Tuesday, August 31, 2004

New York, New York

Three months ago, almost to the day, I and two friends arrived in New York. We were to be in Columbia University for 8 weeks for a research programme.

That was three months ago. Tonight, we are going out to remember the big city. "She is like a lady who demands to be embraced," said someone. We will remember her in all her honeyed sandstone eminence, in all her granite grit and mouthy manners. We miss her a lot. We think of her all the time. It is like Love, but it is more likely Liberty.


Because, unlike Singapore, she is a Lady.

Somewhere out there, on the 20th floor of East Campus Residential, I experienced some sort of apotheosis. Well, not quite a transformation unto godhood, but perhaps more an apocalypsis, an unveiling. We are all made in God's image, says God. Well, then we all seek to establish ourselves as gods. We can't manage it because we lack infinite resources, hence merely g and not G. The former is a variable, the latter is a constant for a given locus in spacetime. Or in the snowflake.

And so, I know that we are all Powers. Some greater, some lesser. The difference isn't one of degree, but one of capacity and potential. A Greater Power may have a lot of resources but not use them; a Lesser Power may become great given time. At the very least, we are Least Powers. Angels must all be Lesser Powers; they can probably use all their resources but can never aspire to the exalted place of Man. Or so their own boss's Manual says.

What I find interesting is that this Manual is consistent to a large extent. True, it may have odd (humanly-speaking) premises. But within the terms of those premises, it has a pretty consistent theology (or two). But that's a topic for a later date. For now, we remember the Lady, Love and Liberty. We remember December on its own, because in December, there is Noel.

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Monday, August 30, 2004

Morozevich-Anand 1995

It's amazing. I don't often comment on chess; it's a pastime which I had to give up many years ago, sadly. You need time to think and to absorb strategic points, and I don't have the time for it. I could of course play with ACS(I) chess team players and get thrashed a few times for my pains, but I don't think it would help much.

This game however, deserves mention. In 1995, Morozevich, 17 and fresh out of his apprenticeship, plays white against World Championship candidate Viswanath Anand. What's worse, he plays the 3. Bc4 King's Gambit Accepted. King's Gambit? How many of you have seen this in open play? No? I thought not. Moro apparently muddles through, but Anand is just a bit too cautious, and before you know it, in under 30 moves, he's dead. Dead? Yep. White wins in a 3. Bc4 King's Gambit against one of the best players of the modern era.

I've always enjoyed watching games by both these men. Anand's repertoire however seems to be an endless parade of Sicilians of various kinds. Moro does weird things. I like him. You should too.

Book Alert: Arrowsmith

Occasionally, I will review graphic novels/tpbs. It's not because of some urge to make my comics collection more respectable; rather, it's because I no longer have the space to maintain an issue-by-issue comics collection - I knew I was doomed when I had to sell off my X-Men collection (#84-#145) way back in the 1980s. Nowadays, I collect them in trades.

Kurt Busiek has always been a favourite of mine. I think that so far, his Astro City collections are the best I've read in the superhero genre - especially 'Life in the Big City', with its exposé of how sad a superhero's social life can be, and why. This time though, he has teamed up with Carlos Pacheco et al to do a fantasy Great War series. Arrowsmith is not just another war story, but it is one which has the ghoulish shadow of the Wildstorm universe all over it. Airmen fly with the aid of sympathetic magic, and countries which are obvious mirror-images of the European powers of 1914-18 do battle. And then one day, amidst fire and brimstone, the allies unleash a weapon to end all wars.

Perhaps the best part about Busiek is his human-interest perspective. Fletcher Arrowsmith is a typical country bumpkin who is smitten by the 'fine uniform' bug and signs up for the Air Corps. Eventually, he's sent over to Gallia (France) to turn the tide of battle against the Hun. In a typical rite-of-passage sequence, he sees his mates die in various brutal and graphic ways, loses his virginity, and becomes a hero with a conscience. And that's in issues 1-6, nicely collected for you. Maybe I've read too many rite-of-passage novels, because this particular sequence didn't quite grip me. But what gripped me was the desperation with which Fletcher hangs on to his innocence, and how that might one day be his saving grace in a world gone mad.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

East And West

This is a multipolar world. Sure, it may not look like it right now, but it has always been one. The United States is about to rediscover this at their own peril. Yet, closer to home, it's also instructive to see what a multipolar education system looks like. Take for example the Integrated Programmes many Singapore schools are coming up with. They're experimental, and hence probably not yet at the stage where they might be considered full paradigms for the future.

