Saturday, December 24, 2011


If I recall correctly, gifting is a practice that has negative overall utility. Prior experiments found that recipients of gifts tended to discount the value of the gift; for example, if a gift had cost $10, they deemed the gift to be worth less than $10. Perhaps unsurprising, given that gifts have a poor record of being exactly what people want. In the optimal case, gifts are exactly what you want, in which case nothing is gained over the case where you spend the money to acquire the item directly. In the worst case, you receive rubbish (from your point-of-view) and are worse off.

My analysis suffers from an assumption, which may be untrue. It assumes that the costs of gifts are equal for all people, i.e. you can't get the same gift at a lower cost than I can. However, sometimes this assumption is untrue. If one is able to obtain items at a discounted cost, then gifting makes sense. For example, if I were an artist, it is preferable to give people my artwork, since it does not cost me as much to 'buy' it as it does others. An alternative possibility is to gift others with items that you value poorly with respect to their generally perceived value; for instance if you hate bananas and happen to have some bananas, giving others the bananas is likely to improve the overall utility of the gifting scheme.

To summarize:
  1. Gifting is generally bad for everyone, unless,
  2. You give people something that you have a competitive advantage in procuring, or
  3. You give people stuff you hate.
 I find the third conclusion particularly interesting. I believe it should be combined with the conclusions from my previous article on "Free Gifts".

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thoughts on the MRT Breakdowns

The MRT system suffered two breakdowns in as many days. This has sparked a significant negative outcry from the public, and not entirely unwarranted. 

My first thought is on the nature of the criticisms of SMRT. It is indeed true that SMRT should be censured, but not for the breakdowns. Unless given evidence that the breakdowns were caused by SMRT, whether through neglect or incompetence, it is unfair to fault SMRT for what is essentially beyond their control. Accidents and failures happen even given the best of engineering and maintenance. It makes no more sense to punish them on this basis than to fine an employee for falling sick. 

What SMRT is culpable for is a flagrant and utter failure in crisis management. Few steps were taken to inform or redirect commuters from stations after the lines were down, and even that response was sluggish; stations should have refused passengers if no trains were to come. On the stuck trains, passengers were forced to smash windows for ventilation, which suggests that staff were unable to either calm or tend to passengers on the stopped trains. Furthermore, it highlights the lack of emergency supplies, be it torchlights or simple rations, on the train. The poor crisis response is damning as a whole on SMRT. It is not sufficient for any transport operator to only be concerned with its daily operations. I contrast SMRT's performance with my experiences on the London Underground. In terms of sheer number of breakdowns and scheduled line closures for maintenance, the Tube far far outnumbers the MRT. There, it's not unusual for some line to be down or closed. Yet the line information is always clearly displayed, whether on electronic or marker boards, at prominent points of entry and on the station platforms. Status updates of each line (whether a line is delayed, or whether service is good) are displayed by default. We should learn from this, especially since our lines and rolling stock is aging, and breakdowns are only going to get more frequent.

Apart from the breakdown itself, there was also some outrage over the perhaps insensitive wording of a taxi operator, who sent a message advising cabbies to seize the opportunity to ferry stranded passengers. Myself, I find there to be little reason for such a reaction. Those who are claiming that this is exploitation or profiteering are making an absurd statement. They're not demanding extra fares or anything, merely optimizing their chances of picking-up passengers. What's wrong with rerouting taxis to points where there is high demand? Surely, the situation is superior to one where all the cabbies are roaming around the island with empty cabs and stranded commuters are left waiting? The sole fault is a poor wording "Income Opportunity", which though possibly callous in a deontological sense, does not really strike me as being particularly offensive.

As of Saturday the MRT has broken down yet once more. Thrice in a week hints at systemic problems in maintenance. It will be difficult to put this down as a series of random occurrences.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Battleships in the Terran Era

The earliest battleships were designed to meet the very specific needs of their time, which was not ship-to-ship combat, as fleet planners did not expect the outer colonies to possess any sizable naval resistance. Rather, battleships were purpose-built to destroy orbital and planetary defences, and to partake in planetary bombardment roles. Fleets of battleships had little purpose except to bring unruly planets into line with the threat of annihilation from orbit. Since vessels only expected resistance in the form of satellite-based weapons platforms or (more rarely) planet-side weapons, early naval designs emphasized heavy frontal armor and forward-facing heavy lasers, with corresponding penalties to propulsion. Such designs enabled battleships to dish out the largest amount of damage to largely-immobile defence platforms, while being relatively unscathed by the return fire. 

