Go with a smile!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Limpeh gar lih gong

Somebody mentioned on a facebook account, “Japanese Occupation was bad”. Then another person, probably an older relative mentioned, “aren’t you glad you weren’t born during grandmother’s time? Be thankful”. Well that is usually the reaction of the older generation, we’ve had it more difficult than you, you’re so lucky, etc etc etc.

Well I had 2 thoughts on first hearing about this. I was envious of my older cousins: they grew up before the Speak Mandarin campaign, so they learnt dialect. I’m envious of people who actually know their own real mother tongues, not the ones imposed on us by the government. They saw some of the old rural Singapore and I didn’t. They saw my grandfather and I didn’t.

But then again, I had other ties to a Singaporean past that the younger generation do not have. For example, I have a grandmother who was a kid during the Japanese Occupation, and she did tell us stories of what life was like. I didn’t have to rely on National Re-Education. So I’m actually luckier than the younger kid.

Second thought is that the older guy doesn’t understand – he thinks that life over the next 50 years is going to be great. I don’t think so. We’re going to be in a big crisis at the middle of the century. However bad WWII is, at least it had a beginning and an ending. At least you could still say “tough times don’t last but tough people do.” When times are really really bad, it's "tough times last and even the toughest people won't".

Global warming is another thing. There’s going to be economic crisis after economic crisis as more and more people chase after fewer and fewer resources. We know that the Great Depression was a great contributing factor to the rise of Hitler, and therefore WWII. We also know that from 1945 until now, there has been no war because economies grow well and life is good. It is actually that simple, no need to have great man theories. Hitler did not cause WWII, because in most other circumstances, he would never have had a chance to get anywhere near the Chancellorship.

What will economic crises all over the world do for us? We already know. And we already know it could be extremely ugly. War, famine, starvation, poverty. All over the world, not just Africa. The guy from the older generation should be happy that he’s lived his entire life in an era in peace and prosperity, having been born after WWII. It is entirely possible that the younger generation are actually the unfortunate ones.

The older relative has also complained a bit about hot being able to understand some of his children. I find this rather unfortunate. I don't think he has a very good imagination and it's rather unfortunate that in Singapore, a failure of the imagination often goes unpunished.

I think, in the end, one of the most important insights of social psychology of all time is the concept of the tribe. People have mental categories, "us" and "them". If you want to get along with people, it is unavoidable that you find some basis on which you can say that you are tribe-mates. It is very important to find some common ground, and I do this with people I otherwise have very little in common with. That older relative was always trying to drawn lines between himself and his children. Always trying to paint himself as being on the opposite side of the line with his kids.

I think that when people share half your DNA with you and you can't make it work, it is a shame. Either you don't have very much self knowledge, or you are consumed with self loathing. To be fair, parents are separated from their children with many barriers. They have different aims in life. Different circumstances. Different peers. Different values. They may have the same experiences in life, but one of them has not gone through them yet, and the other is not able to imagine what it was like before they understood certain things. The blind man cannot see, and the one that can see, cannot imagine what life looks like from the blind man's perspective. So the one that can see is also blind.

Sometimes people are confused. If you ask them, "what were you like hwne you were 15? 20? What would the 15 / 20 year old have done? What did you not like about your own 15 year old self?" Some of them wouldn't even have enough self-knowledge to answer all of that. Some would answer wrongly. Or even worse, some would answer correctly, and forget that their 15 year old self was different from their kids, and that they wouldn't think the same way.

For the last 10-15 years of his life, Johnny Cash made a project, where he covered a lot of songs written by the younger generation. In a way it was a smart marketing move, because it earned him a younger audience. But it worked with Johnny Cash, because he had a lot in common with the younger generation, as he was a rebellious youngster in his youth. Also, his music of sin and redemption was not incompatible with the punk ethos of angry disaffection. He never had to change his style one bit when doing the covers.

Most importantly, it reversed the equation. Even in pop music, even with its emphasis on the youth, people are constantly being told that the 60s were the apex of artistic achievement in pop music, and everything inevitably went downhill after that. All the elders demanded respect from the younger generations. This was an elder, a legend from Elvis's generation, appreciating the work done by the youngsters, and re-interpreting it in his own classic style. If the song was a hit, it conferred classic status on the original, as it did for "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails. Johnny Cash never had a problem getting along with the younger generation.



Saturday, June 26, 2010

Solitaire Strategies

I’ve discovered some solitaire games. One of them is “Flood It”, which I saw Nat playing the other day. You can go see the rules for yourself, it is very simple.

Not surprisingly, this game has been analysed by computer scientists who have found the complexity involved in searching for solutions. It is NP hard, which means, to the best of current computer science knowledge, the amount of time taken to find all solutions increases exponentially with respect to the problem size. There are some other interesting results which state how quickly the average number of steps required to solve the problem increases with respect to the size of the problem.

I was thinking about what are the best strategies for playing this game, and I have found a strategy that works well, that will win the game around 75% of the time. This doesn’t have to do with brute force computation but just some guidelines.

The guiding principle in this strategy is that all the blocks can be arranged in a stack, that every block has a “distance”, meaning, how many moves does it take to get to that block. Always pay attention to the blocks that have the greatest depth because winning the game is the same thing as being able to convert those blocks within 25 moves.

To be sure, the exact definition of “distance” will depend upon what is the sequence of colours you choose. But as a rule of thumb, it’s the number of squares between your territory and the edge. If there are bigger blocks in that unconverted zone, then there is less distance (since that zone can be converted with fewer moves). If those big blocks are perpendicular to the perimeter of your territory, then the distance decreases further, since with 1 or 2 clicks, you can reach the edge (And afterwards, a really big surface area is exposed).

