A Different Dimension of the Novel Coronavirus (nCOV) Crisis

Is nCOV the same as SARS? H1N1? Or is it something else? Depending on who one asks, and which perspective you seek, one will get different answers. The dynamic nature of a crisis is such that there are information gaps, which I will spend some time to opine on.

Medical Facts

First, let us lay some factual content.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nCOV has a wide variance of symptoms. Some report little or no symptoms and recover well, but a small minority of cases result in death. The novelty of nCOV also suggests the difficulty in drawing analogies to other coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS.

For nCOV, there is no known “cure” for it; symptom management is usually prescribed. These may include life support for the most serious of cases. Prevention of virus transmission is similar to other contagious illnesses such as influenza; good hygiene and self-isolation on suspicion of being a nCOV carrier.

Beyond Medical Facts

An individual often asks, “What should I do?” This is a different question from the society at large, where the questions are more macroscopic in nature. In brief, the macroscopic responses in an epidemic are based on virulence, ease of detection and lethality. These usually result in containment and mitigation strategies. With the dynamic nature of a health issue, these can change with time, often making it difficult for an individual to react accordingly. The gaps in information to the individual are a fertile ground for havoc.

Making Up Opinions in the Information Space

Facts in a crisis are incomplete. Hence, we have to rely on our opinions and judgements to make decisions. The decisions we arrive at an individual level are often determined by our differing biases. Some of these individual decisions result in effects that reverberate across communities and trigger others to do the same, hampering macroscopic efforts.

Unlike SARS (2003) and H1N1 (2009), the crisis this time is discussed about largely through social media. Anybody can create and propagate information. This leads to reinforcing loops becoming viral (pun unintended), regardless of the accuracy or use of said content. One of these reinforcing loops is the panic buying episodes we have witnessed.

Let us use the panic buying episodes (first, masks and sanitisers, and second, food and toilet paper) as illustrations. One example that could lead to panic buying is as follows:

  • Concerned citizen reads an article of medical workers donning hazmat suits in a hospital.
  • The first impression of a hazmat suit that comes to mind is “serious medical condition”.
  • Given the interpretation of a “serious medical condition”, concerned citizen reads up on preventive methods along the lines of a hazmat suit.
  • Concerned citizen heads off to buy protective personal equipment (PPE) like masks, hand sanitisers and so on.
  • Concerned citizen then spreads this message to his entire Whatsapp chat group, fuelling the same cycle.

The consequence of this example is a horde of people buying all sorts of PPE without checking if said PPE is necessary. None of these actions, on their own, look incorrect in the face of a crisis at the individual level, but this results in a problem at the macroscopic level. They can further compound, such as in this list:

  • Primary problem: Shortage of PPE in shops.
  • Follow-up problem: Will people who need PPE have enough PPE to last a crisis of unknown time?
  • Perception management issue 1: What will others think if they see empty shelves of PPE (and then fuelling the panic buying cycle all over).
  • Perception management issue 2: How do we communicate with people who have been triggered to respond in “panic-buying mode”?

A medical crisis can quickly evolve into a perception management crisis because of virulent spread of information that does not aid the macroscopic response. Obviously, a mask shortage happens because people overbuy them! In a state of panic, rational communication becomes difficult. The subject of risk assessment is also difficult to communicate about, leading to gross overreactions because of an inaccurate assessment of risk level. That is odd, considering that Singapore has a risk assessment matrix in 2020.

Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON)

After SARS in 2003, it was clear that communicating actionable information was important. DORSCON was set up to communicate preventive measures to the public in the event of a public health issue such as this.

Bite-size information in a chart like DORSCON should help in the event of panic. But why did we overreact?

One shortcoming with DORSCON is that many of us are not familiar with its contents. Most of the time, DORSCON status is green, and hence is taken for granted. In low probability events such as epidemics, we are often untrained to think under panic, unlike people who are trained to react calmly to emergencies, such as firefighters, specialist military troops and negotiators. Hence, people overreact when they think not so much of the actual DORSCON chart when the status changed from “yellow” to “orange” as it is the colour change. (Orange is only one step away from red alert! Oh dear!) However, we shall leave this to an after-action review.

Total Defence is a Useful Paradigm — Use It!

If DORSCON is the “process”, the “principle” that helps us rationalise our collective defence is Total Defence that comprises of military, psychological, civil, social, economic and digital defence. I shall confine my focus on psychological defence, which is defined as the “commitment and confidence in our future”

As a Singaporean, I value my home because there exists nowhere else that I can call myself home in. Because of that, I feel disappointed when we start spreading fake news to spread panic unwittingly. I feel anguished because I want to try to stop the reinforcing loop of panic build-up. We can do better than overly panic about our future. How can we do that? Simple ways:

  • Keep calm and carry on with life: We have DORSCON to guide us. We can continue to obtain food supplies reliably, so please do not overreact and cause another crisis. Wouldn’t you feel silly if you look back at the year and bemoan that so much time was wasted “bitching about a virus”?
  • Follow the health advisories. PPE is for high risk profiles such as healthcare workers. We do not know how long nCOV will last. Hence, we need to ensure we are well-equipped for the long run. We don’t want our healthcare workers to themselves get infected and become super-spreaders.
  • Stay healthy. Eat well and exercise well, and upkeep personal hygiene. Soap and water is still best. No one will blame you for repeated trips to the washroom. Free walking exercise too.
  • Keep the information space clean. Do not spread news that will aggravate panic. If we all claim that the government should have anticipated panic buying, we should also do our part to not be part of a panic-induced decision. No point finger-pointing when more fingers point back at ourselves.
  • Look out for everyone’s psychological well-being. As the epidemic progresses, healthcare services will take a toll, and our heroes will be psychologically burdened. Keep their spirits up. They work overtime, and will receive abuse due to panic. No one wants to be abused.
  • Do not try to speculate. Besides spreading even more panic, speculation only makes one look like a gossip monger. We need actionable information, not information to scare ourselves. This is not Halloween.
  • Stop being xenophobic. While humans can tell apart nationalities, viruses do not care. Viruses spread regardless of race, language or religion. Nationality too.

The fight is all of ours, healthy or sick. We can triumph over this just like how we did against SARS. But it takes a whole-of-country approach to be confident in our future. I am, because we are far more prepared compared to 2003. Are you?

Another End of Year Post

Are end-of-year notes still a thing? Even if they are not, I think it is good to write them, even though I plan to take a different approach to this. I don’t think you, as a reader, would appreciate a “year summary” very much. However, there is a central question I have for this year, which I shall write about. (If you see a casual mention about yourself in the note though, be glad!)

The average Singaporean male lives for about 82 years on average. While we cannot predict exactly when we die, we can use some rough figures to estimate how much time, on average, is gone. For me, about a third of my life has elapsed. It may be useful to look at reflections not just in 2019, but throughout my life journey.

Often, when quizzed about the amount of time we have, we never seem satisfied. For me, I always think I have too little time. But 28 years (my age, really) of time is incredibly long. At the least, it has allowed me to develop as an individual capable of sustenance at the very least. While I am not a polymath, I still have energy in me for further development. There appears to be a paradox. How can I complain about time, considering the long average lifespan in Singapore?

The apparent paradox is resolved by realising that the average lifespan of an individual means little. Despite the Chinese perceiving long lives as blessings, these wishes do not provide any insight about the quality of life, or capabilities said human may possess. Someone may live half a life in sickness or in low energy. In Singapore, we see much more provision for wheelchairs today because of an aging population. I personally dislike the thought of having my view restricted to wherever a wheelchair can bring me to.

Many friends in my age group think about how life shall be like. Some would like to earn plenty of money to travel to Machu Picchu or the Alps. Others foresee themselves setting up a creation they can call their own — a family. The wish-list is long, but mine is quite simple, once I start to strip it down into its basics. Almost every New Year, when I write resolutions, they somehow only revolve around these: being the best version of myself, being able to maintain the best version of myself, and being able to improve whatever that may be around me.

I will probably only write about “being the best version of myself” in this post. If you find this is helpful, and would like me to write on the other two aspects, let me know.

Being the best version of myself is translated to self-improvement. However, I find “self-improvement” too vague, and almost every resolution I set with “self-improvement” in mind turns out to be quite unfocused. This is because “self-improvement” comes in many forms. These can take on personal perspectives such as being loving and kind. These can be targetted at competencies, such as being good at what one claims as his or her profession. These can also be role-based, such as being the best parent, child or colleague. Usually, to push for a clearer resolution, I focus on specific skills I would like to improve on. After obtaining the OSCP certification last year, I finally had time this year to pursue a wider range of skills, such as setting up vulnerable training laboratory machines, dabbling in exploit development, more web application attacks and a little wireless attacks. Additionally, being able to communicate about a technical topic (in this case, understanding and constructing vulnerable training laboratory machines) allowed me a platform to improve technical communication with a wide audience.

However, self-improvement is important, not just for skill development. It is also important to understand that, as mere mortals, we simply cannot be master at everything. However, realising what we lack about many things is quite easy. To put this in perspective, I remembered my Physics lecturer saying this:

There are four stages to learning:

  1. First, you don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Next, you know what you don’t know. (Awareness)
  3. After which, you know what you know. (Competence)
  4. Finally, you don’t know what you know. (Subconscious Mastery)

Reaching subconscious mastery is difficult, but may be worthwhile. This is who you look up to as senpai, whose seemingly simple moves can be quite arcane. The senpai is one who has already mastered his or her craft through the dedication of thousands of hours to it. Anyone who has done a sport competitively would recount the rigour coaches put their students through, such that their basics become second nature. It would be nice to reach this stage of mastery, but this is difficult.

The stage which I would like to explain a little, vis a vis self-improvement, is the awareness stage. Awareness is not simply about “knowing the surface”. Often, it also means “being aware of what you don’t know”. This is arguably more important than simply knowing the surface because a good understanding of our lack of knowledge helps us avoid the over-confidence trap we see in the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we can loosely place the “awareness” stage slightly past the fairly overconfident stickman in blue. As we begin to realise our lack of deep knowledge in a certain field of expertise, our confidence level drops. This is quite normal, and should not be disheartening. Often, this is the phase where we humble ourselves, recollect our thoughts, and think deeply about whether we should advance further. In some cases, we do not, because we appreciate that our limitations may not be worth the investment in trying harder.

