Saturday, August 15, 2009

The bravest of us

Yesterday, a kid in tutorial asked me if I had to choose between brain and body, what would my choice be? I shot back quite arrogantly that I already had both so I didn't have to make the choice. Well, it was an impertinent question meant to disrupt the session, and sometimes my mouth shoots off faster than I can control it.

Not too long after, Dad texted me about the passing of my eldest cousin. Tshoong was indeed someone who didn't have the choice between brain and body. At some point earlier in life, he developed a condition that atrophied his muscles so badly that he lost all motor-control over his whole body. Whatever was happening in his brain was firing off all the wrong impulses through his nerves, causing him to become a mass of twitches and tics that never abated.

I can imagine how frustrating that must have been for him. There was a perfectly good mind trapped in a ruined body. Even the simplest normal human function that we take for granted, for him he had to depend on other people for assistance.

It wasn't this condition that killed him in the end. He'd lived this way for many years already, anyway. The docs signed off that it was a heart condition with a diabetic complication that eventually took him.

Thinking back on the question if I would choose mind or body, I don't know if I would have the courage as Tshoong had to maintain his mind and intellectual faculties for as long as he did, even when he didn't have the body to carry it around in. And it's only now that he's still... and at peace at last.

This is my Facebook status update for today, preserved here because I wrote it with him in mind:

gathers with the clan. Black umbrellas and the rain.
Time to rest now, cuz.

Among his generation, he was the bravest of us all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Yo, Joe: the technological arguments

Good stories often reflect philosophical debates. By that proposition, "GI Joe: ROC" has a decent story to tell. Here we have two antagonists, both equally well-armed with highly advanced technology. Both are out to establish order in the world: the Joes by maintaining the status quo, MARS (it's a pre-COBRA universe, hence the title) by changing the balance of power through force, intimidation and deceit. We know who the good guys are already.

ROC contemplates the use of technology:

MARS' tactical philosophy is to place technology within the individual soldier, effectively making each one a super-soldier but simultaneously eradicating morality and independent thought, and placing the army's total control in the hands of a single Commander. MARS troops are dedicated, dependable, unquestioningly loyal, but ultimately dispensible. They're basically no fun.

The Joes apply technology to the outside of the soldier, encasing him in an Iron-Man like armoured suit that also effectively turns him into a super-soldier, but with a crucial difference. The soldier can take off the suit and become human again. The Joes' humanity comes through in situations requiring moral decisions (apart from the ones that involve consideration for trash-the-place, make-things-go-boom 'cos that's the default option); but also in the expression of emotion (a small issue for Scarlett); and in being committed to a cause by volunteering rather than coercion -- even if it means countermanding direct orders from Authority and/or risking personal sacrifice.

Despite ROC being quite the Saturday morning cartoon-inspired CGI thrill-fest, I got a better story our if it than I had expected (I have very little hope left in this Summer's releases). ROC clung tenaciously to one consistent through-line: the application of technology can only solve the immediate problem at hand, so can we put technology aside in order to make the really human decisions that count for the longer term?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pickin' my brain

Been spending the past few weeks since term began living inside my own head. It was a necessary condition in order for me to deconstruct my thought processes and bare the dissected bits of my mind for all the kids to see.

Partially that's because Amy, Sha and I are responsible for the GP lectures this term and we're using our air time to fine-tune the kids' abilities in approaching essay questions with intelligence, scope and logic. It's also because Liz, Jojo and I are organizing the 'enrichment' programme this term that I felt we really needed to examine our own fundamental literacy skills, breaking them down into tiny sequential bite-size pieces so that the kids can see an order and a process at work when they think through possible approaches to their essays and comprehension papers.

I've been examining my own hare-brain as a model for identifying the system I use to improvise answers to essay questions. It's something I do that I take for granted as instinctive, but I've been quite surprised to realise that I do actually have a systematic approach after all. It's just never been articulated and spelled out so precisely before.

Likewise, in terms of the comprehension paper -- which I think is quite an archaic artifact from the Dark Ages -- I discovered (again from improvising in class) that there is some sense to it after all. The main lesson to learn from the compre exercise is not how to answer the questions per se, but rather to ask the right questions as a means of accessing inaccessible texts and thinking critically through them.

I know I haven't been specific at all about what I've discovered about my processes, and what I've been instructing the kids in based on my findings. I'd like to divulge more details but I should observe the kids' performance over the next couple of weeks first to see if using my newly developed methods will really help them improve. It could be disappointing to count my chix before they're hatched, so I won't just yet.

