Friday, December 29, 2006

The Corelation Between Money Spent and Exam Grades

When I recieved my NUS exam results a few days ago, I was quite stymied by the contradictory grades. Allow me to summarise with a table of the results, as compared to a relevant factor.

ModuleGrade$ Spent

*Money treating project mate to lunch when doing project at my home.

The table data shows clearly that the more money you spend on a module, the worse your grades! When I first made this discovery, I could hardly believe it. However, some thinking, I realised that there was indeed some basis for this phenomenon!

First, most of the money spent on the modules went to buying textbooks and other reference materials. We can establish that textbooks and reference materials contain lots of knowledge. Then, we know that Knowledge is Power. Hence, textbooks and reference materials contain lots of power. However, Power Corrupts! Hence, textbooks and reference materials corrupt! Ah! So that is why more money spent on a module actually decreases the grade in that module!

The lesson here is obvious. To ensure that your grades are good, please do not spend any money buying reference materials! For example, a Mr OZ, who did not spend any money buying any textbooks, scored well for the modules he did not spend any money on. I am sure you can find other examples of such well-scoring misers cheapskates financially prudent students.

Furthermore, by not buying any exhorbitantly priced reference materials (published by the lecturers), you will cripple the economic livelihood of said lecturers. Hence, they will be forced to survive by other means, such as selling TYS, selling exam scripts, busking by playing violins, matchmaking students etc.

In short, Say No to Spending Money!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Quran Oath Controversy

I was alerted to the Quran Oath Controversy after tuning in to the BBC. For those without the time or the patience to read through wikipedia article, allow me to give a short summary. A muslim, Keith Ellison, was recently elected to the US Congress. However, he decided to take his oath of office upon the Quran rather than the Holy Bible. This act drew criticism from certain personalities, first Dennis Prager, and more recently Representative Virgil Goode. Both believe that the Holy Bible should be used for all swearing in ceremonies.

Speaking as an outsider to American society, I find this act of criticism somewhat xenophobic and irrational. In particular, I would seriously question swearing all officeholders, regardless of religion, on the Holy Bible.

Consider this. The oath of office acts as a pledge of loyality to the nation. Now, what is the role of the holy book (any holy book) in this act? Quite simply, the book acts as a symbol, and as a guarantee, of the stregth of the pledge. When people swear upon their holy book, they are also making a vow upon their particular religion.

Now, ask yourself this. What would you make of a pledge made upon a telephone book? Or one made upon a roll of toilet paper? One would be quick to dismiss such pledges, because (barring exceptional circumstances) neither a telephone book nor a roll of toilet paper would hold much significance to the pledger. Similarly, a pledge made upon a holy book which you do not suscribe to bears little weight. Considering this, I find it absurd that some americans would want the Holy Bible to be made as the only item to be used during swearing in ceremonies. It is as if they desire for empty pledges to be made. I would much rather prefer for my representative (if I could elect one, but that is besides the point) to make a truthful pldege which would neither against his beliefs nor be vacuously empty.

For more information on this controversy, you might want to visit the wikipedia entry or this article, which discusses the latest turn in events.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Letter about the Wifi Mooching Case

I was extremely interested by a letter in the Straits Times Forum. The letter referenced the Wifi Mooching case, in which a youth was found guilty of tapping illegally into a neighbour's wireless internet (this is known as mooching).

Apparently, many people do not agree with the sentence, or even the basic point of whether this was a crime in the first place. Two main arguments were raised to support the notion that this was not a crime. The first is that the act of mooching, at least in this particular incident, did not have any significant or discernable effect on the 'victim', since the youth was only engaging in casual surfing which consumed only a modicum of bandwidth. If we are to judge a crime based on the severity of the crime, then this clearly would only amount to a very minor infraction at best.

