Go with a smile!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Limits of Singapore's Education System

This post is a response to another opinion piece on the PSLE. I agree with this other post that the PSLE should not be abolished, but I'm a little appalled at his uncritical assessment of the Singaporean education system. I think it is generally a good thing that Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world. But I don't think that we really have what it takes yet to shine at the very top of the academic structure.

I've been to good schools (including RI), and I've attended very good universities which have produced several Nobel prize winners (gee, does that mean that some of you can guess what Snowy Hill is? I hope not!). I personally know around 10 international Olympiad medal winners even though I’m not one, so you can say I’ve seen a few really smart people up close. (By the way, Nobel Prizes are given out for only 5 academic fields, so you probably have to include other prizes like the Fields medal and the Turing award). I don't really think that Singapore will produce any Nobel prize winners for the next 50 years.

The biggest problem with meritocracy is not that some people are pushed ahead of others. It is not that it produces an unequal society. The biggest problem with meritocracy is that we are all pretending that those people who succeed in life will also be those people who succeed wildly in school. This is not the case at all. Often there is not a match between the two. Success in school will ensure that a person is diligent, hardworking, and rigorous with knowledge. But it can also cripple him. People who do well in school, at least at the PSLE level, are good at being parrots. But schoolwork at PSLE level is an environment where people give you constant feedback about whether or not you’re doing well. Compare this with, say the 4 papers that Einstein wrote in 1905, which forever gave him lasting fame. His ideas were attacked for years before they were accepted as truth. Einstein never got a Nobel prize for his most important idea – special relativity, because it was so crazy at that time that the Nobel committee never dared to give it to him. This is what real achievement is like. It is controversial, bold, and really, it’s not for committees to judge how great a scientist you are. Only history can be the real judge.

You might also want to see this famous story of John Gurdon who just received the Nobel prize in Medicine. He was told by his Eton teacher that he shouldn’t pursue science as a career.

We’ll produce a lot of good students, I don’t doubt that. But the best and the greatest of the scientists are daring and crazy people, and I don’t think that the Singapore produces enough daring and crazy people. The best scientists are slightly disrespectful of authority (which is logical since the best science comes from overturning older and less accurate scientific knowledge).

The best PSLE student in my cohort – I don’t know what’s happened to her. She didn’t feature among the top “O” or “A” level students. So you see – the best PSLE grades don’t even predict what’s going to happen at the “O” or “A” levels.

The types of great students that Singapore produce would have a very specific type of ability that allows them to do very well in school, and they may grow into adulthood having an exaggerated faith in that ability, and what are they going to do when they fail for the first time afterwards? I don’t really know if they’d be creative enough to find a way out of that.

You said that “The most effective teaching method must be one in which you group students of the same calibre together.” That is not true. People are trying to figure out how the Finnish education system became so successful without doing that.

In fact I also question the wisdom of grouping students of the best caliber together. Even in the gifted program the difference between the best students and the worst students was so great that we still had to teach the best students separately. (Or rather the best students just took up maths club / science club / whatever as their ECA) I was thinking, OK we still got to do that. So what the hell do we need streaming for? Might as well have a system where the teachers just teach the best students, and the best students teach the rest of the students. Since the only way the best students can become better is when they kenna shoot left right and centre by questions from all directions.

Then the idea where grouping students together based on their aggregate PSLE results is also a dubious idea. The people in the gifted program were a mishmash of people who were really good at language but pretty average in maths and science, and others who were pretty good at maths but really lousy in Chinese. Naturally, that really defeats the purpose of streaming, because it means that in any one subject, there’s going to be so much variability in ability that it’s not as though the teachers teach the ones who can learn the fastest. I think they realised that and from what I understand, they’re paying more attention to the needs of people who are naturally specialized. (I’m not saying this because I was the sort of person who is good at only one subject – I’m not. I’m saying this because this is what I’ve seen myself.)

There are some things that Singapore schools do a very bad job of teaching, and those are usually the things that can’t be tested. Yes, American high schools can be a very mean place, and there are cliques everywhere, and it is a nasty social environment. But it also produces a lot of very charismatic people. The threat of getting beaten up in a playground just ends up as a very rigorous training ground for good social skills, good survival skills. I’m not very sure that Singaporeans have that. And to be sure, I think that a lot of other Asian countries also have the same problem.

The other things that really great students face – I’ve seen a lot of really good students really suffer when they go to NS and turn into really lousy soldiers. So we all know that being great at your studies doesn’t necessarily translate into all other things in life.

Bottom line is, OK, I think that we still have a pretty good system and I agree with you that the PSLE should not be abolished. But I am not such an uncritical admirer as you are when it comes to our relentless focus on grades. Grades are not everything, and therefore the way that we teach our youngsters is quite incomplete. Therefore we should maybe relax the emphasis on grades a little because if we worked our students over as though grades were the single most important thing in life, they wouldn’t have the time or the energy to learn the other things in life that are worth learning, and they’re going to grow up crippled. Trust me on this.

