Wednesday, 27 June 2007

We need to go the extra mile

I think his first reaction was, "what is this guy doing sticking his camera in my face"? Then he did what little kids do in the face of "crisis" - he turned around and asked his dad for validation. Dad said "it's OK, he's harmless". So, he put on a show for me. Don't you just love the innocence and carefreeness kids have?

I went to the USM Main Campus' Hari Warga this morning. Loosely translated it means USM Family Day. Lots of activities and prizes. Many, if not most, of the activities involve physical movement including a campus run and "senamrobik" which is the local version of aerobics. Everyone seems to have lots of fun in these very healthy programmes. Of course, some people like to do it their way.

Obviously, a lot of energy, money and organisational skill is involved to pull off such events, which incidentally are also held at the other two campuses. I take my hat off to the organisers.

But here's the beef. And this is not limited to this event. It's because we haven't pushed hard enough to go the extra mile. Take a look at the picture below. What do you see?

No amount of effort to encourage recycling is going to do us any good if we don't start at the source of the rubbish. We have got to stop generating waste.

We need to stop using styrofoam not only because it takes forever to disintegrate at the landfills but also because of the health risks associated with Styrofoam (which is a brandname) or more generally polystyrene. The risk is that styrene could migrate from the cup or container (whether hot or cold) to our body when we drink or eat the food served in these containers. And the risk? This is what I got from one of the websites - "Studies suggest that styrene mimics estrogen in the body and can therefore disrupt normal hormone functions, possibly contributing to thyroid problems, menstrual irregularities, and other hormone-related problems, as well as breast cancer and prostate cancer".

One last beef. Look at the picture below. Rows and rows of cars. I am sure we can do something about this.

Here's what I think we can do. We should involve staff and students to carry out an audit of every event (major or minor) and evaluate their efforts to adopt and implement sustainable practices (use of materials, efforts to reduce waste, car-free, healthy food, local products, etc). We will recognise them and give them bragging rights perhaps at an Annual Environmental Champions Day. Volunteers?

Monday, 25 June 2007

Save Penang Hill, Save the World - Let the Games Begin

Pretty isn't it? I bummed into this wild flower on the walk from the Bellevue Hotel on Penang Hill to the Canopy Walk (about 2 km away) with Dato Anwar Fazal. Its the first time I have seen the flower and it looks like some wild creeper. Haven't been able to find its name. Maybe Dato Seri Lim Chong Keat knows.

Ah, I have dropped the names of 2 prominent personalities in Penang. Anwar is well-known for his social and environmental work and had previously worked with UNEP and was one of the original founders of the Consumer Association of Penang. A very down to earth kinda guy and is a walking history book of happenings in Penang. CK is the younger brother of Tun Lim Chong Eu, one time Chief Minister of Penang and CK's trademark in Penang is of course KOMTAR which he unabashedly claim as this last erection in Penang (honest, I heard it from the horse's mouth at a public talk). Apparently he is better known for his architectural works in Singapore. But he is also a world-reknown botanist, one of 5 people in the World which the Kew Gardens recognises to be qualified to give names to new plants (that's what I am told but my Googling efforts did not bear fruit). If you want to know what one of my colleagues have to say of CK, here's Wan Burhan's Intro. CK owns and operates the Bellevue Hotel on Penang Hill which is detergent-free.

So, what's all this got to do with saving the world? Well, CK and Anwar are behind a programme called "Local, Global & Universe - a Tribute to Buckminster Fuller". Bucky is an inventor and according to some opinion, the Einstein after Einstein. He coined the term "spaceship earth" and was the originator of the ideas for recycling. The programme will be held at Penang Hill, of course, from the 13th to 15th July 2007. One of the interesting programmes is the World Game which was invented by Bucky to allow participants to take on various roles (politicians, developers, etc) to solve the problems confronting Spaceship Earth. OK, for those digital natives out there, its an RPG. It was first played at the Geodesic Dome (another invention of Bucky) at KOMTAR more than 20 years ago but it has now gone high-tech with online databases, multimedia and even a connection to Google Earth. For the latest on the game, go to For more information of the activities, contact / (Pn. Jasmin/Ms. Parvarthy) or

So, what's this thing about "Save Penang Hill, Save the World"? OK, I admit, I love the "Heroes" series on TV ("save the cheerleader, save the world", got it?). But I can tell you that if you ask Anwar, he will give you a long list of reasons why we need to protect Penang Hill ... and somewhere down the list you might find "Room 03, Bellevue, Penang Hill Hotel". That's where he spent his honeymoon in 1969.

