OSBC Launch

My Open XML spreadsheet course is up! Click here for details.

So here’s an interesting tidbit. Writing lesson 3 (recognising styles) was the most tedious part for me. It was unbearably boring for me. It was all I could do to slog through writing each word, coming up with screenshots and writing up example source code.

Ironically, styling a spreadsheet (Open XML or otherwise) is the hardest part of creating or modifying the spreadsheet. Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking at all the styling options so much that it’s become second nature to me. I flit between the Excel user interface and Open XML SDK classes with equal ease.

Right now, I have a different view of how teachers do their work. How do teachers continue to teach the same (or similar) materials to students every day (well, every semester, but you get the point)? At this moment, I don’t want to look at another Excel colour picker.

Anyway, if you want to learn about Open XML spreadsheets, and want a more student-friendly approach, consider OpenXML Spreadsheet Boot Camp. The course includes my Open XML reference manual as the official textbook. You will learn a lot, I promise.

Sometimes, new problems appear after solutions are made

So I had a discussion at Hackerspace (I’ve a video for you soon), and Preetam mentioned something about iPads. He said that schools are using iPads for education, and there’s an interesting problem.

Teachers using the iPads as teaching aids want to move around the classroom. With the iPad, the teacher can project information on her iPad to the screen. But the moving around was a problem, because the iPad needed some connecting wire thingy to the projector.

Well you might say that Apple should have considered making wireless projection of the iPad screen seemless.

But I want you to consider this. If tablets weren’t available, and thus teachers could carry tablets around, would the problem of using the tablet to project information wirelessly even exist?

In the pre-Industrial age, practically everyone was working on the land. If you don’t grow food, you don’t get to eat.

The thing about working on farms is that there’s always something to do. (Just ask any Farmville player…) There are cows to be milked, chickens to feed, eggs to collect, grains to harvest.

In the Industrial age, factories made everything systematic and efficient, and our lives became better. You need to be at the factory at this time. You will go for your lunch break at this time. And most important for our discussion here, you can go home at this time.

This created a problem humans never faced before. Suddenly, we had free time.

What are we going to do with it?

Students don’t graduate because…

… because they’ve lost hope.

They’ve lost hope that:

  • they can fulfill degree requirements (some subjects are tough!)
  • they can actually graduate
  • (more importantly) they can graduate in a shorter time so they pay less tuition fees
  • they can get a good job with that degree

And so they give up. They’ve lost hope. They don’t believe anymore.

A degree can still be useful. But the current educational and economic outlook doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in the immediate use of a degree.

Educational institutes mostly teach students towards knowledge that’s known. I mean, your professor won’t set a question that he can’t answer, right? The world we now live in rewards those who solve the unknown, possibly even seeking questions that weren’t ever asked.

Teachers need to start teaching students to face the unknowable. They need to instill hope in the next generation.

Nobody hires a dodo hunter

My mom has a Vietnamese colleague with a law degree. Apparently, it’s more lucrative to sell cookware in Singapore than practise law in Vietnam. White collar jobs, welcome to 2011.

There’s an article on the Wall Street Journal, “China to Cancel College Majors That Don’t Pay“. China is tackling the problem of jobless graduates in her country. This is the start of the nightmare of something I wrote over a year ago on education:

They [the universities] might go create more graduates who make higher salaries. What might those be? Those academic fields where the economy pays well for, for example, medicine, law, accountancy, banking, biotechnology and computer science. The arts and philosophy majors are doomed, I tell ya. The education syllabus might well be skewed towards commercially profitable disciplines.

China is at least thinking about it.

A nation-wide purge of university majors that don’t pay means you’re essentially specialising. Individually, a university might use that as a hook, such as offering excellent biotechnology classes taught by world-renown people in those fields. Nationally, it will be a disaster.

How do you determine which majors don’t pay? The implicit assumption is you know which majors don’t pay now and in the future. The implicit assumption is that you know what’s going to happen next. You don’t.

