Interesting ideas for green transportation

Well, I dont intend to touch on or cover the conventional ideas people have about green transportation, but I was quite intrigued by two innovations that The Economist introduced in their Technology Quarterly this week. These are places you normally wont hunt when thinking about cost-savings and environmental-friendliness, but it reminds you that there are actually many areas to work on to do your part for the environment, not necessarily on the biggest or most radical of ideas like, say, using electric cars.

The first innovation is a collapsible shipping container. If this catches on, it could overhaul the way ports work, as well as alter how our port at Tanjong Pagar and West Coast look like. Made from “a fibreglass composite”, it is cheaper to produce than the normal steel containers. The weight and space / volume savings would significantly reduce transportation costs (such as the number of ships used to transport the crates, the amount of fossil fuels used for the ships) which would then help reduce the environmental impact of shipping and trade. Treehugger has more details regarding this innovation.

The second innovation focuses on the wheels of vehicles and how they can be made more in more environmentally-friendly means as well as make driving more environmentally-friendly. The material used to make the tyres are now being modified to either increase fuel economy of the vehicles they are mounted on or to make the production of tyres greener.

Small improvements and advancements in terms of technology, but we need all these little contributions to “business as usual” by the private sector if governments are unwilling or unable to carry out the sweeping reforms necessary.

Stealth Marketing

I frequently go on to Apple Trailers to look out for interesting movies that are upcoming or that I’ve been missing out. They offer a good mix of films from Hollywood as well as some independent film makers. Recently, The Joneses caught my attention. Their own movie site is not exactly ready yet but here’s the synopsis from IMDb:

“The Joneses”, a social commentary on our consumerist society. Perfect couple Steve and Kate Jones, and their gorgeous teen-aged children Jenn and Mick, are the envy of their posh, suburban neighborhood filled with McMansions and all the trappings of the upper middle class. Kate is the ultimate trend setter – beautiful, sexy, dressed head-to-toe in designer labels. Steve is the admired successful businessman who has it all: a gorgeous wife, big house and an endless supply of high-tech toys. Jenn and Mick rule their new school as they embody all that is hip and trendy – cool clothes, fast cars and the latest gadgets. But as the neighbors try to keep up with the Joneses, none are prepared for the truth about this all- too perfect family.

The Joneses
The Joneses

Obviously, the title comes from the English catchphrase, Keeping up with the Joneses but the idea is interesting. The Joneses is a perfect family made up to market goods to the upscale gated community by a stealth marketing organization. I do suspect that big companies does this sort of things at times but probably more through viral marketing than to consciously employ people to befriend potential customers and introduce goods to them. Whether this is considered ethical, is perhaps what the movie is exploring.

In a sense, the movie calls for a reflection on how social forces are increasingly shaping our economic lives, and at the same time questioning the value of relationships.

The Personal Statement

Not another essay!

Your Singapore-Cambridge A Levels Results is just released, you scored pretty decent grades, enough to get you the course you want in University, so now what? The thing that stands between you and the offer to the course you want from the University is an application form (besides the tuition fees of course). And unfortunately the application form is not just about filling up your details and your results, it requires some information of your personality, aspirations and such. And they do this through a Personal Statement (or whatever they call it).

Usually a personal statement doesn’t offer any questions; at least UCAS works that way but they do give some sort of guidelines as to what to include in it. You should generally talk about your academic interest, the motivating factor behind your choice of course and some activities or achievements that is in line with that. Or if appropriate, you could talk about the kind of books you read. After which you can include some of your other interests and the reason for your choice of study setting. And depending on your preferences, you could end with an appeal for an offer.

Unfortunately, not all applications are that liberal with the stuff you can write. Some would restrict you with a question, which students might prefer at times. The most popular question that have been asked is ‘What are some values or beliefs do you hold on most strongly? Give evidence of how you demonstrated them.’ And to tackle this question, you basically have to choose some of these values and beliefs. They come across as pretty generic and the content would depend really on the story you have to tell about yourself. A good story is rare but would come strong; that doesn’t mean that ordinary tales about your life won’t stand out. You’ll never know. Here are some values that you might use and also guidelines as to what life story you can pick.

