Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ranking Mania

Once I have attended a workshop by Kevin Downing who told us, despite what we think of university rankings, we will not be able to ignore them simply because of public opinion is centred around them. Thus, the involvement of our universities in the rankings. My own views on the matter have always been not to ignore them but cautiously use them for our own progress. The rankings are after all one-dimensional projections (hence allowing ordering in mathematical sense) and are not designed to capture the total worth of an organization. I don't really pay attention to the individual ranking number too much but the magnitude of the number will probably signify similar class of universities.

First and foremost,  there are probably more than 30,000 universities in the whole world, most of which are unranked. Now ranked universities are probably in the magnitude of one or two thousand. The number of ranked universities could also vary from year to year and thus this may spoil temporal rank comparison.

Next, there are many different university rankings, each with different ranking criteria. Kevin mentioned the big three:
The latter two actually began together in 2004 but they went separate ways in 2009 for which QS decided to use Scopus database while THE uses Thomson-Reuters database. I follow at least another ranking for cross check namely
  • Centre for World University Rankings (CWUR), which is based in Jeddah and began in 2012.
QS & THE rankings involve academic peer review while ARWU and CWUR claim they are purely data-based. With different criteria and input dataset, certainly the rankings they produced will be different and it is interesting to see the way they differ. On the surface, I would prefer those without the peer review, which tends to be subjective.

Our local universities seem to have favoured the QS rankings and perhaps prepared well according to their criteria. Hence better performance for our local universities. This is our recent QS rankings:
  • Universiti Malaya - ranked 133
  • Universiti Putra Malaysia - ranked 270
  • Universiti Teknologi Malaysia - ranked 288
  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia - ranked 302
  • Universiti Sains Malaysia - ranked 330
UPM made a substantial leap of 61 spots (from 331st position) bringing it to within top 300 but I consider we made the same leap as UTM (from 303rd position). Next came the QS ranking of Top 50 universities under 50:
  • Universiti Putra Malaysia - ranked 17
  • Universiti Teknologi Malaysia - ranked 25
  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia - ranked 26
  • Universiti Sains Malaysia - ranked 33
We have also made some achievements in Reuters top innovative university rankings:
  • Universiti Putra Malaysia - ranked 73
  • Universiti Malaya - ranked 75
The breakdown for UPM marks is given here.

All these improvements are very much welcomed. One can see our university staff committed in helping the university to improve but much more meaningful is the research culture  and the science we build that have improved over the years.

Having these results, we should not go over our heads with such improvement and achievements. Once we accept rankings, we should accept them even if we are not doing good. If we pick and choose, it may not reflect us that well. Just several days after all these good news, THES came out with their rankings and they gave
  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
  • Universiti Putra Malaysia
  • Universiti Sains Malaysia
  • Universiti Teknologi Malaysia
  • Universiti Teknologi Petronas
all ranked within 601-800 category. Universiti Malaya seems conspicuously missing from it (I do not know why) and we noticed Universiti Teknologi Petronas is placed within the same rank as the other research universities. When I first highlighted these results, I guess some are unhappy. But as I said, if one accepts QS ranking, one ought not ignore the other rankings on what they say. The very least we need to see is what they have analysed, why are the ranking results different and in what way can we improve from them. In any case, I find the ranking is consistent with the other rankings. For the CWUR 2016 rankings, we have the following list:
  • Universiti Malaya - ranked 539
  • Universiti Sains Malaysia - ranked 694
  • Universiti Putra Malaysia - ranked 832
Note that CWUR has not been highlighted in any of our media probably due to it being lesser known. It is interesting however to see the score for UPM for which we scored well in the patent criterion, and this further supports the Reuters top innovative ranking results. Now for the ARWU ranking, UPM didn't get to be ranked but the following universities are ranked as 401-500:
  • Universiti Malaya
  • Universiti Sains Malaysia
  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
UPM has at least been ranked 151-200 in 2015 for the Mathematics subject ranking. We are looking forward to the 2016 subject ranking, whether we are able to maintain this ranking. Note that both CWUR and ARWU rankings are harder. ARWU ranking for instance, considers alumni of the university that wins the Nobel Prize and Fields Medal as one of the criteria.

