Thursday, January 27, 2011

A picture of North Korea

SEOUL: The face in the painting is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's, smiling beneath his trademark sunglasses and wall of black hair. But the body is Marilyn Monroe's, pushing down her white dress in an updraft.

This striking image - part of an art exhibition by North Korean defector Song Byeok, which opened yesterday in Seoul - would have been unthinkable at the artist's old job: making propaganda posters in the North with slogans like 'Let Us Exalt The Great Leader'.

Mr Song, 42, said he got the idea to draw a satirical painting of Mr Kim Jong Il when he saw Monroe's iconic pose from the movie The Seven Year Itch. He said Monroe's attempt to hide what was below her dress reminded him of what Kim has done to conceal the truth of what is happening in North Korea.

'It is time to reform and open North Korea, so that poor North Koreans can see what the real world is,' he said.

In 2001, severe food shortages drove Mr Song and his father to try to swim across the border into China. When the current swept his father away, Mr Song ran to a border patrol to seek help. The guards arrested him immediately and left his father to drown, he said.

'That's when I realised this was not a place for a human to live,' he said.

He spent six months in a forced labour camp before defecting in 2002 to Seoul, where he attended art colleges.

Through his paintings, Mr Song wants to help people see the North not as a bizarre land ruled by an eccentric dictator, but as a country whose people long for the freedoms taken for granted elsewhere.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Can Apple be Apple without Steve?

Shortly before the iPad tablet went on sale last year, Mr Steve Jobs showed off Apple's latest creation to a group of journalists. One asked what consumer and market research Apple had done to guide the development of the new product.

'None,' Mr Jobs replied. 'It isn't the consumers' job to know what they want.'

For years, and across a career, knowing what consumers want has been the self-appointed task of Mr Jobs, Apple's charismatic co-founder. Although he has not always been right, his string of successes at Apple is uncanny. His biggest user-pleasing hits include the Macintosh, the iMac, iBook, iPod, iPhone and iPad.

But as he takes a medical leave of absence, announced last Monday, the question is: Without him at the helm, can Apple continue its streak of innovation, particularly in an industry where rapid-fire product cycles can make today's leader tomorrow's laggard?

There is no near-term danger. Apple's surging sales and profits have made it the world's most valuable technology company, surpassing Microsoft last year. Apple reported last Tuesday that its profits and sales jumped more than 70 per cent in the fourth quarter, exceeding high expectations.

Apple is on a roll, with new models of products in the pipeline.

Yet there would be concern, analysts say, if MrJobs does not return full-time to the company, given his oversized role in shaping Apple's products.

'Steve Jobs has this extraordinary ability to see into the future and instinctively see what people want,' said Professor Michael Cusumano of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Sloan School of Management. 'He's done that consistently, in a way no one else has.'

Mr Jobs, by all accounts, relies on intuition and his own sense of taste, in decisions ranging from hiring to matters of product design.

'Steve is one of the most instinctive people I know,' said Mr Michael Hawley, a computer scientist at MIT who worked for Mr Jobs at Next, a pioneering but commercially unsuccessful computer company.

That was during the period after 1985, when Mr Jobs left Apple; he returned in late 1996.

As the final arbiter on product decisions, Mr Jobs, colleagues say, is uncompromising. Prototypes and early working products are produced and constantly refined. They are shown not to focus groups or other outsiders, but to Mr Jobs and a few members of his team.

Three iPhone prototypes were completed over the course of a year.

The first two were tossed out, said a former Apple manager, while the third passed muster. The product shipped in June 2007.

The iPad tablet, at Mr Jobs' insistence, relies on only touch-screen navigation - even though industry analysts said business users, in particular, would want a stylus.

With the iPad tablet, Apple jump-started a product category. But with the iPod (a music and media player) and iPhone (a smartphone), Apple moved into markets with many millions of users using rival products. But Apple gave consumers a much improved experience.

'These are seeing-around-the-corner innovations,' said Mr John Kao, an innovation consultant to corporations and governments. 'Steve Jobs is totally tuned into what consumers want. But these are not the kind of breakthroughs that market research, where you are asking people's opinions, really helps you make.'

Silicon Valley investor and marketing consultant Regis McKenna said employees at Apple stores provide the company with a powerful window into user habits and needs, even if it is not conventional market research.

'Steve visits the Apple store in Palo Alto frequently,' said the former consultant to Apple.

The design decisions made by Mr Jobs, he said, are informed by his grasp of users' desires, technology trends and popular culture. In the end, he added, Apple products also reflect Mr Jobs' personality.

'Steve's a cool guy and he designs cool products,' Mr McKenna said.

Such skills, analysts say, cannot be easily replaced.

'There are lots of creative ideas in any good company, but ultimately choices have to be made,' said Professor David Yoffie of Harvard Business School. 'Steve Jobs has made great choices and then refined those. That's a real art, not a science.'

Mr Jobs prides himself on being a leader more than a manager. An important part of his leadership ethos, he has said, is to select lieutenants who share his persistence and passion for the business.

And the people he has recruited have given him plenty of help since he returned to Apple in 1997. During his medical leave, Apple will be led by Mr Timothy Cook, the chief operating officer, whom Mr Jobs recruited from Compaq in 1998. Mr Cook stood in for him during an earlier absence.

Mr Jobs, who has battled pancreatic cancer and had a liver transplant a year and a half ago, has taken two previous leaves of absence.

'This is a guy who has wrestled the angels to a stop before,' said Mr Paul Saffo, a managing director of Discern Analytics, a research firm.

'His most lasting creation is the company, not individual products, and you have to believe he has done everything he can to ensure Apple will have a long life.'

By By Steve Lohr
New York Times

The art of choice

'There are lots of creative ideas in any good company, but ultimately choices have to be made... Steve Jobs has made great choices and then refined those. That's a real art, not a science.'

PROFESSOR DAVID YOFFIE of Harvard Business School

Unique talent

'Steve Jobs has this extraordinary ability to see into the future and instinctively see what people want... He's done that consistently, in a way no one else has.'

PROFESSOR MICHAEL CUSUMANO of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management

The rise of Chinese Cheneys

WHEN Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made a landmark visit to the United States in 1979, he was seated near the actress Shirley MacLaine.

According to several accounts that Ms MacLaine confirmed this week, she told Deng rhapsodically about a visit to China during the Cultural Revolution. She described meeting a scholar who had been sent to toil in the countryside but spoke glowingly about the joys of manual labour and the terrific opportunity to learn from peasants.

Deng growled: 'He was lying.'

In that blunt spirit, let me offer a quick guide to some of the issues that have been put on the table during President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington, at a time when Chinese-American relations are deeply strained and likely to get worse. American opinion tends to be divided between panda-huggers ('China is fabulous!') and panda-muggers ('China is evil!'), but the truth lies between this yin and yang.

Trade is at the heart of the tensions, and China is clearly keeping its currency artificially low (and will probably continue to do so) to preserve jobs at home.

This is destabilising the international system - but let's not exaggerate the impact on the US economy. Chinese goods mostly compete with products from Mexico, South Korea and other countries, and China is stealing jobs from those countries more than from the US.

