Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In November

November, not really there.
A forgotten month, sometimes —
Not quite December,
A prelude to sendings,
A beginning of endings,
Is it winter or not?

Oh! Then suddenly,
Shock of rain rushing over the sea
Into the hills, November!
And it is gone.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sleight of Hand

Dear Unicorn,

It is all your fault I have resumed my acquaintance with the Beagle. After figuring out why we never talk about my brother, I am now working my way through sleight of hand. The which is now available at the local havens of esoteric tomes somewhere in the middle of the orchard.

We have had a long friendship. Fortunately, it has been sparse and hugely variable. This has made it a lot more fun than it might otherwise have been. It has quirky side-effects too.

I note, for example, that I seem to have a fashion showcase somewhere online which I can say is quite 'me' — except that I shudder to think of what my students and ex-students might say. In my own half-hearted defence, I had no hand in creating it, which is all for the best.


Labels: ,

Monday, November 28, 2011


Zonë is 'girdle' in Greek — a sort of belt, a circumferential locus. When Robin Goodfellow says he will "put a girdle round about the Earth in forty minutes"[1], it gives us a base speed for the faerie folk — since the Earth's equatorial circumference is 40,000 km or so, Puck must travel at a thousand kilometres per minute, or just about 17 km/s.

The faerie, it seems, are not faster than light. Sound, on the other hand, travels at only 340 metres per second, or 0.34 km/s. Puck could hit Mach 50 on a good day — 50 times the speed of sound at sea level!


[1]: From A Midsummer Night's Dream, Wm. Shakespeare, c. 1590, Act 2 Scene 1.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 27, 2011


It has fallen
The moon is larger than it should be
It has fallen
Into the wineglass of my wrath


Strangely these were the lines I remember just after waking up. I had been dreaming of a melodious tiger, who kept telling me, "Daniel just sits there and doesn't do anything." What a day.


Saturday, November 26, 2011


Tonight I was at dinner with many people from 'my' generation. That is to say, people born somewhere (to be generous) from 1960 to 1970 or so.

Eventually, the objective of dinner was fulfilled, business was complete, and we settled down to yarn and tell stories as old people (haha) do. We resurrected many ghosts, even among those not dead: Mannix, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Knight Rider, The Wild Wild West, the inimitable Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman (and the forgotten Joanna Kara Cameron in The Secrets of Isis before that), glimpses of Steven Seagal in his prime...

The thing is that we were all acolytes at the dawn of colour television. We had participated in the nightly rituals of tuning the old black-and-white CRT displays, reducing hiss and static rain, twiddling the antenna, and even having our access blocked by the TV cabinet being locked. And now we are old, and that particular altar is no more.

Labels: ,

Friday, November 25, 2011

Google™ as a Source for Due Diligence

Recently, I learnt that a certain national-level corporate regulatory body had named its watering-hole 'Auschwitz'. I did wonder briefly if the decor matched the name, and I shuddered to think of why these accountants would do such a thing.

I saw a post on someone else's blog, though, which chastised them for this — as well as for naming their food courts 'S21', which this other person pointed out was the name of some prison where torture was carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I found that a bit silly, although I suppose the two differ by degree and not by kind.

However, they also differ in other ways.

You can hardly Google 'Auschwitz' without coming upon what the vast majority of the world associates with the name — Nazi concentration camp, 'Arbeit Macht Frei', and at least half a million deaths (calculations go higher, but this is the most stable minimum) under horrible conditions and poison gas. There are about 20,000,000 search results all pointing the same way.

For 'S21', there are about 13,500,000 search results — and from the first page onwards, you already know that you might be looking at a code that can represent a Canon camcorder, an airport in Oregon, and a penicillin pill. You might miss by a bit and end up here, even.

The difference is clear. 'S21' is far more likely to be a tag which people don't necessarily associate with a nasty prison in Cambodia. That group of three characters doesn't carry enough significant information. But 'Auschwitz' is clearly enough for an association with the worst part of a terrible episode in human history.

Now that we can all Google™ these terms and examine the results, it's inexcusable to name your in-house pub 'Auschwitz'. 'S21' can be excused, although after you've read this, you might want to change it.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 24, 2011

'Bootleg' DVDs

Once in a while, you make a mistake despite the many clues that you might be making a mistake. I thought those DVDs looked like a good deal.

