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February 11th, 2011


11:05 pm - Protons in China
When Mahathir made his first official trip to China in 1985, they made a feature documentary about the trip and aired the program on TV. It was actually quite entertaining and memorable, given how isolated China still was at the time, and it was quite reasonable to produce a movie as Mahathir's trip was an extended one, so there was a lot of footage from the trip. I still remember quite a bit about it.

One of the things that I can remember clearly were the Proton Sagas. An exhibition of Malaysian manufactures was held in conjunction with the trip, and the Proton, which was still quite new at the time, was what I recall seeing on display at the exhibition. Looking back, I would say that these cars were probably far more advanced than any models being manufactured in China at the time. VIPs were still ferried in the old-style Hongqi limos, with benches, polished to gleaming but clearly from a different era.

Today, a little over 25 years later, Proton has no place in the China market. The largest manufacturers are either foreign majors such as General Motors and Volkswagen, or locals that got their start as JV assemblers for foreign makes. When we look back on the little exhibition a quarter century ago, we ought to ask serious questions: why was it that despite an enormous head start in technology, we could not exploit a market that we were already exploring way back then, when barriers to entry were much lower? Either someone decided that it was too hard, or no serious thought was put into cracking the problem.

There are plenty of possible excuses, but none should be allowed to hold water. For instance, if we were to say that 'we are too small, too backward', then consider how so many allegedly backward and small nations have cracked large markets, or otherwise excelled over their competitors in a more 'advanced' country. I could use modern examples like South Korea, but I think that is not so interesting. Consider instead the cases of pre-World War 2 Czechoslovakia and Poland. Both were new countries that were supposed to be in the technological shadow of their highly esteemed neighbour Germany. Remarkably, both made ingenious technological and industrial innovations that were clearly superior to their future invader in the 1930s. Not many people know that the Volkswagen Beetle was actually influenced by a Czech Tatra model that bore a close resemblance to the future iconic 'bug'. As for the Poles, while their military codes were easily broken by the German Army, they were themselves able to figure out a technique to crack the much-vaunted Enigma code used by the Germans. Although this success was not enough to save their homeland from invasion, the work of the Poles, again largely unknown to today's public, helped the British enormously in their efforts to systematically crack the Enigma code.

In this world, there are plenty of David and Goliath success stories. There are also plenty of stories of could have beens and never was's. Proton could have seized a wide open opportunity, and made its way to true world-class status by today. It just never really did it.

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January 1st, 2011


12:04 am - There was a time
The moist morning air was slowly being warmed as the sun rose lazily. Highlands had great fresh air, and none was fresher than early morning mountain air. Nothing too cold. But still, it was cold enough to give myself some excuse to be lazy. As I should be.

Should I laze in bed? Or make myself hot coffee? Or maybe I'd just go for a run. Yes. The third choice seemed the most appealing, after all. And so I bounded out of bed and into the bath to wash my face and attend to the necessaries. The splash of cold water on my face was all that I needed to break with dreamland and to seize the waxing day. Okay, bathroom affairs done. So, now I shall dress for a run.

Warm clothes, but not too warm. A compression tight and a light fleece pullover. All black. I liked it; there was no need to wear high-visibility clothing when the sun would be out. But right out the door, it didn't at all seem clear that the sun was, indeed, all out there. The clear air was not misty, not quite. But the sky was a touch of gray and the air now seemed soggy. No matter. I was prepared to go for a run already, and so run I certainly shall.

The first footfall lands on the slightly damp tarmac of the road that runs past the cottage. It was a good road and thankfully, only just a gentle ascent. The path was just a touch windy, with nary a tree in sight. All was green with blades of grass, or rocky, and the view far away was of mountain tops. Not the jagged peaks of alpine peaks, but rounded, worn down and older mounds made gentler still by the mossy growth that clung to the flatter surfaces on them.

The path takes me downhill after a couple of minutes, and here I can enjoy what I regard the highlight of this running path. There is a gigantic lake beside the road, about a kilometre down, and after that the road runs alongside the lakeshore for miles on. Water and tarmac make for a great combination, as long as they don't get too close to one another. There is so much beauty to behold along the way. It makes running so much more fun.

There was a time when I used to run for the money. Yes, a professional. That doesn't make sense for an Asian guy, or at least shouldn't have. But somehow, it worked. I was there, nicking the tape and getting my face in all of the running papers, if not the actual sports pages (since running isn't exactly EPL, PGA or NBA). Those were heady days. But they were now in the past. This was the present. Cold air, quiet roads that lead nowhere but go past spectacular scenery. I really like the present.

