Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Talking again

Yah, what's new? We academics spend alot of time talking. Its 7.12 pm. Am at KLIA. Two bowls of noodles already in the tummy. Killing time til the 8.20 to Penang. I must say I am not doing too well for my carbon footprint. It's quite insane. We travel long distances and spew tons of carbon and then speak for 10 or 15 minutes.

Came down this morning to present a paper at the IRERS 2008 at PWTC. Had to come. The organisers of the symposium are also the sponsors for our research project. But I was tired of staying in hotels so I came down on the first flight and then took a cab direct from the airport to the venue. Thought I would never get there in time to present my paper - the traffic was terrible. Luckily, I was the last speaker out of five. And I ended up with more time than the allocated slot because the earlier speakers were all short and sweet - ehmm, the speeches I mean. Ehmm, but they were sweet too. And short, I think.

As presentations goes, it was quite relaxing. The audience was friendly. One asked me what the new Chief Minister of Penang's intentions were with regards to urban conservation in George Town. My cheeky response was that the question was a difficult one because I don't know the CM personally. But I did say that the CM's public murmurings appears to indicate he is supportive of conservation.

Lunch was just passable. Nothing like KLCC (the convention centre).

Coming back to KLIA I took the LRT but got a little confused. I forgot that I have to switch trains at Masjid Jamek. And when I reached Masjid Jamek, it was another round of figuring out where to get the connecting train. Signage is real lousy, made worst by defective memory.

Wow, the train was really crowded. I had to be constantly aware of my wallet and handphone in my pocket. And also watching out for my backpack with my notebook in it. If you have a big bag travelling to the airport, avoid the peak hour.

Looking around I am quite amazed at the number of people in the lounge. Nobody here seems worried about food prices going up - everybody's eating. Did you know that one-third of the food bought by Londoners are thrown away? A speaker from UK thought that it would be great if we could convert those food waste to biofuel.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Restless youths

It is 12.29 noon at a 5-star hotel along the Batu Ferringhi Beach. I was told 10 minutes ago to go for lunch first and come back at 2.30 pm for the wrapping up session. What am I doing here? Ahh, I am not supposed to tell you anything (confidential stuff lah). But I am still full from the morning breakfast. So I am killing time.

Yesterday morning 5 USM students, a staff and I went to a secondary school in Parit Buntar to conduct our White Coffin campaign (at the invitation of one of their teachers). While thinking about how to reach these youths, I came up with the bright idea of getting the students to participate in the learning. But how? After some thought, I came up with the idea of putting various types of take-away packaging on a long table and ask the students to vote on which they think is good for the environment and which are not. I discussed with the Team and in my head, the "instructions" were clear. Give each student two red and two green dots (stickers), red for not good for environment while green is OK. We would do it twice, before and after. When we were about to start the activity, I discovered that we would first give them the red dot at the beginning before we start the presentations and then give them the green dot at the end of the presentation. I was quite stunned. And we didn't have enought stickers to give them both red and green at the beginning and at the end. So, one of the students suggested with split the dots into two. Brilliant. That solved the problem and contributed to less consumption.

But I seems to do that a lot. Just the day before, I was responding to an email from Australia. And pop came back profuse apologies. Apparently my email response sounded that I was offended. OMG, I quickly had to fight the fire. No. No. No, I was not offended at all.

And then no so long ago, my ex-student made a revelation that they didn't know what I was talking about when she was my student. Wow, but let's leave it at that for the moment. Afterall, I claim to be a constructivist- it's not so important what I say or mean, it is what you make of it.

Back to the youths. They were Forms 2 and 4 students (12 and 14 year olds). The session started with the voting which went well. But when I started my powerpoint presentation, I started to sense the restlessness. The hall was hot, I was sweating profusely. The kids were cross-leggedly on the hard floor. Some were seated at the side with an acute view of the screen but quite contented (and declined the invitation to move for a better view; it does say something, right? about what they think of the presentation). The sound system went off and on and the echo was bad. So, half an hour into the presentation I was at my wits end wondering what to do. Luckily, my assistance suggested small group discussions with the USM students leading the sessions.