Early in the game, the key is “depth first”. Aim to capture an area which looks like the shape of a river. Always try to convert the blocks that are deep rather than wide – the blocks which are perpendicular to your territory. Maximise your perimeter, because the greater your perimeter, the more blocks you can convert. Concentrate on maximising the depth, try to convert the blocks that are large.

There are pictures which show the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest. (Sorry to use such an emotionally traumatic example). The denuded areas are at first narrow and deep, then after that they widen, until the rainforest is gone. That’s the way you should be doing things.

Why is it important to go depth first early on? Because when you expand your perimeter early, it will pay back many times in subsequent moves. The order in which you click the colours does not matter because naturally you will go through all the six colours. All those blocks next to your “river” shaped territory will be converted. Go for the quick returns – the high depth, low distance blocks. Don’t think too hard about the other blocks, because they will take care of themselves.

A corollary of the depth first principle is that you shouldn’t convert the blocks close to the walls too early, because in that way your perimeter will only have exposed blocks on 1 side.

Another other concept is degree, which means the same thing as in graph theory. How many other blocks is your block connected to. A certain block may be only 1 square large, but it could give you access to 3 large blocks. Then that block suddenly becomes valuable because it is strategic.

Obviously, you also play the colour that captures as much territory as possible. A corollary to this is that if you have just played a colour, don’t play that same colour 1 or 2 moves later, since not many blocks of that colour can be exposed in 1 or 2 moves. But I would actually say that early in the game, depth and degree are more important.

Yet another concept is the order of colours. Suppose there are 2 or 3 possible colours to play, then you just have to work out what is the best order in which to play them, in order to capture as much territory as possible.

You may find that there will be 1 colour which does not have blocks that fit the above criteria. This is perfectly OK. Do not convert colours that do not impede your progress. Ignore that colour until one of them obstructs your progress, then you can convert a large number of colours with 1 fell swoop.

So early in the game, you have 5 strategies – Go for depth, go for degree, go for high conversion, optimise your order of colours and convert colours as late as possible.

Gradually, when we have reached squares which are near the south or the east wall, we come to the end game. In the end game, the objective is not to expand your territory as quickly, but to convert all the squares with as few moves as possible.

First, if there are any colours which are totally exposed, convert them now. It’s the end for 1 of the colours. One way of thinking is that winning is the same thing as finishing off the 6 colours. The move that finishes off a colour is necessary, and it does not matter whether it is played earlier or later. But it’s better to play this move earlier since this will probably give your access to more colours.

As a corollary, if there is a move which can convert all squares of the same colour except for 1, it would be a waste to play that move now. Unless that 1 block is buried so deep that you probably have to wait a while before you get that block.

However, if there is a move that can lead you to finishing off 1 colour, then it might be worth playing that move.

Secondly, thinking about distance is even more crucial in your end game. For every colour, you should be thinking about how many moves you need to finish it off. This principle is a more broad version of the earlier “if you can finish off a colour in 1 or 2 moves, do it”. If not all blocks of the colour are exposed, you can think about whether it is possible to finish off half of them now, and whether there will be a situation later on where the other half is all exposed. Then that colour would count as a 2 move colour.

Most importantly, though, you have to concentrate on the most distant blocks, since these blocks will have the greatest impact on your endgame. You should have an end strategy in mind for every colour, and you should try to access those most deeply buried blocks in the least number of moves.

Which brings us to the last important point of the endgame: the order of the colours is very important. You should always know what colour exposes what other colour, and based on this knowledge, work out an optimum order of moves.

Now that I have worked out the winning strategy for Flood it, hopefully my short but intense addiction to the game would have come to an end.

My other favourite solitaire game comes with every Windows from XP onwards. It’s “Spider Solitaire”. I play the medium level, because 1 colour is too easy, and 4 colours is too difficult.

The strategy for spider solitaire is really simple.

The main strategy is this: empty a stack as quickly as you can. Once you have an empty stack, the number of possibilities increases greatly. Do not waste your empty stack unwisely, and preserve it for as long as you can.

Use your undo as many times as you need to discover what’s behind the cards, and to find the best possible sequence of moves. Remember that in the XP version, there are some moves that cannot be undone, such as dealing cards, or finishing a suit. (In the Windows 7 version, all moves are undoable). Not very elegant, but make sure that you know as much as there is to know

Experienced players will know that when you manage to empty a stack, the odds of solving a game is around 70%, and when you manage to uncover all the cards, the odds of solving the game is around 100%.

I don’t aim to maximise my statistics. If there are games which are stubbornly hard to solve, I consider it a challenge to solve them, and I will incur a lot of “losses”. I think this is OK. It’s more satisfying to solve a hard game than an easy one. But if you have to try a new game, try taking a different route by making different moves. It is often the case that in certain card layouts, playing move A earlier on will result in a difficult endgame, while playing move B earlier on will result in the same endgame. People familiar with chaos theory will know that small changes to the system could have unintentional really huge effects, and at the same time large shocks to the system could have completely negligible outcomes.



Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Orchard Road Deluge

Somebody told me a funny story. Back in 1984, EW Barker was the minister for National Development. (Actually he was not, I checked and he held that portfolio at some other time, but not 1984. So you have to treat this story as apocryphal). He told the guy in charge of PUB, you know, our reservoirs have a lot of water, so you should buy less water from the Sultan of Johor this year. But the PUB guy was thinking, “what if it doesn’t rain as much this year? What if the water in my reservoirs go all the way down? I’d better be safe than sorry.”

