Thursday, April 22, 2021

Haiku for Mendeleev #004 — Beryllium

peacock eye of jinn
in the eternal city
no more deadly dust

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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Questions for November 2021

It is that time of year again. And fortunately, it is a time for the drawing of lines.
  1. Why is it so difficult to identify a clear line between accepted and disputed knowledge within a discipline? Answer with reference to two disciplines, each taken from a different area of knowledge.
  2. “Knowledge gained through direct experience is powerful but problematic.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  3. “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” (Arthur Conan Doyle). Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  4. “Areas of knowledge always rely on a systematic process of trial and error to aid the production of knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. “If all knowledge is provisional, when can we have confidence in what we claim to know?” Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  6. “We are rarely completely certain, but we are frequently certain enough.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.


Friday, October 02, 2020

Questions for May 2021

 The questions change as the times change. Syllabus, thy name is mutability. Maybe to be caught between Syllabus and Curriculum is the modern equivalent of Scylla and Charybdis.

  1. “Accepting knowledge claims always involves an element of trust.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. Within areas of knowledge, how can we differentiate between change and progress? Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  3. “Labels are a necessity in the organization of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  4. “Statistics conceal as much as they reveal.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. “Areas of knowledge are most useful in combination with each other.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  6. “Avoiding bias seems a commendable goal, but this fails to recognize the positive role that bias can play in the pursuit of knowledge.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.


Monday, March 02, 2020

Questions for November 2020

These questions, they always plague the young wyverns on St David's Day, when they should be out celebrating, not cerebrating…
  1. “If a disagreement about knowledge claims needs to be resolved, then it is essential to give equal attention to both sides.” Under what circumstances is this good advice?
  2. “Understanding something requires being able to answer ‘What if...?’ questions about it.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  3. “Too much of our knowledge revolves around ourselves, as if we are the most important thing in the universe” (adapted from Carlo Rovelli). Why might this be problematic?
  4. “The process of gaining knowledge is more valuable than reaching an end result.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. “The questions we can ask depend more on what we already know than on what we do not know.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  6. “Reliable knowledge can lack certainty.” Explore this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Questions for May 2020

Sometimes you ask questions too early, sometimes too late. In the past, people have asked me not to post such questions, until it is too late. But I have managed to work around that, by not posting—only composting. It is like the difference between posing and composing.
  1. “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not” (Pablo Picasso). Explore this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. “There is a sharp line between describing something and offering an explanation of it.” To what extent do you agree with this claim?
  3. Does it matter that your personal circumstances influence how seriously your knowledge is taken?
  4. “The role of analogy is to aid understanding rather than to provide justification.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  5. “Given that every theory has its limitations, we need to retain a multiplicity of theories to understand the world.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  6. “Present knowledge is wholly dependent on past knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.


Saturday, January 18, 2020

Haiku for Mendeleev #003 — Lithium

a lightness of stone
small cells powering machines
firstborn of metals

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Saturday, March 02, 2019

Questions for November 2019

Every May, I think of what may come; every November, I think of what might fall.
This year, what falls are questions, some looking a bit traditional, some looking a bit odd. Perhaps they are like traditional Anglo weddings — something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. And here they are, for young people to enjoy mulling over.
  1. “In the acquisition of knowledge, the responsibility for accuracy lies with the user not the producer.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. “Each human being is unique, unprecedented, unrepeatable” (René Dubos). Assuming this statement to be correct, what challenges does it create for knowledge production in two areas of knowledge?
  3. Shared knowledge often changes over time. Does this fact undermine our confidence in current shared knowledge?
  4. To produce knowledge just observe and then write down what you observe. Discuss the effectiveness of this strategy in two areas of knowledge.
  5. Is there a trade-off between scepticism and successful production of knowledge?
  6. “The pursuit of knowledge is not merely about finding truths; it is about finding significant truths" (adapted from P D Magnus). Discuss this statement.


