Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Little Hearts Everywhere

Going to China from Hong Kong has always been pretty easy. Our route was best served by a boat from the Kowloon Ferry Terminal for a 2 hour cruise up the coast. It's a medium sized catamaran, non-smoking with some straight-to-VCD Chinese movie on screens at the front. The Chinese port is the same building as years ago but everyone seems more ... at attention. Smart uniforms, no loitering, efficient customs (better than Chep Lok Kap airport) and they even had a beagle sniffer dog. I'm thinking Olympic effect but it's early days.

The hotel was really nice with boiling hot tap water and a huge staff:guest ratio. Reception was staffed by Fiona, Sean and Jack. Later at dinner, the server was Wendy, assisted by Trainee Wong, leaving me to conclude that front-line staff with some English use solely Western names, while others are mono-syllabic Chinese surnames. It doesn't much matter to the Chinese, they will just called out "xiao jie" (little girl) to summon a waitress of whatever linguistic ability; the name tags are strictly for foreigers.

The in-room information pack listed Internet access at RMB40 (£2.60) for one hour, and a fairly reasonable RMB60 (£4) for a whole day. The system had to be retro-fitted onto the older hotel infrastructure by using ADSL over the extension wiring which I thought was neat and perhaps ensures greater accountability than wireless. Strangely, they also listed the prices for many of the room's fixtures and fittings, such as net curtains, bath towel, bath robe, kettle and shoe basket (RMB70 £4.60). I can only presume this is charged for missing items so it was reassuring they didn't give a price for the mini safe.

What is also striking are the nannying warnings. Hong Kong ferry terminal kept repeating annoucements about slippy floors (never seemed an issue 10 years ago). The hotel bathroom had the same warning above the toilet (literally: little heart ground wet). The dinner table warned not to let children run around as it can be dangerous. Did Asia suddenly get lawyered up and litigous? Prohibition signs are found in all countries but petty warning signs are pernicious and self-defensive. It's a bad sign.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

HK Streetlife

Hong Kong. It feels like the monoogue at the start of Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard talks about Saigon and the dread of being in the jungle only being equalled but the dread of not being there. Last time I was here, the red letterboxes had Royal crests and Governor Chris Patten was talking up democratic reforms with his Legislative Council (LegCo). Now as a Special Administrative Zone with China, both are gone, interestingly, to no obvious ill-effect.

There's new parking meters (nice digital ones where you select the left or right parking bay so you only need half the number of meters). The airport staff have a mainland-like surly authority and the roads and pavements have the same ruts and ridges. Hong Kong puts function over form; there's little aspiration to beauty except for the space 1" from the ground to about 12' up. The shops go for light and neon to hawk their wares, but above is a tangle of old business signs, window air con units, balconies converted to granny flats and tatty facades. The Star Ferry hasn't changed so much as a rivet and is still a fun ride for HK$2.2 (44p) although you can now use an RFID touch card called Octopus that has been retrofitted into the old mechanical turnstiles.

There are the Indian guys standing on street corners and outside shops offering tailored suits and shirts - for around £70 you can get a suit, trousers, couple of shirts. To my surprise, there was even a guy offering cheap Rolex knockoffs at pretty much the same corner of Nathan Granville that I remember from pre-unification. It's the same technique that the drug dealers in the Casablanca medina use, a half-whispered "watches", "Rolex" just as you pass leaving you unsure if you really heard anything at all. Total deniability. Counterfeit watches and software were readily available in the mid nineties but the authorities had even then pushed the merchandise out of sight leaving just a salesman on a street corner or a shop with pictures.

The electronic shops are still here. You can get a unlocked (jail broken) iPhone for HK$3150 (£210), an Apple iPod Touch 32GB for HK$4000 (£260) and an Apple iMac 24" 2.4GHz HK$14,500 (£967). That's pre-haggling prices but still pretty much parity with Singapore.

If Hong Kong was a person, it would be Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses. A bit wide, always on the lookout for a deal, desparate to be rich and famous, but with a heart of gold. Singapore is more like an estate agent. Still trying to cut a deal but with class and respectability in mind. I can see why people like Hong Kong and describe Singapore as uptight. For sure, if you want to slum it for a bit, HK is the place to go but I'd be loath to leave SIngapore's excellent administration and security behind.

