Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Real and perceived enemies

18th century French satirist and philosopher says, "As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities." People are often used as the means to a political end. Just feed them absurdities and they will commit atrocities that you want them to, while the real enemies are left alone. All Malaysians should ask themselves who the real enemies are. Malaysia has seen its crime rate escalating exponentially, yet the biggest demonstrations in the country are race-based ones. Racial and religious hatred are fanned by zealots, while reprisals are simultaneously silenced by threats and actions. The demonstrators genuinely believe that their way of life is threatened both economically and religiously. How utterly misled they are! If the entire Chinese population disappear from Malaysia, would that change the real threats eroding the economic wellbeing of the demonstrators? Would that make their religious practice more free and meaningful? I do not think so.

The real enemies are the robbers, burglars, kidnappers, and corrupt officials. They seem almost unrestrained. They have no regards for human lives. They certainly do not discriminate on race or religion when carrying out their activities. Until people are educated on who the real enemies are, Malaysia will continue to be a haven for crime. Ultimately, the price is not just economic security or religious freedom, but ruin and anarchy for the entire country. In the worst case scenerio, Zimbawe took just 30 years to be totally ruined. Perhaps that should be made into a case study and taught to everyone in Malaysia.

For photographers: a book worth reading

My favourite section in the bookstore or the library is the photography section. Sometimes in browsing through the pages I would come across a fresh perspective, or a new idea to try out on my camera. That's what fuels my passion in photography. I recently read "A New Manual On Photography" by John Hedgecoe. In this book, the author covers more about light and colour control, than on picture composition, aperture or focal point. He DID cover those other points too (which photography book wouldn't?), but I felt this book gave a very useful expose on a fundamental aspect of photography which is often under-addressed. He shows how one can create a lovely shot in bright light or in dull light, in high key or in low key, in harsh light or in soft light.

Composition alone does not make a great picture. I've learned that it also requires colour control in the same way an artist would carefully choose what colour goes with the other on a canvas. I've also learned to appreciate how the angle and intensity of light hitting on a subject can make a difference. It never struck me until now that tonality, or differrent shades of the same colour, is the key to giving a two-dimensional image a three-dimensional impact. That, in my opinion, is the pursuit of artists and photographers alike.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Countries evolving into economic entities

No, I did not spawn this idea inside my head. I might have read about it somewhere during my college days. This line appeared in a movie I watched recently ("Transporter 3"?). The current economic crisis reveals that in many of the richest and most advanced countries their priority is to save failing corporations. If giants like GM and Chrysler, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Citigroup and JPMorgan, are allowed to fold, the fear is that many jobs will be lost, including the ruling party's. Think about it: these giants are simply economic entities. Their singular reason for existence is to make more and more profits. Why can a small failing business be allowed to go under, but not a really big, giant one?

In the old days, prior to the emergence of corporate greed (I call this the era of corporate greed), a government's role was to provide welfare and security for its people. Laws were legislated to protect the ignorant and defenseless public from exploitation by businesses in their quest for profit. It seems that economic entities are now the real power behind the government, from the US to Zimbabwe; from the Middle East to the Far East. Behind a facade of working for the people, people are actually used as pawns to feed either corporate profit or to line the pockets of those directly in power.

I hope the likes of Obama and Kevin Rudd will be able to restrain the powers of the economic moguls. If the current economic crisis passes without fundamental changes to the way giant corporations are allowed to escape government scrutiny, or if governments continue to place a business mogul's needs above the common citizen's needs, then history is bound to repeat itself. Then, take your money and hide under the pillow, because no one can be trusted.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Real reason for the global economic crisis

I sound like I am more knowledgeable than Paul Krugman, the 2008 Noble Prize laureate for economics. Actually, I just want to reproduce here the article written by Ross Gittins today in the Business Day section of The Age newspaper. I strongly believe that what he says is true:

"(Header of article) It's not inflation that's done us in after all; it's the long build-up in debt"

"For a decade the world's central bankers have been on the wrong tram, worrying about inflation when they should have been worrying about excessive borrowing."

" ... Turns out the inflation they should have been worried about was in the prices of assets such as houses and shares, not goods and services."

"Bubbles in asset markets require the ready availability of credit. And it's been the long build-up in debt on the balance sheets of household businesses (via the private equity craze) and financial institutions (hedge funds, investment banks and even commercial banks) that's at the heart of the global financial crisis and the recession that it's feeding."

"This is the point that is yet to sink in: recessions come not from excessive braking to control inflation, but from excessive borrowing and the bursting of asset bubbles."

Ross Gittins suggests that perhaps governments should set ceilings on the proportion of share and property values that can be borrowed against; i.e. control gearing ratio. Makes sense to me. Credit borrowing has simply got out of hand, leading to the banking crisis which the US recently fought to overcome by the injection of US$700bil into the system. (Note that it was just the "banking crisis" that has been dealt with; countries all over the world are still struggling with a looming "economic crisis".) As long as people borrow to spend, there will always be an asset bubble. The idea is to not let this asset bubble grow out of control again.

The prevailing wisdom is that governments should spend itself out of the economic crisis, even to the point of budget deficit. I believe this should be done by using available savings or domestic financing, so as not to feed the asset bubble again. The only real solution to the economic crisis is to allow house prices and share prices to fall to realistic levels, AND to have the POLITICAL WILL POWER to keep the asset bubble under control at all times.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

My experience with digital IR photography

When I first got my Sony F717 camera in 2002, I experimented with infrared photography simply because this camera is particularly well suited for IR (infrared) work. The F717's nightshot feature is designed to capture IR images in the dark. Used in broad daylight, visible light is screened out by using a Hoya R72 IR filter. On top of that, an ND8 filter reduces the amount of exposure. IR light is then captured by the IR-sensitive CCD sensor of the digital camera. Post processing turns a bland IR image into a more interesting coloured image. The above picture is my first attempt on coloured IR.