When radio was invented, people thought nobody would pay for advertising, since it’s a broadcast medium to nobody in particular (anyone can listen in).

When the telephone was invented, people thought face-to-face communications would die. We still value face-to-face communications now. Never mind the teenage girl who texts 563 messages a day (though I’m sure she still wants to meet up with her friends. Those messages are probably “Meet where?”, “K” (the short form of OK), and “lol”).

When the television was invented, people thought it’s ugly. Black and white? Who’d watch?

When the Internet was invented, nobody thought it’d be a commercially viable medium. Look at all the online stores now.

When music could be digitised, people started sharing MP3s. Music labels sued their customers. They lost money. Apple iTunes is doing fine though.

When Amazon was started, it was to be an online bookstore. The major bookstores didn’t think it will work. They’re now in financial trouble.

It takes an average of 4 years to graduate with a degree. A lot can happen in 4 years. By the time you graduate with a PhD in ornithology specialising in dodos, nobody is hiring a dodo hunter. The job is no longer relevant…

… but it doesn’t mean you’re irrelevant. Adapt your skills. Become an exotic bird care specialist.

Let’s say China purges all non-manufacturing related majors. That means most of her graduates know only manufacturing related stuff. If the economy suddenly rewards creativity-based knowledge work, China will be struggling to move. Remember, it takes 4 years to churn out graduates. You’ll be 4 years behind.

Hmm? China’s too big? The dinosaurs thought they’d live forever too. A meteor wiped them out. Doesn’t matter how big you are. A big enough meteor will still wipe you out. You may quote me. Hey, let me help you:

Doesn’t matter how big you are. A big enough meteor will still wipe you out.
– Vincent

A university shouldn’t model against Amazon. You should not offer long-tail majors. You can’t afford to. The proliferation of majors is probably to attract as many students as possible.

Nobody hires a dodo hunter.

American hare, Asian tortoise

I’ve been meaning to get a drink from the cafe within the library for a while. It’s exam period, and all the seats were taken. But I finally got a chance to sit. I got myself a “Peach Dream”, a smoothie with peach flavour I think.

I quickly sat down at one of the tables that a lady graciously shared with me. Her friend soon returned with their drinks. I was just happily sipping my smoothie, watching a man on his laptop, one girl slumped on the table with her books, and listening to a mother reading a book to her daughter.

The two ladies at my table began talking.

“Did you know her son got 58 out of 60?”
“Her son is already so clever. But he’s still getting tuition.”
“But he’s so clever! He might get 50 even without tuition.”
“We don’t know if it’s because he has tuition, that’s why he got 58.”

That was a primary school science test. Hey I’m not eavesdropping. I just happen to overhear their overshared conversation.

Believing you can improve by putting in effort

There’s this study conducted dividing people on their perception on learning and intelligence. One group believed that intelligence is fixed, therefore if they don’t know something, they’re doomed to never learn how to do it properly. The other group believed that intelligence is malleable. If they put effort into learning, eventually they’ll get the hang of it.

The first group didn’t care what the answer was, only whether they’re correct or not. They didn’t care to learn how the answer came about. The second group cared more about why an answer was so.

When the 2 groups were tested again, the researchers found that the second group improved significantly. The first group didn’t do any better or worse.

I’m going to generalise here. Asians typically believe that if you put effort into something, you can improve. Be it maths, science, English, Chinese, whatever. That’s why here in Singapore, parents hire tuition teachers for their children, even if their children have phenomenal grades in school. (Also see PISA).

I didn’t have any tuition teachers after primary four (age 10). Not because I’m smart, but because my dad couldn’t afford it. Good thing I turned out alright…

Another general trait of Asians is that we save. Money that is. We’re brought up with the concept of saving money for a rainy day.

The hare and the tortoise

I read this book by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Beyond the Crash. He brought up some concepts I’ve learnt about the global economy and politics.

