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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.


Mandarin misadventures December 15, 2011

Posted by Siew in Education, Personal.
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I recently took an indefinite break from my Mandarin classes. There is a good possibility that this break will turn into a complete stop to be honest.

I am convinced that Mandarin is the hardest language in the world to learn, for 2 reasons.

1. Mandarin and all chinese dialects are tonal. This is one excuse that I cannot hide behind. I grew up speaking Cantonese, and spent my entire secondary life listening to people speak Mandarin. When I went to class, pronunciation was never a problem. But to the uninitiated, it can be a nightmare. I have watched people who never grew up with tonal languages mess up Mandarin as they try and learn. The worst part is, it seems like one of those things that you can either do or cannot do. I have watched the teacher repeat the word 5 times and every single time, the attempt at saying the word comes out completely different. Tonal languages are a bitch to learn.

2. When learning English, you learn what the word sounds like and then you learn the meaning. That’s only 2 things. With Mandarin, you need to learn 3; what it sounds like, what it means and what it looks like. There is no alphabet. There is only a very basic system that will allow you to guess some of the words (but at other times, lead you completely astray). That additional connection that needs to be made for every single word you learn is a hell of a lot of effort. You can never find someone who can speak English (or French or Spanish or German for that matter) who cannot read the language. But with Mandarin, its entirely possible.This one problem is enough to make Mandarin enough of an uphill battle to make me want to quit.

In all fairness, I don’t think I worked very hard at improving my Mandarin. I almost never did any work outside of the classroom. And perhaps the teaching , methods were not particularly suited to me. But this teacher is as close as I will ever get to someone who can teach Mandarin to an English speaker (most other teachers will treat their adult students like Primary 1 Mandarin students, which makes it much, much worse). The fact that this didn’t really work out probably means that I will never learn the language, unless I work a lot harder.

I haven’t given up completely yet. I will attempt to revert to book 1 of my lessons and see if I can improve my reading from there. If I can read the passages there without much problems, them maybe there is hope yet.

Of scholarships and not getting one. May 27, 2011

Posted by Siew in Education, Uncategorized.

Much has been said about the allocation of scholarships from the Public Services Department recently. Somehow, a media storm has emerged from the unfair allocation of such scholarships. It is a somewhat curious thing to note that the all the hoo-ha is only starting now when the skewed nature of the allocation has been clear as day for many, many years. Someone important must have gotten passed over.

But that is not really what I want to say. I have 4 points of contention.

1. Scholarships are not a divine right

I think a popular perception is that scholarships are the domain of the best and the brightest. I disagree. The point of Government scholarships is not to pay for the smartest kid’s education. It is to pay for the neediest kid’s education. If I look at the people who have grouses with the system, they are inevitably from the middle class with a decent income. The gripe is that my son/daughter scored perfect scores in the SPM and was a national junior something. He/she deserves to study medicine in Ireland. Their proof is that someone with an inferior record (inevitably, this example will be Bumiputera) managed to secure the place, and therefore, there is foulplay.

I do not deny that foul play very likely happened there. The lack of transparency at all levels of Government ensures that this will always be a problem. But I find this notion that a scholarship must be awarded purely based on merit to be a little arrogant and selfish.

We have to remember that these scholarships are awarded by the Public Service Department. Key words in that phrase being PUBLIC SERVICE. That means they serve the public, and while I am sure that a middle class family with a house in USJ and 2 cars can claim to be part of the public, they would do well to remember that we have a population of 27 million. Ultimately, the department’s job is to serve the greater good of the public, and I do believe that giving impoverished families a chance to get out of a cycle of continued poverty is a responsibility of the government.

2. Not getting a scholarship is not the end of the world

This is a point that I feel particularly strongly about. I was one of those passed over by the PSD. Thankfully, I wasn’t particularly bothered due to a complete lack of ambition. I went on to study at a local university, funded by my middle income parents. I could have gotten a student loan that charges a very low interest from PTPTN, but my parents were nice enough to foot the entire bill. I am now working as a professional, and supporting myself just fine. I contrast this with friends who have returned from overseas on PSD scholarships. They are doing the exact same thing as I am. If the whole point of a scholarship and an education is to raise your kid’s standard of living, then I really don’t see why the PSD scholarship is seen as the one and only ticket to a decent job.

