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Archive for February, 2012

Tracking things for no good reason

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Could someone explain to me the use of documenting one’s parents ethnic and language groups on a child’s birth certificate is? What possible use can that information be other then for discrimination – either denying something or granting something on the basis of one’s or one’s parent ethnic or linguistic group? The only thing I can think is that it could be used for statistics, but that could just as easily come from the census. I think this information is a hold over from when it was used for discrimination, and they just have not removed it, because why would they unless someone forced them to?

Science proves the rich drive worse

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

“Our findings suggest that if the pursuit of self-interest goes unchecked, it may result in a vicious cycle: self-interest leads people to behave unethically, which raises their status, which leads to more unethical behavior and inequality.”

Paul Piff, quoted from Shame on the Rich [sciencemag.org] about research into ‘whether dishonesty varies with social class’.

For my own experience, I can state that, without doubt, people in Singapore who drive expensive cars (one of the things studied in the research), drive like they own the road. I remember this was the case in the US too, but in Singapore when we talk about expensive cars we are talking about 50% of the cars on the road (BMW, ‘Benz, or more expensive!). That many ass hole drivers makes the traffic in the tiny island of 5 million, with very good infrastructure, as bad as the traffic in New York City with it’s much larger population!

Western Wall Prayers

Monday, February 27th, 2012

The sound is not terrific on this one, but it’s the sound of services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Bukit Brown Cemetery

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

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There has been some debate in Singapore over the fate of Bukit Brown Cemetery [wikipedia.org] – the old Chinese Public Cemetery which opened in 1922 but has been mostly abandoned for a long time (the last burials were in 1972). The government wants to start developing the land covered by the cemetery and surrounding undeveloped woodland. Many people don’t want it developed, they enjoy the peaceful nature filled setting and some are worried that it will exacerbate the flooding problem when it is all paved over. And I expect residents of the more exclusive and rich neighborhoods around it don’t want a 40,000 person HDB, or public housing, development in their backyard.

I thought I would go and check the place out since the government has decided to go ahead with redevelopment, so I visited it with Nir [flickr.com] to take a few photos. I have driven past the few graves that are close to the main road many times, often thinking if they would be nice to photograph, but I have never stopped. I also never realized, from the few graves that can be seen from the main road, how big the cemetery is — according to the National Archives of Singapore there are more than 100,000 graves. Unfortunately we didn’t stay very long, 40 minutes or so, as we both have other commitments. If I have a chance I may try to go back, the place deserves to be explored. There are many graves now so overgrown with trees and bush that you can stand a meter away and not see them. I’m sure there are some amazing photos waiting to be taken.

Click on the photo above to view the entire set on Flickr [flickr.com].

Of black swans, flying pigs and the financial crisis

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

The Guardian has a great article [guardian.co.uk] about the mathematical basis (or lack thereof) of the derivatives market explosion which lead to the financial meltdown when the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed.

As with most things that eventually come crashing down spectacularly we should have seen it coming… between the hubris:

“[the equation] allowed derivatives to become commodities that could be traded in their own right. The financial sector called it the Midas Formula and saw it as a recipe for making everything turn to gold. But the markets forgot how the story of King Midas ended.”

and the eye watering numbers:

“[the equation] underpinned massive economic growth. By 2007, the international financial system was trading derivatives valued at one quadrillion dollars per year. This is 10 times the total worth, adjusted for inflation, of all products made by the world’s manufacturing industries over the last century.”

All that because of the abuse of mathematics by people who don’t understand math. When people who do understand (scientists) math abuse it you end up with nuclear WMDs. When people who don’t understand it (traders) abuse it you end up with financial WMDs.

To quote:

“market traders copy other market traders. Virtually every financial crisis in the last century has been pushed over the edge by the herd instinct. It makes everything go belly-up at the same time. If engineers took that attitude, and one bridge in the world fell down, so would all the others.”

My favorite quote in the article has nothing to do with finance or math:

“In ancient times, all known swans were white and “black swan” was widely used in the same way we now refer to a flying pig. But in 1697, the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh found masses of black swans on what became known as the Swan River in Australia. So the phrase now refers to an assumption that appears to be grounded in fact, but might at any moment turn out to be wildly mistaken.”

Call to prayer, Istanbul, Turkey

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

I started uploading some of the tracks I have recorded with the Voice Memo application on my iPhone to SoundCloud a while ago. Just have not gotten around to posting the links here. Mostly I use the Voice Memo application to record my daughter, but I started recording some stuff while I travel too, and even some random things in Singapore. As with my photos the sounds that I publicly release are CC’ed under the attribution license 3.0 [creativecommons.org].

Singapore, Malaysia… Same-same!

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Lonely Planet Best Festivals Feb 2012 - Thaipusam

Lonely Planet used one of my photos! Woot! I’ve always loved the photography style in the Lonely Planet books; it’s the type of photos I want to take when I travel.

