Addressing the Data Scientist Glut

BIG data seems to be the buzzword of the year. Governments and corporations all over are rushing either to address this issue, or to capitalise on it.

Even ordinary folk know that big data is going to have a big impact on how we make decisions and choose to run our lives in the future.

My attention was recently brought to the Malaysian Government’s rollout of its big data framework. Among the things highlighted is the issue of talent. According to the article, our Government has taken certain steps to ensure that we will have the necessary talent to deal with big data.

First is the policy to “provide scholarships for government officers to take up postgraduate courses in data sciences at reputable universities so that they can be equipped as data scientists in the country.”

This old strategy has been used to develop talent for fields that are critical for our nation.

However, there are a couple of problems with it. On one hand, some of these people do not return as their skills are equally valuable elsewhere. But we should not stand in the way of personal progress, as long as they refund the tax dollars spent on their education.

But the other problem is that, those who do return to serve are not put in a place to do what they were trained to do. Government scholars have returned with PhDs from top universities, but they were not assigned to work in the areas where they could contribute most effectively.

While sending our people to the best institutions to study data science is a step in the right direction, ensuring that their skills are put to proper use after that is the challenge, particularly for a government that often pays mere lip service to the issue that has resulted in more than a million moving on to greener pastures.

We will need to institutionalise systems that encourage development so that these returning scholars continue to flourish in Malaysia. Otherwise, they will leave just as quickly as they have returned, due to frustration.

Unfortunately, our track record shows that we do not always give scholars the freedom to go where their scholarship takes them.

Big data is going to reveal a lot of things that we may or may not want revealed. That is the true power of big data – to draw inferences and relationships from data that was unrelated.

We have all read of what happened to one professor who merely worked with surveys and polls, not big-data.

Second, the Government is “ensuring universities in Malaysia start offering data science degrees, and not just as electives within their computer science courses.”

My concern is that while we may have good lecturers, they may not be in a position to teach these courses.

Looking at existing data science curriculum, it is a multi-disciplinary programme that spans mathematics, computer science and even engineering. These are separate faculties in a university. Internal structure and politics may be a problem.

But let’s put aside the internal politics.

Accreditation often requires that lecturers who teach in a faculty to have a degree in that field. For example, one needs to have an engineering degree to teach in an engineering faculty, and so on.

This has already resulted in some rather creative hiring practices at universities.

Some lecturers are caught in a limbo. While they teach in one faculty, they are being parked under another faculty. As a result, their work in one faculty risks not being recognised when it comes to promotions and reviews under the other faculty.

We might need to establish a new faculty for data sciences, or to amalgamate these different faculties together.

But the simpler solution would be to change accreditation requirements so that faculty members do not need to be members of any specific field.

Since jobs are becoming increasingly multi- and cross-disciplinary, taking in faculty members from various fields may encourage the cross-pollination of ideas and hybridisation of skills that may just produce inventive results.

Thirdly, the Government wants everyone to “adopt big-data as a first-mover advantage in their own respective industries.”

The Government should really lead by example. While one can make the argument that corporations produce and consume a lot of data, governments produce the most data and can benefit most from said data.

Therefore, our Government needs to make data readily available, and that’s where the biggest challenge lies. Currently, much government data is often classified as secret by default, or released post-analysis.

Ideally, the raw data should be made available, which would allow the private sector to innovate the data into useful products and services.

I hope that our new chief data scientist, whoever he or she turns out to be, will make it a priority to mobilise our Government, at all levels, to produce and release all available data in a machine-friendly format, and not as mere printed matter nor pretty PDF downloads.

Otherwise, my concern is that when all these government scholars return to serve, and the local graduates from these shiny new programmes hit the market, there may not actually be any available big data to crunch.

See more at: http://www.digitalnewsasia.com/insights/addressing-the-data-scientist-glut#sthash.169wHgym.dpuf

Regarding School Uniforms

When I was a child, I used to wonder why we had to wear school uniforms. Those kids in the American TV shows didn’t have any sort of school uniforms and could wear whatever that they wanted to school. Needless to say, they looked really cool doing it.

Then, my mother explained to me the reasoning behind having school uniforms is to avoid discrimination e.g. rich kinds don’t get to flaunt designer clothes. Also, it helps avoid identifying oneself by clothing e.g. kids going Goth.

Now, we can argue the merits of such a restriction on freedoms of expression but that’s not the point that I’m trying to make here. The point is that our schools seemed to have lost track of the original intent and have taken things the exact opposite direction.

There are reports that a school has asked a student to NOT wear an approved uniform – the baju kurung – to school. A child has been barred from school for wearing a school uniform? Madness!

How did such a travesty happen?

