Saturday, January 31, 2009

Learn And You Shall Be Taught

What was your childhood ambition?

Many of us changed our minds along the way but many grew up wishing that they could become a teacher, well, at least, at one time or another (oh! Just admit that, will ya?)

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a teacher, especially when you only have 5 to 9 years to form a rather shallow world view. At that impressionable age, we are most influenced by our parents, siblings (minus the rivalry part) and our teachers (minus those we hate).

Now that I am way past that stage, I am quite clear that teaching is not for me. The image of me facing a class of 40 monstrous kids is a scary one, both for me and the kids, and perhaps, their parents, too.

Still, I think teaching is an admirable profession. I do owe much of what I have today to many of my teachers:

Primary school: Together with the other silly little girls, we idolized some of our favorite teachers. One of my form teachers was my "idol". She cared for me in many ways and she even took time during weekends to bring me to the dentist! What a horrifying way to show her concern!

Secondary school: My biology teacher lent me the whole set of human vertebral column (a.k.a. back bones and they weren't plastics) so that I could better learn to differentiate the all too confusing vertebrae. I received a book price for biology when I graduated even though my pursuit ended there. I was very sure that I wouldn't enjoy slicing the tummies of the white rats.

Junior college: My English teacher tirelessly helped me during and after classes so that he could save me from a hopeless "F7" in year one to a "B3" for A level General Paper. Kudos to him!

Tertiary: I went to the University but there were no teachers there. I call them "Learning Facilitators". They were great in many ways but not as teachers.

There are many more teachers whom I owed a lot to and I recall how I always looked up to them as capable adults. Yes, adults. Teachers must be grown-ups, so I thought, until I recently read about Adora Svitak.

Adora was born in Oct 1997 and she is now 11. Just like other kids her age, Adora spends a lot of time in school, but not as a pupil. She goes to school as a teacher and she gets invited to lecture many adults in the US and the UK for as high as $10,000 a go.

Yes, Adora is the youngest professor!!

She is also the author of many published essays, stories and poems. At age 7, she began writing blogs and in Jan 2007, she published her first full-length novel "Yang in Disguise". I have heard her over a radio interview and if I have not watched some of her video clips, I would not have believed that I was listening to an 11-year old. Her delivery was totally eloquent and mature.

She loves writing and has even written a book 'Flying Fingers" giving hints and tips to other aspiring writers.

At her blog, she describes herself at the blog banner as "Writer, Poet and Humanitarian". I was already impressed even before I clicked on any of the articles. "Humanitarian" is a big word for many kids and some adults too. To me, it is a very humbling word which I do not expect to come from an 11-year old.

I now change my mental model of a 'teacher'.

Anyone can be a teacher so long as you know something that others don't and you are willing to impart it. We can learn a whole lot from anyone if only we constantly remind ourselves of our own inadequacies.

Everyone can be a teacher and age doesn't really matter!

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Listen To Us !

I was hoping to get some rest but the Chinese New Year (CNY) period turned out to be rather hectic.

I did not really visit many friends and relatives but the few times I moved around places, I couldn't help but noticed that life on the street seemed quite normal. Many shops and eateries stayed opened. People walked around, not necessarily in their bright CNY new clothes. Decorations were toned down.

Time's bad, we all know that and yeah, it was a desperate "business-as-usual" for many.

This is the time when businesses are struggling to get as many customers as possible so as to stay above water. Every potential spender walking into a shop represents a ray of hope. To many retailers and restaurants, this festive time may be their last chance to ring the cash register before sinking deeper into the recession.

Since the economic downturn hit people in a big way, service personnel somehow just took a switch in their attitude towards customers. They became less pushy and more humbled.

It wasn't very long ago, the economy was experiencing unprecedented growth, especially in 2007. I frequently read about bad services in the newspapers and in the Internet. Singapore grew concerned that the lack of good customer service may cost some loss in tourist money. So they started some campaigns (as usual) to boost the service level.

In 2005, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA), Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and SPRING Singapore launched the GEMS movement (Go-The-Extra-Mile-For-Service) to encourage businessmen, service workers and customers to play their part in improving Singapore's service level.

Very often, companies who are keen to gauge their service level would engage consultants for assessment and advice. Approaches such as customer survey, mystery shoppers and focus group study are commonly relied upon to get some quantitative measurement.

I have no insight into these surveys but I am sure they do not come cheap. Typically, it would cost a company a hefty amount just to reach out to listen to their customers. After all the big moneys, the
effectiveness of the survey depends on the quality of the consultants as well as the commitment to improve on the part of the businessmen.

Actually, businesses do not really need to go very far to listen to their customers. Most of the comments they would like to know are found in the Internet if only they know how to mine them.

