Monday, November 30, 2009

Blogging Break

Normally, I post a 'Blogging Break' notification only when I am out of town for a while. That however won't be until next week when I actually do go on vacation.

Still, this week happens to be a big week for me. I have to finish up some work at my regular day job before I go away, my 50% secondment for this year is ending and I have to tie up loose ends at that other job, the Singapore Marathon that I've been training for all year is this weekend, and lastly I have to finalize preparations for a major 3 week holiday in Nepal right after. I'm planning an independent activity-based trip, so it's not one of those package things where I'm bussed around and little or no preparation is needed.

So, I won't have spare time to blog in-depth on any issues or topics until probably next year. Indeed, I won't be back in Singapore until after Christmas. Check back next year for updates.

Oh, and happy holidays everyone!

Friday, November 20, 2009

"At Auction, the Secret Cache of an Icon"

An article on the late Robert Isabell's house.

Gorgeous, astonishing...genius...words fail when it comes to describing the impeccable taste that went into creating this fortress of solitude. The house is utterly art.

Needs to be seen to be believed.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The KK Chemo Misdosage Incident

I must confess: I had just about zero interest in the story of the chemo overdose.

Then Khaw Boon Wan made the comment on the similarity of the pumps, and someone ranted about it in their blog, specifically citing human factors.

I happen to work in a human factors laboratory. No, I don't design medical devices (despite having originally trained as a biomedical engineer).

Labelling the pump that dispenses in ml/hr in a different color from the pump that dispenses in ml/day would be an obvious remedy that would have addressed the KK incident. It's the common-sensical solution that anyone can think of.

Ah, but if you were an actual human factors professional, I can assure you that things would not be as simple as that.

Sometimes, design flaws like that really do occur because engineers can't see the wood for the trees. It never occurs to them that someone handling the pumps might actually make a mistake that could result in fatal consequences. That's when having a human factors professional as a member of the design team helps: by explicitly designating a person to consider human-centric issues.

But sometimes the team is aware of these issues and highlights them to management, but the manufacturer still proceeds as before. Why is that? Because in addition to design principles, one must be mindful that there are always business considerations at play as well. Manufacturing two (or more) separate designs for pumps incurs greater costs, eliminates the ability to standardize across pumps, increases holding inventory, and overall increases complexity of business and manufacturing processes, and decreases economies of scale. All this naturally reduces profitability.

It's not just pumps. Even medicines are typically sold in identical-looking vials with identically colored vial caps, with only the text on the vial labels differentiating them in both drug type and concentration. You can imagine what kinds of accidents can potentially happen there.

The point is, in both these cases, business considerations override human factors. Legally, the manufacturer has clearly labelled on the pump (in text) the appropriate dosing regime, or for a medicine vial, the type of drug and concentration. The manufacturer has hence fulfilled its duty. Therefore, if there are any mistakes in dosing, the liability for the error lies with the hospital and not the manufacturer of the product. The victim of such a dosing error can be said to be an "externalized cost"; the beneficiaries of the victim's suffering are the manufacturer, who enjoys greater profitability, the hospital, which enjoys greater cost-savings, and the public, who save on healthcare. 

Is it ethical of the manufacturer, to "pass on" liability to the hospital? To make it difficult (or at least not easy) for the hospital to administer the right dosage? Maybe the manufacturer is at fault, but IMHO, it's very hard to say. The reason why I am so ambivalent is because I am able to see the big picture. 

If you were the administrator of a public hospital, charged with keeping healthcare costs low, and you had a choice between more expensive but better designed equipment, and less expensive but poorly designed equipment which nonetheless gets the job done, which would you choose to purchase?

The pressure to keep costs low is immediate and apparent, but the fallout from a medical error only comes when an error does happen. Not to mention errors by nature rarely occur, and it's not like well-designed equipment eliminates errors; they only reduce the probability of occurrence.

Given this reasoning, a typical hospital administrator would probably (and not unthinkingly) choose the most cost-effective product that gets the job done. Repeat this scenario across the whole hospital sector and manufacturers that produce the better designed product simply cannot compete. So all manufacturers end up making the generic, not very well-designed product, and of course, it makes perfect business sense to do so, seeing as how manufacturers can reap the economies of scale.

And that's how we end up in the current situation.

When a chemo incident like the one that happened in KK occurs, there are cries of public remonstration, and the pendulum may swing the other way. Hospitals might make the decision to purchase more expensive and better designed pumps (that is, if they are available). Then years down the road, when a bureaucrat (or a management consultant) with an eye to trim costs looks through the hospital purchasing orders, they may make the suggestion that $XXX could be saved by buying the generic version of such-and-such a product, instead of the more expensive version. And they would not be wrong, just...myopic.

Then the cycle starts again.

Sometimes it's not only about human factors. It could be about policy, or human nature, or business fundamentals, or just the plain old, dysfunctional way the world works.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The increasing irrelevance of mainstream media in Singapore

This post was prompted by a article in the Straits Times describing how cable channels have eaten into free-to-air TV's share of the viewing pie in Singapore.

I wonder how our "nation-building" media is taking it now that they are sliding inexorably into irrelevance in an increasingly obvious and embarrassing way. If content is king, then our media must be a bevy of beggars, because locally produced content is appallingly bad. Normally, product differentiation is the standard prescription for businesses in a crowded business space, but frankly, if free-to-air produces more local productions to differentiate itself from cable TV, I'm not so sure it would help the current situation.

On a more serious note, it's common knowledge that despite exchange listing and corporatization, the Fourth Estate in Singapore is, for all practical intents and purposes, pwned by the government. It's one of the enablers of how the government effectively muzzles criticism and neuters effective and organized opposition to its policies.

But what happens when the population itself starts tuning out? Cable TV and the Internet are now viable alternatives to mainstream media. Sure, control of the mainstream media still ensures government hegemony in the broadcast space, but what happens when the broadcast space itself is being marginalized? Instead of broadcasting, what is on the ascendant now is narrowcasting, podcasts, customized content, ultralocal publishing, even customized algorithm-generated movie recommendations. Perhaps more astonishingly, the assymmetric nature of the Internet which allows user created content to be shared widely has given rise to the phenomenon of content 'going viral'.

I don't even watch TV anymore (I don't have cable TV at home). There are just so many better things to do with my time. Free-to-air TV is just mindless, and worse, awful. It's actually physically painful for me to have to wince sit through say, a stupid local production where the script is horrible, the acting pathetic, and even the voices of the (lousy) actors grate on me. I don't listen to the radio either; music's just not an important part of my life. As for newspapers, I only read them because my parents still buy them and they're just there on the coffee table. But when my parents are on vacation (which will happen next week), I won't be bothering to trudge down to the newspaper vendor in the morning to get a copy of the Straits Times. As for online reading, you couldn't pay me to read the Straits Times, much less make me pay for the privilege of reading ramblings by Chua Lee Hoong or the vaguely confessional musings of the Straits Times' resident angst-ridden spinster, Sumiko Tan.

True, I am atypical among Singaporeans, but the ranks of my type will only grow with time. My brother is a teacher and he tells me that the mainstream media is irrelevant to most of his students. [Their pet phrase when my brother asks them what they think of such-and-such a 'local celebrity' is "I care", said in that ultrasarcastic sneering tone that only disenchanted youth can muster].

In my own professional work, I have had the opportunity to speak with psychologists from the Home Affairs Ministry and even they tell me that when they interview troubled youth, mainstream media (and even some forms of alternative media) are irrelevant to these youth. The things that the cutting edge of today's youth are 'into' are wildly different from the drivel that is broadcast by our government-controlled nation-building media. As the psychologists told me, the websites these troubled youth surf to are "very interesting". [He didn't elaborate, and even if he had, I doubt I could have written about it here.]

The government's grip on the Fourth Estate may be ironclad, and they may dismiss what occurs in alternative media as inconsequential (e.g. blogs are only preaching to the choir, Internet audiences are self-selected) but the incontrovertible fact is that the power of mainstream media is diminishing everyday. I need only point out as evidence the ongoing offer of a twofer that the Straits Times is offering in an effort to boost its readership.

Even if the alternative media speaks only to a self-selected audience and is hence of limited reach, the waning power of mainstream media can only mean that the relative mindshare of the government's selected mouthpieces is shrinking.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be such a huge issue (although some proponents of a free and unshackled press in various democracies are hyperventilating over bankrupting newspapers).

But it is a critical issue for the Singapore government. This is a government that depends on control of the media to keep the population in line, perform damage control when times get bad (like now), go into a spin cycle overdrive whenever there's criticism that might even be remotely impactful (latest example: the Robert Amsterdam white paper), or keep pushing a line of argument that Singapore "needs" something (e.g. casinos, foreign talent, high ministerial salaries, CPF Life etc.). The media is also used as a platform for PAP politicians to portray certain ideas or policies or even themselves (through ghost writers of course) in as flattering a light as possible, or to do the opposite to opposition politicians and their proposals. And finally, perhaps most importantly, mainstream media is used to remind Singaporeans incessantly that without the esteemed leadership of the incumbent government, it would be TEOTWAWKI; you know, that famous speech about our women becoming maids.

