Go with a smile!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Work Life

There are different levels of maturity for a person to go through. There is young adulthood, and there is late adulthood. A person who has attained young adulthood is able to hold down a steady job and make a living. He can probably maintain a few friendships and fulfill a few of his life ambitions. But late adulthood is the real and ultimate test, and the making of a man. That is the ultimate: heading a household, maybe taking up a leadership role at work, and balancing work and family responsibilities. I usually attain maturity a few years too late. I mastered how to be a proper teenager only in my late 20s. I only mastered young adulthood around the time I was 30. And I don’t really know if I’ll ever make that transition into late adulthood. That’s almost the only thing left for me. I don’t really like giving up a carefree lifestyle, but it just might come down to that.

I just realised that I have never done any of these things:
1. Secure a bank loan for a house / car / whatever
2. Had a steady girlfriend in the real world
3. Been a rock star
4. Turned down a job offer (except maybe one teaching scholarship offer)
5. Started a business
6. Handled the insurance / complicated business of owning a motor vehicle.

I started this blog one or two years into my working life. Nothing earthshaking has taken place since. No internet has been invented. OK, Singapore has changed a lot. Maybe the first 10 years of the existence of the blog has seen the transition between the “old Singapore” which was still dominated by “native Singaporeans” and the “new Singaporeans” where you can’t say that either “native Singaporeans” or foreigners dominate it. Cracks have appeared in the PAP’s dominance for power, and the “new normal” has arrived. Several major bookstores in Singapore have closed down. My grandmother’s dead.

But then all these things have taken place on the other end of 25. My sister’s gone: she’s always been gone. The real watershed event of my life was Snowy Hill. It’s divided my life neatly into two. My first big rite of passage was my annus mirabilis. The second big rite of passage was national service. My third big rite of passage was Snowy Hill. And that was my biggest. I still have other rites of passage. My fourth one was my first real job, which I will actually – for the first time – blog about. My fifth one is my Mexico adventure. Then there will be others that I will look to take on – finding a life companion, maybe even having kids. And who knows what else. But the big one was Snowy Hill. After that, on the other side of 25, nothing’s really shocking anymore.

There are only a few people who know my real identity in real life, and most of them were former co-workers at my first job. That’s why I’ve never really blogged about my work life. I’ve tried not to be too political but I just can’t help it – political science is one of my main interests. I sound really critical when talking about the government but I know that it’s always half a cup full – Singapore is not the worst run country in the world, no matter what the electorate says. I’m not happy about Singapore having too many foreigners, but many of my co-workers and friends are foreigners and they are good people, and I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

Now I’ll blog about my early working life, and I’ve never done that before. I’ve mentioned about three periods of my life that were difficult, and probably there will be more to come, but three have stood out so far. First was sec one / two. Second was JC / NS. I’ve described them here. The third period was the first few years of my working life.

I was an indentured labourer. Yes, I got a free university education, and for a not inconsiderable sum. But there are downsides. There were relatively few positions in the organization where having a good degree from a prestigious university was of much use. Many of the other overseas scholars left after a few years. Only a true geek like myself could bear to wait that long.

To say that I didn’t really fit in at the beginning was a bit of an understatement, although I was far from being the biggest misfit. (That honour goes to a more senior member of the department). At the time that I joined, they decided to second me out to the frontline. Not just for one or two months, but for three months. It was a disaster. Somebody else might have done better, but I floundered. My Chinese was not fantastic, I couldn’t convince people to show me the ropes, they didn’t have patience with somebody who wasn’t going to join them. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to cut that stint short, but then I was concerned that it was an admission of defeat. I don’t really know how long the people after me spent on the front line, but for me it was way too long.

That wasn’t a good start. And after returning to the home department, it wasn’t great either. I started with a pretty weak hand. They didn’t like the fact that I had gone to Snowy Hill and didn’t come back with fantastic results. It took a year or two to convince my bosses that I was pretty sound academically. And this was a place which was pretty snobbish about who they took in – almost everybody had a first class honours or some fancy graduate degree.

