Sunday, December 18, 2011

Walking with the dinosaurs

It was the stupendous school holidays again. The Lim family embarked on a travel 250 million years back in time at Science Centre for a prehistoric adventure.

It was not everyday that one had the chance to walk with the dinosaurs. We did just that. Not with one but with almost 50 life-sizes dinosaurs, roamed their habitats and heard them roared.

We were reminded of civilisation with many other time travellers also with children in toll. My boys were excited to collect the dinosaurs stamps. There were also kiosks at the exhibition which allowed their creative juices to flow. They coloured, etched and drew dinosaurs the way they liked. They also played pretend to be palaeontologists at the Dig Pit, where they searched for fossil evidence, interpreted evidence and identified dinosaurs from bones.

At the end of the unforgettable prehistoric adventure, my boys each had a clay dino figurine and sheets of paper stamped with their proud collection of dinosaurs.

Ho, ho, holiday in Australia, 6

Day 7, 17 Dec 2011, Saturday

Beautiful Memories

Besides the usual themepark visits, we also enjoyed playing along the beach. Gold Coast boasts a long and beautiful coast line. Enjoy the pictureque views just a stone throw from our apartment.

Burleigh Heads - the place where we were putting up at.

Did you spot the double rainbow?

View from the park near our apartment


Mt Cootha, Brisbane

On the last day of our stay in Australia, we managed to drive up to Mt Cootha in Brisbane to take in the bird's eye'


Mt Cootha

Ho, ho, holiday in Australia, 5

Day 6, 16 Dec 2011, Friday

DreamWorld

Yes, there were more thrill rides but what set Dreamworld apart from the other theme parks was its Australian Wildlife Experience. It consists of one of the largest, native, wildlife parks in South East Queensland, with more than 800 native animals including one of the largest koala populations in the world.

My boys particularly liked Bilby, also known as the rabbit-eared bandicoot. Bilby is a rabbit-like marsupial. It lives in deserts, dry forests, dry grasslands, and dry shrubby areas in Australia. The bilby's pouch faces backwards. These big-eared, burrowing mammals are in danger of extinction. The bilby, like all bandicoots, is a nocturnal animal (most active at night). Digging with its strong, clawed feet, this solitary mammal excavates long, complex burrows. Its underground dens are up to 5 feet (1.5 m) long.

Oh yes, on this last day at themepark, I managed to muster enough courage to take the "Wipeout" Ride - one of the Big 7 Thrill Rides. See if you can spot me screaming out loud.

Ho, ho, holiday in Australia, 4

Day 5, 15 Dec 2011, Thursday

WhiteWater World and Harbour Town

On Thursday, we checked on the rest of the theme parks which we had yet to visit, namely, Dreamworld and Whitewater World. These two themeparks were side-by-side and we could purchase the park tickets at a discounted price over the Internet.

As it turned out, dark clouds loomed throughout the day. Though it did not rain, the sky looked ominous and with temperature in the early 20 degree celius, it was not a good day for soaking good fun. Fortunately for us, Whitewater World was smaller compared to Wet n Wild, so we did not miss much of the action.

We managed to check out The Green Room - a key attraction of Whitewater World. Towering 20 metres above the ground, The Green Room was a massive, 1.5 million dollar funnel of fun. The specially designed 4 person cloverleaf tube accelerated riders from a 75 metre tunnel to a 15 metre funnel before literally dropping out! Riders were thrown into the upper hemisphere, off back-to-back “vertical” banks before a needle-nose splashdown that will give the most hardened of thrill seekers the chills. Cool!

In addition to The Green Room, we also took the Super Tubes HydroCoaster, a water-based rocket and the world’s very latest innovation in waterslide thrills and technology. This intense rollercoaster on water, complete with exhilarating drops and terrifying turns, propelling riders up the steepest of inclines at the highest speeds. One of only two of it’s kind in the whole world, it’s a 28 second, ‘magic carpet’ ride for three that would leave Aladdin begging for mercy.

Filled with open tubes and enclosed flumes, Super Tubes HydroCoaster’s back to back turns and loops are like nothing we had ever experienced before. We were seated one behind the other in a special Rocket Raft built for three before being blasted from the 18 metre tower down the 236 metre track of terror.

Thursday was also a shopping day for Australians with the shopping malls having extended shopping hours. The last time a few days back, we visited the Harbour Town in Gold Coast at around 5 pm, most of the shops were closed. Many good deals awaited the intrepid shopper here!

Oh yes, our tiring but fulfilling day was capped by the awesome dinner at Cav's Butchery and Steak Restaurant. The thought of their steak, Yahoo Pork Ribs and Whisky bread pudding with ice-cream still made my mouth water. Yummy.

Ho, ho, holiday in Australia, 3

Day 2-4, 12-14 Dec 2011, Monday-Wednesday Early in the morning, we mulled over our decision on where to head out for the day. We decided to visit the various theme parks as per our research prior to taking the airplane. The decision now was which one to go first.

We did more indepth internet searches and pinned it down to the three worlds - Movie World, Wet n Wild and SeaWorld. Apparently, the trios were under the same management and we could grab a special price to visit the three within a certain time period. Ticket prices were slightly cheaper over the internet than the counter. We checked with the receptionist who informed that we could use the internet counter at the lobby for printing. The basic cost was AUS$2. And this was what we did.

Movie World

Thereafter we sent forth for Warner Brothers' Movie World. There were quite a number of rides for thrill-seekers and family as well as shows. One of which was the fast cars and bikes. This reminded me of the "Lights, Camera and Action" which we had watched at the Disneyland theme park.



There were also special appearances by Batman and other Warner Brothers' cartoon characters. This being the Christmas season, my boys also had the opportunity to skate.

Wet n Wild and Infinity

The following day, we visited the "Wet n Wild" water theme which was touted as the biggest in Australia. My boys loved the wave pool also dubbed as "Dive n Movies". We also enjoyed the relaxing Calypso Beach where the gentle wave swept us around the park. As for the thrill rides, we did the Super Aqua 8 Racer as well as the Mammoth Falls. Basically, we each grabbed a mat and then slided with it. For the kids, there was also the Buccaneer Bay, somewhat like a water playground.

In the evening, we managed to squeeze in another tourist attraction - Infinity at Chervon Renaissance. Infinity was not for the faint-hearted, especially those with fear of darkness. It was somewhat like a futuristic maze using interesting play on lights and colours.



SeaWorld

The most beautiful among the three worlds that we visited. We were wowed by the adorable penguins, dolphins, sea birds and the many lovely marine creatures.



Ho, Ho, Holiday in Australia, 2 - Beautiful Brisbane, Gorgeous Gold Coast

In the last post, I mentioned about the arduous planning involved in a DIY, self-drive holiday. However, for those who prefer not waking up in the early morning to catch the coach, the rushing around and your chosen of preferred food, it is all worth the effort.

In this blog post, I will do a brief write-up of the highlights of the first day of the self-drive holiday in Brisbane and Gold Coast. Sit back and enjoy!

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Day 1, Sunday, 11 Dec 2011. It was a midnight flight from Singapore to Brisbane. As it was a direct flight, the journey was about 8 hours long. So we boarded the plane and had our good night sleep onboard.

Brisbane

We arrived at Brisbane airport at around 10 am - Brisbane being 2 hours ahead of Singapore's time. Thanks to the good advice of our colleague, we had applied for visa via the Internet beforehand. Not only did that save us money, it also made the crossing the immigration checkpoints seamless.

The first thing that we did was to look out for their local phone operator - Vodafone which had an outlet in the airport. We bought a pre-paid sim card for our iPad 2 which would help us to get around in Australia at a fraction of the mobile cost.

As it was still early to check into our accomodation in Gold Coast, we browsed a free copy of the guide around Brisbane and decided to head down to South bank. Thereafter, we proceeded to pick up our rental car, which I nicknamed "Must Be Very Sexy. We fidgeted with the GPS and our iPad before we embarked on our journey.



We explored the South bank on foot for about an hour before we headed to New Farm Park and had lunch at New Farm Fish Cafe. The seafood there was great. After lunch, we drove to Gold Coast which was about an hour or so drive.

Gold Coast

When we arrived at our accomodation, we were somewhat taken aback as there was no reception. It then dawned on us that it was a Sunday afternoon. So we pressed to talk through the intercom, who guided us to open up the safe to pick up the keys to our apartment. I knew I had booked a 2-bedroom apartment with ocean view. Still, I was blown away by the postcard perfect view from all vantage points in the apartment - from the living room, kitchen, master bedroom and the kids room. It was simply breaktaking complete with the sound of the waves crashing in. Welcome to Surfers' Paradise.



