Another week on national service

The first week of this month saw yours truly again back on reservist training.  As with the last time, it was a productive time for reading – I finished a couple of below-par Nero Wolfe mysteries* (namely If Death Ever Slept and Death of a Dude) and Kathy Reichs’s Death Du Jour**.  (Yes yes, I know that’s a fairly morbid trio of titles.)

I wouldn’t have thought it mattered, but somehow not travelling to work made travel less of a routine, and I began to notice things, and observe, and ponder.  Like, how PSPs have joined MP3 players and multifunctional phones to make our society more crowded and un-connected.  Like, how a woman wearing black wraparound shades sat back, face-up, smiling, in one of the middle seats in a row full of sleeping, rocking zombies, letting the early morning sun play its light on her cheek and nose and cheek.  Like, how an old man, standing half a car away, peered outside with an expression of bland appreciation so intense that I looked in the direction he peered, and there were trees, grown taller and leafier since I last saw them. Like, how our friendship would have changed when my friends come back from their brave journey toward PhD-dom in Arizona and Colorado.  Like, how beneficient one must be to arrange for the wisecracking, foul-mouthed sergeant major taking care of us this reservist to have one of the friends’ name and small, wiry build.  And like, how, at the range, with ear-buds on, the air tinged with the scent of superheated oil from earlier shots, my fist intently pounding at the sandbag so as to nestle my rifle in the resulting depression and tuck it firmly against my shoulder, I begin to hear my own breath pulsing in, pulsing out, and the world begins to confine itself to that moment, and the next, and the next, until the order is given – “Watch your front!” – and the safety is clicked off, and my cheek lines itself along the gun and my eyes narrow and squint and the target appears and my finger pulls the trigger and the moment extends like silk from a spider, until the silk snaps in the wind and the target swings down, and the next appears.

*I’m a huge fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series.  For a long period, I would re-read his books before sleeping – the world of 1950s New York, Wolfe’s brownstone house, his idiosyncracies and his wisecracking sidekick Archie Goodwin (who’s a protagonist in these stories in the most un-Watson way) form a restful comfort zone.  These two books were disappointing in that the murderer could have been any of the suspects in either book, and essentially both Wolfe and Archie spend most of the book not solving the murder, but the pleasure of spending time with the two characters was worth the reading time, at least.

**My colleague and I had gone to New Zealand on work with another colleague last year, and we had discovered that we shared a liking for reading during the trip.  After we returned, we exchanged books: I passed her Poppy Z Brite‘s Liquor [click through to read Chapter 1, in pdf form], and she passed me the abovementioned Death Du Jour, and after nearly a year, I finally got to finishing it.  I really didn’t like it very much – I didn’t care for any of the characters – but the author’s web site is so good-naturedly friendly that I think I will give her another try.

Plato in a joke

In Sun with Moon*, and afterwards at the Borders** Bistro downstairs, I had the conversation I have come to expect with two good friends – thoughtful, opinionated, passionate academia-related stuff. As usual, I came away from our session thinking about teaching and doing research at a university for a living.

This time, we talked about what the teaching and research were for. About how schools sometimes focus their research more on theory – i.e. aiming to unearth a more complete picture of the world – or application i.e. aiming to solve problems.

About what to teach one’s students – how to pick among focused, immediately applicable skills (how to write an “inverse pyramid”-style news story, for example), less immediately applicable “life skills” (say, how to think and write clearly) and probably ultimately useless skills (case in point: do we need to know, really, how to do differential equations if we don’t end up teaching others how to do differential equations?).

About the differences between education in polytechnics and that in universities.

About how that distinction may get complicated again, if we talk about the teaching of professions – in which case the value-add in universities may be teaching would-be doctors how to think about doctoring, for example.

At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned that I had read that, after his student complained about not gaining anything from being at his school, a Greek philosopher had given the student a penny and expelled him. Impressed, one friend asked which book I had read. Here is what I read, and from where:

In the fourth century BC, the great Athenian philosopher Plato established a school (the Academy) at which mathematics was a key portion of the curriculum. It was taught with the utmost rigor of which the times were capable, and it dealt with idealized shapes on which idealized operations were performed.

