Ray - SFO and SIN - October 2016

We just got back from a week in San Francisco (where Angie attended the Salesforce/Dreamforce Conference) and two weeks in Singapore. As usual, I found the scale of what happens outside of Waterloo to be incredibly impressive.

San Francisco (Tourist photos at http://rbutterworth.nfshost.com/Photos/2016-SF)

Since all the downtown hotels had filled up months ago, Angie and I stayed at an Airbnb house a couple of miles from the conference. Each morning we'd walk to the conference site and I'd spend the rest of the day wandering around the city.

Dreamforce

I'd barely heard of Salesforce or Dreamforce before this, but it's huge. Any software conference I've ever been to looks like a Cub Scout camp in comparison.

There were over 17,000 attendees in San Francisco, and 125 remote viewing locations around the world. The local newspaper estimated that in San Francisco alone there were about 200,000 people diectly involved (security, hotels, catering, setup-teardown, transport, etc.) with this week long event. That's like four thousand man-years. Imagine what could have been accomplished if that had been used for something productive.

The keynote speakers included Melinda Gates, Robin Roberts, Tony Robbins, Marc Cuban, Chris Sacca, will.i.am, Shahrzad Rafati, Billie Jean King, Rep. John Lewis, Lilly Ledbetter, and the Kelly Brothers. One evening's entertainment was a private U2 concert, with extra seats being sold for between a thousand and a million dollars (all for charity).

An entire block of a major downtown street was blocked off, covered with artificial grass, and turned into a park, with stages at each end and free food stations and presentation sites between. Many restaurants and bars in the neighbourhood had signs indicating that they were closed for the week, being used as hospitality suits by various other companies.

Needless to say, I myself wasn't allowed anywhere near it, with hundreds (maybe thousands) of police and security people checking badges everywhere.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an amazing place, divided into dozens of small districts, each with its own character. Many seem to be named after movies etc., such as The Presidio, Chinatown, Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, South Park, Treasure Island, and Twin Peaks.

The downtown area is relatively flat, and full of tall towers, new construction, and poverty. Like most inner cities, there were homeless people, but San Francisco's were different. There were far more than I'd ever seen elsewhere, and they weren't only the usual addicts and mentally ill. Many looked like normal respectable people, but living in tents, and I encountered very little pan handling. One morning as we walked to the conference, I saw one man, reasonably well dressed, come out of his tent and use a broom to sweep up any leaves and garbage that had accumulated around his area during the night. Very unusual.

The rest of the city is all hills. And by hills I mean mountains. If I wasn't walking up a very steep street, I was walking down a very steep street. The ankles get the worst of it, being bent to one extreme or the other nearly all the time. Many streets bear simple warnings like trucks not advised, but that is an understatement; they are so steep and/or twisty that I'd hesitate to drive a car on them. In some places, the transition between steep up and steep down was so abrupt that at the crest the roadway had gouges in it from where vehicles had bottomed out (any trucks would have been stuck like a turtle).

One day I did the touristy thing and walked along the waterfront, starting at the main ferry terminal and heading north and then west, seeing old factories that had been turned into museums, Fisherman's Wharf with its Pier 39 and its unexplainable sea lions, and a large number of seafood restaurants and tourist traps. After that were more park-like areas with waterfront boardwalks and beaches. One very long section of beautiful beach was used as a leash-free area for dogs, of which there were many. Quite a few people had several dogs with them.

I was getting pretty tired by then, but from there, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance and decide to get a little closer. And then it was close enough that I decided to walk to the base of it. And then I thought I might as well climb up a path in the park to get to the start of the bridge itself. And then of course I decided to cross the bridge to the other side of the bay (it's only about 2.5km each way, and there are suicide help-line phones all along the bridge).

