Final Look at 2017: School, Science and Education

2017 saw POTUS Donald J Trump attempting to be "sincerely" steadfast in sticking to his outrageous election promises made the year before, and things sure aren't turning out quite pretty. Beginning with the signing of an executive order endorsing a blanket travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries in January (which thankfully was repealed by federal courts with common sense yet later being reinstated by the Supreme Court on a limited basis) and a rescinding of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he subsequently thrust upon Congress with his thuggish demands of funding the construction of the great wall of Mexico (prototypes have since emerged and gasp, climbing tests conducted to ascertain the ease with which they can be breached). Then there was his proposal of a major tax reform bill where both corporate entities and individuals pay considerably reduced rates - this was successfully approved in a Republican controlled Congress mere days before the arrival of 2018.....congratulations on his first major legislative victory?

In the meanwhile, he also withdrew America from the Paris climate agreement and constantly verbalized threats of initiating a third world war with the non-compliant North Korea. Not forgetting his probably most disturbing decision exercised till date: recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Besides obviously becoming a mortal enemy of both the Palestinians and Arabs, he also succeeded in getting CNN, the FBI, the democrats, the United Nations, almost the entire Europe plus one exasperated Attorney General Jeff Sessions to hate his 71 year old ass with a passion.

Do I look like give two hoots about what you or the other folks think about me?

This "fine" piece of work also remains largely trigger happy despite not having featured on The Apprentice for an eternity - in the first six months of taking office, he has fired an FBI director, a national security adviser and a holdover acting attorney general, while his White House press secretary, communications director, deputy chief of staff, deputy national security adviser and legal team spokesman have all resigned. When he isn't bawling and dismissing folks, he is roasting everyone else (from Hollywood celebrities, 'disrespectful' NFL players to North Korea's Little Rocket Man aka Kim Jong Un) on Twitter, so much so former undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson is seeking to buy the social media platform by means of crowdfunding in an attempt to ban Trump from it altogether. As far as getting fellow Earthlings all bent out of shape is concerned, he is surely doing a terrific job. Alas, his day of reckoning might just be round the corner, as the noose of a Russia probe into election tampering by the feds tightens around his excessively chunky billionaire neck. Michael Flynn acquiescing for starters, how about that? Fingers tightly crossed.

On 1 December 2017, former National Security advisor Michael Thomas Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; he lasted less than a month in the White House. (Image Credit: Chicago Tribune)

Moving from the spectacular mess spun by grandpa Trump in Yankeeland, enter super chubby North Korean dictator spotting the world's most absurd haircut - one Mr Kim Jong Un. He apparently takes great pride in antagonizing The United States, South Korea, Japan and China all at once with his ongoing pet nuclear weapons program, surfacing on occasion to officiate at the test firing of his ballistic missiles or to remind the global community of his reputation as planet Earth's number one warmonger courtesy of issuing ultimatum after ultimatum.

Check out the size of my........ well, go figure. (Image Credit: Ross Hendrick)

Perhaps he isn't pure evil, at least he is pretty nice to his sister, Kim Yo Jong, whom he promoted straight to the country's all powerful politburo in early October. Oh wait, hang on a minute, then again his half brother Kim Jong Nam died gruesomely in Kuala Lumpur International Airport after having his face smeared with VX nerve agent ....... surely marks have got to be deducted for this sneaky, ungentlemanly assassination attempt.

The svelte sister of Kim Jong Nam; did she agree to donate her daily supper to him henceforth, thus the monster-sized promotion? (Image Credit: Reuters)

In another part of the world gone slightly amok, Catalonia apparently grew some balls and decided it wanted to divorce from the rest of Spain. Hence the holding of an independence referendum in October, and by virtue of a landslide win attained declared itself free from Spanish rule. The unilateral "binding" triumph was short-lived, as courts move quickly to denounce the whole affair as unconstitutional; the Catalan parliament was subsequently dissolved while its president Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium along with four of his ministers after being charged with rebellion and sedition by the Spanish government. Snap elections for the region called on 21 December saw no clear majority won by a single party, however pro-independence camps managed to garner 70 seats in aggregate, which would therefore give them the ability to form a coalition government. Then again, can they successfully harmonize political differences on a range of other issues and march forth to forge a new republic? Would Madrid consequently resort to drastic measures in a strenuous bid to shatter their lofty dream of achieving full autonomy? Cautious optimism dancing uncomfortably with trepidation, that much we are sure of.

