Final Look at 2018: School, Science and Education

The union of the year went to POTUS Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a viciously squabbling pair who finally met for the first time in person at Capella Hotel, Singapore on 12 June 2018. Love at first sight it was apparently, as both struck up a bromantic relationship almost immediately upon setting eyes on each other; if anything it took the world's breath away, even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's official coupling at St George’s Chapel played second fiddle in the attention department. After all the "I Do"s sworn by Trump and Kim endeared to the geopolitics of forging peaceful boundaries and borderlands, an ongoing international concern of behemoth proportions superseding even the most fairytale-esque of royal nuptials. (Sorry Mukesh Ambani, even with that $100 million splashed on your darling daughter's wedding, you'd still have to take a number - Beyonce ain't got shit on the 38th parallel either). For now Kim has promised to dismantle the collection of dangerous nuclear toys assembled in his backyard thus far in exchange for hitting the reset button on mutual ties, alongside US ceasing joint manoeuvres with South Korea. Still, it remains to be seen whether both fickle-minded leaders with attention spans shorter than goldfish will each keep up his end of the bargain. By the way, @Meghan Markle, did you actually make your sister-in-law bawl because of them overly tedious demands heaped over little Princess Charlotte’s bridesmaid dress?

Make love, not war.......until either one of us blinks? (Image Credit: VOX)

Trump can also give himself a real big pat on the shoulder knowing for sure he has succeeded in alienating the United States from almost the entire world by forging ahead with a tsunami of trade tariffs imposed against a total of 31 countries (and affecting some 12 billion bucks worth of imports) till date, not to mention a staggering number of investigations concerning anti-dumping/countervailing duties already being initiated by the US Department of Commerce (122 in all at last count, a majority targeting Chinese products). Thank goodness for a temporary ceasefire of sorts arrived at the eleventh hour during Trump's recent G20 dinner date with China's President Xi Jinping, where both countries agreed to halt fresh tit-for-tat sanctions for 90 days in a bid to surmount the ongoing stalemate.

Everyone in this room probably wants to punch him in the face, hell yeah (Image Credit: Angela Merkel's official Instagram account)

Might the ongoing trade wars be complicit in causing the Republicans to lose the House of Representatives in November's midterm elections? Most likely, the only question is to what extent. So while this loss didn't quite rattle Trump's grasp on power (who by the way remains stuck in denial mode it appears given his self-congratulatory tweet of tremendous success about the election results), nevertheless voters did give him a resounding slap across the face. Make that two, another courtesy of his former longtime legal 'pit bull' cum fixer Michael Cohen who has since bitten back, insisting he was "duty-bound to cover up the President's dirty deeds" after being handed a 3 year jail sentence by a New York federal court. Three actually, if the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is to be taken into account.

Elsewhere, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen was also left licking her wounds, as her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a walloping in the key mid-term polls and she accepted responsibility for the massive losses (even traditional strongholds such as Kaohsiung and Taichung fell to them China-friendly Kuomintang fellas) racked up by resigning as party chairperson. Looking forward, she is almost surely reduced to a lame duck leader for the remaining part of her term in office; with Taiwan's next presidential elections looming it isn't that difficult to realize she will be facing one helluva fight for her political life.

While some live to fight another day, others weren't so fortunate. Just look at how far Malaysia's 'Man of Steal' Najib Razak has fallen in a span of months after his ass was roundly trounced in the country's 14th General Elections......from despotic premier to despised felon slapped with more than two dozen charges of money laundering, power abuse and evidence tampering related to the billion dollar 1MDB scandal. His wife Rosmah Mansor (known to splurge on luxury items, expensive holidays and 1,200 ringgit haircuts) also faces a dozen charges related to tax evasion and corruption. Her cringeworthy comeback refuting every single allegation in court? She could only plead guilty to having stolen Najib's heart.

