Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Ben's Inspiration

If you've been following the blog, you would have noticed that Ben Leong's name comes up a bit. There is even a Ben Leong Fan Club on Facebook. So here’s a bit more: Ben was born in Singapore and, except for nine years studying at MIT, has spent most of his life in Singapore. He counts marrying his wife of nine years as his most significant achievement to date. Not many know this, but Ben used to be a pistol shooter in his youth. Also, Ben claims that he fears boredom more than death although this Editor suspects that his fear of having to listen to his daughters play Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ over and over at home probably rivals that. 

Clearly, Mei-mei rules.

Describe your work and its significance.
I realized from a young age that I really liked computers and I liked to write programs. However, I thought that just writing programs that run on one machine was not sufficiently challenging. Instead, I became interested in learning about and exploring how we can write programs that will run on many computers, that then work together to do cool stuff. This is why my students and I work on Networking and Distributed Systems. We study and investigate how we can make networks run faster and more reliably and also develop new ways to use these networks to do interesting things. 
We are currently involved in two key projects. In one project, we are developing new algorithms that will allow cellular (3G/4G) data networks to run faster. In the other project, we are developing a new aerial wireless mesh network, where we will using flying quadrotors equipped with radios to rapidly set up a wireless network over places where there is no wired infrastructure. 
Mobile data is very important to modern life. We all want to upload our photos faster, and also have better experience surfing the web or checking email on our mobile devices. Our research on 3G/4G networks will improve performance. We will also be working on techniques that will allow us to build better, less buggy and more energy efficient mobile applications. We believe that our aerial wireless mesh network will have applications in disaster relief and civil defence operations. All in all, I think we believe that through our work, we will help make things better.

Describe your SoC experience.
I think the best thing about being a professor is the level of autonomy in deciding on what I want to work on. Literally, I get out of bed each day and ask myself, "So, what cool thing can I do today?"
The other really nice thing about working in SoC is really nice colleagues and students. Much of our happiness is derived from the people that we get to work with every day. I am grateful that it is a joy to go to work every day. 
My work is extremely challenging. Research is challenging because half the time we don't really know what we're doing exactly. We work in this space of uncertainty where we cannot really be sure that things will work and we will get results. Failure is common, though some will say that if we don’t fail often enough then we are not trying hard enough. But I guess the rewards on the rare occasions where we make a breakthrough somewhat make up for it. 
Teaching is also very challenging because students are all different. Even if we teach the same class across years, there are differences in the students and we need to accommodate those differences. Also, students have a variety of different problems and much of the work involves figuring out how to tackle them.  
Students ask questions all the time and most times, I am very fast and I always have answers for them. There was however one question that I got that "stunned" me for a while. One year, a student asked, "Prof, so what's the meaning of life?" I forget the exact circumstances under which that question was posed, but I remember being momentarily stumped. Even today, I really don't have an answer because I think each person needs to find his own meaning. What is meaningful to one person might not be meaningful to the next. But we all need to find meaning because if not, then we would be wandering aimlessly through life. 
If there's one thing that I have learnt in life though, it's that it is really difficult to say where we will be or what we will do in the future. I am not entirely sure that I will always be a professor at SoC. I don't really have plans for my life. Every day, I just ask myself "how can I create the most value today?", and I just do my best. My goal is to minimize regret and sleep well at night. So far, my algorithm seems to be working quite well.

What would you change at SoC?
I actually think that SoC is already a cool place with very cool people. We really don't want to break things that are already working well, so I'm not sure that we really need to change all that much. I do feel however that many of our students are very "lost". This could very well just be a function of age, since most students are young and still trying to figure out their place in the world. So, if there's anything that I think SoC or NUS should work towards, it is cultivating a culture of inspiration. I would like to see everyone come to work or school every day inspired. The students should be inspired. The professors should be inspired. Even the administrators should be inspired. I think the world at large needs more inspiration.

Which students have made impressions on you? 
I have had many students. It is probably too hard to list them all, so I guess I will just pick one.
I first taught Caleb Chao programming in his freshman year. Caleb is currently a software engineer at Google. He is quite memorable because among all my students over the years, he was the only one who submitted a blank file for his practical exam. Somehow he realized immediately after the exam and pleaded with me to accept a new file which he downloaded from the computer lab for me. He was clearly a good student and so I believed that it was an honest mistake and accepted his explanations. I did, however, take away all the bonus points that he would have gotten in the exam. Eventually, he did emerge as the top student for CS1101S that year, so it clearly didn’t hurt him.
The next year, Caleb became a tutor for the class. This time, instead of taking the practical exam, he served as an invigilator. However, he was bored along the way and decided that he would solve the exam and upload the answers. What he did not realized was that because he was a staff member, the solutions that he uploaded to IVLE during the exam could be read by all the students. Fortunately, this happened close to the end of the exam and I discovered it soon enough to delete the file before it caused a "leak". Nevertheless, Caleb gave me a heart attack that day.
My final impression of Caleb as a student was the speech he made as the SoC Valedictorian, where he extolled the importance of creating value and not just pursuing wealth and status. I guess that's a value that agrees with me.

Clearly, you are passionate about teaching and you care about your students. Tell me a bit about this.
I think the main thing about my teaching is that I believe in what I am doing and I believe that it makes a difference. The trouble with teaching, frankly, is that it is very hard to measure. We really cannot say for sure what we achieved, or not. However, I believe in inspiration. I believe that it is important for us to be inspired in our work -- and to be inspired, we need to believe that what we are doing actually makes a difference. I might be delusional, but if so, I think it's good delusion. It is not always easy for each of us to find our place in life. What I can share is that I believe I found my calling back in secondary school when we sang this song "If I can help somebody". The lyrics somehow spoke to me:
If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,
If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love's message, as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain. 
And I had this epiphany. I realized at the moment that I wanted to live my life by helping people -- but at the point in time, I didn't really know how exactly I would do it. I guess in my current job as a professor, I help students. It is not just about learning stuff and getting good grades. I believe that, more important than that, my duty is to see how I can help students live good lives when they grow up.

If there was only one piece of advice you could give a SoC student, what would it be?
I think it is important to come to terms with how small and insignificant we all are. I think people fear failure because they are worried about what others will think of them. The insight is that most people are typically too self-absorbed in their own lives and own problems to have the time and space to care about what really happens to others. This realization is very liberating because it makes failures so much less scary. The corollary is that it is actually okay to fail because when one succeeds just once, most people won't remember the failures. I would encourage SoC students to try new things, break new ground and to push themselves, and not be held back by the fear of failure. Many claim that there are no second chances. I believe that it is all in the head and that we never really fail, until we give up.

Quick-fire! Guilty pleasure?
I buy games off Steam whenever there are discounts and when I am not working I check out some of them. I can never actually find the time to finish a game, so what I am really trying to do is to try to find and appreciate new ideas. I think there is a lot of creativity in games and it is interesting to check out new game concepts and to try to appreciate the cleverness and concept. The other thing that I like to do is to get an appreciation for the state-of-art in computer graphics and animation.

Three ultimate dinner party guests
Lee Kuan Yew, Warren Buffett & Pope Francis.

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