Friday, August 31, 2012

Just Like That

And just like that, August this year draws to an end. It is not quite the drawing-down of blinds that Owen wrote about. But it certainly feels that a drawing-down of funds, a slowly grimacing end to the high days of summer, is not far away.

August marks the end of my financial year, and its beginning. Yes, it's an unusual time to be doing such things, but if you think about it, why should you operate to the convenience of others when you don't have any dealings with them anyway?

So I watch the unusually early cold chills in a month predicted to be the hottest on record, and I think about the global future. This is the Indian Winter, before Surtur wins in the end.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012


You might have noticed that August's posts are misbehaving. They are all over the place, and you will find me posting my usual fragment of Atlantean-Day thought soon, more than two weeks after the event and yet dated 9th August.

Yes, it is a season of fists and fellow food fulness, the gifts of the entertaining sun. My mind turns out into the living space around me, and back in upon itself. Like a man looking through the chambers of a nautilus only to find himself amongst the orbitals of an onion, I am seeing too many things and not enough.

Augusts are ever so. I have sealed and unsealed records, blog posts, golden apples and silver ones — and they were all date-stamped in Augusts past. For August is the season of breaking up the plenitude of the land and distributing it in odd ways to all the people. It is harvest, and hear I am sitting bemused in the storehouse again.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Catching Up — Caught Up

A short while (from a week to three weeks) ago, I passed a few milestones without noticing. That I've only just noticed testifies to how unimportant those milestones really are, and also to the kind of comments I do notice and think about. Here are two examples.

Many of my clothes have turned ten years old. I know this because I used to think about tailoring that would last, and got a lot of pieces done. I had no idea they'd last this long. And they still fit well, perhaps even better now that they've subtly shifted to accommodate my frame.

My income has quietly reached my average annual income for the past five years, but in only eight months. That's strange, because I don't recall working harder. And I haven't raised my charges either.

I am very thankful. This is not a milestone. I am grateful all the time, and I give thanks because I am.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Scotland the Brave

It struck me, just as it must have struck Sir Alex of footballing fame, that Scotland might legitimately be a contender for the country that did most to make a modern world. Not Greece, not India or China, those pillars of the human imaginary of the ancient world, but Scotland — a country on the periphery of the ages of man.

I will only mention a few names here, from a pantheon of noble pioneers longer than the list of the Greeks at Troy:

Adam Smith (economic philosophy), James Watt (effective steam engine), James Clerk Maxwell (theory of electromagnetism), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Alexander Fleming (penicillin), John Napier (logarithms), John Baird (television), John McAdam (tarred roads), John Shepherd-Barron (auto-teller machines), William Thomson (thermodynamics — he's better known as Lord Kelvin)...

These are only the engineers and scientists (of which there are a veritable and verifiable host). The explorers and other seekers after knowledge whom I've not named have done disproportionately much more for such a geographically small nation.

So yes, maybe Scotland.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Reproduction Fail?

A recent paper by Goodman, Koupil and Lawson, Low fertility increases descendant socioeconomic position but reduces long-term fitness in a modern post-industrial society, in the 2012 Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences), has basically affirmed the position many people are in denial about — that is, that the richer people get, the less they want to reproduce.

Why is this so? Well, this strategy essentially produces a limited pool of offspring, all with huge amounts of per capita resources in both human and economic capital. It makes them socioeconomically very competitive. The downside is that the species as a whole becomes less biologically competitive.

But this is not a new problem. Humans have been using technology to avoid the problems of simple biological competition for ages. We can compete with large predators (in fact, we've eliminated many of them or reduced them to zoological exhibits) by using weapons that vastly increase our sensory and attack range. We can compete with the environment by using engineering of all kinds. And we can mobilise energy quantitatively more effectively (although not more efficiently) than most other species. A smart human with high resource levels will out-compete a less-smart, less-resourced human — which is why you see dropping birthrates once a society gets freer access to technology.

In a city-state, where there are few natural threats, the main threat is socioeconomic, no matter what people moan and groan about. It thus makes perfect sense to see a drop in fertility levels in the vast majority of cities and city-states unless they have a large hinterland that is not urbanised.