Discipline – How you managed to keep yourself away from temptations/distractions and pursue your goals (in studies and other endeavors of life)

Integrity – How you have been consistent in your thought, words and deeds (Maybe during leadership stints in CCAs, or what you’ve promised your teachers and friends)

Teamwork – How you might have dropped your own idea in support of a team activity and gone along with everyone (maybe in Project Work)

Compassion – How you’ve gone all out to reduce pain and sufferings of others (perhaps community work and such)

Hard Work – How you worked hard and it paid off (very cliche and overused value so I’m suggesting you don’t use it unless you’ve a unique experience to share)

Balance – How you’ve managed to juggle commitments and the lighter bits of life (once again, drawn from work and life)

Excellence – How you’ve insisted on the best from yourself and the people around you (probably in Project Work or your CCAs again)

There’s also questions that ask for an event or a person that has influenced your life; these usually end up being very cliche sort of writings but then if you know how to package it, even cliche writings can appear impressive. It is important that the influence is positive and powerful if not significant to your current attitudes towards life. This is especially true when your content has something original to offer within the cliche framework in the first place. I’ve seen the essay of a successful Havard Applicant about his mother’s influence in his life; he started out about how a cliche is one because it is often true and then about his mother who is a NASA engineer.

Other questions could simply ask for what you’ve done in your last summer vacation or what you will be doing before entering the university. These are easy for those with exciting experiences like touring around the world or working at an interesting job. For those involved in mundane jobs and boring work, try your best to extract lessons learnt from your workplaces and experience that could be applied to university life or the course of your interest. It could range from making calls and interacting with customers to researching on the Internet for some information your employer have asked you to put together.

Some other general pointers about this writing is to stay humble (humility, incidentally, could be used as one of the values) and to keep description of your experiences simple and free from unrealistic adjectives. Use plain English with more sophisticated sentence structures rather than bombastic words to impress readers. That way, you exhibit maturity of thought rather than a childish urge to flaunt your vocabulary. Finally, paragraph your writing properly and it would be best to get a tutor or teacher to go through it for you. They are experienced and have seen the statements by many other students so would be in a good position to offer advice for improvement.



I’ve recently finished John Cassidy’s Dot.con I got from library many days back. John Cassidy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and I always liked his writings about Economics. I’ll probably find a chance to lay my hands on his latest book, How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities soon.

Meanwhile, Dot.con have been an interesting read. It’s an old book, no doubt. I believe reading about the Internet Bubble now seem rather weird given that it has happened a while back and don’t appear to have any immediate relation with what I’ve been working on. Still, I think that events like this have lessons to offer that are often missed out and I was looking to read something a little further back given that I’ve been updating myself with The Economist all the time. John Cassidy didn’t fail me, starting his story from the time when the technology was developing for the rise of modern Internet, describing the roles that the US military and government played in its conception, research funding and even implementation. He combines the events leading up to year 2000 with interesting comparisons of speculative manias of the past and talks about retrospective telltale signs of irrationality.

He introduced me to Charles Mackay and his writing, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I subsequently realised I had the sections of Charles Mackay’s book in my 4-inch tome, The Real Price of Everything by Michael Lewis. Those pieces have just been added into my reading queue.

Cory Johnson reveals that John Cassidy was a rare skeptical voice with regards to the Internet Boom, but failed to live up to the promise of the title of the book:

Indeed, he is unable to dismiss the most fundamental notion (a mantra among the true believers) that the Internet changes everything. Despite the stock market meltdown, almost any reading of the evolving business practice wrought by the Internet suggests that more dramatic changes are yet to come.

In a sense, the Internet is not quite exactly an illusion so to speak. But I don’t think that was what John Cassidy was driving at. His idea is that business fundamentals have been abandoned during the period and it shouldn’t have been. The numbers he cites about businesses losing money even as stock prices climb is startling. He might have been against the arguments of the New Economy though, and he could have supported his argument with the fact that falling prices (with economic expansion) isn’t entirely an internal affair of US but a result of the external forces as well.

I’ve enjoyed the little stories told by Dot.con surrounding the whole boom and crash of the Internet, especially those about individuals trapped in those industries contributing and taking part of the boom. Besides that, Dot.con serves as a good look at human behaviours during a speculative mania.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in America

Who would think that Colin Goh, a Singaporean columnist, writer and film-maker based in New York, would write something about politics in The Sunday Times? Best (or worst, depending on what you think about politics) of all, his column usually features in the generally light-hearted Lifestyle segment. I normally skip his columns because he keeps writing about his baby and his otherwise banal life in New York, but I was intrigued by his column title for today’s article: “Mad Hatters and US politics”. I read on, to much curiosity and realisation.

He describes how US politics is now quite farcical thanks to the tea party movement that is taking root across much of America. This tea party movement is against big government, and wishes to claim back ground it thinks the government is infriging upon. And of course, this tea party movement is aligned with the Repbulican party and most (if not all) of its values: free markets and no government intervention “whether in the economy, healthcare or the environment”. I felt quite vindicated by his views, as someone who’d profess to be a Democrat if living in America. But let’s not argue about the views of the Democrat. The whole farce about politics in America today is that Republican opposition to policies and initiatives that the Democrats are proposing, can range from sensibly valid to stubbornly nonsensical.

