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Gaining a Perspective on Self Importance November 29, 2012

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Society.
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While participating in an online community, I wrote this (true) story in order to get two fellow members to stop a personal argument they have been carrying from one thread to another. Reposting the story here. For people unfamiliar with the Malaysian forum circuit, the LowYat forum is a very popular online public message board usually frequented by the tech community. Edits for anonymity in square brackets:

I was a moderator on a forum before. It was a community several times less mature than [this one], with significant numbers of mewling kids. The banhammer went up like about 6 or 7 times over contentious posts over the period of 2 years. (Many other times, but mostly for spammers or other problems we don’t have here – like posting pirated materials blah blah.)

I was also as vocal as [the moderators here] in threads and discussions, and I beat back a lot of people with argumentation / evidence / linking, etc. Kinda the same reason people dislike [one of the moderators] here I suspect.

After one of the banhammer cases, the individual being banned went to my Friendster page (it was that long ago, and many of the photos were embarassing for public viewing), downloaded all of my profile pictures, and put up a thread on the LowYat forums with all the pictures claiming that I was sexually harassing his female friend (or was it girlfriend? I forget) and trying to physically assault her. It was a warning thread to tell people to stay away from me.

After staring at the thread for a few hours, and writing a few paragraphs in self defense, and debating how much background information to divulge and so on…

I DID NOTHING.

I didn’t even create an account on LowYat. Friends active on LowYat asked me if they should go there and defend me, and I told them not to bother.

Because I stopped and asked myself – what good would that achieve? It’s his word vs my word, but more importantly, nobody cares. How much damage did he really do, considering the way he worded his post? Etc?

A few people posted and called me names, and some taunted him for not knowing how to defend his girl etc. Someone posted that there is no proof offered whatsoever, and after that someone else I don’t know actually gave the background information (I think this guy was banned from a forum that guy was moderating lol…). The moderator left the thread open in case “the guy being accussed” wanted to go and defend himself, and closed it after two weeks.

I didn’t bother. And it was one of the best things I ever did in my life. I grew up and learnt several very important things that day. To believe in fellow human beings. That idiots are not worth convincing. That non-idiots are not that stupid.

And most importantly: I AM NOT REALLY ALL THAT FUCKING IMPORTANT AFTER ALL.

Nobody remembers that, and I bet the guy doesn’t even remember it anymore. And I don’t remember it for the embarassment. I remember it with pride born out of humility. If I know who that guy is, I’d give him a hug, and tell him this story to thank him – thought it’s probably going to be hard for him to believe that I wasn’t being sarcastic.

LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR folks. It helps you live longer.

In case anyone starts thinking I have no feeling of self-worth whatsoever, a more complete description of my perspective would be: “I am only as important as what I wish to achieve”, but that came from other lessons.

That time is NOW! September 14, 2012

Posted by Wilz in Astronomy, Education, Science.
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The “Pale Blue Dot” are probably the paragraphs of words which had the greatest impact on my life and creed, but last week, I found this:

“The arrow of time creates a bright window in the universe’s adolescence, during which life is possible. But it’s a window that doesn’t stay open for long. As a fraction of the life span of the universe, as measured from its beginning to the evaporation of the last black hole, life as we know it is only possible, for one thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth of a percent.

And that’s why for me, the most astonishing wonder of the universe isn’t a star, or a planet, or a galaxy. It isn’t a thing at all. It’s an instant in time. And that time is NOW.

Humans have walked the Earth for just the smallest fraction of that briefest of moments in deep time. But in our 200,000 years on this planet, we’ve made remarkable progress. It was only two and a half thousand years ago that we believed that the Sun was a god, and measured its orbit with stone towers built on the top of a hill. Today the language of curiosity is not sun gods but science.

And I believe it’s only by continuing our exploration of the cosmos and the laws of nature that govern it, that we can truly understand ourselves and our place in this universe of wonders. And that’s what we’ve done in our brief moment on planet Earth.

