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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Hairy Crab Experience

The above picture from here.

Every year, at around this time, the newspapers devote much space to the epicurean delights of the Shanghai Hairy Crab. For years, I have been wanting to get around to tasting one but the thought came and then season was over, and I had to banish the thought for another year. This year, however, it so happened that The Husband was not nice to me enough that he proposed to make amends in the form of a Shanghai Hairy Crab lunch. To be polite, we invited Little Boy along who blinked twice at us and said "Crab... hmmm... and a hairy one? No thanks Mom. I'll have the baked rice you made last night."

Fine. Suit yourself.

The intriguing meal began with the reverent delivery by a charming (and very pretty) waitress, of a cutting implement that looked like a cross between a scissors and an ear digger. The Husband and I examined the thing wonderingly. The crabs arrived in a bamboo basket in a rich shade of vermilion red. Someone had obligingly detached the top shell from the bottom and I lifted it off to expose a rich orange roe that tasted like a cross between foie gras and butter. That was the high point because after the 2 teaspoons of crab roe went into my mouth, the rest of the meal was very hard work.

The crabs are the size of my palm (sans fingers) and the flesh was well ensconced between the layers of cartilage (like a mille-feuille in crustacean form) - big fat fingers... slivers of white flesh and layers of crab cartilage. One had to use the ear digger part of the scissors to scratch out the flesh from in between those layers of cartilage. I scratched and I scratched and I scratched until unbidden to the mind came a vision of a hen scratching the earth for whatever it is hens eat. Anyway, since the crab was there and I was too, there was nothing to do but try and eat it. I had to because it was The Husband's expensive way of making amends (each crab cost $58), and it would be most impolite to diss the experience.

It was only when The Husband's eyes met mine in exasperated one-ness over a tiny crab claw that we both giggled and said "It's an experience we don't regret BUT we will never do it again". Then the both of us began to behave like delinquent teenagers poking and scratching and snorting fun at our own valiant efforts to get crab meat outta the shell. The sedate family of four sitting opposite us gave us some curious stares. "How can 2 people have so much fun waving pairs of mutant scissors at each other" they must've thought.

It was a good thing that the restaurant's waitresses were absolute virtuosos at dismantling the crab. Else, I think I would have had to spend another hour eating that thing. I don't get it... because the way the newspapers describe the experience, it's almost like culinary porn. To me, it was just a lotta scratching and some creamy roe.

The experience ended on a minty note. A bowl of water with lemon in it was brought it... and a tube of what looked like toothpaste. We dipped our fingers into the bowl and lathered our hands with some mint toothpaste. This was supposed to get rid of the smell from our fingers. I didn't know that... else I would not have used it. You see, for $116 for a few miserable mouthfuls of flesh and roe, I fully intended to smell my hands all the way home just to get more crab for my money.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Learning Chinese: The Potato Way

