Sunday, June 26, 2016

Islam and Terrorism (Book Review)


Islam and Terrorism is a very disturbing book that provides many insights into the motivations of Islamic terrorists, and how they are firmly rooted in the radical interpretation of Islam. It has challenged much of what I thought I knew, and provided me fresh perspectives on recent trends in terrorism. This is a book I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand the topic better.

About the author and the book

This book provides an inside view into Islam. Mark A Gabriel was an Egyptian and an Islamic scholar. He “started memorising the Quran at the age of five and finished when [he] was twelve years old”. He earned his bachelor, master and doctorate from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the oldest universities in the world, and the most prestigious for Sunni Islam. Disillusioned by the violent side of Islam, he began questioning the basis of his faith and was tortured by Egyptian secret police. He later converted to Christianity and took on a new name. This allows him to speak more openly about Islam, but as a result he has also received many death threats. The book was first published in 2002, and updated in 2015 to include the latest developments such as the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS.

Islam and Terrorism is organised broadly into three sections. The first 1/3 of the book summarises the interpretations and core beliefs of radical Muslims. The remaining 2/3 shows how these beliefs are rooted in the lives and example of Muhammed and his early followers, and traces the history of how extremist groups evolved, and their continual attempts to overthrow their governments to establish a caliphate and Islamic law. In the final chapter, the author also provides his proposal on the best way to counter radical Islam.

Interesting things that I learned from this book

This is not a comprehensive review of the book. I will summarise just a few of the points mainly from the first section that I found most insightful, and how current events that previously seemed strange now appear quite natural. For the remainder, I encourage you to read the book yourself.

Islam is a religion of works, and martyrdom is the assured and direct path to paradise

The author laments the Western media’s facetious fixation on seventy virgins in paradise as the reward for martyrdom. The true motivation is going to paradise at all, and avoiding hell. On the day of judgment, all infidels will go to hell and Muslims may go to paradise depending on the good works they have done in life. But even “if you live the best Muslim life you possibly can, you still have no guarantee of entering Paradise… There is only one guarantee – martyrdom.”

Islam is both politics and religion, hence a Muslim’s loyalty is to Islam and not the state

“Islam is a religion and a state. After Muhammed emigrated from Mecca to Medina, he set up a political government, established laws, and established Islam as a system of beliefs that covers every aspect of life.” As a physical manifestation of this, the mosque for Muhammad was not just a place of worship, but a headquarters for all his wars. “Muslims in general are very proud of the history of the caliphate in Islam. For thirteen centuries the caliphate united Muslim lands both spiritually and politically.” Radical Muslims (including terrorists) “want the caliphate back, and they ultimately want Islam to rule the entire world.” “To a committed radical who is fighting for his faith, the caliphate means everything and nationality means nothing. His nationality is now belief in Islam.”

In Shariah (Islamic Law), earlier peaceful teachings are superseded by later teaching on jihad

Shariah is based on the Quran, which “is filled with contradictions.” This includes attitudes towards Christians, Jews, alcohol and women. “Islamic scholars had to determine, therefore, which verses to follow in the case of contradiction.” This was accomplished by the principle of abrogation [which is] based on the fact that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad at different times over a period of about twenty-two years… To solve a contradiction, they decided that newer revelations would override or abrogate previous revelations.” “The principle of abrogation is very strong. If a verse is abrogated, it is as if the earlier verse had not even existed.”

“At first the messages that were revealed to Muhammad were peaceful and kind in order to attract people. But circumstances changed.” When Muhammad encountered opposition in Mecca, he moved to Medina and built up an Army, with which he returned to conquer Mecca. “Sixty percent of Quranic verses talk about jihad, which stands to reason because Muhammad received most of the Quran after he left Mecca. Jihad became the basic power and driving force of Islam.”

Authorities have repeatedly tried and failed to destroy radical Islam.

The author traces the roots of modern jihad to the 1920s when Ataturk established a secular state in Turkey and “overturned the Islamic succession system that had led the Islamic world for 600 years.” “Muslims reacted negatively” and the Muslim Brotherhood was started in Egypt with the goal of re-establishing the Islamic system. In the 1950’s an intelligent scholar, Sayyid Qutb, grew disillusioned with the paganism and idolatry of the world, and published a book Signs Along The Road that provides the philosophical underpinnings of today’s Islamic terrorist groups. The author equates him to Martin Luther (who broke away from the Catholic church and founded the Protestant church with a desire to be more faithful to the bible).

