30 September 2008

An Old Warrior Passes On

This morning, Singaporeans woke up to the news of the passing of J. B. Jeyaretnam, the veteran political warrior who experienced an entire spectrum of political ups and downs of Singaporean oppositional politics.

While I may not agree with some of his views and actions, there is no doubt that he has impacted Singapore politics more than most other politicians. In fact, his shattering of the PAP's complete hegemony of the parliament in 1981 was considered, in the analysis of Singapore's political history, a critical event, a spike on the political radar just like Singapore's independence.

Many people, I believe, are looking forward to his return to Singapore politics, and see this warrior fight once more three years later. Indeed, I wonder how things would've been like. I'm uneasy with his confrontational style, but, just like in science, until someone finds a way that works, all ways to change the Singapore political scene are equally valid.

May he rest in peace, and his legacy lives on.

23 September 2008

Building a Space Elevator

Japanese scientists and engineers have set their sights on one of the most challenging tasks of a hard science fiction concept: the space elevator.

The space elevator, first popularised by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel Fountains of Paradise (an excellent read, if anyone's interested), appears to be a highly inexpensive way to travel to space, or at least to low-orbit space. It is a popular idea in science fiction and has also made it to scientific journals, being quite solidly based in proper physics.

The basic idea is that we connect a point on Earth to a geostationary satellite directly above it. This connection can be a tower (which is not feasible due to the weight) or merely cables that pulls a lift between these two points that are stationary in the reference frame of an Earth-bound observer. However, if we consider the Earth base as an anchor point and the cables plus satellite as a system, this system will start to swing sideways because its centre of mass is not in geostationary orbit, so we have to extend and attach some sort of mass beyond the satellite to counter this. In the novel, the construction started from the satellite and went both ways - up and down - simultaneously in such a way that the centre of mass stays in the orbit.

Of course, the cables will have a Coriolis force acting on it. On top of that, the length of the cable implies, even if it is of low density, a very strong tension throughout the cable. Therefore, this is the leap in this science fiction concept: a lack of such lightweight yet awesomely strong material. However, these Japanese scientists seem to have the solution: carbon nanotubes. But I think there is still a huge challenge since carbon nanotubes may not be strong enough yet, and mass production of large scale nanotubes are nowhere near a reality. Of course, this still does not take into account the multitude of engineering feats that has to be performed.

This space elevator, if ever built, will serve as a very cheap mode of space travel. Not only does it save the need to launch a space shuttle that gobbles fuel like an F1 race car, it also conserve energy just like a typical lift: as a lift comes down, it'll pull a weight of slightly smaller mass upwards, which will in turn act as a gravitational battery when the next lift goes up. It will also cut down the cost of space travel (to beyond geostationary orbits) by moving the launch site to the satellite, which bypasses a tremendous part of the energy consumption.

Personally, I'm sceptical about the plausibility of pulling this off. The material of the cable remains the greatest challenge, and I think carbon nanotubes are still way off from being a satisfactory material for such a construct. Moreover, as witnessed by the multiple failures in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), new toys present new problems of their own, and this space elevator can be pretty disastrous if it fails in the wrong way. On top of that, such grand projects are bound to be costly, and I doubt Japan can pull it off by themselves. The LHC is funded by a collection of wealthy nations; I'm not sure if the space elevator will be any less.

Well, on the bright side, even if I'm wrong, at least there's a chance I can visit space in an environmentally friendly way. And what's more, the base station on Earth has to be on the equator (an off-equator geostationary orbit projects a sinusoidal curve on Earth's surface), so there's a chance the base station is in Singapore. If we reclaim southwards furiously enough, that is.

09 June 2008

A Case of Similar Attractions

On today's Straits Times (via SingaporeSurf), there was an article on the tourist attractions in Singapore being too expensive for most Singaporeans (digression: sounds like a contradiction to me, but that's just my phrasing; the holy Straits Times will never make such a lousy mistake). Well, well... it just sounds like those other articles that cling onto my brain with the same lifetime as an excited atom, until I hit upon this quote,

Ms Isabel Cheng, a spokesman for the Singapore Zoo, Jurong BirdPark and Night Safari, said that admission rates are 'relatively low' compared to similar attractions in Australia and the United States, and that the experience one gets is worth the money.