At the time that I joined, there were two main factions in the department. One was the management associates, and there were the rest of the gang. It did make sense for me to hang out with the management associates, but I knew right away that the rest of the gang was going to stick around the longest. I knew which gang it was more important to join. I was right – two of the management associates left very soon, and the third one also joined the main gang. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was the first correct decision that I made.

Unfortunately I wasn’t very successful at joining that gang. The (self-appointed) leader of that gang was a guy who I later nicknamed Sniper. The name stuck, so it was a bit of my modicum of revenge on him. We had a frosty relationship. We didn’t hate each other or anything, but there were things about each other that got on our nerves. He tried hard to edge me out, but wasn’t really successful. But I appreciated what he did for the department. He tried to foster some kind of brotherhood amongst the people in the department. He organized events, and he organized weekly sports games. There was a good spirit in the department that was in no small part down to the work done by him, and that spirit lasted long after he said goodbye.

I kept my head low and flew under the radar. I didn’t do much during my first few years. I tried to observe and listen but was usually waved away. My work was usually with a direct supervisor. Because of my traumatic experience with the front line in those days, I didn’t have much contact with them. It wasn’t until much later that I managed to correct that.

The first big event in my work life was the retrenchment. There were six people who were cut out of the department. Two of them were older workers who had almost reached retirement age, and the retrenchment didn’t affect them financially because the payout more or less compensated for their lost earnings. Two of them were junior staff who faced an uncertain future after that. Two of my peers who were let go, young people like me who could always find another job. But the build-up to the retrenchment was almost unbearable. Almost everybody thought they might get it. Including the supervisors. One or two started opening up. I suppose this was the beginning of warmer relations with the older people in the department. Even Angler, who was one of the smartest guys in the department, thought that he might get it.

I still wasn’t out of the woods. In fact, years later when I was out for lunch with a few of my colleagues, we bumped into one of the guys who was let go. He was astounded to see me talking with the rest like we were old friends, as though he had seen a ghost. That reminded me of how much of an outcast I was at the beginning.

Other people came in. People who hadn’t had the chance to see me flounder. There were always good guys in the department, like Shingot. Shingot was probably the glue that held the department together, was always good to everyone, always joking and laughing with everyone. And because of that people forgot to notice that he was smart too. Not razor sharp smart like one or two of the others in the department were, but smart in his own way. Everybody missed him when Totoro poached him away to join her company.

One absolute nadir for me was the first performance review. I had been assigned the worst grade possible that did not merit disciplinary action. For me it was appalling, and it’s a horrible thing when a person’s contracted to work with you for six years and you tell him those six years are going to be pretty miserable. On top of that, right after I was told of that grade, I had to host a Christmas party and smile and pretend that everybody was having a good time. I did that, but I’m not ever going to forget that experience.

Gradually, things got better. People left the department one by one, and I picked up on their projects one by one. The retrenchment “exercise” was not really necessary: the company did expand. But it was an excuse to get rid of deadweight, and some of the people who were let go were let go merely to fulfill some quota. It was one of the most pointless things ever.

I evolved a strategy – it was called the patient waiting game. I kept my head down a lot, and focused more on learning and thinking and reflecting before I tried to make myself visible. It was a gamble, because if I sacrificed my visibility, it could work against my career. But at the same time, I could avoid meeting people too much and rubbing them the wrong way. I tried to avoid making mistakes by confining my contacts to a relatively small number. The time to become more visible was when you were more sure you weren’t going to open your mouth and sound like a fool. So I just made sure that I would never be high profile enough to make a big disastrous high-profile error. There could never be a mistake big enough to force me to leave the department before I wanted to.

Eventually it came to the point where among the people in the department, there were as many people who had been there longer than me, as there were people who had been there for shorter than me. I suppose I had risen up in the pecking order.

