Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book List Refreshed!

I haven't been blogging lately because I've been busy with a number of things. Just out-pro'ed from my annual Indentured/Conscription Training (ICT) which took away an additional 2 weeks of my life's time.

[And which cost me an estimated $200 - $600 in lost employer's CPF contributions and increased tax liabilities from artificially raised take-home pay. Yes, PAP, I keep a detailed count, thanks to your fine examples of governance over the years, and I will certainly "better the instruction".

Some of my friends lost quite a bit more in the 2 weeks, like lost accounts, sales and commissions.]

I will also be in Nepal in a week or so for paragliding lessons, so I definitely won't be blogging for a while.

On the plus side, I had a chance to catch up on my reading, so here's my book list refreshed.

I have removed:

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Lessons from Private Equity any Company can Use by Hugh Macarthur and Orit Gadiesh
This Time is Different by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff
The Pose Method by Nicholas Romanov

I have added:

America's Bubble Economy by David Wiedemer et al
Richistan by Robert Frank
The Postcatastrophe Economy by Eric Janszen
When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson (which is available for free download here.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Disempowered Generation

The Sunday Times, October 31, 2010.
A Disempowered Generation, page A14

Content from the original article was scraped and is available here with an...impassioned discussion.

Only in Singapore will career politicians reframe a political problem so that it appears to belong to the citizenry and not to them.

He said he was reflecting a sentiment held by many of his men in the SAF, who had to compete with foreigners for jobs. 'I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth... We don't really feel comfortable in our country any more.'

Mr Goh's reply was one of deep concern. 'This is one early [early to the clueless, perhaps. Emphasis mine.] sign of danger... If this is happening, it is very serious.'

He asked Mr Lim why he felt disconnected.


'This is your country,' SM Goh replied. 'What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?' [Note the defensive posture, emphasis mine]


News flash to Goh Chok Tong: If young Singaporeans are feeling disenchanted, disenfranchised and dissatisfied (I could have a field day with "dis"), it's not OUR problem. It's YOURS.

Young people are the bedrock of the nation. They are the future upon which the country is built. Just telling us to think positive and look at things purely from your privileged Senior Minister's perch isn't going to magically make all the negative feelings, which are grounded in real causes of your doing, go away.

The world is becoming smaller. For better or for worse, people are a lot more mobile now. It's one of the little consequences of globalization that Singapore has so readily embraced.

Telling the most mobile, talented and arguably, valuable demographic of your nation to suck it up and deal with it is practically laying out the red carpet for us to emigrate. Why not? Even if we wanted to hang that massive millstone of an HDB mortgage around our collective necks, even that has been priced out of our reach lately.

Marriage, family, kids to anchor us here? In case you haven't realized, those life stages are being postponed later and later. No thanks to you.

Voting out the current government to agitate for political change that's more responsive to our needs and aspirations? You should be so lucky we have that option. If we did feel our votes counted, fewer young people would feel so disenfranchised that they feel they need to move to a place where they actually have a voice. Sorry, again, political dissent and change is no-go in Singapore. And again, we ask, whose fault is that?

'If that is prevalent among young people over here, we've got a real problem,' SM Goh said. 'If the majority feel they don't belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I [GCT referring to himself, emphasis mine] doing here? Why should I [GCT referring to himself, emphasis mine] be working for people who don't feel they belong over here?'

Apparently, our politicians are beneath even the banksters responsible for the worst financial crisis in generations. At least bankers are satisfied to be paid lots of money for wrecking the global economy. Our dear Chok Tong doesn't just want millions of dollars in compensation, which he already gets. He wants to be loved and valued for his work too, by people who feel they belong here.

Funny, I thought the whole point of paying our ministers so much money was to counter the appeal of the private sector and its big bucks over the virtues of working in the public sector. I mean, the reason why we pay you so much was because there was the assumption (asserted by you and your compatriots) that talented people prioritize money over everything else. And here you are claiming that you want to be working, not just for money, but for people who care about your feelings?

What are you, nuts? Bi-polar or something? Afflicted with some affective disorder? Or perhaps you're not the talent we thought you were, since you need more than just millions of dollars. And while we're on that, if your feelings matter, why don't ours?

Let me reiterate my main point. The way young people feel is not our problem. It's YOURS. let me spell that out in case you don't understand one or more parts of it. Y-O-U-R P-R-O-B-L-E-M.

Your government is like a company giving their resigning staff an exit interview, asking for honest feedback, and then systematically rejecting criticism by saying, "It's too bad you feel that way. We're not sorry about it and frankly, we think it's unjustified for you to feel that way."

Fine. Stay on your lonely, delusional moral high ground. Since you're governing in the interests of the foreigners flooding the island, and the top 20% of income earners that benefit disproportionately from your income inequality inducing policies, you guys deserve each other. We'll keep out of your way. Way out.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

SGX buying ASX: There are projects and there are "projects"

It's old news that SGX is attempting to acquire ASX.

The merger is probably going to be value-destroying, as most M&A deals are. See here. The mature Australian market, the imminent loss of monopoly status for the ASX, and the massive amounts of debt AND equity that the SGX has to issue will probably drag down earnings badly in coming years.

The question to ask, of course, is the old Latin adage, "Cui Bono?"

SGX's senior management, and especially its new CEO, are the likeliest beneficiaries of any deal. They will reap massive bonuses for such a "bold" and "audacious" move should a deal go through. They might even be lauded as being "visionary" and showing "leadership". Not only that, as a helpful side benefit, CEO pay of financial institutions is highly correlated with the market capitalization of the institution. It's why banks have evolved to become TBTF.

When it's time to pay the piper, however, Magnus Bocker should have departed long ago to greener pastures. And the shareholders will reap a bitter harvest.

Why am I talking about this? Because the government doesn't operate so differently.

The government frequently rotates senior civil servants, especially scholars, among different ministries and government entities, arguing that doing so broadens exposure and helps senior civil servants to network with each other so the wheels of power are greased whenever things need to get done. We saw this most recently for YOG when everything including the kitchen sink was thrown at it to make it a "success".

What is less commonly known is that highly motivated Type-A civil servants like to leave a distinguishing mark on their most recently assumed 2-5 year appointment, a giant ego-stroking "I was here and I did [insert grandiose, high-falutin' project]". Kind of like a mongrel cur leaving a huge stinking piss stain to obliterate the mark left behind by the previous dog.

Indicators of such propensities include but are not limited to: 

a) making deprecating remarks about one’s predecessor’s efforts, particularly remarks that have just the right balance of both obsequiousness, condescension and outright disdain [can’t be too obvious about it, right?].

b) insisting on a new five-year roadmap after just two years into the previous one [which was the length of tenure for the previous appointment holder], with an ironclad requirement that the new roadmap must be sufficiently different from the old one.

c) spending a lot of money underwriting a huge project with nebulous objectives, vague sounding actionable plans, lots of buzzwords, and making sure that it enjoys heavy publicity and the appearance of consultation.

It hasn't been uncommon encountering itinerant, know-it-all, hard-to-please dilettantes in my professional life. I call the phenomenon "Gai3 Chao2 Huan4 Dai4". On a practical note, a proposed project that takes more time to complete than the tenure of the local emperor is usually DOA.  

For c) above, do not ever mistake such a project for a vanity project. A vanity project is frivolous and wasteful, but ultimately transparent and relatively pure in intentions.

Such projects serve deeper, more mercenary objectives, namely to elevate the appointment holder’s prestige, and to pad the resume in a quest for a loftier appointment two or more years down the road. Hardly a vanity project; there’s an important goal firmly in sight, just not the one written in the project proposal.

The especially annoying thing is, when reasonable people point out flaws or problems with such a project, it's never the criticisms that are addressed. Instead, the loyalty of the critics is loudly called into question, their judgment or their lack of "vision" is rubbished, and they and their opinions are otherwise dismissed, naysayers and doubting Thomas' all.

In Singapore, the YOG was only just one example in recent memory. There are, of course, others. Here’s a recent one, for instance. Read the last comment in the article and you will see why.

Friday, October 8, 2010

ACS - Weekus Horribilis

Some disclosure and preamble:
I am an ex-ACS student, and the just resigned principal was principal for three of the four years I was there.

It's been a fun week for the ACS family. NOT.

First, Dr Ong Teck Chin abruptly resigned after an inquiry was made into "inappropriate behavior". Then, not a week passes and ACJC has to deal with the shocking revelation that two female students had been filmed making hot lesbian love in a school toilet cubicle, and the video had been subsequently circulated among students.

