Go with a smile!

Monday, September 27, 2010

3 inventions that changed the world

As an aside, you may have known that old story that the white man colonised the world using 3 inventions – the gun, the compass, and paper. All of these were Chinese inventions. I now say that the collapse of the economy in the West was due to three US inventions. The internet (made outsourcing easier), the container box (made it much easier and more economically viable to move manufacturing operations overseas) and laissez-faire capitalism, which basically took a lot of political power away from governments and gave it to big businesses.

All the 6 inventions mentioned here are involved in some way with globalisation. Some people have taken to calling globalisation a hoax, mentioning that the majority of business transactions are still local. That is true. But hasn't it affected the west in so many ways? The ridiculously high jobless rate? The decline of the previously wealthy first world countries?



Friday, September 24, 2010


Just realised that there is an unusually high concentration of Timbaland produced albums amongst those that I have bought in bargain bins recently. It's testimony to his production genius that he is responsible for so much of the stand out music of the last 10, 15 years. And it is also testimony to the disposable nature of the music industry that such fine albums should find their way to the bargain bin. (OK, none of them are stone cold masterpieces but plenty of fine stuff nevertheless.

Timbaland and Magoo – Welcome to Our World
Missy Elliott – So Addictive
Missy Elliott – Under Constructiion
Missy Elliott – Da Real World
Justin Timberlake – FutureSex / LoveSounds
Ginuwine – 100% Ginuwine
Aaliyah (RIP) – One in a Million
Jay-Z – Vol 2 Hard Knock Life

I could have had one more: I was mulling whether to buy Nelly Furtado's "Loose" then decided against it.



Sunday, September 19, 2010

Alphabet soup.

I have found that Singaporeans love alphabets. Back in 1987, when we were building a subway system and we had to name it, we called it the MRT. Now it is true that many different countries have different names for a subway. The US calls it the subway, France calls it the metro, the UK calls it the tube or the underground. We’re stuck with a terribly geeky and unhip “am ar tee”. People have tried to vowelise it into the “mert”, but we’re still stuck with a mouthful of 3 letters.

To make things even more awkward, the LTA (land transport authority) has mandated that there is competition between transport operators – probably giving them different lines to run is their boneheaded idea of “competition”. The net result is that while SMRT runs all the other MRT lines, you have SBS (Singapore Bus Service) running the northeast line. The plot thickens. SMRT also runs buses, especially the routes of northern bus interchanges like Woodlands and Yishun and the surrounding terminals. (Note: in Singapore terminology, a bus terminal is a small terminal, and a large one is an interchange.) And so you have SMRT running buses. So there are SBS MRT trains and SMRT buses. Guess who put the “moron” in the oxymoron?

The funny thing is that the Chinese name for subway seems to be universal. It is di tie. Underground metal. Graphic, easy to understand, universal. I would call that a good name.

I don’t know why we call something SMS when we could have called it text. Why we call it GST when we can call it sales tax. When I tell people that I am an ADWS in the air force, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not as clear as if I were to say I’m an air defence sergeant.

Take an example, at a company, the job title for somebody who drives trucks is “container handling specialist”. Then the job title for somebody who operates container cranes is “container equipment specialist”. The person who came up with such names should be taken out and shot.

Contrast this with what happens in the US. Consider FHLMC. A whole bunch of letters, very ugly. But at least they try to humanise the body by calling it Freddie Mac. Then FNMA is Fannie Mae. GNMA is Ginnie Mae. What would our institutions sound like if we did this to them? HDB would be HarDBoy? CPF would be Capoof?

Schools and universities in Singapore also have a lot of acronyms, although to be fair, the acronyms are often used whenever there’s confusion when you use a full word. Therefore you use RGS, RJC, RI, RGPS to distinguish schools with the Raffles name in it. When you can get away with names, and they are unambiguous, like St Pat’s, Chinese High, those names will be used.

