Singularity Magazine October 2010

Singularity October 2010 issue

The October issue of Singularity is available for download. Get it now. It’s free.

In an act of serendipity, we have a Halloween-theme for this issue (although it’s stretching that definition). In this issue, we have:

  • A short story by my friend Grey Yuen. While the story is not scary, the character doing the monologue is. Can you guess his identity?
  • An exclusive interview with Alex Hall, a web developer in United Kingdom. Learn what it takes to create web sites in a team. We have a spider’s web on the cover. That counts as Halloween-themed, right?
  • A continuation of the Japanese learning article from September.
  • An exploration in forensic science about telling the time of death using the liver’s temperature.

Feel free to share the magazine through email, blog or other means. You’re given the right to print and distribute the magazine electronically provided you don’t change any of the content or charge for it.

Tech65 Party and PHEMAS live cutting

So last month, I attended 2 events. The first was a party held by Tech65 to thank their friends and supporters. The second was a PHEMAS live cutting event. PHEMAS stands for Pan Historical European Martial Arts Society.

So what happened at the Tech65 party? There’s beer.

Iguana lager

and the place was packed.

Tech65 party

I remember at the party, when people asked me what I do, and I’m thinking “It’s complicated“, and I’m at a loss for words. Which was ironic, because eventually I decided to reply “self-employed writer”. What kind of writer is at a loss for words? Don’t know…

And when they find out I blog, the logical question would be, what’s the blog about? Hah! Maths and programming and other weird stuff. That oughta show’em. And show’d’em I did. I’m used to the split second motionless shock that registers on people’s faces by now. And these were people from public relations, social media and some technological fans. I didn’t expect anything less than a 2 second jaw-dropping gape.

What’s live cutting then? Real sharp swords are used to cut stuff. In this case, it was innocent plastic bottles.

Live cutting

And here’s Greg the instructor in full battle armour.

Greg in full armour

My only regret was that I should’ve thought of taking a picture of myself holding a sword.

For more pictures, download the September issue of Singularity (free PDF).

Chance favours the connected mind

As a flipside to the article on deep solitary thinking yesterday, we have the “ideas having sex” idea. When ideas are connected and exposed to each other, it’s more likely that better ideas get created. Steven Johnson gave a TED talk on how good ideas come about.

You will notice that Steven’s example of tracking Sputnik eventually leading to the use of GPS was an iteration process. Ideas came up, then were acted upon to test them, which led to further ideas bubbling up.

Maybe I’m wrong, and the ability to hold on to a thought or idea long enough to contemplate it is no longer needed. Or maybe it’s a cycle, where you do deep thinking, share your ideas, get feedback, then reflect on the new ideas. Or maybe in the future, we do our thinking in tiny chunks. Everyone just blurts out their first reactions, no one person actually consolidates it, but eventually, a solution forms somewhere down the road. Every problem becomes open-sourced.

Will we have a SETI@Home-like project where every human being volunteers a bit of their time to do “first reaction thinking”? Will we be reduced to machines, interchangeable for the capacity to think in short spurts?

We share ideas because that’s how they get better. We also need someone who can sit down long enough to think through the bettered ideas into something useful and act upon them.

Fear of your own thoughts

Do you think? I mean like sit there quietly and think. Maybe it’s to solve a maths problem. Maybe it’s to come up with a few points to a PowerPoint presentation. Maybe it’s to reflect on a painting you saw in a museum last week.

Have you ever had a fear that you’re not doing anything productive while you’re thinking? Because you don’t seem to be doing anything. Because you’re not scribbling something, reading something, researching on the Internet, writing an article, or hammering a nail (hey I’ve got engineers reading my blog, maybe there are home builders too…).

Are you afraid of being alone with your own thoughts? Or even simply being alone?

