Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Three Body Problem, The Mermaid and Mr Pip

Threebody.jpgThe Three-Body Problem poster.jpgMermaid 2016 film poster.jpg

It's most people's common understanding that in outer space if you propel an object in one direction, it'll continue in that direction never to stop. And furthermore if you happen to be that object no one can hear you if you do in fact choose to scream. Unless you're in the movie Gravity. Moving in one direction in space for eternity would be a human problem but in physics it's very straightforward. There is a force that causes an acceleration, then a speed that moves a mass. Without any other forces applied to the object, speed would be constant. Of course our common understanding is wrong because in space there isn't just one object. There is a whole universe of other bodies all exerting strong and subtle influences. That is, if you are that object, you may eventually change direction but would probably have expired by then.

One body may not be a physics problem and neither are two bodies. The Moon and the Earth have regular orbits, even Iron age cultures could predict the motion of the Moon well enough to predict eclipses. And this was without understanding the true nature of the motion and gravity. Both bodies would have gravitational attraction for each other and these two forces create a regular, stable relationship. One might be simple, straight and lonely whereas two provides elegant orbits with ellipses.

However, as in conventional morality, once you add a third body into the theoretical model, all hell breaks loose. The Three Body Problem is a classic physics puzzle. Three bodies co-influencing each other creates huge calculational difficulties. And it must have been an interest in this puzzle that writer Liu Xinci started a science fiction trilogy called exactly that The Three Body Problem 三体. It was so successful that its translation won the Hugo prize for Science Fiction in 2014, a first for a Chinese author (the second book in the series has been nominated for a Nebula award for 2016).

The book's background lies in a very real Three Body Problem, the Alpha Centauri star system, but first book, Remembrance of Earth's Past, is predominantly set on contemporary Earth. It lingers a long time in China's Cultural Revolution period in a rather critical way, which might surprise those that believe there is no creative freedom in China. Science Fiction and the Cultural Revolution. Red Guards and Aliens. They aren't in the same scene, of course, but this book has a narrative that is distinctly Chinese and distinctly Science Fiction. I've finished the first book and waiting for the second and third books to be delivered. Considering my interest in astronomy, too, it's good to have fiction propelling my interest in science. Just this morning on a walk I listened to how within 50 years we might have our first sensors in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, which incidentally has a shadow of happening in the first book itself.

And it's to be a movie soon, albeit marketed to Chinese audiences. One interesting aspect of our increasingly multipolar virtually democratised worlds we live in is that there is far more room for cross-over hits, that is a creative work that exceeds its target audience, culture and geography to become global. Go back 20 years and it was more or less one way: English works, whether British or American, going into non-English cultures. Now it's pleasantly more diverse. No matter what you think of it in retrospect, Gangnam Style's unexpected success shows that singular talent can break through any kind of barrier. Gangnam is still the highest viewed video in YouTube history almost 4 years on.

And that leaves us with the astonishing comparison of two movies Kungfu Hustle and The Mermaid. They were both movies created by comic genius, Stephen Chow. Kungfu Hustle was a cross-over success, scoring a US$17 million dollars. This may seem low but it's huge for a foreign language movie. It scored US$20 million in Mainland China and over US$100 million worldwide. And was the movie that gave Stephen Chow name recognition abroad. A few movies later The Mermaid comes and blows away all the records in China, with US$526 million in ticket sales in the Mainland alone. This even by global standards is huge. But it only made $3 million in the US market. Such is the appeal of different movies. It made a tidy $25 from us at the Events cinema on Queen Street. It'll stand to be seen whether The Three Body Problem, which succeeded in winning awards from sci-fi judges as a book or as a movie can attract audiences for whom it was not intentionally directed.

While I wait for the second book of the trilogy, I've been making up for lost time and reading another high profile award nominee of the past, Mister Pip. Though not finished yet, it akes for good reading, and paints a picture of history in a place that was only lightly sketched in my childhood memory: the instability of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Pip in the title refers back to the protagonist of the Dicken's classic Great Expectations which I haven't read. But reading Mister Pip almost makes you feel like you've read it as the story of both books and the characters are enmeshed.