All in the Family

One of my favourite stories about my kids growing up is the report my son brought back from a kindergarten when we had just returned from the USA in 1995. He was about 5 years old and the report was concerning a test the teachers had conducted on him about his musical ability. The report said he showed "no musical ability".

Fast forward to 2007. You can see him doing the drum solo at the recent Butterworth Chung Ling High School Wind Orchestra Concert at the Dewan Sri Pinang (see video above captured with compact digital camera). But I thought they sounded better the last time they performed the song and I was right. The conductor zipped through the performance.

Brian is also the band's student conductor and its Chairman.

It was an "all in the family" affair that night. The eldest daughter, Vivian, who is starting her Vet course at UPM next week was one of the MCs. She was also the Band's chairman a few years ago and she played the drums too.

The youngest daughter, Jillian, is also following the 2 elders' footsteps. She's one of the drummers in the band too but also plays the synthesizer.

Ha, what's all in the family without the parents? My wife was there to "cut the ribbon" because we donated a bundle (a very small one compared the big donors) to help raise funds for the Band (66 students plus teachers) to go to the Jeju Island Summer Music Camp in South Korea in August 2007 at the invitation of the South Korean Government. Wow, I can tell you the PTA of this school is really loaded. They gave RM40,000 for this trip. And the Chief Minister gave RM10,000. Many well-wishes and businesses chipped in too. I think the Ministry of Culture gave a contribution too (like RM30,000). The whole trip will cost more than RM190,000. The South Korean government is sponsoring the accomodation and breakfast only. Hey, I am proud of this kids. They are working very hard as they are officially representing Malaysia.

OK, I know you were counting. Me? I was cameraman, mah. So, "all in the family" lor.

Monday Morning Blues

When the electric mains at my house tripped this morning just before 7 AM, I should have just jumped out of bed, forget about brushing my teeth or having coffee, and I should have jumped straight into my work clothes, jump into my old faithful and drive straight for the ferry.

A little dramatic perhaps. Well, the electric mains trips when there is thunder and lighting and there was lots of it this morning. And when it rains, all hell breaks loose on the pride of Penang ... the Penang Bridge of course. I was out of the house before 7.40 am. I thought I would outsmart the rest by taking the BORR (ok, not BORE) which is the Butterworth Outer Ring Road to get to the Bridge knowing well that Monday morning has become nightmares for traffic heading to the Island, what more when there's heavy down pour. When I was halfway on the BORR, my wife called to report heavy congestion on the bridge. So I headed for the ferry. Hhmm, mobile technology, radio and the wife makes perfect Intelligent Traffic System, don't you think?. When I reached the ferry terminal, the queue was already building up, but I thought, "not too bad". Bad judgment. So, I queued up anyway 'cause I had to conduct an e-learning training at 9 AM. Time now, about 5 or 10 minutes before 8 AM. Plenty of time, no problem, I thought.

As I queued, most people seemed to be very disciplined. No cops in sight. A few queue jumpers but, keep you cool. Hey, the 2 lanes on the right seemed to be moving faster. Should I switch lanes? Nah, let's play by the rules. When I finally reached the ferry toll plaza, I realised that the 2 lanes on the left was merging into a single lane (yah, yah, yah, I have used the ferry a thousand times, so I really should know better). No wonder we were slower than the other 2 lanes on the right. I started cursing the PPC (Penang Port Commission) for not managing the traffic flow. You know, they are very good after the toll plaza but don't seem to care what happens before that. Same thing on the Island side. There's a lot of queue jumping at peak hours (by drivers who pretend that they did not know there's a queue stretching all the way to the clock tower).

So, I was sitting in my car a little upset, not so much by the waiting. I had no other choice. I looked around and noted all the cars with their engines on and the air-con running. And I thought of what an impact the system is doing to our environment. Why can't they have a light high up there - turn it to red to tell everybody the traffic is not moving (because the queue on the other side of the toll plaza is full) so everybody can just switch off their engine? No, it wouldn't work if the weather is hot. And no, it wouldn't work even if you put a canopy over the cars. You may have noticed the sign at the upper level which says "Matikan Engine Semasa Menunggu" (something like that) pleading with drivers to turn off their engines while waiting to board the ferry on the upper deck to spare the walking passengers the foul smell of the exhaust. Anybody bothers? Some do. I do. Most don't.

