Monday, September 27, 2010

Google reading

What struck me most about The Google Story - an entertaining story of Google and its founding was the universal belief by the founders (and almost all company founders) that by going to the stock market, they lose the ability to control the long term destiny of the company. They believe that the stock market focuses too much on the short term to the detriment of long term which invites the following question: Is the stock market wrong or is the theory that the market knows best wrong? Does the stock market really aggregate all available information (including long term visions of the company) or is it myopic and selective in the information that it incorporates?
Here is my belief: The stock market is inefficient because stock holders and investors have short term horizons at least shorter than the founders. Quarterly scorecards of fund performances accentuate this short term outlook. This inefficiency is made greater by day traders and algorithmic trading. Investors who buy and hold for the long term are the ultimate losers in this set up.

The issue of control ultimately resulted in Google deciding to auction its IPO instead of going through traditional channels. It also resulted in creating different classes of shares so that Brin and page retained control. I had expected to learn more about the IPO as well as its server farms but this book revealed little beyond what I had already read in the press and so this was somewhat disappointing. While it was mainly positive about Google, I thought it treated the Google-China issue fairly. I was extremely surprised to read how much revenue it obtained from advertising and how it went about doing it. Like many others I thought of Google as a search engine and the revenues were from licensing of its search technology.

Of course, I am now extremely aware of all the ads that pop up whenever I view a video on Youtube as well as all the sponsored ads on the search results. I am also uncertain how the market is responding to how far it has flung itself with all its various 'experiments' e.g. Android, Froogle, etc. As such, when I read the following article about Google's efforts to help the publishing industry, I was surprised. Again, I see this as a long term and uncertain strategy that would surely be punished by the market but I think that it's other successes has allowed this experiment to proceed without a penalty. Yet, I wonder, would any company other than Google be able to pursue this without stock market retribution?

Remembrances of a product of testing (but not accountability)

I just finished Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System. (See Slate's review for an overview.) This is a more personal approach on the book.

This was a very enlightening and entertaining read and I shared the author's disappointment in the start stop nature of reform and the failure of the promise of testing and choice to reform schools. I agree with the author on many aspects of the book but the final chapter of recommendations left me wanting. Here again were the vague and untested promise that having a national curriculum would 'fix' everything despite the fact that she acknowledges that there is no 'silver bullet'. While not precisely coming out and saying this, a national curriculum forms the basis of the reform that she thinks will work and it is in this sense that I consider this to be another 'silver bullet' approach.

I am also in agreement that using tests for high stakes accountability reduces the test to be the end rather than the means toward continual and continuous improvement. I was never a fan of tests as accountability although like the author I am not against testing per se. After all, we do need to measure something but the act of measurement can reduce us to focusing on the measure rather than the greater goal. Like the author, and as a produce of a fresh water economics program I too was caught up by the excitement of 'market-based reforms' but unlike the movement at the time I never and still do not believe that paying teachers for raising test scores work – haven't we seen the effects of pay-for-performance on Wall Street? The accounting scandals, the back dating of options and the analyst recommendation scandals? Focusing only on test scores and paying districts, schools and teachers by the results of test scores only invites the creation of a nexus of ties to try to manipulate test scores to everybody's advantage.

After all, there are plenty of countries that are not paying their teachers by tests scores and their students are still outperforming U.S. students. As a product of an education system that emphasized testing, drilling, and test-taking skills I empathize with the author about how much learning really goes on. I hated it when I was in it but with the benefit of hindsight I do see the advantages of this system. The system I went through at the time had national testing at what is the U.S. equivalent of 3rd, 5th, and 6th grades. 3rd grade tests were low stakes perhaps to prime us for the onslaught of further tests to come. 5th grade tests were higher stakes with individual results aggregated to the school level and while there was no report card system back then, word-of-mouth was sufficient to tell us which school had a good performance. 6th grade tests determined which secondary school (we didn't have a middle-high school system) we were eligible to go to – so it was also a system were streaming by ability was the norm. In the 9th, 11th and 13th grades there were more testing and considerably higher stakes. The 11th grade (equivalent to the 'O' levels) and the 13th grade (equivalent to the 'A' levels of the British system) were incredibly stressful and it is surprising that the author does not tackle this in her book. In one paragraph she is favorable of the Japanese system yet ignores the same stresses that Japanese high school system puts on its students to get into the best universities.