Trade figures also exaggerate China's exports. For example, China assembles iPhones, so their full value counts as Chinese exports. But, in fact, less than 4 per cent of the phone's value is contributed by China, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank Institute. A greater share is contributed by Japan, Germany, South Korea and the US.

Aggressive territorial claims by Beijing are unnerving China's neighbours as well as Washington. My take is that China has a strong historical case in claiming the disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. But China's claims to a chunk of the South China Sea are preposterous, and its belligerence is driving neighbours closer to the US.

There's also a real risk that Chinese harassment of American planes and ships in international waters will spark a conflict by accident. The collision of Chinese and US military aircraft in 2001 led to a crisis that was defused only because then President Jiang Zemin was determined to preserve relations with Washington. If such an incident occurred today, President Hu would probably be unwilling or unable to resolve the crisis.

Human rights are complex. Christians are persecuted less than they were just a few years ago, and the regime gives ordinary people much more freedom to travel and greater individual space than when I lived in China in the 1980s and 1990s.

That said, the Communist Party has been cracking down hard in the last few years on dissidents and ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs. Its imprisonment of the great writer Liu Xiaobo, and its tantrum after he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, damaged China's image.

US President Barack Obama must speak up: How can one Nobel Peace Prize laureate be silent when meeting the man who imprisons the next?

Support for rogue states, such as North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe, makes conflicts and nuclear proliferation more likely.

But, in fairness, China has much less leverage over these countries than Americans assume. And in the last couple of months, it has played a helpful role in both Sudan and North Korea.

Chest-thumping, especially from the military, is poisoning Chinese-American relations. Even Vice-President Xi Jinping, a pragmatist who has been chosen to replace Mr Hu as supreme leader of China, gave a nasty speech in October falsely accusing the US of using germ warfare during the Korean War.

In truth, Mr Xi seems to admire the US - he just sent his only daughter to Harvard University as an undergraduate - but he apparently feels the need to join the nationalist parade.

Mr Obama started out very conciliatory toward China, but Beijing saw that as weakness and walked all over him. Now Mr Obama is tougher, as he must be.

My take is that China is going through a period resembling the Bush era in the US: hawks and hardliners have gained ground in domestic politics, and they scoff at the country's diplomats as wimps. China's Foreign Ministry seems barely a player.

Domestic concerns trump all else, partly because Chinese leaders are nervous about stability and the delicate transition to Mr Xi and his team in two years.

A Chinese poll found public satisfaction is at an 11-year low, and Premier Wen Jiabao upset hardliners with a public call for more pluralism (he was censored).

The upshot is that China-Firsters - Chinese versions of former US vice-president Dick Cheney - have a greater voice. Brace yourself.

By Nicholas D Kristof

My take is that China is going through a period resembling the Bush era in the US: hawks and hardliners have gained ground in domestic politics, and they scoff at the country's diplomats as wimps. China's Foreign Ministry seems barely a player.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

China's annual reunion rush begins

Travellers waiting at Changsha Railway Station in Hunan province yesterday. The world's largest annual movement of people officially began yesterday in China, as hundreds of millions of migrant workers in the cities head back to their rural hometowns for Chinese New Year. -- PHOTO: XINHUA

BEIJING: The world's largest annual movement of people officially began yesterday, when millions of Chinese started on their long march home in time for the yearly reunion dinner with their families.
About 710 million travellers - or about half of China's 1.3 billion people - are expected to crowd the trains, planes, buses and roads over 40 days starting yesterday, as the nation celebrates Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 3 this year.

In all, a staggering 2.85 billion separate trips will be made, up 11.6 per cent from last year, according to the government.
The annual rush home for the new year - called chunyun - is a unique feature of Chinese society, said Railways Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping. Chinese New Year, or the spring festival, has been celebrated for more than 5,000 years in China, he added: 'No matter how far we have gone or how far we have to travel, this is the time for us to go home to spend a happy, peaceful and auspicious festival with our close ones.'
He said that China's annual reunion crush is as much a result of its huge population, inadequate transport facilities, and uneven economic development, as it is a result of the strong sway of Chinese tradition. The Americans, he noted, do not have as much of a problem heading home for thanksgiving as there are fewer of them and their transport infrastructure is more developed, he told The Straits Times.
The United States is more evenly developed than China, where big gaps in development between the cities and countryside have forced huge numbers of rural workers to move from poorer western areas to the prosperous coastal areas.
China's 230 million rural migrant workers make up a large chunk of the crowds going home for the spring festival, especially from first-tier cities Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, whose strong economies attract many workers.
Combined with the millions of university students going home on winter vacation, every chunyun puts the country's transport system through its most severe test each year. It makes for overnight queues, overcrowded trains and overheated tempers - all common scenes at this time of year.
At the Beijing South Railway Station yesterday, a man upset about not getting a ticket ended up in a shouting match with a ticket seller for a few minutes, before he was pulled away by security guards.
'Have you bought your ticket?' was the common greeting around the ticketing area, as people shuffled anxiously in numerous lines.
Mr Wang Yongqing, 39, a hawker selling sundry items in Beijing, was all smiles after he snagged a ticket for a 16-hour train ride back to his native Heilongjiang province in the north-east.
'You have to buy early, or you won't be able to get a ticket,' he said, having queued overnight for his annual trip home to see his wife and son.
The railway authorities have promised more trains, ticket booths and staff to cope with the record 230 million train trips that are expected to be made. At the Beijing South station, for instance, tea ladies could be seen standing by with thermos flasks offering hot drinks, and student helpers held signboards urging passengers to queue up.
But the Railways Ministry, which had previously promised to meet demand for spring festival travel by last year, has now conceded that it will only be able to do so in 2015.
Ministry spokesman Wang said that while transport capacity needs to be increased, closing the gap in China's development would be more effective in the long run.
'When our backward areas become developed and the gap closes between city and countryside, the movement of people will no longer result in the seasonal phenomenon that is chunyun,' he said.

Tunisia coup due to 'broken Arab soul'

CAIRO: The Secretary-General of the Arab League yesterday linked the upheaval in Tunisia to deteriorating economic conditions throughout the Arab world, warning Middle Eastern leaders that their people's anger has reached unprecedented heights.
In impassioned remarks, Mr Amr Moussa told an Arab economic summit in Egypt that 'the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession'.

