Go with a smile!

Friday, December 31, 2010

Shady Puzzle Walkthrough

There's a new online game that I first came across while reading MyPaper. You can find the website here.

Be careful because that game is very addictive. Normally when I meet games like this I try to just plunge into it for 3-4 days in a row, playing it for 6 hours a day, before I get sick of it, and then it doesn't bother me again.

When I Google it the autocomplete has "shady puzzle walkthrough" on it, so I suppose some people out there are thinking about how to solve this thing. Well basically if you can't solve the puzzle, you shouldn't be trying to solve it. (Then again, if you have already figured out how to solve the puzzle you shouldn't be trying to solve it either) But I think I should share what I learnt.

In this account, rows will be numbered 1 to 8 from top to bottom. Similarly, column 1 is the leftmost, and column 8 will be the rightmost. I will usually consider 1 column / 1 row at the time. So the 4th square of the column will be the 4th from the top, the 3rd square of the row will be 3rd from the left. etc etc etc.

Shady 1

This is the puzzle we'll be solving.

First fill in all those that you can deduce immediately.

Shady 2

Row 5 (3,1,2) is a giveaway.

For row 3 (4,1), the leftmost position of the 1 is starting at square 1. Therefore the leftmost possible position of the 4 is starting at square 3. The rightmost position of the 4 is starting at square 5. In any case, squares 5 and 6 are shaded. So put that in.

Same logic for rows 8 and 2. Same logic for column 1.

Let’s call this the Law of Locus Invariance, ie whether you slide a large block to the left or right, there are always certain squares that are covered by the block. Therefore large blocks are your friend.

Shady 3

The second principle is that if you have filled in a square at the edge, then it is to your advantage. You can deduce the position of the entire block from that square. Look at row 2: the leftmost square has been filled in. Therefore the 2 is all the way to the left. Then fill in the block, and put in 1 blank for good measure. In the same way, you would have done the same for the bottom most squares for columns 6 and 7.

I’ll call this the Law of the edge.

Shady 4

In column 6, you would have deduced the position of the 4 long block. So mark it in. Notice that this means that in row 4 (1,1), there is a square marked in. It’s obvious that the square is a 1 long block. So mark in the blanks. Similarly, in column 5, the block from row 2 to 3 is the “2” of the “2,3”. So mark in the blanks.

This is a different version of the law of the edge. Always mark in the margins of completed blocks with blanks. They will be useful.

Another more subtle application of the law of the margin: look at column 2 (2,2): rows 2 and 5 are marked in. Are they in the same block? No, because none of the blocks are 3 long or more. So they are part of 2 different 2 blocks. Because the bottom most block will never be as low as rows 7 or 8, you can blank those rows out.

Be careful when you are trying to guess which block a filled in square belongs to. Look at row 1 (2,1,1). Square at column 6 is shaded in. Does it belong to the right “1” or the centre “1”? You don’t know. The only thing you know, from counting your squares, is that it doesn’t belong to the “2”. Do not make any hasty conclusions. But you do know that it is part of a 1, so you can blank out the margins.

Shady 5

Fill in column 7 because you know that row 1 is blank.

After this, there’s a lot to be deduced from counting your blocks. Look at row 6. Squares 6 and 7 are blank. There are only 2 blocks in that row, so square 8 is also blank. So your (2,2) fits just nicely into the first 5 squares. Fill that in.

Look at column 1. From block counting, squares 5 and 6 are part of the middle “2”. And therefore square 8 is the “1”.

Shady 6

For column 3, the “2” must be squares 7 and 8. Fill them in, and put in the blanks at the margin. For column 5, you know where your 2 and 3 is, so fill that in. You now have enough information to complete rows 7 and 8. In column 8, you have filled in both the “1”s, so the 2 is in squares 1 to 3. Use the law of invariant locus to fill in square 2.

Shady 8

Finish off row 2 and row 4. Then deduce that for row 3, the “4” is squares 5 to 8. Then finish column 8.

Shady 7

Finish row 1. Then use the law of the edge to finish columns 1 and 2. Then complete column 3. Then we have solved the puzzle by logical deduction alone without any need to do trial and error.

What happens when none of the techniques used (locus invariance, law of edge, block counting) can get you any further? Then you will have to use trial and error. What I do is to select a strategic square to guess. Something, that when filled in or blanked out will lead to a whole chain of deductions. And if I meet with a contradiction, then I know that my initial guess was wrong, I go back to the beginning with the additional info of what that square was. (ie if I guessed the square was black and I’m wrong, I now know that it’s white.)

