Sunday, December 16, 2007

Eastern Coastal Park Connector Network

The new 42km Eastern Coastal PCN for cyclists, runners, roller bladers and walkers just opened a few days ago, so this morning Jan and I went to check out the 'scenic coastal stretch' section of the PCN . The almost 8km of road that runs parallel to the airport runway is just fantastic! Too bad I didn't bring a camera. We started at the MacDonalds at East Coast Park, cycled to Changi Point Ferry Terminal, and back. The round-trip was 37.96km according to my GPS.

I think NParks is doing good things with this cycling path thing. I still dare not cycle on the roads, so more power to those bike path builders! (Click pictures below to enlarge.)

Data taken with a Garmin Foreunner 305. Conversion to Google Earth .gpx data done with TCX converter.

Source: Sunday Times, 16 December, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Borders 30%-40% Discount Coupons

I just got an email with these discount vouchers. Go here and here to print out the vouchers. According to the terms and conditions, you can print as many copies as you want (although you need to rejoin the queue to make yourself a 'different customer with a new voucher'. You cannot photocopy the vouchers though, you need to print it. But what happens when my printer is also a photocopier?! haha...

In other news, Kinokuniya 'privilege card members' can get a 20% discount till the end of the month.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

NCDCC Officer Basic Course

I have the very good fortune of being given the job of helping another teacher start up a new student uniformed group in our school called the National Civil Defense Cadet Corps. Just like the NCC is associated with the army, the NPCC with the police, the NCDCC is affiliated to the Singapore Civil Defence Force, the home affairs agency in charge of firefighters, paramedics and the urban search and rescue folks. The three-week OBC course ended last Friday. It was too fun...

First week highlights: 1) Tying knots and lashes; the basic scouts stuff. The thing about knots is that I'm so bad at it because I'm not good at the spatial aspects of it. I can copy the steps pretty well but if I use a rope of a different colour than the one I use to practise, I tend to get lost. The other disturbing thing is that I have no idea how knots work! Why do they only work when all the steps are done exactly? My preliminary findings are that knots work using friction, and depending on the way the knots go it and snake out, the friction of one part of the knot is able to assist and reinforce another part of the loop. I'll try to figure it out eventually.

2) Foot drills. Although I was a logistics sergeant in the military, I haven't gone back for follow up training and have mostly forgotten the commands. Foot drills in Singapore are conducted in Malay because it is our national language. I do not know Malay so this online dictionary is quite useful for me to check out individual words of drill commands.

3) Firefighting at The Funace, visits to Central Fire Station and HQ SCDF. The SCDF has a training school called the Civil Defence Academy and there's a fire fighting facility called The Funace (the white building below). This building can break out into fire on command, and on each level a different scenario is simulated, such as apartments, offices, karaoke...

Here's a 4s clip (taken by our course organisers) of the karaoke lounge we went to. I think this simulates a flashover, though I'm not sure. We were told to squat because of the immense heat. I stood up to feel the 300 degrees flames, but went down quickly. The heat was intense and unrelenting. It was also very beautiful. Real firefighters have to wear their protective suits and train here for around 30 minutes. I can't imagine how they can do it. Here's a clip of the spreading fire. In the last second of the clip, I can be seen almost standing at the top left corner, contrary to others' advice... I wanted to feel the heat!

We visited the Central Fire Station, this particular one is the 'classic' fire stationjust across the street from Funan Centre. The Commander there told us that all fire stations in Singapore except the one at Jurong Island are open to the public every Saturday morning. They host lots of foreigners with their kids in tow, but unfortunately locals don't seem to know this, so he asked us to help publicise this open house. Here's a video clip of firemen sliding down the pole.

We also visited the HQ SCDF bunkered control room where emergency 995 calls are being directed to. The 'operators' seem very patient and nice, especially when lots of calls are irrelevant calls, intentional or otherwise. For non-emergencies, please call 1777.

2nd week highlights: 1) 3-day Adventure Training Camp at Camp Resilience, Pulau Ubin. One thing about going camping nowadays is how much well maintained the facilities were compared to say 15 years ago. We had keyaking on the first day, but the really fun stuff was the second day when we had to tacket the low and high ropes obstacle course. This thing about being afraid of heights is quite new to me because I never knew I had a problem with heights until a couple of years ago at Juneau, Alaska where I was walking along this road in the small town and came upon a bridge that spanned a valley with the most magnificent river gushing beneath it and huge mountains on the other side, and my knees suddenly gave away involuntarily and I wasn't able to cross the bridge. Since then, I've been interested in how this 'heights' thing works and whether I can circumvent my problem. And I more or less nailed it by reasoning how the height per se does not make the activities any more difficult. The Leap of Honour and Pamper Pole was great; I managed to jump and hold on to the trapeze bar. The trick is to start doing a pull-up the moment the hands have grabbed the bar.

2) Back at the CDA, we attended a CPR course. Now I'd done the course conducted by the Red Cross. The interesting thing about the one at CDA is that their Laerdal manikins come with a device that measures pumping rate and ventilation volume and speed. We had to repeat the procedure until we got everything right to pass the evaluation test. What this does is that fatigue and emotional stress is more sufficiently simulated, resulting in more realistic trauma on the part of the rescuer.

3rd week highlights: Breathing Apparatus maze! This was super fun (and only because we were not rescuing real people.) We had to don a mask, plus a scuba diving tank lookalike.

Thereafter, we had to go into this 'enclosed space' maze below (source); the operators can simulate the maze to be filled with smoke, raise the temperature, or create pitch black conditions.

The other highlight this week was exposure to CS tear gas! Here we were donning chemical agent suits and then led to a room where CS gas was released. The protective suits worked, and then we had to remove our masks and that's when the choking started. It was a awful burning sensation and we all had to be led out because everyone was crying and became quite disoriented. Another traumatic experience... but it was just too fun...

So that's about it. There's a firefighting course later next year; hopefully I'll have time to go for it then... ;p

Monday, December 3, 2007

What Is Good Writing? (Episode II)

Straits Times columnist Janadas Devan has written a follow up to his first article on 'good writing.' (Click here for Part 1.)

Allowing thinking through writing
By Janadas Devan

ONE can never predict the effect of any article one writes. Thus I was surprised by the number of e-mail and blog entries that a piece in this space, 'Good writing is not about sticking rigidly to fixed pattern' (Oct 29), elicited.

I had argued in that piece that the thesis-proof-conclusion model of the expository essay is not the only model of good writing. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find this model informing the writings of the great essayists of the past - from Montaigne and Bacon in the 16th and 17th centuries to Shaw, Wells, Russell, Forster, Woolf, Huxley and Orwell in the 20th. If the chief purpose of the essay form is to 'think through writing', I had suggested, this model may have little relation to how minds actually think.

A few students wrote to express their relief on reading this. 'I knew my creativity was being curbed,' said one. I replied by gently suggesting that she do as her teacher says. After all, The Sunday Times will not be marking her papers.

There were also many thoughtful responses from teachers. Some agreed with me, some didn't.