The Egyptian government sentenced Qutb to death in 1965, imprisoned his followers, and tried to destroy all copies of his book. However, this only elevated his authority. New groups were formed building on his teachings, each more influential than the last, with an expanding geographic reach. As one group of leaders was imprisoned or killed, another took its place. These included Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was the author’s professor at Al Azhar. They also led to Al Qaeda and later ISIS.

This book has changed the way I look at the world

Islamic terrorists are not practicing a form of misguided Islam, as we would like to believe

In fact, the terrorists’ beliefs are grounded in Shariah, and they regard more moderate Muslims as having drifted from the faith. Calling them “misguided” may be like Catholics calling Protestants misguided. Depending on what ideology a specific terrorist group subscribes too, they may even regard peaceful Muslims as infidels as well, to be killed. This leads me to wonder whether ongoing efforts to provide a counter-narrative to extremist ideology can be successful, if Islam truly does promote jihad and violence. The fact that martyrdom is a core teaching also poses big security concerns, as it lends itself perfectly to fuelling the types of suicidal bombers and gunman of modern day terrorism.

On a side note, the pagan lifestyle of terrorists is one of the oft-cited arguments I’ve heard why they are not true Muslims. For example, it was widely publicised that the Paris attackers drank,smoked, did drugs and frequented gay bars. But perhaps that is why after joining radical Islam, they believed a martyr’s death would wipe their slates clean and send them to heaven?

It is important to note that the author takes pains to emphasise that he is not suggesting that all Muslims are violent. He writes, “Islam is the religion. Muslims are people following the teachings of Islam according to many different interpretations.”

Many terrorist practices are consistent with Islam


It was also interesting to understand that mosques have always played a key political and military role in Islamic history, and hence we should not be surprised when Islamic fighters use them as bases to “store weapons and make military plans”. This is a common occurrence in many Middle Eastern conflicts, and sparks outrage when attacked because under the Geneva Convention (which is influenced mostly by Western Christian philosophy), places of worship are off limits. Other practices, such as beheadings, or cutting off arms and legs all follow examples from the Quran. And “Allah commanded the prophet Muhammad to enforce killing rather than taking prisoners.”


It is very worrying that Southeast Asian countries are moving toward Islamic Law

In recent years, the leaders of Malaysia and Brunei have begun the process of imposing Islamic Law. This has sparked significant outcry, and discussions have focused on the penal code and how it would apply to non-Muslims. But a deeper concern would be the implications of all the commands to wage jihad and establish the caliphate. What is this is a step on the road toward radicalising the country? A think tank in Malaysia found that 60% of Malays identify as Muslims first (and now I understand why, it is the explicit teaching of Islam).

Terrorism has no clear solution

The most sobering takeaway from this book is that killing the leaders will not stop terrorism, but neither can it be solved by treating the terrorists as deluded or misguided. What then is the solution? The author’s proposal is for a reinterpretation of Islam, and for details of what that means you should read the book.


Finally, it is important to consider the credibility of the author. All I have written above is based acceptance of what he has written as a subject matter expert, given his impressive credentials. But he also clearly has a biased viewpoint. Unfortunately in matters of religion, it is not possible to be objective. But from my further research surrounding his work, I am at this point inclined to trust his views. Recommendations of other good books on this subject are welcome!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

3 Questions for the Hyperloop (MSx Fellows Future Forum)

Imagine a world where Bagdad and Chang’An are the two biggest container trading ports. Carbon emissions have dropped by half, and Amazon provides 2-day delivery worldwide.

The Hyperloop is a brainchild of Elon Musk, but being executed by venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar because Elon is too busy with Tesla and SpaceX. The Future Forum is an annual forum bringing together thought leaders shaping the world, organized by the MSx Fellows at Stanford. The MSx Fellows are rising executive-track leaders from a wide range of industries and countries, doing a full-time compressed management course at Stanford. After attending the forum, I am convinced that the Hyperloop could reshape the world for the average person far more than either Tesla or SpaceX.

