Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Connections: Part 6 of 12

Six geese a-laying? What on earth? Well, geese are large, intelligent and very territorial fowl. The typical goose is larger than a hen, and less prolific. However, the eggs are larger and richer.

When one gives a gift of laying geese, it is a gift of rich food and a symbol of wealth. However, there is another interpretation which I've seen in the dark corridors — the laying of geasa, or magical imperatives, upon someone.

Perhaps that line isn't as innocent as it looks. Or perhaps it is, and I am just being naughty. Your geis is as good as mine.


"On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me six geese a-laying."

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Connections: Part 5 of 12

Five gold rings, most mysterious. One would observe that five rings are uncommon, even on the hands of wealthy people. The Olympic flag may have five rings, but those stand for the world and its peoples, and are not gold.

The phrase 'gold rings' really refers to ring-necked pheasants, delicious and beautiful birds, some of which are indeed golden, and many of which are valued for their rich flavour. Gold indeed!

I note that Tolkien avoids the number 5 in his ring-lore entirely: in decreasing order, there are nine rings for mortal men doomed to die, seven rings for dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, three rings for elven-kings under the sky, and the One Ring of Sauron. Perhaps he wanted to avoid it being made into a Christmas song.


"On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me five gold rings."

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas Connections: Part 4 of 12

Some people think they are calling birds, but they are not. They are colly birds, with the adjective related to the word 'collier' or 'collyer' — that is, one whose trade is the transport of coal. A colly bird is a bird as black as coal — a 'coally' bird.

When four colly birds are invoked, they are blackbirds, not ravens. They are in fact Turdus merula, a kind of thrush (yes, that is what the Latin turdus means).

The four-in-hand is a common phrase, used of coach horses and neckties. But one has to wonder about that other nursery rhyme; when four-and-twenty blackbirds were baked into a pie, were four of them Christmas blackbirds and the rest of them just a convenient score?


"On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me four colly birds."

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas Connections: Part 3 of 12

Three French hens? Yes, three birds which lay eggs. Some say they are Faith, Hope and Love; some say they are older and darker, a Maiden, Lady and Crone.

But they are not French fries, nor are they fried chicken. They are the birds that come in threes, that stand around waiting to cast judgement, that form the smallest possible legislative unit which can break a tie and yet have multiple opinions.

Oh yes, three hens, French or otherwise, but in this song, just three, just French. And remember, a hen is the female bird of any species, not just chicken.


"On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me three French hens."

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Connections: Part 2 of 12

Doves are birds that dive, for the past tense of dive is dove. A diver has no past tense though, even if you were to think it dover.

Among all that dive, there is one variety. Its song is a low, almost purring, "Tur-turrr, tur-turrr." And that is why it is called a turtledove, for it turtles to its mate, and its mate turtles back.

That is why a matched pair of lovers is referred to as 'turtledoves', because of their harmony and their mutual devotion.


"On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me two turtledoves."

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Connections: Part 1 of 12

Whether she is a rope or a heifer, this friend of mine occasionally inspires me to think about things I seldom think about. And even, at times, she inspires me to think about things which are quite a bit beyond what I normally think about.

Hence the Greek word πέρδεσθαι, which means 'to break wind'. Someone who does that is called a πέρδιξ — 'windbreaker', I suppose. But that's the word, perdix, from which we get the English 'partridge', presumably because English peasants were better at pronouncing nouns ending in '-ich', '-itch', or '-idge'.

And since the connective heifer has started me off on this first of the twelve days of Christmas, I suppose I will carry on.


"On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree."

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Enrichment Programmes

This phrase has been rattling around in my head more frequently than usual over the last few days. There have been three main contexts in my mind.

The first context is school activities. Someone asked me how to choose a good enrichment programme for the sprouts. I replied that it's always good to ask yourself what you mean by enrichment.

What I mean by enrichment in an educational context is some process by which the mental soil becomes more fertile and the potential depth and breadth of future education become greater. In that sense, limited 'enrichment programmes' which are focused on specific activities (e.g. 'Math Olympiad') are less enriching than those which have broader or more fundamental application (e.g. 'How to Understand a Language Which You Have Never Seen Before').

The second context is nuclear proliferation. It has been amusing and yet frightening to see how the Stuxnet virus targeted and discombobulated the Iranian nuclear facilities over the last few months. In order to concentrate useful nuclear isotopes such as uranium-235, finely-calibrated centrifuges are used to separate raw material by mass.

The Stuxnet virus sabotaged the centrifuges, thus knocking the Iranian enrichment programme off its stride. This is one danger of having over-specialised enrichment programmes, I suppose: you become too dependent on a specific mechanism.

