Sunday, May 31, 2009

Courage in the face of June 4

My very very good friend, A, said, “As intellectuals, shouldn’t we have the courage to stand up for our beliefs?” I couldn’t agree more. She was referring to something else when she made the statement. But I believe the statement applies also to our attitude towards June 4, 1989. And it is true not only of intellectuals, but all human beings.

Twenty years ago, a terrible crime was committed against a large number of essentially peaceful protesters, many of whom were students, in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Most people who have access to the information had made that assessment at the time, attested by newspapers, marches, personal actions, statements, and the like.

Gradually, however, many people change their stands, because of interests in business, power, status, security, and other considerations. That’s a common human weakness. And it is precisely because this weakness is all too common, that the courage to stand up for our beliefs is so precious.

Some may consider it to be quixote, to insist on righting a wrong committed 20 years ago, by an overwhelming and resolute power. But perhaps we human beings are human because we are not always so calculating and pragmatic? That we are willing to make sacrifices for what we believe in?

I am going to attend the candlelight vigil with my wife. My daughter, who was born after 1989, is attending with her friends. My friend A is going. My friend G is going with her friends. My former student C is coming back from Singapore to attend. I have many more friends who will be there. ... Let us all stand up and be counted this June 4.

This photo was taken in 2007. Will you be in this year’s photo?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Two ranters, thousands of miles apart

This man was sitting on a bench outside the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Chile in Santiago, Chile. I was too far away to hear what he was saying. It was a cool, sunny day; and most people around seemed contented, even happy. But he was obviously in a foul mood.

He reminded me of this regular at the Hung Hom East Rail train station in Hong Kong. He, too, often ranted to no one in particular. I could not quite make out what he was saying. Just that he was angry at someone for some offence. People tried to stay away from him, in the crowded station.

Both men seemed to have, sadly, lost pieces of their minds. They seemed to have lost touch with reality, and were imagining things, people, events that did not exist, or at least were no longer there.

To some extent, that happens to a lot of people, whose perception of the people and events around them seemed to have been warped. Most do not suffer as seriously as these two men, but the affliction seems similar in this respect. They are imaging injuries, insults and conspiracies where none might be intended. Such behaviour often seems associated with isolation, although I cannot be sure which is the cause and which is the effect. Perhaps a bit of both - a positive feedback cycle. In control theory, a negative feedback cycle generally tend to be stable, but a positive feedback often spins out of control.

It is scary.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Hong Kong Girl in Germany

K was a student in a respectable secondary school in Shatin. Her academic results were good, although not truly exceptional. What was remarkable was her determination to learn English. By the time she graduated from secondary school she spoke fluently although there were still mistakes.

She was admitted into a program in a university in Hong Kong. Her grades were good, although not really top of the class. However, she impressed her professors not only with her fluent English, but also with her outgoing character, drive to improve herself, and curiosity. She would often engage her professors in discussing future careers, foreign places, and a variety of topics.

When her university started to offer opportunities to work as interns at overseas countries, many of her classmates hesitated. Some did not have good-enough grades. Most have not been overseas and were afraid to leave their families for an entended length of time. Some were afraid that, after deducting the expenses from the salary, they may not be able to save as much money as being an intern at a local company. But K jumped at the chance. She figured that the experience of working and living overseas would outweigh any disadvantages.

She ended up working as an intern at a company in the United Kingdom. She came back with much-improved English, of course. She also met a cute German boy over there.

K finished her bachelor’s degree and immediately went to Germany. She had to study German for a year before she could study for a master’s degree. A couple of years ago, she got her master’s degree and married her German boyfriend. Now they are living and working happily in Germany.

She was one of my favourite students.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lively Students

I stayed behind after Sunday service yesterday to help two other girls with their studies. This time it was Geography, and debate!

The Geography material was a bit dense for Form 1. It was on Globalization: the attractions of South China, full factors, push factors, lax environmental control policies, low labor and land costs, measures to attract investment, reduction of taxes, energy prices, cross-border and cross-continent movements of labor, lost of manufacturing jobs in developed countries, different types of industry, production lines, etc. I am reasonably familiar with the issues and was able to give them concrete illustrations. But I don’t know how much a 13 year old can really understand.

However, the girls’ attentiveness, eagerness to learn, and joy of understanding were palpable. The whole experience was so rewarding, even intoxicating. Teaching students who appreciate their teacher is really enjoyable. It makes you forget, for a moment, the annoying, even painful side of being a teacher.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Boy

As I was approaching the glass doors of our building from the inside, I saw a fat boy and his mother approaching the glass doors from the outside. I got there quite a bit ahead of them, pushed open the door, and was almost through the door, when the boy rushed through the door, bumped into me, and pushed me against the glass door.

