Opinions

Dumb and Dumber Singaporean Reactions to the Haze

Many logical & valid points but minus points for being too emotional.

sgthinker.wordpress.com

In times of crisis, how a country reacts speaks volumes about its people and its character. I am sad to say that many online reactions to the unprecedented haze does not bode well for the country’s future.

Why isn’t there a stop work order? Gahmen only care about economy and not its people!

This is the most common complaint, but there is a key piece of information missing in every complaint. Nobody backs up their complaint with how other countries react if the air quality is really bad. A quick online search tells us why:

  • On Wikipedia, there is only one case where a state of emergency is declared. If the API in Malaysia exceeds 500, then “non-essential government services are suspended, and…

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Health, Reviews, Solutions

How to cheaply convert your air-con into an air purifier

Beating the Haze!

By now, the world has once again heard about Singapore & mistaken us as some China state. Hint to these people, Google ASEAN or South-East Asia. Some people are still hazy about who we are (pun intended.)

But I digress. There are many ways for people to beat the haze but the best is to stay indoors with the air-con on and all doors & windows closed as tightly as possible. If you have put off installing an air-con in the house, please consider doing so now, as the haze will be with us for many more weeks. Look at my post here on how to choose an air-con suitable to your house in Singapore.

Offices are usually the best as the air-cons are maintained by professionals regularly. The air-cons at home, may not be maintained as regularly so do clean them today if you haven’t done so in the last 3 months. I just cleaned mine today & there’re a lot of grey ash on it.

Many people are also turning to air purifiers to help clean the air in their home or office and while many of the good ones are effective, they also tend to be noisy ( >60dB on high setting), not to mention they cost many thousands of dollars.

Let’s take a look at some that I’ve come across.

Air Purifier

Air purifiers work by pushing & pulling air through multiple membrane filters. Due to the resistive nature of membrane, the fan motor must be very powerful in order to move enough air to be effective. Hence, you have 2 types of noise, mechanical noise from the motor & wind noise. The situation is worst in air purifiers with HEPA filters because those are so restrictive to air flow, hence some makers like Rainbow & Delphin use water as the main filter + a “L-Lamella” separator cone to reject fine dust.

Click to expand
I bought this German made Delphin Vacuum system 10 years ago & it’s still working. However, I rarely use it for air purifying because the wind noise is annoying.

Rainbow still include a HEPA filter but this results in the motor having to work very hard & it’s really loud when vacuuming. When purifying air, it’s not as annoying but still noisy. The air flow also doesn’t seem as high as the Delphin.

Rainbow Vacuum with HEPA filter.

The advantage of water-based system are they’re less restrictive to air flow and thus saves energy + can recycle the air faster. Even if they can’t filter the same amount of dust in 1 cycle, the amount of air they can process in the same amount of time makes up for their lower efficiency. This is especially true for the Delphin system which doesn’t have any membrane filter at all!

Water is also able to dissolve much of the harmful chemicals & odour in the air that membrane filters are not able to remove. This is why many air-purifiers also include a charcoal (or activated carbon) filter which adds to the cost of purchase and maintenance.

OK fine, I just want to know the cheapest & fastest way to purify my air!

Why I’m glad you asked. If you’ve skip the above explanation, that’s fine. I recommend using the air-con as your MAIN air purifier for 2 simple reasons. It’s the most efficient and fastest mover of air in the house, and it’s also very quiet (typically 25dB on Auto).

BUT, obviously the filters in your air-con are not actually very good. Some air-cons have UV and Plasma technology. UV kills virus & bacteria so it only sterilize the air, not filter dust.

Cold Plasma technology is basically air-ionization, which introduce an electrical charge to dust particles so they can stick to another charged surface. However, this introduce a small amount of ozone which is unhealthy with prolonged inhalation. The charged dust particle must still stick to another opposite charged surface before it’s removed from the air so its efficiency is not consistent in every environment.

SO, the best solution is to introduce another filter behind your air-con filter.