We lazed around for until evening time before we drove around and chanced upon Cav's Butchery and Steakhouse. The steak and Yahoo Pork Ribs were simply yummy. Thereafter, we hopped onto our car again and were on a lookout for a grocery store to buy some fresh milk, chocolate bars and cereal for our morning breakfast the next day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ho, ho, holiday in Australia,1

It is a holiday that the Lim family is looking forward - a self-drive, free and easy holiday in the surfers' paradise, Gold Coast.

That was a lot of planning amidst the day-to-day work challenge and juggling of family responsibility. Somehow we managed. How as life always throws at one surprises. So advanced and contingency planning is our best defence. We brought along our GPS alongside the Australian roadmap. We hunt for the local mobile service provider, Vodafone and bought a pre-paid card for our trustworthy iPad II. Yet when reached our destination, we were surprised that there was no reception desk. A classic case of cultural shock and misunderstanding. I did not realise that I had booked a holiday apartment not hotel accomodation. The difference? I had a fully functioning apartment with 2 bedrooms and equipped kitchen, a sheltered and secured carpark space. The minus? No room service. As my family does no fuss much over household messiness. This apartment concept is a godsend. No to mention the gorgeous view we enjoyed in the apartment.

We are enjoying ourselves here. And yes, I am using a tablet which is android- operated. Having just read I, Steve Jobs and also a user of Apple products. The latter is a clear winner. I have to stop now as I am taking ages to type this.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Make a difference

Just to share a meaningful story which I have read.
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One day, a man was walking along the seashore. He noticed that many seashells and starfish had washed up on the shore during the night.

Far off in the distance, he saw a small figure dancing. The man was joyous that someone was celebrating life in such a grand and uninhibited manner. As he drew closer, however, it became apparent that the figure was not dancing, but repeatedly performing some act.

Approaching the small figure, the man noticed that it was a child. The girl was methodically picking up starfish from the shore and tossing them back into the surf. The man paused for a moment, puzzled, then asked, "Why are you throwing those starfish back into the ocean?"

"If I leave these starfish on the beach," she replied, "the sun will dry them, and they will die. I am throwing them back into the ocean because I want them to live."

The man then said, "There must be millions of starfish along here! How can you possibly expect to make a difference?"

The young girl pondered the man's words for a moment, then she slowly leaned over, reached down, and carefully picked up another starfish from the sand. With a gentle effort, she lobbed the starfish back out into the surf.

She turned to the man and smiled. "You may be right," she said, "but I made a difference for that one!“

Never worry about numbers.  Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.  ~Mother Teresa

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Slow Hunch, Inspired from my readings

Historian, Robert Darnton has written the following to describe the tangled mix of writing and reading habit of the early modern Englishman:

"Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were thereafore inseparable of things. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs that you could read your way through and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own. One stamped with your personality."

An epiphany moment hit me as I read Darnton's account as I too have been doing that for decades. To-date, I have a number of notebooks which were filled with notes of books I have read. Unlike the early modern Englishman, I am luckier. With the advent of technology, today, I also have word documents of my readings, my thoughts as well as a blog which shares the new knowledge which I have gleaned.

When I have the luxury of time, I love to reread my writings. Each rereading brings a new revelation. Each encounter holds the promise of that some long forgotten hunch that will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. This is akin to some evolutionary path of one's past hunches.

My dear readers, I encourage you to also read, think, write and think again.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Basic Lesson on Data Analysis

A friend asked me how to approach data analysis and how to decide on the data presentation.

From my experiences and reading, Dan Roam in his book, The Back of the Napkin had explained the process very well. Below is the excerpt from his book with my two-cents' worth thrown in.

Data analysis is both an art and a science. It is increasingly important due to the advent of Internet. Today, we are flooded with information. The sad thing though is that, we are inundated with details at the expense of the big picture. While in the past data was power, today making sense of data is more powerful. In essence, we need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

How to Look Better - 4 Rules to Live By

1. Collect everything we can look at, the more the merrier (at least at first)

2. Have a place where we can lay down everything and ready look at it, side by side

3. Always define a basic coordinate system to give us clear orientation and position

4. Find ways to cut ruthlessly from everything our eyes bring in - we need to practise "visual triage".

Remember: When data is packed in individual tiles and records, it is impossible to look at the big picture - but getting everything out in the open makes otherwise invisible connections visible.

General Rules of the Thumb

1. It's the data that matters, let it show.

Many people find numbers boring, so we jazz up our charts with visual bells and whistles hoping to make pictures more interesting

That's only the style. In my opinion, substance is the most important ingredient. Let us face it, insightful data is exciting! If what we show resonates with our audience (either it shows exactly what they hope for or it scares the daylights out of them), they won't fall asleep.

2. Always show the fewest possible pictures to make a point.

Less is more. Pick the simplest model to make your point. I prefer charts to tables as the former provides hooks to catch our visual memory. In the case of tables, if we cannot remember the precise numbers, we would not have a larger context to fall back on. On the other hand, with pre-cognitive quantity charts, it enables our eyes to read immediately, compare and viscerally recall long after we have forgotten the numbers.

However if the differences among the slices are critical and yet too small to be visually detectable, one is better off with the non-pictorial table.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Part 1, Where good ideas come from, Steven Johnson

I started reading "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson a few nights ago. I was captivated. This is a fantastic book.

In his book, Steven Johnson takes us on a fascinating tour starting with Charles Darwin's long, slow hunch back in the 1800s, the "liquid networks" of London's coffee houses to today's high-velocity web.

A totally enchanting read so far, where I learnt about the linkage between the rich living organisms in coral reef with densely populated cities. While people often credit their ideaVs to individual "Eureka" moments, Steven Johnson shows that it is through exchange of ideas that innovation is born.

He has cleverly linked many diverse fields such as chemistry - carbon, its four valence bonds, and its high propensity to form new combinations with other atoms, the origins of all living things, the neurons in our brain and drawing comparison with the linkages in the World Wide Web. Read: the linkages among neurons in our brain is much, much denser than that in the World Wide Web. Homo sapiens (that's you and me) are simply amazing.

Environment is important, Johnson argued, YouTube would be successful had it not for the internet platform and technological advancement that enabled users to upload their videos on the web and share with others seamlessly. This is what he termed as "adjacent possibles".

I am now only about one-fifth into the book. So you bet there will be more sharing as I read on.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Eightfold Path

Below is a brief summary of what I have read thus far from the book on Eightfold path on policy analysis.

The eighfold path is a thinking guide for one to go through the intricacies of policy analysis.

Step 1: Define the Problem
Appropriate problem definition is important. It is useful to use deficit-and-excess approach, such as too many, too few. E.g. 1. There are "too many" patients in the hospital. 2. There are "too many" crimes in the country.

Other terms such as "growing too fast/ slow" are also useful to frame the issue which is not a problem at the current moment but could become so in the future.

One should be mindful not to prescribe a solution implicitly in the problem definition. E.g. the earlier statement "There are too many patients in the hospital" if rephrase into "There are too few beds in the hospital", the implicit solution will be to have more beds in the hospital. This will limit the scope of one's thinking.

Step 2: Assemble the Evidence
Data are facts, or representation of facts.

Information is data with meaning. Information helps us to make sense of the world, by allowing us to categorise information into different groups.

Evidence is information that affects the existing belief.

Before one embarks on policy analysis, it would be a tremendous plus to think on the type of evidences that one needs before one leaps.

Step 3: Construct the Alternatives
Often, we need a base case - status quo and assuming current trends persist.

Another thing to take note is that alternatives may not be mutually exclusive. Sometimes, they may co-exist.

Step 4: Select the Criteria
Resources are limited. So as policy analysts, we need to be mindful of the evaluative criteria. E.g. when we talk about taxation, there are at least 2 key criteria - the rich pays more than the poor; the tax rate cannot be so high that pushes the rich out of the country.

Remember evaluative criteria are not used to judge the alternatives, or at least not directly. They are to be applied to the projected outcomes. It is easy to get confused about this point because of a commonsense way of speaking: "Alternative A looks to be the best - therefore let's proceed with it." But this way of speaking ignores a very important step. The complete formulation is "Alternative A will very probably lead to Outcome O_A which we judge to be the best of the possible outcomes; therefore, we judge Alternative A to be the best."

