Friday, July 31, 2009

Book List Refreshed!

I have removed:

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Elsewhere by Dalton Conley
The Way We Think by Giles Fauconnier and Mark Turner
Discover your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen

I have added:

The Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton
Poorly Made in China by Paul Midler
The Corporation by Joel Bakan

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Privacy versus Anonymity

They say that the price of fame is privacy. That’s why you hear of so many stories of celebrities hurling punches (or cellphones) at the papparazi that have intruded a little too deeply into their private lives.

A few posts ago, someone asked me in the comments section if I was former GEP, or if I was working at the NRF. I declined to answer the second question. The first I have already answered in a previous post.

Too many people confuse privacy with anonymity. The biggest difference between the two is that privacy can be reclaimed, for example with expansive mansions, bodyguards and CCTVs. That’s how the celebrities do it. In contrast, anonymity cannot be reclaimed. Once lost, anonymity is gone forever. 

It is not privacy, but anonymity, that is the antithesis of fame.

Professor X from X-Men said it best: Anonymity is a mutant’s first line of defence.

If I were not anonymous, I would feel less free to speak of my views, whether they are deemed controversial or not. This freedom from self-censorship is something that I value and that I will not give up lightly. So despite having written previously on some of my personal experiences and history, I will not write anything that is both current and that contains personal identifiers.

So no questions on where I work, what I do, or who I socialize with. I won’t answer any of them, and that’s that. 

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"What the PSC wants in its scholars"

Obviously, I have to comment on this. Just as hundreds of other bloggers in Singapore will. With varying degrees of shrillness. Let me first say to you the reader, thank you for reading my comment. I’d like to think that my perspective is still unique and fresh, a standard that I hope all my posts can meet.

For the benefit of the uninformed, the title of today’s post comes from an abridged text of PSC chairman Eddie Teo’s open letter to scholarship candidates, published in the 25 July, 2009 edition of the Straits Times. In it, he writes on, what else, what PSC is looking for in its scholarship applicants. While ostensibly advice for candidates, the content of the letter suggests that a wider audience was intended to read it (like, duh…after all the Straits Times carried it).

Go ahead and pick up a copy of today’s paper to read Eddie’s letter. If nothing else, good writing is rare in the national daily. And Eddie isn’t half bad at it. So reading the open letter is no hardship. [Reading the Straits Times cover to cover, however, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.]

I interviewed with the PSC years ago, when I was applying for a scholarship. It was a mortifying experience, mostly because I was still so green and immature. At one point, I can’t remember exactly how it got to that point, only the impression that one of the interviewers sensed weakness and moved in for the kill, I was asked if I needed a visa to go to Malaysia. I think it was a current affairs question and the interviewer, sensing how unworldly I was, wanted to plumb the depths of my ignorance with an unrelated question.

Seriously, at that point, I didn’t know whether Singaporeans needed a visa to visit Malaysia. Or maybe I knew, but I froze like a deer in the headlights. The interviewer (a curmudgeony-type old man) gave a dismissive wave of his hands and an expression of obvious disgust when I kept silent. At the conclusion of the interview (which BTW, is held by a panel of about 8, with the requisite good cop, bad cop routine and only about 2 interviewers actually speaking the whole time), I squeaked out a “Thank you for your time” and hustled out of the room.

[And for those of you who actually know me in person, if I hear any of you repeating this story to other people with me named in it, you are so dead.]

Despite my youthful ignorance, post interview, I was still offered an overseas scholarship (for teaching, which I had then indicated as a preference) to Cambridge, to read biology (again, my preference). Read into that what you will: perhaps my academic results really were that good (I flatter myself), I really hadn’t flubbed my interview too badly, or they were really hard up for biology teachers back then.

In any case, reading Eddie’s letter brought up some thoughts from me. I’ll append my thoughts at the end of each choice quote I take from his letter.