I recommend the 3M Filtrete Room Air Cleaning Filter with Carbon.

I bought the blue box Filtrete at a DIY shop for less than $30.
I bought the blue box Filtrete at a DIY shop for less than $30.

It’s an electrically-charged membrane filter with carbon so it’s able to filter particle down to 0.3 micron + the carbon will help to absorb harmful chemicals & odour. It’s not as efficient as a HEPA filter but because the air-con is pushing so much more air through the filter per minute, the result is still very good with noticeably cleaner & neutral smelling air in 10 minutes.

The black mesh is the carbon & the membrane filter is behind it. Just stick it or place it behind the normal air-con filter, then reinstall your air-con filter.
The black mesh is the carbon & the membrane filter is behind it. Just cut it to size & stick it or place it behind the normal air-con filter, then reinstall your air-con filter.

It’s recommended to cover up to 70% of the air-con filter to allow good air-flow so the air-con cooling power is not compromised. Don’t worry, after 1 month, the membrane will turn a icky grey to let you know the filter IS working. The filter is rated to work for 2 months but with this haze, I recommend changing it sooner, when the filter turns completely grey.

I install the 3M Filtrete behind the normal air-con filter to prolong its life-span.

Each box contains 2 pieces of 60 x 30cm filter, which is enough to last an air-con blower unit 18 months if you change it every 2 months.

For less than $30 per air-con unit per year, I’d say that’s VERY cheap!

Lastly, for you people who are lazy, you can install the 3M filter OVER the air-con filter so you don’t even need to wash the filter in future. Obviously, the 3M filter will get dirty faster but since the haze wouldn’t last forever, it’s completely fine. 😉

Health

Is the Haze problem finally over?

Update 23/06/2013 1120am

I’ve updated the article with updated satellite & wind direction.

Is the Haze problem finally over?

The haze problem started around 18/06/2013 & reached a peak of PSI 401 at on Fri 21/06/2013. As for 11am today, the sky look fantastically clear & visibility was >2km. After days of shroud, I can finally see Punggol & Sengkang!

View outside my windows at 4pm. Good visibility with some dust in the air.
View outside my windows at 4pm. Good visibility with some dust in the air.
PSI PM10 reading has been steadily dropping.
PSI PM10 reading has been steadily dropping.

So is this the end of the haze? Let’s look at the satellite images.

NOAA-18
We’re currently in a pocket of less dense haze so if the wind shift south like on Friday, we’ll be in trouble again.

Strangely, the key factor seems to be the huge reduction of hotspots from 600+ to 100+ this morning. Is it rain? There are some clouds but I’m not sure they brought rain. The good news is the wind has changed direction and is blowing north.

Haze Map
The wind is currently Northerly, pushing the haze to Malacca. Hopefully, the system accelerate to bring in more moisture and… Rain!

The reason may just be the Indonesians are putting out the fires themselves. If that’s the case, regional government pressure may be working despite the trash talking from some Indonesian ministers.

Will the haze stay away? As long as there are no new hotspots and efforts to put out the fires continue, I guess we can say the worst is over. However, that doesn’t mean the haze will be over because the peat will still smoke for a while after the fire is put out.

Take care!

Health

Worst Haze in Singapore so far…

Update: PSI at Friday 21/06/2013 1PM is 401!!!

It’s foggier than this image suggest…
NEA PSI webpage, the most watched webpage in Singapore today?

Wow! As of 3PM Singapore time 19/06/2013, the 3-hour PSI reading (based on PM10 particle size) is 172. This is the highest I’ve ever seen in Singapore. Only time I’ve seen worse was in Beijing with PSI equivalent at 300+ with visibility down to <10m. As you can see, the visibility now is still over 1km but RSAF didn’t fly today AFAIK.

Check out this shot outside my window.