Applying criteria to the evaluation of outcomes and not alternatives makes it possible to remember that we might like Outcome O_A a great deal. However, if we lacked sufficient confidence that A would actually lead to O_A, we may decide not to choose Alternative A after all. With that judgement on the table, it would be possible to look for other alternatives with a greater likelihood of producing O_A.

Step 5: Project the Outcomes
This step tells us that it is important to compare "outcome" of the alternative and not the alternative.

Assuming for the moment that benefits are uncertain while costs are not, ask yourself 2 questions: (1) Given what I know for sure about the costs of this alternative, what is the minimum help we need to get from Condition X to ensure adequately offsetting benefits? and (2) How reasonable is it to believe that Condition X will actually produce that minimum?

Implementation scenarios should be written in the future perfect tense. This encourages concreteness, which is a helpful stimulus to the imagination.

Step 6: Confront the Trade-offs
Economics tells us that trade-offs occur at the margin. In policy analysis, we ask this question "If we spend an extra X dollars for an extra unit of Service Y, we can get an extra Z units of good outcome."

This puts the decision maker in the position to answer the question "Does society (or you) value Z more or less than X?" and then to follow the obvious implication of the answer.

Step 7: Decide
Put yourself in the shoes of the policy maker and ask yourself which policy alternatives would you choose.

This is also known as the twenty-dollar bill test which is a joke about economist - there are 2 friends walking on the street. They saw a twenty-dollar bill on the floor. The economist resisted his urge to pick up the bill as he asked himself when no one has done it before him.

Step 8: Tell the Story
This is on public communication and we can apply the Grandma Bessie test. In other words, we need to be able to explain the policy to the man on the street.


As it is a thinking guide, in the final product, we do not write our thinking process. Rather the essence of it, just like in the case of report writing. Just because one has gone through the thinking process, it does not mean that one has to beat the drum to tell the reader about it. The reader will be more appreciative if one could distill the important key takeaways from the paper.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Brain Teaser

Suppose you have 4 cards - each will have one side with an alphabet and another with a number.

The side of the 4 cards shown to you are:

A; C; 3; and 6

There is a rule. If a card has a vowel on one end, then it has an even number on the other side.

Question : Which card(s) must you open to prove the above rule is true? I need to limit it to the minimum number of cards to open.




The same question can be re-framed as follows:

Suppose there are 4 persons sitting in a bar.

One is drinking beer; Another Pepsi; the 3rd fella is aged 16; and the 4th is aged 25

There is a rule. Only those aged 25 and above can drink beer.

Question: Who should you check to prove the above rule is true? Similarly, to limit to the minimum number of persons.

Answer: This should be easy - The one drinking beer (A) and the 3rd fella who is aged 16 (3).




What is the morale of the story? This game is designed to prove that our human brain is more sophisticated when it comes to people and less so with abstract concepts such as numbers and letters.

So next time when you are stuck. You just need to re-frame the question. Using analogy and story will help.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

About Cardboard Boxes


One of the lasting impressions which I have of USA was that it was big on recycling. Cardboard boxes were used, where possible, and in so many varied ways, not limited to the ones detailed below.

Cardboard Boxes in lieu of Plastic Bags

In our weekend grocery shopping which we would always do at Aldi, 2348 Ardmore Blvd, Pittsburgh, PA 15221, our groceries would come in boxes. Not that we bought the entire box of goods, rather it was the way of living of the locals - to reduce the use of the environmental scourge - the lowly plastic bags. In a sense, it fit in nicely into the lifestyle of the locals as they would be driving around to buy groceries and the cardboard boxes would go into the car boot. However, it would seem that much as the locals loved the environment, they loved their gas guzzlers more. Probably, it was a symbol of freedom to travel around that the Americans hold close to the heart.

Besides Aldi, there were also other grocery stores such as Grand Eagle which we would drop by when we went to the campus, Shop 'n Save and of course, the ubiquitious Walmart. Shop 'n Save made an impression on me as it introduced me to the key fob rewards card, where we would produce at our purchase and earned reward points. With driving a vehicle their way of life, a key fob attached to the car key was simply brilliant. For smaller purchases, the plastic bags were still dispensed.

Cardboard Boxes as Lego Pieces and also Furniture

It could have been the environment which promoted creativity and innovation. My two boys quickly found new uses for the cardboard boxes. These cardboard boxes became their life-sized Lego pieces. They would arrange the boxes to make different modes of transportation - on air, land and sea - and play pretend.

Towards the end of our stay, these boxes also found new uses as our makeshift furniture. It was the time whereby we had sold off most pieces of our furniture via the online garage sale.

And if you could just think harder and add on to the above list of uses of cardboard boxes.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Common Sense in Decision Making

When hunting for a book on probability and statistics a few nights ago, I stumbled onto a book on Combinatorics bought in 1994 and my honours year thesis.

Combinatorics is a branch in Mathematics that study about relationship. An example will be in a room, there are 3 people - A, B, C. A relationship is defined by A knows B. What is the maximum number of relationships? One could draw 3 nodes representing A, B and C; and lines (also known as edges) connecting the nodes to represent a relationship. The maximum number of lines is 3. Try drawing!

In a very simple way, combinatorics is about counting the different combinations. And when we look about relationships, they are highly complex and complicated matters. So even in the era of supercomputers that we are living in, these computers are not that "super". They have their limitations in counting - recall the time, when your computer "hangs"?

Here in, enter the white knight - "heuristics". Heuristics may look like a big word but essentially, it means common sense.

An example will be in the case of an MRT coin changing machine. Suppose there are only 3 coin denominations - 10 cents, 30 cents and 40 cents. What is the minimum number of coins to disburse for the notes that a customer may slot into the machine? The heuristics way will be to disburse the highest value coin first. E.g. $1 note = 40 cents + 40 cents + 10 cents + 10 cents; or four coins.

Most of the time, the heuristics way will give the correct answer, but not all the time. E.g. $3 based on the heuristics way will disburse a total of nine coins - seven 40 cents (i.e. $2.80) and two 10 cents (i.e. $0.20). However, the minimum number is eight - six 40 cents (i.e. $2.40) and two 30 cents (i.e. $0.60).

Every day, people are inundated with decisions, big and small. Heuristics are one of the many ways that people arrive at their choice. It is not only an area of Mathematics but also of cognitive psychology. Hence, heuristics have been researched to understand the decision making process.

Heuristics serve as a framework in which satisfactory decisions are made quickly and with ease (Shah & Oppenheimer, 2008). Many types of heuristics have been developed to explain the decision making process; essentially, individuals work to reduce the effort they need to expend in making decisions and heuristics offer individuals a general guide to follow, thereby reducing the effort they must disburse. Together, heuristics and factors influencing decision making are a significant aspect of critical thinking (West, Toplak, & Stanovich, 2008). There is some indication that this can be taught, which benefits those learning how to make appropriate and the best decisions in various situations (Nokes &Hacker, 2007).

Several factors influence decision making. These factors, including past experience (Juliusson, Karlsson, & GÓ“rling, 2005), cognitive biases (Stanovich & West, 2008), age and individual differences (Bruin, Parker, & Fischoff, 2007), belief in personal relevance (Acevedo, & Krueger, 2004), and an escalation of commitment, influence what choices people make. Understanding the factors that influence decision making process is important to understanding what decisions are made. That is, the factors that influence the process may impact the outcomes.

See Mathematics is alive and is everywhere :)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

No School in Pittsburgh

This series of blogposts is meant to document the Lim's family's memory of the time we spent in Pittsburgh. In this blogpost, I asked my boys of the things that etched in their memory.

The boys were in unison on "no school in Pittsburgh". I supposed for me, it was "no work in Pittsburgh". Hmm, so what did we do there?

The Elite Fly Swat

My elder boy remembered the time when we became the elite fly swat team. We were staying at a rental house at Wellesley Road near Highland Park. It was the lodging sourced by my hubby who arrived at Pittsburgh two months or so earlier. During that time, he had also bought a second-hand car, Chervolet 3.0-litre, silver salon.

A house near our rented place at Wellesley Road


We arrived in Pittsburgh in around May/June of the year. It was the sweltering summer. The curosity act on the part of my elder boy who swung open the back door a tad too long created the perfect opportunity for the gigantic summer fly into the house. The unwelcomed guest was buzzing around my head ever so often.

Armed with a folded newspaper, P and I sat in the middle of the living room and waited patiently to strike at the fly. Alas, the fly while big and dense, was swift. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I decided to close the partition door that would subdivide the living room into two. It would reduce the area which the fly could maneuvor. And voila, the fly was squashed.

