Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Eternal Hoodlums of the Endless Quest

Will I not ever be rid of odd dreams? Surely the old existence that we led should not exact such a horrific price. And yet, these horrors are fascinating enough that one might enjoy them too much to be afeard.

For this was the night that I dreamt a voice told me, " 'Goldwork, Inkwork, Footwork'? How Saxon of you! Why not 'Glitterati, Literati, Flitterati'?"

At this horrendous linguistic sacrilege, I awoke in a cold sweat. But it was merely a hefty supper and a cramped foot that had given rise to such thoughts. I think.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012


The imprimatur of my colleagues in the Guild of Diplomats, those who walk under the fuliginous flag, has been given. Let it be proudly declared that
"Goldwork, Inkwork, Footwork"
shall be the motto of the Eternal Hoodlums, now and in perpetuity, worlds without end.

That said, we should get on to further business. There is so much locked up in those three words that it tempts me to pick the lock and examine what we might find.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Cabal of Nations, its Motto, and the Eternal Hoodlums

A really odd dream was had last night. I dreamt I was an agent of the Cabal of Nations, serving a covert organization whose logo was a phosphor-green 'UN' on a black background. And its motto was 'Goldwork, Inkwork, Footwork'.

I was very impressed by this motto, it seems — so impressed that when I woke up, the badge of the organization, and its motto in particular, stayed in my memory! So I reasoned that I must have come across it somewhere in my waking life.

Of course, Google™ is supposed to be your friend in such situations. I eagerly typed the motto into my search box... and found nothing except some obscure reference to a single page on which the three terms happened to appear, in the prospectus for some distant university, and separated in three different departments' courses.

I like that motto, though. I think I will make it mine own. Or that of the Eternal Hoodlums, that other group to which I know I belong.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

What... ?

"What have you been reading these days?" asked the old friend.
"Do you really want a list?" I replied.
"Just tell me what's in the piles at your desk," said she.
And so, here:
  1. Earnest Lau, From Mission to Church.
  2. H.E. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore.
  3. Andy Kirkpatrick, English as a Lingua Franca in ASEAN.
  4. Tu Wei-Ming, Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity.
  5. Robert Winston, The Human Mind.
  6. Robert Winston, Bad Ideas?
  7. Sheri S Tepper,  The Waters Rising.
  8. Gregory Maguire, What the Dickens.
  9. Stephen Hunt, Jack Cloudie.
  10. Alan K. Baker, The Martian Ambassador.
  11. Alan K. Baker, The Feaster from the Stars.
  12. Christopher Fowler,  Bryant & May and The Memory of Blood.
  13. Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Collected John Carter of Mars (in 3 volumes).
  14. Antonio L. Rappa, Globalization: An Asian Perspective on Modernity and Politics in America.
  15. Emrys Chew (ed.),  Goh Keng Swee: A Legacy of Public Service.
  16. Michael J. Sandel, Justice.
  17. Theodore Gray, The Elements.
They're all in various stages of being read, having just been read enough, or being prepared for reading. Sometimes, I drive myself mad, working on stuff that has nothing to do with what I'm reading. Sigh.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012


Like a river spreading out across its floodplain, my deltoid ligament spreads out across the middle of my foot. It keeps my leg joined in many ways to my foot, and so complex are its attachments that even the anatomists are not agreed on what its components are.

You can damage or hurt it by running downstairs, or landing on uneven surfaces, or dancing vigorously, and in many other ways. But the first two ways are the ways in which I hurt my deltoid, and the pain grew. And grew. It is no ordinary sprain, but something almost existential — for without the deltoid ligament, one cannot put one's best foot forward without some instability resulting.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Forty Is Gone

"Forty years on, afar and asunder..." begins that rather sober school song of a rather famous school. As each person I know crosses that boundary and heads towards 41 — yet another prime of their lives — I am reminded of that song.

When one's younger brother — ally, pest, co-conspirator, friend — crosses that mark into 41-hood, one is stricken (and surprised to find oneself stricken) by an odd sensation. So much of life has passed by! The halfway mark, if strength for the other half exists.

And so one dreams of misty England. Heh.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Word of the Day: Flibbertigibbet

Middle English onomatopoeia. Means a flighty, chatty, and rather unfocussed character. Often female, faerie or both. Sometimes a child, possibly male. Or a mooncalf. And all this without the influence of alcohol.

