Should the word "failure" be used in education?

        One of the worst fears of a student, besides being called into the Principal’s office, is arguably the word “failure”, marked in stark red at the top of a test, like a fire-hot brand pointing accusingly at him or her. This seemingly tortuous word is employed in a few ways within the education system - it may be used as a concept to reflect the academic performance of a student, to grade a physical assignment or test, and even as a spoken criticism used by teachers on under performing students. Education’s purpose, broadly speaking, is to transfer knowledge to students, and a means to gauge the degree to which the student has gained knowledge is through these tests and assignments. The use of this term is important, nonetheless, as part of education - it is important as a grading standard to both students and the school, and also serves as a means for students to improve. Its eradication then, loses its benefits and also creates new problems for education systems.

Opponents of the term’s use would claim that its use as a concept is unfair, because there have been many instances where children have been cast aside as “failures”, though they grow up to succeed eventually. However, the concept of failure is an important one because it is an invariable constant in everyone’s lives - teaching children of it and getting them to experience it is the first step to exposing them to the real world, as one cannot hope to succeed in all their endeavours. Having said this, education which intends to teach students more than just facts but also skills, should incorporate skills such as the ability to deal with these failures in life. The blow to students whenever they encounter failure increases with time, because stakes increase - not only is a matter of a single assignment, but also rejection from job interviews, relationships and the like. Besides, the concept of failure does not vanish merely because the word is used - rather failure is something that permeates through all things competitive. Instead of fearing the word “failure”, the grade “E” becomes the replacement for it, which covertly refers to the failure of the student in that test. Having understood that failure cannot be avoided throughout life, dealing with it head-on by introducing the concept openly to students will teach students to confront their fears, and to improve themselves to prevent another “failure”. The concept of failure is something that must be embraced by students as life’s constant, and they must learn to deal with it appropriately - education cannot seek to hide these important concepts of life from students if it is to achieve its goals of transferring knowledge.

Critics would assert that grading assignments as a “failure” deals too great an emotional blow to growing children, and teachers should refrain from using the term within the educational structure. This would purportedly cause students’ academic performance to drop instead. Despite this claim, the importance of the grade supersedes the emotional loss. the value of the term is most evident in its meaning. Assignments and tests are meant to guide the process of education, because it serves as a measure of the proficiency of the student in a specific area. For instance, a biology test tests the ability of the student to synthesise information given to him about the human body, to interpret graphs, and be able to identify certain traits and symptoms. Hence, a student who is deemed a “failure” in the test has not succeeded in obtaining the skills deemed by his teachers to be important. Not only does this mean that labelling the work submitted by the student to be a “failure” is a fair decision, it also alerts the student to his insufficiency. Besides the school can better understand the groups of people that need help with a particular subject or topic from the grade given. Second, the emotional blow can be softened by different stakeholders. Parents are there to help children along the way, and encourage them to keep trying, as Winston Churchill would advocate - “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. Thus, using “failure” to grade a piece of work is fair and beneficial.

Some would continue to argue that teachers must act as a form of encouragement for their students, and should not label their students as failures, which would cause them to be shunned. Instead, they should give encouraging grades which would instill positive attitudes. While it is true that teachers should not be careless with criticisms, most teachers are responsible with their words, and more often than not the word is meant as a tool for incentivising greater effort from students for them to attain better performances. On the other hand, the elimination of the term “failure” only generates the problem of grade inflation, and decreased standards of education. To relieve themselves of the conundrum of having to give low scores, teachers would decide to reveal answers before a test, give more marks than is due, and award passing grades to even the lowest of scores. This is the reason why Nancy Gibbs, who recently ascended the role of Time’s editor, commented in an article that the American education system often gives students false hopes, as they expect to be competing for the top jobs with their “stellar” results, often the result of artificially inflated grades or extremely easy tests and examinations. Keeping students blind to the globe’s requirements is a huge problem especially in today’s hyper connected, globalised world that requires competition with not just the local students but also those from all around the world. Hence, the forced removal of the term “failure” causes success and achievement to lose its relative meaning, and instead only fosters false hopes that will harm students in the future.

It is as Samuel Beckett, Irish novelist, says “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Only when we acknowledge our failure, can we identify reasons for our insufficiency and resolve these problems. Education should guide us in this direction, for failure is an inescapable situation that will exist, whether or not we use it as a word on assignments or on students’ performance in general. Its absence, however, only generates falsified confidence in students, beckoning them towards failure once they leave school. Therefore, failure should be used in education, both taught as a concept and as a remark to push students towards bettering themselves. 

Hazy Issues in SG

While it is true that haze has not killed many directly, an atmosphere obscured by the suspension of these fine particles can have many other direct and indirect socio-economic consequences on society.

Most obviously, a society will face problems with physical mobility. Due to the haze, visibility drops, and the air quality drops, giving it a singing smell. This discourages people from leaving their homes. This is especially so if the haze comes swiftly and unexpectedly like the one Singapore experienced during the 2013 June holidays. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Environment related issues may seem like an inherent harm, but these issues can bring about greater ills in society as well. 

Most tangibly, health problems arise. Especially when those with breathing problems like asthma and chronic bronchitis leave their homes without the proper precaution like the N95 masks, the perils of the haze are exacerbated. In worse cases like the haze in the South-East Asian region of 1997, a plane collided into a mountainside of Medan, killing all 256 passengers – this was attributed to poor visibility that is coupled with the haze.