My reading enmeshes facts of my life and our modern world and my life enmeshes the reading as it happens. It's a surprise that I only became the voracious reader I am now after the age of 25.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The big white cloud

I've often feared for my mind. My mind in haze. Sometimes, in much clearer moments, I wonder whether there was any justification, whether it was just some period of psychological hypochondria. I remember back in Guangzhou, in a meeting fearing that I wouldn't be able to string a meaningful sentence together. I consoled myself when I achieved things creatively or cognitively. I made breakthroughs learning language and created ideas beyond what others were doing. But then I'd hit points and founder my mind on a reef.

A few weeks ago a manager I respect gave me some papers of import. I had no time to read them but kept them at the top of my tray. I had to read them. I really valued their contents. But a week ago when I finally had the leisure to look upon them, they'd gone. It disturbed me something bad. I searched my office, checking the same recycle piles twice. Even looking through the test results I'd filed thinking that somehow I might have accidentally stapled them to the back. I searched my home. It wasn't there either. I was sure I hadn't discarded anything in the period but it was gone. Gone. And then another equally, perhaps more horrible situation appeared: I'd need to speak to that person I respected and ask for another set, if she did in fact have a soft copy of her own. I visualised how unprofessional it'd make me look and the intensity of my search rose. Besides this search, my efficiency dropped and again the clouds condensed in my minds eye. I did an outstandingly stupid oversight online. Some things barely progressed.

I was on the verge of speaking to her when picking up a source document for another related topic that I saw the missing information clipped to the back. It was a great place to put it in retrospect. A place I never thought to look though. There was a moment of elation and then I was in the room with her, not having to mention the embarrassment of losing it and rather referring to it as something I'd be doing shortly.

And then the cloud was no longer. The hours after were those amazing hours when every 10 minutes of work were hours of product. Connections. Timing. Concept. Detail. In place. E-mail here. Cross the t. The reply already and the documentation complete.

I astound myself with what stupid things I do sometimes. Four week ago, I was leaving for work when I realised I had to move my car as it was blocking the driveway. I drove it to the roadside and through the rear vision mirror saw the roads were relatively clear. On a whim I decided to drive in, so did a U-turn and headed to the intersection with Dominion Rd. When I got there the traffic was suddenly thick. I had to make a right hand turn and things were not happening. After quite a wait a large gap appeared in the near lane I thought I'd turn into the flush median. I got there and thought I had a chance to move into the traffic on the main road, accelerated alongside a gap, but the car behind me was staying close and I delicately tried to merge while still moving at the speed of the traffic. And then there was an almightly clang. The car lurched upward and something flashed up past my right eye. I'd hit the traffic island, the one I'd crossed by so many times before. The one that I knew was there. I was so focussed on my left that I forgot about the right. I'd burst my tyre and luckily nothing else. No-one was on the island thankfully and I had enough calmness to pull the car into a bus-lane and then into a side road. I lost it at myself, unbelieving at how I could have done it.

It haunts me whenever I drive now. But just like the temporary loss of that document, it seems to be just a cloud over my ability. My skill is enough. My focus is enough, if only the cloud can go.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Substance and theory

There are few places I feel more comfortable than the classroom, in the front that is. And despite a job with lots of potential to stay in the office and do a lot of cerebral stuff, to save another department's bacon, I've found myself deep in the classroom again for half of my working time teaching a course that should never. It swung into being just two weeks ago and will go on for another 13 weeks. Since it wasn't to be, it's almost impossible to give it to anyone else as it was only a framework. It's not all a sacrifice on my part. It being a course overseen by the qualifications authority, I've learned a lot about what is entailed in official courses that grant stamped certificates. That was one of my objectives.

The course itself has the not-so-simple goal that a passing graduate should be able to go into a tertiary level classroom with the English language capacity to succeed. Moving students to this level is something that conceptually is a big part of my company's reason for being. (Or shall I say "reason for buying" because it was an acquisition?) Moving students to this level is a big challenge if you think the difference between the usual requirement for university study and what university study comprises. IELTS, the main tool for testing academic English readiness, students should be able to write a 250 word structured essay, not 1000 words as in a normal course assignment; listen for particular words but not for whole meaning; listen to native speakers and not, say, south Asian intoned English; to read three articles in an hour rather than 10 pages as expected reading in a night. I'm a proponent of IELTS as a test but I knew this course wasn't going to be like preparing students for that.

