Note: The list below does not contain every post on this blog, but only a selection of longer essays and articles published. Please use Search and Categories to browse further.
In Search of Disappointment Island I go down the old-fashioned library rabbit-hole to discover the reasons why the Islands of Disappointment were so named. The real story is far more interesting than the Islands’ Wikipedia page makes out.
Alberto Manguel Packs His Library Manguel is a guide through many of the odd and sometimes embarrassing feelings of wanting to possess leaves of paper between two covers.
Is it in New Zealanders to be neutral? “The present period of indecision”, Frank Corner wrote in an important 1953 letter, “gives us the chance to look again at this question of our commitment, probably the most important policy question facing us…”
The Harsh Clarity of New Zealand Typography I don’t really believe in “New Zealand art”, or “New Zealand writing”. If it’s good it’s just “art” or “writing” or “a typeface”, and the New Zealandness problem solves itself; New Zealand typographers are doing, and seemingly always have been doing, first-rate work.
Printing and Typography in New Zealand: A Short Bibliography The reading list I wish I’d had when I first began learning about printing, publishing and type in NZ. From Yate, Colenso and Coupland Harding to Kris Sowersby.
Don McKenzie and the University “…How blind we are when the variety of our human and natural worlds is obscured by our distance from the objects of study.” Thanks to Don McKenzie for the ever-fresh reminder of what we’re really at university for.
The Smell of New Zealand Books There was something more to the smell of their pages than simply the knowledge that they were from home, or that the words they contained were significant to me. They smelled like New Zealand, of specifically what I have come to know New Zealand’s culture to smell like.
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, by Mathias Enard What if cultures were not as hermetic as we sometimes imagine them to be? What if the modern foundations of “Western culture” were based, in fact, on influences from the “East”—and vice versa?
“I’ve Lived for So Many Days Now”: Rinus Van de Velde at König Gallery, Berlin A review of an exhibition in January 2019. It’s testament to how fully Van de Velde constructs these worlds—the coder’s lair, the ambiguous expressions, the literary text beneath the images—that we can be drawn ever more deeply into them.
Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins…
Oceania at the Antipodes A survey of historical international exhibitions of Oceanic/Pacific art. The Royal Academy’s 2018 Oceania exhibition seems not so much a marking of 250 years since Cook “discovered” the Pacific, but of perhaps a decade since Britain and Europe opened their artistic sights on the rest of the world.
Ernst Plischke and the Corners A 1959 flat by Ernst Plischke above the garage of diplomats and art collectors Frank and Lyn Corner seems to expand well beyond its four small walls. (Feature article for Home Magazine New Zealand, published in print, September 2018 issue).
Crabbed Age and Youth Cannot Live Together: On Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations Bach’s Goldberg Variations reflect the nature of a human life, and Glenn Gould’s gift was to understand them in this way, leading us along as if we were reading a novel, or philosophy.
What Shall We Do Tomorrow?: An Essay On College We’ve had almost four years to figure it out: what life do we want? New York penthouse, Concord cabin, Premier House? The life of the soldier, the saint, the sage or the citizen? An essay for the Yale-NUS College class of 2017.
Journey to Oxford For all the talk of distance these days being less tyrannical, a New Zealander in Oxford is still a New Zealander a long way from home. A New Zealander in Oxford is still one who thought our borders too small; he or she still thought the long trip and the goodbyes to be worthwhile.
Bulletpoint Philosophy At a point when technology has changed our means of communication more in the past decade than in the few centuries before, now seems a good time to stop, to assess. Just what are we saying, and how are we saying it?; It is tempting to speak of big-brother-like powers and the forces of authority. But the deadening of the philosophical imagination is far more innocent than all that.
Julianne Thomson’s Spin Exhibition at Yale-NUS College As an art student, how do you navigate the perennial tension between the ‘rules’ you are taught and the thing that drew you to art in the first place—the ability to express yourself creatively? For that matter, how does any student navigate the tension, learning from the past without mindlessly and slavishly copying?
The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Ubiquity If what was lost from a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction was its ‘aura’, then what is lost today in the age of digital ubiquity? Maybe it’s something like spirit—aura, but with feeling and heart.
