Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Nim(antha) Can Cook!

Third year CS PhD candidate, Nimantha Baranasuriya, was top of his class, played varsity tennis and received the Most Outstanding Graduand award at his alma mater. He thoroughly enjoys unnerving people who he has only met briefly before (who don’t remember him) with his knack for remembering faces and names. He is an avid photographer and used to cover engagements, weddings and corporate functions through his small photography service start-up in Sri Lanka. He’s doing a PhD because he enjoys ‘fiddling around with unknowns’ and tackling problems that can’t be solved by googling. Nimantha happens to be of the rare breed of people who have a passion for teaching.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town, which was around 30km south of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. My home is what you would call a perfect holiday destination. It is located a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the town and it is within walking distance to a beach that had yellow sand stretching for miles. Every day, I would wake up to the sound of waves crashing on to the shore. On weekends, me and my friends used to play volleyball on a makeshift court on the beach or just sit and have a little chit-chat.

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?
I am working on designing, implementing and experimenting novel communication protocols for dynamic networks like vehicular networks and smartphone networks. In these networks, the participants move around a lot and hence, communication links get established and disestablished pretty fast. So, our protocols can be used by applications that are designed to work on those types of networks. My work will aid the deployment of distributed sensor network applications on the types of networks that I mentioned earlier. For example, consider a fleet of taxi cabs that upload their status information (e.g., free/hired/shift, speed, location, etc.) to a server. The easiest way of achieving this is to give them all a 3G connection and get them to upload their individual information. However, this is very costly, as data connections carry a greater cost. Our protocols will allow the cars to talk to each other and upload all of the information in a cost effective and energy efficient manner. So, in the next decade, our protocols will allow application developers to deploy cost effective and energy efficient sensory applications. 

Describe your SoC experience. 
SoC really brings out the best in me. The school provides me with all that I need to do my work well. There are many opportunities like entrepreneurial support and internships that we can use to heighten our careers. The courses taught at SoC are really cool too. I sit in in the classes I find useful and none of them have disappointed me so far. The covered content is just right and has the correct depth. The school is very generous in funding as well. All PhD students’ receive a scholarship that covers all tuition fees and their expenses. This allows us to focus on our research without worrying about doing other work to get our next month’s allowance.
Dr. Seth Gilbert is my thesis advisor. He has inspired me in a multitude of ways. He helped me realize what exactly research is and how I should go about tackling research problems. On countless occasions, he assisted me in overcoming difficulties I was facing. I would have torn off all my hair by now if not for him (literally!). His supervision has been excellent and I really enjoy working with him.
From my first semester, I have being doing on and off TA work for Dr. Damith Rajapakse. His lectures are amazing! He uses out-of-the-ordinary lecture material that keeps the students focused and engaged. It was through him that I learnt the secrets of giving captivating talks that inspire audiences. It’s really wonderful to see the amount of effort that he puts into his courses. If I do teach someday, I aim to be a teacher like him.
[The one thing I would change in NUS is] I’d really like if NUS was made more bicycle-friendly. Adding cycle lanes, among many other things, would really make cycling safer on campus. I bike to school a lot, but unfortunately that it is not the safest way of getting to school. There were many times where I narrowly escaped from being bumped into by other vehicles. 

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a great cook (or at least my wife and friends tell me so). However, my skillset is limited; I can only prepare a few traditional Sri Lankan delicacies. My mom is a great cook and I used to help her in the kitchen when I could. That’s actually how I picked up the whole thing. When I get free time, I love to prepare some Sri Lankan dishes, which are hard to find in Singapore, and invite my friends over for dinner.   

What advice would you give a prospective SoC graduate student?
Research can get to you sometimes because it is pretty tough. More often than not, you will have a hard time getting past obstacles when you come across them. I’ve had breakdowns a few times when things didn’t go the way I want. That’s quite natural because research is all about dealing with unknowns. You have to work hard and persevere until you arrive at the solution. So change the way you look at the problem, talk to a friend about it (that will help to get a fresh perspective), or do anything else that you seem fit to overcome obstacles. But no matter what you do, don’t ever think of giving up!
Meet your advisor regularly, at least once a week. This helps to keep things moving and to make a bit of progress every week.
Target conference deadlines. Keeping a conference deadline at the back of your mind will push you to complete your work and avoid procrastination. I found that conference deadlines become a good motivator as well.
Read as much as you can. Make a habit of reading papers that get published in the top-conferences of your field. This will allow you to stay up-to-date on what’s hot currently in the community.
Take some time off of work. Being in the lab all throughout the day doesn’t really help that much. Go out and do some sports. Or better yet, do some travelling with your friends. There are plenty of less-known places in Singapore that are worth visiting.

