Go with a smile!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Amateur scientist

There have been a few more stories that have followed the amateur scientist route. These days, people will tell you that it is difficult to do scientific research on your own. This is not always true. To be sure, there are branches of scientific research where it would be difficult to conduct without having a lot of collaborators around. But there are still a lot of areas, like pure mathematics and theoretical physics, where a large deal of the work centers around locking yourself up in a room, and cranking things out with a pencil and paper. Recently I have read three stories which revolve around this theme.

The big story nowadays is Zhang Yitang, a University of New Hampshire lecturer who hadn’t published anything for 10 years, and later on stunning the world with a proof of a weaker form of the twin primes conjecture. It turned out that he had been working on and off that problem for years, in secret, until one day, the final piece came when he was at a friend’s house.

There was another story of a mathematician who claimed to have proven the abc conjecture. He wrote a 500+ page manuscript, and it was so dense and abstruse that nobody could read it. Since he refused to go on a lecture tour and present his results to the mathematical community, many have argued that he hadn’t actually proven anything. It does say something about knowledge that if you cannot communicate it, it’s not really knowledge.

Then there was an outlandish claim by a mathematician turned hedge fund analyst that he managed to construct a way to make quantum mechanics square with general relativity, which is one of the biggest unsolved problems of physics. Apparently his lecture just took place a few hours ago, so I can’t be sure what the reaction was like.

In any case, when things like that happen, you have to ask yourself, why do these big and bold ideas take place outside of academia, by people working outside of the system? Isn’t the whole purpose of a tenure system so that professors can be let alone to do their own work in peace without people bothering them? But no, these days it would be very difficult for that to happen. Department chairs would be extremely eager to push their universities up the rankings, and then they would get put all sorts of outrageous burdens on their professors. They wouldn’t really have the time and space to do a lot of tranquil thinking and reflecting that people need. As a result, a lot of progress gets made. But it tends to be the incremental improvements, rather than the quantum leaps that scientific revolutions are made of.

Still, a lot of work gets done, but I get the feeling that peer reviewed science does tend to hamper progress. It demands a more linear progression of science, one where the old ideas are piecewise modification of the new ideas, rather than something that blasts the old edifice of the new ideas to smithereens and starts something anew. In fact, we don’t really have a lot of honest research going on on economics. There was the Kenneth Rogoff incident about a few dodgy statistical methods that exaggerate the impact of debt on the economy.

Perhaps one of the more interesting cases of amateur research has been Judith Rich Harris’ great idea about development psychology: she struck a big blow against the traditional idea that peoples’ personalities are shaped by their parents, and argued that peer influenced plays a more important role. It is a point of view which I am increasingly leaning towards, and it explains a great deal of things, such as why siblings turn out so different even when parented by the same people, why the country you grew up in has such a great impact on you, and why people have this tribal instinct about them.

To be sure, amateur research has contributed only a relatively small amount to the body of knowledge. Although when they contribute, these contributions tend to be huge. Even an example like Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, is the work of a hermit. Obtaining the Fields medal apparently scared off Grigory Perelman, who solved one of the seven great open problems in mathematics, into leaving mathematics for good (although some speculate that he was working on another of the millennium problems.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Great Job Hunt part 3

There was another job that came up: somebody came across my resume, and emailed me to invite me to apply to that job. I complied. The first hurdle was a 48 hour coding assignment, which I scheduled to do in the week after my finals. Since it was a program that I had always wanted to code, I was glad to do it. Later on, I received a favourable response and was invited to the first phone interview. I remember being rather sluggish in the hours leading up to that. My interviewer was an Indian guy, and he started off by asking me about myself. I was prepared for that this time and I just rattled off the basic stuff. Then he told me that I would be working for a small but very committed team where everybody knew much of the system. It would be a very intense environment, since this was a startup, and even told me that people turned up at 9 and didn’t leave until around 7, and maybe even 9 at night. I wondered if that was what I was going to get at the place where I accepted the offer.

Anyway, there were 3 questions, and I seemed to be able to do them all. Towards the end, the interviewer was pressed for time. People usually say things like “ask me any questions” but when the hour was up, he had to cut me off.

The following day, however, I looked at the question that I wasn’t sure about, and was dismayed to realize that I had made a few significant errors in my coding. I was about to drop the thank you note, and spontaneously I just decided to put in a corrected version of that question – I figured out that it wouldn’t do my chances any harm – either he would ignore it, or it would demonstrate that I would have figured it out if given enough time. Except, to my horror, I realized that the second version still had a big bug in it. Well I’m not hopeful for this, and to say that least, it’s quite disappointing. No, the job interview process ended there and then.

There was another company, a Mexico company, who also contacted me out of the blue after picking up my resume. They were interested in me for a data analyst position. What I found from the website was that they kept the interview cycle very short. Everything would be over within two weeks. The first phone interview was very short. It was just a few very generic questions asked by the reviewer. The second phone interview was half an hour. It was a German sounding guy asking a few math-related questions. I was more or less paying attention in class, I think and in the end I was able to answer most of the stuff. It was a pleasant surprise to have him reveal towards the end that he had spent 1-2 years in Snowy Hill as a postdoc. I seem to have answered his questions accurately enough that I was given a pass to the next stage, where I was invited to the office.

The office was in Mexico. Seems like I have pretty good luck with Mexico offices compared with - say - Silicon Valley. This time, though, the office was not downtown but nearer to the University of Mexico. The first time, I had an interview with four people: a Chinese, then an Indian, then a German, and last of all a Viet. (This is not the beginning of a joke). The first two were middle level positions, and the latter two were the managers. I think I did well enough in that interview to be asked back again. In particular, the German guy was interested in me. Unfortunately, when they asked me around for an interview the second time around, I roughly knew that I was going to be asked on the projects that I had done for a certain computer course. But because I was busy with my homework, I didn't find the time to revise the material from the course. It wasn't surprising that that interview did not go well for me. And anyway the problem is I had already started filing papers with that startup that I had accepted a position for, and after that I just didn't feel like looking for more jobs for two reasons: I couldn't bear to go tell that startup that I had changed my mind - it was not nice. And also because I was less motivated than before to look for a job. And also because it felt like - what was the point anyway?

What was the point anyway? Well it was my first interview where I was considered for a job that I thought I'd really liked. And after that I was expecting to hear back from them that they had rejected me. But when I did hear back from them that they did reject me, I ended up feeling a lot more pissed off than I expected. I suppose this is very much the story of my life, and I've discovered that for many things - second time's the charm. I finished off with classical music only to get involved with pop music. I screwed up all my job interviews during my first year of NS and only succeeded in my second year. I only managed to ask out the second girl I had a crush on. I was a B student in JC all the way until I scored straight As for my "A" levels. I had failed to write a good play for one event and only managed it in the next event. I wandered around aimlessly in my job for around 4 years before making decent progress for the next 4. And it all boils down to: failure begets success for me partially because I'm such a slow learner. But also because it takes the first sting of failure to spur me into action. I would say that I am a person with average to above average drive, definitely not enough to be a champion or a world beater, but just barely enough to be happy with what I want.

That was the end of the job hunt for me anyway. I didn't dare go for any more job interviews. I couldn't go for the job fairs because my future employers were going to be there and I would have to explain what the hell I was doing at a job fair when I had already accepted an offer from them. In any case, I thought my journey was done. Actually it wasn't - the most stressful part of it was about to begin.


Helping Yourself

There is a school of thought that says that you do have to do everything yourself. God helps those who helps themselves, and nobody is really there to help you. There is another school of thought that says that you ought to help other people as much as you can.

Once I was stuck writing a computer program. I wanted something that would return for me the number of files in a given directory. I googled the problem, and it directed me to a page on stackoverflow (as it inevitably does). The answer was there, and there was some code written, as a form of demonstration, to show how it was done. One of the commentators just put up a link to the javadoc (those of you who have programmed in Java will know that this is an automatically generated documentation for code written in Java, useful for helping you navigate the object hierarchy for those people using a certain module for the first time.

Another commentator just wrote some code that demonstrated how the object was used to print out all the files of that directory. I was reading the first comment and I was struck by how senseless it was. Here was a guy who was proud of doing things to old school way, where you just threw the javadoc at a person and you expected that person to pick everything up by himself. And you were doing it on a website whose purpose was to convert a question, asked in plain English by a software engineer, into a ready-made solution. Why would you want to go back to the bad old days when everything was cryptic gibberish? Why do we not accept that some advancements in scientific and engineering disciplines make it no longer necessary for us to accept the old bullshit?

