We have scotched the snake, not killed it," was one cryptic phrase.

Wolff pondered it deeply. He had little to say, except that the new leadership of the Citadel should possess character first, then competence, and also culture. He had seen too much that was... nekulturnyĭ, or perhaps varvarskiĭ, as his friend the Rock had once said, without much irony.

He looked at those who now claimed the places around the Black Table. He saw insecurities and incompetencies. He saw the ruin of the past and the erosion of the future. He saw people unprepared to think.

To his surprise, it was this last vision that angered him the most. Where there is lack of thought, there is thoughtless faith. Faith is more worthwhile when the one who possesses it has retained it even against fierce trials of the intellect. For that was the lesson of the epistles, bound tightly in the flowing Greek of debate and argument, sophistry and casuistry.

He wiped the dust off the long, black, two-handed sword.


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

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Parkinson's Law

Parkinson's Law, or The Pursuit of Progress was written by C Northcote Parkinson during his time at the University of Lemuria in Atlantis, in the 1950s. It is one of the most perceptive books ever written by modern man. Yet, for all that insight, it is a slim volume at 109 pages, with ten short chapters and a preface all included.

Sadly for the current state of education in Atlantis, it is not compulsory reading for the educated. It would take not more than a handful of hours for most people to read, and the insights it brings on institutional processes and characteristics are invaluable.

I will now attempt to summarise the ten chapters. The original writing is much funnier, more humorous and full of droll insights. I am certainly doing it a disservice. Each chapter is presented with its original title and subtitle.

01: Parkinson's Law (or, the Rising Pyramid)
Work expands to fill the available time. So do many other things.
02: The Short List (or, Principles of Selection)
Competitive written examinations, despite many flaws, discriminate best. The problem is figuring out what to examine.
03: Directors and Councils (or, Coefficient of Inefficiency)
No effective committee has more than five real members. If a committee or council exceeds that, an inner council will be formed that is the real one.
04: The Will of the People (or, Annual General Meeting)
Forcible manipulation drives decision-making. Or at least, biases its essential randomness.
05: Personality Screen (or, the Cocktail Formula)
The genuinely important people in a room are those who leave unnoticed at the right time.
06: High Finance (or, the Point of Vanishing Interest)
The Law of Triviality states that the time spent on any agenda item is inversely proportional to its value (or the sum involved).
07: Palm Thatch to Packard (or, a Formula for Success)
Chinese businessmen work by evasion until they become so wealthy that ostentation is more useful. They also work by confusing the bureaucracy.
08: Plans and Plants (or, the Administration Block)
Perfection of planned layout is only achieved by institutions about to collapse. A large admin block with many administrators in one place indicates an institution is past its best.
09: Injelititis (or, Palsied Paralysis)
Organisational paralysis is caused by individuals. There are three stages: 1) incompetence mixes with jealousy, resulting in an individual who tries who control the institution; 2) individual tries to eject those more able or who might one day be more able; 3) all institutional intelligence is eliminated.
10: Pension Point (or, the Age of Retirement)
The correct age of retirement can be determined by the frequency of air travel and the quantity of paperwork to be completed for any given individual.

As you can tell, if every student at the Citadel of Wyverns had been able to obtain this book, certain crimes against humanity (or at least, against common sense) might not have been perpetrated. Fortunately, as a humanitarian initiative, our Russian friends have provided the complete text online. Everyone should, however, note that in this edition the chapters have been rearranged. Injelititis is now Chapter 8. You have been warned.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Paranoia. Theology.

Those two words are taken from a conversation in China Miéville's latest book, Kraken. They constitute one character's response to the question, "What is it you're doing?"

That question, in turn, is asked based on what the character appears to be doing, which is the application of a rather recondite 'reconstitutive intelligence', splicing together bits of information and memes into some sort of sensible structure. It sounds rather confusing, doesn't it?

But that is exactly what we do when we apply hermeneutic skills to a religious text. It is a kind of paranoia-driven desire to find meaning, under the assumption that there is a meaning to be found. We bend our apparently considerable intelligence (think of the thousands of scholars in many venerable religious traditions, obviously somewhat talented in the cognitive department, many of whom also with talents outside and apart from theology) to the manufacture of sense from what ought not, by the terms of the world, to make sense.

