Go with a smile!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 Obituaries

I blogged 3 years ago that 2008 was the year of roads for me. In 2011 there has been a lot of very prominent deaths.

Computer scientists
When I was in secondary school, and this was before the internet, people told me that mathematics is the king of science. In some ways this is true, but I can’t help but notice that computer science is becoming the king of science. Let’s face it, mathematics in the context of other knowledge, is essentially a form of representing knowledge. And when it comes to representing knowledge, computer science can do it more powerfully than mathematics. When we started out, computer science used to be a branch of mathematics. Eventually, when you consider that the knowledge that can be represented in computers is a superset of what can be represented by mathematics, it’s safer to say that now mathematics is a branch of computer science.

There have been 3 great scientific instruments. The first was the telescope, and Galileo, Kepler and Newton used that to help derive the laws of physics that underpin so many other inventions that have taken place since. The second was the microscope, and that is the most important instrument in our understanding of biology until now. Now, we have the third and possibly the greatest instrument of all, the computer.

Steve Jobs
It is impossible to overstate the roles that Steve Jobs played in the computer revolution for the duration of his involvement in it. His first great product was probably the most important of all, the Apple II, because it helped usher in the era of the PC. Then there was the mac with the WIMP system that was later adapted by Microsoft Windows. Then there was iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. That Apple is the most powerful IT company in the world today is almost a miracle, considering that for 15 years, Apple was the sick man of Silicon Valley!
Anyway I don’t have much to say about this guy that hasn’t already been said elsewhere.

Denis Ritchie
This is the Ritchie of Kernighan and Ritchie. People have mentioned that Steve Jobs’ influence is prevalent all over the IT world, but this is the guy who designed the UNIX and C systems, and with it, a lot of the computer systems today.

John McCarthy
John McCarthy was an AI pioneer. Well not much has progressed since. He also invented LISP, which is a very cool computer language.

The 2 most important dates of the last 25 years were 9/11/89 and 11/9/01. The first was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which marked the end of the Cold War. The second marked the beginning of the age of terrorism.

Vaclav Havel
He became the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Under the communist regime, he was a dissident and a freedom fighter, and helped to organise the resistance to the communist dictators while writing plays mocking the system. Eventually, over the course of 1 incredible winter, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were liberated from Soviet rule. 2 years later, the Soviet Union was broken up. And strange and terrible things were starting to brew up in Yugoslavia.

Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il was a reminder that things didn’t play out the same way in the communist countries of East Asia. The Tiananmen uprising was brutally put down. The communist regimes of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were never overthrown, although they were liberalised to a greater or lesser extent after 1989. Taiwan and South Korea were never communist, but they were military dictatorships which made the transition to democracy.

Communism did not vanish in North Korea or Cuba. In North Korea, the cult of Kim was so strong that in spite of the tremendous hardships visited upon his people in the form of poverty and famine, Kim Jong Il was never overthrown. He was never ousted from power through US intervention, mainly owing to 2 factors: the proximity to China and nuclear weapons. Upon his father’s death in 1994, nobody gave Kim Jong Il a snowflake’s chance in hell of being able to survive, yet he did just that, outmanoeuvring the US, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China to stay in power.

Osama Bin Laden
The world had already heard of Osama Bin Laden prior to 9/11. He was the mastermind of the 2 African US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and also a bombing of a US military vessel the USS Cole. But his claim to fame came in spectacular circumstances, in the capital of the world financial markets and in the headquarters of the greatest military power in the history of mankind.
There is no doubt that the bombings did much damage to the US. However what caused even greater damage to the US were their reactions to the bombings: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The millions of dollars spent on anti-terrorism security. And the withering away of the civil rights of citizens and the atmosphere of general paranoia in response to the terrorism.

Arab Spring
Dictatorships in the Arab countries were once thought to be a permanent fixture. In part they were sponsored by the Americans who wanted to put a friendly regime in place so that nobody would cut off their supply of oil. It doesn’t matter that they already did the same thing with the Shah of Iran and that resulted in the 1979 revolution and the rise of the current theocracy.
So it was an extremely curious thing that Bush 2 decided to invade Iraq to “Bring democracy to the Middle East”.