How to produce coloured IR: With a Hoya R72 IR filter, the image is heavily tinted in red/magenta (although not visible in the Jpeg image). The idea is to correct this by swapping red and blue channels. Using the Photoshop channel mixer, select the RED setting and set Red to 0% and Blue to 100%. Likewise, in the BLUE setting, set Blue to 0% and Red to 100%. Next, select Auto Color. If desired, you can adjust the saturation in the Hue/Saturation setting, or experiment with the Levels and Curves settings. Below are an IR image before and after post processing using Irfanview (which can also do the job).

For details on Digital IR Photography, see:
For quick tutorial, see:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Exploring High Dynamic Range photography

Now that I got myself started on photo impressionism, I would also like to mention here a digital imaging technique that has intrigued me earlier on. Used with discretion, it can be a very powerful technique. However, over-use of it will quickly wear down its novelty. The theory behind HDR (high dynamic range) can be easily found in Wikipedia; it is not my intention to expound on it here. The technique involves taking 3 shots of the same scene, with exposure bracketing for under- and over-exposure. A handy software such as Dynamic Photo HDR does the rest for you in a few simple steps. It is that easy!

This is an example I got from the website. An ordinary shot has been turned into a surreal picture. Google on HDR will quickly reveal lots of beautiful HDR images.

Below is my first attempt using a trial version of the Dynamic Photo HDR software. See the difference between a normal shot and an HDR-rendered image.

You can also do a simulated HDR using a single shot instead of bracketing 3 shots. Below is an example using a plug-in imported into Photoshop. (Newer versions of Photoshop CS has built-in HDR tool).

It is easier to achieve satisfactory result with HDR than with digital infrared photography. I guess now I'll have to write about my experience with IR (infrared) photography in my next blog.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Photo impressionism

Pictorialism is coined from the word "picture impressionism". Pictorialism started in the late nineteenth century, around the time impressionism was gaining popularity. Here is a typical example. The grainy effect simulates the rough brush strokes of an impressionist painting.

Modern digital camera makes it possible to create photographs that emulate an impressionist painting in colour, as shown in this beautiful example.

Some photographers venture into the realm of extensive digital manipulation to emulate the impressionist style of the great masters.

Others produce abstract work under the umbrella of impressionism.

Here is my work with a camera. The only photoshop work on this picture is cropping. Hopefully you noticed the background more than the flowers. This picture is about how the background emulates what you see in an impressionist painting.

Monday, November 17, 2008

China's GDP "growth" doesn't add up

We have all heard that China's GDP "growth" was 12% last year and will "slow" to 7% this year. However, we have also heard that as many as 20% of China's factories are in trouble, and that production in many of its steel mills have slowed to a crawl. Australia's mining companies have seen their mineral prices plummet, along with their share prices, largely due to a big drop in demand from China. This fact is borne by stories of migrant workers in China returning back to their rural homes because of factory closures.

Something doesn't add up. GDP by definition is the total value of all goods and services produced in a country. If China's growth is slowing down, that means it is still growing albeit at a slower pace. Nothing in the newspapers have said anything about contraction. So, what is holding the GDP figures up, I wonder? I can only imagine that the talks about China's GDP growth slowing down to 7% is not true. The facts are clear for all to see: China's GDP is simply NOT GROWING. This implies that the world cannot count on China to prevent us all from sliding into a recession. Bearing this in mind, is it any wonder that share prices continue to see-saw downwards?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My first visit to Knox Photographic Society

Tonight I dropped in on my first visit to the KPS (Knox Photographic Society). It was everything I expected. There were about 60 people at the meeting, which is held on alternate Wednesdays. I liked what I saw: lots of people who have a genuine passion for photography, a lot of activities to encourage development of skills, and friendly people who just love to talk shop. I can see my interest in photography getting a big "shot" in the arm (pun intended). I can't imagine why I waited so long for this to come along. It was quite by chance that I decided to surf the internet to look for a club nearby.

At tonight's meeting, some of the members brought along their favourite photos to show. Some were in prints, some slides, and some were just soft copies projected from a laptop onto a a screen. After that, there was a half hour slideshow of this year's winning entries to the APS (Australian Photographic Society). The pictures were truly beautiful and inspiring. Suddenly I find myself inspired to set a new goal and a new purpose for my hobby: to make a winning entry to the APS some day!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A$6.2bil assistance for local car industry

Over the next 13 years the government is going to provide A$6.2bil in various incentives to help the car industry to survive. A pure capitalist would be repelled by the idea; survival goes to the fittest, they say. Australia has a small population; as such they would argue that we have an uphill battle against the economy of scale. Let's put some perspectives into the issue (with figures quoted freely from Shaun Carney's article in today's The Age newspaper):

1. A$6.2bil may be a big sum of money, but try comparing that with A$10bil which the government is pumping into pensioners' pockets next month. Unlike the $10bil pensioners' bonanza, the $6.2bil will be spent over 13 years, to help 60,000 tax-paying workers directly employed in car manufacturing, and another 200,000 workers in related industries.

2. Unlike the Malaysian Proton which is well known as being inefficient and surviving on the government's protectionist policies, Australian car manufacturing is world class. Unfortunately it is on an uphill battle - not due to economy of scale - but due to uneven tariff policies. While Australia is going to reduce the imported car tariff from 10% to 5%, we are importing cars from Thailand (tariff on imported cars is 80%), Brazil (35%), Europe (10%), and China (25%). This is a ridiculous arrangement. Why are we spending $6.2bil to keep the car industry alive, while at the same time doing nothing about tariffs? At the least, perhaps all government vehicles should be local productions.

3. About economy of scale, the US has a very large market for its car industries. Yet GM and Ford are reeling over in this financial crisis. Even before the crisis, GM and Ford have seen their market share being taken over by Japanese imports. The US government has pumped in money several times in the past to rescue its car manufacturers, but continues to openly expose themselves to policies that can only result in transferring all their manufacturing bases overseas. This may enrich the rich capitalists in the country (cheaper labour = greater profit), but certainly impoverishes all the workers who make up the vast majority of the population.

