SPH retrenchment, media stagnancy

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) recently had a retrenchment exercise. The initial plan was to reduce about 230 jobs (130 being retrenchments) by end 2018, but the management had a change of mind and decided to bring it forward to October this year.

This unfortunate event precipitated some critiques on local Singapore media: SPH mass retrenchment to save costs is like “applying a plaster to a gaping wound”, and also gave way to a schadenfreude of people gloating at local forum EDMW, talking about how the reporters deserved it for being mouthpieces of the government all these years. ( Ironically, the popular EDMW forum belongs to SPH.) Part of me thinks that this is an inevitable situation, considering the economic/political realities, but part of me also feels for the people who got their jobs axed. Hopefully, this event gives rise to new opportunities and a more robust media landscape.

This sounds like captain obvious: the overall local media landscape is suffering now because we can’t compete with YouTube, Facebook and Google. These platforms are chewing up all our ad revenue and audiences.

Our own platforms like Toggle and digital news sites have been trying to play catch up for some time. There have been initiatives like producing more online news and exclusive content, but it seems to be trapped in infancy, maybe because of insufficient resources and a lack of impactful content.

Just my two cents: I think we’ll probably need to make our local Toggle and news sites more appealing to users in terms of user experience, and include unique features (tech or content-wise) that YouTube, Facebook or Instagram doesn’t have.

I think Toggle has exclusive content, but the overall site is not user friendly enough, and features-wise, it’s not giving anything new above YouTube or other video sites. Consider video streaming sites from China which allow live-comments, I think that’s an interesting feature as it allows users to interact with each other as they watch the show. This makes the experience more fun. Just like how, before the internet, we used to watch TV together as a family and make jibes/comments about the plot and characters.

Content-wise, maybe if we can invest in and utilise newer tech like VR or 3D and produce 3D immersive video content – this would attract newer segments of the market (which currently is dependent on retirees and the under-16 children segment), and also inject a breath of fresh air to the content.

I think it’s hard to fight with Facebook and YouTube because of the sheer quantity of content, which is user generated and extremely current. Maybe Mediacorp or SPH can try opening up their sites to allow user generated content. Like allow users to upload photos, videos, make comments, etc. Which, currently they do have to some extent, but I think they need to put more resources into encouraging the wider public to produce content. Like holding regular contests and workshops to share knowledge and also drive interest towards fresh, new content. Because right now, we are facing an image-crisis and a deficiency in talent – a lack of people coming forward to be content-creators or writers. Overall, there’s a sense that everything is same-old, same-old, the public thinks that the media companies are not innovating and just reproducing the same old content every month.

I do believe that we have talent in Singapore. We just need to give them a space and encourage them to grow.

We can take a leaf from China or Korea, see how they have established their own platforms. I admit they have the advantage of their own language as leverage, but perhaps we can leverage on our own strengths: our diversity, our language (Singlish), our unique perspective of Asia as we straddle both Asian/Western attitudes.

If the government allows Singlish, that is. Or keep portraying a reality that our society is only made up of the middle class. Which goes back to the point of releasing some control on the media and giving it room to grow.

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Thoughts about coding/programming

Hi there, lately some thoughts about various subjects have been percolating in my mind, and I think I should just write them out, to solidify what I’m thinking about and keep as a note to remember in future.

So this post contains some thoughts about programming or writing code. I think one of the important things I’ve learned during my bootcamp was code quality. I wrote very briefly about it some time back over here, but I should elaborate more this time.

Quality code is understandable, readable, tested, discoverable, changeable, documented.

The thing about programming or building software is you’re essentially writing text or words (code). Lines and lines of them. So these lines of code are the building blocks, imagine Lego blocks, that join together and are processed by the computer to perform functions.

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In programming languages, there’s a distinction between higher level languages and lower level ones. Lower level languages are assembly language or machine code, they are not easily readable by humans because they are like 1s or 0s. Imagine seeing 1100011111100001010001010. It’s almost impossible to decipher and takes hours even if you try. Thus, higher level languages like C was invented, building on alphabets and mathematical symbols, things we can more easily read and understand. Then over the years, higher degrees of languages were invented, for example Ruby, which reads almost like normal English. This increases the speed in which humans can write, read and understand code, while making fewer errors.

Sorry for digressing, anyway, when programmers write code, they’re writing it for two audiences: (1) the computer to run the code, and (2) other programmers.

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To dispel a myth that’s perpetuated by the media, of the lone wolf programmer who works in isolation, the reality is much programming work in the real world is done collaboratively. Each person builds a certain module or part of the software, and different parts are built at the same time by different people. It’s almost like construction workers building a HDB flat. So there has to be communication and cooperation between the programmers – they should at least have a general understanding of what the other person is writing, and thus, their code has to be standardised/formatted, and should be written in a way that’s understandable by others.