Among the former, there was this from a committed young university teacher: 'I often give my students more room for creativity than say their JC teachers would allow them. Initially, I thought this would be much appreciated, but I was wrong. They didn't quite know what to do...and repeatedly insisted: 'Can you tell us what the question is?' There was no question per se because the point of the assignment was to encourage them to form their own questions, and explore the implications and possibilities in the process of writing.'

This teacher did favour the thesis-proof-conclusion model for what she called 'critical analysis papers', but found her students unable to 'break' from it to explore questions creatively. In short, they found it hard to 'think through their writing'.

Mr Jeffrey Yen, a secondary school teacher, wrote a thoughtful piece on his blog ( on the difficulties teachers face. 'One has to recognise the usefulness of traditional writing structures; it helps most students formulate their ideas logically,' he wrote. Having a 'template' to follow helps students organise their thoughts, he argued. Though teachers should encourage their students to be creative, the 'template' makes marking examination papers easier, he pointed out.

These are all valid points. Certain realities have to be accepted: There are examinations; examiners do look out for certain things; not all students have the basics right in order to be creative in their writing. A 'template' can indeed be a useful pedagogical tool to help them organise their knowledge.

But in accepting these realities, one should also account for other facts: There is no one set model for the expository essay; there never has been. Indeed, the so-called 'traditional model' is not in the least bit traditional, for no major figure in the 400-year tradition of the essay has followed it faithfully. As one Forum writer, Mr Jason Erik Lundberg, a university teacher of English who took strong exception to my piece, acknowledged, the 'traditional model' is really a 'student' model. By all means, start our children off on bicycles with training wheels: Introductory paragraph - thesis statement; second to penultimate paragraphs - one point each to prove the thesis; concluding paragraph - hip, hip, hurrah, thesis proved! But why pretend that riding a bicycle with training wheels is the same as riding a bicycle?

I taught expository writing for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s at the college level. I found the thesis-proof-conclusion model encouraged my students to write formulaic reports. They were not encouraged to argue and think for themselves. They were encouraged to set out, display, pre-packaged information: report, not argue; disclose, not discover; regurgitate information, not 'think through their writing'. And I found that this model tended also to produce a good deal of cribbing of the authorities they had read.

So I decided to focus on their arguments: What precisely is the point you are trying to make here? How do you get from this point to that? What's the connection, the logic? What is it that you are driving at? What is at stake? It was certainly harder work than marking according to a formula. But the reward was also greater, for my students wrote more interesting essays. Sometimes they began the 'traditional' way, with a thesis statement in the first paragraph - 'the world is round'. Sometimes they began with a question - 'can the world, by any chance, be square?' And sometimes they began in medias res, in the middle of things - 'standing here, in the plain in Spain in the rain, the world appears flat'. I didn't particularly care how they began, as long as the bicycle they rode got somewhere, the route was instructive and interesting, the cyclists didn't fall off a cliff en route and the entire journey exercised their minds and mine.

Some readers wrote to me wondering if only great essayists - a Bacon, an Orwell - can 'break the rules' profitably. Firstly, there is only one rule: Argue logically. Secondly, there is no need to wait to be admitted to the Tour de France to ride a bicycle without training wheels. Consider Robert H. Frank's The Economic Naturalist: In Search Of Explanations For Everyday Enigmas. I wrote about the book three months ago. A distinguished economist, Prof Frank also teaches writing at Cornell University's Institute of Writing. He had his students find for themselves everyday economic puzzles to solve - 'Why do many bars charge patrons for water but give them peanuts for free?' for example; or 'Why does a new car costing $20,000 rent for $40 a day, while a tuxedo costing only $500 rents for $90?' - and write about them. He collected their essays in this book. Not a single piece in the collection followed the thesis-proof-conclusion formula. And yet they were all models of clarity. None among them a Bacon, the students produced useful pieces because they were allowed to think through their writing.

That is the best way to teach writing: Encourage students to think for themselves; encourage them to use their writing as a tool for thought and expression, a tool that they can use. Why would students want to learn to write well if they see no purpose in it? Insisting on the template for every occasion, for every variety of essay - way beyond the training-wheels stage - is of no aid in giving them a purpose in their writing.

Finally, let me end with a thesis statement: The purpose of 'essays' is contained in the word's etymology. The noun 'essay' derives from the Old French essai, 'trial'. Its original 16th-century meaning in English was 'an attempt, an endeavour'. The verb 'essay', meaning 'to test the quality of', 'is an alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer: this is based on late Latin exagium 'weighing', from the base of exigere 'ascertain, weigh',' as The Oxford Dictionary Of Word Histories explains.

Essay: to weigh facts; to attempt an argument; to ascertain and probe; to place thought on trial.

The template - thesis-proof-conclusion - tends to squelch the trial phase. It encourages students to jump straight to judgments without trials. It misses the point of this extraordinary invention, the essay - a trial in writing.

2 December, 2007

I haven't explicitly known that there is such a thing as 'thinking through writing', but on hindsight, I reckon I've done that numerous times when writing stuff that is not prescribed homework, i.e., writing that is done online. I'd finish a blog entry or word journal entry, and the results would be hardly what I'd expect when I started the article. Writing then becomes exploratory; a process, as they like to call it. So perhaps it makes sense for us to encourage students to write that way to improve their cognitive and reasoning abilities. Insisting that teachers 'teach to test' might not be the best idea.

Eventually, though, we'll hit the thing that most of us dislike: exams. One needs to quickly find a thesis, stick to it, and complete the essay in one and a half hours. There is not much time for exploring, so the 'template that limits creativity' does help in this regard.

I'm now thinking that this way of writing seems to be a little similar to inter-school debate competitions. In such debates, participants are forced to accept, and argue for, positions that might be totally opposed to what they personally believe in. They are given a position (either for or against, a certain point of view), say, an hour before the start of the debate, and they really have no time to ponder over the subject for an extended period of time.

The objective is to argue for its own sake, not that there's anything wrong with that. Usually that happens too I reckon too in the exam. The student quickly decides on the direction that the essay will go and jot down an outline first. There is not enough time to explore or flip-flopping over alternative positions. (Hmm... maybe for the smart and quick students, there is enough time to do these things, including considering how many words they can churn out to ensure that they have enough to write!)

So how should a student who wants to do well for an exam and yet wants to be able to explore things through writing do? If the student feels that the work done in school is too skewed towards exams, just do as much writing out of the school context as possible such as blogging (in complete sentences please, aNz dun ritee LIkee THEse!). At the same time, it's also important to be comfortable with the exam setting, which, despite it being restrictive somewhat, is itself a sort 'technical training' that has some value. Write on!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What Is Good Writing?

From time to time, the newspapers publish articles by parents who seem to be a little upset about how their kids are doing in school, particularly due to how teachers mark their homework and assignments. The following is from Straits Times columnist Janadas Devan.

