Wednesday, March 26, 2014

MH370: May God give us strength and guidance in difficult times

My stopover in Malaysia this time around coincides with the most difficult time for the country - the MH370 event (I'm hesitant to call it a crash yet). I'm afraid the large gloomy cloud will linger for quite some times over the previously, relatively unknown nation (I don't have to explain that Malaysia is between Singapore and Thailand anymore to people who has never been to this region).

Tun Mahathir was perplexed that no modern technology could detect the plane. I'm more disturbed with the fact that in this modern era people could vanish after taking a large commercial airline. I'm not alone. I've heard about a number of cancellations to attend international meetings due to the MH370 event. Though, being a Muslim, I believe in fate - we can work hard to change our conditions (God promises to reward hard working), but life and death cannot be changed. When, where and how we die are already predetermined. Being a transportation risk expert, I also take comfort that flying is much safer than driving or walking for that matter.

MH370 will remain a mystery for a long while. The three leading theories and my opinion are as follows:
  • Hostage: The level of expertise in evading the radar requires a very smart group and unprecedented level of secrecy, to a point that I think only a state-sponsored organization is capable. Also, if they are so smart, they would not just let the plane crash. However, if they have landed somewhere the CIA should have already heard the chatter of an airplane sighting or a large group of people being fed in a remote location.
  • Sabotage/Suicide: A crew would simply dive down en-route to Beijing. It shouldn't be any turn back or radar evasion.
  • Catastrophic Accident: A rare condition (Black Swan) led to multiple failures that resulted in a catastrophic event (Perfect Storm). A lost of pressure and oxygen would caused a "ghost plane" after all crew and passengers incapacitated.
I still believe the most likely theory (99.9%) is the catastrophic accident.
Without any confirmed debris, I'd still put a 0.01% likelihood of a hostage. I wish the whole technical report of the satellite data analysis is being made public for scrutiny. It took me more than two years to get a new technical engineering methodology published in a distinguished academic journal. They completed the satellite data analysis using a new methodology and review in less than two weeks. A simple error in using a minus sign would give a wrong conclusion.

I'll leave the country this weekend with a heavy heart. However, I'm truly grateful that I have my love ones. The MH370 is also a reminder that we should always try to have a proper goodbye as you never know if it would be the last one. Ironically, my itinerary back to the States will include a Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing at 12:25am - the newly numbered MH318. Life must go on.

My thought and prayers to the affected MH370 families and friends. May God give us strength and guidance in difficult times, Amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Interpretation of Jamal Abdillah & Malique's Aku Maafkan Kamu

At the age of 12 I was quite obsessed with reading my sister's textbook for SPM's Malay Literary - Bunga Gerimis, Hari Kemerdekaan and Hikayat Umar Umayyah. The first was my favorite with a collection of high-quality modern Malay poetry. It was up to a point that I seriously considered to be a seniman like A. Samad Said.

Anyway, I overheard this song by Malique featuring Jamal Abdillah on the radio. I checked out the lyrics, and it's quite deep and beautiful (this link contains the song and lyrics in Malay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAsVtswC4Zg).

The first stanza describes a place or more precisely a group of narrow-minded idiots who like to make noise about different issues.

The rest of the song expresses anguish and disappointment to these idiots who are lacked of knowledge, but quick to judge people, or "mengkafirkan" fellow citizens (there were even some religious enthusiasts, regretfully involved some with honorable educated title, who blamed the ignorance to some religious practices in the MH370 tragedy).

Specifics advice from the song includes:
  • We should think before we speak
  • Be quiet (Miranda rights) sometimes is an intellectual virtue
  • Sometimes we just have to pretend listening to some idiots
The song keeps repeating that those idiots are forgiven, but without any prejudice I doubt the sincerity to forgive. I'd question the need to forgive in the first place anyway.

Here is the literal translation of the first stanza:
There is a small house at the end of a village
In the house there is a box under a broken mirror
Inside the box is a coconut shell
Under the shell a frog is shouting like hell
So it's not just describing a frog under a coconut shell, a euphemism for a narrow-minded person. It's more like a triple narrow-mindedness - the frog under the shell inside the box inside an isolated house!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

MH370: Imagination running wild, hoping for a miracle

I'm back in KL again for a few weeks after my first stint giving an expert legal testimony at the maple leaf country.

Like most Malaysians, I'm saddened by the MH370 missing. I couldn't imagine how the family members of the passengers and crews are feeling. My thoughts and prayers for them. May we get whatever is the best from God soon, insyaAllah.

My tip of the hat to Datuk Azharuddin for trying his best to lead the whole SAR and public relationship efforts. I bet he didn't realize these fall under his job description. You'd agree that he's much better now in handling the situation and questions as compared during his first day.

We should give him and other government agencies and personnel involved the benefit of the doubt. Strategically located geographically, Malaysia is very fortunate to not have frequent mass disasters. Everything seems ad-hoc in responding to the MH370 missing. Basic crisis management such as being transparent and frank, and the need to dummy down technical information was absence (no need to throw in C-170, Orion etc).

