Friday, September 30, 2011

Sad Food

The saddest thing in life is to have food prematurely frozen. Cheeses bleed water and turn stringy; dough develops odd little bumps in texture. Fruit have their cells irreparably ruptured and will decay rapidly when defrosted. I am a victim of the race to freeze food.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is a Religion?

When dealing with students from a particular kind of institution, I often find that they have the same woolly or imprecise ideas about religion. For example, if they're from a parochial Christian school, they all think that a discussion of religion begins with their own peculiar subsect(ion) of Christianity.

But religion is easy to define more accurately, by anchoring the definition around four points. This has the virtue of coupling accuracy with precision; we can now say what a religion is, and what exactly makes it so.

A religion requires at least four elements:
  1. A belief in the supernatural; that is, things which to some extent cannot be examined using the natural sciences. Whether such things can exist is debateable, but one could place abstracts (such as justice, love or peace) in this category on the basis of empiricism.
  2. A belief that the supernatural can somehow interact with the natural, even though the natural cannot interrogate the supernatural.
  3. A belief that this supernatural interaction has necessary consequences on human behaviour. This would define elements of human morality.
  4. A belief that these moral consequences can be usefully codified as a guideline for human behaviour.
Without any one of these four belief elements, a construct purporting to be a religion cannot be one.

A religion, therefore, is based on a set of practical behaviours and attitudes centred around the detailed working-out of these four beliefs. When such a set is recognisable as such, and can be effectively transmitted as a reasonably similar package from one person to another, a religion has been established.

A religion is therefore the product of a) these four beliefs, b) the details of these beliefs, c) the construction of a behavioural construct demonstrating these beliefs, d) the self-recognised consistency of this construct, and e) the effective propagation of this construct. If one of these fails, the religion becomes defunct.

Now, a word on faith. Faith is belief without a necessary sufficiency of evidence. Since belief in the supernatural is a criterion for a religion, and the supernatural is by definition not admissible as evidence in any arena of discussion based on the natural, all religions are faith-based. What is not so obvious is that many other human knowledge endeavours are faith-based too, but we do not make that as clear as when we are discussing religion.

We also try to reduce the amount of faith required in many of these other areas of human experience, except perhaps in the aesthetic disciplines. Religious morality and behaviour is thus very much close kin to aesthetics. Theology, on the other hand, is the religious equivalent of mathematics. See this post for elaboration.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Morality, Ethics and Law (Simplified)

Morality is the product of individual choices of action concerning other people, synthesized into a whole that is endorsed (either in practice or in breach) by a larger group. Where these individual choices of action come from, and how they are synthesized into a whole, and how they are endorsed, and by what groups — these are all important questions.

Ethics is the other way around: a group with a commonality decides to set out a common code of how they ought to behave collectively in view of that commonality. This commonality can be as general as 'we are all human, hence we base our ethics on human rights, howsoever defined' — or as specific as 'we are all doctors, hence we base our ethics on our commonly agreed view of our profession'.

Law is when a code is a) converted into explicitly worded formulae with penalties for breach (and rarely, rewards for observance) of the rules expressed by these formulae; b) the formulation is based on some form of jurisprudence; and c) special authority is created for the interpretation and execution of these formulae.

There you go...

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Utilitarianism is not an 'Ethical Theory'

Utilitarianism, to me, has always been a slipshod application of pseudo-mathematics to human behaviour. The basic premise is simple: "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation," as one of its founders, Jeremy Bentham said.

However, the question of computing happiness, let alone 'greatest' happiness, has always been a problem — not to mention the problem of linking happiness to morals and legislation. This has always been the main failure of utilitarianism as a positive force.

It turns out that the story is worse than that. Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro, in their 2011 paper The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas, published in this summer's Cognition, conclude that utilitarians are mostly (and largely) immoral people.

Here's the latter part of their abstract of the paper:
Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness. These results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.
It is a chilling conclusion. Whither morality then? Or at least, computational morality.

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Monday, September 26, 2011


From the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of the Irish Language:
Rún: a) something hidden or occult, a mystery or hidden meaning; b) a secret; c) secret thoughts or wishes, intention, purpose; d) full consciousness, knowledge; e) darling, love.
As I am fond of telling my students, the Celts were (in)famous for things starting with B — booze, bronze, bards and britches. These thoughts may or may not be related.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011


In the histories of the world, apart from the besotted tales of the English and Romans (two world empires claiming the blessings of a third), it's interesting to see how much glory is given to Greece. The Greeks invented little, but parlayed what they did into the highest order of logic and literature.