First story here, second story here. And full transcript for second story available here.

I'll deal with each story one by one. 

Dr Ong should be considered innocent until proven guilty of behaving "inappropriately" towards one of his male teachers.

That said, I think we can all imagine what "behaving inappropriately" means. And where there's smoke...well, you know.

If the teacher was a woman, and I don't mean this in a bad way, there might be some who might question the veracity of her claims. But in this case, because the teacher was a man (let's face it, in a sexual harassment case, it's very rare for a man to play the victim card unless he really was a "victim", and even then...), I'm inclined to believe that there's solid evidence of inappropriate behavior.

Although, one does have to ask: If the teacher did have extensive evidence, that's an awful lot of instant messaging, email and voice recordings to have if it was just a case of harassment.

Either Dr Ong had been really persistent (looks like somebody' s still getting it up in their 60s), or there was something going on that just might have been consensual, and then turned sour. But that's just speculation on my part. Too much trashy TV might have something to do with it.

Somehow, all this just reminds me of Lord Browne and his boy toy. Or Ted Haggard. Or any number of other Christian leaders who have fallen by the wayside.

I am an alum of ACS, and I should properly be shocked, upset or outraged.

But I feel none of those things.

I'm actually amused. A little tickled. Oh, what the hell, I'm experiencing paroxysms of schadenfreude-laced pleasure. I'm a bad, bad person, I know. =)

The thing is, one of the indelible memories I have of my time in ACS was getting railed at every single Monday morning during chapel period. Far from being healing and uplifting, it was an almost toxic experience.

If it wasn't on the sins of having lustful thoughts, it was the evils of "satanic" Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, Magic the Gathering trading cards (go figure), or the dangers of rock and roll music. There was one time the school even invited an American ex-gay minister to preach at the pulpit.

Well, the irony is rich indeed. With this sexual impropriety scandal involving the principal, it's always fun to see the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou types experience the cognitive dissonance of reconciling their pre-conceived notions with reality.

I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Dr Ong since he's going through hell right now (although if he was hitting on one of his teachers, it's his own damn fault), but I have no sympathy for those at ACS who are distressed by the turn of events.

Turns out that men who have the hots for other men don't just include effete, breathless, hand-wringing types. Or promiscuous, depraved sexual predators. Who knew they could also be fine, upstanding scholars, officers and gentlemen? Hello gay sociology 101, welcome to the real world, folks.

And then there's the ACJC scandal. Quite apart from the reprehensible behavior of students secretly filming other students doing the horizontal tango and then circulating the video, which is already a huge deal to handle, Kelvyna Chan now has a full-blown crisis to deal with because of the gay dimension as well.

Guess she won't be taking over Dr Ong anytime soon.

There's just no good way to deal with the ACJC scandal because our straitlaced culture and societal norms make even talking about anything involving gay people or gay sex taboo and uncomfortable. This is what happens when people sweep stuff beneath the carpet and ignore reality. Conversations that should have happened in the open during less tumultous times now have to be had on terms much less appealing. 

Make no mistake. The filming and dissemination of the sex video was an malicious act that should be severely punished. The "having sex in a public place and hence invitation to be filmed" argument isn't an excuse.

But because there are undoubtedly ACJC students like this one: 'What I saw disgusted me,' said the second-year student, who said he could not bring himself to continue watching the rest of the clip, there will inevitably be some quarter of the student population who will somehow view this incident as okay because it involves victims whom they would consider as sexual deviants. Two girls who had it coming to them.

Because a frank conversation on sexual differences probably has never taken place at ACJC, how is Kelvyna Chan and the teachers at ACJC supposed to impress on their students that this kind of behavior, secretly filming other students having sex, is not acceptable, no matter who is involved?

How are they going to reassure their students that the school is a safe environment for learning? Not just for the kids who are still experimenting sexually, but for the collection of misfits, oddballs, and unconventional types that you find in any school who aren't part of the alpha clique of cool kids? Who's going to be safe from the Plastics at ACJC if the school doesn't send a strong message that this is unacceptable? 

And if ACJC is really serious about discouraging kids from having sex at that vulnerable age, really, how useful are your abstinence-until-marriage sex-ed classes going to be for the segment of your student population for whom marriage is irrelevant? Like, hello? If you don't even acknowledge their existence, how are you even going to start that conversation with kids who are confused (or sure) about their sexuality?

I think Kelvyna Chan must be secretly glad the two girls have transferred out of her school. She can't expel them just for having sex; that would invite accusations of sexual discrimination. Yet, if they weren't expelled, there would have been a firestorm of protests from concerned parents that ACJC was degenerating in their moral standards. Remember, this is ACJC we're talking about. The same God-fearing Methodist folks who think Magic the Gathering cards are from the devil, to say nothing of sexual perversion.

So, the two girls have transferred out. Now, Kelvyna just has to decide what to do with the students responsible for the filming and circulation. Good luck with that.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book List Refreshed!

I have removed:

And then there's this by Bill Wasik
Falling Behind by Robert H. Frank
Liquidated by Karen Ho
Constructing Singapore by Michael T. Barr and Ziatko Skrbis

I have added:

The Pose Method of Running by Nicholas Romanov
Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet by Michael T. Klare
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Quick thoughts on the Sunday Times, 3 October 2010

I haven’t had much time or inclination to write on substantive topics lately, but I’ve still had some thoughts. Just not enough to write lengthy posts on.

I’m starting a new tag, “quick thoughts”, to denote short posts that deal with random topics. Today’s quick thoughts are responses to the Sunday Times, 3 October 2010.

“Inflation Up: How to make your money work harder” – Invest, Page 30

No mention by Lorna Tan on the hardest inflation hedge of all: gold. Disclosure: I’ve been heavily invested in the precious metals for the past 2 plus years or so. That gold is still not mentioned in the mainstream media is great news; it means it hasn’t entered bubble territory, yet.

As always, I make no claims to offering investment advice. I do not share the gains or losses of readers, so make your own investment decisions. If you are at all interested in precious metals, please do your own research.

Personally, I’m invested in gold and silver exchange-traded funds, BUT not GLD or SLV. There have been some allegations or suspicions of fraudulent dealing by both. My holdings are in ZKB and ZSIL, both managed by the Zurich Cantonal Bank. Why? You’ll have to do your own research to figure out why. One thing to note: these two exchange traded funds are traded only on the Swiss Exchange, and the last I checked, only one broker in Singapore offers access to the Swiss Exchange, and that’s Saxo Capital Markets.

“Rail-life Stories” – lifestyle, Page 8

The closure of Tanjong Pagar railway station and its relocation to Woodlands is understandable. Sad, but understandable. It’s not just the land that the station sits on is prime and can be redeveloped, but also all the land that the railway currently sits on.

Still, it would be nice if we had the equivalent of a Grand Central Station or Union Station in downtown Singapore. I love the romantic look and feel of grand railway stations, and I have fond memories of Union Station. As a student at Hopkins, I used to take the train between Baltimore and DC when staying in Baltimore got too boring. Also, air tickets from Dulles International Airport were sometimes substantially cheaper compared to tickets from BWI airport.

High-speed rail between downtown Singapore and downtown Kuala Lumpur would lead to all sorts of positive synergistic effects.

“Screen off the sun” – Pulse, Page 10

I’m not a fan of sunscreen. I apply it to prevent sunburn, not out of a desire to be fair (heck, I’m a guy) or prevent skin cancer.

Unknown to many, there is a sunscreen controversy brewing out there. In a nutshell, there is some evidence to suggest that sunscreen, ironically enough, may increase the risk of malignant melanoma.

Personally, I’m more concerned with vitamin D deficiency. More and more studies have found vitamin D to be implicated in many crucial metabolic processes, and it's unclear if each of us is really getting the amount we ought to be getting. What compounds matters is that if we avoid sun exposure, there really aren’t that many dietary sources of the vitamin, especially if you don’t fancy dairy products.

Coldwater fish oil is one non-dairy source. The problem is that to purge fish oil of contaminants like PCBs, most reputable fish oil supplements, which are touted for their Omega acid content, are probably devoid of vitamin D, thanks to extensive purification processes.

So far, I haven’t found a really satisfactory solution. If you take fish oil, there are good fish oil products out there, like Carlson’s fish oil, which unfortunately isn’t available in Singapore, but still, it won’t provide you with Vitamin D. Personally, I just take Michael Pollan’s advice to eat food. So here’s to an extra serving of saba and shishamo whenever I eat Japanese.

