Saturday, May 31, 2008

Now reading: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

I'm so starved of English books here, I went to Foyle's in London and looked for anything on sale. This was pretty cheap, 4 quid special price. Good reading so far, will have to see...

I'm thinking about getting a Kindle. I've seen a few good reviews of it, and frankly for me an electronic reader is probably best. I treat my books badly, travel frequently, like to re-read but don't really like the storage space they take up. Only thing is, will all the titles be available? And will I get used to reading off a screen? Part of my experience with screens is that it's awful hard to read outdoors, and turning up the brightness normally burns out the battery pretty fast. Whereas, well, a battered paperback can be read pretty much anywhere - except where it's dark, of course. Haha....

Limping to the finish line

It's been a tough week. Sigh... Full of strange requests, rushing between meetings, and too little time to complete my work. Damn it. I hate these kinds of weeks. And to make it all worse, I'm missing my baby...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

HDB Revises Flat Application Rules (part III of III)

Continuing parts I and II,

Against the hope that someone important reads these posts, let me put the constructive comments before all the vitriol below.

Who are those "with urgent housing needs" who HDB should be selling flats to? They are the couples married or getting married, planning to have children in less than five years. When you have thousands of such couples applying for flats, and none of them wanted any one of the 30% of flats available in a particular BTO, what does that tell you? It tells me that for some reason, those flats are not suitable. Too expensive, too far away, too small, etc.

Yes, they could compromise to have less than ideal flats, so by definition they are picky. But if you choose to define them as picky, and try to shoehorn them into your plans rather than catering to their needs, then you're going to get delayed marriages, delayed parenthood, less children than they might otherwise have had.

My suggestion is this : 70% of the Coral Spring flats were sold. 30% could find no buyers at the price. I'm sure it was no accident that this 30% were not selected. They must be overpriced, in the sense that all the remaining homeowners rejected them. Can they be priced lower? If the price is already "unreasonably" low, then these flats must be worth less than they cost to built. Should they not be built? If they must be built (maybe they're all the low floors, or all the afternoon sun units), then the prices of the entire block should reflect the losses that would be made on the low-value units. And if the HDB overestimated the value of those units - then like private sector organisations, it should decide if it's better to discount these units or hang on to them and absorb the loss.

Well those flats are subsidised, they're being built to help (more unfortunate) Singaporeans "with urgent housing needs". HDB should be allowed to tweak their rules anyway they want - you ungrateful twats! Right?

Well - point 1 - urgent housing needs. I'd previously browsed articles about people urgently seeking rentals. Can't easily find them again, but Google popped up at least one -

Every time they ask HDB about their rental, everyone says the same thing -
to wait. It has been almost two years now and there is still no news. I am
really sad to see them this way

Well, enough character assassination. Think about it - urgent housing needs. The implication is that the picky ones are getting in the way of those with "urgent housing needs" - a phrase which conjures up visions of people living on the street, who could get a home now that the picky ones are being purged. But if your BTO is 30% under-sold, there's nobody with urgent housing needs, at least not urgent enough to buy what you're trying to sell them. It's a silly way to justify the policy, to disguise it as a resource prioritization issue. What HDB is trying to do is to incentivise homeseekers to buy what HDB wants built, rather than what the homeseekers are looking for. The thinking might go something like this:

"Ooh. Unsold flats. Why don't they want to stay at these places? If enough people moved into these remote locales in these beautiful communities we have planned, then the demand for services would bring services to these communities and everyone would benefit! These silly people, so picky! They're spoiling our system! Making us look bad too, first so many applicants, makes it look like we didn't build enough. Then so many empty flats, as if what we offered is so unattractive! These picky people! How do I make them stop applying and then not buying flats?"

I'm sorry - in my idealized view of government, I would have thought that the approach should have been to find out why the BTOs were falling short of those homeseeker's expectations.

Or maybe they've asked already, and discovered that these picky people are just unrealistic buggers who expect cheap and good, and their expectations are unrealistic. You'll never meet their needs so get them out of the way. Well, if that's the case - then the implication is that the unsold flats ARE worth their price. Obviously all the people applying for HDB flats are too stupid to see that the flats are good bargains!


HDB revises flat application rules (part II of III)

Continuing the previous post,

Weren't the BTOs supposed to ensure that supply did not outstrip demand (and saddle HDB with unsold homes) (and on the side, cause a fall in housing prices that would anger existing home owners - hmm I wonder which is more important)?