As it turned out, it was the wrong decision, there were a lot of floods that year because there was too much water, and the drainage system couldn’t handle all that. EW Barker got very angry and said, “This !@#$ is better off looking after monkeys since he seems to be one himself”. And so that PUB guy suddenly found himself in charge of the Singapore Zoological Gardens.

Anyway, back to the main story. Floods have been occurring for a few years, not just this year. The monsoon at the end of 2006 had a very heavy rainfall, and the same mistake was made: there was too much water at McRitchie, and when the rain came, there was not enough time to drain it all away. As a result, some places at Thompson Road got flooded. I knew a florist who worked in one of the nurseries near McRitchie (you know that stretch) and she said, “well the PUB has also granted us some of this land, so if you kick up too big a fuss over it, I might not even have it back.”

Last year, there were great floods in Bukit Timah. It was categorised as a “once in 50 years event”. I thought that was particularly stupid. This means that, with the flood at Orchard Road, this is the second consecutive year in which a “once in a 50 year event” has taken place.

Let’s take apart this once in 50 year event bullshit. For the climate that we had for many years up till the 80s, to say that we would have a crazy flood once every 50 years would be plausible. But unless PUB has been living in a hole, they would have heard of climate change. We all know that the weather’s getting shittier all the time. We know that estimates have to change.

Knowing what I do about how things in Singapore work, there was probably at least 1 smart upstart who started challenging the way that you calculated how large you needed the drains to be, and he probably got shouted down by his boss to shut the fuck up and sit down.

OK, so maybe Singapore had a plan to build a great drainage system, and it was meant to last a long time. Maybe 50 years? What happens when things change? What happens when the drain that you thought was big enough suddenly isn’t? Are you going to say, “we spent money on this, we’re not touching it again”?

There are a few things. As expected, we found that debris was lying in the drains and choking up the drainage. Was it because of a lot of civil construction going on? That was what I thought at first. I thought that after they constructed Orchard Central and Somerset 313 they covered up the drain.

But now that I think a little harder, I think it has to do with the Marina Barrage. Because of the Marina Barrage, most of the basin of the Singapore River has been turned into a big reservoir, a big catchment area. And all the water that flows into the barrage has to be filtered. And I think that is where all the debris come from.

So what I think has changed is that all the drainage suddenly has to be filtered. That’s where all the debris comes from. That’s why the drains suddenly stopped working. Well, you know, the PUB has got to get its shit together and do what it’s supposed to do now.



Sunday, June 20, 2010

Second Hand Books Dot Com Dot Ass Gee

I’m selling a lot of my books in recognition of the fact that I have too many books, that I will never read them, that as far as my ability to widen my horizons through reading is concerned, it has reached the limits of its effectiveness.

I managed to get rid of another 60 books. There was this book exchange in the National Library in April, so I picked out the 60 books that were the biggest and bulkiest, as well as the most resistant to my previous attempts to get rid of them. I could see that physically, my stacks of books reduced by around 40%. It was a good feeling.

They said that you can only dump 30 books at 1 time. That’s OK, I went to 2 different libraries. They want books, you give them books. The more the merrier.

Not surprisingly, the book exchange is an excuse to get rid of books which do not have any more reason to exist – I’m talking about computer books from the 80s and the 90s. I’m not so evil that all of my books were like that – maybe 2 or 3.

I gave away coupons to other people. My coupons were in denominations of 10. I went in yesterday with 30 books to redeem. Of those I redeemed, I wanted 15, and the other 15 were books with resale value. Then I will sell them and then I will convert them into cash.

Recently there had been another online second hand book seller: an alternative to ebay. It’s called www.secondhandbooks.com.sg. It was a fledgling site at that time, so I thought I’d list some of my books on that site. I think I had 200+ books late last year. You sell a lot of books in the beginning when you’ve just started listing your stuff, and now, after sales on both that site and ebay (and minus the 60 that I got rid off through the book exchange), my inventory of books is down to 100, even though I anticipate that another 20 or so will shortly go online.

I did take a chance on that site. Even though it was very tedious to keep on listing my books, I trusted that site because it looked like it was run by a competent person. At one point, my 200+ books accounted for 25% of the books listed on the site, although that percentage is probably much smaller (maybe 5%).

Later on, I realized that the account with the most number of books listed was the owner of the website. I felt the itch to get some of her books, and so that’s what I did. As time went by, I found out that the server was having a little bit of problems keeping the inventory. Although it was troublesome to keep on listing your books, you could set the system to automatically relist your books every week. Except that I found that up to 20 of my books were not relisted every month, due to some bug in the part of the system which did the relisting. So I shot an email to the owner of the site. To her credit, she obliged to find my missing books and put them back up. But I wasn’t happy with her attitude. She said, “for yr info, when your books have run out of relists, they will be found in the closed auctions section”. That was disingenuous because my problem was precisely that they were not to be found anywhere.

There were some other grouses I had with her website: there were some books in the featured auctions section, and those listed there were exclusively her books. And the other thing was that she put her books up for auction, listing them for up to 14 days, when she could have just used the buy it now feature, and obviated the need for the buyer

So one day I just gave her feedback that complained about all these issues (except for the technical glitch with the relisting – that’s way to embarrassing to talk about in public.) To my surprise, she shot me back an angry email telling me that it was “her prerogative” to put stuff on auction instead of buy it now. And – this was the most alarming of all – she deleted feedback that I left.

