Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Last of 2011

2011 was an excellent year. But as it came to an end, I found myself humming and then singing softly to myself a grand old (and very peculiar) hymn...

Jerusalem by William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Servile Civets

I was in the Tower of the Book again, a pleasant way to while away a Friday afternoon. You could sense the tension in the little crowd to which I was speaking. It was like trying to produce kopi luwak under time pressure.

Everyone was politely engaged, as always. I've been the victim of these hired-gun games before, so I felt a deep sympathy for those forced to listen to me. As the old joke goes, you might pay them enough to be servants, but not enough to be civil.

And yet, they were nice people. Not sad, servile or solitary, but intelligent and critical, although some kept their harshest thoughts to themselves. I appreciated the professional interaction a lot, and it reminded me of the good things I miss about bean production.


Thursday, December 29, 2011


Some time ago, we built a 'guesthouse' for the cat outside. It was a simple structure, designed to provide a refuge from accidentally-introduced dogs, bad weather, and the like.

Effectively, our house cat had become not quite an outdoorscat, but a scrounger at the borderlands. His temperament changed too. It was as if you'd plucked a person from his comfy village hut and given him an apartment of his own in some urban setting. It sounds odd, but that's how it seemed.

Our cat took to howling at odd times, especially at 3 am. A cat's howl isn't like a dog's howl. It's what people have come to call a 'caterwaul' because that's close to what it sounds like, a cyclic bawl, wail, howl, moan sort of thing.

You could then rap on the wall, talk to the cat for a while, and he'd stop.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Early in the morning, the cat wakes dreaming. His despairing wails tell us what he has learnt: that Eden is gone, and it is not his fault. We know who he blames.

So why does the cat remain near humans?

Because he lives in hope that we will be redeemed, and that, as always, he will be able to sneak in through the door we left open behind us on our return.

Or perhaps, because God told the first cat to make sure it would happen.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011


It has occurred to me that some of my most serendipitous moments of reflective insight come when the cat has just stuck his claws into my foot. Pain-mediated enlightenment. Feline ideation.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Cat in Winter

I live in the tropics, but late December is relatively cool, windy, wet — just as it is in most of the Northern Hemisphere. And the cat, the cat doesn't like it so much.

Today I sat with him. He paced around. The sky was a bright pale grey-blue, like ice. Grey wisps of cloud scudded around. The wind blew dying flowers and leaves into the patio. The cat chased some of them, sniffed suspiciously at others.

His golden fur, bright and brazen in the full summer sun, looked brown and irritable. He was a tarnished copper cat today, not the golden glory he prefers to be. He obviously felt brown and irritable too. He looked out over the garden, tail slowly twitching from side to side, as if to say, "I know you're out there somewhere, whatever you are. Bad day! Bad day!"

Once in a while, he'd run back to me, and bang his forehead against my shin. I have no clear idea of what that means to a cat, but it seems to be partly reassurance based on solidity (or solidarity) and partly head-banging from being irritated with something.

Ah, the cat, the cat in winter. "In winter's tedious night, sit by the fire / With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales / Of woeful ages long ago betide." So said the bard, but the cat still twitches.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Hapless Victims of Christmas

Forty million turkeys. Children forced at lenspoint into photographic slavery and exploitation. Trees, tall and beautiful, pulped and bleached for discardable wrappers. And these are only the most obvious victims.

The common, circular argument is that this is all somehow good for us because it boosts the economy. But that's dumb. It's like saying that wearing out my knee joints for the sake of my heart is a good deal. Well, perhaps. But there are better alternatives.

I mourn amidst the commerce. Yes, I'm silly that way.


Saturday, December 24, 2011


So... what do you have to know in order to earn a diploma in gemology? I did some research. The results were pretty uniform. Here is a sample from the British Gemological Association's traditional list, comprising 31 syllabus sections.

1. Gem Materials

Nature and attributes of gems and ornamental materials; factors which influence the value of a stone: beauty, durability, rarity; acceptability. Earth’s physical activity; melting, recrystallization, sedimentation, mineralization.

