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Monday, Jan 25, 2021 - 00:37 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert


Marked by Mr. Ham doing what he does best

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Sunday, Jan 17, 2021 - 03:26 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Enter 2021

New year, new responsibilities, short update.

Vaccines All The Rage

Wir sind die Besten!
(Source: r/singapore)

It's been about a month since the first vaccine shipments have been flown in (for which we apparently paid a pretty penny, as grouched by a Malaysian minister - and actually, I can believe that), and the immunization process has been trundling along, with the Prime Minister himself receiving a Pfizer dose about a week ago. The Ministry of Health has also moved to allay some fears by announcing a vaccine injury financial assistance program, which brought some gripes on the lack of details so far, and that there was no indication that it would apply to delayed effects - but hey, it's a good start.

Before continuing, a recent survey by YouGov has been done on how inhabitants of some countries would feel about vaccines developed by various other countries, and the headline was that Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom were top of the charts, while some local Redditors couldn't get past the ang mohs supposedly sticking together, with Europeans generally trusting each other more than others. On this, perhaps some adjacent observations might be illuminating:
  • Basically, everybody likes and trusts themselves the most (when they are an available option), which is entirely unsurprising. For example, Singaporeans gave a hypothetical Singapore-produced vaccine a +61 opinion score, and while I'm sure our R&D folk in the business are entirely competent, it's not clear why our (as yet nonexistent) product should objectively be rated that much higher than established producers (next highest being Germany, at +36)

  • On the apparent German superiority, it might be noted that this seems partly due to the Germans kinda being negative Nancies, and dumping on everyone else; they gave themselves a +44 opinion score, with the next closest being Canada at a mere +16; compare say the U.K., who gave themselves +40, and Germany +29. Had the Germans merely returned the favour, the U.K.'s average would have jumped a couple of points.

  • This predilection is only starker when considered alongside, say, India. Although the Indians gave themselves a +68, they also gave all but two countries at least a +20 (exceptions being Iran and China, probably due to the developing new Cold War), as opposed to the Germans who gave nobody but themselves better than +20. What do you say, nice guys don't win...

  • The greatest self-other gap belongs to China, who awarded themselves a massive +83, with their next-highest score going to frenemies Russia at +24, a near sixty-point chasm. Germany and Singapore were next, and the relative positions of Iran (-6), Australia (-12), the USA (-25) and India (-32) must reflect geopolitical realities far more than any honest assessment of vaccine efficacy (they've signed up for 100 million doses from BioNTech despite these offerings being co-developed with the American-based Pfizer, with the latter officially uninvolved in the deal)

  • Interestingly, while China's relatively trusting of Germany (+20), these sentiments aren't being reciprocated (-38)

  • Singapore (and South Korea) seems to exist in an intermediate band between East and West - the Western opinion of these countries appears clearly somewhat more favourable than Russia/India/China/Iran, and the Aussies and Brits actually have a net positive opinion - which might be something, recalling that the German opinion of the U.K. was just barely positive.

  • Hong Kong had the U.K., USA and the West in general at well over +30, and China at -20, which seems the only exception to all the self-promotion that's been going around. That said, it's kind of eye-opening that China received just two net positive ratings, other than from themselves - Mexico (+16, though they more or less like everyone, like India) and Indonesia (+5)

My own stand remains constant - medical and public health treatments should know no borders or politics, and if a cure works and is accessible, it should be adopted. The problem is that trust remains in short supply in reality, and when The BMJ is pressing for more raw data and pointing out issues on the treatment of suspected cases (found only after 41 pages of the original briefing document) that could significantly impact the claimed 95% efficacy, one thinks it hardly unreasonable to remain skeptical, as many locals are indeed remaining, what more with reports on side-effects rolling in; that said, such possible vaccine-induced deaths should be considered alongside baseline mortality, and with all indications being that the coronavirus has become endemic, possibly in mutated forms, it's understandable if policymakers regard vaccination as a bullet to be bitten sooner or later.

Some treatments are likely to be better than others, though, which might have become a bit of a hot potato here and elsewhere, what with Sinovac's vaccine reporting four efficacy rates from between about 50% to 91%. Now, it being produced by a more traditional non-mRNA-based technique could be a plus for some, and I'm hardly one to discount anything that might help, but the optics of providing some of the populace a purportedly 95% effective vaccine, and others a merely 50% effective version, must be problematic. Well, the Health Minister has placed it under further review with some blasting it as a failed gamble, so let's see how this gets resolved.