The texts themselves contain lines about how the supernatural authority or enlightened person behind them is impossible to comprehend for most (or all) mortals, and yet also that the text is from this being's deepest thoughts. Logically, then, most if not all of the text should be incomprehensible to the rest of us.

And yet, our fundamental assumption is that meaning can be gleaned through the simple application of some commonsensical skills and heuristics. Why is that so? Why should we assume this?

If the supernatural source supposedly has made the incomprehensible comprehensible, then it has diminished its own authority; it has 'dumbed down' the ineffable and unknowable. Most texts therefore strike a balance between what is obvious and what is mysterious.

It is a balance, however, that most people don't seem to think about very much. Either blood is symbolic or it is actual; it cannot be both and it cannot be neither and it cannot be part one and part the other. Either birds are birds or they represent the devil or the temptation of mankind or the salvation thereof. And so on.

We twist ourselves up in knots by attempting to fix meaning in things which shouldn't be fixed in meaning or cannot be fixed in meaning. When Jesus explains a parable, that's fine — it's his right, since he is divine. When we explain a parable that has no stated meaning, how do we know we are right?

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Word of the Day: Cæsura

I have come not to bury Cæsar; indeed, I have not come to blog about him at all. But it is inevitable that those who see the word cæsura are likely to think of the word cæsar (or caesar).

A cæsura or caesura is a lapse; a discontinuity or interruption in the natural fabric of things. For example, if you had a bunch of good rulers, and then a backstabbing liar with megalomania and some paranoid delusions, followed by another bunch of good rulers, then you'd have to call that unusual fellow a cæsura in the tapestry.

The word is equivalent what we'd now call 'a glitch', perhaps. In fact, it comes from the Latin caedere: to end, to cut down or cut off, to break down the continuity of something.

But back to Caesar, who must still be on your mind as a lapse of sorts.

I remember once using the time-honoured phrase, "Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's." That, of course, is taken from the 22nd chapter of St Matthew's gospel, and compares secular authority to the Divine.

A modern would-be Stalin I know took grave offence at this. He thought that when I said it, I meant him. I laughed when I said, "No sir, you are not Caesar."

Five years later, he tried to prove me wrong. He set up crude imitations of the abomination of desolation in the courts of the righteous, the emblems of Zeus — one black, one white — according to the ancient rites.

As any student of the classics should know, the eagle is the symbol of a rapacious Zeus, the divine abuser of authority who struck at Ganymede. Neither of the eagles in the courts of the Citadel is a soaring eagle; rather, one stoops to strike and the other sits in self-satisfaction, its rump too heavy to fly.

The time in which these abominations was set up is indeed a caesura in the history of the faithful. May it end soon, and may the symbols of a malicious power be removed as soon as possible.

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Apprehension and Comprehension

There is a vast difference between apprehension and comprehension. The problem is that these days, they are too often mistaken for each other.

Apprehension is what happens when you make contact with something, most often through your senses. Comprehension is when your mind wraps around something and understands it.

These days, with soundbites and summaries, abstracts and action plans, everyone thinks they 'get it' when all that's happened is that 'it' has got them. But that's nothing new. As it says in Ecclesiastes chapter 8:
When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth — there are those who do not sleep by day or night — then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.
Even with a 24-hour work cycle or news cycle, there is too much going on. The sheer complexity of life defeats all attempts to observe or understand it all. When we have gained the whole world, we have gained nothing. It is all a striving after the wind.

That is why the message of Ecclesiastes is that people should try their best without burning out. There is no point wasting your time on earth when you don't know if what you do is of any good. You can't comprehend it all.

There are thus two kinds of advice given in that book: 'whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might', and 'enjoy life while you are young'. It's all about balance.

Get it?


Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Wyvern Integrated Master Plan (WIMP)

After a five-year study of the curriculum being taught at the Citadel of the Wyverns, the following points were clearly supported by a conservative interpretation of the evidence.

1. Content. There is nothing new under the sun. Except perhaps that the old GEP curriculum has been a) extended, and b) diluted. The original IP has been drowned in the blood of innocents. Content has been altered slightly, but the textbooks are 95% identical to the kind used in non-IP institutions.