The other day, there was a scheduled power cut at my apartment block. Since I couldn’t do any work (no power means no computer and no Internet), I thought I’d go to the library instead. As I got ready to leave, the power cut at exactly 9am, as scheduled. I know, because the fish tank in the living room turned silent. The pumps and filters that kept the fish tank aerated and clean stopped working. I remembered it clearly, because the silence was almost deafening. I don’t remember my house being that quiet.

Have you ever tried meditation? For our purposes, let’s say it involves sitting in a quiet place, and to not think of anything or to think of only one thing. And let me tell you, thinking of nothing or only one thing is harder than you imagine. The easiest method is to just focus on your breathing. You’re not supposed to worry (or even register in your mind) about the laundry not being done, the itch on your back, the wind blowing through the window, or the minute hairs moving on your hand.

Why is it hard? Because your brain, given little external stimuli, will start feeding you with something, anything. Under those circumstances, your brain can only feed you thoughts.

I bring up meditation because deep thinking resembles it. I remember asking my university professor something (can’t remember the question though), and he sat in his chair, leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, and just stayed there. Motionless. After maybe 10 or 15 seconds, he looked up and answered me.

Sometimes, I stay motionless when I was programming. I could be staring into the screen or off into the empty space for up to half an hour. Maybe designing a user interface, maybe pondering a piece of code, maybe just figuring out the best method to solve a problem. I had to remember to swivel in my chair or drum my fingers or something, so my colleagues know I’m alive (or still working).

The whole point is, can you do sustained thinking? 15 minutes? Half an hour? I believe this is important. Our problems are getting more complex. Attention spans seem to be getting shorter. The amount of information we’re allowing ourselves to consume is growing exponentially. Thinking is hard, so we allow others to think for us. I doubt the time needed to think can be as short as that needed to type out a Tweet… oh look, squirrel!

Maths, context and culture

I was reading this post by Dan Meyer on pseudocontext in maths problems.

If we invite pseudocontext in our classrooms without condition, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between the real and the unreal.

Back when I was young, a lot of maths problems made little sense to me. In those days, the maths syllabus up to primary 6 (at 12 years old, or grade 6 if you’re in America) wasn’t particularly hard. At least to me. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying that the education system made things more difficult by introducing word problems. The epitome of conquering a maths exam paper was solving all the word problems at the end.

Word problems were created to introduce another element into elementary math (to make them difficult?). They added language. Suddenly it was something like:

John, Fred and Ken had $5 total. John bought 10 red marbles and Fred bought 12 blue marbles. If 1 red marble costs $0.10, and 1 blue marble costs $0.15, how many blue marbles can Ken buy if they still want to have $1 left?

Your command of the English language became a factor. But it was still ok, because the wording usually formed a pattern. It was marbles, people’s ages, number of apples or oranges in the basket, or some such. In a normal situation, if I really wanted to know your dad’s age, I’d just go ask him. I don’t really need to infer that your dad is 2.5 times your age, and then I figure the answer out (assuming I know your age).

Students here kill each other with A’s

Now if you don’t already know, it’s bloody competitive here in Singapore. Students are afraid of not doing well in school, of heads shaken by their friends, teachers, parents and relatives. Parents send their children to tuition classes (in addition to the normal school classes), regardless of their children’s grades. If the grades are bad, then improve them. If they’re great, great! Now perfect them. Go do your ten year series!

I went to tuition classes till I was 10 years old (primary 4 or 4th grade). I stopped because my dad couldn’t afford to pay for the classes. Being able to eat and pay the bills were more important. It’s a good thing I was disciplined enough to get good enough grades (and imbue enough motivation for all subjects, not just maths).

When I was in university, to supplement the cost of education, I looked into giving tuition. I was surprised that everyone from primary one to university level (?!) were asking for help. Let me just say, I make a lousy tuition teacher. I don’t really know the current syllabus well enough to help the students. Once, I brought up the subject of video games, using the position of battleships to illustrate … something. I can’t remember. I think it was x- and y-coordinate stuff. I was trying to interest the young boy I was teaching. It fell flat. I suck…

The Singapore Math Method

Which brings us to curriculum. It turns out that under the Singapore maths curriculum, Singapore students rank high for maths internationally. It’s so good that America has adopted the method. There’s even a name for it: Singapore Math Method. Let me tell you, I’m simultaneously amused and confused.

