God bless Singapore, a.k.a Singaporeans bless Singapore

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tl;dr: Talking about the problems that Singapore faces: housing bubble, too many foreigners, stressful environment,… a friend of mine said they had no choice. Here I point out the common cause of all these problems: Singapore’s lack of self-sustainability. To improve Singapore’s self-sustainability, it is up to the creative Singaporeans to utilize all the newly available technologies.

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Singapore used to be a crowded port city, situated on the trading route between China and the outside world. When China closed down exportation, the trading route ceased to exist, and Singapore became a fishing village, before being awaken centuries later, under the influence of Western empires and their trading activities.
It is therefore reasonable that the government and Singaporeans in general are worried about their long-term existence. Added to this problem is the huge number of foreigners working, living, and make a home out of Singapore. In the short term, they take up space and jobs. In the long term, they remind Singaporeans how fragile their society is, like the saying “easy come, easy go”.
The problem about long-term existence, national identity, and foreign influx all have the same solution: make Singapore more self-sustainable.
The pillars of Singapore economies all depend on multinational corporates: oil, finance, pharmacy… Manufacturing is leaving Singapore for cheaper labours. Singapore as a people would therefore have to deal with those big players, while having few cards on hand: little land, little resource.

HOW CAN SINGAPORE BECOME SELF-SUSTAINABLE?
No, it cannot. Singapore itself is already a miracle. That is, Lee Kwan Yew’s strategy for Singapore has worked much better than expected, and few would have been able to do better. In 1965, Singapore consists of a few traders and factory owners, with plenty of lowly skilled workers. With this demography, the solution taken was optimal: mass education, investing in infrastructure, foreign investment and exportation.
Fast forward to 2012, we have a much different demography. Young Singaporeans are well educated. Many take up scholarships to study abroad. What can they do now that couldn’t have been done before?
1. Increase the automation to decrease the dependence on foreign low-skill labours: construction (imagine a HDB being built in 10 days), manufacturing (imagine 3D printing), transportation (imagine Google car)…
2. Export ideas (imagine Android & iPhone apps, arts & designs…, thanks to the Internet)
3. Better technologies for water desalination, urban farming, renewable energy, smart grid… that individuals can participate, reducing the need for big government & MNCs.
4. Web technologies for peer-to-peer businesses such as craiglists, Airbnb, bitcoin (p2p banking)… to enable more entrepreneurship.
5. A social net, so that those unfortunate can have a rest and look for better ways they can contribute to the society.

Of course I’m joking. This is 2012, not 2120. While many of these technologies are available, there are many obstacles bringing them to Singapore. My suggestion? No suggestion. It is up to us individuals to bring the best out of ourselves, and make creative solutions out of what’s available. Don’t count on the government. I said, DON’T COUNT ON THE GOVERNMENT.

Cheers,
Phong

Fonts

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From the top: Calibri, Teen, Times New Roman, Arial. Of course the best font for this would not be any of them. But which one works better? What does each font tells you?

My (digital) life is broken!

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tl;dr: I look for processes/apps that may improve my digital life dramatically. The key is to minimize cognitive cost, while maximize searchability.

Started working a few months ago, the amount of information I have to handle goes up, while my free time goes down. Besides, I just got my 1st smart phone. In this post I’ll go through my digital life, and make certain decision to fix it up in the process.

Digital life is all about information. It lets you handle information more effectively: you can search, automate, and re-search stuffs. It operate on 4 platforms: PC, remote server (S3/EC2/VPS..), mobile, and websites that you participate. The last platform is the one that you have no control upon.

Below are the activities within the information flow:

1. Find
+ Pull: newspaper, personal blogs, reddit/stack overflow/hackernews/TechCrunch/IEEE Spectrum
+ Push: friends, google search subscription, quora
Traditional newspaper is too manipulated by agendas. Personal blogs are good. HackerNews is a bit too overwhelming. Fb feed is not very customizable. Quora is surprisingly good. Technically-wise, I think I’m well covered. But for local news in Vietnam and Singapore, or in general Southeast Asia region, I can’t find a reliable neutral news source with good discussion contributed by readers. Yahoo! is rubbish. Science-wise maybe Science & Nature would do.

