Monday, December 29, 2008

"No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’"

The article mentioned that all ventilated air must pass through HEPA filters. Replacement of HEPA filters tends to necessary from time to time, and depending on the grade of the filters, can be expensive. HEPA filters are the same filters (albeit of a higher industrial grade) used in cleanrooms and laminar flow hoods. I wonder what the maintenance ex energy costs for a passive home are?


From The New York Times
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: December 26, 2008
 

DARMSTADT, Germany — From the outside, there is nothing unusual about the stylish new gray and orange row houses in the Kranichstein District, with wreaths on the doors and Christmas lights twinkling through a freezing drizzle. But these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace. 

In Berthold Kaufmann’s home, there is, to be fair, one radiator for emergency backup in the living room — but it is not in use. Even on the coldest nights in central Germany, Mr. Kaufmann’s new “passive house” and others of this design get all the heat and hot water they need from the amount of energy that would be needed to run a hair dryer. 

“You don’t think about temperature — the house just adjusts,” said Mr. Kaufmann, watching his 2-year-old daughter, dressed in a T-shirt, tuck into her sausage in the spacious living room, whose glass doors open to a patio. His new home uses about one-twentieth the heating energy of his parents’ home of roughly the same size, he said. 

Architects in many countries, in attempts to meet new energy efficiency standards like the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design standard in the United States, are designing homes with better insulation and high-efficiency appliances, as well as tapping into alternative sources of power, like solar panels and wind turbines. 

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies. 

And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses. 

Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency. 

“The myth before was that to be warm you had to have heating. Our goal is to create a warm house without energy demand,” said Wolfgang Hasper, an engineer at the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt. “This is not about wearing thick pullovers, turning the thermostat down and putting up with drafts. It’s about being comfortable with less energy input, and we do this by recycling heating.” 

There are now an estimated 15,000 passive houses around the world, the vast majority built in the past few years in German-speaking countries or Scandinavia. 

The first passive home was built here in 1991 by Wolfgang Feist, a local physicist, but diffusion of the idea was slowed by language. The courses and literature were mostly in German, and even now the components are mass-produced only in this part of the world. 

The industry is thriving in Germany, however — for example, schools in Frankfurt are built with the technique. 

Moreover, its popularity is spreading. The European Commission is promoting passive-house building, and the European Parliament has proposed that new buildings meet passive-house standards by 2011. 

The United States Army, long a presence in this part of Germany, is considering passive-house barracks. 

“Awareness is skyrocketing; it’s hard for us to keep up with requests,” Mr. Hasper said. 

Nabih Tahan, a California architect who worked in Austria for 11 years, is completing one of the first passive houses in the United States for his family in Berkeley. He heads a group of 70 Bay Area architects and engineers working to encourage wider acceptance of the standards. “This is a recipe for energy that makes sense to people,” Mr. Tahan said. “Why not reuse this heat you get for free?” 

Ironically, however, when California inspectors were examining the Berkeley home to determine whether it met “green” building codes (it did), he could not get credit for the heat exchanger, a device that is still uncommon in the United States. “When you think about passive-house standards, you start looking at buildings in a different way,” he said.

Buildings that are certified hermetically sealed may sound suffocating. (To meet the standard, a building must pass a “blow test” showing that it loses minimal air under pressure.) In fact, passive houses have plenty of windows — though far more face south than north — and all can be opened. 

Inside, a passive home does have a slightly different gestalt from conventional houses, just as an electric car drives differently from its gas-using cousin. There is a kind of spaceship-like uniformity of air and temperature. The air from outside all goes through HEPA filters before entering the rooms. The cement floor of the basement isn’t cold. The walls and the air are basically the same temperature. 

Look closer and there are technical differences: When the windows are swung open, you see their layers of glass and gas, as well as the elaborate seals around the edges. A small, grated duct near the ceiling in the living room brings in clean air. In the basement there is no furnace, but instead what looks like a giant Styrofoam cooler, containing the heat exchanger. 

Passive houses need no human tinkering, but most architects put in a switch with three settings, which can be turned down for vacations, or up to circulate air for a party (though you can also just open the windows). “We’ve found it’s very important to people that they feel they can influence the system,” Mr. Hasper said. 

The houses may be too radical for those who treasure an experience like drinking hot chocolate in a cold kitchen. But not for others. “I grew up in a great old house that was always 10 degrees too cold, so I knew I wanted to make something different,” said Georg W. Zielke, who built his first passive house here, for his family, in 2003 and now designs no other kinds of buildings. 

In Germany the added construction costs of passive houses are modest and, because of their growing popularity and an ever larger array of attractive off-the-shelf components, are shrinking. 

But the sophisticated windows and heat-exchange ventilation systems needed to make passive houses work properly are not readily available in the United States. So the construction of passive houses in the United States, at least initially, is likely to entail a higher price differential. 

Moreover, the kinds of home construction popular in the United States are more difficult to adapt to the standard: residential buildings tend not to have built-in ventilation systems of any kind, and sliding windows are hard to seal. 

Dr. Feist’s original passive house — a boxy white building with four apartments — looks like the science project that it was intended to be. But new passive houses come in many shapes and styles. The Passivhaus Institut, which he founded a decade ago, continues to conduct research, teaches architects, and tests homes to make sure they meet standards. It now has affiliates in Britain and the United States. 

Still, there are challenges to broader adoption even in Europe. 