2. The Nature of Gem Materials

The origin and occurrence of gem minerals (elementary). Major types of gem deposit (general description): pegmatite; diamond pipe; placer; hydrothermal vein. Extraction: mining and recovery methods (outline only). Minerals, atoms, elements and chemical bonding (elementary).


6. The Nature of Light

The importance of light in gemmology. The nature of light. Wavelength and frequency. The electromagnetic spectrum. The visible spectrum of colour. Polarization and vibration direction.

7. Refraction

Refraction; refractive index (RI), definition and description. Singly refractive materials. Doubly refractive materials: directional properties; double refraction, polarization, optic axes. Measurement of RI; the refractometer; the principle of total internal reflection; an outline of its main component parts. The determination of birefringence using the refractometer.

8. Reflection and its Effects

External reflection: lustre. Examples of lustre. Internal reflection effects caused by inclusions; chatoyancy and asterism. Internal reflection effects caused by structural features. Iridescence: interference and diffraction. Brilliance.


15. Artificial Gem Materials

Artificial and synthetic gems: definitions. A brief outline of methods of production and identification of materials produced by the Verneuil flame fusion, flux melt and hydrothermal methods. Non-crystalline artificial materials: paste; plastics.

16. Imitation and Composite Gem Materials

Imitation (simulation) of gem and ornamental materials; the use of natural and artificial materials as imitations; the distinction of gem diamond from its simulants, particularly cubic zirconia (CZ). Composite (assembled) natural and artificial stones; reconstructed materials.


21. Structure and Properties of Gem Materials

Atomic-scale structure, electrons and chemical bonding. The crystalline state and crystalline materials. Crystal structures in terms of chemical bonding. Structural isomorphism: ‘isomorphous substitution’. Crystalline polymorphism. The relationship of crystal structure and symmetry to crystal faces, forms, habits, cleavage, internal growth phenomena and crystal surface markings; relevance to identification.


31. Description of Gem Materials of Organic Origin

Origin, occurrence, recovery, methods of identification and common simulants of: amber, copal, coral, ivory, jet, tortoiseshell; pearls — natural, cultured (nucleated and non-nucleated), marine and freshwater; shell (particularly as used for cameos and as mother-of-pearl).


It is the kind of thing that would be wonderfully rewarding for high school seniors (or junior acolytes in Atlantean Shrines of the Book) to be studying. 'Instead' of science, I suppose.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

What on Earth are We Testing?

For the last few days, I've been consolidating the myriad reflections of one facet of my life in education. I've been thinking and rethinking my views on assessment and evaluation, simply because there is so much stuff in my head.

What kind of jobs do people want to do? You don't study math so that you can become a mathematician, mostly — you study it because it is foundational material for many other possible careers. You can't do many things without basic math, and the interesting jobs normally need intermediate math or the equivalent in some aspect of it (geometry, data structures, topology etc). You can't be an art historian without knowing some math.

Likewise, unless you can understand physics and chemistry, you can't earn a diploma in gemology. And without understanding of chemistry and some biology, you'll never be a Master of Wine. The good life is closed to those without the sciences and mathematics. Or so it seems.

See, the problem is that we have made people think that you need qualifications in math and science to understand math and science. But every child has the seeds of this understanding, and the paper compost of secondary-school qualifications does not necessarily provide the impetus for them to sprout and bloom into the garden of a wonderful career.

No, no. I have a brother who has long claimed mathematical and scientific illiteracy. But he breeds orchids. He is a gemologist. He could have done neither without studying some math and science. But he has a paucity of such qualifications; his academic highlights are in the arts and humanities! You could have bowled me over with a feather when he started discussing circular dichroism the other day — and I have long taken his encyclopaedic knowledge of gardening for granted.

You see, testing one thing does not guarantee that you are testing capacity, only ability at the point of testing. And that is so poor, so pathetic, so weak! In this world, though, it is seen as necessary, by social convention.