However, there is always a bump in the implementation of such a strategy. This normally comes in the form of people moaning and groaning about low fertility as if they lived in an agricultural, low population density, high resource density environment. Ridiculous. We're not bacteria in a particularly rich chicken broth.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012


For the rhinoceros is not an elephant, and whereas elephantine is the adjectival of the latter, rhinocerous would be the adjectival of the former. And so it goes; I can imagine myself a tutor of the old school, teaching in the way that the Greeks perhaps knew as διδασκαλία, didaskalia, somehow getting the action of the play across to the actors...

... and there is time, there is still time for the taking of a toast or three.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012


It is possible to suddenly come out of a state of thoughtlessness knowing that you have not been thinking, but only knowing this because of the contrast. Thinking leads to discontent, and the discontented mind is a lot like a dyspeptic stomach; it is not itself, and would like to become so again.

But yet the stomach is made for dyspepsia (as long as it cannot be felt) and the mind is made for discontent (as long as it calls it by another name, such as 'ambition' or 'challenge'). So odd, we humans.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Three Islands

The first island was of bananas, with salted caramel and banana cake, and the seas around the island crashed against it with breakers of popcorn; and all was well.

And the second island was of coconut mousse, and the growth upon it was of pandan jelly, and in it were beans of scarlet hue, sweetened; and all was well.

And the third island was of biscuit base, and upon it a sponge of macadamias, and crowning the whole a thick layer of lemon cheesecake; and all was well.

And so that all might remain well, there was no fourth island.


Thursday, August 23, 2012


And today, as in Adam all died, so also in Adam do all eat good Indian food. So did my thoughts fragment as I spent an idle time with an old friend watching the world and the hero of the Mahabharata walk by with his characteristic gait.

So we go, you and I and everyone else, gods and goddesses, angels of all kinds, forms and metaphors. We walk by with characteristic gait, but some are more obvious than others. And thereto is a story aimed.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Towards the next stage, one step at a time, the stride picks up, the pace falls into rhyme, and all the world is passing in an age of blood and crime. This is what I was made for, to be a grain of salt, to dissolve and in dissolving slow the corruption of the flesh and mind; and in the end, though scattered, gone, diffuse... there still remained the idea that I spent the coin that I was given, that I served to some worthwhile extent.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Tonight I sat in a burger joint, with five young men. They were a lot more polished than when I had last spoken with them, and they too had passed through fires of their own. I used to be the master of their domain in the high tower, but this was only because I was the oldest wyvern in the brood.

Tonight they saw many things for me. They patched the fabric of time. They laughed at the lame jokes, claiming nostalgia. And so we shared stories that brought closure to the past and humour to the present.

I am glad to have been their guide and now their friend. It is only a few years since they left their home on the hill, but you can tell that they sniff the wind and see the future unfold. Their wings itch for it.

"The best is yet to be."

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Monday, August 20, 2012


I remember that when I worked on the hill, I used to refer to all my charges as 'ladies'. There were some giggles and guffaws (yes, even those) when I first did this, but I know I was steadfast in thinking that some day they would certainly be so, if not.

Nineteen years later, I had the great pleasure of catching up with many of them on a lovely Monday afternoon. All around me, the same naughty smiles, the same charming graces, the same pointed wit — but more refined. If not ladies then, they certainly were ladies at lunch.

I really enjoyed their company. I am glad we are friends. It would have been inappropriate then, when I taught them. But it is a blessing now, and I am grateful for it. Each of them gave me a different fragment of light back then; I saw the whole rainbow this day.

"Simple dans ma vertu; forte dans mon devoir."

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Not of Vegetable Origin

My previous post made me think, "What's -not- of vegetable origin, then?" The answer seems obvious, but not entirely so.

Metals are mostly not extracted from plants, although it's possible to do it. Ceramics are mostly aluminosilicate clays; glasses are only of vegetable origin insofar as they contain sodium or potassium carbonate. Other crystalline minerals normally have the vegetable components burnt or reacted out of them during the formation process — sapphire, jade, diamonds and such.

But diamonds were once coal, and coal is of vegetable origin. Marble was once limestone, which was once the exoskeletal remains of shellfish and such — and those, one presume, consumed vegetation at some point. It's hard to escape from plants — they're the main convertors of energy and raw materials into the substances everything else needs.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Vegetable Origin

I often wander around supermarkets looking at product labels. They tell me a lot about how things are sold, and for what most recent and vacuous of reasons.