And that is all we can remember them for, apart from a third thing: lying. They were very good at it, even proverbially so. Paradoxes, prevarication, and public relations were their strengths; Alexander, their prodigal heir, named at least a dozen cities after himself — look for all the places named 'Alexandria'. While running monarchies, dictatorships, tyrannies and all kinds of pseudo-republics, they gave a name to freedom (eleutheria) and the will of the people (demokratia).

They preferred to call themselves the Hellenes (and still do to this day), but the Romans called them the Grey Ones and their enemies called them worse. After 300 years of high achievement, they have left us only with Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Homer, Plato and a handful of others — and that only because of the aforementioned capacity for public relations. After all, Plato gave us his master Socrates and we know little else about him from other sources; Aristotle followed, and gave us his disciple Alexander of Macedon.

Why should we remember the Greeks? Ah, let us rememember the silver mines of Laureion outside Athens. Thus it was that Athens invented the central bank, and look where they are right now.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Teenage Wasteland

For some reason, the lyrics for The Who's CSI:New York theme song seemed especially significant today as I went through many TV themes from the 1970s onwards. That, and the gripping bars of Morton Stevens's theme from Hawaii Five-O.

Here are Baba O'Riley's lyrics:
Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living
I don't need to fight
To prove I'm right
I don't need to be forgiven

Don't cry
Don't raise your eye
It's only a teenage wasteland

Sally, take my hand
Travel south crossland
Put out the fire
Don't look past my shoulder
The exodus is here
The happy ones are near
Let's get together
Before we get much older

Teenage wasteland
It's only a teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland
Oh, oh
Teenage wasteland
They're all wasted!

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Friday, September 23, 2011


There's always been the problem of pitting American English against British English as if the two were like Hokkien Chinese and Cantonese Chinese, or French and Spanish. People are mentally fragile when it comes to arguments about dialect, basilect and acrolect.

This need not be so. Eventually, one suspects, we'll all be speaking trans-Atlantic English with trans-Pacific modifications. And it would be so much more beautiful if we adopted trans-Indianic cadences.

By this I mean that the dialect with the spectrum ranging from New England to Old England will be modified by the tendencies evinced from California to Japan and South-East Asia, hopefully with elements of the many syntaxes and accents found from Johannesburg and up and across the Old Ocean to Bombay and back down to Singapore.

Such is the beauty of English; it is so plain and yet so protean that it can easily be made beautiful in many ways — it is polymorphically crystalline when viewed in some ways. Will we end up speaking American English? Or will American English have become un-American by then? After all, look what happened to British English, that mysterious and imaginary animal.


Thursday, September 22, 2011


My very first group tutorial consisted entirely of young ladies. And we met at a noisy, crowded café. Subsequent meetings were in noisier surroundings. I've seldom had so much fun.

Group tutorials tend to consist of young ladies. Young gentlemen seem not to want to be caught studying together, as if it were somehow unmanly.

Studying with someone else of the opposite sex, however, seems acceptable to them.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wednesday Wasn't

It was a Wednesday, and then it was not. Why not? Oddly, because the air-conditioning was not working. Hrrr.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Interview

This is part of the edited transcript of an interview which I found rather interesting. Some names have been redacted. The original interview was carried out by the Discoboulos and recently published by Marshall Cavendish (2011, extracts from pp. 31-34). Thank you, old Tom! Readers may attempt to guess who the protagonist, A, is. It's pretty obvious, though.

A: But over the past four-and-a-half years since I left, it has been just like this — because of one perceived problem: [Personal name] is not loyal to [institution], which is not true. Which is not true! They make it up in their own imagination, and they move all their political reality in the direction of their imagination, which is a bad imagination.


A: So I think that the only thing we can do with this is to ask for reconciliation. They're afraid of me, they don't trust that I'm not out for revenge. But I'm not out for revenge.


A: Even when I am not in [the country] they don't want me to go back. Because they know they cannot compete directly. So it's a question of the way I go back. My return must be in a gracious way. And so I have to wait for the right moment. It may be at the end of this year [2011] ... in December.

B: If — or when — you go back, would you promise your people in the [institution], and in the [institution], and so on, amnesty? Forgiveness?

A: Yes, right.

B: No witch-hunt?

A: No witch-hunt. I think forgiveness is the key. I mean it.

B: And people can trust you on this?

A: Yes.

B: They're not going to be [redacted]? Or worse?

A: No.

B: No investigation? The past is past?

A: I want to forgive and make the whole [institution] forgive each other. Because, if you don't forgive, you cannot reconcile your [institution]. You cannot be one [institution] anymore.


