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The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Friday, March 07, 2008

On sensitivity and toughness

Which is more valuable: to be sensitive or to be tough? I know what Singapore's answer to that question is: I heard it today, many times.

This morning I attended a talk, at Ainan's school, for parents. The underlying purpose of the talk was to tell parents how to "toughen up" their children. Everything about the talk, was directed to this end, of achieving tough little children. The speaker, who was an "expert on raising children", had the view that toughness was to be valued. His view had one merit: that a tough child would be more resilient in the face of disappointment or setback. In that sense, he had reason for his position - yet, I worried, as I heard him extol his techniques for generating toughness in children. There seemed to be something missing: the appreciation of sensitivity.

Sensitivity was a word noted only by its absence from his two hour talk. Not once did he mention the concept of sensitivity. Not once did he evaluate its use, value or purpose in the personality structure of a child. I found this lack really perturbing. You see, what is a sensitive child, but one that responds to the environment? What is a sensitive child but one who feels, and thinks, subtly and with freedom? A sensitive child may become an artist, or an actor, a writer - or a leader who feels for his or her people. A sensitive person can make a great boss, for they will feel for their workers and respond to them more warmly. Sensitivity is not something to be dismissed - yet it was ignored entirely. This Singaporean "expert on raising children", clearly did not value the human side of children at all. What he valued seemed very much like a worker who would put up with anything, without complaint. What he valued seemed very much like someone who would take endless abuse and just carry on. Perhaps that is what is really needed in the Singaporean system. Perhaps people without feeling or responsiveness, who just carry on ploddingly, no matter what are what is sought from education, here. Yet, I can't help but feel that such people would be incomplete: without a decent measure of sensitivity they will wholly fail to grasp the essence, truth and beauty of life, at all. Without some sensitivity such people will never truly live.

Every beautiful person I have ever met - and I mean beautiful on the inside, not the outside - has been a sensitive person, to some degree. None of them have been so tough as to fulfil the criteria sought by this speaker.

Resilience is important if a child is to grow up into an adult able to cope with the vicissitudes of life. However, that resilience must not come at the price of losing one's essential sensitivity. It is the latter quality that leads to a beautiful life. Toughness does not afford one a beautiful life - it only allows one to endure the suffering of an ugly one.

There is, I feel, too little concern for the human side of humanity, here. The attention is directed too much to creating efficient little workers who will fit nicely into the system without creating any perturbation - and will endure all the discomforts that come with a system that doesn't actually value the individual human being for themselves.

I would rather a sensitive child than a tough child. A sensitive child could be a great poet, a wonderful actor, an inspiring leader, a perceptive thinker, a lyrical writer, a profound musician. A tough child is unlikely to be any of these - though they are likely to endure in the face of much suffering and "succeed" eventually, in a conventional sense. Perhaps that is all that is wanted here, by the educational system: that the children "succeed" in a conventional sense. No wonder, then, that there is such a dearth of creative geniuses here. Why, you wonder? Well, you see, most great geniuses are, dare I say it...rather SENSITIVE!

With all this effort to knock the sensitivity out of children - indeed with special talks for just that purpose - it is no wonder that so little genius survives to flourish here.

What we need more of is: gentleness, sensitivity, kindness and consideration. Unfortunately, no more alien concepts could be tabled, than those four words, when set against what the system here, would like the children to show - and grow into.

Personally, I would rather a nation with a measurable sprinkling of sensitive geniuses - than an abundance of tough little workers. To create such a place, of course, would necessitate a complete change in the way the children are raised - and that's definitely never going to happen.

So, tough Singaporeans it is to be.

Ah well.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:14 PM  6 comments

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Gary Gygax, Dungeons and Dragons' inventor dies.

One of the great pastimes of my childhood was pouring over Dungeon's and Dragons tomes, and, on occasions, getting together with enthusiastic others, to play a game of it.

For those who have not heard of this corner of the imagination, Dungeons and Dragons is a role-playing game, in which you take on the role of a character, whose nature is determined to some extent by roles of the die, that generate his or her characteristics. It is the kind of game where you get to play the story, yourself, rather than just passively read about it. As such, I think it is a valuable addition to the mental furniture of any child (or adult for that matter).

Gary Gygax was a name I knew well, from about the age of 11 when I first encountered his pioneering game. It seemed to me then, and does now, that in creating the game with David Arneson, that he had fashioned a rich and complex world. It was a game of many nuances and great complexities, which appealed to me in the way, perhaps it can only appeal to a child, with their sense of endless time stretching ahead. You see, there is no doubt that a considerable investment of time and mental energy was required to come to understand and be able to play the game effectively.

Dungeons and Dragons appealed - and still appeals - to the kind of person others might refer to as "nerds" or "geeks" - and I think there is a reason for this. D and D, as it is also known, provided a complex mental system of representation of a fictional world. Learning how to play it appeals, therefore, to the kind of person who likes to learn systems of representation of the world (such as the sciences). Hence, many of its followers were of that "nerdy" type. Funny enough, Sync magazine once placed Gary Gygax himself in first position of a list of the world's top 50 nerds.

