Monday, November 24, 2008

Blogging Break

I will be away for 2 weeks from today for my Annual State Indenturement, also known by the acronym ICT.

Given that work and other committments are likely to pile up in the interim, I don't expect to post anything new until perhaps in about 3 weeks.

Check back then for new updates.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Singaporean's net wealth higher, really?

The New Paper today (23 November 2008) ran a column by "Harvard-trained economist" Zhen Ming, who's self-styled moniker is Boston Brahmin. It's on page 16 if you have a copy of it handy.

The gist of the column had to do with the net wealth of the average Singaporean household, and how despite the recession, the average Singapore household has actually grown in wealth and is in relatively good shape for the economic downturn. I reproduce the statistics below:

                                              End-2000                             End-2006


Currency & Deposits          $136,310                               $157,930

Shares and Securities         $75,340                                 $120,360

Life Insurance Equity        $30,750                                 $76,820

CPF/Pension Funds           $94,190                                 $119,930

Residential Property          $386,830                               $384,920

Total Assets                     $723,420                              $859,970


Mortgage Loans                  $106,800                               $110,390

Personal Loans                    $38,450                                 $39,180

Total Liabilities             $145,250                              $149,570

NET WEALTH                 $578,160                              $710,400

The source is from the Yearbook of Statistics Singapore, 2008. Interestingly, the figures that Zhen Ming cites are slightly different from those I found online (p. 201), but they are in the same ballpark (no foul there).

This column is a reminder why everyone should school themselves to have at least a passing familiarity with statistics.

What are the problems here?

First up, "average wealth of the Singaporean household" can refer to the mean, median or mode. In this case, (I have to admit that I didn't check) it seriously looks like the figures refer to a mean rather than the median. There is good reason to believe this since households run the gamut from young couples with no kids, to nuclear families to retirees whose children have flown the nest. Each of these types of households have a different spread of assets vs liabilities (retirees are likely to have much less in the way of liabilities vs young couples) so it wouldn't really make sense to calculate a median instead of a mean.

Now what's wrong with reporting the mean. Nothing, except that it is well known that Singapore has a high and rising Gini coefficient (p. 14) and that the mean conceals the fact that many Singaporeans have far less in the way of net assets than the figures above suggest. 

Next, time lags in the data being reported. The Yearbook of Statistics provides data only up to end-2006 (which admittedly was still boomtimes), and Zhen Ming compares these figures to end-2000 (when Singapore was just coming out of the Asian Financial Crisis). I think it's safe to say that the comparison in net wealth between these two periods, while informative, tells us little that we would not otherwise expect. Oh, and if you're thinking of the comparison between end-2000 vs end-2006 and vs end-2008, I also think that it's safe to say that the economic environment in 2008 has deteriorated markedly since end-2006 (like duh).

In particular, assets such as currency deposits (especially forex holdings in AUD and NZD, highly popular among naive Singaporeans for their high interest rates), shares and securities, equity-linked endowment assurances, and real estate are likely to have fallen in value since end-2006 (and will continue to fall in value).

Finally, the effects of inflation may not have been accounted for. If they haven't been adjusted, the figures for end-2006 should be deflated by approximately 4.32% going by the CPI figures reported by Singstat. Adjusting for inflation however, does not address the other problems I have listed above. It's also pertinent to note that inflation has been especially detrimental to the finances of the lower income groups, particularly since it has been reported in the past that their real income has actually fallen in past years.

[I understand the irony in analyzing an article published in a tabloid like the New Paper in such detail as I have done here, but the same accusation could be levelled at Zhen Ming. Harvard-trained or not, telling the typical downmarket New Paper readership that their average household wealth is north of half a million dollars is to invite ridicule.]  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Lobbyist-Bashing by Obama Doesn't Dim Industry's Boom Forecast"

From Bloomberg News
By Jonathan D. Salant and Kristin Jensen

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Lobbyists Heather and Tony Podesta took over a Denver restaurant during the Democratic National Convention in August to host a party for lawmakers and other power brokers. Their guests wore Barack Obama buttons. The Podestas were wearing a label of their own: a scarlet ``L.'' 

The tags were an allusion to President-elect Obama's demonization of lobbyists throughout the campaign, even banning them from raising money for him or making contributions. 

Now, with Obama ready to take office in January, lobbyists aren't quavering with fear. Many view the changed political landscape in Washington as a potential boon for their firms, which will be called upon to help clients navigate Congress and a new administration. 

``We're not worried,'' said former Democratic Representative Vic Fazio of California, now a senior adviser at the law and lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. ``We will do well.'' 

Obama has a number of people affiliated with lobbying firms on his transition team, and yesterday, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle accepted an offer to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Daschle, who will lead the new administration's effort to revamp the U.S. health-care system, works for Alston & Bird LLP. 

Daschle has been able to serve as an Obama campaign adviser because he wasn't registered as a lobbyist, though his firm earned $3.5 million this year lobbying for the health industry, including companies such as Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS/Caremark Corp. and Birmingham, Alabama-based HealthSouth Corp. The health industry accounted for 60 percent of the firm's lobbying revenue during the first nine months of 2008. 


Fazio and other prominent members of the influence-peddling community said the lobbyist-bashing by Obama, 47, and Republican nominee John McCain, 72, hasn't had a lasting impact. It is one thing to rail against lobbyists in a campaign and another to curb their influence in practice, they said. 

``Both men are sophisticated enough to know lobbyists play a vital First Amendment role in our governmental process,'' said former Republican Representative Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, now chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, a Washington lobbying firm. 

During the campaign, both Obama and Arizona Senator McCain criticized the influence of lobbyists and the interests they represent. 

`Status Quo' 

``When we come together, our voices are more powerful than the most entrenched lobbyists, or the most vicious political attacks, or the full force of a status quo in Washington that wants to keep things just the way they are,'' Obama said at a rally in Florida on Nov. 3, the day before the election. 

After winning, Obama announced that lobbyists would be prohibited from contributing to his transition committee, and that they couldn't serve as advisers on any issues where they had been paid to represent a company's interests. 

Even so, firms such as Walker's, which was paid $6 million to lobby in the first nine months of 2008, and Patton Boggs LLP, which received $29.8 million, report an increase in business from companies and other interest groups. 

With the election past, ``people are a lot nicer to me,'' said Gerry Sikorski, a former Democratic lawmaker from Minnesota who runs the government section at Holland & Knight LLP, which was paid $11.1 million. ``I know I'm not a better person today than I was Nov. 3.'' 

Lobbyists expect the demand to continue. 

`Respected People' 

``People will want to hire knowledgeable and respected people in Washington who have a lot of insight and knowledge about the players and the ability to fashion appropriate outreach to decision makers,'' said Fazio, whose firm was paid $26.9 million to lobby during the first nine months of 2008, second only to Patton Boggs in revenue, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. 

There also will be a new demand for Washington veterans who aren't registered to lobby but nonetheless wield influence because of their knowledge of the White House and Capitol Hill such as Daschle, said former Democratic National Committee National Chairman Joe Andrew. 

``What you will find is a return of the Washington lawyer, someone who is not a lobbyist but has legitimate substantive experience,'' said Andrew, who isn't registered to lobby, though his law firm, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP, was paid $5.1 million in 2008. 

Internet Grassroots 

Still, the lobbying industry recognizes that it will have to function in a new environment. For one thing, lobbyists will face competition from the Internet, which Obama's campaign showed can be a powerful tool to generate grassroots support for candidates or issues. Lobbyists will be pressured to demonstrate that their position has broad support or to show why a lawmaker should support their client's position in the face of a grassroots uprising for the other side. 

``You're going to have traditional lobbying side by side with e-lobbying side by side with new transparency side by side with diverse groups and interests and causes,'' Sikorski said. ``It'll be a new field for all of us to work in.'' 

Besides, said Nick Allard, a partner at Patton Boggs, lobbyist-bashing isn't a recent phenomenon. 

