What brought kids, parents and seniors out in Singapore?

While I was sharing our Guizhou project idea in Suzhou to a conference room of developers, working professionals, students and entrepreneurs, our awesome team members finished a marathon training for Michigan and NTU students at the Nanyang Technopreneurship Centre.

How I ended up speaking in Suzhou had to do with cost of living. Upon arriving in Shanghai from Guiyang, Gray and I decided that Shanghai was too expensive and we needed to collect ourselves together in Suzhou first. So off we went. And Suzhou rewarded us tremendously. :)

A Guizhou Story and Asset-Based Community Development from Code for Asia Society on Vimeo. (Please pretend that you did not notice the missing words.)

I texted Jin Jian at 8.30pm the night before (June 4) about how I’m more than happy to share about our Guizhou plans if they were still looking for speakers, he said to send slides over so I grabbed dinner, sent slides over at 1.30am and found myself addressing a conference room full of people at the XianJiaotong-Liverpool Conference Center on the 5th of June (and had dinner taken care of :D). What I love most of all about the entire experience was the friendliness and openness of the organisers and the attendees. Really awesome.

Then on 6 June, our team in Singapore spent the night in Nanyang Technopreneurship Center teaching Michigan and NTU students to prototype their ideas.

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It was part of an overnight (and so they had beanbags) entrepreneurship camp so the would-be entrepreneurs were exposed to an overview of programming languages, making a website in Wordpress and rapidly prototyping using MIT App Inventor… All in 6 hours!

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That same weekend, we “brought” kids, parents and seniors out to code using Scratch at the Jurong Regional Library. The participants learnt to make virtual pets on Scratch. So people across the generations are trying out “coding”… What other excuse do you (still) have?

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Thank you all for spending your time with us to build cool stuff together. :)

Everyone can and should code!

Field Report: Kuala Lumpur-Chengdu-Guizhou so far

It’s that time of the year to hit the road and see what people have been up to again!

Incidentally, this trip was also my first time in KL city centre despite having transited in its airport many times and I was instantly won over by Malaysian warmth. It’s that feeling where you know that you’ve always had this idyllic neighbour, but really all you remember about them are konfrontasi and 1MDB… So the friendliness and go-getting spirit of the people has provided further evidence for a pet theory of mine: the greater the degree of state involvement (or efficiency), the lesser the “role” of the citizen. i.e. in a nanny state people are more prone to complaining and waiting on authorities to solve problems for them than roll up their sleeves and do the work themselves.

Definitely not pointing any fingers here.

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Starting Up is Like Falling in Love

Rajesh from the Asian School of Business had a metaphor for entrepreneurship that I think is very worth considering: It is a lot like falling in love. You have no idea what the outcome would be but you take the risk anyway. You plunge in without a care nor concern for what you would or would not walk away with. It is a leap of faith into the unknown. It is rather like sailing across the ocean at night and you can see only as far as your eyes could show you from wherever you are, at that point in time. Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s earlier hopes for Facebook and what he has evolved into. Let’s also consider the Ramp Theory of Learning. I am very fond of the idea that we should hire on the basis of trajectory rather than current state. No one is an overnight success, ever. You go out of your comfort zone little by little, you stretch yourself a little everyday, and as your boundary of maximal capacity expands outward day by day, you complete the turn from zero to hero.

Of course, most of us are lost in the trough of misery, sorrow, sadness, ultimate sh*t from the things that life throws at you. Hence entrepreneurship is a leap of faith. You just trudge on into the unknown, without a care nor concern for what you would or would not walk away with. Profit is of course a very strong incentive, but with early-entrepreneurship we are often talking about potential profit which is almost as good as wishful thinking so passion is absolutely necessary to complete the equation, I think. The insistent willingness to suffer for something – such is the proper definition of passion, and not a stroll by the beach sipping cocktails in the sun.

The best things in life are free. The best things in life do not come easy.

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The Community Outreach team in MaGIC was very kind to show me around despite a university group that they had to entertain at the same time and then there was just 1 of me who ended up meeting close to 10 of their people?