But what I have observed lately has been encouraging. I had some good discussions with some very interested kids today, and there's some demand for me to further elaborate on what I've developed so far too. That tells me the kids see some potential in it, and perhaps some hope as well.

Well, hope it does them some good, and I'll share more if it does.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Need help sleeping?

"You'll be amazed" got repeated a number of times by a speaker who couldn't stop being amazed at today's industry conference on the New Media. I'd already attended a presentation by the classification guys in their HQ a couple of months back, so his information about how we classify the media here isn't exactly new.

What amazed me was that the people in the audience kept harping on issues relating to the quality of our local media content (which they felt was basically trash) whereas the topic of discussion was more like media regulation. It became a complaints session rather than the enlightened discussion that I was hoping for. Then again, an engaging dialogue no matter how trivial is always more entertaining than blinking in silence, and it was fun to watch our speaker squirm at the unexpected turn of our questions.

What else is amazing is this NYT report that people with insomnia are seeking help online, such as through the imaginatively named SHUTi 9-week programme, and other sleep restriction methods. There's even online "cognitive behaviourial therapy", and some programmes might cost US$20-30 when they become commercialized.

Psst, I offer a very similar online service to all insomniacs -- for free with instant results. Just read my blog.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saving the world

I wonder if there's any merit to this OSU study regarding the impact human populations have on the environment? It seems like a no-brainer, but if we accept that mass human activity is the primary cause of climate change, it should stand to reason that the human population has exceeded the planet's capacity to provide resources to sustain all of us.

Solution: reduce the number of people back to a more manageable level and the planet would be able to start healing itself again.

Of course, it would be rather impractical to just machine-gun down all the unnecessary people in the world. That would be an environmental disaster all by itself, 'cos, like how are we going to dispose of so many bodies responsibly? Burial on that scale is sure to cause further deforestation 'cos nobody wants a mass grave in their backyard; cremation is out of the question 'cos we're trying to reduce our carbon footprint, not create a whole new cloud of CO2 and soot to choke up our atmosphere any more than we have already.

So, fine, we have to let everyone who's alive right now continue to live, but have fewer babies. The study projects that "in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives – things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs."

By this reasoning, I could defend my right to not have kids, live like a pig and still feel good that I'm saving the world, one carbon atom at a time. Yes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Parade that tried too hard

I guess I had to be there at the Parade to appreciate the spectacle, but watching it over TV (even in HD) wasn't quite as stirring. Cringeworthy, a couple of bits were even.

Some very sheltered people may have had their objections to the couple of girls dancing on poles during the Parade but for all the bluster, this storm in a B-cup only got two seconds worth of air-time overall. I thought the entertainment prior to the President's arrival was in far worse taste.

I don't know if anyone else felt the same, but I was especially put off by the Mark Lee and Suhaimi skit for the schoolboy standard of narrative in their retelling of the apocryphal Sang Nila Utama legend. Fine. "Heartland" humour if you want to call it that, but if our neighbours immediately South of us want to kick up a fuss, they can legitimately do so for the "insensitive" and "insulting" remarks the two clowns made about them. Lighten the mood, by all means, but try not to start a diplomatic incident at the same time. Please. They might send more haze over here in retaliation.

Immediately following was another eyeball-rolling narration, this time thumbing our noses with impunity at the very real threat of terrorism. They made it look so easy: snip a wire (think it was the red one) to defuse a "bomb", then chase around some hooded assassins on boats until they run out of fuel and give up. That's how we deal with terrorism over here. Right. On the one hand, it was purely national propaganda, on the other we're "just asking for it", tempting fate like that.

The remainder of the Parade went on as it does every year without much further hoop-la. National songs and formation dancing shoehorned into some theme or other, climaxing in a shower of fireworks that always mitigates the direness that had gone on before.

I like a birthday party as much as any other little kid, but hiring Bozo the Clown to provide the entertainment doesn't always work. Sometimes he just gets abused and kicked in the groin for his efforts. And maybe I'm being a party-pooper 'cos I didn't get my invite this year. Boo.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Up for a breath of fresh air

Disney-Pixar's "Up" has shot straight to the top of my list of fave movies for Summer 2009. It was funny, it moved me to tears, it was fantastic dreams and painful reality, all sensitively packaged together with absolutely spot-on timing, along with a palatte of colours that so aptly matched the different moods depicted in this animated treasure.

To say any more would be spoiling it for anyone who hasn't watched it yet. Just go and get the high of the season. :)