This then leads to hospital bed crunches. In the case of Singapore, in the short span of a week or so, the National University Hospital (NUH) has seen a 10% increase in patients, and this caused a lack of beds considering the dengue spike prior to the haze episode. Certainly, experiencing these illnesses affects society’s quality of living in general.

Down the line, government expenditure on healthcare rises consequentially for the public is unsatisfied with the lack of beds due to the spike in health-related cases. Recognising that budget is limited and that we cannot “have the cake and eat it”, this health expenditure comes at an opportunity cost – it would mean less spending on other areas like housing or transport. These are all the indirect consequences of the haze that one cannot physically experience.

Besides health, social interaction is compromised as well – most directly people cannot attend go outdoors to meet friends or engage in personal activities like exercise. This may seem very much minor, but these small things add up to alter the way of life of the community for the worse. It is also worth noting that the extension of the haze is proportional to the limits placed on the choices of the people.

That’s not all there is to the haze – on top of health-related issues, there are economic consequences as well. Most obviously, tourism drops. Hotel rooms, travel groups and flights are cancelled, bringing tangible economic losses that, once again, are proportional to the duration of the haze. However, more insidiously is the impact on economic work in and of itself. People are less willing to go outdoors to work, more likely to call in sick, and more likely to give excuses, legitimate or not. This is pernicious not because of the pure number of hours lost, but that coupled with the fact that it is a sudden occurrence – the 30 hours lost, for instance, is not spread evenly over the entire year, but rather is concentrated in that one week. This deals great blows to businesses not only in terms of unexpected drops in revenue, but also to their reputation – people see them as less reliable. As a corollary of this, Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) lose out because they depend very much on a solid, constant customer support, rather than pure quality-based attraction of customers.

Certainly, the haze problem, usually existent in SEA, has and will continue to cause the above social and economic problems, direct and indirectly, in the short term and long term.

Should scholarships for students be solely based on academic merit?

            Education is a great social leveller – it can empower people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, by giving them the knowledge and skills that allow them to rise up the social ladder. To equalise opportunities, governments, private institutions and educational institutions provide scholarships, aimed at providing financial support or employment opportunities to stellar students, so as to attract top talents to work for them after they graduate. Examples of these include the Public Service Commission Scholarship (PSCS) and the A* Star Research Scholarship in Singapore, both of which fund students to attend tertiary institutions with heavily subsidised fees, then bonds them to working in the company or institution for a period of time, from five to ten years. However, it is not definitive that those who deserve these scholarships the most are always the students that boast the best results in their examinations. The alternative would thus be to pass students through a selection process, including phases such as an interview and character evaluation on top of academic evaluation. This would mean that selected scholarship holds not only meet a certain academic criteria, but also show possess other traits that would help them in the future, depending on the nature of the scholarship they receive.
Scholarships, first and foremost, should be handed to those who best fit the culture and requirements of the organisation. Although some would argue that academic grades are a good barometer by virtue of its universality, there is more to a job than just being able to regurgitate information. The information we obtain through our education serves to set the foundation for the future, but it quickly becomes obsolete in this day and age where changes are frantic and unexpected. To overcome this, companies seek talents that can adapt to changes, and meet the industry’s future needs to keep it competitive. In order to decide the best man for the job, it would be in the interest of the corporation to look at the extra-curricular activities and achievements of the student, because they potentially point at the personality of the person. For instance, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) probably would not want to award its scholarship to a student who excels at literature, even if he had won the Angus Ross. On the other hand, the PSC committee would be looking out for students that have shown to be involved in community work and leadership roles. Ultimately, the future scholar not only has to excel academically, he must also be able to fit the culture of his future workplace in terms of his character traits and his individual interests.
Beyond finding the best fit for the company’s culture and nature, scholars should also possess other traits such as the awareness of the people around them and their interests. Judging by academic grades would result in a pool of potentially arrogant, narcissistic individuals who cannot be bothered about the interests of his employees, but rather only seeks practical results. Recognising that many of these scholarship holders are granted high positions in the corporations because they have already been identified as individuals with potential, these high achievers must be able to take responsibility for the people working under his instruction. With great power, comes great responsibility – those who have great power must also bear the responsibility of caring for the needs of those who work for him. There must be an agreement between the employer and the employee that the employee gives up some degree of his right over his own actions in exchange for the trust that his or her employer will consider their needs. For this to happen, scholarships should also look at the capability of the candidates to become leaders that are aware of others’ needs beyond just their personal desires. For instance, scholarships should look at the willingness of students to be involved in the community and get to know the needs of the community better, plausibly represented by the number of Community Involvement Project (CIP) hours the student has obtained. By looking at a multitude of factors other than just the student’s academic results, we are better able to pinpoint students that are better-rounded and better suited to make decisions for the organisation in the future.
Some would argue that it is more effective to give the best examination performers a good position, so that they can implement the best changes. Despite this seemingly intuitive argument, it does not consider the question of who best makes use of that opportunity. Even if we assume that those with greater potential do the best in examinations, these people may not necessarily have the moral integrity to make decisions in the best interests of the people if they were to be given the opportunity to do so. Clearly, we need to consider the values of those that receive these opportunities – as C. S. Lewis proclaimed, “education without values, as useful as it is, seems, rather to make Man a more clever devil.” When systems like the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) of Singapore singles out those with greater intellect, it does nothing to change the personalities and the moral systems of these intellectuals. If the people we funnel opportunities and top positions do not have the sense of responsibility required to make decisions that do not only bring personal benefit, then we would end up with industry leaders that stand upon their ivory towers, making decisions that could potentially harm others. For example, Jonathan Wong, a student with a stellar academic record, was awarded a scholarship in education, despite his poor social track record. In the end, he was even found to have illegally downloaded child pornography – those who lack morals like him clearly do not deserve such a good opportunity. On the contrary to this, scholarships can represent great opportunities if we consider the fact that those who really have the conviction to improve others’ lives. When such morally upright individuals are given exposure, they are more likely to use their understanding of the situation to implement positive change. Therefore, scholarships given solely based on academic merit turn a blind eye to arguably as important, if not more important criteria, such as the individuals’ principles and values that can bring about better change.