Perhaps it is time that governments wake up now and take a bourgeois view of the economy and how it should be managed. Unbridled globalization policies is what dries up employment. In developed countries, the manufacturing base had been replaced by a financial services industry, which everyone knows has now exploded into pieces. Kevin Rudd has done the right thing to help keep the manufacturing base (hence, employment figures) going. A$6.2bil is a good start; let's hope that's not the end of the story.

(Footnote: Columnist Kenneth Davidson wrote in The Age the following day:
"Financial services based on increasingly complex financial products built on financial engineering cannot fill the gap left by the decline in manufacturing, nor can a revival in manufacturing be left to the market when nascent industries must compete on equal terms in global markets.

"... If the government is serious about creating an internationally competitive vehicle industry, it must shape policy to exploit strengths and identify weaknesses.")

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's good about my old digicam

My new DSLR (D90) has opened up a lot of photography possibilities for me, yet in some ways I think digicams still have a significant role to play. DSLR, by virtue of the pentaprism, makes a sound when the shutter is released. Ah, I miss the moments when I could snap quietly without announcing to the unsuspecting public "Hey, I am taking a picture of you!" This, coupled with my tilting Live View LCD, has enabled me to take many pictures in public places. I simply place my old Sony F717 at waist level and shoot, looking as if I was just fidgeting with my camera.

The other day when I went to the Derby Day races, I took my D90 with me. It seemed like I was the only one with a DSLR, although there were a few others with small pocket cameras. Subdued by my self-consciousness, I ended up not taking very many pictures. I would have taken more if I had a little digicam with me.

Some side notes.....
The lines are already starting to blur between DSLR and digicam.
1. DSLR's are beginning to sport Live View and articulated LCD. Leica and Panasonic already introduced articulated LCD with Live View in their DSLR one year ago. Olympus introduced articulated Live View LCD in its newly launched E-30, while Sony also has tilting Live View LCD (e.g. A350). Hopefully, it won't be long before Canon and Nikon add articulated or tilting LCD to their Live View. Shooting from waist level gives a more correct perspective to photographing people.
2. Hybrids may one day sport DSLR-size sensor. The Panasonic DMC-G1 uses Micro Four-Thirds sensor and does away with the pentaprism. This reduces the size of the camera, while allowing for interchangeable lens. I am hoping that this sensor may also find its way to some future digicams that will be small enough to carry in the pocket, yet gives SLR-level image quality.

Friday, November 7, 2008

GPS: Garmin Nuvi 260

I bought this as a birthday gift for my son. This is the first time I have hands-on experience with a GPS and I am very impressed with the design of it. The overall design is very well thought out:

1. Size and weight: it is about 2/3 the size of a PDA, as light as a calculator, and does not have any protruding antenna. It does not require a special charger; it just uses a USB port which is almost ubiquitous nowadays.

2. Performance: The touch screen is very responsive. The screen is bright enough to use in bright daylight. Screen resolution is clear and appears more pleasing than other brands in similar price range. The in-built speaker is loud and clear and the volume can be easily accessed on the touchscreen menu. The soft buttons respond well and the pages open up quickly. The battery is specified to last 5 hrs, which is exceptionally high among its peers.

3. Features: The touch "buttons" are very simple to navigate. On the home screen, you just choose if you want to go somewhere, or simply look at the map to see where you are. No need to sweat over an array of choices. This model is a dedicated tool for GPS purposes and is not integrated with a camera, music player, etc., which is the way I like. You can set it to automobile, bicycle, or pedestrian mode, depending on how you move about. I took it to Jell's Park for a walk and it worked just fine, showing you all the trails in the park. When I drove home, I placed it backwards on the passenger seat and it calls out the directions with no problem (not that I expected any). Best of all, I like the fact that it calls out street names. Finally it has a picture viewer; not a fancy one, but it is good to have. I can imagine how useful it would be when going on a trip. It would be useful as a do-all note keeper: say a picture of your packing list, picture of someone you are supposed to pick up at the airport, a place you are supposed to look for, etc, etc.

This is a great gadget to have. It is not a "must-have" item, but it is great to have it around. At $242, I think it is at a decent price point where it will find its way into many pockets, homes and hearts.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

First 10 days with my D90 DSLR

After many years of delayed gratification, the question I ask myself is: how did it turn out? Has it lived up to my expectation? Did it suddenly make me into a great photographer, producing pictures like those on my favourite online albums? I think the short answer to those questions is: a great camera to a photographer is like a great instrument to a musician. It is capable of producing great works but only in the right hands. My hands are not trained yet for producing professional work, but with the right tool now I can work towards that.

The greatest experience with the D90 is the freedom to shoot in any light without using a flash or a tripod. The above picture was shot at 1/30s speed (which would normally require a tripod), and at ISO 5000 (boosted), which is not possible on a digicam. The D90's in-built noise reduction did a wonderful smoothening job on the picture, and the D-Lighting feature gave it the nice details you see in the shadow. Apart from this picture, I have lots and lots of fun shooting in the dim lights and still getting decent looking pictures.

As for the lens, the wider angle lens (27mm equivalent on 35mm camera) needed some getting used to. I kept getting slanted buildings and wide-faced portraits when I am not careful. The maximum zoom of about 6x is indeed sufficient for me, without weighing me down with unnecessarily long zoom. I had been able to carry the camera for one whole day at the Derby yesterday, without feeling that it was any heavier than my old Sony F717. The 18-105mm kit lens was indeed a good choice for me, although I initially wondered if I should have gone for the 18-200mm lens.