The Government is not the only entity giving out scholarships. There are corporations out there that give out scholarships too. Funnily enough, most do not demand perfect results, only a reasonable level of character that would see a fresh graduate through the working world. I suppose it would fit that any kid that would kick up a ruckus and claim the end of the world just because life is unfair would end up failing a test of character.

3. The ‘deserving’ won’t be anywhere close to getting a scholarship if the rules of allocation were really applied.

If you look at the requirements for getting a scholarship, it is explicitly stated that people of a certain standard of living are not qualified. This is separation is normally done by checking monthly income, and as it stands, I do not know of a single person who has ever gotten a PSD scholarship who fits that criteria. Their parents’ combined income far surpasses the minimum income to qualify. It is a virtual certainty that those that are complaining of not getting a scholarship now are in the same boat. They are not impoverished, they are well off enough to have an internet connection. Sure, the system is broken.  None of the rules are really followed in the first place. The point is, we cannot pick and choose the rules we want to follow. We have to take them all, be they rules that dictate qualification based on grades or based on socio-economic backgrounds. Assuming that the Government cleans up its act and applies the rules as they should be applied, none of the people that are being denied now are going to get anything anyway.

Lets just assume, for the sake of pretending that its possible, that we revamped the entire PSD scholarship system and staffed it with fair personnel. What would you say is a fair income threshold before someone is disqualified? Lets give it a very generous RM3,000. That is far more money than any unskilled labourer will ever get in this country. (And those are the people whose kids that the money is for in the first place) Nobody who is now currently posting their frustrations on the internet now could possibly be earning less than that by the time their children are of university going age. So their application will get thrown out anyway. The reality is this: A middle income family cannot send 3 kids to study in the UK without making some very painful sacrifices. And yet, they want the best for their kids, and there is an avenue to get the taxpayers to pay for their education instead. Over time, the privilege of the PSD scholarship has mutated into a divine right. It doesn’t help that Asians tend to think that the only yardstick for intelligence is exams, and that the government officers themselves abuse the system for their own gain. I think the people who are protesting now should realize that they are also trying to exploit the system themselves. The difference is, they want to do it breaking a different rule.

Its even more interesting then the PSD offers them a local scholarship instead. They get all up in arms that they don’t get to go to the USA to study but someone else who did worse did. They are still getting an education. But that isn’t enough. They want an education abroad. Apparently, the quality of education there is better. Since they got better results, they deserve the better quality. Makes sense, but I cannot seem to shake off the feeling that it has more to do with the glamour of an overseas education and the four year holiday that comes along with it.

4. Wrong placement of scholarships is causing a brain drain.

I won’t deny that it contributes. But to pin this one problem on a much larger issue of talent flight is a bit of an over-reaction. People leave Malaysia for a huge number of reasons. Unfair policies do not only affect scholarship awards. It runs deep in every aspect of Government. I get very amused when I read responses from disgruntled parents who have had to spend their own money to educate their kids overseas. They say that the children deserved scholarships and didn’t get them. They were devastated. Now they are working overseas and are never coming back because the government was unfair to them before.

There are countless cases of scholars who flat out refuse to return to the country to serve even though they have used half a million ringgit of tax payer money. These parent write as if a provision of the scholarship would have ensured that their child would have returned to serve like a responsible citizen would. In reality, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference at all.

The PSD scholarship system is broken and needs to be fixed. There are likely to be some legitimate complaints in that big mess of voices claiming injustice. But I can’t shake off the feeling that a lot of the people complaining haven’t really thought it through.

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

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Student Development, Teaching.

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.

The Logic Behind Barring August 26, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Student Development, Teaching.

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.


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.

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.

The Incomplete Survey April 28, 2010

Posted by Will in Education, Fiction, History, Society, Uncategorized.