What on earth are we testing? We are testing our capacity for constructive self-delusion as the edifice (what an interesting word) of education is educted from around us. End of rant.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

On a One-Horse Open Sleight

To do things lightly with the hand is what legerdemain is all about; to do things swiftly with the fingers is what prestidigitation is all about. The first term means 'lightness of hand' and the second term means 'fast fingering'.

But what is 'sleight of hand'? 'Sleight' is not the past tense of 'sleigh'. Rather, it is the essence of slyness. The Old Norse has it as sloegð, which seems to me a lot like 'slither'. A sleigh is something that cunningly slithers along, I suppose, although it is Frisian (?) or Dutch (?) in origin.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Terms of Irritation

I'm not so young now, and not so prone to being lured into energetic disputation. However, I am sometimes irritated enough to fire off broadsides. Occasionally, I have been known to set satchel demolition charges around disputants' positions and blow them up while laughing like a maniac.

Of late, I've been most irritated by the terms 'alternative assessment' (alternative to what?), 'holistic assessment' (see elsewhere in this blog), and 'authentic assessment' (should we be giving inauthentic assessments?). These are silly terms.

Proponents of the first term say it is 'alternative to traditional'. Yeah, and when it becomes established, it will -be- traditional and probably the currently-traditional will have become alternative, no? I am reminded of the so-called 'alternative to practical assessment' which we were offered, and which later became the main mode of 'practical' assessment worldwide.

Proponents of the second term are mostly unable to say whether it is 'assessment of the holistic' or 'assessment that is holistic' that they mean. The former is not possible (the best map is 1:1, after all) and the latter is only slightly more plausible. Unless it means (as it often really does) assessment that offers a quick-and-dirty thumbnail sketch of whatever is supposed to be assessed.

Proponents of the last term are equally unable to say what 'authentic' means. Surely very few people use 'false assessment' or 'fake assessment'? Some change this to 'performance-based assessment', until I point out that 'performance-based' simply means 'based on carrying out whatever was supposed to be carried out'. Which of course says nothing about what is being assessed and how.

Times like this make one wish that education was not so much about hand-waving and vague platitudes, and more about hard thinking and ruthless disputation. Or at least, values. Ho ho ho.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Grounds for Refusing to Register a School

In the hallowed temples of the Law in Atlantis are many tablets of Law. Tablet 87 is oft ignored. On Tablet 87, in section 24, one can find these hieroglyphs, or their equivalent. They can be translated as follows, and make interesting reading:

Grounds for refusal to register a school:

24. The Hierophant of the Temple of the Book may refuse to register a school if —

(a) adequate educational facilities already exist in the area in which it is proposed to open the school;
(b) the proposed school premises constitute a dangerous building or are or are likely to be structurally unsuitable for use as a school;
(c) the fire precautions in the proposed school premises are inadequate;
(d) the proposed school premises are insanitary or for reasons of health unsuitable for use as a school;
(e) the area provided for the open air recreation of pupils is inadequate or unsatisfactory;
(f) the proposed school does not conform to the regulations made under this Act;
(g) the proposed fees are excessive, having regard to the cost of maintaining and conducting the proposed school and the standard of education to be provided;
(h) the qualifications and experience of the proposed teachers are not adequate to ensure the efficient conduct of the proposed school;
(i) the proposed salaries of the teachers are not adequate to ensure the efficient performance of their duties;
(j) the proposed school is designed to accommodate more than 1,200 pupils in any one session;
(k) the constitution of the proposed committee of management is not such as to ensure the efficient administration of the proposed school;
(l) the supervisor recommended by the proposed committee of management is not a fit and proper person to act as a supervisor;
(m) the proposed school has previously been refused registration or the registration thereof has been cancelled either under this Act or under any previous written law relating to the registration of schools;
(n) the proposed school is likely to be used for a purpose detrimental to the interests of Atlantis or of the public;
(o) the proposed school is likely to be used for the purpose of instruction detrimental to the interests of the public or of the pupils;
(p) the proposed school is likely to be used as a meeting place of an unlawful society;
(q) the name under which the school is to be registered is against the interests of Atlantis; or
(r) in the application for registration a statement has been made or information has been furnished which is false in a material particular or by reason of the omission of a material particular.