The third context is charity funding. Over the last few years, we've seen quite a lot of what I call 'enrichment programmes' — that is, programmes in which a constituency (a congregation or a support population that gives to a particular charity) put lots of funds into building something rather than doing something.

Wealth is thereby concentrated in one place but not released to do good. For example, if a charity buys a piece of property at $8m as an investment to be sold at a higher future price, then $8m in contributions go stagnant until the property is sold. If the property develops negative equity, then the contributions are provisionally wasted.

It has been an enriching experience to see all these kinds of enrichment programmes and to think about how education can indeed be enriched. I think that it's a good thing to have a sort of pyramid model for enrichment programmes, with strong basic modules at the base and a bunch of interesting but not so broad-based modules further up. If you build a base on modules that are not foundational, then the pyramid tends to crumble and enrichment is uneven, erratic and perhaps dangerous.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010


It is good to stand in sober judgement over one's own self. We are told not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, but to think soberly, according to the measure of faith God has given each of us.

That is not to say that we are not to think highly of ourselves at all, but that we are to think more highly of others. In some ways, that is similar to the idea of loving ourselves; we are not told to not love ourselves, but to love ourselves not more than we love others, and to love that which is of greater spiritual value.

This is a simple idea. You cannot love your neighbour as yourself if you do not love yourself at all. And if you hate yourself, that is a bad thing for all the world, since you must then hate your neighbour too. In this age of globalisation, the thought that everyone is your neighbour is becoming more relevant.

So today then, it being Christmas Day, we have a convenient moment to sit and look at ourselves soberly. How much is the value of a life? How much more are other lives worth? Are we willing to serve others so that we might become less and they might become more?

Here is some advice from the Good Book.

Know those who work above us and among us and with us. Be at peace. Warn those that are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient to all. Do not return evil for evil, but follow that which is good. Rejoice evermore and always. Prayer unceasingly. Give thanks in all things: for this is the will of God.

And have a happy new year too!

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Any Day Now

It could have been any day in the year, but today is the eve of Christmas, a day on which our thoughts turn towards gifts, peace, and the foreshadowing of great sacrifice. For it is a Christian thing that we have done, to take something pagan (like Saturnalia or Eostre or Samhain) and make it into a sacred day by some form of hallowing.

All days and any days can be treated such. So too can deities. The ancient gods of many lands became neutralised and nullified, their names bent to accommodate angels and saints. Even the Greek or Latin names of the faithful bear the echoes of their immediate past paganism — why name a child Sylvanus unless one remembers the spirits of the forest?

And so we have come to this, that we have made the dread of elves into the mockery of elfs, or the fear of Auld Nick into the jollity of Santa Claus. But not to pick at too fine a point, why should we not? As long as we remember that there is darkness out there, and that laughter and light will turn it back (if not fire and the sword), we have a worldview that is reasonably true.

It's always better to see the whole story though, and not just have a view of the stage from below. As Shakespeare wrote, "'Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil." We take comfort from that. Yet, we note that it was Lady M who said it in Act One, and we remember what that led to before the final resolution of Act Five.

We need to be mature, to try to see the whole battlefield and not just respond to the flashes of light and smoke. Then we can learn to fix our eyes upon the Christ, not merely the Bethlehem star; to see the perfection and finishing of faith, not just the faintly commemorative shadow of its beginnings. Though we see as through a glass darkly, we will see clearly soon, as if face to face.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Red Dot's Race

When I was young, I read genuinely profound books — books like Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh. My father managed to get omnibus editions, so that Alice came with Through the Looking-Glass and Winnie-the-Pooh came with The House at Pooh Corner.

Those books were educational. They taught me a lot about how to look at the world ambivalently and ambiguously enough, so that it could be seen more clearly and understood more comprehensively. At that time, I had no idea I was learning about such things.

But let me tell you how I felt when Atlantis, small city-state in a blue ocean turning redder by the day, was described as "a little red dot". I felt the instinctive deep-reality truth of that epithet. And I remembered, all at once, the Red Queen's race from Through the Looking-Glass.

For the little red dot is manifestly engaged in a Red Queen's race, and that is the nature of its existence. To indulge in anything else would be an existential threat.

The more you read, and the more you learn about the local system, the more you realise the alternatives are Pooh Corner and the Looking-Glass world. And it is genuinely hard to decide which is the better, if you think hard about it.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Losing Face

I have a terrible hypertrophy of the jaw muscles. It has taken some years of unconscious jaw-clenching, but finally, I have noticed the bulges that result from that practice.

It is bad that I have learnt these things too late. My face is stretched and malformed by the kind of artificial patience that owes nothing to natural temperament and too much to the capacity to grin and bear it. My stiff upper lip is not British, but from brygmoidal pain.

