Friday, 29 August 2008

Show and Tell

ComexSingapore hosts 4 consumer electronics events a year; the IT Show (March), PC Show (June), COMEX (August) and SITEX (November).

This week it's COMEX and as for all the shows, it runs Thursday through Sunday. I usually try to go on opening day to avoid the crowds. It works to some extent or maybe you just end up attending with the other people who can choose to avoid the Saturday and Sunday crush.

I've been to all of them now and they are all the same. Same 3 floors of Suntec, same escalator madness, same Sony stand on level 3, same big names on level 4 and same smaller companies on level 6.

This time I was in the market for a big hard disk drive. At the PC Show in June, the best deal was a 3 interface (USB, Firewire, eSATA) 1TB for S$349 (£134). At COMEX, the same item is S$249 (£96), and you could get the same drive in a USB 2.0-only enclosure for S$199 (£76). I whipped out the plastic NETS card.

It's analagous to Moore's Law, which strictly relates to number of transistors on a chip doubling every 24 months but is nowadays quoted for many measures of technical advance including the effective price-per-megabyte of disk storage. In this case, the 29% drop in 2 months is because the manufacturer is likely clearing stock ahead of the next product cycle.

I only go to the shows because the retailers hold back stock specifically to have show sales. Some Sim Lim stores ran dry of drives ahead of the PC Show. After the show, many of the advertised deals are achievable with regular bargaining but the shows work mostly on sticker pricing so it may be less work.

Otherwise I wouldn't bother. Too crowded. Too much tat being hawked as quality gear. There was one stand, I don't know what they were selling, international dialing cards perhaps, that stuck me a having a uniquely simple sales pitch. They had two ridiculously pretty booth girls in micro-skirts handing out leaflets (not answering questions, just leaflets) under a sign reading "Sign up today, get free stuff".

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Jamaica Takes the Biscuit

O-RingsApparently, the 2008 Beijing games are over. The only reason I know is that the the Today paper is reporting on a Chinese psychologist who believes the home country's sports fans are suffering "feelings of loss, worrying about work and generally feeling sluggish", also "feeling lost and prone to whining".

I hear the whining alright. "Xinhua did not provide any figures for the extent of the problem." Oh Okay, a make it up as you go along story that allows them to invent "Olympic Syndrome".

All of which is a shame as actually the mathematics of the games is more interesting. Freakonomics calculates that Jamaica tops the medal table based on its 2.2 gold medals per million inhabitants. Second place on this table is Bahrain with Rashid Ramzi’s victory in the 1,500-meter race giving them both their first-ever gold medal and a per capita rate of 1.4 gold medals per million. Which puts Singapore's one silver for 4.5m people into perspective.

Singapore is now struggling with the aftermath of their medal win. There's a local scandal about how one of the coaches was summarily sacked by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (the President is my MP). The association claims the decision was made before the games, but others claim it was because one of the team was left to play a match un-coached.

The dash to cash continues with the Singapore Sailing Association saying it needs $10m to $12m to prepare for the next games while others point out that if table tennis suits the Asian physique, then why not put tables in every void deck. Perhaps they need some mathematicians to calculate their odds against how many tables are already in China right now. You'd be better off putting the money into a prize fund to attract top-ranked players willing to take Singaporean nationality.

So there you have it. Mass depression, statistics and money. And I thought the Olympics was about individual achievement.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Groucho wouldn't buy an iPhone

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerIt appears I am more rational than my fellow Singaporeans. We are at Day-2 of iPhone availability from SingTel and I'm thinking it's not a club I want to join.

The latest e-mail from SingTel avoided previous faux pas and was text, not an enormous graphic. It was also spam trapped so I didn't even see it for 24 hours. It briefly describes the pricing plans and tariffs that we already know and invites me to book an appointment. This morning, SingTel's website carries the following advice:

Please come on and not before your allocated time. You must have an appointment to pick up your iPhone 3G. Only people with appointments will be able to collect an iPhone. You must be the account holder to collect your iPhone. Please bring with you your ID and your confirmation receipts/emails. Please be prepared for a 2 to 4 hour wait.

So let me get this straight. I have to book an appointment, and I must keep the appointment, but then SingTel will keep me waiting for 2 - 4 hours? At least the queue seems to be real customers. The Polish iPhone launch by Orange has been caught out hiring actors to create fake queues in front of 20 stores to generate a marketing buzz. At least in Singapore, the queue seemed to be genuine with the first buyer waiting 24 hours in line in the tent erected in front of CommCenter.

What continues to puzzle me is the ridiculously low data caps. It's a "3G" iPhone. Its main claim to fame is the increased speed of data download, otherwise it's essentially the same as the 2G (Ok, they did add GPS). If I chose the basic iFlexi tariff, I get 1GB of bundled data. SingTel don't give the overage charge on their website, so I called Customer Services on 1626 and after a hugely irritating message about iPhone delays, repeated in Mandarin, and 3 voice prompts later, I was queued then quickly talking to an efficient and well spoken Indian man.

The overage charge (the amount I pay for data beyond the 1GB) is 0.5 cents per kilo byte. So if I use 2GB of data in a month, I have to pay for the extra 1GB: (0.005 * 1024 * 1024 ) = S$5,242 (£2,011). It's no wonder there is already an online petition about the niggardly data caps.

To his credit, the CSO pointed that for "people who want to use a lot of data", they are better off choosing one of the normal SingTel tariffs and adding a 50GB mobile data plan on (on offer for 30% off). Funny, they don't mention that in the FAQ.

Just wait until you see the fine print. Calling Line Id is free (footnote: for 3 months only). Auto roaming is free (footnote: for 3 months only). Voice mail is free (footnote: for 12 months only). Incoming calls are free (footnote: until Dec 2010 only). Am I the only one who thinks this is borderline bait'n'switch?

You may be wondering are there any phones out there as good as the iPhone? The Samsung Omnia i900 is often mentioned. I tried one at the CommunicAsia show a few months back. Don't bother, it's rubbish. Sure it looks nice but it runs on Windows Mobile with some custom applications so it's schizophrenic, switching between an iPhone-esque touch interface and the underlying Windows madness. I was left dazed after trying to use it for 5 minutes.

I guess my problem is that I don't do Hype. The iPhone is nice and I'm willing to pay for one, but I hate the bullying marketing antics of mobile operators, the oppressive lock in contracts and the scary small print. I reckon StarHub and M1 will have better data tariffs later this year. And perhaps the final realisation is that I no longer want to be associated with the people who are buying iPhones. Groucho Marx would understand.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

iPhone Kills Baby Seals

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerSingTel have stopped sending me e-mails about the iPhone launch; actually it turns out that they are initially targeting existing SingTel customers and I don't have any accounts with them. So only 2 days from the first sale, I have to read in the newspaper about the state of the promotion; only sales to pre-registered buyers for at least the first few days.

So I hot foot over to the SingTel website. Nada. You click around in an increasingly desperate search for any news or even mention of the device. In a sure sign of insanity, you even click on links you've already checked in the forlorn hope the result will be different. It turns out you need to go to the iPhone page, which finally shows the price plans.

SingTel have created special iPhone plans called iFlexi (yes, 2 'i's) plans, all 2 year contracts, assuming the 16GB model:

iFlexi Value: S$508 down, then S$56pm, 200 minutes, 500 SMS, 1GB data.
Total = $1852 (£704) over 2yrs

iFlexi Plus: S$208 down, then S$95pm, 500 minutes, 500 SMS, 2GB data.
Total = $2488 (£984) over 2yrs

iFlexi Premium: S$0 down, then S$205pm, 1500 minutes, 1500 SMS, 3GB data.
Total = $4920 (£1871) over 2yrs

Actually, it's more complicated than that, and there is a very detailed FAQ page just for the iPhone. But still, my immediate reaction is No Way.

First, anyone who spends £900 a year on a phone is mad. Secondly, the data caps are pathetically ungenerous; my M1 3G broadband account is S$22pm (£8.30) with no data cap; None; Unlimited. SingTel do the same deal but with a 50GB data cap. To put this in perspective, my domestic broadband usage is about 15GB per month (~14GB downstream and 1GB upstream). So a phone with a 1GB data cap is only 2 days of my normal broadband use. Clearly, this is no substitute for a home broadband connection (even if Apple would allow tethering, which they don't). So I'll have to keep my M1 mobile broadband account as well.

