Monday, June 30, 2008

The architecture of Biopolis

Biopolis was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.

While it’s all sleek and modern facades and exteriors, I’ve never much cared for the architecture of Biopolis; too many sharp corners. As one of my colleagues put it so aptly, the sha(1) qi(4) of the corners is too heavy. Imagine sitting at your desk facing the window with one of those sharp building corners pointed straight at you. *shudder*

There is one view of Biopolis however, that I quite like. It’s just in front of Proteos, at the crest of the hill Biopolis sits on.

Far in the distance beneath the skybridges, you can just make out the point blocks 12, 13 and 14 of the Dover Heights HDB estate. 

Ratchet Provisions by Temasek

This is an update on a previous post.

runmondeo commented on GIC and Temasek's so-called batting average and that they are savvy investors. There may be something in what he says, although I also note that the share prices of financial companies are heavily underwater since the capital raisings.

In any case, the following makes fascinating reading. See Eric Sprott's "Markets at a glance" June post here and a definition of ratchet here.

Temasek's investment into Merrill Lynch comes loaded with ratchet provisions as a form of downside protection. This was little publicised as it was released only after, probably in the footnotes of a 10-Q filing.

Marriage – an unsettling experience

The Sunday Times on 29 June 2008 had a column with the same title as above from consultant therapist Anthony Yeo from the Counseling and Care Center.

I reproduce it here:

People believe that June is a good month for marriage. Somehow this is the month for weddings, and with the recent series of activities in conjunction with enhancing family life in Singapore, marriage is certainly in the air.

Weddings are usually much celebrated events often attended by enthusiastic guests, including single or unattached adults.

Along with the carnival spirit infused into the celebration are those well-meaning married guests who inevitably accost singles with the inevitable “So, when is your turn?” query.

Single adults know all too well what this means and often respond with polite responses such as “You’ll know when it comes” or “I guess it’s not time yet”.

Somehow we tend to believe that marriage is for everyone and, all too often, unattached adults are singled out as targets for prospective coupling in marriage.

There is also a commonly held notion that to get married is to “settle down”, in contrast to being unmarried suggesting that the latter is to be saddled with an “unsettled” state of life.

Somehow there is a prevailing idea that this “unsettled” state is synonymous with being uncertain, fickle-minded, frustrated or incomplete.

With all the earnest drive to promote marriage in Singapore, singles tend to be unsettled by the idea that fulfillment and happiness in life is to be expected preimarily in “marital bliss”.

This prevailing idea seems to defy my observation of the many couples who have sought help for martial conflict.

Each time I encounter married people afflicted with marital woes, I am reminded of how marriage tends to be an unsettling experience.

I have also been left with the unsettled feeling, wondering why so many had chosen to be married when they could have had a less stressful life if they had stayed single.

Of course, the other unsettling feeling is the painful journey I traverse with those who have the courage to go their separate ways.

As I ponder over this issue, I sometimes wish that marriage was not held in such high regard, with less focus on the romantic ideals of a peak experience that marriage seems to promise.

Those who contemplate marriage would do well to confront the reality that marriage can be an unsettling experience rather than one where couples live happily ever after.

The way I see it, marriage promises to be unsettling as couples need to be prepared for a lot of adjustment to living with someone quite unfamiliar to oneself, learning to adapt to each other’s idiosyncrasies, growing together as partners in life and coping with all the demands that marriage and family life brings.

It is also prudent to be aware that romance, if it is ever experienced, is not everlasting and may in fact fade months after the honeymoon is over.

Conflicts are inevitable and there will be many issues to be negotiated, such relationships with the in-laws, work-home relationships and friendships with those outside of marriage.

The more I work with couples with marital conflict, the more I am concerned that marriage should not be entered into lightly. It is also fallacious to believe that life will be incomplete and unfulfilling if a person is not married.

There is more to life than marriage and no one should be made to feel deprived of what life offers if the choice is to be single.


One of the reasons given by scholars who study marriage to explain rising divorce rates and marital dissatisfaction is that now, more than at any other time in history, people have much greater expectations of marriage (and romantic love if I might add), and what it means for their lives. This is consistent with Anthony Yeo’s remark on his wish that perhaps marriage should not be held in such great esteem, otherwise it might lead to dashed expectations for many couples.

The best book (well, the only book actually) that I have read on marriage as an institution is Marriage: a history. This book gets a “5-stars” rating from me, so to speak, so I recommend that everyone go read it.

[My internal rating system ranks interesting and readable books at three stars, with the fourth star given for books that cover truly important material, and the last, fifth star given only if that important material is relevant to everyone.

2-star books for me are usually books that aren’t particularly interesting or useful, but could still be casual reads. 2-star books also include books that cover important material, but may be either of narrow interest or just not very readable.

I don’t have a 1-star rating. If the book really is worth just 1 star, I probably would have put it down way before the ending, in which case I can’t rate it fairly at all.]

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lace locks

Proving that you can find useful information on the Web on even the most mundane topics, here's one for runners.

Lace locks help to eliminate heel slippage for a more secure, cushioned run. Personally, I favor method 1 for its simplicity.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The two-income trap

Several years ago, I read a book entitled The Two-Income Trap. While the book focused on the financial situation of two-income American households, the basic ideas behind the book are still applicable to the modern Singapore nuclear family. In fact, given that the Singapore two-income family is more prevalent today than ever before, it can be argued that the perils of the two-income trap are more relevant now than when the book was published.

The idea behind the two-income trap is simple. Decades ago, when the nuclear family was composed of a working father and a stay-at-home mother, most families subsisted on a single income while still being able to afford a middle-class lifestyle. If Mom worked at all (usually part-time), her money was “pin-money”, to be spent on little luxuries like restaurant meals and weekend trips to the amusement park (recall the American context of the book). Certainly, the family didn’t depend on Mom’s income to get by. In the unfortunate event when the father was no longer able to be the prime breadwinner, due to death, disability or retrenchment, the mother could leave the home and get a job, and the family would still be able to struggle through.

Fast forward to today. Now, most families are two-income, with both parents working. Families today enjoy a higher standard of living than ever before, and pay for it with their dual incomes. In other words, most families need their dual income. When I say higher standard of living, I don’t mean frivolous luxuries like holiday trips to Europe or fine dining. Families in general are not spendthrifts; they spend large amounts of money, but on things that are considered vital or worth spending on. These include a good home, a car, domestic help, and childcare (remember Mom is working too). For the kids, there are the computers, private schools, extra lessons of every kind, savings for college tuition etc. Most people would agree that these expenses are justifiable, hence my remark that families need their dual income to pay for all these expenses.

In the Singapore context, it is getting increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for families to get by on a single income, especially if they aspire to a middle-class lifestyle. How will your kids get into a premier school unless you pay to buy a house and live in the same prestigious district? How are your kids going to compete if they don’t have the extra lessons and costly after-school programs? Are you going to squander your time or your kids’ time on house chores, when domestic help is available? Is your kid going work summer holidays to help with the household expenses, or are you going to pony up for those expensive overseas student immersion programs? The resume arms race starts ever earlier …

[As an aside, higher income families tend to pass on lasting cultural advantages to their kids that help them compete better: better education, healthcare, nutrition, free time, discipline and attitudes. The idea that meritocracy is unequivocally good needs to be qualified by the understanding that the playing field is inherently uneven. A high achiever's performance could simply be a reflection of their privileged circumstances. More in a future post.]

Although families with dual incomes enjoy standards of living higher than ever before, they are more vulnerable in the event that either spouse is unable to work. This is because the family that needs the dual income has no ‘spare capacity’, unlike decades ago when only one parent worked (and only one income was needed). Once one parent is unable to work, the two-income family immediately falls into a distressed situation. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that with both parents working, a two-income family has approximately twice the probability of falling into a distressed situation as a result of income loss, as compared to a single-income family.