The psychologists are trained to look for signs and indicators that suggest…Let me tell you something, as someone who works with psychologists and has done psychology related research before, and who has an engineering background to bring an independent perspective to the subject, psychology is an inexact science. Most personality tests, for instance, have not been well validated. So take psychological assessments with a pinch of salt. This is equally good advice for HR professionals and college admissions officials, who put so much store in psychometric assessments, to follow. That doesn’t mean the entire field of psychology has no value though. That particular label applies more to mainstream economics.

The candidate’s level of commitment in serving the community serves as a proxy indicator for his commitment to the public service. Actually, by my time, community service on one’s resume was a required part of a serious application. It’s all part of the resume arms race. In this respect, applying for a scholarship is not so different from applying to an elite Ivy League type university. So the presence of community service on an applicant’s resume really means little. It’s absence, however, is a glaring liability on an application. Just like the absence of good grades.

Given his character and personality, is he likely to break his bond or stay overseas? I have a hypothesis, which I cannot disprove or find evidence for, because I don’t have access to the data, that the single greatest predictor of whether a scholar is likely to break their bond is the organization they go to work for after their studies.

This is not necessarily an indictment of the sponsoring organization, although there are some that have a less savory reputation than others. For example, it was much bandied about between the scholars that were my contemporaries then that the most sought after positions in government were at the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Trade and Industry. In contrast, MCYS was like a dead pool (no offence to anyone who works there). The reason for this is that it was conventional wisdom that experience in these two industry related ministries was deemed to have the most “market value”, and hence would allow scholars to leave for lucrative positions in the private sector the most easily.

There’s anecdotal evidence for this of course. In the pre-recession debt-fueled economic boom, I knew of countless contemporaries who broke their bonds at MOF and MTI to join investment banks. The government was aware of this. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (another hot property among scholars) apparently circulated a private memo to all banks to “STOP POACHING OUR PEOPLE”.

A corollary to this is that for my year alone, it was widely acknowledged that the most talented students of the year had turned up their noses at the President’s scholarship. The real deal for my year was actually the GIC scholarship. $$$$, y'know.

Whether this is good or bad, well, it really depends on your personal views. I would not presume to judge my fellow scholars. Personally, I’m ambivalent. The issue is not that breaking bonds is good or bad, the issue is that people respond to incentives. And the lure of big money in banking was irresistible to many. What I will say is that trying to accurately determine whether a scholar will break their bond will necessarily require an assessment of what options a scholar will have other than to serve it out. The irony is rich that the most competitive positions in government, that attract the ablest candidates, are also the ones that empower their scholars the most to breakaway and leave.

It is all right to be critical, even skeptical, … the public service is not looking for conformists…you only need to be yourself, relax and feel free to express your views…if you fake your personality, you will tie yourself up in knots and will very soon be found out. This is all actually very good advice, not just for PSC scholarship applicants, but for all interviews in general. And I think Eddie is being honest when he says that the PSC really is ok with opposing viewpoints. PSC is probably more interested in how candidates defend their opposing views, and of course, how they go about disagreeing with the government’s stand on various issues, which is an opportunity to assess communication skills. It’s always worth mentioning [in case anyone reading this blog is fishing for advice on handling difficult PSC questions] on how to take difficult questions. Some tricks: repeat the interviewer’s question slowly to make sure you heard it right the first time (and it gives you precious seconds to think so you don’t come across as a complete moron), pick something uncontroversial the interviewer says that you can easily agree with, and say so, for those extra EQ brownie points. Then stake out your opposing position clearly, in all its nuances.

[But y’all knew this already, didn’t you, all you intelligent folks reading my blog who aren’t PSC applicants. =)]

The problem, of course, is that while disagreeing with the official line is ok during an interview, it’s less ok when you’re actually working for the government. People in power generally don’t like to be disagreed with. That’s why mavericks usually get sidelined in any large bureaucratic organization. The evidence is clear when you consider how uniform the composition of the senior levels of government is. They all attended the same schools, institutions, even churches, and have similar opinions on various issues. Oh, and they generally all play golf (ugh). True mavericks frequently rise only when there is a crisis (a terrible thing to waste!), when conventional models no longer work.