Clues to note:

1. Site doesn't use https. One has come to expect https, and thus did not notice when making transaction that it was not. Sigh.

2. Price was not only cheap, but in retrospect, way too cheap.

3. Package arrived not only quickly, but way too quickly.

4. Package was shipped from Shanghai, China.

5. Package was marked 鞋子 under declaration of contents. For the non-Chinese-speaking, this is fairly close to the faecal expletive I vented when I saw it.

Then again, I was amused by the probably unintended joke contained in that declaration. Bootleg DVDs indeed. It's not as bad, however, as the joke I planted here.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Heuristic Discipline-Based Approach to Academic Evaluation

I've always been rather irreverent with (dis)respect to academia. It comes from having too many academics in the family. It results in an accumulation of mental rules of thumb related to academic life, as well as a sort of facility for generating academic-sounding phrases that can be used to write academic-sounding pieces. Hence the title.

What this piece is about is perhaps not what you came here looking for, though, my dear Google-based researcher. It's actually about the rules of thumb I have for evaluating academic staff — researchers, lecturers. They are not serious prescriptive (or proscriptive) rules, but those which have been lurking in my head, and which by profound subjective introspection (as opposed to objective, using fMRI and suchlike) I have managed to elute (no, not elude; that would be terrible).

Without further ado, here are the rules. Note that they are based on discipline, and not on publications. Publication analysis is a whole other kettle of fishiness.

1. Determine subject's doctoral degree concentration (i.e. the main subject's main subject).

1a. If it is based on fictional narratives (e.g. literature, adminstration, business), then smile and back away. Dangerous to know, probably fascinating to listen to as long as you don't mind loud noises or meaningful looks, prolonged contact requires insanity check.

1b. If it is based on real narratives (e.g. history, economics, education), then consider seriously on case-by-case basis. Do not smile. This encourages them to wander out of their expertise and into speculation (if not already there). If subject smiles, run.

1c. If it is based on real narratives and invokes science or rules systems (e.g. law, sociology, anthropology, sports), then consider how real the science is, or how meaningful the rules are. This could lead to reclassification under 1a or 1b. Smile skeptically, you'll be mirroring the subject.

1d. If it is based on deliberate use of serious science or rules systems to conceal real narratives (e.g. medicine, cosmology, linguistics), then smile and prepare to have some fun. Steer conversation towards underlying narrative, add alcohol, and be entertained by wild speculation.

1e. If it is entirely based on serious science or rules systems, and has no real narrative apart from its own history (e.g. physics, philosophy, computer science, math), then try hard not to smile (you should succeed) and get out a paper napkin. Engage furious scribbling if unable to engage warp speed.

1f. If doctoral classification fails, then relax, this is not a serious academic and is thus probably harmless.

1g. For dual degrees, consider both possible responses.


2. Examine subject's master's degree if present.

2a. Degree is from Cambridge or Oxford, required payment of fees but no other work. Ignore.

2b. Degree is from an American university, normally means subject failed to acquire doctorate. Feel sympathetic but do not show it. Classify according to 1.

2c. Degree is from Harvard or equivalent, but non-medical. Normally means subject has acquired degree in lieu of doctorate, medals, or other social achievements. Note this and proceed accordingly. Classify according to 1.

2d. Degree is from elsewhere, classify according to 1.

2e. For medical degrees, subject is a specialist (unless it is a Master's in Public Health or suchlike). Treat with care, just in case you end up being treated by subject.

2f. If classification is different between step 1 and step 2, consider degree of difference. Severe difference may indicate brain trauma or equivalent. Approach with care, and if necessary, metal-studded gloves of the kind used to handle razor wire.


3. Examine basic degree.

3a. Degree is B... anything except BA or BSc. Normally indicates desire to be overspecialised while not being specialised at all. Classify according to 1.

3b. Degree is MBBS. Special case of 3a. May stand for 'More Brains But Slower' or 'Much Booze But Smarter'. Is actually a medical degree.

3c. Degree is LLB. Special case of 3a. Ask candidate what it stands for, and if reply is 'Limited Liability Business' or equivalent, stay far, far away. Is actually a law degree.

3d. Degree is BA or BSc. Classify according to 1.