Even the teensiest bit of idea-diversity in the public media consumption space, as is happening now, would be threatening as it would dilute or contradict the messages sent through the mainstream media. And the dilution is growing daily and inexorably, thanks to mainstream media's increasing irrelevance. Despite our government's well-known hypersensitivity to criticism, the truth is that the government-controlled media can handily manage criticism, particularly when it's carefully curated into little innocuous strawmen in its own Straits Times forum pages. It just needs to carpet bomb criticism with its own ... what is that favorite word of theirs, "rebuttals". Sometimes, the criticism even presents the government with helpful opportunities to showcase its superior attributes.

Indeed, what government-controlled media cannot endure is not criticism, but being ignored (or drowned out), because that would mean it has lost control of the conversation. For example, I don't consume much content from local media, but I am still intimately apprised of Singapore's problems and issues because, well, I live here. I know that public tranportation is atrocious, public hospitals are crowded, that there are beggars on the streets hawking tissue paper, too many foreigners here, and a visceral sense that income inequality is growing. Yet by not being able to engage me effectively through local media, the government loses control over how to shape my perceptions in a way favorable to the government's policies.

You might argue that even when government media is dominant, there will still be independent-minded people unswayed by government persuasion, for whom such persuasion is ineffective. I disagree, because I understand that the ability to frame a conversation is enormously powerful, and that for the longest time, the overwhelming dominance of mainstream media allowed government(s around the world) to control national conversation on their own terms. Even for the perpetually disgruntled segment of the population, it is difficult to find a coherent voice in a space dominated by government-controlled media.

So what happens when mainstream media loses its reach, its ability to continually whisper into people's ears that all is hunky-dory and that without the government, things would be disastrous? Well, people might actually be inclined to take a look around and judge for themselves how good (or bad) things are and how competent the government is at its job (which is, need I point it out, looking out for the best interests of all its citizens, and not just a narrow slice). Heavens, people might actually listen or read sources of information that confirm what they are seeing and hearing in their own lives rather than what is being selectively spoonfed to them.

And we know where that leads. From being not persuaded that the government is simply awesome, it's a short road to first doubting its competence, and then thinking that the government actually is incompetent (in some respects at least).

"Window Watchers in a Lonely City Familiar Strangers in the Big City"

From The New York Times
Published: November 11, 2009 

WHEN Suzi Jones and her husband purchased an apartment on the fourth floor of a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, two years ago, Ms. Jones, a freelance art director from Atlanta, thought what she would like most would be the hardwood floors, the tin ceilings and the renovated kitchen and bathroom. 

Soon after moving in, however, she discovered what she has come to think of as the apartment’s best feature: its view into the neighbors’ private lives. 

Ms. Jones, 41, was reading on the couch one afternoon when the Italian love song “Volare” began playing outside. Through the window, she could see what looked like a party being given by an elderly Italian woman and her husband in the garden of the brownstone directly behind her building. Charmed by the couple — who were celebrating the husband’s 80th birthday, she soon found out — and their happiness at being surrounded by what appeared to be family, Ms. Jones pulled up a chair to watch.

“She’s wearing a tight white jumpsuit and sunglasses and high heels,” she said. “He has completely black hair that’s swept into a pompadour. There’s all these little kids and other family members and they’re grilling.”

By the time someone turned down “That’s Amore” so the woman could toast her husband, Ms. Jones was smitten. “It’s part of the charm of the neighborhood,” she said. “There’s still a very old Italian contingent here that lives the way they lived 40 years ago. Nothing made me happier than getting to see inside their lives.” 

The ability to observe the private lives of strangers from the windows of our homes — and the knowledge that they can often watch us, as well — has long been a staple of city life, one that was immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “Rear Window.” It has provided material for countless movies and books since then, most recently “The City Out My Window: 63 Views on New York,” a book of drawings by Matteo Pericoli that asks well-known New Yorkers to describe what they see from their windows, and is the subject of “Out My Window NYC,” a new series of photographs by Gail Albert Halaban. 

This often inadvertent voyeurism gives rise to relationships that can be deeply meaningful, although the people involved may never actually meet, said Ethel Sheffer, an urban planner and past president of the American Planning Association’s New York Metro Chapter. “One doesn’t always know their names, but it’s a connection of some sort and it becomes part of the fabric of your life,” Ms. Sheffer said. “The density and the closeness, even if it’s anonymous,” creates a sense of intimacy, she added, and “makes for an understanding that we’re all here” together.

Or as Ms. Halaban, a fine art photographer who spent more than three years on her project, put it: “In a large city where there’s a lot going on around you, it can feel very isolating and lonely. By having contact with these total strangers through the window, it’s a safe way of having a relationship without the hard part of a relationship.”

These anonymous connections are vital because they supply not just a sense of community but one of emotional stability, said Karen L. Fingerman, a psychologist at Purdue University and the author, with Melinda Blau, of “Consequential Strangers.” 

“In the modern world, where we spend so much time with people other than intimates,” Dr. Fingerman said, relationships with strangers “have implications for our well-being, how secure we feel in the world, and how stimulated we feel by our environment.” 

It’s a more intimate version of what Jane Jacobs called the ballet of sidewalk life, noted Calvin Morrill, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an editor of “Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places.” “Simply looking out your apartment window and seeing other humans doing an activity in a consistent way and at a similar time can provide stability and support,” Dr. Morrill said. “People are making dinner, they’re sitting down with their families, or they’re alone watching the television — there’s a kind of reassurance there.” 

Moreover, in an age of reality TV, watching the neighbors can seem just like watching television. In some cases, it’s almost exactly the same thing.

Kerry Gaertner, 30, who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, was watching one of the first episodes of “The Real Housewives of New York City” when she realized that one of the stars, Alex McCord, lived directly across the street. Fascinated, she began making mental notes every time she saw Ms. McCord and her husband coming or going.

“If their car is gone,” Ms. Gaertner said, “I wonder, are they in the Hamptons?”

Although their relationship consists mainly of “nodding hello in the morning,” she said, she now feels obliged to act as their defender, making sure acquaintances know that she seriously doubts their on-screen portrayal as “social climbers.”

“They’re perfectly nice,” she said. “If they weren’t on television, they would be totally unremarkable neighbors. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.”

Mark Morris, the choreographer and dancer, whose view is included in “The City Out My Window,” said he regards the building across from his home on Third Avenue in Manhattan, where people are constantly moving in and out, as something of a cineplex. “There’s an empty apartment, and I see the new people, some couple, come in,” Mr. Morris, 53, said. “Then they cover the windows. Then you can’t tell from across the street if they’re male or female — and they’re naked, which is always interesting. Then a few weeks later, it’s empty again.”

To satisfy his curiosity, Mr. Morris said he keeps a set of binoculars handy, and isn’t bothered if the neighbors watch him in return. “It’s kind of comforting,” he said. “Everyone is alone together in their own separate units, but everybody knows how together they are. I don’t think it’s creepy. It’s kind of nice. That’s why you live in a big city.”

Using strangers as a buffer against isolation is common. Lisa Rubisch, 39, a commercial director and mother of two, said that when she lived on West 85th Street in the mid-1990s, she used to watch a man across the street whenever she was unable to sleep.

“He would sew in the dark every night, except for a small desk light. His hands would flutter up like a moth to the light,” she said. “I found the image so lonely and sad, but somehow soothing. Maybe because I was lonely, too. It gave me comfort.”

But anonymous companionship that promises comfort can sometimes deliver the opposite.

After she and her husband moved into a third-floor loft in SoHo in the 1970s, Debrah Pearson Feinn, a painter, thought she had found the ideal companion for her nocturnal work sessions — the painter in the third-floor loft across the street.

“At night my lights would be on, and my man across the way, his lights would also be on,” Ms. Pearson Feinn said. “It always made me feel good — oh, he’s working; we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, making art.”

One night, after he had been keeping her company for about a year, the man’s lights did not go on. “Two weeks later, I found out he had committed suicide,” she said. “I was told he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.”

For months, Ms. Pearson Feinn, now 62, said she felt a sense of loss whenever she saw the darkened room. “I didn’t even know his name,” she said. “But I missed him. It made me feel bad to see his studio empty.”

Richard V. Hamilton, a real estate agent with Halstead Property who lives in Chelsea, was confronted with an even more immediate experience of death one Thanksgiving a few years ago, when he glanced out his window while preparing hors d’oeuvres and saw what looked like an older woman’s body lying in a kitchen across the airshaft.

Mr. Hamilton called 911, and the police eventually gained access to the woman’s apartment. They discovered that she was indeed dead — and had been lying there, unnoticed, for at least two days.

“There was a very sad element to it,” said Mr. Hamilton, 48, who watched with his dinner guests as the emergency workers wrapped and removed the body. “It was a holiday weekend. Nobody was calling and checking, nobody knew,” he said. “She basically died alone.”

Later, he saw the woman’s furniture removed, the kitchen floors replaced and new tenants take up residency. The experience still haunts him, he said, because it reminds him of how fleeting life is. “It was the end of one person.”

For Mr. Hamilton, though, what is sometimes more disturbing than the things he has seen out his windows — including strangers in the heat of romance “so many times I don’t even watch anymore” — is the thought that others can observe him, even doing mundane things like taking out the garbage or watching television.

“I want privacy,” he said. “The home where I grew up in South Carolina was at least three miles to its nearest neighbor.”

