Friday, July 31, 2009

Socratic Method

Woo! My last post on piracy ruffled some feathers. I think it's great to have feedback and I do appreciate the anonymous writer posting his comments. I welcome arguments from readers as long as they are serious and well thought out. In this case, the writer makes some good points, like how piracy affects products and content (photos, movies, music) differently, for instance. But I disagree with many of his arguments and I will go into it in another post.

First a quick note to the anonymous poster who writes:
"first of all, it's a little hypocritical to stand up for torrent and free downloads when you've never even used torrent isn't it? (kind of like having a strong opinion on something you don't really have a meaningful relationship with yes?)."
It's strange to think one cannot have a strong opinion on a subject unless you've had a "meaningful relationship" with that subject matter. Unless you think one cannot have a view on abortion unless you've personally "tried it out", so to speak. How can one allow men to have an opinion on abortion in that case? Another example: many people (me included) have admiration for the technology that has put men on the moon, despite never having been in a space shuttle.

That's the thing about being human and why we have opinions on things even though we have never personally experienced them: we have imagination which allows us not just to imagine but also sometimes, to empathise.

The second thing just off the top of my head. What seems to be the writer's central argument is people taking Bloom bags to use (sampling) and then never paying for it or giving it back:
"i hope the analogy to strangers taking your bags for free makes it clear that when people download free music, that's essentially what they're doing... stealing it just as you would call it if someone came into your store and never paid for a bag."
But this analogy doesn't work. This is where the distinction between product and content is relevant.

A bag is a discrete object. Once someone takes it away, it is gone. Contrast this with a song, a photograph or a movie. You're not going to lose your original song, movie or image when someone downloads it. Multiple entities originate from that one song, movie, image. A bag, on the other hand, can't reproduce itself.

As mentioned I am interested in this topic and have been doing some research. Yesterday I read this Businessweek Commentary: Are The Copyright Wars Chilling Innovation? and also this one by Harvard Business School, which argues that weak (weak, not zero) copyright benefits society.

The point I am trying to make in welcoming feedback is the same as Stephen Fry's - let's get a discussion going. Most of us have only heard the established line "copyright promotes innovation" but hardly hear arguments to the contrary, and there are plenty of these, even research and statistical evidence.

I will go into the topic further some time later but right now want to say that discussions like these are great in general, as they force, all of us, to think better. It's called the Socratic Method. From wikipedia:
The Socratic Method (or Method of Elenchus or Socratic Debate), named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, strengthening the inquirer's own point.

So I welcome any reasoned arguments in the interest of promoting better thinking. Thanks again anon, you've brought up some good points and I'll think what my response to those are so I am clearer about my position on the matter of piracy. I hope you'll be clearer on your position too.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Go Pirates!

We live in exciting times. Followers of this blog will know I am a fan of The Pirate Bay even though I have never used BitTorrent--what can I say, I like mavericks. I must point out the reason I don't use BitTorrent is not because of principle, but because of laziness - there are other ways to get what I want online :)

We now have the world's first democratically elected Internet pirate, and the leader of a growing international movement that seeks to deregulate copyright, abolish the patent system and decrease online surveillance.

Christian Engstrom is a 49-year old Swede and a former computer software programmer. He represents the Pirate Party (no relation to The Pirate Bay), whose membership tripled, from 14,000 to 42,000 thanks in large part to the resulting publicity from the Pirate Bay trial.

According to Engstrom, who is the party's deputy leader, their goal in Brussels is now to "ensure that Europe chooses a better road into the information society." The message is especially resonant with the younger generation. In Sweden, one in five under the age of 30 voted for The Pirate Party.

The Swedish Pirate Party has inspired officially registered sister parties in six countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, France and Spain. Germany's "Piratenpartei" is the second largest, having snared nearly one percent of the German vote during the European elections.

Cool. I wonder if we can register a sister party here in Cambodia? Talk to me Anakata!

If you have not yet listened to Stephen Fry's talk on misguided copyright laws at UK's iTunes Festival, you must. It's an entertaining and eloquent attack, and I highly recommend it. You can find the iTunes link on Reddit (super sound quality) or can watch excerpts on Youtube (poor sound quality but with motion).

Fry said while downloading on an "industrial scale" is not defensible, making examples of ordinary people is the stupidest thing the record industry can do. Not only does this alienate its audience, it's stupid to put the average downloader in the same moral category as a person who steals and old lady's handbag (in the UK, copyright ads used to draw this comparison - this has been dropped in favour of more pandering ads - "Thank you for buying original - your purchase helps fund the movie industry").

Fry admitted he used BitTorrent to watch Hugh Laurie in the season finale of House when he did not have the bandwidth to watch the episode as he was in filming in Indonesia. Laurie is Fry's former comedy partner in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster) .

He noted many people (like students) who download music and movies through P2P networks do so because they love music and may be too poor to buy. They also like to sample music, to try out different things. But if they really like the product, they will buy when and if they are able to. A good example is Michael Jackson's music. After his death, many many people bought the "real thing" because they think it is worth paying for.

I totally agree. Very early on when I set up Bloom, I wrote as part of The Bloom Manifesto: "We believe intellectual property is only for those who can afford it."

I am interested in copyright, piracy and how it affects innovation because it affects me personally. As readers know, Bloom bags get copied all the time. But I have to let you know, rather than stifle innovation or make us give up, the copying simply forces us to be more creative, not just with designs, but also with marketing, how we position ourselves and get our message across. And that is a good thing, no?

Overall, I have to say I am not bothered much by the copying - ultimately it gives people choice, and that too is a good thing, no?

This is why I laugh when I read Hollywood lamenting how piracy affects their business. "Employment is affected, people who are actually making movies are affected, and in the long term the consumer will suffer because we won't have the high-quality content in the future that we have come to expect," said a spokeswoman representing UK's campaign group Respect for Film.

Yeah right. This is why Hollywood had its best year in 2008, taking in USD 9.78 billion. 2007 was also a record year for profits, growing 5.4 percent over 2006 by grossing $9.63 billion.

As MP Engstrom told CNN: "That's the way life is when you're running a business. Things change, technology changes and the business environment changes. Successful businesses adapt rather than whine."

Yeah Hollywood and record labels, the sooner you get used to disruptive technology the better, cos you can bet there will be more to come.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Empathy, Filial Piety

I just had a conversation with Bongsrei (literally "older sister" in Khmer), the owner of Angkor Famous restaurant, who also has a provision store where I get my Coke Light and Italian food supplies (olives, tomato paste etc). Actually I do know her name but I find it hard to call her by her name because she is an elder. I am very Asian that way - I find it almost impossible to address older people, especially if they are Asian, by their names instead of "uncle", "aunty". In Singapore we call everyone older than us "uncle" or "aunty", as we do in Cambodia, where we say "ming" (aunty) or "bpoo" (uncle).

My Scottish partner had to tell me "Please don't address my parents as "aunty" and "uncle". They'll find it strange. Where I come from, an aunt is a relative." I found it so hard addressing his parents by their first names, I ended up saying, "Hello, Mr [last name]". Alan is very private and does not understand blogs. If blogs are diaries, then they should be private. So I try to keep him out of it. Even in press interviews, I don't mention him, so people have told me they imagine I am this eccentric woman. ("Diana lives with her five dogs in a 16,000 sq feet bungalow" was how one magazine put it). Then they meet me and all their suspicions are confirmed - haha!

Still, he is such a big part of my life it is impossible to keep him out of this blog completely.

Alan has spent the last 10 weeks away in Scotland because his mom passed away and he is keeping his father company. I am able to write about it now but it was a very traumatic time for us because he did not manage to arrive in time.

