09 August 2010

How many people outside Singapore has heard of the Youth Olympic Games?

This is the result of a quick and utterly unscientific poll of the people around me, both from my hall and my lab group, here in Canberra. Certainly, it does not represent "people outside Singapore". In fact, it is hardly a fair picture of the awareness of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) amongst the people living in Canberra since I'm sampling a mix of academically-inclined, highly-educated community with a good mix of international students. Nonetheless it should still give a hazy sketch on how many people outside Singapore knows about the YOG.

The reason why I did this poll comes from the general sentiments I've been reading about the YOG, especially on the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) of Singaporeans for the event.

The fact that Singaporeans are disinterested does not mean that the event will be a failure. What also matters is the enthusiasm of sporting fans and the international community. That, together with the apparent failure to excite Singaporeans, will be a fair measure of the success of the YOG.

So far I have not heard of the opinions of people outside Singapore on the YOG itself. I have come across no polls about their awareness of the event, and news reports about it are scant to begin with. Hence, I did this poll to throw a bit of light on this question.

More on the results: I've polled a total of 17 people. 11 (red) of them have never heard of the YOG. 2 (yellow) of them heard about it, but do not know that it is coming up or that it is held in Singapore. 4 (green) of them could answer where and when, though it must be pointed out that, of these four, one is a Singaporean and the other have been staying in Singapore for the past two years.

And of the six who know about YOG, only one of them is an Australian (the other five are Asians of varying nationalities). The reason why he knows about it is because he is a sporting enthusiast and is acquainted with news about the Australian Youth Olympic Festival, which I believe is what the YOG is based on.

I am more than aware that the sample size is way too small. However, I am not going out of the way to find out about the opinions of more people. Maybe some other people can do the same thing amongst their friends and we will have a better survey.

It is kinda hard to comment on whether the results are good or bad. We need an equivalent to compare, and I do not know enough about sporting games to do that. Perhaps 35% of awareness is okay for this type of international youth games. But my guess is that it ought to be higher.

Oh, by the way, happy 45th birthday, Singapore!

30 March 2010

The Secrecy of an Overseas Vote

Today in my mail was an air-mailed letter from the Elections Department, informing me that my application to be an overseas voter was approved. Why they had to send me a physical letter when they could've saved some money and use email instead is puzzling to me.

But anyway, this reminds me of a conversation I had yesterday with a couple of Singaporeans here in Canberra. Somehow, the elections came into the discussion, and we arrived at the issue of the secrecy of our votes.

I am fairly confident -- not that I give a damn -- that the individual vote is secret. But it is widely known that, because vote counting is done independently for each polling district, the election officials (and the witnesses from each party) know the distribution of the votes for that district.

Of course, this does not present too much of a problem in Singapore, since there are probably thousands of voters in each district. But as an overseas voter, my vote goes to the district I'm registered in (through my home address). And the counting of overseas votes is done separately when the votes are flown back to Singapore (assuming the procedure is the same as in 2006; see PDF link).

So unless there are a million overseas voter flooding down to Singapore High Commission in Canberra when the election comes, chances are that I am the only one -- or at most, one of the few -- from my district amongst all the overseas votes coming from Canberra. In fact, in the 2006 general elections, there were only 137 voters in Canberra (see PDF link). How secret is my vote then?

Even if overseas votes are counted on the constituency level and not separated down to districts, the size is still small enough to make some people worry.

On the other hand, the oveaseas votes will only matter if the vote difference between the contesting parties is less than the total number of registered overseas voters for that constituency. Since it is unlikely that the vote discrepency can get that small, chances are that the overseas vote makes no difference. I'm not sure if they'll still be counted nonetheless though, but I doubt so since I cannot find any information on the overseas votes results.

28 March 2010

Earth Hour: A Confession

No, this is not a soppy apology by an environmentalist for not obeying this symbolic event. Quite on the contrary, I cycled to Chiefley Meadows on campus yesterday -- a 15 min journey through poorly-lit paths -- to join in the countdown at ANU.