This was my first and most unforgetable job as a stay-at-home mother. In a sense, count P in as well as this incident was on the top of his mind.


The Little Snow Man

My younger boy, R was barely two when he was in Pittsburgh. Understandably, his memory was hazy and became more concrete towards the latter part of our stay. He remembered our first snow man.

For the uninitiated, the first day of snow was not suitable to make snow man. It took a few days before the snow became more compact and dough-like. This was the snow that one could play with.

Winter in Pittsburgh

We made our little snow ball by cupping two snow balls - the big one as the body and the small one was the head. The eyes were made of fallen black seeds and the twigs formed the nose and hands. Before all things eco became trendy, we were already embracing it. I supposed you could say that we were trendsetters.

Oh yes, another thing about snow which I learnt was salt could melt ice. I would see my landlord dusting salt on sidwalks. There is the logic. The salt works by lowering the melting or freezing point of water. The effect is termed 'freezing point depression'. So add salt with water to snow, it will become more difficult for the snow to re-freeze with salt. That's textbook science coming alive for us.

Learning without School

On the whole, while there was no school or work in Pittsburgh, we were still learning as long as we opened our eyes, our ears and most importantly our minds. At times, I would be reading my hubby's postgraduate notes with thoughts racing through my mind. There were many others who might have gone through university to learn only to forget after the university. To them, the degree is the end. But learning should be a life journey.

The things that I learnt in Pittsburgh are more precious than what I have learnt in my former school years. It is not about knowing more things but about being inquisitive. Does that mean I will be rich? No in terms of material wealth, but a resounding yes, in terms of happiness and yes, living my life, my way.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Different tools to manage the economy

Prof Lim Chin was my favorite lecturer at NUS. He was the one who introduced my hubby and I to micro-economics and then macro-economics. He suggested us to read The Economist, talking about which we have been a faithful subscriber since then (close to a decade and counting).

I have utmost respect for this man and his views about economy especially macroeconomic issues. Salute.

Enjoy his article recently published in The Straits Times.

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Different tools to manage the economy By Lim Chin

Although they are both large economies, the United States puts a lot of emphasis on interest rates while China targets the exchange rate in managing the economy and reining in inflation. What is the difference and why?

ECONOMIC growth and controlling inflation are two of the most important targets of monetary policy. The first aims to create jobs and the latter to control prices.

There are different ways to achieve these goals. The US uses the interest rate while China focuses on its exchange rate.

A country may aim to target an interest rate for its currency. It cannot do so directly, but only indirectly, by buying or selling funds in the market. For example, the Federal Reserve - the US central bank - regularly buys or sells short-term government bonds on the open market. This injects or withdraws money from circulation, affecting the short-term interest rate and, thereby, the other rates.

Interest rate targeting is based on the idea that the private sector, and not the government, is best at allocating funds for spending.

In a recession, the Fed aims for a lower rate. This makes it cheaper for private sector companies to raise or borrow money for their expenditure. This raises aggregate demand. But in times of inflation, the central bank works towards a higher interest rate to cool down the demand.

There are, however, circumstances where interest rate targeting may not work. For instance, in the current zero-rate environment, the Fed cannot push the interest rate down any further.

But in normal times, interest rate targeting is effective in curbing inflation or unemployment.

If inflation and recession occur at the same time, as they did in the 1970s, the Fed has to make a judgment call as to which is more important to tackle.

The ultimate aims of China's efforts - increasing growth and reining in inflation - are not that dissimilar to those of the US.

But the institutions that can support its market are still underdeveloped in China and its average living standard is still a fraction of that of advanced economies.

To catch up, its priority is fast growth. So it sees using its exchange rate to drive up its manufacturing exports as the best strategy for now, even though this may lead to unbalanced growth.

Such a strategy has many advantages for an emerging economy. First, it feeds on the large global consumption market rather than the smaller domestic market. Secondly, it attracts foreign investment and technology, and the global market network of multinational corporations.

Competing in global markets also subjects companies to stringent market discipline, thus improving domestic production efficiency.

Over the past few decades, this strategy has taken Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore from poverty to First World standards of living.

The strategy, together with other state-directed investment policies, has also produced spectacular results for China. It is now the second-largest economy in the world. It manufactures a large array of goods at low prices.

The strategy has also lifted the national income of its trading partners that produce commodities and resources, and it has amassed nearly US$3 trillion (S$3.6 trillion) of foreign reserves that can help its own domestic development and be lent to debt-ridden advanced economies.

But these achievements come with several problems: unbalanced growth between the manufacturing and service sectors, income inequality between the coastal urban and rural areas and, on the global stage, huge trade imbalances between China and the US. These are acute problems that raise domestic and international political tension, and have been acknowledged as urgent challenges to be tackled in China's latest five-year plan.

Another serious consequence of the strategy is inflation. Keeping the exchange rate low requires the constant purchase of foreign exchange using newly created money, leading to loss of control of its money supply and fuelling housing bubbles and inflation, problems that further increase social tension.

Several measures have been put in place to soak up the money supply. These include foreign capital control, purchase of foreign assets, raising the amount that commercial banks must hold in reserve, and sales of government bonds.

But such policies are costly and only partially effective in taming inflation and asset bubbles. China may have to allow its exchange rate to move upwards sooner rather than later to deal with inflation.

In the long term, when China approaches advanced economy status and has developed market-supporting institutions, including finance markets, it will not need to pursue the unbalanced growth path it is on now.

Instead, it is likely to engage in interest rate targeting and allow its currency to float as the advanced economies of the US and Japan do now.

The writer is a professor at the NUS Business School.
Adapted from an article on the ST, 28 July 2011

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Chinese Food in Pittsburgh

I missed Chinese food when I was in Pittsburgh. So did my family. There was however a dearth of good Chinese food that catered to our Singaporean tastebuds, served at reasonable price at Pittsburgh.

We tried a few Chinese restaurants. Among the few, I could now remember Lulu's Noodles and Orient Express. Both were value-for-money restaurants which catered to the campus crowd. There was also a Golden Palace Restaurant which was a slightly higher-end one but food being a highly localized product did not appeal to us well. The Chinese food there was somewhere in between Americanized and greasy which locals associated with authentic Chinese food. Consequently, I became the go-to person when my family craved for a taste of home.

That Fuzzy and Warm Feeling

While the Chinese food may not be the main cast when we visited the Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh, there was a certain warmness in the atmosphere. It might be the loud greetings that one received upon entering the restaurant. It might be the similarities in look that we shared. Then there was a certain feel to the restaurant which drew me in. I felt that I was well taken care of.

It probably had to do with the way the restaurant was laid out which was influenced by the owners. I inferred that the owners were to be some hardworking Chinese migrant family eking out a decent living. The kitchen was set in the background but yet not totally shield from the prying eyes of the diners. This allowed the owners to multi-task - tending to food preparation in the kitchen and yet able to see needs of the diners. This included the times when diners asked for replenishment in certain food served on the stainless metal containers in the buffet section.

Deja Vu at Da Chang Jin in Singapore

Recently, I relived that experience when I dined at the two Da Chang Jin Restaurants in Geylang - one was touting northeastern Chinese food, the other Korean BBQ buffet. While the food was different, the feeling was distinctively the same.

Like in Pittsburgh, the servers were loud. The food was also a tad greasy for our palate. The arrangement of the kitchen and dining areas were strikingly similar as if the owners knew each other's mind. One glance at the place, you knew it was not slick, neat or polished as the upmarket restaurants. But somehow, you also knew that the owners would take care of your dining needs to their best of their abilities.

Unlike Pittsburgh however, I felt that I was a foreigner when I was in the restaurants. The main cliente appeared not to be Singaporean Chinese but mainland Chinese. Notwithstanding, I still had that warm and fuzzy feeling that I was dining in good company. Maybe, this time round, I felt that I was transported back to a Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mental Sum


Question:

There are a total of 150 coins in 14 piggy banks. If each piggy bank contains a different number of coins, what is the largest number of coins that can be found in one of the piggy banks.


========================

My boy tossed this question to his daddy and his mommy during a car ride last weekend. We solved it mentally within 2 minutes. You can do it too, the key is practice.

Of course, there was trick invented by a Math wizard many, many years ago when he was just 5 years old or so. We taught our boys when they were around that age too.