Friday, March 01, 2019

St David's Day (2019)

And so it was that on the first day of March in 1886, a tall, thin, dyspeptic Anglo-Indian gentleman, late out of the wilderness of Pennsylvania, founded a beacon of truth and light in an island of the Main. There may it stand, from year to year, an emblem of grand endeavour.

That same gentleman was heard to say decades later that one main lesson of his life was that women did more of the work, and that one Blackmore did the most of all, in 1887. To her, he said, a statue should be raised if any should be raised at all.

These thoughts come to mind on St David's Day this year. For he too agreed that we should say who did the work, and all should do it well.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Questions for May 2019

As always, I am both amused and amazed by the questions that arise from certain Intentionally Byzantine organisations.
  1. "The quality of knowledge is best measured by how many people accept it." Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. "The production of knowledge is always a collaborative task and never solely a product of the individual." Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  3. Do good explanations have to be true?
  4. "Disinterestedness is essential in the pursuit of knowledge." Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. "The production of knowledge requires accepting conclusions that go beyond the evidence for them." Discuss this claim.
  6. "One way to assure the health of a discipline is to nurture contrasting perspectives." Discuss this claim.
These aren't as pungent as some of those from previous years, though.


Friday, August 10, 2018

Haiku for Mendeleev #002 — Helium

two of everything
alpha in the burning sun
lightness all alone

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Sunday, March 04, 2018

Questions for November 2018

I love the way the International Baccalaureate demands tough answers to tougher questions.
  1. “Existing classification systems steer the acquisition of new knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  2. “Technology provides ever-expanding access to shared knowledge. Therefore, the need to assimilate such knowledge personally is relentlessly diminishing.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  3. *Are disputes over knowledge claims within a discipline always resolvable? Answer this question by comparing and contrasting disciplines taken from two areas of knowledge.
  4. “Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge” (Lao Tzu). Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  5. “Too much relevant knowledge in a field might be a hindrance to the production of knowledge in that field.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  6. “The importance of establishing incontrovertible facts is overestimated. Most knowledge deals in ambiguity.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
* incidentally, the IB clarified that this should mean only one discipline from each of two different areas of knowledge, not 'one or more disciplines'.


Friday, August 04, 2017

Haiku for Mendeleev #001 — Hydrogen

in the darkness, light
on the face of the water
the spirit of god

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017


Cloudless Caramel Coloring (I): When it is perfectly understood that in the manufacture of caramel, sugar is to be deprived of the one molecule of its water of constitution, it will be apparent that heat must not be carried on to the point of carbonization. Cloudy caramel is due to the fact that part of the sugar has been dissociated and reduced to carbon, which is insoluble in water. Hence the cloudiness. Caramel may be made on a small scale in the following manner: Place 4 or 5 ounces of granulated sugar in a shallow porcelain-lined evaporating dish and apply either a direct heat or that of an oil bath, continuing the heat until caramelization takes place or until tumescence ceases and the mass has assumed a dark-brown color. Then carefully add sufficient water to bring the viscid mass to the consistence of a heavy syrup. Extreme care must be taken and the face and hands protected during the addition of the water, owing to the intensity of the heat of the mass, and consequent sputtering.
Henley's 20th Century Formulas &c, 146 (1914 edition)

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Sunday, May 07, 2017


Artificial Butter IV: 'Ankara' is a substance which in general appearance resembles a good article of butter, being rather firmer at ordinary temperatures than that substance, approaching the consistency of cocoa butter. It is quite odorless, but in taste it resembles that of a fair article of butter and, what is more, its behavior under heat is very similar to that of butter—it browns and forms a sort of spume like that of fat. Ankara consists of a base of cocoa butter, carrying about 10 per cent of milk, colored with yolk of egg.
Henley's 20th Century Formulas &c, 142 (1914 edition)

