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26Jan/14Off

Novel Review – Kite Runner

By Kevin

ERPZ rarely get to the literary stuff but I'm sharing around a bit of my old reviews done on my old blog. So here goes.

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Kite Runner

A Thousand times over...

It was a very abrupt purchase. Harris was giving it a 50% discount together with another book by Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I just bought both together since they're pretty decently priced for fiction. I normally don't like to own fiction books because they're usually printed on lousy paper for paperback versions and mostly because they have no particular reference value unlike non-fiction (not to mention the fact that I don't re-read books).

Kite Runner is one of the rare good books that gives you a story based on a setting and culture very foreign to our own. As Asian, I can understand the way females are treated and how some of the traditions are somewhat biased against them although they are fortified with justifications usually based on the idea of 'protecting' the women. In the book I get to see the Pashtun people's version of such in Afghanistan. I've long read about the Pashtun people in one issue of The Economist long time ago and I understood how they were more or less more abiding by their traditions and customs than that of the Muslim types of law (please don't correct me if I'm wrong because I wrote all that based on my impression of what I've read in the article and I shan't take responsibility for making any mistakes here).

In essence I saw the book as a narrative to learn about the lives of people in Afghanistan before the Soviet Occupation and all the subsequent wars fought there. I learnt the excuses of the different warring parties and I learnt about the lives of the people there after that. Otherwise, the narrative is about brotherhood, betrayal, ethnic discrimination and foreign cultures. It is definitely refreshing to get a dose of fiction amidst all the non-fiction reading I've been doing, including a 'Apache, mySQL and PHP in 24 Hours' (which of course I didn't even read for 5 hours not to mention attempting to learn the entire book in 24 hours).

I'll recommend it to people who'd like to know more about the Middle East, the diversity there, the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the people. Alternatively, people who would like to see the people's perspective of Afghanistan through their modern history would most likely be interested to explore the book as well. At times you'd find their cultures weird, extreme and slightly unnecessary but you will also find a thick sense of ties and kinship that you'll almost find nowhere outside Asia.

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20Oct/13Off

“Professional” Research

By Kevin

Tales, Tall or Short?

After a long hiatus of sorts, I return with a link-share on the state of academia - sort of. With the whole 'publish or perish' culture in academia, the way people deal with knowledge now gradually approaches the way banks and other financial institutions deal with trust that is placed on them by the public or the users of their services. The Economist runs an article about this problem in science research. But I think the same can be said of many other disciplines though their results might sometimes have less impact.

That said, to continue my academia-finance analogy, the consumption of 'research knowledge' is gradually turning a blind eye towards quality the way. Following the recent launch of Malcolm Gladwell's "David & Goliath", there was an onslaught of reviews suggesting some kind of 'abuse' of theories discovered by social scientists. Chris talks about the trouble with Malcolm Gladwell's stories, pretty boldly suggesting that they bordered bareface-lies. Whereas Steve more politely implies that Malcolm thinks too lowly of his readers (which is put across more bluntly by Chris). In this age of moral relativism and fluidity of the concept of what constitutes facts, people, it seems, are more interested in being entertained than the truth; and that is just utmost unfortunate.

Filed under: Anecdotes, Reviews No Comments
18Aug/13Off

Mostly Whinning

By Kevin

Can't miss them!

After 3 years away (with roughly 4 months of being back home in-between) from Singapore, I came home with great anticipation; in particular I was excited to be a tourist in my homeland (checking out the new developments/attractions I've been missing out) and catching up with friends. Unfortunately the atmosphere that greeted me was one different from what I expected. We don't go around expecting to be disappointed but being a fresh graduate from London does imbue me with that urge to change things back home in Singapore. And the feeling got stronger when I got back and began feeling slighted by all sorts of little nitty-gritty things here.

People have been talking about the disconnect between the rulers and the voters since the elections in 2011 and to be honest, I would hesitate to take any sides. Indeed, the concerns of the government is often grand and noble while that of the people humble and sometimes almost mundane. The brilliant minds working in our government would naturally incline themselves towards the 'big' matters of steering the economy, of attracting foreign talents or ensuring competitiveness while the common man just wants to bring enough home to feed his family, and perhaps hope that his children does well in school so they get better jobs than him. The leaders have aspirations for the country and recognizes the costs yet in making the trade-offs on behalf of their countrymen, and attempting to justify them, the concerns of the common men have been 'aggregated' and then slighted.

