Saturday, March 27, 2010

Not all Mercedes drivers are rude

Early this afternoon, I took a break from my writing and walked down to Bukit Timah Road to by an ice cream bar. The mid-day temperature here is hot and a vanilla bar coated with lime ice - my favorite in Singapore - tastes especially good. Walking back to the Lee Kuan Yew school, I had to pause at an orange light crossing. A shiny black Mercedes, driven by a distinguished older man, accompanied by his wife approached, slowed and came to a halt. I smiled, waved and said ‘thank you.’ The couple smiled and waved back before moving on.

My apologies to this this and similar Mercedes drivers for over generalizing.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Should owning a BMW or Mecedes in Singapore convey a license for rudeness?

A benefit of my twenty mile bicycle commute is the scores of face to face encounters I experience and vignettes that I am privileged to observe each day. On a saturday morning (today) there are many out walking, either purposefully striding alone or enjoying the company of partners, pets and children. On weekday mornings the typical pet walkers are guest-worker ‘domestics’ from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or other Asian nations with large numbers of underemployed poor. Apparently it is not a custom to say ‘good morning’ however when I do - I say ‘good morning’ to virtually everyone I pass, people seem pleased often return my smile and respond.

This morning I want to write about crossing streets that are busy with automobile traffic. In contrast to other nations (especially the US) Singapore is draconian about limiting the number of automobiles. The planning mechanism used is the “Certificate of Entitlement (COE)” [to buy and own an automobile]. Only a fixed number are issued each year. I don’t fully understand the process by which the cost is determined, however it is a combination of ‘bidding’ and government decision-making . As a result of this process, and other government interventions such as ‘electronic road pricing’ traffic congestion is relatively rare in Singapore, though it does occur during peak hours. In general, traffic flows smoothly and people drive fast.

Some cyclists ride amidst the automobiles on main roads. I have been advised against this a mostly accept the advise. . In residential areas such as Queen Astrid Park, I take my chances with roads. Otherwise I ride on sidewalks. I have heard there are laws against riding on at least some sidewalks (and $100 fines for violators) but I have encountered no problems so far. This means I must frequently cross busy roads.

One gains insight about Singapore from seeking information about pedestrian crossings on the website of the Land Transport Authority (which manages automobile licensing, the Metropolitan Rapid Transit, bus companies, and taxis). The information provided is a short essay about how the system of crossings, and the length of time for crossing involves trade-offs between the needs different types of users and how the LTA tries to fairly balance the needs of all. There are basically, 4 types of crossing. Pedestrian activated “green man – red man” crossings, “green man – red man” crossings that are not pedestrian activated, crossings demarcated by flashing orange lights, and crossings not demarcated by any lights.

I have never seen a Singapore driver run a red light. This is typical Singaporean respect for authority, reinforced, I am told, by many surveillance cameras. The other crossing categories provide opportunities for driver discretion. Drivers, whether of automobiles, busses, or trucks (lorries) are almost unfailingly courteous. When they stop, I always look them in the eye, smile, wave and say “thank you!” Most often, they wave and smile back. There seems to be one class of drivers, however, that are often - not always - exceptions. These are the owners of Mercedes Benz and BMW automobiles, typically black in color and immaculate from frequent washing. Along the entitlement certificates and taxes, such cars set their owners back substantially more than $100,000 in capital costs and there are very operating costs. When a Mercedes or BMW is approaching a pedestrian crossing I know I need to exercise extra caution.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Neuroplasticity and Spirituality

I wrote this note to a new acquaintance, this morning. She is an oncologist, but also believes that neuropsychology and spirituality have important roles to play in cancer treatment. That was what we discussed when we met. I thought others might be interested in the topic and references as well.

Dear .........,

For some time I have been wanting to share references on neuroplasticity with you, but have not done so. I first learned about this from listening to podcasts of one of my favorite American Public Media radio programs, Speaking of Faith. I have been interested in the relationship between neuroscience and spirituality ever since I read the Dalai Lama’s book, The Universe in a Single Atom and learned about the Mind and Life Conferences, with which you are no doubt familiar. The interview I listened to some time ago, and again this morning, was with Matthieu Rickard. Ricard is the son of the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and before becoming a Buddhist monk in his twenties, earned a Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics at the Institut Pasteur. He is a board member of the Mind and Life Institute. A particular passage in his discussion of neuroplasticity is one that I still remember. “A virtuoso violinist practices for years to gain his virtuosity. We can measure the changes in his (or her) brain. A chess master studies for years to gain mastery and we can measure those changes. Why should we think it would be any different with compassion....”

Anyhow, when listening to Ricard earlier this morning, I thought of you once again and have finally gotten around to writing this note. Here is the link to his interview. I prefer the uncut version, which I listen to while cooking, cleaning or taking a meal. However the produced version takes less time and covers the essential points.

With best wishes,


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Saturday, March 06, 2010 cannot do it without discipline

Early during Lee Kuan Yew’s term in office as Prime Minister, one of his many campaigns was Singapore as a “clean and green society.” A new Singaporean friend told me that when the Prime Minister was driven around the island, an aide always accompanied him. When he saw something that did not come up to his standards, the aide would take note and the responsible official would receive a call from the Prime Minister’s Office and sometimes from the Prime Minister personally. Such calls were not welcomed.

Singapore is still green, and with flowers - often orchids - blooming on pedestrian walk-overs and in other public spaces. And it is very still clean by US or European standards - in fact by the standards of virtualy any country that I have visited. It is a garden city, as Lee Kuan Yew intended it to be. But it seems to me that standards have slipped since the days of his active leadership.

The other morning, adjacent to one of the shuttle bus stops of the National University of Singapore Campus, there was a large trash bag on the ground, possibly awaiting pick up. The bag had broken open and a some trash was strewn about in the vicinity. A few of the back birds I call “Carews” (because of their distinctive call) were picking at the remains. I had a flashback to Sri Lanka, where trash piles are often found in public spaces, with large black crows - much larger than Carews - feasting.

There were perhaps twenty older staff and students standing by. It would have taken one of two of them no more than two or three minutes to clean up the mess, but none did (I was in the bus and so could not do so). They seemed to accept it as simply part of the landscape. I wondered if the response would have been the same ten for fifteen years ago - was this a special case in a special setting or are Singaporeans now viewing the maintenance of public spaces as someone else’s responsibility?

This lead to me to reflect on trash throwers more generally. It is hard to imagine that many people would argue for trash strewn public spaces as a matter of principle; they simply don’t want to take responsibility for the whole. Paradoxically, neglect of public spaces was worst in Communist countries i visited during the Cold War. In Singapore, there have been government campaigns to communicate high standards of public responsibility and civility. Many foreigners and even some Singaporeans deride this. I do not. The alternative, among other pathologies, is public spaces that resemble those of neighboring Malaysia and other developing nations, including those parts of Washington DC that resemble a developing nation.

At the entrance to the Lee Kuan Yew school, and at several other locations as well, there is a saying of the former Prime Minister (his present title is ‘Minister Mentor‘) featured prominently. “If you want to realize your hopes and dreams, you cannot do it without discipline.”

I believe that trash discarders in Singapore can, if observed, by the police, can receive heavy fines. Hopefully these laws are still being enforced. For repeat offenders, perhaps a few strokes of the cane would be in order as well.

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