A Meaningful Reflection Paper

The best moments in my teaching career come from reading meaningful reflection papers. This semester one student’s paper resonated very strongly with me. I’m so heartened that she has gained so much from my classes.

Here’s what she wrote:

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“What did I learn?” is a phrase that I would often avoid asking or answering in my life. The fact that I might not really know or not knowing what I don’t know makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. However, knowing that we are the only species that ask questions, I am now changing my opinion and instead[, I now] ask questions every time I feel comfortable about a situation. The fear of feeling ashamed should not be the blocking stone to knowing more about myself and the world. The desire to be right could be the driving force in life, nonetheless, it is sometimes a double-edged sword that blocks us [from moving] forward in knowing more about the world. Asking good questions, identifying confirmation bias, disconfirmation, etc., mastering all these cocneptual tools require continuous training and practising. An active learning environment is important for questioning [in order for it] to become an active habit. Life changes when we step out from our comfort zone.

I think there’s something from this reflection that’s worth learning and remembering.

Training my Left Hand to Write

I seem to have injured my right hand – once again – from writing too much.

I can’t tell if it’s a muscular problem or if there’s some issue with the nerves. I experience pain, numbness, and weakness in my right hand all at the same time. It’s a strange feeling to have. I don’t know how to explain the sensation (or lack of it).

It got so bad that I couldn’t hold a pair of chopsticks last week. I could still hold a pen, but it was difficult trying to control the movement.

Last week, I decided to see a doctor about it. The doctor thinks that it has something to do with the nerves in my neck. That’s scary. I did an x-ray but the report hasn’t come back yet. I’ll know the answer soon.

I figured I should learn to write with my left-hander just in case my right hand doesn’t recover, or if treatment to fix my right hand is beyond what I can afford. It’s probably a useful skill to be ambidextrous anyway.

One of the first things I did last week was to train myself to use chopsticks with my left hand. That has worked out quite well. It’s still not perfect. I mean, I can’t pick up noodles as easily as before, but it works sufficiently well for me to finish a bowl of noodles.

But the success of chopstick-use has inspired me to try using my left-hand for other things.

I’m now training my left-hand to use the mouse. This hasn’t been going as well as I hoped. It really takes a lot of patience. The problem is that my left hand isn’t as agile and flexible as my right hand. I move the mouse pointer slower than my right hand, and even so, I still end up clicking the wrong things every now and then.

One thing I realised from this experience is that my mouse is not ergonomic at all. Just a short period of use and my left hand would cramp. Perhaps that is why my right hand is now in this sad situation. Ironically, the mouse I bought had an ergonomic design. I’m trying to find an ergonomic solution, but so far the ones I’ve seen are really ugly. Do you have a mouse to recommend?

I have also tried learning to write with my left hand. Capital letters are fine. They look like the writing of a 3 year old, but it’ll do for now, I guess. I still have a lot of difficulty writing out small letters. I think the problem lies in the fact that there are more curved lines in small letters.

As they say, practice makes perfect.

Oh well, wish me luck!

An Experiment in Film-Making: The Ocean of Human Existence

Last week, after months of procrastination, I finally tried my hand at film-making.

In this past year, I’ve watched quite a number of breath-taking documentaries and online courses, and I have been quite inspired to make my own videos.

Those who know me would know that I’ve been working on the production of online course videos for some time. However, I’ve not had much experience with narrating or speaking in front of a camera. But most important of all, I’ve not had the experience of writing a script, which I think, is so central to film-making.

I think it would be worthwhile to gain the experience.

I decided to start small, so as to learn from the mistakes and problems that arise along the way.

I must say that the experience of writing a script is very different from writing a blog article. It took me several days to ponder about how I should present the content. The biggest difference is having to imagine what sort of scenes would complement the words of the narrative.

It is challenging, but overall, the experience has been fun!

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If you’re curious about the equipment, I’m using the Sony HDR-MV1 as my primary video camera, and the Olympus Pen E-PL6 as my secondary camera.

I’ve named this short film, “The Ocean of Human Existence.”