Oh and contrary to Mary Schmich's advice, I'm laying off the sunscreen unless absolutely necessary.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Blogging Break

I've been busy, and will continue to be busy for the next few weeks, so no blogging for the next few weeks.

Just got back from Bali over the Hari Raya weekend for a short paragliding holiday. I managed to get two flights in, which was helpful in exorcising the previous bad experience I had in Bali. 

I met some wonderful people on my trip and made new friends, both pilots and non-pilots alike, so it was an enjoyable trip.

But now with the holiday over, work looms, and this week, I'll be moving house as well, so there's lots to do and no time to bitch about read local news, much less blog about it.

Updates will come later when the time and opportunity to write present themselves again.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Implications of No Retirement Age

Frontpage article on the Straits Times today - MM Lee: If a man is fit, let him carry on working.

The issue of raising, or even doing away altogether with the retirement age, has been bandied about for quite a while now. Let's begin with a quote from MM Lee, his answer to the last question of the interview the Straits Times did with him (of which a transcript can be found in the Straits Times): 

Q: Some Singaporeans disagree with your view that they should not retire but keep on working. They argue that the end of life is a happy retirement, not more work.

A: Those who want to engage in new pursuits, and develop new interests which they could not do so because of work, can do so. They will have no income and may run out of their savings and CPF monies earlier.

The most important thing, something that must always be kept uppermost in mind, is that the government does not want to own the "retirement problem". More to the point, it does not want citizens, for lack of their own funds, becoming destitute, so that the government is placed in the uncomfortable position of either having to loosen the purse-strings, or risk appearing heartless and stingy (and self-aggrandizing, with the massive ministerial pay packets it's famous for).

[Here, of course, we ignore the inconvenient fact that cabinet ministers in Singapore are one of the few groups of civil servants still eligible for pensions.] 

Every other argument in favor of raising or abolishing the retirement age, including the rapidly ageing workforce, is a red herring. We've already imported foreign workers by the planeload. And the government has no qualms in importing more. As many as are needed to keep growth high. The recent speeches are just platitudes to placate the masses.

Once you comprehend the motivation behind why MM Lee desires to abolish the retirement age, things become much clearer.

Capable people whose skills are in demand, no matter what their age, are likely to be able to find employment no matter what their age. MM Lee falls into this category (although some would argue that he's manufactured his own need, but I digress). Such people are also likely to have sufficient financial resources to retire as and when they wish.

The real problem is those who can't afford to retire, and must continue working until the day they die to make ends meet. If they're unemployable beyond a certain age, due to some pesky thing called a retirement age, where is the money going to come from to feed and clothe these people? Heaven forbid that it be government.

Please note: In this post, I do not intend to make a stand for or against abolishing the retirement age. I am merely exploring motivations and implications. It just so happens that in exploring motivations, it is difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that the government shall we call it, mercenary.

Somebody needs to pay for the retirement of citizens who cannot afford to not work even in their twilight years. Correction. Let me rephrase that. Somebody needs to finance the decommissioning costs of labor inputs who have outlived their productive life span, are passing into senescence, and who happen to have the statutory status of "citizen" on this island called "Singapore, (Inc.)".

There, that sounds suitably technocratic.

And there is a simple solution for that. Abolish retirement. Make people pay their own way from cradle to grave. And their employers too.

But realistically speaking, employers face massive problems with no retirement age, as amply covered in the Straits Time today. Those problems are serious and real. And besides, foreign direct investment, business and enterprise, these are the lifeblood of the Singapore economy. When push comes to shove, it is far easier to shortchange citizens than businesses here in Singapore. That's why corporate taxes were cut while GST was raised simultaneously in 2007.

Just two days after my last post, I have new predictions to add to my list. What else will the PAP do after being returned to power in the next elections?

1. Further reduce or even eliminate employers' contribution to CPF for workers after the age of 62. 

2. Raise the age at which CPF can be withdrawn for retirement purposes (currently 55).

3. Other tweaks to the CPF scheme, such as raising the minimum sum, or requiring a larger amount to be set aside in Medisave. Perhaps more unusual changes, like permitting Medisave to be used for occupational therapy. Or an income-withdrawal matching scheme - you can only take out of CPF an amount that is proportionate to income you earn after 62.

4. The laws requiring employers to retain employees after 62 will certainly be passed at some point, and they will be enforced. But the terms under which employers extend employment to the elderly are likely to be relaxed and weighted in favor of employers. Employers may be free to offer a starvation minimum wage, few benefits or temporary contracts. It's not like the people who need the work are in a position to bargain. I mean, what are they going to do, petition the government for more equitable terms?

Aside from these predictions, there are other implications of abolishing the retirement age.

1. The civil service is going to lead the way. On paper, retaining staff with years of expertise sounds great. So does abolishing seniority-based wage structures. Admittedly, I have interacted with only a few senior civil servants in a personal capacity. But those few I have met all seem to have a very hard time relaxing their grip. It's almost a pathological condition. Having a very large group of people, all with considerable egos, jockeying for position in what already seems like a highly adversarial environment, seems like a hazardous position for bystanders. Like ordinary Singaporeans. 

In my job, I've frequently been placed in the ludicrous position of helping to devise 5-year "roadmaps" every 2 years. Every person of "note" desires to put their personal stamp on their new appointment. Personal fiefdoms and what I like to call "turf issues" are remarkably common. If KPIs for civil servants and growth at all costs got us to where we are today, I hesitate to imagine what the future will hold when we have a civil service even more stuffed with highly driven, opinionated and competitive Type A's. Add crotchety, curmudgeon-y, and every other bad elderly cliche to the list.

2. With employers being compelled to retain older people, that means less labor flexibility, which, oddly enough, is sharply at odds with the national labor philosophy. That could ricochet all the way down through the generations. The Straits Times article mentioned Japan. Could we develop a freeter underclass as well?

3. Lots of people won't think too much now about the abolition of the retirement age. They're either too young, or think that they will be financially secure enough to afford voluntary retirement anyway, years from now, so the point is moot.

I am not even 30, but my opinion is different. The economy now is as good as it gets. Fiscal stimulus in developed countries can only go so far, and China's economy is a house built on sand. Normal people are now stretched to afford housing or the lifestyle they aspire to even in such a benign environment, having to take on massive amounts of debt (at currently low interest rates). What happens when all those finely laid plans are turned to dust? Things may appear far less sanguine years into the future.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Some thoughts on the National Day Rally Speech

I didn't watch the National Day Rally speech on TV. Well, actually, I don't watch local TV, period. Local TV infuriates me, especially when it's a local politician talking-head.

But I skimmed through the details in the paper the next day. Mostly to find out what the "giveaways" were. I put giveaways in quotes as they're not freebies, not really.

As an NSman, I'm eligible for the $9000 CPF credit. Well, not exactly, I'm eligible for only a fraction of it actually. Figures. It's not what I've done for you yesterday that matters; it's what I can do for you today or tomorrow that matters. Very investment banking-like, it's yet another characteristic of the PAP government that hews close to the mentality of bankers. The irony, of course, is that the PAP government never fails to remind us of what it has done for us in the past, and that Singaporeans should be grateful. Well, I think I'll take a leaf from the PAP politician's book from here on. In fact, I've subscribed to that school of thought for quite some time now.

What can you do for me TODAY, PAP, that should make me want to put you back in office? Platitudes can be dispensed with. Show me the money. Otherwise, if I can't get an equitable slice of the pie, I would much rather the whole pie fly out the window. Or end up creaming your face. Think Ultimatum Game.

It's hardly a secret that elections are coming. The whole targeted NS credit is just another election sweetener - targeting the most disenchanted and reactionary segment of the population (the male youth) that has the least to lose and has the shallowest roots (no HDB loan, no career as yet, and no desire to settle down, especially in Singapore, in the near term). The NS credit is even clever in a way, with tiered rewards corresponding to how settled in and unlikely to rock the boat a citizen is.

What's interesting to think about, of course, is what's going to happen AFTER the upcoming elections. The PAP government giveth with one hand, but it has always taketh with another hand also. Long has the PAP government counted on Singaporeans having a memory a little shorter than an election cycle. 

Let's have a thought experiment. A prediction game if you will. What do I think the PAP will "take away" after it has been returned to power?

