Saturday, April 01, 2006

Finally caught "V for Vendetta" with June. A very GP-ish movie asking the question, "Terrorist or freedom fighter?" Also, lots of questions dealing with justice, politics, religion, bio-ethics, the arts, and the media. Juicy!

June points out that this isn't essentially the action flick that the trailers promise, but I appreciate the slower pace that develops the plot layer by layer, revealing more and more of the mystery behind the dystopia the world has become for the characters in the movie.

The bomber, V, who models his appearance and ideals after Guy Fawkes is the lone voice daring enough to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Everyone else has been cowed and/or become disinterested by a monolithic, authoritarian, oppressive regime, where people "disappearing" after a late night visit by the police is almost routine.

In order to rile up the people out of their resignation, stupor and apathy, V first catches everyone's attention by blowing up the Old Bailey in London and then throws down a challenge. V names his next target, the Houses of Parliament; and the date, the next year's Guy Fawkes' night. To the authorities, it's "try-and-stop me;" to the people, it's a rallying cry for revolution against the incumbent government.

So begins a chain of events that V orchestrates. His vendetta is against those people in power who had literally made him the monster he has become. His call for revolution is in earnest, but his job, as he sees it, is to clear the way for the people to rouse themselves and reclaim for themselves the freedom taken from them by the High Chancellor's Nazi-like Norsefire Party, and not to do it for them.

V judges the people's will to act through Evey, whom he shelters when she inadvertently gets implicated in the Old Bailey attack. Through Evey, we catch glimpses of V's elaborate scheme to bring down the governemnt. Her response to V's activities mirrors the sentiments of the people who, though subdued, are far from the sheep the government takes them for.

Despite the effort the government puts on the political spin machine, the public sees right through the media and privately sneers at the whitewash. Emboldened by V, pockets of dissent rise in small acts by various individuals, each one building to encourage other acts that are increasingly daring. Even Gordon, a highly regarded late-night talk show host and a seeming member of the political elite reveals his own dissent in his final broadcast, a blatant parody of recent events featuring V making a complete laughingstock of the High Chancellor, and the viewing public makes no pretense to hide its laughter.

The plot places great importance on us getting to know the individual, mundane details of a number of characters' biographies. One of the characters only exists in flashback, but even her story is told if only as pencil scribblings on some toilet paper. The glaring ommission is V's own backstory. We never really know him apart from fragments of others' memories and inferences, though through an exquisite deception we will get to know him better than any of the other characters in the movie. As V proclaims, "Artists lie to expose the truth. Politicians lie to hide it."

In any case, V represents an idea, not a person. The people, though not sheep, feel alone in their dissent. It takes an immediately identifiable icon of utter audacity, to unite them in small, insignificant acts of rebellion. After all, compared to the complete and spectacular obliteration of a venerated public building, what is a little spray-can vandalism of a public poster by a kid wearing an identical mask to V's?

V, the bomber, sets things up so that he isn't the one to deliver the coup de grace on the Norsefire administration. That final act isn't for him. Change has to stem from the collective will of the people, not the will of a single idealist. The people themselves have to decide what they want, take action and wield People Power once again; and all V's efforts lead the people to this point.

Within a year, V lays down his challenge, instigates the people to play his game while making their way smooth and enacting his vengeance all at the same time. V fulfills all his promises by the end of the movie, but do the people do their part as well? Will they betray him in the end? No spoiler from me about that. Go watch this brilliant statement on ideas and people and politics to find out yourself.

"V for Vendetta" goes on my list of top movies for 2006.
Got to drive the Swift back to college after lunch. Being used to M2, I was extra careful in handling an unfamiliar car, and may have driven a little slower than the cars behind me would have liked. The Swift takes some getting used to, being that it seems to have been designed for someone more compact than me to drive comfortably. It's probably because I didn't bother to adjust the seat to suit my bulk (I didn't have time to customize the configuration properly), that's why the ride back felt like quite a tight fit.

Everything about the Swift has a lighter touch than M2; the steering, the cornering, even the hand-brake came up so smoothly with minimal application of strength. Nice touches, but I feel too oafish to handle such refinement for long with confidence. I know it's just illusory, but I was afraid bits of the Swift would come off in my hands as I grappled with them, the way I do with M2. Fortunately, I left it in one piece back at the campus parking lot for Amy to reclaim later, after her lunch with HP and Vince.