Don't you find these criteria both interesting and amusing? Wednesday 21 December is especially a good day to remember Tablet 87.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

No Power, No Point

I can't remember if it was Edward Tufte or someone else who first said of electronic slides, "No power, no point." I guess the underlying non-point is that if there is no message to communicate, the medium is as barren as any other.

And hence, remember, the message is the key; the medium is the medium. You don't go to a public lecture and ask for the lecturer's slides in advance, surely. Neither do you go to a concert and ask for an audio recording in advance. That way lies madness. And yet, this is what many people do in other contexts.

To wit, I often get students asking me for my slides both before and after lectures. Weren't they paying attention? Weren't they actively processing material? It would appear not.


Sunday, December 18, 2011


Holidaying is a state of mind. It is even more obvious when you look at the etymology of the term — a holiday is a holy day, a day set apart for spiritual reflection. It is not of this world. But the only way things can be not of this world is when the human being responds in faith that there are things not of this world, not dreamt of in our philosophies.

And so, I am on holiday. Whenever I want to be.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Kinds of Assessment (Part II)

Of course, you can always consider other attributes of assessment when differentiating between the different kinds. You can consider the kind of assessor, the perspective of assessment, and the intention behind assessment, for example. This last is quite different from mere purpose.

1. Differentiated by assessor

1.1 Self: if the assessor is the person or institution being assessed, there is of course an opening for charges of bias. What people don't realise is that there is almost always bias; the real problem is groupthink or inability/refusal to resist bias.

1.2 Other, human: if the assessor is another human, then assessment is subject to indeterminate bias. No two humans assess exactly the same way; even the same human will assess differently under different conditions.

1.3 Other, machine: at least, machines tend to be consistently biased.

2. Differentiated by perspective

2.1 Internal: if the assessment is carried out within the same institution or group, the advantage is insider knowledge leading possibly to more useful, detailed, and relevant assessment — the disadvantage is insider knowledge leading to the exact opposite.

2.2 External: if the assessment is carried out from outside the institution or group, the advantage is that it looks more objective — the disadvantages are that lack of objectivity (if present) is harder to discern, and that feedback (if required) tends to be vague and less useful.

2.3 Subjective: if the assessment requires a personal standpoint (i.e. the assessor is the subject and the assessed is the object) then obviously all assessors will differ slightly in standpoint.

2.4 Objective: if the assessment has an enforced, pre-determined, external benchmark with no subjective choice required of the assessor, and the assessment is mechanical in a deterministic sense, then it is very reliable and accurate. Only the validity of the assessment is likely to be problematic. Note that the more realistic or complex the assessment is, the more unlikely a valid objective test can be made.

3. Differentiated by intention

3.1 Quantitative justification: some assessments are designed to convert a complex concept into simply measurable numbers. This is a highly debatable, occasionally politically-motivated practice.

3.2 Data consolidation: some assessments are designed to collect potentially useful data, and the candidate is not told that this data may be used for purposes beyond the explicit ones. This is an ethically dubious practice.

3.3 Normative ranking: some assessments are made so that a convenient ranked list can be made of all assessed candidates. Since assessments are of limited dimensions and are not supposed to contain interpretation (that's for evaluation), this practice is philosophically dubious.

3.4 Other intentions: there are as many intentions behind assessments as there are forms of assessment, but most of them lead to gratification, money, power or sex (just like crimes do). It's quite possible that assessment might lead to none of these, but if you think about it, society is generally complicit in using assessment in such ways. Sad.


Well, I hope you who are reading this enjoyed my somewhat offbeat take on assessment. Some of it, I'm aware, was more true than we pretend; some of it less true than we believe. Most people wouldn't know how to assess assessment, though. Heh.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Kinds of Assessment (Part I)

There's way too much jargon around, and it confuses the stakeholders in education. If you confuse the stakeholders too much, they might misstake the vampires and die horribly. Heh.

And so, here is my convenient guide to kinds of assessment.

