Bringing my writings together

Probably for the first time in the history of my personal blogging, I’ve brought together all my writings under a single site. Since migrating to a self-hosted platform (though you probably won’t be able to tell), I’ve pulled in some of the even older pieces of writing I’ve put out on the internet. This includes blog entries written from as far back as 2005.

Looking through my entries, there was the period of 2011-2013 when I wasn’t so active probably because I was busy in LSE. It was probably a bit of a shame because those were some really formative years as well in terms of the development of my academic thinking and also integration of my faith into my intellectual identity. Perhaps I had wanted to keep things a bit more private. I would like to point out that those were also years when Tim Keller’s writings engaged my mind so much more.

The focus of my writings has certainly evolved significantly especially with the addition of topics around energy and climate. My passion for education and learning was more dominant earlier in my writing though I wouldn’t consider it to have died down from then. My interest in other topics had expanded.

I could have continued to keep my writings in different niches and have them separate but I realised that in some sense, they were reinforcing one another and were all products of my principles and conviction that drove me. After years of refinement, my conviction is still towards this broader theme of trying to create a future that we all want to live in. Whether it’s energy, education, sustainability or economic development, I am future-oriented and all for investing in what is to come.

Inquiry vs Education

A while ago, when I was still a student of a particular premier institution, I criticized how poor a particular subject department of the institution was. Ruiyuan told me when when I am done with my tertiary education in that subject, perhaps even after completing my PhD, I should write the department a letter to ‘thank’ them for inspiring me. My criticism at that time ranged from the quality of the teachers to the design of lecture notes as well as the general pedagogical approach adopted by the department. Note, of course, that this subject is a social science.

Perhaps I was too anxious, or that this issue have been with me for quite some time – I decided I should do a draft of the letter that I am about to send 8 years or so down the road. Matters then, (hopefully) might not be the same as the present but nonetheless, a nice draft should convince the future me that I took this matter very seriously. Here’s my draft:

To Whom It May Concern

We all know your department sucks, please do the following:

(1) Review your course material and provide more readings (or recommendation on additional readings). Use good English and make sure diagrams are well-annotated. Ensure that your chunks of text in the notes are really in point-form.

(2) Prevent wastage of lecture time by cutting down on the scolding of late-comers, starting lectures on time and removing the administrative need of marking attendance.

(3) Please teach concepts and theories and introduce the history of these discoveries as lesson progresses. Do not merely feed ‘answers’ to the questions you believe would come out for exams. Such ‘assessment-oriented’ approach do not imbue students with the desire to explore the subject for themselves.

(4) Do not make us memorize definitions just for convenience of the markers, it kills our passion for the subject. Focus on making us understand the subject and appreciate the predictive beauty of these theories.

Please consider my suggestion for the good of students passionate about the subject before entering our institution.

Thank you for your kind attention.


To save myself of trouble, I’ll probably be sending out the letter after ORD. Nonetheless, I hope to collect at least a hundred signatures from ex-students (my peers) who have done the subject to accompany the letter, as a demonstration that my letter do indeed holds majority opinion about the department in question. I would also welcome comments on modifying the letter to reduce the impression of an intentional, vicious assault of the department.

In Search of Stress

I realised that I have been doing things so much more slowly than in the past; while that means I savour the words of the books I read, it also mean that I am absorbing the knowledge more slowly. As I work on some simple HTML with some of the sub-sites of this domain, I once again feel that I am not working fast enough. A day is sometimes lost with me just doing 2 activity – reading a book (not even completing it) and chatting online. These are real unproductive times. I suspect that it’s the lost of a very structured stress system (ie. the education system and the rat race in action) that has to do with my decline in productive activity. It is scary how we may actually be tempted into this sort of comfort. I suspect it is the same sort of virus that inflicts the civil servants of the past and the teachers who taught us when we were kids. They are not directly faced with the rat race in the society, protected by the job security and income stability – the only threat was probably inflation, which is alas, well controlled by wage-restraints in the days of economy-building of Singapore.