When he is showing clients ground-floor apartments that face the street, he said, he warns them that living there “is a bit like being on display, like in a store.”

Ms. Pearson Feinn, the painter, said she long ago got used to the idea that neighbors can see into her loft, which has 16 enormous windows.

When she had one of her first dinner parties after months of remodeling, a neighbor who had watched the construction and was having his own dinner party that night stood up with his guests and applauded Ms. Pearson Feinn’s gathering.

“I thought it was a hoot,” she said, but one of her guests took offense, because he “felt his privacy was being invaded.”

Some people, in fact, claim to observe an unwritten code of looking away when they inadvertently observe something too private.

Ms. Rubisch, the commercial director, describes herself as “nearly obsessed with watching people,” but said she still makes a point of avoiding the windows directly across from her apartment near the Bowery, where the blinds are always open. The woman who lives there often wears nothing but underwear, Ms. Rubisch said, “so I try not to look. And the way the street is, we’re very close. You can really see every detail in the room.”

Even Suzanne Vega, a New Yorker who has made a career of chronicling the private lives of city dwellers in her songs, said that when it comes to actually watching a stranger in his or her own home, she feels uncomfortable. “Somehow the stark reality of seeing someone that I don’t know raiding their own refrigerator or doing other things, I’m, like, no thank you,” said Ms. Vega, 50. “I’m much more likely to look at someone on the subway and imagine what they’re doing.”

Those who don’t mind watching and being watched, though, sometimes find that good things can come of it.

Not long after losing her nighttime painting companion, Ms. Pearson Feinn noticed another painter across the street observing her at work. Their anonymous relationship continued for several months, she said, until finally he “called me and said ‘Hi, I wanted to introduce myself.’ ”

“We literally started a friendship,” she continued, “and he came over and had dinner with me and my husband.”

More than 30 years later, they’re still friends.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Singapore Inc.

Singapore Inc. is a derogatory moniker much bandied about these days to describe how the government has adopted a “growth-at-all-costs” mentality to economic growth. 

I have a more nuanced interpretation of Singapore Inc. I see Singapore Inc. as the governmental manifestation of a single-minded focus on value maximization and return on investment (ROI). One way of seeing this is how our government has adopted the just-in-time philosophy that is commonly held as conventional wisdom in the manufacturing business. Singapore Inc. is all about efficiency and no waste. We see this in public housing policy (notably the Build-to-Order Scheme), public transportation policy (MRT stations do not open until a critical mass is attained), and public healthcare policy.

On paper, a just-in-time approach seems smart. Frugal. Cost-effective. Government spending is frequently criticized as being wasteful (particularly by Republicans in American politics), but it would appear here that the Singapore government has managed the rare feat of achieving the opposite, that of fiscal balance while obtaining maximal value from public spending. 

So is there anything wrong with this seemingly rosy picture? Sure there is, if you’re caught on the wrong end of such policies (like say, being a disgruntled homebuyer unable to find…"affordable" housing). But in this post, I’m looking beyond the obvious…inconveniences endured by the (so-called picky) populace. I’m no highly paid urban planning consultant, but even I can see that efficiency comes with distinct costs of its own to society, just not measured in dollars and cents. 

Just as just-in-time manufacturing leaves factories vulnerable to supply shocks and the manufacturing economy subject to output volatility spikes (due to lack of redundancy and tight coupling), Singapore Inc. is subject to the same unintended consequences, some with potentially profound consequences. 

Let’s take public housing as an example. Notwithstanding recent announcements to release more land for housing (just-in-time to sooth the electorate), clearly, many people are unhappy with the housing situation, whether with the supply or affordability of housing. HDB, with the introduction of schemes that have made oversupply of flats a thing of the past, has ironically made the work of MCYS (which is concerned with national fertility) harder. Housing that is not readily available at affordable prices means that Singaporeans find it hard to marry and settle down -- and have kids, a stated national objective. Small expensive homes also don't exactly encourage large families. This leads in to the immigration issue, which stresses the housing situation further. See my posts “The solution … is the problem” and “Policy Schizophrenia”.

Public transport is also not working as well as it could be. The less tenable the public transportation option, the more people are inclined to buy cars (not exactly a plus for the environment). The government’s answer to this is to raise ERP rates and cut COE quotas, while being “just-in-time” with upgrades to the subway system. Singaporeans are in a no-win situation here. They either have to shell out, or double up like sardines in the trains and buses. Conversely, while MRT stations may be mothballed because of lack of development, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to postulate the opposite, that if MRT stations were un-mothballed, new town centers would develop much faster. That would go some way towards making the suburbs more livable.

To round up our discussion on the trifecta of public goods and services, in the public healthcare system, we have our perpetually crowded hospitals and polyclinics. Naturally, being just-in-time here affects waiting time, the quality of care and perhaps most importantly, our readiness for public health emergencies (such as H1N1). In addition, by being less generous with aid for the lower income (for fear of raising entitlement expectations), the lower income groups have less wherewithal to escape the poverty trap. [To be fair though, our healthcare system isn’t anywhere near as dysfunctional as the USA’s.]

Leaving aside just-in-time, Singapore Inc. is also all about investing. The government has no problems on losing money investing. There’s Micropolis, Suzhou Industrial Park, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Barclays and the latest, Stuyvesant. And those are only the ones I can remember offhand. Sure, in a big portfolio, some losses are to be expected, but a billion here, a billion there, soon you're talking real money. And the situation is even more egregious at the town council level, where town councils speculate in minibonds without having the foggiest idea that they are complex credit derivatives. 

It's not like the people in charge of the money are even remotely remorseful with losing/wasting money. Remember, these are the same folks who could tell us with an absolutely straight face that $400k was spent renaming "Marina Bay" to “Marina Bay”. Like a hedge fund manager, there’s no shame attached to losing other people’s money (OPM).

The government has no issue with investing in defence, economic development, seed funding for research, business infrastructure (the airport for instance), attracting foreign direct investment, immigration, and education (up to a point). All this spending is ultimately in service of ever higher rates of economic growth. It is always framed as a means to an end. No just-in-time here, thank you very much, in stark contrast to the spending on public goods. Even longevity planning is done ultimately with the intent of transferring retirement responsibility to the individual, as I have written in “On CPF Life”. There is an underlying hardnosed economic logic to that, and altruism or serving the public is not a prime objective there. 

While growth in the economy as measured by GDP is apparently high, it’s questionable whether high GDP growth has resulted in a better life, if we look at measures of income inequality, quality of life, even the desire to migrate. Not coincidentally, GDP growth is correlated with the pay of senior civil servants. One might wonder if there is a system of misplaced incentives here.

Instead of investing in the stock market or in GDP growth, why not invest in our society and our human capital? The government has spent considerably on primary and secondary education, nature parks, infrastructure and public works (such as the Marina Barrage). Why not spend more liberally, generously even, on public housing, public best of breed transport as I have written previously, tertiary and postgraduate education, healthcare, retirement and eldercare, and the environment? This would go a long way towards really helping make this island a better place to live. Then we could drop the Singapore Inc. moniker in the trashheap where it belongs.

Conversely, what I would like to see Singapore spend less on: market investments, perks and incentives for foreigners, especially non-PRs, money spent to attract high-rollers here (Formula 1, Sentosa Cove and Jetquay all irritate me, as they serve only to remind us that we are second class citizens in our own country). If these were private ventures, that’s perfectly ok. But should tax dollars really be providing the financing for these high-roller investments? And as for incentives for foreigners, if we're already spending generously to make Singapore a great place to live for Singaporeans, we should have no problems attracting foreigners at all in the first place. That we have to tack on extra incentives that Singaporeans are not entitled to gives the impression that foreigners need a hardship allowance to set up shop here. Which, in a manner of speaking, could be painfully close to the truth.  

As for high salaries and bonuses for senior civil servants, while egregious, I would be far less annoyed if their KPIs were measured less in terms of GDP growth but in broader terms such as quality of life and human development in Singapore. Otherwise, it would leave the impression that economic growth at all costs steamrolls all of us under its relentless path. I for one wouldn’t want to be hungry all the time. If I have to be hungry all the time anyway, then why should I choose to succeed here in Singapore, where the rewards are so lacking in substance and I can do so much better elsewhere? And I can indeed. If our leaders can be so coldly rational themselves, then they should not find unexpected that our own youth can discard the milksop sentiment of staying in one's country of birth for its own sake. Our youth will go wherever the opportunities and rewards are greatest, unfettered by bonds moral, patriotic, contractual or otherwise. Philip Yeo's own kids have done so (his son Gene is an assistant professor at UCSD), no doubt aided by his astronomical salary as a senior civil servant. If our leaders expect our youth to be perpetually hungry, then we certainly can be, and we will carry it to its logical, rational conclusion.

"Ecosystem in Peru Is Losing a Key Ally"

From The New York Times
Published: November 7, 2009 

ICA, Peru — A small grove of huarango, the storied Peruvian tree that can live over a millennium, rests like a mirage amid the sand dunes on this city’s edge. The tree has provided the inhabitants of this desert with food and timber since before the Nazca civilization etched geoglyphs into the empty plain south of here about 2,000 years ago. 
The huarango, a giant relative of the mesquite tree of the American Southwest, survived the rise and fall of Pre-Hispanic civilizations, and plunder by Spanish conquistadors, whose chroniclers were astounded by the abundance of huarango forests and the strange Andean camelids, like guanacos and llamas, that flourished there. 