Good writing is not about sticking rigidly to fixed pattern
Teachers' favourite formula of 'thesis, proof, conclusion' jumps to wrong conclusion that all essays must be written this way without exception

By Janadas Devan

MY SON returned from school the other day, distraught. An essay he had written, one which his parents had assured him was well done, had received a poor grade from his English teacher.

It lacked an introduction and a conclusion, the teacher had told him. 'You must have an introduction that sets forth your thesis,' the teacher had said. 'And you must have a conclusion that summarises how you have proven your thesis.'

Where do such theories of good writing come from? I remember some of my own school teachers, more than 40 years ago, telling me similar tales:

Introduction - tell your readers what you are going to say. Body of essay - proceed to tell your readers what you had said in your introduction you were going to tell them. Conclusion - remind your readers of all that you had said you would say and did say.

For 40 years - and for all I know, perhaps for 400 years - this model of the expository essay has been circulating in the English-speaking world, and I haven't the faintest idea where it came from.

Sir Francis Bacon? His essays often do start with a clear thesis statement: 'Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability', begins one. But they don't end by returning to the beginning: 'So every defect of mind may have a special receipt,' ends the same essay, a conclusion that is not foreshadowed by the beginning.

Bacon's 'thesis statements' are just points of departure, the first steps in the argument, not advance summaries of what is yet to unfold. He proceeds by examining that initial point - probing it, undressing it, turning it inside out - to reveal its unsuspected dimensions. As a result, by the time we get to the end, the conclusion is a total surprise. Bacon's essays are, in essence, contraptions for discovery.

But perhaps our thesis-proof-conclusion model derives from a more modern source. Bacon, after all, is 17th century. Perhaps a 20th century essayist like George Orwell is the origin of this model.

He isn't. One would be hard pressed to find a conventional 'thesis statement' in any of Orwell's pieces. Instead, he usually starts in medias res, in the middle of things, with an arresting incident, observation or fact.

'Soon after I arrived at Crossgates ... I began wetting my bed,' is how a delightful account of his boarding-school days begins.

'In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people - the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me,' is the first sentence of one of his most famous pieces, Shooting An Elephant, an account of his stint in the Imperial Police in Burma.

My favourite is the beginning of an essay on Marrakech: 'As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.'

What would I not give - what would any writer not give - for that sort of beginning? Unfortunately, one cannot give anything in particular to get that sort of thing; one has to be sensitive, observant, receptive - in a word, talented - to be gifted with something like that.

Orwell's essays usually unfold naturally from such striking observations or incidences. His pieces do not have that thesis-proof-conclusion structure that many teachers seem to think is the only possible model of expository writing. They have an argument, but the argument is in the telling. They conclude, but the conclusion is not foreshadowed in the introduction.

There are occasions, of course, when the thesis-proof-conclusion model is appropriate. If one is writing a massive report on the Singapore economy, say, it would be useful to provide what nowadays is called an 'Executive Summary' at the beginning. If one is writing a study of how Workfare is working in Singapore, say, it would indeed be useful to provide a conclusion summarising one's findings. And if one is writing up a lab report on an experiment, well, the thesis-proof-conclusion model would be perfect.

But reports and studies and lab reports are not the only kinds of writing our children may find themselves doing when they grow up.

Some may become novelists. I can't be certain about this, but I don't think a novel that begins with a thesis statement, followed by proof and concluding with a QED, has ever been written.

Some may become journalists. The best reporting always begins in medias res, for that is the nature of the news. Reporters have to learn to organise their facts, but they do not organise their facts by forcing them into the thesis-proof-conclusion model.

The point is writing is various. There is no one model of organisation to fit all its varieties. That teacher who told my son that his essay must have an introduction and a conclusion - and that these must always follow a prescribed form - did him a disservice. He was not teaching my son to think through his writing; he was telling him to merely disclose his findings, as in a lab report.

'What is writing? Simply, writing is how minds think,' writes Susan R. Horton in Thinking Through Writing, one of the most useful textbooks on expository writing that I have seen.

How does one get ideas? How does one develop them? How does one organise them? How does one think through one's writings so that one's readers can follow one's thinking? These are the skills that writing courses should try to impart to students, Horton suggests.

My son's essay, the one that got a poor grade, did have a 'thesis statement' - only, it came at the end, when he finally arrived at the point he had been working to get to from the beginning. The piece did have a conclusion - only, my son had aimed for it from the start. They were all there - thesis, proof and conclusion - but as an entirety, the essay as a whole. That is as it should be.

The teacher did not see this because he was in the grip of a model that bore little relation to how minds actually think through writing.

Straits Times/28 Oct, 2007

Here's another from the Today newspaper about an expatriate Noelle de Jesus who sends her kids to a local school:

...I also found the rather quantitative methods used in my kids' English classes highly suspect. If my daughter tried her hand at a complex sentence with modifying phrases and she made a mistake, the entire sentence was marked incorrect and points were taken off. This made her decide to stick with easy noun-verb sentences.

As for my son's compositions, they were edited subjectively. His quirky, still grammatical sentences were red-penned and in many cases, falsely labelled incorrect...

School Experiment That Failed/Today/Weekend/17 November, 2007/(Full article)
Here's another extract from one of my favourite books on writing.

As children, we learn new words at an astonishing clip. Words give us leverage: "Me go with Mommy!" Or, "Mommy stay." Children are specific and direct. They don't beat around the bush... They are filled with passion and purpose. Children trust the power of words.

If words give us power, when do we start to lose our power over words?... My guess is that for most of us school is where this sorting starts to happen. School is where we are told, "You're good with words..." The neat teacherly scrawl, diagonally written across the top right hand corner of the top page of , say, a geography report on Scandinavia, "Well written."

Well written-what does that mean? In school it usually means clear, orderly thinking. Neat enough grammar. Lots of orderly facts... Very often it does not mean words that sing off the page, innovative word combinations, paragraphs of great free associations and digressions-all the gifts a young poet or novelist might have and want to use but not find useful under the scholarly discipline of an academic paper.

What happens when writing of that kind shows up in school papers? Too frequently, it's another margin quote, this time negative: "You stray from the topic a bit here" or "Stick to the point." It is a rare teacher who takes the time and care to praise the kind of writing that doesn't fit into an academic paradigm.
It's as though scholastically we're on a pretty strict diet: "Not so much pepper here."

Not so much pepper. Not so much spunk. Not so much humanity, please. Academically we are inclined to a rather pedestrian prose denuded of personality and passion, perhaps even a bit elevated in tone as if writing is something to be done only from the loftiest of motives, a kind of distillate of rationalism trickled onto the page...

~The Right To Write, Cameron, J.
This all seems very depressing! As an English teacher and a fan of quotes supposedly by Mark Twain, I may need to change my motto to...

"Never let me get in the way of your education!"

Now this may not be all that far fetched. If my students look at the red stuff that is liberally administered on their homework and become so discouraged that they don't feel like continue learning English for the rest of their lives, it just may be reasonable for them to just stop being so affected by the teacher and stop 'letting skool get in the way of their education.'