I think about all the people from the older generation who were less interested in whether I was doing something useful for my workplace, less interested in whether I was producing impactful and innovative work, and more interested in how I dressed up and whether I showed up on time. What the fuck? And then when it turns out that I wasn’t a sharp dresser, and I didn’t always turn up on time, I was a disgrace? I mean LKY started work at 10, 11 in the morning every day and people still think he did a pretty good job, right?

When I was in Snowy Hill, I used to man a teaching center. People who were doing freshman Physics would come up and ask questions about their homework. People were usually told that you had to teach them how to learn, and try to explain to them the deeper underlying principles behind the physics works.

Well, as you know, we didn’t do it that way in Singapore. Those of you who remember your JC Physics will recall that it is death by worked examples. We didn’t learn principles: we learnt a process of working things out, and it was naturally assumed that some of us, having seen enough examples for ourselves, would eventually learn the principles. Yes, learning the principles is important, especially if you’re going to carry on doing advanced work in Physics or Engineering. But teaching the principles is not the best way to make a beginner learn. That would be to give them some worked examples. You cannot be so adverse to spoonfeeding that you’re going to avoid spoonfeeding even in the beginning – that’s pretty ridiculous.

So I usually just taught it the way it was taught to me in JC. Here’s me doing the problem. Draw the force diagram. Vertical. Horizontal. Got that? OK. Now after you learn how to do the problem, then that’s when you start thinking about what all this force, all this momentum stuff means. That’s when you start going deeper. If you’re just taking Physics so that you can try pre-med, you’re not going to need that stuff anymore, and in that case you’d be better off just knowing how to solve simple physics problems.

The internet exploded when I was doing national service. So it was like my life was divided into two: Up till JC was the pre-internet era. Snowy Hill onwards was the age of the internet. Education, pre-internet was a lot like industrial society. You absolutely had to go attend lecture. You had to be good at taking notes. You had to pay attention in class. In the internet era, things changed. You could still keep up with classes by reading notes downloaded over the internet. In fact this was probably a bad thing because at one point I was skipping too many classes for my own good. But it does present a lot of other opportunities. It used to be that that big classic textbook of yours was oh-so- precious. If it was Physics, it would be Resnick and Halliday. If it was Chemistry it would be Morrison and Boyd. If it was Biology, it would be Campbell. But it’s no longer the case that all knowledge pertaining to a certain field would be bound together in one giant volume. And that giant volume would soon prove to be too big to lug around.

When I was in Snowy Hill, we were still using textbooks. But in a few classes, the professor would just pick and choose a little scrap here and there from various papers and textbooks. By the time I got to University of Mexico, we were almost reading classic papers exclusively. I suppose when you get to graduate level, your education is more specialized, and nobody’s going to package that knowledge for you nicely. It’s no longer an issue of going through an entire course, and then knowing the main, canonical portions of that subject.

At the same time, it would no longer do for a student to know “everything in that textbook”. You had to build a cohesive body of knowledge, that would collectively add up to some useful skills that actually accomplish something in the real world.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Are Singaporeans Ready for the Knowledge Economy?

I was reading this article: yes I fear that Singapore will not do very well in the knowledge society world. I don’t think we’re trained very well in this regard.

There seems to be an exaggerated respect for people who are in “management”. Like it’s a Singaporean thing to be forever worshipping the man, regardless of whether or not he’s actually doing anything real. And it does seem that there is too much fighting for turf between managers, rather than getting real things done, and developing things of real quality.

I had gone to one of Singapore’s universities for one semester. All of their course material was hidden behind a platform that you had to log in in order to access. I had two email accounts – in fact I didn’t even know that I had the second account for about a month– the second email account was provided by the department, not the university. My memory is hazy now, because this was 2 years ago, but I had to look for the course catalog under one website, and I had to look for the exam schedule under another website. Finding out in which room the classes were conducted was a pain.

The way in which the various departments were organised was also a mystery to me. Computer science was not actually a part of the engineering school. At first this did not make sense, until I realised that it doesn’t necessarily have to be part of engineering. Computer science is like mathematics – it pervades so many other disciplines that it can be connected to everything else. So I suppose I was alright with that eventually. But there were portions of it that were taught in this school with a funky name, or another school with another funky name.

I was not allowed to take courses from another part of the university without written permission. Maybe they were strict about how many or how few courses you could take at the university. In Snowy Hill I took courses from 20 different departments – something that I could never have done in Singapore – I guess that was probably my number one reason for pursuing my undergraduate course away from Singapore. In Snowy Hill, it was taken for granted that you could take any course from any department you wanted – as long as those counted towards a few broadly defined requirements. And I think the fact that they are introducing a Liberal Arts college in Singapore is a great thing. But I don’t really know if NUS is really able to throw off its silo culture in order to become a properly functioning liberal arts college. Of course, that wasn’t even the most important thing people had in mind while discussing Yale-NUS.

Of course, when you’re pursuing a graduate degree, this becomes less important. But I also found it interesting – I took 13 courses for my masters and two of them were from other departments.

In contrast, in the University of Mexico, the website was much better organized. You could find anything you wanted. Well, there were still a few fragments here and there, but at least the layout and the organization made sense. Perhaps University of Mexico had more money, and they had more staff to put everything together well. Perhaps they had a better webmaster. US universities are notorious for having bloated bureaucracies, and I suppose that markedly superior website was a result of more time and effort being thrown into thinking how everything was going to be organized together. But I still think that maybe there might be a malaise in Singapore, where we don’t always know how to sew things together and package them into a big, complete whole.

There was a former colleague of mine who chatted with me right after he quit the company, and we were discussing what the work was like. I can’t remember most of the details but we agreed that in our department we had too many people operating in silos, and for various reasons, the people were not able to make the components gel together.

And there were other frustrating times in my work where I would propose a new idea only to be told that I didn’t really understand how the system worked. Eventually other people came around to the fact that I was actually trying out something new, but the amount of time it took them to realize that was pretty frustrating.

There were other times when I was talking to my boss, and I was asking him, why not we have all these people learning how to code. He said, “it’s going to take too long for them to learn”. I didn’t agree with him very much, and after learning how to code, I was positively flabbergasted. I thought about how much easier everything would be once everybody had some basic skills. If everybody knew how to do these things, we could make it possible for people to work with a system. But they didn’t want to build up a system.

Eventually, what transpired was that everybody was finding a small problem, and solving a lot of small problems piecemeal, without any thought about a larger architecture, or how a lot of solutions would combine into a larger solution that would solve all problems at once. It was disheartening. Sometimes I would get instructions, and I would shake my head sadly and think to myself, “this is really dumb”.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

My Sister's Plight / My Contradictions

When I moved to America, one of the main priorities was to be closer to my sister. In a way I had thought that my sister would be able to help me somewhat with my settling in. As it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult for me to settle in. I had already had some experience living overseas, and I had work experience. I wasn’t obviously more mature than people who are 10 years younger than me, and I wasn’t even staying close enough to her that I could see her on a frequent basis. During my first academic year, I visited her almost every quarter. But after that the visits trailed off. Come to think of it, over the last 18 months I visited her around 4 times, which is not a terribly high number.

We talked on the phone a little bit more. I think we talked more on the phone than at any point in our lives since we were teenagers and discovering the world. A lot of things, including this blog, was in no small part a consequence of that period of time in my life when I was talking about the world with my sis, or Mr CEO. We were young and still discovering how the world worked. Obviously what we learnt in school was important, but I think that those conversations that I had over 20 years ago taught me as much as any other experience I had when I was in RI. We could just talk about anything – our relatives, school, our experiences, art, music.

One word about my sister. I was a average-to-high achiever at school. I wasn’t really fantastic in anything but I was good at a few things. She was some kind of superstar, she represented not only her school but also Singapore at some competitions, and won a prize at that level. And she was also as good at art as I was, except that she was good at different things – she was more into painting, classical music and Chinese literature. I was more into writing plays, music composition and jazz.

The last 10 years weren’t that kind to us. I always knew that my jack-of-all-trades abilities were not necessarily going to translate to me climbing the corporate ladder. I struggled in my first few years at work. It’s better now but I know there’s a glass ceiling somewhere. It seemed at first that my sister was going to achieve the impossible. She earned a medical degree in the States – very hard thing to do if you’re not a citizen. And she was matched for a stint in surgery. Against my advice – I told her that she had to do something more sane instead.

Then things started going wrong. Her mental state grew more fragile. I wouldn’t say that she’s insane or anything but she had been under a great amount of stress, from her work, from the constant worrying that accompanies an immigrant to the US about whether she’s ever going to get that green card, from unhappy relationships with guys, from my dear parents who are too dumb to realize that they’re supposed to be a pillar of emotional support under these difficult circumstances.