Features on the D90 that I am excited about and will use most:
- the selectable auto ISO can boost up ISO when light is too dim
- very small aperture setting for maximum depth of field (constrained me before)
- very capable and easy to use manual focus
- high speed continuous shooting

The video capturing mode did just what I expected it to do. Nothing more to it. I have not planned on doing lots of video shots, but it is there when I need it. Same for live view. I don't use it very much because due to design constraints of the pentaprism in a DSLR, the focusing is slow. It is not difficult to adapt to shooting through the viewfinder, although I miss the ability to composed shots using a fully articulated LCD. (Panasonic and Sony are breaking grounds that will eventually see high quality, non-TTL viewing that will allow use of articulated LCD on a DSLR)

My first 10 days in short: Carried the camera almost very day. Loved it. Still trying to produce pictures like those I admire in my favourite online albums.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Malcolm turned bull in a china shop

When Kevin Rudd announced on Oct 12th that the government will guarantee all bank deposits, it was reported that:

(Quote from Herald Sun)
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull welcomed the Government guarantee on bank deposits and promised to help ensure the passage of any necessary legislation through the parliament.
"It's a very important step and we will undertake to give the Government every assistance in ensuring that the necessary legislation will pass through the parliament promptly," he said.
Despite his call for bipartisanship, Mr Turnbull claimed credit for the Government's strategy.

Now Malcolm is castigating the government for the disquiet in the mortgage fund industry where investors are transferring their money out and putting them in the banks to take advantage of the government guarantee. Why didn't he speak up on Oct 12th, instead of nipping at the heels of Kevin Rudd on hindsight? Secondly, even if the government had fine tuned the bank guarantee further at that time, it does not mean that other undesired (or perhaps necessary) side effects would not have occurred. Thirdly, banks are regulated by the government and therefore the government should uphold its responsibility to the people. As far as I know, mortgage funds may not be subject to the same regulations and they probably bear high-gain, high-risk return on investment. Kevin Rudd has the wisdom not to turn this into a public debate with Malcolm Turnbull. Doing so would only erode the public's confidence in the economy and hence hamper its recovery.

Perhaps, capital flight from mortgage funds to banks would have happened even if Kevin Rudd had not announced the bank guarantee. After all, many mortgage funds have fallen in recent times. Banks, while also shaken by the financial crisis, are still seen as the better bet of the two.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Nikon D90 and multimedia photography

The newly introduced Nikon D90 sets a milestone in digital photography for the serious photographer by being the first DSLR to have high definition video mode, along with Live View. These two features have been established in all digicams, but this is the first for a DSLR, and a trailblazer for all the other manufacturers. Many serious photographers play down the usefulness of video mode in a high end camera. Perhaps they fail to accept the birth of "multimedia photography". While the introduction of multimedia has been quietly taking place in digicams, the D90 has formally introduced true professionalism to the game.

Commercial grade video requires professional equipment; certainly not the kind you get with a consumer-level video camera. While photography is relatively inexpensive, videography is both expensive and time consuming. In between these two, "multimedia photography" incorporates both conventional photography and videography techniques to produce a new art form that can be embraced by a digital photographer who is keen to expand the boundaries of photography.

The D90 makes it possible to create extremely high quality video clips alongside high quality images without spending a bomb on professional video equipment. Using inexpensive slideshow software (vis-a-vis video editing software), it is possible to create short artshows complete with audio, still images, and video. Examples of such artshows can be viewed at Welcome to multimedia photography!!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Changing the ethos of a nation

Ethos, by one definition, is the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution. With this in mind, think how immigration patterns can change the ethos of a country like the US, Europe, and Australia. Australia, in particular, has both a constant outflow of citizens, and a inflow of new migrants. This doubles the rate of change of the ethos in the country.

Without proper control of the mix of outflowing "ethos" (for want of a better word) and inflowing ethos, Australia will gradually experience a change which may or may not be welcome by the older inhabitants. This can create social unrest, which will in turn erode the economic advantages that the immigration policy is trying to create; i.e. skilled workers, job creation, increased tax revenue. Social unrest tends to become more pronounced in times of economic crisis.

Negative ethos that might build up over time includes extremist religious beliefs, which can be very incendiary; or simply cultural behaviors that are more easy to live with in this age of globalization. I propose that immigration policies should also take care of the changing ethos in the country and not just be focused on economics.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mr. Me-Too, he isn't

When Kevin Rudd was running against John Howard in the election, John Howard tried to shake Kevin off by accusing him of "Me-Too-ism". During this financial crisis, Kevin Rudd has shown convincingly that he is no copy-cat. In fact he has initiated more swift and decisive actions than any other leaders in tackling the crisis. First was the $10.4bil economic stimulus package which was heartily embraced even by the opposition party. Today he announced that billions of dollars in superannuation funds would be used for nation building. This is the classical fiscal weapon used to reverse a slowing economy. Thirdly, Kevin announced that he will be meeting business leaders to get a feedback on what else could be done to stimulate the economy.

Take note that Kevin Rudd did not start by asking everybody what he must do. That would be the sign of a leader who acts by getting input first - not necessary a bad thing to do - but inappropriate at this time. Kevin demonstrated decisively and swiftly, as what is needed in this crisis, yet without a hint of self interest and party protection.

Friday, October 10, 2008

How genuine is Henry Paulson?

In my previous blog I commented about Henry Paulson leading the U.S. financial bailout plan. He, and people like him, seems to be too dazed by their own interests to make the best decisions for Main Street, hence the continued skepticism of the bailout plan. Although passed, the brakes on the stock market plummet are still not working. Here's what Paul Krugman says in The New York Times:
"The U.S should have been in a much stronger position. And when Paulson announced his plan for a huge bail-out, there was a temporary surge of optimism.
"But it soon became clear that the plan suffered from a fatal lack of intellectual clarity. Paulson proposed buying US$700billion worth of "troubled assets" - toxic mortgage-related securities - from banks, but he was never able to explain why this would resolve the crisis.
"What he should have proposed instead, many economists agree, was direct injection of capital into financial firms: the U.S. Government would provide financial institutions with the capital they need to do business, thereby halting the downward spiral, IN RETURN FOR PARTIAL OWNERSHIP (uppercase my own).
"When Congress modified the Paulson plan, it introduced provisions that made such a capital injection possible, but not mandatory. AND UNTIL TWO DAYS AGO, PAULSON REMAINED RESOLUTELY OPPOSED TO DOING THE RIGHT THING (uppercase my own).
"But on Wednesday, the British Government, showing the kind of clear thinking that has been all too scarce on the US side of the pond, announced a plan to provide banks with 50billion pounds in new capital - the equivalent, relative to the size of the economy, of a US$500billion program - together with extensive guarantees for financial transactions between banks.
"And the US Treasury officials now say that they plan to do something similar, USING AUTHORITY THEY DID NOT WANT BUT CONGRESS GAVE THEM ANYWAY (uppercase my own)."

