Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Nutty Tay

Tay Yang Shun is a 土生土长 Singaporean. If he had to eat one thing from an NUS food stall for the rest of his life, it’d be the Mee Pok from the Flavours@UTown chicken rice stall. Last year, he and his friends built Nutty Ninjas for their class project, and to won first prize for that module at the 3rd SoC Term Project Showcase (STePS). When he isn’t working or studying, he’s reading random tech, design or start-up related stuff on the web to keep up with the latest trends in technology and entrepreneurship. If you want to freak him out, dump him in a deep body of water – he finds the thought of not knowing what’s beneath him absolutely thrilling. If you’re wronged him and would like to make amends, chocolate and coke are your best bets. If all else fails, show up to Yang Shun’s dinner party with Prof Ben Leong, Jay Chou and Mark Zuckerberg, and you’ll be sweet. 

What are you studying at SoC? 
I'm a final year Computer Science with specializations in Interactive Media and Visual Computing (maybe). I'm actually in my fifth year because I started school in NUS as a Mechanical Engineering student. However, in my second year, I found myself spending most of my time on a CS module I was teaching (CS1020E) rather than on my own core Mechanical engineering modules. It was then that I realized that I should probably be in a course that I'm truly interested in. With the help of Dr Ang Chuan Heng who was my CS1020E lecturer, who wrote a recommendation letter for me, I managed to change course, yet still retaining my NUS scholarship! I was extremely grateful and thankful to Dr Ang and the school. 

Describe your SoC experience. 
I enjoy creating applications and websites as I like to build things and solve problems. There are many aspects involved: Software design, interface design, user experience design, etc. Being able to work on all these different aspects simultaneously is a challenge and the experience is very interesting and dynamic. 
Solving problems through technology: This was the main reason I changed course to Computer Science: I get to build stuff and solve problems. Many SoC modules are very hands-on and require students to code and create programs. I'm prefer hands-on activities over studying theories, hence I enjoy the way many of the CS modules are taught. Programming is a really powerful skill. After learning programming, I feel that I am empowered to solve problems that I wasn't able to if I didn't know programming. Among the useful things that I have built, there's a cleanliness records app for teachers to keep track of the cleanliness of their students' rooms, and also, NUSMods, which is used by NUS students to plan their timetables and look up module information. 
Teaching: I have tutored/will tutor the modules CS1010S, CS1020E, CS3216, CS3217, CP3101B, and these are modules that I am passionate about. I hope to influence my students with my passion and encourage them to explore beyond what is taught in class. In my opinion, teaching has multiple benefits: (i) In the tutorials that I teach, I code the solution on the spot and explain the thought process behind my approach. I have found this skill to be extremely relevant in technical interviews where I have to explain my approach of tackling a technical question to the interviewer as I code the solution out. (ii) Tutoring is a good way to meet other like-minded peers among the teaching team and collaborate on projects, be it school or external ones. (iii) A stable source of income to survive the semester. The renumeration isn't a lot, but it's sufficient. 
Working on NUSMods: Ever since Beng (founder of NUSMods) graduated in 2014, I have since taken over the responsibility of improving and working on NUSMods. Over the summer, Beng, Ashray Jain and I, worked on revamping NUSMods and added many more features to it. The most significant new feature was having dedicated module pages which served as wiki pages for NUS modules. Module-related information such as pre-requisites tree, module reviews, CORS bidding history, and timetable data can also be found. I enjoy building useful things that solves peoples’ problems, and NUSMods has given me an opportunity to do that, because it is being used by virtually the whole NUS student population. This keeps me motivated to keep working on it and making it better for the students of NUS. As part of my module project for CS3240, I have extended NUSMods to include friends' timetable saving and NUS venue directory features. Over the December break, I will be working with Chen Minqi on finalizing the features and testing them so that they can be pushed out by Jan 2015. 
Creating content for SoC modules: I'm currently preparing for CP3101B and CS3217 next semester, I'll be serving as a tutor for CP3101B and CS3217 under Dr Steven Halim and Prof Sim Khe Chai respectively. Soon, I'm currently in the midst of preparing materials for these two modules. I enjoy creating new materials for modules because it challenges me to design questions that are helpful towards students' learning. I also try to make the nature of the assignment interesting and relevant so that students will be motivated to work on them. 
Last semester, the 2048 game was extremely hot, and Prof Ben Leong had the idea of creating a programming assignment out of it. Hence I worked with Emmanuel Goh (who will be next semester's CS1010S Head Tutor) and we produced a 2048 problem set for students of CS1010FC and CS1010S. With some guidelines, CS1010FC and CS1010S students had to program the logic behind a 2048 game for their homework. Students were also encouraged to write a solver for the 2048 game as part of a contest. I recall my CS1010E days where I wrote a simple reversi game in C using an ASCII and command line interface and had a lot of fun doing it. I'm glad that there are such programming assignments these days that break the monotony of standard programming homework. 