Devan's problem is something that has interested me for a while now. He does not agree with the 'rules' of writing and the way argumentative essays are marked. I don't have access to his son's scripts so I do not know if the low scores are justified or not. We do know that he has tried to break away from the 'traditional' way of writing such essays. However, it's not clear whether the rest of the essay is bad despite, or in spite of, this.

Assuming that this person writes well, has few grammatical and collocation issues, and that his only transgression is this 'stylistic' issue of not following the usual presentation of an argumentative essay, how do teachers mark this? I guess usually I would look at it 'holistically'. If the person writes as well as Bacon, I reckon most teachers would recognise that.

I want to write a bit more about the bigger picture. It's not that simple. I think one has to recognise the usefulness for traditional writing structures; it helps most students formulate their ideas more logically, since, well, to argue about something, it helps to be a little logical. (I do recognise that Devan believes the 'wrong' way of presentation is actually the more logical way of writing. Still...) This usefulness is somewhat amplified in the examination setting which requires students to engage in very unnatural forms of writing. (Yes, to sit in a room writing an essay with no friends to speak to and no Internet or dictionary to refer and consult is quite unnatural to me. We never do this anywhere else except in school!) This can be helped by a 'template' that students follow so that they don't go out of point or incoherent within the time limit.

Besides the strange conditions placed on students, the work for teachers is also quite surreal. Hundred of scripts, and in the case of the Cambridge exams, marked by teachers who might not be aware of the local 'styles' and context of writing. The reality is that it is hard work marking so many scripts in such a short period of time. Anything that annoys the marker should be avoided as far as possible. If the person marks a hundred scripts that more or less follow the traditional 'logical' presentation, and then on occasion finds a script that does not seem at first sight to be very coherent and logical, especially if there are other issues such as grammar errors and so on, guess who the disadvantaged person is?

Now, does this mean that students should 'sell out' in exams and write the most conventional and uninspiring essays of their lives? I don't necessarily think so. However, I think that it is important to realise that getting good marks does not just involve the writing per se. It involves cultural issues, the realities and psychology of marking, the beauty of the person's handwriting and so on. If one wants to 'trailblaze', one needs to be smart going about it and to consider the practical consequences. Perhaps this 'structure' of presentation is not a big deal per se, especially if the rest of the student's work is really good. So it is up to the student to decide whether 'breaking the rules' is worth the effort. (It takes talent to be able to break the rules and get away with it at the same time!)

OK, I shall end here. This entry doesn't follow the prescribed structure of an argumentative writing because it doesn't need to. Good bye! :)

Update(!): This entry is referenced by Mr Devan in a follow-up column. Click here for more.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

375A + 2A

The full-pages of reports on 375A+2A in the newspapers yesterday were a breath of fresh air. It was not just because of the subject matter in question (which I don't have an official position on), but the impression that I got that some 'real debate' actually happened in Parliament. PM Lee summed up the proceedings...
[PM Lee] said: 'Singapore is basically a conservative society.' The social norm: 'heterosexual, stable family'. 'It's what we teach in schools, it's what parents want to see, want their children to set their expectations and encourage them to develop in this direction... And I think the vast majority of Singaporeans want to keep it this way...and so does the Government.' But Mr Lee took pains to reassure the gays that they are part of, and contributing members, of society here. 'They are our kith and kin,' he added, while citing 'growing scientific evidence' that sexual orientation is largely inborn. 'We shouldn't make it harder than it already is for them to grow up and live in a society where they are different from most Singaporeans.' Placing the status of the the gay community in context, Mr Lee noted Singapore's gradual progress towards a balance of the various interests. Today, gays work in all sectors. Gay films, clubs, websites are available. Section 375A+2A is not proactively enforced. 'I don't think we will ever get the perfect balance, but I think that we have a better arrangement now than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.' Repealing 375A+2A, he said, would not give gay activists what they want - full acceptance and more space. So 'it's better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity... I should therefore say that as a matter of reality, the more gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push-back from conservative forces in our society. So it's better to let the situation evolve gradually...'
While the outcome will disappoint some, the seemingly fascinating 'between the lines' judgment may give them the impression of 'a legal defeat but a moral victory', which is in itself quite ironic because it seems to blur the perceptions of the players in question: who seems to be the more moral/ethical party now?! What's interesting is the need to balance who is right (the person's personal opinion), to what others want to see as right (from a societal point of view). I cannot imagine so much due consideration given to more 'established' crimes . We do live in interesting times... :) More at the SG Daily.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My DNA Results Are Out! / Genographic Project

One and a half years ago, I wrote about the Genographic project, a DNA test that would tell me where my ancestors came from. We're not just talking about my great-great-great-grandfather, but my actual ancestors who lived 30,000-80,000 years ago! I finally got around to ordering the kit in August, and two months later, the results arrived. Here is what the kit includes. (Click for bigger pictures.)

The results are found online through a password protected site. Here are some additional information.

Update(!): Dr Hsien-Hsien Lei mentions my results in her blog entry, Genetic Genealogy and the Chinese.

Your Y-chromosome results identify you as a member of haplogroup O2. The genetic markers that define your ancestral history reach back roughly 60,000 years to the first common marker of all non-African men, M168, and follow your lineage to present day, ending with P31, the defining marker of haplogroup O2.

If you look at the map highlighting your ancestors' route, you will see that members of haplogroup O2 carry the following Y-chromosome markers:

M168 > M89 > M9 > M175 > P31

Your Ancestral Journey: What We Know Now

M168: Your Earliest Ancestor
Time of Emergence: Roughly 50,000 years ago
Place of Origin: Africa
Climate: Temporary retreat of Ice Age; Africa moves from drought to warmer temperatures and moister conditions
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Approximately 10,000
Tools and Skills: Stone tools; earliest evidence of art and advanced conceptual skills

Skeletal and archaeological evidence suggest that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and began moving out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world around 60,000 years ago.

The man who gave rise to the first genetic marker in your lineage probably lived in northeast Africa in the region of the Rift Valley, perhaps in present-day Ethiopia , Kenya, or Tanzania, some 31,000 to 79,000 years ago. Scientists put the most likely date for when he lived at around 50,000 years ago. His descendants became the only lineage to survive outside of Africa, making him the common ancestor of every non-African man living today.

But why would man have first ventured out of the familiar African hunting grounds and into unexplored lands? It is likely that a fluctuation in climate may have provided the impetus for your ancestors' exodus out of Africa.

The African ice age was characterized by drought rather than by cold. It was around 50,000 years ago that the ice sheets of northern Europe began to melt, introducing a period of warmer temperatures and moister climate in Africa. Parts of the inhospitable Sahara briefly became habitable. As the drought-ridden desert changed to a savanna, the animals hunted by your ancestors expanded their range and began moving through the newly emerging green corridor of grasslands. Your nomadic ancestors followed the good weather and the animals they hunted, although the exact route they followed remains to be determined.

