Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Regarding bread

There was once when I was overseas with my family, and my dad was complaining that the western diet was rather monotonous. "It's either a sandwich with this inside or a burger with that inside. Always bread," he grumbled. After giving it some thought, I raised the notion that Chinese food was also rice with this on top or rice with that on top, which he had to admit was somewhat true.

Having said that, I do think a constant diet of sandwiches is more boring than one of rice dishes. I've considering the reason for this and came to the following conclusion: sandwiches vary less in taste because bread has a stronger taste than rice.

Consider the fact that we can eat bread with butter alone, while rice with only gravy would not appeal to many. This shows that bread possesses a stronger innate taste.

Due to this, the overall taste difference between a tuna sandwich and a chicken sandwich will be less than that between a sweet and sour fish rice dish and a char siew rice dish. If we model it mathematically, it would be as such:

Sandwich - bread takes up 30% of the flavor while the filling takes up the other 70%.
Rice dish - rice takes up 10% of the flavor while the topping takes up the other 90%.

Naturally rice dishes would vary more from each other than bread dishes, making what my dad said somewhat correct.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Merit vs Seniority

I think the general sentiment among most workers is that promotion by merit is preferable over the stodgy old method of seniority. The other day I was speaking with my manager, and he said that as the company promoted according to performance, the day could come when my position was higher than his. While that is a nice thing to hear, personally I think that a complete disregard for seniority has its drawbacks as well.

It's easier to see the cons of a seniority-based method - the talented young languish in lower positions, unable to make full use of their talent, while hidebound and uninspired older people control the company. Another point oft-raised is that if one's performance has no bearing on the speed of one's career advancement, there would be no incentive to excel. Both of these points are very true.

On the other hand, a strictly merit-based method has its failings as well, although they are not as obvious on first sight. The first among them would be that senior people would tend to be more reluctant to hand on knowledge to their juniors, for fear that they be replaced easily. The second is that if disregard for performance leads to a lack of drive, then on the flip side looking only at performance can lead to a lack of teamwork, as the entire workplace devolves into a cutthroat environment.

Clearly, neither of these two extremes are ideal for an organization to excel. Personally I feel that if promotion by merit encourages excellence and drive, then promotion by seniority encourages loyalty and teamwork. We need both these elements for a company to thrive, therefore the ideal promotion system would be a mix of the two.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Why less respect towards teachers is not a bad thing

Disclaimer: I respect teachers myself, just as I would respect any other person as a human being.

I often see articles lamenting how much our respect for teachers has fallen from the high standards of yesterday, when they were looked up to as the bringers of knowledge and keepers of civilization's flame. There are also articles detailing how much teachers are loved and respected in very poor regions of the world, where children come barefoot into schools without running water or electricity, in contrast to teachers in rich countries who are really not given much respect.

On the surface of things this looks dreadful. However let us consider why were teachers respected more in the past and in poor countries today. The answer, I think, is that in less developed societies, learning is rare and precious - even at the high school or elementary school level. Therefore by the laws of supply and demand, teachers are highly valued commodities. On the other hand in modern and rich societies, education is far more available and tons of people are qualified to become teachers. Obviously if the supply of an item increases tremendously, its market price goes down tremendously as well. Sorry teachers.

Another reason for this is that in the past, attending high school was not an easy thing, many poor families struggled to send their kids to school as their only lifeline out of a life of farming in poverty. So kids who are actually in school would tend to work hard as they would be cognizant of both their families' sacrifice, and their privileged position. Nowadays since everyone is forced to sit in class till at least high school, kids naturally value it much less.

In short, the reason that teachers are respected less today are:
1. Many more people are qualified to teach.
2. Learning is much more common than before.
3. Everyone has to attend high school, so the troublemakers are still around instead of going back to the family farm.

On the whole, I think this is a good thing. After all, would you prefer to be in a society where food is abundant enough to start food fights, or one where a potato is venerated for its rareness? I think the answer is self-evident.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Annoying noise

During the five years I have lived in my current neighborhood, the row of houses behind mine have periodically generated some sort of horrid drilling noise on Saturdays. I am not sure why this is so but it seems to be due to some sort of renovation or repair. This is extremely annoying since I am fond of sleeping till past noon on Saturdays.

To be fair they only start this at perhaps ten or eleven in the morning, so I do feel that I don't have much of a moral ground to ask them to stop. However the fact that they have to constantly drill and drill does make me rather suspicious, after all if your teeth were alright you would not have to constantly drill at them; this sort of nonstop invasive procedures seem to hint that something is wrong with the structure.