The results of 9th grade tests pretty much determines whether a student will drop out from high school while failure at the A-and O-levels is not an end all. Some students choose to retake the exams or enroll in private high schools (whose quality at the time was suspect although I think they are much improved now) or vocational schools. In my mind, by the time I was in 10th grade I was already convinced that there was too much testing and looked at the more free-wheeling U.S. high schools with its electives and choice – in this case, choice by students as to what to study. (I recall going through countless 'Add Maths' problems doing integration and differentiation and learning different tricks to do them even though I had very little interest in the subject. It paid off in college however as my math skills were more advanced that most students in my classes.) As I look back on it now of course, I realize that this admiration was naïve – high school students in the U.S. barely learned anything by the time they were in high school and these electives was a way out for them.

Over the years as I've thought more about it and as I've watched K1 and K2 go through what I think is a very good school in an IB program whose pedagogy doesn't always enthrall me because I think they need to learn some things quicker than they are being taught – for instance, I think multiplication tables up through 12 really ought to be taught by 4th grade, I realize that there are benefits to teaching to the test, and drills and repetitions. There are basic things that everyone really ought to know.

I think rigor (i.e. drills, rote learning etc.) should emanate from the bottom beginning at around 3rd grade and through 9th grades and good performance should determine whether students get to do some electives (as a reward and as extra classes and not as a way out). I also think that the school year and school day is too short but that's another rant altogether. I also think that the expansion of AP into high schools is a healthy sign that standards are getting higher and that like it or not NAEP has become the de facto national curriculum in math and reading and efforts should be focused on teaching to that test especially at the 3rd and 5th grade levels.

Throughout all this and even now, parents still lament about teachers and schools in Malaysia. While there are private schools there has always been (and is?) a stigma attached to them as schools for failures or dropouts rather than viewing them as second chances. Moreover, what is interesting is that unlike the U.S. the parents there do not view competition or accountability as a solution to the quality of schools. There private tutoring (for those who can afford it and I was in many of these including the lower quality ones) is the answer to the race to the top.Nor do they seem to see streaming as a problem that widens the gulf between the haves and have-nots and as such the U.S. education is more egalitarian.

Unfortunately, the focus is and always has been the teachers and while I realize that other factors do matter I am unsympathetic to the author's view that teachers do not matter as much and this is mostly a result of what I observe in K1 and K2. Unlike them and the author I do not and cannot have a teacher that I can point to who most influenced me when I was in school. They did their jobs and they did them adequately and that is all I remember. I wonder what it could have been had I had such a teacher. It doesn't help the author when the press trumpets items in the news such as 'Teacher of the Year' or when Hollywood makes movies like 'Stand and Deliver'.

In the end, there really is no silver bullet and a more cooperative approach is needed and teachers really need to evaluate themselves and each other to learn what works. Here I think 'data driven' and classroom observations will supplement each other. Special needs students also need to be treated differently and the original vision of charter schools as schools within schools that experiments with different approaches is a vision that I would like see as an outcome (not as a competitive alternative). In fact, charter schools should only be formed to 'treat' slow learners, ELLs and special needs kids.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pay-as-you-go-Internet access

I noticed this in Penang and in Bangkok. You pay about USD150 for a modem and for 3GB and then you have the option to top up. This may be attractive if I were more familiar with the carrier's coverage and did not have access to hotel internet (or if the hotel internet was expensive as it was at Katathani). I also started noticing them in Washington when I got back but instead of a fixed bandwidth amount Verizon and ATT charges by 12 hours, week or month which is not very useful. In fact, it's downright useless.