In addition to a favorable change in climate, around this same time there was a great leap forward in modern humans' intellectual capacity. Many scientists believe that the emergence of language gave us a huge advantage over other early human species. Improved tools and weapons, the ability to plan ahead and cooperate with one another, and an increased capacity to exploit resources in ways we hadn't been able to earlier, all allowed modern humans to rapidly migrate to new territories, exploit new resources, and replace other hominids.

M89: Moving Through the Middle East
Time of Emergence: 45,000 years ago
Place: Northern Africa or the Middle East
Climate: Middle East: Semiarid grass plains
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Tens of thousands
Tools and Skills: Stone, ivory, wood tools

The next male ancestor in your ancestral lineage is the man who gave rise to M89, a marker found in 90 to 95 percent of all non-Africans. This man was born around 45,000 years ago in northern Africa or the Middle East.

The first people to leave Africa likely followed a coastal route that eventually ended in Australia. Your ancestors followed the expanding grasslands and plentiful game to the Middle East and beyond, and were part of the second great wave of migration out of Africa.

Beginning about 40,000 years ago, the climate shifted once again and became colder and more arid. Drought hit Africa and the grasslands reverted to desert, and for the next 20,000 years, the Saharan Gateway was effectively closed. With the desert impassable, your ancestors had two options: remain in the Middle East, or move on. Retreat back to the home continent was not an option.

While many of the descendants of M89 remained in the Middle East, others continued to follow the great herds of buffalo, antelope, woolly mammoths, and other game through what is now modern-day Iran to the vast steppes of Central Asia.

These semiarid grass-covered plains formed an ancient "superhighway" stretching from eastern France to Korea. Your ancestors, having migrated north out of Africa into the Middle East, then traveled both east and west along this Central Asian superhighway. A smaller group continued moving north from the Middle East to Anatolia and the Balkans, trading familiar grasslands for forests and high country.

M9: The Eurasian Clan Spreads Wide and Far
Time of Emergence: 40,000 years ago
Place: Iran or southern Central Asia
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Tens of thousands
Tools and Skills: Upper Paleolithic

Your next ancestor, a man born around 40,000 years ago in Iran or southern Central Asia, gave rise to a genetic marker known as M9, which marked a new lineage diverging from the M89 Middle Eastern Clan. His descendants, of which you are one, spent the next 30,000 years populating much of the planet.

This large lineage, known as the Eurasian Clan, dispersed gradually over thousands of years. Seasoned hunters followed the herds ever eastward, along the vast super highway of Eurasian steppe. Eventually their path was blocked by the massive mountain ranges of south Central Asia—the Hindu Kush, the Tian Shan, and the Himalayas.

The three mountain ranges meet in a region known as the "Pamir Knot," located in present-day Tajikistan. Here the tribes of hunters split into two groups. Some moved north into Central Asia, others moved south into what is now Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent.

These different migration routes through the Pamir Knot region gave rise to separate lineages.

Most people native to the Northern Hemisphere trace their roots to the Eurasian Clan. Nearly all North Americans and East Asians are descended from the man described above, as are most Europeans and many Indians.

M175: The East Asian Clan
Time of Emergence: 35,000 years ago
Place of Origin: Central or East Asia
Climate: Ice Age
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Approximately 100,000

Tools and Skills: Upper Paleolithic

Your genetic trail continues with an ancestor who carried marker M175 and was born around 35,000 years ago in Central or East Asia. This ancestor was part of the M9 Eurasian clan that, encountering impassable mountain ranges, migrated to the north and east.

These early Siberian hunters continued to travel east along the great steppes, gradually crossing southern Siberia. Some of them, perhaps taking advantage of the Dzhungarian Gap used thousands of years later by Genghis Khan to invade Central Asia, made it into present-day China.

East Asia had been home to Homo erectus for nearly a million years, but traces of occupation disappear from the archaeological record around 100,000 years ago. The earlier hominids may have abandoned the region or died off due to a steadily deteriorating climate.

By the time your ancestors arrived in China and East Asia, the Ice Age was once again advancing toward glacial maximum. Encroaching ice sheets and Central Asia's enormous mountain ranges effectively corralled them in East Asia. There they evolved in isolation over the millennia.

Today, some 80 to 90 percent of all people living east of Central Asia's great mountain ranges are members of haplogroup O, the East Asian Clan. The marker M175 is nearly nonexistent in western Asia and Europe.

There were actually two waves of migration into this region. While your ancestors populated the region from the north, another group approached from the south. Descendants of the Coastal Clan—people who left Africa perhaps 60,000 years ago and headed along the coastline toward Australia—may have reached East Asia by 50,000 years ago.

The Coastal lineage is found at a frequency of 50 percent in Mongolia, and is common throughout northeast Asia.

The present composition of East Asia still shows evidence of this ancient north-south divide, showing a clear distinction in genetic heritage between northern and southern Chinese.

Time of Emergence: Roughly 30,000 years ago
Place of Origin: East Asia
Climate: Ice Age
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Approximately 100,000
Tools and Skills: Middle Upper Paleolithic

Roughly 30,000 years ago, one of your ancestors first displayed the genetic marker P31, which now defines your haplogroup O2. This man lived in eastern Asia, perhaps in southern China, and his descendents spread south into Southeast Asia, east to Korea, and north to Japan.

This distinctly Asian haplogroup he sired is most common today in Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Thailand.

This is where your genetic trail, as we know it today, ends. However, be sure to revisit these pages. As additional data are collected and analyzed, more will be learned about your place in the history of the men and women who first populated the Earth. We will be updating these stories throughout the life of the project.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Credit Card Annual Fees / UOB Visa Infinity

I like to apply for credit cards whenever I can. The idea is to apply as many as possible, and then only use one card the whole time to accumulate the loyalty points. Some friends tell me, however, that that is a bad idea because they will then spend a lot of money if they have many credit cards. I don't have this problem because I don't see how having many credit cards is related to the amount of money I spend shopping. Anyway, from what I've seen so far, DBS's Esso card is good for petrol discounts, Citibank's is good for dining discounts, HSBS' is useful for reducing the price of a movie ticket by $1, Standard Chartered's is nice for taking off 15% off the Singapore Marathon fees, and UOB's is good for a 13% discount on vPost shipping charges. There is just no excuse whatsoever not to apply as many cards as possible to take advantage of all possible discounts. (Actually the way I see it, these are not really 'discounts'; it's just that those who don't take advantage of such things are 'paying extra'.) Now, the above will only make sense if you don't pay the annual fees. The banks usually waive the annual fee charges for one or two years. In the third year, people either ask for a waiver by calling customer service, or they cancel the card. There is just no reason to pay any annual fees unless one really likes the credit card in question and refuses to part with it. So this past week, I received yet another nice invitation to apply for this UOB Infinite card. The application package is very pretty, and I feel the card seems suitable for me as I, too, 'appreciate the finer things in life', particularly if they're not too expensive. (Click below for bigger pictures.) Here are the usual 'privileges'. The one about 'on the house dining at Hyatt' looks interesting... (Could I just waltz in and get free food?!) So I took out my pen to fill in the application form, and my eyes nearly popped out! The income requirement is SGD$350,000 per annum. I don't even earn 10% of that. But that's OK. There are many people who earn that amount, and they should go ahead and apply. But look at the next line. The annual fee is S1500! Which astute rich person in his or her right mind would be willing to pay anything, let alone $1500, just for the annual fee?! Then again, it's understood that a phone call can quickly write off that fee, so everything will be fine eventually. If you appreciate the finer things in life and want to apply, just reply below, and I will send the form to you. ;p

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

American Generosity: Borders Bookstore / Starbucks Coffee

Of the many bookstores in Singapore, perhaps only one has a significant number of chairs and sofas for folks to sit and read. This would be Borders bookstore, the subject of today's somewhat exaggerated theme: American generosity.