This year alone, I went on 3 overseas trips and they were all sponsored by the overseas organizations. Facebook sponsored my trip to their HQ in Menlo Park for the Facebook Open Academy program, University of Pennsylvania sponsored part of my trip to Philadelphia for PennApps and NYU Shanghai sponsored by trip to Shanghai for HackShanghai. My respective module lecturers were understanding in allowing me to skip classes for these overseas pursuits. This semester, I spent two weeks overseas and as a result I had to rush to catch up on the work during and after my trips. I had a report for CS3240 due during my return flight from Doha, hence I was rushing to complete the report on the plane from Philadelphia to Doha. My MacBook's battery was running low but thankfully I managed to connect to the WiFi at Doha's airport and submitted my report on time before the battery went flat. It kind of felt like I was defusing a bomb >_< 

[Here are some of the things that I think make SoC different than other faculties.] I find that many students in SoC are innately passionate about their work, and willingly spend their weekends and free time exploring new technology and learning new things. I look forward to my classes as I’m innately interested in the content I’m being taught. 
We also have undergraduate tutors! I think this is something uniquely SoC (most other faculties require their tutors to be of at least Masters level). There was this semester where my friend was taking a module that I was tutoring and I was taking a module he was tutoring. It can get complicated sometimes, but at the same time, it makes life in SoC more interesting and fun. As tutors, we get to work with professors very closely to run the course. We also have post-exam chillax sessions with some drinks! (: 

And, I really think we have the best faculty staff around! Perhaps because of the nature of the course, many of the faculty staff are on Facebook where our profs share interesting posts (tech articles, Nala photos), and interact with the students. The faculty staff make an effort to know their students on a personal level - [these are a few] profs who made an impact on me and taught me some classes that I enjoyed: 
  • Prof Ben Leong: I owe a lot of my achievements to Prof Ben; he gave me many opportunities to learn and I learnt a tremendous amount of skills (beyond CS) from him. Prof Ben is also extremely popular among the students – he even has a Fan Club!
  • Dr Colin Tan: Dr Colin is very cool and personable, and has many interesting stories to share. He's very active on Facebook and shares many cat photos (only Nala). 
  • Prof Ng Teck Khim: Extremely caring professor that takes the effort to know each and every of his students. He even goes the extra mile and specially gave make-up lessons to students who have missed his class. I have taken two modules (CS3218 and CS4243) under him. 
  • Prof Zhao Shendong: Prof Zhao is very kind and has given me extensions for his assignments as I was overseas >_< 
Also, there's so much welfare for the students: interesting hacking contests, Halloween profile picture contests, and also Prof Gary Tan and Adele giving away meal vouchers during examination week. This makes us feel very taken care of (: 

What is the one thing you would change about NUS? 
I think more students should try programming! I would encourage everyone to take an introductory class (one of the CS1010-variants) and see if they enjoy it. Programming isn't something every student gets to try because Singapore's educational system doesn't include CS as one of the compulsory foundation subjects in secondary school. Many of my Science students from CS1010S who are extremely talented programmers, gained interested in CS after taking CS1010S. I think that if they got to try programming earlier, they might have chosen CS instead. Although, CS is not for everyone, but you won't know until you try it! Trying programming is extremely simple, all you need is your laptop! 

