Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wishing for Wealth

Sometimes, as Jesus said to Saul, you ask, "Why should you kick against the pricks?"

The thing is that the circumstances of life can be resisted if you assume the existence of free will. Indeed, if the will has some freedom, you have a duty to use it, since freedom of will differentiates you from inanimate matter.

However, sometimes it doesn't make sense to strive for things that cannot logically be attained. For example, hoping that everyone will be rich is silly, because humans always rank each other, and if everybody is rich, nobody will be happy.

The pragmatist idealists then reply, "Yes, but surely we can hope for sufficiency, that everyone will have enough?"

Certainly! The problem is that a significant number of humans are unhappy about mere sufficiency. Indeed, many of those in the grey zone between poverty and wealth are very, very unhappy even though they are not poor. They subsist, survive, have enough... but it is never enough.

As Jesus also said, "The poor you will have with you always." There will always be those who claim they are poor when they aren't, and resent those who are rich enough to give their excess to the truly poor.

Strikingly, the people who want to eliminate the very wealthy for 'Christian' reasons are also the people who don't want the wealth redistributed because that would be Marxist. Well, it should also be noted that Marx got his ideas from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 2 and 4.

Go figure.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Other Side

And on the other side of the journey, we found judgement. It's often quoted, that old phrase, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." But the point really is that whatever you use on others, you also will receive; that much is clear. You will get back what you give out, in spades.

So should we then not use judgement?

No, we should. It is the critical faculty of being; all sentient beings use their judgement, some more formally than others. To not judge is to not live; to judge is to be judged. This is an unpalatable choice for those who would rather not be judged; it is par for the course if you don't mind.

When people tell me not to judge them, I shrug. It's impossible to not judge others; one can try, however, not to be judgemental — to not ALWAYS be judging others with the intent of deciding moral truths about them.

Besides, it's amusing to see that those who don't believe in judgement are the ones who are most sensitive to the deployment of this non-existent thing.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Journeyman (Part 9)

I remember that among the phoenices and the feathered serpents and the gryphons and all the mythical beasts of sea and sky — there was a unicorn. And you would not know it to look at that one, but it was a key to a very quiet garden.

And the Fool, one sunny day he strolled along a hilly path (or perhaps, some would call it a cliff's edge).

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Journeyman (Part 8)

"What are your prime directives?"

"To serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law."

And that was how my second career was launched.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Journeyman (Part 7)

I think it's possible to differentiate between a virtue and a value: a virtue requires a conscious and possibly moral choice, a value does not. That is why we use the phrase 'to make a virtue out of necessity'. Thus qualities like reliability, which inanimate objects and research data may possess, are not always virtues.

I considered linking 'value' to 'evaluation' — then a value is something you can evaluate, but a virtue is not. The thing is that 'value' need not imply 'quantity' nor lead to quantitative evaluation. This makes things difficult.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Journeyman (Part 6)

So it is a Monday like any Monday and I am looking at my teaching schedule, for I am now in the afternoon days of my career. And I wonder if anybody learns anything from what I do and who I am and how it all fits together.

Then the crowned lady writes about how her son has learnt from me, and suddenly everything is fine and beautiful again, and morning has broken.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Journeyman (Part 5)

The chariots of the sun were only to be driven by Helios himself. Yet it was only much later that we realised the sun was driven by the water-producer, Hüdrogenes. So much for Faith and Religion in the face of the great challenger — Nomenclature.

It is not science, we see with some conscience, that has been the enemy. Rather it is what Confucius had long averred and Eliot wrote of cats, that the naming of names is the most important thing of all.

For in the cold tablet of the periods, like some fell theology, a sequence of truth warped by names arises — Water-Maker, Sunlight, Stone, Beryl, Flux, Coal, Ash-Maker, Acid-Maker, Flow and Novelty.

And thus is learning filled with the emotions and passions of the dead.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Journeyman (Part 4)

It has been a strange journeying, and a cold time was had by all. Yet we were strangely warmed, for in the movement, one learns that what moves cannot be destroyed.

How then should we teach fear and violence, disgust and hate and all unpleasant things, and yet preserve the future sanity of the young?

This is no idle question, fellow journeymen. For you must know, no human is born sane. All humans are unformed, lacking mind and awareness, and they will continue like this until they reach the mediocrity of the norm.