Bringing this back to the “self-improvement” mantra I have each year, I prefer to divide this vague term into a few categories.

  • Building a breadth of understanding, so that I understand what I know and what I don’t know. This usually takes the form of “exposure classes” to many things. Exposure classes need not merely be limited to what sparks joy. Sometimes, one takes an exposure class primarily for awareness. For instance, it would be a good idea to understand what cryptocurrencies are, and what they are not, so as to be able to detect and mitigate potential “scams”, even though one may never ever dabble in the cryptocurrency market.
  • In areas where I find interest and competency in, develop deeper skills. This can arise from “exposure classes”. Sometimes I find that I am good at certain things, and that I could go further. This is typically where the try harder mentality comes in. I generally find a few opportunities to break out of “awareness” into “competence”. A few opportunities per year to try harder, I find, is quite good. Especially with a world everyone describes as “changing rapidly”, the ability to pick up new skills quickly and effectively is important.
  • In areas where I do not find interest, but I must know, I need to find a coach, mentor, or a guide, to pull me through. It is unrealistic to expect that I will enjoy everything. However, there are a range of skills, some of which survivalist, that I need to be good at. A good example over the years would be the Scouting experiences I picked up over my secondary school days. I would not claim to be an enthusiast at knot-tying or map-reading, but knowing such skills can turn out be quite useful outside Scouts.

While I shall not reveal any specific New Year resolutions for next year, my “self-improvement” chart every year does not differ too much from looking at it from these three angles. It is also timely to return to the beginning discussion where I had an apparent paradox of time. Why do I feel that I never have enough time? That is because I have no guarantee that said time exists, in the form I would like. Can I guarantee that I will be healthy ten years later? I cannot tell you for sure with any known probabilities. With such murky propositions, my best guess is really nothing more than, “Based on how I feel today, I think I should be fine next year, but ten years is a little hard to predict.” Because of the lack of certainty, we must always make plans, push for them to work out wherever possible, yet acknowledge that they can fail catastrophically through no fault of our own. Is this not yet another paradox?

Well, the apparent paradox can simply be resolved by the fact that short milestones are far less likely to be deviated from than long milestones. This lends well to the timeframe of a “new year resolution”, which really means we should take advantage of this trend: plan something at the start of the year and stocktake at the end of the year. Statistically we are likely to succeed than five-year plans most governments plan for. For those who find difficulty planning yearly, try this trick: think of a lofty dream one has, and then break it down into as many parts deemed necessary, and digestible in year plans. While we may never end up achieving the exact same lofty dream we wanted, we might, in our journey, discover a different lofty dream that may wind up being more appealing than what we first started out with. However, at the very least, on one’s deathbed, one can say that one tried harder to make something happen.

Life can be quite unpredictable, but the end of the year is a good time to stocktake, think about what went wrong and what went right, but do not take too much time to mull over this. It’s a great time to think about next year. Amidst the fireworks and festive cheer each new year, would you not hope to similarly sparkle and dazzle as well? Surely we can all try to aim to be the best version of ourselves, and it is not that hard to do so. Try harder.

对台湾旅游的感触 (Feelings about Taiwan Travels)

I travelled to understand the world and what the best talents could do – that was through a unique road trip through the United States.

I travelled to discover just how different people can be even in close proximity – that was through train rides for city escapades in Europe.

I travelled to sense, with my five senses, good quality produce at good prices – that was through my sensory journeys in Japan.

However, this time was different.

I travelled to a place famed for its night markets and shows. But beyond that, it’s not bustling Tokyo, neither is it a reinvented city with quaint charm and the graphic display of history like Berlin. It tries to be a technology hub, but is not San Francisco either.

However, this place sparks a different kind of joy. We can speak the same tongue, connect, and make new friends so easily. The joy of friendly people that welcome us as if we are one of them. It’s once again not Tokyo, where one is a gaijin as long as one is not Japanese. It’s also not San Francisco, where there still exists explicit racism. And it’s certainly not Berlin, where there exists certain shades of danger in quiet corners. Making friends here is effortless.

Welcome to Taipei, a city in Taiwan. A city where I have made many friends through common experiences. To travellers, what we remember aren’t so much the travel guides we read or the tourist dollars we spend, but the memories we forge with its people. Memories are forged with friends whom we share common experiences with, such as enjoying a simple walk in the park, a tea up in the mountains, or singing at a Taiwanese KTV.(我唱歌的能力还不到你们的水准。)I treasure Taiwan most for friends, and I have been honoured to meet so many of you!


改天,我一定找个机会回来台湾玩一玩!搭飞机很快,不到5小时。

P.S. To my newly-made Taiwanese friends, please don’t make me type an entire translation in Chinese, but I promise I will type more Chinese. 我会打多一些中文,因为我自己也觉得我的中文有进步的空间。我用英文打字是给机会学习怎么读英文喔!