The other way - and this is often what I do when the board is very sparse (ie very few black squares). I just play around with strips of paper (or drag shaded squares around on MS Excel). I can play columns and rows. ie I drag blocks left and right along the rows, and try to make it such that it agrees with the requirements stated on the columns. Then there's a lot of trial and error involved, but much lesser calculation and logic.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Suzuki / Tiger Cups

Football in Southeast Asia is a funny thing. Asia, as we all know, are the minnows of football in the world. And Southeast Asia are the minnows of Asia. We aren’t as good as Northeast Asia, where Japan and South Korea always take their places in the World Cup. We aren’t as good as the teams in the Middle East. We probably aren’t even as good as the ones in Central Asian countries , you know, the –stans.

But people in this region are football crazy. The standards are crap, the referees are probably corrupt, the players are probably corrupt. But everybody loves it. There’s probably nowhere else in the world that you can have 55,000 people turn up every week for extremely mediocre football.

People still remember the good old days of the Malaysia Cup. The win in 1994 was bittersweet. Singapore lost the finals in 1990 to Kedah, and in 1993, again, to Kedah. (I hate Kedah!!!). So in 1994, it was the first win in 14 years. Before it got booted out of the competition. (Now I don’t know what the hell is going on with the Malaysia Cup because apparently teams like Brunei and Kelantan have won the prize).

Now, the S-league has patently failed to live up to expectations. It was too much for every small town in Singapore to have its own club. Big cities, London aside, tend to have 2 or 3. It didn’t make sense to have a league where all the teams were in the same city. The atmosphere was gone.

But the Tiger Cup brought back some of the atmosphere. One thing about this tournament – it’s probably not very important, but routinely a lot of interesting things take place.

I first got interested in the Tiger / Suzuki Cup in 1998. I was in college, but I heard that Singapore, most improbably won the second Tiger Cup. Singapore were supposed to be a team in decline. Even in the days of the Malaysia Cup, Singapore was always second to Selangor, which was a state team. Furthermore, the coach at that time, Barry Whitbread was routinely criticised for being ultra-defensive, as opposed to the attractive, free flowing football we all enjoyed under Douglas Moore for that one unforgettable 1994 season.

That tournament was held in Vietnam. Singapore and Vietnam had qualified from their group, and Singapore had topped the group. Thailand and Malaysia were both trying to avoid winning the match and meeting Vietnam. Both had already qualified, and were playing their last match against each other! So we had this spectacle where both teams tried to lose that match. In the end, that match was decided by an own goal.

In any case, for Malaysia and Thailand, it didn’t matter who played which semi-final, because they both got knocked out.

Singapore were the underdogs to win the final, because they were the away team. And I think they were on the back foot a lot of the time, but they scored a fluke goal – a corner kick hit the back of R Sasikumar and it went in.

The tournament in 2002 was entirely forgettable for Singapore. Singapore were hosting the tournament, and they had a coach who was on the staff of the Denmark team which won the Euros in 1992. Unfortunately he was a shit coach. Singapore got stuffed 4-0 by the Malaysians in Kallang stadium. It was the most shameful experiences in living memory. (Although Lim Tong Hai’s 2 own goals against Myanmar in 1993 takes some beating).

We didn’t have a lot of expectations for 2004. But that was a tournament that changed everything. I only sat up and took notice when Singapore qualified for the semis. We knew that anything could happen after that, because you just had to play 2 teams.

The first leg against Myanmar was actually held in Kuala Lumpur because I think they didn’t have a place in Myanmar to host the match. It went 4-3 Singapore’s way. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the return match was extremely dramatic.

Kallang’s pitch was waterlogged, but the match went on anyhow. In the mudbath, Myanmar went 2-0 up, 1 goal ahead on aggregate. Noh Alam Shah had a legitimate goal disallowed. Then 1 Myanmar player got sent off. Then another Myanmar player scored an own goal, levelling the aggregate score.

Then with minutes to spare, Singapore got a penalty. The Myanmar player conceding a penalty got sent off for a second yellow. There was a melee, during which Singaporeans and Myanmese had to be pulled apart from each other. Then a Myanmese kicked some mud in the referee’s direction. He got sent off for his troubles. To top it all off, Indra Sadan Daud missed the penalty! But it’s OK, Singapore started the extra time with a THREE MAN advantage, and scored 2 goals to get to the finals. Not surprisingly, afterwards there were some skirmishes between fans of both sides.