The norm being what it is, half of them will then move beyond that, but it is touch and go as to whether a given individual will be sane. For according the mighty and constantly updated tomes of the Dei Sub Majoris, most people are as mad as coots.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Journeyman (Part 3)

And this is what it boils down to, that fuliginous residue of your time and power: you need to get them when they're young, for when they are old and mindless, you will never defeat them.

So I sat and watched, and I saw a grievous evil — that when people decided children should be protected from fear and violence, they forgot about nature being fearsome and violent, and that reflexes save children where reason will not serve.

Then it was that I purposed in my heart, "You shall see fear in a grain of dust."

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Journeyman (Part 2)

You sip your coffee and your coffee sips you and suddenly, the most important question is: What do babies believe in?

This is when you realise that horror and pain are things best taught early, because without these, the intensity of life is much diminished.

But there is a school of thought which says, "Bring up the babies in a calm and rational way, and they will be calm and rational people."

Yes, well, that may be true, but they will lack affect. You must teach them disgust and fear, so that they might understand love and reason that much better.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Journeyman (Part 1)

It has been a strange journeying. I find myself straddling worlds, a charioteer guiding many horses — the pale horse of the sciences, the red horse of the arts, the black horse of the humanities, and the white horse of faith. In each realm, I am doing something new. It humbles and terrifies me all at once, and yet I am not engulfed.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reluctant Learners

I once heard a senior educator say, "You can teach all you like, but if the student hasn't learnt, you haven't really taught."

The problem I have with this is that it is akin to saying, "You can hit the wall all you like, but if the wall hasn't crumbled, you haven't really hit it."

There should always be some degree of collaboration involved. The student has a duty to try to learn. It is not a scenario in which the teacher is an entertainer to be appraised by the skeptical crowd at 'Education Idol' or some such — it is one in which the teacher is a conductor (at the very least) expecting some degree of compliance from an orchestra.

There are many other metaphors that will serves us well, but the 'go ahead, impress me, and if I haven't learnt — it's because you haven't taught' concept is rubbish.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The word 'reluctant' is not a passive one; the Latin reluctari means 'to struggle against'. A reluctant learner, like some I have encountered, is not a passive lump, but one who struggles against the teacher and the teaching process.

Nowadays, that unteachability is seen as a sign of 'independent thinking' and indeed seems to be considered a virtue. And so, we have reluctant teachers — teachers who must struggle against such silly ideas as accepting such thinking without critical evaluation.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Second Chances

Why is it that we believe in second chances? Or at least, some of us. The phrase is a strange one; it is as if, not content with taking our chances once, we are taking another gamble.

The problem with second chances is that they aren't first chances. This is not as trivial as it sounds: the difference between having no chance and a single chance is like the gulf between zero and one, or between nothing and something. But a second anything is just more something, a superfluity.

And then, having opened the door to superfluity, why not a third, or a fourth, or any nth chance? This is the difficult thing — the line between nothing and something is obvious, the line between something and something else is always less so. And that difference actually decreases the more you have of something; you can't see so clearly the difference between a 1,201st chance and a 1,202nd chance.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012


Does the North of that storied isle begin at Cambridge? It is an interesting place, the isle of Ely where the monks hid from authority and built themselves a legendary centre of learning. Of course, that's not all true.

Yet I can't help but think, as my mind roams northward out of Londinium from the fastnesses of the old Arsenal, that there must be some point at which North must begin. North is not necessarily 'north of the border' — it is an idea, an idea of wilderness and wildness.

That's probably why the dreaming spires were never thought of as wild in that particular sense — the denizens of those halls were part of civilisation and not beyond the pale.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dark and Stormy

It never was a comic book film. It was always the Jack Nicholson kind of movie that I thought we'd grown up away from in the 1980s. The thing that makes it deep is our cognitive bias — expecting a comic book but getting a dark and melancholy, violent, perhaps horrific piece of powerful cinema — this makes us impute extra value to it.

It is not your grandfather's Gothamite avenger, with his chirpy sidekick. It is the psychic residue of a hero who got darker and darker in his own little circle of hell as his writers Reichenbached him to a farewell.

The only versions of him I really liked, of all his latter-day incarnations, were Neil Gaiman's caped crusader and Jeph Loeb's madcap running-around-after-all-the-villains version. These were perhaps the furthest anyone should have taken the character as far as dark and stormy were concerned.

I've left out, of course, Frank Miller's on-the-verge-of-retirement classic version. I loved that one. But it's since become conflated with the no-man-is-an-island clock-ticking Hitchcock version. See first paragraph. Gah.