Because a successful passive house requires the interplay of the building, the sun and the climate, architects need to be careful about site selection. Passive-house heating might not work in a shady valley in Switzerland, or on an urban street with no south-facing wall. Researchers are looking into whether the concept will work in warmer climates — where a heat exchanger could be used in reverse, to keep cool air in and warm air out. 

And those who want passive-house mansions may be disappointed. Compact shapes are simpler to seal, while sprawling homes are difficult to insulate and heat. 

Most passive houses allow about 500 square feet per person, a comfortable though not expansive living space. Mr. Hasper said people who wanted thousands of square feet per person should look for another design. 

“Anyone who feels they need that much space to live,” he said, “well, that’s a different discussion.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays Everyone!

(Being non-religious, I prefer non-denominational greetings)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Long Day

Anyone who is serious about an endurance sport schedules one day a week as a "long" day.

They can be runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes...it doesn't matter. The philosophy behind the long day is the same.

What is a long day? It is simply a day when the training is for a distance that is much longer than the usual distances that one undertakes during the rest of the week's training sessions.

There are no fixed guidelines on how much longer the distance should be compared to a normal training day. It depends on the fitness of the athlete. A long day for one athlete could be a regular workout for another. It could also be a completely insurmountable distance.

The long day should ideally be a distance that is short enough to be within the capabilities of the athlete to complete, but long enough to be a challenge. Challenge in the sense that the athlete must moderate their pace considerably throughout the distance and must hoard strength and parcel it out over the distance. In other words, it is a simulation of actual race conditions.

Training during long days, naturally, is incredibly time-consuming. For that reason, most people have theirs on the weekend. I hold my weekly long run on Sunday evenings, if I am training on shorter distances of 14 miles or less, and on Sunday mornings (6 am) for longer distances. [This mostly stems from the fact that I am sooo not a morning person and wake up early only when absolutely necessary.]

What is the philosophy behind the long run (in my case, it is a long run, rather than cycle or swim)?

Most people will tell you that it's a way to push back the limits of the mind and body. It's only during the long run that a person gets to simulate what actually happens during a race like a marathon, and the long run prepares the body physically and the mind psychologically for what will come on race day.

I like to think of the long run as a gateway to what I call the Zone. This is not the same Zone that many amateur and professional athletes refer to (which to them, is an occasion when everything seems to be in flow and performance is optimal). Instead, to me, the Zone is that place after I've run about 18 miles. The Zone lies beyond the Wall.

Hitting the wall is a phenomenon every endurance athlete has to contend with at some point, and to perform during a race means to be able to run well even in the Zone. For obvious reasons, most of us don't spend a whole lot of time in that place I call the Zone, even those of us who train for races, but it's important to be able to abide in that place. And to do that, one must train in the Zone. It's probably not possible to feel entirely comfortable in the Zone (unless you're a connoisseur of pain or you practice exotic techniques like TM to shut out pain and fatigue).

Because of the routine of the long run, sometimes running a race like a marathon is merely a formality that happens to be the culmination of many months of training (unless you're a competitive athlete whose actual performance on the day itself matters a great deal). 

The reason why I say this is that for many serious runners, performance on race day itself has already been "baked into the cake", so to speak, from the many previous months of long runs and other preparation. Indeed, when people say that they admire the persistence of marathoners (and other endurance athletes), I like to say that persistence is not the most important trait of a successful runner.

Persistence only gets you from the start line to the finish line on race day.

But it is discipline that gets the runner to the start line in the first place. The discipline that allows a retiree to re-focus on a new goal after retiring, an office worker to put on their running shoes after a long day of work or the stay-at-home mother to make time to train even with three kids and a household to manage. 

   

Monday, December 22, 2008

Marathon Training

I didn't run the Stanchart Singapore Marathon this year in 2008, which is a change from previous years. The reason why I skipped this year's was because my NS in-camp training this year ended the day immediately prior to the marathon and I would not have been able to taper properly. That and also the couple of highly disruptive business trips I had to make this year.

I've run four marathons so far in my life, all of them the Stanchart except the first marathon I ever ran (the Baltimore marathon). 

Anyway, my friends, colleagues and associates all know that I am a serious, albeit recreational, runner, and one of them quizzically asked me a few days ago why I didn't run this most recent Singapore marathon.

My reply that I wouldn't have been able to train properly for it elicited a "Oh, but I thought that with your level of fitness, you could have just run it anyway."

Well, that's why I'm writing this post right now. To explain a little something about my marathon and more broadly, running routine.

For those who have participated in a marathon (or some extreme endurance event), you would know that training for the event is very important, not just in intensity but also in timing. The goal is ultimately to attain peak performance on race day itself. That means control over the training/resting cycle, diet, sleep and stress. A pre-race massage the day before race day to loosen up the muscles also helps.

For myself, finishing a marathon is no longer an achievement to aim for [and in fact, it already lacks cachet; so many people run marathons these days]. I'm not a particularly strong runner, but I do aim to better my time (4:09 under Singapore conditions, 3:40 under Baltimore conditions) with each marathon I run, and accomplishing that isn't exactly a walk in the park. Hence, I would rather not run a race if I have not been able to prepare adequately for it. After all, the recovery from a marathon represents a substantial amount of downtime that I could use to train. Particularly if I suffer an injury during a race that requires a lengthy period of time for rehab.

