Battle Hymn of the Tiger Country: The Story of Singapore

My latest read was From Third World to First, the story of Singapore’s transformation from a developing to a developed nation. Written by Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, this book recounts his experiences governing Singapore during its rapid rise to become an Asian Tiger.

In 1819, what we now call Singapore was just a small island home to a few dozen fisherman. The strategic position of the island made it attractive to the British, who absorbed the island for use as a shipping outpost. For the next 146 years, Singapore remained an outpost of the British Empire until its independence in 1965.

Yew took the helm when Singapore became independent; he ended up ruling Singapore from 1965 to 1990. In his book, he details the struggles of the early years. With the exit of the British, Singapore had to build up its own military to protect against hostile neighbors. There was also the issue of violent race riots that threatened to split the country into Malaysian and Chinese regions.

After getting through the rough start, Yew's focus turned to economic issues: Now that the social and national security problems were largely under control, how could this tiny resource-poor densely-populated country sustain itself?

All in all, From Third World to First is a great read for anyone interested in a rags-to-riches story where the sympathetic protagonist is a country. Yew takes the magic out of the rise of this Asian Tiger, though that doesn't make Singapore's progress less remarkable.

In Singapore, government involvement in economic development is extensive. The Singapore government took the lead in spurring new industries with public-private enterprises. The deep public-private ties would be anathema to many a Western free-market capitalist. One example is Singapore Airlines, a highly-profitable and globally-competitive subsidiary of the Singapore Government with extensive oversight by government officials. When you compare Singapore Airlines to the flop of Air Canada, you begin to wonder how the Singapore government succeeded where the Canadian government failed. Yew places much credit on the success of Singapore’s private-public enterprises on that fact that government officials in charge had a clear mandate: Make it Profitable, or Shut it Down.

Yew also emphasizes the importance of selecting a high-quality civil service. As he puts it, "The key to [Singapore's] success was the quality of the people in charge." In Singapore, government officials are extremely well-paid (by our standards), which Yew argues attracts recruits and reduces corruption. Candidates for important positions are extensively analyzed: Their academic record, achievements at work and “character” are all vetted. Yew mentions that he decided to evaluate “character” through the use of psychological testing after watching Apollo 13. Apparently, Yew was impressed with how calm the Apollo 13 astronauts were in spite of their peril; this impelled him to adopt NASA-style psychological testing to government recruits.

On social issues, Singapore has government intervention that would be anathema in the Western world. At one point, Singapore banned the importation and sale of chewing gum in order to combat "gum wad" vandalism. Another time, the government created a "Social Development Unit" to facilitate socializing between male and female graduates in the hopes of encouraging marriage; Yew had been concerned that "male graduates who married less-educated women were not maximizing the chances of having children who make it to university".

In terms of governing style, what impressed me about Yew is that he was never a prisoner to any theory. When he made decisions, he did not ask what could work, he asked what did work. And to learn what did work, Yew did not shy from learning from those who got it right. As he put it,

"I discovered early in office that there were few problems confronting me in government that other governments had not met and solved. So I made a practice of finding out who else had met the problem we faced, how they had tackled it, and how successful they had been."

This statement reminds me of an article on healthcare reform by Atul Gawande, where Gawande wonders if maybe the best way to discover the "best" healthcare system for America is too run a bunch of small-scale experiments with different models to see what works.

Singapore's development is impressive, and much of its success is attributable to Lee Kuan Yew's political and analytical skills. At the same time though, I wonder how portable Yew's lessons are to a larger state. A lot of the wildly successful economies in Asia have been the city-states: Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Are the good practices of Singapore workable in a country on the scale of America, or even Canada? Besides size differences, social, cultural and geopolitical differences may have played a key role in Singapore's success, though that’s an issue for an economics thesis.


Software patents and shorter Marty Goetz

Shorter Marty Goetz: Software is valuable, therefore it should be patentable.

Goetz was the recipient of the first U.S. software patent ever awarded. In this ZDnet article, he defends software patents, where his basic argument is that software deserves patent protection because software development is a billion-dollar industry. For several reasons, Goetz fails to make a persuasive argument for software patents.

To begin, why do we even have a patent system? The patent system gives the inventor of a useful device a limited right to use the government to protect against unauthorized copying. The benefit to society is that patents encourage innovation: people are more likely to invent if they know a competitor can’t free-ride on their efforts. The limited term of a patent ensures that today’s protections do not prevent tomorrow’s inventions.