Other countries like the U.S. have tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, snow storms etc. almost every few months. Their government agencies are well experienced to react lo massive emergencies. Malaysia could learn a thing or two, but still deserved the benefit of the doubt in the MH370 case - no one could ever be prepared enough for a major air disaster. The fact of the matter is aviation accidents are very rare.

Wearing my transportation risk expert's hat, considering all the facts, I'm afraid it's just a matter of time before we find the debris.

Wearing my spy-and-war-movie aficionado's hat, I'm hoping for a miracle - the plane could be forced to land somewhere. If you watched "Zero-Dark Thirty" and the old movie "Firefox" you know (at least you think you know) you could duck the radar if you fly a plane very low (that's what the fisherman saw, right?). Not all airports operate 24-hours, so it could be diverted to those small airports, or any large man-made or natural landing strip.

If someone care to investigate this, please don't waste the limited resources, but put a small team with access to civilian and military satellites in the region, identify the appropriate radius based on the plane's available fuel at the last detected location, and look for suspicious activities (or debris, unfortunately) inland.

Unlike the U.S., Malaysia doesn't have the no-negotiation-with-terrorist policy (right?). In addition, I'd be surprised if reinsurance brokers didn't already provide more than USD1 billion to cover the cost of such unlikely event. In theory, one could ask for the moon.

I know my imagination is running wild, but please don't blame me for hoping....

p/s: Alhamdulillah, just landed safely from a MAS Boeing 777-200 in Hong Kong for a short business trip. Happy to report the flight was quite full. Life must go on, and some things are predetermined, insyaAllah.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ramblings on the First Day of 2014 - Holiday in Malaysia, High Cost of Living

Happy 2014! I'm glad to escape the zero degree Celcius weather in the Midwest USA and have a short break in Malaysia. It was a non-stop, busy second-half of the year since late May. I overstretched myself in the summer by organizing a summer internship for a group of undergrads in my lab, extra-curricular teaching in Hong Kong and Beijing, and various research projects with my grad students. I returned to the States in mid-August, just on time to teach a new class that I didn't have time to complete the contents over the summer. I ended-up working on the class materials over every weekend. I'm glad the semester has ended, went to present some papers in Sydney, and meet my extended families in KL. BTW, Sydney trip was nice, but everything seems to be very expensive. Although the US and Australian currencies are at parity, the food and stuffs are twice more expensive there.

On the new year's eve, my soon to be 2-year old daughter was discharged from a hospital. It was for a high fever. Last July when we were in KL, she was hospitalized too. The last time was at Gleneagles, and this time was at Prince Court because they running out of beds in pediatric ward at Gleneagles. Small kids always get sick I guess. A 2-3 night stay cost us about RM3,000, that's slightly below USD1,000. When she was hospitalized in the States for the same reason early in 2013, the total bill was USD10,000. We are not rich, but grateful to have a health insurance to cover almost all the expenses.

Talking about high prices, we were nervous last night to drive home as a major street demonstration was allegedly planned to complain against the high-cost of living in Malaysia. The people want all the subsidies back for sugar, gasoline, toll roads etc. Yet again, opportunists are using some faction of the public to rile up. Let's step back and entertain the idea of continuing subsidies the way things had been done before - we'd end up subsidizing rich people, millionaires, billionaires, the guy who has just gotten an S class Mercedes as a new year gift, Singaporeans who drive to JB every weekend to buy gas and groceries etc. My two cent - remove all the subsidies, and increase direct cash to the needy, probably using the same criteria for the Br1M allocations. By the way, if you have so much time to demonstrate or bitching against the authorities day in and out, instead of working, you are probably not qualified.

The government is really in hot water. The new announcement to reduce government spending is good, but not enough. Let the market decide the fair car and house prices. Expedite transportation infrastructure projects so that it's possible to not own a car, and buy a reasonable house in Jasin and Muar but can still affordably commute to work in KL within 45 minutes (say with me, high speed rail!). Remove all the tax to protect Proton. Generations have been suffering to champion the brand. We don't have the competitive advantage to produce and sell 8-10 million cars annually. Governments should focus on infrastructure and education. Other artificial attempts to increase salary, control prices, champion fancy new industries etc. are doomed to fail. See my other two-cents on transforming Malaysia.

I wanted to ramble more especially on politics. I see that the so-called revolution some people are urging in Malaysia is eerily similar to lead to a political gridlock as in Thailand instead of the success in Indonesia. Let me discuss this hypothesis next time. I need to do some data collection to assist my research sponsor in the aftermath of a big freight train derailment you might saw in the news.

p/s: At the hospital, I was able to complete Daniel Kahneman.s Thinking, Fast and Slow. My previous post is a summary of some typical biases that may influence our decision makings

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Incomplete List of Decision Traps



“The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory; and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition” - Herbert Simon

Intuition is not always wrong or right. Intuition could be based on experience and practice. A chief firefighter directed his team to get out of a house after a fire was put down in a kitchen, just before the floor collapsed. His sense and intuition detected the original source of the fire at the basement.

