Sunday, September 21, 2008

Blogging Break

I will be away in New York City for a conference from 21 September. After that, I will be off to visit friends in New England.

Check back in about 2 weeks for new posts. Alternatively, subscribe to the RSS/Atom feed for new updates.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Singapore ready for rising seas"

Preliminary studies indicate that Singapore is safe from rising sea levels.

However, there is no word on where the government commissioned study can be obtained, or how the general public may access the document. This is certainly something I would want to read first-hand.

From this article, it appears the study was done by the Singapore-Delft Water Alliance and the Tropical Marine Sciences Institute. The lead investigator was Dr Leong Shie-Yui. Searches of their websites turned up nothing though.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Whither now, Temasek's investment in Merrill Lynch?

Bank of America is buying Merrill Lynch. It should be all over the papers tomorrow, along with Lehman Brothers going into bankruptcy.

I mentioned Temasek's ratchet provisions in a previous post on its investment in Merrill Lynch.

I estimate that netting out the ratchet provision, Temasek's investment in Merrill Lynch was done at approximately $21 a share [Not verified]. Given that BofA is paying about $29 a share for Merrill, that's good news for Singapore taxpayers.

Then again, BofA is paying for Merrill Lynch in what looks to be an all stock deal. The credit crisis is hardly close to finishing; we could be looking at further losses. Who knows? Perhaps even BofA might go belly up further along the line.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Creating a research hub economy in Singapore: 2 models to consider, Part 2

I left off in my last post on stating that Singapore’s research thrust is too broad, but also too narrow at the same time.

I will return to this. Let’s talk about the second model that is interesting to think about with regard to building a research hub.

This model is the model of a modern healthcare system.

Walk into any modern hospital and you will find an array of healthcare professionals treating patients. Today, healthcare isn’t just provided by doctors with assistance from nurses. Instead, we find a whole host of what may be called allied healthcare professionals. These include but are not limited to pharmacists, nutritionists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, psychologists and early childhood experts. If we extend our gaze beyond the hospital, we may even include alternative medicine practitioners: traditional Chinese medicine physicians, Ayurvedic practitioners, massage therapists and chiropractors.

Clearly, demand exists from patients for these professional services, all of which aim to rehabilitate, promote or maintain health.

What is the significance of this healthcare delivery model to the building of a research hub?

To answer this question, let me relate a story from my professional life. I once worked on a project to develop an integrated transdermal drug delivery system that was conceptually, a hybrid between a transdermal patch and a lab-on-a-chip. This project was not successful.

Quite aside from the problems related to designing the individual integral components of such a system (which were already very challenging on their own), nobody in the project team had any expertise in control systems, which is traditionally an electrical engineering concern (and none of us were electrical engineers, much less control systems experts). I use the term control systems to refer to the electronic circuitry that is needed to control the actuators and sensors that constitute the drug delivery system.

Oh, we tried outsourcing the job, but that just opened up another can of worms altogether. Finding a suitable contractor was a royal pain. Add to that, it was really hard explaining to the people we screened what we really wanted the system to do. It was like talking to someone from Mars.

In addition, we knew no one who had any expertise in streamlining and shrinking the system down, and then packaging the system into a compact casing or housing. Naturally, this step is a fairly mundane manufacturing concern, but it is critical if the system is to actually become a usable product. And outsourcing this step to a commercial factory that did have the expertise was not possible; the minimum production run was literally in the thousands.

As I had already mentioned, the project was not successful. Not successful because we lacked access to the array of technical professionals that could help bring about the transition from research prototype to usable product. Just as a doctor can diagnose a problem and identify its causes, sometimes a different professional such as a speech therapist is needed to intervene to bring about the right therapeutic outcome.

This then, is the reason why I say that Singapore’s research thrust is too narrow. Sure, you can have 5000 brainy PhDs who all graduated from Stanford, Harvard or MIT, but without an associated ecosystem of ‘allied research professionals’, it’s going to be tough to translate research from the benchtop to the marketplace. There’s also the ego issue of all our numerous scholars, and I’m not just being snippy about this; I’m a one-time scholar myself. Here’s a word to the wise researcher. Don’t look down on the lowly technician or handyman in the machine shop in the basement. Or the guy who has done nothing but injection molding for plastics for decades. Or the electrical engineer with only a Bachelors but years of experience in working in an unhip, unsexy area of research like say, data centers. Their expertise, so far removed from your lofty ivory tower musings, could be what makes or breaks your research.

A*Star has clearly identified translational research as a bottleneck in building a research hub in Singapore, but I’m skeptical that they’ve fully grasped the magnitude of the problem. I know I haven’t, but my brief brush with the difficulties of translating research has endowed me with a healthy respect for its intractability. Somehow, I don’t think that setting up a bunch of consortia, hiring a few “translational research experts”, or giving out awards is going to hack it.

On the other hand, Singapore is focusing on areas of research where expertise and infrastructure already exist, such as in solar cell technology, which has linkages to our existing semiconductor industry. This is probably the smart thing to do. Notice also that while solar cell technology is a narrow field of study (which is a good thing in my opinion), it is also backed up in Singapore by a broad semiconductor industry base of expertise, which is also a good thing. Both narrow and broad, together at the same time, this time in a good way.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Singapore sues another Dow Jones Publication

Singapore is suing the Dow Jones Publishing Company and the Wall Street Journal Asia.

The case by itself is boring; the most pertinent detail is probably where the case is going to be heard, in Singapore or elsewhere.

What I find more interesting is that this is the first time a Dow Jones publication is being sued by Singapore since its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp last year. [FEER doesn’t count, since the Singapore suit against it was initiated in 2006.]

Murdoch is notorious for editorializing the media properties he owns to reflect his own political views, which have been characterized as being strongly conservative. Above all, he’s a shrewd, profit-driven entrepreneur.

While he had assured the former controllers of the Dow Jones Publishing Company, the Bancroft family, that he would maintain and preserve the journalistic independence and integrity of the Dow Jones publications, many commentators at the time of the acquisition had expressed doubt and disquiet.

I’d certainly like to listen in on the conversation between Murdoch and the editor at the Wall Street Journal Asia post this suit from Singapore. Now that’s interesting news.

Changing the Title

Although The New York Times is a left leaning newspaper, it has a slate of columnists that cover the full spectrum of political views from left to right. And of its columnists, one of the more prominent ones is Thomas L. Friedman, who represents the centrist view.

His most recent column was published on 9 September 2008 and is entitled “From the Gut”.

A read of the column will reveal that the focus of the column is on Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for the US Presidential elections, and how he is presumably failing to forge a ‘gut’ connection with Americans. John McCain is mentioned in passing more as a foil to Obama; he is not the focus here. How do I know this? Well, in addition to parsing through the subject matter of the column, we can consider the name-count.

There are 14 instances of the name “Obama” in the column, 4 instances of “McCain”, and just 3 instances of “Palin”. I’m too lazy to do so, but even if you included a count of the co-reference entities (he’s and she’s), I suspect “Obama” would still come up ahead by a wide margin.

The Straits Times reprinted Friedman’s column in today’s (12 September) print edition, and entitled it “McCain’s Connecting on a Gut Level”.