Going back to Goetz’s article, in some sloppy sense, yes, patents are meant to protect things that are "valuable": They should cover socially desirable inventions that are unlikely to come about without protections against free-riding.

But things are not that simple when it comes to software patents. First, it is unclear whether patent protection would encourage innovation in the software industry. Programmers might write useful software even without patent protection.

Even if patents could spur software innovation, the system may be too difficult to administer. If writing a piece of software and reducing it to practice is easier than making a physical widget, software patents will add to the patent office backlog. If figuring out whether software is novel, useful and non-obvious is more difficult because of the abstract nature of programming, software patents will add to the court dockets.

Software patents may also hinder future innovation. A great weakness of software patents is the difficulty of due diligence: There is no easy way to determine if a program is infringing on earlier patents, and the risk of litigation may deter innovation.

These are just a few issues ignored by Goetz, though any argument for software patents should address them.

The closest thing Goetz has to an argument is his point that because "software and hardware circuitry are interchangeable", it makes no sense to allow patents for one and not the other. For example, there are many functions that can be implemented in both software and hardware, such as FFTs in cell phones. Goetz argues that because the same amount of effort goes into the software and hardware implementation, patents should be available for both.

What Goetz ignores is that a patent issued on a hardware implementation does not cover the mathematics behind it. The patent protects only the physical device from copying, not the abstract ideas that make it work. One benefit of limiting patent protection to a physical device is that it makes it easier to define the bounds of the invention. The clearer the boundaries, the less litigation.

A more subtle benefit of tying patent protection to a tangible product is that it increases the likelihood that the invention is truly novel. The more abstract the patent, the more likely the device was independently invented, and vice-versa. Reducing an idea to physical form requires additional effort that narrows the field of possible inventors.

In sum, Goetz doesn’t make a strong case for software patents. Of course, there are alternative ways to protect software from free-riding: Most notably, via trade secrets and copyright. Whatever approach is chosen, let’s hope it relies on a more compelling argument than "software is valuable, therefore it should be patentable".


Book Review: The Stand

My latest read was an older Stephen King novel, The Stand. Coming in at over 1400 pages, The Stand is basically three novels in one.

The Stand is a Stephen King's foray into post-apocalyptic fiction. The novel is written from the perspective of the scattered survivors of a virus that has infected and killed close to 99% of humanity. The book is about how the survivors attempt to reestablish civilization.

It's not a Stephen King novel without some supernatural force. In The Stand, We see that force in the form of physical manifestations of "good" and "evil": There is Mother Abagail, a wise and god-fearing 103-year-old woman who reaches people in their dreams and attracts them to rebuild society in Boulder, Colorado. There is also the evil and ambitious Randall Flagg, Satan's disciple, who uses dreams to attract the morally-bankrupt to build the "evil" colony in Las Vegas.

The survivors of the plague trickle in from all parts of the country to join either the dictatorial Randall Flagg or the democratic Mother Abagail.

The Stand was a good read when it came to the individual story-arcs. Stephen King is thorough when it comes to introducing his main characters. He may take 50 pages to describe where Stu Redman (a leading member of the "good" camp) hails from, but after those 50 pages you could describe Stu Redman as though he were a close friend. King also excels at tension-building narrative that makes you want to skip ahead to see what happens to a favored (or hated) character.

The Stand was not a great read, however, because King does not do a good job describing the war between Mother Abagail and Randall Flagg (good vs. evil, basically). I think The Stand should have been a book about the personal struggles of post-apolyptic survivors in a world where mankind no longer controls nature. By introducing the supernatural and the battle of good vs. evil, King tried to make this story a treatise on theology. The end result is a very muddied moral message.

For example, he spends close to 1200 pages building up the terror of Randall Flagg and highlighting the internal squabbles that threaten Mother Abagail's democracy. I expected the last 200 pages to describe a confrontation between the two camps that vindicates Mother Abagail's compassionate-though-inefficient society. Instead, the "evil" camp is destroyed in a freak accident when an atomic bomb detonates in Las Vegas. What this seemed to imply is that the "good" guys were saved by pure, dumb luck; it's not that "good" destroys evil, but that evil destroys itself. This seemed to me like King had enough of writing The Stand and looked for an easy way to end the story.