2. Access
I rely on RSS heavily. However recently I tend to consume on Kindle. If there’s an automatic way to send news article to Kindle that’d be nice. But for now RSS still serve, as sometimes links are not suitable for Kindle.

SeenBefore is a good Chrome app that let you archive and search through what you read. As it only works on chrome, I now consider move my feeds to chrome for reading, or wait till SeenBefore is ported to Firefox.

3. Note taking
There’s a note.txt at the desktop and a Note document in google docs. There should be a way to combine both of them. Also, there should be a quick way to note on the go with my phone. Evernote seems to be a very good choice.

4. Writing
Vim is a good editor. Google API lets you programatically talk to its service, so there are command line options that let you use vim to write to google docs. Besides, Sublime Text is receiving some buzz recently.

I code mostly in Python. IPython is a tool that let you save the whole interactive session. Besides, I need a git repo, both for private and public access. There are non-trivial options: github, bitbucket, dropbox, S3. Sometimes I want to view the code, sometimes I want to run it remotely. Sometimes the code runs with data/library that would be costly to be maintained online. Since it’s personal, I think a reasonable approach would be dropbox. I’d be the only one editing any piece of code at any given time.

5. Share
Note sharing can be done with googlde docs. For blog posts I made it share automatically on twitter and fb. For code I don’t often share, but if I do, github would be ok.

6. Backup
I’m contemplating Amazon Glacier. With Ubuntu’s Deja Dup, that’s a potent combination. However, the pricing model of Amazon Glacier still needs to be ironed out.

All the activities in 1-6 needs to be logged so that I can archive and search later on. I’m exploring GNOME activity journal.

Besides, there are new options for mobile platform, too. Calls, SMS-es, GPS should also be logged.

As you see, there are much to be done. It makes me feel like a weirdo now :P. Guess many people never care about all this..

Fortune 500

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I composed the full list of Fortune 500 throughout the years 1955-2012. The reason was that I needed some list of prominent companies for some text analysis of news articles, and also needed some dataset for simple visualiation. Anyway, it may be of interest to you, so I shared it here. Enjoy!

World news in an image

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You can tell when I’m stressed: that’s when I do not post on this blog. My first job was kind to me, but still, I almost stressed myself to burning out. Leaving that aside…

Last week I had an idea that instead of a fixed wallpaper, I’ll generate a new wallpaper everyday from world news. After some thoughts, I decided to take world news from 4 sources: bbc, newyorktimes, reddit and google news. Their rss are parsed, and urls are visited. Certain effort is spent avoiding non informative images such as banners and buttons. Then I tried to pick a few pictures (automatically) and lay them out on a single wallpaper (in a 3-column layout). It looks like this:

Of course you would wonder the meaning of each image, and possibly which article they are from. The code therefore generate an html page with relevant summaries and references. Sometimes I enjoyed the html page even more. That’s when you realize that you’re constantly bombarded with so much text and irrelevant images online.

The code is available for your tweaking, here. See run.bat for the running instruction.

Where you travel

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You are a tourist. Of course, you go to tourist attractions. Put it another way, you go where people often go, and experience what magazines and books have told you about.

When I was in Singapore, I rarely went to see the sites for tourists. The reason is that it is often expensive there, so I often wait for my relatives to visit Singapore so that I can join them to visit these sites. Such examples are the zoo, the bird park, the casino, and so on…

When I was in US, I came to New York once. My friend insisted me to visit the Liberty Statue, the Empire State Building, and so on… I gave them a halfhearted consideration.

Instead, what I miss about Singapore is the hawker centers where the white collars join aunties and uncles in the common quest for food. I miss the HDB flats where white collars rush and elders wander around. Also, the mahjong sounds echo-ing from apartments.

What I miss about US is the International House I stayed in where I experienced the American hospitality towards the American dream of immigrants. I also missed the few food trucks where I saw working people and their family went for lunch. There I saw the difference between the working class in contrast to the well dressed people seen on the streets of restaurants, and in contrast to the well dressed students in Brown University.