Your statement that there are no back doors into RI is false. The gifted program was a back door. During my time, if you were in the gifted program in primary school, you got into RI even though you didn’t meet the cut off that express students needed to meet. Of course, you can still be expelled from the gifted program later on, but that’s another issue. The big problem with streaming in Singapore (and I don’t know whether they’ve changed this) is that there’s not enough leeway to reverse the streaming decisions that were made earlier in life. It’s really hard to get out from Poly to the uni. In contrast, in a place like California, there are 3 levels of public universities, and people can transfer from the 3rd tier to the top tier within the span of 4 years. And the top tier means places like Berkeley and UCLA.

You said that people in RI are an accurate cross section of Singaporean society. I was in RI and that was not true. Not during my time anyway.

If you think that getting into elite colleges via back doors is really such a bad thing, consider this: Franklin Roosevelt is in the almost unanimous opinion of historians one of the greatest US presidents. He went to Harvard, yes. But how? Through the back door. His grades were shit. That is something you might want to consider. (But of course the fact that dubya was a legacy admission into Yale is also something to consider. His father, I think, got into Yale fair and square – or at least he probably would have, and he was a better president)

What I object to is that our sterling academic achievements in the academics at the grade school level have not translated to bigger and better things. It’s actually pretty dismal when you consider what South Korea and Finland has achieved. One of them has Samsung. And more recently, PSY. The other has Nokia. And Linux. Maybe this is not an indictment of the education system. Maybe the problem is that we are managed by idiots. I think we are managed by idiots. And USA, in spite of really lousy grade school results, has managed to produce a Microsoft , a Google and an Apple. (And may I remind you that all three of these great organisations were all founded by DROPOUTS. This is not a coincidence.) Yes, they were really bright dropouts who excelled at grade school. (I’m talking about Gates, Jobs, Brin and Page). Yes, they all entered very selective universities and then dropped out of them. But the point here is that all of them have recognized that there are more important things in life than academics. I don't want to crow about our education system until I can see for myself that it has produced people who have actually achieved great things.

Yes, we have tried to pour millions of dollars into biotech research. But a lot of the world class talent we attracted 5 years ago are going elsewhere, probably because they realised that we still don't have the culture to do great research. We haven't spent the 30 odd years it takes to build up that culture. Mind you, I'm not complaining because after one of those big name foreign talents left, a personal friend of mine, who is a local talent, took over and I'm really pleased for him.

I don't want to totally knock Singapore. We also do underestimate ourselves in certain ways. We have pretty good songwriters, although nobody seems to realise this fact. Singaporeans wrote half of Jacky Cheung's greatest album, "Wen Bie". And we have produced sterling albums from bands like Humpback Oak. But we are too busy putting ourselves down to realise that.

What we have managed to do is to build world class infrastructure. Which is not nothing, but UAE can produce world class airlines and world class airports as well as we do. It is not the same as producing world class innovation and research. Will our education system manage that? I’m not totally sure.


Friday, November 16, 2012

US Presidential Elections

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that Obama won the election. The bad news – the really bad news is that I didn’t win a free trip to the nearest Google office for a nice chat.

To be honest, I’ve been spending more time following the US elections than is fully warranted. I think the reason is that Obama and Mitt Romney were very closely matched. I didn’t think that Romney is a better candidate than Obama, but this is a country where Dubya won two elections.

It was pretty exhausting following the elections. There were real concerns that Romney was going to win. At some points, the outcome looked less than certain. There were a lot of turning points in the race. There were a lot of obstacles against Obama. This is not like Clinton or Reagan’s or even Nixon’s second term, where the result was never truly in doubt from the start to finish.

First, there was the economic problems that were partially solved by Obama, but never completely. The recovery was slower than expected, and the job numbers were slower than expected, and it does seem as though that Obama’s policies were working even though they were working slowly. But some people would not see it that way, and would prefer to think they weren’t working at all.

Second, there was so much obstructionism in the way of Obama being able to achieve his aims, due to the Republicans always blocking him in Congress. It’s an oft-repeated story by now that shortly after his inauguration, a few powerful Republicans got together to hatch a plan to make sure that Obama didn’t get re-elected. As we now know, that plan did not succeed.

Third, Obama will never go down in history as one of the greatest presidents – not on the evidence of the first term. He is certainly bright and capable. But he does not have – say Bill Clinton’s stomach for fighting or his capacity for politicking. Bill Clinton is a great politician, but Obama is not. He likes to get things done, and he likes to do the right thing, and he is disciplined. But he doesn’t like to go around the room and make friends, raise money and schmooze with people. He’s managed to alienate a few very rich and powerful people who have made him the target of a lot of political attacks.

Fourth, he’s black. There are a lot of people who just didn’t want to see Obama in the White House, it’s as simple as that. But fortunately I don’t think that this was a great problem.

There were a lot of things that Obama had on his side, however. First is that he managed to assemble a very formidable war chest. Even though Romney had the support of the billionaires who could write a large number of checks on the order of tens of millions of dollars, Obama still managed to match him in campaign donations. Obama had the support of just about any demographic group who wasn’t white or male. The rest of the world were rooting for him. The media was on his side, just as it had been on his side during the 2008 elections. And one of the biggest things on his side was that the people that the Republicans managed to nominate were pretty crappy. Mitt Romney is basically the least bad guy among a lot of other candidates. Well, maybe Ron Paul is not a bad guy at heart but I think he would have made a terrible president.