But that's not the point. The confession is on the fact that I realised I have been rather harsh on the organisers and supporters of Earth Hour. Previously, despite being an environmentalist, I have hardly been a huge supporter of Earth Hour, seeing it as a useless symbolic gesture that achieved little practical results. In my eyes, I saw it as a feel-good initiative for people to pretend that they had done their part for the environment.

In fact, I have once written elsewhere that,

I just think that this Earth Hour will not change people’s habit. First, with regards to the point of increase awareness, I do seriously think that the time for awareness is over.


The challenge for environmentalists now is to get people to be more environmentally friendly in their actions, either by persuasion or by coercion (e.g. through laws).

And my point was that Earth Hour does not achieve that, because it is at best an hour of fun and games for most people, and after that they will resume their normal energy consumption. And therefore, whenever someone calls Earth Hour an environmental action, I feel insulted because it kinda trivialises the changes I've made on my lifestyle.

But on further reflection, I realise that my reaction is unjustified. Specifically, if I feel insulted, it is because I held an elitist view of the label "environmentalist" as well as the environmental movement. I treated it as some exclusive club where entry is earned by making significant changes to its members' lives.

True, most people will not change their lives because of Earth Hour, but it may serve as a rallying call for people to join in. It may remind them to turn off the lights when they leave the room. It may persuade them to choose a more environmentally friendly alternative (e.g. CFL instead of incandescent bulbs). It may even convince a few to live a lifestyle that is gentler to the Earth.

However slight each of their contributions are, they will add up and make a difference.

And that, I now think, is a good reason to support Earth Hour. I should drop my severely stuck-up view of environmentalism and support action that helps the environment. After all, environmentalism is more than climate change -- which is under siege by scientifically-unfounded skepticism; there are many pressing environmental issues such as light pollution and vanishing biodiversity that Earth Hour will have an effect as well.

And thus, the title of this post, Earth Hour: A Confession.

06 January 2010

Unacceptable to have Dolphins in Captivity at IR

Resorts World Sentosa originally planned to import whale sharks for their oceanarium as part of their Integrated Resort attraction, but have backed off due to pressure from various organisation and members of the public. Whale sharks are not meant to be in captivity, and definitely not in an enclosure the size which the IR can afford.

However, in its place RWS is importing bottlenose dolphins, which is just as bad, even though dolphins tend to strike an impression that they can get happy in captivity. This impression is not quite correct. Unfortunately, with the Dolphin Lagoon already in operation at the Underwater World, it will be all but impossible to make RWS reverse this decision.

I'm reminded of this unhappy incident after reading this article that suggests dolphins ought to be treated like a person. That was a suggestion by a professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University who have studied and published about this issue.

From the article,

The researchers argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks or to kill them for food or by accident when fishing. Some 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in this way each year.

Indeed, if dolphins have such intelligence, how is it different, if we continue this practice of putting dolphins in captivity, from putting people in cages and ogle at them? Remember the story of Ota Benga and the existence of human zoos?

But like I said, the chances of preventing the dolphins from coming to the IR is pretty slim, especially with public acceptance of dolphin shows. Still, I suppose we can do our part by first being aware of the issue, and second, spreading the word. Personally, I doubt I will visit the IR.

06 December 2009

Crying Over Nothing

Climategate, the recent row over the hacked emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, was an early Christmas gift to climate change sceptics. Immediately upon the release of the emails, sceptics pounced upon the details and cried foul over bias and conspiracy to suppress data that denies climate change.

Now, for someone outside the sphere of scientific research, he or she might think that it is a very merry cooperation and everyone providing a polite slice of their knowledge and research in an orderly fashion. Yet this is quite far from the truth, as I myself have witnessed.

Research is often messy. Too many a times researchers use published data and methods in their own studies without waiting for verification from other sources. Of course, publications being peer-reviewed, most of the time they are alright, but occasionally they may be overthrown by other researchers who pointed out flaws in reasoning or experimental methods. This is part and parcel of research, and it's pretty much accepted so long as the mistake is unintentional. Once in a while, there will be major upheavals -- such as the fabrication of cloning data by Hwang Woo-Suk -- which may upset many studies that are based on the original publication.