The process typically works this way: (1) Identify major concerns; (2) Aggregate and highlight main ones; (3) Come up with a strategy, decide on an indicator to benchmark the strategy, set targets; (4) Go all out to hit targets, even in the expense of the original concerns that generated those targets. A simple example could be such: People wants better lives and jobs, so the strategy is to attract foreign companies to set up shop in Singapore. To do so, the needs of these MNCs becomes important so policies are formulated to attract them and targets on amount of inward investments are set. GDP growth targets are set as a proxy to improvements in standard of living. Public servants go all out to achieve these targets. Often it may mean bringing in more foreign talent to satisfy MNCs needs, giving them tax-breaks or tax holidays (and then financing the government through higher GST that hurts the common men more). The focus on performance figures outstrip the initial concerns that have driven them.

Not that this happens only in Singapore. A while back, the NHS in UK had waiting time targets to ensure patients sent to the hospital's emergency departments were attended to as fast as possible. However, during busy periods when the emergency rooms are swarmed, waiting is inevitable and in order to continue meeting targets, patients were left in ambulances so that they could not be logged as having 'reached' the emergency department. The targets becomes such an obsession that the initial concerns resulting in those targets becomes ignored.

The sort of asian stigma against questioning authority in Singapore accentuates this problem. We follow goals and targets 'imposed' on us from the top without understanding the bigger picture. There is no time for those explanations, we are told. But then we are allowed to be embroiled in hours of senseless meetings where the most trivial decisions are made and presentations of unalterable past results are delivered in a bid to win stars and stand out in front of the bosses. It's time we delegate the job of accounting for the credit we should get to our bosses and concentrate on delivering results rather than demonstrating them in the most superficial way.

I've written on the whole issue of signals and substance in the past, but I felt I needed to be more forceful in showing how badly we suffer from this here in Singapore.

Filed under: Anecdotes, Reviews No Comments
5Aug/13Off

Owl Cove

By Kevin

Stare some more?

I promised Jerrold a couple of months ago to promote his website, Owl Cove but I must say it took way too long for this to happen. Owl Cove is an ambitious project by Jerrold and his team to publicly catalogue random ideas and musings about studying, life, career and striving while inviting everyone to share their notes and ideas. In other words, Owl Cove can properly constitute a realization of what I've dreamed up for ERPZ.

But perhaps not yet. Perhaps not before you visit to 'Learn, Share, Discuss' (as they would put it); and really just to contribute to the community there. There is still an amazingly long way the Singapore's education landscape need to change to lift up the weaker students to the level worthy of being audience of such sites. And the 'elites' need also to take time to reach out to others and help them before they can engage them as peers.

ERPZ have been really quiet for the past few months because I've been away traveling and I guess I'm looking forward to publishing some articles on traveling and complaints about Singapore transport on Owl Cove now that I'm back - at least for the while...

Filed under: Anecdotes, Reviews No Comments
19May/13Off

Of Notes and Other Things

By Kimberly

With many of the contributors to the blog largely on hiatus (myself included), and Kevin getting increasingly busy, one might wonder much about the future of ERPZ, especially with the various note-sharing sites that Kevin has mentioned - OpenLectures and NotesAcademy. I've been in contact with both sites, and I've friends who help out at these sites - I know the founder of NotesAcademy through some extremely interesting encounters, and he's a friend now :) Stuff like that happens when you're from a big college filled with interesting people, and these sites have one thing that gives them an edge - a strong team of people helping to run their sites and keep them vibrant. Here at ERPZ, it's a challenge since we're a little short-staffed.

Despite all the sites and apparent "competition", what ERPZ offers is that of specialized and curated A Level content, post-As advice and life tips, a gap that has not been filled by many of such sites. Admittedly, the content needs a bit of an update, especially since many of the subjects have gone through a SEAB revamp in terms of the syllabus content, but we'll work on it. We've got the PW eBook coming up, and I'm working also on General Paper Topic Summaries that are summaries of common topics tested in the A Levels - it'll be hard to grasp such wide topics, but there's no harm trying to condense them and provide good examples that students will be able to use in the examinations.

With Common Tests coming up after the June Holidays, many students will be looking for notes, and hopefully ERPZ will be able to accomodate that. It's a bit of a stretch since ERPZ is very much short-staffed, but we'll work on bringing an ERPZ that's better to you. On a personal basis though, I'm looking to blog a lot more, partly to help Kevin out, but also for my personal growth as a writer. Life's been busy for a lot of us here at ERPZ, but we'll still want to keep this page alive and useful for years to come.

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2May/13Off

Learning & Hacking Studies

By Kevin

Other sites...

Competitors!