HK is almost all Chinese, whereas Singapore is over 20% Indian and Malay. This makes Singapore natively far more cosmopolitan. HK is Cantonese, Singapore is Mandarin and Hokkien and there's cultural differences galore. There are a few non-Chinese HKers; Indians came and stayed years ago and I remember meeting one working on the Star Ferry years ago speaking fluent Cantonese to a passenger, which is as remarkable a juxtaposition as hearing a dog miow.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Terminal Confusion

How hard could a 10 day jaunt to Hong Kong be? Quick taxi to Changi T3, drop off fellow traveller and then SkyTrain to T2 for shuttle bus to the Budget Terminal as per instructions. Except JetStar flies from Terminal 1, so back outside onto the same shuttle to T2, then the cute, runs-on-rubber-wheels Skytrain over to T1. Talk about unnecessary. Fortunately it's all eTicket these days and without check-in luggage I was in the 25min immigration queue tout suite.

The lady at the neighbouring check-in was being stung S$200 (£70) for excess baggage (box of business samples). Seeing me unencumbered, I was propositioned as a courier but declined on good sense grounds and departed with sympathies towards her wallet.

The departure lounge had free, working Internet access and a free, non-working drinking water fountain. Given the restriction on carrying fluids onto planes it was misjudged priorities.

They called for boarding, starting at the back; there's only about 30 rows in an Airbus A320 so first up were rows 20 and up. But this is a budget flight from Singapore to Hong Kong so the passenegers are a cosmopolitan lot and announcing only in English is, frankly, a mistake. English speakers in rows 20+ and everyone else in all rows raced forward with those ineligible for boarding being asked to wait (in Cantonese). The effect was to create an increasingly dense scrum of people just standing around the door, each held by the invisible force of authority like mimes pressed up against glass windows. Welcome to queuing, Chinese-style.

The flight was okay, 3hours, 20mins but JetStar takes no frills flying to heart. There are no drinks, snacks or food available free of charge on board. Canned drinks: S$3. Tea: S$3. Mars bar: S$3. Tiger beer: S$4. Hot meals: S$8, Those in the know, despite several announcements to the contrary, brought food with them but you can't bring drinks, hence the skewed priorities back at the terminal.

The Chinese aunties all had plastic bag bundles of green vegetables as hand luggage and bid a collective "bye bye Singapore" on takeoff. About 1 hour to go, I had the thought that being stuck in a confined space, surrounded by strange people speaking in tongues, unable to leave and at the mercy of the staff is possibly as close to being in an insane asylum as most people experience.

No frills landing means no jetway, but rather bus to the terminal, mocking the efforts of the people who pushed their way along the aisle to get off quickly. All airports look the same these days because the design requirements are the same. Dash up to immigration and you were cattle-prodded into what turned out to be 3 or 4 TensaBarrier mazes with, in our case, 1 guy, yes, 1 immigration official on duty processing the queue. To say the crowd was restless is an understatement. The Aussie cricket team dispersed through the queue kept up a running commentary, checking their watches anxious that the bars were going to close. When a second immigration official turned up he received a round of applause and assorted "Good on yer mate" endorsements. I got through in 45mins which I felt was lucky in the circumstances.

I think we were ripped off on the transport into town. The (newish) airport was an engineering marvel at the time, levelling mountains and reclaiming acres of land. The train was HK$90 each (£6) but would drop off at Kowloon station so add HK$40 for the taxi to the hotel. The bus was direct drop off but HK$130each. Still, a bit of devine intervention on the way into town as the driver triggered the Gatso on the approach road to the pretty Tsing Yi suspension bridge. That'll teach them to overcharge tourists.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Complacent, Moi?

You may remember I mentioned the strange and sudden loss from secure custody of Mas Selamat. He was being detained, without charge or trial, under security laws for links to terrorism. I also reported MM Lee's commentary that his escape showed a worrying complacency, a milder word that most would use to describe such a lapse.

Last week's Times ran a full page piece building on the story titled "Kiasu, Kiasi ... now complacent" where they widened the debate:

His rebuke was directed at the security agencies ... but it applied equally to Singaporeans at large, who may have been lulled by decades of peace into believing that Singapore is a place where things do not go wrong.

This then is the Singapore paradox: a pervasive fear of losing (kiasu) .. side by side with a sense of satisfaction and security that sometimes borders on smugness

The Times is the primary daily paper; the paper of record. It is independent but is still part of the system. It never takes a campaigning stance against the Government and while it does report all news, good and bad, it is always careful to balance the debate. (I joke that it manages to find 3 sides to every argument). It is unfailingly upbeat, highlighting positive responses to issues. So for the latest rice micro-crisis which sees rising monthly food bills, it splashes across 3 pages, typical families (Chinese, Malay, Indian) and how they immediately examined their weekly food basket to eliminate luxuries (Ben & Jerry's ice cream) and re-balance their budget.