At the end of the day, the government has to shoulder the blame. Through its decades of misdirected policies, our people now seem to identify each other through clothing. As an example, a Malay Muslim woman has to be covered and certainly show neither legs nor cleavage while a non-Malay non-Muslim woman should certainly show both tits and ass.

Saloma would laugh at such a proposterous notion.

While the feminists may argue that this is just further signs that our society loves to control its women, including how little girls dress to school, but that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the the fact that we’re more than how we dress. If a man chooses to dress as a woman, biarlah. If a woman chooses to dress as a man, that’s fine too. If a non-Malay girl wants to wear the baju kurung, that’s beautiful. If a Malay girl wants to wear the Cheong Sam, that’s wonderful!

So, I actually like the idea to give our kids flexibility in wearing what they want to school, which has been implemented for the sixth-formers this year. While they’re still limited in their choices, it’s a good start.

Let’s just live and let live. Take it easy. Let people wear what they want so that we can wear (or not wear) whatever we want too.

Elevation of Terror

I think that the word terror has been terribly overused over the last decade, which has resulted in it losing its actual meaning. Many criminal acts are now quickly classified as terror attacks by terrorist but the question must be asked – were these actually acts of terror?

You can see it in the recent attacks in France. As tragic as the situation is, I wouldn’t consider it a terror attack nor would I consider the Kouachi brothers as terrorists. Why? Simple because the attacks were targeted and were not designed to cause terror.

By all accounts, the killers were very specific with the people whom they wanted to kill. According to reports, they called out names and shot people to death. In fact, they targeted specific journalists and artists from Charlie Hebdo. Their objective was not to terrorise the whole of France but to shut specific people up, whom they felt had offended them.

Then, they ran off and tried to escape but were hunted down. In their final stand-off with the police, they did what every other cornered criminal would do – took hostages and committed police assisted suicide by forcing the hands of the police to act in defending the hostages.

The cops who were killed, were those who were doing their job and died in the line of duty. These cops are certainly heroes but they were obviously not the targets of the attack and should be considered collateral damage. Ditto, with the hostages who were killed.

If such acts were considered terrrorists attacks, then almost any murder should be considered a terrorist attack. Most murders are committed by a killer on a targeted person(s) often due to some personal offence that they had suffered. Also, hostage taking is the last defence of every cornered criminal.

Therefore, I think that it is a mistake to consider this an act of terror.

The 9/11 and 7/7 terrorists attacks were, in contrast, different. The attackers then did not call out a list of names. All they cared about was committing suicide while taking as many people as possible with them. Their objective was to make people feel unsafe even when going to work or taking public transport.

As for Charlie Hebdo, they’re going to print a million copies of their next run. I wouldn’t consider them cowed, which is good. The people of France are also not afraid and have all stood up in solidarity.

Therefore, I personally think that this attack, while tragic, should not be elevated to the level of terror attack. The only people such an elevation serves to benefit is the government of the day, whom would benefit the most when people are cowed.

Let’s put things in perspective and leave terrorism to real terrorists, not misguided kids with guns.

Bonsoir Paris! Comme, ca va?

I came home from dinner to news that things are getting out of hand in Paris.

I have to commend the French authorities for swiftly tracking down the Charlie Hebdo murderers. Within days, they have identified and cornered the suspects. I have the feeling that if such a thing were to happen in Malaysia, our authorities would be at a loss.

However, the Kuoachi brothers are now ready to die as martyrs. I would say, don’t give them the pleasure. These people need to face justice in the Courts, not with the barrel of a gun. I hope that the French police do their best to apprehend these killers and bring them to justice.

Unfortunately, there is another hostage taking situation, which does make me wonder if there might be a third. You know the old saying that trouble comes in threes. I sure hope that it doesn’t happen though.

Now, the thing that I have to wonder is how these things will change Paris and France as a whole. I sure hope that the tensions don’t boil over and cause a meltdown in the French social structure.

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

Multi-lingual Malaysians

Malaysians are generally multi-lingual. That’s a statement of fact, not an opinion. Of course, levels of competency vary with each individual but most Malaysians are able to speak at least two languages well, particularly if they are educated.

At least two compulsory languages are taught in all schools – Malay and English. Then, many primary and secondary schools provide an option to learn a third language, be it Mandarin, Tamil, Arabic, French, Japanese, etc.

As they always say, the best way to learn a language is to fully immerse oneself in a society that speaks that language. Malaysians are fortunate because we are able to speak and understand each other in multiple languages. In fact, our sentences are often made up of words from more than one language.

However, the amazing thing is that we do not seem to realise how truly blessed we are. Most Malaysians take our multi-lingualism for granted. We don’t seem to realise that having the ability to speak three or more languages is a boon.

What I truly cannot understand are those who choose to avoid learning a language completely.