It’s an unusual choice for a rewording of the original title, considering that we have already established that the column is really about Obama and not McCain.

But perhaps this behavior on the part of the Straits Times editors is not surprising. Even though the Singapore government, like any good lobbyist, plays both sides of an election, we already know that if anyone can speak for the government, it must be Singapore’s founding father, and he has already made known his preference.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Creating a research hub economy in Singapore: 2 models to consider, Part 1

I talked about the less than successful exploits (sic) of Singapore’s investments in science and technology research in a previous post.

This post will deal with some of the challenges I’ve thought about, and which I haven’t see much discussed anywhere in Singapore, even among people whose business is to think about such things. Specifically, I will describe 2 models that are interesting to think about when investing in developing a science and technology based economy.

The first model is the research paradigm of large pharmaceutical firms.

It’s well known that pharmaceutical firms spend a lot of money developing new drugs, in particular so-called blockbuster drugs that can generate enormous amounts of revenue. Examples of such drugs include Viagra, Lipitor and Celebrex. What is less well known is how targeted research spending by pharmaceutical firms is.

It’s a common riff among academic scientists that the day you enter (pharmaceutical) industry is the day you stop doing creative research. Part of the reason for this is clearly that firms are profit-driven enterprises, and cannot afford to spend money on blue-sky or fundamental, basic research [Industry scientists would naturally object to the accusation that their work is not creative, however].

How pharmaceutical firms function then, is that they allow the wider community of academic scientists, drawing on government research grants, to study a multitude of things: diseases, processes, genes, molecules etc. And when academia identifies something interesting, the entire industry’s attention focuses on this interesting discovery. For pharmaceutical firms, an interesting discovery most often takes the form of some molecule, such as a potential chemical compound that is biologically active, a receptor molecule that is overexpressed in cancer cells (and hence represents a target molecule for intervention), or a key signal transduction molecule implicated in some vital metabolic pathway.

The industry then springs into action, throwing vast amounts of money, skilled researchers and management expertise at this interesting new discovery. The goal here is to develop new candidate drug molecules for clinical testing, and then to bring the product to market. Depending on the discovery, the research effort is geared towards different things. If the original discovery had to do with an interesting new compound, firms might try synthesizing analogues that have a more favorable safety or solubility profile, and that might be more effective in treating a certain medical condition. If it’s a receptor that is overexpressed in cancer cells, firms might devote efforts to developing a molecule can target and bind to this receptor and hence halt the development of the cancer. Herceptin is a good example here. For signal transduction molecules, developing compounds that can intervene in a pathway could lead to new drugs, such as Viagra.

The key thing here to note is that while the original discovery that sparked the development of a new technology (the drug) comes from outside the industry, it is only industry that can marshal such vast resources in a single-minded fashion to bring a product to market. No academic lab, even the one that originally made the interesting discovery, can compete with the teams of researchers that pharmaceutical firms put on to develop the drug.

This pharmaceutical model is instructive for a small country like Singapore with limited resources. If the goal of developing a science-based industry can be likened to hitting bulls-eyes on dartboards, then we have two ways of doing this. With a limited supply of darts representing our resources, one way is to hang up a lot of dartboards and throw a few darts at each dartboard.
Alternatively, we adapt the pharmaceutical model: we can hang up just a few of the more interesting dartboards and we throw a lot of darts at each one.

For someone with a lot of darts (like the US government), they can afford to hang up a lot of dartboards and throw a lot of darts at every dartboard.

To a certain extent, the Singapore government understands this. That is why the government has chosen to focus on biomedical sciences, water purification technologies, and renewable energy research.

I would argue that these three areas are still way too broad. The pharmaceutical industry really drills down to just a handful of things to focus on.

Biomedical sciences is too broad a field. Even the entirety of cancer research might be too broad. A narrow enough field that we should focus our energies on might be just stem cell research, or medical diagnostics. And then we make ourselves the world leader in these things.

There are of course caveats to this approach.

In the pharmaceutical model, industry leverages on the wide ranging efforts of the larger academic community that spends government research money. Where should Singapore’s targeted research efforts look to for the original ideas to leverage upon? This is a problem that is not answered easily. Even if you believe that we should be spending research dollars more broadly simply to generate ideas, I would caution that a lot of money would need to be spent, and much of it will need to necessarily lead to nothing. Can Singapore stomach that? Spending on research is such that not every dollar winds up leading to some useful end product. In some cases, something non-research related derails a potential product. Sony spent a lot of money on Betamax, but it still lost the VCR format war.

Concentration of risk. Without diversification, we’ll essentially be putting all our eggs in a few baskets. But I believe that this is a risk that should be taken. Throwing a few darts at each of several dartboards is practically depending on dumb luck to hit a bulls-eye, which is basically substituting a different kind of risk.

The interests of our numerous researchers, PhD scholars and the like. It’s unlikely that every biomedical science PhD wants to work on stem cells. In fact, I would argue that because Singapore’s success in research is contingent on focusing on a few narrow fields of science and technology, this is a prime argument against anyone wanting to take up an A*STAR scholarship. There is nothing more depressing than being interested in working in a certain field, getting trained in that field, but being bonded to work in some other field because that’s where the research funding is (or going to be in four years when the scholar graduates).

Volatility. This is related to concentration of risk and is the flip-side of the pharmaceutical model. Pharmaceutical firms are peculiarly dependent on just a handful of drugs for most of their profits. As a result, such firms can experience feast or famine business conditions depending on how well their drugs perform. Merck was shaken to its foundations when Vioxx was taken off the market.

The problems associated with being too narrowly focused. This last point is interesting and I will discuss it, and the second model I mentioned above, in a future post. Suffice it to say that, while I feel that Singapore’s research thrust is too broad, it is also at the same time too narrow. I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but I will explain further in my next post on this topic.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Playing to the gallery

Gallery: The general public - usually considered as exemplifying a lack of discrimination or sophistication. – from The Free Dictionary

It is well known and considered that in modern democracies, politicians often have to strike a balance between appeasing their constituents, so called playing to the gallery, whilst attempting to implement sound if unpopular policies.

Much ink has been spilt on the problems associated with striking this balance, particularly problems pertaining to ‘pandering to the masses’. When I took political science 101 as an elective back in university, I was introduced to the American term pork barrel politics for the first time. I remember being fascinated by the term; you mean politicians actually take flak for maneuvering in Congress for perks and advantages for their constituents? Admittedly, these perks come at the expense and waste of the Federal budget, but still, the idea that politicians actually proactively influence policy for the benefit of their constituents, if nothing but for the sake of retaining office…the idea was a breath of fresh air for a born and bred Singaporean like me, relatively speaking.

As my political awareness grew, I came to know of the overwhelming (and potentially corrosive) influence of K street lobbyists, their clients, and other special interest groups on United States lawmakers. The United States political system seemed to be like a giant mesh of corporate and other special interests, only sometimes incidentally benefiting American citizens.