``Lobbyists have been around at least since the Garden of Eden, when the serpent persuaded Eve that knowledge was a good thing,'' Allard said. ``Look at what reward the serpent got.''

"Bark Beetles Kill Millions of Acres of Trees in West"

From The New York Times
Published: November 17, 2008

HELENA, Mont. — On the side of a mountain on the outskirts of Montana’s capital city, loggers are racing against a beetle grub the size of a grain of rice.

From New Mexico to British Columbia, the region’s signature pine forests are succumbing to a huge infestation of mountain pine beetles that are turning a blanket of green forest into a blanket of rust red. Montana has lost a million acres of trees to the beetles, and in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming the situation is worse. 

“We’re seeing exponential growth of the infestation,” said Clint Kyhl, director of a Forest Service incident management team in Laramie, Wyo., that was set up to deal with the threat of fire from dead forests. Increased construction of homes in forest areas over the last 20 years makes the problem worse. 

In Wyoming and Colorado in 2006 there were a million acres of dead trees. Last year it was 1.5 million. This year it is expected to total over two million. In the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the problem is most severe. It is the largest known insect infestation in the history of North America, officials said. British Columbia has lost 33 million acres of lodgepole pine forest, and a freak wind event last year blew mountain pine beetles, a species of bark beetle, over the Continental Divide to Alberta. Experts fear that the beetles could travel all the way to the Great Lakes. 

In the next three to five years, Mr. Kyhl said, virtually all of Colorado’s lodgepole pine trees over five inches in diameter will be lost, about five million acres. “Already in many places, every lodgepole over five inches is dead as far as the eye can see,” he said.

Foresters say the historic outbreak has several causes. Because fires have been suppressed for so long, all forests are roughly the same age, and the trees are big enough to be susceptible to beetles. A decade of drought has weakened the trees. And hard winters have softened, which allows the beetles to flourish and expand their range.

Hoping to keep their forests from completely dying, to earn money by selling dead and infected trees and to mitigate fire risks, landowners are scrambling to cut the pines. If enough are cut — up to 75 percent — it might leave some behind that, with less competition for water, can survive. Still, for many landowners, cutting most of the forest where they have they built their homes is painful. “I’ve literally had people in my office crying,” said Gary Ellingson, a forestry consultant for Northwest Management.

The black, hard-shelled beetle, the size of a fingertip, drills through pine bark and digs a gallery in the wood where it lays its eggs. When the larvae hatch under the bark, they eat the sweet, rich cambium layer that provides nutrients to the tree. They also inject a fungus to stop the tree from moving sap, which could drown the larvae. That fungus stains the wood blue.

“The Latin name is Dendroctunus, which means tree killer,” said Gregg DeNitto, a Forest Service entomologist in Missoula, Mont. “They are very effective.”

To fend off the bugs, trees emit white resin, which looks like candle wax, into the beetle’s drill hole. Sometimes the tree wins and entombs the beetle. Often, though, the attacker puts out a pheromone-based call for reinforcements and more of the beetles swarm the tree. In a drought the tree has trouble producing enough resin, and is overwhelmed.

There are some defenses. Owners nail to a tree an “aggregator pheromone” in a small packet, which mimics the chemical scent given off by beetles when a tree is full of insects. It can work when beetles are not too numerous, but at some point the beetles are not deterred.

Large, old, high-value trees, ones that shade campgrounds or yards, can be sprayed with an insecticide. But the trees need to be sprayed from the base to the height at which it is less than 4 inches around. Each tree costs about $10 to $15 if hundreds are sprayed. Lodgepole pines are largely confined to high altitudes. But the beetles have moved into ponderosa pine forests on Colorado’s front range, Mr. Kyhl said, which means it could kill forests around homes in the densely populated region. 
The beetles will only be truly checked, experts say, if temperatures that used to reach 30 and 40 below for weeks return to the Rockies, temperatures that have not been seen in decades. 

The death of the forests worries the tourism industry. Many ski areas have cut down their forests because of the hazard of falling trees and have revegetated the land. 

At Vail Ski Resort, for example, which has been particularly hard hit, workers have removed thousands of dead trees and planted new ones.

The dead trees that blanket the mountains are shifting ecosystems as well. In Yellowstone, for example, the beetles are killing the white-barked pine trees, which grow nuts rich in fat that are critical to grizzly bears in the fall. Biologists in Canada say streams will flash-flood because live trees will no longer catch snow and allow it to slowly melt, and it could injure salmon and destroy habitat. On the other hand, woodpeckers and other insect eaters will thrive.

Wildfire is the biggest threat. Some towns like Steamboat Springs and Vail, Colo., are surrounded by dead forests, and the Forest Service and logging companies are clear-cutting “defensible space” so firefighters have a place to fight fires. 

After the trees die, the risk of crown fires that move through the canopy is the threat. After four or five years, as the dead trees fall to the ground, the threat of catastrophic fire is most severe. Fires in the piles of logs severely damage soils, prevent regrowth and cause mudslides.

Rainfall on damaged ground could also lead to widespread mudslides and silt buildup in rivers and reservoirs, which many mountain communities depend on for water. Strontia Springs Reservoir, a main water source for Denver, required a $20 million cleanup after a large fire resulted in severe erosion. 

The other major problem is large numbers of falling trees. In Colorado and Wyoming, officials have closed 38 campgrounds for fear trees could fall on campers. They have reopened all but 14. 

But there is a lot more to do. “We know they are going to fall,” Mr. Kyhl said. “And they are going to fall in the next 10 to 15 years. There’s campgrounds, thousands of miles of road, picnic areas, power lines and trails. How do we keep the facilities open for people to use?”

The agency is faced with clearing a strip of 75 to 100 feet of dead trees along highways so they are not closed by blow downs. 

Then there is a question of what do with the wood. Sawmills have diminished in the West in recent years, and there are not enough mills to take all of the timber. 

In Colorado, entrepreneurs have been scrambling to find ways to use it. Two pellet plants have been built, which turn the trees into sawdust and then pack them into a clean-burning pellet used in wood stoves. 

Some trees are being shredded for use in biomass boilers, and carpenters are using the pine stained blue from the fungus for furniture. 

In Alberta, a newsprint mill is testing a system to use the millions of dead acres of pines. Because of the fungal stain the trees aren’t bright enough for paper, but a computerized process adjusts the amount of bleach. 

Still, the volume of timber used is small compared with the vast acreage of dead trees. 

The West that depends on tourism, meanwhile, wonders what their customers will think about the dramatic change in scenery. Four million visitors a year come for sightseeing and recreation to Grand County in Colorado, where much of the forest is now dead. “What happens,” said Ray Jennings, director of emergency management for Grand County, “if this becomes an ugly place to be?”

"Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Watchdogs"

From The New York Times
Published: November 17, 2008 

SAN DIEGO — Over the last two years, some of this city’s darkest secrets have been dragged into the light — city officials with conflicts of interest and hidden pay raises, affordable housing that was not affordable, misleading crime statistics.

Investigations ensued. The chiefs of two redevelopment agencies were forced out. One of them faces criminal charges. Yet the main revelations came not from any of San Diego’s television and radio stations or its dominant newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, but from a handful of young journalists at a nonprofit Web site run out of a converted military base far from downtown’s glass towers — a site that did not exist four years ago.

As America’s newspapers shrink and shed staff, and broadcast news outlets sink in the ratings, a new kind of Web-based news operation has arisen in several cities, forcing the papers to follow the stories they uncover.

Here it is, offering a brand of serious, original reporting by professional journalists — the province of the traditional media, but at a much lower cost of doing business. Since it began in 2005, similar operations have cropped up in New Haven, the Twin Cities, Seattle, St. Louis and Chicago. More are on the way.

Their news coverage and hard-digging investigative reporting stand out in an Internet landscape long dominated by partisan commentary, gossip, vitriol and citizen journalism posted by unpaid amateurs.

