Friday, March 30, 2007

Purpose of an Education

7366 asked:

what is the purpose of an education - like seriously speaking? Since you're a grad student - can you share some insights about life in general and why you chose this path?

Elia answered it for me:

I think the most valuable part of my undergraduate education was learning how to ask *good* questions and learning how to find ways to get them answered.


“Some universities teach skills. Some give you an education. Skills eventually become obsolete. But you’ll always have your education.”

Well actually, I was first exposed to it in DHS and it was from a Chinese teacher (Ha! I bet you thought I learned nothing from my Chinese classes.)

"学问! 你要学就要问。没人知道你就要自己找。"

I have many questions about the natural phenomena around us. I don't think I learned enough as an undergraduate to know the answers. That's why I am in Grad School. And I am still learning how to ask *good* questions and tear down fallacious hand-waving, hocus-pocus theories.

Trust me, there are aplenty of these in the physical and engineering sciences, especially when it comes to the frontiers (think nanotechnology).

The bottomline is never to accept anything at its face value.


Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state UNIVERSITY of WISCONSIN should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the TRUTH can be found. - Plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, UW-Madison.


As an aside, there is this. (tip: ashke)

Misinterpretation or Stupidity

Is there anything wrong with this sentence? (I don't mean the grammar.)

We should also expand tax incentives to encourage carbon-free biofuels production at both existing and new biofuels facilities.*

Did the writer mean "encourage carbon-free production methods of biofuels", or "encourage production of carbon-free biofuels"?

I certainly hope it was the former.

*This was taken from a US newspaper's Op-Ed piece written by an "environmental law attorney".

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dark Side of Grad School

The New York Times ran two articles yesterday on fatal adviser-student tensions in Grad School.

Key quotes (edited):

...the nearly feudalistic power that a graduate adviser has over his student, who after 16 or more years sitting in a classroom listening and regurgitating information must now change gears and learn how to produce original research. That grueling process has been the crucible in which new scientists are made ever since Plato mentored Aristotle, and although it rarely leads to murder, it can often lead to disaffection, strife and lifelong feuds.


“Graduate students are like apprentices,” said Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago. “It’s from another era. It’s something we don’t do well anymore, hand-crafted training.

Advisers write recommendations, decide when it is time for a student to defend his or her thesis and divvy up credit for the work that gets done together.

The bond between student and adviser is almost like getting married. You’re going to be working and interacting with this person the rest of your life.”


...“It’s hard to understand just how powerless you can feel as a graduate student unless you have been a graduate student.” - Janet D. Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University.


"Asian students were often marginalized because of a perception, 'unstated racism,' that they are exceptionally smart and are there to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As a result they wind up as cogs in the research machine and remain isolated from the rest of the community and the culture." - James Dickerson, a physicist at Vanderbilt University


“The Chinese family in general has high expectation on their children. When they realize that they cannot achieve it, they get very upset, especially the whole family have been telling their friends about him or her. They also compete among themselves severely, I observed that within my students.” - Shing-Tung Yau, a Harvard mathematics professor.


The story (of Gang Lu's shootings at Iowa) resonated with Mr. Chen’s own experiences and that of friends who came to the United States with huge expectations and found themselves lost or on the wrong end of a power struggle with their mentors, and who either went back home or, in the case of one good friend, simply disappeared.

He said: “A lot of people came in late ’80s. They never found a balance between the idea of America and the America they experienced.”

A Padawan learner takes on his Jedi Master in Grad School. Commonly known as the thesis defense. Beware of the Dark Side! (Original link)

Monday, March 26, 2007

All your base are belong to us; Grad School Talk/Opinions

Random school quotes that I like:



March 24, 2007

ACS United

Random Thought: If the Anglo-Chinese School family were ever to unify the schools into one corporation, they should name it "ACS United".

If some fool suggests "ACS Institution"- like the fate that befell the poor students of Chinese High and Hwa Chong Junior College-, I am sure a group of loyal ACSians will take this guy out back and beat the shit out of him. I would be first in line.

Seriously, Hwa Chong Institution?! It's a betrayal of their glorious history. They should have named it the "People's Republic of Hwa Chong". Now THAT'S a name which befits the revolutionary history of Chinese High.

Posted by pj


One year already.


1. The type of conversation we grad students engage in when hanging out (in our free time).

*If you just want to jump straight in to watch the clip, it's here.

2. What the public REALLY thinks of Grad students (and Grad School). Through the Simpsons.

Courtesy of Vivienne: Good for one of those mid experiment breaks. Makes you wonder if YOU made the right choice. ;)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

To improve its yield, a college needs to

...make its target prospectives feel valued.

Local Universities vs Overseas Universities

...What delicious irony. Our local institutions NUS and NTU have great aspirations to become world-class institutions. At the same time, our brightest young minds have great aspirations to avoid studying at our local institutions NUS and NTU.

Take for example the admissions offer letters from a Local, British and American university. (Note: These are all from the late 90s, so things are likely to have changed since then. Hopefully for the better, for the local institutions after their semi-privatization.)

As you can see, the NUS letter was badly drafted. To the incoming freshman, it had a threatening tone (certificate of suitability? section 42 of the Internal Security Act, Cap. 143?), with relics from the communist insurgency of the 1960s. The legalese can be found here, and the relevant section if you search "42". Worse, if you have any queries regarding your admission, you are told NOT to make any telephone equiries but to submit one in writing. I assume snail mail, and with only a one-month time window before the submission deadline.