What do you count as your most significant achievements to date? 
Prof Ben appointed me as Head Tutor for CS1010S in AY2013/14 Semester 1. In fact, it was my first time tutoring but he trusted me to take up such an important role. It was an eye-opening experience for me as I got to coordinate a course from start to the end. What made it "better" was that it was a new course, there were no materials to reuse and the teaching staff had to port the materials from Scheme to Python. There were also a lot of administrative issues to handle. 
People management has never been my forte but I got to hone those skills by being the Head Tutor. My approach was to get to know most of the people (staff and students) on a personal level outside the classroom. The motivation behind this was to better understand each individual's personality so that delegation of work could be more efficient and mismatch of interests could be prevented as much as possible. 
The process was painful and coupled with CS3216 (another painful module), I slept very little that semester. However, I was very glad with the outcome of the course and would deem it as a huge success. It left a deep impression in many students' hearts as the toughest, most painful, most time-consuming yet enjoyable freshmen module. In my teaching performance report, positive remarks from my students included: hardworking, responsible, approachable, caring, friendly, efficient, patient and nice. 

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you? 

That I have been a student in 4 NUS faculties. In my first year of National Service, I was in Architecture, but I switched to Mech Engineering and Accountancy DDP in my second year of NS, and subsequently, CS. There is also an artistic side of me; I used to write Chinese Calligraphy and do some graphic designing. In 2012, my designs for the Welfare Diary and NUSSU Student Life Tee were selected to be used university-wide! 

Is there anything else you'd like to share? 
Recently I talked to a few people and found that they were in their course because their parents wanted them to study it because of the supposedly good prospects and not because they are interested in it. I think it's extremely pointless to study something that one has no interest in. In my opinion, extrinsic motivation such as money and prospects will fade off eventually. One has to be intrinsically motivated by what they are studying/doing. If you haven't found something that interests you, keep finding and trying new stuff! 

Quick-Fire! Pet peeves? 
So many! Where do I start…
  • Chewing very loudly when eating. 
  • Bad coding style. Students, please follow this Python style guide.
  • Literally using acronyms in face-to-face conversations: “TBH”, “IMO”, “ASAP”. 
  • Not pushing in chairs after leaving the seat. 
  • "k", "kk" and "okok". These are common replies used by many people in instant messaging and it gets to my nerves. “Ok”, “okay”, “okie” sound much better as acknowledgement replies. "k" sounds rude and is a convo-killer, while "kk" and "okok" gives people the impression that they are getting impatient. 

All I want for Christmas is…? 
Time. Time is the only resource that money can’t buy. How nice would it be if I had 48 hours a day, I can sleep for 24 hours and still have 24 hours to do work.

Tell us who we should we talk to next. Email

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


Aaron Tan is one of quite a decent number of faculty members here who are also our alumni. At our recent anniversary gala, Aaron hosted a mini musical game where he sang a number foreign language songs, like Maori,Hindi and Indonesian, and the audience tried to guess the songs' origins. He is an avid Facebooker - follow his daily musings on his page

The man himself at a Christmas Fiesta rehearsal (circa 1993/1994)

Where did you grow up? 
This is an interesting question, as I guess my answer would be rather interesting for the readers. I grew up in Geylang, a notorious red-light district. So, as a little boy, I ran around prostitution dens and got to know the sex workers and, occasionally, I would bump into clients who were local celebrities and even my own teacher! 
Well, I guess anything more juicy might be inappropriate for this publication so I shall stop here. 

What’s your academic background? 
At one point of time, I studied at two kindergartens at the same time because I was bored at home. I enjoyed going to school so much that I kept pestering my parents. May I add that it was very rare for kids to even attend kindergarten in those days. 
Later, I studied in the GEP school. No, that’s not the Gifted Education Programme which was to be introduced only 13 years later. It’s the Geylang English Primary school, which you may not have heard of because it has long been defunct. 
Then, from being the top student in my primary school, I landed in Raffles Institution only to realise that everybody around me was smarter than I. I was intrigued, particularly by my smart school-mates who were writing BASIC programs on the Apple computers. 
I chose Computer Science as one of my subjects in my junior college years, and then came to NUS in 1985 to study Computer Science in the then Department of Information Systems and Computer Science (DISCS), which was under the Science Faculty. Four years later, I graduated with a first-class honours degree. 

