Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallows' Eve

Death is transfiguration and transformation. October 31 is the day on which we think about that. Do androids dream of electric sheep? Do stainless steel rats dream of crystal spheres? Do we dream we are butterflies; or do butterflies dream they are humans?

I keep vigil on the night of October 31 not because I'm a Halloweenie. I do it because it is good to remember that death is a terminus — a boundary between two states. Whether you are religious or not, this is clearly true. You have certain rights in one state of being, certain rights (normally fewer) in the second state. You are someone much more interactive in one state, someone normally a lot less in the second.

But for me, the sober judgement of looking back through life and lives is an enlightenment. It lightens the burden of soul through the exploration of what it means to live and to have lived. And the light of the undiscovered country shines brightest on the boundary between the dying year and the harvest, and the living year and the spring.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Work-Life Balance Hoax

Most people don't realise that work is a legitimate and valid subset of life. Hence you cannot balance the two. What you need to do is balance work against non-work elements in life. If you try to balance life against work, it will fail.

How do we know?

Try doing this. Stand next to a wall that is at least as high as you are tall, so that you are upright and looking in a direction parallel to the wall. This will place one of your shoulders, and the outer edge of the foot on the same side, against the wall.

Now try to lift your other foot without falling away from the wall.

Simple physics and many other forms of reasoning will show that you cannot balance the subset against the superset — except in one case.

That case is when both sets are identical, which in this case would mean that either your entire life is work, or your entire work is life. This gives perfect balance.

Otherwise, accept that work is part of your life, and that you will die without it. But do other things with your life, so that you don't die OF work.

And remember: there is no such thing as 'work-life balance'.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Fragmental Timing

My mind lies shattered on the floor
Fabergé egg I think in pain
There was a mechanism in glass
Alas the escapement escapes
And time cannot be watched again

So, is the mind a mechanism or the artifact of a mechanism? And if so, is time an artifact of mechanisms used to measure the passage of events?

The main problem with time is that it must be quantised, and yet seems continuous. But if it is quantised, then how can one event lead to another?

And yet, here we are. What a strange world!

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Difference Cliché

"What a difference a week makes!" is one of those clichés that relies on truism. It's hard not to find a difference between snapshots of anything taken a week apart, especially the closer you look. But my life has changed a lot.

Some of you know about the Atlantean enterprise that has been launched. Is it possible to break the narrative of the burning books and launch a kraken into the gates of the Temples of Learning? We call on those who have such hopes to join with us — and it is a call we would not have dreamt of making a week ago.

Meanwhile, back at the Citadel, they've bid farewell to the busy one and will be bidding farewell to the business one. Will times change? Will the Pillars of Herakles still stand guard at the mouth of the 'Inmost Sea of all the Earth'? Only the long view will tell.

And we look further across the world, wondering how a contender for a throne of the world can fail to differentiate between 'wooden ships, iron men' and 'nuclear carrier battlegroup, Iron Man'. A week (as the other cliché goes) is also a long time in politics.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012


LXX, three score and ten, that number, it always crops up. It hardly ever crops down. It is a miracle of rare device, a bullet, a coil of razor wire, a Latin seventy. It is not some kind of cryptic shorthand for Lysergsäure-diethylamid.

And so it was that I woke up to the fact that the man, once a young man younger than I, married at what is now half my age, was now an elder statesman. And of course, throughout that vital transformation, one thing had remained constant. He had always been (and continues to be) Dad.

What is there to say about him? Deep eyes, brown, kind and crinkly in the lines around them, but deep enough for a person looking at his gaze to not be utterly certain of survival. He has made many hard decisions in his youth, and not said a word to anyone, except perhaps to Mum. He keeps mum, most of the time.

He has a delicate pedantry about him. It is punctuated frequently with the kind of hilarious wordplay and curiously erudite thought that makes you realise the pedantry is just one of the things he can do. I remember reading from the Book and having him mentally track down the exact chapter and verse; I remember doing it in reverse.

He used to run around the garden a lot, just to entertain me. He did it less with my siblings; by the time my sister came along, he did it less only because the garden was soon replaced by a much smaller one, and because perhaps he was a decade older and busier. But he always tried. He still does and, as in the past, often succeeds.

It has taken me this long to write anything substantial about him because there is just too much to write about. Some fathers are existentially pervasive. They never go away because they are just too much.

He is one. I have too many memories, too many legendary moments. I will never forget the day I carelessly dropped a book in a roaring storm drain. He took a look and said, "Forget it." I was outraged, upset. A few years later, he bought me another copy when I wasn't expecting it.

If I have learnt anything about teaching, I have learnt it through great mentors; my parents first of all, my grandparents as well, and some excellent people God has given me for colleagues. But in Dad's case, I have always been amused when those I teach have wound up in his tutorials and lectures. That's when they learn that all good things come from somewhere else, that there is nothing new under the sun, that wisdom is transmissible.