Colin says that “The US government is ‘broken’ because of the political impasse between the two dominant parties, and the revival of the conservative movement.” And he uses Newton’s Third Law of Motion, that “every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction”, to describe the resistance of the Republicans to Democratic measures. He then writes that the conservatives seem unable to see the light about the whole crisis: that “lack of regulation just caused the biggest economic meltdown in years”, and that “the loudest opponents of regulation just happen to be… those evil bankers and corporations”. And I totally agree with him when he finds it “baffling… that conservatives are blaming the sorry state of the nation on the Democrats, who merely inherited the mess” from George W Bush.

And the Republicans are becoming a party of No just as Obama is saying that they should not be doing, for the sake of the nation. While I find it quite wrong for Obama to continue pushing through, by force, legislation on health care reform, the fact that no Republican agrees at all on anything despite already having some of their suggestions integrated into the policy does not make sense. I shall not go into details about health care reform, but suffice to say that as a Singaporean and someone who’s more liberal, I believe that health care reform is necessary and many people sadly are just unwilling to feel the pain in the short term for potential benefits in the long term (as much as this piece of legislation is flawed… which piece of legislation isnt?).

Donna Brazile, in The Mercury, also alludes to the tea party movement (the Republicans and the tea party movement are almost one and the same now) and their vehement resistance to President Obama’s health-care reforms. It gives more detailed examples of how Republican senators who campaigned for certain ideas in the bill to be included in the legislation but yet did an about-turn and dropped support for it in this final stretch of the race towards implementing the bill. It is not like President Obama did not offer them an open hand to reconcile differences, but the chasm between the two sides is probably too huge to surmount.

So has the Mad Hatter (what a coincidence, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is coming to screens near you now!) taken over the Tea Party in America, and made all these Tea Party-goers bonkers?

The source might be slightly biased given that Donna Brazile was a former campaign manager for Al Gore, former vice-president of America and a Democrat. Nevertheless, the problem remains: two polarised parties unable to agree on anything, unwilling to compromise, and hence unable to govern. For the good of all America, please come together to do something. It might be true that President Obama’s views might not reflect the views of the WHOLE population, but to sit there and just say “No” without concrete action (they provided the suggestions to change, but they tend dropped the support for those changes… those are concrete suggestions, but is that concrete action?) will not move the nation forward.

Imperfect Information (Processing)


The Economist ran a special report on Managing Data, which is really about how to Data have become really abundant in our world today and how it might help us at all.

It is interesting how I have got a friend who once commented that all forms of market failure is a result of imperfect information. He says that people are consuming too much or too little of a product because they don’t have perfect information about the impact of the products, and so basically all the inability to analyse cost and benefit is a result of imperfect information. Likewise, to this friend of mine, technological advancement is basically slowly discovering information, truths that we previously know nothing of. Of course, that’s a little extreme and basically demanding perfect knowledge as well. For him, perfect knowledge would naturally be attained from having sufficient information.

The digital age ushered in lots of information; so much that we don’t have enough time to process them. In fact, even cataloguing them might be troublesome enough and the process generates meta-data, which in fact is information about information. They would prove useful though they actually add to the information heap. Say for example I give you a quote:

The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:

If I don’t provide the source, it’s not particularly helpful unless you’re able to identify it from just the content. It’s from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. But then that’s just a little bit of metadata; there’s more: it comes from Act II Scene I. And even more: it’s from Line 14-16. The ability to manipulate all these data themselves would create more information too. And they all might just prove to be way too much.

Economics have definitely become more complex thanks to the flood of information. Technology has allowed suppliers to maintain tighter inventory and reduce idle capacity but reality seem to drift further away from classical economics even as the economic agent are becoming more equipped with the information necessary to create a more perfect market. It appears, the next big assumption of Economics about the real world that needs toppling is in fact the idea of independence.

Goodbye to EU?

EU - Tower of Babel?

We read frequently in the news about the demise of Pax Americana or the rise of the post-American world. I am not about to discuss at length the decline of America, but I want to bring attention to what many people might have neglected as they watch America’s supposed decline: Europe’s concurrent decline. And Europe’s decline is also of its own making, though of a different nature compared to the Americans: the financial crisis and its aftermath triggered all these claims about America’s decline, but it is the EU (European Union) and the way it operates that will do Europe / the EU in as a global power.

