Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lost in space

Let's see our PW committee approve this project: Canadian teens send Legonaut 15 miles into atmosphere. It's a conflict, isn't it? Elevation vs gravity. It's a risk, isn't it? OMG, so many risks involved, least of which is losing the investment of $400 worth of equipment if things didn't go as planned.

But all they'd ask is, "what's the point?" Fine. Let's go reinvent another hypothetical "Amazing Race", then.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Standing in a river

It feels strange that I been on campus long enough to watch about two generations of staff move on, and I'm still here. Is it inertia, gravity, or am I one o' them folks who don't see that the grass is greener over yonder?

Oh, what brought this on? Had dinner with colleagues. Such a lot of food, too, as Elim's pix (below) would attest:
And, as Liz remarked, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Good to know that among us colleagues, our culture of feasting and making merry has remained constant throughout. But if you look at Liz's pix below...
apart from the dark, brooding figure hidden behind a pillar, these are all new faces representing the latest incarnation my rather fluid social circle.

"You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you" (Heraclitus). Word, ancient Greek philosopher dude, word.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Conversation starter

Today's GP session was aimed at shifting attention away from the most boring person in the classroom -- teacher -- and getting the kids stimulated enough to have a proper, focused, discussion in the form of a real conversation instead of the usual random picking of names from a list or a round-robin and forcing the poor, unlucky individual to blurt something before going right back to mental lala-land for the rest of the period.

We fall back on the ol' traditional methods because as teachers, we feel it's our responsibility to keep the information flowing. If there's a question to be answered and everyone is avoiding eye-contact with us, we prompt, cajole and finally give in and call the kid who looks most likely to be falling asleep from the whole leaden atmosphere. We keep our classes quite only to be pressured into being the one making the most noise.

The kids, themselves, only feel obliged to respond when it's their turn (however that may be arranged) and once they've said their piece, they mentally check out of class with great relief. Wait for bell.

Teaching JC2, there is a unique circumstance I can leverage on to gear tutorials towards a more free-flowing, spontaneous exchange of ideas between different students, with most everyone engaged throughout the discussion. First, there is the time limit that is their final exam (as of today, nine months, tops). Second, we can always keep reminding them how little time we have left to get them ready for the finals -- that makes them really antsy. In physics, we call this 'potential energy'.

The switch transforming potential to kinetic energy is in me lowering my status by sitting down so that my head doesn't tower over anyone else's. I distribute the discussion material and tell them that I haven't prepared anything for the discussion, showing them a blank tutorial worksheet as evidence. It starts out as a painful silence. They might beg to revert to the old call-random-person routine again to break the tension but I refuse, remaining silent. Tick, tick, tick... kids, that's the sound of seconds ticking away to your final exams. Wanna learn something? Better venture something.

Now's the time to be sensitive. If there is a vibe of growing rebellion, order a reprieve and allow them to 'rehearse' their discussion in smaller groups first. Don't bother organizing, they can organize themselves. Otherwise, the bolder individuals would offer tentative stabs at the discussion material, and that's when I can swing into action. Take what they offer, rephrase it, contextualize it, focus it, encourage them and thank them for their contribution, and always throw the thought back for someone else to nibble. The next offering may be for a different thought, but that's fine, do the same as before and throw it back. It's important that it appears that I am listening intently to the speaker 'cos the other kids will feel more at ease to offer their thoughts and so it spreads.

It's important that the energy built up is passed on quickly between participants in the conversation. Speed keeps the discussion interesting, and the more participants there are, the less likely anyone is going to lose interest.

Will the discussion be monopolized by the more vocal kids? It's inevitable, but try often to encourage the more quiet kids to make an offer during lulls. Hopefully they'll pick up and join the crowd, or we just have to hope they're listening and taking notes 'cos they're not naturally the gregarious type.

Apart from the pain of awkward silences at first, it's a risky operation. Depending on how boisterous a tutorial group can get, it may look to others that classroom discipline has gone out the window. Kids may misinterpret your intentions and complain that you don't come to class prepared, or that you're not teaching the content in a systematic manner that they can understand, or that the lesson is not focused on the exam enough. Or you could have a really 'duh' class which takes the silence as an opportunity to catch up on some other fiercer teacher's homework or take a nap 'cos it seems like a better use of their time. Ah, all the hazards of student-centered learning, depending on how perverse the student centre can be.

But we ARE prepared, though we tell the kids we aren't. Nevertheless, improvising responses on the fly can be quite stressful for the I-must-know-all-the-answers kind of teacher. Thankfully I'm quite prepared to celebrate my ignorance, so that doesn't bother me in the least.

But it is difficult to learn subject content this way. Ideas keep moving faster than it takes to write them all down. So what's the point? In these discussions, the kids learn to listen to one another and view a focused topic of interest from a multitude of their own perspectives. They learn to share ideas with one another, and that shared ideas can be built upon to create bigger, better ideas. They learn to learn, and maybe that's the most important lesson of all. Once they've got that figured out, they're ready to take their finals, and free themselves of their dependence on teachers forever.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Whose Internet is it?