I have a couple of days to decide. I make few calls (probably less than 15mins a month) because I tend to use landlines for outgoing calls. I do use SMS, increasingly so. It's a convenient way to have a conversation in slow-time. Maybe they are in a meeting, or I am. I use it like e-mail for short, non-urgent discussions. But I still only send maybe 30 or 40 a month, tops.

So out of these choices, I'd take the first one (where I effectively buy the phone at cost) and then keep my monthly subscriptions from bankrupting me over the next 2 years.

Or I might wait it out and see what StarHub and M1 offer at the end of the year. I've already waited over a year for the 3G version. Another couple of months won't make any difference. It bemuses me that most buyers of the phone will not make such a calculated or patient purchase decision, which is one reason why Apple's market capitalisation has just past Google's

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Singlish WOTD: Boleh

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Boleh

Defn: Can do, it's possible

From Malay.

Monday, 18 August 2008

No Silver Lining

O-RingsThe country of Singapore won a silver medal in the team table-tennis event and thus ended the perceived 48 year drought of Olympic plaudits. They lost 3-0 to China in the final.

The Prime Minister postponed the English language version of the annual national day speech to Monday apparently to adjust the timing with respect to Olympic broadcasts. You can just imagine the nationalistic, flag-wrapping frenzy that the medal win has caused. The team's future is assured and there are already talks of using the success as a springboard to further focused effort into development of top sports stars.

I was around someone's house last Thursday and when dinner was served, they turned the TV on and arranged the salad so as not to obstruct the view. It was the first Olympic TV I'd seen and the news was Federer losing. I was just surprised that lawn tennis was even an Olympic sport.

One wrinkle is that the 3 winning (losing?) team members are naturalised Singaporeans; all were born in China. The long history of passport athletes (Zola Budd anyone?) is now an accepted practise but it goes to the heart of what I dislike about the modern Olympics. It's right up there with medal league tables sorted by country, commercial sponsorship and ridiculous, equipment-based sports.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

F1 Circus

Checkered FlagSingapore hosts a round of the 2008 F1 GP Championship on the 26th September. The backstory is that Malaysia built a new F1 circuit, Sepang F1, a few miles north of K.L. and hosted its first F1 race in 1999. Its one claim to fame is that is the only circuit with the protected trademark "F1" in the name. Sepang is the place name (of the former swamp).

Singapore is never out-gunned within its local region and as a matter of prestige and income, decided to have an F1 race. The crushing lack of land space forced it to be a street circuit (like Monaco and Montreal) around the Marina Bay roads. Singapore last ran an F1 race back in 1973; this 61-lap race is one of only three anti-clockwise circuits on the current tour and uniquely, the first F1 race run at night under floodlights.

The circuit is downtown and actually runs underneath the bay grandstand that hosted the NDP-08 show. The cheapest ticket for the Bay Grandstand was S$248 (£93), although this prime location is sold out. The official website is showing 92% of tickets sold at the beginning of June and 93% sold at the current time.

The initial flurry of activity (and perhaps enthusiasm) have waned somewhat. The inevitable feeding frenzy and blatant profiteering of hotels with over-looking rooms has settled a little and overall, the Times ran a piece in June about the continued availability of rooms for the event. SingTel quickly snapped up the prime sponsorship prize and have their own fancy website including a competition to select the grid girls.

I've attended a GP race, actually at the Sepang circuit, and while it was an interesting and memorable experience, I have no desire to repeat it. First, you medically require ear plugs to avoid hearing damage. Second, a static track-side view is the worst as you see each car for 4secs out of every 50secs. You need a portable TV to get the live overview or at least a radio with headphones. Malaysia in August was also Hot, +35degC and despite a hat and even a sarong as sunscreen, I was sunburnt through the material. It was also crowded with congested roads and amateur arm-wavers hired for the day to impose leadership on tired and irritable visitors.

So I have to balance nationalistic oneupmanship, greedy hoteliers, girl-next-door beauty pageants, deafening noise, the £100 a head cost and the inevitable overcrowding against seeing that Hamilton chap do amazing things. Hmmm, nah, I'll catch the result the following day on the RSS news feeds thankyouverymuch.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Singapore Does God

Creation of AdamUnlike Tony Blair's press secretary who cut famously short a questioner who asked if the Prime Minister's (Catholic) religion influenced his political decisions, Singapore does do God, in increasing numbers.

In 2000, 14.6% of Singaporeans claimed to be Christians, up from 12.7% a decade before. Taoist numbers are falling fast. In 1980, 30% of Singaporeans said they were Taoists, by 1990 it down to 22.4% and just 8.5% in 2000.

In terms of apostasy, Buddhists are holding strong with more than 80% who were born Buddhist staying Buddhist. The survey also claimed it is the fastest growing religion, although I don't immediately see the data for that claim. It does say Buddhism is the top choice among those in search of spirituality, gaining converts among those seeking "time out" from stressed lives. I can believe this: practical life management rather than preachy moral guidance.

If we assume the Muslim population of Singapore is stable (they take a very dim view of apostasy indeed), and Indians similarly, then all this religious chair hopping is going on in the Chinese community.

"There's a leakage from traditional Chinese religions, which don't seem to have the same appeal to younger people,"

according to National University of Singapore sociologist Alexius Pereira.

"Three-quarters of those queried who abandoned Taoism said they felt disconnected to the religion or perceived a "lack of meaning" in following it".

A strong, evangelical Christian attitude is often encountered with Chinese Singaporeans. It's not oppressive, but it has the heart-felt fervour of someone who decided their faith rather than inherited it by default so caution is required. Whether it's invites to parties (that turn out to be Church events), conversations on stock market investments (prayers to lift a sagging stock price), talking about illnesses (group prayer is offered with follow-up offers to join a bible study group), changing jobs (prayers for guidance) or anything sexual (where the good old standbys of gays & lesbians are dangerous topics).

Catholics and Protestants are split 1 third / 2 thirds. There's a Christian (Mormon) seminary near Novena MRT and you often see neat, polite and earnest young men wearing the uniform black trousers, white shirt and sensible tie on their way back to the dormitories at Woodlands. Mostly Americans with a refreshingly unabashed attitude to speaking to strangers on the train, something locals never, ever, ever do.

My favourite God conversation so far was with a near neighbour (Chinese) who declared she was "Catholic. Not Christian, Catholic.". It's somehow reassuring that in adopting Christian beliefs, locals have digested the full-fat version complete with inter-denominational prejudice and two millennia of schism.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Broadband Hustle

M1 LogoWhen it comes to marketing broadband services, there is no such thing as coincidence. Singapore has a few mobile phone carriers (SingTel, M1, StarHub) and broadband carriers (SingNet, StarHub, Pacific Internet). Now M1 is moving into fixed broadband by re-selling service based on StarHub's cable network.

It's an arrangement familiar in England where BT's OpenReach wholesales aDSL service to many ISPs, including themselves. StarHub will charge $35.71 (£13.27) a month to M1 who will then sell broadband service for up to S$88.50 pm (£32.89).

The wider story is that StarHub and M1 are in one of the two consortiums bidding for the NGNBN (new national fiber network) that is due to be announced any time, although an insider has already tipped it will go to the SingTel consortium.

The non-coincidence is that out of the blue, the Merlion household was cold-called by our existing broadband supplier, StarHub. We have been with them since we arrived 22months ago and have been contract free since the end of the first year. We pay S$59.80 (£22) for an 8Mbps/256kbps service that is Okay.

Given the choice, I'd change to SingNet on aDSL because Starhub do traffic shaping at busy hours. Trying to download (not watch, just download) YouTube videos on a Sunday night just fails, and slows to a crawl during evenings generally. SingNet have a better backend network and indeed use it to stream realtime video for their Mio (said Mee Oh) video on demand (VOD) service.

So when StarHub call and offer 25% off for a 2 year lock-in, I declined faster than a scalded cat. I hate lock-ins and, as is common with most of these deals, the cost to breakout of the deal is to pay the entire outstanding balance up to the end of the lock-in contract.

I haven't moved to SingNet for exactly the same reason. Only their entry level 512kbps aDSL has a 1 year contract term. All the faster plans are 2 years with the usual full penalty breakout. No deal.