3e. If classification has changed between here and other stages, and difference is great, consider arming self with crossbow and approaching from distance. See 2f for other precautions. Some difference is to be expected, though — most people are too young to know what they're doing when they get their first degrees.


And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Assessment and Evaluation, Knowledge and Mind

People have different philosophies of assessment and evaluation. The kind of philosophy you have depends a lot on your theory of knowledge, and perhaps your theory of mind.

Here are some crude approximations. A theory of knowledge is your concept of what it means to know, and what it means for something to be (usefully or otherwise acceptably) called 'knowledge'. [Good starting link here] A theory of mind is your concept of what mind is, how we conceptualise mental states, and how we decide what these mental states are. [Good starting link here.]

It follows that if your idea of knowledge is ontological — derived axiomatically through reason but without 'real' evidence — then you would test for abstract knowledge. It is true, so all you have to assess is whether the candidate knows it, and perhaps whether the candidate knows why it is logically necessary to believe in it (e.g. by mathematical or theological proof from basic principles or axioms).

It also follows if your idea of knowledge is empirical — derived from observation and collation of 'real-world' data — then you would test for concrete knowledge. It is true only if it has reliable existence which can be detected by an observer. So you would need to assess whether the candidate can produce what is required (e.g. by making a pot, by swimming 50m, by making up a 1.0M solution of sulphuric acid).

Very often, we have conflated our idea of knowledge so much that we have no idea what to test, and the act of a candidate writing down an ontological proof is taken as empirical proof of reality. We thus evaluate the candidate as intelligent despite knowing full well that we can't tell. Which brings us to the theory of mind.

If you believe that mental states are not only apprehensible but comprehensible, it is quite likely you believe so by congruence. In other words, you believe that if a person does X, that person would be thinking much as you would be if you were doing X. Some people get this right more often than others, and they are said to be high-empathy or to have high EQ. Some people get this wrong more often than others, and we think of them as psychotic or low EQ (or otherwise deficient).

This is why when students do things that our tests don't rate highly, we think of them as not having appropriate intelligence or preparation or skill (or whatever). That's if we're being cautious and/or charitable. Many of us would just say, "This candidate is low-performing." (Or 'dumb', or 'stupid', except that nowadays we only think it but try not to say it.) Our concepts of high performance depend on how difficult it would be for us, the educators, to carry out. What's easy for us should be easy for those we have taught, right?

Wrong, of course. In my ramblings on this blog, I've pointed out the circularity of our ideas about intelligence and its vulnerability to subjective evaluation even when considered by experienced educators and scientists.

In effect, we need to stop thinking of intelligence as a scored function — high-scoring, low-scoring or whatever-scoring. We need to think of it as a) what jobs need to be done, b) what are the ways they can be done, c) does this person figure out such ways quickly? We can omit b) if we just want to see whether a person can get the job done, regardless of whether we are able to figure out how it might be done. We need also to think of it as d) can our candidate figure out what jobs need to be done?

You see, we have no ability to actually get into someone's head, short of telepathy. We cannot tell how cognitively brilliant someone is except by whether that person gets the job done fast. We can plausibly rate candidates on how convincing their products are to us, but that would be subjective — the more their thinking corresponds with what we think is good, the more points they get. All these are old criticisms.

Moving forward, I suspect what we should do is empower candidates by teaching them every tool we know, how to evaluate the usefulness of tools, and how to create their own tools. A lot of that teaching will comprise meaningless exercises. We must be honest and tell them that we don't know how valuable the education we're giving them is. When we are long gone, they will have to prove those tools in the crucible of reality, and our hope should be that they will survive it.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gaming Life

It is afternoon, or perhaps half time.
I do not know how long my day is, or the state of the match.
But when the night falls, I hope it is sudden.
And when the whistle goes, I hope I am ahead.

It is tournament, or perhaps shower.
I do not know how long the match is, or how much water's left.
But when the games end, I hope I have plus-scored.
And when the tank's empty, I hope I am all clean.

It is tiring to think
Yet harder not to think.
But life is not a game, it is many games.
And the pleasure of games is to play well.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Yes, I've known for some time that the word 'sistren' existed; how could I not, considering my family's religious position? And yet, it has more or less been discarded by the remorseless advance of lexicographic history.

It is a pity that the -en suffix indicating plurality isn't used more often in English. Ah, the children, the children...

