Being Whiplash

One of my interns mentioned to me that her internship experience at my company reminded her of the film, “Whiplash”. I wasn’t aware of this film and looked it up – turns out that enjoys a very respectable 8.6 score on IMDB.

According to my intern, I have pushed them quite hard and she has taken it positively as she has also learned a lot during her internship with me. Personally, I do agree with the view taken by the villain in the film, that is a person cannot achieve greatness unless they are pushed to their limits.

That said, it doesn’t mean that I am a villain!

I just don’t treat my interns with kid gloves, especially if they’re already in their penultimate year. I am of the opinion that, in a society that has descended to a state where people are rewarded for simply turning up, it is our duty as part of the industry, to train our interns to produce quality work because an engineer that produces sub-par work can kill.

Well, to give you an idea of the film, here is the trailer:

PS: She has not been physically harmed by me, yet.

Love Me Like You Do

Having seen the film – 50 Shades of Grey – in the cinema, I have to say that the film was kind of under-whelming. The premise was simple enough but I guess that it is a very fine line for the director to walk – to make a feature film that didn’t cross the line into porn.

However, the theme song is another matter altogether. The tune has stuck in my head the entire day today. So, here it is.

Mocking Our Education

Certain parties have accused the “ultra-kiasu” of making a mockery of our education system. While I do agree that certain parties are making a mockery of our education system, I think that the responsibility for doing that lies squarely with our politicians such as our Education Minister II.

As someone who has spent more than a decade teaching in one capacity or another, I have had the pleasure to deal directly with the education system and its products. Let me just put it bluntly – it’s broken.

Now, I’m not interested to point fingers and accuse any party of actually breaking the system, simply because I know that the responsibility has to be shared between many parties. The education system is not a simple system that can be easily broken by any one person. It requires concerted effort (or lack of) from multiple parties in order to break it.

But broken, it is.

The mockery is when our politicians continue to live in denial of the broken system. For as long as such denials exist, any efforts that attempt to fix the problem will be half-hearted. As a nation, we need to recognise that the education system IS broken before we can begin the process of identifying fixes and implementing them.

I also know that the Ministry of Education recognises the problems, even if they will not label it as broken. They are also hard at work in finding solutions to the various problems. However, I do not think that they will succeed in implementing any real solutions because such solutions are going to be painful and will lack political will in execution.

Before any healing can be done, we need to embrace the fact that we’re hurt, which seems to be something that our politicians are unwilling to concede.

In the mean time, I would like to ask that our politicians stay away from education. They have messed it up over the years. More political interference will not save it. What we need is for politicians to just stay away and let the educators do their job of educating the people. Leave it to the professionals.

So, let’s stop making a mockery of our education system by making stupid claims about its superiority and recognise that it needs fixing. Let’s stop living in denial and move on.

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.