Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Last Lap

It is hard to believe, but we are almost done with the class. Ten weeks have passed and we have moved into the last phase of the class with the Final Project.

The poster session will be happening in two weeks.

Many weeks ago, I blogged about the importance of finishing strong.

It is over the next two weeks that we will see the true mettle of the students. We're reached a crunch time where most classes all have their assignments due at the same time. The time management skills of most of the students will be severely tested. Those who survive, will emerge stronger.

We have been pushing the various project groups to deliver a prototype and push out their projects for real users to test. The various projects are in various stages of polish and hopefully, the majority of them would be pushed out by user testing by this weekend.

User testing is a very important component of CS3216. CS3216 is not just about software engineering, though there is a lot of that. The real goal of CS3216 is to provide students with an opportunity to identify and solve a meaningful problem.

Often times, students are somewhat immature and are not very good at articulating and/or identifying a good problem. They often get confused by the difference between a problem and an idea. Ideas that don't solve an important are really not very useful.

One of the reasons why I brought in a whole bunch of local entrepreneurs to give a talk last Monday is because entrepreneurs are folks who are good at identifying problems and also executing solutions. The sharing session was quite long and I was pleased to see that quite a number of the students stayed behind even after the session was over to chat with my entrepreneur friends.

Back to user testing, it was quite clear in our Final Project discussions that many of the students, while competent software engineers, do not have sufficient product development experience and have not spend sufficient time/effort thinking through the issue of user experience. The process of user testing is supposed to help students understand how users think and how to design better products.

We've also just finished our midterm survey and it seems that many of the students have learnt quite a number of things thus far and things are going relatively well like past semesters.

The Final Projects that we have this semester are very diverse. While we only have two weeks left, CS3216 students are very competent and are capable of doing a lot in just two weeks. I am hoping that once the projects get pushed out to real users, the live feedback would serve to inspire the students to iterate harder to improve their apps.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Occupy Vancouver?

I am currently in Vancouver attending a conference. The weather is nice and the city is very beautiful. It is very nicely landscaped and there's a lot of greenery all over the city. It reminds me a lot of Boston.

It is interesting that my hotel is situated right next to the Occupy Vancouver protests.

As I was mulling over what I should be blogging about this week, I thought that maybe I should take a break from typical exhortations about how to scale websites and why security is important and talk about something higher-level.

I was once asked by an ex-CS3216 "what is the meaning of life?" Perhaps it might be helpful to reflect on this question with the current Occupy protests that are happening not only in Vancouver, but all over the world (except perhaps Singapore, where it failed miserably), and reflect on what is really going on.

First, there's the TV coverage on the protesters. It is not very hard to understand why people are unhappy and taking to the streets.

One protester said that all she wanted was a job and a future. She does not know how she is going to make enough money to pay for her study loans and bring up her two children. The unemployment rate in Vancouver is about 7% at the moment.

Wandering around the city, it is not obvious that things are quite so bad because there are lots of "Hiring" signs all over the place. I met this owner of a boutique and he was complaining about how the taxes and laws are making it very hard for the businesses.

Hiring is very difficult and there are local laws that prohibit the hiring of foreigners if employers are not able to "prove" that the job cannot be done by a local. The owner however complains that the locals are lazy and not willing to work hard. He said that the young go to college and do fluffy degrees like psychology and expect a high paying job.

Doesn't this all sound familiar? Classic tussle between labour and capitalists. Who is right?

Does it matter?

The sad truth is that the world today is that it's structurally broken. How exactly do the protesters think that protesting will change their lot? Many claim that their Governments are not listening. The implication, obviously, that if someone listened, someone will be able to change their lot?

Is that true? Sometimes, it is important for us to re-examine our assumptions.

I have thought very hard about the shit hole that the world is currently in. The future is really very bleak. I do not believe for a moment that the Europeans can figure out how to get out of their current mess. America is very screwed and I really don't think that their lots will improve in the short to medium term.

Singapore is actually holding out remarkably well in the midst of this insanity, but it is a question how long we can continue to hold out before also getting sucked into the mess.