There are so might sites online about studying and publishing/distributing notes that ERPZ.net seem to be getting pretty redundant. We've so far been operating on a one-man show kind of way despite having multiple authors (who are mostly non-contributing to be honest). Scott seem to do the same as me when it comes to blogging except I guess he does it better and categorizes stuff in better ways than me. He publishes eBooks (some of them free) as well! And that is quite an inspiration given that I'm hoping to write a PW Guide soon - check out our Facebook page where I challenged myself to finish the book before we reach 1000 likes. Not such a tall order since there isn't that many likes yet but it does put pressure on me especially when I'm studying for exams this period.

Then there is Notes Academy, which was featured on Straits Times going the 'open source' style where they mostly curate and moderate while waiting around for kind people to contribute notes. That's not so different from me as well since I've been asking for contributions for some time and we've gather some stuff from kind souls here and there. But then they are a radical departure from the way we moderate content so strongly that contributions are slapped with our site logo before being uploaded though we've made exceptions now and then. I guess the fact that Notes Academy is a little more O Levels oriented means that I'm not exactly in direct competition with them anyways. The fact they've got a team to do all that work is admirable though.

Of course, who can forget Open Lectures who have just revamped their site. They're a pretty geeky bunch with quality content (clearly carefully produced and curated), which is on the other side of the spectrum compared to Notes Academy. I don't really know where ERPZ.net sit at anymore. In any case, a potential criticism that can be levered on them (and also relevant for me) is their content is skewed towards Economics probably because they've more of their team dabbling with that area. They definitely need to gather more MOE scholars who're not planning to break bond (ie. not doing 'practical' subjects like Economics or Engineering but dealing more with Literature, hard Sciences).

For those who thinks publicly available stuff are crap (or that there are no goodies in freebies), there is Darryl, who is taking the more exclusive 'coaching' path for studies. He offers quite a fair bit of coaching content and has worked a bit of money into building and putting together his entire suite of 'formula'. The thing is I believe it's suitable for people who actually looks up these stuff and have a more or less keen desire to excel - not someone who believes in shortcuts, simply one who believes in doing things smart.

Having said all that, the future of ERPZ.net is wondrously uncertain. All my notes might end up somewhere like Notes Academy and I'll continue blogging random ramblings while perhaps doing some eBook writing. Or maybe the site will become something all together different. There are ideas to crowd-source for ideas on what to do but I'll have to come up with proposals first. But for now, my exams comes first...

29Apr/13Off

Trade Warmongering?

By Kevin

Fist-fight

This HBR blog entry appear suspiciously like some sort of American propaganda against China. It's at best a wobbly piece of work suggesting subsidies helps allow firms to undercut competition temporarily at the expense of efficient firms (which economists already knows) and at worse a sort of warmongering article that risk fueling senseless protectionist retaliation.

All the statistics quoted are probably true; but the implicit argument relies on the notion that price should follow costs, which isn't always and the case especially when there is monopoly power and also when demand changes. There is this strange assumption that US goods and China goods are actually directly competing head-on. I honestly believe that at a certain threshold price level, the goods may not be consumed/purchased at all because of the availability of other substitutes. Moreover, for high-tech consumer products especially, which are often more of luxury goods than necessities, pricing above certain levels simply means that majority of the market may never bother to reach for it. The presence of competition from China helps to pull down the prices of even those products from EU or US, thus benefiting the consumers. Effectively, if the majority of consumers getting those goods are the ones from the developed world then China is actually subsidizing them when subsidizing their firms.

Whenever an economy tries to subsidize their industry to generate sufficient demand for itself, its market power can only be sustained insofar as its ability to produce more efficiently at a higher level of market demand. In other words, if they are truly less efficient, the subsidies will never be able to pay for itself and the ultimate gainers are the consumers. Otherwise, if the subsidies do pay for itself to the extent that the industry reaches a level of demand where they can compete effectively with those incumbent exporting countries without subsidies, it is then more efficient for them to take over the full production (assuming no diseconomies down the line).

I would recommend that countries scale down some of those industries sufficiently to maintain existing cost advantage sufficient to pose a threat to those firms once subsidies are withdrawn, then aggressively develop downstream industries for these products that are highly subsidized in order to enjoy the subsidies that countries like China is providing their industry. In other words, develop manufacturing firms that would consume steel and buy over those cheap steel from China (I'm assuming, as those HBR authors do, that they're completely identical in quality with the US/EU steel) and use them to produce output that can better compete with those from China. Use structural changes to bounce back from the competition rather than retaliate with cheap tactics such as publishing a HBR entry like that getting other nations to 'stand up to China'.

