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. =)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Leaders, Coordinators and Executors

I've been thinking about leadership and what it means. Here are some of my thoughts:

Leaders are at the head of a series of roles that must be filled for an organization to succeed. Leaders outline where the ship is to sail and chart the course. They dwell at the intersection of vision and strategy, outlining the vision and working out, in broad terms, how it might be achieved.

Supporting the leaders is a group akin to what most know as senior management. They keep the vision in view, while working predominantly to develop strategic thrusts that further the vision. At the same time, they remain aware of how strategies can be made operational. They connect the vision to the tangible operations that collectively work towards its achievement. These are the coordinators.

Supporting this group, in turn, is a group that handles detailed operations while keeping the relevant part of the strategy in sight. These are the executors.

Certainly, one could generate a continuum of roles working with vision, strategy and operations. Allow me to throw some (purely indicative) numbers together to an indication of what these roles are like:

Role \ Type of WorkVisionaryStrategicOperational

Again, the numbers are purely indicative. Note that this is my personal take on leadership and may differ from treatments of leadership elsewhere. (So as usual, caveat emptor.)

I feel that the correct progression of activity is to start with a vision of where to go (or at least a direction), then develop strategic thrusts that move one towards that vision (or in that direction), and finally to develop operational initiatives in line with the various strategic thrusts. (i.e.: It doesn't make sense to decide what to do and then figure out where that will take you.)

It is amusing how one comes to the question of leadership from so many different angles. In fact, one perspective of leadership is that it is the art of living, a fair and interesting perspective that comes from the point of view of self-improvement and personal fulfillment. One comes to the question of leadership when a cloud of operational tactics and strategic thrusts need a guiding principle.

I sorely regret not paying attention to leadership in the past, thinking it a subject for insufferable blowhards. Paying attention now, perhaps, is not too late.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Revisiting Regulation in Singapore

I've written to the ST Forum again about IDA's weak regulations in response to another reported "ISP incident". I did so earlier this year, raising the example of the $5,000 penalty (per month) for violating Quality of Service requirements. IDA neatly sidestepped the issue with a non-sequitur. (See: An earlier post titled "Regulation of Industry")

While I call for more stringent regulations, I am not an uninformed Luddite whose crazed propositions would tear down the economy. I understand that Singapore's survival is predicated on a strong economy. Today, we have a decent to good economy, with business-friendly regulations and business-friendly labour policy.

However, in recent years consumers have suffered. The minibond saga is emblematic of this, with Hong Kong investors getting relief while Singapore investors lost most of their principal to (what I believe to be) deceptive marketing practices (and a touch of greed fogging their vision). Telecommunications too is a much complained about industry.

To be a great economy, corporations and consumers in Singapore will have to work in partnership. This can only happen with equality in the said partnership. When corporations have too much power, they use that power in an easy route to gaining economic benefits as opposed to the tougher route of innovating and developing ever better goods and services. Thus, government regulations have a role to play in this: creating a healthy business environment for both firms and consumers.

Good regulations are necessary for us to go from Good to Great.

Now, allow me to attach my letter to the forum, which I've just sent off. (So I'm unsure if they'll publish it.)
    I refer to the letter "Poor show by SingTel after broadband disruption" (Jun 7, 2011) by Garrick Woi, who, in late April this year, suffered a 16 hour long disruption to his broadband access along with others in "limited residential areas". He reports the lack of communication on the part of his ISP and difficulty getting information on the outage.

    I believe that a blase attitude has been encouraged by the weak penalties specified by IDA's regulations, which are not stringent enough to shape good behavior on the part of ISPs. For example, Quality of Service violations, which are necessarily severe, warrant a fine of $5,000 a month. When preventing an impending outage or swiftly remediating an outage would cost significantly more than $5,000, ISPs are encouraged to take no special remedial action, especially in view of the fact that customers are locked in to long term contracts. The "sense of responsibility", that might nudge them in the opposite direction, should be bolstered by a strong set of regulations.

    I've written to the ST Forum ("Slow broadband: IDA's rules are not effective enough", Mar 28, 2011; "IDA yet to address crux of issue"; Apr 11, 2011) and to IDA on the weakness of existing regulations, but their reply neatly side-stepped the issue ("Broadband speed not part of service quality standards", 2nd Apr 2011).

    In the 16-hour outage affected home businesses would have lost revenue and reputation, and probably will not be compensated due to difficulty in reigorously quantifying the losses. Similarly, it is unlikely any answer to Mr Woi's question "Can affected customers claim compensation for the service disruption?" will be to his satisfaction.

    I invite IDA to answer, directly, whether it thinks a mere $5,000 penalty is justifiable for a violation that could lead to losses orders of magnitude above it. This is a matter of national econmic interest. I hope IDA will review it's internet regulations and establish a comprehensive set of rules and penalties that are fair to ISPs and customers.