Today, though, Peruvians pose what might be a final challenge to the fragile ecosystem supported by the huarango near the southwestern coast of Peru. Villagers are cutting down the remnants of these once vast forests. They covet the tree as a source of charcoal and firewood. 

The depletion of the huarango is raising alarm among ecologists and fostering a nascent effort to save it. 

“We don’t realize that we are cutting off one of our own limbs when we destroy a huarango,” said Consuelo Borda, 34, who helps direct a small reforestation project here, explaining how the tree’s pods can be ground into flour, sweetened into molasses or fermented into beer. 

But many Peruvians view the huarango as prime wood for charcoal to cook a signature chicken dish called “pollo broaster.” The long-burning huarango, a hardwood rivaling teak, outlasts other forms of charcoal. Villagers react to a prohibition by regional authorities on cutting down huarango with a shrug. 

“The woodcutters come at night, using handsaws instead of chainsaws to avoid detection,” said Reina Juárez, 66, a maize farmer in San Pedro, a village of about 24 families near a grove of huarango on the outskirts of Ica. “They remove the wood by donkey and then sell it.” 

That the huarango survives at all to be harvested may be something of a miracle. Following centuries of systematic deforestation, only about 1 percent of the original huarango woodlands that once existed in the Peruvian desert remain, according to archaeologists and ecologists. 

Few trees are as well suited to the hyperarid ecosystem of the Atacama-Sechura Desert, nestled between the Andes and the Pacific. The huarango captures moisture coming from the west as sea mist. Its roots are among the longest of any tree, extending more than 150 feet to tap subterranean water channels. 

The resilience of the huarango and its role in taming one of the world’s driest climates have long beguiled this country’s poets. Schoolchildren here, for instance, recite the words of José María Arguedas, a leading 20th-century writer: “The huarangos let in the sun, while keeping out the fire.” 

But poetry is one thing. The necessities of human civilizations, and their capacity to wreak havoc on the ecosystems on which they depend, are another. 

A team of British archaeologists described in a groundbreaking study this month how the Nazca, who etched their lines in the desert a thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish, induced an environmental catastrophe by clearing the huarango to plant crops like cotton and maize, exposing the landscape to desert winds, erosion and floods. 

David Beresford-Jones, an archaeologist at Cambridge University who was a co-author of the study, said that perhaps the only fragment of old-growth huarango woodland left is in Usaca, about a five-hour drive from Ica, where there are still some trees that were alive when the Incas conquered the southern coast of Peru in the 15th century. 

“It takes centuries for the huarango to be of substantial size, and only a few hours to fell it with a chainsaw,” Mr. Beresford-Jones said. “The tragedy is that this remnant is being chain-sawed by charcoal burners as we speak.” 

With support from Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and Trees for Cities, a British charity promoting tree planting in urban areas, Ms. Borda’s reforestation project seeks to reverse the damage by the charcoal harvesters, whose mud ovens dot the desert landscape in villages around Ica. 

It is an uphill struggle in an impoverished desert. The black market for huarango in raw firewood form thrives. A carbonero, or charcoal seller, can sell a kilogram of charcoal made from the tree for about 50 cents, or a bushel of huarango as firewood for about $1 — bargains in a place where a gallon of natural gas costs more than $10. 

So far, Ms. Borda’s arduous project has planted about 20,000 huarangos in Ica and nearby areas. It also teaches schoolchildren about the history of the huarango in Peruvian culture and its significance as a keystone species for the desert, its roots fixing nitrogen in poor soil and its leaves and pods providing organic material as forage. 

But researchers say the project is a trifle of what must be done to reforest Peru’s deserts. 

“Peru needs a massive rethink about its development trajectory,” said Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a paleoecologist with the French Institute of Andean Studies who worked on the Nazca study with Mr. Beresford-Jones, the Cambridge University archaeologist, analyzing pollen that showed the transformation of Nazca lands from rich in huarango to fields of maize and cotton to the virtually lifeless desert that exists today. 

“With Peru’s glaciers predicted to disappear by 2050, the Andes need trees to capture the moisture coming from Amazonia, which is also the source of water going down to the coast,” said Mr. Chepstow-Lusty in an interview from Cuzco, in Peru’s highlands. “Hence a major program of reforestation is required, both in the Andes and on the coast.” 

Nothing on this scale is happening around Ica. Instead, the growth that one sees in poor villages are of shantytowns called pueblos jóvenes, where residents eke out a living as farmhands or in mining camps. 

Outside one village, Santa Luisa, the buzz of a chainsaw interrupted the silence of the desert next to an oven preparing charcoal. 

The chainsaw’s owner, a woodcutter from the highlands named Rolando Dávila, 48, swore that he no longer cut down huarango but focused instead on the espino, another hardy tree known as acacia macarantha. “But we all know huarango is the prize of the desert,” he said. “For many of us, the wood of the huarango is the only way to survive.”

Andrea Zárate contributed reporting from Lima, Peru.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Picking Winners redux

This is an update on a previous post, Picking Winners. This update presents yet another useful nugget of anecdotal information to support my thoughts. You might want to glance through the Picking Winners post to refresh your memory on what it was all about.

As luck would have it, just last week, I got wind of news of an ex-colleague of mine who left my current company almost 4 years ago to take up a Training and Attachment Program (TAP) with EDB. Apparently, TAP has now been renamed STRAT (as if we didn't have enough of an alphabet soup of acronyms; maybe it's because of all those ex-military types who have been offered jobs in the civil service post-retirement. I got a real kick out of the cornily named PREP-UP).

I shall call this ex-colleague of mine Nama (as in Royce Nama Chocolates, the reason will be clear enough in the following paragraph).

Nama had taken up a TAP co-sponsored by EDB and Rolls-Royce for training in manufacturing and testing of solid oxide fuel cells. He spent about 2 years in Derby, UK, for this training stint. It's actually kind of hard to find information on this TAP, what with broken links and pulled press releases. This is what I could find: here, here and here.

2 years post-TAP, with the Great Recession front and center, what has happened to Nama? Well, there is no large-scale manufacturing fuel cell facility in Singapore to be sure (or else the local media would have been all over it). In fact, out of about 20 engineers that had been working in the Rolls-Royce Fuel Cells venture, all but Nama have been made redundant. He is the sole employee remaining; he reports to a supervisor in the UK (make of that what you will).

When I heard that he was the sole remaining employee, I immediately thought of this and this. Nama isn't exactly shoddily paid (he is in fact quite well remunerated), but I speculate that perhaps the amounts that Rolls-Royce gets in government incentives more than compensate for maintaining a token fuel cell presence in Singapore (I have to reiterate, this is mere speculation on my part).

Needless to say, this hardly seems like a sustainable (sic) position for Nama. The fuel cell industry in Singapore is quite ... dead, at least for now.

[For the purpose of balance however, I have to add that Rolls-Royce does have substantial investments in the aviation industry in Singapore, and these appear to be doing ok. Well, I can't say as much on this as fuel cells as I have no inside contact information.]

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Surfeit of Shopping Malls

I confess: I only stepped into Ion Orchard and Orchard Central for the first time about a week ago. I am most decidedly not the mallrat, shopaholic type.

The two newest malls on Orchard Road were nice, in a generic nice sort of way. I enjoy the "new mall smell" as much as any Singaporean, but I am no connoisseur of shopping malls.

[As a matter of fact, my favorite building in the whole of town is the Killiney Road Post Office building, a squat spunky looking structure that nonetheless exudes a lot more character than any of the buildings that loom over it.]

Despite what this article says, I have a suspicion that we are, in the words of one expert interviewed in the article, "over-retailed for the population we've got". For one thing, while the square footage of retail space per capita is apparently lower here in Singapore than in South Korea or Hong Kong, I wonder what the "retail space" in the data actually includes. For example, Singaporeans do not shop solely in shopping malls. We shop at neighborhood stores, mama shops, pasar malams, wet markets ... even those pushcarts in shopping malls. Are these all captured under the rubric of "retail space"? 

The same Saturday night I was at Orchard Central (strictly to stroll through just to see what it's like), I was actually in town having dinner with my family. I was the one to choose where we would eat, and seeing as to how I'm allergic to crowds, I deliberately picked an uncrowded restaurant in an uncrowded mall.

[For the curious, we went to Indo Padang at the Cathay.] 

I knew that the Cathay was a quiet mall, which is already an anomaly on what is supposed Singapore's premier shopping street. But post-dinner, we walked to Centrepoint to browse at a store that sells ergonomic desks for kids and strikingly, and it was apparent even to someone like me who seldom goes to town, Centrepoint was devoid of crowds too. And this was only about 9 pm. Did this have anything to do with Ion Orchard and Orchard Central being the two hot new malls in town, and hence cannibalizing the weekend custom of other malls on Orchard Road?

To be fair, Centrepoint is a rather dated mall, and there are certainly malls on Orchard Road that have a pathetic mix of shops and restaurants and are generally dead anyway after hours (Park Mall, Singapore Shopping Centre, Tanglin Shopping Centre etc.). Still, I couldn't help but recall that far away from Orchard Road down south, Harborfront Mall used to be bustling before Vivocity opened for business. After Vivocity came online, it was downhill all the way for the older mall.

