Sunday, December 28, 2008

Israel, Hamas and Palestine

Conflict has flared up once again along the Gaza Strip.

On one side, airstrikes. On the other side, militants and rockets.

It's pretty obvious that a lot of this is politically motivated by Israeli leaders trying to pander to the right wing vote, but votes or not, bombing Gaza on such a scale is quite a dumb move.

As I wrote about China and Tibet, brute force isn’t very effective in a counter insurgency campaign.

Even if you ignore military complications (that is another topic altogether), it's not very smart to try to totally obliterate Hamas. Hamas isn’t exactly very competent; the fact that the Israelis managed to kill so many their leaders suggests that they have penetrated their network. However, as the root cause of Hamas' existence - hate of Israeli - and the will to achieve that is still there, new groups will spring up even if Hamas is gone.

Given that, Israel should have tried to maintain the status quo. It's essentially playing mole with Hamas: wherever Hamas pops up, whack it down, but never totally kill them off. The occasional irritation that Hamas might cause this way is a lot more manageable than having some new, more competent outfit (think: another Hezbollah) spring up.

Unlike China in Tibet, Israel can’t shut off the Western media by threatening boycotts or having gangs of worked up nationalistic students cause trouble in foreign capitals, so mass media cannot be avoided.

Nothing draws reporters and works us up more than seeing innocent helpless civilians suffer. And Hamas, like any other terrorist group, loves to use innocent civilians as human shields, and get journalists to come watch them get killed in the crossfire so as to turn international opinion against their enemy.

However, even if Israel can’t use this tactic (as if they want to), they can use the media too. They should have publicized the carnage of every rocket attack and suicide bombing in the international press so as to work up international opinion, and justify having such a campaign. Even if they can’t get something as emotion wrenching as 911, Beslan or Mumbai, the subconscious effect of seeing suicide bombing / rocket victims everyday on an international audience is extremely powerful.

Sanctions of essential needs should never have been implemented. Other than driving the Palestinians into poverty, which they would naturally hate Israel for, it's impossible for Israel to regulate the smuggling - it's not possible to see from an airplane whether food or weapons is passing through a tunnel.

History has shown that when people are deprived of the opportunity to make a decent living, they get desperate enough to get into wars and revolutions - like the French, Russian, Chinese and plenty of others. What they should have done is to allow trade with the outside world - and only ban the weapons. It is well known that if people have the opportunities to earn a decent living, most of them would rather live decently in peace than go fight for whatever cause. If the Israelis would do that, the extremists would lose their "trying to help oppressed Muslims" image and be exposed as irrational warmongers.

It’s time for the Israeli right wingers to learn that overpowering response doesn’t necessarily generate the best results.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gift giving

Now, as Christmas draws near, we see the usual barrage of gift giving and crazed shopping. As retailers love to advertise, giving gifts to people are a sign of how much you value them.

But is it really necessary to give gifts to friends?

We always value the intangible things of friendship more than the tangible - a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand in their times of trouble. These are unique things about friendship that cannot be found anywhere else. If not, then it wouldn't be friendship anymore, but rather a parasitic relationship.

Opportunity cost also factors in here. Will giving an expensive gift make the person happier? Usually not, particularly in our consumer society. And for us students, should we be spending our parents' hard earned money so easily?

Given that, I don't think I'll be giving the retailers much business this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Spudgun #1: The First Step

What is a spudgun?

Essentially, a spudgun is a homemade cannon, made from readily available materials. Like just about all firearms, its purpose is accelerate a projectile down the barrel and shoot it some distance.

The Spudfiles wiki has a pretty good writeup about the different types of spudguns:

Here, the focus is on pneumatic spudguns, since I only build pneumatics. Reason is simple: combustions need fuel, which means paying for every shot. A pneumatic can easily use a bicycle pump and muscle power, which doesn't cost money.

While obviously much less powerful than a real gun of equivalent size, a spudgun is much more versatile: pretty much anything can be a projectile, so long as it can go down the barrel.

Of course, like all guns, spudguns can be dangerous. Like real firearms, they can also explode, not to mention the obvious danger of someone getting shot. So, safety must be observed.

The First Step

Basically, all pneumatics can be split into 3 parts: the chamber to store compressed gas, the valve, and the barrel. Most of the improvements in spudguns are in the valve anyway.

This is my first spudgun, made in May 2008. It is extremely simple, utilizing a simple ball valve. While highly inefficient, the ball valve needs no modifications, is simple to assemble and is extremely reliable. It took 15 minutes to build and about S$10.

Here is a picture of the gun:

Most of the gun was constructed from PVC plumbing fittings. It is cheap, lightweight, and easy to obtain in various sizes, making it ideal. However, due to the high pressures involved here, only high pressure rated pipe can be used. It must also be solvent welded properly. Improper construction or insufficiently pressure rated pipe runs the risk of an explosion, which can injure or even kill.

The chamber is a used 500ml PET Coke bottle. The threads used for capping the bottle were filed off and the bottle neck epoxied into the 3/4” end of a 3/4”-1/2” PVC reducer fitting. A hole was drilled at the back of the bottle and a Schrader valve attached into the hole.