2. Methodology. Same old teaching methods. No power, no point. A few more radical people teaching in unusual ways, which is to be expected since the staff was doubled in size. In fact, they seem to have become even more boring, overall.

3. Results. Well within the expected outcomes for a random cohort at the percentile intake. There is no significant value added.

4. Conclusion. They spent all that money on what, exactly?

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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Alternative Learning

We were having brunch in the Hemisphere where the old recruitment centre used to be. The Argonaut and I were catching up with the filthy datastream oozing out of the old place, and when we had finished the data transfer and affirmed our separate happinesses at the way things were turning out, we began to talk about solutions.

The problem, as many of you who have read older posts here may gather, is the quality of the teaching service in Atlantis. We have many teachers. About 20% of them are of reasonable quality and the rest are, sad to say, incompetent in various ways. Of the 20% that are any good, 60% of them will leave before fulfilling their potential — a potential that isn't even assessed fairly or well. That means only 8% of the teaching fraternity of each batch will make good.

Why is there such a high failure rate? When I did my earlier dissertation on the reasons for this (although I was made to change the title so that it didn't sound so biting), I found out a few interesting things that should be taken into consideration when thinking about both success and failure.

Firstly, if you think of teaching as a divine calling with a divine purpose, you are much more likely to stay, and much more likely to try to improve the way you teach. Whether this indeed results in being a better teacher is hard to assess, but it seems like a good start. As a somewhat related point, consider that teachers who don't believe in divine callings or divine purposes but do want to improve the way they teach tend to end up in things like insurance, sales and advertising — occupations in which you attempt to convince people that you are offering them a better deal in life, much like teaching.

Secondly, if you are male, you tend to stay in service longer. This is because a) you aren't likely to get pregnant, and b) you must be pretty dedicated to want to be a male teacher in what is traditionally a female preserve. However, there are serious caveats to this. One is that there are some rather lousy reasons why you might want to be a teacher, and men are more likely to join up because a) the external economic environment is bad, b) the holidays look better, or c) they like being utter bastards to the people they teach. Men, once promoted, tend to stay on the leadership track longer and ossify easily — most 'permanent' vice-principals are male.

Thirdly, good teachers don't change the system — they survive, endure, tolerate, and circumvent it. Very few good teachers make it to become heads of schools. Why? For most such positions, you need extra capacity for presentation skills, political savvy, social alertness and project handling. If you have all those AND you teach well, you are a rarity. The rest of the time, the system continues to grind along on mediocrity.

How can we raise the success rate of teacher 'production'? One thing that has yet to be tried in Atlantis is competitive market forces. Why not have more than one school of education? Atlantis has more than one school of medicine, more than one of most kinds of higher institution.

Another thing is open appraisal. By this, I mean that all teacher portfolios should be made public and parents should have a right to know the qualifications, awards, and success rates (adjusted for various relevant factors) of every teacher in a school. If a teacher is teaching a subject for which he or she did not qualify, the public should know. And the grades a teacher is awarded by his superiors should also be made public. (Actually, it would be great for this to be done for doctors and lawyers and other professionals as well.)

I am quite sure that there are arguments against both these measures. But can Atlantis afford not to allow such transparency and reform?

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Friday, November 05, 2010


The words are roundly distorted by the smooth walls we have placed around them, but their message is clear. The list of the faithless, of those who disdained the Dauntless, of those who mocked even our memories of him — that list is sealed unto the Lords of the Citadel who have received it in utmost formality.

We listen to the reverberations in the deep. From this day onwards, let the guilty beware. For though all have sinned, all have fallen, all are unworthy, those who continue to make use of their ill-won gains will be purged. We are all at drawn swords and daggerpoint.

If you are ignorant, confess it now. If you are unworthy, admit that. If you are lost, seek guidance; if in darkness, seek a light. For we are all sheep, but some have learnt to listen to the shepherd or allow themselves to be driven by his dogs.

