31 March 2007

A Case for Ministerial Salary Increase

The blogosphere has been blaring their discontent and frustration at the recent ministerial pay hike. And of course, any attempts to support the government's action, like this one on the Young PAP Blog, is like an ant being flushed down a toilet bowl. But these anti-pay hike bloggers could just be flogging a dead horse, couldn't they?

But I have been asking myself, is this pay hike justified, if we assume the Singapore Inc. line of thinking? This thinking goes along the idea that Singapore is run like a company, where its citizens are economic units. They are valuable as long as they can provide economic benefit to the country. Of course, with this comes a lack of true loyalty and belonging to the country. Not many will hesitate given a chance to leave Singapore and never come back. Not many will serve NS because "I must" but because "I have no choice". Not many will think of sacrificing for their homeland. Not many will feel deep attachment to this nation.

Now, like some impending storm approaching me, I see this dire situation as more and more of a reality, and if I assume so, then I ask myself if the pay hike is justified. For if people are not willing to sacrifice to be ministers, it is imperative for the government to attract talent with whatever means possible. Yes, there may be people who are willing to do it for low pay, but being a minister requires so much more than talent. It requires the excellent people, and if the country cannot get them to sacrifice themselves for it, then it has to hire them. A "why do they need so much money" kind of argument simply doesn't hold because the money is simply to "buy" them from the private sector.

So to me, it is logical to increase ministerial salaries so as to close the gap between their pays and their equivalents in the private sector, if we operate under the assumption that Singapore is being run like a company. Of course, a country should not be run like a company in the first place, and because I take this stand, therefore I disagree with the increase. But still, my opinions should not disrupt the logic of Singapore Inc. -> ministerial pay hike.

30 March 2007

Free Will (Part III½)

(This entry is some sort of a summarised version of my current thoughts on free will. The previous three entries can be accessed here: Free Will (Part I), Free Will (Part II), and Free Will (Part III). It is a comment to another blog entry, and it doesn't really add much new stuff, hence the III½ status.)

The following post is an edited comment to a blog entry in the PH1101E Reason and Persuasion blog. The original blog entry discusses a book review talking about the criticism of René Descartes' belief in dualism. Comments on the blog is part of the assessment for the module.

I am not going to comment on Damasio's criticism on Decartes, or Dennett's review on it, but my interest lies on its consequence - that is, the consequence of the inseparability of the mind and the body - more specifically, its effect on the arguments for free will, a subject which I have long been interested in.

One of the strongest arguments for the existence of free will is dualism, that the mind is separate from the body, and is not subjected to physical laws that our bodies experience. See, for example, anomalous monism. And the reason for free will hiding in dualism is due to the nature of science.

Our physical laws are either deterministic (such as Kepler's and Newton's Laws) or probabilistic (for example, quantum mechanics and theories of open systems) by nature. While we still do not know how our brain behaves, it is reasonable to assume that whatever laws that govern the physical processes in our brains has to be of this nature. In such a situation, how can we have free will then, if "choice" is either a victim of causality or total randomness? What is so special about our brains that admits free will? If the equations that govern the motion of our neurons is the same as those governing the electrons in my laptop, what is stopping my Windows from displaying a blue screen of death proclaiming "I think, therefore I crash"?

This is where dualism comes in a valiant attempt to rescue free will from the onslaught of science. If our choice-making mechanism is not subjected to physical laws, then perhaps we will then have free will, because our choices are not totally consequences of things we've done before or something so random that it is out of our control.

This dualism concept, however, does not sit well with me. On top of the "ghost in a box" problem described in the final paragraph of this post, I find that dualism explaining free will is just inventing something up to satisfy our need to have control of our choices. We can very well do away with it without sacrificing any knowledge of our world. This is an Occam's Razor approach to knowledge, but that is a philosophy I adopt.

I personally want to believe that I have free will, but I recognise that Nature does not care about what we like or not. She just is, and if dualism (and hence free will) does not exist, we do not have a choice.

