posts from the life professional

Electricfying thoughts about motoring

My second post in a row that’s based on an article from the Economist!

I strongly recommend this story on Electric Cars from the Sep 3 2009 Print Edition of the Economist.

About midway through the article, mention is made of “Better Place”, a company founded by Shai Agassi, and one he spoke about at a talk in the Stanford Technology Ventures series.  In that talk, he shares stories about his work in software, his leaving SAP when the top job seemed to be ready to be handed to him, and his plans for a bold new venture – something that would help save the planet.

Here’s an exerpt from the Economist article:

Besides providing drivers with secure refuelling, the Better Place approach has a second advantage. Separating ownership of the battery from ownership of the car changes the economics of electric vehicles. If you rent the battery rather than buying it, that becomes a running cost (like petrol) and the sticker price of the car drops accordingly. This might not matter to a sophisticated economist, who would amortise the battery cost over the life of the vehicle. Many people, though, are swayed by the number they write on the cheque that they give to the dealer.

Better Place, indeed, plans to go further. It will charge for its services (battery and electricity) by the kilometre travelled. The cost per kilometre will be lower than for petrol vehicles, and if you sign up for enough kilometres a month, it will throw in the car for nothing.

This is a fascinating idea.  Mobile phones, Smart Phones and to a lesser extent, Netbooks, are being given out by telcos and broadband ISPs with 2 or 3 year service contracts.  People aren’t buying the gadgets – they’re buying the ability to communicate with voice and data, and the gadgets are merely the vehicle for that voice and data traffic.

In Better Place’s model, people are buying transportation, not cars or batteries.  They pay for the distance travelled, with perhaps different rates for rush hour and off-peak periods, and the car is provided as a mere device with which to consume those kilometers.

It’s interesting to think of  Nokia/Toyota, VoodooEnvy/SLK, Desktop-PC/Truck and basic mobile phone/scooter pairings.

And a key requirement for this to become real is improved battery technology, and likely to be based on Li-ion in the near term.

While you’re hunting through iTunes for the Shai Agassi podcast on the Stanford Technology Ventures section (it’s worth the search), look out as well for 2 past programs by the BBC’s Peter Day for Global Business.  In one, he visits the factory and interviews the boss of BYD, a chinese company that is planning to make waves in the new world of electric cars (For a hint at BYD’s chances, you may like to know that Warren Buffet has an interest in the company).  In another, more recent podcast, he presents a story about massive lithium deposits in Bolivia, and discusses how these may find their way to feed a battery industry hungry for this amazing metal.

It will mean huge mindset changes for the Auto industry and for it’s consumers.  Nevertheless, I shall not stop lusting for the dream Aston Martin that shall one day be mine, in the hopefully not too distant future. (It will be fully electric, and have amazing acceleration!)


Purchasing power: An alternative Big Mac Index | The Economist

Part of the joy of reading the economist is the dry and irreverent wit that the editors customarily lace their opinion pieces with.  Occasionally, they come up with brilliant concepts like the Big Mac Index, which graphically demonstrates the relative valuation of currencies, and is the centerpiece of the field of study called Burgernomics.

Here’s the definition (which can be found on this page on

Burgernomics is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, the notion that a dollar should buy the same amount in all countries.  This in the long run, the exchange rate between two countries should move towards the rate that equalises the prices of an identical basket of goods and services in each country.  Our “Basket” is a McDonald’s Big Mac, which is produced in about 120 countries.  The Big Mac PPP is the exchange rate that would mean hamburgers cost the same in America as abroad.  Comparing actual exchange rates with PPPs indicates whether a currency is under- or overvalued.

If only the economics textbooks from my JC days (by Samuelson and Lim Chong Yah) could have been as entertaining and enlightening. 

On top of being a hugely appropriate model for understanding foreign currency valuations, Burgernomics opens the door to a series of ghastly puns.  Consider these article titles that have appeared over the years – “Cheesed Off”, “Food for thought”, “McCurrencies” and “Where’s the Beef?”. 