People had doubts about me, but those doubts were addressed one by one, although not very quickly. People thought I wasn’t technically adequate. That proved to be wrong. People thought that I was messy and disorganized. I’m a messy person, but I could get it together if I wanted to. And I was pretty analytical. People thought I didn’t understand what was going on on the frontline. But there was a lot that I understood on a good enough level.

One of my biggest weakness was that I usually had my own way of seeing things that often conflicted with other people’s persistent views. It was surprisingly difficult to be truly creative in a place like that, even though it was supposed to be an engineering department which prized organizational change. The thing about being creative is that if somebody comes up with an unconventional approach, you would look at him first. If you think he’s dumb, then he’s got it all wrong. If you think he’s smart, then he could be on to a innovative and fresh approach to things. Everything depends upon whether you’ve won peoples’ trust or not. I wouldn’t say that everything, or half of everything that I proposed in my earlier years were really sound, but I still felt that I was second-guessed a lot in the early years.

There was a supervisor of mine who took a long time to trust me. But suddenly one day he asked me to take charge of a project where I was supposed to liaise with an external consultant. It was a project that was highly technical in nature, and involved a fairly complex software system. It was hard work, because much of it involved concealing weaknesses in our portion of the software system from the consultants, so that they didn’t pick up on it and report it to the higher authorities. And of course my supervisor didn’t want the consultant taking away our jobs. I think my work on that project was a turning point for me, where I finally convinced him that I was a worthy member of the team.

The department wasn’t in good shape for the first five years that I was there. We were often distrusted and shut out of the discussions with the front line people. Of course for many of those years many of my colleagues have tried to engage with front line people on a more personal level. Because we focused more on longer range issues, we were rebuffed by the front line people more often in the early days. People could not integrate our output into their daily work. I started to realize that maybe I should have expected the lousy reviews that they gave to me when I was a new kid. There were people who came in after me, people who did better than me, and they also got lousy reviews. I realised that it was a little political, a few people in our department had to get the lousy grades, and since I was a new guy who was unlikely to leave the department in the near future, I got the lousy grade. In contrast, the work on the front line was hard and demanding, with a high level of turnover. So they usually got the lion’s share of the good reviews.

Quite abruptly, there was a guy, a former military man who came in out of nowhere to head the department. He instituted a lot of changes to the department. At first, I welcomed him. Until I found out that I was constantly being left out of his plans. It turned out that he was more of a “front line” type of person and he was more attuned to their way of thinking. I preferred the more technical approach, and we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. He didn’t really have a place for me, and he told me that if I had other opportunities, I was free to leave the department. My contract with the department was up at that point. It was around that point that I got tired of procrastinating (that takes a long time to happen) and set in motion the long and arduous process that would eventually lead me to Mexico.

But at that point in time, Mexico was still two years away. So I negotiated with him, let me work with the front line people. He didn’t like the idea but he allowed that to happen, since people were leaving the department anyway. I wasn’t fantastic, and I took some time to learn the ropes, and I think I showed some value. In fact I still have some ideas on how to further develop what was being done for the frontline department, some more advanced forms of analytics that they weren’t doing, my new grad degree taught me a few skills that could be tried on that department. Our department had been accustomed to thinking that it was associated with a certain academic field of study. But we could just as well also use knowledge from a totally different academic field of study. I had my own ideas about what scientific techniques I wanted to or did not want to use, and in my earlier years, that would have been interpreted as stubbornness or even stupidity. But I had been around long enough that I would have gained enough good karma to do that.

I got the sense that people did not want me to leave the department. That’s a far cry from the way that people initially greeted my stint in the department. I didn't know what military guy thought, but by then he had already drifted away from the department. It’s also true people don’t really value the new guys, while the old guys have a lot of knowledge and experience that will be gone when they leave. There was a six month period when I kept them guessing about whether or not I was going to leave. And while a lot of the uncertainty was genuine, one of my supervisors (Monty Burns) had been with me from the beginning, and I don’t think he really stuck up for me in the beginning. I wanted to see what he was going to do. To my surprise, he was hinting that I might be in charge of a few interesting projects. A more important reason why they didn’t want me to leave, at that point, was that my departure coincided with a few people leaving the department. My departure was at the tail end of a long exodus. I had witnessed around 30 departures from our department, a turnover rate of more than 150% in the almost 10 years I had been there. We knew that people leaving would leave behind more work for the next guy to take over, but we never truly begrudged all this because we knew that people leaving the department was a win-win for all except maybe the managers of the department. The ones who got left behind got to step up. They got opportunities to advance their careers either by cannibalising an old friend’s project, or by having fewer people to contend with for places at next July’s announcements. The ones who left left for greener pastures.