----- Update ----
Paul Krugman won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics. He is an economics lecturer in Princeton University since 2000. He is a blogger and he writes for the New York Times.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Economics 101, in my own words

After reading the article "Economics 101" in today's papers, I think I want to share what I have learned in my own words. This will help to crystallize my thoughts as well as help others to be more informed about the financial crisis on Wall Street. This crisis is resonating to the rest of the world. First, let's understand a couple of terminologies.

SUBPRIME LOAN: This is simply a loan given to borrowers who are at high risks of defaulting on repayment. In the U.S. it is reported that up to 25% of all mortgages are subprime.

CDO: Stands for collateralised debt obligation.In order to get money to loan out, the finance companies sell bonds ("IOU's", in simple terms) that yield high interest rates. Who buys? Pension Funds, local councils all over the world, trust funds, private investors, etc... all looking for high interest rates on their fixed deposits. These bonds were even given AAA rating by the ratings agencies.

Chief executives of big financial institutions are paid millions each year, yet they seem to have been sleeping on the job. They participated in the financial feeding frenzy that has allowed their pay and bonuses to balloon, while at the same time encouraging practices that border on the scandalous. The most outstanding of all must be Henry Paulson, the U.S. Treasury Secretary himself. As chief executive of Goldman Sachs he paid himself US$37mil in 2005. Goldman Sachs is one of the financial institutions that has to be rescued; so how could Henry Paulson have done such a brilliant job to earn him US$37mil in one year? Now, Paulson, as Treasury Secretary, is asking Congress for money to bail out all the companies that have participated in decades of financial madness. The very same person who seemed oblivious to what eventually brought Goldman Sachs down, is now trying to steer the U.S. economy out of financial ruins.

As for the U.S. bailout plan, here are some interesting points:
The US$700bil requested for bailout was an arbitrary figure. It was reported that a U.S. Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes magazine that "we just wanted to choose a really large number". Is that enough? I doubt it. The outstanding mortgage debt in the U.S. is US$14 trillion. As a quarter of that is subprime, that means US$3.5 trillion is at risk. Is US$700bil enough?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

'Concerned that cell phones may be a cancer risk?

Since cell phones were invented in the 1980's, there has been a constant speculation of cancer risks. Many scientific reports have been published; I won't dwell into that. Today there are 3 billion users of cell phones. Statistically the number of user-hours is astronomical while the number of possible links to cancer is hardly worth a mention. I am not down playing the possibility that cell phones may in some cases contribute to cancer. I just want to point out that this is an unnecessary concern at this time.

Consider this: airplanes have been around for a long time. Everyone knows air disasters do happen and will continue to happen. Yet almost everyone will continue to fly in an airplane. The reason is, the advantage far outweighs the risk. Back to the cell phone... even if a direct correlation to cancer is found, people will continue to use cell phones unless the risk is unacceptably high. Of far greater danger to health and safety are cigarettes, airplanes, or even simply crossing the road. Aren't we missing something here?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The great U.S. bailout

The U.S. financial system is in trouble. Henry Paulson, the Treasury Secretary, is asking for US$700bil to bail out the troubled finance-related companies. The cost is roughly US$2000 per citizen. In a typical family of 5, that is about $10k per family of after-tax money. So why should the public support it? Why not let the fat cats on Wall Street pay for their own mess?

By tomorrow, Congress will be asked to vote again on the bill to release US$700bil. My guess is that the bill will eventually be passed because the entire population stands to lose even more in terms of jobs. The entire U.S. economy is at stake, not just Wall Street.

Assuming the bill is passed, what next? Well, that means the U.S. national debt will rise by about 10%. To pay this off, the government will have to reduce spending (hence, slowing down again of the economy), or print more currency (higher inflation). Both outcomes are undesirable. So I guess the U.S. will eventually take the middle ground of both. The problem will be transposed from Wall Street to Main Street U.S.A. The fat cats will be grinning once again from ear to ear.

The numbers game

The Australian government is proposing to increase maternity and paternity benefits, ostensibly to encourage people to have more children. What it has not considered is how the demography will change. Even without further incentives, one extremist leader has already made a call to "outbreed" the local population. What a sure way to increase one's presence in the country, courtesy of the host government!

How long would it take to "outbreed" the locals? Let's say the birth rate of the local population is 2.5 children per couple. Each of the theoretical 2.5 children have another 2.5 children, and the 2.5 children have 2.5 more. In three generations, the population would be 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 = 15.6.

Now, lets say a certain ethnic group has a birth rate of 6 children. In three generations, the population would be 6 x 6 x 6 = 216. That is more than 10X faster than the rest of the country. In 4 generations, it would be 33X; in 5 it would be 80X....

Let's hope the politicians know what they are doing. Australia's enemies do not need an army to take over the country. The host government is happy to raise one for them.

Chinese New Year gambling experience

I want to share with you my gambling experience as a young boy. The Chinese New Year is also a time when parents allow their children to gamble with money. I remember we used to shun playing with the "kiasu" people. They place small bets and take small risks. As soon as luck goes against them they'll stop playing. If you were the dealer in the game, chances are you'll win very little from these people. As soon as your luck turns sour, suddenly all the little "minnows" wake up and soon put you out of business. We think of them as "parasites", but they are the smart ones who gamble to win and who make use of mathematical probability to their advantage.

