Thursday, 31 December 2009

And now the end is near ...

Yes, 2009 is coming to a close. Only less than eight hours to 2010.

Despite making a nuisance of myself and behaving idiotically, I still have the "job" - for three more years.

I have made this blog almost too personal, even though it is linked to my job. But I am sure you must have wondered many a times - WHY? If you still don't get it, I am actually happy. If you do get it, even if only once in a while, I am delighted. If you are now wondering what the hell (pardon the exuberance) I am going on about, that makes me grin.

I have considered divorcing my personal ramblings from the official "reports" and "comments" so that I can get really really really personal. So, if you miss all the idiosyncracies of my journeys around the world or my noodles and porridge and fondue ... and stuff ... it will most probably be hiding somewhere in the cyberworld.

I will not badger all the miscreants who violate the "no polystyrene" ruling on campus. I won't bother those who continue to pollute and use disposal bottles and containers; and print useless reports of abstracts and proceedings. Not on this forum. Someone else has that job now.

I will redirect my energy elsewhere. I will "conquer" new frontiers ... so to speak. Are you with me?

Those are my resolutions for 2010.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Almost first class

7:34 am, 15 Dec 2009, on the upper deck of the train from Geneve to Zurich Frughafen, the airport. There is wifi available but you gotta pay. It’s already been about an hour on the train. Another two hour and 20 minutes to go. All trains go to the airport.

Swiss is famous for its precision timepieces (watches, if you please). And the public transport are also precision time pieces. Trains arrive and leave on the dot, according to schedule. Well, almost. Yesterday on the return trip from Gruyeres, the train was late by more than 5 minutes. This morning, I looked at the clock at the station. It was only 5:35 am when the train started moving. It was three minutes early.

I look around, many are reading, others dozing while sitting up.  A girl is stretched out on the circular couch. Yes, it’s very cozy up here in the train. It’s pitch dark outside even though it’s 7:41 am. OMG, I just realised it’s 7:41 am and I have been on the train for 2 hours! I slept for 2 hours and thought I just doze off for awhile. So, another hour or so left of the train ride. My god, I could have slept all the way to St Gallen (that’s where the train is headed after the Zurich airport).

Just bought a coffee from the passing vendor. Freshly made with a portable machine. Not your stale coffee from a termos. Now I can have my breakfast with Knackebrot, some kind of cracker I hijacked from the hotel near the Zurich airport on the way to Bucharest.

Public transport is a “right”, in Geneve. If you have to take a very very early morning flight from Geneve airport, there is a taxi service which you can call and you pay only 15 Francs (which I assume is dirt cheap). The city will pick up the balance of the bill. Why? Because the city does not provide public transport for you to the airport at those ungodly hours. You can get around practically everywhere with the trains, trams and buses. Coming in to Geneve at the airport, remember to pick up a free public transport ticket, valid for 80 minutes. A ticket costs 3 Francs, valid for 60 minutes. You can get a day ticket from 9 am onwards for 7 francs. A whole day ticket is 10 francs. Pretty expensive but locals get concessions by buying a yearly subscription which entitles them to half-price on all tickets; all tickets anywhere. It’s all based on the honour system. I have nevered been checked for tickets while on the trams. Only on the long distance trains do the conductors come around. And they are so nice. Bon jour. Merci. Everyone’s friendly. Even when we were doing a two hour walk in the countryside of Gruyeres. Everyone passing by greets each other with a smile and bon jour (it reminds me so much of “Beauty and the Beast”; you know the singing at the town fountain?). That’s why they have the second longest lifespan in the world, after Japan.

8:07 am, and still dark outside. It’s winter. It’s been freezingly cold the last 2 days. My niece, Janice, says the weather has been “unacceptable”. Yesterday, the temperature dipped to -3 degree C when we were out in the countryside. We visited the Medieval walled city of Gruyeres, perched on a hilltop. A one-street town which is totally dependent on the tourist dollar. You get not just a sense of history but lovely panoramas and vistas. And the air is so fresh, except near one farm house where we smelled manure – cow dung for sure. This area is milk country and famous for it’s cheese. You can see cheese being made and the audio and video guide is quite fun. It comes with a small sample of cheese, aged 3 months, 6 months and 9 months (I think). It’s true. Milk can taste weird if the cows eat rubbish. Here, the cows get a variety of nice smelling grass and wild flowers. I love the exhibit where you can smell the wild flowers and plants which the cows eat with the grass.