If lawmakers have to cater to all their campaign contributors, all their lobbyists, all their concerned, unemployed/employed, rich/poor, liberal/conservative constituents, and have to make deals with other lawmakers, how can legislation ever be pushed out? More importantly, what kind of legislation does get passed? Frankenstein legislation that’s a compromise on everything, makes no one happy, and doesn’t get a thing done? Tax cuts and bail-outs that temporarily goose the economy and make Wall Street happy but ultimately worsen the current deficit and the health of the economy? Food and fuel subsidies that placate the populace but distort the market for essential goods? We have examples of all of those in today’s global context.

Wouldn’t it better if we just left legislation to capable men of government, the philosopher-kings to borrow a phrase from Plato, and relieve politicians of the need to play to the gallery? Indeed, one of my readers is (or was, since I don’t think he reads this blog anymore) precisely of that opinion.

Well, guess what. Singapore’s a perfect example of a government that doesn’t really feel the need to play to the gallery, since the ruling party has had a perfect record of returning to power at every election, at majorities unheard of elsewhere in other democracies. Pity about that rather bald outburst about 'fixing' [opposition party politicians] from the PM though.

Legislation is passed quickly and without fuss, and you could make a case that the ‘right’ legislation is selected all or most of the time. Feedback solicited after legislation has been decided on may be a token gesture, but hey, the right legislation was passed in the end.

But just like in any exam, especially a math exam, there are correct solutions and there are also good (elegant) solutions. They are not necessarily the same thing.

What kinds of solutions do you get when you have lawmakers that are paid a lot of money, are assured of re-election, and have a pliable media in a conciliatory rather than watchdog role? What happens when lawmakers aren’t forced to get creative or imaginative about solutions that address their constituents’ wishes while still remaining sound policies?

When things get tough for a politician striking a balance between sound policies and playing to the gallery, the politician sometimes caves and selects the most expedient solution: a compromised workaround that pleases no one.

But as it turns out, when lawmakers are free to work without interference from the gallery, they turn to expedient solutions too, just of a different kind. They reach for the most convenient, most conventional, most in-the-box solution. Make no mistake, these solutions do work. Raising the ERP does reduce road congestion, but for whatever reason, no lawmaker has been motivated enough to devise a solution that will address the underlying problem of a compromised public/private transportation infrastructure, which is the real problem. Gee, I wonder whether that has anything to do with the Transport Minister not fearing any repercussions on his career whatsoever.

Well, at least when government doesn’t have to play to the gallery, we are free from the pernicious influence of special interest groups, or so you might think.

If the “applause and thumping of seats” by Cabinet ministers in October 2007, or the appointment of Thio Li-ann as an NMP, are any indicators of the increasingly evangelical Christian character of the Cabinet, then there are special interests at play in our government, a la the Christian right, in a style similar to Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America. It’s just not as obvious in Singapore as the multitude of lobbyists you see on K street in Washington D.C. And that makes it all the more insidious.

I know that biotech research in Singapore is booming because the media says so

The Straits Times carried an article in today’s (9 September 2008) print edition on how Yoshiaki Ito’s team had discovered how a tumor suppressor gene RUNX3 is implicated in colorectal cancer.

Periodically, the local media likes to run articles like this that purport to put Singapore on the global research map. The headlines are usually fairly grandiose, and frequently mention how local research will help to find the cure for cancer. Articles like this help to convey the message that we’re not spending billions of dollars on research for nothing.

Granted, the research is probably impactful, and was published in a prestigious journal, but I wonder how many people realize just how little this means in the grand scheme of things.

First of all, research related to oncogenes is relatively widespread these days. Today is not the 70’s, when the gene for p53 was first discovered, so in terms of scientific impact, research like Ito’s isn’t especially groundbreaking or earth-shattering. Certainly, it’s only one piece of the puzzle in the search for a cure for cancer.

[Aside, p53 was identified by a team of which David Lane was a part of. He was brought in to Singapore by A*Star a few years back, but has since left for another appointment. As distinguished as he is, I have heard from someone who used to work in his lab in Singapore that he spent an inordinate amount of time watching cricket in his office.

For all that the PM likes to say about Singaporeans not being 'hungry' enough, we certainly like to hire foreigners that ought to be put out to pasture already. Personally, I'm not surprised. It's a lot easier for a bureaucrat who knows nothing about innovation to justify hiring a research brand name than an up and coming under thirty-fiver. Certainly it's easier to explain things to the boss if the whole biomed shebang collapses in an abject mess, e.g. But I hired the best! Who knew that they were over the hill and unproductive?

But I digress. :o) ]

Second, if in the ‘grand scheme of things’ we’re referring to Singapore’s success as a biomedical hub, this discovery is again nothing to be impressed about.

Viable diagnostic kits based on this discovery are, in Ito’s words, years away, and who knows if a commercially successful product will eventually come to market?

One of the ugly truths of Singapore’s foray into biomedical research is that despite more than ten years of investment, we have had very little to show for in terms of economic success. We have had better luck with pharmaceutical manufacturing, but that is to be expected, as we have offered the same deal to big pharma as we have to all other MNCs, namely tax breaks, land, fast track approval, political patronage, and a skilled, pliant workforce. Despite the giant sucking sound emanating from China and India, corporations are still going to invest in places like Singapore if only to not put all their supply chain eggs in one basket.

So what reasons do I have to offer for stating that Singapore has not been very successful in its biomedical, and more broadly speaking, science research enterprise?

Sometimes, it really does help to have friends who are government scholars or who work in relatively high responsibility positions in the public sector.

A friend who works at EDB told me that a few years ago many foreign companies in general did not want to set up research labs here to do really serious or important research. Labs to do yield optimization, process streamlining-type research are ok. But the new new things will not be discovered in labs here. Manufacturing-type investments were much easier to score (Think biologics manufacturers like Lonza or Genentech). I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last few years.

I have it on good authority from someone who works at Exploit Technologies that they have serious difficulty attracting companies to license technologies. In most cases, the technologies are simply not viable, don’t perform as claimed, or are a bad fit for the companies’ existing business models.

A simple check on the Exploit website shows only a handful of ‘success stories’, if they can even be called that, and many of them are engineering related rather than biomedical related. SIMTECH in particular, has been doing fairly well, which may be expected due to its close collaboration with the manufacturing industry.

A similar check on Bio*One Capital turns up a similar story. Only a handful of companies have Singapore operations. Notably, there has not been a successful IPO for any Singapore-based Bio*One Capital funded company and only a few successful exit-by-acquisitions. And this is after Bio*One has been in existence for something like 10 years. If Bio*One was a private VC, it should have gone out of business already.

A dirty little secret is that some of the companies in Bio*One Capital’s stable are already defunct, despite their logos still being on the website. I should know, one of them just vacated the premises one floor down from my office a few months ago.

It’s evident that Singapore’s research drive isn’t as successful as the media would like to paint it. Indeed, it faces some monumental challenges. I have my own take on some of these problems, which I have seen few commentators anywhere else speak on, and I will comment on these in a future post.

Monday, September 8, 2008

(Prelude to) Emergency Ward Charges

The Straits Times ran an article today (8 September) in its print edition on overcrowding in emergency wards from an overwhelming preponderance of non-emergency cases. In a related article, it also highlighted the discrepancy in emergency ward charges and charges at 24 hour general practitioner clinics. Specifically, the former were cheaper for the majority of patients compared to the latter.

Published by any other newspaper, this article (which I feel, for the record, is newsworthy) could have been taken simply at face value.