On the other hand, if the majority of consumers of the Chinese products are not the well-off people from the developed countries, but instead, the consumers of the third world, then China is effectivity subsidizing their welfare and raising living standards around the world by providing otherwise inaccessible products to them. If our global economy is to be powering development for the rest of the world for the next couple of decades, rich world politicians and business schools have to stop pandering to the big corporations and focus on what improves the welfare of people that ultimately matters: the lower strata of the society, the suffering children of the third world and reducing barriers to technological adoption by those who have yet to enjoy the 'high-technology' goods (& capital) of the developed world.

20Apr/13Off

The Banking Sector

By Kevin

Banks

There or nah?

I've got this article sitting on one of my browser tabs for centuries; it's a great article I wanted to share and just write a thing or two about but I guess I've just been way too busy. Whatever the professor was talking about, it's indeed facts about the life of students especially those in the colleges in the city. It probably started out with LSE and UCL but then King's students hopped on and Imperial College students (none of whom are Economics students) decided that banking was for them. Being a student of LSE, I admit that the frenzy about banking in school got me a little curious. Yet beneath all the 'prestige', it is indeed just a job, one that is like every other and the same sort of considerations apply - whether you want the lifestyle and role it involve.

For students thinking about the course to do in university, your interest in the subject still matters more than the job it might land you in. For most professions, clearly you need to be trained in the area so there is little dispute for people who want to be doctors, lawyers, accountants or engineers. But just make sure you've chosen these 'jobs' because you're inherently interested in the work (the challenge it offers, the problems you've to solve and the techniques you may acquire) and not the remuneration. For other discipline which do not readily translate into specific jobs, have in mind where the field may lead you to but be open; and then charge at it and relish the experience.

And relating to what the professor mentioned about models, readers might like to check out my views on economics and models.

25Mar/13Off

PW Question Analysis

By Kevin

Once again, it's the PW season and ERPZ is doing its part to make lives easier for students. We've taken a look at the two questions this year; both are related and rather similar, with 'Choice' being a more specific version of 'Access' and they can be approached with the frameworks we've laid down in previous years (here is last year's and here for more stuff).

Disabled Access

Let me through!

Access

Aim: This project task encourages you to consider the issue of access and suggest ways in which access could be improved for a particular group of people.

Task: Identify an aspect of life in any community where access to a service or resource is a problem (eg: access to natural resources, education, healthcare, housing, etc).

Explain why the problem exists and its impact on the community concerned.

Draw up a plan to eradicate or reduce the impact of the problem.

As usual, we want to break down the question and tackle the problem in manageable, bite-sized bits.

  • What kind of service or resource may not accessible to everyone?
  • Why is it a problem for the community involved? Is it a basic need not met or simply a want?
  • Why does the problem exists? Is it due to poverty, government do not provide it, too expensive even for the middle income etc?
  • What specific group of people might be plagued with such inaccessibility? How does it affect them? How serious is the impact of this inaccessibility? Does it lead to other kind of problems?
  • How should you go about to eradicate or reduce the impact? Simply provide it to the community concerned, or other issues ought to be considered?
    Any real world examples of methods that tried to reduce the problem?

Choice

Aim: This project task encourages you to consider the importance and impact of choice in today’s world and to suggest ways to help people make more informed choices.

Task: Identify an area in which people make choices that affect the wider community (eg: in consumer goods and services, leisure, politics, economics, etc.)
Explain the positive and negative aspects of those choices and their impact on the community.

Suggest ways of informing people about the wider impact of their choices with the view to encourage and/or discouraging particular choices.

And, here are some questions we want to ask ourselves:

  • In what area do people make choices, and the outcome of their choice have an impact on the wider community? For example, people elect a particular person as president, and the chosen president will implement policies that affect the whole community.
  • Why do people make choices in that particular area? (eg: to better their lives, satisfy wants)
  • How do people make their choices? Do they research, and go through some thought process before deciding?
  • What are the positive and negative aspects that results from making those choices, and its impact?
  • What are the ways to help people make more informed choices that improve the community as a whole?

I'll try and come up with examples of potential project tasks but then again, if you face issues with coming up with ideas, there's plenty of ideation tools around and you can always check the PW page for more advice and guidance.

25Feb/13Off

Deciding by a Coin Flip

By Kevin

Coin Flip

Flip It!

We face major decisions; often binary in nature, throughout our lives. Should we start working or go to grad school? Should we take on the new job offer or stay on the current role? Coke or Pepsi? Perhaps when we are indeed faced with the situation of Buridan's Ass, a coin flip would indeed allow us to make a 'rational choice'.

Tim Harford cheekily introduces the latest experiment by the economist behind Freakonomics, Steven Levitt. It's worth taking a look about how economists might try to study what it is that places us on the margin. I wonder if jokers might try to screw up his experiment by filling in ridiculous nonsense (Xbox or Playstation?). Just a thought.