America and Europe lead the world in terms of consumption. It’s worked so far because they also produced as much (as in exports). Their production brought in enough money for them to consume. They’ve raced ahead and amassed much wealth.

Like the hare, they’ve grown comfortable and stopped (more or less).

Globalisation allowed the other countries to come to the fore. The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), Indonesia, Philippines.

American (and European?) jobs flowed to other countries. First the Baby Boomer generation is slowly retiring, leaving a mass number of jobs for the smaller group of Generation X-ers who cannot fill them. Then globalisation killed those jobs, and the current Generation X-ers and Y-ers can’t find jobs.

The subprime housing situation created more turmoil. The recent bank crisis instilled fear and distrust. University tuition fees go up as people sought to get a Master’s degree in the tight job market. (Just for info, I’ve read there’s an “education bubble” going on).

America just averted a $14 trillion debt ceiling problem. Greece has a financial problem. Europe faces a sovereign debt problem. Their aging population doesn’t have enough people to take care of them, financially speaking (where do you think taxes go to?).

And the tortoises started to catch up.


I’ve read an economist praising the education system of Singapore. I must admit, I was surprised. Then he (can’t remember whom or what book I was reading. Sorry…) pointed out that in America, teachers with average graduating scores are dumped to “second-rate” schools without training. In Singapore, the Ministry of Education chooses the best teachers, and provide them with training. I think it was 2 out of 10 applicants who get in. The Singapore government takes education very seriously.

Barack Obama has stated he’s taking America’s education seriously. As far as the future is concerned, I believe maths and science to be crucial. We’re going to need engineers, mathematicians, doctors, physicists, chemists, biologists and more to tackle the health care of our aging population, creating a sustainable Earth, and understand and make use of any future technologies.

Global commerce

Here’s something you should know. To get money, you have to sell something in exchange. I don’t care if it’s an apple, an iPad, television shows, movies, your body, real estate, knowledge (information). Even if it’s just a 250 by 250 pixel ad on your web page. You have to sell something.

America and Europe produced enough for domestic and international consumption. As a result, they grew. Then globalisation came. Their production dropped (because that production went to other countries as jobs). You produce less, but your consumption rate remain. You should see the problem, right? Then their domestic consumption even increased (think rampant credit card use).

Here’s the catch. China (seems to be the biggest blamee, though there are others) is exporting more stuff, and America (and Europe?) is buying. China buys up raw materials from other countries, manufactures products, and sells them.

What you should realise is that China has a small domestic consumption (remember Asians extol saving as a virtue, so we buy and consume less). Contrast that with China’s growing export business, you should see how China is growing in strength. But this depends on other countries buying their stuff *cough America cough*. China’s growth comes mainly from exports and China’s biggest worry is that people stop buying their exports.

The rebalancing

There was a time when the outsourcing/offshoring thing was a craze. Do you know how supply and demand works? As jobs went to India, China and Philippines because it’s cheaper, those jobs started becoming more expensive as the workers wanted better pay. It might still be cheaper to outsource/offshore, but it doesn’t always make a big financial impact to the bottom line.

You know this oil thing we need? It’s getting more expensive as it becomes scarcer. We need to find alternative energy solutions soon. See education above. Where are the people we need to solve this problem? (They aren’t motivated enough to learn, and they’re watching cat videos on YouTube).

You know what more expensive energy means? Transportation is going to get costlier. Getting a product to be manufactured in China, then assembled in Mexico, then shipped to America is going to be financially inadvisable.

You know what that means? Jobs are going to start flowing back (to wherever they came from).

You know what? There are millions of jobless young people who are willing to do those jobs.

But you need to be willing to train them. Specialisation cannot be your focus. Remember, these people just graduated from school. You won’t find a person who fits the job of a managerial post with an emphasis on information technology.

Get that graduate (who has a bundle of joyful energy) with the MBA. Train him/her on your business with information technology.

