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Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Village Teacher

Sometimes, I feel like I am the Village Teacher. 

I imagine that such a Teacher stands at the door of the school room welcoming the children. Parents cycle past and drop off all manner of love gifts. I have taken pictures of some of these. At first, I tried telling parents not to give gifts. I thought it would be more useful to have them donate to a charity on my behalf. Somehow, that did not quite take off. So, the gifts kept coming. I've only got pictures of some. 

The rest, I ate up. 

There was corn, mugwort, potted plants, a basket of yangmei, skin whitening masks,  breads, cakes (both bought and home made). Very often, the parents spare no expense. They don't just buy apples or papayas. They buy yangmei. It ain't just chocolate. It's organic chocolate. Organic chocolate is expensive. I know because I browse those chocolates and cannot bring myself to buy them! 

For some weeks, I wondered why parents were providing me a constant supply of gluten free corn flakes. Then I remembered that some time back I had blogged about falling ill after eating a bowl of Kellogg's corn flakes. Another parent read about me being a mosquito magnet and she promptly gifted me with an ultrasonic essential oil diffuser. Clearly, these are thoughtful gifts, and parents took time to think about what I would like. Then they spent time buying these gifts.

The value of these gifts go beyond their monetary value. These gifts come infused with an aura of joy and love which parents strive to show me in tangible ways via a basket of exotic fruit or a box of corn flakes.

To honour the parents' gifts I make it a point to make them something from my kitchen - loaves of bread (gluten and non-gluten), crèmes brûlées, bone broth. It can get quite pleasant, this exchange of gifts and regard. Makes me feel loved... and I think the parents feel appreciated too!

Still, it bothers me to collect so many gifts from parents. I stopped parents from giving me gifts on Teacher's Day. We organised a donation for SPCA instead. Since then, it appears that every weekend is Teacher's Day. I would be happy with just a card or a handwritten note that I can read through and hold when I am 80 years old... and can only relive the memories of a Dr. Pet still active and contributing. I could also take out these same cards to wave at the children grown into adults, who might come by to visit.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cannot Count on CPF to Retire On

CPF is Our Money, No?
All of a sudden there is this big hoo ha about CPF money. The first whisper of unhappiness that I encountered about CPF was when I sold our previous home to a Singaporean lady married to a French man. She was trying to calculate how much of the CPF she could use. Interest rates at that time were low. She reasoned that the cost of borrowing from the bank would be lower than the cost of using her CPF.

I didn't quite understand, so I asked.

She explained that if she were to sell the apartment, she would have return the money to CPF with the interest those funds would have earned if they had sat inside the CPF. The interest accruing in CPF was MORE than the interest charged by bank lending.

I still didn't understand because CPF is her money. I shrugged and then forgot.

Growing Old With Dignity
Whatever it is, whispers I heard 3 years ago became rumbles. Recently, it has fairly exploded into a pyroclastic surge, like a constipated Mt Vesuvius suddenly letting loose. To me, the case is compelling for increasing the Minimum Sum. Life expectancy is getting longer. Inflation is scary. The pioneer generation certainly did not expect that inflation would destroy their buying power. They have withdrawn their CPF money years ago and the money is gone.

Since the money is gone, the government has to dip into its coffers to help the Pioneer Generation. The Pioneer Generation does not feel good either to be subsisting on government handouts. Theirs was a proud generation. I guess raising the Minimum Sum and delaying CPF draw down would help later generations stave off an old age fraught with the indignity of accepting handouts.

Hmmmm...there are worrisome rumours about Ponzi schemes and GIC losing our money. I wish there were clearer visibility into those numbers if only to put a stop to these rumours. A rumour that has not been addressed with facts will only cause more panic and even people like me, who have always had the rock solid belief that my CPF is my money... would begin to worry a little.

Not Everyone Can Manage Money
I was in secondary school when a classmate said to me, "We are spending $70,000 to renovate our house because my Dad just got out his CPF money." Back then, at the tender age of 16, I was already puzzled. Shouldn't you save that money in the bank so that you can use it when you are sick or need to buy food? Even then, it occurred to me that this respected elder, the Father of my friend, was not a wise steward of his wealth.

I even know people my age who manage wealth poorly. They end the month with nothing left over. Meanwhile, their grocery shopping comprises foie gras, sashimi grade salmon and abalone. I know a guy who drives a BMW but lives in a rented HDB room. Plenty enough people cannot manage money.

The Minimum Sum will be their lifeline eventually.