Published by the Straits Times, however, this article makes the needle on my internal spin detector start to quiver.

I could of course be wrong, but given the track record of the Straits Times putting the best possible face on any unpopular course of government action, this article could be a prelude to an increase in emergency ward charges.

If you're going to manage newsflow for the purpose of defusing tension on the ground, why not pre-empt sentiment by laying the grounds for an unpopular rise in prices before the policy comes into effect?

Especially before the goodwill from instituting better baby benefits has run its course... 

"When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder"

From The New York Times
Published: September 6, 2008

“It is the policy and objective of the Congress to use the patent system to promote the utilization of inventions arising from federally supported research or development” and “to promote collaboration between commercial concerns and nonprofit organizations, including universities.”
— The Bayh-Dole Act, a k a the University Small Business Patent Procedures Act

THE law of unintended consequences is perhaps less a “law” than a simple statement of fact: We cannot accurately predict all the results of our actions. We may do something with the best of intentions, and sometimes even accomplish the good toward which we aim. Yet, at the same time, we are all too often surprised by results that didn’t occur to us beforehand.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 started out with the best of intentions. By clearing away the thicket of conflicting rules and regulations at various federal agencies, it set out to encourage universities to patent and license results of federally financed research. For the first time, academicians were able to profit personally from the market transfer of their work. For the first time, academia could be powered as much by a profit motive as by the psychic reward of new discovery.

University “tech transfer” offices have boomed from a couple dozen before the law’s passage to nearly 300 today. University patents have leapt a hundredfold. Professors are stepping away from the lab and lecture hall to navigate the thicket of venture capital, business regulations and commercial competition.

None of these are necessarily negative outcomes. But more than a quarter-century after President Jimmy Carter signed it into law, the Bayh-Dole Act, sponsored by the former Senators Birch Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, and Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas, is under increasing scrutiny by swelling ranks of critics. The primary concern is that its original intent — to infuse the American marketplace with the fruits of academic innovation — has also distorted the fundamental mission of universities.

In the past, discovery for its own sake provided academic motivation, but today’s universities function more like corporate research laboratories. Rather than freely sharing techniques and results, researchers increasingly keep new findings under wraps to maintain a competitive edge. What used to be peer-reviewed is now proprietary. “Share and share alike” has devolved into “every laboratory for itself.”

In trying to power the innovation economy, we have turned America’s universities into cutthroat business competitors, zealously guarding the very innovations we so desperately want behind a hopelessly tangled web of patents and royalty licenses.

Of course, there is precedent for scientific secrecy, notes Daniel S. Greenberg , author of “Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards and Delusions of Campus Capitalism” (University of Chicago Press, 2007). When James Watson and Francis Crick were homing in on DNA’s double-helix structure in the 1950s, they zealously guarded their work from prying eyes until they could publish their findings, to be certain that they would get the credit for making the discovery.

“They didn’t try to patent it,” Mr. Greenberg notes, “but somebody doing the same work today would certainly take a crack at patenting the double helix.”

In fact, it was the life sciences — in particular, biotechnology — that started universities down the slippery commercial slope in the first place. Even before the Bayh-Dole Act, pharmaceutical companies were eagerly trolling campuses, looking for projects to finance. After the law was passed, they stepped up their efforts, but now with renewed zeal for keeping potential trade secrets from competitors.

While patients have benefited from the growing supply of new medications, the universities have obtained patents not only for the actual substances but also for the processes and methods used to make them, potentially hampering discovery of even more beneficial treatments.

“Bayh-Dole tore down the taboos that existed against universities engaging in overtly commercial activity. Universities really thought that they were going to make it rich,” said Jennifer Washburn, author of “University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education” (Basic Books, 2005). “Each school was convinced that if they came up with that one blockbuster invention, they could solve all their financial problems.”

Ms. Washburn says that was “extremely wrong-headed.” Initially reacting to the law by slapping patents on every possible innovation, universities quickly discovered that patents were an expensive proposition. The fees and legal costs involved in obtaining a single patent can run upward of $15,000, and that doesn’t count the salaries of administrative staff members. Instead of bringing home the bacon, university tech transfer offices were throwing money into the void with little hope of returns.

To date, Ms. Washburn says, data gathered by the Association of University Technology Managers, a trade group, show that fewer than half of the 300 research universities actively seeking patents have managed to break even from technology transfer efforts. Instead, two-thirds of the revenue tracked by the association has gone to only 13 institutions.

Part of the problem has been a lingering misunderstanding about where the value lies in innovation. Patenting a new basic science technique, or platform technology, puts it out of the reach of graduate students who might have made tremendous progress using it.

Similarly, exclusive licensing of a discovery to a single company thwarts that innovation’s use in any number of other fields. R. Stanley Williams, a nanotechnologist from Hewlett-Packard, testified to Congress in 2002 that much of the academic research to which H.P. has had difficulty gaining access could be licensed to several companies without eroding its intellectual property value.

“Severe disagreements have arisen over conflicting interpretations of the Bayh-Dole Act,” he said. “Large U.S.-based corporations have become so disheartened and disgusted with the situation, they are now working with foreign universities, especially the elite institutions in France, Russia and China.”

THE issue is further clouded by “reach through” licenses, complex arrangements used by many tech transfer offices. A reach-through lets the patent holder claim a share of any profits that result from using, say, an enabling technology, even if those profits come several steps down the market transfer line. Several universities are already embroiled in messy lawsuits trying to sort out who is entitled to what.

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of campus commercialization is that research decisions are now being based on possible profits, not on the inherent value of knowledge. “Blue sky” research — the kind of basic experimentation that leads to a greater understanding of how the world works — has largely been set aside in favor of projects considered to have more immediate market potential.

In academia’s continuing pursuit of profit, the wonder of simple serendipitous discovery has been left on the curb.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Running Routes: To Mandai, and Le Grand Route

My previous running routes post was on Rifle Range Road.

In it, I mentioned an offroad trail that links up to the Belukar Trail on the eastern edge of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

Today, I will mention a very popular offroad cycling route that is incidentally, also good for runners.

The aforementioned Belukar Trail is an offroad cycling trail and it links up north with the Chestnut Trail. The Chestnut Trail proceeds beneath the Zhenghua flyover and from Chestnut Avenue, into the deep woods. It eventually links up with the Gangsa Trail near the Gali Batu flyover and joins up with Track 15. Track 15 connects to Mandai Road, near the Singapore Zoo.

This trail is well-known to bikers in Singapore. You can read more here and here.


If running, always be aware that you are sharing the trail with cyclists. That means that for safety reasons, you should be mindful of your surroundings. Ipod runners need not apply.

Belukar Trail connects to Zhenghua Park near the Zhenghua flyover. To get onto the Chestnut Trail, you must turn onto Chestnut Avenue and proceed until you reach the trail head at Meeting Point 4. Ignore the asphalt track that leads into Zhenghua Park and continues on to the Bukit Panjang Park Connector.

The W(ood)cutter's Trail, a nature trail, starts near Meeting Point 4. [pardon the leet, as this is meant to forestall would-be animal/bird trappers].

The Gangsa Trail is remote. It's best not to run (or cycle) alone if you are single and a female.

