Sunday, 28 September 2014

Did the Chinese or Marco Polo discover America First?

Lessons for Asian Regional Security Today.
Did the Chinese discover America (2640BC - 2200BC) or did Marco Polo (1271AD - 1295AD)?  
The Debate Continues. Marco Polo used Chinese Maritime Maps from the Yuan Dynasty dating back to the 13th Century. Original Chinese Maps were much earlier. A world map published during the Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1418 also suggests that the famous Chinese Admiral Zheng He (a Muslim) and his mariners had not only sailed in the Indian Ocean but had also circumnavigated the earth.

A comparison of the 1418 map with the slightly later “Shanhai Yudi Quantu” (“Map of Mountains and Seas”) map (c.1430) shows that the Ming navy had, in the meantime, established the peninsular nature of California, improved the west coast outline of South America, and added key east coast features such as Labrador, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico. The similarities (including errors) that the secret European maps shared with the Ming maps suggest that the maps used by European explorers like Magellan, Columbus and Vasco da Gama, were partly derived from the Chinese. Portuguese spies such as Niccolo da Conti (c. 1425) and Pero de Covilha (in 1487-1493) and Marco Polo had probably managed to obtain copies of the Ming maps.

The Chinese Classic "Shan Hai Jing" or “Mountains and Sea Classis”, written 2200 BC, reported expeditions to the ends of the earth including "Fu Sang" or “Prosperity Mountains”, refers to a beautiful land to the east of China. Evidence has been found of wrecked Chinese junks in Florida, South Carolina, New York and Canada. An archaeological site in Nova Scotia at Cape Dauphin found by Canadian architect Paul Chiasson also indicated an early Chinese settlement. Numerous evidence exists of Chinese visits to America pre-Columbus.

Implications for Asian Regional Security – Learning from History
Chinese are not colonisers.  And Native Americans DNA are not from East Asia. according to a newly sequenced genome, one-third of Native American genes come from west Eurasian people linked to the Middle East and Europe instead of East Asia ie China.

Clearly, the Chinese came to America as far back as the 2200BC, and again in circa 1491AD. They came, they traded, they did not conquer and they left.

Despite being a Maritime Power from the 13th Century, China has never colonised any territories overseas unlike Britain, US and other European countries. Britiain projected her maritime powers to India towards East and South East Asia to build a British Empire that lasted more than 500 years from 1496-1997. The Dutch, German, Portuguese and Spanish also followed.

Japanese colonization adventures (1938-1945) under its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” ideology of brutality, ethnic cleansing, rape and torture began in China and triggered the Pacific War in WW2 to attract its eventual near destruction by atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Japanese unprovoked attacks on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 continued to be remembered by Americans and especially by friends, loved ones and descendants of the 1,177 sailors entombed inside the battleship USS Arizona now serving as a Memorial to that eternal “Day of Infamy” as proclaimed by then US President Roosevelt.  A total of 2,008 Amercian sailors were killed with 710 others injured on that “Day of Infamy”.    

Indeed, China could have colonised South East Asia in the early 15th century or much, much earlier. She had the manpower resource with enormous ships equipped with great firepowers, which are many times bigger and more powerful bigger than any European ships at that time. But China did not.  The notions to project power around the world, and the desire if necessary by force have been fundamentally European and American.  It has never been a Chinese characteristic.

Herein lies the fundamental truth for a better understanding of the Chinese with regard to overseas expansion and colonization.

The Chinese has no desire to impose their diverse way of life on others. China itself is not homogeneous and is in fact heterogeneous with well over 53 tribal groups with their own dialects, diet preferences and cultural traditions, even though the biggest Han Tribe is more than 93%.

The Chinese have a strong sense of their superiority rooted in history. The idea of “Under Heaven, Only China” resonates throughout the Chinese personality and self-image. Even the ancient Chinese Emperor is called the “Son of Heaven (God)”. They have long had a hierarchical view of the world, with China at the top.

If the Chinese had colonized America from 2200BC, what would America be liked today? They would have co-existed with Native Americans instead of killing most of them and drive them from their legacy ancestral lands. Later European arrivals would have simply settled down at their choice townships and co-existed. African labour would have been imported to work on the lucrative cotton plantations but not as slave labour but as cheap foreign labour. Other cheap foreign labour like the Irish, Italian, Polish and Australians could also be recruited. Politically, America as a Chinese colony would be united under a Federation of “many systems, one China”. In the event, Chinese America would have none of the racial and class divides amidst fractious struggles among power elites that we currently witness.  A political fantasy, no less. Because the Chinese never has, and never will have, expansionist ambitions. Even today in Asia.  

The Chinese and Diaoyu Islands
Like many Japanese who revised history by denying neither Pearl Harbour nor the Nanjing Massacre actually happened, many "experts" chose not to attribute Diaoyu ownership to China. It was on Chinese Maritime Charts in early 13th century; but conspicuously absent on both the 1783 Japanese Maritime Charts and 1876 Official Imperial Japan Map. Japan occupied Diaoyu in 1895 after the 1st Sino-Japanese War, making it part of Okinawa. In 1900, Japan renamed it to Senkaku. In 1951, US appointed Japan to help administer Diaoyu; and in 1971, the US made Japan the Official Administrator of Diaoyu. This would not be necessary if Diaoyu actually belonged to Japan.

