Go with a smile!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My old reading habit

I’m wondering or not I’ve blogged about my reading habit. Probably not when I while I was still indulging in it.

I was talking to Nat one day and he told me that he felt that grade school taught you the real stuff, the things you really needed to know, whereas university taught stuff that was of dubious value. I don’t know about that, but there’s probably some truth in that, that’s why primary school is primary school, and even though uni is sibeh glam, it’s still called “Tertiary”.

It’s also funny how, when my bond ended a few years ago, that was also probably the end of what I called my “post college / neo-college” years. I think maybe I could have been too impressed with my college. Maybe it was a place that I fitted in too well, relatively speaking.

For me, college was a place of learning. And it did feel like a great experience for me at that time. Yes, my mind was opened to plenty of new and wonderful ideas. Yes, I wanted what I called a “liberal education”. That means you study broadly in many different fields. I didn’t study for knowledge. I studied for “mental infrastructure”. Which means, I didn’t study to learn facts, but more to absorb the main ideas behind different academic disciplines. So that when I wanted to, I could think like a sociologist, or a historian, or a scientist. I may not believe this as strongly now as I did then, but I think that a liberal education was beneficial. (I’m starting to realise that a liberal education teaches you very little about how to be practical and execute plans. It teaches you little about how to get yourself organised.)

Now one of the things I found very useful was that I finally learnt how to write when I was there. Perhaps I was as good a writer as I’ll ever be when I was 23. Sadly my brain is feeling its age, and admittedly I don’t feel like I’m driving a sports car when I try to put an essay together. It was brought home to me that writing was a weak point when my general paper was the only subject where I missed out on an A in the “A” levels. And I’m glad I got that fixed. But now I also know: the really tough subjects that you learn are the engineering and computer science ones. Reading subjects are the easy way out. Should have tried more toughness then, isn't it?

So it was learning how to read and write for me, and it was great for me to master these skills. It did feel much easier for me to write and think about big ideas. Maybe my brain was more suited towards big ideas. I’m a more natural essay writer. Even when I did maths I did pure maths, which is closer to philosophy than number crunching. Perhaps, then I was a good at maths only because I was good a philosophy.
So during my neo college phase, my big big hobby was reading all those books to fill up the gaps in knowledge. In college, I had brought back a lot of bookshelves in my head. Now was the process of filling it up with books. Maybe it was just too much reading during those days that made my brain tired, I don’t know.

I think at that time I foolishly believed that I was going to be a great learned person in any subject I wanted to be good at. I suppose I’m now learning the hard way that there are limits to the cognitive capabilities of the human mind. I met a person from the Singapore MIT Alliance that said that the American college experience was like drinking from a firehose. Well I put myself up towards drinking from 5 different firehoses during those days. It was a profoundly disorientating experience. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it again. Mastering new disciplines, creating mental architectures from scratch, and then pitting yourself against other people who had been doing all this stuff for years. I think there was a lot of hubris in that. Maybe I could have gotten ahead a little more with a little more focus.

Anyway shortly after finishing college I promised myself that I would go back there again. (Yes, I’m only beginning to fulfil an 8 year old promise). And in the meantime, I would just read a lot of books to fill up my knowledge. I would think now that so much of it is just self-indulgence but the context is important. Going for seconds and thirds is self-indulgence, but the first round at a buffet table is not: if you don’t have that, you got nothing.
So this is what I chose to fill my head up with:

Network theory / chaos theory / fractals / power laws / catastrophe theory.
How to make money (surprisingly I was only interested in the theory and I didn’t use much that was practical about this.)
The workings of the government

I still remember those trips to the expo, where I would come back with boxes and boxes of books, of which I would at the most read 20%, keep another 40% and sell 50%. (Doesn't add up to 100% because I sold off a lot of the books that I read.) I read 500 books, roughly.

