Sunday, July 31, 2011


Having a stranger stare right into your eyes, that makes anyone feel uncomfortable. One feels an instinct to avert one's gaze and break the unsolicited eye contact, as if that stops the stranger from continuing his probing study. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and we surely shutter it from prying eyes. That is merely human.

This person called Stanley commutes to work by train. He gets on somewhere near the start of line, where he is almost certainly assured of a seat. The journey takes some time, and some people choose to read, while others engage themselves with their fancy gadgets. Yet others grab this opportunity to get some shuteye. Stanley does not of these things, at least not anymore. He has other ways of passing the time.

Stanley likes to look right into the eyes of strangers.

He wasn't always like this. A time ago he was just like any other person, unable to look into the eyes of strangers without feeling a thorny sense of awkwardness. Then, he would always shutter his eyes and pretend to be asleep just to avoid crossing gazes with the nameless passengers seated across him on the train. Even then he felt uncomfortable, especially if the person seated across him was an attractive woman.

He doesn't do any of these things now. Now his eyes just pierce right through whoever sits on the opposite side of the train.

The change was not a gradual one, not one effected over the course of many weeks or months. It was a sudden transformation, inspired by an unsolicited epiphany. It just happened one day, where he was on the train again, with his eyes closed in mock sleep. Then he had the thought, "Perhaps the discomfort comes not from staring at others. Perhaps the feeling of unease comes from being stared at, from being exposed to scrutiny. If I am the one doing the scrutinizing, doing the observing, doing the staring, then I have nothing to fear nor to feel uneasy about."

And so he opened his eyes, and he saw a great many things which he had failed to notice before. He started out by noting the appearances of people, first the clothes and accessories they wore, then the body shape and skin complexion, and finally their facial features. Humans were interesting!

Friday, July 29, 2011


To live longer, to have more free time. These desires seem universal. I don't know whether they're good, though. With excess comes waste, and what at cost does that excess come?

Let's take longevity. We're all afraid of dying. We know the immeasurable extents that some will go to to extend their lifespans. I hesitate to ask, but is it worth it? Quantify the difference between living til 78 and dying at 80. Two years is a vast treasure in the hands of a spirited agent, but not so for someone who merely wishes to delay the inevitable. And the cost of it. Let's not mention the resources needed to counter ailments and disease. Retirement itself requires funds. To live longer means to work longer, more productive years lost to tedium and toil. 

I'm not defending a stone-age lifespan where we're all mayflies. To think so would be to commit the mistake of a false duality. Perhaps there's some optimal length of time that compels us to treasure our time, and is sufficient in length for us to fulfill all that we can reasonably desire to do. Perhaps not.

To Know Better, To Execute Better

Advice is one of those items that is very much unwanted if unsolicited. The audacity of them to think that they know better about us then we ourselves! What are we, incompetent? Stop interfering!

Could we say the same of paternalism, or even government in general? We don't need a strong hand constantly looking over our shoulder, prodding us in "our best interests". To be nagged or beaten, just to force us to act in line with some projected notion of what's best for us, strikes many as being quite unacceptable.

It's difficult to argue that others know us better than ourselves, though in several cases our confidence in our self-understanding is merely an illusion. So, let's just grant that we know what we want, for argument's sake. However, knowing what we what doesn't actually make us any better at obtaining or fulfilling such desires. Motive does not imply competence. This is even more true when it comes to more complex phenomena, such as society or government.

In politics, a false dilemma is often presented between a layman that knows nothing of the art of governing, but who knows the trials and tribulations of the populace, and a highly trained and efficient robot that unfortunately has no realistic idea of what anyone really wants. Let's avoid such false dualities. It does occur in nature, but only as a result of willful ignorance. It occurs when someone speaks from his experience, but does not study the consequences of his suggestions. It occurs when someone performs a correction, but does not bother learning whether there was a problem in the first place. Both are regrettable, possibly well-intentioned, but not correct.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Rule Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is the moral policy that the right or ethical action in any circumstance is the action that results in the best outcome. Though there are several practical difficulties with utilitarianism, I think that it is still practicable in real life.