For lunch we had fondue and resti. Fondue is a pot of boiling cheese (they add other stuff in it too). You take pieces of bread or tiny potatoes and dip in. Not bad but I wouldn’t have it as the only dish for lunch. Resti is also very traditional. Shredded potatoes underneath (baked), ham and a fried egg (sunny side) on top. And beer of course. And then we missed the 1 pm bus to the ski area. Next bus 4 pm. They reduced the frequency of the buses because there’s no tourist around - makes sense for them and good for (less) global warming. The snow is about a month late. So, we went for a long walk, recommendations of the lady at the tourist information. Met many walkers, old and young. And I wondered where they came from. Locals? Or tourists? It does show that the people are health conscious. Quality of life is not just the appliances you can buy for your homes.

8:29 am, now at the Zurich HB station. Then to Zurich airport. People get on and get off along the route. I guess they are travelling between cities to get to their offices. They all seem very relaxed, calm. There’s no mad rush. That’s because of the Swiss precision time pieces. You know you will never be late (at least not too late) when you travel by public transport. Going to stop for now and get ready to disembark at the airport stop. I shall be back.

10:49 am, on the ground in plane, flight SQ345 to Singapore. I am glad I chose a window seat this time. Zurich is saying goodbye to me with pretty snowflakes outside my window. It had snowed a few times in Geneve. When I was outside the “Broken Chair” sculpture outside the UN building heading for the Red Cross Museum, it snowed. I haven’t seen snow for a long time so I wasn’t sure if it was snow or rain.

1 minute to flight time. 10:54 am. Time to close my notebook for take-off.

3:35 am, Singapore time, somewhere 11,200 metres above the Andaman Islands; travelling at almost 900 kph; distance travelled almost 9,000 km. Another 2 hours or so to touch down at Changi. Despite the delay of almost half an hour at Zurich to de-ice the wings, we will arrive a little ahead of schedule. Celine Dion on the headphones, inspiring with the Titanic theme song. The lights have been switched on throughout the cabin. It’s time to feed the passengers again. The food is so-so but the Singapore Girls are gracious and obliging. Just ask and ye shall have. The entertainment sucks. Well at the least the movies are uninspiring whether English, Arabic or Hindi. I gave many of them 5 or 10 minutes and gave up. Watched only one full movie; “Beyond Reasonable Double” starring Michael Douglas. Poor acting. Poor story. Probably the most memorable part of the movie was at the very end of the movie as the very pissed off heroine was about to leave the house (with the police siren and lights flashing just outside the door) and she turned and stood at the door way and said : “One last thing”. A short pause. “Fuck you”. I thought that was an appropriate label for the movie and the acting (including dear Mike).

My gracious hostess just asked me to choose my breakfast. I asked “which is better?”. She preferred the fried rice, “but its up to you”. I went with the fried rice. “Did you manage to get some sleep?”, she enquired. “Yes I did. It’s almost like first class here”. She smiled and waved at the comfortable nest I have made with the three adjoining seats I had commandeered. Time to see if she was right about the fried rice. Oh, the planes now come with plug-in points to juice up your notebooks. Next thing they should have is free wifi. Let’s see which Airline figures out that first.

4:16 am. The fried rice was a good choice, but more so for the two or three siau pai chai (green leavy vegetables). I did have Chinese noodles on the last night in Geneve and it was quite good and according to my niece the price at 17 francs is cheap. We also had Vietnamese Pho the previous night. Of course I always give first preference to local food at the beginning of my trips. And then I crave for Chinese food.