Which is a shame when you consider the names of universities. When they have a name, it personalises the places and makes them sound more hospitable. Stanford. Cornell. Oxford. Notre Dame. Even though when they have a state name, it makes them less hospitable: Florida State. Penn State. Even U-Penn. The most egregious example is MIT – well they are so famous they don’t need branding. But elsewhere – even California Institute of Technology tries to use full words, like Caltech.

So much that is great about universities comes from their perceived character. That is such a large part of the branding of universities. So why are our university names so drab? NUS. NTU. SMU. I think they want to depersonalise universities. If universities are seen as a second home, they could pose a political threat. Like the old Nantah?

I suppose the difficulty in our culture is that Chinese people don’t like naming things after people. So it’s difficult to name schools after people. The only counter-example is LKY school of public policy – and he’s still living, unless there’s something I don’t know.


Blogger Nat said...

The new school is SU (Singapore University of Technology and Design). I recall they wanted to call it SUTD. I bet STUD would have been a better choice or even STD, but SU???

10:48 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

So what are they going to call Fudan University? FU?

11:23 AM


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

2nd Hand CD shops

Lately I’ve been picking up a lot of used CDs.

I think I have blogged about CDs recently so there’s no need to overly repeat myself. One of the great things about the US is that the second hand market there is so good – there are really a lot of people who buy too many CDs, and a lot of them have buyers’ remorse and an internet connection, and – given the jobless rate there now – plenty of free time to list all their stuff on the internet.

I still remember that when I first purged most of my stuff on the internet 10 years ago, I could sell used CDs for US$7-8. That was much lower than what I had bought the CD for in the first place, but at that time – it’s amazing when you think of it now, but I listed stuff on eBay, and 80% got sold within the first week. And those were the days when auctions still made sense: that there are actually more sellers than buyers.

Within a few short years, the market collapsed. People are always talking about illegal downloading, but why would I want to buy a CD new from the shops when a few years later that same CD would be available very cheaply? Same packaging, and at the most a few scratches. And perfectly legal.

Well you know that sometimes my practice is just to buy, rip and sell. It’s not really legal, is it? But you can never get caught doing that, so I don’t care. And the idea that you can never get rid of your physical copy and hold on to your MP3s at the same time is patently absurd: what if you run out of living space and need to throw your CDs away?

The second hand CD market in Singapore is still nowhere as wonderful as the US’s. But the stuff you can find is pretty amazing. I trawl through the whole shop at a time, and sometimes can flip through a few hundred titles without finding anything remotely interesting. Then suddenly, somebody’s offering you a Rufus Wainwright, or an almost brand new album that was hailed 1 year ago as a classic (Embryonic by the Flaming Lips). Or some great but obscure musician whose albums you didn’t know were actually owned by Singaporeans (Marshall Crenshaw). Or some album you know is an indie classic “Viva Last Blues” by Palace Music.

Sometimes you find something that’s too good to be true, like U2’s Joshua Tree. There was this time, I bought a big pile, and neglected to open up and check every CD. The result was that there was the wrong CD in it. But I thought it’s OK, I now have the artwork, the packaging, and (cough) a digital copy of the thing, it’s almost like owning that CD. (Except that I can’t sell it). There were other boo boos that I made – the wrong CD, a CD so badly scratched it doesn’t work, an album that I thought was worth getting but ended up not.

One serious criticism of this approach is that most of the time, people will hang on to the really good albums, and only the really lousy ones are available for cheap. That is to some degree true of online second hand stores. But most of the time, the supply will exceed demand, and when that happens, the album goes for a low price, no matter how good the album is. What is one of the best albums ever made? “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys. How much is it? You can get it in the States for US$3.

There’s a lot of good music out there made by people who are either half-remembered or forgotten. A lot of that is freely available. A lot of great soul bands of yesteryear are not really famous: Rick James. O’Jays, Anita Baker, Keith Sweat, Martha Reeves. Bet you that you’ve never heard of them but if their stuff is going at S$5 it’s definitely worth it. There are good indie bands which don’t get remembered well. Ultimately only 25% of good material can’t be bought at very reasonable prices. Sticking to the other 75% can’t be that difficult, can it?

