Saturday, March 23, 2013

Learning By Making Mistakes

Once upon a time many years ago, I used to play chess competitively. Many hours were spent analysing chess positions; sleepless nights hovering over a chess board thinking of the many, many possible moves in the hope of finding chess novelties. Many more hours were spent studying famous games played by chess grandmasters and trying to fathom their thought process.

But a major part of the learning process is focused on analysing one's own games, especially those of losses. The reason is quite simple—there must have been mistakes made somewhere in those games, and who knows, if one is able to find those mistakes, maybe it is possible to find solutions for a better move(s) in future games. And even if one is unable to find a brilliant alternative move(s), perhaps one is then able to at least avoid making those same mistakes in future games.

"One of the best ways of learning in life is by making mistakes."

That is a powerful sentence I had overheard during a family debate when I was still a teenager a long time ago, and it has remained in my mind up to now. Over the years, I've improvised on that sentence by adding: "provided that the person who is making those mistakes does not repeat them!"

You see, strange as it may seem, mistakes, as are many other things in life, have the habit of repeating themselves over and over again without the person who makes those mistakes even realising it! Thankfully, however, many of these mistakes have only short-term repercussions, perhaps soon to be forgotten. But some of them have far-reaching consequences, maybe something that would haunt the person for the rest of his or her life!

My brother, Dennis—when he was a boy—did very well in his Primary 6 exams despite many people thinking he'd do badly. I think most of those who thought he'd do badly had that impression because Dennis wasn't such a hard-working boy; he wasn't very disciplined when it came to his studies. Well, he proved them all wrong! Then the same thing happened during his Form 3 exams. Many people thought he'd do badly, but again he proved them all wrong!

After his Form 3 exams, armed with excellent results, Dennis went to the science stream. Now the thing about Form 4 is that there is somewhat a sudden "leap" in terms of standard—"Science" is separated to 3 branches, i.e. Biology, Physics and Chemistry; whereas "Mathematics" is separated to 2 branches, i.e. Modern Maths and Additional (Pure) Maths. I consider this as a major "leap" in the level of difficulty when compared to that of Form 3, but I suppose it's a natural progression of the education system. 

Because of the sudden "leap" above, the first few months of Form 4 becomes very important. That is the time when the student should evolve—so to speak—to adjust his mindset so that he can cope with the "new subjects". In fact, it is imperative that the student is always on his toes during early Form 4 so that he is not left behind when the boat leaves the harbour, seemingly in a jiffy!

But fate would have it that Dennis took the wrong boat. Because he was one of the best students in the entire school, he was chosen to join a diving expedition organized by the British government which sent a group of its teenaged students to dive the coral reefs here in Sabah for the filming of a TV documentary. Only 4 students from Dennis' school were offered the slots. It was in fact an opportunity of a lifetime! Well, to make the long story short, Dennis accepted the offer (with my dad's consent), and while his classmates were struggling to adapt to the science stream, he went deepsea-diving all over Sabah. By the time he came back to class a little over a month later, he was totally lost. He had an overwhelming workload in Maths, Biology, Physics and Chemistry to digest apart from trying to catch up with the ongoing lessons. It proved too tough, especially for someone who's not so hardworking in his studies. He eventually ended up with a Grade 3 in SPM the following year, and the rest, as they say, is history. He's been switching jobs several times over the years, and today drives a taxi for a living. If only he could foresee all those years ago what a month of deepsea-diving could do to his life!

If Dennis could turn back the clock to the first day of Form 4 again, do you think he would do it any differently?

History has a strange habit of repeating itself.

Dennis' eldest son, Mohd Aqil, also has similar traits as his daddy. I saw Dennis in Aqil since many years ago, and I regularly reminded Dennis to be careful with his son. But I had to do it very diplomatically, as his wife, Shidah, resents negative comments about her sons. I know some of my readers would accuse me of going beyond my authority as an elder brother, but what am I supposed to do when I'm seeing history repeating itself before my very eyes?

However, the tragedy is that Aqil did very well in Primary 6 despite my concerns. His mommy was understandably overjoyed to prove Uncle Kong wrong. Then came the Form 3 exams, and again I was proven wrong when Aqil achieved excellent results.

Then came the stunning part of the story. Just as Aqil started his first few days in Form 4 science class, he received an offer from his grandparents (his mommy's parents) for a few weeks' holidays to West Malaysia including to the theme park in Genting Highland. Apparently, it was an offer that's not to be missed.

Well, I don't know what you think of this story, but I saw this whole thing basically the same as about 30 years ago. It's almost like a dream to me—de javu, if you like. I had a serious talk with Dennis about this matter, hinting to him if he felt, like, perhaps he had seen this whole episode before?