So what's my training routine, you might ask, and for the benefit of other runners that read my blog, here's my routine for your edification (and possibly criticism):

I like Hal Higdon's training guide for its simplicity and also because I intuitively believe in the philosophy behind the "stepback" week (which is in-line with the concept of the work/rest cycle in exercise physiology). 

However, I now run only 4 times a week as opposed to 5. This is partly due to work committments; it was far easier to run 5 times a week when I was just a college student.

But it's also due to weather and scheduling considerations. My "long" run each week takes place on Sunday (and very rarely, on Saturday instead), and all the rest of my runs are on weekdays. Because I've found that it's difficult to run three or more days consecutively (regardless of distance), I run only thrice on weekdays, as opposed to 4 times.

Running only on three weekdays also gives me the flexibility (such as to meet social committments) to switch days around each week instead of committing to a fixed schedule of running on certain days of the week.

The weather being what it is in Singapore, with torrential rains and occasional haze-filled days (during that time of the year), it pays to incorporate flexibility into training. Of course, it also means heavier mileage on each individual running day, to maintain overall mileage.

And as for mileage, at this point in time, when I'm rebuilding ground lost during my recent in-camp training (yes, I actually became less fit during my ICT), I run 8 miles (about 13 klicks) on weekday runs. This should eventually increase slowly to 12 miles (the limit for weekday runs before I start getting back home really late for dinner).

My most recent Sunday run yesterday was 10 miles (16 klicks), but should rapidly scale up in the coming weeks until I am ready for the Belukar-Gangsa trail again, which would certainly add some much-needed change of scenery. 

And the apex (i.e. for 1 or 2 weeks only) of my training mileage when I am "in-season" for a marathon? Running 5 times a week, (which I still do but only in the last 2 months of marathon training), the total mileage adds up to about 100+ klicks a week, and then the taper kicks in right after.

Seriously time-consuming.

 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mate Choice

After reading Gigerenzer's Gut Feelings, I've gone back and read the previously published Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart, also by the same author.

Simple Heuristics isn't meant for a casual audience; it's a collection of technical papers that have been simplified (no pun intended) into essay form more suitable for a research (but non-expert) audience to read.

The book covers a diverse range of topics, but that all share the common theme of what are called 'fast and frugal' heuristics that allegedly model how humans make decisions under "bounded rationality" and in real, ecological environments.

I found the chapter on mate choice particularly interesting. The authors of that chapter basically recast the Secretary problem with substantial tweaking as a model for the problem of selecting a mate (by which I mean lover, partner or spouse). 

They constructed a computer simulation of the model, which was essentially a population of 100 participants each having a mate value of 1 through 100, and devised various decision-making strategies for the participants. These strategies were meant to model the "aspirations" in mate choice among the participants, and aimed to maximize the number of couples successfully paired off and also minimizing the difference in mate value between partners (as a proxy for how 'compatible' participants were with each other).

The results of the simulation were intriguing, and even more so if we take a little creative licence and relate them to the real world as analogies.

I am not backing up the following statements, as they are simply conjectures on my part based on a reading of the paper. And I am also not elaborating on how I came up with these conjectures, as that would involve regurgitating the contents of the paper here. If you're interested, go read Chapter 13 of the book. To get a flavor of the model, go read this by the same authors. 

Assuming that a person eventually chooses to settle down with a person at least as desirable as those that they have dated (for fun only, not auditioning for a mate),

1. If a person hasn't dated much before deciding to start searching for a partner in seriousness, then chances of getting hitched are high, but so are chances of being mismatched (i.e. compatibility issues and maybe divorce).

2. Conversely, someone who has dated a lot is less likely to get hitched, but if and when they do, they are likely to be more compatible with their partner.

3. Managing your expectations helps in getting hitched. And it helps especially if your 'market value' is low.

4. Dating has nothing to do with seeing who's out there; it has everything to do with discovering how your 'market value' stacks up out there. This is related to managing your expectations. If you know what you're worth (really what you're worth!), getting hitched is simply a matter of managing your expectations.

5. How a person determines their market value is by the number of proposals or rejections of interest they get. More importantly, the quality of the people rejecting or proposing matters greatly. High market value types should put less store in the number of proposals received from lower market value types, while low market value types should put less store in the number of rejections from higher market value types.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why our public transportation system should be a cut above the rest

Thinking about my previous post yesterday, I had a brief epiphany.

My contention in the latter part of that post was that our public transportation system, while still of relatively good quality, was no longer deserving of special praise and in fact has problems. Unless we demure that Singapore is competing in the league of world cities, a good public transportation system is in fact de rigueur for us.

Then I realized that while our current system seems adequate, a good, middle-of-the-league public transportation system for Singapore is not good enough

It should be an excellent one, a best-of-breed even, one that should be the envy of other cities much like Changi airport is.

I can think of at least 3 reasons why:

1. The total cost of car ownership (including usage costs) is high by government design due to the imposition of numerous fees and tariffs (e.g. ERP, COE etc.). It is hence incumbent on the state to make public transportation a compelling alternative to car ownership. If the state chooses to stint on public transportation spending, then car ownership will continue to be in demand as public transportation is perceived as an unviable alternative. Then it can be argued that all that extra revenue that the state derives from charges like COE and ERP is simply economic rent garnished from its citizens. This is especially so if the state does not explicitly channel revenue from car ownership tariffs (such as ERP) to public transportation development.