Long and the short of it is, I realized that it was my turn to take care of her. She had always seemed to be the stronger one, the more disciplined and resourceful one. But she had stretched herself too far, and I had to give her counseling.

Well it was a very strange experience. For one, she usually had a better idea and understanding of other people than I did. But it did turn out that guys have the gift of daftness. Like guys are actually stronger than women because they’re stupid at reading emotions. This decreased level of emotional sensitivity manifests itself as a form of strength. Let’s see how this works.

The imposter syndrome

This takes place when somebody changes the role he plays in his life, and suddenly thinks that he’s an imposter, and not really worthy of the respect or responsibility that comes with that role. Like a person who’s just promoted to being a manager and suddenly wondering if he deserves it all, and thinking that one day people will find out the dirty secret that he’s not actually fit to be a manager. This imposter syndrome is more common in women than men.

Sensitivity to criticism

Women can be sensitive to criticism. I learnt, after talking to my sister that she was more concerned about being judged by people, and getting the adulation and respect of people. I never really was that concerned about that. In fact, as I will touch upon later, there are a few things that people persistently misunderstand about me. If she excelled in school, she did it because she thought it would get her plaudits from people. And when my parents complained about her going into medical school (mainly because of the fees) she was pretty pissed off about that.


I’m pretty amazed that my sister made such a bad decision to do surgery. I’m wondering if I should have been more forceful back then, instead of just “well I just think it’s a bad idea”. Eventually she admitted to me that she was in love with the idea of being a surgeon, with the idea of being a gung-ho all action hero. It was like being a cop, or a pilot, a football manager or a shift manager at a factory. You just ran on adrenaline all the way and after that you came back for more.

Well, surgery is brutal. You get punished very heavily for your mistakes. People are often very sarcastic to each other and harsh on each other for those mistakes. A lot of bullying takes place on the surgery room. And you can get really hurt if you don’t have a thick skin. I’m amazed that my sister didn’t see that coming. Really bad decisions, particularly the big ones, come because you make decisions based on emotions. Emotional people – many of whom are women – make decisions based on emotions. On the upside, being more in touch with your emotions does make you better at dealing with people, and make you better at sensing and detecting subtle undercurrents in the interpersonal dynamics between people. But that is not the same thing as intelligence. That is not the same thing as thinking things through and bringing some form of reason into the decision making process.

There was a survey released some time back, and they ranked the professions which had the highest level of psychopathic behavior. To nobody’s surprise, being a CEO tops the list, but being salesmen, lawyers and – there it is again – surgeons also top the list. It is not surprising. Psychopathy is closely related to the ability to shield yourself from negative emotions.

My sister had a lot of strengths that made her a good surgeon. She was good with her hands, very smart, quick thinking, able to synthesise a large amount of information, good with people. But she lacked that one crucial ingredient: the ability to shield yourself from negative emotions. That was the thing that killed her. I felt she would have been fine in any other speciality. Now it was a bad choice that nearly ruined her life.

It used to be a frustrating experience being a young man. People do want to kick you around a little bit more, and you’re a little too daft to avoid stepping on peoples’ toes. But I always knew that if you did stick around long enough to get into middle age, guys generally enjoy their middle age more than women do.

She could have benefitted from having me to talk to. It’s not as though I’m smarter than she is, but because I’m so different in many ways, even as we’re similar enough that I can understand her better than many other people can. Well she’s getting better now. She’s transiting her way to a more sensible occupation, and she may or may not succeed, given her visa issues. But I hope that everything is alright with her.

The big story for my sister is that she’s basically disappeared from my life. At first, it seemed legit – she was going for overseas studies. But then after that things became more complicated. Now, she’s spent almost half her life overseas, and almost alone. For reasons I don’t completely fathom, she’s chosen to lead a hard life.

After talking to my sister last I found out that she was going to switch to another speciality, and she might be successful in doing so. Well good luck to her. I always knew she would be a good doctor, just not in the speciality that she originally chosen.

People will look at me and see a big mess of contradictions. In certain ways I am not an easy person to understand. I was thinking about some contradictions about myself, so I’ll list some here:

Chaos muppet vs Order muppet

Many people would assume that I’m an order muppet. This is not true. I’m more a chaos person. Don’t be fooled by the fact that I’m good at mathematics and music. Yes, they are great ways to live your life, but for me there are no real rules in life, only guidelines. My thoughts are very messy and complicated and I’m mainly interested in some form of method to help me get everything organized.

Horny vs Single guy

Yes, I used to crack a lot of crude jokes. I still enjoy crude humour. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a ladies man. I have limited patience with women. I like to try and understand women, but that is because of the intellectual challenge. And I used to be obsessed with going after one or two women in the past. But the fact that I have now spent more than 10 years (and counting) as a single guy should tell you the real story. And contrast this with my sister who at one time had never been single for more than 6 months at a stretch. It tells you something about how we’re very different people.

Establishment vs rebel

I had studied in RI, a school almost infamous for stamping out civil servants with not much personality. Except – it’s also produced a lot of people who turned out to be rebels. It’s pretty meaningless to ask whether RI produces obedient people or rebels – of course it’s a large enough place to produce both.

People can see that I’ve managed to maintain a good academic record, and get puzzled when I can be so strident and disobedient sometimes. And other people could also legitimately ask, if I’m supposed to be such a rebel, then why have I confined myself to the straight and narrow path of being an engineer. But then again, scientists and engineers do have a little more lee way to act independently of authority as opposed to people in strictly executive positions.

How did I sit in a place long enough to become good at studying? I have to credit my parents for this. They were tough on me when it came to cranking out good grades. They made me do practice exams over and over, and they did it early, during which I was able to pile a pretty solid foundation, which held up in spite of my being a little more sloppy as I grew older.

I was never a particularly obedient person, and I will never be one. But I did my studying because it was something I was particularly suited for. Because people in power, and people in the establishment like to paint people who do well in school as some sort of obedient lapdogs. They are not obedient lapdogs. Education is not submission to authority. It is just as often a great weapon against authority, because people resist obedience by using reason to question authority. It naturally follows that if you’re good at arguments, you’re also good at resisting authority. And that was one of the reasons why I was so interested in education.

Arts vs science

I’ve shifted myself to being a science person, but I also have my artistic side. I’m much less emotional these days. But at the same time I have been working on artistic projects over the years. I might release something out at some point, but don’t take this as a promise because it’s something that involves a lot of work. This will be my next big project after I had attained that post-graduate degree.

Ang moh vs Singaporean

I’m quite westernized even when compared to other Singaporeans. I don’t really understand people from China very well, and I go to a school where I’m constantly surrounded by people from China.

People like to say that I’m quite westernized for the heck of it. It’s just true that I don’t fit in well, and I particularly dislike following social norms. And just as I dislike following social norms from the East, I also dislike following those from the West. Believe me, there are aspects of Western culture that I dislike as much as those that I’ve rejected from the East. I suppose what I end up doing is picking and choosing different things I like from different cultures and try to mesh them into something whole in my own unique way.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Brief History of my School Life

I saw this article talking about the elite Singapore education system. I think I have blogged about my experiences with the elite Singaporean education system a few times before, so maybe here I’ll just put in the last few missing pieces of the puzzle.

My parents always recognized the value of a real education. My grandmother on the father’s side did not go to school, like so many other people of her generation. But she used to see people renting books, and she used to borrow and read them. She taught herself how to read. I think that is remarkable. Well the fact is that, as my sister who knew her best always told me, she’s just a geek. And when she reads Chinese, I would still remember her reciting it out in her native Cantonese. That is why I found that it was particularly cruel on her that she later on became blind in her life. There were three things that mattered to her the most: they were cooking, reading and my sister and towards the end of her life, she was robbed of all three.

My father went to school. He was lucky, and among his siblings, he was the one who got the most education, and eventually earned a professional vocational qualification. He used to excel in school, and always obtained the highest marks. My grandmother would beat the crap out of him if he came in second.

My mother did not excel academically. But she also faced difficult circumstances. She was the only English educated person in a family full of Chinese educated people, so she did stick out like a sore thumb – I always wondered if it had an adverse effect on her upbringing, and I always wondered if I had to suffer for it. But it was pretty significant. She was the one who enforced high academic standards on me. The older generations in my family – my mother, my father and my grandmother all demanded high academic standards from me. Of course, one of the things that made her happy was her discovering, early in life, that I had a talent for mathematics. By the time I was 6, I was able to multiply double digit sums in my head. Maybe she already decided that I was going into the gifted program.