Slowly, the shape of the new comes forth. There is still dishonesty, incompetence, nastiness. There will be recriminations and retribution. But light rises even without a sun, for light is beyond time and seasons. As it was in the beginning, so also through all time. Amen.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010


Wolff is amused and yet revolted. The past behaviours of the Grand Inquisitor clearly were inappropriate. The evidence is too overwhelming. But to have a self-proclaimed soldier behave so much like a sailor who has been at sea too long... that is incredible, and Wolff shakes his head.

All humans are fallen, he reminds himself. There have always been consequences of the first revolt as well as the second. For every success, a victory; but also more failures than successes if not for the grace of the Highest. And in the greatest failure may lie the seeds of the greatest victory.

Wolff looks back at the Citadel and wonders, though, what it will take to purge the entrenched minions of the late Grand Inquisitor. He has a list, but he is not in the habit of writing anonymous letters. With a sigh, he takes out his name from where it has been hidden.


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.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Full Circle

I remember sitting with my students on a warm afternoon in March. I remember the peremptory summons and the events thereafter. I remember my astonishing calm in the face of the inquisition. That was Day 001.

It is too easy, when you have been unjustly treated, to be vengeful. Six consecutive years of injustice do not make it easier when the final blow falls. But vengeance is not for any individual to claim; far better it be left to the mills of God.

I have to be thankful for friends of all kinds who reminded me that good things come to those who marshall themselves, and seek good but not evil. I have to realise that to retire with the gifts of God and the friendships of a lifetime in hand is no bad thing. Leaving the table with a stack of chips is better than gambling until you have none, so to speak.

And here we are, sitting around on a warm morning in November. Life is good; it is very good indeed.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010


In my youth, there was a wise ruler who was treated harshly. Yet he had a successor, and he praised his successor, who took on the burden in a hard time, to his own ill, and was not fully rewarded in the bearing of it. And for both men, the people above and below gave thanks for firm rulership in times of struggle. The wise ruler was taken into a larger kingdom, though he never forgot his own, and in time, he became the keeper of the past in the house of his youth.

In my middle years, there was a kind ruler who was treated harshly. And he had a successor, whom he had treated well and whose career he had advanced. But this successor was ungrateful, and conspired mightily, and brought a poisoned dagger to the table. And yet, those who valued silver and gold and the wisdom of the world valued this successor greatly, and the kind ruler was forgotten for his goodness, while the evil of the successor was equally forgotten by many.

Yet there are times when there is enough time, and both the evil and good that men do live long enough to return upon them. This too I have seen.

As the Preacher said, "Cast your bread upon the waters, and you shall receive it again after many days." I have cast my bread away for years, and I am thankful that it has returned to me in measure greater than I could ever have expected. There is now enough to keep me going a long while.

I never was in it for the bread though. I remember that ever since I taught my first batch, I knew that leaving this life would be easy if only I could be sure that I had made some lives better, and made more lives better than worse. That has been my goal.

Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam.

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Monday, November 01, 2010

Three Faces

Atlantis has been a trading concern for nearly 700 years. In its time, it has seen many masters come and go. It has had masters from Albion and Cathay and Sind.

Atlantis is ruled by a creed that can be described by one of three main paradigms. These antedate any Machiavellian pragmatism that one might think of as one searches vainly for some way to quickly describe what it is that the masters of Atlantis really do.

First is the idea of commercial multiculturalism. In order to do business, it is an asset to have the kind of mind that understands other cultures. It is therefore to Atlantis's profit to have citizens that speak more than one trading tongue and are able to get along well with those of a wide range of cultures.

Second is the idea of tactical globalisation. In order to do business, Atlantis must appear open to all traders, while preserving its own core. It must show a face that is friendly to commerce and finance, while keeping its interests close and well-protected. It must score well in public, if not in private.

Third is the idea of strategic parasitism. In order to do business, a small state like Atlantis must be able to feed off the mammoths who move their ponderous bulk over the lands of the earth. This is done by bleeding off amounts of value that seem like nothing to those behemoths but are life itself to Atlanteans.

Atlantis, make no mistake, is adept at showing these faces whenever they are required. It is not so good at hiding them when they are not. Nevertheless, these three faces, supported by the skills they learnt from Albion, Cathay, and Sind, are enough to keep Atlantis afloat.

But for how long?