Nevertheless the rat race must have some effect on everyone involved as long as one is connected to the rest of society and for me, it has influenced me through the fretting of university choices and courses to study. Actually course is more clear-cut to me, university is not because of my ability to pay and whether I even qualify for admission. In some universities, I am competing on the basis of my brains and excellence in demonstrable fields (with the rest of the world) because all applicants are such. Other universities would force me to compete on basis on my brains with a select bunch who are as poor as me and admission will lead me on to compete with those who are rich but not necessarily capable. You may have notice that I don’t seem to be looking out for university based on branding or quality of courses. However, my search for ‘competitive spaces’ would naturally fulfill those requirements.

If I am not wrong, Jack Welch once mentioned in some university’s commencement address that if you have no idea what organization to work for, just go for the branded ones. In the same vein, if you don’t know what university to get into, just go for the best that you can possibly afford. In the society, stuff like universities and organizations have positive network effects from name and by joining them, you benefit from an established social network, a ready pool of already successful people (often by ability but sometimes also because of the organization brand name). By searching for ‘competitive spaces’ or choosing who you want to compete with in the environment you are heading into, you naturally seek out that kind of brand that best suits you.

For those who wants to study local, I have an argument for going overseas, and to me, it is a powerful argument. In fact, I rather use another perspective and reduce the arguments for studying local. Yup, I’m going to say that convenience, security and safety are ‘pros’ only for the weak-willed and weak-minded. Nevertheless, I want to point out something in relation to ‘competitive spaces’ that local universities are unable to provide. Having been in the asian-styled examination based competitive system, I do not think that at tertiary level we should be continuing with that – we need a chance to be engaged in other levels of challenges and emphasize other platforms at which we complete. On top of the system that serves to structure the rat race, there’s the type of people as partners or competitors, which we will have to look out for when selecting the ‘competitive spaces’. Ask yourself whether you want to compete in a cohort made up of more or less the same people whom you have been fighting with the past 15 or so years. Yes, there is a change in composition of the entire cohort but remember that the experience of those around you if you study local would very much be the same as yours.

No doubt a decade or even less time down the road, Singapore may be cosmopolitan enough to support a diverse mix of people with different educational experience in the local universities – I do not question that, but I am thinking about here and now. Right now in selecting ‘competitive spaces’, one need not even look at local-foreign distinction – one simply have to select the sort of competition he hopes to be in for. Of course, due consideration still have to be given to the ability to pay and so on.

I seem to have diverged from my point about searching for stress to motivate myself, but that’s actually what I just did. I was exploring something that was simmering inside my mind too slowly. I had to write them out to get them clear. I have been trapped in my stream of thoughts about these issues sometimes because I either digressed into some self-discussion about the ethical dilemma schools may have if they are solely need-blind to students of their own country and not international students, or that I throw myself into a downward spiral of negative thoughts, questioning my ability to even compete against brilliant minds around the world. Right now, I just have to be more logical and rational with my approach and then force myself to work faster with the decision-making and research. Oh yes, and through this thinking as I write, I just introduced a new structured stress system to myself.

DIY Cleaning

I wanted to spend today making a plan of what I would do with the rest of my time before National Service but unfortunately (or fortunately, for those freaks out there), my mum got me to help out with cleaning the house. That means I have to help vacuum the walls, floor and ceiling corners, boxes areas; and clean the computer, all the tables and chairs in the house and change the bedsheets. I have got to help in any case, partly out of tradition and also because my mum needs it badly. As my mum decide to dump the old hi-fi speakers, I naturally decided to do some operation on it to extract the powerful magnet that is present in all of such sound-emitting devices. Unfortunately the screws used by that darn company is one with the strangest designs I ever seen, it was an ‘=’ sort of top.