Get that programmer who did a bunch of software projects. Teach him/her about your special accounting software business.

Export more bits than atoms

I read that a Singapore minister (can’t remember who. You should know by now I have a terrible memory for these things…) who said that Singapore’s economic concern should still be to focus on manufacturing. I believe he’s referring to material goods.

I’m going to ask you a question. With the climate concern now, and that our landfills are starting to fill with our waste at a rate that’s slightly alarming, and that raw materials are getting costlier to shovel around, should you still export physical goods?

That’s still going to be a viable business. I mean, I still see people queuing up to buy the latest iPhone 4S, and texting on their perfectly working iPhone 4 (I still use an iPhone 3G, which Apple doesn’t even support anymore).

Remember the outsourcing/offshoring thing? There were 2 kinds of jobs: the physical creation of a product, and the intangible stuff. China does manufacturing. India does call centres.

As people become more aware of what they buy and consume, I see people having less material goods. The modern cell phone allows you to play games, organise your calendar, keep todo lists, take photos, capture videos, record audios, browse the Internet and make phone calls.

Even if that’s not the case, there’s a physical limit to how much you can export (and thus sell and thus make money). So sell your skills and knowledge. Teach people stuff. Offer something that’s not so easily replaceable by another person in another country.

Africa poised as untapped and trapped consumer base

Africa is like the poster child for a country in poverty. She has a large population but most of her people are struggling with where the next meal is coming from.

As China and India got more of their people out of poverty (due to globalisation in part), their people started buying stuff.

India is an interesting case. As her economy improved, so did her domestic consumption. In a sense, India is more “stable” than China in terms of growth.

The point is that Africa has a large population who most probably cannot and will not buy your products and services. They’re too busy dealing with AIDS, malaria and hunger. Not only that, it represents a huge number of people who cannot contribute to the world.

A human mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Finishing line

That was a lot to write.

So in case you skipped the whole shebang above, here’s the moral: Consume less (with more intelligence), raise education, and help other people.

University degrees and debt

Make the time and money you spend while studying in university count. The value of a degree doesn’t fluctuate much, year to year. But if you take just one year longer to obtain that degree, it means you’ve wasted one year of your life and another few thousands of dollars in tuition fees. Which means it takes that much longer for you to repay the tuition fee loan (if you took out one).

University/college tips from Bryarly

University/college tips from Emily

Business or degree

Degrees as general intelligence shortcut

Today I went to the library. Never mind the reason. Suffice to say, I decided the best use of my morning was to go to the library.

While I was browsing the shelves, I found this book Spent, by Geoffrey Miller. He’s an evolutionary psychologist, and it happens that his writing is a little… dry at times. Whole blocks of text with few bolds, italics and headings to break the flow.

Degrees and sexual evolution

I persevered and managed to skim through some of the chapters. Basically, his premise of modern consumerism and marketing is affected by sexual evolution. You buy stuff to show you’re a better mate. You buy expensive (but deemed as socially coveted) goods to show off. You buy stuff that’s seemingly a waste to show you can waste resources.

He also pointed out the 2 extremes: the people supporting consumerism (despite the credit card debts and other financial disasters), and the people opposing pure consumerism. He also said both are dangerous, which I agree.

Anyway, he said something about education. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said university degrees are used as a shortcut to determine a person’s general intelligence. He also used the term IQ as well.

He said the people who scoff at the idea of using IQ to determine a person’s intelligence are usually already clever, and hang around people of their intelligence level. “Anyone with average intelligence can understand string theory!”, ignoring the fact that they’re surrounded by janitors and other school staff.

Schools require stringent tests to determine if you’re intelligent enough to attend at their establishment. The most prominent of these tests is the SAT. But the idea of an IQ test to determine intelligence threatens these schools. Because anyone can easily take a short IQ test to determine their intelligence.

If it’s easy to obtain, it’s harder to use it as a screen or charge for it. Thus, the academia typically scoff at the usefulness of an IQ test, ignoring the SAT they used for admission.