I have not written this in any kind of well-structured way because there is too much to write. But I've felt that something still must be laid down as a marker for this particular day, and so this is it. Happy 70th, my father.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Accession Plan

I was idly looking through the access statistics for my Master's thesis when I realised that a third of the hits were from China, a quarter from Singapore, a quarter from the US — and the balance were from Japan and the Russian Federation. The four cities with the most hits were Beijing, Singapore, Palo Alto (CA, I presume) and Raleigh (NC, I presume).

I wonder a lot about the last two in each case. How odd. Why would anyone want a look at "A Study of the Conditions that Facilitate Servitor Conditioning in Atlantean Temples"?

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Monday, October 15, 2012


It's odd to have a post named after your blog. Yet, it's appropriate. Findings has been incorporated and now we are a proper cabal. You will find us opposite the New Clock Tower of the Hill of Dogs.

What is it that Findings will be doing now that it has become a very private and limited company? We'll be doing the same old things — doing research, making ourselves available for consultancy, teaching stuff in unusual ways. But having a proper home with tables and chairs and fellow-travellers — ah, that is nice.

And someday, when I have more time, I shall fill in the missing posts of the last few very busy days.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

's Wordplay

I live in a fantasy realm, as do all of you; for the medium of communication does not exist except in our minds — without mind, there is no meaning to language. Hence each word we engrave or recite or thoughtfully deploy — that word is a fantastic creature, whose meaning arises only in imagination and the life of the neural net.

And so in my head, Raymond Chandler is a person whose name is associated with both wisdom and wickedness (Raymond = 'counsel-guardian', Chandler = 'candlemaker'). And also some of the most beautiful crime novels ever written in American.

When I see the name of Alistair Cooke, I think of letters from America, and also of intestinal fortitude (Alistair = 'defender of men', Cooke = well, 'cook').

And here I sit and look at the bookshelf in front of me, and I think of Jacob the deceiver (he who ensnares another's foot) and Robert Frost as a cold hard brilliant intensity (Robert = 'fame-bright', Frost = 'frozen-ness'). There is no end to it, nor do I desire such interminably. I am content. And so is my blog.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Going Gentle

It is right that things should fade
That oxygen should draw its electronic debt
In every cell and line of age

It is left to me to say
That I have always loved my different cats
Despite outliving all of them

Memo to the interior designer:
Let the parquet stain grow pale
Grow old along with me
My falling hair will then be less visible

Memo to the exterior designer:
I've come to appreciate
This maturing pain
The sense of loss balanced by forgetfulness

If the guitar were less hollow
The sound would be less sweet
If the sound were less hollow
I would listen harder to my beat

And so my trousers they are rolled
By rhyme to remind me I am old

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

That Was... Then.

I keep re-watching episodes of that long-gone SF TV series, Space:1999. I wanted to be John Koenig. I think I've got my Helena Russell. And I wanted an Eagle of my own.

But what struck me was how beautiful and fragile the whole idea of humanity out among the stars was. The sets were lonely, the sense of community on the brink of disaster (but not quite over the edge) was palpable. Everyone was melancholic even if some small victories were celebrated.

Most realistically of all, everyone was reasonably fit, but not body-sculpted. People were lean, but not bulging with whipcord-like muscles. People had natural shapes, even on that sad, sad lunar landscape of Moonbase Alpha.

This helped make them more real as they wrestled their inner demons, engaged the unknown, survived the sorrow of likely never seeing Earth again. I wondered if there were Jews on the Moon — would they have remembered the keen sense of exile that their forefathers had felt when they wrote in the Psalms, "If I should forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning; may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my greatest joy!"

Sure, you can pick at the dated style and the sometimes wooden acting. But the sadness, that was real. And it made its viewers grow up faster.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012


One wonders about the value of a number that is not. We assume that it exists in its place of glory because we have ten fingers and use them to map the universe. But if you ask someone what the ten digits are, they often say, "0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9." Sometimes, they take their cue from the keyboard or keypad layout and say, "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-0" or "7-8-9-4-5-6-1-2-3-0" (this last is pretty rare, but I've seen people visualise it like that).

No ten, even though there are ten digits. It would probably be the same if we had some other counting system or number base. There would be some mystical power associated with having to punt our digits out of the directly enumerable. Wait, let me rephrase. There is some sense of mystical completeness about counting up to the number at which you no longer have digits to proceed beyond.

Toes? Well, I suppose they would lead to metric feet.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2012


If eight is secure, the frame of (n-1)-ness in a 3D universe of experience, then nine is shifty. For we are decimate humans, bound to our handheld digital computers, the split-processing multi-tasking things at the ends of our wrists. We count on our fingers, and they do not often disappoint us.

But they are where the great power of the number nine lies. For the number nine is one less than the base, 9 = 10-1. And because of that, it is the seed of many interesting patterns that all rely on having fallen short of the glory of ten.

Some people marvel at this. I don't. I think it's more wonderful to see that 1/7 is 0.142857…. See? Six repeating digits gained by doing a reciprocal on seven.

But nine is nice; it is three by three, and the nearest thing we have to numinosity in the palm of our hands.