Quick-fire! Favourite design?
Definitely, UTown. It’s an engineering marvel!

Guilty pleasure?
Having baths in lakes in the middle of the night.

3 ultimate dinner party guests, dead or alive?
Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Tom Hanks.

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

2-in-1 Hugh

When he’s not working, Hugh Anderson likes sailing and playing guitar. Actually, as you’ll see, he plays his guitar at work too. Like me, and every other sane person I know, he hates Mondays. One of the things he’s done to spice up his classes is to create ‘anime-esque’ music videos in which a cartoon character sings about computing theories and concepts, accompanied by Hugh and his guitar. Also, Hugh feels (and I would have to strongly agree), that it would benefit NUS and SoC significantly to have chocolate fish (and maybe Marmite) available to all staff and students as required. A VOICE (Valued Online Ideas Contributed by Employees) winner for sure. 

Hugh and his niece

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a little town in Aotearoa (NZ), which was called Wanganui when I was there. It is no longer on the map as it has been renamed Whanganui as part of a PC government project to ensure that all Kiwis mispronounce names equally badly. It was a pretty neat place when I was small.

I remember when the first set of traffic lights arrived, and the whole town turned out to see them switched on. Red, green, orange and back to red again. Even the Mayor was there and a marching band. Awesome.

When I was about 10 I ran away from home after school. I bicycled to Upokongaro (about 15km) where I set up my tent. At about 5:00 I rung up my Mum to tell her that I had run away (so she wouldn't worry), and told her where I was camping. Mum had not actually noticed that I was missing. 

About half an hour later Dad turned up and took me home in the car. Ah well.

Briefly describe your experience being at SoC.
I have been here since 2000, when I arrived fleeing a coup in Fiji. It was nice to live in a country without people shooting guns over my house.

In 2008, I moved back to NZ for family reasons, but my job there did not take, and I was very happy to return to SoC in 2010. Because I revisited NUS from NZ, and taught in 2008, and 2009, many of my colleagues in the department did not realize that I had actually left SoC. I would run into them in the corridor, and they would say "Hi Hugh, haven't seen you for a while..." Anyway I am back now. SoC is a cool place to work, with a bunch of friendly and very smart staff, and friendly and very smart students. I am also an Alumni of SoC of course - I got my PhD here.

As a student I remember skiving off with my classmate Colin Tan (also now on staff in SoC) and doing the sort of things that school kids everywhere do. As a mature person working in SoC, of course, I never skive off. However I do drink a vast amount of coffee with my mates. I like that.

At the moment I am working on tiny computer systems that measure movement pretty precisely. We put these units on people's shoes or socks, and they record their walking. This is to be used both for therapy, and for diagnostic purposes. I visited local hospitals, and saw the infinite care and patience that therapists and nurses were bestowing upon people with severe problems, and I felt that I would like to help as well.

I like two things big time here. One, I like learning new things - SoC is full of people trying out new ideas. Two, I like my students. Which of these I like the most depends on the day I am having, the phase of the moon, and my level of vitamin B12. I find it interesting that every year my students appear to be getting younger. Why don’t they stay the same age? Like me?

What and how do you teach at SoC? 
I have mostly taught things that I have always thought of as "fun" in computing. I do not really like computer games, but I love the technology that is behind the games. Similarly, I don’t really like computer crime but I like the technology behind making computers secure. 

So I mostly teach those behind-the-scenes courses, like "Parallel Programming", which describes some ideas behind fancy gaming/graphics cards, and "Computer Security", which describes the ideas behind computer crime and hacking.

I am trying out new ideas in teaching, and find that pretty challenging. I'm not sure if it is successful or not, but this last semester I have tried some new things (to me) in class, as an attempt to break out of the powerpoint-talkee-talkee rut. For example, I have tried torturing my students by playing guitar in class, and having Prof Neko Kanochi sing along. She sings, for example, that well known song "The Diffie Hellman Key Exchange Song" (which of course may vaguely be about Diffie Hellman Key Exchange). My students' reactions to this appear mixed, ranging from "Please Hugh, never do that again", to "That’s fun!" :) It is a work-in-progress.