Mohamed Bouazizi
This is the guy who started off the riots in Tunisia by burning himself. Apparently he had his stall confiscated over and over by corrupt municipal officers. Then he set himself on fire in a public square. The riots that ensued brought down the Tunisian government and inspired other popular revolts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. This set the stage for what is now known as the “Arab Spring”, which is named after a similar uprising in Prague in 1968.

The sometime comical eccentricity of this man should not detract from the fact that he was an extremely brutal dictator who crushed all opposition under his fist and once was a supporter of Carlos the Jackal, the most famous terrorist in the world before Osama. He managed to “rehabilitate” himself by giving up nuclear weapons, and at some point even Singapore wanted to do business with him. (Some of you will remember the infamous photos of him having a nice chat with Goh Chok Tong).
But after the uprising began, Gadaffi made the fatal mistake of deciding that he was going to crush the rebellion with his military, instead of negotiating for peace and promising reforms. The US decided to back the uprising by supplying weapons and bombing the Libyan army. Their tactics of “leading from behind” and opting for a less active role in intervention, in marked contrast to similar interventions in the past, was successful. Gadaffi’s end was brutal – he was captured, raped and killed by the rebels.

The journalist: Christopher Hitchens
I don’t really know this guy, and I haven’t read that many of his books. But he’s one of the members of the New Atheists that I’ve come to dislike. He’s a polemicist who consequently isn’t very honest in his arguments.

The biologist Lynn Margulis
I’ve read one of her books. Maybe reading books is a waste of time because I’ve almost totally forgotten what I read. Only that her view of evolution is slightly different from the predominant vision of species competing with each other. She was putting forward a different form of evolution, which emphasises co-operation and which also takes place at the cell level, instead of at the level of the organism and the species.

The mathematician Patrick Billingsley
I don’t really know this guy very well, but one of his books on measure theory sits on my bookshelf. It was assigned for an advanced probability course in Snowy Hill. Apparently Billingsley was not only a professor of probability theory, he was also an actor who appeared in the “Untouchables”. Which is very unusual I suppose.

Gary Speed
One of the finest midfielders in the Premier League era. He, along with David Batty, Gordan Strachan and Gary McAllister were the quartet which helped Leeds win their last championship. He played many matches with Everton, Newcastle and Bolton, and for some time was the player who made the most appearances in the Premier League. More recently, he was the manager of Wales national football team, and brought them very close to qualifying for Euro 2012. For reasons unknown he hung himself and died young.

Another member of a famous midfield, with Falcao, Zico and Eder. They were one of the most celebrated World Cup teams, who played brilliant football almost at the level of the great 1970 side. Brazil’s swashbuckling brand of football was often described as “if you score 3 we’ll score 4”. Unfortunately in the quarter-final match against Italy, Italy scored 3 and they scored 2. Socrates was also a brave man because he was famous for speaking out against the military junta who ruled Brazil in the 1980s. After quitting football, he had drinking problems, and his health deteriorated greatly.

All 5 musicians in my list died of health problems.

Gil Scott Heron
This was one of the earliest rappers, who read poetry to funky music. His most famous tune was “The Revolution Will not be Televised”. Unfortunately for the last 20-30 years he was not active due to drug problems and going to jail for trafficking. In 2010, he made a highly regarded comeback, and it was a shame he had to leave so soon after that.

Gerry Rafferty
He was an alcoholic, and also wrote one of the greatest songs on alcoholism, “Baker Street” about a guy who dreams of owning a house but doesn’t get around to doing it.

Amy Winehouse
Let’s face it, very few of us would have expected Amy Winehouse to live to see the age of 30. She just had to abuse anything within reach. Drugs, alcohol, whatever.

Heavy D
This guy got to rap on Michael Jackson’s “Jam” and was one of the hottest rappers in the early 90s.

I don’t know her very well. I have one of her CDs, apparently she’s a highly regarded singer from Cape Verdean islands, which is a former Portugese colony in Africa.

Spiritual leader: Sai Baba
I know about him from a school friend whose father used to worship him. Seems like a nice guy.

Of course, the most important and significant obituary is for my grandmother.