Well since 2-3 years ago, real life finds its way in, just like snow finding its way into your shoe when you’ve been walking around long enough. And now reading almost feels like a luxurious indulgence I can’t really afford. Even though I still do it so much. When I was younger, I read so much because I didn’t know better, and I just told myself, that’s the easiest way to go forwards in life and still have a good time doing so. Well now is the time that I reluctantly start the chores that I have been putting off for so long: learning by doing. Real experience. Whatever.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chinese Language

I saw this essay written on Facebook. It says that China will not be able to rule the world until China becomes the (so to speak) Lingua Franca of the world. There are some issues that I have with that statement. First, I have to talk about how and why Chinese will not become the Lingua Franca of the world.

1. There is already another Lingua Franca of the world, and that is English.
Now, let’s not pretend that the English were angels. They could be as brutal as any other colonial power. And when we say that they weren’t as cruel as the Spanish, or the Dutch, or the French, that’s only relative. There were actually 2 main periods of British colonialism. First was North America, which ended abruptly in 1776. Then later, after 1850, the second stage of imperialism began in earnest, and ended around 1956, during the Suez crisis, the outcome of which was the realisation that the UK could not sustain itself as an imperial power.

Anyway, the point here is that the last 2 great powers of the world were English speaking. The English spread their language to all the countries they colonised. This is because they tried to set up some form of government in those colonies. There are good reasons why English is spoken in the former colonies, whereas French is not spoken in Indochina, Spanish is not spoken in the Philippines, Dutch is not spoken in Indonesia, and Flemish is not spoken in the Congo.

Anyway, if Chinese is going to be spoken widely, it will have to supplant English. That’s not going to be easy at all. How’s that going to happen? Chinese are going to colonise the world?

2. The spread of the Chinese language has been traumatic.
When you think about how China was ”unified”, it involved Qin Shihuang bringing the entire empire under his “thumb” and calling it a “country”. This is fairly anomalous. In the process, he also wiped out the written languages of the other non-Chinese speaking parts of the empire, and grafted the Chinese written word onto those languages, calling them “dialects”. So there are roughly a few groups of dialects, which probably correspond to the vanquished nations. There are the Wu dialects (Shanghainese is one of them), the Min dialects (consists of Teochew, Hokkien, etc), the Hakka dialects, the Yue dialects (Cantonese, etc).

Nowadays, when we talk about burning books, we think about atrocities like the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the Nazi purges, and Qin Shihuang.
Admittedly, the spread of English has also been traumatic. But you have to see how easy it is to adopt the language, and how willing others are to learn the language.

3. Chinese is hard
The most important argument here is that Chinese wasn’t really designed for the internet. It’s a miracle that this language is in existence. It is the only major language where we use thousands characters, instead of a relatively small alphabet. Chinese characters have been simplified 50 years ago, and when I was learning Chinese, I was the grateful beneficiary of that. My name is much easier to write in simple Chinese than traditional Chinese.

Now, I’m biased, because I’m an English speaker. I will never have the attitude of some of my classmates who thought that Chinese is a low class language. I put in effort to learn it, but admittedly, not that much. OK, admittedly, I’m not that fantastic in English either, even though my GRE scores state otherwise.

Chinese wasn’t really meant to be easy to learn. You have to be really smart to learn it well. I suppose you can observe that Chinese speakers have fewer problems with English than English speakers have problems with Chinese. That tells you something. Like most languages, it used to be the exclusive domain of the elites. The barrier to entry is high. You have to memorise thousands of little pictures, and remember how each of them is pronounced, because there is no relationship between the way it is pronounced and how it is written. Languages have to go through certain processes before it becomes “modernised”/ “promulgated”/ “standardised”. The writings of the characters have to be standardised, the pronunciations, the spellings, the meanings of the words, etc etc. OK, Chinese has gone through all that. And one of the effects of the modernisation is that it is supposed to be easier for people to pick it up. One modernisation they came up with was the simplified Chinese. Now a lot of cultural meaning is lost in the process but overall I think it’s a good thing. But it will not be enough to make Chinese an easy language for people to pick up.

And think about what a pain in the ass it is to type in Chinese. Admittedly less of a pain than writing. But I think even bilingual ppl would want to type in English, everything else being equal.