Japan has no role in regional security and the world until and unless it renders a full unreserved apology over its wartime atrocities (including the Pearl Harbour attacks), and confirms its remorse by returning Diaoyu to China. In embracing Japan as its key ally for Asian Regional Security, America has so quickly forgotten Japanese infamy and atrocities committed at Pearl Habour in 1941 and elsewhere, and for which they demonstrate neither contrite nor remorse and has never apologised for.  The memories and spirits of 1,177 sailors of the USS Arizona and nearly 800 other Americans murdered by Japanese undeclared war on America demands such an apology.   

The resolution of Diaoyu island is key to regional security in ASEAN and the Western Pacific. US credibility is at critical stake unless the America returns Diaoyu to its rightful owner, China. The US should accept that China is not an expansionist power and honour its own terms for Japanese WW2 surrender regarding the return of all non-Japanese territories seized and occupied by Japan. It is difficult to foresee any credible role for the US in Asia Pacific, or the whole world, unless her impugned integrity and shameless injustice over Diaoyu is reversed.

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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Serious, Singapore NTU is Number One University; but ....

The United Nations agency, UNESCO, challenged the validity and reliability, and therefore the usefulness, of University Rankings.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore has secured top placing on a league table of the world's best young universities.  It has overtaken Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who was No. one for the past two years, according to London-based educational consultancy Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). Of what value to Singapore is this NTU “achievement”?

Well, any good researcher would know that you will get what you measure, instead of what you want to claim the measure to mean.  So, what exactly does QS Rankings mean?

The United Nations agency, UNESCO, challenged the validity and reliability, and therefore the usefulness, of University Rankings:

“Global university rankings fail to capture either the meaning or divers qualities of a university or the characteristics of universities in a way that values and respects their educational and social purposes, missions and goals. At present, these rankings are of dubious value, are underpinned by questionable social science, arbitrarily privilege particular indicators, and use shallow proxies as correlates of quality.”

“These can often skew data in unexpected ways such as QS 2008's world rankings that helped put internationally-minded University College London ahead of Oxford, or the rise of Yale which has similarly been concentrating on its international programmes”.

Indeed, Universities Ranking is itself conceptually problematic.  It embraced an “idealised” model of University to be achieved and in so doing generalize the failure of most Universities to achieve it.  The World-Class University has NEVER existed as a concept, or as an empirical reality. The status of “World-Class University” as the gold standard is the normative social construct of the rankers themselves.

It makes little sense for all universities to aspire to a common “gold” standard, irrespective of socioeconomic needs, missions, goals, capacities and capabilities. The specific national conditions, realities and development challenges in their respective societies, and the diversity of social and educational purposes and goals that the universities in these societies must serve, require education systems and Universities to become characterized differentiated and diverse institutions. Institutional differentiation and diversity are valued over homogeneity with other Universities globally because such comparisons are immaterial and irrelevant to their unique Missions.  

Truth is, the term “University” now applies to various institutions with widely different functions, curriculum and characters”, and therefore, they can be expected to aspire to different “ideals” not captured by University Rankings purveyors.

In fact, even QS cautions against the use of the QS Ranking beyond its simple methodology and purpose “to serve the student consumer. Rankings allows the consumer to see how institutions stand against other universities." Adding: "As it became apparent that more and more undergraduate students were looking to study abroad, there was a need for an international comparison. We did not come about it from the point of view of an academic exercise with metrics."

This is a confession admitting to the fact that QS Rankings evolve around the metrics used to devise the tables including citations and peer review. The Rankers did not build their QS Rankings on any solid or vigorous foundation that would withstand the penetrative professional scrutiny of the Academics or Research Institutions which now used them to position themselves in spite of the lack of validity and reliability of these measures. Therein lies its fundamental conceptual and methodological flaw, confirming that the QS Ranking is therefore irrelevant and immaterial for any serious educational policy purpose.

In fact, QS rankers themselves were surprised at "the extent to which governments and university leaders use the rankings to set strategic targets. We at QS think this is wrong. Rankings are (just) a relative measure - if other universities do better and move up, you have to go faster."  It is just plain mindless stupidity, I may add.

QS launched the annual World University Rankings in 2004 with the then Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), at the time a Rupert Murdoch owned newspaper.  QS and THES parted company in 2005, and THES was renamed THE. Each now vies with the other to produce a new world ranking with the THE devising a new league table in collaboration with media group Thomson Reuters.

The QS World University Ranking Methodology 2014 involved Academic Reputation (40%), Employer Reputation (10%), Faculty/Student Ratio (20%), Citations per Faculty (20%), International Students Ratio (5%) and International Staff Ratio (5%).

It would be interesting to know whether the low number of Singaporean Professors was deliberate in order to achieve a higher QS score for International Staff Ratio. Or whether international students were given scholarships so as to increase their numbers to satisfy the QS requirements? Or whether it was reported that a low staff student ratio belies the fact that most tutorial classes pack 28-30 students to one Tutor?    

The use of Citations per Faculty is the most misleading measure of Research quality.

When it comes to the QUANTITY of Research, few can match the outputs of NTU Professors! The tremendous amount of publications by NTU professors (2,500+) every year must be validated by more concrete evidence of their impact on businesses and society. The QS Assessors of course did not care for ample proof, or the lack thereof, that the supposedly “new” knowledge contained in these journal and conference papers is in fact of some or significance public value.