One student, who was put to stern mental exercise over the Platonic conception of mathematics, kept searching in vain for some application to the various forms of artisanry for which he knew mathematical concepts were useful.

Finally he said to Plato, ‘But, master, to what practical use can these theorems be put? What can be gained from them?’

The old philosopher glared at the inquiring student, turned to a slave, and said, ‘Give this young man a penny that he might feel he has gained something from my teachings and then expel him.’

– Joke 142 of Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor

Here’s Joke 137 from the same book. I do hope my friends won’t turn out to be too much like the good Professor Krumpelmayer:

‘I have brought a frog,’ said Professor Krumpelmayer, beaming at his class in elementary zoology, ‘fresh from the pond, in order that we might study its outer appearance and later dissect it.’

He carefully unwrapped the package he carried and inside was a neatly prepared ham sandwich.

The good professor looked at it with astonishment. ‘Odd,’ he said, ‘I distinctly remember having eaten my lunch.’

And here is Joke 156, about the utter uselessness of it all. Maybe.

Finkelstein had made a huge killing at the races and Moskowitz, quite understandably, was envious.

‘How did you do it, Finkelstein?’ he demanded.

‘Easy,’ said Finkelstein. ‘It was a dream.’

‘A dream?’

‘Yes. I had figured out a three-horse parlay, but I wasn’t sure about the third horse. Then the night before, I dreamed an angel was standing over the head of my bed and kept saying, “Blessings on you, Finkelstein. Seven times seven blessings on you.” When I woke up, I realized that seven times seven is forty-eight and that horse number forty-eight was Heavenly Dream. I made Heavenly Dream the third horse in my parlay and I just cleaned up; I simply cleaned up.’

Moskowitz said, ‘But, Finkelstein, seven times seven is forty-nine.’

And Finkelstein said, ‘So you be the mathematician.’

Or the person who learned the right math. Or taught it.

*One friend had the wafu ramen, which came with red dates. The other had a pork don. Both dishes got enthusiastically positive reviews from their tasters.

**I’d have added a link for you to subscribe to the Borders newsletter, which delivers some pretty good discount vouchers to your email address. Thing is, one has to print them out. And that’s tree slaughter. Anti-greenery is not cool.

Gifts II

Heh – in case the title does not make it clear, this here entry is a follow-up to a recent one titled “Gifts” (it’s a few entries back). Just to wrap things up and provide some closure to the one or two out there who are reading this :)

First, a little about my tastes when it comes to chocolate. It seems I enjoy dark chocolate the most, compared to milk and white chocolate; I’d rather chocolate be bitter than over-sweet, but a little sweetness is essential still. Since the main difference among these three varieties is the % of cocoa, and dark chocolate has the highest concentration, followed by milk, then white, I suppose that means I like a heftier, chocolate-ier choc.

And, oh, I love hazelnut with my chocs. And I think I like the praline type – with the nut in itty-bitty pieces mixed into a cream – the best.

So, to report on the gifts:

The Pocky sticks coated in dark chocolate were addictive – the dark chocolate coating was generous, bittersweet and rich.

The hazelnut KitKat were made of a white chocolate layer over hazelnut cream over the KitKat wafer, and that tasted great – with a very pleasing hazelnut rush – but it was just a bit too sweet.

Haven’t tried the green tea KitKat yet.

The blue parcel with the wintry feel (take a look at what I’m babbling about) housed some packets of confection – round, flat biscuits, with a layer of peanuts, and another of sugar. It’s interesting how the taste of the confection comes in a few phases – first nutty, then the plainer biscuit, then the sweet sugar. I’m now licking the sugared nuts from my teeth.

Gifts

A pal went on a Fly & Drive holiday to Japan with her folks, and brought me back some stuff!

So, that’s some Pocky – clearly stated Men’s, apparently because it’s bitter chocolate Pocky, and as a colleague said, men are bitter – and some grape jelly (lower left) and what looks like hazelnut KitKat and green tea KitKat.

And there was this box as well.