This is also why I am blogging more often because it is something to do. I also force myself to work in the shop so I meet people. I am the sort of Internet junkie cum misanthrope who could easily live as a virtual person cum hermit if given half the chance. (Yes, yes, I know - what is a misanthrope doing helping other people improve their lives? I don't know either. This is me, "walking inner turmoil" is how a friend described me when we were in junior college. It must be that I don't hate all people all of the time.)

Anyway, Bongsrei and her husband have been very kind to both of us since we moved here in 2007. They have been very generous with discounts, free food and advice. We repay them by taking friends and buying our supplies there.

They are very concerned I am alone and suggested I get someone to live with me, like a maid, but I prefer being alone. They are always asking when Alan will be back. Bongsrei keeps telling me to get Alan's dad over here. "He can have one girl, do everything for him." Err....

Of course she means get a helper for him, who will look after him in his old age. Helpers here earn less than USD100 a month. (Many earn USD50 and do so because of the free food and lodgings which means they get to save the salary.) Alan's dad is in his 80s and is not interested in moving to the other side of the world.

Today, Bongsrei said "Give him [Alan] time." She told me how when she was living in the US, American children would leave home when they turn 18. This happened to a neighbour. One day the old man fell and was unable to get help or food. She said for three days he laid there. He was discovered only because another neighbour smelt something bad and called the police after realising it may be the old man, since they'd not seen him in a while. (The urban legend would be the cat eating half his face).

Horrified that something like this could happen, Bongsrei said she told her American neighbours, "My country no like this. The children never go far from the parents."

This made me pause. What I am doing here in Cambodia? Should I, too, be like Cambodians who never leave their families?

It's something I think about often, especially since Alan's mom's death. I play it out in my head - if any of the Bloom women were to die, of course I would feel sad. But how much more I would feel for people I grew up with, for people I love, for friends and family.

Bongsrei's words made me pause because she is Khmer. What must Khmers think of foreigners who leave their families to come to Cambodia to do something for the Khmers? Do they think I am a bad daughter and Alan a bad son? Some of the Bloom women have told me they do not understand me (join the club). If they were me, they said, they would stay with their families and take care of them. Yet the women know what I do makes a huge difference to their lives and that of their families. The women are always saying to me "awkoon bongsrei thom thom" (thank you elder sister big big) and they are grateful for the help from NGOs and foreigners. I wonder if they see the double standards irony?

How can you have your cake and eat it is the question I'm asking. How can I balance being there for loved ones and being there for others? To what extent does one live for herself and to what extent for others? Ultimately, the question is "how should one live"?

"Personal relationships are important," said a British friend who has since left Cambodia after living here with her family for more than 5 years. She tells me anytime I want to pack up and leave I should do it, because I have given the women skills and self-esteem which will assist them in life. It is not so cut and dry for me. I feel a sense of responsibility to the women - how often have foreigners made promises and then abandoned Cambodians? We have passports and options so can leave anytime. I am thinking of how during the advance of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh, foreigners were evacuated or could take refuge in the French embassy while Khmers, even Khmer spouses of Westerners, were turned away at the embassy doors. No wonder then the Khmers have a saying: "There is no point loving a foreigner, because will a foreigner be at your funeral?"

"Empathy, once granted admission, has a way of multiplying its demands," writes one of my favourite authors, Zoe Heller, in her New York Times review of Ian McEwan's Saturday.
"While buying the ingredients for a fish stew he plans to make for supper, Perowne Saturday's protagonist] ponders the latest scientific research indicating that fish have a higher degree of capacity for pain than has previously been assumed. ''This,'' he thinks, ''is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant peoples are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish.'' If empathy is the antidote to cruelty, the essence of what it is to be human, how far to extend it? To fish? To foxes? To jihadists who wish you dead?"
I read Saturday last year and had started writing a blog entry on the idea of empathy. I never got around to finishing it because it's such a difficult topic for me with so many questions unanswered such as can one be too empathetic? Today's conversation made me think about it again.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Ringworm Children

I just read about the film "The Ringworm Children", released in 2004. Directed by David Belhassen and Asher Hemias, it won the prize for "best documentary" at the Haifa International film festival:
In 1951, the director general of the Israeli Health Ministry, Dr. Chaim Sheba, flew to America and returned with seven x-ray machines, supplied to him by the American army.

They were to be used in a mass atomic experiment with an entire generation of Sephardi youths to be used as guinea pigs. Every Sephardi child was to be given 35,000 times the maximum dose of x-rays through his head. For doing so, the American government paid the Israeli government 300 million Israeli liras a year. The entire Health budget was 60 million liras. The money paid by the Americans is equivalent to billions of dollars today.

To fool the parents of the victims, the children were taken away on "school trips" and their parents were later told the x-rays were a treatment for the scourge of scalpal ringworm. 6,000 of the children died shortly after their doses were given, while many of the rest developed cancers that killed thousands over time and are still killing them now. While living, the victims suffered from disorders such as epilepsy, amnesia, Alzheimer's disease, chronic headaches and psychosis.
Apparently the motivation was eugenics, which is the theory that people can improve the quality of future genes by weeding out unhealthy and undesirable traits. Only Sephardi children received the x-rays: "I was in class and the men came to take us on a tour. They asked our names. The Ashkenazi children were told to return to their seats. The dark children were put on the bus."

Sephardi Jews originate in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) and also North Africa. They are contrasted with Ashkenazi Jews (literally, German Jews) who are Jews descended from the medieval Jewish communities of the Rhineland in the west of Germany.

Giora Yoseftal (1912 – 1962) and one time Development Minister, Minister of Labour and Minister of Housing and Construction, called the Moroccan Jews "primitives" and "backward". Levi Eshkol (1895-1969) who served as the third Prime Minister of Israel called them "human rubbish" and "defective people". Nachum Goldman (1895–1982), a Polish-born Zionist and founder and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, described North African Jewry "a catastrophic immigration". Dr Chaim Sheba, then director of the health ministry, believed in the genetic supremacy of the Ashkenazi Jews.

Jewssansfrontieres asks if Dr Sheba is Israel's Dr Mengele. Joseph Mengele was a doctor at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau who was hated for his cruelty. In one instance, he drew a line on the wall of the children's block between 150 and 156 centimeters (about 5 feet or 5 feet 2 inches) from the floor, and sent those whose heads could not reach the line to the gas chamber. (I have to pipe up here since I fall into that category of shorties: Being short has its advantages, otherwise it would have been naturally weeded out by now. What advantages? Having a lower centre of gravity means shorter people can change direction faster. Just look at Maradona, best footballer ever, who is only 5'5". And I'm thinking of all the pint-sized East European champion gymnasts...)

In the film, a Moroccan lady is shown saying: "It was a Holocaust, a Sephardi Holocaust. And what I want to know is why no one stood up to stop it."

The passage I quoted is from a review of the film and you can read it in full here on infowars.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Namibia disappears for the Chinese

See what you can do when you are head of a country, even if that country has more than a billion people?

According to the Chinese government, Namibia — a southern African country with a population of 2 million — does not exist.

Government censors ordered Chinese search engines to show no search results for the country's name this week, following a corruption scandal involving a Chinese tech company's dealings with Namibia's government.

The company, Nutech, was formerly run by the son of Chinese president Hu Jintao. It is under two separate investigations by Namibian and European Union officials for allegedly using illegal methods, including bribery and unfair trade practices, to secure a USD55.3 million contract to sell cargo scanners to the Namibian government.

Though Jintao's son is not a suspect in the case, government censors have reacted swiftly to the investigation, shutting down two Chinese tech news sites and blocking a list of keywords including "Hu Haifeng, Namibia, Namibia bribery investigation, Yang Fan bribery investigation, Nuctech bribery investigation, [and] southern Africa bribery investigation." Searching for these words on Chinese search engine produces an error message [ZH] that can be translated as, "Search results may not be in line with the relevant laws and regulations and policies, not shown."