Foreign exchange charges

Coming back from our trip, the major shocker was the bill – not so much how much we spent, but how how much the foreign transaction fees were. Our bank is charging us 1 percent of the amount. I don't mind paying a fixed transaction fee (the ATM in Bangkok was charging 150Thb per transaction) or a proportionate fee capped at say $10, but I hate having to pay a proportional charge especially when hotel bills run into the thousands. Does the marginal cost of a foreign transaction rise with the amount I spend? I hardly think so. If there is a bank out there that is NOT charging proportionately, I'd be willing to switch.

Phuket again

After Bangkok, we stopped over for another 2 nights in Phuket, this time at the Katathani. While the hotel itself is superb, the main reason being right on the beach, the food was extremely disappointing. The Thai food for a buffet was well below my expectations. The cultural/dance show that went with it was very enjoyable. On other nights, entertainment featured Filipino bands. The breakfast that was included in our package was uninspiring and uninspired. About the only thing going for the whole set up at the restaurant (the Chom Talay) was the fruit carvings.
The hotel was not too busy when we were there and the kids got to enjoy the various pools as well as the beach. We picked up quite a lot of trash that washed ashore – mainly plastic bags, although we also fished out a 12in flower pot. The beach is a public beach and umbrella/seating rentals at the beach ran at 200Thb per person for the two hours we were there. (We paid for two.)

We stayed at the junior ocean front suite which was very pleasant with good view although not as breezy as I had expected. The room looked like it had recently been upgraded (perhaps as recent as 2-3 years ago, based on the flat panel TV). Internet was not included and was at an exorbitant 500Thb per 24 hours (or 200 Thb for 1 hour).

All in all we will come back here if possible although we will probably try to eat in town or across the street.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Chipped credit cards

We encountered another problem with 'regular' credit cards again this trip – this time in Bangkok. (In our last trip we also had problems using our credit cards at Tesco, a superstore. There they kept having to call a manager which was a hassle since it held up the check out line and us(!) and we pretty much went there daily for supplies.) The hotel we were staying would not accept the card when we checked in and since it was a Sunday there was no manager available whom we could speak to. Fortunately, my brother-in-law offered to use his card since he lived in Bangkok. He paid for our deposit for our stay.

Visa and Mastercard really have not dealt with this problem adequately – they need to force the US banks to switch over. As the use of chipped cards expands the capacity to deal with unchipped cards is going to shrink proportionately – mom and pop operations in Asia and Europe that accept chipped credit cards may not have the know-how to bypass the use of a chipped card. Fortunately for us the hotel's IT folks came in later that week and 'fixed' their card reader so that we could pay our balance with our crappy US based credit cards.

Canceling credit cards is now on my to-do list. I am also exploring the possibility of moving our money off-shore to a country that does offer chipped cards.

Penang as a tourist destination

I've been pondering why Penang remains a tourist destination – it used to be the beaches and it certainly isn't that any more. For a while now (apparently unknown to me), it has been street food and staying at Gurney Drive made me aware of this. Every evening tour buses would disgorge hordes of tourists to the end of Gurney Drive at the roundabout to Tanjung Tokong and they would descend upon the food stalls near our apartment.

We tried the food there one night – it wasn't all good – mostly miss than hit and the stalls didn't look particularly appetizing.

What used to be knowledge by word of mouth – where the best char koay teow was, etc. has now been formalized into guide books for foods as well as top ten lists in newspapers. I discovered all this on this particular trip and was slightly overwhelmed at how much things have changed. Of course, the Internet has been playing a big role as well. Try googling 'penang street food' and all kinds of web sites and blogs complete with mouth watering pictures of dishes appear.

Penangites (and its tourists) are apparently undeterred by the effect of emissions on the environment where food is concerned. They are willing to drive miles out of the way in search of the best hokkien mee or whatever seems to be on their mind.

Wireless access frustration

Why is it that when I try to log onto an unsecured wireless network, all the internet adapter does is cycle through the channels without connecting to the Internet? Having Googled this problem it is clear that I am not the only one with the problem (and none of the proposed solutions that I could affect worked). The network shows up as an available network. The adapter is a Netgear external card. When I try it with the internal Broadcom adapter, the network doesn't even show up. What is even more interesting is that M's laptop running Windows Vista has no problem connecting to the network. (I'm running XP and we're connecting to the hotel's wireless network.) Tried updating the firmware and drivers but that didn't produce the desired effect.