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December 2nd, 2010


10:04 pm - Science, unwrapped
The reason why the theory is insufficiently correct is because not enough empirical evidence has been collected to make it precise. And the reason why the available evidence is not sufficient is because the theory is not firm enough to guide researchers to find it.

There, a tautology. Well, actually, it is a fundamental problem in science studies. How does theory arise? How does new theory inform future empirical research? And how does the future observation reinforce - or dampen - the fledgling theory? If you are to accept that paradigms do exist, that there is such a thing as a set of rules, widely accepted by all, known as normal science, then this concept is important. For here is the very inflection point, at which the new theory either sinks or swims.

A good example of this problem is the famous case of Einstein's theory of General Relativity being confirmed by an observation of an eclipse of the sun. Sir Arthur Eddington made an expedition to the island of Principe in the Atlantic and photographed the solar eclipse of 29 May, 1919. The images proved that the sun's gravity field bent the rays of the stars as they passed by. The eclipse facilitated this observation since, normally, the sun's bright rays would have outshone the starlight and hence made them invisible to the observer on Earth. Furthermore, the gravity of a body as large as the sun was sufficient to bend the rays - something else smaller would not have had the same effect.

Without Einstein's theory, Eddington's photos would have taken on a different meaning altogether. Without the theory of General Relativity, no one would have thought to look at it to measure the distortion in the positions of the stars that was captured in the photographs. They would have been interesting and remarkable scientific documents or artifacts. But they would not have 'proven' a very important scientific theory, if that theory had not beforehand been deduced by Einstein.

But it was not a one way street as far as assistance for reputation building was concerned. For the photos provided concrete evidence that Einstein's earth-shattering theories were real. With those photos in hand, the theory became a great deal more valid and relevant. Going back to the Kuhnian model of paradigm-formation, here was a pivotal milestone in the process of validating Einstein's theory, making it acceptable to the wider scientific community, and in this case to the lay world as well. With this proof in hand, Einstein himself gained credibility and other scientists would be convinced that they too should study those 'gaps' which had opened up as a result of the change in direction in Physics.

Ultimately, science does not happen the way Popper said it does. Real science is messy and chancy. Scientists tweak their work constantly, often with little care to the rules and suddenly, someone else out there may produce the evidence that you so desperately need to prove that your science is for real. Eddington was that somebody for Einstein. So, that is why you need to look beyond the tight confines of your particular discipline. It applies even when you are not an academic. You need ideas to boost sales, or improve productivity. You need a quick and dirty way to fix a mechanical problem, cheaply and quickly. In other words, you need to think outside of the box to get a broader set of solution options. And when you do that, maybe you would find your own Eddington. Or (from Eddington's POV) your own Einstein.

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November 30th, 2010


11:26 pm - I like going to Casinos
I like going to Casinos. Having said that, I do not like to go frequently - that'd be boring. I also do not particularly like to gamble - for me, a little flutter is really just for fun. Nothing serious.

So, why DO I like going to a casino? I like it in there because you get to see another side of life. There are the hardcore gamblers, shouting 'Piktah!!' in a rising crescendo, as the croupier draws more cards for the bank's hand. Obviously, the game is blackjack and the hope is that the next card drawn would bust the banker's hand. There are the old ladies, staring vacantly into space as they slurp their cup noodles at the stand-up tables. There are the stylishly dressed young men crouching in a corner, smoking, with an expression even more empty than the old ladies. There are the gorgeously dressed young ladies (the vanishing few, sadly) and the odd Sikh with a bright turban. And they are all here to engage in an activity that would technically be illegal anywhere else outside this vast maze of dimly lit halls and pavillions.

I like it best late at night, way past 12 am. At around 3 am, the place is quiet, but not quite deserted. Many of the tables are wrapped in leather, closed for business until daylight brings more customers along. The few tables that are open are usually not crowded, as they would be during peak times. As a result, play is more relaxed. There was this one time when a mate of mine played, one on one, with the croupier in a few games of blackjack. It was cool to see that one.

Peak times have their own attraction. The shouting is more pronounced, the crowd makes things seem more urgent and euphoric. That is, of course, when you - or someone else - is winning. When the bank wins, there is no glee since the croupier is merely doing her job, according to the rules coldly laid out on the sign on the table.