Just as we, and all life on Earth, stand on this tiny speck adrift in infinite space, so life in the universe will only exist for a fleeting, bright instant in time. But that doesn’t make us insignificant, because we are the cosmos made concious. Life is the means by which the universe understands itself.

And for me, our true significance lies in our ability, and our desire to understand and explore this beautiful universe.”
– Brian Cox, Wonders of the Universe (BBC 2012)

Now if only there was ‘an image’ that can represent these paragraphs, it might hold people’s attention for a bit longer.

From Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot paragraphs to what we have today from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and this from Brian Cox – you can see how science and our understanding of the universe is changing humanity’s perspective – it’s widening.

Whereas the Pale Blue Dot forces you to think about yourself as an individual on a precious small world, born out of our understanding of our place in space, this forces you to think about yourself as a sentient conciousness, alive in a preciously brief epoch, born out of our understanding of our place in time.

The profound beauty and privilege of being alive, here and now is staggering to me. To me, the message is clear as day – “Do something meaningful and awesome with it you idiot!”

And also staggering to me is the profound tragedy of the fact that the vast majority of mankind is completely blind to this awesome view right before their eyes, lacking the perspective to understand what they are seeing.

More people need to watch this documentary. But more importantly perhaps, more people need to be able to understand why it is so immensely awesome. And that is why I work in education.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zf9dh

The educator too, must accept blame for plagiarism! May 20, 2011

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Student Development, Teaching.
2 comments

The status quo in thinking about plagiarism usually goes like this: “Integrity is a compulsory value for each individual student, and they must uphold it in all matters, including homework and assignments.” Most universities require students to sign a pledge never to commit cheating or plagiarism. Coming from an education climate rife with plagiarism issues, I too, held strongly to this. (Disclosure: I copied math homework in uni – at most twice. But the distaste and pointlessness it left in my mouth made me swear never to do it again. I however never claimed the work as my own – the lecturer basically knew (and expected) everyone to copy.)

As such, most academicians have a tendency to place all the blame on the students – students who plagiarise are scum, with no values, etc etc. I wish they’d stop etc etc. I don’t think that is fair.

I am not trying to excuse a student’s individual responsibility to hold to academic values. However, looking at the big picture – human beings are incentive driven creatures. It is not always clear what those incentives are – it often differs from person to person. But increasingly in academic institutions (especially those catering to mass higher education), those incentives are ‘paper oriented’ – they want a degree, to get a good job and start a good life. End of story. Very few come here these days to actually ‘learn’. (Most don’t even know what that means anymore.)

A student who arrives here with values, will lose them very quickly. Submitting their own work, and at the same time watching those around them plagiarise and receive better grades is hugely demotivating, especially when ‘own work’ and ‘own learning’ often seems to matter little towards the ultimate goal – the degree. An educator has the responsibility to crack down tirelessly on plagiarism. Every instance of plagiarism encountered must be punished with the maximum possible sentence with zero negotiation/tolerance or the educator has failed his responsibility to every student who is trying to hold on to whatever shreds left of their academic integrity.

It is the educator’s responsibility to recognise students who hold on to academic integrity, not just with words, but with the assessment itself. They must be able to measure themselves against their plagiarising peers and know that they are better for it. And no – not tomorrow, not ten years from now when they are better members of society etc – but NOW. An educator who is incapable of allowing such students to recognize their own worth is scum as well.

Having said that, it is not always easy to detect plagiarism – in mathematics for example where often the solution steps are close to being the same. After detection, it is similarly hard to prove plagiarism. It is too time consuming, and there is a lot of other work to do – improving classroom methodology, research, etc. As such, another responsibility falls on the educator – to ensure that assignments are as impossible to plagiarise as possible. After a year of trying, I find it really isn’t as hard as some people pretend it is.

(Giving the same math problems to a hundred students and interviewing them one by one is often not a valid method of plagiarism elimination. It becomes an “interview assessment” instead of a “math” assessment. We’d probably have to do a “solve this problem in front of me” session for a significant random sample of students, and immediately fail those who are unable to solve said problem in order to provide a deterrent to plagiarism. And is that fair to those who ‘escape’? What about those who cannot think under pressure? Plus, if we’re going to assess them in our presence anyways, why not just do a small open book test?)

