30 Jul 2009


As usual, LS complained bitterly about the difficulty in getting her son in a decent primary school. Since both of our children were born at the end of the calendar year, our discussion shifted to Malcolm Gladwell’s new ideas in Outliers. JN, an expectant mother, said she had not heard about this and asked us to elaborate.

Gladwell’s book started with the observation that most top hockey players in Canada are born in January, February and March. The difference is too great to be explained by chance alone. He pointed out that the official cutoff line of admitting children players is January. In other words, among junior players in the same class, those born in January are the oldest while those born in December would be the youngest. In young children, a one-year difference in age means a significant difference in physique and skills. Even though they might not really be cleverer or more talented, this difference is enough to convince the coaches. These older children would be selected for more intensive training and given more encouragement. Because of this, the original spurious difference becomes a real and tremendous difference – that is, a self-fulfilling prophesy comes true.

Reflecting upon my childhood, I cannot help thinking how true the theory is and how lucky I am. I entered primary school at the age of five as the youngest student. In fact, my mother wrote a fake birthday in the application form to get me in school. I could hardly follow my classmates to do any arts and crafts, and I always finished last in races. I still vividly remembered how my arts teacher tore and threw away my drawing. This killed my remaining interest in arts.

Fortunately, I was granted other chances. When I entered secondary school, there was an entrance exam. The test selected the best and worst students and put them into different classes. I did fairly and was assigned to a so-so class. In most other schools, this would be the end of the story. Amazingly, in my school the whole purpose of the selection system was to provide more resources to students in need. The top students did not get more teaching. If anything, they had more free time to read books, play bridge, or do anything they liked. Looking back, I am always grateful that our school allowed us to develop our talents to the fullest.

P.S. My mother always supports the response of my arts teacher because I basically painted the whole picture in black (sometimes dark blue). Years later, I learned about Adolph Reinhardt's black paintings. This is unfair! I was just doing abstract expressionism precociously.

23 Jul 2009


While waiting to go out, my daughter and I played the piano. I chose a waltz by Chopin. To me, this was a lively and lovely piece which children might like.

“Daddy,” Angelina commented after I finished, “you are very noisy.”

My immediate association was the legendary piano accompanist Gerald Moore. The title of his autobiography was exactly Am I too loud?

Many friends know that I can play a few musical instruments, but my classmates in secondary school would know that I spent most of my lunch and after hours working as an accompanist. I played for the choirs, violinists, cellists, rehearsed for musical play singers, you name it. Sometimes, I accompanied others at Royal College exams, which to a young boy really earned me a fortune.

At one memorable occasion, our school organized a variety show and invited students from other schools (mostly girls, of course!) to perform. While I was hanging around at the backstage, a young lady who was going to sing was upset because our system could not play her sound track. After asking about the song, I said I could do it. The performance went well. Years later, I found out that she was IK the psychiatrist. It is a small world after all.

Interestingly, despite of the title of Moore’s book, he is well known to raise the status of an accompanist to an equal partner of the soloist. This certainly has never been my ambition. As an accompanist, I learned to listen to and assist others. The skills very much shaped my future behavior.

16 Jul 2009


During a meeting, our Boss asked us to evaluate the refresher course.

“Despite numerous limitations, I do not think the course can be improved further,” said the student representative.

A lot of limitations but no room for improvement? What kind of youngster are you? I hope this does not reflect your view on clinical skills.

Seeing that no teacher was going to speak, our Boss pointed at my friend. “Szeto, you seem to be not very happy about the course.”

“If the students like it, what else can I say?” the walking Harrison replied dryly.

Just when we all thought that the case was closed, KC spoke up and complained that many students were late for his lecture. After he scolded them, only one third of the class attended his lesson on the next day.

Our Boss gave him a gentle answer. “Do not take this personal. Young people are like this nowadays. KC, you are lucky for not being a parent. The rest of us get this kind of insults everyday when we go home.”

This is truly inspirational. If we hold this view, who can possibly insult us again? In no time, my emotional intelligence soared by another five points.

9 Jul 2009


Last month, our Departments of Surgery and Medicine provided the final year medical students with the “refresher course”. The original intention was wonderful. The students may have forgotten some clinical skills learned two years ago and would have difficulties catching up with the teaching in the final year. We should help.

When the final program was announced, however, the frontline teachers were amazed. The students were asked to attend six to seven one-hour lectures per day for four weeks. Instead of refreshing the clinical skills as originally stated, each lecture was didactic and covered broad topics like “common diseases in hepatology”. (Yes, I dare not comment on other topics.) In effect, we were asking the students to download the whole year’s curriculum within four weeks. How effective could it be?

When it came to my turn, I could not help but start my lecture with a short story.

“In Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (倚天屠龍記), Xie Xun (謝遜) wanted to teach his godson Zhang Wuji (張無忌) his superb martial arts. Instead of showing him how to fight, Xie Xun forced Wuji to recite all the martial arts scrolls. As expected, Wuji had a hard time memorizing the words because he did not have the slightest idea what they meant. Wuji’s parents also thought it was a silly way to teach martial arts.

As the story unfolded, Xie Xun did not actually plan to stay with the Zhang’s family for a long time. He just hoped that Wuji could learn martial arts by himself when he grew up. Some of the teachings were indeed useful during Wuji’s future adventures.”

Dear students, unless I die after the refresher course, I would not want to be Xie Xun. I am more than happy to show you martial arts in the coming year and long after your graduation.

P.S. I learned Eighteen Dragon Subduing Palms from my Boss, Heaven and Earth Great Shift from my mentor, and Nine Swords of Dugu from Szeto. In the end, all I could master was the three simple moves that Sha Gu (傻姑) learned from Huang Yaoshi (黃藥師).

2 Jul 2009


From the incident I described last week, the message from our administrators is loud and clear.

1. If the frontline staff does not follow our policy and things go wrong, he is responsible.
2. If the frontline staff follows our policy and things go wrong, he is inflexible and is still responsible.
3. We only take the responsibility (or credit) when things go smoothly.

It appears that “with greater powers comes great responsibility” only holds true in the Spiderman movie.