Monday, January 31, 2011

Globalization Part 2: The road to prosperity (for some)

I took a walk in the park with my family yesterday. There is a nice paved bicycle trail that runs by a farm land. The paving is so nice and smooth that you could rollerblade on it. Here is my story...

In Australia we have the luxury of such a lovely paved road just for bicycling as a hobby, while many in the poorer countries would be happy to have just a simple cement rendered road for their everyday use. Yes, I recall that my hometown in Malaysia had to wait for years and submit countless appeals just to get that realized. The difference is that Australia places a lot of emphasis on social welfare and has the means to do so. Like all the countries in the West, industrialization brought about a big jump in prosperity to these countries. Along with it came social improvement programs, which we now continue to see and enjoy.

Fast forward to the 1970's. Globalization started to roll. Factories and jobs moved over to the countries that could offer low cost labour. These countries, however, do not share the same social welfare aspiration of the West. Therefore their labour costs will always be lower than in the West. They are not going to see money splurged on beautiful parks (they destroy the parks to build factories), or lovely paved bicycle roads (are you mad?!), or aged care for the old (let the weak take care of the weak).

Globalization has indeed created the road to prosperity for some. It comes at a social cost and an environmental cost. The winners: jobs for the jobless in the newly industrialized countries. The losers: working life is never the same for many in the West.

Globalization Part 1: A new world order

It is reported that the US is dependent on consumer spending to keep its economy going, while it continues to battle high unemployment rate and a flagging economy...

It is frequently reported that Australia is running on a "two-speed" economy. While mining-related industries do well, others lag behind...

Welcome to globalization, where economics is not what it used to be anymore. We should stop being surprised by the seeming contradictions and start to understand the impact of globalization on the economy. Western countries would like to believe they can have the cake and eat it too. That is, they can enjoy cheap made-in-China goods while still holding on to a high paying job. The simple truth is that when industries and jobs are moved offshore to a low-cost country, jobs are lost. Along with jobs, in time to come, goes the purchasing power.

In the globalized world, capitalism finally reveals its true self. It does not discriminate between countries, culture, or ideology. Capital investment goes where the company stands to make the most profit. Hence, America will have to snap out of the consumer-driven economy and try to regain the industry-driven economy (now lost to China) which once made it great. Meanwhile, resource rich countries like Australia will continue to chug along on a two-speed economy unless the government realizes that the non-mining industries are not slow-pedaling but are succumbing to the effects of globalization. Unless something is done about it, Australia will eventually become just a producer of raw materials, reversing the role with NIC's (newly industrialized countries) before they caught the globalization bug.

Gardening - hobby or housework?

Here is a picture of the flower bed in front of my house. I can't take the credit for the plantings; I just keep the garden going by doing what is necessary: weeding, pruning and fertilizing. I see gardening as routine work, not unlike any other housework.

There is a general misconception among many Asians I have met (I can't say for sure about other cultures). Many of my friends think that I love gardening just because I don't mind doing the routine upkeep work. Also, whenever I try to get my children to help, they tell me gardening is not their hobby (as if they are doing me a favour by not taking away my fun!). Of course, some people treat gardening as a hobby, but to me it is just outdoor housework. If you have a garden, routine upkeep is as much an option as sweeping your floor or cleaning your dishes. You do it because it is housekeeping; simple as that.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bluetooth handsfree car kit

Here is an interesting and useful gadget, if you haven't already got one. It is a handsfree car kit that automatically connects to my mobile phone whenever I am within a few feet of it. It has been around for quite a while; I am just a slow adopter of the gadget. The handsfree kit is clipped on to the sun visor of my car. Battery life is real good - it lasts me about four weeks before I "felt" I had to charge it again (it was still going on and on).

Why I am so pleased with it:
First of all, I can leave the phone in my pocket while I am driving. No more scrambling for the phone when it rings. No more accidentally leaving my phone in the car when I get off. Now I can safely answer the phone and talk as long as I like without risking a $300 fine. I can also play music or video on my phone and the sound will come off the bluetooth car kit. Cool!

If you are interested to get one, a regular bluetooth car kit costs anything from AUD$30 to AUD$100. Just make sure your phone supports bluetooth. Except for the most basic models, most phones do.

Friday, January 28, 2011

All things to all people...

1 Corinthians 9:20-22 says:
"To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."

Very often in our lives we behave differently with different people. The Apostle Paul does it for the sake of the gospel, while we may do so for varied reasons. This is not hypocrisy but a necessity. Every day we interact with all sorts of people. Everyone is different. If we want everyone to act the same way to suit our temperament, very soon we will find that we have no friends left.

