Sunday, 31 October 2010

When sleep won’t come


Sleep problems are not to be taken lightly as they affect more than our physical and mental health.

IT is way past your bedtime. Your body is exhausted but your mind is still ticking away. You’re tossing and turning but you can’t seem to sleep. Or you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or waking up too early, though you’re still tired.

If this happens for a few days or up to a few weeks, you’ve got short-term or transient insomnia. If it goes on for most nights for more than a month, it’s considered chronic insomnia.

I remember what my lecturer said about those suffering from chronic insomnia when I was studying psychology: “Whatever deep-seated fears you have or issues you are not dealing with in your waking hours can affect you in your sleep. Sometimes, they’re so deeply rooted, we are unaware of them but not being able to sleep night after night, gives us a clear sign that we are not at peace with ourselves.”

Years ago, I met a girl through work who was really attractive but she was teased about the fact she never dated anyone. No one knew her tragic story but when we all found out what happened to her with her first boyfriend, it was the last time anyone ever teased her again.

One night, she had a heated argument with him. He drove off in a temper and was killed in a car accident that night. To make matters worse, she later received a small parcel from one of his family members. As it turned out, he had purchased an engagement ring for her just days before his death.

She started having sleepless nights, imagining the life they could have had together and the “what-ifs” had they not argued that fateful night.

Six years later, she was still having sleepless nights and was diagnosed with chronic insomnia.

When she was in a counselling session, it hit home when she was told: “I’m sure you’ve tried everything possible to sleep at night and it hasn’t worked. All you have to do is something no one can give you medicine for. Just forgive yourself.”

Slowly but surely, she started letting go of the guilt of her boyfriend’s death and coming to terms with it. Peaceful sleep eventually found its way back into her life.

Lack of sleep is not characterised just by major events or traumas. Things like work stress, financial worries and anxious thoughts can trigger off short-term insomnia and affect our ability to focus at work.

According to the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, a study on Malaysians between the ages of 30 and 70 showed that a staggering 33% of them had symptoms of insomnia, similar to global statistics.

In the United States, at least 70 million people are suffering from sleeping problems.

On the home front, it is important for us to bear in mind that a tired workforce is a less productive one. If bosses are increasing everyone’s workload, and everyone is putting in longer hours, it does not necessarily mean better work is produced. People are not machines and we cannot expect them to produce work, especially creative work, like a factory without rest.

When you’re stressed and overworked and surviving on lack of sleep, your creative juices might dry up and you’re actually better off stopping for a while just to recharge your batteries before resuming your work. It doesn’t need to be for a whole day. Think along the lines of quality rather than quantity.

Even five minutes of deep breathing at your work desk can clear the mind and calm your thoughts down. In fact, in an insomnia programme conducted at Northwestern Me­­morial Hospital in Illinois, those practising a form of meditation called Kriya yoga in the daytime, had actually increased their sleep time at night in just two months.

For all of us living in Asia, we have no excuses if we want to take up the ancient breathing and relaxation techniques found in tai chi, qi gong or yoga. Take your pick! So many of our public parks conduct group sessions together and it’s free of charge.

The health benefits of meditation are too long to list but it slows down our breathing and heart rates, so it’s incredibly therapeutic. Not to mention, it energises the body because it improves our blood circulation.

Sleep problems are not something to be taken lightly. Not only do they affect our physical and mental health, they even affect road safety.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, one in every five serious motor vehicle injuries is related to driver fatigue, with 80,000 drivers falling asleep behind the wheel every day and 250,000 accidents every year related to sleep.

Prof Jim Horne, one of the foremost sleep researchers in the world, said: “The test of insufficient sleep is whether you are sleepy in the day or if you remain alert through most of the day.”

For those of you who have trouble sleeping at night, here’s what may be of help. Your bedroom should be a place to unwind after a long day, so activities like reading a book or listening to relaxing music create the right atmosphere for bedtime.

Do not use your bedroom like an office. Ideally, you should be associating your bed only with sleep rather than stressful triggers. Avoid using your phone, taking calls, doing work in bed or even watching television because like cigarettes, these are stimulants. If you feel you must watch some television, do it in another room.

Avoid caffeine at night because it can stay in your system for several hours from the point of your last coffee cup. Don’t have a nap in the daytime or consume a heavy meal with alcohol before bedtime because it will only make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Last but not least, remember the same mind that keeps you awake at night is the same mind that can put you to sleep. Keep your thoughts peaceful at bedtime.

If you know what’s really bothering you, don’t obsess about it just before you sleep. It’s important to deal with your issues but find the right time in the day, away from your bedroom to really address them.
> Jojo Struys is a TV host, producer of content at and an avid health enthusiast based in KL. Catch up with more of Jojo’s thoughts on her blog at or twitter @jojo_struys.

Good movie generates economic spin-offs

Monday Starters - By Soo Ewe Jin

THE Lord of The Rings trilogy was one of the first books I bought when I started earning a salary. It is a classic that any father would want to introduce to his sons the moment they could read.

Although my two boys were voracious readers from young, they were not the least interested in the book initially. My version was very thick and the print was very small.