Geneve has been fun though it was quite a lightning visit. Didn’t walk as much because of the extreme cold. I did three museums on the first day while Janice had to attend a Sunday strategy session at MSF (Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders). The Red Cross Museum cost 10 francs but it was worth it. I renewed my connection with the Red Cross or in our case, the Red Crescent. I was a member a long time ago in high school. In fact, I was the Chairman of my school’s Red Crescent Society. But I don’t think we did justice to the humanity and humanitarian ideals of the original founders. All we did was to be on duty during sports day in case somebody had cramps or collapse or was hurt. Yes, we knew all about Henry Dunant and the Battle of Solferino but seeing the exhibits puts things in context. The message of humanity and humanitarianism came through loud and strong. Henry was so moved by what he saw in the battlefield that he wrote a book on Solferino. And then sent the book with letters to key people to urge the convening of an international conference to set up a body to help the victims of war. He was the founder and mover. But as the effort progressed, he was ostracised for the failure of a bank of which he was a director. He was literally chased away but he did not give up. He continued to organised his own efforts to help victims of war. Many years later, a journalist tracked him to a hospital. He was then “rehabilitated” and honoured for his pioneering work in setting up the Red Cross. He became the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The sign of the red cross on a white background (the Swiss flag) is synomynous with peace and neutrality and service to humanity. But of course Switzerland is also a “land of crooks”. What?! Apart from the precision timepieces, the Swiss army knife, and the glorious chocolates, Switzerland is also famous for its legendary secret bank accounts. (Most) people who have secret bank accounts obviously are hiding from the law right? And those who abate them are what the lawyers would call accomplices, right? OK, lighten up. It’s a half joke.

But chatting with my niece about her work with MSF has been enlightening. Running humanitarian efforts is monumental work involving hundreds of millions of dollars. It requires ingenuity and perseverance and political muscles. Take the HIV effort for instance. Because the drugs are patented, it used to cost about USD10,000 to treat a patient a year. MSF then worked with a drug manufacturer in India to produce a combination cocktail of three drugs at a fraction of the cost. What fraction? Less than 5% of the original cost! (i.e. USD350). How’s that possible? Cost of production is lower in India is one thing but MSF also employs Indian lawyers to challenge the drug patents in India. But what happens if the drug companies win the patent registration in India? It seems that the law in India allows the country to force the drug companies to give them a special license to produce the drugs (at lower royalties, I presume). (Kelly Clarkson now in my ears).

MSF is also spearheading an effort to pressure drug companies to put their patents into a pool so that drug manufacturers can produce combination drugs at cheaper costs. Typically a HIV patient needs a cocktail of 3 to 5 drugs from different companies at very high prices. Very powerful people (donors) are behind this effort. Of course there is also strong opposition from donors who are out to protect their Intellectual Property rights (notable ones being those behind the Windows. Get it? Windows?).

Running a world-wide humanitarian effort requires hundreds of millions, perhaps billions. It also requires political clout. And the right people pushing the effort. And lots of imagination too. I learnt that many countries committed to contribute 2 or 3 dollars for every plane ticket that is sold. The money is put into a pool and recipient countries can draw from this pool to buy drugs to treat HIV patients in their respective countries. I wonder if Singapore and Malaysia are one of the donor nations? And I wonder how USM can help the bottom-billion?

5:09 am. About a half hour to landing. Time to stop. Will try to upload at Changi. In the meantime, an early Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Thank you to all for reading. And thank you for your comments on the blog. I read them all even though I do not normally response. I accept whatever point of views you have expressed.

 A vista from the old castle.

Beautiful sunlight shining down on the castle.

Janice with fondue and resti for lunch at Gruyeres Castle, a one-street medieval town.

Health tourism? Long walks in the freezing cold gives you a spa as well. Your face feels cold and fresh.

 uploaded at Changi Airport, 7:04 am 16th Dec 2009

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The last chapter

8:11 am, Sinaia Hotel. My last entry before I leave at 10 am to catch my afternoon flight to Geneve for some R&R.

It did snow, while I was talking at the Plenary so I missed it. It snowed a teeny little bit again after dinner. But the bottomline is, no early white christmas.

Every single one has left, except Campbell, Mihaela and me. So we went to a Romanian restaurant last night. Embarrassingly I did not have any Lei to pay my share. They didn't accept credit cards either so Campbell footed the bill. And then we adjourned to an Irish Pub for beers and "black dog" (guinness stout) - which I paid with credit card, happily. And what did we talk about? Romanian politics. All it needed was a simple trigger. "So you guys have 2 Presidents now after the election?". And that launched Mihaela into a political analysis and commentary. We talked about the just concluded workshop, of course. We did a post-post workshop debriefing.

The workshop was high energy in the final run. The final presentations were excellent (especially my Panel, and I am NOT biased). But one young man stood up during the Q&A and said "don't be too happy with yourselves because you all did nothing extra-ordinary". Another member of the floor responded by saying that it is the process we should be proud of. What we have produced is only the tip (of the iceberg?) and much more work has to be done.