The Hyperloop promises ground transportation near the speed of sound. Just think about that for a moment.

A Hyperloop Pod (source: hyperlooptech.com)

From the forum, I picked up a few interesting nuggets about this project. Firstly, it was an idea shared by Elon with Sherwin on the way to Cuba, of all places. Elon was frustrated that the high-speed rail project that California was planning would only be completed after he reached Mars, and he thought he had a better idea. The Hyperloop shoots capsules like bullets through vacuum tubes near the speed of sound – LA to SF in half an hour. Its primary purpose will be transporting cargo, which will also subsidise the travel of commuters. They will start with LA-SF, then the world. In particular, they could become a very viable substitute for freight vessels. The 15 biggest freight ships create more pollution than all the cars in the world, whereas the Hyperloop will be green and sustainable.

The panel, moderated by MSx Fellow Danielle Wyss (source: Stanford GSB)

What will life be like if we could commute at the speed of planes, for the cost of trains? As I left the forum, I spent the next few days mulling the possibilities. (Then I spent the next weeks taking exams, packing up my life, graduating, and leaving Stanford, and I am now writing this from a boat off the Alaskan coast, my first opportunity to breathe.)

The Hyperloop team talked a lot about the new technologies and the challenges of physics that they are overcoming to make this a reality. There are some other questions I would love to ask them.

The Hyperloop could redraw the face of human geography. Our civilization today is clustered around coastal cities. Our ancestors wanted to be close to sources of water and food, today it is because 90% of the world’s goods travel by container ship. But what if there was a cheaper, faster, greener way to move goods around the earth overland as well as underwater? We would see a Hyperloop backbone highway spread out across continents, like a return to the days of the old Silk Road. The new important cities of the world would be the ones hosting Hyperloop terminals, which the current world capitals may be too densely built up to entertain. Some, like my home of Singapore (busiest container port and best airport for decades), might have no role to play in a Hyperloop world. This in turn poses a political challenge for the Hyperloop. Will they be able to bring governments on board to overcome numerous regulatory hurdles, if it promises to stir up the balance of power among the governments themselves?


"SeidenstrasseGMT" by Kelvin Case - File:Seidenstrasse_GMT.jpg revision.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SeidenstrasseGMT.JPG#/media/File:SeidenstrasseGMT.JPG
The Silk Road (Source: Wikipedia)

The Hyperloop could replace the transport routes of the world. As I first imagined the Hyperloop stretching across Central Asia, my next thought was how to keep it intact through some of the most volatile regions of the world. They assured us it can survive an earthquake, but can its vacuum tube take a direct hit from an IED, or a shoulder-launched rocket? Even within America, what happens if someone drives a home-made truck bomb into it? Will a small hole in the tube wall blow out an entire section of the network? In times of war, can it be relied on, or will nations have to return to road, rail and waterways? Whether the Hyperloop can truly supplant other modes of transport will depend on how well it can answer this security question. If it cannot be made sufficiently secure, it may never become more than a fascination along niche express routes.

The Hyperloop brings space-age technology to terrestrial transport. And it is no wonder that some of their lead engineers came from Space X. But in some ways, travelling through space is actually much simpler than travelling on earth. Space is space is space, the physics are extremely difficult, but simple at the same time. Earth is chaotic, let's just take the LA-SF route as an example. For underground routing, your main man-made obstacles would be water, gas, and sewage pipelines near urban regions. Generally electricity is kept above ground. There will also be some buried oil pipelines in places near oil infrastructure such as in the San Joaquin Valley region around Bakersfield, which is en route between SF and LA for the land-based option. Offshore the major risks are sea-floor slumps, and general seabed instability, causing Avalanche effects. There are also challenges associated with spanning seabed canyons while maintaining rigidity of the Hyperloop conduit against underwater currents. Traversing a sequence of operating oil pipelines running perpendicular to the Southern California coastline in the Santa Barbara region will be challenging, since these extend to water depths of up to 400 meters and hence cannot be conveniently skirted. These are just some of the geological questions my classmate Mark Allen raised in conversation, from his own experience as an engineer in the energy industry. How will the Hyperloop overcome all these obstacles to plan direct and simple routes?

