Monday, January 31, 2011


Today was a good day in the bowels of the Citadel of Wyverns, at the Crescent of the Dogs. Much learning occurred, with no interruptions except for food and coffee. This is how learning ought to take place. And so, fun was had by all.


Sunday, January 30, 2011


It may be a rather small room, and the class will be small. But it will be the first class I will have conducted in a citadel of the Wyverns, since 17 March 2008.

It may seem a rather small grace, and the reward might seem small. But it will be the first time since that fateful day, that I have gained any reward from them.

I will be having lunch in a refectory, surrounded by young wyverns in white and blue. It will be an unfamiliar experience that I never thought would be unfamiliar.

I wonder how Wolff will feel. I look forward to meeting old comrades and new. And the first thought that comes to mind on that particular matter is: Rawrrrrrrr!

Aside from the thoughts I have that are related to Shelley's Ozymandias, of course.

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Cold Showers

It has rained for another twelve consecutive hours. Continual drizzle, punctuated by moments of storm. The air is filled with wet, and at times like this, I think of the Gulf Stream.

I also think of how important cold showers are in the bigger picture of things. There are times when cold showers are just shocks to the system without much real use. But there are times when they are lovely episodes in a brassy and overheated day.

The times ahead feel interesting. Cold showers brace you for such events.


Saturday, January 29, 2011


Wolff, once a knight, looked into the tray. It was an odd tray, full of many seeds. The seeds were green and gold, silver and brass, nut and mahogany, shining in the bright sun. He squinted at the Accountant.

Milord Accountant, what is it you do with these? Surely you are not regressing to being a bean counter? He who has beans, has been!

The Accountant grimaced at this impromptu witticism and unfurled his wings. Just a tiny bit, enough to remind Wolff of what he really was.

These are the new seeds, young knight. Primus, the old dead wood must be cleared; secundus, you are still a knight. Each new seed sprouts to balance the old wood that dies. Primus, the Highest has made it so; secundus, by His grace, none know what each seed will bring; tertius, we take it on faith that the Books will balance. At the last trump. Note: trump can be a horn, trump can be a card, both are instruments, and can be final.

Wolff grimaced in return. He had heard the Accountant was prone to speaking in footnotes. He wondered whose tray it was. And then he saw the sign of the wyvern.

Yes, so it is. And what a mess it is, to account for all of it.


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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Friday, January 28, 2011


In the day just past, I was extremely hungry. A raisin bun, half a chunk of mozzarella, a Vegemite sandwich, muesli with yoghurt, two coffees, small dumplings, half a plate of vegetables, a bowl of garlic soup, rice... I was still hungry.

In desperation, I jumped up and down. Of course, that didn't help. I drank water. Nope. Two large glasses. Nope. Chinese tea. Argh, worse.

I devoured two books, running to about 800 pages. Brain hurts, hunger remains. Cellulose does not help if you cannot digest it.

The last resort of the unaccountably peckish turned out not to be chocolate (dark, with nice fillings) but... honey-roasted macadamia nuts. The calorific content must be very high.

And so, to bed.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Queen Steam

The Age of Steam is Victorian by nature; it spans what is often called the 'Long 19th Century' of human history (1776-1914, by some accounts), as did much of Victoria's life and reign as Queen of England. This is an important coincidence.

Why? Because of the whole relatively new genre of steampunk, which in fits and starts (much like an early steam engine) began during that period, with authors such as Verne and Wells, and continued sporadically to flower in the spirit of Golden-Ageism.

As I've often remarked to my students, 1901 was when the certainties of the world seemed to shift — the queen of half the world had died after being Queen for more than 60 years, two generations at least of all mankind. Fifteen years later, in 1916, another certainty crumbled when the Battle of the Somme saw 1.5 million casualties, mostly due to machine guns, barbed wire, mud, germs and explosive bombardment.

Steampunk harks back to the mythical Golden Age of Victoria, Regina et Imperatrix. It was a time when scientific invention still remembered its mythic roots, the time of Dorian Gray, Jekyll & Hyde, Sherlock Holmes. Tarzan of the Apes came along in 1912. It was a good time, and a dark time, and the inspiration for those who would revive the baroque of its ideas in the 1960s.

In 1886, Arsenal Football Club, the Citadel of the Wyverns, Mercedes-Benz, Coca-Cola, and the Statue of Liberty all arrived. And that was just one of those wonder-filled years of the Victorian Era.

I have been reading a lot of this steampunk stuff in the last few months. It has become rather the rage in some literary circles, and for a long time, I diligently avoided it because of that. But I am, as the Gnome pointed out, a member of a society which has strangely Victorian traits — liberality and adventure mixed with formality and custom. And so, I have succumbed.

