Saturday, June 30, 2012

Thoughts on University Policy

Over lunch yesterday, C. and I talked about the VC and his policies, among other things. In particular, the ridiculous standards set for lecturers in the arts and humanities, who have to publish papers in ISI journals as well.

As I was sweeping the floor this morning, I thought about all of that, and about our government, and about ethics and the voice of the people and what it is we really want. I remembered that line from The Magician's Nephew, where Aslan tells young Digory, "All receive what they ask for, but they do not always like it."

We want non-corrupt leaders, but are we non-corrupt people? I can't help feeling that the calling of the Church in our present political climate is not so much to lead the charge in voting, but to show the way in living. Things are so politicised these days that I think we are losing sight of the real battles. Everyone talks about changing leaders and circumstances; no one talks about changing themselves.

Why don't we attack the government for not banning Chatime, for instance? All that overpriced sugar and unhealthiness! We live lives of double standards, and we would do well to shut up sometimes.

At the risk of overquoting Kang's "Different shirt, same shit" pronouncement, I'd say that's the point we are missing: we're changing the wineskins but doing nothing about the wine.

Back to the VC.

He inherited a university that was down some distant rungs in the Times World University Rankings. Many are quick to point out that rankings are not everything, but let me say that my parents were, six years ago, extremely hesitant about sending me to the University. I agree that rankings are not everything, but we live in a world where public opinion is so twisted by the media, that no person or organisation will ever get its due unless the media approves. Also, it is no secret that serious research in the sciences had been shelved for many years. For reasons as these, our current VC was the right man for the job.

I am sympathetic to the plight of the arts and humanities community, and of those lecturers who are better teachers than researchers. I consider myself more inclined to teaching than to research, and my honest answer to the VC's persistent, "So Ben, when are you doing your PhD" question is this: "Sir, I have always very much desired to lecture, but I do not see myself doing academic research of such rigour. Unfortunately I cannot be of service in the academic structure you have designed."

In all of this I am not against him, because if I had inherited the University as it was in 2008, I don't know how I could have done better to appease the rakyat's chants of, "Do something about our rankings!" Furthermore, there was a lot of deadwood—there still is, actually—in the ranks of faculty members. It is a pity that he is more preoccupied with numbers than quality, leading to an influx of questionable foreign students, to dodgy collaborations in order to land certain journals, and to the neglect of some really good (but with little commercial or ISI value) research. And yet, some hard decisions had to be made if a systematic transformation into a 'research university' was going to take place.

Key word: systematic. I have never quite understood engineers, but I know they are more concerned with efficiency over ethics, with 'getting the job done' than with doing something really great and colourful and wonderful. If an engineer produced a movie, they would go for something safe rather than something risky but possibly groundbreaking. (I draw these inferences from personal experience with engineers.)

I can understand why he cannot tolerate subjectivity, because if you start making exceptions to some cases, you have to start making exceptions to others. It makes for difficult steering of the battleship. Football coaches like Otto Rehhagel and José Mourinho have never been popular, but they get the job done.

All in all, it is time for the public to decide on what they really want. In particular, on whether they want good education irrespective of where the University sits on the rankings chart—and if so, what yardstick should be used to evaluate the University.

After all, we live in a silly world where applicants from Malaysian universities need to take TOEFL to get into the States, but graduates from Singaporean universities do not, simply because English is considered to be the 'first language' of Singaporean universities. Never mind that many Malaysians speak way better English than Singaporeans.

There is no reliable indicator of anything, and perhaps the words of my mother's cousin were the wisest of all. When I asked her, five years ago, what she thought of my parents' fear of local varsities, she said, "It really depends on the faculty. Go and visit it for yourself, and decide." I took her advice and went to see the Dean. I liked what I saw, and I can say in retrospect that I would not trade in my years of learning in this University for anything else.

There was much I did not, and still do not, like about the University. But I learnt the value of wise discretion in making judgements, and in that sagely quote from Pixar's Ratatouille: "Not everyone can cook, but a good cook can come from anywhere."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Whitman's grass

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any more than he.

— Walt Whitman

(Thanks, Mel.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Klang Gates Ridge, 12 May 2012

On Saturday, 12 May, I found myself once again on the Klang Gates Ridge. Second time with George, and first with Firdy, Adila and Emily—I think we were trying to relive the Gunung Merapi high (no pun intended).