Let's take humorous look at the elite educational revolution of Singapore (wow, a top country in education worldwide) that many foreign suitors are lauding to the skies. There are three kinds of models which seem to be dominant.

Firstly, there is the national elite model. Firmly rooted in the philosophy of elitism for the sake of nation-building, this is the model which the PSC and, by default, all schools which value the Singaporean meritocratic scholarship model, must adopt. In such an education system, the main point is to garner academic kudos so that people will respect you - and preferably, stuff which contributes (or which can be said to contribute) to the national interest based on what the government of the day requires. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, that sort of thing. These guys treat books as a means to an end, and are quite sure that seriousness should win, if not real intelligence.

Secondly, there is the cultural elite model. Firmly rooted in the philosophy that your forefathers were the best guys of all time, and that all other cultures are barbarian johnny-come-latelies, this is the model that cultural elitists and cultural chauvinists love. In such a system, the main point is to make your culture a dominant player (if not the only dominant player); alternatives exist, such as whining a lot if it's getting sidelined, or grousing that 'someday we will receive our rightful place in the sun' (or that 'someday Taixxx will be ours again') regardless of the dangerous lessons of history. These guys burn books (or censor them) every few hundred years. They call it culture, and are quite sure that they will win.

Thirdly, there is the creative elite model. Not-so-firmly rooted in some sort of dire dichotomy between ancestors who wanted to make lots of money and ancestors who wanted to make lots of converts, this is a sort of centrist model which includes all kinds of psychos, wackos, the mildly disturbed and the mildly disturbing; it also produces a lot of solid citizens who will talk a lot of nonsense after the first couple of beers and then proceed to claim that they secretly run Singapore. The main point here is to act as if you are members of the rebel alliance, and that the best is yet to come. These guys write books, act weird, and are quite sure that they will win because they have so many alternative viewpoints.

And in each of these models, there is some sort of flagship school. It is instructive therefore to look at the emblems chosen by these schools and what they might mean.

The first kind claims to be egalitarian and nationalist, but uses a two-headed gryphon as its badge - and everyone knows that the two eagle heads, facing east and west, are symbols of empire. That is one greedy creature. It will call up all your sons and daughters and say, "All your base are belong to us" or something like that.

The second kind claims to be egalitarian and traditionalist, and uses what looks like a pile of books on fire. Well, as I've said before, this is appropriate historical comment on the probable philosophy espoused by such organisations. Maybe it means that scholarship will fuel the eternal flame of learning. Maybe.

The third kind claims to be religious and inclusivist (which makes a change), but also combines three symbols of empire in one creature. Yet, in a multipolar world, to show that a Lion should balance carefully between the Eagle and the Dragon is a necessary and rather foresighted thing. Optimism is always good.

Why Marking Is Like Recycled Paper

Homework. It can be very enlightening to see what students write. Sometimes, however, it can be as fatiguing as it is rewarding.


i wade through the afternoon
the afternoon true weights me
the burden of still evening
is that evening must still be

there is no time to smell,
no smell of time save this
this where we are is hell
and hell is where it is

i mark the books i must
the bookmarks i must eye
are purple and are just
another way to die

the rut
is but
one more

one snore

red ink leaks where red pen drops
like red blood from lazy corpse

we wake this afternoon
we resurrect all things
we reconstruct the text
which vanished in the wings

evening falls on us
prepared receive we it
see if we care we must
tax sin and blindly sit


Saturday, August 28, 2004

What's 'a Matter Wid U?

It's something I never really thought about until someone made a really egregious pun on my name which I shall not repeat in polite company. Of course, as an alchemist, my business is alchemy - the conversion of matter into other forms and states as a metaphor for the spiritual condition; and as above, so below - and as below, so above. The former is alchemy, the latter is theurgy.

Strangely enough, I remember one of my earliest answers to that question was when I was fifteen. My good one-day-would-become-a-Jesuit friend JohnP asked me that in a pissy-fit and I replied, "Somebody who weaves really small carpets." Got a loud groan and a kick for that. Yes, I did indeed get a kick out of it.