An even sharper irony can be observed if we analyze the expenditure of the most responsible parents. Responsible parents want the best for their kids and as a result, are usually more willing to leverage on their finances for better homes, better schools, better everything. The sticking point is that expenses associated with these better things are recurring in nature. You can’t automatically lower your mortgage payment for instance. If you bought your house on the assumption that a dual-income makes the house affordable, the loss of one income immediately raises the specter of foreclosure.

Contrast that with a family that bought a smaller home and a smaller car, but habitually eats out and spends on ‘frivolous’ things like holidays to Europe. In the event of income loss, the family can immediately tighten its purse-strings by cutting back on these discretionary expenses. This family will have an easier time than the family that bought a bigger house, put their kids in private school, and depended heavily on domestic help and paid childcare, despite all these being “worthwhile” expenses.

The lessons and dangers of the two-income trap are still present today and are arguably even more relevant given the extinction of the working father, stay-at-home mother family model.

So how should families guard against the dangers of the two-income trap? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Earn two incomes, but make a conscious choice to live on only one or one and a half.

2. Limit your exposure to recurring expenses. Instead don’t feel guilty going out to nice restaurants and take relaxing holiday trips! These are precisely the things you can afford to cut back on when times get tough.

3. Save. A lot. And don’t touch it unless you really need to.

4. Understand the competitive environment we live in today, but don’t let the cost of competing overwhelm you. Be conservative with your finances. Having no safety net is worse than ‘missing out’ because a drastic life-changing event can seriously impact you and your family’s future forever.

5. Buy insurance, and make sure it’s the right kind. This includes mortgage, life, health, critical illness/disability, unemployment etc. And buy term, because you get the most protection for the fewest dollars. Yes, you don’t get it back unlike say whole life, but consider it protection money to keep the big bad black swan from your door.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The 2-day hypothesis

From the Straits Times, 26 June 2008 (Print Edition)
Passport blunders leave S'poreans stranded
By Jessica Lim

SINGAPOREANS are a negligent lot when it comes to passports, travel agents told The Straits Times on Wednesday.

It is not common for travellers to make a mad dash to the airport with the wrong passport, some said, but added that,more often, they show up at the airport with expired passports or without the required visas.

Some forget their passports altogether.

Travel agencies contacted by The Straits Times say they make it a practice to call travellers before their flights with reminders to pack their passports and check that everything is in order.

Despite this, one in 10 will goof up every month.

At least one travel agency, Hong Thai Travel, has briefed its employees to be more vigilant about passports following an incident on Monday in which a 61-year-old retiree cleared all checks at Changi Airport's Budget Terminal after having mistakenly taken his son's passport.

He realised the error during his flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

Upon arrival and informing the Vietnamese authorities, he was immediately put on a return flight here.

Agents said passengers without travel papers in order inconvenience others. Some cause flight delays; a number miss their flights altogether.

Read the full story in Thursday's edition of The Straits Times.

I have a hypothesis that it generally takes about 2 days after negative news breaks for the Straits Times to enter the spin control cycle (sounds like a setting on a washing machine).

After the passport blunder reported two days ago, today we have an article that deflects attention from the security lapse to focus on Singaporeans' negligence, carelessness and yes, complacency. It dovetails nicely with the front page's report on MM Lee's comment that due to a "freak election result" (entirely out of the ordinary in a democracy), because Singaporeans get "bored", Singapore could be ruined in just a short 5 years.

I will leave the blogging on this to socio-political bloggers like Mr Wang. I prefer to focus on how the mainstream media manages the newsflow, and on how my 2-day hypothesis holds up as I note down more examples of news management in the future.

[I have retagged posts that deal with this as "straits times spin". Unless I discuss the content of the articles themselves, these posts will not carry the tags of "straits times" or "news". Indeed, definitely not "news".]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Southern Ridges, Initial Impressions

This past Sunday, I ran the Southern Ridges for the first time, attempting to chart a new route. You can find a map of the Southern Ridges here. This post is on my initial impressions. In time, I should post a more detailed route. It may come with pictures, but I’m not going to promise that [lugging a camera while running is not my favorite thing to do].

I ran from home first, but my description of the route I took starts formally from the eastern end of Science Park Drive, just east of DSO National Laboratories and Science Hub.

From the start point, I entered Kent Ridge Park and followed the path, veering east whenever possible. I quickly reached a flight of stairs that brought me up to Vigilante Drive. From there, it was a short distance east before I reached the canopy walk that overlooks Hortpark.

[It is possible to bypass the canopy walk and to take the track directly down to Hortpark. The canopy walk basically wraps around the track to Hortpark in a circular arc. It is more scenic to go on the canopy walk though.]

Following the canopy walk brought me to the entrance to Reflections at Bukit Chandu.

[From Bukit Chandu, I made the mistake of descending down along Pepys Road until I reached Pasir Panjang Road. Backtracking uphill was a slow tiring affair. Don’t make the same mistake I did.]

Near the exit of the canopy walk to Bukit Chandu is a sign that points the way down to Hortpark. It leads to the same path mentioned above that bypasses the canopy walk.

The path down to Hortpark is a winding affair. Once you’re within Hortpark, you’ll see a lot of plants (duh), families, and the odd tourist.

I ran along the length of Hortpark due east towards Alexandra Arch.

Crossing Alexandra Arch, I followed the steel bridge east. I passed Preston Road, then Henderson Waves.

Once past Henderson Waves, I pushed north along Mount Faber Loop. I continued until I reached Faber Point, the summit of Mount Faber.

By then, I was pretty tired, and I decided against taking the Marang Trail down to Telok Blangah Road, opposite Vivocity. Climbing Mount Faber again on the way back would have wiped me out. I turned around and ran back the way I came, with a short detour to Wessex Estate (more on that in a later post).


It’s theoretically possible to extend a run on the Southern Ridges westwards to Clementi Woods and West Coast Park. I don’t intend to explore this option anytime soon, however. Comments on this would be welcome.

I started my run at 2:30 pm. [Normally, that’s a crazy time to run due to the heat, but it had rained at dawn (my original intended time), and the weather was fine at 2:30 pm, cloudy and cool, relatively.] There were literally hordes of families walking the Southern Ridges after Hortpark. And the steel bridge is narrow, so it wasn’t the best place to run. Any runner intending to use the Southern Ridges should keep the time of day and people traffic in mind.

Running the Southern Ridges the way I did entails traversing a medium length point-to-point distance. But it was a difficult run, mainly because of the hilly terrain. Ascending to Bukit Chandu from Science Park Drive isn’t easy; ascending to Mount Faber is even more challenging. If you think you could benefit from some hill work, the Southern Ridges could just be the ticket for you.

The nicest views are without doubt, from the vantage of Henderson Waves and Faber Point.

There are several access points to the Southern Ridges between Hortpark and Mount Faber. Alexandra Arch is one, Preston Road is another, and there are almost certainly access points along Henderson Road and possibly behind the Defence Technology Towers. This list is not exhaustive. Comments would again, be welcome on this.

Running routes: Dempsey Loop

After running in my neighborhood for a few years, I’ve explored the areas near where I live in considerable depth.

So I’ve devised a number of running routes centered on these areas. Some I use more frequently than others. Others I use only when I’m bored of my routine and need a little variety. But they’re all good routes.

Today’s post is on one of my routes. It’s what I like to call a ‘fun run’ route. My fun routes are not strictly routes, as they don’t follow a fixed itinerary or roads and I don’t keep track of the distances. They’re more like short runs that I use to add variety to my routine. And they also satisfy my desire to explore interesting areas near where I live. Flexibility is key, so if you’re using this route, feel free to deviate from the route to explore around.

Dempsey Loop

The full route can be found here. My description of the route follows; it helps to have a street directory handy while you’re reading this.

Start at Buona Vista MRT station. Take the walkway from the station exit that leads to the underpass.