The capability of a student is multi-faceted – not only is it important for students to score decently well on their tests, they must have the moral courage and social awareness to act beyond their own interests. Scholarships today hold a whole new world of opportunities for those who are more disadvantaged, and would never have had the chance to let their ideals impact the rest of the world for the better. Giving top scorers all of these scholarship opportunities would not achieve this, not only because such high achievers may not necessarily be the best fit for the organisation, but also because they may not have the needs of the people at heart when they make certain decisions. Ultimately, scholarships must not only consider one’s ability to score in a test, but also his passion for work, his moral code by which he works, and also the potential he holds. 

Is there a case for keeping animals in zoos?

            The concept of zoos has very much evolved with time – in the past, zoos were places for the royal family to house animals, where animals were used for human entertainment. Under Nero, a Roman Emperor, four hundred tigers fought with bulls and elephants while humans watched for their pleasure, and at the Colosseum of Rome, five thousand animals perished in a single day after being forced to fight each other. Today, the purpose of zoos and the way they operate is vastly different – in some zoos, the keepers are even required have a master’s degree. Despite these changes, it is indisputable that zoos today cannot sufficiently provide for animals. Going forward, although conditions will indeed improve for these animals, many will still suffer if they are housed in zoos.

Optimists would argue that animals enjoy better quality zoos because of the stricter requirements imposed for zoo employees. Some zoos even hire specific nutritionists and stud-book managers to cater to each of the animals’ specific needs. Despite this claim, even if the zoos of today have the ability to understand the needs of the animal, they are largely unable to provide for it. Animals have each of their own specific needs, from the basics of keeping instincts sharp by escaping from animals and finding prey, to more complicated needs, such as the way they locate mates for mating. Zoos often cannot provide for it, because each animal can only meet these needs in their own habitats, something that zoos cannot replicate. With the obvious lack of space in zoos – animals are inevitably deprived of sufficient space to meet its needs when placed in a zoo. For instance, the space an elephant is supposed to have is almost twenty times larger than what it is actually given, which means that it lacks sufficient space to exercise, which is necessary for it to keep healthy. From this alone, we can tell that the physical incapability of zoos show that zoos can never be sufficient at replicating the ideal habitat for animals. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the zoos of today are meant to showcase a whole range of animals that live in different conditions, from aquatic animals like seals to the king of the forest, the lion – zoos have to spread its already limited resources thin for all the animals its houses.  Furthermore, in spite of this problem, little is being done to improve the conditions the animals are in. On the contrary, it gives the veneer that the animals are comfortable and happy with their condition, generating little interest or will to continue improving their habitats. This is despite the fact that behavioural studies show the exact opposite.  The better alternative would be to place more resources into preserving the current natural habitats of the animals, for example the grassy savanna terrain. Preservation goes a longer way because it is something that is more permanent, and is not subject to various factors such as the lack of visitors, which can cause a zoo to close down completely.

Advocates of zoos assert that zoos are essential to repopulate animals into their natural habitats by breeding them in man-made enclosures that provide them with daily necessities and protection from natural predators. This allows animals to grow in numbers, and from there, communities of animals can be reintroduced into the wild. Despite this claim, the truth is that in the long run, keeping animals in zoos harms the animals more than it helps them. It may be true that zoos keep animals safe from predators, and provide meals which animals otherwise would not have gotten, but this may not be the best thing for the animals. In the long run, animals become habituated to an environment of comfort, because they are neither filled with fear of predators, nor with the pangs of hunger that push them to continue searching for prey. Content with their safety, the animals lose the sharpness in their instincts. When released back into the wild, these animals cannot cope with the harsh needs that their environments demand. This was etched in the attempt to repopulate orang-utans into the forests of Sumatra – the mammals died off because they could no longer climb trees efficaciously, after being closed in their small, insufficient enclosures. Even in the instance where efforts to repopulate animals work, the benefit of doing so is often misplaced. The key, primary purpose of zoos today is not to help the animals as much as possible, but rather to earn as much profit as possible. This is because the money gained from visitors is necessary for the zoo to pay for rent, food, maintenance costs, and also the salaries of the workers. This means that it is in the best interest of zoos to implement the course of action that earns itself the most profit, even in the instance where it is not in the best interest of animals in the zoo. Thus, zoos are more inclined to breeding animals that are more popular amongst visitors, although it may not be the animal that is in the most dire straits of becoming extinct. The safety bubble provided by zoos eventually harms the animals when they are repopulated – on top of that the nature of zoos being profit-motivated hinders its ability to protect and conserve the animals that needs the help the most.