In the latest article on Burgernomics (Purchasing power: An alternative Big Mac Index | The Economist), reference is made to a UBS report (Prices and Earnings 2009) that ranks the world’s most expensive cities to live in, and as an aid to understand the relative cost of living in these cities, provides a comparison of prices of specific and highly uniform products available practically everywhere.  The genius emerges when the UBS authors calculate how long an employee would have to work to be able to afford these ubiquitous products in each city. 


Applying this concept to Big Macs, one gets the graphic in the latest economist burgernomics article that shows how a Tokyo employee can afford a Big Mac after just 12 minutes of work, whereas a Singaporean employee has to work for 36 minutes to enjoy the same.  In Jakarta, the average wage earning employee has his patience tested by having to work 135 minutes – more than 10 times the time taken for his Singapore contemporary. 

This illustrates beautifully that although Singapore is a much “cheaper” city to live in than Tokyo (24th vs 5th position in the UBS ranking), Singaporean workers are paid disproportionately less than the Japanese and thus end up worse off.  At least when it comes to Big Mac affordability.  Fortunately for Singaporeans, Man does not live by bread alone.  Food for thought. 

Testing Scribd – to publish the centex kid’s computer lab guide online

As part of the Centex School “My Backyard” project I had the pleasure to be a part of, we created a little PDF book for the children – a guide to the computer lab that would live on the desktop of all the lab PCs.  This book would serve as an introduction to the equipment, the rules of the garage/lab, and a student declaration that sets out what we expect from the kids who get to use the room.

While searching for a place to house the PDF online, so that others with an interest in school computer labs might chance upon it and find it useful, I came across this businessweek article about Scribd.

I’ve since uploaded the book to Scribd – please take a look and pass the link along to anyone you think might benefit from it.

Here’s the scribd section embedded (to embed in wordpress, select the “advanced” link to get the wordpress specific code):

The bestest calculator I ever owned

It’s the same one I’ve mentioned in this blog’s ABOUT page, and featured in the banner image.  My HP32s cost a princely sum to someone just out of Junior College in the late 70s, but what value for money it turned out to be.  It came with manuals that were like text books, manuals that were a joy to read and literally work through.  There were problem sums within – mechanics, statistics, trig … (I vaguely remember one example problem about a rocket) that were wonderful ways to explain how to use RPN on the calculator.

It also came with a zip case – padded on the inside, strong on the outside with a faux leather texture.  There was a charger for the batteries.  And the best thing about it were the buttons.  You had to press firmly to get the buttons to do their magic (with the small, red LED display segments that looked like something out of a science lab), and the feel and tactile feedback enabled one’s fingers to dance quickly and surely.  It was about confidence.  You just knew from the buttons if something in the formula had not been keyed in right.

The calculator was a faithful companion during my years of engineering school and beyond.  I had to extend it’s life with some deft soldering handiwork, and needed to put in a couple of bypass wires when the copper tracks on the mylar film going from the charging port to the battery area experienced a tear.  I wish I had the ‘ol calc with me still.  Perhaps I’ll go out to eBay one of these days to look for a unit in good condition – just for the fun and nostalgia of it.

What sparked off this round of reminiscing was this article from CNET on the new software versions (iPhone and Windows) of several calculator models – the closest to the HP32s being the HP35s.  The Page on to view the software calculators on offer, and purchase online is here.  The image below was screen-capped using Ubuntu’s screenshot capture utility (I also make extensive of the snip tool that ships with Vista).  Software version of HP Calculators

Mobile Comms, Social Networking and Political Change

Scott Goldstein was in Singapore this week to attend conferences, and was interviewed by Digital Life (Wed June 17th) on his now legendary role in engaging supporters of the Obama Campaign through social media and mobile comms.

Also this week, Tom Friedman in his NYT column (The Virtual Mosque) wrote about how Moderates in Iran were using social media to “meet” , communicate, mobilize and assert their strength as a political force.

For the same paper, Nicholas Kristof writes of an application written by Falun Gong supporters (called “Freegate”) that allows Iranians (and citizens of countries where internet access is restricted by Governments) to bypass the roadblocks erected to keep them away from “offending” websites and e-Services.