After emerging from the underpass, run north along North Buona Vista Road until you see the overhead bridge.

Cross over to the other side. You will now be in the Holland V. HDB housing estate.

One of the advantages of being on foot is that you get to traverse areas inaccessible to vehicles. Cut through the housing estate in a northeasterly direction. You should see the Buona Vista Swimming Complex and thereafter, Holland V. itself.

Run carefully past the inevitable hordes of diners (in the evening) and make your way down Lorong Liput to Holland Avenue. Note the famous Indian magazine seller at the corner.

Cross Holland Avenue over to the large POSB Taman Warna branch. Run past it onto Taman Warna itself. Restrain yourself from the delicacies on offer at da Paolo Gastronomia at Chip Bee Gardens.

Follow Taman Warna northeastwards until it connects with Holland Road. Doing so allows you to avoid crowds and some construction work.

Turn right and run eastwards on Holland Road for a distance. Our objective is the newest and hippest chichi enclave in town: Tanglin Village. Once you’re past Peirce Road and a large carpark on your right, the turn-off to Dempsey Road will be in front.

Turn right onto Dempsey Road and run around Tanglin village in a complete loop, or however many times you like. Marvel at the old warehouses and vehicle sheds converted into fancy glass-fronted restaurants. Take in the assortment of kitschy Hindu Balinese and Xi’an Terracotta statues, the not so environmentally correct teak furniture and the antique shops with pre-aged sculptures sitting in front.

[Overall, Tanglin Village has a tacky feel, which is a pity, considering the potential of the site, which is superior to Rochester Park’s. Rochester Park is, however, classier, which goes to show the importance of execution.]

Above all, note that you’ll probably be the only person in running gear (in the evenings) amid the expatriates and yuppies in black and white office attire. Note also the fleets of BMWs, Lexuses (or is that Lexi?), Benzes, and the occasional Ferrari or Maserati (again only in the evenings). So plan your safari expedition at the appropriate time if you want to ogle at autocandy. After you’ve had your fill of Tanglin Village, take the exit on Harding Road at the back of the village.

Veer right onto Loewen Road, then turn left onto Ridley Park Road. Run straight ahead along Ridley Park Road until you reach Tanglin Road. Along the way, if you live in the HDB heartlands like me, you’ll find it fascinating to see how the upper crust in Singapore lives. The houses in the Tanglin area range from generic McMansions, to the tastefully palatial, to the plain ostentatious. The most interesting house has got to be the one at the junction of Ridley Park Road and Tanglin Road. It’s got ‘em all, the bronze eagle, the terracotta soldiers, and the fleet of Ferraris.

Once on Tanglin Road, run south past the Brunei Embassy and Tisch School until you reach the junction of Tanglin Road and Margaret Drive. Turn right onto Margaret Drive and run west. You’ll see some densely packed HDB blocks, some MINDS buildings, and the Queenstown remand prison. The contrast will be rather marked after the wealth of the preceding area.

Keep running until you reach Queensway. Turn left onto Commonwealth Avenue then run westwards alongside the MRT track. And once you reach Buona Vista MRT Station, you’re done.


Unless you’re intimidated by lots of well-dressed people stepping out of expensive cars and about to sit down to dinner, evenings are the most interesting time to run the Dempsey Loop. That’s when the area really comes alive.

Avoid the Ridley Park area after dark. With the proximity of the old Tanglin Camp and some old pre-war buildings, the place can get seriously spooky at night. Think WWII Japanese Occupation horror movie spooky.

Following Harding Road and then Minden Road will take you to the Botanic Gardens, which is suitable for longer runs. There is another route here created by someone else.

If you’re inclined to, continuing on Holland Road and then Napier Road will take into Orchard and the heart of town. Not that I recommend it, but it’s an option.

The Dempsey Loop is a relatively short run, but can be somewhat difficult as the route generally faces a slight gradient, and you’ll spend a lot of time running on concrete sidewalks (hard on the knees).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Organic food in Singapore

I became interested in organic food after reading Michael Pollan’s two excellent books: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

In an era when sustainability is a major issue, it’s become fashionable to talk about organic food. For the purpose of putting things in a more critical perspective, let’s mention some controversial issues concerning organic food. There are of course, issues associated with labeling organic food. Is USDA labeled organic food really organic food? Does the entry of big business into the organic food industry compromise the spirit of the organic food movement? See The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a more thorough discussion. There is a New Yorker article here. Organic food has ramifications on climate change as well. “Locavore” is a word that is found in the modern lexicon today. “Food miles” is another. But the intelligent eater will know that eating local isn’t necessarily better for the environment.

All of the above suggests that we should approach the topic of organic food carefully, with an open but critical mind. But this post isn’t about the issues surrounding organic food. If you’re interested in the wider issues concerning organic food and industrial food, and more broadly, the modern culture of food, reading the two books mentioned above is a good start.

This post is about the business of organic food in Singapore. Bear in mind that this is a blog, so this post is about my opinions and my perceptions. This isn’t necessarily the truth about the organic food situation in Singapore.

Let’s talk about cost first. Generally, organic food everywhere costs more (in dollars and cents, ignoring externalities) than ‘regular’ food. However, in many countries, organic food is generally still regarded principally as food. In the USA, outside of Whole Foods (which more closely resembles the situation in Singapore, as we shall see), organic food is associated with small farm cooperatives. It may cost more, but a family can still subscribe to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program for a reasonable cost. Eating organic is largely about healthy living, sustainability and caring for the environment.

In contrast, in Singapore, it’s hard to escape the perception that organic food is gourmet food, and, as the luxury industry would call it, an aspirational product.

Why do I say this? Look at the major purveyors of organic food here. Singapore imports most of its food, and organic food retailers are no exception. But what retailers they are! Bunalun, Supernature, L'organic. Distributors of such artisanal brands like Duchy Originals; the food they sell is literally fit for royalty. Their websites are full of pretty pictures, what I like to call gastropr0n (pardon the leet). With prices to match. Unsurprising considering that the food is imported in small quantities by firms that have relatively high profit margins, and that market their products to the upper crust of Singapore society. How do I know that they market mostly to the highest income groups? These organic food stores in Singapore are located at some of the toniest addresses in town: Jalan Merah Saga and Chip Bee Gardens (Holland V.), Dempsey Village (so hip it hurts), and Orchard. And their customer base is composed mightily of expatriates on generous compensation packages. Admittedly, expatriates for the most part are also more well-informed on the benefits of eating organic than local Singaporeans.

The example of Supernature is particularly interesting. It was acquired by Christina Ong, proprietress of Club 21, a multi-label boutique and distributor of numerous luxury brands, owner of the uberluxurious chain of Como resorts, wife of tycoon Ong Beng Seng, and reportedly chummy with the fashion designer Donna Karan. If Supernature isn’t going to be revamped to match the other brands in Christina Ong’s stable, I would be very surprised.

Would I really be off the mark if I described organic food in Singapore as being marketed as an aspirational product?

There are alternatives of course (thankfully), for people genuinely interested in organic food for food’s sake. Bollywood Veggies and Greencircle come to mind. However, here we come to a separate problem. If we survey the complete range of organic food products available here, we see that it is difficult to go fully organic in Singapore, since the range of organic foods isn't as wide as most people would like. This includes raw foods as well as prepared foods. And the cost of going organic is prohibitively high. 

From my very casual and unscientific observations, it would appear that organic food in Singapore has come far, but still has a ways to go. But one thing of concern is that it seems to have taken on a highly aristocratic sheen, which is ironic considering its formerly more humble roots (not that that hasn't happened elsewhere as well). Will the situation in Singapore change for the better? Stay tuned.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Straits Times deserves a Pulitzer for…

For outstanding achievement in managing newsflow for the purpose of nationbuilding.