It is the same with children. As our children grow up, they develop their own unique personality. We just have to learn to adapt to each child's character. That is how we can cherish each one for whom he or she is.

I realize that when I go out with friends I have to adapt to each one's individual character. There is a lot of give and take. Some friends want to dominate all chitchats. Some like to talk about their own interests, often oblivious to whether anyone is listening at all. Some are just listeners. I realize that the best way to be at peace with others is to be "all things to all people."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Do you read the papers?

It is said that if you do not want any bad news, do not read the newspaper. True, I have noticed that there are actually more bad news than good ones. I read the news first thing in the morning. Very quickly, I would have covered enough bad news to dampen my day: the government making bad decisions, big companies using their grip to squeeze out more profits, privatized utility companies jacking up prices at will, etc.

Sometimes there is the occasional ludicrous statement made by politicians. For example, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally says that if Adelaide is the best city to live in in Australia, why is it that Adelaide has 1.2mil people and Sydney has 4.5mil? Duh? By this reasoning, China is the best country in the world to live in. It makes you wonder if we really have voted into office people of at least average intelligence.

But I would rather have the truth reported as it is than government propaganda. Where I migrated from the newspapers are always reporting good news as far as the economy and local businesses are concerned. The GDP is always growing at an impressive rate, the inflation is always at a low figure, and business opportunities and employment figures always make you feel as if our children's future are in good hands. I am more selective now of what I read, and I will still read our Aussie newspapers, good news or bad, as long as it reports the truth.


I have many chargers at home. Every portable device I have ever bought comes with a charger. Recently I came across a multi-charger that is able to replace almost every charger I own. It is actually a multi-headed cable that plugs into a standard USB charger, as you can see from the picture. Thus you can plug the cable into a computer, or a wall plug USB charger, or a cigarette lighter USB charger. The cable costs AUD$5, the wall charger costs AUD$3, and the cigarette lighter charger costs AUD$2. What a deal!

This multi-headed cable is able to replace every charger I have, except the charger for my Nikon camera and for AA/AAA batteries. So if you are flustered by having too many chargers around the house, or having too many to carry with you when you go traveling, this multi-charger is your answer!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Paying a high price to retire

The subject title is from an article that appeared in The Age on 22 Jan 2011. The link is:

About 5.5% of over-65's live in retirement villages, just to give you an idea of the extent of this industry in Australia. This article reveals something many of us would consider an outrageous scam. Like many scams in Australia, the perpetrators cover themselves well by inserting unsuspecting clauses in small print, buried under heaps of paper. On the surface, they are acting legally.

I will not summarize the above article here. You'll have to read for yourself. The entire article is interesting and relevant. Just to prick your curiosity, think about losing control of your investment in a retirement home, while the company milks you for its worth. You cannot opt out without paying exorbitant exit fees. Even if you are careful enough to buy into a good retirement village, you can be subjected to new and unfair conditions when the retirement village is bought over by another company. Read the article for yourself and be forewarned.

Friday, January 21, 2011

When is a flood is not a flood

How many of us actually ask for the definition of "fire", or "burglary" when we buy our home insurance policy? In the Queensland flood, the home insurance companies (except for Suncorp) are refusing to pay for the flood damages, claiming that the policies cover storms or flash flood, but not rising waters from rivers. Many homeowners have maintained their home insurance coverage for decades, only to find out that they are not protected in the worst flood in decades.

I cannot fathom the stupidity of it all. How many ways can you define "flood"? When is a flood not a flood? If you were to ask 100 people, I can safely say that 100 of them will immediately say that Queensland was indeed FLOODED. Yet it looks like the insurance companies have found a way to fool everyone by misleading - unintentionally, of course - all the policy holders through keeping a covert definition understood only by themselves.

With this in mind, I am wondering what I am I covered for in my home insurance policy. Is there some small print to say what "fire" means? Is break-in a burglary if I left my door open accidentally while I am away? If my kitchen accidentally caught fire when I am cooking, will I be accused of setting off the fire, since I "deliberately" lit the stove? Seriously, do you actually read every single word in your insurance policy, or are you waiting for an unpleasant revelation one of these days?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cheap and good tyres

My Camry Sportivo is running on its third set of tyres now. The first set were Dunlop tyres that came with the car when it was brand new. Those lasted about 50,000 km. The second set were Bridgestone tyres, costing AUD$195 each, and lasted almost 50,000 km too.

