Thursday, February 4, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell reviews "Free" by Chris Anderson

Check out the article here.

I've always been interested in the question of how free digital services like Youtube or GoogleDocs might eventually be monetized. Will consumers accept ads, as long as they continue to get free services? Or will they pay for subscriptions? Esp. relevant how traditional media might be delivered in the age of not-so-New media, including devices like the upcoming iPad

Genius = 1 % inspiration + 99% perspiration

From New Scientist: How to be a genius.

Also see this blog commenting on the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert performance.

I might have shared the articles above before but I think it's important enough to share again. The book "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell touches on a similar topic, that research seems to show that genius is really 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. It's interesting to think of this in the context of the Singapore education system, where students are channeled from a young age into "Gifted" education streams on the basis of their high performance on IQ tests. Students in these streams generally receive more education resources and opportunities to develop their talent.

What might be more effective would be for individuals to have their unique talents or interests identified at a young age, and then for the system to provide the appropriate resources and mentors to develop these interests intensely for the rest of their lives. In essence, have more Arts schools, conservatories, science and sports schools.

A potential problem I can see arising from such a practice might be the emergence of castes/classes, and the segregation of society. Still, bearing the lessons of history in mind, I wonder if we can devise a way in this day and age to capitalize on the advantages of such focussed talent development without the creation of classes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A possible reason why the ST Forums are flooded with personal complaint letters

If the Straits Times Forums are a reflection of the inner churning of the Singaporean collective consciousness, it would appear that petty and often inane complaints fill our psyche. While many of the articles in our national sheet are generally decent, the forum pages are filled with letters airing personal grievances. I mean, how much do we really need to know or care about someone's poor experience with telemarketers as a nation?

A frustrating discussion with a govt housing agency officer regarding my appeal for a housing loan has yielded a possible reason as to why the ST forums are flooded with personal complaint letters. In a nutshell, I had a lousy experience with a bureaucrat who constantly gave guarded, evasive answers to my questions. The housing officer has ignored my repeated emails and calls. Several of her colleagues spoke in the same, non-committal way, and it seemed like everyone was trying to avoid taking responsibility for anything they said and was unwilling to refer me to anyone who might be able to make decisions. As such, I'm inclined to believe that any complaints I make directly to the agency will NOT get addressed and the only way to get them answered properly might be through a letter to the Straits Times, where the case would receive "national coverage".

I'm now inclined to believe that many Singaporeans believe that no good channels exist for their complaints/questions to be answered. As such, they resort to writing an open, national letter, where the relevant bureaucracies are compelled to give answers because of the profile of the complaint. Some people probably now think of this as a default channel for their queries/complaints, since it is the fastest way to get answers.

While I view this practice as degrading to the ST forum as a national soapbox and lowering the quality of our national discourse, I now understand a little better why people might be compelled to do it. For my case, I will try my best to avoid writing such a letter but further negative experiences may just push me over the edge. In the meantime, I blog...

Friday, June 12, 2009

"High Science" to create new economic niches (blue oceans), rather than compete in crowded old ones (red seas)

From the ST, June 6, 2009:


Building more world-class S'pore firms
By Ngiam Tong Dow

THE year 1959 was a fateful one for Singapore. It was granted self-government by the British after 140 years of colonial rule. Other than foreign affairs and defence, the new Singapore Government led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew was free to pursue its own social and economic policies.

Mr Lee chose Dr Goh Keng Swee, the only economist in his team, to be our first finance minister. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) was housed in Fullerton Building. The General Post Office occupied the ground floor; MOF occupied the second to fifth floors.

As MOF alumni, we can be proud of belonging to the pioneering team, led by the inspiring Dr Goh, our minister, and by the late Mr Hon Sui Sen, our permanent secretary. We worked our guts out to pull the economy out of stagnation.

The Finance Ministry that Dr Goh established was not your traditional Treasury. Together with Mr Hon, he created the Economic Development Division to spearhead our economic development. The Economic Development Board (EDB) was set up as the operating arm of this division, tasked with finding jobs for the thousands of young students pouring out of our schools each year.

The EDB was given a grant of $100 million to get going. In return for the freedom to operate, its performance was continuously assessed. It was rated on outcomes more than outputs. The EDB chairman had to report annually the dollar value of the foreign direct investments committed to Singapore. He still does.