I am watching some watershed events unfolding now that may have long term repercussions on the Internet and how it is to be used to share information.Where once the online community freely traded, bartered and "appropriated" information, what we are looking at today is that suddenly the market has dropped in to regulate the chaos.

Although SOPA and PIPA were bloodied by an online revolt last week, they have in effect taken a time-out to regroup and figure out how to come out swinging again. But while we were distracted with the rhetoric, big business and the feds acted and took down Megaupload -- hardware, software, wetware and all. And, as the online rebels predicted would happen, similar file-sharing sites have opted to self-censor in order to evade the copyright avengers' threat radar.

The message is clear. Henceforth, no one will transact information with anyone else without the exchange of hard currency. The market has come to the 'net and, whether directly or indirectly, we will pay for what we wish to share and for what we wish to take. It may not have gone that far yet, but if the free users of the 'net don't make their voices heard, that will be the direction it'll go once we accept this incident as a legal precedent.

Here's the thing: who owns the interwebs and can hence act with impunity on it? Can we free users continue to flout legally established copyrights and enjoy others' works without paying them their due; or can big business take away what we claim is our right to share any kind of information as we please?

Sad to say, it is the latter to whom our digital playground belongs. Unless we have been able to build our Internet access infrastructure ourselves from scratch, our computers, operating systems, browsers and even our networks are store-bought (or subscribed to) from big business. While it served them to let us in and play for free, or at least cheap, they've decided that now we can't get enough of what we have, it's time to start making us pay for the privilege. Oldest marketing trick in the book.

'Revenge!' scream the hacks of Anonymous, who activate their LOIC to down the websites of the Authorities like the DOJ, MPAA and RIAA with DDoS attacks. Juvenile, and hurts no one that matters. No one visits those websites voluntarily, anyway. It's all just vandalism and venting.

There's one way we free users can take back the 'net, though. Last week's revolt showed us the way. But I doubt many of us would like it. If a 24-hour Internet strike worked well enough to make the legislative body rethink we'd sheepishly accept their hare-brained scheme to take away our freedom; think of what a whole summer's boycott of Hollywood blockbusters would do to make the moguls see what our freedom is worth.

Yes, I'm saying the heck with all the delicious, to salivate over, fanboy-orgasmic blockbusters! Though we may once have been frothing at the mouth downloading their trailers while waiting for opening day, now we won't even buy their pathetic 3D high-def Blu-Ray DVD releases after they bomb at the box-office.

But what will we do for entertainment then, you ask? I say, support all indie productions, all low-budget, freely-distributed online content made by amateurs who don't expect to be paid for their work but are happy enough just to be watched or heard. Lots of that around, since the Internet can make us media producers in one way or another. A few stalwarts still even blog text. Ahem.

So, Hollywood blockbuster boycott that will bankrupt the greedy major studios in 2012 and show them who the Internet really belongs to? Anyone?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Caveat emptor

The issue of high ministerial salaries for our government representatives is bound to hit a sour note among the electorate, but it seems to me that answering one bad argument with another does not help make the debate any more constructive.

'Chye tow kway' is a common breakfast dish sold cheaply in hawker centres in S'pore. The question is, what does it represent in the above cartoon? I think it stands for peace, prosperity, opportunities for all regardless of background and heritage, and a strong international standing in the global community. I don't know if it's because of high salaries for ministers that's how these enviable national qualities have come to be, but I do know that they are worth a lot more than a mere plate of chye tow kway, whether it costs $1.50 or $10.00.

But if the cartoonist is willing to consider what we have as cheaply obtainable, he's taking his life, comforts and freedoms for granted. What we have today, many people are still deprived of; many are still fighting and shedding blood for it; while some -- like us -- are finding it a constant struggle to maintain. I know of someone who gave away his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Don't give yours away for a plate of chye tow kway.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Property J-V

So much for my earlier protestations of financial prudence. The Wongs are determined to sink money in property... and we are now committed. In a three-way joint-venture, we've pooled our resources to purchase a SOHO unit in an upcoming waterfront development.

Location is easily accessible as it incorporates a public transport hub; offers immediate access to a mega shopping and entertainment complex; and proximity to outdoor recreation and watersports facilities. The inclusion of an additional 'shareholder' spreads the cost outlay and risk to a more bearable load. And because the unit is a SOHO, the rental pool opens up not just to tenants looking for a place to stay but also to businesses looking for office space as well. Or even a combination of both.

It also helps that the units in this development are selling fast. All the while we were looking at the showroom, the in-house announcements kept us up-to-date with unit numbers just sold. It wasn't long before a familiar number boomed over the in-house speakers, sealing the deal.

Here's hoping that at least our new piece of real estate can eventually pay for itself. Either way, it looks like voluntary retirement is still a long way off.