Underground Pipelines (source: sunrisefl.gov)

Of all the technologies I learned about during my time at Stanford, the Hyperloop is one that I will be watching very keenly. It could truly change the world we live in, but to do so it has to overcome many obstacles beyond the physics of speed-of-sound travel. I wish them luck!



Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of SGHiTech Excellence Non-Camera Phone

 My search for a fast non-camera phone with minimal lag led me to SGHiTech, a new startup based in Singapore that launched its first phone, the Excellence, in Nov 2014. These are my first impressions after a week of use, with my main references for comparison being the Sony Xperia Z2 and Huawei Honor (non-cam). I will focus on insights that may not have been obvious from reading the phone’s specs.


Advantages

The phone is fast. I can boot up to reach my screen lock in less than 30 seconds, and toggling between messaging or calendar apps with no lag. Swiftkey keyboard also runs smoothly.  This is probably due to the 2GB of RAM as well as minimal bloatware. Out of the box, there were only about 20 apps pre-installed, all of which belonged to Android and none added by SGHiTech. This was my biggest personal criteria is buying a phone, and the reason why I rejected available iNo, Huawei and Phicomm models based on personal experience and the very poor reviews from friends.



The phone looks classy and feels solid. I particularly like the metal bezel along the sides that is reminiscent of an iPhone. The back cover is flexible plastic like the Samsung Galaxy, and is easy to remove and replace.


The box contains everything you need – from a pre-applied screen protector to a custom-made case. Obviously there is no third-party accessory support for this brand new phone, and I like that they have thoughtfully provided everything you might need.


It cost only $300 with free delivery direct from SGHiTech (as of July 2015).

The phone comes with dual-SIM and supports both Mini and Micro SIM cards. This definitely helps people who are swapping the SIM card to a camera phone on weekends, because it opens up the spectrum of phones that can share a SIM card.

As a startup, the company is very responsive to user feedback. According to forums, they have already gone through multiple cycles of firmware upgrades in response to user complaints. More on this later.

Disadvantages

The phone did not work out of the box. This sounds worse than it actually is. My deliveryman told me the first thing I should do is to update the phone, which I did. The next day I was back on the phone with them again, complaining that my calendar was not syncing. They told me to factory reset the phone and install Google Calendar, which would also trigger installation of the Google Apps Framework, and after that it worked.

The screen lacks sensitivity. For some reason, I often have to tap the WhatsApp chat box multiple times in order to bring up the onscreen keyboard. But once the keyboard appears (covering the same part of the screen), I have no problem keying my inputs.

The GPS is very slow and inaccurate. While on a stationery bus, the location icon using Google maps navigation was constantly jumping around. It's good enough for static location-based services like checking in, but unusable for navigation (although I had no plans to navigate using a 4" screen).

The phone does not work with my Moto 360 watch (cannot pair), although I was told it should.

Battery life is not great. With light use, it was able to last me until the end of the day. But I am quite sure I will be charging the phone in the afternoon most days. Still, this compares favourably with most phones I have used recently, except my Sony Xperia which could easily last a day of intense use.

The screen is small. At 4 inches, it’s barely big enough for Whatsapp and Facebook. For now, that is all I need so I was willing to make the tradeoff for speed. The company is launching a 5.5” model at the end of the year, so that is something I’d wait for if my need isn’t urgent.


It’s a significant drop in speed going from LTE down to 3G, so I do most of my downloading over wi-fi instead.

Remarks

What impressed me most about this company was their responsiveness. When I called to complain about my calendar, I ended by suggesting that they should have included some printed instructions with the phone, which would have saved them having to take my call. “We like hearing from our customers”, was the reply, and that was what sold me on this company. 

And I like talking to them too. Their automated answering service will greet you with SGHiTech – Striving for excellence … with pride! That sounds so cheesy it never fails to make me smile, and yet my experience with the product so far suggest that they take their motto very seriously. I trust that they will work hard to continue improving the firmware, and future models.