Cycle Thresholds

And on the all-important cycle threshold (CT) from PCR tests, further poking around suggests that the threshold itself may not be as objective as was assumed. A Public Health Ontario publication, for example, states that in a proficiency testing panel distribution to 26 different labs, variability of up to 8 cycles was observed for the same specimen, and thus "...it is inappropriate to compare CT values from different assays, and to extrapolate CT cut-offs for virus viability from one laboratory to any other laboratory and that CT cut-offs cannot be reliably used for the determination of virus viability"; this seems largely assented to by a summary in the NYT, which advocates that "...reporting CT values alone can be misleading, especially since CT values can vary significantly between various tests and labs. However, a result comment for low positive results may be helpful".

Interestingly, the Public Health Ontario overview further informs that "Several studies have been conducted in an attempt to correlate CT values with infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 virus. For example, viability of virus can be determined by inoculating cell lines in culture and assessing for evidence of viral replication... it is not currently standardized and cannot be used to guide clinical decisions. Critically, it has not been established that persons with PCR-positive specimens that cannot be cultured are not infectious".

On the wide variability of cycles between labs at least, there has been a rebuttal that different labs do indeed use different versions of PCR tests, with different probe-and-primer combinations and targeting different genes, and as such concerns based on raw CT threshold values (e.g. apparently CT=30 in a local trial) are unfounded. Fair enough, one supposes, but the correlation of particular threshold values to viability - which seems much of the whole point - appears to remain unresolved, and moreover this explanation does not seem to preclude the recording of CT thresholds together with protocol used, for future analysis; it's one thing if comparisons between labs is inappropriate, but it would surely be of interest as to how the number of positive tests is impacted by a changing threshold value, when following the same method.


The High Speed Rail (HSR) project's officially done - for now at least, with local authorities putting on a brave face about the implications for Jurong East's development. Anyhow, it does appear to be mostly about the money, as with so many other things, and most importantly what faction gets it. Remarkably, Singapore has supposedly already been invited to invest in their new HSR vision, but at this point I'd settle for collecting the promised compensation without our water supply getting threatened yet again.


When the TraceTogether contract-tracing token was launched earlier this year, it was feted as a key contributor to Singapore's relative success in containing the coronavirus, and opposition to it due to worries that the government would only be used for contact tracing were forcefully shushed with reference to the government's reputation - word as good as gold and all that. Before the year was out, however, it transpired that the police had been freely accessing it in their investigations, to which observers from the rest of the world mostly went well duh, what did you expect?

To this easily-avoided betrayal, various ministers would claim to not have thought about the relevant Criminal Procedure Code when making assurances, and that use of such data would be restricted to very serious offences only so why not just trust them, and not I say one hor. Netizens would further note that it looked like the government wasn't aware of its own laws, which brought a very rare slap on the wrist by The State's Times; however, one might recognize that rectifying the situation is actually straightforward - the government could just declare that such use of data was a mistake, and pledge to stop all non-contact-tracing applications, as originally promised. That no such correction has been offered, could be taken as a hint about the true intent behind such compulsory surveillance.

This happens to be just one example of the increasing authoritarianism and censorship that the pandemic has provided an excuse for, with valid perspectives oft getting shut down under the cloak of "misinformation", to which one can only remember the many times that the officially-sanctioned "scientific!" line turned out to be misplaced. Ironically, CNA's commentary on misinformation itself listed "Asians [being] more susceptible to [COVID-19] than Caucasians" as an example of a falsehood, which as it turns out, appears to be entirely plausible from published research involving over 18 million patients from fifty studies, without getting into vaccine efficacies. Then again, one doesn't really expect the mainstream media to get even the basics right these days, on which more next time.

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Thursday, Dec 31, 2020 - 21:29 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

End-of-Year Thoughts

One thing to admire about each character
[N.B. Looking forward to automated scanlations]
(Source: mangadex.com)

Here's to reprising the use of meaningful manga panels to mark the end/beginning of a year, and in especially swell news, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has also declared a 95% effectiveness rate - up from a preliminary 70% - basically all but identical to Russia's Sputnik V, Pfizer and Moderna. At this rate, I frankly can't protest if Sinovac's vaccine upgrades themselves from merely "more than 50%" to something much closer to 95% too, which as it appears is happening with 91% being reported in Turkish trials. It sure sounds like the pandemic's gonna be over soon... and then one hears of a near-90% vaccination rate being needed to achieve herd immunity, with the WHO's chief scientist confirming that there's no evidence that the vaccines prevent transmission.