Such design philosophies were sufficient in the early Terran era, when space was the sole domain of a single power. But the galaxy was too large for a single watchful eye, and eventually, whether through neglect or exhaustion, other powers rose. Though these nascent nations stood united in opposition to Terra, their actions towards the less developed worlds was far from benevolent. With fleets of their own, they too spread to stake their claim over the various worlds. The tools of war were unchanged, and only the flags flown were different.
The first purely naval battle was fought between two fleets of much different size. Even with the advantage of numbers, the Terran fleet was unable to inflict a total defeat on the enemy forces. Though at the time much blame was placed on the commanding admiral, the modern consensus is that early battleship design was far too ill-suited for fleet-to-fleet combat. Forward-facing heavy lasers directed a devastating beam, but only in a extremely narrow firing arc. Against a mobile target, one that could maneuver in any direction in 3D space, this was a severe handicap. The problem was compounded by the comparatively slow charge times for the weapon and the poor maneuverability of the battleships, especially in performing spatial rotations. Taken together, the battleships could not track and hit moving targets with much reliability. 

The end of the late Terran era was marked with several major fleet battles, none of which had any conclusive victor. Very rarely was the balance of powers changed in any significant way purely though the use of naval force. Despite the failure of battleships as decisive weapons, the concept of naval power retained its place in popular imagination as symbols of national power. Later technological advancements would vindicate the importance of the battleship as mighty weapons of interstellar war.

Part II: The Age of Contention

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

I'm currently reading "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio", which is a classical Chinese work ("Liao Zhai"), translated by the famed sinologist Herbert Giles.

Now, there are usually uppity people who refuse to read translated stories of any sort, with claims that the content is necessarily distorted, or that the original flavor is lost. I don't agree with such ideas, because a work is a work, however distinct it is from the source material. It's acceptable as a form of entertainment.

I really like "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio", for a few reasons. First is the distant familiarity of the material, which has been presented in various refracted forms in movies (A Chinese Ghost Story, Painted Skin). It's certainly interesting to see how the original tales and ideas have been fleshed out, or more often, dramatized. The second reason is that the stories, in themselves, quite entertaining tales- in fact they are more akin to Chinese fairy tales.

"Strange Tales" is also quite an intriguing study, for two meta-reasons. The first is that the stories, being written in the 18th century, necessarily provides a look into Chinese society of that time. In fact, several customs and behaviors unique to that time are described within the book, which contributes much color to the stories. 

The second reason is the prevalence of footnotes, provided by the translator Herbert Giles, in the text. These footnotes give an explanation of Chinese behaviors or customs, in a Westerner's context. Sometimes these footnotes are quite quaint in nature, such as one where he commented on a named Chinese dish as being especially tasty. At other times the footnotes describe a decidedly Orientalist interpretation of traditional Chinese customs, which I (ironically) read with a sort of Occidentalist delight ("I find it amusing that this Englishman finds this Chinese tradition amusing!").

I have yet to finish the book, but I'm enjoying it very much now.

Time-Differentiated Public Transport Fares

The frequency of public transport during non-peak hours is typically lower than that during peak hours. This can result in extremely poor service quality during non-peak hours, with long waits for buses or trains.

It is possible to increase the frequency of public transport for off-peak hours, but that typically requires additional resources. This could mean a general rise in public transport fares. However, I am wondering if a time-differentiated fare structure would be a superior option. Such a fare structure would charge different fares, dependent on the time of boarding/arrival.

A first thought is to increase off-peak transport charges, to pay for the additional services deployed. This helps to make off-peak transport less of a loss-making venture, or even marginally profitable. However, increasing charges on non-peak rides would change public transport usage patterns, as some riders may instead seek to leave earlier or later to use the cheaper peak-hour transport. This increases  the peak-hour burden, and simultaneously decreases the ridership (and profitability) of off-peak public transport. Therefore it is not a good option to charge more for off-peak fares.

The reverse fare structure seems to be a better idea. Charging more for peak-hour fares reshapes transport-usage patterns in a beneficial way, reducing the rush-hour load and increasing the ridership for off-peak transport. Furthermore, the additional charges ought to go a far way in subsidizing buses or trains running during less-profitable hours.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Evidence for Hub and Spoke Model of Public Transit

It seems to me that during rush hours, more passengers alight from the front entrance of the bus rather than from the rear entrance. This could mean one of several things:

1)That passengers who board earlier take longer trips.
2) That passengers who board later drop earlier.