Now that Victorian and steampunk are in vogue, it's a word I see more often. I'm not sure where I first saw it, but I suspect it was either in the writings of Pamela Lyndon Travers (although that would've been post-Victorian) or Edith Nesbit Bland.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why Do Research?

Research has two main aims — to clarify the nature of things, and to do something about them.

It is a process by which humans synthesize theories that describe, explain or predict the world's behaviour in one aspect or another of existence. A fourth kind of theory may evolve — a theory of how to improve conditions from somebody's (or an imaginary) point of view.

We therefore do it to make the world a better place. Note, however, that 'better' is defined in as may ways as there are people.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Research: A Bitch Too Far?

Busy busy, they all say. Too busy for research. It is a widespread lament in schools. But the irony is that if they were indeed too busy for research, they were likely so because of -lack- of research.

Research is a simple thing. You look at something. You wonder if you can more fully DESCRIBE, EXPLAIN, PREDICT or IMPROVE the phenomenon you're looking at. You make sure that your conclusions are supportable, and then you proceed to lay out how you came to them and what they mean.

That's all.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Competition Curve

Look at it, the beautiful idea of the normal curve. For that is what it is, it is a mathematical construct which smiles at us like a lazy anaconda and tells us, "This, this is normal, this is what things should be. BURP."
And the curious thing about this normal curve is that it is flattish at both ends and it flattens out in the middle, but there are two spots at which the degree of curvature is very high. One of them is when the tail end, ignored, reviled and despised, attempts to climb up to 'normality'. The other is when the middle, bulging with half-digested ideation, attempts to squeeze its way into the thin head of the engorged snake.
The problem is not with the former. There is so much more space in the middle that we can accommodate people drifting towards the middle. But here lies mediocrity, and while those below the middle wouldn't mind entering this zone, those in the middle are aching to get out of it.
They will push up and on, they will strive to be the best, they will seek a better age. And therein lies the rub: it takes proportionately far less resources to get the under-average into the average than the average into the excellent. It is extremely painful, in fact.
And that is why the complaints about how tough any system is will not come from the bottom, but from somewhere just below the neck.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Changing Atlantean Schools

Atlantis, as has often been said, is a meritocracy. And that said, there are two major flaws in that — the question of what merit is, and the problem of deciding whether such merit is appropriately privileged.
I spoke to Wolff, who once was Sir Wolff, almost Lord Wolff. And Wolff laughed that deep rolling laugh of his, that rare and dangerous laugh, and he told me some stories.
There is always privilege, he said, and always people who resent such. There are those who claim the aegis of the Dauntless Hero, but who have never sought to live up to his ideals. I have said, not all our sons from Cathay or Sind or more distant lands are worthy of the name. Indeed, I suggest that each year, not more than 20% of such sons be allowed to claim a birthright. We need new blood.
I replied, "My friend, how can you deny such people their birthright? Their fathers were alumni, why should they not benefit?"
Wolff's laughter now had an edge to it. Four generations of my lineage have been sons of the Hero. Far be it from me to be ungrateful. But I must quote the words of the Man, when he said not all who called him Lord would be recognized by him. I suggest that the Governing Authorities decide, case by case, on who should receive such honours. And when there are no more places, THERE ARE NO MORE PLACES.
His voice turned melancholy. But the main problem is that of Atlantis itself, a nation now of nit-pickers, if not fruit-pickers wandering soulless orchard roads. Why should the young be sifted like chaff and wheat at 12 short years of age? And to four decimal places too, forsooth. They should be banded, banked and balloted. If randomness prevail to some extent, fewer will be inclined to overclock their children, or as the terrible legend goes, send their children through the fire of Moloch.
Give them their bonuses for proximity, but do not give them too much. Let each council of each school choose who they take in, but only to a fifth of the harvest. Let the remaining four fifths be as random as the raindrops in the ocean. Then we will know which schools are truly best, and which have been as milkmaids stealing cream.
I laughed at that. The spell shattered, and I awoke alone to the sound of distant howling, as if a wolf had claimed all the wilderness for his own.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Downtime Day 3

It is Sunday, and as always, the sun rises again, completing daily victory against fatigue, darkness, shadows, serpents, death, decay, and tired horses. Order has defeated chaos. Time continues, backing up to the point of rebirth.
We have new machines, and a new life built around the sinews of the old. We are powerful, and age does not yet defeat us. For to defeat us would be to take our legends away, as the old and dreadful pun goes. And we are not ready to give in to such as those.