It seems good to end 2020 with a slightly-personal story, and this involves Mr. Ham, as it quite often tends to. Some months ago, his latest incarnation was on his last legs, and I was all like, "rage, rage against the dying of the light"; instead he was all, "LOL nope, too much bother, seeya bb", and expired without even trying, which I thought was slightly rude, seeing as to how he tends to time it right before his rent payment. But fine, I've been through this six or seven times before, and had the procedure more or less down pat by now. After ceremoniously dangling a strip of bacon over his muzzle thrice and not getting a twitch, it remained only to prepare for his latest departure.

This is because, you see, I have long figured that it's always the same bastard hamster returning, not having compiled sufficient evidence to the contrary otherwise. This involves the proper rites and rituals, naturally, and a brief delving into these more-occult subjects (Newton himself did it, okay, and it's useful practice to try and grasp the internal logic of such systems, even if they may not work out in reality) suggested the imbibition of psychedelic substances, to gain spiritual knowledge of the new identity of the reborn returnee.

Of course, the above was entirely impractical and not to say illegal, this being Singapore, and I reasoned that some shortcuts could be taken, since the soul involved was very smol. Best I could manage in the end was huffing the smoke from a boiling mix of Campbell's mushroom and alphabet soup a little, and I think I ate a little too much of the brew before remembering that I needed the letters for divination, and was left with something like B C J M V. Now, I haven't been in practice with competitive Scrabble for awhile, but I was quite sure that this didn't make a word, and so on went my nonlinear thinking cap - BC for British Columbia? JB for Johor Bahru? M for mottled?

After racking my brain for a bit, I decided that it was bloody inconsiderate for any hamster to want to reincarnate himself in a foreign territory, what with travel restrictions and all that, and he additionally never looked the type to be a fancy shiny rare breed. Thus, I quietly consumed those letters to leave VC, which I interpreted as Vivocity, which was at least within a few MRT stops of my place. These guys might be dead, but they still have to learn to move with the times, as they're enforcing in China currently. Not being alive is no excuse! So I went down to the Pet Lovers Centre there, and it turned out that they were short on pocket pets, due to the closed borders, and one imagines, increased demand from the lockdown. Fine.

It took a few trips, but finally stock that had not been instantly snapped up had arrived, and I was confronted with several gregarious and very cute chaps enjoying themselves together, and a moody loner brooding in his own enclosure. It was then that I knew I had my hamster back, and forewent the traditional trials just this time. Transaction complete, the latest Mr. Ham would be chauffeured back to his old-new home in a deluxe cardboard container, and I had just placed him on my hand to get to know him better and explain the circumstances when...

Me: Did... did you just relieve yourself?!

Mr. Ham: Well, it's been about the seventh time that we've been together, so I assumed that we were pretty close already.

Me: *very deliberately wiping palm on Mr. Ham's fur* Well, you imagined wrongly, and I am remembering why I was in no hurry to search you out on the last occasion. But here's your bowler hat and monocle of office.

Mr. Ham: That's a good chap, eh, where's the vittles, wot, serf?

Me: Okay, let me calibrate this. *fiddles with switch on the back of the bowler hat*


Me: Too much in the other direction.

Mr. Ham: *blinks* I remember everything!

Me: Good, here's your overdue rent statement.

Mr. Ham: I remember nothing!

And with that, he settled back into his accustomed routine without much ado.

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Saturday, Dec 26, 2020 - 23:17 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Machine Fairness

Christmas is over, and it's time to delve into the NeurIPS coverage that had been promised; before burrowing into the technical aspects, though, it might be noted that the top-tier machine learning conference has committed to quite a number of progressive accomodations in recent years. There was the changing of its official acronym from NIPS in 2018 due to its confluence with an innocent body part, to begin with, and the opening talk by Charles Isbell calling for more engagement with other fields (and accompanied by a sign language translator). Not that these moves have been entirely universally acclaimed - there's the ongoing mumbling on whether "Latinx" makes sense given how "Latino" is already gender neutral (but yeah, "X"'s cool, like in the X-Men X-People), and also about the encouraged "broader impacts statement", which some have groused would politicize fundamental research, and potentially nudge submissions towards performative expressions of social good, over actual technical accomplishment.

Staying on this track, the discontent in Google's ethical A.I. group has only increased in recent days, after their co-leader Timnit Gebru - who had been heavily involved in the conference's diversity efforts - had been fired a few weeks back. The proximate cause appears to be over the treatment of a research paper, which the Google higher-ups quashed due to them not being given the mandatory two weeks' notice for pre-publication internal review. As such, her bosses demanded that the submitted-and-accepted paper be retracted, to which Gebru responded with an ultimatum, that supposedly included identifying the reviewers. Google declined, and instead chose to make the separation immediate - which, it should be said, is not an uncommon practice with disgruntled employees.