So here are a few things I wish SGHiTech (or other non-camera phone manufacturers) would do.
  • Pre-install a virus scanner. Since all your customers obviously work in places where security is a key concern, help them out by not providing malware a chance to slip into the phone while it is unprotected.
  • Provide a hardware switch that can either cut off the microphone or the battery. This will save the user the effort of having to disassemble the phone to remove the battery during more classified meetings.
  • Bigger screen, faster speed. Since this is my main phone during weekdays, I’d like to be able to do everything I could with a top-end camera phone, less the camera. This includes all kinds of social media, reading books and news, and for some people may include gaming as well.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Citibank: Ignoring Customers Since Who Knows When

Last week, I was privileged to attend a dinner talk with a senior Amazon executive, and one thing he touched on was how he learned a new relationship with the customer at Amazon. At Amazon, he explained, customer feedback (aka complaints) are treated as a gift. The customer could simply have taken their business somewhere else, but instead they took the effort to tell you what is wrong with your business, and that is a gift! What an enlightened attitude, I thought.

Today, I am reminded that many businesses are still far from this ideal. In fact, some businesses deliberately put obstacles in the way of customers to provide feedback. Citibank is one example. When you try to write to them on their internal message system (they are too good to use regular email), you may often be confronted with this error message:


Whatever you just submitted is lost, and you have to rewrite it all again.

And every time I encounter this, I am hit by that pang of deja vu, because this has happened so many times before. But obviously I don't complain enough to Citibank that saving the message before submission has become second nature.

The second message I write is invariable much more hurried, much less polite, and I will be sure to include mention of the error and urge them to fix it. I can't help wondering how many people simply don't bother writing it the second time. Obviously, over the years, nothing has been done. I don't remember exactly the first time I encountered this, but here is another user's painful account from 2012.

She was a bit more scrupulous than I ... she managed to narrow it down to the apostrophe as the offending punctuation. By the time my message was accepted, I had removed the (), $, - and 's, what was probably my fifth attempt.

Interestingly, the reason for the above ordeal was I was writing to notify Citibank that I had gotten sufficiently frustrated with their phone operators over another issue to email the CEO of Credit Cards. Maybe someone should email the CEO of IT.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Looking Back in Gratitude, And Forward with Faith: The Stanford MSx Experience

9 months ago, I joined 88 other MSx fellows entering the class of 2015. We have had the time of our lives, and now we are counting down the days to graduation; soon many people will be asking me how the program went. Friends, family, and prospective/future students, I’m writing this for you.



The Camaraderie of Fellows

If you had told me a year ago that I would find a family among fellow students from diverse cultures and industries, I would not have believed you. I did my undergraduate in UPenn, I know what an American college is like, and I made some great friends, especially among people quite similar to me. But the MSx program has been different. It is such a small community, 66% international from almost every continent, that we are forced to interact by design. And because everyone comes ready to step out of their comfort zone, I’ve made more and better friends than I ever thought possible in a year.

One good example of interaction by design is the study groups that we are formed into for the first quarter. There were 5 in my group: 2 from the US, 1 from the UK and 2 from Asia. We were taken through some invaluable team-bonding exercises during the orientation - that was necessarily awkward - and very quickly we sized each other up and realised we each brought very different things to the table. We took turns leading the study group through the various core classes of the summer quarter, and over time that personal pride at not wanting to be seen as deadwood became a genuine care for each other, and we would put in inordinate amounts of time teaching each other. We debated this recently - whether we worked way harder than was necessary in Summer, but concluded that it was really team-bonding. And since then, our team from that first quarter have become family, and our families have become extended family.

I knew I was in the right place when we did the ice bucket challenge together, about a month into the year. No, it is not a shared cause that bonded us, in fact I thought it was a silly fad and initially opposed it. But after we decided to accept the challenge together, we made it happen. And 48 hours later, we held what I believe is one of the most epic ice bucket videos ever. We did not have long meetings or detailed plans - we just made a list of who does what, and if things fell through the cracks someone just picked them up. It was an amazing experience working with a high performing team for a common goal.