Wonder what this is. Will open it and see soon.

The average bear is now basking in the warm glow of good will and appreciation – for the pal, as well as for the fact that, in 70 days, it will be Christmas :)

Inconsequential

Last evening, I was talking with a good friend at Curry Favor*. We talked about how the last few months of our university days – spent in the ulu** reaches of NTU, completing our final year project (which took the form of an interesting experiment comparing personal relationships formed in face-to-face communication with those formed in ICQ-type instant messaging communication), writing lyrics that used to be familiar and challenging one another to remember the name of the song or the singer – were some of the best of our lives. As we talked, I realised that, to us, this FYP – to be completed so we could graduate – was one of the most important things in the world. We argued over whether the word “dovetail” belonged in an academic article. We made sure that each time the experiment ran, the two chairs our experimental subjects sat on to talk face-to-face were the same distance apart, because we did not want “distance between chairs” to be a variable. We approached a government organisation for grant money so we could provide some incentive for folks to participate in our experiment. We stayed till late to run the experiments; late was when students were not in class and therefore available to participate in them.

And then I realised that two rather contradictory things almost at once: One, that, while it turned out to be a widely cited paper, the FYP was inconsequential for me – I firmly believe I could have gotten to where I am without it. Two, that I don’t feel for my work a fraction of what I did for that thesis, in terms of sheer doggedness to getting it done and doing it right, and willingness to learn stuff and accept alternative views.

And my conclusion then was that what we do probably fades in significance to us as we age, due to a combination of increasing jadedness and growing recognition of the fact that what we do will not change the world. I thought it a natural thing, this paling of the world as we age.

I told my sister this, and I was feeling a little proud of myself for coming to that conclusion – I thought I had come across a truth. When I finished talking, she looked puzzled for the tiniest moment, then said, “But that’s because you’re not as passionate as you were…”

I realised my sister (she’s 11 years younger) was right. I realised I can re-capture that sense of dedication to excellence, that sense of crafting something that matters. I just need to find out what I’m passionate about.

P/S. My sis is a sage in disguise, I tell you.

PP/S. Our theme song for this half-year of late nights was an oldie by 邓妙华.

温柔的夜

<词:木子*** 曲:李思菘/李伟菘>

我的心是悠悠的湖水 温柔的月色是你的倒影
你把自己浸在夜里 未湿的长发牵动我的相思

我的心是轻轻的涟漪 开展的波纹是我的情绪
若能让你向着湖畔 你眼睛将是我梦里最美的心

多希望拥有小小的衣裳 轻轻为你点亮一盏灯
让我看清你 让我看清你 怕过了明天你不是做梦的年龄

多希望用我全部的生命 滴滴为你清唱这爱情
让你感觉我 让你感觉我 思念的湖水里浮动你的倒影

让我看清你 让我看清你 怕过了明天你不是做梦的年龄…

*Tried their beef and mushroom curry udon. Thought the curry was bland, the mushrooms okay, the beef cubes excellent. Also tried an appetiser of mushrooms coated in batter, deep-fried. I liked the fact that the mushrooms retained their winey juiciness.

**”Ulu” means out-of-the-way.

***Really enjoyed being taught Chinese by 木子 in secondary school.

Just a smiley evening

Went to Shashlik with a very good friend this evening. We had borscht and shared beef and chicken shashlik. The borscht had generous portions of cabbage and sweet onion and potato and beef, but was a tad too tomato-y for me – it was hearty and appetising while it was hot, but as the stew got cold, the taste of tomato got cloying, and I did not finish every last drop of it. The beef shashlik – served without any gravy – was good, which was expected, but the chicken shashlik – which neither of us had tried before – surprised us: it was excellent! Different cuts of chicken were roasted together with green pepper and sweet onion till they were seared on the outside to a slight crisp, and tender under the skin. Yummy! (The chicken shashlik included button mushrooms too, but these were obviously from a can, and the taste did not match well. Would have been near perfect with fresh mushrooms!)