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Downtime Day 2

It is Saturday, the day of old Kronos, not kindly Father Time (or is that Khronos?) nor morose Saturn. It is the day of the revenge of the Ancient. It is the day you look at the ruins of the datafield and mourn the loss of innocence — and failing this, the lack of backups.
And yet, there is hope. We have gone to war against Titanes and Gigantes, and we are winning, order retrieved byte by byte from the primordial chaos to which they threaten to descend.
This day, this day of wrath, we buy new machines, and they will usurp the rule of the old. This day, we clear the desktop and build anew, from single bricks of molten aluminium and glass.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Downtime Day 1

It is Friday and you smell the grind ahead of you, and it is not an aromatic coffee grind either. Gird up your loins, quit ye like men, and so on. Today is the day of the disk warrior, the diskoboulos of ancient Olympic prowess.
Many hours later, you realise that the disk is corrupt beyond belief. A decade of the power it has wielded in your life has made it old and wily, cunning as only kingship can be. And make no mistake, you have made it a little king, a petty kinglet, but one who can stick you in the back of the head with a sword.
There is trouble here. Deep trouble. The sort of trouble that money can only dig you out from about halfway.
And so it is D-Day +1, and all the bells are ringing. They do not ring for joy, but for alarums and excursions, and altogether too many harbingers of chaos. All the bells on earth. All. All.
For today we go to war, carbon-brain against silicon-brain, and if all else fails, the glucose-powered wrath of man will smash the copper-conducted buzzwords of the binary.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Downtime Day 0

It is Thursday morning and you turn on the machine that is amanuensis and secretary, in altogether too many senses of these words. And... there is a terrible lack of response.
This then is Downtime Day 0, D-Day, the day dedicated to the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, who comes upon you riding a blue horse, with the vagaries of electromagnetic chaos in his hand. This is not what you were brought up to believe, but is what you have learnt while walking the narrow corridors of invisible light.
And thus has D-Day come, and the last trump has sounded for your trusty hard disk drive of a decade's faithfulness. For at the heart of every HDD is MTBF — the buried seed of betrayal that always sweeps away the faithful history of duty. MTBF — Mean Time Between Failures. MTBF, which stands for many other things best not said here.
This is D-Day, and where Hell is, there we must ever be, Faustian in all our downfall, lost without our digital dominion. Or so the playwrights would have it.
Yet this is not altogether true:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
I decide to take the day off. I will remember — these days were made for man, not man for such days. And I will be at peace.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Human Resources

It is an odd world in which humans are considered resources rather than resource consumers. The terms 'human resources' and 'human resource management' are new terms, coined at the beginning of the 20th century. They suffered a brief dip after each of the World Wars, but generally soared unchecked in popularity until the turn of the millennium, at which they began to trend downwards again. [NGram]
Clearly, then, this evil idea is a product of the rational thought process of homo economicus run wild. There is a point at which humans become numbers and factors of production in a calculable way. It is very close to the point at which the trains run on time as bodies are delivered to death camps.
After 20 years of analysing corporate bodies, organisations and institutions of various kinds, it has dawned on me that the most evil character in the cast of corporate management must be the HR manager. This is often a loser who interacts badly with other humans and thus can only survive by treating them as non-human entities while sucking up to the humans not within its purview.
I'm fairly certain not all HR managers are bad. But the nature of the job is exploitative and soul-destroying unless done with incredible attention to ethical behaviours and moral consequences. It is far easier for a rich man to... sorry, that's been said by a far wiser person before me.
Repeat after me: "Humans are not resources to be consumed, used, exploited, allocated or manipulated." This will make you a more ethical person. But HR managers can't do this. Rather, they have little choice but to embrace the dark side if they want to keep doing what they do. Hence the HR icon of this era, Scott Adams's 'Catbert the Evil HR Director'.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Come And See

For a faith that is assumed to deal mostly with intangibles, Christianity is unusually empiricist. I am struck by the frequency with which characters in the Bible are exhorted to "come and see" — that is, to make themselves physically present in order to observe a specific phenomenon.