I was slightly stunned, turned, and tried to find out why the boy was in such a rush. There were no apparent reasons that I could discern. He simply stood there waiting for the elevators. The mother did apologize to me when she walked past. But she did not rebuke the boy.

I don't think the boy's lack of manners can be blamed on the education system, as bad as it is. It is we parents who bring up kids this way.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Liberal Studies (通識科) - Hong Kong Style

It is now a well-known story. A popular writer (Tao Jie, 陶傑) was asked to tackle a Liberal Studies examination. His answers, identity hidden, was judged by teachers, presumably experts in the subject, to have failed. The cases was reported in the following news report.

One of the questions concerns a speech made by the prime minister of China, Wen Jiaobao, on low-pollution economic development. Tao made some comments on the feasibility based on the political situation in China. The answer was judged by one of the marking teachers to be out of scope, because it was too political, ... But the speech itself was obviously political. What did they expect the students to do? It was said that there were no prescribed answers, and that any reasonable answer should be acceptable. It was obviously not the case.

The way the questions are set, and the way the marking is done, do not inspire a lot of confidence in the subject as a test of the students’ abilities.

The whole episode is more than just a laughing matter. Liberal Studies is one of the four compulsory subjects in the 334 system. Thus it is a significant component of the basis on which entrance into university is determined. However, the syllabus of the subject is so broad, and the teachers are so used to marking according to prescribed answers, that makes the teaching and testing of the subject very problematic. There is still a long way to go in reforming the education system in Hong Kong.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Three Students

I have been helping a group of form three students with mathematics on Sundays after church. They are all of the same age, in the same class in a reputable school in Shatin.

One of them does not say much, works quietly by herself, and normally solves the problem with minimal help from me. The second one talks a bit more, has not spent much time with the material, but tries hard and catches on fairly quickly. The third one, however, simply sits and watches the other two. I had to make her take out her pen to try to solve the problems herself. Even then, she often gets stuck after writing down the hints and suggestions that I give her. They are all very sweet and well-behaved. I vowed to do my best to help them change the way they learn, and to appreciate the joy of learning.

However, they are in form 3 already. If they persist their attitudes towards learning (which is quite likely), I can foresee very different pathways for them. One is going to enter and do well in a university of her choice. The second one may scrape into a university but will always struggle. The third one will find it hard to enter a university.

They are in the same class, taught by the same teachers in the same school, and they seem to be good friends with each other. So they have been nurtured in more or less the same way. Why do they develop such vastly different attitudes to learning? Is it because of some innate ability or temperament, or family differences?

A young person’s mind has huge potential. It is such a great waste to leave so many of them untapped. But we are in control of our own destiny. It is never too late to change.

Chicken ala Carte

My cousin S sent me this link

It is a short movie, only 6 minutes long. But it breaks your heart, and makes you look at life in a different way. There is so much suffering in the world. Some of them thousands of miles away. But much of them just around the corner, or even right in our faces. What are we going to do about them?

If the link does not work, just google "chicken ala carte". You will surely find it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Xian church

It was raining cats and dogs on the Saturday afternoon when I was in Xian, so I ducked into a church near the main street for a bit of shelter as well as quietness. This church was usually packed on Sunday evenings, when I normally visited after my classes, if I didn’t fly back to Hong Kong immediately.

The benches piled up outside the sanctuary testifies to the size of the crowds that can pile up on busy Sundays. I heard that there are two services on Sunday morning, and one in the evening, all packed. More than once, I had to listen to the sermon siting on one of those benches outside the sanctuary.

On this Saturday, however, there were no services scheduled for the evening. When I arrived at around 6 PM, the sanctuary was completely dark, and almost totally deserted. After my eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness, however, I found that there were several old ladies praying there. The one sitting next to me actually started to hum a tune that I was familiar with - not the words, however. After a couple of minutes, I found myself humming along! It was a rather eerily strange, but not uncomfortable feeling. We didn’t know each other, never talked to each other, and in fact could hardly communicate with each other, yet we felt comfortable singing together. Another few more minutes later, however, we were interrupted. The care-taker announced that he was locking up the doors.

As I stood in the rain outside the door, contemplating where I should go, a young lady looking like a university student tried to enter the church, ... There is another story that I have to tell some other time.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Darwin’s theory the only truth?

The new biology curriculum for secondary schools has a clause which says “In addition to Darwin’s theory, students are encouraged to explore other explanations for evolution and the origins of life, to help illustrate the dynamic nature of scientific knowledge”. It sounds reasonable and should encourage teachers and students to exercise more critical thinking.