Now, guys, you know how ebay works. You know that feedback on ebay is sacred. Deleting feedback is clearly an abuse of power. I cannot think of any abuse of power that’s worse than that (other than disabling my account and the tens of hours of work I put into it). That was ghastly.

I’ll admit that I had some motives for putting my stuff on her website. In the beginning I put up 25% of the listings, and that gives you a great advantage, when you have a website, and 25% of the listings are yours. (In fact that was the reason why she put up the website in the first place – because it would be more effective at selling her books than ebay would ever be.)

So how? I think I’m torn between blabbing to the world about this injustice, and just living with this system that is unfair, because I still get to sell my books. I think I will end up choosing the latter, but I’m also going to hope that she’s going to fall and trip on her face because that’s what she deserves.

Anyway I’ve solved the problems that have been causing my auctions to get “eaten up”. I simply have to ensure that my auction end times are spaced out, and I don’t have two of them ending around the same time as each other, because apparently this will make the batch processing confused.



Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Revolutionary Road

I watched “Revolutionary Road”. Earlier on I blogged about how “American Beauty” was a high point for Sam Mendes, and he never really made a film as good at “American Beauty”. I think that is still true. If Sam Mendes only excels in his “suburbia is hell” type of movie, then I’m afraid that he’s got a rather limited range. Or maybe his movie is no longer to my taste. Or maybe, most plausibly, the real hero of “American Beauty” is Alan Ball, the screenwriter.

This is by no means a bad movie, but I agree with a lot of reviewers who say that there’s too much quarrelling and shouting going on. How the novel manages to be an acknowledged masterpiece is somewhat beyond me, but I might read it 1 day. (Well – 500 page novel? Goddamn…)

As usual, everything looks immaculate. As usual, it’s the old “rotten exterior beneath the shiny surface” thing. But it’s ceased to be surprising. “American Beauty” was good because it was very cathartic. It was almost a release. When I saw the first part, I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be the same old ‘Ice Storm’ piece of shit where everybody suffers passively.” But it was not. Lester Burnham stood up, fought against his own spiritual death, and won. It was a movie much like my favourite Kurosawa movie, “Ikiru”, where a civil servant could have continued being a non-entity, yet chose to do 1 meaningful thing before he died, against the odds. In both movies (spoiler), the hero, after saving himself from a spiritual death, and after burning briefly and brightly, so much so that you know that his spiritual rebirth is unsustainable, quite reasonably ends up dying.

In this movie, however, we take the other decision. (spoiler again). The hero could have chosen to do “something interesting, something meaningful” with his life, but in the end didn’t, and his wife more or less commits suicide in her great disappointment.

The book for the movie was actually written in the 50s, so it was a novel about contemporary society. It actually came out a few months before the beatniks became nationally prominent. So it came out at a time when people were sick of being conformists, and a lot of social norms were beginning to be questioned. Unless you understand how staid and stifling the 50s were, you can’t understand why the 60s were such a shock.

And that’s why the Maths PhD nerd was such an important person. A certified madman, he was the only one who dispensed with the social niceties, cut to the chase, and spelt it out what it was all about. A little too brusquely, actually.

Probably that was why “Revolutionary Road” was so – you know – revolutionary. Because it anticipated the 60s, when people would be going to Paris in droves, when it was no longer such a crazy idea. You had to understand that all these people were only 10 years earlier than the era of the hippies, although Richard Yates himself probably didn’t know it yet.

This was before “finding yourself” was such a hip idea. It’s an era of the Organisation Man, where you just had to be crazy to throw away a career, because it set you up for life. Myself, I thought that all these culture wars between the hipsters who had to “find themselves” through spiritual enlightenment, and the straight laced top executive Organisation Men was just a fiction until I witnessed an “organisation man” pass a sardonic comment to a hipster about the latter going to India to “find himself”, as though it were the stupidest thing in the world. (It’s not. I sympathise with the hipster.) Fortunately, the sole privilege of being a geek is that you can blend in equally well with the hipsters or the organisation men, because nobody really knows what you stand for.

In the end, Leonardo DiCaprio turn out to be a “The Man” that everybody in the 60s would love to hate. (“Stick it to the man, man!”) A male chauvinist pig, who relied on his sucking up to the bosses to gather affirmation about his superior place in society. When I was young, I would look at these people with unbridled levels of contempt. I would imagine that they were all sensitive and neurotic psychological wrecks deep down inside. Now that I’m older and more circumspect, I have to admit that many of these organisation men are actually quite sane.

I suppose that growing old and finding out that you are actually quite ordinary after all is quite crushing, and I’m guessing that a lot of the merit in Richard Yate’s novel is about how this suffocation comes about. (I’m also a little biased here: I always think that authors who write about depressing people are somewhat screwed up and unable to come to terms with their own life. Well Richard Yates seems like a troubled guy to me.)

And that movie strikes a chord with me. I might be already dead, you know, in the “American Beauty” sense.

A few weeks ago, we received the sad news that Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes are no longer a couple. Some people have talked about the “Best Actor” curse, where actors or actresses, right after they win the “Best Actor” prize, leave their partners. People always jump to the conclusion that winning the “Best Actor” is bad for your relationship.

