Singularity Magazine September 2010

Singularity September 2010 issue

In this September 2010 issue, I have an exclusive interview with Parker Emmerson (also mentioned previously), a mathematician, musician and artist. We talked about his art and how he used mathematics to create images.

Download the September 2010 issue. It’s free.

Other articles include:

  • The business of iPhone apps (yay, finally, a tech article!)
  • How to understand 1/3 of Japanese texts in 1 hour
  • What happened at the Tech65 Party?
  • You probably don’t know this about snakes…
  • I witnessed the “beheading” of dozens of plastic bottles. A PHEMAS live cutting event.

Read all that, right here in the September issue. Download the September 2010 issue.

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Application Polymath

I think I figured out how to improve the general negativity that “polymath” or “jack of all trades” has. But first, let me tell you a story.

I remember back when I was still working in a job, I had a job title. It started with “Systems Analyst”. Then at the end of 2 one-year contracts, I decided I’ll never get free of VB.NET if I don’t do something.

So I jumped ship to a startup, where I get to use C# and was supposed to practise extreme programming. I was excited, for I also had to learn something I’ve never used before: regular expressions. I joined the startup (after I went on that New Zealand trip for a well deserved rest) and had some job title that I can’t remember now and don’t think it matters. Let me ask you, can you differentiate the following job titles?

  • Systems Analyst
  • Systems Engineer
  • IT Analyst
  • IT Engineer
  • Applications Analyst
  • Software Analyst
  • Software Engineer
  • Systems Designer
  • Software Designer
  • Applications Designer (I just made this up. Don’t know if it’s real)

There are probably many more with meanings just as ambiguous. I don’t really know what those titles mean, and don’t know if there’s a difference. I was still writing specifications, designing software and systems and frameworks, writing code, liaising with users and fellow colleagues and supervisors and managers, attending meetings, taking conference calls, giving presentations, doing software/server maintenance, and solving users’ computer problems (whether it’s because of my software or other people’s software or just general computer problems).

Wait, I thought I was supposed to just write code. Yeah, everyone does pretty much the same thing despite their titles.

Where was I? Oh yes, the startup. Well, I got sacked after exactly 6 weeks. The first 3 weeks were still bearable. There were a few interns, so the workplace was more fun. 3 weeks later, the interns left, and I was stuck with the founder/CEO and the original programmer (there were only 2 of us coding when I started. There was another programmer hired, but one programmer story at a time…). Wait, there was the original programmer’s wife as well (don’t get me started…). I didn’t get to write a lot of C# code. I didn’t get to use that regular expressions skill that I studied and practised really hard (because the founder got another PhD intern to do the regular expressions) which was the backbone of how to parse patent text (part of the startup’s product).

What was my mistake? During the interview, I was asked by the founder what I saw myself as in 5 years (you know, a typical HR-ish question). I gave a typical answer, you know, leading a small team of programmers.

So the founder started me on doing all the administrative stuff. I handled the printer setup. I made sure the computers and other assets were properly recorded. I made sure the source code settings were done properly (ok, so maybe that was more related to software development).

And the other programmer was, shall we say, less tactful in how he talks to me. His English was (much) less than fluent (he’s Chinese). He used Microsoft Access as the backend database, and gave me a talking-down when I pointed out that the client might not have Access installed. The .NET Framework would already be a required installation, so the less we impose on the client, the better, right? The data retrieval functions and objects were inflexible (not all SQL statements need a where or group by clause). He called me a four-eyed toad (what are we, 6 years old? I was still wearing glasses then). He gargled water at his desk while coding (it’s not a big office. You could just about fit 2 cows into it. Maybe 3.).

I frequently lunched alone.

So a week before Christmas, the founder called me up for a private meeting. He could see that I was unhappy working with the other programmer. He also suggested perhaps I could be happier working at some place else.

“Am I being let go?” I asked.
He nodded. Somewhat awkwardly I might add. I don’t think he’s fired anyone before.

So for the rest of the week, I began documenting what work I did, and what was already done on the project. I cleaned out my computer (as in wiping traces of me, not wiping all the work) as I didn’t want anything about me left there in that miserable workplace, even if it’s just an Internet cookie.