When you think about it, the reasons for Obama and Romney are so evenly matched that you couldn’t really tell for sure how it was going to turn out. At certain points, I almost caught myself thinking that maybe Mitt Romney is not so bad after all, and that he could turn out to be a moderate president just like he was a moderate governor. Until I remembered that George W Bush was a moderate governor. On balance, I would say that Mitt Romney would probably have surrendered control to the more hardcore elements in his party, and even though he had a late resurgence, in the end he lost the presidency.

One thing that intrigues me very much is Obama’s election strategy. It’s clear that one of his greatest assets is the ability to run very very good campaigns. He ran not one, but two very good campaigns in 2008 – if you remember, his most formidable opponent was not John McCain but Hillary Clinton. And I should say that the campaign wasn’t really about him: it was about his friends. Obama is never the star of his own show. He had Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama to campaign for him. His great ambassador to the rest of the world was Hillary Clinton.

More importantly, he had a group of very intelligent and very smart data crunchers, who were able to target voters more effectively than the Republicans. I was very intrigued by what I considered to be data analysis of a much higher standard. You can see this article here. In 2000 and 2004, the Democrats ran two campaigns that were not very good. Al Gore lost to George W Bush in one of the most fateful presidential elections of all time, because the Republican administration changed the US in such significant ways. It was an election that was very winnable because Al Gore was Vice-President to Clinton, who was still very popular in spite of the Lewinsky scandal. But somehow they managed to fuck it up – and it was not helped by his deteriorating relationship with Hillary Clinton. In 2004, the John F Kerry campaign fell prey to a lot of negative campaigning by the Republicans, who attacked John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. And they didn’t respond well enough.

Anyway, we know that there are certain administrations which are poisoned chalices. The 1965-1969 term of LBJ was a poisoned chalice because it was a time of great upheaval. LBJ gave up on running a second term. He was responsible for so much – the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Great Society. But he doomed the Democrat party, and leaving aside the Carter administration, between 1968 and 1992 the Republicans not only dominated the White House, but they reinvented themselves as the dominant party.

The Carter Administration was also a poisoned chalice. The presidency fell to Jimmy Carter but he proved to be an eminently incapable president who made many wrong decisions – he could not control inflation, he could not drag the US out of a recession, and the Iran embassy hostage crisis further underlined his helplessness. It handed the White House back to Ronald Reagan.

Also, the 1949-1953 term was a poisoned chalice, because Truman had to fight a very unpopular war in Korea.

We now know that the 2005-2009 term was also a poisoned chalice. It was the time of the Great Recession, the time of declining American influence in the world, the great setbacks from Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China, and hurricane Katrina. There is no doubt that if John Kerry won, he would have been a one term president. He wouldn’t have been strong enough to defy the House and the Senate. And if he had tried to run for presidency in 2008, he would have been defeated by John McCain. Sarah Palin being the Vice President would have been a definite possibility. Some might question whether the Republican Party would have been as right leaning because of the defeat in 2004, but I think it would not have changed a lot. And it would have been pretty scary to think about how John McCain would have handled the financial crisis.

In 2004, though, there were some interesting developments. Howard Dean was for some time the forerunner of the Democratic Party nomination. And he almost secured the nomination out of nowhere due to a new strategy which used the internet and non-traditional media to target the grassroots. However he crashed and burned because during one public speech, he started screaming in celebration and gave people the impression that he was unhinged. But he had started something important and his strategies later on helped Barack Obama become one of the most effective fundraisers for a presidential campaign ever.

As an aspiring data scientist, I am very much intrigued by how Barack Obama ran his campaign. I think they must have done something really effective in order to win all the swing states – and a lot of the electoral votes. Although there are some people who could predict the results of the election way before hand. Yet, consider this: Obama most of the swing states where the data was inconclusive about who would win them, and none of them by margins greater than 53%. Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, for a total of 60 electoral votes. And there are others who include Iowa and Nevada as swing states as well. Florida, whose result has not been out yet, accounts for another 29 electoral votes. If Obama’s campaign had been responsible for swinging these states in his favour, I have to say that they did a great job. People can say all they want about Obama’s victory being a “trashing”. But if you look at the popular vote, it’s just 50% to 48% in favour of Obama. And if he had lost half of these swing states, he would have been extremely nervous.

I think that Barack Obama had a lot of good data scientists on his side because the really smart people would not have wanted to back Mitt Romney. You can pump all the money you want into campaigns, but if the geeks refuse to work for you, there are just some things that money can’t buy.

Barack Obama had a lot of friends during this campaign. There were a lot of newspaper editorials who endorsed him. A lot of these endorsements are not so much votes of support for Obama as the greatest ever president, but rather a mortal fear of what might happen to America if Romney won. To this end, he was endorsed by people who are normally right-wingers, like Colin Powell. Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie received very good help from him during hurricane Sandy and they expressed their appreciation, even though Christie is a Republican who was supposed to be on Romney’s side, and even though Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire who’s supposed to hate a “socialist” president.

Another thing that would have helped Obama was last year’s “Occupy” movement. Even though it was short lived, and even though it was cleared out for the winter, it did produce some results, which were that it changed the way that people thought about politics. This year there were two good reasons why it didn’t happen. One was that they didn’t want to affect Obama’s re-election chances, and the other was hurricane Sandy.