So, complete, balanced, upbeat and sometimes incredibly dull. It almost makes you wish for a Daily Mail just to spice things up a bit and indeed the freebie tabloid My Paper is more direct and entertaining.

Anyway, back to complacency. So the Times then goes on to give possible reasons for this presumed public complacency:

  1. Side effect of long-term successful Government
  2. Lack of crisis
  3. Lack of awareness of how Government works

And it's true that a competent, successful semi-autocracy has steered Singapore through an amazing 50 years. The major crime prevention campaign slogan is "Low crime doesn't mean no crime", that is, to highlight the continued existence of crime. Contrast that with (former British Home Secretary) Michael Howard who was advised by his Principle Secretary upon taking office that his job was to "manage down public expectations that crime can be prevented".

What amused me were the letters to the Times' editor printed a week later whose consistent message was that if the public is complacent it's because the Government has spent 50 years telling everyone about the wonderful and hardworking civil servants doing a fantastic job and how amazing Singapore is. Touche!

You can't have it both ways; either the Government is competent and the public stands back or it's not and the public demands scrutiny. The debate is relevant to Singapore's political and business leaders but the Times went too far to expand the charge of complacency to the entire population.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Giz us a job mister?

The Bangladeshi site foreman wanted to know how he could get a job in England; "Very good country. Very good technology." I was stumped. "Have you applied?" I asked, but his English is only enough for basic concepts. The conversation started because I wanted to see how the piling work on the new elevator shaft was going; they put a plexiglass panel in the metal hoarding so you can watch. He was taking digital pictures of the slightly wonky concrete skirt at the bottom of the hoarding; "Not good. Site must be beautiful".

It's been a noisy 2 weeks as they are hacking the concrete skirt around the block to put in new (plastic) drain pipes, then drilling support piles for the lift shaft. He said 4 piles, but it's now 6 for some reason, each going down 35m to the rock. They start them off with a fat, 12" diameter hollow drill bit, pumping water to lubricate and flush up the spoil. It's all red clay around here which stays where it's put but doesn't move willingly, if you see what I mean.

The pile headers took about a week; they have to stop during thunderstorms for safety; now it's a new machine, more like an oil rig, to drill the pile holes which will then have rebar assemblies (four 1" bars held in a star configuration with standoffs and then wrapped around with wire) dropped down and the (w)hole thing concreted.

The lift shaft should take about 4 months in all to become operational, although tiling and tidy up works around the base can take months depending upon how fiddly it is.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Cheap or cheap?

My dictionary lists 11 major meanings of the word "cheap", though not it's middle English sense of "a market", from whence street names like "Cheapside" are derived. The primary meanings are "low cost" and "shoddy", the potential confusion between the 2 causing airlines to call themselves "no frills".

So when KLM e-mailed me saying they were doing a spring offer of S$850 return flights to Europe, I thought I'd have a look since I paid S$1,600 only in February.

And sure enough, if you find an unpopular day (typically Wednesday), you can get the advertised S$850 fare, excluding tax(es) and surcharges. Of course, those taxes and surcharges are not optional; the all inclusive price? S$1,548.

What other industry allows the sticker price to be advertised with an arbitrary but mandatory element (totally 50% of the value) only added at the till? All KLM achieved was to sucker me to their website with a lie, thereby reducing brand trust and loyalty.

Monday, 14 April 2008

HDB 2.0

The claimed brave new world of Web-2.0 is the target of much fun, such as this article about an online Barking Dog report service offered by Croydon Council. It made me wonder what Singapore could usefully have an HDB anti-social behavior website for:

  • Burning Joss-sticks on landings
  • Ghost bonfires on the grass
  • Talking loudly on the mobile while standing at an open window
  • Bad karaoke, full volume, Saturday mornings
  • Learning to play the drums
  • Dropping ash / cigarette butts from windows / corridors
  • Spitting from windows / corridors
  • Throwing Q-tips out of windows

I could go on but there's little sport in it. The HDB dept. sets policies for high-density living. For example, pets:

Not all residents like pets, or are comfortable with neighbours keeping pets.

HDB has allowed one dog of an approved breed to be kept in an HDB flat. The approved breeds of dogs are the smaller dogs which are generally more manageable. Please click here for the list of approved breeds of dogs.