Then we went to Bakerzin, and had lime and raspberry sorbet along with black sesame ice-cream. The black sesame ice-cream was full-bodied but not overpowering, almost like well-done black sesame paste made cold and creamy and somehow lighter – really really delicious stuff. The portion Bakerzin provides is just right for two to share, I think. And of course, we had the Bailey’s Irish Cream souffle – this was a little under-baked (probably because it was near closing time) but still good.

We discussed work and music and the interesting times she had recently been through. Oh, the music discussion was classic! Our friendship has been characterised by music a lot: In one of my first memories of her, she was singing a Sarah McLachlan song; we have a song, the two of us, which is strange for platonic friends; we get happy in an all-out-of-proportion sort of way when we find out the other likes a song we like. So tonight, I asked her which song from 孙燕姿’s new album she liked better: 我怀念的 or 需要你? And at first, as she looked to her right in a slightly distracted way, I thought she was ignoring me for a bit, concentrating on something else; then I realised she was taking the question very seriously and singing the songs in her head to determine how she should answer. That thrilled me – I don’t know if there’s a better way to describe that – but that thrilled me. We talked animatedly about how 孙燕姿 had never sung as high as she did in 需要你, about how it’s a special song in the way she used her voice to express her emotions, and about how 我怀念的 is a special song too – the lyrics are great, with an understated multi-layered drama.

I think that talk made my year and restored my faith in everything good :)

Today

So I seem to be blogging in spurts these days, in haphazard intervals, at differing lengths.

Today was a good day – I felt useful. Some days, that seems a slippery, alien accomplishment. So that was happy-ing.

Today was a good day because of the kindness of colleagues, and the get-along-ability of colleagues, and their smiling for no reason other than their good nature. And those were happy-ing – a buoyant, what-a-beautiful-world sort of happy-ing.

Today was a good day because there are things I can look forward to tomorrow. Even if, tomorrow, I have to wake up at around 5am.

Today was a good day because there are things I can look forward to beyond tomorrow. For example, on Friday, I am going to have a long conversation with a friend I have not had a long conversation with in a long time. Probably over an Irish cream soufflé.

Today was a good day. Thank you very much :)

Back…

So eight years ago, during the first World Cup of Zidane, a more naive, more incomplete me stepped into the not-so-hallowed walkway at the School of Communication Studies (fondly and forever remembered as CS). By the next World Cup, I had spent the best four years of my life there. And last evening, six classmates and I spent a food-fueled, laugh-filled evening at our old stomping ground (well, okay – more like mugging-for-exams, rushing-for-video-projects, staying-overnight-for-newspaper-production ground).

I had not been back to CS at night for a long time, but a familiar scene greeted me as we unloaded from the taxi. The layout of the ground floor had not changed. The tree at the atrium might have been a little taller. Handcrafted-then-photocopied posters exhorting students to join the CS Club made themselves obvious on pillars and doors. The benches – heavy wooden picnic-tables with seats attached, where we had always spent time talking, studying, napping – littered the central area. Between two pillars, thick string stretched, laden with cards and papers clipped to the string with wooden clothes pegs. Our cohort had too used wooden clothes pegs (cheap mah – we were students, remember) to affix such messages in this exact manner. Even the occasional cooling breeze seemed like an old acquaintance.

Trevor was waiting for us at one of these benches – I don’t know why he chose one at the edge of the whole ensemble. We noisily greeted him and plonked down our bags of fast food and junk food. We are great proponents of healthy food, you understand – after all, we also brought along a half-dozen tetrapaks of green tea – but we also like having other food around.

At the end of the night, after we had talked easily separately and together, after we had made fun of the one among us whom we made fun of the most and each one of the others, after Trevor had reprised his multi-reprised role of photographer, after an impromptu birthday celebration, after we had polished off the food we could, after we had decided who would pile into Trevor’s car and who would try their luck at getting a cab, we parted, as if we would get together again, the seven of us, very soon.

And we will :)

P/S. Terrie’s doing her Master’s in CS, and she has a nice office there. Weijie’s working at the business school nearby, and his office was more used, and more cluttered. I found myself quietly envying them both. (Terrie also has a new tablet PC, folks.)