Do you believe this former no. 2 most beautiful First Lady in Asia is completely innocent? (Image Credit: Reddit Malaysia)

A moment of silence for all victims on board the downed Lion Air flight JT610 and one brutally murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, together with other remarkable individuals who left us - esteemed Physicist Stephen Hawking (a final book titled "Brief Answers to the Big Questions" was launched by his children on 15 October 2018 at the Science Museum in London), former US president George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara Bush, outspoken political Maverick Senator John McCain, queen of soul Aretha Franklin, Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci and founding father of Marvel Comics Stan Lee among others.

Lest I forget, condolences to Germany for crashing out in the group stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. Pun intended by the way.

One word: CHEERS. (Image Credit: Roger Cohen's official Twitter account)

Okay timeout from mucking around, here's the lowdown on science and education-related affairs which transpired this year.

Ever heard of CRISPR-Cas9? A piece of cutting edge genome editing technology which came on the scene fast and furious approximately 6 years ago, it enables geneticists and medical researchers to manipulate specific sections of the DNA, though much frustration has arisen thus far owing to the baffling nature of unpredictable outcomes observed (seemingly random mutations possibly occurring at targeted sites thereafter). It appears this might be a thing of the past, if scientists at the Francis Crick Institute are absolutely right about their discovery of a rather simple set of rules underpinning what exactly to expect post alteration. That being said, at the present moment ethical considerations have resulted in many countries banning intentional gene tweaking of human embryos. Yet this hasn't stopped one lone maverick (or nut job?) from disabling the CCR5 co-receptors of twin baby girls in a bid to make them HIV resistant, or so Shenzhen-based associate professor He Jiankui claimed. Explicit hacking the human genetic makeup aside, perhaps the non-invasive CRISPRa method developed by folks at UC San Francisco might serve as a reasonable alternative.

Another interesting breakthrough might just be around the corner, as Boston engineers are heavily invested in miniaturizing computer chips to eventually produce supercomputers no larger than fingernails which could mimic the computing abilities of the human brain (spanning some 100 trillion synapses established via 100 billion neurons). Equally cool is also written all over Intel’s new Vaunt smart glasses: information is projected onto the wearer's retina in an augmented reality environment literally wrapped around the eyes, then again observers on the side are non the wiser to the awesomeness that's actually happening. Now Iron Man fans are one step closer to digging Tony Stark proper.

Next up, to infinity and beyond. What exactly was the deal with SpaceX's top secret Zuma mission which launched on 7 January? For the uninformed, Elon Musk and gang went ahead with firing one U.S. spy satellite strapped onto their Falcon 9 rocket (by means of a payload adapter) into an orbit above earth. It seemed though the government's hush hush billion dollar toy didn't deploy correctly, with various news sources reporting that Zuma eventually came crashing back down into the Indian Ocean. Others like Netherlands scientist Dr Marco Langbroek opined the satellite itself did enter orbit, despite doing so it was already a mere piece of expensive dead junk. Meanwhile SpaceX has vehemently rejected allegations that sought to apportion blame to their equipment not performing up to the mark. An illuminating instance of "he said, she said"......outstanding.

The Zuma mission taking off from Cape Canaveral (Image Credit: SpaceX)

On a lighter note, NASA's InSight lander which successfully touched down on Mars in November did the most sensible thing expected of any exploratory spacecraft: taking its first ever selfie - this achieved through assembling 11 separate visuals snapped by a camera-fitted robotic arm. Looking pretty aside, many are counting on ya to thoroughly sniff out Martian territory and deliver some good news concerning the planet's habitability.