Things changed when the first movie from the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released in 2001.

The marketing strategy included the books being repackaged into interesting versions and Tolkien soon became one of their favourite authors.

Now they not only know the Tolkien tale by heart, they can even remember the lines in certain scenes in the three movies. And I am the one struggling to remember who is Aragon and who is Boromir.

File pic shows Actor Elijah Wood is shown in a scene from New Line Cinema's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," in this undated photo. (AP Photo/New Line Cinema) 
The reason I bring this up in the business pages is that a movie is not just about box-offfice sales but also the economic spin-offs that it can generate.

And the LOTR trilogy is an example of how New Zealand reaped the windfall because Peter Jackson decided to shoot the movies there.

Jackson and his team scoured New Zealand for the most beautiful and diverse areas. The rolling hills of Matamata became Hobbiton, while the volcanic region of Mt Ruapehu transformed into the fiery Mt Doom where Sauron forged The Ring.

The tourism figures after the first movie came out went up by more than 10%. Overnight, New Zealand became Middle Earth.

And that is not to mention the 2,000 people employed during production which included artisans including prop builders, set creators, make-up artists and costume designers.

The filming was done in over 274 days in more than 150 locations all over the country; so you can imagine the supporting industries that benefitted from LOTR.

So, it is no wonder that when Warner Brothers threatened to take the long-awaited prequel, The Hobbit, elsewhere after some union dispute, the government was quick to react.

It not only agreed to make changes to its employment laws but also offered additional tax incentives to convince the Hollywood moguls to film in the country.

Prime Minister John Key was quoted in The Financial Times: “Making the two Hobbit movies here will not only safeguard work for thousands of New Zealanders but it will also follow the success of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy in once again promoting New Zealand on the world stage.”

An economist estimated that the US$500mil to be spent on the production of The Hobbit could be worth an additional US$1bil to the economy, which could certainly do with a boost after the recent earthquake.

The Kiwis certainly understand the power of a good brand. They now have Middle Earth and the All Blacks.

Malaysia, likewise, is blessed with breathtaking natural scenes with quaint towns and kampungs scattered throughout the country, as well as a very developed Klang Valley.

We were the setting for movies like Anna and the King and Entrapment. But we could certainly reap more benefits if we are prepared to see movie-making for what it is – fiction rather than fact.

We cannot be overly sensitive if the script takes certain liberties; one needs to give some latitude for artistic licence. This applies whether a movie is local or foreign.

A good local movie, after all, can make waves internationally and bring in the economic spin-offs as well.

Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin, who has been told that the two countries closest to Heaven on earth are New Zealand and South Africa, still dreams of visiting Middle Earth.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Sister slaps Rempit girl


GEORGE TOWN: A 16-year-old schoolgirl was slapped several times by her elder sister at the state police contingent headquarters here for being involved in illegal motorcycle racing.

The girl was among 112 Mat Rempit and pillion riders aged between 13 and 26 who were detained in an operation at Jalan Bukit Gambier in Gelugor from midnight till 3am.

Policemen and reporters were stunned when the elder sister, in her 20s, slapped her younger sister in front of onlookers at about 10.30am.

“You janji you akan bertukar! (you promised you’ll turn over a new leaf),” the sister was heard rebuking the girl.

The angry older sister slapping her sibling at the police headquarters in Penang Saturday.
Later, when the girl tried to salam (greet) her sister, the latter was heard shouting “jangan sentuh aku!” (don’t touch me!).

Earlier, the sister and her mother had pleaded with state public order and traffic chief Supt Wan Aziz Wan Husin to release the younger girl, who was a pillion rider.

She was also heard telling police that the younger girl had played truant from school.

The police also made the group push their machines for about 15km from Jalan Bukit Gambier to the headquarters at Jalan Penang.

The journey started at 4.30am and they took about three and a half hours to reach their destination.

The bikers being escorted by policemen on their 15km walk.
The motorcyclists were allowed to rest briefly after every 2km. Many were seen huffing and puffing and were also drenched in sweat.

Supt Wan Aziz said 74 summonses were issued to the 73 Mat Rempit for various offences.

“We carried out urine tests but none of them tested positive. We will issue letters to their parents informing them of their children’s racing activities,” he said.

Advance Could Change Modern Electronics

Science News

This image of an asymmetric MIM diode reflects a major advance in materials science that could lead to less costly and higher speed electronic products. (Credit: Image courtesy of Oregon State University)
ScienceDaily (Oct. 31, 2010) — Researchers at Oregon State University have solved a quest in fundamental material science that has eluded scientists since the 1960s, and could form the basis of a new approach to electronics.

The discovery, just reported online in the professional journal Advanced Materials, outlines the creation for the first time of a high-performance "metal-insulator-metal" diode.

"Researchers have been trying to do this for decades, until now without success," said Douglas Keszler, a distinguished professor of chemistry at OSU. "Diodes made previously with other approaches always had poor yield and performance.

"This is a fundamental change in the way you could produce electronic products, at high speed on a huge scale at very low cost, even less than with conventional methods," Keszler said. "It's a basic way to eliminate the current speed limitations of electrons that have to move through materials."