Eva: Probably the Most Under-rated Airline I’ve Taken

Flight Details
Flight: BR216 from Singapore to Taipei-Taoyuan
Flight time: 4 hours 40 minutes (scheduled)
Departure: slightly after 1525 hours.
Arrival: approx 1945 hours. (plane caught up!)

Review

As a traveller who often leans for a full-service carrier instead of a budget carrier should the price differential not be great intra-Asia, I have expectations that the premium I pay is worthwhile.

This time, we travel on Eva Air, which departs from Changi Airport from Terminal 3. First pictures from T3: a pretty A350 of its alliance partner, Singapore Airlines.

Is this Insta-worthy? 🙂

Eva Air departed from a slightly far gate at Gate B9 this time, and it was a full flight. Just look at how full this gate was! Eva Air’s Boeing 777-300ER takes more than 300 passengers; I’d be in for a full flight.

Our Boeing 777-300ER. Not a kitty jet though.

Boarding commenced somewhat late (I arrived about 10 minutes into boarding). Interesting note: Eva also offers Chinese papers of both Singapore and Taiwan.

Nice touch of traditional airline service even though I don’t think Eva is a “traditional airline” by any means!

Note that Eva Air’s 777-300ERs have two configurations; a 9-abreast one (which I was on) and a 10-abreast one. The difference for economy passengers is stark; I’m lucky to get a more spacious configuration. Note that this is the long-haul product that also goes to North America.

Imagine stuffing another seat into each row. That’s the 777-300ER, 10-abreast. The 777 can get a bad reputation for being a squeezy plane for that reason. This, however, was thankfully spacious, like SQ’s 777-300ERs.

Amenities were standard: pillow, blanket for day-time flight. Interestingly the IFE was disabled during take-off, landing, and featured plenty of advertisements. Perhaps one cannot avoid these, or that such ancillary revenue is significant for Eva Air. Note for passengers who bring their own earphones: bring along your adapter or get only mono sound.

Still old-school!!!

For half the flight, I turned my economy seat into a workstation. Let us see how that turned out. Before we begin, let’s have some post-departure snacks.

Rice crackers and nuts. Yes, I’m on Eva. 🙂

Cabin crew went around with drink service. They had green tea, which I was glad about, since it’s my default go-to drink if I needed to stay awake on the plane.

Green tea. 🙂

After that, I had some time to type away on my computer. The picture below shows the importance of seat width; seat width also affects tray table width. I had a comfortable, robust working surface and had some spare space to put aside what I was done, or perhaps a phone that I could take reference to for this flight.

Fits my loyal 13′ MacBook well. Small charging light on the left also shows a working A/C power supply. Good!

Legroom was also great. The tray table was quite basic (no cup holder, which further underscored the importance of seat width to place my cup on the table while I worked on my laptop).

I started working on my laptop while listening to classical music on Eva Air. The sound quality was good enough to provide some sort of white noise to work for an hour, before meal service came.

Looking through the hard copy of a manuscript while working on a side project. Somehow I was on a page that documented my Delta flight, and my Emirates flight years ago.

Meal service, however, was disappointing. Perhaps, to the defence of Eva Air, there is no good time to serve dinner, so maybe their portions were… smaller? The quantity of the main course, however, was somewhat appalling. (Somehow economy portions have downsized: refer to https://donavan.sg/blog/index.php/2019/05/26/off-topic-a-travel-review-on-cathay-pacific/ for a similar case of sad economy class food offerings.)

Eva Air chicken option. I should have picked the fish with rice option; they topped the rice up to the brim, at least!

Gone are the good old days where economy class meals were a proposition to look forward to, e.g. the BKK-SIN flight I had a year back on SQ.

This was catering on SQ one year ago. The main course was larger than that of Eva’s. Not included in this picture: an ice-cream that was served after the main meal tray.

I couldn’t give a good airplane food review because I had gobbled whatever there was of the main course. Oh well.

The lavatory was quite a refreshing sight (literally). Flowers greeted each lavatory visitor, which was a nice touch.

Obligatory shot of lavatory. Meet the new addition to the “standard plane attire”: a pocket square. 🙂

Eva Air’s lavatory can be best summarised as an apothecary with its various potions.

Various potions on offer: facial mist, body mist, lotion and handwash. I am very impressed.

This was above and beyond what I expected in an economy class lavatory.

The AvGeek in me decided to ask for playing guides. My dreams were fulfilled. Standard set, not the Hello Kitty one, but playing cards are very much the entertainment of old-school flyers.

Eva Air branded playing cards.

But what really blew me away on this flight was the service oriented nature of the staff. While asking for playing cards, the stewardesses had a chat and noticed I was working away on my laptop. We chit chatted, and I dropped a passing comment about me not doing very much homework at planning my Taiwan itinerary. The stewardess worked out a make-shift solution together with me at the back of the plane; she, with the help of some fellow stewardesses, cobbled together a list of food places without even me asking for any such help. Included was also travel instructions on getting to the hotel. This was the above and beyond value-added service I managed to get.