The problem is freebies. If I commit to 30months with StarHub, I could get a 'free' laptop. Two years with SingNet gets me mobile discounts or whatever the offer is this month. I can't get a freebie-less deal without the term lock-in because the local market is saturated and stopping subscribers jumping ship at the first whiff of a better deal elsewhere is the main preoccupation of the marketing departments.

This also explains the horrible websites of these providers, especially SingTel [Ed: just re-vamped so looks nice but functionally similar] that, as you may now realise, are not there to inform, but to sell. I go looking for facts and get gypsy carnival style bait'n'switch showmanship. Just read the tiny footnotes if you doubt me.

Singaporeans are mercenary consumers who consider it a statutory obligation to change suppliers to get a better deal and publicly congratulate themselves on their savvy. Most change mobiles every 12 months. In my case, I stay with StarHub not because I'm locked in but because I am not. Lacking clarity of my tenure here in Singapore, I just sit on a contract-free, traffic-shaped StarHub line, paying a little more each month. As they say, Freedom isn't Free.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Singapore gets the iPhone

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerHaving complained only days ago of e-mails from SingTel that consist solely of a single graphic image with no text, I can now report they have been listening. Yesterday's update e-mail, reporting that the iPhone will be on sale in Singapore on the 22nd August contains neither text nor graphics.

Unburdened by such e-mail trivialities as a message body, I can reproduce it here in its full and glorious terseness:

From: iphone@singtel.com
Subject: It's coming on 22 August 2008!
Date: 12 August 2008 17:44:58 SST
To: [redacted]
Reply-To: iphone@singtel.com

The popular & technical press have more coverage but still no indication of pricing although the word is that it will be subsidised so cheaper at the start, but more $ per month.

The other carriers (M1, Starhub) claim they will be offering the gadget before year end so SingTel had better think hard before trying to gouge the early-birds. I'll just pass and buy an unlocked phone in Hong Kong if they get greedy.

Shock Reversal of Fortune

Singapore FlyerThe Flyer, Singapore's answer to big wheels everywhere has been put in reverse by a bevy of Feng Shui masters who approached the operators of the Flyer to ask that it turn the other way.

The Flyer originally revolved so that it rose to face the business district and went down overlooking the sea. The geomancers argued this was taking good fortune away from the city and have convinced the wheel's management to reverse the rotation as it sits on the perfect site to pick up the good qi (energy) flowing into Singapore, but it was going in the wrong direction. The Flyer was going against the sun and taking fortune away from Singapore.

Flyers now experience a view starting with the beaches and housing estates in the east and culminates with a vista of the business centre.

The AP article dryly notes that "despite being a modern city, Singapore is a largely ethnic Chinese nation, where traditions still hold sway". No kidding. I suppose we should feel lucky they didn't ask to be moved to the left by 6 feet.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

iPhone Marketing

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerMy pre-order of an iPhone from SingTel is moving along. They sent me an update e-mail the other day. Well, I say e-mail, there was no text, just a single, stupid graphic file as an attachment which just throws petrol on the fire of my disdain for SingTel's marketing prowess.

Their website is such a cacophony of offers, special offers, circular links and footnotes it's about as useful as taking LSD and discussing astrophysics with Paris Hilton. Anyway, the non-email:

iPhone 3G coming soon

Hello,
First, SingTel brought you the best in coverage. [sic] And now we bring you the Apple iPhone 3G.

We know you're keen to hear more, this is just a quick note to say that we have not forgotten about you.

As you are registered, we will let you know very soon how you can be the first in line to collect your new iPhone!

We will give priority to customers who have registered, at this stage registration is still open but we may not be able to keep this open much longer.

If you have friends who may be interested, they can register now at www.singtel.com/iphone

I will email you next week with more details about how you can get ready for your new iPhone.

Like you, I can't wait to get mine. Watch this space!

With best regards
Wong Soon Nam
Vice President - Consumer Marketing

From this I understand that this veep is fond of exclamation marks and is getting his iPhone first while the rest of us are all somehow going to be "first in line". Still no pricing (I'm expecting over S$1,000 (£372) for the 16GB model) or launch date. I guess I just keep watching out for more such e-mail misuse.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Beijing 08

O-RingsFor reasons that make me sound particularly curmudgeonly, I don't pay any attention to the Olympics. It's nothing to do with China, I haven't watched any games since at least Barcelona (1992) or perhaps Seoul (1988). It's a shame because I applaud the individual sporting excellence but cannot abide the rampant nationalism and commercialism. Thus, my knowledge so far of the Beijing games is limited to the terrorism, crime and ridiculous re-education of the populace stories.

Singapore have a small team (26 Olympians) at the games and have declared they expect to win 1 medal, which is either over or under ambitious, depending upon your perspective. Singapore has yet to win a gold in any games with Howe-Liang Tan's silver in the 77kg weightlifting at the 1960 Rome Games the country's only Olympic medal to date. Table tennis star Li Jia-Wei, placed fourth in Athens, is the top local medal prospect.

If underdogs are your thing, you could try rooting for the countries with only one athlete such as the Republic of Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation at only 8.1 square miles. It is located northeast of Australia in the Micronesian South Pacific. Their sole Olympic participant is Itte Detenamo in the weightlifting competition. Go Nauru!

Sunday, 10 August 2008

NDP 08

NDP 08I wasn't mad keen to go the the National Day Parade 2008. I had an offer of 2 tickets for myself and the Merlioness but she had other commitments and the real fun from such events is the snipping cynical chit-chat with a soul-mate. Going alone sounded like a barrel of laughs without the laughs. What tipped the decision was when I mentioned I might go and the locals reacted with amazement that I had manage to chope tickets (where was I getting them from?); it's a lottery, literally. You apply in advance and only a few get tickets, which are then valuable and can be (illegally) traded or sold on eBay. That was it; in the interests of investigative journalism, I had to go.

The NDP is a stage show at Marina Bay (where the Merlion is). A fixed seating stand looking out into the bay with a huge floating pontoon as the stage. Since the show includes a major firework show and the event is pitched as a national birthday party, the whole downtown area becomes one big party and is the most crowded it ever gets. I was warned that getting away at the end would be difficult and that security would be tight.

Undeterred, I turned up reasonably on-time (you were asked to be seated at 4:45pm) but the huge queues, poor signage for ticket holders and then a full baggage X-ray and magnetic pat-down made entry to the stands a +20min trudge with some less-than good natured sharp elbowing from the 5' 2" Chinese grannies (I was shoved off the path at one point as she caught my natural shift of weight in a move that would have drawn praise from a Judo sensei). No canned drinks allowed in and the tickets said not to bring big bags as they would slow down inspection.

You were also encouraged to wear red so you get whatever red T-shirt people have in their closet. Ex McDonalds uniforms, corporate events, and some made for the event. One chap had "Jesus is here, all of the time" which was neatly balanced by the lady 2 rows in front of me who just had "Satan" written on the back. We all ended up wearing red anyway because 15mins in, it started to drizzle, persistently and sooner or later, everyone was wearing the thin, red, plastic disposable rain cape from the free goodie bag.

It was free seating and as I was at the tail end, I was high up at the back (a better location in my opinion). Stage has huge video screens and music and odd videos were already playing to keep the crowd amused. I pulled out the iPod and a book.

The show started, literally, with a few fire bangs and the 5 MC's dressed in bright, individual coloured jump suits arrived at the front by quad-bike. All the MCs throughout spoke only English and tried to get the lacklustre crowd going with sectored cheering contests. I swear we were only a hair-breadth away from "Give us an S!".

Entry included a sponsored Goodie bag and this was a good time for a rummage; I was thirsty. Full inventory was:

An outer paper carrier bag with shoulder strap and inner pocket with postcard. Inner nylon bag containing:
Carton of Isotonic drink.
Carton of Soya milk.
Plastic bottle of Newater.
Bag of Hot & Spicy Prawn Crackers.
Bag of Cracker Crunch mixed nuts.
Halls Mini Mints (2of).
Baseball cap, white/red with NDP08 logo and battery plus flashing stars lights.
Inflatable hand glove (with battery and lights).
Singapore flag (8x6") on short stick with detachable desk stand.
100-page discount coupon book.
Temporary tattoos (Singapore flag, "Shine Singapore", and 2 lines of stars).
Plastic rain cape.
Packet of tissues.
Packet of Wet wipes.
Bottle of AXE brand universal oil (for colds and headaches).
Magnetic bookmark / fridge magnet (with instructions for flattening Tetrapak cartons on the back)
1 White paper clip.
1 Red paper clip.
Plastic rubbish bag
Lucky Draw Ticket for "Bag It to Win It"

At this point, the MCs asked us to pull out the plastic "spinner" from under our seats (image 10" petals around a shaft which unfurls into a flat flower head). Because most were red with some white ones, if everyone held them up and spun then, they spelled out the event's slogan "Shine Singapore" for the camera on the helicopter.