Borders was something of an anomaly when it opened its first and only store in Singapore some years ago. Sofas and chairs were provided so that people could sit and read for an extended period of time. Management refused to shrink wrap books, despite the risk to the bottom line if folks chose not to buy books and just come in a couple of times to finish them, which was exactly what I regularly did.

I believe this was an extraordinary development in the idea of a business affecting the cultural landscape of a place, It was also a very nice demonstration of the stereotypical generosity of an American chain, particularly with what happened next. At first, Singaporeans and others did not know how to respond. Actually, they responded quite poorly. People mistreated the books; they didn't know how to react to the possibility of browsing books for free. At the end of the day (it still closes at midnight on some days), the place looked like a war zone, especially in the kids' section. Generosity prevailed; management probably just wrote off the badly damaged books, tidied up the place and opened the doors the next day. Things have probably improved a little nowadays, fortunately. It often still looks more like a library than a bookstore, which I think is a very good thing. I've sent nights reading books that I'd otherwise had to spend hundreds of dollars on.

One night, I stood around and read a book on Starbucks, which is the second subject in my theme on generosity. Starbucks Coffee is an interesting place to study. It's associated with American hegemony and a usual target for WTO protesters. However, from personal experience, it's also one of the few places that I really like to visit. I realised intuitively that coffee, or the Frappuccinos, while excellent in their own right, didn't represent what Starbucks was all about. What intrigued me, after my first visit to Singapore's first Starbucks at Liat Tower with a Mocha Frappuccino, was that things were done differently here that did not make sense at first.

For example, consider the large sofas at each location. For a long time, I didn't understand the rationale for this. To have big chairs presents at least two problems. 1) It takes up space that might be better utilised if smaller chairs are provided instead. 2) It encourages people to hang around, thus reducing 'turnaround' and reducing revenue.

The book talks about the reasons for this. Starbucks aims to be 'the third place' (after the 'home' and 'place of work'). It's where people would be welcomed, and that means allowing them to sit and relax and 'form communities'. The book also mentions that in Starbucks, people do not get 'chased away' when they have finished their drinks. Even if one 'has only a drop of coffee' in the mug, they can stay for as long as they like. This resembles my own experience; staff never ask a customer to vacate the premises when the drinks have been consumed. This generosity has to be considered in light of new customers being turned away when the place is crowed; this is pretty common at some popular locations. Sometimes the service gets extraordinary. Another time at a crowded branch, I managed to find a seat, and put my bag on the floor. A staff came by and offered me another chair, not for my legs, but for my bag! Again, this makes no economic sense. An extra seat could have brought in another customer instead. Things are done differently here. A customer in the book said that the Starbucks concept would still work even if they stopped selling coffee and just charged people some money for them to come into the stores and relax. (I know I would pay.) This is pretty remarkable; again, it's the sense of community, and a place to relax, and not the coffee, per se.

Borders and Starbucks thus share one thing that I particularly like. The staff tend to treat people nicely, and without too much fuss, even if the business decisions they make have the possible effect of lowering sales. The service culture is also quite different; at Starbucks, it is not unusual for folks to have a decent chat while ordering (the barista would discuss the options), or while waiting for the drink. I'm not sure how much training is involved to achieve this, as it's quite difficult to train folks to be 'human' I think. It might just be that the interview process is skewed to hiring people who consistently are able to connect with customers.

I'm typing this entry at Starbucks, and observing the counter staff. Tonight's staff provide consistently good service; they smile at customers, and look into their eyes for a longer than usual time. Essentially, they seem to be genuinely interested in the customer. Since every counter staff is a pleasant female, I also have no problems conducting my field study. In almost every transaction, there is extended conversation and communication, and none of it seemed forced, nor a chore to them. Maybe it's just because they are really enjoying their work. Or it could just be another factor at work: American generosity.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Please Read The Fine Print

I've just received an unsolicited ATM card from Standard Chartered Bank. The thing is that I don't have money deposited in my Standared Chartered account (I only have their credit card). So if I withdraw money using this card, this might be considered to be a 'cash advance', liable to a service charge of $5 or more. However, I cannot be sure of the exact charges apart from calling them up and asking because the fine print is so difficult to read! (Click for bigger pictures.)

I held the camera centimetres away from the coin to take the picture below. About 16 lines of text fit the diameter of the coin! While I can read the Terms and Conditions, it gets really tiring. And I haven't found the section that describes the service charges yet as there are no obvious headings that highlight where I should be reading...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Stunning Nikon / Picturetown

I've been thinking of getting an SLR camera for a while now, and have narrowed my choices down to the D40 and the D80. The D40 is generally regarded as something for beginners as it seems to have poorer image capabilities, but from most serious reviews I've read, it seems that the D40 doesn't lose out in image qualities, only in certain features that might be quite irrelevant to me such as the inability to use older lens and the absence of some user interface features.

Anyway, I was aimlessly surfing the camera sites last night when I came across a new website for the Nikon D40 unveiled last month called Picturetown. 200 people from Geogetown, South Carolina were given free cameras (that each cost around S$1000 retail), and asked to take pictures of their neighbourhood, loved ones, whatever. The general idea was that anyone could take good pictures, if given a good camera (such as the D40). I thought the website was stunningly beautiful; the marketing concept, the stories from the participants, and the photos they took (300 are downloadable).

Naturally, some photographers don't really buy the idea of this campaign (e.g. comment at here, 2nd comment here, here) It's the photographer behind the camera who has the skill to pull off great pictures, not just the quality of the equipment! If this continues, then the masses will have access to the DSLRs, they will think they can then take great pictures, and what would become of real professionals like us?!

So some find the pictures 'totally mediocre'. Others, like me, really liked the whole project. I don't believe in either end of the spectrum. If one really has a terrible camera, even the most professional photographer might have problems. If one has a $20000 camera, it's still highly possible to screw things up by not being a reasonably good photographer in the first place.

The more interesting thing for me was this. I didn't think the photographs were mediocre at all, to the extent that I began doubting at first whether these 200 folks were really amateurs or really quite knowledgeable people that were brought in to shoot pictures for this Nikon website. I later found out that 200 folks were point-and-shoot amateurs who answered a casting call for this Nikon marketing campaign. So, what was it that made the difference? Did the D40 really have such a significant effect on the outcome?