I found a commemorative VCD of this tournament at a cheap sale. I have kept it ever since. I’m recalling this match from watching that VCD but I also watched it live at that time and it made a big impression on me.

There was a squaring off between Raddy Avramovich and the Indonesian coach, Peter Withe. They had played each other before in the English league: Withe for Aston Villa and Avramovich for Norwich.

The first leg of the finals was to be held at Indonesia’s Senayan stadium. It was described as a cauldron. 70,000 fans screaming right out at you. However Indonesia played with 4 strikers, probably intending to score a lot of early goals, but they ended up conceding early and fortunately for Singapore, lousy tactics cost Indonesia the cup. Fortunately because it was quite a strong Indonesian side.

But there was a taint of doping involved in our wins. Agu Casmir was a foreigner playing in the S-league, and he was given a Singaporean citizenship (something I paid for with 2.5 years of national service). There was also Itimi Dickson. And these guys weren’t the first Singaporean foreigners to play for the Lions – there was also Engmar Gonclaves who unfortunately wasn’t able to reproduce his S-league form for the national side. Well 2 was not so bad for the 2004 side. In 2007, we added Shi Jiayi, Mustafic Fahrudin and Precious Emuejeraye.

You could say that all these additions were significant because Singapore relied on being more physical and being better organised than the opponents, who were often faster and more skilful. Still, it didn’t hurt our pride that the stars of the 2004 and 2007 wins were real Singaporeans: Daniel Bennett, Noh Alam Shah and Lionel Lewis.

In 2007, the final was tainted by Singapore being awarded a penalty kick that Thailand disputed. I was watching that match, thinking at that time that it was the last major football match to be hosted in the Kallang stadium. (I was wrong). And right before my eyes, Thailand staged a walk-off protest. According to the wiki article, Singapore also had a goal unfairly chalked offside.

In 2008, I watched the Singapore-Vietnam semi-final at the Kallang Stadium. This time, it really was the last match that was played there. Singapore attacked, and attacked and attacked, and the ball refused to go in. Then Vietnam had 1 counter-attack and they scored. After the match, there was a fight between Singaporeans and the Vietnamese, and a few people were injured. Even during the match, the Singaporeans and the Vietnamese were throwing stuff at each other.

In this edition of the Suzuki cup, Singapore exited the tournament, capping a miserable year for Singapore football. Singapore failed to qualify for the Asian Football Championship, losing a crucial match to Jordan. Then there was that infamous free for all between Beijing Guoan and the Young Lions, which was basically 2 youth teams. Then there was that exodus of our national players to the Indonesian league, which paid much better than our S-league. Then there was FC Etoile winning the S-league, the first time that a foreign team won the S-league.

Singapore were supposed to qualify. It was supposed to be an easy group to qualify from. But they only drew the game with the Philippines. Granted, this was an unusually strong Philippines team which qualified for the semi-finals. Then there was the ignominy of having to win the Burmese team from behind. And after that, losing by the odd goal to our bogey team, Vietnam.

So it may have been weird for Philippines to win the defending champions Vietnam to qualify, but a lot of people were rooting for them. And after Malaysia was trashed 5-1 by Indonesia most didn’t expect them to qualify, let alone reach the final and stand on the brink of the cup after winning 3-0 in Kuala Lumpur.

I suppose if that were to happen, the final score would be Singapore and Thailand 3 each, Vietnam and Malaysia 1 each. I think that this prize was destined to be shared between these 5 countries (Indonesia will get their turn one day). But I also hope that Singapore will win it again soon.

As usual, there was another talking point because there was trouble at the first leg final match . Apparently some fans were caught pointing lasers at the Indonesians. Seems like it is very difficult to hold a Suzuki cup where nothing ever happens.



Anonymous Iftitah said...

Correction. The 1998 final group match was between Indonesia & Thailand not Malaysia & Thailand. Malaysia sent schoolboys to that tournament because in SEA Games 1997 we lost 1-0 to Laos. After that SEA Games the FAM decided to ban the national team for 2 years. Malaysia went from 97 in FIFA ranking to 150 during that time.

2:13 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

OK. Well considering Malaysia beat Singapore 4-0 in 2002 it couldn't have been that bad...