Diehard shopaholics may disagree with me, but Singapore seems to have a surfeit of shopping malls. Not that I'm complaining much, mind you. Even if the shopping mall in Singapore seems a little like the (bread and) circus in ancient Rome, I actually appreciate the availability of deserted shopping malls, especially in the heart of town. Malls where I can browse quietly, actually find an empty seat in a cafe, or get a table in a restaurant with friends without waiting in line. I have no use for quiet specialty malls like Palais Renaissance, aka Tai-tai Central, but I am absolutely fine with places like Millenia Walk or West Coast Plaza.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nobel Prizes 2009 redux

I wasn't far off the mark in my previous post on the Nobel Prizes of 2009. As of today, my prediction took only 2 weeks to be confirmed.

It wasn't a schmuck of a politician, but a columnist in the Straits Times, Janadas Devan, using the Nobel Prizes of 2009 as a lede into his column in the Sunday Times today. Devan is nowhere as partisan as the Chua sisters, but his column today was still a shill as to why we need to roll out the red carpet for more immigrants in Singapore.

Close enough I suppose.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Walmart Green Push Drives BASF Swapping Crackers for Lab Coats"

From Bloomberg
By Antonio Ligi and Richard Weiss

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s new line of food containers made from corn starch also hold the promise of a revolution by global chemical companies including BASF SE.

BASF is developing chemicals from bacteria and fungi instead of processing oil derivatives, cutting back on smokestacks that belch carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Royal DSM NV will start a project by year-end with enzymes to produce succinic acid for car coolants. Mass production may start 2012.

“It’s not voodoo anymore,” said Claus Bollschweiler, a trained biologist who heads up BASF’s research into hydrophobin proteins derived from fungi. “This is a good investment.”

Engineering acids and substances from cells is the nascent part of a biotech chemical industry that’s fueled by demand for bioethanol and set to grow in sales by one-half to 153 billion euros ($227 billion) between 2007 and 2012, McKinsey & Co. estimates. The migration from food, fuels and drugs to basic industrial chemicals is a potential lifeline for BASF and rivals that have struggled to compete with oil-rich Middle East peers.

Bollschweiler’s lab is a dot on the landscape of BASF’s Ludwigshafen headquarters, a 4 square-mile complex dominated by interconnecting pipes, chimneys and plants. The hydrophobins he’s researching can be used for shoe waterproofing or cosmetics that are easier to apply. A venture with bakery ingredients supplier CSM NV to ferment succinic acid will start next year.


Bollschweiler’s efforts underscore the fallout from volatile crude costs that threaten to return to near $100 a barrel by 2012, according to a Bloomberg analyst survey, forcing chemicals suppliers to seek alternative sources of production.

Sales from industrial biotech-derived chemicals totaled about 230 million euros in 2008, only a fraction of BASF’s 62 billion euros in total revenue. The world’s largest chemical company has spent 135 million euros to research bio-chemicals over three years. Total research spending will be about 1.35 billion euros this year, BASF said in May.

DSM, based in Heerlen, the Netherlands, has closed traditional chemical factories for biotech sites, responding to demands from companies like Walmart who seek more environmentally friendly materials. Procter & Gamble Co., the largest consumer-goods company, is looking for bio-based compounds for diapers to replace acrylics.

DSM’s new succinic acid is produced by the fermentation of glucose in large stainless steel vats, avoiding the need for a cracker that breaks oil and gas down into components like naptha that’s used in plastics and adhesives. The biotech version may cut energy use by 40 percent as well as reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the company said.


“This is no longer just a promise,” Volkert Claassen, head of DSM’s unit developing the acid, said in an interview. “It’s reality. Two years ago we made the strategic decision to sell our chemical production route for succinic acid. We will be one of the front runners. Companies close to the consumer are driving this change.”

Saudi Basic Industries Corp. bought General Electric Co. plastics business for $11.6 billion in 2007, highlighting the move nearer to the consumer by Middle East petrochemical companies. Both BASF and Dow Chemical Co. are exiting styrene markets after inflated oil prices reduced margins.

Crude approached almost $80 a barrel last week on optimism demand will increase amid improved prospects for a U.S. recovery. That’s an impetus to the so-called white biotech industry. The label contrasts with red biotech for medicinal applications, and green biotech for gene-modified seeds.

Price Issue

With oil at $65 a barrel, Novozymes A/S’s enzyme-based acrylic acid in the U.S. is competitive with oil-based equivalents, said Thomas Schaefer, the Bagsvaerd, Denmark-based company’s senior research director. If made in lower-cost Brazil, it would be competitive with oil at $45.

“As a strategist or top manager, you have to think what you will offer in 10 years that is not a commodity and not in complete competition with rivals because then it is a price issue,” said Harald Gruber, a Silvia Quandt Bank analyst based in Frankfurt. “Some day in the future, fossil fuels will become scarce. The oil price will again increase.”

DuPont Co. is looking to broaden its bio-chemical range after creating propanediol by fermenting corn sugar and adding it to fabrics that make carpets and clothes more stain resistant, said biomaterials head John Ranieri. The Wilmington, Delaware-based company’s product pipeline includes thermoplastic elastomers, a rubber-plastic cross used in tubing and hoses.

More Complex, Better

“Four or five years ago, we would have said we are just looking for new specialties products,” Ranieri said in an interview. “Now it’s different, we are looking at all.”

Novozymes will announce two contracts for different chemicals over this year and next, adding to its acrylic acid for diapers. Within 30 to 50 years, biotech refineries will have sprung up all over the countryside, replacing the old-school plants and chemical complexes typically located in ports where the crude arrives, CEO Steen Riisgaard said in an interview.

Wacker Chemie AG is assessing if its success in producing acetic acid, used to make polymers, can be translated into large-scale production, said Guenter Wich, Wacker’s head of biotechnology.

“The more complex the chemistry, the greater the opportunities for white biotech are,” he said.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How's it like living in a 'Mickey Mouse' apartment?

Property developers in Singapore are marketing smaller flats these days as they are more "affordable". Apparently, Mah Bow Tan isn't the only one taking liberties with the word "affordable" these days.

[My very concise opinion on these flats is that they are not affordable at all and in fact, represent very poor value.]

I studied in Baltimore in the United States as an undergraduate. Back then, there was a limited supply of on-campus housing, so in my last two years as a student, I moved out of university housing and into a studio apartment. I lived alone for those 2 years, which really did a lot for improving my self-reliance and confidence.

[Having experienced living in such a rough town (Baltimore has an incredibly high crime and homicide rate, and there were at least 2 rape/homicide cases of undergraduates during my time there), I figure I probably have the wherewithal to live anywhere now ... but that's a story for another post.]

I'll spare readers the horror stories of looking for an apartment. Suffice it to say that the studio I lived in was quite small, about 400 square feet, so I think I am qualified to comment on what it's like living in a small apartment. I had friends who lived alone in even smaller apartments, about 250 square feet, which is approximately the size of the shoebox flats mentioned in the above news article.

I think I have to agree with property developers who steadfastly refuse to build apartments below 400 square feet in size. That is about the minimum for comfortable living. I viewed the 250 square feet apartments when I was apartment-hunting, but I quickly rejected them...and I'm not what you would call a fussy person.

Simply put, 250 square feet is not enough for one person. Living in such a small apartment will seriously 'cramp your style', so to speak.

You will not be able to:

1. Entertain, since there is no room for more than about 4 people to sit comfortably, assuming (and that's a big assumption) you have that many chairs and a coffee table in the first place. A sofa is out of the question of course. A (Western) futon is a compromise that lots of studio dwellers make.

2. Accumulate stuff. Every time you go out shopping, at the back of your mind, you will ask yourself not how much the item costs, but how much space it will take up in your apartment. At one point, all my worldly possessions in the US of A could fit comfortably into two suitcases and 4 boxes.

3. Cook, since the fumes of cooking (even with a hood) will permeate your apartment and saturate all the fabrics. Boiling and steaming are ok. Frying and saute'ing are not. Of course, this is assuming you even have the requisite paraphernalia for cooking. Remember, you will have no countertop space to prepare food, few cupboards and no room for appliances (except for a stove, maybe a rice cooker and the all-important microwave oven for reheating). It's right about this point that most people give up having any semblance of even having proper utensils and crockery. Then they decide to eat out or order in for all their meals.

4. Have all the comforts that most of us take forgranted. You can choose some, but not all of the following: a desktop computer, large refrigerator, dishwasher, television, stereo system, large desk, dining table, queen-size or larger bed, and other bulky items of furniture. A washer and a dryer are obviously no-go; you'll have to do all your laundry outside or in the basement of the apartment building (which is an alien notion for most Singaporeans). And needless to say, what large items of furniture a studio dweller selects is a reflection of his or her priorities. For many bachelors, having a queen-size bed is a necessity (no prizes for guessing why).