So anyway, Aqil went for his few weeks' holidays, came back to resume From 4 science, absolutely lost for the most part, and eventually obtained 4 As when his SPM results were announced a few days ago. You might wonder what were the subjects that got As? They were Bahasa Malaysia, Modern Maths, Sejarah and Geografi. None of his science subjects scored A. Now in an education system like what we have in Malaysia where it is very common to get at least 7 or 8 As in SPM, 4 As is just terrible, really, especially since not even one of his science subjects got the A.

A classic example that proves that some people will never learn from their mistakes.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Unsophisticated Criminals & Crime Rates

My sister, Audrey, worked as a beautician for a while over twenty years ago. Back then I was still in high school and even up to now I'm not sure what her job was all about. She had among her regular clients several Datins who had grown so huge in all direction horizontally, though unfortunately not vertically. They were creatures who probably had trouble sighting their own feet; breasts weighing a few kilograms each and sagging to the waistline. My sister spent her days removing hairs from their legs, and at other times did that thing which I'm afraid I don't quite know what it's called—it's some sort of beating of the breasts using the palms of the hands, thus producing loud flip-flop sounds (which by the way had nothing to do with slippers) in the hope that that might firm up the breasts a bit? The things that people do!

But that's not what this post is about. I meant to give a background of what I'm gonna talk about, you see, and I somehow could think of nothing very interesting to start with except that breast-beating ritual. And just in case you're wondering—no, it wasn't really effective in firming up the breasts. 

Anyway, Audrey had an electronic machine which looked a lot like a sound system amplifier. It had a number of those tiny switches and tuners and plenty of wires attached to the unit. But it wasn't an amplifier at all. Instead, it was some sort of slimming machine. I'm not sure how it worked, but I think the wires from the machine were attached to a fat part of the body; and when it's activated, the wires would heat up. Somehow the fats from that part of the body would be melted away! Those of you who are working as beauticians, please excuse my ignorance if I'm not explaining the process accurately.

Then one day, that machine was stolen from home. Audrey did not even realise that the machine was gone. Who stole it? Well, the thief was actually a distant relative of ours who was staying in the same house. The circumstances leading to how he was caught was quite something. He wasn't even aware what that machine was, thinking that it was a sound system amplifier. But I'm not blaming him, because it did look like one. Desperate for quick cash, he sold that "amplifier" to a dumb manager of a band for RM400. He thought he got a good deal, buying an amplifier at such a cheap price. Only God knows what happened next—I reckoned the manager tested the "amplifier", using an earphone and maybe burning both his ears in the process; or smoke came out of his hair. But after he found out that that wasn't an "amplifier", he lodged a police report. So to  make the long story short, the police eventually caught the thief, and Audrey got her "amplifier" back.

Years later, when I was working in Brunei, I knew a young man who was the only son of a rich man. He had 7 sisters. But he was a lazy bum and never quite measure up to his father's expectations. He always got into trouble, and each time his father had to bail him out. Then one day he suddenly went missing. News quickly spread around. Police report lodged and a frantic search was made. There were speculations that he had been kidnapped for ransom; that a syndicate comprising very sophisticated criminals had carefully planned to squeeze some money from his father. But in the end, he was found dead in a budget hotel room in Limbang. In his suicide note, he apologized to his family members. He lost heavily in football betting, and owed a big some from loan sharks. He took the fast but painful way out.

On Monday this week, a friend told me that his cousin brother had gone missing while trying to deposit money through an automated teller machine. A police report was subsequently lodged. And just in case you don't already know it, lodging police reports is a national favourite pastime here in Malaysia. Apparently, the police had to wait until at least 24 hours had elapsed before they could act. So the family employed the services of a bomoh. The bomoh, apparently having seen too many movies in the likes of The Expendables and A Good Day To Die Hard, somehow arrived at the deduction that the poor lad had been kidnapped by a bunch of drug addicts, and then brought on a joyride all the way to Kudat!

Remembering the story of the useless idiot in Brunei, and keeping an open mind, I suggested to my friend that maybe it's not a case of kidnapping. Rather, it's a case of his cousin wanting to disappear. I had to put it nicely, of course, just in case I might offend my friend with my outrageous suggestion. It's strange that whenever faced with problems of this nature, people have the tendency of dismissing the simplest explanation, and would rather venture with explanations involving very sophisticated criminals whom have spent a lot of time and effort to plan and then execute the crime!

Then today, another friend shared her recent story on a facebook page, about how she had waited for her brother in the car with the engine running, but with all the doors locked. A man had come and tried to open the door, but when that failed, he broke the window. The friend had the right mind to get out of the car, shouting for help, but unfortunately the man drove off with the car.

