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Great Software is made in a Technocracy

(This is a followup post for Why be an Expert in Singapore? Seriously. As with all blog entries, I speak for myself and not any organization I may be affiliated with.) 

On my latest trip back to Singapore, talking to friends in the IT sector here and looking through job listings, it becomes abundantly clear to me that, in Singapore, the software engineer, or programmer, is regarded as the entry-level, don't-think-just-do, job.

Managerial skills are highly valued in Singapore, and permeates throughout most sectors, even the IT sector. I believe this can be partially attributed to the top-down management style of all Singapore government organizations. (And remember, government jobs in Singapore are well-paying and -respected relative to many other countries.) For example, the CEO of the main government scientific research agency is an ex-armed forces chief, the CEO of the main IT regulatory and advisory agency is headed by an ex-navy chief, and the CEO of the media development agency held senior positions in the Singapore Police Force, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and the Ministry of Manpower. 

These individuals, while clearly having been trained with high level executive skills, do not necessarily have the technical background or expertise in the organization that they lead. This is pervasive throughout the organizational structure - mid level managers do not need to be technical, but are often "scholars" who won government scholarships after high school, have been earmarked to reach high level government positions, and are seen as being trained to hold senior appointments

The manager is viewed as the essential cog in the system. They make the decisions, manage the risks and ultimately are the main reason for the success or failure of projects. The underlying sector is practically irrelevant - be it waste management, education, foreign affairs, or IT. We have specialists for those nitty gritty details.

"What? Google is engineering-driven? You actually let engineers make decisions?"

  • Paraphrased quote from Singapore government officer on a visit to my workplace

And, hey, software can be written from a top-down manner. But not all top-down hierarchies are made equal. Tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google are more alike to each other in their management structure than to the Singapore government management structure; (successful) tech companies have a culture of technocracy.

Technocracy is a form of government in which science would be in control of all decision making.
Scientists, engineers and technologists who have knowledge, expertise or skills would compose
the governing body, instead of politicians, businessmen and economists. In a technocracy,
decision makers would be selected based upon how knowledgeable and skillful they are in their

This dawned on me (and this occurred while I was talking to a bureaucrat who had no business managing a technical project) that I am disillusioned not with the manager being in charge (well, someone has to be), but with the complete inability for non-technical people to grasp the complexities and subtleties of a technical project. 

Maybe then... I don't have to explain why you need people who are smart and get things done. And before you start your berate, I am not saying that having a PhD means that a person is a great software engineer. It's just a signal to use when making a hiring decision.

"If i can pay a diploma holder to write a computer software, why should i pay a PhD?"

Amazon Reviews might not all be truthful

You might be interested in How Aunt Ammy Gets Her Free Lunch.

In the first academic study of its kind, we examine the elite class of top-thousand Amazon reviewers by conducting a detailed survey with a subset of 166 of these top reviewers. The study, examines everything from age, gender and education (typically middle-aged, male and master’s degree), to the motives and concerns of this volunteer corps who’ve helped drive Amazon’s growth from quaint virtual bookstore to the planet’s most valuable retail brand. 

Wisdom of the crowd corrupted by greed. I am sure nothing can go wrong. :)

What it is like inside Apple

Fascinating article by Adam Lashinsky on How Apple Works

"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?" Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, "So why the fuck doesn't it do that?"

For the next half-hour Jobs berated the group. "You've tarnished Apple's reputation," he told them. "You should hate each other for having let each other down." The public humiliation particularly infuriated Jobs. Walt Mossberg, the influential Wall Street Journal gadget columnist, had panned MobileMe. "Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us," Jobs said. On the spot, Jobs named a new executive to run the group.

The full article text can either be gotten from the Fortune app in iTunes, or as a Kindle single for $0.99.

Firing Squad

A lunch buddy shared an interview question that he had heard from another tech company. It is a thinly veiled CS question, which sort of threw me off my tracks, and made me slightly embarassed it took me a few minutes to get it.

N (where N > 1) prisoners are being lined up to be shot by a firing squad. Each prisoner is given a helmet that is colored either red or green. The prisoners are lined up facing one direction - so the last prisoner can see the helmets of every other prisoner except his own, the second last prisoner can see everyone's helmet except for his and the last prisoner's helmet.

In a strange twist, the crazzzzy chief prison warden decides the firing squard will spare the life of any prisoner if he or she can correctly name the color of his helmet. The firing squad will start from the last prisoner and move sequentially to the first prisoner.

Before the firing squad begins, all the prisoners are placed in a holding cell and they make use of the opportunity to discuss a strategy to maximize the number of prisoners saved.

What is that strategy?

Dividend Yield - An investment factor?

Reading: White paper from Tweedy, Browne (verbosely) titled "The High Dividend Yield Return Advantage: An Examination of Empirical Data Associating Investment in High Dividend Yield Securities with Attractive Returns Over Long Measurement Periods."

tl;dr; summary: High dividend yield stocks as a whole outperform low dividend yield stocks.

However, unless you can buy high dividend yield stocks with transaction costs less than the outperform returns, this whole analysis is moot for the individual investor. Focusing on a smaller basket of stocks like the "Dogs of the Dow" is better. The "Dogs of the Dow" strategy is well known, and as a result, it did not surprise me that its 10 year return was lower than the Dow itself.

My portfolio has some stocks that pay dividends, mainly as a mechanism to generate income for future stock purchases. In other words, this portion of my portfolio is used for capital reallocation. The fact that, as the report suggests, high dividend stocks are less volatile in terms of the standard deviation of returns is not that important - my time horizon is long term and I still believe in value investing, so I still need to believe a dividend-paying stock is sufficiently undervalued.