The past two months have been busy ones for Chinese censors. In early June the government blocked access to Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Less than a week later, the news broke that the government would begin requiring all PCs sold in the country to come equipped with Internet filtering software. And in July, Internet access was completely shut down in the capital of the Xinjiang region after ethnic riots that left nearly 200 people dead.

My Heroes: The Yes Men

I've been following The Yes Men for a few years now, ever since I saw the 2003 movie "The Yes Men". If you view my Blogger profile you will see a link to their site and I just added their link to this blog. If you haven't already checked them out, do so now on

Basically the Yes Men--Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno--pose as top executives of corporations in order to draw attention to these exploitative companies. Incredibly, the imposters have managed to fool many people, and have gotten spots on BBC, CNBC and others, to speak on behalf of the companies they are really slamming.

In one instance, posing as Dow Chemical representatives, the Yes Men claimed Dow will liquidate Union Carbide and use the resulting USD12 billion to pay for medical care for victims of the Bhopal disaster and clean up the site, as well as fund research into the hazards of other Dow products. After two hours of wide coverage, Dow issued a press release denying the statement, ensuring even greater coverage of the phony news of a cleanup. By the time the original story was discredited, Dow's stock had declined in value by $2 billion [!].

The Yes Men also use reductio ad absurdum or reduction to the absurd, leading to outrageous conclusions, such as the poor should eat recycled human waste or be turned into candles after death. The amazing thing when watching their presentations, often to men and women in suits, is how long it takes for people realise its all a hoax.

The Yes Men are hilarious. I wish I could do satire as well as these guys.

Anyway, my heroes were featured in Al Jazeera's The Fabulous Picture show this week:

Natalia Estemirova

I feel I have to write about Natalia Estemirova, Chechnya's voice of conscience, because I do not want her death to be in vain and this is all I can do. I would also like Cambodians to take courage in the fact that there are people everywhere who are trying to do their bit (some more than their bit) for justice.

[Some background on Chechnya: When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Chechnya tried to gain independence from Russia. There are four phases to date: the "Chechen revolution" and Dzhokhar Dudaev's rule (1991-1994); the first Chechen war (1994-1996); Chechenya's quasi-independence (1996-1999); and finally the second Chechen war that began in 1999 and continues until now. Despite the fact that the Kremlin has taken certain measures to put an end to the conflict in the republic, the war is growing increasingly violent.]

On 15 July, Natalia Estemirova was was dragged into an unmarked white Lada, screaming vainly for help, as she walked out of her house. She was later found with a bruised face and four bullet holes, two in the chest and two in the head.

Ever since 2000, amidst the second Chechen war, the single mother has worked for the Russian human rights group Memorial. She worked tirelessly to uncover the brutal repression of Chechens under Ramzan Kadyrov, the region's thuggish young president. Kadyrov is the son of Chechnya's former leader, who was handpicked by the Kremlim.

She was such a force to be reckoned with, at one time, the Chechen president offered Estemirova a position as the head of a civil society advisory commission for the city of Grozny. She accepted but did not stop speaking out for her people, and did not stop writing reports for Memorial either. She wrote reports documenting about 50 abducted civilians this year, which many locals blamed on forces loyal to Kadyrov. According to Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial, Kadyrov told Estemirova: "Yes, my hands are up to the elbows in blood. And I am not ashamed of that. I will kill and kill bad people."

Memorial was so worried for her safety they wanted her away from Chechnya, but Estemirova called every day to say: "Something has to be done."

Sadly, her killers will most likely never be brought to justice. Estemirova was just the latest human-rights campaigner to be gunned down in Putin's Russia. Others include the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and lawyer Stanislav Markelov who was gunned down with journalist Anastasia Baburova.

Read more on Natalia Estemirova on Foreign Policy's "And then there were none" and Amnesty International's campaign.

World War II by Urban Dictionary

"A surprisingly accurate description of WWII (". Brilliant. Thanks to notyavgkat for adding to

Germany invades Czechoslovakia.
Britain & France tell them to stop that bullshit.
Germany invades Poland.
(Russia also invades Poland from the other side: everybody forgets this.)
Britain & France declare war. This is the 'official' kick-off.
Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, & Romania all join the German side. (Everybody forgets the last three.)
Axis forces go through Europe like vindaloo through a colostomy.
Nazis exterminate Jews, gays, gypsies, & the disabled. (everybody remembers the jews but forgets the rest.)
UK holds out.
Russia & the USA don't do shit.
Entire divisions of Danish, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, French & Serbian volunteers join the Axis armies & SS. (everybody forgets this & to listen to them now, they were all in the fucking resistance, which must have been MASSIVE.)
Axis forces invade Russia. Suddenly the Russians don't think it's funny any more.
Japan joins the Axis & bombs Pearl Harbor.
Suddenly the US doesn't think it's funny any more.
The USA tools up the world, 'cause it's got more factories than everybody else put together, & they're out of bomber range.
Axis runs out of steam in Russia, cause Russia's enormous & bloody freezing.
Allies invade on D-Day... 5 landings: 2 British, 2 American, 1 Canadian. (everybody forgets the Canadians.)
Hitler ends up smouldering in a ditch. Russians find the body & confirm he only had one ball. Seriously.
The US decides invading stuff is a pain in the ass and invents the atom bomb instead. Drops two buckets 'o sunshine on Japan.
Russians steal half of Europe.
UK's spent almost every penny it had.
US starts telling everybody how it was all about them, & 64 years later is still doing so.
"Some of the World War II guys in 'Call of Duty' have, like, foreign accents... what's up with that?"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rose Charities, Surfkini and Bloom

Woohoo! Surfkini just wrote about Bloom on its blog. Surfkini, founded by Annie Henley in Brooklyn, New York, makes the only surfing bikini designed especially for a woman. Pretty impressive, as the company was asked for its views on 2010 swimwear trends along with other giants in the swimwear business, including Billabong, Body Glove, O'Neill and Rip Curl.

Annie is also a board member of Rose Charities, which is how I came to know her. Dr William Grut, a doctor with Rose Charities Cambodia read this blog and was kind enough to put me in touch with Annie as well as some of his other friends. William recently gave an interview on acid violence in Cambodia and how the vicious, evil, attacks destroy the lives of its victims, some of whom are children. According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), an acid attack occurs every 25 days--already shocking, but it seems actual figures may be higher since many attacks go unreported.

Rose Charities Cambodia was established in 1998 by one of the founders of Project IRIS eye program. I know about Project IRIS because the doctors operated on one of the Riverkids charges, a 14 year old girl who had to have corrective eye surgery. This work was done free.

Rose Charities, too, runs ophthalmic surgical, medical and optometric services in conjunction with the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, at Kien Khleang National Rehabilitation Center, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Rose has had a very challenging time in Cambodia. In 2002 it was looted and gutted by thieves but was able to reestablished itself through it the dedication of its staff members, directed by Dr Hang Vra. This is so touching: "Even after the clinic had been gutted by thieves, Dr Vra would come to attend the empty shell on his old motor-bike, just so the hundreds of poor Cambodians would be seen and comforted - even though all his instruments and medications were gone. He continued this, day in day out for weeks and months until finally he was able to start building it all from the beginning again."

Cambodia can be a very difficult place for people who try to help the country. I myself have been cheated by trusted Cambodian staff members. In one case, our manager inflated receipts and pocketed the difference, and stole our bags to sell to other shops around town. After being sacked, that person opened her own shop, selling the exact same Bloom bags as she had stolen all the templates. It wasn't the monetary loss that was upsetting, but the betrayal of trust. It makes you watchful, less trusting and worse of all for me, made me lose confidence in my judgement of people.