Official Unofficial MSx Ice Bucket Video (by Ric Netto)

Here is a short account from a night out we had during our East Coast Study Trip at the end of the first quarter, just as we were beginning to all get to know each other a little better:
If you find yourself on the dance floor near a large group of strangers dancing together, is your first instinct to break into the circle and join them? 
I certainly would not, and in all my previous experiences in bars and clubs, neither would most people. Which is why I found it all the more strange, during our study trip to New York, that there could be 20 of us Sloan fellows grooving in a circle, and random strangers would come in and join us. Even more mind-boggling, we had women pushing their way in amongst our mostly-male group. 
So what was going on here? 
Perhaps the people of New York are just really friendly. Or as one fellow suggested, perhaps our group seemed so fun and welcoming that other people felt compelled to join in. My personal conclusion is that our group of Fellows is so ethnically diverse that these strangers probably had no idea we were actually a single group. They probably thought we had randomly descended on NYC from all corners of the world, and since we were being so friendly mingling with each other they wanted in on it
Nights out in NYC and DC

We just ended our second study trip to Seattle, where we met alumni from as long as 20 years ago. All of them shared such fond memories of the program as the best year of their lives, and all of them said the best thing they got from the program was the friendships. It is indeed a privilege to have been selected into a group of fellows who are not only high achievers in their various fields, but also simply humble and genuine human beings. So whatever the admissions people are doing to put the class together, they are doing it right and we have told them so.

The Extended MSx Family

For families with young kids like mine, I can guarantee there is no better place than Stanford. The college has catered special housing for families within Escondido Village (EV), and each community comprises a cluster of tiny town houses enclosing a courtyard. Within the courtyard are pathways, grassy fields and playgrounds -- a kid’s paradise. This is the perfect setting for the partners and children to become the best of friends, even as the fellows are together in class. Over play dates, birthday parties and dinner parties, whole families build lasting bonds of friendship. On any other campus, the families would be split up and fending for themselves, but here we have community. And we know that anywhere we travel in the future, there will be a friendly family waiting to welcome us.
Eye Level: A typical late winter afternoon, families sit around and kids play in the EV courtyard
Bird's Eye: EV comprises many self-contained courtyards, as well as mid-rise apartment blocks (photo by Ric Netto)

Giving Back, Not Holding Back

Some of the biggest events including family have been the cultural sharing. It began with the Japanese Fellows in the first month, who hosted the whole class to a lovely BBQ. More communities chipped in to throw parties, each one better than the last. The most recent was the Spring Festival, which featured food, dances and booths to share various aspects of East Asian culture. It's not that we were competing, but there is this immense sense of being grateful, and wanting to give our best for our friends. One group that gives a lot are the class officers who are elected quarterly to organise events each quarter - and in Spring what I found most amazing was the number of past office holders who wanted to repeat a second (or third) term. When you feel you have received so much, do don't hold back in trying to give back more. It is a virtuous cycle, and we are all the beneficiaries. This is a spirit I really treasure, that we could create it in a group that is so short-lived.



Amazing Learning Opportunities

I’ve had lectures by Eric Schmidt (Google), Renee James (Intel), Sanjay Mehrotra (Sandisk),
Meg Whitman (eBay/HP), Evan Spiegel (Snapchat) and Biz Stone (Twitter), just to name the Presidents/CEOs/Founders who came to the classes I personally attended. We occasionally bump into Steve Balmer (Microsoft), Myron Scholes (Nobel Prize for Black-Scholes option pricing model) or George Schulz (ex-Secretary of State) who are on the faculty here. One of the fellows got roped into a game of golf with Condoleeza Rice (ex-Secretary of State). We have met Tim Cook in Starbucks, and Mark Zuckerburg is often sighted in his favourite Chinese restaurant. This is the privilege of being nestled in Silicon Valley, and having the #1 MBA in the USA as a sister program. Those were the celebrities but there are numerous exceptional professors and classes, and the quality of teaching far exceeds MBA classes I took when I was in Wharton. And by taking highly-rated classes in some very unlikely fields to stretch myself, I have had a great learning experience.

Everyone has their own selections of classes; there are too many to choose from. Some of my personal favourites from Winter quarter include Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital with Peter Wendell and Raymond Nasr, which opened my eyes to the role of Venture Capitalists and the dynamics between the investor and entrepreneur. Alphanomics with Charles Lee has provided me a better understanding of how financial markets work, the role of short sellers, and a quantitative approach to managing risk and return. I greatly enjoyed the flexibility of doing my own independent study in cyber security under Susan Athey, a leading expert in the economics of digital businesses, especially platform competition and bitcoin. I spent 2 quarters in Startup Garage, learning entrepreneurship by understanding the needs of the elderly and developing a viable business model to solve the problem of falling and death. Next quarter, I will take the GSB's famous Touch-Feely class, which is a combination of theory and experiential learning to improve interpersonal relationships. I strongly believe in finding learning opportunities that I could not have gotten from reading a book (which I do plenty of), and the array of options here is staggering. That is why Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is a real problem.

