The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: friends

Pre-packed life choices

Previously I wrote about the breakdown of the Singapore education system and how elitist and dichotomising it is. It is known as being competitive and stressful, but what is little known about it is by making one choose one’s path from as young as in middle school, it results in a situation where the “choice” involves very little choosing at all.

By the time we’re in secondary school (middle school), at the end of secondary two (eighth grade), Singaporean students start subject specialisation and are able to pick the subjects they would want to study for the rest of their secondary education. Like in the UK, students have options such as taking “triple science” (physics, chemistry and biology — reserved for top-performing classes usually), or go more of an “arts” route (literature, geography, history, drama, etc.). Students will also get the chance to take Advanced Math (calculus).

These choices don’t seem like they matter much at this stage, but they actually do. The subjects one picks determine which post-secondary school the student is able to enter, which in turn affects not only which university the student can enter but even the major the student can take.

For example, were I to go on an “Arts” route in secondary school (which I did) and took more humanities than sciences and math, I would not even have been able to enter what is called the “Science stream” in grammar school (high school), I’d have been only able to enter the “Arts stream,” because a good grade in math and science are a requirement to enter the “Science stream.”

In the British/Singaporean education system, where a student declares a major before he or she enters university, what majors one is able to declare is dependent on the subjects one took in grammar school. Want to declare Engineering? You’d need a good grade in physics or chemistry and math. Want to declare law as a major? Probably stellar grades in English, math, humanities, basically everything (I doubt law school would admit anyone with less than straight ‘A’s)

Having dropped Advanced Math in middle school, and not getting an ‘A’ in regular math for my ‘O’ levels, I was prematurely excluded from ever entering the “Science stream” in grammar school, which means that I could never have been able to even study any of the math or science majors in university in Singapore.

All that because I chose to study literature and geography in middle school.

But when a child is forced to make these decisions that ultimately impact his or her life at the age of 14, 16 and 18, how is that child supposed to make those decisions when even people in their 20’s and 30’s don’t even know what they want to do with their lives?

As such, these students merely make pre-packed life choices — not knowing what they want to do with their lives, they can only shoot for the best they can achieve, and hope that it’d all work out. For example, most simply aim to enter “triple science” in secondary school. since those classes are reserved usually for the best, without consideration if they would actually want to pursue a career in science later on in life. Students figure that if they have the best grades possible, it gives them the most options later on.

In high school, students have to choose about three to four ‘A’ levels subjects to take. If the students mostly took science classes in middle school, chances are, they’d probably be going for the “Science stream” in high school as well, even though the “Arts stream” is available. To them, they think that taking the arts limits their options because they cannot envision getting into university through the arts, and hence default to taking the sciences and math. Students take subjects because they’re good at it, not because they like they subject.

In my high school, the ratio of science to arts classes was 31 to 8.

The majority of my high school peers in the “Science stream” ended up declaring engineering or business or some sort of science/math-related major to enter university, because that’s what they have been studying their entire lives from the point where they had to “make a choice.” They chose not to have to think about choice, and chose a default, pre-packed path in their life of math and science, because they’ve been told everyone needs that to get at least some sort of a job.

Did my friends want to become engineers and businessmen? They still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. But they know they have a career of math and science in which they can apply for jobs, because that’s what they studied in university.

In Singapore, it is not so much “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because the end is not so much a want as it is an inevitability.

Let me read your writing

Friends, let me read your writing, let me read your blogs,
let me read your diary, let me see your thoughts.
When we speak, we speak frankly,
directly, quickly, without much care
for how the words come out
save for how they’re wrought.
But in your diaries,
you edit, censor, redact, and scratch out
offensive lines and statements that would have left you
seeming anything less than pristine
because writing is posterity
because writing makes it so.

So let me see your way with words
and the way you write your tales,
and the way you leave your trails,
let me see your red ink
and read your silences, ellipses, spaces.

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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Outrunning the rain on a unicycle

unistormIt began in Williamsburg. “I know this is a weird question, but are you going to ride on that?” asked a fine folk working at the Meatball Shop, pointing at my unicycle. “Yes, I will be riding home on it,” I said. “Ooh, can we see you ride on that when you do?”

The skies were overcast and the clouds above were getting chummy with each other.

“I’ll sweeten the deal. Would you like some free cookies?” the lady said.

Who’d turn down free cookies? “Uh, sure,” I said, slightly taken aback.

So I waited a couple minutes more and received some delightful chocolate chip cookies. I ate one, gave my friend one, and took the last one in my hand and got ready to go. Half the staff came out to see me ride off triumphant with their cookies in hand. A couple drops of rain landed on my head. I hugged my friend goodbye, mounted awkwardly on my 29″ unicycle whilst trying not to drop the cookie. A car behind me honked angrily as I took some seconds to gain momentum.

The staff and my friend cheered. I was a celebrity! And then I took off. The cookie lasted the length of North 8th Street to North 9th Street.

And I commenced my six-mile dash back to Prospect-Lefferts.