There are some who think that it is unnecessary to master the Malay language since it is only primarily used locally, and within the government circles. Work anywhere else and you will hardly find anyone using Malay, be it local or overseas.

There are some who think that it is wrong to master the English language since it is the last vestige of our colonial masters that must be cast off if we are to ever be truly merdeka. By doing this, these people also reject knowledge, since most modern knowledge is transmitted in English.

I am truly thank for for being born in Malaysia, where I had the opportunity to be fully immersed in so many languages.

Language is important. It helps us to understand one another.

Resolution 2015

It’s that time of the year again – to come up with a list of things that we are unlikely to achieve. But before doing that, I’d like to review my resolutions last year.

It turns out that of the five resolutions that I made last year, I have achieved most of them! Yeay!

I managed to finish my Law degree, with honours. I also made a little more money this year. I managed to change up my daily routine to work less and play more, especially towards the end of the year. Heck, I have a level 22 Awoken Hunter in Destiny and read more than 20 books this year!

So, this coming year, I should really get the following things done:

  • Professional Engineer
    I have put this off long enough. I should just get things done this year. I must get my forms in this year before the new legislation comes into effect.
  • Write More
    I’ve found a healthy outlet for my creative juices – writing articles for the press. I should increase my output though. I should also consider starting my book.
  • Make Money
    With rising cost of living due to the introduction of GST and the falling MYR, it goes without saying that I should try to increase my income to compensate.

I honestly think that these things should be enough for this coming year. It’s going to be a tough year but I’m hopeful that it’ll be a good year in retrospect.

Happy New Year!

Learning vs Graduating

In light of the decision by University of Malaya (UM) to warn, fine and suspend some of its students for organising and participating in an unapproved event, I felt that I needed to say a few things about this whole idea that undergrads should focus on studying and graduating.

As a former lecturer, this is the crux of the problem that results in our universities producing mediocre to downright unemployable graduates that are tidak boleh pakai in the real world.

Our education system is plagued with this sad mentality that is education is equivalent to certification, which it isn’t. Therefore, we have school students who are capable of scoring strings of A’s but are unable to actually understand what it is that they are supposed to have been taught in school, much less apply their knowledge.

This problem is exacerbated at universities, which are supposed to be institutions of higher learning but are relegated to extensions of high school tuition centres these days. The ideology behind tertiery education as expounded by our authorities is that the students should study first and graduate, then worry about the real world.

What is really needed is the ideology that university education isn’t about studying but rather learning, specifically self-learning. However, students these days are no longer capable of learning due to the policy in our education system.

If a lecturer goes to class and does not provide a set of prepared notes and slides, the students are at a loss. Some would whip out their smart-phones to record lectures and take pictures of the lecturer’s scratches on the board. That’ll help with studying, but not learning.

I once tried to encourage learning by providing a reading list instead of notes, and talking in class instead of writing on the board. The result was that half the class failed the course and signed a complaint letter to the dean.

They even fail when it comes to extra-curricular activities. Where in the past I raised RM10,000+ from external corporate sponsorship to run student activities, the students these days tend to rely almost completely on internal grants to run their activities.

The thing is, our graduates are useless because they have been treated like children for far too long. University should be a safe place for them to experiment and explore with independence. They need to be given the opportunity to learn for themselves and do things for themselves. In simple terms – to grow up.

This is why I think that the decision from UM to suspend students who show any sign of independence is downright stupid. Now, keep in mind that these students are not your typical mat rempit troublemakers. Most of them are what would be considered good students with good grades and strong extra-curricular activities. All future leaders.

However, the message that we are sending is that we’d like the students to limit their extra-curricular activities to only the approved list of cultural and recreational activities. Any sort of serious activities need to be organised with great caution.

The fact of the matter is that the university panicked. Anyone looking from the outside could immediately see that. Then, they victimised the students in order to cover up their sheer incompetence. That’s the way that I see it, at least.

Years of promoting mediocrity has resulted in the upper management of the university being manned by people who are unable to think outside the box in tackling the students. Therefore, they have had to resort to the only tool that they have at their disposal – oppression.

Undergraduates need to be given the room to explore and expand in all ways, which includes exploring sensitive issues. If they are not allowed to do it, their development would be stunted. A university should be a little petri dish, giving the students a way to safely try things out.

Now, our undergraduates have learned that the university will take a sledgehammer to force the dough through the cookie-cutter. What the university fails to realise is that the sledgehammer would damage the cookie-cutter when used this way.

Anyway, I’m just rambling now.

I hope that the students who have been suspended will take the opportunity to play a more active role in civil society and student activism. Honestly, they have plenty of spare time on their hands now. They could view this as a form of extended internship which would help the months to pass faster.