There was, however, one aspect of my education where they did not do a good job. That was Chinese. Only my grandmother spoke Mandarin, and Mandarin was probably her fourth language. (The first three were Cantonese, Teochew and Malay). But she picked it up partly to communicate with us. My parents only spoke English and Teochew. And they didn’t really teach me Teochew because of the speak Mandarin campaign. And I suppose if I were a kid, back then, clamouring for them to speak Teochew to me, they would have done it. But I didn’t, so there. Around the time I got to the army, I had decided that one of the biggest regrets of my life was not knowing dialects. If you want to talk about mother tongue, Teochew is my true mother tongue. Mandarin could not possibly be my mother tongue, since I didn’t speak it at home. Teochew is also similar to the language that was used during the Tang dynasty – Minnan, not Mandarin, has been a great influence on Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

My parents ensured that I entered a good school. When I was in that school, I was surrounded by people who were very conscientious and hardworking, but who also spoke Mandarin better than me. I suppose that doomed me for the rest of my life towards playing catch up with my Chinese.

I did well in primary 1, and I got third in class. The person who got second in class – one of her sisters is now a senior office holder in the government. The person who got first in class later on did well for herself in another country. I got streamed into the best class in primary two, and for the next two years, I was in the middle of the class, but in the best class. I actually think that was going to be the pattern for me for the rest of my life – I’m within sighting distance of the best, but I’m not the best.

My mother would buy a lot of assessment books from popular book store, and she would set a timetable for me to do all the work. But I never was able to adhere to it. I suppose in those days life was a little hard. I would have preferred to be outside playing with people. From primary two, though I also found out something that was extremely bad news – I was a procrastinator. I’m still a procrastinator – I’m typing this when I should have been doing a project. I suppose it was pretty depressing in those days. I would get whacked if I ever got below 97 on a test. I once went back home with a 90 and it was a total disaster. My mother would throw tantrums, and refuse to sign the test, and I would have to go explain to the teacher why she didn’t sign it. The worst was Chinese homework. Chinese – I didn’t have the worst of it. There were a lot of other people who did worse at it than me, who couldn’t speak it to save their lives. I hated it. It was like how people learnt latin in old boarding schools. Except that Chinese is more difficult. I used to spend hours and hours on my compositions, and they all came back with red marks all over – I made horrible, horrible grammatical mistakes. I’m a person who loves academic learning, as most readers here can see. But Chinese was to be my one blind spot. I suppose that’s why I never really bothered that much with it. Why bother about it, when I can say that mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, geography, history, political science, anthropology, sociology, psychology, computer science, music, literature, formal linguistics and engineering are more interesting?

Anyway, I wasn’t beaten half to death. I wasn’t the top student or anything, but I did well enough that people left me alone. That was my strategy. Later on, I found out that my sister did well in school because she cared about what people thought of her. I didn’t have these things. I loved to think about things (as my blog readers would know, right?) But other than that, studying was something basically pretty soulless.

At the end of primary three, I was selected for the gifted program. I hit the ground running. It was a perfect fit for people like myself who could both do reasonably well academically and also think out of the box. And it helped that I was thrashing a lot of other people who were even shitter than myself in Chinese. I topped my class for first two years. They didn’t rank people in the gifted program (that was policy), but in primary 4, the teacher announced that the clown who topped the class didn’t really deserve it. Well that’s nice to hear, isn’t it? But it’s true, I think they really really hate the idea that a class clown can also top the class. In primary 5 I asked my teacher if I had topped the class, she said yes. But I topped the class because the guy who would have done it was moving away to the US. (I didn’t hear anymore from him but I heard that he made it to Harvard).

From then on, everything paled in comparison to those two first place rankings. Not even getting into Snowy Hill was something that compared to that. Secondary one and two were pretty depressing years for me. First, my mother got it into her head that children morph into monsters when they reach thirteen, and she treated me accordingly. Sec one was easily one of the worst years of my life. I suddenly morphed into a B student, schoolwork was harder, I was beaten every other week. I started yelling and screaming at my parents in return. Not because I hated them, but also because things were not working out.

At the same time, my sister managed to steal a march on me – she had always lagged behind me academically, but suddenly she became the academic star of the family instead. Heck, mathematics was my strongest subject and she managed to beat me at it. Sec 3 and 4 were actually the best years of my life. No, I didn’t become an A grader again. I never went anywhere near the top of the class again. But I found out a few things outside of grades. I learnt to cope with the academic workload. I stopped having to go to music class (I had passed my grade 8, and that was the perfect excuse to quit.) I started listening to a lot of music – and that doesn’t sound very important right now, but who knows about the future? I rediscovered my talent in mathematics. I also discovered that I was talented at literature. Not literature in the sense of being able to score A1s for that subject, because I never did, but in the sense of being able to write something. The primary four primary five years were great because I managed to do very well in school. But in a larger sense, it was the sec 3 / sec 4 years which were my best years because I was able to balance a “pretty OK” academic record with finally discovering what it meant to be living. The ironic thing was that it was probably during the dark years of sec 1 / sec 2 where my school results went down drastically that I started to look around and see if there were other things to life than just studying a lot and getting good grades. And I think I was just being rewarded for my efforts to uncover those things.

Not many people understood how badly I had taken my sec 1 / sec 2 years. I was in a new school. Not everybody knew that I used to top classes. They saw me as an above average student, which I was. But the way that my parents made me feel, it was basically the end of the world for me. Eventually, they gave up forcing me to be an academic star, and it was only then that my life became better. But they never stopped reminding me how disappointed they were in me.

The paradox of the whole situation was this: not only were they not happy with what I had done academically, they also reminded me time and again that in order to survive in the real world, academic achievements were not enough. And not only did they remind me that academic achievements were not enough, they also did not tell me exactly what it was that would be enough. This was the sort of behavior destined to drive anybody nuts. Anyway, I did what I did. I had decided that I wasn’t going to care too much about what they said, as long as I was able to continue as a properly functioning JC student. And they didn’t care too much about what I did, so long as I was able to meet certain academic standards. There was a form of a truce, and none of us were really interested in reliving those dark days of sec 1 / sec 2 when everything was a disaster.

JC1 and JC2 were mixed years. Those were the first years for me out of the gifted program. I wasn’t that adept socially and those of you who know me in real life know this hasn’t changed much. There was so much emphasis on academic achievement in my early years that I suppose people weren’t concentrating too much on making me a really likeable person. These sort of things, I suppose, you have to learn them on your own. Your parents can’t teach you everything. It was depressing. People would be nice to you at first, they’re respectful because you were from the gifted program, then eventually they’d start getting annoyed at you because you can’t help yourself being a pain in the ass. Those were painful, painful years. And if I wasn’t one of the better students in my class at the point, it would have been completely depressing for me.

I had plenty of regrets over my six years in the Raffles schools. I didn’t make enough friends. I wasn’t an academic star. And my biggest regret of all? I didn’t represent my school at any of the mathematics competitions. Yes, there were the Australian mathematics competitions and the American mathematics competitions that were open to all. I’m talking about those competitions when you fought for glory on behalf of your school.

I didn’t connect with a lot of the students in JC. I didn’t connect with those people who weren’t from the gifted program. I didn’t connect with anyone who wasn’t a total geek. I didn’t connect with a lot of people whom I thought of as being hollow and materialistic (a lot of them, basically). And RJC, while it wasn't the most bitchy school, was also not exactly the most pleasant one either.

I tried my hand at various things, and I failed a lot. I failed to make a lot of friends in school. I failed to be part of the in crowd. I tried to direct a play and I failed. I failed to be part of the maths club. I only succeeded in my “A” levels, but that was OK, because it was the most important thing of all.

Because when you think about it – life still wasn’t that bad for me. I was in one of the best schools, doing OK. I had enough academic talent to do well in spite of not having to work too hard at it. I spent a ridiculous amount of time walking around in malls. Especially bookshops and music stores. I didn’t really spend enough time on my ECAs like I should have. And I still managed to get by on my talent alone. Because of my talent, with just a little bit of preparation, I would be able to participate in those mathematics competitions that people had from time to time, and do well. Just not well enough to be able to represent my school at mathematics. The irony was that when you look at my school record, the things that stick out are my drama-related activities. And I wasn’t even a member of Raffles players, ever! I just spent a lot of time watching TV, discussing pop culture with friends, and doing enough thinking and idle day-dreaming to write one or two good scripts that end up being produced. I suppose that’s what success is supposed to be like – not just a lot of work, but also the right type of work, and the right amount of it.