'This is in the mind of all of us,' he said in his opening address to the 20 Arab leaders and other representatives of Arab League members gathered in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Weeks of protests fuelled by joblessness and other economic woes in Tunisia forced its President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country last Friday after 23 years of iron-fisted rule.
The unrest has helped inspire similar protests around the Arab world, with thousands demonstrating in Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Libya and Yemen over the economic situation, some explicitly in solidarity with the Tunisians.
Calls were made for political change, though activists face the reality of security forces heavily vested in the status quo backing hardline regimes ready to crack down on dissent.
'The Tunisian revolution is not far from us,' Mr Moussa warned. 'The Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration.' He called for an Arab renaissance to lift people from their frustration.
The meeting in Egypt had been intended as a platform to discuss trade, business and investment, but was overshadowed by the events in Tunisia and their reverberation around the region.
However, Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane left Egypt yesterday before the start of the summit, sources said.
Mindful of the events in Tunisia, Arab leaders at the summit committed to a proposed US$2 billion (S$2.6 billion) programme to boost faltering economies that have propelled crowds into the streets to protest against high unemployment, rising prices and rampant corruption.
The idea of the fund was first suggested by Kuwait during the economic summit in the Gulf emirate in 2009, but has been slow to get off the ground like many Arab League initiatives requiring members to pledge money. Kuwaiti ruler Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah said the fund will 'contribute to creating new job opportunities for young Arabs'.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, 82, who chaired the summit, stressed the importance of economic cooperation, tagging it 'a national security' requirement.
He also said investment in Arab youth will bring future rewards.
Meanwhile, in the Tunisian capital, hundreds of demonstrators continued to protest, demanding that allies of the ousted president stop clinging to power.
They chanted slogans like 'Ben Ali has gone to Saudi Arabia! The government should go there too.'
Saudi Arabia has said that their hosting of the disgraced president is not an affront to Tunisians, adding that Mr Ben Ali has been barred from any political activities related to his country while in Saudi Arabia.
The Swiss government has also ordered a freeze on any Ben Ali bank accounts, while Tunisian prosecutors opened an inquiry into his assets.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tiger Mother? Amy Chua's a wimp

SOME time early last week, a large slice of educated America decided that Ms Amy Chua is a menace to society. Ms Chua, as you probably know, is the Yale professor who has written a bracing critique of what she considers the weak, coddling American parenting style.
She didn't let her own girls go out on play dates or sleepovers. She didn't let them watch TV or play video games, or take part in garbage activities like crafts.

Once, one of her daughters came in second to a Korean kid in a mathematics competition, so Ms Chua made the girl do 2,000 maths problems a night until she regained her supremacy. Once, her daughters gave her birthday cards of insufficient quality. Ms Chua rejected them and demanded new cards. Once, she threatened to burn all but one of her daughter's stuffed animals unless she played a piece of music perfectly.
As a result, her daughters get straight As and have won a series of musical competitions.
In her book, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, she delivers a broadside against American parenting, even as she mocks herself for her own extreme 'Chinese' style. She says American parents lack authority and produce entitled children who are not forced to live up to their potential.
The furious denunciations began flooding my inbox at The New York Times a week ago. Ms Chua plays into America's fear of national decline. Here's a Chinese parent working really hard - and, by the way, there are a billion more of her - and her kids are going to crush ours. Furthermore (and this Ms Chua does not appreciate), she is not really rebelling against American-style parenting; she is the logical extension of the prevailing elite practices. She does everything that overpressuring upper-middle-class parents are doing. She's just hard core.
Her critics echoed the familiar themes. Her kids can't possibly be happy, or truly creative. They'll grow up skilled and compliant, but without the audacity to be great. She's destroying their love for music. There's a reason Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.
I have the opposite problem with Ms Chua. I believe she's coddling her children. She's protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn't understand what's cognitively difficult and what isn't.
Practising a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.
Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group - these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale University.
Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average IQ of the group, or even with the IQs of its smartest members.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University have found that a group has a high collective intelligence when its members are good at reading one another's emotions - when they take turns to speak, when the input from each member is managed fluidly, when they detect one another's inclinations and strengths.
Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods and understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.
This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Ms Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table. Ms Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood.
Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others' minds and anticipate others' reactions?
These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process, and are not developed if formal learning monopolises a child's time.
So I'm not against the way Ms Chua pushes her daughters. And I loved her book as a courageous and thought-provoking read. It's also more supple than her critics let on. I just wish she wasn't so soft and indulgent. I wish she recognised that in some important ways the school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library.
And I hope her daughters grow up to write their own books, and maybe learn the skills to better anticipate how theirs will be received. By David Brooks

Monday, January 17, 2011

'Foreign talent policy had effect on income gap' - my humanities class

GOVERNMENT policies to boost the number of foreigners working here may have indirectly contributed to greater income inequality, a panel of experts said yesterday.
By Melissa Tan

The wages of those on the bottom rung have tended to stagnate or even fall in real terms, even as the nation enjoyed boom times, they noted.

Mr Manu Bhaskaran, an adjunct senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, who chaired the panel, said globalisation and technological change had also led to greater income disparity.

Related Links
He added that 'domestic policies have unintentionally contributed (to inequality) especially as we intensify efforts to appeal to the global elite and attract top talent to Singapore'.

In particular, the 'rising tide of foreign workers almost certainly impacted wage growth at parts of the income distribution and thereby worsened inequality', said Mr Bhaskaran, also a partner and board member at consultancy Centennial Group.

These factors have led to a 'very clear deterioration in income distribution in Singapore'.

Despite the 'boom we've enjoyed the last few years', there has been a 'considerable stagnation' in wages at the lower end of the income scale.

The panel discussion was held during the Singapore Perspectives 2012 conference, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) yesterday at the Suntec City Convention Centre.

Professor Paul Cheung, director of the United Nations Statistics Division, predicted that it would become tougher for people to move up the income ladder. 'This is accentuated by the fact that there is a huge inflow of permanent residents coming in.'

At the 30- to 34-year-old age group, the proportion of permanent residents is as high as 30 per cent - or one in three, Prof Cheung said.

To make things harder for locals, foreigners arriving here are not only low-skilled workers. The group also includes educated professionals, posing a threat to young professionals here, he said.

He pointed out that Singapore's workforce in its key age group of 30-39 has seen the proportion of those with tertiary education improve from 19 per cent to 43 per cent over the past decade.

'This is the competitive landscape now, that you are among the best of the lot and you are competing against the best... There's a high degree of anxiety among young professionals on whether they can make it in Singapore - whether the Government is prepared to give them a fair chance in this tough competition.

'If the middle-class feels that: that you work so hard and then you try to move up the income ladder but then lo and behold, you're competing with all these permanent residents - where's the home court advantage?'

Also making it tough for the low-income group is the inadequacy of the Central Provident Fund scheme. Prof Cheung said that CPF is an insufficient means of saving for retirement for the low income group.

'I think the CPF scheme is good for the middle-income (group) and upwards, but at the lower end, the CPF scheme is simply not adequate. It may be a good way to save for housing, but as retirement savings, it is inadequate. There is an increasing role for the state to progressively move into more income redistribution policies. Whether we can persuade the PAP to do it, remains to be seen, but I think that is the clear and good direction.'

Can Tunisia's Revolt Spread?

TUNIS: As a tense calm returns to Tunisia and talks on a new government get under way, following the Arab world's first popular revolt in recent history, one question has emerged, raising both hopes and fears: Could it also happen in other regimes in the region?

Some see the downfall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to resign by a wave of protests last Friday, as a warning to other autocratic leaders across the Arab world.

Tunisia's people-power uprising - a first for the region, and the result of a potent mix of economic gripes and calls for political freedoms - could now embolden similar calls in a region dominated by authoritarian leaders and monarchs, say analysts.

Dr Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Middle East Centre based in Beirut, Lebanon, said: 'It could be quite inspiring for the rest of the Arab world.'

Indeed, activists in some nearby countries have already caught on.

In Yemeni capital Sanaa yesterday, about 1,000 students marched through the streets urging Arabs to rise up against their leaders, chanting: 'Liberty's Tunisia, Sanaa salutes you a thousand times.'

In Cairo, protesters mocked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, saying: 'Tunisia is teaching us a lesson.'

