Moving to

I'm moving to Mostly.

I plan to use that site as a "self-marketing website" of sorts and to manage content in a way that I would otherwise not be able to do on blogger alone.

This blog will stay, ostensibly for more provisional ideas prior to refinement. I'll be gradually moving content (I still like) over to the other website. =)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fertility: Just Mine the Data

People have been talking about fertility in Singapore. Raising issues like how the "Baby bonus has had little impact so far" and how the economy discourages working women to have children.

The fertility problem of may well be causally structural in an economic sense, and a solution like the baby bonus may or may not be the solution to the structural issues, depending on whether the incentive addresses fundamental underlying issues.

The Economist recently published an article titled "The best of all possible worlds?" (Economist, Aug 6th 2009). The article contained a section relating the Human Development Index (HDI) to total fertility rate (TFR). The HDI, taking values from 0 to 1, is a measure used by the United Nations. It has three components: life expectancy; average income per person; and level of education. The TFR is the expected number of births per woman over a lifetime.

Graphically, the data appears well fitted by a J-shaped curve that bottoms out in a trough of a less than 1.5 TFR at HDIs between about 0.85 to 0.92. (Based on 2006 data, Singapore had a HDI of 0.918. This corresponds to a total fertility rate of under 1.5 on the fitted curve. In 2006, Singapore had an actual total fertility rate of 1.06.) Let me just plop the image here.

The excellent fit suggests (and may be said to validate the statement) that structural issues strongly dictate fertility levels. This makes sense as the structural conditions of an economy have a major impact, in aggregate, on the decisions that individuals make.

In so far as encouraging parenthood is important to Singapore as a nation, it is necessary to understand what really drives decisions to or not to have children. While one may explain the strong trend as a shift in attitudes due to changes in the economic environment, details are needed in order to craft economic policy. This suggests the need for more detailed study. This would mean, at the very least, de-aggregating the HDI to pinpoint how each factor (education, income, life expectancy) affect fertility and going beyond that.

Public policy relating to parenthood is largely within the purview of MCYS. Unfortunately, it is not staffed sufficiently with economists or statisticians who have the necessary training to mine the data. I would suppose the government's Economist Service would be better placed to lend a hand.

This would at least put more quantitative substance from the real world into the policy discussion. While anecdotal evidence has the most heartstring-tugging appeal, it is statistics that we need, and soon. Alternatively, we could do whatever it takes to increase our HDI and hope for the best.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Intent

In organizations, we have people supporting projects wherein some people do bit parts under the direction of more senior people. That is by and large the case. Many a times, junior team members feel disconnected from the project, not engaged at all to their work. In most instances, this boils down to one thing, one thing that took me a long time to learn to ask.

What is the intent? What is this project intended to achieve? This section my team is working on, how does it serve the intent? This sub-section I am working on, how is it helping? Only if one sees and takes in interest in the larger objectives of a project can one be engaged. Only if one understands the aims of his task can one truly be effective.

It is interesting how long it takes to learn a simple lesson. I've observed that the public sector, from a broad historical perspective, acted very much in line with WW2 Germany's Auftragstaktik (which was cited as the reason for the superiority of the German's warfighting ability to that of the allied forces). Subordinate commanders were given a clear picture of the intent at a higher level (i suppose sometimes 2 levels higher) and were given leave to act independently, given that clear understanding of the intent of each engagement or campaign.

Before I entered the public service, and at a time where it looked like I would join a ministry, it was hinted to me that I should look into past policies to understand their intent before crafting reports and policy papers. It took a while and some observation to realize how things worked in the public sector.

Today, at lunch, it was pointed out that junior engineers feel disengaged. And anecdotes arose as to how things fail to work. They boiled down to ineffective transmission of intent. The Singapore public service is huge, yet it is far more effective than those of other countries. Yet, as the anecdotes suggest, there is room for improvement.

The question then is, what measures can be taken so intent can be effectively transmitted? This is very much doable, but takes will. A tougher question relates to the transmission of intent where security and secrecy is a concern.

Force Structure Amid Transformation

We are in the process of a massive transition. We are moving to a 3G SAF, with this and that and this capability. Of late, we have seen the addition of new equipment to our arsenal which promises that we will be able to deliver more hurt with greater precision and with a lower prospect of getting hurt ourselves.

Old equipment is being phased out, nearing the ends of their system life cycles. As we progressively undergo greater and more rapid change, the issue of training and knowledge retention arises starkly. This is particularly true if the pace of technology dictates that system life cycles have to be re-examined (in particular, shortened).

The NS Man, may have to learn to operate a number of different weapons systems as his old expertise becomes obsolete in the face of rapid technological change. Instruction is a problem, do we have the manpower with the expertise to conduct instruction. I propose a modification of our force structure to accommodate this need.