I’m even more surprised that Israel adopted the method in 2002, translating the textbooks to Hebrew. I was browsing in the bookstore reading Start-up Nation (Amazon link). It told a story of how Israel, being surrounded by hostile countries, had to innovate hard. Their brightest people are in the universities doing research and are also in the top military ranks. The book told a story of how the “flat” nature of their military translated to their way of doing businesses, in particular start-ups. My friend Christopher told me that per capita, Israelis were the richest in the world. It’s their culture that made them more inclined to creating wealth. I was also told about the Jewish mother syndrome… So I’m a little surprised that this group of people want to know about our (Singaporean) method of teaching maths.

I still believe in solving real world problems. I believe we’re not injecting enough curiosity into our students. That Singapore Math Method seems to have less force-feeding of concepts, and more of coaxing the student to question. The Singapore culture doesn’t seem to require curiosity for the students to do well (have I mentioned the parents are bloody competitive?). Hopefully, that’s changing.

This is going to be a cynical view, but I think most Singaporeans are striving for wealth, and wealth alone. Wealth translates to a better life. There’s nothing wrong with that. Singaporeans strive hard to attain wealth so they can forget about (seemingly) miserable lives. Ok, let me take that back. Apparently, Singapore is one of the happiest places in the world. There’s a “but” though…

Singapore ranks high on evaluated happiness, but not on experienced happiness

Alright, this is starting to depress even lil’ cheerful me…

So. Problems are formulated, and then given to our students to solve. But they have to learn how to formulate problems too, and that comes from asking questions, from being curious, from being disciplined and persistent. And that comes from cultural and societal influences, not from educational systems.

Internet browsing with awareness

Some time ago, a friend asked me for advice on online businesses and online marketing and stuff. You know, because I started learning how to feed myself without relying on a job over 3 years ago. That’s also about the time I started writing here, which is what every Internet marketer will tell you to do, start a blog. Then I went ahead and wrote about maths and programming, which probably isn’t very lucrative. It hasn’t earned me enough to buy a cup of tea in any case. You don’t read much about my perilous journey in the online marketing/business world, because I haven’t thought it useful or interesting to write. Well, I thought maybe I should start telling you about it now.

Back to my friend. I was explaining how Google works (generally, because my friend might collapse from information overload). Out of curiosity, I asked him how he did searches. He said he types in the search term, hits the enter key, and clicks on whatever is on the screen. Galloping galaxies, he doesn’t even look?!?

I told him some of those links he clicked on probably cost some person out there 50 cents every time he clicked it. I’m more concerned with the unfiltered, unthinking, undead way he went about browsing the Internet. Perhaps Nicholas Carr was right, maybe Google is making us stupid.

My friend wasn’t technologically inclined. Then again, I know some programmers who were frightfully stupid in tech stuff… I am going to assume you know the general safety tips for browsing the Internet:

  • password safety (but it’s moot if you use the same password on every online account)
  • anti-virus software is set up (even supposedly impenetrable Macs and Unixes/Linuxes were compromised before)
  • be careful about revealing sensitive, personal information

Now, I’m probably going to anger many Internet marketers, because in the process, I’ll expose some of the tricks they use to entice people to buy, join, sign up, and generally act on something. That’s assuming they even read my stuff. Maths and programming blog? I don’t see it happening soon.

But all that is unintentional (hey I do know the meaning of the word!). My aim is for you to browse the Internet with some awareness of what you’re doing.