1. GST. The GST offsets from the latest hike have just expired in 2010. That means that GST is fair game again for a hike. Perhaps not too likely, given the hue and cry the last time, but hey, when has unpopularity ever been a reason to stop the government from doing something it badly wants to do? YOG is the most recent example of that.

2. Hospital charges. The last big hike was perhaps in 2008. With the opening of the new Khoo Teck Puat hospital, the government can (honestly!) claim that they've been DOING SOMETHING. That sounds like a fine justification for an increase in charges, innit?

3. Local transportation. Not public transport; the distance-based thingy was a pet project that had only just been recently completed. Nope. If local transportation's going to get more expensive, it's going to be for drivers. No wait, it's not going to be more expensive, at least for [insert arbitrary figure greater than 50% here] of drivers. That's why it's full steam ahead for satellite-based ERP.

4. Ministerial salary increases. Hey, with the economy steaming ahead at double digit percentages, never mind the transient nature of globally-coordinated fiscal stimuli carried out through MORE sovereign debt and money-printing quantitative easing,  there's no better time to pay our ministers even more, especially since they may need to take a pay cut later on when the sugar high of fiscal stimulus inevitably wears off. Kind of like retailers marking up merchandise and then discounting it again.

5. The press has gone to town with those wretched students who bilk their parents out of their CPF money for tertiary education. You know it's serious when they devote an editorial in the Straits Times to it. And the government has never liked it when there's even a remote risk of people not being able to afford their own retirement. Expect curbs in the future on usage of CPF money for tertiary education.

I might add to this list in the future. And I will certainly reproduce this list from time to time if and when any of the predictions materialize.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Amazon Mechanical Turk

I've been spending a not inconsiderable amount of time on lately.

I had heard of Amazon's Mechanical Turk quite a while back, but had never really bothered to check it out until recently. Basically, mturk allows humans to either request or work on what are known as Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) for micropayments. Read more here. If you're based in the USA or India, you can actually cash out your earnings. For everyone else, your earnings get deposited into an account with Amazon which you can then use to purchase items on Amazon.

It's generally difficult to make serious money (i.e. more than minimum wage) on mturk, although it's not unheard of. For Requestors, who may range from corporations to graduate students, the quality of work that you can get back from Workers on mturk is also of uncertain quality. But mturk is still a useful resource; that's why it's been around for a while.

I've been working on and off on mturk for the past two weeks or so as a personal project and experiment, and while I never really got to the point of making serious money, it was substantial enough to score me a chunk of change. I made about USD100 over about 10 to 15 hours of work spread over two weeks...and my first shipment of Amazon swag courtesy of mturk is en route to Singapore as we speak via vpost. This is probably an unsustainable figure though, as I scored some high-paying HITs that don't come by too often (One paid me $15 for a 750 word article I cranked out in a little over an hour). 

I think I could probably sustainably make about $10 to $20 a week turking. That may not seem like a lot, but it does add up. More importantly, it doesn't feel like work. I complete HITs while surfing on the Internet, waiting for videos on Youtube to load, or just because doing HITs is fun. For instance, I've been completing a set of audio transcriptions of interviews done for a documentary on Polaroid, and it's been interesting hearing artists and photographers talk about why they still use Polaroid despite the prevalence of digital photography.

I've done transcriptions of classroom lectures by Mormons (deathly boring, and for some reason, mturk is stuffed with them), interviews with venture capitalists, interviews with an American manager of an auto components plant in Mexico who talks about offshoring of the auto industry (obviously part of a research study or dissertation), and an interview with the maker of the just released video game Mafia II (probably part of an entertainment channel that wanted a transcription). 

So I'm a little picky with my HITs, but that's because I don't do it just for the money. Turking can be fun too.

If you ARE interested in making money on mturk, then you would probably want a strategy that maximizes profits and minimizes the time spent. Lots of strategies that you can google for out on the web. But personally, I'm just happy to make a few dollars each day doing something that's mildly enjoyable and not having to spend any cash at all the next time I order something from Amazon. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Pose Method

Perhaps it's because posts on my blog are linked from Singapore Daily that I have unconsiously written more from a socio-economic slant, although that wasn't the original intention with which I started this blog.

This blog was originally meant to serve as a repository of my thoughts as well as a communication tool, both with people I know personally (but often do not meet up with in person as often as I would like) and with people I don't know but might find interesting to converse with online.

In any case, it's been a while since I posted anything on running, which had been one primary subject for this blog. Running is, after all, something I spend about 10 hours on a week.

Today's post is on the Pose Method, a modified running form that is purported to improve performance.

Re-engineering one's form in any sport is never a simple or quick matter, particularly without coaching, so I had drastically reduced my mileage from the usual 40 - 60 kilometers per week (off-season) to a more moderate 25 kilometers per week in the last two months to experiment with the Pose Method. Of course, I took care not to sign up for any race this year, such as the Stanchart Marathon which I traditionally run at the end of the year, so there was no pressure to add mileage during the week.

There's a lot of information on the web on the Pose Method; it's just that most people haven't heard of it before. In fact, the creator of the Pose Method, Nicholas Romanov, first found widespread interest in the method not among runners, for which it had been originally developed for, but among the more hardcore open-minded triathlon community.

Very briefly, the Pose Method allegedly improves efficiency and performance while reducing the risk of injury, particularly chronic overuse injuries that typically plague runners. It does so by prescribing naturally falling forefoot landings, rapid ankle raising/pulling, and a forward lean that harnesses the force of gravity.

Does it work?

After two months of experimenting, I think it does. I'm running either faster, or at a comparable speed to what I was running before, but with noticeably less effort.

However, from my experience, the Pose Method is not without caveats.

The Pose Method requires the runner to run at a reasonably fast pace - an equivalent or better than four and a half minute per kilometer pace. That translates into a sub-eight minute per mile pace. If you can't run that fast, you're going to have problems with the forward lean part of the Pose Method.

Secondly, one of the virtues of the Pose Method is that it reduces the likelihood of injury to the joints, especially the knees, by prescribing forefoot landings. The impact of running, however, still needs to be absorbed somewhere, and in the case of the Pose Method, it's the calves and the Achilles tendons that do the job.

The first time I ran using a facsimile of the Pose Method, emphasising forefoot landings, I couldn't run for a week after. The Pose Method is murder on the calves for beginners, before the gastrocnemius and soleus have had time to adapt and remodel in response to the increased loading. Unfortunately, I found out about this only after beginning my training. Now, with increased practice though, I can comfortably run about 14 kilometers with the Pose Method.

Is the Pose Method right for you? Well, it depends on whether you can learn well using just books and videos, which is what I did. And if you're fine with the two caveats above. As I said, re-engineering form is never an easy endeavor, and you should never attempt it if you are currently training for a race or an event. Save it for the off-season instead.

[I have no way of proving it, but I suspect Straits Times journalists read blogs too, and more annoyingly, crib ideas from the blogosphere. It does seem an awful bit of coincidence that a post I had written several weeks back provided ideas for an article that ran just a few weeks later. It wasn't the first coincidental occurrence, but this was the most recent example. So this is just a placeholder here in case Jeanette Wang, resident runner and fitness editor at the Straits Times, or anyone else for that matter, decides to write something on the Pose Method and publish it in the local paper.] 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The YOG will be a success

It must be nice working for the government when you're in a position like Teo Ser Luck. Or Vivian Balakrishnan.

Ignoring that part of the reason why the YOG is being organized is to bolster your public profile just so you can stand for elections under the ruling party's banner in the near future, purely a coincidence I'm sure, the government will bend over backwards and pull out all the stops to make the event happen. Nay, not happen, make it a success even, a foregone conclusion.

Budget overrun? No problem. Triple the amount of money available, and doubtless there's more if needed. Concerned with transportation hiccups? Request that the LTA mandate a YOG-only lane that motorists must give way to, on pain of a fine. Put in a note to remind Ms. Saw from SMRT to run more trains, something a groundswell of grousing and bitching from the public failed to do. Stacks of tickets left unsold? Get MOE to conscript students and SAF commanders to force NSFs to attend the various events. Apathetic public? Enlist the "nation-building" press to print favorable stories and put the best possible spin on things. Whatever. Call in all the favors you need. The time and inconvenience to thousands of students, NSFs and motorists is...inconsequential when it comes to trading favors between powers that have a mutual understanding of how things really work here on the Island. I think they call it networking in the public service, and those job rotations are meant to foster this sort of thing.