I wonder to what extent that world still affects (or afflicts) the neo-moderns. Post-modernism may be passé now, but yet there is still a love for brass and steam, elegance and velvet, iron and raw courage. These things have their counterparts in many ages, but seldom have they formed such a durable mixture. Or maybe I feel that way only because I am an incurable romantic.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011


It seems that I have become a person whose words sometimes loom larger than life. It happens, and it is not always a happy event. After all, as St James said, the tongue is a naughty thing. And of course, making it more powerful leads to naughtier outcomes.

So it is, that when I say a day will be interesting, I am suddenly surrounded by clouds of people speculating on why it will be interesting and how so. It seems to be assumed that I am such a connoisseur of 'interesting' that a day I deem interesting is of the kind that would be horribly fascinating to anyone else.

No, no. When I say a day will be interesting, it mostly means that I have identified a point of certain interest to me. When I say a day looks like it will be interesting, it normally means that it seems that way, but may not turn out to be.

I would like to think that I am a normal human, with as much precognitive talent as the rest. My prognostications ('foreknowledgings'?) are to be taken with as much sense of foreshadowing and preternatural insight as anyone else's. Mostly. Normally.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Ceramic Legacy

The oldest technologies are often the best, simply because they were the first. Clay and brick, cement and concrete, porcelain, superconductors, pottery, tiles — these are the ceramic legacy. As I was reminded last night while reading the fourth chapter of the second epistle to the Isthmus, I am a jar of clay.

My legacy, therefore, is one of storage and structure, protection and placement, resistance and refraction. I keep an eternal glory inside, and like any well-made vessel, as long as I am sealed, the pressure within me must perforce exceed the pressure without.

This then is why I am hard-pressed on every side but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed. I have a ceramic legacy that will not rust, and being well-made, will not break under the natural conditions of use.

There is a corollary to that, though. Some day, I will be poured out. The light of what is within me will be released. The ceramic vessel will be emptied. And containing nothing more, it will only thereafter be of ceremonial use.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Blue Ocean Tragedy

I first heard this song in a wonderful, slightly insane TV comedy called Gilligan's Island. It was a sort of crazy American version of the standard marooned-on-a-distant-island plot, back in the days before GPS and all kinds of high-powered communications devices. I think it went something like this:
The Ballad of Gilligan's Isle

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship

The mate was a slightly flighty type,
The Skipper brave and sure
Five other people sailed that day
Upon the ocean blue, upon the ocean blue

The weather started getting rough
The tiny ship was tossed
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost

The ship set ground on the shore of this
Uncharted desert isle
And here's a list of all that ditched
On this deserted isle, on this deserted isle

[I'm sure I've got the list wrong, they can't all be women.]

So this is the tale of our castaways
They're here for a long, long time
They'll have to make the best of things
It's an uphill climb

The first mate and the Skipper, too
Will do their very best
To make the others comfortable
From their tropic eagle's nest

So join us here each week, my friends
You're sure to get a smile
From seven stranded castaways
Here on Gilligan's Isle
Do forgive me if I've got any of the lyrics wrong. It's been a long time, and sometimes, your neural net makes the wrong connections, influenced by the many other events that have impinged upon it during the intervening years.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Parent

These days, you read a lot about the clash between supposedly Confucianist discipline and supposedly Western-Enlightenment discipline as ways of developing children who are either successful or creative, or both. To me, proponents of both are attempting to bake cakes using either flour alone or using butter and sugar with no flour.

In the former approach, you will be successful. You might get a lovely piece of rock-hard inflexible gluten that will last forever, or something softer but edible. In the latter, you will always get something edible, but it won't last.

The great news is that life tends to add whatever you missed out on. Parenting is not the sole determinant of most lives. It's the most important in most cases, but how much more important it is compared to environmental and peer influences varies and has varied greatly from place to place and across historical periods.

Think about that greatly scientific Enlightenment household, the Victorian classical stereotype. I think it might have been as gruelling, or more so, than the modern 'Chinese' tiger-parent style so recently lambasted in the newspapers and magazines.

Modern parenting based on reason is certainly a success by accident in a majority of cases, judging from the desired outcomes as opposed to the actual outcomes. And since the mid-1990s, we've known a lot more about how human brains work — and the child-rearing literature hasn't caught up with the truth yet.

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Citadel Miniatures

Tiny plastic figures, set out on the tabletop. In the middle, a great tower rises. Who knows? It might yet make both cross and castle dark. These painted figures, they are all one side. And there is another side.

Is this a game of Warhammer? Does anyone know the score?

The thoughts that flap around my head are like ravens around the Tower of London. No doubt, if they stopped, I would too.

But they are there, and still no king is in sight, and the big cauldron bubbles again and again, whistling and mumbling its song of undeath through the blasted heath.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011


across a table
what did the gryphon’s daughter
give the wyvern’s son?


Friday, January 21, 2011


Critical thinking, contrary to common opinion, is not about questioning. Rather, it is about pursuing clarity. As pointed out elsewhere, 'seeing something clearly' is one of the most common metaphors for understanding.