I wouldn’t say that mine was a fantastic career. Some of those who left, indeed left for better things. And indeed – a few are doing really well elsewhere. There were those who stayed, and for good reason: the work was pretty decent. The bugbear with the department was that in the early days, at least, it didn’t get a terribly good reception from the rest of the organization. The new management has improved this, although there’s still some way to go. For me, it way it turned out was that what seemed like a truly terrible road to ruin in the beginning slowly morphed into slow but steady and respectable levels of progress. I won’t rule out going back there for a short stint in the future if I have to return to Singapore.


Thursday, June 13, 2013


As I start to write this post, it’s not over yet, but it nearly is. And I’d also have to deal with another set of challenges, like starting work in a very different environment from University of Mexico. Work is very different from studying.

There were very different types of masters, and I wish that I had closely researched what I was going to do before I came here. I only managed to earn my masters after almost two years here. If I had taken my masters part time in Labyrinth Uni, I would roughly be finished around now. It would not have made any difference. But my grades would have been a little crappy. I don’t know if I would have liked that. I would have a lot more money in the bank than now, that’s for sure.

There were a lot of other good universities which offered masters in Computer Science – all of them competitive, of course. Some unis did not offer masters’ degrees, only PhDs. Some offered only part time master’s degrees, and their classes were on evenings and weekends. Some offered degrees that could be completed in one year, but I don’t know what the stress would have been like. In a way I’m not that happy that this took that long to complete, but in a way I’m glad that I had enough time and space to raise my level of computer science knowledge to the level where it was reasonably certain that I could get employed. If I had to do it all in the space of one year, I might not have succeeded, although one of my friends was pretty dismissive of the possibility of failure: “this is a market where computer science is king. How can you not get employed with a postgrad degree in computer science? If you can’t find work, nobody can find work.”

Ultimately you can only study in one place at a time. In the end, I studied in a place much further south of Snowy Hill, and therefore very different. I had talked to people, and I found out that there were quite a few people who had problems finding work in IT nonetheless. Many of them were not English speakers. The Indians and the Americans had no problem. It was the people from China who struggled. And I’ve heard stories where people from China would employ people to pump up their credentials for them so that they could enter the masters’ programs here. The people from China were of varying levels of ability – most were at least above average students, but a few definitely lacked an extra level of insight and technical sophistication. But I have to take my hat off to them, because if all the lessons were conducted in Mandarin, I don’t know how I would have survived.

I still remember the last months in Singapore where I kept on asking people for advice, and wondering if I should make this change to my life. I didn’t know anything. I had never changed jobs before. I did not have an undergraduate degree in computer science. I had never worked in the USA. I only knew that the USA had a high unemployment rate and I thought that it was unlikely that I would find work here. I was just lucky that I was studying a recession-proof discipline. It did not really make sense to give up one or two years’ worth of earnings, and enroll in a university where I had to pay much higher tuition. And it only dawned on me six months into my studies that if I didn’t work in the US for one or two years after graduation, I would probably have wasted my money.

The master’s project was a tetchy experience for many. Many years ago, all master’s students had to submit to a comprehensive exam which tested you on the core subjects. And then it was replaced by a project, where you had to submit a report. If the master’s thesis was a mini-PhD, the project was a mini master’s thesis. So on paper, it shouldn’t have been a very stressful thing.