2:23 PM


Monday, December 20, 2010


Go North Young Man
OK, my father in his “welcome to Malaysia” introduction sequence has arranged a family vacation to Meleka, which is nominally a nice place. It’s a family vacation, except that my grandmother is in no shape to travel, and my sister is in the States. Well since I’m on the topic of “Go North Young Man” he tells me that he reads somewhere – you shouldn’t think of JB as a foreign country, because it’s not. JB is actually going to be part of the Greater Singapore metropolitan area. Singapore the city is about to become larger than Singapore the country. JB is around 3-4 times the size of Singapore. Singapore will expand to JB, just as Tokyo has expanded to Kawasaki and Yokohama. Or NYC has expanded to Jersey City. Eventually this whole greater Singapore metropolitan area will have 15 million people, of which 6 million are on our island. Think about that.

It was jammed on the causeway when we crossed it going into JB. On the other side of the road are busloads of JB suckers who can’t wait to get their asses creamed by our integrated resorts. Such great neighbours are we.

North South highway
I drove there. Yes, it’s not for the faint hearted but you know I’m not. Still, there were 1 or 2 episodes with him screaming at how I cut into somebody’s lane too near to the vehicle in front. The first intimidating sign board is the speed limit – 110 km/h.

I see the place littered with skid marks of people doing stupendously idiotic things. Skid marks 50 metres long. Skid marks of cars going into the ditch. Going straight into a pole. There are 2 lanes in the JB – Meleka stretch. Unfortunately I got into big trouble because I drive too fast for the left lane and too slowly for the right one. There are people who come up to you and tailgate you 2 metres behind your ass when they’re not happy with the speed at which you’re driving. They flash their headlights at you. I’ve been tempted to slam on the brakes and start a pileup but you know, my parents are in the car too.

Traffic Jams / Navigation
It was pretty crowded. I put that down to the school holidays. Nearly half of the cars have Singapore license plates. When we got to the highway that went into Meleka, the Ayer Keroh highway was flooded with traffic going into Meleka.

My father who last visited Meleka 12 years ago (with us, as usual) notes that the traffic has become somewhat of a problem. You don’t normally think of it that way in a city that is supposed to be a rustic historic area but there you are. As noted in my Lonely Planet (bought in a cheap sale 7 years ago and only used now) Meleka’s road system is a nightmare, but it’s like any other town built in the days of horses and carriages.

It was difficult trying to figure out what road names are, since Singaporeans are spoilt by how well and clearly Singapore roads are marked. But luckily the hotel we stayed in put up plenty of signs that brought us there. It was also helpful that it was a in a stretch of clear land and you could see it from afar. But since so many of Meleka’s streets are one way, you had to make one big round to get there. It was just as well that our hotel was on the edge of central Meleka, nearer the road leading in from the NS highway. Because we didn’t have to negotiate that nightmare of that one spinal road leading down to the Red Dutch Church.

It is difficult to find places based on their addresses. It’s not like Singapore or other places where you have the name of the street, and everything is numbered from 1 to dunno what. All the maps come with landmarks drawn on them to help you figure it out. There was a lot of grumbling (mostly from my mother) and some getting lost before I located the Peranakan restaurants that we were looking for. They are Auntie Lee’s and Mako’s. Go and look for them, unless you’re vegetarian (in Peranakan cuisine, the only thing that’s vegetarian is the rice because there’s shrimp or stock everywhere). And good luck. However owing to my superior navigation skills we always found our way there in the end.

You want a historical overview of Meleka? Go and read your Lonely planet from the library.

Peranakan food
I’m often a little embarrassed when I bring people to Peranakan restaurants, because very often the food just doesn’t measure up. When I went to the authentic ones in Meleka I could taste the difference. There’s all the standard stuff: assam fish, sambal kang kong, tofu with tau choir, ayam buah keluak, 4 corner beans, claypot this, claypot that.

And people know the good stuff: more than half of the customers in those places were Singaporean. They were all packed during the weekends, and you had to haggle your way in if you were a small party without reservations. On our first night at Auntie Lee's, the head waitress was a scatterbrain whose most important priority was whoever happened to have her attention at that time. We asked her, you think we could pop over for Monday lunch? She said no problem. On Monday, we came early for lunch - not that early because my mother insisted on stretching her shopping trip to Jusco for longer than what we allowed her, but the travelling there was short because we knew better now than to travel through the centre. So we went in, and the waitress (a different one this time) said, no we don't take any customers today because we have 3 or 4 small groups from tourist companies. Of course, we were completely not surprised at being played out. Then my father sat her down and asked her if we could have a few simpler dishes. She said, OK whatever, so we managed to get our other peranakan meal.