My Capstone Thesis: Liberal Education Between Self-Cultivation and Citizenship My Yale-NUS College senior capstone deals with liberal education, and how it must manage to reconcile the simultaneous need to educate self-reflective individuals, as well as active and engaged citizens.
On Te Papa’s Toi Art / New Zealand’s Need for a National Art Gallery Most of us will see the masterworks of our culture just a few times in our lives, and having those works levelled to the same status as the giant squid does no viewer any favours, nor does it do New Zealand any favours in the eyes of foreign visitors.
A Liberal Education is a Self-Reflexive Education: Defining the Liberal Arts I’ve come to define a liberal education as a self-reflexive education. Self-reflexivity is, to my mind, the heart of a liberal education, its feature that is both timeless and common to all countries’ traditions and institutional structures
The Eyes and Times of Frank and Lyn Corner To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view.
National Gallery, a Film by Frederick Wiseman: A Brief Review Wiseman’s genius with National Gallery is to document the institution, on the one hand, but on the other to demonstrate the experience of being at such a gallery.
The New Zealand Scholar: J. C. Beaglehole’s Essential 1954 Lecture 117 years after Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his lecture on the nature and aspirations of The American Scholar, Beaglehole delivered his own lecture taking up the same question in the New Zealand context. It might be no less than New Zealand’s “declaration of intellectual independence.”
The Cornish Connection at the Suter Art Gallery, Nelson There are no easy links or explanations here, but that travel and interaction with international artists in a specific location had a great impact on New Zealand art, we see very clearly.
The Startup Strategy Matrix: Defining the Limits of Lean Startup Methods My International Baccalaureate Extended Essay, completed at Scots College in 2012. A study of the circumstances under which lean startup methods should be used by early-stage internet technology companies.
Rita Angus (New Zealand painter) The art of Rita Angus teaches New Zealanders how by close observation of what is unique about ourselves we might move closer to seeing what is universal.
The Gate of Wisdom: On Education and Democracy in New Zealand, or, Why We Need the Liberal Arts An exploration of the relationship between increasing vocationalism at the undergraduate level and the fragmenting of and disengagement from politics; a case for a system of liberal arts education in New Zealand; a hope that such a system would foster a strong democracy.
Tutira: Herbert Guthrie-Smith and the Story of a Now-Toxic Lake A New Zealand naturalist’s 1921 book is New Zealand’s answer to Henry David Thoreau; but it also presents us with the reality of just how much our natural environment has changed.
To Spend Time Is To Explore Time: Giorgio Morandi and Edmund de Waal at Stockholm’s Artipelag This art aspires not to newness, but to timelessness. Enter this gallery and you exit Modernism’s conception of time and progress, leaving behind along with it all that is pre and post, avant-garde and rear-guard…
Design and Living: Architect Ernst Plischke’s Manifesto for Housing in New Zealand “A house is a framework for living”, wrote Plischke; his 1947 book is at once an architectural primer, exposition of Modernist principles, and handbook for solutions to housing crises.
Summer With Picasso and Giacometti Reconciliation with death is what art—and especially that of Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti—finally offers us. Two European exhibitions of these artists’ work could not be more timely.
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr: A Summary [From my 2011 archives] All these technological changes, Carr argues, have side-effects that mostly affect our deep-brain thinking.
Montaigne on the Education of Children The problems Montaigne diagnosed with education in his day, almost five hundred years ago, are really no different to the problems we still see today.
Can New Zealanders and Australians Afford to Study at a US University? People usually think it takes a full scholarship or immense wealth, but they aren’t aware of financial aid.
A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university? An introduction to American higher education and the liberal arts for New Zealanders and Australians considering tertiary study in the US.
What It Means To Be Against Everything: A Brief Review of Mark Greif’s Book “I had to show”, Greif writes in the introduction to his collection of essays, Against Everything, “how every commonplace thing might be a compromise. The standards universally supposed might not be “universal.”
What Makes Someone Wise? The intelligent person is inward-directed; their intelligence exists within themselves, for themselves. The wise person uses the knowledge they have outside themselves, to the benefit of the world.
A Language of Wholeness At high school the goal is to be well-rounded; at university it is to be well-rounded with a bump. Then what? We need a language of wholeness to describe complete human beings.
Seneca on the true purpose of philosophy Some of us have a strong gut reaction to studying philosophy in high school or university; Seneca diagnosed the problem two thousand years ago.
Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework Fakework is the belief that a project’s completion depends merely on its impression; yet there are times in life when that isn’t enough.
Explaining the Value of Liberal Arts Education in New Zealand A recent argument for arts education in NZ focuses merely on the employability of arts graduates, subordinating the education’s value to statistics and practicalities.
Transforming the Gold of Our Lives into the Base Lead of Commerce One lives life and spends money; one cannot live money, nor spend time, though for too long we’ve pretended we could.
Reflecting A birthday is an appropriate time to look back on a year, to make sense of how we’ve lived our days. But without a diary, our presentist bias makes reflection impossible.
More—and Better—Liberal Education Fareed Zakaria’s defence of liberal education; expanding and improving the liberal arts as a way of fixing its problems. But what exactly are we expanding or improving?
Creative Blindness The creative struggle as the necessity of breaking out of mental silos; Wassily Kandinsky’s ideas for how best to do so.
It Is Futile To Write About Liberal Education’s Value The paradox confronting liberal education: How to explain the value of something whose value can only be understood by having been felt?
Introduction to Writing Fiction A good paragraph, we are told, must have certain elements; but the essence of good writing is creativity, breaking established rules. The paradox of education, and the paradox of eminence.
What Is Our Time Here For? Redux Studying at a liberal arts college, and having the time and space to build the foundations of a life. A career can rest on those foundations, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.
The Standard Answer What if there was an environment in which no standard answer existed? What if, whichever answer you imagined, you saw equal praise and resistance?
The Meaning of School Skole in Greek, scola in Latin, meaning leisure, from where we derive the English school, a place of leisure’s opposite.
Swimming Upstream at College Colleges “affect horror” that “students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but… offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance…”
Commodified Learning in the Flipped Classroom The danger with any educational innovation is that it forgets that the point of education is what happens after class.
Letting It Go Competing in the Cycosports Seletar Aerospace Park Criterium in Singapore; how racing highlights parts of our own natures that in everyday life remain hidden.
Why Do We Commit To Sport? What Haruki Murakami talks about when he talks about running; what sport is in our lives, without needing to achieve anything.
The Man Who Made Yale-NUS Yale-NUS Some might put it as a chicken-and-egg problem: was Austin chosen to work here because he had the qualities they wanted this school to embody, or is Yale-NUS like that today because of Austin Shiner?
The Danger of Becoming the Stories We Tell If we aren’t careful—if we spend our time climbing and “applying”—we will come to embody the personal narratives we tell, lacking in humanity and virtue as they necessarily do.
How We Start Our Days is How We Start Our Lives Annie Dillard’s masterstroke of a line: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I offer a slight reformulation, focussing on the first hour of each day.
The Liberal Arts in Global Context Are the liberal arts in decline, or are they experiencing a period of global expansion? The two views cannot both be right; I embark on my senior thesis to better grasp the liberal arts.
Money Costs “The alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce”; how we debase the only thing we really have, and the only thing that money can never buy—time.
Between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. Knowing more and wanting more, but seeing “easy” and wanting easy. That’s us.
Twenty Minutes During a cycling fitness test, seeing the poles of over and under-confidence; wisdom may be seeing the follies one has made in other areas of life and then escaping those two traps by humbling oneself in advance.
“I Could Have Done That” The simplicity and elegance of much great art disguises what really went into it; the necessity of both ideas and work ethic in producing anything of value.
The Readymade Fallacy In our blindness to the hard work that went into success, we fall back on narratives to explain why they could do something that I couldn’t. But persistence is a learned mindset, there’s nothing innate about it.
It Never Gets Easier, You Just Cope Better A friend spent six weeks meditating at a monastery; all he remembers are the mosquitos that bit him constantly. Learning that all you can change is your response to a given situation.
An Education is a Self-Inflicted Wound The start of a new semester, and an event rich in symbolism; I learn the hard way what an education means.
A Future Without Personal History A lamentation of the loss of personal history through the devaluing of digital communication. My grandparents can look back through their shoebox of letters, but what will we be left with?
Thoughts on New Zealand’s School Decile Funding System Socioeconomic need as it relates to equality of opportunity in education is one of the most critical problems a nation can face. School deciles have tried, but they’ve failed. Time to try something new.
