Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Passing of Dr Sydney Brenner

I have never personally met Dr Brenner; the only time I saw him was from afar. However, when I heard of his passing yesterday, my heart sank and I simply did not know what to do for a few minutes.

Having studied the humanities all my life, I will never know the magnitude of his contributions, however comprehensively expressed. Markers such as his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 and being given awarded an honourary citizenship by the Singapore government in 2003 do not seem to do him justice.

So why am I struck by the death of a scientist who, by all accounts, has led a long and fruitful life?

As life would have it, I encountered Dr Brenner while working for Para Limes when it was still based at Nanyang Technological University. Part of my duties was to edit raw transcripts of the various conferences organised by Para Limes before passing it on to a professional editor to turn it into a book. Hence, I have edited transcripts of various talks given by Dr Brenner during the conferences.

Watching recordings of him repeatedly while editing the transcripts had a strange effect on me. As one had to listen very intently with headphones on, it did feel as if he was speaking directly to me.

While most of the content are beyond me, I was struck by his vigour and wit despite being afflicted with ill health. He came across as someone who has always been interested in science, and the actual research and experimentation should take priority. Such a concern is understandable, and it is one shared by people from various disciplines as well.

During the conference entitled, Grand Challenges of Science in the 21st Century, he wryly criticises the bureaucracy within scientific institutions with his characteristic wit:

The full recording of Dr Brenner's talk, in which he went on to discuss the challenges of science can be found here. Para Limes has since went on to produce a book which condenses the main points made by all the speakers of the event, which is available for purchase.

Despite all his accomplishments and seniority, his passion and sense of wonderment never left him. During his last appearance at one of Para Limes' events, he sent down with computational neurobiologist, Terry Sejnowski, and spoke candidly about the development of science and his career.

Over the course of several sessions, he explained how he structured his laboratory and ensured everyone involved took responsibility of their areas of research. He also provided anecdotes about how he treasured talent and skill over paper qualifications. It is amazing that his rebellious streak still feels unorthodox today, let alone back then.

The following is the first video of the series:

His account of the history of microbiology and his work during this event has been recorded and published as a book entitled, In the Spirit of Science: Sydney Brenner on DNA, Worms, and Brains.

It is interesting that through the course of a menial task, I unwittingly established an unlikely connection with Dr Brenner. His devotion to science and endless curiosity resonated with me. The constant push and striving in the human spirit is inspiring, and was definitely embodied by Dr Brenner.

While it is almost impossible to attain equivalent accomplishments in my line of work, one hopes to emulate his spirit in pursuing what is important, and be endlessly curious in whatever we do. 

Thank you Dr Brenner.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ray Blake Traveller's Notebook (Review and Set-up)

A while back, I wrote about the beautiful dilemma I have after being introduced to Midori Traveller's Notebook. It has been a year since I started using it and I've been loving it!

Recently, I decided to purchase a notebook from Ray Blake which will be used as a notebook to write my key impressions when I review theatre productions or books.

If you would like to read those reviews, please visit

Friday, May 29, 2015

Of Two Minds

I am glad that there has been a concerted effort in featuring most of our athletes in the run-up to the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. It gives them the recognition they deserve which would hopefully drum up more support for them.  However, I am puzzled by this feature from Today

Any sport requires a combination of athleticism and craft. Excellence is achieved through years of practice and discipline. It is a career in its own right; one that starts rather early. This is why I am puzzled by the need for these netball players to have a day job. It would certainly surprise any athlete from abroad that some of our athletes only train three to four hours a day. More importantly, regardless of how doggedly resilient they are, having little rest would affect their performance in both the sport and their day jobs.

Why would they do this? Three possible reasons come to mind. 

(1) They really want it. 

If that is the case, then props to them. While I personally feel that they should focus on their sport, given that an athlete's career is short and netball has fewer opportunities for competition (they are not included in the Olympics yet),  they should be free to pursue their own goals. I am also glad that their employers and coaches are understanding in this regard. 

(2) They want to make ends meet. 

I really hope this is not the case. If it is, then it is a disgrace that a country can spend billions and expedite construction only to have a stadium with a leaky roof, or millions on the opening ceremony and publicity campaigns, but not pay their players well. 

The time and energy invested in training are definitely the same, if not more, than their counterparts in the corporate world. They also risk injuring themselves which might have a permanent effect on their health. 

(3) They are doing this in preparation for a career transition once they retire from the game. 

This is a tricky one. We must not assume that they would necessarily want to stay in sports or be a coach after they hang up their jerseys. Though, as a point of interest, I wonder whether the sports industry is able to absorb all of them should they choose to stay.

While the Singapore Sports Council should be commended for their SPEX education and career scheme, the ideal would be for the athletes to worry about their careers only after they have retired. Of course they should plan for their career transition but they should not have to handle such an arduous juggling act. What little time they have outside of practice should go to spending time with friends and family. 