A list of foods. So far I’ve had the duck blood and beef noodles from another place. There will be chances to try more food. 😀

I guess one reason for being partial towards full-service carriers is because of the service that staff provide on-board. At times, travellers like me are in a rush and hence do not always plan for things when we should. The service aspect of full-service carriers is important, and Eva Air certainly delivered with something they honestly never needed to do for a normal passenger like me. Taiwanese hospitality is very much real. Interestingly, I also had a short chat with the stewardess about Chinese education in Singapore, and she strongly encouraged me to write in traditional Chinese. Her reason? At least we understand why certain words in Chinese are the way they are, such as the Chinese word for “noodle”.

This probably looks more like the business class menu; I didn’t see this.

Eventually we landed in Taipei Taoyuan safely, and took a long walk to immigration.

Evening arrival in Taipei-Taoyuan. Somehow it was made to do TPE-SIN and SIN-TPE again, before being routed to TPE-IAH as this blog post was written.

Would I Recommend Eva Air?

Yes, I would! Service blew me away even though the meal left much to be desired. I did not even review the IFE very much; that was just how impressed I was at their service. Reminded me of my Singapore-Dusseldorf flight where the flight attendants, too, gave travel recommendations and tried to get me extra food for my journey ahead. I’ll probably pen a commendation letter for their great work.

Hidden Gem of Eva Air

One of the most underrated aspect of Eva Air is how their schedule is tweaked almost perfectly for departures to the United States from South-East Asia. Since I’m based in Singapore, let me use these flight timetables as an illustration of the short, natural layovers to North America on Eva Air (timetables caa 21 October 2019).

Arrivals (from Singapore) Connecting to Departures (to North America)

1745 (Singapore – SIN)
1910 (New York – JFK)
1920 (Los Angeles – LAX)
1940 (San Francisco – SFO)
1940 (Toronto – YYZ)
1950 (Singapore – SIN)
1950 (Seattle – SEA)
2000 (Chicago – ORD)
2200 (Houston – IAH)
2330 (San Francisco – SFO)
2340 (Seattle – SEA)
2355 (Los Angeles – LAX)
2355 (Vancouver – YVR)

Arrivals (from North America) Connecting to Departures (to Singapore)

0440 (Seattle – SEA)
0455 (Chicago – ORD)
0500 (Toronto – YYZ)
0510 (Los Angeles – LAX)
0510 (Seattle – SEA)
0515 (New York – JFK)
0520 (Houston – IAH)
0530 (San Francisco – SFO)
0545 (Los Angeles – LAX)
0550 (San Francisco – SFO)
0600 (Houston – IAH)
0740 (Singapore – SIN)
0925 (Singapore – SIN)

In both directions, connections are excellent for Singapore flights to North America. No weird long layovers in airports. Eva Air, moreover, tends to not be the most expensive option available, and is in Star Alliance, which means the possibility of collecting KrisFlyer miles for those with KrisFlyer that are based in Singapore too. (SQ codeshares on some of these Eva flights as well). The Eva options available for US destinations (many also *A hubs) presents an option for travellers based in Singapore who do not want to take the SIN-EWR, SIN-LAX, SIN-SFO or SIN-SEA non-stops, perhaps because of their price premium. Among the numerous one-stop itineraries possible for SIN to North America travel, Eva schedules are very compelling.

Will write more travel reviews as I go along. Ciao!

Value of our Values?

A number of my friends had strong responses to Prof. Koh’s claim of Singapore being a “first-world country with third-world people”. It was also fairly interesting some responses online became one of blame, as opposed to constructive feedback. That has been a theme for a while in civic society, which supports Prof. Koh’s claim.

Many people have dissected Singaporean behaviour in their respective articles, so I shall not provide yet another treatise on the same thing. Instead, I would like to point towards a certain word, “value”. A measure of value towards something is important because it tells us how much we are willing to work for it. For instance, our valuation towards having a quality education is important, because it allows us, statistically, to open more doors for opportunities.

It is perhaps in asking how much we value our values that is important. For a start, values are supposed to be principles we hold dear to. Some of us could value righteousness very much, and hence defend our friends in times of trouble. Others may value intelligence very much, and would stop at nothing to advance their knowledge on any subject matter. We may need to revisit the kinds of values that we value and perhaps re-adjust some of these. Let me give a few examples.

The Kampung Spirit: Many Singaporeans liken the Singapore of old to having a strong “kampung spirit”. Some of us lament that this “kampung spirit” is slowly fading away for other forms of interaction. Some of these observations happen simply because of the changes to our lives. For instance, the food that we may have bought from a provision shop, coffeeshop owner or from a market may now be bought on an e-commerce or food delivery website. This means that what was supposedly a human interaction with a constant supplier has now changed to at best, a variable deliveryman. But not everything has changed like this. To restart the “kampung spirit”, we can look around us and identify the people who belong to our social fabric. We need not look that far to do that. These could be the bus drivers who drive the same bus routes, or the stalls that we often buy our dinner takeout from. Say hi to them, exchange greetings and understand one another. While these may not directly amount to much, the social bonds we form with people around us could prove to be a spark to recover the “kampung spirit” we cherish.