After Bridgestone, I decided to give Hankook tyres a try. They are Korean imports. Again, I fitted the same 205/60R16 tyres. They cost US$135 each. The tyres have never given me any problems: no punctures, no leaks, and no uneven wear. They have run for about 60,000 km now. I reckon they are good enough for another 10,000 km. Assuming I hit 70,000 km before I replace the tyres, the cost per km of Hankook works out to be roughly half of what it costs me with Bridgestone. There you go, you can literally reduce the running cost of your car.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Swiss bank privacy (piracy?) laws

The world is very tolerant of Switzerland's banking industry, while frowning on Somalia's piracy industry. Yet there is a strong similarity between these two countries' economy. Both governments do not directly carry run the industry (banking, piracy) but both are heavily reliant on criminal activities that generate employment and revenue for the country.

Swiss whistleblower Rudolf Elmer must be one of the most conscientious man in the world. He used to work for one of Switzerland's largest private banks. He took the courage to provide Wikileaks with two CD's containing 2000 bank clients suspected of tax evasion. The list has not been made public yet. Meanwhile Elmer is undergoing prosecution for breaching Swiss banking laws - the laws that are protecting people who have amassed fortunes out of other people's misery.

The Swiss banking privacy laws could be the single most important factor that contributes to the rise of corruption all over the world. It provides a an important facility for big scale corruption, while pretending that it is providing a legitimate service. Billions and billions of dollars from rich and impoverished countries alike are channeled into Swiss banks, allowing this country to enjoy prosperity at the expense of worldwide suffering.

This is what Elmer said:
"I want to talk about the Swiss (banking) secrecy system which is damaging our society. The short story is simple: I was in the Cayman Islands and there was a mouse tail and I started to pull on it. The tail got bigger, looked like a dragon tail, I went back to Switzerland and it became bigger, a fire breathing dragon with several heads. One head was the bank's, the other the Swiss press to an extent, and they all came after me and my family."

Note that Elmer mentioned the Swiss government and the press are also involved in this game. He is a very brave man indeed.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Price signalling

The free market system does not really work the way it should be. We are mistaken to believe that the law of supply and demand will always work to the advantage of the consumer. Apparently the free market system is increasingly not living up to its promises. Look; the cost of internet connection in Australia is about the highest in the developed world, although there are many companies "competing" for the same market. The cost of beef in Australia is twice what it is in the US, although Woolworth is supposed to be competing against Coles. The cost of all utility supplies (water, gas, electricity) has gone through the roof since these utilities were privatized to many companies. Banks continues to generate record profits year after year, successfully expanding their profit margins come rain or shine, or financial maelstrom.

Perhaps having more than one supplier does not necessary create competition, thanks to collusion at work. Price signalling seems to be such a big issue in Australia that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is (only) now proposing reforms that will initially target the banks. Here is how price signalling works. As an example, TRUEnergy boss Richard McIndoe in a newspaper interview published last week noted that industry consolidation would not offset "the kind of price increases that we expect to see across the board". This will be picked up as the signal for other utility providers to follow suit with price increases themselves. Likewise, banks send discrete signals to one another when setting new interest rates.

The move at reforms by the ACCC is going to be lame at best. The issue has to be addressed by creating true competition. For example, the government should use its unique position to create a government-run bank, and then provide the cost of service that will truly give the private banks a run for their money (pun intended). That was how the Commonwealth Bank succeeded in reining in the other banks when it was set up. Unfortunately it eventually got privatized and the rest, as they say, is history.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Notes to myself: understanding exposure

While my camera club is having its annual break, I did a lot of event shooting. I shot at parties and outings, posting the images in Facebook. I think the exercise has proved to be invaluable to me. I learned a lot about exposure control (and still haven't mastered it yet!). I am even convinced that beginning photography can be learned from the approach of mastering exposure. Most photography courses start by introducing the newbie to the concept of depth-of-field, motion blur and other creative shootings. If anyone is keen to take up photography seriously, he should start by learning to expose correctly.

First, it is necessary to start by shooting in manual mode. Learn to use the exposure control to bias the exposure one way or the other as necessary. Once you have mastered that, then you can start using the A mode or S mode when you like (note: not before mastering the M mode).