While we do select from student who are at the top in terms of academic performance, our experience shows that above a certain cut-off point, academic results cannot help us differentiate between candidates. Very true, and is something known to college admissions officials as well as professors assessing graduate school applicants. Good grades are merely the price of admission to an interview.

When assessing a candidate’s leadership skills…we favor no single leadership model because the public service is looking for a diversity of leaders. Sounds great on paper. Unfortunately, doesn’t work so well in real life. As most people who are actually working would know, there is no good way to assess a person’s job performance during job appraisals and career assessments. This is an old and very common HR problem. So what do organizations do? They use things like (the dreaded) Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). What this generally means is that “assertive and task-focused leaders” appear, at least on paper, to accomplish more than other kinds of leaders. And they rise through the ranks. And the composition of leaders at the top of the organization starts looking more and more uniform over time. If you’re not the assertive and task-focused caricature of a leader, and you’re looking for an organization to join, it’s probably best to look for organizations that don’t have such leaders at the top. That is a true indicator of how much the organization values diversity.

Candidates who come from humbler backgrounds may lack the polished exterior of their more privileged colleagues. We must look beyond appearances to determine the substance. Bravo, but can you actually do it?

I have no neat conclusion for this post, so I will end here. But if you have comments and questions that you would like answered, I’ll be happy to oblige through the comments section.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"The Crowd Is Wise (When It’s Focused)"

From The New York Times
Published: July 18, 2009

FEW concepts in business have been as popular and appealing in recent years as the emerging discipline of “open innovation.” It is variously described as crowdsourcing, the wisdom of crowds, collective intelligence and peer production — and these terms apply to a range of practices.

The overarching notion is that the Internet opens the door to a new world of democratic idea generation and collaborative production. Early triumphs like the Linux operating system and the Wikipedia Web encyclopedia are seen as harbingers.

In the new model, innovation is often portrayed as a numbers game. The more heads, the better — all weighing in, commenting, offering ideas. Collective knowledge prevails, as if a force of egalitarian inevitability.

But a look at recent cases and new research suggests that open-innovation models succeed only when carefully designed for a particular task and when the incentives are tailored to attract the most effective collaborators. “There is this misconception that you can sprinkle crowd wisdom on something and things will turn out for the best,” said Thomas W. Malone, director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “That’s not true. It’s not magic.”

The Netflix Prize is a stellar example of crowdsourcing. In October 2006, Netflix, the movie rental company, announced that it would pay $1 million to the contestant who could improve the movie recommendations made by Netflix’s internal software, Cinematch, by at least 10 percent. In other words, the company wanted recommendations that were at least 10 percent closer to the preferences of its customers, as measured by their own ratings.

(Cinematch analyzes each customer’s film-viewing habits and recommends other movies that the customer might enjoy. More accurate recommendations increase Netflix’s appeal to its audience.)

The contest will end next week because a contestant finally surpassed the 10 percent hurdle on June 26, and, according to the rules of the competition, rivals have 30 days from that date to try to beat the leader. The frontrunner is a seven-person team, and its members are statisticians, machine learning experts and computer engineers from the United States, Austria, Canada and Israel. It is led by statisticians at AT&T Research.

The leading team is a very elite crowd, indeed, but it is also one that was made possible by the Internet. The original three AT&T researchers (one has since joined Yahoo Research, but remains on the contest team) made good strides in the first year of the contest. But to make further progress, they went looking for people with other skills and perspectives. So they reached out eventually to a pair of two-person teams, who were among the leaders in the rankings posted on the contest Web site.

“The leader board was right there,” said Chris Volinsky, director of statistics research at AT&T. “It was pretty obvious who the top teams were.”

Though leading, his team may not win. But the teams in close pursuit are similar collaborations of skilled researchers and engineers.

The Netflix contest has lured experts worldwide not only because of the prize money but also because it offered a daunting challenge. The contestants’ algorithms must find patterns nestled in a collection of more than 100 million movie ratings. What is learned in tackling such a large-scale data analysis and predictive-modeling problem could well be applied in many industries, like Web commerce or telecommunications. “It made sense for us both from the perspective of AT&T and scientific research,” Mr. Volinsky explained.

