Sunday, February 27, 2005

"No!" to the Mechanization of Education

My nostalgia for my old school years runs very deep, reflected very poignantly by a weblog dedicated to that very topic: My Years In Choueifat. Very obvious from the contents of the weblog, my experiences there were rather traumatic. Despite this, our famous regional director, Mr. Germanos (who I renamed in that blog as Mr. Hollandos) insisted that once we went to university, we would be grateful for everything the school did for us.

I've had more than one friend who has done exactly that: they told me that everything the school did for us helped us a lot. Yes, it is true, actually, that I can recall the equation for power as a function of electric current and resistance at will, although I cannot recall to any considerable extent the fundamental concepts of the Michaelis-Menton equation from first-year Biochemistry. However, I still insist, I don't think I have the school to thank for that. No, I wouldn't thank the school at all.

There's something intrinsically learnable, if there is such a word, about a setting where a class of maximum 30 people who all know each other, sit together and put on freeze all social relations and for almost an hour, without talking to each other, sit and listen to someone draw on a blackboard and construct from scratch seminal theories of mathematics, science or whatever topic. Literally, from a blank green board, everything from Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity to allegorical analyses of Shakespeare's Macbeth comes to life.

The traditional blackboard method introduces information from a logical progression. It starts from a clean slate, and progresses as quickly as is needed to teach fundamental topics and advanced constructs in a very effective way. As such, after 2 years of university education, I am sick to death of endless powerpoint slides, ridiculously distracting speaker systems and class sizes of upwards of 350 people.

I say no to powerpoint slides, to microphones and lecture theatres with capacities of anything above 40. This impersonal and dessecated version of teaching and acquiring knowledge and information is destroying what passion there is to be had in such a pursuit. It is to downgrade ourselves from milk and meat, to the mundanity of bread and butter.

I am now moving well into the end of my second year at university, and not only do I not know any of my teachers, I know but a handful of my classmates, and I can barely remember anything I learnt in first year.

The mass-production of university graduates in my field (Life Sciences) at our university (National University of Singapore) is an unfortunate black hole into which I am now irreversibly committed. Increasingly, as time goes by, I find myself growing fonder and fonder of the thought of being under the nose of a cantankerous Chemistry teacher, ready to pounce on my illiterate self like a lioness upon her prey.

In conclusion, this reflects greatly the confusion between means and ends. These technologies are but means to serve the end of education, and there are but many means. To consign oneself without thought or hindsight to any mean is to make it an end. My school was such a one, forcing us to learn kinematics via webcast, from a teacher who was in Dubai, over the internet. I never liked it, and struggled through it, and here I find myself back in the same pit. All over again.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Stephen King: His Stories, His Success, and His Advice

Stephen King doesn't count among my popularly rated authors. In fact, he's down there with absolutely nobody else, because I enjoy the works of all the other authors I have read (except, perhaps, for Robert Jordan). Reading is more a holistic experience than a linear task. Keeping that in mind, Stephen King's wonderful stories continue to astound me in their genius, and his endings continue to incense me.

His writing style has nothing spectacular in it, he uses common parlance, which is probably a good thing, because he's a bestselling author God knows how many times. It's not usually his writing style that I have a qualm with anyway, despite its mediocrity, but his endings. I've read two of his books: The Stand, Complete and Uncut, and The Eyes of the Dragon. I have also watched three of his stories adapted to movies: The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrik, The Green Mile, directed by Frank Darabont, and Dreamcatcher, directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Needless to say his stories are scary, and they are also very nicely developed. The Stand, all 1200 pages of which I read with great ease was a wonderfully gripping novel about a post-apocalyptic Earth (something I had been fanasizing about a lot since childhood), populated by a select but polarised (between good and evil) population that survived a genetically-enhanced disease outbreak by random selection. All the evil people go to the West Coast of the United States, and all the good people go to the East Coast (there's no point moaning about taking the United States to be the centre of the world, he's an American novelist, let's cut him some slack).

The story itself was brilliantly developed, if I may say so myself. In "The Stand," he introduces minor characters halfway through the story for several pages at a time, and then kills them in a most untimely manner, which offers a level of realism and tragedy to the whole post-apocalyptic scenario. He also develops some of the greatest and finest protagonists and anti-heroes I have come across in stories. My one qualm, however, are his endings. He seems insistent on not letting his villains die proper deaths.

Spoilers Ahead. At the end of the Stand, the story effectively ends by one of Randal Flagg's (the villain) own cronies, who happens to be a pyromaniac, blowing him up with a nuclear weapon that Flagg assigns him to find, for the final showdown with the GoodGuys. However, it seemed the ending wasn't sufficient for King, and the story terminates with a scene with Randal Flagg somewhere in the Caribbean or some African island with torn clothes, and black people worshipping him. This ridiculous and anti-climactic ending is consummated, to no good effect, with an illustration.