It is hard enough for a foreigner, but imagine what it must be like for a Cambodian who is trying to help his people and then gets cheated or robbed by his countrymen. I know one Cambodian director of an NGO who always looks mournful because jealousy from other Cambodian directors of NGOs operating in the same space as he (orphanages) means he's had to deal with a lot of backstabbing and ugliness.

But there are of course good Cambodian people as Dr Hang Vra exemplifies.

For me, it was the wise words of one of my best friends at home in Singapore that helped me get over the crisis and re-focus on Bloom. Leon told me, "Think of the objective good you're doing, and not of the subjective responses of individual Cambodians."

And this is what keeps all of us going. We know what we do makes a difference, even though very often it is a case of "Two steps forward, one step back."

Back to Rose Charities. Because it is run by volunteers, the charity has almost no overheads. This makes its operations incredibly cost-effective, restoring sight for as little as USD20 and repairing a cleft palate or make a child walk again for USD 50. I love what they say on their website: "We are just as cynical as you about how much of the donated dollar reaches its destination. (Have you read 'Lords of Poverty' by Graham Hancock?) We know exactly where our donations go and can follow each dollar right down to 'the field'." My thoughts exactly.

So if you'd like to share your time or money to help people in need of surgery to enable them lead their lives with dignity, please visit and see how a little goes a long way.

In December, Annie and fellow model Noot Seear organised a fundraiser for Rose in NYC. "Be Bare" raised more than USD40,000. You can read "Models go bare for charity" or watch the Youtube video.

I am convinced that in the future, every business will have a social or environmental aspect to it and I am glad Surfkini has already set itself apart as one of these businesses with a heart.

Total eclipse of the Sun and the landing on the Moon

Today was exciting for people in parts of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. They were able to see a total solar eclipse. The total eclipse of the sun will last for 6 minutes and 39 seconds at its height, and this is the longest total eclipse for this century--the next solar eclipse of this duration will be 123 years from now, in 2132.

This photo, from wikipedia, is of a partial eclipse people in Tainan, Taiwan saw this morning. For more photos of the eclipse--and I am sure we will see a lot when people start uploading--you can check out wikipedia's entry on today's eclipse.

According to this animated eclipse found on, Cambodia saw a partial eclipse, about 40-50%, if I am reading the diagram correctly.

The first contact in Phnom Penh was at 00:13:58.7 (GMT/UTC), or 7:13 am Cambodia time. The fourth (final) contact was at 02:13:28.5 or 9.13 am. The maximum eclipse occurred at 01:10:06.0, or 8:10 this morning in Cambodia. This information was found on NASA's website.

While on the subject of the cosmos and astronomy, 20 July 1969 was when man first landed on the moon, and there have been celebrations of the 40th anniversary of that momentous event. I really enjoyed watching this week's interviews with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the moon, after Neil Armstrong. He is such a cool guy, with a great sense of humour. If you have not watched the interview Buzz gave to Ali G, go watch it now. I guarantee it will make you laugh.

And let's not forget there was a third astronaut, Michael Collins, one of the world's most experienced aviators, who had to man the spacecraft while his friends walked on the moon. He waited in desperate hope for a call from his fellow astronauts to say their lander craft had successfully blasted off from the Moon, petrified he would never hear from them in case the engine failed to ignite and the two men were left stranded on the moon, where their oxygen would run out. Or that the two astronauts would be stranded in orbit. Terrifying, when you think about it.

Apparently, all three astronauts believed there was a real chance such a disaster would occur and Armstrong thought his prospects were only 50-50 of making it back to Earth. The three men, all born in 1930, are so brave. Heroes, really.

I read all this in a fascinating article by Robin McKie, and published on Sunday in the Observer newspaper: "How Michael Collins became the forgotten astronaut of Apollo 11".
In fact, he [Michael Collins] was - in many ways - the unsung hero of the Apollo 11 mission, a point that was underlined at the time by the great American aviator Charles Lindbergh. He wrote to Collins, not long after his safe return, to tell him that his part of the mission was one of "greater profundity ... you have experienced an aloneness unknown to man before".
Finally, this is one of the reasons I love Google. Check out and you can have a tour of the Apollo 11 landings, so precise we can even see the exact spots where the men planted flags. I love, love, love nature and technology and writing and learning about all this has made me so happy. :)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Flu and germs in Cambodia

(H1N1 virus photo from US CDC, linked below.)

I was sick with the flu for a week. It was funny how many people told me maybe it was swine flu, since there have been four reported cases of swine flu infections in Cambodia. Cambodian Health Minister Mam Bun Heng told reporters all four cases were students who arrived from Texas on June 19. They ranged in age from 16 to 20.

I wasn't particularly worried even if it was swine flu, since for most people, it's mild. If you are interested to learn more about swine flu, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a good site. You may also like to read how H1N1 was traced to US factory farms.

Many people over-react to swine flu, as Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria writes in "The Sky Is not Falling". I loved this comment from a poster: "90 people get the Swine Flu and everybody wants to wear a mask. A million people have AIDS and no one wants to wear a condom." Hahahaha! This is so true in Cambodia, where so many people wear face masks to avoid air pollution but are lackadaisical when it comes to using the condom.

Now that I think about it, in the three years I have lived in Cambodia, I've hardly been sick. A Singaporean friend joked at a party back home how I probably have the strongest immune system among the Singaporean friends present, because I'm exposed to more bugs.

I've become much, much less anal about hygiene since living here. Singaporeans are typically paranoid about hygiene, and I say paranoid, because I think you can be too uptight about these things. For instance, Singaporeans will not place food directly on a table, but on a buffer, such as a piece on tissue paper. I was like that too. I was amazed and appalled when an Australian, a champion triathlete I knew in Singapore, would make his sandwiches directly on the kitchen counter, a place we are told is teeming with bacteria. Is Andrew the worse for it? Not if you ask his doctors. Singapore doctors were routinely blown away by his heartbeats -- so slow, they indicated a super-strong, super-human heart.

On my last visit home to Singapore, I joined a picnic at Pasir Ris Park with a group from the Singapore Vegetarian Society and the Singapore Kite Association. It was great fun, flying kites and eating veggie burgers. Anyway, what I remember was how the only person who was like me, leaving our burgers on an exposed surface, with no tissue or paper napkin, was a Singaporean lorry driver and part-time kitemaker. He reminded me of Cambodians in his casual way of handling food. (I have to write about this lorry driver some time. I really respect the guy, bringing up four children delivering goods by lorry to Malaysia and back. To supplement his income, he makes kites from recycled umbrellas and plastic).

I'm not at all advocating abandoning hygienic practices, only that there should be some sort of balance. I know paranoid young Singaporean parents who do not allow their children to go to the playground or let a dog lick them for fear their precious children will catch something. Exposure to germs can be good for you as Scientific American notes in "Strange but True: Antibacterial Products May Do More Harm Than Good": "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is the governing maxim here, as antibacterial chemicals select for bacteria that endure their presence."

I did fall sick often when I first relocated to Cambodia. I had flu-like illnesses once a month for the first three months. I remember because I wrote to a friend about it and she was worried. But it looks like my body was just getting used to new bugs.

(The last time I fell sick was in Oct 2006 when I contracted dengue in Phnom Penh. I was put on a drip for a couple of hours and was fine after that. I did write about that dengue experience and the funny trip to the doctor.)

Many Khmers asked me: "Why are you sick now? Usually people have stuffed nose (p'da sai) during the cold season (November to February)". They have a point. There is such a thing as Seasonal Flu, which is most prevalent from December to March according to

Khmers believe it is the change of the weather, from hot to cold, that bring on the sickness. Many do not understand the flu is caused by a virus and not from the weather. Khmers will cover up, bathe in hot water, and stop drinking cold drinks when they get a cold because they think the cold weather is the cause, so they must somehow keep warm to fight the disease.

