Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas Displays in Gardens by the Bay 2014

November to January in Singapore (and neighbouring countries) is a NE Monsoon Season. Going from my own experience in Singapore in the last 5 years (this is probably more reliable than stats that averages over centuries as weather is quite dramatically different in the last decade than the last few centuries due to climate change), in November, you can expect at least 3 days out of a week to have rain. In December, the chance of rain on a given day is around 70%. By rain, I mean anything from a brief shower to a heavy downpour that lasted hours. From November to December, the rain isn't just increasing in frequency, but also in intensity. The rains gradually taper off into January after reaching the peak near the end of the year.

There was a heavy downpour yesterday, and only a cloudy sky today - Christmas Day - we thought we'd better check out the Christmas displays in Gardens by the Bay before the rains rain on our parade (so to speak).

Ever since the Gardens opened 2 years ago, more and more displays of Singaporean major festivals had occurred here from Mid-Autumn Festival to Christmas. Because it's right next to the Marine Bay Sands hotel, it would cater very well to the tourists (tourism industry accounts for about 20% of Singapore GDP). I've no complain; more photo ops for me.

In the West, well, at least in my hometown Sydney, the city is like a ghost town during Christmas Day, this is because traditionally the day is for family gathering. Singapore has no such tradition. Streets are quite busy during Christmas Day, and Gardens by the Bay is no exception (as you can see from the crowds in some of the photos).

Gardens by the Bay organiser described the whole activity/event as Christmas Wonderland. I didn't go into the conservatories to look at some of the displays/activities. I only looked at the outdoor displays (perhaps more accurately should be called installations).

Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Russians and Canadians may find snow a nuisance at best and even life-threatening at worst. For the Singaporeans, who live only 1.3° from the equator, would find snow simply magical (if they can get it at all), and so the organiser created some fake snow for the tropic islanders to experience.

Artificial Snows, Christmas installation/displays, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

This event ends in 1st Jan 2015.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Doco Review - China: A Century of Revolution by Sue Williams

I've watched my fair share of documentaries regarding Chinese modern history, this award-winning series is one the more comprehensive, and candid.

The documentary was made by Sue Williams, whose grandparents lived in China for many years, and her mother was born and grew up there. And so she grew up with Chinese stories. This adds credibility to her work.

This documentary trilogy deals with 3 distinct periods in Chinese modern history: 1911 - 1949, 1949 - 1976, and 1976 - 2011. This 3 eras constitutes the fault lines in the 100 years that shapes China's checkered history to modernity.

In the West, modernity started in the French Revolution in 1789, and was followed, or more correctly coincided with the Industrial Revolution. By 2011, the West had undergone 222 years of progress into modernity. China only started this game in 1911, so the West had 122 years head start. China wanted to catch up in the race to modernity, and so it had to move ahead at a breathless speed.

In 2011, China hadn't quite caught up with the West, but even if it does so in the middle of 21st century, it has covered the same distance in some 140 years that the West took to cover in some 270 years. In other words, almost exactly half the time to cover the same distance.

While the early-birds get the worms, late-comers could skip over the mistakes early-birds paid dearly. Having said that, the pace of modernising in China is the more remarkable when you consider that for the quarter of the century when Chairman Mao was on the helm, he steered China in circle, like a frustrated dog chasing its own tail. Except for the first 5 years or so, when Mao hadn't yet let his power go over his head, the generation in the Mao Era was a lost generation. The various political movements Mao launched took the Chinese on a merry-go-round of his power trips. Furthermore, it's much more difficult to move ahead fast when you're burdened with the heaviest historical baggage that resulted from being the longest continuous civilisation in history of mankind.

While China rushes headlong into modernity in breakneck speed, it encountered many speed bumps along the way that caused them brain damage as their head hit the car ceiling. This documentary series illustrates those speed bumps inducing severe concussions, and plenty of roadkills along the way.