Friday, December 16, 2011

MRT disruptions

In my former workplace there was an IT analyst who quit. I asked him why he quit, and he cited an incident where an IT downtime cost the company millions of dollars in lost revenue and pissed off customers. He said that it happened on my watch, and I don’t want to work anymore in that place because it happened. He didn’t specify what was the exact nature of the relationship between his departure and that incident, so we can only speculate. Hence I’m going to speculate.

When there is a catastrophic failure, employee morale decreases. Some things went wrong, we’re not sure exactly what. Maybe the glitch was caught and corrected, and maybe it will always be a mystery, and some scapegoat is targeted in its place.

I was reminded about this incident because of another recent incident involving 2 major MRT failures in 2 days. The second, involving the stretch of the north south line between Marina Bay and Bishan involves Singapore’s oldest (and unfortunately also the most important) stretch of MRT stations. Among these 11 stations, maybe 6 or 7 are current or future interchanges. You can expect it to be a madhouse in the future. Apparently there was a train stuck in the tunnel for up to an hour, and a window had to be smashed for ventilation. That was an iconic photograph that circulated on Facebook. There was also another photo circulated that spoke of “profit opportunities” for cabbies to be picking up passengers stranded by the MRT stations.

There are immediate causes of these incidents, and no doubt the finger can be pointed at some engineer who was unfortunate enough to be overseeing the incident. But at the same time, those people at the top have to be responsible as well. And in connection with that cryptic comment made by my friend, some questions come to mind about this incident:

Are the causes of the more frequent failures that of faulty decision making at the top level?
One of the most reviled policies in Singapore in the recent years are that of the 5.5 million population blueprint. I was shocked when I heard about it 10 years ago, and unfortunately I did not pull my weight to speak up against it. It’s really hard to imagine the drawbacks of not having all these extra people in Singapore, but the negative effects of such a sudden increase in population are clear enough from the standpoint of public transportation. And it is clear that the MRT infrastructure is straining from having so many stations built in so short a time, and at the same time having to serve so many more people.

If the MRT people underestimated the amount of commuters on the MRT line, it's also the fault of the guys at National Development, or whoever it was compiling statistics to estimate the effect of the increased population on riderships.

Now we have a very potent combination of factors: an aging infrastructure, teething of new systems, and a high throughput. It is extremely bad that all 3 factors came together. The transport operators may have been overconfident that their system, which previously worked so well in the past was able to rise up to the challenge. They may have underestimated the challenges that these factors presented. And maybe the next question is part of it:

Is the profit principle to blame for these failures?
One of the effects of the big move towards “liberalisation” and “privatisation” was the incorporation of SMRT. To be sure, there are many other statutory boards who have been converted into GLCs and who have not stinted on their service quality as a result. But those tend to be the ones who do not enjoy natural monopolies. Companies like SIA, PSA and many others who have to vie for customers are scared of them. In contrast, SMRT is a natural monopoly, or rather, an oligopoly with SBS. M1, Singtel and Starhub can compete with each other to see whose customer service is the worst.

Liberalisation has proven tremendously useful in generating revenue for GIC / Temasek, and probably goes some way towards increasing the revenue of the Singapore government. However, it may drive service level to the bottom – they find the level, what is the lousiest service that they can get away with, and then they will degrade the system to that level. Never mind about the customers, only Temasek and shareholders matter.

We haven't solved the principal agency problem. Thing is, if the executive pay of the upper management in SMRT is pegged to profits, isn't this system creating the incentive for SMRT to get away with scheduling train arrivals as infrequently as possible, and skimping on maintenance?

Are engineers on the ground being unfairly scapegoated?
I’m sure that there have been a bunch of engineers who have been working very hard last night. But after all their troubles in bringing the system back up, will they get a reassuring pat on the shoulder for a heroic effort, or will they see their career prospects within the company evaporate into thin air? Is this breakdown in the system really their fault, or are they made to unfairly carry the can for bad decision making at the top? We all know what civil service culture is like. One department gets fingered as the black sheep. The other departments around them gloat. The other departments probably won’t lend a helping hand until they fall from grace themselves.

Of course, this fingering take a lot of subtle forms as well. These normally manifest themselves as people from other departments offering "helpful suggestions" in order to score points and draw further attention to the failings of the department that has cocked up.