This film is based on the advice I received from a senior of mine back in my undergraduate days. His advice is, by far, the most beautiful words of wisdom I’ve ever heard. Back then, I was at a low, overwhelmed and stressed out with many issues in life, but upon hearing his advice, I felt enlightened, liberated from all the cares and burdens of this world.

This has been my guiding principle ever since.

Of course, the first time you encounter such a message, it might sound rather depressing. But there is something truly liberating about it if spend time thinking about it.

This film is meant to be serious, yet peppered with a dash of light-hearted fun. A nihilistic attitude, you could say, which is quite fitting for the message.

Without further ado, I present you… My first film!

If you enjoyed this video, please thumbs-up this video on YouTube and share it with your friends!

 

Transcript

Is it true that everything we do matters in life?
Is it true that we have to get things right every step of the way?
That one wrong move or failure would totally wreck our lives plans?

Is it really true?

Perhaps we think too highly of ourselves.
Perhaps we give ourselves far too much credit for all the successes in life.
Perhaps we don’t really have the power to change the course of our lives.
Perhaps we don’t have the power to change the world.
Perhaps we don’t even have the power to make things right.

Perhaps.

Life is like pissing into the ocean of human existence.
Nothing we do matters.

No matter how much you pee into the ocean, the ocean will not turn yellow.
It is only when the world pees with you at the same time that the ocean turns yellow.
Our actions are successful only because favourable conditions are present.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb:
When you drink water, remember the source.
We are where we are today not because of our own efforts alone.

No.

We are who we are, and where we are today
because of the fortunate and unfortunate circumstances
that are beyond anyone’s control.

We are who we are, and where we are today
because of the people around us,
who shaped us, who helped us, who guided us, who taught us.

We are who we are, and where we are today
because we have been pissing into the ocean of human existence
both in good times and bad; with people we love and people we hate.

But, the ocean remains clear.
Nothing we do matters.

We continue to live.
And we continue to piss.

The Morning Ritual of Pen and Paper

Have you ever found yourself in the situation, where you start out your day with some thoughts about what you’re going to do, but the moment you switch on your computer, you suddenly find that you’ve forgotten what exactly you were supposed to do.

And so you sit there feeling rather lost and confused.

Do you get that? Does it happen a lot to you?

I get that a lot. It is as if my computer monitor emits amnesia rays that wipe out one’s short-term memory immediately upon exposure. And then I waste the next hour or so trying to reconstruct or remember everything that was on my mind, with a certain feeling of confusion and helplessness, like a lost child in a crowded marketplace.

It’s terribly frustrating.

Not too long ago, I read an article about developing a good habit of starting the day by transferring everything from one’s mind onto paper.

I think, this should be done before turning on one’s computer.

The author recommended spending at least 10-20 minutes, writing everything that comes to one’s mind, without worrying about organising or structuring the contents of one’s thoughts. It can be in the form of bullet points, mind maps or even prose.

What matters is that you are able to flush everything out of your head, onto paper.

I’ve been experimenting with this for some time now, and I must say that it really helps me out a lot!

As a morning routine and ritual, I now start the day, making myself a cup of coffee, and return to my desk with the computer still turned off. I’ll put my phone aside far away from me, take out my journal and begin writing away.

Nothing like a good pen and paper to make the writing process a lot more pleasurable.

At the end of this writing exercise, I’ll switch on my computer, and type out everything I wrote, categorising them as tasks to do for the day (or week), or as notes for future reference (and for ease of searching).

If I find myself feeling lost and confused due to the amnesia rays coming from my computer monitor (no, I don’t seriously think there’s amnesia rays coming out of my screen – I’m just joking), I can always refer to the notes I wrote in the morning, and in a matter of minutes, I’m back in action.

I’ve since extended my pen-and-paper only exercise from 20 minutes to an entire hour each day. It seems to me that I write and develop ideas better this way too.

My hour-long ritual of pen and paper now involves writing lengthy pages of ideas (and sometimes blog posts like this).

Yes, there are many distractions on the computer. But I think the presence of the backspace button really alters the way one thinks. The temptation to hit the backspace (or delete) button brings about constant and abrupt halts to one’s thoughts. Ideas don’t flow smoothly from one’s mind to the keyboard.