The documentary also shows how the on-and-off and complex relationship that China has with the U.S. over the 100 years. It's also interesting to note that while Sino-U.S. diplomatic relationship had been restored as early as the early 1970s, but the appearances that they were still enemies were kept up to "please" the Chinese masses, whom had been brainwashed to brand Uncle Sam an Imperialist. In order to spare the Chinese public disillusionment - and resulted in discontent towards the Communist Party - Mao told Washington that they would continue the anti-American propaganda, and Washington can return the diatribe in the U.S. media on the evil communists. Yep, realpolitik at its finest.

It's incredible - for me, or anyone else - would agree everything in this documentary. For example, I find the documentary downplays Deng's role in shaping the modern China, and overplays his faults. And skips over an important period in Deng's life when he bounced back after being marginalised by CPC leftist conservatives post Tianamen Square Incident. Of course, one should expect plenty of omissions for a documentary that covers a 100 years of history in 6 hours.

It's pretty hard to try to capture the tumultuous history of modern China in 6 hours in a trilogy of documentaries (of course, there're youtube "documentaries" that summarise the entire Chinese history in several minutes). But it's a good introduction for those who are new to Chinese modern history, and is also serving a good reference point if one wants to watch other documentaries that deal with more specific periods or historical events. It requires at least several viewings to really fully appreciate the complexity and intricacies of this documentary.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Christmas Light-Up in Singapore 2014

  Putting on its Xmas Best  
Since Christmas is a Western tradition, While it's becoming more commercialised over the years, there's still a tradition behind it in the West. This is a quiet time for family gathering. For Singapore, Christmas is nothing but a commercial holiday without long tradition associated with it. In Singapore, the Chinese New Year tradition is more similar to the Christmas, and god of Fortune is most similar to Santa as I made that comparison in my article here.

Orchard Road street decorations during Christmas 2014
Orchard Road street decorations

More than a month before Santa puts on his red suit, the mega shopping malls on Orchard Road - the Mecca of Shopping - have been dressed up its Xmas' best dress.

Christmas decorations, Orchard Road, Singapore

To spur the spirit of Christmas decorations further, the Orchard Road people organised a Best Dressed Building Contest to ensure that the shopping malls outdo one another in its decorations. With all that shopping malls that all dressed up and no where to go because they're posing for the photographers, it would be rude not to shoot them. I don't shop until I drop, I shoot until I nute (farting without sound).

  ION Orchard  

ION Orchard, Christmas decorations, Orchard Road, Singapore
ION Orchard normally dazzles the shoppers with its glittering fronts, now it sizzles with Christmas colours

  Ngee Ann City  
In contrast, Ngee Ann City / Takashimaya is quite subdue on the outside. Still, a tall artificial Christmas tree stands tall in its foyer.

Christmas Tree, Takashimaya, Orchard Road, Singapore Christmas Tree, Takashimaya, Orchard Road, SingaporeChristmas Tree, Takashimaya, Orchard Road, Singapore

  Orchard Central  
OC (Orchard Central) seems to take the Best Dressed Building Competition pretty seriously, and looking pretty pretty. And their efforts paid off with the winning of Voters' Choice for the Best Dressed Building.

Christmas decoration, Orchard Central, Orchard Road, SingaporeChristmas decoration, Orchard Central, Orchard Road, Singapore

But the Judges' Choice winner for the Best Dressed Building went to Paragon.

  Wheelock Place  
Wheelock Place is a building with a cone shaped glass structure of a Christmas tree. During Xmas, they just need to deck out some lights behind the glass structure, and presto, they have erected the tallest Xmas tree on the street with minimum efforts. They should top it with a big Star of Bethlehem to complete the finishing touch.

Wheelock Place, Orchard Road, Singapore
Wheelock Place

While Orchard Road stole the limelights for the best dressed buildings, all other large shopping malls - and Singapore has galore - put in their efforts.

Vivocity is a large shopping malls known by many tourists because of its links to Sentosa Island. You maybe mistaken to think Vivocity forget it's Christmas time from its absence of Christmas trinkets at its main entrance. To see its Christmas displays, you need to go to their rooftop.

  Other Shopping Malls  
Others less impressive, but more interesting Christmas displays,

Christmas trees with decorated with DVDs
A Christmas DISC-play?

Christmas display
An electrifying display ?
Look at the sign at the bottom centre of the photo. (click to enlarge)

Happy Xmas !