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 19, 2011


If brothers are brethren, then sisters are sistren. I thought so, at least. And it should be so.

But I was sidetracked by a cistern, and when I got back on track, I found the word 'Cistercian' running around in my head. Sigh.


Friday, November 18, 2011

In the Beginning was the Word

I have dreamt about this line before. But it is no falsifying dream that is expressed in this phrase; rather, it is truth of a specific kind. It is Greek truth. En arche en ho logos, as they say.

And here I must make a key digression. In Latin, truth is veritas. The flavour of truth thus described is one involving 'verity' — truth that can be verified by faith or by epistemology. In Greek, truth is aletheia — 'that which is not lost', or 'that which is not forgotten'. It is a Holmesian kind of truth. [1]

The main thing is that truth is established by words. The use of words fixes structure, logos. The use of words creates a kind of baseline from which the degree of truth can be measured because the datum (Latin: 'that which is given') remains fixed. It is the reason why this blog is pretty sparse on graphics, pictures, videos — I think that they are less assessable for truth than words are.

Of course, that's a debatable idea. But again, the fact of debatability establishes the primacy of the word. You can debate in words, you can argue in words — it is harder (though not impossible) to argue with graphics, pictures and other visual material. Even in sign language, the signs stand for words.


Note: [1] — in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes says, "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth." He says five chapters later, "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" This kind of truth is thus truth by elimination — aletheia.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We Never Talk About My Brother

Probably because we talk more about my mother. Haha...

That said, I am now the happy owner of a new Peter S Beagle book, one which I have wanted but which I could not easily obtain when I first wanted it. That kind of thing happens when you're overtaken by life's events: you forget what you wanted as time passes, and it is only serendipity which brings it back to you.

I have imbibed Beagle in five previous doses: Lila The Werewolf; The Last Unicorn ; Come, Lady Death ; A Fine And Private Place; Tamsin. This one comes pre-divided into smaller doses. Yum.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Carriage — that which is carried. Baggage — that which is bagged. Luggage — that which is lugged. Language was once much simpler. Now it is knot.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Silly Calculations

P Z Myers (or 'Pharyngula') is one of the best science-bloggers around. He's also generally reasonable. When he uses the word 'silly', it's interesting to see what he thinks is silly. In this case, he thinks that it's silly to call something a miracle just because there are low retrospective odds against it. Of course, his argument is right. No single contingent product of the universe's history is more or less miraculous than any other in a statistical sense.

Like Myers, I hate it when people misuse language. (Hey, I hate it when I myself misuse language, and if you point it out to me, I will self-flagellate with the best of them.) So let's define miracle: a true miracle is an event that has NO chance at all — it has no logical antecedents, no explicable cause or chain of causation — and yet it happens. By Myers's lights and my definition, the only miracle should be the hypothetical origin of the universe ab nihilo; I would agree with him about its miraculous status.

The difference between humanity and what humans do, and the rest of the universe, is what humans think is significant. It's purely subjective. Do you think Myers would bother getting off his ass to write this article unless something provoked him sufficiently? And that provocation is of course subjective.

He closes by exhorting humans to "go forth and feel and act like you aren't any more special than anyone else on Earth." Clearly, however, the act of exhortation betrays his subconscious belief that this doesn't include him.

Which of course leads back to the point about atheists. When confronted with meaningless, they put up spirited arguments which must also lack meaning or be the deterministic (or random) fruits of physics. They (and we) shouldn't have free will. They (and we) shouldn't care. And if they (and we) do, that too should pass.

Me, I don't think my physical body is a miracle. What is a miracle is that I should not be redeemed by the body and blood of Christ. I am not redeemable; I cannot have been redeemed. But... it has happened, and I have been. No chance at all, and yet here I stand. This is the miracle.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Bonfire of the Vanities

"Vanity of vanity, all is vanity," saith the Preacher, king in Jerusalem. "Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upwards." And much of this wisdom was the profit of painful years, for the Preacher pondered much, and the words of the wise are as goads.

I long ago figured out why religion is trouble. The stakes are very high. If religion describes reality ontologically, then disciplines like the sciences and mathematics, which limit their outcomes and scope of knowledge by their own rigour, cannot claim a monopoly on truth.