What time did I get on the ferry? More than one and half hours later at 9.30 am. Meanwhile, I heard over the radio that there was a 4-vehicle pile-up on the exit going towards the Island which was also causing a huge jam for the traffic in the opposite direction heading to the Mainland. Ever notice those barriers they have put up to prevent all the busy-bodies from slowing down to peek at accidents on the other side? They are ugly of course and I doubt it matters.

So, it took me about 2 hours and 20 minutes to get from Teluk Air Tawar to the USM Campus. A normal trip in the good ole days would be about 30 minutes. Most Monday mornings are really terrible for crossing the Bridge (I have no idea why) but if I start early enough like maybe before 7.30 am I can still do the crossing in about 40 minutes.

So, who's to blame for the mess we are in? The planners? Of course! But who are these planners? In my book, it is not just town planners but include everyone who played a part in the way our environment has become. The politicians especially because they are movers and shakers who get things done (their way, most of the time!), the bridge engineers, the architects, the surveyors, the people who build the cars and lobby for more roads and bridges. And YOU and I. We are all to blame. Because we decide to drive and live further away from the madness of the cities. Because we don't have choice?

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

My little girl is all grown up

It seems like only yesterday when I put the tiny tot on my lap and started signing and reading stories to her when she was just two weeks old. Yes, I was starting her young. Now, she's about to fly the coop, so to speak. She's about to embark on a new chapter in her life. She wants to be a Vet and there's only one place to learn the skills - UPM in Kuala Lumpur. Well, she (we) are still waiting for the Ministry of Higher Education to announce the offers for places in the local universities and in all likelihood, she's going to get only one week's notice to show up on campus. This is totally unacceptable (the short notice). The only reason I can think of is the Ministry wants to cut off all the protest that comes from those who can't get into medicine or some of the choice courses because they got 4 flat. So, the rest of the 50,000 candidates have to put up with this irrationality.

But enough of that. Vivian has made it her mission to cook us a meal, all by herself, as a farewell before she leaves for University. She thinks of this or that and tells us she wants to try cooking it. So we (parents) jump and buy the ingredients. Even when we have not cooked it before, we are game to do it. In the picture are two traditional Penang favourites. The Loh Bak and the Ah Char Fish. This is the first time we have made Loh Bak, based on my mother-in-law's recipe (which my wife recalled from memory). The inside fillings are meat (chicken is OK), yam and water chestnut. Marinade with Chinese 5-spice power, pepper, salt, light soya sauce, a little sesame oil, and some corn starch. The skin is made of soya beans (must be the type which can be folded). Turned out really great. So, we are keeping the traditions alive. The Ah Char Fish we have tried several times already and getting better at it. The fish used to be really cheap, like maybe one or 2 dollars but this plate of fish (7) cost RM10 at the market (bigger yes). The recipe? Modified from the Web. Is it healthy food? Hey, healthy food does not mean we should throw all the great recipes away. Moderation, that's the key.

Oh, I recently asked Vivian whether all the singing and reading to her from 2-weeks old brought any benefits. She said "yes" (OK, maybe she doesn't really know but wants to be grateful). The other 2 kids of ours? No, I did not sing and dance ... erh, read to them from 2 weeks old. But I think they absorbed whatever the older ones were doing like sponge. The second one could read at 3 and half years old ... and we didn't teach him phonetics at all. Maybe it was the Sesame Street, and Mr Rogers, and Mr Dress-up that they watched but I think he was always standing around when we were doing the phonetics workbooks with vivian at the Sandpoint Family Housing in Seattle. So, its the environment ... not the genes. Otherwise the children will never be smarter than the parents! And I assure you they are.

What's this fascination with fire?

Is this a macho thing? You know, "I can tame nature" kinda thing?

I got really pissed off with the opening burning of yardwaste and even garbage around my house that I looked up the website of the house owner (big property owner here and elsewhere) and shot off an email with pictures complaining about it (see email below).

Did you know that owners are by law (Town and Country Planning Act 1976) liable for any offence committed on his/her property? There have been many cases pursued by the Municipal Council of Penang Island against both operators and owners of the property for illegal change of use. If there is any illegal activity at your property which you may have rented out and you are aware of it, then you better get rid of your tenant. Otherwise you might end up in court with your tenant and pay a hefty fine for it. What about environmental laws, specifically, open burning? Hmmm, gotta check up on that.

Now, let's wait and see how the owner respond to my complaint.