Similarly, my stiff-necked behaviour comes from trying to remain unbowed beneath the burdens of the world. Since I noticed this, I've learnt to be more humble. Bowing the head is preferable to breaking the neck.

And so, slowly, my face has sagged into anonymity. Life is good.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Statistical Review

I was just reviewing my data about the Citadel and its performance. Wolff looked at my tablet, and laughed. There was something not quite pleasant about his laughter. In fact, it was quite pointed. So I looked at the page more closely.

In that document I saw these figures for 2009:
Table 3 above shows that our students’ grade average has increased over the previous year — 6.48% as compared to 6.47% in 2008 in spite of a larger cohort of candidates.
And so, like any conscientious researcher, I decided to see if this was significant.

First, I found an obvious and rather sloppy error. 6.48 and 6.47 were absolute averages, not percentages. The 6.48 was an average score from n=425 and the 6.47 was an average score from n=406.

Second, I found that this was not a significant increase. An increase of 0.01 over 425 students is +4.25 points — quite possibly the effect of just one student doing a lot better than his counterpart in the previous cohort.

Actually, let's suppose that every student did better by half a grade point (or 0.083 per subject) on average. Then you'd have an average score of 6.55 at least. That this did not happen tells me that the Citadel has reached a sort of plateau. It had a bad year in 2008, but 2007 and 2009 seem about the same.

Ah well. Time will tell. With a cohort of about 450 this year, we should see an average of 6.56 for a significant gain. I suspect this will not happen. I could be wrong.


Note: Yes, I am aware that students with a full 42 subject points (over 6 subjects) can't do better than 7.00. However, one should hope that those doing badly will improve sufficiently to make up for lack of improvement at the top, since it is easier (percentage-wise) to improve a poor grade than a good one.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Reading the Mail

It used to be something to look forward to, that pile of envelopes addressed by human hands, with stamps from all around the world. And now, most are machine-addressed, machine-packed, machine-originated.

Our mail has lost its soul; it has gained in efficiency and lost its aura of historicity. Philately is now a game with sticky paper that is really not relevant anymore. Numismatics will follow soon, with only the ancient alloys bearing value.

Slowly, slowly, the horses of technological progress tug Time's chariot to a backyard stall, there forever to moulder and decay. Time's wings are now the dark shadow around us, a cloak of years and fears and tears — but no longer pulling any sort of chariot.

We tumble like weeds in the wake of the wind. The writing that's no longer on paper is on the wall.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Principal Investigator

When looking for grant money, the lead researcher is normally known as the principal investigator. It's his team, his overall concept and plan. What's amusing is the frequency with which people misspell the term 'principle investigator' — that would actually be someone who investigates principles, the basic ideas behind something.

But just as 'principle investigator' might mean 'investigator of principles', so too can 'principal investigator' mean 'investigator of principals' — that is, someone who looks into school leaders to see if they're kosher or not. This is the point that tickled me when someone recently called me 'principal investigator'.

I've never set out to be such a one. I've always been happy to contribute bits of research to a research group. And yet, these days, I am getting a lot of phone calls asking me to use my professional training and insight to analyse the performance of school principals.

About the only qualification I have for such a demanding task is the 'A' I got for a module I took a long time ago on principalship. Even then, the module was more on the mechanism of the office and how the accompanying powers might be used to effect school change through a range of human resource manoeuvres.

It was at around this point of self-denial that one of my interlocutors gave me a funny look. "Man," he said, "how much time have you spent reading and researching school management and school leaders anyway?"

Then it dawned on me. I am indeed somewhat qualified to do this because I've spent a fair amount of time on it already. I'm a lot more qualified than a layman even though I'm a lot less qualified than someone who's spent her or his whole life doing academic research on it. Maybe it helps that I've spent almost two decades working with a range of principals both as fellow-professional and slave.

And so, here I am, a principal researcher. I'm still pretty amused.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

On The Roof

I am sitting on the roof. Whether I am literally doing so or metaphorically doing so, it is all of the same effect. For as the Good Book says, it is good to dwell in the corner of the housetop, as is said in the Proverbs, and to stay there; and to preach what you have heard from it, as is written in the First Commission.

And perhaps that is one of the things that one thinks of when one listens to that lovely musical, 'Fiddler on the Roof'. Then I do, indeed, regret that I never learnt to play a stringed instrument.

But it is peaceful up on the roof, and it is a good night, a calm night, a silent night, a holy night.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Poisoned Chalice

For the last few weeks, I've had occasion to think deeply about the term 'a poisoned chalice'. A chalice is of course a ritual cup (from Latin calix, also Greek kalyx). The point about it being a ritual cup is that in the right (or wrong) circumstances, you are forced to drink from it; and if it proves poisoned, well, too bad.