2. Our land area is limited. This is the same reason why the government wants to control the population of cars. An excellent public transportation system is one way of maximizing the use of our land.

The two reasons above are not new. They are even boringly unoriginal. By themselves, they merely argue for a "good" public transportation system, which, let's be charitable here, we already have.

3. The third reason is a new reason I offer as to why we need the best system that we can develop. As a modern industrialized economy that still relies quite a bit on manufacturing, we are (as of 2004) #23 on the list of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita. That's not exactly a low ranking, particularly if you consider Japan (#34) and South Korea(#39) which are also manufacturing Asian economies. Further, none of our energy comes from renewable sources.

Even if we ignore a "moral imperative" to develop a best of breed public transportation system to raise energy efficiency and reduce emissions, there is a separate issue we must consider.

In an era when climate change is, even if overshadowed by the financial crisis, clearly on the global agenda, it may be that in the not-to-distant future, countries that are recalcitrant about reducing their emissions, and have small or marginal economies (unlike say, the USA or China), will be looked on by other countries with the same amount of respect as countries with a track record of human rights violations (i.e. like the global pariahs of North Korea and Myanmar). 

In other words, a country's 'green cred' could well become a critical component of foreign policy. And if the Obama administration puts the environment near the top of the agenda, which is a complete about-face from the Bush administration's consistent refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, then 'green cred' could well be the new face of international diplomacy.

And what better way to help serve the public, save the environment and bolster foreign policy than with the best public transportation system possible? 

"A Coat of Many Proteins May Be This Parasite’s Downfall"

From The New York Times
By NICHOLAS WADE
Published: December 15, 2008 


If you return from a trip abroad to find you have projectile vomiting, roaring flatulence, sulfurous belching and explosive diarrhea, the bad news is that you won’t die; you just have an attack of giardiasis, a form of purgatory devised by the single-celled parasite known as giardia.
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Giardia infections can linger for months because the parasite plays a cunning defense against the body’s immune system. In its genomic wardrobe, it has 190 coats to choose from. As soon as the immune system has generated antibodies against one coat, giardia switches to another. Because of the parasite’s persistence and infectivity, some 280 million cases of giardiasis occur in the world each year, the World Health Organization estimates, though most of these are in developing countries where people are more inured to the disease.

Giardia’s offensive game could have a fatal weakness, however. Biologists led by Hugo D. Luján at the Catholic University of Córdoba in Argentina have gained a striking insight into its coat-shuffling stratagem. 

With this knowledge, they have accomplished a cunning counterploy: they have forced the parasite to make and wear all its coat proteins at the same time. This altered parasite, they hope, should serve as the perfect vaccine, because it immunizes the body to the full repertoire of giardia’s coat proteins all at once. The idea has worked well in animal tests, Dr. Luján said. 

He thinks the same general approach — forcing expression of all coat proteins simultaneously — might help produce vaccines against the other protozoan parasites that rely on coat switching to dodge the immune system. These include malaria and the trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness and Leishmaniasis.

Dr. Luján and his team have identified the mechanism by which giardia controls its coat proteins, they report in the current issue of Nature. Each of the parasite’s 190 coat genes is the recipe for making a different protein, and the parasite switches its coat every 10 generations or so. To produce the coat, giardia does not switch these genes on one at a time, as might be expected. Instead, it seems to leave them all turned on, allowing each to generate a messenger RNA copy of itself. Usually the messenger RNAs would direct the synthesis of proteins, but giardia then destroys all but one of the messengers, and the survivor makes the coat of the day.

To kill its messenger RNAs, giardia has adapted an ancient cellular system known as RNA interference. The system is designed to destroy foreign RNA, like that of invading viruses, so it was surprising to find it regulating a cell’s own RNAs, Dr. Luján said. 

He proved this was the case by disrupting giardia’s production of enzymes, like those known as Dicer and Argonaute, that are components of the RNA interference system. With its RNA selection system out of business, giardia produces many — Dr. Luján believes probably all — of the coat proteins in its repertoire and inserts them into its outer covering. 

He said he did not yet know how the organism shifted between coats but suspected that the RNA interference system favored whichever messenger RNA happened to be the most abundant at the time, and destroyed all others. 

In an experiment that has not yet been published, Dr. Luján has tested gerbils, the laboratory animal often used in giardia work, with a vaccine consisting just of giardia with its RNA interference system blocked. “We saw complete protection,” he said.

Dr. Theodore E. Nash, a leading expert on giardia at the National Institutes of Health, said the new report was “a major advance in the field.” Since 1979, Dr. Nash has developed many of the methods to study giardia and its coat shuffling, several of which were used by Dr. Luján, who worked for five years in Dr. Nash’s lab. 

Another giardia expert, Dr. Rodney Adam of the University of Arizona, said Dr. Luján’s work on giardia’s coat gene control was interesting “but not the whole story.” As for making a vaccine, he said that “this is not an organism to which natural infection will confer immunity.” People in developing countries may get one infection after another, although they do get a much less severe form of the disease.

Malaria also evades the immune system by switching its protein coat. Dr. Kirk Deitsch, an expert on malaria coat genes at the Weill Cornell Medical College, said Dr. Luján’s new finding “may be conceptually applicable to malaria,” although the malaria parasite does not use RNA interference and no one yet knows how to make it display all its 60 coat protein genes at once.