In the share market I believe there are thousands and thousands of the "kiasu" type of traders. They place small but safe bets. They cut loss as soon as the market for the day does not go in their favour. That is why the share market is so unpredictable; it is the result of millions of "kiasu" bets. The minnows use probability in their favour; they cut loss quickly and they crystallize their gains quickly. If you are not a "kiasu" player, you will be like the card dealer I mentioned above. You will be eaten alive by the minnows. You take great risks and look for big gains. When you win, all the minnows shy away. When you are on a losing streak, all the minnows hop in for the kill. And they do so ever so surreptitiously.

A word of caution: even the minnows eventually get eaten up too by the market movers. Market movers are big players and they are also the ones who make the rules. They are the CEO's and the policy makers in government. They move one step ahead of the market.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Canon Powershot SX1 IS - an ideal camera

Ever since I started having an interest in digicams several years ago, I have been waiting for camera to come along that has everything in one place. The problem is, as technology advances, I keep revising my wish list. At last, one camera has caught up with my wish list. It is the Canon Powershot SX1 IS, the replacement version of the S5 IS (which itself has been one of Canon's most successful digicams).

The SX1 IS has best-in-class specs for the following:
1. Wide angle zoom at 28mm focal length
2. Max aperture f2.8
2. HD movie with 1920x1080 resolution, 30fps, AVI mode
3. Articulated LCD, 230,000 pixels
4. Dedicated movie button
5. Powered by AA batteries.
6. 9-point autofocus with face detection
7. Optical image stabilization
8. 20x optical zoom
9. Aperture priority, shutter priority
10. 0 cm macro focus range

Caveat: I assume the image quality, shutter lag, and flash refresh will all be good, as can be expected from a matured camera maker like Canon.

So what can be expected from the next "ideal" digicam? Of course, there's always something new.... It would be nice to have a built-in GPS (as in Nikon's new P6000). Or have interchangeable lens with micro four-thirds sensor, which keeps the size down, but image quality up (like the latest Panasonic G1). Or, if you really want SLR-level capability with HD movie, there's Nikon's new D90; or going higher up, there's Canon's new 5D Mark II. For a photographer with movie inclination, there is no better time than this.

Monday, September 8, 2008

M'sian politics: teaching of Maths & Sci in English

The British set up a very successful system of education in Malaysia. After Independence, we used to have mainly the English medium schools; and we also had the Malay, Chinese, and Tamil medium schools for those who chose to go with their mother tongue. Over the years, the rise of nationalism led to the conversion of all the English medium schools to the Malay medium. Concurrently, English in the Chinese and Tamil schools was also de-emphasized. This change successfully removed English as the language of trade, commerce, and governance.However, the importance of the internet and the impact of globalization has forced the government to revive the proficiency of English in the younger population to prepare them for the future.

In 2002, the government made a sweeping change to introduce the teaching of Maths and Science in English, starting from Year One. Yesterday a detailed study reported that this change has been a failure. Quote:
“The mean scores of Malay and Orang Asli pupils were also much lower than those of the Chinese and Indians, said study leader Professor Emeritus Datuk Isahak Haron.
Isahak has called the policy a failure, particularly in terms of its impact on Malay students in national schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan), and is asking for a return to the teaching of Mathematics and Science in Bahasa Malaysia.”

The report leads one to believe that the main disappointment was that rural Malays who form two-thirds of the student population surveyed, have experienced a decline in the study of Maths and Science. Also, they have not improved in their command of English as hoped. This is exacerbated by the fact that their study score is much lower than demonstrated by their Chinese and Indian cohorts.

I pose this question: if the medium of instruction affects the ability of the students to progress, then why is it that the Chinese and Indians continue to do better, be it in the English or the Malay medium? Neither English nor Malay is their mother tongue, yet they can adapt and do well. Surely the policy makers can do better than to keep harping on the language issue. In the long run, they are not doing the rural Malays a favour. If the recommendation of the said report is carried out, Maths and Science will revert back to Malay. This will entrench the younger generation, especially among rural Malays, in knowledge deprivation in the Internet Age where hardly anything is written in Malay.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Google launches Chrome browser

Good for Google. Good for the rest of us, as there's one more choice of browser. However, it has suddenly dawned on me that while Chrome, Opera, and Firefox are all free browsers, can we say the same for Internet Explorer?

IE is bundled into the OS that Microsoft is selling for a very high price. If Microsoft is willing to sell each individual application separately, surely it cannot justify the astronomical sticker price. I would be happy to pay, say US$29.99 (somehow retailers like "99") for a stripped down, bare-essential XP. Then I will install all the freeware to run virus protection, disk defragmenter, multimedia player, picture viewer, CD burner, etc. Many of the freeware are as good, if not better, than Microsoft's. People are paying good money for nothing, because they cannot buy just the bare essential OS. Microsoft would like the market to think they get all the extras for free, but are they free? Governments should force Microsoft to breakdown the individual applications and allow consumers to pick and choose what they want to buy.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Stressed out by choices?

I recall a childhood when life was really simple. It was the pre-digital age. If you wanted to listen to the radio, you just had to find the volume and the dial knobs. In this digital age, you'll have to be acquainted with a few steps before you can enjoy music coming out of the speakers. As for choice of media, we used to have vinyl records, which were (much later) replaced by cassette tapes (which existed for almost one generation before being replaced by CD's). These days, we have a huge variety of digital media and formats with which you can play on a mobile phone, a media player, a PDA, a GPS, etc. It seems like anything mobile has a music player built into it.

I think we have to be careful not to be so taken up by choices that we fail to appreciate the very reason for our quest in the first place. Do we really need to seek out the best player we can afford before we start to enjoy the music? Do we need to have the best home theatre system before we can indulge in a movie at home? If we do, then the pre-digital age people must be a very deprived lot. Yet I think people at an earlier time and age had just as much enjoyment as we do now... without being burdened by all the choices they never had.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why short term share trading is a losing game

Buying shares is supposed to be an investment into the potential growth of a company in its ability to make even more money. Nowadays people trade in shares hoping for a short term increase in the share prices. When everyone starts to do that, it makes mockery of the word "investment" and it makes a fool of the players because ultimately the winners are the brokers and the fund managers.