Dear Sir,

I am writing to express my disappointment with your workers for constantly polluting the environment when they cut the tall lalang and grass at your properties at Taman Teluk Molek, Teluk Air Tawar.
Please see photos for latest episode behind the house I am staying (which also belongs to you). They started burning behind my house (your house) right next to the kitchen. I shouted at your staff (shouted because the of the loud noise from the grass-cutter) to tell them to stop the burning. They were told not to burn. But not five minutes later they moved the burning to the other side ... and your staff is no longer around. Opening burning is not only illegal it is also a contributor to global warming. I hope your church will take this issue seriously and instruct all your workers whether on contract or otherwise to abide by the law. Thank you.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Einsteins working to save the world

The T-shirt says it all "Albert Einstein". Yes, these guys (and gals) are a serious bunch (in a good way) of over-achievers. They don't aim to pass. Their aim is Band 4 (top marks). And they don't like to be assessed. Nor do they like to assess their peers.

Ever tried "teaching" a group of 28 over-achievers? Almost everyone with a Ph.D.? Each with their own opinion? Everyone aiming to become a professor, eventually? Well, that's one of the things I do, sometimes 2 or 3 times a year. It saps my energy but keeps me on my toes. And it invigorates me, knowing that there is (still) a lot of love and dedication amongst my younger colleagues to become better teachers. Sometimes we crush out and I don't know what hit me. The "students" become edgy and you can see unhappy faces everywhere. They are not getting what they want. They probably think we (me, especially) are some idiots without a clue of what we are doing ... even though we have laid out what we thought was a perfect lesson plan. But we learn, and we keep learning. This time around they seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed their one full day with me and my partner-in-crime (Wan Fauzy). Overheard at the end of the workshop was one of the lady lecturers saying to the Training Unit supervisor that she enjoyed herself and wished that half of all the sessions for the entire workshop series should follow the day's format. A lot of activities instead of listening to lectures and talk after talk. OK, it seems to work this time. Then for the next workshop we (or I) will come up with what we think is a fantastic idea ... and it bombs. That's what makes teaching exciting isn't it? It's just so unpredictable.

So, how are they going to save the world? Their group project requires them to create an online course using an open source e-learning software (Moodle) integrating Sustainable Development, constructivism and critical thinking. Tough job, we know but its all about the learning ... not about the product. We find that there's always alot of interest and energy going into the projects. But our weak link is the follow-up. Most of the lecturers will go back with great ideas and they hit a stumbling block at the School level. Lack of support, lack of interest, no funds, no priority ... I gotta do something about that. Meanwhile, if you are interested to see some of their work, visit RCE Penang@USM website.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Free Dinner ... and the talking goes on

Halfway through dinner ... What's Wrong with this picture?

Ah, the perks of being a Coordinator. I get invitations to free food all the time. Mostly I ask my staff to call up and say, "thank you, but no thank you". But I could not resist the invitation to rub shoulders with a bunch of high-powered academics. These are Vice-Chancellors or their representatives from Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia and even the UK.

When I went for my fruits, desert and coffee (3-in-1), I bummed into the Registrar of USM (Azman), an old friend. How are you? I am great! And the food is great. And then he pointed to all the empty chairs and was very disappointed ... not because of the no show but because of all the food wasted. "Money we can earn it back" but the food not eaten is "going down the drain" (not literally of course). And it triggered my thinking. Hey, we got to include this in our sustainable development policy which we will be working on. And to think that we wasted so much food on Earth Day.

So, what was good at the buffet? Everything, according to all those I bummed into. But I liked the Koay Teow Thng. And recommended it to everyone at the table. I think almost everyone tried it, and love it. But there were some suspicion that the chef may have added MSG (monosodium glumate, better known as Ajinomoto). So, I wanted some more of this lovely noodle. I went back and the chef was standing there so I asked him point blank. "Got use MSG, ah?" The chef shook his head. And my friend the PRO (Mohamad) standing next to me said "they know what is MSG or not?". So I said "Ajinomoto". The chef confirmed no MSG. So, I had my second helping. Notice the way they roll up the koay teow into little balls. Very nice touch.

And these are my dinner companions from the other universities. One of them is a General, can you sport him? Another is someone I got to know from my futures workshops. And as Omar, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor representing the VC in his welcome remarks said "this is an opportunity for networking". That's just academic lingo for us to make small talk ... hopefully it will lead to big things.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Man without a stomach

I never knew we could live without a stomach!