And yet, it is by their obvious stranglehold on description, manipulation, prediction and control of reality that science and mathematics have gained their hard-won prominence and domination over the souls of men. A scientific or mathematical theory, absent a 'falsifying dream' (as Hughes's Hawk Roosting has it), has great powers to describe, explain, or predict. It is on the basis of these powers that we are masters over reality as we know it.

But mastery over reality as we know it is never 100%. As the old school joke goes, "The more we know, the less we know we know." Science and mathematics are the guiding daimonia of technology and engineering, and humans will gladly forsake those daimonia for these material fruits of application.

That is why science as religion and mathematics as technology are uncomfortably true to life. No scientist knows anything except what he knows — this is the curse of the empirical and the rule of epistemology; no mathematician knows anything except by what he believes through the working of his rules — this is the curse of the logical and the rule of rationality.

It is only the religious who believe that not only do they not know, but that they cannot know, and what they cannot know is nevertheless of the greatest significance. And if they are right, the brightness of science and mathematics is like a light without lenses or augmentation; it is like using nothing but the visible spectrum and calling it 'diagnostic radiology'. In fact, it is worse; it is agnostic radiology.

This is why there are more and more people willing to blacken religion with the radiation of reason. It is the only way to preserve the new monopoly — by destroying the old one. But which one sees more? Which one is of greater value to humanity? Both might contend that they are the only truth. But the key question we have to ask is, "Can anything be supernatural and still be true?"

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Gaps in the Clockwork

Perhaps the most infamous idea of how God and Science fit together is the 'God of the Gaps' concept. This is the general idea that whatever Science cannot (yet) explain (a 'gap') is God's due. If the explanatory universe is of constant volume, then God's role thus gets smaller and smaller, or at least, more and more involuted.

But the real gap in all religions is more fascinating. The real gap is the one between 'supernatural' and 'natural'. What is 'supernatural'? And if it is 'supernatural', how then does it interface with the 'natural' without being merely 'natural' itself? I use quotes throughout simply because I don't know what these terms really mean, in relation to each other.

In Christianity, the religion to which about 33% of the human world claims allegiance, God is always involved with His creation. He made it, and bridges the gap between it and Himself by unpredictable intervention and communication. He is able to say, "My ways are not your ways," and yet also, "Come, let us reason together." In Him we live and move and have our being, and yet clearly He is not of our substance. Yet, God became Man and dwelt among us.

How does that work? The authors of the Bible, expressing God's thoughts, point out explicitly that the whole thing defeats philosophy. They don't claim that logic will hold in this realm. In fact, they claim that you can attempt to use reason, but God is not bound by it. Once that happens, all bets are off.

The modern rationalist is repulsed by such things. If such a situation maintains, why bother? If ontology trumps epistemology, and deity trumps deontology, it is a farce.

To me, it is an amusement. Logic is like the screwdriver in the toolbox. It uses circular motion to effect linear progress. But it isn't the only tool, let alone the toolbox itself.

Its existence tells us only a few things about the tool-user: 1) makes tools, 2) has occasional need for screws, 3) is capable of effecting a grip-initiated turning motion... and so on. It's a good, very useful tool, but it doesn't even tell us what the other tools are, although it can replace some of them crudely in certain situations.

Some users treat it more like a Swiss Army knife — a multitool of some sort. But it requires a lunatic bravery to rely on a multitool for all your needs, all your life.

I don't think of a 'God of the Gaps'. I think that what we see of the universe is more wonderful than we can think, and if this is so, not all of it is amenable to thinking. I think the explanatory universe is infinite, and that God in His complexity can bridge 'natural' and 'supernatural' since they are only our feeble labels for 'what would exist without us' and 'what may exist but which we will never be able to describe, explain, predict or control'.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, November 12, 2011


In the rushing of the noonday hour
A fly descends
In hot oil and busy elegance
A meal is served

Hear one moment of silence
Between wingbeat and heartbeat

The sacrament of food
Consumes the moment
Lays it out to later
Autopsy of words

The smoke pours out
The heat returns
The daylight's messy business
Heads to evening's dusty doom

Labels: , , ,

Friday, November 11, 2011

Education and the Elite

Someone just told me, "The goal of education is not to create an elite, but to provide people with the knowledge necessary for them to then help improve society."

This is an excellent topic for an essay. It should be set for an exam question or something — just tack on the word, "Discuss."