By the way, does this measure include the many “Eminent” Professors, which include some past Nobel Prize winners, who are embedded as NTU Academic Staff during the period of evaluation? Including their understandably high citations could also skew this measure in NTU’s favour.

Clearly, should academic staff in any public-funded university like NTU be spending 70% to 80% of their time, paid for by public funds, to produce journal papers simply for improvements to their resume in preparation for their next job in another University?

A research study found that “specious and trivial” research resulted when people work with no goal other than that of attracting a better job, or getting tenure or higher rank. Such “specious and trivial” research makes little contributions to knowledge. As a result, in the past few decades, the need to secure a job in academia has certainly accounted for a fair amount of the useless material that's been published.

Overall, the QS Ranking Methodology is in essence an OPINION Survey and NOT an Objective Expert Evaluation of Universities. It is a “peer review” limited to a mere opinion poll among “advanced” researchers, whose identities are unknown. It does not involve experts visit to the Universities being ranked, which is a critical condition for any Quality Assurance Reviews.

QS Ranking is akin to nothing more than a Market Consumers Survey, much like how marketing agencies rank the Apple iPhone with other handphones by Blackberry, Nokia, ZTE, Samsung, Sony, Motorola, Lenovo and HTC. 

For the QS Exercise, unidentified Peers (Professors) or Employers choose the “Top” Universities from preselected lists, from which many universities and whole countries have been left out.

QS Rankings favour only Journal Papers in the English language were included, thereby ignoring many great Journals in the other European, Chinese, Indian, and Spanish languages. In so doing, it excludes many top Journals especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences which have important social, intellectual and cultural roles related to their local, regional and national societies.

Half of the overall score comes from two surveys, i.e. peer and employer reviews, both of which have low response rates; other data, with the exception of the number of citations, are provided by the universities themselves.

LEARNING and LEARNING IMPACT is EXCLUDED as a Measure. The only proxy used for teaching quality is the Staff/Student Ratio.  Never mind that NTU classes’ staff/students ratio is usually about 1 to 28 or 30 students.

The final QS rankings use an adapted methodology, which was never validated, to draw on the academic and employer surveys, as well as citations data. Regional weights are used to achieve balance between world regions. Data normalisation and Z-scores are used to calculate the final score.

A University’s contributions to society should be its sufficient measure.  The impact of education on people and community cannot be measured merely by the degrees of dubious excellence.  It can only be measured in terms of their contribution to the happiness and well-being of stakeholders and of the communities to which these persons belong.

What’s the IMPACT of NTU on Singapore?
Learn from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Commissioned in 1997 to conduct an impact study, BankBoston reported that the graduates of the MIT have, since its founding in 1862, created 4,000 firms which, in 1994 alone, employed at least 1.1 million people and generated $232 billion of world sales.  The combined revenues produced by “MIT-related” companies would make them, when taken together, the 24th largest economy in the world.

The MIT Report is an example illustrating the contribution of Universities to their respective dynamic economy.  The development of business enterprises is one concrete measure of the impact of the University and its professors through their students.

Academia, as a noble profession that prides itself for its appreciation of complexity and subtlety, and questions the face value of superficial fa├žade, should not embrace so easily and wholeheartedly such a simplistic technique as using a single dimension such as QS or other Rankings for the evaluation of its own performance and impact.   No University of excellence or professor worthy of the title will ever accept a single quantitative measure as an indicator, let alone a measure, of excellence.  

Whither NTU’s Impact on Singapore?  NTU President and University Management, as well as the Ministry of Education, should be more concerned about the need to increase NTU’s, and other universities’, contributions to society, instead of obsessing with the ranking game.  

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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Doing Well by Doing Bad

It has been reported that the revenue for illegal cocaine sales in the United States alone has reached US$34 billion annually.

When you add the market for other illicit drugs and revenue generators like human trafficking and extortion, it becomes clear that organized crime is still making most of its money from its legacy businesses, despite the fact that criminals are always looking for new and innovative ways to make a buck other than printing them.

Here are the top five criminal gangs, ranked by revenue estimates:

1. Yamaguchi Gumi (Japan) — Revenue: $80 billion
2. Solntsevskaya Bratva (Russia) — Revenue: $8.5 billion
3. Camorra (Italy-US) — Revenue: $4.9 billion
4. ‘Ndrangheta (Italy) — Revenue: $4.5 billion
5. Sinaloa Cartel (Mexico) —Revenue $3 billion

Total: US$100.9 billion

The Top 5 Organised Criminal Cartels have an estimated total revenue of about US$101 billion. This is much more than the Koch Brothers combined, and still 25% more than Bill Gates. Never mind that the Top "5" Baddies' US$ 101 billion is just 22% of Fortune Magazine’s Top Company Walmart's 2013 revenue of US$476.3 billion. Their "products and services" include everything from “sexual exploitation, firearms trafficking, drugs, counterfeiting, gambling, usury and extortion,” according to the Study. Drugs, Weapons and Human Trafficking (mostly in women and Children) are the most lucrative among the businesses of human misery and exploitation.

To me, Doing Good is still and always Better.

DOING GOOD AND DOING WELL are not contradictory corporate goals. Plainly put, you can always create a win-win situation to achieve both. Increasing public pressure to involve corporations to tackle social issues is an opportunity for companies that know how to pick issues that are ripest for their leadership.