So, back to names. The doctrine of signatures says roughly that the true name is the true nature; one true name to one complete description. I think it was the first presentiment, if you like, of the unique key concept. It follows then that if you could only decipher the code, you would be able to access true knowledge. The Platonic archetype is therefore one half of the puzzle: if you can access that, you have the true nature. The problem is the access.

Why would anyone want that? Well, if you knew the true name for 'Lion', you could say it and a Lion would appear. A real one, not a mangy African scavenger, but a Platonic lion, that ideal creature to which the stars would bow down and the animal kingdom would pay homage. In this material age, true names would be more powerful than the puny forces of copyright; they would be God's templates for free creation. Sadly, Godel came along and essentially said that true names probably wouldn't work.

But do names have power? Yes, they do. They affect people's perception of us. Let's develop this idea.

I remember my father gleefully telling this 'true story' about his maternal uncle. At a dance, Uncle's wife-to-be asked him, "What's your name?" "Oh." "Oh?" "Oh." At which point, she thought, "Goodness, this fellow's not too bright." She must have shown that on her face, because his next line was, "My surname is Oh." Ouch. Lame has nothing on it.

Further, imagine someone whose name is Bill. "Any important mail?" "No, just a Bill." Poor man, diminished and emasculated with one short exchange of words! Or maybe, Frank. "Are you Frank?" "Not always, but let me be Frank with you." Or the much-abused Tom, Dick and Harry.

JohnP once said to me, in one of his 'this is a stealthy but very bad pun' moods, "Hey, your name is so appropriate." "Why?" "You keep making all these catalogues of things, I mean, 50 words which mean 'blue', 20 teachers who would be great dungeon monsters, and stuff like that." "What's that got to do with my name?" Big grin. Long pause. "Well, it means that you're a..." He got a real kick out of that. In fact, you might say, he had a ball of a time.

Coffee - A Meditational Triptych

I've been up all night, with the red-eye flowing through my veins. So here is my tribute to it.



I: Father, Creator

here is a bean - the earth was fed
a plant was grown, a pod was cracked
the sun was warm, the soil was sweet
we raised our hands to heaven's face

so God gave us the blessing bean
benediction for our striving
true, some might drink somewhat deeply
enjoy the bean a bit too much...

here is the bean - it stirs the head
reminding us of simple fact
that we can dance with hands and feet
that hearts and minds need joy and space

so God gave us to drink caffeine
benediction for our striving
while some might drink somewhat steeply
the bulk of us are nowhere such...

II: Son, Mediator

here then is a drink
look in its brown depths
we see our faces in
sweetly black reflex
we sip the bitter
scent the dying pain
learn that the fitter
lives to fight again

here then is mystery
shallower than Christ
a smaller history
nothing sacrificed
and yet daily ritual
perhaps we should think
why sacrificial
servanthood needs drink

III: Ghost, Inspirer

wine was the drink chosen
not coffee
in the earliest legends
wine was free
fire, burning, knowledge
Spirit, wind
wine was like purity
we who sinned

Spirit came at pentecost
flame tongues rose
build tower, count the cost
wise man knows
Spirit's burning, needs God
turns through pain
agony of evil
comes to God
once again


and coffee?
a minor grace
sent to remind
God still shows
His gracious face
to men still blind...
though coffee
is not wine


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Friday, August 27, 2004

Video Alert: Firefly

I wish that the people I know all had the opportunity to watch this gem of a series (only 14 brilliant episodes, now available on DVD) by Joss Whedon. Think of an SF thriller set on the 'Wild West frontier' of the galaxy. Characters you can really care about, from the cynical Captain Reynolds to the effervescent Kaylee and the smouldering Inarra... Here's the theme song, 'Serenity'.


take my love
take my land
take me where i cannot stand
i don't care
i'm still free
you can't take the sky from me

take me out
to the black
tell 'em i ain't coming back
burn the land
and boil the sea
you can't take the sky from me

have no place
i can be
since I found Serenity
but you can't take the sky from me

-joss whedon, 'Serenity' (theme from Firefly)

Vowel Sounds

I've always envied languages with well-defined vowel sounds. English is particularly retarded - in the traditional English pronunciation of 'Abraham', the poor 'a' has to do triple duty. Romanian at least has symbols for each of those 'a'-sounds. In Hebrew, I think 'Abraham' becomes something like 'Avra'am', where all the 'a' sounds are 'ah'. Something Shivana wrote triggered this - about his poor room-mate who insisted that 'phi' rhymed with 'flea' and not with 'fly'.