Consumerism and Convenience: We have become far more prosperous than ever before. We also have a society of convenience today. Food is never more than a few clicks away on a food delivery website. We can now shop so conveniently and many of us are affluent enough to buy a lot of what we want. However, when is our consumption considered too much? I think we overconsume, and partially due to the convenience to consume far more than what we really need. Sometimes, these arise from our own doing. We buy a piece of clothing that looks pretty at first glance, only to wear it once or twice throughout its life cycle. We go to restaurants and order the maximum amount of food (presumably to impress on people one’s affluence), only to realise that our appetites may not be that limitless. Rethinking about our consumption patterns is important if we value our planet. After all, insatiable consumer demand does encourage firms to continue production in a bit to satisfy consumer demand whilst pocketing profit. If we could all consume less, the world would perhaps see less demand for such manic consumption. Fewer resources would eventually be expended and our planet could be better-off. (I shall leave the discussions on environment and economic efficiency to separate musings should I have time.)

This is a short post, but not all is lost as what the dystopian view is. There are some individual habits we have that we can change to be less of a “third-world person” that appears to lack manner, graces or even human decency towards others. Such a short article would not do justice to the actual breadth of the topic, but I hope I have provided a small, individual perspective towards how we can inch towards a slightly better people.

Aiming towards a first world country and first world people!

Correlation Between Teaching and Joy

I miss school very much. At times, I wish I can just go back to school and simplify life to one dimension: work on graduation!

I have a soft spot for education partially because I have also been a tutor. In fact, besides writing, the only other job I have ever done part-time was being a tutor. I take my tuition stints as privileges, and always try to make lessons more fun than cram school.

As a tutor, I particularly enjoyed “stretch exercises”. In the old days before I picked up the “Try Harder” maxim, I was known as the tutor that individualised recipes for every student. Recipes included setting a Mathematics paper with no arithmetic problem in there to wean a student off a graphic calculator and attempting to design a game to “gamify” a Chemistry quiz. But perhaps one of the more fun recipes included trying to show arts students how to think quantitatively. Out came the utterly contrived examples that appeared on H2 Math papers, and in came some fairly realistic simulations, such as population chaos (logistics equation) and why Singapore Pools remains such a profitable enterprise with their astronomical house advantage.

Ever since my first full-time job, however, I have never felt the joy of working week in, week out just to spark joy for students, until recently where I had to dust my linear regression material just to try to teach high school statistics all over again.

Still the same old utterly terrible handwriting. Here I am trying to illustrate why interpolation can be unreliable in data sets where there may be reasons to believe the best fit is in fact not linear, but some other correlation. If our data isn’t evenly spread out, we do not have sufficient reason to believe that our regression should indeed be linear. The worksheet, however, was restrictive (perhaps benefitting the student) such that it requested for a linear regression check only. Mercy, or else you’ll almost have to apply linear law techniques to verify that the relationship isn’t something else such as a power law! (Separately I will probably also prepare some LINEST example just to illustrate other aspects of linear regression. Price to pay for missing my tutoring job. 🙂

Funny enough, when I was a student, I took some of these chapters for granted as being procedural; the H2 mathematics syllabus during my time made linear regression a procedural exercise anyway; have some x and y, linearise it, do a least-square regression, compute r^2, and then translate it back to determine what power law two variables seem to follow, and then perform an interpolation. I remembered just taking this chapter as “technique”, and now I had to show how “technique” isn’t so procedural in real-life.

I think my natural joyous reaction to being able to guide arises from the fact that I naturally tend to like to watch progress. That means, however, tutors often put students through hoops of questions to make them think and try harder. We will almost never answer, “What model should we use” with “use the y = mx + c model”. We almost always reply with a question, ” What models do you think could fit for this data set and why?” The resultant joy comes when the student feels a sense of accomplishment for successfully completing a problem without being fed the answer. The tutor also feels a sense of joy at having being a good navigator without giving away the plot.

Let me also take some time to indulge in an old saying that, the teacher has completed his or her objective when “the student beats the teacher”. There are reasons why this sparks joy. I shall approach this from the emotional angle first. The emotional angle is simple: satisfaction that a job was done so well that the teacher’s capabilities have all been passed down to the student. At this point, it makes sense to add a layer of depth to this argument; younger people, with their differences in experiences and skills, have a higher chance of synthesising new knowledge that the older people just cannot see or cannot imagine. In other words, this is joy from progress. Perhaps this is why my colleagues did not find me excessively fatigued after a cyber discovery camp with young, bubbly talents, but will find me fatigued whilst setting some “boring, administrative tasks”.

Perhaps it is only fair to take a more nuanced stance on teaching and joy. Teaching does not occur only in a formal context of master and apprentice, professor and student, or tutor and tutee. There are, in fact, many different avenues where informal instruction occur. These include mentorship of interns, coaching and many other methods. It may perhaps have been a bit of a stretch to claim I have never felt the joy when I was being a full-time tutor, in that case.

Perhaps, deep down, I simply enjoy the process of progress; progress sparks joy, and hence a positive correlation between the amount of teaching I can reasonably do (in whatever medium you can think of) and how much joy there is. And I still miss school!

