You are What You Read

On the trainJust before I got on the MRT, I reconsidered my choice of book once more. I always read on the train; but even though I had brought a book out, I had been mulling over that fact throughout the day that I had only brought out one book: John Grisham’s The Partner, and had been regretting it almost from the moment I stepped out of the house. I considered it trash fiction and a bubblegum book — something enjoyable but ultimately valueless — and wished I had brought an alternative.

You could say (and I honestly did think so at that time) that it was the book being perceived as a waste of time that ultimately made me put it away; but such reasoning borders on the ridiculous. Considering how limited my scope of activity was cooped up in the train, saying that it wasted my time made little sense — anything would be better than nothing, which was the something I eventually did. It must have had to do with something more than simply wanting to avoid wasting time reading a trashy novel.

Generally, in the past the only fiction I read were the classics, though this has changed somewhat over the years. Now award-winning, critically acclaimed, contemporary works have become my fiction of choice. All these are and were, I have had myself believe, works of literature that made you think about deeper issues; works that allowed you insights into the human condition you couldn’t get otherwise; works that changed your life.

But let’s be honest here; saying that I only read these books because I totally believed in the power of these books would be flattering myself. I remember countless instances where I read a book not so much because I wanted to learn its lessons, but more because I wanted to be able to tell others that I had read the book. On that train that day, what I really wanted to do was to whip out one of these great book to let others see what I was reading and think, what a fine young man to read such a fine book.

The Honeymoon Period

At the start of our relationship, being new to this game of love, I sought all avenues of expertise asking what I had gotten myself into. One thing that was mentioned more than once was that we were going to go through a honeymoon period and that I should enjoy it while it lasts. Reality will set in soon.

Eighteen months hence, soon still hasn’t arrived, and may it never. Happy eighteen months monthlysary ger ger!

Saucony Singapore Passion Run 2009

Today I ran an impossibly difficult 15km. An impossibly difficult 15km. Who would have thought? I’d always considered myself a runner (not a jogger, mind you), and one who was as serious about running as recreational runners got.

15km? It’s a short distance. 21km is a middle-distance run, and 42km and above is long-distance. Unfortunately, by my present falling standards, these distance categories may not hold for long — 15km does seem awfully far…

I think I had better either start changing my perception of my running abilities or start increasing my running abilities to match my perception.

As I ran, I recalled the earlier days in my running life when 15km was a weekly affair, and not, as it happens to be now, a yearly one. Running has just slid in to the background of my life in recent months, holding an increasingly less important role. I think I had forgotten what value running provided me, but today I was fully reminded of it.

Today’s run, as difficult as it was, provided me plenty of moments filled with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow — that state of mind where you feel a suspension of time and space, where you’re so into the moment the world disappears and you’re concentrating fully on the task at hand.

Though holding a relatively slow pace throughout, whenever Sean and I approached the water points we would increase our speed, zooming toward our cups of 100-Plus and water. These bursts of speed allowed me to partake in the exhilaration of overtaking our running peers, even if only for a while. Every time we did this, it was as if some Godly force was calling out to me, telling me that I had to reconsider running’s role in my life. Do not let go of it, I thought I heard it say.

By the end of the race, I found myself realising that this was the beginning of a beautiful renewed relationship with running. By the time my next race comes up, be it the Wave Run or the Army Half-Marathon, 15km will be, once more, a short run for me.

Enough of that. Please excuse me now. I have pavement to pound.

A Perspective on Death

I’d always wondered what it was like to die. I had dreams where I did; I’d wake up with my heart racing, hands ice-cold and slightly trembling. Then I’d soon realise it was only a dream and, intoxicated with relief I’d smile, thinking how wonderful it was to be given a second chance at life. I’d be happy for a while before the feeling wore off, and the drudgery of life resumed. Sometimes I’d wish that these dreams were real — at least I’d have one less thing to worry about. Death scared me.

The great thing about death is that, with it in mind, I’m no longer fearing that I’d regret decisions I made in life. The pain of regret is often nowhere as near to the pain of suffering from the fear of regret. I don’t look back on my life, thinking “if only” because I honestly don’t care anymore. With death, the necessity of living with negative consequences from regretful actions stop. Some decisions, some may argue, like those involving others, do not stop at my death, and I wholeheartedly agree with that. But my regrets do. And besides, I know that in the end all those affected by my bad decisions will enjoy death like I will, too.