On my last day, which is Christmas eve, I packed my stuff, ready to go. The founder had a Christmas party planned and stuff. He invited me.

I declined.

After that, I rested for a couple of weeks, and then joined a software house. The team I was assigned to, worked in the Singapore city area. The client was a Japanese company, had security precautions I had only seen in the movies (I needed to pass a fingerprint scanner to get to the washroom. Another story for another time…), and while happier than at the startup, was still longing for something more. I did discover Michael Buble, who’s an awesome singer.

I worked there till the end of my 4-month contract, and I decided to return to the first company I worked at. I was even willing to work with the “evil” boss that was part of the reason why I left. I was hired, and no, I worked at another team. Well, that lasted for 5 years, and that brings us to here and now.

I can tell you now, titles mean very little. It’s what you do and what you’ve done that’s more important.

Which brings us to the original point. How do we improve the general negativity of the term “polymath”? I believe a big part of the problem is that polymaths (and the various terms used) are seen to dabble, never quite committing to anything. Well, I can tell you that, even if a person isn’t dabbling, the person isn’t by definition committing to anything either.

So I believe a solution is that you, me, us, the polymaths, need to apply ourselves. We can’t just keep learning this and that trinket of knowledge and skill without applying it. It’s the “frivolity” of learning that’s the crux of the negativity.

A person learning one thing without applying himself is considered “being focussed”. He’s trying hard! He’s concentrating on just one thing! He hasn’t done anything useful with it, but it’s ok!

A person learning many things without applying himself is considered negatively. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. No information is useless, we just haven’t found a use for it yet.

Now in my previous company, the term “programmer” was deemed to be a low position. So if you had “programmer” anywhere in your title, you’re like dirt, just barely above the administrative staff and cleaning ladies/janitors. If you have a degree, you’re a “Systems Analyst”. If not, you’re an “Application Programmer”.

I say we should overturn that kind of stigma. We are going to be Application Polymaths. Because we’re multi-learners who apply ourselves.

Homemade iPad stylus

My friend Christopher made an iPad stylus by himself. Mainly because by principle, he refuse to pay money to get one of those sticks that allow him to doodle on his iPad, and those styluses don’t even work that well. And by nature, he likes to build stuff (he’s an engineer).

Now, I’m not a technology/gadget fanatic. This is why you don’t find many articles here on the latest technology trends (sometimes, trends die out faster than the effort I put in to understand it as a first adopter), or the latest gadgets (I’m more minimalist than hoarder).

So when 2 of my friends bought themselves an iPad, I was like, meh. One of them, Aaron (who’s also the cover photographer for the July issue of Singularity), found immense joy in displaying photos on the iPad. The interface is smooth, the show-and-tell fluid, and you can zoom all the way in to someone’s face to check out the pores (provided you shot the photo on a high resolution camera instead of the iPhone).

Christopher on the other hand, had only a couple of game applications on his iPad. He uses it mainly for business and productivity purposes. Yeah, shocking, isn’t it? So he built his own homemade iPad stylus, just for kicks. Here’s his result.

iPad and homemade stylus

I’ll let you get a closer look.

iPad and homemade stylus

Oops. Zoomed in to the wrong part. Here we go.

iPad and homemade stylus

So, the materials you need to make your own are:

  • A pen (or pen-like object). Make sure the ink is completely used up, but you’re free to go ahead and use a new one.
  • Aluminium foil
  • Adhesive tape, single-sided. Or Scotch Tape if it’s more familiar to you.
  • Steel wool. The softer the better. The grade to look out for is #0000.

There are other methods, and they are available on the Internet if you search for it.

We went to the supermarket to buy the aluminium foil. Christopher bought the value pack. Only part of one sheet of aluminium foil was used, and the rest? Barbecue.

Adhesive tape was easy to obtain (your stationary store should have it stocked). Steel wool was a bit harder to get. Christopher couldn’t find the #0000 type. But he settled for the finest steel wool he could find. Again, there’s a lot of left over, so he used it for cleaning kitchen utensils (well, that’s what it’s supposed to be used for anyway).

Basic idea is, you wrap the pen completely with the aluminium foil. Hold it in place with the adhesive tape. Put a clump of steel wool at the tip, and hold it in place with the adhesive tape.