Taken together, there is some evidence that people use buses for one of two modes, trunk or short trips. It is correspondingly less efficient if a service caters to both types of passengers; much of the vehicle capacity is taken by trunk passengers, whereas the frequent alighting and boarding reduces the overall speed of the route.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NUS Notebook Tender Scheme

It was once that prices for notebooks under the NUS Notebook tender scheme were attractive. This is no longer the case.

I was dumbfounded to find the prices for NUS notebooks to start at $1.4k. These prices would be reasonable perhaps only a few years back, but not today. It is possible, and in fact not difficult, to purchase a decent notebook for slightly more the half the price. You're not even getting crap at $800; you'll easily get a 2nd generation i5 processor, and if you're astute, a discrete graphics card more than capable for graphics, video, and games.

But I digress. Perhaps it is indeed possible to purchase a low-cost laptop outside. We might argue that the NUS laptops are much higher spec, which accounts for their comparatively higher cost. However, after doing some comparisons, I find that in general, it is possible to purchase similar or superior spec laptops at lower prices outside. The price differentials generally work out to be on the order of $100 ~ $200. These figures were obtained by comparing the prices listed on the NUS website and flyers from the recently concluded COMEX.

It now appears that in terms of price, the NUS notebooks are not attractive, nor even competitive. Perhaps the only saving grace comes in terms of the software packages bundled; all NUS models come with Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite. Only if one does indeed need these software packages, and factors in these at their full selling price, does the NUS option become competetive. However, I am very much doubtful.

There are several points that I find distasteful about the entire affair. The notebook prices are uniformly high, and in my opinion cannot possibly be optimally suited for the needs of every student. Not every student needs, or wants, a superior laptop in the course of his studies. Not every student uses Adobe Creative, or even possibly Microsoft Office. The main factor of choice appears to be neglected in the equation. I fear that students have been made to tolerate paying for unwanted features that are merely the result of some administrator's list of 'necessary features'.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

FPTP and Information Loss

I hesitate to draw the conclusion that the majority of Singaporeans do not want TT as their president. This is akin to holding a contest amongst friends for the most-loved person and concluding that the losers are hated. 

The information provided by a FPTP vote is binary in nature. Each vote only tells us who a candidate most prefers, and nothing else. Perhaps he approves of all or some of the other candidates, just slightly less. Perhaps he disapproves of everyone, but he hates his choice the least. But such important information is destroyed and irrecoverable with a FPTP system.

My preference is for approval or Condorcet voting.

Entry Barriers and the Singapore Presidential Election

The spoiler effect may well have been the cause of Dr. Tony Tan's victory in the recent 2011 Singapore Presidential Election. I do not wish to comment much on this, apart from making the point that First-Past-The-Post voting systems have several disadvantages as compared to other more complex preferential voting schemes.

What I do find interesting is this: It is known that there are very high entry barriers to running in the Singapore Presidential Elections; these entry barriers manifest themselves first in the high standards required to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility, and second in the hefty election deposit. High entry barriers act to deter and perhaps to impede alternative candidates from participating in the elections. Yet from this election it appears that allowing more candidates to participate actually improves the chances of victory for the establishment candidate.

Lowering the entry barriers allows more candidates to participate in the elections, and increases the fragmentation and splitting of votes (though tactical voting will limit the effect, but I despise the very idea of tactical voting). However, at the risk of adopting a binary view of the political system, I speculate that the establishment may be assumed to be sufficiently disciplined to put forth only one candidate, and hence is less susceptible to split vote effects. 

Therefore, I wonder if the governing party would be more advantaged if there were actually no entry barriers erected in place.

Idiot Spam

A bunch of idiots spammed my mailbox. Basicially these morons replied to all, when all was the entire student cohort. Below is the correspondence, their names are replaced to preserve their anonymity.

I am not sure why I got this mail. I guess there was a mistake in the mailing address from the sender.
Sorry, but guess I received the mail by mistake as well.
Please do not reply to all when u respond! This is for all those who at gonna potentially respond that "this mail is not meant for me"
So you mean I shouldn't hit reply-to-all when I wish to reply to the original sender?
That was really informative! =D
I'll be sure to send that to the original sender.
Best Regards,
Can we stop replying all? Thank you very much!
Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, August 14, 2011


"Is it even necessary? Everyone's a hypocrite, attempting to create some semblance of justification for what is, fundamentally, a series of arbitrary choices. Why the cowardice? Why the inability to act without having some rubber-stamp of approval?

Don't even begin to defend yourself. You can try, surely. But no matter how deep your defense, how much time you have spent imposing rigor into it, there must be flaws- unless you are arrogant enough to believe that your view, above all others, is supreme. Ludicrous.  The fact of the matter is that people don't act according to their principles, but that principles are created to justify their acts. They may believe otherwise, the self-serving creatures we are.