On this particular day, I was looking a product which claimed to contain only ingredients of vegetable origin. These ingredients included potassium hydroxide (aka 'caustic potash'), polystyrene, and a host of other unlikely substances.

A brief pause for thought, and I realised the claim was perfectly true — all hydrocarbons (many plastics, petroleum, natural gas and so on) are of plant origin. So too are mineral compounds that can be derived from plant ash — sodium and potassium carbonate, bromide salts. And of course, many poisons and harmful and/or addictive drugs.

Indeed, to see a sign saying 'organic', 'of plant origin' or any other sign like that often merely tells the reader that the company producing the stuff is either deluded or thinks you can be too. I had a quick look, and I think that only about 10% of the labels I saw were helpful, healthful and honest.

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Friday, August 17, 2012


Seventeen, as I have had cause to remark before, is a prime number. It lies seductively between the boredom of 16 (O, square of squares!) and 18 (which bears the brunt of maturity in too many places). And so, on the 17th of every month I make a note that I have survived yet another month's ides, and am well on my way towards its end.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012


I keep reading silly comments from atheists about getting the Church out of schools. But the thing they can't get away from is that the Church (in one of its annoying, glorious, strange or otherwise entertaining manifestations) set up those schools in the first place. It is of course true that there are many schools set up by non-Church organisations or the state itself; so why can't the atheists just stop going to Oxbridge and mission schools and parochial schools and suchlike?

It irritates the heck out of me. No sense of history, no sense of gratitude at all.

And yes, those atheists who want to launch diatribes about the evils of historical religion may do so too. I'm not denying that even the Buddhists have fought vicious wars. But at least get it right; deny the WHOLE package and stick to your God-damned (at least that is one of the things some atheists stress) atheist principles by avoiding everything the Church (and her children) has ever done for humanity.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Word of the Day: Fugitive

The word 'fugitive' is an interesting one because of its origins; it is one of many words (yes, many!) that come from the Latin fugere — 'to run away, flee, move quickly away from and escape'.

The Latin phrase tempus fugit is thus translated 'time flies' by most people; that is, it eludes us, it escapes us by passing by too quickly for us to seize it. What I like about 'fugitive' is that it is not supposed to connote the sense of 'hiding from something' but that of 'escaping by being fast and elusive'.

That's why we learn about 'subterfuge', which means 'escaping by going underground' (fromsub- meaning 'below' and terr- meaning 'earth, ground') and 'centrifuge', which is about 'escaping (from) the centre'.

The meaning of such words, sadly, seems elusive. The fugitive sense of fugitive is what has drawn me to hunt down its etymology for my dear readers.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Always, the numbers. Somehow, mysterious numbers trigger thoughts as much as scents or symbols. When I see '60', it is as pungent to my mind as the scent of ammonia or the sight of a red circle.

Today, it is 2800.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Educing the Young

The Latin word ducere is probably best translated as 'to lead'. In turn, it has spawned a large range of related words: most obviously 'duke' ('one who leads') and 'duct' ('a path that leads') — and then verbs like 'educe', 'seduce', 'traduce', 'induce' and 'deduce'. These are followed by associated adjectives and nouns, to a total somewhere around 200 different words.

But here we are today thinking about 'educing the young'. This is actually what 'education' is about — the Greeks called it 'pedagogy' in a more youth-focussed way. To educe is to lead out or draw out towards something, and from the mid-19th century or so, it meant 'to draw a conclusion from data'. In other words, education is a process which leads people to draw conclusions from whatever data they are given.

The young are particularly in need of such a process. The old have already drawn their conclusions, whether good, bad or ugly. But the young can still be saved enough for them to in turn become the old, at least.

The main problem of the age is that time is passing so fast, and change even faster, relative to what any of the old(er) know. What I mean is that the passage of time is a known change, but the things that come with it — technology, social upheaval — have never changed as quickly in the history of humanity.

This means that trying to lead people towards making conclusions (what you might call 'education towards eduction') is a thankless task. If you teach them through inductive logic, the risk of failure is high because the past is no longer an accurate guide to the future. If you teach them through deductive logic, the risk of failure is high because the rules are being remade everyday, and axioms are no longer the worthy authorities (Gk. axiomata) around which the universe rotates.