I figured I would give Stephen King a second chance, and so I read “The Eyes of the Dragon.” Well, what do you know? It's a villain with uncannily the same characteristics as Flagg, and again the villain does not die, but gets recycled into another realm, where the main characters go for a final showdown.

I have been informed by a Stephen King aficionado that apparently, that particular villain appears in several of Stephen King's novels, and that he plays a much grander role than what is implied in the two books of his that I read. I suppose I can respect the concept of having a character that seems to transcend between a modern-era, 20th century novel (The Stand) and a fantasy-style, almost Tolkien-esque prehistoric, mythological setting in the Eyes of the Dragon. However, to add such an ingredient into your storytelling at the expense of the finality a reader is to experience by finishing a book is not very wise.

In addition to not liking the endings of his stories, despite liking their story development, the movies adapted in his name are also sorry excuses for films. Stanley Kubrik's "The Shining" is counted among the top scariest films ever created, but I must absolutely and completely disagree. The film itself is missing something very fundamental: a story. Of course my main beef here is with Stanley Kubrik and not with Stephen King, so I will leave it at that. Dreamcatcher, another film adaptation was also a complete disappointment.

The problem I have with Stephen King is actually his talent. He has an uncanny ability at developing characters that are such marvelous pieces of fiction, you can't help but fall in love with them. The potency of his character design is so strong, I believe it blooms through, even in the sorry excuses for movies that come out in his name, like Dreamcatcher. Here is a movie with a beginning so grand, you expect something you will remember for years. Yet, by the end of the film, you find yourself lamenting the waste of 2 hours of your life to watch a story that has no deeper meaning beyond parasitic aliens killing their human hosts and crawling out of their anal pores. I find that not only unacceptable, but unforgivable!

One adaptation I find very much redeeming to Stephen King is The Green Mile, which I believe is a brilliant and touching movie about a big, seemingly mentally retarded Black slave, accused of raping and murdering two young girls. Although the message he was hitting for is somewhat lost on my Muslim psyche, the movie was well-executed, and it managed to pull the Hollywood trick of making you feel deeply for something that could be seen as somewhat superficial.

A recurring theme I find in Stephen King's books is one of holding secrets within mentally retarded people or children. In "The Shining," it was Danny, the child with his little finger friend who seemed to somehow know his father would go mad and attack him and his mother. In "The Stand," it was Thomas, who is one of the main heroes and one of the few that survive till the end, and he was completely mentally retarded. In "Dreamcatcher," it was Duddits, the one who saves the day by killing the aliens, and in "The Green Mile" it was John Coffey, the imposing gentle giant with a magical ability to heal and read minds. Quite interesting, really, but it gets old.

In any case, regardless of the misgivings I may have with his style of storytelling (and the fact that my familiarity with his works rest on two books and three movie adaptations), he is counted as probably the most successful American author in history. As such, when I came across an article titled "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes," I took notice.

He gives some nice pointers. The fact that his stories don't agree with me should, I guess, in no way interfere with what he perceives to be how he got where he got, since nobody can deny, he's a bestselling author.

As for me, I've given up on reading what Stephen King calls "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries": Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Sidney Sheldon, et alii.

Home Sweet Home

An all-encompassing digital beep woke him. "Cabin crew, landing in five minutes," a muffled voice said incredibly fast. He was surprised he could understand what it said at all.

He looked at his watch: 2.30am. Rather late. Mentally, he corrected himself. No, it's only 12.30am, his watch was fast by exactly 2 hours. Ah, the wonders of the modern age, the world is round, and so it isn't the same time everywhere.

Inwardly, he thanked God for getting him this far. Two days ago, it seemed an utter impossibility that he would be here. A room, worn-in by 4 months of habitation to be packed, a set of muscles atrophied by a month of exams, unfit for physical labor to be used to carry cartons full of books to storage, and a mind ravaged by the stress of studies, to be relaxed by the imminent joy, it seemed an insurmountable task for him to have come this far. It seemed the adrenaline of possibility was made all the more potent by the inherent fear of unfulfilment of expectations harbored for so long.

Slowly, he reached under his seat to find his seat belt, as the Fasten Your Seat Belt sign went up, punctuated by a muffled beep. He looked around him. Everyone seemed tired, yet expectant. He lay back and closed his eyes; this was a cakewalk. He had done it so many times before, it had become a matter of routine.

Yet in all the 4 months between leaving and returning, this moment, as clich├ęd as it had become by repetition over the years, held special meaning. The feeling of anticipation was a special one, and he knew it. He opened his eyes slowly, and turned his head toward the small porthole in the cabin, his head firmly set on the headrest. He looked out at absolute blackness.

The aircraft banked to the right, and a star of artificial lights filled the view of the small porthole. Silently, he praised God, for
teaching man that which he knew not, that they may illuminate the darkness, make day of that which was night. He marveled at what he thought was humanity's greatest accomplishment and possibly its undoing: technology.