I am not ashamed to admit that I am a Potato Parent. I am not pleased to admit it... but I am not ashamed. See... I didn't get to choose how I was educated. Unlike many in Singapore, I was never given the opportunity to learn Chinese. I spent the better part of my childhood outside of Singapore. So, I learnt French instead.
My children have to learn Chinese. I am fully supportive of this. If the government decided to move away from bilingual education and people had the choice to take or not to take Chinese, I would still opt for my kids to take Chinese.
But Potato Children like mine find it really difficult to excel in the Chinese language because they do not evolve in a Chinese reading milieu. In the past 10 months, I have experimented with some Potato Methods for Learning Chinese and my son has made progress. In this post I would like to share some things I discovered about the process of learning Chinese - and why Potato Children like mine find the language almost impossible to master... and what parents can do to make the impossible possible.
Under-Developed Cognitive Infrastructure
When I first arrived in Europe, I found Caucasian faces impossible to decipher. My friends, who had been staying there for years, could differentiate the German look from the Italian look from the French look almost immediately. I even found it effortful to differentiate one person's face from another's. Some years later, my Caucasian friends complained to me that all Asian faces looked the same to them.
After 1 year in Europe, I no longer had problems differentiating Caucasian faces. Indeed, I too could pick up the subtle elements of style and expression that allowed me to identify someone as Italian. The sheer volume of exposure to Caucasian faces stimulated my brain to develop the necessary subconscious cognitive infrastructure to (1) differentiate Caucasian faces (2) retain Caucasian faces with details and (3) recall whole Caucasian faces.
A baby who evolves in a Chinese literate family, meets in the natural course of living and breathing, enough Chinese characters to develop this subconscious cognitive infrastructure for fast and easy (1) character differentiation, (2) character retention and (3) character recall. These babies grow up into adults who believe that Chinese is easier to learn than Malay. This sounds incredible to Potato Parents, so if you don't believe me... click here.
This learning is subconscious.
Up until Dec 2010, Little Boy relied on the conscious learning of the Chinese language only. His Grandma assigned assessment books and he spent hours learning his ting xie. He worked hardest at Chinese and it was still his worst subject. This conscious learning was getting him nowhere. I had to help him activate his subconscious learning processes.
I took a risk. I adapted my own experience with face recognition to Little Boy's endeavour to learn Chinese. In my adaptation, I did three things differently from what parents of potato children normally do.
(1) I exposed him to material containing at least 50% of new and strange Chinese characters
(2) I did not require him to fully master (read, recall and write) the words he was exposed to.
(3) I threw away all the assessment books.
This was because I had decided to look BEYOND obvious and tangible deliverables such as the ability to write words and get high marks for ting xie. I focused instead on the unseen aspects of developing a cognitive infrastructure for (1) fast and intuitive processing, (2) efficient organizing and retrieving of Chinese characters. I didn't care if he flunked ting xie. I was focused on building the unseen, not acing the seen.
Let's now look at each of these 2 in turn.
(A) Processing Chinese Characters
Do you remember the dial-up internet connection of old? Not much data could go through because there was not enough bandwidth. Little Boy's mental pathways for processing new Chinese characters were so narrow that they were like dial-up internet. Not surprisingly, he had to spend up to 2 hours to master one miserable list of ting xie (and he promptly forgot half the list the next day).
Now, visualize in your mind's eye a small stream that allows only a trickle of water to pass. Compare your small stream with the Thames. Then, ask yourself "How am I going to get this stream to be deep and wide enough to move the same volume of water as the Thames"? Nature does it with forces of erosion. High volumes of water exert frictional forces on stream beds and banks as it passes through to dig a channel deep and wide. The higher the volume of water, the greater the speed of flow, the higher the rate of erosion.
I had very little time left because Little Boy was in end-P4 (and PSLE was coming up too soon) when I started messing with his language cognitions. I needed maximum erosion rates to dig a mental pathway large enough that Little Boy would not look constipated every time he had to read Chinese. I exposed Little Boy to daily stimulus from Chinese texts. I made audio-recordings and he memorized the text as he listened and read. Every new Chinese character fed through his brain hit against the narrow walls of his mental pathways, and made them wider and deeper.
For maximum benefit, I required him to memorize and recite in short chunks. This pumped the same material through his brain again and again until the material could easily go in one end (eyes and ears) and come out the other (mouth). To confirm, I made him read the material to me without the recordings. This is the equivalent of pumping the same water again and again through the same stream until you're pretty sure some erosion has taken place.
Today, 10 months later, Little Boy spends as little as 20 minutes (compared to 2 hours twice a week last year) to learn 1 chapter of ting xie. His mental pathways for processing Chinese characters has become very much deeper and wider. The speed of learning has improved.
But, does he forget? We will next examine organization and recall of Chinese characters.
(B) Organization and Recall of Chinese Characters
I visualized Little Boy's brain as a room with insufficient storage cabinets. Chinese characters, after having made the long journey through narrow passageways tumbled helter-skelter into this room. Once they got there, they promptly got lost.
I was sure the characters he had learnt were there in his brain somewhere, but since he had not developed the cognitive infrastructure for organizing and retrieving Chinese characters, he couldn't find them when he needed them. He could not remember.
I took another calculated risk here. I exposed him daily to new Chinese model compositions that contained about 400 words that he had never encountered before. I made sure that he learnt these texts well enough to be able to read them fluently to me at the end of the day. This meant that he was cramming a new lot of 400 words every day into his brain.
I gambled on the adaptability of the human brain. If you stuff enough stuff in a short time inside there, the brain naturally and unconsciously decides to build more storage cabinets for better organisation. It's a bit like a housewife who realizes that she has so much to store away that she absolutely must get the carpenter in to build more cabinets.... and because she already knows what she needs to store away since everything is lying there, the cabinets are better designed for the material she needs to store.
I did not require him to write the words. I did not require him to recite the WHOLE compo at a go. I absolutely did not care if what he had just learnt disappeared from conscious memory the day after. I focused on cramming new words and more new words into his brain to stimulate the development of more and better storage capacity for Chinese characters.
By January 2011, he didn't have to revise his ting xie for 2 hours twice a week anymore to remember only half the characters. He spent a single 20 minute study session on his ting xie and that was all. Studying Chinese became faster and easier. And that was when Little Boy began to feel good about the subject.
Hence, Potato Parents please don't despair. Our children CAN excel in Chinese. We just have to be aware that we cannot go about it in the same way that Rice Parents do. We are unable to read them Chinese books in bed. We are incapable of speaking to them in Chinese. But our own ignorance can be easily compensated by modern technology.
Audio digital recordings of model Chinese compositions helped Little Boy to develop the cognitive infrastructure that made processing, organizing and retrieving Chinese characters as easy as if he were a Rice Child. There is no reason for Potato Parents to sit back and accept that it is impossible for their own children to learn Chinese excellently well. With some knowledge of how the subconscious brain works... and a computer with speakers, Potato Parents like you and I can help their Potato Children.
So, Potato Parents arise. Wrap your arms around your children and lift them up towards competence in Chinese. If your children are in Primary 1 then time is on your side. You don't have to pump up to 400 new words through your child's brain daily, like I did. Set less stressful targets for you and your child.
But DO note that if you are a Potato Parent, you need to help your Potato Child build the cognitive infrastructure for learning Chinese that Rice Children develop naturally because of their home environment. Ignore the grades for a while and lay off the writing.
It was painful to memorise compos but it was pain of a shorter duration compared to the long pain that we went through from P1 to P4, trudging through short lists of words and never quite mastering them. We felt like losers then. We don't feel like losers now. In addition, Little Boy is now able to analyze the structure of strange and new characters he encounters and GUESS how they are pronounced and what they mean. Till now, this was a skill that only Grandma and The Husband possessed because both grew up in homes where people spoke and read ONLY Chinese. Best of all, Chinese has become much easier and faster to learn.
Potato Parents who intend to use this method can order the recordings here... should also read my posts on