There’s just a great amount of effort that goes into making all this food and it’s hard to get all this stuff done – with all that work you might as well be making gourmet food and making your sucker customers pay through their noses for it.

Satay steamboat
One of the other places we heard about was a steamboat, where instead of cooking stuff in steamboats, we cooked them in satay sauce. Naturally that stuff was recycled over and over again and it could get a little icky. I navigated the way there, but I made my parents walk for 5 minutes against 1 way traffic, just so that we didn't have to make 1 big round through obscene levels of traffic.

The food was OK, not too bad. Not as fantastic as Peranakan food, but what could ever be? I must say that the teenage waitresses and short skirts were a definite draw.

Jonker Street (aka Jalan Hang Jebat)
This is a historic street with all those old Peranakan shophouses. Then we went into one of the more famous eating places (number 88) to try their chendol. (note: every chendol seller in Jonker Street sells the best chendol in the world. Just like the one on the street in Penang that also sells the best chendol in the world. Go figure.) You wouldn’t think much of those terrace houses, looking from the front. Then we went to the toilet at the back, and then my father discovered: wow this is one of those famous Peranakan houses that he heard so much about. It’s 7 rooms deep! I suppose that’s the way that people built houses 300 years ago.

Behind that street were 3 places of worship, another great testament to racial harmony in Malaysia (or rather the lack of serious racial disharmony): a mosque, an Indian temple and a Chinese temple, all side by side. That Chinese temple is also the oldest in Malaysia, and it’s 350 years old.

It’s a fairly good night market with plenty of special Malaysian pantries, peranakan kueh. All the dialect clans are there (Teochew, Hokkien, Hainanese, etc. True to form, the Hokkien one is the flashiest).

Markota parade
There was a big shopping centre that was built on reclaimed land, near the city centre. Kinda like Parkway Parade in Singapore. It’s not exactly crawling with people, so that’s nice. It’s nice to visit all these places like Bangkok, Meleka, Penang because they remind you of what a nice place Singapore used to be in the 90s.

We parked somewhere and disappeared into the mall for a few hours. Then we came out and found a RM 100 fine on our windshield because we hadn’t bothered to

I thought that it would be a boon that we could watch EPL in the room since we had ESPN. I stayed up on Sunday, waiting for Blackpool - Tottenham to begin. It never did. I later found out why - the match was cancelled due to the snow. Same for Chelsea - Man U. The only match I caught was Sunderland - Bolton, and one spectacular Craig Gordon save aside, there was nothing interesting.

Parking fine
We decided to pay the fine at the Sentral bus terminal. It’s conveniently located at the outskirts of the city centre, 10 mins drive away from the hotel. 5 mins if you didn’t have to drive the big rounds mandated by the fucking one way system. We met with a monstrously corpulent guy at the counter. My mother couldn’t figure out if the sign outside said “Open” or “closed”. That guy laughed and said, “you can’t understand basic Malay? You must be a Singaporean.”

As we waited for the fine clerk to make his leisurely way in, he asked us which part of Singapore we stayed in. He lived in Bukit Merah and worked in the port as a crane operator, earning $3K + a month, which was big money in the 1970s. Unfortunately his fucking stupid agent forgot to renew his work permit, and he got thrown into jail and deported to Malaysia. He said that he’s still bloody sore about that experience. One of the more interesting things he told me is that Bukit Merah used to be a gangster hangout during those days. That’s interesting. But I suppose ports used to be operated by gangs.

My father’s buying a car in Malaysia. Apparently, as part of his package to become a permanent resident in Malaysia he gets to buy a Volvo for S$40K. Yes, you heard it right. How come most Singaporeans don’t know this? Because they are fucking sheep who insist on clinging to their preconceived notions of what Malaysia is like. (Granted – you can never drive that car into Singapore if you’re a Singaporean. But still…)

Second link
On the way home, I wrote a song. Rather, I took another music idea that was in my head since the mid-90s and completed it. That's the perfect combination, the inspiration of youth and the wisdom of experience. I'm half relieved because I haven't written a song in a long time, but then again, it's not as good as my earlier stuff.

My father decided to take the AYE back from the second link. He would get off from Normanton Park and take the Queensway / Farrer / Adam / Lornie way to Toa Payoh. The plan worked a treat, and we avoided the congestion at the PIE. Just as he was about to gloat, we bumped into a freaking huge congestion at the Farrer Road flyover. It was a jam that stretched for 5km. In hindsight, we should have bailed out of Adam Road by taking the PIE to Toa Payoh but we realised that way too late.



Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bumper Year

I think this might have been a bumper year for me when it comes to going back to camp. I went back to the SAF for 5 different things, as opposed to 2009, when that figure was 1, for a 1 day briefing.

1. Getting charged for not taking my IPPT for 1 year (somehow that year I didn't have any in camp training.)
2. Going to a high key ICT, where I had the chance to avoid remedial training if I passed my IPPT (I didn't)
3. Remedial training.
4. A low key ICT (rifle range actually)
5. A stupid half a day briefing only for the CEO to do his fucking peacock strut
6. An exam where we had to learn how to repair equipment.

I thought it was interesting, since it's entirely possible that for the next few years I might not have to go back to camp.



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Infinite Loop

Had a very strange encounter. I was leaving the library, having just borrowed a book. Seems like a usual way for sieteocho to spend his weekend. Then the alarm sounded when I walked through the gantry. I looked at my receipt for the # or the @ next to the book title that indicated that the RFID hadn’t been deactivated. But there was none. I handed the book to the librarian who checked it and found that it was all right. She then asked me if I had another book.

I had a book that I bought from the library sale in my haversack, so I handed it to her. She was taking a long time in deactivating the book, and after that I realised that she had been trying and failing to look it up in the system. Obviously it’s not there anymore. I called out to her, and she didn’t respond or look up. She even tried to log on to her colleague’s computer to retrieve the record. Eventually I had to shout at her, and she looked around.

I told her that it’s a library book sale book, which is why she couldn’t find it in the system. Then I asked her how come she didn’t respond to me. She said, “I heard you. I thought you were talking on the phone.” I said, I couldn’t have been saying “hello” 5 times to somebody on a phone, could I? I couldn’t have been using a phone in a library, could I? This had to be the first time I raised my voice in a library and the nearest librarian didn’t tell me to shut up. All you had to do was to turn your head. She said, “you should have called ‘hello miss’ or something like that”. I said, “and that means that I’m not on the phone?”

Then I asked her, “why did you try to look up that book in the system even though you failed over and over again?” She said, “I was just doing my job”. I was about to spit out, “using your brains is your job too isn’t it?” when I realised that she was totally cross with me, just as I was totally irritated at her for being an idiot. I was so totally put off by her stupid explanations that I didn’t realise that she had entered into siege mentality. You try to help somebody but not only does she not want to be helped, but she gets locked into this “everybody’s against me” mode. What could I do? I just took my book and walked out.

The point of this post is not about what an idiot she was. (Well actually it is). But it’s more about how people get trapped into unproductive modes of behaviour, trying something over and over again, and failing. Like one of those old floppy disks that try and fail over and over again to read a damaged disk. It’s one of those modes of behaviour that are like train wrecks, that are so horrid and fascinating at the same time you just have to keep watching. Let’s just look at the infinite loops that have taken place.

1. Librarian scans the book over and over again, looking for a record which isn’t there. All the while she thinks there is something wrong with the computer system.
2. Librarian hears somebody calling out “hello, hello” and keeps on telling herself that nobody’s calling her.
3. Sieteocho tries to explain to the librarian what’s gone wrong but librarian keeps on being defensive, as though he were nitpicking instead of trying to find out what went wrong.

Well that was incredibly thick behaviour. Maybe she’s not dumb but the behaviour certainly was. I’m a Singaporean so I know as well as anybody that our educational system produces mindless robots. And because I see mindless robots all the time I just get very pissed off about it. I also get pissed off by the fact that mindless robots run our little red dot.

First there is a failure of imagination. Failure of imagination to realise that a.) maybe there is a good reason why the book is not in your database even though it looks and feels like a library book. b.) maybe the guy behind is calling you for a reason that has something to do with a.) and c.) maybe the guy is not trying to censure you, maybe you aren’t having an argument but a post mortem.

There is something really autistic in all this, and I treat this as a cautionary tale, because I know that sometimes I get into my infinite loops every once in a while. And they are extremely destructive, because everybody knows that infinite loops – those that are not designed to be as such, that is – are extremely destructive, because everybody knows that infinite loops – those that are not designed to be as such, that is – are extremely destructive, because everybody knows that infinite loops – those that are not designed to be as such, that is – are extremely destructive, because they just waste a lot of your time and energy for nothing.