Answer
Container 1 holds 1 coin;
Container 2 holds 2 coins;
Container 3 holds 3 coins;
...
Container 13 holds 13 coins;
Container 14 holds ??? coins


What is the sum of

1 + 2 + 3 + ... + 13 ?
Flip it the other way round,

13 + 12 + 11 + ... + 1
====================================================
14 + 14 + 14 + ... + 14

So the sum is 13*14/2 or 13*7 = 91
So ??? = 150-91 = 59 (Ans)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Cat in Numberland​, by Ivar Ekeland


How do you prove that fractions are countablely infinite?

You can find the answer in this book for children. I read to my boy when he was around 6 or 7 years old. He was intrigued. Math is not difficult, it's just abstract. So the problem is that there is a dearth of good math teachers. Most people are floored by algreba, which is the key to higher level math learning.

The concept of Hotel Infinity was pioneered by David Hilbert, an eminent mathematican, though George Cantor was the mathematican who came up with the concept. So I suppose mathematicans at the pinnacle are not teaching children or teenagers. They are more interested in research.

Fret not, for there are still wonderful books like The Cat in Numberland around :)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

F1 Singapore 2011

This was the fourth year in the running that Singapore was hosting the F1 race and the second time that my younger brother and I attended.


We took MRT, alighted at Lavender MRT station and took the free shuttle bus service to Gate 1. The place was abuzz with activities. Funky music filled the air. The many kiosks selling F1 merchandise and big golly balloons all added to the drumming-up of the F1 thrill factor.

Upon entrance, we were greeted by stilt performers with afro hairdo. They were also very friendly and offered to take a picture of us.

The crowd was just nice, not too thick for comfort. There was enough room for all to enjoy the performance around and to take in crisp fresh air. We took our time to sample the performance on our way to our seats. The leisure walk towards Marina Channel was relaxing with the cool evening breeze accompanied the gently lapping waters.

We were able to reach our designated seat in time for the start of Formula One Third Practice. The ushers were very efficient and courteous. They promptly guided us to the correct seat when we seemed a little lost.

The view from our seats was set against the Singapore Flyer and it marked the start and end of the lap. From our angle, we would be seeing the fast cars zipping by as they crossed the finishing line of the lap.

After some time, we decided to walk down further towards the Singapore Flyer as our tickets came with free rides on the Singapore Flyer. That was the highlight of the night.

It has probably been a year or so since I last boarded the Singapore Flyer. This time, I noticed that the miniature model of the Singapore Flyer and some models with interative element were exhibited as one walked into the passage leading to the capsule. These exhibits were much welcome as they broke the monontony of waiting to board the capsule, not that the wait was long.



The inclusion of the ride at Singapore flyer in this F1 event was a Fabulous One. We enjoyed an unparalleled bird's eye view of the Marina Bay Street as the capsule gradually brought us up 165 m above ground. The air-conditioned capsule carried 10 to 20 people and we could follow the fast cars zooming around almost the entire track.

After the ride which coincided with the end of the practice round, we were close to Gate 2. We exited the event venue and walked to Promenade MRT station. Along the way, the friendly and knowledgeable ushers were there to help. There were also ample and clear directional signs. This pointed to good planning beforehand all the way to the execution. All in all, it has been a fantastic experience.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Financial Advice from Mr Buffett

Amidst the current bearish financial market, I will like to share what Mr. Buffett has written a few years back. It's food for thought. Ponder on.

Back in 2008, Mr. Buffett wrote:
"A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. And most certainly, fear is now widespread, gripping even seasoned investors. To be sure, investors are right to be wary of highly leveraged entities or businesses in weak competitive positions. But fears regarding the long-term prosperity of the nation's many sound companies make no sense. These businesses will indeed suffer earnings hiccups, as they always have. But most major companies will be setting new profit records 5, 10 and 20 years from now."
..."In short, bad news is an investor's best friend. It lets you buy a slice of America's future at a marked-down price. Over the long term, the stock market news will be good. In the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497."

One of the most important reminders for investors during times of market turmoil is what Mr. Buffett states here:
"You might think it would have been impossible for an investor to lose money during a century marked by such an extraordinary gain. But some investors did. The hapless ones bought stocks only when they felt comfort in doing so and then proceeded to sell when the headlines made them queasy. Today people who hold cash equivalents feel comfortable. They shouldn't. They have opted for a terrible long-term asset, one that pays virtually nothing and is certain to depreciate in value. "

Monday, September 19, 2011

The things we did in Pittsburgh

The year was 2005, the Lim family decided to spend a year in Pittsburgh where papa Lim was to do a one-year postgraduate study.



It turned out to be a year which I would always remember. The year which outsiders would expect it to be a bed of roses but I could assure you that it wasn't easy. In fact, it was tough, tremendously difficult. The year which I proved to myself that nothing was insurmountable if the family stayed together.

I could still remember the shock of staying at home to look after two toddlers. The younger one was one going to two. At this stage of his life, it was termed the terrible two for a good reason. Yet, he was also so clingy, so loving and always melted my heart at the end of the day. The elder one was obedient, very teachable and always spellbound by my little history lesson and also science through observing the world around us.

Weekly Ritual

It took a while before we settled into the routine. We looked forward to our weekend grocery trip at the Strip District. We would stop by Lotus - a Chinese departmental store - to buy our oriental cooking needs such as soy sauce, jasmine rice, kaya and stuff. Next would be Wholey's for fresh produce, and also lunched at the second storey where the in-house cafeteria was. We savoured the freshness of the fish and chips and creamy soup. There were also free sculptured balloons just for kids.



My very considerate husband would come home early once every mid-week and brought us out to Freeport Road where the restaurant was Ponderosa. It was to be my break from housework and it coincided with the restaurant's family promotion so kids would well get free sculptured balloons. My two boys would be so excited and would just go to the balloon guy to get more balloons.

Sometimes, we would go to King's restaurant - a restaurant similar to our local Swenson - with ice-cream, yet distinct in its own way. One of which was the building which was single storey with a rooster north arrow atop.

Besides food, we also visited the parks. Our favourite spot was Lakepoint Shelter which was near our place. The scenery changed alongside the season. Autumn was the most beautiful with the vibrant hues of red, rust, yellow and gold. Winter looked solemn with the bare trees covered with snow.





I have now started my journey to detail more our one-year stay when I have the time. Little by little, they would piece together the precious memory that we have together.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Quartiles, deciles and percentiles

I have an affinity with Mathematics. This is a short blogpost consolidated from some quick google and my little explanation on how to remember coupled with my little list of related topics.

=============================
Quartiles, deciles and percentiles (which are all examples of quantiles) are standard descriptive statistics which are used to divide a set of data points into equally sized subsets.

Quartiles divide the sample into four groups, with the lower quartile being 25%, the median value being at 50% and the upper quartile at 75%. Quartiles are essentially ranking mechanisms. The upper quartile is that position in the data set which has 75% of values below it and 25% above it. (How to remember: Quartile comes from the word quarter).

Deciles divide the sample into ten groups, with the lower decile is equivalent to the 10th percentile. (How to remember: Decile comes from the word decimal).

Percentiles divide the sample into one hundred groups. The 90th percentile is that position in a data set which has 90% of data points below it, and 10% above it. (How to remember: Percentile comes from the word percent).

So what is interquartile range?
Ans: 75th percentile - 25th percentile

Other related topics:
- Cumulative frequency curve
- Normal (or "bell-shaped") distribution.
- Power-law distribution - this is interesting. It looks something like a hockey-stick leaning against the y-axis. It appears to situation where big is rare and small is common. The distribution of wealth is one example, there are many poor souls around but few very, very wealthy ones.

When we are analysing data, we need to be mindful if it is one of power-law distribution. 'cos we are schooled to think that normal distribution is well, normal.

Pittsburgh Curry Chicken

Today was the day when I decided that I should replicate the chicken curry recipe which I learnt in the faraway Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. The initial period of being terribly homesick, led the then reticent me to seek out the Singapore recipe for chicken curry. A fellow Singaporean shared with me her family recipe tweaked slightly due to the availability of the ingredients in Pittsburgh and to cater to the palate of her little ones at home.

The curry which I shall now name, Pittsburgh Chicken Curry, which used to evoke that soothing, nostagic feeling, now has another meaning to it. It symbolises the bonding that we have together as a family and also with other fellow Singaporeans in a foreign land. Today's curry chicken was a success and a hot favorite with my two primary school going boys.