If life is a tapestry, Gezus was fairly sure that it is one of a million creatures copulating to the rays of as many stars. He was in a foul mood for certain, as was his mate earlier when last night’s effort proved to be fruitless yet again. Shina did the test three times and was last seen crying and on a tirade about his diet when he stepped out of the house to get to work. So the day that started off dismally continued its whimpering trajectory when the computer fed him the report of the latest survey.




It then rather painfully elucidate that the civilization on the planet is at least a couple of hundred years behind in sociological and mental development although technology is only lagging behind by a little shy of a century. Gezus tapped his temple, found the location of the survey fleet and started the procedures to beam his mind aboard their flagship, Are We There Yet.  He would be gone for at least a month and decided to let the computer inform Shina of that fact. Of course, being the honourable and sensitive male that he was, he hinted at the computer that it would not be too untoward if it made some insertions of URGENT, EXTREME, HELP and HERO at choice locations in the message.

Now it would usually be prudent to have described what Gezus looked like, or the general traits if his highly advanced species. Truth of the matter is, it would be an exercise in futility as they practically do not own bodies permanent in nature. In fact, their whole species is a complete amalgamation of different ones across the galaxy. What remains wholly “Gezus” is a brain which could be adapted into various bodies, although most would choose to stick to one for a reasonable period of time for the sake of procreation and as a matter of personal taste.  Members of Gezus’ society could also choose to be immortal as their neural imprints can be transferred into an artificial brain upon the deterioration of their natural ones.  Strangely, this was a practice not a widely embraced.


One peculiar thing about the space vessels operated by Gezus’ society is that not only do they run themselves but also they also name themselves, and often very inconveniently. For example, in the 4th Survey Fleet, the flagship was escorted by two larger ships Honourable Ideals and An Instrument of Peace. These two combat ships are somewhere between two to three kilometres in length and bristled with pointy ends like a Terran monarch caterpillar. Are We There Yet in comparison is a plain disc only a tenth long with observation ports all around the outside edge of the disc. Despite its diminutive size however, it boasted the biggest and most boisterous member of the fleet as its captain.

Captain Seeker Kitan was said to possess such a sensitive nose he could smell your mind (and indeed, the extremely sophisticated business end of his face was tuned to detect neural waves) so when Gezus stepped into the vast cabin at the bow of the flagship Kitan whirled around in a practiced fashion and boomed “Welcome, Operator to Are We There Yet-“

No we are not, Captain. I’d wish you would stop asking or we’ll never get there,” said the ceiling anxiously in a decidedly female voice. “Honestly, how hard is it to-.“ The voice continued but stopped abruptly when Kitan slapped a button on his chest.

“- and to my personal cabin. Don’t mind the ship’s computer, she’s bound to be a bit touchy after not getting anywhere for the better part of five hundred years, “ continued Kitan, apparently used to the interruption. Gezus had read about the ship’s tradition which originated far in the past where her navigators would plot courses a few parsecs more than required to avoid the chance that they would appear in the middle of a star, which was a tragic possibility back then. The practice then gained traction and has been continued ever since, driving the ship bonkers. “One of those spacefarers’ superstition no doubt.” He thought.

“Thank you for receiving me, Captain. Do you have my cover and vehicle ready?” Gezus asked as he glanced inquisitively at the ceiling.

“Yes you will find that all the navigational data has been provided and your human body is fresh from the factory. I’ve even taken the liberty to double check its backup organs and smooth every wrinkle, which seems to be quite a bad thing down there,” said Kitan gravely as he thumbed at the blue-green sphere off to the starboard bow.

“Thank you. I shall be back with a full report as soon as I can.” Gezus was about to turn away when Kitan approached and spoke softly, “there is something you should know.”

Gezus arched an eyebrow.

“Well, you see during the last survey we only managed to take samplings in a relatively small area. A complete survey was not possible due to-ah…us accidentally colliding with one of their probes,” whispered Kitan nervously.

“But that’s not possible! We would have caught the probe on our scans,” exclaimed Gezus.

“We would have, but for the fact that we were too busy shadowing one of their recently launched spacecrafts to notice. One which according to our calculations was heading to the fourth planet from the star,” chuckled Kitan, before continuing “Now that we’re needed at Alpha Centauri for some urgent pirate teasing mission, we will leave after you’ve landed and pick you up on the way back. I trust you would do a thorough job where we couldn’t.”