The fledgling movement has reached a sufficient critical mass, its founders think, so they plan to form an association, angling for national advertising and foundation grants that they could not compete for singly. And hardly a week goes by without a call from journalists around the country seeking advice about starting their own online news outlets.

“Voice is doing really significant work, driving the agenda on redevelopment and some other areas, putting local politicians and businesses on the hot seat,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. “I have them come into my classes, and I introduce them as, ‘This is the future of journalism.’ ”

That is a subject of hot debate among people who closely follow the newspaper industry. Publishing online means operating at half the cost of a comparable printed paper, but online advertising is not robust enough to sustain a newsroom.

And so financially, VoiceofSan Diego and its peers mimic public broadcasting, not newspapers. They are nonprofit corporations supported by foundations, wealthy donors, audience contributions and a little advertising.

New nonprofits without a specific geographic focus also have sprung up to fill other niches, like ProPublica, devoted to investigative journalism, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which looks into problems around the world. A similar group, the Center for Investigative Reporting, dates back three decades.

But some experts question whether a large part of the news business can survive on what is essentially charity, and whether it is wise to lean too heavily on the whims of a few moneyed benefactors.

“These are some of the big questions about the future of the business,” said Robert H. Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Nonprofit news online “has to be explored and experimented with, but it has to overcome the hurdle of proving it can support a big news staff. Even the most well-funded of these sites are a far cry in resources from a city newspaper.”

The people who run the local news sites see themselves as one future among many, and they have a complex relationship with traditional media. The say that the deterioration of those media has created an opening for new sources of news, as well as a surplus of unemployed journalists for them to hire.

“No one here welcomes the decline of newspapers,” said Andrew Donohue, one of two executive editors at VoiceofSanDiego. “We can’t be the main news source for this city, not for the foreseeable future. We only have 11 people.”

Those people are almost all young, some of them refugees from older media. The executive editors, Mr. Donohue, 30, and Scott Lewis, 32, each had a few years of experience at small papers before abandoning newsprint. So far, their audience is tiny, about 18,000 monthly unique visitors, according to Quantcast, a media measurement service. 

The biggest of the new nonprofit news sites, MinnPost in the Twin Cities and the St. Louis Beacon, can top 200,000 visitors in a month, but even that is a fraction of the Internet readership for the local newspapers.

VoiceofSanDiego’s site looks much like any newspaper’s, frequently updated with breaking news and organized around broad topics: government and politics, housing, economics, the environment, schools and science. It has few graphics, but plenty of photography and, through a partnership with a local TV station, some video.

But it is, of necessity, thin — strictly local, selective in what it covers and with none of the wire service articles that plump up most news sites.

VoiceofSanDiego grew out of a string of spectacular municipal scandals. City councilmen took bribes from a strip club owner, a mishandled pension fund drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy and city officials illegally covered up the crisis, to name a few.

A semiretired local businessman, Buzz Woolley, watched the parade of revelations, fraud charges and criminal convictions, seething with frustration. He was particularly incensed that the pension debacle had developed over several years, more or less in plain sight, but had received little news coverage.

“I kept thinking, ‘Who’s paying attention?’ ” Mr. Woolley recalled. “Why don’t we hear about this stuff before it becomes a disaster?’ ”

In 2004, his conversations with a veteran columnist, Neil Morgan, who had been fired by The Union-Tribune, led to the creation of VoiceofSanDiego, with Mr. Woolley as president, chief executive and, at first, chief financial backer.

Most of this new breed of news sites have a whiff of scruffy insurgency, but MinnPost, based in Minneapolis, resembles the middle-age establishment. Its founder and chief executive, Joel Kramer, has been the editor and publisher of The Star Tribune, of Minneapolis, and its top editors are refugees from that paper or its rival, The Pioneer Press in St. Paul.

MinnPost is rich compared with its peers — with a $1.5 million bankroll from Mr. Kramer and several others when it started last year, and a $1.3 million annual budget — and it has been more aggressive about selling ads and getting readers to donate.

The full-time editors and reporters earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, Mr. Kramer said — a living wage, but less than they would make at the competing papers. MinnPost has just five full-time employees, but it uses more than 40 paid freelance contributors, allowing it to do frequent reporting on areas like the arts and sports.

If MinnPost is the establishment, The New Haven Independent is a guerrilla team. It has no office, and holds its meetings in a coffee shop. The founder and editor, Paul Bass, who spent most of his career at an alternative weekly, works from home or, occasionally, borrows a desk at a local Spanish-language newspaper.

In addition to state and city affairs, The Independent covers small-bore local news, lately doing a series of articles on people who face the loss of their homes to foreclosure.

With a budget of just $200,000, it has a small staff — some are paid less than $30,000 — and a small corps of freelancers and volunteer contributors. It does not sell ads, which Mr. Bass says would be impractical.

“There’s room for a whole range of approaches, and we’re living proof that you can do meaningful journalism very cheaply,” Mr. Bass said., a local news site in Seattle, does reporting and commentary of its own, but also aggregates articles from other news sources. It began last year as a business, but is changing to nonprofit status.

VoiceofSanDiego took yet another approach, hiring a crew of young, hungry, full-time journalists, paying them salaries comparable to what they would make at large newspapers and relying less on freelancers. Mr. Donohue and Mr. Lewis earned $60,000 to $70,000 last year, according to the VoiceofSan Diego I.R.S. filings. 

On a budget under $800,000 this year — almost $200,000 more than last year — everyone does double duty. Mr. Lewis writes a political column, and Mr. Donohue works on investigative articles. But the operation is growing and Mr. Woolley says he has become convinced that the nonprofit model has the best chance of survival.

“Information is now a public service as much as it’s a commodity,” he said. “It should be thought of the same way as education, health care. It’s one of the things you need to operate a civil society, and the market isn’t doing it very well.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Drip Irrigation May Not Be Efficient, Analysis Finds"

From The New York Times
Published: November 17, 2008

In an effort to make irrigation more efficient — to obtain more “crop per drop” — farmers have adopted alternatives to flooding and other conventional methods. Among these is drip irrigation, shown above, in which water flows only to the roots. Drip systems are costly, but they save much water.

Or do they? A hydrologic and economic analysis of the Upper Rio Grande basin in the Southwest, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that subsidies and other policies that encourage conservation methods like drip irrigation can actually increase water consumption. 

“The take-home message is that you’d better take a pretty careful look at drip irrigation before you spend a bunch of money on subsidizing it,” said Frank A. Ward, a resource economist at New Mexico State University and author of the study with Manuel Pulido-Velázquez of the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain.

With flood irrigation, much of the water is not used by the plants and seeps back to the source, an aquifer or a river. Drip irrigation draws less water, but almost all of it is taken up by the plants, so very little is returned. “Those aquifers are not going to get recharged,” Dr. Ward said.

Drip irrigation also generally increases crop yields, which encourages farmers to expand acreage and request the right to take even more water, thus depleting even more of it. “The indirect effect is very possibly to undermine policy attempts to reduce water consumption,” Dr. Ward said.

Policymakers, he added, must balance the need for more food and for farmers to make a living with water needs. “It’s fair to say that subsidies are very good for food security and very good for farmer income,” Dr. Ward said. “But they may be taking water away from other people.”

Friday, November 14, 2008


I have added the new Reactions page element to my blog.

This gives readers the option of leaving one-click feedback instead of wordier comments. It's one more way for me to get some idea of what people are interested in reading. Not that I would 'play to the gallery', but it's nice to know if what I write is appreciated.  

And in case you're wondering who reads this blog, here's some information courtesy of Google Analytics:

This blog has got a very light but increasing readership of perhaps 25 regular readers (ignoring the effect of ad filtering mechanisms that block web analytics software), with numbers spiking considerably whenever I blog on something topical e.g. the Minibonds fiasco.

