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Posts tagged ‘Education’

Remembering August 6th

Today marks the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and continues to send shivers down the spines of those that dare to reminisce. 64 years later, the world is still a cradle of hatred, cruelty and destruction.

Although we probably had our first tryst with World War II in 6th grade history textbooks, I deeply encountered the implications of war, weapons & death only in 9th grade literature. It tragically transformed historical numbers, facts and figures into real people, emotions and scars.
A doctor’s journal entry for August 6, 1945

The morning stretched calm, beautiful, and warm.
Sprawling half clad, I gazed out at the form
Of shimmering leaves and shadows. Suddenly
A strong flash, then another, startled me.
I saw the old stone lantern brightly lit.
Magnesium flares? While I debated it,
The roof, the walls and, as it seemed, the world
Collapsed in timber and debris, dust swirled
Around me – in the garden now – and, weird,
My drawers and undershirt disappeared.
A splinter jutted from my mangled thigh.
My right side bled, my cheek was torn, and I
Dislodged, detachedly, a piece of glass,
All the time wondering what had come to pass.
Where was my wife? Alarmed, I gave a shout,
‘Where are you, Yecko-san?’ My blood gushed out.
The artery in my neck? Scared for my life,
I called out, panic-stricken, to my wife.
Pale, bloodstained, frightened, Yecko-san emerged,
Holding her elbow. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I urged –
‘Let’s get out quickly.’ Stumbling to the street
We fell, tripped by something at our feet.
I gasped out, when I saw it was a head:
‘Excuse me, please excuse me –‘ He was dead:
A gate had crushed him. There we stood, afraid.
A house standing before us tilted, swayed,
Toppled, and crashed. Fire sprang up in the dust,
Spread by the wind. It dawned on us we must
Get to the hospital: we needed aid –
And I should help my staff too. (Though this made
Sense to me then, I wonder how I could)
My legs gave way. I sat down on the ground.
Thirst seized me, but no water could be found.
My breath was short, but bit by bit my strength
Seemed to revive, and I got up at length.
I was still naked, but I felt no shame.
This thought disturbed me somewhat, till I came
Upon a soldier, standing silently,
Who gave the towel round his neck to me
My legs, stiff with dried blood, rebelled. I said
To Yecko-san she must go on ahead.
She did not wish to, but in our distress
What choice had we? A dreadful loneliness
Came over me when she had gone. My mind
Ran at high speed, my body crept behind.
I saw the shadowy forms of people, some
Were ghosts, some scarecrows, all were wordless dumb –
Arms stretched straight out, shoulder to dangling hand;
It took some time for me to understand
The friction on their burns caused so much pain
They feared to chafe flesh against flesh again.
Those who could, shuffled in a blank parade
Towards the hospital. I saw, dismayed,
A woman with a child stand in my path –
Both naked. Had they come back from the bath?
I turned my gaze, but was at a loss
That she should stand thus, till I came across
A naked man – and now the thought arose
That some strange thing had stripped us of our clothes.
The face of an old woman on the ground
Was marred with suffering, but she made no sound.
Silence was common to us all. I heard
No cries of anguish, or a single word.

Graduation day

Commencement officially marks the end of student life, even though in our minds, the transition was made the day we finished our last exam in college. We’ve entered the next level of that video game that never ceases to fascinate us. Treasures have been found, hills climbed, landscapes traversed, battles fought and won or lost, accomplices identified, cheat codes memorized indelably. The time has come to remodel the avatar and refine the tasks.

Staging black gowns and graduation hats, the class of 2009 officially ended its undergraduate tenure. There were smiles and flashes everywhere; Commencement 2009 at SMU (Singapore Management University, from where I graduate) became the culmination of all memories created and collected over 4 years. My own ineffability thus far was transcended by a sense of delight and hope, and a tinge of nostalgia.

grad pic

Graduation - July 09 122

The commencement address, delivered by a member of the Keppel Coporation, was, in all aspects, disappointing, dismaying and demotivating. The R word was justified in being featured in the speech, but certainly not expected to consume it entirely.

Tell us that for one day, we can forget the recession, the economy, the downturn, the crisis. Tell us that for one day, we can smile about what is and not fret over what could have been, because in the bigger picture, luck is still on our side. Tell us that for one day, we need to think beyond the obvious and look beyond the obvious, because in our tiny little existences, there is a whole world we have forgotten to think about. Tell us that for one day, we can nourish the relationships we have built over 4 years, because they matter more than all the money we’ll make in the next 40. Tell us that for one day, we can revisit the dreams we dreamed as students. Tell us that for one day, we can believe in our potential and battle all odds. Tell us that from hereon, we can choose to write our own destiny. Drilling the economy’s distress into our heads will not help us survive these times, believing in us will.