Then the show proper got going. About 30mins in, it would become a live TV broadcast to 18 nations but first some warm-up acts.

1. Music/dance routine with massed school choir accompanying wheelchair+able-bodied dance partners. Mainly jive steps given the limited hand-hand contact points.
2. Music/dance by massed crowd of people dressed in waistcoats that made them look like the guys with paddles that park aeroplanes.
3. Pair of paragliders (red chutes) vaguely hover stage left.

Then the show cut live so insert a load of MCs shouting about cheering and spinning the flower things.

4. Song
5. Bayshow on the water: Jet skis dragging wake boarders, then Jet skis dragging stunt kites, then 2 F1 power boats, them final parade of all of them
6. MPs arrive all dressed in white, take seats.
7. Ten skydivers from helicopter (about 2000ft) so pretty quick, for soft landing on front of stage. Pretty good with only one wipe-out landing ("he's Okay" says the MC but he'll get a right thumping from his mates back at base).
8. Military band with rifle twirling, then formed into characters "NDP08" and stayed there.
9. Inflated plastic balloons released at top of stands with sector race to get them to the MCs at the stage.
10. Song and dance: "Home" translated and sung in Tamil.
11. Ministers arrive, take seats
12. Song and dance: "My Island Home" sung this year in Mandarin
13. Prime Minister arrives in white Merc at front.
14. Song and dance: "We Are Singapore" sung in English
15. President arrives in (same) white Merc, takes acknowledgment from Parade Master, inspects front ranks on foot (cue artillery shell salute), then into the "Ceremonial Land Rover" for a drive around the rest of the massed ranks. [Note, it's no LR that I know of, probably an Indian Tata vehicle quickly re-branded as LR since they bought it from Ford a few months ago]
16. Black Knights acrobatics. Really disappointing since they've been practising over my house for weeks and they only did 4 or 5 things with lousy commentary. The easy stuff (head to head fly past) got wows from the crowed, but the cool one (a tight inside turn then vertical climb, all on full afterburner) was unappreciated. Plus, the intended re-broadcast of the inter-pilot radio chatter was just static, and was the only AV failure of the event). Shame.
17. Dance show with balloons (lit from the inside) dragged around the bay by boats.
18. Parade of floats with a wave/boat/sail theme
19. Then a series of song/dance acts that I couldn't be bothered to write down. Some better than others, some by schools, one by the Soka Association (Buddhists).
20. Fireworks from barge in the bay. Not bad. I'm highly critical of fireworks as I've seen some suberb shows and most are pretty feeble given the expertise and costs involved ($100k doesn't buy much). One green starbust blew up on the barge which I thought was spectacular but was probably alone in even noticing.
21. MCs, videos, fireworks, yadda, yadda.

I left to try and get a jump on the crush to leave. I did leave ahead of 97% of the crowd but that just meant I joined the throngs around the event earlier than most. The entrance to City Hall MRT was closed due to over-crowded right in front of me, so I took a path of lesser resistance and walked away from the MRTs and met up with the Merlioness later on. By 10:30, the trains were empty. Result!

All in all, I'm glad I went. It's easy to snipe at such nationalistic displays and they were really pushing for multi-racial, politically correct, inclusive harmony and continued success; reasonable given the swamp-to-city transformation they have achieved in 43 years.

The NDP site is broken this morning, probably by people trying to see if their trash bag won the "Bag It to Win It" prize. And there's a true lesson for working with Singaporeans; if you want them to do something, make it a competition with a prize.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

8 8 8

Beijing OlympicsThe Olympic games, awarded to the city of Beijing (not to the country of China) are days away, and the lead up has been traumatic for the Chinese. Floods, earthquakes and political unrest have made the headlines and have left insiders wondering if the organisers have been too bold in scheduling the games to start on the 8th August, 2008. It sounds nice, 8-8-8, since eight is a lucky number (in Chinese it rhymes with prosperity) the attraction was obvious. Now the fear is that the gods are angered by such impudence.

Theory one is the four mascots of the games represent four tragedies to befall the games, somewhat like the four horseman of the apocalypse. The analogy breaks down considering there are 5 mascots, and numerology around single digits is always suspect due to simple coincidence. Plus, who gets to decide what is a calamity and what is a domestic political issue?

Theory two is spiritually deeper. August is a Hungry Ghost month and the thinking (?) goes that while 8-8-8 is auspicious, the hungry ghost festival trumps the auspicious date, so a high-profile activity is inappropriate and unlucky.

The usual Singaporean, ghost-appeasing pyrotechnics have certainly begun. What is notable this year is that more people are using the shared oil-drum burners rather then finding their own patch of grass to burn. Rows of shops have huge candles melting down to a waxy Quatermass on the block paving and the food offerings are a boon to the birds and rats. I still hold out some hope the bonfire excesses will decline with the modern secular generational transition.

As for the games, the official attitude in Singapore has always been pro-Chinese, talking down the vociferous criticism of Tibetan policies, human rights and freedoms, instead pointing out the intense national pride the games have generated and the danger of getting on the wrong side of it. It's the right approach since the games are supposed to be a non-political event but one can't help but notice the self-serving, long-term relationship building rhetoric.

Singapore has its own reasons for eschewing political gamesmanship since they were awarded the inaugural Youth Olympic games in 2010. The mission statement is "Excellence, Friendship, and Respect" and the official logo competition has just been launched. You will have to forgive the excessive use of exclamation marks in the text but you too can try to avoid the inevitable criticism such logos attract. Try to avoid any reference to Gods, legends, numerology, politics, science, nationalism, celebrities, race, religion or any single colour or colour combination with any meaning whatsoever. Good luck.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Eats Shoots and Exits by the Left Door


This tale combines Singapore's famously high investments in public transport with the subtleties of language and the idiocy of crowds. The current MRT network has 3 lines feeding the central business district (CBD) from outlying areas. A new line under construction, the Circle Line, will go around the CDB at a decent distance and hence permit non-CDB routes. The Circle Line crosses the existing lines, in this case, the North-South line at Bishan.

The designers of the MRT system do a pretty good job of arranging the interchanges so a change from the North-South to the East-West line (at City Hall and Raffles) is just a matter of crossing the platform. Similarly, the new Circle Line interchange is arranged alongside so a North-South train will have platforms on both sides.

Bishan has been a construction site for months and the steady completion of the new platform has been visible from the train, providing a voyeuristic viewpoint akin to fish in a tank.

At the weekend, they flipped over; the train doors open on the new, Circle Line side while they refurbish the old platforms. It's temporary, so the train driver (probably called a Service Captain) does the announcement live:

Please exit the train through the left doors.

The Merlioness reports that on Sunday, while making this journey, the announcement caused everyone to get off the train, wait an awkward few seconds to realise the mistake, then got back on. To be fair, an Indian family stayed sat down and I think the fact they weren't kicked off (as is done when trains reach the terminus) confirmed their mistake to the crowded platform. It depends where you put the stress. If you said

Please EXIT the train through the left doors.

everybody gets off, whereas the meaning is

Please exit the train through the LEFT doors.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Singlish WOTD: Chiobu

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Chiobu

Defn: Good-looking female, babe, hot chick

From Hokkien.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Expat Heaven

YachtI been saying it since before I arrived; Singapore is no hardship assignment and now some folks at Expat Explorer have done a survey which confirms it. Singapore is the best place in the world to live as an over-paid expatriate.

Singapore won first place for quality of accommodation and second place for luxury living. The latter category included access to private health care, access to more than one property, and ability to own a pool and to employ staff (such as cleaners). The UAE (United Arab Emirates) won on luxury but Singapore beat India into third place.

In comparison, the UK was ranked as least luxurious and most expensive for accommodation which makes the often-posed question as to why I am here inexplicable.