So here is the recipe (enough for 4 persons) which I hope my boys will pick it up when they are older:

The ingredients are
- 1 heapful tablespoon of curry powder
- 1 teaspoon of ground chilli powder
- 1 medium-size onion (to chop into small pieces)
- 4-5 small potato (to remove the skin)
- 3-4 medium-size carrots (remove the skin and cut into medium pieces)
- 800g to 1 kg of chicken pieces (can be all chicken wings/ leg if desired)
- 1 can of evaporated milk
- half can of plain water
- a pinch of salt

Steps (Estimated time to prepare- 30 to 45 minutes)
- Marinate the chicken pieces with the curry powder for around 15 minutes
- Chop the onion into small pieces and add the chilli powder
- Cut the potato and carrots
- In a pot, heat some cooking oil (about 3-4 table spoons or so, just enough to coat the pot with oil), pan fry the potatoes and carrots, until one can smell the fragrant. Then scoop up the potatoes and carrots and leave aside.
- Now, add the chopped onion with chilli powder and fry until the onion fragrant is in the air.
- Next, add the marinated chicken pieces and stir them together with the onions-cum-chilli mix, until the chicken pieces are about 75% cooked.
- Add in the evaporated milk plus half can of water, bring the mix to boil.
- Add the potatoes and carrots.
- Simmer for about 30 minutes for all to soften, if need be, one may need to scoop up the chicken pieces, leave aside and add to the mix when the potatoes and carrots have softened.
- Add a pinch of salt and the curry is ready.

A little tip - if you want more curry gravy, be judicious with water. Instead, you can consider adding fresh milk or skimmed fresh milk.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

LIM FAMILY - MANY ANGRY BIRDS IN HAND...



Three months' ago, despite the light dizzle, the Lim family ventured in a nondescript yet idyllic corner in Ayer Hitam. We walked gingerly to avoid the rain water trapped in the potholes which were aplenty along the tarmac road. The occasional splashing of the accidential foot in hole did not dampen our spirits and we trekked along relentlessly.

We were rewarded handsomely when we found soft toys abound in the little shops in the cluster. Yes, among the plethora of toys were .... Yes, no prize for getting the right answer. It was - Angry Birds soft toys - the latest craze in Singapore, Johore and China. What made this a wonderful catch was that these were not just the not-too-pretty versions of Angry Birds soft toys - aka counterfeit ones - which one could get all around Singapore, but the real deal, erh or somewhat the real McCoy.

Since then, we have been thinking about the cute plush soft toys. So when Papa Lim suggested a day trip to Ayer Hitam, the boys were raring to go. We did not bother to ask much about the origin of these lovable soft toys but grabbed two - the yellow and black one - the last time round. This time, my younger boy was more direct and interestingly very diplomatic. (Ahem, it must be from my pool of good genes :P) The owner explained that in each batch of Angry Birds soft toys, there would be a few nice-looking ones which they would separately take it out for sale.

We rounded up our haul of a medium-size blue bird and the red one, enlarging our earlier collection, plus a bolster with the emblem of the green bird or in the words of my boys - the boomerang and a very powerful one, a large-size red bird. Oh yes, with the running of Cars 2, we have also grabbed a little plush Lightning McQueen backpack for my 4-year old nephew.

It has been a wonderful half-day road trip up north, that brought a smile to everyone in the Lim family. As the sun gradually set, we hit the road again on our journey to Singapore.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Joy of Reading

My elder boy has always been an avid reader. I suppose the home environment has a strong influence on him. His parents would be having a book, a periodical or newspaper in hand whenever they could afford the time. Not so for my younger boy, who is a very active boy and never could quite sit still.

We feel that it is just that he has not found the "right" book. A few weeks ago, he found the "right" genre. The book was Do-It-Yourself Wimpy Kid. He has been doodling and asking for me to spell out certain words so that he could complete his own comics strips. Another fave activity of his would be "hangman". He would carefully count and draw the dashes for each word, add a space in between intervening words, to prepare for the game. Thereafter, he invited us - his parents - to play with him.

Recently, he branched out to more conventional books - Geronimo Stilton. He asked his mother, that's me why I did not read his books. To which, I told him that mummy has her own favorite books which stimulated her thinking.

It led me to think about the subjects I enjoy. I have a very broad interest - economics, mathematics, sociology, criminology, international relations and sometimes even physics. They broadened my perspectives a great deal. Most importantly and the reason I could sustain reading as a hobby must be the joy they brought to me. A very recent example will be the recent US politics - with Democrat trying to spend more and Republican trying to cut taxes (especially for the wealthest). It was almost nonsensical with such trival tussle playing out in the fore of their domestic front, US today is still the world's superpower. I remembered the twin-deficit of the US which I have studied in Macroeconomics. When I proved that it worked, I was smiling at the disbelief and yet with a tinge of marvel. This is US, a land of opportunity, a land of innovation, a land where impossible becomes possible.

Reading is a discovery of the many magic around the world. It is the best gift you can ever give to someone. For through reading, one's thinking will open like a parachute. And once opened, it will never be the same.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coaching for People Development

I have just attended a 2-day course on Coaching for People Development. This little post is to share my key take-aways.

First thing first, what is coaching? Besides coaching, there are also other terms such as mentoring, consulting and training, sometimes some of the words are used interchangeable with coaching. However, there are subtle differences.

In the case of consulting, it is more of a company paying an expert to find the solution. For the other terms, the relationship runs deeper.

Training is more the first level which the trainer will focus on transferring skills or knowledge to the trainee. Mentoring is more of sharing the knowledge acquired over the years by the mentor to the mentee. Coaching is about empowerment. No solution is given to the coachee. Instead the coach will guide the coachee through a series of powerful questions, deep listening and keen observation.

GROW Model for Coaching G - goals, R - eality, O - ptions, W - What's next.

This is the model to conduct coaching. Coaching is only possible when the coachee intends to change. One will want to change when there is a tension between reality and goal.

The coach's role is to help the coachee to have awareness and clarity on his goals. This could be done by asking the coachee to imagine a typical day when his goals become true. In other words, it is to dream.

Thereafter, the coach will bring the coachee back to reality and allow the coachee to think about what he should do next. This step will allow the coachee to think and identify the critical areas that will help him to move forward. It is in this step that the coach will have to practise deep listening to identify the mental model the coachee has.

There are basically 4 types of limits that people have. One could use the acronymn MARS - namely, Motivation (e.g. just feel unhappy when Monday comes), Ability (e.g. not good with numbers), Role Perception (e.g. a good employee spends 24/7 at work) and Structure (e.g. no computer access at home).

Thereafter, the coach will have to guide the coachee on the options available to him. The last step is "What's Next" which is to get a commitment to action. The coach's job is to find baby step to help the coachee get started and be motivated to continue the change process.

In conclusion, I would say that it is a skill which one cannot really go very far through passive learning. Just like one can only know how to swim by jumping into the pool, this is another skill which calls for on-the-job training.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Family Outing at Upper Pierce Reservoir

It was somewhat the spur of the moment decision that our family decided to drive down to Upper Pierce Reservoir just to idle around. Afterall, we love to be close to nature.

There was one portion in the ride where our car was on a winding road flanked by two rows of rain trees with their widespread canopies. My eyes were treated in a kaleidoscope of different hues of green as we passed the trees by.

When we reached that park, I saw the picture perfect sight in front of me. There was the Upper Pierce Reservoir with it clear blue water and in the middle of the reservoir a forlorn white structure. Amidst the gentle mid-morning sun, the glistening water washed away the stress of the mundane.

There was a little pavement leading to the edge of Singapore Island Country Club where to the one side was Upper Pierce Reservoir and the other Lower Pierce Reservoir. There was serenity as I peered afar into the horizon. Every tree, every leaf and every branch seemed carefully orchestrated. These colours of nature accentuated the park setting. As I strolled down the long and steep slope nearer to Lower Pierce Reservoir, I took in deep breath of the chlorophyll-infused air. A broad and satisfied grin broke over my face.

It is a joy to be one with nature even if only for a short fleeting hour, and therapatic to feel the stress of urban living melting away. I am definitely looking forward to more of such idyllic getaway.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

More on Tipping Point - A Case Study

Small things matter.

This is the story about a different way of thinking from The Tipping Point. Enjoy!

=================
For many years, governments of the states in US have been focusing on the message that smoking is not cool. They are actually barking at the wrong tree.

Smoking is not cool. It is the smokers who are cool. Teenagers smoke 'cos they want to be like their 'idiots' who are cool.

The solution proposed in the book is not to focus on the message the smoking is not cool. It is to work with the manufacturers to make each cigarette with lower nicotine level so that teenagers will not get hook so easily. This approach accepts the part that it is idiot-worshipping is the rite of passage in the growing-up phase of a teenager. So instead of working against the natural flow of things, it works with it hand-in-hand but lower the risk.

