Go with a smile!

Sunday, May 30, 2010


They invented the CD in 1982, and at that time they said that it was going to be the gold standard for audio fidelity. The CD was a joint invention with Sony and Philips. When determining the length of a CD, the chairman of Sony decided: make it long enough for the entirety of Beethoven’s ninth to be fitted onto it. Beethoven’s 9th is 60+ minutes, so they made the length 73 minutes.

Since then, there had been a few other attempts to replace the CD. There had been the digital compact cassette and the minidisk in the 90s. I think they had super audio CDs and DVDs and stuff like that.

The CD had proven to be a durable medium. There were concerns that CDs, being an optical medium, could only be played a few thousand times before it expired. That did not happen to any of my CDs so far, but I better play some of my older CDs to double check. What is not durable are CD players. Because the CD revolves a few hundred times a minute, it is inevitable that the motor wears out quickly.

There were some people upset about the CD when it came out. There was a nostalgia for vinyl records, and then cassettes. I bought a lot of cassettes as a kid, and I could not afford CDs on a schoolboy’s pocket money. I think CDs cost almost 3 times as much as a cassette. That’s why sieteocho does not really understand it when people tell him he’s a rich kid – he understands poverty, really.

CDs were seen as the ultimate end point for all music technology. In a way this was true. It was the first form of music storage that was digital in nature. It was also possible, in that way, to jack up the prices of CDs to be extremely expensive. I think they cost twice as much as vinyls. The record industry probably saw the CD as their ticket to even greater profits. The earliest CDs were sold as $33. When you considered that cassettes were going at around $6 or $7, that was extortionate.

We moved to my present home around 1990, and we bought a hi fi set. It was also around the time that I started listening to pop music. They asked us which CDs we wanted to buy. I decided on Phil Collins’ “But Seriously”. (My sister was a fan of “Another Day in Paradise”, which she considered a “meaningful song”.) And we also bought “Milli Vanilli”. Eventually we saw Phil Collins for what he really was – a balding nerd – and I sold off that CD. I hope we kept that Milli Vanilli CD as a souvenir – it wasn’t even the actual CD, but a remix – but I don’t seem to be able to find it.

It was also the beginning of my being a music freak. The next 5 years were the high point of my love affair with music. But as said, I bought cassettes. Unfortunately, cassettes wear out eventually, no matter how well you keep them. And the tropical weather in Singapore is singularly unsuitable for cassettes, because the damp damages the oxide layer.

Around the time when I was in JC, cassettes became less and less common. As my tastes were somewhat different from mass produced commercial music, the music I wanted to obtain was to a large extent not available on cassettes. (They only manufactures cassettes of the bestsellers in Singapore, which means atrocities like Ace of Bace and Michael Learns to Rock.) I bought BIGO magazine on a regular basis, because they opened to me a world of music that wasn’t available to myself just by looking at your typical HDB retail outlets.

At the same time, this was around the time of Nirvana, who was at the vanguard of a revolution in a music industry – the “Alternative” music revolution. Consumers want choice. They don’t want to listen to your Bon Jovis and your Cunts and Roses because everybody wants to listen to them. I differentiated myself from my peers through my music.

I also got a lot of my music from mainstream magazines. By reading through them in a lot of bookstores without every buying them. (I repeat – I understand the meaning of poverty very well). You may wonder how this is possible. Well, in the good old days, when Times the Bookshop was king, they used to have more standing room around the magazine racks than they do today. Nowadays reading print magazines is not possible, nor is it necessary because you have the internet. Through them, I was able to learn about all the major bands in classic rock and all that stuff.

Another reason for me to buy CDs, therefore, were the classic rock albums. To be sure, there were plenty of stuff available on tape. But the rest, I had to go and look for the CDs. This meant the Smiths albums, 1 or 2 Bob Dylans, almost all the Joni Mitchells and all the David Bowies (except for the greatest hits).

Around that time, there were 2 mega stores in Singapore – Tower and HMV, and they made a great variety of music available to Singaporeans. Before they came, the major stores were Da Da at Funan (now closed – thankfully. Thankfully because although that place was a big favourite of magazine writers and bored children of rich kids with plenty of pocket money, the guy was not friendly to schoolkids. However credit must be given in that when most local bands release music, they can count of him to help distribute it.) Also there were other places like Chua Joo Huat, Supreme Music Centre and Sembawang. MPH used to be a music retailer for a while. They turned the Stamford branch into a nice big megastore with a music section called “Music Power House”. But when they tore down the National Library MPH had to close down. Somebody who worked there told me that the whole operation was losing money anyway. For me I liked Sembawang and MPH best because they had some of the lowest prices. So those were the main places I bought CDs from.

I was spending embarrassing amount of time combing my way through CD racks the same way that blue whales comb the ocean for plankton.

There were some rare albums which you could never find. I suppose that all just added to the mystique of those rare albums. It was a let down when you actually found those albums, but never an outright disappointment. There was always something special about those which justified the hype.

When HMV opened in 1997, I found a lot of CDs I had looked for but never found. I think that was a year I spent a few hundred dollars on CDs. I just wanted to grab a lot of stuff before the last copy was gone, and you couldn’t find it again. I didn’t want to order it through the shop because I didn’t want to fork out a few more dollars.

I think that was the last time I was so extravagant on CDs. Because the next year I went to the States. And 1998 was the first year I had heard of MP3s. (It was also the first year I had heard of the Ethernet connection.) And I don’t have to tell you, an obscene amount of music goes through networks of college dorms. Napster was coded in a college dorm, so that does tell you something.

That was the year that the internet changed everything in the music industry. Brian Eno said that there was a certain time when whale blubber was the most precious commodity in the world because it was the main source of fuel before we discovered fossil fuels. Likewise the music industry will realise that it has lived in a unique day and age when it was able to monopolise the production of music, and leverage on the incredible demand for music to make shitloads of money, and it will realise that this era is over and might not start again soon. This was the era when it was possible to become incredibly rich by being a rock star, when it was possible to just quit performing in public, retire to the studio, and concentrate on your recorded output, just like the Beatles and Brian Wilson did. But no more.

Everything changed, and they sowed the seeds of their own destruction when they introduced CDs, because that was the moment when digital copies of music became widely available. The only developments that remained were the means to copy, store and transmit the information. That didn’t happen until 15 years later but it was basically inevitable.

To cut a long story short, records suddenly became very much cheaper for me. Some obscure titles in the US were a few dollars cheaper brand new than they were in Singapore. I built up almost the entirety of my jazz collection while in the States. I used online retailers like Music Boulevard and CDNOW. I think the first is now defunct and the second has been co-opted into amazon.

I think, somewhere in my 2nd or 3rd year, I decided to purge my record collection, because it was going out of control. I listed more than 200 CDs for sale, and managed to sell all of them in a matter of weeks. If you think that my ebay feedback score of 500+ is fantastic, just imagine that at the end of 2 months it was already close to 200.

Those who were lucky enough to have stepped into the Tower records branch when it was still open in mid 90s will know what it’s like to be confronted with the sheer variety of music being presented. I think that was what the music market in the US was like at that time. I don’t really know because I don’t remember seeing more than a small fraction of it at any one time.

I also signed up for a music club. You had to buy CDs from them on a regular basis, and you could get them at US$6 each on average, although the range is rather limited. But I still managed to get quite a few gems from them, like really cheap boxed sets: Velvet Underground, Steely Dan, Galaxie 500.