Cats are not allowed to be kept in HDB flats as they are nomadic in nature and are difficult to be confined within the flats. Due to the nomadic nature of cats, the nuisances caused by cats such as shedding of fur, defecating/urinating in public areas, noise disturbance etc would affect the environment and neighbourliness in our housing estates. In view of this, HDB has the policy of not allowing cats to be kept in HDB flats.

HDB allows flat owners to keep other pet animals such as fish, hamsters, rabbits, birds, etc which generally do not cause nuisance to the neighbouring residents.

That's news to me. Only one, small dog and no cats. My neightbour has a cat and I've always wondered why it seems deadly afraid of straying more than 10ft from the flat door. Now I presume he has been strongly disciplined that way to avoid complaints from neighbours.

And the dog rules flies in the face of what you see around the flats. Lots of small dogs, but many people with 2 dogs. There's an Indian chap who has an enormous, lupine animal; you know the type, with strange blue eyes. It's an mild-mannered animal but there's no way it's on the HDB official dog breed list. There were posters put up matching its description advising it missing and offering a reward for return. Sounds like it was stolen to order as frankly, how do you lose such an animal? It's not like car keys.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tries their best. They recently put up posters on good practices for feeding the (officially stray) cats around the blocks (nothing you didn't already know) and their website features an adopt an animal list. There's no cats but instead it's mostly non-HDB approved dogs so only private householders can adopt them and even condos and apartments have rules. It's not looking good for Moo Ping and friends.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Marketing Libraries

I avoid marketing surveys, especially since being conned into doing a personality audit by Scientologists back in 1979 ("it'll only take 5 minutes" - there must have been 500 questions). Nevertheless, I was clipboarded in the library by a nice lady doing market research; I'm allowed to break my own rules and she said only 5mins and no personal questions.

First question: "Name"? That's sounds personal to me. Okay, just put anything. Then "E-mail address"? Uh oh. Then the classic "Where are you from"? (the form said "Race"). As long-term readers know this is one issue I have explored deeply so when she started writing "British" I interjected. British is not a race, it's a nationality, but she wasn't bothered and moved on.

The chirpy clipboard lady finished up with a smile. Not because I gave interesting answers but rather my completed questionnaire achieved her quota so she could now go home. She insisted on giving me a plastic pen stenciled with "Media Research Consultants Pte Ltd (www.mrconsultants.sg)". It's a nice web address but if MrConsultants is listening, I have to report that the pen is now in the bin. I don't keep cheap pens; they are unpleasant to write with, feel awkward in the hand, fail unpredictably and seem to multiply when you turn your back. Plus, you didn't pay me enough to endorse your company.

Pentel fibre tip, ultra fine in black. Now that's a pen worth writing with. I'm also rather partial to the Japanese ultra fine pens like the Muji Gel Ink Pens (0.38mm) or Pilot G-2 Gel Pen (0.38 mm). For aficionados, there's been huge R&D yen thrown at sub millimeter pens but 0.38mm is good enough for me.

So what did I say about the library? The book collections are very good (some libraries have better collections for certain topics) and the computer search system is Okay but it badly needs a usability re-design to reduce the number of steps for typical actions. The main problem with all the libraries is the lack of fitness for modern purpose. I want tables with power outlets so I can read books and use the wireless Internet. I don't need S$2.90 coffees or armchairs where I have to balance the laptop on my knee. I don't want to have to bring a sweater to sit for more than half an hour in the chilly air-con. I don't really want to tote the heavy books home either. I'd rather borrow books 'virtually', using some kind of book reader software on my home computer. Frankly, I'm surprised libraries have lasted this long into the Internet age.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Don't You Oppress Me

It's a line from Monty Python's film The Life of Brian where Stan, played by Eric Idle, declares to his fellow subversives of the People's Front of Judea that he wants to be known as Loretta and have babies. Reg (John Cleese) points out that he can't have babies, being without a womb necessary for gestation, and Stan/Loretta indignantly replies with "Don't you oppress me". It's an effective response, claiming victim status over a factual refutation.