There is, however, one funny thing about the photo they used. The article is the World’s best festivals in February [lonelyplant.com] My photo is used as the image for an entry on this photo [flickr.com] over the past week or so.

Northern Thailand, December 2011

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

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At the beginning of December I joined my wife’s family to northern Thailand; Chang Mai, Chang Rai and Mae Sai. It sounds more exciting that it was. Since it was a packaged tour it was more about shopping than any thing else really. The non-shopping things were mostly not something I would normally do — Elephant show, Monkey show, things like that. Given my stance on animals I would not have gone on this trip at all except that my wife’s whole family goes somewhere every year and we have never joined them. Now that Tori is old enough to go it was more for her than anything else.

The first day we started by visiting Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep [wikipedia.org]. While not the oldest or biggest temple it was at least a working temple and not just a tourist attraction. After the Wat we took a ride further into the hills to visit a Hmong village. Not much to the village mostly just people selling the same crafts and trinkets you could buy most places, only cheaper. They did have a display garden showing a lot of plants that were traditionally grown in the hills — most interesting of all was the small grove of heroin poppies; planted just to show the tourists how heroin is harvested.

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After lunch it was off to the factories; leather, semiprecious stones, paper umbrellas and honey. We didn’t buy much, first day is a bit too soon to spend money. And the factories were not really that interesting anyway.

The second day we visited the Hill Tribe Village, where we saw women from the Karen hill tribes; Long Neck Women are the most famous and the reason everyone goes but we saw a few different traditional outfits. The village is not run by the UN like some of the larger ones, which are really refugee camps. And apparently the UN has warned about the evils of the villages being run as tourist attractions. I don’t know, but the village was a bit sad. The older women seem to be OK or at least resigned to their fate and have not problem with having their photos taken, they will even pose in better places so the light is good. The younger women where more shy. They again the younger women had cell phones and I expect that they know those photos will end up on the internet. The second afternoon was all about not-so-wild animals. Elephants at Mae Taeng Elephant Park. Followed by Monkey and then snake shows and finally tigers (who I think were drugged, as people could pay to sit with the tigers and take photos.)

The third day started early as we joined another tour group and took a large bus to Chang Rai [wikipedia.org], The Golden Triangle and Mae Sai [wikipedia.org]. And on the way we stopped at a hot spring along the highway called Mae Khajan. Where you can buy and boil your own eggs in the hot spring, right after you soak your feet in a less hot part of the spring.

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The only stop in Chang Rai was Wat Rong Khun [wikipedia.org] also known as the White Temple. Rong Khun is modern but it’s stark white exterior is interesting, most Thai temples have a lot of gold but the only part of Rong Khun that is gold is the bathrooms. An interesting juxtaposition. The walls inside the temple are also decorated with all sorts of modern characters on one wall opposite he images of nirvana. All-in-all an interesting place.

The Golden Triangle on the other hand is a tourist trap. The term “Golden Triangle” used to refer to the area centered in Northern Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, so called, as I understand it, because the trade in Heroin was only done in gold. Anyway, these days the Thai tourism office has taken the name as it’s own to refer to the place where the Ruak River and the Mekong river come together forming the boarders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. The place is a total trap; just a collection of stalls selling tourist trinkets and bobbles. The government built a large gold buddha to server as the focal point of the shops and restaurants. And you can take a boat trip around the rivers to get close to all three countries. Myanmar’s boarder is dominated by a Thai owned casino and the Lao border is dominated by a Chinese owned casino. But you can’t get to those so easily.

You can however get to Don Sao Island, which is technically in Laos but since it is operated as a tourist trap by the Chinese who have leased all the land up and down the Lao side of the river you don’t need a visa to visit — you don’t even need to show your passport, just pay the toll. There is not much to see on Don Sao island, a few stalls selling things, mostly the same as on the Thai side of the river, but cheaper and some dirty Lao kids playing in between the stalls. Totally not worth the price of the boat ride since you don’t get a stamp in your passport.

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The final stop on the day trip was at Mae Sai. Mae Sai is the northern most point in Thailand, where you can (assuming you have the right visas) walk across a bridge into Myanmar. The size of the street market on the Thai side of the boarder is impressive, stall after stall selling everything you can imagine in a Southeast Asia street market.

On the last day while everyone else slept in I took a ride to one of the markets to see the monks making their rounds to collect offerings for food. I had expected to see the monks walking around and the people giving various offerings. What I saw instead was that the monks just stand around outside the market and people, as they leave the market, buy pre-packaged offering (rice, veggies and a lotus) to give the monks. This makes the whole process seem less exotic and more commercialized. I don’t know why I expected anything different but I did feel a bit disappointed in the end.

All-in-all it was an OK trip. Some interesting things, a lot of things I would not have gone too on my own, and Candice and Tori got to spend time with the extended family on that side. Which was the point. I was not that impressed with what I saw of Northern Thailand, but I guess I should reserve my judgment, maybe if you get off the packaged tour path you can see more really cool stuff.