I would say that most people would want to believe that the goal of education is not to create an elite. Some of those people might genuinely believe this to be true. As for the knowledge necessary for them to then help to improve society, that's moot — what -is- the knowledge necessary to help improve society?

Clearly, some knowledge (for example, that which helps us understand society, how it works and what makes people's lives better) is likely to be helpful. Of course, the Marxist-type philosopher would argue that universities think that whatever makes a society value a university-style education more is the kind of knowledge that should be propagated. That's partially true, as we shall see.

The thing is that we all know that humans come in a bell-curve for most things. When babies are born, they pretty quickly prove to be differentiable for genetic reasons along many dimensions of capability and potential. Some will be taller, some will be shorter, and little short of drastic re-engineering with chemicals and nasty interventions will change that.

It is the same with displayed intelligence — everyone has intelligence if they have a brain, but without cradle-to-grave (or at least, birth-to-early-adolescence) environmental optimisation, a bell curve is obtained long before the usual university-going age.

This means that those likely to benefit from going to high school (say the top 80% of any cohort, to be generous) will now certainly have diverged from those less likely. The most divergent will be able to benefit most from going to college, and then to higher education. Eventually, divergence will string out the bell-curve even more, and the 'high end' will have become an elite.

There are two interesting counter-arguments.

One is that people can do better without going to university. True. Those are outliers. They are even more of an elite, being able to treat the world as a university, than those who do go to university. If we set the criterion at 'could not have made it into any university or benefited from one, but did better than anybody who could', this elite becomes even more elite. I don't think you can find anyone like that.

One is that universities are like hospitals or parks. They are public goods, since they are supposed to make people better (more useful etc) members of society. So everyone should be allowed to enter universities. Well, that's like saying everyone should be allowed to enter hospitals and make use of hospital services whether they can benefit from hospital services or not. We instinctively differentiate between hospitals and parks because parks are cheaper to maintain per square foot, if you include things like power consumption, water, staffing, insurance and (oh yes) medical services. So we can indeed make universities like parks if we make them less staffed, less powered, less service-providing.

So yes, I think that education has the largely unintended (but sometimes fully intended) goal of creating an elite. It's just that most of the educated have been educated not to think of it that way. Which is... odd.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Word of the Day: Iconditioning (or iConditioning)

Today, I am going to perform an act of the much-reviled derivative neologising. That is, I am coining a term that is so obviously piggybacking on current trends that I feel a little bad about it. The new word is 'iconditioning', or perhaps 'iConditioning'.

Some people have used the latter term before, I should imagine, with the intent of labelling those who have bought into the late Steve Jobs's amazing technological 'reality distortion field' — epitomised by the names iMac, iPhone, iCloud, iPad, iWhatever.

In my case, I'm thinking of a recent book by Martin Kemp, Christ To Coke: How Image Becomes Icon. In that book, the author discusses how various process make images iconic in our minds — processes that are mediated by political power, traumatic event, and so on. The role of the ever-expanding and entrenching media (using whatever the latest infodump technology might be — clay tablets, tablet computing) is fairly strong here, but there are some other psychological quirks.

Somewhere out there, a mysterious psychopomp conveys the imagined concept to some sort of iconic afterlife, where it is beatified and joins the pantheon. When an image becomes an icon, it is very much like the process by which a dying hero is taken by the valkyrior to Valhalla. There, it will eat and drink its immortal way, whether obscure or not, until Ragnarok comes.

The whole process of becoming an icon, I say (or should that be 'iSay'?), should be called 'iconditioning'. We are conditioned by our information-environments to think of image as icon until it becomes true by some sort of apotheosis. And there iRest my case.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Pop Cap

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
But not on sleeves the players show
For FIFA says 'political'
And so remembrance has to go.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


Attention span. Moment. Elect. Arc. Point. Not.

I'm here. Abbreviation will be the dth'f m.

Anorexia. Anonymosity. Acronym.





Monday, November 07, 2011

Data Encoding

Today I had the misfortune to be looking at the latest draft output from one of the Ministries, those warded Grand Temples of the Meritokratia of Atlantis. The earnest young priests had coded two different functions with the same range of codes, then used that range of codes differently elsewhere.

Here is an hypothetical example of how it would have worked in practice.

