Saturday, December 31, 2016

2017: A Gloomy Outlook

In about a few more minutes, we will be in 2017. While others may want to celebrate, I have often find myself being depressed, thinking about the very many things I have yet to accomplish.

These are not the only things I am concerned with. All of us, I believe (possibly apart from the filthy rich), are affected by economic hard times; rising cost of living, not offset by any increase of means of living. Small business owners had to make difficult decisions which includes my other half. Imagine trying to run a clinic whose responsibility is to keep stock of (relevant) medicine to treat patients, which at best is given one month credit, while the medical assistance boards/corporations that help pay patients for their medical needs can delay their payments even beyond six months.

Let us return to the university. We have seen our annual budget being cut for a few years now (see here). Earlier cut had seen our library and contract staff suffer. We lost subscriptions to good journals by professional physical and mathematical societies simply because they serve only a few disciplines in comparison to the commercial publishers. We had also lost our research fellows. I can't imagine what further cuts could mean. Universities are essentially running on shoe string budget if not deficit. It is amazing that despite our improved performance in research and teaching (not claimed by us but by other parties), budgetwise, the progress made seems unrewarded. Instead of retaining good academics, we may now see our academics leaving (I know personally at least one and verbally a few considering). In the name of increasing standards, we are also seeing promotions are getting more difficult. Even going abroad for conferences seems to be more difficult where permissions are needed not only from the universities themselves but from the ministry. I have no idea what is the rationale for this (perhaps controlling expenditure?) but it will make academic life more difficult and hence more push factor for people to leave.

The only thing in 2017 for now that I'm looking forward to is our group's trip to the conference on 90 Years of Quantum Mechanics. Note that I have applied for the permission of going abroad and leave. We will be going there on our own expenses (not funded by our grants) with some support from the organizers to which we are grateful. With the exchange rate of 1 SGD to RM3, we will not have much to spend while we are there but the academic environment that we will experience there is worth the trip.

To end, hoping for a miraculous year.

Friday, December 23, 2016

At 54

Yesterday was my 54th birthday and we spent most of the time in a private hospital to do some tests. My legs showed some swelling for some time and after a week it has shown no improvements (despite medications). See here for possible causes. My other half mentioned it is best for me to do a thorough check-up to find out what's causing and prolonging it and so we did. The results thus far are inconclusive and I will return to the hospital for another check-up next Thursday. Actually the whole family celebrated my birthday the night before. My eldest simply came back (during study week) just for that while my second eldest came back earlier, stayed back and to return to the campus today. I appreciated what they did. Here is a pic, perhaps showing myself rather unwell.

I would like to backtrack further to the few days before my birthday. Earlier in the week, I was invited to go along with my colleague to a meeting on possible formation of a hub on Malaysian Industrial Mathematics & Statistics that would act as a platform for industry and mathematical scientists to connect. The initiative is headed by UTM-CIAM who has been active organising the Mathematics in Industry Study Group of which the institute had once collaborated. The initiative perhaps will propel their efforts at a national level and may complement what other bodies like Malaysia Academy Industry Network (MyAIN) and CREST (Catalyst for Malaysia's E&E) are doing.

Within the same week, UPM is also co-hosting Science & Technology Exchange Program (STEP) in Islamic Countries (see here) with Mustafa Prize. We were told that it was not easy to bring the event to the university. Frankly, I was not aware of the prize before this but I knew about King Faisal International Prize whose Laureates include Atiyah, Wiles, Terence Tao, C.N. Yang, Wilczek and Zeilinger (see here). However, Mustafa Prize is only about a year old, seems to be legally established in 2015 and is based in Iran. The first two laureates are Prof. Jackie Ying (NTU, Singapore) and Prof. Omar Yaghi (Univ. of California, Berkeley and Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute) (see here). I attended Prof. Yaghi's talk on Promoting Creative Academic Environment. Some of the slides can be seen below.

On Wednesday we had an interview with Malaysia Progress, a publication under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, promoting Malaysia to foreign investors. Just the day before, we had some discussions to prepare for this interview. I drafted a document to help facilitate the interview. I should explain why I write as it is. I believe in not overselling ideas. To put in figure guesstimates on how we have contributed to the country may invite criticisms and skepticisms. I rather speak facts. On the major achievements, I highlighted the fact that our vision is to have the institute to be of international repute and hence my answers were respect to the vision (EMS recognition for the ERCE label, MICEMS with Italy and ARWU 2015 ranking for the subject of mathematics). There are of course more detailed goals that are answered in the latter points. I try not to highlight too much one group over another and written in a way that almost every group gets a mention (and no mention of persons at all). Apart from one place, I underplay my own group's contribution. When written this way, it will describe the institute as a whole. I hope when there are new leaders in the institute later, I hope they consider this fairness in highlighting the institute. It is unhealthy to highlight one group over another and I have seen friction caused by such attitude. Another point is that recognition is given by others; our own self-glorification does not carry much weight. However this is my draft, perhaps not agreeable by others; and as such anyone is free to add or remove any parts of it. Here is a picture of us during the interview with En. Russlan Ismail.