It goes down to this – the topical catch phrase at the moment – madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result. I was thinking to myself as I left the library, what I just saw bordered on madness. Well it takes a person who's on top of things to recognise that as madness, and you shouldn't be too hasty to criticise people who do things on the spur of the moment. But all the same, something mad about that. Except – how do we call and exit loop or a break? I suppose that takes training and alertness.



Saturday, December 04, 2010

Operations research and its discontents 2

Man versus machine
The most unsatisfactory aspect of operations research is that the activity of man is reduced to maths equations. To be sure, other social sciences also do this: like economics. Therefore I never completely liked economics either.

A big problem with economics has been the homo econimus assumption. Greedy and self-interested optimisers is a fairly good description of man, since we see from the collapse of communism that relying on altruism simply doesn’t work. It’s the best simple explanation of how people behave. But it is terribly inadequate. The most exciting research that has come out of economics / psychologists have to do with behavioural economics. Yes, people behave like that but there’s more to it.

Another big problem is the use of statistics to model human behaviour. The range of human behaviour is never perfectly described by maths equations. The standard probability functions are not a very good fit for how people will behave.

One tactic of using mathematics to attack the problem is, like I mentioned earlier, assume the system is a pinned down butterfly, and then use mathematics equations to describe it. But the system is a living entity, and often the usage of mathematics fails to capture the dynamicity of the entity.

Things have gotten better with computers. Unlike the old days when you scratched out equations on pieces of paper, computers can handle an arbitrarily large amount of complexity. It’s still not easy to code out everything, you still have to make simplifying assumptions that may be detrimental to the realism, but it’s much better. That being said, a lot of OR, especially the mathematics part, was conceived in the days that predated PCs. So a lot of models are similarly inflexible and unrealistic.

The spirit of optimizing operations of a firm is also totally wrong. What often happens is that you have a CEO, and he always wants to optimise the profits of the firm. Therefore: pay your workers only enough so that they don’t want to leave. Screw your customers. Screw your suppliers. Screw your environment. In reality you will soften this stance, especially in the face of the need for better PR. But the main thrust will still be there. What Marx means when he complains about the endless accumulation of capital. Anyway I’ll bitch about this in the proper place, which is when I’m bitching about capitalism.

OR believes that global optimisation is always better than local optimisation, which tends not to take into consideration the states of other parts of the system. First, centrallised control is quite akin to communism. In fact, a lot of the pioneers of operations research came from the Soviet Union. It doesn’t always work because the big boss in the centre does not have perfect control of the system. Then there is the problem that your information is not perfect, and that can screw up your entire planning. The real solution, then is to have a balance between piece-wise optimisation of the subsystems, and considering the needs of the system as a whole. Sometimes it’s better for each smaller part to act myopically and greedy

The other problem is the engineering of human beings. You just can’t mandate how people are going to behave from above, unless you use extreme measures. My boss was wondering out loud how on earth they got McDonald’s to get every employee to make the burger in the same way every single time. I had already read “Behind the Arches” so I knew the answer but I kept quiet because he never pays attention to me anyway.

McDonald’s owns the property that houses the restaurant. It rents it out to the franchisee. The franchisee is entirely at the mercy of McDonald’s. Do things your own way, run operations your own way, and boom, you’re out of business. It’s that simple. This is a benevolent dictatorship. I don’t know why Americans always complain about Singapore being a nanny state and shut one eye towards McDonald’s being a nanny employer. But I do know why the Singapore government and McDonald’s get along so well.

In the absence of such drastic measures, you have to deal with conservative Singaporeans who are as stubborn as mules, and who don’t like to change for the better. In general, though, my personal reasons for not liking the engineering of human beings does not have to do with how difficult it is to get people to do your bidding. My personal gripe with there being only one way or the highway is: I like my freedom. You could say that a really high degree of discipline temperamentally disagrees with me. However: I must add, I am probably mellowing with age.

Which is why I was so happy to discover chaos theory. Mathematics, cold, rigid and hard mathematics, actually shows you that things can get really screwed up and unpredictable – without pre-supposing the existence of randomness! Randomness arises from determinism. Determinism arises from randomness. Chaos arises from order. Order arises from chaos. This is the true mathematical derivation of the yin and yang philosophy, of opposites deriving from and begetting each other, rather than the western dualist idea of two irreconcilable poles.