And then I asked the school kids (OK, students) whether they wanted to vote again. Some didn't. Most wanted it. And it was truly amazing. When we compared the results of voting (before and after), it was dramatic. In the before vote, many still voted green for polystyrene and plastic mineral water bottles. The after vote was all red (except for a single green vote) for these two items. Same thing with the tupperware containers - the before vote was some red but the after vote was overwhelmingly green. Even the paper wrapping got a bashing after the session. And plastic wraps were definitely red. And surprisingly, the banana leaf for the nasi lemak got a few red votes.

Lesson learned. Forget long powerpoint presentations (maybe short 15 minutes is fine). Go for small group discussion. Give them activities to do.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

1 + 2 = 5

It's the end of the semester and end of the academic year, again. Time flies.

Usually, at this time, we gather the students from our M.Sc. Planning Studio together for a chit-chat. OK, for a reflective session so that we understand better what the students went through in their learning journey. It is also very much for the students to reflect and internalise their learning. Call it viva if you like. Or last chance to get that 4.0. We not only sing praises of each other but also try to poke some holes in places we seldom venture.

When I got the studio, fashionably late, I noticed immediately that they were all dressed with white tops (well, almost all). Ah, that should have been a clue. Without exception everyone of the learners were effusive about the great experience that they have had over the last 2 semester working as a TEAM. So, we talked about teamwork and groupwork, and how they are different. We talked about many things including professionalism and corruption. But mostly we ended up talking about teamwork.

So I threw them a curve ball and talked about Gestalt's Theory. About the "whole is more than the sum of its parts". And I asked them to give me a specific example to demonstrate how the product (the studio report) reflected this "theory". We tried very hard. We struggled. And the students acknowledged that this was more difficult that the exam questions. Yes, team work is about sharing, about collaboration, about picking each other up, about many things. But mostly, it should be about "1+2 not equal to 3". It's got to be more than that. But what is that? We didn't give up but decided that it was time for the mee udang (prawn noodles) promised at the beginning of the academic year. So we went to Gertak Sanggul. Pretty pricey with three big prawns and a tiny portion of yellow noodles for RM15 per plate. Tastes different from the one at Sg Dua on the Mainland but it was OK. It seems the secret ingredient is blended bake beans (Hassim told us).

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Think Tulip, Think Holland

Ah, still have more than one hour before my flight back to Penang. Thank goodness for free Internet at KLIA.

So, here's a tip for anyone of you intending to visit the famous Keukenhof Tulip Gardens about one hour from Amsterdam. There's the basic trip which takes 4 and half hours. Alternatively, the flyers suggest that if your love flowers and gardens and love photography, you should take the 7 hours or 9 hours package. Costs more of course. Dilemma, right? Let me put you out of your misery. Take the short trip. Don't get me wrong. The Keukenhof is amazing. All the tour company does is just drop you off at the garden and the bus goes back to pick up the next batch of tourist. The guide doesn't do anything at the gardens and food is not included. OK, I must stop whining. It's a beautiful garden but you really have other places to see too.

Well yes, tulip is very much associated with Holland but its not native to the country. In fact it was a wild flower imported from Turkey in the 17th Century. And you probably know already, tulip flowers are not major export of Holland. They have to let the flowers bloom and they harvest and sell the bulbs.

Weather was gloomy throughout my 2 and half hours on the garden itself so the photography was a little wanting. After you have taken 100 shots, it gets a little tiring. But I have seen tulip gardens before at the Skagit Valley in Washington State. So, this was a little nostalgic.

Well, like I said, you have other things you want to do or see. That's what I did in the afternoon. I managed to get in one hour of cycling - rental cost 3.50 euro per hour or 12 euro for whole day. You need to provide a photo ID and 50 euro security deposit. Being kinda of short, the lowest sadle was still too high for me to sit and have my feet touching the ground so that was little tricky especially as I was about to turn in to return the bike. The pedestrians (especially visitors) do take notice of bicyclists so I had to brake to avoid hitting one of them and a bike from behind gave me a little bum. But, all's well.

There used to be more than 10,000 windmills in Holland. Now there are only 1,000 and most them are not operational, being taken over by electric pumps. The windmills were central to the agriculture of Holland. The land use to cultivate crops were actually lakes which had been pumped out using this sustainable (renewal energy) technology.

She must be close to 80 but still active and leading an economically productive life.
Bought some grapes from her and she even washed it for me.
During the GUNI conference, it was noted that by 2030 or so, about one third of the people of Europe would aged 60 and over.