In this context, questioning with intent to elucidate is merely one of the tools in the armamentarium by which we are illuminated. We must learn to ask the right questions with the intent firmly in mind; a question whose answer will not enlighten further is not as useful as one whose answer will.

My choice of words here is quite deliberate. 'Elucidate', 'illuminate' and 'enlighten' all mean roughly the same thing — they have to do with the quality of making things brighter. 'Elucidate' comes from Latin lux, and 'lucid' means 'clear and bright', or perhaps, 'clearer because/therefore brighter'. 'Illuminate' comes from Latin luminis, the quality of radiance; 'enlighten' is mostly used metaphorically these days, and equivalent to 'illuminate'.

The problem of living in a darkened world dates back to the metaphor of Plato's cave. However, because the post-Enlightenment world has made us more aware of darkness, most people now seek more to enlighten themselves than the rest of the world. It seems, somehow, easier to be responsible for yourself than for other people.

And so, nowadays, criticism has negative connotations. We sometimes do not critique to enlighten, but to cast a shadow over others, or to muddy the waters. It is all a very sad state of affairs. But we are called upon to be a light which cannot be hidden, not a shadow that cannot be dispelled.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011


The problem all began when people made things too complex for other people to understand. In the bureaucratic mazes, it was already difficult to locate the object of one's quest. Then the bureaucracies went online and many of the members of such organizations suddenly found that they themselves could not understand the new paradigm.

Hence, the rise of the helpdesks.

But these helpdesks, manned by eager but quickly tiring servitors, proved to be yet another layer in the rapidly evolving wall of inadvertent obfuscation. Sometimes they did not understand either the people trying to get things done through the bureaucracy or the bureaucracy that was supposed to get things done.

For example:
1. Please enter your account with your username and password and click 'Login'.
2. Access your services by clicking 'Services'.
3. Select 'Invoices' to see if you need to pay any fees.
4. If you have difficulties, contact helpdesk at [redacted] or email us at [redacted].
5. You cannot access your email unless you have logged on.
6. Your access will be withdrawn if you have not paid any fees.
And after all that, yes, you may contact the bureaucracy.

This is the kind of situation for which you contact the helpdesk. But the helpdesk may not understand you. For a start, they will assume you have a username, provided by the bureaucracy which you must contact in order to obtain a username.

I feel sorry for the people who man the helpdesks of the world. Nobody understands them, and I wonder how often they ask themselves what they are doing there anyway.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The idea of the universe as a coiling — of strings, a mainspring, a great serpent, or a ball of thread — is a key entropy-defeating idea. Nobody likes loose ends, a blind watchmaker, a mad snake or a universe at odds with itself. This is why in all our human attempts to construct the universe as an understandable concept, we prefer to ravel rather than unravel.

It is also why we think up theurges and demiurges to assist the Highest in the work of making. We have gods like Hephaistos, with his metallic handmaidens and his dactyls at the forge; we have the Moirai weaving the huge tapestry of the threads of life; and in all the other mythologies, the smiths and weavers, the potters and tinker(er)s, the architects and builders.

There are easier models for the larger universe — an egg that hatches, ice that melts, a river coalescing, a word out of nothing that becomes light. But each of us prefers smaller gods, because they are just like us, daily makers of daily goods.

Yet everyone pays tribute also to unwinding. The great escapement must in the end still allow the mainspring to unwind, the strings to uncoil, the serpent to sleep; and the thread to run out, to be cut, to fail. A poker hand might fold, but the sky and the story both unfold.

Sometimes the task is not one of making or unmaking, but of puzzle-solving. You need a hero for that. If there is a knot of vipers, that hero must be prepared to sacrifice a limb, or turn blue with venom, or even die saving the day. Not all heroes are hero enough.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Clogged Brains

Clear your clogged brains, said the ads. Use [Substance X], which more often than not seemed to be largely composed of some incredibly caustic chemical (powdered sodium hydroxide, perhaps) or some strong acid (like concentrated hydrochloric acid).

This happened before I discovered the joys of selective dyslexia and when I was prone to accidental dyslexia. But this morning, I remembered it.

I have a clogged brain. I think that since the beginning of October last year, fragments of waste have been swirling around so much that my normally impeccable filters have been clogged. Almost every day, somebody asks me about stuff I'd rather not think about. Each shrug I make in response releases a little piece of sewage, the stub of spam, the s... o' s....

It is hard not to think of the huge stool-accumulation that the pigeons have built over at the Citadel. And it is being piled higher and deeper too. By the time THIS year ends, the monument of the previous age will be something like Nauru.

And so I shall attempt to clear my clogged brain. With something really caustic, perhaps a dose of Chesterton, or any one of the fine writers I seem to have stockpiled. The Good Book has always been wise in recommending lack of speech as an alternative to badly-clogged brains.