As I said earlier, I would rather look at these rankings as tools. One ought to be careful of how we think about them. If top rankings are being made into ultimate goals, they can lead to undesirable and unethical behaviour; ends justify the means mode. The ultimate goals should be those of more noble and intrinsic nature.

We had already seen one academic scandal earlier where local academics duplicated and manipulate images from their experiments to be sent as three different papers:
Recently, a bit less severe is the accusation of salami slicing results into multiple papers:
Why is this happening is simply because of the terrible pressure that an academic experiencing today to the extent that some resort to manipulative means and worse, deceit to achieve their key performance indicators and at times unnatural demands. Part of these are indeed fueled by the university's desire to achieve better rankings. One should really reflect the kind of academic ethos that we are trying to build. Let's try to keep good academic ideals while trying to achieve better rankings. The rankings are not permanent, but the science we do is.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Birthday of My Other Half

Today is the birthday of my other half, Rosnah Mustapa. We are now both in our 5-series. Let me just retell a little bit about how I met her.

I did not know her before coming back from my PhD studies. Right after a week, registering myself at UPM on 8 December 1990, I was asked to go to the Bintulu campus. There I met Dr. Mansor Ismail (now professor) who is married to a doctor graduate from Universiti Malaya. His wife introduced me to her and we talked a few times over the phone, met once face-to-face. Finally my family went over to see her family and we got married on 26 August 1993. That's how simple it was, no fancy romances. Here are some pics of our wedding ceremony at Tabung Haji.

Actually we don't make a fuss of our birthdays too much but we celebrate whenever we can. So tonight, I brought her out to dinner with my youngest (the rest of the kids are in the colleges and boarding school). Here are some pics.

May we grow old together happily ever after.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Late Father Would Be 92

Today is my late father, Zainuddin Udin's birthday. He would be 92 today (18 September 1924). Thanks to my sister who reminded us.

Here is a picture of him while he was young.

This was way before I was born. My fond memories of him was how he would like to keep everything is in order in the house. He would do the dust cleaning despite that he has severe asthma. I remembered the day he would travel all the way from Batu Gajah with his Lambretta scooter (we didn't have a car) to fetch me at the boarding school at Bukit Mertajam whith is roughly 165km away. By the end of the trip he would have a severe asthma attack. The sacrifice of my loving father. This is of course when it was my early days at the boarding school, noting that I had never left home all the years before that. Later, I learned how to take the train from Bukit Mertajam to Batu Gajah and back.

I was never at home that much since the boarding school days. Right after school, I was sent to Adelaide for Matriculation and B.Sc. (Hons.) degree. After coming back, I was in a teacher's college (Maktab Perguruan Sri Temenggung Ibrahim) briefly since I was on Ministry of Education scholarship but then the contract got transferred to UPM which I joined way back in 1985 as a tutor. After about a year, I went to UK first to Cambridge (Part III of Mathematical Tripos) then to Durham for PhD. So I missed being around him at home. When I went to UK, I had this photo of him and mum's in my wallet until now.

These were taken, I believe, sometime before they perform their haj. While I was in UK, I didn't know that my father's health deteriorated (he had heart problems, high blood pressure and diabetes). I went back home from UK on 1st November 1990. On touching down, my family rushed us to the hospital to meet my dad. He saw me and I can't quite remember whether we spoke to each other. The next day, we received the call that he had passed away (2 November 1990).

While I'm very much grateful being able to see him in time, I sincerely wished that I could spent more time with him. The best thing I can do for both my parents is now to include them in my doa after my prayers:

رَبِّ اغْفِرْ لِيْ وَلِوَالِدَيَّ وَارْحَمْهُمَا كَمَا رَبَّيَانِيْ صَغِيْرًا

May Allah bless their souls and let them be among the righteous. Al-Fatihah.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Angiogram at Serdang Hospital

Today is Malaysia day. Let us renew our commitment to make our country a better place in whatever capacity that we have.

The day before, I had a hospital appointment for an angiogram procedure in Serdang Hospital. Prior to this, I had already done a CT angiogram in a private hospital that indicated partial blockages in the left and right main arteries (30-40%) and the left anterior descending artery had 75% blockage (see here for explanation). In another earlier appointment at Serdang Hospital, I was told by Dr. Asri that CT angiogram normally overestimate the numbers and to be sure, one should do the normal coronary angiography. This involves insertion of wires through the arteries to the heart. I was told that the procedure had risks of about 1 in 1000 and further insertion of stent will further increase the risk to 1 in 100. We were given the option to consider the procedure and at the time, we just wanted  to be sure.

