Singapore Mini Maker Faire Part 1

I went to the mini Maker Faire at the Singapore Science Centre.

In the video, there’s a device that measures distances using ultrasonic waves, and based on that, turns a light on or off. It took me a while before I finally understood the concept. I thought it was directional, because she explained the device by pointing it up and down for light-on and light-off. Then I asked if it could be programmed to understand sideways directions…

Basically, if you block the emitting device (ultrasonic waves) within a certain distance, the light switches on. That’s why pointing to the ceiling switches it off, because the distance between the device and the ceiling exceeds the programmed distance limit.

Singularity Magazine June 2011

Singularity magazine June 2011

The June 2011 issue marks the birthday (birthmonth?) of Singularity! This is the 13th issue, and I thank you for reading the magazine. Download this month’s issue (about 7MB).

Behind the scenes

So I found a solution to my cat ride problem. I negotiated heavily with my cat, and she decided (rather imperiously, I might add) that she shall have 1 back massage per month.

“I thought I give you back massages!”
“Oh yeah, I haven’t done that for a while…”
*swipe claws*
“AARRRHHH! Whaddya do that for?”
“Ok, fine.”

So now I have fairies as hired help, but I have to feed them and they are allowed cat rides. My cat shreds junk email and I persuaded her to give cat rides. In return, I have to give her back massages. What have I gotten myself into…

On military, startups and entrepreneurship

Do you know why there are so few entrepreneurs around? Because it’s uncomfortable to be one. Keep this notion of “comfortability” as you continue to read, since it’s going to be a running theme.

On surviving enormous weights

I slept late last night. Or more accurately, I slept in the early morning today. I do that a lot. One, because I work long hours. Two, because it’s really quiet between 11pm and 2am. I also went to bed hungry.

I lie on my bed, and my last thoughts before I drift off to sleep are typically a combination of the following:

  • What can I do to improve my products/services?
  • “I can work on that piece of code for the product first.”
  • “Wonder what functions do Excel users use? Or what development teams do to support their users? I want to work on practical aspects for the guide, but where and how can I get that information? Nobody’s willing to tell me anything.”
  • What else can I do to create some cashflow?
  • What else can I do to make my customers’ lives easier?
  • What wording should I use for my Google ads?
  • What should I write for the next issue of my magazine?
  • What can I do to improve the copy on the sales page?
  • What can I do to market my products/services without being pushy?
  • Who should I interview for the next issue of my magazine?
  • What videos should I create? How can I do them better?
  • I’m hungry

Last night, faced with the enormity and weight of the tasks ahead of me, a new thought came to the fore. I’m damned lonely. Running an IttyBiz is lonely business, because no one around you understands what the **** you’re doing. (There’ll be some swearing, because it’s the only appropriate response. And that hunger can drain your will and self-control like nothing can.)

So the “I’m damned lonely” and the “I’m hungry” thoughts met one another, and decided to wreak havoc on me. I started sobbing. Silently of course. After a few minutes of self-pity, I reined in my thoughts and emotions and calmed down. (Some might say I shouldn’t “air my failures“, so to speak, but I’m just telling you the truth of what I’m going through. I’m not really failing, I’m just not succeeding enough. Now there’s positive thinking for you!) A new thought came up. “Let’s go to the library!” I don’t know where that came from.

I woke up the next day, hungry of course, and decided to just freakin’ go to the library. Maybe it’ll improve my mood. I just published the April issue of my magazine, and for the 1 or 2 days just after publishing an issue, I would usually feel completely drained. Have you ever launched a product? There’ll be a lot of marketing, blog posts to publish, emails to sent, people to inform, processes to check, and so on. Now imagine doing that every single month.

On military

Anyway, if I’m going to the library, I might as well read some business books or something. So I found this book, Start-Up Nation, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Generally, it’s about how the culture and history and geography of Israel made the Israeli military a force to be reckoned with. And subsequently, also made Israel a country of entrepreneurs.

Did you know that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) helped with the design of rules for Singapore’s own military forces? I didn’t know that, and I’m a Singaporean. The authors wrote that the 3 countries, Israel, Singapore and South Korea are similar in that they’re close to hostile or larger countries. All 3 countries share a strong sense of “self-preservation”, of independence, and thus built a strong military force. However, only Israel created a strong entrepreneurial spirit in her people as well.

Although Singapore’s military is modeled after the IDF – the testing ground for many of Israel’s entrepreneurs – the “Asian Tiger” has failed to incubate start-ups. Why?

Further on, the authors wrote

Singapore’s leaders have failed to keep up in a world that puts a high premium on a trio of attributes historically alien to Singapore’s culture: initiative, risk-taking, and agility.