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Monday, January 17, 2011


There is a little pill I know
It sets your tender joints aglow
It lets your stiffened muscles flow

There is a little tab I've seen
It haunts my dreams in silver screen
It jaunts around all dressed in green

And this is how I know it's true
The time has come that I must rue
Now I'm all old and grey and blue

Timor mortis conturbat me
Yet no COX-2 inhibits me
This is arcoxiology.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

After Brezhnev, Andropov

There are remarkable similarities (of course, also differences) between the regime changes at the Citadel and the regime changes in the Soviet Union. It almost seems that we have made the transition from Leonid Brezhnev to Yuri Andropov. Those who have eyes to read, let them read.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winter Queen

It is always hard when one comes into power in the twilight of a bitter war, thought Wolff to himself. He stood at attention, Bishop William's sword grounded and burning quietly at rest, content to wait as he saw the trial unfold at a distance.

After the fall of the Grand Inquisitor, power had been granted to the Oldest of his Circle. It had always been the way; even before any High Lord of the Citadel had even had a circle of any kind, the next highest in the Rule had ascended after the loss of a High Lord. Yet, the Grand Inquisitor had been the first ever to have no obvious heir and a circle (a pentagram, perhaps, Wolff wondered) instead.

Never since the days of Thomas of sad memory had the Citadel been so beset by forces beyond its control. Yet Thomas's predecessors had all been good men, and he himself had not been an evil one.

The Oldest had broken tradition. A cruel usurper with many other differences from all before, the Oldest had become a victim to pride and fallen on the other side. The Oldest was not meant to have sat upon the Throne. But the usurper had acted in its place without humility.

Now, the winter of discontent was coming down like a howling snowstorm in all fury. Wolff watched, and only Bishop William's ancient fire kept him warm.


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.



What is the difference between 'Backspace' and 'Delete'? Clearly, 'Backspace' merely shifts the cursor one space backwards, whereas 'Delete' erases what it backspaces over.

So what is the difference between 'Option' and 'Alternate'? Ah, this is fun. 'Option' means you have something else to look at; 'Alternate' means you only have two options.

Sometimes, the verities of the keyboard jump up and strike. Or at least, they used to do so in the days when a key really was a long piece of metal with shaped protrusions and indentations at the other end.

Those days are gone now, and backspacing does not backtime.

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Friday, January 14, 2011


The order of the world is corrupt, and all things come to an end. For things to get better, they must first get worse. Bond-breaking precedes bond-making. And so on.

Story-tellers know this, and so do chemists. Economists, psychologists, and witch-doctors of all kinds also know this. Yet we hope that it is not in our own time that the end of the existing order will come, for it is always painful.

If I had a RESET button for things, I would declare the Year of Jubilee and the forgiveness of debts. And the economic order would fall into chaos and there would be much suffering, and yet perhaps a better order would arise. But I am not the one who declared the Year of Jubilee on human sin and announced the forgiveness thereof.

And back at a certain scholastic institution, the RESET is poised to fall. I am sure there will be jubilation.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

January Session

For some reason, January is when all the budding epistemologists crawl out of their winter depression to hunt the elusive responses to questions on the theory of knowledge. It is interesting to see how one can be of help and yet not so helpful.

Just the other day, I had a note from a young person saying, "Errm, could you make your responses easier to understand so I can put them in my essay?"

I wasn't quite sure how to answer that one. I admit my ramblings are not always easy to understand — hey, in retrospect I myself can't figure out a few of them. But mostly, they aren't so difficult, and they do make some sort of sense.

Over the years, the time-sensitivity of human knowledge needs has increased to the point where impatience has become a counter-virtue. Everything is needed quickly with minimum effort. Every fix must be shot up into the brain, bypassing the sensible metabolism of useful filters.

It distresses me. It leads to problems with universal attention span and ability to retain stuff. Recently, I discovered that Primary 4 students (children mostly turning 10 that year) learn all the facts about air that O-level students (young people mostly turning 16 that year) need to know. Yet I've noticed that for some reason, most of the 16 year olds have forgotten all of it.

Then again, when I was in school, carbon dioxide levels were at 0.03%, and now they're at 0.042%; they've gone up 40% (yes, yes, confusing, I know) since then. Some things need to be updated and the latest figures used, certainly. But topics like discussing how doubt is the key to knowledge will never go out of fashion.

Learn to live with that, young people. Learn.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meditating on Educational Abuse

Sometimes, the idea of abuse goes too far. You can sense it in extreme usages which are now much more common than they used to be. This is probably an unpopular point of view, but people ought to realise that when we say people can be abused, this presupposes that people ought to be used in some normal and acceptable way in the first place.

This is because 'abuse', with the same prefix as 'abnormal', 'abject', or 'ablative', means 'away from (normal) use'. (The others literally mean 'away from normal', 'thrown away', and 'carried away' respectively.)

Recently, I read about a Chinese mother who inflicted a rather unusual ('not according to common use') lifestyle upon her children, thus leading them to be abnormally successful. Immediately, the responses began to pile up. Most of them assumed a) that the children were unhappy, b) would likely be suicidal in future, c) were uncreative rote-learners, d) had no social life (see previous points), and so on.

