Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Give that man a Tiger

I was chatting with my boss the other day during lunch. His route to academia is rather unusual.

As an undergraduate, he went to a lesser-known public university because it was near home and his working-class family was poor. The 70s was a difficult time for many working-class families especially when factories were closing down in the US and blue-collar jobs were outsourced, ironically, to places like Singapore. The first time he had steak was after he had left home to attend college. In college, he survived on two dollars a day - 40 cents for a can of peas, 75 cents for a can of tuna and the rest on rice and pasta - so that he didn't have to work during the regular semester and could concentrate fully on studying. He worked fulltime in summer to pay for his expenses. He did say something about joining a fraternity though. People with his family background and gifts usually don't think about taking up a major in a dangerously unremunerative field, much less go to grad school. At least, a Singaporean of that background wouldn't go down that road.

After he got his basic degree, he stayed on in the same university to finish his PhD for family reasons and got his PhD in 3.5 years, followed by a very productive postdoctoral stint in Britain before he moved to a respectable national lab on the west coast where he stayed for 10 years. Most people in his shoes wouldn't think about going into academia, much less one in a competitive top-tier research university, especially when they are free to stay in a research environment where funding is not a problem and life is less hectic. Oh, the weather is a hell lot nicer on the west coast.

After 10 years in the national lab, he moved to a top-tier research public university in rural central Illinois (i.e. middle of nowhere) to be an assistant professor, essentially working his way up the ranks. Today, he's an APS fellow, a full professor with appointments in three departments, two of which are ranked in the top 3 in their fields and a top honcho in his research specialty. And he still finds time to coach his son's little league team.

Frankly, I find that amazing and inspirational. I believe that, very often, people, especially I, are only held back by their insecurities and their lack of achievements are only a consequence of the unwillingness to look past the hand that fate has dealt them and move on to achieve greater things. Everyone has dreams. It's a matter of whether we dare to believe in them or not.

I must work harder. Bloody harder.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

GEP is no more

MOE has decided to close down the GEP in secondary schools although the programme will still be run in at the primary school level.

Although it has been more than a decade since I left the programme which was conducted in a premier secondary school in the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio area, I still remember my days in the GEP with some fondness. Back then, the GEP was a highly exclusive (i.e. elitist) programme which only admitted about 0.4 percent (~200) of each cohort. Strangely, during my time, the sex ratio in the GEP was highly skewed with the number of males outnumbering the number of females by a ratio of two to one.

Looking back, I find the GEP curriculum to be of no more use to me than the express-stream curriculum is of use to the average express-stream student. We sure had a lot of enrichment programmes, which I did and still do not appreciate, and plenty of academic projects in the humanities and the sciences to take up our time. In retrospect, I would say that those projects probably did not play a very formative role in my intellectual development since I had neither the academic inclination nor the maturity to take advantage of them; I was too preoccupied with other things that adolescents of that age were usually preoccupied with at that time, perhaps considerably more so than many of my peers in the programme. A consequence of that style of education was that I was put off serious academic/intellectual endeavours for most of my adolescent years. Things only changed after JC...

Although the curriculum had no effect on me, being in a programme surrounded by many very smart people had a tremendous influence on me. It was only after I had left the programme, when I joined the premier pre-university institution in the Ghim Moh area that I realised how intellectually capable most of my peers in secondary school were, even compared to the average student in the institution. Having classmates like them meant that everyone had to share a smaller academic pie and people like me had to know my place. It was discouraging most of the times. Of course, the upside to it was that one got accustomed to a very high level of academic competition really quickly.

In the programme, we took for granted that everyone had a certain level of intellectual competence. It was no joke to sit in class side by side with people who would go on to top their classes in MIT or to win the only Math Olympiad gold medal for Singapore; it was a humbling experience. Like a good number of my peers in the programme, I believed that I was just stupid and not cut out for academic endeavours because I had to struggle to keep up with many of my classmates and was plain beaten. I don't think I have ever faced that sort of struggle to keep up even in grad school where I know people who come from Peking University, USTC, Cambridge, MIT, MIPT, etc. Then again, things were so different back then that a useful comparison cannot be made...

Another consequence of being in the GEP environment was that I learned to be quite independent and methodical in my approach towards learning something, out of sheer necessity to cope with the quicker people around me. In the GEP, independent learning was encouraged and most people could pick up things quite easily. I remember struggling to learn what a function and a Cartesian plot were in secondary one for a group project in math by reading it up from a textbook in the library. Some of the extra things we learned in class in lower secondary were quite delightful although most of them were over my head back then; I recall being introduced to basic probability concepts, matrices, injections, surjections and bijections, sets, etc.