To be, or not to be a republic. (Image Credit: Al Jazeera)

Armed, angry and mentally unstable lone wolves continue to author fresh tragedies in blood anywhere and everywhere, the most shocking of which in recent times being the Las Vegas mass shooting incident, where a crazed gunman shattered the windows of his 32nd floor Mandalay Bay hotel suite and proceeded to unleash a massive hail of gunfire on some 22,000 people below who were then participating in a country music festival. After leaving at least 58 dead and over 500 injured, he turned the gun on himself. This invokes the memory of another horrifying episode of carnage which took place earlier in May, where a devastating explosion tore up the scene of an Ariana Grande pop concert at Manchester Arena, killing 22 people including children and injuring another 120. The suicide bomber was identified as one radicalised Salman Abedi who detonated an IED moments after the concert ended. Our collective hearts are bewildered, enraged, and most of all, thoroughly saddened. That said, the strength of humanity harnessed through faith and solidarity will prevail as history has clearly demonstrated time and again; darkness in corners shall be conquered by rays of righteousness and empathy. May the souls of those taken away too soon rest peacefully.

We danced, we laughed, we loved. (Image Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images )

Two prominent musicians supposedly in the prime of their lives (Chester Bennington from rock band Linkin Park and Kim Jong Hyun from K-pop group SHINee) killed themselves almost 5 months apart, once again providing stoic reminders that depression is a very real illness that depletes and destroys; even famous folks can succumb to it. Souls mentally ravaged and stretched too thin to the point of sheer exhaustion see suicide as the only meaningful recourse to completely releasing themselves from the invisible pain gnawing at them. While precious lives can be saved and rehabilitated through timely medical intervention and treatment, many are still reluctant to press the panic button for help until its too late. A no-brainer: jobs, reputation and relationships are very much at stake. Which therefore begs the question - will the human race ever truly learn to dial down on being overly judgemental and better endear to its fellow members who are suffering terribly on the inside? Boy that sure is one depressing reservation to parse.

After inhaling much gloom and doom often typical of global current affairs, it's probably time to change down the gears and attempt a recapitulation of events that defined education and science in the 17th year of the 21st century yes? And no, I do not wish to talk about The Last Jedi, a monumental piece of garbage filmmaking featuring a plot so vapid it could induce seizures in a normally healthy mammal. George Lucas you were a fool for offloading your baby to Disney.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi SUCKS. End of story.

I begin by extending my heartiest congratulations to the trio of American scientists on winning this year's Nobel prize in Physics (Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of the Ligo-Virgo observatories) for their groundbreaking work in detecting gravitational waves. A round of applause too for prolific writer Kazuo Ishiguro (best known for his enduring masterpiece "The Remains of the Day"), who walked away with this year's Nobel prize in Literature. For a man so truly dedicated to crafting emotionally penetrating novels over the decades, he certainly deserves to be honoured. To the likes of other equally outstanding folks including Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie and Claudio Magris, better luck next time.

A special shout-out as well to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) which engineered a non-invasive device to enhance cognitive abilities by 40%. However it must also be made clear the efficacy observed arises from tests conducted on monkeys, so it remains to be seen if human beings will respond in a similar fashion.

For the very first time, folks at NASA have discovered the presence of at least 7 Earth-sized planets happening in a tight orbit around an ultracool dwarf star, which thus increases the chances of success as far as locating an alternative habitable environment for the human species is concerned. Separately, after 5 years of probing the universe, NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) endeavor has discovered the possible presence of a supermassive black hole masked by a thick column of gas. Adding to that, concepts for robotic missions to explore a comet and potential landing sites on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, have been selected - these are scheduled for launch in the mid 2020s.

The Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter lander that would be tasked to investigate Titan's organic chemistry, habitability and atmospheric conditions among other things. (Illustration Credit: NASA )

Besides seeking the smartest people on the planet to work for it, NASA also went searching to fill the "exotic" sounding planetary protection officer position, and guess who decided to send in an application? Jack Davis, an incredibly brave 9 year old from New Jersey who claims he is a bona fide alien (no thanks to his sister's consistently cruel teasing) and has watched almost all space/alien-related movies ever made save for Men In Black. Attaboy, he sure has a bright future ahead of him.

From one precocious kid to another, meet Reuben Paul - an 11-year-old “cyber ninja” from Austin, Texas, who properly schooled an audience of security experts when he effortlessly hacked into an innocent looking teddy bear connected to the cloud during an individual presentation at a cyber safety conference in the Hague, Netherlands. Hats off to this pint-sized genius, really.