The Fellows are another rich learning resource, with a wealth of combined experience. We have CEOs, executives, managers, entrepreneurs big and small, from all around the world. We come from tech, finance, consulting, manufacturing, energy, non-profit, government, military and even a leading politician. And then we have the mother of 5 who just sold a company and is still nursing infant twins.

Earlier this year, I decided that the price of oil was so low it was a sure bet for investment. Immediately, I got advice from a Fellow with 20 years experience in the oil and gas industry who explained the dynamics of working capital and cash flow in the industry, and advised me to invest in certain companies instead. Similarly, another fellow with 10+ years in banking advised against the oil ETFs I was considering, because they were susceptible to contango (slippage in value). I believe you can find similar advice on any entrepreneurial or investment venture you can conceive of. And these are the same people who will return to all parts of the world, that I can pick up a phone to call any time.

California Dreaming

California is a paradise of nature and the outdoors. You can kayak among the otters and sealions at Elkhorn Slough, watch the elephant seals give birth at Ano Nuevo, join an African safari in Sonoma, and there are numerous hiking trails and camping spots, whether among redwood forests or along the pacific coast. Lake Tahoe for skiing/snowboarding, Yosemite national park, Napa and Sonoma are just the most famous of the vineyards in the area. San Francisco is 40 minutes away. There are two Premium Outlets within an hour’s drive. Santa Cruz and Monterey are within 2 hours. Most families have found their way to LA Disneyland and San Diego. Let’s just say there is never a dull moment on the weekends, whether you have 2 hours or 2 days. Anybody who has followed my Facebook photos over the last year will need no convincing of that.





A few of the animals you can get really close up to



Stanford itself has great recreational facilities too, it feels like a cross between Disneyland and a country club. Golf is the favourite sport, there is an MSx soccer game most Saturday mornings, and we can squeeze tennis and squash in between classes. There is a wide range of Physical Education classes including most sports, horse riding, TRX and standard stuff like Yoga/Pilates. And it's nice that you can work out outdoors all year round.


The term breaks are also a great time to travel. Most of us never had the luxury of 3 weeks (Winter) or even 2 weeks (Spring) to roam around. The international students typically explore the USA and vicinity, while the Americans travel the world. And many fellows also opt to follow the MBA students on their global study trips, meeting movers and shakers around the world.

The Colorado River makes a spectacular horseshoe-shaped bend in Arizona, (photo by Kenny Tan)

Lower Antelope Canyon (photo by Ricardo Netto)

The Best Program For Us

For the benefit of prospective students, I would be remiss not to touch on this. Every Fellow feels tremendously privileged to be a part of this group, and no one regrets joining this program. Compared to the folks at MIT's Sloan or Harvard's Kennedy in Boston, which experienced record snowfall, we’ve been having pretty warm and toasty winter here although we do need jackets in the early mornings and late evenings. We just recently met the MIT Sloans when they came to visit, and there was lots of comparison of experiences. The overwhelming sentiment here was how fortunate we had been to choose Stanford, and it wasn't just the weather.

We also interact a lot with the Stanford MBAs who are a great bunch, but they made me realize I feel more at home among peers of comparable age and work experience (10 - 20 years), rather than being the oldest member of an MBA program. And no one wants to study part-time if they can afford it. So compared with any other Sloan program, executive MBA or MBA, the MSx program has managed to strike the right delicate balance for us - successful mid-career leaders looking for personal renewal and learning opportunities, to bring our careers to the next level. For more comparisons between Stanford and MIT, see my answer on Quora.

Of Course Nothing Is Perfect

Stanford is great, but it’s not perfect. This is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. We work very hard, but we play hard too. And there isn’t much of a vibrant night life (you won’t really mind if you have a family), so instead people head to San Francisco or Las Vegas. The worst part for everyone is going home at the end of it -- is it better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all?