Today's weather has seen a daytime high of 30°C, slightly hazy with a gentle southernly (on-shore) breeze (13 km/h) and a relative humidity of 69%. We are not expected any late afternoon thunderstorms so alfresco dining or a long stroll are indicated.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Government takes on Grannies

SembCorpMy Singapore National Recycling Programme green bin bag was just delivered. I am invited to collect paper, cardboard, plastics, metals, glass, electrical appliances, soft toys, old clothing and shoes for doorstep collection after 8:30am on one of 3 dates written in marker pen on the bag. All in the same bag, but No Food Waste Please.

As you know, there is a big blue recycling wheelie bin at the void deck for these items, and you also know it is systematically raided by the local grannies and grandads. 60+ aluminium cans for a dollar. 1 meter high stack of newspapers might be 4 dollars. So what gives? Either the Government is trying to encourage more use of the big bin, or they are trying to cut out the local, fixed-income pensioners.

The copious, bilingual (not tri-lingual?) instructions on the bag include a stern warning:

"Unauthorised collection of recyclables is an offence and will be reported to the police".

Utter cobblers. This would be the same police that ignore cycling on the pavement, persistent littering out of flat windows, lighting fires on landings, unsafe storage of goods on landings and stairwells and parking motorbikes under the void deck. Everyone knows who the local recyclers are and where they sit of an evening collating the paper and bashing apart appliances for their metals (mainly electric motors for the copper).

So I'm confused again. Maybe it's just a top-down, national bright idea with no joining up to local communities and policing. Sounds the most likely scenario but the situation places householder's loyalties on the line; Government versus Grannies.

I'm with the grannies on this one as they are motivated to separate the materials properly for maximum financial worth and hence ecological benefit. SembCorp Environmental Management claims to retain ownership of the plastic bag they have just arranged to have thrown through my front door, implying an enforced duty of care without compensation. This faceless, lawyer-lined corporation does not need my charity. Oh sweet disobedience, tempt me not!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Bonfire of the Niceties

Pileof BooksThe National Library Board (NLB) held their (annual?) book sale at the Singapore expo, last Friday thru Sunday. I wandered along with little purpose, although a couple of technical titles was in the back of my mind, and so I sauntered in around midday Friday past early birds already leaving with distinctive white carrier bags closed with cable ties and even stuffed shopping trolleys.

Inside the hall were 50 tables labeled above with simple descriptions such as Adult Fiction and Junior Fiction. Within these categories, the books were a complete jumble so you were left to just wander up and down looking for topics of interest. I grabbed a few, huge technical books, out of date for sure as most titles seemed to be published around 2000, but good enough for S$2 (70p) each.

Far more interesting was the behavior of the patrons. Keeners filled the provided shopping baskets, leaving them at the edge of the hall to return for more books. After amassing anything up to 200 books, they then sat down against the wall and slowly went through their hoard, tossing discards onto a rough pile at their feet, putting keepers in a fresh basket. At the tables, the neat rows of books quickly deteriorated into unkempt mass as selected books were tossed aside.

People behave this way when faced with free or cheap sales; first land-grabbing as much as possible, later to discard what, on reflection, they decide is not for them. I've organised a few jumble sales and there are definite types. The professionals (local gypsies in our case) looking for silver plates or valuable China going for 20p and leave within 10 minutes. Then there's the bag ladies, roughly sorting through clothes and just stuffing anything decent into the bag under their arm, sometimes leaving without payment. Then there's the charitable types, there to support the cause carefully thumbing a Foders guide to Portugal.

The organisation of the book fair was thought through; bags and baskets, helpers wandering around, a DJ at the back playing musak, the exit channels which divided buyers from visitors and guided the former down to packing tables staffed by schoolchildren who packed and counted the items. Then on to the ridiculously over-sized and dreaded Tensa-barrier maze ahead of the cashiers. I hate being in such processes and given the modest turnout, the formality was excessive.

The result was 7 books weighing 8kgs for S$14 (£5) and a disgust for the people who turned a generous opportunity into a greedy, selfish, ugly, rude stampede.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

It's Art Lah!

DavidSingapore tries pretty hard to create an international art scene and the latest is a series of evening events called The Night Festival. It kicked off last night at the National Museum, opposite the NUS campus at the end of Orchard Road, next to the YMCA.

Performed by an Italian troupe, Studio Festi, apparently famous for extravagant, outside public performances, they performed their Dancing Sky routine. Take two cranes and park stage left and right. String wire between with pulley to suspend performers and props. Then play music, shine some lights and pull ballet dancers in flowing robes across in a sequence of routines. It's billed as a "specially designed display of light and aerial acrobatic routines". I believe my description suffices.

The programme listed a 9pm start, with a repeat at 11pm. By 9:05pm there was already signs of trouble. The exceptionally happy announcer lady (speaking only in English) kept asking people to clear the traffic junction at the end of the closed road between the museum and the NUS grassed area. Some of the performance used the road and so had to be cleared. Problem one. People are stupid and distrust official communication channels, especially when they might lose their prized vantage point. Problem two: there was nowhere for them to go as the entrance to the grassed area was congested with more people unwilling to move.

The event security had black outfits with the word Security in yellow on the back (it's curious how little paraphernalia you need to create a sense of authority). The police were out on the road side. The PA lady's pleadings became tinged with desperation and at one point the restive crowd managed a half-hearted jeer. One of the large clutch of amateur photographers, a chirpy but world-weary philosopher summed up the debacle in one short observation;

"You see, no minister; crowd control like shit."

25mins late, the performance started well. Girl in white on a wire dancing with a bloke in black tux with her flying off and circling around. I was impressed enough to try and snap a picture. The next act was girl on a wire going left and right waving her arms, interacting with a model sailing ship, on a wire. The music started as Nessun Dorma, suddenly cut to a Maria Callas-like aria right after the Vincero! big hit ending of ND, then suddenly switched back to ND for another big hit finale. It sounded as jarring as my awkward description.

Next up was another girl on a wire, a piano (not real) on a wire, and some other stuff. I stopped watching. Let's just say this was no Cirque du Soleil. Just before I gave up and went home, they had big helium balloons tethered to strapping, bare-chested Italian stagehands, with ballet dancers suspended underneath on wires, being dragged through the crowds. The Merlioness registered some interest.

To be honest, my main memories of the event are the geeky banter between the amateur photographers comparing their hand-held Japanese supercomputers and the exhibit in the museum. We were sat directly in front of the door and inside was a 25' copy of Michelangelo's David rendered in deep red chintz. Sitting on the grass in front, he was only visible waist down through the arched doorway creating an interesting visual effect with the security staff in back silhouetted against this enormous red example of maleness. It was a hit with the ladies with head-scarfed Muslim ladies snapping pics with a delighted titter. You see? art can be exciting.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

No nostalgia please, we're Singaporean

PI was going to take a picture of the lay by, or at least the sign next to it, as it was a quirky reminder of times past. A few yards down the road from the local supermarket, it was barely long enough for 2 cars and I half imagine the sign was for explanation, rather than making a rule:

"Lay by for map reading. No parking."

In an age with GPS satnavs in most cars, it's a nostalgic reminder of well-thumbed city guides on passenger seats; the fingerprints providing a greasy vote on each location's popularity.

But this is one motoring respite that is no more. Indian (Punjabis I'd guess) have already ripped the tarmac and are setting the new kerb stones in line with the road. By the weekend, it will be fresh cow grass and the odd mark from the digger's tracks.

There just isn't any concept of If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix it. The lay by only protruded into the grass margin, not the pavement so apart from looking straighter on Google Earth, there is no utility from spending money to remove the feature.

Singapore is unremittingly modern and progressive; there is a simmering debate over the older buildings and their fate in an ever developing cityscape. Pretty much without exception, after much hand-wringing and consultation, the old stuff is pulled down. Sometimes it's for technical reasons like the foundations (no piles) into clay are not secure enough for the underground tunnel they want to build. Usually it's because modern office requirements don't match older interiors and there is serious money to be made with redevelopment in prime property areas.

I'm pretty sure you can be too protective of old things. Europeans tend to over value age whereas Chinese traditionally don't and shun hand-me-downs, not least because of potential spiritual entanglements with their previous owner. I shall say farewell to the lay by; I'll be the only one to do so.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Singlish WOTD: Makan

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Makan

Defn: eat

From Malay. For example, "Let's go Makan."