In the late afternoon-evening, I rediscovered bowling in Hougang with Vince. After a frantic week searching for a fellow Pegasii to partner me in next week's college bowling challenge, today I got the news that staff do not have to pair up by House any longer. Staff form the 'Open' category and compete directly against the students.

We needed to at least try out the lanes at our competition venue, so Starbowl Hougang it was. It's very easy to throw strikes here. The pins fall quite easily. The lanes seem to favour the straight-down-the-middle kind of balls, so I should have a slight advantage. But from an 8-game series, my score tended to fluctuate between the mid-120s right up to the 190s, but the frustrating thing was that I couldn't string 3 solid games together for a decent 3-game total score. That would be crucial to doing well next week.

Next, I need to go register us for the tournament... hope there're still some slots left.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Whole college staff attended a course on "Brain Based Learning." Do a Google search on this phrase, and a lot of material pops up on it.

From what I gather, it's a theory about understanding how the brain functions, then tailoring the learning experience for our students accordingly. In this way, we take advantage of the brain's own workings in order to maximize the amount of stuff our students can absorb in every lesson and retain over the long term.

It sounds like a useful idea, after all, if we could apply such techniques to creating learning strategies that our students can use for better results, then by all means, y'know. But a theory like this one -- which is apparently still in its experimental stages -- requires a full course-load to appreciate and understand. We compressed it down to about 4 hours yesterday afternoon, and it felt like something got lost in the translation.

It didn't help that the delivery by the instructor was supposed to be the model we were meant to follow in our own lessons.

The session involved lots of quick personal discussions about the little bite-sized chunks of info he presented. There was lots of movement -- he constantly moved around the room while expounding nibblet after nibblet of wisdom; and he constantly got us to move around as well, moving with our chairs from table to open space, while changing partners for our little discussions. These discussions were supposed to allow students to check each other's comprehension and recall of the lesson material so far, and correct as necessary. And they were frequent.

He taught us to give our usually complex instructions one-at-a-time so that there would be no confusion amongst the students as to what was expected of them, and would willingly comply because there was no ambiguity in each instruction whatsoever. He taught us to say, "thank you," to our discussion partner for sharing and to celebrate with enthusiastic applause anyone's contribution to the larger group.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Then why did I feel throughout the session likeI was being treated like a kid with attention deficit syndrome? And why did I feel that I was being exhorted to treat my students similarly, like complete idiots who can't even tie their own shoelaces? And why did the idea of dishing out step-by-step instructions make me feel like a psycho with control issues?

Maybe I'm just old-school after all. I'm used to learning from long, quiet stretches reading from dusty old books with minimal yakkity-yak from anyone else around me. I don't have the attention span of someone who was raised by Sesame Street as a toddler and prefers to surf the 'net rather than search for answers in real life.

Well, maybe that's how it's going to have to be for this generation's bunch of learners. The Americans seem to favour it, anyway. Wonder why?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Yesterday was my first meeting with the PUS kids as a full group. Between Gerald and me, we've to decide how to allocate specific tasks to them based on how they auditioned. Some kids naturally fit into their roles, but the others aren't so clear. We'll be scratching our heads over those kids for a while.

So tired last night, I fell asleep watching House on AXN. Even the nasty doctor's barbs couldn't keep me awake long enough to find out whether a young man's multiple system failure was caused by his fiancee's insatiable sexual appetite or not.

Today was likewise another long day. Met the J1 Journalism kids at the production meeting. They seem a bit wary of their surroundings for the moment; but once we really throw them in the deep end they'll start getting comfortable and learn to swim, I hope. One J1 proposed to write a regular column on PC/console game reviews -- a dream come true for me! Hope the others find a niche for themselves soon.

Couldn't stay to share pizza with them. Had to run off for in-line 'blading lessons which the College arranged for interested kids. Why do I need lessons? Because there are certain skills -- like the crossover -- that I require more basic training in before I can execute them. In a way, I learned to run before I learned to walk. Now I'm taking remedial classes.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Good evening, everyone. My name is Xmac and I have something to confess. I'm a teacher, and I blog.