“I will try, but isn’t it puzzling how could these humans launch an even a primitive interplanetary mission with these low technological readings?” Gezus shook his head as he studied the report in his mind.

“Why did you think we brought you here? Now go prep for your launch, them pirates won’t be happy if I arrive late to the party.” Said Kitan with what you would call a wink as he guided Gezus out the door.

Two hours later Gezus landed as stealthily as he could in a small forest a short ways from a crossroad next to a field. His pod instantly buried itself into the soil as he made his way north quickly through the shrubs. His proxy body and clothes were closely tailored to match the inhabitants of the area where he landed, which was the only country surveyed by Kitan. As he approached the crossroad he attempted to work out the native script on the wooden sign by the roughly tarred road. There was nobody in sight but birds flying in the glare of the rising sun as he read:

“PYONGYANG – 25 Km.”


Author’s note:This was written rather quickly as a short story in reaction to North Korea’s most recent threat to nuke the US(for the umpteenth time) after a report about the South Korean navy ship was sunk by a torpedo launched by NK. And this is after all the aid by the US (among others) given to alleviate the famine which killed millions.

It’s just amazing how far removed a whole country can be in this day and age. It is also pretty telling how a biased education coupled with media blackouts is able to totally transform the perception of reality for these people. I’m pretty sure NK isn’t the first nor the last of these extreme forms of dictatorship where the head of state is still revered as The Saviour much akin to godhood while the citizens starve and never felt freedom nor WISH for it.

Is the onus on us more cultured and rational global citizens to liberate them? What would you do for a lost sibling who was raised by trolls and who threaten you repeatedly with a butcher knife every time you try to start a conversation?

On the flip side…perhaps these north koreans have an immense gratitude for their Supreme Leader, being how he saved them from certain death, never mind now that they’ll be thrown into a life of servitude and ignorance. Maybe the joke is on us and they’re all smoking something really awesome, which begs the question – where did they get it and can I have some?

Notes on Starting Teaching – Week 3 March 1, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Teaching.
1 comment so far

This week I got my first dose of the immense, crushing kind of feeling you get when you realize that your class have little to no idea of what you’re talking about – I gave them a quiz. I bet my students had the same kind of feeling as well – none of them managed to answer the fairly easy questions, poor things.

After two weeks of dealing with a fairly passive class, and having little to no feedback of their understanding of my classes, I decided to embark on some continuous assessment. I’m also trying finding out if students more willing to participate if there are marks at stake. I designed three activities, one individual, one small group and one whole class discussion. I ran out of time to do the small group activity, but we did the other two.

Individual Activity

Anyways here’s the sequence of events:

  1. Announced in class and in our online learning system that there’s going to be a quiz during the next class on sampling distribution.
  2. Generated 200 random 9-digit numbers (random.org) and counted the number of numbers with a digit recurring beside itself (976511234 has ‘1’ recurring beside itself) – there are 112 out of 200 of these. (56%) Got the basic idea for the recurring digit test from a book.
  3. In class, discussed briefly if computers and humans are capable of generating truly random numbers by themselves. (These are IT students at foundation level.)
  4. Asked each student to, as randomly as possible, write down a 9 digit number. Out of 74 students, 9 wrote numbers with a recurring digit. (12.2%)
  5. Explained how random.org uses atmospheric parameters to generate random data to affect its random number generation in order to be truly random, and showed them the numbers generated earlier.
  6. Asked them three questions as a quiz:

  • Propose which statistic we have discussed can most accurately be assumed to describe the proportion of all truly random numbers that have a digit appearing beside itself. Why?
  • Using your proposal above, what is the probability that in a sample of random numbers, you will find the class’ proportion of random numbers generated that have a digit appearing beside itself or less?
  • Based on the discussion and the result of your calculation above, can humans accurately ‘behave’ randomly? Why?

To help them:

  • I circled in bright red the only two statistics we discussed.
  • They were free to open their textbook (or anything else, for that matter).
  • I told them the page of the chapter (sampling distribution) that have samples of this question.
  • They were free to discuss it among themselves.