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Call Roasted Garlic and Bacon Potato

Ingredients (for 75mm HappyCall Pan or 5 people)
8 or 9 medium sized Holland potatoes
200g of back bacon
2 bulbs of garlic (sliced thinly)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1. Mix everything together in pan.
2. Place HappyCall on gas stove at low-medium heat for 10 minutes.
3. Flip pan over and cook another 10 minutes.
4. Open pan and turn the potato pieces over with spatula.
5. Repeat steps 2 & 3 for 5 minutes each.

Timing is indicative. I didn't keep track. Should be about there. Hee!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

HappyCall Banana Cake

75mm VERSUS 55mm HappyCall Frying Pans

Banana Cake Baked in the 75mm HappyCall Frying Pan

Very Very Moist Banana Cake

I made a banana cake today with the HappyCall Frying Pan. It was a breeze. I didn't even have to oil the pan because the cake had butter in it. I was quite pleased with the results. The banana cake achieved a moistness that I have never been able to achieve in a convection oven. Possibly because all the steam stays as much as possible inside the cooking cavity.

It cooked for 15 minutes on low-medium heat, then I flipped it open, unmoulded the cake, closed it and then flipped it over to brown the top. Cooking time is normally 40 minutes and the whole oven heats up. This one sat on the stove top for 20 minutes and there was very little heat loss to the surroundings. I would say that both HappyCall pans have lived up to their promise.

Tonight, we will try roasted potatoes with garlic.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

HappyCall Frying Pan

I have a new kitchen toy. I'm not one who is into kitchen toys but this one has many advantages that appealed to Stingy Petunia. Firstly, it reduces cooking time (and therefore, saves gas). Secondly, it promised a cleaner kitchen after frying (and therefore, saves work). And both these advantages may be purchased for the pretty sum $45/=. Now, these pans retail on the internet for between $65 to $115. Don't get ripped off okay. I only paid $45 because The Husband went to a Seoul equivalent of NTUC Fairprice and got them for me.

"Them" is because I have 2. One deep pan and one medium pan. The deep pan (75mm deep) is for baking cakes. The medium pan (55mm deep) is for frying steaks.

The Family likes thick and juicy tenderloin steaks well done. Now, if a steak is thick and you pan fry it, the middle either tends to be raw and bloody OR the top and bottom of the steak tends to get burnt OR the steak gets really dry (which is a waste of a tenderloin cut). I devised a way of pan frying our steaks in a wok on super high heat for half a minute each... and then bunging them into the toaster oven for 10 minutes. This method gave me juicy and pink steaks on the inside, with nicely browned tops and bottoms.

With the HappyCall Frying Pan, I save on the toaster oven step altogether. I pop the 5 steaks into the HappyCall with a bit of oil and cook on high heat for 4 minutes on one side. Flip the pan over. Cook another 3 minutes on the other. The steak comes out nicely browned on top and bottom with the most wonderful pink colour right through the middle as you can see from the picture above. And there were NO fumes... NO oil splattering out of the wok (which ALWAYS used to happen when we had steak... I had to clean the whole countertop PLUS the floor). A bit of oily water dripped out as I was flipping the pan but that was easy to mop up with a kitchen sponge.

I'm ripening bananas for a banana cake using the 75mm pan on the gas stove. I'll post pics soon if successful. I'm quite excited because the conventional oven gives off a lot of heat. This is not energy efficient cooking. If I can bake cakes on the stove in half the time it takes to bake them in the oven and with little heat loss to the environment, then I will be reducing my carbon footprint.

I like that.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stung By a Bee

Never garden in your pyjamas.

It was a fine morning and I set out to trim the frangipani of its rusty leaves. Rust is a fungal growth on frangipani leaves that presents itself as reddish powdery spots or patches. It doesn't kill the tree but can be very unsightly. I was lazy and did nothing when there were only few spots, and then the whole tree turned rusty. And the rust spread to the other frangipanis too. The condition is easily treated with a spray of 1 tablespoon of evaporated milk in 1 litre of water every morning for 1 month. But first, one had to trim away badly rusted leaves.

So, there I was, trimming away the badly infected leaves (and having a good chat with my neighbour about a complacent MOE who loved to trot out stats to disprove personal experience and feedback) ... when a bee got inside my pyjamas and couldn't get out. So it stung me someplace rather tender. It was a good thing that I felt the initial pinprick of the sting and was able to locate the fat bee under the pyjamas cloth, and pull out the whole bee with its stinger before much toxin had been injected. Still... it began to hurt.