The good news is that there was a public washroom at the far end, and that I finally had enough sense to turn around and cross the bridge back to San Francisco. The tourist map I was carrying showed a large park area and military base known as The Presidio, which had two roads going through it, one of which exited the park at Lombard St., which looked like an interesting way to return. Unfortunately there were far more than two paths in reality, dozens of small roads winding around the hills and through military graveyards and military family housing. I don't know how long it took me to walk what should have been only two kilometers, but eventually I found my way out and on a street with many hotels and restaurants, so I stopped for a beer and Buffalo wings (they were better and less than half the price of food in the downtown area). By then it was 3pm, and that was the first time I'd stopped walking since we went out at 7:30 that morning. Another 2 hour walk got me back to the conference center to meet Angie.

You might find this strange, but somehow the next day my legs didn't work as well as usual. I did the trip with Angie, but otherwise spent the rest of the day reading a book with my feet in the air. Except it wasn't that simple. After leaving Angie at the conference I decided it might be the smart thing to do if I took a bus back to our room. A transit map showed one bus passing only a couple of blocks from where we were staying, so I took it (fares are much cheaper there than here, and if it were a year later, I'd be old enough that it would have cost only $1).

I tend to be oblivious to such things, but I eventually noticed that there were many Chinese people on the bus; otherwise there was one black guy, two white women, and me. At a stop a few blocks from where I had planned to get off, a few more Chinese boarded, the aforementioned three people got off, and I could almost hear Rod Serling in the background. As I had originally expected, the bus passed only a couple of blocks from where we were staying, but what I hadn't expected was that just before then it would turn onto an expressway ramp and take off at high speed. Fifteen minutes later it exited the highway and most people got off at the first stop (as did I). I was now in San Bruno, a city south of San Francisco near the airport and far more Chinese looking than the official Chinatown section. I crossed the street, caught the bus going the other way, and got off at the first stop. In not much more than an hour I had used public transit to get several blocks closer to my destination, so I decided to do the sure thing and walked the rest of the way back.

Friday evening we went to the airport (not surprisingly, there was an amazing number of people carrying Salesforce swag backpacks) where we were met by Callum and Tara, who had just flown in from Toronto.

Singapore

Government

This was my 6th visit to Singapore, and once again I was amazed by how much it had changed since the previous time. It's incredible what can be accomplished when politics and bureaucracy aren't involved. In theory I hate their government system, but in practice it's worked wonderfully for over 50 years. (The state isn't Big Brother, it's Big Mother.)

The country is small enough that there is only one level of government (unlike the four levels we have in Waterloo), so there is no squabbling between provinces, or arguing over whose responsibility something is, or anything like that. And even though the government is a British parliamentary democracy (just like ours), the people have always elected the same party to a majority government. (Actually it's a lot more than majority; it's 100% one party, with a few seats given to some losing candidates so there can be a token opposition.) There is always the potential for a disastrous evil dictatorship, but so far the government has always worked in the best interests of the country. And in a small country with absolutely no natural resources (only a harbour and skilled labour), the government knows that the best way to do that is to have a happy, educated, and employed population.

Without so much bureaucracy, and having few political considerations, the government can actually make sane and rational decisions. And rather than planning for the next election. it can make long-term plans for the betterment of the country. Most problems have simple and effective solutions, so that's what they do.

Political corruption: simply pay each MP a million a year salary. No one wants to risk getting caught taking a bribe and losing what is effectively a life-long job.

Welfare: support only those that can't work, not those that won't.

Income Taxes: very low (e.g. $44,000 on the first $320,000, and 22% on excess, versus $133,000 and 53% in Ontario). With low tax rates, people have incentive to earn more, and that means that more tax eventually gets collected. For those that can't earn much, the tax rates are sometimes negative, so low wage earners end up earning more than they are paid, which means that people have a real incentive to work even low paying jobs (unlike Canada's welfare state which penalizes social assistance recipients by clawing back benefits from those that dare to work and earn money).

Property Taxes: very low and much simpler. Owners pay a progressive percentage of what the property does (or would) rent for, up to a maximum of 16%. E.g. a house that rents for $2,400 per month would cost $880 per year (we have a similar rental house in Waterloo that has more than 5 times that in property taxes).

GST: 7% versus Ontario's 13%.

Crime

What's that?