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Reason for Crude Oil Price Decline

When I first heard about OPEC, which is an oil cartel, I was in my 20s and thought to myself, "How can the world let such an organisation exist? Would it mean that they have the power to fix prices of crude oil?"

My naive response was that OPEC (dominated by the Saudis) could simply decide as high an oil price as they could in order to maximum profit. After all, why wouldn't anyone want to sell at a higher price for the same amount of their finite commodity?

10 year crude oil price chart between 2004 to 2014
10 year crude oil price chart (click to enlarge)

Of course, it isn't that simple. As the world's economy is so heavily dependent an oil, a high oil price will dampen the world's economy, and thus will lower their demand and ultimately the price of oil. A crude price reaching the moon will kill the world economy, just as we have seen in 2008 where the crude spiked to an unsustainable level in a relatively brief period between start of 2007 to early 2008.

The world's economy didn't collapse in 2008 due to the exorbitant high crude price, but it didn't help. This unsustainable crude price in 2008 was all part of an asset speculative bubble. If the crude continued to climb higher in 2008, even if the sub-prime fiasco didn't crash the world's economy, the high oil prices will if it sustained at the peak level or higher for awhile.

World's average GDP between 2005 and 2015
World's average GDP and trade growth between 2005 and 2015 (click to enlarge)
Source:  WTO Secretariat.

Let's look at the two 3-year periods that preceding and succeeding the Great Recession of 2008. The first period is between 2004 to 2007, and the second is between 2011 to June 2014.

In the first period in question, the world economy was booming; in the second period, American economic had an anemic growth rate, Europe still had not out of the woods, and even Chinese economy was prodding at relatively slower pace. The graph above tells this story.

And yet, the bottom of the price of crude oil in the second period was higher than the top of the first period. In fact, it has been steadily rising. People was talking that this higher level of crude price as the "new normal". This "new normal" of high crude prices provided the impetus for the shale gas industry to shift itself into higher gear.

Crude price has to be at least well over $60 - $80 to make shale gas industry sustainable (cost feasibility varies from company to company). And if the impression that the new normal is over $80, this is the opportunity that the shale gas industry has been waiting for.

But nobody asks OPEC if they accept this new normal. Initially, they would be happy with the new normal of high prices that helped them to rake in higher revenues. But higher crude prices also introduce new alternative players to crude oil industry. In this case, shale gas industry.

Very high prices of crude always bring on new innovations. Following the Energy Crisis in 1979, fuel efficiencies in cars improved in leaps and bounds. A few decades later, the fuel efficiency drive stopped as price of crude dropped significantly and the fear of such Energy Crisis subsided. This time, higher price of crude spurs the shale gas industry.

If OPEC wants to price their competitors - the shale gas industry - out of business, they have to drive their crude price lower for extended period until the whole shale gas industry is collapsed. OPEC tries to nip this industry in the bud.

How low and how long can the oil price go? Nobody knows.

Bit the dust by low crude oil
After 5 months of continuous lowering of crude prices, last week OPEC claimed victory over its first loser in Western Australia. Red Fork Energy - an Australian shale gas company - is in receivership. You can read the article here. Is this the fall of the 1st domino? Time will tell.

I don't buy the assertion in the linked article above that

"That's because OPEC needs a $100 a barrel just to keep the public servants employed because the revenues to run these countries largely come from royalties and taxes from production of oil."

This is because except for the brief period during the Energy Crisis when the price of oil touched just a tad above $70/barrel, the price of oil never reached above $70 (in 2010 dollars) before 2007 since the late 19th century !

The average had been under $40/b. So how did the oil producing economies run their countries before 2007? Did their budgets suddenly double since 2007?

Given this historical perspective, I think these oil producing nations could do what they have done before 2007 with an oil price of $50/b. Of course, who wouldn't prefer a $100/b of oil over a $50/b if there's no competitors? But there're competitors.

Price of oil since 1970
(click to enlarge)

The speculative run-up in 2007 is, well a pure speculative bubble. So the relative high price of oil  in the last 5 years is an anomaly from a historical stand point. Far from normal. This is probably due to the instability in the Middle East (Libya, Iraq, Syria).