I'm reminded of this exchange while sitting here, coughing, eyes watering as my (Chinese) neighbours burn hell money, joss papers and other offerings to discharge their filial duty towards their dead relatives. Lighting the fire on the landing of the HDB means using a wok or old oil tin as a container. The conflagration is intended to be smoky (think transubstantiation); smoke & ash gets blown by the wind, mostly it seems, in through my front door. My computer is turning grey and the keyboard is the same colour as your tongue when you have a nasty bout of flu. (Ed. this post was written before my current cold and has an ominous Dorian Gray feel to it)

Googling around the forums, nuisance burning is a common topic of debate. Asthmatics have it really bad, having to retreat indoors, put the air con on and wait it out. Even reasonable, intelligent posters display cognitive dissonance, either claiming they do their offerings at a temple, or away from other people or just go for the "don't you oppress my religious freedom" line. It's not strictly religious but "don't you oppress my traditional beliefs" is less persuasive.

You might imagine that such anti-social behavior wouldn't be permitted in tidy Singapore; let's find out. First, ask a policeman at the local kiosk: "So long as the fire doesn't burn property (the building) then the Environment Agency says it's Okay." That's clear enough. The NEA are responsible for enforcement and any burning that is a nuisance can be reported and NEA officers will investigate. Let's check their NEA website FAQ:

Q: are people allowed to burn joss-papers and candles in public places?

A: The public must clean up the place after they have made their offerings. When burning joss-papers, candles, etc. they should use containers. Residents in town council estates should make use of the burning pits and containers provided by the town councils.

To minimise problems when burning joss-papers, candles, etc., the Government introduced the following control measures on 1 March 1998:
• Joss sticks shall not exceed 2 metres in length and 75 mm diameter. For large joss sticks up to 2 metres in length and 75 mm in diameter, no more than six may be burnt at any one time.
• Candles shall not exceed 600 mm in length. For large candles up to 600 mm in length, no more than two may be burnt at any one time.
• The burning of large joss sticks and candles shall not be within 30 metres from any building.

Ignore the stuff about big candles, that's not the issue. The key phrase is "Residents in town council estates should make use of the burning pits and containers provided". Near all HDB blocks there are permanent brick incinerators and semi-permanent oil-drum burners. These are almost universally eschewed in favour of tins on the landing, grass verges or the old favourite, drain gratings.

In my technical work, "should" is a command, equivalent to "must". But this is just an FAQ, let's call the NEA helpline to confirm. Susie was very nice but only had the same information available to her. When pressed, she confirmed that she understood "should" to mean "must".

So the local police (all 3 of them) and the NEA are inconsistent. The bobbies push a softly-softly "it's Okay" to inquisitive foreigners. The NEA confirm the legal position and will investigate but with what vigour or success? Enforcing environmental nuisance (fires, noise) is notoriously hard as a couple of visits by officers are rarely coincident with the problem or sufficiently threatening to induce a change of behavior.

The Government clearly follows a tolerant, low enforcement policy lest they offend their constituent's traditional beliefs (behaviors). This is another example of how Singapore's international stereotype of an uptight, rules-obsessed society of automata is naive. <cough>.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Wagging Singapore's Long Tail

I've mentioned before that Singapore seems to struggle with Long Tail effects. Singapore's international reputation is of modernity, technology and Internet savvy; odd then that online purchasing is still rare here. PayPal-style electronic money seems even rarer with deals either occurring at bricks'n'mortar stores or cash at MRT stations. One eBay vendor that I looked at listed a shop in Sim Lim IT center as their physical store but if you check out the address, there is no sign board, no stock, just a crappy mobile phone accessories store. They'd likely done a deal to use the shop as a pick-up point. Bad idea as there were established shops selling the item for less just 2 floors down.

One slight exception is craigslist which seems to tick over at low revs and is a popular spot for expat garage sales. Now with RSS feeds on each section, you can subscribe directly to that sub-topic. If/when I buy a house, this is how I will furnish it.

I posted up an old RAM stick on craigslist the other week; it hasn't sold but I was mightily amused by the one reply I did get. Bear in mind it's worth about £8, best offer secures:

Hello seller,
My name is Engr.frank Smith,From New York, And i have come across your item on viva street and i am willing to pay you $ 700.00USD for the item including the shipping to west africa cos am buying it for my younger brother that lives in west africa and i will be making your payment via BANK TO BANK TRANSFER OR PAYPAL ACCOUNT PAYMENT and i want you to give me your full detail for the payment information like this:


Pls reply me back immediately so that i can continue with your payment right away.
Nice doing business with you
Engr.frank smith.

It's laughably bad even after years of Nigerian advance fee frauds but I wonder if this kind of extravagant offer works better here? Hard to say as greed is a universal weakness.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Neighbourhorde Watch

I'm getting to see a lot of the Newbours or rather, I see lots of different neighbours an average amount each. That flat opposite is about the same size as ours, a corner unit with 3 bedrooms, and by my count there are 3 generations: mum, dad, daughter, son-in-law, older son, junior school son, baby, dog.

