Interview with MacSingapore, version 1.0 (17th July 2002)

Justin's article appeared in MacSingapore, August 2002.

1) Tell us about yourself (e.g. name, profession, your pets?)
My name is N. Sivasothi, and friends call me Siva or Otterman. I am a research officer at the
Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore. It holds an internationally famous collection of more than half a million animal specimens from Southeast Asia dating back to the 19th century. I interrupted my PhD to start on this job in 1999, which has a great emphasis on education, expeditions, databases, so I hope to go back to my unfinished research in mangrove ecology soon!

2) A history on your Mac experience? (i.e. The first Mac, why Mac)
My introduction to computers was via Apple II in 1981 at
St. Andrew's Secondary School. We had a few units then and I learnt BASIC at school and played alien invaders. In SAJC (1983-4), the Serangoon Gardens Community Centre had a whole room and we would spend 8 hours straight on some days, from 2pm - 10pm until the attendants threw us out, learning 6502 machine language programming, Visicalc and Wordstar, tinkering with Locksmith, playing games like Castle Wolfenstein and Olympic Decathalon. Those were wonderful days of learning from each other and invariably helping all the older people. And all on a 0.99MHz machine!

With some of my buddies, I ran my first Mac or computer workshop when I was in JC1 (1983), for kids.

After the army, I emerged (1987) to find everyone using IBM PCs or dummy terminals linked to the mainframe at NUS. I ended up using Wordstar and stumbled on to the internet after using programmes friends sent to me. People used to construct elaborate signature files, creating Snoopy or Garfield from asterisks and characters, and it was fun chatting with people all over the world.

In 1988, Apple made a comeback in NUS Science Faculty. The then Dean of Science, A/Prof Bernard Tan is an Apple enthusiast, so we had a room full of Mac-pluses and SEs at what is still called the Computer Based Learning Centre. The ideas was to set up several of these throughout campus.

I learnt to network a PC to a Mac, discovered unWS+ for translating Wordstar to Word and never looked back. But PCs were already dominant, so when I ran workshops in those days, it was for DOS, Wordstar, Frameworks and Pagemaker. Happily it meant when I did my honours year thesis (1990) no one challenged me for the MacIIcx that was nestled in the Zoology computer room. By this time I was using Excel 4.0 and Word 5.1 in a big way for analysis and write ups. SAS, the statistical programme was only available to us on a PC at the time.

I remember using Pagemaker without a mouse to typeset a student publication. Amazing what you could do with limited resources - a mouse was too expensive but we finally managed to borrow one to do things like text wrap! It prepared me for projects that followed.

During my honours year, I prepared a camera ready publication called "Essays in Zoology", 1990 using Word 5.1 with help from MacDraw and MacPaint. It was agony! I had to walk to a room two blocks away in Botany to copy PC formatted text from the 5.25" floppy they used to submit the manuscript to a 3.5" disk - few computers those days had both drives, mainly they had 5.25" drives.

Then to print on a laserprinter, I had to go to the other end of the faculty to use the rare machine that someone had linked to a Mac. I remember working overnight and blasting the aircon through the printer that used to stop working when it overheated! Mind you, I was busy working on a thesis then!

I bought my first mac, a Powerbook 140 (16MHz/40MB HD/4MB RAM) when I started my MSc. I used Pagemaker 4.0 to typeset technical journals and newsletters such as The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (1992-1994), The Pangolin (1994), the Asian Otter Newsletter (1999).

Even back then, they knew Mac-users could make it happen and set the standard!

When I started my PhD, I bought a Powerbook 1400cs (PPC 133 MHz/1GB/32MB RAM) which I upgraded to a NuPowr G3/233MHz chip, a IBM 6GB HD and maxed out the RAM to 64MB. When I got my iBook 14.1"/600MHz/20GB this March, I maxed out my RAM to 512MB as soon as possible! My old 6GB HD is now an external firewire drive!


3) You work in the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at NUS, tell us more about it.
My work as a Research Officer in the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research covers education, expeditions, databases and libraries, handling researchers, webpages etc. It s a loosely defined job but a major aspect has been in public education programmes. I was brought in for this primarily because I had been conducting such programmes under The
Habitat Group which I had formed as a postgraduate student, with other biology graduates. So in a way, I had been 'working' already, for nine years, before I got the job that just made it formal.

Besides the more traditional guiding at nature sites e.g. Ridgewalk (July-August), we are also involved in more active programmes like Briskwalk: MacRitchie to Bukit Timah (June), Biking in Ubin (July) and the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore (September). We partnered up this year and joined some existing programmes such as the Singapore Library Festival (April 2002) with the NationalLIbrary Board and Museum Fest (May 2002) with the National Heritage Board. We also go on a major expedition each year and this year it was the 10 country Ex Anambas (March) which we led. The full calendar is supplemented by projects in building, databasing, library, public gallery, student attachments, newsletters such as Habitatnews, writing guidebooks, etc.