Two out of 74 students decided that 56% most closely describes the percentage of random numbers with a recurring digit. TWO. No one figured out that they could’ve just filled in p=56%, p(hat)=12.2% and n=74 into the equation in the suggested chapter to get the probability. Half of the students answered 12.2% as the answer to question 2, showing that although they get what proportions are for, they cannot yet extrapolate it to the concept of sampling distributions. And a lot of them reasoned at length for the third question without basing it on the results of their calculation.

I’m guessing the problem here is a combination of these:

  • I covered sampling distribution before a 1 1/2 weeks pause for CNY – they’ve forgotten it.
  • They’re waiting until the mid-trimester examinations to study the topic.
  • I’m not making enough sense in class.

I’m going to try switching it around a bit – doing a quiz-like activity immediately at the end of a topic to see if they improve any.

Class Activity

I got the whole class to discuss about gathering height and salary information from lecturers to do a local survey similar to the one found here. Purposely chose this topic since that they have to deal with how to obtain sensitive information, and naturally leads to discussions about anonymity, privacy and so on.

The idea is to give them an immensely easy way to score – the whole class gets the same score, if they cover the 8 things important to running surveys and gathering data in their discussion. I prompt them from the side of course. They picked up 5 out of the 8 matters. About 10 students participated actively, they rest stared into space. Yep – even when there’s marks at stake. Suffice to say, not going to do this again. Heh.


At the end of the day, I find that my wish to innovate my teaching methodology for the course is severely limited by the assessment method, which is out of my control – 70% mid-trimester and final examinations. The usual sit down, closed book affair. Even the 20% assignments are more exam-oriented questions that they are to do and submit. It seems to be common practice in math courses, from my own experience. The only purpose of giving an assignment of this kind, it seems to me, is to ensure that a few dedicated students actually do the questions, and that the rest copy it. Does copying solutions constitute learning? (Maybe it helps one memorize the format of specific math solutions?)

The overt pressure I feel as the lecturer for this subject seems to be to teach them how to solve these examination questions. In a way, their final examinations is both a test for them, as well as myself. Individually if they score well they get a good grade. Collectively if they score well, it is taken as an indication that I have taught them well. And at that point, what would I have taught them exactly?

The individual activity I did above is an example of an ‘unnecessary’ activity for the purpose of teaching them how to answer examination questions. That activity involved a little bit of analysis and even synthesis, whereas they only need knowledge, comprehension and application to answer examination questions. To teach the latter three, all I would’ve done is to present the question, “Given that 56% of all random numbers have a recurring digit, calculate the probability that a random sample of 74 numbers have only 9 numbers with recurring digits,” and given them the solution. It takes only 20 seconds to come up with, and the chances of them answering it correctly in a quiz with an open book is significantly higher.

The activity I conducted in class on the other hand took a few hours to prepare – finding the idea, generating the numbers, counting them, coming up with a good way to phrase the questions etc. Yet the easy one – examination questions – is what both I and they will be assessed on at the end of the semester. Why then, should I bother teaching them the former? Not that I didn’t realize all this before, but this is the first time I’m experiencing it for myself.

It is frustrating because statistics is such an interesting subject. Imagine if we harnessed the power of our statistics undergraduate students in mini studies and projects for the past ten years, we would have correlated thousands of pairs of statistics in the university by now!

In a limited-circulation piece I wrote some time ago, I said:

What our undergraduates are actually picking up in the vast majority of subjects is a form of lexical analysis and pattern recognition – they are studying the forms examination questions usually take, and they practice the solution to these questions in order to later answer their examination papers. Every chapter becomes the source of a few possible examination question types, instead of a slice of knowledge.

Even now as a lecturer, recognizing this, I feel that I am helpless to change it.

For now.

Blinfolded Reading (?) February 22, 2010

Posted by Wilz in Education, Science.

My dad is pretty excited about some of his friends’ children apparently learning to read anything – newspapers, notes you write and hold in front of them – while blindfolded. Some can, while blindfolded, ride a bicycle, find their parents in a crowd, fill in colors on a line graphic, etc. Apparently this have existed in Russia and Japan for years, Russia takes 1 year to master, Japan takes 3 months to learn it, but the new Malaysian technique takes only 2 days training. (Googling for it only returns Malaysian hits though. Someone Google this in Japanese/Russian for me?) It only mostly works for kids between 5-12.