The second argument is the failure of the 'victim' in securing his Wifi connection. In the words of the letter writer,
Take the analogy of two adjacent landed houses. One owner sets up a lawn sprinkler which sprays over the hedge into the neighbour's yard. The neighbour captures the runoff and uses it to water his plants. Is he 'stealing' water? Who is to blame here? Is there a crime, and who is the victim?
I believe the second argument is flawed. If someone forgets to lock the door to his house, is it then justified to take items from that house? Even if that someone were to leave his front door wide open, this does not allow us to misappropiate anything. At best, we can only reprimand the 'victim' for his negligence or even his stupidity, but this does not obscure the fact that a crime was committed.

Now, let us return to the first argument. Again, I believe that this argument is problematic. The problem lies in the false relation between harm and crime. Just because an action has no discernable effect on the victim does not mean that a crime has not been committed. Consider the following example: Each day, before you pick up your mail, I, out of pure curiosity, read through your mail and seal it such that you would not notice any intrusion. Given that I do not misuse any information thus learned, and furthermore behave as if nothing had happened, you would never come to learn of this nor be disadvantaged in any real or physical way. Would this then justify my reading of your mail, and thus the invasion of your privacy? If the answer is no, then the question is, what exactly is the harm done?

I would argue that Wifi leeching is at least morally wrong, not neccessarily because it 'harms' anyone, but because it reflects a mindset which is undesirable. The idea that it is acceptable to take anything, at no cost to oneself, is dangerous, even if taking the item cost others little. It is the same kind of selfish mindset which encourages, among other acts, software and media piracy. Surely, this mindset should be discouraged.

Of course, I would question whether we should make a crime out of what is merely morally wrong, or whether we should make it a crime only to discourage selfish behaviour. In this respect, I believe I am aligned with the critics, because if elements of harm are absent, then the crime itself should only be lightly punished.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Compulsory HIV tests for couples

Recently, I've been listening to World, Have Your Say on the BBC World Service. The programme can best be described as a global discussion forum for news. I was particularly interested in what was discussed on Wednesday's programme, which was the plan by an Indian state for compulsory HIV tests before marriage. This plan intends to make it compulsory for couples to undergo HIV tests before any marriage can be registered. This, along with other measures, is intended to reduce HIV rates in the state. More details about this news can be found on BBC's website here.

Listening in to the programme, I found that there were two general views on this plan. The first view expressed support for the plan, citing the benefit towards combating the spread of HIV. The second view, which appeared to be more biased towards Western thinking, criticized the plan on issues such as invasion of privacy and loss of freedom. The comments can be accessed here.

While I describe myself as a (classical) liberal thinker, I find myself unable to accept most of the objections raised against the plan. First, consider the objection of privacy invasion. Admittedly, we would not like for our entire health history to be made available to the general public. However, this ignores two considerations which are vital to the issue. The first consideration is that of communicable and highly infectious diseases. If someone were to carry a highly dangerous and infectious disease, such as Ebola or SARS, and chooses to hide the knowledge of his disease, citing privacy as a reason, the outcomes are clearly disasterous. It is sometimes neccessary for everyone to lose a little privacy for everyone's best interests. This consideration is highly relevant to the issue of compulsory HIV testing, because HIV is a pandemic.

The second consideration takes marriage into context. I would seriously question the character of a person who hides a disease as grave as HIV from his or her spouse. Such malice goes against the conception of marriage itself, which should be that one not harm one's spouse. Furthermore, another belief regarding marriage is that couples should be able to share much between themselves.

By similar arguments, we can dismiss the objection that these measures are too draconian. While I admit that forcing people to undergo medical tests seems unreasonable, we must remember that this plan does not does not really curtail a servere reduction in personal rights and freedom. Firstly, this compulsory testing is not frequent, and most people would only be required to undergo one test. Furthermore, the test itself is not for trivial or meaningless reasons. Hence, while the idea of compulsory tests seems unpalatable, it is actually quite reasonable. Still, I would agree that this opens some ground for a slippery slope, but with care, this should be avoidable.

In short, I believe that the plan is sound, at least on moral grounds. However, this judgement is only applicable to this particular social context. I have serious doubts whether this plan can be applied to other nations, especiallly Western states. The benefit in reducing HIV rates hardly seems worth the loss in social liberties in those states, considering the lower rates of HIV there. Furthermore, the relative wealth of the West allows for other methods to be used. In other words, the medicine must match the patient.