MOF's fiscal policy has always been to stimulate growth through investment. As Permanent Secretary (Budget), I accorded higher priority to the development over the recurrent budget. The development budget invests for the future. In the early stages, the development budget was spent mainly on building infrastructure.

Over the last 50 years, we have seen Singapore's budget priorities move from physical infrastructure to defence capability and now, education and training.

Though we are not totally free of 'white elephant' boo-boos, MOF's track record in allocating scarce capital is good. Our current revenue was enough to pay for both operating as well as development expenditure. If the Government were a private corporation, we would have been able to finance all our capital expenditure without a cent of debt.

Was Singapore's MOF more virtuous than our counterparts elsewhere? The fact of the matter is that we did what we did because we had no alternative. Without oil or other natural resources, budget surpluses and CPF savings were our only sources for accumulating reserves. Except in extremis, reserves are not intended to be spent on rainy days of the business cycle. The fundamental role of reserves is to serve as backing for our currency. A stable and convertible Singapore dollar is our lifeline to international trade on which our very survival depends.

In spite of the immense pressures exerted by the rest of Government on the MOF, I would be wary of dipping into our reserves to tide us over the troughs of business cycles. I remember the first global oil crisis of 1972. Mr Hon, by then Minister for Finance, refused to subsidise consumption. He thought it better for Singapore to swallow the medicine of inflation in one gulp. The cost of living index stabilised within 18 months.

MOF's mission as guardian of the national budget will be more challenging in the future. For instance, before we can decide on how to allocate the research budget, we need to have some idea of the knowledge domains that Singapore has a more than even chance to compete in. Is it biotechnology, nano-engineering, solar energy or something else?

Spending on R&D in my view is too narrow a focus as a growth strategy. In any case, we do not have the breadth and depth of talent to compete successfully with the Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Russians, and in the near future, the Chinese and Indians.

We may be able to hire a few superstars to head our research institutions. But a Nobel laureate cannot work in isolation. He or she needs teams of young researchers to do the basic experiments. Young PhDs in China work for a fraction of the wages we pay our young dons at our two research universities. Ms Oliver Lum of Hyflux told me that the core membrane research work of her company was done at Hyflux laboratories in China.

Rather than pursuing high science whatever the cost, we may have to adopt a less lofty approach. We should ask ourselves: What are the knowledge domains we can excel in?

Singapore has a fair track record in building townships, industrial parks, container ports, submersible oil rigs, vocational and technical education and water treatment installations like Hyflux. As the example of Singapore Airlines shows, it is possible to build up a world-scale Singapore company on our own. SIA's founding board had no foreign director or CEO.

The way forward for us is to have the guts to build another 25 world-scale 'SIAs' in the knowledge domains where we have a competitive advantage.

I learnt many lessons in economic policymaking from Dr Albert Winsemius, Singapore's first Economic Adviser. The most valuable lesson he taught me was that you have to do the things that matter yourself.

After pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps in the pioneering years, we now outsource the CEO jobs to foreign talent. The irony is that when trouble looms, the foreign CEO just dusts off the seat of his pants and walks away with his sign-off bonus negotiated when he first signed on.

I refuse to believe that the Singaporean has so lost confidence in himself.

The pyramids of Egypt were built by the Pharoahs' Hebrew slaves. The Egyptian Pharoenic race is now lost in antiquity. The Jewish Hebrew nation continues to thrive.

Quo Vadis Singapore?

The above is an excerpt of a speech Mr Ngiam, a former senior civil servant, delivered yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ministry of Finance.

My response:

I see the advantages of leveraging existing capabilities: developmental cost advantage - lower additional infrastructural and training costs. It all seems to make simple dollar sense.

However, what happens what happens when our existing capabilities become increasingly crowded and competitive economic spaces? I examine the examples Mr Ngiam cites:

Manufacturing is our traditional strength, and we have a well-established research institution - SIMTECH - supporting innovation to sustain the competitive edge in that industry. Very obviously though, we aren't going to be sustainably competitive in manufacturing, at least not on the scale of India and China.

Marine technology (oil rig building and ship maintenance) - technologically still dominated by the Scandinavians.