On the other hand, the overseas universities were keen to do whatever they could to answer the accepted students' questions. Be it through email, the phone or postal mail.


The same theory applies at the graduate level. The student may not end up enrolling at your institution for Grad School, but in the world of academic research networking is important. I am grateful to have been given such opportunities, especially when competition for such coveted paid undergraduate summer research internships is fierce. More so for non-US citizens/PRs who are ineligible for NSF sponsored REUs.

The above came about when I was combing through my documents in order to complete the pre-employment forms.

Friday, March 23, 2007

From one monastery to another

I got to know yesterday that the company has a less than optimal sex ratio.

Friend who worked there: "That place is full of geeks and nerds! OMG."

I mean, when you think of employees of America's household names in science and technology (AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Apple, CISCO, Sun, Ebay etc), who comes to your mind first?

The guy on the right or left?

However, the image that came up in most girls I talked to is this:

Then I remembered "The Stepford Wives". Die. liao. lah

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Alea iacta est

To the West, Young man!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Even the most prestigious solicits

I don't know whether to blame Royal Mail, the US Postal Service, or the School's internal mail system for the lag.

As the Graduate Studies Chair was telling us grad students in my first year here, "if you can get your paper published there, I am sure your advisor will let you graduate right away."

Yeah...right. (Not that I published in Nature or Science.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ivy dreams

I am toying with the idea of sending my sis to attend (any)one of the ivy league universities.

The reasons are manifold, although I think it has a lot to do with one of those suppressed ambitions of mine (I hope I am not using her as a proxy) - like how in the end I was forced to turn down JHU (my 1st choice for undergrad) for a lack of funds. Sometimes I still wonder how my education will be like, and how different my present path will (or will not) be. How do you place a monetary value on a college education? Is it on the end product (elite grad schools, fancy i-banks in Wall Street/mgt consultancies) or the process of intellectual engagement and growth?

Ah, I know what some detractors will say: "But there are many other good schools what! And much cheaper too!" I don't deny that. And this might even be contrary to what I said previously in one of my entries.

So I will reply, "A Corolla or a Civic provides good value for money and are an excellent set of wheels on their own right, but they are not Porsche nor BMW nor Mercedes."

(I think it was from karpace that I first heard of this automotive comparison.)

Of course for the idea to work out, is to assume

1. I take up one of those obscenely decently paid jobs (and lousy hours),
2. I will continue to have no familial/gf/spousal commitments and
3. that my sis gets an admission offer.

As I was musing with loiseaurebelle (LR),

a. my sis' stats aren't competitive with the hordes applying out of Bishan and Bukit Timah (sucks to be a Singapore applicant yeah) and
b. poly students many have gone to study in the ivy league for their undergraduate education?

The only place where she might have a long shot is Columbia's GS. But for that one her ECAs and life experiences must stand out. So what about my folks, you ask.

Well, I do not care about what they think, but I know my dad is not willing to let her come to the US after seeing how reluctant/unwilling I am in returning home. My mum thinks the goal is set too high. Then my sis bought into the bullshit that she is not good enough to aim for the ivy league. The Singapore system is such that if you aren't streamed into the top schools early on, the odds start to stack against you. The teachers, parents and peers all can affect you negatively, or positively. I was lucky to have positive vibes from all 3, mutually reinforcing one another.

Another, but not insignificant reason for the ivy league is just that - a big ego booster to my sis. That she can aim for the stars if she tries. Then LR commented on the difficulty of getting out when one is stuck in the cycle of low expectations. The Singapore society especially is quick to condemn.

America has them too, in the form of WASP strongholds or Asian community neighborhoods. Those WASP prep schools are notorious ("wasps with their stupid waspy ideas"), and are probably worse than Singapore's equivalents; so are overachieving Asian families where one's folks are with PhD from MIT, mum with PhD/MD/JD from Harvard.

LR was quick to retort: "hahaha what about you? You also went to top unis. I will pity your hypothetical (future) kids."

Me: "Your offspring will have a high bar set for them too. No matter what we can say how we would like our kids to grow up *normal*, there will always be comparisons and expectations placed onto them."

Just don't crush them. Advice I will have to take and keep in mind constantly.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The NS issue strikes again

This weekend, I met two of my JC friends (one female, F, and one male, M) online. We discussed and updated on our lives. I told them about my plans. Separately, and in an uncanny coincidence, they both asked me: "What about your NS (reservist) duties? Don't you need to serve?"

I am now playing catch-up, and you want me to go back to lag further behind?

As Mr Wang, Seah Chiang Nee and Mollymeek had noted, the grouses and grumblings on the ground are getting louder.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Singapore Day 2007 in NYC

With such a cheesy title, you got to know it is organized by the PMO.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

One trend I have noticed among my department's fresh graduates after finding a job (for those going to industry; post docs will continue to lead a pauper's life for another 2 years) - almost everyone will buy a new car to go to work. A senior has just bought a new Lexus. Camrys and Accords are the most popular.

Now I feel like getting myself a new set of wheels too. I have also found out the BMW 3-series ain't that unaffordable after all.

hmmm...Civic, Camry, Accord or Beemer?

4As Sad, 2As Happy

The New Paper on Monday had three articles on last year's A levels results. There was this focus on some RJC students being embarrassed to get 'just' 4As.

Do we attend school to get educated, or to ace some standardized exam? Granted, in Singapore's context, one's performance that exam might make or break him/her (like a place in the first choice course in the local university or a PSC scholarship, Ha!), but what difference does it make between (AAAA A1 DDM) and (AAAA A1 DDD)? Geez.