In addition, the zoo’s supporters propound that animals can be a source of entertainment and education for its visitors. Youngsters who are interested in animals would visit the zoo, and from there, exhibits will be able to educate the public on the different types of animals in the zoo. This aims to raise awareness about the plight of endangered animals, such as the giant panda. However, on a first, level, using animals for our own enjoyment is inherently unjustified. Just because human civilisation is more powerful and has greater capabilities, does not mean that they should be allowed to enslave animals and put them on display. On the contrary, it means that humans should have a greater responsibility to take care of the natural habitats that these animals belong to – as declared in the Spiderman series, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. Just as how humans are given their right to movement and the right to bodily autonomy, animals should be no less deserving of these rights. Humans, after all, are just scientific extensions of other animals. Hence, it is not justified for people to limit the rights of animals just to use them as a means to our own entertainment and enjoyment. Furthermore, aiming to use the zoo as a means to educate the population about animals is largely ineffective. Young children that go to the zoo are not interested in finding out more about the history and numbers of these animals, but contrary to this, look out for exciting shows that animals trained to perform. This means that zoos tend to appeal to the emotional needs of the children, as Andy Baker, senior vice president for animal programs at Philadelphia Zoo, admitted. Not only are zoos disinterested in disseminating information about animals, children themselves are more likely to be interested by that ball trick performed by the seal in the tank as compared to the dry, boring signage describing its geological descent and its plummeting numbers in the sea. Evidently, keeping animals in their small enclosures is not only unjustified, it does not achieve its supposed end of educating the population about the dire situation faced by animals.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions – granted, the intentions of zoos today may be well and good, however it is incapable of providing the needs of the animals that consist it. Zoos today cannot provide the space, nor the environmental condition that most animals are used to, and even if they could, the over-comfort provided by zoos cause animals to lose their instincts in the long term, and they will be unable to adapt back to the harsh environment when repopulated. Rather than trying to protect them in zoos, it would be much more effective to protect the animals by preserving their natural habitats and prevent the poaching of these animals, which are a key reason for their condition

Education does not develop individuality but conformity

The conception of an education system came with the aim of equipping students with the necessary skills to fill the jobs in the economy to make the country more productive. This form of education is most efficacious when there is a fixed set of rules for those that comprise it – it guarantees an entire batch of workers able to work efficiently on the assembly line. As society develops, so has the system of education, which aims to meet society’s needs. In a world where societies are becoming increasingly meritocratic, education has become less about knowledge and more about students’ achievements and grades, compelling people to avert from “the road less taken”. As a result, education restricts one’s choices, and ends up developing multiple individuals who are good at abiding by rules but lack personal voices and interests.

It is claimed by some that the education system has diversified, allowing a vast array of choices for students – we can now choose what school to attend, and what courses to take. The choices individuals make, they argue, would be reflective of the differing qualities and characteristics of each person. Theoretically, this argument may hold true, but education today is not just as simple as they suggest. Granted, it may be true that there is now a larger variety of choices for a student, but the overwhelming need to conform to expectations overcomes it. On the most basic level, students need to conform to the most basic school rules or risk punishment. For instance, a large number of schools mandate a uniform appearance – all students of the same school have to wear the clothes of the same design, and there are rules about every single part of one’s appearance. Not only is this inherently an expectation to conform, it conditions young minds to think that their actions will represent that of the school, so anything that catches others’ attentions is deemed to be “bad”, and is frowned upon. This means that students are discouraged from taking up courses commonly associated with unsuccessful people. For example, Korean society expects its crème de la crème to study engineering or medicine in university, although that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. This is because they buy into the concept that people should practice what others before them had done, because that is thought to be the “safe” route to success which guarantees a stable income. As a result, those with good results are pressured into taking these courses even if they find greater interest elsewhere – a quarter of all Korean university graduates major in engineering. This overwhelming expectation quells any earlier consideration of taking up a course that one has an affinity or interest in, like the arts, which is vehemently discouraged because it is seen to be a job with an unstable income. As a corollary of this, heuristics are being taught in many societies, especially in Asia. For any question, there is a thought to be a predetermined method to derive the answer that would “guarantee” high marks. Students follow these “model answers” to meet the rigid requirements present in national examinations to gauge the ability of students. This means that they blindly apply formulas without understanding why these concepts and formulas apply to solving the problem at hand. This encourages rigidity in terms of thinking, and all that results from the system would be people who can only excel in repeating what they have done before. Evidently, students in the education system are not only overtly conforming to the school rules, but they covertly begin to conform to society’s beliefs and mindsets instead of developing their own, individual passions and qualities.