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Monday, October 08, 2012


Why eight? The corners of a cube? The permutations of the trigram, that ancient binary oracle? The major points of the magnetic rose, encompassing? Or is eightness so revered because of our bilateral pseudo-symmetry?

It is possible to build up any kind of theology — any kind of conspiracy theory, numerology, arcanum — around any number. Or set of numbers, even. Oddly enough, it boils down to empiricism. The numbers we like the most are the numbers we like the most; there may be no other reason behind it but aesthetics.

But eight is a secure frame in a three-dimensional universe. We see it way too often.

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Sunday, October 07, 2012

Pejorative Accuracy

I was idly sifting through the American news (well, at least the US part of it) when I realised that three terms used pejoratively in such media could certainly be applied to me in some contexts. These three terms are 'un-American', 'useful idiot' and 'fellow traveler'.

I am certainly un-American. Actually, I am completely non-American. And I am also a useful idiot when I have to be, as well as a fellow traveler to those whose causes I sympathize with. There you have it, accurate self-pejoration.

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Saturday, October 06, 2012


Go to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's last fit of The Hunting of the Snark and you will find these immortal and sinister lines:
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away —
For the Snark *was* a Boojum, you see.
And it was with such a sense of surprise that I looked back upon the dying world of Barsoom and saw that it was Tatooine of the late lamented Empire, but distorted through the Lucasian lens.

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Friday, October 05, 2012


And so it has come to this, that the words of a decade of digging are now in neatly typeset leaves of paper; their power is bound, the runes enchained. Somewhere in the heart of the old Queensway, in some modern sweatshop, the deep blue and gold is being crafted into bindings.

And the number of their pages is 313, a strangely evocative number. It is as if the Trinity were made One and Three again. It is as if oddness sauntered down the road and stopped to admire a postbox.

Whatever it is, it is done. It is finished. The covers will enclose the text, and then the text will be somebody else's problem or delight in the long years ahead.

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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Transfigured Characters

I think one of the best philosophical points I've seen in comics lately is that dying changes you even if you come back to life again. This comes across in a dialogue between the Black Widow and some reckless bloggers who spread the news that Bucky Barnes is still alive when actually he's had a power weapon rammed through the front wall of his chest.

At first, everybody's wrong. And then they figure it out after the Widow has more or less trashed the office, thrashed the people and threshed the documents as if they were wheat. (See what I did there?)

The truth is that even if comic characters like Steve Rogers, Simon Williams (who?!), Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Oliver Queen die and come back, they are no longer the same people they were. Their fears of death have mutated. And their fears for their loved ones are even more complex.

The reason for this is simple. None of them died thinking, "Hey, I'm a key franchise character, they won't kill me." In their comic-book world, they died while being heroes or villains or whatever. They had no thought of coming back, they never took it for granted. Their resurrections weren't expected, nor taken for granted after the fact.

But moving from a state of not fearing (or thinking about) death to one of having experienced death, and then being alive again — that is a mysterious return from that "undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns." It is even more so for Steve Rogers, the victim of two deaths and several clonings as of the present time.

Not for nothing did the iconists and semioticists deliberately confound death and transfiguration. If death grants humans a reversal of life, is the reversal of death necessarily the same life? It would appear not.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

El Cheapo

It is not a nice thing to call a person you deeply respect. But it is an excellent pseudonym, because my large-hearted iconoclastic cynical skeptic of a great-uncle was not that at all. He was careful about things he thought needed care, but he was always generous with literature of all kinds. He would've got the joke.

I have a shelf of the stuff he used to send me — newspaper clippings, unusual phenomena, and two old volumes of science fiction collected by Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis. It was these that set me on my path to science fiction hunger.

Great-uncle's growly laugh, precise enunciation and sinister shades concealed a man who thought generously of people and stingily of truth. But when it came to accepting things for which he felt he had sufficient evidence, he went large again.

He was a man of great complexity who saw himself as a simple person. His life was full of tension, incongruity, ambiguity and the liberty of mind. But his spirit resolved it all. When he left this morning at half past seven, I could imagine his first interview with his Maker, and how interesting it might be.

But I could not imagine him gone. I am left with memories instead. I will always remember his pale eyes, alert and intelligent, and the gifts of packaged words that he always sent my way.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Going Short

In the short term, you need fuel. And you need fuel of a specific kind for a specific task; you cannot run an internal combustion engine on candles or coal these days. That's because the carburettor, that device that dispenses (as if by burette) carbs, is designed only for atomisation of liquid fuel and mixing it with air prior to combustion.

In the short term, so many things can be done! But if the long term is not being considered, many of those short-term things can be disastrous. And the word 'disastrous' is probably inappropriate, because all it means is 'from an evil star'. Which can be anagrammed: 'rats live for man'. And that in turn doesn't sound right at all.

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Monday, October 01, 2012

Going Long

You can run ahead, being a target for the long pass, hoping for the touch down, hailing Mary. You can punt ahead, kicking the can down the road, hoping that you're not kicking somebody under the bus. You can attempt the art of the long view, seeing ahead through a thousand different eyes not yours.

And in the end, the long goodbye. Happy Children's Day.

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