One disadvantage of the GEP environment is that rote work was discouraged. The volume of homework in the GEP was somewhat smaller than that of homework in the express stream. I think the idea behind the reduced homework load was that 'normal' homework was less useful than doing projects and enrichment work for people in the GEP. Tests and exams were sometimes seen as a gauge of a person's brilliance and not as a measure of a person's to mastery some a certain content. I certainly had no self-discipline to sit down and to do the prescribed exercises, having soaked in the very much anti-work ethos. That, of course, changed later on.

As a result, I knew people who never got around to developing the disciplined capacity for the steady plodding work. It was a pity because I knew my share of brilliant people who could have profited from a more disciplined and systematic approach. I had a classmate in university who was also from the GEP but flopped his degee course because he was less than motivated to do his work. As a result, he ended up with a suboptimal honours class. In fact, a good number of GEP people whom I knew in NUS did not do well in their degree course. A lesson that I learned very early, outside of the GEP, was that an intelligent mind not properly supplemented by regular practice quickly loses its ability to work at a higher level. My only regret is that I never got to learn that lesson earlier during my school days.

Being in the GEP had its pros and cons. Overall, it was a positive experience although there were things that I had to unlearn as a result of being in the programme.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Invitation to meet PSC officials

Another great benefit to studying overseas, as opposed to studying locally, is that PSC officials from Singapore will go over to your university to let the Singaporean students, in their own words, 'learn more about new initiatives and opportunities available in the Singapore Civil Service'. They will even throw in a free lunch. Thus, I have conspired with a fellow Singaporean grad student to go enjoy the free food. The only problem is that I can't find my flip-flops and it will be too cold to wear bermudas to the lunch...

Also, Singapore banks - DBS, Standard Chartered, HSBC, etc - are trying to recruit students and working professionals in the US. The recruitment sessions are going to be held in posh places like a Hilton hotel as well as at selected campuses. That's another compelling reason why Singaporeans with the ability to leave should consider exiting the country - the country values you more when you're not in the country. I wonder if I would have even known of such things if I had not left Singapore then.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Something does not add up

Taken from the CNA article More jobs go to Singaporeans during good and bad times: MM Lee.

Max Lim, General Secretary, Singapore Bank Employees' Union, said: "Some of them are concerned, that they have to compete with more foreign workers, what if the day comes when there are not enough jobs to go around for everybody?"

MM Lee replied that in many retrenchments, the largest numbers affected were foreign workers, and when the jobs came back, the majority of them were taken by locals.

Wait a minute. If the foreign workers are the largest number affected in many retrenchments and the majority of the new jobs go to Singaporeans, then won't we see an increase in the proportion of locals in the Singapore workforce?

Notice how Max Lim's question was not answered directly in the article.

The graphs

"Do you ever sleep?" - Crazy postdoc in office.
The culmination of one summer - two graphs showing the covariance of the site probabilities of a 3-component ABC lattice gas. Will put in the error bars later.

I believe that I am the first to generalize the formalism successfully. Not bad for a summer's work.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Education and life

"You know, graduate school is like kindergarten for people who refuse to get a regular job." - Crazy postdoc in office.

I have been hacking away at the computer on my program for the last 12 hours, tweaking the parameters and debugging the code. Oh God, when will this end?

Was talking to a fellow Singaporean (FS) a couple of days ago. It went something like this.

FS: I'll be going back to Singapore to a suckcock job with a lousy pay.
Fox: Suckcock job? Don't you have an engineering masters? Won't your organization employ you in an engineering postition? At least you have a job after you graduate. When I graduate, I won't even know if I can find a job.
FS: The pay sucks. I also realized that I am not good enough to do R&D.
Fox: Why did you do engineering in the first place?
FS: It was my only chance to go overseas. There was no way I could have afford to study overseas without a scholarship.
Fox: Ahhh... I see.

I used to think poorly of people who took up scholarships for the money. I've always believed that people who did that were mercenary. To me, a scholarship, in the context of Singapore, is really an employment contract and taking up a scholarship means that a person is committed to a career in the organization. For example, if you have a SAFOS, you better like killing things with M-16; if you're an A*STAR scholar, you should ideally only sleep, breathe and eat science; if you're an MOE scholar, please love teaching. I know a GEP schoolmate with very good grades who took up a social work scholarship because he wanted to be a social worker - I have nothing but the highest admiration for people like him. On the other hand, I know of people who took up scholarships, local and overseas, just for the money and the job security. I don't feel comfortable with the notion of signing on just for the money. To me, a job is about commitment. I could never see myself as a civil servant so I basically ruled out government scholarships. (Not that I could have gotten one. Anyway, it was a good thing since I believe the tax-paying public is much better off without an idiot like me in the ranks of the civil service.)