And then there were the times when I spent hours listening to music. And I learnt more about music that way than all the music lessons I took in the previous ten years.

No, my story is very different from that other story. This is not the sob story that you’d hear from a lot of people before. People who have been rejected by the system, (although in some ways I am like that), people who have tried and failed (although in some ways I am also like that). I had an OK time. Even a happy time. My story isn’t easily categorized into a success or a failure. There are plenty of arguments either way. I’m not going to talk at length about how I managed to pull myself up in time for my “A”s. My leaving the gifted program was only the first of four major culture shocks in my life. The second was army. The third was Snowy Hill. The fourth was work life. I’m not going to talk about how I got into Snowy Hill.

In a way, this was the end of my academic life. This would be the end of the straight and narrow road, where almost everything hinges upon one exam. (Actually it does not. I have a friend who got mediocre grades at the “A”s, and then he did an undergrad at “only” NUS, then did a PhD in the states, and is now an assistant professor at an Ivy League university.) Things had changed, and they were changing quickly. I knew that I had to get out of the mindset which prized academic achievement ahead of everything else. What happened next was a period in which I would take academic achievement with a big dose of salt, and learn to think about “Other stuff” as well.

Because more than anything, this was the end of all the certainty. When I look at the time that I left JC, it seemed as though I had come to an end of a period in my life when I was just travelling down a very narrow road where everybody was only assessed on one thing and mainly that one thing, to a completely different landscape where it's not really clear what you're being judged upon. It would be a world where no defeat or victory would ever be permanent. Ironically one of the reasons for me to do well in my early days in school was my parents reminding me that academic success wasn't going to translate to success in life. In that case, I'd better do well in school, since if I did well in school, and failed in life later, I'd still have something to cling on to. I took my eye off the ball a little bit while at Snowy Hill, thinking that my grades would not really matter three years into my working life. In some ways, that was true, and in other ways that is not true at all.

At this point I'm not old enough to rule out having kids, and I don't know what I'd do to push them through the rat race. I'm sure that it's gotten much tougher in that intervening generation. During my time, it was at the level where an academically talented person like myself could stroll his way through life, divide his time between academic work, ECAs and leisure activities (shock shock horror horror - leisure activities! Some people might get offended!) And right now, I see it as being on a level where, even if you're talented and if you don't work your butt off, you'd get into a great amount of trouble. I find that very troubling.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Alex Ferguson

During my stay in Mexico, there have been two great football stories. First there was the way Man City won the league in 2012. Then there was the way that Chelsea won the champion’s league. Since 1999, when Manchester United won the Champion’s League (Why do they call it a Champion’s League when it’s actually a cup?) with two stoppage time goals, English clubs have won four trophies, including 1999. And all of these victories have been narrow victories. Actually, English clubs have a good but not great record in the UCL – Since 2005, there have only been two finals where English clubs did not participate, and that was 2010 and 2013. Although it does look like English clubs are really on the decline.

There is, potentially, a third story, and that is of Real Madrid and Barcelona failing to make the finals of the UCL for the second year in the row, this time through decisive defeats to German sides. This could signal a changing of the guard and a power shift. It is still too early to tell, and Spain might still win the World Cup next year. But this has the potential to be a great story in hindsight.

The other great story is that of Alex Ferguson’s departure as coach of Man U. It was always destined to be a great story. We knew it was going to happen, it had been a long time coming. There haven't been so many plaudits for Alex Ferguson since he won the treble in an extremely dramatic fashion in 1999 - think about the tussles with Arsenal in the league, about that last minute goal against Liverpool in the FA cup, about cup semi-finals against Arsenal and Juventus, and that final against Bayern Munich.

There were at least five great achievements of Alex Ferguson. First was winning the first league for Man U since 1967 and then building his great 1994 side. Second was rebuilding his Fergie’s fledglings side in 1996 and wresting the title away from Newcastle. Third was his treble of 1999. Fourth was seeing off the challenge of Chelsea and Arsenal when he gained back the premier league in 2007. And his last great achievement – we’ll only call it an achievement in hindsight, because we don’t really know yet. He gained the title back from Man City this year, and built a young side, in spite of the Glazers bilking the club of cash. It is probably Roberto Mancini’s fault that Man U won the league title this year so easily.

It was quite likely that Alex Ferguson might have quit last year if he had won the league. But thanks to one Sergio Aguero goal, he didn’t. And that probably delayed his departure by one year. In this one year, he started the rebuilding of a new side. He showed that a Man U side, post Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, would be able to compete for the title. He has brought in Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, and showed that in spite of all the criticism about his side not having a great midfield, they would be OK. He got Michael Carrick to be one of the great performers of the season. He blooded youngsters like Chicharito, David De Gea, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones, and showed a lot of young potential in the side. Anderson and Nani have not fulfilled their early promise, but they are totally adequate squad players.

But this side is clearly not the vintage side of 2008, 1999 or 1994. It is full of very good but not excellent players. There is the chance that other clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea could sneak into top dog position. The landscape will be like the fallow years of 2001-2006, when Man U only one the league once. They wrested the title back from Man City, but this could be like Liverpool wresting the title back from Arsenal in 1990, only to fade into the long sunset. Manchester United is an inspiration: since 2004, when Chelsea was bought over by Roman Abramovic, the Premier League was supposed to have been dominated by two clubs which were bankrolled by big spending billionaires. But in those nine years, Man U still managed to win the league five times. I don’t know if David Moyes has the ability to do the same.

There are potential problems, one of which is the way that the Glazers managed to turn the club into their own private money printing machine. They loaded lots of debt onto the Man U side, and the title successes in the last three years have taken place in spite of, and not because of their ownership of Man U. There is the big problem of Wayne Rooney who is feeling not completely appreciated at the club. Wayne Rooney has a checkered past with Moyes, since he made remarks in his autobiography that David Moyes successfully sued him over. Some football problems have been glossed over, like the lack of a midfield enforcer. Great Man U sides have had great defences, like the Bruce / Pallister pair, Jaap Stam in 1999, and Keane and Schmeichel together with these guys. The 2008 defensive formation had the Ferdinand / Vidic / Van der Sar trinity. While De Gea is a good goalkeeper, Ferdinand and Vidic are on their way out, and it is not clear that Jonny Evans / Smalling / Phil Jones are adequate replacements. Darren Fletcher may still come back as a midfield enforcer, but questions remain over that position, especially with Anderson not stepping up. Carrick is doing a fine job but one Carrick does not a great midfield make, unless they're planning to put Rooney in that position. Assuming that Rooney will still play for Man U. And it is far from apparent that Giggs and Scholes have been adequately replaced. The only part of the team which seems find is the forward line of Rooney, Van Persie, Kagawa and Welbeck.

In the short term, Alex Ferguson’s departure has wreaked havoc on the scene. It has set off another managerial merry go-round. Everton were reportedly blind-sided by Alex Ferguson leaving Man U. They thought that David Moyes was going to sign another contract at Everton. Ironically the one person who could plausibly step into his shoes at Everton would not be able to. Rafael Benitez would be a good fit, because he’s another person who can get good results on a limited budget, but he’s a former Liverpool manager who will be as welcome at Everton as he had been at Chelsea, since he previously talked about Everton being a “small club”. It’s probably a mischievous timing that because of Alex Ferguson’s departure, nobody is actually talking about the FA cup final. Nobody is giving a shit that if Man City wins it, it will be the third year in a row they have won a trophy. Nobody is giving a shit that Roberto Martinez and Wigan have a potential fairy tale on their hands, even as they strive to avoid relegation. People will instead be speculating if Roberto Martinez is going to take the seat at Everton. And people are wondering if Pelligrini is going to take the seat at Man City. Everton could go for Mancini if he gets sacked, but my hunch is that Mancini would have to go through one more season of not winning the league before he gets booted out.

Still, the decline of a great football dynasty has accompanied the departure of a great figure, and it remains to be seen whether Man U can continue the same level of success that they have had with Ferguson at the helm. One thinks about Kenny Dalglish leaving Liverpool and their subsequent downfall. Or Brian Clough’s departure from Nottingham Forest (his career did end in alcoholism and relegation). David Moyes is a very good manager but not proven at the top level. There have been very good managers who have gone to clubs where they hadn’t really succeeded. Like Trappatoni, or Sacchi, or Fabio Capello, or Sven Goran Eriksson, or Carlos Ancelotti, or Felix Magath and even Jose Mourinho’s legacy at Real Madrid is mixed.