I have seen this as one of the more important presidential elections. In fact, the 2000, 2008 and 2012 elections are all very important in US history. 2000 was important because it gave us 8 years of George Bush. 2008 was important, although it was not a close-run thing. Even though I regard John McCain as a decent man, he had no chance of winning the presidency – especially not after choosing Sarah Palin. 2012 is important, like 2000, because the result was important, and because the result was not pre-ordained. Like I said earlier, it is very plausible that Obama could have lost. If Mitt Romney had won, this would be the triumph of the moneyed class, and this would have proven to them that if you can pump a lot of money Last of all I want to think about the future of the Republican party. During the Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bush 1 administrations, they were supposed to be the more “hard nosed”, realist and sober party. But it has changed and during the Clinton and Bush 2 years, it has drifted more to the right, to the extent that people are getting sick and tired of it. Since Clinton, the Democrats seem to have “retaken” the center. Neither Clinton nor Obama seem to be extreme leftists, no matter how the Tea Partiers try to paint Obama as a socialist. It’s clear that if this goes on, the Republicans will lose Congress in 2014, and a lot of people believe they have to try and reinvent themselves. They have done it once before, during the Nixon years, and those people who study American political history know that was a very drastic reinvention. And another time during the Reagan years, and yet again during the Clinton years. Who knows whether or not we will have the Republicans moving back to the center. The Republicans of Gerald Ford, Eisenhower and George Bush 1. Even Richard Nixon, who did so much to shape the conservative rhetoric that we see today, was actually a pretty liberal president, if we look at the record of what he actually did, as opposed to what he said.

In times of prosperity, people don’t really care very much who gets elected president. But in times of crisis, I believe that left leaning parties have a great advantage. People who promise social safety nets. People who refuse to let the rich take everything away. I still remember how Winston Churchill lost the first election after winning World War II: in spite of his great service to the nation, and in spite of the incredible achievement of winning the greatest human conflict of all time, they elected Labour party into power because they believed that socialism was needed to rebuild the nation. I see hard times ahead for the Republican party. The other thing that is going to be very hard for the Republican party is that focusing on privileged middle class white people is not going to help very much anymore. America is rapidly becoming a place where Blacks, Latinos and Asians have almost as much power as the Whites. It is also a place where women and gays have more and more power.

Now that we have averted the disaster of a Romney presidency, there are a lot of people who believe that Obama is a liberated person, who is capable of pushing his agenda further than he did with his first term. But at the same time, there are people who point to a historical precedent that presidents get into big trouble with their second term. I don’t really buy that: Monica Lewinsky aside, I think that Bill Clinton had a pretty good second term. Ronald Reagan morphed from great cold warrior to great peacemaker during his rapprochement with Gorbachev which changed the world profoundly. And it’s true that presidents who learn their lessons do become more effective leaders.


Thursday, November 08, 2012

Britpop and Nationalism

Ever since the 2011 elections, there has been a change in the “terms of the dialogue”. I had a friend, Nat, who told me that he didn’t really understand what it means. He didn’t understand why everybody was suddenly talking about the elections. It wasn’t a big deal. Well it was a big deal in Singapore. People who had grown up in Singapore, and who had seen what it was like in the past, suddenly know. I can imagine that Indians are not very enthusiastic about elections because a lot of politicians are venal and corrupt. And Singaporeans are usually not very enthusiastic about elections because the outcome is boring and pre-ordained. But once in a while, the wind changes direction. It’s like being in a tropical country, and when a storm is brewing, the air actually smells different, the wind is whipping up, and the atmosphere becomes electric for a little while. That was what the 2011 elections was like. For once, there was a real possibility that the PAP was going to be embarrassed, even if it was in some small way. It was like a guy who never had a date in his life getting to hold a girl’s hand. Most people wouldn’t think that it’s a big deal. But if you really understand the situation, you would know that it is a big deal.

But I’m not really here to talk about politics. And anyway, my main aim is to talk about something else. As part of the change in “terms of the dialogue”, people have finally, spontaneously, started to think about what nationhood means – partly because what we used to know as “nationhood” is starting to disappear. Is Singapore a nation? I don’t really know. Thing about a nation, is that it is usually not defined by (quoting the Singapore pledge) language, race or religion. It is defined by geography. It is something that is highly tribal. A nation is the second largest category, which means, it encompasses the whole landscape, but there is an understanding that there is another place not covered by that nation. So there must not only be a self, but also an “other”. Singapore was a budding nation: we are fairly cognizant of our neighbours, although I wish we were more so.

I do not consider China or the USA to be nations. They are empires. There’s not a great consciousness of the outside world for people who live in those two countries. Furthermore, their geographical scope is so vast and broad that they seem more like a few nations bound together. For the USA, New England is not the same as the Mid Atlantic, which is not the same as the Plains, the Mountains, the Midwest, the South, California, or the rest of the West Coast. But at least they still speak the same language. In China, people speak different languages which are disguised as one language. The friction between the dialect groups was such that you can understand why LKY forced everybody to speak Mandarin.

