Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Misplacing Lessons in Ramadhan

It was only yesterday that we got the pleasant news that UPM was listed as one of the top 50 Asian universities by QS University Rankings. But then came another piece of news that shocked us all: allegations of Malaysian researchers' misconduct in publications. Even though the group of researchers are from a different university, I hesitated to post the news here, feeling ashamed, as a Malaysian, that this is happening in Malaysia. In any case, the news is now all over the social media and our mainstream media (see here) and we simply have to face the bitter truth. What are the allegations, you can read it here: All the little joy we just had moments before reading the post vanish into thin air.

Me and my colleagues had short and long chats about the above matter and worry about the direction of the academia in Malaysia. Like everyone else, we talked much about the KPI culture and the academic pressure that it entails. It seems easy to blame it on KPIs but are these really to blame? Elsewhere in the world, others are also worried about KPIs, just as we are. If KPIs are to blame, it is probably our misplaced emphasis on them since they are merely tools of management and monitoring. The real culprit is our lack of instilled ethics, professionalism and perhaps immature research experience in some of our researchers. We have to take bitter lessons from this episode.

Misplaced or not, we are still having our KPI and Strategy workshop for the institute tomorrow. Among the KPIs to be discussed is the percentage of our publications in Q1 & Q2 journals. How the journals are ranked with respect to the various quartiles are still based on their impact factor within a subject class. It doesn't really say anything about the quality of our publications published there but merely indicate that one is able to penetrate the competitive barrier for acceptance in these journals. Personally, I have been telling my own students, publish where one's own work find more use or where the community of the subject matter flocks to. The Q1/Q2 categories themselves change over time. Anyway, my RA, Hazazi has managed to list (non-exhaustively) the Q1 & Q2 journals that are probably relevant to the institute (see below).

By being informed of what journals are there, one can scan the materials in there and see their technical level and the depth (plus what is considered interesting by the international community). Wherever possible, one can emulate the sophistication and scientific qualities into our research, then publish wherever it is appropriate.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Varia: Fasting, Documents & Respectability

We are now approaching a week of Ramadhan now. I consider Ramadhan in three phases (with respect to our body and not the spirit), namely, (i) adjusting phase; (ii) accustomed phase;  (iii) fatigue phase. The first phase is merely adjusting to the practice of going without food and water during the day. Dependent on the individual, this can be easy (especially for those who had practiced fasting even in non-Ramadhan days) and can also be difficult (especially for those who have gastritis - see here). My own experience this year, I had some unsettling stomach in the first three days but now I am fine. Some people take a longer time to adjust but usually as one enters the mid-third of Ramadhan, one has gotten used to it. The third phase is when fatigue starts to set in. It (the last ten days) also coincides with the suggested period of intensifying one's acts of worship. This period could be as difficult as the first phase (if not more) in various ways: simply fatigue, slight depression of not achieving more, urge to celebrate etc. At this time, I only wish to perform better than last year, at minimum.

Yesterday, I chaired a meeting that lasted three hours which is much longer than my own usual meetings. I normally put a bound on the duration of a meeting: two hours. If one exceeds this duration, one can easily say that the meeting is not conducted effectively, veering off from the usual purpose of meetings, namely making decisions. The meeting was on annual report and we ended up with editing the whole report (second time round) as if it is a workshop of doing so. I can sense the restlessness for which I then wrote a post to the staff and try to justify what we were doing (the post itself may sound pretentious to some). We had to involve all officers from each laboratory and unit since we require information from all of them (requires teamwork). I'm pretty sure that the annual report is not at the top of our mind when it comes to our job tasks and for the academics/researchers, there are certainly other things that we prefer to do. However, there are expectations of annual reports from good institutions and it comes with the duties of (part-) administrators of the institute. In the post, I gave examples of the following:

Some may say that these are established institutes for us to be compared with. This is however more the reason for us to emulate them at least to a certain fraction (rather than an excuse not to be). I have a problem with the idea that we ought to be sub-standard and this I hope to comment below.

Some of the points raised in the meeting may sound pedantic but this is what is needed for a well-prepared document. Some of these are with respect to the formatting and writing standards. I'm sure everyone had at some point frowned about making corrections and editing documents e.g. minutes of meetings, exam questions. Most of the time, it is because we want to get our job done without (trivialised) difficulties. I have some rules of thumb regarding these pedantic matters. If the documents are only for internal consumption and not open to public viewing, there is no real need for formatting standards. If it is open to public, then formatting standards should be applied and when the documents are regular or periodical, some uniformity across the documents is the norm. Whatever type of documents they are, contentwise, they must be proper. For example, minutes of meetings replete with mistakes and unfathomably vague, even if circulated internally, do not reflect the organization in a good light. An advanced level of language competency is needed to ensure that the contents are crystal clear and well-representing the intended points and this is indeed expected from our professional officers. Parts of the discussion yesterday are indeed addressing the appropriate terms and style to be inserted/incorporated in the report. As far as formatting and writing standards, an often-quoted reference is the Chicago Manual, which was indeed mentioned yesterday.