The real point is that children are very malleable. They can be programmed and they can be trained, they can be taught, they can be shaped. 'Education', in fact means 'to draw out' and is related to the word 'ductile'. They only become resistant and cynical later in life, as their youthful flexibility is retarded by endless adult pressure.

You can show different kinds of success — and failure — for almost every kind of regimen that children have been put through, short of actual physical damage and the kind of psychological trauma that leads to observable brain shrinkage (yes, these almost always lead to failures). Most of the time, their social environment is what determines the outcome.

What the less-disciplined adults among us would like to believe is that cutting children some slack will make them better people; what the more-disciplined adults among us would like to believe is that enforcing discipline more will make them better people. The truth is on both sides — and is heavily socially-dependent.

If you have a society that says everyone is a success, you probably have a society where discipline has a social cost and the bar for success is low. If you have a society that says only some rare achievements are considered successes, you probably have a society where slackness has a social cost and the bar for success is high.

Because 'use' (as discussed here) is defined by utility value in a social context, 'abuse' would have different meanings in these two societies, apart from extreme cases in which all would agree abuse had occurred. It is actually both not-easy to abuse a child (as in have a philosophy of child development that's outright bad for the child) and easy to inflict abuse on a child (because they are physically smaller and have less access to power and self-determination).

What I observe in practice, from my qualitative-researcher perspective, is that my friends span the entire range. If you ask them to describe their parenting paradigms, and then look at their kids' behaviours without figuring out whose kids are whose, you would be hard-pressed to determine which parenting paradigm goes with which set of behaviours.

Last night, I observed some young people (under 10 years old) who were actually scolding their parents for having too much fun and not being serious enough. Ho ho.

And yet, all the adults in that room were extremely high-achievers (I think there were more advanced degrees than people there). How did the parents get that way? I'd suspect part of it was what liberals would call 'abusive discipline', and part of it was what conservatives would call 'indulgent slackness'.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Law as a Subset of Faith

After many posts on the shortcomings of science as scientia, by which we seem to mean neither sophia nor gnosis, I find myself digging once again in the old texts which form my personal foundations of meditation and philosophy. Indeed, I'm looking again at what some call the New Testament, but which is properly the final summation of an argument called the Old Testament.

The remarkable thing about the New Testament's epistles is that they are good examples of sound Greek reasoning, mostly, with a liberal compounding of Hebrew normative jurisprudence. What should the law be? What must we understand it to be, so that it has meaning? Let us use Greek logic to find out. And so on.

And so, we are told that living by the Law is a prison, and that he who lives only by Law will die by it, in total condemnation. This is true, I think of anyone who claims he lives entirely by science and scientific principles.

I once conducted an experiment in which I tried to emulate some sort of hypothalamic pause. That is, I attempted to use nothing but reason in my responses to my environment, while at the same time attempting to monitor what I was doing. The interesting thing was that I couldn't avoid being subjective, and there was no way to approach any form of Russellian rationality without feeling subcompetent.

I don't think it is possible for most people, without making them hypocrites. I suspect it is not possible for anyone. We are bound to be irrational, or perhaps hyperrational. I contend, while being unable to prove it, that all humans must live by faith, and that the assertion that one is not living by faith is falsehood.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that my years as a science teacher have allowed me to more clearly sketch the boundary at which science must fail. It fails whenever we are forced to be rational while still being ourselves. It's OK when solving a problem of language, symbols, objects, processes (etc, etc) that is outside ourselves; it is a complete failure when it comes to life.

I have met many rationalists (both theistic and not) who claim that the universe itself is sufficient to provoke a sense of wonder. Well, good. But one wonders why there should be any such sense.

The scientific rationalist answer is that there isn't any such 'sense'; it is merely a repurposed function of certain neurochemical behaviours which used to have (or may yet have) survival value in the long slog of evolutionary development. Good, then. But I think to myself about these people: I bet you felt good giving that as a response. And you can't help feeling something, can you? And in the end, you cannot establish any purpose for all those feelings without having to make assertions based on faith...

Science, you see, is like shining a bright flashlight in a dark room so that you can figure out what you are bumping into. But as we light up our universe, we realise that we don't understand how come the light works, and we don't know why there is a room. And guess what: we have no chance of answering those two questions using the flashlight alone.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

I'd Rather Be A Publican

I've written before on the topic of faux nouveau Republicanism, the fake new idea of a grand old ideal. Then, in sudden serendipitous insight, I saw the link between two institutions of the ancient Pax Britannia.

In Chesterton's The Flying Inn, he pulls a similar trick to one he had played elsewhere and presents us with the conundrum of a tavern where there isn't one. This gets around the morbid stricture of compulsory abstinence inflicted by the villainous authorities.

Fast-forward to the very recent past, and we get The Economist's 16 Dec 2010 take on a similar problem. Except, of course, that the former was inflicted by authority without accountability, and this latter is inflicted by authority without identity.