The recent Coral Spring project, for instance, saw about 30% of flats not taken
up even after all applicants had been invited to book a flat.

So a question to self - if BTOs are 70% sold as reported there, then does it reflect that supply is outstripping demand? And how does that tally with 1000+ people still looking for flats and applying to the new BTO projects Compassvale Pearl and Punggol Sapphire?

It tallies. It tells me that the BTOs as HDB is building them is not meeting the needs of that bunch of people who rejected the flats and are still out there shopping. Rather than questioning the pickiness of the homeseekers, maybe the HDB should be asking questions like
"What are they looking for? Why are they so picky? Which 30% of the flats are not being sold? Maybe it's the low floors? Maybe it's the bigger flats? The smaller ones? Would it sell if we priced it lower? Would it sell if we made them bigger?"

If you tell me that the flats were eventually taken up after many applicants rejected them, sure, I'll agree that maybe those guys in front were picky, and the guys later got their homes in the end - after a longer wait then necessary. But when nobody wants the flats at all - maybe those guys aren't being picky. Maybe those flats really are lemons. I wouldn't know, I didn't apply - but if I had to guess from the available info I'd say, hell yes those flats must have been bad.

HDB Revises Flat Application Rules (part I of III)

Recent launches of Build-to-Order flats have seen an overwhelming number of applications, especially those in mature estates, leading to speculation that there is a shortage of new flats. But HDB said, on the contrary, the bulk of applicants often do not end up making a purchase.

Right. Let's see.
1) The policy change targets first-time applicants.
2) As of my writing this post, after applications opened on 22 May (day before in Singapore time), there are 1226 applicants for 1485 apartments in Compassvale Pearl and Punggol Sapphire. Presumably the demand will be comparable to previous times. I haven't applied for BTO in a while, but the last time I applied for mature estates flats, there were >10,000 applicants.
3) Presumably many of these applicants are first time applicants.
4) There are 1226 couples (mostly first-time? Maybe HDB has some stats they'd like to release to us) watching HDB's site like eagles, waiting for new sites. There will be more applicants, since the application closes on 5 June.
5) Ie, > 1,000 people queueing eagerly for a flat. No shortage? Right.
6) At this moment, another page of the HDB site shows 1691 flats for sale - 1485 under the BTO and the rest for bi-monthly sale. Ahh... 206 flats unsold, including 196 in the wonderful Jurong West locale. Of course there's no shortage.

There's no point talking about shortages versus those unsold flats. As one of those people looking for a flat, I can tell you - the prices of those JW flats are going to have to be much lower before people are going to want to buy them. Any househunter is going to look at a house and compare its value to him and the price he wants to pay for it. Rather than saying that those unsold flats (and the 30% in Coral Spring) reflect picky homeseekers, maybe HDB should look at those unsold flats and ask itself, why those flats can't be sold to 1000 over people looking for homes? Basically, value < price! And part of that crappy value includes things like : far out in the middle of nowhere; lack of facilities; far away from MRT station; 2nd floor above the !#$%^ hawker centre; surrounded by industrial factories; and the list goes on.

Even though JW is sooooo far away, I might move into a JW flat if it was sufficiently lowly-priced. If you have excess goods, slash the price!

Yes, I know the valuers give a price to the flat based on many factors, but if a valuer prices something at $x and no-one wants to buy it at that price, even with HDB subsidies, well that tells me the valuer is wrong!

Put it simply - there's a shortage of HDB flats which new owners find have a higher value than the price HDB is charging. There's a small glut of HDB flats in JW (and presumably the 30% in Coral Spring) which new owners find are lower value than the price HDB charges.

Put it another way - HDB is selling flats, and when it can't sell some of the lousier sets in its collection it calls buyers picky. So to force-sell those units, it's trying to scare first-time applicants that they'll lose their privileges if they reject some of the lousier, unwanted sets they offer up.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

More reasons to go to the gym

If you don’t work your muscles, they will atrophy, especially as you grow
older. Older people often fall because they are too weak to brace themselves,
and they have trouble with steps and opening jars because their muscles have
lost so much strength.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A follow up from my previous post

Very coincidentally, Errol Morris updates his blog yesterday sometime after I'd made my post. (Not the most probable thing, since his updates seem to be quite well-spaced-out). He's talking about how a photo from Abu Ghraib unfairly implicated (character-assassinated) one of the contractors/soldiers involved. She's seen smiling, posing with the body of a dead torture victim and we immediately assume that she's a sadist.