[The memorable students are] the ones who are enjoying themselves learning new stuff. It is easy to pick them out, and I like to watch, and help if I can.

What's the funniest or craziest thing that you have done?
Don’t really know if I do funny or crazy, but sometimes I do bizarre.

Many years ago I was keen on woodwork, and had all sorts of tools and chemicals like varnish and French polish around the house. One night one of my children was sick with a cold, and his nose was running, and I wanted to help him settle back to sleep. So I went into the living room and got what I thought was Vick's Vapour Rub to put on his chest and help him breathe easier. I opened the plastic container and got a blob out and rubbed it gently into his chest. After a while I noticed that there was a peculiar sweet smell, and that my boy had become part of that elite goup of people whose chests have been French polished.

And sometimes bizarre finds me. In 1998 my family and I moved to live in Fiji, and as part of our orientation, the University gave us a morning's instruction about living in Fiji. One of the slides said that we should not lick the backs of frogs in Fiji. Good advice I guess. Not that I ever much had the urge. It turned out that they were pointing out that any pet animals that we might have could be poisoned by licking the local frogs or toads, which had poisonous backs. So I'll pass this advice on to you. Don’t lick the backs of frogs - you heard it here in SoC first!

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
Three things: 
1. When I was 21 I was the chief technical officer on Campbell Island for a year. This is a little island between NZ and Antarctica, and it has a weather station. I was one of the only 6 inhabitants during winter, and looked after magnetometers, ionosondes and other instruments. It was fun seeing icebergs and penguins and sea elephants and seals and things. 

2. I was addicted to the Doc Martin TV show, but I managed to go cold turkey earlier in the year, and I am now 80 days clean. 

3. In addition, I am the local representative for the IKC (International Kiwi Conspiracy), which has been running the world pretty successfully since 1987. We do keep a low profile though, so keep it quiet.

Quick-fire! What is the one distinctly Kiwi thing that you wish you could introduce into Singapore?
The bach, otherwise known as a crib (if you come from the mainland).

Favourite local foods?
Has to be laksa. Yummmmmmmmmmmmm. And from time to time, Roland (Yap) brings me things that I don’t know what they are, but they taste great. Ask him.

Worst song ever?
Anything by Justin Bieber, or any of the crop of Autotuned, Melodyned, pitch-corrected singers.

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Savvy Zwee

Wee Zihuan, or Zwee, is the Founder and CEO of Savant Degrees. Back in the day, he was enrolled in a three year e-commerce programme at SoC, went to Stanford as part of the NOC programme, graduated in 2008, went back to Stanford for a Master’s, and then left the programme to concentrate on developing Savant Degrees. Prior to all that, he was Valedictorian at his polytechnic and won the Lee Kuan Yew Award for excellence in Mathematics and Science in 2004. Despite the feelings of inadequacies that will undoubtedly creep over you once you've learnt all he’s done, if you meet him, you will find Zwee generous, unassuming, a visionary and someone who’s actually living the fantasy we've all had at some point – he’s working on changing the world.

What do you do now?
I help people solve problems using technology. I work towards understanding clients’ challenges. It’s interesting because they tell you a lot of things and you realise that because we are technologists, we are actually riding on a wave and technology is changing a lot of businesses and organisations.

Briefly describe your experience as an SoC student.
I had done a lot of work outside of school. Through those experiences, I've discovered that there are many ways where you can be effective in programming. The most challenging part for me was to conform to a prescribed way of doing things. A lecturer once said “this is the platform and this is the framework you need to use”. But why am I spending two months to deliver something the conventional way, when I can yield the same results in a week using other methods.

The internship I did when I was 16 really helped. I was thrown in the deep end, working on real projects at a company and with people who were phenomenal at what they did. As with any engineering field, you have to be on the grounds and experience the steep learning curve.

Being a SoC student put me ahead of the pack when applying to overseas colleges, especially to Silicon Valley. However, being selected into the programme doesn't guarantee you a spot in the company that you want. You have to go through a interview process and of course in Silicon Valley, they want people who can contribute something tangible. So if you’re a programmer, you’re pretty much set.