Problem is, the room-mate was right. The 'i' in Greek is indeed a sort of 'ee' sound. The last letters of the Greek alphabet should be pronounced 'fee', 'khee', 'pssee' before 'oh-megga'. In classical Greek, anyway. The reason we pronounce 'psychology' the way we do is that English tongues can't wrap themselves around the 'psuch-' part, where the 'p' is voiced and the 'u' is a bit like the French 'u' in 'tu' and a bit like the Chinese 'u' in 'yu'.

One of the best ways to learn about all this is David Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, or you could try reading Steven Brust's notes on Hungarian (oops, 'Easterner').


So, what price a life?


coming of age, they brought me up
in the darkest, to a bloody altar,
made myself a sacrifice unknown;
to a fault my loyalty shone
like the inside-polished scabbard of my blade.

into the world, a star from heaven
was my coming; my proud cohort
gave way in time to prouder legion.
and steel made splendour as of gold
each battlefield I turned my art upon.

learnt to bear arms, not give them away
under their own weight, in their own time;
each black leaf uncurled, a winter wound,
like silver ending the years
of a body’s celebration.

learnt to hold suffering in a fond
embrace, in one hand, sometimes in two;
i laughed sometimes at the day’s horror,
at the sounds of children in
saddened fire-rubbled homes.

in the world, I was a Hunter’s star.
but trees taught me a different lesson:
taught me to wait the years without
destruction or despair.
this was many summers gone.

older now, my legions dust on dust,
i keep my blade as spotless as before;
the work brings memory to mind
of how much the cleaning of a sword
may cost in trees cut down and burnt.


Thursday, August 26, 2004

Hypothesis Testing

We should all test our hypotheses. Along the way, one should be very careful. Watch out for bystanders, onlookers, and other possible targets of collateral damage. I've been very careless in the past. Now, I hope, no more.

Book Alert: The Simoqin Prophecies

It just looks like a bad Terry Pratchett rip-off, and worse, it has terrible back-cover blurb. Yet, exploring beyond the tackiness, you will find 1) a really interesting plot with several unexpected twists, 2) a lot of F&SF in-jokes which manage to parody a wide range of targets without spoiling the plot or making it look like a bad Terry Pratchett rip-off, 3) one of those almost-familiar worlds which teases by its difference from the familiar.

Features: two main heroes, one of who is amnesiac (Kirin), and one of who is a prince (Asvin); one heroine, who to her credit chooses wisely (Maya); one secret agent/assassin which should have a book to itself (the Silver Dagger - note the deliberate lack of gender); Indian mythology creatively interpreted (although not as coolly as in Zelazny's Lord of Light); something like a Pratchett version of Bollywood, but cleverly done; disturbing geography; perverse humour; and some genuine philosophy.

It's an excellent read, and if you look at the bottom of the back cover, the price is given in rupees, not US$. That's a major marketing advantage...

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


there are all these little traces of me.
around the net they float; they should be free

and each is sometimes there and sometimes not
a quantum tangle (or a quantum spot)

but i am back, my first day on the net
was july 1 sixteen years gone and yet

it is yesterday once more



I've been reading my students' blogs, and I trust they will be scandalized appropriately but not extraordinarily - especially one Shivana Thiru Moorthy, whom I must thank for quoting me in quite a kind way. Glad to know there are actually people listening in class. I never wanted to be a Chemistry teacher anyway; always wanted to teach Lit. Probably too late now.

Actually, it IS too late. I have to wake up at six am, and it is already 1:45 pm in New York. Sigh. Good night.


like Russia she is; for all
a vast landscape of the mind,
hidden by forest and wall,
shuttered by curtain and blind.

like Russia, she is; such warmth
displayed by the cold people,
fairy-tales which darkly swarm
about bright bells in steeples.

like Russia, she is; distant
and yet close as a heart's beat,
faithful at the end, constant,
knowing grief but not defeat.

like the true Russia, respect
is what one feels if one knows;
one learns to love, circumspect,
the wide land through small windows.

like Russia, she is...