My naive concern about OPEC raising prices to benefit themselves had been misguided. For the first time, they want lower crude prices to benefit themselves. At least in the long run, in the short term, low prices are hurting themselves and the oil industry.

But the motorists aren't complaining about the lowering of prices. Least complain of all is the airline industry. Their share prices are soaring into stratosphere.

Some win, some lose.

Share price of Qantas - an Australian national carrier.
This price actions is typical of most airline companies
Source: Bloomberg

The shale gas industry is keeping the crude at reasonable prices until the oil runs out or until the shale gas industry can lower the cost of shale gas production even lower in the future with new scientific discoveries and technological innovations. Of course, the shale gas industry wouldn't simply just roll over and dies. Nor could the oil stay low forever.

Some believe that the oil decline was due to USA and the Saudis conspire to undermine Russia and Iran economies by driving down the oil price. Would Obama kill its own oil fracking industry in order to crush their 2 foes? Or is this just conspiracy theory? But then I also heard that Jim Rogers was spelling out this geopolitical rivalry induced oil price decline. He's too much of a smart cookie to just dismiss off-hand. But if you view it just as another form of trade sanction(albeit under the table), then this is Washington's official stand on these 2 countries anyway. In short, it's a measure to hurt the economies of their geopolitical enemies. But this could just be the icing on the cake in the fight of fracking industry (or killing 2 birds with one stone).

Monday, 15 December 2014

St Andrew's Cathedral Christmas Displays

St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore

On my way to Funan Digital Mall to get my camera fixed, I was attracted by the Xmas decorations on the lawn of St Andrew's Cathedral.

I'm guessing that this church has a modern outlook basing on 2 observations.

The 1st is their Xmas displays (note I use the word 'Xmas', not 'Christmas'. I, too, am keeping up with the time. It's about time).

Instead of relying on the traditional life-like statues for the dioramas to depict various Biblical scenes, they use the more playful Lego/cartoon//robot-like figures, turning the festivity into a more joyful ho-ho-ho, and less of a ho-hum mood. Thus, much more children friendly.

The scene of the 3 Magi, St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore
There're 3 camels. Where's the 3rd Magi (or Wise Man)?
Perhaps he's still waiting to be coming out of the woodwork (so to speak)?

Another observation comes from the explanation that was posted next to the above scene of the 3 Kings as follows:

The church is more interested in the historical facts than what's presented in the Old Testament.

Nativity scene, St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore
the Nativity scene

Part of a Nativity scene, St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore
Holy Cow?

Baby Jesus, St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore
Medium Close up of Baby Jesus

More close-up of Baby Jesus. Okay, now I can read the warning...
The Baby Jesus is so children friendly that such warning becomes necessary.

Newly weds using Cathedral backdrop for wedding photos

Happy Xmas !

Friday, 5 December 2014

How to Fit a Square Meal in a Round Pot

The Different Effect of Eating Instant Noodles Based on Genders. 

To answer the question, well, not very well.

I love instant noodles because it's cheap, very convenient, and quite delicious, especially if you add some other ingredients to it. My favourite toppings are meat balls (fish or beef balls, take your pick. Why not both?), seafood, mushrooms of your choice, fried tofu, and some leafy greens. Kimchi is also great as side dish. Of course, put in any toppings you fancy: pork, beef and fish slices. Bean shoots (aka bean sprouts) is also nice.

Typical toppings for my instant noodles this morning: Chinese mushroom,
pok choy, fried tofu, and a fish ball.

I'm starting to sound like a Korean. I'm not. But nobody eats instant noodles more than the Koreans, and naturally they make the best instant noodles. Ah desu ka? I'm not a Japanese either. Japanese people is also big consumers of instant noodles, second only to Korean. Hence they also made some of the best instant noodles.

This is hardly surprising as these 2 societies are run on speed and efficiency (followed by Hong Kong, and Singapore). In these communities, everything has to be delivered yesterday.