In the Netflix contest, the winning idea is simply the one with the highest score. But often, companies rely on a contributing crowd for ideas, though management then chooses. I.B.M., for example, conducts online brainstorming sessions it calls Jams — 13 over the last seven years.

I.B.M. used one session to guide its strategy for investing in new growth fields, starting in 2006. An estimated 150,000 employees, clients, business partners and academics participated. Management sifted through the ideas and committed $100 million to invest in several opportunities to apply technology innovations to energy saving, health care and smart electricity grids.

“It starts out as crowdsourcing and it is culled to a set of action items,” said Jeffrey T. Kreulen, a researcher at the I.B.M. Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

Open-innovation models are adopted to overcome the constraints of corporate hierarchies. But successful projects are typically hybrids of ideas flowing from a decentralized crowd and a hierarchy winnowing and making decisions. In Linux’s case, anyone can submit code, but Linus Torvalds and a few lieutenants decide what code will be included in the operating system, noted Mr. Malone of M.I.T. Even Wikipedia — produced by collaborating clusters of contributors focused on particular areas of interest — relies on administrators to make final judgments on whether to delete a challenged article, he added.

“Most of the interesting examples of collective intelligence contain many different design patterns,” Mr. Malone said.

In a recent paper, “Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence,” Mr. Malone and his two co-authors, Robert Laubacher, a research scientist at M.I.T., and Chrysanthos Dellarocas, a professor at the University of Maryland, use a biological analogy in calling the design patterns of collective intelligence systems “genes.” They studied the genelike building blocks in more than 250 examples of collective intelligence enabled by the Web. The intent, they write, is to provide a systematic framework for thinking about collective intelligence, so “managers can do more than just look at examples and hope for inspiration.”

OPENING the corporate doors to ideas and inspiration from the collective crowd holds great potential, but there are pitfalls, warns Henry Chesbrough, executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. To succeed, Mr. Chesbrough said, a company must have a culture open to outside ideas and a system for vetting and acting on them.

“In business, it’s not how many ideas you have,” he observed. “What matters is how many ideas you translate into products and services.”

Friday, July 17, 2009

The story of stuff

Sustainability here is quite noticeably viewed through a liberal, neo-Democrat, environmental a la the Sierra Club lens, and of course there are oversimplifications, generalizations and selective interpretations intended for shock value. Still, the principle message is clear, unambiguous and most importantly, TRUE. Linear systems cannot run indefinitely, and current rates are incontrovertibly unsustainable.

If you read the comments on the original video on youtube though, you'll get a lot of comments from people (Americans mostly) dismissing the message. What always bothers me about the average American is that they are too quick to dismiss something once they've labeled it, correctly or not, as Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, name it. It applies as equally to liberals as it does to conservatives, or any two groups of Americans that are diametrically opposed. As long as it doesn't jibe with their existing values or worldview, out it goes. No serious mental effort is expended in discerning the value of the entire content on its own terms. Instead, more often, a single thing from the video, article, column or opinion is extracted out of context, set up as a straw man, and used as a reason to dismiss the whole.

Frankly, I'm frequently annoyed that the "greatest" and most powerful nation of people on earth see things in pure black and white terms. Despite the great visionaries and thinkers that have emerged from the USA, Americans as a group really are like cows. Dumb cows. Then again, maybe mass crowds everywhere are cows too.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"A Stage for Social Ego to Battle Anguished Id"

The only reason I am posting this is that Hable con ella is one of my favorite Almodovar films and Cafe Muller really was a great metaphor for the movie.

From The New York Times
Published: June 30, 2009 

Because dance does not use words, and much of its spell lies in aspects of contrast, rhythm and coordination, it is only occasionally taken seriously as drama. With the greatest choreographers of recent decades, it has been, and yet even Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham — to name but three — have not won the acceptance as theater artists that they deserve. As dramatists, they at least equal the playwrights who have been their contemporaries. But this is still too seldom said. 