Happily, I am still at an age where I can still take the stairs 2 by 2. A quick google scared me silly. There is this condition called "anaphylaxis" wherein your whole body sorta puffs up from itchy welts... and then your lungs puff up and you can't breathe and then you DIE.

I didn't wanna die.

The Daughter googled too (in between giggles) and in her enthousiasm tried to administer antihistamine directly to the sting spot. I kept telling her that antihistamines had to be EATEN. But by that time, she was all done with grinding a capsule of LemSip and was gonna smear the powder on the sting. It was all rather exciting because I didn't wanna die and I thought she was wrong and she thought she was right and meanwhile the sting HURT.

Anyway, things calmed down after a bit and we decided to use some bicarbonate of soda mixed with water. Little Boy proffered this suggestion because he had read somewhere that bee sting venom is acidic and one could use an alkaline paste to neutralize its effects. It helped quite a bit to reduce the sting... but shortly after, it turned ITCHY. Maybe I should have used bleach on my b***.

I read with dismay after more googling that the sting would itch for FIVE days. I sure as anything wasn't gonna wait FIVE days for the sting to stop itching because by then I would have scratched away all flesh. So I prayed, and the itch went away the day after. See... prayer works!!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Little Boy Plays with Fire

This post is written for little kiddies who like Science (and their Daddies and Mommies). Little Boy was scared to death of the box of matches. It was a sort of fascinated scared. The sort of experience that gives you a frisson at the nape of your neck. So, the whole family gathered to watch Little Boy play with fire. Of course, we had to make sure we chose a spot with nothing flammable too near by.

Little Boy's first successful attempt at lighting the candle. It was uproariously funny because no one could understand why the match stick would not light even after 5 or 6 successive strikes. We concluded that Little Boy has limp fingers that needed training.

The small and precious flame was then gingerly placed into a container with some water and 2 small coins. This, Little Boy managed to do really well.

A glass jar was placed over the candle with an edge balanced gently upon a coin. This creates a small gap that allows water to move in and out of the jar.

Since the jar was sealed by water at its opening, no air could enter. The flame slowly went out.
If you do this experiment at home, you will notice that something happens to the water.
What happens to the water?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Many Faces of Milo

Defender of the Home and Hearth

The Perfect Gentleman at Breakfast

Manhunt 2011 (Dog Category)

Scooby Doo

The Evil Golden Eye

A Little to the Left Please... Up... Up... Ohhhhhhhh! Feels good!

This Lap Still Fits Mom... See!

Prosperous Kitchen

On the 3rd floor of the Sembawang Shopping Centre is a Cantonese restaurant called "Prosperous Kitchen". For some reason, there are never too many people inside. It's entire facade has incomprehensible scribblings in Chinese. For a long time, I didn't know how to refer to this restaurant because I can't read Chinese and the English translation of its name is written so small it looks like a footnote.

But I could not refuse Little Boy's soulful eyes when he requested to try the Dongbo Pork. Little Boy likes meat and he had been eyeing that big poster featuring this meaty dish for quite a while.

We were all amazed at how good the food was. The Dongbo Pork was melt-in-the-mouth soft without being too fatty. The fried mee swa was perfectly al dente with generous toppings of HUGE scallops and thick slices of fish. How do you get mee swa to be al dente anyway? Then there was red yeast chicken which was succulent and full of umami flavour.

And all it cost was $60/= for four of us to stuff ourselves silly because on weekends, there is a 30% discount. I was really pleased to find a yummy Chinese restaurant serving well-made food with prices that are easy on the pocket. This kind of quality is normally priced at $50/pax downtown. This place is EXCELLENT value for money if you don't mind the kitschy decor... and in contrast to some places a bit further down the road that serves badly made Western fare for $25/pax.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Chef Icon's Trovana Chocolate Cake

This is Chef Icon's Trovana Chocolate Cake. I had my very first bite of it at the zoo where a friend had had it prepared for her husband's surprise party. Looking at the non-descript appearance, I thought immediately of the calories and so I asked to share my piece with The Husband. Well... The Husband was busy talking to some people and before I knew it, I had stuffed my face with all of it, and was looking around for more.

2 weeks ago, we had The Husband's friends over for dinner. I made The Husband drive all the way down to the one and only outlet that Chef Icon has at Neil Road for the Trovana Chocolate Cake I had ordered. I deliberately fed my guests a lot of other food. The first course was ratatouille, followed by a mushroom quiche, and then a beef stew, lots of garlic bread and some foie gras. The predictable result of all this was that no one had much space left for the Trovana Chocolate Cake.

Which was wonderful because more was left for Petunia... except that The Daughter's discerning chocolate palate (she who only ingests Grand Crus Chocolates) had also told her that she was on to a good thing. So, we ended up sharing... rather unwillingly. Like we had to, not that we wanted to.

Since the end of that cake, I have been yearning for another bite. Finally, last night, I couldn't take it anymore. I called and ordered one 500g cake for this morning. When I arrived, I looked in dismay at how small the 500g cake looked and so I carted 2 cakes home. I will try freezing one to see if it freezes well. If it does, I will next order 4... and freeze 3 because Neil Road is too far away to drop by too often.