I disagree. What I think is that one day, the “best actor” gets a movie role that he thinks is going to give him the award. Then comes the punishing ordeal of giving it all you’ve got for the award. The “best actor”’s partner will have to make the requisite sacrifices, and stands in the shadows. Naturally, she is not pleased. But the couple maintains a united front for the sake of not giving the “best actor” a bad image (after all, “best actors” are voted on by “the academy” and you have to watch your public image in the run-up to the Oscar.) Maybe you even have to go and make the rounds and do some schmoozing to enhance your chances – after all, for most winners of “best actor”, this is a once in a lifetime event.

Or plausibly, any one of a few million things could have gone wrong with the relationship around that time. Including Sam Mendes having to film Kate Winslet in a movie (it was Kate Winslet’s idea to do this movie, according to most accounts) where she fucks 2 different people right in front of his camera. Never mind that the sex is simulated. That would probably constitute the most powerful cold shower known to men.

But they stay together – until shortly after the “best actor” is won (never mind that Kate Winslet didn’t win the Best Actress for “Revolutionary Road”, but “The Reader”). Then the Raison D’etre for staying together disappears.


Blogger Nat said...

The stats are misleading. It is bad sampling actually. How often do marriages last in Hollywood anyway. It just turns out that some of the failed marriages happen to include best actor winners. I guess the numbers are statistically no different between Oscar winners and others. The myth is made up by the media :)

Incidentally, I liked RR. Wonderful movie, got to be among the top 3 movies I watched the year before.

9:22 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

OK, if you were to talk about the statement "Hollywood marriages tend to end when one of the parties wins a best actor award" then it is not statistically significant. If you were to say, "many best actors get divorced after winning their awards" then there's more grounds to it. And also not only is it a question of whether they divorced, but when they divorced: ie right after the award.

Well nice to know you liked the movie.

2:06 PM

Blogger Nat said...

of course. Nothing better than watching Kate Winslet doing the old in-out in-out in the front (titanic was the backseat) of a car :D

4:02 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Well there was the front of the car in this one, and the kitchen too - the latter was probably the most important scene in the movie.

But compare that to her hot and sweaty and nekkid stuff on Titanic, you can imagine why Titanic was a box office champ and not this one.

4:20 PM


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Exile on Main Street

For some reason they’re re-mastering “Exile” now and not at some major anniversary of 1972. “Exile” is my favourite Stones album, and the last and greatest of their acknowledged masterpieces. (The other 3 being “Beggar’s Banquet” – which lent its name to a record label, “Let it Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers”). They ruled the roost in the immediate wake of 1970, as though the demise of their rivals, the Beatles, energized them and allowed them the freedom to fulfill their billing as the “best band in the world”.

Some aspects of the album have passed into legend. They fled Britain to escape paying hefty taxes, so they really were tax exiles. They moved to a mansion at the south of France. The recording sessions were rowdy and decadent, and probably very disorganized, this probably was reflected in the music. This was the beginning of Keith Richard’s long-standing heroin habit. That would probably reflect itself in the Stones’ spotty output over the subsequent course of their career (but they were probably also creatively exhausted as well). Gram Parsons, another very talented smackhead was around at the sessions, jamming around with them. Probably he overstayed his welcome – in any case, Mick Jagger was keeping a close watch on him, wondering if Gram Parsons was going to supplant him as Keith Richard’s main creative partner. No danger of that, though – he died of an overdose a few years later.

I found this album on a cassette when I was 16. I had heard a lot about that album so I bought it. I was not impressed. It sounded quite ordinary and murky. I think that was the reaction of a lot of people who listened to it for the first time, because the general critical reaction to the album was that people were vaguely disappointed with it. Later on, though, small bits and pieces caught on through the sonic sludge, and today it’s far and away my favourite Rolling Stones album (second favourite is “Let it Bleed”, but that one is a distant second). If you were to ask most people to name their favourite, it would most probably be “Exile” as well.

There weren’t any outstanding singles on “Exile”. No “Sympathy for the Devil”, no “No Expectations”, no “Gimme Danger” or “Brown Sugar”. So why is this their best album? Because – and this is probably a concept foreign to the iPod generation – albums are evaluated as a whole, and in spite of this being one of their their longest albums, it is also the most cohesive.

“Exile” was called a double album because you needed 2 LPs to fit everything on, even though later on everything could fit onto 1 CD. Typically double albums are a grab bag of varied artistic styles, and it is the traditional symbol of the artist expanding his horizons. On the good side, it is probably a reflection that this is a fertile stage of the artist’s development, because otherwise he doesn’t have that much stuff to work with. On the bad side, maybe he really doesn’t have that much stuff, and a lot of it is filler. A lot of the left field ideas come up, and sometimes the work lacks thematic consistency, sometimes the quality is uneven. As usual, the Beatles have managed to make the definitive double album – their white album. Just as white is a mixture of all colours, that was, for better or worse, 4 solo projects cobbled into one.

But then again, double albums have this great advantage in that there’s always more quantity, it always has more ideas bouncing off each other, and the sheer novelty of much of the material will usually offset the lack of coherence. Size does matter. Everything else being equal, the lady with the bigger tits wins.

Somehow, “Exile” managed to have the best of both worlds. It’s extremely rich in different styles and musical ideas, and yet everything hangs together. Everything looks like it’s of a piece. The cover photograph conveys this perfectly. It’s a pastiche of a lot of photographs. Some of them are of freaks, some of them are gypsies, some of them are of perfectly ordinary people. No one detail stands out from the background. Yet because this is a black and white rendering, everything is filtered through the same lens. Everything looks of a piece, everything looks like it belongs together.