Most visitors are naturally from Singapore, but a surprisingly large number are based in London and the USA. I can only surmise that these are overseas Singaporeans. Other visitors come from all over (I had a visitor from Lesotho, go figure), but they typically do not linger, bouncing away after just a few seconds.

If the sample of visitors to my blog is any indicator, Firefox is becoming almost as popular as IE these days. Safari, Opera and Chrome account for only a tiny sliver of visitors.

And contrary to what you might think, of the people who read my blog, I know only a few people personally. I know this because the URL to my blog can be found in only one place that is linked to me personally, and that is my Facebook page (which I have configured to have strong privacy settings). Only a tiny number of referrals to my blog come from Facebook. 

"Rare Treatment Is Reported to Cure AIDS Patient"

From The New York Times
Published: November 13, 2008

Doctors in Berlin are reporting that they cured a man of AIDS by giving him transplanted blood stem cells from a person naturally resistant to the virus.

But while the case has novel medical implications, experts say it will be of little immediate use in treating AIDS. Top American researchers called the treatment unthinkable for the millions infected in Africa and impractical even for insured patients in top research hospitals.

“It’s very nice, and it’s not even surprising,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But it’s just off the table of practicality.”

The patient, a 42-year-old American resident in Germany, also has leukemia, which justified the high risk of a stem-cell transplant. Such transplants require wiping out a patient’s immune system, including bone marrow, with radiation and drugs; 10 to 30 percent of those getting them die.

“Frankly, I’d rather take the medicine,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, referring to antiretroviral drugs. 

Moreover, the chances of finding a donor who is a good tissue match for the patient and also has the rare genetic mutation that confers resistance to H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, are extremely small. Nonetheless, the man has been free of the virus for 20 months even though he is not using antiretroviral drugs, and the success in his case is evidence that a long-dreamed-of therapy for AIDS — injecting stem cells that have been genetically re-engineered with the mutation — might work.

The cure was announced Wednesday by Dr. Gero Hütter and Dr. Eckhard Thiel, blood-cancer specialists at Charité Hospital in Berlin. The case was described last week in The Wall Street Journal.

Attempts to use bone-marrow transplants in AIDS treatment have been made since the 1980s. In one case, a patient with both AIDS and lymphoma died of the cancer two months later, but was found to harbor no H.I.V.; it was not known if something in the transplant had protected him. 

And in a famous 1995 case, Jeff Getty, a prominent San Francisco advocate for AIDS patients, received bone marrow from a baboon, which is resistant to the human virus. He survived 11 years, but died of AIDS and cancer; the transplant had not protected him but antiretroviral triple therapy had been invented in time to help.

Dr. Hütter said one of the 80 potential donors who matched his patient closely enough for leukemia treatment also happened to have the mutation. 

That mutation, discovered in a few gay men in the 1990s and known as Delta 32, must be inherited from both parents. With it, the white blood cells produced in the marrow lack the surface receptors that allow H.I.V. to invade the immune system.

Even if it is prevented from replicating by drugs, the H.I.V. can lie dormant in lymph and nerve cells for years. But without the necessary receptors, any virus coming out of dormancy has no way to infect them.

Doctors say the case gives hope for therapies that artificially induce the Delta 32 mutation. 

For example, Dr. Irvin S. Y. Chen, director of the AIDS Institute at U.C.L.A. , is working on using RNA “hairpin scissors” to cut out the bits of genetic material in blood stem cells that code for the receptors. The concept is working in monkeys, he said. Eventually, he hopes, it will be possible to inject them into humans after wiping out only part of the immune system with drugs. “I think that would carry no risk of death,” he said.

Religious Affliliation of our MPs

I had written previously in passing on the possibly increasingly evangelical Christian character of our Parliament. Given my most recent rant on Focus on the Family and its relationship with DBS, it is timely to revisit this topic.

Let me first state outright that this post will be purely factual. I will present only data.

I will make no comments or opinions of a religious or anti-religious nature. I will also state from the outset that I disavow in this post the notion that the religious affiliation of any Member of Parliament in any way impugns their impartiality or decision-making ability as a legislator.

I repeat, this post will only present data. Data on Members of Parliament was sourced directly from the Parliament of Singapore website.

*There are 12 Muslims, 10 Buddhists, 13 No Religion, 17 No Information available, 21 Christians, 7 Roman Catholics, 1 Presbyterian, and 3 Others (comprising 1 Sikh, 1 Hindu and 1 Taoist), for a total of 84 elected MPs.

*Free thinkers have been classified as under Nil religion.

*1 MP self-identified as a Buddhist/Taoism and was classified as a Buddhist.

*Without exception, all 'No Info' MPs hold cabinet level appointments. Biographical information on religious affiliation was in general not available from the Singapore Cabinet website, with 3 exceptions: a Buddhist, a Roman Catholic and a Muslim (inferred from his committee appointment in an association for Muslim professionals).

*NMPs have limited legislative power and are subject to appointment by the President on recommendation of a Selection Committee chaired by the Speaker of the House. They are not elected to office, not officially affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituents.

*There are 2 Hindus, 2 No Religion, 3 Christians and 2 Roman Catholics for a total of 9 NMPs.

*Free thinkers have been classified as under Nil religion.

As a comparison, data on the religious affiliation of Singapore residents (2000) was obtained from the Department of Statistics website.

Testing the hypothesis that the distribution of religious affiliations in Parliament is similar to that of the general population of Singapore residents can be done with standard statistical tests (e.g. Pearson's chi-square test). Unfortunately, the paucity of data on the religious affiliation of cabinet ministers precludes this option. In addition, it can be argued that MPs are largely drawn from the "elite" of society and are hence not representative of the Singapore population. It can be argued that it is hence irrelevant to discuss whether the religious affiliation of MPs should reflect that of the general population.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Doing Business with DBS

In Singapore, it's difficult to avoid having a DBS account, and more broadly speaking, a local bank account (local referring to DBS, UOB or OCBC). This is because so many services are tied to local bank accounts.

These services include GIRO, direct debit of income tax, electronic payment of shares (EPS), dividends from shares held under account with the Central Depository, and receipt of transfer payments from the government (GST rebates, New Singapore Shares etc.)

Some of these services can now be provided by foreign banks with Qualifying Full Bank (QFB) licences (Maybank, HSBC, Citibank, StandardChartered and ABN AMRO, now acquired by RBS). But if you're like me, and you've already set up numerous banking arrangements, it's unlikely that you'll switch to a foreign bank for these services.

In addition, notwithstanding the atm5 network, the greater size of the local banks' ATM network islandwide generally make them more convenient to bank with.

While I may continue with my existing banking relationship with POSBank, however, today I have made the decision that I will not do any new business with DBS.

Lest you think so, this has nothing to do with the Minibonds fiasco. I don't do bank structured products, period.

If you flip open today's edition of the Straits Times and turn to page A5, you will see a full page ad from DBS on shopping mall discounts for DBS cardholders and how they will donate up to $15000 to Focus on the Family (Singapore) based on festive redemptions.

While family seems like an innocuous enough cause, and certainly no one could object to donating to a family-related cause, FotF (Singapore) is affiliated with the ultra-conservative, right-wing and evangelical Focus on the Family. Of all the charities out there, DBS had to pick this one.

I am completely against conservative, right-wing evangelical organisations like FotF. I disagree with their positions on so many things (politics, social policy, religious intolerance, LGBT rights, evolution/intelligent design, manipulation of research) and on so many levels (me being a social liberal, humanist, scientist and biomedical engineer).

I'm not against the Christian faith per se (and believe me, I spent 10 years in Methodist institutions as a student), and I support the right of freedom to worship, religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. But I find the conservative and right-wing character of evangelical organisations like FotF especially objectionable. Odious even.