Lists like S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats and International Dividend Achievers™ Index are good starting points to peruse. My strategy is to pre-populate limit buy orders of selected companies with pre-computed valuations (that have a margin of safety). This runs the risk of buying a company that has truly deteriorated fundamentals, but with Mr Market antics like the occasional dips and flash crash, coupled with regular reevaluations to keep the buy order list up-to-date, I have managed to snag high quality dividend paying stocks like ADP, MMM, JNJ, PG and XOM at very good price points. Most recently, if you follow my covestor account, you might even noticed me purchasing GSK - the salient points for GSK is a high barrier of entry due to regulatory laws and it is one of the few companies capable of being in this field due to its economics of scale. The downsides of a volatile restructuring by its CEO and recent legal woes, but even so, as everything in life, these will pass.

(Don't) Keep up with the Joneses

Source: "Why So Many Rich People Don't Feel Very Rich" Economix blog Jan 11, 2011

tl;dr summary: The rate of increase in household income raises exponentially, with the steepest rates of increase at the top few percentiles. Those going from the 30th percentile to the 35th percentile will need to increase their income by $4,000 annually, whereas those going from the 91st percentile to the 96th percentile need to increase their income by $324,900.

This surprises me, because all that is involved to avoid feel that way is to realize how irrational it is. Can you honestly poor when making more than $100K per year? The bar seems so absurd - I would like to be able to make limitless consumption. Please. Thank you very much.

Would I care for billions and millions of dollars? Sure, I just will not fret over it.

Setting Goals

I am torn. Allow me to elaborate (in a roundabout way).

Today my investment portfolio reached a milestone. Granted that this was an arbitrarily set goal, but it made me reflect on my innate nature to set goals. I cannot remember when I started to do this, but I definitely remember wanting to graduate as soon as possible from my undergraduate program, which involved getting degrees in Pure Mathematics and Computer Science in less than three years. It was not an easy goal, but I tend to persist in my pursue of meeting objectives. So it must have started at least in my early adulthood, but I always did try to do my best in the latest fancy since young. (Old friends can comment on some of my absurd obsessions, but please refrain yourself.)

I realize that I implicitly set goals for my personal life and career: I want to be able to send my children to any college they want. I want to be able to retire with my wife without requiring any support from anybody (or at least I do not expect someone to do so).

And so on.

Which leads me to why I am torn. As life marches on, I (occasionally) realize that many of such goals, given a sufficient long time horizon, are meaningless and I should not be spending an inordinate time of them if it detracts me from the more important aspects of life. Namely, truly living. And before you shout, "wannabe spiritual guru!", I do have a practical outlook (at this point in time), and am not convinced I am fated for a life of Enlightenment pursuit without regards to the mundane realities of day to day life.

And yet, without my earlier sacrifices, I cannot perceive myself being where I am now and, well, honestly, meeting most of my objectives (or being close enough to them). In any case, I realize (as I apt to do so from time to time) that I am in a fortunate situation. And I am thankful.

Maybe I should just shut up and go back to my meditation.

A land where dreams come true

I got my greasy hands on the new Chrome OS hotness, the Cr-48 Chrome notebook.

First off, cool box art, no?

This is not a machine for everyone - if you live exclusively in the cloud, emailing using a web based email server like, I don't know,, listen to music using Pandora, take notes with Google Docs, use Facebook and Twitter, and watch the occasional YouTube video, then this machine is right for you!

If you have not heard yet, the Chrome OS is nothing but a browser. So no Starcraft or Photoshop for you; flash games and HTML5 photo editing tools for you instead! It's limited, but if it fits your usage needs, then hey, why not. I liken it to the choices between a Kindle vs an iPad for pure book reading, or a Toyota Corolla vs a Ferrari for transportation to and from work.

The hardware is still in pilot, so I expect the experience to only get better. Don't write off this niche product just yet. Let's see how the interweb advances in the next few years.


I decided to use a NAS as opposed to constantly buying portable hard disks for my storage needs. I settled on a DroboFS due to their advertised ease of use.

Verdict? The DroboFS is a great NAS but it definitely is not for the non geek. Like any other modern NAS, you just pop in HDDs and that increases the total storage space. The main selling point for me is the ability to run DroboApps - which are essentially popular Linux programs recompiled for the DroboFS variant of Linux.

A few kinks though:

  • CLI (command line interface) for initial installation and customization
  • The main support is the Drobo Forum, a restricted forum (you are required to enter your Drobo FS serial to join) - this sounds alarm bells to me, unless you are trying to restrict opinions and active discussions on the product

But hey, I installed Transmission Bittorrent with its nice web interface, and FUPPES to provide UPnP to stream media to my .. yeah .. iPad. :)

Why do you like this?!

I was watching an episode from Futurama season 7 (it's back baby!) with the Mrs, and she is just amazed at how amused I was at the show. Honestly, I prefer the earlier seasons which were on Fox and not Comedy Central as there are too much allusions to sexual references.

In any case, I thought about it and hypothesized that the humor comes from the show depicting stereotypical concepts as opposed to more "realistic" scenarios given the premise of being the future. For example, the planet which had multiple tornadoes involved the Professor screaming "everyone to the basement!", and the next scene showed the crew scurrying to the basement, complete with a big wooden basement door seen in so many movies.

The Mrs looked at me, and sniped, "yeah, I can see why that's funny".

I laughed.