4. Chinese is incompatible with other languages
Have you seen Chinese rendering English names? It's awful, because English has a lot of consonant combinations that Chinese doesn't have. Consider Smith. It gets rendered as si3mi4si1. 3 syllables. A lot of other stuff gets garbled as well. In contrast, Chinese is easier to render in English. Hanyu Pinyin is practically rendering Chinese in romanised form so that it becomes slightly easier to learn.

To be fair, English speakers have a really hard time mastering the Zs, the zhs and the qs. And the 4 intonations of mandarin seem to take forever to master. But it's not that hard to write somebody's name in hanyu pinyin, and you know exactly how it is to be pronounced. The other way around, it's impossible.

Do you want to learn a foreign language which mangles your own language? I dun think so. When I see how Japanese mangles the English language, I also see why this didn't catch on.

5. Chinese has never caught on anyway
I suspect that if it wasn’t the main language of one of the most powerful countries in the world, it would have died out long ago.

Think about the Vietnamese, who used a language whose written form was similar to Chinese. They wiped it out and replaced it with a Romanised form. Think about the Koreans who also had a language which was similar to classical Chinese. Same fate. Only Japanese today uses the Chinese characters. 1 out of 3 is not a very good record.

The other aspect of this argument is that China will rule the world. Now that is a fairly troubling thought. Arguably, China is the world’s first totalitarian state. It’s not comfortable with democracy. For me, it is a troubling thought because I suck at Chinese. But China, in its quest for empire will have to understand a few things that the British have learnt. First, you can’t really sustain an empire without the acquiescence of the people who are being ruled. Second, you’re going to have to deal with the phenomenon of democracy. As Zhou Enlai so astutely pointed out in a conversation with Kissinger, we still don’t know the full implications of the French Revolution. That was the birth of modern democracy. Then the scope of democracy expanded. Women got to vote. Black people got to vote. Now, even gay ppl get to marry.

The western powers colonialising the world was undoubtedly a traumatic experience for the colonised. But it was also eventually an equally traumatic experience for the coloniser, because the weapons that you develop to put down the slaves will eventually be deployed when the masters fight among themselves. The American Civil war was what happened when the slave owning states turned those weapons on the free states. World War I was what happened when the military technology developed to keep the colonies under control was turned into a bloodfest between France and Germany.

And throughout the experience, the western world eventually learnt that there were a lot of limits to colonialism, or what you could do to your colonies. The trouble makers in the last major wars are usually those newly industrialised countries who have no experience in being imperial powers, and go on to imagine that it is very easy to rule the world. Like Germany and Italy making belated entrances into the league of colonial powers, and Japan. Now imagine if China were to start stirring up the same amount of shit.

Now the British have always operated on a democratic system. It's just as well that one of the greatest empires of the world was founded on these principles. Maybe that's why they didn't meet with so much resistance. There is a lot of hypocrisy on the part of these two governments, because we know that when they wield their power overseas, there's not much in the way of freedom and democracy. But the rhetoric is there, and there's always people who will hold them to their actions. Suppose your standpoint is that you're only in it for yourself, as China's is, wouldn't the reality be even worse?

There's no way of telling what kind of an empire China is going to form. It could well be something even more benign than the Americans. It could be the old Ming dynasty style of "OK guys, pay your tributes and we'll leave you alone". But it could be something much nastier than that.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

What really matters

I think a little about when I was 15. There were a few doors that I opened that year. In a large way I’m still expounding on the doors that I opened that year. In a way I wasn’t that lucky that year: when I was 14, it had been a bad year, so that year was in a way a make up for it.

I had some good friendships that year. I found out that I mainly have 2 talents: I’m an artist, and I’m a mathematician. I went on trips that opened my mind. I went on summer camps. I’m starting to wonder how I managed to live through 9 years where so little has happened, compared to that one wonderful year. But in a way I was really lucky. A lot of the good things that happened that year took place because of the work of other people.

