27 May 2010

Great Expectations

By this time of the year, year 3 students have usually finished their exams and would assist in biomedical research as part of the training. This year, our original topic was to study the incidence of a disease and factors associated with its development. As we completed the project, it was evident that the number of patients developing the disease was smaller than expected. In effect, it would be difficult to identify the associated factors as planned.

After presenting the results, the boy in my group was obviously disappointed and felt they failed. I disagreed. First, this was a student project that lasted several weeks only. Inevitably, the data would be premature and could not be compared to international publications that represented years of hard work. Second, this is what research is about. Why do we still have to do a project if all the results must be as expected? In fact, I was glad that we had unexpected results. What better learning opportunity could one ask for?

In the end, we decided to report the unexpected results and work on a softer endpoint that the sample size could support. Honesty and problem-solving skills are the fundamental requirements in research. If the students have learned this, this module is successful.

20 May 2010


S was invited to be an examiner of a vocational education school. He was honored.

The examination was simple. The students were instructed to examine a wheel of a car. They were expected to perform Test A, Test B and Test C.

The examination was fool-proof. The headmaster excitedly explained that the students had already undergone a rehearsal of the examination the week before. Besides, to ensure they would not say something silly, the students were informed that the wheel at the examination must be normal. They only needed to report Test A, Test B and Test C were negative. As a note of caution, the headmaster also advised the examiners to remind the students should they miss any tests.

S glanced at the marking sheet and was taken aback. There was one mark allocated to each of the following five steps: Entering the room, Test A, Test B, Test C, and leaving the room.

“Are we not supposed to mark the skills of performing Test A, Test B and Test C?” asked S.

“No,” the headmaster answered, “please just give full marks if a student has performed all three tests. But remember, some students may be nervous and forget one of the tests. In that case, give them a gentle reminder.”

“How then can we assess their skills? It is impossible not to get full marks.”

“This is not the purpose of this examination,” the headmaster replied. S felt he suddenly understood the purpose and decided not to ask anymore.

The examination was extremely smooth and efficient. Students confidently reported that Test A, Test B and Test C were negative, some even before finishing the tests. S was bored and tried to entertain himself by asking the students what could be wrong if only Test C was positive. Though none of them could answer, S understood they were not trained to read positive results and did not want to violate the marking instructions. He gave all of them five marks anyway.

Soon, the last student came in. S gave him one mark for entering the room and instructed him to start. To his surprise, he performed Test A and Test C swiftly and stopped.

“Have you completed the examination?” S dutifully reminded him.

“Yes,” the boy answered, “Test A and Test C were negative.”

“Would you like to perform Test B?” S asked explicitly. It really did not matter. He had given full marks to all students that day anyway.

“No, for this type of wheel, Test A and Test B always give the same results.”

S was sad. Although he could name a special situation in which Test A and Test B would have different results, the boy knew what he was doing but might end up at the bottom of the class.

In the end, S was determined. “You are right. Please just perform Test B for the sake of checking your skills.”

13 May 2010


Last month, Angela and I were trapped in Vienna because of the Icelandic volcano eruption the subsequent airport closure. One Tuesday, most museums were closed. In the end, we visited the Secession.

As soon as we entered the Secession Building, we realized that it was under renovation. The only work on display was the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt. The painting was created in 1902 for the celebration of Beethoven at the 14th Vienna Secessionist Exhibition. Though we have heard the Symphony No. 9 for countless times, reflecting on the work through a painting was a new and interesting experience.

Without doubt, the most famous part of the Symphony is the adoption of Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude (Ode to Joy) in the fourth movement. But let’s first follow the painting on the three walls of the building. On the first wall were Floating Genii which were female figures representing the longing for happiness. Next came a kneeling couple, Suffering Humanity, who urged a Knight to fight for happiness.

On the second wall were the Hostile Forces against happiness, including Sickness, Madness, Death, Lasciviousness, Wantonness, Intemperance and Nagging Care.

On the final wall the pursuit for happiness found fulfillment in Arts and Poetry. The Frieze ended with an angel chorus and a kissing couple. This was in agreement with the Finale of the Symphony.

“Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Be embraced,
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.”

The Symphony and the Frieze are certainly powerful. On the other hand, fighting for happiness is the hard way. I am glad I can just choose to be joyful.

6 May 2010


We met our neighbor in the lift last week. She praised Angelina for the magnificent piano performance. My daughter promptly thanked her.

Wait a second. I was the one who played Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique just now. As I looked at Angelina, the thought was hilarious. Even if her hands were big enough for the numerous chords in the piece, how could her legs reach the pedals?

From another perspective, while a four-year-old playing this piece must be a child prodigy, mistaking my performance as a child’s reflects my interpretation was superficial. This I tend to agree. I never played Beethoven’s grander works really well. Strong emotion is something I admire but cannot fully grasp.

This brought me back to my memory of Chopin’s Valse de l’adieu (The Farewell Waltz). This piece was written to Maria Wodzińska, to whom Chopin was once engaged. Finding it one of the few easier pieces by Chopin, I mastered the work after practicing for several times. As I finished, my teacher said sadly, “Oh dear. Have you ever been in love?”

It took many more years before I learned what pain was.