I could see that the sun still shone warily from behind the consternation of the angry clouds some distance ahead, while behind me the rain was starting to become heavier and heavier. I was chasing the sun, pursued by the rain. Pedalling as fast as I could, I could feel the rain less and less. Down Union Ave I went until I hit Atlantic Ave. Curses, a red light! As I waited for light to change, the slow but steady clouds crept up and dropped its vindictive, wet victory over my attempt to outrun it. Green light! I sped off again, swerving the wretched potholes that comprise Brooklyn roads.

My legs were starting to burn and I started to sweat profusely from exertion. Down Brooklyn Ave, I had gained the lead on the rain clouds and only the slightest rain drops landed on me, but at this point where the rain failed to get me wet, I was doing a fine job of wetting myself with my own sweat; it was impossible to tell if I was wetter from the rain or from sweat.

I turned onto Nostrand Ave and continued down. The storm clouds yawed away and the sun came out to announce my victory. Yes! Score one for man, over Mother Nature. I reached home and hobbled up the stairs to gloat my sweaty, hard-earned victory.

In pursuit of happiness

A gay man is marrying a woman he will never romantically love, or even have sex with.

A friend is moving in with a woman he could never see as a lover.

Initially there was shock and outrage all around from the ones around him,

“Marrying a woman?” they’d say, “Have you lost your mind?”

A (spouse) and two kids, a dog, a kitchenette. The wholesome American dream. He could pull a Madonna and adopt one of the kids from Africa, he tells me.

Apparently he has given up finding love. Apparently he has given up on disappointments and hope.

In the past, we’d call that resignation. Today, he calls it “achieving the life he’s never had.”

“Is this what the whole fight for marriage equality was for, so that you could marry a woman?” I wondered to myself, but never actually telling him that.

Then I realised that in my judgement of his decision, not only did I realise what my own views on marriage are, but that had I told him off, like some of his friends did, I would be imposing my views on his. And who was I to curtail what my friends choose to pursue? If my friends choose ‘happiness’ in whatever forms they see fit, I will be supportive, even if they aren’t the same as mine.

So I only wished him the best in his pursuit of happiness, no matter whether he eventually walks down the aisle with a bride in hand or not.

The value of philosophy

I’ve heard it said before that the purpose of philosophy is to solve the problems and conditions of the human mind. Philosophy seeks to find truth, understand how we get truth and the why we get it. But when those who do philosophy get so enmeshed with finding simply finding truth and lose sight of the how and why and what for, is there purpose to their philosophy?

Consider this: Compare classical philosophy, from the times of Socrates to Descartes, and today’s modern academic philosophy. There is a stark difference in what each is trying to seek and for what purpose.

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend who did philosophy in college. We were comparing three things: classical philosophy, academic philosophy and commercial philosophy, which comes in the form popular books for consumer’s purpose such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I asked him, do you think classical philosophy is superior to commercial philosophy, comparing the two? He said that both have their merits, but consumer philosophy adds nothing new to the literature; they’re simply taking what exists and people already know and packaging it in a way that people can understand. By that virtue, they are making philosophy accessible to the public, which is a good thing. Classical philosophy on the other hand sought to explore what people didn’t know and tried to explain them, even if they sometimes got them wrong. Both are still philosophy, because both still reach truths and conclusion using similar methods.

Then I asked him, what about academic philosophy these days, where they are constantly adding new things to the literature all the time, but what they do seems to be so obscure and so dense that many of them appear to have no apparent value to the society? I asked him, what good is philosophy if it serves no purpose to the society? He agreed that philosophy should have a purpose, and we both felt that many-a-times academic philosophy seeks truth and adds it to the literature simply because they’re expected to and because they can, even if the ‘truth’ discovered has little relevance to our lives.

Commercial philosophy, even if by dint of its commercial nature, has to make its material easily digestible by the reader. At least it tries to serve purpose to society. In comparison, academic philosophy doesn’t even try to make itself readable to even other academics. Bad writing and unclear direction in so many modern philosophical texts begs the question: For whom are they writing philosophy?

Some modern philosophy reveal a lot about the condition of our modern selves, but for every one good one, there exists a lot of other PhD theses that write texts akin to intellectual masturbation.

No wonder we get the sentiment of “Philosophy is a useless field of study” from the masses these days, because philosophy as made itself irrelevant.

Philosophers were well-respected in the past; no one would have dismissed the great thinkers of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, for they were concerned about the society they live in and sought to de-construct the way society was, and hoped to allow people to understand the way they operated. Be it philosophy of religion, language, politics or science, it added an extra edge to simply practising religion, speaking language, participating in politics or conducting science. It allowed for the development of ethics, philology, and other branches of thought that make these respective fields more humane.

While I’m pretty sure a text like “Hegellian Responses to the Post-Surrealist Inclinations of Photography over Traditional Painting” (I made this up) could make for an interesting read, I’m not sure it would ever be as helpful as a book that rehashes hackneyed interpretations of Zen Buddhism as applicable to motorcycle repair.