And now DBS has decided to support them for this holiday season. That's it, DBS, I'm not doing any new business with you anymore. No to your credit cards, fixed deposits, home loans, bank accounts, mutual funds and Hell no! to your structured products. Just the plain vanilla savings account that I've had since I was a child and even that is really a concession to POSB (you can tell where my loyalties lie). And frankly, it's not a hard decision to make because service at DBS generally sucks.

"Maldives considers buying dry land if seas rise"

From The International Herald Tribune
By Andrew C. Revkin

Published: November 11, 2008

The president-elect of the Maldives, a nation of 1,200 low islands in the Indian Ocean, is planning to establish an investment fund with some of its earnings from tourism so it can buy a haven for its citizens should global warming raise sea levels at a dangerous pace, according to several news reports.

Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner who will be sworn in Tuesday as the country's first democratically elected president, named Sri Lanka and India as possible spots for a refuge, according to the BBC.

Nasheed's spokesman, Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, said that the new government had to take action. "Global warming and environmental issues are issues of major concern to the Maldivian people," he said on the BBC's "World Today" program. "We are just about three feet above sea level. So any sea level rise could have a devastating effect on the people of the Maldives and their very survival."

The Maldives, south of India, is known as a tourist destination and has received much news coverage as a place that is likely to be overwhelmed by the effects of climate change.
In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations projected that sea levels worldwide could rise up to two feet by 2100 as ice sheets eroded and warming seawater expanded. And the panel and independent climate specialists said centuries of rising seas could follow if warming persisted.

The country was one of the founding members of the Alliance of Small Island States, which since 1992 has pressed the world's industrialized countries to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases linked to rising temperatures.

The Maldives is particularly vulnerable to flooding because its population has surged to nearly 400,000 from 200,000 in 20 years. Malé, the crowded one-square-mile capital, is ringed by sea walls, built with assistance from Japan.

Many of the islands were submerged as the waves of the 2004 Asian tsunami surged by.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Singapore government will not bail out Las Vegas Sands"

The story is here. And to refresh your memory, my previous post on this is here.

This just gets better and better...

From the story:

"He [Minister of Trade and Industry S Iswaran] revealed that Sands had asked the Singapore Tourism Board to adjust the timelime for the construction of the Marina Bay Sands resort."

As I had expected, one of the requests that Las Vegas Sands would make would be a postponement of the opening date of Marina Bay Sands. The fact that Minister Iswaran has made it clear that a Singapore bail-out is not on the table is suggestive that perhaps Sands had made just such a request.

I'm not surprised that a bail-out by the government is not in the works. Given the resistance by the religious community towards the idea of integrated resorts in the first place, a bail-out would have that community up in arms (which incidentally conjures up a really strange image). In fact, I wouldn't rule out a few inflamed letters by the more religiously inclined in the media or in the blogosphere on how God is punishing the House of Mammon and Filthy Lucre.

As an aside, my sister-in-law works at the Singapore Tourism Board, in the accounting department no less!, and while I didn't probe too deeply, I came away with two things talking to her. First, Sands is in deep trouble (like...duh.) Second, the STB's balance sheet is tiny, so a bail-out even if it occurred, would have to be orchestrated by the larger government.

I know, I know, these aren't exactly blinding insights...but anyways, back to the article:

"Mr Iswaran added there is no reason to think that a large proportion of planned jobs for the project will be lost, although they may be put on hold."

After the play-up of how the Integrated Resorts will help save the economy, this is as euphemistically styled a sentence as I have ever seen. Riiight, after all, a recession is only a temporary bump on the road to prosperity. Tell that to Iceland yah?

"While the government would not participate in any bailout of Sands, Mr Iswaran did not rule out the involvement from government-linked companies, which are commercial entities, if it makes business sense to do so.
'They have to make their own decisions on whether an investment makes sense for them or not. It's not for the government to tell them what to do' Mr Isawaran told journalists."

Oooh, this is most interesting, and I have to admit that it's crossed my mind a couple of times.

The government has now gone on record that they will not bail out Sands. Most people would agree that the Marina Bay Sands project must survive (if only for face), so if Sands defaults and files for Chapter 7 or 11, something must happen to allow the project to continue.

The government is not in the business of running casinos, so an external party must be brought in to manage the project. Who then? Minister Iswaran has said that the government will not strong-arm a GLC into taking on the project, but given the ongoing credit crunch, unless the new project terms are very attractive, and with generous guaranteed financing, no company will want to take on the project.

So how will the project fly if Las Vegas Sands abandons it? Other than strong-arming a GLC, or giving a covert bailout generous financing to a new project manager (I don't think any gaming company is in a very healthy situation right now, Harrah's is a perfect example), is there a third option?

"Google Uses Searches to Track Flu’s Spread"

From The New York Times
Published: November 11, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — There is a new common symptom of the flu, in addition to the usual aches, coughs, fevers and sore throats. Turns out a lot of ailing Americans enter phrases like “flu symptoms” into Google and other search engines before they call their doctors.

That simple act, multiplied across millions of keyboards in homes around the country, has given rise to a new early warning system for fast-spreading flu outbreaks, called Google Flu Trends.

Tests of the new Web tool from, the company’s philanthropic unit, suggest that it may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In early February, for example, the C.D.C. reported that the flu cases had recently spiked in the mid-Atlantic states. But Google says its search data show a spike in queries about flu symptoms two weeks before that report was released. Its new service at analyzes those searches as they come in, creating graphs and maps of the country that, ideally, will show where the flu is spreading.

The C.D.C. reports are slower because they rely on data collected and compiled from thousands of health care providers, labs and other sources. Some public health experts say the Google data could help accelerate the response of doctors, hospitals and public health officials to a nasty flu season, reducing the spread of the disease and, potentially, saving lives.

“The earlier the warning, the earlier prevention and control measures can be put in place, and this could prevent cases of influenza,” said Dr. Lyn Finelli, lead for surveillance at the influenza division of the C.D.C. From 5 to 20 percent of the nation’s population contracts the flu each year, she said, leading to roughly 36,000 deaths on average.

The service covers only the United States, but Google is hoping to eventually use the same technique to help track influenza and other diseases worldwide.

“From a technological perspective, it is the beginning,” said Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive.

The premise behind Google Flu Trends — what appears to be a fruitful marriage of mob behavior and medicine — has been validated by an unrelated study indicating that the data collected by Yahoo, Google’s main rival in Internet search, can also help with early detection of the flu.

“In theory, we could use this stream of information to learn about other disease trends as well,” said Dr. Philip M. Polgreen, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa and an author of the study based on Yahoo’s data.

Still, some public health officials note that many health departments already use other approaches, like gathering data from visits to emergency rooms, to keeping daily tabs on disease trends in their communities.

“We don’t have any evidence that this is more timely than our emergency room data,” said Dr. Farzad Mostashari, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in New York City.

If Google provided health officials with details of the system’s workings so that it could be validated scientifically, the data could serve as an additional, free way to detect influenza, said Dr. Mostashari, who is also chairman of the International Society for Disease Surveillance.

A paper on the methodology of Google Flu Trends is expected to be published in the journal Nature.

Researchers have long said that the material published on the Web amounts to a form of “collective intelligence” that can be used to spot trends and make predictions.

But the data collected by search engines is particularly powerful, because the keywords and phrases that people type into them represent their most immediate intentions. People may search for “Kauai hotel” when they are planning a vacation and for “foreclosure” when they have trouble with their mortgage. Those queries express the world’s collective desires and needs, its wants and likes.

Internal research at Yahoo suggests that increases in searches for certain terms can help forecast what technology products will be hits, for instance. Yahoo has begun using search traffic to help it decide what material to feature on its site.

Two years ago, Google began opening its search data trove through Google Trends, a tool that allows anyone to track the relative popularity of search terms. Google also offers more sophisticated search traffic tools that marketers can use to fine-tune ad campaigns. And internally, the company has tested the use of search data to reach conclusions about economic, marketing and entertainment trends.