16 March 2007

On Descartes' Scepticism

The following post is an edited comment to a blog entry in the PH1101E Reason and Persuasion blog. The original blog entry discusses a few general ideas about René Descartes' Meditations I. Comments on the blog is part of the assessment for the module.

I shall attempt to discuss the question

Is Decartes' skepticism interesting?

To me, his scepticism is certainly interesting. Considering the "what if I'm dreaming" part, it is indeed a question worthy of pursuit even if it may not ultimately fetch an answer. This "what if I'm dreaming" is just like the "brain in a vat" situation, or now also "the Matrix" situation. It satisfies man's desire to know more about himself and the world. Such scepticism challenges established notions and ideas most people have assumed to be true, and only by knowing that they may be flawed can we proceed on to find the "truth". (After all, if humans have never asked this "what if I'm dreaming" question, we would not have the movie "The Matrix"!)

Yet perhaps the level of scepticism Decartes is applying to his analysis may be too extreme. After all, not all knowledge can be attainable and not every question can be answered. For example, the simple question of "does God exist?" is probably one which cannot be proven concretely to be true or false. If one seeks to find answers in such a manner, throwing out an idea once there is something doubtful about it, then he or she may very well be heading towards nihilism.

A more important question to ask, then, would be "is Decartes' skepticism useful?"

To that, my answer would be a "yes". At least, for myself being a scientist (or scientist-in-training), the value of scepticism can never be underrated. Throughout scientific history, old ideas are being overthrown by new ones - I would go as far as to say that discoveries in science is about overthrowing old ideas - and if scientists never strongly and unceasingly doubted established ideas, these new discoveries would never surface. Physicist Richard Feynman puts it most clearly when he said,

"Doubt is clearly a value in the sciences. Whether it is in other fields is an open question and an uncertain matter. I expect in the next lectures to discuss that very point and to try to demonstrate that it is important to doubt and that doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great value."
- "The Meaning of It All", pg. 28

Yet it must be noted that if one bears complete scepticism, throwing out everything that has a bit of uncertainty, then he or she will end up throwing the whole of science out of the window. There has to be a measure of "acceptability" of an idea, and in science this is often described by "beyond reasonable doubt through experiments". So scepticism is only useful when applied moderately.

Feynman left the applicability of scepticism in other areas of knowledge unexplored (at least up till before this paragraph), but I think it is also quite clear that doubt is very useful in many other fields. For example, one needs to apply a fair amount of scepticism when reading a commentary or argument, and when analysing messages from politicians and biased opinions.

In conclusion, the ability to doubt is important, but there must be a limit to the amount of scepticism one has. Decartes' scepticism is certainly interesting and probably useful as long as he has a reasonable measure of when to stop doubting.

12 March 2007

NUS Open House 2007

This year's Open House booth for the Faculty of Science was at the LT27 Foyer, which in my opinion is a much better location than last year's S16 Foyer, which was so lacking in space that it looked like the inside of MRT trains during peak hours. However, probably because of the larger space, the place looked emptier, but I somehow had a feeling that there were less people this year.

In any case, Physics Department maximised the use of the space and scattered our tables and experiments over the place. Here are a few selected photos of the events.

The booth by the Physics Department. It shows the three main tables and part of the astrophysics equipment. Another table is not shown in the picture.

Talk by Prof Sow in LT28.

Discussion among the brains of the department. First from the left is my supervisor Dr Yeo Ye.

Telescopes, posters and images (on laptop) from the astrophysics arm of the department. For the new batch there is an additional specialisation in astrophysics.

Mirage bowl. It's a new one as compared to last year's, which was full of scratches, so the image of the pig as seen here is clearer.

Resonance bowl. You can see the 内功 of the demonstrator from the jumping and vaporisation of the water. Just kidding... the vapour is a result of me adding liquid nitrogen into the water.