The sprawling building aside, my favourite moment was actually just passing by a group of young people who were sitting around a desk, to our left was the co-working space and where they were sitting, there were pots of plants in the background and random mushrooms on the table itself. And they struck up a conversation. We talked about achieving complete self-sufficiency in MaGIC now that they can grow their own crops, and that perhaps the next step would be animal husbandry — to add on to their start-up work and for some reason, I just found this whole idea really, really awesome. I suspect that it’s the communality of it.

I may have heard about general Malaysian happiness and ran into the chill Malaysian overseas, but to see them where they are and how upbeat they are about it all – that does make me wonder about the things we lose along the way in our striving for ever greater efficiency.

So Southeast Asia is a 200 billion dollar digital opportunity… But seeing my Malaysian driver take out a dumb phone was the surest evidence to me that this digital gold would take some hardcore digging. Such hardcore digging would require would-be diggers to go deep into the natural habitats of the consumers that they would love to have and I wonder how many are prepared to actually really do that.

Onto Chengdu.

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I shared a little about the work we are looking to do in Sparrow Village, Guizhou in December and met Quiz from the local Google Developers Group who brought us dinner at this place where locals eat at and the food is way better than what was had at Chunxi Road previously.

Eat like the locals do wherever you go appears to be a good rule of thumb to follow generally.

I feel very fortunate to have met with Quiz and connected with Yasic and Jian Jin — people who are changing my impressions of Chinese developers — and is hugely anticipating the Chinese Free Code Camp (which I am helping to translate too :p).

I am very stubborn about China though it has broken my heart time and again because you just don’t ignore one quarter of the world’s population. Imagine if the education system of one quarter of the world’s population is built around problem-solving! Just imagine that for a second.

Then Guizhou.

A confluence of factors brought us to Guizhou. The initial inspiration was really this Guizhou kid I had run into in Chaozhou last summer. I cannot quite shake off that sense of loss? Regret? Even a little rage perhaps – at the knowledge of how her life circumstances has already circumscribed her possible options and opportunities after our little chat and that’s why we asked around for the right village to begin work in. Many steps and details have been left out of this process but my simple idea is that humanity is about to witness an age of unemployment of never before seen proportions and our best way out is to acquire the new literacy of code and collaborate with machines – and I want to do it in communities that are at the shortest end of the stick when it comes to tapping these opportunities. The community has to buy-in of course – and that is why Gray was sent to scout out around Guizhou previously, and this was going to be our second trip into said village.

Village Life Updates

I have heard about how bad this Chinese New Year was because migrants were getting laid off, but to hear it from Shengchao, to hear about how half of the village youths who were supposed to go work in coastal cities could not find jobs because the smaller factories had closed down and the bigger ones had automated really put things into perspective. The villagers rise with the sun, and rest when it sets, so we are talking constant labour that puts our daily grind to shame.

For construction in the village, the villagers carried bricks from where the truck dropped them off and walked to and fro, to and fro…

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When the cab driver we hired asked for 200 yuan to send us to Sparrow Village (the last public bus had already departed by 3pm) for a 39.2km journey, we bargained it down to 180 yuan. Once we started on the journey, I realised we scored ourselves a real bargain.

We had to “climb” over 3 mountains to get to Sparrow Village. On our way, we spotted people who were building up the road by working from the edge of the road, laying bricks down one by one with their bare hands, with no safety support whatsoever…

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See that tiny footpath? The village is located behind those trees.

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The Economics of Village Life

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The thing about having an occupation as a farmer is that you may make enough for self-sustenance but beyond that, you are hard pressed for currency.

So when the country opened up its economy in the 70s and allowed people to move out of their hukou places, the village saw its first wave of migrant labour from the likes of Shengchao’s uncle. Shengchao himself learnt to cook when he was 10, worked in Dongguan for 7-8 years and another 1 at Ningbo. Apparently his family is perhaps the most well-to-do in the entire village, complete with a toilet and hot water.

Villagers eat what they grow and with whatever surplus that they have, they try to sell. I find the pork to be especially tasty – in general I have found meat of animals that grew up eating household food rather than industry feed to be so much tastier. The youth group has been trying to engage with e-commerce but sending out 2 packets of tea costs 50 yuan (usually it’s 8-12 yuan and the parcel man picks up stuff from where you are at)…

The teacher is paid 1300-1500 yuan per month, and village head 2700-2900 yuan-ish. All of which translates to not a whole lot of money.