A patent has been applied for on the new technology, university officials say. New companies, industries and high-tech jobs may ultimately emerge from this advance, they say.

The research was done in the Center for Green Materials Chemistry, and has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Laboratory and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute.

Conventional electronics made with silicon-based materials work with transistors that help control the flow of electrons. Although fast and comparatively inexpensive, this approach is still limited by the speed with which electrons can move through these materials. And with the advent of ever-faster computers and more sophisticated products such as liquid crystal displays, current technologies are nearing the limit of what they can do, experts say.

By contrast, a metal-insulator-metal, or MIM diode can be used to perform some of the same functions, but in a fundamentally different way. In this system, the device is like a sandwich, with the insulator in the middle and two layers of metal above and below it. In order to function, the electron doesn't so much move through the materials as it "tunnels" through the insulator -- almost instantaneously appearing on the other side.

"When they first started to develop more sophisticated materials for the display industry, they knew this type of MIM diode was what they needed, but they couldn't make it work," Keszler said. "Now we can, and it could probably be used with a range of metals that are inexpensive and easily available, like copper, nickel or aluminum. It's also much simpler, less costly and easier to fabricate."

The findings were made by researchers in the OSU Department of Chemistry; School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering.
In the new study, the OSU scientists and engineers describe use of an "amorphous metal contact" as a technology that solves problems that previously plagued MIM diodes. The OSU diodes were made at relatively low temperatures with techniques that would lend themselves to manufacture of devices on a variety of substrates over large areas.

OSU researchers have been leaders in a number of important material science advances in recent years, including the field of transparent electronics. University scientists will do some initial work with the new technology in electronic displays, but many applications are possible, they say.

High speed computers and electronics that don't depend on transistors are possibilities. Also on the horizon are "energy harvesting" technologies such as the nighttime capture of re-radiated solar energy, a way to produce energy from the Earth as it cools during the night.

"For a long time, everyone has wanted something that takes us beyond silicon," Keszler said. "This could be a way to simply print electronics on a huge size scale even less expensively than we can now. And when the products begin to emerge the increase in speed of operation could be enormous."

Story Source: Newscribe : get free news in real time
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Oregon State University.

 Journal Reference:

  1. E. William Cowell, Nasir Alimardani, Christopher C. Knutson, John F. Conley, Douglas A. Keszler, Brady J. Gibbons, John F. Wager. Advancing MIM Electronics: Amorphous Metal Electrodes. Advanced Materials, 2010; DOI: 10.1002/adma.201002678 
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How to make CCTV hear as well as see?

New CCTV technology senses aggression from sound

CCTV cameras near the O2 Arena, London  
Special software knows if certain loud noises pose a threat to security
On CCTV, no-one can hear you scream.

But technology from a UK company now means cameras can tell if you're being aggressive or calling for help - and will alert security guards straight away.

Cambridge firm Audio Analytic has produced software which it said can analyse the pitch, tone and intonation of noises and work out if they pose a threat.

"A lot of incidents just can't be picked up by video only systems," said Chris Mitchell, Audio Analytic's boss, on BBC World Service's Digital Planet.

Listen to the full story on Digital Planet

"For example in a hospital where somebody, or a nurse, is being threatened early hours in the morning - that's a very difficult thing for CCTV guards who monitor hundreds of channels worth of video signals on 20 screens or so to pick up."

The software goes beyond simply placing microphones onto cameras and listening in. By feeding hundreds of sample sounds into the system, the software can distinguish different threats from various sounds - and not just based on volume.

"We don't work with volume at all in the system because it's so related to how far somebody is from the microphone that it's not a useful metric.

"Our system picks out the most salient characteristics. These are things related to pitch, tone, intonation."

Coffee fury
Essentially, Mr Mitchell explained, the software contains hundreds of audio fingerprints, and as soon as a sound resembles a stored sample, the alarm is raised.

However, like any software early in its development, it does not always get it exactly right.
"At a test site we did, someone got annoyed at the coffee cup machine because it swallowed their coffee cup money. 

"From our point of view that's a true positive - we really detected them getting genuinely aggressive at a coffee cup machine - but from the security point of view, it's not a genuine detection."

These mishaps aside, the Mr Mitchell's team is confident the technology is ready to get out into the market.
"The false positive rates you get out of a system like ours are very low.

"Now, in security systems like a smoke detector we might have in our house, we know it has false positives - it goes off when you burn the toast.

"A certain number of false positives are beneficial so long as you have the security bandwidth to cope with them because you'd rather know about things that you think were an incident than just miss things you failed to be alerted to."

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LCD TV companies see falling prices as demand down

By JESSICA MINTZ , AP Technology Writer
Companies that make huge flat-screen televisions and their LCD panel components are alerting investors that demand is dropping in the U.S. and other developed markets.
The forecasts trickled out as Asian reported earnings for the most recent fiscal quarter.

On Thursday, . of Japan slashed its earnings forecast for the fiscal year, which ends in March, saying it had to adjust its production of LCD panels in the most recent quarter to respond to a sharp decline in demand for the large-size panels.