Would I have structured it differently? Yes, definitely. In particularly, I would have preferred that the participants had sufficient time and exposure to understanding scenario planning first. I would have also preferred that the trends and driving forces be addressed collectively before launching into creating the scenarios. But one thing you have to do when involved in a project is to go with the flow. Many things are not within your control. Many factors in the decision-making are not always obvious but nevertheless crucial for making the event a "success".

What was amazing was that we had six facilitators each doing it our way. We did not second guess each other. We didn't try to out do each. We did not intervene or interfere (too much). We kept the faith, so to speak.

After attending the debriefing and giving my inputs, and having a further understanding what the January 2010 session is all about, I have decided that I will most likely skip that event. But I am sure it is not the last chapter of my involvement with the Romanian foresight project. It has been a absolutely wonderful experience, making new friends. And being able to put into practice the constructivist paradigm during the panel workshop, and achieving resounding success, was really worth the trip.

 Panel One participants (many missing; it was a last minute spontaneous photo shoot), with facilitators, right after the final plenary. I believe I made all of them very happy. They will be on a natural high for at least the weekend.

The first slide of the WHWU (pronounced "Wow University"). Right up the the last minute, I wasn't sure how the presentation would turn out. They were still nitty picking on choice of words. And there was not idea whether the role-play would materialise. I left them to sort it out. In the end, it was a superb presentation.
Brave young man.
Philine, with mic, one of the international faci's.
 Adrian, the chief, responding to the floor at the final plenary.
Mihaela, right, at the debriefing.
 Me, Campbell and Riel at the debriefing.

Me and Ozcan, the MU winger, fellow faci. The headphones are for simultaneous translations.

 My Romanian lunch yesterday.

Peles Castle, built by the first Emperor of Romania. This formed the catalyst for the town of Sinaia. Took this photo on a walk yesterday afternoon. So far, have not encountered any bloodsucking creatures.

Friday, 11 December 2009

My job is (well) done

4:37 am, Sinaia. Was invited last night for drinks with a retired couple, the husband a professor and the lady used to work with the World Bank. She was in my Panel and was the futures teacher of Sohail, our USM guru on futures. (correction : Ana Maria and Sohail were colleagues).  It was straight to bed by 10:30 and up again by 3 something. I went out to the balcony and looked down at the digital display. Damn thing keeps saying its 3 degree C. I need it to go down to below zero otherwise I won't see snow.

Yesterday afternoon we had a plenary where each of the panels presented their ideas, i.e. scenarios for the futures of higher education in Romania. When I saw the first slide from my panel members, I was stunned. The transformation over lunch was incredible. After the session, as I walked in, the panel members cheered. A few came over and offered their hand. "We have voted you best facilitator", they said. "Thank you, thank you, but you guys were incredible. You must have been using three quarters of your right brains". Yes, it ended well. And after that, they were all pumped up. The group dynamics suddenly shifted. They were now one big team, instead of three separate smaller groups. I think they have also inspired the other groups in many ways, especially in making impact from the presentations.

But it was not all smooth sailing. You will find, quite often, some one, or a few, participants who are vocal, opinionated, loud and don't agree to how things are moving, or what is said, or how it is said. I once attended a two week training course on teaching approaches and I was a constant pain in the a@se. So I understand disruptive behavior. I told my local counterpart that for a constructivist workshop, chaos is necessary. Out the confusion comes a tremendous amount of energy to work. The key is to stay cool. Negotiation is all part of the deal. You can still assert authority without telling people what to do. Very often, vocal opposition comes from individuals who have a long connection with the issues raised. The other key is not to get all stressed out. Apparently one other panel was even more "terror" - the facilitator fainted during the session - from a combination of stress and no sleep (absolutely no sleep the previous night).

This morning they will make the final presentations. Many of them have been working long hours to put up a good show - most of them are the young ones who want to make long lasting impressions for their futures. Then my job will be done. In fact, my job for this session is already done. But this is not the end. The project still has many rounds to go. Will I be back? Well, it's in my contract to come back in January 2010. But it will depend on whether I can work around the teaching and other duties once the semester starts again after Christmas.

  Fireworks to mark the start of the Christmas celebration yesterday evening, just outside my window. There was a "turning on the Christmas lights ceremony" and the whole town showed up. The streets were packed with people.