I haven't seen the TV miniseries based on The Stand, though that's next on my to-watch list. Hopefully, the screen adaptation learned from King's mistakes and toned down the preachy message of the book. Stephen King is strong when it comes to narrative and character development, but moral philosophy is another issue.


Captain Gullible

Movie review time! Or at least, here's my review of the latest comic book flick, Captain America. To put it bluntly, thumbs down for Captain America because the main character is an idiot.

He's an idiot because to impress people, he agrees to be a guinea-pig for extremely dangerous medical testing that he knows nothing about.

The movie is about a scrawny asthmatic kid Steve Rogers who wants to enlist in the army but is repeatedly rejected because of his health issues. Desperate to help with the war effort, Rogers decides to volunteer for a dangerous experimental medical treatment that turns him into the "super soldier" Captain America.

Which brings me to the first reason Captain America is an idiot: He gives himself up for medical testing without knowing (a) the consequences; (b) the purpose or (c) the value of his contribution. The lesson this teaches is that if you're a "good guy", maybe even a "good American", you'll listen to your superior. If your boss tells you doing X is good for America, you should do X because you're a nice guy and nice guys like helping America. Never mind the irony that the movie suggests the best way to fight a racist regime that believes in Aryan Supremacy is to create Aryan super-soldiers like Captain America himself. Is the lesson really that you fight fire with fire?

Captain America is an idiot for volunteering for the experiment because he has no idea what it could do to him. The movie portrays his eagerness as being due to his desire to impress a pretty lady who was nice to him and the creepy scientist who let him enlist. I would have liked to see him question his superiors a bit more before agreeing to be their guineapig. I guess I just don't buy that a "hero" is a guy willing to sacrifice his life for a cause, any cause, that some big-shot in the army says is important. I think a "hero" is a person who doesn't shy from asking hard questions and sticking to his moral principles.

Captain America is also an idiot because after he develops superhero powers, he decides to save his buddies instead of killing Hitler or saving concentration camp prisoners.

After he transforms into Captain America, his first order of business is to save his captured buddies from the Nazis. This is WWII, and I have trouble believing that captured POWs were worse off than starving inmates in concentration camps. Heck, I even doubt if captured POWs were worse off than harassed civilians subject to bombing raids and other atrocities. Yet rather than consider what purposes his skills should be put to, Captain America decides to just save his buddies.

Maybe it seems I'm being picky here: Can you really blame a small-fry guy wanting to save his friends before he thought of the greater good of humanity?
I guess this boils down to a personal preference. To quote another superhero movie, "with great power comes great responsibility". In a nutshell, saving your buddies is acceptable if Captain America is just an average Joe; but when you have superpowers up the wazoo, you should do more. While you could argue that the whole point of the film is that it shows an everyday nice guy can be a "hero", I think being a "hero" depends on what you do AND what you are capable of doing. Our understanding of hero is an ordinary person who perseveres and does extraordinary things beyond their skillset. The quintessential example may be David taking on Goliath. For that reason, I don't see Captain America being a "hero"

The story is redeemed somewhat when after saving his buddies, Captain America decides to go after the evil Red Skull to foil plans to launch weapons of mass destruction. Too little, too late , given that this happens only after spending ages saving his buddies.

All in all, what I expected from Captain America is a story of a young man who questions authority and has strong moral values that even a military machine and war mongering cannot taint. Instead, I saw a story of an obedient little kid who accepts what people tell him at face value and is incapable of thinking big.


Dirt Control: Why Evening Showers Are Better

Evening showers are superior to morning showers for the following reason: Dirt control.

The graph above shows the accumulation of dirt after a morning shower. As you see, you are cleanest right after the shower. However, during the day, you accumulate more and more dirt. By the time it is time for you to sleep, you have reached the maximum level of dirtiness. And now you sleep for 6-8 hours in that filth. Yuck!

The graph below is for evening showers. You go to sleep clean, and by the time morning hits and you go about your day, the dirt steadily climbs. By contrast with the previous graph, however, your night shower takes off all the grime from the day so you go to sleep pristine.

As you can see, the area under the lines for the evening shower graph is less than for the morning shower graph. This means that with nighttime showers, you minimize how much time you spend filthy.




Back from Utah!

Awesome: Hiking in the canyons.

Un-awesome: Catching giardia (water parasite).

So it goes.


Hollywood & The Art of War

I’m a fan of military flicks, and most of the ones I’ve seen focus on three conflicts: World War II, the Vietnam War and the Iraq and Gulf Wars. What’s interesting is the subtle differences in how these conflicts are presented by Hollywood.