Just as in English, where you can express the same meaning using different phrases, it’s similar in code. You can get the same function or result using different paths, some of which can be complex or indirect. Usually, programmers will opt for a direct and understandable path, balancing computing speed and efficiency.

True, that are cases where one person builds the software, writing all the lines by himself or herself, so on the surface, if the computer understands the code, it doesn’t matter if other people don’t. But we are forgetting that software is meant to outlast the people who wrote it. Programmers will leave or pass on, and the new person who comes in will have a tough time trying to understand what the previous guy wrote. They’ll be facing a bomb, wondering which parts of the code you can change or remove without crashing the whole system.

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In addition, software systems are not foolproof. They are designed by humans to manipulate data and information. Certain scenarios or edge cases might not have been considered when the original programmers wrote the code, like what if the user fills a form by spelling out his age as ‘Twenty’, instead of using the numbers ’20’. If the programmers had not considered how to deal with this anomaly, the software system might not be able to handle it, will throw up errors, and the user gets stuck.

Besides human errors, there are also computing errors. It’s rare but possible because computers are physical objects that experience wear and tear, and there’s limitations on the calculations they perform. I was surprised to learn of the floating point error when I started learning. Floats are numbers with decimal places. Take 0.1 + 0.2, the answer is simple, 0.3. However, you’ll be surprised because the answer in some situations if you’re not careful, is 0.3000000000001.  Once you perform a series of calculations, the magnitude of errors become more significant, and if your software programme is handling salary payrolls for employees, they may find themselves receiving a few hundred or thousand dollars more than they should get.

To learn why this happens to computers, you can check out the link I provided. The short answer is computers perform calculations in binary : 1 or 0, while we use the decimal system – calculations in 10s. So our numbers need to be translated into binary form first, and in cases where numbers have decimal points, rounding errors are introduced into the process. So usually, to overcome this, the computer needs to be specified that arithmetic functions are performed on floating numbers.

What it all means, software systems are not perfect. They need to be maintained and monitored for errors, and this task takes time and eventually more than 1 person on it. So whatever code in it has to be readable and understandable by others. Thus, writing code is not just writing code, it’s also a form of communication.

You have to consider the point of view of the person who’s going to read your code, will they be able to understand the terms you’ve used? Is what you’ve written clear and yet concise?

Speaking of concise, sorry for the lengthy post. I’ll talk about other stuff next time. Like similarities between writing code and writing tv scripts. There’s parallels between the two processes, especially as it involves working in collaboration with others. Until then, have a good day ahead.

Noose Season 3 received an international Emmy… nomination!

Today is Tuesday, October 4th 2011, and it’s a great day.

Just saw on Alaric Tay’s Facebook post that The Noose Season 3 has received an international Emmy award nomination. Hmm, could this be a joke?

Here’s a pic for posterity:

How do i feel right now?

I feel lucky. I feel like I’ve won a prize somehow. The luck of the draw. Like they say, just being nominated is enough. You already feel closer. You feel humble too, because it’s an honour, and somehow, it wouldn’t be possible if Prem, the producer of The Noose, and the people at MediaCorp, if they hadn’t given me the opportunity to write for The Noose.

Have to thank the Onion for their inspiring work too.

Lesson to self:  Have to, must, I want to continue writing, creating and learning, even when there’s no audience. Because you never know when it will help you.

Can You Stomach This? (boardgame)

Not from the boardgame. But this is a fun image!

Somewhere in 2007, I was freelancing as a copywriter and Wordsworth Media hired me to create an educational boardgame for school kids about the human digestive system. Here are the hilarious results:

Can You Stomach This?

See if you have the guts to explore Hungry Joe!

Hungry Joe is very hungry and he needs to eat a proper meal so that he has energy to play. The aim of the game is to feed Hungry Joe, explore his digestive system and reach the finishing mark, which is the toilet!

Here’s the

Can You Stomach This? boardgame map

and cards to play in the game:

Quiz Cards
Special Cards

all the food goes into my belly.

In Search of a Pontianak Tree with SPI (2002)

In 2002, I followed the Singapore Paranormal Investigators on an excursion for a news-feature writing assignment for school. Here’s what came out of that project:

It was a Friday evening when I arranged to meet a group of Singaporeans who call themselves Singapore Paranormal Investigators (SPI). We were having a dinner cum interview session at a Thai restaurant when one of them, Kenny, suggested that I tag along with them on an investigation of a pontianak (Malay vampire) sighting at the Changi Village area. Excited by the prospect of experiencing a ghost hunt, I eagerly agreed. Little did I know what I was entering myself into.

The SPI group was founded in June 2001 by Dr. Kenny, an assistant professor who used to teach computer engineering at NTU and is now a visiting professor in an overseas university, and Abductboy (Only his Internet alias is given as he refuses to disclose his real name.), a safety officer in a construction company. They have a website at http://www.spi.com.sg where they present their findings of paranormal activity and they have a club society to let members meet.