Do the consumers expect too much of the system and make too big a deal about their expectations not being met?
It is exactly the same dynamic now, except that the demanding boss is replaced by the demanding customer. There are people who have demanded that heads roll for this incident, never mind that Raymond Lim’s head has already rolled prior to this. There is a lot of ammo for opponents of the ruling regime to hit at the so-called failures of the PAP government. And there are plenty of political points to be scored by asking people left right and centre to step down. However this is just “accountability”. We don’t need accountability per se. Or rather, what we want is better governance. It’s not that important whether you get rid of the people currently in the present position. What matters is whether you have a better system in place at the end of it.

There are some people who thought that it was very unprofessional for Lee Hsien Loong to put up a notice saying that he's on holiday, and that Teo Chee Hean would be acting Prime Minister, but many other people think that this is a little too small an incident to be involving the PM. I agree. What is truly comical is that at the time of this MRT outage, Lui Tuck Yew, the new transport minister, was in Cambodia giving advice to the Cambodians about how they could learn from Singapore's transport infrastructure.

It is extremely unrealistic to expect that 20 year old systems work as though they were brand new. So the question is, to what extent should their expectations be tempered, and to what extent is this systemic failure? People will become more hostile towards SMRT. But whether that means being more hostile towards the top management, or the people who work in the rank and file, that remains to be seen.

Is the infrastructure old enough that these incidents will just become more frequent in the future?
Ultimately it can be demoralising for the engineer to realise that the disrepair of the system has reached the point where outages and failures are just de reguer and you can't do anything about it anyway. Shit will keep on happening, and you will keep on being blamed for the shit.

So for me, taking all these factors into consideration, I’m not surprised if that other system failure in my old workplace generated an environment that was poisonous enough that it helped make that guy switch jobs.

Saw Phiak Hwa is one of the most reviled CEOs in Singapore. Right now she's facing a lynch mob over the great SMRT breakdown. People are not only angry at her for this incident. Big incidents will eventually happen. But they are angry at her for the general degradation of service level. The rising number of breakdowns. The scheduling of trains at 10 minute intervals at off-peak periods, ensuring that trains running at night would be packed to the maximum. Of the massive jams that people changing trains at Jurong East MRT station have had to endure. Of her cavalier remark that passengers could always "wait for the next train". Of her travelling around in a Mercedes 500 while the people of Singapore got crammed into cattle cars.

Yes, it's true that the subways of Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing have had to suffer more. But we are a city of only 5 million people and we shouldn't have to suffer like the megacities. We all know a time when Singapore actually had a world class transportation system. And we all know that Singapore can do better.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lactose Intolerance

Some of you might recall that when I applied to grad school, I considered the major universities in the same part of the states as my sis. There was 1 university that I did not apply to, and that was Americanos University. That was because Americanos was a big city that I didn’t really like.

It’s not really that I didn’t like Americanos, but it was just that I had heard so many bad things about Americanos. There were a few of my favourite musicians who really got messed up in that city. It was big and loud and – well, Palm Tree and Mexico just seemed more welcoming to me.

The last 1 week just passed in a whirlwind. During term time, there is always a period of time, 3 weeks before the end, when I would just lapse into a big funk and not give a shit about anything, and keep on procrastinating away. Then miraculously some of the term projects start to get done, I start cracking, people start barking at me, I bark at people, and then there is the climax of the term, the finals week. My professors were merciful: there was just 2 take home exams, and 1 project. I didn’t want any in-class exams: you lose the ability to memorise things after you’re 30. So it’s unfortunate that many of the other courses I’m going to take will have in class exams. Take home finals are nice because you don’t spend the finals week trying to study everything and wondering what’s going to come out in the exam. You just have to follow the course and be prepared and just do the questions that they give you. Of course it is not possible to start learning everything from scratch and doing those questions during that 1 week, but at least you don’t get that sickening feeling of “the one question I didn’t study for was exactly the one that came out.

So there was 1 week of constant work. My 2 courses with take home finals were OK, and I’m expecting a good grade from those courses. The one with the project – let’s say that my project partner, who’s a very well liked person apparently, decided to slack on one thing, and that one thing was that project. In the end I did more than my share of the work, and I forced him to write up the slides and the paper. Even then I had to do a lot of editing because he’s from China.