In Time magazine this week, The Incredible Shrinking Europe discusses why EU is beginning to lose its shine as a global power of equal importance compared to America and China. The magazine recognises that it is not that Europe is becoming poorer or that the people in the EU are suffering (unlike in America right now), but rather how the EU administration does things.

I highlight some of the main problems I see with the EU.

Some problems with the EU that have affected its standing in the global arena:

1. EU is too huge. Managing 27 member nations that each want their own voice to be heard is a mess. Obviously there will be countries that dominate (large ones like France & Germany), but its actions seem to be confounded by the differences in opinion between many of the nations, which will hamper what it is trying to say and do. Germany wants to work closely with Russia but the Eastern European nations in the EU are terrified of getting closer to Russia due to fears of the Cold War / Soviet Union days. This makes EU decisions on issues regarding Russia difficult and contentious.

2. EU seeks too much consensus. It goes for the “least-bad options”, which may be useful in slowly amending the status-quo, but when it comes to crucial decisions necessary to reform, the EU might fail because it decides to go for the lowest common factor instead of what is really best even if it might hurt. The procedure and the eventual selection of the permanent President and Foreign Minister reflect this. Picking two affable and unoffending people, Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy and British Lady Catherine Asthon, may have achieved the purpose of happiness amongst all EU members, but it does not help EU if it really wants people who can “stop traffic” and portray images of leadership, decisiveness and power.

3. EU has too many underwhelming leaders. With regard to too many, it now has 4 leadership axes that will potentially create much conflict. There’s a permanent EU Council President and EU Foreign Minister, on top of the original leaders: the rotating presidency (amongst the EU nations) as well each country’s heads of government / state. This is a “complex mechanism” that makes it difficult for constructive work. It could encourage turf wars as well as make it difficult to show solidarity. Who is American President Obama supposed to call when he needs help from the EU? Chances are, he will probably end up calling French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown or / and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, because he will directly enlist their help rather than go through the EU before reaching these leaders who make the decisions. Especially given current conditions, chances are he’ll skip calling Europe and go straight to other nations (that are, not coincidentally, emerging powers) like China, as evident following the Copenhagen climate summit where EU was almost totally sidelined despite having hosted the key summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.

4. EU is not as democratic as it claims to be. The way the Lisbon treaty was rammed down the throats of governments was evidence of how the EU parliamentarians and decision-makers just wanted to get things done without getting sufficient support from the people for their actions. The French and Dutch in 2005 first rejected amendments to the European Constitution. Then with the Lisbon treaty, making Ireland go through another referendum to force it to ratify the treaty (making little and unexplained amendments in the treaty along the way) does indicate of some undemocratic tendencies.

The United Nations (UN), with close to 200 members, has even more members, but while the UN may often be described as inefficient, it is still serving a huge purpose as a gathering of world governments that can act together in times of crises. At very least, it still has the symbolism and serves a purpose in its existence. While the EU has created much benefit for the member nations, it often seems to undermine or contradict local government decisions, probably because there is an isolated European Parliament that is rather insular to the real, on-the-ground views of the EU citizens.

In addition to this article in Time magazine, Time magazine interviewed EU Foreign Minister Lady Catherine Ashton for her views about EU. She does a good job with the publicity, but we will wait and see how she manages to get her job done given the difficult conditions she’s been placed in.

In my opinion, the EU has a lot of potential to create a balance of powers between America and the East / ascending developing nations such as China, India & Brazil. Indeed if we talk about the decline of Pax Americana, Europe should by right be part of the decline as well because it is after all closely allied with America and part of the West that is seeing stagnation / decline in political and socioeconomic spheres in the global domain. The EU can still serve as a role model in terms of an economic model that generally promotes cooperation and creates wealth for its denizens (but less so after the Greek debt crisis) as well as a relatively peace-loving actor on the global stage that can serve as a reminder for cooler heads to prevail in dealing with touchy issues like Iran and North Korea.

Printing Stuff

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Cheaper way of lighting up...

Imagine you need a square meter of light, perhaps for a single ’tile’ on the ceiling that emits lights at your building. You’d probably get contractors to make a box with circuits inside that connects to a couple of fluorescent tubes (or if you’re quite rich, a couple of LEDs) and then cover the thing with a translucent white piece of acrylic. The entire structure is bulky and probably quite energy consuming. Now, scientists have found a way to make a ‘sheet’ of LED that would allow you to make that ‘lighted tile’ much more easily and is also much more compact. Essentially, the technology allows you to print a circuit that is wired in a way that acts as a diode, and one that emits light.

