The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Month: August, 2013

New York Unicycle Fest 2013 day 2 recap

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All photo credits Unatics (NYUC)

I am sore all over, but I think it was worth it. This is the fourth year of the festival and coming back is like returning to a group of friends whom you know will be there. This year, they brought back unicycle-sumo, and introduced unicycle-football (American), played by a group of people who drove all the way up from Texas for this festival.

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Unicycle-sumo and  unicycle basketball were among some of the things I did, and they were interesting experiences, although the Texans who participated sort of made things kind of violent; their version of uni-sumo involved two sides simply ramming into each other from a distance, which isn’t really what uni-sumo is supposed to be.

I had a couple of scrapes from when I was bounced off my unicycle, for being severely out-weighted by the Texans. I challenged them to proper grappling rules (no ramming into your opponent, establishing hand contact before starting the match) and things became more evenly-matched.

I was roped into doing a makeshift performance with Kyle to open the skills demonstration. I guess my skills are getting recognised at this point? Looking forward to unicycle-hockey tomorrow; I’ve basically been waiting all year to be able to play it again.

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Learning to be divided by education

I was explaining the Singapore education system to my friend from the States, and it turned out to be quite complicated:

For primary education (elementary school), we have a compulsory six years.

In secondary education (middle school), we have either a four-year program (Special/Express), or a four/five-year program (Normal Academic/Technical).

For post-secondary education (high school), we have either a two-year grammar school (Junior college), a three-year grammar school (Centralised Institute) or three-year vocational diploma program (Polytechnic). There is also a vocational institute known as the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

I was telling my friend about how children are subject to segregation by ability from as young as third grade. In third grade, we had to take a test to see if we could be admitted into the “Gifted” stream, comprising the top 1% of the student population. These students get to be schooled in an environment full of other “gifted” kids, where they probably develop mutant powers.  I did not make it into “Gifted,” most likely because I wasn’t very gifted. I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t gifted.

In fourth grade, we had our first serious, proper national-level examination that would ‘stream’ us into various ability bands. There was EM1, for kids who were ‘smart,’ EM2, for average kids (this band had the widest spectrum), and EM3, for kids who needed assistance with their studies. Needless to say everyone strove for EM1, and EM3 kids were given the snub. Elitism ran rampant amongst students and especially parents, even to the extent that some parents wouldn’t want their EM1 kids to hang out with EM3 kids. The Singapore government probably realised how divisive such a system was, and subsumed EM3 into EM2, but everyone knows EM3 still exists, and the last few classes of EM2 are the new de facto EM3. I didn’t make it into EM1, and I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t smart enough for it.

At the end of primary school, at sixth grade, students take their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which is scored out of 300. The score determines which secondary school a student can enter. More prestigious schools would have cut-offs at perhaps 250 or so, while less discriminating schools took in students at lower scores. In secondary school, there are multiple tracks. In “Special,” students take a four-year program with the option to take higher Mother Tongue or a third language. “Express” students take a four-year program without the language perks, and both “Special” and “Express” culminate in taking the ‘O’ Level examinations. There is the “Normal” track, divided into two types, “Normal (Academic)” where students take a five-year program, taking the ‘N’ Level on the fourth year, with the option for the ‘O’ Level on the fifth, and “Normal (Technical)” students take a four-year program with more technical subjects such as woodworking and finish up with the ‘N’ Level. I made it into “Express,” but I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t “special.”