Like many interesting phrases of the kind, this one originated from Shakespeare. It comes from that very familiar Scottish play — the one in which the intelligent eponymous monarch is harshly treated and maligned by the foreign playwright who is pandering to his own monarch. Here is the quote, from Act 1 Scene 7 of the play:
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come.
                                          But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.
The situation the Family has been mulling over is of course one in which a not-so-righteous leader has been eliminated by his own act, and there is as yet nobody who wants the chalice so ingeniously poisoned by that person.

And yet, somebody has to take the chalice, once an honourable vessel and now tainted by the venom of serpents. It is appalling that what should reside in the tail of the wyvern now comes forth from its mouth. But there it is, and only the Divine can do anything about it.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Democracy and Information

Imagine that each person is a mathematical point, a node. Each node can have two states: informed or not. And the nodes of a community are all connected in a network. The value of the network is determined by how many continuous chains of 'informed' nodes can be traced within the network, and how long and complex they are.

Logically, then, the value of the community increases the more 'informed' nodes there are. But in real life, the problem is that this imaginary construct is not real. In real life, people have infinitely different informational states and do things with their information, some of which are detrimental to the network.

Governance has two properties. First and most morally supportable, it allows the community to act optimally in keeping the community viable. Second and most unfortunate, it allows the community to divide itself into nodes that govern directly and nodes that don't.

In a democracy, information is supposed to make humans wise enough to govern themselves or to choose proxies that will do it for them. The problem is that information without effective application is not knowledge, and information without optimal effect is not wisdom.

That problem in turn is a problem of complexity — quite often, nobody knows what will be effective, let alone optimally so; worse, the people who are likely to figure it out are a minority that shrinks relative to the size of the population. If there is only one right answer, then as the population grows, the number of people who will figure it out will diminish in percentage simply because of the law of regression to the mean.

But hang on, some will say, surely they can share that answer, thus raising the percentage. Sadly, no. They can share that answer but it may not be believed, as was the case with Cassandra. In fact, the larger the number of non-enlightened, the harder it is to inform them, let alone convince them. Sharing is harder, and sharing effectively is worse.

In the end, it seems, the problem of very large numbers is simply solved but hard to accept. Since a large number of people will act as if it is controlled by a statistical model, then the larger the number, the more likely that effective control will either be by unremitting tyranny (perhaps, a machine autocracy or theocracy), or by complete anarchy with the understanding that any outcome will be considered right. The latter is the logical outcome of true democracy.

Empirical observation will show that neither extreme is viable. What is viable is a synthesis of the two extremes, but with one important proviso for each: the unremitting tyranny must not be unremitting, and the complete anarchy cannot be complete.

Tyranny must be balanced by forces that deny it, for nobody is wise enough to be God. And chaos must be checked with wisdom, for nobody will survive complete chaos. In both cases, information is the key; it must be withheld from those who would misuse it, and yet it must be available to all.

The state of information is never fixed, but the status it has within the continual negotiation of society is what keeps a society viable. The capacity for never-ending argument punctuated by tyrannical acts and anarchic opposition is what makes societies work. If you remove all punctuation, you get a text that is too malleable; if you remove all flexibility, you get a text that is too unpalatable.

So if you want democracy, you need to be prepared to sabotage it and yet defend against others' attempts to sabotage it. You must prepare to be rightly wrong and wrongly right. If you cannot tolerate this rather Heisenbergian situation, you should opt out altogether. Enjoy yourself.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Ides of December

Do you know who the saddest villains are? They aren't the ones who chose the dark side on their own, and neither are they the ones who could have been heroes but made the wrong choice.

The saddest villains are the ones who told themselves they were doing the right thing, and were not. Even when their leader reveals himself as the Red Skull, or a Dark Lord of the Sith, or some other sort of archvillain, they continue believing. Countless, voiceless, nameless — and above all, desperately trying to be decent folks doing the right thing — they will take the bullets and the collateral damage.

In the aftermath, as the HAZMAT teams rake over the radioactive debris and their bodies are found, there will be shaking of heads. Some might uncharitably say, "They deserved it."

But that is where 'sad' comes in. They don't really seem to deserve it. They just made the best choices their intelligence and perception allowed them to make. They trusted in their own understanding and that's where it led them. They stood by the wrong principles because they had not considered what ground they stood on, and so were misled and fell.

There are important reminders for those of us who say, "They deserved it," or, "They were [not very clever people]." One of those is this: "Let those who think they stand be careful lest they fall." And it goes for all of us.

So yes, it's fine to be sad about the saddest villains. But learning from that is more important, just in case one day we find ourselves on the wrong end of, "They deserved it."