This album did not have a picture of a toilet bowl on the cover (“Beggar’s Banquet”), did not misappropriate the title of a Beatles’ album (“Let It Bleed”), and did not have an Andy Warhol picture of a crotch in tight jeans (“Sticky Fingers”). It wasn’t calculated to shock or offend. Those 3 albums had their gems but always included 1 or 2 awkward songs that made me want to press the skip button. There are no such songs on “Exile”.

I liked “Exile” the best because it felt the most natural of all the Stones’ albums. The informal setting of the French villa came through there, and there’s this feeling they’re right there in front of you, in your bedroom, playing that music in their pajamas. “Exile” is your favourite pair of shoes, not the most stylish or expensive, but the most comfortable and most lived in.

I don’t know if the Stones were also stressed out about their situation. There was plenty to fret about. A few years before, a fan was murdered in one of their concerts. Brian Jones was dead. They weren’t able to make music in London. They probably had pretty squalid surroundings. Maybe they weren’t thinking that much about making loud and bold statements, which was why they just wrote a lot of unassuming songs about real life. I always felt that this was their most emotionally real album, that I was hearing the real Rolling Stones, rather than the ones that felt that they had to make shocking stuff like “Bitch”, or “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Midnight Rambler”.

There were songs about gambling. There were songs about sin and redemption. There were straight out rockers, there were piano ballads, and gospel choirs. Rock and roll, country, the blues, and all of it was blended into this thick rich soup, where you no longer knew what belonged to what. All the songs here have titles, but when they pop into my head, it’s not as an individual piece, I just think, “this is an Exile song”.

I don’t know if they have done something as unpretentious as this. Much of this music, one realizes, could only be made by a band at the height of their powers, and yet they seem utterly relaxed. Maybe some of them were too distracted by the turmoil going on that they just got much less self-conscious when making the music. Perhaps I'm only saying this in hindsight, that it seems like the end of a long plateau, that this is a band that's cruising on their experience and enjoying the fruits of the hard work of the previous years.

Maybe they should have broken up right after that. But then again, this is also the band of Keith Richards, one of the toughest people around, who should have died a long time ago, but remains inexplicably alive.

A review of this album noted that this is more of Keith Richard's album, because it's more in his wild and rambling style rather than in the Mick Jagger calculated to shock / offend mode. (He even gets to sing on a couple of songs). No wonder Mick Jagger should look at it many years later and stuffily declare that he doesn't understand what the fuss is about. I've always preferred Keith Richards over Mick Jagger.



Thursday, June 10, 2010

Erreneous notions about Football

1. I’ll admit this: at the end of one of the seasons of football, perhaps this was the same season that Portsmouth won the FA cup, I thought to myself, Portsmouth are a lucky team. They are comfortably mid table, they don’t have to worry about getting into Europe, they don’t have to worry about who wins the EPL, and they don’t have to worry about relegation. They have a few points buffer either way. They get the results they want at a canter. Maybe if they win the FA cup they’ll get into Europe. Portsmouth must be one of the most stress-free clubs in the premiership.

I was probably misled by the “middle class” status of Portsmouth. They didn’t seem to be over-spending (but we now know that’s not true).

2. There were 2 recent decisions by Capello that seemed to not make any sense at all. First, he allowed the “wife and girlfriends” to visit the England camp at the World Cup. This is an obvious echo of the Ericsson era where he did the same thing and then got severely criticized, because the media circus which resulted distracted England from their performances – so the conventional wisdom goes.

Then he mooted this idea where players could be rated on a scale of 1 to 10 and their ratings be made public.

At the time these 2 decisions were announced simultaneously, and they invited a lot of derision from the press. But I just realized – could it be that his hand was forced over the WAG issue? Could it be that it was the power of the players that forced Capello to compromise over his Spartan conditions? And could it be that Capello decided to have his scores of the players’ performances made public, as a condition for allowing them access to their WAGs? I don’t think this possibility was discussed, and instead Capello got a lot of blame for those 2 bizarre decisions.

Not long after that, Capello refused to confirm that he would be staying with England after 2010. That could be a sign that he got fed up that he was not able to control his players as tightly as he wanted to. Eriksson stayed a little too long, even though there was nothing particularly good or bad about his performance. What brought him down was his perceived greed and lechery. There was the feeling that he was there to collect a large salary, and make money on the side by collecting appearance fees and celebrity endorsements. (Could explain his extraordinary loyalty to Beckham, either he felt he was a kindred celebrity wannabe, or he wanted to associate the England team with the really glamorous brand Beckham).

At least we know that Capello’s a little less happy with this arrangement. But it is true that Capello never stays in the same place for very long. Football coaches – the successful ones, know that one of the main ingredients for sustained success is constant renewal, and constant change. So one possibility is that the coach wears out the players by leading them through a period of overachievement that is unsustainable in the long run, and then the coach leaves. (Capello model). Or the other possibility is that the coach stays in the club for a long time, but he is rather ruthless in getting rid of players that are no longer at the top level (Alex Ferguson model).

Capello briefly considered leaving England, until he was persuaded to stay on until 2012. Well good luck to Capello.

3. I saw a latest issue of FourFourTwo magazine and was amused to see these 5 players on the cover: Theo Walcott, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Frank Lampard. We now know that Theo Walcott is not going to play for England, and that Rio Ferdinand is ruled out of the World Cup for his injury.