More than that, the concept of controlled testing is not alien to the book either. In the first chapter of Daniel, the eponymous author proposes a clinical trial (well, not double-blind, but a simple one) in which he and his friends will eat a vegetarian diet for ten days and then be compared to the rest of the cohort in terms of fitness to serve in the king's court. Later, King Nebuchadnezzar very cleverly demands that his dream-interpreting sorcerers and diviners should tell him the contents of his dream first before they interpret it. Only Daniel passes this test.

It's interesting to see also Elijah's test on Mount Carmel, where he demands that his sacrifice be wet down with water three times, the water overflowing into a trench, before calling down fire from heaven. The precision of the resulting strike is now a matter of legend, and the consequences to his opponents proportionately dire.

One verse that is often quoted out of context is: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." That kind of testing is the test of provocation, not the test of hypothesis; it is the kind of testing we imply when we say, "Do not test my patience." The God of the Bible doesn't otherwise seem to mind having his power being tested for a specific reason.

Generally, the many tests of power in the Bible are rooted in results — a test is proposed with a result that allows falsification (i.e. proof that the assertion tested is false). It is thus no wonder that early scientists like Galileo and Newton were able to investigate the natural world without seeing conflict with their faith (although they might have cut it fine with their nominal co-religionists).

To this day, just as with science, two kinds of tests remain in everything Christian — the test of reason and the test of findings. If hermeneutic reasoning shows an assertion to be theologically unreasonable, or if the findings of an empirical test show an assertion to be false, the penalty used to be death by stoning or the sword. In this supposedly more enlightened age, we have a much, much more tolerant response to false prophets and other snake-oil salesmen of various persuasions.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Dealing with the Problem of Meritocracy

The problem of meritocracy is merit. This problem is twofold: firstly, the definition of merit is mutable and contentious; secondly, the reach of merit is variable in duration and uneven in scope. There is no doubt that we can define various merits and what they imply; there is also no doubt that merit has scope and duration with respect to its influence over what we are likely to be able to achieve, having attained it. However, the nature of that relationship is too vague for a modern person's reasonable comfort.
What I propose therefore is that the burden of meritocracy be removed from the poor sad arbiters of the civil service and the admissions committees. We should make those who apply for entry justify the inclusion of all the elements of their CVs — if a prospective medical student lists a hundred achievements, make him demonstrate by reason or example why they are relevant to his intended profession and the life it entails. And give them all the same limits — a thousand words, two thousand — it matters not except that we acknowledge that a life is a life, and no matter how much merit you cram into it, there will be limits to how much use a hundred pieces of merit can be.
But who determines what is sufficiently reasonable or exemplary? That comes back to the first half of our problem — how do we know what it is?
And who knows what will be useful that we should look for its seeds in the past? That comes back to the second half of our problem — how do we know what it does?
That's what we should do during the interview. Find the uncommon and the rare, and make the candidates justify those first. By definition, these things are outliers, and not many. Next, find the very common, and put them in a Likert scale instrument. Make all the candidates rank these common merits, say 20 of them. Take the top merits from this phase and mark them as 'to be ignored'. Clearly, since everyone has them and wants them, they are of no value in differentiation.
At this point, we can select say 1500 candidates for 300 places in a medical school. Put them in groups of 6. Play survival games of various kinds. Add the scores. Pick the second or third best (but not both of them) from each group of 6. That gives a selection of 250 successful candidates who are adept at doing well but not too well, and 1250 unsuccessful. Make the remaining 1250 compete for the last 50 places in some other profession. If they won't, eliminate them; clearly, they are the kind who shun opportunities.
You should now have a thousand or so. Ask them to wait a year, then put them back into the mix.
"So arbitrary!" everyone will cry. "What gives you the right to do this crazy thing?"
Nobody. If I am made an arbiter, I will be arbitrary. That is what arbiters do.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Extra Time

Ah, that real time were as mutable as football time, and that rewards should be as great as the gods of the stadia make them sound. Then we would all be living a much more exciting life!