Opponents of the thesis argue that effective teachers can instill a sense of interest in learning in their students. As a result, students will have a life-long thirst for knowledge. Despite the claim, the truth remains that the system of education today creates obstacles for teachers, which limits their ability rather than help them teach effectively. Most education systems around the world today have national exams, because it is deemed as necessary in order to determine the standard of the students. In the face of these inevitable examinations, teachers rush to prepare students for the multitude of questions to be tested. In such a circumstance, even a teacher who believes in developing the interests of students has no choice but to focus the bulk of his or her lesson on the curriculum to be tested. This is because the education ministry gauges the ability of teachers based on how much improvement students make in terms of grades, and focuses less on students’ holistic, all-rounded development, something that cannot be measured accurately. In Singapore’s case, parents that traditionally adopt the “kiasu” mindset fret over finding tuition classes for their children sitting for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), GCSE “O” Levels or “A” Levels examinations, while teachers feel pressured to get as many “A”s in class as possible. Effectively, the requirements of education as set out by the country’s government limits the ability of teachers, even good ones. Furthermore, it would be idealistic to argue that all teachers are as effective as opponents claim them to be – in many cases teachers are more focused on getting students to do well in order to get a raise in pay, as compared to trying diligently to help develop each individual student based on his or her needs and interests. Anything outside the declared curriculum is seen to be “unnecessary” or “irrelevant”. In addition to the fact that teachers are limited by the requirements of the system, the school also has to be accountable to society. Parents send their children to school with the expectation that the latter group will gain knowledge and learn some morals, and this expectation falls on the teachers and the school. Schools tend to err on the side of caution because they are paid to take care of the needs of students, so they are unwilling to take risks. However, to create a system actively promoting individual development hinges on not just the curriculum and the school rules – it comes with a large amount of risk. Encouraging individuals to find out more about themselves necessarily means that teachers do not advice students on what they should do – teachers let children develop without interference. When a system is lax, it cannot identify children who are acting abnormally and help them. As a result, if a child grows up in a poor living environment, he is likely to be negatively influenced, and this is where a hands-off system fails. It is exactly this that many schools are afraid of, compelling them to hold a tighter leash on students and forces them to conform to the rules, thereby limiting students’ ability to explore and develop their interests.

Critics would argue that individuals can spend time on their own outside of the school gates in order to develop their own passions, because they are still able to choose what extracurricular activities to take up and what activities they should pick up in their free time. However, this is increasingly untrue in a world where the burden of students keeps increasing. Students of today recognise that their future choices hinge upon their grades – even with an outstanding co-curricular portfolio, it all comes to naught if they cannot manage their academic grades. This is because educational achievements are the determining factor of the nature of one’s future – when hiring employees, many corporations today look at the school the applicant attended, his grades, the scholarships he received and so on. Hence, the students of today go to school not to gain new knowledge about topics they are interested in, but rather in a mad paper-chase to build up their portfolios. This generates an interest to focus more on academics, equating to a heavier workload. This results in individuals unwilling to spend time nurturing their own passions and interests – the time spent on learning a musical instrument is thought to be better spent on revising more past-year physics papers. Even if students pick up an activity that they are interested in, for example a sport, it would take a backseat in students’ lists of priorities. When push comes to shove, most students would rather drop their sport when the national examinations approach, because the sport is unlikely to define their future lives, unlike good grades achieved in exams. Hence, even outside the school gates students are compelled to conform to society’s expectations of them, instead of developing their own personal passions.

The idea of rules is central to all forms of education – people need rules to teach them the limits of what they can and cannot do. For instance, a person cannot be allowed to search up the steps needed to make a pipe bomb because the information can cause great harm if misused. However, as are most things in society, rules are double-edged swords. While it protects people from others, it also limits the areas of interest because people avert from testing boundaries, making them conform to what the government or society deems as “safe”. Ultimately, while some can still have that personal space to develop themselves, and indulge in their interests, education systems largely warn individuals against challenging social norms, and force them to make decisions that may not be the best for every individual in society. 

America's Budget Deficit?

            America’s debt crisis of 16 trillion dollars may come from great spending in different areas, but these areas such as the military and healthcare are all important expenditures. The key to solving the nation’s problem would be to increase participation from the American public in solving our problems.

The problem with the system is that there are too many loopholes. There are too many people who receive what they do not require in the first place, or attempt to cheat the system. We have recently charged 1,500 medical personnel for falsely billing the Medicare system by 4.8 billion, majority of which actually comes from the taxpayers. These are the people who add to our deficit for selfish, independent reasons, and they do it at the expense of other citizens in the form of taxpayer’s money. While these amounts are meagre considering the size of the debt, the amount is enough to save many people from their situations, and these sums of money will gather with time. In other words, investing in the patching up of loopholes in the system will have a great positive impact.

Although I recognise that there has been great scrutiny of Obamacare being unconstitutional, there still exists a need for the government to intervene in healthcare matters. All the rights of the people depend on their existence, and this is in turn supported by a dependable healthcare system. Since the government’s duty is to preserve the rights of the people, there is an impetus for them to invest in healthcare, which falls under the general health standard.

At the same time, I propose three solutions.
1) First, close all the loopholes in the system. There is no reason to provide the richer portions of society with subsidies that they are well able to pay for. The money that we save from this can be implemented into a more progressive subsidy, where poorer people get more subsidies from the government. In addition, we should reduce pre-emptive subsidy in general. There is no requirement for the government to provide so thick a safety net to insure people against events that may not happen in the first place. We will still provide the services such as checkups and vaccines, but it is not compulsory and we will implement an “opt in” system. At the same time, we need more monitoring on the system, so we can weed out illegal billing of it.