“Most forecasting is basically trend extrapolation,” said Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. “This works remarkably well, but tends to miss turning points, times when the data changes direction. Our hope is that Google data might help with this problem.”

Prabhakar Raghavan, who is in charge of Yahoo Labs and the company’s search strategy, also said search data could be valuable for forecasters and scientists, but privacy concerns had generally stopped it from sharing it with outside academics.

Google Flu Trends avoids privacy pitfalls by relying only on aggregated data that cannot be traced to individual searchers. To develop the service, Google’s engineers devised a basket of keywords and phrases related to the flu, including thermometer, flu symptoms, muscle aches, chest congestion and many others.

Google then dug into its database, extracted five years of data on those queries and mapped it onto the C.D.C.’s reports of influenzalike illness. Google found a strong correlation between its data and the reports from the agency, which advised it on the development of the new service.

“We know it matches very, very well in the way flu developed in the last year,” said Dr. Larry Brilliant, executive director of Dr. Finelli of the C.D.C. and Dr. Brilliant both cautioned that the data needed to be monitored to ensure that the correlation with flu activity remained valid.

Google also says it believes the tool may help people take precautions if a disease is in their area.

Others have tried to use information collected from Internet users for public health purposes. A Web site called, for instance, invites people to report what ails them and superimposes the results on a map. But the site has received relatively little traffic.

HealthMap, a project affiliated with the Children’s Hospital Boston, scours the Web for articles, blog posts and newsletters to create a map that tracks emerging infectious diseases around the world. It is backed by, which counts the detection and prevention of diseases as one of its main philanthropic objectives.

But Google Flu Trends appears to be the first public project that uses the powerful database of a search engine to track a disease.

“This seems like a really clever way of using data that is created unintentionally by the users of Google to see patterns in the world that would otherwise be invisible,” said Thomas W. Malone, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T. “I think we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with collective intelligence.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

Book List

You might have noticed a new Amazon widget I added to the right of the screen.

It's a list of books that I am currently reading or want to read. Don't think of them as recommendations. After all, I haven't read all of them yet.

Instead, they're books on topics or ideas that I am currently interested in. That said, I have fairly high standards for what I read, so the books on the list are generally highly rated reads.

I've chosen an eclectic mix of books to cover a broad range of topics, but I've kept the list short at 8 books. People on my Facebook will see that these 8 books are a subset of the 30 books I keep on my IRead shelf.

I will update the list of books periodically to refresh the selection and to reflect my evolving interests.

Blueprint for new CEOs

A new CEO frequently gets hired when a company is in the doldrums, is losing money, has been restructured, or is otherwise in trouble. What’s the most common way for a new CEO to proceed in his job?

In order of priority (usually):

Fire a bunch of people. This is also known as downsizing, rightsizing, cutting the fat, rationalizing human resources etc. Personally, I’ve always preferred the moniker of “implementing the corporate catch-and-release program”.

Cut back on the doughnuts and free coffee at meetings. Separately, stinge on the resources that people actually need to do their jobs. Call it an “austerity drive”.

Make excessively huge write-downs and provisions for future losses under the rationale of (accounting) “prudence”.

Manage employees’ and investors’ expectations, emphasising that “we’re all in this together”.

Divest non-core assets and get rid of businesses that are unrelated to the company’s core competencies. Also known as “sticking to the knitting”, emphasise that this improves “cashflow” and “working capital”. Don’t say anything about compromising future growth.

Run down inventories and delay future purchases, making the cashflow picture look better than it actually is.

Blame your predecessor for everything that has that gone wrong. Good phrases to use on one’s predecessor are “lack of vision”, “strayed far from the company’s roots” and “allowed things to get out of hand”.

Concomitantly, take credit for everything that has gone right. Like…duh.

When the economy inevitably stabilizes, “prudently” write back some of the assets and debts that had previously been written off.

Take credit for the turnaround and continue tooting your own little horn.

Start looking for a new job.

*CEOs in Europe may ignore Step 1.

“Let There Be Light”

I almost never have a word of praise for the Straits Times.

However, the special report on the Singapore Energy Story authored by Alphonsus Chern in the Straits Times Saturday special (published 8 November 2008) was really a class act.

The text wasn’t so great, but the pictures were awesome. So there is at least some competence in the photojournalism department at our local paper.

Separately, I’ve always felt that the quality of journalism is markedly better when it appears that the reporters for the stories have passion for the areas in which they write in. Notable local examples of these are the reporters for the Digital Life supplement (clearly better than the average Straits Times journalist), and some writers for the food and dining sections.

Returning to the article on energy, for further reading into alternative energy, I recommend Earth, the Sequel (3-stars). It’s not exhaustively researched, it’s a little partisan, and there’s clearly a political agenda behind the book. But it is recently published, offers a broad sweep of the new alternative energy ideas out there, and is just a really interesting read.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Can you say "Tang Dynasty Village"?

I had mused several months ago to myself that the Integrated Resorts would open just in time for a recession.

Now, it looks like they might not even open at all.

Las Vegas Sands is in talks with Singapore banks and the government. No public information however, is available. The Bloomberg story is here.

Las Vegas Sands is probably asking for any of several things: funding (either debt or equity financing), an extension or suspension of the resort opening date, a relaxation of contractual obligations, or a severe cutback in terms of project scope.

The Singapore government now has to decide whether to invest more money in order to keep this project alive and to recover 'sunk costs (and face)', or to cut back now to avoid 'throwing good money after bad'. An unenviable position that many stock market investors (especially those who trade on margin) have had to make in the last several tumultous weeks.

If Singapore ponies up our (yes, taxpayers') money, then the project (but maybe not the company) will probably survive. Just don't count on it working wonders for our economy.

If Las Vegas Sands defaults on its debt (the likeliest reason will be due to breached covenants and an inability to refinance debt), we can expect:

1.An immediate plunge in the STI

2.Many local companies, especially those in the construction industry, to get crushed under the burden of bad debts traced directly or indirectly to Las Vegas Sands.

3.Lots of work for local bankruptcy lawyers.

4.A sharp fall in GDP and a concomitant climb in unemployment figures.

5.A half-baked Integrated Resort a la Tang Dynasty Village.

6.Huge holes in the balance sheets of the local banks that were part of the lending syndicate to Las Vegas Sands.

7.A general loss of confidence in the economy.

Why I won't be blogging on Obama, and other big big news

There's been a great deal of news coverage and opinon pieces published out there on the historic election of a black President of the United States of America.

Every time a momentous news event like this one occurs, I find myself in a bit of a quandary.

On the one hand, the news really is historic and of course I have my own opinions on it. But on the other hand, so much has been said on what this or that portends that I don't have anything new to add.

One of the principle reasons why I like to blog is that I like to explore new angles and fresh perspectives on issues that I consider important, or on issues that I feel deserve more attention than they currently receive.

So, on that note, my stated policy on this blog is that I will not blog on any "major" event unless my perspective is fresh or at the very least, under-explored. So for any readers out there who wonder what I'm thinking about such and such an issue, rest assured, I do have my opinions and I do think about implications and consequences. It's just that I don't always blog about these things unless I feel I have some new insight to offer.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Rise of Tropical Diseases

The New York Times has an article on the war on dengue fever, and how the US Army is committed to the development of a vaccine because dengue affects American soldiers.

Many tropical diseases receive considerably less attention than diseases that afflict the developed countries. Research done on dengue fever is more an exception than the rule for tropical diseases. In many cases, this is because developing drugs for tropical diseases is not profitable. This is largely because consumers in countries where tropical diseases are endemic usually cannot afford expensive pharmaceuticals. This is related to the problem of orphan drugs, which the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has started to tackle in recent years.

The interesting thing is that climate change might turn this situation around, though not because of particularly desirable reasons. Climate change and global warming will expand the warm areas around the equator poleward such that tropical diseases and their vectors will afflict the more temperate regions of today. Both Italy and Canada have experienced tropical diseases in recent years.