But it was. There were a few things that made it stressful. It wasn’t stressful if you were American. You could work with a startup starting from whenever, and you could work part-time with them and finish up your master’s whenever. For a foreigner, it would have been much more difficult because they would only give you a work permit when you completed the master’s. So the passing of the master’s degree was almost a matter of life and death.

The other thing is that the University of Mexico was a public university, and at the same time it has to maintain pretty high academic standards. So the professors are overworked and underpaid. They’re not going to enjoy having to take care of two or three master’s students knocking on their door all the time. I’ve looked after master’s students before, and I know how much work that is. You have to brief them, tell them why their ideas are stupid, tell them what could be done.

I had spent a few hours with a grad student, and then afterwards he left San Diego. We had weekly meetings over Skype, with the professor. But the professor never said anything – I think he did just enough to not be accused of negligence. The grad student (actually, the newly minted PhD) did not completely understand what I was doing. He clarified a few things, but he never really understood my work. So a lot of the time it was a one man show. Yes, the professor gave me the data, and pointed me to a supercomputer that I could use, but that was about it. I was thrown into the ocean in order to teach me how to swim.

Standards are higher now. Twenty years ago, you could reasonably say that you were stuck, and that you needed the help of somebody more knowledgeable in order to help your solve your problems. Now there would be no excuse. All your answers are googlable. Everything you will ever need to know is available somewhere else on the internet. There is absolutely no excuse for ignorance, no excuse for failure. What needs to be developed is the ability to find the answers whenever you are stuck. It’s the next closest thing to real life.

There was a form, for the professor to sign to indicate that he was satisfied enough with your project in order to graduate. And there would be a little power struggle concerning that form. I’ve come to understand the significance of that form. There were a few times when I’ve had to convince my professor to sign a few other forms and he was a little suspicious that I was sneaking in “that form”. Actually they were immigration forms, or requests to study part time.

It was a little fishy that people were reaching a point, three weeks before the end date of graduation, without really knowing for sure that they were going to graduate at that point. I had a job offer waiting for me, and I obtained it after a fair amount of hard work, and the thought that it could be taken away from me because “that form” was not signed was fairly stressful. I suppose it was their way of enforcing standards and making sure that students did not skimp on writing a good report.

But without the help of the professors, mind. Like you could send them stuff, and they wouldn’t be able to respond to you because they are running two labs, the CEO of some other start up, organising weekly talks, flying to conferences, sitting on committees, teaching classes, and raising families on top of all that shit. They work on such a brutal schedule that you feel kinda bad just asking for a few minutes of their time.

Towards the end, I was talking to a few of my fellow master’s students. Many of them, to my relief, had managed to finish the work in one term, although very typically, they had first made contact with the professor one term before that. There was one of them who was taking a fairly heavy course at the same time that he was doing the project. And he only started meeting the professor at the start of the term. We were both working on Hadoop projects, but at least he had access to a supercomputer account that had dedicated clusters set up for him to do his computing. My account was more akin to a public computer, and every single time I ran a program, I had to get the system to give me the nodes, set up the system, run it, and then shut down the system. I still remember the half a week I spent trying to unfuck that system, turning over every stone, cursing and swearing every step of the way until I got all the kinks ironed out. Unfucking a distributed system is no joke, because you don’t really know where to look for all the log files, you look at a whole bunch of scripts and you don’t really know how they work and what you’re supposed to change. Ultimately, I managed to succeed. Which is good because that was the basis for at least half of my project.

Another guy I had met on the last week told me that he still hadn’t written the paper. He was panicking over it. His professor would meet him on the last day, and go through the editing, and only after that would he be allowed to submit the paper. My professor never did that for me. But I do suspect that it has something to do with the way I work: I usually notice that my supervisors end up getting me to do all the stuff myself, and give up on managing me. There are usually two reasons for this: first, I don’t usually do what I’m told to do, and secondly when I do it my own way, I usually get fairly decent results. It is difficult to read engineering papers. The intellectual content is not that difficult. What’s really difficult is that all the elements, all the stuff that everybody is familiar with, is combined in a fairly novel way that makes it difficult to follow. It’s like opening the hood of an engine for the first time, and figuring out how things work. The mechanic who built the engine knows it right away. The poor guy who has to read that paper is your professor, and he has a million and one other things to do. That’s one reason why engineering is so difficult, and why it’s usually a bottom up effort, rather than a top down. Because it’s quite rare that a boss can master all the details from the top to the bottom.