In any case it all culminated on Super Thursday, when both the final exams were due, and the paper had to be presented. I actually went out that night but when Friday came, I had to go do my packing. As fate had it, I bought a plane ticket to go home for the first time after the death of my grandmother, and I was flying off from “Americano” rather than “Mexico”. I had no choice – the flights out of “Mexico” were a few hundred dollars more expensive than from “Mexico”. So here were the details of how I would have to go to “Mexico”:

1. Take the bus to Small Town.
2. Take the train from Small Town to Americanos
3. Find my way from Americanos train station to Motel
4. Sleep in motel for 1 night and get up early the next day
5. Take the morning flight out of Americanos.

And that would be the price I would have to pay to save a few hundred dollars. Number 3 was the trickiest to plan, but I decided that I could take a shuttle bus to the airport, and then take another shuttle bus from the airport to the motel, which was supposedly just 10-15 minutes’ drive away.

I did a bit of packing, a bit of stock taking – stuff I didn’t need had to get sent home. Was dead exhausted from that intense 1 week. I had tried to slowly deplete the stocks inside my fridge, but there were a few pieces of chicken, half a gallon of milk and a few veggies left. I cooked a few pieces of chicken, ate some of them, and saved the rest for later. I was also drinking some of the milk – it was probably a little brave of me to drink up 2 cups of milk at one go – my stomach’s lactase wasn’t what it used to be.

So 1 hour after I drank the milk, I suddenly had to go to the loo. That was easy – I was still in my own dorm and I could go run there. I did 2 things, one of them was a great decision and the other was not. First, I cooked up everything and brought it out with me in tupperwares. And second, I finished drinking the milk. I didn’t sleep, and I set out at 6 in the morning.

It was a relatively uneventful trip, except that I missed the announcement that the train from Small Town to Americanos would not be running. That was stupid. Happily, the Greyhound station was just next door, and I hopped over and took the Greyhound instead. The only problem so far was that the bottle that was holding my small flask of gin and tonic was leaking a little and there was some sugary liquid (tonic water is very sweet) on the papers I planned to read on the plane. Otherwise, it was quite smooth. Obviously I slept a lot on the greyhound trip.

The only problem would be that my plan to take 2 shuttles to the motel would be scuppered. I used the bathroom in the greyhound station, and I went out. Later on, I would realize that that was my worst mistake of the entire day.

I called up a limo service and found out that they were charging me $30+ to send me to the motel. I walked out to the street, and saw a few tough looking 50+ year old guys on the street corner. I plucked up the courage to ask them where the train station was. It turns out that the guys were running their own private taxis. He quoted me $25 to send me straight to my motel. I weighed it up in my mind and then I decided to trust him. It turned out that that was a great decision. The guy – well I suppose you just couldn’t look at the average scruffy looking guy and simply assume that he was going to drive you into a dark alley and beat the shit out of you. It’s just as well that he could be trusted. And he didn’t look that much like a bad guy. A nice, avuncular latino guy in a leather jacket.

In the middle of the journey, I started feeling a queasy rumble in my bowels. I hoped and prayed that he would send me up to the model fast enough, before something terrible happened. Yes, I had drunk the milk 4-5 hours earlier but most of the trip from “Mexico”, I had been asleep, and the body doesn’t loosen the bowels until you wake up.

When I got to the motel, I filled in the card to register. There was this terrible moment when they told me, your room is on the third storey. Third storey! Fuck! I was about to blow! I grabbed the key as fast as I could when they handed it to me. I was just wandering around the car park of the first floor, when the guy came out and indicated to me that I could use the lift. So I dashed into the lift and I tried to make it into the room before something bad happened.

I was already on the 3rd floor, and 25 seconds away from the bathroom, when the bottom gave way. I felt the terrible sensation of something warm and brown dribbling down the left leg of my khakis. I dashed over to the bathroom, threw all the things on the bed, and found, to my dismay, a great mess had occurred.