Similar lines were heard in Jordan from trade union activists.

These protests came fresh on the heels of two days of chaos in Tunisia, which had resulted from protests sparked by the suicide of a 26-year-old university graduate prevented by police from selling fruit and vegetables to make a living.

Yesterday, the capital Tunis was relatively quiet as the army continued its lockdown of the city centre, although gunfire broke out between police and a gang in front of an opposition party's offices.

The former president's security chief was also arrested for plotting against the new leadership.

With Mr Ben Ali, 74, having fled to Saudi Arabia, Tunisia's acting leaders are now looking into political reforms, with hopes of its first multiparty government.

Yesterday, its main political parties held talks on forming a coalition government after interim President Fouad Mebazaa, who took office last Saturday, asked Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity.

'A unity government is necessary in the greater national interest,' Mr Mebazaa said, as the Constitutional Council declared that a presidential election should be held in two months. All Tunisians can now take part in national politics, he said.

That could spur activists in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Syria, where there are also gripes over poverty, unemployment, corruption and limits on freedoms - issues that toppled Mr Ben Ali.

Analysts like Dr Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies, say Tunisia has shown the power of popular upheaval and street-born revolt.

'This gets planted in minds that it is possible. They believe it can happen in their country. Leaders cannot just dismiss that.'

Already, the events have caused jitters among regional leaders. Iran said yesterday it was 'worried' about the situation in Tunisia. The Arab League called for calm, saying it was 'the beginning of one era and the end of another'.

But experts also believe chances of a rapid domino-style political house-cleaning, like that seen in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, appear far less likely.

Many states with deep political rifts, such as Egypt and Iran, maintain vast security forces heavily vested in the status quo. Other hardline regimes like Syria come down harshly and swiftly on dissent.

On the streets, however, activists in various Arab nations are harbouring hopes of replicating Tunisia's experience.

Cairo activist Mohammed Adel said: 'What happened in Tunis gave hope to all of us that fear can be broken and that dictatorships can be defeated.'


One Weekend in the Middle East

Friday in Tunisia

Tunisian protesters clashing with security forces in Tunis last Friday. The uprising arose from gripes over poverty, unemployment, corruption and limits on freedoms, resulting in the downfall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. -- PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS, REUTERS

Yesterday in Yemen

SANAA: About 1,000 students marched through the capital's streets yesterday calling on Arabs to rise up against their leaders.
'Leave before you are toppled,' read one banner, without naming Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Another said: 'Peaceful and democratic change is our aim in building a new Yemen.'
In power for the past 32 years, Mr Saleh was re-elected in September 2006 to a seven-year mandate.

Saturday in Egypt

CAIRO: Critics of President Hosni Mubarak have rushed to embrace the Tunisian example, noting that their country shares the combination of an autocratic ruler, rampant corruption and a large population of frustrated youth.
While the Egyptian government urged Tunisians to 'stand together' to 'avoid descending the country into chaos', ordinary Egyptians celebrated outside the Tunisian Embassy, chanting: 'Listen to Tunisians, it's your turn Egyptians!'

Saturday in Jordan

AMMAN: Over 5,000 people joined rallies last Friday to protest against rising prices and demand the removal of the prime minister, although King Abdullah II last week ordered reductions in prices and taxes on some foods and fuels.
Trade unionists also demonstrated outside the Tunisian Embassy in Amman on Saturday, chanting 'the Tunisian Revolution will spread'.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Chinese mothers are superior

A LOT of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many maths whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I have done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a playdate
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about not being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get any grade less than an A
  • Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • Play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • Not play the piano or violin.

I am using the term 'Chinese mother' loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I am also using the term 'Western parents' loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

All the same, even when Western parents think they are being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practise their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.

In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70 per cent of the Western mothers said either that 'stressing academic success is not good for children' or that 'parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun'. By contrast, roughly zero per cent of the Chinese mothers felt the same way.

Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be 'the best' students, that 'academic achievement reflects successful parenting', and that if children did not excel at school, then there was 'a problem' and parents 'were not doing their job'. Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you are good at it. To get good at anything, you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle.

Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something - whether it's maths, piano, pitching or ballet - he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't. Once when I was young - maybe more than once - when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me 'garbage' in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn't actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her 'garbage' in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully towards me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracised. One guest named Marcy got so upset that she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable - even legally actionable - to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, 'Hey fatty - lose some weight'. By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of 'health' and never ever mentioning the F-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.

(I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her 'beautiful and incredibly competent'. She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, 'You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you'. By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they are not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

I have thought long and hard about how Chinese parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mindsets.

First, I have noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.
For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child 'stupid', 'worthless' or 'a disgrace'.

Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child's grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher's credentials.

If a Chinese child gets a B - which would never happen - there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parents believe that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long gruelling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.)
Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.

By contrast, I don't think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. 'Children don't choose their parents,' he once said to me. 'They don't even choose to be born. It's parents who foist life on their kids, so it's the parents' responsibility to provide for them. Kids don't owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.' This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.

Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, 'I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3 to 7, and I'll also need a ride on weekends'. God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that Chinese parents don't care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It's just an entirely different parenting model.

Here's a story in favour of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about seven, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called The Little White Donkey by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute - you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master - but it's also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.

Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.

'Get back to the piano now,' I ordered.

'You can't make me.'

'Oh yes, I can.'

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have The Little White Donkey perfect by the next day.

When Lulu said, 'I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?', I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu - which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her - and that he didn't think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn't do the technique - perhaps she didn't have the coordination yet - had I considered that possibility?

'You just don't believe in her,' I accused.

'That's ridiculous,' Jed said scornfully. 'Of course I do.'

'Sophia could play the piece when she was this age.'

'But Lulu and Sophia are different people,' Jed pointed out.

'Oh no, not this,' I said, rolling my eyes. 'Everyone is special in their special own way,' I mimicked sarcastically. 'Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.'

I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together - her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing - just like that.

Lulu realised it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.

'Mommy, look - it's easy!'

After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano.

That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When she performed The Little White Donkey at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said: 'What a perfect piece for Lulu - it's so spunky and so her.'

Even Jed gave me credit for that one. Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up.

On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.

There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests.

For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.

I think it's a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.

Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment.

By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they are capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

The writer is a professor at Yale Law School and author of Day Of Empire and World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred And Global Instability. The above essay is excerpted from the writer's latest book, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Changing face of Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: A 60-year-old university administrator in Karachi is wistful as he recalls the more tolerant, freewheeling Pakistan of his youth.

Once, when a teacher suggested no book can be perfect, the boy asked if that included Islam's holy book, the Quran.

That sparked a candid class discussion about religion. But in today's Pakistan, Mr Muqtida Mansoor said, he would never dare to ask that question in public. After all, 'anyone could shoot you'.

On Tuesday, President Asif Ali Zardari appointed Sardar Muhammad Latif Khan Khosa, a party loyalist, to replace the assassinated governor of Punjab, Mr Salman Taseer, one of the few politicians openly challenging the onslaught of religious extremism.

Days after the killing, moderates are facing a new and troubling reality: Pakistan is a country where fundamentalism is becoming mainstream, leaving even less room for dissent, difference and once-prevalent leisures such as public music, dance parties or other social contact between the sexes.