Discard those flimsy notions. Have confidence in your preferences, not because of some ridiculous reason created retroactively, but because they ARE your preferences. Nothing more is required."


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Having a stranger stare right into your eyes, that makes anyone feel uncomfortable. One feels an instinct to avert one's gaze and break the unsolicited eye contact, as if that stops the stranger from continuing his probing study. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and we surely shutter it from prying eyes. That is merely human.

This person called Stanley commutes to work by train. He gets on somewhere near the start of line, where he is almost certainly assured of a seat. The journey takes some time, and some people choose to read, while others engage themselves with their fancy gadgets. Yet others grab this opportunity to get some shuteye. Stanley does not of these things, at least not anymore. He has other ways of passing the time.

Stanley likes to look right into the eyes of strangers.

He wasn't always like this. A time ago he was just like any other person, unable to look into the eyes of strangers without feeling a thorny sense of awkwardness. Then, he would always shutter his eyes and pretend to be asleep just to avoid crossing gazes with the nameless passengers seated across him on the train. Even then he felt uncomfortable, especially if the person seated across him was an attractive woman.

He doesn't do any of these things now. Now his eyes just pierce right through whoever sits on the opposite side of the train.

The change was not a gradual one, not one effected over the course of many weeks or months. It was a sudden transformation, inspired by an unsolicited epiphany. It just happened one day, where he was on the train again, with his eyes closed in mock sleep. Then he had the thought, "Perhaps the discomfort comes not from staring at others. Perhaps the feeling of unease comes from being stared at, from being exposed to scrutiny. If I am the one doing the scrutinizing, doing the observing, doing the staring, then I have nothing to fear nor to feel uneasy about."

And so he opened his eyes, and he saw a great many things which he had failed to notice before. He started out by noting the appearances of people, first the clothes and accessories they wore, then the body shape and skin complexion, and finally their facial features. Humans were interesting!

Friday, July 29, 2011


To live longer, to have more free time. These desires seem universal. I don't know whether they're good, though. With excess comes waste, and what at cost does that excess come?

Let's take longevity. We're all afraid of dying. We know the immeasurable extents that some will go to to extend their lifespans. I hesitate to ask, but is it worth it? Quantify the difference between living til 78 and dying at 80. Two years is a vast treasure in the hands of a spirited agent, but not so for someone who merely wishes to delay the inevitable. And the cost of it. Let's not mention the resources needed to counter ailments and disease. Retirement itself requires funds. To live longer means to work longer, more productive years lost to tedium and toil. 

I'm not defending a stone-age lifespan where we're all mayflies. To think so would be to commit the mistake of a false duality. Perhaps there's some optimal length of time that compels us to treasure our time, and is sufficient in length for us to fulfill all that we can reasonably desire to do. Perhaps not.

To Know Better, To Execute Better

Advice is one of those items that is very much unwanted if unsolicited. The audacity of them to think that they know better about us then we ourselves! What are we, incompetent? Stop interfering!

Could we say the same of paternalism, or even government in general? We don't need a strong hand constantly looking over our shoulder, prodding us in "our best interests". To be nagged or beaten, just to force us to act in line with some projected notion of what's best for us, strikes many as being quite unacceptable.

It's difficult to argue that others know us better than ourselves, though in several cases our confidence in our self-understanding is merely an illusion. So, let's just grant that we know what we want, for argument's sake. However, knowing what we what doesn't actually make us any better at obtaining or fulfilling such desires. Motive does not imply competence. This is even more true when it comes to more complex phenomena, such as society or government.

In politics, a false dilemma is often presented between a layman that knows nothing of the art of governing, but who knows the trials and tribulations of the populace, and a highly trained and efficient robot that unfortunately has no realistic idea of what anyone really wants. Let's avoid such false dualities. It does occur in nature, but only as a result of willful ignorance. It occurs when someone speaks from his experience, but does not study the consequences of his suggestions. It occurs when someone performs a correction, but does not bother learning whether there was a problem in the first place. Both are regrettable, possibly well-intentioned, but not correct.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Rule Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is the moral policy that the right or ethical action in any circumstance is the action that results in the best outcome. Though there are several practical difficulties with utilitarianism, I think that it is still practicable in real life.