This trimester, I went with the standard practice for a subject I am teaching for another department – I gave out two ‘back of the textbook’ math homework assignments usually slated for 15% of the total assessment. Being free to give additional assignments, I cut the textbook assignments to 5%, and gave another case study/research assignment which is impossible to copy, and assigned it 10% of the grade. I told myself that this is sufficiently balanced. The 5% assignment will still force those who copy to at least write solutions, and maybe that will prompt them to learn eventually.

I am always honest and direct with my students, and I admitted to them that it will be quite impossible for me to hunt down plagiarism in the 5% assignment. But I told those who attempted the work themselves to write, “Own Work” on the front cover – as a point of pride for them, and to make it known to me. Of course, it is impossible to substantiate this claim from the student, and as such assessment cannot be adjusted to accommodate this.

However as I went through the assignments yesterday and today, every time I gave a high score to an obviously or suspiciously plagiarised assignment, and a low score to an “own work” assignment, I felt more and more empty inside. Yeah it’s only 5%. But it’s also hours of work from my precious “Own Work” students being effectively trivialized.

I enabled plagiarism this trimester, and I accept this blame.

Never again. Not even for 5%. I will never again allow myself to follow “standard practice” in giving take home assessments for which I am not ready to reasonably detect and punish plagiarism. And if I find that I am forced, I will fight it tooth and nail.

Thank you to all my “Own Work” students, for this valuable lesson in this educator’s career, and my sincerest apologies.

You are who you pretend to be. May 13, 2011

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Society.
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This post is going to sound a little odd. It is inspired by this quote:

“Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (American Writer, b.1922)

This has always been sort of like an epiphany for me. It carries a precautionary tone, but it can mean so many things. And it gives an odd, but very interesting way of looking at things.

Every now and then we hear of a great man/woman or a great act of good/kindness and we tell ourselves, “I don’t think I can ever be like that” or “That’s just not me.” This quote tells you that if you wish it so, you can. In fact, you will be. Just pretend. To yourself and others. As convincingly as possible. The other way to say this is probably “if you believe in something enough, you can make it happen”. That is the idealistic, positive tone of putting it, but it doesn’t really work for everyone. Some people cannot believe. However, those who do not have the strength to believe, can pretend that they do – and if you pretend long enough – that will be you.

Another way of explaining that – how are we ever certain that we’re doing the right thing or heading the right direction? Even someone who has looked really hard and figured out his purpose and direction as well as he can (and continue doing so with every new experience) – will have constant doubt. If I start bringing reusable containers to pack food, but I don’t know how to start conserving water when cleaning things because I’m a clean freak, does that make me green? Do I have the right to encourage others to be green? Should I first resolve all my own excesses?

Well the truth is – no one is holding a ruler and measuring when exactly you cross the line that makes you green, or charitable, or great, etc. No one can. So quite simply – yes – you are green when you choose to be. (I’m pretending here). If you sincerely pretend you are in all your dealings with yourself and with others – you will make it so one way or another. You gotta start somewhere. In fact, the decision to be something – is the decision to start pretending to be something. When we decide to change our ways and be green, we aren’t actually green yet – we are just starting out.

However if you don’t convince yourself that you have that green principle, you will never bring that reusable container to pack lunch, or refuse that plastic bag at the checkout counter. If you don’t convince yourself that you are someone who is on time, you will never plan ahead or apologize, because that isn’t your principle. If you don’t convince yourself that you are charitable, you will never offer that ringgit note to that stranger or friend who needs it. Life becomes a series of excuses of why you can’t be this and can’t be that.

Of course the precaution is there as well. We all make mistakes, but if we wallow for too long in self pity for being a horrible person – we will come to believe it. Everyone indulges sometimes – we allow ourselves a little too much gluttony, or a little too much envy, but eventually it will become us. We will find ourselves with people that we love to hang out with, but whose principles we completely disagree with (or more commonly, who do not have any principles at all). Everyday we pretend to fit in, and every time we allow ourselves to be silent on things we cannot stand for – we will slide that much closer to what we do not wish to be.