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Friday, June 15, 2012


It must be a sign of our times, one of the many markers in the graveyard of modernity, that when I asked a student, "What's round and has a period of 28 days?" I got an interesting answer. She replied with the name of a famous talk-show host who has made an industry out of the very round initial of her first name. Ho ho.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012


Is it peace that passes all understanding, or the full-throated melancholy of the sea? Is it water, or air; is it fire? If it is the breath of the void, it must take form in one of these ways; if it is the breath of the void, it can be fear in a grain of dust.

And so it is the greatest commodity of all — peace, peace in our time, in our space, in the interstices and the nodes, the centres of power and the paths of the underworld. For the small people and the large, the downtrodden and the high-handed, peace can never be too valuable.

And here I hold in my hands a chunk of it, worth more than diamonds or rubies.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Complaining about Systems of Education (Redux)

Some days ago, I posted this. It was a basic analysis of why systems of mass education always lead to mass complaints. John Gatto calls such systems 'weapons of mass instruction'.

The point is not that such systems are bad, but that even if the system is good, the components that execute it can't all be good — and the larger the system the more likely that critical components will be bad or go bad. That's because no matter how selective you make the choosing and accumulation of teachers, principals, and experts, the curse of the normal distribution will always win.

There just aren't enough good components for a good system of mass instruction to work well. In any school, the percentage of good teachers hovers around 5% at most. Really good teachers, that is. Even if you started out with 10% good teachers, or 20%, regression towards a normal distribution would begin to occur without a perceptive, dynamic leader who managed to escape his own egocentricity and keep the teachers from the normal regression.

This is another reason why one should appraise the system first, and then its effects. Most systems actually would work reasonably well without the problem of bad teachers, stakeholders who see things in terms of economic criteria, indifferent boards of management, and parents who suffer the same '10% maximum' problem in an educational context.

The best thing for any system's fair appraisal is for its goals to be set out in full and then its performance checked as objectively as possible against these goals. Such appraisal works better without pointless statements like 'we need better teachers' (yes, but you won't get them), 'we must prepare students for the world of work' (yes, but only working life really teaches this), 'grades are inflated' (or 'grades are unimportant' or anything else about grades — all pointless without a good research base, which is lacking), or 'my kids get less of a life than I used to have' (do they think so too, or are you doing it to them?).

In particular, the curse in high-density, high-competitivity urban locations is that parents (the clients of the system) compete too much. It becomes a game of snakes and ladders (or any number of MMORPGs which I can't mention here) where children are virtual proxies for personal gladiatorial contests. There is no way to avoid this, because it is human nature — the only way out is not to have anything to do with the system in the first place.

But remember — the system is only as bad as the society that allows it. If you can change it for something clearly better, do so. Else stop complaining that it doesn't work. I sincerely wish you all the best, if you can indeed make positive change happen.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Football Training (Redux)

A couple of days ago I wrote about the torturous process by which my feet are being retrained and restored and rehabilitated. It is actually much worse than that.

In fact, I now know why the process seemed so familiar to me when I first began to go through with it. It's found in Dickson's Dorsai trilogy. All that standing on one foot until fatigue ('footigue'?) kicks in and then the other foot, and so on — the building of physical and psychic endurance through pain.

If I'd gone further down that path, I'd be doing handstands next, to strengthen my wrists.

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Monday, June 11, 2012


When I think of 'paint', I think of it as a past tense of 'pain'. But that would make 'faint' the past tense of 'fain', which it clearly isn't.

Yet there is something about painting that is cathartic in a way that fainting is not.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Football Training

Stand on one foot. Stay immobile if possible for a number of seconds, starting at half a minute. Switch feet. Do it again. Increase the time by another half-minute. Repeat until the successful interval is five minutes long.

Change the surface to a variable, shifty one. A half-inch stack of yoga mats, for example, or a spongy pillow (not too soft). Do it again.

It's supposed to strengthen the stability of the balls of your feet by developing the foot's muscles, ligaments and tendons. It's also supposed to help flat-footed people overcome a serious problem which looms as they age: the problem of losing their balance and spraining, straining or breaking something.

Enjoy. Ow, my feet hurt.

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Saturday, June 09, 2012


Recently, a friend of mine used the term 'femfic' to describe a subgenre of literature written by women and/or for women, and often for women whose orientation is towards other women. I suppose it is similar to 'fanfic', a subgenre of literature written by fans of someone else's work and/or for fans of that work.