For the Millennial generation especially, making a profit and serving others are the two big circles; and that sliver in between, is the sweet spot, aka “conscious capitalism.” The line between the two worlds of do-gooders and money-makers is blurring and companies are finding ways to make both goals definable and attainable. To stay competitive in today’s environment, companies must help people and serve society – few businesses can stay competitive if their product or service is not providing value, solving an issue or making a real social impact.

As the world slowly recovers from the economic crisis, several trends—most particularly, increasing globalization, a shift in economic emphasis from the West to the emerging consumers in the East, worldwide talent shortages (despite high unemployment, many companies struggle to find highly skilled workers), a shrinking supply of natural resources, and heightened regulatory activity—are creating a new set of challenges for corporations.

Corporate leaders are facing these challenges at a time when the public’s trust in institutions, particularly market-based ones, is low. Furthermore, the company needs to show the world that it is doing something about sustainability to protect its reputation and avoid potential backlash among consumers, regulators, potential employees, and other key stakeholders. However, businesses that actively address these issues in collaboration with government and social-sector leaders (and sometimes, where warranted, even with their competitors) can help shape a better future in which citizens have more of their needs fulfilled, businesses act more responsibly and earn the right to operate more freely in a cooperative ecosystem, and the economic climate fosters growth and innovation.

It sounds utopian, but it’s not. This scenario is attainable—and preferable to the path down which we may be headed. To be sure, the world will always have problems, but helping to solve them is increasingly in businesses’ best interests.

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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Back to Class, Hong Kong Students

GO BACK TO CLASS For Your Future please, Hong Kong students. Education drives out fear. Fear is frightening, no pun intended. Fear is birthed from ignorance, and driven by loud rhetoric not grounded in facts.

Why are Hong Kong students protesting? Because many speakers, news articles, politicians and so-called democracy activists have generated so much panic and uncertainties over the next Hong Kong Chief Executive (CE) due to be elected by universal franchise in 2017.  Fears were planted.  Fears that the next HK CE will be pro-Bejing and anti-Hong Kong? Fears that a “good” Pro-Hong Kong candidate will not be selected for the final ballot? Fears that HK Democracy (what this?) will die? Fears that the Nomination Selection Committee would be more pro-Beijing than pro-Hong Kong?  Fears, fears … and more fears feeding itself to derive the worst of bad scenarios.  

Read Hong Kong Politics for the truth and facts.

Go learn from the UK and US systems ... HK 2017 electoral procedures are in fact more democratic and consistent with democratic principles. The American people have never directly elected their President. Neither did the British people ever elect their Prime Minister. The candidates were also never nominated by direct popular acclaim. BUT, HONG KONG PEOPLE WILL ELECT THEIR CE IN 2017..!   In 2017, Hong Kong people would exercise a privileged right of Democracy never before enjoyed by the British's Westminster System or the American's Electoral College System.
Back to Class now. Hong Kong students.  LEARN better.

HONG KONG DEMOCRATS SHOULD LEARN FROM SCOTLAND. There was no mayhem, riots, demonstrations or Occupy London after the Scottish "No" Vote, despite more than 2 million "Yes" votes. WHY? The Queen, who was also the Queen of HK until 1997, credited this to "the nature of robust democratic tradition we enjoyed", but denied to Hong Kong during their 150 years' occupation. “We” presumably refers only to WHITE Britons. China introduced Democracy into HK in 1997. In any democracy, there will be "strong feelings and contrasting emotions which must be tempered by an understanding of the feelings of others". Hong Kongers should grow their own democratic tradition in a spirit of mutual respect and support for HK future, and indeed also China.

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Sunday, 21 September 2014

NO Chinese Privilege in Singapore (Part 1)

I read Prof Adeline Koh's Article on "Chinese Privilege in Singapore" and her references a few times, and felt compelled to enjoin her debate despite her wish that as a Chinese Singaporean in the majority, I "should shut up". 
To Prof Adeline, for me to speak up would be considered repulsively defensive and to deny the obvious existence of Chinese privilege in Singapore. What kind of argument is that, Professor? To disagree with you is to agree with your proposition? 

Well, young 18-year old Singaporean Justin Leow, pointed out her “unfunny irony” and reiterated that her article is one and the same. The silencing of majority views is not only divisive and rude. The silencing of majority views is also not a solution to a better understanding of discrimination and inequality in Singapore.

Of paramount truth is that the silencing of majority views is also racist.

Adeline offered no evidence that "Chinese privilege in Singapore (is) being very real". Her personal feelings of Chinese privilege came from an ill-conceived comparison and understanding that "Chinese privilege (which) is very similar to how white privilege functions".

Her superimposition of US black-white race relations onto the Singapore context is plainly improper and wrong.  Such comparison is so far removed from the real history of Chinese-Malay relations in Singapore. Therein lies the fundamental flaw in her analysis.

Firstly, US blacks were enslaved by whites for more than 400 years.  In Singapore, Chinese and Malays had lived in wonderful harmony until the Japanese came.  Race relations become politicized only after WW2 by ethnic-based political parties and later political elites in Malaya and Singapore.

Secondly, most US whites stereo-typed their fellow Blacks as largely inferior, lazy and do not measure up to "white" standards of intelligence, civility and social behaviors, pointing to factual statistics like "95% of homicides are Blacks killing Blacks" and "90% of prisoners are Blacks" .... etc. 