The big takeaway is trust. As you probably gathered, I have a healthy amount of distrust. 3 years of studying marketing strategies and tactics, and having bought certain Internet marketing products (and felt cheated after that), and experimenting with the methods (my first significant outsourcing turned out to be a fun adventure) did that to me. This is going to be a series of articles, and I will start with the basic concept of the Internet:

Links

Links can be open about where they lead. For example, http://polymathprogrammer.com/ is direct enough.

Links can also be disguised. For example, Get Awesome Delicious Chocolate Chip Cookies For Free! (hey don’t click that, you’ll spoil my search engine optimisations…)

This happens on a web page. What you may not know is, links can also be disguised in PDFs and emails. I understand that when you click on a link in a PDF, Adobe Reader puts a prompt before directing you to that link. Due to routine, habit, or just laziness, you might not take a look before confirming. Same thing with email, because we now have HTML emails.

The way to safeguard yourself is to hover over the link (but don’t click it yet). The actual URL will be displayed somewhere. On a web page, it might be displayed at the lower left corner of your browser. In a PDF or email, it’s probably hovering in a box close to where your mouse cursor is. It’s easy, takes just a couple of seconds to check, and can potentially save you tons of headaches.

Affiliate links

Alright, here’s where all the Internet marketer hate will be directed. First, I want to say there’s nothing wrong with affiliate links. There’s nothing wrong with trying to earn a little bit of commission. I have affiliate links to products and services I believe in (and I can’t remember all the places where I put them, even though there aren’t many…). Usually Amazon book recommendation affiliate links. If you buy using my affiliate links, I get a small commission (which helps feed me and keep this blog running). If you buy directly, you pay the same price anyway, so I’d appreciate it if you buy using my link.

The point is transparency. I’m not talking about disclosing the relationship you have with your advertiser or sponsor right beside the link (or in the article/post, or in a privacy policy). I’m talking about deliberately cloaking the link so the actual URL is misrepresented.

Here’s a “tip” I learnt from an Internet marketer (I’m not saying his name). You create a PDF ebook and give it for free or sell it. You write useful content, and give a recommendation on something, say web hosting. You deliberately do not name the web host. Just say something like “Here’s a good web host”, and transform that phrase into a link.

Here’s where it gets sneaky. You create a page on your website such as http://polymathprogrammer.com/recommends/webhost/ and use that page as the link in the PDF. On this page of yours, you do a URL redirect (using meta tags, JavaScript, or PHP) to the recommended web host, likely as an affiliate link.

Now, the PDF is already out there in the open. What happens if you no longer want to be an affiliate of that particular web host? Ah, just change the redirection to another web hosting affiliate link. The link in the PDF remains intact, clicking the link goes to your page, which redirects to the new web host.

This is why you should try to glimpse at the destination URL first. With URL shorteners nowadays, this gets a little harder. You’ll have to trust the URL shortener service. I suggest you trust those that allow you to glimpse at the resulting URL (such as bit.ly). You still need to look at the unravelled URL though.

Which brings us to…

Uniform Resource Locators

Look for the complete domain name. http://polymathprogrammer.com/ is not the same as http://polymathprogrammer.com.sleazysite.com/ (I hope you appreciate all this search engine doubtification I’m doing…) Look for the first forward slash that’s not part of http:// or https://

Now look at the domain name. Do you trust it? If you don’t, then do you trust the source? Was it a search result? Do you trust the search engine (results can be manipulated somewhat to a certain extent)? Did it come from your friend? Do you trust your friend (it’s a weird question, I know)?

My point is for you to cultivate independent thinking. I mean, we’ve already got problems with cross-site scripting. Don’t make it easy for the bad guys by rampantly clicking on links.

Here’s a bonus. Look at the full URL link. Look for a question mark or some shortened form of the person’s name or website in URL. For example, http://somesite.com/?r=1234 (by query parameters) or http://anothersite.com/polymathprog/1234/ That’s usually an indication of an affiliate link. I would deduce that “r=1234” means 1234 (“r” probably stands for “referral”) is the ID number of the person, or a product ID.