1. Differentiated by benchmark type

1.1 Criterion-based assessment: this type involves an assessor scoring the candidate assessed on the basis of whether specific behaviours or accomplishments match expectations of the assessor's master document or reference, model or exemplar, or expert judgement.

1.2 Norm-based assessment: given a sufficiently-large sample of population and a clear ranking system that would justify relative rankings within that sample, the candidate is assessed in terms of performance relative to that sample and ranked in comparison to it.

1.3 Self-based assessment: the candidate is assessed relative to earlier performances, with the assessor deciding if the candidate has performed better or worse compared to herself, himself or itself.

2. Differentiated by instrument type

This kind has more kinds on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, Horatio. Essentially, we have many ways of assigning quantitative values to candidate performances. All have flaws, but some are more appropriate to specific situations than others. The most comprehensive is probably apprenticeship, where the candidate's work over a period of years is evaluated by a recognized master at the task-set/skill-set which the candidate is learning.

Some common instrumental approaches are 'performance-based' in which the candidate's behaviour leading to an outcome is examined, and 'outcomes-based' in which the candidate's final product is examined.

3. Differentiated by purpose

3.1 Normative assessment: the candidate is assessed in order to develop a larger population of assessed candidates so that the assessor can figure out what the typical or desirable performance should be. This is normally used when the desired outcome is not clearly anticipated or known.

3.2 Formative assessment: the candidate is assessed in order to develop performance by response to assessment-based feedback.

3.3 Summative assessment: the candidate is assessed in order to compile a complete evaluation of one or more dimensions of performance; the word 'evaluation' is used because the assignment of value relative to a context (e.g. an overall grade) is a necessary outcome of this type of assessment.

3.4 Assessment for learning: this superficially resembles formative assessment. The problem here is the term 'learning'. The performance is to be developed in the assumption that improved performance implies learning. It can be difficult to prove this.

3.5 Assessment of learning: this superficially resembles summative assessment. The problem here is again the term 'learning'. The overall assessment is evaluated, with the candidate's relatively good performance in a given context assumed to imply superior learning to those with relatively worse performance. It can be likewise difficult to prove this.

3.6 Diagnostic assessment: assessment carried out at a fixed point in a process to determine the present state of the candidate, and especially what course or regime is required for further development or progress. It can be used for formative assessment.

3.7 Predictive assessment: assessment carried out by visualising the likely trajectory of the candidate given a hypothetical future state and the present state. Used to determine future value of candidate. It can also be used for formative assessment. (Actually, a sufficiently creative teacher can use anything formatively. Or reformatively, if necessary.)


The next post will deal with the deeper (and more sinister, perhaps?) ideas behind assessment. See last line in 3.7 above.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Elementary Truths

An elementary truth, by definition, cannot be proven to be true. This is because such axioms, being axiomatic, are assertions of reasonable fact which for many reasons seem incontrovertibly true and yet do not depend on prior reasoning — if they did, they wouldn't be axioms.

This is where faith comes in. How do you know if God exists, if reason is rational, or if the logics manufactured by our minds have any basis? Clearly, belief in something doesn't make it true. But hey, that's all we have, scientist and philosopher, king and pauper, farmer and athlete, all alike.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yesterday Once More

It's been years since I last heard the living voice that was once the most beautiful in the world. And yet, I can remember it over the radio. I feel the lower frequencies tug at the distant heart of my youth, summoning the distant heartache of bereavement, the sense of injustice that one so beautiful had left the world so soon.

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck could chuck wood as much as a woodchuck could chuck wood.

It seems that everywhere I go, carpentry provides reasons for living. And Christmas, in so many ways, rubs that fact in.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Atheism as a Subset of Religion

Of course, the previous post was also connected to other curious arguments I've been having of late. There are a lot of math and science majors out there with funny ideas.

In one of those arguments, I said that atheism is a subset of religion. A famous atheistic pseudo-argument or joke goes like this: "A monotheist claims that Occam's Razor must reduce the total divinity of a viable religion to one. An atheist merely reduces this number by one."