The Schrader valve was taken off a used bicycle tyre and the rubber removed from it. This is because epoxy does not bond to rubber, and it would thus leak with the rubber on.

There are no aiming sights fitted because ammo and firing pressure is never constant, and thus calibrating it is pointless.

Total cost: $15. Time spent building: $15.

Pressure testing (underwater) has shown that the Coke bottle chamber can withstand at least 160 psi, according to my bicycle pump gauge. Nevertheless, as PVC will degrade in sunlight, the gun must be stored out of sunlight.

Performance wise, it wasn't very efficient, but the sheer chamber volume gave it a lot of power: an AA battery shot at 120 psi at an angle of around 80 degrees can easily go over 5 storeys, as shown in the video.

The Next Step: PVC chambers

The first spudgun, though powerful, had one problem: the bottle wasn’t specifically designed for such high pressures and I had no idea how long it could last at the high pressures that I was using at. Not worth the risk anyway.

Hence, the next step was to simply switch PVC pipe instead of a Coke bottle for a chamber.

2 such guns were made: 1 with a chamber about the same volume as the coke bottle, and another with a very small chamber.

The first one had little difference from the original, while the underpowered gun was used for teaching purposes: with such low power, there was little risk of damage if someone used it wrongly.

The coke bottle ones were then decommissioned and given to Mr Jason Chan as a teaching aid for teaching the general gas law. It essentially allows students to see for themselves what happens at high pressures.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The new US president

Well, so Americans have elected Barack Obama as president. And we all know that his administration has plenty of problems inherited from the Bush administration - the economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, North Korea's nukes, bad global perception, etc.

For the US to be a global superpower, it doesn’t just need hard power – economic and military – but also soft power – that is, image, moral authority and a good international standing. Given his background, he is not likely to piss off people like the Bush administration did with some of their belligerent language and actions, so it's likely that things should improve.

However, even if we ignore any doubts about his character, there are some things beyond his control. And the problems that we see hinge on them.

One is the power structure in America. To briefly summarise it, with the tripartite power-sharing arrangement between the administration, Congress, the judiciary, and everybody jostling for their own agreements, it requires a lot of time to satisfy everyone, and consequently by the time it's approved the original initiative is usually heavily diluted. And by then it might be too late.

The other is time. There is only so much that can be accomplished in 2 presidential terms, and many of the problems that America faces are long term in nature, like the insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to finish the campaigns in his term, given the complex and long nature of such campaigns.

The economy is another. To get more jobs and make America more competitive in the long term, it means some unpopular decisions that might cost him political support. Will he be able to without alienating voters? Hopefully.

Vested interests are another. For America to achieve change for the better, sometimes Americans must be willing to sacrifice some of their vested interests for the greater good. Will Obama be able to persuade them to do so? I hope so.

The trouble is, in the cacophony of voices common to liberal democracies, people are easily distracted from doing what’s necessary. Hopefully, with his mastery of public relations, Obama can stand above the cacophony and lead.

Ultimately, the leaders that Americans elect and the results that they deliver are simply a reflection of themselves as an electorate. If they want to see change for the better, they'd better be prepared to support the right initiative and work towards it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

China and Tibet

The issue of who has the legitimacy to rule Tibet has long been a thorny issue for China and Tibetans. That said, the issue goes back a long way, when the Tibetan kingdom was annexed by China a few centuries back, partially taken over by the British, and then finally invaded by China in 1950.

What is clear, though, is that Tibetans aren’t happy with the Chinese occupation. Mass migration of Han & benefits of economic development going to them, suppression of religious worship & culture, plus massive environmental pollution. Add a massive military presence & stationing of nukes in Tibet (as more than one PLA general has said).

Negotiations haven’t seemed to achieve much. Perhaps Beijing regards it only for show purposes?

Trouble is, if nothing is gained out of negotiations, the Dalai Lama could well be sidelined by those calling for an insurgency. And in this regard, it is by sheer luck that the Tibetans have been rather peaceful – perhaps a result of Buddhist culture.

But the same thing is going on in Xinjiang. And unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs aren’t as peaceful and may turn violent. Groups like the ETIM might gain a bigger following.

And what could happen in an insurgency? One only needs to look at the former USSR for examples, like the Chechen conflict. Even if secession is achieved, ethnic conflicts like Moldova-Transnistria might still occur.

Tibet might be an inalienable part of China. However, if Beijing really wants it to be that way, they need to ensure that the Tibetans feel the same too.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Foreign scholars

Foreign students studying in secondary schools and JCs on government scholarships have been, for some time, a part of our school lives, particular for people like me in so-called top schools.
Previously, not having encountered them, I believed the stereotype that they were freaks whose only purpose in life was to study and nothing else. However, after ending up in a class with 8 Chinese scholars this year, I find that contrary to the stereotype, they are very much like us – they weren’t too fond of studying and homework, and they too liked having fun and being with friends.

Personally, while I don’t hold any bias against scholars themselves, I feel there are some potential improvements that could be made to the program itself.