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Curious Morality of Doomsday

The United States of America maintains forward bases all over the world. The list of such bases is extensive, a hand of many digits grasping the lands of all the world. The USA maintains these bases in the interests of its own national security, and as a distant secondary, the occasional security of its allies.

At bases like Diego Garcia, a US-occupied atoll which is actually part of the British Indian Ocean Territories, this hegemonic power maintains hundreds of cruise missiles capable of delivering extreme munitions (think 'weapons of mass destruction') to sites anywhere along the periphery of the inhabited rim of the Indian Ocean.

Why should that concern us? It should concern most of the world because the western edge of that rim is the east coast of Africa, the northern edge consists of the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, and the eastern edge is south-east Asia. If you take the time to map out the locations of American bases where they shouldn't be, you will find that the US is the one nation able to visit doomsday upon any other state in the world.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are the hypocrites who are pointing fingers at relatively harmless (I say 'relatively', mind you) states such as Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan for possible possession of nuclear weapons. It seems not to concern us that the world's policeman has the policy of 'we get to carry weapons and nobody else does', while at home a large proportion of their people says that everyone should have the right to bear arms.

They are also the most ostentatiously 'Christian' nation on earth, excepting the Holy See. I wouldn't mind if they were less ostentatious, because the nature of their ostentation is one that Jesus calls attention to: it is the ostentation of the white-washed tomb, the public announcement of charity, the display of holiness. And a lot of them would hate to be called Christian anyway, it seems.

In this age, it is more like the silk suit of the gangster or the gold chain of the pimp. Which is not to say that all Americans are bad; rather, they have created such a large and powerful rogue state that it is the default 'good' of this benighted world. It reminds me of what Sir John Harrington said a long time ago: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

America, if any state could be so, is the Babylon of the age, the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar beholden to the power of evil. What it needs is the moderating influence of a Daniel, and more. The solution to an evil world is not to have a greater evil come along and blow it up while saying pretty things about democracy.

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Monday, December 13, 2010


As Leibniz said, "That which acts cannot be destroyed." It is a line that bears repetition and meditation, and I continue to think about it.

Where action is not profitable, gather information; where information is not profitable, sleep. This thought was expressed first by Ursula Le Guin.

Put the two together. Think very hard.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thunder and the Cat

The cat sleeps outside, in his little home next to the wall, all snug. He's one of those ginger toms, but one who loves human company. And when at night, if there is thunder, he will meow plaintively. He wants a human presence.

I've found that just walking downstairs within six feet of his home is sufficient human presence to quell the meowing. It will keep him calm for at least 30 minutes, maybe an hour. He will hide in his house, and burrow into his catness.

I remember being young and missing human company. It was a lot cooler to pretend to a sort of Gothic aesthetic in which high and lonely was normal, and a jaded affect was a typical response. But sometimes, when the thunder cannonaded off the high places and the abyss opened up, it was nice to know somebody was around.

The right thing for a religious person is to seek comfort in one's religious basis, like a cat in its home. But I've found that most faiths also stress the lateral relationship between a person and his friends and relatives. It is the horizontal net that catches a person more securely and more reassuringly. The vertical rope is the safety of the bungee jumper, and it is a terrifying ride.

The only reason you are reading this is that the cat is meowing again. There is thunder, and the promise of a cold night's rain. I walk downstairs. The cat closes his eyes. He is reassured, and there is peace.

Out in the world, there comes a storm. People are nervous. They meow, or like the pigs, our closest intellectual cousins, they squeal. Imagine: God walks downstairs. The wise human is reassured, and there is peace.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Three (Again!)

Recently, I've been meditating on the idea of threeness. The point about three is that it is the minimum number of points that will define a plane; it is the minimum number of points that when connected by straight lines on a plane will give a shape. Two is good, but three is difficult to break.

And so it comes to pass that I think of threeness. I think of faith, hope and love, and how Paul (that arch-crafter of philosophical epistles) manages to squeeze them into the first epistle to the church at Thessalonica: "Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope..."

Some of this will seem boringly familiar to some of you. Indeed, I've mused about these three virtues before, and even with a reversed perspective of sorts here.

But some of you might be appalled or made uneasy or amused by the fact that some nights, as I sit and sip my Bordeaux (of whatever vintage, some better than others), I think of all the people I've taught and who have taught me. I think of my first teachers — my parents and grandparents, and my last students (and I think, O God, please may I continue to have more).

And as I think of all of these people, I remember what Paul (and his fellow workers Silvanus and Timothy) remembered without ceasing: the work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope that others have shown in exemplary manner. And the night gives way to dawn.