I must say, a few days before the procedure, I have fears of the thought of putting a wire right to the heart and the fact that it can cause complications. On the day, we left after Fajr from home since we were told to be there by 7.30 am. We dropped our second son at the university before going to the hospital. Despite being early, there were already many cars at the hospital but there were enough empty spots for us to park our car conveneiently.

I was the first to arrive at the angio daily care unit (before it was even open). Was asked to change my clothes to the ones given by the hospital. Was checked for blood pressure and ECG. Was told that the procedure will be done through the artery on my right wrist; if unsuccessful with that, will be done through the leg (which requires shaving between the legs there and then if you have not done them).

By about 10 am , I was ferried into the theatre and met Prof. Fazli who is handling the procedure. The procedure was not as painful as it sounds; the pain is mainly during the needle insertion in my right wrist for local anesthetics, no more painful than the one for IV. As the wire is inserted and I guess with the dye, there is a warm sensation in my right arm and some sense of discomfort. In the beginning, I thought I can feel the wire going to the heart but no such thing. There were a few TV monitors for which real-time images of the heart and arteries are displayed. I can only see them blurly since I was without my glasses. The whole procedure is only about half an hour. They bandaged my right wrist really tight causing some numbing discomfort but it was mainly to stop bleeding of the main artery. I was asked to rest for about two hours before I can be discharged. Update: A site showing images of the coronary arteries.

The results showed that the CT angio did overestimate the blockages. I had only minor diseased main arteries but the left descending arteries did show 30-40% blockages. I was already told by Prof. Fazli that they will not do angioplasty unless it reached the threshold value of 70%. I thanked him a few times for the procedure and the explanations and was in fact relief that it is over. So all I need now is medications and a healthy lifestyle (can't do much about the stress though). Later, my other half told me, if it is in a private hospital, they might have recommended angioplasty even if it is 40%. By 12.40, they opened up the bandage but still applying pressure to the wound. I was asked whether I wanted a week's leave and initially I had declined (thinking of work). They told me that I should avoid any heavy (physical) work including driving. Then I thought I should have the medical leave given that I drive all the way from Seremban to work. Finally after 1 pm, went home to Seremban.

I am now resting, trying not to overwork my arms. Then this morning, I heard the news of a well-known local religious scholar, Ustaz Harun Din had complications from angioplasty procedure in Stanford. Our prayers for him. Update: Just received the news that he had just passed away. Innalillahi wainna ilaihi raji'un. Al-Fatihah.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Spectra of Academics

There is always an urge in me to defend the academics, not simply because I am one but because of the weight of responsibilities that they carry. The traditional responsibilities of research, teaching and supervision are more than enough to fill up (multiples of) the lifetime of an academic. In the contemporary setting of a modern academic, there are now further expectations of taking up duties on industrial relations, community engagements and even income generation. All these should be handled with care and wisdom. Thus, it saddens me when others are trying to put down the academics.

In the midst of the frenzy of duties and activities that the academics need to cover, it is sometimes a relief for us to return to the (comfort zone of) traditional setting and entertain our intellectual playfulness. We got to do this when Prof. Kalyan B. Sinha visited us at the institute. Earlier, I was surprised to receive his email stating his intent to visit the institute after he attends the Quantum Probability conference in Kuantan. He actually knew personally the late Prof. S. Twareque Ali and was saddened by his departure. After looking up his profile and research work, I was more than happy and honoured to invite him. So he was at the institute on 27-29 August 2016. We took the opportunity to organize a half-day seminar to coincide with his visit (see He gave very good introductory lectures on stochastic Schrodinger/Heisenberg dynamics and non-commutative geometry (his slides are available here). Further glimpse of his clear and lucid way of explaining technical materials can be found in his books  here and here. Below are some pics of his visit:

At the end of his visit, I told him that I wish that I had known him earlier so that we could interact and possibly collaborate since there are overlaps of interests.