Well, no, not really. But there were some amazing moments. Heh.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012


Tonight I was at a dinner at which the Thunderer was honoured. He spoke briefly in reply, but his words, though slowed with great age, were sharp and clear.

It was interesting to see how his self-avowedly secular ethical system always came back to one idea: the state is bigger than you — and so, what you do should serve the state well. It appeared to us, listening amidst the ruins of the day, that the greatest crime was to make the state look bad, or otherwise to do it harm.

In these days, when his powerful allies Black Diamond and the Gnome are dead and gone, it is a great thing to see his frail frame unleash an echo of the ancient force that swept all before him and established a legacy in the region. Many of us, mere mortals, do not agree with him or the way he used that force; but what will replace it in this new world that even he acknowledged in his speech?

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Friday, May 11, 2012


On a sultry Friday, I heard various students say that:
  • there was a proven ethical basis for not eating shark's fin soup
  • the Germans never had any ideas about a master race
  • puberty was a random phenomenon
I was not amused.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Knightly Virtues

Many years ago, at the Citadel of the Wyverns, Wolff (who was then Sir Wolff) spoke to the initiates on the knightly virtues. Many of those initiates had no idea what these were, although their dreams and ideals had crafted many versions, mostly incomplete and some rather strange.
Today Wolff looks back on what he said, and this is what he recalls.
The heraldry of the Citadel shows a shield upon which a unique beast flies. It has the head of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the body of a dragon — most often depicted with two legs, making it a sort of wyvern.
This beast is a mnemonic image for the virtues which the Citadel of old sought to imbue within the hearts of its knights.
The lion's head symbolises courage to do what is right, act justly, protect the innocent, and resist falsehood.
The eagle's wings symbolise excellence to do what is best, act rightly, aim for perfection, and resist mediocrity.
The dragon's body symbolises wisdom to do what is merciful, act generously, defend the weak, and resist ignorance.
In the book of the prophet Jeremiah it is written that the wise man should not boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man of his strength, nor the rich man of his riches — but they should understand that God prefers the exercise of kindness, justice and righteousness. This too is virtue, and not much different.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Sentenced to Death

I have been sentenced to death. I have read a total of more than sixty essays most of which pretend to be essays on the theory of knowledge but are nothing of the sort. Most of them are collections of sentences, working their dreary way to release after a long term.
Helping the inmates demonstrate their fitness to be released is mind-boggling. Many of them can't write five lines without contradicting themselves or using words that have to be defined because they are not good enough. The latter problem adds to the bulk of the stool that is being dropped.
And so it goes. They're not always bad. Sometimes you find diamonds aching to be polished. Sometimes you find craftsmanship and even style. But mostly you take patience and add endurance, and work your way through the accidental labyrinths, past the bull-headed beast-men and the tangled webs, until your crimes are expiated and your sins are cleansed.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Epistemological Emergencies

I have to keep reminding people that there is a difference between an existential emergency and an epistemological one. (Indeed, I have to remind people that 'emergent' and 'contingent' need not always be linked to 'emergency' and 'contingency'.) I cannot imagine why students should feel that not knowing something should lead to their annihilation.

An existential emergency is just that — the sudden emergence of a personal situation whose circumstances seem to threaten personal existence. An epistemological emergency is something else — the sudden emergence of a situation (whether personal or not) whose circumstances require the drastic interrogation of those circumstances with questions like, "How do you know???"

These latter cases are wearisome but seem to be ever more common these days as the date for submission of the epistemological arguments comes near. I have to suppress my urge to reply, "Yes, well, think of this: HOW do you know, how DO you know, how do YOU know, how do you KNOW?" and provide more obvious scaffolding (no, not the type with a trapdoor and gibbet).

Thank God I have not yet had to cope with any of my students' genuine existential emergencies. Yet.