The more liberal-minded are left with a profound sense of loss, alienation and fear for the future.

One rights activist has forecast that at the rate Islamist groups are rising, a religious party could be ruling the country in 10 to 15 years. The transformation is particularly disheartening for many younger Pakistanis.

'There is no concept of freedom of speech in this country,' said Ms Aaisha Aslam, 25, who works for a non- governmental organisation. People with fanatic mindsets are 'out to snatch this country from us'.

Islamists have flourished in part because governments have failed to provide for people's needs, such as in education and health care. Islamists fill the gap through their welfare organisations, clinics, mosques, religious seminaries and other networks.

It does not help that those in Pakistan's small, liberal, secular wing tend to be wealthier and more educated than most Pakistanis, a cultural divide that is hard to bridge, said Mr Burzine Waghmar, who teaches about Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

And so liberals are increasingly nostalgic for the past, before the 1980s rule of army General Zia ul-Haq. Gen Zia, a fundamentalist Muslim, infused Islam into everything from school texts to the legal code - including pushing through harsh blasphemy laws and statutes that treated rape victims as adulterers.

Mr Javed Ali, 70, remembers how bars and cinemas once flourished, and dance parties were advertised in newspapers - admission price, one rupee. While visiting Karachi, Mr Ali would go to The Moonlight Club, where dancers would entertain the masses. 'Now, that's a dream,' he said.

Mr Mansoor remembers a more live and let-live society. 'I was a handsome man and had good taste as well,' he said.'I had many girlfriends and I would liberally take them to my home and nobody would mind. I would take my girlfriend to the beach and no police would harass us. But later on, the police would ask for marriage papers even if you were with your wife.'

Photographer Nazir Khan, 50, of Karachi, recalls how relations between majority Sunni and minority Shi'ite Muslims were far more cordial.

'I used to offer my Friday prayers in any mosque without consideration to which sect it belonged,' Mr Khan said.

The Islamisation has accelerated since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan viewed by many as an attack on the Muslim world. Thousands now routinely show up for anti-US rallies.

In cosmopolitan centres such as Karachi, far more women now wear face veils than in years past. Girls as young as six or seven are wearing headscarves, said Mr Roland DeSouza, a Christian, who is a partner in an engineering firm. 'That sort of thing you didn't see 10 years ago,' he said.

Even in the north-west, which is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and their conservative culture, life used to be more free. Men would take their wives to the movies, and musicians were routinely hired to perform at weddings. Pakistani Taleban threats and attacks have changed that.

Columnist Mosharraf Zaidi said Pakistanis have to be willing to stand up publicly for tolerance - even if it means risking their own lives.

'There will be casualties,' he said, 'but you will have a civil discourse.'


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

India lifts travel curbs in three states

NEW DELHI: Mr Sandipan Ghosh, a tour operator in north-east India, has been busy sending out messages to his contacts abroad on how the government has lifted restrictions on foreigners travelling to three states there.

These states in north-eastern India - Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland - are steeped in history and ethnicity, and possess some breathtaking natural beauty.

'We are reaching out to more people - foreign agents and foreign tourists - to put across the message that restrictions are being waived,' said Mr Ghosh, chief executive of Eastern Meadows Tours.

The government for the first time in 52years waived requirements from Dec30 last year for foreign nationals who want to visit these states, in an effort that is expected to boost tourism.

Previously, foreign visitors had to get a permit costing US$50 (S$65), and had to travel in groups of four for a limited number of days.

The three states are slowly emerging from their days of insurgency but find themselves lagging behind many other parts of the country in terms of growth and development.

Insurgency in the north-east has been quelled through peace talks with different insurgent groups. In Assam, Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom, the biggest regional insurgent group, was released from jail for peace talks.

Manipur and Nagaland, which were sites of battles during the Japanese advance on India in World War II, are now hoping to attract more tourists from the East, particularly Japan.

'We have received many queries from Japanese tourists in the past. But the permit system was seen as an impediment. Now that it has been lifted, we expect to see many tourists, especially from Japan,' said resident commissioner of Manipur Bhawan Rakesh Ranjan.

Among the attractions in Manipur are a sacred place for Hindus in Kaina and the Khwairamand Bazaar, which is run by women.

In Nagaland, there are tribal villages like Khonoma and Dzulekie that are famous for their waterfalls. Mizoram has the Paikhai Tamdil natural lake and the state's highest peak, Blue Mountain.

But it is early days yet. Though the government order is out, dismantling the system and changing perceptions will take time, travel agents and residents say.

Bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and Bhutan, the eight north-eastern states - which include Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Sikkim - have long remained a less travelled path, even for Indian tourists.

With the permit system being lifted from the eight north-eastern states apart from Arunachal Pradesh, tour operators are getting ready to package tours.

'You don't come all the way from Europe or other countries just to look at rhinos in Kaziranga (national park)... We can blend cultural tourism, tribe visits, festivals and wildlife tourism into one experience,' said Mr Pradyumna Dutta of Network Travels, a travel agency.

Analysts believe the government's move also reflects the fact that the states are moving towards normalisation.

'Some of the north-eastern states were considered to be sensitive areas, apart from having border problems and insurgency. But I think we should consider this a process of normalisation,' said Lieutenant-General (Retired) S.K. Sinha, former governor of Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir.

For Assam resident M. Gyaneshwar, the move removes a psychological barrier about people from the north-east.

'Foreigners can now move around freely,' he said.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The official pursuit of happiness

POLITICIANS look to economic growth as the centrepiece of their domestic policy programmes.

Gross domestic product is taken to be the leading indicator of national well-being. But we should ask ourselves: Is it really wise to accord such importance to growth?

Granted, many studies have confirmed that wealthier nations tend to be happier than poor ones, and that rich people are generally more satisfied than the less affluent. Yet other findings from several relatively well-to-do countries, such as South Korea and the United States, suggest that people there are essentially no happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite a doubling or quadrupling of per capita income.

Moreover, in a recent Canadian study, the happiest people turned out to reside in the poorest provinces, such as Nova Scotia, while citizens in the richest provinces, such as British Columbia, were among the least happy. Since happiness is ultimately what people want the most, while wealth is only a means to that end, the primacy now accorded to economic growth would appear to be a mistake.

What seems clear from such research is that people do quite poorly at predicting what will make them happy or sad. They focus too much on their initial responses to changes in their lives and overlook how quickly the pleasure of a new car, a pay increase or a move to sunnier climes will fade, leaving them no happier than before. It is hazardous for politicians simply to rely on opinion polls and focus groups to discover what will truly enhance people's happiness.

In the findings to date, however, two conclusions have emerged that seem especially useful for us to ponder. First, most of the things that do bring enduring satisfaction for individuals are also good for other people - strong marriages and close relationships of all kinds, helping others, engaging in civic affairs, and effective, honest, democratic government. Thus, policies that promote individual well-being tend to benefit society as well.

Second, experiences that bring lasting happiness do not always command a high priority in government circles. For example, three medical afflictions that create especially acute distress - clinical depression, chronic pain, and sleep disorders - are all conditions that can often be treated successfully, to the vast relief of sufferers. But such people are frequently under-served by health-care systems.