Second, learn to handle ambient light. There's front lighting, overcast front lighting, back lighting, and side lighting. Learn when and how to shoot for best result. Next, learn to handle special lighting conditions such as dawn/dusk, snow, sea, fireworks, and night photography.

Third, learn to use flash, first as fill-in flash, then as main light source. Learn to use built-in flash, as well as off-camera flash for better result. Using flash as main light source in different artificial lights takes time and practice to master. When using flash as the main light source, it is necessary to master the concepts of sync speed and guide number.

Fourth, learn to use accessories like the light meter, gray card, polarizer, and ND filter. All these are essential tools to gain complete control over every situation that challenges your exposure control to the limit.

Indeed, exposure is the most important aspect of photography; even more so than composition or creative shooting. One cannot have a well composed picture with bad exposure. Likewise, a creative shot will fail to impress, if incorrectly exposed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Notes to myself: digicam vs DSLR

The key difference between a digicam (aka fixed-lens camera) and a DSLR is the size of the sensor/lens (they go hand-in hand; a small sensor camera is usually equipped with a small diameter lens).

The inherent property of a small sensor/lens digicam is the depth-of-field that you get. Even an f/2.8 setting on a digicam can give you the equivalent of f/11 depth-of-field possible on a DSLR. This can be both advantageous and disadvantageous, depending on how you see it. An iPhone camera will give you great depth-of-field, making everything in the image sharp. This may be desirable sometimes. However, if you wish to shoot a shallow depth-of-field image of a flower, for example, you might find it quite impossible to do so.

The newly announced Olympus XZ-1 digicam with its cutting edge f/1.8 lens is alluring indeed. While this allows you to take great holiday snaps for keepsake, I would love to try it out for more seriously challenging shoots. At this point I honestly cannot say if I will be pleasantly surprised until I have put my theory to test.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The last chapter book

Amazon allows the first chapter of their ebooks to be downloaded for free. This must be an excellent marketing idea, as Amazon's rival Barnes and Noble also quickly followed suit. Here's another idea: how about giving away entire books minus the last chapter? This can be a good marketing strategy for certain types of books. Maybe I should call this blog "The lost chapter book."

Take exam revision books, for example. If I were to author such a book, I could put it up on the internet for free download to everyone. I could hold back on the last chapter, which will consist of worked out solutions and answers to questions. If the student likes it enough, he might be willing to pay for the last chapter.

How about mystery novels? A free download will encourage more readers to download and read the presumably very interesting novel. The last chapter might persuade him to open his wallet just to find out what the ending is like.

So why stop at just the first chapter, Amazon?

Monday, January 10, 2011

All-in-one smartphone, is it good?

I used to adore all-in-one gadgets, but not anymore. Smartphones, more than any other gadgets, are getting more and more all-inclusive. In my opinion, however, some applications are more practical to purchase as standalone gadgets.

Take the GPS, for example. You might be tempted to overspend on a new smartphone, just because it has a built-in GPS. The app itself might be free or costs very little, overlooking the fact that you have just ploughed in substantially more money than you otherwise needed to. Have you considered that such a built-in app is single-user only? Someone might occasionally need to borrow your "GPS", but he or she cannot do so without taking away your phone as well.

What about the built-in e-reader function? No thanks, I'll stick to my Kindle. It has all the book reading buttons in the right places (e.g. page turn, quick dictionary access) which makes reading pleasurable indeed. A smartphone with a built-in reader just doesn't cut for me. The screen is too small, for one. Plus I cannot leave it around for other people to use when I am not using it; I have a daily newspaper download. Again, single-user function.

In fact, all apps on the smartphone are single-user only. So if you are considering buying a cutting edge new smartphone, you might be better off getting a non-phone gadget (like iPod Touch) to use separately from the phone. Believe me, it is more practical. Steve Jobs probably knows it, which is why the iPad doesn't double as a mobile phone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Day trip to South Gippsland

It started with an article in the Arts and Antique quarterly publication that I happened to read. The article talked about the Mayfield Art Gallery in Arawata, which is about an hour's drive from my house. Lured by the promise of a scenic drive, I decided to take a drive there with my family and some friends this Monday. Blessed with a cool and cloudy day, the outing turned out to be far more interesting that I anticipated.

We made three major stops. The first picture was taken at the Caldermeade Farm, on the way to Arawata. The second and third pictures were at Arawata Mayfield Art Gallery, set among the verdant rolling hills. The fourth picture shows the Coal Creek Heritage Village. It just shows that there are lots of beautiful places in Victoria that are out of the beaten path.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Behind every bad governmental decision...