While I haven’t managed to find any definitive official stated aim of providing scholarships, there are some obvious advantages:

1. Increase talent, which is key in today’s knowledge driven economies
2. Increase the labour force. Singaporeans aren’t having enough babies anyway.
3. Increased international exposure and goodwill
4. Raise the level of competition and (potentially) spur the Singaporeans to work harder.
5. If these scholars are successful in the future, we hope they remember us so we can benefit from it.

However, in reality, whether these advantages are realized is questionable.

A token few would raise the competition enough to spur local students to improve, but too many scholars end up dominating & take up all the opportunities, depriving local students of the opportunity to develop as well as giving local students a “hopeless” mindset that discourages them from competing. The resulting defeatist attitude and sentiment that the system favours foreigners over Singaporeans isn’t good for national unity.

The best way to counter the latter would be some sort of measures to allow the weaker Singaporeans the opportunity to get a leg up. By this, I think that motivation is the key factor – once interests can be linked to academics, motivation is a whole lot easier and performance would improve.

According to the scholars I know, the recruitment system for the majority of scholars is through successive rounds of academic tests – unless they have some special sporting talent or ability. Interestingly, there isn’t much emphasis on assessing the character here. This isn’t good – a few bad hats to a give the whole lot a bad reputation, and we should be minimising that. Perhaps running interviews, camps, etc. as part of the selection process would help greatly.

This, combined with the fact that schools often place scholars in the same classes (i.e. creating “enclaves”), limit international exposure and goodwill. What should we do to combat this? First, start selecting scholars based on character also. Second, combat negative stereotypes & encourage interaction between both sides.

The scholarship program is a potential winner, if run properly. Hopefully improvements can be done to the programme to let it realize its true potential.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hello world!

My first attempt at a blog in 4 years, after having tried - and finding myself too lazy to blog.

My name is Michael Ong. I live in Singapore, at the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia, somewhere in Southeast Asia. I'm now currently studying in Anglo Chinese School (Independent), a junior college (i.e. high school) doing the IB programme. Like most other students my age, I intend to enroll in a university soon after graduating and hopefully get a scholarship too, though I will have to do my national service (conscription term) before that.

I suppose I'm not a very conventional person. I just don't seem to conform to most stereotypes about people (e.g. stereotypes like "nerd", "jock", "bimbo" etc).

I used to be a member of the air cadet corps in my school (here, units / squadrons are based on schools) for the last few years. Well, every year, appointments are given to the cohort of senior cadets to run the unit. Unlike most cadets, I chose not to aim for a high appointment, but rather decided to take part in the International Air Cadet Exchange and the Basic Diving course; I learned a lot more from both than getting any high appointment. At the same time, what I did as a senior was unusual in itself - I asked for, and basically got the higher ups to let me teach junior cadets aviation-related science so that they could understand more about airplanes.

Now, I'm currently in the swimming team and the science research club of my school - just following my other interests in sports in general as well as both the hard sciences and social sciences - modern international history, political science and sociology.

Given that, it seems only natural that this blog functions both as an outlet for my views on current issues as well as somewhere to showcase science stuff. The rationale is simple - through interacting with one another, we learn from one another - be it in political viewpoints or building a better mousetrap.

Also, everybody started out a newbie at some time or another. So have I, even though I am only starting to, as Isaac Newton said, discover the vast world beyond. Initially, I had trouble understanding all the technical terms, jargon and stuff and had to rely on the Internet and a multitude of kind forum posters and moderators to get answers (a big thanks to them). Hopefully, this blog can do the same for others in the same situation.

Seems a bit weird considering that this blog is functions both a an outlet for showcase of science stuff, but I never exactly conformed with the norm here, which is that both are generally incompatible and separate. And, after all, in the real world, both come together at some point or another. Note, this isn't a result of TOK or any of those nice sounding acronyms from IB, but simple common sense.

Hope everyone can connect to this blog in one way or another.

Michael Ong

17 September 2008

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


My friend & I built one for a school competition. The objective was to design & build a boat that could sail the fastest, with the only rule being that it could have a maximum sail area of 1 A4 size sheet of paper.

As we weren’t told what the competition rules & conditions (especially wind) were, we could only assume a straight line path and little or no wind. Thus, we couldn't optimise the boat much other than minimise weight.

We used a catamaran design because catamarans has a much lesser risk of capsizing than monohulls and thus doesn’t need to be ballasted or widened, both which reduce speed. Wikipedia explains why.

The catamaran hulls were built from flexible Tamiya PVC sheet. We cut the shapes out, and joined 2 such shapes together to form each hull. Joining the hull together was a framework of ice cream sticks. We forgot a keel, though.

The sail was cut out from the school magazine. Holes were cut out and light paper “doors” were pasted over them, similar in concept to a check valve. This is to reduce the effect of a headwind on the boat, which would make the boat go backwards.

Total cost: 2 hours of work and $15.

Our competitors had rather different ideas. One also built a crude catamaran – using 2 bottles for the hulls and a piece of Styrofoam linking them together. Another simply used a huge piece of Styrofoam as the hull and a piece of corrugated plastic for the keel. Yet another used plastic wrap and a wire framework, which subsequently sank.

We won, though we could have been a lot faster if we had put a keel. The wind kept on changing direction, and with it our boat.