Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Art of Reasoning

It has been said that students in Chinese schools are generally good in maths when compared to their peers from non-Chinese schools. On paper, I'm inclined to agree with this general view. I'm sure many, many people agree with this view too.

In Malaysia, a number of those students from the Chinese schools will eventually pursue their studies in non-Chinese schools and higher-learning institutions, and inevitably they will compete with students whom are without Chinese education background. Such was the case when I was in Form 6 many years ago. What I realised was that the students originating from Chinese schools were indeed good in maths, but when it came to applied maths, they were not necessarily better than those from non-Chinese schools. In fact, in some cases, they were weaker!

My daughter, JJ, is studying in a Chinese school since Primary 1. She is now in Primary 6. I'm planning to put her in a non-Chinese school when she goes to Form 1 next year. The main reason why I put her in a Chinese school is to learn Mandarin. Mandarin is a useful language in the business world, and it is widely accepted that it will become increasingly important in time to come.

When JJ was in Primary 1, her mommy sent her to the so-called mental arithmetic class. The concept behind the mental arithmetic system is that the students are taught how to use the abacus, an ancient calculation device popularly used by the Chinese. They are trained by repetitive use of the abacus, over and over again, to such an extent that they're eventually able to visualize the device in their mind. When faced with mathematical questions, they would count on the abacus in their mind, all the while "seeing" the device through some sort of photographic memory. In a way, it is something like playing chess when considering possible moves, and move orders in the mind.

If the kid is well trained in the mental arithmetic mentioned above, he will soon become an expert at it. I have heard of people describing the ability as "lightning speed", "walking calculator", "living computer" and the likes. If you are not convinced this is possible, check out this video clip. These kids are so impressive in their speed of calculations.

Nevertheless, I'm not a big fan of the mental arithmetic approach of learning maths. So you will not be surprised that I stopped JJ from continuing her abacus lessons just a few months after she started. I noticed something peculiar about many of my classmates from the Chinese schools in Form 6—many of them lacked the skill of reasoning things out in a logical manner. Yes, they were fast in calculations, but mathematical problems are not only about speed and memory work. A great deal of maths has something to do with logic and requires reasoning in order to solve. That was why they struggled in applied maths.

This thing about the emphasis on speed and memory is a good thing, but not to be over-emphasized to eclipse the art of reasoning. The reality is that, life is not a text book that has a fixed set of problems that we can commit to memory. If one over-develops the speed and memory aspects of the learning process at the expense of neglecting to develop the art of reasoning, my view is that he will end up being the perfect employee, but he has little prospects to be the employer.

Children have the tendency to quickly form a habit in whatever they do. If they are too comfortable in memorizing and "seeing" the abacus in their mind, then that will also become the approach in whatever else they do.

Mathematics—I mean the real essence of it—requires logical thinking, not the mere skill of counting on the abacus. In fact, most other things in life require logical thinking too. Furthermore, one can count equally accurately and fast in the modern working place with the aid of calculators and computers. These are very common modern day gadgets that secondary schools these days allow the use of calculators in exams, so that speed in mental arithmetic is not necessarily a big plus. Well, at least not to me. I'd rather teach my daughter to reason out her problems and then solve it in a logical manner; not merely seeing a device in her head, use it to arrive at a conclusion but without really appreciating why that is the answer.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Ironman—Castles In The Air

It's been a few weeks since the day I was involved in a bike crash with my friend, Teo Chen Lung, during a Saturday long ride as reported here. We were training for the Ironman New Zealand which will be on 01 March. Although we weren't cycling very fast, it was a serious mishap anyway—both Teo and I suffered bruises on the thigh, arm and ribs. I also landed heavily on my left knee, thus causing pains up to now. Over the last few weeks, Celebrex had been my daily staple. If not for my helmet, I would have suffered a severe head injury too. In fact, it could have been fatal.

While I'm still pursuing the Ironman in March, sadly, Teo broke his collar bone, and a few days after the accident, Dr Heng performed a surgery on him to install a titanium brace. It would take several weeks for the healing process, and perhaps several more after that for total recovery to the pre-accident state. That absolutely ended his Ironman New Zealand dream. 