Would you believe that I had noodles three nights in a row in Amsterdam at three different Chinese Restaurants in the Red Light District? That's how crazy I am about noodles. Were they any good? Yah, they were all authentic, not westernised.

Amsterdam, bicycling capital of Europe – sex capital of the World?

7.25 am 6 April Sunday - just landed at KLIA waiting for connecting flight to Penang. Best Airport in the World (but I can login in to Yahoo Messenger). Below was written a few days ago. Having difficulty uploading photos here so will try that another time - Tried a different location of KLIA and finally managed to upload some photos.

3rd April 2008 10.30 pm – second night in this self-acclaimed tolerant and liberated city. You can smoke weed and other stimulants even though they are illegal substances. But the cops will tolerate it if its for “personal use”. Sex is all over the streets. Well, at least the bollards which look like penises are all over the city. And of course, prostitution is legal, that’s why Amsterdam is famous for its Red Light District. It’s even marked very clearly on the tourist maps. Gays marriages are legal. And the bicycles, they are amazing. They number more than people and the city has put big signs everywhere proclaiming “amsterdam cycling to sustainability”. If any city can claim that it is Amsterdam. But recycling? I don’t think so. I see them chuck their cardboard boxes on the sidewalk and the garbage collector throws them all into the back of the truck with the rest of the thrash.

Everything (just about) is expensive in Amsterdam. Starting with this room I am in now. Cost 65 euros without breakfast and its bare basic. I even have to pay another 3 euro per day if I watch the room TV. Don’t even think about free wifi. In Barcelona, I paid average about 60 euro (the rates varies over the week) and the room was better and there was free wifi.

Now food, very confusing. Can’t figure out if there is any authentic Dutch food around. It’s very cosmopolitan but Chinese seems a favourite including a very popular Wok to Walk chain (P.S. I actually tried it too - verdict? Lots of fire and action but not to my taste). Two nights here and had noodles soup twice at two Chinses restaurants – they are all coincidentally located in the Red Light District. The point is, the Red Light District is not just about sex. There’s lots of restaurants and bars and other shops. Most visitors are just curious tourists.

You may walk around with a map but very often, as I have discovered, you just bum into pleasant surprises
Above is the flower market along one of the canals. Those bulbs are huge - I wished they would grow in Malaysia.

The city. Every city I go, I will pound the streets for hours. This morning I started at 9 am and walked until about 3 pm, almost none stop slow walk. Sky was gloomy, so the photography wasn’t that good. And it was freezing cold. I think below 10 C. I had three layers of normal clothes plus 2 jackets and I was still cold. But the cold was great.
What is Amsterdam without the canals. I wouldn't say the canals or the water looked clean but they are definitely not clogged full of floating rubbish. Yes I have seen rubbish (including polystyrene foam) in the smaller canals but I have also noticed that they have excellent street cleaning services. Quite impressive watching the team of two small trucks (one for spraying water and another to vacuum and brush the roads) and 3 or 4 men walking and spraying and sweeping the rubbish to be picked up by the second truck.
Those boats you see in the picture - they look like boathouses but I did not once encounter its inhabitant.

I decided to skip most of the tourist stops. Just walked to soak in the vibes. The city feels very friendly and livable, even though there are signs warning of pick pockets. Had wanted to visit the house that Anne Frank lived but gave it the skip when I saw the long lines. If you ask who is Anne Frank, she was the Jewish girl who hid in a house from the Nazis and during that time she kept a diary (which was later published). She was eventually captured. During her stay in the house, her only link to the outside world was a tree behind the house. Now there is a movement working to preserve the tree including putting up support structures for the aged tree.

Lot’s of museums around, but I decided to spend 10 euro only on the Van Gogh museum and it was worth it. Poor guy didn’t even live to be 40. Shot himself in the chest – he felt he had lost his artistic flair and was going crazy. It was only after his death that critics recognised him as a modern artist. There are some nice paintings using his “pointilism” technique. Coming out of the museum I bought a hotdog from a stand outside for 2.50 euro with everything on it. Excellent lunch.

Do you think you can guess the main business along these streets?
Well, it was taken when there wasn't a crowd. Go on a weekend and it's full of curious tourists and visitors.
Yes, its part of the infamous Red Light District.