The natural response to all this is to ask whether happiness research is really reliable enough to be used by policymakers. Researchers have paid close attention to this issue, and, after much testing, have found that the answers people give to questions about their well-being seem to correspond fairly well to more objective evidence.

People who claim to be happy tend to live longer, are less prone to commit suicide, abuse drugs less often, get promoted more frequently, and enjoy more good friends and lasting marriages. Their assessments of their own well-being also align quite closely with the opinions of friends and family members.

Of course, happiness research is still new. Many questions remain unexplored, some studies lack sufficient confirmatory evidence, and still others, like those involving the effects of economic growth, have yielded conflicting results.

Thus, it would be premature to base bold new policies on happiness research alone, or to follow the example of tiny Bhutan by adopting Gross National Happiness as the nation's principal goal. Yet the findings may be useful to lawmakers even today - for example, in assigning priorities among several plausible initiatives, or in identifying new possibilities for policy interventions that deserve further study.

At the very least, governments should follow Britain and France and consider publishing regular statistics on trends in the well-being of their citizens. Such findings will surely stimulate useful public discussion while yielding valuable data for investigators to use.

Beyond that, who knows? Further research will doubtless provide more detailed and reliable information about the kinds of policies that add to people's happiness. Someday, perhaps, public officials may even use the research to inform their decisions. After all, what could matter more to their constituents than happiness?

By Derek Bok
The writer, a former president of Harvard University (1971-91 and 2006-07), is the author of The Politics Of Happiness.


Tuesday, January 04, 2011

This year, change your mind

NEW Year's resolutions often have to do with eating more healthily, going to the gym more, giving up sweets, losing weight - all admirable goals aimed at improving one's physical health. Most people, though, do not realise that they can strengthen their brains in a similar way.

While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, others - especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions - can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older. In fact, the brain has an astonishing ability to rebound from damage - even from something as devastating as the loss of sight or hearing. As a doctor who treats patients with neurological conditions, I see this happen all the time.

For example, one patient of mine who had been deafened by scarlet fever at the age of nine, was so adept at lip-reading that it was easy to forget she was deaf. Once, without thinking, I turned away from her as I was speaking. 'I can no longer hear you,' she said sharply.

'You mean you can no longer see me,' I said.

'You may call it seeing,' she answered, 'but I experience it as hearing.'

Lip-reading, seeing mouth movements, was immediately transformed by this patient into 'hearing' the sounds of speech in her mind. Her brain was converting one mode of sensation into another.

In a similar way, blind people often find ways of 'seeing'. Some areas of the brain, if not stimulated, will atrophy and die. ('Use it or lose it,' neurologists often say.)

But the visual areas of the brain, even in someone born blind, do not entirely disappear; instead, they are redeployed in other senses. We have all heard of blind people with unusually acute hearing, but other senses may be heightened too.

For example, Geerat Vermeij, a biologist at the University of California-Davis who has been blind since the age of three, has identified many new species of molluscs based on tiny variations in the contours of their shells. He uses a sort of spatial or tactile giftedness that is beyond what any sighted individual is likely to have.

The writer Ved Mehta, also blind since early childhood, navigates in large part by using 'facial vision' - the ability to sense objects by the way they reflect sounds, or subtly shift the air currents that reach his face.

Ben Underwood, a remarkable boy who lost his sight at three and died at 16 in 2009, developed an effective, dolphin-like strategy of emitting regular clicks with his mouth and reading the resulting echoes from nearby objects. He was so skilled at this that he could ride a bike and play sports and even video games.

People like Ben Underwood and Ved Mehta, who had some early visual experience but then lost their sight, seem to instantly convert the information they receive from touch or sound into a visual image - 'seeing' the dots, for instance, as they read Braille with a finger.

Researchers using functional brain imagery have confirmed that in such situations, the blind person activates not only the parts of the cortex devoted to touch, but parts of the visual cortex as well.

One does not have to be blind or deaf to tap the brain's mysterious and extra-ordinary power to learn, adapt and grow. I have seen hundreds of patients with various deficits - strokes, Parkinson's and even dementia - learn to do things in new ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, to work around those deficits.

That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain's ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest it can.

One patient I knew became totally paralysed overnight from a spinal cord infection. At first she fell into deep despair, because she couldn't enjoy even little pleasures, like the daily crossword she had loved.

After a few weeks, though, she asked for the newspaper, so at least she could look at the puzzle, get its configuration, run her eyes along the clues. When she did this, something extraordinary happened. As she looked at the clues, the answers seemed to write themselves in their spaces. Her visual memory strengthened over the next few weeks, until she found she was able to hold the entire crossword and its clues in her mind after a single, intense inspection - and then solve it mentally. She had had no idea, she later told me, that such powers were available to her.

This growth can even happen within a matter of days. Researchers at Harvard found, for example, that blindfolding sighted adults for as few as five days could produce a shift in the way their brains functioned: Their subjects became markedly better at complex tactile tasks like learning Braille.

Neuroplasticity - the brain's capacity to create new pathways - is a crucial part of recovery for anyone who loses a sense or a cognitive or motor ability. But it can also be part of everyday life for all of us.

While it is often true that learning is easier in childhood, neuroscientists now know the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years. Every time we practise an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.

I have had many reports from ordinary people who take up a new sport or a musical instrument in their 50s or 60s, and not only become quite proficient, but derive great joy from doing so.

Ms Eliza Bussey, a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore, could not read a note of music a few years ago. In a letter to me, she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel's Passacaille: 'I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapses. I know that my brain has dramatically changed.' Ms Bussey is no doubt right: Her brain has changed.

Music is an especially powerful shaping force, for listening to and especially playing it engages many different areas of the brain, all of which must work in tandem: from reading musical notation and coordinating fine muscle movements in the hands, to evaluating and expressing rhythm and pitch, to associating music with memories and emotion.

Whether it is by learning a new language, travelling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow, in the coming year and those to follow.

Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one's brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.

By Oliver Sacks

The writer is a neurologist and author of The Mind's Eye.


Neuroplasticity - the brain's capacity to create new pathways - is a crucial part of recovery for anyone who loses a sense or a cognitive or motor ability. But it can also be part of everyday life for all of us.

Monday, January 03, 2011

It pays to do your homework

Sydney - The better academic performance of Chinese-background pupils in Australia is a result of their adopted routine towards homework, the amount of time they spend on it as well as the place where they study.

Australian researchers who sought to examine why primary school pupils of Mandarin-, Cantonese- and Vietnamese- speaking backgrounds outperform their Anglo-Australian and Pacific Islander counterparts have found that these Asian pupils had a 'very different' approach to completing their homework.

The researchers also found that children from each of the different groups received different degrees of supervision from their parents.

The government-funded study, conducted in New South Wales (NSW), found that children of Chinese background spent more time on their homework on a regular basis. They also preferred to work at a desk in their bedroom or study room.

'The Chinese pupils... had a more routine approach to this work, developing a discipline of independent study,' observed the researchers from the University of Western Sydney's centre for cultural research.

On the other hand, pupils of Anglo-Australian and Pacific Islander backgrounds worked on their homework in a more public area, such as a kitchen or lounge room.

Pacific Islander children tended to do their homework in front of the television set and, if they worked in their bedroom, they would prefer to use their bed rather than a desk.