Very, very few Singaporeans believe that any individual members of the "other" race cannot achieve what any one of us can.  The facts speak well for Singapore - More Chinese numerically are poorer, have poor academic results, occupy lower income jobs, lived in cheaper housings ... etc.  In fact, Indian Singaporeans actually have better incomes among us. and Indians are less than half of Malays.

Indeed, if it truly existed, why "Chinese privilege" did not affect the Indian community to the extent that it has been accused of harming or retarding the progress of the Malays?  Adeline thesis is unable to answer this.

Thirdly, a mere majority in number DOES NOT confer a "privilege". South Africa during its Apartheid days had about 4 million Whites subjugating nearly 20 million Blacks for over 80 years.  At the formation of White Rhodesia (current Zimbabwe) in 1921, 862,319 Blacks were discriminated by 33,620 Whites who expropriated their land among other things.  And before her 1997 return to China, over 5 million Hong Kongers was colonised by White Britain who had about 26,000 Whites working on the island.

To move from "majority" to "privileged", the majority race should be granted special benefits, advantages and immunities to the exclusion and disadvantages of the minority races by virtue of solely the "racial" criteria.   Like in Malaysia.

Better-informed Singaporeans, and those who migrated from Malaysia, understand and KNOW the facts of "Malay PRIVILEGE" in Malaysia.  Against that, we would also know that "Chinese PRIVILEGEs" simply in fact DO NOT exist in Singapore, as asserted by Adeline.

Research would discover that "MALAY privilege" in Malaysia seriously harms the interests as well as retarded the social progress and mobility of its Chinese, Indian and non-Malay minority races.  Many, many studies on these are available if interested.

Personally, I feel privileged as a Singaporean; gratefully privileged in fact by all the opportunities of education, housing, jobs, social amenities, mobility and freedom "regardless of race, language or religion" which are not readily enjoyed by most of my Chinese and Indian Malaysian friends just 1.2km away just because of their minority race status.

Yes, we Singaporeans are indeed privileged, by any global standard. But everyone needs to check his or her privilege now and then. When middle class Singaporeans expound the virtues of meritocracy, we need to consider how our family’s financial status has perhaps provided us with more opportunities (to both succeed and fail) than people from lower-income backgrounds.

When (Chinese) Singaporeans proclaim the success of Singapore’s multiculturalism, it is perhaps a good time to stop and think about whether our majority numbers have blinded us to issues of perceived prejudice and discrimination among and against minority/majority groups.

There is just too much misunderstanding, abuse and misuse of the hollow concept of race in Singapore. A lot of stereotyping and false ideologies has blinded us to our Fellow Singaporeans’ experiences in the belly of this Lion City.  

Need to go beyond mere misunderstanding and stereotyping. Go deeper than that.  Most of us live in Bubbles of ignorance, indifference and apathy. Often unaware, or refuse to be aware, of our ingrained prejudices and assumptions together with an unthinking thus willing blindness to things that don’t directly affect us.

We need to unpack the issues of social inequality and discrimination beyond mere racial categories. And we can start by stepping out of our bubbles, check our own Singaporean privileges, and have more compassion and empathy for our less fortunate fellows to inject real meaning into the National Day refrains “Singapore – my People, my Home” and “Singapore - One People, One Nation”. 

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Book Review - Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure by Tim Hartford

Book Review
Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure
by Tim Harford
“From insurgency in Iraq to global poverty, big problems can only be solved through a willingness to fail, argues Tim Harford in his persuasive new book.” Reviewed by Rafael Behr, The Observer, Friday 3 June 2011

The pace of discovery has not slowed down since the Apollo missions. By some measures – the number of new patents registered in the US, for example – it has accelerated. People's capacity for invention remains as limitless as ever but it seems to be directed down ever narrower and less consequential avenues. It didn't take long for humanity to nail the problem of how to make video games for a phone that can also function as a camera. But we're still waiting for an Aids vaccine and a cheap, environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels.

In Adapt, Tim Harford argues that the process of innovation is bogged down in the sheer complexity of the modern world. Good ideas are suffocated by bureaucracy while bad practices and dangerous errors flourish in dysfunctional markets. To find solutions to some of the big problems – climate change, financial instability, global poverty – we must go back to basics, examining the circumstances in which ingenuity has broken through in the past, and then considering how to replicate them.

The starting point is evolution. Harford cites compelling statistical evidence that the way companies have risen and fallen throughout history neatly resembles Darwinian selection. Clusters of bankruptcies occur amid periods of relative stability in a pattern that can be accurately mapped 

Disruptive innovations bubble up in the marketplace by a process of trial and error. The more players there are, the higher the likelihood of something brilliant appearing. But, by extension, a reliable measure of how efficient a system is at generating success is the volume of failures it can safely expose.

Author Tim Harford is an economist by training and fastidious in his pursuit of evidence to buttress the theory. He is also an award-winning broadcaster, presenting More or Less, Radio 4's consistently excellent programme examining statistical gibberish in the media and rebutting unsubstantiated claims by politicians and journalists. He knows how to deal with complicated subjects in lay terms, gracefully holding a line of accessible elucidation without veering into patronising oversimplification.

Most of Adapt consists of jaunty storytelling – accounts of things that have gone badly wrong or spectacularly right in recent history, with practical lessons smuggled in along the way.