The village traces its origins back to war and retreat. Their ancestors had settled here for the defensibility and abundance of water and natural resources. In the modern world, such defensibility by virtue of being hard to reach would turn out to be a drag on the village economy.

The Village Cultural Life

Because all youths went out to work at some point, they have lost touch with traditional Miao songs and dance. There are about 5 girls who can do embroidery but it is very haphazard because there is no real reason to do so.

Achievement Unlocked: Photo-Op with a Living “田福叔-like” Official

So my mission was to pose for a photo with the village chief and party secretary basically. At professor Donaldson’s recommendation, we wanted to be absolutely sure that the villagers are open to what we want to do. After all, we are talking about converting an empty room into space for play and computers for the kids, amongst others. Indeed they have a spare room right next to the classroom that is just as big as the classroom and is currently used as a storeroom.

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But then they are going to have a village election this coming July so the guards are gonna change. But then knowing the general stability of Chinese villagers and having witnessed the influenced wielded by Shengchao’s family, I am not too worried about dramatic changes in this 300 years old village, if any.

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Most importantly, the kids! My selfish reason for caring a great deal about work in these communities is because I see myself in these kids, I think. Except that I have been so lucky. They have new, roaring red school shirts and it was very interesting to see them in a cheery frame compared to the previous photos I’ve seen of them from Gray.

This is what I have seen prior to making the trip myself:

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Now they look like this:

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(Or perhaps she just takes really bad photos)…

We happened to be in time for Children’s Day and I was not entirely planning for it but I ended up giving a mini-lesson on where Singapore is and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”…

Where is Singapore? from Code for Asia Society on Vimeo.

Correction: Guizhou is in the SOUTHWEST of China and not CENTRE.

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When the class started, the teacher spent a good deal of time combing the girls’ hair because their grandparents are too busy with farm work for that.

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So Gray gave her a little helping hand.

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Also the class was made up of kids aged 3-6 so it was obvious that the younger kids could not exactly speak Mandarin yet, but the gang of eldest little boys were very outspoken, daring the teachers to race them, etc.

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老鹰抓小鸡 Eagle Catches Chicks from Code for Asia Society on Vimeo.

For our brief lesson and games on the basketball court, they wrote us letters before we go and it was then that I realised that many of them are unable to even write out their own Chinese names correctly!

I will be really looking forward to seeing these kids again. :) Which means we can’t do any double-blind procedures in the name of research objectivity anymore… But it would be good to track key metrics to make sure that we are making a measurable impact on these villagers’ lives. My two cents is that the most meaningful way to make a difference in someone’s life is to help them secure gainful employment. Rather than charity, rather than grants, put them in good jobs. So we shall see about this. The growth of big data clusters in Guizhou is a very interesting development to keep an eye out for.

Hopes

I hope that they will not grow up only to be faced with a very limited set of life paths to follow, that they will not be saddled with debt only to complete a degree that is next to worthless in the job market, that they will not be edged out of competition simply because their families could not afford monthly F&B expenses to maintain relationships, …

Last but not least, did I mention that the sun rising over Sparrow Village is simply majestic? I actually walked away for a while because it seemed like the cloud will be covering the sun for a long time. Moments later, the sun had risen above the clouds. I feel like I learnt something in that instant. I learnt something about doing a little every time to make incremental advancements vs. keeping still.

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And there’ll be more to follow from the road! :)

How do you teach history in a communist country? (China, April 2016)

When we first started engaging Wang, a history teacher in Wen Hua Secondary School in Yunan (posted there as a Teaching Fellow from Teach for China) to do some Maker experiments (however you call it, actually), it was very open-ended. Deliberately so, because we think it’s important to be patient enough to let ideas grow out of people’s minds rather than prescribe Key Performance Indicators from the outset.

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In between, it came as a shock that lessons are taught by reading from textbooks, and that the most critical tasks expected of students are underlining and highlighting — yet one cannot begin to fault the people who participate in the grind, because the status quo is the inevitable result of standardised exams taken to their logical extremes.