Two local firms, Brandtology and JamiQ, have developed software that helps companies track good and bad opinions about their products. The software would trawl websites, repackage data collected and generate detailed reports on Netizens' feelings towards a brand.

The newly developed program scans articles and postings in English, Mandarin and Malay, automatically categorising opinions expressed about a product, service or an individual into positive and negative buckets.

In this competitive commerce world, businessmen want to get instant feedback so that they can quickly adjust their strategies to win. If they wait for weeks or months to get to their customers via the traditional market survey, their competitors may have already cannibalized some of them.

Weak companies are usually weeded out during economic downturns and one of the ways to fight on and come out alive and stronger is to listen to customers promptly.

This is the time for companies to take stock of their financial health and also to take their customers' view seriously. Hopefully, online grumbles will no longer be dismissed as unimportant virtual rantings coming from the very bored .

Listen to us!!

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Why Blame Me?

155 lives were saved and the blaming game started....

On 15 Jan, a US Airways Airbus ditched into the Hudson River in New York City shortly after taking off. Somehow, the plane stayed afloat long enough to allow nearby boats to rescue everyone within a short time. No life was lost and the melodrama incident had a happy ending.

Many praised the pilot's superb maneuvers and everyone agrees that it was the "Miracle on the Hudson River".

The big "what happened?" question was soon answered as it was later confirmed that the plane had a 'double bird strike'.

A 'bird strike' is a collision between an aircraft and a bird. When the birds are ingested into the engine, the damage to the plane can be severe enough to bring it down. In this instance, both engines failed as the plane flew into a flock of geese and the 'double bird strike' had caused both engines to fail.

Everywhere, people hailed the heroism of Capt Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the plane. Everywhere, people talked about bird strikes. Everywhere, no one seems to care about the birds in any way.

Long before the days of airplanes, men had always dreamt of flying like the birds. They tried for many centuries and nothing very successful happened.

In the 1500s, the famous polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci had the idea of creating a flying machine. He sketched his ideas on papers (above). By today's standards, his sketch was a convincing one. The big question to ask is whether he did successfully fly his machine.

There is no conclusive evidence suggesting that he flew. However, those who believed he did relied on the fact that he drew the "Bird's Eye view of the Arno Valley" (below). It was thought that Da Vinci could not have known the bird's eye view landscape had he not flown up to the sky.

The argument is still on.

It wasn't until about 400 years later, the world recognized that it was the Wright Brothers who invented the first airplane.

There you go, since time immemorial, the sky belongs to the flying birds. They never had to worry about collision with anything other than with their own kind. They were the original occupants in the sky.

When human invented flying machines, they shared the sky with the birds and assumed that the sky is big enough for all. Over time, more and more airplanes soar in the sky and more birds got into trouble of colliding with the planes.

According to the Bird Strike Committee USA, bird strikes cause more than $600 million in damage to U.S. civil and military aviation annually.

Between 1990 and 2007, civilian pilots reported 79,972 bird strikes to the US Federal Aviation Administration. In 2007 alone, 7,600 bird strikes were reported by commercial planes.

More than 219 people have been killed worldwide as a result of bird strikes since 1988.

Flight Engineers continue to invent devices and redesign plane engines that can fight the problem. They concede that bird strikes are always going to be there and they can't get rid of the problem altogether.

Meanwhile, birds in the sky continue to be 'blamed' whenever a plane flies into their path.

Let's get the perspective clear. The sky originally belongs to the flying birds. When we invented the airplanes, we 'kill' the birds at their home ground. When we suffer casualty, we said it's their fault.

Doesn't that sound familiar?

In life, when something goes wrong, our index fingers instinctively point to someone or something. We spend little or no time asking ourselves if we are at fault or contributory in any way.

Today symbolizes a new beginning, according to the Chinese Lunar calendar. Let's start the Year of the Ox afresh and learn to be more understanding and more forgiving.

Happy Lunar New Year. Moooooo....

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Wishing You A Blessed Year Ahead

Today is the eve of the Chinese New Year eve and nothing in me gives a tad of that festive mood.

Life in the past one month has been hectic and hopefully this 4-day break promises a chance for recuperation .

On Thursday, the government announced the S$20.5b Resilience Package to help everyone take a breather from the current ailing global economy. Many hail the 2009 Budget as 'extraordinary' for this 'extraordinary' time while others point to some aspects of inadequacy.

It is never possible to please everyone and not that we have to.

When I flipped the newspapers this morning, headlines relating to Budget 2009 were splatted everywhere. Most of the discussions were within my expectation with some being more insightful than others.

Amidst the money talk, something else caught my eyes:

In Belgiam, a man who had painted his face black and white reportedly tricked his way into a creche, where he ran amok and killed 2 infants, an adult and injure many others. I know it sounds pre-judgemental but I would say that he is crazy to have attacked defenseless young human like that. His motive is unknown but I doubt he has anything acceptable to mitigate his senseless act.