As for inconveniencing the great unwashed, people are resources and factor inputs after all; they're meant to be used to achieve a desired result. If you have to, justify it with a nebulous claim of supporting the Olympic spirit, or an appeal to nationalistic sentiments. Doesn't matter that it runs counter to the average experience that a Singaporean grows up with, that if you want something, you've got to pay for it (hey, we learnt from the best.) You want my time, my passion, pay for it. Money talks and bullshit walks.

If a project that I had to manage at work were to meet with massive budget overruns, failure to meet specified targets, or inability to obtain customer buy-in, I would be hauled up before the risk management committee, along with my boss, for an earful. My bonus would be negatively affected, and my career prospects probably shot.

No recourse to summon extraordinary resources from distant realms, like what the organizers for the YOG can do. And of course the YOG will be a success. The only KPI for its success, after all, is that it was held. Nobody should doubt that the Anointed Ones for the YOG will receive anything other than accolades for this event. After all, worst things have occurred on the watch of other luminaries and nothing untoward has ever happened to them.

I wish I had a teflon career. With millions of dollars in wages and benefits. Pity. Common mortals like me are so...encumbered...with accountability.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

When will housing prices return to 'normal'?

I think few ordinary Singaporeans would think that housing in Singapore is affordable or reasonably priced.

Yet, while I share this view, I have been hesitant to label the Singapore housing situation a bubble, unlike many other bloggers or news sites. This is because there are several fundamental drivers for property prices in Singapore. Also, indicators for property valuations are mixed. For example, price-income ratios appear to be on high side, but price-rent ratios are more moderate. 

Note, however, that this post does NOT constitute an exhortation to "buy now before it becomes even more expensive" or that property represents an excellent investment proposition in Singapore.

This post is on thinking about why housing prices have risen, what could cause prices to reverse, and how likely it is that prices will return to a more moderate, 'normal' level.

I have identified 5 drivers for the recent rise in property prices in the past 7 years or so:

1. Strong GDP growth and a relatively stable employment. Wage growth, however, is a separate issue. But clearly, at least some people, notably higher income groups (both local and expatriate) benefit from GDP growth.

2. High rates of immigration.

3. Liberalization in property-related policies. For example:

  • reduction in downpayment from 20% to 10% for HDB flats bought with bank loans, enacted in 2005.
  • permitting singles to buy any type of HDB flat, when previously they were restricted to 3-room flats.
  • permitting entire HDB flats to be rented out.
  • reducing the number of years flatowners must stay in their flats before they can be sold on the resale market.

Notably, HDB has backpedalled on some policies since property prices started sky-rocketing. I do not have an exhaustive list of all the policy changes that the government has enacted in the last 7 years or so (and there are many). Frankly, the housing policy system in Singapore, just like the CPF policies, are byzantine. But the overwhelming impression I get is that policies today are far more liberal than they were 7 years ago. Enlightened readers can correct me here if I am wrong.

4. Inelastic supply of property, in particular HDB flats. HDB's BTO scheme is largely responsible for the latter situation.

5. Ample liquidity, and low interest rates. This is a function of governments around the world flooding the markets with liquidity, particularly Bernanke's quantitative easing policy. There is a direct inverse relationship between property prices and interest rates.

Given these positive fundamental drivers, high property prices in Singapore may stay high for a very long time. 'Normal' could be a long time coming, which might be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal financial situation. Again, I have to reiterate here that I am NOT recommending investing or buying property now. I'm not in the market for Singapore property, or any property for that matter, now and in the foreseeable future, so I'm not talking my book.

How might the fundamental drivers listed above be affected such that property prices start to fall and moderate?

Clearly, government policy has a lot to do with policy liberalization, immigration and housing supply. Given how wedded our government is to immigration and just-in-time construction policy, I'm not holding my breath for change here. The government has shown a willingness to tweak housing policy, but it is evident that their effects are not as potent as increasing supply or restricting immigration. Barring a massive loss by the PAP at the next general election, which needless to say is a black swan event, we can safely conclude that policies conducive to high property prices will continue to persist.

As for economic growth, liquidity and low interest rates, these will largely depend on external factors. In particular, if the wheels come off the global economy due to fiscal stimulus wearing off, or if the China overcapacity, commodity-buying and property bubbles burst, or if the US dollar suffers a crisis of confidence, or if the sovereign bond market revolts and stages a massive puke-up...well, a lot of very bad things could happen in a very short time.

Singapore's economy would clearly suffer in such a situation, with knock-on effects on foreign direct investment, capital flows and property prices (and perhaps even immigration).

On balance, it's difficult to say when property prices in Singapore will revert to 'normal'. If you believe that high growth will continue, you might hold the view that housing prices have reached a permanent new plateau, never to descend again.

If on the other hand, you see unsustainable policies, interest rates, levels of debt both sovereign and household, and money-printing everywhere you look, you might have far less sanguine views. 

Myself? Let me reiterate for the third time that this post does not constitute a recommendation or a forecast. Whatever I write could well be very wrong.

I think that property prices will continue to grind higher (keyword: grind, meaning protracted and choppy but with a directional bias) for the short to medium term, meaning 6-18 months or so. Perhaps longer. If an economic reversal occurs however, then property prices will probably plunge sharply and quickly. In other words, my view is that property price movements will be assymmetric in direction and magnitude. Less potential upside relative to potential downside.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What are some possible unintended consequences of massive immigration?

Disclaimer: Some readers might take offense at this post. This post is not motivated by any form of xenophobia, and I will maintain as neutral a tone as I can manage throughout. The purpose of this post is as a thought experiment, to think about potential unintended, and more importantly, unexpected, consequences of unrestrained and massive immigration. If you've read the Black Swan, you can think of this post as an exercise in Black Swan hunting.

We know massive immigration causes problems. Particularly when immigrant populations are not well integrated into the mainstream population or when the native population is outnumbered by foreigners. For example, see the civil unrest in France in 2005, Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, or the July 2009 Urumqi riots in Xinjiang.

Immigration in Singapore appears to be mostly free of these problems, and the main concerns here have been more prosaic, if still important, such as the cost of housing, employment of citizens vis-a-vis foreigners, and the declining quality of life, particularly those who rely heavily on public services.

I don't intend to interrogate these consequences of immigration, as they are well known and noticed, but to look for consequences and effects that are less obvious, less often perceived. Things that won't be found in some official record somewhere, but are street observations that are undocumented, until perhaps sometime in the future.

Take neighborhoods for instance. I am a flaneur, and the tagline of my blog is "An obsession to walk the city to experience it". And what I've noticed over the years is the changing character of neighborhoods as a result of immigration.

We know neighborhoods change as a result of redevelopment and gentrification. Tiong Bahru for instance, while still retaining an air of authenticity, has been gentrified almost beyond recognition. The most accessible parts of Chinatown are one big giant tourist trap (the interior is still somewhat authentic). And most of the shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar conservation area are given over to offices, particularly law firms and accountants' offices. I should know, I used to temp there.

But some areas have changed mainly as a result of immigration. Joo Chiat, for instance, was and perhaps is still infamous for vice, mainly stemming from callgirls from China setting up shop there.

Then there are what I call 'immigrant enclaves', buildings or places that attract a disproportionate number belonging to a particular foreigner ethnic group. For example anyone who has spent any amount of time in Singapore would know that Lucky Plaza is Filipino central, particularly on weekends. As a JC student years ago who used to head to Orchard every weekend (to chill at Takashimaya 'Square'), I used to marvel at the number of Filipino maids who would picnic on the lawn where Ion Orchard is now situated at.

Similarly, Golden Mile Complex has long been popular with Thais. I remember one time I wandered there while looking for Army supplies at Beach Road and was bewildered by the sheer number of Thais and Thai signboards. I felt like I had been transported to Bangkok.

On recent trips to Peninsula Plaza, I noticed the vast numbers of Myanmarese businesses (travel agencies and shops) amid the ... piquant ... odor of that aging mall.

What, in practice, have I found to be the best indicator that an area or building has been colonized by an immigrant group?

Supermarkets. Because food is so integral to culture, and supermarkets are high volume, low margin businesses, ethnic supermarkets are the number one indicator of a sizeable immigrant presence. Places of worship are another great indicator, but still not as useful, or visible, as supermarkets.

It's not just places that change as a result of immigration. Industries and occupations change as a result of immigration too.