The Gangsa Trail is also long, and not particularly easy to run. It's meant for *bikers* after all. Bear this in mind if you are a casual runner.

You may encounter wildlife during your runs. Act sensibly. I have seen both monkeys and jungle fowl on my runs [well, it could just have been a regular rooster, but I didn't see any farms nearby].

And now, for what I term rather grandiosely (or pretentiously) Le Grand Route.

Taken together with all of my previous posts on the running routes that I have documented, what we have now is a remarkable result.

It is now possible to traverse as much as one fifth of the island contiguously on foot, running mostly on off-road trails, park connectors, quiet roads and estates. Only a small portion of the running routes requires running on pavement alongside heavily trafficked major roads.

This area that amounts to a fifth of the island stretches as far west as Jurong Birdpark, northwest to Dairy Farm Road, north to Mandai, northeast to Thomson, and southwards to Harbourfront.

To recap from my previous posts:

Jurong Birdpark is linked to the Chinese Garden via the Jurong Park Connector, which in turn links to the Ulu Pandan Park Connector at the PIE near IMM (see Running Routes: Buona Vista to the Chinese Garden).

The Ulu Pandan Park Connector extends into the Bukit Batok area, connects to the Hillview Park Connector, Dairy Farm Road and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is linked via Rifle Range Road to the whole of Macritchie Reservoir Park, and east to Thomson (see Running Routes: Rifle Range Road).

As mentioned above, the Belukar Trail of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve can extend as far north as Mandai Road through extensions on the Chestnut and Gangsa Trails, and on Track 15.

At the other end of the Ulu Pandan Park Connector, the park connector wends behind the International Business Park, through the Clementi/Sunset Way area, then wraps back upon itself at Buona Vista MRT Station (see Running routes: Buona Vista Loop).

At Buona Vista MRT Station, runners can take the Dempsey Loop which encompasses the Holland V. and Tanglin V. areas, with possible extensions to the Botanic Gardens (see Running routes: Dempsey Loop).

Alternatively, from Buona Vista MRT Station, runners can easily reach nearby Biopolis, exit from its rear onto Portsdown Road, which takes runners directly into Wessex Estate (see Running routes: Wessex Estate).

Exiting Wessex Estate from its southern end, runners can then cross (via an overhead bridge) the AYE to reach Science Park I, Technology Crescent, and then enter Kent Ridge Park, gateway to the Southern Ridges (see Running Routes: Southern Ridges).

Friday, September 5, 2008

"For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving"

From The New York Times
Published: September 4, 2008

Scientists have for the first time recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, revealing not only where a remembered experience is registered but also, in part, how the brain is able to recreate it.

The recordings, taken from the brains of epilepsy patients being prepared for surgery, demonstrate that these spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced. Researchers had long theorized as much but until now had only indirect evidence.

Experts said the study had all but closed the case: For the brain, remembering is a lot like doing (at least in the short term, as the research says nothing about more distant memories).

The experiment, being reported Friday in the journal Science, is likely to open a new avenue in the investigation of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, some experts said, as well as help explain how some memories seemingly come out of nowhere. The researchers were even able to identify specific memories in subjects a second or two before the people themselves reported having them.

“This is what I would call a foundational finding,” said Michael J. Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the research. “I cannot think of any recent study that’s comparable.

“It’s a really central piece of the memory puzzle and an important step in helping us fill in the detail of what exactly is happening when the brain performs this mental time travel” of summoning past experiences.

The new study moved beyond most previous memory research in that it focused not on recognition or recollection of specific symbols but on free recall — whatever popped into people’s heads when, in this case, they were asked to remember short film clips they had just seen.

This ability to richly reconstitute past experience often quickly deteriorates in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and it is fundamental to so-called episodic memory — the catalog of vignettes that together form our remembered past.

In the study, a team of American and Israeli researchers threaded tiny electrodes into the brains of 13 people with severe epilepsy. The electrode implants are standard procedure in such cases, allowing doctors to pinpoint the location of the mini-storms of brain activity that cause epileptic seizures.

The patients watched a series of 5- to 10-second film clips, some from popular television shows like “Seinfeld” and others depicting animals or landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. The researchers recorded the firing activity of about 100 neurons per person; the recorded neurons were concentrated in and around the hippocampus, a sliver of tissue deep in the brain known to be critical to forming memories.

In each person, the researchers identified single cells that became highly active during some videos and quiet during others. More than half the recorded cells hummed with activity in response to at least one film clip; many of them also responded weakly to others.

After briefly distracting the patients, the researchers then asked them to think about the clips for a minute and to report “what comes to mind.” The patients remembered almost all of the clips. And when they recalled a specific one — say, a clip of Homer Simpson — the same cells that had been active during the Homer clip reignited. In fact, the cells became active a second or two before people were conscious of the memory, which signaled to researchers the memory to come.

“It’s astounding to see this in a single trial; the phenomenon is strong, and we were listening in the right place,” said the senior author, Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Tel Aviv.

His co-authors were Hagar Gelbard-Sagiv, Michal Harel and Rafael Malach of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and Roy Mukamel, of U.C.L.A.

Dr. Fried said in a phone interview that the single neurons recorded firing most furiously during the film clips were not acting on their own; they were, like all such cells, part of a circuit responding to the videos, including thousands, perhaps millions, of other cells.

In studies of rodents, including a paper that will also appear Friday in the journal Science, neuroscientists have shown that special cells in the hippocampus are sensitive to location, activating when the animal passes a certain spot in a maze. The firing pattern of these cells forms the animals’ spatial memory and can predict which way the animal will turn, even if it makes a wrong move.

Some scientists argue that as humans evolved, these same cells adapted to register a longer list of elements — including possibly sounds, smells, time of day and chronology — when an experience occurred in relation to others.

Single-cell recordings cannot capture the entire array of circuitry involved in memory, which may be widely distributed beyond the hippocampus area, experts said. And as time passes, memories are consolidated, submerged, perhaps retooled and often entirely reshaped when retrieved later.

Though it did not address this longer-term process, the new study suggests that at least some of the neurons that fire when a distant memory comes to mind are those that were most active back when it happened, however long ago that was.

“The exciting thing about this,” said Dr. Kahana, the University of Pennsylvania professor, “is that it gives us direct biological evidence of what before was almost entirely theoretical.”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Private Banking and Trickle-down Economics

My previous post on private banking focused on it as a career option. Thinking about private banking led me to consider the wider effect of private banking, and more broadly, finance on the economy.

Singapore has aggressively pursued the finance hub idea for the past decade or so to boost economic growth, but with decidedly mixed success. Just a simple glance at IPO figures and you’ll see that Hong Kong and Tokyo are leagues ahead, particularly Hong Kong. With the size of the larger Chinese companies listing on the Hong Kong exchange, it’s New York and London that are starting to feel the heat of the competition. Competition from Singapore is a non-issue for Hong Kong.

But in the area of private banking, we are doing much better. This is thanks mainly to the strong banking secrecy laws here (stronger than Switzerland, which has to comply with EU directives) and the Singapore government, which is, how shall we put it, politically stable and open to foreign investment.