Also Thursday, South Korea's LG Electronics Inc. said strong sales of , particularly in emerging markets, helped push its home entertainment segment revenue up 9 percent - but its operating income sank by about 52 percent. The company said it expects price erosion in its TV business will eat into earnings in the fourth quarter.

Corp. of Japan reported Friday that LCD TV prices fell in the quarter that ended in September. The company cut its operating income forecast for the segment that sells the flat-screen televisions, citing deterioration in the North American market.

South Korea-based Co. said Friday it also expects prices for LCD panels to decline.

That meshes with a recent report from iSuppli Corp., which tracks shipments of LCD panels and flat-screen televisions. The research group reported that the number of LCD panels for TVs shipped in the April-June quarter outstripped the number of TVs that were shipped; LCD panel buyers cut orders in July, iSuppli said, making the glut even worse and pushing prices for LCD TVs down in the early fall.

©2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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LCD/Plasma Display Mounts - Ergonomic Mounting Systems for LCD/ Plsama Displays!-Singapore Supplier

Friday, 29 October 2010

Space Tourism’s Rubbery Rockets May Spur Climate Change

Suborbital spaceflights that rely on rubber-based rocket fuel could shrink icecaps, alter the ozone layer and affect global temperatures, according to a new study.

Yet the study authors’ assumptions about the number of rocket launches per year and the chemistry of rocket exhaust have raised questions about their conclusions among space-tourism companies and climatologists not involved in the study.

Atmospheric scientists who performed the research probed the effects of belching ultrafine soot high into the stratosphere, where — unlike the troposphere below it — there isn’t rain and wind to quickly filter soot out of the air. Rubber-based rocket fuel burned with nitrous oxide is the preferred propellant of the burgeoning space-tourism industry, and chemists suspect such hybrid engines emit sooty black carbon. Closer to Earth, the stuff has been shown to soak up extra radiation from the sun and contribute to climate change.

“This study was a natural extension of the climate-research community gaining a greater and greater appreciation of black carbon in terms of global radiative forcing,” said Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California, and leader of the research funded in part by his employer. “Soot is a very large issue in the troposphere,” Ross said, but its behavior isn’t well-understood at higher altitudes.

To model the effects of space tourist launches on the Earth’s atmosphere, Ross and his colleagues used the open-source Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model Version 3, or WACCM3, one of the most-advanced computer models available to study impacts to global climate.

They ran two supercomputer-powered simulations for two weeks, one as a control and another modeling the impact of 1,000 suborbital flights per year for the next four decades. That many flights, according to the study, would annually deposit more than 1.3 million pounds of soot into the stratosphere.

“We looked at the stated business plans from corporations that are planning to build vehicles for space tourism,” Ross said. “If you go to their websites, they’ll say things like, ‘we plan to launch once per day.’ We found 1,000 per year is well within stated objectives of the industry.”

On average, according to the simulation, the soot pushed polar ocean temperatures up by 1.8 Fahrenheit degrees, melted 5 to 15 percent of sea ice and depleted 1 percent of tropical ozone (while boosting polar ozone by 6 percent).

“We’re not making any particular prediction about any system, just taking reasonable guesses at what soot from a hybrid rocket engine looks like and what the launch industry will do in the future,” Ross said. “When we put that into a gold-standard model, the effect on the Earth is surprisingly large. In short, we think black-particle carbon from rockets is something that deserves attention.”

Their assumptions may not be perfect, said Gerald North, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University who was not involved in the study, but the measured effect is significant enough to warrant further investigation.

While they make assumptions about some unknowns, such as the behavior of soot at high altitudes, North said, “they’re careful in expressing this is not the last word” and are “inviting others to take a look.”

Ross and Michael Mills, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado and a co-author of the study, said that’s precisely what the research team sees as the next step. In particular, getting a handle on what’s in the emissions of different types of rocket plumes.

“There are few direct high-altitude measurements of rocket plumes. We really need to get aircraft in those and get measurements of soot and other particles,” Mills said. “Until then, the sophistication of our models is limited.”

To do just that, Ross said The Aerospace Corporation is planning a workshop to bring together under one tent all the stakeholders in science, rocket engineering, space-tourism companies and the government agencies.

“We need to get these players together and exchanging ideas, then ask the policy people to figure out what to do, if anything, with the information,” Ross said.

“I think we and others in the industry welcome the opportunity to talk about all of these issues,” said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, a space-tourism company that’s planning to use hybrid rocket engines. Whitesides wasn’t without reservations about the study and its conclusions, however.

“Frankly, I have to admit I wished they talked to us before putting out a paper, but that’s OK. Climate issues are deeply important to Virgin, and we take them very seriously,” Whitesides said.

Part of the reason the company chose the hybrid rocket design for its SpaceShipTwo was “because of its significantly lower environmental impact than other designs.” Whitesides also said 1,000 space tourist launches per year is “guesswork,” because the industry is privatized and young.

“I think as we look at this more, we’ll find the impact will be far smaller than that set out in the paper,” he said. “In any case, I welcome the conversation.”