And since we’re at the issue of printing stuff; we mentioned previously about industrial prototyping machines that churns out 3D structures/models. I was quite intrigued by the idea of being able to print out a peg for your clothes or even design a shoe that fits you perfectly. But perhaps even more amazing would be the ability to print out cells, tissues and even organs as reported by The Economist.

The article mentioned about growing organs from scratch and raised the example of bladders being grown from original cells of patients. Essentially the patients are donating organs to themselves; the same applies for the printing of organs. The idea is appealing because there’s nothing artificial about them beside the involvement of doctors in the process of growing the cells and putting them together – ultimately the organ is still organic and from the patients. Perhaps then, Iran’s model for kidney donation won’t be so appealing anymore.

Moving Fuji

Mount Fuji
Drag it around the screen?

A couple of weeks back I mentioned that I was readingHow would you move Mount Fuji‘ by William Poundstone. It’s an interesting read but no doubt pretty ‘scary’ in terms of the facts it is trying to convey. Poundstone presents not only the puzzles that are offered in interviews conducted by Human Resource departments of ‘talent-intensive’ firms but also a discussion on whether this methods work to hire people that these companies need. He highlighted that companies thinks bad hires are way too high a risk that they would rather risk losing a good hire than getting a bad one by mistake. As a result the interview processes are all skewed towards rejecting people (more or less) and identifying somewhat extraordinary people.

Poundstone identifies an important question HR people should be asking themselves when posing puzzle questions and that is whether the candidate’s response is going to make an impact on your decision to hire or not. If it doesn’t then there’s no point asking the question, like this particular interesting one. Indeed, from a HR point of view, interview time is precious and missing out on good hires is not a pleasant thing either, so structuring an interview to be efficient is very important. If a puzzle can help to bring out key information then it should be used; otherwise, it might just be an abuse of the interviewer’s position.

Well if you’re not interested in the software industry or the finance industry then the puzzles in the book would be nothing more than just a great past-time. This makes Poundstone’s book more interesting because his section of answers to the puzzles given as examples in the book launches into elaboration discussion of how one should approach the puzzles. He attempts to give us some general guidelines on solving these puzzles. He gives nine steps (mainly for interviewees though):

1) Decide what kind of answer is expected (monologue or dialogue)
2) Whatever you think of first is wrong (that’s why it’s a puzzle)
3) Forget you ever learned calculus
4) Big, complicated questions usually have simple answers
5) Simple questions often demand complicated answers
6) “Perfectly logical beings” are not like you and me
7) When you hit a brick wall, try to list the assumptions you’re making. See what happens when you reject each of these assumptions in succession
8) When crucial information is missing in a logic puzzle, lay out the possible scenarios. You’ll almost always find that you don’t need the missing information to solve the problem.
9) Where possible, give a good answer that the interviewer has never heard before

Overall, Mount Fuji is a good read, but I’m guessing most readers would want to speed past the explanations and go straight to the answers themselves. The best puzzles always have the most counter-intuitive solutions and elegant answers. For more practice, you might like to visit some of Poundstone’s reference sites: here, here and here.

Serious thinking on the Internet

Serious thinking time!

The Straits Times, on 19 February this year, republished an article written by Adam Cohen of the New York Times. Cohen’s article reminded me about some of the benefits of the Internet which many often overlook in view of the tremendous upwelling of “junk” (for instance, rag and gossip made more accessible online) on the Internet.

Cohen argues that some feel the Internet may be “driving culture ever lower”, but it is also allowing “a wealth of serious thinking”. He uses the example of a BBC podcast “In Our Time” which delves deep into history to examine “arcane topics from history, literature, science and philosophy”. This certainly would be the other side of the “Internet coin”, the benefits that could be accrued to laymen and academics alike. Albeit one needs to be interested before one can actually be open and be exposed to such “high-brow” knowledge, but at least it provides avenues for those interested to be enlightened.

While I admit I am not in the least interested in the “arcane topics” listed above, I am myself a beneficiary of the Internet in terms of exposure to “serious thinking”. is a good example. Short-form for Technology, Entertainment & Design, the website devotes itself to “Ideas Worth Spreading” by broadcasting presentations relating to these spheres and more, allowing netizens access to a more interactive / interesting showcase of what might be normally deemed inaccessible and arcane, meant only for academics and to be showcased in libraries and institutions. I have watched lectures / presentations that have amazed and enthused me about issues that interest me but would not propel me to borrow books from the library about it, such as on HIV/AIDS.

So… if you are bored, dont just watch paint dry on Youtube, watch something educational on and dont let your brain rot and idle.