Do you have any interesting stories to share about your time as a student here? 
Too many stories to share that they might fill a book. The undergraduate years were the most colourful and memorable years in my life. Like the song goes: “those were the days my friends, we thought they’d never end…” 
Our batch was small by comparison to today’s class size. There were fewer than 200 of us in our batch, and most fortunately, an equal number of male and female students! This is important because it gave rise to many interesting love stories, as well as triangular and multi-sided relationship, but I shall not digress. 
The department was small too, so we were close to our professors and tutors. It was quite common for a lecturer to take us out for lunch treats, or we would visit our tutors at their offices for a chat. 
But we were also hot-headed young adults then. I remember we were unhappy with the light workload given to us by one of the lecturers and so we wrote a letter to the head of department to complain about it. Talk about being impetuous! Well, today I would advise students to talk to your lecturer first before shooting a letter to the head of department. 
Those were the pre-modular system days where all of us took the same package of modules. We were in the same tutorial group throughout the 3 years – at that time, the general degree took 3 years, with an additional year for honours degree – so the bonding was very strong. Such strong bonding became history when the modular system was introduced, so we lament. At the end of our third year, we organised a campfire at car park 10 for remembrance sake and to thank our professors. I wrote a song called 年轻的歌 (Song of Youth) for my tutorial group, which we sang at the campfire. Lecturers and tutors were also invited and some of them put up their own performance. 
During my fourth year in the university, a certain junior college was looking for a relief teacher to cover one of their Computer Science teachers who was due for reservist training. A university classmate of mine recommended me for the job, so I ended up taking a short teaching stint while I was still an undergraduate. And guess who was in my class? Dr. Colin Tan, in his tender years!

What did you want to be when you were younger?
Realising that I wasn’t as smart as my secondary school classmates, coupled with my immense craving for chicken rice – I ate it almost every day, and it was only 80 cents or $1 at that time – I actually thought that I might end up selling chicken rice. Serious! However, I am now into healthy eating, so no more chicken rice for me. 

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working? 
Since young, I have been very interested in writing songs and lyrics – mainly in Cantonese and Mandarin – though I had no formal musical training. I wrote quite a number of them, even took part in some competitions and I was lucky enough to grab a few prizes. 
I wrote a song last year to honour our nation's 50th National Day, and I have been wishing to make a video out of it. Unfortunately, so far I have little luck in getting people to help out with this personal project. So readers out there, if you are keen, whether in singing, acting, playing the musical instruments, script-writing, directing, video-shooting, choreographing, please contact me! 
Recently I posted the lyric “This is C” sung to the tune of “Home” by Kit Chan on Facebook and somebody suggested to make it into a video as well. What a cool idea, but again, I need volunteers! 
As a pastime, I enjoy singing and playing the guitar. I learned classical guitars for many years after I graduated. At the end of every semester, I would invite students to join me for some karaoke sessions. 
I run regularly too. During the recent summer vacation, I invited students to join me run around the campus. A couple of them and some alumni came and it soon became a weekly running event on every Wednesday evening. We have completed our 24th run at the writing of this article (23 November 2014)! 

What are some of the craziest things you have done recently? 
Five and a half months ago, as I approached my 50th birthday, I thought of doing something totally wacky and so I enrolled myself into Wing Chun class and I’ve never neglected it. These days, you will find me practising Wing Chun in the gym. 
Recently I took part in the Swim-for-Hope event and swam 20 laps. Never a serious swimmer, I swam occasionally and have not attempted more than 4 laps at a go for many years. I wouldn’t call this crazy but just another little thing I wanted to try outside my comfort zone. 

The photo above was taken last year. I was pestered by my son Cowen to take him to the ice-skating rink, and that was my first ice-skating experience! A painful experience, but fun nonetheless, and it makes me realise that it is never too late to learn something new. 

Do you have any interesting stories to share about your experience as a teacher here? 
When I was a tutor, the students were quite active in organising activities such as charity events. I joined them in some of the activities, such as going around the housing estates collecting old newspapers. There were charity concerts as well, where our students showed their varied talents. Karaoke was very popular then, so the students organised a number of karaoke singing competitions, which I was invited as a judge for some of them. It is a pity these days our students don’t organise such events. I also miss the student-staff games (sports games, not computer games) which we used to have. 

Do you have any advice for our students? 
Don’t just spend all your time on the computer! Get out of the house and sweat under the sun. Healthy body, healthy mind. That’s why in the past, when I trained the IOI students, besides training in the classroom, I also took them out to jog and swim. 
Recently I came across this powerful article and would like to share it here, along with a message for all our students: 
 “Your job — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”

Tell us who we should we talk to next. Email