First, I'll need to define what practicable means. Amongst all the ethical theories, utilitarianism is the most difficult to implement and requires the most judgment. Rule-based or intent-based systems are considerably simpler for a moral agent to follow, since no moral calculation is generally required. Furthermore, utilitarians need to constantly assess each and every potential action, many of which may be irrelevant under different ethical systems, in order to obtain the "best" outcome. This cannot be considered as being practicable, as it requires mental and predictive capabilities far in excess of human capacity. I will also argue that spending time considering ethical decisions has a corresponding cost, by diverting time away from other positive actions. Therefore, in practical terms, a simplified form of utilitarianism is necessary.

It is wiser then to restrict the theory to what a human can reasonably do. The most obvious way is to rely on a rules-based framework. This framework consists of a set of moral principles or rules, much like deontological ethics. However, the rules are ultimately grounded in utilitarian principles and can be derived from utility calculus, averaged for general circumstance. Therefore, a person following this form of rule utilitarianism believes that by following these moral guidelines, utility is increased on average. Also, rule utilitarianism does not require strict adherence to the ethical principles proposed; it is consistent to violate some lesser principle, which on average yields better outcomes, if it is reasonably clear that the violation results in greater utility.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fare Increases and Nationalization of Public Transport

Yet again there are requests by public transport companies SMRT and SBS Transit to raise fares. I'll not go into whether such fare hikes are indeed justified, for it is beyond my present expertise. Still, as a footnote for future reference, my position on the matter is that I will be convinced that the fare increases are justified if:
  1. It is shown that the public transport companies are nonviable in the absence of the fare rise, and that service levels will necessarily be impacted as a direct result of fares remaining unchanged.
  2. There is reasonable effort on the part of the public transport companies at improving the cost-effectiveness of their operations.
As mentioned previously I lack the expertise and information to make a solid decision and hence I shall be withholding judgement on the issue.

However, some friends have indicated their disgust at the issue. They mention in particular that the privatization of public transport is unsound. Instead, they have suggested for public transport to be nationalized.

I can understand their position. While the free market is very often more capable of provisioning goods and services at lower cost then the public sector, I do not believe that this holds for the situation we have at present. Few competitive forces appear to be at work. There are some economic penalties for poor service standards, yet these are quite insufficient to modify the behavior of transport operators in a significant fashion.

Yet I do not entirely agree with nationalization of public transport. Competitive tendering of bus routes can bring forth a cost reduction of up to 30-40% [1]. It is merely that Singapore has adopted a poor model of privatizing public transport. Public transport operators should not be compensated on the basis of fares collected, because such models offer no economic incentive to improve service standards (demand being largely inelastic). Rather, public transport operators should be confined to being merely contractors of transport services, and compensated appropriately if they meet various service criteria. This helps to aligns the interests of the transport operators in line with those of the consumer. Competitive forces are also more significant during route tendering, hence such tenders should be held regularly.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Meaningful Poster

There were a few colorful posters pasted over the pillars of the Engineering canteen. They were pretty well designed, nice choice of color, good typography.

Then I read the message, "Please print or use both sides of papers. Save the Earth" (contents not verbatim). I was not impressed.

I had the strong urge to rip part of the poster off to see if it was printed on the other side.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Kindness Survey and Illusory Superiority

A recent survey concerning kindness, conducted by the Singapore Kindness Movement, "found a significant gap between Singaporeans' self-perception on how they performed when it comes to graciousness versus their perception on how fellow citizens fared.

Forty-three per cent of those polled rated themselves high on graciousness, while only 15 per cent rated others likewise."

I fail to see how this is good research. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of psychology is aware of the effect of "illusory superiority", where people tend to rate themselves as better than average. 

To draw truly interesting and useful results, the survey should have included further controls to eliminate the influence of this psychological effect.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Why take offence? Why get angry? Nothing good would come out of it. Clearly it doesn't make you any happier, except comparatively when you drag someone else into the fight.

Yeah, so someone can't keep his mouth shut, or pass things through their brains before speaking. Yeah, so some people just have malice in their blood. So? It's not like we have much control over what others can or can't say. Let other people be other people. What we can control is ourselves, so let's do that.

The simplest method is distancing. Don't make yourself a participant. Better yet, treat the part of you that does feel offended as a subject of study. Look upon him and wonder, why does he feel offended? Is there any good reason, or none at all? Laugh at him, even. Cordon the negativity off.

Otherwise, just take a big stick and whack the hell out of your foe. There's no room for half-measures!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The True Purpose of Free Gifts

There are some pedants who claim that the phrase "Free Gift" is bad English. Their line of argument is that gifts are by definition free, and hence the modifier "free" is redundant. Unfortunately, their insistence on such strict interpretations and usage of terms results them arriving at precisely the wrong conclusion.