And all three attributes require a person to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (as paradoxical as it may sound).

Today the alarm bells are being sounded even by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister for three decades. “It’s time for a new burst of creativity in business,” he says. “We need many new tries, many start-ups.”

That’s “tries”, not “guarantees”. It implies being uncomfortable, at least for a while. And most people only want to be comfortable.

On foreigners

Israel welcomes immigrants, especially those who are Jewish. Singapore has, well, Singaporeans actually, have issues with immigrants, or what is termed “Foreign Talent” (yes, capital F and T). From what I’ve heard, many Americans have issues with immigrants to America too. One of the reasons is fear. “They will take our jobs! They will feed off our welfare system!”

Singapore and America require immigrants to stay for a while (about 2 years?) before being considered for citizenship. Israel issues citizenship on arrival.

Maids (hired from countries such as Philippines or Indonesian) are fairly common in Singapore. I’ve also heard of a story where a girl was so “comfortable”, that at a buffet spread, she simply points to the food she wants, and the trailing maid behind her would get the food for the girl. Spoilt child, or privileged times? Recently, there’s also a wildly spreading photograph of a Singaporean man in military uniform walking in front of his maid. The maid was carrying the man’s military backpack. I’m ashamed I have to give this as an example of how Singaporeans are too comfortable in their lives. (UPDATE: I’m not sure about the maid carrying the military backpack part. Might be a stunt. But the “comfortable Singaporean” point stands.)

Being a startup founder or entrepreneur is uncomfortable

You’re probably a programmer, or a person working in the technology department. You might be considering becoming a founder of a web startup that will then make millions of dollars. I’m here to tell you it’s going to be uncomfortable. Can you stand being uncomfortable?

You will need to think about making money. From Day One. Not about how cool the application is, or how many users you will get, or how much people will be talking about you. Make money, or sink.

Venture capital or angel funding is not going to save you if you can’t make money. If your startup or business cannot sustain itself, you’re screwed, because it will fail eventually. Because no one’s willing to pay you to sustain it.

On ramen profitability

There were a few times when I tried to explain my plan to a friend or family member. The short-term plan is to reach ramen profitability. After I explained it, the friend or family member would say “That’s not enough! What about savings, health insurance, [insert reason]?”.

Do you know what “ramen profitable” means to you? It means you no longer have to worry about living expenses. Given some margin, it means you can eat whatever you want (oh foooood… uh, sorry.), buy whatever necessities you need, and basically go about your life without worrying too much. In some sense, it’s like financial independence.

But what it really does is give you something that no man can give you, no amount of money can buy: time. You can then make the startup/business better, which generally means more profit without much more work. Or you can create another startup or business if you so wish. Or you can work on that novel (which, let’s face it, is probably not going to make you a lot of money, but gives you much satisfaction). Or that painting. Or volunteering at a shelter. It gives you freedom.

And nobody around me understands that. Of course, the long-term plan is still to make sure I get all the savings and health insurance and whatever finances in order. People see a fixed monthly income, that might possibly increase every year. They see the ramping up of income as “unsafe”, “insecure” and “uncomfortable”, especially since it starts at zero (then to ramen profitable, then to, well however high you want as long you’re willing to work on it).

I had to change my lifestyle so I can work on my business. I’m willing to be uncomfortable, at least for the short-term. I walk whenever I can to save on transport costs. My body aches, either because I’m sitting for too long, or walking for too long. I have this lingering ache right now on my back between the left shoulder blade and the spinal cord. I am frickin’ uncomfortable! I have bread and peanut butter for dinner. Every day. For the past few months. Sometimes, I throw my hands up and just get a proper meal of rice, vegetables and meat. I have lost friends because of the decisions I made. I’m serious about this.

How much are you willing to fight for your dreams? How much are you willing to give up for your goals? How much are you prepared to be uncomfortable?

P.S. I’m working on the “bread and peanut butter” dinner thing. I’m sick and tired of being continually hungry…

CNY Food Shutdown

So I made a short video

[click through to the blog if you can’t see the video]

In Singapore, during the first 2 days of Chinese New Year (which are also public holidays), there’s practically no food to be bought. Let me explain.

The majority of the Singapore population is Chinese. No sane and rational Chinese food stall owner will sell food on those first 2 days. In fact, most venues (food or otherwise) will close up shop. In recent years, businesses have started to be open on the second day (they used to only start on the 3rd day) or even the first day, due to the poor economy. This leaves enterprising Malays and Indians who will provide food for the hungry Chinese, and charge exorbitant fees (I think it can go up to 50% higher than their normal price).