I wonder if, after the cameras and sound recorders are switched off, the reporter asked why they wanted to juggle two careers.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Beautiful Dilemma

Recently, a creative and resourceful friend picked up the habit of using a Midori Traveller's Notebook. However, given that it is unreasonably expensive, he decided to make one for himself. Seeing his progress online, I cheekily asked if he could make one for me and he did! Initially, I felt bad because he has a full-time job and I had no hopes of him saying yes. But seeing his handiwork in the flesh, I am glad that he took me seriously.

Now, there is a problem: what am I going to do with it? 

While it is easy to fall for the marketing hype of Midori about detailing your adventures in your battered notebook as you brave the seven seas, I am very much aware that this is not going to happen for an urbanite like me. 

The obvious options for me are to use it as a daily planner or a notebook to catch any ideas whenever inspiration strikes (cue the image of leaping out of bed and feverishly scribbling ideas for my magnum opus). Is this really a good option?

On one hand, part of me feels that my smart phone can do the job quicker and neater as I have a "doctor's handwriting" that is verging on chicken scratchings. It also pains me to deface the Midori notebook refills which cost me $5 each. Additionally, it is quite difficult to write on the go as these notebooks are soft and I need a harder surface to write on. I tried cutting a piece of cardboard to slot it between the pages but it is not hard enough if I were to write while standing. 

On the other hand, there is a sense of permanence in physically writing things down. It invites one to revisit and reflect on it. While I have tried keeping a diary (and failed after one entry), I realise that even just writing a couple of lines about what happened that day would help jog my memory. As much as I like to sneer at Midori's marketing, I cannot help but have the slightly romanticised image of being able to answer where I was when something momentous happened by referring to a particular line that I wrote. 

Worse still, I like the idea of my children or grandchildren chancing upon my notebooks and wondering what happened or why I wrote a certain line. Perhaps the entry would be something similar to Theodore Roosevelt's entry but hopefully under much happier circumstances:

Notice that his journal is somewhat similar in size
Photo: Library of Congress
Despite the difficulties of choosing between technology and paper, the fact is that I have already bought the cover from my friend and have purchased a few notebooks. The worst option is to leave it rotting on my shelf. After much agonising, here is what did with my notebooks. I bought three notebooks (one grid and two lined) and have since wrote in the grid and one of the lined notebooks.

Beginnings of a bullet journal
For the grid notebook, I decided to use it as a bullet journal. For a start, I created two collections (do click on the link to learn about the terms I am using). As I am currently using another planner, I will have to wait till that is done before I incorporate monthly and daily schedules into this journal.

Some notes on books that I am reading and will review
For the lined notebook, I decided to use it to facilitate content creation for my booktube channel. When I first started making videos, I will type out the script based on my overall impressions of the book and will often struggle to remember certain details.  I thought that writing down certain points on the go would allow me to create videos with more depth. It also serves as a  nice record of the books that I have read.

I am still trying to think of ways to further incorporate the notebooks in my daily life so as to justify my expenditure. Every time I have an inkling of what to do, I would face the dilemma of choosing between technology and paper.

While it is infuriating at times, it is a beautiful dilemma to have.  

Friday, May 15, 2015

What Job Can I Do With A Philosophy Degree?

Photo: Dakine Kane

Being involved with my faculty's open house for the past three years, that is the questionas phrased in our local parlancethat prospective students (or their parents) will always ask. It is so important that a certain ritual is often performed before the question is asked. 

The student or parent would pause as if to consider whether it is the appropriate time to ask. Then, it is occasionally followed by a false start complemented with an obligatory tinge of embarrassment: "Erm... Wha-what job can I (or my son/daughter) do with a philosophy degree?" 

This question, to many, is the million-dollar question; the barometer indicating the worth of pursuing a discipline. This question irks me the most. 

It irks me not because it is a bad question. Far from that; being prudential can be a virtue in certain circumstances. It is the way it is asked. It makes all the previous questions seem banalchatter that paves the way for the "important" question. 

It makes going to university, which is an absolute privilege, akin to going through a toll booth. One does not care for it and is eager to go through it just to get to a supposedly better destination. Most of all, I get a feeling that the question is asked without much reflection. It is amazing how some students are very frank about why they are asking the question: "What do I tell my mum?" 

In previous years, I was eager to brush the question aside. I would cite a few seniors as examples and list a few other possible jobs which left the student/parent and I equally unsatisfied. With the benefit of having a philosophical education for four years, it is time to address this question properly. 

The Underlying Question

The question that is often asked is far from simple. In fact it is the wrong question to start with. The fact that simply listing various examples is not satisfactory means that there is an underlying need that is not addressed. What could it be?

While there are several reasons which compel one to ask that question, two comes to mind immediately:

(a) You are worried about not being employable. 

(b) You have a desired job or an industry in mind and you wonder whether philosophy will help or hinder you. 


Granted thatapart from academia or particular teaching jobsyou hardly see "Wanted: Philosophy Graduates" in job advertisements, philosophy graduates are not sleeping under bridges. In fact, the previous two batches of graduates (i.e., the most recent group to enter the workforce) are employed in both public and private sectors. They work in a variety of industries such as Singapore Airlines, customs, human resource, and consultancy.