In the U.S., a Chinese Virginia Tech graduate student decapitated his fellow Chinese female student at a cafe. He apparently has been frustrated over problems which include stock losses. This is really bad when Virginia Tech is barely out of mourning over the worst school shooting in 2007.

I would not say that these news reports are dead shocking but they are certainly disturbing and saddening.

In a moment of weakness, human can lose all the learnt emotional control and commit unthinkable acts.

Unless it is of medical causes, people do not just lose their head overnight. Many people have unrealistic expectation on how the world should operate. They remain staunch about their own outlook and equate flexibility and nimbleness with infringement of self established principles.

They often suffer, and sometimes, very badly.

I am not a philosophical anthropologist and my knowledge on human nature and behavior is not even skin deep. All I know is that I too have my own moment of weakness. We all do.

It is no use pretending and deny all the weak traits we have: lazy streak, lack of knowledge, selfishness, forgetfulness, anger and whole lot more. It is much better to prepare ourselves for human weakness and work around it.

From time to time I have to fight against my ill emotions and attempt to lift the sinking spirit. Many others are doing the same. While most of us succeeded and stayed rational but some unfortunate ones succumbed to the enormous pressure life put on them.

We often forget to count our blessings.

A happy person remembers the only blessing he has and lives well. An unhappy person picks on the only blight and brood endlessly over it.

We all have some blessings. If only we constantly remember them, it is not that difficult to kick off the blues. This is particularly important during tough times like now.

With the year of the Ox approaching, let's embrace our blessings and get ready for another year. Take the cue from all the goodness of the Ox: (1) charge with renewed energy, (2) work diligently, and (3) from time to time, laze around, go slow and watch the world go by.

Bye bye rat! Wishing you a blessed year ahead!

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pumpkin On Your Head?

Do I need to put on a helmet when I ride a motorcycle in Singapore?

It certainly sounds like an odd or random question to ask. Isn't that so obvious? Ya, indeed it is so. In fact, it is so very obvious to us here that the Singapore Police Force website couldn't be bothered to say a word about such a requirement. All of us are expected to know.

The idea of wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle is so entrenched in us that it will be totally insane not to do it. Well, not everywhere in the world makes that part of their rules on the road. Even if they do, not everyone follows the rules.

In Nigeria, motorcycle taxis are a common mode of cheap transport for the locals and the Nigerian road safety authorities say almost every collision in Nigeria's cities involves a motorcycle taxi. They have obviously had enough. From 1 Jan this year, they want to see every motorcyclist puts on a helmet.

Many are furious even though the rules are set to save their lives.

First of all, the price of the helmet is hefty as each can cost up to US$29. So, some riders try to dodge the law by wearing dried pumpkin shells instead. The local authorities are not amused by their improvisation and they have impounded many motorcyclists.

Besides the cost, those who were caught have other reasons for not using a helmet. They claimed that passengers often steal the helmets once they reach their destination. Interestingly, the passengers too were not keen to wear the helmet provided by the taxi driver. They fear that the taxi drivers may put juju (African black magic) in the helmets to cast spells on them, making it easy for them to be robbed.

The situation in Nigeria certainly sounds quite amusing to me but losing lives due to the lack of headgear protection is certainly not a laughing matter.

When I travel in Malaysia, it is not uncommon to see motorcyclists going around the rural roads without a helmet. Those who do may just be wearing beat-up ones loosely over their heads, obviously not offering any protection. Occasionally, I do see motorcyclists carry more than one pillion passengers with some of them going around without any helmets.

The level of compliance there may not be perfect but neither are the local authorities obsessive about getting a perfect score. Instead of just going after those without a safety headgear, the Malaysian authorities are now thinking if they should make it mandatory to stamp expiry dates on helmets.

This is triggered by a study which suggests that helmets more than five years old may no longer be safe as the materials used to make them may have already deteriorated.

In Singapore, our law does not stipulate any mandatory expiry date for helmets. However, all such safety headgears must be certified by Singapore's TUV SUD PSB testing board.

In Oct 08, a pillion rider died after her helmet broke into two in a road accident. Although the helmet apparently met safety standards, it failed to save her life. I suppose having the right headgear alone is not good enough. Wearing it correctly is important too.

I find the idea of 'expiry date' on helmet refreshing. In the name of safety, should we also start to impose expiry dates for electrical appliances, safety belts, safety boots and the like?

I am used to seeing expiry dates stamped on consumable and probably some skin care and beauty products. I need to get used to the idea that every other thing too needs to be given an expiry date.