You know what’s available? McDonald’s. The fast food restaurant is open every day, public holiday or otherwise. They just get the Malays and Indians (and sometimes even enterprising *cough desperate cough* Chinese) to work. One of the perks of a multi-racial society, I guess.

What’s interesting is that, during those first 2 days of CNY, the entire island of Singapore goes quiet. Except for occasional lion dance troupes with their drums banging along the road, travelling to their next destination. It’s a public holiday, so even the Malays and Indians might just go “What the hashbrown” and just sleep in. I don’t see this even for our National Day.

What did you say? Me, cook? Who do you think I am, Jamie Oliver? I can barely avoid hurting myself just boiling water. [I actually intended to say that in the video, but forgot. I was very nervous. You can’t script too much, and you can’t improvise too much. Another thing learned…]

So, I’m curious. Do you have holidays where your entire country basically shuts down? Let me know in a comment.

PISA 2009 results analysis (or how I was almost on national television)

Recently, someone from a current affairs television show emailed me. Basically, it’s the start of the new year, and thus the start of the school year. There was the release of the PISA 2009 results and Shanghai topped the list. I wrote a short article, that Singapore was ranked 5th and stated some of my comments.

That person apparently did some research and found me through that article. She probably searched for “pisa results singapore” and my blog came up on the first page of Google results. Go, do a search on those terms. When you find my blog article (titled “Singapore ranked high in PISA 2009 survey”), click on it. Increase my search rankings. Thanks. *smile*

So apparently, I’m the only (Singapore) blogger (I prefer “web publisher”, but I digress) who gave a whoot’s attention about Singapore ranking 5th, in some test with a name that evokes images of an Italian flat bread with stuffings on top. Thus was I contacted to see if I was willing to appear on their TV show to talk about that. After getting over the excitement and fear of appearing on national TV (it took about half an hour to calm my nerves), I read up on my article to remember what the heck I wrote, and glanced through the PISA results again.

Taking a deep breath, I called her to say yes, I’d like to appear on the show. She asked me some questions.

“Do you know our show?”
“No. I don’t really watch television.” (An alarm bell rang violently somewhere in my brain then. It took a second before I realised that I shouldn’t have said that.)

“Do you think we should emulate Shanghai?”
“No. We should be doing our own thing.”

She sent me the topics to be discussed on the show, so I could prepare my responses. Then I did lots of research. You see, it’s been more than a decade since I had contact with academia, let alone with secondary schools (PISA test results are based on 15 year olds). My dad was worried I’d have nothing to say on the show. I asked my friends about the current Singapore education system. I even asked my cousins (who are in secondary school) to let me look at their maths and science textbooks. I read the PISA 2009 results again, thoroughly this time. I prepared my responses to the proposed discussion topics. I worked late into the night. I felt prepared.

The next day, she called me up. Apparently, the topic was changed due to a piece of news: The Singapore football team was disbanded.

“Uhm, I’m sorry. If we do an educational piece, we’ll call you again.”

“So. Are you a football fan by any chance?”
“Well, I had to ask…”

As my friend put it, “Ahhh, such is TV.”

And that’s how I almost appeared on national television. I was both disappointed and relieved at the same time. Then I thought, since I did all that research, I might as well tell you about it. So here’s my short analysis of the PISA 2009 results. Some information first:

  • PISA 2009 results mean the tests were conducted in 2009. The results were announced on 7 Dec 2010.
  • Students are between 15 years 3 months and 16 years 2 months old
  • The sample size from each country must be at least 5000, unless the country does not physically have that many eligible students.
  • Shanghai and Singapore are partner countries, and not OECD countries. I don’t know the significance, but Singapore was included in an OECD whitelist in 2009. Apparently, it’s something to do with transparency of financial and tax information.

I’m responding generally to the topics I was supposed to discuss.

Opinions and thoughts about Shanghai’s and Singapore’s performance

I’m happy for Shanghai. I’m also happy for us. I mean, we’re 5th! Besides, your greatest competitor is yourself, not other people.

I remember something that happened when I was about 9 years old (I think). I had tuition classes in English and maths (hard to believe, what with my impeccable linguistic skills. I know, right? *smile*). There was this English test, and I scored 76 marks out of 100. Yes, I still remember that score. Not too great, but I scored the highest in the class.

I went home and told my dad about it, bursting with pride at being the best in class. His response was “How come so low?” in Chinese. Talk about deflating your morale. From that incident, I learnt that the toughest benchmark you can set your target on, is yourself. Keep improving yourself. Being better than other people will take care of itself.

How did Shanghai do it? Can Singapore do it too?