So how then should we educate the young? Two ideas appear to dominate.

First, some suggest that the accumulated weight of past learning will suffice. Some branches of learning have a very long shelf-life, so to speak — things like arithmetic and the core natural sciences come to mind. Some branches of learning constantly reinvent themselves, and are studied with that in mind — the arts and humanities come to mind. But that is almost everything, and so past methodologies will do, if not past knowledge.

Second, some suggest that the young should be taught to teach themselves. That is, the reinvention of self and of humanity should be the main methodology taught. This is rather Darwinian; those who can reinvent themselves well enough to survive and prosper in the next age of humanity will replicate their eductive memes and educative processes through appeal to the first idea.

You will note that I've not said WHAT the young ought to learn. To those who would like to think about it, I direct you towards a search of the venerable history of human education — specifically with the key phrase 'saber-tooth curriculum'. Enjoy.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Seven Subjects

If one is the loneliest number, seven must be blessed. But seven is an odd number in more ways than one.

Seven is not a handful, and neither is it two. Seven is not a crowd, but is two crowds with one left over. Seven is not eleven, but is its frequent rhyming partner.

And if you had to study seven subjects, which ones would you study? And would they thank you for it?

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Yesterday's Men

Historians are the vanguard of the past. They serve as the shockwave front as the future tries to understand its past; they have auxiliaries such as chroniclers and journalists, but their task is the great strategic one.

Historians are Yesterday's Men, those who serve the ever increasing and diminishing vision and tapestry of the past. And slowly, slowly, I am becoming one of them, one with the past, one with a past.

I am halfway to the enormous silence, at the very least. Even if I enter it tomorrow, yesterday I would have thought it a longer way away. And so I sit, contemplating the accumulation of history faster than any grass can grow.

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Friday, August 10, 2012


The clouds above reverse-age themselves as I watch, from wispy balding thin white strands to the deep purple-black of the middle years. Like the great black slab of Hephaistos, they promise the work of lightning and thunder from the mountains of the air.

And I hear the hammer of the Armourer, I hear the pounding of the Smith, and I realise that Zeus crippled his son out of fear — for who wields the thunderbolt without one who makes them? and who guards his life with a shield and does not trust its maker?

Deep in the caverns of the world, the plates buckle and fold. The hammer rises and falls and the anvil is the quenching water of the sky come down. I cannot get that movement out of my mind, that almost mechanical round of action and reaction.

Some day, technology will make a world, they say. But look! Look around you, and see the technology that IS a world, the seemingly-endless cycles of destruction and rebirth!

High above, the invisible hammer of a hundred thousand Pascals flattens the sky into silver sheets against the blackness of the thundercloud.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012


Prime numbers have that morbid satisfaction of only having themselves and their God as factors. In that sense, they are like the religious hermits of old, or like cats.

It was on this day that I realised how old we were, here in Atlantis. To begin one's life in 1959, only to be told that it really began in 1965, and then to be reminded that gestation began in 1819, or perhaps six hundred years earlier, or a few thousand more... this beggars belief, depletes it to poverty levels.

And yet the Harper says Atlantis was the centre of the ancient archipelagic and peninsular realm that sliced one ocean from another. And Hobson says that the Gateway of the Dragon's Teeth was famous from afar, even unto the streets of Samarkand.

Then I realised. You make a flag of red and white every time you bare your teeth.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Prosperity Gospel

Eighth day of the eighth month, the eve of the Atlantean Day. It is hard not to laugh at the desperate efforts towards cynicism that some muster. What a waste of energy. Look around and see, how the centre of the Old Empire — the Gateway of the Dragon's Teeth, the Isle of the Lion, this crimson mark on the Mappa Mundi — has been transformed into a prosperous island nation, a Prospero's island nation.

Yes, there are poor, some few, some who need help provided you do not insult their dignity. Yes, as in every land, the bottom 20% are poor compared to the top, and yes, the top is very high indeed above. But even these poor have internet access; even these poor can afford to be picky about their food; only excepting, as always, the very few truly poor and destitute.