Well maybe the EPL will become more interesting without Man U winning everything - unless we are talking about Chelsea and Man City winning everything.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

Last Hurdle

My previous record for being away from Singapore in one unbroken stretch is 18 months. It’s almost 18 months now since I last went back. It’s a curious coincidence, but those 18 months back during my college days were some of the most intense 18 months of my life. They were almost a transformative force. They span the entirety of my love affair with codfish, and they spanned 2 trips to Europe. Because it was almost the only time I had been in love, it stands out as a kind of an “island” in my life, not really related to what had gone on before or after, like a journey to a strange land that I would never return to ever in my life.

For that matter, I have not gone back to Snowy Hill in the more than 10 years that I had been there. I have to visit that place in the thick of winter, otherwise it would not mean anything at all.

These 18 months has also been pretty heavy for me. During my first three months in Mexico, it was probably the first and only time I had allowed myself to relax. After that, it was worrying about one thing after another. Your time in a master’s program was short. No wonder people never seemed to have time for master’s students. Basically I had to do three things:

1. Learn whatever I could learn about computers
2. Procure a job
3. Get out

The first three months were deceptively easy, because they were in no small part rehashes of material that I had already previously covered in other parts of the course. Maybe I’ll blog about all the stuff in part 1 one day. But it’s not really that exciting or dramatic. There’s a lot of reading of papers, there’s a lot of introduction of really cool concepts in mathematics and computer science. A lot of academic stuff. There was this crazy four week period where I tried to cram 10 weeks’ worth of programming and barely lived to tell the tale. There was a lot of machine learning concepts, and a lot of computer systems concepts.

Unfortunately in engineering a lot of things get forgotten. That is the problem with engineering. The retention of knowledge is not fantastic. Especially if we’re talking about stuff like applied maths. If you learn the basic theory of stuff, it is like learning to ride a bike. You don’t forget basic ideas. Economics teaches you about supply and demand, you remember it forever. Psychology teaches you about motivation and different types of conditioning, you remember it forever. Government teaches you about the different causes of WW I, you remember it forever.

But unless you have worked on an engineering project over and over for an extended period of time, it could be really easy to forget about the details of things. It would be easier to learn again things that you have seen or learnt before. But it would take you some time to recall it, still.

Still, there were interesting things. At least for some period of time I was pretty fascinated with what I was learning. Then it became – not really repetitive, but over and over again, there would be new things to learn, new skills to master. Maybe my brain wasn’t made of plastic the way that it used to be when I was in my 20s.

For the master’s program, there were basically three main requirements.

1. Core courses that every master’s student had to pass in order to get his masters. They would be stuff in computer systems that they felt that every master’s student had to know. The core courses were generally heavy and involved reading 3-4 engineering papers each week.
2. A certain number of other courses, all graduate level. There were usually courses which focused on studying a few papers every week, talking about them in class, and then coming up with a project at the end of everything. Or there were math like courses where they pumped you with a lot of equations, and extracted a take home final out of you at the end of the course. Or there were project focused courses, where the main component of the course was a project.
3. A master’s project.

I had assumed that the project wasn’t going to be that tough. I was wrong. It was this experience that regularly had me coughing up blood. Usually a project could be finished within one term. But what I got instead was a very “interesting” experience. The first time I tried to do a project, it was not a great experience. I contacted a professor, and he explained a problem to me. I didn’t manage to get a lot of reading done in the meantime. Also I was really stupid and I didn’t realize that I could take any number of courses and call it projects for credit, and I doomed myself to still taking the full load of courses on top of having to entertain him. I hadn’t yet been plunged into the baptism of fire regarding programming. I hadn’t gotten enough coursework under my belt in order to be reasonably good at executing a computer project.

As time went on, it became harder to obtain time with this professor. Later on, when I saw the list of master’s projects, it became clear to me that he was juggling six or seven other students and just didn’t have time for me. At the same time, after digging around on my own, it also became clear to me that the task that he was proposing was probably too difficult for me to execute on my own without the help of a person with specialized knowledge in a certain field. It certainly wasn’t that professor’s field of expertise. I was still taking classes and stuff, but I lost six months like that.

That summer was probably one of the bleakest period of my time in Mexico. I had failed to secure an internship, and I was staring down at the prospect of not finding employment at the end of my program. I was hawking my resume to everybody, and I wasn’t getting a lot of responses. It was a strange period. On one hand, I could enjoy the sensation of not really having a lot of things to do, and just whiling my time away. On the other hand, it was a strange time: I just didn’t have much motivation to learn more coding, and learn more knowledge. That summer would have been a good time for me to work on a project, but I hadn’t secured one at that point.

When I was stressed, I started going online to buy CDs off eBay because I know that in this 5 year period between the age of the CD and the age of iTunes, everybody’s dumping all their old stuff on the market. This would be the one time in my life when I could get all the music that I wanted, for as cheaply as I wanted. I ended up buying a lot of CDs that summer, because I was going back to Singapore, right? So I could sell all of them off eBay for a profit or break even, right?

I also tried to learn a lot of stuff through coursera. I had gotten through one natural language processing course. I ate out a fair bit, and made a few trips to the main city during that time. Read a lot of news too. That summer wasn’t wholly bad: I managed to get myself a teaching gig, and it was a fairly enjoyable experience, except that it wasn’t a subject that I had excelled in. So it was basically a race between myself and the students to see who could learn that stuff faster. And then I had to teach it to the other people in class. Luckily, like many summer classes, it was just a 5 week class. So whether it went well or not, it was over in a flash, and I was a couple of thousand dollars richer.

Later on, I wrote to another professor whose class I had taken and who I had suffered under, asking for a project. I listed my skills, as well as what I was good at. He forwarded me to another professor that was looking for a particular skill I picked up in Labyrinth University. Then Crazy Frog visited me and (more likely) his old pal from school days. By coincidence this old pal of his was working with that same professor. On the day that Crazy Frog left, I revised my resume, and also I met with the grad student under that prof.

Things were looking good. I circulated my resume to Google and Facebook and got interviews with them. I did not pass any of the coding interviews, but things were looking up: if I had given them my old resume very likely I wouldn’t get people having a second look at it. But I’ve written about my job hunt somewhere else so this isn’t about that job hunt.

This is about the project. I had the grad student telling me about the project. We managed to meet on and off for a few weeks. He told me about the project. I had been balancing the project work, course work and the job hunt so it wasn’t 100% easy but I managed to learn a few things from him. The talks were not 100% smooth, and I did detect a little bit of touchiness in that grad student, but I thought, OK, this is good enough for me. Then I sat down and did my own research on and off. In the meantime, I obtained and accepted a job offer, so it did look as though things were looking up for a while.

Then disaster struck. First I found out that the grad student was graduating in a matter of weeks (he only told me two weeks in advance), and that I would have to correspond with him while he was back home. Then I worked things out on my own and found out that the idea that he was proposing was totally bogus. It had rested on certain assumptions of his about theories that I found were probably incorrect. And third, I had already told the prospective employer that I would be graduating by winter or at least spring. If I did not meet my target date for graduation, owing to visa restrictions, I would have to go and find a new job. I was somewhat fairly lucky to get that job so I didn’t want to get back out in the job market.

So these three things pretty much ruined the experience of doing a project with me. First, the person that would be most knowledgeable about the project would be away on the other side of the world. Second, the goal of the project had shifted: I could not work on the project that he was proposing, because I could not work on something that I believed to be false and which would deliver no results. I couldn’t guarantee the co-operation of the ex-grad student, because he could feel bad about me thrashing his idea. I didn’t know how to tell him, so I wrote an email asking him once again to lay out his ideas on paper for me. Then I proceeded to send him a few emails explaining to him why I thought he was wrong. I didn’t get replies to those emails. Maybe that should have been the cue for me to go and look around for yet another project adviser, but I waited too long. It also turned out that that professor was busy. Often too busy to meet me on a regular basis. Somewhat fortuitously, there was a paper that was spun off from Mr ex-grad student’s thesis. The second such paper to be spun off from that thesis. I had read the first paper, and that was what brought me to them in the first place. The second paper was rejected from a conference. So the professor invited me to work with the ex-grad-student and try to get that paper published in a journal instead.

I realised that I had only two weeks to work on the project and develop it to the point where I could reasonably persuade that professor to continue working on that project with me. I wasn’t able to do much. Especially since I had been enduring a tough school term which had a class that proved much harder than expected. Only after a few attempts to get the professor did I manage to sit him down and get him to do business. There were a few forms that needed to be signed for visa purposes and it took me a while to get him to understand that he wasn’t signing a form that said that I had completed the project. Finally we talked business, and he was agreeable to continue working, provided that I gave him regular status reports.