It was almost accidentally that I stumbled though on some interesting ideas. While finding interesting listening on education, I let the class listen to a TEDtalk by Angela Lee Duckworth called "The key to success? Grit". Students, though reasonably smart, found it hard going. It didn't help that over half thought that the key to success was "great". To summarise Lee Duckworth's message: Neither IQ, nor social intelligence, nor health, nor good looks really predict success; only another characteristic, grit, predicted it. What is this non-technical sounding "grit"? It's the passion, perseverance and stamina to continue at a task, not just for an hour, not just for a day but for years and years. It's a nice sentiment and listening task to do at the start of a challenging course. It'd be great for everyone to have a little grit to get to this big goal.

While I was pacing around watching them listen to the recording, I was thinking about grit. Prior to teaching this course, I was teaching another group of students wanting to pass an in-house proficiency test analogous to IELTS that would allow them into our sister company's mainstream courses. However, most of them lack the foundation to make any impact on the test. They are a mixed bunch with some very smart young people, all Chinese, almost all between the ages of 17-23. There are two or three who in my estimation could learn and pass the test in the short time but they almost all lack exactly what Lee Duckworth mentions: grit. Even though the all would rather study mainstream courses, none of them takes the opportunities to learn, or to address the weaknesses that prevents them passing the proficiency test.

For a formative test two days ago for the new course, I randomly chose another talk this time on youtube, Carol Dweck's "Developing a growth mindset". (What I didn't notice at the time even with multiple relistening is that Lee Duckworth cites Dweck.) A growth mindset is another concept to explain the same issue of why intelligent, capable people don't succeed in learning things well. Simply put, a growth mindset is the belief that you can become a better learner with effort and challenge. That doesn't sound like brain science but there is a lot of implicit suggestion in the way that we teach and the way we praise that gives people the subconscious understanding that challenges measure us rather than grow us. Difficulty embarrasses us rather than enhances us. Of course, in another field like exercise no one would question that increasing difficulty would increase the gain (to a point).

In the group I have a namesake who is my best example of a lack of grit and negligible growth mindset. He is smart enough to learn how to pass tests; give him a grammar test and he can get it mostly right, and more accurately than anyone else. Give him a list of words and he'll look them all up in Chinese and remember them. But give him something he's not familiar with and he has no patience. In probably the most obvious situations, an Argentine didn't know what a "wedding" was so I asked my namesake to explain it. He thought for a moment and smiled embarrassed. And I asked him again, and he said he knew the meaning but couldn't say it. I told him that the Argentine needs his help and I need to know he knows it. But he didn't say a word. This is someone with conversational fluency, knows the words "get married" "special" "day" "church" "kiss" but maybe not "bride" and "groom" but he couldn't even start, or take the risk with others watching of doing the wrong thing.

But while these nice terms "grit" and "growth mindset" assume their way into my lens of the world, I remind myself of some of the base intellectual values I have. Do these really correspond to the substance of the world or are they just part of an interface of theories that could be an illusion for the workings underneath? Regardless two of the more gritty students in the newly started course enjoyed both listening tasks despite the difficulty and it rounded off a good start.

In another case of theory becoming substance, my final hurdle for something grand to hang on the wall was overcome with the acceptance by Trinity College of my diploma portfolio. The grades were hardly anything to show off but as a body of knowledge and experience, I'm utterly proud. Many courses might rubber stamp a capable practitioner's experience but I can say that I learned a lot from the process of the course and even through the trials of the portfolio that lasted for over three years. The rubber stamp is a nice addition and one that gives me credibility to be what I am in the teaching world. Perhaps what all good teachers need is a growth mindset, that all of the classes improves us all, that all of the gritless students pushes us to be more engaging and inspiring. And that we seek further knowledge about the theory and substance of how the mind works, how the mind might fail to apprehend and how success in learning finally prevails.