Sunday, June 06, 2010

World Cup Year

This is world cup year again. I had earlier blogged about how interesting things happen to me every 7 years. That’s true, every 7 years, I go through a big change on the inside. (Well, not big anymore, because old people don’t go through big changes the way that young people do, but nevertheless – significant ones.) But what is true is that every 4 years, I go through big changes on the outside. Well, so far, until 2002. According to this schedule, I should have gone through a big change in 2006. I didn’t, or if I had, I must have been unaware of it. Or maybe nothing happens when the 7 year schedule and 4 year schedules clash.

I’ve entered or left schools in 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002. I’ve had to adjust to new circumstances in all these years. I don’t know if things are going to change this year. I don’t have anything lined up. I don’t foresee anything happening. Next year, though, could be very different.

I've also noticed an interesting pattern: how happy I was during those 4 years seems to be somewhat correlated to how few times the current holder won the World Cup. Thus, 1998-2002 were good years for me, when France, first time winners were holding the world cup. 1994-1998 not so good, Brazil had won it for the 4th time. 1986-1990, pretty good years, Argentina won it for the 2nd time. 2002-2006, Brazil had won it for the 5th time - go figure.

Therefore, even though I think that Brazil plays wonderful football, and always have a lot of talented players, I hope they don't win. I'll be rooting for teams that have not won it before (Spain, Holland, Ivory Coast, Portugal), or at least, only once (England. France? You're having a laugh.). At the worst, I'll root for Argentina (3rd time). No Brazils, Italies or Germanies. Please.

In 2002, when I started work, they gave my block of apartments a fresh coat of paint. I saw it as meaning that my life was about to be changed. Now, they’re painting the thing again. It’s a sign, I tell you, it’s a sign.

But these 2 omens of change are fraught with complications: first, there was the big squabble over world cup rights, and for a long time it seemed as though the World Cup would not be broadcast in Singapore. Also, there was a huge squabble over the painting of my block of flats because the colour was ugly. In fact there was no colour because everything was going to be white, like some bloody Mediterranean village, or a certain elite school in Singapore. Now they softened it with grey, it looks a little more palatable, even though I liked the old colour scheme better.

Labels: ,


Thursday, June 03, 2010


As we mourn the passing of Dr Goh Keng Swee some of our thoughts turn to the guy who comes closest to being this generation’s GKS, namely Phillip Yeo. And when you think about him you can’t help but notice how his foot has a great affinity for his mouth.

Phillip Yeo has done it again. This time, he has called the people who have downloaded stuff from Apple “dummies”. Is this right? Well I have no love for him in how he clamps down on people who are his slaves, or how he doesn’t even bother to hide his contempt for people he considers to be his intellectual inferior (basically about 100% of the human race). However there is a point hidden in there somewhere if you want to dig far enough. I agree with him that human beings are dummies. This is why we had the world wars, why we have extremely unequal distribution of wealth, why the recent financial crisis happened, why we destroy our natural environment and why we will eventually fail to reverse the effects of climate change, with the end result being that we will wipe ourselves off the face of the earth in a matter of merely 300 years.

Yes, these applications are for suckers. Well, I’m not so sure. We know that the evolution of computers has been a steady trend of moving from big clunky machines which were the exclusive domain of obscenely profitable companies, to nerdy hobbyists programming new operating systems in some basement in Finland, to super user-friendly applications that less tech savvy users can pull out of their pocket and impress members of the opposite sex with. (See vaguely related article on “curated computing”). But well then – what’s the bloody point of the last part? These guys are the dummies, right? What’s the point of getting hard earned money from dummies?

That’s the part I don’t understand about this capitalistic attitude. The central tenet is this: you maximise shareholder value. OK, so that’s the game plan. So what do you sell? And is it for the betterment of humanity? Who cares? Sell them fast food to clog up their arteries with. Sell them sugared water that will give them diabetes in old age. Sell them tobacco to give them lung cancer. Sell them heroin. And when they’ve done enough to fuck up their health, sell them health care.

And what’s this? I see that he sorda approves of this. Why? Because it maximises shareholder value. You see, when you are a great capitalist, you see people all around you. And you see that they own a lot of dollar bills. And you know, deep down inside that all those dollar bills actually belong to you – it’s just that those poor suckers don’t really know it yet. So selling iPhone apps to suckers is, if not something right and just, is at least “the way of the world”.

What else do we see? He exonerates the 1% of people who don’t get suckered like the rest, the 1% of people who probably are involved in programming the apps and selling them for cash. We know that Phillip Yeo is a cold and unfeeling robot, and we know that he feels that the world will be a better place if everybody were to be cold and unfeeling robots just like him. Well, how is the world going to turn if those 1% of people suddenly made up 100% of the population?

Part of me wants to congratulate him for at least being honest – but I think he’s just blurting out what he really thinks. And I am not entirely unsympathetic for his contempt for people who just spend a lot of money and consume a lot of stuff. But sometimes, people are just people, they are human beings who are attracted to aesthetics, beautiful things. And iPhone has delivered something that they want. Yes, it’s still digital code, but with more beauty than most other competitors. What’s wrong about consuming beautiful stuff? Well the problem with that is that it makes you less of a cold and unfeeling robot.

All this spiel is the result of me having read a book by Daniel Pink. “A Whole New Mind”, in which he makes a few claims. Right brainers will become more prominent as we go along. They design products and services which take more holistically into account the entire user experience. (This is true. Creative may have had the more technically superior MP3 player, but Apple won, and won big, because they actually thought about the user experience, which Creative were completely clueless about.) And there was another statistic that interested me a lot: it’s more difficult to get into an MFA program at UCLA than it is to get into most MBA programs!