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Monday, May 07, 2012

A Theory about Theory of Knowledge

Over the last fifteen years, I've had the pleasure of investigating the way in which students theorize about knowledge. The odd thing is that the more they think about what they know and how they know it (or how they think they know it), the less coherently they express this. It's almost as if they have drunk too deep of the stuff and are repenting in the gutter.
That has to be the reason why I'm seeing a particularly disturbing phenomenon more and more. Essays my students write tend to be linear and at best two-dimensional, despite the many thoughts they seem to have in the classroom. It's as if they are deliberately putting on blinkers in order to avoid distractions, in order to plough a long, lean furrow.
This leads to essays in which a line of argument about knowledge is advanced and pursued through thick and thin, but without a broader context and without much engagement with other aspects of knowledge.
At the end of the line, one finds a single glowing point of conclusion, like the last glow of an ember before the dark snuffs it out. It's all rather depressing.
My theory is that students are afraid of looking at knowledge. It is as if, having grown up in an atmosphere of air, they are suddenly having to think about breathing, about fighting for every breath and attempting to scent the aromas of nitrogen and oxygen. It is as if they think they will die if they cannot adequately chart the movement of air through every alveolus in the lung. And so, they fall back on a description of process, rather than a picture of relationships.
A 1500-word essay on breathing would be beyond them, but a 1500-word chocolate-box assortment of linked facts amounting to a description of how air passes into the lung and emerges depleted — ah, that is what they can do with some confidence.
That is why, the day before the essays are due, students can still ask me questions like, "What's my conclusion supposed to be?" or "Are there any implications to what I've said?" or "What is my knowledge issue?" They've forgotten how to think, because they're thinking too hard and too narrowly about thought. Like the millipede who became paralysed after being asked, "Which leg do you move first when you wake up?" they are paralysed by having to describe how they know how they know.

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Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Paradox of Representative Democracy

The Tragedy of the Commons is an ancient concept of democracy that was first stated in its modern form in 1968. The key idea is that the more individuals have a 'share' in a polity, the less each individual thinks of the commonality they share. It has worked itself out in many ways, and all of them have the vague stench of unethical behaviour justified by division of moral burden.
And that's how modern democracy works. If you have many stakeholders, each is an advocate for a single view or set of ideas. They see the rest as competitors and can only gain power by advancing their own stake. They assume that the rest will be automagically handled. So eventually either extreme polarisation or extreme gridlock occurs.
The only way out is to oscillate between extreme poles and zero displacement. It's exactly how a sinusoidal wave looks. There is dynamic stability in such motion. But humans being human, political forces try very hard to keep the wave at the extremes to avoid gridlock or power-sharing.
The paradox of representative democracy is that it works best when not working, and it governs best when it seems ungovernable. Indeed, it might work because it shouldn't work at all, and only selfishness and power-thirst from its proponents keeps it going.

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Saturday, May 05, 2012


I'm not the first, certainly not the last, to say this: for a long time, people have had superheroes, subdivinities or divinities — the principalities and powers of the world, or the worlds.
What is always interesting is the kind of world that our choice of principalities and powers reflects. In a world where Newton is the Prophet, we look towards determinism in the physical and mystery in the metaphysical, but with one reflecting the other — for Sir Isaac was an alchemical theologian as well as a natural scientist. In a world where the Hulk can pound a Norse god into immobility on the floor of a penthouse in the sky, we bridge the two and conflate power with power, bia with kratos.
I watched The Avengers, Joss Whedon's masterpiece of modern kinematography, on the cusp of Saturday night and Sunday morning. There were gods of all kinds invoked and evoked, with even Death making an appearance (in a way) towards the very end. They create an uneasy balance throughout, although the movie is so much fun that you forget this. But my focus was almost completely on Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans.
Captain America highlights one problem of his eponymous state: he looks at the Norse gods as they bicker and fight, and his thought is that his own God is not like that. Then that thought too is gone, as he has to become the umpiring principality in a battle between Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark as technotitan of electronic wizardry, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as legend of thunder and lightning. Somewhere in the background, Loki (played to the backstabbing hilt by Tom Hiddleston) wearily ponders the kindergarten-style brawling (of the don't-take-my-stuff variety).
Principalities and powers, indeed. If my foreground eye was focussed on the good Captain, my dark-adapted background eye was focussed on those psychologically warped children of the Cold War, the Black Widow (Ms Scarlet, haha) and Hawkeye. They, like Steve Rogers, don't feel as if they were ever trained for theomachy — but where Captain America sucks it up and goes to war, they grit their teeth and make the little things count. After all, 'twas an apple that started the Trojan War, and an arrow that effectively forced it to its end.
I enjoyed myself. But I couldn't help thinking such thoughts as I wandered home in the night before dawn.