Anyway a few days ago I bumped into a fellow masters student who was rushing through the last few experiments for his report. He told me that he was trying to solve a few problems. Obviously I had met him just as he had finished struggling with those problems, and he was nerdy enough to think that those were things that other people would be concerned about. But he was describing a simulation, and when he talked about certain things that were not initialized because some data that should have been loaded wasn’t loaded, I knew exactly what he was talking about. He also said that sometimes you change something, and it runs faster / slower. So you report that. But you very quickly run into trouble because you can’t explain why. Believe me, I’ve dealt with a great amount of that bullshit.

When I got my professor to sign that form, it was a very weird meeting. The due date was Friday. On Monday, I met him to talk about my project, and he told me to prepare a presentation, and he told me to change certain things in my report. On Wednesday, I wanted to meet him, but he wasn’t around. I decided to hang around the computer science building instead. When I went around the master’s student’s lounge to hang out, I bumped into other people and I heard about their stories. Sometimes I wondered what it would have been like to work with other people for my project work. I had deliberately closed myself off to other people to concentrate on my work. Sometimes I would lock myself up in my own room. With the blinds drawn down. But eventually I would get into a rut where I was just aimlessly surfing the internet, so I would have to get out of that room and go somewhere else to work. Other times I would go to the main library. Or some random student lounge. Or some random café. It didn’t matter where I was since I was accessing the supercomputer by remote. But I very seldom worked in the computer science building. Maybe I was sick of that place. Or maybe I just felt that meeting people distracted me from my work. But during that day I did bump into quite a few people I knew. And I wondered what working with people would be like.

I had been up since midnight. I worked on my slides from midnight until noon. I had this funny habit of just stewing on my juices, and not writing any words, until – bang, I would start writing for hours at a stretch. Then after I was exhausted, another period of apparent inactivity would follow. I don’t know if that was typical. I felt that I had to make sure that I met my prof. So I went over to check his office every half an hour. Finally, at around five, he was in, but then he was talking to the other people in his startup. He saw me and suggested that I wait outside his office. So I camped in the corridor, a little too distracted at the noise coming out of it to really work on editing my stuff. An hour passed, and then a woman walked into the room. And then walked out. The guys who were talking to him – I knew one of them – one of them came and told me that the professor just got news that his mother had died. At this point in time, he was in his office, speaking in his native language over the phone. Then he finished the conversation. He asked me to hand over the form, and then he signed it without saying anything else.

So this was totally crazy. I had just spent half a day wondering what it would have been like to have done my project in a different way, or to go through my graduate studies in a different way. There had been maybe two or three months of massive anxiety when I was always saying, “tell me how it ends”. And this is how it ends: the professor has a situation, and he’s in a bad shape, and he doesn’t want to see me anymore, and therefore he signs the form so that I leave him alone. Great!

After this, I turn to the graduate student. I wrote him an email, telling him thanks and oh by the way, the professor’s mum just died, just so you know. I also added that I had made a mistake in undertaking this project: I should not have been working on this project because there were two people – the one who was in Mexico was not interested in the project, and the one who was interested in the project was not in Mexico.

And then he wrote back to me telling me that he was also quite disappointed about how much face time he got with his professors. He thought that his professors would be more caring, but it didn’t turn out to be the case. And he felt that having to work on things on his own was a great character building exercise. He told me that it was very difficult to work with the top names in the field, because they always expected the world of you.