Okay I know too little about attractions in the US, and yes, relatively is a relatively ambiguous term. But compared to similar attractions in Australia? I'm not so sure. Of course, it does come down to how you define similar.

If we're comparing tourist-traps of both locations, like WhiteWater World and Warner Bro. Movie World in Gold Coast, yeah then perhaps that sentence makes sense, for an entry ticket into these places can cost up to hundreds per person and few hundreds a family. Singapore's, on the other hand, "would set a family of four back by $125 on average."

However, if we compare the same kind of attractions, like zoo to zoo, then I think it may not be quite on the mark. I remember going to the Melbourne Zoo (up to the gate, but not into it) and the entrance fee was like only A$20+ per person. Night Safari? You can always walk into the wilderness for free and get friendly with the kangeroos... or if you wish for a safe journey of higher yield, the Bonorong Wildlife Park I visited in Tasmania allows entry at about A$15+ per person. And many attractions like nature reserves and parks are free. The same goes for the annual Floriade festival in Canberra.

This reminds me of a discussion with Yao while walking through Floriade. Surely, the state government has to put in few hundreds of thousands of dollars at least in the creation and maintenance of this festival. Could Singapore do the same, with that grand scale and stunning variety? Our conclusion: maybe, but how much will the entrance fee be?

So I do think that the statement by that spokesman may not be quite right, depending on how it's interpreted. Of course, there's the second part on the value of the experience, and I think the judgement is best given by the individual.

22 April 2008

A Disappointing Report on Mas Selamat's Escape

After one month of tedious investigation by the Commission of Inquiry, the report on Mas Selamat's escape is finally released. No, wait. Not the full report, but just the executive summary. Okay, I think Ministry of Home Affairs got me here: when they said they "promised to give the public a full account", it is not equivalent to the complete report. How silly of me to assume so!

In any case, I've briefly glanced through the summary (yes, I'm that free despite my upcoming exams), and to be honest, I thought much of it was just telling us the obvious. It just acts as an official and substantiated confirmation of what many already knew: unsecured window, negligent guards.

The non-working CCTVs is something new, though. However, the summary does not go into details of these non-working CCTVs. For example, is it clear to any persons who see the CCTVs that they are non-functioning ones? And how widespread is this news of non-functionality? Do the guards know? Does Mas Selamat know? Non-working CCTVs are actually okay, in my opinion, so long as its lack of functioning is unknown to the "watched". The construct of the panopticon is, after all, one of the best surveillance concept ever conceived.

Another piece of information worth thinking about is the conclusion that Mas Selamat has been planning his escape and is just waiting for the right time. This is drawn from the fact that Mas Selamat emerged from the Locker Room with two sets of clothes. It is not clear to me what happened in exact, but I think the details are not of importance. What I am more concerned with is that, if Mas Selamat has planned it well, he would've informed and sought external help, and as such, it still puzzles me why the authorities firmly believe he is still in Singapore, and more so in the forests. Personally, I believe it is far likelier that he is off Singapore soil or, if not so, hiding in some obscure urban area. But then again, ISD made it sound like they have some intelligence we don't, so I suppose it is a waste of effort to speculate so much.

I know the COI was suppose to investigate on the detention centre and that only, but I was actually hoping that there were some checks into the poor coordination beyond the installation itself. Specifically, I think many people are concerned with the lack and delay of information from the police, and the immediacy (or lack thereof) of the clamp down across the borders. If the COI did not touch this, this probably means that we will never know, unless there is another inquiry, the reason why there is such poor coordination between the authorities and the public.

To be honest, I am a bit disappointed by the summary. It reveals far too little information and is not wide enough in scope. I think we can only be satisfied for now to listen to any further revelations in the parliament.

09 March 2008

Three Thoughts on the Mas Selamat Fiasco

With Mas Selamat, who probably has more posters of himself than the entire population of Singapore, still at large, many questions have been raised and pretty much none answered. Lots of accusations and demands of resignation has been thrown all over, but beyond these political mumbo jumbo, I observed a few aspects of this fiasco which interests me. First is the conspiracy theory that he was killed; second is the question as to whether he's still in Singapore; third being the holy grail of all questioners: how did it happen? Here are my takes:

In the lack of information, it seemed that some people has taken to speculate and believe the possibility that Mas Selamat was killed inside the detention centre and the authorities spun this story to cover it up, fearing the backlash of human rights activists and whatnots.