5. Stay at home much, if at all. This was a dealbreaker for me when I viewed the small 250 square feet apartments, as I am pretty much a homebody. I could not imagine coming home every day from school or work, opening the door and immediately facing a tiny closet-like living space, where a bed would immediately come into view and dwarf everything else around it (Believe me, you will choose miniature, collapsible or stackable versions of just about everything when you live in a studio. Tables, chairs, nightstands etc.). It is incredibly depressing, I can assure you.

So who would live in a shoebox apartment? People who fall into two categories: those who can't afford any better, and those happy (expat) singles who spend all their time out and about and return home only to sleep. The former we can discount, since they are clearly not the target demographic that Singapore private property developers are looking at. The latter are not likely to buy property in the first place, seeing as how they are so footloose.

That leaves investment buyers. For those buyers of Mickey Mouse flats who are thinking of buying these apartments and then renting them out to the aforementioned singles, good luck with that.

First of all, even swinging singles look at how much it costs to rent a place. Small and cheap will always find takers, the same cannot be said for small and expensive. Given the prices of these flats, a commensurate rent to yield a reasonable ROI would probably be in the ballpark of about $1k - $1.5k a month, not including utilities and condo expenses. Unless the location is very prime and the building amenities are excellent, no single is likely to pay that much. And by prime location, I mean proximity to town (Orchard Road), public transport (given how "unaffordable" a car is), laundry facilities, restaurants and eateries, malls etc.

The larger problem is that the kind of tenant that this kind of tiny apartment is meant to be rented out to, is supposed to live a lifestyle that our city is not geared towards supporting. Ergo, such a tenant is probably uncommon.

Cities that have high rental rates for small apartments include London (Zone 1), New York City (Manhattan), Tokyo and Hong Kong. All these cities have urban densities in their city cores that are in actuality, more concentrated than Singapore's, despite Singapore having a higher average population density. There are more shops, services, restaurants, nightclubs and crucially, subway stations, per square foot in the inner city core of these global cities than Singapore. And more of them operate at extended hours, or in some cases 24/7 (like the New York City subway, at least in Manhattan). In these cities, tiny apartments in the city core can and do get rented out at exhorbitant rates, simply because there is so much to do outside in the city. In addition, wages are considerably higher in these cities to pay for the astronomical cost of living.

In contrast, except for nightclubs, Singapore pretty much shuts down after 11pm. The lack of public transportation options after midnight is a major culprit for this. Singapore can bill itself as a family-friendly destination for expat families, but it cannot claim to be equally attractive to "zero-drag" singles. Especially since expats now tend to be employed on local packages instead of the cushy expat packages of yesteryear.

The inescapable conclusion is that these tiny-ass apartments will likely be rented out to less desirable, short-term tenants. Property analysts and experts interviewed by the article mentioned the likelihood of monthly, weekly or even hourly rentals (I have no idea what is the legality of such arrangements). This sure recalls another property case, though it may not stop determined landlords.

Possible tenants would be tourists (I once stayed in a New York City sublet in SoHo for a week; the original tenant was working abroad; speaks to how hard it is to land a good apartment in Manhattan) and short-term visitors such as business travellers. Less savory possibilities would be brothel clients, illegal immigrants, and the like.

Is the Mickey Mouse flat a sustainable trend? Hard to say, looking at how property prices have stayed gravity-defying through a recession. One thing's for sure, I know what it is like to live in small apartment, and I would never go below 400 square feet. For those who find out the hard way, well, lots of luck with owning a shoebox apartment. If there's one sign of a property bubble, this could well be it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The solution ... is the problem

I've been reading Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, where he argues that Europe cannot remain Europe should the pace of (Muslim) immigration there continue. Fascinating stuff, and it got me thinking about our own immigration issues here in Singapore, euphemistically termed foreign talent.

Several of Caldwell's arguments can be generalized to problems with immigration itself, and not just to Muslim immigration to Europe. I won't go into detail on these arguments. Suffice it to say, you should pick up a copy of his book if you are at all interested about the problems that rapid immigration and dis-assimilation cause. In this post, I will focus on Singapore-centric issues only.

Singapore has a fertility rate of about 1.3, below the replacement rate of 2.1. We are sitting on a demographic timebomb. Add to that the unquenchable demand (at least on the part of the government) for ever greater GDP growth, Singaporeans are told that we must be open and accepting of immigrants (i refuse to use the doublespeak term of foreign talent in this post). Immigrants provide the warm bodies with which to fuel our economy. These two statements sum up the chief arguments behind Singapore's pro-immigration policy. The other arguments, no matter how well articulated or reasoned, can be subsumed under these 2.

Why aren't Singaporeans reproducing enough of themselves? Some reasons are common to why industrialized nations typically experience a fall in fertility upon attaining developed nation status. I will not discuss these. Indeed, some of them can be found in the Caldwell book. Instead, I will describe reasons more unique to the Singapore condition.

Singaporeans do not have many children because of the high cost of living (in particular housing), the high cost of raising children, the lack of social safety nets, the unavailablility of affordable and convenient childcare, and the competitive and stressful work environment.

In response, the government encourages immigration to make up for the reproduction shortfall.

Immigration results in greater competition for jobs and a more stressful work environment. Indeed, for some civil servants, a more stressful work environment is precisely the point of immigration (forget work-life balance, that token phrase that has been cheapened beyond all recognition). Philip Yeo has spoken explicitly of increasing the hungriness index as a spur to make Singaporeans work harder.

Immigration also tends to drive down salaries and retard wage growth. This has the salutary effect of pushing up corporate profits (and government tax receipts) but doesn't do much for workers. In addition, immigrants also require the use of public services and amenities, in particular housing and public transport, and correspondingly drive up their costs (in the former) or lower the quality of the experience (in the latter). Lately, there has been much unhappiness among Singaporeans over the high and rising cost of public housing. [no link provided here; too many to choose from]. Naturally, these two factors taken together exacerbate how the high cost of living and raising children discourage Singaporeans from reproducing.

Faced with such an abject environment, where Singapore citizens are made to feel marginalized within their own country, it is hardly a surprise that many Singaporean youth want to emigrate.

In view of rising emigration, the government takes the view that they should concentrate on making Singapore a more attractive place to live.

Of course, in the opinion of the government, a better place to live involves high GDP growth, which would be facilitated by, what else, immigration. Immigration would also conveniently help replace the Singaporeans who have migrated and mitigate the low fertility rate.

And more immigration would lead to ... well, you get the idea. In short, the solution ... is the problem.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Picking Winners

I had a conversation with a colleague recently after one of our regular Friday night hang-outs.

We were talking about research and work in general (we are after all, both researchers) when the conversation came round to the Economic Development Board's(EDB) investments in research.

My colleague has a friend working in EDB, and she shared some of her conversations with her friend with me. This friend of my colleague shall henceforth be referred to as X.

X works in a department responsible for disbursing seed funding to local companies operating in nascent industries. And X was deeply unhappy in his job (though apparently not unhappy enough to leave, a not uncommon phenomenon).

The reason why X was unhappy was because he had the unenviable task of breaking the unpleasant news that funding was no long forthcoming to these fledgling companies whenever EDB decided to turn off the monetary spigots. Naturally, when funding gets cut, companies die and people get laid off.

Funding can dry up for any number of reasons, some of them very good ones. For example, companies may simply be unviable and should be shut down. Taxpayers' money should not be used to prop up business models that simply don't work (though good luck telling that to the US government that has bailed out the big banks).

While being the bearer of such bad news is always unpleasant, it is far more unpleasant when the decision to cut funding is partially or totally at the behest of trends or fads. In other words, funding can be fickle to the point of being arbitrary, which is somewhat ironic since the whole point of government funding is that it need not be subject to the whims of the market and can take a longer, more strategic view.

Apparently, according to X, the rising trend at EDB is to fund companies engaged in the new sphere of alternative energies and related technologies. This is perfectly understandable given the increased urgency that climate change today is viewed with. In addition, as renowned venture capitalists such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and Khosla Ventures would say, the energy industry is the biggest industry of them all, and alternative energies will constitute a monumental investment opportunity in the future.

There are other areas that EDB is interested in of course (digital media technologies, water-related technologies). The point here is that as the pie of funding is relatively fixed in nature, more money to these areas means less to others, in particular to the most recent fad of all, life sciences.

Less funding means fewer opportunities, although you wouldn't know it from the horde of students that regularly profess interest in the life sciences today. The recent open house that my company held which invited potential scholarship applicants saw just such a horde. Several students that visited my department's exhibits made a beeline for me with questions to ask once my boss introduced me as a biomedical engineer. The disappointment was palpable when I explained that I no longer worked as one, although strangely enough no one asked why. The students moved on quickly enough when I introduced them to my ex-colleagues working in biomechanics.

The point I am making here is that the capriciousness of government funding and intervention in the industrial marketplace can have real impact on an individual's career decisions, sometimes positive, but quite often negative.

Funding for the life sciences from EDB may be reduced for a number of reasons. I can think of several, but two stand out most. The first is the perception that A*Star already gets plenty of funding for life sciences research and that there is no need for EDB to pick up the slack in the life sciences industry. The second reason is that, rightly or wrongly, it's "mission accomplished" for the life sciences industry; Singapore seems to be successful in attracting pharmaceutical firms and medical device companies to set up shop here, hence there is less of a need to emphasize life sciences. [Sidebar: Though seemingly successful, I am sceptical of the quality of jobs being generated from the investments. Let's face it, people inspired into taking up careers in science and engineering don't exactly aspire to work in manufacturing and quality assurance.]