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Unbearable Tightness of Being

MRT Lift Sign. Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crazyegg95/Today's Today paper carried a letter from a commuter who witnesses a minor altercation at an MRT station. All but one of the stations have lifts to access the platform level for accessibility of wheelchair users, those with luggage, push chairs, the infirm, and so on. In this case, it seems many were jostling for the lift:

"On my way to work on Friday, I got off the train at Tanjong Pagar MRT station to the sound of a man in a wheelchair shouting on the platform.

I realised that he was addressing the people in and outside the lift who were not making way for him to enter, and gesticulating at the able-bodied commuters around him to use the stairs and escalators."

I use the MRT lifts occasionally; all, or certainly most, stations have escalators in the UP direction but platforms are long and if you come out of the train next to the lift, why walk along to use the stairs?

This chap decided to have a go:

When I approached a train security attendant and told her what was going on, her reply was: "He should wait, there are many customers, you know."

I'm not surprised, and have written about the non-gracious Singapore. But I spy 2 elements to this incident.

First is the unwillingness of the MRT staff to help out. I put this down to simple fear of one person with little authority trying to chide a small crowd; you're as likely to get shouted at yourself as Singaporeans are feisty and quick to fight back.

Second is a widespread lack of compassion for the weak. From the top down, the policy is resilient self-sufficiency. Getting old and need money for medical care? Keep working. Singaporeans are not all heartless sods but it's a busy city and most people are in a self-absorbing rat race.

The poor chap in the wheelchair would be better off fitting spiked bumpers to the front and powering forward into the crowd. He'd be more respected for his fighting spirit than to sit there and plead for consideration due to infirmity.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

No Cinderella Story

Ugly Sisters. Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffchristiansen/I admit some initial attraction to the idea of hiring domestic help when I first learned of the (practically legendary) cheapness of domestic labourers in Singapore. The Government calls them Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) but everyone else calls them maids. And they are everywhere. If you want English-speaking, then Filipinos are recommended, otherwise Indonesians.

You see them on the street and in shops and restaurants in their uniform of T-shirt and oversize shorts, both washed to the point of grayness. It's defensive you see; better to avoid attracting attention of _any_ kind. It's the same tactic hostages are taught; Andy McNab talks about becoming the grey man in Bravo Two Zero. Any suggestion of sexuality risks comparison with the female employer or attracting unwanted attentions of the male employer.

I'm going to call it a plight, even though I know most welcome the opportunity to earn foreign currency to send back home. Many are married (or thereabouts), often they have their own kids. Standard contracts are for 2 years with no home leave, but some stay for decades; it really varies.

There are few absolute regulations involving where they sleep. They should have a space to themselves but it can be the windowless bomb-shelter (I'm not kidding) built into many condos.

Where possible, your FDW should be given a separate room of her own. In the event that one is unavailable in your home, you should respect your FDW's need for privacy and ensure that sufficient private space for sleep is provided.

They don't need a TV or radio as they will be up to cook breakfast for the kids are 5:30am and might still be washing up or ironing at 9pm.

The duties of a maid are to assist the household which means cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, childcare, nannying and care of pets and the elderly. It excludes duties outside the home like cleaning the car (much flauted), caring for a non-household member (say, a neighbour) or supporting a business (baking cakes for a shop). You are not allowed to loan out or share a maid.

Which brings us to a contemporary issue of whether to give your maid any time off. Actually, more a long-standing issue as this BBC story from March 2006 shows. When I was in China/Hong Kong, the Filipino maids used to gather every Sunday at Causeway Bay on the island for a packed rice lunch and a chat with fellow natives. In Singapore, accredited agencies are supposed to create contracts with paid rest days included but you try enforcing it; a maid can go for 2 years without a day off. There is even a website to highlight the issue and a recent Government review concluded the status quo was reasonable:

most maids are happy working in Singapore and the reported cases of abuse have remained low. 'There is therefore no need at this point for MOM to legislate a mandatory rest day'

Officially, the Ministry encourages rest days:

A well-rested Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW) is more productive and better adjusted. Hence, you should ensure that your FDW has sufficient rest, especially during the night.

Sufficient rest days should also be catered for, as mutually agreed upon between yourself and your FDW. Such rest days should be in addition to any family trips and outings which you may take your FDW on.

That's all well and good but the word from taxi drivers is that Singaporeans are getting a bad reputation for maltreating maids and many are now learning Cantonese to seek work in Hong Kong where conditions are better. Singapore is therefore having to consider other sources of cheap and pliant female economic migrants such as Nepal to fill the strategic maid gap.

A steady supply of maids is important since the tax benefits for a working couple are considerable and the FDW policy underpins the Government's desire for the Dual-Income-Lots-of-Kids Singaporean family unit. The new worry is of a generation of kids brought up by untrained nannys, but the English aristocracy mostly survived this issue so I imagine Singapore will also.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Singlish WOTD: Gostan

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Gostan

Defn: Go backwards, reverse, back up

From Pidgin English originally from the nautical phrase "go astern".

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Gone in 6 days

Missing BikeSpot quiz: what is the most populous European city? Singapore is about 4.5m people in 270sq miles. London is ~7.5m people in about 600sq miles so this city state has the higher population density by 30%. The next biggest European city, by the way, is Berlin with 3.5m making London the most populous by a clear factor of two.

What about cars? In 2006, Singapore had 800k vehicles on the roads, of which, about 500k were cars and 140k were motorcycles. That's about 9 cars per 100 people in Singapore, versus about 35 per 100 in London.

Spot quiz: how many cars were reported stolen in Singapore in 2006? You'll never guess. It was 63; one car stolen every 6 days. Motorcycles faired a little worse with 647 but then they are more easily taken and hidden.

They say in Singapore "Low crime Doesn't mean No Crime" but it seems it's all relative. Compared to my experience of vehicle crime, one stolen car every 6 days is not even statistically significant.

Apparently, this doesn't mean low insurance premiums and many bikers only have 3rd party cover, not even TPFT, but then every aspect of vehicle ownership is expensive in Singapore. The adaptive Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) is being steadily expanded in scope. It's simple capitalism, using money to determine who drives and who takes the bus.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Singapore Soft Sell

They say it's an Art or that some people can and some can't, but selling is a skill that can be learnt. And I like learning, especially from other's mistakes. Let's take this week's lesson: A pretty, slim lady wearing a simple, elegant black dress with a clipboard & a smile.
Only people selling things smile in Singapore and she was atypically posh for weekday afternoon door to door sales. This wasn't going to be ice cream (14yo students taking on their mobiles), yakult (vaguely athletic middle-aged women in sweat pants), Starhub cable TV (16yo students, also on mobiles) or even Government health inspectors (middle-aged men).

"Hello", she says, "it's Okay, I'm not selling anything." (Uh oh) "I just want to ask a few questions."
Not terrible as opening lines go; it tried to cover enough bases to get to the real pitch, which is where our lesson begins.
"Is there a working adult at home?"
My stunned and confused silence was mistaken for lack of comprehension or audibility. She leaned in a little and repeated the question. As I was sat in front of a combined 48inches of computer screens, 2 keyboards and associated paraphernalia, I was forced to conclude I didn't look like a working adult, or perhaps an adult with a job, or perhaps a adult?
I made a weak hand gesture towards the massed technology and, in her mind, I was transformed from YouTube layabout to digital knowledge worker. She started her pitch about heart health or something. I cut to her chase: "You want donations?" She did and strangely, I wasn't in a giving mood.
She moved on to next door and I saw her later going around to the flats with no answer previously. Pretty thorough and all the more reason not get known as a soft touch on the circuit. I still can't figure out how that "working adult" stuff is supposed to work but to persist with a clearly stillborn sales script shows a lack of tactical flexibility. I learnt something; I wonder if she did?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Singlish WOTD: Chope

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Chope

Defn: Reserve, pre-book, claim

From chop; to leave a mark. Singaporeans have a habit of leaving objects (often tissue packets or umbrellas) on seats or tables to reserve them while they go and order. "Don't take this seat, I choped it already."

Choping can catch foreigners in tense situations because unless you know the convention, you can quite valid assess a restaurant table as vacant and when the prior claimants return, they usually take an aggressive stance believing their chope is as good as law.