That’s it for now. Let me know what you think in a comment, and I’ll see you soon.

Shortcut to partially understanding Japanese

Japanese and katakana

This is an excerpt from the September issue of Singularity.

Here lies the short cut; many katakana texts/words are English transcriptions.

Because of that,

The trick is to leverage on your existing knowledge of English. Once you learn how to pronounce the katakana letters, just use a bit of creativity and imagination, and you can translate it to the English word equivalent. And the more languages you understand, the more likely you can translate a katakana phrase/term into a phrase/term you can understand.

And if you happen to know Chinese, then you can also make educated guesses at the Japanese kanji letters. Two thirds of the Japanese language understood! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Speaking of shortcuts, I also covered a live cutting event. With real swords! Read more in the magazine.

Internet Explorer 9 beta – first impressions

The beta version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 was released on 15 September 2010. I installed it to take a look. This is not a comprehensive feature list nor comparison. You can find that in other tech sites (which are probably hardcore about this kind of thing).

My first impressions of IE9 are good. Next, you must understand I don’t care much for the “browser wars”. The way I use the browser is that it must offer basic security, and then let me do my thing. I use Firefox most of the time. Safari feels weird to use. Google Chrome has this weird thing where my mouse scrolls jump the page too much, so I often lose the position where I was reading.

The first thing I noticed was, the page rendering in IE9 were bigger. Then I remembered I configured Windows 7 to render text larger than normal (because I’ll go blind looking at the default ant-like characters). Firefox didn’t obey this instruction. Immediately I felt good about IE9. I know you 20-year-old whippersnappers have perfect vision. Wait till you’re my age…

I read through some of the IE9 marketing material, and one of the highlights was hardware acceleration of text and graphics rendering. Basically, IE9 is offloading that rendering to the graphics processing unit (GPU) of your computer. Makes sense. The GPUs nowadays do physics calculations too, so why not do what it’s supposed to do anyway (render stuff).

I went to YouTube to give it a try. Here’s the weird thing. The video on a user’s page will play in a stuttered manner. I don’t know why. But if you click to the video’s page, it plays fine. (IE9 team members, if you’re reading this, you might want to take a look)

IE9 also offers pinning of sites. Basically, you can pin your favourite site to the taskbar. The idea is that people don’t really want to launch browsers to go to their favourite websites. They just want to go to the website. This also makes it easier to think of websites as an application on Windows 7. One click, and you’re at the website. And IE9 does its best to fade into the background, with minimal browser controls on screen, thus maximising website real estate. Couple that with the Aero glass interface, which fades the toolbar into the background, and you don’t even feel the browser at work.

That’s about it really (my impressions, not IE9 stuff). I also know IE9 supports HTML5 and CSS3, so here are some tests.

HTML5 video tag

If you can’t see the video, well, I don’t know why either. I followed the instructions on using the video tag, but somehow it fails to load the video. My best guess is that the video I created wasn’t encoded in the supported format (H.264?). This is hard to use… Anyway, I’ve got the code in case you can spot my mistake.

<video src="http://polymathprogrammer.com/downloads/html5testvideo.avi" controls poster="http://polymathprogrammer.com/downloads/html5testvideoposter.jpg" width="400" height="300">Your browser does not support the video tag</video>

[update] Here’s the YouTube version in case you’re dying to find out what the video looks like:

HTML5 canvas tag

I can’t do anything with the canvas tag, because it’s hard to sneak in JavaScript functions on WordPress. But I can show you where the canvas is, surrounded by a 1 pixel border.

<canvas id="myCanvas" width="200" height="100" style="border:1px solid #ccc">Your browser does not support the canvas tag</canvas>

Your browser does not support the canvas tag

Rounded corners with CSS3

Let’s just say a lot of people are looking for a solution to rendering rounded corners.

<div style="-moz-border-radius: 15px;border-radius: 15px;border-color:#abc;border-style:solid">You can do rounded corners with CSS3!</div>

You can do rounded corners with CSS3!