I read the local version of what passes for a newspaper in Singapore. Mostly because my parents read it and it’s just there on the table in the morning. Normally, I can dispense with the entire rag in about 20 minutes. I spend far longer reading the New York Times online (and it’s free). I’ve made myself a promise: Once I have my own place, I will never buy the local rag. In fact, given that I won’t be buying it, there’s a very good chance I won’t be reading it also, which is probably a wise thing to do. Not reading the Straits Times is probably good for my health. My blood pressure won’t spike so frequently.

So what’s this post about? It’s about the latest edition of the Sunday Times (June 22, 2008). You’ll notice that this post is tagged “rant”.

If you look at the June 22, 2008 print edition of the rag, the cover has a huge headline on how shopping and entertainment bills are pushing a growing number of under-30s into debt. Just below it is a headline article that parrots the Minister of National Development saying that an “oil tax cut sends the wrong signal”. To the left of this is a headline on a special report on “void deck nomads”.

Based on coverage (1.5 pages), the special report on homeless people (yes, let’s call them what they are please) deserves the biggest headline. But the biggest headline went to the 0.75 pages on under-30s piling on debt instead.

Based on the report on homeless people, there are about 43000 rental flats for the “truly needy”. If we assume each flat goes to a typical 2-parent family with 2 kids (which is probably an underestimate), we’re talking about approximately 200000 low-income folks, or about 5% of Singapore’s population. And that’s not counting the families wait-listed for rental flats. As for the group of under-30s piling on debt, while it’s highlighted as a rapidly growing problem, no absolute figures are available for the number of such debt-ridden yuppies. Which story, based on the number of people it concerns, is clearly the bigger and more important story?

The special report focused on what the Sunday Times called “nomad families”. The title line at the top of the page called them “transient” homeless. The family discussed in the story had lived on the beach for 4 years. Transient indeed. In any other city, they would simply be called homeless. But not in Singapore. In Singapore, they’re just transient homeless or urban nomads, notwithstanding the existence of only one shelter for displaced families on the entire island (and no indication that it’s government funded).

What especially irks me is the chiding tone of the entire front page, of how overspending yuppies are pushing themselves into debt, of how Singaporeans should “modify lifestyles” instead of expecting a lift of oil taxes. Subtext: you bunch of ungrateful and undisciplined gits! For the record: I happen to believe that the oil taxes should stay, but I object to the manner in which the message was delivered. Meanwhile, the important story on homeless families, trying to get by in highly inflationary times, gets pushed to the side.

Managing newflow for “nationbuilding” happens frequently for the Straits Times, but this past weekend’s edition of the national rag is a particularly egregious example of it. There were multiple articles that were managed, and all with a heavy hand.

It doesn’t stop with the story on homeless people. There’s another story on “Foreign service staff as good as locals: Poll”. I didn’t bother reading it. It had all the marks of the government spin machine going into overdrive [this is how I dispense with the rag everyday in just 20 minutes.].

Another article: “Stars at home or abroad – let’s cheer them both”. Senior Writer Wong Kim Hoh should learn to think more critically if he’s going to write for the “THINK” section of the rag. Just about all the examples he cited of talent not being recognized here but only abroad can be explained away by differences in the size and depth of markets here and abroad, the concept of 15 minutes of fame, winner-take-all effects and the phenomena of narrowcasting in large markets. Not to mention that the failure to recognize talent is hardly a “uniquely Singapore” trait. Einstein worked as a patent clerk, remember? Senior writer Wong should take notes from Teo Cheng Wee, who had a better story on the LZR Racer and technology in sports.

Lastly, the editorial in this edition of the rag basically ragged on the trackside hotels for their poor bookings, which was unbecoming to say the least. And stupid. Gloating should never be done prematurely, because the F1 race hasn’t happened yet, and bookings could still flow in, which would let the hotels have the last laugh. If you enjoy schadenfreude, always gloat after. Otherwise, you’re like the villain caricature who enjoys monologue-ing.

Separately, if the hotels were “cocky” in setting “astronomical” rates and believing in the F1 hype, then the editorial is being condescending and arrogant by calling them on it without mentioning the pre-emptive windfall tax (obviously the hotels have to charge more in such a case). When the F1 event was being bid on, hotels were undoubtedly graciously called “partners” in the event. Now they’re just the clowns unable to fill their books.

This is the second time this has happened, the first being the IMF and World Bank meetings. Third time’s the charm. The editorial team at the rag shouldn’t be so arrogant. I foresee that there’s a chance that they’re going to have to manage newsflow again sometime soon: The Integrated Resorts are due to open in 2009, at the height of a probable global recession, when casinos now are already losing money. And the Youth Olympics could turn out to be a bummer as well.

[News that you don’t read about in the rag is also indicative of managed newflow. Singapore already has millions, if not billions of dollars in paper losses from investing in the large investment banks that dabbled with subprime securities. Rest assured, UBS and Citigroup will continue with their write-downs of Level 3 assets in a few months. And we haven’t even seen the CDS death spiral begin yet.]

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Formula One hotel booking still sluggish"

June 19, 2008
Formula One hotel booking still sluggish
SINGAPORE plays host to the first ever Formula One Grand Prix night race in just three months, but hotel rooms are not filling up quite as quickly as expected.

A Straits Times check with the 11 trackside hotels on Thursday showed up just trackside hotel Conrad Centennial Singapore with 507 rooms already booked out.

There are still plenty of rooms available at 10 other non-trackside hotels.

Given the widespread assumption that the F1 race would be a smashing success and a boon to retailers, restauranteurs and hoteliers, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the outcome could well be different (just like the 2006 IMF and World Bank meetings).

A pre-emptive windfall tax on hotel rooms has driven up the price of rooms. It's only natural to speculate that high room rates have led to the cannibalization of the regular tourism business. The F1 could be repelling tourists at the same time it is supposed to be attracting them.

Separately, this news article is one more example of shoddy reporting and the poor standard of journalism in Singapore. The reporter does little to discuss why hotel bookings are sluggish beyond opining the idea that rooms are more expensive.

Tell me something I don't know already, fool. Could you have at least asked the management of the Conrad Centennial what they did different so that all their rooms are booked out? Would it have killed you to examine whether locational differences of hotels along the race route contributed to their relative attractiveness to F1 tourists? What about the sorry, slowing, stagflationary state of the global economy? Might that just have affected the booking numbers? Are cancellations up? Where are the tourists coming from? What's the spread of nationalities, if the hotels are willing to disclose that information?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The other Peak

With oil prices at speculative, stratospheric levels, the Peak oil hypothesis is going strong. I'm not going to debate about Peak oil. There are literally hundreds of posts out there for and against Peak oil. And frankly, I'm fairly undecided about the phenomenon of Peak oil. I find arguments for Peak cheap oil to be more credible, seeing as how new discoveries appear to be far more expensive to develop. Instead, I'm currently more interested in something else that Peak oil believers have sometimes talked about, and that's Peak phospate.

Anyone who knows anything about fertilizer will recognize the NPK appellation for the three main constituents of fertilizer: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These three elements constitute the building blocks of life and are absolutely essential in the food we eat. Nitrogen for protein, phosphorus for DNA, and potassium for salt balance, among other things.

Fertilizer is of vast importance, and it is one of the reasons why we have been able to develop a modern civilization and to feed so many people on this planet. While modern industrial scale agriculture has been blamed by the organic food movement for the less healthful benefits of modern-day meat and produce (not to mention the negative environmental impacts), it is difficult to argue against the premise that modern agriculture is what has allowed us to feed as many people as we have today. So for the foreseeable future, synthetic fertilizers will still be a very important commodity. Especially since organic fertilizers aren't exactly abundant

Nitrogen fertilizers like urea and ammonia are manufactured by the Haber process, which is energy intensive (coal and natural gas mostly). This is one way the oil price drives the price of food higher (another major way is through transportation costs). However, nitrogen being the major constituent of air, nitrogen fertilizers are a renewable resource that depend only on energy inputs. In the future, renewable energy sources may be used for nitrogen fixation.