This is not in any way saying that everyone can claim to be whoever they want, wax poetic and that will be true. If you don’t bother to be consistent or hold to your pretense, you’re not going to convince anybody. However, if you’ve done your homework  and if you’ve figured out who you want to be and why you want to be that, you can safely ignore that little nagging voice that goes, “Nah… you’re just making this up as you go. Even with all the introspection, you really still have no idea what you’re doing.” In fact, embrace that voice – because you will know that you’re on your way.

When you get down to it, a good and consistent pretense is indistinguishable from a strongly and truly held principle. So call it whatever you want. We’re all pretending, but we all really are (pretty much).

So yeah – pretend to be awesome, and you will be awesome!

“What are you talking about, I already AM awesome!”

Yeah, that’s it. Good job.

“Wait what?”

:)

50th Anniversary of Human Space Travel April 12, 2011

Posted by Wilz in Astronomy, Society.
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Today is the 50th anniversary of mankind’s travel into space.

Today, we honor the brave men and women who strapped themselves to millions of kilograms of explosives to be blown into a merciless, radiation filled vacuum to show us that the stars are within reach. We remember those who have given their lives for it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spaceflight-related_accidents_and_incidents

Through your eyes, we have seen our home, our place in the universe, and the vastness beyond. We understand the fragility of our existence, the reason for our humility and (for some of us) the urgency to @#$% get with the bloody programme and stop being ignorant glorified monkeys.

https://althras.wordpress.com/2007/05/19/reflections-on-a-mote-of-dust/

Thank you.

The Logic Behind Barring August 26, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Student Development, Teaching.
3 comments

The question I spent two and a half hours struggling with last evening (which I did the previous trimester as well) was this – should I bar seven students who attended between 35-45% of my classes with between 0-5 out of 20 coursework marks?

Barring is a mechanic my university has to prevent students with poor attendance or performance from sitting from final examinations, thus failing them before they even sit for it. They are not assigned the “F” grade, but a grade which gives the equivalent 0 in grade point calculation. The guideline cut off point for barring is usually 50% attendance and 30% coursework marks.

Why do we practice barring?

To be frank, it is perhaps best to explain a possibly unknown benefit of barring on the lecturer’s part. Students who are barred are not counted towards the failure rate of the subject, thus improving the distribution of your marks (and thus your class performance). Lecturers are of course reminded never to bar based on this reason, but it is still an obvious and immediate benefit of barring to the lecturer. Lecturers in my university do not have to adhere to a normal distribution when grading, but they are expected to explain poor student performance, and describe remedial plans.

In reality, most lecturers wave the barring stick as a means to get poor attendance or performance students to withdraw from the course before final examinations. “You should withdraw from the subject before I bar you,” being the operative warning. If withdrawn, the student will not get a fail-equivalent grade. The subject will simply not count in their grade point calculation.

Barring Benefits Whom?

On the student side, there does not seem to be any benefit of barring itself. One is basically stripped of the right to even try. Even if the lecturer is VERY certain that the student will not be able to pass the subject, I can think of no reason (other than the benefit to the lecturer) not to just let him fail the subject.

On the other hand, when barring is used by the lecturer to force students to withdraw the subject, there is a benefit for the student. Not failing with either an ‘F’ or the bar grade will ensure that the students do not suffer a grade point drop due to the subject. This will prevent them from entering a probation state, which limits the number of subjects they can take, and of course, eventually lead them to termination. It also makes them look bad to sponsors, the immigration department and so on. To make sure this works of course, the lecturer has to actually bar students who do not withdraw, otherwise it would be an empty threat.

So… in my humble opinion, barring itself only benefits the lecturer. Barring to force withdrawals allows the lecturer to force the student to take the safe road.