Finally, we get to post-secondary education, where there’s a two-year and three-year grammar school (Junior College and Centralised Institute respectively), or a three-year vocational diploma at a Polytechnic or a two-year vocational course at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Entry into any of these post-secondary institutions require the ‘O’ or ‘N’ levels, and specifically for the JC, CI and Polytechnics, the ‘O’ levels (‘O’ levels stand for “Ordinary” levels, ‘N’ stands for “Normal”). Getting into grammar school is pretty competitive, as there are only 16 of them in the entire country of a population of 5.5 million. Many who do not go into grammar school usually go to a Polytechnic. However, the difference between grammar school and vocational institutes is that the majority of seats in university are more or less set aside for grammar school students, where perhaps 65-70% of the student body makes it into university, as opposed to perhaps 10% from a polytechnic. Thus, for those who wish to end up in college, the pressure to enter a grammar school is really high, unless one is really confident of being on top of the cohort in polytechnic. Even then, to get to enter college a year earlier is certainly a boon for those set on entering college.

But even within grammar schools and polytechnics, they are not ranked equally. We have what is informally known as ‘elite’ junior colleges and ‘neighbourhood’ junior colleges, where the junior colleges with more stringent entry requirements tend to produce more stellar students who get to go farther and further.

‘Elite’ junior colleges tend to have resources to prepare their students prepare for further education anywhere, even overseas, while most ‘neighbourhood’ junior college students are more or less expected to stay local. Not that local universities are any bad, but when you’re talking about the reaching the limits of Oxbridge and the Ivies, most ‘neighbourhood’ JC students would never even dream of such endeavours.

I only made it into a ‘neighbourhood’ JC, having come from a ‘neighbourhood’ secondary school as well, and today, there is no distress — I have come to hold it as a badge of honour.

Despite my odds of never having been ‘gifted,’ ‘special,’ or ‘elite,’ I have been able to, through dogged determination, been able to hold ranks with those who have achieved those labels.

New York Unicycle Fest 2013 day 1 recap

nuf1There is nothing more heartening than a community recognising you and your name, even after what has been essentially a year since you last met or even talked.

The New York Unicycle Festival is now in its fourth year, and over time I have come to be recognised under a couple names, such as my own, or “Thundercalves,” or “that Asian person.”

On the first day of the festival, which was yesterday, there is usually a 13-mile ride from City Hall, Manhattan, across the Brooklyn Bridge into Coney Island. I usually end up leading the front simply because I go way too fast. This year, since I got a flat in my 29″ tire from my foray into Long Island, I was unable to join the long distance ride, but I took my 20″ and made it to the boardwalk by subway anyway, thinking that there might be an open-air demonstration of skills.

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There wasn’t that, but there was Kyle Petersen’s show, which Shah’s dad kindly bought a ticket for me to go watch. The show was okay. I got a free ride on the Wonder Wheel!

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But what I cherish most about this festival is always the familiarity of seeing friends, being recognised by them, and getting to hang out, chat, chat and exchange skills with people whom I’ve not seen in a year.

Today is the second day of the festival, on Governor’s Island. I’m going to be there to help out if they need help, and do some teaching if need be. Come to the island and attend the festival!

 

 

The purple cabbage Majora’s Mask

cabbage mask

I was making some cabbage stir-fry, and as I cut open the purple cabbage, lo and behold! What seems to be the Majora’s Mask staring back at me.

What does it all mean?

Journalism is killing journalism

I am out of college, trying to enter the field of journalism. “Are you crazy?” my friends and peers tell me, “Journalism is dead!”

But who are the ones killing journalism?

Journalism isn’t solely dead because people are reading physical newspapers less and less — people go online for their sources of news. People still need the news, and all that is happening is that newspaper journalism is simply undergoing a transformation, not death.

It is the journalism industry itself that is killing itself by being unable to change simply because they’re not letting anyone new in.

Having spent nearly three months job-hunting for journalism jobs, all entry-level positions have a minimum requirement of three years of experience, and that they’re only looking to do experienced hires only. This locks out an entire generation of people with fresh ideas and enthusiasm who have not yet been tainted by the whole “journalism is dead” creed yet, but rather cycles around existing journalists who are even deadbeat about their own prospects.

Other industries in IT and finance constantly take in fresh hires and in its young blood, is able to reinvent itself and stay on top of changes.