None of these things will make a virus go away. There is simply no cure for influenza. You can take medication but these only alleviate the symptoms. Tamiflu is one such medication.

In fact, because the virus is passed from person to person, one of the simplest ways Cambodians can avoid spreading the flu is to stop sharing food. I always, always tell the Bloom team to use a serving spoon instead of everyone dipping their spoon into the common dishes, but old habits die hard.

Because I know there is no cure for the flu, I did not bother seeing a doctor. Which is the other thing Khmers do - they all asked me if I had seen the doctor because they believe medication will cure it. Our housekeeper offered to make me the Cambodian concoction of some boiled herbs but I did not try.

Anyway I'm listing Flu symptoms below. They are only symptoms and people should know that many illnesses share the same symptoms, so if you are not convinced you have the flu, but something else, go see a doctor.

1. Loss of appetite
2. Fever. Childhood flu fevers are often more severe, but it's not at all uncommon for any adult to run a fever in the 100's when they have the flu. Often a low fever - and the weakness and chills it causes - are your first hint that the flu is about to hit you in full force.
3. Congestion that turns to a runny nose.
4. Sore throat.
5. Cough that turns productive.
6. Exhaustion and weakness.
7. Muscle aches and pains.

To get over the flu, it is recommended you:
1. Drink plenty of fluids - water and sports drinks
2. Take over the counter medications to relieve symptoms
3. Sleep as much as possible
4. Eat when you feel like it, but don't worry about it as long as you are drinking plenty of water
5. Avoid alcohol and tobacco use

That was how I got over my flu. Just sleep and sleep and drink water. I was well after a week.

(Flu information from who says its Health's Disease and Condition content is reviewed by its Medical Review Board).

Sometimes, the bravest thing a child can do is survive.

So writes Dale Edmonds from Riverkids I'm one of the trustees of this great project run by Dale and Jimmy, a Singaporean couple, and their super Cambodian team, including director Phy Sophon. Here is a glimpse of the work they do:
In the last month, two very different girls came to Riverkids for help. The first girl was lured from her birthplace in the provinces, to a 'good job' in Phnom Penh. A year of rape, starvation and battering in a brothel ended when a family member paid for her escape.

Briefly, she seemed to have made it with a job at a garment factory. That went bankrupt, and she found a job as a housekeeper. It only paid $35 a month, but with room and board. She was hopeful. She was never paid. Instead for months, she was imprisoned in the house by her employers and beaten with electrical cords or burnt with an iron if she made a mistake. Neighbours found out and brought her to Riverkids in late June. We rushed her to hospital.

Today, for the first time in too long she is safe. She is recovering from the physical and mental trauma in a shelter we found for her and she is pursuing a legal case against her abusers. She is only 17.

For the other girl, after her parents died of AIDS, she vanished to 'a job'. Her siblings were farmed out to relatives, and no-one knew or would say where she'd gone. Two of her siblings eventually ended up at Riverkids, where they are now thriving.

Last week, she tracked down her older sister who is at Riverkids and she is now staying with us. She is very thin and won't talked about her past yet. Her most recent job has been cleaning, she says, but for now, she refuses to meet her other relatives or venture far beyond our weekly shelter. We will find her a safe place to stay, medical and psychological help, and hope. Thanks to all our supporters like you, we could help these children and more.
I recommend Riverkids to anyone who would like to donate to a worthwhile charity. Not least of it because all the financial information is available online on the website.

One of the projects teaches mothers to make recycled paper bead necklaces and Bloom is proud to sell these in our shop. If you haven't seen them, you must. Some are made from recycled cigarette boxes and some from Cambodian magazines. It is super cool--the men smoke the ciggies and the women convert them into amazing jewellery. The children do not disappoint either. RK has a 92% pass rate for our primary school children, a few of whom came top of their class. Very impressive.

A recent highlight was a "Korean Festival". Changkyoung, a Korean lady I met at the Bloom shop and later took to visit RK brought a team from Korea. They donated books and school uniforms and spent a day with the children. Changkyoung and I became friends when we met at the Bloom shop in Phnom Penh more than a year ago. She was working with KOPION an NGO started by JoongangIlbo, one of Korea's leading newspapers.

We started talking and found we share the same views on Christians who come to Cambodia with the expressed purpose of converting the Buddhist Khmers. Changkyoung is very bright, speaks very good English and took a sabbatical from her job at Exxon-Mobil. She is still keen on development work, but says NGOs in Korea pay too little..."so I'm thinking, thinking, and thinking." I hope she'll return to Cambodia.

Anyway, do check out Riverkids yourself. Jimmy and Dale are people I know personally and I know them to be good, honest, and sincere people who are trying their best to help other people. I am so pleased RK has achieved so much.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fight Club

This week saw 2 fights between Cambodian men around the pub street area in Siem Reap.

Fight #1
Ten Cambodian staff members working at a restaurant here ganged up to beat one Cambodian man at a nightclub. The victim, a twenty-something year old man, was almost beaten to death, the staff bragged, as he was cut with broken beer bottles and hit with iron pipes.

It seems the fight was over a staring incident which took place some days ago at another nightclub frequented by Khmers. A "staring incident" is when one person is perceived to be staring at another. The other party gets worked up because the look is seen to be a challenge. I know because this is a common cause of fights in Singapore, usually among teen gangs and it is the same in Cambodia. I wonder if this happens in the west, or is it an Asian thing?

Other times young Khmer men fight because somebody has bumped into another person while dancing. I think it is understandable given that people get tipsy at a nightclub, but it's a no-no for these young men with fragile egos. If they cannot take revenge on the spot, they bide their time and gang up against the offender later on.

In the incident I described, the revenge happened days later and the gang was made to pay the nightclub owner USD60 for damaging his place of business.

The police came around to interview the victim who is lying in hospital and he has identified the attackers but the owner of the restaurant where they all work kept mum. When the police came knocking, the owner told them his staff members are not around. He is trying to protect them because it's troublesome to re-hire and re-train staff--which business owner wants to lose all his staff overnight?

Still, if the victim survives the attack, he may be able to claim compensation from his attackers and share this with the policemen.

Fight #2
A few days ago, the two cobblers who have tiny stalls on our street got into a fight. At first I heard a woman shouting at cobbler number one, the skinny one next to our shop. The shouting became louder and the woman's husband, cobbler number 2, joined in the fray, trying to punch and kick our skinny cobbler. Cobbler number 2 is older but bigger so he was really having a go.

The wife kept trying to hold him back and twice he made the action like he was going to punch her. If he had punched her I am sure I would have jumped in. Later I learned the two men are father and son. The father kicked and trashed his son's few possessions, like the styrofoam box he uses as a table, and a few small gas stoves the cobbler had just fixed for a customer.

When the father went away and came back with a piece of wood to use as a bat, I growled "Oy, chope." ("chope" means "stop"). I made sure I growled and not scream because people associate a lower voice with the voice of authority. And a scream with hysteria.

Fortunately, I am down with the flu so my voice is lower and hoarser than it usually is. The people nearby all looked at me. The father heard as well, and stopped, but he did not look at me. Meanwhile his wife was trying to pull her shirtless husband away by his belt. When she had succeeded to an extent he finally took a look at the voice. For a moment there I wondered if he would turn on me. But he did not look at me angrily. Maybe it is because I am a foreigner or maybe he knows I run a business here and they're causing trouble for the shop, but he looked at me with eyes cast, like he was embarrassed. And he did walk away.

What I found amazing was that people were just gathering around, waiting to watch a fight. I wonder if Cambodians are the sort of people to mind their own business and not interfere?