Sticking with the military theme, Harford then tells the story of the Spitfire, one of the most effective engineering feats of all time. It won the Battle of Britain, checked Nazi ambitions to colonise the UK and so, arguably, saved the free world. But no one had anticipated before the war that a small, short-range, quick and nimble fighter would be of any use. Long-range bombers were the order of the day. The Spitfire was not born of careful planning and military foresight, but of maverick bloody-mindedness in a handful of engineers and private capital put up by Dame Fanny Houston, an eccentric millionaire and serial philanthropist. The key to winning the war, Harford concludes, was not a brilliant plan A but a culture that permitted dedicated individuals to work on plans B, C and D.

Through the enumeration of many such parables, Harford builds up a check-list of conditions that must be in place for good ideas to chase out bad ones. Big institutions, whether corporations or governments, should create safe havens where experts can try new techniques and fail without bringing the whole system crashing down.

Prizes for achieving specific goals work better than grants for open-ended research, since the latter are prone to be captured by lazy establishments fiddling around the margins of orthodox thinking. Regulations dictated from on high by controlling managers are less effective at preventing disasters than corporate cultures that invite dissent from the lower ranks and heed whistle-blowers.

Hazards can never be eliminated; the key is to avoid designing systems so densely interlinked that one failure triggers a meltdown, like dominoes stacked in a row. Not surprisingly, Harford writes approvingly of proposals to break up the banks.

There is only a handful of specific policy recommendations in Adapt. Harford backs a flat carbon tax to put the price of pollution in every product. He likes companies that give maximum autonomy to shop-floor staff. But one of the book's major disappointments is a reluctance to consider the potential applications of Harford's ideas to the pressing current question of major public sector reform. It is easy to praise creative failure in the laboratories of Google; trickier when the feted culture of experimentation is applied to schools and hospitals.

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Sit Less, Live Longer

Gretchen Reynolds on the science of fitness.
The New York Times, September 17, 2014 12:01 am

For most of us nowadays, sitting is our most common waking activity, with many of us sitting for eight hours or more every day. Even people who exercise for an hour or so tend to spend most of the remaining hours of the day in a chair.

The health consequences of this sedentariness are well-documented. Past studies have found that the more hours that people spend sitting, the more likely they are to develop diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and potentially to die prematurely — even if they exercise regularly.

Most of these studies could not prove whether or how sitting actually causes ill health.

So for the most groundbreaking of the new studies, which was published this month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, scientists in Sweden alter the amount of time that people spent exercising and sitting, and track certain physiological results. The scientists were interested in whether changes in sedentary time would affect people’s telomeres.

Telomeres are the tiny caps on the ends of DNA strands. They shorten and fray as a cell ages, although the process is not strictly chronological. Obesity, illness and other conditions can accelerate the shortening, causing cells to age prematurely, while some evidence suggests that healthy lifestyles may preserve telomere length, delaying cell aging.

For the new experiment, the Swedish scientists recruited a group of sedentary, overweight men and women, all aged 68, and drew blood, in order to measure the length of telomeres in the volunteers’ white blood cells. Then half of the volunteers began an individualized, moderate exercise program, designed to improve their general health. They also were advised to sit less.

The other volunteers were told to continue with their normal lives, although the scientists urged them to try to lose weight and be healthy, without offering any specific methods.

After six months, the volunteers all returned for a second blood draw and to complete questionnaires about their daily activities. These showed that those in the exercise group were, not surprisingly, exercising more than they had been previously. But they were also, for the most part, sitting substantially less than before.

And when the scientists compared telomeres, they found that the telomeres in the volunteers who were sitting the least had lengthened. Their cells seemed to be growing physiologically younger.

Meanwhile, in the control group telomeres generally were shorter than they had been six months before.

But perhaps most interesting, there was little correlation between exercise and telomere length. In fact, the volunteers in the exercise group who had worked out the most during the past six months tended now to have slightly less lengthening and even some shortening, compared to those who had exercised less but stood up more.

Reducing sedentary time had lengthened telomeres, the scientists concluded, while exercising had played little role.

Which makes the second new study of sedentary behavior particularly relevant. Standing is not, after all, physically demanding for most people, and some scientists have questioned whether merely standing up — without also moving about and walking — is sufficiently healthy or if standing merely replaces one type of sedentariness with another.

If so, standing could be expected to increase health problems and premature death, as sitting has been shown to do.

To find out whether that situation held true, Peter Katzmarzyk, a professor of public health at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and an expert on sedentary behavior, turned to a large database of self-reported information about physical activity among Canadian adults. He noted the amount of time that the men and women had reported standing on most days over the course of a decade or more and crosschecked that data with death records, to see whether people who stood more died younger.

The results, published in May in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, are soothing if predictable. Dr. Katzmarzyk found no link between standing and premature death. Rather, as he writes in the study, “mortality rates declined at higher levels of standing,” suggesting that standing is not sedentary or hazardous, a conclusion with which our telomeres would likely concur.

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Friday, 19 September 2014

What's the Fuss over Singapore CPF and Roy Ngerng?

Nagging Questions abound on Roy Ngerng’s "Shocking Facts About CPF" .

Did PAP Take Our CPF to Pay for the GIC’s and Temasek’s Losses? Unfortunately, or fortunately, Roy and his co-writer DID NOT answer his own question in the undisputable affirmative.

I read many times Roy’s arguments over several posts regarding CPF, income inequality, Government Reserves, HDB Car Parks, Medisave and Medishield, poverty and a host of social issues he so passionately advocates. Most of these issues are unrelated to each other. It is however plainly painful to see Roy’s desperate attempts to persuade his readers to connect his missing dots so as to make some kind of connections between his interesting infographics in order to arrive at his “conclusions” regarding some kind of sinister motives in the PAP Government to conspire against Singaporeans and, particularly, to expropriate our hard-earned CPF funds.