The obstacles are many:

创客实验对于教育来说,应该是一种,以学生为中心,关注学生需求,基于学生的所学,所想,所听,所说,所看来设计教学活动的思维方法。我想,很多老师在课堂上,用视频也好,比赛也好,设计形形色色的课堂活动也好,与创客都有异曲同工之妙。其区别是,传统课堂可能还是难以改变“老师讲,学生听”的模式,并且是以知识优先,而不是学生优先。作为一名教师,以知识为基准讲课是十分容易的。而以学生为基准讲课则需要耗费更多的精力,倾注更多的心血,这是很多老师,尤其是教学多年已经产生疲倦感的老师不愿意去做的。即使是新来的学生,在他们的眼里也与旧学生无二。更何况,在有了一个非常完整的教学体系之后,人们是不愿意去做创新做突破的,而更喜欢循规蹈矩、按部就班。我想,这是创客难以在所有课堂推广的原因之一。

难点之二,是学科知识如何与科技相互结合。最开始让我做创客,我也是有些迷惑的。对我来说,历史是古人记录下的一连串故事,是书本上的“死气沉沉”人物,是重大的影响深远的意义作用,是要记要背的一个个知识点。如何结合科技?我不确定。设计一个历史故事宝库?做一款猜词游戏?这也只是我的空想而已。

难点之三,是同理心地图。听到,看到,似乎不难,难在他们的内心。和他们相处的时间越久,我越会明显地感受到与学生之间的差距,年龄上的,知识上的,眼界上的,家庭上的,我了解十三四岁的我自己,可是我有点难理解十三四岁的他们。

我也非常困惑,创客实验会给在短时间内学生带来多大的影响与改变,尤其是半年后我即将离开,这样的影响是否还能在学生之间传递下去。

我想,创客带给我的,更多是思考方式,而不是一个单纯的模板或套路。只有真正的学会换位思考,真正的去接触到学生的内心才能完成这一工作。

To translate (very loosely) from the above,

  1. It is most easy to read from the text and lecture for a teacher. To make a student the basis and the centre of the lesson requires far more attention and energy, and this is something that a lot of teachers (especially the jaded ones) are unwilling to invest in.
  2. The second difficulty is in making concrete domain knowledge and technology. How do you make history smart? To me, ancient history is a series of stories recorded by dead men, it is but “dead” characters in books; these are events of far-reaching significance and individual knowledge points, how can technology be integrated into this subject?
  3. Real gaps in terms of age, knowledge, perspective, background persists between myself and the students. I know who I was as a 13, 14 year old but I find it hard to understand these 13, 14 year olds.

Then Ernie sent Wang a link and posed the following questions:

… 反思一下中国教导历史的方法有哪些优劣点。以知识为基础讲课的目的是什么(对谁而言的目的)?有效地完成了这项目的吗?这些我们信手拈来的知识凭什么就是知识,为何不是其他的一些东西?历史课上保留或者对之沉默的东西告诉了我们什么?

What are some of the pros and cons of the way that history is taught in China? What are the aims (and for whom) of delivering lessons with such knowledge points as basis? Has it been effective? Why are these “knowledge” considered “knowledge”, and not something else? What does the retention or silence of history lessons on certain matters tell us?

To which Wang responded eloquently,

that it is perhaps the inevitable result of a system that selects talent on the basis of standardised exams, that this is the history that the powers that be want us to know of.

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Slightly more than a month later, Wang did a little activity to have students guess historical events. 1 would try to guess the keywords involved, while the rest use their vocabulary of historical knowledge and language to prompt. Of the 56 student groups in 7 classes, the best result was 9 right guesses obtained in 3 minutes and the worst was 1 group abstained.

Technology and making in our conventional understanding of such terms are not yet “fully” utilised, but don’t you just love how there is always a Chinese twist on things? We can’t wait to see what happens next.

Web Development and Marketing Design (Singapore, 27 February 2016)

Our Technology Consultant, Nitya and Head Coach of TechSociety Group, Melvin delivered a workshop teaching 16 university students from diverse faculties the following:

  • Setting own DNS records
  • Generating a SSH key
  • Building a Virtual Private Server on DigitalOcean
  • Deploying WordPress live!
  • WordPress plugins: Visual Composer and WooCommerce…

If that seems like plenty of stuff to pack in 3 hours, indeed it was!

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The event was organised by CIO Academy Asia supported by NetApp.