What’s all the sex about? There’s the sex museums – visit one for 3 euro, interesting but not so exciting. Sex shops, are of course everywhere, not just in the Red Light District. What do they sell? Ah, I think if you search the web you will get all the answers you want. Then there’s the live shows – very pricey like 30 – 50 euros. If you convert that to ringgit its 150 – 200 RM. Then there's the ladies in cubicles wearing skimpy outfits trying to attract customers. It’s very cold so they stay behind glass doors. As I said, there are more curious tourist than customers. Young and old from all over the world come to see this cultural oddity (oops, no offence meant). People seems to accept the happenings here as being “normal” or perhaps a novelty. I am sure that when they go back to their own countries they won’t be walking leisurely through their own red light district. Say, I didn’t see a single male prostitute on parade – why is that?

Bummer, I did not get to go bicycling. Maybe I can still get a few hours after I come back from Keukenhof tulip garden.

11.36 pm – time to rest my weary legs.

For one brief moment while I was walking the streets, the sun peeked out to provide a photo opportunity.
The bicycles are everywhere and the police seems to have given up the fight against bicycle theft.
They just advise you to double-lock the bike to something permanent. And the bikes look deceptively "normal" but they are actually quite powerful with gears to climb the small inclines. I did manage to try out a rental for one hour on my last day. It was quite fun but I kept going around in circles. Sometimes it appears the cyclists are quite reckless but I only saw one incident in which a lady cyclist stopped to give a motorist a piece of her mind for not respecting "her right of way". Yeah, cyclists are king of the roads. Even very old people, some probably in their eighties or at least late 70s are cycling in the city and for recreation in the countryside.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008


What's GUNI? It stands for Global University Network for Innovation. And UPC? In Spanish it is Universitas Politechnica Catalonia. In English it is translated to Technical Universiti of Catalonia. There are host for the GUNI Conference on Higher Education for Social and Human Development which I am attending now. My big boss asked me to represent USM and I submitted an abstract for a paper presentation. And then I looked at their website and discovered than more than 350 abstracts were submitted. And they only had space for about 52 presentations during the 6 parallel session workshops. Which is only 6 presentations for each workshop. So, I got knocked out. Then they agreed to let me put up a poster (seems some 300 proposals were also made). And I worked on my poster and submitted the PDF as required. Then about 3 or 4 days before conference, the organisers sent me an email saying (amongst others) ... " regarding your participation at the next GUNI Conference to inform you that we have a space available for presentation at the workshop session on “Higher education for sustainable development”. Taking into account that your paper stands among the best proposals according to the Scientific Committee’s evaluation, we would like to invite you to present your paper at this workshop. We would be honoured to count you among the authors presenting their paper at this workshop". They bold the text, no me. So, I am blowing my own trumpet.

Some 500 participants (including speakers) were listed from about 80 countries. Now that is a huge turnout of a conference where only about 50 or 60 people are allowed to speak ... well, present papers. And this also one of the issues highlighted about academia. We only send academics to conferences if they can justify the trip by presenting a paper. A panelist from India asked "why can't academics come just to listen" to what others have to say? Yes, why? The crowd is different. Some 50 rectors/VCs attended. And alot of very elderly gentlemen and ladies. And they come to listen, to ask questions and offer their opinions.

And guess what, I bumped into the UKM VC, her staff and a senior officer of MoHE. In fact, out of the 6 presentors in our session on higher education for sustainable development, 2 was from Malaysia. And after the workshop we went shopping. Apparently there were some "instructions" from home minister to buy olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and stuff. And then dinner was courtesy of MoHE ... I just tagged along lah.

The hall were the plenary sessions were conducted

On the left outside this picture, they set up a tent for lunch.
I love the reflection on the glass windows from different angles.

We can do this in Malaysia. The place would be steaming hot.
I actually sat down in the shade (what little of it) for lunch yesterday, with the cold wind blowing but it was lovely.

They seek the sun. Students enjoying lunching in the beautiful sunshine. Don't be deceived by the bright sunshine - it was very cold; about 13 or 14 C. I noticed that many of the students eating outside brought their own lunch in containers. Ah, buy UPC has still not banned polystyrene containers. Happily, the conference organisers opted for paper cups instead of the foam.

Beautiful bright sunshine during coffee break. Sorry about my mouth being open at the wrong time.
On my right is one of the high-powered women in Malaysia - the VC of UKM.

Me, on the left, presenting my paper at the GUNI Conference.