After a while I just stopped buying CDs new. I will still do so nowadays if the price is right, but most of the time I either get them second hand, or I got them from the music clubs. Shelling out S$20 for a new CD was an old nightmare I wasn’t keen to revisit. And of course there was piracy. I had to put my hand up and declare that I downloaded a lot of stuff.

But a lot of it was more stealthy. Every CD I sold, I ripped it first, and then I shipped it out. So I still kept the music, even though I didn’t have the CD anymore. That’s probably not legal. But the boundary is very grey.

I still remember the trip back in Singapore when I decided to throw away all my cassettes. I think it was a wrenching decision, because I had come to love so much of the music that was on those cassettes. But all that music was replaceable. I got back much of that music through eBay. The rest, I downloaded, which is sorda legal because when you buy the music, you are entitled to own the MP3.

Do I regret buying the cassette first and then the CD? No. Because a lot of my cassettes were not replaced. There were a lot of impulse buys that were just filtered out like that.

Anyway it was incredible for me, because all that music that used to be so expensive for me is now so cheap. Except that the time spent listening to all that music turned out to be the expensive component instead.

When I went back to Singapore, I shipped all my CDs back (except for the few I very charitably left with my sis – after getting a digital copy for myself, I suppose.) In Singapore it’s mostly been the same trick. Buy CDs cheap. If you really like the CD, you keep it. Otherwise, you try to sell it and rip it off first before you let it go.

There were a few sad episodes in Singapore. As you know, land prices in Singapore went up very high from the 90s onwards. So CD shops became less and less viable. Mostly they became more and more concentrated in large megastores. Even a few megastores had to close. I’ve written about the sad fate of some megastores elsewhere.

But fortunately being sad doesn’t mean I can’t capitalise. I did. There were places that were having great sales of CDs for around $10 each. I think they just wanted to empty all the warehouses. I got a lot of good stuff from those places. There was this big space at Shaw Towers (the Beach Road one) where they used to sell a lot of CDs for $10 each. I was mystified as to how they undercut people so much. Anyway I didn’t care, I just decided to load up. Buy, rip sell. Then the MP3s are yours for the difference. Which is less than $10. Within 2 years, that store was gone.

Owing to the growing unfashionable-ness of CDs, I think the used CD markets are quite good now. People actually getting rid of plenty of good stuff at good prices. Whereas it used to be a seller’s market in the first 7 years of eBay’s existence, it’s now a buyer’s market. If you can stand the thought of CDs getting a layer of dust at home, it’s not a bad way to acquire music. Don’t bother looking for something specific. Something good or interesting will turn up.

A great CD retailer passed on last year. I was buying stuff at Sembawang as a teenager when it was really at Sembawang. Yes, as in get on the bus at McRitchie and take the half an hour ride all the way up north. Then after that they started opening branches every where, there had to be one in every other suburban shopping mall. And suddenly they were kaput. I made up for not buying new music for 7 years (during that time I bought mostly oldies) and instead I went on a rampage and plundered their closing down sales. Spent a few hundred on, say 100 CDs. Had a few choices I regret must mostly it was good.

Then lately I found that the Gramophone shop on St Andrew’s Road will usually have a few CDs that I wish I had the money to buy when I was a teenager. Well, I grabbed them. Then there’s cash converter. If you don’t mind the grimy environment, if you don’t mind the fact that it’s mostly patronised by lower class HDB folk, you might find that even people with left field tastes in music either run out of money or run out of space to store their CDs. Plenty of Take That’s, InSyncs, Boyzones. The odd David Gray or Fatboy Slim here and there. Even a few REMs, Chemical Brothers, Trickys, Massive Attacks and U2s.

But you have to be careful there because they accept all sorts of trash. In fact as of now, I am kicking myself because I bought what I thought was a Prodigy album. They even allowed me to inspect the CD before you fork out the money. Usually you overlook a few scratches, a few cracks on the CD case. But the CD inside was a heavy metal CD and I didn’t realise it until I got it back home! No big loss for me, because the CDs there are like $10 for 5. But I’m still unhappy. Well at least being able to buy another 40 CDs is a nice consolation.

If I should find myself being able to get records from the US again, I think it will be incredible. There’s a lot of new music I’ve not kept up with for the last 10 years, and a lot of it will be available to me at ridiculously low prices. A lot of people point the finger at piracy for crippling the music industry. That may be true. But there are more important factors at work, like a fantastic second hand market and the fact that consumers have such a wide choice of music to choose from that nobody really wants to pump money into developing an artist for fear of making mistake.

PS: if ppl are wondering why there aren’t any more ridiculously rich musicians around anymore, I think you should know why after reading all this. There’s no reason to be a musician at all. No reason other than love.



Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I live near the oldest MRT station in Singapore. (5 of them opened on the first day.) I still remember the booklet that they issued, and it showed parts of Singapore – some of which I had been to, and many of which I had never seen. I was almost as big a transportation system geek as Shingot, but not quite. I was thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to be a transportation planner when I grow up? Well guess again, sucker!!!

Seeing a huge construction site, and seeing huge swaths of roads being diverted made a great impression on me. It seemed as though the construction work would never end. I used to go to Plaza Singapura for music lessons, and it seemed forever, waiting for the Dhoby Ghaut station to be built. When it opened, it was quite a small station. (Never imagined that one day 3 MRT lines would be passing through it.) There was an underpass that was built, that would take you under Orchard Road to a car park between Plaza Singapura and MacDonald House. Today, that car park is The Atrium.

I used to live in Bukit Timah during those days. It was strange, when you went down 1 road, and there was Newton Station. Then you went down another road, and you ended up at Buona Vista. I thought that the geography of Singapore was rather warped. I was wondering why Orchard and Tiong Bahru stations were 6 or 7 stops away, when they were so close by bus.

Anyway, from Bukit Timah, the MRT was not much use to us. In the first few years, I hardly took the MRT, except for fun. Similar to my waiting for the Dhoby Ghaut station to open, I started wondering when Bukit Timah would have a proper MRT system. Now I know the answer: when I’m about 40 years old. I suppose one day I will know what it’s like to have waited for something for 30 years.

I remember us first going to take the MRT. I thought it was going to be seedy and dark, but it wasn’t. I thought it was going to be a strange cavern of underground tunnels, like the underpasses of Singapore River bridges, but the tunnels were reasonably short. The Toa Payoh station exit was housed in a building, which also had Toa Payoh’s first air-conditioned hawker centre. (It’s demolished now,

The ticket gates were new, so they opened and closed with a rather alarming vigour. I thought that some poor guy was going to get his hips crushed one day and sent to hospital.

So there was the MRT system, in a microcosm. The first stretch of 5 lines had underground stations and overhead stations. The underground tunnels were noisy. It didn’t feel that fast even when it was travelling at 80 km/h.

Not long after that, the MRT line was extended to Outram station, and half a year later, all the way to Clementi. Since the 2 central stations did not serve multiple lines, the train just went Dhoby Ghaut – City Hall – Raffles Place – Tanjong Pagar.

The second big phase of the MRT was the opening of the East stations. The East-West Line was opened. It was the longest line at that point. The stretch from Clementi was extended to Boon Lay, and the eastern stations were opened from City Hall to Pasir Ris. At the same time, a line extended from Raffles Place to Marina Bay. From Jurong East, there was a small branch upwards towards Chua Chu Kang. At that time I thought that was quaint, little knowing what lay in the future.