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Friday, December 10, 2010


One of the most fearsome images of my childhood was that of Belshazzar's feast. It is the scene, described in the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel, in which part of a hand appears and writes mysterious glyphs upon the plaster of a wall, illuminated by candlelight. That is what is referred to whenever someone mentions 'the writing on the wall' as a sign of coming doom.

Daniel writes:
But (thou, O Belshazzar) hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified:

Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written. And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
These are ominous words indeed, and verily, that night, Belshazzar is slain and Babylon falls to Darius.

Sudden downfalls are always, in retrospect, presaged by mounting desires to find glory and claim it for oneself. Bellerophon rides Pegasus toward Olympus and is cast down; Phaethon rides the chariot of Helios to fiery doom; Icarus flies so high that his wings disintegrate; Herod claims glory as a god and is struck down by worms; Nebuchadnezzar claims that Babylon is the product of his might and honours his majesty, and loses his mind. The trick, as with most forms of power, it seems would be to diffuse the energies before they burn you up; it is self-destroying to keep glory to oneself, especially if one does not deserve it.

Whatever people think of the Bible (and indeed, of any other book of lessons), the fact is that there is learning to be had in it. There are reminders of human limits and, with those, the idea of redemption.

Nebuchadnezzar, acting like a beast of the field, is eventually restored; Belshazzar, who has never shown anything but blasphemous license, is not. Icarus, soaring too high, has his broken body recovered by Daedalus, more cautious and slightly wiser. So endeth the lesson.

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Thursday, December 09, 2010


On the home page of the Online Etymology Dictionary, which many of you will know I explore with alarming frequency, is found this statement: "This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they're explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago."

One of the problems I've found with young people (by which I mean people aged 25 or so and below) arises from the fact that they were born in the mid-1980s or later, were tiny tots as 9 Nov 1989 passed by with a whimper and a bang, and conveniently missed most or all of the excitement of the Cold War, which they read as historical stuff akin to the rise of Mesopotamian city-states. The problem is that they are thoroughly post-modern.

They think of states as primitive geographical features that somehow arose with the Treaty of Westphalia; they think of societies as pre-Marxist, Marxist and post-Marxist; they have no idea what democracy really is, or why republicanism ought (but isn't) to be a more civilised (Latin) or politic (Greek) form of it. This leads to ludicrous arguments in which they argue that globalisation will destroy the very idea of statehood simply because the physical barriers are easily overcome by technology.

That's a bit like joining Aldous Huxley in predicting that the very idea of parenthood will be destroyed simply because the physical acts of becoming a parent and then parenting are easily overcome by technology. It can be imagined, but it isn't likely unless humans overcome their natures and become post-humans.

Will that happen? Perhaps, it might. But my sincere belief is that if we ever become post-humans of the kind our ancestors might have worshipped, armed with sub-attotechnology and wielding the raw forces of coloured gravitonics and suchlike, we will only be like the gods of ancient Assyria and Achaia and other such old powers.

We will just be humans writ large and strange (or small and stranger), but still humans, attempting to bootstrap our way out of humanity and still being tightly shoelaced via leather to our soles. Or souls, whichever.

In tracing our paths to the stars and the uttermost bounds (or boundlessnessess) of the universe, all we will be doing is extending the wheelruts of a cart drawn by aa tired ox through a dusty, sparsely grassy, valley in the high summer of Mesopotamian hills long gone.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Logic and Reason

It should not be a surprise to anybody that a logical position is not the same as a rational position. Both are positions derived from rules, but both have weaknesses arising from the kind of rules they use.

A logical position arises from consideration of what is valid and what is not; that is, after rules are established, it becomes possible to evaluate whether a position is allowable by the rules or not.

A rational position arises from consideration of what is likely or possible, and what is not; that is, after evaluating a position as possible, rules are generated to validate or invalidate the position.

The strength of any particular logic is that things are either consistent or not. If things cannot be determined to be consistent or not, then the logic is insufficient or the thing is not amenable to that particular logic. This makes everything simple. The weakness of logic is that if the system has false or inappropriate axioms, analysis will fail.

The strength of reason is that it can draw on any prior semi-stable (or better) position as a basis of explanation; it casts a very wide net that includes the use of logic without precluding voices of authority, magic, philosophy, religion, intuition, faith and inspiration. This makes it both reasonable and not — and this is reason's weakness as well.

Logic and reason are not the same thing at all. A reasonable person is not necessarily a logical person. A purely logical person cannot deal with most human constructs simply because the axioms behind such things are mostly unknown — and where axioms are unknown, logic cannot be applied.

The reasonable man may also be an unreasonable man, although George Bernard Shaw, who famously said that all progress depends on the unreasonable man, would ram the difference down your throat. The logical man, however, is also the incomplete man, as Kurt Gödel would have pointed out.