I think the 70s to the 90s were an abnormal time for music. Those were the days of the rock stars, where a few people could control the production and distribution of music. And those were the good old days where people could force you to shell out $20 for a CD’s worth of music. Now, we’re back to the days where music is cheap, and you remember why the phrase “going for a song” means that something is cheap.

A problem is that a lot of the CDs that I find were bought before 1998. After that there was a sharp drop in the CDs purchased. You know Singaporeans – once MP3s come along, nobody will buy CDs any more. So it’s always easier to get stuff before 1998 than after. Which is still alright with me since I don’t have a lot of music after 1995. But after I’ve owned the few major releases post 1998, there aren’t that many titles left.

Anyway, it’s true that for some reason, black music (used to be called R+B, now it’s called urban in HMV. Why not call it by its proper name) is more easily available. One reason is that I don’t really watch out for a lot of white boy bands because white people don’t make as good music as the black guys these days. Sad but true, even though there are plenty of worthy exceptions. Another reason is that black acts tend to make 2 or 3 albums of really good stuff, and then burn out soon, and people don’t remember them very much afterwards.

Now one last thing that needs to be mentioned is that you need to have working knowledge of around a few hundred CDs, in order to know how to strike bingo. It won’t do for any amateur who doesn’t know his music to comb through these stacks, he won’t find anything and it will be a waste of time. So in a way I suppose this is true of shopping: shopping is an art.

Anyway, here are the second hand CD markets in Singapore (not an exhaustive list, and if there are others I’ve missed, then let me know.)

1. Cash Converter

There are 5 branches, in Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, Jurong East, Bedok and Admiralty MRT. The last one is a crowded shithouse and I wouldn’t recommend anybody to go there. But that leaves the other 4. Usually the English CDs are $5, which are more pricey than the Mandarin / Cantonese / Korean / Japanese ones. But English CDs, especially the good ones, usually have better resale value. For 1 month in 2010, the CDs were marked down to $2.

2. 2nd floor Excelsior shopping centre.

An article in the I-S magazine alerted me to this shop, which is only open for a few hours every day. It’s just an incredibly big pile of used CDs. Everything goes for $3. It’s dusty and musty, even though the shop keepers are friendly. The whole place is so full of old CDs and vinyls that there’s no room for the shopkeepers to sit, they usually sit on the corridor outside, keeping guard on a few boxes of garang guni stuff that they need to move out of the shop just so that people have room to move inside.

There were 3 or 4 guys in there the entire time that I was there. Some guy with a PRC accent was sifting around for English CDs, and talking to his friend about which Information Society album to buy, that was funny at first until I realised that he was a Hongkonger and they’re equally familiar with western music as we are here. He did know a few things about Madonna and Shep Pettibone. Talked about Pet Shop Boys and stuff.

The old fogeys who run the shop listen to weird oldie cha cha / mambo stuff. There’s even a stereo near the door to let you try out the stuff, but I think when I was about to leave the old guy was not really taking a hint, and he was playing more of his CDs first.

I think this is the charm of an old record shop, where everything is a little run down, but everything is cheap and homely. This is the polar opposite of That CD shop where everything is designer, exquisitely packaged, and really expensive. I even think that they make all the shop assistants look physically attractive before hiring.

Whereas an old run-down place is like, “I was here a long time ago, before you. I took a big risk on this thing because I was the first to do it. Everything’s a mess and you won’t find anything specific you’re looking for but there’s treasure hidden everywhere and serendipidity is the name of the game.”