There’s so much more wonderful things I can say about chaos theory, but for me, it has made mathematics much more lifelike and intuitive. It has softened the hard edges and surfaces, but at the same time it has also removed a lot of what was great about mathematics – its predictability. Its ability – some say its conceit – to be able to make predictions with – well – mathematical certainty. Chaos theory doesn’t make precise predictions. It shows you what can go wrong with your maths theories. It seldom has a lot of concrete results to show. What it amounts to is one big spanner being thrown in your direction. But it does bring a long overdue sense of reality.

Other rubbish
In spite of my profound skepticism about operations research, I feel that it is still a valuable tool, so long as we don’t blinker ourselves about its infallibility. There are so many times when I see some people walk around believing that operations research, by virtue of being more scientific, is closer to the truth than stories that workers tell you on the ground. They believe that what’s on a process map is a higher truth than workers describing the million and one exceptions to the rules that take place in real life. They believe that the view from the passenger’s seat is better than from the driver’s seat, and if the driver would just sit up and listen every now and then the world would be an irrevocably better place. Sometimes I just have to roll my eyes at that.

For me, operations research is a tool. Possibly the best tool we have in our mission to improve operations. But at the end of the day it is still inadequate on its own. In the end, I thought I would have some other skills. I was equally interested in studying what human beings are like. My future bosses may or may not have been fully appreciative but I wanted a more fully nuanced view of what a firm was like. I took all sorts of liberal arts courses. In the end, I read a throwaway comment by Peter Drucker that said that business studies is the ultimate liberal arts subject. It was at that point that I felt that my decision had been vindicated.

Recently there was a long overdue sentiment that we were expending too much of our effort in the wrong direction. There was way too much emphasis on operations research solutions, and the attitude is “OR is superior, we’ll just wait for them to wake up and catch up”.

There has been a slight shift away from that. Instead, what we have is conducting information sessions and roadshows that try to persuade operations staff to embrace more scientific and analytical methods of conducting operations. That was a welcome change, in my opinion.

What I also wish to happen is that we have some more capabilities to obtain intelligent information about what goes on in operations. The current practice is that we identify that there are demons of inefficiency somewhere, and we’ll just prescribe medicine to cure what we assume are the problems. It’s always the usual suspects, but we’re never really sure. What I wish to happen is we improve our diagnostics.

A good analogy for what we do is that we are doctors (not surgeons, because surgeons are the ones who work on the ground.) We look after a patient whose health is sometimes good and other times not so good. We’ve got medicine (typically OR) which is sometimes painful to use but we believe in it so much that we push it all the time. But firstly we need to improve our diagnosis so that we can prescribe more finely focused solutions that solve the real problems, rather than wholesale invasive procedures that have negligible effect outside of a hot zone. Secondly, we need a keener, more systems oriented approach, where we realise that reacting directly at a problem will have side effects that might be worse than the existing problem. Some problems have counter-intuitive solutions. For example, cutting down the number of cars going through a road can actually increase the throughput of that road.

We need to improve the diagnostics. Too often we conflate measuring performance with identifying problems that need to be solved. These are different tasks, they need to be solved with different means. We need to look closer at local conditions, rather than assume that what we have will fit a model that we bought out of a box from somewhere else. We need to understand how and why our problems are unique, and perhaps be mindful that the solutions will also be in some ways unique.

In academia there is this undue focus that a solution doesn’t really have much legitimacy until some publisher somewhere else deems it fit to be published. Then what happens in the end is that we graft a solution on top of a problem where the fit is not perfect – sometimes, more than imperfect, there is no fit at all. (Six sigma, I’m looking straight at you.)

A former boss said that he saw a pyramid, from an IBM article. (I saw that pyramid too). He was commenting that he was now doing analytics, whereas what he used to be doing, ie optimisation, is at the top of the pyramid. Well I’m thinking, he doesn’t understand that pyramid very well. If analytics is at the bottom of the pyramid, that is the first thing you must achieve, and do very well. You must concentrate your energies on the stuff at the bottom of the pyramid before you go to the top. You just can’t go straight to optimisation simply because you happened to have a PhD in those things.

Anyway, what I’ve described is mostly the theoretical problems with operations research. The problems that gave me an uneasy, queasy feeling. It got even worse when I became a real life operations research practitioner. I don’t intend to blog yet about what it’s like being an operations research practitioner because it’s blogging about my job. (Talking about operations research is merely dangerously close to talking about my job.)


Blogger Nat said...

If Operations Research as a tool is handled without sense it is probably just the machine that goes 'ping'.


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