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

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