I see the current situation as a deadly combination of three factors, that, together, cause what I call a spiral of death: (i) expectations; (ii) politics; and (iii) rising costs of living.

There are many things to learn in life, some of which are found in unexpected places. One of principles I learnt while doing HR for the Singapore Legal Service many years ago is called the "Principle of Equal Misery". The general idea is very simple: people are not unhappy necessarily because of how much they have, but how much they don't have, relative to others.

Critics of the Singapore Government have often cited the increasing the Gini coefficient as evidence that Singapore is doing it wrong and people are "suffering" because of the rising income inequality. The Singapore Government has always pushed back by citing growth figures and how our numbers show that our people are very much better off than folks from most places in the world. Who is right?

Obviously, I support the Government's position and I don't think that the Gini coefficient matters. I think that what matters is whether lives are improved in absolute terms. However, it hardly matters what I believe, because I represent what is known as the "rational" camp, which I suspect is in the minority.

Lots of people are unhappy because sometimes (most times?) life is not just about reason and I can illustrate this with an example.

Every now and then I go jogging to try to keep fit and as a valiant attempt to pass my annual IPPT test, and as I jog, I would inadvertently pass these big houses. When this happens, one question often pops up, "Why are these people staying in such big houses while I stay in a HDB flat? Are all these people smarter and more capable than me?"

Perhaps I might be arrogant, but I suspect that the answer is no. It is not unlikely that I am smarter, faster, more articulate and more hardworking that quite a few of the folks who own these big houses.

If so, then should I be staying in one of these houses instead of my dinky little HDB flat? :-) However, the reality is that if I stayed in my current job as a prof, I would never be able to afford such a house (at least not on a prof's salary without striking lottery or something :-)).

The obvious answer is then, obviously, to quit my job and to find a higher-paying job or start a company or something.... but this is where I stop myself, "Wait, why do I want to stay in such a house anyway?" Sure, it might be cool to stay in a big house, but am I really unhappy with where I'm staying now? As it turns out, no. So *why* am I thinking about buying a bigger house to begin with?

Life's complicated and what I have done with this example is to illustrate the issue of envy. Sometimes we might get lulled into thinking we need something we don't actually need just because someone else has it. Most people also have an inflated sense of their self-worth and think that they are better than others. When others have something that we don't and we don't think that they are better than us, we think we deserve it too. :-) That's the problem with the Gini coefficient.

The trouble with politics in the modern world is that we don't have enough benevolent and wise dictators and democracy is a failed system. The problem with democracy is that politicians need to be popular to get elected and to do so, they need to do what people want -- and the trouble is people often don't want what is good for them. Look at Steve Jobs, did he every trust the people to know what's good for them?

But this is the reality we live in and unfortunately I don't have any bright ideas for a system of Government that works better than a democracy, so we learn to live with what we get.

The biggest problem that we have in Singapore is the problem of success. It is my view that lots of people are unhappy because they are always comparing themselves to folks more successful than themselves and they have unreasonable expectations.

They expect to do better than their parents. They expect good jobs with high pay. They expect to own their own homes simply because their parents could afford to do so and they expect their kids to go to college.

To be fair, it is not entirely unreasonable to want progress and for their kids to do well. Why is that unreasonable?

This is where the original "unreasonable" needs some qualification. By unreasonable, I don't mean that it is unreasonable for people to have these expectations, just that it is unreasonable for the system to be able to fulfill these expectations.

For example, Singaporeans want their kids to go to college. They believe that the college degree is a ticket to a better life. It is partially true. The degree is a pre-requisite for many jobs. But what people fail to realise is that why college degrees and higher paying jobs are correlated, it does not necessarily mean that there is causality.

The trouble with the generally working class Singapore is that most people still don't understand that employers don't pay for degrees. They pay to get the job done. The degree is only useful as a signal for them to hire fresh graduates. Students with good grades are either (i) smart; or (ii) hardworking; or BOTH, and these are helpful traits in workers.

But how many people do we think can win elections by telling people straight in the eye, "you really shouldn't waste time getting a degree, you're not as good as 50% of the other people". There are always exceptions and late bloomers who get a degree late in life and do very well.