Christopher was afraid the direct contact of the not-finest steel wool might scratch his iPad’s surface, so he clumped another bit of steel wool at the other end of his pen. Then he completely secured that end with adhesive tape. As in the adhesive tape covers the steel wool too, so the only thing in direct contact with the iPad surface, is the adhesive tape. It still works! Man, we humans really generate a lot of electric charges. The robots in the Matrix had the right idea…

Here’s a video done by Christian Faur that demonstrates how to create your own:

Final tip. Make sure that when you build your stylus, your hand can be in contact with the aluminium foil around the pen, which is in contact with the steel wool. So the electric charges (or whatever the correct term is) passes from your hand, through the aluminium foil, onto the steel wool, and reacting with your iPad (or iPhone or iPod).

If you find getting the necessary materials and building your own iPad stylus too troublesome, you can always buy a commercial stylus such as the BoxWave iPad stylus or the Acase iPad stylus (Amazon aff links)


I was out walking when I spied an out-of-the-ordinary object beside the road.

Chair by roadside

A couple of days later, I walked by the same spot. The chair was moved.

Chair by walkway

Was someone waiting by the road? And who moved the chair?

Celebrate Individual Day

August 9 is the Singapore National Day, and this year will be Singapore’s 45th birthday. 45 years since Singapore became an independent country.

Your country’s birthday is significant, yet a country is nothing without its people. Particularly for Singapore, since we’re such a small country with few natural resources.

So I want you to also celebrate Individual Day. Celebrate who you are. No, not just on your birthday. Every day.

Be who you are. Don’t be pushed into society’s mould of who you should be. Create your own mould.

Nations are founded on creative and hardworking people. Don’t just become a hardworking person trying to fit in, or being fitted in. Be yourself. Your individuality and creativity is needed.

And happy birthday, Singapore.

P.S. Singapore is also hosting the Youth Olympic Games 2010, held from 14 August to 26 August 2010.

Be part of Singularity magazine

Have you ever wanted to shoot photos for a magazine? Write articles as a columnist? Report events and cover exciting stories? Well, here’s your chance. I’m looking for passionate people who want to share some of their awesomeness.

While I cannot pay you (Singularity magazine is free of charge), your work will be seen by MILLIONS and MILLIONS of people! Ok, it’s more on the scale of hundreds of people. But your work is immortalised online, for all eternity. Or at least until the server crashes and all my backups disappeared at the same time.

Here’s a list of what you might want to do to contribute (by no means exhaustive):

  • Submit your interesting photos, be they of people (make sure you have the subject person’s permission) or of events or of still life (Cover photographer!)
  • Display some of your art, be it digital or illustrative. And I want to interview you.
  • Show your craft work. Tell me how you did it. Photos recommended.
  • Showcase some of your literary work
  • Share your scientific thesis (will be non-exclusive to the magazine). Maths, chemistry or astrophysbiology are welcome
  • Cover an event and submit a write-up on it (Reporter of the year award!)

Basically, I’m looking for photographers, artists, scientists, reporters, and writers. I’m doing this because my keen spider senses are telling me that you have something interesting to share, but you don’t really have a platform to share it on. Your own blog? Too tedious to upkeep. Your own Flickr account to show photos? Nah, you only occasionally take photos. Facebook and Twitter? Ok, but you want more than just your friends to know that awesome thing you just created/shared.

In an online magazine, your work is immortalised in a PDF file. Sure, a URL link is easy to share, but the contents of that page can be easily changed. Ok, fine, I can probably change the contents of the magazine and upload it. But what of those copies already downloaded? Like I said, your work is immortalised.

And you don’t have to be a regular contributor if you don’t want to. In fact, ad-hoc submissions are fine. I just need to know if you’re submitting something for the next issue (at a reasonably early point in time of the month).

As of now, if you want to submit something for the next issue, the deadline for telling me is the 15th of the month. For example, if you tell me before 15 August that you are going to cover some interesting event in August, and you’ll take a couple of pictures as well, then I’d be able to include that in the September issue. The actual deadline for the submitted material itself is the 25th of the month. This gives me some leeway to prepare for the launch of the next issue.

Buuuttt that’s really boring stuff. And I don’t really have the timeline that rigid. Contact me, tell me what you have in mind, and we’ll work something out.