The other possibility is that they keep trying to improve their houses, which is very annoying. After all the houses here, including my own, are really middle class at most, no amount of drilling is going to make them into mansions.

Really I wish they could take up some more quiet method of improving the look of their residences, such as bonsai.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The death toll of Game of Thrones

Many people, my own father included, have expressed a great deal of distress at the constant demise of Game of Thrones' main characters. This show has gained a great deal of fame, some would say notoriety, for being ruthless to its main characters. However if we really examine the record closely, is it that much more bloodthirsty than other literary works?


Let's compare it to other popular TV shows:

1. Breaking Bad - main character dies, brother-in-law of main character, who is a major antagonist, dies, quite a few other people die, all in all not a happy ending.
2. Downton Abbey - Sort of main character for first 3-4 season dies, someone gets raped, another beloved character dies.
3 How I met your mother - title character is revealed to be dead.
4. Friends - er ok here we get a happy one...

If we compare it to other classical works, I think Game of Thrones comes off even better:

1. Julius Ceasar - title character dies
2. Anna Karenina - title character dies
3. Romeo and Juliet - both titled characters die
4. Hamlet - title character dies, his mother dies, his uncle dies, his fiancée dies, you get the picture.

Therefore I think it is rather unfair to single out Game of Thrones as being particularly guilty of killing beloved characters. It is only vicious in this respect if we compare it with other fantasy shows where the protagonist always triumphs and good reigns supreme - even then, let's not forget that Harry Potter lost his father, mother and godfather before managing to knock off Voldemort.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Disclaimer: I personally try my very best to harbor no racist attitude.

Despite our efforts to combat it over the last hundred years or so, racism is still present in a great many places, some more obvious than others. Although we have made tremendous progress in reducing its effect, somehow I doubt that it will be possible to ever completely wipe it out.

Consider that people do have a tendency to regard certain groups of people as closer than others. When the closer group of people is citizens of the same nation, that is called patriotism and is widely considered a noble emotion. When the closer group of people is one's family, it is called family love and is generally considered to be a intrinsic component of human nature. However when the closer group of people is those who share the same skin color, then it is called racism and is widely condemned.

There seems to be a bit of dissonance here.

So I think that there are only two ways to make race unimportant - the first is to achieve a utopia where every one of us regard every human being as equally deserving of our love and help regardless of whether they are our brother or a stranger from a distant land. This is rather unlikely.

The second is to make race a non-factor in our emotions. One difficulty in doing this is that a person's race is often tied to his or her culture, which in turn ties to things such as religion and language which tend to have strong emotional ties. Unless these differences can be weakened as well, a tendency to prefer one's own race would be difficult to wipe out.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Exams and the purpose of education

It is well known that in East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, the pressure to succeed in exams is very heavy. Many students commit suicide after receiving unimpressive results in these exams. Therefore, there has been much talk of reforming the system to place less emphasis on exams, which would be more akin to nations like Finland or Sweden, which emphasize holistic learning, and letting each student learn at his or her own pace.

But can this actually be done just by reforming the educational system? I have my doubts.

Although it is true that the general culture in Asia does push students towards striving for high results in examinations, there is an underlying reason for this, which is that attaining high results do make a large difference to a student's financial future. Take Korea for an example; it is not easy to start one's own business, and manual labor is not paid that well, so the prevailing path to success is to do well in the high school graduation exam to get into a good university, from which one can enter a renowned company e.g. Samsung and climb the corporate ladder.

In fact, the Eastern culture of focusing on examination results probably stems from the government exams in old China, getting a passing grade in them was a necessity to starting a career in the bureaucracy, which was the primary path to wealth and respect, especially for many poor families. In those days, students who passed would even get a flag erected in their village to commemorate their achievement. With the huge material returns promised upon passing exams, it's really not surprising that its importance was very high.

Coming back to the northern European countries, why is it that they take exam results relatively lightly? I think one key reason is that their societies are much more egalitarian than Asian ones, so even a high school dropout can enjoy a decent living working at manual labor or a service job, since their minimum wage is very high. According to what a friend from that area told me, an engineer there would earn less than twice as much as a waiter, so the returns on academic excellence are, comparatively speaking, much less over there. Since that is the case, students there can focus on following their interest, rather than their economic interest.

Put simply, schooling really serves two aims: one is to educate the populace and the second is to differentiate the academically outstanding from the less outstanding. A strong focus on exams serves the second aim more. In order to reduce society's focus on exams, it is not enough to reform the educational system itself. The economic advantage of being academically outstanding must be reduced, which would entail a higher minimum wage and a stronger social welfare net. Focusing only on "exam culture" is treating symptoms without looking at the cause.