The trainer have trained thousands of kids all over Malaysia, is apparently franchising overseas to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The training is marketed as ‘midbrain’ activation, or activation of the ‘mesencephalon’ (bridge between left and right brain), which is allegedly good for all kinds of things – memory, concentration, creativity, sports (i.e. you name it, we got it). The blindfolded reading is not the intention, but is just a ‘proof’ of successful midbrain activation, and is explained by using the brainwave to ‘scan’ stuff in substitution of reading.

[EDIT 2013: Their site no longer contains literature on the ‘mid brain’ or the ‘mesencephalon’. Everywhere the term ‘mid brain activation’ have been replaced with just ‘brain activation’ or the term ‘super sensory’. However, their customers still refer to it as ‘mid brain’ activation – as can be seen in many YouTube videos such as this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eHeECJPIqE or the YouTube search link below.]

Although I am still highly skeptical about the blinfolded reading itself, the trainer have successfully built up quite a strong public ‘first-hand witness’ support – googling ‘blindfold reading’ and ‘midbrain activation’ have brought up tons of links, even youtube videos, and apparently our Prime Minister Badawi himself have witnessed this and approved a project under Ling Liong Sik. I think it’ll be easier to challenge what this claims to be. [Paragraph edited in 2013 for clarity.]

Let’s get the links out of the way:

To his credit, the trainer isn’t trying to turn this into some kind of mystic, spiritual or religious mumbo-jumbo. To his money-making credit, that makes a lot of sense as well, since he does want religious parents to pay RM 600++ to send their kinds for this.

Some points:

  • I am willing to allow the first hand reports I’ve heard/read (including my father’s word) that these children are learning to see through a blindfold. There’s too many of them.
  • The training method is not 100% known – parents are not allowed in during the training, to protect the training method as an intellectual property, it is claimed.
  • I don’t believe that this guy knows for sure scientifically what he’s doing. Perhaps he figured out how to teach kids to see through a blindfold, and needs a better way to market his training. Seeing with your eyes closed is usually pretty useless to those with eyes after all. Maybe.
  • We need to get a scientist in here.

I initially thought this was hypnosis induced synaesthesia, i.e. switching of the senses. Seeing with sound, hearing with your sense of smell, tasting shapes, thinking of colors as numbers. The Borneo Post article seems to suggest that some kids ended up with this since some did smell or touch the cards. The guy’s website claims that what he teaches isn’t synaesthesia (in his website, he refers to this as third eye training, and differentiates himself).

[EDIT 2013: Thanks to my skeptic doctor friend Sen Wai (http://k0ks3nw4i.blogspot.com/) – I came to re-read the literature on synaesthesia and understood that this is not how it works. Synaesthesia is not a replacement of one sense with another sense, but more like cross talk between the senses in the brain. Seeing numbers in color, or hearing sounds when seeing certain patterns etc. It doesn’t ‘replace vision with hearing’ for example. I’ve edited references to it in this article.]

Apart from the science behind this, i.e. how it works, and whether it actually is the left-right brain bridge being ’empowered’ somehow, what I’d like to know is:

  • the success rate of the training (how many kids end up reading through a blindfold, apparently it’s 100% atm),
  • the actual rates of attaining the ‘real benefits’ of midbrain activation as claimed by the training (memory, improving at studies, sports, etc), and
  • the retention rate – how many retain or lose this ability as they grow up.

If the company is serious about maintaining this, then they should commission some research to obtain the above statistics. If of course they’re reluctant, we’ll know why.

Part of being a skeptic is keeping an open mind after all, and a major part of being a scientist (or science lover) is retaining your sense of amazement at the natural wonders of the world without having to give it a nonsense explanation. Having said all the above, WTF this is amazing! (If actually true.) I’d love to get some opinions/independent research bout this.

Someone get Michael Shermer in here!

(And someone get me one of those kids so I can interrogate him/her.)