When the problems of the developing world become the problems of the developed world, it will almost guarantee the greater availability of research funding for tropical diseases.


Singapore is funding some efforts in this area, via the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases.

The Sanofi vaccine mentioned in the New York Times article is probably a DNA vaccine, an example of a new generation of vaccine technologies.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Recent trip

I had a trip recently and I guess I should make a point of blogging about it, if only for my own record.

I recently attended a science conference in New York, followed by a short vacation visiting friends in New Hampshire and Boston. It was an interesting time: for example, I was invited to a friend of a friend's place to watch the first presidential nominee debate on TV, with all the requisite moaning and bitching about McCain after (it was a Democrat household). I already knew Americans are political, given that I went to college in the United States, but it was refreshing to encounter once again that kind of passion about politics that is seldom seen in staid old Singapore.

Anyways, America decides tomorrow and it's big big news seeing as how the POTUS affects the whole world.

New York City was wonderful. I mean, obviously. It's NYC. I *heart* New York and all that, this being my 4th trip to New York. Here's a pic, a bit blurry, from my hotel room at Sheraton Suites on the Hudson. Yes, we stayed in New Jersey cos it was a little cheaper and the commute really wasn't that bad, what with the water taxi and all.

We got to visit Westpoint Academy as part of an optional add-on to the conference. It was a very different kind of college environment, given that every student is a future army officer. Still, the campus was pretty. That's the chapel you see in both the pictures.

I was looking forward to the fall colors in New Hampshire, but unfortunately, the leaves were only just starting to turn. It was also wet and rainy, which killed the idea of hiking in the mountains of Maine the weekend I was there. On the plus side, it was very pleasant running in the cool weather. And staying with my ecologist friend and her roommate really upped my awareness of what it means to be green. I mean, I think I'm more environmentally aware than most people and I try to keep my carbon footprint small, but these people compost their organic waste! And they subscribe to community supported agriculture schemes. 

Visiting Boston again reminded me of how much I love the city. It doesn't have the energy and excitement of New York, but there's something very civilized about this leafy college town. I had dinner with a friend in North End (Little Italy), which was one of the things I was looking forward to doing in Boston (this was my second trip). Here's a panaramic view of Copley Square on my last day there.

"Hong Kong watchdog may sue banks over Lehman minibond sales"

The Channelnewsasia link to this story is here. I do not recall reading a similar report on this story in the Straits Times. If someone has, please notify me by making a comment of it in this post. If the Straits Times did omit this story from their line-up, then it's one more annoying thing I can chalk up to our national paper.

There is no indication that Hong Kong's Consumer Council, the watchdog cited in the headline, will actually proceed with the suit. FYI, the Consumer Council is the equivalent of Singapore's CASE.

Still, this story is significant. One thing the Straits Times had right is that the Hong Kong and Singapore authorities are both looking over each other's shoulders in trying to calibrate the right response to the Lehman Minibonds (and DBS High Notes) fiasco. And this is not merely altruism in trying to find the right resolution for investors who have lost massive amounts of money, although the Straits Times didn't specifically mention this point.

At first blush, it would seem that the actions of the HK Consumer Council and Singapore's CASE should have no bearing on how the governments of the two territories manage this public relations and financial regulation disaster. After all, they are both NGOs and consumer advocacy groups. However, as this is Singapore we are talking about, how NG an NGO actually is is far from clear. I have no idea how non-governmental the HK Consumer Council is (especially since Beijing has called the shots in Hong Kong since 1997), but I think it's a safe bet that CASE isn't a very pure NGO, as NGOs in Singapore go. For example, if you think that NTUC is run without government "input", I have a bridge I want to sell you (and BTW, NTUC is the parent organisation of CASE).

Without even meaning to, the differential treatment (HK vis-a-vis Singapore) of this Minibonds fiasco threatens public embarrassment for the government of one of the two territories. Because consumer advocacy groups are perceived (never mind the reality, whatever it may be) to be linked to their respective governments, how vigorously the consumer advocacy groups in HK and Singapore assert their stakeholders' rights in this financial debacle will have direct implications on how the citizens in their respective territories view their government's willingness to prioritize their citizens' interests over, say, the big banks.

In short, Singapore risks embarrassment if it is seen as doing less than the HK government. What aggravates the matter is that DBS is at the heart of this financial fiasco, since it is not only a distributor, but also the bank that structured some of these products (DBS High Notes). Now, the government is fond of saying that it does not take an active role in the day-to-day management of the companies that it holds in its investment portfolio (via Temasek Holdings and GIC), and even if this is indeed true (which, for the record, I largely, but not totally in all circumstances, believe), it does appear unseemly that a major government owned bank has now lost considerable face after losing the money of investors who also happen to be citizens, and as I have mentioned before, been unendingly portrayed in the media (also government controlled, how ironic), as poor, defenseless retirees.

This is just sooo perfect. Now bear in mind, the irony that a major government owned bank has been responsible for losing the life savings of citizen retirees through selling them risky, questionable and inappropriate financial dreck is a news angle that has NOT been explored in the local media. Don't hold your breath for that tasty little story.

Separately, I'm not a lawyer (and readers who are in law, I would appreciate your comments here), but it seems to me that this is just crying out for a lawsuit. If investors in Singapore and/or Hong Kong file a class action lawsuit against the relevant banks for mispresentation, mis-selling or just plain old fraud, then perhaps the consumer advocacy groups should also be filing amicus curiae briefs, at a minimum. If anything, at least this would help clear the air on what the banks should sell, how they should sell them, and how these products should be regulated in general. This would all help in making the retail investment scene that much safer.

"Stretching: The Truth"

From The New York Times

Stretching: The Truth


Published: October 31, 2008 

(I am providing the link here as there is multimedia content on the NYT website.)

WHEN DUANE KNUDSON, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico, looks around campus at athletes warming up before practice, he sees one dangerous mistake after another. “They’re stretching, touching their toes. . . . ” He sighs. “It’s discouraging.”
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If you’re like most of us, you were taught the importance of warm-up exercises back in grade school, and you’ve likely continued with pretty much the same routine ever since. Science, however, has moved on. Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements. 

“There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” says Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.

THE RIGHT WARM-UP should do two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and literally warm up the body. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. “You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” Knudson says.

A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. They also withstand loads better. One significant if gruesome study found that the leg-muscle tissue of laboratory rabbits could be stretched farther before ripping if it had been electronically stimulated — that is, warmed up.

To raise the body’s temperature, a warm-up must begin with aerobic activity, usually light jogging. Most coaches and athletes have known this for years. That’s why tennis players run around the court four or five times before a match and marathoners stride in front of the starting line. But many athletes do this portion of their warm-up too intensely or too early. A 2002 study of collegiate volleyball players found that those who’d warmed up and then sat on the bench for 30 minutes had lower backs that were stiffer than they had been before the warm-up. And a number of recent studies have demonstrated that an overly vigorous aerobic warm-up simply makes you tired. Most experts advise starting your warm-up jog at about 40 percent of your maximum heart rate (a very easy pace) and progressing to about 60 percent. The aerobic warm-up should take only 5 to 10 minutes, with a 5-minute recovery. (Sprinters require longer warm-ups, because the loads exerted on their muscles are so extreme.) Then it’s time for the most important and unorthodox part of a proper warm-up regimen, the Spider-Man and its counterparts.

“TOWARDS THE end of my playing career, in about 2000, I started seeing some of the other guys out on the court doing these strange things before a match and thinking, What in the world is that?” says Mark Merklein, 36, once a highly ranked tennis player and now a national coach for the United States Tennis Association. The players were lunging, kicking and occasionally skittering, spider-like, along the sidelines. They were early adopters of a new approach to stretching.

While static stretching is still almost universally practiced among amateur athletes — watch your child’s soccer team next weekend — it doesn’t improve the muscles’ ability to perform with more power, physiologists now agree. “You may feel as if you’re able to stretch farther after holding a stretch for 30 seconds,” McHugh says, “so you think you’ve increased that muscle’s readiness.” But typically you’ve increased only your mental tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch. The muscle is actually weaker. 