Let's say that a person is the target of an imaginary ailment like Maladrach's Pyriferous Pustules. Then the possible procedures for treating it are MPP-01 (douse in water), MPP-02 (dowse for water), MPP-03 (pop the pustules), MPP-04 (pop the postulant), MPP-05 (postulate a pop). And the outcomes of the treatment might be MPP-06 (full recovery), MPP-07 (terminal spontaneous combustion), MPP-08 (referral to pyrothaumaturgic specialist) and so on.

Of course, you can't tell by inspection whether you're looking at a treatment or an outcome, since the code MPP is the same! Worse, if you have new treatments, you can't insert one after MPP-05, since you used running numbers for the outcomes that start immediately after MPP-05.

To make matters worse, these people decide that for smaller practitioners with fewer options, you could use MPP-01 (douse in water), MPP-02 (dowse for water), MPP-03 (full recovery), MPP-04 (referral to a specialist) and so on.

In other words, the same codes are used to represent completely different things in a different context.

If I had been coding, I would at the very least have used something more like MPPP-001 to MPPP-nnn for MPP Procedures, and MPPO-001 to MPPO-nnn for MPP Outcomes. And I would have reserved MPPP-nnnn and MPPO-nnnn for future use in case wonder-working turned out to be more complicated than the present state of the art.

It's a shame that the OSA probably prevents me from showing you, dear readers, the very slides themselves. Then you would see and be scandalized both by the great waste of your tax dollars and the calibre of the brains consuming said dollars.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 06, 2011


The past will always find you. Sometimes, the results are beautiful; sometimes, tragic; sometimes, both. And at other times, who knows? Remember the river of lights down the freeway in the dark, remember that the opposite of light is not necessarily dark, but delight.


Saturday, November 05, 2011

Dictionary, Lexicon, Encyclopaedia

Sometimes, I am asked on what authority it is that I give definitions for terms. Why should my definition of 'science', or 'humanities', or 'education' (etc., etc.) be used instead of that found in the venerable Oxford or Merriam-Webster or whatever dictionary tome is the flavour of the decade?

The answer is a simple one.

A dictionary is a compilation of diction — that is, the uses to which words have been put. Most dictionaries are alphabetized lexicons — that is, they are lists of words in alphabetical order, with notes on their usual meaning and usage attached.

Some are encyclopaedic, which is to say they are meant to be both descriptive and prescriptive — they provide enkyklios paideia, as the Greeks would put it, an 'all-encompassing education' (literally, 'a (full) circle of child-rearing').

All definitions are provided by lexicographers who examine the typical diction (in the sense of usage) of a given word and from this describe the uses to which it is put. They do not tell you that you must use a word that way; they only tell you what it would probably mean if you used it in a given context. You are at liberty to essay a new meaning, and if that becomes a common usage, the next generation of lexicographers may include your meaning in a dictionary.

What I do is simple. I define words the way I use them, while keeping an eye on their pedigree and the uses to which other people put them. When I define a word, it is usually in historical and functional context, for the purpose of some practical use (for example, writing an essay on a given topic). Anybody can do this, but the test of validity is whether the reader will accept the word as you use it.

So I suggest this: anyone who reads this blog and disagrees with any definition I give should educate me more fully by counter-defining or re-defining the term. You should explain the amendment you wish to make, and I will certainly agree with you if it is a reasonable one that makes the definition more useful in its context of use.

I don't mean that sarcastically, ironically, or in any other perverse sense. I'm being honest here. The point about teaching is trying to nurture better outcomes, and you can't get better outcomes if you refuse to improve your word-hoard, stock-in-trade, or other parts of your armamentarium. So, teach me, and I will learn. Thanks!

Labels: , ,

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Neglected Ocean

Someone just pointed out to me that Perth, Western Australia, is an Indian Ocean seaport. Heck, so is Adelaide, capital of South Australia. In fact the Indian Ocean stretches from 20°E to 146°55'E, which makes its westernmost port probably Port Elizabeth in South Africa.

Most of human trade and civilisation over the span of our history has traversed this neglected ocean. Egypt's only ocean access is to the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian peninsula is almost entirely surrounded by it. Few know how large the Chinese presence here used to be, still is, and continues to be. There perhaps more than 50,000 Chinese (mostly Cantonese) on Madagascar, and another 35,000 on Mauritius. Singapore is an Indian Ocean city.