The paper itself, as summarized from a preprint supplied by a computational linguistics coauthor, appears a critique of the monolithic language models that Google has been championing (e.g. BERT, the best paper winner at last year's NAACL). In particular, Google's Head of A.I. Jeff Dean stated that it didn't meet their bar for publication, due to omitting too much of the relevant research, which I suppose is their prerogative. In this case, it's difficult to judge the involved parties given the lack of details leading to the firing, but this wasn't the first time that Gebru had rubbed machine learning icons the wrong way. Facebook's Yann LeCun quit Twitter in June, recall, after an exchange with Gebru over the medium (which is probably unsuitable for thoughtful discourse in the first place) degenerated into unproductive mutual bashing between segments of the A.I. and activist communities.

June's flare-up began with a tweet on Duke's new PULSE A.I. photo recreation model, which generates a high-resolution face from a low-resolution (pixelated) image. To be frank, it wasn't exceedingly exciting in a technical sense, since the low-to-high resolution generative functionality appears largely akin to NVIDIA's celebrated Progressive GAN formulation, from 2017. The general upsampling/superresolution problem has been around for a long time, but as usual, deep learning has performed particularly well on it. The technology has by the way already made it into the consumer world in some form, with Samsung's 8K QLED televisions for instance touting the "A.I. Quantum Processor 8K" (which as far as I could tell, has nothing to do with quantum computing, but whatever sells...). Sounds innocous enough, until it was found that a photo of Obama was enhanced by the model into a f**king white male:

(Source: twitter.com)

This, it seems, had an associate prof from Penn State comment on the dangers of bias in A.I., to which LeCun (IMHO, not unreasonably) stated that the bias towards phenotypical whiteness was due to the training dataset used, which contained mostly whites, and that the same model trained on, say, a Senegalese dataset would generate African faces. Here, Gebru interjected that she was sick of this framing, and that harms caused by machine learning couldn't just be reduced to dataset bias, the ensuing tribal acrimony of which had LeCun bail from the Twitter platform within the fortnight.

There has been quite a bit of commentary on the saga, that I think might not have been articulated as well as it could have been. My own take is that this specific face-recreation task is an unwinnable Kobayashi Maru - by its nature, upsampling from lower to higher resolutions is a one-to-many function, i.e. for every low-resolution photo, there are (extremely) many high-resolution photos that correspond to it; one might also think of it as an underdetermined system with a large set of solutions. All the model can do, is to present one of these many plausible answers that fit.

Much of the outrage, one gathers, arose from a prominent Black figure (Obama) being "whitened", especially as the photo used in this demonstration appears to be his iconic official portrait - and it has been attested that humans are particularly good at recognizing blurred versions of famous faces. Of course, as LeCun was probably trying to say, the model has no such cultural knowledge, and intends no marginalization. If one were to try and look on the positive side, Diogenes' quote to Alexander on the bones of his father might be apropos here - at some basic level, we are all very similar.

The point, however, is that incorrect facial upsampling seems unfixable in general; one can no more guarantee a correct restoration, any more than one can guarantee solving an underdetermined system. One could, I suppose, mitigate representational bias by resampling - which has seen some recent contributions - but these do not change the fundamentals, namely that one cannot assure lossless recovery (which would otherwise be obtaining data compression for free). In any case, one suspects that tweaking the input tone (as done for other Presidents), might have given the intended effect - as perhaps a suntanned and very white Jersey Shore bro, might well be reimagined as a Latino instead. And - whisper it softly - isn't Obama genetically as White as he is Black anyhow?

Same face, different race, in each column
(Source: neurohive.io)

Anyway, because I dislike leaving conflicts hanging without some attempt at resolution, the obvious solution to the facial photo recreation controversy is... simply allow the user to choose. One merely has to mine the appropriate latent space direction for the desired feature (race or skin colour, in this case), which has already been developed for StyleGAN for some years. These features could then be controlled with sliders, as in the character creation process in many computer games. Then, when the Black in A.I. group arrives for the demo, the team-mate hiding under the table would simply twist the appropriate knobs, ditto for the Korean group following them, et cetera. Straightforward, tio bo? Problem solved in this case, I hope.