The professors who taught at NUS and Stanford were both really good. They could bridge the gap between technology and business. In one of the classes I took in NOC, we had the opportunity to experiment with actual business cases. For example I did a supply chain case study, a seemingly boring topic right? But they had real sponsors. I was working on a project for AMD and had to come up with business models and figure out the best way to deliver the solution. That left an impression on how classes can be run in a real life context. With programming, as with the internet, things are moving so fast, there’s no way you can learn something today and expect it to be the same in the next few years. Interestingly in the Stanford classes, some of the professors don’t really "teach" – instead they invite good speakers. That motivated me to help Professor Juzar in the last two years for his Journey of the Innovator class because it’s about sharing experiences.

Is there anything you would have done differently during your time here?
I would like to have spent more time with the business people, if not for some projects that took too long to finish. I also didn't have time to attend all the orientation camps because I missed the first year coming from poly. I understand it’s important to mingle with people from different faculties.

What do you count as your most significant achievement since graduating from SoC?
In the last four to five years since starting Savant Degrees, I would say it’s the ability to change a lot of things around me. We're working on how the nation will watch TV in the future. We’re working on projects to alter the visitor experience for one of the most visited attractions in the world. We're working with struggling retailers to transform their business model. In a nutshell, we're transforming and shaping the way industries grow and I'm very appreciative of the opportunity to able to be in this position.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
Travelling. It’s important to get a breadth of knowledge, to meet different people, different cultures and experience different things. A big part of my work is to connect the dots. When I’m not working, I'll be traveling and meeting people. With computing it forces you to be at the forefront of technology. It’s exciting to experiment with new technology, and inventing new concepts.

Quick-fire: Best movie you’ve seen this year?
Limitless. How you optimize your life. The drug aside, it’s analogous to how you optimise your life to achieve that potential. I believe everyone has that. Running every day, that’s my meditation, that’s my drug.

Worst fashion trend?
China doll bangs

3 ultimate dinner party guests?
Top of my list, Richard Branson. He's adventurous. I'm also inspired by his creativity, his tenacity and how he approaches life. I want to live my life like him.

Another dinner guest might be a little bit of a surprise, it’s Lee Kuan Yew. As I learn how to be a good leader and a manager, I realized, “Wow, it must have been really tough for him.” I had the good fortune of working with numerous CEOs and through that, understand the decisions and sacrifices they have to make as leaders. It is not easy, let alone for someone who runs a country and runs it so successfully. I really want to meet him if I ever get the chance to.

I want to say Steve Jobs but I've read his biography. Warren Buffet, because of his passion towards his career and his positive attitude.

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Marcel's Maxims

Marcel Böhme is a 5th year PhD student who now spends his days in sultry Singapore ‘breaking’ programs, as part of his research. Once upon a time, however, he grew up in a house at the edge of a forest in Schwepnitz, “a sleepy little village of 1500 souls in Germany.” He had an awesome, happy childhood growing up in the countryside, spending his winters walking through snow filled woods, following rabbit and deer prints, and his summers swimming in the nearby lake, chasing cows and falling from birch trees – which reads like lines straight off the pages of an Enid Blyton tale and something that, unfortunately, very few of us city-folk can relate to.

Photo credit: Nimantha Baranasuriya

What do you do now and where will you go from here?
My work is in automated software testing and debugging. Currently, I am looking at the changed behaviour of evolving programs. Let’s take Linux for example. The operating system has been evolving over the last twenty years to a massive 300 million lines of code and each day a ginormous 16 thousand lines of code are changed in the Kernel alone. I am interested whether any of these changes break anything, e.g., how you get a "blue screen". As part of my research, I have developed automated techniques that test and check these changes for errors. One of my tools found a major security problem in the Linux Core Utilities amongst other errors. Of course, there are many more interesting research questions that I'm looking into (e.g., automated debugging and program repair).

Hard to tell what my future plans are. I may follow the academic path for the time being. That gives intellectual freedom and opportunities to make some real impact. In the short term, it would be great to work with Professor Andreas Zeller in Germany. He has made significant contributions in my field of study and in particular to the automated debugging of large (evolving) software systems. In the long term, however, I still feel (geographically) unconstrained. Come what may, when I encounter an awesome opportunity, I'll go for it.

Describe your experience as an SoC student.
There are numerous opportunities to get involved and contribute. Earlier, I spent a year as a Graduate Student Representative and discussed with the school administration important topics related to the PhD program of SoC. Last year, I was invited to discussions with Singapore's Ministry of Education about possible changes to nationwide policies that were directly affecting us as PhD students. At some point, together with friends, we organized weekly PhD seminars (CSTalks) that fostered cross-lab interaction and gave direct feedback on interesting work in progress -- no advisors allowed. Next year, I am fortunate to meet Nobel Prize Laureates and Fields Medal Winners at the Global Young Researchers Summit (GYSS'14). Our PhD students are energetic and motivated. This liberal and competitive spirit drives high-quality research that is published in premier venues.