It hardly need to be said how absurd this is. Suppose this were true. Then a few weeks later the JI members, wondering why their ex-leader has yet to come back to them, will start making noise, and then the whole cover-up will be exposed. To avoid this, the authorities can "catch and kill Mas Selamat" some time later, but that would pose problems with regards to the autopsy and all. And of all that, wouldn't it be simpler to just announce that he has died by unnatural causes like heart attack? Or if that's medically dubious, then say that he choked on a chicken wing. Sure, there may be some questions raised, but as compared to this?

In any case, I truly believe that he has escaped. Now, is he still in Singapore? It all depends on whether it was a planned course or a spontaneous event. If it's the former, then he would be far away from Singapore by now. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that his best chance is to leave Singapore immediately before the authorities can raise the alarm, which is ASAP. If it was spontaneous, i.e. the chance just came and he fled, then he's probably still in Singapore (but of course with help) until the authorities cannot maintain the high level alert.

And the golden question of it all: how did he escape? I do not know for sure, though the supposed Independent Commission is to shed some light on this. But given official statements so far, I think one can do a Sherlock Holmes and pieces them together. We know that he escaped through a toilet. We also know that MM Lee mentioned something about complacency. We know that he's due for a family visit (i.e. the place is open to certain outside people). Now, if we assume, very reasonably, that there are two different kinds of toilet - one for outside people (and maybe the ISD people there) and one for inside people (like Mas Selamat) - and keeping in mind MM Lee's praise of winning the trust of the guards, I think the puzzle sort of comes together.

So that's my thoughts. And if anyone's wondering, I do not think that the four hours lapse is unreasonable. Oh, one more thing: I didn't receive the MMS of his face... how did the government know that I'm bad at recognising people?

20 January 2008

How Wrong is the Principal?

Following a Straits Times report of a principal dealing harsh words to a group of secondary 5 students, both the online and offline worlds have exploded in a furious mash of voices condemning the acts of the principal and dishing out voices of support and sympathy to the students. There were very few voices to the contrary, and even these are defending the general case and not the principal in specific. To me, it appears as if most people have jumped into conclusions, for I can yet determine if the principal spoke out of self-interest or did she, as the Minister of State for Education explained, meant well as she was giving the students a wake-up call. Certainly, she was wrong, but depending on whether she had ill intentions or not, she could be wrong in very different ways.

There are two possibilities: the principal wants a nice record for her school and herself because of it being a crucial factor to her salary and resume; there is also the possibility of the principal being truly concerned with the students, but chose very wrong words indeed. Both, of course, are wrong, but they are wrong in very different ways. There is also a common wrong in that she implied a low stature for the ITE, but I shall ignore this for the moment and consider the two possibilities.

Now, the first possibility seems to be the conclusion of most people's reasoning, for it was written in the newspapers that "she also stressed that she wanted 100 per cent passes in her school." Now, this is a very tricky sentence. First and foremost, we must note that it comes from the journalist's reporting, which may not reflect and may comprise a sensationalisation of the actual situation. Secondly, it is not clear where the source of this claim is. Was it from all the 27 students the principal spoke to? Was it from parents, who are more prone to overreacting as all parents will? Was it from one student, who may have misinterpreted the principal's words, for she could've very well said something like, "I want all of you to pass your exams" - a well-meaning sentence?

As for the second possibility of using wrong words, she might've made a poor decision in choosing to say what she said and doing what she did. Yes, it's wrong, but in my opinion - and I surmise many will agree with me - that this wrongness is not as dire as the first possibility, for after all it emerged from a true concern of the students. In fact, this can also explain the ITE comment. How likely is she to commit such a mistake? I don't know, but I know it is easy to make a comment (especially to a large crowd) and have it misinterpreted, having it happen to me numerous times.

I'm definitely not supporting the principal, but I'm not faulting her either. At least not yet. In my opinion, there is still a lot unknown to us. All these while, we have not heard the principal defend herself (other than in the initial report), for example. Therefore, for now, my conclusion is that there exists the possibility (and significant probability) that the principal is well-meaning but employed flawed words. It could be otherwise, of course, but how do we know?