3. Gramophone records

People do let go of their CDs all the time. And sometimes a lot of them surface on Gramophone records. Not all their branches have used CD bins or bargain bins, because I think they know this is bad for business. It’s harder to sell the new and expensive stuff when the cheapo stuff is right beside it. But there’s a small used section in the branch at North Bridge Rd. Another small one in the Taka branch. And the whole Cathay Cinema branch near Handy Rd has a huge bargain bin section, although that bargain bin section has relatively slim pickings: a shop does not let go of the good stuff for cheap, as opposed to 2nd hand stuff.

4. Online retailers: www.ebay.com.sg

There used to be Yahoo auctions a few years ago but it folded. The ebay section used to be small enough that you could spend a few hours browsing through the CD section, and you’d have seen everything. Not any more. It’s growing bigger and bigger. You might find a lot of unusual stuff there now. There is a more than 99% chance of getting your goods, so don’t worry too much about ebay.

There’s also Craig’s list. The Singapore version is singapore.craigslist.com.sg. It is mostly populated with ang moh expats who have CD collections that are too big. There was this person, she posted a list of 600+ CDs, many of whom were notable indie music releases of the last 10 years. But by the time I did my research on which ones were worth getting, most of the good ones were gone. Sigh.

Ultimately, though I did notice that not a few of my purchases were “revenge” for the days when I spent a lot of time gawking at record shops, when I fancied getting 10 CDs, and only had money for 2 or 3. Of course there were a few that I now know would be outright mistakes. But it’s great to hear a few of those “the ones that got away”.



Anonymous the jorgy said...

nice information you shared. you right, cash converter and gramophone are the usual suspect for budget-cd hunting.

but one is still a slack for me, about the cd shop on 2nd floor excelsior shopping centre.

early this year, i walked around excelsior sweeping every store that caught sight with cds. but i couldnt find the store with $3 cd piles you mentioned.

could you tell me the exact direction to find the store? are the cds priced $3 for all times or for sale season only?

thank you :P

8:10 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

You have to be there when it's open. I think weekend afternoons after 3. It's not really a shop. It's just a dirty pile of CDs in a retail area. I don't even know whether it's there anymore. If the shop is closed you will never be able to find it. It is around 10m away from Roxy Records.

1:42 PM


Saturday, September 11, 2010


I tweeted on Facebook: have I changed my life today? Maybe that was a bit indiscreet. Because within 15 minutes Dr Old Fogey popped out of a nearby bush and asked me what I had done. I swear that he must have this feature on Facebook that I don’t know about – whenever I put up something, he has to come and talk some cock.

Luckily I have a good answer to that: in “American Beauty”, Lester Burnham said that every day, other than the day you die, is the first day of the rest of your life. It’s one line I’ve always remembered. Because it shows, just like how Lester Burnham evolved in that movie, how small changes pile up into the big ones. But then I’ve had too many years when nothing like that has taken place. Maybe ended up living a life much like Lester Burnham himself.

Anyway if I’m not wrong, I would have made my first serious attempt to leave the company. I’m pretty sure that many other people would have made more than that. It’s just that I took a route that was a little longer and more tortuous than maybe 1 job interview or 2.

The other day I watched “Heartbreaker”. Basically I was meeting up with workplace buddies past and present. We considered watching movies but ended up not watching them (lagi best because how do you conduct talk cock sessions with people in a dark cinema?). I would have wanted to watch that, I’m not sure about the rest.

Well the premise is that you had somebody whose job was to break up a couple, and he would have to do it. I guess I respected that movie for putting the moral of the story at the end rather than at the beginning. “We don’t touch happy couples. There are basically 3 types of women: happy ones, knowingly unhappy ones and the ones who think they’re happy but they’re not.”

I would recommend anybody to watch this movie. It would have been great for me to be in there with a chick, running my hand up and down her thigh while ogling Vanessa Paradis. Somebody made a comment about this movie that was true: “Romantic comedies usually screw up one of the comedy or romance”. “Heartbreaker” did both fairly well, although the comedy was better.

Vanessa Paradis – I remember when her first English album came out – she was supposedly the protégé of Lenny Kravitz. I thought that she was sexy then. Well 18 years have passed since then. Fancy that!!!