Were the spectators going to allow the men to kill each other? Not that it would have amounted to that, I don't think. But you never know. I have seen fights like these before. When some men go into a rage, they cannot stop themselves. They totally lose control. (I was in a road rage accident once in Singapore and my travelling companion and I had to join our taxi driver at the police station because the other driver wanted to beat him up).

I know it is not my business but I don't like to see blood shed. Actually my instinct was to call out to the cobblers that I'm calling the police. But I thought about it and believed the men would just ignore me, because truthfully, I don't think the police would be arsed. But Chhun Hy says the police would have come--to extract money from both men.

The cobblers are both ethnic Vietnamese married to Khmer women and the wife is the second wife who does not like her step son. So the fight was due to a family dispute.

A Khmer woman told me Vietnamese are like that. "When they fight, they scream and shout and don't care that the whole neighbourhood will hear," she said. Cambodians are more shy, or private, that way. They don't like to argue. I've heard this from many people in Cambodia and maybe there is some truth to it. Chhun Hy, a Khmer, says, "We don't like to talk so much, but we will fight." .

Although the last time I witnessed a shouting match it was between two Khmer women fruit-sellers at a market...

Swatch to expand in Cambodia

The Phnom Penh Post reports Swatch will open two more branded stores, one in Phnom Penh, the other in Siem Reap. The Post says its first store in Cambodia opened in April. That store must be in Phnom Penh since I don't see it in Siem Reap. Swatch says its two new stores are likely to be in department stores. Well, there are only 2 department stores in Siem Reap, Angkor Trade Mart and Lucky. Let's see who, if either, gets Swatch as a tenant.

Swatch is the world's biggest watchmaker, owning not just the Swatch brand (which in my experience, are groovy designs made from cheap plastic which turn yellow after time), but also Breguet, Omega, Longines and Tissot.

Swatch said Cambodia's demographics mean it should prove a good market.

Maybe they see parallels with China's demographics, where a growing middle class and nouveau riche want to add a timepiece as part of their arsenal of status symbols. In 2008, strong sales in China offset the reduced demand from the US, Japan and Hong Kong. CEO Nick Hayek remarked:"The Swatch Group grew extraordinarily strongly in China. In June, we grew in double-digits, above all with Omega, Longines and Tissot."

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Cambodian Manicure and Pedicure

Some of the Bloom women had a wedding invitation in April. It was a Saturday and I was in Phnom Penh to see them. As I sleep in the workshop when I am Phnom Penh (there is a small room upstairs), the four of us, Kamhut, Chanthy, Borath and me, hung out together. We work only 5 days a week at Bloom so the other women like Neang and Edany were not there.
In the morning we went to the market where I got them all earrings. (This includes the other women sewers who were not there. I was told in Cambodia you have to be fair to all workers, otherwise they get jealous of one another. I think it's true of any country, but Khmers tend to get jealous over more petty items, simply because things mean a lot more if you are poor). Back in the Bloom workshop in the afternoon, the women decided to do their nails. Later, after the manicure and pedicure, and a shower, they will all go to a beauty shop to get their hair and makeup done. I was not around to see that as I had a dinner appointment. It would have been nice to take photos of them, all dolled up.
Kamhut painting Chanthy's nails. Later Chanthy will do mine and Kamhut's too.
This is Chanthy. Chanthy had actually stopped working at Bloom for about a month by the time of this Saturday in April. She was due to be married in June. You may wonder why getting married means you have to stop work, but it is common in Cambodia. The woman will have to stay home and have kids and cook and clean for her husband. In Chanthy's case, she tells me it is her father's idea for her to stop work, even though she says she'd like to continue and she misses her friends at Bloom. She kept hugging me to tell me "kynom srolaing Diana" ("I love Diana"). I like Chanthy too, and wish I could continue to help her with some financial independence, but what can you do. We were just glad to be able to see her again as Chanthy's dad does not allow her to go out as much since she is getting married. Later, her fiance came to the Bloom workshop as Chanthy wanted me to meet him. I found him to be a very nice, shy, young man. I really hope he will be good to Chanthy. Check out Chanthy's T-Shirt. She does not know what it says but I totally agree!
The manicure and pedicure always starts with a trim, using these metal clippers to remove cuticles. I have a phobia of them because the one and only time I did a pedicure at a shop, the girl cut too deeply. It was sore even though I didn't bleed. Fortunately a Western friend had made sure I bought my own cuticle trimmer for USD1, for hygiene reasons. But on this day, I gave into Chanthy after she assured me she would not hurt me and the trim would make my nails look nicer. We all used the same clipper as I was embarrassed to tell the women I did not want to share the tool. Probably not a good idea in case of cuts, so do take your own if you want this done at the shops.
Then comes painting the nails. This is Kamhut painting Borath's nails. She holds up each finger to paint them one by one. They do two coats, letting the paint dry on all the fingernails before doing a second round.
I asked Kamhut to take a photo of her hand and mine after Chanthy had done our nails. She thought I was funny wanting to keep a photo of this. It's something Cambodian women do all the time, so it's probably nothing special to them. At the markets, it costs less than USD1 per manicure/pedicure and if you cannot afford that, you can buy nail polish for as little as USD0.25 and DIY. But for me, I had such fun on this day I wanted to remember it. The women are so sweet and charming. And very child-like in a way. I find it difficult to not be happy around a group of Cambodian women. As my American friend who recently helped out at a clinic for pregnant women said, "You know when I talk to the women, they embody everything you love about this country, they're so sweet."
Sisters! All with pink nail polish. Again the women thought I was mad. They also kept saying "your hand is so white!". It's not - I'm sure it's just the flash or something. I admire their hands much more - these are hands that can do many things like cook and sew. My typical Singaporean woman's hand can only work with computers. When I first arrived, Cambodian women were amazed that I could neither cook nor sew.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Cambodia's traffic accidents

Cambodia is reportedly the accident capital of ASEAN.
“[t]he death rate [was] 18 for 10,000 vehicles in 2007. In other ASEAN countries, the highest death rate is only 10.77 for 10,000 vehicles, and in developed countries, the highest rate of death is just 1.9 for 10,000 vehicles."
Source: The Mirror.

I don't know which figure is right, as I also found this Xinhua article which states:
China recorded 5.1 road accident deaths for every 10,000 motor vehicles in 2007, the highest in the world [my italics], a source at the second China Traffic Safety Forum said. The world average was two deaths per 10,000 vehicles, the source added.
If China has 5.1/1000 road accident deaths versus Cambodia's 18, and if Xinhua's source is right, then it is Cambodia, by far, that is the World Champion. [Personally I think the figures quoted by the Mirror are more accurate, which makes me wonder why China is so keen to claim to be world champions--is it like Singapore, wanting to be first in everything?]

These are photos of an accident I took on the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap which caused a jam. To be honest, given the number of road accidents, I am surprised I don't see more. A year and a half living in Phnom Penh and I only saw one, a minor one, in which the persons involved were able to walk away from the scene. This was at the riverside. Another was an accident that almost happened because a motodop kept shouting at me, "Moto M'am, Moto M'am" and failed to see where he was going.

Maybe I don't get out much, because the article says the number of road fatalities in Phnom Penh increased by 54% (!) from 2006 to 2007. An increase also took place over Khmer festivals Pchum Ben and Water Festival in which the number of fatalities increased by 50% and 46% respectively.

Motobike riders that got into accident were more likely to die (many riders don't use helmets, which complicates the problem). The fatality rate per 10,000 registered two-wheelers increased 32% from 2006 to 2007, while those involving cars went down by 7%, compared to 2006.

But perhaps there is hope Cambodia's road fatality will decrease in the future. Road fatality trends tend to follow Smeed's law, an empirical schema that correlates reduced injury rates with increased traffic congestion as measured by car ownership rates. The bright side of more and more Khmers buying cars over motobikes means the roads will be more congested. And cars can't kill you if they can't move.