I posted 3 brilliant graduation speeches post my unofficial graduation. I shall spare you the torture of the commencement address I heard live. Instead, here is an awesome, light-hearted speech by Ellen Degeneres at Tulane.

Happy Graduation, class of 2009!

Education reforms in India

The Congress came to power with big promises this year (as all governments post all elections), and much to the credit of the academic party that it is, I am proud to say that I see hope for India, believing, rather optimistically, that Kapil Sibal’s proposed education reforms will be implemented.

I must confess that I am an Indian news channels’ addict, despite the trash that they feature and hype, and have followed all day, the vision of Kapil Sibal, India’s HRD minister and a Harvard alumni. My rants on education finally find some relief, at least in acceptance of the fact that our education system is a breeding ground for stress, due to its superficial emphasis on results. The man who led India’s first expedition to the Arctic and represented the country at the Davos economic forum, has now become the harbinger of relief in the Indian student life.

In an NDTV exclusive with Barkha Dutt, Kapil Sibal proposed the following:

  • Scrap the compulsory class 10 board exam, for it is merely a source of unneeded pressure for both students and parents. For a student studying within the same institution, an internal assessment is sufficient to determine the subjects he must pursue further. However, a provision will be made for an optional all-India exam for students entering pre-university / junior college after class 10.
  • Invite FDI in the education sector as India becomes an attractive economy. However, even big names like Harvard and Wharton must adhere to Indian norms, both in terms of fee, and reservations, strategically termed affirmative action by Mr Sibal. The latter is an argument I must reserve for a post which shall be featured soon.
  • Improve the quality and standard of primary education in government schools, which by the Right to Education bill is meant to be free for all.

I am already smiling. When a learned man hits the nail right on its head and promises to bring about change, we know that the future of a nation is in safe hands. I am tempted to forget all the empty assurances ever given to us by our various governments, and watch in pride as our country is steered upon this new path.

This is only the beginning.

Off the beaten track

College degrees are analogous to fashion trends. The ones that manage to attain critical mass sell like hot cakes, albiet periodically. The 80s were for med schools, the 90s saw students flock to engineering, the early 2000s started the fad of computer wizards, the last 4-5 years have generated an inordinate number of bankers, and the next few, I predict, will see the masses revert back to the doctors and engineers. In fact, fancy foreign banking experience, which once scored points for eligible bachelors (particularly Indian, since the arranged marriage concept is almost alien to other nationalities), has become quite the tabboo this season.

During my own time in college, I have seen many a talent wasted in the race for the most popular college degree. Off beat degrees, it seems, are still only for the daredevils, the rich & hence financially secure, and those who can’t make the academic cutoff of mainstream courses. Of course, there are those who discover only midway through college that they are not cut out for the rat race. However, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance after 4 years of (mindless) slogging, many continue to embark on the path that ignorance chose for them, getting sucked further into the conventional belief that off beat (non med, non engineering, non finance) talent is purely meant for hobbies.

It’s hard to foresee the future of a system that facilitates the decay of tremendous talent in the name of a ‘respectable’ profession. I earlier wrote a post contemplating if college education is overrated. Now, I think the mass-following of mainstream degrees is more to blame. Perhaps, post high-school, students need more time to discover real talent through exposure to off-beat fields. Perhaps, parents need to be more receptive and appreciative of their children’s abilities in alternate areas. Perhaps, we need to re-evaluate our system and re-examine whether it is the most efficient way of cultivating the generation of tomorrow. 

If you’re not sure about the kind of off-beat education I’ve been harping here about, this is a start.

“Of course there’s a lot of knowledge in universities: the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don’t take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates….” - Anonymous

Saturn & Stargazing

2009 is a special year in the night sky. The Earth is exactly at the same level as Saturn in space, allowing us Earthlings to catch a vertical view of the second largest planet in our solar system, a one in 15 years phenomenon. To celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, the Science Center in Singapore has opened up its Observatory for free stargazing sessions every Friday night. This week, the main telescope was aligned to focus on Saturn and its moons, and it made for a spectacular sight.