I think the answer is partly yes, since the D40 was supposedly designed to enable folks to take reasonably nice pictures out of the box. (And the answer would be 'no' for those who didn't think the pictures were all that great.) I'm thinking along the lines of another possibility, and it's the context in which these photographs were taken. If one looks at the 'making of' movie at the Picturetown website, everyone was really having fun. (And who wouldn't be if they were given free DSLR cameras?!) A huge sense of community had formed in the beginning, I'd suspect. All these things come together to make great photographs. These photographs might not have the 'technical' brilliance of the professionals, but I dare say they are full of heart. And that's enough for me.

Now, when is Nikon Singapore going to give out 200 cameras for us folks to take great pictures too?! ;p

Related posts: here, here, here.

Friday, June 22, 2007

My New File Tray

Here's my new file tray I just bought from Popular bookstore. They're having a promotion; two for $14. But I didn't buy it because of the price, but for another cool reason. Can you know why?! :p (Hint: click on the picture below.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

BBQ / Second Life

My classmates were at my place yesterday for BBQ. Limin found an interesting caterer who provided almost everything as well as a big pit to put the charcoal in. Sabrina started the fire, and cooked for most of the night. She's very good at it. There were many small cockroaches that appeared from the crevices of the pit, but they were progressively killed by the heat.

Summer says 'hi!', with Limin, Sabrina, Rhizome, Yong 'yuan4 mei4' Li

Andre on the 'crazy horse'.

My social studies tutor Kenneth asked me a couple of days ago to help him build a 'learning space' in Second Life, the online virtual world. I've installed and uninstalled Second Life from my computer many times over the past few years, not due to any substantiative technical reasons, but for more pressing psychological and physiological ones: I get a headache/nauseous everytime I play SL. This fascinates me somewhat, for I've experienced this in other 'first person shooter' games before, but I've always managed to 'train myself' and had 'less dizziness' eventually. I'm trying to do the same with SL, and so will start learning the in and outs of the game, which holds great potential for learning, if kids have access to the resources.

So I wanted to see if others have the same physiological responses. Andre and Matilda (a Sims 2 veteran) tried it for the first time. They didn't get nauseous. Andre used my avatar and teleported to a really cool bar that continually streamed 80s music, and asked for a dance from a lady there (who didn't wear much); she was a little busy at that time to entertain him. I think for a while they felt like they were in the bar, the illusion worked to a certain extent. Andre said he would install the program in his laptop. Maybe he'll get more success with the girls next time, but what would his real life girlfriend (behind him) think about that? That's one of the fun things about the virtual world; ethical issues tend to appear rather quickly!

Anyway, if anyone has perspectives/solutions to dizziness, I'd love to hear them! ;p

My crazy classmates Sabrina, Billy, Andre, Matilda

Sunday, June 3, 2007

National Runway Cycling 2007

I wasn't aware that there was such a thing called Runway Cycling until last week, just days after I got the new road bike. It turns out that this is something that the Air Force organises every year. I'd not ridden a 45km 'endurance route' at one go before, so I worried that I might come in last or something. Still, cycling on an airport runway is probably one of the top 10 things I want to do before I die, so yeah...

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, the winds were just right. So now I know what's good about a road bike. I hadn't been training, but the 45km seemed relatively easy. (I wasn't really racing hard or anything.) I don't believe I can finish the route reasonably refreshed if I were to use the mountain bike I had earlier. Pedal, pedal... At the start, it was very crowded with thousands at the waiting line. But it got progressively less crowded, and that's when you become one with the runway, especially the white lane strips/centreline, which was just huge. Each loop below was 15km. Participants had to do the loop three times...

Distance covered reported by Garmin Forerunner 305: 43.99km (.gpx obtained with this TCX convertor.)
Distance covered reported by Cateye computer: 43.98km

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Pedal Ubin

I was at Pulau Ubin today with Chin and Yuhui for Pedal Ubin; my second Ubin trip in as many months. The tour was nice. It's one thing to cycle all around the island, it's quite another to cycle, stop and have interesting tidbits about the wildlife, trees, plants, flowers and so on explained to you by the guides.

We travelled on the left side of the island. After the tour ended, I continued north to look at the campsites at the beach as I'm thinking of doing some camping here soon...

GPS tracks obtained with the GPSMAP 60CSx

Monday, May 28, 2007

My New Car / Trek 1000

The most inspiring cycling ad of all time! Higher resolution video here

When I was in Perth, I thought that it would be good to learn a new sport, so I picked up cycling and cycled almost everyday to school along a bike path that stretched for 7km. I didn't really have a top-of-the-line bike, just a mountain bike that I subsequently fitted with slick wheels and helped me travel more than 5500km over a few years.

I'm generally not very good at sports, because I think I have a hand-eye coordination problem if I do things like kick a football (I tend to miss) or try to receive a fast moving tennis ball (I duck.) So that leaves me with 'easier' sports like running, or cycling (which doesn't involve much; I just sit on a chair and do circular motions with my legs.) But cycling, to me at least, has a much higher return on investment. It's one of the more simpler sports that gives me great pleasure. To feel alive, for one thing. To enjoy the scenery. To have a sea gull fly in the same direction, and just floating on an air thermal meters away from me. To be attacked by a crazy bird. To have the wind push me. To Live Strong.

So I hadn't been cycling for a while, and thought that I should pick it up again. I also wanted to get a road bike this time because it's much more efficient. I narrowed down my choices to a Trek and a Giant. I wasn't really comfortable with the service I got from a Giant dealership, was too lazy to find a better dealer, so went for the former. The Trek dealer in Singapore, called Treknology, seems to have a good standard of service; the folks are not condescending to newbie buyers, willing to chat and explore options, patiently help the customers test drive, and generally are just nice. Their store in town has been renovated and it's lovely, but their other branch at Holland Grove is where I think is the better location to do test drives. There's a quaint 'car park in a garden' right in front of the store to do this.

So this is the new 2007 Trek 1000, and it costs SGD1100 without accessories and the clipless pedals that I added. Happy cycling!

Background reading: Where was my bike made? Trek History.

Dashboard: Light and Odometer/Speedometer/Cadence

Lance Armstrong is not only a great cyclist, but an instruction manual writer too.

Friday, May 18, 2007 Calling / ICT

I just received the latest parcel from The SingPost Speedpost guy carried the small box inside this huge USPS bag. I asked could I have it? He said sure! So cool... I like postmen stuff... ;)
Rod Machado's beginner's pilot bible was so thick and heavy. If I could name a few teachers who inspire me, Rod would certainly be one. (Another would be physicist Dick Feynman). These two folks are funny guys and they just love learning and evangelising their subject matter. Rod, whose flight lessons are found in many editions of Microsoft Flight Sim, explains the most complex concepts in ways that make people want to learn. Here's an interesting video from him. The other book i got was MS Flight Sim As A Training Aid. I felt it's time to get a little more serious with my computer flying.