But those slippery motobikes are a different story, weaving in and out of traffic. If only the government would do something to curb the number of motobikes in Cambodia's cities...

Military spending: Singapore, Cambodia etc

The world's biggest military spenders by population

Chart and story from The Economist:
GLOBAL military expenditure rose by 4% in 2008 to a record USD$1.46 trillion, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Israel spends most on defence relative to its population, shelling out over $2,300 a person, over $300 more than America. Small and rich countries, and notably Gulf states, feature prominently by this measure. Saudi Arabia ranks ninth in absolute spending, but sixth by population. China has increased spending by 10% to $85 billion to become the world's second largest spender. But it is still dwarfed by America, whose outlay of $607 billion is higher than that of the next 14 biggest spenders combined.
Singapore is the fourth largest military spender by population. China spends more in absolute terms (it is the number 2 biggest spender and accounts for 5.8% of the global expenditure on defense. The USA accounts for almost half, at 41.5% - larger than the next 14 countries combined. (These figures are also in the chart - click to enlarge)

Singapore has consistently spent over 4% of GDP on its defence budget and the global economic downturn has implications, but not what you think. Instead of spending less, the nation-state will spend 6% in 2009 on defense, or US$11.4bn.

Singapore was the first Asian economy to slip into recession in the current global downturn, and is expected to slip even more in 2009. But defense is not something the government will sacrifice. "Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean stressed the importance of maintaining military spending, noting that threats do not diminish but, rather, often emerge during testing economic times, owing to increased social and political frictions."

Military expenditure in absolute numbers
Cambodia is ranked 114 out of 171 countries on wikipedia, which lists its military expenditure as USD 112 million. Reuters puts Cambodia's 2008 defense spending at USD108, but this does not change Cambodia's rank on wiki's list. Singapore is #23 (spending USD786 million), Thailand #32 (spending USD500 million) and Vietnam is #44 (spending USD320 million). (Curiously Taiwan does not feature on this list. Could it have been subsumed under "China"? If so, that would be stupid, since Taiwan equips itself militarily primarily against a threat from China.)

Cambodia's military spending will increase in 2009. In Oct last year, the government said it would spend USD500 million (matching Thailand) because of the fight with Thailand over Preah Vihear:
"Cheam Yeap, head of the finance commission of the national Cambodian assembly, says that next week voting will be held on the new state budget, with military spending at 25% [!] of the total. "This incident has awoken us to the need for our soldiers to be better equipped. We cannot sit and watch Thai troops encroach on our border," Yeap says. "Our army needs to be more organised, better trained, with newer bases and well-fed troops."
However, the Cambodian government changed its mind and by December, proposed military spending of just $160 million for next year, way below the $500 million it had earmarked earlier.
"Before, we planned to divert resources to defence and security, but once we announced the plan, there was some criticism from donors," said Cheam Yeap, head of the National Assembly's finance commission. "We don't want donors to get nervous about spending in the field so we decided to reduce it," Yeap told Reuters.
Total number of troops
Cambodia has an estimated 191,000 troops (which means 14.12 Cambodians in 1000 are in the military). This is about a third of Thailand's 620,300 (or 9.84 Thais per 1000), but more than Malaysia, which has 171,000 soldiers (6.17 out of 1000).

The runway champ in Southeast Asia is Singapore, with 469,300 troops in total, which means 117.33 Singaporeans per 1000 can be called to duty. To put things in perspective, the US has 3,385,400 troops out of a population of more than 300 million. Which means 11.07 Americans out of 1000 is in the armed forces. So, just in terms of headcount, Singapore has more soldiers per capita - more than 10 times that of the US, in fact. [The figures are an estimate. If you take current population the figures change slightly].

If these figures, found on wikipedia are correct, then Singapore is only second in the world in total troops per capita, after, ta-da! North Korea. North Korea has almost 6 million troops in total, meaning 259.37 North Koreans per 1000 is in the military. [I did not count "Transnistria" which has 185.04 per 1000, since Transnistria is a region, not a state].

Compulsory military service
Like Israel and Taiwan, Singapore has compulsory military service, better known as National Service or NS. All able-bodied young Singaporean men have to serve 2 years in the army, full-time, once they reach 18 years of age. The men get a stipend of a few hundred dollars during these 2 years. Some Singaporean men I know enjoy the experience, which they say allows them to mix with other Singaporeans of different race, social class etc. More intellectual types find the time spent in the military soul-destroying.

Upon release from the army, some enter university. When they graduate, the men earn have higher starting pays in the workplace, the arguments being they are older, have more experience, or have served the country (not sure if those arguments make sense, but it didn't bother me.) The men can also defer NS until completing university, but cannot escape it.

Every year, there is a small number who refuse to enlist so get 3 years jail time. Most are Jehovah's Witnesses. (Since 1972, Jehovah's Witnesses as a religious group have been banned from Singapore but that has not stopped some Singaporeans from being JWs).

Even after the 2 years, Singaporean men have to go through military refresher courses until they are 40 or 50 years old. This annual training can be 7 days or longer. This is called "Reservist" training.

By 2015, Taiwanese men will no longer be drafted into the military for compulsory military service. They only have to go for four months of training and stand by as reservists for eventual recalls. "By the end of 2014, we will reach 100 percent voluntary military service," Defense Minister Chen Chao-min said. This information can be found on ns-singapore.blogspot a blog by an ex-National Service man "who thinks NS is a waste of time".

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Smile Police

This is such a funny story. The Telegraph reports:

More than 500 staff at [Japan's] Keihin Electric Express Railway are expected to be subjected to daily face scans by "smile police" bosses. The "smile scan" software, developed by the Japanese company Omron, produces a sweeping analysis of a smile based on facial characteristics, from lip curves and eye movements to wrinkles....

"Workers at Keihin Electric Express Railway will receive a print out of their daily smile which they will be expected to keep with then throughout the day to inspire them to smile at all times, the report added.
You got to love Japanese technology. I once bought an Omron device in Singapore, a pedometer, or step counter, which was to help me ensure I got enough exercise - you're supposed to walk 10,000 steps to stay fit and healthy. I think I was quite fit back then. (Not anymore! I have become Cambodian that way - allergic to walking!)

Maybe they'll import the smile scanner to Singapore soon. I remember the "National Courtesy Campaign" launched in 1979 by Singapore's Ministry of Culture to get Singaporeans to be more polite. (The picture is of Singa, the courtesy lion, the campaign's mascot).

In secondary school, our choir participated in a nation-wide school contest on "courtesy songs". Actually maybe it was just the one song, and the contest was for which school could sing it best. The song we sang went like this: "Courtesy is for free, courtesy is for you and me..." And I've forgotten the rest. Hilarious. I am aware writing this makes Singapore sound communist. It reminds people of those slogans you see in Beijing and other parts of China exhorting people to love their country and be nice to each other etc etc.

For this, we have the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) to thank for:
"Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s had followed the courtesy campaigns by the STPB with ‘interest and amusement: interest because most people were responsive to the campaign; amusement because no one protested that it was absurd to teach Singaporeans to be polite to tourists’."

Lee Kuan Yew's comments led to the birth of the National Courtesy Campaign, an annual campaign that hoped to make Singaporeans courteous in 10 years. Ten years seems to be the magic number to turn people into good, moral beings--anyone reminded of Prime Minister Hun Sen's edict of a 10 year ban on 3G in 2006? "Maybe we can wait for another 10 years or so until we have done enough to strengthen the morality of our society," he said then (the edict has been overturned, thank goodness).

You may laugh but you've got to hand it to the Singapore government to think of such things. It seems they had realised that as Singapore became more densely populated, its people had to somehow learn to live together. The government even had a cyberspace courtesy campaign in 1998 as more Singaporeans went online, which Hong Kong's South China Morning Post gleefully reported.