While private banking does create a number of high paying jobs, it’s interesting to consider what the high-flying banking industry means to the ordinary population. This is especially so since doubt has been cast on trickle-down economics in the US of A.

Mainstream economics would contend that any industry doing well would lead to trickle-down effects. For example, a private banker needs teams of assistants and analysts (which means jobs), and their consumption would in turn benefit providers of other services (such as restaurants, real estate agents and nannies). This goes for the private banking clients as well, assuming they reside in Singapore at least some of the time.

But as a thought experiment, sometimes I do wonder how much the wider economy benefits from banking and finance as an industry. For example, while New York City does derive a large chunk of its tax revenues from Wall Street and spends this on public services, it’s undeniable that the greatest beneficiaries from Wall Street’s largesse, aside from the bankers themselves, are the luxury car dealerships, real estate agents, jewellers, luxury retailers and the like. We can include the $400 dollar a head restaurants, $300 a cut hair stylists, the highly paid Mandarin-speaking nannies, the couturiers, furriers and spa therapists.

It’s less than clear how much the general city population benefits from such an industry that consumes mainly high-end goods and services no one else can afford.

This is especially so when we consider the damaging effects of income inequality. The obscenely wealthy tend to bid up the prices of goods that they desire, and this causes knock-on effects on all sorts of goods. Real estate is a good example. We have had whole floors of condos purchased by foreign money in Singapore in the last two years for investment purposes, at the peak of the real estate boom. This surely influenced the affordability of HDB flats.

The economist Robert Frank has written on some of the pernicious effects of income inequality, and it’s worth thinking about whether gains from economic growth that encourage income inequality are worth their detriments.

What exacerbates problems in the case of private banking is that in general, wealth is not created through these activities. While many private banking clients that conduct their business through Singapore are nouveau riche, they didn’t create their wealth here. They created it in China, India, Indonesia…anywhere the pan-Asian and commodity boom touched. Singapore is merely a convenient place to park their funds.

Private bankers are essentially paid to push money around, and with the influx of foreign money into Singapore, it’s difficult not to suspect that at least some of the recent price increases in Singapore have been due to demand-pull inflation resulting from very large capital flows. Certainly, we saw it with real estate.

And with the rising cost (some say value) of real estate, we have escalating rents, higher business costs, and invariably … higher prices. Who knows how much of inflation something like private banking is responsible for?

Monday, September 1, 2008

"Don’t Like Palin’s Wikipedia Story? Change It"

From The New York Times
Published: August 31, 2008

IN the 24 hours before the McCain campaign put the finishing touches on its surprise announcement Friday that Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska would be the Republican vice presidential candidate, one Wikipedia user was putting the finishing touches on her biography on the site.

Beginning at 2 a.m Eastern time on Thursday, a Wikipedia user with the name YoungTrigg began an overhaul of the article, adding compelling stories about her upbringing, including that “she earned the nickname ‘Sarah Barracuda’ because of her intense play” as point guard for her high school basketball team and that she and her father “would sometimes wake at 3 a.m. to hunt moose before school.”

Many details were culled from, and footnoted to, the book “Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear,” by Kaylene Johnson.

Soon enough, YoungTrigg pivoted from the biographical to the political, adding that Ms. Palin had high approval ratings as governor and that, as mayor, she had “kept her campaign promises, reducing her own salary, as well as reducing property taxes 60 percent.”

As governor, YoungTrigg wrote, her “tenure is noted for her willingness to take on oil companies” and that she has been called “a ‘politician of eye-popping integrity.’ ” Both of those statements were attributed to a profile in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

In total, YoungTrigg — whose user name is a reference to Ms. Palin’s infant son, Trig — made 30 “edits” to the article, all positive and largely unnoticed, since they came at a time when few were discussing her as a possible running mate of Senator John McCain’s.

The coincidence of the user’s name, and the sudden spurt of activity just before news broke of Mr. McCain’s choice, has raised suspicions that YoungTrigg was a campaign operative tasked to make sure that her Wikipedia article was ready for prime time, much as handlers have been assigned to do the same for the candidate.

While ethically suspect, the idea that a politician would try to shape her Wikipedia article shouldn’t come as a surprise. In modern politics, where the struggle is to “define” yourself before your opponent “defines” you, Wikipedia has become an important part of political strategy. When news breaks, and people plug a name into a search engine to find out more, invariably Wikipedia is the first result they click through to; it is where first impressions are made.

The daily page view totals for even well-known candidates are striking. For example, according to a site that tracks the traffic to Wikipedia, the John McCain article had 645,000 page views in June. That month, Barack Obama had 1.35 million page views. Henrik Abelsson, who tracks the traffic, said that on Friday there were 2.4 million page views for Gov. Palin’s Wikipedia article.

Last year, a graduate student, Virgil Griffith, created a clever Web site, Wiki- Scanner, that made it easy to detect where anonymous editors of Wikipedia were accessing the site. In the process, companies, government agencies and, yes, politicians were caught in the act of spiffing up their Wikipedia entries, even as many assumed that anonymity would make them safe. (Wikipedia, incredibly and mercilessly, keeps a record of every change made to every article.)

YoungTrigg made the last edit Friday morning, hours before the news of the Palin selection became official. But in the wee hours the day before, when no one was really paying attention, YoungTrigg did contact other Wikipedians, who were initially impressed by the rapid improvements to the article.

YoungTrigg was given a virtual unit of praise, the Barnstar, for the effort. When another Wikipedia contributor asked gently if YoungTrigg could include page numbers to his footnotes from “Sarah,” YoungTrigg wrote back excitedly: “Thank you! I’m afraid I didn’t use the page numbers when I did the edits, so I don’t have them now. The book has a pretty good index, though, and I can look something up if anything I added was controversial. I apologize if I misunderstood the format.”

Also, YoungTrigg reached out to an anonymous editor who had changed the Palin article on Thursday night, without any evidence, to say that she was Mr. McCain’s choice. In a public note to the anonymous editor, YoungTrigg wrote: “Where did you hear that Palin was the VP nominee? I can’t find anything online.”

Whether this pokes a hole in the idea that YoungTrigg had inside information, or rather confirms that the user had an unusually acute interest in whether the news had leaked out, is hard to tell.

Or maybe it was dumb luck. When news outlets like National Public Radio and reported on the editing on Friday, they classified it as another example of Wikipedia’s mysterious ability to predict about-to-break news, if we only knew to look there. When the liberal Web site Daily Kos, enmeshed in the rough-and-tumble of the presidential election, picked up on the news in a highly read post, commenters were quick to raise the specter of dirty tricks.

Oddly enough, as YoungTrigg began to tackle editing the Palin article, another editor happened to be working there too. This user, Ferrylodge, a lawyer who has contributed to Wikipedia for years and describes himself as a independent-minded Republican, was interested in examining the accusations that Ms. Palin had used her position to get a trooper dismissed for personal reasons.

He ended up editing YoungTrigg’s edits, toning down entries that seemed biased, removing material that seemed extraneous, like the exact unit that Ms. Palin’s son is serving in that will be going to Iraq. “A lot of stuff was useful — like citing a biography of her,” he said in a telephone interview, speaking under condition of anonymity to avoid tipping off his clients that he spends time on Wikipedia. “Some was questionable stuff.” In general, he said, the editing “indicates a very close familiarity with Governor Palin.”