A Vision or a Plan? There’s only point having a vision if backed by a plan, and a plan is only worthwhile if it serves some vision. Perhaps what politics really needs is a party willing to risk putting the two together.
The Future of Social Networks The most-read article on my blog in 2011-2012; a model for how online social networks can come to more accurately mimic real life societies.
Satisfied Age and Wisdom Robert Louis Stevenson on Crabbed Age and Youth; one’s present views are merely the meeting place of what one was once certain of, and the views that one will come to hold.
Wisdom and Age, Wisdom and Education Wisdom has no necessary relationship to age or profession, despite our banal stereotypes. We do not think of education as being fundamentally about wisdom; but we should.
Drivers and Cyclists, Us and Them Dehumanisation of the other and group mentalities; is it so far a step from the phoney wars between drivers and cyclists and the real political antagonisms sweeping across the United States and Europe?
“What University Should I Choose?” Ask—and ask only of yourself—what you want to get out of university and how you want to spend four important years. Answering that question will define the experience far more than whether the university starts with a Y or an H, an O or a C.
What to do when confronted with two pieces of contradictory advice? When faced with contradictory advice you learn who you are, because you can’t hide behind by others’ well-meaning opinions.
The Commodification of Learning Economic value is being attached to learning; this is giving the wrong incentives to students. Memorisation is winning over mind-broadening.
Selling the Liberal Arts Are the liberal arts a fast-track to a management career, or about learning how to be free in a deep sense? How the liberal arts are marketed by colleges will affect the kind of education that students end up receiving.
A Sense of Motion Without Moving If you don’t believe in moving upwards, forwards, onwards for its own sake, you cannot believe in productivity as we are forced to pursue it.
Peter Sagan and the Paradox of Eminence Greatness is less likely when you play within all the rules, as the sport was practiced and won by its last star; and yet to break those rules risks being rejected by the sport as much as being recorded in its books.
A writer who happens to use a blog as one medium amongst others “Blogging” describes the medium rather than the activity; bloggers are writers as much as a journalist who writes for a newspaper.
Studying Abroad in the Asia Pacific Century If New Zealand is to gain from its proximity to new global economic power, we cannot simply expect the rewards to come to us. Just as we bring bright students from around the Asia Pacific to study at our schools and universities, so too must we send young Kiwis abroad.
You Are What You Read Why I only read news sources I pay for; over longer periods of time we come to subconsciously take on the qualities and attitudes of the information we consume.
The Means and the Ends of an Education Education starts to seem like something that happens to us, rather than something we grab hold of and shape.
Pre-Distraction Distraction In expectation of interruption by our devices, the size of the tasks we take on inevitably diminishes.
The Levelling of Ideas Towards the Pretty But Inane The visibility of liking and disliking in the Internet era; we become trained by the stings of public disapproval and the dopamine of the “like”.
The Liberal Arts and Two Visions of the Future Differing views about the usefulness of the liberal arts come down to different visions of a noble future. Recognising which vision for the future we hold dear is the start of knowing what education means to us individually.
Chopping Off Their Heads The Tall Poppy Syndrome; why it occurs in smaller countries but not larger ones; how proximity alters what is expected of equality.
If The Grass Were Greener Idioms often express truths so fundamental that we ignore their real intent. We say “the grass is always greener on the other side” when really what we mean is, it never actually is.
On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students” Teacher evaluation day is the catharsis at the end of a semester’s tragedy. Mark Edmundson presents a powerful vision for liberal education. The responsibility for it lies directly with students and professors themselves.
Meaning If we come to think outside the places we normally look for meaning—a 9-5 job, a weekend hobby, occasional service work—then we are far more likely to make meaning mean something for us.
On Making Decisions Despite the Instability of Our Future Selves The paradox of how our lives must be planned for a future self that is uncertain. Different takes on this theme of commitment-making under uncertainty, and my own perspective from a college essay.
“War Minus The Shooting”?: The Olympics, International Sport, and Orwell On the Sporting Spirit How people can come to feel closer even if that closeness comes through seeing their nations pushed apart by rivalry.
The Drama and Humanity of Sport: On Stage 19 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia The contrast between the beauty and permanence of the landscapes next to the suffering of humans trying to overcome them is what makes this sport a symbol of humanity.