The researchers found that pupils of Chinese background spent about an hour each night on homework, compared with Anglo-Australian children - who spent 20 minutes on some nights - and Pacific Islander children - who spent about 10 minutes on two or three nights.

Chinese-background children, even those of lower socio-economic status, also tended to be more involved in extra-curricular activities such as music and sports.

'There is a large percentage of Chinese-background children who do exceptionally well in NSW schools,' said Dr Megan Watkins, lead author of the study.

'There may be a stronger emphasis in Chinese families on academic achievement and that may affect practices at home,' she told The Sunday Times.

'Homework is habit-forming and if you do not develop it very early on, you may not be able to develop it in the later years... By looking at culture as a set of practices, it gives you a point of intervention.'

She and co-author Greg Noble, an associate professor, surveyed 469 parents of eight- to nine-year-olds, examined the habits of the children, made classroom observations as well as interviewed family members, principals and teachers.

They also did in-depth research on three sets of children from each of the different backgrounds.

Dr Watkins said the study showed the need for the government to encourage greater parental awareness about the ways to approach homework.

'A lot of parents, particularly the Pacific Islander parents, do not really understand the role of homework and the importance of doing it,' she said. 'Often, when the children leave school, that is the end of their schooling for the day.'

The research demonstrated that academic success was not 'natural' to particular cultures, but that some ethnicities adopted practices that get better outcomes, it concluded.

'We need to rethink notions of homework and the way in which parents are inducted into the kinds of practices that are important to succeed in the Australian education system,' Dr Watkins said.

'It is important that when new parents of backgrounds other than English enrol their kids, they are made aware of what they need to do.'

She recently presented her findings to the NSW Department of Education. Its director- general of education Michael Coutts-Trotter said the research would help to develop professional education and development programmes for school principals and teachers.

'Successful students see homework as a daily routine,' Mr Coutts-Trotter told The Sydney Morning Herald.

'They have a desk of their own and a school and family that help them develop scholarly routines. Visiting libraries regularly is another thing successful students do.'

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Banished Words for 2011

And now, here's a look at the 2011 list. Get ready for the "wow factor!" It's full of "epic" "a-ha moments" that are sure to "viral." It's a no-"fail" list that you'll be "facebooking" and "googling" with your "BFFs." "Just sayin'."


"Often used to describe the spreading of items on the Internet i.e. 'The video went viral.' It is overused. I have no objection to this word's use as a way to differentiate a (viral) illness from bacterial." Jim Cance, Plainwell, Mich.

"This linguistic disease of a term must be quarantined." Kuahmel Allah, Los Angeles, Calif.

"Events, photographs, written pieces and even occasional videos that attracted a great deal of attention once were simply highly publicized, repeated in news broadcasts, and talked about for a few days. Now, however, it is no longer enough to give such offerings their 15 minutes of fame, but they must be declared to 'go viral.' As a result, any mindless stunt or vapid bit of writing is sent by its creators whirling around the Internet and, once whirled, its creators declare it (trumpets here) 'viral!' Enough already! If anything is to be declared worthy enough to 'go viral,' clearly it should be the LSSU Banished Words list for 2011!" Lawrence Mickel, Coventry, Conn.

"I knew it was time when the 2010 list of banished words appeared in Time magazine's, 'That Viral Thing' column." Dave Schaefer, Glenview, Ill.

"I didn't mind much when 'viral' came to mean an under-handed tactic by advertising companies to make their ads look like pop culture. However, now anything that becomes popular on YouTube is suddenly 'viral.' I just don't get it." Kevin Wood, Wallacetown, Ont.

"Every time I see a viral video on CNN or am asked to 'Let's go viral with this' in another lame e-mail forwarded message, it makes me sick." Lian Schmidt, Bandon, Ore.


More than one nominator says the use of 'epic' has become an epic annoyance.

"Cecil B. DeMille movies are epic. Internet fallouts and opinions delivered in caps-lock are not. 'Epic fail,' 'epic win', 'epic (noun)' -- it doesn't matter; it needs to be banished until people recognize that echoing trite, hyperbolic Internet phrases in an effort to look witty or intelligent actually achieves the opposite." Kim U., Des Moines, Iowa.

"Over-use of the word 'epic' has reached epic proportions. Tim Blaney, Snoqualmie, Wash.

"Anything that this word describes in popular over-usage is rarely ever 'epic' in the traditional sense of being heroic, majestic, or just plain awe-inspiring." Mel F., Dallas, Tex.

"Standards for using 'epic' are so low, even 'awesome' is embarrassed." Mike of Kettering, Ohio.

"I'm sure that when the history books are written or updated and stories have been passed through the generations, the epic powder on the slopes during your last ski trip or your participation in last night's epic flash mob will probably not be included. This may be the root of this epic problem, but it seems as if during the past two years, any idea that was not successful was considered an 'epic-fail.' This includes the PowerPoint presentation you tried to give during this morning's meeting, but couldn't because of technical problems. Also, the ice storm of 'epic proportions' that is blanketing the east coast this winter sure looks a lot like the storm that happened last winter." DV, Seattle, Wash.


One nominator says, "what originally may have been a term for a stockbroker's default is now abused by today's youth as virtually any kind of 'failure.' Whether it is someone tripping, a car accident, a costumed character scaring the living daylights out a kid, or just a poor choice in fashion, these people drive me crazy thinking that anything that is a mistake is a 'fail.' They fail proper language!"

"Fail is not a noun. It is not an adjective. It is a verb. If this word is not banned, then this entire word banishment system is full of FAIL. (Now doesn't that just sound silly?)" Daniel of Carrollton, Georgia.

"When went up, it was a funny way to view videos of unfortunate people in unfortunate situations. The word fail is now used by people, very often just to tease others, when they 'FAIL.' Any time you screw up in life -- a trip up the stairs, a bump into a wall, or a Freudian slip, you get that word thrown in your face." Tyler Lynch, Washington, Iowa.

"Mis-used. Over-used. Used with complete disregard to the 'epic' weight of the word. Silence obnoxious reality TV personalities and sullen, anti-establishment teenagers everywhere by banishing this word." Natalie of Burlington, Ont.

"It has taken over blogs, photo captions, 'status' comments. Anytime someone does something less than perfect, we have to read 'FAIL!' The word has failed us all." Aaron Yunker, Ishpeming, Mich.


"This buzzword is served up with a heaping of cliché factor and a side order of irritation. But the lemmings from cable-TV cooking, whatever design and fashion shows keep dishing it out. I miss the old days when 'factor' was only on the math-and-science menu." Dan Muldoon, Omaha, Neb.

"Done-to-death phrase to point out something with a somewhat significantly appealing appearance." Ann Pepper, Knoxville, Tenn.


"All this means is a point at which you understand something or something becomes clearer. Why can't you just say that?" Audrey Mayo, Killeen, Tex.


"This should be on the list of words that don't need to exist because a perfectly good word has been used for years. In this case, the word is 'history,' or, for those who must be weaned, 'story.'" Jeff Williams, Sherwood, Ariz.


"These chicks call each other BFF (Best Friends Forever) and it lasts about 10 minutes. Now there's BFFA (Best Friends For Awhile), which makes more sense." Kate Rabe Forgach, Ft. Collins, Colo.