There were a few stations where people just didn’t know why they were there. Some of the more ulu stations were Novena, Newton, Buona Vista and Marina Bay. For most of these stations, urban activity has sprouted around them, but I still don’t know what Marina Bay is for, considering that you had to construct a special tunnel under the Singapore River to have it built.

I liked the old numbering system for the MRT stations. Raffles Place was C1. City Hall was C2. All the other stations are numbered outwards from there. I used to learn the names of MRT stations that way, and I’m still able to draw a map of the original 42 stations from memory.

In the mid 90s, however, they changed the numbering system when they opened the section between Yishun and Chua Chu Kang. Then it became confusing for me. I don’t know how many of you know that Junction 8 was named because Bishan’s number was North 8. Anyway, they had to renumber the east-west line because they were building a Dover station between Buona Vista (W7) and Clementi (W8). So were they going to call it W7.5? In any case, I never bothered to remember the new numbers.

I thought it was a little strange that the MRT stations would lie in a circle. Until I saw a map: Singapore is really shaped like a donut, and in that hole are our central reservoirs, which should never ever be converted into urban areas.

While there were other new stations in the meantime, like the new Dover station, and the Changi Airport extension, the one we looked forward to was the Northeast Line. So Dhoby Ghaut became an interchange. This line was a little strange because all the stations were underground, even the ones furthest away from the city centre. I could understand it being underground all the way to Hougang, but I didn’t know why they built underground stations for Sengkang and Punggol. I always thought that overhead stations were cheaper and easier to build.

The MRT had always been considered a comfortable ride most of the time. However, around this time, they decided to cut back on the frequency of trains, and at the same time the population of Singapore was increasingly rapidly due to lots of immigration. It was around this time when the MRT started to resemble the Nazi concentration camp rail system.

By this time, most of the major lines were built. The west line was extended by 2 stations, and I wished it was 10 years earlier when we had to charter buses to ferry us from military camps in Jurong to Ang Mo Kio.

However all the lines were like minimum spanning trees, and not well interlinked. For example, the MRT took a very long way between Ang Mo Kio and Buona Vista stations. The route actually took a shorter time by bus than by train because the train diverted you through the city centre.

Last year, finally the Circle line opened. First, the section joining Bishan to Serangoon, which means that it was much easier for me to get to the Northeast Line. And last week, the section all the way to Dhoby Ghaut. Which makes Dhoby Ghaut the first station to have 3 lines. It was the first “minor” line, where the trains only had 3 cars each. I suppose it was cheaper to build them that way. For some strange reason it doesn’t seem to have a high ridership. Hopefully that will change (but not to the extent that I lose my seat when I have to use the circle line.)

I was hoping that the circle line would ease the congestion on the North line. But knowing SMRT, they would most probably just cut back on the frequency of trains to compensate, thus making the MRT as congested as it ever was.

One interesting thing about the circle line is how they changed Bishan station into a semi-underground station to accommodate the circle line. They used to have 2 tracks facing each other on the island platform, but not anymore. This was brought home to me when I decided to make a U turn on the north line. I was travelling north and had just left Toa Payoh station. I wanted to go back down south. Braddell was a special station with side platforms; I was lazy to use the stairs to cross to the opposite side, so I passed it by. Then at Bishan, it also had side platforms, effectively, since they built a new platform for one of the lines. And at Ang Mo Kio, the north and south platforms was separated by the unused track in the middle. (I think they were preparing for the circle line to cross Ang Mo Kio but it never happened). So I ended up crossing the platform at Yio Chu Kang station! I think this sequence of MRT stations is the only place where there are 3 consecutive stations without island platforms.

The future? They’re building new lines. The Downtown lines to the east and west. They’re talking about extending the MRT to Pulau Ubin. We’ll see if it happens. More plausible are the plans to extend the line to the 2 checkpoints at Woodlands and Tuas, so that you can literally take a train to Johor Bahru, which is fast becoming an extension of Singapore.


Sunday, May 23, 2010


Jogged from the main road to Upper Peirce Reservoir. There's a bit of trepidation about running around now that I found that I have bunions. But I think I can still afford 1 run every week, or every 2 weeks, so long as it's less than 10 km. I used to be very familiar with McRitchie Reservoir Park, since it was one of my main training grounds when I was training for the marathon. I think that one of the great experiences of a marathon is the amount of running that you do to prepare for it, you get to run through a lot of Singapore and see it from the view of the street. OK, it's HDBs, HDBs, HDBs but it's still Singapore right?

Anyway I went to Upper Peirce Reservoir park, and it was not a bad place. The park would be closed at 7:30 pm because they don't have lighting in there, 7:30 is when it gets dark in Singapore. So I didn't linger around long, but there was this huge dam that they built to form Upper Peirce Reservoir, and separate it from Lower Peirce, which was on a lower altitude, maybe 20 metres down. It's not a bad place. The road in was 3.5 km, I measured it using Google maps, so I thought, a run in and a run out would be the ideal length. But I might not try it again because it's a road for cars and probably a little dangerous since the road is full of bends and the driver might not see you.

Well it's a shame that McRitchie is the only reservoir among the central catchment reservoirs that has a track all around it. I suppose you have to keep the forest away from getting messed up by humans. But that would mean that McRitchie is unique. But even then, the northern part of McRitchie's jogging track doesn't for the most part reach the shore. Why is that?

What people don't really know is that McRitchie is also sometimes a training ground. Other than my weekly jogs and the marathon preparation, the thing that reminds me of McRitchie is an exercise they taught us at sergeant school. How to find your way through a jungle. They called it topography. They gave you a map and a compass, and expected you to make your way through a number of checkpoints. Great fun, unless you failed.

First, we had to learn how to walk in a straight line, and if we didn't, how much we drifted to the left or the right. This is important because if you drift too much you end up walking in great circles and wondering why you get nowhere. We learnt other stuff, like how to read maps for geographical features.

Our training ground was in the jungle between Lower Peirce and McRitchie. Naturally we were instructed to stay away from the jogging tracks. We were also told that the north shore of McRitchie had crocodiles and we had to keep away from the water. It was a little surreal to be in army uniform, and carrying a rifle, in a place that was so vaguely familiar, but this was not the first or the last time I had a feeling like that. It would get even worse when I had to wear an army uniform into an office building but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Some of the ramifications of being in army uniforms and carrying rifles in a place so closed to civilisation were rammed home when they told us a story of some people who got lost, found themselves near Upper Bukit Timah Road, and ended up walking into a petrol station and buying drinks. I think the station staff didn't think they were going to be robbed, but those guys were awarded confinements after the instructors decided to go easy on them and not to charge them.

We were given a signal set per tag team. We quickly found the first 3 checkpoints, but we got stuck at one of the check points. Some people claimed to have found it, but many of them were stuck. I could see a lot of my course mates around that area, cursing and swearing.

Topography was also the one time that I got acquainted with the jungle. Much of the time we were walking around in trails, rather than right in the middle of the trees themselves. We were also given parangs, and if we couldn't find a track, we just bashed our way through. (I know that this sort of behaviour is very unbecoming of visitors to a nature reserve, but jungle training is jungle training.) I remember seeing all kinds of weird plants everywhere. Never bumped into a Rafflesia, thank goodness. There were times when I got my army uniform entangled into a bush of thorns. My army boots still show the scars from the time when I tried to extricate myself from the thorny undergrowth.

In the end, because I couldn't find that last checkpoint, we were all made to go for a second round. The second round was easy, we just had to find 2 checkpoints. I found the first 1 in 5 minutes, and the second one half an hour later.