This happened to me in Bangkok and I ended up buying another network adapter which worked fine.

Update: When I got back to the US I tried the Netgear adapter and it worked fine as well so I have no idea what the problem could have been.


We were in Bangkok August 7 – August 16 and stayed at the Sathorn Gallery. This was a spacious 3-bedroom apartment but unfortunately was not quite what we had expected. In the past we had stayed at serviced apartments and this is not a serviced apartment. For instance, there were no laundry facilities and while there was a 6-place dining set provided, there were no cooking utensils.

The location however is excellent – near the Taling Pling restaurant where we got food almost daily and close enough to the Surasak Skytrain station. It was also walkable to Silom near Silom Village where we also at. The sidewalks were being repaired at the time on Thanon Pun which made navigating the street slightly difficult. There was also a Vietnamese restaurant on the street which we tried and found to be pretty good.

One thing I like about being in Bangkok is its convenience – tuk tuks are easy to get, as are taxis (which to foreigners are fairly affordable). Now with the Skytrain and the subway, I think it's even easier now to get around. There are also 7-11's and Family Marts almost at every corner and block (or so it appears) where we can get daily supplies – mainly water. There was a 7-11 around the corner from us on Sathorn and a Family Mart about half a block down on Pun. The things sold here aren't always marked up either – for instance, I went to Silom to a pharmacy (Watson's) to get some Vaseline lotion thinking it would be cheaper there but when I popped by the Family Mart, I found that I had overpaid by almost 15 baht.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Liquid chlorophyll

To drink! I saw a billboard for this in Penang. It's considered an anti-oxidant.

Coincidentally, I came across this article "Wheatgrass Juice and Folk Medicine" in the August 2008 Scientific American by Michael Sherman:

The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism reveals a habit of human cognition – thinking anecdotally comes naturally, whereas thinking scientifically does not. ... On the other side are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms begin to appear. These anecdotal associations are so powerful that they cause people to ignore contrary evidence ...

Take wheatgrass juice ... if you can stomach it. The claims for its curative powers are bottomless.

While we're at this here are some other personal examples from my uncle who swears by the following:

1. Fruit wash when used on the skin can eliminate blemishes and acne.
2. The juices from discarded fruits and vegetable (when left to compost) is a very efficient cleaning agent (even for the skin).

Race and Ethnicity

Reading Rehman Rashid made me wonder what this term/phrase really means. It's on Census forms and various other official and school documents for K1 and K2. In the US I would fill in Asian and when working with public use data I've seen Filipino or even Malaysian as a race/ethnicity usually in the 'Other' category.

Curiously, in Malaysia where this question is always mandatory in all official forms (including religion!) I would have filled in Chinese. So race/ethnicity is relative to where we are, but does where we are define who we are, and does it also define who we are supposed to be as well what our roles are depending on where we are? Or is this question just another useless item on a questionnaire?

Pre-vacation trip reading

1. John Burdett (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts) – Enjoyable although less so with each subsequent novel. Burdett starts from gritty to weird to supernatural. I don't know about Thais but if I were one, I'd be insulted by his portrayal of Thai society – all cops are corrupt with the Army being worse than the police and all women in Bangkok are either prostitutes or are downtrodden maids. Men are either drug addicts or pimps and all farang are johns or of dubious character. Do Thai detectives really use regular and motorcycle taxis to get around? Burdett is either an astute observer of Thai society or has an inside track (probably the latter) – Thai society is extremely hierarchical though to the Western observer it is not entirely obvious. How long one wais to another signifies their rank in society, likewise in the way one person addresses another. One of the first things that Thais do when they meet each other is to try to determine who has seniority, theyby earning the honorific 'Pi'. Sometimes they try to do this discreetly by asking a friend of a friend or when all else fails, the direct method is used.