The right to social gathering, lubricated by good food and drink, is an essential human right when taken in the context of what it means to be a human in a human society. If anybody discriminates against you because of your reasonable assertion of this right, that body deserves to be cast out of the civilised society you share.

It follows then that the gift and capacity of hosting such social gatherings, and providing the necessary and appropriate lubrication, must be a noble capability indeed. Given the choice of being a false new Republican or a true old Publican, I know where I must stand.

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Sunday, January 09, 2011


If I'm not wrong, the term 'transsubscription' (single word, all lower-case letters) has not been defined before. I hereby define it as the footnoting of something which used to be (or ought to be) something else. Treat this post as an instance (or, if you like, which I am hoping not, an instantiation).

There has just occurred this conversation, in which two Old Ones (and one not so old) were engaged in interlocution with He Who Remains Unnamed. Here is the transcript (or transcription):
OO1: I am dining with some (younger) [entities] to whom you are apparently a mythic figure from ages past.

HWRU: [displays consternation] WHAT? How come?

OO1: Something to do with [life-transference specialist parasites]. I couldn't quite follow; it was abstruse. [pauses] Or [mystical] arts.

HWRU: What? [Life-transference specialist parasitism] and/or [mysticism]? How old are these younger [entities]?

OO1: I estimate about 10 [unspecified periods of time] younger. It is hard to tell nowadays. I feel antediluvian.

HWRU: Ten [upot] your junior? That would be a [cohort] from the [ages] after I left as a [minor servitor class entity] and before I arrived as a [major power]!

OO1: I don't think you [inflicted educational function upon] these...

HWRU: Hmm. My first [cohort] was about 10 [upot] after that — [date redacted].

OO1: No no your reputation has reached these mortals in other spheres.

HWRU: Goodness. Or the opposite.

OO1: The tones were as of journeymen speaking of a noted sage of old.

HWRU: Do I know any of these people? [grins]

OO1: I don't think so. But they know OF you as a Great Old One.


OO1: I was quite amused when your name was invoked spontaneously in the middle of conversation concerning creatures that go bump in the night.

NSOO: HWRU, in the Room of Staves at the College of Wyverns, people compare you to Dorian Gray.

OO2: Hahahaha! So, the Great [name redacted] has achieved immortal status akin to [name redacted]... Another one for the pantheon!

HWRU: Oh dear! Oh dear oh dear! I am undone! (Or at least, Unnamed.) [laughs out loud]
And thus endeth the transsubscription.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Feeling Good

In the day just ended, I felt good.

I ate a bit of chicken. And some unidentifiable leaves. And listened to some amazing stories about peculiar happenings in the boondocks of the Middle Kingdom, from my tall and elegant musician friend.

Then I buzzed off to the place named after my maternal grandfather's clan and bought reading material. And I walked back to the Edges and bought more. Thus did I use up my many 20-ducat coupons which I had farmed during Üllertid.

Next up was the small haul. A haul is divided into three parts, as Kaiser Iulius might have said.

The first part was assembling the haul. It reminded me of one of those games where you wander around collecting odd pieces of clothing. The second part was conveying the haul to a place on the edge of dangerous, barbarous lands. And the third part was waiting in a dangerous place for a beautiful young lady to collect the haul. And well, to haul it away.

In such games, this is not your lady, but someone else's. Although you do get something nice as a gift, much appreciated.

Which reminded me of an old book on the games people play. This one, if I recall correctly, is White Knight, one of the few harmless and actually beneficial games that people play. I'm quite happy to be a White Knight, although my friend Wolff might snigger a bit, having been a real one himself.

When I got back, the mail had arrived. The Aedificium of the Triune had sent me a little package. Joy! Two copies of the latest journal, to which I had contributed a short article on finger food. Well, not quite.

More leaves for dinner. But also a large and well-stuffed omelette and a large bowl of porridge, with chili and ground pepper.

I had a good day, mostly. The cat was a bit miffed, though. He felt slightly abandoned, despite the fact that he had deserted me when his supper was served. Ah well, can't win them all.

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Friday, January 07, 2011


We think of intelligence, and we realise that it is a fleeting thing, a will-o-wisp of conceptualisation. It has always been so, from the time of the prophet Isaiah — "Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish." (Isaiah 29:14)

And in this supposedly more enlightened, more intelligent, more rational age, intelligence is still a problem: as Arthur C Clarke put it, "It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value." This was eleven years ago.

Just last year, another famous scientist adjusted this position. Stephen Hawking: "It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value."

Why are such eminent and eminently intelligent men so leery of the value of intelligence? The point is trivial to them, and should be readily grasped by us. You can find it, for example, in the pseudonymous J Abner Peddiwell's The Saber-tooth Curriculum, published in 1939.