Actually crime does exist, but it's nothing like anywhere else. One day we passed a large sandwichboard sign on the street saying something like Crime Investigation: several people were recently arrested for theft at [name of local supermarket] - witnesses are requested to phone police at ... .. Can you imagine supermarket shoplifting being treated so seriously in any other big city?

Transportation

When I first went to Singapore, all they had was a not very well integrated system of several privately owned bus companies. Singapore now has 5 subway lines (plus 1 under construction and 2 more planned), 154 stations, and 170km of track. By comparison, Toronto has had their subway system for nearly twice as long, yet still has only 2 lines, 69 stations, and 68km of track. The only difference I can see is the politics, funding source squabbles, and neighbourhood complaints that prevent Toronto from doing the same thing.

There are 5,000 licensed taxis in Toronto, 25,000 in Singapore. The ride from the airport to where we were staying in Singapore, for 4 adults and our luggage, cost $12 (and no tipping required). I hate to imagine what a similar ride would have cost in Toronto.

Automobiles are a different story though. There are no low-budget cars in Singapore; most are BMW, Mercedes, or high-end Japanese. That's because there is a huge ($75,000) registration fee. The difference between a $25,000 car and a $50,000 car is actually the difference between $100,000 and $125,000; it's the same, but as a percentage difference it's relatively small, so why not spend a little more and get a lot more?

Considering how good the MRT and taxis are, there are surprisingly many cars on the road though. And the roadways and highways are excellent (even if people don't drive on the right side of the road). For instance, one expressway that wasn't there the previous time I visited now runs for 10km completely underground (and we've been arguing about improving the Gardner Expressway in Toronto for decades). Interestingly, FM radio works just fine in the tunnels (in fact a sign at the entrance tells people to turn on their radios (no frequency specified), presumably for emergency announcements).

Tourism, Culture, etc.

Nothing is done in a small way. Imagine what it would take to get a new museum or botanical gardens or whatever built in Toronto. It would take years of squabbling, and even if it actually got built it would be at best adequate. In Singapore it just happens (who's going to object?), and is immense and spectacular.

Since we visited last time, the Gardens by the Bay was created. It's 250 acres of reclaimed land adjacent to downtown (Ontario Place is 50 acres), covered with beautifully tended gardens and walkways, all free to the public. There are also some pay-entry buildings, such as the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest.

The Cloud Forest is a glass and steel dome containing cloud mountain, a huge structure completely covered in tropical plants that are found in high-altitude tropical forests, with a 115 foot high waterfall on one side. After walking around it at ground level, we took an elevator to the top and returned to the bottom by following a walkway that weaves in and out of the mountain allowing one to see the plantings on its outside and see museum style presentations on the inside.

The Flower Dome is a similar enclosure, and is the world's largest columnless glasshouse. One walks through it visiting different sections each featuring plants native to various countries of the world.

Near the domes is a grove of supertrees, artificial structures (100 to 150 feet high) that look like palm trees, covered with many kinds of tropical plants. At night, everyone gathers there and as the music begins they all lie on the ground on their backs to watch a spectacular sound and light show, with speakers and an incredible number of lights embedded in the tree structures. It's impressive and not as tacky as it might sound.

In fact the trees are actually functional, not simply decorative. The tops act like funnels to collect rain water for the plants and fountains, they contain solar cells to provide electricity for the facilities, and the trees themselves are actually cooling towers for the domes.

Overall, it's like someone asked you to design something spectacular, with no limit to the budget, and then when you showed them your wildest dream they said That's okay, but what can you really do?. The construction cost was over a billion dollars, with ongoing operating costs of over a million per week.

Shopping

Singapore used to be the shopping capital of the world, with cheap prices on everything. That's no longer so true, but they now specialize in very high-end shopping for rich foreigners.

Shopping malls are huge and plentiful. Many are so spacious and beautifully decorated it's like walking through a combined art gallery and botanical gardens. Something like Toronto's Eaton Center would be middle of the road and not worth mentioning.

In one mall we were cutting through we passed a shop window displaying watches with prices between $75.00 and $150.00. Except on closer examination the .00 turned out to actually be ,000.