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Saturday, May 06, 2017

Cheesy Fake

Roquefort, Imitation: The gluten of wheat is kneaded with a little salt and a small portion of a solution of starch, and made up into cheeses. It is said that this mixture soon acquires the taste, smell, and unctuosity of cheese, and when kept a certain time is not to be distinguished from the celebrated Roquefort cheese, of which it possesses all the peculiar pungency. By slightly varying the process other kinds of cheese may be imitated.
Henley's 20th Century Formulas &c, 177 (1914 edition)

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Friday, May 05, 2017

Colours In The Steel

Alloys for drawing Colours on Steel: Alloys of various composition are successfully used for drawing colors on steel. To draw to a straw color use 2 parts of lead and 1 part of tin, and melt in an iron ladle. Hold the steel piece to be drawn in the alloy as it melts and it will turn to straw color. This mixture melts at a temperature of about 437°F. For darker yellow use 9 parts of lead to 4 parts of tin, which melts at 458°F. For purple, use 3 parts of lead to 1 part of tin, the melting temperature being 482°F. For violet, use 9 parts of lead to 2 parts of tin, which melts at 494°F. Lead without any alloy will draw steel to a dark blue.
Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas &c, 80 (1903, revised).


Thursday, May 04, 2017

Blood Oil

'Shio Liao': Under this name the Chinese manufacture an excellent cement which takes the place of glue, and with which gypsum, marble, porcelain, stone, and stoneware can be cemented. It consists of the following parts (by weight): Slaked powdered lime, 54 parts; powdered alum, 6 parts; and fresh, well-strained blood, 40 parts.
Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas &c, 32 (1903, revised).


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Atlantean Cosmogony: The Ancient Dragon

I live in Atlantis, where centuries have boiled away to leave a bare-husk residue with entailments and derailments, amusements and bemusements. It is as if you had thrown random ingredients into the village's common pot and offered the soup to all and sundry, until the bones were left—and then you added water and began the process again.

But the oldest maps we have tell us of the Gate of the Dragon's Teeth. It is a portal through which men have sailed both ways, this ancient fossil whose prominences remain elided, eroded, or abridged into larger masses. If the teeth were this huge, imagine the size of the monster!

It may not be long before imagination is no longer needed. The ancient dragon is long gone, but her gigantic heir has stirred to life. One by one, the tiny islands in the Dragon Sea are being devoured. Soon, the dragon will return to the Dragon Gate, and we will either be its prey or its doorkeeper.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Smallest System

I remember being interrogated by an old family friend and former babysitter. This eminent professor of the dark arts asked me, "Why is hydrogen so important for our entire discipline?"

At that time, I had no idea, so I blathered on for a while.

Eventually, he got frustrated enough to say this: "Because it's the simplest atom. Just one proton and one electron."

And thus did the young man of three decades gone become the old man of today.

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Monday, May 01, 2017

Labour Day

As T S Eliot puts it,
The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
Since the last time I posted here, two years have passed. In that period, I've entered an enterprise, missed two St David's Days, taught countless classes (by which I mean I haven't counted them) in literature, history, and hard sciences. I have read many books, wearied of many writers, and settled into a life of comfortable obscurity—only to be unsettled by various events.

I have walked as much as ever, but covered more ground. Whereas in the past I walked the same blocks, the same corridors, again and again in each interminable day for twelve years, I have been walking the streets and the drains, the hills and the hawker-stalls, and the small corners of the wide earth for almost a decade since.

Time wounds all heels, as an old saying goes. Your sole is hardened by much beating against the ground, like wheat threshed to remove chaff, or iron pounded in a flame.

And here it is Labour Day, and the idea of retirement irks me. After all, it was an idea invented by the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck of relatively ancient fame: he decided it would be good to support the infirm and insane in their old age. He excluded those still fit for work, which for the largest span of human history has been the norm. My forefathers trod their winepresses till they could tread no more, and I dearly wish to do the same. When a person will no longer work, there is no need for that person to eat.

But that state is, God willing, decades hence. And even if not, I'm happy to go when properly gone. For now, I'll just think my thoughts and measure out my life in coffee spoons.

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