Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Harry's Island on Harry's Island

Taken from: Eighth Wonder submits $5.5b bid for Sentosa Integrated Resort

Eighth Wonder submits $5.5b bid for Sentosa Integrated Resort

SINGAPORE: The final bidder for Sentosa's Integrated Resort project, Las Vegas-based Eighth Wonder, revealed its S$5.5 billion plans to develop what it calls "Harry's Island" on Tuesday.

Eighth Wonder's Chairman Mark Advent intends for Harry's Island to be iconic, creative and one-of-a-kind.

He has lined up an international star-studded cast to work with him in developing the Sentosa project.

"There is a spirit that is special about Sentosa regardless. It is an amazing place. It is a lush tropical serene paradise, and now it is evolving as a place for commerce, hospitality, residential and, ultimately in the future, an integrated resort," Advent says.

"So it's a very fine balance to figure out that place where all of these different elements could co-exist in a manner that is sensitive to all. Ultimately, when you isolate it into an integrated resort directive, there is a huge opportunity to create world-class excitement, entertainment, must-see appeal just by the type of project we are proposing," he adds.

When completed, Harry's Island will have 10 world-class, luxury and family-oriented hotels.
I wonder about the provenance of the proposed name...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Education in the old days

I remember doing a compulsory social science module as an undergraduate and I had to write a paper on education and economic development in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s. As part of the research, I went to a dark musty corner the Central Library where they stored Singapore related materials and went over the educational statistics. When I looked the educational statistics of ASEAN countries, one thing that immediately struck me was that Singapore did not actually do a very good job of providing basic education services to its people from the 50s up to the 80s. Part of the blame should really be laid on the British but even after independence, Singapore lagged behind countries like the Phillipines and even Vietnam in some respects. For example, the percentage of Singaporeans in each batch in the 70s and 80s who completed secondary school is astonishingly low. Things only started to improve significantly in the mid-80s but by then, it would be fair to say that a large number of people left school undereducated and minimal education. Back in those days, relatively few people had any kind of post-secondary education (VTI, polytechnic, university).

Some people would say that Singapore could not afford to provide large-scale secondary and post-secondary education back then. It is quite hard to believe that claim, considering that Singapore has always been in the top three in Asia in terms of per capita GDP even before independence. We were not that poor to start off or else immigrants from China and India would not have settled here in the old days. Further more, even South Korea and the Phillipines, which had and still have lower per capita GDP and large rural agricultural populations, did considerably better than Singapore.

If you look at the statistics here, the average person in the 25-29 age category in 1984 had only 8.5 years of schooling, which means that he/she probably didn't even finish secondary school. Twenty years later, in 2006, this means that the majority of people in the 45-50 category are undereducated and lack qualifications, such as basic English skills. That would not have been fatal in the 90s when manufacturing jobs did not require too many qualifications and you could earn a decent living as a factory operator. However, manufacturing jobs in Singapore are rapidly being outsourced and the new jobs created in Singapore are in the services sector where you do need at the very very least a basic high school education. If you see where I am going, it is not so difficult to see why there are so many middle-aged people who find it hard to get employment opportunities in the current job market in Singapore despite the tight job market (or so we're told).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

NUS - 19th in the THES ranking

I wanted to comment on this but got sidetracked by some work. Anyway, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) world ranking of universities came out a couple of weeks ago. As many would know, Singapore's NUS got into the top 20 again and thereby, proving that it is better than inferiors like Johns Hopkins University, ETH Zurich, Ecole Polytechnique and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Really? Let's take a closer look. Of course, if you look at the breakdown of the scores, which is available at the THES website for subscribers, you will realise that NUS does very well in criteria like 'international faculty', 'international students' and 'peer review' and rather poorly on things like 'citations per faculty'.

In terms of international faculty and international students, NUS and NTU have some of the highest scores. However, the high marks given are misleading. Allow me to explain why. In most universities, the presence of international students is regarded as a good thing because they correlate to the quality of the university. The general idea is that the better the university is, more foreign students would be willing to pay the extra fees to go there. For example, a Singaporean students looking to study in the US would generally prefer to go to the best place he or she qualifies for given the very high cost of education. People naturally prefer some place like Berkeley or MIT over Podunk University, if they can get in. The idea is that since you're paying so much for your education, you would want a place that gives you more bang for your bucks. Therefore, it is quite natural for THES to accord a significant positive weight to the number of foreign students in a university since most universities do not go out of their way to bring in foreign students just for the sake of bringing them in.

Of course, the situation is not like that in Singapore. NUS and NTU have a large number of foreign students not because of any intrinsic superior quality of their education but because the government effectively bribes a large number of foreign students with subsidised tertiary education and scholarship to study there. So, you see, the legions of foreign students in NUS are not a testimony to how great the university is but are really there because people are financially incentivised to go there. If you remove that component of that score, I suspect that NUS and NTU's rankings will drop drastically because few people would go to NUS paying full fees. That is not quite so for other universities such as LSE or UNSW with very high scores for international students. Foreign students go there paying full fees. Hence, their presence is a reliable indicator of the quality of these universities.

If you look at the 'citations per faculty' score, NUS does badly, which indicates that the quality of their research is not commensurate with their ranking. Of course, this ranking is not merely about the research performance of universities. Also, the 'citations per faculty' has a time lag factor and is calculated by looking at citation records from ESI over a 5-year period. To be fair to NUS, if there was a quantum leap in the quality of its research in the last two or three years, the ranking would not reflect that although it would show up in the ranking in 2009, provided that the same ranking criteria were used.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Work and more work

I foresee a busy time with work this weekend... like any other weekend in grad school so far. The things to do list looks like:

  1. Do limiting cases for the thermodynamics in the new formalism. More number crunching.
  2. Read, no, study a couple of review papers. See if there are any possible thesis topics.
  3. Homework.

I have been working through the field theory notes and find the whole business of Dirac spinors to be quite tedious. Everything is fine when you do a Wick rotation to make get a Spin(4,0) from a Spin(3,1) because with a Spin(4,0), you can pretend it has a tensor representation i.e. SU(2) x SU(2) and then use the familiar spin-1/2 formalism. Of course, when you have to go back and work with Spin(3,1), things become a little more complicated because the representation no longer be block diagonal with independent blocks and you have all the rules with the gamma matrices to ensure that you recover the correct Lie algebra and transformation properties for Spin(3,1), generators and all. Just everything is just about 2x2 representation about the homogeneous Lorentz group...

Researchwise, the 'oomph' value in my project has been largely exhausted after a couple of months. It is not likely to be of any use a thesis topic. I will probably have to ask for another project or think of one myself. Hence, I will have to go through the papers. Since there is no job waiting for Fox after getting a PhD, unlike the bonded sojourners from Buona Vista, I need to do a thesis with substance, a mother of all theses.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Finding Jobs in the Life Science

There is a piece in Today on the difficulties recent Life Science graduates from NUS encountered in finding Life Science jobs.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. During my time in NUS, the enrollment in the LS programme probably doubled with all the hype. A great number of people wanted to study LS because of the better job prospects, with the seemingly intimate relationship between LS and biotech, not because of any great passion for biology. Well, it turns out that they were wrong about the employment prospects. The biotech sector in Singapore at the moment does not need so many LS B.Sc. holders. It needs LS graduates with advanced degrees. Sorry, there aren't even enough test-tubes to go around for people to wash.

What did these people from LS expect? The whole point of having a biotech industry is for Singapore to resist the economic competition from China and India and the only way to do that is for Singapore's economy to develop niches. This means that jobs that require specialised skills will have to be created and taken up by people with those skills. At the level of a bachelors in LS or any science for that matter, there isn't much specialisation. Advanced training is required. If you really want to a LS job with a LS bachelors, then go and get a really good honours degree.

The problem is that the biotech industry really needs people with PhD qualifications or at the very least, people with masters or even good honours. For a LS graduate with only a pass degree or a lower honours, it is difficult, if not impossible, for him/her to find a job in the biotech industry. This is not the case for the other established 'high-tech' industries in Singapore like wafer fabrication plants. Even if you have only a pass or 3rd-class honours degree in engineering/science, you can still find work in the industry. I have been told that one needs only very basic knowledge of semiconductor science. I know a EE graduate who specialised in computer engineering in NTU but still found a job as a process engineer in a wafer fab despite knowing next to nothing about the industry.

Therefore, we can see that a mediocre engineering graduate can find an engineering job that does not require a great deal of technical skill but a mediocre LS graduate is going to have trouble finding a LS-related one. This also means that the competition-resistance level of many engineering jobs in Singapore is probably low, since they require only superficial technical abilities, and thus, are at higher risk of being moved to other countries. But the upside is that there are plenty of such jobs are around. The more specialised positions in the biotech industry have a far lower risk of being moved overseas (which is obviously why the government is promoting the industry), at least for now, but are scarcer.

For me personally, when I went into physics, I knew that it would be even more difficult to get a physics-related (teaching, semiconductor, research, radiology, meteorology, scientific programming, etc) job when I graduate. A bachelors is next to useless for any job that required specialised skills although it is perfectly fine for other non-technical positions. The stakes were high and I knew that I had to get into graduate school. I calculated my odds and then worked my balls off so that I could go to graduate school.

Of course, I don't go to graduate school just for the better prospects, if it were any good in the first place. I do it because I enjoy doing and learning physics immensely. That's why I went into physics in the first place although I could have gone into engineering or law with my grades (I did get into law but that's another story...). But you have to acknowledge that a career in science can be chancey espcially in a country like Singapore. There are no shortcuts in life and taking up a degree just because of the hype is a surefire way to set up oneself for disappointment.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Welcome, children of the corn...

The department is cutting down its intake of students primarily because people here take far too much time to finish their degrees (I heard one guy took 14 years) and the graduate population has bloated substantially over the years to nearly 300 although you probably couldn't have known by just poking around in the department. A great number of grad students don't work in physics proper but in materials science, multi-disciplinary stuff, ECE, chemistry, etc. We're probably one of the biggest departments in the country - 'big' like Jabba the Hut though.

As a result, one unintended side effect is that the department is actually becoming more selective. They admitted 50 new grad students out of 500 applicants. In terms of GRE subject scores, the average score for the entering class was pretty competitive at 873. That, incidentally, is higher than the scores for Stanford or Chicago. I can't understand why all those high-scoring idiots would come to a place like this. Perhaps, they feel some affinity for corn.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What was I doing at 22?

It was the 22nd birthday of K, one of the undergrads, a couple of days ago on Sunday. So, happy birthday to her.

A Singaporean grad student asked me what was I doing when I was 22. I remember spending quite a bit of time in the games room in Yusof Ishak on video games and pool and, of course, when I was not working, studying my balls off so that I would have a shot at a decent graduate school overseas. I was essentially the library regular that had to be chased out of the library at 9:55pm on weekday nights and got my vitamins from coffee, cigarettes and char siew rice.

A lot of my time was just spent in the library, reading and working through advanced texts in physics and mathematics in an unguided and haphazard way, turninging pristine textbooks dog-eared. I still have my tattered copies of Dettman, Marsden, Schwabl, Reitz-Milford-Christy, Hassani, Griffiths, Singleton, etc and the notebooks filled with exercises and detailed solutions. Along the way, I must have mowed down about 80 percent of the problems in R-M-C as well as gone through two-thirds of Hassani's 900-page graduate textbook on mathematical physics. I remember working through in detail the first half of Schwinger's QM textbook and contributed substantially to the errata of the first edition since one of the author is a professor in my alma mater. (Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge my contributions.) Most of my knowledge in physics and math I accumulated during my undergrad days came from my own reading and self-study. I don't recall learning much from classes except during my honours year when there was some stuff I had not seen before.

Regretfully, I probably didn't have as much 'fun', in a social way, as most of my peers in university though. Professional dedication does require some sacrifice and I paid my dues.