One of Ms. Bausch's most important early works, "Cafe Müller," was based on memories of having grown up in the restaurant and hotel run by her parents. More Photos » 

The productions of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, however, always and immediately made a striking impact as theater, and the audiences they attracted included many who were by no means dance specialists. Choreography as a term does not suffice to define her work, which frequently used the spoken word and relied on elaborate scenic effects. Anyone who saw her pieces will recall how the women of her “Rite of Spring” covered themselves in earth; how in “1980” the stage was a lawn; how “Carnations” (“Nelken”) began as a field of, yes, carnations (gradually trampled as the work proceeded); and how “Palermo Palermo” began with the coup de théâtre of a tall wall, across the stage, toppling forward and falling apart. 

Even if you objected to much of Ms. Bausch’s work — I did — it was a shock to hear of her death on Tuesday at 68. To recollect those and other images is to remember the strange courage of her vision. Who else put such worlds onstage? How much of her choreography, if any, can survive her? Plenty of it has been filmed. (Parts of “Café Müller” and “Masurca Fogo” looked very appealing in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 movie “Hable con Ella.”) But mainly, as they say, you had to be there. A wall falling over on film is one thing. But when a wall falls over onto the stage not far from you, the impact is of another order.

What is scarcely diminished by Ms. Bausch’s death is the art of dance. There were good dance moments in her work, but they were usually of secondary interest and choreographically of no lasting import. Her big-scale dance episodes were mainly wild and vehement forms of not quite coherent expressionism. The women’s anger and suffering in “Rite of Spring” and “Iphigénie en Tauride” were both memorable and vague. The pieces’ lack of dance precision was part of their point, as was the way they seemed to flaunt a kind of unfocused and unrigorous intensity that in almost any academic-dance classroom would be considered bad style.

But there were several kinds of dance in Ms. Bausch’s theater pieces. Several of her epics included arch little routines (sometimes with the cast coming into the auditorium, and usually performed with women wearing red lipstick) involving a small social-dance-like step pattern, smart upper-body gestures and — here the Bausch style was always at its most precise — sophisticated facial expressions. The dichotomy between this social ego and the incoherent flailings of the anguished id was central to much of her work.

Another strange component of Ms. Bausch’s dance style was bad ballet. The way her performers would make a point of forcing themselves to do adagios, turns and jumps — drawing to your attention all the muscular, stylistic and technical imperfections that obviously flawed the dancers as ballet technicians — was part of the extraordinary masochism she often placed onstage.

Masochism was a recurrent feature in Bausch theater: you would see not only dancers tormenting another dancer (holding cigarette lighters to the soles of feet, for example, or pelting a face with tomatoes) but also the degree to which the victim was complicit in his or (usually) her suffering. Unusual among non-ballet artists of recent decades, there was little or no gender neutrality in her work: the differences between men and women were central and a subject for drama. 

No single label will do. Ms. Bausch was not just a green artist protesting the desecration of the environment (though that was a powerful element in her works) or a feminist depicting the opposition between women’s pain and their social conformism (though that was evident) or an expressionist emitting rage at aspects of the socio-political status quo (though the intensity of that feeling was unmistakable). In some of her pieces she seemed to be celebrating the charm of the world, not just mourning its erosion. And she was often funny.

Her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, must be remembered for its many extraordinary performers, who would open themselves up onstage to the audience in startling ways: with alarming directness, wicked slyness, exaggerated elegance and manic fervor. “You know them better than you know your best friends,” one critic remarked in the 1980s.

She was a theater poet. Whether the images added up to successful poetry became part of the debate. I have used the word incoherent about her: it applied most obviously to the structure of most of her works. Yet that incoherence wasn’t quite a flaw. To me, most of her pieces expressed the inner landscape of the depressed mind, here obsessed and there rambling, often compelling. But she was at pains to elude definition.

In thinking of the Bausch works that might have been, you imagine aspects of beauty, humor, big-scale visual imagination, as well as darkness, sarcasm and intensity. And the simplest way to feel her loss is to reflect that now there will be no more Bausch pieces for us to argue about. The scene is smaller without her.