UK – you could think of it as a mini-empire, since they acknowledge themselves as four different nations, and they sorda behave like a nation. I was reminded of this when I saw this documentary on Britpop in the 1990s. Of course, it was about the music, but I also felt that in those few short years (1993 – 97), Britain came together as a nation most prominently. There was already a budding subculture of Indie music during the 80s. The UK had an unusually prominent pop music scene: there were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zep, Deep Purple, the Who, the Kinks, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix (who’s American but first became famous in London), T Rex, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Slade, Queen, Elton John, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, Elvis Costello, Joy Division, Duran Duran, Madness, Eurythmics and the Smiths. Then came the Stone Roses, who was inadvertently the flag bearer for many of the great bands of the 90s.

What distinguished the bands of the 90s was that they were actively celebrating their own Britishness. Many of the earlier bands I mentioned were fairly outward looking. Yes, the Beatles may never be mistaken for anything other than a Liverpool band (although you could also say they are a Hamburg band). But they and the Rolling Stones were inspired by American music. The heavy metal bands in the UK appealed to both sides of the Atlantic. The glam rockers and the punks principally had a British audience, although punk had taken root in New York before becoming big in the UK.

So there was something fairly nationalistic about Britpop. It’s almost like they suddenly looked at the great musical heritage they had and decided that they weren’t going to pretend to be “international” or “American” after all. The fact that Oasis became popular everywhere outside of America just tells you how insular the Americans are.

The biggest bands of the Britpop movement represented different aspects of British pop culture. Suede took after Bowie and glam rock. Blur took after the Kinks, Madness and Wire. Oasis took after Slade, Stone Roses, the Verve with a bit of T Rex thrown in for good measure. Pulp took after Roxy Music. Elastica took after Wire and the Fall. There is another segment that included the trip hop triple threat of Massive Attack / Portishead / Tricky, although that is a separate thread, but an equally rich seam of music.

An entire subculture was celebrated. The townhouses, the afternoon tea, the walks in the parks, the council estates. Everybody reveled in the fact that it was suddenly cool and hip to be themselves. An analogy would be if people suddenly decided that Singaporean HDB life was worth celebrating: the old uncles in the corner of the coffee shop with their beer bottles and their piles of peanut shells. The old wrinkled cobbler in the corner. The bitter smells of the medicine halls. Eating kaya toast with one leg perched up on the stool.

The laddishness was celebrated. The football, the cigarettes, the rudeness, the dry wit. The occasional loutishness and drunkenness. Perhaps, for the first time, the shackles of the Thatcher years were thrown off. Perhaps there was a temporary prosperity partially brought about by the North Sea Oil boom. For a while, it was tremendously liberating, until it burnt itself out, inevitably.

And why? Because first, there isn’t that much to British culture. There is a lot of sterility and boredom involved in it, and for a while, paradoxically, it was that sterility that was celebrated. But there was only so much to it, only so much you could say about life in a relatively small country, about which so much had already been written before you were done.

Another reason it burnt itself out was because New Labour used them as a platform to their popularity. There were three events in 1997 that signaled the end of this great run: Labour winning the elections, Princess Diana perishing in a crash (the hysteria could have been something unleashed by the Britpop years), and Oasis releasing “Be Here Now”, an album that had “excessive use of cocaine” written all over it. Celebrities who never expected to become famous and were therefore not prepared to do so could not handle the fame and many self-destructed in fairly appalling ways. Pulp documented the self-loathing of the end of the Britpop years in their album “This is Hardcore”.

Yet in those few short years, there was an astonishing burst of great music – OK, not astonishing by the standards of the 60s and 70s but undeniably great. And that nationalism wasn’t of the jingoistic sort. It wasn’t racist. Blacks and Indians participated as well.

And for the last few years, the British music scene has been awful. I don’t know if this is a symptom of something larger that’s taking place elsewhere in the world, or if the UK as a country has gone downhill so fast that there wasn’t anything left to celebrate. In the first decade of the 21st century, you had “reality TV” and plenty of awful and untalented people wanting to have their 15 minutes of fame: you had “Big Brother”, “Britain’s Got Talent” (remember Susan Boyle?) and overpaid Premiership footballers. It was quite horrible compared to what Britpop had.

So what kind of nationalism do I want to see for Singapore? I want those 3-4 years that the UK had at the height of its Britpop craze. That would be enough for me.


Blogger 7-8 said...

In other news, Britain has topped the years' rankings when it comes to soft power.

7:34 AM


Saturday, November 03, 2012

Taking Stock

One by one, I see that people are involved in all kinds of funky adventures, and it’s quite liberating and inspiring.

I used to live in my own little world, reading a lot of books, probably far beyond the point where they would be useful. If I were honest, I would say that all that acquisition of general knowledge should have stopped around the time I was 30. I was reaching the point of diminishing returns. But that was OK. I started late (say – 22?), and therefore I probably should have ended late. A lot of “normal” bookworms start off when they’re 15 or something.

Yes, I had this ambition to finish a marathon. Or, let’s put it this way. The ambition to finish a marathon lasted around one year. I started training up to run a half marathon because Shingot and I saw a few people from our workplace completing marathons. Then he asked around for people to finish marathons. I ended up running a half marathon. Some other people didn’t do that, not because they didn’t have the perseverance that I had, but because they had better things to do with their lives, and I didn’t. So I had all this time and energy to spare, and I went out and did it.