Whereas, with just a pen and paper, not only are the distractions minimised, but the very absence of the backspace button compels one to chew on an idea first before transferring it to paper.

And when the idea is properly developed, the idea flows from one’s mind onto paper as smoothly as the ink flows from my pen.

Sure, this sounds like I’m re-discovering the invention of fire. But for someone who’s been overly reliant on technology, and have placed great faith for years in the power of technology to do away with the traditional methods, it is truly amazing and bewildering to realise that till now, nothing quite beats the good ol’ pen and paper.

Isn’t it ironic that despite our great advances in technology, no technological solution out there functions quite as well as pen and paper?

Soap Making Workshop

A few weeks ago, I attended a soap-making activity with a few colleagues as part of our annual staff bonding.

Many of us were under the impression that we would learn how to make soap itself.

However, it turned out that it was a workshop on how to make your own custom-shaped soap bars. -_-”

It started out with everyone queuing for a cup full of melted soap base. You can purchase this melted soap base as a block or as a bag of flakes, which you melt using the double-boil method. I’m told you can’t just double-boil any random bar of soap. Commercial soaps cannot melt.

Anyway, after we received our cup full of melted soap, we proceeded to the next station. There, we were asked to add skin-safe colouring and some essential oils to give the soap a pleasant smell. There were lavender, lemon, and lemon grass oils.

Once we were done stirring, we were instructed to pour the liquid soap into any of the molds to get the desired shapes. These were ordinary chocolate and baking molds.

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Here’s the mold I used.
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My more artistically-inclined colleagues were able to get pretty colours from mixing.
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Molds of all shapes and sizes to get the shape you want.

That’s pretty much it!

Now, we had to wait for the soap to solidify.

Many of us went for a second round, this time experimenting with making soaps with different layers of colours. To do that, we had to wait for the first layer in the mold to harden a little bit before we could add the next layer of melted soap.

After a long wait, it was time to remove the soap bars from the mold.

Thus far, the activity had been rather boring. But that soon changed to a period of intense excitement.

Who knew that removing soap bars from the mold could be so exciting?

The excitement came from seeing just how pretty the final product looked. It looked absolutely nothing like what we’ve seen in the earlier stages. Even the mold didn’t look that interesting in the beginning.

But it’s not just the pretty shapes that we got. The colours played a huge role in making the soap bars very pretty.

Here’s mine:

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Behold my soap bar! It’s a pink Twitter bird!

 

Here’s what my colleagues made:

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Beautiful snow flake

 

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Sweet-looking dolphins

 

Here’s the result of experimenting with two layers of colour:

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Soap made with a green and orange layer.

 

They’re all so pretty!

Wow… Incredible. The unveiling part was really magical. Everyone’s just so amazed by the way the soap looked.

Here’s a look at the soaps we made:

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All the beautiful soaps!

 

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Top view of the soaps

 

We all agreed that these soaps would make great gifts for Christmas.

I was tempted to make some of these myself at home. But it turns out that the soap base isn’t cheap. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just melt any random soap bar that you find from the supermarket. It has to be a certain type of soap base. To my horror, these soap base costs a bomb. I haven’t found a cheaper alternative yet.

Anyway, I went home to try it out. Turns out this organic soap was indeed very nice to use. It was very gentle on the skin and it was neither too drying nor too moisturising. Very nice.

It was fun.

The Six Lessons I Learnt This Week

The past seven days has been nothing but an intense learning journey for me.

From my thoughts and experiences on my 24-hour plane ride, the materials I read, to the discussions I’ve had with people both in and outside a recent international workshop, I have been overwhelmed by just so many insights and interesting lessons on so many issues covering so many different aspects of life.

So allow me to share with you six of the most interesting lessons I’ve learnt over the past week. I’ll list them here in the order of light-hearted interesting facts, to heavier philosophical insights.

 

1. Chopsticks

It turns out that the Chinese invented chopsticks because, unlike eating with a fork or spoon, chopsticks allow you to experience the fullness of flavour when you taste your food. The presence of the fork or spoon in your mouth affects the way the food interacts with your tastebuds, thus the taste does not present itself in it’s fullness. Hence, the reason why the Chinese invented something so counter-intuitive to use, and it has since been the preferred utensil for eating.

(After I heard this, I felt like I should try to eat everything with chopsticks just to experience the difference)

 

2. Intra-mouth Cooking

A Japanese explained to me that many Japanese dishes require you to do the final mixing in your mouth. E.g. you dip a piece of food into a sauce, and put it into your mouth. Or you mix the liquids from two (or more) cups into your mouth. It’s part of a Japanese philosophy (of food), which sees the mouth as the final point where the flavours are harmonised within the mouth of the consumer.

This has been something I’ve long thought about in the Chinese philosophy of cooking, that harmony is not just about the harmony produced in the dishes alone, since one must be able to taste and perceive that harmony within the field of one’s own subjective experience. But it seems that the Japanese have taken it a step further in their understanding of cooking, and made it more explicit. The final touch lies in how much sauce you add to the dish, harmonising the amount of sauce and its flavours with the piece of food, and most importantly, with yourself.

 

3. Sakura Cherry Blossoms as the Image of the Beauty of Corruption/Decay

When the Japanese sakura flowers (cherry blossoms) blossom, they beautify the trees. But this process of beauty does not end there. Beauty continues to persist as the sakura flowers corrupt and decay, shedding petals onto the ground, beautifying the land on which it grows.

This image of beauty persisting before and during corruption/decay is a very strong image that informs many of the Japanese’s outlook of the negativity of corruption and decay. I like how the Japanese use this image of the sakura flower as a framework for seeing beauty in corruption and decay in many other situations and aspects of life. For would, for us, appear as horrifying ugliness, is seen through a sakura “lens”, and the ugliness is viewed instead as beauty that continues to persists in another form.

 

4. What Makes Your Life Good?

It’s interesting how for so many centuries, philosophers have asked: What makes a life good? And then they prescribe it as a universal prescription for all to follow. And it’s interesting how in many ways, many of us have lived our lives following after certain abstract models of what the good life is about, e.g. lots of wealth, honour or power, etc.

But a more interesting project would be to reframe the question, and instead ask people: What makes your life good? What makes your life good enough that you’d continue living like this?

This question was inspired by a person who was so intrigued when he saw how happy people were despite living in the slums. He had never seen happiness to such a degree anywhere else. Perhaps we’re mistaken in some ways on our ideas of happiness or at least what would count as a good life, subjectively.

Perhaps we should really examine the lives of many people and ask them, what makes their life good, and that might inform us on the things in life we should value and cherish instead. Perhaps this might lead to a more interesting formulation of the good life.

(If you are willing, please share with me what makes your life good in the comments below. I’d like to hear.)

 

5. “I know each other so much less well now.”

A few days ago, someone said: “I know each other so much less well now.” The context was that if a meeting goes well, then people will come to realise just how little they know each other. He was suggesting that future meetings should be structured in such a way that by the end of the event, we’d all realise just how little we know about each other.

I think it’s a good quote and one that serves an essential reminder that we can never fully know a person too well.

One of the big obstacles in a relationship with another human being is to think you know him/her so well. And then when conflict arises, you realise how little you know of that person, and then proceed to revise your view of that person as having all these bad traits as the underlying characteristic. And voila, we conclude that we know all that we need to know about him/her.

The person is then judged and condemned for good (as someone who stays forever in this way, as this pathetic person). Strange how we always think we know a person so well.

Stranger still that we always assume that we know ourselves so well, as if our character and person remains the same over the years.

Yes, every good meeting with people should always leave us realising how little we know about each other (and maybe, how little we know ourselves too). I think that should be a good goal to seek. Not every single time we meet up with people, though. That might be too exhausting. But every once in a while would be nice.

 

6. “Beauty will save the world”

Not fear, not violence, not any technocratic revolutions. “Beauty will save the world.” This was a quote by Dostoevsky. In the novel, The Idiot, the protagonist, a naive prince undergoes tremendous suffering. Yet, it was in his state of ignorance and naiveté, that he comes to a clear realisation of reality:

“What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?”

And thus the conclusion that beauty will indeed save the world.

It is beauty that draws a person to curiosity and to love. It is beauty that removes fear of the unknown to have reverence for the mysterious. It is beauty that lifts up the human spirit from the darkness of pessimism and cynicism, and raises it to the heights of hope. It is beauty that unites the hearts and minds of people. And it is beauty that will bring people together to make a change.