And I thought, OK, fine. But what I felt that he neglected, and what I also neglected was the possibility of hooking up with your peers – the other students in the lab. Getting ideas from other people, and learning from other people. I could have gone onto a mode of operations where I was mainly thinking about getting professors to sign my forms. First I would have to work on myself, in order to be good enough to discuss things with other people. Then the second step would be to work with peers, in order to be good enough to have things worth showing to other professors. Then it would be time to tackle the big guns. That was something that I had done during my work time. I strenuously avoided talking to big bosses until I was sure that I wouldn’t be found wanting in front of them. I always stayed under the radar until I became good enough. But that approach can also be rightly criticized as being too anti-social.

When you leave a great university, like University of Mexico, or Snowy Hill, there are always a thousand and one things where you think that you could have done differently. There will always be tons of things that you didn’t do. It’s just a matter of whether these amount to what people would consider “regrets” or not.

The professors who were examining me were interesting. One of them was an artificial intelligence professor, and I had taken one of his courses before. He was a tough grader. People routinely hand out As like candy in grad school, because they don't want your courses to get into the way of your research. But he was pretty demanding in that course. And I know that during academic seminars he would always ask all the questions. The other professor was even worse: I had never had much contact with him because he was in an unrelated field, but I had heard stories about how he would conduct lab meetings during Sunday nights, and how he would call somebody in the middle of the night and ask that a few experiments would be run RIGHT NOW. So I wasn't really looking forward to the examination. The most interesting thing is that the second professor's son would be serving as a summer intern under the AI professor, and he would be working on a topic that was similar to mine. Fuck my life. My advisor had told me that it's very rare that a person fails the master's exam - it almost never happens. But I was not totally looking forward to this experience.

However on the day itself, I maybe did not get as much sleep as I could have. The day before, it struck me that I was this close to passing my masters. Yes, my prof had already signed the thing off, but until then I had been tying up loose ends. So when I had all the stuff wrapped up, I just sat back and thought for a while - it was such a beautiful day in Mexico. Although my life in the University of Mexico would come to an end. I was 99% there. But not there yet. It was like running 42 km of a marathon, and the finish line is JUST THERE... but there's still the last 200m. And it involved waking up on time and turning up to the exam.

It wasn't a bad experience. It turned out that the guy whom I guessed was the first examiner was wrong. It was somebody else, and I knew that guy. I had once tried to take a big data class before, and it required me to pass an interview with the professor - I suspected that the professor did that because he had limited number of accounts on the supercomputer. But he decided to deny me access to the course.

The presentation went smoothly. I had rehearsed what I was going to say. I usually hate doing this but I did it anyway. The second professor, the Mr tough guy was in a cordial mood. He asked me if I were a Singaporean, because he could detect my accent. I was. In fact, I was wearing a red t-shirt and white pants that day, but later put on a blue sweater because it was too crass. I could have pulled off my sweater there and then and told him, "I'm wearing my national colours today! For good luck!". The presentation went smoothly. Or at least I could see that those two were not trying to give me a hard time. They asked questions that were not that difficult. I had an answer for everything. And in the end, the first professor said, OK, very good. Pass. And he was nice enough to add that he would have changed his mind about not allowing me to take that course. But of course it's too late now. So this was the end. It was really the end. Like I would not attempt to earn another academic degree ever again. My formal education, which started with my first day in kindergarten, was really over. And I could now carry on with the rest of my life.


Sunday, June 09, 2013

Poetic Justice

I suppose for the last few years, there hasn’t really been any football results where people have felt that it was an outrage. Last year, Man City won their first league title for 40+ years and most people were happy with that. Chelsea probably didn’t deserve to win the Champion’s league that year but many people were happy. Chelsea had been denied the chance to win the Champion’s league a few times before, most notably in 2008 and 2009, so it was good that they finally won it. They were happy for Liverpool to win the league cup, because of all their other troubles. This year, they’re quite happy for Bayern Munich to win the champion’s league, in spite of Borussia Dortmund being the fairy tale favourite, because they failed twice in the final, against Inter and Chelsea. The EPL was won by Manchester United to give Alex Ferguson a fitting send off, although there was the mischievous suggestion by Arsene Wenger that they bought Robin Van Persie, in contradiction to their normal policy of not buying older players, because Alex Ferguson badly wanted to win the league in his last year. The FA Cup was won by Wigan in a fairy tale.