Unfortunately, some people seem to think that Darwinian theory is the only possible explanation of the diversity and origins of life. They are now asking the government to impose restrictive guidelines such that only Darwinian evolution should be taught in schools.

My understanding is that Darwin-style explanations on small-scale genetic variations (such as within a species), is well established and accepted by the scientific community. But Darwin-style explanations of large-scale evolution remains incomplete and controversial. In some Biology textbooks, the authors basically say that life must have arisen on Earth naturally. If not, than it must have come from outer space. That does not sound very convincing (nor scientific) to me.

Alternative explanations to Darwinian evolution on large scales should thus be explored on rational and empirical grounds.

A supporter of the more liberal guidelines says ‘Good education is not just a matter of learning facts, but also includes the process of learning to think through issues critically. To encourage students “to explore other explanations” is to open up a forum in the science class to do just this. Indeed it is part of the essence of science, which students are taught, to allow different hypotheses to be placed for critical examination against available data.’ I agree.

It is rather ironic that human knowledge has advanced tremendously in the past several hundred years because of scientists’ willingness and indeed, courage, in examining and challenging the mainstream ideas of the day. Had teachers and students been forbidden to examine alternative theories and explanations, we would not have a chance of learning from Darwin in the first place.

Note: This electric eel is a good reminder of the weirdness and diversity of life.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ten thousand hours

One of the major premises of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is that “the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours” of practice.

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson studied violinists at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music, as well as amateur and professional pianists. Their research suggests that “once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.” The people at the very top don’t just work harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

According to the neurologist Daniel Levitin, “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, ..., this number comes up again and again.”

Examples of famous people whose success can be said to conform to the rule include at least Mozart, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems), Bill Gates, and The Beatles. I personally know of at least one amazingly good programmer who has been programming for at least 10,000 hours.

If there is no substitute for hard work even for geniuses, what does that say for us mere mortals?

Complaints, complaints, complaints

On the flight from Xian back to Hong Kong, I sat in the aisle seat, next to a man and a woman in the window seat. The man didn’t say much, but what he said lodged in my mind.

Just before the plane’s door closed, he complained angrily to a hostess and demanded to know why the plane was delayed for the sake of a passenger. The hostess explained, politely and apologetically, that the passenger in question was probably delayed because of a problem with documents. But the man wasn’t satisfied and kept on grumbling. At that point, actually, it was still a few minutes before the scheduled departure time of 7:45 pm; and the plane started to move around 7:50 pm.

The second time the man spoke was when dinner was served. The man complained audibly but seemingly no one in particular, that the salad was hard to eat because there were no salad dressing.

The third time, he did not actually spoke. But he made a lot of annoying noises because he ate with his mouth open. I have to confess that I did that a lot before; and my family complained. Since I started trying to eat more quietly I have become more aware how annoying it is to eat noisily.

When dinner was finished, he started complaining that the hostesses did not take the trays away quickly enough - even though he wondered aloud himself that some people may not have finished dinner! We were seating in the front, and it could take a while for the whole plane to be served dinner.

Then he complained that he had to fill in the health form for his companion.

It was about two hours into the flight at that time, but the two of them had not yet talked to each other. Neither did the man look at the woman.

The episode reminded me, rather vividly, how annoying it is to be in the close proximity of someone with such a negative attitude to life. I renewed my resolution to try not to live my life that way. I may or may not succeed but I will try. Perhaps my friends (and family) can remind me of my resolution when I fail (but gently, please :-).

Note: In the photo, sunlight was reflected brilliantly from the river, washing out all other colors. The white spot to the right of center was not dirt on the camera lens. It was actually the sun reflected by a thinning cloud below the airplane. The reflection was dying as I took the photo; seconds later it disappeared completely. Life itself is fleeting; I am learning to grab the opportunity as it presents itself.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

World Map Doodle

On Sunday morning, while I was invigilating an examination in Xian, I started doodling on the white board. It was not very accurate. But it was done purely from memory, in about 5 minutes. My friends, who know of my fascination with maps, would not be too surprised that I would do that.

Inside Xian (西安) doorways

I had some time to wander around the side streets near 书院门街. These kids reminded me of what we did when I was their age - making paper boats and floating them down the street gutters when it rained. But the water in our street gutters were clear and clean. These, on the other hand, were almost as dark as ink. It did not seem to bother those kids though.

Since it was raining, at times rather heavily, I took shelter inside some of the doorways, and ended up poking inside some of them. Note the two rectangular blocks of stone supporting the frame of the doorway. These are relatively simply designs. Some were much more elaborate, carved into stone drums, turtles, or fantastic animals. Most of these were originally courtyard houses - with four long-ish houses surrounding a spacious rectangular courtyard. Invariably, shabbily-built small houses were added to the courtyard, reducing it down to narrow, crooked passageways. Just as I was taking the photo, a small boy came out of the green screen door. I took off, not knowing whether I would be welcome.