We've already talked about vice in Joo Chiat due to China girls. Then there's that infamous report on human trafficking in Singapore that the government has dismissed. Perhaps Singapore's allegedly lax stance on immigration has contributed directly or indirectly to the prevalence of human trafficking in the sex trade here. We have the ubiquitous Banglas in the construction industry, more accurately South Asians, as they comprise Indians and Pakistanis as well. Their social problems have been well-documented by The Online Citizen. And the nimby effect was clearly evident when the thorny problem of situating their dormitories came up. We have also seen the problems of customers communicating, or not communicating, with non-English speaking service staff. Everyone in Singapore has had experience with that. And university students in the local universities have long complained of lecturers from China or India who are unable to teach effectively due to their heavy accents.

What is less commonly remarked upon, noticed, or is simply a more recent phenomenon? 

The Ministry of Manpower has an entire department of statisticians churning out labor statistics which are unfortunately publicly unavailable due to 'sensitivity', but we can make a few observations.

The IT industry and call centre industry is heavy with foreigners, particularly Filipinos. Anyone who has had to interrupt a meeting because of a cold call from a credit card representative would know this if he had deigned to notice. A friend who works as an IT recruiter has commented that it has been this way for quite a while.

And a colleague who complained of driving on the roads these days because of "aggressive" mainland China bus drivers clued me in on something I had noticed, but hadn't really internalized. Our bus drivers today are increasingly from China. And they're aggressive enough on the roads to have caused some drivers to take notice. Just a few days ago, a friend told me of how his bus driver got into an quarrel with a passenger due to a fallen tree branch incident which blocked traffic on an expressway. The bus drivers of today aren't the bus drivers of yesteryear, that's for sure.

We know of wildcat strikes in China at Honda factories. For better or for worse, immigrants to Singapore are generally not as ... tractable ... as native Singaporeans. If a critical part of our infrastructure like the public bus transport network is heavily dependent on foreigners of a particular ethnicity or creed, what happens if they have reason to get organized and demonstrate, protest or go on strike? Like the Falun Gong demonstration that happened in Singapore a while back? Or the diplomatic fracas that came in the wake of the Flor Contemplacion incident? There would potentially be a lot more unhappy Filipinos on Singapore soil today should a diplomatic incident like that happen again. And frankly, before 9/11, Singapore was lucky to not have sourced for immigrants from Muslim states that might subsequently have found our staunch relationship with the USA ... objectionable. 

What about our other industries? Electronics, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, construction? Any possibility of some adverse event occurring simply because we are so critically dependent on "hired help" in those industries? Nobody knows, and the MOM a'int talking. Maybe we should start asking. Just sayin'.

Finally, immigration changes not just places and industries, but also people. 

With every change, I find myself becoming less and less rooted to this island. A sizeable mass of Singaporeans has been disenchanted with "growth at all costs", income inequality and massive immigration. Because of immigration, some wags talk about being second class citizens in our own country. We have become disenchanted, disenfranchised and increasingly disconnected.

Home is where the heart is, but what happens when the heart itself has left the home?

I remember when the old National Library building was demolished despite massive public dissent, and the collective memories of generations was lost. Is that so different when neighborhoods are transformed through immigration? They may be revitalized, and that is undoubtedly a good thing for places plagued with urban decay, but something is lost nonetheless. Lost and unmourned.

Our local patois of Singlish is regularly denigrated (lah), as if being drowned in a babel of foreign tongues and accents is not challenge enough already. Will the day come when even ordering in a hawker centre is something that can't be done in Singlish? Because the service staff don't speak it, not at all?

And immigrants are brought in to "stick spurs" in our hides to make us work harder. We work plenty hard already, and are justly proud of our achievements. Yet we are told time and time again to work harder, cheaper, better, faster. We are exhorted to emulate some city or country, to strive to be the "insert city here" of the east. We are told we have to be hungry like some nationality or ethnic group. We are made to feel inadequate and insecure, and when we voice concerns, those concerns are belittled or dismissed. All the national education and NDP parades in the world will not be enough to dispel the actual experience of the modern day Singaporean. That despite having made it from third world to first, we are still not good enough. Hence the need for more immigration. We are not allowed to feel pride in being Singaporean.

The Singapore Tourism Board has been zealous in promoting the Uniquely Singapore brand. But no one seems to be paying attention to the fast eroding Uniquely Singaporean Identity. For better or for worse, we are getting disconnected from our place of birth. We already have a low birth rate. Do we need an escalating rate of migration among native born Singaporeans as well?

It is clear from recent news that the powers that be are intellectually wedded to a pro-immigration policy. But what might that tunnel vision bring us in the future, when the unintended consequences of massive immigration are fully felt?


I am very interested in the transforming urban landscape in Singapore due to immigration. I would be much obliged to readers who can point out instances of neighborhoods or districts that seem to have taken on an overt foreign character. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"How Microbes Defend and Define Us"

From The New York Times
Published: July 12, 2010

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said. 

Dr. Khoruts decided his patient needed a transplant. But he didn’t give her a piece of someone else’s intestines, or a stomach, or any other organ. Instead, he gave her some of her husband’s bacteria. 

Dr. Khoruts mixed a small sample of her husband’s stool with saline solution and delivered it into her colon. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology last month, Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues reported that her diarrhea vanished in a day. Her Clostridium difficile infection disappeared as well and has not returned since. 

The procedure — known as bacteriotherapy or fecal transplantation — had been carried out a few times over the past few decades. But Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues were able to do something previous doctors could not: they took a genetic survey of the bacteria in her intestines before and after the transplant. 

Before the transplant, they found, her gut flora was in a desperate state. “The normal bacteria just didn’t exist in her,” said Dr. Khoruts. “She was colonized by all sorts of misfits.” 

Two weeks after the transplant, the scientists analyzed the microbes again. Her husband’s microbes had taken over. “That community was able to function and cure her disease in a matter of days,” said Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the paper. “I didn’t expect it to work. The project blew me away.” 

Scientists are regularly blown away by the complexity, power, and sheer number of microbes that live in our bodies. “We have over 10 times more microbes than human cells in our bodies,” said George Weinstock of Washington University in St. Louis. But the microbiome, as it’s known, remains mostly a mystery. “It’s as if we have these other organs, and yet these are parts of our bodies we know nothing about.” 

Dr. Weinstock is part of an international effort to shed light on those puzzling organs. He and his colleagues are cataloging thousands of new microbe species by gathering their DNA sequences. Meanwhile, other scientists are running experiments to figure out what those microbes are actually doing. They’re finding that the microbiome does a lot to keep us in good health. Ultimately, researchers hope, they will learn enough about the microbiome to enlist it in the fight against diseases. 

“In just the last year, it really went from a small cottage industry to the big time,” said David Relman of Stanford University. 

The microbiome first came to light in the mid-1600s, when the Dutch lens-grinder Antonie van Leeuwenhoek scraped the scum off his teeth, placed it under a microscope and discovered that it contained swimming creatures. Later generations of microbiologists continued to study microbes from our bodies, but they could only study the ones that could survive in a laboratory. For many species, this exile meant death. 

In recent years, scientists have started to survey the microbiome in a new way: by gathering DNA. They scrape the skin or take a cheek swab and pull out the genetic material. Getting the DNA is fairly easy. Sequencing and making sense of it is hard, however, because a single sample may yield millions of fragments of DNA from hundreds of different species. 

A number of teams are working together to tackle this problem in a systematic way. Dr. Weinstock is part of the biggest of these initiatives, known as the Human Microbiome Project. The $150 million initiative was started in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health. The project team is gathering samples from 18 different sites on the bodies of 300 volunteers. 

To make sense of the genes that they’re gathering, they are sequencing the entire genomes of some 900 species that have been cultivated in the lab. Before the project, scientists had only sequenced about 20 species in the microbiome. In May, the scientists published details on the first 178 genomes. They discovered 29,693 genes that are unlike any known genes. (The entire human genome contains only around 20,000 protein-coding genes.) 

“This was quite surprising to us, because these are organisms that have been studied for a long time,” said Karen E. Nelson of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md.

The new surveys are helping scientists understand the many ecosystems our bodies offer microbes. In the mouth alone, Dr. Relman estimates, there are between 500 and 1,000 species. “It hasn’t reached a plateau yet: the more people you look at, the more species you get,” he said. The mouth in turn is divided up into smaller ecosystems, like the tongue, the gums, the teeth. Each tooth—and even each side of each tooth—has a different combination of species.