World War II movies have the most inspiring stories. Films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers (technically a TV miniseries) portray war as regrettable, but a necessary evil in the face of a greater evil. That the mission is noble is never questioned, which is curious because the propriety of humanitarian intervention was a hot-topic in America at the time.

Allied soldiers are presented as young men fearful of death who nonetheless courageously move forward to serve humanity. The soldiers aren’t above reproach, but abuses are generally targeted at the enemy (e.g. the desire to shoot Nazi POWs rather than play nanny). It’s a rare film that suggests Allied soldiers abused civilians, which is in keeping with the overall heroic tone of the films.

At the other extreme are Vietnam war flicks which portray war as an senseless waste of human beings. These include films like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. The promising young soldiers embroiled in the Vietnam War lack the moral high-ground of WWII soldiers. Simply put, godless Communists don’t play villain as nicely as genocidal Nazis. Being forced to fight (conscription was the norm) for a senseless cause made it hard for soldiers to justify their violence.

Another feature of these films is that psychosis is common among the grunts (low-level soldiers) and these bouts of insanity lead to atrocities like the My Lai massacre. The mental breakdowns are largely blamed on the general atmosphere of the war, however – individual culpability is ignored. There’s a sense that you can’t blame the boys for doing what anyone in such terrible conditions would have done.

More recently are movies dealing with the Iraq and Gulf (desert) wars such as Jarhead, Generation Kill (technically a TV miniseries) and The Hurt Locker. In terms of style, these fall somewhere between inspiring WWII films and depressing Vietnam War films.

In these films, we see a growing comfort with wars waged for a less-than-pure purpose. The belief that the desert wars are about oil is so widespread it's cliché, but these films are much less negative than those from the Vietnam era. It’s as though Hollywood accepted that war motivated less by moral concerns than economic interests is redeemable.

Unlike their Vietnam War and WWII brethren, these soldiers weren’t conscripted and they accept their role as “grunts for hire”. There is a hyper-masculinization of conflict – the soldiers call themselves “warriors” (not entirely jokingly) and are itching to “kick some Haji ass”, as Generation Kill puts it so eloquently. Though their cause may not be noble, the soldiers seem to have accepted their role with gusto – perhaps this is why we see fewer instances of psychosis.

Another subtle shift is that abuse of civilians is admitted – soldiers not infrequently grapple with the temptation to mistreat innocents. However, such abuse is generally blamed on individual weakness rather than the atmosphere of combat, suggesting Hollywood is less comfortable attacking the war-machine.

To wrap-up, there are subtle differences among these films depending on the conflict they present. Of course, what I've discussed are Hollywood films reflecting Hollywood’s impressions of the conflicts. Whether Hollywood’s views are representative of general public opinion is an issue for another post; or as a great military strategist put it, perhaps just as all war is based on deception, all war films are based on deception.


Is Internet access essential?

To keep connected to my Canadian-ness (or is it Canadian-inity?), I try to follow the hot topics in Canadian news. One issue that has received a lot of attention is the CRTC’s decision to approve usage based billing by Canadian ISPs. I won’t get into the details here, but if you’re curious, Michael Geist has a great discussion on what UBB is and why it matters.

Geist runs an excellent blog discussing the technology law issues of the day. Geist’s posts on usage based billing caught my eye because of his recommended next-steps for Parliament. Among other things, Geist suggests the Canadian government should mandate open-network policies, monitor ISPs to detect anti-competitive throttling and open spectrum auctions to international buyers.

Geist’s recommendations seem reasonable. Who wouldn’t benefit from more competition among the ISPs? But maybe that’s because he has already accepted two points: One, that Internet access is essential; and two, that government intervention is the best way to promote Internet access.

I’m more interested in the first assumption: Is Internet access essential?

On the one hand, Internet access seems like a First-World Problem. Even if we shut the Internet off, what’s the big deal? No Internet means little more than no Facebook newsfeeds, no Netflix movies or no celebrity Twitter updates. Internet access isn’t indispensible – it’s just a convenience. If email and Skype are down, we still have communication via cell phones and coffee dates; and if Google and Wikipedia are down, we can still access information through libraries and encyclopedias.