If there is a lesson to be drawn here, it is that the government in Singapore likes to 'pick winners', hence the title of this post. Like it or not, major segments of our economy are centrally planned. Even the number of doctors, lawyers, teachers and PhDs in Singapore is centrally planned.

For the individual, this works fine if the sector you work in is a 'winner' and the 'picking' part is still in the early stages. You'll do just fine, better than fine even, if you are a foreigner invited to come here.

But if you are late to the cycle, there is a real risk you could get shut out even before you get a foot in the door. Worst, if you are established in the 'winning' field that then becomes less winning, you are left behind, too old to switch fields when you get made redundant.

This Schumpetarian creative destruction may work well for Singapore's economy, but it can leave an exceedingly bitter taste in the mouth of the individual.

We have seen this movie play out several times before. I call it the kiss of life and death: a surge of investment and interest, followed by maturation and then senescence and decline. It happened in engineering years ago. It also happened in Information Technology a decade ago (and IT expertise today has been commodified to a great extent thanks to the influx of Indians and Filipinos, per a friend who works in IT recruitment; salaries and the permanency of jobs have correspondingly slid). It's arguable that it's happening in life sciences today. Even the boom in finance could be argued to be engineered, although I suspect government support for finance will continue as it is seen as too strategic an industry. In contrast, alternative energies, water and digital media are all in the ascendant phase. For now.

What does this mean for life sciences in Singapore? What does this mean for so many that have invested their time and careers in life sciences? I have some predictions I can make, but only time can tell if they are true prognostications.

The first is that life science start-ups, always a dicey proposition, will become even more endangered in the future. We have had no massively successful homegrown biotech company in Singapore. Ever. The odds for this happening are very small. The counterargument here of course, is that the gestational period for biotech startups is long. To that I would reply that the global biotech industry as a whole has never turned a profit. Ever. The successes of Genentech and Amgen cannot redeem the billions of dollars pumped into biotech in the USA, the most dynamic and advanced of economies, with the strongest of research infrastructures. Even if we do see successful startups in Singapore, the ROI would likely be unremarkable.

The second prediction is a narrowing of research foci. There will indeed be happy and successful career life scientists in Singapore. With the amount of money being invested, there cannot be but some success stories. These successful scientists will all be featured incessantly in the local media, working in various happening exciting fields. What you will not hear of are the unhappy scientists and engineers that are forced to switch research fields, say from tissue engineering to stem cells, or from developmental biology to medical diagnostics, because their field of interest is "not relevant". And those are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones will drop out of science altogether.

My advice to would-be life scientists: Make sure you're one of the happy successful ones, working in happy successful fields. If you're not going to be happy, you're going to be miserable. A middle-ground is going to be hard to find.

The third prediction is that the life science industry, like all industries, will mature and stabilize. There will be employment in factories and manufacturing plants, but these will be subject to the global economic cycle just as all industries are. There will be redundancies during recessions, and concerns with China racing up the value chain, and hollowing out during periods of severe competition, just as has happened with semiconductors.

What is least likely to happen is that life sciences will continue along its present path as a golden industry apparently untouchable by calamity, and that is only to be expected.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Prizes 2009

One of the most striking things about this year's Nobel Prizes is that many of the awardees are foreign-born Americans.

For the Nobel in Medicine or Physiology, Elizabeth H. Blackburn was originally from Australia and Jack W. Szostak was born in London. The third winner, Carol W. Greider, a native American, nevertheless trained under Blackburn as a graduate student.

For the Nobel in Physics, Charles K. Kao was born in Shanghai but holds dual British and American citizenship. William S. Boyle holds dual Canadian and American citizenship. The last winner is George E. Smith, who is American.

For the Nobel in Chemistry, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was born in India but holds American citizenship. Of the two other winners, one is an Israeli woman and the other a native American.

For the Nobel Peace Prize, while Barack Obama is a native American, his father is Kenyan. So he is born of immigrant blood as well.

The prizewinner for the Nobel in Economics for 2009 has yet to be announced.

I think it's only going to be a matter of time before some schmuck of a local politician brings up the Nobel Prizes of 2009 as an argument for a pro-foreign talent policy in Singapore (and if such a politician does do so, remember, you read it here first).

I won't be criticizing our "FT" policy in this blog. There is ample material out there in other Singapore blogs excoriating this policy.

I shall simply point out that the foreign-born American Nobel prizewinners of 2009 are all naturalized American citizens, indicating that they are well-integrated into American society. This is something that I think no one in Singapore can claim has happened to an appreciable extent in our own country. Citizenship take-up rates are low; they are even lower when compared to take-up rates for permanent residency, which indicates foreigners are interested in the perks of living here, but not the responsibilities or rights. [You could hardly blame them: the right to vote is the most fundamental and valuable right of a citizen, and most native Singaporean citizens have never had the opportunity to exercise it, so why bother taking up citizenship?]

Secondly, the United States of America allow dual citizenship with a number of other countries (the UK, Australia and Canada). Many of the naturalized American Nobel winners hold dual citizenship. That is probably no small matter in persuading them to take up American citizenship. The last I checked, Singapore doesn't permit dual citizenship of any kind.

So if the next time some guy dressed in white holds up the Nobel prizewinners of 2009 as an example of the wonders of foreign talent, you know what a spurious argument that is.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book List Refreshed!

I have removed:

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich
Making the Foreign Serve China by Anne-Marie Brady
The Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett
China Shakes the World by James Kynge

I have added:

Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell
Reflections on the Revolution in Europe by Christopher Caldwell
Dear Mr Buffett by Janet Tavakoli
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect"

From The New York Times
Published: October 5, 2009

In addition to assorted bad breaks and pleasant surprises, opportunities and insults, life serves up the occasional pink unicorn. The three-dollar bill; the nun with a beard; the sentence, to borrow from the Lewis Carroll poem, that gyres and gimbles in the wabe.

An experience, in short, that violates all logic and expectation. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that such anomalies produced a profound “sensation of the absurd,” and he wasn’t the only one who took them seriously. Freud, in an essay called “The Uncanny,” traced the sensation to a fear of death, of castration or of “something that ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.” 

At best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy.

Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large. 

“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. 

When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

“There’s more research to be done on the theory,” said Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, because it may be that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance. But he added that the new theory was “plausible, and it certainly affirms my own meaning system; I think they’re onto something.” 

In the most recent paper, published last month, Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others. 

The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.

But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

“The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others,” Dr. Heine said. “And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”

Brain-imaging studies of people evaluating anomalies, or working out unsettling dilemmas, show that activity in an area called the anterior cingulate cortex spikes significantly. The more activation is recorded, the greater the motivation or ability to seek and correct errors in the real world, a recent study suggests. “The idea that we may be able to increase that motivation,” said Dr. Inzlicht, a co-author, “is very much worth investigating.” 

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories, for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

Still, the new research supports what many experimental artists, habitual travelers and other novel seekers have always insisted: at least some of the time, disorientation begets creative thinking.

"I.B.M. Joins Pursuit of $1,000 Personal Genome"

From The New York Times
Published: October 5, 2009 

One of the oldest names in computing is joining the race to sequence the genome for $1,000. On Tuesday, I.B.M. plans to give technical details of its effort to reach and surpass that goal, ultimately bringing the cost to as low as $100, making a personal genome cheaper than a ticket to a Broadway play.

The project places I.B.M. squarely in the middle of an international race to drive down the cost of gene sequencing to help move toward an era of personalized medicine. The hope is that tailored genomic medicine would offer significant improvements in diagnosis and treatment. 

I.B.M. already has a wide range of scientific and commercial efforts in fields like manufacturing supercomputers designed specifically for modeling biological processes. The company’s researchers and executives hope to use its expertise in semiconductor manufacturing, computing and material science to design an integrated sequencing machine that will offer advances both in accuracy and speed, and will lower the cost.

“More and more of biology is becoming an information science, which is very much a business for I.B.M.,” said Ajay Royyuru, senior manager for I.B.M.’s computational biology center at its Thomas J. Watson Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. 

DNA sequencing began at academic research centers in the 1970s, and the original Human Genome Project successfully sequenced the first genome in 2001 and cost roughly $1 billion. 

Since then, the field has accelerated. In the last four to five years, the cost of sequencing has been falling at a rate of tenfold annually, according to George M. Church, a Harvard geneticist. In a recent presentation in Los Angeles, Dr. Church said he expected the industry to stay on that curve, or some fraction of that improvement rate, for the foreseeable future. 

At least 17 startup and existing companies are in the sequencing race, pursuing a range of third-generation technologies. Sequencing the human genome now costs $5,000 to $50,000, although Dr. Church emphasized that none of the efforts so far had been completely successful and no research group had yet sequenced the entire genome of a single individual.

The I.B.M. approach is based on what the company describes as a “DNA transistor,” which it hopes will be capable of reading individual nucleotides in a single strand of DNA as it is pulled through an atomic-size hole known as a nanopore. A complete system would consist of two fluid reservoirs separated by a silicon membrane containing an array of up to a million nanopores, making it possible to sequence vast quantities of DNA at once. 