The second book is essentially an ICT book, how to make the best use of a computer 'game' to do realistic flight training. When I'm not flying, my other hobby also involves doing ICT for long periods of time each day. (ICT generally refers to using technology to help folks learn better.) But recently, halfway into my internship doing 'reading, 'righting and 'rithmatic ICT, I actually dumped PowerPoint, and reverted to drawing words on the white board. (Technically, PowerPoint isn't necessarily ICT, but still...) Bill Gates phoned me the other day and asked me how come I wasn't using Microsoft PowerPoint anymore, and I told him, 'I'm not sure, I believe I got bored. My kids all walked out of their classroom.' OK, I made up the last part.

Anyway, Heavenly Sword has an article on just this issue. I've seen ICT work wonders when the stars align, it just blows my mind. I've also seen it not work, like in my own practice; not all the time, but sometimes. The problem is two-fold (well, maybe more than two), the lack of resources for every learner, and the pedagogy that the ICT designer employs into the learning package. If the killer app isn't present, then it doesn't make sense to do the ICT in the first place.

I bought Microsoft FSX many months after it was released. Yesterday, the new Service Pack was released, improving performance greatly. I'm not sure it's legal to do this flightplan over New York. Maybe Rod has something to say about that...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

R & R

So I'm back in Teacher's College for some R&R. Teaching Practice was fun; I had excellent mentors who were quite enlightened and progressive, so I had a really good time. Still, it's nice to come back to HQ for some paper strategising before going back to the 'real world' along the front lines.

I'm going back to this school for the third time next month, the brick-colour structure in the middle. The greenery around the place is quite wonderful. It's rare to find significant plots of secondary forests right next to residential areas. I'm not sure how long it will last though. Singapore has perhaps one of the world's boldest plans for population growth, to the tune of a 44% increase in the next 20 years. As more people come to live here, something has to give...

Friday, April 13, 2007

This is MADNESS!

"IN THE climactic scene of the movie, 300, Persian emperor Xerxes was laying siege on the Spartans. He offered the Spartan king Leonidas a deal to save his people from almost certain death. In return for his subservience, Xerxes offered to make him ruler of all Greece, and shower him with loads of money and glory. Leonidas rejected the deal and was killed.

After the movie, I asked a friend what she thought I would do if I were in the same situation as Leonidas. She said: 'You will take the deal. You are not Spartan, you are Singaporean.'

It was hard to disagree with her. Money, power and glory versus death, albeit in honour? It's almost a no-brainer. I am Singaporean and staying alive with all the trappings of a good life is the practical, if not the most distinguished, choice. I don't think I am any different from my peers. Singaporeans, especially the post-65ers, have by and large bought into the pragmatic ideology of the People's Action Party Government, with a strong emphasis on economic development - in both the public and private spheres. Or as Professor Simon Tay wrote in these pages last week, this is a society that puts 'rational calculation' first... As a people, we have subscribed, celebrated and enjoyed an ethos of pragmatism, often marked by vulgar consumerism.

After all, most of us buy into the Singapore Dream that is a naked pursuit of the Five Cs of cash, credit card, car, condominium and country club....So if we Singaporeans define success by money, we must also accept the idea that good work should be rewarded with good money... If Singaporeans are unhappy with the increase in ministerial pay, they would do little good to lament and complain. Truth is, this issue of ministerial pay will never go away as long as we are a nation where practicality overwhelms passion. The more important question to ask is: Is it time to rethink how we define our meaning of life? Otherwise, as Cassius said in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"
~Peh Shing Huei, 'Why Old Guard ideals no longer apply', in the column Insight: The Post-65ers, Straits Times

So naturally, the newspaper has churned out more interesting stories today, but this one for me is especially worrisome. Peh seems to be taking the general ideas of 'rationality', 'must get high pay before people would serve', 'pragmatic ideology of the Action Party' and extrapolate it to excuse acts of treason. No-brainer, it seems. I can imagine military commanders reading this piece shaking their heads, and wondering, 'is it really so easy to buy over this group of 'post 65ers' whom Peh claims share his sentiments?'

I think there are a few things that are not quite right with this article. There are too many stereotyping and sweeping statements about our value system, for a start. Also, in the movie, the offer to surrender is offered to Leonidas (the angry guy depicted in the picture above) near the beginning of the story. Of course he refuses due to admirable sentiments, and thereafter his 300 professional soldiers manage to slaughter at least 100,000 invading Persians soldiers according to the historian Herodotus and modern scholars. If we were to say that we would surrender then for 'rational' reasons (i.e., for money) before the battle even starts, then it'll be no different from what the everyday traitor does.

The point is that this analogy about surrendering in the most awful of circumstances doesn't really have much to do with the debate of salaries in Parliament. Sure, I'd agree with Peh that I probably would break under torture. But 'practicality' in more peaceful times (when the offer of surrender is presented) is very different from the sort of 'do or die' scenario depicted in the movie's last scene. The latter should be treated separately and not to be tied to our analysis.

In Leonidas' case, money and power has long been offered to him even before this last scene. It actually happens in the 'madness' scene which starts the movie off, described below. To say that it is 'rational' to betray Sparta for Persian money is, in my opinion, high treason. This is what happened to the other government official in the movie who actually receives money from the Persians (even though he seems to have no pockets to hold the coins) to facilitate capitulation, and is discovered later. The Spartans call him a traitor, and rightly so. Let us not so flippantly excuse traitorous behaviour with 'practicality overwhelming passion', 'meaning of life is 5Cs' etc. (Anyway, aren't the 5Cs supposed to be outdated already?) I may be wrong about what Peh is trying to say, though. It just seems to me that he's saying this thing called 'practicality' is so strong that it can 'buy over' things very easily. I really don't think that's the case at all. Because if this were true, in matters of national security, we'd all be in quite a bit of trouble... And to that sort of thinking and behaviour, Leonidas would probably have said, 'This is MADNESS!!' :p

Context of original 'madness' quote [Source]:
Persian messenger: All the God-King Xerxes requires is this: a simple offering of earth and water. A token of Sparta's submission to the will of Xerxes.
Leonidas: Submission...Well that's a bit of a problem. See rumor has it that the ATHENIANS have already turned you down. And if those philosophers and boy-lovers have that kind of nerve...
Theron: We must be diplomatic.
Leonidas: And of course Spartans...have their reputation to consider.
Persian messenger: Choose your next words carefully, Leonidas. They may be your last as king.
[Leonidas draws his sword and points it towards the Persian messenger, whose back is to a large, deep well]
Persian messenger: Madman! You're a madman!
Leonidas: Earth and'll find plenty of both down there.
Persian messenger: No man -- Persian or Greek -- no man threatens a messenger!
Leonidas: You bring the crowns and heads of conquered kings to my city's steps. You insult my queen. You threaten my people with slavery and death! Oh, I've chosen my words carefully, Persian. Perhaps you should have done the same!
Persian messenger: This is blasphemy! This is madness!
Leonidas: [He looks at Gorgo, who nods to him] Madness? THIS IS SPARTA!!. [kicks the messenger down the well]