As more and more people get degrees become PMETs and expect higher paying jobs, we have to ask ourselves what the structure of our economy is going to look like. If we don't want to let more foreigners in, then who are going to serve in the restaurants and man the stores in the shopping malls?

The recent policy to increase university intake by another 1,000 is a disaster waiting to happen. I am not convinced that it will make our people happier in the long run. The trouble is that telling people to quit whining about not getting into university and to be content with their lot in life is not effective way to win elections. That's where politics fails.

I really do think that a very very important aspect of successful governance for the next 2 decades is to get people to wake up their idea and to be grateful that they have a roof over their heads and that they are not starving. People should really go to India and see how some of the folks there are living. WHY do Singaporeans deserve better and to be able to retire and not wash dishes at the hawker centers when they grow old? Many Singaporeans, probably because of their hard work and/or good fortunate will live relatively comfortably till the reach their graves, but does that mean that EVERYONE deserves the same?

This brings us to the last problem and that's the cost of living and this problem is *REAL*. There's some truth in that Singapore has already done pretty well compared to many other major cities in the world, but I really don't think we did well enough.

The biggest problem is property. Property is not a "normal" good, or the sort that is easily described by the supply-demand curves in Economics 101. The demand is obviously somewhat inelastic because everyone needs a room over his/her head. Prices are however completely out of whack.

Does it make any sense? From the fact that there are very few people on the streets, we know that there is enough accommodation to give everyone a shelter. The problem is that the high property prices feeds into the high rental costs and also high mortgage payments that feeds the increasing costs of living. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the young are impatient and do have understand financial planning and credit.

Personally, I don't think much of property. People just need a place to stay. A property sitting idle and not doing much shouldn't be allowed to generate extra-normal returns. When people are allowed to make a lot of money without creating value, we are creating a moral hazard for society. So it is with Wall Street.

Obviously, I think that the right thing is for the Government to exercise its policy tools to drastically bring down the property prices. Many people will probably agree, except that they probably don't understand that such a move would be v bloody all round and be political suicide. This further underlines the problem with politics. Sometimes what is beneficial for the greater good simply cannot be done because people need to get elected. >.<

So what's the moral of this *really long* story? :-) That is something I hope that the students will think about. Perhaps post some comments and we can discuss.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Excellence and Death

Steve Jobs once said:
We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent.
Because this is our life.
Life is brief, and then you die, you know?
And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives.
So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.
Be a yardstick of quality.
Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.
This comment was apparently made in 2008, when the man was almost certainly fully cognizant of his impending demise.

It is not my purpose to bury or to praise the man. I would just like to take this opportunity to discuss the topic of excellence.

Some folks think that excellence means starting a billion-dollar company or perhaps winning the Nobel Prize or something like that. I don't think so.

I actually agree with Steve. The brutal truth is that life is often nasty, brutish and short. Unlike a computer game, one doesn't have the luxury of reloading life from a saved game. We only get one shot at it.

In this light, it is my opinion that excellence is not so much a destination, but an attitude. We all have to decide what we want to do with our lives and give it our best.

When Steve says that "everyone should be excellent", he cannot mean that everyone can be excellent at anything.

Different people are different and it is in that diversity that mankind has successfully reached our current stage of modern civilization.

The trouble is that many are stuck trying to conform to what are society's norms and standards. Parents want their kids to become lawyers and doctors because they think that guarantees a good life. Many students want to join banks after graduation because they want to make a lot of money. Another girl I know is desperate to get married because her friends are getting engaged and are queueing for a flat.

My hope for my students is that they will find the courage in themselves to do something that they find meaningful and work towards becoming excellent at something. Anything.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “If life makes you a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper you can be” and there is a story about a janitor that makes this point in a very poignant way.

Finally, I really don't think a life needs to be long. No one gets to decide how long his/her life will be (unless he/she decides to end it prematurely) so it's not really worth fretting over. How many people live longer lives fretting over it?

We should just learn to be grateful for each day we get and do things according to our good conscience (and be mindful of our mortality).

I am grateful for what I have. I have a lovely wife and two beautiful daughters and get to decide what to do each day that will make a small difference. I count my blessings every day. :-)