What I could not forget about this experience was the night topo, which was mercifully called off after 2 hours. Walking in a rainforest at night is extremely creepy, whether or not you are allowed to use light. All that wandering around in the dark, and it's really too dark to see. This is not Singapore city where light pollution is everywhere. And even if this was not some neighbouring country where the jungle was so dark that you could not see your own outstretched hand, it was tremendously bewildering. I didn't see how they thought we could find anything in a place like this. Imagine having to fight a war in conditions like this. No wonder Vietnam was such a scary experience.

A few years later I read "Heart of Darkness" and I understood that it was a similar terrain that I had been through in my jungle training.

Another thing I could not forget was when one of my course mates lost the handset of his signal set. We were doing a topography exercise when my course mate panicked and realised that his handset was missing. We had to go back to the jungle to find it. They arranged buses to fetch us between our camp in Jurong to McRitchie for around 2 days to go look for the handset, and we were told that we weren't booking out until we had found the handset. On Saturday afternoon, it started to rain, and I will always remember those times, wandering around a jungle, not for training, but to make up for another person's mistake. Eventually our platoon commander announced that it was found.

When I related this incident 1 year later, a friend asked me if it wasn't the case that the platoon commander was the one who stole the handset in the first place, and set us up, in order to punish the whole company for allowing his handset to be burglarised. Knowing what I knew about the platoon commander, I wouldn't put that past him.



Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I went out with Nat and (let’s call him Mr Go). We were trying to decide what shows to watch for the Singapore Film Festival. Mr Go wanted to watch a series of UK film shorts, but together we overruled him.

We ended up watching Lukas Moodyson’s “Mammoth”. I remembered that he made a trio of films 10 years ago which were very widely hailed. First is “Show Me Love / Fucking Amal” which everybody likes. The serious film critics like it because the 2 main characters are very lovable, and horny guys like it because the 2 main characters are physically attractive lesbians. As a horny male film critic I loved it. The second was “Together” which I hadn’t watched. The third was “Lilya 4-ever” and I have a copy lying around at home which I hadn’t watched.

I liked “Mammoth” because it was well acted. Some people think that the script was clichéd and put together ideas from other movies. I don’t know. The plot is classic white man’s guilt. A husband and wife live in a penthouse in Manhattan (which means they’re ridiculously rich). The husband is a founder of a wildly successful internet start-up. He’s going to Thailand with his CEO to seal a deal. His wife is a surgeon who works crazy hours, and therefore she leaves their daughter in the care of a Filipino maid. (They’re everywhere in Singapore and Hong Kong but I think they must be extremely expensive in NYC). The maid leaves behind her 2 kids back in the Philippines, and they suffer, and she suffers. At the same time, the maid forms an attachment to the daughter that becomes stronger than the attachment to the mother.

When the guy goes to Bangkok, he gets bored because he’s a farang who stays alone in his penthouse suite and doesn’t get out much. That’s the problem with being a nerd. Never mind that when I was in Bangkok that place was developed enough that there are malls everywhere, and that it’s beginning to look like what Singapore was like in the 70s. The main issue is that he’s a nerd, albeit a very handsome one (yeh I know that’s stupid but this is a movie). He ends up in a nightclub and both his sexual desire and his liberal guilt are aroused when he finds out that the small rooms at the back of the nightclub are not toilets but brothel chambers. An impossibly good looking chick wants to fuck him but he gives her a lot of money and tells her to take no pay leave for a couple of nights so that she “doesn’t have to do this”. In the end, she ends up being his girlfriend for about a week, and then the inevitable happens – sexual tension takes over, he fucks and runs because guys can’t help being cads no matter how hard they try. He gives her a few valuable items and briefly considers coming back to Thailand to become Mother Theresa.

As is the case with a lot of Moodysson films, nobody is the bad guy. The couple are doing the best they can. After all, the mother is a surgeon, and she’s in a noble profession. But there is a lot of loneliness in this film, a lot of being apart from your loved ones, and everybody is screwing each other up, like this is a circle of fuck. Case in point, the mother is a surgeon in a hospital, because some parts of NYC are fucked up and people routinely get shot at. Because of her shitty hours (I know people who are surgeons and the hours are shitty. I know about the pagers, the locker ante-rooms, the snatched naps and everything.) she needs to hire a maid and therefore tear the poor maid away from her homeland. Because of the lack of parental guidance, something bad happens and the maid has to rush home to be by the side of her poor kid who is in hospital and probably giving some Filipino surgeon some shit and working stupid hours. (Unsurprisingly, since this is a white guilt movie, the asshole who put the boy in hospital is a white man)

(There is a big hole in the plot. Some Filipino kid wanders off to a bad part of town in the middle of the night. Now that is a stupid thing to do, even for a kid. Are we to believe that a kid would do that, in spite of being warned not to do so? )

I suppose, even when we account for all these flaws, this is a good movie, still worth watching, although hardly essential. As stated before, I’m past the point where a really good movie has the ability to give me an orgasm.

The critics were lukewarm on this movie. Some have criticised this movie as being overly critical of globalisation. But I think, as much as the maid suffered from being away from her kids, her kids still had grandma, and are hardly orphans. They are hardly the street urchins in the city centre. It is a balanced and realistic viewpoint. It’s unfair that the white girl gets 2 mothers and the Filipino kids get none, but they’re hardly the wretched of the earth. The Thai prostitutes get fucked, in more ways than one. But the Thailand I saw when I went there around 4-5 years ago was a dynamic place where people have the energy and ability to get themselves ahead. There is a lot of unfairness but everybody turns out a little better because of the transactions that they make. Everybody loses something and gains something else. People are usually smart enough to trade up. The poor boy who wins the Darwin awards, well Darwin awards are for stupendeously stupid things. Stupid acts usually end up in tragedy. Stupidity and not globalisation was responsible for the tragedy at the end.

I notice that a lot of indie movies have long periods of people being bored, looking out of the window, and being pensive in a meaningful way. This is fucking bullshit. I didn’t go to the cinema in order to get bored. So why do they do this? One explanation is that indie movies are on a tight budget, and it’s always easier to shoot characters in contemplative meditation. It makes the film more “meaningful”, more likely to get critically acclaimed, and – most importantly – less hectic to shoot. But your audience will get bored and pissed off.

A lot of films tend to be about globalisation these days. But a lot of this “globalisation” tends to be about the interior of a hotel or something like this. When a white man makes a film about another country, it is very difficult. He only manages to shoot films about other white men, struggling to make it in a strange place. The thing about Lukas Moodysson in this film is that everywhere is a foreign place. NYC is foreign, the Philippines is foreign, and Bangkok is foreign. The film fails to capture the local flavours of the surroundings. I only partially liked “Lost in Translation” because I didn’t think it captured the real Japan. It only captured what expats saw of it, which is being holed up in a bunker that disguises itself as a 5 star hotel. That being said, it is very difficult to dislike any film which has the “Lip my stockings” scene.

I don’t know much about the Philippines. But Bangkok seems like a caricature of what you see on tourist brochures. Then where is the going to stinky fish markets? What about chatuchak market? What about the regular shopping malls that sprout up like mushrooms? What about the red shirts? What about the floating market? How the fuck can you feel bored when you are in Bangkok, what the fuck is this? The Thailand tourism commission has the right to sue this film upside down for libel.

I’d venture to say that much great film making is local. Much of what makes a film great is authenticity. You can fake authenticity in period dramas, since nobody is there to tell you whether things feel out of place.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

been a while..
you've revived your blog?