Note: I learned about the Chicago Manual while I was given the responsibility of (all) publications in my previous institute, ITMA and I can still remember how the staff is all stressed up. I remember pointing out the missing commas and dots in some of our publications. Now, I have softened up a bit due to more duties (I can't micromanage anymore).To me, it was amazing to see how meticulous the contributors to the manual can get, when it comes to writing and I respect that. Should we not follow?

The annual report may not be the type of output that will get noticed much by the upper management. For instance, it will not really add much to my CV. But still we do it for a different reason. First, it is a historical record of the institute's achievements. I believe many of the things we do that help the institute have not being documented well enough. Many times, we had to recall events from memory or search deep into an archive of files to get those information with so much uncertainties. This could be avoided if the information is readily available in our annual reports. Secondly, annual reports can serve as a publicity material for the institute. Many times, we had visitors coming to the institute and we could not find a proper document to give, that helps explain what the institute is and what we have done. Once in a while, we prepare special documents profiling our institute or some form of prospectus to suit these purposes. These are fine but they get outdated easily. Better still, is to rely on the annual reports as historical documents and the contents will 'remain true' from being simply historical records. A lot of work could be saved then but we have to be consistent in putting them out. With our international involvement getting bigger, it only makes more sense for us to do so with an English version of the annual report. This may add further editorial work (the historical facts) and demands respectable English competency from us. I simply we will get used to it. We may defer this idea for some period of time but eventually we have to do this.

Presently, our annual reports tend to list activities with minimal descriptions. A step to be taken perhaps later (yes, I know it is easy to suggest) is to include more information on activities (or research) we would like to highlight. This we can learn from the annual reports from the links given above. But let us take this one step at a time. As I said in my post, this publicity drive (through the annual report) is for us to own up. No one else is going to do it for us.

The annual report is among the avenues we could help the institute to be respectable in the eyes of the public. A colleague often said to me, it is always the good quality research (as opposed to say, annual report) that will make us respectable (and not others), which I agree. But in the face of often adverse public stereotypings that we receive, we should highlight whatever good achievements (big or not) and show that we have progressed (in a small way, if you like) and I consider it is as a form of duty for us. We can always be critical of ourselves and look at our weaknesses but there should be room for us to celebrate our achievements and progress. We should avoid joining the chorus of negative stereotyping (which at times we are guilty of) but rather help work on our improvements, the very least. Again, no one is going to do this for us and it is up to us to do so. Earn the respect and let us not lose sight of hope and our responsibilities. 

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

A Trip To Terengganu

Alhamdulillah, we have reached at another Ramadhan. Trying to improve myself and take advantage as much as I could in this blessed month. This post will however be about the trip last weekend to Terengganu, how it got started, the talk I gave there, discussions and some sight-seeing.

It all began with my face-to-face discussions with Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zabidin Salleh. I knew him since his student days (under the supervision of Prof. Adem Kilicman). He has been a regular participant of my EQuaLS event. Thus, when he mooted the idea of me giving a talk at his School of Informatics and Applied Mathematics in Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, I naturally agreed. At the time, I jokingly mentioned that please invite me during the school holidays, so that I can bring my children along. And so I did. The talk was scheduled on 31 May 2016, when the school holidays had just started. To clear up any doubts about my trip, I would also have gone to give the talk there even if the invitation is not during the school holidays because I have been eyeing on building research relationship with either him or Roslan Hasni (the two whom I know at UMT that work in mathematical areas that are not common in Malaysia) and also to get to know the community there (see here). In any case, I have always tried to maximise the benefit of a trip in whatever way I could and in this case, making my family equally happy. One of my son who is studying at UPM could not however make it for this trip, but we already have planned another trip for him to Terengganu when my other half attends a conference there at the end of July (I will stay back then with my youngest). To further eliminate any criticism, most of my time during this trip was spent on preparing the slides (the day before), the talk and the extended discussion with members of the school (and not sight-seeing) and of course the travel. We had decided to drive there to save us the cost of buying flight tickets and also my family gets to use the car for their own sight-seeing . The long drive was bearable since we took turns driving between myself, my other half and my eldest son.

The talk that I gave was pretty much general but hinges in the areas of my research. I had given myself the title "Aspects of Interaction Between Theoretical Physics and Mathematics: Geometry, Algebraic Structures and Graphs", agreed upon by my host. My idea was to get the mathematicians to be interested in some topics of theoretical physics that we do. The contents of my talk is outlined as follows:
  • Introducing Physics-Mathematics Interplay
  • Geometry & Classical Mechanics
  • Enter Quantum Reality (At Your Own Risk)
  • Hyperbolic Excursions
  • Network Detour
  • Summary & References
It took me quite a while to think on how to start off the talk and finally I thought I should begin with the age-old question of whether mathematics is discovered or invented giving the position of a platonist or a formalist respectively. I have always thought that philosophy has a way of analysing things that delineates extreme positions (labeling each accordingly) and that one should not be trapped in this Boolean dichotomy but rather should entertain the whole spectrum between the two. Thus, I relate physics in its way of describing (modeling) external reality with all its abstractions and generalizations, leading to a platonist standpoint. The formalist standpoint comes from further abstraction and generalization that are far divorce from describing any external world, turning mathematics into a gameplay. Having mentioning this, then I started to describe surprises from the physics-mathematics interplay from physicists creating new ideas in mathematics and mathematicians inventing ideas that later led to a surprising usage in physics.