He interviews Paul Ekman (the facial expressions guy from Blink) on this:

“Horror,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the combination of disgust and terror. So I think “horror” is the right word. It’s a horrible sight, and it instills horror. And then you see, right next to that, someone having a good time. Most people will not realize that’s a “say cheese” smile. They’ll think, because of the broadness of the smile and the thumbs-up gesture, they’re having a good time. That’s what makes this a damning picture to the typical viewer.

I’ll add one more thing. When we see someone smile, it is almost irresistible that we smile back at them. Advertisers know that. That’s why they link products to smiling faces. And when we smile back, we begin to actually experience some enjoyment. So this photograph makes us complicit in enjoying the horrible. And that’s revolting to us.

So why it is such an upsetting photograph is not just because we see someone smiling in the context of the horrible, but that when we look at her, we begin to have to resist smiling ourselves. So it’s a terrible, terrible picture for that reason alone.

So going back to the issue of context which I'd mentioned in my earlier post, Errol Morris says:

Photographs reveal and they conceal. We know about al-Jamadi’s death because of
Sabrina Harman. Without her photographs, his death would likely have been
covered up by the C.I.A. and by the military. Yes, at first I believed that
Harman was complicit. I believed that she was implicated in al-Jamadi’s death. I
was wrong. I, too, was fooled by the smile.

It's an addition to what Yon had to say about photos, truth and context. The photo is fact, but like statistics, it's so damn easy to twist the fact into a false interpretation. Truth can only be obtained by investigation and reasoning, which we often hand over to the powers that be. The result? People wronged, and others who get away.

Monday, May 19, 2008

On perspectives, continuity and so on.

A couple of interesting posts which seemed to converge today.

First off, found an interesting blog by Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker. In this article, he writes about continuity errors - for instance, how a director can change the actors mid-movie and most people still wouldn't notice - and how that relates to the idea of narrative overriding evidence, change blindness, and the documentary he made which helped free a wrongfully imprisoned man. Through the piece, he moves from philosophical quotes like:

If the world ceased to exist for 2/3 of a second would we fail to

to cute facts like:

Everyone knows the most famous line from the movie “Casablanca” isn’t a line in
the movie “Casablanca.” When Ilsa enters Rick’s CafĂ© Americain, she says to Sam,
“Play it, Sam.” But everyone remembers, “Play it again, Sam.” So why does
everyone remember the line incorrectly? I have a simple theory. Because the
additional word “again,” clearly captures that something is being repeated,
something is being re-enacted.

It's funny that he uses the idea of an orange at the end to give an example of image vs perception vs consciousness, and in his earlier post focusing on the documentary of the innocent man, says

The engine of uncovering truth is not some special lens or even the unadorned
human eye; it is unadorned human reason.
Because Jim Cowen's Spade of Reason (my favorite short story) uses the example of an orange to illustrate how we make models in our head as well.

The second post is from Michael Yon, who's castigating Michael Moore (and others) for using a rather famous photo taken by Yon (to him, a true thing) to illegally (because Yon owns the copyright) convey falsehoods. I still have not watched any of Moore's works (not even Columbine) and haven't really formed an opinion, but Yon was fairly critical of Moore even outside his use of the photo - which given my currently fairly high opinion of Yon, doesn't reflect too well on Moore.

But that's not the point. The point is that idea of truth - the engine of truth is reason, according to Morris, and when you apply that to Yon's post, you get a rather more nuanced version of Yon's reasoning. Which is, the photo is "true", not because it is a statement of fact ( a photo is just a capture of a particular perspective of a scene - fact, perhaps, but not truth), but because when Yon shared it with the world, the context was fully disclosed - at least as far as was possible (which I will not discuss further, because the examples I give could offend). And in Yon's view, when Moore puts it into a different context, the implication, the reasoning that follows draws a false link (and Moore should know that this is false) between the death and the politicians in the same poster.

The Relativity of Wrong

One of the two things I always clearly remember Glen Davis (pastor of our campus cell group at Stanford) teaching was, that there are different degrees of wrong, and that believing the world is a sphere is less wrong than believing the earth is flat. It's a quote that really makes sense to me, and a principle that has helped me in a lot of my thinking.

