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:

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 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.
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.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Second Coming in Singapore

iPhone Credit: Apple ComputerIt might even be rapture, depending upon the calling plan prices. Local availability of the Jesus phone, so called because of the worshiping of Apple fans, has been announced by SingTel and Apple as part of the worldwide announcement of the iPhone v2.

One enterprising chap has already posted on Craigslist that he is taking pre-orders for network unlocked (jail broken) iPhones priced at S$420 (£156) for the 8 GB model and S$550 (£208) for 16 GB one. That might be a bold move considering the new iPhone software hasn't been released yet, let alone jail broken but it's a fair bet it will be by the time punters come knocking.

SingTel is also taking pre-orders and as usual you have to give them lots of marketing information. If you balk at an actual order (probably not legally binding on either party given there's no price stated) you can elect to be informed of developments. That requires to answer the following questions:

  • Name
  • NRIC/Foreign ID
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Address
  • Postal Code
  • Email Address
  • Mobile Number
  • Which is your mobile service provider?
  • Are you currently contracted to your mobile service provider?
  • When did you last sign a mobile phone contract with your service provider?

There are more questions; those are just the mandatory ones. It's a fact of life here that the state and commercial institutions demand and get very detailed personal information. Locals don't bother to fight it and (legal) foreigners like me probably just grumble. I might have to give in and pre-order because there's likely to be a big queue.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Buying news by the kilo

NewspaperI have given up buying the daily paper, instead I just catch the main stories online for free at the 2 newspaper's websites and also on local blogs. But I do generally buy the Saturday and Sunday editions for several reasons. All the advertising is much bulkier on Saturdays especially classifieds and property sections, the editorials and summaries are filled out but mainly because it is double the size for the same 80cents; the edition on my lap is 306pages and weighs 1.5Kgs.

It's enough to make you anxious; that's a lot of reading time to devote to keeping up with society and the implied imperative to do so runs counter to sound principles of time management, a focus on high-value productivity and the elimination of overhead. With my speed reading and skimming skills on song, I'm looking forward to see the coverage and summary of an eventful week.

First up will be the volte-face by the Malaysian Government over the ban on fuel sales to foreign vehicles within 50kms of a national border (ie, Singapore and Thailand). The policy was morphing before the end of the press conference that announced it. First, it wasn't really about Singapore but Thai truckers loading up on subsidised diesel, but they felt they had to be fair and apply the rule at both ends of the country. Then they delayed introduction by a week. Then it didn't apply to motorcycles because they have small tanks and were generally used by those less well off. Then they decided to scrap all fuel subsidies forcing an immediate 40% hike in prices for everyone. Talk about making policy up as you go along.

This still leaves Singapore gas more expensive but with the benefits reduced to the point of marginal gain. We might see a change in the 3/4 tank rule at some point but given the trigger is crude oil price volatility, I imagine the Singaporean Government will wait and see.

The other gem is a long tale of political mud-slinging and court cases. Briefly, a brother-sister pair of opposition politicians, the Chees, have a long history for spouting pure political vitriol against the ruling party (PAP) and its leaders. Their main target of course are the Lees (father MM Lee Kuan Yew and son , the current PM Lee Hsien Loong). The Lees sued the Chees for libel for their accusations in the lead up to the 2004 election. The Chees lost (they didn't turn up to court) and the hearings for damages have just concluded. They did turn up this time and with the opportunity to cross-examine the Lees in the dock, continued their outbursts which were comprehensively ruled irrelevant by the judge. The Chees have now both been convicted of contempt of court and received 12 and 10days in jail. The damages award (irrelevant since the Chees declared bankrupcy ages ago) is deferred.

The next story dovetails with the last. A long time Singaporean lawyer and dissident (his term) now a US citizen came back to Singapore to cover the Chee/Lee case. He checked in to a hotel and then posted his address and phone number on his blog together with a continuing diatribe (some well argued, some not) against the Government with a "come and get me" invitation. More seriously, he apparently e-mailed the judge of the Chee/Lee case with some unflattering comment on her impartiality. He was arrested for insulting a civil servant, held for 4 days, and while now out on bail, looks set to be charged with Sedition.

What I find curious is that sitting members of the cabinet will take on libel cases and defend themselves in court. The Chees certainly went beyond fair opinion into libel but it's the Singaporean way apparently that even fringe political accusations are never allowed to rest on file unchallenged. I don't think either side comes out well in the end although the court transcripts make for vicarious entertainment and many headlines. The dissident lawyer has no defence and provoked the authorities into arresting him. That's a standard dissident tactic but he's no Gandhi I don't see a bigger game plan. What now?

And that perhaps is the overall point. If this is the state of the art of Singaporean political opposition, then the Government has nothing to worry about.