The company said the goal of the research was to build a machine that would have the capacity to sequence an individual genome of up to three billion bases, or nucleotides, “in several hours.” A system with this power and speed is essential if progress is to be made toward personalized medicine, I.B.M. researchers said.

At the heart of the I.B.M. system is a novel mechanism, something like nanoscale electric tweezers. This mechanism repeatedly pauses a strand of DNA, which is naturally negatively charged, as an electric field pulls the strand through a nanopore, an opening just three nanometers in diameter. A nanometer, one one-billionth of a meter, is approximately one eighty-thousandths the width of a human hair.

The I.B.M. researchers said they had successfully used a transmission electron microscope to drill a hole through a semiconductor device that was intended to “ratchet” the DNA strand through the opening and then stop for perhaps a millisecond to determine the order of four nucleotide bases — adenine, guanine, cytosine or thymine — that make up the DNA molecule. The I.B.M. team said that the project, which began in 2007, could now reliably pull DNA strands through nanopore holes but that sensing technology to control the rate of movement and to read the specific bases had yet to be demonstrated.

Despite the optimism of the I.B.M. researchers, an independent scientist noted that various approaches to nanopore-based sequencing had been tried for years, with only limited success. 

“DNA strands seem to have a mind of their own,” said Elaine R. Mardis, co-director of the genome center at Washington University in St. Louis, noting that DNA often takes a number of formations other than a straight rod as it passes through a nanopore.

Dr. Mardis also said previous efforts to create uniform silicon-based nanopore sensors had been disappointing. 

One of the crucial advances needed to improve the quality of DNA analysis is to be able to read longer sequences. Current technology is generally in the range of 30 to 800 nucleotides, while the goal is to be able to read sequences of as long as one million bases, according to Dr. Church, who spoke in July at a forum sponsored by, a nonprofit online science forum. 

Other approaches to faster, cheaper sequencing include a biological nanopore approach being pursued by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a start-up based in England, and an electron microscopy-based system being designed by Halcyon Molecular, a low-profile Silicon Valley start-up that has developed a technique for stretching single strands of DNA laid out on a thin carbon film. The company may be able to image strands as long as one million base pairs, said Dr. Church, who is an adviser to the company, and to several others. 

“To bring about an era of personalized medicine, it isn’t enough to know the DNA of an average person,” said Gustavo Stolovitzky, an I.B.M. biophysicist, who is one of the researchers who conceived of the I.B.M. project. “As a community, it became clear we need to make efforts to sequence in a way that is fast and cheap.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Alternative Energy Projects Stumble on a Need for Water"

From The New York Times
Published: September 29, 2009

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. — In a rural corner of Nevada reeling from the recession, a bit of salvation seemed to arrive last year. A German developer, Solar Millennium, announced plans to build two large solar farms here that would harness the sun to generate electricity, creating hundreds of jobs.

But then things got messy. The company revealed that its preferred method of cooling the power plants would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, about 20 percent of this desert valley’s available water.

Now Solar Millennium finds itself in the midst of a new-age version of a Western water war. The public is divided, pitting some people who hope to make money selling water rights to the company against others concerned about the project’s impact on the community and the environment.

“I’m worried about my well and the wells of my neighbors,” George Tucker, a retired chemical engineer, said on a blazing afternoon.

Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water. Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year.

“When push comes to shove, water could become the real throttle on renewable energy,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin who studies the relationship between energy and water.

Conflicts over water could shape the future of many energy technologies. The most water-efficient renewable technologies are not necessarily the most economical, but water shortages could give them a competitive edge.

In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to turn on the tap. Other big solar projects are mired in disputes with state regulators over water consumption.

To date, the flashpoint for such conflicts has been the Southwest, where dozens of multibillion-dollar solar power plants are planned for thousands of acres of desert. While most forms of energy production consume water, its availability is especially limited in the sunny areas that are otherwise well suited for solar farms.

At public hearings from Albuquerque to San Luis Obispo, Calif., local residents have sounded alarms over the impact that this industrialization will have on wildlife, their desert solitude and, most of all, their water.

Joni Eastley, chairwoman of the county commission in Nye County, Nev., which includes Amargosa Valley, said at one hearing that her area had been “inundated” with requests from renewable energy developers that “far exceed the amount of available water.”

Many projects involve building solar thermal plants, which use cheaper technology than the solar panels often seen on roofs. In such plants, mirrors heat a liquid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. As in a fossil fuel power plant, that steam must be condensed back to water and cooled for reuse.

The conventional method is called wet cooling. Hot water flows through a cooling tower where the excess heat evaporates along with some of the water, which must be replenished constantly. An alternative, dry cooling, uses fans and heat exchangers, much like a car’s radiator. Far less water is consumed, but dry cooling adds costs and reduces efficiency — and profits.

The efficiency problem is especially acute with the most tried-and-proven technique, using mirrors arrayed in long troughs. “Trough technology has been more financeable, but now trough presents a separate risk — water,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, a London research firm.

That could provide opportunities for developers of photovoltaic power plants, which take the type of solar panels found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. They are typically more expensive and less efficient than solar thermal farms but require a relatively small amount of water, mainly to wash the panels.

In California alone, plans are under way for 35 large-scale solar projects that, in bright sunshine, would generate 12,000 megawatts of electricity, equal to the output of about 10 nuclear power plants.

Their water use would vary widely. BrightSource Energy’s dry-cooled Ivanpah project in Southern California would consume an estimated 25 million gallons a year, mainly to wash mirrors. But a wet-cooled solar trough power plant barely half Ivanpah’s size proposed by the Spanish developer Abengoa Solar would draw 705 million gallons of water in an area of the Mojave Desert that receives scant rainfall.

The German developer Solar Millennium hopes land in the valley, above, can be home to solar plants. Public opinion, partly because of water issues, appears to be split. 

George Tucker opposes a water-cooled solar plant. “I’m worried about my well and the wells of my neighbors,” he said. 

One of the most contentious disputes is over a proposed wet-cooled trough plant that NextEra Energy Resources, a subsidiary of the utility giant FPL Group, plans to build in a dry area east of Bakersfield, Calif.

NextEra wants to tap freshwater wells to supply the 521 million gallons of cooling water the plant, the Beacon Solar Energy Project, would consume in a year, despite a state policy against the use of drinking-quality water for power plant cooling. 

Mike Edminston, a city council member from nearby California City, warned at a hearing that groundwater recharge was already “not keeping up with the utilization we have.” 

The fight over water has moved into the California Legislature, where a bill has been introduced to allow renewable energy power plants to use drinking water for cooling if certain conditions are met.

“By allowing projects to use fresh water, the bill would remove any incentives that developers have to use technologies that minimize water use,” said Terry O’Brien, a California Energy Commission deputy director.

NextEra has resisted using dry cooling but is considering the feasibility of piping in reclaimed water. “At some point if costs are just layered on, a project becomes uncompetitive,” said Michael O’Sullivan, a senior vice president at NextEra.

Water disputes forced Solar Millennium to abandon wet cooling for a proposed solar trough power plant in Ridgecrest, Calif., after the water district refused to supply the 815 million gallons of water a year the project would need. The company subsequently proposed to dry cool two other massive Southern California solar trough farms it wants to build in the Mojave Desert.

“We will not do any wet cooling in California,” said Rainer Aringhoff, president of Solar Millennium’s American operations. “There are simply no plants being permitted here with wet cooling.”

One solar developer, BrightSource Energy, hopes to capitalize on the water problem with a technology that focuses mirrors on a tower, producing higher-temperature steam than trough systems. The system can use dry cooling without suffering a prohibitive decline in power output, said Tom Doyle, an executive vice president at BrightSource.

The greater water efficiency was one factor that led VantagePoint Venture Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, to invest in BrightSource. “Our approach is high sensitivity to water use,” said Alan E. Salzman, VantagePoint’s chief executive. “We thought that was going to be huge differentiator.”

Even solar projects with low water consumption face hurdles, however. Tessera Solar is planning a large project in the California desert that would use only 12 million gallons annually, mostly to wash mirrors. But because it would draw upon a severely depleted aquifer, Tessera may have to buy rights to 10 times that amount of water and then retire the pumping rights to the water it does not use. For a second big solar farm, Tessera has agreed to fund improvements to a local irrigation district in exchange for access to reclaimed water. 

“We have a challenge in finding water even though we’re low water use,” said Sean Gallagher, a Tessera executive. “It forces you to do some creative deals.”

In the Amargosa Valley, Solar Millennium may have to negotiate access to water with scores of individuals and companies who own the right to stick a straw in the aquifer, so to speak, and withdraw a prescribed amount of water each year.

“There are a lot of people out here for whom their water rights are their life savings, their retirement,” said Ed Goedhart, a local farmer and state legislator, as he drove past pockets of sun-beaten mobile homes and luminescent patches of irrigated alfalfa. Farmers will be growing less of the crop, he said, if they decide to sell their water rights to Solar Millennium. 

“We’ll be growing megawatts instead of alfalfa,” Mr. Goedhart said.

While water is particularly scarce in the West, it is becoming a problem all over the country as the population grows. Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that as intensive renewable energy development spreads, water issues will follow.

“When we start getting 20 percent, 30 percent or 40 percent of our power from renewables,” Mr. Kammen said, “water will be a key issue.”