First, I'll need to define what practicable means. Amongst all the ethical theories, utilitarianism is the most difficult to implement and requires the most judgment. Rule-based or intent-based systems are considerably simpler for a moral agent to follow, since no moral calculation is generally required. Furthermore, utilitarians need to constantly assess each and every potential action, many of which may be irrelevant under different ethical systems, in order to obtain the "best" outcome. This cannot be considered as being practicable, as it requires mental and predictive capabilities far in excess of human capacity. I will also argue that spending time considering ethical decisions has a corresponding cost, by diverting time away from other positive actions. Therefore, in practical terms, a simplified form of utilitarianism is necessary.

It is wiser then to restrict the theory to what a human can reasonably do. The most obvious way is to rely on a rules-based framework. This framework consists of a set of moral principles or rules, much like deontological ethics. However, the rules are ultimately grounded in utilitarian principles and can be derived from utility calculus, averaged for general circumstance. Therefore, a person following this form of rule utilitarianism believes that by following these moral guidelines, utility is increased on average. Also, rule utilitarianism does not require strict adherence to the ethical principles proposed; it is consistent to violate some lesser principle, which on average yields better outcomes, if it is reasonably clear that the violation results in greater utility.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fare Increases and Nationalization of Public Transport

Yet again there are requests by public transport companies SMRT and SBS Transit to raise fares. I'll not go into whether such fare hikes are indeed justified, for it is beyond my present expertise. Still, as a footnote for future reference, my position on the matter is that I will be convinced that the fare increases are justified if:
  1. It is shown that the public transport companies are nonviable in the absence of the fare rise, and that service levels will necessarily be impacted as a direct result of fares remaining unchanged.
  2. There is reasonable effort on the part of the public transport companies at improving the cost-effectiveness of their operations.
As mentioned previously I lack the expertise and information to make a solid decision and hence I shall be withholding judgement on the issue.

However, some friends have indicated their disgust at the issue. They mention in particular that the privatization of public transport is unsound. Instead, they have suggested for public transport to be nationalized.

I can understand their position. While the free market is very often more capable of provisioning goods and services at lower cost then the public sector, I do not believe that this holds for the situation we have at present. Few competitive forces appear to be at work. There are some economic penalties for poor service standards, yet these are quite insufficient to modify the behavior of transport operators in a significant fashion.

Yet I do not entirely agree with nationalization of public transport. Competitive tendering of bus routes can bring forth a cost reduction of up to 30-40% [1]. It is merely that Singapore has adopted a poor model of privatizing public transport. Public transport operators should not be compensated on the basis of fares collected, because such models offer no economic incentive to improve service standards (demand being largely inelastic). Rather, public transport operators should be confined to being merely contractors of transport services, and compensated appropriately if they meet various service criteria. This helps to aligns the interests of the transport operators in line with those of the consumer. Competitive forces are also more significant during route tendering, hence such tenders should be held regularly.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Meaningful Poster

There were a few colorful posters pasted over the pillars of the Engineering canteen. They were pretty well designed, nice choice of color, good typography.

Then I read the message, "Please print or use both sides of papers. Save the Earth" (contents not verbatim). I was not impressed.

I had the strong urge to rip part of the poster off to see if it was printed on the other side.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Kindness Survey and Illusory Superiority

A recent survey concerning kindness, conducted by the Singapore Kindness Movement, "found a significant gap between Singaporeans' self-perception on how they performed when it comes to graciousness versus their perception on how fellow citizens fared.

Forty-three per cent of those polled rated themselves high on graciousness, while only 15 per cent rated others likewise."

I fail to see how this is good research. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of psychology is aware of the effect of "illusory superiority", where people tend to rate themselves as better than average. 

To draw truly interesting and useful results, the survey should have included further controls to eliminate the influence of this psychological effect.