Samyang's U-Dong instant noodles
It has a mild taste and thick chewy noodles that's similar to the udon that you'll
find in most Japanese noodle restaurants

Back in Sydney, my old favorite instant noodle used to be Samyang's U-dong (while the flavour is Japanese, Samyang is actually a Korean food company). After arriving in Singapore, I couldn't find the same Japanese U-dong noodles, and so I had to substitute with something else. That's when I decided to check out the Nongshim's Korean Clay Pot Ramyun (I suppose Ramyun is Korean for ramen).

I later found out a supermarket that stocked my previous fave, but my new find had taken my heart (through my stomach, you know the saying).

Korean Nong Shim's instant noodles
It has a very tasty and fragrant seasoning that has the right level of spiciness for me.
Not too heavy, not too light. Just right.

Here's one example why the Korean instant noodles are so advanced. Look at the convenient round shape. Instant noodles are universally square. This is probably because it's easier to manufacture. Or maybe because the package is square.

Round instant noodle in a pot
In Korea, there's pots that's designed for instant noodles, and it's a
perfect fit for this round noodle brick

The instant noodle eating Koreans want to eat it in a hurry - its most important feature - would eat the noodles in the pot where it's cooked. Why take the fuss of pouring the noodles out into a bowl, and then have an extra bowl to wash? This is how a true instant noodles expert eater would do - eat it straight from the pot. Speed and efficiency is the name of the game. And its first name is "instant".

Why make us trying to fit a square noodle pack into a round hole of a pot? It's just pure culinary awkwardness.

Instant noodles in a pot with different toppings
Throwing in the instant noodle, toppings, and breakfast is
served in a jiffy. Yummy for the tummy...

Instant noodle has a notoriety of being unhealthy. This is annoying for me because I'm a bit of a health freak. I said "a bit" because I don't go overboard with healthy diet. I believe in moderation in all things. That's healthy. Measuring every calorie you eat, that's not so healthy.

Nobody's perfect, and this is my one healthy weakness. When Ada - who's the opposite of me when it comes to health consciousness - told me that I shouldn't eat so much instant noodle because it's a highly processed food with little nutritional values. The pot is calling the kettle black (and this kettle is tarnished silvery).

I always defend myself by saying that instant noodles are just carbs to me. I make it healthy by adding all these healthy toppings.

Because Korean is the greatest eaters of instant noodles, it's no wonder that scientists are studying the effect on Koreans by this national food (another is Spam. Yes, you heard right, Spam. Of course, they would likely put Spam into for their instant noodles).

The scientist had concluded some interesting findings, that women are more prone to health issues than men when it comes to eating instant noodles. You can read one of the online article from Live Science.

Of course, I quickly passed on this scientific tidbits to Ada. Well, her advice to me was right, interestingly more so for her. So she has eaten instant noodles even less after this revelation. Whenever I'm sloshing my instant noodle, she would go, "That smells so good." Who could resist a good instant noodle? I took pity on her, and shared some with her.

Singaporean food manufacturers are health conscious. I'm nuts for peanuts, but I have high cholesterol level while peanuts are high in cholesterol. I discovered their Farmer brand peanuts that are cholesterol free. Actually, I discovered it back in a Chinese grocer store in Sydney. Since this is a Singaporean brand, I have no trouble finding it in Singapore. Indeed, you find them just about in all major supermarkets, and then some.

Koka -  a Singaporean instant noodles maker has the same healthy philosophy and comes up with instant noodles that are free of the bad stuff like trans-fat, preservatives, MSG, and artificial colouring.

I haven't tried it because I'm under the impression that healthy thing is simply less tasty than unhealthy food (we like things that are bad for us, whether they are food, people, or movies). Of course, this is a total prejudice that's based on past experience. Maybe I would try it one day - if it's not for my health - just to get my bias lenses corrected to a more 20/20 vision. Koka should be aware of consumers like me, and tries to win me over with lots of marketing. Hey Koka, send me a free packet and let me try it out.

The scientific news didn't stop me from eating instant noodles. While I eat it frequently, I rarely eat it every day for the whole week. I nearly always have a break from it on the weekend, where I might do continental breakfast or something else. And I always add plenty of natural toppings to it. Besides, without the toppings, I'll get hungry sooner.

Bon appetit ! (or λ“œμ„Έμš” !)