Thumbs up too for NASA's handling of things when misogynistic trolls from notoriously vile internet forum 4chan attempted to disrupt the Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge (OPSPARC); it suspended the public voting component of the competition following threats of a cyberattack to disparage an all-black, all-female team who made it to the finals. Eventually Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell from Banneker High School in Washington placed second with their project which focused on filtering poisonous lead impurities from school drinking fountains and were granted a special campus visit to MIT courtesy of an unofficial student group within its Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Speaking of schools, hats off to New York University's School of Medicine in its extremely generous undertaking to make tuition free for all present and future enrolling students. In addition, the US states of Virginia and New York must be lauded for requiring schools within their jurisdictions to incorporate mandatory mental health education into standing curricula; meanwhile the pursuit of happiness is happening in full swing at Yale University thanks to psychology professor Laurie Santos' overwhelmingly popular Psyc 157 (Psychology and the Good Life) course. On the other hand, Harvard's ass was sued big time for discriminating against Asian-American applicants and Cornell University came under the spotlight as a consequence of one senior stripping down nearly all the way to express outright disapproval of her professor's supposedly sexist remarks. Add to these, police officers were deployed on Florida University's campus, reason being a first ever "White Racism" course was scheduled to be conducted by one Ted Thornhill. Not unexpectedly the assistant professor of Sociology received plenty of harassing emails and calls, thankfully day one of lessons kicked off uneventfully.

Elsewwhere, winds of discontent blew strong as well - an alumni of Anglia Ruskin University in the UK took her alma mater to court on grounds that she graduated with a useless "mickey mouse" degree, Baptist University in Hong Kong had to resort to suspending two students involved in a bitter protest staged over the institution of a special test to ascertain one's proficiency in Mandarin while Taimei Elementary School in Tokyo, Japan had parents seeing red after new Armani uniforms costing more than £500 apiece were announced.

Remember Tommy Jordan, the awesome dude who pumped .45 slugs into his teenage daughter's laptop because she refused to perform household chores and whined like a self-entitled bitch? More than half a decade later, Matt Cox punished his little girl by making her walk 8 klicks in the freezing cold to school over a bullying episode. Utterly cruel or another contender for the dad of the year award? Apparently this incident has divided the online crowd down the middle. Three unambiguous cheers though for Texan mama Liza Martinez who spanked her son with a belt upon learning he took her BMW out for a joyride.

Lisa Martinez ain't no dominatrix but a real American hero. (Image Credit: CNN)

Next, a shout-out to educators who dared to make a difference despite the odds stacked against them. Meet Richard Appiah Akoto, who literally reproduced images of computer-related applications from memory on the blackboard for the benefit of underprivileged children attending school in Ghana. A collective of British teachers deserve high praise for going the extra mile to help children from poor families wash their clothes, even lending their parents money on occasion. Deyshia Hargrave from Rene Rost Middle School in Kaplan, Louisiana, couldn't in her conscience simply let the matter of her school district's superintendent enjoying an unwarranted salary raise slip quietly by, so she spoke up during a board meeting and ended up being led away in handcuffs. The Louisiana State Police subsequently stepped in to investigate, and the attorney general also intervened by suing members of the school board.

Over here in tiny Singapore, a few key happenings defined the year as well. For starters, there was a huge public outcry over the announcement made by the Ministry of Education that teachers had to pay up to S$960 a year for parking in schools come 1 August - a consequence of upholding the “clean wage policy” for all civil servants. Tackling inequality ranked high on the education minister's agenda, as the debate about elitism and social stratification rages on with no end in sight as of yet. Most unfortunately Catholic Junior College Vice Principal Mrs Yue-Chang Teck Hui's derogatory remarks about neighbourhood students only served to fan the flames.

While students will surely applaud a regime involving lesser examinations and assessments due to take effect next year, some parents remain on the fence regarding these changes, worried that an adequate measure of academic ability will no longer suffice. Then again in a world where practical skill sets become increasingly relevant compared to paper qualifications, steering away from an obsession with grades might not really be a bad thing. Besides numerous folks have shared Instagram stories on how their PSLE scores hardly correlate to the personal successes achieved later in life, they can't all be lying at once yes?

So we didn't do well in school back then as kids. Big fat deal. (Image Credit: Mothership)

And this concludes my exhausting but fun ramble. Thank you to those who endured reading till the end; I hope some of you have come away enlightened (or at least entertained). Here's wishing all a wonderful Christmas, and a happy 2019. Peace.

(The above was also featured in the 10th January 2019 edition
of the Carnival of Mathematics )