Thursday, January 29, 2009

And What I Did There

Home again, home again, jiggety jig. Always good to be back in your own bed.

So what did I do in Singapore? Well, on the work side:

- Attended an Energy Symposium for half a day, learned about the current state of energy in the U.S. and Singapore. Heard from the founder of a battery company (A123 Systems) which most famously provides the Lithium-Ion batteries for the newest lines of power tools. Also heard from an expert in the solar power field, or photovoltaics as it is known in academia. General take away for PV: much very cool research being done into all key issues, but nobody has had the breakthrough or combination of breakthroughs to make solar quite feasible yet.

- Attended my own symposium and learned about the current state of research collaboration between Singapore and the States. Which is, I might say, impressive.

- Gave a paper on, essentially, my Master's thesis. Yay for good results!

- Got to visit a company which does nano-imprinting, which is related to my work. Although in the company's case they make hard drives while I make microfluidic devices, it was still very cool to see a demonstration and get to ask questions.

- Attended a very fancy dinner to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the States-Singapore collaboration, with the President of NUS, President of NTU, President of World's Best School, and the Singapore Prime Minister. Very heavy security was in effect because of the Prime Minister's presence (metal detectors, bag checks, pat-downs, ID checks). I had to leave the banquet once to use the restroom, and there were security guards who swept the bathroom before and after I used it. Gracious.

The dinner was eight courses long - they just kept bringing more food! I liked about four of the eight courses. Some things, like the whole baby octopus, I just wasn't sure how to tackle....

The Prime Minister gave a speech as the keynote, which was all in political-ese except for a few interesting bits. In the middle he had a few lines about the research that had been completed under the partnership, and it was quite obvious that somebody just picked a few key buzzwords out of the annual report we write up. Whoever wrote the speech took one research area - happened to be "bulk metallic glass", which is a fancy new material - and somehow related it to fuel cells (which it has nothing to do with), said that it was invented during this collaboration (which it was not), and that it was worked on in Singapore (whereas we only use it on the States side). Politicians talking about science, it's just a bad combination. The one guy who works on bulk metallic glass got a lot of ribbing from the rest of us for the rest of the week, you know, "your work is the culmination of 10 years of collaboration!" or "so, how much did you have to bribe to get your research picked out of the 200 students over 10 years?". Fortunately this grad student is a good sport, and retorts that he is going to add an automatic footer to all of his PowerPoint presentations now, saying "Endorsed by the Prime Minister of Singapore." :)

And on the much more interesting side:

- Took a massive amount of taxi transportation, with an incredibly talkative bunch of cabbies.

- Learned a lot about Singaporian culture. In essence, nearly every aspect of life is government regulated, from housing and jobs to sex ("Romancing Singapore" is a government initiative prompted by a dip in birth rates). No gum spitting on the sidewalk is allowed, for example. Jaywalking is a $1000 Singaporian dollar ($750 USD) offense. Owning a gun is a hanging offense. Graffiti is punishable by caning. Protest of government officials is treated as lying and/or defamation, and punishable with $200,000 Singaporian dollars, which is about $130,000 USD. The government is technically a democracy, but the executive and judical branches all belong to the party in power, which actively discourage and bankrupt opposition. In fact, only one party has ever had power. All that is enough to discourage me from ever moving there, but as my colleague from India points out, even though you are not free you at least know you can walk home safely at 4am, and for some people that is the more important fact. And, Singapore has indeed done impressively well for itself in creating a modern nation in the fiftyish years it's been around.

- Ate excellent food. Had Korean Barbeque one night, with Korean friends who said it was quite authentic. Ate at the top of the Swiss Hotel on the 71st floor, with an incredible view. The elevator goes up so fast your ears pop, like in an airplane. Had lunch at an outdoor hawker market, with all the chaos and sights and sounds and questionable food quality that entails. My absolute favorite meal was soup dumplings. They have an assembly line where the cooks crank out these dough dumplings with various fillings, each steamed and served in wooden baskets on a linen. You eat them with ginger, vinegar, and soy sauce, and they are delicious. Each one has soup in the dumpling as well as the meat filling, although I have no idea how they get soup in there. Yum!

- Walked around Chinatown and little India. Because we had an Indian student with us, we were allowed inside a Hindu temple, where the different gods and sculptures were explained to us. Fascinating, and very smoky - people burn incense and offerings to the gods, which by the end of the day is enough to turn your eyes red.

- Went out to a club on ladies' night, so I got in free while all the boys had to pay (score!). Ladies also got free drinks, but I figured out the catch in the system. In order to get a drink, you have to go to one end of the bar with a huge mass of other girls pressing in. One lone bartender is helping all these people, and he moves v-e-r-y slowly. And, they fill up your glass to the brim with ice before they pour anything in. I only wanted one drink anyway, and after waiting fifteen minutes to get squished to the front of the pack and be served, I only got two swallows. Lame.

- Stayed up until five a.m., talking with a fantastic group of friends about education systems in India, Singapore, and various parts of the U.S., discussing the new President and other political figures, and waxing eloquent as only happens in the wee hours of the night. This is the stuff of which college is made, internet.

- Learned a new card game - which I have already forgotten the name of. Drat it all. It's a trump game, like hearts or spades, but it can be played by any number of people (not just four). But if it ever comes up again, dadgumit, I'm an expert. I also played a lot of spades and dusted off my rusty strategy skills.

I unfortunately did not get to go on the huge famous Ferris wheel they have, as it was undergoing maintenance. Next year! I also missed out on the bird park and night safari, so there are still adventures yet to come.

Which is as it should be.


  1. The game wasn't Magellan, was it? That's one that comes to mind from your description.

    Sounds like a fabulous trip! I'm jealous. :)

  2. Oh, I remembered the game!

  3. HA! You're not going to believe it, but I was reading, and thinking, gosh, sounds like O Hell!

    ...and so it was. We should play sometime... My grandparents were going to teach me bridge one day, but they always said, O hell first! :)