Whether or not peaceable collaborations ensue, both Ross and Mills expressed that carbon soot is something the nascent space tourism industry can’t ignore.

“This shows that a new kind and level of emission being deposited directly into the stratosphere could have a significant effect,” Mills said. “Companies need to proceed with developing their systems with full knowledge of consequences on the planet.”

Images: 1) Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (center) attached to WhiteKnightTwo. Flickr/Jeff Foust. 2) The average predicted changes after one decade in the ozone layer (top) and regional temperatures (bottom) caused by 1,000 hybrid rocket launches per year for 40 years. Ross et al. 3) Average seasonal soot deposition, in grams per square meter, in the stratosphere predicted by Ross et al.’s simulation. Ross et al. 

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A campaign to educate credit card issuers & users

Users are not the only ones who should be responsible about credit cards - issuers must be too


  IT is interesting to note that the National Cards Group – a grouping of Malaysian credit card issuers, mainly banks – has launched a campaign to inculcate responsible credit card usage among consumers.

They have called the campaign Swipe Smart with 6E, 6E being the so-called six enablers – educate yourself, exercise caution, enhance your lifestyle, enjoy the benefits, eliminate debt and engage with your card issuer.

Well and good. One should not pour cold water on such a noble deed by the card issuers to ensure that their customers are educated and know how to use the card responsibly without getting themselves – and in the longer run the issuers – into trouble.

It was good to see too that there were representatives from Bank Negara, the Federation of Malaysian Consumer Associations (Fomca), the Association of Banks and others there.

The only thing that was lacking was a similar campaign for card issuers, yes, you read right, the card issuers. You see, the credit card problem is a double-edged sword – both the behaviour of issuers and users contributes to delinquency. Eventually, if things really get bad, both sides will suffer – the users may become bankrupt and the banks may be saddled by high bad debts.

Both parties have to be responsible and there has to be a balance of profit with responsibility. There is a need to educate the card issuers too to, using the words of the National Cards Group but applied to itself this time, to inculcate responsible credit card issuance among card issuers.

We will even call the campaign by the same name – Swipe Smart with 6E – with its own six enablers. We hope, Fomca, who was present there, will take the cudgels up on behalf of the consumers, call the issuers and launch this campaign.

Here is our proposed 6E campaign directed at card issuers:

1. Eliminate profiteering such as late payment charges. We have written about this before. The effective interest rates on this are extortionate and exorbitant. If you are late by one day on an outstanding balance of RM100 (even if your credit limit is RM100,000!) the charge is RM50. That’s 50% a day or 18,250% a year! Now what entitles the bank or issuer to charge you such an interest rate when your credit limit is RM100,000 and you have an unutilised portion of this of RM99,900? If that is not profiteering, what is?

2. Ease up on your interest rates. Most of us pay 18% a year on balances outstanding when the fixed deposit rate is not even nudging 3%. They take your money at 3% or less, then lend it back to you for 18%! Housing loans are at 6%, why is the credit card interest rate three times that at 18%, a rate that only licensed money lenders charge?

3. Exercise restraint in your marketing. These days, have one credit card and other issuers deluge you with cards and offers. Sometimes they send a card to you that you don’t want and then three months later bill you for service charges! Then I have to call them – it takes ages to get through with a robot asking you whether you want to do this or that before you finally get through – and demand they withdraw their statement. And then they offer credit cards to all manner of people who don’t know how to use them or abuse the credit lines, so long as they have a regular salary – civil servants are great targets. And because they have a salary, the banks can get their money back – with huge penalties to boot.

4. Engage with your customer. Before they send us all that unwanted promotional material, the issuers should ask us if we want them. They should remind us – constantly – that outstanding balances cost us 18% a year, the highest rate of any bank facility, and if I am not mistaken, the highest possible legal lending rate.

5. Educate yourself on social and ethical responsibilities. Yes, we know profits are all important and yes we know there are a lot of ignorant people out there from whom money can be made. But don’t financial institutions have a social and financial responsibility to their customers, especially people, and to inform them fully of how they make money from them? If issuers want to educate the public on the dangers of credit cards, they should educate themselves on immoral behaviour and how the drive to profit stops them from truly educating the general public.

6. Explain all your charges and actions fully. I have not yet found an issuer who advertises that the penalty charge for late payment is as high as nearly 20,000% a year. Perhaps they should print this on the envelopes they mail to customers. And how many people know that many credit cards issuers impose a service charge on overseas spending, have unfavourable exchange rates for transactions, and have service fees for interest-free instalment payments? Can they tell us why they are not pushing debit cards (no interest here, the funds are transferred directly from your bank account) equally hard? The list goes on. It is time, if the issuers wanted to educate the public, for them to take huge full-page advertisements to fully disclose all their charges in the simplest possible language. If they can’t find anybody to write the copy for them in simple language, I volunteer to do it for free.

Well, that’s our 6E Campaign aimed at educating our banks and other card issuers in brief. We hope somewhere out there some consumer organisation will take up this case and that the authorities will sit up and take notice and realise that issuers too contribute to the credit card problem.