If it’s easy to fake, or is almost indistinguishable from the original, then the original loses value. The example used here is cubic zirconia, directly competing with diamonds.

Our ancestors might have developed humour, creativity and kindness to compete for quality mates. Those are alternative traits to body musculature, body symmetry and other physical properties. In time, those “inferior” traits won. There are women who prefer a guy with humour, creativity and kindness to other human beings.

Social status (or showing off)

What I’m getting at (and what I believe Geoffrey was suggesting), is that a degree is a social status object, just like any other social status object. Having a degree shows other people that you had the time and money to pursue a degree, and the discipline to actually fulfill the requirements to get a degree. It’s a shortcut. Having a degree doesn’t necessarily mean you’re intelligent because there are some graduates who are frightfully stupid.

I will admit right here that I’ve never actually applied anything I learned for my degree in my jobs. Maybe that I learnt C and Unix shell scripts and commands.

My only regret is that I didn’t try to do more during my university days. Maybe learning about how businesses actually work. Did you know an employee typically costs a company 3 times his salary to employ him? This means an employee has to do work that generate a revenue amount 3 times his own salary just to justify his existence in company payroll. Where does the money go? The lights, the cleaning, the pantry, the security, the stationery. How can a company survive then? Because there are sales people that generate revenue amounts equal to 10 times their salary. That’s why sales people can be highly paid.

What was I talking about? Oh yes, degrees.

To increase the value of the original, you can increase the precision of getting the original and/or decrease the credibility of the competition. For example, the judgement of diamond quality and the emphasis that cubic zirconia rings aren’t rare (thus not as “valuable”).

The crux of the matter is that educational institutes are afraid their degrees will lose value. Just read the backgrounds of those who fervently support the obtaining of degrees, and those with a “meh” attitude towards degrees. Are they academics? Do they hold a job? Are they entrepreneurs? Are they open to new ideas? Are they ambivalent? Do they propose alternatives?

I suggest you get a degree if you can. But start a business while you’re there. A degree is still a valuable social status object. But don’t kill yourself trying to get one.

Consider what you want out of your life. I would hate to think you would waste 4 years of your life and tons of money to just scrape by and get a degree. Do something useful while you’re there! Make it more than just a piece of paper!

Did you know that because cubic zirconia is cheap to produce, the processes can be refined to the point where they’re less flawed than diamonds? Imagine, “fake” diamonds that are “purer” than real diamonds!

Start business or get a degree?

Ok, I’m biased in this. I would suggest you start a business. But I would come off as fake, since I do have a university degree.

In these tough economic times, the value of a university (or college) degree is highly debated. Some people say you don’t need a degree (here and here). And there are also articles and studies saying a degree is (still) the best investment you can make (for example, here and here). [For the latter article, I would add that you be careful of the word “average” being thrown around. Because you read my blog, I would suggest that you’re more than just average.]

DISCLAIMER: The Singapore education system might be different from the system you have in your country. I can’t even tell you if the Singapore system as of writing now is the same as what I went through.

Should I buy the steel sword now or later?

In the role-playing video games I’ve played when I was younger, I would arrive in a town and I’d be immediately broke. I’d go buy the best armour and weapons money can buy. Inevitably, the game designers made it such that it’s highly unlikely you would have enough money to buy every single piece of best armour and weapons for your character(s).

Now you have a decision to make.

“I don’t have enough money. Should I buy that bronze sword now so I can continue with the adventure? Or just tough it out until I reach the next town, where I can buy the steel sword for just a little bit more money?”

That degree you’re thinking of getting is that adamantium sword. And it’s available for purchase about, oh, 8 towns later. You better tough it out…

A degree is traditionally considered the be-all-end-all. Once you have it, you’re set for life. It’ll open doors for you in the corporate world. People judge you (highly?) based on a piece of paper that you have. Job recruiters screen you based on the type of degree you have, looking for computer science degree graduates even though someone with a bachelor of science (majoring in applied mathematics and computational science) is just as qualified *cough*.