Born on July 27 1938, in Chicago, Ernest Gary Gygax led a life that did not, at times, presage the magnitude of his later achievements. He was a high school dropout, but later returned to education to take a course in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He earnt his living, in the 1960s, as an insurance salesman - a profession not associated with imagination. Yet, he had already begun to explore the ideas that were later to become Dungeons and Dragons. In his teens, he had begun to devise game rules around miniature figurines. The creation of his fictional world had begun.

Dungeons and Dragons is based on a game called Chainmail, designed for these figurines, he put together with Jeff Perren in 1971. D and D itself debuted in 1974, with David Arneson as a co-creator. Gary Gygax founded Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) to further the game and it was a great success in publishing, book, video game and film rights, in due course. However, he left the company in 1985 (and as I remember at the time, I don't think it was an entirely happy departure).

It may seem a little thing, to invent a game, but Dungeons and Dragons was to spawn a legion of other role-playing games - and eventually inspire hundreds of computer games, based on the notion of playing a role of a statistically determined character in a high fantasy (or sometimes science fiction world). Not a few films, too, owe their origins to his game. After TSR, Gary Gygax also went onto write many fantasy novels, in his Greyhawk series. He was frequently voted one of the most influential people in science fiction.

He died on Tuesday at the age of 69. That he had been a heavy smoker for 50 years may have contributed (he had had a stroke in 2004). The world of fantasy was not his only area of creativity and he leaves behind a wife and six children (three sons and three daughters).

Gary Gygax enriched the childhood imaginations of millions of children (and adults with a child still alive inside) across the world. He gave the world a new pastime. That, I would think, is a good achievement for a single lifetime.

I am thankful for all the childhood hours I spent in the world of Gary Gygax's imagination. It was fun. How strange that I never once considered that, one day, I would write of his passing. Children don't have that kind of thought, generally.

Cheers, Gary.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:40 PM  0 comments

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Conversation with an unruly toe.

Observing one's children is ever a source of amusement, interest and insight. Of the many warming moments of our recent holiday in Bintan, during my father's trip here, was when Tiarnan, twenty-four months at the time, was wearing open toed, "thong" type slippers. He was having some trouble with shoes, since they kept slipping on him.

His troubles exacerbated when he was going down some steps, in the gardens of the resort. Having to lift the shoes into the air to reach the next step was problematic, with his toes slipping within the shoe.

Tiarnan stopped, then, having had an idea of how to deal with this problem. He bent down over his shoes and placed his little index finger on an unruly toe. With great earnestness and intensity, he then spoke to his toe, in a cajoling tone: "Don't move...OK? I want to walk!"

Having satisfied himself that his toe had got the message, he stood and walked on, a little more confidently, if not more effectively. Yet, he had done what he could do, to resolve the situation and was happier about his slipping shoes, thereafter.

Sweet.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:52 PM  0 comments

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The most inconvenient taxi service in the world.

Is Singapore's now the most inconvenient taxi service in the world?

It seems to be getting that way. Last night, for instance, my wife and I took a cab into town on a night out. The strange thing about the journey is that the driver refused to alight where we wanted him to. He wanted to drive on, to another place, to "park at the taxi rank".

As he explained to us, taxi passengers, in Singapore, no longer have the freedom to alight where they please. Taxis may only stop at designated taxi stands - or at "buildings with driveways". The result of this bizarre new ruling applies to pick ups, as well. No longer do passengers in Singapore's central areas, have the right to flag a taxi. A taxi may only be taken from designated taxi stands - or the fabled buildings with driveways.

This creates a very inconvenient situation. A cab may no longer be caught from where one pleases, nor may it alight where one pleases: both aspects of the journey are now controlled and restricted.

Let us consider, for a moment what this means. The essential nature of a taxi service, in all other countries of the world, bar none, is that it will take you from wherever you like, to wherever you like. Not so, however, in Singapore. The possible points of departure and arrival are now strictly limited. In effect, the limitless convenience of taking a taxi has been reduced to a car service between "stations" - the taxi stands and driveways of public buildings. Thus the taxi service now operates just like a train service. With it goes all the convenience this mode of transport once had in Singapore.

The taxi stands are not innumerable. They are apparently, up to 300 metres away from any given point in town. Then there is another factor: you have to know where they are, to be able to take a cab from them - and many people, particularly visitors to Singapore, won't know. Thus, a typical journey to or from town, in Singapore may, given the 300 metre figure from the Straits Times, some months back, involve a walk of a third of a kilometre at both ends of the journey.

As someone who grew up in a different nation, with a different ethos, I find the gradual erosion of the effectiveness and convenience of taxi services in Singapore, a bit of a puzzle. I, personally, can see no good reason for destroying a mode of transport. For taxis have now been destroyed as a mode of transport to or from the central areas of Singapore.