A (Chinese) Malaysian family apparently although that's hardly news. Lots of Singaporeans are originally Malaysian; the local MP, for example. My insider info is they are paying S$2,000 (£727) a month rent. Sounds a tad high to me but the market has shot up in the last year so if they are locked-in for 2 years, it might be a fair rate.

With such a crowd, it's no surprise that they have all their washing on racks outside along the corridor. They've got rid of a lot of rubbish as well; they binned the busted air con unit, the packing boxes and the old sofa set, but the countless shoes remain. The dog is small and yappy but they keep the door closed mostly and are a helluva lot quieter than the (Malay) couple next door the other way. Don't get me started. I said DON'T GET ME STARTED!

Monday, 7 April 2008

Towering Inferno

It must be one of those times of the year when Chinese burn things to appease, acknowledge and venerate their dead relatives. The big Ghost festival is held in the seventh lunar month of the Chinese year (circa August) and so is still months away. I think this one must be QingMing held 104 days after the winter solstice, around 5th April. You can tell because the intensity of smoke pollution rises dramatically.

People are lighting fires from 6am onwards, likely before going to work, whereas on a typical day it would be just the usual suspects between 8am and 10am. These recidivist fire starters return to the same spot every time with a consistent MO:

  1. Take good handful of papers, hell money and optionally 10 - 15 joss sticks
  2. Find a suitable spot near your house. Don't use the incinerators provided but instead consider the concrete apron around the HDB block. On top of a metal drain grating is popular (the ash doesn't fall through much but it feels like it might). A grass verge will do and after a couple of days there won't be any grass to kill, so no worries. If it's raining, move under the void deck and find a quiet corner up against a concrete wall; don't worry about the paint
  3. Separate papers by folding each one over to create a loose pile
  4. Light pile in several places
  5. Wait a minute until it gets going
  6. (optional: throw joss sticks on fire)
  7. Hold hands together and concentrate briefly on your filial duty. The exact form is unimportant as this is not a religious activity, rather a Confucian-inspired homage
  8. Pickup & carefully dispose of any packaging from the papers & joss sticks
  9. Bugger off home.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Vague Nibble of the iClones

The Times ran a light-weight piece about the first iClones (iPhone copies) available in Singapore. Bylined "Attack of the iClones", the tone is of cheap sensationalism and hyperbole; they describe the iPhone as a much-hyped gizmo. Reality check: Apple is now in the top 10 phone manufacturers after only 9 months of sales. And hype means excessive or intensive publicity; or exaggerated claims made in advertising; the official Apple advertising is notably simple and extremely unusual for mobile phones as it entirely consists of demonstrating the device is use.

There are a few imported iPhones in Singapore already. Indeed the world-wide trade in them is brisk since it's only officially sold in about 6 countries (US, Canada, Germany, France, UK, Ireland?). China Mobile says there are over 400,000 in use on their network alone and it's never been sold there.

The main thrust of the article was to introduce the D800i HiPhone, at first glance a striking fascimile of the iPhone. I had a play with one in Sim Lim recently and I can tell you straight, Apple has nothing to fear; it's rubbish. They were asking S$320 (£110) and it is a conventional tri-band phone with a removable battery, look-a-like touch screen and music player (max 2GB micro SD card). But a clone it certainly is not. A clone is a biological term and even the everyday meaning is that of an exact copy. I'd say a facsimile, from the Latin fac simile, "to make similar", is a bit of a reach as well.

The HiPhone doesn't have WiFI or a web browser, just a WAP browser, so this really is just a phone, not a hand held Internet device. The limited flash memory for music barely exceeds the smallest, £35 iPod Shuffle and is woeful against the lowest configuration iPhone that has 8GB. The screen is fuzzy with muddy colours. They copied some of the screen icons but they mean different things; they have to because so many features are missing. The other software is strictly a box-ticking exercise to claim features with a user interface (surely the one thing they should have cloned) a series of nightmarish design shortcuts.

At least Samsung's new Instinct looks the part even if it is similarly cobbled together. If you are still tempted, be aware that T-Mobile is clearing the low-end iPhones for EUR99 and industry insiders are tipping SingTel to launch a new 3G iPhone here in September. Anyone buying one of these fakes is going to look embarrassed very soon.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Don't Panic! (please)

According to the Government, there is no, repeat, no shortage of rice in Singapore. The Times ran a page-1 headline yesterday confirming the Government's assurance that there was plenty of rice; the picture editor found a shot of a rice warehouse to emphasise the point.