So I went out to finish a half marathon, and I did it. I turned to my jogging partner and we agreed to go one step further and do the full marathon. Until I did it, and even after the first 40 kilometers, I wasn’t assured of my success. I probably ran more miles that year than I did in my entire fulltime NS days, although I must add that I spent half of those years as a clerk. So my ambition to run a marathon lasted for 1 year, from the time I completed my half marathon, to the time I actually crossed the finishing line of my marathon. After that, I knew that running another marathon would not be feasible. I’ve not even run 10K at one go for 3 years already.

In a way, I probably know that I had checked off one item on my bucket list, and it would no longer be necessary to go back and revisit it. Another one is to prove myself as a playwright. It is very difficult for me to assume that I’ll ever revisit it, so I’ll have to check that one off and assume that I wouldn’t be going back to that any time soon.

After that, it was time for my next “small project”, which was to get myself admitted into university to do a master’s in computer science. That was a partial success. Partial because if I knew then what I know now, I would not have done it the way that I did it. It’s always a chicken and egg problem. Now that I am in the uni, I know best what I should have done while I was working. What skills I should have picked up during those years, in order to maximize my learning during my years that the university. But if I didn’t come here, it would have been a little more difficult for me to learn just what it was I should have learnt. So it’s a chicken and egg problem.

During those years, I had two other smaller projects. One of them was caring for my grandmother. I’m a little ashamed to say that I had neglected her health issues for around three years. As it turned out, I helped look after her for around three more years, and after that, she died. She died when I left Singapore, exactly as I had feared. If I didn’t leave, she would have lived a little longer, but in the condition that she was in, living a little longer is of dubious benefit.

The other project was catching up with the music that had sprouted up in the last few years when I stopped buying CDs. There was an incredible amount of music to catch up with. It all started when Sembawang Music Centre, where I had spent a great deal of my teenage days, closed down. There was a fire sale, and I went in to grab everything that I could. I probably should be ashamed of myself, but I’ve bought more than 1000 CDs since, from Cash Converters when I was in Singapore, and from eBay when I was in the USA. No regrets – since letting them go for a pretty decent price afterwards was always an option for a great number of those CDs. The other thing was - I had a hunch that CDs were about to disappear as a medium, and now was the time when a lot of people were flooding the market with it - so much so that a second hand CD purchased off eBay is actually cheaper than downloading stuff off iTunes. So why pay for downloads?

Basically, I had three big objectives in my life at that point (other than my real day job of course). They were, that master’s degree, getting hitched and being a rock star – or at least proper indie musician.

Being hitched – there was that very brief episode with teapot. She’s married now, I heard. I don’t know if anything would have resulted beyond the 4+ weeks I spent trying to go after her. We’re not 100% compatible, that much I can tell. She wouldn’t have made a horrible girlfriend. Her current estimated potential (CEP) would have been “short term / steady”. Codfish’s was “steady” – I’ve never been convinced she was wife material, and subsequent events in her life have not changed my mind. Water Girl, the one I stalked, I found out about more about her. I’m kicking myself over the time I wasted on her. Her CEP was “crush”. Nothing more. She’s not dumb but she’s definitely not intellectually oriented. We would have lost patience with each other. Cat woman, she’s “short term”. In fact it was more like she was looking for someone than I was attracted to her. I later went through her facebook feed and found a lot more emotional baggage than I deemed acceptable in a girl. That would have been a little tough for a person if I had a strong emotional attachment to her. Without that, it was simply a deal-breaker. So even though she’s a nice person, she’ll have to be just a friend.

No, I’ve not met anybody with a CEP of “wife”. Most probably that would take place long after we’ve dated. Dating is for you to update somebody’s CEP from “short term” to “steady” and then to “wife”.

And I’ve not been swept away by a torrent of emotion or anything like that since codfish. My MBTI type is INTP. INTPs are the least emotional people of the 16 types. Einstein was an INTP. He was not unsuccessful with women, but it was pretty clear he didn’t care that much for them either. I have a few friends that I believe are INTPs, and quite a few of them do not have girlfriends.

I’ve not been able to look for people in Mexico. There’s too much to do. I probably should have done my dating when I had a steady job. So I’ll put that off for now. The other project I had for a while was being an indie musician. Now that’s something I have a shot at being successful at. I’ve written music that I’m not ashamed of. I’ve stockpiled around 50 songs, although – due to other commitments, progress has been slow. When I was 7, I used to draw staves. I pretended that I was writing a symphony. Of course, that symphony was never started, let alone completed. I wrote my first song at 8 – it was a homework assignment. Yes, I was in a special class for talented musicians. One of my classmates is directing a choir in NYC. Another one released stuff, performed in public, became a model, etc. She’s known for other stuff than being a musician. A third one, I’ve lost touch with him but I heard that his sister became a professional arranger / musician. A fourth ended up in Snowy Hill as an assistant professor and probably left, but what a fantastic achievement!

Later on, I got my grade 8. After that, I started listening to a lot of rock and alternative music as a teenager. I stockpiled so much music that my parents were begging me to stop. They can’t stop me now, haha. I spent way too much time downloading music in my college dorm in Snowy Hill – that’s the thing I regret. I tried to form a band in Snowy Hill. There was this nice American guy and I jammed with him a few times. But then I told myself, I came to Snowy Hill to study, not play music, so I stopped.