Perhaps it is all just a health drive to get us to walk more. For now, you will have to walk quite a way to catch a cab - and then walk quite a way from your point of alighting, to get to your actual destination. Alternatively, you could now use the equivalent modes of transport that also use "stations": trains or buses - for they are now exactly the same as taxis in terms of style of operation - if not in price.

So, if you ever visit Singapore, remember this: you are not allowed to flag a taxi in a central area. You now know this. However, one has to wonder: how many tourists in Singapore would intuitively know that they have no right to flag a cab? There will be a lot of puzzled tourists, in time to come, wondering why taxi drivers refuse to pick them up, when they flag.

What a strange nation this is.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:05 PM  7 comments

Monday, March 03, 2008

Why not do something new?

There is a giant new outline on Singapore's horizons: the "Singapore Flyer".

For those who do not know, this is Singapore's version of the "London Eye" - the famous adaptation of a ferris wheel, that peers above the London skyline.

As is the way of such things, the Singapore Flyer is bigger and better than what has gone before. It cost more, for a start - at a not inconsiderable $240 million. So, in the realm of cost alone, we have innovation. Then there is the size of the carriages: about as large as a bus, carrying 28 passengers each. A vibration free trip is promised to all, allowing passengers to view Singapore from a vantage of 165m high.

Now, all of that seems wonderful enough yet, when I look at the Singapore Flyer, I find myself able to see one thing very clearly: derivativeness. The Singapore Flyer may be a new construction, but it is not a new idea. It is an imitation of the London Eye - taller, yes, by 30 m, but still very much an imitation of the London Eye.

I understand that it was constructed as a tourist attraction, that it promises to give visitors a "unique experience". The only trouble is, the experience is not unique. London Eye look-a-likes are popping up everywhere these days, promoted not by the original firm that made the London Eye - but by a Japanese company that made the Singapore Flyer.

I see nothing worthy in imitation, however impressive the imitation might be. I see the Singapore Flyer as an example of a culture that has an inability to contribute its own iconic structures. Would it not have been better to have done something new with that $240 million? Would it not have been better for Singapore to have built something that no other nation has - instead of building a "me-too" structure?

It tires me to watch the endless derivations I see around me. What really lightens the heart is to see something new, something original, something that has a voice of its own. Sadly, in Singapore, today, what we see, more commonly, is grand derivation. By this I mean that the derivations are on a grand scale. This is, I suppose, an effort to give the derivations worth and meaning - but it doesn't change the essential fact that what we are seeing is something from elsewhere, an imported, repeated, derived idea.

Singapore aspires to be a great city, a great nation, a "first class city". It certainly has the resources to be so. It has the means to achieve this goal. Yet, it has overlooked something. The true first class cities of the world are like only themselves. They are first class partly because they have their own style, their own voice, their own character. A city cannot, I feel, become first class through imitation. First class status comes from leading in one's own way. First class cities are cities that others aspire to be like: they are not cities that are themselves aspiring to be like others.

If Singapore is truly ever going to be the first class city it aspires to be - a Paris, a London, a New York, it must first find its own voice. Singapore must be first class in its own way - and not just an echo of somewhere else.

To be an echo, is to be second - and first class places are never second.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:08 PM  0 comments

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The super puzzle solver of Singapore

A couple of months ago, Fintan got given one of those gifts that was more appropriate than we could possibly have thought. It was a Spiderman puzzle.

Now, we are not a household that goes in for conventional puzzles (of the broken image variety). I, for one, never found them particularly interesting. Thus, we haven't made any effort to ensure that our children were surrounded by them.

The puzzle was an interesting choice for Fintan, four, because he rather likes Spiderman (Fintan is a superhero expert). However, I was concerned to note that the puzzle was of many pieces, and all in dark colours with little contrast and few clues to allow each piece to be placed in its proper position. I didn't, therefore, hold out much hope for Fintan being able to do it. It seemed rather an unhelpful puzzle, actually.

I withheld my tongue, however, as an inner wish bid me to discourage him from even trying it. I let him proceed. He scattered the puzzle pieces everywhere and then set about reassembling them.

I was feeling thirsty so I went to get a cup of tea.

A few minutes later I returned. The puzzle was done. Fintan had finished it.

I was somewhat startled to see this, since I, for one, had not expected anyone to be able to do the puzzle at all easily, given its problems in design, already spoken of, above - but somehow, Fintan, who was ever an observant child, saw enough in it, to get it done very quickly indeed.

I congratulated him - and looked with some puzzlement at the wholeness of the dark image he presented me with.

Fintan has not been weaned on puzzles. Yet, somehow he is most adept at them. Again, he has shown us surprising resources where visual tasks are concerned.

Of course, those tasks which require visual skill - such as Art - are not popular or well supported here in Singapore. We shall have to find our own ways of ensuring that his native gifts are developed accordingly.

The next time I see a puzzle which looks inordinately complicated, with few visual cues as to how to complete it, I know just what to do with it: give it to Fintan.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 2:14 PM  2 comments

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