On the balance of things, I would prefer to be reasonable than logical. Most humans would agree.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

All Shall Be Well

As the blessed dame Julian of Norwich said, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well." And she also said, "Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. Everything passes away except God." And thus did I conclude that the blessed dame had a habit (haha) of saying all manner of things in trinities.

So too it is with the most puissant Argonaut, who in days past counselled me saying, "In our island are the evils of (parental) insecurity, (student) inadequacy, and (teacher) incompetency. It is certain that someone should profit from this insanity. Let it therefore be us, for at least we are competent, conscientious, and clever."

Half a day ago, I had lunch with several very kindly and decent fellow professionals. I learnt a lot about things I had guessed were true, and of which I had heard rumours. The whole thing was painful because it forced me to remember things best forgotten; and yet, it was a good thing because sometimes we must face that which we most dislike.

But all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. And if not, one might still have recourse to the extended vocabulary of one's ancestral legacy. Whatever that might be.


Note: The good friar tells me that 'twas not Julian of Norwich but Teresa of Avila for the second quote. Blessed, both.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

How To Read The News

There are three main kinds of news that you might end up reading — and by the way, you might want to reflect on why I am confining myself to text media. The two important kinds are emergent phenomena that are of consequence (i.e. there will be sequelae with impact) and abnormal phenomena that have no consequence unless we are mad enough to assume that they are commonplace (i.e. they influence our actions when they shouldn't). The third kind is quotidian phenomena with commonplace consequences (i.e. stuff like Arsenal beating Fulham 2-1 at home). I am not talking about opinion, debate, or argument; neither am I talking about advertising or humour of any kind.

When reading the news, what we should not do is react to it as if it required immediate action. The time for immediacy is past, and what ought to take place is rapid analysis based on as many data sources as you can get hold of.

Neither should we assume that what has happened is typical or commonplace. If it were, it would not be news material. What follows is a chain of loosely-linked paragraphs on what I thought about while I was reading the local news. It's been modified a bit to protect the useless news organisation involved.

If a person is murdered five kilometres from you, but this has been only the fourth murder reported in a population of five million for the last 3 months, then you live in a pretty safe area. If murders are no longer reported, then either your population is incredibly safe or extremely dangerous, because the alternative is that murders are so common that they're not worth reporting.

When I read about a person who has made $25m since she went bankrupt three years ago, my instinct is to say, "Good for her!" and not "I'm going to do what she did!" Why? Because that would entail me going bankrupt first and then suffering for three years, of course. (There is a direct parallel to those people who claim Biblical promises out of context.) Besides, this is not a normal occurrence. It can't be.

When I read about North Korea firing missiles into South Korean territory, I don't draw parallels between Israel and Lebanon, Pakistan and India, or Singapore and Malaysia. Would we draw parallels between the US and Mexico and the two Koreas? I think not. There is seldom any fitting parallel between events in one part of the world and another, unless extensive historical analysis shows extreme equivalence.

In fact, the larger the body of people involved, the more likely the equivalence, simply because of the statistical regression towards the mean for behaviour of large numbers of humans. So rough parallels between world-spanning empires can be drawn — but only if they have many points of similarity. So far, the best cultural fit is that between the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica. Whether there is a Pax Americana with sufficient points of equivalence is disputable.

So how should we read the news? I will have to disappoint everyone by saying, "Sparingly and with a very ruthless eye. Most events reported have zero impact on readers, except to make them think they know what is happening in the world around them. And the TV news is worse."

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Sunday, December 05, 2010


The quality of being excellent is purely contextual. Something is said to excel when it rises above its surroundings, its context, or its neighbours. It follows therefore that nothing can be excellent unless it is compared to something else. Indeed, excellere is the Latin for 'to be made loftier (than something else)'.

In that sense, it is related to another Latin word, excedere — 'to go or pass beyond (something else)'. It is where we get the words 'exceed' and 'excess'. If something is excellent, it is excessive in the vertical sense.

Excellence, therefore, is excess. It may be useful to strive for excellence, but excellence in itself relies on comparison. Take away the context, and excellence fails in itself.

But this is true of many other things. Perhaps it is good to compare the words 'abnormal' and 'enormous'. Both are comparisons with 'normal' — the former means 'away from the norm', while the latter means 'out of the norm'. I leave you to decide which is better.

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Saturday, December 04, 2010


Large, he waited at the bottom of the river. In time, the riverbed became his bed. The journeys of mortals and immortals across it concerned him not. He waited because it was his nature to wait unless summoned. And those who would summon him were few indeed.