Taking advantage of the space, we had the angular momentum spinning chair this year. The spinning rate can slowed down or quickened depending on the moment of inertia of the person (adjustable by holding out or tucking in the weights respectively).

This year's theme is sponsored by Lego. And large Lego pieces were given to each department to construct various models. This is a chair I've constructed. It goes to show why I should not be in architecture or civil engineering.

Of course, the department's trademark show, the superconductor, is down at the centre stage of the show, but since I've talked about it extensively last year, I shall spare everyone of the repetition.

However, I had two thoughts about this Open House. First was a comment posed to me by a mother. She commented that "physics must be very hard". My immediate response then was, "not really, but as long as someone puts in effort, he will be able to do it well." That was the truth, of course, but thinking about it, I could've responded in a much better way, namely, that there is no "easy" or "hard" courses; any course can be easy or hard. What's more important is the interest in the subject, which will probably determine what is easy or hard more than any other indicators.

This led me further to ponder about why many people have the perception that physics is hard. Does it have anything to do with how physicists appear to the general public (i.e. the public portrayal of the likes of Einstein, Bohr, Feynman etc.)? Or is there some fault in the local education system that causes people to dislike physics? After all, there is a drop in the proportion of Singaporeans in the physics cohort, replaced by enthusiastic and motivated students from China and Malaysia. I think this question deserves to be addressed in more detail.

Another thought about the Open House was a diagram in the Science brochure (which I cannot find right now). It's like a three-piece flow chart, showing Singapore's economy developing from a labour-based economy to a technical-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. An era was attached to each economy, with the first being from 1950 to 1970, the next from 1970 to 1990 and the last being 1990 and later. (All these are based on my memory and can be wrong. But I just need an approximation to illustrate my point.) This is fine, but then with each economy was also attached a "qualification". I can't remember what was placed for the first (probably something like unskilled labour). The third was a science degree. For the technical-based economy, the 1970 to 1990 era, a "Engineering degree" was attached. While I understand what the brochure is trying to say, I think it gives an unfair description of an Engineering degree.

Firstly, what the diagram is trying to say is that the economy is moving from depending on unskilled labour to specialised technical skills in the earlier years, and now from technical skills to analytical skills. While a degree in Engineering equips one with a specialised skill, it hardly means that it is stuck with a "technical-based" economy. I could be wrong, but I think the Faculty of Engineering would've taught its students on being flexible with their knowledge, so that they won't be tied down to a specific skill.

Well, so that's for NUS Open House 2007 for Science!

09 March 2007

Gmail the Organiser

Even as I plunge into my ISM on open quantums systems, I am keeping a lookout for the latest journal articles published on the Los Alamos National Laboratory pre-print archive, which is where almost all the final drafts of articles to be submitted to journals are uploaded. This is so as to keep track of the latest developments in that field and get an idea of the kinds of project I can do.

However, the archive, being a site for pre-print, sees a whole lot of articles everyday. Even in the sub-section for quantum physics alone, there is on average ten articles a day, out of which I can usually find one or two that is related to open quantum systems. Add that up over days and weeks and months, I think I will have a substantial collection of articles at my disposal. Of course, the problem then comes: how do I organise all these journal articles and, especially, how to know what each of them discusses about? The abstract should give one an idea of what the paper discusses, but if you have a hundred articles, reading through all the abstracts can be quite maddening.

That's when Gmail comes in handy because of its features. One, it uses labels, which means I can attach different keywords to each article, making a search on a particular idea easier. Two, it has an amazing amount of space, so no worries that I'll max out the space given. Three, it's not housed in my computer, so unless Googleplex collapses, I can be assured that I won't lose the articles. Four, Gmail will be accessible to anyone who needs to search for articles in open quantum systems, e.g. my supervisor.

Right now, the Gmail account is still empty... because I have yet to go through any of the articles I've collected in details yet. But I cannot foresee any troubles with this plan. Yet.