In the magnified view of the telescope, Saturn appears exactly like it was depicted in secondary school geography textbooks, complete with the rings. The rings, which are really pieces of dust and ice moving at tremendous speeds, look gorgeous! Of the 62 moons of Saturn, only 4 of the brighter ones were visible through the telescope, and appeared as though they were protecting the rings of Saturn. To the naked eye, or through a pair of binoculars, Saturn only appears as a bright star in the sky. It makes you realize the power of science. Galileo Galilei must have been quite a scientist to invent something as far-sighted as a telescope!

Saturn will shine in the night sky all the way till July. Meanwhile, Mars and Jupiter will be visible during the next couple of months only during the wee hours of the morning, at least in this southern half of the world (Singapore). 

During my stargazing session, it was also a delight to see Orion, the constellation with the 3 stars in a straight line (Orion’s belt). Sirius, from the Big Dipper constellation, was the brightest star in the sky and one of the easier ones to spot with the naked eye. The moon, despite being blinding in its waxing phase, revealed its inconspicuous craters under the inspection of binoculars. If this 8th grade geography sounds greek to you, refresh your memory here in an interactive version of the night sky.

The stargazing session has spiralled my interest in Astronomy. There’s so much we still don’t know about the night sky; perhaps we are just one discovery away from finding an alternate world.

Random fact of the day: Astronauts cannot cry in space because there is no gravity, so the tears can’t fall.

Earth Hour 2009

To some of our minds, climate change is still a far-fetched issue, way out of our grasp and way beyond our time. Even as we speak, people are getting trapped in poverty and hunger all over the world. Our generation is suffering, and climate change is trying to make us reflect upon the well-being of future generations. I don’t know if it’s a just cause, but I do know that we are genetically coded to be futuristic. After all, we do all we do in our life time, so our race could survive further, consciously or sub-consciously. 

Above is a glimpse into climate change. If you have ever been awestruck by the picturesque view from a hill top, been hypnotized by the turquoise blue of the sea, or simply marvelled at the sheer beauty of the evening sky, you know that our planet is worth saving. You can read more on CNN’s exclusive section Planet in Peril.

Earth Hour is an initiative by the WWF, that tries to urge each individual, household and organization to turn off the lights for one hour. The event was spearheaded by WWF Australia in 2007, and has since been adopted by almost 82 countries worldwide. Today’s aim is to get 1 billion people to embrace the dark for an hour, between 8:30 and 9:30 pm, local time.

Earth Hour

On average, turning the lights off for an hour in a regular-sized city like Bangkok can decrease electricity usage by  165 mega-watts, which translates to nearly a 100 tonnes of carbon-dioxide, a gas believed to be a major contributor to global warming. 

Apparently, during Earth Hour last year, Google turned its homepage black for an hour. The power consumption of organic LED monitors, though rarely used,  reduces on webpages with black backgrounds. Google’s tagline read,   “We’ve turned the lights out. Now it’s your turn – Earth Hour.”

Earth Hour seems to be pretty big in Singapore this year, from social media campaigning, to more traditional advertising on billboards and dedicated events. The city is always so illuminated that you can barely spot stars in the night sky; it will be interesting to see what it looks like in the dark. 

Critics claim that the amount of energy and money spent in propogating Earth Hour, engaging volunteers, and garnering support and participation, will negate the amount saved during Earth Hour, if not exceed it. We need to understand though, that the initiative is more of a means to create awareness about climate change and our role in it. 

Here’s some food for thought from WWF, Canada:

Remember to turn off the lights tonight at 8:30 pm your time. Do it for our planet, for a nice candle-light dinner, or simply to reduce your electricity bill. Whatever your motivation, you could help save the world.

Heal the world
Make it a better place
For you and for me
And the entire human race…

Social media

I recently discovered that a lot of people are unaware of the social media phenomenon, even though they are very much a part of it. As a believer in the power of social media, I owe this post to them.

Simply put, social media collectively describes all tools that enable people to talk online. Often interchangeably used with the term Web 2.0, social media consists of social networks like Facebook, content sharing sites like Youtube and Flickr, blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger, and user-generated information sources like Wikipedia. The term, coined only recently, is creating waves in the PR world. It is a colossal avenue for people to share their insights, opinions and knowledge, through interaction with others like them on the World Wide Web. 

Currently, the size of the social media community is estimated at 400 million. According to a study by Strategy Analytics, by 2015, 1 in every 6 people will be users of social media platforms.

Billion dollar companies like Dell, Starbucks and Coca-Cola are reinventing themselves through social media and reconnecting with their stakeholders. Here is a comprehensive list of businesses that have forayed into the social media space. The days of mass advertising and spamming are behind us. 