I find it interesting that in both the latest cases above, there were comments that it's no longer safe these days, as we have more crimes going on in our cities. There was also a mention that "They keep telling us that crime rate is down but that's crap."

I'm not sure what's the truth of the matter. Is crime rate really down? Or has it gone up? I'm convinced that the actual number of crime cases is on the rise. But the size of the population is also on the rise. So it's entirely possible that when the authority tells us that crime rate is down, that's the truth, because even if the number of cases had increased, it's possible that in relation of the population growth, the rate has declined?

But anyway, I'm convinced that most criminals in Malaysia are not as sophisticated as what our romantic mind would like to believe. Well, maybe they will become sophisticated in a decade or two from now. What do you think?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2013

Let me begin by apologizing to some of my friends—I lied to them; I said I wasn't gonna run the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon (SCHKM) this year. But actually, I had planned to run the race since almost a year ago! You see, I've been doing quite a number of races ranging from duathlon to triathlon to ultra trail marathons, and had no choice but to neglect my road marathon. It's been about 2 years ago since the last time I achieved a personal best (PB) in the full marathon (42.2km) in Hong Kong as reported here. Since then, I've been running a few more full marathons, but was never able to prepare for a PB. So a little over half a year ago, I made up my mind that I must make it a point to achieve a PB in the full marathon in 2013. That's when I decided that my best chance for a PB is the SCHKM. The terrain in Hong Kong is a bit undulating, but the temperature is ideal at about 18C.

When the event opened for registration, I secretly registered after trying for almost 6 hours. But eventually, I made it into the first group, flagging off at 6:40am. I also decided to keep my participation a secret, especially from my friend, Teo. I thought I'd surprise him in Hong Kong. In fact, I pulled off a similar stunt once during a triathlon event in Miri as reported here.

Only a few people knew of my secret mission. But it wasn't easy to expect them all to keep my secret. Of course women are not generally good at keeping secrets, but my friend, Hana, did exceptionally well. Because of what happened in Miri before, Teo and Paul, suspected that I have secretly registered for Hong Kong. But they couldn't confirm it. They tried so hard to investigate. At one point at the height of their obsession to find out, they conspired with another friend, Marjie, to secure my passport numbers which they then tried to check with the SCHKM website to verify my participation, but to no avail.

I was careful to book a different hotel, and also bought the latest possible flight to Hong Kong on the eve of the race. For months leading up to the race, Teo tried so hard to persuade me to participate, but I was apparently adamant with my decision "not to go". Teo wasn't convinced though. So I had to help to convince him a little bit. You see, Teo was on a mission of achieving a sub-2hr half marathon in Hong Kong. He had been training very hard for it. So when he departed KK on the Friday afternoon, I went to the airport to see him off with this placard.

I had to show my face at the airport to indirectly convince Teo that he's not gonna see me welcoming him at Hong Kong airport when he arrived there. Unfortunately, Teo was too excited to achieve his sub-2hr PB that he went into the departure hall about 2 hours before his flight! But I had achieved my purpose of going to the airport anyway. Judy, who was waiting for my placard brought it to Teo in the departure hall.

My plan was going well so far, but little did I know first thing the next morning, when it was my turn to fly to Hong Kong, Anslem and Amy were also on the same flight. I could trust Anslem to keep my secret, but I knew that my plan was in jeopardy because Amy is of the opposite gender! Still, I had hoped that she could endure 24 hours of secret-keeping. Of course that's a long shot when it comes to women, but I kept my fingers crossed.

We duly arrived in Hong Kong, and we parted ways. I went to my hotel near Times Square, whereas Amy and Anslem went to the hotel where the rest of the group was staying, including Teo. In fact the rest of the group had all flown to Hong Kong a day or two earlier.

After checking in to my hotel, I walked to Victoria Park to collect my race pack. There were not many people there by then. But on my way back to the hotel, I had quite a surprise. Of all the places in the world, of all the times, I suddenly noticed the mighty Teo Chen Lung ahead with the rest of the pack! There were many people around, of course, but he would notice me for sure! I ran out of ideas; all I could do was to stoop low in the crowd. I saw Teo walked pass me. What a relief.

They went to Victoria Park where they met Tey Eng Tiong and some other Malaysians. And then of course the inevitable photo-taking, culminating in this jumping photo which has become quite fashionable these days.

I thought they were kinda overdoing the jumping thing, especially Judy (in black). With a spread eagle pose like that, it can give rise to unhealthy thoughts for men. But of course healthy or unhealthy, it all depends on how you look at the matter.