When asked how the two of them met, Dr. Kenny (who insisted that I call him Kenny), gave a cryptic reply: “By fate,” and smiled. Abductboy nodded at the driver’s seat as he drove us to Changi.

It was about 8p.m. then. We cruised on a long stretch of road, flanked on both sides by looming trees. The airport runway was some distance away and the long lines of orange runway lights glinted at us like UFOs beckoning.

“We do not conduct exorcisms or do any form of occult magic,” Dr. Kenny said, “Our goal is to collect data about paranormal activity in a scientific manner, as far as possible. We use equipment such as high-resolution digital cameras, thermal sensors, electromagnetic field detectors… and we analyse our findings and then present them on the website. This way, the public can judge for themselves whether a particular encounter is valid.”

The car screeched to a stop, crunching gravel at the side of a small road near the Changi Sailing Club.

“We have to park here. The car can’t go in. We got to walk some distance in ourselves.” Abductboy said as he switched off the engine.

The air was warm and humid, with a faint smell of the sea lingering. Dr. Kenny and Abductboy picked up their equipment and the three of us started on the hunt. The orange streetlamps shone some light along our walk to the beach but otherwise patches of darkness gathered around us.

Kenny explained that they were investigating an incident reported by Abductboy’s colleague, K.

K’s brother was fishing at the old commando jetty at Changi Beach with a friend one night. That night, while their fishing rods had been set and they were sitting quietly waiting, they felt some stones being thrown at them. The two of them turned around and seeing no one else around, they asked each other: “Was it you?” No, they were not playing jokes on each other. Then K’s brother walked near a tree to investigate. He thought he saw a figure sitting on a branch. His friend sat where he was. Suddenly he heard a scream, possibly from K’s brother’s direction. He turned around. It was not known exactly what he saw but he fainted nonetheless.

The two avid anglers fainted that night. They were warded into hospital the next morning when a passer-by saw them lying unconscious on the ground.

“And so we’re now going to look for this pontianak tree because we’re not very sure where is it, and we’re going to take some pictures of it and see if anything comes up”, Abductboy said.

Will anything come up?

According to the SPI website, they have taken several photos of “ghosts” before. These “ghosts” do not look like our conventional ghosts, like figures with long hair and white sheets. Instead, they look like small, coloured, round patches which paranormal scientists call “orbs”. These orbs are usually dismissed by people as dust on camera lens or reflections of light, but the interesting thing is that when the orbs are magnified using computer technology, they sometimes reveal features of a human face.

Dr. Kenny explains that in order not to introduce any human errors in their photos, the SPI team takes several precautions: cleaning of lens before shooting, not shooting in rainy or dusty conditions, taking note of objects in the frame that might reflect light, etc.

When asked how they managed to take so many photos of orbs, Dr. Kenny said, “Its actually a matter of probability. For every hundred or so photos we take, only three or four turn up with orbs or other anomalies. Besides, who would go to all these dark and eerie places and take hundreds of photos?”

The three of us walked by the beachfront restaurant where a wedding dinner was going on, towards a sandy patch near the dark and deserted end of the beach. I stared at Dr. Kenny walking in front of me, his black t-shirt with the words “Singapore Paranormal Investigators” printed in bold white.

I worried whether the revelers will be alarmed but they hardly took any notice about us, tucking into their chilli crabs and toasting their champagnes happily.

We walked on. Along the way, the SPI team shot some pictures occasionally.

Out in the calm sea, several yachts bobbed gently. The sea licked the sandy shore like a wet dog. The sounds from the wedding revelers hardly reached us as we trudged past three anglers fishing at a dark and quiet spot.

I asked Dr. Kenny whether he believed in life after death.

“Before I believe in something, there must be some evidence or proof. Since I have not gathered enough information about this, my mind is still open to all possibilities”, he said as we reached a secluded area far away from the anglers.

In the area where the forest ended and the sea began, a lone tree stood on the sloping ground, some metres away from the forest. We walked forward and examined it. There was no particular strangeness about the tree. It was just a tree.

The SPI team then proceeded to shoot pictures of the tree and its surroundings.

After about fifteen minutes, with no ghost in sight, we left the place and trudged back, tired and sweaty in the humid air.

Dr. Kenny said almost apologetically, “That’s just the way it is… for most of the times SPI work is not very exciting. They are just plain investigations.”

The car started and drove us back to civilization.

As we reached the MRT station where I was dropping off, I asked them a final question, “Why are you guys interested in paranormal research?”

“Why?” Abductboy replied.

“Because it’s interesting that we all know that we are going to die but we do not commit much research to what happens after that.”

Online video thoughts – you are what you watch

A viral video sometimes gets passed on not because it is funny. But because of what it says to others about you.

The internet-savvy generation prefers to control what they see, when they see it, and if they share a link with their friends, they’re thinking what this link says about them.

So perhaps if you want to create a popular show, you might want to consider the status-flaunting factor of it.

What does this show tell you about its viewers?

And is this show what the viewers want to be associated with?