I suppose, when we understand that a good knowledge of aesthetics is crucial for differentiating between a high profit margin / high class product that “dummies” fork it out to buy and the mass produced shit that everybody else has to deal with, then it becomes understandable why our government is starting to pump in money for more arts education. But only because the art education contributes to our economy, of course. No point having theatre groups like Wild Rice putting up subversive plays and having their budgets cut. No point art schools being a nurturing grounds for people like John Lennon or Adolf Hitler. People need to know what it’s all about.



Blogger Nat said...

I was watching a TED lecture recently where the speaker says that ordinary people / companies tend to know 'What / How' they do things but the Great ones know 'Why' they do it. I suppose art is no exception either. Knowing 'Why' makes one sustain in their endeavor.

Philip Yeo's comments (though might have been tongue in cheek or foot in mouth) does not inspire... As has many policy decisions made in Singapore in the recent times I guess. I should say I do not know what Philip Yeo's history is, I am sure he is smart but when someone considers a any chunk of the population 'Dummies' I don't think I would bother to find out more either.

His point of view seems is like the one held by the un-enlightened Scientist in Carl Sagan's 'Contact'. There are millions of them around, heck, I am one myself. Why would I bother looking up to another one as a leader. Ho hum.

The sad part is that if people do take his advice, then noose just gets a bit more tighter on innovation in this island. Creative died because they made cheap products and the only 'why' they knew was that there was a market. That is not good enough reason to survive.

9:58 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Yeh I think Singapore does not excel in the "Why", but mainly in the "what" and "how".

I thought about the innovative things that Goh Keng Swee did for this country, and a lot of it was "how" and "what" - no doubt it was innovative, but when you're starting out, you don't have the "why". A lot of success in that. Setting things up, building infrastructure, we're great at that.

The "why" - or more formally the teleological stuff, we're not so good. In fact, maybe Chinese people are not so good, because religion has never been a big part of Chinese life.

I think the government has an inkling that innovation is important, but they're not really good at figuring out how to foster it. And the noose that you mentioned is not merely a mental shackle - if you open a shop in Singapore, rent is so high that you have 2-3 months to prove yourself before you run out of money. We literally have no room to be creative. It's rare that you get businesses in regional malls that aren't "same shit done differently".

But I sometimes wonder if this isn't merely an Asian thing. I wonder how many countries (incl S Korea, Japan) have made the transition from being a sweatshop for westerner-designed products to being true cultural innovators in their own right.

3:25 PM

Blogger Nat said...

One does not need to be religious to have a belief in something. India is highly religious but they are also a sweat shop of a different kind.

I wonder about the Asian stereotype too. But ironically, Asians do become innovators when put in the west. So I tend to think there is some thing social / environmental about the issue of asking the 'Why'. May be it the leadership that is at fault.

Singapore asked a lot of 'Why' in its early days. The concept of quality public housing is one of the best public policies in (probably in the world) history. Risky for a young nation but paid off pretty well in the long term.

There is risk of catastrophic failure (Apple faced that in 90's) but they stuck to their guns of making beautiful consumer electronics and it paid off now.

If one gets into a business and will do anything to turn a profit, they wont generate much respect and they wont survive imitators either...

5:16 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I always felt that religion was a lot about asking the "why"

Asians do become innovators when they go to the west, but does that merely underscore how the system is entrenched. Those are the innovative ones, the ones that can't stand the fact that they can't achieve what they're capable of because the system does not recognise their talents. People everywhere are the same, but societies are different because of the way they're put together.

Singapore's public housing policies were good. I don't know about innovative. They were risky. But it was still about answering the "how" question rather than the "why". When I see what public housing is like in the West, I think the miracle of Singapore is that our HDB estates don't turn into ganglands.

I concede that Goh Keng Swee answered some very fundamental and philosophical questions. First, to make Singapore's economy export oriented. Second, to use MNCs to drive the economy. But for me these are "how" questions. They were about getting halfway up the mountain, which Asians are very good at. But how do you get to the top, I don't know how well all of us have answered this.

To be sure, Singapore has developed at least one unique product by thinking out of the box: the SIA girl. But I'd be more proud of products that appeal to the upper half of the human body.

Another thing you mentioned: surviving imitators. China (and a lot of Asian countries) are bad at intellectual property protection. In part this is cultural because we just don't like giving credit to individuals. Makes it hard for one person to design something great and make it stand out. Make something half great, and before you know it, you're out of business.

8:55 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

PS: motherfucking buyer stood me up.

9:00 PM

Blogger Nat said...

The upper body of the Singapore girl appeals to me. What, oh yeah, I guess I read it wrong ;)

On Housing, My view is that the process started with the why, but seems like now it turns into a what issue. Whatever, I am not particularly qualified as My knowledge of local history is primarily hearsay.

IP protection is a problem yes, but I think these are getting into the details. I guess I am with you on the point of how the society's rewarding scheme defines ones innovative / creative abilities... But there are always exceptions, Gandhi was Indian, he made a conscious choice and dose above mediocrity. Of course, not every one is a Gandhi, nor one should be, that's missing the point again.

People at the bottom have an urgent need, survival. They cannot afford to ask the philosophical 'why'. They can but at least I excuse them if they don't. People on top, especially of a reasonably stable society / company can afford to ask 'why' and I cannot accept if they choose mediocre path.

At least I wouldn't sympathize when they go extinct...

11:08 PM