Furthermore, researchers may have bias. They may speak out strongly against certain approaches which does not quite conform with their ideas. Personally, I've encountered this problem before. Some may be hostile, some may be polite; but a healthy research environment is able to tolerate conflicting viewpoints under the same roof. And an ideal researcher should be one that may disagree with a direction of research, but still allow it to go ahead.

Such is the nature of research. And thus those personal emails naturally would contain information and communications that do not appear clean to a regular reader. It would take someone in the research environment to really sieve out real misdemeanour from personal disagreements. In fact, other than the initial outcry over words that suggested at fabrication, there is no concrete evidence of such actions. And the fact that sceptics cannot find anything definite after so long perhaps suggested that there is really none.

If you still need an expert report on the situation, the top scientific journal Nature has found no conspiracy in the leaked emails. In fact, with regards to the suppression of the publication, the editorial reports:

In one of the more controversial exchanges, UEA scientists sharply criticized the quality of two papers that question the uniqueness of recent global warming (S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick Energy Environ. 14, 751–771; 2003 and W. Soon and S. Baliunas Clim. Res. 23, 89–110; 2003) and vowed to keep at least the first paper out of the upcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.

And I think the most illuminating statement is "whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted." It squares very well with what I've said above: that the research process is messy, and researchers have personal preferences; but ultimately, when they presented their data to the public, everything is cleaned up in a fair manner.

24 October 2009

350? Too Audacious a Target?

Today is the International Day of Climate Action, an event organised by 350.org. It aims, as I understand it, to raise awareness for climate change and the fact that we have exceeded the safe limit of amount of carbon in the air: 350 parts per million (ppm). The organisers advocate people globally to participate in an action that displays the number 350 prominently, and the Singapore arm of the movement intend to take an aerial photograph of supporters forming a massive 350 in Hong Lim Park.

However, I see a potential confusion here. Firstly, from what I know, this ppm thingy is a measure of how much carbon is in the air. It is a number that takes into account numerous factors, including stuff like carbon removal by forests. If you perform an ideal experiment and measure the composition of the atmosphere, this number is what you'll get for carbon dioxide.

Then there's another thing: carbon emissions, which is one part of this composition picture. Carbon emissions is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities. While this number is, of course, linked to the atmospheric composition, it is not directly connected. A drop in emissions today will not ensure a drop in carbon dioxide composition in the atmosphere tomorrow.

Think of it this way: imagine a bucket with a source and a sink. While water flows in from the source, it is drained by the sink, and these two forms a balance. In an oversimplistic view, this is the pre-industrial age atmospheric carbon picture (oversimplistic because there are ice ages and all sorts of other factors that cause carbon composition to fluctuate) - with the source being the (natural) emissions, the sink being carbon removal capabilities like forests, and the amount of water being the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In comes the industrial age, and the source is increased tremendously and the sink decreases. The water level thus rose and is still rising. So even if we turn off our "extra" source and put in more sinks, it's gonna be some time before the water level reverses and returns to the original level. In fact, there is a projection which predict that this reversal will not come before a thousand years have elapsed.

In short, carbon composition will lag behind changes in emissions. Already, the composition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 390 ppm, way higher than the target, and in all realistic hopes, 350 ppm is too fanciful a number to dream for. Looking at the top chart below, obtained from an article by Michael Raupach et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

we can see that we have to cut our emissions drastically to even achieve 450 ppm (dashed green line) in the next century. Even 650 ppm looks way far off (dashed blue line). The various A and B lines are projections based on different scenarios (of which, if you want to know, can be found in the article). Even if we switch to clean technology completely - as described by A1T (solid green line) - we cannot even reach 450 ppm in a hundred years' time (though we will be captured by the error bars of 650 ppm). But the most realistic projection is A1B (orange line), which is based on a balance of fossil fuel and clean technology.

Now, much as I advocate environmentalism, I feel uncomfortable about brandishing 350 as the number. In all honesty, no climate scientists are able to tell you in certain terms what the magical number ought to be. In fact, 350 ppm is the lowest safety limit I've heard of; other predictions range up to 650 ppm, but I think that number is really skirting the cliff's edge. Nonetheless, that is already a difficult target to reach, as evidenced by the chart above. So there is no reason for inaction. Especially if you care.