Then I realised how far you could take this. You could have 'malefic' as a male counterpart, or 'prolific' for the masses; physical dread could be 'horrific' and psychological dread 'terrific'. Sadly, this might cause some misunderstanding because such words already have reasonably broad exposure. Sigh... back to the drawing-board.


Friday, June 08, 2012

Issues of Knowledge

An issue is that which comes forth from something. A knowledge issue is something that proceeds from the starting point of knowledge — can we know something, how do we know something, how do we apply tests of whether we know something. The kind of question or problem that is a knowledge issue reduces to this kind of question: "How do we know?", "What do we know?", or "How is it that we can say we know?"

And that is all. I cannot believe it has been about 2.5 years since I last wrote something about this. You can find it embedded somewhere in this post.


Thursday, June 07, 2012

Search Engines

Many of the students I meet these days were born after 1992 or so (that is, after I began teaching). A lot of them seem to think that Google is a 'search engine', or that the various other 'key something in and get something back' websites are 'search engines'.

Actually, they're not. Or at least, not what I would call 'search engines'.

They're the front end of a group of search algorithms that link back to a carefully-cultivated database of information about the Internet. They're like the cutting edge of a knife, or the point of a screw — definitely the business end, but unable to exist usefully unless the rest of the machine is wielded correctly.

A true search engine is one that generates searches, just as an internal combustion engine is one that generates internal combustion, and a calculating engine is one that generates calculations. Similarly, those searches can be used to power other tasks through clever linkages and channels. This is true of internal combustion and calculation as well.

An engine, therefore, is a producer of power that is the result of processing basic material. It is still useless unless the output is connected to something that can make use of the output.

So what is Google then, if not a search engine?

You, dear reader, are the search engine. Or at least, the meat casing around the search engine that is your brain and nervous system. You generate the searches. You sift the findings. You use the search results by interfacing with the real world. Google is only the carburettor, the feed that you control as you search.

The consequences of not knowing this are dire. I have many students who don't know how to use Google and its huge Swiss-Army-Knife-style adjunct collection of tools. They think you just key something in, without taking time to think about what makes the best query, and get results.

Well, yes, you do. But not often the most useful or the best in quality. You get advertisements and awkward pieces of irrelevant stuff, unless you know how to refine your search. If you can do a search that yields fewer than 400 hits, this is extremely useful, since you won't have to trawl through so much junk.

Doing a properly designed query is like filtering the fuel and air input before combustion. It makes for smoother performance. So too does using the right mixture of fuel and air, in the right doses.

This is what I have to teach the students of today. I suspect that the majority of students these days are extremely test-savvy and terribly information-dumb. Information, to them, is connected to 'technology', but not to 'brain' or 'cognition'. How sad.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Complaining about Systems of Education

As the population density rises, the habit of complaining about the system of education also rises. This is silly, but also unavoidable given the essential silliness of human nature. Let me explain.

In ancient Greece, the concept of paideia was used to indicate 'the art of bringing up children' (from paidion, 'a child', genderless noun). We get words like 'paediatrics' and 'paedagogy' from this. However, paideuo, 'to teach' or 'to train children' (literally, 'to child'), was mainly used in the sense of rigorous teaching accompanied by force or chastening if necessary; it is sometimes translated '(to) discipline' or '(to) rebuke'. Modern scholars like to imagine that the Greeks meant something holistic and beautiful by this, but in reality they just meant the art of bringing up children who were fit to join adult society, much as bonsai is the art of making beautiful little trees by application of force and discipline.

Such training requires much attention to detail if it is to be done properly. Each child and plant is a different entity, and while general principles can apply, the 'right' outcome varies from era to era and thus so does the 'right' method. Whatever it is, it has to be customised on an individual basis.

Enter the problem of mass education. This was not so bad when the population density was low. Then the number of people who wanted and needed a lot of formal education was a small number relative to the population. But once you combine high population density with mass education, you get greater competitivity and higher pressure on the individual to 'succeed' (in any way this can be defined). Clearly, it can only get worse because of this.

The only way to provide mass education is to systematize it. A large, thick layer of mediocre (by definition) basic education must be provided to everybody, like providing flour and water and asking them to make dough. This means everyone has 'bread'. Those who are more talented or gifted, better resourced, more ingenious and more determined (among other possible advantageous characteristics) will make better bread (tastier, fluffier, whatever).