There is always another sword better than whatever you have (even adamantium). It doesn’t happen in games because they’re finite. But in real life, there’s always something better you can have. Maybe a professional certificate in something. Certifications by Microsoft, Oracle or any company/organisation that’s respected.

Don’t waste your freedom

Through my primary school, secondary school and junior college days, I had to wake up early and be at school by 7:30am. School ends sometime in the afternoon, where I might have extra curricular activities.

When I was drafted into the military, I was told when I had to wake up. I was told when and what to do in my waking hours. And I was told when to go to bed.

When I started at a job, I had to be in the office at 8:30am. I could only go for lunch between 12 noon and 2pm, and only for 1 hour. I could only go home after 6pm.

I only had freedom of time when I was in the university (and now, when I’m working for myself). When I was in university, I typically took about 20 credits per semester (about 5 classes), which was about 20+ hours of lectures and tutorial work. The class timings were still fixed, but for the first time in my educational life, I had some degree (no pun intended) of freedom. I could choose which tutorial classes I wanted to attend. I could plan my time each week and even each day.

So if you’re looking for advice, I suggest this: Go to university/college and get your degree if you can (keeping the cost of time and money in mind). But start a business while you’re there.

Don’t give me that cranberry about not having enough time. Even if you stretch it, lectures and tutorials only consume up to 30 hours per week of your time. You still have 10 hours more per week than if you’re working full time! Make use of that.

Don’t drink (alcohol). Don’t do drugs. Don’t party (too much). Don’t smoke.

I get that this period of time might be liberating to you, but it’s also the time where your self-discipline is most tested. I’m not saying you can’t have fun. But if you can’t hold yourself accountable now, your future work at a job is going to suck cannonballs.

You have a huge university debt the moment you start. Don’t wait 4 years before struggling to find a job that pays enough that you can repay that.

If the statistics are true, most small businesses fail within 5 years. You have 4 years in university. Start failing then.

You can either start your own business and have some control over your future. Or you can work at a company where the company controls your future.

If you’re reading this, I assume you’re either a mathematician, a scientist or a programmer. Start a business. Get a degree. You’ll probably do fine either way. Even better, start a business while you’re getting your degree.

Singularity Magazine May 2011

Singularity Magazine May 2011

In this May issue of Singularity, we have interviews with molecular-genetics-researcher-turned-author Beverly Akerman (who wrote The Meaning of Children) and 9 year old go-kart-racing Ricky Springer.

I also covered an event by professor Joe Winston on “Beauty, Education and the Well-being of Children”.

Download the May 2011 issue.

In exciting magazine news, we also have a Facebook page! Share your comments, put up links, start discussions!

Behind the scenes

The fairies I hired to help me were starting to get very fond of the cat rides, which was an important part of my contract with them. My cat, if you remember, helps me with getting rid of junk email with her tele-mechano-kinesis powers. My cat had also gotten a little tired of giving rides. She took to hiding…

Cat hiding

This, is going to be a problem…

Good grades no longer enough?

Here’s a quote from an article of The Seattle Times:

Valedictorians with straight-A’s were denied admission, while out-of-state students with lower grades were accepted.

The reason?

The decision is based squarely on economics: Nonresident students in effect subsidize the education of Washington residents, providing a much-needed boost in revenue at a time the UW could see its funding cut by $200 million over the next biennium.

It’s not ideal. Revenue, budgets and other financial concerns affect the direction of education.

I wrote an article on the merits of a debtless university education. However minute or major, money has an impact on how educational institutes are run. Perhaps it’s the focus of the university’s educational efforts (maybe putting more money into “money-making” departments such as business, medical and legal). Perhaps it’s the decision to take in more students who pay more in tuition fees. And lower the number of student intake with perfectly good grades but don’t pay as much in tuition fees.