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