As I appeared to be ‘slacking’ away and fiddling with the parts my mum started requesting me to get back to the cleaning because I am halfway through with the computers (which required me to remove all connections and clean the wires by running them one-by-one through a wet cloth). Frustrated with screws and my mum’s nagging, I rebutted her, saying that the reason why she’s always so tired and busy is because she spend so much time doing things the same old, inefficient way and none of her time exploring for new ways of doing things (the way I do). It dawned on me that this is very true – I mean I didn’t really think about it before and the point was merely a reaction to my mum’s nagging. Perhaps we have spent way too much time in our lives doing things we hate in ways that we hate but are forced to work on them. Other times, we pay those who have less degree of freedom to do the stuff, or maybe these people really like to do the work. If we were to just stop work and leave them alone, invest some time to explore other means of attaining similar results, or consider whether to scrap the entire activity all together, we may end up enjoying our lives more and benefiting mankind.

I’m of course not saying we devote all our energies into creativity and exploration and be in constant state of experimentation (like in the case of some screwed Institution doing some screwed Programme, which is ever-fine-tunning their stuff with radical measures). I’m suggesting we, as common people (as in we don’t consider ourselves innovators), lack the motivation to try and work things out differently.

Reading List for Anyone

I went to Kinokuniya Bookstore today and found a couple of non-fiction I have always been interested but enable to explore. The first is on Trachtenberg system of Speed Mathematics that is applied beyond multiplication. There’s another on Moscow’s mathematical puzzles. The more arts inclined people can try Feynman’s writings like ‘You’re surely joking, Mr Feynman’ or ‘Don’t you have time to think?’ or ‘Six-piece easy’ or ‘QED’ and many more.

As a pseudo-art-quasi-science student, I am also thinking of reading ‘Sophie’s World’ by Jostein Gaarder, whose price is slashed quite low since its first publication. I think I’ll be getting it soon. There’s another ridiculous book which I would consider to be the ‘Sophie’s World’ of the sciences and it’s titled ‘The Road to Reality’ by Roger Penrose. It’s going to be an amazing read for anyone, absolutely. It might well be more exciting than Sophie’s World if you are of the more mathematical type; I bet Yong Xian will be more interested in Penrose than Gaarder though Pei Shan will probably enjoy Gaarder so much more. I think I’ll want to read both books if I have time. Oh and Jieyee, I didn’t know you read my blog – try reading Penrose if you are still haven’t find your passion; if you hate him then maybe you are not so suited for Physical Sciences. Peng Sing, if you are tired of Feynman, you can switch to Brian Greene (he writes very well too).

Kwang Guan, just in case you still follow up with my blog, you might enjoy a bit more Current Affairs like The Economist’s World in 2008 (which currently cost SGD$25 and I am not considering purchasing it just for your information). Otherwise I think you’ll be interested in Jared Diamond though Feynman should do fine since you seem to be into Physics now.

Random Reflections

I’ve not been blogging, deceiving myself that I should spend more time absorbing ideas rather than expounding them. It’s kind of true I have been reading and perhaps obliquely due to Peng Sing’s discussion on Richard Feynman on his blog, I was curious and decided to try and read some stuff by Feynman. I also read a couple of stuff about ‘thinking’ for the sake of some projects I am planning to initiate. The process of reading these materials seem more passive than I previously expected – I wanted to look into what these people studying the processes of ‘thinking’ have been achieving. As a result, I carefully took in the different thinking tools and the rationale behind them. For some, I practiced the same thinking habits in vastly different ways and in other cases, I had actually been using them all the time (except not as formally as suggested by Edward de Bono). It was pretty exhilarating to realised that your own methods of doing stuff are actually the ones studied and proposed by experts to be ‘taught’ to others.