What is this trivial point? Quite simply put, we consider intelligence to be the ability to conceptualise and execute whatever gets us what we want. And since what we want is not always the same thing from era to era, intelligence is an illusive chimera. (Worse, sometimes it can't even get us what we want, because we have not the wit to figure out what we want.)

About 800 years after Isaiah, the apostle Paul translated him thus: "For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." (I Corinthians 1:19)

This is exactly the position humans find themselves in — all the time, in every age of mankind. What we think of as wise or intelligent may not always be so, and this is especially true of intelligence. We are prepared to give wisdom a broader and more flexible mandate, but we tend to define intelligence more narrowly.

That's why I believe that being useful is better than being smart. The former informs the latter. A smart ass can save your life, but it is still a pain. That pain is ameliorated by the utility value.

So here I am, trying desperately to be more useful every day. It is the first of my year's new resolutions.

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Thursday, January 06, 2011


When we think about how we know something, it's customary to talk about how everyone has biases and filters. These range from biological ones (left-handedness, colour-blindness) to more technological ones (hockey sticks, red lights) to cultural ones (tea-drinking, attitudes to Japanese films).

But the world, as altogether too many philosophers have pointed out, is what people make of it. The interpretation of dreams, and of visions, and of the perception of the real, is what gives power over what people think they know and what they feel they believe. This is the mediating role that merchants of understanding play in the ecology of the idea marketplace.

We are all both buyers and sellers in that marketplace. When you watch a movie and give an opinion of your own, you are a seller; when you pass on someone else's review of that movie, you are a re-seller; when you 'buy an idea', that is exactly what you do.

The great and powerful agents of this market, however, are the mass-media giants. When you read a newspaper, it is the selection of 'news' and its presentation that determine how you view the world. Since a lot of the 'news' is mediated through a handful of agencies and a double handful of newspaper houses around the world, this becomes the world we live in and know.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does move our knowledge of the world away from the empirical and into the mediated realm. We no longer know things immediately (that is, without mediation, without having things 'in between' the world and us) but know things through their media presentation.

That is why large-scale triumphalist or exceptionalist narratives are so greatly loved. We all love a happy ending, we all love to be on the winning side, we all would like to believe that we are special people. After all, what is new is not 'news' unless it is exceptional and peculiarly interesting.

The problem, really, is that we are now blanketed by media exposure. We read too much, there seems to be too much happening, so we accept what we are told and then counter our guilt by affecting cynicism. We say, "Oh, you can't believe everything you read." What's worse is that we can't even read in order to decide what to believe, since we've decided not to believe.

Here's a little jolt.

There is exactly as much happening in the world right now as there was 5000 years ago. It's just that you're hearing more about it from people who are making money out of you wanting to know more about things that really have nothing to do with you.

Yes, there are more people on this planet. There are also fewer of the truly beautiful and interesting animals and plants that used to share it with us. Yes, there are more buildings (and bigger ones) on this planet. There are also fewer languages, fewer cuisines, fewer styles of architecture.

The media that lie between us and the world act as a sort of collective screening. The good part is that it can bring our attention to things that matter and which we wouldn't otherwise know about. The bad part is that it can bring our attention to things that don't matter and which we wouldn't otherwise know about.

Now we all have to learn a new skill: how to mediate the media. I have this image of us all in the space between two mirrors, with our knowledge of self and the world dwindling into smaller and smaller reflections.

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Christmas Connections: Part 12 of 12

It is indeed twelve drummers drumming. It should be a dozen drummers drumming, actually, for that provides alliteration indeed. And 'a dozen' scans well with the 'eleven' of the previous stanza.

Why drummers, and what drumming is it? Or as Auden put it, "O what is that sound which so thrills the ear / Down in the valley drumming, drumming? / Only the scarlet soldiers, dear, / The soldiers coming."

For the drum is, of course, a symbol of war and confusion to the enemy. It is percussive, and it ends the feast. And then the real business of the new year can begin.


"On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me a dozen drummers drumming."

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Christmas Connections: Part 11 of 12

Eleven pipers piping seems to me to be some sort of visual pun — '11' looks like vertical pipes. A piper is of course one who pipes — who manipulates a pipe, uses a pipe, or lays down pipes or piping.

As I write this, I'm listening to 'Mull of Kintyre' plaid played on bagpipes. The interesting thing about the murkiness surrounding the pipes is that the word comes from the German Pfeife, which has thus bequeathed to us two words for roughly similar things — the pipe and the fife.

Which leads us to the next thing: this explains why there are eleven pipers and twelve drummers — fifes and drums go together, historically.


"On th' eleventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me eleven pipers piping."

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Christmas Connections: Part 10 of 12

It's strange that although people are no strangers to physical symbolism, they can't recognize it when it's in text. All you have to do is think about your body, and why 10 is such an obvious numerical base to use, and you will be able to guess the significance of ten lords a-leaping.

Oh, sure, you can also think of them as the Ten Lords of Misrule. But even those are anthropomorphs of your inbuilt digital computer. After all, a wise man once said that the Devil makes work for idle hands.