What did happen in Snowy Hill was that I wrote a few songs. That was a significant discovery because those were my first proper songs, not the childish shit I wrote at 8, not really knowing what I was doing. I did take one course on digital music, and for a final concert, I received a standing ovation, even though I hardly turned up for class. That was a very nice gesture, and after something like that happens, I’m afraid you must consider the possibility that you’re really a musician.

Two years ago, I stopped by and auditioned for a few places in a band. But because I was preparing for my postgraduate degree 2 years ago, I had to stop. I probably should make use of the time that I’m in the USA to research on musical equipment but there’s not a lot of time to do a hell of a lot of things. I started writing another blog a few weeks ago, penning down my thoughts about the art of songwriting, but the viewership on that one has been so low that I’m tempted to not continue until / unless I become more famous. For the purpose of keeping my real life identity separate from this blog, I will not be linking to that blog. Sorry.

Right now, I’m doing the one thing, out of the three (the master’s degree) that is incompatible with the other two (getting hitched and music). It’s not a terribly happy situation. But it’s out of necessity. I had, with a fair amount of difficulty, begged three people to write letters on my behalf. I had pored through enough textbooks to bluff my way through a computer science subject test GRE. And of course, I had written the standard GRE. I had bullshitted my way through my personal statements. Getting admitted into a postgraduate degree in computer science is no joke. In contrast, getting admitted into Snowy Hill at undergraduate level was a breeze (1 in 3, but that was a long time ago). Getting admitted into the local uni for a master’s in computer science, you had a 1 in 4 chance. For University of Mexico, the figure was 1 in 10. And if you were talking about the top universities like Stanford / Berkeley / MIT / Carnegie Mellon, it was more like 1 in 30. (I tried but failed to get into a few of the top universities).

I had gone to the local university and studied part time for one semester. It was pretty hellish, frankly, and I don’t think I got a decent amount of work done. To make matters worse, a colleague left and blew a gigantic hole in our department, and I had to scramble to put together the pieces, and at the same time pave the way for my own departure. Then I got accepted to Mexico and I’m here. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with a master’s in CS, but since I got in, I might as well come here and expand my horizons (and CD collection). As it turns out, the story was the same with Snowy Hill – this is not the end of a learning journey, but the beginning. I’ve learnt a lot, but there’s so much more to learn. Yes, I may be a good composer, a good scientist and maybe even a good playwright, but as an engineer, I find that I’m only above average. Well, one can’t be good at everything I suppose. I made myself a long list of things to do this summer and I only managed to do a few of them.

I’ve visited four major cities when I was here. The hiking here is good, but unlike my sis I’m not an outdoor person. I even managed to go snowboarding in the hills. I found four or five used CD shops in the area. I’ve relearnt how to cook.

My current university is not one of those top few universities. I think only those that I mentioned would be truly strong at AI, since AI is such a difficult subject. Anyway, learning about computer architecture actually gave me some insights that I could really use in other engineering projects. I took a course in algorithms merely to satisfy requirements, but I could have opted out of it to save time. I would have learnt something interesting in computer programming, but I think merely being able to use Java would have been more than good enough for me. I built and trained a neural network but it didn’t do what it was supposed to do: it was only good for making sure I didn’t fail a course. I learnt about Bayesian networks, and that was really exciting, but nobody really knows how to put it to good use, and anyway in their rawest form, Bayesian networks scale really badly. I learnt a lot of data mining tools from the local university, but the thing about the local uni is that they like to cram you with a lot of knowledge, and you can always name drop a lot of things and show that you’re very clever, but there’s not very much real insight, unless you’re willing to go much further. Still, it’s very good to be aware of all sorts of tools that are lying around.

There was one hellish semester when I had to implement various machine learning algorithms. It was painful, but I learnt cool stuff like conditional random fields, Viterbi, forward-backwards, log linear learning. And I was forced to learn LaTeX so that I could type my stuff up. I was exposed to concentration inequalities and a lot of chim graph theory stuff that didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. I don’t really know what I took away from that course, other than the idea that randomized algorithms were really cool. I was forced to learn Java so that I could use some of the packages out there to build a parser. I had to learn how to use a compiler to build a data query engine that could query XML. I took an undergraduate course in operating systems and regretted it – I didn’t have time to do it properly and got the first grade I received that was truly disappointing. But at least I learnt all the basic stuff like demand paging and semaphores and shit like that.

What I really wanted to learn was natural language processing, and I finally got to take a course a few months back when it got available. Boy, was that tough. In effect, it was more a course on probability in human languages than natural language processing. There were all sorts of models with all sorts of Bayesian models attached to it. Eventually for that final project, I opted to do something related to the power law for words in the human language, which was something that I had read about in a popular science book a few years back. Inexplicably my paper was good enough to earn me a decent grade.

I had passed up the opportunity to learn about Haskell and programming languages. I had been tempted to take the course about software engineering but after taking the first lesson and finding out that the professor had set the bar so fucking high, I decided not to take it, which was a great decision since I know now what a pain in the ass the rest of my courses would prove to be.