This is the result of Dr Heng's artwork:

Knowing Teo and his expensive taste, I reckoned that he must have insisted that Heng install a 24-carat gold bracing instead of the titanium one. However, as you all know, gold is a good electric conductor; I cringe at the thought of him getting struck by lightning when he goes running in the rain.

Sometimes, it's strange how life has the tendency to be cruel. Teo has been training very diligently for almost a year now. So much time and effort had been spent; he's been training mornings and evenings almost on a daily basis for so long. He was so into the Ironman thing, I tell you! Yet, a bike crash ended it all just like that. But I know this fellow—he will be back again with the latest fashion in triathlon outfits; a new tribike as light as a feather complemented with all the accessories with the word "aero" in all of them; helmet worth a few thousand bucks, and he will get his hands on that forsaken Ironman medal, come rain or shine!

However, a friend of ours, Pamela Fletcher, made a brilliant observation. She noted that Teo took so much trouble to prepare for the New York City Marathon the year before last, but it was cancelled because of the devastation of storm. Having travelled all the way to New York, Teo eventually ended up running in the park that day. And now the Ironman New Zealand is also not happening for him. Pam suggested that maybe Teo should refrain from choosing an Ironman event with the word "NEW" in it. I'm inclined to agree with Pam.

You may wonder; what of this Ironman pretender? Well, to be honest, I have been trying to train as much as I could. I continued training even during the Chinese New Year holidays. But I just can't train as much as Teo did. It's not really a matter of discipline, but my old body just can't recover in time if I were to train mornings and evenings. I read an online article recently that said the minimum training for the Ironman is 15 hours a week, but I'm barely training up to 10 hours per week for all 3 disciplines combined. Looks like New Zealand is fast shaping up to be my worst nightmare. I'm not being stubborn; I just hate to quit without trying.

A few days after Teo said that he's out, Paul decided that he's not ready for the challenge because of lack of training. Hence he's also withdrawn from the race. So now it seems that I will be the sole Pretender from the Land Below The Wind pursuing the Ironman in New Zealand. It will be a lonely and sad trip for me. 

Considering the amount of time and efforts required for the Ironman, this would most probably be my first and last Ironman. What promised to be a fun and exciting trip for Moe, Larry and Curly, has come to the reality that only Moe will be there at the start line.

Castles in the air—that's what this is, really. I have never even swam in a wetsuit up to now. And I've never even tried 500m front crawl in the pool. Last Saturday I biked 165km and was totally exhausted in the end. It's beyond my wildest imagination how I'm going to swim 3.8km, then bike 180km and finally run 42.2km in New Zealand. But I still have a little less than 3 weeks to prepare a failure speech. It will be a long flight to New Zealand, so I have plenty of time to work on that speech.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Old Boy, Playboy & Ah Boy

I posted an article entitled Time & Its Healing Properties a few years ago. In it, I told the story of my step-grandfather, whose existence I've always considered as one of God's biggest blunders. It's been a few years since that day at Girlie's wedding reception when we met, and although I've met the Old Boy several more times after that, those were merely brief encounters. Well, he's 97 years old now and yesterday he collapsed during a heart attack at home. He was then sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital 2 near my house. 

By this morning, we were notifying each other of his condition. Apart from the heart attack, he had breathing difficulty and numerous other complications. He has hypertension, muscular and joint pains, diabetes, regular stomach upset and trouble eating, as well as perpetual constipation, just to name a few. Things were looking grim indeed. Some of us visited him today. I did too, and spent about an hour's worth of chit-chatting with the Old Boy.

Incidentally, over the last few weeks, the Playboy has been having breathing difficulty too. I was told that my sister Audrey brought him to the hospital to seek medical help in the wee hours of the morning recently. I'm not sure if these two people were conspiring with the breathing difficulty thing. I must admit that I'm tempted to investigate further into this case. Anyway, as some of you would know from this blog, the Playboy is a survivor of 2 heart attacks approximately 10 years apart. After the second heart attack, he had a quadruple bypass surgery. If you haven't realised it by now, this fellow enjoys cheating death, you see. He had just celebrated his 71st birthday just a few weeks ago, or roughly about 10 years since his bypass surgery.

Now, where was I?

Oh yes, the Old Boy. When I saw him this afternoon, he couldn't recognize me. I had to jog his memory a bit, and it took him a few minutes to figure out where exactly this visitor belonged on the family tree. But once he figured it out, he was inclined to indulge in an animated conversation. It seemed like suddenly all his heart attack issues were a thing of the past. 