Journalism tries to protect itself by holding on to its existing assets and shuns acquiring new people, landing itself slowly into attrition and becoming irrelevant.

How can we make news accessible to the future generation? The easiest way to that answer would be to ask people in that generation, wouldn’t it?

Of course, it is easy to say that as much as papers want to hire, they are unable to because of finances. Well if they keep up in this way, eventually they will go the way of the Boston Globe, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune; sold off to people who are less interested in producing journalism than in serving their own financial interests.

So for the sake of the future of journalism, start hiring already.

“They’re all brainwashed”

On the way back home early this morning, on the subway, this Israeli guy started talking to me.

“Hey! Are you from China?”

I said I was not.

“Japanese?”

I told him I was from Singapore.

“Oh I thought you might be Chinese or Japanese, you have the same eyes as my girlfriend,” and he proceeded to tug the sides of his eyes, “She’s half-Japanese, half-Italian, and your eyes are similar. I love my girlfriend, but I disagree with what she believes in.”

Casual racism aside, I asked, “What do you mean?”

She was a teacher who taught in a school for Arabs, he said. As a result, she sympathises with the plight of the Arabs in the whole Israel-Palestine conflict, and takes the sides of the Arabs in the country instead of the Jews, which he is.

“She says things that are crazy, just like the rest of them,” he said, “They’re all brainwashed.”

I thought it was funny that he should say that, because the Arabs in the country probably thought the same of the Jews. In fact, a couple months ago, I got to meet a recent immigrant from Israel who echoed the same sentiments, almost verbatim.

“The Arabs will not hesitate to take over Israel if they could,”

“They’re all brainwashed from young into believing their nonsense,”

“You give them a little, they keep wanting more. They’re not satisfied with equality,”

These were some of the sentiments that both the Israeli men, whom I met several months apart, echoed, almost word for word. It was as if they were reciting from something learnt in the past.

Then, the guy on the subway asked me,

“So, whose side do you take? What are your views on this issue?”

I opted for the safe path and said, “It is not in my place to comment; I’ll let them Jews and Arabs, Israeli and Palestinians work it out.”

Smelling without your nose

Poetry and prose these days are very good with conjuring metaphors and images and the such, and they are very expressive. But I feel that modern poetry lack a sort of creativity in their use of the language. True, the images conjured are very strong and vivid, but in the reading the poems, one mostly appreciates the effect of the images and not so much the language. I would look at my own writing and think that the content is strong but were I to look at the words used alone and how they relate to each other, they are nothing special.

I think it’s because we’re too used as writers to acutely represent and display our senses and what we think and feel — we are able to show readers what we see, what we hear, and feel, through our similes, metaphors, analogies, onomatopoeia, etc. But these uses are expected and staid, after a certain point; there is nothing surprising about using a tapping dactylic meter to represent galloping action.

What if we were not allowed to see with our eyes, hear with our ears, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue, or touch with our skin? Just as a blind person sees the world differently, with his hands, surely we must be able to write about our experiences with the world through our immediate mediums?

With that, I bring to you the challenge of writing about smelling without using your nose.

I will try to write one paragraph about two topics about smelling, introducing that I am smelling something, but subsequently never using any word or phrase that is associated with the nose, or typical flavour words with which smells are associated. Let’s see if I can succeed.

The smell of fried chicken

The very first thing whenever I cycle past the Crown Fried Chicken shop in my neighbourhood is that I always smell the fried chicken on my face first. That wafting, hovering film hangs waiting in the air, waiting to arrest anyone who passes by in hopes of tempting them in for a piece of fried chicken. But that wafting, hovering film also hangs onto my face as a perceptible cling of grease that whets my appetite, even as I salivate from the thought of the crunch of batter-on-skin, the ooze of juice that washes down the side of the tongue, and the slight but oh-so-delightful burn from the steam that escapes the meat as teeth sink into yielding flesh. In but three seconds I would have already cycled past the shop, but I have left my stomach behind on the side walk, peering longingly through the filthy windows, wanting to be filled up with fried chicken and fries.