Not Barring…

Not barring however, teaches the greatest lesson of all – it allows the student to make his/her own decisions, and suffer his/her own consequences. And isn’t that one of the most important lessons a university must teach its students? Isn’t the ivory tower all about growing up and learning from your own experiences and mistakes?

There is a third perspective on this, which is the university perspective. A university which saves lazy students from getting themselves terminated stands to benefit from continued candidature and fees in the long run. However, neither the university nor my department has ever encouraged barring. In fact our Vice President Academic argues vehement in Senate to lower the guidelines for barring, and to discourage lecturers from barring.

So why bar, at all?

Looks like this is a question I’ll keep struggling with from trimester to trimester.

Footnote

There is one way I WILL use barring however. It is an excellent way to summon constantly missing students with poor performance to meet me. “Meet me by this week or you will be barred due to your attendance and poor performance.” It is a good way to discuss the the withdrawal option to save themselves a fail. “Based on your current performance, I seriously doubt I can pass you unless the moon turns pink for three nights in a row. (Or you work very, VERY, VERY hard.)” The final decision however, I feel should always be in the student’s hands.

Of course, for the threat of barred-unless-you-meet-me to work, I would have to actually bar those who do not meet me. Haven’t had the need to do that though.

Ken Robinson – Tread Softly on Our Children’s Dreams May 26, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Society, Student Development.
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Ken Robinson’s second talk at TED is as powerful as his first. He likens the urgency of solving the crisis of human resources (education) to solving the climate crisis. Some highlights:

“Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving a broken model. […] What we need is not an evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.”

I wish I had the luxury to give up on education in its current state as well. Still struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel over here. He also quoted something from Abraham Lincoln:

The dogmas of the quiet past is inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

I agree with Robinson – my favourite word in that whole quote is “disenthrall.” Every time I try to highlight to my peers or juniors that every “system” in the world is man made, far from perfect, and should be subject to scrutiny and improvement, they give me a blank stare. Being so enthralled robs them from the opportunity to see themselves as anything more than what the system tells them to be. It frightens me that so many of the next generation are content to choose courses based on what dad thinks will earn them the most money, with their own interest locked up deep in the closet.

It is also somewhat liberating to know that Lincoln had the wisdom to take tradition down a peg or two. The world it seems is stuck in the great vicious cycle of tradition. The young is deemed “too young” to be taken seriously, yet when they are deemed “old enough”, they often bring only the wisdom of “yesterday,” are out of touch with “today” and especially “tomorrow.” And those who decide who is “old enough” are often “the oldest possible,” who choose those most likely to honor “tradition.”

He ends the talk with a brilliant poem, and to a standing ovation. The brilliant talk below.

Ken Robinson’s earlier TED Talk is embedded in this post.

Another video I’ve found inspiring called “Exponential Times” below. It touches briefly on education and highlights quite well why things need to move forward – urgently. (Bear in mind that this is based on statistics from 2008 – two years ago.)

Teaching Math and Science – for Real May 14, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Science, Society.
2 comments

Incoming overly long sentence :- You know those ‘seizures’ you get when your mind is screaming, “OMG MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY” a little bit too loud in your own head when someone else is talking while you politely wait for them to finish talking so that you can agree with them vehemently? A US high school mathematics teacher gave me one of those today, via a TED X Talk.

It’s about a problem I’ve been trying to express for a while, especially to my fellow educators. I usually refer to it as “lexical analysis of examination questions without actual learning” (being the geek and programmer that I am). He calls it “lack of math reasoning and patient problem solving.” Both describe the “plug numbers into formula” teaching that we do in most of mathematics and science education today. He talks about the whole thing in a much more positive way though. I tend to ooze negativism and sarcasm whenever I discuss these things.

What we usually end up achieving is the conversion of our students into walking computers. Given carefully worded questions (not unlike a programming language) with strategically placed numbers, they will identify a pre-programmed formula (14 weeks of lectures and tutorials in university) and be able to spit out a solution and answer. We then conveniently ‘evaluate’ their math understanding based on that. Given real world problems however, the likelihood of them solving it is pretty low.