If you haven't been following, international rice prices have been rising which has prompted some major exporting countries, India, Vietnam and China, to restrict exports to avoid domestic inflation. Thailand has also now put some restrictions in place, causing price rises in Singapore. It's a staple food and people get very jittery about rice and cooking oil in particular (there were cooking oil disturbances in Malaysia last year).

Hence the Government assurances, but my local NTUC rice aisle was stripped entirely bare yesterday and stories suggest pockets of panic buying when someone buys an extra bag, and then someone else thinks they should, and so on.

I'm not fussed; I eat rice but I'm not about to start stock-piling 10Kg bags to save a few dollars over the next year. It's not like petrol for which there is no alternative if you own a car, anyway both rice and petrol degrade when stored. So some food prices will rise and life will carry on. This is one herd instinct I plan to ignore.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Writing Backwards

My subconscious noticed it first as a gazed blankly out of the train window. Focusing on the block number on the corner of the HDB, the digits are painted in reverse italics, the numbers slope backwards not forwards.

Have you ever wondered why italics only ever tilt to the right? No word processor that I know of allows the opposite tilt. I moment of reflection and the answer is plain - right-handed people naturally tilt their letters to the right, and left-handed people just have to do the best they can. English typography is strictly right handed.

The reverse just looks ... wrong. The Chinese (and Japanese) ideograph for a person is like an inverted "Y", a forward slash "/" with a leg stuck out to represent a person walking. So even though Chinese can be written right-to-left, left-to-right or vertically, they chose a person walking to the right. We walk by falling forwards and catching ourselves at each step so it looks natural and progressive. We don't walk backwards (the lower leg and foot are wrong) and leaning back just looks like a person toppling over.

I find it surreal, in the Salvador Dali sense, evoking his pictures with clocks that have melted over edges like soft cheese. It can't be a mistakenly reversed template as "812" isn't left-right mirror reversible. A quick look around shows newer blocks tend to have straight numbers, older ones italicised or at least some digits with a bit of a lean. It's inconsistent as digits with horizontals (7, 4) painted straight, but looped digits (8, 6) leaning. This evidence-based approach suggests an errant paint job but I prefer the idea that there is a subversive element at work; an urban graffiti sign-writer executing hit'n'run typography anarchy. It makes a welcome change from Singapore's controlled, uniform street scene.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Social Libraries

Singapore's district libraries, termed Community Libraries, are more like Community Drop-in centres. With books. People do go there to read but also just to cool off in the air-con (which is set a couple of degrees too low for long-term comfort), feed babies, read newspapers, do homework with school mates before splitting up to go home, use the wireless Internet access and to borrow books. I go there for the books and sometimes to work, purposes that place me in a minority.

Bishan library is a funky building with a really good collection of books. There are glass protrusions from the front elevation which you can sit in, but it's all hard walls and floor so they're not that great to use. The other odd design decision was to dispense with stairs up to the 2nd floor and use a long ramp. You have to walk further and it's more tiring than stairs. I'm all for accessible buildings but is this a glimpse of the future where all stairs are converted to long, switchback ramps? Maybe they were planning for when we will all own Segways.

Eating, drinking, smoking and using mobile phones are all banned in libraries but Bishan has a decent cafe on the ground floor which annoyingly has the monopoly on the nice tables and chairs. Its round company logo is such a direct rip of Starbucks in a brown color scheme I half expected the place to be called StarBooks. So if you want a nice table and chair you have to stump up for a coffee, espresso or smoothie. It's relatively expensive. Most of the school kids buy a coke and make it last a whole homework session.

I popped into my old library in England a few months back and was struck by how much it had changed since I first used it when it opened 25 years ago. Half of the upstairs was converted into an Internet cafe and the lady handing out tickets casually stated the building was no longer fit for purpose but couldn't be replaced because it was protected. Singaporean libraries are also caught in this transition. Clientèle split roughly into thirds; some just want a cool building to sleep, read a paper or do homework, others want books and the rest just want Internet access. In Sembawang library, you have to watch your step as people plug laptops into power outlets at pillars and just sit on the floor.