Friends who stay in India fly in, order the cake and bring it home by hand to their families. That is how good this cake is.

Hunting Trophies

When living in France, I used to be fascinated by the hunting trophies that hung down off the walls of living rooms. You know, those deer with antlers... wild boar. They hang down off the walls, usually from above the fireplace and stare emptily at you with their glass eyes. People in rural France have long depended on hunting game to supplement their diet. At some points in history, eating wild game was all that kept peasant families alive.

Well... at home, we're collecting trophies too. And Milo eats them with relish. In addition to eating like a human, Milo also eats like a bat. A few weeks ago, we hunted and killed more than 100 mosquitoes by hand. A friend who had just toured my new house and was excited and raving about its beauty, suddenly slumped her shoulders and looked at me with eyes brimming with pity, when I told her about our feat. "Gee... I don't envy you" she said.

Sigh! By now, I have come to accept this as part of being close to nature. Where we stay is as close to kampong as one can get in Singapore, so I suppose we just gotta live with these tiny bloodsuckers. Variously, we have collected a sonic device that confuses the mosquitoes with sonar... a mosquito trap that emits warmth and carbon dioxide... quite a number of odourless Baygon thingamajigs... and plentiful stores of mosquito coils. If we close the doors shortly before dusk, we have no problems because those mosquitoes that do get into the house are confused by a cacophony of sound and chemical distractions. Some days, we wake up in the mornings to see a light dusting of mosquitoes on the tiled floor.

Us humans haven't been bitten in quite a while.

Milo however, was beginning to look anaemic. He stays outside in the backyard where sound and chemicals are dispersed. Despite allocating to his sole use the carbon dioxide mosquito trap and burning two mosquito coils each night for him alone, I've noticed how mosquitoes settle onto his fur to feast. So, after 2 days of rains, the family headed out to hunt mosquitoes by hand. With 2 mosquito coils burning, we were hugely successful. The mosquitoes were groggy. A few of them were so full of Milo's blood that they could not fly. I am not exaggerating. I caught a few that hopped along the tiled floor carrying their heavy stomachs. For a while, I thought they were fleas. Many hid in plain sight on the chocolate brown walls so all we had to do was to play slap slap on the walls. Milo's job was to lick up the carcasses, his own blood and all. Clearly, he thought them delicious.

When it comes to hunting, males take things very seriously. The Husband was deadly quiet... intense and focused. He alone accounted for more than 50% of what was exterminated. And like those French fathers I knew from my youth, he was most assiduous in collecting his trophies for display. Milo wasn't allowed to eat his kills. Oh no! Instead, much of it went onto the various mosquito coil plates. And if there was any blood in the mosquito at all, that would be properly smeared on the plate for all to see.

I am so sorry that this is SUCH a disgusting post.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Breakfast With Milo

Milo is the perfect gentleman when he takes food from my hand. He does that so very very gently that you would think that I was made of cotton wool. We didn't have to teach him that. He somehow instinctively knew that I very much disliked the feel of his teeth of my bare skin and he made sure that I never had to experience it.

When he was little, he was so clumsy that he tripped over his own feet, and one of his favourite things was to run and jump into my lap. When he got bigger, that jump would knock all the wind out of me. He managed to figure out that his clumsy ways caused me discomfort and so he stopped doing that altogether. These days, he treats me very gently.

He is such a big dog with such a loud voice and such huge jaws that you wouldn't expect him to be able to take a piece of toast from the tips of your fingers without you even feeling his breath. But he can. Slowly and gently, he opens his powerful jaws just a millimeter and picks up the tip of the morsel I hold out for him. It's a bit like watching Conan the Barbarian doing embroidery.

With Toffee around, Milo was a different dog. He was rough with my hands and he seemed like he didn't care that I didn't like his teeth. Maybe he was in a hurry to wolf down the morsel before I took it away and gave it to Toffee? I dunno. But he's back to being Milo the Gentle again. We had a leisurely breakfast this morning on the patio with him sitting in his Good Boy Position. First a bite for me, then a bite for him. All was peace and calm. He was relaxed and I was relaxed.

I am so glad we rehomed Toffee. Like Fry said, much better to have ONE happy dog, than TWO unhappy ones.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bye Bye Toffee

I seriously didn't know that two dogs would be so much like two toddlers. It was reliving my children's childhood all over again. I remember how miserable The Daughter was, and how she much resented Little Boy.

Milo bit Toffee FOUR times (that we know about). He probably bit her more times than that (which we weren't around to see). Her left ear tip bled. The base of her right ear bled too. And then Milo chomped on her snout and put a hole just behind her nose. Unfortunately, it was at that exact moment when her tongue was hanging out, and that chomp on the snout impaled Toffee's tongue on her own teeth. She screamed so piteously that we all took turns to yell at Milo, and then we brought Toffee into the safety of the house.