Consider forming some battalions consisting an evergreen crop of NSFs and rotating NS Men, lasting the lifetime of the NSFs liability. In those battalions, NSFs aid in the training of their NS Man colleagues in newer weapon systems where needed. Teaching another is perhaps one of the most effective means of reinforcing and understanding what one has learnt. The training workload will be effectively shared. Furthermore, we accrue a further benefit. Younger NSFs will become more connected to the pulse of the country through interactions with NS Men who have been working and have seen more of life in Singapore. They will benefit from the experience that their older colleagues share. This mixing of young and old may have other social benefits such as bringing younger Singaporeans closer to opportunities such as jobs, and opening them up to possibilities that otherwise may only be observed with the benefit of personal experience.

In addition to this, hardcore expertise is needed to effectively harness the potential of equipment. We have often heard the phrase, "it's not how big or long it is, it is how you use it". Similarly, long range weaponry is only as good as the operator (and can only be as good as its specs, but we'll buy or develop something better if we're in danger of saturation). Centres of excellence/knowledge which give back to the entire organization are important to have for systems that are widely used. I believe in the need for regular battalions to act as centres of knowledge from which master trainers and leaders can arise. These individuals are to be the catalysts for competency development within non-regular units. There already is a movement towards this, but it's value bears reiteration.

Naturally, if this is to work, processes have to be worked out and studied in order to strike a balance between component and integrated training. I successfully pulling this off will be a boost to our overall competency, improve our force multiplier and hence contribute to greater security.

Update & Clarification (8 May 2009):
I've been told that currently, NS Men are sometimes deployed to work alongside regulars to understand the mind of the regular and doctrinal issues. I envisioned more of some units with NSFs being present for their liability with NS Men entering and leaving (with ICTs remaining short). At times, there would be training, at others, exercises proper. Training in exercising leadership and initiative is something experienced NS Men have to offer, NSFs in turn are in touch with state of the art technology.

Perhaps the greatest benefit I see is not so much operational as social. A connected mindset, where young NSFs are able to "grow up" faster through contact with people who have been in the world. Operationally, this social benefit will create a more engaged NSF population so they see the intended social function of NS. It doesn't matter that most will not see NS as a machine for defending the nation so much as a vehicle for transforming boys to men and an immersion into real society (by meeting people). The fact of the matter is an engaged soldier is a more effective soldier. This is what has been termed a "head fake". Making someone think he is doing something useful to him, while the real intention is for him to pick up skills. This is the idea behind some software for storyboarding (ALICE) where users (kids) think they are making a movie, but are actually learning principles of computer science.

Operationally, the effectiveness of the army is no longer how many can be fielded, as is reflected in the intent of MM Lee when he advocated a conscript system. (Being able to field a huge number of troops after a few years of running the NS system.) Also, technical obsolescence is no longer something the systems architect and master planner can really control. Speculatively, a new coating could render obsolete every radar (advanced or otherwise) in the world, while being developed in secret and deployed throughout an airforce within a matter of a day (or a few days). The cliche that "the rules have changed" is continually in effect at each break through of the arms race that sits in the background of business and commerce.

From this perspective, having a parallel system whereby all NS Men can be brought up to speed rapidly to the state of the art (perhaps at the expense of some aspect of the training of some NSFs) has value.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Religion in Politics: Idiots

When I first heard about the recent AWARE fiasco, I believed the media buzz that a new team was voted in because members felt that AWARE had lost its focus and had strayed to putting overt emphasis on promoting the LGBT, with an accompanying neglect of "women". (In the USA, the feminists often band with the movement championing rights for the LGBT or Lesbians-Gays-Bisexuals-Transgendered, and it was no stretch to me that the same dynamic would be replicated here.) Only later, after some casual lunchtime talk, did I find out that it was a coup. Modeled on kiddie power grabs on college campuses. Militant Republican supporters trying to subvert the College Democrats. Militant Democrat supporters trying to subvert the College Republicans (my impression is this happens less often).

Christians seek Christ-likeness as the pinnacle of personal attainment in Christianity, as the Buddhists strive for a state of enlightened detachment and oneness. Let's start from here. There are idiots all around: Militant Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. Idiots. All of them. I do not mean "idiot" in the affectionate sense of saying "that idiot set the classroom OHP on fire", afterwhich "that idiot", you and various others go have lunch together. I mean idiot as a judgment on a person's human decency. Yes, a negative one.

The thing is, people with a religious commitment are, by and large, caring folk. Some of whom, if you're sensitive enough, you might notice are surrounded by an air of "nice". People who care don't want you to "do the right thing" (where "do the right thing" simply means "do what I say"). That is simplistic and stupid. They would like you to come to a realization of what is right and put it into practice. The idiots I speak of are marginally more dishonest that Hitler types. They want to stoke their egos by imposing their will on others but pretend to do it under the guide of religion. Decent folk don't do such things. Decent folk don't go around subverting NGOs.