This is a crop from Singapore Met services’ NOAA-18 satellite taken at 8am this morning. Malacca is worst hit from the looks of this image.

suma18d
Satellite image cropped from http://www.weather.gov.sg/wip/c/portal/layout?p_l_id=PUB.1003.656
Yellow area denotes haze

Based on the wind direction, the situation is not expected to improve much over the next few days unless a major downpour put out the fires in Sumatra, like in 1995, where brave Malaysian fire fighters battled futilely to put out the pith fires and are ultimately saved by a massive storm system.

ASMC Haze Map from www.weather.gov.sg
ASMC Haze Map from http://www.weather.gov.sg

Stay indoors with air-con on. If need be, buy some 3M air-con filters from DIY shops & install behind the normal air-con filters. The charcoal ones will even cut the burnt smell. Drink LOTS of fluid & see a doctor if you have allergic reaction!

You can choose those pre-cut ones for standard air-con size or the cheaper uncut ones.

Take care!

Finance & Insurance

“Crises are predictable”: Didier Sornette at TEDGlobal 2013

The key is recognising the warning signs…

TED Blog

Risk economist Didier Sornette makes bold claims on Wednesday morning at TEDGlobal 2013, during the session “Money Talks.” According to Sornette, we have been operating under a few detrimental illusions that have landed us in our current economic state: One, we have been living in an age of never-ending growth and prosperity. Well, $30 trillion losses in the global market from the Great Recession have already shattered this illusion. And two, that we couldn’t see this crash coming.

The 2007-2008 crash seemed to come out of nowhere, with no source or group to take responsibility, an unpredictable one-time anomaly — as Sornette calls it: “the wrath of God.” But as he says firmly: Despite what standard risk management tools show, these outliers operate under special mechanisms that make them predictable, perhaps even controllable. Sornette and his team at the Financial Crisis Observatory (FCO) call these special cases “dragon-kings.” Dragon-kings…

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Finance & Insurance

Turbulent times ahead: Q&A with economist Didier Sornette

TED Blog

Forecasting the stock market has a storied past of unfruitful predictions. But in today’s TED Talk, Didier Sornette shares how he and his research team have successfully identified unstable market bubbles and even predicted when they’ll pop. His findings, if accepted, could quite literally change the way we do business, by shifting how banks, traders and governments respond to apparent growth in individual markets.

In the talk, he hints at some of his most recent analysis: On May 17, 2013, he says, “we identified that the US stock market was on an unsustainable path, and we released on our website … that on the 21st of May, that there will be a change of course. And the next day, the market started to change course.”

We talked to him about this, and he was willing to go into more detail, starting with the graph below. On the left axis (in…

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Opinions

Creative Technologies, missed opportunities or lost cause?

Ancient History

Update 1 27/2/2014: Thanks to Arthur for new info
Update 2 09/3/2016: New info/insights from FY15 financial report + clearer grammer. I’m still getting regular hits to this old and rushed article! What do you, the reader, hope to learn? Share with me in the comments!

Creative Technologies (CT) became famous for their SoundBlaster soundcards in the 1980s. They were the first company in the world to combine FM Synthesizer (MIDI music) & PCM Codec (Voice/Sound effects) + a MIDI/Game port in a single ISA peripheral card. The all-in-one card was sold at a price that basically undercut the competitions at that time. From my memory, their main competitors were Adlib card (also an ISA card) & Covox Speech Thing, which is an external device that plugs into the parallel (printer) port.

Perhaps more importantly, the driver support was open to all PC & games developers, who started the multimedia revolution. This got a huge kickstart when Microsoft announced plans for the Multimedia PC (MPC) and SoundBlaster was the only card in town to meet those specifications.

From there, enhancements were made rapidly as new components (Integrated Circuits) with new capabilities became available from chip suppliers. CT was also very smart in ensuring new hardware and drivers were 100% backward-compatible so every new generation of soundcards provided an almost irresistible urge for gamers and enthusiast to upgrade! Even if the games at that time didn’t yet support the new features.

There were many competitors from Singapore & abroad but an aggressive marketing campaign + aggressive product roadmap soon see them to the pole position. Needless to say, CT became a darling on NASDAQ & SGX. Every new product launch will see a corresponding spike in share price & a nice dividend payout.