To be honest, despite growing up with the courtesy campaign, I believe it had little effect on me and my friends. In 2001, the Singapore government subsumed the courtesy campaign under the "Singapore Kindness Movement" (they tried making us courteous and now they're trying to make us kind).

Still, I think it won't do any harm to have the same campaign in Cambodia. Maybe then service staff will smile more. Or maybe Cambodian companies should just buy the smile scanner. :)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Cambodian elephants and other great elephants

Photo from wikipedia. This was depressing: the hanging of Mary the elephant in the US state of Tennessee on September 13, 1916.

This was what happened:
"Mary was a five ton Asian elephant who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows. On September 11, 1916 a hotel worker named Red Eldridge was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the circus. There are several accounts of his death but the most widely accepted version is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and deliberately stepped on his head, crushing it.

"The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks."
She was hanged in front of 2500 people, including many children.

Many people in Cambodia, including me, love elephants. One of the ironies of war in Cambodia is that bomb craters became important sources of water for Cambodia's elephants, according to Sun Hean (1995). Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) wrote: “The elephant might also have benefited from the [war’s] almost total halt in development projects.” This information and this question: “Which has brought more destruction to elephants, both wild and domesticated: twenty years of war in Cambodia or twenty years of peaceful development in Thailand?" can be found here onthe UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation's website or It is a comprehensive, if now outdated, account of Cambodian elephants.

The FAO report quotes Santiapillai (Pers. comm., 1996) that there were between 500 and 1,000 wild elephants in Cambodia but there was considerable poaching for ivory. As for domesticated elephants, there were probably 300-600. That was 13 years ago.

Fast forward to today, 2009. This March 13 report by the Phnom Penh Post notes there are only 17 elephants in Siem Reap. The first nationwide elephant census by Fauna and Flora International found there are 102 domestic elephants left in the Kingdom, down from 160 five years ago. "Following current trends and an aging domestic population, there are likely to be none remaining in 10 or 15 years," the project advisor Matt Malby told the Post.

While a healthy elephant can live to around 70, in Cambodia the average age is 46 to 48. [I thought this was comparable to the life expectancy of Cambodian people, and was surprised to learn Khmers have a life expectancy of 61.69 years (2008 est.). See demographics of Cambodia. That is pretty good, much better than the 50-something I was told when I first arrived in this country.]

"I've had phone calls," Gavin Bourchier, elephant manager at elephant conservation organisation, Compagnie des Elephants d'Angkor, told the Post. "‘Can we borrow a baby elephant and put a comical hat on it and make it do tricks?' I have a low opinion of the human race anyway, but I think people who like harmonica playing, hula hoop-spinning elephants ... well, it says a lot about the person."

Seeing what happened to Mary, I completely agree. Not just about the person who makes the animal do tricks, but also his hateful audience. They are just like tabloid readers who I despise. People who feed the demand for harmful, hurtful crap.

If you are interested, Thomas Edison released a film "Electrocuting an Elephant". He had suggested electrocution with alternating current, which had been used for the execution of humans since 1890. To reinforce the execution, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before the deadly current from a 6,600-volt AC source was sent coursing through her body. She was dead in seconds.

Again, she was killed because she killed people, including a severely abusive trainer who attempted to feed her a lit cigarette.

The people of Coney Island felt bad 100 years later and erected a memorial for Topsy at the Coney Island Museum. Too little, too late if you ask me.

Click here to find out more about famous elephants.

Vote of the the Future of Pirate Bay

Someone just left a comment on my post pirate bay sold to software company . Now, you can tell the founders what you think. One of the founders, I have learnt, is indeed in Cambodia. I can't give details but I am excited to have an accomplished pirate in our midst, kekekekeke.

The argument against the sale seems to be this:
[M]illions of users see this takeover as a death of the Pirate Bay they loved and adored. In blogs and websites all over the world they are crying that this is a clear sellout and the future of TPB is the commercialized site nobody will like. Capitalism won over ideals, they claim. They are sad, frustrated and disappointed. Users fought so much for the TPB - both directly and indirectly. This website was a symbol of freedom. They uploaded files, helped the site to become what it is today and now are dumped for cash. Finally, they will have to witness the deterioration of The Pirate Bay with their own eyes.
Personally, I think TPB had no choice. Either it goes legit or gets shut down. GGF, the software company that acquired TPB obviously thought it would be a shame to shut it down since there is a potential money in TPB. As for the users who are now crying foul, well, you're not the ones facing jail time and fines, are you?

But don't let me influence your decision. Cast your vote here.

Tonle Sap boats and lives

The boat with the red curtain is the kind you will be taking as an independent tourist. And the little boat beside it, where the little boy is, is the kind the villagers who live on the riverboats use to travel up and down the river.
More pictures of tourist boats--these we passed on the way.
The next photo shows the boats the villagers live on. They are tiny. There are no rooms; it is just one small space. I know of a family of 7 that used to live on one of these boats. Parents and their 5 children. There is no bathroom so everything is done in the river or riverbanks. Cooking by charcoal is done on the boat so the families have to be careful not to burn their wooden boat-home. You can see plastic sheets, which is how the families protect themselves from the rain. The boat men are almost always fishermen. Because it seems like such a hard life, I asked why people do this. It is because they cannot afford to rent a house on land. They also like living on the water because of the cool, fresh air. Besides, for many of them, this is the only life they know, inheriting skills and the boats from their parents. [They don't go to a boat-shop to buy the boats, in case the modern consumer is wondering. The people build the boats themselves.]
Some do live on the riverbank, in tiny huts like this one pictured.
The next three photos show the villagers travel up and down the river in the course of the day. They may go to the floating village to buy or sell things.

The women in the motorised boat (sampan) for instance, are bringing clothes to sell at the floating village. I took some photos which I will upload later to show the village. There are mechanic shops on boats, even little vegetable plots and pig pens, all on floating beds. Very interesting, although the poor pigs could not go anywhere or even move, in their tiny bamboo cages. No doubt they are reared for food. The last photo is of a family taking their mother to a doctor as she is sick (our boatman, who also lives on the river, told me). Everyone seems to know everyone in this little river village.

We Rent Movies, So Why Not Textbooks?

I love this New York Times story about

Osman Rashid and Aayush Phumbhra are the co-founders of, a company that in 2007 started renting textbooks to college students. Students [or their parents] would pay a lot of money for college textbooks only to offload the used books at college stores at heavily discounted prices. “The textbook business was wildly inefficient,” said Mike Maples Jr., managing partner at Maples Investments, a fund that invests in young start-ups; it was one of Chegg’s first outside investors. The two entrepreneurs addressed this market inefficiency with their book rental website.

There is a ticker that shows how much money the website has helped people save. As of now: "SAVED SO FAR: US$40,271,719.29". Chegg also plants a tree for every book you rent, buy or sell and claims that to date, it has planted over 500 football fields worth of trees.

This to me is the best bit:
Chegg began renting books before it owned any, so when an order came in, its employees would surf the Web to find a cheap copy. They would buy the book using Mr. Rashid’s American Express card and have it shipped to the student. Eventually, Chegg automated the system.

But as the orders multiplied, Mr. Rashid said, so did the traffic on his credit card, leading American Express to suspect fraud and threaten to suspend the account. He said he persuaded American Express not only to keep the card active, but also to issue a couple of dozen more so Chegg could spread out the orders.

There is plenty of secret sauce to Chegg’s business, including logistics and software to determine the pricing and sourcing of books, as well as how many times a given book can be rented.
Fantastic. I love how the entrepreneurs came up with creative yet simple solutions to get their business off the ground. Lessons in there for Bloom!


Blog Widget by LinkWithin