Robert Louis Stevenson on Escaping the Cult of Busy and the Joys of Doing Nothing Idleness as an education in the art of living; how extreme busyness is a sign of “deficient vitality”; and how success in life isn’t what most take it to be.
What Is College For?: David Foster Wallace on Liberal Education and the Trenches of Adult Life The real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is how to keep you from going through your adult life “dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting”.
The Time Value of Experience How experiences we have are more valuable the earlier we have them.
On Excellent Sheep: What is College for? Bill Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. But his immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to new champions of the liberal arts, standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again.
“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever” I rediscover a note I wrote to myself during high school. Ultimately, it is precisely the perilous mixture of ambition and creativity that poses the problem, for one requires conformity and the other its exact opposite.
Why Do We Take Such Great Risks for Sport? If youth is wasted on the young, sport might go some way towards alleviating that waste through the individual recognition that bodies aren’t uniform and nor are they infinite. Or; what do the Red Hook Crit, Roger Federer, and Stage 16 of the 2015 Giro d’Italia have in common?
Valls Calls Down Under: Another World Leader Woos the South Pacific In the world of global trade and security nothing is either true or false, but declaring makes it so. French eagerness to assert Pacific identity is a sign of the times.
In Myanmar, Learning What is at Stake in Our Travels A following-the-footsteps journey leads to questions about buying colonial lifestyles; how travel writing was Somerset Maugham’s version of the Facebook glamour shot.
Learning How To Do Nothing On “leisure guilt”, and how when it comes to productivity, we frequently fill our days with tasks before giving ourselves the space to ask whether those tasks are ones we ultimately want or need to be doing in the first place.
Connecting the Dots of Our Lives We need to be aware of how our personal narratives and the lives they lead to are shaped by the structures of resumes and career thinking; otherwise, well-meaning career advice may hold us back from drawing a constellation between the dots of our lives, forcing us instead to draw an all-too-straight line between them.
The Two Yale-NUS Colleges The focus on the views of everyone other than students at Yale-NUS belies the false premise from which many commentators approach the College; the concerns demonstrate the confusion of liberal values with a liberal arts education, and I for one came to Yale-NUS for the latter.
“Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?” A conversation with a friend on the role of reflection and books in living, learning, and growing up.
A Global Perspective on the Humanities Debate A reply to Nicholas Kristof’s “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities” article in the Times; how he framed the humanities debate along U.S.-European lines, and in doing so missed core trends in global education.
Why Should We Go Abroad?: On Connecting the Dots of Our Lives We may well want study abroad to be a transformative experience, exposing us to new interests and ways we could live our lives, but taking this approach will make being accepted to the program far less likely; how the structure of a resume dictates the possibilities that are open to us.
Yale-NUS College Class of 2017 A look back at my reasons for attending Yale-NUS College at the time I accepted my offer of admission; the liberal arts in Asia.
Declaring Makes It So: What it Means that the United States Now Thinks it is a Pacific Nation [Fox & Hedgehog] A declaration of national identity in terms of geography is very different from a declaration in terms of ideology or creed; only through believing itself to be a Pacific nation can the United States justify its re-alignment of military and economic structures to focus on Asia.
What Is Our Time Here For?: The Meaning of Yale-NUS College and the Liberal Arts [The Octant] The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college; they are about having freedom to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations, with “inner character”.
Reflection on a Grain of Sand Everything that I have consumed my mind with for a decade has been confined to continents and islands and managing the conflicts that flare up in the world. How could humans have possibly exited this atmosphere and looked at the whole of earth at once?
A Conflicted Past: What We Can Learn from the UN Security Council Painting [Fox & Hedgehog] Original research on Per Krohg’s painting; the irony is that the permanent members of the Security Council are watched over by a painting that is meant to remind them of their role in maintaining and advancing peace in the post-war world, and instead should remind them of the dangers of being stuck in the past.
If a Goldfish Could Remember Milan Kundera wrote that “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions”. It seems to me that Kundera more closely describes goldfish than humans.
What’s in a Flag? My opinion on the 2015 New Zealand flag referendum; If what’s in a flag are the experiences and aspirations of millions, we shouldn’t be surprised that the first four designs we are presented with don’t quite cut it. As much as I want a new flag, I’d rather wait for the right one.