It is known that GIC and Temasek Holdings lost $117 billion in 2008, mostly due to the US financial crisis.

The writers produce lots of “official” statistics in beautiful charts and infographics. But statistics are not arguments. Not a single shred of evidence - no smoking gun - is produced to trace the flow of funds from CPF to their supposed end eventually to cover GIC and Temasek’s losses.  It would have been better if the writers had “follow the money” and show the “missing funds” in the CPF, and trace their path, in some forms - whether as loans, equity, advances, gifts or bonds – into the books of GIC and Temasek.  They did not do so.  It would also be a better bonus revelation for them to reveal that these “losses” – an astonishing S$117 billion were never paid back into the CPF. 

The alleged big dark hole of $117 billion in the CPF’s books is surely difficult to miss since the CPF reported its Funds to have only about S$252.5 billion as at 31 December 2013.  And if no money were actually “missing” from the CPF – please check audited public accounts in CPF Annual Reports – how could the CPF have been used to cover up GIC/Temasek losses? 

In fact, the writers already refuted their own conclusion when they observed that since 2007, “CPF balance Grew by 90% … but GIC grew by only 69% and Temasek Holdings grew by only 21%.

The writers fail to grasp the significance of their own discovery. Their statement is by far the clearest evidence that GIC and Temasek DID NOT receive CPF Funds. The figures are true and only make sense if both GIC and Temasek were just “fund managers” and therefore the funds under their  “management” are not technically Temasek/GICs’ and therefore cannot be entered into their accounting books or balance sheets in accordance with standard accounting procedures and practices.

It was also concisely explained by Minister Tharman:
“… let me explain that GIC is managing Government assets. It is not GIC’s assets. GIC is a fund manager, so the assets are assets on the Government’s balance sheet, rather than on the GIC’s balance sheet.”

This should have been the end of the allegation that “the PAP took our CPF to pay for the GIC’s and Temasek’s losses”. 

Perhaps, “Shocking Facts About Singapore CPF” was NOT and was NEVER intended to argue that “CPF was used to pay for GIC/Temasek losses”.  That conclusion was seized upon only sometime at the end without leading logical arguments towards it. Therein lies the fundamental weakness and failure of of “Shocking Facts”.

The “Shocking Facts” posts began by pointing out and illustrating that the contribution rates to CPF was “unusually” high relatively when compared to other countries’ provident and pension contribution rates. Nothing “shocking” here. This is neither new nor revealing.  As an Economic Major student back in 1979, many fellow cohorts of Economic students already knew that the combined 40% CPF contribution rate then was indeed high. It went up to 50% at one time before settling at the current combined CPF rate of 36%; yes, still high but not in the least intolerable. There is nothing sinister; and the associated reasons for this to be used for national development, housing and medical are transparent, and are not unduly unreasonable. 

The high CPF rate also explains why Singapore has no external debts for its national infrastructural development during our formative decades, unlike the crippling external debts of many newly developing countries in the 1960’s and 1970’s. We have borrowed from ourselves, specifically from our own compulsory savings, and not from the future of our children.  

“Shocking Facts” then attempted to shock by pointing to the regressive nature of the CPF contribution rates, whereby lower-income Singaporeans pay a higher proportion of their incomes into CPF than the higher-income earners. Its “shocking” conclusion was that “nearly 80% of the lower- and middle-income Singaporeans pay more into their CPF, than the higher-income earners”.  This is indeed a shockingly WRONG conclusion! Paying a higher rate DOES NOT mean that one would pay MORE than those who pay a lower rate on a much higher income. 

Truth is, higher income earners (currently referring to those earning more than S$5,000 per month) faced an income ceiling for their CPF contributions and were therefore excluded from enjoying a higher level of tax-free CPF savings like the other 80% lower income earners. This is a uniquely Singaporean “income redistribution” innovation consistent with social equity and development principles of the World Bank.

There is however an observation that the Singapore Government earns a higher rate of return on CPF funds invested with its wholly-owned Fund Managers GIC and Temasek through the issue of Singapore Government Securities. The low CPF interest of 2.5% on the basic account is a valid social concern and involves all Singaporeans. Since GIC/Temasek (or their owner, Singapore Government) have already been paid handsomely for their fund management prowess, the remaining gains must necessarily and rightly belong and accrued to the ordinary Singaporean CPF fund owners.  The writers however did not offer any solution options for further public debate and consideration.  Alas, a missed opportunity indeed.

Ray asked Readers:Do you know that together with the assets that the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Temasek Holdings manage, our reserves would stand at at least S$900 billion – or close to S$1 trillion?”

No, I (we) did not.  Where are the facts and evidence?

Singapore’s Total Foreign Reserves (TFR), comprising Special Drawing Rights, Reserve Position in the IMF, and Gold & Foreign Exchange, stands at S$345 billion as end-2013.

GIC is one of two Singapore sovereign wealth funds, the other one being Temasek Holdings. Temasek Holdings Reserves stands at S$ 211.2 billions as at 31 March 2014. Temasek Holdings also issued $13.3 billions under its two Temasek Bond Programs which enjoyed top credit ranking by Standards and Poor as well as Moody.