- MY

4:20 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Well - they din tell you? I've been blogging at revolution-no-nine.blogspot.com. It's like sieteocho is Mecca and revolution9 is Medina. (this is part of Islam mythology).

11:41 PM


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fellini - Vitelloni and Juliet

Recently there was the Fellini film festival that took place in the National museum. I had already watched "Nights of Cabiria", "La Strada" and "8½", so I decided to get tickets for another 3 films.

Il Vitelloni
It occurred to me as I left the theatre: “half of Fellini is Nino Rota”. (Rota writes the musical scores.)

There was an opening lecture on the film given by an Italian filmmaker, who was apparently a chum of Fellini’s for the last few years before Fellini died. This was one of Fellini’s earlier films, and he made this one with his brother Riccardo playing one of the characters. Later on in life, Riccardo and Federico would display an especially intense form of sibling rivalry, which would cause much distress to the Fellini household. So it was quite poignant. Later on, the brothers made up, especially with Riccardo dying of illness later in life. It seems that it’s just so much easier to forgive a dying person, the same way that it’s easier for me now to forgive –ben now that he’s roadkill.

Well it seems that Riccardo was playing the least consequential of all the main characters. One wonders if he cast his brother just in order to get him a movie credit. You can’t miss Riccardo, though. He’s the splitting image of his brother Federico.

The real emotional core of this film, however, is the womanising problems with the leader of the gang, Fausto. Fausto knocked up Morales’ sister, Sandra, and he has to marry her. But he’s still a womaniser, and keeps on getting into trouble until things come to a head at the end of the movie.

Some of the familiar Fellini motifs are there: the wonderful Nino Rota scores. The way a deserted landscape, usually accompanied by some cheesy whipping wind sound, usually signifies some existential crisis afoot in some of the characters. And the womanising – just like 8½, a protagonist lets down a family he loves so much and who loves him so much. Just like 8½, somebody comes up and tells him that in spite of everything, he doesn’t know how to love, and when shit happens, you get that deserted landscape scene again.

Even though many of Fellini’s films are in black and white (I think all of them, up till 8 ½ were, but I’m not very sure of this) they had more colour in them than most technicolour films. This guy doesn’t need colour – he’s Fellini. There will always be quaint Italian towns, insides of cafes, public ladies, carnivals, processions and drunkenness. Big stout men with earthly sense of humour (think about Harry Redknapp from my workplace). Fat prostitutes dancing to the mambo.

This film is more sober than the more colourful films that he’s famous for later in life. I think it’s a very good film, but it’s still only half strength Fellini, ie this is not one of his masterpieces. Still, no regrets about having caught this one.

Juliet of the Spirits
“Juliet of the Spirits” was the first film after Fellini’s incredible run of masterpieces between “La Strada” and “8 ½” (which also included “Nights of Cabiria” and “La Dolce Vita”). Many people considered this film to be the beginning of his downfall, from cinematic genius to self-indulgent former cinematic genius.

But I decided to watch this: just as I earlier said that a half strength Fellini was still pretty incredible, I bet that a Fellini being knocked off his perch is still a pretty awesome film maker. “Juliet of the Spirits” may be self-indulgent, it may have its moments of incoherence but in terms of its sheer visual splendour and daring, it still trumps much of what passes off as cinema today.

I was only watching it because I had already watched many of his other great films. There’s no point watching a movie twice if you can watch a new movie, and “Juliet of the Spirits” is not half bad. Although – sometimes you got to wonder about Fellini. He treats his wife badly and then he makes an autobiographical film about his wife being treated badly. Then he elevates his wife into a hero for being treated badly.

Am deciding not to talk very much about this, when I have “La Dolce Vita” coming up in part 2.



Thursday, May 13, 2010

La Dolce Vita

Finally watching “La Dolce Vita”. Considering that it’s Fellini’s most well known work, it’s funny that it’s the 6th Fellini film that I’ve watched. This is one of his flat-out masterpieces, together with “La Strada”, “8½” and “Nights of Cabiria”.

This movie is one of the most densely packed (in terms of images) that I have seen. There are around 7 short stories in here, and in every one of them, there are memorable characters.

Basically, the main character has Hobson’s choice. Either he leads a staid and saintly life (but inevitably he will feel hemmed in) or he becomes like a wandering gypsy, inevitably flitting towards hedonism just as a moth inevitably flits towards the candle. Neither are appealing.

The narrative is very loose. What holds it together is that you can see that this is a person’s futile spiritual quest to find a higher spiritual meaning in his existence. Materially, he is comfortable. He is doing OK as a journalist who maintains good contacts with various famous people and the church, he’s earning a good living and drives a nice but modest sports car. His fiancé loves him (a bit too much).

There are a series of parties, but to me they are mainly windows into various aspects of the life of Rome, as well as the life of Marcello Rubini. Somebody theorized that there are 7 episodes in this film which correspond to the 7 deadly sins. I don’t know, but it does seem like there are 7 episodes. They are (I’m trying to name them so that I don’t give away too much of the plot) “Prostitute’s apartment”, “Actress”, “Visions of the Virgin”, “Father”, “Artistic Guy”, “Castle”, and “Orgy”.

The Anita Ekberg scenes were basically guys falling over each other to be with her. When she was howling back at the dogs, the word “bitch” came to mind. I think she represented the promise of something to Rubini. All the same, she was a symbol of the movie. Her unabashed hedonism, voluptuousness, undefagtible energy is symptomatic of the “hedonist” option.

At the other end of the spectrum, there was the fiancé, who was literally smothering Rubini with her love, feeding him food he didn’t want. Most guys desire a hot chick who loves her that much, but he’s not that into her.

I think you can think about most of the characters in terms of where they stand in this dichotomy - "straight and narrow" versus "La Dolce Vita". There’s the father who was never at home because he was a freewheeling traveling salesman, and later the inspiration behind one of the most famous problems in computer science. He wants a wild night at the nightclub in spite of his advanced age, and is later on taken ill. Rubini wants to spend more time with him, but in spite of the father having said that staying at home was hellish, said that he wanted to catch the next train home. Well the father is clearly on the "La Dolce Vita" side

There was this guy who was interested in Rubini’s more intellectual side. He invited Rubini to a party which closely resembles gatherings of intellectuals that you would see on an elite US campus. (see Woody Allen films if you don’t believe me). I was a little too sleepy to fully catch the dialogue that was thrown around. But intellectual guy was somewhat dissatisfied with his existence, in spite of his apparent contented existence as a well liked and respected – well – intellectual. He’s one the “straight and narrow” side.

There was this random encounter at a coffeeshop. He struck up a conversation with a teenage waitress (probably not legal yet) who came from the provinces, and who looked like an angel on the Church fresco. She probably reminded him that he too was from the provinces. Also, he was trying to write a story at that time, while screaming down the phone to his fiancé that she doesn’t own him. She (the waitress) is with the “straight and narrow” gang.

Later on, we see all the mooring ropes that hold Rubini down to the straight and narrow all come loose. His difficult relationship with his fiancé meant that there wasn’t much of a future. He never had that important conversation with his father, who pushed him away the same way he pushed his fiancé away. The intellectual – well that was one of the most shocking sequences of the film, although for me it was the most implausible. Now considering that plenty of weird stuff goes on in a Fellini film, I really mean that it’s implausible. In the end, all these incidents sowed the seeds of doubt about the straight and narrow path. When he was offered more money to become a paparazzi, he accepted.