Of course, that sort of idealism has to be tampered by a sense of reality. Many decent people take up scholarships because they did not want to burden their parents who are near retirement. My parents do make a comfortable living and probably won't become financially crippled when they retire. Coming from a middle-class family that could pay for my university education (although I had to work for my other financial needs), I don't think I have the right to judge people for making decisions based on financial considerations. I know of a few very bright people who took up scholarships by my ex-employer even though they could have done without it. They took it up because of the money which allowed them to financially support their parents. In this regard, I am just very lucky that my family can afford to let me pursue a PhD without being beholden to a Singapore sponsor.

I occasionally feel guilty that I am still in grad school, not in Singapore to take care of my family and don't have a regular job. I should be back at home to help out at home. It doesn't help that my elder sibling sometimes goes on prolonged spells of unemployment or semi-employment as a freelance programmer and that my younger sibling is taking the O-levels this year with the prospect of polytechnic becoming very real. Or that my parents have high hopes for me, at least academically speaking, since I was a child.

On the other hand, having worked in Singapore in a large research organization, I am convinced that my professional prospects there would have been poor, given my academic qualifications and the less than stimulating environment. Singapore is just too intellectually backwards and small for any cutting-edge research in the physical sciences.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Research note 1

Adding a constant shift term to the k-space components of a Fourier-transformed correlation matrix element only alters the zeroth component of the real space correlation matrix elements.

To recalculate Fourier components of correlation matrix.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Citizenship, Loyalty and National Service

The Kwayteowman has an article on 'Citizenship, Loyalty and National Service'. Here's a brief summary:

  1. He says that "citizenship and loyalty are orthogonal issues, though they are likely to be correlated". In other words, if you're a citizen, it doesn't mean that you're more likely to be loyal.
  2. He succintly defines loyalty in concrete terms: to "put Singapore's interests ahead of other nations", like reporting for mobilization in the even of a war, not badmouthing Singapore if you're overseas and joining in the civil debate if you're in Singapore.
  3. NS is a not about loyalty. It is a cost-effective way of maintaining a significant military. He also acknowledges that male Singaporeans would be better off without NS.

My comments:

Sure. Citizenship is a legal status. Loyalty is a choice. Unfortunately, as he mentions, most of us had no choice in our citizenship. There really isn't much for me to say on this issue.

The KTM is honest in saying that he is not sure what "put Singapore's interests ahead of other nations" actually means. I think that the main problem is in defining what Singapore's interests are. Obviously, security is an interest as evidenced by the need to for a military. He also mentions that if you're contributing to the economy by holding a job, you're being loyal. Hence, the state of the economy is also an interest. Personally, I think that there are other kinds of interests like social justice, a strong national identity, inter-racial harmony, etc.

NS is of course not about loyalty. But, in the country, it is sold as such. The burden of national defence falls disproportionately on a certain demographic group of the country: male Singaporeans. NS is highly unequitable even among Singaporeans. For example, naturalized Singaporeans over 27 need not perform NS. Female Singaporeans also don't have to. Handicapped people don't have to. The commonly given reason - a national myth really - why medically-fit male Singaporeans have to do NS at 18 is because it is some kind of national rite of passage for male Singaporeans to do their part for the country.

Once you move past the assoicated hubris about NS, then certain demographic group may start asking questions like: why do I have to pay more (2 years of my prime) for Singapore's national defence? In dollars and cents, they are penalized more than any other group. Cost-effectiveness and fairness are separate issues. NS as it is practised in Singapore is cost-effective but not equitable. For example, there can be a national defence tax on people who have not undergone some form of NS which will can be used to provide benefits and gratuities to people who have completed NS. That way, NS remains cost-effective but not inequitable. After all, national security is a public good enjoyed by everyone. People who do NS don't enjoy it more than people who don't.

Think of it another way: it's like people with O-type blood being asked to pay more for their hospital bills. Why should people pay more if they receive the same medical treatment? If people with O-type blood are paying more for their hospital bills, they are effectively subsidizing the non O-types.

Of course, the government is not going to implement a NS tax just for the sake of equity. Taxes in Singapore are generally considered anti-business and bad for the economy. Moreover, it is not going to add to the revenue of the government. Morally speaking though, I don't think anyone should have any objections to a NS tax though if you delink NS and loyalty.
So, NS has to be sold as an issue of loyalty so that a particular demographic group can bear the bulk of the burden of national defence.