The IMF/World Bank has put GIC assets at US$285 billion (about S$328 billion) as reported by the Sovereign Wealth Institute. It is usually reported that GIC manages well over US$100 billion.

Singapore Government debts as at March 2013 stood at S$396 billions as at March 2013. This comprised S$60 billions of T-Bills, S$87 billions of SGS bonds, and S$249 billions of SSGS (Singapore Government Securities).

The level of Government debt outstanding at S$396 billions (March 2013) or 114% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) appears large on its own. However, it does not take into account the Government’s asset position, which exceeds its liabilities, and its ability to service debts through returns on its assets, as discussed below.

The net investment returns from GIC, the central bank, and Temasek account for about 15 percent of the total government budget in Singapore, more than sufficient to service all its immediate and long-term debts.  The CPF reported its Funds to be about S$252.5 billion as at 31 December 2013.   

Adding up the CPF, TFR, Temasek and GIC funds, and then minus the liabilities, the Government Singapore’s Net Reserve therefore stood at about S$727.4 billion, a far cry from the $S1 trillion so dramatically present by the writers.   

The writers then shot out even more questions, but without proffering any answers or explanation as to why these should be of critical interest:

“Why does the government continue to spend the lowest on education among the developed countries? Why does the government continue to spend the least public spending, such that Singapore now has the highest income inequality among the high income countries, and one of the highest in the world? Why is there still no minimum wage in Singapore to protect the low-income earners in Singapore and why do we have the highest poverty rate among the high income countries?”

Having failed to make persuasive arguments to support their allegations with their “facts” and “figures”, the writers become irreverently Socratic and strange.  Making no arguments, many questions were instead asked: “Do you know this or that?”

After reading Roy’s posts, many now knew the few assumed “facts”. For others, we already knew some the more credible statistics and alternative facts. Well, so what? Factual knowledge does not point to their problematic status or lack thereof. “Facts” or “assumed facts” are themselves not “problems’ until and unless their social impact made them so through human and social institutional interactions. 

A “Poverty Disempowerment Cycle” chart was further introduced without any explanation of its conceptual underpinnings or sources. It attempted to show, I think, how “Low CPF Rates” leads to “Smallest Retirement Funds” leading to “Lowest Wages” and then “Highest Price”. Taken prima facie, the concepts and their “arrows”, presumably to indicate causation or consequences, are even more problematic. The supposed connections between the concepts are spurious at best and the concepts themselves are also too problematic for understanding and too vague to be operationalised.   

It was followed by a “Poverty Rate” Chart showing Singapore at 28%, which is much, much higher than Vietnam (15%), China (13%), Indonesia (13%), Thailand (8%), Malaysia (4%). And by implication from their absence from the Chart, only the African countries had much higher levels of poverty than Singapore. For many of us who travel to the named Asian countries regularly, it is extremely difficult to accept the validity and truthfulness of the “Poverty Rate” Chart.

According to the reputable Global Finance magazine which uses the GDP per capita on a  Purchasing-Power-Parity (PPP) basis, a method favoured by the World Bank, trained Economists and Statisticians, Singapore emerged the 3rd richest country in 2013, and the African countries occupied 9 of the bottom 10 poorest countries.  

It is clear that the writers did not understand the concepts that they used to argue poverty and income inequality in Singapore. If they did intend to use “Poverty” defined and measured by the World Bank as daily earning of just US$1.25 (or S$1.50 per day), the writers have actually asserted that 28% of Singaporeans or 963,200 persons in 2013 earn just S$39 per month!  In 2013, the Singapore labour Force was 3.44 million as at June 2013.

If that’s their intention, than the writers’ arguments would go straight into the toilet. By arguing that at least 1 million Singapore workers do not contribute CPF at all, if indeed that being the case, they are then totally unaffected by CPF and the writers’ postings are therefore irrelevant and immaterial to these 28% of Singaporeans; since they had no CPF and therefore no HDB housing and no access to Medisave or Medishield assistance.  The writer did not tell readers where can we find these Singaporeans earning just $38 per month? And in what jobs?         

The Truth is, Singapore’s increasing income inequality as measured by the Gini Co-efficient has been widening even since the 1960’s and at an increasing pace.  This however has nothing to do with the Government or PAP CPF policies and GIC/Temasek Investment practices.

The Gini shows increasing higher income earned by many Singaporeans pulling away from an entrenched lower income group who are anchored by the influx of low income foreign workers. Gini attests to the fact that Singaporeans are in fact largely better off earning increasingly higher income except those who are unskilled or have low-skills who are forced to compete with low income foreign workers. On the whole, Singaporeans are indeed better off, contrary to the writers’ argument of increasing poverty in Singapore.

I wonder whether I have been reading and fed blatant falsehoods and lies. Or it is simply just sloppy research, ignorance and poor analysis. Ray and his writer will need to re-visit their numerous impressive infographics, and report them again attributing credible sources and deploy logical arguments linked directly to them. Better analysis, better research, credible statistics and direct relevant evidence cannot be substituted by loud and emotional political slogans to cover up for illogical and bad arguments.

I decided I had enough of their questions and rambling arguments. I wish and hope that their future ones are evidence-based, more focused, logical and contained more detailed arguments, not questions, so as to draw intelligent and mature readers into a lively and enlightened debate for the better future of our beloved Singapore.     

The attached references are useful for all seeking the Truths of everything mentioned in this article.

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