On the other hand, Internet access is about much more than Facebook stalking or lunch-hour Tweets. At the core of it, the Internet makes communication and easy access to information so much easier that it revolutionizes modern life. It's difficult to get by without instant communication and access to information. As local newspapers shut down, we depend on Internet news media to keep informed. As snail mail becomes unacceptably slow, we need email to communicate. Modern life depends on Internet access, and there’s no going back.

So is Internet access essential? I guess I’ve come to the law student’s response: It depends. That could be a perfectly acceptable answer if relying on rhetoric was sufficient. But I've been pretty sloppy in my reasoning because I haven't broken down the question sufficiently.

Before jumping into answering Is Internet access essential, two terms need to be clarified: First, what does "Internet access" mean? Second, what does "essential" mean? Because these terms aren't very scientific, the definitions require value judgments.

Defining Internet access can be tricky. What sorts of speeds matter - 56k dial-up modem or high-speed DSL? What level of reliability are we talking about - how much downtime a day, a week or month is acceptable? What type of access is acceptable - is any censorship of Internet content appropriate?

Defining essential is also challenging. Essential for whom - large corporations or Joe Average? And essential for what - a decent quality of life for citizens (and if so, how do we measure quality of life) or nationwide economic growth (measured using GDP or some other way)?

It may seem overly nit-picky to make the definitions so precise. I mean, isn't it obvious Internet access is essential for everyone (what would we do without lolcats?) But pinning these terms down is important because we can't give a clear answer to a sloppy question. If we want informed public debate on the issue, we need to know what the issue is before we start arguing, especially when billions of tax dollars are at stake.

In addition, being precise with definitions is important because it makes explicit who we're trying to protect. If the government shouldn't intervene unless Internet access is essential, defining the terms decides who is worthy of public attention. If we define Internet access narrowly as the ability for large corporations to use hi-speed DSL lines, then the beneficiaries will be corporations. If we define Internet access broadly as access to at least 56k speeds for the majority of the population, then the beneficiary is the general public.

Bringing this back to Michael Geist's blog: The problem with his recommendations isn't that they don't make sense. The problem is that it's unclear who his recommendations are supposed to help. We should decide who we're trying to help achieve what before deciding how to help. Maybe it's nit-picky, or maybe it's just good practice.


Something is rotten in the works of Gaiman

Time to inaugurate the new year with some writing, so here's a review of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, my first read of 2011.

Neverwhere is a fantasy novel about the magical adventures of Richard Mayhew, a young apathetic investment analyst in London, UK. After a boring day at work, Mayhew unwittingly discovers that London is actually split into two worlds: There is London Above, the busy metropolis Mayhew was familiar with; there is also London Below, a dangerous maze of underground sewers and tunnels home to a dark subculture.

Neverwhere was my first introduction to Neil Gaiman, a best-selling fantasy author most famous for The Sandman comic book series. I wasn't too impressed with Neverwhere: It read like an amateur foray into novel-writing rather than the product of a fantasy-genre specialist.

In terms of writing style, Neverwhere fails to make the reader suspend disbelief. Every fiction book asks us to imagine the world as the author writes it. However, the more farfetched the plot, the harder the author has to work to keep the reader engaged. Which leads to my problem with Gaiman: he's a creative author, but not a very convincing one. Just as you immerse yourself in his alternate universe, you read something so ridiculous it draws you back to reality. It's like watching Lord of the Rings and seeing the lighting director drinking a Red Bull in one of the scenes.

One example was the dialogue. A few conversations into the book, you realize that every character sounds the same. Gaiman just cannot distinguish between how a powerful female warrior or a precocious young teenager or a wise old monk might speak. It's hard to suspend disbelief when you notice the ventriloquist, not the puppets.

Another issue was the logic. Too often you find yourself reading along and thinking "wait, that makes no sense. Why did X happen? Why didn't Y try Z instead?". Of course, by definition, a fantasy novel includes make-believe. But there's a difference between lacking reality and lacking logic: One makes for a good fantasy read, the other distracts and annoys the reader.

Neverwhere started off promising. The idea of a city being split into two parts (ego and id, anyone?) lends itself to interesting questions: What types of people populate London Above versus London Below? How do the two worlds interact? Do the residents of London Above or London Below have a clearer picture of reality? Instead, Neverwhere relies on plot cliches: it's a book about the Unwitting Hero who has a Very Important Quest to complete with the help of Magical Objects so that he may Save The World. Overall, Neverwhere is not great, not good but acceptable for a quick skim.