Monday, December 18, 2006

School Pocket Money Fund Ad

By now, everyone must have seen the ad for the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund. The ad itself is simple, comprising of a report card of an underprivileged student. What interests me, however, is the possible subtext of the ad itself.

There can be little doubt that the reported grades are good, since all but one of the subjects scored at least an 'A'. However, this itself draws attention to that one odd subject. Why was there a 'B' grade in the report? Would that not diminish the persuasiveness of the ad itself?

I have a possible explanation. A report card comprising of all A's would not be too convincing or credible, or worse, might reek of the elitism which we all are wary of. The 'B' grade acts to make the student appear more falliable and more human, and thus, more deserving of our sympathy and aid.

Furthermore, the subject recieving the 'B' grade is Arts and Crafts, which, at least in the conventional Singaporean mindset, is not a subject of critical importance (such as English, Maths and Science). Hence, the fact that the grade is less than sterling is at least acceptable.

If we accept the last point, then we might also want to examine why the report card reflects an 'A+' grade in Malay. Is there any message hidden inside this 'A+'? My first thought would be that this is a stereotype of Malay students as having, at least compared to Chinese students, a high level of proficiency in their Mother Tongue. My second thought was also along racial lines. Specifically, I asked the question, why a Malay student (in the ad) rather than one of other races? My question should not be construed as a racist question, but rather, as a question of whether racial stereotypes have been used (by the ad) in order to make the ad more effective.

Since race is often a tricky subject, let me clarify my last point. Now, consider an alternative pocket money fund ad. This time, the student is not a malay, but a caucasian. Would the ad then be more or less effective? My suspicions would be that the ad is less effective, because our racial stereotypes compel us to imagine of caucasians as being well-off. Now, my question would be whether malays are stereotyped to be the reverse.

Despite my thoughts regarding the ad, I still believe that the Pocket Money Fund is a cause worthy of our attention. My belief is that giving to children yields a significant future benefit to society.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Lack of Basic Maths Literacy

Apparently, some people can't grasp the difference between 0.002 dollars and 0.002 cents. More interestingly, these people seem to congregate together inside the same company.

The story arose when a George Vaccaro, on discovering a phone bill which was 100 times larger times than it should have been, made a call to Customer Service. Unfortunately he ran into a bunch of innumerates.

The recording of the phone call can be found here. Alternatively, the full transcript can be found here.

After you listen to the recording or finish reading the transcript, I think you will feel some sense of utter frustration at the innumerates. It makes me feel like there should some sort of crusade against the dumb.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

To know the exact hour of your death

If you were to somehow gain the knowledge of the exact hour of your death, and if that knowledge was absolutely accurate and immutable, what would you do ? Since the prediction was absolutely accurate and immutable, this prevents you from changing your time of death in any way. In such a scenario, what most people would do is probably to plan out their lives to make the most of such knowledge. I have other ideas.

The important thing to note is that the prediction (or prophecy) fixes the hour of death. It is true that one cannot live past that hour, but more importantly, one cannot die before that hour! In essence, the prophecy renders one immortal until the predicted hour of death.

Hence, if I were to gain such knowledge, I would undertake many extreme tasks which would otherwise take any human's life. I could easily beat all the survival stunts of famous magicians, such as holding my breath for months, or fasting for a year.

Of course, there are many possible pitfalls, The most important is to never participate in acts which could result in non-fatal injuries. For example, even with practical immortality, diving with hungry sharks is unadvised! The prophecy ensures that you will survive the swim, but survival does not equal immunity to harm! It is perfectly possible that you survive, but limbless. Hence, we should only choose acts which have two outcomes, death or perfect survival without any physical harm.

A major problem with this theory is that perhaps the prediction does not grant you temporary immortality, but rather, merely ensures that somehow, someone or something will happen to save you. For example, you may try to suffocate yourself with a shopping bag, but it will then be fated that someone will pass by and save you. Or, a gust of wind happens to blow the bag away before you carry out your plans.

In any case, being able to know the hour of your death is macabre, but useful.

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