I wish the institute its best in getting the deserved attention.

Finally at 54, it is my wish to be less in the limelight and be left 'uncluttered' to pursue my scientific interests and also prepare for the hereafter.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Some Thoughts and Moving On

My appointment at the institute will expire next end of May and if I have my own way, I will not continue. I have been with the institutes (initially Multimedia Institute, then Institute of Advanced Technology and presently Institute for Mathematical Research) for almost twenty years now. I believe I should move on and make way for new and more able leaders. I am also at the end of my career and have some goals that I wish to achieve before I retire and I'll probably need a new environment for this.

I have always tried to contribute whatever I can for the institute but it is probably not enough. It is always in my thoughts what could have been done and in which direction that it should go. I believe that the institute should have a differentiating role than the faculties with research leadership in some niche areas but yet inclusive enough for good researchers to join. There are many different models to look at elsewhere in the world but one should set a specific model to follow and be adaptable enough. In my view, the institute needs strong, dynamic and visionary leadership to bring it further progress, which I shudder at the thoughts of them but one can only do so much with one's own capabilities. The leader needs to be respected by many (if not all) both scientifically and personalitywise. Having this command of respect alone is enough for me to have the thought that I should be somewhere else.

I always think of the institute as a learning organization and it requires not a regimented administration but a creative environment with enough freedom for self-fulfillment. Perhaps this is a personal taste and probably my students know my style. But with research as being the thrust, I thought creativity should be a key feature. Administration is challenging and I certainly prefer research anytime. Here again, my view is not so much in "managing people" (processes can be managed) but to lead people. There should be a lot of self-realisation and self-improvement more than just obeying orders. Personality conflicts will always be there and here, individual members should always have that shared organisational interests in mind in a way be wise enough to let not the conflict grow and to the least, not throwing monkey wrench into works. Build trust and not ego. Of course, this is easier said than done. Perhaps my other reason to move away.

In any case, I have enjoyed contributing to the institute and hoped that they mean something. I will continue to support the institute even when I leave. It is in my prayers, that the institute will progress more and be even more respectable in the future.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Quantum Path (If There Is One)

Today, if we look at technologically advanced countries, one finds quantum science & technology is high on their research agenda. To see this, all one needs is to google the word to find out. IoP, UK has itself recently launched a journal by the same name to show the importance of the field. Our neighbour down south has a research centre named Centre for Quantum Technologies since December 2007 (though the groundwork for it was much earlier than that). What about here? Should we jump into the bandwagon.

Well back in 2003, when I was in Institute of Advanced Technology (ITMA), I invited a colleague from Singapore (L.C. Kwek) for TSLELS2 and he gave the advice that I should look into Quantum Information. Note that this is still considered the early years of the field (Shor's algorithm was in 1994). Singapore at the time has started churning papers in the area. Following his advice, I did try to open up the research program/graduate field of study and coined the term Quantum Science & Technology, which is rarely used at the time. If I'm not mistaken, I had four students graduated under this field of study (2 M.Sc. and 2 Ph.D.). Of course, what we did was not quite conventional quantum information and hence my preference for a more general name. Later for TSLELS4 in 2005, I invited Kwek again for the lecture series event with the theme "Quantum Information" but now with names like Andrew White, Stephen Bartlett, Antia-Lamas Linares and Keiji Matsumoto. Here's a rare pic:

We did even open up a quantum information research lab thereafter. However, after the restructuring of the institute, the lab was closed down and the program went into inexistent (which very much pains me). When I moved to Institute for Mathematical Research, I focus more on the mathematical research related to quantum sciences. I continue the lecture series event and renamed it Expository Quantum Lecture Series. In 2009, the third in EQuaLS series, once again I did one on Quantum Information Science with the speakers Kwek, B.-G. Englert, M. Suhail Zubairy, Thomas Durt, Masahito Hayashi, Stefan Wiegert and Beatrix Hiesmayr (the largest line-up EQuaLS had).

In 2012, we hosted the 6th Asia-Pacific Conference & Workshop in Quantum Information Science. Despite many famous names were there in the conference, there seem to be little interest from within the country (we suffered a substantial financial loss). Since then, I have fear to commit to anything that large.