Scientists are even discovering ecosystems in our bodies where they weren’t supposed to exist. Lungs have traditionally been considered to be sterile because microbiologists have never been able to rear microbes from them. A team of scientists at Imperial College London recently went hunting for DNA instead. Analyzing lung samples from healthy volunteers, they discovered 128 species of bacteria. Every square centimeter of our lungs is home to 2,000 microbes. 

Some microbes can only survive in one part of the body, while others are more cosmopolitan. And the species found in one person’s body may be missing from another’s. Out of the 500 to 1,000 species of microbes identified in people’s mouths, for example, only about 100 to 200 live in any one person’s mouth at any given moment. Only 13 percent of the species on two people’s hands are the same. Only 17 percent of the species living on one person’s left hand also live on the right one. 

This variation means that the total number of genes in the human microbiome must be colossal. European and Chinese researchers recently catalogued all the microbial genes in stool samples they collected from 124 individuals. In March, they published a list of 3.3 million genes. 

The variation in our microbiomes emerges the moment we are born. 

“You have a sterile baby coming from a germ-free environment into the world,” said Maria Dominguez-Bello, a microbiologist at the University of Puerto Rico. Recently, she and her colleagues studied how sterile babies get colonized in a hospital in the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ayacucho. They took samples from the bodies of newborns within minutes of birth. They found that babies born vaginally were coated with microbes from their mothers’ birth canals. But babies born by Caesarean section were covered in microbes typically found on the skin of adults. 

“Our bet was that the Caesarean section babies were sterile, but it’s like they’re magnets,” said Dr. Dominguez-Bello. 

We continue to be colonized every day of our lives. “Surrounding us and infusing us is this cloud of microbes,” said Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University. We end up with different species, but those species generally carry out the same essential chemistry that we need to survive. One of those tasks is breaking down complex plant molecules. “We have a pathetic number of enzymes encoded in the human genome, whereas microbes have a large arsenal,” said Dr. Gordon. 

In addition to helping us digest, the microbiome helps us in many other ways. The microbes in our nose, for example, make antibiotics that can kill the dangerous pathogens we sniff. Our bodies wait for signals from microbes in order to fully develop. When scientists rear mice without any germ in their bodies, the mice end up with stunted intestines. 

In order to co-exist with our microbiome, our immune system has to be able to tolerate thousands of harmless species, while attacking pathogens. Scientists are finding that the microbiome itself guides the immune system to the proper balance. 

One way the immune system fights pathogens is with inflammation. Too much inflammation can be harmful, so we have immune cells that produce inflammation-reducing signals. Last month, Sarkis Mazmanian and June L. Round at Caltech reported that mice reared without a microbiome can’t produce an inflammation-reducing molecule called IL-10. 

The scientists then inoculated the mice with a single species of gut bacteria, known as Bacteroides fragilis. Once the bacteria began to breed in the guts of the mice, they produced a signal that was taken up by certain immune cells. In response to the signal, the cells developed the ability to produce IL-10. 

Scientists are not just finding new links between the microbiome and our health. They’re also finding that many diseases are accompanied by dramatic changes in the makeup of our inner ecosystems. The Imperial College team that discovered microbes in the lungs, for example, also discovered that people with asthma have a different collection of microbes than healthy people. Obese people also have a different set of species in their guts than people of normal weight. 

In some cases, new microbes may simply move into our bodies when disease alters the landscape. In other cases, however, the microbes may help give rise to the disease. Some surveys suggest that babies delivered by Caesarian section are more likely to get skin infections from multiply-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It’s possible that they lack the defensive shield of microbes from their mother’s birth canal. 

Caesarean sections have also been linked to an increase in asthma and allergies in children. So have the increased use of antibiotics in the United States and other developed countries. Children who live on farms — where they can get a healthy dose of microbes from the soil — are less prone to getting autoimmune disorders than children who grow up in cities. 

Some scientists argue that these studies all point to the same conclusion: when children are deprived of their normal supply of microbes, their immune systems get a poor education. In some people, untutored immune cells become too eager to unleash a storm of inflammation. Instead of killing off invaders, they only damage the host’s own body. 

A better understanding of the microbiome might give doctors a new way to fight some of these diseases. For more than a century, scientists have been investigating how to treat patients with beneficial bacteria. But probiotics, as they’re sometimes called, have only had limited success. The problem may lie in our ignorance of precisely how most microbes in our bodies affect our health. 

Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues have carried out 15 more fecal transplants, 13 of which cured their patients. They’re now analyzing the microbiome of their patients to figure out precisely which species are wiping out the Clostridium difficile infections. Instead of a crude transplant, Dr. Khoruts hopes that eventually he can give his patients what he jokingly calls “God’s probiotic” — a pill containing microbes whose ability to fight infections has been scientifically validated. 

Dr. Weinstock, however, warns that a deep understanding of the microbiome is a long way off. 

“In terms of hard-boiled science, we’re falling short of the mark,” he said. A better picture of the microbiome will only emerge once scientists can use the genetic information Dr. Weinstock and his colleagues are gathering to run many more experiments. 

“It’s just old-time science. There are no short-cuts around that,” he said.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Revisiting the Streisand Effect

First, the MDA banned a new book unflattering to the Singapore government, as it promised to be an expose of the allegedly unsavory aspects of the death penalty, in particular the uneven way it is applied (h/t the online citizen).

Then, hardly a few days had passed before Martyn See's new film was banned. Again by the MDA, that paragon of virtue and guardian of Singapore's tender fragile minds. 

You know what this reminds me of? When Royston Tan's film "15" was censored years ago, and he made a satirical film called "Cut" in retaliation and released it online, generating massive publicity. I remember this incident well, because I wrote a post on it waaay back in 2004 on explaining that censoring 15 backfired on the Board of Film Censors as it generated a whole lot more interest in the film than if they had left well enough alone. Let's face it: "artsy" films like 15 play to largely a self-selected audience of intelligentsia that collectively already has a less than sanguine opinion of the establishment. Censoring the film was like tempting fate to unleash the dreaded Streisand Effect.

Martyn See was absolutely right in saying that "I like to thank the Minister for banning this [film]. It generates more interest on the video now." I for one, will be looking to view this video myself for a fresh perspective. Just like I will be interested in reading the book just banned by MDA.

This post is a corollary to what I have stated before, that the mainstream media is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Information wants to be free, and the MDA is fighting a losing battle. 


Monday, July 12, 2010

"Google’s Do-It-Yourself App Creation Software"

From The New York Times
Published: July 11, 2010

Google is bringing Android software development to the masses. 

The company will offer a software tool, starting Monday, that is intended to make it easy for people to write applications for its Android smartphones. 

The free software, called Google App Inventor for Android (, has been under development for a year. User testing has been done mainly in schools with groups that included sixth graders, high school girls, nursing students and university undergraduates who are not computer science majors. 

The thinking behind the initiative, Google said, is that as cellphones increasingly become the computers that people rely on most, users should be able to make applications themselves. 

“The goal is to enable people to become creators, not just consumers, in this mobile world,” said Harold Abelson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is on sabbatical at Google and led the project. 

The project is a further sign that Google is betting that its strategy of opening up its technology to all kinds of developers will eventually give it the upper hand in the smartphone software market. Its leading rival, Apple, takes a more tightly managed approach to application development for the iPhone, controlling the software and vetting the programs available. 

“We could only have done this because Android’s architecture is so open,” Mr. Abelson said. 

Mr. Abelson is a longtime proponent of making intellectual and scientific resources more open. He is a founding director of the Free Software Foundation, Public Knowledge and the Creative Commons, and he helped initiate M.I.T.’s OpenCourseWare program, which offers free online course materials used in teaching the university’s classes. 

The Google project, Mr. Abelson said, is intended to give users, especially young people, a simple tool to let them tinker with smartphone software, much as people have done with computers. Over the years, he noted, simplified programming tools like Basic, Logo and Scratch have opened the door to innovations of all kinds. Microsoft’s first product, for example, was a version of Basic, pared down to run on personal computers. 

The Google application tool for Android enables people to drag and drop blocks of code — shown as graphic images and representing different smartphone capabilities— and put them together, similar to snapping together Lego blocks. The result is an application on that person’s smartphone. 

For example, one student made a program to inform a selected list of friends, with a short text message, where he was every 15 minutes. The program was created by putting three graphic code blocks together: one block showed the phone’s location sensor, another showed a clock (which he set for 15-minute intervals), and third linked to a simple database on a Web site, listing the selected friends. 

An onscreen button would turn on the program, Mr. Abelson explained, for perhaps a few hours on a Saturday night when the person wanted his friends to know where he was. 