Economic sources of potassium salts and phosphates are however, generally not considered renewable, as they are mined from the ground in the form of salts or rock. Of the two, reserves of phosphates are less abundant. Indeed, it has often been bandied about that phosphate is the limiting factor in increasing soil productivity.

Based on current estimates of reserves, we are not likely to run out of phospate anytime soon. So we might be justified in hitting the snooze button on this possibly alarmist proposition. However, as Peak oil supporters are fond of saying, it's not when you run out of a resource, its when you reach peak production (and when demand inexorably continues to rise) that you start running into problems. 

To this, I would add the following comments:
Phosphate reserves are considered abundant at current rates of production, but rates are certain to rise with increasing demand. Demand will come from rising population pressure as well as increasing affluence. Increased meat consumption will necessitate larger crop yields, which will in turn engender demand for fertilizer.

There are no substitutes for phosphate (well, not unless we evolve from a phosphate backbone DNA). So demand will be fairly inelastic.

Phosphate reserves are concentrated in Morocco, a fairly stable country in a not-so-stable region. So like oil, phosphate supply may be subject to geopolitical risks as well.

Phosphate reserves are abundant, but may not all be economic to exploit at current prices. This means that an analogous situation with Peak cheap oil may occur; phosphate will still be available in the future, but possibly at much higher prices.

Should we worry about Peak phosphate? Not in the near to medium long term. There are other more important things on the global agenda. But still, it's probably wise to know more about something that is so intimately connected to the food supply.

Factoid: the world's largest producer of phosphate is the Mosaic company, controlled by Cargill, one of the largest and most powerful privately held companies in the world.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Running: hydration aids

Hydration aids is my term for any kind of wearable gear that allows the runner or endurance athlete to carry fluid replenishment on the go.

Like energy replacement products, they’re popular among endurance athletes, but for some reason, less well known in Singapore. I have seen with my own eyes runners in the Bay Run or Singapore Marathon carry Nalgene bottles, or jury-rig belts or straps to carry flasks and gels. I remember one memorable chap strapping no less than six single serve Powergels around his waist.

Fuelbelts are without question, the most popular hydration aid among runners in Singapore. They’re available in a number of places. Users of the Fuelbelt claim that the Fuelbelt is comfortable to wear and doesn’t chafe, bump or drag. I can’t claim otherwise, seeing as how I’ve never tried one on before. Maybe those hordes of Fuelbelt-wearing runners are on to something. I’m skeptical though, that the swaying or bumping motion won’t annoy me for the 26 miles of a marathon. What is undeniable however is that the Fuelbelt has a good carrying capacity and the added flexibility of holding different bottles for different things (gels, drinks etc.)

Camelbaks are popular among the extreme trailrunning set. These are the elite runners that are hardcore enough to run self-supported trail races like the Marathon des Sables or the 4 Deserts Challenge. The Camelbak was originally popularized by the trekking community, but found a natural fit with these hardened runners. If you want a large carrying capacity, hands-free drinking through a straw, and don’t mind replacing your Camelbak every so often (I hear they’re impossible to wash, so putting anything other than water in the Camelbak probably doesn’t make it last too long), the Camelbak might be the right product for you. As an added benefit, I can imagine that it would be cooler to run under the sun if you’re carrying a pouch of cold water on your back.

As in all posts, being the unconventional oddball that I am, I ask and answer the question of, what do I use?

I use the Ultimate Direction FastDraw Extreme. Not available in Singapore at the time I bought it, I had to order it online and ship it over from the USA. I haven’t seen it in Singapore yet, but that’s mainly because I haven’t been looking for it.

So why the FastDraw? The Camelbak is overkill for me since I run only marathons.
And as mentioned above, I found the Fuelbelt unappealing because of the possible swaying and bumping motion. The FastDraw is strapped to the hand, so it avoids this problem. In fact, it’s a natural evolution if you’re one of those Nalgene bottle-carrying runners [full confession: I used to be one, but I carried a tiny Hammer gel flask instead and that was a really long time ago].

The FastDraw is comfortable, if heavy, at the start of the run when the bottle is filled to capacity. Even so, it’s possible to switch the FastDraw from one hand to the other if you get tired. The capacity of the FastDraw is limited, but it still packs a punch with my Perpetuem mix. Normal long run training days will see me carrying the FastDraw while stashing a 1-liter bottle of sports drink somewhere along my route. On race day, I carry only the FastDraw while relying on aid stations for fluid replenishment.

The molded polyurethane kicker valve is an innovative feature that allows you to drink without unscrewing any caps or lids. In practice though, unless you have really big strong hands, you’ll need to squeeze the bottle fairly hard to get the contents out. Sometimes with both hands when the bottle is less than half full. And it’s smart to aim the nozzle so that it points under your tongue. The first time I squirted the contents out, the spray came out so strong and hit the back of my throat and activated my gag reflex. Not fun.

As for the neoprene sleeve that’s unique to the FastDraw Extreme model? Genius, in our hot and humid weather. On moderate distance runs when I know I only need a limited volume of sports drink, I fill the bottle only three quarters of the way and put it in the freezer the night before (remember that water expands on freezing to ice). When I’m ready to run the next day, I take the FastDraw out of the freezer and bring it with me. I sip the meltwater as the popsicle in the bottle slowly melts, rationing out the icy liquid. Absolutely revitalizing. And no messy condensation or clammy hands to deal with.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Running: energy replacement

All distance runners use some kind of energy replacement product on their long runs. They’re popular with triathletes and other endurance athletes as well. Magazines on these sports frequently carry articles reviewing the range of products available out there.

In Singapore, the range of products available is somewhat limited. And they’re usually hideously expensive, the consequence of being imported in small quantities from the USA by specialty distributors, who obviously take the opportunity to mark up the prices. Sometimes, it really sucks to live in a tiny insignificant market like Singapore. A viable alternative to buying products retail here is to buy the products you need online in bulk, and ship them over to Singapore. It helps if you have friends to team up with or if you’re part of a spree. Sprees are sometimes organized on the local running or triathlon forums.

About the availability in Singapore, Powerbar and Powergel are literally everywhere; the more “cult” brands are harder to find. Clifbars, so ubiquitous in the USA, are less common here in Singapore. Not that Clifbars taste so great. “Compacted birdseed” is probably the most apt description I’ve heard. As for Powerbar, no one would ever accuse it of being a cult product. Admittedly, the current range of Powerbars does taste okay, although I think the simple sugar content is a bit too high, and if memory serves, is composed partly of high fructose corn syrup. The old school Powerbars I tried a few years ago, however, turned me off Powerbars forever. The type that is extruded and looks like a black bar of chocolate. Melts in the wrapper into goop under hot conditions, while hardening into an inedible BRICK in colder climes. And it obviously tastes terrible at temperatures when you can actually bite into it. Apparently, the Powerbars of yore were a running (sic) joke among mountaineers and trekkers.

There are other brands of energy bars out there, though much less common. As for energy gels, I’ve seen Powergel and Hammergel in Singapore, but not Gu or other brands.

So what do I use? For runs of less than ten miles: nothing. I hydrate myself and grab something to eat before the run and I can go up to ten or twelve miles without fluid replenishment, provided I run in the early mornings or evenings when conditions are mild. For runs of between ten and eighteen miles, or when conditions are more severe, I use a mix of honey, fresh limejuice and a conventional sports drink, usually the uncarbonated version of H-two-O. It’s cheap and it serves my purpose. Up to one liter usually suffices.

For longer runs of more than eighteen miles, I use Hammer Perpetuem, bar none the best energy replacement product that’s easily available in Singapore (relatively). Unfortunately, Perpetuem tastes truly horrible. I made the mistake of drinking it for the first time while on a long run without tasting it at home first. I had to abort the run because I ran out of energy halfway and I just couldn’t stomach the drink. FYI, I used the unflavored powder version that is dissolved in water by the user, not the single serve sachets that could possibly taste better.