In many ways, this was similar to the massively unfortunate events of my cousin’s wedding. But there were a lot of things in my favour. First, if you want to mess yourself up, you better do it when you’re right next to a big bathtub where you can clean everything up afterwards. Second, nobody’s watching you, as opposed to it’s your cousin’s wedding, and there are people everywhere. Even then, thinking back, that little boy’s behavior was kinda bizarre – why would you take off your shit stained trousers and fling the shit everywhere?

The toilet paper was frantically deployed and unfortunately there were 2 splotches on the carpet. Now I know why motel rooms are so dimly lit – you just don’t want your guests to see what a disgusting place it really is. You just want to stay for the night, get a good sleep, and get the fuck out of there.

So after emptying the rest of my ass into the toilet bowl (truth be told there wasn’t much of it left) I surveyed the wreckage. Shit on my left shoe, my left sock, underwear gone fuck. I had to go clean every damn thing up because I wasn’t going to live in the same place as all the shit. Ran the bath tub, and it took some sitting in it, rinsed my ass 3 times. My balls were soaked in the shit. The socks were OK, I can survive a plane ride without socks. I had very fortunately brought back half my underwear collection. You see the nice thing, the nice thing was that it was all diarrhea shit, watered down, and you could see all the components. There were scraps of peppers, tomatoes and onions that were in last night’s Ragu spaghetti sauce. And for some reason the shit had this mucuous, slimy texture that was kinda – well yuck.
The whole ordeal lasted maybe half an hour. In my mind’s ear, I was playing to myself “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones, you know the song where he sings “ gotta scrape that shit right off the shoe”. It’s kinda gross that there’s this splotch on the shoe, and some of it got on the inside. I had to wipe it off, take out the sole and rinse it. Then the socks. Then the undies. And finally the khakis.

My trousers were the only pair that I had at that time. And I had to wash the damn thing, get it dried, and then wear it on a 20+ hour flight. It was not a pleasant prospect at all! Well fortunately Americanos weather is dry and windy. I took my khakis and slung it over the railing. But then I wouldn’t be able to go out. I had to watch my khakis and make sure that nothing untoward happened to it, otherwise I would not be able to fly back home! So I was watching it for a few hours while absentmindedly surfed the internet and watched TV. I was so glad that I had brought food over from Mexico - I wouldn't be able to get myself any food during this period of time. I briefly thought about - I had a few long sleeve shirts and a sweater, and I could tie both of them around my waist, and use them like some kind of a skirt. Later on, I decided that it was a real bad idea. Instead, I heated up some stir fry cabbage, some spaghetti (more Ragu sauce by the way) and ate it all up. But of course I had to be obsessively careful about what I touched just before I ate my food. I found myself washing my hands like a sufferer of obsessive compusive disorder before I started. After lunch I decided that I was too sleepy to keep on eyeing my trousers on the railing, I had to take the damn thing down and hang it up in the bathroom. I took a bath, and then a nap.

I woke up to the sound of some guy trying to open my door. It was this African looking guy. I told him, “those clowns gave you the wrong room, the wrong key. Go back downstairs and ask for another room.” And after that I wondered for a little moment how much more disastrous it would have been if I had met the same problem, and had to go downstairs to the lobby in my shit stained trousers to go ask for another key. Well count your blessings eh?

I sat up and watched “Big Bang Theory”. They were showing some episodes on the TV, I watched it, and after that, my pants were dry enough to wear, which was a great relief. I went out and bought some take out – some fish and shrimp, Lousiana style, cooked by a Chinese guy. I ordered a place on the airport limo.

I don’t really know if I was in a bad part of Americanos or what. It looked gritty and worn down. I haven’t regretted my decision to go to Mexico rather than Americanos: both universities were roughly equally selective, and to be frank, Americanos might have been a better fit for me in terms of what I wanted to do. But I just didn’t want to go to school in a place like this. I wonder whether this unfortunate incident was a matter of Americanos returning me the love that I had for that place. Or well when my grandmother was alive, she always insisted on having some food that she liked. One day she ate an ice cream in spite of her lactose intolerance, and after that the poor maid had to spend 1 hour in the bathroom with her.

In any case, I have worked out the immediate problems. I wonder what other kinds of challenges are ahead of me on the trip home.