I have seen a green land, a small gem set in a torrid tropical sea. And surprisingly, it is less soulless than many give it credit for. It has much credit of its own.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Loco Parents

Schools have traditionally treated the teacher-student relationship as one in which the teacher is in loco parentis; that is, the teacher acts in place of a parent. If this were the gold standard, it would save much difficulty in ethical discussion — the teacher would have parental-level rights within the bounds of the school, and commensurate responsibilities. And of course, teachers would be bound by the kind of proprieties and conventions that exist between parent and child.

The contract should work both ways; should parents NOT desire this state of affairs, they should not be sending their children to school. Rather, such parents should educate the children at home, either by themselves, or through private tuition.

I think the point at which the relationship broke down was when schools began to be seen as service providers, with parents as clients and children as objects deposited at the schools by parents for 'servicing' and 'upgrading'. This had at least three bad effects: parents offloaded part of their responsibility, some children no longer thought of teachers as anything but (under)qualified technicians, and some teachers thought of their work as a mechanistic process (no matter how artful).

The only way to repair this situation is to allow the traditional state to persist. Teachers share in the parenting of the child, as far as education goes. You send children to school, the teachers school them. You don't like it, take them out.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Cetus Paribus

The whales and dolphins are clearly intelligent in some way. At an organic level, inspection of the brain and testing its function (in the way we would test the function of a human brain) reveals that they are at least on par with the bottom 40% of the human race. At least.

Such knowledge makes me morose. All that whaling, all this abuse of dolphins (and of that largest of dolphins, the Orca, misnamed 'killer whale') — was it just the instinctive desire to eliminate a rival for the world's scarce resources?

Think about how things might have been different, and how they might yet be different.

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Sunday, August 05, 2012


There is a green hill far away, outside a city older than Methuselah. There is a tree there, and that too is older than Methuselah. Indeed, both stood there before Methuselah was born, and stand there still long after he has gone.

The city was built on another tree, one of knowledge that broke a race; the remaining tree offers eternal life, and is despised. Five times a day, the horn of the deep sounds, and five times a day, it receives no answer there.

I stand outside the old walls of the crumbling city. I wish I had known it before it was built, and the mighty men raised high its walls. I wish I had been there to see the dawn of the age of men. And I am glad I was not.

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Saturday, August 04, 2012


Someday, all cats die. This is truth, and it is heartbreaking. The Ancient Egyptians made it an element of religion and elevated the cat-goddess to supremacy. Bastards.

But all cats die, and their passing, whether mourned or unmourned, weakens the fabric of the world. Even the birds keep silent when one of the least of our brethren passes, for the cat holds the tissue of the universe in its paw; the cat, unlike the dog, chose to follow Adam and Eve into exile because they needed companionship.

I will miss my cat when he's gone, as I have done every other cat I've known.


Friday, August 03, 2012


"It's time, boys." And so does the evening come to an end in many a public drinking-house. This is just one of the many ways that Eliot tells us the universe winds up; the sky does not quite unfold, but the drinks stop coming.

I have just had a dream of things refolding rather than unfolding, of things being sewn up and closing back in on themselves. Neatness, it seems, holds its own terrors.


Thursday, August 02, 2012


I have students who have deadlines on D-Day and submit drafts on the midnight between D-1 and D-Day, asking for help. What is the point of that?

Listen up, ladies and gentlemen. Here are things to think about.

First, you need to know what you don't know. I suggest you attend lectures and tutorials, and if those are too boring, spend the time reading the material and making sense of it. Somewhere in all that, you will learn what it is about the material that is impervious to the razor-edged sharpness of your brain. Alternately, you might learn that you know it all. Good for you.

Second, you need to list the things you need help with. Don't come to me with, "I don't know anything, help me." I will proceed to spend time showing you what you do know. But that might not help you with what you don't know. And trust me, everyone knows some things. I can prove it to you.

Third, if you have not overcome the difficulties highlighted in the two previous paragraphs, and you come to me with only a day or two left, pray for miracles of cognitive blossoming. That might help. I can then help you blooming students in the confidence that not my will but the divine will shall be done.

Last, you really might be screwed, and it will certainly not be something I am to be faulted or blamed for. (Incidentally, you should know the difference between 'fault' and 'blame'. If not, search this blog till you find it.)

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012


"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census be taken of the entire Roman world..." So begins one of the most interesting stories ever heard, only blunted in its meaning by many centuries of repetition, of people hearing it without really listening.

It is the way I feel at the beginning of every August month.

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