Stretching muscles while moving, on the other hand, a technique known as dynamic stretching or dynamic warm-ups, increases power, flexibility and range of motion. Muscles in motion don’t experience that insidious inhibitory response. They instead get what McHugh calls “an excitatory message” to perform. 

Dynamic stretching is at its most effective when it’s relatively sports specific. “You need range-of-motion exercises that activate all of the joints and connective tissue that will be needed for the task ahead,” says Terrence Mahon, a coach with Team Running USA, home to the Olympic marathoners Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor. For runners, an ideal warm-up might include squats, lunges and “form drills” like kicking your buttocks with your heels. Athletes who need to move rapidly in different directions, like soccer, tennis or basketball players, should do dynamic stretches that involve many parts of the body. “Spider-Man” is a particularly good drill: drop onto all fours and crawl the width of the court, as if you were climbing a wall. (For other dynamic stretches, see the sidebar below.)

Even golfers, notoriously nonchalant about warming up (a recent survey of 304 recreational golfers found that two-thirds seldom or never bother), would benefit from exerting themselves a bit before teeing off. In one 2004 study, golfers who did dynamic warm- up exercises and practice swings increased their clubhead speed and were projected to have dropped their handicaps by seven strokes over seven weeks. 

Controversy remains about the extent to which dynamic warm-ups prevent injury. But studies have been increasingly clear that static stretching alone before exercise does little or nothing to help. The largest study has been done on military recruits; results showed that an almost equal number of subjects developed lower-limb injuries (shin splints, stress fractures, etc.), regardless of whether they had performed static stretches before training sessions. A major study published earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control, on the other hand, found that knee injuries were cut nearly in half among female collegiate soccer players who followed a warm-up program that included both dynamic warm-up exercises and static stretching. (For a sample routine, visit And in golf, new research by Andrea Fradkin, an assistant professor of exercise science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, suggests that those who warm up are nine times less likely to be injured. 

“It was eye-opening,” says Fradkin, formerly a feckless golfer herself. “I used to not really warm up. I do now.”

You’re Getting Warmer: The Best Dynamic Stretches

These exercises- as taught by the United States Tennis Association’s player-development program – are good for many athletes, even golfers. Do them immediately after your aerobic warm-up and as soon as possible before your workout.


(for the hamstrings and gluteus muscles)

Kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. Continue the sequence for at least six or seven repetitions.


(for the lower back, hip flexors and gluteus muscles)

Lie on your stomach, with your arms outstretched and your feet flexed so that only your toes are touching the ground. Kick your right foot toward your left arm, then kick your leftfoot toward your right arm. Since this is an advanced exercise, begin slowly, and repeat up to 12 times.


(for the shoulders, core muscles, and hamstrings)

Stand straight, with your legs together. Bend over until both hands are flat on the ground. “Walk” with your hands forward until your back is almost extended. Keeping your legs straight, inch your feet toward your hands, then walk your hands forward again. Repeat five or six times. G.R.

"Trying to Sneak Across the Finish Line? Not So Fast."

From The New York Times

Trying to Sneak Across the Finish Line? Not So Fast


Published: November 2, 2008 

(This article references the 2008 New York City Marathon)

After the marathoners turned the tight corner at Columbus Circle and funneled into a fenced corridor toward the finish in Central Park, they were confronted with more than their own limit of endurance.

Once marathoners rounded the corner at Columbus Circle and turned into Central Park, marshalls were waiting to steer unofficial runners off the course.

“Where’s your bib?” a woman with a bullhorn shouted. “We need to see your number!”

Beyond her, staggered along the final few hundred yards of the 26.2-mile New York City Marathon course, were about 15 other like-minded volunteers. They intently scanned the surge of runners coming toward them, their eyes darting across the midsections of the participants, looking for the race bibs that identified them as registered participants. 

Their job was to make sure that people who did not start the race also did not finish it. 

People without the bibs are called bandits. And the benign-looking people just inside the fence who confronted the bandits, chased them and “exited” them off the course, in their particular parlance, are called bandit catchers. 

It is a plum volunteer assignment, one that several of the catchers have been doing for more than a decade. They wear running shoes and credentials around their necks that read “bandit catcher.” They do not care about excuses, because they have heard them all, and have little patience for those who dawdle.

“I feel like I’m doing something important,” said Les Neidich, a bandit catcher for about 10 years. “There’s nothing more enjoyable than catching people who don’t belong in the race, even if I have to chase them to the finish line. Which I sometimes do.”

Bandit catchers remove several hundred unregistered racers each year. Most leave without argument. Some offer meager excuses or an invective or two. A few keep running, unaware, perhaps, that the catchers have both fresh legs and more friends downcourse. On rare occasions, bandits are physically removed from the course, and nearby police officers offer support.

By the catchers’ estimate, 95 percent of the people they “exit” are not trying to do anything illicit. They are simply running alongside friends or family members to offer support, or they just jumped onto the course at some point and reflexively joined the humanity snaking through the boroughs.

The other 5 percent?

“They want the glory of finishing,” said Jodi Richard, the longtime captain of the bandit catchers.

Once marathoners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the start of the race, there are few barriers preventing others from joining the race. But the final few hundred yards in Central Park are lined close with fans. Finishers are given a medal, a blanket and food and drink. They are celebrated by public-address announcers and cheered by people in bleachers.

Race organizers do not want to run out of supplies, but the main issue is more than logistical. 

“It’s about the spirit of the marathon,” Tom Kelley, the director of race scoring, said last week. “We want to make it special to cross the finish line.”

The bandit catchers gathered at about 11 a.m., not long before the women’s elite runners began arriving. There is little concern that someone will jump onto the course or take a shortcut to try to win the race, not in this day of focused television coverage and a tracking chip on each participant’s shoe. 

Prime time comes after the three-and-a-half-hour mark or so. For a couple of hours, bandit catchers shout at runners and weave through the busy stream, plucking bandits out every few seconds.

A man without a shirt or a bib moved quickly with one pack. “Who’s this guy?” Richard shouted, mostly to the other volunteers. She quickly approached him. He pointed a thumb backward. The bib was pinned to the back of his shorts. Hidden bibs are the bane of the bandit catchers. 

Moments later, a fast-moving man in a T-shirt was escorted away, without trouble, through one of the slim openings in the fence and back into the anonymity of the crowd. The man, Rehan Tahir, was visiting from California and did not realize the marathon was this weekend. But he jumped in near the start, and kept going until he was stopped. 

“I wasn’t in it for the glory,” he said. “I just wanted to run the course.”

Every runner has a story, legit or otherwise. A German man had four safety pins attached to his shirt, but no bib. He could not explain how he lost it. One man had a blue bib — from a completely different race. A woman ran past two catchers after showing a folded bib in her pocket, but a third catcher looked closer and found the bib was from last year’s marathon.

A boy, about 10, wanted to escort his father to the finish. But the bandit catchers did not allow it, and the boy shuffled to the side, where his father returned to get him after finishing. Another man held an infant, hoping to share the big moment. The catchers let him by.

“I wasn’t taking the baby,” Richard said. 

A pair of friends had joined the race at the Queensboro Bridge. Fernando Bedoya of Bolivia and his friend, Giorgio Groppi of Italy, wanted to cross the finish line but knew it was not the right thing to do.

“They run for 26 miles,” Groppi said of the waves of runners behind them, headed to the finish. “We run for 10. We are just pretenders.”

Nearly five hours into the race, the bandit catchers were still staring intently upstream. Thousands of racers were headed their way. Richard, the lead bandit catcher, chased down one person, then walked back to her place along the course, a bit out of breath.

A cry went out. 

“The guy in the green Ireland hat!” someone shouted.

Richard turned and ran toward the finish line.