But nobody should complain about having bread in the first place, stodgy and boring though most of it will be. You can always add fruit, nuts, whatever. Even this will end up 'the new boring' as people share recipes and compete with each other. The problem in mass education is that you can't make interesting bread for everyone without pricing it out of everyone's range — insufficient teaching staff, time, and so on.

The exceptions will be those who can spare enough resources for homeschooling or private tuition. These will have extraordinary bread which is either heavily customised or heavily spiked with booster additives. Whether such bread is also good depends on whether society will eat it, but those who make such bread always maintain it is better. It might be. Or not. As always, it depends on the quality of the baker.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Education in the Shadows

Arbitrage, the exploitation of the clever middle to transform the banal into the sublime, or the other way round — whichever gains the arbitrageur the most. Sigh. With blinding sight, I have come to realise that this is what shadow educators do.

The problem is one of the scarcity tail, the education of the top 5%, which is not to say they are any good, but that they are the top 5% of any given distribution, the outliers in a pile of whatever you have a pile of. It is like looking at a sack of weasels or ferrets as they writhe around seeking to gain advantage.

And it is terribly disheartening. I have become a a companion to weasels, a brother to ferrets. King Rat, but hopefully not Grand Duke Rabbit.

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Monday, June 04, 2012

The Black Opera

I've always enjoyed reading the peculiar and amusing alternate-history narratives of Mary Gentle and John Whitbourn. Think of Neal Stephenson with subtle and conspiratorial humour, laced with almost-fact and plausible-historical.

It was with delight, therefore, that I opened my 1st-Edition copy of Mary Gentle's The Black Opera: A Novel of Opera, Volcanoes, and the Mind of God and found that it was all about the odd lacuna in human history between the Napoleonic Wars and the reign of Victoria Regina, and about the Two Scillies, and bel canto opera. Brilliant. And this is why I am laggardly in my posting these days.

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Sunday, June 03, 2012


By some infelicity of language, sloppy pronunciation of Old English leads to 'Sunday' sounding a lot like 'Sun-Ending'. And that's the paradox of life — if the sun rises, it must also set.

Recently in Atlantis, the Deputy High Priest was treated to some verbal abuse regarding his lack of desire for the answering of questions posed to him by some young angst-ridden acolyte. Essentially, when asked a question about (that inchoate construct known as) the future, the DHP looked at his presumptive interlocutor and asked him, "What do you think?"

Apparently, an observer (who subsequently was overjoyed to see his f*ck-ridden piece go viral) took offense at this. His main point was that 17-year-olds with little life experience should not be expected to think for themselves in the presence of glory. Similar sentiments were expressed by others: "What on earth are we tithing our loot and lives for, if the DHP himself cannot supply answers?"

Well, in the last Grand Quorum, the citizens of Atlantis made it quite clear that they wanted the hierarchs of the land to engage them more, to ask the people and consult with them over all kinds of things. One would have thought that the sight of the DHP graciously asking this young man for his opinions would have brought joy to the hearts of all (Atlantean) humanity. But no, no...

Leadership is a thankless task. Half the population thinks they're paying you to govern them; half the population thinks they're paying you for the privilege of consulting them in order to govern their living space. I can't help but laugh at it all.

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Saturday, June 02, 2012

Magical Thinking

What humans call 'magical thinking' is instinctive to all mammals. You see phenomenon X, you see phenomenon Y, you associate the two. You replicate either the more complicated or the easier phenomenon, and you expect the other one to co-occur.

This is the basis of cargo cults, similarity or sympathy rituals, and the odd little 'magic phrases' that children repeat to themselves in the hope that something particular and out of the usual will happen. It is the reason why some people repeat prayers without thinking, or play with fetishes or talismans.

My cat does it too. He walks to his food tray and expects fresh food to appear. If it doesn't, he runs back to me and taps my ankles. Then he runs back again and looks to see if any new food has arrived.

I wondered where I'd seen this before. Then I realized: people obsessed with their email and other internet-linked activities do this as well.

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Friday, June 01, 2012


I found myself singing tonight. It was an odd little song:
Doughnuts, doughnuts, all the lovely doughnuts;
Eat them now, eat them now!
Doughnuts, doughnuts, all the lovely doughnuts;
Eat them now, eat them now!
Then I realized this was set to some half-remembered Sunday School song. I also remembered some of those words were not quite the same. Oops.

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