Saturday, January 22, 2011

Shaolin: philosophy that packs a punch

As I was watching Shaolin, I couldn't help thinking of the villagers constantly running back and forth towards one tragedy or another. Their lives are seriously wretched, consuming all the mantou buns the Shaolin temple can provide them from an ever-dwindling rice store, yet not really contributing anything useful in return. Every time the villagers raise a lament (which is quite often) the monks risk life and limb to make them happy again (which isn't for long).

That Shaolin stars Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, but I'm thinking more about the plights of the nameless extras makes this movie quite extraordinary. Lau, Tse and Chan do play very strong and compelling characters, however as this movie is an ensemble piece, they and their supporting cast play very integral roles and no one star pulls attention away from another -- not even Tse with his whimsical pseudo-European military garb and manga-inspired hairdo.

If not for the villagers, there would be no point to the wars fought over them, no opportunity for the monks to display compassion and heroism towards their fellow human beings. The Generals fight each other for the power to exploit the seemingly inexhaustible human resource before them, the monks are bound to protect the flock and feed its insatiable hunger gathered outside its gates.

Lau's character, General Huo, experiences both sides. His reversal of fortunes brings him down from a warlord with everything to an outcast with a price on his head. But this reduction to zero is also the beginning of his redemption as a person when he learns to stop thinking of himself and instead start placing others's needs before his own -- even if they are the unending needs of the hopeless, hapless and practically useless villagers.

There is also wisdom in discerning what can be helped and what can not. Times may call for first aid, others for last rites, and sometimes no action at all can help a situation. Fortunately for the cinema audience there are lots of opportunities where kung fu fighting is the order of the day for the monks to show off their close-up hand-to-hand skills against gun wielding enemies.

But kicks, punches and chops cannot save the day. Though destruction and sacrifice are inevitable and constant, they are also a necessary starting point for reconstruction and transformation. The other constant is the people and their continued suffering but, as Huo learns, compassion and charity are the key to transcending the common mass, thus finding peace.

So much philosophy resonating ideas from Eastern religion, Socratic thought and the Sith-Jedi conflict neatly packaged in great cinematography; each shot lovingly, occasionally indulgently crafted, rich with an emotionally powerful aesthetic. My first movie viewing of 2011 was quite a mind-blowing experience. Hope it's a sign of more movie greatness to come.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A study of study

When we talk about 'learning', do we mean the ability to recall prior input on demand or do we mean the ability to recall prior input that is contextually appropriate to the need at the time of the recall? Either way, the ability to recall is what's important, whether on an academic test or in a real problem-solving situation. So there is no doubt that retrieving information from our memories is a skill worth honing. But which method trains our memories to function best?

A recent study of studying practices looked at techniques of rote memorization (ancient and boring), concept mapping (modern, colourful and hip) and 'retrieval practice', a.k.a., essay writing (generally thought to be painful and boring) and concluded that essay writing yielded the best results in terms of recall and logical application of the retrieved material compared to the other two. However, the essay-writing method didn't give its practitioners as much confidence in what they had learned compared to the practitioners of rote or mapping techniques who reported that they felt they had learned more, even though their test results fell behind the essayists.

Proves Socrates right, doesn't it? "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing".

I believe why essay writing works best is because the writer is actively connecting prior knowledge with new incoming knowledge through logical processes, aided by the application of language -- the glue that binds thoughts together. Learning by rote or mapping only requires a retrieval system comprehensible by the person memorizing the material. It may work for him or her, but no one else is likely to make sense of it, not immediately anyway. Whereas essays are written to share thought with an audience, and the need to communicate coherently with another person means that filing, referencing, retrieving information has to be done by a system that offers common access to everyone. Hence sharing the knowledge adds a second layer of learning to the learning process. How's that for reinforcement?

The challenge for GP is convincing our kids that essay writing is actually a shared learning experience and not simply a selfish process aimed at amassing a paltry handful of individual success scores. And maybe it's also an encouragement for me to keep posting here when so often these days I succumb to writer's block. But that's probably another story for another day.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Back to normal

We're beginning to wonder if we'd overreacted to Q-tip's malady of a couple of weeks ago. It was good to learn early that our dog was facing potential health problems due to ageing, and that we've started giving her preventive medications as a result. But it's even better to see that she's back to her normal behaviour, and back to looking almost-cute again.

Looks like we can start taking her out again! And here are some places that she will be welcome at. Click here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chilli reception

Entertaining foreign visitors is always a good excuse to pig out on local specialities, c.f., chilli crab. 'Foreign visitors' usually means friends of June's dropping in from all corners of the world for one reason or another. Funny, I always thought I was the more internationally cosmopolitan one.