When I think back on the good things that have happened to me in life, I’m struck by how little they had anything to do with money. Yes, money is there to buy physical comfort, and I can’t deny that it’s a good thing. But when I think about stuff like a shiny, snazzy new sports car, it leaves me cold. I think I will tip my hat to people who think that way, only enough to hide how I think that it’s extremely weird.

I think that it’s important to keep myself from being cold, starving and miserable. But beyond that – when I think about some of my happiest moments, it doesn’t really have to do with all that.

So I’ve read some articles about the coming bubble in higher education and it leaves me very concerned at the path I’ve always wanted to take.

To be sure, I’ve always wanted to do a PhD, rather than a masters. I’ve only ended up doing a masters because I know that there’s no room for me to do a PhD. It would have been easier if I had tried 5, 10 years ago. But it’s over now.

In retrospect, I did grow up in a first world country. But it’s a first world country no more. In fact, much of what we thought were first world countries aren’t like that anymore. No, we were sheltered from much of the rest of Asia. We didn’t have to face them if we didn’t want to. Now, borders are more open. And we get a lot of people coming in, and we get influenced by them. Those ppl are a lot more like the older generation, and they, even if they’re not more materialistic, are more aware of the power of the dollar. More willing to slave away for money.

Now there are debates that call into question the value of a college education in the US. It used to be that people didn’t question the economic value of an education so much, but tuition inflation has risen so sharply, and at the same time, people are graduating into an economy wrecked by unemployment that it really seemed like a dumb idea to be hundreds of thousands of dollar in debt after graduating with a liberal arts degree, and find it incredibly difficult to land a job.


But does that mean that education absolutely has to be utilitarian? I didn’t want to choose. I tried to pack both aspects into my uni education, with greater or lesser results. Ultimately I didn’t think that it was right that a liberal education left you bereft of useful skills. That would have been defeating the ideal of an all-inclusive education.

In the end I thought there was something dreadfully wrong about putting a monetary value on everything and worshipping it. As many of you know, I have become a music freak in my early years. There seemed to be a complete disconnect between the quality of music and whether it goes up high on the charts. A lot of top 10 hits are completely dreadful, and a lot of wonderful music never gets anywhere near the charts. And I slowly lost respect for the possibility that money could buy you better music. A shitty album and a great album cost exactly the same. OK, the obscure but great album might cost you more money because it would be harder to find it. That is one of my early life experiences which made me lose a lot of respect for money. That, and the fact that I didn’t really have to earn it.

Then again, if the main purpose of college is not really to give you the means to earn a lot of money, then why does it cost so much? Technically, you could have a good, broad, liberal arts education for very little as well. In fact, 90% of what I had learnt in uni are things I could have learnt by spending years on a desert island with a good library.

But gradually, it started to creep in, especially from the 2-3rd year of work onwards. It just seemed that the people who had more respect for money seemed to be leading more meaningful lives. Those who didn’t give a shit, they realised that they were on this fucking treadmill for basically nothing. I think it was just something you had to do in order to keep yourself sane.

I’ll admit, I kinda lost my initial vision of what was really precious in life for the last few years. But now that I’m starting to sorda remember, it seems like the endless possibilities of youth. Not very helpful for a guy who’s just a few years away from 40. But I have to invent something that goes beyond that old 5Cs paradigm, that idea of money as keeping score. I have to invent something special again.
And this education thing – well I shouldn’t corrupt it. It was mainly for interest, and this idea was conceived at a time of my life when I was still in the mode of, I can afford to pursue stuff for interest. Maybe I will always be in that mode, in that frame of mind. Now, it has to be dual purpose. I don’t want to squeeze my head too hard in the utility vs education as a higher purpose debate. I want something dual purpose, as I did the last time. And I have to remember not to get any more lost than I had been.

It’s also a sad factor: often, when I’m starting with a blank sheet, I tell myself, I want A. Then I think about it a little more, and I decide, in order to get A, I need to do B. In order to do B, I need C, and so forth. And in the end, I end up getting fixated on F, and slowly forget the original connotation, the original connection to A in the first place. Maybe the ground had already shifted, and there’s no more connection, I’m left with a dead link. I have to be so mindful of that these days.