A: Some people may not be comfortable if I go back and have political power, directly or indirectly. But I can even propose that I can be in any position; I do not need to involve myself in politics. For example, if the... [redacted example]. That kind of appointment would have the effect of forcing me not to get involved in politics. I don't want to have a [designation] position. I don't want to be anything that is ambitious. I just want to prove that I don't mind not being anything, but I want to prove that I am beneficial to my [institution] and my people.

B: Why?

A: Because I really worry about the [people]... And because I feel gratitude to my supporters.

An alert reader has pointed out that 'A' sounds a lot like a certain character whose name sounds like a six-letter word meaning 'a warning bell'. Ah, yes. Very much so. Spot on. Heh.


Sunday, September 18, 2011


He is golden in the sun, and in the night he is grey like all the others. His gaze is green, serene, and yet alert. He draws amber-stuff to himself; the sun's cousins dance upon his paws. If you see him in the light, he is banded gold and sunlight; if under the moon, silver and starlight.

There is quietude in his step; there is raucous abomination in his yowl. He is to us the fear that must be tamed, and never was. To say a woman is a dog is petty insult; to say she is a cat is something more.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

In Egypt

Wolff turned to the book of the prophet Isaiah, and he read:
"Woe to the rebellious children," saith the LORD, "That take counsel, but not of Me, and that cover with a covering, but not of My Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; that walk to go down into Egypt, and have not asked at My mouth, to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh and to trust in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the strength of Pharaoh be your shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt your confusion."
And he mourned the lost years.


Friday, September 16, 2011


Devolving. If my brain had ever been brighter than this, it had been so long past. Like a bowl of pasta left untouched past cooling, the noodles coagulate, the network paths stick. They are glued, immobilised, their sauce is forced to drip along the same old grooves.


Thursday, September 15, 2011


The interesting thing about old references from old referees is that many of them mention my Socratic approach to questioning. I've noticed it myself.

Today, for example, I was helping three young ladies revise for their alchemical papers. I saw myself, as if afar off, slipping into the question-response mode. And of course, you follow the line of questioning indicated by the responses you get.

So it was that aromatic compounds blossomed into segments on food and health and the right approaches to such things. The respondent answers, and the questioner is led by that.

I can't help but remember how Socrates perished, though.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011


The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Cæsar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Cæsar was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Cæsar answer’d it.
The famous lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, III, ii, capture the essence of my thoughts over the last 24 hours. The man who thought he was being described as Caesar did both good and ill; much of the good he did was public and the ill was private. But unlike the hapless Brutus, we should not forget Caesar's ambition produced good things that people remembered.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Cats have little hard heads that they gently ram into your shins or ankles when they mark you as a possession. This is often taken (or mistaken) as a sign of affection. We don't know if that is so, but it seems affectionate.

Cats are lazy conservators of energy. That is, they recharge their batteries slowly and expend their charge quickly. They are playful, and play is integral to the nature of the cat; a cat who cannot play is a sad creature indeed. Most of the energy they save is thus expended in play.

I've often observed a cat who, having just awoken in the morning, stretches and after limbering up proceeds to chase his own tail or writhe in orgiastic innovation all over the patio tiles. After intense and almost violent activity of this kind, he suddenly goes boneless, a mass of sinewy fur lazing in the morning sunlight.

He will do this on your feet, given a chance. I know a cat who will deliberately deposit his weight on your toes, just to make the point that you are not moving off without alerting him first. This means that you are 'his' human, for as long as he is interested in that being so.

Cats are indeed somewhat territorial, and we who belong to them must remember that it is a mutuality very different from the man-wolf duality in which the power of the pack was broken and reformed with man as leader. In the man-cat relationship, man is a source of convenient treats and novel experiences; however, there are many such elsewhere. It's just that humans seem as if they -want- to provide these things at no cost.

And cats are lazy conservators of energy.


Monday, September 12, 2011


What wonder is meant in wonderment? what basis in basement? what is founded in fundament?

These questions are like the sparks from a furnace. They have little heat, little light, but they are signs of furious dactylic activity.

I watched the blue lady, and the chicken was nice.


Sunday, September 11, 2011


Thirty-one years ago, the Gnome had words to say about snobbery.
[An] argument critics used was that it was better to change people's beliefs and inner attitudes.

"My answer is that this is the work of priests and psychiatrists. And even priests and psychiatrists are not 100 per cent successful in changing what goes on in people's heads," he said.

As far as schools were concerned, he added, behaviour could be controlled. He named the College of Jade and Gold as an example of a school taking effective action to stop snobbery.

Its principal, [redacted], had correctly said social snobbery in schools is the flaunting of wealth. And this must be stopped.

Elaborating on these points during the question-and-answer session, the Gnome said that what goes on in a man's head is between him and God. But what the school could do was to change the students' behaviour.