A human vaccine for giardia could be of great benefit if the many mild cases in the developing world do in fact undermine health. Some experts believe persistent giardia infection causes malnutrition, but others are less sure of this. 

For the much smaller number of Westerners who are not inured to the disease, a vaccine would be a welcome addition to the few available drugs. It would have been a godsend for the Crusaders, who are known from historical accounts to have suffered terribly from a variety of intestinal diseases that had no respect for rank. In 1249 King Louis IX, who led the Seventh Crusade, had such serious diarrhea that part of the monarch’s breeches were cut away to ease his personal hygiene. Giardia may well have been his tormentor. Using a sensitive immunological test, researchers who excavated a medieval latrine in the city of Acre, once part of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, detected the presence of giardia, they reported in the July issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science.

Giardia itself is far more ancient than any Crusader kingdom. Though a single-celled organism, it belongs to the eukaryotes, the domain that includes all plants and animals. In the tree of eukaryotic life, giardia belongs to one of the earliest branches. It lacks mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles that are almost a badge of eukaryote identity. Even stranger, each giardia cell possesses two nuclei; no one knows what benefit offsets the cost of maintaining the second. Before this enigmatic microbe plagued people, it was doubtless the scourge of many earlier species. Dr. Luján’s discovery may be a critical step in curbing giardia’s merciless torment of its fellow eukaryotes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"More say ERP helps"

The story is here.

Technically, the headline is correct. "26 per cent of drivers polled this year said ERP had reduced traffic compared to 15 per cent last year." So more drivers indeed believe that ERP has reduced traffic.

But the headline is disingenuous. The salient point is that more than half of all drivers still do not believe that ERP has helped to reduce traffic.

This begs the question of whether ERP is really meeting its stated objectives of reducing road congestion. In a way, it is, but for who's benefit? The full article mentioned an academic saying that (brace yourself) perhaps we should implement more ERP gantries if they seem to be having the desired effect. 

This seems to be one instance when the cure is worse than the disease. Sure, you could reduce traffic by upping ERP to astronomical levels, but then no one would drive anymore.

Going back to the point about more than half of all drivers not believing that ERP has helped to reduce traffic, where's the objective data, as opposed to survey data? Surely, with a system as sophisticated as the ERP gantry, we can measure how many vehicles (as a proportion of total registered vehicles) pass beneath the gantry and plot this figure in a chart with time of day on the x-axis. Comparing before and after charts would be really authoritative data.

What's more troubling is that a vanishingly small minority of drivers (less than 5%) would consider reverting to public transport.

That isn't a surprise. While I used to believe that our public transportation system was worth the effusive praise previously showered (once upon a time ago) on it by local media, I've long switched to the view that the much vaunted efficiency of our allegedly world-class public transportation system has been compromised for a while now. Thank god I walk to work every morning instead of fighting with the crowds.

When it comes to public transportation, the situation in Singapore is similar to the food situation here. Yes, the food situation.

Is Singapore a food paradise? Kind of. Hokkien mee and char kway teow still taste great, and certainly better in Singapore than in most other places (exception probably being Malaysia). But we also have loads of generic food courts serving homogeneous versions of "local favorites", which are frankly, quite blah.

And if you asked me which city has the best food, I am just as likely to say New York (for its sheer diversity and availability), Tokyo (for ultra-fresh seafood) or even Madrid (for tapas) as Singapore. Other cities have food as good as Singapore's, if not better.     

So the same goes with public transportation. Singapore does have a relatively good public transportation system. Relatively. But does it have problems? Yes.

Is it the best of the best? No.

Is it one of the best? Again no. Is it even just slightly better than the world cities that Singapore continually likes to measure itself up against? 

I have to say a firm "no" here as well (although I wouldn't say that Singapore's public transportation system is worse; it is still broadly comparable in quality.) Most world cities today have efficient public transportation systems, just like they have good food too. We shouldn't expect to have anything less in Singapore as a world city. If we want to consider ourselves as part of the top league of cities, then we should benchmark ourselves accordingly.

(unless the local media and government decides to drop their endless refrain of "how lucky we are to live here", in which case, I would be more than willing to concede that yes, we have a brilliant public transportation system, and food, for a second-tier city).

The point is that today, what we have (in many things, incidentally, not just public transportation) is merely the average standard among world cities; it no longer deserves any special accolades or allowances.  

For the record, of all the cities that I have ever visited, the one that scored the highest for public transportation, in my opinion, was Berlin.

"Le Tour du Chocolat"

In anticipation of a future trip to Paris..., the full article with multimedia content is here.

From The New York Times
By AMY THOMAS
Published: December 14, 2008


THE French have elevated many things to high art: fashion, flirting, foie gras. Chocolate is no exception. With boutiques that display truffles as rapturously as diamonds, the experience of visiting a Parisian chocolatier can be sublime.

The problem, of course, is squeezing in as many of these indulgent visits as possible while also giving the rest of the city its due. My solution: devote one full day to chocolate boutiques, and do it in style. So, on my last visit to Paris, I took to the city’s Vélib’ bike system and mastered a two-wheeled circuit of eight of the chocolatiers that had the best reputations and most glowing reviews in city guidebooks and online message boards. It was exhilarating and exhausting, not to mention decadent. It was a chocoholic’s dream ride.