2) Second, I propose to raise the debt ceiling. The nation is going to burst the ceiling in the near future, which means that the country is unable considered unable to pay back its debt. We cannot integrate cuts too greatly at once, because that would cause small businesses to be unable to cut costs so quickly. This means that we should integrate cuts in spending on unimportant areas. At the same time, we should allow more loans to patch up our loopholes, so that we can lower deficit in general in the future.

3) I also propose to increase taxes for Americans. . If we need to stop the deficit once and for all, the people of the country are vital, and it is naïve to expect the government to solve everything while the country sits back to watch. Nearing the end of the Bush-era tax hikes means that both individuals and corporations alike will need to pay more for the government’s service to them. Recognise that the richer people have the ability of pay for these taxes, and the increased amount we tax them will not even be significant for them.

If all groups of society work together to recover lost money, use money more efficiently by redirecting funds to more vital areas, I believe that we will be on the right track to solving our budget deficit.

Natural Gas Fracturing

There is a common consensus amongst everyone that the US is going to face an energy crisis in the future. The world has increasingly sparse reserve of oil, prices going up. Therefore, America went to find new alternatives, one of which is natural gas.

Today, let us talk about its advantages and its problems. Natural gas would seem to be the best source of energy to rely on at the moment. It is much cheaper than the current sources such as oil and coal. Its reserves are also in much greater amounts than oil and coal, lasting until 2065.

However, the process of obtaining and refining the gas has its own share of problems. When trying to create wells for the extraction of natural gas, there has been the problematic usage of chemicals. Chemicals such as methane and radiation have the capability to harm the environment, and this harm does spread to the rest of the country.

Furthermore, we need to think in the long term, where the only real possibility is to depend on renewable energy sources as a source of power, and this possibility is best developed now, as we continually discover new technologies to be more efficient and effective. This would ensure a smoother transition over to renewable energies.

I propose two solutions. First, I propose to redirect some of our funding in areas of subsidies and incentives. The problem we face is that some 79% of our subsidiary spending is used on non-clean measures such as oil, coal and gas exploration, while it could have been better spent on investing in other forms of renewable energy. When there is so much spending on the oil and gas, then companies and corporations have lesser of an incentive to develop and place funding in the other renewable energies. Evidently, the conservative doctrine of “burn it if we’ve got it” is a roadblock for our future energy usage – we simply cannot afford to discard the energy crisis as relevant just because we have a supply of gas for the short term. In comparison, I still recognize that citizens still largely depend on current non-renewable sources as of now, so we should shift our funding from subsidies to tax incentives for them, such that those companies who do their job get rewarded. At the same time, we should slowly shift our energy focus to renewable sources by providing subsidies for the technological developments in these areas. This would encourage more corporations to start looking into the area of renewable energy because they are generally profit-oriented.

Second, America should close up the loopholes that are present, for instance the Halliburton loophole in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. This means that we should clear up the definition that encompasses the idea of developing our natural gas systems. Despite this year’s change in the EPA, we need to recognize that things such as water bodies are not discussed. Granted, corporations cannot release their wastage into surface water sources such as lakes, oceans and rivers, but there is no mention of the aquifers and underground sources. There is a need to end the vagueness in the policies that we create that allow for exploitation. At the same time, we should not be wasting the gas that we are trying to get in the first place. Gas leakage at our extraction wells are costing us 15 million a year – by minimalizing this amount, we maximize the usage of our spending in the area because a short term expenditure on the system has a great long term effect on the amount of gas we obtain.

Data Analysis - Asian Universities?

- Taken from The Economist 

This bar graph aims to show that Asia’s universities are “gaining ground on their Western counterparts”, by plotting out the number of universities in each Asian country that are in the Top 100 in Asia. The representation here is clear, with Japan having 22 universities in the top 100, while Malaysia only takes up one slot in the list. However, the graph does not adequately prove what the article tries to say. First, there is no comparison with the universities in the Western world. Even though Japan may have 22 universities out of the top 100 in Asia, it does not necessarily mean that Japan fares well on the international level. Without the comparison to the universities in Western countries, readers cannot decide whether the statements in the article are true or not. Second, there is no trend line of the changes in numbers. If the article tries to prove that Asia’s universities are “gaining ground”, then the graph needs to show a continuously increasing number of Asian universities in the top international lists.

However, some information presented on the bar graph can be interesting to address. First, the visual can show a comparison between the population size or land area and the number of top universities a country has, and study if there is a correlation between having a larger population and having a greater number of top universities. If there is no correlation there, then what should countries try to do in order to get better educational institutes? Second, there can also be an exploration of the correlation between the number of top universities in the country and the enrolment rates in these universities. Although the graph does present the gross enrolment rate in each of these countries, is there any link between this and the number of top universities that a country has? Or is it that the population figure affects enrolment rates? These are the questions that can be asked by readers, and the graph should answer them.

In general, given that education is such a complex system, and there can be multiple factors that affect its proficiency, more facts need to be given for the reader to understand what allows Japan to have such a great number of top universities, and how proficient the Asian universities are in comparison to their Western counterparts. This means that the simplistic bar graph will not be sufficient in proving the point of the article, and the information can be represented in other ways to allow readers to understand the issue better.