Feeling poor

Fox is feeling very poor this month. You see, in the underfunded public midwestern university that Fox attends, graduate students are paid only 11 months per year for tax purposes and August is the month that he does not get paid. And the stipend here isn't exactly fantastic to start with, compared to what he could have received as a graduate student in a private university in upstate New York. *sigh*

To save money, he has converted his individual phone plan to a family plan with two other grad students, thus saving $30 per month. When one has to make do on $1250 per month over 12 months after tax, every dollar counts. It doesn't help that the price of gasoline is so high now.

On the bright side, the graduate education here is wonderful and better than he ever dared to hope.

Overseas Singaporeans

SQ, a fellow student in my lowly ranked underfunded midwestern university in rural American, has written an article for Singapore Angle on why the Singapore government should reach out more to overseas Singaporeans or something along those lines. Some of the things he talks about sound rather querulous and I can't quite understand what his point is, other than he hopes that the Singapore government makes more of an effort to 'bond' with overseas Singaporeans. He seems to hold the opinion that the government neglects overseas Singaporeans , especially university students, and has the propensity to view them as disloyal. I know of no specific examples to prove or disprove that.

Personally, having had the wonderful 'privilege' of doing my undergrad in a world-class Singapore university, I think that the government probably makes more effort to reach out to overseas students than local students in Singapore. Take me as an example: in my one year overseas, I've received more email notifications of job opportunities and internships in Singapore than in my four years in Singapore. Oh, this despite the fact that the current university that I attend has a lower ranking than my undergrad school.

Some of the points that do not make sense to me:

Often times, I hear from fellow overseas students commenting on the lack of positive recognition and support from the nation, which shouldn't come only after these students have become successful in the fields they specialize in.

Actually, even if you were a very bright NUS/NTU/SMU student, you also won't get a lot of 'positive recognition and support from the nation'. For example, PSC looks to Harvard, Cambridge, etc to recruit interns. How many local undergraduate from NUS/NTU/SMU have been invited to intern with PSC?

One such benefit from an active overseas Singaporean workforce is the lesser strain upon the local employment scene. The local talent pool has to face poor local support ranging from companies granting relatively lower salaries to them than to their overseas counterparts, plus having to face competition from the government's ever-beloved foreign talent, and on top of that, returning Singaporeans who have acquired broader skills, knowledge and overseas experience.

Erm, thanks for the 'benefit' of not seeking employment in Singapore. In any case, we can derive the same 'benefit' from the millions of Americans, Japanese, Germans, Brazilians, etc not seeking to work in Singapore. It doesn't take very much effort to not compete against the locals in Singapore for jobs when you are overseas.

Besides, why on earth would someone who has paid for an expensive overseas university education think about going back to Singapore from the US when professionals there easily make double or triple of what their counterparts in Singapore earn?

Since he acknowledges that 'relatively lower salaries' and 'harsh environment' in Singapore, I have my doubts that any element of altruism plays a significant role in the decision of the overseas-educated not to return to Singapore and compete with their locally educated brethen. People overseas are already having it better than their fellow citizens in Singapore, in terms of opportunities and rewards. Let's not rub it in for those who are still in Singapore.

While local branding in the global market is honorable, overseas Singaporeans should also be recognized for being a part of global big names such as Microsoft, Motorola, KPMG, Boeing etc.

I am not sure what kind of recognition that overseas Singaporeans want. A medal or a certificate, perhaps?

However, more could have been done to better encourage and facilitate these countrymen who have the opportunity and courage to venture beyond our local shores besides.

I also don't understand what he means by 'encourage and facilitate these countrymen' to venture overseas. Why should the government encourage people to go overseas for the sake of going overseas? If anything, the government should restrict people from going overseas since it is not cheap to subsidize the education of a Singaporean from primary school to university. A university graduate consumes about $75K of tuition grant by the time he graduates and if he leaves Singapore, he takes that amount with him to the other country. Sure, it is great for the individual when he gathers more experience and opportunities overseas but it is Singapore's loss when he leaves.

In any case, it is not that easy to venture overseas. For most people, they need some form of sponsorship - either from their companies or from their parents. A lucky few can go overseas because they have skills that the host country wants.

Don't get me wrong. I support the forging of stronger bonds between overseas Singaporeans and Singapore; I just don't think that they should clamour for more recognition and accolades just because they are overseas. Compared to their Singapore-based brethen, they already have it a lot better. I know because I was a local too.