It’s very concerting that the angel / waitress and the striptease were dancing to the same piece of music. I think it all serves to highlight their direct contrast to each other. In the end, he turns away from the angel / waitress and goes back to the striptease scene.

And there were 2 images of Christ which bookended the movie. (The fish is a symbol of Christ, but I’m not sure how.) I already knew about the helicopter scene because almost every description I’ve read of this movie already mentioned this. For me it was a clear sign – this film is about a spiritual quest, or at least a spiritual journey. A quest for meaning. Every one of the main episodes is best understood in the context of the question, what is the meaning of life? The film is sarcastically called "La Dolce Vita" - the sweet life. No translation necessary. We don't come up with an English translation. One level, it refers to the naked hedonism. Another level, it is the veiled question, "what is life". Monty Python had their meaning of life, this is Fellini's.

Was it about chasing women, especially extremely rich women? (as implied by episode 1). No. Was it about glamour and sex (as implied by the actress episode)? No. Was it about God? (The episode of the visions of the Virgin)? No. Was it about intellectual pursuits (The intellectual guy's apartment)? No. Was it about his family? (Meeting his father) No. Was it about the eccentric aristocracy? No. Was he going to find the meaning of life in a happy relationship with his beloved? No, she was going to smother him to death. Eventually, he said, "fuck it all" and became the embittered cynic who showers everybody in the orgy with sardonic comments. Irony of irony, nobody in there seems to mind because that is the perfect occasion for him to do so. The basic structure of this reminds me of Dostoevsky's novel "The Devils" which I studied in college, it also had a main character aiming for the meaning of life in various (and often contradictory) contexts and people, and having failed to find it, takes his own life.

Somebody mentioned that Marcello Rubini is an inert character for whom things happen instead of an active person who makes things happen. In a way that is true. If he were a master of his own fate, there would not be a story at all. Secondly he is a reporter and it is through him that we see things happen. In effect he is the reporter for the audience. In a way he plays the same role as Monica Vitti does in "L'avventura", "La Notte" and "L'eclisse". And lastly, I think that in many of Fellini's films the main character is not allowed to overshadow the scenery of freaks and weirdos conjured up by the maestros.

What was highlighted in one of the reviews is the prominence of stairs in this movie. Stairs is to this movie what corridors are to “L’avventura”. I don’t know. Is he always going up or down? This movie came out the same year as “L’avventura”, and both were controversial movies that later on became acknowledged cinema masterpieces.

This is a long movie. I’ve talked mainly about the main aspect of this movie. But to reduce the movie into these terms is to underestimate the fantastic density of ideas and images in this great work. Plus the movie is naturalistic enough that many details don’t have to do with the grand narrative.

This movie reminds me of Antonioni’s “Eclisse”, in that it concerns with the search for spiritual meaning in a time on increasing affluence but spiritual emptiness. Modernity is alienating to the spirit. Cliché I know but the movies say it better. It is very difficult for me to figure out whether this movie is a celebration or a denunciation of the garish and flashy portrait of modern living. I suspect Fellini himself didn’t want to commit either way. And it’s very curious that even as he denounces the modern life for the spiritual emptiness, he embraces the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink attention deficient hyperactive style that is so modernist.

This movie was long enough but I knew it hadn’t ended because Nico hadn’t appeared yet. I was thinking, wow, this is the same Nico who sang on Velvet Underground’s first album. Who later became a heroin addict and died in the 80s. Well the distinctive husky voice is already there, but a bit funny to hear her speak Italian. It’s not surprising that she plays a dreamy kooky character but I loved how she was wearing a knight’s helmet, as though to underline the point that she was going to marry into an aristocratic family and become one of the clan.

I think that in naming this film

I categorized those Fellini films I’ve watched so far into the Masina and Fellini films. The Masina films are those which feature naïve saints persevering against all odds. They are “La Strada”, “Juliet of the Spirits” and “Nights of Cabiria”. The Fellini films are the “I’m a cad but I’m feeling guilty about it”. They are “Il Vitelloni”, “8½” and “La Dolce Vita”.

I overheard a conversation behind me where some other guys told me that there also was a similar Antonioni festival. I checked it out and lo and behold, there was one 2 years ago that I completely missed. What a bummer.

My favourite Fellini film, in case you’re wondering, is still “The Nights of Cabiria”, which I watched 10 years ago.



Blogger Nat said...

I have been doing some thinking, I am convinced that Steiner (the intellectual) is closet Gay and though he is in a strata of the society that accepts homosexuality, he seems forced to accept the heterosexual facade. The conversation between Him and Marcello is pretty sexually loaded I thought. That also explains why he had to take his anger on his children and not on his wife.

In this context, Steiner is strained (coincidence in naming?) living the "la Dolce Vita" when he would rather be "straight and narrow". I guess the point is to take a side. If you are going to walk the tight rope, you are going to end up fucking yourself up.

I suppose that is also a trigger for Marcello to pick a side. He was trying hard to reconcile the two sides of his life for the most part and finally chose debauchery as he cannot take the soppy and slow love life. So much so that he had to brush away the last chance he had at redemption with the nymph.

Incidentally I realized that "Jesus Fish" is a strong religious symbol

10:47 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Yeh I highly suspected that Steiner was gay. I don't know why that meant that he had to kill himself. Alan Turing killed himself because the authorities were breathing down his neck (in a non-erotic way). This guy - it wasn't that clear.

One suspects that Fellini - as usual - is just inventing excuses for his own behaviour.

3:02 PM

Blogger Nat said...

He did not kill himself because he was gay. But because he cannot take living 2 variants of lives. I guess the strain is too much to take.

As you noted, It is possible that Fellini is saying that "Look, if you want me to have a hidden life and a different public persona, things would get ugly. Just let me carry on my affairs in public. Oh and I will let my wife know too, so I will shoot 8 1/2 and Juliet, just to be clear.".

Being Gay was not the issue for Stainer, but trying to balance 2 persona's was. Which for me seems to resolve the ending nicely with Marcello deciding not to be lured into walking the middle path. The options were clear, he decides to live, whether the life is sweet or not.

5:04 PM


Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tiger Woods

Well, here it is, the infamous and extremely controversial Tiger advertisement.

When was the first I had heard of all this? There was a news item where Elin Nordegren used a golf club to “help” Tiger Woods out of a car. I thought, “that’s so cute. This is what marital bliss is like”. Well I was wrong.

Let’s not talk about that long list of porn stars / waitresses / neighbours’ daughters who claim to have had sex with / been semi-raped by Tiger Woods. This is the one man who can make Bill Clinton look like a virgin.

He had shot into the limelight in 1997 when he was one of the youngest to win a Master’s. Then, he was the talented kid. And after that, some people make that transition from tomorrow’s great hope into a great champion, even though we know many didn’t. There was a lot of pride among the Thais, when we found out that he was half Thai and half black. He was probably one of the first famous black golfers, playing a sport that had been mostly associated with white people, the way that Jimi Hendrix was one of the few famous rock guitarists among a mostly white population. For a brief, shining moment, it seemed as though anything was possible, that if he could reach the top, anybody could.