My digital media class in college created a wiki that analyzes the past and future of social media in various countries across Asia. Even though my contribution to the wiki was Japan specific, my research exposed me to the promising world of social media. It’s when I began to look past my Facebook newsfeed, and at the bigger picture. I am a fan of Seth Godin’s blog and his ideas, and I ocassionally read what Guy Kawasaki and Mitch Joel blog about.

The following is the simplest video I could find to explain the concept of social media.

The Aasha Build: Gift hope, build a home

Slumdog Millionaire has put the slums of India on the world map, albiet in an artistic way. Despite the obvious, it’s still hard to believe that some people don’t have a concrete roof over their heads, that they live in make-shift shacks even in this age and time. Apparently, India homes 17% of all slum-dwellers in the world, a figure which translates to about 170 million people! The odds are just slightly tilted in our favor. 

If you have ever witnessed the poverty on India’s streets (in person or through CNN or BBC), I am sure you have wondered, even for a moment, if there was a way you could help. This is your chance.

A few of us have started an initiative with Habitat for Humanity to build houses in a slum area in Devanahalli, on the outskirts of Bangalore, India. The 2 weeks we spend on site will involve an intensive 10 day build, with an aim of constructing 8 double-storeyed houses, sheltering 16 families or approximately 96 individuals. A house might sound trivial, but to some child and some parent, it will be their first real home.

Aasha is the Hindi word for hope, and The Aasha Build is our chance to make a difference in our world. 

The Aasha Build

Besides the issues of homelessness and poverty, the village of Devanahalli and its neighbours are also breeding grounds for microfinance and self-help groups. Without the technicalities of these titles and the formal operations they entail, these villages have sustained themselves for years by self-help practices. Unlike urban India, families in these villages are mostly headed by women, who support each other as ‘human collateral’ for microfinance institutions and undertake entrepreneurial ventures. 

Although we are recruiting only 20 volunteers to go for the build, we are trying to engage the entire online community to create awareness about homelessness, microfinance and self-help groups, and to garner support. If you would like to contribute to our initiative, here is how you can help.

Support our cause by displaying The Aasha Build badge on your blog or website. Communicate your support to the Devanahalli community by leaving them a message here.

“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.”  - Anne Frank

Vision for all

If you wear eyeglasses, I’m sure you can remember what it felt like the first time you wore them. Personally, I was in denial for 2 years before I got my first pair. My bespectacled self realized that my whole world had been a blur. Suddenly, everything was bright and all those blotches had defined shapes. I could see clearly again, thanks to Salvino D’Armate, peace be upon him.

Unfortunately, millions the world over, and nearly 15 million people in India can never experience their first time. I shall resist brooding over how this affects their quality of life and how unfair the financial inequality in our country is. I will however mention that the aftermath of unaided poor vision is often blindness. 

specs1

A while ago, a friend told me how some IIT students had found this problem an ingenious solution. Today, I stumbled upon a similar initiative by Lions Club International. Apparently it has been in place for over 80 years! I’m still blown away by the idea, and to prevent further anticipation, here goes:

One can barely estimate the number of spectacle lenses that must go to waste each time a person’s eye-power changes, making it necessary to replace old, used pairs of spectacles. Throughout the year, Lions Clubs collect such obsolete pairs of spectacles, donated by owners who can no longer use them. These pairs are cleaned and classified by the power of their lenses. Volunteers then go to rural areas in developing countries and each pair of eyeglasses finds a new pair of eyes as soon as a suitable match is found. Really, a bright idea!

If you are still hoarding your old pair of eyeglasses, donate them now and let someone see the world again!

The 3 best graduation speeches

Words can be ‘weapons’ of mass inspiration, especially when the right ones are found at the right moments, moments which tend to define the rest of our lives. The following three graduation speeches inspire me most as I prepare to undertake the journey that lies ahead.

One. Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple, to the Class of 2005 at Stanford.

Two. Chetan Bhagat, an IIT grad and the author of Five Point Someone, at Symbiosis (India) Convocation 2008.

Good Morning everyone and thank you for giving me this chance to speak to you. This day is about you. You, who have come to this college, leaving the comfort of your homes (or in some cases discomfort), to become something in your life. I am sure you are excited. There are few days in human life when one is truly elated. The first day in college is one of them. When you were getting ready today, you felt a tingling in your stomach. What would the auditorium be like, what would the teachers be like, who are my new classmates – there is so much to be curious about. I call this excitement, the spark within you that makes you feel truly alive today. Today I am going to talk about keeping the spark shining. Or to put it another way, how to be happy most, if not all the time.

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