Cannot Count on CPF
There was a time when I felt good that I was accruing money in CPF for my retirement. One felt some sense of security. Even then, from the day I started work, I had explicit savings targets aimed at retirement. At that time, a colleague 10 years older than I, commented that I was over kiasu.

Presently, I am even MORE kiasu about the CPF. Looking at the minimum sum, I know it is not enough to see me through to age 80. I am also not sure whether what we have accumulated will be enough to fund a peaceful, stress free and dignified retirement. At the rate inflation is going, I have every intention to keep on working until I can really no longer work. I have no intention to rely on the CPF to fund my retirement. It really is sort of a useless scheme, come to think of it.

The Minimum Sum simply is not enough.

Maybe I am just insecure about money. My insecurity about bread and butter has always far outweighed any vanity I might have. I was so insecure about money that I did not dare to buy branded bags and shoes, no matter how much I wanted them. Now that I am old and fat, those vanities are gone. I don't want them anymore.

I want to retire in dignity, with a roof to stay under, enough food to eat and books to read. To achieve that, I am guessing that I have to rely on me... not the forced CPF savings. On top of that, I intend to pass on this sense of insecurity to my children by showing them THIS.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

70 Crèmes Brûlées

Little Boy and I made crèmes brûlées for him to sell in school. I cannot believe that at my age, I still launch myself into things without thinking through. If I had thought it through, I would have said "No". When I started, all the questions came fast and furious.

- Are there even such a thing as disposable ramekins?
- How to fit 70 crèmes brûlées in the fridge?
- How to transport 70 crèmes brûlées without breaking the delicate custards?
- How to torch the crèmes brûlées in an environment full of teenage boys without incident?

In the end, necessity is the Mother of Invention. We had to make it happen so we found a way to do everything. It just goes to show that sometimes, to get anything done, one should not over think. You get in there and figure it out.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Teo Chap Bee Eating House

Teo Chap Bee Eating House is found at Blk 19, Marsiling Lane. It has become one of our favourite brunch places ever since I discovered my gluten intolerance. We can feed the whole family with delicious food in less than $30... and it really is mouthwateringly yummy.

It is the kind of yummy that has made me go back 3 times last week.

Rojak: $5

Bak kut teh: $6. It appears that this is quite famous. The meat is
fall-off-the-bone soft.

Seafood soup: $8. Very very umami in taste with huge QQ prawns and
soup that has me scraping at the bottom of the bowl.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Yoghurt in Thermal Pot

Feeling some heartache for the all night electrical consumption of the yoghurt maker, I decided to experiment with making yoghurt in the thermal pot. I was surprised how EASY it is!

Scald 400ml of milk gently. This means that you bring it to a very gentle boil. Keep stirring so that the milk does not boil over nor burn at the bottom of the pot. Keep it gently boiling for at least 10 minutes. This will remove the oxygen from the milk. This allows the yoghurt bacteria to work better. Yoghurt bacteria are anaerobic. They work better in the absence of oxygen. Too much oxygen in the milk leads to less firm and less creamy yoghurt.

Cool the milk down on the countertop. When it reaches about 80 Deg C, spoon out 100 ml of milk into a small mixing bowl. Stir in 100ml of yoghurt into the mixing bowl. When the mixture is smooth and all lumps have been removed, pour the mixture back into the thermal pot. Insert the thermal pot into its insulator.

Make sure your thermometer and all other utensils you now introduce into the milk are well sterilised. You don't want harmful bacteria growing in your yoghurt culture.

I don't use a thermometer. I just feel the sides of the pot. If it feels almost hot enough to hurt but does not, that is the right temperature. Then again, my skin could be tougher or more sensitive than yours. Hence, if unsure, use a thermometer.

After 15 hours of incubation, open the thermal pot. Voilà! Yoghurt! Of course, you can add sugar and flavouring into the milk before you culture the yoghurt. I make plain yoghurt. Members of the family who want flavouring will just stir in jam. I like to stir in lemon curd to get lemon flavoured yoghurt.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Marking Guides: Grooming Our Brightest to be Followers

A friend of ours relocated to Adelaide some years back for the sake of his Asperger's son. Singapore lost a gifted aeronautical engineer the day he left. He quickly found a job in Adelaide and has since become a trusted employee in an Australian high tech consultancy. He is back here to set up a local office in Singapore. To do that, he needs to recruit an anchor man here.

He interviewed umpteen graduates of NTU and NUS before he eventually hired a polytechnic graduate who was currently studying for an external degree in a LESS reputable university than NTU and NUS.