Consider the following phrase, "$2 gift". Pedants would claim a contradiction, but it is clear to the astute mind that it is in fact valid. The word "free" does not modify the cost of the gift to the recipient, but rather the cost of the gift to the giver. In the proper context, it means that the gift is valued at $2, or costs $2 for the giver to buy.

There are two implications of the previous conclusion. The first possibility is that the "free gift" presented by the store or merchant costs nothing for the merchant to give. While this is true in some circumstances, for example crap freebies like pens, in general free gifts do cost a small yet substantial amount. This brings us to the second possibility, that the "free gift" is free (for you), but it is meant to be used as a gift. What this means is that free gifts are not supposed to be kept and used by yourself, but rather to be given away to plague people you disfavor. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Novel Solution to the Problem of Ministerial and Parliamentary Wages

In Singapore, ministers are paid considerably more than any of their global counterparts; wages for even a junior cabinet position work out to at least a million Singapore dollars. Now, that sum is a considerable premium over the median wages of Singaporeans, and therefore the policy of benchmarking ministers' pay to top earners invites much criticism and causes much dissatisfaction.

This is not to say that the policy is ill-founded even in principle. I think that it is preferable for a nation to be governed by the competent, and if the competent are discouraged by the low wages of serving office, then the disincentives ought to be removed and office holders compensated.

Yet the devil is always in the details. How much compensation is sufficient? Clearly no compensation is madness, unless one is a supporter of plutocracy. Conversely, paying too much is distasteful to public sentiment and may divert public funds from other useful ventures. Some middle ground is the best solution, but deciding this proper price point is difficult.

I am quite a believer in the free market, and I think that free market principles can be exploited to solve this difficult problem. The general principle is the same- you get what you are willing to pay for. If you don't think that something is not worth it, then don't buy! This basic idea is elegant.

My idea is this: Each candidate for a position (be it parliamentary or cabinet) sets a price at which he would work for. This price must be publicized openly; if and when he wins office, his wages are fixed at that level throughout his current term of service (with perhaps an increment corresponding to inflation). For the voters, everything remains the same- they vote for the candidate they deem most suitable for office. Implicitly, though, the decision criteria has changed; instead of selecting the best candidate, it has shifted to selecting the candidate that provides the best bang for the buck.

What do you think of my idea?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

On the WP's Proposal to Peg Prices of New Flats

I disagree with the Workers' Party's (WP) proposal to peg the prices of new HDB flats to the median income of Singaporeans. I will argue that such a policy is ineffective in moderating housing prices, and that simpler alternatives are avaiable for controlling the price of housing.

The high cost of public housing may be viewed in simple economic terms, that of supply and demand. High housing prices is a natural outcome when demand for housing far surpasses the available supply. Both the supply and demand for housing can be further differentiated into two categories; the resale market and new flats from HDB. Such a differentiation is important.

For the purposes of simpler analysis I will assume that demand for public housing is inelastic; that is, the number of people seeking homes remains relatively constant regardless of housing prices. I also assume that buyers have no particular preference between a new flat and one on the resale market, given that both are priced similarly.

When a potential buyer seeks to buy a flat, there are two alternatives, a new flat from the HDB or a resale flat from the resale market. In general, the new HDB flat is cheaper than the resale flat due to a discount/subsidy, but the tradeoff is a waiting period for queuing, construction, etc (colloquially, waiting for keys). Thus, buying a flat from the resale market is naturally more expensive; this may be viewed as an "Impatience Premium" on those who have a more immediate need for housing. Demand for flats distributes itself naturally between the two sources of supply, subject to various influences. For instance, if housing subsidies are increased, a buyer may consider it worth waiting out for a new HDB flat, whereas if the waiting period for new HDB flats were to be increased, a buyer may find resale flats more attractive.

The WP proposes to peg the prices of new HDB flats to the median income of Singaporeans. The likely outcome of this policy is to reduce the price of new HDB flats, relative to existing prices. In the absence of other factors, this artificial price ceiling will have a modest cooling effect on housing prices, due to the reduction in the demand for resale flats. There is less demand for resale flats because more buyers will be persuaded by lower prices to wait in line for new HDB flats. Demand will thus be shifted from the resale market.

The chief effect of the WP's policy is to shift demand by manipulating prices. However, some undesirable outcomes result, namely increased waiting times for flats due to the greater number of people waiting for new HDB flats.

One objection to my arguments is that it is possible to avoid long waiting times by simply increasing the build rate of new flats. I agree with such astute observations. Increasing the supply of flats indeed alleviates the long waiting periods for new housing. But such an observation also highlights one important fact.