Wolff poled his way in a small flat-bottomed punt across the channel. The channel followed the road to the tin mines, as it had in the past. The goddess of wisdom had made it her home, amidst stands of maple and towards the more clement parts of the land.

Little creatures chirped and burped, mewed and croaked, trilled and hummed all around him. He found himself smiling at a frog, laughing at a flycatcher.

And then, the river erupted around him. Aooooouuuuuuuuwwuuwuwwrgggh.

He found himself looking into the maw of something that was part giant bloodworm, part crustacean, part legendary nightmare. The ravens flapping away did little to distract him from the sulfurous taint of rotting vegetation as the huge mouth dripped its fangs at him.

Wolff said, Hello.

The mouth closed. One of the two ravens approached and fluttered noisily onto Wolff's punt. It spoke to him in the silent speech, eye to eye. Lord Malbractes the Large and Horrible says, "Oh it is you. Where are you going?"

Wolff said, It is beginning again.

There was a microbelch, but enough to stink up the surroundings and extinguish flames. Wolff winced.

The raven winked beadily, as if by accident. Lord Malbractes says, "Stop sticking your pole into the ribs of a sleeping person. Go away. And give my regards to the Lady."

Wolff replied, I will.


Large and terrible, Malbractes slept. In the world of mortals above him, Wolff found his way into another campaign.

This time, however, Wolff carried the stenchful blessings of Malbractes. This time, he would win. The distant voices of his ancestors prophesied war. And Bishop William's sword glowed fitfully.


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, December 03, 2010


The world is becoming multipolar, according to all kinds of sources. But that's a silly 'sky is falling' sort of statement. The world has always been multipolar; it's just that sometimes, the narrative has required some sort of Zoroastrian dualism (e.g. 'The American Way' vs 'The Evil Empire') or some sort of divine exceptionalism (e.g. 'Rule Britannia'). The complex poetry of the world has always been made prosaic by clever people who hate the messiness.

Look at science. Science is democratic. In theory, everyone can be part of the formal discourse because everyone shares the same starting axioms and the same reasoning process. In practice, science is elitist. It creates spiraling towers of horn and ivory, as more of it is formed into more and more specialised stuff and fewer and fewer people know what to do with it — or what can be done with it.

Look at democracy. Democracy is evil. Why? Because humans very well know that the worst thing to trust is humanity. And yet we claim that we want everyone to have the same rights and powers and privileges because all humans are equal in some sense. But democracy is good, because it gives us the comforting illusion that someone who is better than us isn't really better, and that anyone can be as good as anyone else.

These two forces are the greatest movements of the modern age. They have undeniably done much to improve human conditions from a human point of view. But they persist in making enemies, not because they are good things (and thus persecuted) but because they are human, and thus imperfect. And they love trampling over other ideas because they are good at it.

But shouldn't they win, since they are better ideas? The point is that we don't know for sure that they are better ideas. There is no objective point to view them except through the anthropocentric lens of being. We can philosophize all we want, but all we know is that they are convincing ideas to many humans. They win a lot of 'marketplace of ideas' competitions — but the marketplace of ideas can only exist in a world where democracy and science have a significant presence.

I like both democracy and science because they make my life comfortable. If that is how we decide what is good, then I guess that's good. But I'm uncomfortable about thinking that. So what else should I think?

I think I should not conform to the pattern of this world, I think.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

What is Education?

I believe that education is...
  • a near-fundamental human right
  • a process in which people learn to transform data into information and information into knowledge
  • a political activity
  • a drawing out of the mind's awareness
  • an attempt to develop reflection and self-reflection
Actually there are many things that education is. Not all of them are good things, and yet, at its core, it is a necessary thing for any real life at all.

Note that I'm not answering the question, "What is an education?" I'm not even giving a detailed enough answer to my original question. But it is a question I ask myself as often as once a day.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

New Day

It's over, thought Wolff. No more will the gulled cry at the walls. No more inappropriate questions at inappropriate times, about one's personal and private life. No more inappropriate behaviour more fitting to some Siberian birchwood sauna. If the Citadel had ViciLeaks, a single shiny platter would not have been enough for the two decades of abuse of power, of shameful treatment, of exile of the faithful, of tormenting the vulnerable.

Let those who do not believe continue unbelieving, said Wolff to himself. They can have whatever peace of mind they forge for themselves. It does not change the facts. It does not change the many testimonies of people whose lives were manipulated for ill, who were made to feel unclean.

But what we do after the rebuke and the removal must be in terms of repentance and restoration. And so it was that Wolff sank down on his knees to pray for the soul of the Grand Inquisitor, for it was the right thing to do, and he had finally brought himself to the point of realising it.

He felt the heavy breathing of the Hound of Heaven slow and lighten behind him. He did not dare turn around.


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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