Compare with Germans leaving towels on sun loungers around Costa del Sol hotel pools.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Book Museums

Clay TabletLibraries have been called the last vestiges of free public space and indeed the dictionary definition of a library as a repository of books ignores their other important social roles; respite, association, teaching, literacy and so on.

It's going to be interesting to see how libraries operate when the age of the book is at an end. I love books and have collected, in an undirected fashion, sufficient kilos of them to realise their limitations for convenient data delivery. In the digital age, books become art works, and sooner than you expect.

Perhaps provocatively, the Extinction Timeline places libraries at 2019. If you think online books, magazines, newspapers all delivered on large, touch-screen table displays that's not so far fetched. The newly built public library in Seattle doesn't have book shelves in anticipation of the demise of paper and instead has a multi-purpose space with casual piles of books to encourage browsing and discovery much like surfing the web.

In the meantime, Singapore has a wonderful set of main and community libraries designed along traditional lines. And when I say traditional, I'm thinking King Ashurbanipal would instantly recognise a Singapore library as a version of his library of clay tablets in the 7th century BC. There's refinement of the model, though I would argue, little innovation.

Books have RFID tags so checkout is at a computer station; insert your id with barcode, then place each item on the reader. Returning items may be done at any branch via an external (hence 24x7) book drop; a letterbox hole with a slide that scans the books as they drop into a bin. To discourage dropping other things, there's an enormous TV camera lens above the slot, pointing at your head. It's why I always stand to one side when returning books (petty defiance in the face of petty surveillance is always justified).

Their computer systems are so-so. With some effort to navigate the frankly haphazard website, you can create an account and receive e-mail notifications of events and, most usefully, a 7 day count down of items due allowing you to renew online (50c / item) when you realise you won't make it in time. A new trick is an e-mail confirming return:

Dear [redacted]

Thank you for using NLB's e-notification service through email, a free service available to all library members. This daily-based notification confirms the number of items you have returned at the library bookdrop.

You have returned 1 NLB item(s) on 14 Jun 2008.

The details of item(s) returned are as follows:

[redacted]
Returned At: Ang Mo Kio Community Library At 12:10 PM

The above information is correct as at 14 Jun 2008 11:46 PM.If you have returned more items after this, they will be reflected in the next day's notification email. Please also note that the absence of a notification is not a valid reason for waiver of library fines.

You may also check your updated account status at www.nlb.gov.sg or call our Hotline at 6332-3255

If you have any outstanding library fines, please pay them promptly at your nearest library today and be fines-free!

Thank you.
Regards,
NLB Administrator

The main reference library has a 6 month trial of Intelligent Bookshelves with RFID readers on each shelf so the system can determine location, and hence presence or absence, of any item. It also supports stock-taking and browsing statistics (books removed briefly count towards their recorded popularity).

It's good stuff in principle although the real challenge is getting the cost down sufficiently for mass deployment. But I can't help feeling it's tackling the wrong problem. I want an all digital library accessible from home & my mobile phone. The vestigial library building becomes an air-conditioned public space for association, art and Internet access.

I have no doubt the technology is well within our reach, but I fear my online idyll is doomed by Mickey Mouse. Disney, Microsoft and the big film studios have successfully lobbied for ever extended copyright protection and defence. Singapore has acceded to these policies and extended protection of copyrighted works to 70 years. The rigourous protection of intellectual property (IP) is a key plank of Singapore's promise to big business; the manifest benefits to society of the creative re-mixing and adapting of ideas into new forms doesn't have the same lobbying power.

So Singaporean libraries are unlikely to turn digital any faster than US mega-corporations permit. Despite possessing vision, ambition and capital resources, they cannot show leadership here.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Confused about Two Wheels

Bike PathThe Today paper carried a letter about 2 cyclists being bullied and harassed by a bus and I can imagine it happening. I'm one of a handful of cyclists who actually use the road instead of the pavement (as per the law) but it's no easy choice and the whole thing is full of contradictions.

Legally, bicycles must use the road and must behave like pedestrians in other circumstances, so you should dismount and push the bike when using crossings or pavements. Rule 28 of Road Traffic Rules: "No vehicle, except perambulators, shall be driven, parked or ridden on the footway of a road." These laws are never enforced. My local police station (more of a booth, manned part-time) is next to a big intersection. They are obviously not on any kind of quota system because they could be super-cops in 10mins of traffic enforcement (Road Traffic Act, section 127, point 3 gives them the power to detain on sight).

The authorities know the situation. Anyone who has stood at a main junction sees the whole pantomime playing out. The LTA installed traffic cameras at many intersections. Not huge spy jobs with infra red lamps but those small dome types you see on the ceilings of shops and buildings, so they're unobtrusive but they will give a clear colour image of what everyone is doing, motorists and pedestrians alike. Buses are getting forward-facing cameras to catch cars using bus lanes (like London transport does to issue automatic fines).

The Government ran a trial last year in Tampines (said TAM pea nez) of bicycles using pavements. I did a double-take when I read it. Yes, an actual formal trial with surveys and analysis of results. Since everyone already rides on the pavements and paths, it's unsurprising that the results show a collective shrug with most people either entirely ignorant of the experiment (and hence seeing no change) or accepting the status quo.

Singapore has put quite a bit of effort into creating linear parks, park connectors and cycle paths. It reminds me a bit of Milton Keynes which uses the linear parks along side all the trunk roads to create a vast, connected mesh of pedestrian and cycle paths so you can cycle from one side of the city to another without needing to go onto the roads. Now Singapore is nowhere near that advanced but they are trying to retrofit something similar.

The LTA has a trial permitting fold-up bicycles on buses and trains. There's a boring set of rules to do with times, bike size and covering dirty or pointy parts but the idea is workable when the trains are not at peak occupancy (when it's hard to push onto a train it's so full). [Note, I haven't seen anyone with a bike on a train yet but give it time.]

So the various Government departments are making all the right noises about green, healthy, sustainable, joined-up transport, but it falls flat on its face when you try to actually follow the rules. I've been menaced by a bus (no big deal and not like the above story). I've been hit by bikes while walking along the pavement. There's no incentive or protection for doing the right thing.

Here's a few suggestions in lieu of enforcing the current laws:

  • Create cycle lanes on roads
  • Use the bus' bus-lane enforcement cameras to enforce bullying of bikes by bus drivers
  • Create more cycle racks at stations. Put weather covers and security cameras up.
  • Formally train youngsters in road use and safety.

Monday, 16 June 2008

An Unpronounceable Disease

MosquitoSingapore's tropical climate could support all sorts of nasty diseases but mostly doesn't because of consistent investment in prevention schemes. Monthly fogging and oiling of drains, rubbish chutes and manholes keep mosquito breeding in check as it's the Aedes mozzie that is the transmission vector for Dengue fever.

The NEA have patrols out checking for pools and pots with standing water. More senior staff do house to house visits and they do fine persistent offenders but a $1,000 fine for repeatedly putting lives at risk seems a poor deterrent. My current estate agent lady casually mentioned she had Dengue and was laid up for a week. It doesn't kill many people who have access to health care but it's no holiday.

Since January this year, a new mozzie-borne virus with very similar symptoms has been found: Chikungunya. All the initial patients were in the Little India area, and it makes sense that when transmitted by mozzies with a 250m range of movement, the disease tends to stay put.

The problem with Chikungunya is the name; no-one I know can remember it properly and you end up saying something which rhymes, like Chumbawamba, and your co-conversationalist nods without attempting a better rendition.

So there's a nasty disease with a public relations problem. The doctor who discovered and named SARS (and died of it) knew what the world needed; a tight, catchy name people could remember. AIDS, MRSA, Bird flu, TB; all examples of successful branding.

Chikungunya is now moving around; an expat got it in Thompson Road, then Farrer Road and now a mutation means it can be carried by the Asian Tiger mozzie as well. But the most depressing piece of the ST article was not the local biotech firm pledging to start work on a vaccine, but the throw away line that the US military already has a vaccine but has stopped testing because

"Priorities have since changed. The focus now is global terrorism."

Sometimes, the whole world looks like one big unintended consequence.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

iPhone uPay

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerThe legal route to 3G iPhone ownership in Singapore is becoming clearer. SingTel has the lead with an expected market launch in September, a few months after its US debut in July.