As such, the major worries in (a) are unfounded. This should also help to answer (b) to some degree.

Assistance or Hindrance?

The whole focus of (b) is problematic. There is an underlying assumption that there is some form of simple correlation between your major and a job or range of jobs. Also, it seems to focus on the paper qualifications itself rather than whether the skills you acquire through philosophy are helpful. 

Firstly, based on the variety of industries my seniors are working in, whatever major you take in the course of getting your B.A. does not matter save for specialised industries such as medicine, law, engineering etc.

More importantly, the paper qualifications play an incredibly small part as to whether you eventually get the job and subsequently thrive in it. A lot has to do with your overall performance in the interview, your attitude, adaptability, and willingness to learn. 

That said, it must be acknowledged that the class of your B.A. (not the major) will determine the career tracks and pay grades in quite a few industries. While NUS has changed its degree classification, it is a cosmetic change and employers will still know whether your degree is a first or second class. 

As such, while your grades are not the be-all and end-all, it is still important. What is the point of pursuing a supposedly more profitable discipline, which does not guarantee anything in the first place, only to obtain mediocre marks because it does not interest you? 

Gone are the days when dogged memorisation and regurgitation will get you good marks. There must be a great deal of inner motivation to see you through a tough ride. Three or four years is a considerable investment of your time, why not do something you enjoy?

The million-dollar question is only worth a hundred dollars.


Of course, I am not under the illusion that what I have written thus far would convince everyone, especially in the hard-nosed and "practical" culture that I am brought up in. So what "transferable" skills does philosophy equip you with?

An easy answer is to utter the buzz words: critical thinking. But such an answer is unhelpful and ironically shows that one is not even thinking.

Another easy but slightly better answer is that it makes you question all assumptions. I do not think that it is necessarily the case but in the course of tackling philosophical questions, it would at least make you aware of them. This will help define the problem better and it paves the way to solving or at least addressing it. It is no wonder that the quote by Charles Kettering, "A problem well stated is a problem half-solved," is often repeated by peers and professors.

Another skill that is very much in the spirit of Kettering is the clarity of expression. This may seem very surprising to those who have not taken philosophy because there are some philosophers who are utterly impenetrable. However, those philosophers are often of a different era or the original text is not in English. Otherwise, it is expected of us to be able to express the views of others clearly, robustly, charitably, and succinctly.

A close companion of writing would, of course, be reading. In the course of engaging with various thinkers, one will encounter a variety of rhetorical styles; from the systematic and almost scientific presentations to one with literary flourish. One is required not only to read for understanding but for nuance. The choice of words, examples, punctuation, and even italics are incredibly important in identifying the stance of the philosopher.

Additionally, due to the various branches of philosophy, one will be equipped to read papers from other disciplines. For example, in a philosophy of mind class, a couple of my readings were actually psychology papers and we were required to go through them and suss out the philosophically important aspects of the experiments. I have also encountered texts from sociologists, cultural commentators, and even biologists in the course of four years. This is due to the fact we have a faculty that has a wide range of research interests and that various branches of philosophy are inter-disciplinary by nature.

Such skills are useful even at the interview stage. There are some positions within the government sector (unfortunately, I am not at liberty to disclose too much here) that require a few rounds of interviews before a final decision is made. The first couple of rounds are a variety of tests. Some of the questions could be in the form of a logic question (logic is a compulsory module for all majors) or one may be asked to summarise articles. Clearly, the skills mentioned above will put one in good stead.

The Life of the Mind

The one thing that I seldom get to tell students at the open house is the sheer joy of studying philosophy. I once asked one of my professors what do we tell people who ask why they should study philosophy and he said, "For starters, I have not met anyone with a philosophy degree who regretted their decision." While it is not certain if that applies to all philosophy graduates, I for one do not regret my decision.

The life of the mind is the best gift a university education can offer and it has an impact beyond academia. The way we think and the phrases we use are all shaped by the discourses that are circulated in our society. University is a wonderful opportunity to examine, assess, measure, and interrogate these concepts and ideas. It is not merely an intellectual exercise or the domain of the proverbial ivory tower, but a continuous process of seeing yourself in relation to the world. Philosophy thus offers a very broad prism for you to glance into.

In a speech about the legacy of Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry quotes from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis in which Wilde talks about the "Oxford temper"the ability to "play gracefully with ideas." This should really be the temperament of any university student. While playing gracefully may have the ostensible implication of frivolity, the qualities Wilde refers to are subtlety, dexterity, kindness, curiosity and open-mindedness. It is also why I think the phrase, "come for the answers, stay for the questions" is very pertinent to philosophy.

The pithy paragraph above does an injustice to Fry and it is rewarding to at least listen to the end of the speech in which he talks about the life of the mind.

It is only in acknowledging this, that one realisesas I mentioned earlierwhat a privilege it is in having the opportunity to attend university. An opportunity given that is derived from the toil of others whose children may not necessarily be given the same privilege.

The best way to show gratitude is to revel in this wonderful pursuit and not sully it by treating it as a grimy toll booth.