At this point in time I got extremely nervous and irritable because for a while it didn’t look like it was likely that I would complete the project by the end of spring. I was juggling a difficult course, which took time and effort away from me that I could have better spent on developing the project further. I had to work on the supercomputing facility that (fortunately) gave all students some computing time to play with. I had to figure out how to make UNIX work. The professor had a dataset ready for me to inspect and play with. But I had to work out how to make a database system work. I had to write plenty of scripts to process the data. (This was where my previous work experience came in useful). I had to little by little find out how to send things through a remote connection to the supercomputer. I had to figure out what did or did not work on the supercomputer. Then I had to make sure that a package that I had previously found on the internet would work on that supercomputer.

On top of that, I had to work things out with my employer. Fortunately, he was quite OK with me not being able to start work as soon as I had earlier expected to. First it was “I’ll probably graduate after Winter and work for you after that”. Then it was “I might have to work for you part time during the spring term so that I can keep on working on that project”. Then it was “I have to work full time on that project and join you only after spring”.

Sometimes I wonder if I had used that summer a little better. Maybe I should have just flown home to Singapore for some R+R and take my mind off stressing over things. Maybe I could have done up that resume a little earlier. Maybe I could have just forced myself to do a project and through doing that project, learn a little more about programming. I think those 18 months that I mentioned earlier also spanned a summer where I would have been better going back to Singapore, but I didn't. I suppose I wanted to save on the plane ticket and decided to go hang around instead. Anyway - a lot has been left to this last hurdle. I'm not safe yet, by any means. This is my last term. I'm only doing the project this term, and they've allowed me to consider this as studying part time, and they've allowed me to pay part time school fees. I'm not panicking yet - the time for panicking is over. Now it does seem as though I will continue to make steady progress on the project and that's all I want. The time for panicking was a few weeks ago when neither the professor nor the ex-grad student were responding to my emails. I've been really worried that if I didn't finish the legwork to help my professor and the ex-grad student get that paper published, I wouldn't be allowed to graduate.

I've spoken to people. They said that I'm doing the project plan, not the thesis plan. How difficult could it be? I don't know. I'm just hoping that it all turns out well. I had previously attended master's project presentations, and I had found that after the master's projects, all the students usually give out cries of jubilation. I didn't understand it back then, but I'm beginning to understand it now. I think about my ex-boss, Mr Angler, who was "suckered" into doing a PhD while working at the same time. He had thought that it was merely a formality to convert his previous industrial experience into research. It ended up taking up six years of his life in the process.

After that, the project went along on its slow tortuous path. I had overseen some projects before. I knew from experience that it took effort to be a supervisor. I had worked on projects where I was engaged enough, and also on projects where I didn’t know what was going on, just let it slide, and ended up signing off on it in the end. What happened was that this professor was probably a little overstretched, and he wasn’t fully participating in the work, which was more owned by the grad student. The grad student, on the other hand, had literally flown away. The professor was under the impression that I was going to help him send in a second submission of a paper that was rejected to a conference, to make it work towards a journal instead. I seldom got to talk to the professor one on one, and he always preferred to talk on skype – that’s how I knew that he didn’t really “own” the project.

And as usual, there was the same lack of clarity, lack of direction that characterized the project. The professor might have thought that there was a chance to get a publication. The grad student (now PhD) understood best what was going on for the project, but now it was heading in a different direction from what he had envisioned, and I couldn’t blame him for being disengaged. I was less than 6 months away from my intended graduation date, and it was too late to start a new project from afresh. It was a really big mess and I just had to grit my teeth and endure it. I could assure you that if I could go back in time, I would have run away and looked for a new project the very moment the grad student received his PhD and flew back home. I wouldn’t be stuck in a mess.

In fact years ago there was a project that was supervised by a colleague at my workplace. I wasn’t really appraised of the situation, because it wasn’t my project, but I could tell it didn’t go well. The students didn’t always turn up when they were supposed to turn up. And at the same time, from the project title, I knew that they were taking something on and using an approach that in my opinion, wasn’t going to work. (I have my intuition about these things, even though that intuition is not always 100% accurate.) And I knew that it does take a dose of luck and skill to avoid situations like those.

There was this time when I was not getting replies from the PhD student regarding his thesis. He wasn’t willing to send me any code to work with, so I had to recode everything myself. I know from experience that when your code is messy and convoluted, it’s just not in the right condition to pass it on, and the other guy is better off implementing everything himself.

Moreover, yesterday I finally got a reply from the professor: “People do projects with varying levels of ambition. There are people who just want me to sign off on it, people who want to do good projects and get good letters, and people who want to be co-authors. Which one are you?” Finally he got down to this question: which one was I? By this time, I had made some progress on the project, we had had around five weekly meetings, and I had either implemented some parts of the project from scratch, or refuted some of their ideas. So he was finally admitting that all that lack of communication was due to his misunderstanding – he thought that there were much more stringent requirements for the project than there had actually been. In the meantime, he had kept me in the dark and wondering about whether or not I was going to graduate, up till one month before the due date. Now he was thinking about whether or not I was worth investing effort in.

I haven’t had the talk with him, but I could roughly guess that from here, there were two ways to go: first was that I could indicate that I would pull out the stops and give him very good work. But that would almost certainly delay my graduation for one term or even more. It would be pretty ridiculous. The second was that I was just going to wrap up and finish up everything else that was on the plate at the moment. But he would probably be disinterested and disinvested. Obviously, with the constraints that I was under, I would take the second path.

Meanwhile - there was all the work that I did - setting up systems, writing up results that I wasn't 100% sure that the professor was going to read, writing code that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't, wondering if I was going to seriously veer off course. I've already gone through that whole shebang about working on certain directions, having it rejected because the supervisor doesn't 100% understand it, only for the supervisor to suddenly realise that you were right, long after you've finished redoing your thing. It's so much easier when you're just doing a course - when you're doing coursework, you know that there's a certain level of effort involved - you put in that effort, and then you know that everything's over. For this, there was a lot of crossing my fingers and wondering if I was ever doing the right thing. I think if there's a comparable experience, it's three years ago, when I was applying back to college, knowing that I was going to compete with a whole slew of very qualified candidates from all the third world countries in Asia, and wondering if I would ever achieve one of the ambitions of my life. (Of course, I could have been doing something else on my own entirely, without the help of that gatekeeper called college, but well ...

There may be some other twists and turns in the tale yet. On balance I know that I have a better than even chance of graduating out of here next month but like they say – it’s not over until the fat lady sings. I just have to tell myself - one more month of this shit, and then I'll have more worthy shit to deal with, instead of dealing with this sticky situation.

Meanwhile, I've been looking towards my dreams - both as a indicator for the future and a reflection of my inner state of mind. I dreamt about Snowy Hill again. I used to dream about Snowy Hill in the first few years after graduation when I was back in Singapore for work. There were things that I missed about that place, and to be honest, much of it had to do with how some of my favourite times in Snowy Hill were when I was studying politics. To be frank I enjoyed learning politics more than I enjoyed engineering, although mostly it was just a matter of getting used to engineering.

I used to dream of the old gothic buildings, the musty smells of libraries, the joy of discovery. The novelty of seeing plenty of snow. The novelty of being in a new country with new areas to explore. But a few years later I stopped dreaming of it. Now when I dream of it, I usually dream of the hill. It’s a place with plenty of buildings, and plenty of people gathered together, eating in the dining halls, and having intelligent conversation. It’s a place where I first got to know a lot of ideas – it’s funny, I think of ideas as friends. Friends who will always quarrel with each other in my head, but they are all my friends.

When you think of snow, and when you think of hills, those are symbols traditionally associated with Capricorns. But now I think of a giant slope, where I’m just struggling to get back up to the top. The landscape is littered with big buildings everywhere – just like Singapore. Or strange complexes like the engineering faculty of NUS – monstrous industrial complexes where people were always busy and building lots of things. I would be climbing a few flights of stairs just to get to the next building, or climbing down a few flights of stairs.

What I also dreamt of was a trip that I had taken with my parents when they came to visit me right after my graduation from Snowy Hill. We went to Niagara Falls, and I just remember that there was a great, vast flowing river – I had never been to great rivers and I’ve never seen such a great rush of water in my life.

Earlier on, I had another dream. This time, I was in a large mansion. There were people everywhere, they were taping up windows, and carrying large ammo boxes everywhere. At the same time, I was in charge of a cannon outside. An officer was asking me, if I was standing that cannon down, and keeping the ammunition back into the house, and I neglected to comply. Night fell, and then the zombie apocalypse began. The shells were raining down, and I felt a little embarrassed that I was supposed to have brought the artillery ammo indoors, but instead allowed them to be ruined by the enemy shells. At the same time, the zombies were advancing, and everybody in the machine gun turrets were cutting them down. In the end, the ammo was ruined, but that was OK, because the machine guns did their jobs, there was zombie flesh splattered everywhere but the battle was won.