Managing editor P Gunasegaram notes with some trepidation the following figures for credit card usage in Malaysia: there are 9 million cards and the average transaction through cards is RM211mil a day or RM77bil a year. That’s a lot of potential for some to make a lot of money and a lot of others to lose some.

Other related stories:
Importance of keeping a good credit record
Having a reasonable amount of debt is generally okay

Saturday November 6, 2010

Comments by A wary reader

Of educating credit card issuers and users

P. Gunasegaram’s article entitled “A campaign to educate credit card issuers” is interesting.

But another important interest charge also needs to be highlighted. Do you know that if you do not make full payment on or before the due date, you lose the 20 days credit free period for both the current and new transactions posted on the statement?

In addition to the RM50 late payment charge, the finance charge is even higher.

For example: You receive the September statement on Oct 5 and the outstanding charge is RM1,200 and you need to settle it by Oct 20.

Say for some reason or the other, you overlook the matter and do not settle the outstanding in full by Oct 20. How much is your finance charge?

Let’s assume you settle the full outstanding of RM1,200 on Nov 5. You’d expect the bank to charge a finance charge of 17.5% pa based on daily calculation from Oct 20 to Nov 5, right?

Wrong. The bank will compute the interest outstanding from the transactions posted date till Nov 5.

In addition, all the new transactions will also attract interest charge. In short, the bank is penalising you twice on the old and new transactions.

If you do not settle the outstanding in full before due date, you lose the 20 days interest free period.

As such, the campaign should also educate the public to settle the full outstanding amount by due date. Banks, of course, will not highlight this point to the public. It’s one of their main revenue streams.

Rejuvenating George Town, Penang

Three sound recommendations for Penang to break out of the middle income trap


EVERY time I open my window, I see paradise – not heaven, but a neon sign for Paradise hotel in Penang island or more precisely, George Town, Pulau Pinang.

Situated at the entrance to the Malacca Straits, directly opposite Kedah Peak, the city was founded by Sir Francis Light in 1786 as the first English bridgehead to East Asia.

Since then, George Town has been a melting pot for Armenians, Arabs, Malays, Indians, Chinese and European travellers passing through the Far East.

At its height at the end of the 19th century, the city boasted the earliest bank branches in the country with key trading ties to Sumatra, Burma, Southern Thailand and Northern Malaya.

Like people and countries, cities have their ups and downs. When I first set eyes on Penang, my first impression was green rice-fields from the airport to a tree-lined city with a lovely, relaxed colonial feel.

George Town boasted the oldest and arguably best schools in the Far East. After duty-free status was removed and Sumatra and Southern Thailand went through a period of relative decline, the Penang economy had to reinvent itself, initially with the electronics industry.

But by the turn of the 21st century, even the electronics industry felt under threat as Penang talent left for richer shores.

What should Penang do?

A recent joint study by the World Bank and Khazanah Nasional Bhd brings forth a timely and well-researched book, “Cities, People and the Economy – a study on Positioning Penang” to discuss how Penang can escape the middle income trap.

Drawing on empirical studies by a team of internationally-renowned researchers, the book examines how the State of Penang needs to re-invent itself.

Having been successful in becoming industrialised through cheap labour, subsidised infrastructure and available land for low-tech manufacturing, Penang must now focus on developing industries which bring new competitiveness against the growing giants of India and China and other middle-income countries that are eating into Penang’s traditional strengths.

The editors of the book comprise three eminent economists who are clearly concerned about the need for Penang to reinvent itself.

Homi Kharas was formerly the chief economist for East Asia for the World Bank and currently at the Brookings Institution and a member of the National Economic Advisory Council.

Dr Albert Zeufack is a Cameroon national, formerly with the World Bank and currently working for Khazanah. Hamdan Majeed is the energetic head of the Penang office of Khazanah and deeply committed to Penang’s revival.

The central thesis of the book is that the three elements of Penang’s growth – its cities, people and economy – are not developing in tandem and that their cycles of development must be synchronised to turn Penang around.

Fortunately, following George Town’s world heritage designation, the urban cycle is starting to enter a recovery phase. But the challenge is that the people cycle is still in a deficit phase, with new graduates choosing to leave the area, while the economy is caught in a slump.

The authors carefully argue that a new development strategy must be articulated that can guide Penang to better wages, jobs and prospects for the next generation.

Penang must move from the old “sweatshop” assembly model to become a “smartshop” for sustainable products. Restoring lustre to the “Pearl of the Orient” does not have a simple engineering fix.

Instead, Penang must do different things and do them differently. Given its strong track record of economic success, Penang must set a new multidimensional agenda to become the most vibrant economic hub for its economic geographic advantages – the northern Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Southern Thailand and through good air and telecommunications, South, North and Southeast Asia.

Given its strong base of human talent, with affinity for community harmony and creativity, particularly in the culinary and service area, Penang offers the best opportunity to break out through innovation and change.

The book offers three sound recommendations to break out of the middle income trap. The first is to exploit economies of scale through specialisation, focusing on a few products where it is possible to achieve global excellence.