The Vélib’s — industrial-looking road bikes that are already icons of Parisian-chic just a year and a half after the city initiated the program — made the moveable feast more fun. Progressing from pralines to pavés, I spun by the Eiffel Tower, zipped across the Seine and careened through the spindly streets of St.-Germain-des-Prés alongside other bikers: Parisians in summer dresses and business suits, their front baskets toting briefcases, baguettes and sometimes even Jack Russell terriers. 

Practically speaking, the bikes were all but essential. How else could I cover five arrondissements in as many hours, while simultaneously countering a day of debaucherous extremes?

The hedonism began in the center of town with the oldest master on my list, Michel Cluizel (201, rue St.-Honoré; 33-1-42-44-11-66; www.chocolatmichelcluizel-na.com), who has been making chocolate since 1948. A short distance from a Vélib’ station at the intersection of Rues de l’Echelle and St-Honoré, I passed luxury stores flaunting billowy gowns and four-inch Mary Janes and stepped inside what was just as divine: a store where molten chocolate spews from a fountain and the shelves are stocked with bars containing as much as 99 percent cacao. 

Mr. Cluizel has a single American outpost, in Manhattan, at which I’ve indulged in hot cocoa made with a blend of five cocoa beans. At his Parisian shop, managed by his daughter Catherine, I discovered the macarolat (1.55 euros, or about $2 at $1.29 to the euro). A chocolate version of the macaroon, it has a dark chocolate shell filled with almond and hazelnut praline, the nuts ground coarsely to give a rich, grainy texture. It was two bites that combined creamy and crunchy, snap and subtlety. But it was just two bites; I wanted more.

A quick spin west landed me at the doors of Jean-Paul Hévin (231, rue St-Honoré, (33-1-55-35-35-96; www.jphevin.com). A modern blend of dark wood cabinetry, slate floors and backlit wall cubbies where cobalt-accented boxes of bonbons are displayed, the space would feel intimidating if not for the shopkeepers, who are both numerous and gracious as they juggle the crowds ogling mango coriander macaroons and Pyramide cakes. After considerable debate — would it be ridiculously gluttonous to have a “choco passion,” a cocoa cake with chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and praline puff pastry, so early in the day? — I settled on a caramel bûche (3.20 euros). Larger than an individual bonbon but smaller than a Hershey bar, the silky caramel enrobed in delicate dark chocolate hit the sweet spot.

With the choco-salty taste lingering on my tongue, I picked up a bike outside the Hôtel Costes, craning my neck to spy any A-listers — were Sting and Trudie in there? Beyoncé and Jay-Z? — and set out for the 16th Arrondissement.

Just beyond the Place de la Concorde I veered onto Avenue Gabriel. It is a curving street that winds past both the United States Embassy and Pierre Cardin’s showcase for young artists, Espace, before eventually turning into a narrow cafe-lined passage where you have to weave around double-parked delivery trucks. Hoping to avoid throngs of wide-eyed tourists on the parallel Champs-Élysées and cars haphazardly zigging and zagging on the rotary around the Arc de Triomphe, I took the residential backstreets to Avenue Victor Hugo.

It was on this street that I found the most eccentric chocolatier on my list: Patrick Roger (45, avenue Victor Hugo; 33-1-45-01-66-71; www.patrickroger.com). It’s not just the chocolate sculptures (a life-size farmer, for example), seasonal window displays (a family of penguins, also life-size) or snazzy aquamarine packaging he’s known for: his intensely flavored bonbons are as bold as they come. 

“I do think Patrick Roger is outstanding since he combines new, unusual flavors,” said David Lebovitz, an American chocolate connoisseur, author of “The Great Book of Chocolate” and a Paris resident. But, he added, Mr. Rogers “isn’t doing weird flavors just to be trendy, like others tend to do in Paris nowadays.” 

I sampled a few to confirm. The Jamaica has a rich coffee flavor from ground Arabica coffee beans; the Jacarepagua blends sharp lemon curd and fresh mint, and then there’s the Phantasme, made with ... oatmeal. Each costs less than 1 euro. 

About 90 minutes in, I had tasted creamy, salty and tart and had traversed a good stretch of the city. I was high — on Paris and sugar — coasting beneath Avenue Kléber’s towering chestnut and plane trees toward the Place du Trocadéro in the 16th Arrondissement. Winding my way down the steep hills of the Rue Benjamin Franklin and the Boulevard Delessert, past romantic cafes and limestone edifices, alternately beige and gray depending on the light, I felt as though I was in a quaint Gallic village, not the capital city. That is until I was spit out across the river from the grandest Parisian landmark of all: the Eiffel Tower.

Digital cameras flashed, souvenirs were hawked and regiments of tour buses idled in one big mechanical whir. It was as if every foreigner had descended on the monument at that very moment. I didn’t exhale until I entered the quietly sophisticated Seventh Arrondissement.

Michel Chaudun (149, rue de l’Université, 33-1-47-53-74-40) is wildly talented as an artist and chocolate sculptor (his watercolors decorate the store along with chocolate Fabergé eggs and African statues), to say nothing of his reputation for being one of the world’s best chocolatiers. After 22 years of turning cacao into sublime bonbons, he’s responsible for influencing many of the city’s newer generation of chocolatiers. 

His pavés are particularly worshipped. They’re sugar cube-size squares of cocoa-dusted ganache that you deftly spear from the box with a toothpick and then allow to melt a little on your tongue a little before biting into the rich creaminess. Fresh and luscious, they’re also hypersensitive to warm temperatures. Which meant — tant pis — if I tried to save any for later, they would wind up a choco-puddle. 