Internet regulations are a side-show in the grand scheme of Singapore's economy. There has to be a change of mindset on the part of regulators, bearing in mind that regulations should make it easy to conduct business responsibly. Allow me reiterate my conclusion: Good regulations are necessary to take Singapore's economy from Good to Great.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On a Dam, Heavy Rain and Floods: Engineering Ramblings of a non-Civil Engineer

In the wake of one of many recent 50-year floods, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Vivian Balakrishnan, said that all planning norms have to be reviewed "taking into account the very high probability that our weather patterns have shifted". (Note: it's not his fault. He's only just been appointed to helm MEWR.)

On the matter of the floods, I find it bewildering (or telling) that no one in government has publicly asked (and answered) the most basic systems-level question: "What has changed?" The first answer to that question is that the Marina Barrage was built.

Construction of the dam started in 2005 and was completed in 2008. Government estimates have that it would reduce flood-prone area in Singapore from 150 ha to 85 ha. At this point, I am suspicious at the validity of that estimate. I'm no civil engineer, but let's just talk things through.

Collection of water in the Marina Reservoir itself, is not a factor that encourages flooding even in high intensity rain like the 65mm in 30min of 5 June 2011. A crude estimate of the area of the reservoir is 1.5 million square meters, ensuring it collects about an average of 54 cubic meters of water per second in such rain, which is just over a sixth of the capacity of the pumps in the Barrage (280 cubic meters per second), so there is no problem dumping out just that amount of water. But what about when all the water from the CBD comes in? I'm not sure what multiple to use, but it appears that the CBD and all the area channeling water into the Marina reservoir may have more than ten times the area of the reservoir.

While it sounds like even an open channel (~350m wide) would not be able to discharge as much water as the pumps, it is notable that the Barrage raises the water level of the Marina basin and that of the water table of the central area. If I were to hazard a guess at outcome of the possibly complex impact on the drainage system brought about by the addition of the Barrage, I'd say that due to the raised water level (relative to pre-2005 levels), the Barrage may well reduce the rate at which rainwater can be removed in the drainage system (through the reduction of the "linear hydraulic head loss" or "slope of the water surface", reducing flow rates) and through percolation into the ground (since the water table has been raised). One might guess that (the limited) percolation into the ground provides some buffer time (whose magnitude I'm not sure of) so the drains will be able to remove a decent amount of water. On the possible flow rate again (determined by the "linear hydraulic head loss"), the opeartion of the pumps might be able to increase it, but the effects would most certainly take time to propagate back towards the town area. Thus, by some magic hand-waving, it is not clear that the post-2008 situation is less flood prone.

I do hope that all this was considered in the feasibility study for the Barrage. Call me skeptical, but I do not think the "vision" of a lawyer named Lee should take precedence over sound engineering analysis. (... which this is not, exactly, though the questions asked may be featured in such.)

But before blaming the Barrage, let us try to look for more direct causes.

Singapore has had storms before, and a cursory comparison via looking out the window does not seem to support any marked increase in intensity. While the numbers do indicate that the June rains have been rather intense, though it is not clear that "climate change" has occurred. Even with a change in weather patterns, there is no reason to believe that these numbers would not increase fairly continuously without any huge jumps. ("Chaos" in weather does not work as an explanation unless Singapore is in a special "attraction" basin for storm clouds, which, if so, would be apparent in large changes in annual rainfall.)

Some relevant numbers:

  • 5th June 2011: 124mm in the Central Area (with 65mm within 30min)

  • 16th June 2010: 100mm within 2 hours (leading to flooding in Orchard Road

  • More numbers from 2010

  • Average rainfall in June: 161.2mm; Average rainy days: 13. (Averaged over more than a century.)

  • 20 Dec 2006: 24-hour rainfall recorded was 366 mm, third highest 24-hour rainfall recorded in 75 years.

  • 1969: second highest recorded 24-hour rainfall (467 mm)

  • 1978: highest recorded 24-hour rainfall (512 mm)

Absent any other information, we should then ask the question of whether over the past years, during periods of relatively high rainfall, drains were filled to near capacity. If this were the case, it would explain the discontinuous effect where a non-drastic increase in rainfall leads to so many (statistically speaking) 50-year floods. It would then clearly not be due to the construction of the Marina Barrage. The question then becomes, if this were the case, why wasn't anything done to prevent flooding? Drains filled to near capacity clearly implies that a reasonably probably variation in rainfall could easily lead to a flood. Was a cost-benefit analysis done or was this just not noticed?

If, on the other hand, during periods of high rainfall, drains were not anywhere near filled to capacity, there is a stronger case that the Marina Barrage is the cause. Again I ask, albeit more specifically, did the team that built it assess the impact of the dam on drainage. Some of this could have been easily done by numerical simulation.

Whatever the likely cause, a lot of economic damage has been done by the floods and there are questions to be answered.