That’s it. Let me know what you think of IE9.

Will you friend me?

Long before Facebook and Twitter and other social networks appeared, the term “friend me” or “friend you” was already in use. In Singapore, the word “friend” can be used as a verb in the bastardised version of English called Singlish. When I was young, and person A did something that person B didn’t like, person B might say something like “If you don’t give me back my eraser, then I don’t friend you already.”

I don’t have many close friends. Heck, I don’t have a lot of friends. I think it started at a young age for me.

I did a Wolverine thing

I remember when I was maybe 9 years old, I was playing Police and Thief with a bunch of kids at school. I was one of the Police, and I had to catch the Thieves while hopping on one leg (that was the rule to balance the game play for Police). Since I couldn’t move very fast nor fluidly on one leg, I had to stretch out my arms to maximise capture area.

The game area was rectangular, nicely marked out by stone slabs. The general strategy was to start in the centre, and try to corner the Thief or Thieves. With my left leg hooked, and my arms held wide at my side, I looked like the Karate Kid, but with less flair. I hopped along and swung my arms around to catch hold of a sleeve or arm.

And I did. Unfortunately, I didn’t trim my nails. I dug deep enough into the other boy’s arm to draw blood. I apologised profusely, since I didn’t know what else to do. At that moment, the bell rang to signal the end of the recess period. I went back to class. Minutes later, another teacher entered my classroom, with that boy in tow. After the two teachers spoke for a while, my teacher called me up to the front of the class. I sweat, my heart beat faster, and “What am I going to do?”

My teacher asked me if I injured that boy. “Did you do that intentionally or unintentionally?”

I mean, what? Here I was, a 9 year old boy, frightened to death about being punished by the teacher, my parents, his parents. And the teacher asked me a question that had big words in it. I don’t know if your English at 9 years old was exceptional, but I certainly didn’t know what “intentional” meant, let alone “unintentional”.

I remember standing in front of the class, an ungainly 9 year old, being asked a question that I didn’t understand fully, and had to come up with an answer that was satisfactory within the next couple of seconds. Talk about being under pressure.

It was like flipping a coin. I didn’t know what either option meant. So I stuttered, “Unintentionally”. Fortunately, I chose the right answer. From then on, I kept my nails short. I also never played any games with anybody ever again. The less social and much scared 9 year old me started pouring energy into books, coincidentally reinforcing my command of the English language. Imagine being put on the guillotine, and being asked “Do you plead guilty or not guilty?” and you don’t understand what the word “guilty” means…

Rejecting the gifted program

In another incident, there was this math test or something. I caught the attention of the math teacher because I could visualise 3 dimensional objects in my mind. The math teacher asked my mom if I could be enrolled into the special gifted program. My mom said no. The reasoning was, my mom wanted me to be with other “normal” children of my age.

It was a good thing she did that. I’m grateful that I’m not placed apart from other children. I’ve got enough social issues already. Plus the fact that my mom wanted me to top the math in my “normal” class, instead of struggling in the “gifted” class. My mom’s a smart woman.

The remark that lost me my best friend

When I was 10 years old, my family moved to another part of Singapore. No, it’s not because I scratched that fellow’s arms, and my family was too ashamed to stay in the same neighbourhood… I was in another school, and I made new friends. I had the Nintendo Famicom console and the Sega Saturn, and my neighbour and my best friend frequently came to my house to play (more here).

Somewhere when I was 12 years old, I made a remark and offended my best friend. It was apparently offensive enough that it broke our friendship. I think the remark was something about money. *sigh* I apologised, and even sought a mutual friend to mediate. But the damage was so great that I lost that best friend. Anyway, we didn’t contact each other till nearly 2 decades later. We aren’t hostile to each other, but we don’t have that camaraderie anymore. Don’t be like me ok? Treasure your family and friends.