As an Asian, I'll never quite understand the appeal of a fruit machine. It seems utterly cold and hence boring. A mechanical processor that swallows your coin or token and rarely returns anything more than a pittance. At Genting, the big jackpots always seem to be hit by punters in the wee hours (more reason still to like late night gambling?). For those lucky winners, their photo would summarily be shot and pasted near the cluster from which they won, their eyes blacked out criminal style. Maybe there is more than meets the eye, that 'legalized' gambling can only be an obfuscation of oficialdom, a bid to make 'halal' that which is patently criminal in God's eye for the purpose of lining the state's coffers?

I guess I will always carry on, inside my head, this debate about the good and bad of legalized gambling. My lttle 'devil' says that, since people are going to make bets one way or another, might as well part some of the punters' money for the greater good, in the form of taxes upon the casino. Legal gambling, after all, is regulated and therefore removed from the brawl and hucksterism associated with the non-legal variety of gaming. The 'angel' would have none of it, as even the allegedly milder forms of gambling offered by the casino have led to broken families and flight from loan sharks. For my part, I think that since this thing is here already, let us have it. Methinks that no matter how bad it might be, our version of fun and games is still much less horrid than the Roman concept of entertainment.

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November 29th, 2010


11:14 pm - George W. Bush is partially responsible for what's happening in Korea
When Margaret Thatcher withdrew the HMS Endurance from service due to her version of Tory austerity, she unwittingly signalled to the ruling Argentine junta that the British were less than willing to defend the Falkland Islands and other territories being claimed by Argentina. They took the opportunity to pounce and seize the islands. The Lady may not have been for turning, but her gesture, mistaken as a retreat, had grave consequences. These included the unexpected expenditure of lives and treasure, and a blow to British national pride. It was also a chilling lesson for all nations, that when it came to matters of national security, pocketbook issues had to be balanced by the need to deter naked aggression.

There is an emerging consensus that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a pointless and costly military adventure. It was incited by faulty intelligence and personal grievances that American leaders had for Saddam Hussein. It has, on a far larger scale than the Falklands War had been for the U.K., been a blow to the coffers and prestige of the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. is seen to be tired of war and not being in the best shape to wage more war at present. It is little wonder then that Kim Jong Il has calculated that he can execute some of the most serious military aggressions against the South since the armistice on the Korean Peninsula in 1953.

It is hard to say whether the DPRK would have shelled Yeonpyeong Island if the U.S. was not entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, most analysts say that this has something to do with the accelerated succession process going on in the DPRK, as Jong Il starts to boost the stature of his son Jong Un up in order to take his place as heir presumptive. The succession has been speeded up because of Jong Il's poor health. However, I think it is safe to say that the fact of America's military being tied down in conflicts far away from East Asia must have played a role in the calculations of Pyongyang's leadership.

And so, we have an opportunity, yet again, to bash George W. Bush. I do firmly believe that this is justified in this case. Bush and his administration did not foresee that his occupation would exceed the length of the Soviet engagement in Afghanistan, and he surely did not expect American troops to still be operating in large numbers in Iraq so many years after "Mission Accomplished" had been announced. The prolonged operations in the two West Asian countries has meant that the U.S. simply cannot meet its longstanding security commitments elsewhere effectively. That is the brutal truth. Since everyone is aware of this handicap, those powers that seek to challenge American power and threaten her allies are definitely emboldened and less inhibited in taking up an aggressive posture.

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November 20th, 2010


11:40 pm - Important for future reference - Digital Humanities
Link about use of new technology for humanities (and, potentially, social sciences): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/arts/17digital.html

Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.

These researchers are digitally mapping Civil War battlefields to understand what role topography played in victory, using databases of thousands of jam sessions to track how musical collaborations influenced jazz, searching through large numbers of scientific texts and books to track where concepts first appeared and how they spread, and combining animation, charts and primary documents about Thomas Jefferson’s travels to create new ways to teach history.

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01:01 am - The River in the Sky
In a recent press conference, Obama mentioned something about China having recently grabbed the top spot among the world's fastest supercomputers in the Top 500 High Performance Computing list. Given that this is something that does not seem to have much traction within the beltway community, I am guessing that it is something that he is personally interested in, and not something pushed on to his brief by his staff. It reminded me of a point that he made in a debate with John McCain about China's space program, which McCain did not respond to. Obama, in other words, is a serious China watcher, and his interest is personal.

I find it hard to imagine that the new Republican leadership can be all that interested in stuff like this either. They have a laser focus on their own talking points, and none of their points involve building up tech and science for the future. If they are interested at all, it is because there are opportunities to cut big science down to patch the budget deficit. I think they will be little concerned about the consequences of whatever cuts they may choose to impose upon the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, or whatever agency of the U.S. government that might be involved in research of any kind. They'd only be interested in the $$$ that could be recovered from cutting the spending.