 The sun came out at mid-day. On the left at the end of the street is a lovely park.

 A creative work from Irina.
 My ladies, after the triumphant presentation at the plenary.
All pumped up and ready to steal the show at the final presentation today (pics below)

Thursday, 10 December 2009

My window to the world

7:13 am, Sinaia, Romania. My third day in Sinaia. The travel from Penang was pleasant and uneventful. The overnight stay in Zurich at the Hotel Apart (operated by Hilton) was nice. Three star, nice simple deco, very nice staff. And marvellous croissant for breakfast. Zurich airport was impressive. Whether you travel by business or economy, you check-in at the kiosk. Excellent technology. All done in about 30 seconds or so, including printing your baggage tag. And then you just drop off the bag at the counter. Hhm, perhaps one day, that also will be unnecessary. At the departure gate, I saw a guy putting his handphone on the 3-D barcode scanner. Wow, impressive. He downloaded his boarding pass on his handphone and then used that for boarding. Ah, but the technology did want to talk to each other, so they had to print a hardcopy boarding pass for him.

Coming from Otopeni Airport to Sinaia was in style. They sent a professional driver with a spanking new Mercedes. Young guy, a little too hard on the gas pedal but quite competent.

 Looking out my window on the 4th floor of Hotel Sinaia. It's freezing cold outside but as you can see, no snow, yet. Let it snow, let snow, let it snow.  Before I go home.

There's about 70 or 80 participants at the workshop here. Some very high level people including 3 or 4 ex-ministers. I anchored a panel on university and human capital. Being the constructivist that I am, and try to be, I offered them choices. Do you want to use this method or that method? Do you want me to present my slides on you want to talk? Well, they wanted me to choose, 'cause they say they don't know anything about the methods. Fine. They wanted to talk, fine. The local participants are very opinionated and protective of their turf. Nothing new. We just deal with it. Throughout yesterday, I heard words like "push the button", "they need to be more creative". So, there's lot of pressure. A lot is at stake. But people can't just suddenly be creative. It needs time. Push the wrong button or push it at the wrong time, everyone just shuts down. So, I looked at the work yesterday and I am pretty happy with the outcome. Talking about outcomes, same problem the world over (?). "Give us a sample", "tell us what it looks like". OK, here's some example. Hopefully, it doesn't kill creativity. So, we continue to learn by copying.

But today, I will push some buttons. Shake them up a little. Will they abandon their hardwork and move into unfamiliar territory? We'll see.

There are four panel facilitators (for four panels) and two roaming facilitators (so far, they sit and listen; but we have been warned they will be coming to interrupt today; let's see where it goes). All the facilitators are not from Romania. Some people questioned why? The answer is so that there is no baggage. We international facilitators don't bother too much whether the participant is who's who in Romania. If they talk too much, we pull them back.

At my panel. Note the translation booth on the left. Most of the time the local participants prefer to discuss in Romanian.
Introducing the facilitators. I am behind the camera lah.

Campbell telling people to dress-down ... and get to work. I am sure they all still be in suit and tie today.
The man, the driving force behind the foresight project in Romania. A very "people person", high on interpersonal intelligence.

Meeting to talk about individual approaches. We were pretty much given the licence to do it our way. In the hope that we come out with outside the box ideas or surprises.

p.s. the uploading of photos to the blog is like "zip", done.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Last flight of the year

Changi, Terminal 3, 12.55 pm. Changi seems like home already. Free WiFi. Place to sit and charge the notebook.

Got a text message wishing me good journey ...  and hoping to see me in one of the offices which I am "passionate about", when I return. I have getting concerned queries about my "future" lately. Yah, I made it explicitly known that some else should be brought in to bring some new energy and ideas. 700 lecturers in USM, and no one to take over? Best man for the job? .... Well, thank you for your concerns and vote of confidence.

While preparing for the Sinaia futures workshop, I went to some sites to test what kind of person I am. Left brain or right brain? Creativity or dock? So here's the results. But don't believe tooooo much. You can fool the testers.

I am more right-brained than left.

On creativity I scored 85 points, average being about 64 points. So damn creative right?

MJ giving me the sceptical look?

BTW, I am looking for a dreamy early white christmas. Apparently, many of my "old" classmates from High School Muar are taking their families and heading for Beijing in the hope of finding snow. Wrong direction, you guys. You want snow, come follow me.