The damage idiots have done to the reputations of decent religious folk over the years is almost irreparable...... Idiots.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Towards P2P Social Networking

Today I found an invitation to a Facebook group "We will not pay to use facebook, we're gone if that happens".

I guess this echos the sentiments of a generation that believes that it should get stuff for free. But really, can this really be so? Facebook, google, yahoo, etc can only survive given revenues that may be used to cover costs. Web portals with mounds of data are not easy to maintain.

On the other hand, people are concerned by the concentration of huge amounts of personal data, especially with the social networking sites. Who owns the data?

Privacy aside, the P2P infrastructure may work reasonably well for social networking. The idea is for the network to be built up in overlapping pieces. Each indivdual stores his own information and those of his/her friends. The informing of others that information has changed may be done through a series of pings.

Naturally, a big issue is that of the storage and transfer of data. A LOT of data may have to be stored for each contact. Furthermore, one has to ask oneself to what extent does one desire to be a conduit for people to contact one's friends and how much bandwidth one is willing to dedicate to that end. Another is that of "closed cliques" being inaccessible to the world.

The latter problem would probably be solvable after some brief thought, but not the former. People are selfish by nature, and the amount of storage space and bandwidth demanded by such an application would be non-trivial.

Well then, is Facebook's current setup as near optimal as we expect? It's hard to move away from a central repository. It makes things so much easier. We can decentralize a little though... Who knows?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Revisiting Kidneys: More Transplants through Matching

There is no current legal market for kidneys in Singapore. As of the huge furore over the matter sparked by a tycoon's attempt to buy one in in mid-2008 (he has since gotten a kidney), the Singapore government remains in the process of studying the possible implementation of such a market. Is there a fair price for a kidney? While questions like that and others are being debated, there remains a constant shortage of donor kidneys for transplant and it may be more socially beneficial to also look into incremental ameliorative solutions that are morally repugnant to fewer people.

Patients requiring transplants can only accept kidneys from donors with certain blood types. Simplistically, acceptance and rejection depends on the blood types of patient and donor. Other than ABO compatibility issues, additional immunological factors may impinge on compatibility, but in a nutshell, a patient may have a relative or friend willing to donate a kidney to him or her, but is unable to accept that kidney. (Friends of patients are unable to donate kidneys in Singapore due to possible abuse of such a provision.) In the USA, schemes such as paired donation combat the problem of immunological incompatibility and allow more patients to obtain kidneys. In a paired donation, a friend or relation of patient 1 donates to patient 2, and a friend or relation of patient 2 donates to patient 1. More can be done in this vein and is being studied.

In the spirit of the medical student-residency matching in the USA, a central clearing house for matching kidneys is being studied. Issues of moral hazard relating to information revelation do exist. For instance, with a central clearing house, a patient at a transplant centre may end up not getting a kidney even though a suitable donor is available at the same centre possibly due to another centre playing the priority game. Should that transplant centre reveal information about the existence of that donor? In Singapore, fewer of such issues exist. In fact, the constraint of distance between patients and donors for kidney swaps is essentially a non-issue. Furthermore, a central clearing house is eminently in line with the culture of Singapore.

Suppose K gives the set of available kidneys, P gives the set of patients, and C(j) gives the subset of K that is compatible with patient j. Consider the following optimization problem:

Decision Variables:

xij = 1 if kidney i is allocated to patient j and 0 otherwise. For all i in K and all j in P. (These are {0, 1} variables.)


wj is a subjective priority for patient j.


Maximize ∑j in P wji in K xij
This represents a weighted sum of the number of patients who get kidneys.


Each kidney is allocated to at most one patient:

j in P xij ≤ 1

for all i in K.

Only a compatible kidney is allocated:

i in C(j) ≤ 1
xij = 0
if i is not in C(j).

for all j in P.

A system for deciding patient priority wj, depending on the patient's circumstances, must be agreed upon to ensure fairness or some modicum of uniform unfairness. Other matters may need to be addressed. For instance, patients with compatible directed donors must get kidneys to prevent information from being hidden from the central clearing house. The participation of these donors in the system represents a positive externality on the system.

To represent patients with compatible directed donors, we consider the set of such patients D and add the constraints:

i in C(j) = 1

for all j in D.

Some patients may be willing to consider ABO incompatible kidneys (these have an 85% to 90% success rate in comparison to 98%). This may be done by replacing the objective function with:

Maximize ∑j in P wji in K cij xij

where cij is a parameter representing the compatibility of kidney i with patient j. Again, a systematic means for choosing this parameter must be developed that captures the tradeoff of the risk of the transplant failing and the value of additional transplants being possible.

More issues may and will arise should such a system be implemented but I would like to close. Singapore is in a unique position, due to our circumstances, to implement what may be the most effective transplant infrastructure in the world. Aside from being an education to the world, a few patients may find themselves with a kidney, and that alone will be sufficient cause to implement a simple clearing house.