In a way, you can't expect much more than that from self-proclaimed simple minds proud of their simple aims. Why would someone care about the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge if they can hardly comprehend how e-mail works? Can you imagine Sarah Palin taking a genuine interest in the big bang, string theory or even modern weather prognostication? "How's that sciency techy stuff working out for you?" I'd imagine her response to be, if asked her opinion of such matters. Hitler, after all, did not fund nuclear weapons research.

You cannot put yourself in the shoes of the scientist if you do not have 'sciency' thinking. The republican would instinctively seize on a scientific discipline he deems potentially redundant or wasteful, like say, volcanology, and then attempt to mock it in a way that gets everyone to nod their heads. When you go about your business with such a negative attitude you will naturally end up aiming to slash and burn whatever sciency waste you can get your hands on.

The right wing says that they would preserve defense spending. Question: what is defense spending? The Jaguar is apparently funded by the NSF, and funding for this body is said to be a target for the budget axe. Would the huge computers at the National Laboratories have to fall silent in order to satisfy the political hunger of the re-ascendant party of 'fiscal responsibility'? Guess what: supercomputers are the ultimate dual-use technology. The Tianhe-1A is not a secret machine. It is operated by a university at a non-military location, and it is available for the use of various civilian bodies, including meteorological bodies and petroleum companies. It is even being offered to foreign users who might have useful applications to unleash its raw computing power. Is this a military threat, economic threat or just a harmless source of bragging rights?

Well, just imagine that down the road, not too far away but not right next door, sits a hidden twin to the Tianhe. Let's say that this twin is not revealed to the public, and is not benchmarked along with the other computers in the beauty pageant that is the Top 500. This twin makes use of exactly the same technology, has exactly the same computing power and was built and operated by the same team that worked on the Tianhe. But this twin spends its nights and days picking and unwrapping every bit of data that passes across the internet and the phone networks, and every radio message sent on military networks within hearing range of Chinese listening posts. This server runs cryptanalysis software powerful enough to unpick every known and yet to be known encryption lock. When there is spare capacity, this server models the globe in the form of its entire electric grid, down to local power switches, every refinery and every waterworks, and simulates an attack upon every nation's infrastructure, refining the model as more data is discovered and flaws in the plan of attack are observed with every simulation.

Now, if this hypothetical 'evil twin' of the Tianhe were to exist, who do you trust (if you are American) to lead the way to develop effective counter measures. Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. Or Mike Huckabee? The guy who administers the Top 500 list has said himself that the Chinese government is committed to developing this field and is willing to pour in the resources to build them big and strong. You've seen the Olympics, you know the gold medal count. China hates to lose and does the necessary to win. And they want to win this tournament too. The Chinese are willing to develop proprietary technology (the interconnect switches between the CPUs) to make their system go faster; the Jaguar guys can only dream about that level of state support. The Republicans will probably expect to be even more scrooge-like, the consequences be damned.

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October 29th, 2010


01:05 am - Future Reference: Everyone can go to college in Japan
For possible future use: link to Time.com article..

Japan:Class Dismissed

Simply put, there are fewer and fewer Japanese students to support a system that was built for heavier class loads. As a result, Japan's famously Darwinian educational environment, in which high school students crammed day and night so they could beat their peers on standardized tests and get into good universities, is fading. Instead, even average students now breeze into colleges that are becoming less selective about who fills their hallowed lecture halls. Educators have a phrase for this phenomenon: daigaku zennyu jidai, which literally means "an age when all are accepted to college."

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October 24th, 2010


12:11 am - Speculating about what happened in Iraq
So, today wikileaks' tranche of Iraq files gets aired in four papers - NYT, Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel - today. Actually, none of it is actually surprising. We all, by now, have a good idea about how badly the U.S. have done in its handling of the war in Iraq. Civilian deaths and Iranian infiltration are not unknown anymore. The details, however, draw us back to the fact that things have gone terribly badly throughout the course of this unnecessary and probably 'illegal' war (notwithstanding the fact that all wars are illegal by definition).

But how did the U.S. and the rest of us end up with this situation? Wikileaks has not produced the documents showing how the war began. I am not talking about the publicly known part of the debacle. I am talking about the memos, the no-holds-barred discussions - that led to the decision to go to war even after it appeared to be clear that the WMDs no longer existed. Dubya is going to publish his 'memoirs' soon, but I wouldn't count on it revealing this stuff in detail either.