Does the Book have a Future?

As Oscar Wilde, an Irish writer and poet put it, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it”. The books today still have a strong impact on the makeup of its readers, even though it has undergone many changes in the last few centuries ago. Back then, the book was only available for the rich, educated priests – being literate was an important step towards being powerful. However, as time passed and technology improved, literacy rates have gone up and many more people now have access to the book. The book has evolved into a formal medium in which information is passed on from writers to readers. In spite of the rise of forums and social media, books will still be able to maintain its popularity, instead of being squeezed out of business by changing its form – from the printed text to e-books, electronic books for short, audio books and micro books.

Proponents would argue that the rise of social media would lead to the decline of books, because social media is more convenient and accessible, and provides a platform for people to share their information, and this improves the quality of the final product. Books are just a single directional way of transferring knowledge and ideas, while new media like forum pages can facilitate discussion and collaboration amongst groups of people. However, as opponents point out, the benefits that these new media platforms bring are hinged upon the assumption that contributors are sufficiently knowledgeable, fair and objective in their posts, something that we cannot take for granted. However, books are more credible as authors need to be accountable for their words, forcing them to be more careful with the accuracy of what they say. In most cases, radical people with extreme beliefs are more outspoken on these new Web 2.0, discursive media platforms, and their words leans towards spurs of emotion. The moderate majority, however, is silent or less active most of the time because they do not seek to impose their own ideals upon others in discussions. This lack of proportionality creates warped perceptions that cloud readers of these online forums. For example, the Kiasu Parents Forum, a commonly visited site for Singaporean parents, is often flooded with feedback from parents clearly unhappy with the Singaporean education system – they form a majority of the posts on these forums, although the number of posts does not represent the general sentiment of the people. Instead of pooling together birds of the same feather, books which are typically written by professionals or experts in the field, are more credible – they are actual people who are accountable for what they write, as compared to that anonymous participant on the forum website, making them more believable and trustable in the eyes of a reader. This means that those who are really interested to understand the system better would still choose to read books, which provide concrete examples to support their claims. This can be seen through the heated debate over the quality of Wikipedia versus its competitor, the Britannica. Wikipedia is not seen as a credible source for obtaining information because it people are free to edit and add information according to their personal inclinations without having to take responsibility. As a result, many Wikipedia articles have inaccuracies that stem from an excess of “cooks” which “spoil the broth”. In comparison, readers trust the Britannica more, because the authors will be brought up to task in the case of misinformation. The accountability of books and their authors makes them a more accurate source to obtain information, a fact that many still recognize. This maintains the book’s popularity as a form of information transfer.

There are some critics who would argue that books will lose their prevalence in society because of the changing lifestyle and literacy habits that do not complement the nature of book reading. To be able to read, one needs to focus on the content of the book, which is difficult in this modern day and age where people lack the patience to read, and are always multi-tasking. A constant effort to focus to read a book and digest its information will build into a habit of learning, a skill that it important to everyone. The education system aims to encourage students to learn on their own, and develop their own passions the long run, which they will pursue even in the absence of mandatory homework. For example, the “Teach Less, Learn More” campaign organized by Singapore’s education system seeks to encourage students to take the initiative to independently learn more about specific topics that they have a passion in. In addition, in other parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, the National Literacy Trust is heavily supported with nearly six million pounds in donations. Its initiative, the “Gift of Reading campaign”, encourages older students to read to the younger generation, which will hopefully build up a culture of reading. This will help to expose students to a variety of topics, spurring students to cut some time out from their busy schedules to sit back, relax, and immerse themselves in the words of the author. In response to the changes in the desires of the new technological generation, authors have changed their style of writing. This led to the conception of the e-book and self-publishing, where authors could appeal to a specific niche of readers without relying on traditional publishers. Therefore, by changing the form of the book, authors can now use audio and electronic content to broadcast their stories and ideas to the new generation. Surveys across the world have also noted that many that make up the new generation are extremely receptive towards e-books and audio books. This is because they can access the author’s words through their smartphones and tablets, which are be much lighter and less bulky than the original book. The concept of the book has thus shown to have changed and adapted to the different lifestyles of the youths of today.

Another reason why people would conceivably pick up a book to read is the fact that it is entertaining – it almost seems as if one is transported through space and time into the imagination of the author, giving people a sense of awe, and in some cases, happiness. Pessimists of the future of the book would exclaim that the book will soon become impertinent in the lives of the technologically savvy generation, because alternatives like movies and video games now provide a clear image of the world depicted in books – the fact that people can see the events of the book taking place right before their eyes makes the story more appealing and believable. Despite this claim, optimists point out that the problem with the high definition movies we watch is that they tend to flesh out every single detail, which invariably leaves little space for imagination. For fictional books, however, their magical effect comes from the space the reader has to derive their own takeawys from the words of the author. The beauty of language is that there can be certain nuances, plays on words, and strong descriptions of emotion which can be difficult, if not impossible to represent in a movie. Movies are developed by directors, whose one opinion or interpretation may differ vastly from that of other readers – the close bond between writers and their readers can best be experienced when a reader finds his or her own personal meaning to the events of a story, as compared to having it being told in the same way, with the same biases portrayed in a movie. Therefore, the entertainment value may not exist for some. Some want to have the experience of unraveling the intense story at their own pace, and have their own interpretations of the ideas being put across to them. This means that the book has its own unique ways of putting across ideas to its readers, something that cannot be replicated in a movie or game.