For the uninitiated, Hammer products are great because they contain maltodextrins, longer chain branched carbohydrates that provide sustained energy without the surge and crash of simpler, sugary gels like Powergel. Perpetuem is especially good because it has a higher calorific content (energy density) than Hammer gel, so you take in more energy for the same mass that you ingest. Helps a lot if you have limited carrying capacity. How does it have a higher calorific content? Answer: Perpetuem has fat. So it basically tastes like unsweetened, fatty milk powder dissolved in water.

I know, totally gross right? Doesn’t help that I’m a supertaster. I can literally feel the fat molecules pressing down on my tongue. I still use Perpetuem powder, but mixed in my own original blend. It helps to mask the flavor, or lack thereof. Here it is. “Scoops” refer to the scoops that come with the corresponding original containers.

For 700 ml of solution
4 or 5 scoops of Hammer Perpetuem (big scoops)
12 scoops of Hammer Endurolytes (little scoops)
[I have a tendency to cramp post-20 miles, so I supplement my mix with Hammer Endurolytes. They may not be required for other runners as Perpetuem has a full electrolyte profile]

About 80 ml of honey (use a darker, more full-bodied honey for added flavor)
Freshly squeezed juice from one orange
Freshly squeezed juice from two limes
[Any sour fruit juice will help cut through the fat. The honey is there to balance out the sourness.]

Top off with your favorite conventional carton juice to capacity (I use apple). Dissolve and mix well with a long spoon.

The mix won’t be a solution, concentrated as it is with the Perpetuem that does not dissolve well. There’ll be lumps and it will be more of a suspension. But I’ve tried this mix and it can last me for upwards of 3 hours, provided I take along additional fluid replenishment, typically 1 liter of an undiluted sports drink. I weigh about 65 kilograms or 145 pounds, so adjustments will be necessary if you’re lighter or heavier.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The price of being financially unsophisticated

This post is timely given the recent interest in OCBC preference shares. The Sunday Times had a good article explaining the difference between fixed deposits and preference shares, highlighting the fact that most people only focus on the superior yields of the shares.

I'm going to talk about a kind of investment that I almost never use. I'm talking about fixed income assets. It's quite a deviation for me, considering that I invest my money mostly in equities and related assets. But considering the poor financial literacy of many people I know, this post might make useful reading. A caveat though, I use financial jargon here so some terms may be confusing. The gist of this post should be clear enough though.

First, let's talk about why I don't invest in fixed income assets -
bonds, money market funds and time deposits. While preference shares behave mostly like bonds, I will not include them in this discussion as they rank after debt in receiving the residuals following liquidation. Preference shares are equity, and as such have considerably higher credit risk in the event of default.

With oil trading at about $135 per barrel and food prices soaring, inflation is on the minds of everyone, from policymakers to CEOs to the proverbial man in the street. Under inflationary circumstances like now, fixed income assets are a poor performer in real terms. By definition, any asset that returns less than the rate of inflation is losing real value, and most fixed income assets today fall into this category due to low interest rates and high inflation rates (which may also be understated due to the vagaries in computing the CPI). In financial parlance, real interest rates today are mostly negative, so fixed income assets are almost definite loser investments.

Yet, most people find themselves uncomfortable with volatile investments like equities or equity funds. Indeed, due to poor market sentiment, equities in the near term are probably poised for even greater losses than have been seen so far. Hence, "no-risk" investments like time/fixed deposits are still where most people in Singapore put their money, even if they are loser investments in real terms. Even investors accustomed to risk-taking like myself find fixed income assets suitable places to park my money while waiting for new opportunities to surface, or for conditions to stabilize.

So if you must invest in fixed income, which fixed income assets to invest in? For myself, liquidity trumps return, so I leave most of my cash in my brokerage account, which earns a money market rate of return while being highly accessible for purchases of stocks.

But this post isn't about me. It's about the vast numbers of people in Singapore who place their very substantial savings in fixed deposits for fear of market volatility, and for lack of financial sophistication.

A quick check turns up fixed deposit rates here and here. The rates are truly dismal, obviously. And the marginally better rates require large amounts of cash to be placed on deposit.

Now let's look at Singapore Government Securities (SGS). For the uninitiated, and you know who you are, SGS are bonds and Treasury Bills (T-Bills) issued and backed by the Singapore Government, which, owing to decades of fiscal surpluses, is triple super duper whammy A rated.

The indicative "interest rates" or to be technically correct, yields to redemption, for the most recent tranches are here for 3-month T-bills, 1-year bonds and 5 or 10-year bonds. Look at the average yields. They are much higher than fixed deposit interest rates offered by the banks (though still lower than the rate of inflation).

SGS are open for investment to retail investors as well as institutional investors and the minimum denomination is SGD1000. Based on yield (clearly better), minimum investment (only SGD1000), security (backed by the Singapore Government for the full face value, and not just the first SGD20000 in deposits) and duration (as little as 91 days), they are clearly better than fixed deposits. On the measure of liquidity, SGS are slightly less liquid than fixed deposits and incur dealing costs (but not at subscription and not if held to maturity), but these are probably comparable to breaking the term of a fixed deposit before maturity.

In short, SGS are a closer equivalent to fixed deposits than preference shares can ever be, and they are superior to fixed deposits on almost all measures.

So why don't more people invest in SGS instead of fixed deposits? Simple, ignorance. Most Singaporeans have poor financial literacy, and also lack the skills to look for information independently. Furthermore, while the Monetary Authority of Singapore has appointed market makers for SGS, it is simply not in the interest of these dealers to cater to retail investors. Too administratively costly. So the primary dealers don't advertise this service.

Instead, they advertise their fixed deposits and the "attractive" interest rates. You can bet that some of this money that the banks get from depositors ends up in SGS. What is the price of being financially unsophisticated? One answer could be the spread between fixed deposit rates and SGS yields.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Real thought for food for long workouts"

Another article from the Times. My own note on fancy recovery bars like Powerbar is that some of them actually have high fructose corn syrup.

Published: June 5, 2008
Real Thought for Food for Long Workouts

DR. MARK TARNOPOLSKY, a muscle physiology researcher at McMaster University in Canada and a physician, knows all about the exhortations by supplement makers and many nutritionists on what to eat and when to eat it for optimal performance.

The idea is that you are supposed to consume carbohydrates and proteins in a magical four-to-one ratio during endurance events like a long run or bike ride, and right after. The belief is that such nutritional diligence will improve your performance and speed your recovery.

Dr. Tarnopolsky, a 45-year-old trail runner and adventure racer, might be expected to seize upon the nutritional advice. (He won the Ontario trail running series in 2004, 2005 and 2006.)

So might his colleague, Stuart Phillips, a 41-year-old associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster who played rugby for Canada’s national team and now plays it for fun. He also runs, lifts weights and studies nutrition and performance.

In fact, neither researcher regularly uses energy drinks or energy bars. They just drink water, and eat real food. Dr. Tarnopolsky drinks fruit juice; Dr. Phillips eats fruit. And neither one feels a need to ingest a special combination of protein and carbohydrates within a short window of time, a few hours after exercising.

There are grains of truth to the nutrition advice, they and other experts say. But, as so often happens in sports, those grains of truth have been expanded into dictums and have formed the basis for an entire industry in “recovery” products.

They line the shelves of specialty sports stores and supermarkets with names like Accelerade drink, Endurox R4 powder, PowerBar Recovery bar.

“It does seem to me that as a group, athletes are particularly gullible,” said Michael Rennie, a physiologist at the University of Nottingham in England who studies muscle metabolism.

The idea that what you eat and when you eat it will make a big difference in your performance and recovery “is wishful thinking,” said Dr. Rennie, a 61-year-old who was a competitive swimmer and also used to play water polo and rugby.