In short, we are grateful for the privilege of being part of this great class. Most of us don't know what the future holds, but we have faith that we have been well-prepared. One final word of wisdom...




Update 12 Apr 2015:
If you liked the above account, be sure to check out the welcome video for a multi-sensory review of the year, which we put together to give the class of 2016 a foretaste of what is to come.


Stanford GSB MSx 2016 Welcome Video (by Ric Netto)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Best Board and Card Games for Young Kids (Age 2 to 6)

My backyard in Stanford opens into a closed courtyard with a beautiful playground. My kids aged 3 and 5 absolutely love it. So why don’t we just let them out to play all day?

I enjoy playing games with my kids instead because it is my way of spending quality time with them. If they were in the playground, or playing with toys, they do their own thing. But playing games, our attention is on each other, and they learn how to follow rules, how to develop strategies, and how to play well with each other as well as adults. Different games also do have specific educational aspects. We’ve gone through quite a number of games over the past year, and I decided to start a list of what has worked and what doesn’t, for anyone else who wants to get their kids started on gaming.

Click on the affiliate links to find the games on Amazon (and let me earn a few cents if you decide to purchase it).

Recommended Games


SPOT IT! is a matching game: each card contains multiple designs, and any two cards in the deck always has only one design in common. There are many ways to play with the cards, but they all involve being the first to identify the common design. This was the first game my kids got really into, and is still one of their favourites. There are many variants, and we have the original, the Junior Animals version and the Disney Planes - Alphabet version. We all prefer the original one, mainly because it has more cards (because there are more designs on each card.) It is rated age 7+, but if I don’t focus my 5yo will kick my ass, and the 3yo won’t win but she will get her fair share of points.


Interest Rating: High - The kids take this out and play with each other
Educational Value: Medium - Learn the names of the different designs, train visual recognition and reflexes


COLORAMA is a game of matching coloured shapes into slots on a board, using a combination of a die for colors and a die for shapes. It is rated for kids aged 3-5, with different sets of rules for each age. In practice, my 3yo easily mastered the rules for 5yos, and the 5yo is happy to play with her although it’s too easy for him.

Interest Rating: High - The kids take this out and play with each other
Educational Value: Medium - Learn colours, shapes, how to interpret dice and basic probability


I’ve long wanted to start teaching my kids to programme. I realized after buying a Raspberry Pi that it would help if they could read first. However, I just found this game that teaches the concepts of programming without needing to learn to read! The concept is pretty simple, and folks in my generation will recognize elements of the old Logo/Turtle drawing language from the 1980’s. ROBOT TURTLES lets you set up obstacles on the game board, and the players need to sequence a set of command cards to get their turtle past the obstacles to the treasure. My 5yo quickly grasped the concept of iterative commands, and I will next introduce the idea of optimizing the algorithm to use minimal cards, as well as the Function Frog for subroutines. My 3yo loves the game too, although she is quite happy right now making her turtle dance around the board. The game is rated ages 4+. (Instruction video here)

Interest Rating
: Medium - The kids like it, but they can't really play on their own because they rely on the parents to moderate the game play.
Educational Value: High - Learn programming concepts

RICHARD SCARRY'S BUSYTOWN is part of the Eye Found It series, and is a cooperative game that revolves around finding objects among the pictures of Busytown on the game board, such as wheels, ice cream cones and spades. Players need to get everyone to the finish line together before time runs out, and finding enough of the everyday objects greatly expedites the objective. It builds great teamwork and camaraderie amongst all the players. It's very easy for a 5yo, but more interesting for a 3yo.

Interest Rating: Medium - The kids like it, but they can't really play on their own because they rely on the parents to moderate the game play.
Educational Value: Low - they learn how to spin the wheel and recognise objects

This is a live list, and I will continue to update it over time. Bookmark this page and check back occasionally for updates! Suggestions are also welcome – leave a comment below!

More Recommended Games (full review in due course)
Disney Frozen Matching Game
Marvel Matching Game, Blue
Zingo! Sight Words,
MindWare Toppletree
Ravensburger Make 'N' Break - Family Game
 








Games We're Keeping Till They Get Older


Games I Don’t Recommend 
Either due to low interest value or low education value