Why is it a losing game? Let's assume there is a fix amount of money on the table. The players buy and sell frequently among themselves..... somebody loses, somebody wins. This goes on and on. The broker skims off a percentage for each trade. Ultimately the amount of money on the table gets smaller and smaller. Who do you think is the eventual winner?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mass rally in KL is good feedback

There's hope in the future for Malaysia after all, as evidenced by the recent mass rally in KL. All the different races are coming together as one nation, albeit to protest against the government. This rally proves that the different races can be united against a common cause. The non-violent nature of the rally proves that Malaysians are peace-loving citizens. Even the cause of the rally is just a simple cry for help. What parent would punish a child who cries when he is hungry?

Any government that truly practices democracy should be proud of this display and look to it positively as a FREE and GENUINE feedback on its policies and its performance. In Australia, the government spends millions of dollars in consulting fees to conduct surveys on how well received their policies are. Sometimes the survey results are inaccurate, as evidenced by the Workchoices surveys done before John Howard lost the election. An expensive lesson indeed. Surely if such a mass rally were held in Australia, the government would surely take notice and take action.

John Howard's view of Kevin Rudd

From The Herald Sun today, on what John Howard says of Kevin Rudd:
"The absolutely dishonest and pathetic attempt by Mr (Wayne) Swan and Mr (Lindsay) Tanner and Mr Rudd to ... demonstrate to the Australian people that they had inherited an economic mess from the former coalition, that they had inherited high inflation and runaway spending, they have no shame," he said.

To be fair to John Howard, the signs of economic prosperity were present during his government. Now, whether this is due to his "brilliant economic management" or due to prevailing world economic condition is another thing. The fact is that world economy is now beginning to undergo a downturn, and coincidentally at the time when Kevin Rudd took over. Kevin needs to do what is right now to put Australia in a stronger position.

To be fair to Kevin Rudd, his government did inherit a lot of things that needed changing (Workchoices, for one) in order to tackle the challenges of an economic downturn. To call it a "mess" or to simply call it "necessary changes" is subjective; call it what you will, but something different must be done. Again, to be fair to Kevin, he did inherit high inflation and big spending which were not used on building infratructure. To continue Howard's policies will lead to ever increasing foreign debt and, God forbid, eventual bankruptcy.

In my opinion, Howard should retire in grace and let Kevin do his job. For goodness sake, someone please give John Howard a medal or a title because I think that's what he's really after: a pat on the back.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

iGoogle and Google Desktop

I cannot understand why anyone would want Google Desktop if he can have iGoogle. I must be missing something. Google Desktop has to be installed and personalized on your computer, whereas iGoogle is akin to having your own personalized login webpage. Both give you the same ability to install or remove the Google gadgets, so what gives? With my iGoogle set up, I can go to any computer, log in to my account, and see all the apps I have installed, including Gmail, Calendar, Google docs, weather, Pick of the Day pictures, news feeds, etc.

If you have not tried either, I suggest you give iGoogle a go. You'll be surprised what you have missed out. While you are at it, switch to Firefox browser. Oh yeah, sign up for the Foxmarks bookmark synchronizer too. Download OpenOffice as well. Er.... maybe you can now drop Microsoft a note to say you won't need them anymore. Yes, if you do all of the above, you may be ready to switch to Linux and not feel any great loss.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What would a bloke blog 'bout?

My son says I am too prejudiced to write fairly on a given debatable topic. But that's what a blog is for, isn't it? I mean, my blog is where I put my own thoughts and opinion down in writing. What good would it be to write about what others think? Or to give a balanced and politically correct view? Nah... I think I'll stick to doing it My Way.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ubuntu, u wud too, or wudn't u tu?

I often wondered what would it take for Linux to completely win over Windows aficionados. I admit I have not fully immersed myself into Linux yet, but reading ahead on the experience of others I can imagine Ubuntu is on par with Windows as far as the average user's experience is concerned. Yes, there are still concerns about open-source support reliability and security, real or imagined. That aside, what would it take for a typical home user to switch OS?

I believe the most important deciding factor for a would-be convert is SPEED. Of course stability is important, but that has come to be expected of any new software. Speed is what will make people go through the psychological barrier of adopting a different OS. I want reduced boot up time. I want fast browsing speed (without upgrading my PC). I want nifty click actions. The battle between Windows and other OS's will not be whether there are more software developers for Windows than there are for Linux. After all, Linux offers all the usual applications with the ease-of-use that is expected of everyone: browser, email, word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, media player, audio, video, and picture editing, etc. More development of the same applications would not make much difference to an average user; a FASTER application would. (Watch how Asus is set to conquer market share with their instant-on "Splashtop" stripped down version of Linux built into the motherboard)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ubuntu 8.04

Now I am forced to install Ubuntu 8.04, which I aborted in my first installation (see earlier blog). After reformatting the unused partition of the hard drive that was installed with Ubuntu 7.04, I was not able to run or reinstall 7.04 again. Fortunately I came across "Wubi" which can automatically install Ubuntu directly from the internet for me. Install it did! Just only small click, enter the drive to install, name, password... and bang! The whole 700MB of Ubuntu 8.04 downloaded and installed itself, and allowing me to select XP or Ubuntu at boot up time. At the end of it, I could click on Firefox and surf the net rightaway. That was the best OS installation experience I have ever had.

Now I am ready for Ubuntu again. My experience with using the 8.04 is very good so far. It feels a lot more like what I have come to expect from XP. My goal is to see if Ubuntu can totally replace Windows for "all" my computing needs. (Caveat: of course I will still need one working computer on Windows to run Photoshop and video editing)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

On the learning curve with Ubuntu

Using Firefox, I managed to install all my bookmarks from the Foxmarks automatic bookmark synchonizer. After a few uses, I sometimes forget I am even on Ubuntu and not XP. I did my emails and read all the RSS feeds just as I used to do before.

Next, I tried Youtube. It prompted me to download Adobe Flash Player, which I did. Then Youtube works fine. Next I tried MP3. It didn't work at first. I read the tips from about Linux restricted formats that had to be dealt with. Did that and Mp3 works fine, even when I played directly from files stored in my XP drive.