Saturday, June 04, 2011

The inarticulate Singaporean

Singaporeans are by and large inarticulate.

I think that the culture in Singapore is simply not conducive towards mastering languages. You don't master Chinese because the standard of Chinese is not high: mastering this language is not required because it is not a working language. And even though I am not great at this language, I have my doubts about its efficacy as a working language: I don't think it's precise enough, and that's probably the reason why scientific papers are written in English.

People also tend to refrain from being too good at English because you can get mocked for doing so. Because of our colonial heritage, and having westerners talk down to us using their superior command of English, we tend to associate having a good command of English with exaggerated verbosity. There are a lot of unsavoury connotations associated with being good at English. Even our Singlish is our way of subverting the white man’s language, but on our terms.

They either confuse expediency with efficiency, which means that if you bother to express yourself clearly you are expending effort that is better off spent somewhere else. Being too clear about things is not that crucial with how things are being run.

Furthermore there has always been a political element to this. We don’t want to have to mention things too clearly, and we don’t want to have to discuss things too much. For those who wield authority, and take a dislike to who you are and what you have done, it’s not worth the trouble of an argument to mete out the desired punishment. There is this fear, which is admittedly very real, that if you were allowed to talk things through, the power of the centralized authority would be eroded.

Children are almost never allowed to talk back to their parents in Chinese culture, although there always will be the more enlightened parents who prefer to discuss things over. They were expected to do as they were told. So in a way, yes, Chinese people become very intelligent at stuff like schoolwork. But when it comes to thinking out of the box and dealing with very different situations, all the mindsets are different.

Everybody has shared assumptions about things. Sometimes this is good, because everybody is behooved to just watch and understand first before opening their mouths to criticise. Very often the system does work, and the criticism is due to some imperfect understanding. And things are usually smoothed over when people just keep quiet and bear with the status quo, which most of the time is preferable to having a small squabble spiral out of control over nothing.

But over time silence always favours the oppressor at the expense of the oppressed. And of course it has always been in the interest of people in authority that people don’t always think very deeply, clearly or precisely about issues, so that it becomes so much easier to pull the wool over their eyes.

Also important are the problems that get swept under the carpet. Woody Allen films are always about people who talk about their own problems too much. Lee Ang’s films, especially his first 3 movies, the “father” trilogy, are about people who talk about their problems too little.

But strikingly for Singaporeans, they seem to have even bigger problems than the Chinese. I see that in TV drama serials, people always end up abusing alcohol or letting out primal rages. But not really talking out why they are really really angry. There’s not very much insight into their characters. There’s this impression that the gentleman at the bar drowning away his sorrows is fairly inarticulate, bulldozing his way through life blindly, then bashing his head against the wall when meeting an obstacle.

Somebody wrote in a comment online, "some people are just not meant to be articulate. They may be good at maths but are not good at expressing themselves." I don't agree. I watched and observed the way that Americans talked, and it did wonders for the way that I was able to bring ideas across. I will never be very good, especially when it comes to talking, but when you see the array of techniques they employ to bring their point across - anecdotes, crude metaphors, slang. Singaporeans just don't have this range. And I will hesitate to try talking to people about ideas that are philosophical because I will always be met with this "you think too much".

I wasn't always good at writing. I had a terrible GP tutor in junior college. But then I met a fairly competent freshman writing teacher, and even as she was tough, I learnt so much from her that the difference in my writing standards was like day and night. Maybe I already had the talent and all she had to do was nudge me in the right direction. Or maybe she had to tell me some things I hadn't heard before.

Whatever it is, it was just a few 1 hour a week, one on one sessions. Just looking at what I wrote, and pointing out all the problems. This was not the Sidney Poiter life changing heroic teacher things. It was just somebody telling me something I hadn't heard before. And after that experience, for which I was grateful, I was wondering, "why do I have to travel halfway around the world for this?"