The smell of rain

I find the smell of rain after it has rained unpleasant — that scrubbing it does to the inside of my nose as it evaporates off of the side walk, that tugging feeling as it roils off of your arms and face. Had I wanted to smell mould, I’d have gone to the basement and stuck the green patches festering slowing up my nose, not to be assaulted by liquid decomposition and acidity that hangs around after the event like an unwelcome customer. Nobody ever smells the rain too much as it is happening, for they are too preoccupied by the sounds, the spectacle — the most people get is a sense of wetness in the air. But after-rain rain reminds you that it had been here, and sticks its proverbial armpit in your face, in my face, in its humidity and the awful contractions it leaves on my tongue.

To match nature

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There lived a man in Utah, who loved for things to match.
He had a picture of his farm, and in the photo, there he was,
clad in his Sunday best:
right in front of his prized wheat fields,
in a striking blue suit and pants.

But as he loved for things to match, and this picture was no exception:
the fields in the background matched the smiling man’s suit
for he had painted them blue.

Grammaticality is gangsterism

What better way to understand what is the purpose of grammar than by having to explain it to someone else?

A couple days ago, I met up with a friend to engage in workshopping each other’s writings. She was naturally stronger in Chinese, and I English, and so we both wrote a piece in each other’s weaker language.

I started by editing her poem for grammar. There was a line she used, “My feelings to him,” which I pointed out is ungrammatical. I said, “You could use ‘My feelings ‘for’ him’ or my feelings ‘towards’ him instead.” She asked why can’t she use “to” when “to” and “towards” have the same meaning; a directional preposition?

She asked me, “What is the purpose of grammar? It seems to be getting in the way of communication; people dismiss my speech because they think my grammar is not perfect, but isn’t communication about getting your point across?”

I was stumped; how often does one think about what grammar is for?

A quick search on Google about “Why is grammar important” yielded these common answers: To be able to talk about the language, and for concise, clear communication.

I asked a linguist friend, and he could only conclude why we have grammar, not why is it important. A Chomsky-esque approach would be that language and grammar are innate, then humans naturally create grammar when dealing with language; psychologist Steven Pinker notes that even deaf babies and children exposed to pidgin produce language in a grammatically-consistent manner.

What this means is that grammar is the basis in which we are able to formulate our thoughts in a particular language — a skeleton structure, if you will. Without grammar, we can still strongly feel about a topic with mere words — you only need symbols to hold meaning — but one cannot actively vocalise these thoughts without knowing that structure. From mere feelings, we graft these feelings into actuality and words around the structure that’s innate to us.

But that still does not explain why grammar is important in the way we deem it today. We say that without proper grammar, communication breaks down as meanings are lost. How true is that? Compare these:

“I am baboon.” “I are baboon.” “I am a baboon.”

They all mean the same thing, but the meaning is evidently clear when one hears any of them. The only difference between the first two grammatically-incorrect examples and the latter grammatically-correct one is that people would stop to note that the first two are grammatically-unsound, but the meaning of the sentence otherwise is gleaned regardless. Of course, egregiously grammatically-unsound sentences do impede understanding of meaning, where if one said something like, “Apples red is food favourite me,” and even then most people can still understand that sentence, with some time.

Really, it seems that for the most part, the grammaticality that we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, but more so to judge people when they deviate from the correct form. We peer pressure each other to conform to a communally-agreed standard and belittle those who don’t, almost akin to gangsterism. Thus you have your pedants who would sneer at the usage of “comprises of” whereas most people don’t even know that it is technically ungrammatical. But ask these pedants why “comprises of” is ungrammatical, most would only be able to tell you that is because what was decided in the past.