Hopping on and off the Vélib’s so often courted a certain amount of trouble. Parisian cynicism reared its head when a disgusted man at a station told me that 90 percent of the bikes don’t work. I wouldn’t say the defective bicycles were that frequent, but I learned an essential checklist: Are the tires inflated? The rims, straight? Is the front basket intact? Do the gears work? Is the chain attached? With these things checked, you’re good to go, as I was after savoring the last pavé from my modest box of six (3.40 euros).

Cutting across the square fields in front of Les Invalides I glided by college students throwing Frisbees and old men playing pétanque. To my right, the gilded dome of Les Invalides; to my left, more gold crowning the ornate Alexandre III bridge. This was a decadent journey indeed.

Finally, in the Sixth Arrondissement, it seemed I could toss an M & M in any direction and hit a world-class chocolatier. There was the whimsical Jean-Charles Rochoux (16, rue d’Assas, 33-1-42-84-29-45; www.jcrochoux.fr), where gaudy chocolate sculptures of garden gnomes belie the serious artistry of his Maker’s Mark truffles. 

Christian Constant (37, rue d’Assas, 33-1-53-63-15-15), a Michelin-starred chef and award-winning chocolatier, excels at such spicy and floral notes as saffron and ylang-ylang. Pierre Marcolini (89, rue de Seine, 33-1-4407-3907; www.marcolini.be), the lone Belgian of the group, offers 75 percent dark chocolate from seven South American and African regions. Buzzing, I intended to finish the circuit in grand style.

The line snaking out of Pierre Hermé’s slim boutique (72, rue Bonaparte, 33-1-43-54-47-77; www.pierreherme.com) told me I was doing the right thing. When I made it inside the snapping automatic doors, it was (forgive me!) like being a kid in a candy store: pristine rows of cakes adorned with fresh berries, coffee beans and dark chocolate shavings.

“Un Plénitude, s’il vous plait.” 

I took my treasure to a nearby park and tucked into the dome-shaped cake filled with chocolate mousse and ganache, crunchy caramel and fleur de sel. I relished the fluffy whipped richness, the bite of dark chocolate and the tang of salt. Had I died and gone to heaven? No, it was just a rapturous day in the City of Light and dark chocolate. 

PEDALING FOR PAVÉS

After doubling the number bicycles since the program started last summer to 20,600, Paris’ Vélib’’ (www.velib.paris.fr) is now the largest free bike program in France. There are 1,451 stations in the city, or one approximately every 900 feet. Each station has about 15 to 20 bikes. The bikes are simple: three speeds, an adjustable seat, a bell and basket and a headlight. 

By purchasing a one-day or weeklong pass at the kiosk located at a station, you can hop on any bicycle and drop it at your next destination. To unlock a bike, you punch in your personal access code at the kiosk.

Though it’s called a free bike program (Vélib’ is short for vélo libre, or free bike), a day pass costs 1 euro. The first half-hour on the bike is no additional charge, the second half-hour is 1 euro, and the third half-hour is 2 euros. After that, it’s 4 euros every half-hour. The shorter your trips, the lower the cost. My total cost for five hours was 12.60 euros, or about $16.15 at $1.29 to the euro.


Friday, December 12, 2008

"Wanted Trusted Advisors"

The Straits Times had an article today on the results of a survey on Singaporeans' attitudes towards financial planners. The article is here.

The survey results indicate that Singaporean consumers "ranked trust as the most important attribute when dealing with financial advisers".

BS.

Trust seems like the obvious thing to prioritise in light of the Minibonds fiasco; that's why so many Singaporeans gave it as their 'model' answer.

This survey is an object lesson in the old saw that what people say they do is different from what people actually do. 

What do Singaporeans really rank as the most important attribute when dealing with financial advisors?

That the advice is FREE.

Note that in the same article, it was stated that "Another crucial point raised in the study was that most participants preferred employers to provide access to financial advice as a company benefit."

Think about it. If financial advice was deemed really important to many people, would they simply go with the default choice of advisor provided by their employer, or would they hunker down and really put in the time and effort to seek out good advice on their own?

Employer-provided health insurance is a common benefit, but most people are prudent enough (i hope) to obtain private coverage on their own, usually for reasons of better coverage or portability.

The same goes for financial advice provided as a company benefit. People would deem the quality of such company-provided advice adequate and not seek out private advice on their own only if they perceived financial advice as a fungible commodity that should be low-cost or free.

And in a market where advice is often "free" (most financial planners get paid through commissions on products they sell), why pay for it?

[Do bear in mind that if companies provided financial advice as a benefit, it is possible that the lowest cost, and hence likeliest to win, bidders for such a contract to provide "advice" might waive their charges just to have the opportunity to sell commission-laden products to a "captive" audience. That is no improvement over the current situation.]

Accepting "free" advice is the chief reason why so many Singaporeans get conned, yes conned, into dubious investment schemes. Minibonds, structured products, oilpods...the list goes on. All this because "advice" was given to them by, who else, the agent shilling the product.

There are very few certified (which by the way, is no guarantee of ethical conduct) financial planners in Singapore that earn their money not through commissions, but fees for their time and advice instead. And this is likely due to the mentality of most Singaporeans that one should not need to pay for financial advice.