I went ahead and pre-ordered by SingTel's web page:

Thanks for your interest.

Currently iPhones can only be reserved at your local hello! store.

Please don't forget to bring your personal identification documents. (NRIC/Passport/Employment Pass) SingTel will reconfirm your details in-store in order to confirm your reservation for iPhone 3G.

Please click on the this link to find your closest store.

The following terms and conditions are important - please read them carefully
1. The reservation shall commence on 10th June 2008 and shall expire when the phone becomes available in Singapore
2. The Phone is not available in Singapore and is not currently type approved by the IDA for sale and use in Singapore, which approval is mandatory under Singapore laws.
3. This reservation is merely an indication of my interest to purchase the Phone (if and when available) and is not to be construed as an offer, advertisement, invitation to purchase, sale & purchase or as a binding agreement of whatever nature for the sale/purchase of the Phone.
4. The price of the Phone, service packaging options, terms and conditions of sale will only be made known by SingTel Mobile when the Phone is available and type approved by the IDA.
5. I will be given a consideration period of one (1) week from the date of notification by SingTel Mobile that the Phone is available for sale.
6. SingTel Mobile shall not be liable for non-availability of the Phone or non-approval of the Phone or any other cause resulting in the Phone not being made available for sale in Singapore.
7. SingTel Mobile reserves the right to amend these terms and conditions by notice in such manner as SingTel Mobile deems appropriate. These terms and conditions shall be subject to and construed in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Singapore

If you follow the "Find Nearest Store", you get bounced to the generic Apple page even though you have just given them your address? Pretty dump web integration guys and you still need to go down there and queue? <gack> I passed a Hello! store this afternoon but the queue was long and unmoving so I passed.

The bad news is that while SingTel's rivals (StarHub and M1) are expected to have the phone after SingTel's launch, SingTel's pricing will have a significant price premium for early adopters, probably over S$500 plus a hefty monthly fee and an 18 month lock in.

Point #2 reminds us IDA approval is technically a legal requirement but only for phones sold here (otherwise Singapore's 9m annual visitors would be unable to use their mobiles). The real purpose is to put fear and doubt in the minds of people who are thinking of buying an unlocked phone from, say, hmmm, Australia or Hong Kong?

Saturday, 14 June 2008

PC Show and Tell

PC Show 2008PC Show: Day 2. Short version: the Apple reseller quoted the wrong price (they applied the discount to a non-sale model) and wouldn't budge so I didn't buy anything. I can get cheaper (or higher spec for the same money) via the build-to-order system. Bummer as the mental processes leading to a GO decision were long. Never mind, maybe I'll just get one anyway having managed to commit already.

I did buy a big Samsung monitor as a consolation prize; S$100 off plus a Bluetooth headset and a Samsung Beijing Olympics Swatch-style watch. Who could resist? Despite assurances, the Bluetooth ear piece does have a blue flashing LED and is truly Nathan Barley-esque. Why is it that for years we made curvy hearing aids out of flesh-coloured plastic, but mobile phone headsets are black & angular with blue lights?

The freebies were technically from Samsung itself, not the distributor, so you pay for the monitor, they put it on a not-too-crappy metal trolley for the journey home, then you take the receipt and (dragging the huge box through the throng) go to the official Samsung redemption counter where they validate the purchase, take your signature and IC number then hand over the freebies.

This is the way in Singapore; redemption counters for freebies. As a rule, there are only 2 reasons Singaporeans will join (and stay) in a long queue; betting shops and lottery ticket sales. A temporary third case is gift redemption counters. The Asus counter was outside the main hall doors and so their line (mainly laptop purchasers) snaked across the doors and off down almost past the toilets causing a congested knot that the event stewards simply ignored. Safety and crowd control was invisible, if not absent.

I was curious, given the supposedly heightened security stance these days, whether I could take a huge, heavy box onto the MRT? Yes, no problem at all. Passing security is all about fitting in; making it look like you belong. The guy who gate-crashed the Oscars in 2006 gave this advice afterwards:

"Show up at the theater, dressed as a chef carrying a live lobster, looking really concerned."

If anyway wanted to take something bulky and illegal onto a train, say for the sake of example, Durian fruit, use a big cardboard box with "HP Laserjet Printer" and board the train at City Hall (closest station to Funan IT) or Bugis (closest to Sim Lim).

The scary videos they run on MRT platforms show a shifty young man, wearing a baseball cap carrying a black holdall. But no-one wears baseball caps, or hats at all. No sports logos on the bag? Unlikely. Rather, just use a standard pull-along suitcase and get on the East-West line towards Changi. You'll fit right in.

Back to the big monitor. It looks great but I've run out of desk space and intend to put it on an arm. They claimed it takes the standard bracket. Turns out it's the other standard bracket so I spent all day today traipsing 'round trying to find the right part but no joy yet. Still, more screen than desk is what we call in the trade a "high quality problem".

The warranty card is a doozy. Apparently, for the warranty to be valid I need to return the card within 7 days, filled out with e-mail address, name, address, DOB, IC number, home phone, office phone, mobile phone, postcode, education level, salary band, occupation, and such marketing gems as what I think of Samsung as a brand and a list of every Samsung product I own or might own in the next year. I'm toying between giving up and fabricating farcical data. It's beyond the pale but I bet many locals dutifully fill these things in. There just isn't the same sense of outrage at loss of privacy and firms take advantage.

Friday, 13 June 2008

A more PC Singapore

PC Show 2008Minor bit of excitement has made its way around on the calender; the 18th annual Singapore PC Show, one of the 3 significant shows in the year (others are the IT Show and SITEX). It's at the downtown Suntec convention centre which means being herded like milk cows around the insufficient escalators up to the main exhibition floors (4 and 6). Yesterday, they had blocked off one of the 4->6 escalators and with a 50yard queue for the remaining one, it was faster to go down to 3 and then back up to 4, then 6. It's a badly designed building run by fools. The Expo out at Changi airport is much better for space and access.

The Show runs Thursday through Sunday, noon until 9pm daily and about 15% of the Singapore population, men, women, children and geeks will attend. I took the opportunity to go early on Thursday which was tolerable being a lone, able-bodied male. Why families with push-chairs and children attend is beyond me. There was one wheelchair user who struck me as particularly brave - for one thing he's low down; you can't see him (he needs a pole and a flag) and anything that wide simple makes no progress. His tactic was to motor forward, very very slowly and persistently but it can't be easy or fun.

The reason the show is so popular is because Singaporeans love a bargain, and we are officially in the middle of the GSS, the Great Singapore Sale which
runs for about 2 months, from mid-May. I haven't bothered to mention it (and didn't even notice it last year) because it isn't what you think. Sure there are banners and window dressing but actually, prices are not much different. Think if it as a retail marketing exercise, not a price promotion. Example: Courts (big electrical retailer like Currys or Comet) has yellow "Mega Sale" stickers on everything, yet closer inspection shows they list the price and in small lettering the original price, if different. Quick review of the kitchen section shows maybe 1 in 10 items at reduced price.

The PC show is similar. Retailers use it to clear stock and offer targeted discounts to generate buzz. For small shops, you could have negotiated the 10% discount. For larger stores, careful shopping around would yield similar reductions in many cases.

This year's show seems smaller, or more precisely, there seems to be more space - gaps between stands. Asking around, they have culled some of the smaller, less reputable retailers and focused on the big brand names. That's a bit of a shame as some of the little guys are fun. The iRobot vacuum cleaner stand is there, as is the Mini Sun power saver "plug in the box and reduce your electricity bills". Sounds like snake oil but it does work (long story which I might relate sometime).

Unusually, the Apple retailer is actually knocking some money off this year (a first) by throwing in a RAM upgrade. I'm in the middle of checking my bank account balance as that's a deal I can't match even with an old staff discount I could use. So I face the prospect of going back today (Fri) with a luggage trolley to tote away a huge box or two.

The big box retailers, HP, Brother, etc, will sell PCs and printers with a free, crappy plastic trolley to get the goods home. You see people streaming away from the show with them, struggling down escalators and onto the MRT. Which raises an interesting security question. Normally, people with large luggage are stopped at stations for a security check (terrorism and all that) but for the next 3 days, you could tote 25kgs of whatever you want onto a train with nary a raised eyebrow.