Minor hiccup:
When I installed Ubuntu, I first partitioned the second drive on my computer. Booting back from XP, I could not "see" this drive, so I decided to reformat it while in XP. That resulted in my computer not being able to boot up. It gave a Grub Loader error. That's when I learned a bit more about Grub Loader from the internet. Simply put, the Ubuntu installer also installs the Grub Loader into the MBR (Master Boot Record) of my hard disk to enable booting from multiple OS's. I have to restore the MBR to prior state. Fortunately, I got it from the internet. Here's how: Boot from XP installation disk. When the choices come up, press R to get into Recovery Console. Type "1" to select primary installation. Then type "fixmbr". That's all.

Friday, June 20, 2008

My experience with Ubuntu 7.04

I often wondered what it would be like to use Linux. 'Often marveled at the tenacity of those who strive at it for free, to bring about a better deal for people who not only want an alternative to Microsoft's OS but believe in fair play.

So what is it like to run Ubuntu, one of the latest packaging of Linux? I have had no prior experience with anything Linux. Yesterday I decided to download Ubuntu 8.04, the latest version to-date. Burned the image file into a DVD, and installed it on a free drive in my computer. Booted up from the DVD and waited for about 15 minutes for the software to install itself. It was very simple. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason the network connection failed to install automatically. Otherwise, the installation proceeded to completion.

Next, I took out an older version of Ubuntu; ver 7.04. Burned the image file into a CD-ROM. I was pleasantly surprised that I could boot up from the CD itself without installing anything. It worked flawlessly and booted up without a fuss. Even the network connection worked. With renewed confidence in Ubuntu, I decided to install a copy on my hard drive. Now I can boot up from either my old XP or with the new Ubuntu. Happily, my previously installed XP still works, and so does the newly installed Ubuntu.

Stay tuned as I explore what Ubuntu can or cannot do...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why not a corded phone?

Why would one place multiple wired telephone points in the home? Isn't it obvious that cordless phones have made that obsolete? Yet I did it (added new phone points). I have a phone point in the bedroom, one in the kitchen, one in the study and one in the rumpus room. There are merits to the good old corded phone: it does not require an additional power supply with its ubiquitous stepdown transformer running from the power socket to the charger; and when you get an incoming call, you don't have to look for a stray cordless phone that isn't where you thought it was; and it never runs out of battery when you are in the middle of a long conversation.

Yes, a good old corded telephone sits quietly where it should be and where it has always been. It never breaks down and it never fails you in terms of voice quality. It holds its place as a humble and faithful servant in the house. When you call someone on his corded phone, you can picture where he is and you know you have his full attention; that is, he is not multitasking his time while you have to keep repeating what you've just said. Finally, a working antique phone even doubles up as a decorative item, much like a vintage car that you would collect if you have cash to spare.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The computer belongs to the kitchen

After moving my second computer around various spots in the house, I believe the kitchen is one of the best places for it. My kitchen computer hums quietly in one corner of the room. It is fully and immediately accessible to everyone in the family. I use it to play the internet radio, when I need some background music to liven up my day. When I need to check out the news or my email, I just hop on and get off without wasting much time. When I need to look up a word in the dictionary, or get some directions from the map, I go to this computer. It is so convenient that I begin to see it as an appliance in the house. The kitchen is a great place for a computer because modern life revolves around the computer.... or shall we say, the internet?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

HDD media player - why it's cool

I'm talking about those HDD enclosures that double up as a player that reads various picture, audio, or video formats . I've had mine for half a year now and I am fully convinced that this is one of the best entertainment gadgets one can get for the home. My media player sits next to my big screen TV. It is now connected to all my computers through a wired home LAN. I can download any media from the internet onto any of my computers, and then play it on my AV system through the media player. There is no need to transfer any file to the player. Lag time is very short (it needs a few seconds to read a large video file). Video quality is excellent, and so is the sound quality.
The best part of such an arrangement is that I can do video editing on my computer, and immediately do a test run on the big screen without moving files around. My children can use the media player without messing up my player's hard drive, which I like to keep organized. In case you are wondering, my player is MVIX 760HD (cost AUD$280, without the hard drive).

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Internet radio stations

Yesterday I "discovered" the fastest way to access internet radio stations. Simply download iTunes on to your PC. When you run iTunes, you will see a library of radio stations grouped by genre. When you open any of the groupings, a long list of radio stations appear. Click on any one and you'll instantly get to enjoy music just like on a radio.

The reason I am so excited about this is because prior to this I have tried using some of the radio station guides that appear on a google search. Those guides often lead you on a long chase and you end up opening pages of advertisements before you get to listen to a radio (if you are lucky). iTunes is simpy marvellous if you are interested to "channel surf" the internet radio and enjoy music everywhere.

How to install iTunes:
Simply go to Apple Computer's website: , download iTunes, and then doubleclick the downloaded file to install. The file is very big (current version 57.1MB).

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How to be totally mobile

Sometimes a system crash can be a good thing. About a week or two ago my system crashed after I tried to install a file conversion software (nrg-to-iso). Somehow I couldn't boot up again except with a boot CD. I did not lose any data but I faced the uninspiring task of re-installing all my software and settings again. That's when I decided to switch from Outlook to reading my emails directly from the internet, which started a series of changes that has a happy ending, Read on.....

I ended up installing iGoogle, and some other iGoogle applets - calendar, weather, news, photo, etc. Next, I also switched my browser from IE to Mozilla, and discovered a neat little applet (Foxmarks) that allows me to sync my bookmarks automatically between different computers. As a result, I can move between different computers in my house, see the same screen that displays my gmail, my schedules, and my bookmarks - all perfectly synchronized. I can access my iGoogle anywhere in the world. I feel that I am now truly mobile, and have no dependency on any one computer!

....still feeling very excited about iGoogle, which I know is not a new thing, but it is new "toy" for me.....