This is why geography is both romantic and important. These are the huge stories hidden in plain sight. Or plain sites.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Assessment and Evaluation

In education circles, these two flap around like much-reduced versions of Odin's ravens. Yet they are not a symmetric pair, or even orthogonal. They are linked by differences that were once obvious and are now subtle, much as 'right' and 'wrong' are, but not quite.

Assessment (from Latin assidere = 'sit down beside', 'be continually present with', 'constantly attend to'), implies that you sit down beside somebody, look over their shoulder, and decide exactly how much they score. The purpose here used to be the determination (from Latin terminus = 'boundary') of income for tax calculations (from Latin tangere = 'to touch' and calculi = 'stones'), a practice known to this day as 'assessment'. I've deliberately stressed the Latin etymology here to point out that the Romans were very heavy on tax assessment and related practices, because that is how you run a great empire administratively.

Assessment is meant to be a purely quantitative exercise. You touch up someone, estimate (from Latin aestimare = 'appraise') his wealth, and assess his tax. When we assess students, all we're looking for is their quantitative achievement so we can compare them to a chart or table and place them appropriately.

Evaluation, on the other hand, comes from a venerable linguistic stem from which we also get 'valour', 'valency' and 'value'. Also from the Latin, evaluation is about determining the potency or worth of something in its social context. When we evaluate something, we aren't looking only at its obvious quantitative attributes, but at its potential and actual usefulness or quality when compared to everything around it.

When we evaluate students, therefore, we are looking at them in terms of how much skill and potential are revealed by what they have done and are doing. We are thinking of them qualitatively, in as many dimensions as necessary to figure out how valuable they are in their present and future context.

Thus, evaluation is to assessment as sculpture is to sketching — the former needs the latter more than the latter needs the former, but it is much more well-rounded. Evaluation gives assessment a greater purpose, although assessment itself can have its own purposes.

Here's an example. Think of a physical fitness test battery. You might want to include chin-ups (to evaluate upper body strength), standing broad jump (to evaluate one form of lower body strength), juggling (to evaluate coordination), a 2.4 km run (to evaluate basic aerobic fitness), and so on. The numbers you get here form an assessment, and the methods used to obtain the numbers are called assessment rubrics.

Now consider what the entire test battery tells us about the subject's overall fitness levels and what they mean in terms of employment prospects and potential job scope. (If you had a trained observer watching the candidate's approach to taking these tests, you might also have one kind of psychological data.) Put it all together to form a narrative about this person's capabilities, and you have an evaluation.

Evaluations are too complicated to have fixed rubrics. Instead, you tell the evaluator what you are looking for, and the evaluator decides how to put the assessment data together to tell you what you will find. It requires a much higher level of cognition, and the burden of responsibility (moral or otherwise) is also much greater.

In examinations, anybody can use a marking scheme and turn in a reasonable assessment of an examinee's performance. In fact, for the so-called objective tests, a machine can do the assessment.

However, not all who get 27/40 for an MCQ test got there the same way — some may well be unusual candidates of great promise, while others may be drones who studied hard and got only the obvious questions right. It takes a trained interpreter to tell you what exactly the pattern of right and wrong answers means about the candidate, and even then, without asking a student why they chose their answers, the evaluation is very thin and may not very helpful.

In short, assessment is all about 'what do we have' and evaluation is all about 'what does it mean to us'. Assessment is simple, evaluation complex. Assessment can be a science; if it is, then evaluation is an art. And I'm quite sure I will have more to say about them.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Tall, Dark, Handsome

From an ancient newspaper, I found this:
Mr. Oldham is a tall, thin, dark gentleman, with a directness and simplicity about him that assure you of his sincerity. There is an entire absence of cant or any stock phrases as he prays, and his voice is not pitched to an artificial tone. His language in his sermons is simple in the extreme, indeed you feel he is talking to you not preaching, and the result is you are decoyed into listening before you know where you are… In simple, earnest, touching language, Mr. Oldham speaks to the little ones, avoiding exaggeration, that refuge of weak souls.
Would that all educators of wyverns would teach likewise.


Tuesday, November 01, 2011


The work pours in. I am too busy, and it feels good. Today I had coffee with Gnomus. He is in a good place too. Life is bright. Work makes it so.