Those of you who've had conversations with old folks before—and in this case, a very old folk—would of course know that they all sound very much like a broken record player. Stories of yesteryear can be repeated again and again for only-God-knows how many millionth time. That when he first landed in Sabah many years ago, he had nobody. That one could hardly see a motor vehicle on the road. The Japanese troops invaded Sabah, and gunshots and bombs could be heard in the middle of the night; too many times he had to just drop his meal and run into the jungle to take cover when gunfights broke out. That when he first started working, he was earning just RM12.50 per month; and the house rent back then was just 50 Sen per month.

This story, that story, and then eventually the inevitable story about Ah Boy. Bear in mind that I've heard about all this many times before, but what was I supposed to do, I didn't have the heart to interrupt the Old Boy's story-telling session.

Well, anyway, Ah Boy is the nickname of my cousin brother. According to the Old Boy, Ah Boy is not quite right in his head, as he once beat up his siblings and even attacked the Old Boy. The latter said that he's already old and weak, so was unable to defend himself. Otherwise, he would have fought back! Too bad he's not forever young like the Playboy. I bet if it's the Playboy in his shoes, he would have been able to show some of those "wax-on, wax-off" maneuvers like Miyagi. If you haven't realised it yet, all this happened like over 20 years ago. Or was it 30? Ah Boy, continued the Old Boy, cheated him of his money, and I'm sensing the Old Boy is still hoping to get back at least some of his money soon.

Thankfully, my uncle and his daughter came visiting, and I seized the chance to bid adieu. An hour's worth of grandfather stories, but sometimes it's amazing that at such an age, he can still remember all the fine details. In fact, I reckon that's the only part of his existence that hasn't been affected at all by the process of aging! Still, what d'you expect—he's 97, for heaven's sake, I'd be very happy if I could last that long with my mind still intact!

In the mean time, there is still the issue of the Playboy with the breathing difficulty thing. But that's a small matter. After all, he's forever young like Connor McLeod of the Highlander fame.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Chicken Story

There was once a strong and famous rooster who’s the king of a small colony of birds in a farm. In that farm stood a tall tree, akin to the grand palace of the animal kingdom. Each day His Majesty, the rooster, would rest on the highest branch of the grand palace, overlooking his subjects, feeling full of himself.

As the population grew, however, the rooster realised that there were many young roosters eyeing his throne atop the majestic tree; and this made him a little uneasy. Every now and then His Majesty would be challenged to a duel, but he’d always win. Nevertheless, as time passed his duels were becoming increasingly harder to win. He was getting older and weaker, and he knew that his days as the monarch were numbered.

This did not accord well with his pride, having been the king for such a long time. One way or another, he must defend his throne. So he summoned an elderly rooster in the colony, who’s been his loyal adviser for some years, for a meeting at the chamber near the bottom of the tree. The wise old rooster approached with caution, knowing that His Majesty had a temper issue.

His Majesty went straight to the point, “This lately, I’m sensing an impending end of  my reign,” he said, “and as I’m getting old and weak, apparently there isn’t much that I can do about it. Can you think of something to solve the problem?”

As the old wise rooster began flipping through the pages of the Book of Wisdom to find a solution, a naughty young rooster of the lower caste managed to sneak pass the guards of the grand palace somehow, making his way to the top of the tree. Upon reaching that highest branch, he declared his achievement by crowing at the top of his voice. And then there was a deafening silence. Everyone was shocked.

Looking up the tree, His Majesty was fuming mad; his face turning black, and steams were seen blowing from the top of his head.

“Who is that idiot?”, demanded His Majesty, his voice breaking the silence like thunder, “How dare he sits on my throne; is he tired of living? Listen up! If any of you can go up there and break his leg for everyone to see, I will reward you with the title of General of Grand Army of the Flock!”

“But Your Majesty,” said the wise adviser as he was picking up his jaw from the ground, “You can’t solve your problems by just making that kind of offer without following proper procedures! We have laws of the land to uphold!”

“Procedures? Laws?”, replied His Majesty, “So what about procedures and laws; why should I care about those? If they can make such an offer, I sure as hell can make this offer too!"