While working for a large corporation, I had the opportunity to attend many in-house courses. One of them was on problem solving. The first thing I learned was that before you start looking for solutions, you must be able to accurately pinpoint the problem. It sounds ridiculously obvious, yet many people are happy enough to start applying solutions before the problem is properly understood.

At present times, many bad decisions being made at all levels of government in all countries. We vote for one party and then sit back and wait for the party to deliver on its promises. A few years later, we get disappointed and vote for the next party to take over. Are the people running the government so incapable? One after another, time after time?

Perhaps it is time to reflect on whether we have correctly identified the problem. Perhaps it is not caused by lack of good leadership, nor lack of vision, nor lack of manpower, nor lack of good laws, nor lack of enforcement.....

Perhaps we are all too reluctant to admit that something akin to corruption is behind all the so-called bad decisions. By not accurately defining the problem, we start throwing wrong solutions at the problem. We waste time over useless arguments and pointless debates. We are fed half-baked surveys and opinion polls. Or worse, taxpayers foot the bill for expensive consultants to tell us what the government just wants us to hear. Until we can accurately state the problem, no amount of rhetoric will change the way the government operates. People will still have to live with one bad decision after another.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Online retailers vs local superstores

Local superstores like Myer, Harvey Norman, and David Jones are crying foul over the growing success of online retailers. They say that online retailers have an unfair advantage because they do not pay GST. These chain stores neglect to say that online retailers have to include shipping cost, which inflates the purchase price. Also, they neglect to say that they too can set up online retail shop and have shipping cost advantage over overseas competitors. No, the local chain stores do not wish to see any change in the way they do business, even if it means progress for the consumers. So much for globalization.

The chain stores are asking the government to impose GST on online sales, citing that the uneven playing field may otherwise cause thousands of job loses in the local retail industry. That is really hypocritical because if you walk into any of the chain stores, more than 90% of the products are made overseas. Since when have they been so concerned about the local job market?

Monday, January 3, 2011

What corruption?

When I immigrated to Australia, it appeared to me then that corruption is practically non-existent in Australia. Even when ridiculously expensive government projects actually smell of corruption, there is no investigation into it. Typically it goes like this: the government (be it state or federal) proposes a major project or a privatization deal. The people (to the credit of free press in Australia) voice their disapproval. The government releases some dubious survey result or cherry-picked studies and opinions to support the proposal. Then the proposal is steamrolled through parliament. Everything is above aboard, right? I am not so sure now.

The NSW electricity sell-off is a good example of the struggle to get the government to come clean on how the electricity privatization could have been so blatantly carried out against widespread public indignation. Having grown in a corruption-rife country, my observation is that corruption starts small and is usually done discretely at first. Those on the take will get more and more greedy, until they no longer care to be discrete anymore. Soon, it reaches a point where they think they are powerful or smart enough to be immune to prosecution.

Tony Abbott must be credited to pursing the NSW electricity sell-off enquiry. In the same way, Ted Baillieu in Victoria must be credited to initiating inquiry into the Myki, the smart meter, and the desalination plant projects. These are all multi-billion dollar financial commitments that are ridiculously expensive and do not have popular support, unless you believe government spins. In many oppressed regimes, people are afraid to fight corruption for fear of victimization. In Australia, people probably believe that corruption is a disease of Third World countries only.

Watch that dial

It was only after using the D90 for about a year that I noticed the exposure display in my viewfinder. It was another few months later that I realized the Manual mode is actually assisted by this display. I wished someone had told me about these earlier. So I am telling you now.

The exposure display tells you how much you have underexposed or overexposed before you take that intended shot. This feature is not available in my previous digicam (and I assume is not commonly available in other digicams as well). If you have never used it before in your DLSR, start looking at it from now on. It made a world of a difference to my photography. Here are some sample pictures I took today; without any post processing done at all. I merely relied on the exposure display, and used the histogram to check the result.

In conjunction with the exposure display, you need to be adept at using the AE compensation dial. This is a quick way to adjust the exposure up or down. It enables your camera to automatically compensate for the exposure when shooting in the P, A, S, or M modes.

While you are checking out the AE dial, check out the flash compensation as well. It allows you to set the flash output lower or higher. It is desirable to reduce the flash output when used as fill-in flash to avoid the flat flash look.

If you have never been completely satisfied with the exposure in your shots, the above will give you more control than you ever imagined, if you have never used these features before. They did for me.