I don’t know. But this might shed some light. Instead, I want to highlight something in the PISA summary report.

According to the report, out of the countries Finland, Japan, Turkey, Canada and Portugal and the partner country Singapore (emphasis mine), 39% to 48% disadvantaged students are resilient.

Resilient students come from the bottom quarter of the distribution of socio-economic background in their country and score in the top quarter among students from all countries with similar socio-economic background

Compare that with 76% of Shanghai’s disadvantaged students being resilient.

Our near obsession with tuition and shielding our children from outside stress so they can just focus on studying might be a problem. I heard a story about a father not scolding his daughter for fear of distracting her from her exams the next day. She’s a university student. What’s going to happen to her when she steps out of school? Life doesn’t throw stress at you one at a time.

Competition between Shanghai and Singapore

I don’t even know if we’re competing, at least directly. I don’t know what Shanghai is striving for. But what is Singapore striving for? To be an educational, commercial and research hub in South East Asia? Or to beat Shanghai because they won in a study that only focussed on reading, maths and science?

If we want to beat a country at something, we should know what we would get after winning.

Emulating Shanghai

If we (Singapore) truly want to win, to innovate, to lead, then we should lead. Emulating Shanghai just means we’re following them. We might catch up, but we’ll never truly overtake them.

Hey, our primary maths system is adopted by other countries. Israel took up our maths system (in 2002), and per capita, they are one of the richest in the world. Clearly we’re doing something right.

Merits of the Singapore education system

I’ve not been involved in academia for years, so I can’t comment on that. If anything, we should use more real world examples (which PISA does).

For example, a sample maths question in PISA showed 3 clocks, Greenwich 12 midnight, Berlin 1am, Sydney 10am. Then the student was asked

If it’s 7pm in Sydney, what’s the time in Berlin?

That’s immediately applicable in real life. I haven’t seen maths questions in a long time, so the following is something dredged from my memory.

Suppose John spent $X buying some marbles. Red marbles cost R cents, and blue marbles cost B cents. If John bought twice as many red marbles as blue marbles, how many blue marbles did he buy?

Putting aside the obvious reaction of “Why the heck do I want to answer that?”, there are some problems. If I knew John had twice as many red marbles as blue marbles, that meant I already counted them. How else would I know there were twice as many red marbles?

And if I really want to know how many blue marbles John bought, I would just ask him. Let’s say somehow his answer was posed in riddle form. Instead of being a normal person and just tell me he bought 5 blue marbles, John gave me a mathematical riddle to solve. The number of blue marbles had better be critically important…

I could also just ask the store keeper how many blue marbles John bought from him. I doubt the store keeper would also give me his answer in the form of a riddle. But if he did, this world just became more interesting and more exasperating at the same time.

So the student answering that kind of question had to overcome his “Why the heck do I want to answer that?” response before working on the question.

Last thoughts

From the report,

In countries where 15-year-olds are divided into more tracks based on their abilities, overall performance is not enhanced, and the younger the age at which selection for such tracks first occurs, the greater the differences in student performance, by socio-economic background, by age 15, without improved overall performance.

My understanding on that quote is that specialisation has no enhanced overall performance. There’s also this:

Successful school systems – those that perform above average and show below-average socio-economic inequalities – provide all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, with similar opportunities to learn.

Schools shouldn’t differentiate between rich and poor students.

And finally, as I wrote before:

Skill honing at an early stage assumes that whatever a student is good at has already manifested itself. It’s a reasonable assumption. It’s only dangerous if the skill specialisation is to the exclusion of all else (or even “many” else). It gets worse if the student don’t like his “special” ability, and also has aptitude in another area that he likes. But the student is already shuffled into Box A for the first skill.

Be careful of streaming.

Singapore ranked high in PISA 2009 survey

According to the latest PISA results, Singapore is ranked 5th overall in terms of reading capabilities (see executive summary in PDF). Singapore also scored high in mathematics and science.

“Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “While national income and educational achievement are still related, PISA shows that two countries with similar levels of prosperity can produce very different results. This shows that an image of a world divided neatly into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated countries is now out of date.”

Wealth and level of education does not come hand in hand. You still have to work for it.

The best school systems were the most equitable – students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. But schools that select students based on ability early show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background.

I’m a bit cautious of this one. Skill honing at an early stage assumes that whatever a student is good at has already manifested itself. It’s a reasonable assumption. It’s only dangerous if the skill specialisation is to the exclusion of all else (or even “many” else). It gets worse if the student don’t like his “special” ability, and also has aptitude in another area that he likes. But the student is already shuffled into Box A for the first skill.

What do you think?

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.