Learn Lab China Community Sharing (Beijing, 20 December 2015)

My relationship with computing is rather like kindling an old romance, and that with education is rather than a fling that turned into a lot more. Education and books have always been a huge part of my life because quite literally they open my mind. But I’ve never entertained the idea of teaching one bit because I’m like, I enjoy solving problems, and then you realise: actually we are the problem – either because we do not care or that we do not have enough information – and in an age of information abundance, more often than not the former poses the bigger challenge.

My personal hypothesis is thus: the greatest challenge of our times is creating empathy at scale. Coding is important, for now – like a new language – as a basic literacy and the greatest wealth-creation engine mankind has ever seen since the dawn of us – but far more important than that is the ability to grasp and synthesise ideas from diverse fields, to model the world as you know it, and so forth; it has been never more important to be able to fully exploit the “advantages” of being human as machines run rampant.

I like to reflect on what has happened in my own life and how have those experiences shaped my perspectives so in preparation for the sharing session in Beijing last December I had distilled 3 key memories. When it comes to education and technology, there was the vivid memory of a secondary school Chinese teacher saying “never write about dreams!” In fact all language teachers used to ask us to NOT write about dreams, understandably. Yet looking back it was that emphasis on grades and writing a certain way that doth killed my love for the Chinese language by not just a little. I mean, I want to be melodramatic when I want to, alright? Hence I do agree to a large extent that our mainstream education system has a curious way of educating the curiosity out of us. This is most unfortunate as lifelong learning becomes a reality.

Another incident was buying a watermelon for less than what must have been $1 SGD at 9pm-ish in Nanxijiang only to realise from the vehicle license number that the seller had travelled at least 1000km to very incidentally quench of my thirst… Just wow. Imagine how much her life’d improve, in absolute terms, when she has easier access to information about market prices or when she is able to sell to a lot more people all at once thanks to a dramatic reduction in transaction costs.

The third thing that makes me so insistent about the place of code as a basic building block is the amount of automation that is going on. As manufacturing gets more done with lesser humans, we must be able to speak the language of the machines to collaborate effectively with them.

Yet our analog foundations in education is failing to maximise digital dividends for every child.

This is because of the fact that the two functions served by education, namely sorting and empowering, can be antagonistic to each other. Genius is randomly distributed, but opportunities follow a power law. Correlations cascade into outcomes of increasing inequality. This is why the Code for Asia Society exists. :)

And here’s a report of the event in Mandarin.

— Ernie

RoboCup Junior World Invitational Trip (Shenzhen-Liuzhou-Guangzhou 25-29 November 2015)

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Ernie, Gray and Shubham went on a trip. Thanks so much to the Liuzhou Science and Technology Museum for organising this and RoboCup Junior China for inviting us! Very interesting to know that the first Chinese city I had landed on, ever, on my first trip to the mainland is also an industrial powerhouse.

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It was plenty of fun checking out the Qianhai Special Economic Zone (They have apartments for entrepreneurs to move into! Now that’s what I call encouraging entrepreneurship…), they certainly got land though the location leaves much to be desired… It took us half an hour to Uber out of the place. Half. An. Hour!

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At least the food is as awesome as always. And many places deliver straight to your hotel. I’ve yet to find any other country that does eggplant the way China does it. And food portions are always so big.

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As on every trip to China, I would end up singing and dining with various local friends with the company I came with. China can be very collegiate and easy to mix around – there is a saying in Confucianism that goes along something like “to have friends coming in from afar, how delightful” – and our hosts certainly lived up to that. Though we did not take a train ride up to Yangshuo as planned (we were so tired and it was so cold), the competition organisers made it up for us by taking us on a river cruise of Liuzhou and we saw karst formations, as seen in the header photo.

Now let’s talk about work. 😀

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When it came time to do the work we went to China for, we did a group brainstorming session with 100 over students from the Liuzhou 12th Secondary School on “How to Build an Ironman in 30 Minutes” – and discovered to our delight that chocolates and Hollywood always work, even across borders.

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We ended the trip by visiting the local youth center and grabbing the local delight – Luosifen – by the train station.

We’ll be the first to sign up for this again.

Our special thanks to Auston Institute of Management, Mr. Girish Kumar and Temasek Primary School for letting us share about their Robotics experiences/stories!