They were doing very well in the Soundcard industry in the 90s, especially with the acquisition of E-MU & then Aureal, which turned their soundcards so powerful, it can be used in industrial applications due to the E-MU DSP. Games were specially written to take advantage of all these 3D positioning sounds as Aureal APIs allow game and multimedia developers to place sound/music at specific spatial locations relative to the listener. Games written for Aureal 3D sounded truly immersive!

For music/video playback, only QSound encoded audio sounded more convincing with distinctive sound playing in and around your head. SRS & CMSS-3D extracted audio cues while stereo audio is streamed so these algorithm only expanded the soundstage and was not suitable for gaming. Aureal 3D was not suitable for music/video playback because you have to tell the algorithm where to place the sound.

DirectSound actually heralded the downfall of CT’s dominance. Microsoft introduced DirectX for multimedia & game developers to standardise on the PC platform. Intel also released reference motherboard designs to OEMs to copy. Microsoft followed up with Direct3D & DirectSound3D which brings arcade level gaming to PCs.

Being in pole position for so long, CT became so big & bureaucratical that they fail to notice the development of inexpensive soundchips being built & integrated into motherboards. Granted these early generation soundchips sounded horrible due to multiple issues like the inability to play & record at the same time + grounding issues on motherboards causing all sorts of noise & interference on the audio output & unstable drivers causing crashes.

CT was still selling SoundBlasters like hotcakes & everyone would switch off the onboard sound. They didn’t realize that after just a few generations of soundchips, these ICs were gaining in capability fast, like the ability to support multiple DirectSound3D streams + 24bit sound output + 108db sound quality + 7.1 sound output.

With each generation being less than 9 months, motherboard makers quickly learnt from their mistakes by isolating the sound circuits with better grounding & by moving high noise data pathways from the North & South Bridge chipsets away from the soundchips.

Windows drivers also got much better with Microsoft support. DirectX was also rapidly improving in capabilities, so much so that in less than 3 years, integrated sound became good enough to compete with SoundBlaster! $0 vs $300+ for a high-end Audigy Gold card or $100+ for a AWE32.

Consumers flocked to the cheaper solution of course, driven not just by price but the irrelevance of the main feature of the AWE-32 & Audigy. That feature is wavetable-synthesized music. With the Audigy, you can get studio quality music from a PC Soundcard that cost $300+ versus a professional card/deck that cost thousands. CT was slow to respond to this trend, probably blindsided by the professional market so it wasn’t till it was too late that CT has integrated Soundblaster in a few select motherboards. But due to cost from integrating the much larger Soundblaster IC, most OEMs didn’t support it. The market just dried up and now the Taiwanese company, Realtek is the undisputed leader.

In the past, if you wanted music in your software or games, the only way was through FM synthesizers. These chips modulated a base frequency into a shape that somewhat resembles real instruments. The best early example is the Nintendo Entertainment System. A simple script called a MIDI file has information on when to play a note and for how long on a selected channel. Every MIDI file has multiple channels each assigned an instrument. When all these channels were played together, a surreal synthesized music is heard. The main advantage of MIDI is these files were extremely small so were favoured due to disk & memory constrains in the past.

With 16-bit CD quality sound becoming the norm, the music portion needed to keep up and Wavetable Synthesis was brought over from the professional audio equipment market. Instead of a frequency modulated waveform being generated, the note from the MIDI file being played actually comes from a pre-recorded sample from a real instrument, called a patch.

At that time, if you wanted the most compatibility for wavetable sound, you had to go for the SoundBlaster AWE-32. But if you wanted the BEST music, you got the Gravis Ultrasound, which also supported a newer even more powerful music scripting format called the MOD(ule). This allowed more reverb, variation, cross-channel mixing, patch manipulation and unlimited patch size.