As an admirer (though not adherent) of Bertrand Russell, I can only say that just as the null set is a subset of all sets, so atheism must be a subset of theism. Since theism is a subset of religion, it follows that atheism must be a subset of religion.

However, many atheists contend that atheism is the logical complement of religion, i.e. not-religion. That's plainly not true — atheism is the '0' to monotheism's '1', you might say, but that doesn't mean 0 and 1 are not both values. Neither belief can be proven uncontroversially to be true, and any 'falsification' argument fails simply because of the fundamental asymmetry between 'yes' and 'no'; 'no' is not 'not-yes'.

So, yes, all these controversies are in the end to be avoided. They waste a lot of effort, as the Good Book says.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Naturalism vs Science

I have recently entered a curious pseudo-argument with some people. The issue has been my contention that science is a subset of religion, to which I got a common reply usually summarised as, "No way!" Well, way.

I would have written this up earlier, except that I was too tired, and fell asleep. Besides, there was the sneaking suspicion that such a simple argument must have been promulgated by some more powerful philosopher than I, and the other sneaking suspicion that I might have read it somewhere else and thus could no longer distinguish between what my formulation was and what someone else's was.

So I did due diligence and came up with a little entry by Plantinga in the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Link to important section here.

Yep, it's as I remembered. "Naturalism is presumably not a religion. In one very important respect, however, it resembles religion: it can be said to perform the cognitive function of a religion."

Science as a cognitive endeavour claims to seek truth, but Darwin's concern (as expressed by Plantinga) goes this way:
What our minds are for (if anything) is not the production of true beliefs, but the production of adaptive behavior: that our species has survived and evolved at most guarantees that our behavior is adaptive; it does not guarantee or even make it likely that our belief-producing processes are for the most part reliable, or that our beliefs are for the most part true. That is because our behavior could perfectly well be adaptive, but our beliefs false as often as true.

Darwin himself apparently worried about this question: "With me," says Darwin, "the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?" (Darwin, 1887)
This is the issue of faith that underpins science as a religion. We have to be somewhat Cartesian, without knowing whether this is reliable; it is reliable only because we think it is — it is our thought that assesses our thought.

Naturalism (whether Dawkinsian or any other kind) thus militates against knowing whether science is truth or not. Eventually, scientism is forced to say things like, "Well, your computer works, so we know science is useful." Well, yes. In other words, the issue of faith is lost in works, just as it often is in religion.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Plural of Self

The plural of self is selves, and if elf, elves; a shelf grows into shelves. And yet, here we are, not really knowing which is self and what is selves.

The fact is that there is no such thing as self; self is an image in the real that is ideal in the way it exists — no evidence can proof or prove the self, but yet it is hard not to think of self. Self, it turns out, emerges from the cocoon of reality and takes flight, and metamorphosis ensures it never remains the same.

Some people think of self as identity, or of self as being. It is possible to see the two things as the two sides of self, bearing in mind that you cannot be immutable being if you are to have identity.

Why? Because identity is defined in terms of what you are not; if thing X and thing Y are distinct, then X cannot be Y. But if things that are not X are always changing, how is X defined in terms of things that are not X? X must change too, and so it is never an identity in the ideal sense. It is a shifting panorama, a landscape, a kaleidoscope of identities, conflated as self.

And so, I am selves. I am many. If I, Christian, am in the image of God, remember too that God can be many, for in Genesis he is not only God (singular) but Elohim (plural).

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Identifiction of Identification

The dusty sunlight made everything slow. We leaned, wearily enervated, against whatever walls we could. And we decided that not being women, we would never be able to understand them1; that not being Hindus, we would never be able to understand them2; that not being physicists, we would never be able to understand them3; and so on.

In fact, not having perfect labels, nor faces, we would never be able to understand everything. Or so they (1, 2, 3, ..., n) told us.