"A stupid phrase when directed at men. Even more stupid when directed at a woman, as in 'Alexis, you need to man up and join that Pilates class!'" Sherry Edwards, Clarkston, Mich.

"Another case of 'verbing' a noun and ending with a preposition that goes nowhere. Not only that, the phrase is insulting, especially when voiced by a female, who'd never think to say, 'Woman up!'" Aunt Shecky, East Greenbush, NY.

"Can a woman 'man-up,' or would she be expected to 'woman-up?'" Jay Leslie, Portland, Maine.

"Not just overused (a 2010 top word according to the Global Language Monitor) but bullying and sexist." Christopher K. Philippo, Glenmont, NY.

"We had to put up with 'lawyer up.' Now 'man up,' too? A chest-thumping cultural regression fit for frat boys stacking beer glasses." Craig Chalquist Ph.D., Walnut Creek, Calif.


"Adding this word to the English language simply because a part-time politician lacks a spell checker on her cell phone is an action that needs to be repudiated." Dale Humphreys, Muskegon, Mich.

Kuahmel Allah of Los Angeles, Calif. wants to banish what he called 'Sarah Palin-isms': "Let's 'refudiate' them on the double!"


"Unless you are referring to a scientific study of Ursus arctos horribilis , this analogy of right-wing female politicians should rest in peace." Mark Carlson, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.


"These politicians in Congress say 'the American People' as part of what seems like every statement they make! I see that others have noticed it, too, as various websites abound, including an entry on Wikipedia." Paul M. Girouard, St. Louis, Mo.

"No one in Washington can pontificate for more than two sentences without using it. Beyond overuse, these people imply that 'the American people' want/expect/demand all the same things. They don't." Dick Hilker, Loveland, Colo.

"Aren't all Americans people? Every political speech refers to the 'American' people as if simply saying 'Americans' (or 'people') is not enough." Deb Faust, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.


"'A phrase used to diffuse any ill feelings caused by a preceded remark,' according to the Urban Dictionary. Do we really need a qualifier at the end of every sentence? People feel uncomfortable with a comment that was made and then 'just sayin'' comes rolling off the tongue? It really doesn't change what was said, I'm just sayin'." Becky of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

"I'm just sayin'...'I'm not sayin'''…Actually, you ARE saying…A watered-down version of what I just said or intended to say….SAY what you are saying. DON'T SAY what you aren't saying." Julio Appling, Vancouver, Wash.

"Obviously you are saying it…you just said it!" Catherine Wilson, Granger, Ind.

"And we would never have known if you hadn't told us." Bob Forrest, Tempe, Ariz.

"When a 24-hour news network had the misguided notion to brand this phrase as a commentary segment called, 'Just sayin', I thought I was going to wretch." Casey Conroy, Pleasant Hill, Calif.


"Facebook is a great, addicting website. Google is a great search engine. However, their use as verbs causes some deep problems. As bad as they are, the trend can only get worse, i.e. 'I'm going to Twitter a few people, then Yahoo the movie listings and maybe Amazon a book or two." Jordan of Waterloo, Ont.


"It's an absurdity followed by a redundancy. First, things are full or they're not; there is no fullest. Second, 'live life' is redundant. Finally, the expression is nauseatingly overused. What's wrong with enjoying life fully or completely? The phrase makes me gag. I'm surprised it hasn't appeared on the list before." Sylvia Hall, Williamsport, Penn.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Waiting for Superman; What are you waiting for?

'Red tourism' gains ground in China

A tourist dressed as a Red Army soldier being photographed by friends in front of a mural of a young Mao Zedong in Yan'an, China. The Chinese city in Shaanxi province is home to tourist attractions that try to evoke the glory days of the Communist Party

YAN'AN (SHAANXI): The explosives had been set, the watchtower manned and the dirt battlefield cleared of rubble.

Communist soldiers armed with rifles took up positions at the foot of the barren hills. Their foes, the Kuomintang, loomed in the distance, advancing on the garrison town of Yan'an.

Then someone yelled: 'There's no electricity!' No electricity meant no show.

Hundreds of Chinese tourists streamed towards the front gate, demanding their money back. Other visitors stripped off their grey uniforms on the battlefield - they had paid US$2 (S$2.60) to take part in the production.

So went a recent performance of The Defence Of Yan'an, an hour-long re-enactment of a crucial moment in the Chinese Civil War - when the Kuomintang tried to overrun the Communists in their mountain redoubt in 1947. The show - complete with live explosions and a fighter jet that swoops down on a wire - takes place every morning on the outskirts of Yan'an, a dingy city of two million in the northern province of Shaanxi.

Capitalism is thriving in China, but red is far from dead, at least in Yan'an. The Defence Of Yan'an is a recent addition to tourist attractions that try to evoke the glory days of the Communist Party, after its leaders entered Yan'an in 1936 following the Long March.

Local officials and businessmen are profiting handsomely from a boom in 'red tourism', in which Chinese - many of them young professionals - journey to famous revolutionary sites to rekindle their long-lost sense of class struggle and proletarian principles.

'Commercialisation is not bad as long as we don't vulgarise the traditions and as long as we keep the spirit without violating it,' said historian Tan Huwa from Yan'an University.

The Yan'an area, with its distinctive cave homes and yellow loess hills, was used as the main revolutionary base until 1948, enduring bombing by the Japanese during World War II and assaults by Kuomintang troops.

It was here that top communist leaders - Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi and others - forged the ragtag Red Army into a populist guerilla force and hammered home socialist ideology.

'I'm here to be educated,' said Mr Ma Tao, 32, a pudgy civil servant who was struggling into a Red Army costume at the entrance to Yangjialing, a narrow valley in Yan'an where the communist leaders had resided in caves for several years.

'I feel proud wearing this uniform,' he said, as a friend - or rather, a comrade - snapped photos of him.

Mr Ma and his tour group, all sporting red Mao pins on their lapels, were among thousands of tourists - including real soldiers from the city of Xi'an - wandering through the revolutionary sites recently.

The Yan'an tourism bureau says on its website that visitors to the city surpassed 10 million in 2009, up 37 per cent from the previous year.

Tourism got a big lift in 2008, when the local government decided to waive ticket prices to the main sites. The same year, the city invested almost US$15 million to build plazas, museums and other showpieces. Officials and investors even wanted to hire well-known Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou to produce The Defence Of Yan'an, but had to settle for one of his associates.

But there are those familiar with the old Yan'an who are not happy with the way renovations have gone.

'There was a stark beauty, this totally primitive cave city that was the brain for the whole war effort in China,' said Mr Sidney Rittenberg Sr, a business consultant who was the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party and who lived here in the 1940s.

Mr Rittenberg took his wife to Yan'an in 2009 and was stunned by the changes. 'They've virtually destroyed this museum to Chinese revolutionary history,' he said.

In the Chairman Mao Exhibition Hall, no mention was made of the horrors of the great famine of the 1950s or the Cultural Revolution, nor did the standard party-endorsed assessment that Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong appear. Displays or photographs showing Mao's compatriots gave no indication that those people were later purged by Mao.

'The local tour guides will not allow anyone to criticise Mao,' said Mr Rittenberg. 'It's the only place in China I know of like that. They know absolutely nothing of the history.'