Video below:

English teachers never have to deal with their students only ‘theoretically’ being able to speak English. Why are math and science teachers settling for that? It … doesn’t compute – in any way or form for me. At university level, our usual excuse for continuing the numbers-into-formula-plugging-education is that the students are used to it, i.e. blaming it on the schools. I wonder who the schools blame it on. And when does this cycle change if not with every individual teacher/lecturer/department/faculty out there?

I think it is high time that society stopped settling for half-baked math and science education in schools and universities. Until there is consumer awareness of the crappy methodology we’re employing in formal education, there will be little push for things to move forward. For real.

P/S I give short talks (for free usually) on consumer empowerment in technical education. Sick and tired of lectures, but don’t know how to point out that it’s a crappy teaching method? Think of yourself as a holistic learner but being forced to learn sequentially? Or are you a teacher/lecturer or managing teachers/lecturers and would like to start finding better ways of reaching your students? Look me up.

A follow up video to that is of course Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on how formal education kills creativity. I can’t believe this video isn’t up on this blog yet.

On JAKIM Cheating on Online Poll Results March 10, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Politics.
2 comments

Tim wrote a post on his blog in which he claims to have found proof of JAKIM doctoring their own website’s poll on caning as a form of punishment. To translate, the poll asks “Is it proper for Muslim men and woman who commit the offences of drinking liquor and illicit sexual intercourse to receive the whipping sentence, in accordance to syariah criminal law?” The choices are “Proper” or “Not Proper.”

Tim was kind enough to furnish me the results of his script’s data (655 small HTML pages of the poll’s results page saved every 2 minutes) which I manually tabulated into 10 minute slices in Excel to obtain the number of votes every 10 minutes.

I immediately found that there are cheating on both sides of the poll, which shouldn’t surprise anyone really. Cookie deletion or IP anonymizers should be able to circumvent the poll’s one vote policy. Despite this, although I wouldn’t think of this as conclusive proof, I find Tim’s conclusions highly likely – 500 vote jumps on the “Proper” side happening three times is just a little too neat, even for people spamming votes.

It’s not hard to throw out the few slices of two minutes that contain obvious vote spamming on both sides of the poll. And the ‘real’ results of the poll, which is what I’m most interested in, is damning.

With spamming votes removed, between 11:30 a.m. on 9 March and 11:10 a.m. on 10 March, there are approximately:

  • 54 votes for “Proper”, vs
  • 604 votes for “Not Proper”
Cheating on Polls

Click to enlarge, full analysis in link below

Check out the analysis for yourself. The orange bits are the ones I decided are anomalous / cheated votes).

TMPoint – Enforce Your Own Queue System Please March 5, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Personal.
7 comments

I just sat for 1 1/2 hours in TMPoint Cyberjaya waiting for my turn ticket number “4056” to be called out on the automatic turn ticket announcer. Two counters were open for services other than payment of bills. As I waited, I watched as three different people cut the queue at both counters.

As is common with turn ticketing systems, people will press the buttons, take a ticket and then leave without waiting for their turn. So sometimes the system calls out numbers for whom the person is no longer present. A couple of opportunistic bastards happily took their place without showing their ticket number.

The staff at the counter didn’t ask for it.

A group of foreigners next to me were bewildered – trying to figure out why their turn haven’t arrived when people who very obviously arrived after they did (as much as an hour later) had their turn before theirs. They were nice enough not to make a fuss when I explained to them that people were cheating and the staff wasn’t even aware of it.

And no, this isn’t the case of someone leaving and coming back later. I SAW these three people press the button for their tickets. And all three waited for a while to make sure that no one was going to respond to that turn number before happily walking up to the counter (one even pretended to only notice her ticket after the second time the number was called).

To add salt to injury, all three of the bastards were applying for Streamyx, which is like a half-hour long process. I only wanted to change my address – which took like 5 minutes. The foreigners whose turn was just before mine also only took about 10 minutes.

If you’re going to have a turn ticketing system USE IT. It’s both idiotic and naive to assume that no one would attempt to cut the queue.