There's something about faces that gets hackles rising in A.I., and one supposes Gebru did have a case in accusing current face recognition models of being less accurate on the darker-skinned - although given the concern over such models being used to profile minorities - and possibly inappropriately for criminality, homosexuality, etc - in other places, one could consider it a hidden blessing in some circumstances. Lest it be forgotten, facial recognition had been proposed to replace EZ-Link cards in Singapore, as far back as 2016, which might give an inkling as to how advanced the relevant technology had already been. Automatic machine-gunners are under development here too, and to be honest, if Google etc. won't do it, others will, as evidenced by Turkey's recently-deployed gunner drones, and Mr. Ham six years ago this day in a way.

The worry over uninterpretable black-box algos screwing vulnerable persons over is well-founded, granted, which is why I support continued reasoned discourse over such matters, instead of the seeming eagerness to skewer attempts at debate from the more-woke set (or worse, attempts at social shunning, recalling the religious control methods and purity tests that I personally detest). Returning to the face generation task, it has been reported that the StyleGAN generator produces some 72.6% of its faces as White, 13.8% as Asian, 10.1% as Black and 3.4% as Indian - which, it seems, is roughly the actual demographic distribution for America (with Asians slightly oversampled, and Blacks slightly undersampled). I gather it fair, then, to inquire as to what would be regarded as an acceptably-diverse distribution; 25% for each of White, Asian, Black & Indian? Does that really make sense? And what if subgroups within these broad divisions (e.g. Chinese/Japanese/Korean etc. for Asian) refuse to be considered under the same umbrella? Do they then each get equal weighing with the rest of the groups?

Common values should be celebrated!
[N.B. Up to a very wide latitude of forebearance]
[N.N.B. For more cosy inter-religious slice-of-life, see Saint Young Men]

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Monday, Dec 21, 2020 - 00:09 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

SitRep: Covid

The successive approval of both Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccines by the FDA has lifted some of the coronavirus gloom, with Singapore having already also approved the former, with the local State's Times further presenting Sinovac alongside the duo, despite its efficacy being unknown - on which more later. Both Pfizer and Moderna are claiming around 95% efficacy, though if one reads the fine print, it was closer to 75% in Asians, if 100% in Native Americans/Pacific Islanders... and about 10% in multiracial persons - which strongly suggests a relatively small and thus less-reliable test sample, for these categories. Before continuing, I would just like to state that I've given consent for the jabs when they become available.

Having said that, I think it's entirely understandable that some are less trusting, with a CDC survey revealing that nearly 40% of healthcare workers were not eager to receive the vaccine, despite being amongst the highest-risk groups. This reticence is probably not entirely unfounded, given the unseemly haste with which approval was granted, particularly in the case of the United Kingdom - a concern raised by no less than their American counterparts (if later retracted) - and before considering the Big Pharma dissimulation factor. AstraZeneca's offering appears hanging under a cloud, after they "serendipitously" botched the dosages, resulting in 90% efficacy from a half-dose as compared to 70% from the intended full dose. To this, it could be slightly mean to recall the HCQ dosing controversy from some months back - but maybe not really.

Also, to the best of my knowledge, it is unclear whether these vaccines actually produce transmission-blocking immunity, which seems to imply that the coronavirus would still be merrily going around, and has thus led some to complain that the vaccines would more correctly be termed as simply short-term preventative symptom blockers. Of course, all these concerns - and known side effects besides - hasn't stopped a certain set from disparaging the reluctant as anti-science anti-vaxxers, but put it this way: it these vaccines are so surely safe, why are none of the pharma firms accepting liability? And if it's because the firms are supplying the goods at cost or similar, why aren't the various governments stepping in with pledges to handle any potential long-term effects?

Well, what various governments have been willing to do, is to have their leaders (or spare relatives) publicly volunteer for vaccination, with one of Putin's daughters for instance having stepped forward, and Mike Pence taking a Pfizer jab on live television. To this, the more-cynical have tended to grouse that it's impossible to know whether these worthies have merely received saline solution or the like, and from recent experience on other vaccines, they might again have a point.

Anything suspicious about this photo?
(Source: r/conspiracy)

PCR Realizations

As it stands, while Singapore's not making vaccinations mandatory, our chief health scientist has projected an 80% vaccination rate for herd immunity (which would seem to support the view that the vaccines don't actually stop transmission?), and being free of charge should help to drive take-up somewhat. In contrast, while PCR diagnostic tests have been made available to the public at the beginning of the month, one gathers that the price of about S$200 would have discouraged the vast majority from having a go, which has put paid to predictions of a sudden jump in local cases for now.

PCR would however play a role in a cruise ship scare from about a fortnight back, in which an 83 year-old guy was determined to be positive for the coronavirus on a Royal Caribbean cruise to nowhere. Traumatic flashbacks to February's Diamond Princess saga were to be had, but a confirmatory test would turn up negative. The National Public Health Laboratory then went for best of three (or four), and determined that it was a false alarm after all successive tests - including a retest of the original sample - wound up to be negative.