When George W. Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare that major combat operations were over, he was probably following a Plan. This Plan was not revealed to us but we can speculate about its existence, based on everything that has happened since. It goes something like this. The U.S., once it had successfully overthrown Saddam Hussein, would quickly secure law and order and hand it over to a trusted client, who would in turn set up a pro-U.S. regime to take over the country. This government would very likely have been authoritarian, a milder, more compassionate version of the Baathist government of Saddam and his predecessors.

The plan unravelled quickly because the chosen client, Ahmed Chalabi, proved to be unreliable. Once he had established his offices in Baghdad, it became clear that he was a lot more sympathetic to his Shiite religious kin in Iran than had been visible when he was based in America. Once the client was no longer trustworthy, the plan fell apart. The American occupation authority had to build its own network of allies and identify its enemies pretty much on its own. They had not built up the kind of intelligence and psy-ops capabilities that a full-blown, long drawn occupation entailed. That's why they floundered so badly. Furthermore, the reluctance of their leaders (Rumsfeld-Cheney in particular) to admit that they were now fighting a different kind of war than the one they had set out to fight, meant that change in the right direction was stuttering. In the meantime the situation in Iraq deteriorated, refugees were made of millions and the U.S. forces pretty much lost control.

And so, that is how the war became the longest nightmare. For Iraqis and Americans alike, as well as the families of soldiers serving in the 'coalition of the willing' this has been a frightful waste of life, talent and time. An ill-prepared and frustrated occupying military soon found that all they had was an overwhelming superiority in firepower, and little else. That's why they took it out on the little guys. They couldn't figure these people out, the so-called 'ragheads', and so every one person that they saw was threatening - even the women and children. In these conditions of panic, U.S. soldiers lashed out at these almost non-humans whom they had the power of life and death over. We should lament the loss - the unnecessary loss - of human life arising from the war. But we should reflect upon why the war came to be. We must seek the real reasons for this war, and why it has ended up lasting so long.

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September 16th, 2010


01:28 am - Russell Tovey, Being Human
And so, for much of the past week, haha, I have been immersed in a cultural phenomenon that's still largely unknown in these parts, to date. Well, it's not super big yet, but it is growing.

I am talking about the BBC series Being Human. About a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost who share a flat in Bristol. It's a fantastic mix of comedy, drama and action / horror, with the supernatural being depicted matter-of-fact style. There's been two seasons so far, and I watched the episodes all, as well as outtakes and deleted scenes. And also video diaries made by the actors and the website editors.

Anyway, how I really got to know about it - I found out about an actor named Russell Tovey. I saw a short video clip about his latest sitcom, Him & Her, on Guardian. And I thought he was interesting looking and maybe someone I had seen elsewhere before. Turns out he was in History Boys (which I have not watched in full, and I do not recall him from the show). After a bit of boredom-induced browsing, I found out about his hit series Being Human. Tovey plays George, the werewolf.

There is a big emotional scene at the beginning of Episode 6, season one, that I think is a really great display of what Tovey is capable of. Well, I found it really moving. It is the scene where George first meets Mitchell, the vampire. Vampires hate werewolves in the show's universe, so Mitchell's then-associate bloodsuckers beat up poor George, who has been on the run since discovering his new condition, and is working a shitty late shift job at a cafe. Mitchell turns up and decides to do a good deed - something he apparently does occasionally despite being allegedly one of the baddest among the vampires.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who finds this scene really big. Russell's Mum is said to have felt really bad about it because it was like watching her boy getting beaten. Haha, know what? I think I can totally relate to Russell in real life.

Actually, I think I might have a lot in common with Russell. He was a history buff as a child (like me), and he'd wanted to be a history teacher before deciding to be an actor instead, around 10 or 11. Clearly comes from a close-knit family, being especially close to Mum. Spoilt too, so he claims - a neighbour gave him a toy car so that he would keep quiet, threatening to take it back if he screamed again.

Quite exceptionally for a young actor, he's made friends with established figures in diverse areas within the arts and letters world. He almost worships playwright Alan Bennett, whom he met on History Boys. He's close to (in)famous artist Tracey Emin, who calls him 'pokey' because of his ears that 'poke out'. He's clearly ambitious - wants to write plays and maybe other stuff.

Oh, and he's got a fairly new twitter feed @russelltovey. I think it's pretty entertaining as far as twittering goes. What's really interesting to me is that he took some trouble to figure out what to call his twitter fans. He started by thinking that 'twits' sounds unbecoming, so then he tried 'witters'. He seems to have settled on 'wittys' which does sound far more positive than the first option. I think that such thoughtfulness is rare in cyberspace, and I should commend him for that!

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