But later on, Judy sent me a text message, and somewhere in that message, she said "...see you later!" together with a smiley at the end, and I knew that's as far as Amy could keep my secret. Still, I was hoping that she didn't tell Teo.

I went around the city hoping to catch a movie, but in the end abandoned the idea. Later I went back to the hotel and finally fell asleep a little past midnight. I woke up at about 4:30am and went through the usual race-day ritual, finally leaving the hotel for the race venue at about 5:30am. The timing was just nice. I reached the starting point about half an hour before the flag off, and after depositing my drop bag, it was just a short wait before the countdown.

The thought that this was supposed to be the "faster group" of runners of 4-hours or less. But actually, after the flag off, the crowd was moving painstakingly slow. It wasn't till about 3km later when I was able to break free. But by then, I was a bit of a "deficit" in terms of time for my sub-4hr target. So I had to put in a bit of effort to regain some lost time. I had originally planned to run a constant 5:30min/km average pace, but because I've lost a bit of time, I had to run between 5:00-5:10min/km. That wasn't in my original plan, but I had no choice if I wanted to keep my sub-4 dream alive.

I eventually arrived at the 10km mark in a little over 55mins just as I had planned. So I was able to relax and eased down to about 5:30min/km pace. I was still feeling fresh at that point, but anyway it was still too early to tell if the 5:00-5:10min/km had an effect on my race.

I maintained that average pace, but when I went downhill, I took the advantage to increase my pace. Well, I reached the 30km point in about 2:40 and was very pleased that I was still feeling great! At that point of the race, I felt like I had a shot at a 3:45 finish. I thought I'd continue running at 5:20-5:30min/km up to around 35km, and then beyond that point if I still felt OK, perhaps I'd increase my pace for a strong finish. Running the remaining 12km within 1:05 seemed very achievable; it wasn't even very fast!

I finally went into that long tunnel under the sea. It's a long down-slope section, and I was happily running until I emerged on the other side when there's a sudden sharp climb. Immediately I could feel both my quads seizing up. I knew then I was in trouble. The thing about cramps is that once you get it, there is really no cure. It won't go away for the rest of the race. You just have to manage it, and hope to endure till the end! For the next 7km or so, I was running at pathetic pace, ranging between 7-8 min/km with occasional walking breaks. Thankfully, however, I had built up a big enough time buffer during the earlier stages of the race that I was still comfortably within the sub-4hr margin. All I had to do was to keep going.

The final few kilometres, as always, was the toughest part of the race. But when I arrived at the 40km mark, in spite of the pain in my legs, I was feeling happy—I knew that I've achieved my mission in Hong Kong. I eventually crossed the finish line, and looking at my Garmin, pumped my fist in the air.

Judy was running in the second group, and judging from her pace during training, I thought she should be able to achieve at least a 3:50 finish in Hong Kong. 

But as always, she had a bit of trouble controlling her appetite—she ran too fast in the beginning, and then paid heavily at the tail end of the race, hitting the "wall" after passing the 30km mark. Still, she achieved her PB and finished in 3:56.

Anslem and Amy ran together throughout the race, eventually achieving sub-4 finish too, i.e. 3:57. These are the happy faces at the finish line.

You may wonder what happened to Teo and his sub-2hr mission? Well, he ran his perfect half marathon in Hong Kong and achieved his target to a marvel; he finished in a 1:51 in dramatic fashion, with the final 100m sprint in what appeared like an Usain Bolt Olympics performance. The expression on his face was of course not something to be recommended for small children to see—as it may cause nightmares—but decidedly it was an expression that was impossible for the photographers to miss!

For the benefit of those who don't know Teo, that's him at the bottom (ignore the photos above).

SCHKM is a historic day for a few others from KK too. Fabian O. Daimon, the top Sabahan runner achieved a PB of 2:41 in the full marathon. Paul, although not very happy with his time, finished his half marathon with a PB in 1:56. Dr Heng made a debut 10km and was obviously very pleased to conquer the distance, though not really concerned about the time. Ah Diong finished yet another half marathon, but although he did not achieve a PB, he was happy nonetheless for the PB he achieved with his drinking sessions. Heng's son, and Paul's wife, Joe, Audrey, Jai Malik and Victoria did very well too. 

It was a day of PBs and record breaking affair; quite an outing for our Sabahan group. Congratulations and well done, y'all! But of course none of us could beat Teo's achievement. I'm sure anyone would know by just looking at his expression. 

Now I'm trying to convince Teo to run a sub-4hr full marathon next year. But, oh boy, I'm afraid to even imagine his facial expression then!