During this summer, I promised myself to learn more about computers. Not a lot of progress, until I discovered coursera and udacity. If only they had been available earlier, I wouldn’t have had to struggle so much! I went through all the lectures in natural language processing, and it lifted the mystery on a lot of stuff my professor was mumbling about. I’m currently a quarter of the way through the “software as a service” / software engineering course. I’m also learning web programming. I’m going through the UML book. All the same time, I’m appointed as a teaching assistant and bullshitting my way through a summer session computer architecture course.

And then – what happens to all the things I wanted to learn? When am I going to learn HTML? When am I going to learn CSS? JavaScript? PHP? Python? Apache? Subversion? MySQL? Ruby on Rails? Drupal? There’s never enough fucking time! I should have learnt all this shit before coming!

The funny thing is, all that might not even be enough to earn me a job. If I find work in the US, anyway, it’ll only be for a year or two and then after that I’m home. I don’t think I can set up here. I don’t know how on earth my sister manages it, but in case there’s any doubt about it, yes, there is another person out there who’s even more awesome than myself. Most likely what will happen is that I might even go back to the old job and see how I can shake up that place with my newfound knowledge. In the meantime, Nat has left the old job and gone back to his old decadent lifestyle in Russia. Another colleague has also left and gone to work in the embassy of some Latin American country (he had been learning Spanish).

One big thing stands in my way of graduation, and that is to cobble together either a project or a thesis. I don’t know how I’ll manage it, and frankly, with half a year left to go, I’m getting quite jittery. But we’ll see. The problem is, I haven’t completely let go of my old hobbies. I’m still reading about politics a little too much. There was a period of time when it seemed that Singapore was having one controversy after another. (Thankfully I’ve stopped – maybe I just had to do enough of it to get sick of it.)

If and when I get this degree, I will have to think of my next step. Yes, one thing that this CS degree has repeatedly drilled into my head is this: you must always take the first step, even when you don’t know what you are doing. Because the first step will always reveal to you what the second, third or fourth step is going to be. You don’t always know what you’re going to do, but the first step is there to remove some of that mystery for you. It is pretty unfortunate but it is possible that I will never ever get to play with natural language processing ever again, barring some miracle. That is a rotten shame! I’ll never realize my ambition to build another HAL!

But what I can do with this degree is that I can use my newfound skills to do something. More than one person (and my father) has already asked me if I’m going to do a startup. Gee, I’m not a computer guy. I’m only here because I’m so good at bluffing my way through things. I don’t have a business plan. I don’t even know how to set up my website, but chances are, I’ll learn that sooner or later. I have a plan to set up a new initiative back at my old workplace, but the disillusioned people who have left that place have recoiled in shock and horror at that plan.

So when the time comes to strike off “earn a master’s degree in computer science” from my bucket list, it will immediately be replaced by two items, “find work in IT” and “make plans for a startup”. At the same time, I will have to sift through all the books I had collected over the years and see which ones I can sell ASAP, since I won’t be sticking around to read all that shit.

Finding a business plan is unfortunately not something that comes easily to me. I’m not an avid consumer of things (with one or two important exceptions). I don’t readily understand what the average consumer wants. Music? I’ll never make a living through music, regardless of how talented I think I am. Perhaps the only thing I really understand is sifting through data. Even then – why should big companies hand all their data over to an external company, when they can hire their own people to sift through it? Maybe my only hope is to provide engineering support for people who want to do startups.

When I look at what people are doing on my Facebook feeds, I see that one of them is an IT program manager. One of them is running a chain of cake shops. One of them is a proprietor for a fashion boutique, and from the looks of it, living the high life, hobnobbing with fashion models and designers. I don’t care for fashion, obviously, but good for him! Another person was not even good enough to go to JC, but he’s now a veteran of a few start-ups. Those who are managing people usually put up the occasional inspirational message. Good for them. I see vice principals.

Commanding officers. VPs of companies. Professors. I think it will take a long while for me to reach those heights in my career, if ever. But I don’t begrudge them that, I have to live life at my own pace. As it is, I have a shit load of work ahead of me.


Nothing really to say about Amy Cheong

There have been a lot of blog posts written recently about the Amy Cheong saga. I don’t really think I’m going to add much to this. I’m surprised at the number of blog posts about Amy Cheong.

When I think about the excitement and heat generated over the 2011 elections, it was no doubt inspiring. It was a light shining into the darkness, even though it was a great darkness that had overshadowed Singaporean life. Life has gone downhill since the mid 90s for Singaporeans: that much we can all see. But there was much to love about the 2011 elections: the advent of the new normal, the cabinet cleaned out, the PAP turning away from the old knuckle-duster approach and moving towards trying to win back the people. People coming out of the woodwork and being concerned about their fellow countrymen. And I had even envisioned that I would be getting involved in politics, even though it was going to be a backroom capacity.

But now things are different. My interest in politics has waned. The WP does not look as loveable as it used to be. For all the initial enthusiasm, the problems that Singapore has are not easily solvable. You get tired of reading the complaints that Singaporeans have about the system. Once you get past the amazement that the system seems to have changed as much as it has, once the dust settles, you will learn something that the PAP has known for a long time: governing is a hard slog, and most probably a really dull business. And as for myself, it just seems that forging ahead on my own path is right now of more importance than dealing with politics and the “new normal”.