I suppose we can always admire a person who’s a champion. But what really makes a champion a champion? Granted, he has great mental strength. But is that an inborn talent, or something acquired through effort? It’s hard to say. There are millions of golfers out there, but only one Tiger Woods. His focus and his mental strength are legendary. There are times when some people will be ahead of him in the middle of the tournament, and he will come from behind and catch up, hitting incredibly low scores in the last 18 holes. Then there was the period when he had to fade out for 1 or 2 years – he had to learn a new stroke, because the stroke he started off with placed a very high strain on his back. This was a risky move because it could have ended his career – it didn’t. After allowing Vijay Singh to be the top earner in prize money for 1 (or 2?) years, he came back again.

We don’t see a golfer like Tiger Woods much – I don’t think that anybody dominates any sport so completely as he dominates golf. And golf is unlike most competitive sports, where you have around 10-20 years, and then you go downhill just because of old age. People who are good at golf can go on for a long long time.

But even before the sex scandals hit, we knew that he had a dark side. He was brooding and quiet. We saw that nasty scowl when things didn’t go his way. But we could always put it down to – nobody is as tough on himself as Tiger Woods is. He was focused on winning to the point of being selfish.

And when he won, he always kept himself locked up in a bubble. He didn’t talk to many people, or get involved in many community projects. He didn’t give his money away. I think the Thais got sick of him after a while. They saw him earning a lot of money through a company (Nike) who exploited 3rd world labour. In this respect, he was similar to Michael Jordan. Even though black people saw him as a shining beacon of what it was possible for a black person to achieve, he didn’t really have much in common with the common black brother. He was asked to comment on 9/11 and he basically talked about what he did on that day, rather than give a heartfelt speech about the terrorist tragedy. I think in a way, all these people steered clear of controversy so that they could continue making bland, impersonal product endorsements.

Time was when you could have sports champions with big personalities. You used to have big mouths like Muhammad Ali or Maradona or John McEnroe, who were every bit as entertaining opening their big mouths as they were playing their sport.

But these days, for some reason the great majority of athletes are told to shut their mouths, if they wanted to continue their lucrative sponsorship deals. You had to have the right image if you wanted to sell products to people. Thus, 3 of the biggest product endorsers in sports – David Beckham, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods ended up spouting platitudes, saying nothing other than the most obvious things. They had to be handsome, well groomed, and seen to be family men.

Well the irony was that David Beckham and Michael Jordan were shown to be adulterers. David Beckham is back with Victoria, and he managed to save his marriage. Probably the fact that his brand name was so closely associated with his wife’s made it rather difficult for a divorce to take place. Michael Jordan didn’t manage to save his marriage. And this brings us back to Tiger Woods.

We knew that he wasn’t a saint. And a lot of people could forgive him for being grumpy. But being a serial sex maniac was probably something that shocked a lot of people, and his star has fallen. It’s okay to be a grouch if your own morals are impeccable but he’s starting to look like a big asshole. We think of certain people who were great sportsmen but unsavoury characters – Ty Cobb, the great baseball player comes to mind.

Tiger Woods could be said to be out of touch with reality. From a young age, he had had a cocooned existence, surrounded by minders, who answered to his every whim. As the scandal unfolded you had to admire the work of this army of people who was able to keep the public in the dark about so many mistresses. But you also got reminded that Tiger Woods had iron discipline.

You somehow saw all this as a product of his lifestyle. The incredible wealth, the endless touring and training, and time spent away from his family. All this, as well as the loneliness of always being surrounded by people but not necessarily his friends. I got reminded of something else I read about Michael Jordon – other than his intense competitiveness, he was an inveterate gambler, and sometimes used to go to bars, where he would pick up ladies and have his way with them. He was also fond of playing games with many of his friends, and not allow them to end until he finally won. A bit of a decadent lifestyle.

So Tiger Woods had to make a choice – what did he want, did he want his old life back, or did he want his wife? He apologised to his wife, who pointedly did not attend the press conference where he read out his apology statement. I think she realised that he was going to have to choose between her and everything else. There was some tentativeness to the whole issue – they weren’t totally comfortable with the divorce, because of the kids. But she was demanding that he gave up golf – at least, give it up for long enough for her to be happy.

Then, in the end, came that infamous advertisement, which will probably be one of the most controversial advertisements of all time.

Some people felt that it was a "brilliant" advertisement. In a way, yes. How do you capitalise on one of your star assets being disgraced in so public a manner? Just tell the truth. One of the big stories in the Tiger brand is the stern but loving father who raised one of the great champions. The ghostly voice is Earl Woods' own. It may have been taken out of context, but the essential truth is there: that is exactly how he would have counseled Tiger Woods. Great advertisements arise out of truth, and this was the truth. Or was it?

Except: first, it's in rather bad taste to trolley out a dead person to do some talking for you, especially if he's talking for a person whose reputation has been disgraces.

Second, the messages are mixed. I don't think that David Beckham or Michael Jordan has ever had to confront marital infidelity in this way. I don't think they had to do that in the form of an advertisement. They would have hidden away and let the storm tide over.

Tiger is different. Nobody really thinks of him as a lothario. He's black but he's not the stereotypical badass. His work ethic is more Asian. You normally think of him as the stereotypical Capricorn: always working, always striving, always winning, and in some senses, a family man. But this is one of the most stunning and swiftest collapses in reputation we've seen of late. Most people going from hero to zero are much more well known as a zero (Madoff) or as a hero (Muhammad Ali). Tiger is well known as both. No doubt, the fall is part of the story.

But what is the meaning of parading the shamefulness of it all? How is it shame when you're putting it up on every TV, every youtube account?

And when you see that advertisement, all the old questions come up. Is this a man ashamed of himself? Is this a man who is apologising to the public? Or is this a chronicle of a man coming to terms with his path towards redemption? More importantly, when Earl Woods asks "Did you learn anything?" Is he berating his son for hurting those close to him, or his he berating him for being stupid?

The last and most important reason why this advertisement is probably offensive: what are the ulterior motives? Nike desperately trying to find a way to flog more mileage from their fallen star before deciding whether or not to renew his contract? Tiger desperately trying to shore up himself as a marketable image?

No wonder Elin Nordegren was so offended. Like it was all about Tiger Woods. That the first thing he wanted to rescue from the wreckage was not his wife and family. The first thing was the sponsorship deal. Then after that, his golf career (disregarding her wishes for him to spend time away from golf). And his family as an afterthought.

Well - you can't really blame a guy for wanting to have his life back.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

California 2008

Things had become strained a little during our visit to Yosemite national park. The previous day, we ate some junk food and my sister even had some onion rings. But as the day wore on, she got grumpier and grumpier. Yosemite was a beautiful place, but it’s a little bit crowded for a national park. Can you imagine any park in Singapore where you have to spend a few hours in a traffic jam because the cars on the thoroughfares are crawling? Probably this was the summer break, and a lot of people were visiting. It would be easy to spot our car: it was the only one with a North Carolina car plate. Aside from us, the furthest away car plate was Texas.

We saw great marvels: snow capped mountains, winding rivers, great waterfalls and giant sequoia trees. Even the charred remains of a forest fire. Earlier on, she had been in a good enough mood to take a very scenic shot with the remains of a squirrel killed by a car in the foreground. But by the time we visited the sequoia trees in the afternoon I had to bite my teeth as she lashed out at me at letting her do all the driving. It turned out that she had fallen sick, and had the flu. Well it was dumb of me not to notice, but she never mentioned it to me either. Women are like that, they expect you to know everything.

It was just as well I had let her do all the driving up till then, because from then on until the end of the journey, I was behind the wheel. We took a long and winding road out of Yosemite, and because I was driving the car so slowly, I often found myself at the head of an increasingly long convoy. Those roads are 1 lane in each direction, but there are places, like a bus bay, where they allow you to drive off the road, and allow those people behind you to pass first. It’s the opposite of overtaking. We drove through the rustic parts of California for ages before we came to the main highway.