I think those are the experiences that make travelling into the cities worthwhile. I rarely see backpackers in hawker centers or in food trucks, though.

The Great German Energy Experiment

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(thoughts provoked from here)
Ask economists about the shutting down of eight nuclear plants, and many would tell you that the German is heading for trouble. Indeed, “wholesale electricity prices have jumped approximately 10 percent since the eight nuclear plants were shut”, and ironically, “the decision to close the nuclear plants has increased reliance on coal-fired power plants”. While renewable energy has been at the focus of research ers for decades, the consensus is that it is not yet a competitive alternative to fossil and nuclear energy. Whether it will, and when it will become an alternative, is unclear to many. In the time of economic turbulance, the German, an industrial country which depends heavily on a reliable source of energy, forced itself to go for renewable energy by all means. The story would be less surprising if it happens in Soviet or China, where the political will can dictate any economic action. So in this case, we can reasonably ask, ‘Why?’.

Economic-wise, German is doing well compared to its neighbors. It is easier to borrow capital, and attract talents. In short, it is a good time to make long term investment. But why on renewable energy?

The extraction, transportation, and use of fossil fuel pollutes the Earth that is home to us. Oil is expected to last about 43 more years, natural gas 61 years, and coal 148 years. Notice, however, the cost of extraction will increase while the quality of the sources would decreases in time. The dependence on fossil fuel leads to huge coorporation that benefits from the economic activities linked to it, and huge military coorporation that is needed to protect those economic interests. In short, fossil fuel polutes the Earth, creates bad coorporations, bad politics, bad wars, and would finally be depleted.

So it makes sense that one makes long term investment on renewable energy. However, the upfront cost is so high as described above that economists and politicians would often deny the funding of research that engineers and researchers asked for. Even if a viable alternative source is found, it takes time for the society to adjust its processes to quit its addiction to fossil fuel. Kudos to the German politicians that took advantage of the public sentiment after Fukushima nuclear accident to bring about this radical plan.

Here I want to argue that the plan is not as risky as it sounds. The reason nobody do this before the German is simply because of politics: the bad coorporations and bad politicians resist any change that affect their economic interests. The grand plan of the German should then not be seen as a big bet, but a major triumph of good politics. The rest will go down as a major leap forward by the German economy and society.

1. Eliminating fossil fuel requires energy saving
Knowing that it would take a while for renewable sources to become competitive, it is clear that saving energy is equally important. This is not a straightforward task, but clearly doable. The technology and know-how to do this is also marketable to other countries, whether they still use fossil fuel or not. In the US, IBM is working in this direction with certain deals with the government.

2. The technologies required to save energy will serve to develop more technologies
IT will play a central role in balancing energy generation and consumption, as a huge amount of data is generated from many components of the grid. Once the data is there, it will be the source of further innovation. Individual users can contribute to that innovation process, in contrast to the current centralized energy management process.

3. Renewable energy promotes democracy
Under the current system of energy management, the people don’t have their choices. Electricity companies have a template contract that everyone has to agreed with. Those large coorporations, oil companies and electricity companies, are then major players with competing economic interest against the people. The large amount of capital required by their operations would also allow them to affect decisions made by governments, to the point of conflicting people’s will.

Generally speaking, there are technologies that favor democracy, and technologies that do not. Fossil energy, nuclear energy, biotechnology all favor big players, and inevitably remove power from individuals. Renewable energy, IT, 3D printing, … are among the technologies that return the power to individuals. The world as a whole would develop according to the dynamics among these technologies.

4. Democracy promotes growth
As many more parties are involved in energy generation and management, the process has to become more transparent, with more information to empower single individuals. Those information (data) can then be used to promote innovation. Everyone can then contribute to the grid: new practices/services to save electricity, new pieces of software for automation, new electricity appliances, etc.

In conclusion, I believe that as long as the politics play out right, the German is going down the right path with tremendous benefit to their economy and society. This blog post is therefore a prediction that would be revisited by the upcoming turns of decades.

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