To be sure, Milo looked sorry. I don't think he meant to bite so hard but he did, and he tried to do it quite a few times more... except that I barked a short warning to warn him off just in time. Toffee began to fear him. And Milo began to look depressed for being scolded so often. You could tell from his eyes that he thought we didn't love him anymore. Milo has been quiet and withdrawn, eyes looking pleadingly at me, begging to know if we loved Toffee more or him still. He was so jealous that once, when I was dangling Toffee's chew toy by my side about to hand it to Toffee, Milo came and gently but deftly took it away. I looked in his eyes and saw an uncertainty that made my heart ache.

Milo's jealousy threw a pall over our entire home. Every time I stepped into the yard. I had to kiss his nose and say something nice to him... and then Toffee would come running to be petted too. And when I examined Milo's neck, there were uncountable scratches from Toffee's baby teeth. Toffee wasn't an angel herself.

So, we decided to rehome Toffee. After all, we're everything to Milo, and he is too old to bond with anyone else. Milo loves us and only us. Toffee at 3 months will forget us soon enough. The Daughter put up an advert on the SPCA website and in one day, a Police Officer from the K-9 unit called up and asked for her. I drove to his flat to check him out. I know he will be a good owner because he explained to me how to cook for dogs. Dogs need to eat vegetables and fruits too, you know. Kibbles alone is not a balanced diet, said he.

When Milo realised that Toffee was gone, he turned frisky again. He came with his ball to invite us to play and he ran circles all around the yard. And he smiled again. You know how a dog smiles? With mouth slightly open and tongue hanging out a bit? He smiled again. It's good to have Milo happy again. Whatever might be said of Toffee and how charming she is, we still love our big wimpy dog more.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Metric for Teaching Effectiveness

I was thrilled at the recent announcements by MOE to review some parts of the educational system. I started a thread in the kiasuparents' forum and jubilated about the small progress made in the dialogue between Singaporeans and their MOE. Some other forummer threw a bit of cold water on my optimism here.

Clearly, this Someone has the mindset that MOE will forever be the loser vis-a-vis private tuition (with regards to teaching effectiveness). For me, it seemed odd that anyone would characterize any part of the Singapore government as "loser". As far as my experience tells me, it is a government that actually succeeds in doing what it set out to do, and delivers world class efficiency and effectiveness in a way that puts many a private company to shame.

So why is the MOE losing ground to the tuition centres?

I came to the conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that MOE is in denial. If we don't acknowledge the presence of a competitor, maybe it'll go away. Meanwhile, the statistics show that we're still doing a great job as educators. And because MOE can't or won't see the tuition industry as its competitor, it isn't doing anything to beat the competition. In my opinion, there are so many brains in MOE that if it only decided to, it could regain lost ground very quickly. However, ignoring the issue allows the problem to get bigger.

Meanwhile, career educators at MOE don't suffer for losing ground to a competitor, at least not in the way that jobs in private sector organisations would suffer if a company lost enough competitive ground. Children in Singapore are legally bound to go to school. Yet, someone must bear the costs of the lost ground. Parents and children do. We MUST turn to tuition (or parent coaching or pay $40 a book) to help kids pass exams. The society as a whole will pay the costs. If MOE's quality and effectiveness at teaching loses out to the tuition centres, then children of parents with means and money to buy tuition stand a higher chance of success in school.

Anecdotally, my sensing tells me that we have a world-class syllabus that is heavy on thinking skills but teaching methods and infrastructure have not kept up. Of course, there are uncountable other problems such as teacher turnover... teacher quality... inconsistent quality of Principals etc... but let's cut through all these distractions and look straight at the problem. There is a discrepancy between HOW our children are being taught and WHAT our kids have to do to perform at school. There has been a breakthrough in the development of a syllabus that includes high level thinking skills. However, a similar breakthrough in the development of teaching techniques (and materials) effective for this new syllabus, has not happened.

Thinking skills like cooking skills or gardening skills, need consistent practice and feedback. Someone used to tell me that one goes to university to hone thinking skills, not learn content. In essence, university style teaching methods need to be adapted for our primary schools if we are to teach thinking skills effectively. The one-to-one small group feedback on how to think and write becomes essential. Primary school is no longer about learning content anymore. However, there aren't enough teachers to go around, so classes are just as large as before. This precludes any attempt to teaching thinking skills effectively. There simply is not enough resources to give frequent practice and feedback.

It devolves to the parents and the tuition industry to fill this gap.

One possible solution to reverse this trend is to develop a metric that will allow some visibility into the relative effectiveness of Teachers' Teaching VERSUS Tutor Teaching. If, for example, it were possible to determine that tuition accounted for 20% of 1000 students' exam results and Teacher's teaching accounted for 80% of the exam results, then all the naysayers (like me) would have to shut up. The numbers would show that parents who spend tons of money on tuition are just wasting money. IF, however, the numbers show that tuition accounts for 80% of 1000 students' exam results and Teacher's teaching accounted for only 20%, then these numbers alone would motivate career educators to devise ways to improve their metric. In this way, we could harness a ground swell of innovation relating to teaching methods. What gets measured, gets done.

