Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Last Lecture That Could Have Been Better

CS3216 was inspired by the The Last Lecture.

Just delivered what is likely my last lecture for CS3216. It is hard to describe the feeling. Strangely liberating is probably the best I can do.

In terms of delivery, it could probably have been better. I committed the elementary mistake of trying to cover too much ground. I shouldn't have made, but I did. >.< Ah well.

I guess it's hard to resist the temptation to try to tell students everything under the sun, including the meaning of life, when there's a nagging thought that this IS the last chance.

School is hardly the most efficient mechanism for learning and lecture is hardly the most effective way to have students learn.

My only consolation is that it is not likely that students would remember much of what happened tonight a couple of years down the road (which might also not be a consolation depending on how we look at it. >.<).

I guess my goal tonight is to provide students with some sense of the history and motivation of CS3216 together with an overview of the issues that I think matters. Most importantly, I wanted to pay tribute to the people who helped make CS3216 happen, especially long-suffering TA Kok Wee. :-)

In the spirit of walking the talk, I will also finish my final blog post for the semester tonight to summarize some of things I covered:

(i) The world today as we know it is broken. I believe that it is important for people to try to understand WHY the world come to be broken. My blame Wall Street, but that's too simplistic even I might not think much of bankers.

I really don't think that it's the fault of anyone in particular that caused the world to spiral into its current state. To me, it is really the consequence of what I believe are core structural issues, couple with many Prisoner-Dilemma-like situations, where people are naturally led to incentivized to do the "wrong" things.

I think it's important for students to think about social political issues from a higher-level because I think it helps to put things in perspective. We live in a world much better than ourselves and I think it matters to understand, without judgment. The social pyramid I described is not a matter of good or bad. It just is.

Human societies have always self-organized into social pyramids in one way or another. That is merely a function of life's penchant to be unfair.

Am I hoping that one of the students can make a difference and put things right? Truthfully, not really. Truth be told, I'm not entirely convinced that the inevitable decay that we see happening around us can necessarily be stopped.

From where I'm standing, it seems to me that the future is pretty bleak for most of the developed world.

We've reached a saturation point whereby the good old days of 8% growth are over. At 3% growth, I think life will become harder for most people.

Deepan said he didn't agree and for all our sakes, I sure hope that he's right. I guess my point is not that we should be pessimistic about the future, but that it's important to be mentally prepared for hard times 'cos "unmanaged and unrealistic " expectations on serve to create unnecessary disappointments.

(ii) Before people can try to make a difference and perhaps save the world while they are at it, it is important to work towards self mastery. Because we can even have a chance at changing the world and external environment, I believe that it is important to look inward and make sure that things are in order.

The process will never be complete and starts with self awareness. That's one of the reasons why we have peer appraisal in CS3216. Obviously, I also took the opportunity to belabour the importance of 10,000 hours and deliberate practice.

(iii) Finally, I hope that students will focus on creating value. Why? I think that vocations that create value will tend not to contribute as much to the current downward spiral that is the reality of the world of the world we live in, compared to vocations that do not.

As we had discussed, value is obviously subjective. Something of value to someone might be completely worthless to another. I have a certain disdain for wealth arising not from the fruits of one's labours that generates value for another.

In this light, I think stockpicking creates absolutely no way whatsoever and the same goes for making money off property. I see no reason why a pile of stones and bricks sitting quietly should generate significant amounts of wealth over time.

The problem with wealth arising from sources other than hard work is that it encourages greed. On the other hand, I believe that those who are able to invent new machines and groundbreaking services that solve *real* problems are entitled to become rich.

I believe that real value creation should be rewarded in monetary terms, commensurate with the value created.

In addition to these three points, I think I said a whole bunch of other random things today, but I suspect that these three things are what I tried my best to articulate today, but perhaps not very well. Today was not the best of days for me.

The funny story for today is that ex-student Linxi turn up today, and I was completely embarressed that I couldn't quite recognize her. Well, in my defense, I haven't seen her for a very long time and she has started working. She really looks quite different in make up compared to back when she was a student. We just had a rather long chat and caught up over GChat.

Even though the class is effectively over (except for tomorrow's poster presentation, which I'm quite sure will turn out *just fine*), I hope that my students will not be strangers once the class is over. They are always welcome to come have coffee with me. :-P

Personally, I don't think I did do as good a job as I could have done today, but in the same spirit of forgiveness that I had espoused, I will get over it and start working harder on my last lecture for CS1101S this Friday. We need to give ourselves some room for mistakes. :-)

After teaching for many years, the fact remains: there are better days and there are not-so-great days. Preparation helps to increase the probability of good days, but we cannot be completely sure that we will always give a good lecture.

What I do however is that I always try my best and I try to learn from the mistakes so that I can do better the next time.

While we can do everything within our powers to try to succeed, success is not always an outcome that we can control. The one thing we can control is how hard we try.

It is my hope that my students will always do their very best, in whatever they choose to do. :-)

I look forward to an interesting poster session tomorrow. :-P


  1. Why do you want to stop/change things? It was unnatural for us to exploit the planet like that. Maybe the best is to have the current order collapse and maybe the survivors will learn from our lessons and build a better system.

  2. Thanks Prof, I'm glad I chose to do this module while it lasted. Although I didn't get to fully learn what I had initially set out to learn, I kinda ended up picking up more valuable stuffs here than any other modules combined. :)

  3. Good question. :-)

    I now have two daughters and they might also have children of their own.

    I have had a pretty good life. I hope that my children and my children's children will also enjoy a relatively decent life (dun dare say good, 'cos life is going to get so much harder in the foreseeable future) and not one that sux. The youth in Greece today live a life with no future. I don't want that for my children and my children's children. It's bad enough that oil is likely to start running out in yours and their lifetimes. Let's not exacerbate the situation.

    I really don't think it's possible to avoid what I think is the imminent doom and destruction of the human race and/or the planet.

    I do think that Singapore is somewhat of an anomaly and we do have something good going on for us on this little red dot. It is not an law of nature that things should always be well with us. I believe that we have a good system. :-) I believe that if we work hard enough, we can keep this place together longer than anywhere else.

    Each of us must make a choice as to the path we wish to take for our lives. I have chosen to spend my life working for the greater good. I will do my part, with what little time I have, to contribute to well-being and preservation of the good that we have (and many have taken for granted) that I believe is worth fighting for.

    How will you choose? :-)

  4. "Before people can try to make a difference and perhaps save the world while they are at it, it is important to work towards self mastery. Because we can even have a chance at changing the world and external environment, I believe that it is important to look inward and make sure that things are in order."

    That is a very sound advice.

  5. One of the points you said was that Singaporeans want to be higher in the pyramid so you need foreign workers which I think is extremely valid. To add something to that though, I feel Singapore should really concentrate on achieving higher levels of automation to tackle this problem more effectively...