Today, I discovered that the quote is from Isaac Asimov's essay on "The Relativity of Wrong". I'm a big fan of Asimov's short fiction, so this just awes me totally.

Even crazier is how I discovered this, going from Gobwin Knob to Xyzzy to Asimov. Strange paths to true things.

(The second thing I remember very clearly is that Christians have five duties... )

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Some pictures out of Paris

Most of the pics were in KeY's camera of course (the camera I'm using now is much worse than hers, and getting a new camera is not on the list of financial priorities), but here's a couple from mine.

Us in front of Notre Dame. KeY's first time in Paris, and so I brought her around to see all the sights. Should really have stuck in the Latin Quarter just across the bridge from here, she would probably have enjoyed that more than traipsing around half of Paris.

We queued for maybe 45 min waiting to go up. Walked out on to the landing, and it was just a little underwhelming, especially when we've been up so many peak views, and they do tend to look the same after a while. (Honestly, I think The Peak in HK is the best of those I've seen so far. Easily the most recognisable as well. Probably because there's only one side to really look at) But we were a bit lucky, just as we were thinking "Nothing special", the tower erupted in lights. If we'd arrived just a bit later or somewhat earlier we would have missed it entirely... :>

Sunday street party

Serendipity! (the show? Or those little villages in Civilization?) We came across some kind of street carnival while we were looking for lunch... We'd heard about this restaurant called Tanah Merah and wanted to take a look, but it's closed on Sundays, oops. Photo of signboard to follow, but if you happen to want to go, it 9 rue de Clos, Geneva.

But along the way, we walked past a really happening street party at the Eaux Vives, complete with rappers at one end, dancers at the other end, lots of amateur street stalls (I know they're amatuer because (a) they don't all have shelters and (b) quite a few involve teenagers and pre-teens selling PS2 games and trading Pokemon cards) and a wonderful crowd.

Some photos to accompany soon of an outdoor rock-climbing wall for the kids. Looks really attractive, what do you think it would take to set something like this up in Singapore?

Here's the back, notice that the belaying is automatic, probably some kind of fixed-rate-release. It seems like a simple enough setup, and given swiss standards is likely quite safe as well.

Saving for the future...

I've been falling behind my savings targets for a bit.. Adding to the stuff I have little by little, eating at swankier places, taking more taxis, and so on.

And of course, when KeY asked me about how much she should be saving after she just started work, I remembered the advice I had received in the interim, and said that she should just work out her spending patterns before deciding how much to save.

Today, we decided to try a savings target for the next 6 months. We're going to see if we can achieve it, inclusive of holidays, gifts, etc. Might be a bit more difficult, as we're quite used to certain spending habits. But then again, it might be easier than we think. No matter what, its definitely time that we started being disciplined in saving for the future.

On the same note: an interesting NYtimes article on Five Basics for Building a Solid Financial Future appeared today.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Teach for Singapore?

NYTimes has a very short editorial on the Teach for America programme and its success in raising the performance of students. Apparently

These teachers, many of whom come from elite colleges, commit to two years’ teaching. Besides their salaries, they receive modest federal grants and the right to defer loan payments while teaching.

Critics have challenged the program’s usefulness, pointing out that the teachers it places are neophytes and that a majority leave the classroom after two years. But the new study suggests that talented young people can have a lasting effect even if they do not make a career of teaching.

Seems like this could be an interesting program. What are the kinds of schools/graduates you could consider, though? NUS/NTU/SMU? Overseas programs? Scholars? Interesting thoughts here. So, research time: internet first, and the yields are - discouraging..

Start with the Wiki as a summary

What Is Teach for America Really Like?

Why Teach for America (NY Times again - some positive anecdotes, also comments that the teachers really are not prepared.)

Scary (for would-be teachers)
Two Teach For America Recruits Share Their Stories

(Unbelievably negative)
How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million
(but it doesn't really blame TFA, seems to blame the school system)

But I'd like to think the our school systems aren't that bad, so something TFA-like could be helpful. Something to think about...

Mirror's Edge trailer: Assassin's Creed / Urban Running?

First time I'm hearing about the game, but the trailer looks and sounds great!

I also saw a MadWorld trailer.. but that's not cool to put on this site, in case my nieces somehow end up here. I mean, like the guy stuffed a stop sign through his head!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Graffiti, writ big, and with purpose

Great animation!