That fouled up my childhood further, and I retreated into myself more. Oh I still make friends, but I don’t hang out with them often, and I don’t have any close friends.

My parents also broke apart, and I had to grow up really fast. I breezed through my teenage and adolescent years without holding on to any deep friendships. I withdrew into myself more, with books and stories and music to accompany me.

From Introvert to Extrovert(ish)

After I finished serving national service (compulsory for all Singapore males of eligible age), I decided enough was enough. When I started university, I would try to open up more and make friends. The army can do that sometimes.

But I still had weird interests, compared to the “cool” interests other people had. I mean, math and C programming and stories and books and instrumental music? Girls approached me for help and not the top math or programming student, because I was friendlier and not because I was the best.

I started working, and nobody understood me. I mean, no one talks about programming unless it’s about work. It drove me nuts trying to find anyone interested in stuff. Anyone who has a passing interest and curiosity in the new and unfamiliar. Anyone who has an interest in interesting stuff.

So I started a blog. The prevailing advice is to blog about something niche, to corner that market, to find not just dog lovers, but to find female dog lovers in their mid-thirties who are lawyers, who jogs regularly and who dresses their dogs up. I fly defiantly in the face of that advice. That’s why I find it so hard to categorise my articles (thank goodness for tagging!). I write about (hopefully) interesting stuff for interesting readers. That’s you.

I have a favour to ask. Will you friend me?

Where do you hang out online (offline works too)? Which forums do you visit? Whose blogs do you read? What magazines (online and offline) do you read (are you reading mine)? What social networks do you participate in (I’m on Twitter and Facebook)?

I want to get to know you better. You obviously know a lot about me than I do about you. And if you’re new here, welcome! Thanks for reading all that self-pitying above to get to here. Now tell me about yourself.

Would you want a forum here (because all the forums out there are rubbish, and you’d rather to talk with other people with similar yet diverse interests here)? Would a Facebook page be suitable for you? I want to not just hang out with you, but also make sure you get to hang out with other people (with similar yet diverse interests). I can be an awesome wallflower when required. Listening to cool people exchange ideas is interesting. Let me know in a comment. Thanks.

Library book dump as a filter

Some time ago, I was reading at my local library… what? Yes, the brick and mortar kind. Huh? What do you mean there’s Google and Wikipedia? Yes, I still use those. I just find the experience at the library interesting.

Anyway, I finished a business book, and placed it in the book dump. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s where you put the books you browsed, but can’t remember where it’s supposed to be shelved. Mis-shelving a book can seriously anger a librarian.

Well, I got myself another book, and was reading it when I noticed a young man loitering at the book dump. My guess was he’s about 16 to 18 years old. Bespectacled. A tad thin.

He surveyed the discarded books in the dump like a bargain shopper. He picked all of them up, and started filtering through them. Borrowing this. Borrowing this. Not borrowing that. Hmm, this looks interesting. Alright, borrow this too. Ugh, who reads this?

Curious, I went up to him and asked him what he’s doing, even though I guessed he was filtering through them. He was flabbergasted. He couldn’t give me a straight answer. Like he’s been caught doing something wrong.

I gave him a break, thanked him, and went back to my seat. He continued to process the books, and whaddaya know, there’s a computer beside the book dump for him to immediately borrow those books.

After he left, I was thinking, that’s an ingenious way to find the good books. I mean, if it’s there in the book dump, someone obviously found it interesting enough to take it from the shelf. If it’s interesting enough for someone else, it’s probably interesting enough for him.

That’s like the online equivalent of an RSS feed aggregator or a news site. I understand the need for information filtering. I also believe you should remember to exercise the decision about what information is useful or interesting to you, when you want to. Cultivate independent thinking, and don’t over-rely on others.

Speaking of news sites, there’s an online service, paper.li, that turns your Twitter feed into an online newspaper. It looks really awesome. You can look at mine here (ooh, the Vincent Tan Daily!). And follow me on Twitter.