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Friday, May 04, 2012

The One Best System Syndrome

The One Best System is the title of David Tyack's classic examination (haha) of the 'History of American Urban Education'. In it he shows how large cities like Chicago constructed and executed their theories of a 'best system of education' and what the consequences were.

As more big cities elbow and punch (always above their weight, it seems) their way to global prominence, more rubbish about education policy (as opposed to education) begins to consume news cycles. You know that education can only suffer when we begin to ignore the cognitive neuroscience of 2010 while privileging the sociology of the 1960s and the politics of the 1980s — and ignoring the history of the last 200 years.

Children are malleable, even if the imago stage is not. Adults always fret about the pressures on children. I can tell you that young people, given a range of tasks of variable challenge in the classroom, and a range of commensurate rewards and consequences (both tangible and less so), will always rise to the challenge. What balks their personal growth is the weight of parental and societal expectation — the pressure of the social, cultural and economic 'reality' crafted for them by the parents who are complaining about that same pressure.

Only the enlightened parents with great courage and enviable reasoning powers escape the trap. They do this through a mixture of building tough endoskeletal support (e.g. 'spine', values) or by changing the environment (e.g. homeschooling, emigration). I prefer the 'spine' option because that is what differentiates vertebrates from invertebrates.

The highest form of education is the kind that combines planning (where the individual does not have the capacity) with personal interest and available breadth. A young person in a house with a large library in a nature reserve, with internet access only unlocked when specific but complex tasks are achieved, and some minimal guidance on tap, will likely prosper.

You're dreaming, is what most people will mutter. Well, no. This is what a school is, with the added benefit of live social networking and many guides (although, it must be said, not all are good at guidance). This is what a home can be. It is the reason why home-schooling can work for some. Build endoskeleton, and you can hook up muscle. The heavier the skeleton, the more the muscle.

But don't use politics and sociology and economics as the driving forces. These lead to 'One Best System Syndrome', the quest to systematize the life out of education, even while the injured politicians and sociologists and economists claim they are saving it.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

On The Bleachers

The human mind conflates. It makes scattered memories one, binding all life's pages into individual books.
There is a book in my head called The Day On The Bleachers. In that chunk of memory is a combination of all the days I used to sit there, with sun or cloud, rain or dusty breeze. The people I saw, the games played, the teasing and jostling for space — these and more, like snowflakes in a snowglobe.
And there is always that one young lady, who still lives, but will never be that young lady again.


Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Family Fortunes

Wealth does not redistribute itself naturally. It behaves like water (hence Newton referring to it as 'currency') and it can be transferred within tight groups that make more of it by rent-seeking and bulk-gambling behaviours. The only things that really redistribute wealth are onerous taxation, mass death, and bloody revolution.

These are the lessons of history.

It's therefore very hard to see how much redistribution will occur as a result of NOT doing any of these things. But modern ethical thinking is such that these things are unthinkable. Hence, modern ethical thought supports (although it does not condone) continued inequity and inequality in terms of wealth distribution.

There are other mostly-theoretical redistributors with limited historical validity, of course.

One such is a strong moral reform campaign premised on individual desire to give away one's wealth to those who are poor. It can happen. But there are few who will succumb to this admirable lust.

This is why Jesus said, "The poor you will have with you always."

Of late, I've seen many atheists or anti-religionists tell off theists and religionists for not practising their own preaching and solving the problems of the world. Well, two thoughts here. One: 'practise what you preach' cuts both ways. Two: what prevents the former class of discussants from nicking the loot of the latter? If they stand to profit from it, that's a clear conflict of interest — and if they want to, this won't stop them either.

Here are some old thoughts on inequality.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Social Constructs

Recently I read two articles which came to rather odd conclusions.

The first one was about research showing that non-religious people were more easily stirred by emotional videos to donate resources, while religious people were less so. This was mutated into, "Religious people are less compassionate than non-religious people."

The second one was about research showing that people thinking in a second language, when presented with a safe option and a potentially (or expectationally) higher-yielding bet, chose the higher yielding bet. When in their first language, they preferred the safe option. This was mutated into, "Thinking in a second language makes you more rational."

There are obvious problems with these formulations. I leave them as an exercise for the thinking reader.