Frustrated frown between his eyes, he said, "The graduates were just too keen to get things right. They needed assurance and guidance because they needed to be right. We cannot afford the time to guide and assure them. We need people who have the courage to do what they think is right, and defend their actions."

"The poly grads have those guts," said he.

Marking Guides Standardise Marking
I do believe that the root of all this lies in the practice of Marking Guides. Undoubtedly, marking guides are useful to standardise marking. Please note that I did not write "to make marking objective". Marking guides make marking more objective? This is a myth. Like it or not, marking guides are still subjective. They simply reflect the subjective opinion of the one or of those who created the guide.

Still subjective, you know.

Marking guides STANDARDISE marking so that every script is marked the exact same way. There is therefore ONE right answer. Since teachers have to follow the marking guide, many teachers suspend their capacities for judgment and stop thinking about what they are marking. Worse still, they stop thinking about the child... and the uniqueness of each child.

This shows how, with a marking guide, Teachers forget to use their brains. Later on, when questioned they give an insensible explanation. Actually, I think the Teacher just blindly followed the marking guide.

Customising the Marking Guide To the Child
Little N (in Primary 5) reads books such as "The Intellectual Devotional". His compositions are replete with long sentence structures of myriad patterns. Dr Pet's English Enrichment teaches specific long sentence structures that are safe to use (i.e., the children can use them without too much risk of error) and complex enough to add syntax variety to their writing. For balance and elegance, the children are taught to write a judicious mix of short and long sentences. Little N, however, has a tendency to write masses of long sentences of every conceivable sort. Unlike other children, who would make masses of grammar errors if they contorted themselves into long and windy sentences, Little N hardly ever makes grammar mistakes in long sentence structures.

He is that good.

I decided to mark Little N differently from the other children to bring his prose into balance. I took out the specific long sentence structures from my marking scheme, and replaced them with one rubric that covered ALL the long sentence structures. This child could manipulate with enviable skill an astonishing variety of long sentence structures. Why lock him down to only the few that were in the marking scheme?

I decided to change the marking scheme to suit the child, in order to help him work on his weaknesses (too little use of short sentences) and maintain his strengths (copious long sentence structures). In so doing, I do not press Little N into a mould. He does not learn that there is ONE right way of mixing long and short sentences.

An example of Little N's readings.

Marking Guides Simplify Skills and Knowledge
Very often, in primary school, knowledge and skills are simplified. Necessarily so because we are talking about 12 year olds. Some degree of oversimplification is necessary to teach and have them understand. In addition, simplifying helps teachers teach the same thing to the masses. If you wanted to teach someone how to make bak kut teh, you would use ONE recipe.

In reality though, Singapore has many famous bak kut teh stalls each with their own recipe. They are all good recipes. Customers have their personal preferences. This goes to show that in the cut and thrust of real life, there ARE no marking schemes.

Nuances and richness are lost in the simplification of a marking scheme, or of a single accepted bak kut teh recipe.

Marking Scheme 1: Power Words
One example of such simplification is the fascination many teachers had (some still have) with bombastic words. To score their students, they would count the number of Power Words or Wow Words: the more the better. Such scripts have double ticks next to the Power Words.

Marking Scheme 2: No Power Words
Another example of such simplification is the fascination many teachers have (some had) with words-no-child-should-know. These teachers penalise students for using good vocabulary. Such scripts have crosses on all the Power Words, and a note from the teacher stating, "The more bombastic your vocabulary, the lower your score."

All Teachers in the Same School Mark Alike
Whichever the teacher's marking scheme, the whole school follows the same marking scheme. Some schools teach children that Power Words are good. Others learn that Power Words are bad. Some schools give higher marks for longer compositions. Other children in other schools learn that succinctness is key and they are penalised for going beyond 200 words. Some schools ask their children to write as many long sentences as possible. Others ask their children to write only short sentences.

Good Writing Integrates Apparent Contradictions
The fact is, good writing is achieved by integrating apparent contradictions. Power words + simple words. Long sentences + short sentences. Verbose-ness + succinctness. Marking schemes cannot be ambiguous. They must state an answer or a criteria one way or another. Marking schemes are a feature of the early industrialisation era... when we figured out how to standardise factory processes.

I simply cannot reconcile marking schemes with student-centred pedagogy. If it were REALLY student-centred, there would come a point when one would have to mark one child differently from another after noting that the 2 children have different strengths and weaknesses profiles. One child masters long sentence structures poorly. The other over uses long sentence structures. One child uses ONLY simple vocab. The other overuses bombastic words. Neither have balance nor elegance in their writing. One child needs to be pulled back from the Cliff of Bombast. The other child needs to be pulled back from the Precipice of Easy Words.