This then appears to indicate that the very same sample can produce different positive/negative results, as warned in our October report on PCR, and the concerns about the proper number of amplification cycles to administer has finally been thrust into the open, what with the political implications apparently over following the U.S. elections. A Portuguese court, for instance, has supposedly ruled that the proportion of false positives from PCR tests is unacceptably high at the common 35-cycle setting, citing a 97% false positive rate at that threshold from a recent Clinical Infectious Diseases paper.

This appears corroborated by a statement from Dr. Fauci in a July interview, with a group of researchers having also submitted a request to retract the original paper on PCR that had been used by the WHO as its guideline for testing. Coincidentally, the WHO has just released a memo last week on how high cycle numbers of 35 and above are meaningless and produce large numbers of false positives, with a U.S. state (Florida) finally requiring labs to report the cycle threshold (CT) used in their PCR tests. About this, one has to gape - isn't the CT (analogous to dosages, for medications) one of the first things that should be properly determined and standardized? What rubbish is this?

Well, if the WHO's belatest advice to dial down the CT is adopted, one supposes that the number of detected cases would mysteriously plunge, conveniently concurrently with the vaccine rollout. I'd be willing to wager that the corporate mainstream media won't be connecting the dots on this angle, but proper investigative journalism is mostly dead and buried anyhow. Let's see if any brave biostatistician is willing to dig out the necessary data on CT applied, excess mortality, etc. for analysis...

Connections & The New Cold War

Returning to vaccines for now, it is getting increasingly difficult not to glimpse the shadows of superpower structure, in our choice of cure. Agreements have been signed with both American and Chinese firms for their vaccines - the latter notably despite lack of proof of efficacy - and observers might read entirely too much into our apparent giving Pfizer's vaccine primacy, in conjunction with being the first Asian country to approve and receive it (though Malaysia and China aren't far behind). This implicit flexing of diplomatic muscle is hardly restricted to the Big Two, with India hawking its Bharat Biotech wares, and Russia could hardly have made the allusion any more overt, by naming their version after the Sputnik satellite, perhaps the zenith of their prestige during Cold War I. The timing of and hoo-hah over the Chang'e-5 mission and ramped-up flaunting of other scientific chops might not be entirely incidental either, and one supposes the jostling for influence and control is beginning to spill out into the open. John le Carré might have just passed, but there'll be no lack of new material.

It should be recognized here that mixing geopolitics/commerce and public health is less than ideal, with some commentators observing that firms might have been one-upping each other on reported efficacies, with the Swiss remaining cautious as usual. While we've snagged the World Economic Forum from our spiritual role models, transport links in the post-coronavirus world seemingly remain tenuous, with Malaysia reportedly cutting us out of the High Speed Rail project, and a potential through-train to China and beyond. And I was looking forward to the second CBD at Jurong East too; here's to hoping the Malaysians are simply trying to get more money, but if it was indeed due to our objections over having a station at the Kuala Lumpur airport, I can well understand why.

But before that, more social isolation!

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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2020 - 23:10 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

SitRep: Bitcoin

It's been an action-packed ten days or so - got my first (non-cousin-once-removed) nephew, who in turn already has his bank and library accounts set up; no time to waste, I suppose. Then there was attending the NeurIPS conference online (free of charge, the perks of them liking one's reviewing), which deserves a post or three on its own. America's Greatest Drama didn't disappoint either, with Texas marshalling one-third of the states on challenging unconstitutional electoral rule changes with SCOTUS. While the court has punted for now due to lack of standing, despite the material facts seemingly beyond doubt, I'd say that the pacing for the series has been excellent thus far, arguably comparable to The West Wing and House of Cards at their best. A solid 4.5/5 stars from me.

The scriptwriters have kept the direction enticingly open, and though Texas leading a secession movement might be a little far out, the duelling electors angle from 1876 is fresh and imaginative - though I'm not sure if it's technically viable. It's hard to pull a good twist with audiences getting increasingly savvy about the obvious hooks nowadays, but Arizona issuing subpoenas for a full forensic audit, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling against mail ballots cast due to invalid indefinite confinement status, and a quite damning unsealed forensic audit from Michigan on Dominion machines, all appear plausible subplots for development. Whatever happens, here's to hoping the protagonist gets back into the mix, I don't know, by pardoning Assange and declassifying everything so we the people can finally know whether we've made contact with extra-terrestrials, and also who killed JFK.