He was quick to add though: "The culprits are the parents, not the children."


Saturday, September 10, 2011


Between Scylla and Charybdis, a ship might be shattered or unmanned. There is always a price to pay. Torn by the many demands of the timetable, one can also be scattered to the winds and lose one's mind or sense of self. A diary is no help; what calendar can help when the days are all too confused and messed up?

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Friday, September 09, 2011


Black tulips are the best. The banks are ruptured and the rivers flow. The dams are overwhelmed. Whelming is for water. The current, the currencies; the floods, the rising tide sinks all boats. Phlebas the Phoenician, we will see you soon. There is a warning for the Prince of Tyre.


Thursday, September 08, 2011


It seems so long ago that this was written. I shall also note that when I wrote this, I had switched off the Anglophone part of my brain.

When this research project was first mooted, the general hypothesis looked rather straightforward. The state has its objectives, in a strong state the various instrumentalities of the state will include schools in a centralised school system, schools will therefore be used to pursue state objectives. In an age of globalisation, schools will be used to prepare citizens to reach outward, to anchor them homeward, and to insulate them from unwanted influences and effects.

As can be seen, the exploration did not exactly produce such a straightforward single-thread narrative structure. States sometimes have conflicting or irreconcilable objectives, states have past histories and unique situational needs; schools are not completely faceless and mindless instruments of policy; citizens have their own minds. In this study of even a relatively tiny state, the number of sociocultural influences competing to make the most of historical and geographical circumstances quickly multiplied into a complex tapestry of threads.

According to most of the literature on the globalisation of education, two main types of motivation orientation persist. Either the world will follow common economic goals and education will be used primarily to develop human capital to obtain the most from the resultant homogeneous and ubiquitous economic system; or the world will follow common socially progressive goals and education will be used primarily to develop human beings, regardless of race, language or religion, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for all.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011


It has 265 pages and concludes that educational research, without rich historical context to hold it together, is mostly useless in analysing the broad sweep of state-level or international education. What have I done, and why have I done it? Sigh.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Interesting Lives

And so she said, she would be the Speaker for the Dead.
And so he said, he would cover both under and overhead.

I looked at them, I listened. And a new pantheon was born.


Monday, September 05, 2011

Problem Slots

The problem, of course, is time-tabling. I have fourteen student classes a week. I do not have enough slots for various reasons. I have to get them to move around a bit. It is troublesome. It is a happy problem. But it is a galling one. They come from everywhere. They require me in several places. I am not transcendent enough. I laugh a lot when I think about how different it is from my last place of work.

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Sunday, September 04, 2011


There, I have done the unthinkable (but not that I haven't done it before, so perhaps it is only unthinkable to some). A neologism has sprouted. I hereby define 'ameritocracy' as i) a non-merit-based form of power sharing policy, and ii) a kind of American behaviour in which assertions about theology and other such drivers of opinion are leavened with refusal to look at primary sources.

The latter exercises me a great deal. I keep reading stuff about how a Christian nation should behave. Oh, please. America is no more a Christian nation than Jesus was a Roman Catholic. It was founded on humanist principles and fig-leaved with God by a bunch of Freemasons and whatnot, which is why America's religious traditions tend to be oddly crazed (I use this in the sense of 'fractured').

Just this evening I was treated to the awesome contention that the Bible would not condone capital punishment. Well, it does. Unless you do a lot of unedifying stance-shifting and peculiar exegesis. Especially with Romans 13:3-4 on the table, and Paul's blatant acceptance of the right of the state to try him with capital punishment as one possible outcome.

Ah well.

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Saturday, September 03, 2011

Strong Drink A Mocha?

Drizzle the caramel over the foam
Find for the syrup of chocolate a home
Brew up the coffee, sing up the steam
Carry it home to the brain like a dream

(cf. Proverbs 20:1)

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Friday, September 02, 2011


I sometimes feel an odd blend of schadenfreude and pity when I look at the sad Maseratis, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and whatnots which roam disconsolate around my estate. They come in many colours, and they are all thoroughbreds. But they whicker and grumble at the speed bumps, they mourn in their stalls, they are forced to trot through narrow paths where they should be galloping along.

Poor blighters. All those horses, and no action.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011


My favoured team was founded in 1886. It has seen hard times of late, relatively speaking. While always ranked near the top of its league, it has struggled to really impress. Even its trophies have looked tarnished.

This year has brought in new personnel. There is still much deadwood to be cleaned up, but the new growth doesn't look half bad, and the seasoned imports don't look bad at all. There is hope for the rest of this season, which seemed to have kicked off with a massive defeat.

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