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Homer's Coffee

Sit, traveller. Learn.

milk-blunted darkness
bitterness stolen
cassandra silent

will i now insult
by pouring honey
thin sweet suffering

where the beauty now
a thousand ships sunk
fire licking ash shore

drink now, odysseus
wanderer grandson
get of the lone wolf

forget what cannot
release what remains
wine-dark brazilian

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Chess Associations

Sometimes I look at chess games and the names of the players and I find myself thinking of rather odd things. Right now, the London Chess Classic is on.

I see names like 'Levon Aronian' and I think of a left-handed fishwife. 'Magnus Carlsen' somehow makes me think of Charlemagne. 'Nigel Short' is one of my favourites, as it always makes me wonder what if he had met Mikhail Tal. David Howell is Chinese, while Hikaru Nakamura is American.

It's an amazing world. But Gens Una Sumus, as the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has as its motto — 'We're One Family'.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Unpublished Posts

There's this button which one has to click in order to actually publish what one has typed. Sometimes, distracted by dinner and other events, I fail to click it. I seldom let this happen too often, but it explains why my posts sometimes appear a few hours late.

Sometimes this is a blessing. I find that occasionally I have typed something nasty or inaccurate which on reflection should never have been published. It is nice to find out that I haven't actually done so.

I was rather depressed yesterday — cold, rainy day with bad tidings here and there. Fortunately, Wednesday's woeful child has not seen the light of day yet. So I shall put this nice space-filler in for it, knowing that the abortion, for once, is a good thing.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

In Earnest

Today I spent the afternoon carefully opening many books, the collection of my late principal, a man of great integrity, hugely varied interests, and a magpie mind which seized on facts and built palaces out of them. We were looking through the books in order to sort them out and think of a new home for them. There were more than a thousand of them.

In the curious, vacant disorder that accompanies the departure of a man who lived alone, I found an unopened drawer. It contained little brown notebooks.

They were his travel diaries; more than that, they were shared diaries co-written by his late wife, a wonderful lady who had passed on in untimely fashion decades ago. They chronicled the mundane events and the wonderful events of each day in small, meticulous writing. They had pizza one day. They spent £5 on a souvenir for an uncle. They had lists, and tables, and terse descriptions of days which they had clearly enjoyed together.

The books had not been touched for a very long while. I shut their drawer carefully, stabbed by a moment of melancholy sharpened to a sudden point.

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Professional Specialization

When people find out what I do for a living, the next question tends to be, "So what do you teach?" It irritates me a lot. I mean, if you say you're a doctor, people are not normally so ill-mannered as to ask you, "What specialty?" and I think that's generally true for lawyers and engineers.

The answer I normally give is: "I'll teach anything that I can teach. Hopefully it's something that the student(s) will benefit from."

Come on, all teachers in Atlantis are trained to teach. Just because they are pseudo-certified in two teaching subjects doesn't mean either a) that they are sufficiently educated, or b) that they are specialists, or c) that they will know how to handle all the things they're supposed to have been taught to handle.

I mean, all doctors in Atlantis learn anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, community medicine, pathology, blah blah blah. It doesn't mean either a) that they are sufficiently educated, or b) that they are specialists, or c) that they will know how to handle all the things they're supposed to have been taught to handle.

Someone once told me that doctors specialise so that they can reduce expectations. As a specialist, you can duck your professional responsibilities by saying that you are a specialist and hence not qualified to do other stuff — a dermatologist can thus excuse the inability (or lack of desire) to handle an obstetrics case even though the requisite training was received.

Apparently, the same thing is true of teachers. If you're a Chinese teacher, nobody can ask you to teach Science. If you're a Science teacher, nobody will panic you by dumping a Lit class on you. This means that you don't have to think so much, you don't have to learn so much, you can be more confident about being a greater ignoramus than you were in school while being more learned about less.

What a life. What a profession. What nonsense.

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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Word of the Day: Hawker

Today I heard that an old schoolmate had insisted that we should develop a new generation of hawkers. At which point, I reflected that I knew at least three definitions of 'hawker' in the sense of 'one who hawks'.

First: a hawker (from a Germanic root-word meaning 'to carry on one's back') is an itinerant vendor. The oddity of course is that street food, the stuff most often being hawked, tends now to be sold from immobile stalls (haha, 'stall' of course has another appropriate meaning here).