In the past, Voice & Sound effects were stored in PCM wave format whose file size was huge in comparison to MIDI. As with all inventions, necessity was the main driver of innovation. People wanted to compress CD-quality wave files to make them easier to transport & work with in games & multimedia applications, especially over the new media called the Internet. MP3 was quickly adopted & formed the basis of all music in games, media & movies over the Internet. This basically spelt an end to all synthesized music (both MIDI & MOD) in the consumer realm, rendering all Soundblaster AWE/Audigy & competitor standalone cards overkill. The integrated soundchips with their ability to handle 64 channels of PCM sounds were all that’s needed by consumers. From my memory, the first local casualty of this was Aztech Singapore with their Sound Galaxy range.

Unfortunately, CT’s trouble didn’t end there. A few misstep along the way soon confounded their recover. First was the CD-ROM drive. In the 90s, there were quite a few companies in Singapore making CD-ROM drives. However, once again, cheaper alternatives from overseas (Taiwan mainly) soon convinced consumers to buy those white-box OEM drives instead of the nicely boxed CT drives, which always seem to be a generation slower than these white-box drives. Wearnes Technology was almost wiped out during that episode. CT had a much better balance sheet so they were able to secure Singapore government assistance in the ensuing write-off.

However, the assistance comes with unintended consequences. According to (unverified) insiders of the deal, the agreement was for the Singapore government investment branch, Temasek Holdings, to take over a majority stake of the equitable shares of CT basically nationalizing it, & Sim Wong Hoo in effect lost the company he fought so hard to build. It could be this reason that CT was forced to delist from NASDAQ. The fund was injected through the Economic Development Board of Singapore. Sim Wong Hoo did eventually bought back much of the shares but at great costs.

Now, we all know that government top-down bureaucratic management style doesn’t work in a hi-speed hi-tech industry & that may be what happened to CT, where bottom-line was the overwriting concern rather than taking risks by pumping millions of dollars into R&D to create new products.

CT did have a second-wind with their Zen MP3 players which looked nice, had different form factors/colours, supported all common music formats, can be expanded with external memory & had great software that can transcode one format to another easily. However, Apple came along & stole the thunder with the iPod. CT’s lawsuit against Apple only secured a lifeline, not a victory.

CT’s foray into the 3D graphics card industry also met with poor results. The 3D GPU industry moved at an even faster pace than the soundcard industry. I’m not sure why CT acquired 3Dlabs, but I doubt it’s for their PC potential since CT used nVidia chips before calling it quits.

CT bought Cambridge Soundworks in 1997 with the hopes that the resulting synergy can reinvigorate the company but the gaming surround speakers failed to take off & CT had to sell the division away.

Along the way, they also acquired some gaming peripheral companies which didn’t work out and had to be divested. At this point in the 2000s, CT was completely off my radar and I no longer tracked any of their product range.

In 2009, CT launched a well-publicized but poorly executed (in consumer-space at least) campaign for their (poorly-name) StemCell CPU with “a 100-fold increase in supercomputing power over current technology”. No one understood what the fuss was about. CT’s only real showcase of the technology was an Android powered tablet that few people had a chance to try & a backplane-like cascade of ZMS-05 modules doing 1-teraflop but rendering something rather mundane.

As far as I can tell, the ZMS-05 platform is simply a dual-core ARM-based CPU with 3DLabs GPU component capable of performing 100 concurrent streams. The only difference may be the development platform allows the GPU to handle general programming tasks rather than simply graphical tasks. This may be similar to OpenCL for PC GPU. At that time, this capability was not available for the ARM architecture.

Unfortunately, it was not marketed enough & competitors like Qualcomm (Snapdragon), Samsung (Exynos) & NVidia (Tegra) soon signed up all the tablet OEMs leaving very little for CT.

CT did have a design win when Intel acquired the Ziilabs team for the StemCell architecture in 2012, probably to bolster Intel’s inadequate GPU. I wonder if it was integrated in the new Haswell Core-i CPU thereby giving that CPU the graphics boost it demonstrated in 2011. Haswell chips were eventually released in 2013.