I thought it is a brilliant approach. There is another broken-window theory - more on criminology. It is about fixing broken windows so that criminals would think twice before committing a crime. This is another a fresh way of looking at things.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Tipping Point

I have just finished reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. As what he is aptly put it, he brings to the reader an intellectual adventure story.

The tipping point is about how little things can make a big difference. It is the magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.

In his little book, he painstakingly explained three rules of social epidemics.
1. The Law of the Few
2. The Stickiness Factor
3. The Power of Content.

1. The Law of the Few

It is not all that difficult to stand an epidemic. However, one will need to concentrate resources on a few key areas. In this case, the law of the few says that connectors, mavens and salesmen are responsible to starting word-of-mouth epidemics.

Connectors refer to people with many friends or many linkages. Mavens are those who are not just passive collectors of information but love to share and initiate discussion with others. As for salesmen, they are people who are very persuasive.

A key lesson which I learnt about persuasive people was the way they were able to "show" their emotions. And this is a paradigm shift in thinking. We normally think of expression on our face as a reflection of what we feel. In other words, emotion goes inside-out. Emotion contagion, though, suggests that the opposite is also true. If you smile, you will feel happy. If you frown, you feel sad. Emotion, in this sense, goes outside-in. One can really make used of this little information to stay happy - just by "faking it" until you really feel happy.

2. The Stickiness Factor

The stickiness factor underlines that there is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is to find it.

I loved the example of the tetanus shot information package to students. When it was just a brochure to students, the proportion of students who took the free shot was low. However, just by including a map of the clinic (in campus) and the operating hours of the clinic, there was significant increase in the take-up rate. The explanation was that the latter presentation shifted an abstract lesson in medical advice - a lesson no different from the countless academic lessons they received in their campus live - to a practical and personal piece of medical advice.

3. The Power of Content

The power of content is about our environment and also our limitation to relate to new information and to each other.

A good example of the environment is in Georgia Sadler's quest (a nurse) to start a grassroots movement towards prevention of diabetes and breast cancer among the black community in San Diego. When she tried to have talks after church seminars, she failed miserably as they were tired and hungry after the service. She needed a new context which she found in hair salon where she had a captive audience.

The second point is our limitation to relate to new information and to each other. We have trouble estimating dramatic, exponential change. We cannot conceive that a piece of paper folded over 50 times could reach the sun. We have problem relating to people when the number crosses 150. Re-framing the information and awareness are the keys to unlock our limitations.

Conclusion

It is another good book to read and ponder over. It makes me think that band-aid solution may be the panacea afterall. It is inexpensive, convenient and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. It solves a problem with minimum time, effort and cost. We have been conditioned to think that the true answers to problems have to be comprehensive and there is virtue in the dogged and indiscriminate application of effort. But there are times when we need a band-aid solution, a way that makes a lot out of a little, and that is what Tipping points, are all about.

It reinforces my belief that change is possible, we just need the right kind of impetus. With the slightest push, in the right place, things can just tip.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Indomitable Human Spirit

Do you dare to dream? And dream BIG?

Many people dare not do so as they fear failure and rejection. I will like to encourage you to dream like a child. Ultimately, the destination is not half as important as the journey there.

A few weeks ago, I read the book "No Journey Too Tough" by Dr William Tan. Dr Tan is a polio victim and as a result he could not walk. But rather than focusing on what he did not have and wallowed in self-pity, Dr Tan focused on what he has. He set big goals and achieved them. Among the many big goals is his dream to be a doctor. He was not accepted in the medical school in NUS and did a detour to first become a neuroscientist before pursuing his dream to be a full-fledged medical doctor.

His achievements do not stop there. He is also an established paralympic sportsman. His most amazing feat was to complete 10 marathons in seven continents in 65 days. Such a feat is tough even to able-bodied men and women like us, what's more for him.
Belief is such a powerful notion. In his book, there were times when he felt defeated and disheartened when things didn’t go the way he wanted. For mere mortals, it is easy to just give up. That is why 90% of people in life are ordinary - they make the easy choice to quit. I will like to encourage my readers to focus on the positive aspects of life and to keep trying no matter how tough the path in front seem to be.

Focus on what is great in your life, you will live an extremely happy and fulfilling life. I hope this blog post inspires you as much as it has inspired me to keep going for my dreams despite the odds.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Surviving Yet Another Period with Hubby Out of Town

The first time that my hubby was out of town for business trip was about 10 years ago. I had just given birth to our first newborn and he was barely two months old before my hubby went for business trip for about two to three months.

We did not have a maid so I moved together with my baby to stay with my mother then. Before we had children, I was alway longing for my husband's return as I would miss him dearly during such time. When the children came along, they filled the emotional gap. Though it was also tough juggling work and taking care of them without a maid and living as a nuclear family.

We still do not have a maid as somehow we manage to cope. During times when I am just too busy at work, they would have to learn to manage their time. Therefore when I could afford to take leave from work, on the top of my priority list is to get the boys to learn to be disciplined and plan their timetable for the next few days. A break from office does not mean a lazy day ahead though. I would be inundated with work at home. Fellow housewives would know that there are always tonnes of housework at home. I would be planning for and whipping up the next meal. Often I would be dog-tired by mid-day. I learn to give myself a well-deserved break by declaring an afternoon nap for all.

There is also a silver lining during such time.... I would have car to ferry the children to-and-fro school/student-care centre. When my hubby is around, due to his work nature, he will take the car. However, I am the main caregiver and I am in charge of fetching the children after school. It is neither easy nor efficient to get the two playful boys to follow you. The car helps a lot and saves quite some time, especially when I get caught up with work.

On the whole, such little episodes have enabled me to be a stronger and more independent modern woman. I know that I cannot do it by myself. I need my two boys to also take on some responsibilities. Though not at home, I know my husband miss us dearly. He too needs to take care of himself when your truly is not around. So we grow up stronger together.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Eat Healthy and Stay Fit

I came across this article and will like to share with my readers.

Health is important in order for us to do whatever we want to do. Do take good care of yourself.

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Here are some tips for eating healthy at home, work, and elsewhere to help you get started. Try some of these ideas.

1 . Start your day off right!

Eat breakfast! Breakfast is an important meal and having a good breakfast just help give you the right start to your day.

Have a piece of toast with peanut butter, unsweetened cereal with low-fat milk, or a steamed bun with lean meat/vegetables.

Try livening up your cereal with some fruit like sliced banana or diced apple.
If you are in a big rush, take a piece of fruit to munch on during your commute (OK, OK– not on the MRT!)

2. Eat a variety of foods

Our body requires over 40 nutrients for good health. No one food or food group can provide you with all the nutrients, so have a variety of food to ensure that you are getting what your body needs. Use the Healthy Diet Pyramid as a guide for what to eat and how much of each type of food.

3. Eat more fruits & vegetables

Wouldn’t it be easier to eat something if it was right in front of you? The next time you go grocery shopping, make sure you stock up on fruits & vegetables. Then keep bowls of fruit on the kitchen table or counter. Reach for a piece between or after meals. Don’t forget to cook up those vegetables you had bought too!

4. Eat less fat & foods high in fat

What can we say about fried foods? They taste great, but are not great for you. They’re high in fat. Here is a few suggestions that will save your heart.
Deep-fry less often. Try grilling/barbequeing, baking, steaming or boiling your foods more often.

Use oils sparingly in cooking or when flavouring foods. Choose less saturated oils, try olive and canola oils which are high in monounsaturated fats. Watch those fast foods. Many of them are high in fat.

If you use butter and margarine, use them sparingly. Even better, switch to reduced-fat margarine or use a little jam/jelly on your bread, bagels, and other baked goods.

Use low-fat dairy products such as non-fat or Hi-Lo milk, reduced fat cheese, low-fat yogurt, or light ice cream. You’ll still get the nutrients and taste but half the fat.

If you like to eat meat, you can help reduce fat by choosing the leanest cuts. If you are preparing it at home, trim all visible fat and drain the grease that cooks out of the meat. Also take the skin off chicken and substitute meat with bean curd, lentils or dal a couple of times each week.


5. Watch those snacks

Why do we eat snacks? They taste great, they’re easy, and they satisfy our sweet and salt cravings. And, let’s face it, crunchy food is fun. However, some snack foods are high in fat & salt.