The problem with public housing is primarily one of mismatched supply and demand. High prices are but a symptom of this mismatch. Therefore, approaches that do not directly deal with either housing supply or housing demand are likely to be ineffective.

I believe that the housing problem is most effectively dealt with by scaling up the supply of new flats. This solution has a direct impact on housing prices, because if demand for housing is satiated by new flats, then demand on the resale market is correspondingly reduced, therefore reducing housing prices. In economic terms, by increasing supply, with demand constant, prices fall. With suitable management of supply, it is possible to control the cost of housing.

Let's revisit the WP's proposal. The plan to peg prices of new flats would result in prolonged waiting times for new flats, unless more new flats are built in response to demand. However, as I have argued, by simply ramping up supply of new flats, a moderating effect on housing prices is achieved. Hence, by Occam's Razor I would question the necessity of the price pegging policy. Let's only manage one variable, the supply of new houses to build, rather than also managing the selling price of HDB flats at the same time.

There are merits to the WP's intentions, though. While I disagree with their price pegging policy, I am swayed by the policy's objective of matching housing prices to the median income. My objection is merely that I do not believe price pegging is the best way to achieve that policy objective.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Quick Notes from A Political Forum on Singapore's Future

I've just caught the political debate between the PAP and the various opposition parties on CNA. As a whole the program wasn't too bad, though I would have preferred more substantial material.

Below are the quick notes I took during the programme. I'll post my thoughts and opinions at a later date, probably tomorrow.

** On second thought, since the programme has been discussed extensively, I shall no longer be posting my own comments on this issue.

A Political Forum on Singapore's Future

Opening Speech
PAP- global competition , income increase, best education, geriatric care
SDA- clean energy, innovation, education
SDP- those left behind
SPP- alternative voice, democracy, equality, safe place, financial hub, technologies
WP- wealth distribution, dignity, entrepreneurs, education (formative years, love for learning instead of drilling), affordable and quality healthcare, social safety net.
SDP- quality of leadership, whitely escape, ubs poor quality of living russia

Cost of Living
WP- hdb houses (pegged to median income), rentals (cost of business)
SPP- open door immigration policy forces increases cost of living
SDP- rising healthcare costs, waiting period (3mth subsidized, 3 mins unsubsidised) for medical care, 0 rate GST for basic services, hdb run as non-profit, assets locked into homes
SDA- housing (should not be a commercial issue, should be run as public good) healthcare, education, basic items
PAP- 23% servicing cost (cheaper relative to developing countries), medifund etc expanded (cities are expensive), poor get more than GST collected

Foreign Workers
SDA- harmful to jobs, level playing field, companies top up salaries of local worker
PAP- selectively recruit foreign workers (manufacturing 80% not sg, 80% managerial sg), not reduce, 2% unemployment, quota system (Singaporeans first),
SDA targeted industry
WP- rate of immigration not exceed capacity to absorb and integrate, no foreigners unless positions unable to fill, reduce reliance by increasing productivity (to fill with locals)
SDP- displaced due to cheap labour, Singaporeans first policy, demonstrate need first before hiring

Short and Long Term Challenges
SDA- wage does not match inflation, public interest ahead of commercial interest
SDP- shadow budget, public services (not private), cost of govt decrease (ministerial pay), 0 rate GST, Singaporeans first, minimum wage, build up SM enterprises
SPP- education build more universities, lifelong learning, political awareness in youth for platform for critical thinking, build more hospital beds (due to medical tourism), conductive environment for thinking, marginalized Singaporeans not normal (single mothers)
WP- lack of checks and balances in govt, need for parties to build strength to be alternatives
PAP- 85% utilization of beds, bulk of GST paid by rich and foreigners

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Personal Writing Challenge

In line with my recent belief that work-rate is almost everything, I've decided to challenge myself with a personal writing challenge. The goal is modest.

I'll write 100 words a day for 2011.

Therefore I'll end up with at least 36,500 words at the end of the year, if things work out. It doesn't matter if most of it is crap, as the goal is to increase the work-rate and sieve out the good stuff afterwards.

To keep track of my progress I'm including my current progress in my blog sidebar. This will be updated regularly, unless I fall seriously behind.

It'll be interesting to see how far this goes.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Trojans and Passwords

A few years ago my thumb-drive caught a Trojan from one of the computers in an undergraduate lab. It wasn't very sophisticated, and it's mechanism of action was quite simple to grasp; it simply copied itself to the thumb-drive and modified the autorun.inf such that the Trojan would run once inserted. Quite easy to remove, if you knew what to do.