Talking about collaborations, my attitude has always been very open to invitations within constraints. I rarely decline and am usually honoured to work with good scientists. It is only if it's too distant away from my interest that I will excuse myself or the other party does not really want to collaborate or consider me of much too low a stature. In the latter, I tend to shy away from the person. Currently, I'm in the midst of making possible collaborations with a regulatory body to do complex networks research. The initiative came from Prof. Maman Djauhari, ex-fellow of the institute. The discussion had began last year but negotiations were only finalized recently, but Prof. Maman was already leaving the institute. In a small farewell function, he gave a speech (see pic below). It was during his speech that I learned that Prof. Maman took group theory classes by the legendary Alexander Grothendieck and also Jorga Ibrahim was his lecturer whom he held in high regards. I remember that we had the opportunity of inviting Prof. Jorga Ibrahim to deliver lectures on deforemation quantization in ITMA through the suggestion of Freddy Zen. It was a great honour to have him (and at that time with John Stillwell), way back in 2004.

Fast forward to this week, I found myself again concerned with how blanket expectations on academics, regardless of the field he or she is in. This can be bad particularly when mathematicians/theoreticians have always different research, publication and citation culture. Decision makers and managers must be made fully aware of these differences. Below, I give some links to some statements and studies being made on research culture of mathematics:

Much like the social scientists had fought against the use of metrics of hard sciences in their fields, mathematicians and theoreticians will do well united in highlighting the above.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


One of the troubling things that I see today is our fractured society divided into many different categories of lines and it is utterly disappointing to see some individuals that further aggravate the situation. It is thus our responsibility to do our little parts to harmonise relations wherever we can. My earlier vulnerability led me to rethink many matters and motivate me further to do what I can in my little ways, rebonding relations. For instance, after 'Eid I decided to restart our family whatsapp group Keluarga Zainuddin Udin to ensure that we are constantly in touch with each other.

Yesterday, I had two wedding invitations and tried my best to go for it. One is from Prof. Azmi; the wedding is in Cyberjaya. There, I met Zul (our present head of department) and a very senior ex-UPM professor Ithnin Bujang, now retired.

I didn't get the chance to meet the rest of the Department's members since I had to go to the other wedding. For the readers, I have been away from the Department for about thirteen years now due to my appointment in the institutes (Institute of Advanced Technology and Institute for Mathematical Research). Due to commitments at the institute, I am rarely in the department and only if I'm free, I'll go to whatever functions are there in the Faculty.

The other invitation is from a senior of mine, Dato' Ahmad Sharifuddin Abdul Kadir in my Adelaide days and it was held in Dewan Banquet UPM. His wife, Datin Noormala was my school-mate in Daws Road High School (matriculation year) and later we shared several courses in Mathematics during our basic degree. Many of my colleagues (senior, same batch and junior) have grown to have successful careers, carrying titles like Dato' as the person above. One of them is my own house-mate during Matriculation year, Dato' Sri Suhaizan Wahid; he is actually younger than me. Another prominent one, which I read in the papers and was able to recognise him clearly (was on a trip to Sydney with him) is President/Chief Executive Officer of Petronas, Datuk Wan Zulkiflee Wan Ariffin. With such luminaries, I must say, I was thinking twice of going or not. In normal circumstances, I tend to shy away from high-ranking officials, superiors etc. I tend to be more at ease for instance, with my own staff in comparison to say, the university officials. However I realise that I am going there to meet friends, rather than to be aware of our economic-social status. It has been over 35 years since I've met them. Thus, there I was with my family at the wedding and the first person I met was Meor, a senior whom I was close with (listening to music and things). They didn't recognise me at first (because I've grown wider). Here are then some photos taken at the wedding ceremony.

Dr. Hamid (also my senior) whom I met several times (as a patient and friend) at Seremban Columbia Hospital was also there too. I spend some time trying to meet everyone I could; missed a few since I didn't wait quite to the end. It was fun seeing them again.

During the night, another rebonding occasion with my sister-in-law's family having dinner while watching Dato' Lee Chong Wei in the Olympic badminton single final. He gave a good fight to his contender Chen Long. For me, what had me tingling me all over was to see Malaysians unite in supporting him regardless of race, religion or political side. Here is the pic:

Today, my other half went to see her own best friend whom she had not met for so many years, who was here in Seremban for a conference. Another rebonding occasion. After the meet, we went over to see our son at the boarding school, who will be facing his trial exams these coming weeks, as sign of support.