Check out this kiddo's soft cuddly scary as the Annabelle doll from the Conjuring movies? (ImageCredit: AFP )

And then we have 12 year old Rahul from the London Borough of Barnet who has been found to possess an IQ of 162, thus putting him ahead of both Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein in the intelligence department. As a contestant on Channel 4’s Child Genius, he made jaws drop during one particular recording when he answered every single question posed correctly. Among his feats: getting the scientific name for the apricot tree right (prunus armeniaca) and knowing that phoenix dactylifera refers to the date palm. In addition he succeeded in spelling words such as accouchement, hyponatraemia and garrulous. However, we also know the boy doesn't take too kindly to losing-he attempted to walk off the set after losing to a fellow contestant in a timed Maths test the very next day. As far as proper humility is concerned, he definitely still has a lot to learn.

While super smart kids dazzle on the international stage, super smart adults fret. Elon Musk, the real life Tony Stark whose companies SpaceX and Tesla Motors tinker with an inventory of cutting-edge toys science fiction geeks can only fantasize about, isn't quite a fan of Artificial Intelligence. In fact, he is quite adamant the rise of the machines will be complicit in the engineering of mankind's eventual doom if not adequately reined in. Can he be faulted for his supremely pessimistic forecast of things? Just ponder for a moment: "Autonomous armed robots, which can track and target people using facial recognition software, are just around the corner. Let loose, such machines would keep on killing until they ran out of targets or ammunition. This reminds us that AI has no social awareness, conscience, mercy, or remorse. It simply does what it’s been trained to do. (Steven Finlay, Fortune)." Still unpersuaded? On December 6 this year, Google's AI computer program AlphaZero taught itself to play chess in merely 4 hours and then proceeded to destroy Stockfish 8 (previously the highest rated AI chess engine) in a closed door 100-game chess marathon. If you require a breakdown of the actual results, here it is: 28 wins, 72 draws, and ZERO LOSSES. Surely that sends shivers down the spine?

It is probably time to start feeling genuinely frightened of Artificial Intelligence. (Image Credit: Now The End Begins )

Another self-inflicted doomsday scenario has been served up by prominent theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, where he envisions the Earth turning into a 'sizzling ball of fire' by the year 2600. The culprits responsible? Us human beings who siphon away too much and too quickly from the very planet we currently inhabit. The only plausible solution? Flee to another corner of the universe.

And so the world shall eventually burn, says one man.

Looking once again to the present year, numerous schools all over the world have courted controversy with high profile incidents happening in their backyards: one Ryan International School in India (a seven year old student was sexually assaulted and murdered), a nursery run by RYB Education in China (horrifying allegations of child abuse being levied at it), an elementary school of Moritomo Gakuen in Japan (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife dragged into the fray and accused of cronyism in a purported shady land deal) and even Harvard University in the United States (US Justice Department threatening legal action over its Asian-American admissions practices). Other notably disturbing observations include pervasive sexual abuse in Pakistan's Islamic schools, nearly a fifth of Indonesian high school and university students supporting the establishment of a caliphate within the country and curricula circulated by the Maharashtra State Board authority which aims to teach students about the essence of air for breathing by means of a kitten killing experiment.

Just when you reckon things can't get any crazier, check out the antics of these few individuals who think they are still living in the wild wild west: a student who blew £850,000 in 73 days because the annual food grant wired to her account had erroneously included a whole bunch of additional zeroes, a high school teacher caught on video snorting narcotics in an empty classroom plus one high school principal exposed by student reporters to be a complete fraud.

Samantha Cox is a 24 year old teacher who loves teaching...........and doing drugs. (Image Credit: Lake County Sheriff )

On home soil, the Singapore Education Ministry announced in April its intention to merge 28 schools due to falling enrollment, among which include 8 middle and lower-tiered junior colleges; this resulted in countless students, teachers and alumni of affected institutions seeing red. The main reason for the huge disquiet on the ground: elite brands were spared, while the axe fell on lesser mortals. In November, private pre-school operators were on edge after it was made known children from Ministry of Education (MOE) kindergartens would be accorded priority admission in the Primary 1 registration exercise. So much for fair and square competition.

Yet all these couldn't rival the spectacular failure of public rail operator SMRT, which experienced traveling delays due to a train point fault on the very first day of the Primary Six Leaving Examinations (PSLE). Frantic candidates were either left stuck on board fearing the worst, or scrambling for alternate modes of transportation to reach their respective exam centres in time. This FUBAR was to be exceeded shortly after in both severity and scale when a stretch of tunnels along the North-South Line became flooded as a consequence of faulty water pumps, resulting in a massive disruption of train services for an unprecedented 20 hours. Oh wait, then there was also a train collision incident which left 36 passengers injured..........bravo SMRT.

And so let the curtains fall yet again I must, for it is time that I retreat for a bit and catch my breath. Many thanks for reading, and wishing everyone a splendid, joyous 2018. Peace.

My only wish for the coming new year: no more water sports pretty please SMRT. (Image Credit: sqfeed )