There is a lot of freedom in the way you can pursue your research. In Europe, I think PhD students often depend on grants from the industry and deliverables that totally need to work by the end of the year. Thus, there may be less opportunity for fundamental research which seeks longer term impact. In Singapore (specifically SoC), the majority of PhD students are funded on the Research Scholarship. So, without the pressure of immediate deliverables, you can do fundamental (farsighted, high payoff) research that won't expire in a few years with new technologies. But also, there are a lot of industrial grants and projects that can offer real data and relevant, applied research problems. For instance, the processor technology, developed by a friend during his PhD at SoC, has recently gained a lot of interest from ARM. Guess, where he is going to work very soon?

I also like the forward-mentality in SoC: If you just work hard enough, you can achieve something great. In a way, NUS (including SoC) is emitting this awesome sense of innovation, purpose, and progress. It is hard not to be inspired. If you have not already, you should go visit UTown and the CREATE laboratories to get a flavour.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
In my spare time, I am a jack of all trades, master of none. My philosophy is if other people can deeply appreciate doing something, then I can too. I like learning languages and spent a few semesters learning Italian and Mandarin Chinese. Unfortunately, not enough stuck with me to be able to converse. I like listening to classical music and attend mostly violin and piano concerti. In Dresden, I would pay a ridiculously small amount to visit the Semperoper as a student. In Singapore, the NUS Conservatory of Music organises classical concerti (free admission) and of course there is the Esplanade. I’m also the world’s worst guitar player and like taking courses on the online learning platform Courser.

I like to explore and choose the path least travelled. I've been to many places in South-East Asia and when I travel, I try to get lost to find my way back without a map. I also like to explore different cuisines and Singapore is *the* place to be for every food fanatic. Durian - damn shiok lah! Since my time is scarce, another means of exploration is by reading books. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” -- George R. R. Martin. I cycle to school every day, read crime novels in the evening, and play badminton on weekends.

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
My online poker winnings paid for my first flight to Singapore (though I never invested any real money). In the beginning, a friend gave me $10 to poker for fun. Upon closing the account, I cashed out more than a hundredfold. Chiefly, I learned how to manage risk and reputation in an aggressive and highly dynamic "market". However, I do strongly discourage any form of gambling!
[Ed: Ahem…]

What advice would you give a prospective PhD student? 
These are some maxims I picked up along the way:

Work hard but productively. Do more things in shorter time. Focus on progress. Working long hours alone, won't give you the edge.

Learn from your mentor. Draw from his or her experience. Prepare meetings. Listen first, then speak. Work out deliverables for the next meeting. Digest the feedback. Since everybody has to publish to an international community, the only factor differentiating an excellent from a good university is your research advisor.

Maximize Originality. If knowledge is a tree, don't work on the leaves. Work on thick branches that can continue to grow. You'll be known for that. Somebody else will take care of the leaves.

Make some noise. Invest in your academic reputation. Publish to premium venues. In conferences, don't hide. Introduce yourself and make your peers interested in your work. Visit other research teams.

Read a lot. Only then you can make new connections that nobody else made before. Follow the most important conferences, journals, and research celebrities in your domain.

Peel the Onion. Every onion has a concise problem statement at its core. Before starting research, reduce all that complexity that is not crucial to an intuitive solution of your problem statement. For instance, you work in program analysis -- don't get distracted by concurrency, object-orientation, and unsupported program constructs.

Elevator Pitch. Be able to explain problem, approach, and main results of your work (i.e., every paper and even your dissertation) in one minute! If you cannot explain your stuff quickly, concisely, and coherently, you won't convince your busy reviewers.

Do lots of sports. A healthy mind lives in a healthy body. I get the best ideas, when I away from the lab.

Best hawker stall in Singapore? 
JiaXiang, 721 Clementi West Ave 2. Delicious steamboat and Sichuan food.

Worst fear?
Is there a life after PhD?!

Three ultimate dinner party guests?
Nikola Tesla, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Kurt Gödel

Seriously, which faculty members' innermost thoughts and feelings are you most curious about? Email