Strangely the movie reminded me of “Inception” because this was essentially a heist movie where the objective is to change a person’s mind. I had 4 free movie passes, and I spent them both on heist movies about changing peoples’ minds. (Actually this is not true. For “Inception” the theatre was full when I got there, so I just bought a ticket to another movie, and showed up in the “Inception” theatre 5 seconds before showtime and hoped nobody chased me off the seat.)

Do I need somebody like that guy in heartbreaker, to show me that there could be an alternative to my current life? Do I need somebody to give me a mirror and show me disappointments?

I watched it during a hot afternoon. There were young people all around me as I left the theatre – charming beings, just like me, leaving all the worrying about real life more towards the later part of life. But my lifestyle of late has been somewhat subterranean. Work. Study. Fret. This was not the most enjoyable time. And there is still a chance that all of it could be in vain. Still I have to keep on striving. It’s a little remarkable that my plan for leaving my company is exactly the same as it was the day I joined 8 years ago.

Still so much to be done.



Thursday, September 02, 2010

The nineties in music

I think, if you were to make a list of the greatest albums of the 90s, there are a few things we can all agree on.

Loveless – My Bloody Valentine
OK Computer – Radiohead
Blue Lines – Massive Attack
Fear of a Black Planet – Public Enemy
Parklife – Blur
One from Spiderland – Slint, Laughing Stock – Talk Talk
Maxinquaye – Tricky
Dummy – Portishead
Screamadelica – Primal Scream
Homogenic – Bjork
Illmatic – Nas
Something from Jay-Z / Notorious BIG
Nevermind – Nirvana
Automatic for the People – REM
Millions Now Living Will Never Die – Tortoise
One from Liquid Swords – GZA, Only Built for Cuban Lynx – Raekwon
Chronic – Dr Dre
Deserter’s Songs - Mercury Rev
Soft Bulletin – Flaming Lips
Different Class - Pulp
Something from Yo La Tengo
Something from Pavement
Odelay – Beck
Something by Wilco

I’m quite sure that in any list of the top albums of the 90s, you can find the majority of these albums. There is a consensus of what the greatest albums of the 90s were. Either I wasn't around to observe what the most important albums were, or there wasn't a consensus.

Something strange happened, though. You would notice that most of these albums listed above are before 1998. After that, the internet became really big, and music journalism was in the hands of more than just a few print journals. Maybe it was that everybody was talking so loudly that there was no consensus.

Anyway I had been following Pitchfork's feature of the best songs of the 90s. I like it that they finally had a policy of not featuring more than 1 song from the same artiste.

I posted this here just before they revealed the top 20. Here are a list of artistes who have not been on the list yet. Wonder

My Bloody Valentine
Stone Roses?
Neutral Milk Hotel
Belle Sebastian

I actually think the 90s were a great time for music. It's hard to supplant the 60s as the golden decade for music, but the 90s were up there with the 70s. There was a lot of good music in the 80s but a lot of it was 90s. In the 90s, there were great forces unleashed by the emergence of the underground, by a media which loomed larger in people's lives, by new forms of music which had yet to be fully explored: alternative rock, grunge and rap. By the way that more people than ever before had access to recording equipment. By the way that the internet changed social networking and music distribution.

Much of what was good about that decade did not lie in the emotional impact of the songs: most of the stuff couldn't match early Tin Pan Alley, classical music, or the best of the showtunes. But it was made up for in the complexity of arrangements (if you can call all those postmodernist collages "arrangements") and the freshness of different styles of music bumping and grinding against each other creating unexpected orgasms.

Edit: all of my predictions, other than the Stone Roses who released their stuff in 1989, made the list. Some of the things I forgot, like Pulp or DJ Shadow or Snoop Dogg. But in lists like this, the top 20 are fairly obvious, although I'm a little sore at the list for putting "Being Boring" by the Pet Shop Boys down at 100+ position.