15 October 2009

The Right to be Right

This is a blog post for Blog Action Day 2009 on the topic of climate change.

Environmental action often entails a change in lifestyle, most of which involves some inconveniences. For example, sorting out recyclables from trash and bringing them to the nearest recycling bin necessitates hassle. Buying compact fluorescent lamp which are more energy saving will result in a higher initial cost. Spending a night without air-conditioning will lessen the comfort of your sleep.

These undertakings of an individual alone have hardly an impact on the environment at all. The consequent reduction in carbon footprint is a drop in the entire ocean of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Alright, sure, there is the typical argument that the collective effort can have a marked change - as exemplified by events such as Earth Hour - but this argument does not induce much motivation in many people. This is an unfortunate truth - that a cumulative reward at the cost of compromise in personal lifestyle, particularly when the reward demands others to do the same, is not embraced by most people - and the past calls for environmental efforts have demonstrated that. Moreover, it is a vicious cycle: if most people does not want to take action, then there will be no collective benefit, and thus there is no practical incentive for the individual to be green, thereby sinking the situation into a deeper inertial hole. Some say it is up to governments to take action, but let us not forget that the government is subjected to people's desires, so there is only limited wiggling space for them to impose environmental restrictions on the people.

Such a dilemma reminds me of a course I took during my last semester at NUS. It was a geography module called Environmental Sustainability (module code: GE3239), and the lecturer once mentioned that Singapore unsheathes the argument that the effects in restricting our emissions is so negligible on the global scale that it matters very little how much we try to quell our carbon output. This is an iconic pragmatic argument, and it is not wrong in that perspective. After all, that bit Singapore contributes is truly minimal and it is the grand total of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere that counts. The climate does not go looking at the per capita emission.

Then is there any reason for the individual, which, in such a position, differs not so much from Singapore in the example above, to go green? There certainly is: environmental action grants the person a moral right to, at the very least, make a environmental statement. In the end, climate change is going to affect us all in some ways or other, and it would be hypocritical for one to be concerned if he does not observe and reduce his carbon footprint. Regardless of how small one's contribution is to the environmental cause on the large picture, in doing so he allows himself to say that he is concerned, that something has to be done, that it is unfair for the US to have such disproportionately high carbon output. One's effort will not make any practical difference if others do not do their part, but it gives him the right to be right.

Making an effort for the environment does not entail an upheaval in lifestyle. Steps can be small, little at a time, a bit here and there, and all in all one can shed his carbon footprint by a significant share. Below is a suggested list of a few actions that you can do - all of which I personally do - to slash your carbon emissions. These actions are not the typical feel-good slacktivisms such as Earth Hour or clicking one button on Facebook.

  • Go vegetarian or semi-vegetarian. Meat turns out to be a major carbon source, and cutting it not only benefits the environment, but also your health. Join the ranks of Albert Einstein, Sir Paul McCartney, Christian Bale and Carl Lewis.
  • Bring an environmental bags or regular plastic bags when shopping. In addition, I always tuck a small, folded plastic bag into a compartment in my sling pouch or backpack, in case I wanted to buy something on the spot.
  • Turn off the computer monitor, put the computer to standby or hibernate/shut down, as opposed to letting it idle off when you need to leave it for a period. How long a period it should be is up to you; for me, it is roughly one minute, five minutes and fifteen minutes respectively.
  • Try without the air-conditioner. It is a major electricity hog, and most people do not need it. And there are some nights, especially rainy ones, in which a fan is more than sufficient. You do not have to swear it off - Singapore's heat can be notorious - but how about raising the threshold of your heat tolerance?

These actions address more than mere climate change, which is the topic of this year's Blog Action Day. Certainly, climate change is one glaring symptom of this environmental disease, but other environmental issues (which may share the same root cause as climate change) ought not be neglected. Examples: depleting resources, vanishing biodiversity, destruction to coastal habitats, overfishing; and the actions listed above do address these issues and more. So do take heart and take action.