Once I was buying a pack of traveling toothbrushes and I found it strange to see an expiry date on the package (a rather long one though). What is likely to happen to my teeth if I use them after the expiry date, I wonder.

I guess the whole issue about helmet and mandatory expiry date is about protecting lives. Sometimes, though it may sound strange, people have to be forced to take care of themselves.

Life is precious but not everyone realizes that.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Let Me Doodle !

The word graffiti excites me!

On one hand, graffiti suggests an act of being naughty and on the other, an element of creativity. The line can be really thin.

Graffiti comes from the italian word graffiato which means 'inscription'. Since the time of the cavemen, our predecessors left graffiti on cave walls and stones. At that time, it was their only way to communicate 'in writing'. Graffiti in the form of inscriptions were found in ancient wall paintings, such as those in the catacombs and were prevalent during the Ancient Rome and Egypt.

Since then, graffiti never dies and it never really thrives either. Not until the 1960s, thanks to the Hip Hop culture.

Graffiti is one of the 4 main elements to Hip Hop, the other three being rapping, DJing and breakdancing. As hip hop evolved as an art form, graffiti went along too. By the mid-80s, graffiti was no longer reserved for the streets as it was gradually elevated to the art world.

Today, when one is doing graffiti on a wall, he may be seen as a graffiti artist or a vandal, depends on the place, the rules and the culture.

Take a look at the trains in London or New York, there is hardly any carriage that is spared from graffiti. The graffiti art communities there are usually not apologetic in displaying their expression on the trains and some proudly leave their signatures behind as if it had been on art canvases.

Is train graffiti art or vandalism?

I believe there are local rules governing the act of graffiti on public properties and it is probably more of an enforcement issue. In the UK, they have the Anti Social Behavior Orders which are going after the act of illegal graffiti. Whatever it is, the art community there does not look like they are letting any legal barriers come in between them and their graffiti art.

Some businessmen have obviously taken the tension between the law enforcers and graffiti artists to be business opportunities. One advertised that their 'Graffit Your Own Train' kit serves as a bridge between the need to let go via graffiti and observing the law and order. I don't see how such products can quench the thirst of graffiti artists.

Graffiti in Singapore is beyond just being frown upon. The act of graffiti, if found guilty, may be punishable by canning (ouch!)

1994, the infamous Michael Fay case put Singapore on major newspapers in the world, particularly in the US. Fay was caned, among other things, for vandalising some cars with spray paint. He was sentenced to a 4-month jail term, a fine and most of all, 6 strokes of the cane.

The people in the US reacted and most were appalled by the out of proportion punishment in relation to the severity of the crime. Even the then US President Bill Clinton had to intervene.

Eventually, Fay received a reduced sentence of 4 strokes and Singapore preserved its stand that vandalism is not funny at all.

Last week, a man was caught scribbling 'Hi Harry Lee. I love you.' on a wall outside the Singapore Parliament House. To him, he was leaving a message for reasons best known to him. To the authorities, defacing any wall in Singapore (other than your own, I suppose) is not tolerable, more so on one outside the Parliament House. If he is found guilty, he could be fined up to $2,000 or jailed for up to three years, and be given at least three strokes of the cane. (Ouch, again!)

Graffiti art continues to permeate throughout the world and Singapore is not immune to that. Although rarely seen, some illegal graffiti can be found in isolated parts of Singapore. By and large, 'legal graffiti' in Singapore is an oxymoron or in some sense, a big sarcasm.

The Singapore government is probably beginning to recognize the need to let graffiti artists purge their bursting artistic energy. After all, the relevant authorities have been doing much more lately to promote the arts. I am sure they are now more aware of the angst in the traditionally side-stepped local art scene.

So far, other than the Somerset Skater Park, I am not aware of any other places where you are allowed to do graffiti art without risking the cane. The same kind of '
legal walls' can be found in different parts of the world but thus far, most graffiti drawings here or else where are done illegally.

If you have a sudden urge to spray on the wall and do not want to run foul of the law, go and do it at the designated graffiti walls at the Somerset Skater Park (*Scape). Well, it sounds good until you are told to observe a list of rules, fill in some forms and wait for a week or so while it is being processed and when you finally run out of creative juice by the time the approval comes, you are told not to transfer your application to another...

Oh! Bother ! Where is the spontaneity?

I am not into graffiti art and it is not as if I know how. However, if I am allowed to do so, I would think it can be really fun. I am empathetic towards the graffiti artists in Singapore. They have so little space to unleash their creativity if they choose to do it right. If they cross the line, which is thin, they might get themselves into big troubles.

I think most people know the difference between mere wall-defacing and artistic display of graffiti art and the latter is usually welcome. I hope more space can be given to graffiti art and brighten up this prim and proper rule-based city state.

Meanwhile, be careful with your spray paints.

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