One last caveat. Investing is a risky business, so paying for advice is no guarantee of good advice. Just unbiased advice. All that it really does is to align your advisor's interests with your own (after all, if you get biased advice that leads to an investment loss, your advisor wouldn't be your advisor anymore, would she?).

That's why despite being a non-finance professional, I took the pains to study the intricacies of finance and investment on my own. That way, I can decide for myself whether or not to make an investment. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Secret Santa

So my boss decided to invite us to his place for a Christmas party, and as discussed during a meeting (which I did not attend, me being away for my in-camp training), our department agreed on a Secret Santa gift exchange.

Not to be too crabby or anything (I really am a happy person!), but gift exchanges are not a favorite holiday activity of mine. 

I'm not fond of shopping, even for myself, and shopping for a good gift under $10, the mandated budget cap, for the purpose of exchange, with people at work, no less!, is not easy.

The gift should just about meet the budget (slightly over is ok), be inoffensive and gender neutral. The only problem is, gifts like that are frequently boring, often useless ornamental (kinda like wedding favors), corporate gift-like (shudder!), and really tempting for the purpose of regifting. After all, there are only so many photoframes one can use...

I considered and discarded several ideas. Namecard holder (too corporate), handphone charm (not gender neutral enough, and way too personal), small decorative pouch (again, too feminine)...

In a brief moment of weakness, I considered regifting something from all the accumulated never before used gifts/freebies that have piled up in my cubicle over the last few years of work. A handphone holder, a Nalgene bottle, a tiny souvenir bottle of German liquer, an Ohio State U Buckeyes cap, a tiny souvenir ceramic teapot, several sets of postcards...you wouldn't believe the amount of detritus that accumulates over the years.

Thankfully, the moment passed.

I finally came up with an idea I thought would fly. One of those tasteful looking glass jars (available from Ikea, I think) with a hinged lid, appropriately filled with some holiday goody.

 

Cookies would be an obvious choice, but I'm leaning towards jellybeans. The colors just seem more festive. Candied walnuts would be another good choice. Anyways, I haven't decided. It'll have to depend on what I can find in the food halls or Candy Empire when I'm out over the weekend.  

 

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Bundles: Closing the Innovation Gap and Science for Sale

Just a quick post since I'm still getting up to speed at work post-ICT.

I had ample reading time during my time in camp, so here's a book bundle for your consideration.

Both Closing the Innovation Gap and Science for Sale are 3-star recommendations from me. They're both good books, but get only three stars each from me because their narrow focus generally appeals only to those with a personal or professional interest in science and technology.

The first book deals with what the author considers the necessary conditions or elements required in an innovation "ecosystem" in order for innovation to flourish. The book emphasises a well-known thought among scientists, of how necessary basic research is for innovation to happen. Serendipitous discoveries from seemingly disparate and unrelated fields feed into each other to make new technologies happen. One remarkable (but in hindsight obvious) insight I took away from the book is that technology corporations (such as Intel and Genentech) are all for more (USA) governmental funding for research because basic research is the lifeblood of their (companies') commercial innovation, but the kicker is that they don't want to pay for it. Companies only want to cream off the profitable technologies they can commercialize, so they most certainly aren't going to lead loss-making basic research.

The second book talks about the perils of commercialization of university based research, and how the mission of universities as institutions of learning and knowledge sharing have been compromised by "technology transfer". It also highlights the damage done to the open culture of scientific inquiry by patents, NDA's (non-disclosure agreements) and other barriers to knowledge sharing, all erected in the name of protecting profits. It's a well-researched, hard look at what many people take to be an unequivocally good thing, of universities spinning off their technology. This is particularly relevant in the case of Singapore as we have essentially placed a heavy bet on research in science and technology as an additional pillar of our economy. 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

DBS and FotF redux

The Straits Times carried a story today on how DBS's tie-up with Focus on the Family drew flak. DBS has since reworded their advertisements and withdrawn the promotion. Apparently, sufficiently large numbers of people were unhappy enough to make their displeasure known.

I ranted wrote about DBS's tie-up with FotF a few weeks ago.

Apparently, it did not go unnoticed, and was posted by someone on content aggregator tomorrow.sg. This in turn caused a massive spike in traffic to my website over the weekend it was posted. So in my own way, I think I did my little part in publicising this example of DBS's dalliance with an organisation of dubious provenance. Perhaps they will be more discriminating in the future of who they get in bed with.

And as for that rejoinder from FotF (Singapore)'s president, " 'We are deeply concerned that a small group of activists has successfully intimidated a major financial institution like DBS in such an unwarranted fashion that maligns a well-intended collaboration for the cause of children and families.' Focus on the Family Singapore's president Joanna Koh-Hoe", my take is very simple.

I am all for families and children, especially the less privileged in our highly unequal society. I just prefer that the businesses I patronize contribute to secular charities, and failing that, at least to charities that do not fall under the charter of organisations as controversial as FotF, or charities which are not as freighted with religious/moralistic overtones. Certainly, I have no desire for my consumer dollars to be channelled to an organisation with an ... what is that word, agenda.

I have to hand it to Joanna Koh-Hoe though. Her press statement was perfect; she must be a lawyer in her day job. It struck just the right balance of "deep concern" for how interloping activists had hijacked her organisation's mission (is anyone safe from those disgusting prurient g*ys?), of how a major financial institution had been "intimidated" (shame on you DBS!), and how "unwarranted" (cue hand wringing) an attack on her organisation's "well-intended" efforts for (suffer the little) children.