No less a poet than the last bard of Wales described the hand as 'five sovereign fingers'. When you combine that image with Morris-dancing, you get one of the oldest primal images of all.


"On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me ten lords a-leaping."

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Monday, January 03, 2011

God and Mammon

There is no supernatural being or mythic deity by the name of Mammon. However, it is the Syriac and Hebraic word for 'riches', and according to some accounts, 'surety' or 'that in which one puts financial trust'.

It strikes me that when we put God and Mammon together as an antagonistic pair, we are also putting a qualitative paradigm and a quantitative one in opposition. God is uncountable, beyond measure, and willing to deal with absolutes; Mammon is that which must be counted, measured and evaluated exactly in order to mean anything to anybody.

When we educate a child so that values are inculcated and that pupil learns to develop those values (within the context of personal limitations and circumstances), it is qualitative development. When we educate a child so that the score on Test 1 is evaluated as a baseline such that the score on Test 2 is seen as 'improvement' or 'decline', that is using a Mammonistic approach — we have put faith in numbers which may not actually reflect the growth of a human being.

Perhaps that is why Christians are told to not conform to the world — it isn't a call to be unworldly, but to be non-conformist: to not easily lend oneself to description by numbers and words, or to not be controlled by the formal rubrics of human society. If everything is numbers, then we shall cast a wary eye over numbers and make sure they are servants and not masters.

That is not to say that science and engineering are of no value. On the contrary, they are supreme in their sphere of producing results that are eminently reproducible. We can have faith in switching on a light or in walking over a bridge. We can use the methods of the quantitative without fear. But we should be very, very careful in using those methods to handle the individuals we teach.

It is a simple argument even for non-theists: since humans are vastly different and very complex, specific means of evaluation and education are likely to have statistically measurable effects, but they are unlikely to have the same effects for each individual. Hence, when we use quantitative manipulations on humans, no single real human is likely to be optimally developed by those manipulations.

Then again, since humans are vastly different and very complex, we have to put our faith in something if we are to imagine that education is of use. And some education, as far as we have been able to see, indeed looks to be of great use.

How then to decide whether Mammon is of any use at all in education? The answer is a simple one: in Luke 16, the righteous are told to make righteous use of unrighteous Mammon — for if one is unable to be trustworthy with quantitative wealth, how can one be trustworthy with that which is more valuable?

And that is why we have to deal with both as honestly as we can, serving God and measuring Mammon — rendering to each its appropriate due.

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Christmas Connections: Part 9 of 12

The nine ladies dancing are appropriately so, for as every young person should know, this is what they are, and that is what they do. They are old, but ageless.

In any revel, where food and drink have been provided for, you will find the nine. They are not bound by any ring, and they vary in degree of caprice. But they have sponsored this blog since its inception, and it's a pity I took so long to thank them.

Not forgetting, of course, that they are but servants of a greater gift (or servants of the nine great gifts), and a greater giver. As are we all.


"On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me nine ladies dancing."

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Christmas Connections: Part 8 of 12

Eight maids a-milking, eh? This line introduces the more 'party' aspects of the old Christmas song. While the first seven gifts of the singer's true love are all about food, the next five are all about entertainment.

Traditionally, a maid a-milking refers to a young lady who goes out to obtain that precious resource and staple farm-based food, milk, from a cow (or equivalent mammal). Equally traditional is the use of this phrase as code, to describe a woman of marriageable age and prime availability.

Together with the number 8, the meaning hidden here is one of overflowing abundance. Also, of preparation for fun, entertainment, and delicious treats ahead.


"On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me eight maids a-milking."

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

Christmas Connections: Part 7 of 12

Seven swans have long been a motif of folktales. In some stories they are seven maidens, relatives of valkyries or angels or the faerie and otherwise unattainable by mortal men. In some stories they are humans under a curse, and in yet others they are not only human but male — princes who need to be saved by their sister.

Seven swans a-swimming? What else might they do? Well, swans were and are, like most of the previous six birds, prized for their meat. Huge and graceful birds with a limited sense of self-preservation, in the UK they are now under the crown's protection.

A full-grown swan is a cygnus; a small one is a cygnet. They are often confused with seven signs, seven sacraments, or seven gifts of the Spirit. The problem, of course, is that signs, sacraments and gifts of the Spirit are all variable in number.


"On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me seven swans a-swimming."

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New Year

It is a new year, and today's date is 1/1/11 — the first day of the first month of the first year of the new decade of the new millennium. Looking back, 2010 was an outstanding year for adventure, peril, and poetic justice.

A happy new year of things justly done
Of bad things ended and good things begun
So thanks be to God, both Father and Son
And to the Spirit, all three into one!

That is my prayer in thanksgiving for the year just past and the year that has just come. I feel, more so than usual, like a feather of ice in the wind, a grain of sand on the shore, dust in the glorious spectacle of the universe. Praise be to God.

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