His reverie was broken by the anticipation that swelled up within him, fighting for his attention. Now is not the time to admire or introspect, now is the time to palpitate. With all his might, he tried to hold that thought, the anticipation. The expectance of something greater, the desire for something bigger overwhelmed him as he closed back his eyes and shut out the world around him. If he were given a choice to hold a moment, and to be held in that moment for the longest time, he would choose this one. The uncertainty of expectation and possibility, and the certainty of past record and experience bubbled within him, fighting for supremacy.

After what seemed a long while, the plane jumped up and down as she touched her mother's bosom; land at last! He closed his eyes again, as a man looked at him. "Look hard, dear friend," he thought to himself. "Not everyday do you see a man sleep through a landing as rough as today's." The engines went on reverse thrust, and all sense of hearing was bleached with the bass rumble of the mighty engines that propelled this steel beast that carried him across the sea. Mentally he made a note to remember this awful excuse for a pilot for landing so harshly.

A ripple of clicks filled the air as passengers unbuckled their seatbelts, almost in unison. Again, he wondered at the marvels of herd behaviour. Despite his efforts, he could never recall unbuckling his seat belt so noisily or so soon after the engines stopped the unbearable reverse-thrust, yet every time when the plane landed, he heard them. He cleared this thought from his head, inwardly chastising himself on over-analysis of the world.

The airhostess proceeded to recite the instructions pertaining to ticket reconfirmation and the decorum of staying seated until the aircraft came to a complete standstill. First in beautiful Bengali, then in mangled English.

Shortly, he noticed people standing up, retrieving their luggage from the overhead racks. He sat still. From the view outside, the aircraft was still only halfway through taxi. The terminal was a far way off according to his calculations.

A mind-numbing hour went by as he disembarked from the plane, got his passport stamped by manically depressed, disgruntled immigration officers, and retrieved his luggage. Retrieving luggage from this airport was always a charm. Yelps and screams cut through the late night air as corrupt officers told off equally corrupt laborers to go easy on the baggage, and the conveyor belt squeaked its futile squeak, unheard by whatever semblance of maintenance engineers walked the hallowed terminals of this airport.

His heart beat like the drum of a Dragon Boat, rhythmic, intense and unforgiving, as he approached the automatic doors opening up to the humid air of Bangladesh. A whiff of particulates and noxious gases from natural-gas and petrol engines assaulted his olfactory senses as he looked upon a familiar sight: his mother, craning her neck, looking right past him. She was looking for someone plumper, more clean-shaved and with shorter hair. How he loved this part.

His father recognized him, though. Being the engineer he always was, he always anticipated the longer hair and acute weight-loss. Putting the trolley aside, the boy knowingly smiled back at his father, and ambushed his mother with a bearhug before she could properly lay eyes on this sorry excuse for a man she once bore for 9 straight months so many years ago.

She protested, but he refused to let go. He looked up behind his mother where his brother stood, only one of two precious gems for siblings that he had. "Not the whole set tonight," he thought to himself, "but this will have to do…" as he praised God with every drop of his soul. He was home.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Cowardly New World

Idex stands for International Defence Exhibition, and the United Arab Emirates hosts one such exhibition every year. This year's exhibition is said to be the largest of its kind in the world, according to this article titled "Idex is 'testimony to our capabilities'" in Gulf News. Capabilities, eh?

Capabilities, perhaps, to organize meetings after major terrorist events and beg the United States not to invade you? To stand around and scratch your beards and say "Hmm, no, don't invade Iraq, it's better if you don't..." and then let them invade anyway? Impressive!

Well, some situations are better understood if one takes into consideration the context. Well, here's the context: Curtain Falls on Shopping Festival. Yup, that sure flashes a floodlight on the issue. Smack on the dot.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world says the Arab and Muslim world lacks leadership, time and time again. It's a hard and fast rule: Muslims are a decapitated community. Refer to Link TV - Who Speaks for Islam? - with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf... - Streams. As this is discussed, editorials couldn't be more insightful!

In the editorial of 13th February, 2005, the editor, while frothing at the mouth praising General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, says finally and once again a brilliant and prolific Arab leader, spearheading the cause of the moderate world at large, points out what nobody before has known: bringing about a solution to Palestine should put a dent into terrorism. Absolutely mind-boggling.

General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid is famous (infamous) for hiring dirt-cheap labour from the Indian sub-continent to work on risky projects like his famed Burj Al Arab, the tallest 7-star hotel on the planet (something to boast about for the desert Arab), where worker death tolls were unacceptably high and compensation unacceptably non-existent. Yes, the same General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid whose legendary "vision" and influence in the UAE Supreme Council oversees systematic discrimination against people of third-world origin for people of first-world origin, regardless of degree or experience ("Forget the Experience. It's the Passport that Counts!").

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)