The lawyer said that when YoungTrigg linked to government documents on a government Web site related to the trooper case, it seemed like this editor was not exactly a political naïf.

But, he says, this person may be Wikipedically naïve. “They didn’t quite know what they were getting into — they got a lot of conflict-of-interest notes,” he said. And much of that original, flattering material has been overwritten.

By Sunday morning, YoungTrigg came forward, still anonymous, on his or her Wikipedia user page: “It’s not true that ‘all of my edits made Palin look better.’ ”

The user narrowed down YoungTrigg’s identity: “I am not Sarah Palin. I think it is obvious that I am not the five-month-old Trig Paxson Van Palin. I am not a member of Sarah Palin’s family, or even Michael Palin’s family.”

YoungTrigg was a user name picked for this task; for other editing, he or she chooses other names: “I will acknowledge that I volunteer for the McCain campaign, one of thousands of people nationwide who are working to elect the best candidate for the job. Palin was not the nominee when I made my edits, though I am certainly excited about the selection. I don’t believe I have a conflict of interest problem.”

That said, nobody will be hearing from YoungTrigg again anytime soon. On the bottom was a black-bordered box surrounding the word “retired.”

"Brick by Brick, a Weekend Warrior Builds a Medieval Retirement Home"

From The New York Times
Published: August 30, 2008

SNELLING, Calif. — Most days, the talk here among the farmers and almond growers along this stretch of two-lane blacktop 18 miles from the nearest on-ramp concerns heat units — as hot summer days are known — and the hull split that signals the approach of almond harvest season.

A suit of armor at the entrance to the castle, which also has a moat. Diane Noz and her granddaughter Emma Huber are at right.

But there is also the Kasteel Noz, the turreted brick castle with two towers and a moat that Casper Noz, a 51-year-old contractor who was born in the Netherlands, has been obsessively building by himself almost completely by hand on weekends for the past 20 years.

“They think it’s odd, but everyone just accepts it now,” Dan Mallory, who runs the nearby Roberts Ferry Nut Company, said of the ultimate do-it-yourself project in his midst, from which a turret-silhouetted view of Half Dome in Yosemite can sometimes be gleaned through the Central Valley haze. “Casper is very meticulous.”

Mr. Noz, a father of three, has been known to throw an occasional flaming arrow from the top of the castle into a fire pit as a celebratory gesture during birthday parties. An independent contractor, he specializes in agricultural buildings, including fumigation rooms for almonds and walnuts, as well as modest home additions and remodeling — for which there is still a demand, he said, despite the foreclosure crisis set off by what he calls “the ‘have-it-today’ mentality.”

Instant gratification does not appear to be in Mr. Noz’s world view. Although he did not set out to build a castle, dissatisfaction with his own blueprints for a home with a grand entrance eventually carried him back to the landscape of his youth in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the fortified medieval city that was the home of the Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch. There, “the night views were all lit up with castles,” Mr. Noz recalled. “Things look so much nicer with a castle.”

It is one thing to have a castle built; it is quite another to build a castle. With the exception of eight months off because of injuries he sustained in a car accident, Mr. Noz has worked on his castle — designed strictly from his childhood memory — every weekend since 1988, mixing his own mortar in a wheelbarrow, forging the iron bolts, latches and other hardware, making the oak doors and fir spiral staircases and laying the bricks, about 40,000 and counting, by hand (he occasionally uses a forklift). Including slate for the roofs, imported from China, and the odd gargoyle, Mr. Noz estimates he has spent $150,000 so far, and 500 hours a year.

The grand plan is for Mr. Noz and his wife, Diane, an Iowa native who works as a special education aide, to retire here, though the castle is only half-completed, with four more towers to come. Its Rapunzel-like forms rise surrealistically from a dried-up reservoir, about a 15-minute drive from the Nozes’ home on a quiet suburban street in Denair (population 3,400). Even there, the Noz touch is apparent in the basketball hoop attached to a miniature bell tower in the driveway — with a real bell — and an indoor fish pond under the staircase, currently fishless because of a slow leak.

Mr. Noz first visited the United States in 1977 as a 20-year-old on a family vacation. Several months later, his father, Francis, a patent attorney, bought his son a plane ticket to San Francisco, where Mr. Noz eventually became an apprentice to a high-rise builder. To his European eye, California was the promised land. “I looked at those houses in America, which were a bunch of two-by-fours, and thought, boy, this is easy — anybody can build a home in the U.S.”

Mr. Noz is thought to be the first person to file plans for a medieval castle with the Merced County building department. He was required to meet state seismic regulations and load requirements, said Lydia Clary, the county’s supervising building inspector, and an architect was required to sign off on the plans. Ms. Clary said she was struck by Mr. Noz’s unusual attention to detail. “He actually vacuumed the footings, or holes for the concrete foundation, so there wouldn’t be any loose dirt,” she said.

Rosie Burroughs, whose organic grass-based dairy adjoins the castle, has watched her neighbor’s progress with fascination.

“He has an incredible gift of creativity,” Mrs. Burroughs said. Locally the castle has become the go-to place for Halloween potluck dinners and seventh-grade Renaissance field trips in which students joust with swimming-pool noodles.

But it was not always so. Mrs. Burroughs recalled her first encounter with Mr. Noz. “I had a gun drawn on me,” she said. “Ten years later, we got reacquainted.”

Even before the castle, the landscape was changing, as open grasslands susceptible to scourges of grasshoppers gave way to dusty almond orchards. The evolution was the result of Caterpillar tractors that could rip through the hardpan and drip irrigation systems that allowed orchards to grow on hillsides, away from gravity-fed canals.

Today, almond orchards are the castle’s unofficial pleasure gardens, though few outside the neighborhood know it exists. But on Labor Day, it may have its moment of glory, as foodies from Slow Food Nation in San Francisco — in what is billed as “the largest celebration of American food in history” — tour grass-based dairies, stopping at the castle for a lunch of regional wines and cheeses. Their guide will be Joel Salatin, the grass-farming hero of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.

But as a dream house, the Kasteel Noz is unlikely to stir the popular imagination in the manner of a legendary castle down the coast.

“Just like me, he had a heck of an idea,” Mr. Noz said of William Randolph Hearst. “But he didn’t lay a single brick.”

"Helping the Stars Take Back the Night"

From The New York Times
Published: August 30, 2008

ASTRONOMERS and others interested in a night sky unencumbered by the glare from artificial light love to tell this story: When the Northridge earthquake knocked out power in Los Angeles in 1994, numerous calls came into emergency centers and even the Griffith Observatory from people who had poured into the streets in the predawn hours. They had looked into the dark sky to see what some anxiously described as a “giant silvery cloud” over the shaken city.

Not to worry, they were assured. It was merely the Milky Way, the vast galaxy that humans once knew so well — until the glare from electric light effectively erased most traces of it from urban and near-urban skies.

It’s easy to forget, 130 years after outdoor electric lighting first cast its glow through the night, that the sky is actually full of stars. But largely as a result of a remarkable partnership between science and business that took root in Tucson during the 1970s, an idea is gaining acceptance: that darker skies can be achieved with new products and technologies. Darker skies can generate real benefits not only for astronomers, but also for businesses from gas stations and parking lots to Nascar tracks.