A student at the University of San Francisco, Mr. Abelson said, made a program that automatically replied to text messages, when he was driving. “Please don’t send me text messages,” it read. “I’m driving.” 

A program by a nursing student at Indiana University enabled a phone to send an emergency message or make a call, if someone fell. It used the phone’s accelerometer to sense a fall. If the person did not get up in a short period or press an onscreen button, the program automatically texted or called the person designated to receive the alert. 

“These aren’t the slickest applications in the world,” Mr. Abelson said. “But they are ones ordinary people can make, often in a matter of minutes.” 

The Google tool, of course, works only for phones running Android software. A sign-up with a Google Gmail account is required. The tool is Web-based except for a small software download that automatically syncs the programs created on a personal computer, connected to the application inventor Web site, with an Android smartphone. When making programs, the phone must be connected to a computer with a U.S.B. link.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Liquidated - Parallels between Wall Street and the Singapore Civil Service

I recently finished reading Liquidated by Karen Ho. It wasn't an easy read; in fact I skimmed through large chunks of it. Satyajit Das was right in saying that it reads like a doctoral dissertation.

Still, what struck me were some of the similarities between Wall Street investment bankers and how the Singapore civil service governs the country. Perhaps because I had been reading Constructing Singapore concurrently that the similarities popped right out. The parallels may or may not be spurious though; I'll leave that up to the readers of this post to decide for themselves. 

First: Wall Street investment banks like to hire the best students from the best universities. Harvard and Princeton are the main hiring grounds, and potential hires are feted and treated like rock stars. Although I attended a relatively second tier institution in the United States during my time in university, even I felt the lure of the investment banks. All week during career week, students came walking out of the Glass Pavilion (an exhibition space in my school) carrying coveted swag from the banks.

Ho in her book postulates that the reason why Wall Street banks focus their hiring almost exclusively on the top universities is because they in effect leverage on the stellar reputation of top-tier universities to give themselves the sheen of prestige and extraordinary capability. That in turn helps to capture business. e.g. Goldman Sachs hires only the best students from Harvard. If you hire Goldman to represent your corporation, you've got the smartest guys in the room playing on your team.

It's not important that the people the investment banks hire really are individuals of the highest calibre. What's really the most important thing is that the perception that Wall Street investment banks hire only the best legitimizes why they can charge the astronomical fees they charge and how they can get away with the financial equivalent of murder when things fall apart. After all, if the smartest guys couldn't have saved the day, whocouldhaveknown???

In my mind, this doesn't seem so different from how the Singapore government insists on academic excellence in its highly credentialed acolytes, and has metrics like the infamous Current Estimated Potential. It's part of the reason why the government can make the boldfaced claim that we have to pay the highest ministerial salaries in the world to keep the good people we have in government, even if the actual performance of our ministers seems to be mediocre unremarkable. 

Second: In her book, Ho talks about the myth of "increasing shareholder value". It's like a religion to investment banker types. Everyone in investment banking drinks the Kool-aid and uses the shareholder value argument to justify all kinds of business actions, such as mergers and acquisitions, even though years of academic research have shown that M&As typically destroy more value than they create. But investment bankers can't just sit on their asses doing nuffin'. Got to git them fees rollin' in.

The irony of course, is that the more bankers talk about creating or increasing shareholder value, the less they actually improve it. The opposite is truer more often than not.

Within the Singapore context, the concept of shareholder value is obviously irrelevant. Instead, here, GDP growth is the overriding concern. And every civil servant in Singapore is subject to what I call the tyranny of KPIs.

With regard to GDP growth, the problem is not growth per se, but the quality and sustainability of that growth. What use is growth if it is goosed by massively unsustainable immigration policies, finanical repression (think forced savings, high residential property prices, and low interest rates paid on depositors' funds) and suppressed wages? Worse, the positive aspects of growth are not spread evenly but accrue to those at the top of the income ladder. Yet we reward our highest civil servants and elected officeholders chiefly on the basis of this number. Is it any wonder that we have achieved spectacular GDP growth, but that the fruit of this Pyrrhic victory is bitter indeed?

As for KPIs, the concept is not unsound in theory, but excessive adherence to KPIs blinds the user to other, less tangible measures of performance. If something cannot or will not be measured, then it can't be important, can it? One is reminded of that story of the man searching for his lost keys beneath the streetlamp on a darkened street.

Like the red herring of shareholder value that bankers put forth, we have ministers and CEOs and other high priests telling us that such and such KPIs have been met or even surpassed. That everything is going according to plan. Yet that fails to assuage the disquietude in so many of us, that there are things happening here which are viscerally wrong. Like income inequality. Housing (un)affordability. Rising costs and the fast fading possibility of a comfortable retirement. Or any retirement for that matter. Of how this Singapore ... this place, just doesn't feel like home anymore.

Third: The investment banking industry has notoriously low job security. Job turnover is tremendous. You would think that investment bankers, hired and fired so easily, would have some empathy for the massive numbers of layoffs they're directly responsible for when they advise their client companies to layoff and outsource operations to cheaper countries. Turns out to be the opposite, according to Ho's research. Apparently, it is precisely because bankers have to hustle all the time in their highly volatile industry that they have precious little sympathy for others who can't do the same. Not being able to scramble when the times call for it is considered by bankers to be a personal failing rather than an unfortunate consequence of circumstances.

The highest levels of government in Singapore operate the same way. It's dog-eat-dog within the Admin Service, as is well known, and everyone there aspires to be the top dog. As a purported meritocracy, it was designed that way. A fall from grace from that height would be ... crushing. As a corollary, our senior commanders in the SAF devote great amounts of energy feathering their own nests and constantly keep half an eye on that coveted ministerial, GLC or statboard position for post retirement.

In such a situation, the problems that ordinary people face become mere abstractions, to be described in clinical terms like "structural unemployment". The same sentiment underlies brazen, clueless and flippant exhortations of workers to work "cheaper, better, faster".

That the highest levels of our government are paid handsomely for their work could in fact, be part of the problem, and it's not just me saying this. Research from Harvard indicates that "The More Leaders Make, the Meaner They Get."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Coping with Public Transportation

The recent fare hike change to a distance-based charging formula for the public transportation system has upset quite a few people. Although I have not had the opportunity to check exactly how much my public transportation expenses have increased (I live a 5-minute walk away from my workplace), I am certain I am one of those negatively affected since I take mostly trunk services and avoid transfers like the plague.

This post isn't about me ranting about our ... flawed... public transportation system. I have commented on it previously here and in particular, "Why our public transportation system should be a cut above the rest.". I consider the latter to be one of the better posts I have written. 

This post is about me embracing my inner anti-establishment self, and exercising my engineer's creativity. 

In addition to being inherently anti-establishment, frankly, I'm disgusted with how a number of things are run in our country.

So I opt out. For instance, I've opted out of local media (don't watch TV and while I read the newspapers, I ignore the columnists and dispense with the entire paper in 15 minutes flat), and I tune out local events (like Formula 1 and YOG, *shudder*).

Unfortunately, as I don't drive, I can't opt out of public transportation. Much. And it's not like driving sets you completely free of "the system" either, what with satellite and GPS-based ERP on the horizon.

But there have to be some creative ways of opting out of public transportation at least partially right? Some way of coping with public transportation, so to speak?

Here are a few that I can think of:

1. Premium bus services. Heck, if you're going to pay more anyway, might as well get a premium product. More information on the LTA website

2. Park-n-ride. Only available to those who drive. Not very useful, I know. Still worth mentioning though. Again, see for details.

3. Free shuttle bus services, often associated with out-of-the-way shopping malls. The most complete list is probably here, though it has not been recently updated.

4. Cycle or run to work. You have to be the sporty type though; let's face it, our culture and our climate are not conducive to a casual city person's Velib type service. As for running, well, you have to be in reasonably good shape to actually commute by running. When I used to work on a semi-regular basis at MINDEF, I ran home from work about once a week, traversing the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve by using a variation of one of my regular routes. I would enter the forest via the Dairy Farm Road entrance and exit out via Jalan Kampung Chantek, then continue running on to home.  

5. Use a Segway. I've long fantasized about zipping past bumper-to-bumper road traffic during peak hours by segging (is that even a word?) along pedestrian pavements that run parallel to roads. Don't take this as literal advice though; I have no idea as to what the legality of using Segways on pedestrian pavements is in Singapore. Knowing our government, they would probably just as soon ban it as someone decides to do it.