Sunday, May 05, 2013

Other stuff

The other night, I was trying to negotiate the last few hours before a Skype conversation with the professor and a “senior grad student”. Those last few hours, if I were to keep on working, might not result in anything useful. But as I lay there trying to grab a nap, I found myself not being able to fall asleep on command. It could have been the coffee that I drunk a few hours prior.

And there I was, I was lying down in my bed, trying to get to sleep. I think, maybe in those hours, I was not in front of an internet connection, and I was not surrounded by a cacophony of things that always distracted me: sports news, expanding my CD collection, Singapore politics, that bloody master’s project.

I thought about what my life amounted to after 1.5 years overseas. It was a little strange saying goodbye. I had been part of the landscape for so long that people didn’t really think that I was going to leave. I wasn’t like ghost, who had told everybody loudly and for a long time that he was going to leave, and then did. In a way I didn’t really intend to leave. In another way, I had already decided a long time ago that my master’s degree would be computer science, and I had laid some groundwork for that.

People tell me I have this tendency to drift through my life. In a way that is true. But at the same time, there are many things that don’t change. A lot of my goals don’t change from year to year – probably because I’m so tardy about achieving those goals! I don’t strive for any one thing single-mindedly, and I don’t usually work fast. I usually make small steps from day to day, and pick up things bit by bit which might become useful in the future but where there’s no immediate real use for it.

I started to think about what my life really was like, now that it was about to be transformed. I remember that when I broke the news of my departure to my colleagues, it was in the form of a remark, “maybe I’m going to live in the desert now”. Then I knew from their reaction that they found it really surprising.

But what have I really achieved? When I went through my long journey, there were various phases. There was the first phase, the dreaming phase, where I imagined that I was back in school studying, and reliving my Snowy Hill days. To be sure, they were not totally wonderful periods of time. But I had learnt a tremendous amount of stuff and I hoped to repeat that. Then there was a lot of procrastination. Then there were the first tentative steps towards postgrad studies, because I realised that if I got too old, then this goal of mine was just going to get tougher. After that, there were a few frantic episodes and a few bouts of panicking, but I passed through and I was able to get into a grad program.

For a while, being able to wave bye bye to your old boss and your old job was a tremendously liberating experience. As always, there were things that you loved and things that you hated about your job and on balance it was a positive experience. For the first few months it felt great – there was the “oh my god I’m finally on the other side, I’m going back to school. I’m learning so many new things!” But after those first few months, all the worrying and panicking began again. Chiefly, it came down to this: now that I was in school, how do I get back to the security of an employed existence?

Because this liberated existence was not something I completely enjoyed. I didn’t feel like I was on dry ground. I was crossing a large body of water – a river, or a large lake, or a strait. I wasn’t on the other side yet. I still am not, even though I can say that land has been sighted.

For the most part, there are the essentials. The curriculum, the classes, the requirements to pass, the job seeking, the skills to learn. These things have taken up much of my time. The fact that I didn’t do this at the undergraduate level just made things more difficult. But there was also a lot of procrastination, a lot of bewilderment, and possibly a lot of missed opportunities.

There was the other stuff – the meeting new people, the looking around at life and opportunities in a new country, and the out of class learning. There wasn’t so much of that for me that I would have liked – because there was too much of my keeping my head above the water. Sometimes I wonder if this program was more stressful that I would have liked. To a large extent, University of Mexico has done a lot to reduce the stress. There is a lot of grade inflation in graduate school. A grades are pretty common, but then again, if you put in the same amount of effort that would earn you an A in an undergrad course, you would get an A.

My mind is no longer as quick to learn as it had been 10 years ago. In some part, this is because it has slowed down. But there are other reasons. I’ve always been more of an arts and sciences guy, and I take longer to learn engineering material. When you are learning deeper stuff, it is more difficult to learn things. Material at the undergraduate level is always easier to grasp immediately. When you are learning things at the undergraduate level, things are always presented to you on a plate. You learn the classics. At the grad level, you pick and choose what you want to learn. At undergrad level, you always walk through the gates that other people have walked through. At the grad level, there has to be some sort of business acumen where you’re assessing how important or useful what you’re about to learn. You are no longer coasting on a massive interstate highway, but you’re on a country highway, or maybe if you’re a doctoral student involved in research, you are in a jungle bashing away at the undergrowth with a parang.

Also, where I was an undergrad, I approached things with the notion of – I’m building a foundation for my further education. Now, I know that this is my life. Most of what will be written about me when I die will be based on the things that take place right now. Everything is about now. So there’s a lot more about living in the real world.

When I was dreaming about being a grad student, professors were icons. They were the teachers from whom you wish to absorb real knowledge. They were the stars of the university. When you see a star up close, it becomes an oppressive sun instead. You see them with their foibles. They become more mortal. They are people with a million and one things to do, and you have to do whatever it takes to grab their attention and hold on to it. If you ask them a question about a course they are teaching, they answer you with almost perfect certainty and in the even that you have raised something truly novel, it will be a bonus. Now, it is more or less taken for granted that you will be raising something novel. And they may like what you said, or not.

And let’s go beyond scholarly and academic knowledge here. What I want is to make another breakthrough, learn skills that will bring me towards a new life, a new trade. To what extent will I succeed? With a grad degree in computer science, I’m supposed to be able to found companies, become a technopreneur, be a great innovator, solve the problems of the world. But the academic knowledge is only one of three main components. The second component is the street knowledge, the practical understanding of technology that get things done. The third component is the connections that I have with people that would help me if I were to set up a business. The thing is this: knowledge begets knowledge, so it is worthwhile to come with a lot of expertise already, so that you don't feel too embarrassed to ask people lest they think that you are stupid. So the first part of the learning process is usually a fairly lonely one, where you're looking up things online. Later on, it gets easier when you're talking with people and you're chatting about stuff with people you feel comfortable exchanging information with.

I’ve seen people out there who are thinking about setting up life-coaching businesses. Frankly I’m pretty adverse to getting into this myself. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in this sort of thing, and more than 50% of this is about ensuring that you have a great customer experience – for the duration of the learning anyway. After the course is over and you find that you may not have changed your life, you may not feel that great, but that’s your problem. Well there’s an obvious paradox in this: all of what I just said could apply equally to the experience of earning a master’s degree!

But I will still incline towards earning a degree in the hard sciences. I will incline towards learning intellectual principles, rather than more “marketable” applied stuff. It’s how my brain works. It’s the reason why, in spite of the similarities, I will go for a liberal arts education rather than a business degree. Why I started out in science before moving closer towards engineering. Why, among the engineering disciplines, I chose the one that most resembled hard science.

I will still choose work that is more about solving real hard problems. I will still reject certain types of work on the basis that it is not wonky enough, or geeky enough.

There was a lot of enthusiasm in the beginning. I wanted to learn about almost everything that I missed out on learning by not taking computer science. Unfortunately being able to cram a bachelor’s degree worth of material into your head for the duration of a master’s degree might be a little too much. And it’s too unfocused. On top of all the basic stuff – computer systems, algorithms – I wanted to learn artificial intelligence, machine learning. On top of that – cognitive science, linguistics, graph theory, mathematics. I did get myself into a muddle. Maybe I should have just more tightly focused myself, and grabbed a bunch of books that I could learn after I left with that master’s degree. Maybe I should have gone for something more applied, where being surrounded with university people was a real asset.

Being involved with IT is a lifelong journey of learning. Unfortunately much of that journey has yet to be run. People don’t teach a lot of software engineering in school. That’s something you have to learn in real life. There are a lot of other skills, like web design. Right now, there is such a thing as a major called “computer science”. I don’t know about what it’d be like in the future. A lot of computer science departments started off as small little branches of some math department or science department. Then later on they get transferred to the engineering faculty. Then in some cases, they become entire “schools” or “colleges” or “departments” in their own right. Saying that you are doing “computer science” will soon be like saying you’re doing “applied mathematics” or “applied reading and writing”. It will be something so all-encompassing that it could embrace anything.

What would I be doing if I were to be starting this master’s degree again? Why would I do if I didn’t have to worry about subsistence? What if I came here already with all the computer knowledge in hand, without the need to pick up those skills separately?

Well maybe I should worry about these questions next, when the last obstacle to me graduating is out of the way.