All of which highlights the problem with modern libraries. Fifty years ago, they existed as valuable civic amenities when people couldn't necessarily afford books or homes with space for big study tables. Where else could you access a wide range of research and reference material? Librarians were knowledgeable researchers and libraries were impressive civic structures to store physical books. The Internet makes information weightless and volumeless. Library designers are slow to acknowledge they are going the way of high-street banks. Banks used to be impressive stone buildings intended to induce trust and to protect cash. Now there are often just a row of ATMs with most transactions occurring online.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


I should be a huge fan of wireless@SG, but I'm really not. Not yet anyway. Wireless@SG is the Government sponsored WiFI network that was launched last year. It is not, as is often reported, an island-wide network, but rather a collection of hotzones around MRT stations and shopping centres intended for use while on-the-go. It certainly doesn't reach anywhere near my house. The closest would be the McDonalds either at Khatib or Northpoint.

It provides a free, unlimited use, basic Internet service running at (up to) 512kbps downlink, but you can chip in and pay for a premium service. The free service is subsidised (until 2010 at the moment) by the Government to promote wireless services and devices. They divvied up the contract to 3 operators who each cover about one third of the island. You have to register to use the network but a login account on any of the 3 operators works everywhere. Some locations automatically SMS you the URL when you come in range of a hotzone which is great for tourists and visiting business types.

My first experience was pretty poor. I applied online but used my home phone number. You were supposed to provide your mobile so they could SMS you the password so I needed a frustrating support call to get going. Pretty poor show as mobile numbers begin with "9" and landlines begin with "6" so the software should have caught that one.

In use, my major gripe is that it hardly ever works when / where I need it. Sure, sat in the lobby of SingTel CommCenter you get fantastic signal strength but elsewhere it becomes theoretical. Portable devices like phones & laptops don't have great antennas and may not even run at full transmit power so you really need to be close in to a node.

It's a pity you can't change your password so I have to remember 8 or 9 random letters and numbers. Logging in is done by portal page which captures your first web access. This is very common, but you need a full browser and keyboard. Until you login in, other IP services such as remote login won't work.

The last minor gripe is the incessant marketing. Every time you login, (with SingTel at least) you are asked to answer 2 personal questions. I positively refuse to volunteer information which is going to be used against me so I always get prompted with the questions. They are trying to provide location based services, but still the full list is mind-bogglingly intrusive:

"Imagine you can see promotions based on your preference around you when you log on to SingTel Wireless@SG! Isn't that fantastic?! No pop ups, mass email spamming or SMS alerts! All you need to do is to fill in the following questions so that we can serve you better."

• Name
• Family Name
• ID Type [I/C (pink or blue), FIN, Passport (foreigners only)]
• ID No.
• Date of Birth
• House No/Blk/Tower
• Street Name
• Floor / Unit No
• Building Name
• Postal Code
• Dwelling Type [ HDB | Private Property ]
• Email Address
• Mobile Number
• Home Phone
• Office Phone
• Fax
• Gender [ Male | Female ]
• Marital Status [ Single | Married | Others ]
If married, do you have any children? [ Yes | No ]
• Educational Level [ Below Secondary | Secondary| Post Secondary | University | Post Graduate ]
• Occupation [ Professionals / Managers / Executives | Proprietor / Business Owner / Company Owner | White Collar | Skilled Worker | Semi-skilled Worker | Students | Homemakers | Retired | Others ]
• Industry [ Manufacturing | Construction | Wholesale & Retail | Transport & Storage | Hotels & Restaurants | Information & Communications | Financial Services | Real Estate & Leasing Services | Professional Services | Admin & Support Services | Community, Social & Professional Services ]
• Personal Income [ No income | Less than S$1,500 | S$1,500 – S$2,499 | S$2,500 – S$3,999 | S$4,000 – S$5,999 | S$6,000 – S$9,999 | S$10,000 & above ]
• Household Income
• Which of the following are of interest to you: [ Entertainment |
Sports/Fitness/Health | Dine/Wine/Night Life/Clubs/Pubs | Fashion/Arts/Culture | Travel/Lifestyle | Business/Computers | Movies/Music | Gaming ]

Crikey, bad survey alert! Another major Singaporean organisation too timid to use the word sex and fluffs it with gender and then compounds the error by not using Masculine & Feminine. Who has a marital status of Other? Apparently they are only interested in your children if you are Married. Funny there's no "Do I want to avoid all market research: Yes/No". It's too depressing.

Still, it's free, unlimited, decently quick, increasingly available and when I get an iPhone, I'm hoping for the best but I expect to need 3G cellular data service as well for the majority of time when I'm out of range.