Building townships - is this a sustainable source of income, and will it create jobs for more than a select few??

Vocational training - again, whither the jobs?

So, I believe we have to invest in "high science" to create new economic spaces that are less crowded for us to occupy. The best chance we have of getting good, economically useful innovations is to have enough bright, passionate minds working on important problems.

We do have a fair shot at creating a vibrant scientific community, though we really need to get that critical mass of smart, interested and willing people. Will we be able to get enough people interested in this by tackling smaller, incremental problems? I personally wouldn't be very interested in those.

Disclosure: I'm a scientist-in-training and have a vested interest in seeing the scientific industry prosper in Singapore.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Singapore's Stonewall?

I just witnessed beautiful and chaotic democracy in Singapore. While I was thousands of miles away in Stanford, the new media (Twitter) channeled the realtime reflections of people on the ground, and made me feel like I was part of this historic event.

Thousands of Singaporeans gathered at Suntec City in an orderly manner to demonstrate their opinions on whether or not secular civil society should be used to push quasi-religious agendas. It was incredible for several reasons:

1. That Singaporeans should care so much about an important topic, any important topic, especially important topics like discrimination against homosexuals, and keeping civil society secular
2. That they were able to organize themselves and engage in non-violent democracy - choosing to vote off the new committee that had taken over by semi-force
3. Immediate, realtime feedback on the process was available via new technology in the form of Twitter. In a short twitter, we get a view of the proceedings colored by the observer's thoughts, and moderate that to get a more general view based on the aggregate of responses.

Is this Singapore's Stonewall? It's not exactly the same thing but some broad themes are similar:

1. Spontaneous civil activism. Well not absolutely spontaneous, considering that both the Old and New Guard had been exhorting people to join the EOGM for weeks. I don't think they could have anticipated the size of the response though, so it was spontaneous in that sense.

2. Activism against discrimination, especially with regard to discrimination against the protrayal of homosexual as neutral, or not.

3. A watershed event in Singapore civil society. It's premature to call it that but if the Government extends the right/privilege to this free democracy other societies (e.g. environmental organizations, arts societies etc), we might be seeing a defining moment in Singapore civil society - when Singaporeans cared enough to stand up and be counted for what they believed in, in a non-violent fashion.

Hopefully, this encourages the government to release their tight control on demonstrations and civil society.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Revamp in the works

I'm revamping and renaming this blog soon. In it, I will lay out better what I want to write about and name myself. I will probably call it: "Thoughts of a curious mind". Or I could stick with "Myrialogues - Thoughts of a curious mind". I want to rename the blog as I think that will better reflect the intent of having the blog in the first place - as an online repository and record of the many streams of thought in my mind.

This is all part of my plan to take greater ownership of my online persona and to contribute more content. I will:

1. Fill out and constantly update my LinkedIn, Facebook and Google profiles
2. Write more often on this blog, and create a nicer online gallery for my pictures
3. Update the wikis that I control more often

Monday, December 29, 2008


I am convinced of the need to write. And to get better at it by practising, by doing more writing.

I've spent the last 3 days holed up at home doing nothing but reading academic papers, conjuring up a novel scientific idea and writing a mock proposal to get it funded, which I will then defend in front of a jury of faculty. Yes, my first, off-topic qualifying exam is looming, and I've been working my ass off preparing for it!

It has been a challenge trying to organize my stream of consciousness into compelling arguments. But I've also realized a smoothened flow of internal dialogue, that the writing got easier halfway through, that my thoughts got clearer and my expression more concise. I really do believe that the actual practice of formalizing my thoughts by writing forces me to give the mental jumble some logical structure, which in turn helps my thinking.

On an off-note, I saw an amusing phrase in the ST today. You can read it here. Quote:
Retrenched workers whose monthly household income are below $2,500, and are assessed to be in need of help, are eligible for the CDC's Interim Coping Package for Economic Downturn (iCope)
Well, the issue of retrenched workers certainly isn't amusing but THAT is one HILARIOUS acronym. Some brilliant civil servant must have thought "iCOPE" would be an apt acronym for the times, and starting with that, tried to generate actual words to fit the acronym. I'm not sure if the acronym is supposed to contain substantially the words it stands for. "Interim Coping Package" indeed!