Here is what is known about proteins, carbohydrates and performance.

During exercise, muscles stop the biochemical reactions used to maintain themselves such as replacing and resynthesizing the proteins needed for day to day activities. It’s not that exercise is damaging your muscles; it’s that they halt the maintenance process until exercise is over.

To do this maintenance, muscles must make protein, and to do so they need to absorb amino acids, the constituent parts of proteins, from the blood. Just after exercise, perhaps for a period no longer than a couple of hours, the protein-building processes of muscle cells are especially receptive to amino acids. That means that if you consume protein, your muscles will use it to quickly replenish proteins that were not made during exercise.

But muscles don’t need much protein, researchers say. Twenty grams is as much as a 176-pound man’s muscles can take. Women, who are smaller and have smaller muscles even compared to their body sizes, need less.

Dr. Rennie said that 10 to 15 grams of protein is probably adequate for any adult. And you don’t need a special drink or energy bar to get it. One egg has 6 grams of protein. Two ounces of chicken has more than 12 grams.

Muscles also need to replenish glycogen, their fuel supply, after a long exercise session — two hours of running, for example. For that they need carbohydrates. Muscle cells are especially efficient in absorbing carbohydrates from the blood just after exercise.

Once again, muscles don’t need much; about one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight is plenty, Dr. Tarnopolsky said. He weighs 70 kilograms, or 154 pounds, which means he would need 70 grams of carbohydrates, or say, 27 ounces of fruit juice, he said.

Asker Jeukendrup, a 38-year-old 14-time Ironman-distance finisher who is an exercise physiologist and nutritionist at the University of Birmingham in England said the fastest glycogen replacement takes place in the four hours after exercise. Even so, most athletes need not worry.

“Most athletes will have at least 24 hours to recover,” Dr. Jeukendrup said. “We really are talking about a group of extremely elite sports people who train twice a day.” For them, he said, it can be necessary to rapidly replenish muscle glycogen.

The American College of Sports Medicine, in a position paper written by leading experts, reported that athletes who take a day or two to rest or do less-intense workouts between vigorous sessions can pretty much ignore the carbohydrate-timing advice.

The group wrote that for these athletes, “when sufficient carbohydrate is provided over a 24-hour period, the timing of intake does not appear to affect the amount of glycogen stored.”

For protein, it is not clear what the window is. Some studies concluded it was less than two hours, others said three hours, and some failed to find a window at all.

Dr. Rennie and his colleagues, writing in Annual Reviews of Physiology, concluded that “a possible ‘golden period’ ” for getting amino acids into muscles “remains a speculative, no matter how attractive, the concept.”

Although studies by Dr. Jeukendrup and several others have shown that consuming protein after exercise speeds up muscle protein synthesis, no one has shown that that translates into improved performance. The reason, Dr. Jeukendrup said, is that effects on performance, if they occur, won’t happen immediately. They can take 6 to 10 weeks of training. That makes it very hard to design and carry out studies to see if athletes really do improve if they consume protein after they exercise.

“You’d have to control everything, what they do, how they train, and also their carbohydrate and protein intake,” Dr. Jeukendrup said. “Those studies become almost impossible to do.”

As for the special four-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein, that, too, is not well established, researchers said. The idea was that you need both carbohydrates and protein consumed together because carbohydrates not only help muscles restore their glycogen but they also elicit the release of insulin. Insulin, the theory goes, helps muscles absorb amino acids.

Insulin may stimulate muscle protein synthesis in young rodents and in human cells grown in petri dishes, Dr. Rennie said. But studies in people have shown convincingly that insulin is not required for protein synthesis in adult human beings; it is amino acids that drive protein synthesis. As yet no convincing evidence exists that a special carbohydrate-to-protein ratio makes a noticeable difference in muscle protein maintenance after exercise. “There is no magic ratio,” Dr. Jeukendrup said.

The American College of Sports Medicine is equally skeptical. “Adding protein does not appreciably enhance glycogen repletion,” its paper states.

“Some studies suggested that adding proteins to carbohydrates during exercise can enhance performance,” Dr. Tarnopolsky said. “Many other studies suggested it didn’t do any good.”

Even if there are effects of protein and carbohydrates, they are not important to most exercisers, these researchers say. Serious triathletes and elite runners, who work out in the morning and at night, need to eat between training sessions. But people who are running a few miles a few days a week don’t need to worry about replenishing their muscles, Dr. Phillips said.

Dr. Rennie agreed. “If you are a superathlete, hundredths of a second matter,” he said. “But most Joes and Janes are just kidding themselves,” he said.

Some, like Dr. Jeukendrup, say they use a commercial protein-energy drink after training hard, for convenience.

Other researchers take their own nutritional advice. Dr. Tarnopolsky has a huge glass of juice, a bagel and a small piece of meat after a two- or three-hour run. Or he might have two large pieces of toast with butter and jam and a couple of scrambled eggs. But no energy bars, no energy drinks.

Dr. Phillips might have an energy bar during a long workout. But ordinarily he does not worry about getting a special carbohydrate-to-protein mix or timing his nutrition when he exercises. Instead, Dr. Phillips said, he simply eats real food at regular meals.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Foreign currency during travel

Everyone knows that you need foreign currency when you travel. The question is, where do you get your foreign currency from?

Most people I speak to get the currency of their destination from moneychangers, either in Singapore or at their destination. In other words, they carry rather large amounts of cash while travelling, and they change currency on the street.

I get my foreign (or rather local) currency after I reach my destination, from a local ATM on the PLUS or Cirrus network.

There are a number of advantages to doing so: convenience, safety (particularly in those autobanking lobbies), zero likelihood of a con-job, and an ability to better control how much cash I draw or will spend. I almost never have leftover currency after a trip, other than coins, which I consider souvenirs of my trip.

The biggest problem most people have with this method of getting local currency is that they worry about bank charges, and that they feel the rate is inferior to the street rate. More to the point, the rate is not transparent (you won't know until your next bank statement) and hence, most people are wary of drawing local currency from an ATM.

On the other hand, the pro-ATM argument states that since the rate at which local currency is drawn from an ATM is the interbank rate, the rate should in fact be superior to the street rate, and even after deducting fees and charges, should be broadly comparable to the street rate. [The interbank rate is the wholesale rate at which forex transactions between banks are carried out through the interbank networks. In theory, the bid-ask spread should be narrower than the street rate due to the sheer volume of transactions.]

I believe in the pro-ATM argument, but after hearing so many people claim to the contrary, I decided to look into this myself. In the past month, I've made two trips, one to Taiwan on business and one to Bali for a vacation. For both trips, I drew local currency from ATMs multiple times and I checked my bank statements after I returned to Singapore. I computed the effective rates and compared them against the street rates I saw while in Bali. I didn't see any moneychangers in Taiwan while there, but I checked the rates on before my trip. Rates on really are the best rates you can get, XE being a forex broker. So any rate close to the XE rate is a really good rate.

Here's what I found:

In all cases, I drew currency using a Citibank ATM card, which according to the customer service officer I spoke to in Singapore, levies no charges on foreign ATM withdrawals. However, I was warned that the foreign bank that owns the ATM may choose to levy charges. 

Well, I saw no extra charges on my bank statement, so if there were charges, they were probably built into the exchange rates.

In Taiwan:

I drew NTD7900 from a Chinatrust ATM at Kaohsiung airport, and my statement recorded a withdrawal of SGD360.97. So the effective rate was SGD1 = NTD21.89. 
Not bad considering the XE rate was about just north of NTD22 to SGD1 at the time of my trip.

[Why did I draw such a funny number like NTD7900? To get the small NTD100 notes, duh.]

Incidentally, I also charged my ABN AMRO Switch card twice while in Taiwan.
The effective rates for those two purchases were SGD1 = NTD21.95 and SGD1 = NTD21.85. Both rates are comparable to drawing cash from an ATM.