Fast forward a few years, and now I'm teaching in the same lab. And my thumb-drive caught a Trojan again. It's quite probable that the source of infection is one (or more!) of the lab computers. Goes to show what happens to resources that are shared amongst many. I'm now thinking of getting a write-protected thumb-drive for special use.

The incident did make me more security conscious, though. I've changed all my online passwords. Pretty much time, anyway. The old one was left unchanged for too long. Wonder how long this one will last.

Monday, January 31, 2011

True Human

Maybe we're not even true humans anymore.

A definition for species (though often contested) is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. No problems there, since we're all capable of interbreeding.

But this merely means that we're all the same species, not necessarily that we're human. Perhaps we've acquired so many minute mutations, so many incremental changes, that we're too different.

If there was a time machine, would we be able to successfully mate with an ancestor from many millennia ago?

Sunday, January 30, 2011


"At a young age I realized an uncomfortable truth- that only I am important, that at the heart of it I care only for myself. I struggled with this fact for some time, trying to reason matters, trying to reconcile my thoughts and feelings.

I am indeed selfish, but what held me back, what made me feel that that was wrong? Surely not the popular notions of morality, which like all products of the masses must always be viewed with suspicion. No, instead it was an innate emotion, a raw feeling that by elevating myself to some loftier position I was inherently demeaning the value of friends, of family.

But after a while some things became apparent to my mind. Friends and family were indeed valuable, perhaps things to be cherished. But their value was not intrinsic, merely instrumental. A friend is valuable because he is my friend, not because he is a person. Anyone could be a person, but that fact is meaningless; they would be as unimportant to me as grains of sand on a distant beach."

"Madness. You are mad."

"Does it matter? I see and say things as there are. There is a massive hypocrisy being perpetuated, or perhaps Man does indeed believe in lies of their own construct. We are all egotists, are we not? There is no true altruism or charity. One gives because it grants one a fuzzy sense of warmth, of communion. Not that there is anything wrong with being an egotist, though, only that it is a meaningless charade to pretend otherwise."

"Sophistry. A person does something, therefore he fulfills his desire to do something, therefore he is an egotist. A tautology."

"Yes, it is indeed a tautology. But it is one that invokes stammering denials and outraged half-arguments. It is a statement that is such a threat to the common psyche, such a dissonant voice, that most people do all they can to oppose it. It is because very much of it is true, and they are trying not to contest its veracity, but to convince themselves that they are not egotists."

--- Denouement,
Aphelion, immortal, criminal, psychopath

Monday, January 24, 2011

Voices in an Empty Room

Do you have a voice that no one has ever heard, a voice that only sounds when you are alone, a voice that chatters to you when you're in an empty room, a voice that speaks and seems not of your own?

A person has a great number of voices, each for a certain audience, and each to never show to another crowd. And of these voices, perhaps one, or perhaps a few, perform for none other than the private self.

And it is not the prime voice that we use internally. It may be voiced as an ally, praising and propping the very views one holds; or it may serve as an antithesis, standing in opposition. And at other times it acts in both roles, in synthesis. But the key is, they sound different, foreign perhaps.

They do not reside in the crevices of one's mind; they must be spoken out loud, given form in pitch and timbre. Madness, maybe, appearances of a person speaking to himself. But perhaps there are some things, or a great many things, that cannot be granted any other audience or counsel.

And in such cases we can only invoke the voices in an empty room.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Buy Green

On some level, there is an irony with telling people to buy more green products. Buying green doesn't necessarily translate into saving the planet, because consumption is antithetical to greenness.

Displacement works, yes. If you're changing incandescents to fluorescents, then it helps, yes it is better than before. But it doesn't need to be said that if you insist on lighting your entire property, then it's not green regardless of what lights you use.

Rather than the type of product we use, perhaps more attention should be paid to how much we use, and how we use it. Our consumption and usage habits should be more important, though this requires much more effort that simply replacing the type of things we use.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Riddles about Pants and Shorts

One day I met four men, only one of whom was wearing purple pants. Each of them made one statement, then left.

A: At least two of us are lying.
B: The purple pants person is lying.
C: Everyone here is lying.
D: Only one of the other people is lying.

Who is wearing the purple pants?

On another day, I met another three people, only one of whom was wearing scarlet shorts. They made one statement each, and then left.

A) B wears the scarlet shorts!
B) A wears the scarlet shorts!
C) If B is lying, so am I. If B is telling the truth, so am I.

Who wears the scarlet shorts?