Since 2001, we have been involved heavily with research, conservation and education work at Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin. It was a change for us to be so heeavily involved locally, since most of our work is regional.


4) How has the Mac helped in your work?
Well, all projects involves heavy email traffic with volunteers and organisers, and proposals to prepare, powerpoint presentations for the event, a webpage that consolidates the information and photo galleries. See
my webpage to get an idea of how I organise things.

As you can see I use webpages heavily - I get unlimited space courtesy of the NUS Science's Centre for Information Technology and Applications - mac users in there too! Most of my pages are very basic, constructed using Claris Homepage 3.0! I have no skills beyond coluring text, inserting tables, graphics and links, and will probably never switch to Dreamweaver anytime soon. In fact, I do pretty well - the important thing is to get webpages out fast, instead of waiuting for a professional job that will probably never be done because we are all so busy.

I am pretty rabid about mailing lists and have more than 70, for specific projects I start and a couple of newsletters that service the layman (Habitatnews) and research (Ecotax) community in natural history. Also help an old boy run a list for alumni of St. Andrew's called the Saints "Do you know" list - explains the history of variopsu aspects of the school.

Like most mac users, I am proficient on a pc but there is no debate about which is the better machine! Everything glides on a mac and has probably cut my work load by half! Unfortunately, I get a standard issue Wintel (XP) box from NUS, sigh! I use my iBook (which I received via a grant from Ford Motor Company) for productive work. I am adding a 120GB hardisk to the Wintel machine and will use it as a network storage device for staff to access our museum's specimen and image database.


5) How's the Mac scene at NUS by the way?
They heyday of macs in campus has taken a heavy beating. The CBLC is full of PCs and I have not seen an undergrad plug in a mac to the campus ethernet. And for awhile, the official position was that macs were not supported. But that was nonsense, there were people helping out in Computer Centre, and on the me@n page, after the April 1999 gathering, I offered my email as a contact for newbies in trouble.

But suddenly, since end-2001 I now know of 10-20 of us in Science alone. Okay, the truth is, the many were influenced by the few of us diehards! I probably influenced about 10 purchases myself.

With wireless springing up in campus, I now use my iBook in the Science Canteen in the mornings, making webapges, answering emails, preparing photo galleries etc. I realise it serves as an advertisement that macs are making a comeback!

Apple worked out a deal with NUS CO-op so staff and students can purchase a machine at a reasonable tender price that includes Microsoft Office v.X and an Airport Card, and a 3-year warranty. It is quite competitive.

To complement the webpage for new users, I am starting a support mailing list for these friends of mine. It will be a less technical, more basic group than me@n. For starters, we can post news of demonstration sessions that go on in NUS, which I found out only by word of mouth!

I hope to migrate the newbies to me@n once they get the hang of things and get used to a mailing list. There is a much larger group of people helping and communicating experiences that they should not miss out on! And its fun to hear from everyone as you get to know each person with time. I think there should be a photo gallery of meaners...we only meet once in three years!


6) What's otterman?
Otterman is a nickname or handle that I use from my MSc days when I
researched otters. These are mammals that are beautiful swimmers and are sometimes called water dogs. A pair of otters made Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve their home and they have had a cub each year and have grown to six! - Wonderful news when you consider the last record from the mainland was recorded in a book published in 1966, the year I was born. Boy, this interview reveals my age persistently! When I was at a conference, the international group got a taste of the mac. Look for the article in me@n archives or my webpage! Healthy repsect for the mac there!

7) What would you like to see more from Apple locally?
They should provide well-illustrated FAQ pages on banking, broadband, purchasing, 3rd party hardware and shareware, configuring ISP accounts, new locations, other useful tips or where to get them, how and where to use wireless etc, etc, etc. And for goodness sakes, be honest about RAM requirements! Good examples in
MacSingapore and localised pages like what I attempted for NUS users.

User webpages and mailing lists have quite a lot of this information, but is remains outside the mainstream - a new user will not find us immediately. Apple Singapore should adopt these pages or link to MacSingapore (under the label - "Just got a mac?") and provide server space for this active user group!

Advertising that promotes an image is fine, but we need practical ideas, offers and webpages that reach out to PC users. Mac users do most of the work - traditionally we been an important force in bringing PC users over from the dark side. Let me give you an example. Apple took years to integrate PC Exchange into their system software, and when they finally did (early 90's), they failed to make PC users realise they could pop a PC-floppy into a mac, and open the files (with the help of a converter in those days). Nowadays, no 3rd party converters needed!

These days, we still have to explain to most newbies that all their old data files can be converted easily, without loss of data. Apple should also provide stations at Apple Store Singapore to transfer floppies (PC users love 'em!)to a CD burner or a iBook server they can download their files from later.

This gap in their marketing strategy has burdened and stranded mac users like us, especially in the non-DTP/Graphics workplaces.

Hey, the greatest critics of Apple are hard core users like us! If they start listening to us, the good thing we have in a mac will just get better!



Otterman and a Mac