When Myanmar faced cyclone nargis and the uprising by Monks, it was text messages and uploaded videos that prevented the ruling Junta from hiding what was happening from the world.   The grassroots movement that was mobilised and inspired by the Obama campaign’s use of internet and mobile marketing gave us the election of the one many saw as the least likely of the US presidential candidates to succeed when the primaries first began.  In Malaysia, the BN lost heavily in elections where the PR had the upper hand in putting out their messages on the internet. Years earlier, Filipinos SMSed their way to bring down the presidency of Josef Estrada.

Dramatic as these examples are, it’s enough for us to know that the more the internet and computer literacy bring about transparency and the free flow of information and knowledge, the harder it will be for con-artists, tyrants, manipulators of truth and those who seek to oppress & exploit …. to go about their dirty business.

Be afraid of any leader who tells you that he is restricting information from you, or restricting your ability to communicate with others for your own good and for the good of society.   Be very afraid.

Larry Page’s commencement speech at the University of Michigan

What an excellent idea – turning teens into entrepreneurs

You will enjoy this post in the Daily Networker.

The post is available at this URL: and begins with this paragraph:

This year’s Make Your Mark with a Tenner, the national challenge to see what thousands of young people can achieve with just ten pounds in one month, has come to an end.  The results are, we hope, a breath of fresh air amidst the doom and gloom of the financial crisis;

· The largest profit was £736 and the average profit was £42, compared with a return of just 2p from a savings account!

Cooking with Solar Energy – with 2 cardboard boxes and a piece of clear plastic

I caught this story on the BBC World Service’s “The World Today” this morning (Singapore Time) .  The story featured an interview with a gentleman whom I think might be the inventor of this beautifully simple solution.  (Not completely certain as I was half asleep –  my radio alarm clock turns on to the BBC to wake me up every morning).

It’s just two cardboard boxes and a sheet of clear plastic, and uses the same principle that makes the inside of my car blazing hot after a few hours in the sun with the windows all wound up.  I would not have made the link between burning flesh against my car seat or steering wheel, but someone has, with the realization that the heat trapped in such a system turns a pot of water put inside hot enough to cook food in.  It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity.  And it could help a large number of people in developing countries that get a lot of sun, people who are currently relying on burning wood in order to cook their meals.

The radio announcer referred to a video on YouTube.  This is it:

The kit is sold by a company called Kyoto-energy for 5 Euros.  It’s easy to ship, as the boxes can be packed flat, and the cost of materials is very low.  This is the page from their online catalog:


One of the points made by the interviewee was that the smoke generated by wood fires for cooking done indoors contributes to respiratory problems for the members of the household.  Laura and I got a sense of that during one of our walks in Sapa, up in the mountains north of Hanoi, Vietnam, close to the border with China.  Our guide took us into one of the small, dark homes on the hillside, and the walls and ceiling were covered with soot, and everything smelt of wood smoke.  The next morning, we attended sunday mass in a small and crumbling but extremely quaint Jesuit church  The sunday-best clothing of the locals we sat amongst had obviously been stored in homes saturated with regular doses of the smoke of wood fires.   There are many days in the year when the mountains of Sapa are completely covered by cloud, which obscures the sun and the stunning and amazing views.  Despite the cloud, there is still enough sun-light for the rice plants in the terraced padi fields to grow, but I wonder if the solar cooking box would work in such conditions.

Post Posting Note:  One of the nice things about WordPress is that they suggest similar posts at the end of each page.  From the list of suggested links, I discovered this article – similar in concept, except that the box has hot coals in it.  Read here, on the Safely Gathered In blog.

hp mini 1000 Mobile Internet Edition – ubuntu with style

I’ve just put up a page on my impressions of the way hp has customised a beautiful front end for Ubuntu 8.04 on the hp mini 1000 MIE.  Click on the tab labelled “hp mini MIE” on the lower edge of the top banner (showing the HP 32S calc) to read.  

The page talks about the bundled apps and suggests additional software you may want to add, and the command lines to do this with. (why command line?  hp “simplified” the add/remove programs list, probably to keep things safe and orderly for non technical users).  

Have a read if you’re interested in Linux for the common man, or are curious about the MIE interface, which I’m tempted to put on my other 2 machines running Ubuntu.  mini01

If you’d like to read more on the interface, here’s a good post from

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