We stopped at a fast food joint for dinner (where else?) Then we continued on our way. It was dark and scary. Throughout the trip, we tried to drive only during daylight, but this was the last day, so we’d thought we would keep on driving until we reached the Bay area. This is not Singapore where every highway has street lights. And even so, there were enough cars on the highway to make you nervous. I was going at more than 100 kmh, which was the standard speed everybody was going at. Luckily I was fully awake: if I had thought I would fall asleep, I would have stopped and pulled over. Finally, at a convenience store not more than half an hour from the destination, I pulled over and handed the wheel back to my sister, who would navigate the car into the Bay Area, the way a pilot guides a ship into harbour.

One enduring regret about the road trip: we never took a picture of the interior of the car as it was carrying all of my sister’s stuff, as the back seat was packed just short of obstructing the rear view mirror. We took hundreds of photos during that trip, including quite a few shots of what my sister’s car looked from the outside, but no interior shots.

It was 10 or 11 when we reached the house. She was subletting it from another immigrant couple. We had a room that was on the exterior of the house. (People who live in tropical climates may not care for this, but rooms on the exterior of the house are the coldest.) There was no heating, and I had not been prepared for how cold summer nights are in California. The temperatures can drop to below 10 celsius.
This was my second time in California. I had gone to California 2 weeks earlier to hook up with my parents, who had attended my sister’s graduation, and who were going home. Then my sister and I would fly back to North Carolina, then drive the car over to Cali.

We spent the next few days shopping for various things. We went to WalMart, the great retailer of the 00s. It was packed with people and (probably) illegal immigrant workers. Incredibly, no matter how packed it is, everything was laid out immaculately, nothing was out of place. In contrast, we went to Sears, the great retailer of the 70s. It was almost a ghost town, and even though it was quiet, a lot of people were queuing up at the counter because the incompetent cashier didn't have a clue about what she was doing, even though she looked like she had been there for 20 years. She asked us if we wanted to apply for a Sears card in order to get 20% off our purchase. Then we said, OK, is it alright if we are not residents? She said that it's OK. Then later on after the system refused to accept our forms, she said, "how come you didn't tell me you weren't residents?" We couldn't get angry because we were laughing so hard at the moronicity of the cashier.

My aunt was ordering nail polish, and she wanted to find certain colours. We spent a lot of time hunting around for her nail polish but we just couldn't find it. It was funny to be buying nail polish for people who were on the wrong side of 50.

One morning, I took the train down to San Francisco. It was weird sitting in an MRT thingy (they called it BART) that was built in the 70s, and is really empty. You will never see an empty MRT station. I went into San Francisco, and got a complimentary copy of the San Francisco chronicle - senator Barack Obama had just won the biggest election fight of his life and secured the Democratic Party nomination ahead of Hillary Clinton (in comparison, it was not that difficult to beat John McCain, and we knew that.)

Walked around San Francisco. It is part of the Wild West, but it has enough history in it to be more than 100 years old. It had the biggest Chinatown of any city in the USA, and it also has a name that's not directly translated from English. There were a lot of old piers that were converted into nice swanky places (think about Collyer Quay).

Took a while to get used to the bus system (you pay $1.50 to get on, but after that, for the next few hours, you get as many free transfers as you want.) It was really hilly as well. The trams were more than 100 years old, even if they were retro-fitted. It was a nice place, even though I inevitably ended up hanging around the bookstores too much. There was this bookstore that was famous for being a counterculture hangout.

I visited the first headquarters of the United Nations. It looked freaky, with great big statues which ended up invariably being apologists for imperialism. Outside, there was a bad neighbourhood. A Chinese tramp and a caucasian tramp were fighting, and the Chinese tramp won. I shouldn't be proud of this but I was rooting for the Chinese tramp.

I also visited Ghiradelli's chocolate centre. Nice coffee and stuff, waterfront stuff. Didn't have time for Alcatraz.

The next day I visited Stanford. School had ended and there was hardly anybody around. I have been biased, or perhaps it was because a lot of my formative years had been spent in my own alma mater, or perhaps the best looking colleges are in secluded areas where nobody wants to go. I still thought that my college was the best looking one around.

But walking around the campus - which I'm told is one of the biggest campuses around, - I have mixed emotions. I had expanded my intellectual range greatly during those years, but I hadn't thought enough about how that fit into the great scheme of things. I hadn't thought enough about what were the truly important things in life. And studying in a great American university in many ways didn't teach you the right things.

In some ways, California was the image of paradise. LA is fond of boasting that it’s a place where you have 300 days of sunshine a year. Skies are more often than not blue, and the weather is supposedly perfect. It’s a place which boasts some of the best cuisine in the world, and grows some of the best produce in the USA. It’s the golden state, where the living is good. It’s the California of the hippie era, but also the California of the Internet era, the capital of cyberspace. My sister drove to a weekend market, where there were a lot of nice cafes and bistros. Food from every ethnicity and culture, and it was fine food. I think it's also true that California is an agricultural paradise, where you grow some of the finest food in the world.

But it was also here that my sister, for the next year, would endure her infamous first year as a surgical intern. She would work for 80 hour weeks (on average; she sometimes got 90 or 100). Her sublandlords would give her trouble because they didn't always like her using the kitchen. (Luckily she moved out after 1 year). It was awfully strange. But maybe it looks like that for migrants working in Singapore - on one hand this is a place which looks 10 times better than anything you can get back home, and on the other hand, you could end up plenty miserable in a place like this.

When it was time for me to go home, we set off early, and thank heavens for that. Because after almost 1 hour of driving, I found out that I had left behind the boxes of chocolates I had bought for my colleagues. My sister actually turned back and got it, and we had 1 more hour talking to each other about the future.

After that, it was time to go.

I've been to America once, when it was the greatest superpower in the world. But now when I left, it was a superpower in decline. But it has been in decline before, in the 70s and the early 90s, so who really knows?



Saturday, May 01, 2010

Military Spending

I came across an article about military spending in nations across the world. Singapore is in the top 10 when it comes to military spending. Here are the top 10:

1. Myanmar (a military dictatorship, plus there are always minority insurgents to deal with)
2. Jordan (they're Israel's neighbour, and there's always trouble in the Middle East)
3. Georgia (they're fighting a war with Russia)
4. Saudi Arabia (they're in the Middle East and they have to deal with Iraq and Al Qaeda)
5. Kyrzystan (They're one of the smallest countries in Central Asia)
6. Burundi (They're neighbours with Rwanda and DRC, there's still plenty of fighting in DRC)
7. Oman (Militant Islam in Oman, Somali pirates)
8. USA (being a world empire is very expensive)
9. Singapore
10. Sri Lanka (Civil War)

As you can see, I've tried to come up with excuses for the top 10. If you have been following what's been going on in Kyrzystan, you might understand: a weak government has to defend itself. Plus they are surrounded by Russia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan so they have reason to be nervous. I cannot for the life of me think of excuses for Singapore. If you look at the spreadsheet, Singapore has an absolutely larger defence budget than Israel. WTF? Is it that everybody in Israel is on national service? Is it that Uncle Sam is paying for everything? Taiwan's military spending to GDP ratio is smaller than Singapore, even though they have to contend with China. Ditto South Korea, who has to deal with North Korea.

What the hell is going on?