Today, the quantum information science interest is kept alive in UPM with my students. Elsewhere there are groups in Universiti Malaya and International Islamic University Malaysia plus scattered individuals elsewhere. Many efforts were made to push the idea of quantum science & technology at much more modest level including an LRGS proposal but all were not very successful (we were sometimes told off to be too ambitious in our efforts and projects as such are not workable here).

Thus, whenever there is a call for quantum science venture in the country, I can't help be critical but as well as hopeful. So if I ever sounded negative, it is probably my own past experience of failure, being used, misled or manipulated. On the other hand, I will certainly support such a call so that research in quantum science & technology is alive and thriving here.

Such call on quantum initiatives is best made, if possible, beyond just quantum information science as there are many other areas that can fall into the broad spectrum of quantum science & technology (and hence more inclusive with ramifications even to materials science and nanotechnology). An example is the recent report made by the UK Government of Science, "The Quantum Age: Technological Opportunities". It has the topics:

  • Quantum Clocks
  • Quantum Imaging
  • Quantum Sensing and Measurement
  • Quantum Computing and Simulation
  • Quantum Communications (includes quantum cryptography)
In other places, they may used instead quantum metrology (includes quantum clocks) and quantum devices (includes sensing and measurement). To pursue any of these (particularly experimental ones), one should really analyse the technology gap that is there. Theoretical ventures may be less expensive but they often require sophisticated mathematical tools sometime less taught within our curriculum. Whatever it is, my personal belief is that there is a necessity for us to catch-up if not jump-start on such research capabilities. 

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Trip to Solo

Have been wanting to do this post for some time. It has been about two weeks now since our trip to Solo. Been catching up on work, mostly (with very little success).

How did this Solo trip came into being? The seeds of it seemed to be from the SEAMS School way back in 2015. We had many international participants from Indonesia and some of them get to know me by either being the organiser of the school or through the lectures that I have given. About a year later, one of them (Utama Alam Deta) wrote to me in January, asking me whether I'll be interested to be a speaker in their conference. Of course, I said yes (and at the time I wasn't sure where and when it is going to be held). Much later (in September), I got to know that the ICSAS 2016 conference (International Conference on Sciemce and Applied Sciemce 2016) will be on 19-20 November and will be held in Solo. Knowing the venue is in Solo or Surakarta, I got very excited. This is the place that I always hear when I was learning gamelan. There is this famous institute ISI (Institut Seni Indonesia, used to be STSI) and on their website was mentioned they are ranked 43rd in the QS Ranking for Performing Arts. I also knew Surakarta being the seat of the (18th century) royal dynasty of Mangkunegaran and its famous palace and kraton. It was just before the trip, that I got to know that Solo is also close to the ancient site of Borobudur (9th century). With my other half (and our youngest) was interested to come along, a working holiday came into mind. Booked the air tickets for myself and family, and took leave on 21-22 November for an extended stay.

We flew to Solo via Jakarta on the noon of 18 November using Lion Air. There were supposed to be direct flight to Solo from Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia but according to this site, probably this route has been cancelled. The flight to Jakarta took about two hours and our connecting flight to Solo is four hoursaway. We had to collect our baggage and took the free shuttle to a different terminal to check-in for the next flight. To our horror, when we collect our luggage we found one of our bags all wrapped up in plastic because of this:

Rather than being angry about it, we knew that this is much due to the poor quality of the cheap bag we bought. So if you are doing air travel, forget getting a cheap bag. We checked in the plastic wrapped bag for the next flight and hoped for the best. We arrived in Solo sometime in the evening and we were greeted by a student who had been waiting for us. As we arrived at the hotel, we were invited to join Prof. Cari & Prof. Suparmi for dinner at the hotel. Still fazed, we did so without yet checking in. Finally we got to rest about an hour later.

The ICSAS conference venue is in the Syariah Hotel, the place we are staying in. The conference began in the morning (just on level 12 above us) with an officiation ceremony. It started off with a traditional dance with a gamelan music background. The dancers had some trailing piece of cloth behind them which contained flowers and as they began their dance steps, the flowers are scattered all over the stage (see pics below).

The conference was officiated by the Deputy Rector of Universitas Sebelas Maret, Prof. Drs. Sutarno with some speech and the striking of the gong.

The talks in the morning are all the keynote talks. See program here and pic below. There are two sessions of the keynote talks, one before the coffee break, one after. My talk was shifted to before coffee because the other Malaysian speaker could not come.