Second: a hawker is one who hunts with a hawk. In this sense, the word 'hawk' comes from another old word meaning to grasp or seize — very much as the word 'raptor' comes from the Latin for something very similar in concept.

Third: a hawker is one who expectorates violently. I think this one's onomatopoeic. Heh.

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Gratitude Memetics (Part II)

In the previous post I offered an example of what I've come to think of as 'gratitude memetics'. I realise that although I have quite a clear idea of what that means to me, I haven't shared that.

I define 'gratitude memetics' as the study of memes involving the memorial cultural transmission of a specific form of gratitude; i.e. the gratitude of type G that a person owes another is linked to similar gratitude that that person owes yet another. This is seen in trivial form when people play 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon', with the gratitude being shallow and implicit, and seen in less trivial and more consequential form in academic citations and the tracing of academic pedigree (as in the previous post).

It's possible to see this in clan or feudal obligations where one family lineage is obligated to another or owes fealty to another. This survives even in non-feudal societies when one feels obliged to repay the debts (social, financial or otherwise) that a family member may have incurred towards a close mutual acquaintance.

What forms does this take, in terms of formal structures, arrangements and descriptions? Something to spend the weekend thinking about.


Friday, December 02, 2011

Gratitude Memetics (Part I)

For some time now, in the world of academia, some academics have taken to tracing their 'academic descent' — who their doctoral supervisor was, who their supervisor's supervisor was, and so on until you reach the earliest recorded node. The doctoral thesis is an interesting carrier of this memetic record because it is normally the defining moment of the typical academic life.

Strictly speaking, the doctoral dissertation is a meme. A really good one will propagate itself while evolving into a book, a roadshow, a seminar, a conference, and eventually perhaps an institution of its own. As it propagates itself through the citation/reference system, thorough the cells known as journals, in the wombs known as committees, they infect the human race for good or for ill.

Today however, I was just content to be looking at the master's thesis a former student of mine submitted, in the field of theatre. What really made my day was when this student told me how, when speaking to colleagues about goals and ambitions, memories of me would emerge. Those colleagues would then be treated to a short spiel on how my teaching was an eye-opener and something worthy of emulation.

I was speechless. And very, very grateful. We who are confident, positive personalities sometimes look as if we don't need kindness, or that nice words and memories are superfluous to our requirements. But we're human too, and I felt good, and I thanked this ex-student from the bottom of my miserable heart.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011


The cat is gold upon the brown tiles. The sun is less so, on this cloudy November afternoon. His fine hairs stand up as he sweeps his green gaze upon the less-green lawn. His white whiskers twitch, as he sits at my right foot.

That particular sitting-at-my-foot is not a sign of abasement, but a sign of possession. He thinks he owns my foot, or at least, significant access rights to it. If you look at my otherwise unremarkable (perhaps, slightly ugly) foot, you will see the pinprick scars of his ownership. When he feels like it, he latches onto my foot, his claws gently emplaced like barbed wire into the skin, daring me to move faster than he can bayonet me.

His thick tail whisks idly from side to side. For now, he is not indulging his plaintive wail, nor his hopeful meow. He needs no other company for now, for three of his claws are wrapped around the ball of my big toe. Occasionally, he gives me a sidelong glance.

I scratch him gently, massaging his spine with my fingertips. He yawns a little, half-closes his eyes. But he retains a single clawhold, as if to say, "I'll retract them all when you've done enough to earn your freedom."

I make my move. I dance out of the way. He looks at me, alert, betrayed, and lunges for the escaped foot. I keep a narrow half-inch ahead of him. He lunges for the other foot. I know him well enough to dance the other way.

A few more attempted swipes, and he stops. He sits, licks his paws the way cats do when they're sulking or thwarted. He studiously ignores me. So I walk away.

He flips over on his back, stretches. It means, "You've won, but I don't care." It also means, "Scratch me again when you have time?"

I grin at him and wave. When I next look back, from the side door, he is grooming himself as usual.