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!