Although there has been great acceptance for the new social media platforms where people can interact and share ideas, books will still remain. Books still fulfill their aims and functions of providing new insights and ideas supported with credible examples, so they will still have a vast audience. However to meet the desires of society, the book will have to adapt as well, turning to alternatives such as the e-book and the audio book, just like how people adapted from using sticks to drawl words in the sand to writing using paper and pen. Thus, it is safe to say that the threats to the book will definitely not squeeze this form of information transfer out of existence, and the latter will be a part of our lives for a long time to come. 

Leonardo Da Vinci

The painter of the world renowned Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and multiple other art pieces was also a mathematician, scientist, musician, architect who was incredibly handsome and fit. That man is Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci’s vast imagination and creative thinking is what formed the basis of many objects that we see today, some of which has become an integral part of life.

Leonardo Da Vinci continually pondered over natural phenomena. He was extremely fascinated by natural world, using his drawing skills to reflect this. Da Vinci was given permission to dissect human corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, and from 1510 to 1511, he studied under the doctor Marcantonio della Torre.  Da Vinci removed the ligaments in the human limbs and replaced them with strings, to test for the specific function of each ligament. He then sketched out his conclusions on his notebooks, and these were the basic foundation for understanding the human body. Furthermore, he sketched the famous Vitruvian Man, which depicted the ideal proportions of a man, with meticulous drawings of each part of the body. Later on, he also studied the anatomy of others animals, most notably birds and he paid close attention to their ability to fly. His discoveries inspired future anatomists to find out more, and from his intellectual insights, found justifications for their findings. One such example is the Codex on the Flight of Birds, published by Da Vinci in 1505. The fact that he was willing to unravel the mysteries of the human body showed that Da Vinci was not only concerned with the physical appearance of these living things he researched on, but was also systematic and meticulous in deducing the functions and meaning of his discoveries. This reminds scientists today to apply their breakthroughs to solve the problems that remain rampant.

Da Vinci also had the amazing ability to interpret images that he saw. He put forth the theory that people find inspiration when they try to blend random images with what they saw. With his vast knowledge, he blended subjects and events that occurred with random images that he saw around him, and dreamt of new discoveries. He practiced this skill himself by throwing paint-filled sponges at the wall and created numerous inventions from whatever he saw in the images formed. These ideas were then written down in his notebooks for his future pondering, along with the inventions that he dreamed up, despite being unable to build them. Modern day tests have proven that many of these futuristic imaginations do actually work, and this goes to prove Da Vinci’s imaginative prowess – from his time, he was already capable of envisioning and designing machines that could only be built forty decades later.

Da Vinci’s life story reminds us that inventors must constantly have a flexible mind – even the simplest objects can give birth to great inventions. Only when we apply the past, understand the present, can we create a better future.

Models and Social Experiments

            The world that we live in is complex, hence, models are developed to help us comprehend and predict human behavior. These models are important, not only for individuals to make decisions, for businesses to make changes to their business methods, and even for policy makers to develop their social policies.

            Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Framework for Human Development is a model which predicts how the five environmental systems with which an individual interacts will influence the character and behavior of a child. Parents can then decide how they should teach their child and impart the correct values in them. The education system can also be tailored to be more effective according to this model. In addition, from the economic theories and models that we derive, we learn that businesses operate in order to maximize their profits, and individual customers make buying decisions to optimize their utilities, like happiness and satisfaction. Hence, the price of a product is determined by demand and supply. At the same time, demand for the product reduces if prices go up. For example, if I wanted to buy a new iPhone, but when I find out that its price is increased significantly, I may change my mind and purchase a Samsung SIII instead. Understanding of such a model allows manufacturers to better predict consumer behavior, and thus business decisions to be made.

However, while models may be useful in predicting the human behavior, they are not always accurate. Some researchers conduct social experiments to verify or challenge the predictions made in models. The Milgram experiment exposed that people are willing to obey a figure of authority, even if the latter’s instructions conflicted with their personal conscience. The Asch Experiment was another famous social experiment designed to test how peer pressure to conform would influence a person’s judgment and ultimately his decisions. Back to the example of hand phones, if most of my friends have iPhones and it is perceived in society that iPhones are better, I may choose to buy the iPhone even if it costs much more than the Samsung. In this case, the economic model cannot accurately predict my final decision. It is reported that although the prices of luxury goods such as Louis Vutton handbags increased, its sales increased unexpectedly. This went against the demand and supply model which would have predicted sales to have decreased instead.  

Just because models cannot be applied to every single case does not change the fact that they are relevant to our daily lives. They allow government policy makers and business decision makers to understand and predict behaviors of a large population, since these models are largely accurate at predicting behaviors at a macro level. Models are useful because it is the only practical way of predicting the way a large population acts. On the other hand, as some social experiments show that predictions using models may not be accurate at all times, it is essential to understand the limitations of models. We can in fact modify these models to make them more encompassing of exceptions, and make them more accurate in predicting people’s actions.

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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.