Because much of Arizona is mountain-studded desert with only two major urban sprawls, Phoenix and Tucson, the state has long been a center for astronomical research. It has about 30 university and federal observatories, which in turn energize a wide range of educational and for-profit scientific enterprises.

In the late 1950s, during a time of national resolve to take the lead in space exploration, a cluster of federally funded observatories was built atop the 7,000-foot Kitt Peak, 56 miles southwest of here in the Sonoran desert.

But scientists at the Kitt Peak facility, operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, quickly decided that they had to be more than stargazers working nights on a mountaintop. Almost from the beginning, they reached out to form alliances with politicians, lighting engineers and businesspeople who might be persuaded that dark skies could also be a civic asset.

Tucson passed laws restricting light pollution and emerged as the center of the so-called dark-sky movement. It’s the home of the International Dark-Sky Association, which works to raise awareness about light pollution and to promote the design and marketing of outdoor lighting that has a minimal impact on the night skies.

“Its original roots were in protection of dark skies for astronomical purposes, but very early on the Dark-Sky Association began working with industry and designers,” said Christian K. Monrad, who owns an electrical engineering company in Tucson and is president of the association’s board.

Initially, it was not an easy sell. Sure, the stargazers wanted dark skies on their mountaintop, but myriad others balked — including car dealers, city lighting engineers, police officials and owners of hamburger stands, malls and security companies. After all, for many of their purposes, brighter was naturally presumed to be better.

Perceptions changed once industry began developing new fixtures with shields that “put the light on the ground where you want it,” Mr. Monrad said. Businesses and politicians also paid attention when it was demonstrated that blazing lights created unnecessary glare that, in many cases, makes it harder to see clearly.

Police officers were especially quick to get it, Mr. Mondad said. Properly designed, he said, well-focused security lighting provides a “low-glare environment for the visual task, whether it’s a roadway, a sports field or a parking lot.”

The Dark-Sky group estimates that badly designed outdoor lighting wastes $10 billion in energy a year. It issues a seal of approval for a range of lighting products, for uses including home landscaping, sports and recreation fields and shopping mall parking lots. Some Nascar racetracks, Mr. Monrad said, have been especially receptive to better-designed lighting. Reducing glare makes the tracks more popular with neighbors, and professional drivers are quick to recognize the safety benefits.

Musco Lighting, based in Oskaloosa, Iowa, promotes “green generation” lighting designs for arenas, motorways and recreational fields as providing enhanced vision for participants and better lighting for TV broadcasts. It says the new designs are also more energy-efficient and “less obtrusive for neighbors and the environment.”

Even small distributors have signed on. In the 1990s, Anthony Arrigo moved from Long Island to Utah and was transfixed by a night sky full of stars and streaking meteors. A software developer, Mr. Arrigo started a sideline business, Starry Night Lights, that distributes a variety of domestic and commercial lighting products, including sensors to regulate when and where light is required.

With many standard outdoor lights, "50 cents of every dollar in energy costs goes right up into the sky," said Mr. Arrigo, who sells dark-sky friendly fixtures on his Web site,

At Kitt Peak, signs posted outside dormitories ask visitors to be quiet because astronomers are “day sleepers.” The director, Buell T. Jannuzi, said scientists welcome the partnership with business: “It’s one of those issues where there is no good reason to waste money and energy. With intelligent planning and design, you put lighting where you need it and don’t put it where you don’t need it — like in the sky.”

Regulations that limit unnecessary ambient light or require outdoor fixtures to be shielded are in effect in at least 30 states, Mr. Monrad said.

The benefits to science are obvious. But the movement has gained momentum because of growing concerns about energy conservation. “It’s turned into a quality-of-life issue and a green issue,” Mr. Monrad said. The next initiative is to draft a national standard for dark-sky-friendly fixtures, displays and other forms of outdoor light, including that for landscape gardening.

And there’s a bigger market as national infrastructure repairs are made, Mr. Monrad said.

“We’re going to see a relighting of America,” he said. “All over the country, aging lighting systems on interstate highways and city streets are reaching their end of life and are ripe for replacement.”

Me Bitching ‘bout Private Banking

On August 30,The Straits Times ran a Saturday “special report” on private banking as a career in Singapore.

I loved the article. It’s just so darn fun to bitch about it.

I won’t go into the fat pay packets, the Singapore-as-finance hub spin, or even the more serious discussions on banking secrecy and money laundering in Singapore vis-à-vis Switzerland.

No, I shall stick to the light, the frivolous, and my characteristic stinging sarcasm. =)

“Managing money for other people is a great responsibility.” – Ms. Yeong Phick Fui, managing director of UBS wealth management.

Too bad UBS isn’t sooo responsible as to put its own house in order. Their clients seem to have noticed too. Pity.

“According to 20 private banking head honchos, the job requires a – deep breath – ‘mature, financially savvy, sociable yet discreet, creative yet ethical, pliant yet resilient goal-getter’ to survive and thrive.”

“For now, (Singapore) is the undisputed favourite … some nationalities such as Indonesians … make up at least half of most banks’ clientele …”

Note to private bankers: better get the pronunciation of all your Widjaya’s, Hartono’s, and Wiranto’s right. You’ll need to get your tongue around all those names while you’re fellating, just figuratively of course (what were you thinking?), those greasy Indonesians (literally greasy, from all the palm oil, coal and tobacco interests).

“Well-matched outfits (for private bankers)…Favourite brands are Brooks Brothers, Massimo Dutti, Versace, Nina Ricci and Raoul.”

Massimo Dutti? Ra…*gasp*…oul??? Oh silly me, and here I was thinking that private bankers wore Brioni, Zegna, Chanel or Balenciaga. So it’s not that glam after all.

“I don’t eat much – just a few snacks such as fruit and biscuits during the day – although occasionally I meet my clients for meals at fine restaurants.” – Private banker Ms. Lee Shu-Lyn.

That sounds like such a perfect way to keep down the weight, considering that you have like zero time to exercise. And it’s such a time-saver don’t you think? Lunch, pffft…who needs it?

“I run on adrenaline and passion … the news [fresh inflow of client funds] makes me smile and brings a perfect ending to my day.” – Private banker Ms. Lee Shu-Lyn.

Now doesn’t that sound like fulfilling work? Helping rich people get even richer. I’m sure you’ll love to be remembered for that.

“I’m thankful that my clients usually do not ask to meet me over dinner or on weekends, as they understand that I have my family commitments too.” – Private banker Ms. Lee Shu-Lyn.

My spin detector is humming. I sense that the Straits Times picked Ms. Lee Shu Lyn as an outlier case. After all, it would hardly do to scare aspiring new recruits with tales of 100-hour workweeks.

And the winning quote:

“The less glamorous side of the job … rushing clients’ suits to the dry cleaner … and even picking up their children from school. ‘Such tasks can be time-consuming, but you should consider it a privilege because the client considers you a close enough friend to ask you for help,’ said one banker.”

We should all be so lucky to have such friends. Sighz, sounds like a job a million girls would die for.