We met a guy at a dinner reception last night and discovered he had his stomach completely removed. I am sure you can guess why. The BIG C, of course. Yes, he had cancer of the stomach. I think he also had part of his liver removed. But he still has his intestines. He opted not to have chemotherapy. A lot of people believe that the moment you go for chemo, you are as good as dead. Chemo is non-discriminatory. It kills good and bad cells.

So he's alive and cured (s0rt of). That's the good news.

The bad news? It can put you in the poor house. He had to take 4 pills a day for 5 years. You got it, the blood-sucking pharmaceutical companies charge a bomb for them. RM100 for one pill. That's RM400 a day. RM146,000 a year. RM730,000 for five years. That's not including the cost of surgery and doctor's fees. And he has to take it for the rest of his life. He's taking 2 pills a day now.

So, what is the price of life? Fortunately for this cancer survivor, he owns a factory and could sell off a couple of his houses. But for the rest of us mere salary-earners your best bet is to try very hard to stay healthy.

Still wonder why we need a healthy campus?

Friday, 1 June 2007

How not to teach

It was quite embarrassing. The MC (PRO Mohamad) teased me as I went up the stage the "sixth time". No, lah, I did not publish so many books. I was actually representing a colleague twice (Izham) and I went up two more times for the 4 monographs (co-authored with several colleagues) and my "constructivist" book. I think Mat was just trying to liven up the stage. If you want to get a copy, you should be able to get it at the MPH Bookstore or USM Press. Very cheap only, RM58 per copy - how about supporting a poor professor? If you want a teaser, read the free copy when it was only a report.

(Left photo) That's me receiving a copy of my own book (The Construction of a Constructivist : Learning How to Teach without Teaching) from the Honorable Governor of Penang, Tun Abbas Abdul Rahman (in light blue batik). He was quite amused by the title and the fact that I went up to shake his hands so many times. Incidentally, Tun Abbas was once a school teacher so I remarked to him that "this is his area" and he said yes.

Do you know where they entertained the VVIPs after the launch? At the KFC right next to the launching area. These guys at the fastfood joint must have been ecstatic to have the Governor for lunch. And what did the rest of the guests, including the authors, get to eat? Kueh.

I did a little shopping after that. Got myself a cute little wireless router for my office (RM199) so that I can work with multiple computers. Then went for lunch at a place selling various types of laksa at the basement of the mall. Nice idea. Friendly staff. Efficient service. Good presentation. I had Lontong Johor. First sight ... nice! Lots of vegetables. My kind of food. Taste? As Randy would say "it was just OK for me man. I wasn't blown away".

And then I went to the supermarket to buy some Washington Red Apples. I had promised some ladies in my office to buy them some apples. I am promoting healthy living, you see?

Talk is good - conversations continues

I spent the whole of yesterday talking. OK, I didn't talk all the time. Sometimes I listened too. And I had kueh for morning tea (which I usually don't), skipped lunch because my research team members didn't feel the need to go for lunch after eating all the kueh. And then there was more kueh and more talk in the afternoon. So, that wasn't a very healthy diet but hey, I loved the kueh. Let's not do it too often though.

Picture on the left is my office at the Corporate and Sustainable Development Division. We used to have these research discussions at my old office at HBP but we wanted a change of view. See? I even had the blinds open when using the LCD projector. Ah, as I said we had kueh (local delicacies) and Chinese tea. What are we working on? We are trying to show the value of heritage properties in George Town. Its a research project funded by NAPREC (a research agency under the Insitute of Valuation). What have we found out? Ahh, we are not telling yet but we are very excited that we have accomplished most of what we have set out to do.

And then we had more talk, in the afternoon. There's this young lady in the office who seems to enjoy treating the staff to kueh, once in a while. I asked "why?", "what's the occassion?". She said "saja", which loosely translates to "I just feel like it". It reminds of the movie (or was that a saying) about "random acts of kindness". And then we spent sometime chit-chatting, you know casual "unimportant things", getting to know each other a little better. And then we turned to more serious stuff like the weekend retreat planned for 23/24 June 2007 at the Harvard Club. OK, not that one in the US of A. This one is in the northern state of Kedah about one hour plus away. One of the things we want to know was why are we going there? Team-building, some said. Fine! Do we have a problem to solve? Of course we all do. But, hey, we don't have to focus on the negatives, only. We should also promote our strengths. What is it we like about our collegues? Our work culture? The processes and systems in the office? How can we build on our strengths and work to eliminate our weaknesses?

But, my family members say I "talk" too much on my blog. So, bye ... for now. Going to my book launch. Will bring you pictures.