We got off to a late-ish start, after some drinks at PJ Hills, and it was well past 7.30 by the time we started the ascent. It was cloudy, and given our late start I did not expect much. But the light on the top was quite another (happy) story.

(Note: Some formatting problem seems to have beset the pictures below. Click on the pictures to view them in proper resolution—Blogger seems to have mispixellated them here.)

* * *

It was unusually misty, even at 8 o'clock.

Peak on the southeastern side shrouded in mist. View through foliage, 8.12 a.m.


By 8.30 the sun is usually too high for subtle lighting, but on that day the clouds and mist were so thick that the light shining through took on such a mystical, magical quality.

Taken out of context, this could well be a view over some lush jungle in Pahang or Sabah. (8.37 a.m.)


Klang Gates dam, 8.43 a.m.

Ampang, on the western side of the ridge.


A sole, left behind on the trail. 9.08 a.m.—nice shadows!


Adila, Emily and Firdy.

Great to start kids out young!

Firdy on one of the ridges. Since my last visit, handholds have been installed in the face of some of the (steeper) ridges.

While this technically defaces the natural ridge surface, in the interest of safety it is probably a good idea. Still, free-climbing is the most fun!


The mossier parts beyond the seventh ridge.

The rambutan man.

The cempedak tree.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Random collected thoughts

Ben: Why would I in my right mind [want to use film?]—
Kaun: Ben, you’re never in your right mind.

* * *

I nearly didn’t miss the train: that line rings true again of the Hayabusa, and of all the things that did and didn’t work out of late.

Every road is a risk. Every train I didn’t board still took me somewhere.

 * * *

The VI is like what Siu Lin said of Mensa: what you get out of it is what you put into it.

Praba's 'big picture' advice last year keeps ringing in my head, especially after recent conversations with Li-Shia. The world really does look different when you see it through the eyes of the 'big picture'—you realise the things that really are at stake are probably not what you first thought them to be.

* * *

Again, that pressure to do what someone in my position 'ought' to do. (More in the email conversation with Tim last night.)

Well, let's see where July and August lead.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On choosing rulers

The first reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for this week comes from 1 Samuel, chapter 8.

* * *

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, "Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations." But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to judge us." And Samuel prayed to the LORD.

And the LORD said to Samuel, "Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them."

So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day."

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, "No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles."

— 1 Samuel 8:4-20 (ESV), emphasis mine

* * *

One of the recent events that has been taking the country by storm is the controversy surrounding the spending of half a million Malaysian ringgit on three letters and a number. It is something that might be seen as a 'reverse 4D jackpot', in which, contrary to the custom of submitting numbers in faint hopes of landing a substantial wad of cash, the 'winner' this time splurged that very sum of money in return for the numbers.

There have been arguments on both sides, for and against the said action. The way I see it, such wanton spending is, in principle, wasteful and wrong. But then that is what the rulers of this world are entitled to do—have we not seen this pattern repeated throughout history, from the Pharaohs of Egypt to the Queen of Sheba, from Solomon to the Caesars of Rome, from the royal houses of Europe to the tribal lords of Africa, normal human beings elevated to an embarrassing and totally undeserved level of opulence?

Perhaps there is an answer in today's reading of Scripture.

We find that God had indeed warned of the consequences of appointing human rulers in the place of God. Today, we oppose such 'unfair' practices in the name of some virtues like 'democracy', 'equality' and 'human rights'. But we have not addressed the issue at heart, which is the rejection of God as supreme ruler of our lives. Contrary to the Levitical command to "be holy, as [God] is holy," the people instead chose to be "like all the nations"—they exchanged a unique consecration in order to be just like everyone else.

The Son has come to set us free, but we have instead chosen the path of slavery. Enslaved not to kings and rulers, but to our confidence in our own abilities, our assurance in our independence; enslaved to a life free from God.

We have overthrown kings and replaced them with bureaucratic governments. They come in different shapes and sizes: communists, democrats, fascists, conservatives, liberals, what have you. As my friend Kang says, and I loosely apply the quote here, "Different shirts, same shit." And even where we think we have gone beyond the confines of such forms of government, we yet again enslave ourselves to other superpowers like the 'private sector' and 'corporations'. At the centre of all of this is a preoccupation with ourselves, our rights, and our welfare.