Decision makings are prone to biases and other traps. In this post we will review some of them and identify possible strategies to avoid the traps.

Law of Small Numbers
  • Making generalization or decision based on insufficient evidence
  • Big Data may help – use of large data from multiple sources may provide stronger evidence


Anchoring
  • Using an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments
  • It could be part of an adjustment process from a baseline condition one is familiar with or priming/suggestion
  • Baseline example: Investment decision to avoid a certain type of accident may be influenced by the most recent, high-cost accident (error in baseline definition)
  • Priming example: Decision makers will be willing to spend close to the value suggested in the first question to answer the second question below:
    • Would you spend $1 million (replace with $1 billion in another occasion) per year to avoid human factor accidents?
    • How much would spend annually to avoid human factor accidents?
  • Thinking the opposite” e.g. different perspectives, opportunity cost, comprehensive cost-benefit analysis may reduce anchoring effect
  • In team discussion, requesting a short memo (1 paragraph or so) from each member before the discussion could avoid group anchoring on the more vocal, opinionated or influential members 

 

Availability Effect
  • The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater "availability" in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be.
  • Other than frequency, factors causing availability bias include high-profile or dramatic events and personal experiences
  • Eg. A commuter train ridership may drop after a major train accident, resulting in more highway traffics and car accidents 
  • Availability cascade: a self-sustaining chain of event that leads to irrational fear and reaction to a  minor issue
  • Similar strategies to reduce anchoring effect might be relevant to reduce availability effect



Statistics Over Causality
  • Emphasizing abstract statistics e.g. percentage distribution of different accident causes without explaining the causal relationships
  • Presenting statistics with causal interpretations has a stronger effect on decision makers’ thinking
  • Data from unreliable sources could be treated irrelevant
  • Bayesian inference that combines a base rate with a new evidence and the reliability of the new source will improve decision makings


Hindsight or Outcome Bias
  • Assess the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound, but by whether the outcome is good or bad
  • Use the best information available to determine and act for the best expected outcome

 
Narrative Fallacy
  • Flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and expectations for the future
  • Identify real causality, use data to debunk fallacies


Planning Fallacy
  • Plans and forecasts that are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios
  • Relevant during the initial phase of planning for a risk management process and during implementations of specific risk reduction strategies
  • Could be improved by consulting the statistics of similar cases
  • Premortem: a brief mock post-mortem to discuss the causes of the failure after a decision is made (hypothetically after a year of implementation) to consider all the threats 


Sunk-Cost Fallacy
  • Decision to invest additional resources in a failing endeavor due to irrational consideration of the costs  previously invested
  • Similar strategies to reduce anchoring and availability effects might be relevant to avoid sunk-cost fallacy


Acknowledgements
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  • Dilbert by Scott Adams


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"You'll know only if you try"

Sometimes, a death could be inspiring. Reading Augusto Odone's obituary would certainly do that. He was an economist, persistent father and self-taught biologist to save his son's life. He invented the Lorenzo's Oil. He spent nights reading research journal papers and reports to find the cure for his son's rare genetic disease. Initially treated with cynicism, his invention was later embraced by the scientific community, and saved lives. The above-mentioned title was his motto.

Long live the virtues of persistence and hardworking! "Verily, after harshness there will be ease, after harshness there will be ease".

Saturday, October 26, 2013

GST: What's Not to Like?

It's been a while since I last wrote. I'm still playing catch-up with things, but the GST issue beg me to write something. I'm not an economist, but one of my expertise is in decision analysis - the basic goal is to strive for the clarity in action in any decision to make.

With regard to GST, we need to look at a larger perspective related to the long-term quality of life while also taking into consideration the government's current unhealthy fiscal conditions. Moving forward, Malaysia needs to increase its revenues. Taxing is one approach, and GST is the fairest option as it is a consumption tax - you got tax on what you consume (basic food products, public transportation, government services, etc. will not be taxed anyway).

Otherwise, this is the part most people on the street don't realize,  the government need to further cut its spending, subsidies, level of services, investments etc. that may impact general public's quality of life in the long run. You can't have cake and eat it too - you can't have both low tax and high government support at the same time.

GST, what's not to like? I might have been missing something, or it's the typical sensationalization by one faction against progressive efforts by another faction to make Malaysia a better country. For those who are truly confused, here are the keys - think long-term and get the big picture.

Why there is no GST in the U.S.? For those who are curious, IMHO, the U.S. is like 50 different countries - all states are different. 45 of them actually have sales tax, in essence similar to GST. Most states also collect income tax on top of the federal income-tax. No state income tax in some states like Texas, but there is limited state funding for education and social net to help low-income people there. Interestingly, one state, Alaska, actually give money or dividend to their residents - I could live with 24-hour daylight there in the Summer, but 24-hour darkness in winter? No, thanks.