The Sunday Times today asks, "Should teachers blog?" I take exception to being singled out for my profession and being questioned for my decision to post my scribblings on-line. The first concern ST puts forward is that it might be psychologically damaging for students to read what their teachers actually think about them. Second is that teachers can get into trouble with the Ministry if they grouse about their work, colleagues and school environment.

The latter arguments could be applied to anyone else in any other profession as well. People in other industries have been fired before, so we've learned to be a bit more circumspect airing our views in the public arena, just in case. Hence, the bland, politically correct points of view I've been putting forth here. Score one for perhaps over-cautious self-censorship, zero for being a sensational, attention-grabbing, audience-attracting sponsorship magnet that will allow me to give up my day job.

The first concern -- about fracturing students' delicate egos -- is a little tougher to address. It really depends on our motivation for blogging. If it's just a carthartic release from stresses at work, then a teacher sending mixed signals in person and on a blog means that neither message has the credibility to be taken seriously. Both messages stem from masks that the teacher wears: suppressed emotion in person, vented emotion on-line, and neither are reflections of honest, reflective thought.

Venomous words can and do sting, but the difference in blogging is that people go looking through search engines for things other people say about them, and when they find unpleasantness they get upset. Isn't that asking for trouble in the first place? Our students need to learn to take honest criticism, but they also have to learn to discern which critique to take with a pinch of salt too.

The other motivation for teachers' blogs is to communicate with their students directly on-line, where everybody 'lives' in the same community as equals. These blogs aren't just random rants about anything and anyone in particular, but they are about reaching out to students with reminders, nags, advice or concerns; establishing a platform for sharing common resource materials; or even showing students that their teachers are human too and that they do have a life after school.

To say that teachers should or should not blog is asking a nonsense question. You could substitute "teacher" with any other profession, and you'd get the same nonsense answer. Blogging isn't a matter of "should/not," it's more a choice of what we do with the technology available, for whichever audience we have chosen to address.

Words can build up or they can tear down. I hope I've been doing more of the former than the latter here for my visitors. That is my choice.
June's taken a fancy to visiting Hokkaido in the summer. Apparently, there are vast fields of lavender and sunflowers to admire, and the seafood couldn't get any fresher. So it was off to the NATAS fair for us to see what packages were on offer.

We started out looking at group tour packages. Groups are about 20-30 strong, and being sociable with so many fellow holiday-makers for the entire trip didn't appeal to us at all. It wasn't that our Korean tour of '03 was such a terrible experience; it was just inflexible and we couldn't be independent of the group at all. It was only when we extended our tour for another 2-3 days in Seoul that we felt like we'd escaped the herd and we were free to waste our time and money on whatever we ourselves wanted, rather than on stuff the tour organization decided we should.

From our initial research today, we got bolder and started asking around for free-and-easy tours instead. But the tour operators showed us how expensive such expeditions could be, simply because we couldn't get bulk discounts.

There was a section of the travel fair that caught our attention. 2 huge video walls screening sights from Hokkaido. The organization doing the screening ran a fly & drive tour, i.e., fly there, pick up a rental Toyota, drive yourself around Hokkaido aiming to arrive at the designated hotel for the day by nightfall.

There are recommended stops between hotels but because it's a self-drive tour, we can pick and choose which locations to dally at, which to skip or even run off on our own if we knew of some other place that would capture our interest more. Howzzat for flexibility? Well, apart from having to make it to the right hotel to sleep in at night, that is.

One of the rental cars on offer is the Toyota Prius, 1.5l hybrid, running at 35.5km/l, with on-board GPS nav system. Sweet! And accommodation is entirely 5-star including meals and most have a hot spa facility free for guest usage. Wow.

The cost at Twin rates: $2888 for EACH of us, which is steep. But if we went Dutch, though still a pinch, is barely affordable. Then we discussed the package some more with one of the guides for this tour who clarified that there are other expenses such as gas, parking, tolls, entrance fees, lunch, etc., that aren't covered in the packaged rate. A more realistic cost figure would be closer to $4-5K each. And we're like, "oh...!"

Pity. Maybe if we saved on going anywhere this year, we might consider this package again next year. Meantime, I know June's still searching for better options...