The reason for citing the reading I have been indulging as a ‘more-passive-than-expected’ process is that I didn’t seem to quite interact with the proposed ideas in the way I normally do. When reading Feynman, I no longer have that ‘nods with agreement’ experience I encountered with ‘The Elegant Universe’. Maybe I was expecting too much – like the Teh-Si from 136 香港街鱼头火炉 opposite Singapore General Hospital. I felt that they produce top-notch Teh-Si when I first drank it and the second time I drink it, I feel that it tasted below standard although my cousin who was there both times, insisted the quality was the same. I had much higher expectation the second time because the first was in some sense, a surprise. Likewise, having read Brian Greene and heard about Feynman’s skills with lectures, I was expecting too much. I felt like I was just plainly looking at the type of ideas Feynman has to offer eventually.

I wonder if this is the gestation period for some big essay that’s going to come up. All the studying have kind of dumbed me into a standard essay sort of machine. Trying to study SAT essay section also produce the same effect. It sucks, and it drains values out of essays. In the same way, the life I am going through right now makes me appreciate big issues a bit less – I have got National Service, Tertiary Education and lack of sleep to worry about. At least during the preparation of ‘A’ Levels, I only had to worry about whether I studied and as long as I covered the syllabus and know my stuff, I am free to explore. Of course, some may be stuck at the preparation stage and I don’t deny there are times when it happened for me but by and large, I seem to actually enjoy more freedom before than after the academic hurdle. It is freedom of the mind I am referring to. The more decisions you have to make on your own and the more independence in life you gain, the harder it is to find time to explore the world and stay as an observer like I have always been. Curiosity can no longer be the excuse to find out about things – society needs you to back it up with the practical reasons for knowing, the function of discoveries and the benefits finding out brings. But the grass is always greener on the other side and knowing that helps you to push on with your existing circumstance.

Phone Blues

On this very day last year, that’s 15 December 2006, my auntie was in the hospital and on my way to the hospital, I left my K700i on that bus. It was a SMRT bus Service No. 75. Fortunately I managed to retrieve it that night from the Bukit Panjang Bus Interchange after calling up the bus company. It was a sigh of relief.

Today, I found that my phone is missing when I woke up. I vaguely remember setting the alarm but apparently it was the memory from the day before. I suspected that I left it in the slacks I wore yesterday. My mum then exclaimed that she already put the slacks into the washing machine to wash. Opening the cover of the machine, we found the slacks on the top and true enough, the piece of K700i was inside the left pocket. It was dripping wet and you can even see water in the screen as if the phone was some tank. I think you can keep a couple of amoebas as pets in the phone at that moment.

15 December are bad days for my K700i somehow. I am still drying the phone right now and I am aware that the phone was turned on while being placed in the washing machine. It spells trouble but I really hope this Sony Ericsson can tide over this crisis. I’ll not be using it once I enter National Service anyway.

An Update (16 February)

I tried the phone and it work! The exception was the backlight of the screen, which means the screen never lights up! Initially there was some problems with the joystick too but after trying it for a while, it started to work. I didn’t bother to test the camera since I don’t really use it and the devastation of the backlight means I can’t really use it anymore. I switched to my old Nokia 3100, which I’m probably going to use for my National Service, only to discover that the vibrator of the phone is damaged from the impact when it dropped last time (my dad was using it that time). Too bad.

Floating Entries

I haven’t blogged for a real long time and in this long time there’s quite a few entries which should have been written but was ‘lost’ somehow through my sheer laziness, reluctance to do something unexciting on my computer and conscious economic decision that playing computer games would grant me a higher marginal benefit. There’s one on ‘Meritocratic Nature of Free Markets’, inspired by the experience of getting rejected for the EDB scholarship; another on ‘Nasty Cities’, looking into the problems plaguing developing cities from a primary perspective, inspired by my trip to the various coastal cities of China (Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuxi and Nanjing); also a rant on life titled ‘Scammed’ which documents the scams I was subjected to when I was in various places (Pu-er Tea Leaves of Kunming, Yunnan; Long-jing Tea Leaves of Hangzhou; Silk Blankets of Suzhou; Teapots of Wuxi; Yahoo! 2007 Mail Alert Sham in my mobile phone when in Singapore).