Against The Flow

Beginning with the local research climate, the government's Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 Plan has earmarked S$25 billion over the next five years, of which one-third will be towards basic research, that last addressing a concern pointed out last year. Credit due where it's earned, they've never shied from throwing cash around on hot areas that they've set sights on. A.I., 5G and cyber security were mentioned as key focuses, with quantum computing and blockchain earning additional call-outs. About blockchain, an innovation program has just been launched with nearly S$9 million in funding, and DBS Bank is looking to start their own exchange, about concurrent with the S&P's announcement - a far cry from when the entire Bitcoin enterprise was seen as the domain of dodgy nerds, hackers and ne'er do wells.

Fair disclosure: I have just divested myself of (nearly) the last of my BTC holdings at US$18.7k, following some relatively indifferent trading over the past half a year. This, of course, comes as Bitcoin has just smashed its all-time high of US$20k, but I'm not into second-guessing after this long journey. Recall, Bitcoin had first been covered here way back in August 2011, with investing in earnest beyond hobbyist mining coming after the predicted crash in 2013. Annual analyses on the nature and potential of cryptocommodities followed over the next few years, with accompanying price projections (usually accurate) supplied by my helpful hamsters. I might as well disclose the stakes too: everything. 从一开始, 我赌的是一切.

Not to say that it was all that courageous or anything - my graduate student stipends then weren't that high at all, and if the worst came to pass, there's always the CPF. It was merely a rational asymmetric bet on crypto, given one's undergraduate education in both computer science and economics. It wasn't that little, but it wasn't that much either in the bigger picture, and I supposed I could always sell out and seek employment as a quant or similar, if the bet went bad. Well, it didn't, and while a few mistakes were made, some additional experiments in swing trading resulted in roughly a hundred-bagger.

Given this, it's fair to question as to why the pulling out now, and while the in-depth discussion will be left to the hams, there are two main factors. Firstly, the broader market looks, for lack of a better word, crazy; despite a full-blown pandemic, U.S. markets - and tech particularly - have ballooned thanks to the Fed's unprecedented support, to the point where some are wondering whether it's even possible for these markets to crash. Some of these valuations honestly make no sense to me at all, but it's a paradigm shift and this time it's different, amiright? On one hand, the Fed has committed to keeping rates near-zero until 2023, which would seem to encourage holding assets. Indeed, more-traditional investors didn't even have to delve into crypto to see huge gains this year - Tesla, for example, has appreciated almost seven-fold, and if one had chosen the right small-cap, it could have been rather more.

Whether a big crash is in crypto's - and the wider stock market's - future might be seen, and the second reason is more that Bitcoin's upside appears relatively limited, going forward. While most of the conclusions drawn from previous years' analyses still stand, and frankly there's not been much original theory that's not already been covered on the bitcointalk forum and other old-timer venues since maybe 2013, it's also true that its energy consumption requirements likely impose a hard cap on its value, bar fiat hyperinflation. Some estimates have Bitcoin already using over 0.2% of global energy supply, and since price induces mining effort proportionally, another 100-fold increase in value would seem to imply 20% of global energy being burnt towards Bitcoin, whether from a renewable source or not.

Long story short, I'm near-wholly out for now, and if the markets go down over the next year or two, it might be time to start poking around again; if not, I'll just have to admit that I don't know economics as well as I thought I did, and stick with my default arbitrage strat in greenbacks. Even US$100k from this point is just a five-fold increase - which, as we've seen, is more than accessible with normal stocks - and one supposes that dogged adherence to a single asset class can sap one's drive for discovery. Personally, about US$6k seems a good target to watch out for, and if it doesn't happen, it's on to the next big thing...

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Monday, Dec 07, 2020 - 22:54 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Diam Diam Lah

Jack Neo's The Diam Diam Era was nostalgia concentrate to me; the cramped (if lively) HDB flat of the protagonist family, right down to the standard-issue room doors with vents at the top; the Chinese-medium high school (at least, formerly) that the main character attended, complete with familiar white shirt and khaki pants; the kickabouts and hanging about video arcades that he enjoyed with his pals - coincidentally set at the Beauty World shopping centre, one of my old schoolboy haunts. Ah, those were the days indeed, only that it was more street soccer than field for me during lower secondary, and hours of classic Counter-Strike 1.6 and DotA at the then-prevalent LAN shops instead of furious joystick-twirling and button-mashing (especially during those S$1/hour October Blues promotions). The difference was that I didn't skip classes (or, if I did, very seldom, okay?) and mostly kept those grades up, 'cause I'm uncool like that. My main regret is that I didn't spend more of my time on those activities - but don't tell the kids.