Furthermore, there is also a gray area when it comes to exactly HOW MANY bombastic words to use... or HOW MANY long sentence structures and of what type? In other words, how much salt is too much salt in a dish? We can all recognise a dish that has too much salt, but there is a gray area where more or less salt doesn't really matter.

Parents Would Yell Blue Murder
Oh horrors! Gray area!? How do teachers mark like that?! There would be plenty of parents yelling blue murder. "Why is MY child penalised for using Power Words, but his friend in the same class is rewarded for doing the same?!"

Strangely though, every parent in Dr Pet's Enrichment is aware that the marking schemes are different for each child. Every child has a customised marking scheme. Every child has a Case Notes file where we maintain notes on the child's socio-emotional and writing profile. In class, facilitators are told that F needs to learn how to make eye contact. T needs to learn how to say Please. Markers are told to penalise J doubly for carelessness, and to ignore the careless mistakes for W.

Not one parent complains.

Real life is messy. There are often no right answers. Our children are taught 4 times a year for 12 years that there are right answers, thanks to the ubiquitous marking guides. Those who succeed in the system and make it to university are always trying to second guess what those in authority over them think are the right answers.

MOE Audit of University Processes
After the MOE auditors were done with auditing the processes of the university I was teaching in, I found myself having to write up detailed and un-ambiguous marking guides. Hellooooo... at an institution of higher learning, this makes no sense! In universities where research is done, we are pushing the boundaries of what is KNOWN. Ambiguity is a matter of course. For years, it was thought that coconut oil and butter were detrimental to health (and margarine was good). Today, it is believed that margarine is bad (with coconut oil and butter now good for health).

Duh!? The right answer?

Before the MOE audit, my markers and I were happily grading 2 essays with vastly different conclusions an A+... on the strength of the essay's internal consistency and the undergrad's skill (and conscientiousness) in citing evidence from good quality research. After the MOE audit, all my markers and I had to mark according to the right answer that I had written into the marking guide. We were previously marking undergrads on the strength of their logic and the quality of critical thinking. After the MOE audit, we had to mark them according to the right answer.

Whomever from MOE put in those bloody audit processes into the university must have been a fossil left over from Henry T Ford's era of the industrial revolution!

No Surprise that Our Graduates Have No Gumption to Lead
Not surprisingly, our university graduates go into the workforce looking for The Right Answer. They become very anxious when The Right Answer is not clear... and they keep bothering their bosses for The Right Answer.

The Daughter, graduate of a top school from an elite program... demonstrated this trait when she first began to work for me. One day, I told her off, "Use your brain. You have one. Take some risks. You will make mistakes. You will recover. I will also recover from your mistakes. Wing it and have some fun. That was how Mdm Kwan developed her nasi lemak. She didn't look to someone else for the right answer. She made her own right answer. Go and make your own right answer. Stop bothering me!"

Note how the boys from this school here give safe answers... and one boy was too afraid to even give an opinion! He said it was a trap and ran away! The top school rejects who make their way to polytechnic are just not very good at sussing out The Right Answer. Those are the psyches that think differently and won't conform to that ONE model of what a good student should be.

They make their own right answers. As a result, a poly grad was picked to be anchor man in Singapore for one of Australia's high tech consultancy firms.

It doesn't matter that these top school kids go to Ivy League institutions. Over there, they are still good at giving the examiners what they want (The Right Answer). When they come out to work, instead of making their own right answers, they latch on to international benchmarks such as the PISA... and global rankings... and global best practices... to validate their work.

Our best and brightest are acculturated to the habit of walking where others have gone before, instead of addressing first principles and inventing new answers to old problems.

Over-Reliant Children

NTUC Fairprice asked me to contribute an article to their website. It details some strategies on how to ensure that one's child completes work independently.

Please find the article HERE.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Citronella Essential Oil Diffuser

I can't believe it took me so long to discover this gadget. If anything, this is way better than the mosquito racquette that I have been raving about. All it takes is 1 drop of citronella essential oil + water, and 30 minutes of diffusion. 

At the slightest scent of the citronella oil, the mosquitoes flee the bedroom. 

I switch on the diffuser in the late afternoon. Then, I air the room. I close up everything before dusk. At night, when we switch on the air conditioner, there are absolutely NO mosquitoes in the room. It is unnecessary to even kill the buggers with the mosquito racquette. They have all left the room.