6. Eat everything in moderation

There is no "good" or "bad" food. As the American Dietetic Association suggest – All Foods Can Fit – as long as you have them in moderation. Too much of any food is bad; if you only eat vegetables and nothing else, that would be a problem too. And just because something is fat free or low fat does not mean you can eat as much as you want. Many low-fat or nonfat foods are also high in calories. Eat everything in moderation. Reduce, don't eliminate foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt.

7. Maintain a healthy body weight and feel good

Being overweight increases your risk for a wide range of diseases including heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Excess body fat results when you eat more calories than you are using up. If you are very active, you can eat more. However, if your lifestyle is sedentary, you need to:

cut back on the amount of food eaten;

choose lower calorie items; and

increase your activity.

Calories come from all food - protein, fat, carbohydrate or alcohol - but fat have the most calories, followed by alcohol, then protein and carbohydrate. To maintain weight, cut back on calories and be more active.

8. Drink plenty of fluids

Adults need to drink at least 1.5 litres or 6 cups of fluid a day! You need more if it is very hot or you are physically active. Plain tap water is obviously a good source of fluid but variety can be both pleasant and healthy. Choose also from unsweetened juices, lightly sweetened drinks, tea, broth, milk, etc. Coffee is not a good source of fluid as it acts as a diuretic (draws water from your body).

9. Get on the move

As we have seen, too many calories and not enough activity can result in weight gain. Moderate physical activity helps burn off those extra calories. It is also good for the heart and circulatory system and for general health and well-being. So, make physical activity part of your daily routine. Use the stairs instead of the lift/elevator (up and down!). Park your car a little further. Go for a walk in your lunch break. You don't have to be an athlete to get on the move!

10. Start now! - and make small changes

Making gradual changes in your lifestyle are much easier than taking a big jump all at once. To start on the road to healthy eating, pick one tip and work on it for a couple of weeks. When you feel comfortable with that, move on to the next one.

If you want to know how your current diet is, write down the foods and drinks you eat at meals and as snacks for the next three days. Check your diet again in 3 months & see if your diet has improved.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Speaking to Inform - Advanced Toastmaster Project 3

Project 3: The Demonstration Talk

Executive Summary

A demonstration is the most effective way to explain a process, activity or product. Demonstration can be done through body movement (showing a dance step or skiing technique), showing a physical object, or displaying a model. Carefully rehearse the demonstration and be sure the audience can see it. Anticipate any problems that may occur and plan how to handle each one.

Objectives
1. Prepare a demonstration speech to clearly explain a process, product or activity.
2. Conduct the demonstration as part of a speech delivery without notes.

Time: Five to seven minutes

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3, 4, 5, 6 Code of Thinking

Greetings,

How many of you learn about KSTMC through the Internet? [Pause] Quite a good number of you.

This is the power of Internet. It gives you tons and tons of information. So much so that dear friends, today, we are inundated with information. Yes, information is power. But we also need to separate the small details from the big picture. When your thinking is clear, you will be able to articulate your thoughts better and make a great impression to your bosses, your supervisors and your friends.

Today, I will like to do a show-and-tell on a new way of thinking which I termed as 3,4,5,6 code of thinking. I learn this from Dan Roam, the author of the book “Back of the Napkin. This is an interactive session, meaning that you will need to do some work. I subscribe to what Confucius says “I hear I forget, I see I understand, I do I remember”. Please refer to this sheet of paper on the table and fill in the blanks.

Let’s start with 3. Please write in the sheet 3 built-in tools, which are 1. Eyes, 2. Mind’s eye (through our experiences); and 3. Our hands (to draw, to see things in pictures).

Even though, I say that this is a new way of thinking, it is also in us. We have all the tools.

Next, I will move on to the number 4. 4 here stands for the 4 steps of visual thinking.

- Look, see, imagine and finally show.

For example, you decide to improve your public speaking skills. So you look around you, you google for how to improve your public speaking skills. Look is the step whereby you gather information then you see, meaning you sieve out the information that is most pertinent, most helpful. You decide to come to attend KSTMC meeting today. You are now watching me giving a presentation. Next, you imagine yourself on stage doing public speaking. Finally, when you join us as a member, you will show us by standing on stage and speak.

I will now move on to 5, which refers to 5 key questions which we need ask ourselves when we are looking at a problem. These 5 questions will help us to cover almost all aspects in the problems. Write on the sheet of paper – 5 questions and draw a squid like this – S, Q, V, I and D.

When you look at an issue, you will need to first consider your audience and decide whether you want to do simple approach or a more elaborate one. For example, for fellow guests who are interested to join KSTMC to improve his or her public speaking skills, I will use the simple approach. When you join us, you improve your speaking skills by doing. For fellow members, I will go further into the details – when you join us, you will receive manuals which will explain to you how to do and you will need to complete 10 projects in order to be a competent communicator.

Q here stands for quality versus quantity. V – vision versus execution, I – individual attributes versus comparsion (for example, you may be deciding whether to join KSTMC or to join a course on public speaking. You will look at the individual attributes – the members of KSTMC, the cost involved and so on). The last question is Delta – change versus status quo. When you decide to change, to join KSTMC you will be a better speaker compared to status quo.

Last but not least, I shall move on to the final number which is 6. 6 refers to the 6 ways of thinking.
1. Who/ What (draw a portrait)
2. How many (draw a chart)
3. Where (draw a map)
4. When (timeline)
5. How (flowchart)
6. Why (multivariate plot)

Which one you choose will depend on the issue on hand. Today, I shall demonstrate using the “why”, why you should join KSTMC. This calls for a multivariate plot which means you need to look at the various reasons which will entice you to join our club.

The reasons include,

- KSTMC is a warm and welcoming club. We provide a supportive and encouraging environment for you to practise your speaking skills. It is a laboratory for you to experience different ways to engage your audience.

- We have a good track record. Our club is chartered in Year 2000. This year marked the 11 year that our club has been around. We have helped many people like myself to conquer the fear of public speaking. I used to be a very shy person who would fear even to talk among friends, but no more, thanks to KSTMC.

- We have a mentor scheme. When you join us, we will assign a more senior member to help you in your first few projects so that you know exactly what to do.

- Not only will you be a better speaker, you will also learn leadership skills by taking on appointment holders. You will learn time management by speaking within the allotted time.

- You will also learn new things such as the 3,4,5,6 code of thinking. You will be inspired by fellow toastmasters to continue in the journey to be a better speaker and leader.

And many, many more. If you are interested, I will strongly urge you to approach any of our club members later during tea break. We will be more than happy to answer any questions you have.

Back to you Toastmaster of the Day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

All about Leadership

Below are some wise sentences by Napolean Hill which in my view are true from time immemorial.

1. What is initiative? It is doing the right thing without being told.

2. What is leadership? It is self-confidence, knowing what is happening and able to impart that knowledge.

3. "To lead, you must know!" You may bluff all of your men some of the time, but you cannot do it all the time. Men will not have confidence in an officer unless he knows his business, and he must know it from the ground up. There is no substitute for accurate knowledge.

4. If the officer does not know, his men will be questioning his orders as his men know exactly what is happening on the ground.

5. Not only must the officer know but he must be able to put what he knows into grammatical, interesting, forceful English. He must learn to stand on his feet and speak without embarrassement.

6. To be a leader, he must also possess moral ascendency - being a better man than any others.

7. Any reasonable order in an emergency is better than no order. The situation is there. Meet it. It is better to do something then to hesitate, hunt around for the right thing to do and wind up by doing nothing at all. And, having decided a line of action, stick to it. Don't vacillate. Men have no confidence in an officer that does not know his own mind.

June Holidays 2011

Today marked the close of about 1-week of fun and play of my family. Daddy and mommy have taken a week's duty-off to spend more fulfilling and fruitful family time.

We started with a four-day driving holiday up north at Genting Highlands. The two young boys were exhilarated. This time round, they enjoyed the bumper boat ride at the outdoor theme park, followed by bumper car at the indoor theme park. Dinosaur Land remained on their must-visit list. During the warmer June season, the mist has cleared somewhat compared to during the wetter December month. Their fave activity must be playing the video arcade games.

When we reached Singapore, we planned for more family activities. We visited Kidz Amaze at SAFRA Jurong. It was an indoor playground somewhat similar to the one at Downtown East. The 17,000 sqft playground housed a three-storey play system with many indoor spiral slides. It was also an interactive Foamball Arena with an array of motion play events, slides and activities.

At the end of this intense family bonding time, I am exhausted but happy. Kids have so much energy and we adults were having a challenging time to catch up with them. I do not know about the kids, but I am definitely looking forward to school reopening. There would be more sanity in the house....