All posts filed under “Science

A collection of post on Science with a Malaysian focus

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The problem with Grab

As a company, Grab has done enormously well for itself, and naturally will be the target of some hate.

But I think there’s a deeper issue with Grab that needs addressing before it becomes an unsolvable problem.

Grab is a win-win

Let’s start with what makes Grab so appealing.

Grab (at least in my mind) is the highest paying hourly wage job in the country. As long as you possess a car, and a valid driving license you can be a Grab driver, earning significantly more than any other hourly wage job.

According to this WOB article (which looks suspiciously like a paid ad), the average Grab driver earns RM5,000 per month, which is crazy money for a unskilled job — and yes driving Grab is unskilled labour.

For unskilled work in Malaysia, earning RM5,000 per month is a god-send, after all even graduate employees don’t earn that much. And like all hourly wage jobs, the more hours you put in, the more money they make — 5,000 is just where it starts

So this seems like a win-win for everyone, drivers get to earn, and at the same time provide a service that is in high demand.

And in truth, Grab is a win-win — at least for now.


The problem is that when you fast-forward 10 years, or just 2 elections from now.

Most Grab drivers I’ve met aren’t doing this part-time. They’re driving as a full-time job, and they’re putting in serious hours (10-12 a day) to make serious money. That means they’ve no time or to up-skill themselves, because every hour learning a new skill is an hour they could have been driving.

The cost of learning to them is a double-whammy, first they spend on acquiring the new skill (like everybody else), but also the lose income from their not driving. This for most, will be too high a price to pay.

You might argue that driving isn’t un-skilled. But all it takes to be a Grab driver is a driving license and a car, skills don’t factor into this. Grab doesn’t care if you’re a PhD, diploma holder or SPM drop-out, it’ll pay the same.

Grab views all of it’s drivers as a supplier of the one commodity it needs — cars to move passengers. The only time Grab pays more to drivers is when they turn on the auto-accept feature, because that makes their algorithm more efficient. The more subservient you are to the algorithm, the better it will reward you — that is a pretty nasty feeling.

So as more folks join the Grab band-wagon, we’re sucking out skilled labour from the job-market. Leaving the entire country, as a whole, worse off in terms of competitiveness. But we’re just getting started.

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So you think English is the lingua-franca of Science…

Nanoscience centerI get annoyed when parent associations insist that the Government needs to teach science and maths in English. They argue that because English is the lingua-franca of science, teaching science in English will help students learn more effectively without needing them to translate scientific terms from the vernacular. They add that teaching Science and Maths in English is a great way to improve the standard of English in schools.

It would great if those points were true, but they’re not.

English as the Lingua franca of Science?

Firstly, English isn’t the lingua-franca of Science. True, scientific journals are mainly in English and citations in most scientific literature point to English journals only, but shockingly primary and secondary school children don’t read the latest publications on the higgs-boson.

Instead, what children learn in school is so dated, that their initial publications were probably in Latin or Greek, with older text going back to Arabic, Chinese or even Indian origin. The most recent ‘findings’ your children learn in physics is Quantum Physics, which is roughly a hundred years old. Even then, they aren’t reading Einstein’s original paper on the Photoelectric effect, they’re reading a textbook that sufficiently distils and simplifies it for their consumption.

In fact, a vast majority of what children learn in Form 4 physics is derived from Principia, which is a collection of 3 books by Sir Isaac Newton who wrote them in Latin. The famous rhyme that “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” may sound nice in English, but doesn’t exist in the original text, simply because it wasn’t written in English. Going further back in history, the algebra you loved in high school derives its name from a notoriously hard to pronounce book titled “kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala” , the highlighted al-gabr means the reunion of broken parts, and forms the origin of the word Algebra. The book itself was written by al-khwarizmi (who is the most important mathematician you never heard of), and whose name is where we get the word Algorithm from, obviously he didn’t write his works in English.

Of course, I use these ancient examples a bit unfairly, but the fact is that your children are learning ancient science in schools. It’s not irrelevant, it’s that you have to build the foundation of scientific literacy from these ancient roots before you can tackle modern day science of the Higgs-Boson. You can’t fly before you learn how to walk.

The point is, that if these ancient text were translated into English at some point, why can’t we do the same to Bahasa, or Mandarin, or Tamil..or whatever language you want to. Isn’t it easier to translate and contextualize these century old ideas into a language the next generation is comfortable with, rather than hope they suddenly develop a love and understanding of a foreign language like English?

When you say Lingua-franca of science, in the context of what children actually learn in primary and secondary school–it isn’t English.

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My teachers day tribute to Mr. Vijay: Summing every number 1 to 100

Teachers Day PostTeachers day was last Friday, and I thought it would be good to make a small post in tribute to an interesting teacher I had in form 4.

Imagine a man that was about 200 pounds, had a thick moustache, carried an intimidating rotan, and wore nothing but Chairman Mao style Bush-coats everyday–that’s Mr. Vijay, and he thought me Add-maths.

Mr. Vijay was interesting in many ways, including the wrestling stories he’d tell in class, but for all my years in school I can only remember a few stories told by my teachers, and the one I remember most vividly was the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss as told by Mr. Vijay.

The story is almost certainly fiction, similar to the story of Newton discovering gravity by watching an apple fall from a tree–but the details of the story are irrelevant, what’s relevant is how I remember it, and as my tribute to one of my teachers, I’d re-tell the story here.

Even in elementary school, Carl Friedrich Gauss was already maths genius, and like all other geniuses was a bit of a nuisance in class. So one day to shut Carl up, his teacher gave him an ‘important assignment’–he was to calculate the sum of all numbers from 1 to 100. i.e. 1+ 2+ +3 +4….+100. The idea was that this would keep Carl busy for the remainder of the lesson

However, Carl came back very quickly with an answer of 5,050!!

And as all Maths teachers do–Carl was asked to show his work–which he did.

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Trust the science: Why mining pool water is safe to drink

Trust the Science on Water

Do a quick experiment:

1. Fill a glass half-full with water
2. Drop a couple of ice-cubes into the glass
3. Measure the water level before the ice melts
4. Measure the water level after the ice melts

Now compare the water level before and after the ice melted, and you’ll find them to be the same. So if melting ice doesn’t increase the water level in your glass–why do melting ice-caps raise the sea-levels of the earth?

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MH370 crashed our romanticized perception of technology

As our thoughts and prayers remain with the passengers of flight MH370, I think that as the search enters its 3rd week, it’s a good time to reflect on just how much our perception of aviation technology has changed as a result.

It’s quite important to differentiate between what REALLY happens and what we THINK happens, an in some cases the gulf is so large, that our perception of what happens borders on science-fiction. Take for example, our perception of the US Secret Service. Years of Hollywood movies have led us to believe that if anyone even thought about firing a weapon at the President, Secret Service agents would immediately throw their bodies in the line of fire, evacuate the President and then take out the bad guy. That however is mere fairy tale–no different from the Giant Robots in Transformers or the Aliens in Star Wars. If you look at History and reality, you’d find that some years back, an Iraqi Gentleman not only had the time to throw a shoe at President Bush, but enough time to TAKE OUT A SECOND SHOE and throw it again at the President–were it not for the Presidents quick reflexes, he would have ended looking like David Beckham after a night out with Ferguson.

So the gulf between what we think the Secret Service CAN do, and what it ACTUALLY does, is quite enormous.