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

“When Breath Becomes Air” was a breathtaking read. I thought I could finish a short book in one sitting, but I couldn’t help tearing as I read through the second half of it.

Why did I tear when reading the book? It forces one to think about life, and provides a good glimpse at how even doctors change their world views on life with new information such as a dire prediction.

Perhaps I have the serendipity of having some pockets of free time to mull over life, and the joy of reading. Not everyone I know in my circle of friends have such luck. Some reach home in the dead of night and plonk on the bed almost immediately after their shower. Others would be so stressed about the thought of more words that they resort to their daily lose of Netflix, Instagram and Youtube (multiple social media works like a drug cocktail — administer together to reduce resistance against every social media out of social toxicity).

I teared partially because of the story. On the surface, it would seem like a gloomy, depressing book. The protagonist died before finishing his book, succumbing to cancer. The battle looked to have gone on well with the first line of defence, only to rapidly descend into the abyss of hopelessness and eventual demise. Yet, the book also illuminates the power of the human will to persevere especially against the extreme odds. Even in apparent failure, one has to call the eventual publishing of this book a bright spark amidst an otherwise blighted story. One such quote that looks at the power of the human will can be summed up as follows:

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

I cannot help but think at my own life and wonder whether I am really living life to the fullest. On one hand, I do feel a little pang of guilt when reaching home to watch a comforting but ultimately useless chess video. Yet, I also question if the mindless hustle that seems to be a fad among people my generation today worthwhile. Some boredom to clear the mind is good. Hustle, purposefully done, is also good. While it looks like a salubrious to take the “middle ground” here and say, “Live life purposefully; do things you love to do, and make sure to take breaks,” it is nothing more than a motherhood statement that one can easily question, “So, what to do, in specifics?”

Perhaps it begs me to think about life and its priorities. Millenials tend to call this a “quarter-life” crisis. I don’t agree, and prefer to look at the ability to determine our own life trajectory a privilege; we may never know when our own bodies may rebel against us and rob us of our very own sovereignity over our dreams and aspirations.

And that is why we dream and aspire towards fullfiling them, instead of letting their flame be quashed with the wind.

Privilege of Power

Someday, the student will eventually surpass the master and the child will eventually outgrow the parents.

There are many times where we are put in situations of privilege. These can include positions of power and control, or positions of responsibility.

For all that leadership workshops market, there are really only a few principles that anyone in a position of privilege should abide by.

One, take care of those under your charge. Two, realise that those under your charge will eventually do better than you simply because they are more agile. Three, learn when to let go.

— utterly random, written in 5 minutes —

The “Gaijin”

Having been a visitor to Japan twice, I am still impressed by its breadth of tourist pickings and its hospitality. Just food alone, these range from the delectable yet simple delights of melons in Furano to the intricate kyo-kaiseki (Japanese traditional haute cuisine) in Kyoto.

I would be greeted with the impeccable hospitality of the Japanese each time I return. Food is a stress-free experience; almost no one seems to churn out a bad dish. Some even suspect my heavy biases towards Japanese culture and suspect I may be smitten with everything Japanese.

However, unlike my travels in Central Europe, I was not able to have deep enough conversations with the Japanese, unlike the Dutch (in particular). Some of them certainly know English, but towards foreigners, the Japanese put on a face of hospitality. It sometimes leaves me with a tinge of disappointment, especially in an environment of a high-context culture: their very accommodating nature makes it difficult to infer what they might be really thinking. According to a book about Japanese culture I read, there exists the “tatemae”, which is the external-facing self and “honne”, which is the internal-facing self. “Tatemae” is usually what we see: the formal, polite Japanese, whereas “honne” is unlikely to be seen unless we are close enough with them. Other cultures have variants of “honne” and “tatemae”, but these were not as pronounced as that of the Japanese.

Of late, I felt this sentiment of being a “gaijin” in some circles back in Singapore. To be fair, for the uninitiated, my manner of expression and choice of contexts to draw upon may make people me for being a Japanese (in the US), Vietnamese (in Chinatown), Malaysian (not so often, but noticeable enough) or even British (because of proper use of English on a networking platform — this has happened at least twice). Perhaps my curiosity of other cultures and willingness to engage in them make me sound, subconsciously, more “global” and hence less Singaporean, even if my instincts are certainly Singaporean.

However, I am beginning to learn that I don’t necessarily seem to resonate much with what we associate as “typically Singaporean”. I recently learnt that singing karoake was a favourite past-time in Singapore. I must be extremely late to the party. And Singaporeans love to travel for purposes of “breaking out of work cycles”, unlike my travel patterns, which one tour guide describes as “being European” and another person describes as “very interested in local culture”.

Perhaps it is my concept in what being a Singaporean means that gives rise my sense of feeling like a “gaijin” smack in my own land. To me, I stick to a rather pedantic definition of what an immigrant nation entails; being built out of people from foreign lands seeking a brighter future, Singaporeans will necessarily have origins from all around the world. This was featured quite heavily during our National Day Parade this year and I resonated well with that theme. However, a pedantic, time-invariant interpretation of this also suggests that I should, too, be open to future citizens who might share such a dream as well. But I sense, among my friends, a less than eager tune to adopt such an idea of nationality.