This is inside another doorway. Note the steep and narrow staircase leading to the second floor. Seconds later, a woman came out of the the door to the left to fetch water from the container just next to the door, covered by the metal basins. Apparently may of these houses have no running water.

And no toilet either. Night soil have to be taken care of each morning. This is true even of beautiful cities like Suzhou (蘇州).

I walked through yet another doorway, turned around, and saw these rickety stairs leading to the second floor. It is a precarious living, isn’t it?

Further inside, and turning left, I found that there was a lot more to the house. The pile of pressed blocks of coal to the right is a cheap and common fuel in China. Holes are made in the block for more efficient burning. Still, coal burning is a major source of pollution in China.

Poking my nose into these doorways gave me a better feeling of what it is like to live in the older parts of Xian.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

书院门街 (College Gate Street)

I was free this afternoon in Xian. People who know me - and Xian - would have no problem guessing where I would go. Yes, 书院门街, literally College Gate Street. So named, I believe, because it runs outside 关中书院. It was a 500 year old college established by a Ming Dynasty official who, having lost the favour of the emperor, return home to “study”. The college became an important center of learning in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Now the site is used as a modern day teachers’ college, closed to the public. At the far end of the street is 碑林. Another favourite of mine.

The street is lined with shops selling things related to writing and drawing - Chinese style. Shops that sell nothing but paper, stacks and stacks of them. Ink. Ink wells. Calligraphy. Stamps. Stones for making stamps. Red ink for stamps....

And then there are brushes. Big ones. Smalls ones. Wolf hair. Rabbit hair. Sheep hair. Human hair. I honestly did not plan to photograph the young lady. I was just sheltering from the rain next door, when I noticed and tried to take a photograph of the brushes. Then, suddenly, there she was, poking her nose out.

After that, I stood in the rain to photograph the brushes. Really like them.

I was getting wet, and hungry. So I jumped into this small dumpling shop, and took the table facing the street. Five dollars for 4 taels of dumplings (24 of them). Four for the beer. A good lunch, for only nine dollars. And I got to watch the people walking in the rain. Many of the stalls and shops were closed; and there were not many tourists - they were boring. The normal people were much more interesting. A woman walking a little dog. An elegantly-dressed lady came in asking for directions to her friend’s place - apparently she thought the shopkeepers should know her friend since they are in the same neighbourhood. A man walking stiffly with an umbrella, blocking my view...

The dumpling shop seemed to be run by four young women. One was cooking the dumplings, two were kneading the dough; one was chopping up vegetables for the fillings. One of them went out to deliver a bowl of dumplings, was caught in the rain, turned back to put a plastic bag over the dumplings, then went out again. They seemed to be doing OK running the shop with only four tables. I wish them success, and will make a point to come back to this shop next time I am in Xian.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Where am I?

This past month has been extremely hectic for me. Flew to Boston via New York; onto Urbana-Champaign; drove to Chicago; back to Hong Kong via New York. Then onwards to Santiago, Chile via Toronto; back to Hong Kong via Toronto. And now I am in Xian. I had slept in two different hotels in Boston, then Champaign, Chicago, home, Santiago, home, and now Xian.

At one point, I woke up in a hotel room and wondered, for a few seconds, why my wife was not there. At another point, I woke up and wondered where I was and why there was a woman in my bed. Then I realized I was at home and she was my wife.

I am not cut out for this type of life. I wish I were at home now.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Leisurely Chile

It seemed not so long ago when I was playing soccer on grassy fields on leisurely Sundays somewhere in Madison, Rochester, Toronto, or Ottawa. Just like these guys in a road-side park in Santiago, Chile. In reality, of course, it was at least 15 years ago when I last played soccer on real grass! Watching these guys brought back a lot of fond memories. And where are my soccer buddies now? I know for sure that at least 2 of them are dead.

Everywhere we went in Chile, un-inhibited young people enjoyed each other, seemingly oblivious of passers-by. At one point in Santa Lucia Park, we were coming down some narrow staircases, when we encountered a young couple wrapped tightly in each others arms at the bottom of the staircase. We couldn’t possibly backtrack, so we had to push past them. The fact that we had to squeeze pass them seemed to bother us more than them.

And the dogs were everywhere. This particular one didn’t seem to care that Mr. Jose Marti Perez, a national hero of Cuba, was looking down on it disapprovingly.

Chileans are not particularly rich. There is a lot of graffiti on walls. But the streets are clean, and I didn’t see many beggars. The Chileans are friendly, and they seem to know how to enjoy life.