But well, we all grow and change, which is one of the main underlying themes of the movie, another of which is the impact of the government's language policies on Singaporean society. LKY's administration had imposed English as our working language then, which involved discouraging the use of Mandarin dialects (to the extent of fines within school environments, so it seems), making English the medium of instruction even in traditional Chinese vernacular schools (including my alma mater), and even forcing the absorption of the former Nanyang University (which retained instruction in Mandarin) by the University of Singapore (including, so it happens, the precursor to our Department of Computer Science), to form NUS - all these events of which were addressed in the film.

Obviously, this raising of English above other native languages would not be well-received by all, particularly adults who had little facility in it, which extended to otherwise highly-educated citizens (e.g. the mathematics teacher, in the trailer above). While LKY was probably right on balance in insisting on English as the primary medium, for purposes of racial cohesion and integration into the wider economy (a subject with which our neighbours are grappling with to this day), some resentment at perceived elitism was unavoidable, all the more as the higher doors of (political) power were seen as closed to "Chinese helicopters" (with "helicopter" supposedly a mispronunciation of "educated", though heck if I know how that transformation came about) who didn't jiak kantang. That phrase was introduced in a scene with a visiting U.S. Army officer, who had the good humour to pat the designated chopper on his shoulder.

Literal Chinese helicopters
(Source: chinadaily.com.cn)

The government had more-weighty matters on their minds then than mollifying the slightly-Chinese chauvinist set (who, it was left unsaid, were also bearing the brunt of LKY's anti-socialist clearout for their links to the motherland), and there was moreover reminiscing for the good old colonial days by some too - the British had guaranteed pensions and healthcare for retired civil servants, so it seemed. Overall, I'd say that the incumbent party has had their way on language. Dialects appear on their last legs, and even at my ostensibly cheena high school, I'd gather that my classmates were generally rather more proficient in English than Mandarin, excepting the PRC scholars, of course.

Life goes on whatever tongue one curses it in, though, and we see our young hero eventually embark on his first (arranged) romance, indicated by the impossibly-trite gimmick of knocking into the fated girl and sending her papers flying (accompanied by slightly-overused time-freezing effect, which I suppose was fairly well-executed given the budget). This pretty accurately reflects the Asian attitude towards procreation and carrying on the family line, by the way - one day, the parents are lecturing on the importance of one's studies and not wasting time on relationships, to the extent of entirely grounding their children. Then, suddenly, the switch is flipped, and all the relatives will come badgering one about girl/boyfriends, and surreptitiously slip dating advice and prepaid gift cards for premium adult websites into one's reading material. Subtlety's not a particular feature of the culture on such matters, on which more later.

Despite a convincing performance by Richie Koh, Mark Lee again stole the show here (happy that he's been getting some recognition internationally, after a long grind in local circles), by driving the political angle as a coarse, foul-mouthed taxi driver - one of the abovementioned Chinese chauvinists (or overseas patriot, depending on how one sees it), to the extent of falling out with his son for successfully obtaining a Singapore Armed Forces scholarship (which other parents might well have bitten their own left arm off for, seeing as how it's been a reliable path towards parachuting into top positions at various ministries and GLCs); Lee's character would go on to propose the unthinkable - the formation of a populist opposition party, which was probably amongst the boldest "crimes" of that era.

The best leaders don't take themselves too seriously...

We've seen how fighting The Establishment goes in America too, incidentally - the 158th ranked FAKE NEWS corporate-controlled mainstream media respected newspapers will go all the way out to smear the upstart challengers, with no avenue for rebuttal and presentation of alternative perspectives offered, and frankly one can make even a saint look very bad, by consistently reporting only his negatives (not to say that this entirely applies to either our or their opposition stars). One has to suspect that at least part of our administration's distaste for GEOTUS was due to his demonstrating that it is possible to win against such odds, with the entire machinery stacked against him - which, I'm sure, has kept at least some of our dear leaders up at night.

Not that I actually dislike our ministers, though. A few have shown themselves to be great good sports like The Donald, in this case former Minister for Transport Khaw, who delighted in his largely-thankless secondary role as Mark Lee's sidekick, which I guess he's gotten used to. Shanmugam and Osman were cheekily name-dropped too; the former, by the way, has just expressed his disappointment at the United Nations giving weed their blessing - it was always coming, mind - with the complaint that money and not science had driven the decision. Well, this could be partially true, but still more than a little ironic looking at many of the policies relating to the coronavirus, that have been pushed by various global scientific authorities...

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