2. Mai Pen Rai means Never Mind by Carol Hollinger. Almost 50 years old, this book was still extremely enjoyable. Self-effacing and humorous, I get the impression that Carol Hollinger is not as helpless as she makes herself out to be – and this is true because as a farang in Bangkok who does not speak the language, she somehow manages to get a teaching job at Chulalongkorn University, drives herself all over Bangkok as well as goes on trips outside Bangkok without her husband while enjoying parties almost every weekend. She only devotes one chapter to raising her 7-year old daughter who was put into a British school and it almost seemed like her daughter spent more time in the company of maids and nannies than with her. I suppose this was what a liberated woman in the 60s was supposed to do.

3. Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osbourne. It's hard to tell how much of this dark travel writing is true but this book was more enjoyable than I had expected. It opened up a whole new view of Bangkok - drug addicts (ya ba), the seamier side of Klong Toey by the river where the slaughterhouses for poultry is, the relationship between Bangkok hi-so and their maids, Sukhumvit Road in a way that I would never have seen it.

4. Christopher Moore's Minor Wife. I picked this up on one of our trips and have only just gotten to it. Unlike Burdett, Moore's characters seem more real and gritty and depicts a harder, more scrabbled life of ordinary Thais (albeit from a farang view) than Burdett does. Burdett's characters and scenes seemed more air-brushed while Moore's are somewhat darker. His farang detective is more Sam Spade and at least the Thai police (while political and fight over jurisdiction), are not all corrupt or dishonest – just regular folks trying to do their jobs.

5. A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid. This book brought back a lot of memories growing up although the author preceded me by 10 years. It also made me realized how sheltered and naïve I was growing up. Not surprisingly, a large chunk of the book deals with race relations and the New Economic Policy and the bumiputras. I am less optimistic than he is about race relations in Malaysia. This book cries for a sequel but does not appear to be in the offing.

What I hate most about Penang

I came upon this realization rather suddenly – the kiasu (literally "afraid to lose" or roughly, "mine is bigger than yours") attitude in Penang is just as prevalent and pervasive in Washington. And the traffic in Penang is worse than Washington. Egads!


After Phuket, we were in Penang from July 30 – Aug 7. Stayed at a condominium on Gurney Drive found via Holiday Lettings. It turned out to be a very well stocked place with a lot of movies to watch (I only got to see 3) and close to the Cold Storage in Gurney Plaza which was essential for groceries. In a spurt of environmental activism that surprised me – the shops in Gurney Plaza do not use plastic bags from Mondays through Thursdays so we either had to bring our own bags or carry our purchases. One could argue that this was no skin off their backs since these are the least busy days in the mall but it was the awareness and the desire to do something about it that surprised me. (We won't see this in Bangkok malls!)

The touristy things we did: Kek Lok Si, butterfly farm and batik factory up in Teluk Bahang. The butterfly farm was impressive – probably on par with the collection we sometimes see in Wheaton. The weather was very mild and it only rained one or two days while we were there. It was even cooler than in Washington. There was too much eating on this leg of the trip (as expected) – it has probably undone a year's worth of exercise and diet. (And the reason I started on exercise and diet was because of last year's trip!)

One meal we had was at the Hollywood Restaurant at Tanjung Bungah next to the another defunct restaurant (Sin Hai Keng? I forget the name now but the food there was much better than at Hollywood.) Sad to say, the beach fronting the restaurant has not gotten any cleaner. We used to play at a beach where the Spring Tide restaurant was and there used to be a large pipe that discharged effluents straight into the ocean. (The site is now a high rise condominium!) We used to think it was so cool to see a river of 'water' come into the beach and would stand near the pipe and let the 'water' wash over our feet!

The memory that I will probably have of this trip is sitting out on the balcony of the rental apartment and enjoying the view of the hills in Penang and the coastline of Tanjung Tokong with the cool breeze on my face – while brushing my teeth or having coffee.

One thing of note was that at McDonald's I saw three women – a Chinese, an Indian, and a Malay together – who seemed to be friends and I thought of Rehman Rashid's A Malaysian Journey.