After the introduction, I began to speak on my own research interests. I had to begin with generalized description of classical mechanics in relation to phase spaces the (co-)tangent bundle of R^n as a start and generalised further to nonlinear phase spaces. At this juncture, I also digressed into symbolic dynamics via cutting sequences in the hope to connect with an interest I have in hyperbolic geometry.

With classical mechanics explained, then the discussion proceeded to quantum mechanics via the similarities of the algebras from classical mechanics. This allows me to dwell a bit on the topic of quantization and in fact I did it too long. This leaves me little time to speak on the next topic of quantum theory, namely Kochen-Specker theorem and quantum contextuality. Here I begin introducing graphs with their two-coloring problem and operator algebras. Had I have more time, I would have also introduced geometric contextuality as explained by Planat and collaborators. Another topic I would have loved to introduce is the use of category theory in formalising quantum mechanics via Coecke's diagrammatic calculus; had to limit myself though to certain mathematical ideas in the talk (as mentioned in the title).

The hyperbolic excursion essentially came from my interest in quantizing a particle system on hyperbolic surfaces. I explained that we had to delve into numerically computing eigenfunctions on the surfaces to see the role of the discrete groups appearing in forming the hyperbolic surfaces. Showed the nice pictures that Chan had produced. I also describe some open problems regarding this work. Classical billiards on hyperbolic surfaces exhibit chaotic motion and hence considering quantum theory on these surfaces may lead to research on quantum chaos. I did not get to mention this and neither did I mention the symbolic dynamics which have nice connections to number theory.

The last topic was finally the use of graphs in complex networks, that seems to be a bit far from what I usually do. I explained then that my interest in this was spurred by the few available works in relating hyperbolic geometry with complex networks. Of course, the other point of attraction is its use in describing diverse systems with large datasets. All theorists have this secret dream of having his work being used even in the normal day-to-day experiences and hence my interest in complex networks. 

Finally I summarised with some observations and remarks. I did not get to mention my other interest in mathematical cosmology. I would have loved to say the group-gemetry interplay in describing space-times and even connect with hyperbolic geometry through ideas of cosmic crystallography but that would have been too much. In any case, I'm phasing out my cosmology research for now.

Besides this talk, I also gave an introduction to INSPEM as a publicity drive for the institute (in fact it was requested). Discussions that follow thereafter is the idea of INSPEM as a national institute. The Deputy Dean of the School, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Abdul Fatah Wahab was formerly a staff in the Maths Dept of UPM and he mentioned that he had helped draft the concept paper of the institute. My reply is that I was not there during the initial formulation of the institute and would have not known what are the goals and strategies toward the setting up of a national institute. So far, I did say that INSPEM has been allowing academics from other universities to be external research associates and are welcomed to use available facilities of the institute. Having said this, I can see now two options (which I did not say in the discussion) to go in the direction of a national institute: (1) apply for the MOHE Centre of Excellence; (2) leverage on MICEMS set-up within INSPEM. Both requires high commitment from its members and a lot of hard work.

After the two talks, the discussion went on beyond lunch time, much to ideas being churned out on possible research and on how we can collaborate. My own view is that we have to take what is natural; we first get to know each other's research first and then if something clicks, then we will be able to collaborate better. Finally, we (Zabidin, Roslan, Abdul Fatah, Gobi and myself) went for a late lunch at a seafood restaurant. They discovered later that I do not take seafood. During my parting with them, the idea of a joint seminar with them in INSPEM was mooted. Hopefully we get to realise this.

Here are some pics:

While I was busy preparing my slides and the day I gave the talk, my family went out to do sight-seeing and souvenir-hunting. I only joined them in the trip to the Crystal Mosque, the Monument Park of Taman Tamaddun Islam nearby and in the evening after the talk, the Batu Buruk beach. Here are more pics.

... and the boat ride

The Monument Park is a couple of minutes walk from the Crystal Mosque and is part of Islamic Heritage Park. They display down-sized models of mosques, monuments and tombs (with interior decorations replicated) all around the world.

Late evening, after the talk we went to Batu Buruk beach:

In the late evening (before the morning when we left), I got to meet and a student of mine, Cikgu Ramli Abdullah. He was a school teacher who went on to get his Bachelor degree and he had to take my quantum mechanics class (sorry for him and his colleagues). We talked about old times and some fellow students during then.

All in all, it was a fun working holiday trip.