I don’t think I’m going to write any of these entries. In fact, there’s a long overdue entry on meritocracy but I decided to just dump that. The fate of these ‘floating entries’ (floating in my mind) will be rather similar, my mind has wandered to other things. When I went to Building & Construction Authority’s Scholarship & Career Talk I suddenly became endowed with a designer-engineer mind. On my way back from Suntec City, as I was taking the ‘Down’ escalator (a misnomer because it does not ‘escalate’ you) into Citylink, it dawned on me that the moment we step on the escalator from a higher position we are holding on to a hell lot of potential energy and there shouldn’t be a need to expend external energy source to ‘carry’ us down – what we need is merely a system to slow the release of this potential energy that we have. It is the same idea as for an elevator going down – getting it to move down based on the weight of those people inside the elevator. This should theoretically reduce energy consumption quite substantially. Unfortunately, in both cases, the main obstacle is the inability to design a system that can handle variable weights. I suspect one means is to use friction, because the higher the weight, the more the potential energy but also the higher the friction – I do not have any quantitative relations but I am rather positive that holds. As a result, I think modifying the existing Down escalators would be easier than the elevator thing. I have not come up with any designs but I think this is a nice problem to think about for any hard-core engineers.

Such experiences leaves me rather disturbed because I can no longer be sure if Economics is something I want to place my future in. I have such varied interests, which I once thought could be contained in the multi-disciplinary, all-pervading nature of Economics – now I am aware that is not possible, especially when it comes to career. Organizations in the real world are looking for flexibility and versatility but not someone who wants to mix everything up. For a person like me, keen on studying application of river studies on traffic management strategies (or hoping to create an experimental advance community living so greenly that it contributes to negative carbon output to study its economy), the real world offers little room for me. This is not supposed to be a rant; I am going to make some room for myself somehow.

Thoughts on Education

Finishing ‘A’ Levels was like running across a final checkpoint after a 15-year long run with a few important checkpoints but none as important as this. There were Y-junctions and I made choices, some out of convenience and the others somewhat forced but they all culminate some way or another into this final checkpoint. Essentially I always treated education as a blackbox I have to run through, with its contents unknown if not too difficult to understand for parties uninvolved in it at any point of time.

I took the free time I have to visit my young cousins still at early stages of the Singapore education system. One, at the age of 11, with PSLE due next year, just swept clean all the awards for her cohort in the school except ‘Best in Chinese’. The other, entering Primary school next year is happily anticipating the stuff she’s going to pick up although somewhat dissatisfied with a mere recital of the English alphabets during her Primary One Orientation. This younger cousin picked up ice-skating, keyboarding and computer gaming without any outside help. I recalled the time of my Primary One Orientation, nothing but cries and screaming for my mother. I spent my first 3 weeks in Primary school learning nothing but the concept of waiting for the dimissal time to come and returning home so that I can play with my toys. I had no kindergarten friends around with me so it wasn’t that easy to adapt – but when it became easy for me to make friends, the trouble of the manifestation of my talkative nature arose and I was soon a target for ‘stand at the wall’ punishment that I became introduced to.

Early stages of education for me was so much simpler. There was no CCA requirements and attendance marking wasn’t even strict. Parents brought you to school so there’s no such thing as ‘ponning’ school and everything was so structured. ‘No going back to classrooms during recess – if you need to retrieve something, ask for permission from the prefects’. I broke this rule by attempting to explore how the classrooms are like without a single soul in them and that was how I got to know Chun Kang (who was already a prefect then and carrying out his duty by eventually giving me the permission to pretend to retrieve my stuff and leave the classroom block at once), before entering the same class as him in Primary 5. I enjoyed the days of playing hide-and-seek with the prefects and making sarcastic remarks right in front of them about their inability to adhere to school rules anyway. Funny thing is that I became a prefect in Primary 5 and ended up not quite a renegade but instead, one who upholds rules a bit too stubbornly. Maybe that was some sort of lesson for me in life. Nevertheless, the experiences contribute to my principles in life subsequently.