Clothing, luggage, and everything else in that mall had similarly ridiculous prices.

Weather

Weather forecasts are almost useless. Except for slight seasonal variations, it's always the same. Days are sunny with occasional clouds and a slight chance of scattered thunderstorms, while nights are dark with more likelihood of scattered thunderstorms.

Days are always hot and humid, while nights are very warm and humid. Singaporeans grow up knowing that sweating is useless, so they don't. Visitors like me end up drenched with sweat from the effort of getting dressed after a shower.

Food

Anyone I've met that's spent time in Singapore says that food is the one thing they miss about it. Food is everywhere; it's the national pastime.

Prices are very inconsistent, but predictable. If you're in a tourist spot, you can spend $15 or more for a glass of beer or $20 for a Singapore sling, and the food prices aren't even worth asking about.

If you're in a normal place, prices are very similar to what they are here (with obvious exceptions such as apples and potatoes being much more expensive and mangos and coconuts being much cheaper).

But if you go to a working-class neighbourhood, prices are much less. For instance I had roti pratah (like a pancake) with egg and curried chicken for $2.50 for one lunch. Satay sticks are $.60 to $.70 each, and come with free dishes of peanut sauce and cucumbers.

Interestingly, I found that the less expensive the food is, the better it tastes. I suspect this is because the fancy places alter the recipes to fit foreign tastes, not to mention that they prepare the food in advance while the hawker center people cook things fresh when you order them. And if you want fruit juice, they don't just pour it from a can or bottle, they take real fruit and run it through a blender or extractor while you watch.

Hawker centers are where most people go to eat. They are like food courts in a shopping mall, but are outdoors, are much larger, and have much smaller food stalls. You order what you want from several different stalls and eat at tables shared by all vendors. It's becoming less prevalent now, but often you order the food, tell them your table number, and they bring it to you when it's ready.

Angie's parent's kitchen doesn't even have a stove. They might sometimes have toast for breakfast, but that's all the home cooking they ever do.

Nature

Singapore has many nature reserves with jungles, rivers, zoos, and reservoirs (once again doing the practical required thing and making it much much more).

One day we went on a long hike and climbed to the top of Bukit Timah, Singapore's highest natural point. I say natural because currently 42 downtown buildings are higher than this mountain. Along the way there were many things to see, including monkeys, monitor lizards, and snakes.

Another time we went to an island intended to be preserved as an original Malay fishing village. Very few people live there now, but it hosts many scientific research projects and is popular for its mountain bike trails. We rented some ancient bicycles and rode around the non-mountain trails, seeing various jungle wildlife and tidal marine life, at one point passing a wild boar. Apparently the boar population is kept under control by the pythons, so we didn't need to be too concerned about them.

What's truly amazing is that all of this was in a country that's only 10% larger than Toronto.

Jet Lag

For the first time, the flight from San Francisco didn't have any stopovers, but it still took 16 hours of flying. What was strange was that we took off after it got dark on Friday, flew all night, and landed while it was still dark on Sunday morning; one very long night and Saturday didn't happen. Singapore is 12 time zones away from Toronto, so adjusting one's watch is trivial (switch AM and PM) but adjusting one's inner clock isn't so easy. Returning home was worse though.

The last night there, Angie's parents took us out to a farewell dinner (for 13), and after that, since apparently it's compulsory for tourists, her cousin took us for a Singapore sling at the famous Raffle's Hotel (where the drink was invented). We'd been up since 8am, and by the time we got back, cleaned up, and packed, it was nearly 2am, and our alarm was set for 5am.

The plane took off at around 8:30 Saturday morning and even though it was 15 hours later when we landed in San Francisco, the local clocks said the time was actually several minutes before we had taken off. We then spent several hours waiting at the SFO airport (which is okay, but nowhere near as nice as SIN) before returning to Toronto. By the time we finally got home it was nearly midnight.

I can't sleep on planes, so I had 3 hours sleep in 52 hours. Several days later, my brain still hasn't recovered. It's hard to imagine that we did this trip years ago with more stopovers and two small children.