We have a syllabus like no other in the world but our teaching methods have stayed quite conventional indeed. And unless we have numbers to show otherwise, educators will always be pointing fingers at kiasu parents, and parents will point fingers back at educators ... and in the ether of words, words and words... no one will ever be the wiser. And meanwhile, the MOE has decided to forge ahead with character development. Now, imagine a situation where parents and tutors shoulder the larger part of the teaching load whilst schools do more and more character development.

Having some numbers to statistically model the extent of MOE’s dependence on private tutors to help children perform at school, would be helpful, I think. Still, who am I to say? One can only sincerely make a suggestion from the heart, and blog about it. And wait. If others disagree, they may have good reason. After all, Petunia does not hold the monopoly on wisdom. So one waits. If Petunia is right, the blogpost is right here and 10 years down, when matters have reached an untenable state, then I would have the satisfaction of knowing I was right and somewhat clairvoyant. Equally, 10 years down the road, someone could point to this blogpost (perhaps Petunia herself would) and note that Petunia wrote utter nonsense.

In any case, if we wait long enough, time usually gives some answers even without numbers nor metrics to help.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

You Will BOTH Learn Respect

Okay... I don't care what the internet says about dogs fighting it out. One dog bit the other this morning and blood was drawn. It dripped all over the front porch. So, regardless of what is natural to dogs, mine are going to learn house rules. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, should be using teeth on anything but food.

"Do I bite you?" I asked both of them darn dawgs. "Now, if I don't bite you, then you don't bite each other... and you don't bite anyone else. Understand?" Of course, both of them looked at me and wagged their tails slightly whilst cocking their heads to the side, puzzled.

But well... it's the end of the day, and they're starting to get what I mean. I managed to catch Toffee taking a good bite out of Milo. I've seen her do that before. She takes a nice mouthful and runs off like some cheeky monkey. She LOVES Milo's enraged response. This time though, I was ready 'cos I was waiting for her to provoke Milo. Like lightning, my cane flashed out and bit Toffee's bum. Milo looked at me and wondered if he had done anything wrong because he, I suppose, was contemplating some retaliatory action. So both ran. I followed them to the back and glared at both whilst both settled into a curl and looked subdued.

When The Daughter got home, she started off another fight. She had Toffee on her lap, whilst Milo nuzzled her hair... and the spunky puppy reached up and took a nice nip at his throat. We bit her again on the butt. She got the message that we intend that she respect Milo. Then, at dinner, I fed them both together. Milo finished first and was rushing for Toffee's bowl. He got bitten instead.

They're careful now not to jaw each other, at least in my presence. Jawing is not acceptable in my house, and since our house is a haven of peace and tranquillity, I will not allow my dogs to eat each other, even though they're naturally dog-eat-dog. In this house, we will learn to give way... sit politely when food comes... and never ever snatch food or attention. And when dogs fight, I will bite both with my cane.

This is a trick that every Mommy knows. If the kids fight, we punish BOTH.

We Do Not Have An Equal Opportunity Educational System: Part II

Yesterday's papers contained a fair bit of news about how Singapore compares with other countries in its success at helping students from poor socio-economic backgrounds succeed. This is good news but I am inclined to think that the numbers do not give a full picture of the reality on the ground today.

These statistics are lag indicators. They do not reflect nascent phenomena. This means that if something started 4 to 5 years ago (e.g., the Teach Less and Learn More strategy), these numbers won't yet reflect the reality that people like me are living right now.

From my own personal experience, when The Daughter took her PSLE 7 years ago, the system was still not so hugely dependent on parents nor on tuition teachers. The Daughter is in a top class in a top JC. She is in the same class as students who hail from neighbourhood primary schools and not a few of her classmates live still in HDB 4-room flats. Up to 7 years ago, the system worked fine. What happened between 7 years ago and now, is anybody's guess.

What I am sure of is that I am living a PSLE reality today where Little Boy is tested on material he is not taught... where he does not get access through his school to the high quality materials he needs to learn independently (I have to buy material that costs $40 a book)... The PSLE reality today is skills heavy. Yet, the type of teaching does not provide enough skills practice. As a result, parents and private tutors have to come in strongly to support the school's teaching. This greatly disadvantages students from poor homes.

For Little Boy's cohort today to make its way into the type of statistics reported in yesterday's papers, it is likely take a few more years. We should not be waiting for a lag indicator to tell us something is wrong. We should be looking at some lead indicators instead.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Getting Along

There was a playfight this morning shortly after the sun rose. It looked so fun for both of them that it made The Husband smile. Then Toffee must have bitten a little too hard because Milo bared his fangs at her and in a split second's face-off, Toffee broke his gaze and retreated to examine her toenails like some rebuffed courtesan.

She is gradually learning her place I suppose.

I've learnt to slow down my movements, hold my head high and my shoulders back... and refrain from babytalking Toffee. The Idiot's Guide to Knowing Your Dog informs me that babytalking in a high pitched voice communicates fear in dog language. A fearful dog always gives out high pitched sounds. I certainly don't wanna appear fearful in front of 2 sets of sharp teeth.