Primary school today is another affair. One moment you have people doing videos for news events in the school, another moment you have to actually ‘study’ for exams (I didn’t remember about that in my Primary school days), then there’s the part about scoring 294 in the PSLE exams. That’s all too much for people like me. Oh yes, the system changed so much that overt discrimination through the EMX (X being some number) system now transformed into one with subtle discrimination. And recently the attempts to mix former GEP students in Primary 5 and 6 with the mainstream students have been hailed as a ‘success’, as if they had been living on different planets until now. Oh, just to prevent any misconceptions, the ‘success’ was basically a comment to explain that the students didn’t experience any falling grades because of the mix, as if abilities of people followed the laws of diffusion (ie. moving from regions of higher concentration to lower concentration), or that being average was an infectious disease so the elites have to be kept away from the victims.

In any case, treading out of education, at least the formal, blackbox sort of system is a great achievement and looking at the kids today, I wonder if I should pity or praise them. But I’ll cheer them on in either case, the fruits (at least right now) may not be worth the time and effort but as an Asian, to be put through the system trains you for the asian society at large as long as you have adopted the right mindset to approach it.

Subjects Anatomy

While talking to Peng Sing on MSN, I suddenly had the idea of dissecting all the subjects I take and break them down into simplistic ideas just for the sake of facilitating muggers and also poking fun at the nature of our syllabus. This is going to be short and sweet because I am still having a break from slacking.

Chemistry is really just about a couple of rules that govern everything, just like Physics. But in the case of Chemistry the application of these rules are highly specific and limited to a couple of stuff. More importantly, there’s always exceptions and anomalies to these rules and there’s other fundamental rules governing all the exceptions. So Chemistry is basically a concoction of different factors and when certain factors becomes relatively important in specific cases, a particular trait manifest. It’s real logical and when the mathematics comes in, there’s no dispute.

Mathematics at this level is about a couple of stuff: Alertness, pattern recognition, nimble fingers and mastery of the calculator functions. Firstly you got to take note of what the question is asking – real important, because often you can’t interpret the question, you get stuck and you don’t know what operations to perform or what equation to formulate. Pattern recognition is important in two aspects: 1) Sequence & Series 2) Drawing parallels between tutorial/revision questions and exam questions – no further elaboration on this needed. Nimble finger so that you can reach the correct calculator buttons at the appropriate speed. Mastery of the calculator functions is of utmost importance because nowadays at least 5% of all the questions in the paper is testing you on your ability to perform certain calculator functions with the information they give you and copy them down on the foolscap.

Economics is real tricky to break down but it’s still possible when you encounter such scientific approach towards teaching it right at my Junior College. Basically Economics is about theories, and applying them to all sorts of stuff in reality. It can be firms (monopolizing markets), a problem (like negative externality), an industry (like the PC industry) or a country’s economic policy. You are taught a whole load of concepts and theories: Law of Comparative Advantage, Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns, Keynesian National Income Determination, Monetarist Transmission Mechanism, J-Curve Effect, Marshall-Lerner Condition, Expenditure-Switching, Scarcity, Liquidity Preference Theory, etcetera (It did cross my mind to list everything but I guess it slipped off my mind the moment ‘etcetera’ came into it). You just have to whip out whatever relevant when you encounter the questions asking for stuff in reality. Other times you really only regurgitate the theories.

There’s two parts to Geography, the Human and Physical Component. Basically the Physical component requires an understanding of concepts very much like Science and Maths or even some part of Economics. Nonetheless it is more science than Economics and application is more direct and to the point relative to the need to customize economic theories as the situation deem fit. There’s also a component on hazards & management in Physical Geography and so you are expected to discuss matters that are more social science in nature. Human Geography is nothing more than understanding social theories and then criticizing them with all the case studies you have in the world before telling us how they are useful in the limited context they are designed for. There’s plenty of room for critique in Human Geography and you should never feel you wrote enough in essays.

Okay, I am done with this – found it pretty much like a rant.