In Bali:

The street rates in Kuta ranged from SGD1 = IDR6600 to SGD1 = IDR6800.
I drew local currency four times, from ATMS belonging to three different banks:
The effective rates were:

BNI bank at the airport: SGD1 = RUP6235
BII bank in Kuta: SGD1 = RUP6637
Citibank at the airport (after immigration but before customs; the only Citi ATM I saw while in Bali):
SGD1 = RUP6656

ABN AMRO Switch card purchase
SGD1 = IDR6601

The street rates in Bali were better, particularly when compared against the rate I got at BNI bank, which was clearly a rip-off. The fact that the BNI ATM was at the airport could be a factor though. More fees perhaps. The street rates were slightly better, but not substantially so, than the rate I got from BII bank in Kuta itself, and also the rate I got from the Citibank ATM at the airport (remember I used a Citicard to draw money).

From the above data, it also appears that it's cheaper to pay cash for purchases than to charge purchases to a credit card.

While the street rates appear to be better, I still think I'll rely on ATMs when I'm in Bali. Money changer scams in Bali are egregious. Just google for it and the horror stories will pop up. A slightly inferior rate is worthwhile insurance against con-artists.

So what's the conclusion to all this? My hypothesis is that the ATM rates are probably really good when you're drawing money in a developed country (which squares with my own experience back when I was a backpacking student in Europe), but street rates are probably better in developing or third world countries. Bear in mind that third world countries exhibit some peculiarities that probably account for this. For example, I've travelled to Peru and people there *love* US dollars, even if the dollar is going to the dogs in today's weakening US economy. And changing a single USD100 note compared to USD100 in smaller bills gives a better rate in many Southeast Asian countries (e.g. Thailand). It's no wonder that the street rates tend to be better than ATM rates. Still, this is balanced against exposing yourself to scams while changing money on the street.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bali, May 2008

I went to Bali for the first time for a 9-day vacation in early May. It was supposed to be a 10-day vacation, but I changed my return flight to fly back early. It was without doubt, the least fun holiday I have ever taken. This marks the first time ever that I changed my return flight while on a vacation.

Bali's a nice enough place, I suppose, if you're into the surfing, lying-on-a-beach-getting-a-tan-with-a-bintang kind of vacation. It's also reasonably cheap, although I think the whole island of the gods on USD10 a day notion is a bit far-fetched. Being a terribly popular tourist location located in the exotic Far East, it's also stuffed with Australians, Europeans, Japanese, Koreans and increasingly, mainland Chinese (who I hear are also buying property in Bali).

Anyways, I didn't go to Bali for the surfing, the beach (Seminyak good, Kuta not so good, really), the diving, the massages (which were incidentally, great value), the food, or god forbid, the culture. My opinion is that if you've seen one temple/cathedral/mosque/torii, you're seen 'em all. In any case, I'm a flaneur by nature. Walking the streets is how I really get to know the feel of a place, and not just through visiting the canned tourist attractions. I once footed it from Canal Street to the Met when I was in Manhattan.

I went to Bali for one very simple reason: I wanted to learn how to paraglide, and Bali's the most convenient, accessible and reasonably priced location close to Singapore to learn how to do so. Seeing as how I knew no one else who wanted to throw themselves off a cliff (!), I travelled alone to Bali. Not an issue though; there are just some of us that have always dreamt of flying.

The learning site was at Timbis beach (more accurately, the cliff above Timbis beach that pilots step off after inflating the canopy), and the views were spectacular. Definitely not a part of Bali many tourists visit. The closest place to Timbis that most people would recognize is Nusa Dua, but in truth, Timbis is nowhere near Nusa Dua. It's actually closer to the temple at Pura Gunung Payung. Timbis lies along the southeastern edge of the Bukit peninsula.

The instructor was experienced, competent and safety conscious. Those are all good things. Unfortunately, he wasn't such a great teacher. There were of course practical handling lessons, but no theory or classroom lessons. We were just expected to read the textbook he gave us.

The real issue was the weather. Although I was there for nine days, I flew all of one day. That's right, one day. The instructor claimed that the weather wasn't typically so bad, that they would normally fly more than twenty days in a single month. But I wasn't so sure. I can personally attest that Bali is a great place to fly, if you already know how. But is it a great place to learn?

Beginner pilots can only fly in light, steady (non-gusty) winds of less than 15 mph. That by itself already doesn't happen consistently everywhere, not just Timbis in Bali. But what complicates matters at Timbis is that Timbis isn't a training hill. Instead, it's a cliff site that relies on sea breezes and ridge lift. That makes for spectacular views and pictures for sure, which is attractive to someone new to the sport. But what the splashy websites don't say is that while everyone takes off from the cliff, only advanced pilots are skilled enough to land back on the cliff (a difficult and dangerous feat for a beginner to attempt). In contrast, the beginners like me are supposed to take off from the cliff, but land on the beach at the foot of the cliff, where the L-Z is a long narrow stretch of sand (cushions falls, just in case). The problem is, at high tide, there is no beach.

Every morning I spent in Bali was spent bumming around in Kuta or Jimbaran, while waiting for the all-important phone call at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon telling us
(the other Singaporeans I met there and I) if the wind conditions were right for that day. Why 3 o'clock? Because that's when the tide starts to recede. And if wind conditions weren't right from 3 pm till 6:30 pm (when it gets dark), there would basically be no flying for that day. So we couldn't leave the vicinity of south Bali for a day trip anywhere (for instance, to Ubud) because we had to be available for the phone call, but there would be no guarantee of flying for that day even if we set the day aside. 

Both the wind and tide conditions have to be just right for student pilots in Bali. Most days, we spent the afternoons from 3pm onwards at the cliff, hoping for the winds to die down before it got dark, while more experienced pilots circled overhead. Most days, the wind didn't didn't die down. It wasn't very fun sitting there watching the instructor give tandem flights to the gawking tourists for USD75 a pop. I got so frustrated I cut my trip short and came home early.

While waiting for the winds to die down, I was entertained by stories by one of the Singaporeans (who apparently loves Bali enough to want to retire there) who saw, on her previous trip to Bali, a bunch of Filipinos and an American complete the entire 8 day course in one week.

I thought that was a fascinating story and how lucky indeed the Filipinos were! I was even kind enough not to point out that this was her fourth trip to Bali without completing the course. She's going to be back in Bali in August again, apparently on a month-long trip.

So, what's a landbound Singaporean with a yen for flying, living on an island where the national pastimes are really, let's face it, just eating, shopping and chillin', to do? Now that Bali's not really an option, I guess I'll just have to look for some place else that really does have reliable conditions for students.

a note on generic drugs

From the Straits Times:

Coming: cheaper drugs as generic enter market
Salma Khalik, Health Correspondent
Published: June 1, 2008

Patients here will be able to save millions of dollar on medicine over the next few years as several commonly used branded drugs lose their patents and cheaper generic ones come on the market.

A generic drug, which can cost just half the price of a brand-name one, is allowed for use here only if it produces almost the same results as the original.

This is what patients should know and doctors should already be aware of.

Bioequivalence doesn’t necessarily translate into therapeutic equivalence. While it’s likely that the vast majority of generic drugs perform just as well as brand-name drugs, sometimes formulation differences do matter for individual drugs. This is a controversial issue, by no means are all brand-name drugs better than their generics. And lobbyists for big pharma muddy the picture too. What is probably true in all cases is that brand-name drugs are backed by more extensive research (otherwise they wouldn't have got the patent in the first place). In contrast, no generic drug manufacturer is going to conduct an expensive trial to find out if their formulation is just as effective as the brand-name drug, particularly if the results might show that the generic is worse.

If you’re planning to switch to a generic from a brand-name drug, it’s probably smart to find out more on the generic.