But grammaticality is never dictated by what was said in the past — it is always decided by what is agreed upon in the present. It might have been inherited from what people in the past agreed on, but what they agreed on is always susceptible to change and still pending the approval of the current community using it. The pronoun-verb agreements we use today would have been ungrammatical in Middle English, where there were distinctions (“I speak,” “Thou speakest,” “He speaketh,”). Even between dialects in the same time period, what one community sees as grammatical might not be in another; an example today is between African-American Vernacular and General American English speakers. Many AmE speakers would think a speaker of AAVE as being ‘ungrammatical’ or plain wrong, when in fact AAVE has just as many rules governing it as AmE.

Linguists push for a descriptive linguistics stance; one where language is studied as it is used without value judgement, as opposed to a prescriptive one. Yet often it is the lay person that proclaims fire and brimstone should one not use the subjunctive properly, or were a person to mess up ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Funnily enough, that linguist friend tells me an anecdote that on a dating website that asks “Is proper grammar important to you?” he put the answer “No,” but only in the sense that he’s not a prescriptive linguist; you get a case where most everyone else would have indicated “Yes” on that question, linguists, who would be the ones to most academically make comments on grammar, don’t really care that much for “proper grammar.”

So to my friend who made the grammatical mistake, yes I understood what you wanted to say, but I suppose to not let other people judge you as intellectually incapable by mere virtue of your grammar, it is probably best to yield to public pressure and learn “proper grammar.”

Long Islanders love garage sales

li1It’s been a while since I last did  a long-distance unicycle ride, but I decided to go visit my friend on Long Island, and that’d give me an excuse to do some long-distance. The route would have been about 67 km/41 miles. I was to start in Queens and meet him at the Three Village Shopping Center just north of Stony Brook University. Because WordPress.com does not allow embeddable live maps, here’s a picture of the route. Scroll to the bottom to skip to the stats.

sbkYou’ll come to realise that the trip stopped at 58km, that’s because I got a flat tire and had to stop. And I was so close! I had about 9km to go and I was forced to stop.

li3My rations for the trip: GPS, a book for the train journey back (I wasn’t going to ride all that distance back!), extra batteries for the GPS, my wallet and phone, MP3 player, 2 Snickers bars, 2 litres of water, some nuts, potato salad, and a Nintendo 3DS to see how many steps the pedometer in the 3DS registers the journey as.

I started out in Queens, since I figured if I were going to hang out with my friend, I probably shouldn’t be completely pooped out by the time I arrive. Had I left from my apartment in Brooklyn instead of Queens, that would have added an additional 13km to the journey, making it 80km total, which would have wiped me out.

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Queens roads are the absolutely terrible; potholes, roads that are not level, cracks, and glass shards. I was worried my legs would be over-taxed early into the journey. I unicycled past lampposts that was utterly covered in staples and nails, and a really cute barn-like pit stop. This was all still in Queens.

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My first stop outside of Queens was this town called East Williston; it has a pretty church and a pretty train station. That’s about it. The rest of the journey alternated between boring suburban towns, some fairly nice neighbourhoods with ritzy residences and industrial towns.

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I ended up on the expressway and panicked a little — I thought I was lost and was not supposed to be on it. Luckily, when I saw some other bicyclists on it too, I relaxed. Other highlights of the trip include numerous fresh produce farms and when I made a wrong turn and ended up on King’s Park Wharf.

The journey was on the overall not too hard, until the last leg after I got lost, where it was killer hills, rocky roads and more killer hills. In fact, that was probably why I had the puncture, from going downhill a little too quickly on a rocky road on a killer hill.

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Here are some stats summing up the entire trip.

Total elapsed time: 4 hours 36 minutes
Total moving time: 3 hours 37 minutes
Total stopped time: 58 minutes
Maximum speed: 29km/h
Total UPD’s: 2 (One downhill, one when I hit a sand bank)
Total roadkill count: 14
Total garage sale count: 11
Steps counted by the 3DS: 29,611
Breaks taken: 5

I unicycled into Long Island and all I came back with is a weird tanline.

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