The six focus areas identified are technology-based manufacturing, biotechnology/life sciences, business process outsourcing (BPO), logistics, tourism and agribusiness.

Secondly, Penang must build density on the basis of an integrated land use plan while also ensuring efficient connectivity with the capital city.

Thirdly, Penang needs to increase its “liveability” factor, which is the key factor determining competition for top global talent.

Underlying the strategic concept is the premise on what the Government can do to facilitate sustained development in a middle income region.

Penang’s experience will provide valuable lessons for other states in Malaysia. What makes this book valuable is that it offers a development strategy that can be applied not just for Penang but also Malaysia as a whole.

It recognises that a city (and a nation) has to understand its place in the global economy and in regional supply chains.

Penang, and by extension Malaysia, can become an advanced economy by 2020 if it becomes globally connected, regionally oriented and locally centred.

But it can only do so if all parts of the nation, city and rural areas work together through efficient connectivity. What comes through the book is that Penang’s development is not a stand-alone objective.

Put simply, Malaysia’s targets of the New Economic Model cannot be achieved without successful development in Penang. Greater density of economic activity in the Northern Corridor will benefit all states and accelerate the reduction of poverty in Malaysia.

Thus, if the Northern Corridor can escape the middle income trap, then, so can Malaysia. This is a timely and relevant book as it comes out at the same time as the 10th Malaysia Plan.

The book will be useful for policy makers and those interested in the rejuvenation of cities as engines of economic development. It will also help interested citizens to understand how cities can change. George Town has always been a jewel in the Orient, which is why I live here.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng is adjunct professor at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, and Tsinghua University, Beijing. He has served in key positions at Bank Negara, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and is currently a member of Malaysia’s National Economic Advisory Council. He is the author of the bookFrom Asian to Global Financial Crisis”.

Rare earths

China vows not to use rare earths as leverage

A stalk of wild grass grows off soil from an old site of a rare earth metals mine on the outskirts of Longnan county, in Jiangxi Province October 27, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Thursday it will not use its dominance of supplies of rare earths as a bargaining tool with foreign economies, and the United States said it hoped trade in the high-tech ores would continue as normal.

China has slashed export quotas and reduced shipments to Japan, igniting international concern that it could use rare earth exports as an economic or political lever. Prices have spiked and mining firms are rushing to develop sources of the minerals outside China.

The U.S. and European Union this week said they were pressing for solutions to fears that China was choking supply of the substances used in lasers, computers and superconductors, among other applications, and the issue is expected to figure at next month's G-20 summit.

Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology spokesman Zhu Hongren said Beijing sought international cooperation.

"China will not use rare earths as an instrument for bargaining," he told a news conference on Thursday. "Instead, we hope to cooperate with other countries in the use of rare earths on the basis of win-win outcomes and jointly protecting this unrenewable resource."

The ministry is one of several in China that oversee rare earths.

Zhu was speaking on the same day a newspaper published by China's Ministry of Commerce urged China to resist pressure to allow foreign firms more access to its rare earths.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was unaware of China's vow not to use them as a bargaining chip, and, speaking in Hawaii, said she would welcome any clarification of China's stance on the minerals.

"I ... hope that it means trade and commerce around these important materials will continue unabated and without any interference," Clinton told a news conference with Japan's foreign minister.

"At the same time, because of the importance of these rare earth minerals, I think both the minister and I are aware that our countries and others will have to look for additional sources of supply," she said.

One engineering firm, Japan's Nidec, has already said it will start making motors that do not use rare earths to lessen reliance on the minerals.

China supplies about 97 percent of the world's demand for rare earth metals, which possess magnetic, luminescent and other properties used in emerging clean energy technologies, computers and electronics.
Prices of some rare earths on world markets have increased tenfold this year, reversing a long-trend toward lower prices caused largely by greater Chinese production over the past two decades.

In response to higher prices and worries among major consumers such as Japanese hi-tech industries that they will be unable to rely on large scale deliveries from China, mining firms are scrambling to speed up mine development timetables.

Shares in potential producers of the minerals outside China, such as Molycorp and Lynas Corp have rocketed since July, when China said it was reducing exports by 72 percent in the second half of the year.

Australian firm Arafura Resources on Thursday raised A$90 million ($87.5 million) to develop a rare earths project, but some analysts have said the long-term investment case for the minerals may be weak, and the market has the makings of a bubble.

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Can the U.S. Rare-Earth Industry Rebound?

  • Friday, October 29, 2010
  • By Katherine Bourzac
The U.S. has plenty of the metals that are critical to many green-energy technologies, but engineering and R&D expertise have moved overseas.

Rare-earth elements were obscure until the past year, when China, their primary producer, tightened export quotas on the materials. Rare-earth elements are used in a multitude of technologies, including magnets for wind turbines, hybrid-car batteries, fluorescent lightbulbs, and hard drives.

China is not the only country with significant reserves of these valuable materials; in fact, the U.S. was their primary producer until the 1990s, when the Chinese began undercutting the Americans on cost. Now companies in the U.S. and Australia are ramping up production at two rich sites for rare earths, but the process will take years. Getting from rocks to the pure metals and alloys required for manufacturing requires several steps that U.S. companies no longer have the infrastructure or the intellectual property to perform.