This morning, I gave both of them lessons on (1) sitting calmly whilst waiting to be fed and (2) keeping their paws outside the room. Since Milo learnt his lessons better, he received more dog treats... and in his Big Male Dog head, he must have thought that right and good because he has since stopped trying to lord it over Toffee. Milo was really a good boy today. You could have put him in a suit and he would've looked like Jeeves the Butler. He was that dignified and controlled. I fed Milo so many treats that I think Toffee kinda rolled her eyes a little before she flopped down on her belly with a sigh that said "I give up. Can't compete with Teacher's Pet." Or maybe she was saying "Adoi! What a suck-up!!"

After school, the 2 of them went off companionably to the back of the house to lie down and sleep next to each other. To stop Toffee from coming inside the house, Milo lies at the back kitchen door, moving only when I come so that I need not step over him. I learnt that from the Idiot's Guide to Knowing Your Dog too. Unless you want the dog to turn aggressive, never miss an opportunity to let him know that you're high status so I stand there and stare at him until he gets up. Low status dogs give way to high status ones. Since I am the Alpha Bitch, he needs to get up and give way to me or else, he will get the idea that he is Alpha Male.

I also learnt today to growl an instruction only once, and then look him in the eye till he obeys. Don't repeat an order, says the book. Dogs don't like nagging more than kids do. Problem is, this doesn't work with Toffee because she doesn't look at me enough. She has plenty else to look at. Flying insects, birds, ants on the floor, fluttering leaves, flower petals... and the occasional butterfly. As much as Milo looked like Jeeves today, Toffee looked like Bambi with a skinny legs and sharp face. Just paint some white spots on her back and voila... you've got yourself a baby deer with sharp teeth. Ewwww... a travesty of nature!!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Milo is such a giant with such a loud bark that we worried for Toffee at first. A few times, he frightened Toffee so badly that she rolled right around and exposed her tummy and screamed. This usually happens when she wanders into his "room". Somehow, he has designated for himself the step outside the back door as his space. There is a cosy covered patio there surrounded by wall on 3 sides and an iron gate on the fourth. I suppose Milo feels safe there. It's his own bachelor's pad I guess.

Toffee has taken over the front porch. She sprawls out there legs akimbo and sleeps the sleep of a baby. I've put out a fleece blacket so that she has something warm to lie upon on cold nights, that I can easily wash and sterilise in the clothes dryer. And Toffee has pretty much taken Milo's Paddington Bear for herself. She hugs Paddington with one paw and then puts her head on it. I don't suppose Milo could object without making himself look like a sissy. Paddington got all wet today because it rained but she is still snuggling up to it. Bleah!!

Lately though, the two have been playing rather rough with each other and whilst Milo has been taught since young to jaw gently, Toffee has no such compunctions. We were dismayed when we saw her grab a nice mouthful of fur and hold on tight. We told her off but she kept on doing it.

We muzzled her.

Then, we googled a little and Google informed us that playfighting is normal, and that dogs will tell each other when biting is too hard... and this way, they learn what NOT to do. Gee... I hope that Google is right 'cos those little teeth can deliver a nice hard nip if we're not careful.

I can't help it but I have flashbacks to when my kids were small and Little Boy went at his sister with his fists. I wonder if throwing Milo away in the same way that I threw The Daughter away here... would make Toffee appreciate Milo more. Hmmmmm?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Meet Toffee

Here's Toffee. We got her to be Milo's helper in guarding house. Under a most interesting tacit agreement that they both worked out all by themselves, SHE sleeps out front and HE sleeps at the back. When a car passes by, and she's all by herself, she'll give a few puny barks, and you'll hear a frenzied pitter-patter of paws. Milo will appear out front in a huff and pace in protective circles around the patio. Then, when he is satisfied that all is well, he'll go and sniff her to see if she is alright.

We need to respect the relative seniority of Milo. We need to greet him first and pat his head, and THEN pick up Toffee. Else, Milo will growl at her and then use his head to push her away from us. He grabbed her (with his teeth) last evening when we fed Toffee. We had actually fed him his meal earlier, and we thought that that was that. Surely he would remember having been fed first? Next, we prepared Toffee's minced beef rice and placed it in front of her. She rushed to eat. Milo gave a roar of rage, picked her up by the scruff of her neck and flung her away from the bowl. She rolled off in a heap and sat there shaking her head and crying in pain. There was no blood but it must have been a heavy pinch. So now, we prepare both bowls at one time, and we give Milo his food a split second before we give Toffee hers.

Every now and again, Milo turns Toffee over on her back so that her tummy is exposed. He will sniff her all over, and especially at the nether regions before he struts off again to do his I-am-a-big-male-dog stuff. He'll even growl at Toffee if she presumes to come inside the house, because those are house rules.

All in all, she seems to have settled in fine. Toffee is a whole lot more easy than Milo. Milo was a wilfull puppy who obeyed the cane and it took a while to teach him that I am the Alpha Bitch. He likes still to test the limits of my authority. He is a stubborn dog. Toffee responds to a firm "No", and is already turning over on her back whenever I scratch her gently under the chin. It is a relief to have a nice docile dog.