You can get the gadget HERE. You can email this lady, Ms Tan, for the organic citronella oil ( Do use high quality organic oils, and don't overdo the diffusing. Oils are dangerous when overused. Anything that is effective has side effects if overused.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Vanilla Yoghurt

I have had to make yoghurt everyday lately. The Husband and I had to eat 2 pots a day to improve digestion. This inspired the children to grab a pot too after every meal. The yoghurt maker can only take 7 jars. The yoghurt is all gone in no time.

I like to use Farmer's Union European style yoghurt as my starter culture. It contains lactobacillus bulgaricus which gives the taste that I like. One can use any commercial yoghurt as a starter. It is a matter of taste. However, do be aware that commercial yoghurts often have additives for added creaminess. Don't expect your home made yoghurt to have the same texture as your starter yoghurt.

I measure out 6 glasses of milk, add 3 tablespoons of sugar, boil with a vanilla pod. Next, leave the milk to cool till warm. Add 1 glass of yoghurt. Mix well. Leave in yoghurt maker for 15 hours.

I like firm yoghurt so I leave it for 15 hours. If you like softer yoghurt, you can take it out after 10 or 12 hours.

Even without vanilla flavoring the yoghurt is yummy.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Yixing Teapots

Tea in an Yixing teapot

Yixing teapots are made from yixing clay found in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu. The expensive teapots are handcrafted. The cheaper ones like the one I have above, are produced by slipcasting.

The pot  absorbs the colour and fragrance of the tea. Ideally, one should brew the same kind of tea in the same pot so that the flavours of the tea are not corrupted by the residual fragrance inside the pot. We've gone a little overboard in this tea drinking. It is NOT a good idea to drink Chinese tea every day.

Tea is a natural antibacterial solution. The daily imbibing of this deliciously dry and perfumed beverage played havoc with my intestinal bacteria. Both The Husband and I began to experience bloating and intestinal discomfort. To replenish the intestinal probiotics, I have to make yoghurt everyday so that we can both have 2 pots of yoghurt daily.

Home Made Yoghurt (much cheaper than
store bought yoghurt).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Killing Mosquitoes in the Night

The mosquito racquette has been a real blessing for a gal who is a mosquito magnet. 5 people in 1 room + 1 mosquito = Petunia is covered in bites and everyone else says "Mosquito? Where?". In the day time, I can get 'em easy with my mosquito racquette. In the dark of the night, I can't see those pesky things.

Finally, I managed to figure out a way to zap 'em in the dark.

(1) Wrap oneself up nice and good with only the face exposed.
(2) Hold mosquito racquette close to face.
(3) Press the switch when mosquito buzzes near face.

Mosquitoes fly in a zig zag pattern. Those silly ninnies can't even fly straight. So, they will zig here and zag there... and fly into my racquette. In the dark, they expire in one tiny flash of light. I got 2 mosquitoes that way last night and did not get any bites!

Friday, May 2, 2014

My Villas in Bali

The Living Room

The Bedroom

View from Bedroom

The Outdoor Shower

The Wardrobe

The Cook

The pictures on the website looked too good to be real so I came a little bit ready to be disappointed. I needn't have worried. The place is stunning. I have never experienced such a luxurious bathroom! I love the bathroom! It is some kickass huge bathroom. The Daughter gushed like some suaku "This bathroom is bigger than my university hostel room!" This is a bathroom worthy of the ancient Sultans of the Alhambra, clad from end to end in marble (or maybe granite). The bathtub has convenient armrests so I spent 2 hours in it with my Kindle reader. There are His and Hers sinks so I don't have to share sinks with The Husband.

Us girls (The Daughter and I) don't like sharing toilet-ty things with the boys (The Husband and Little Boy) because they have ewwww-worthy toilet habits. Us girls represent the toilet forces of good and clean. Them boys are the toilet forces of evil and yuck. So... hah! These His and Hers sinks are lovely! The wardrobe is right in front of the bathtub. 

This oasis of calm and luxury comes with "butler" service. I wasn't quite sure what that meant. Butler? Like in Jeeves? Anyway, it just means very thorough and attentive housekeeping. Putu is our butler. There is an iPhone on the sideboard programmed with his mobile. Putu looks nothing like Jeeves but he is very prompt and warm. We ordered breakfast from him this morning and a complement of cook and waiter came along with it to our villa. After breakfast, Putu sent over 3 very energetic young men to mop the floors, test the quality of water in the swimming pool and wash the breakfast dishes.

I think I died and went to heaven because at home, Petunia is both cook and waiter. If we had a pool, Petunia would also be Water Tester.