Contrary to their name, rare-earth metals are abundant in the Earth's crust, and significant reserves are concentrated in the United States, Australia, Brazil, and other countries. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 13 million tons of extractable rare earths in the United States, 5.4 million in Australia, and 19 million in Russia and neighboring countries. In 2009, China had 36 million.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Mountain Pass mine in California produced over 70 percent of the world's supply. Yet in 2009, none were produced in the United States, and it will be difficult, costly, and time-consuming to ramp up again. "When you stop mining in this country, as investment goes down, expertise on cutting-edge technologies is exported as well," says Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. Rare-earth researcher Karl Geschneidner of the Ames National Laboratory in Iowa also sees a lack of what he calls "intellectual infrastructure" for rare-earth technology development in the United States.

The two mines that will be stepping up production soonest are Mountain Pass, being developed by Molycorp, and the Mount Weld mine, which is being developed by Lynas, outside Perth, Australia. Mountain Pass has the edge of already having been established. But the company cannot use the processes used in the mine's heyday: they're both economically and environmentally unsustainable.

Several factors make purification of rare earths complicated. First, the 17 elements all tend to occur together in the same mineral deposits, and because they have similar properties, it's difficult to separate them from one another. They also tend to occur in deposits with radioactive elements, particularly thorium and uranium. Those elements can become a threat if the "tailings," the slushy waste product of the first step in separating rare earths from the rocks they're found in, are not dealt with properly.

Mountain Pass went into decline in the 1990s when Chinese producers began to undercut the mine on price at the same time as it had safety issues with tailings. When the Mountain Pass mine was operating at full capacity, it produced 850 gallons of waste saltwater containing these radioactive elements every hour, every day of the year. The tailings were trucked to evaporation ponds. In 1998, Mountain Pass, which was then owned by a subsidiary of oil company Unocal, had a problem with tailing leaks; four years later, the company's permit for storing the tailings ran out and Unocal did not pursue its renewal.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, Chinese mines exploited their foothold in the rare-earth market. The Chinese began unearthing the elements as a byproduct of an iron-ore mine called Bayan Obo in the northern part of the country; getting both products from the same site helped keep prices low initially. And the country invested in R&D around rare-earth element processing, eventually opening several smaller mines, and then encouraging manufacturers that use these metals to set up facilities in the country.

Meanwhile, worldwide demand for rare-earth elements has been growing. This year demand was 125,000 tons; by 2015, it is expected to grow to 225,000 tons, and Molycorp spokesman Jim Sims notes that this projection does not include the wind-turbine industry, which is expected to be a major market. State-of-the-art wind turbines like those that will be installed at the world's largest wind farm, an 845-megawatt facility in Oregon, use high-efficiency rare-earth magnets. They can be 10 times lighter and smaller than comparable magnets but equally strong. Each of these magnets requires a ton of rare earths, Sims says.

Molycorp renewed the Mountain Pass mining permit and began R&D of its own in 2004. This year, using rock that was mined before a previous permit expired and new separation technologies it has developed, the company will sell 3,000 tons of rare earths. By 2012, Molycorp expects to produce 20,000 tons a year, and under its current mining permits could double capacity to 40,000 tons. Sims also says the company will sell rare-earth products at half the cost of the Chinese in 2012. According to the company, these savings will be made possible by several changes, such as eliminating the production of waste saltwater. Molycorp will use a closed-loop system, converting the waste back into the acids and bases required for separation and eliminating the need to buy such chemicals. The company will also install a natural-gas power cogeneration facility onsite to cut energy costs.

But Ames Lab's Geschneidner notes that one major source of cost in the separation process can't be eliminated--the fact that it simply takes a long time. Milled rock is shaken again and again in a mixture of solvents to separate the elements by weight; depending on the ultimate purity that's required, this must be done 10,000 to 100,000 times. The result is then sold as a concentrate or treated to produce rare-earth metal oxides.

Even if Molycorp does succeed in reducing the costs of separation by half, the next step in production may cause a hiccup. Rare-earth oxides and concentrates do have a market, for example as catalysts for the petroleum industry, but they can't be made into magnets. To make magnets, rare-earth oxides must first be converted into pure metals, a process that produces caustic byproducts, and is done solely in China today. Sims says that Molycorp is investigating pathways that are environmentally friendly and aren't covered under intellectual property owned by foreign companies. These metals must next be made into alloys suitable for the magnets, another capability that's concentrated overseas, mostly in Japan and Germany.

The company's goal is to control every step along the supply chain, through production of alloys and eventually the magnets, too. Here, too, the U.S. lacks infrastructure and intellectual property, so Molycorp hopes to license or buy patents on making alloys, and will make magnets through a joint venture with another company.

By going public in July, Molycorp raised $379 million of the $511 million the company believes is required to put in place its projects by 2012. A bill pending in the House and the Senate would offer loan guarantees for Molycorp and other investors in rare-earth mines. And the company has applied for loan guarantees through the U.S. Department of Energy, which will give a final decision next summer.