The way they do the keynote talks is a bit different from the one I'm used to. They will call all the speakers to the platform in front and seated to face the audience. Each will take turn giving the talk and then the question and answer session is left to the very end after all the three talks (kinda like a forum). After both sessions ended, we break for lunch. I excused myself to catch up with some rest and also to attend to my family. I rejoined the conference alight later for one of the parallel sessions that has some theoretical physics talks. The type of theoretical physics that they do seems to be diverse. Sebelas Maret University seems to be on generalized/higher-dimensional versions of integrable quantum mechanical systems. The conference ended late evening and the next day is simply a social visit to Borobudur for the international speakers. At night, we had dinner with Prof. Jonathan Petruccelli,a keynote speaker from US.

After the dinner, we were given a tour of the Solo city at night by Prof. Cari and Prof. Suparmi, all the way to the campus of Sebelas Maret University. On the way to the campus, we chatted about a lot of things including my interest in gamelan and the ISI. Was then told the campus of ISI is just next door to Sebelas Maret University and he offered to let us see some performances going on there. Unfortunately when we arrived, the performance was already over. So Prof. Cari drove us back to the hotel. It was very kind of them to entertain us personally.

The next day was our trip to Borobudur. It's more than an hour drive there and on the way we passed by the Prambanan temple. Here are some pics:

Climbing up Borobudur was really challenging since I was not quite fit. I had some severe back pain after climbing down and I needed to rest before moving on.

On the way back, we passed through Jogjakarta and had a look at Universiti Gadjah Mada campus. Then we had lunch. On the way back, we went to Prambanan temple. Here are some pics.

The trip, I must say, was quite exhausting and I can't imagine that Prof. Cari and Prof. Suparmi (who were older than me) took the trouble to be with us the whole day. Am indebted to them. Later, we had our dinner somewhere in Solo.

The next day was mainly resting and our personal day to do some shopping. We went on our own to Kampung Batik Laweyan to buy some batik. This we do despite the offer of Prof. Cari to help us move around. But later he contacted us and we met at Paragon Mall for lunch. We went to the mall essentially to get us a bag to replace the broken one and also perhaps do more souvenir shopping. After lunch, we went to a Batik Keris store to do more batik and souvenir shopping. Between the two place, Batik Keris seems to have more variety (including souvenirs) and perhaps more mass-produced. Batik Laweyan store is smaller but we found interesting batik there. Later, we went to a local book store just to search for a book that my brother asked me to look for, but we couldn't find any. Got myself a book by Agus Purwanto there.

The next day was our last day there and I agreed to go to Sebelas Maret University to meet people there. Before Prof. Cari picked us up, we took a few photos at the hotel. The hotel is an Islamic-based hotel with no liquor served there and there is a musolla at each level.

At Sebelas Maret University, I met the Dean of the Fakultas Matematik dan Ilmu Pengetahuan Alam and we talked about possible mobility program. The dean, Prof. Ir Ari Handono Ramelan is also a physicist and was interested in visiting our Physics Department. Note that Prof. Cari is also a physicist and the Head of Master Degree Program of Physics while his wife Prof. Suparmi is a theoretical physicist.

I also met the Director of Graduate Program in Sebelas Maret University, Prof. M. Furqon Hidayatullah and we talked about similar ideas of mobility program. During the meet in his office with Prof. Cari and Prof. Ari, I also met Prof. Dr. Ir. Mthm Sri Budiastuti (Enviromnetal Science, specialising in Agrohydrology) and Dr. Harjana (in charge of finance - not in picture). As we talked, they started planning of a possible trip to UPM this coming February.

I also went to the Physics Department and to their (Faculty) Central Lab. The Head of Physics Department is Dr. Fahru Nurosyid. I was told about their internationalisation activities with younger staff being sent abroad as well as their journal Indonesion Journal of Applied Physics which is applying to be cited in the Indonesian citation centre of some sort.

Finally I met the theoretical physics group in Profs. Cari & Suparmi's office, who helped out a lot during the conference.

Overall, I can see they are serious in their efforts to be recognised and here are some words from their Rector and from my meet and they are well aware of UPM's progress. In factthey identified three areas that they would like to cooperate with; natural sciences, education (their earlier niche), and agriculture.

Finally before we took our flight to Jakarta, we spend some time at Profs. Cari & Suparmi's home and met their lovely daughter who is now in the final year of Medical Degree.

Prof. Cari & Prof Suparmi send us off to Solo airport and we said farewell there. For the flight from Jakarta to Solo, we did not need to check in our baggage again, which is conveneient. We finally arrived home after midnight.