It is such a beautiful idea and ideal.

Truly, “beauty will save the world.”

The Third Object and its Power to Transform the Mundane

As some of you may know, I’m in Arizona now for two consecutive conferences. The Fiancée couldn’t come along with me, so she got me to bring Piglet, and to take interesting photos of Piglet doing things while I’m in Arizona – all for the fun of amusing her while I’m away.

It seems like this is becoming a tradition for us. Last year, I went to China and did the same thing. A few months back, The Fiancée went to Hong Kong and did likewise.

Here are some photos of Piglet travelling to the United States. (I have something very interesting to say after the photos, so stay tuned!)

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Piglet is ready to fly! As you can see, Piglet is a Citizen of Singapore!
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Piglet reading the safety information card. Safety first!
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Piglet fights jet lag with coffee!
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Piglet looking out the window, saying: “The sky is so blue and beautiful. But I wished it were pink like me!”
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What’s this? Pretzels on the plane? Piglet is pleased!
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This little Piglet goes, “Om nom nom,” all the way to Arizona

Isn’t Piglet cute?

Anyway, what’s interesting about these photos is that Piglet functions as a “Third Object,” which mediates the content of the picture to the viewer, either to make things interesting (as in the examples above), or to function as a short-cut (or metaphor) to facilitate explanation without having to digress into a long story. (The first and second objects refer to the subject (viewer) and the object of interest in the photo.)

I could easily take photos of all these things without Piglet, and you’d be left with boring images of a passport, safety information card, remote control, seatbelt, and food. Without Piglet, those objects will be mundane, boring, uninteresting. You may look at it once, but you’ll forget about it. You probably wouldn’t be interested enough to find out what’s going on with the picture.

(Of course, I could stand in there and have photos of myself with those things, but then it would seem like I’m a narcissistic selfie freak. But of course, I’m not as cute or interesting as Piglet, so I’ll blend in with the rest of the mundane boring things, and the pictures will remain boring.)

Piglet’s presence in these images above mediates a certain significance and value to the viewer. Piglet – as the Third Object – effectively makes you want to stop and look at the passport. Sure, it’s a passport, but it’s a Piglet with a passport. You’re curiosity is piqued (pardon the pun). You want to know why Piglet is holding the passport, and why that passport is significant at all. In fact, it probably compelled you to read the captions as you want to make sense of it.  And though the images and captions revolved around my travel, Piglet – as the third object – mediates that and suddenly makes my boring 24 hour flight appear as though it was a fun-filled adventure of a pig in the air.

I have effectively communicated my boring 24-hour journey to you in a way that is exciting.

That’s the power of the Third Object, the power of Piglet.

But this particular soft toy of Piglet has another interesting dimension. As you can see, Piglet has no mouth. Though Piglet has eyebrows, these brows are very subtle. It increases the efficacy of Piglet as the Third Object.

How?

Because characters without any mouth or eyebrows cannot effectively convey any particular emotion. This emptiness allows the viewer to impose his/her own emotions onto such characters, thus adding a richer dimension to the character. Hello Kitty is a famous example as to why it’s so popular. People can relate with Hello Kitty because she has no mouth, no eyebrows. And so it seems that Hello Kitty is always feeling what you are feeling. She can relate to you, sympathise with you, and in many ways, understand what you are going through.

Something similar is happening here with Piglet. The lack of a mouth and the non-obvious eyebrows allow the viewer to impose their own emotions onto Piglet. As the mediating Third Object, the viewer doesn’t just see a passport or a packet of peanuts, but the viewer also perceives the added dimension of emotion. Piglet looks excited, Piglet looks happy, etc. Whatever expressions or feelings you are perceiving Piglet to have – all that is coming from you – and that’s only possible because Piglet has no expression!

It’s very Buddhist, by the way. Because something is empty, it can be filled with everything.

This is why many people have commented that Piglet is so expressive in these photos. Great job Piglet! Great job!

So yes, that’s the power of the Third Object. Why not give it a try? It’ll certainly make your photos look very interesting.