There was a great achievement in 1999 for Sir Alex Ferguson to have won the treble. It was an incredible feat because they were all narrow victories. English sides have won the champion’s league four times and all four times were narrow victories in the final, although in 2008, the runner’s up would also have been English. It was a very intense and romantic treble because all three trophies were won by narrow margins. It took an incredible goal by Ryan Giggs to knock Arsenal out of the FA cup, it took a performance of a lifetime by Roy Keane to turn the champion’s league semi-final against Juventus, and it took two incredible injury time goals for Man U to beat Bayern. The league went down to the wire against one of the greatest Arsenal sides. But the fact is that it is very difficult to achieve the treble with an English side. The Man U side were unlucky against Portsmouth in 2008, when an arguably better team could have beaten them – there was no way that Man U could have lost the subsequent matches against WBA and Cardiff.

There have been two more trebles in the subsequent years. Barcelona achieved it in 2009, but it took some pretty dodgy refereeing and a Didier Drogba tirade to knock Chelsea out. Barcelona, though, only had to contend with a two horse race. In Spain you have your Valancias, your Athletico Madrids, your Sevillas, and your Bilbaos who can win the Europa leagues occasionally. But they aren’t like Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. Inter’s win was more remarkable. But there are mainly only the three big clubs. This is not the Serie A of the late 80s and early 90s where you had your Romas, Parmas, Lazios, Sampdoria and Fiorentinas actively competing for the title every single year. As recently as 08-09, you had a season when Wolfsburg, Bayern, Stuttgart, Berlin, Hamburg and Dortmund all fighting for the title, but for the last few seasons, it’s turned into a two horse race – only Dortmund and Bayern are in it. And for all you know, Bayern could achieve the treble next week.

What happens next will be very interesting. It used to be that the big four was Man U, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, from 2004 to 2009, with Liverpool dropping out of the top 4 just once – but they qualified for the Champions league anyway because of a freak win. Then after a year of transition during which Tottenham qualified for the Champions league, it’s been Man City, Man U, Arsenal, Chelsea ever since. But since Alex Ferguson has gone, things have gotten more interesting. The contenders for the champions league places are, realistically, Liverpool and Tottenham, other than those other four mentioned above. Alex Ferguson left behind Man U in a very good position, but there is always the chance that Chelsea or Man City or even Arsenal could mount a serious challenge for the title next season.

The paradox of the English Premier League is that it may not be very good at producing young English players. The academy systems of the EPL clubs don’t produce a lot of young talent. The Tom Cleverleys and the Phil Jones are pretty rare. Chelsea’s youth team system is a joke, and Mourinho has never been good at bringing young talent up the ranks. Wenger’s so-called youth policy consists more of scouting around for young talent from other clubs (Fabregas, Flamini, Walcott, Clichy). But they’re very good at attracting good managers. They’ve attracted Moyes, Ferguson, Wenger, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Hiddink, Benitez, Mancini, Villas Boas and now Pellegrini from other countries. And even there is a new batch of talented coaches at the mid level: your Paul Lamberts, Brendan Rodgers, Steve Clarkes, Michael Laudrups, Roberto Martinezs, Nigel Adkins, Sam Allardyces, Chris Houghtons and Alan Pardews. Never has the English Premier League been so full of promising managerial talent as right now.

That said, it’s pretty remarkable that in a short space of time, 3 out of 4 of the longest managerial reigns in the EPL have been cut short: Alex Ferguson, Tony Pulis and David Moyes (although he was moving up to Man U). That means that only Arsene Wenger would be left among the long reigning managers. But that could mean that Arsene Wenger might finally be ready to end his “coming in fourth every year is in itself a trophy” and actually make a real push for titles. After all, since he last won the FA cup in 2005, Portsmouth, Birmingham, Swansea and Wigan have won trophies, and Arsenal has had nothing.