The importance of soundproofing in hotels

I was waiting for my colleague to open his room door - we were going for dinner. Off to one side, I could hear the sound of a kid crying and sobbing away. Quite creepy, especially as it went on, because it didn't really sound like a full-throated cry, and was rather rhythmic. In my mind, I was already thinking, ghost?

But after listening a while longer (since my colleague took a while to reach the door), I concluded that it wasn't crying. Quite embarrassing,no?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gamer at heart

Seeing so many new games I want to play coming out. Boom Blox, GTA 4, Left 4 Dead... Trailer makes me feel like I need to get multiple TVs and consoles in the house to play in coop mode!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Love is..

Cool, funny laid back comic at Three Panel Soul.

Love is giving someone the power to hurt you terribly.... and hoping they don't. And we never trust anyone as easily as we did the first time.
If that's the case, it still feels like the first time.. Strange...


non-phone freak Zim is thinking about an iPhone! Phones are not one of the gadgets that I have genearlly obsessed over - before my current S-E K800, none of my phones had ever had cameras, mp3, or even polyphonic tones. And one phone before that, I had never even had a colour display.

Now I'm contemplating an iPhone, and I'm not quite sure why. Especially since I won't be able to blind-sms anymore, and that's one of the things I really like to do.

And you know what? iPhone is coming to Singtel.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Preventing injury - core muscle strength, balance, coordination

Interesting NYTimes article about sports injuries to women...

The injury rate among amateur sports players (read - weekend warriors) is quite phenomenal too. I mean, I dunno stats but there are always people out with injury. Some of it is due to insufficient rest / rehab after prior injuries, but this is quite interesting.

To quote:
These were elite players, but from one end of the field to the other, Silvers pointed out girls she judged to have insufficient core muscle strength, balance or overall coordination to play safely. Their movement patterns put their knees — and probably their ankles, hips and backs — at risk.

I'm thinking, this would probably be the only thing that could drag me to gym - how to improve core muscle strength. Googling doesn't seem to reveal anything useful, as many of the articles emphasise doing particular exercises (eg the lunge) accurately - something I guess you'd need a professional for.


Last week KeY and I visited a museum in Annecy which had a display of monsters and chimeras - some really really strange creatures (the weirdest include a mongoose with a snake for a tail, a beaver that had a long, long ,long , flexible mouth, and a bird that had a tortoise shell. Like huge. encapsulating its main body. Really!)

I didn't think it was real, more like a joke played on the stupid visitors who can't speak french - then again, there was a platypus on display too... and I know how I'd react if you'd shown me an animal like that without background. It's either "Fraud!" or "Alchemy Transmutation!" (yes I'm a geek)

Today I'm feeling a bit less certain... After reading an article about the platypus, and one about a 26-foot 1000lb colossal (not giant) squid.

Maybe some of these things were real after all...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cabdriver Thanked for Returning a Stradivarius

This kind of story just puts a smile on your face, a hop in your step, and renews your faith in humanity.

Simple things - an act of honesty, gratitude given with an artist's skill, music that can be enjoyed by anyone, and an act of kindness.

Happy... :>

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gone again...

But still, her fragrance lingers in the bedsheets...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Ready to marry, but only if they can find their own homes

There's apparently a TODAY report on this.. sigh..

Friday, May 02, 2008

Sour experience at Easyjet

Just booked a flight to London. It's a bit strange, how Easyjet claims that the fare is everything in, but then afterward there are so many charges... leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Hold luggage charges, charges for using a credit card (damn I need a Visa Electron), etc etc. Swissair would have been cheaper except that
(a) Swissair had this massive fuel surcharge that was like half the total airfare.
(b) I had the option not to bring hold luggage on Easyjet.
Right. No more easyjet...

I wonder how Easyjet is coping with the cost of fuel. Tomi Ahonen at the Communities Dominate Brands blog has been talking about his budget airline canaries dying...

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A sunny labour day in Geneva

Where I watched enviously as people whizzed by on blades, and in the clouds I saw dogs playing tag and dragons breathing fire...
6 hours to go.


We lost.
I've always said that life as a Liverpool fan is fraught with anxiety, and this was another one of those days. From 1-0 down, to that beautiful Torres equaliser, then to 3-1 down... After that fateful Champions League final, we believe our team can come back from anything... You think that Reina can surely save the penalty. Then you think that Babel's goal is magnificent... and you hope...

Which sets you up for a devastating, devastating fall.
Damn. We lost...