However, for CT, it may not be a good deal because all the best engineering minds from 3DLabs have gone to Intel. Even though CT still owns the IP & Intel is technically licensing it, an IP that doesn’t generate new IP and/or products will be obsoleted in just a few years.

Lastly, CT also have a “Hanz” line of Chinese language hardware platform & software education system but those didn’t really help the bottom-line as shown in the Financial Report 2015.

So what’s left?

Not much actually. They probably ODM certain products, ship the design to China for manufacture & probably rebrand China products for sales elsewhere. Their revenue and R&D spendings have been reducing YoY & they posted a USD $33m loss in FY2015. Their longtime Creative Store at Marina Square is gone. CT is still holding on to USD $99m in cash + cash equivalent down from USD $140m in FY2013.

Where did it go so horribly wrong?

Like the fall of Rome, the collapse did not happen overnight. There must have been many events that lead to disaster. We could point to the failed investments in the past or the lack of direction or even top-level mismanagement. Some may even blame the Singapore Government in meddling in the private section.

I think it’s because CEO Sim Wong Hoo is 61 this year. With no succession plan in place (that I heard of), there’s not likely to be any change in CT’s direction nor will there be a change in their fortune or share prices.

Whatever it is, CT is a pale shade of what it used to be.

Is it a lost cause?

It really depends on whether they have someone to succeed the CEO position and bring fresh perspective & fresh blood into a still pond. It’s currently trading at SGD$1 on SES.

They’re trying to sell a high-end soundbar called X-Fi Sonic Carrier, which admittedly looks good and support Dolby Atmos 15.2 sound but carries a $2800 Pre-order price tag and ships towards the end of 2016. Most sound-bars comes bundled with a mid-range SmartTV so I’m not sure how well this will sell, especially since the launch price is an eye-watering $7000! I believe I can get an LG 50+” OLED UHD SmartTV with sound-bar + sub-woofer for that price!

Is Creative trying to do high-end audiophile market like Bang & Olufsen?

What can they do now?

In 2013, I thought AV Receivers may be worth investing in. I don’t think so anymore, what with most young people abandoning huge TV for huge phones with hundreds dollar headphones. For older folks who still prefer huge TVs, the AV Receivers & box speakers are replaced with a SmartTV coupled to a multi-directional sound-bar with a powerful sub-woofer.

The only gadget trends that’s big right now, with sustained interest for the next 3 years, is Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) goggles and Internet of Things (IoT.)

I doubt they have the engineering talent left for VR/AR, so maybe CT can start with small IoT projects based off ZMS-05?

They have a lot of great IP which they seem unable to tap. Soundcards (both PCI-e & USB) are essentially dead. With ARM CPU makers integrating DSPs inside their SoC, the DSP cores from E-MU are no longer special.

Without an aggressive marketing strategy like Beats (Apple) or Sonos, I’m not sure how much the Sonic Carrier can add to the bottom-line, even if the sound is awesome. CT really needs to find a niche where they can sell/bundle truckloads of these sound-bars. Maybe small auditoriums or lecture halls?

With that in mind, I have always wonder why CT never went into the AV Receiver market. That’s a market that people are willing to spend on great sound & video, including speakers!

The 3DLabs GPU can be put to great use by upscaling lower res video source from RCA or Component and outputting through HDMI 1.4 for HDTV. The streaming engine can easily be programmed to do deblocking, de-interlacing, Motion interpolation & sharpening of digital video, or 3D-comb filtering, smoothing of TV & other analog signals. Then to top it all off, perform a 3D-conversion!

For Audio, just couple that ZMS-05 module with a ton of balanced Class-AB OP-AMPs and they’re good to go!

The Android OS can be used for onscreen navigation with integrated apps for things like YouTube, Vimeo, Netflicks etc., similar to media boxes from Western Digital & A.C. Ryan.

Conclusion

As a Singaporean, it’s sad to see CT fall from grace but at least they’re still around. I hope someone takes over CT or let CEO Sim Wong Hoo retire from daily running. CT definitely needs a direction so they can recover soon before the cash runs out.