Going back to the term “gaijin”, its pedantic definition bodes no ill. A “gaijin” simply means “foreigner”. However, we start to pay attention to differences in a bid to differentiate between who belongs to a group, and who does not. These traits can be physical, such as skin colour, or behavioural, such as seeing who can speak a certain language a certain way (e.g., Singlish). But the concept of “gaijin” can extend beyond discriminating based on nationality. We can extrapolate this to discrimination based on attitudes towards certain events. For instance, people get aggressive when disputing about social issues, and start calling people out as bigoted or stupid.

In most matters I tend to take a slightly cooler, perhaps more analytical view. It endears well to people who want to try to break out of their comfort zone and I hope to be able to value-add to these people (partially why I write a scratchpad in the first place). However, since I appear to not pick sides on these matters, I would therefore not be included in either group and hence be seen as “gaijin” because of my lack of subscription to the various groups’ beliefs.

I am quite contented to be perceived at “gaijin” at times, though it is somewhat disappointing because being “gaijin” means it is often difficult to prod into the inner thoughts of people (cold hard analysis from the outside can only go so far) from a distance. It means that I don’t endear well particularly to most groups that have already banded because of various commonalities.

Sometimes, I am OK with such a status quo; I am free of shackles from my own groups to interact with others with the comfort of other parties that I have no vested interests. Certainly not that of an insurance agent, or that of a preacher that insists on the superiority of a certain religion, or way of life, or modality of thinking. Being “gaijin” has its advantages; “gaijin” have less restrictions on calling out sub-optimal behaviour and patterns. There is some value to be from the outside.

Emotionally, it is not entirely healthy to be a wanderer on the outside. It eventually makes one weary and miss home, a comfort zone, family and friends. Humans, being social creatures, want to feel included. I am no exception, and I hope not to be treated as “gaijin” wherever I go! However, I am also reluctant to give up my value-addedness of wanting to always look at issues from multiple angles instead of taking the pre-defined views a community subscribes to.

Perhaps mulling over this makes me feel even more lost (as this writing might suggest) than enlightened. When does one stop being perceived as “gaijin”, and start to be included into a community?

DreamCrush (not a game)

I used to have many friends who had strong ideals. Sometimes, we would not agree with each other as our opinions simply do not converge.

Of late, I’ve been sapped because, one by one, when conversing with my friends, they express the shadows of their former selves. The usual “narrative” goes like this (if you feel you have been quoted; rest assured you are not alone):

I’m tired of all these. I just want to settle down somewhere, hopefully with a nice girl, and maybe a few kids.

Anonymous friend

My first thought was to rebut, “But how about your dreams and your personal goals?” It usually descends into a series of rants about how life is not going so well. I am quite sympathetic because I sometimes feel lost too, and I myself can find it difficult to articulate the complexity of choices available to me. Another friend suggested the following:

Easier to be a student, where the goals are well-defined.

Another anonymous friend.

I remembered the incredible disbelief when I told students that they should enjoy their schooling life wherever possible. My rationale was quite simple: students do not need to fret about the complexity of choices as long as they can afford to get to school (Side-note: the reason why affordable education is extremely important for students). They know they must study, develop skills, but they don’t have real stakeholders to answer to except themselves. Moreover, by and large, the sandbox is larger; students are supposed to fail by design to learn while attempting to pursue stretch goals.

But whose life is that smooth sailing? I am confronted with a number of possibilities that can become crushing reality should I not look at them diligently enough. Many in my generation wonder what they will do 10 years from now. How about those that do not settle down? What if one settles down with an incorrect partner? The problem with this is that this cannot be treated as an academic exercise; one has to make certain decisions and stick to them. One can cop out of an important meeting, or an acquaintance’s awkward social gathering, but there is no evasion of choices that will directly affect one’s life.

And now I look at dreams, and on the other side of the same coin, regret. This ties in with the book I read about palliative care and meeting Death. When thinking about Death, one thinks about how one wants to live one’s life. Unfortunately for the Singaporean spirit in us, there is no ten-year series on this. Even if there was, the probability of fulfilling a certain life trajectory is close to zero; just don’t bother trying to live just like someone else.

We have to decide how we should live our lives. And for me, one key motivation is wanting to live life with as few regrets as possible. The corollary is quite straightforward; I must go fulfil my dreams. So what if they were written in primary school? The dreams may have changed, but the spirit of dreams did not change; we had dreams of becoming teachers, policemen and firemen because we wanted to be helpful, and do a profession that we can live up to our own consciences. I may not be any of these professions, but the spirit of said dreams live on.

There is a palpable fear, at times, that I’ll succumb, like my friends, to an unknown force that would swallow my dreams alive. But as of now… my willpower still holds out strong, and the try harder maxim still holds.

(For the unfortunate souls who had to endure karoake sessions with me, perhaps the post above is why I pick a certain song that goes… you shoot me down, but I won’t fall… I am titanium!)