My Quest for Humility

I sometimes sit in front of my computer, staring at the screen; hands on keyboard, unmoving; mind thinking, recalling past personal literary successes, I wish I could write beautifully again. I’d log onto Facebook, or perhaps and do their typing tests, pretending — wishing — the words I typed spewed from my own mind.

How I wish I could be famous for the magnificence of my literature; for the genius of my person…

If only I could be loved and respected as would one who had found the cure for cancer and gave it away for free. And if I were, I promise I’d remain humble; like how a snowflake, a tree, or a mountain, for all their natural majesty maintain themselves as themselves, and never think, I am greater than thou.

Grade Inflation in University?

I came across an article by Walter E. Williams, an economics professor from George Mason University, discussing how grades in American Universities have been going up, causing “grade inflation”. For example, a “C” grade, he says, should be taken to mean an “F”.

Though I do have an intuitive belief that grades are going up (seems like everyone’s claiming scores close to a perfect 4.0 GPA on forums nowadays (due to some hieuristic bias no doubt), I found the arguments presented by Williams weak and based on spurious correlations.

“From 1991 to 2007,” Professor Walter quotes Professor Thomas C. Reeves, “in public institutions, the average grade point average (GPA) rose, on a four-point scale, from 2.93 to 3.11 […] in the 1930s, the average GPA was 2.35 (about a C-plus); whereby now it’s a B-plus.” But this rise in GPA is not, according to Professor Walter, backed up by any evidence of increased intelligence.

The premise of the article was interesting: American Universities are showing higher grades, but students are not getting any more intelligent. There must be grade inflation going on. Or is there?

The problem with the article lies in how Professor Walter measures intelligence. He uses SAT scores, remedial course enrolment, ratio of drinking to study hours, grade expectations, a national survey’s results on student’s knowledge on their national “history and institutions”, and their ability on a questionable set of “basic skills”. Though some of these made sense, many did not.

He cites falling SAT scores, fair enough, but does not mention if they are national SAT scores or only for those Universities in question. The change of SAT format in recent years (from a multiple-choice-only format to one that included essay writing) may also have had an effect on scores. And though I may be wrong, with respect to Ivy League Universities, do they not have the ability to be much more picky about students given the great demand for their (very) limited admission places? If SAT scores were that important, I am pretty sure most of these Universities could enrol only those with the highest SAT scores if it were so great a determinant of University performance.

Then there’s the argument on the ratio of drinking to study hours. For one, I would question the validity of such a survey. Drinking hours, like penis length, is prone to overstatement in surveys like this; and besides, drinking tends to happen during all sorts of events like parties, watching TV, or socialising at a bar. It’s easy to clock up the hours of “drinking” when you can do this doing practically anything else. Studying, on the other hand, is a much more concentrated effort. The correlation between the ratio of drinking to study hours and grades is questionable.

One of the other things mentioned in the article was the result of a national survey done to assess the student’s knowledge on their national history and institutions. One of the first questions that ran through my mind was, “What has that got to do with intelligence?” If I was to be asked similar questions (perhaps in a Singaporean context,) I doubt I’d get more than half the questions right. How does this prove that I’m any less intelligent than a person who does have the answers to these questions? If I was required to know these things, I’d make the effort to find out, but probably forget it soon afterwards unless it was necessary or worthwhile for me to remember them. Why bother memorising something of dubious value if it can be found out within minutes (or even seconds) by doing some simple research?

The final issue discussed in the article was that of basic skills being the outcome of a university program. Though I place high importance to the development of certain basic skills (I believe they are necessary to achieve a certain quality standard of living), I do not expect a student to automatically learn these skills directly as a result of his or her having attended university. The onus of these skills is not so much on the university, but perhaps on the parents and the students themselves. If the university is to take responsibility, then the other educational institutions the student joins should be held responsible too.

Has there been grade inflation? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not with the reasoning presented Professor Walter’s article. Maybe students are getting smarter — maybe not in terms of raw intelligence, but certainly in terms of study skills and exam smarts. Who’s to say they’re not?

(If the link to the article doesn’t work, you can download a PDF of the file here.)