But the Bible is clear on where the Christian is to stand in all of this. Mr Lian said as much, time and again during Bible study in years past: "The Christian relinquishes his rights." When Jesus said, "No student is greater than his teacher," he surely meant that the follower of Christ should not expect to be treated better, or any differently, than the Christ—else why follow him?

Do I have a stand on the numbers-and-letter issue? Of course I do. But we need to open our eyes to the bigger issues at stake, to the bigger picture of the way in which we are living our lives. If our desire is to be 'like the world', then the verdict of Christ is unflinching: "You have your reward in full." What reward do we seek, then? The answer to this may better point us in the path we ought to walk.

We are governed, like it or not, by rulers, whether within or without, human or otherwise. Who are our rulers, and who is our Ruler?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Some things worth remembering

Never do something because it’s the 'in thing', or because someone told you to. Be true to yourself, remember that what is in today, will be out tomorrow.

When shooting portraits, your subjects should be in an environment comfortable to them, doing what is comfortable and natural. Anton’s photographs of U2 are a paragon of portraiture. As some have said, “He captured the music, not just the musicians.”

Be true to yourself in love, because the person who is worth it is the one you can love for who he/she is, and who will love you for who you are.

The world is full of masks and masquerades. If you want the security that the world promises, then go with it, for it is the only way to go. But if you want a life less ordinary, if you want a life down the road less travelled, then don’t follow the world and its rules.

You will bring greatest encouragement, peace and hope to others when you are most truly yourself. And you are most truly yourself when you let go of the self you are trying to be.

The whole business of 'making an impression' should not be an act. Rather, it should be like the impression a meteor makes when it crashes into the earth: an impression that comes from from the meteor itself, and not made by a hundred labourers digging an artificial crater.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Thoughts as I approach twenty-five

Updated 'diary' with a four-page entry titled "Thoughts as I approach twenty-five".

* * *

The Desert Father Anthony said, "In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it."

It was a thought-provoking discussion that I 'eavesdropped' on in YL today: the young father wondering what the SLR advantage really was, and being so taken by the 60 fps ability of the Nikon1. It was a wise and true answer that the young staff dude gave: DSLR advantage is in the sensor size—larger sensor, finer detail.

But people don't need that sort of detail anymore, I realise, not in an age where 'big screen' means desktop monitor. APS-C (consumer DSLR) sensors are more than big enough for that. As for frame rate, my medium format takes probably a few seconds to nail one shot, and it takes eight frames per... second? No—per roll!

As I approach 25, I want to stop flirting and start seriously working on things that will last. It's not the norm in an instant, quick-change society, but Mich says I'm "safe from ever living a normal life". And maybe I can live with that, after all.

* * *

Is it written in the stars
Are we paying for some crime
Is that all that we are good for
Just a stretch of mortal time

Is this God's experiment
In which we have no say
In which we're given paradise
But only for a day

Elton John and Tim Rice, 'Written in the Stars'

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

For you, Jean


I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T.S. Eliot, 'East Coker'

* * *

So what's wrong with waiting? What's wrong with biding your time and outlasting those moments when 'the day is as dark as the night is long'?

In his review of Clint Eastwood's movie Invictus, Roger Ebert describes his own visit to Nelson Mandela's cell: "You regard that cell and you think, here a great man waited in faith for his rendezvous with history."

So what's wrong with waiting?

Moses spent the first 40 years of his life living in princely opulence in Egypt; the next 40 wandering the desert, raising sheep and a family; and the last 40 leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land of Canaan, defeating Pharaoh's armies and a host of other nations along the way.

* * *

Right: "Whatever you need to do, do it now. By 4.30 you must be ready."
Left: "I always believe there's a bright side to things."

"You make me believe what tomorrow could bring when today doesn’t really know."

Air Supply, 'All Out of Love'

Monday, June 04, 2012

Hanging Out to Dry


I'm hanging out to dry
With my old clothes
Finger still red with the prick of an old rose
Well the heart that hurts
Is a heart that beats
Can you hear the drummer slowing

One step closer to knowing
One step closer to knowing
One step closer to knowing
To knowing, to knowing, to knowing

U2, 'One Step Closer'

(Picture: Concubine Lane, Ipoh, June 2012)