A weekend well-spent!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Innovation Day: Internationalization and Multidisciplinary Opportunities

Today we had our annual event of Innovation Day for the institute. This is the day where we get to honour the high achievers (and the ex-staff) of the institute and we renew our pledge for the institute. This is probably my last as my appointment ends before June next year. My involvement was really minimal (only text editing) since the staff members knew what to do best for the event given their past experience.

Dato' Kamel Ariffin was named as the Leading Figure (tokoh) of the institute this year since he has led the institute for the last 13 years or so. He also gave the invited lecture for this event where he reminded us on the vision and mission of the institute, which we most often read but not properly paid attention to. The vision of the institute is the following:

It is the vision of the Institute for Mathematical Research to become a renowned institute in mathematical sciences research, contributing towards the development of progress and well-being of mankind.

It is certainly similar to the vision of many other institutes/centres but the challenge is how can we realise it. What are the gaps? For me, we can't do without international recognition and to have recognition as such, we have to be technically on par with established institutes (the prominent ones were mentioned in Dato's talk). Having international networks can be part of the process to get such recognition and I believe, I have mentioned it in one of my presentations a few years back (though later I found out it wasn't very well-received by some). Now, I say "part of the process" because at the heart of what matters are the content/output that we are producing. This is very much dependent of the context of how we are evaluated. For instance, Isaac Newton Institute (INI) is an institute that are based on research activity programmes carried out there (see here) and hence their goals or KPIs are different from ours. We are still subjected to the common set of KPIs that are given to the other faculties/institutes of the university and hence must be addressed as such. This can be difficult given that some KPIs may not really address the strength of mathematical sciences. Nevertheless we will soldier on. Back to international recognition, a key point to address is our research, addressing questions of common interest to the international community or if it is a niche area, commonly accepted at the level of international standards. This should be done every now and then as new topics come into favour and old ones might die out. In the past, privately I also have suggested that we should start the culture of submitting preprints of our papers to international repositories like the arXiv. In this way, our work gets wider international exposure and possibly more citations. This is not part of our practice just as yet.

Talking about international content, another matter raised is multidisciplinary topics and in particular the use of mathematics in biology, perhaps due to the university's tradition in agricultural sciences. I couldn't agree any better with this one and I have been mentioning the need to go beyond our strict disciplines (even within the mathematics subdisciplines themselves). Perhaps even closer to mathematics than biology are physics and computer science. Mathematics and physics historically have been close partners and in the institute, we have areas like nonlinearity and secure communications that could have been developed together with the physicists. Computer science of course even had shared department with mathematics before; while now separated into different faculties, closer co-operation could still be maintained and new areas could be explored (such as the ones that have been proposed earlier with University of Auckland) and in particular data science/mining. During my visit to UMT earlier, I had mentioned the same thing. Even with mathematical biology, many leading experts have (theoretical) physics background. For instance, Reidun Twarock (see the INI video in the given link above) whose group-theoretical work on virus structures is well known, had an earlier background on quantization. Coincidentally, Twarock was a guest of the institute during the mathematical biology conference that I had chaired sometime ago (see her article in this conference proceedings). For agricultural sciences, we had earlier close contact with Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland (BioSS) which could have been put into advantage but now that our researcher, who had this contact, has left the institute, the co-operation has now slowed down. Thus, we had many opportunities to follow the multi-disciplinary route as suggested but again we need willing partners.

Presently, we have an upcoming big opportunity with the Malaysia-Italy Centre of Excellence for Mathematical Sciences, whose office is in the same building as the institute. We could not be any closer to an international entity than this and from what I have heard, the focus research areas are may be industrially driven, requiring multidisciplinary outlook. I look forward to what can be done with the centre and I suggest this to be our main focus in the near future since such opportunity is very rare. With only a few years of service left with the university, this has to be taken up mostly by our younger colleagues. I do wish that my younger colleagues will take up the opportunity with the Italians and also meet the challenges posed here and by Dato'. This will certainly pave the way for the institute to be of international repute. I wish the institute all the best in its future undertakings.

I end this post with the multimedia presentation made earlier for our Innovation Day: