Go with a smile!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is there a power shift in the World Cup away from South America and Europe?

David James raised the possibility that World Cups might be shifting away from South America and Europe.

These are the great powers of football: Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Holland.
These are the former great powers: England, Uruguay and Hungary.
These are the former second tier powers: Sweden, Czechoslovakia, USSR, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Denmark, Austria, Denmark.
There are a lot of countries that are bubbling under.
Here are a lot of other countries that have played in a World Cup before, but not on a regular basis: Greece, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Australia, South Korea, China, New Zealand, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Zaire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Angola, South Africa, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, USA.
Where would there be a shift of the World Cup to? The most plausible places are Africa or North America. Asia still seems to lag far behind. But Africa had a team from Cameroon reach the quarterfinals in 1990, and when they were knocked out by England, it was generally acknowledged that England could have a close shave and it could well easily have been Cameroon in the semifinals. Since then, their quarterfinal placing has not been bettered by any other African teams. Since then, they had gotten close to the semi-finals twice. Once was when Senagal reached the quarterfinals and suffered a close defeat to Turkey in 2002. Another was when Ghana was one Luis Suarez handball away from the semi-finals in 2010. But they have not made the breakthrough. People were surprised that Africa did not shine in South Africa. Well actually it’s not that surprising. South Africa has a European climate, and the African teams – other than South Africa were from the tropics or the desert. So it’s really a “European” world cup.

In 2014, they had a Ghana team which was unlucky to lose to the USA and managed to draw with Germany, but they imploded when two of their players – Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari were sent home after a physical confrontation with the coach. Ivory Coast was somewhat unlucky to not qualify when a last minute Greece penalty denied them a place in the second round, and a great team that had played 3 world cups in succession were about to be disbanded. Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, the Toure brothers, Gervinho, Didier Zokora and Wilfried Bony would play no further part in World Cup 2014, which is a shame. So it’s up to Nigeria and Algeria – two teams I hadn’t had much hope for – to carry Africa’s torch in 2014. I have a feeling they’ll be knocked out of the round of 16 by France or Germany respectively but I could be wrong.

The other rising region is Central and North America. At first it seemed that Mexico’s difficulties with qualifying for the World Cup was a signal that it was dropping off. The excellence of Costa Rica in this world cup suggests instead that this was due to Costa Rica’s unusually good form. Unfortunately for Mexico, they’ll soon meet up with Holland so unless they produce a big upset, it’s curtains for them. And I’d want to see Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and company continue to deliver great football for this World Cup.

Costa Rica, by contrast, only has Greece barring its way into the quarters, and I expect it to prevail. However, once there, they’ll be meeting Holland or Mexico. Probably the former.

The US, I think has a 50-50 chance of getting past Belgium, especially now that they’ve lost Vermaelen and Kompany. But after that they’ll have to face Argentina, unless the Swiss are more sneaky than we’ve suspected. And then they’ll have to hope that Argentina’s tactics are somehow not as great because they’ll be facing Higuain, Di Maria, Aguero and the dreaded Lionel Messi. So in contrast to Africa, they have a good chance of putting two teams in the quarters.

Asia had a good World Cup in Korea and Japan, although that is most probably because host countries do well. And South Korea had a combination of incredibly good luck, bad refereeing and an unusually good team to reach the semifinals in 2002. Turkey (which is half Asian) also had the good fortune to be competing a semi-final berth with “only” Japan, Sweden and Senegal, so it was practically guaranteed that there would be a surprise team in the final. But since then, they haven’t really taken the next step and they aren’t going to reach the quarter finals for some time to come. Soccer really isn’t an Asian thing. America doesn’t have much interest in soccer per se but they are a great sporting nation, so inevitably they’ll be good at soccer. Same argument, to a lesser extent, applies to Australia. Japan and South Korea, by contrast, are a country where the nerds are more powerful than the jocks. The good kids don’t do sports. Maybe that’s why South Korea and Japan will not be great soccer powers.

Asia is actually a few continents. It is the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, the former Soviet Union (which can be divided into Central Asia and Russia) and East Asia (which can be divided into Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia). For the third World Cup in a row, Asia has been represented by South Korea, Japan, Australia and one other club. As we have seen in this last world cup, South Korea and Japan have not made a great progress, and Australia’s performance merely hints at some improvement in the future – “promising” is too strong a word for a team that has lost all three games. New Zealand did not return – it was merely a flash in the pan.

I’m not that familiar with the football teams of the Arab world. But usually the best teams from the Arab world are North Africans. They are usually ranked second after Australia and East Asia. The Indian Subcontinent hardly merits a mention, although they have potential and 1 billion people who excel at a sport other than soccer.

This problem is even more pronounced in Southeast Asia. And it is in Southeast Asia that you will have a curious combination of people who are football fanatics and who also happen to be shit at football. I’m not sure where else in the world you will have a combination like this – maybe the lesser African states. The problem with this phenomenon in Japan and South Korea is that you will have players who are signed up for teams who covet them more for their ability to sell T-shirts than their playing ability. Then these players will spend too long on the bench. Park Chu Yong at Arsenal. Junaichi Inamoto at Arsenal. Shinji Kagawa at Man United. The problem is that a big name club will make them an offer they can’t resist – it’s not easy being an Asian and explaining to your friends and family why you didn’t sign for Man U when you had the chance – and being out of the first team at the bigger club actually turns out to be a step down from being a regular started at your smaller club. In Southeast Asia, you don’t actually have to play excellent football to have 40-50 thousand fans turn up at your stadium week in week out. So why bother? No wonder Asian football has not taken that big step forward.

In the end, we have four of the favourites in World Cup 2014 – Brazil, Argentina, Holland and Germany – competing for the 4 semi-final berths. Anybody who wants to take their place will have to knock them out, or knock out whoever knocked them out. Not an easy task.

Where David James might have a point is that the World Cup is becoming more level. It used to be a charge levelled against the World Cup that it expanded too quickly to other countries, and we had a few whipping boys in the past. I don't think that's the case. Even South Korea and Japan weren't that easy to beat. Pretty decent teams like Croatia, Portugal, Spain, England, Italy, Bosnia, Ghana and Ivory Coast were left behind.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Great teams are champions of World Cups

There are people who are always wondering why Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney seem to perform below par for the World Cup. My theory is that most of the time, World Cups are won by teams which have several stars, rather than just one big star. If you surround a great player with mediocre players, you’re not going to win the World Cup, unless you are Maradona playing in Argentina 1986.

Here is a list of world cups won and the players that inspired it:
England 1966: Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Alan Ball, Gordon Banks.
Brazil 1970: Pele, Tostao, Jairzinho, Gerson, Clodoaldo, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto.
Germany 1974: Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Paul Breitner, Sepp Meier
Argentina 1978: Actually I don’t know this team very well.
Italy 1982: Paolo Rossi, Claudio Gentile and Dino Zoff
Germany 1990: Lothar Matthaus, Juergen Klinsmann, Rudi Voller
Brazil 1994: Romario, Cafu, Bebeto, Dunga
France 1998: Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Lilian Thuram, Didier Deschamps, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Christophe Dugarry, Fabien Barthez
Brazil 2002: Ronaldo, Romario, Ronaldinho, Gilberto Silva, Roberto Carlos
Italy 2006: Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Genaro Gattuso, Luca Toni, Alessandro Del Piero
Spain 2010: Iker Casillas, Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Carles Puyol, David Villa, Xabi Alonso.

So World Cups are usually not won by teams with one star and other journeymen. There usually is an axis of great players in the team, or an absence of weak links in the system.

This is also a World Cup where it is not a coronation. In 1994, the Brazillians and the Italians were known to be strong. Romario said that it was a competition against himself and Roberto Baggio for the greatest striker in the world and he was right. In 1998, France were a bit of a dark horse, because they didn’t even qualify for 1994. Ronaldo was the greatest player in the world, but Zidane was also great and France were one of the favourites. In 2002, Brazil were favourites again but Argentina and France were favoured – until they got knocked out at the group stages. After that, especially after Brazil dumped out England, there was only really going to be one outcome. England – if they managed to get past Brazil would have had as good a chance as any other time to win the World Cup there and then. In 2006, there were no clear favourites. Any of the top four could have won it. Portugal, Germany, France and Italy. In 2010, Spain were the clear favourites. After that, Germany was regarded as strong, and Argentina could have done better if not for their coach Maradona. That Holland and Uruguay got as far as they did were surprises. It is very hard to predict the winner of the 2014 world cup, so in a way it is like 2006. The thing is that with only one exception (Brazil winning in 1958), the European world cups were won by European countries, while the Latin American world cups were won by South Americans. Korea and Japan in 2002 should be regarded as a Latin American world cup because of the heat and the humidity of those countries in summer. Likewise, South Africa in 2010 was a winter world cup, and should be regarded as an European world cup.

It was predicted that any one among Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland and France could win it. At this moment, Holland and France look really strong but the real business is at the knockout stages. There have been world champions who do just enough to get to the knockout, and then turn on the style after that. Like Italy 1982, Germany 1990, France 1998 and Spain 2010. So it’s hard to make predictions based on who would win the World Cup. If there was a team operating on the same level that Spain had operated from 2008 to 2012 you’d safely bet on them. But they’re out now. Brazil seemed to be favourites just because they thrashed Spain 3-0 in a competitive match earlier. But no disrespect to Chile and Holland - now these two countries have shown without a shadow of a doubt - Barcelona not getting a trophy and not reaching the UCL semi-finals for the first time in years, Bayern Munich not reaching the UCL final - that Tiki Taka is on the way down.

There have been some teams in the past which were of semi-final caliber. Think of France and Belgium in the 80s, Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania in 1994. (Romania got knocked out by Sweden in the quarters but it was a very fine balance between one of them to get to the semis). England in 1990. Uruguay or Holland in 2010. Senegal or Turkey in 2002. (I don’t consider South Korea semi-final material for obvious reasons). Portugal in 2006. Germany from 2006 onwards. Croatia got to the semi-finals in 1998. Yugoslavia were always going to be a threat before that country broke up, and there has always been a country from the former Yugoslavia in the World Cup - so far there has been Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Bosnia at different times. One wonders what it would have been like if there had been a united Yugoslav team. Similarly one wonders what it would have been like if Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland had been able to put aside their differences.

These are teams which are from lesser powers but they have golden generations. Possibly England in 2002, if they were playing Senegal or Turkey or even South Korea in 2002 in the quarters instead of Brazil, would have reached the semis. But right now, I think the favourites are France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Holland and Italy, the traditional powers. But outside the traditional powers, there is Croatia, Colombia, Belgium, Chile, the USA, Ghana, Uruguay and surprise surprise – Costa Rica. Any of these teams in the second list could do really well and reach a semi-final. The World Cup is full of examples of dark horses reaching the finals – Germany in 2002, France in 2006, Netherlands in 2010, Argentina in 1990, Sweden in 1958. Netherlands in 1978. But the team that wins isn’t really a shocker. This is not like the Euros where Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Greece actually wins the damn thing. There were finals where Uruguay upset the heavy favourites Brazil in 1950, Germany upset the favourites Hungary in 1954, and again in 1974. Italy upset the favourites Germany in 1982. France upset the favourites Brazil in 1998. But the teams that won were second or third favourites. Then again, I would say that if anybody outside of Brazil, Argentina and Germany wins this thing, it will be regarded as a surprise.

Also want to say - in terms of excitement and entertainment, this has been a good World Cup so far. Long may it continue. South Africa could have been a good World Cup but for the ball. I think one part of this is that we are in an era where people who play football for some reason are not very good at defending anymore - either tactics have evolved to be more attacking-oriented, or the defending standard has dropped. Also - it seems that World Cups that are held on the American continent tend to be good ones. 1970, 1986 and 1994 were considered to be good World Cups. Maybe the hot weather favour the Latin flair, maybe the heat makes everybody more tired and this favours the attackers.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

2 corny jokes with sexual content

1. I really admire those Chinese friends of mine who marry angmoh zhaboh. You could say they put the "asian" in "caucasian".

2. My friend got caught by his mother when he was masturbating. You could say she interrupted a jerk in progress.


Sunday, June 08, 2014

Notes about "Lost"

When I was working for the Factory I remembered that there were people out there who were talking about "Lost". They were watching it so much that I was curious about what the show was really like. I finally finished watching the whole thing - all six seasons of it and I just felt that it was one of the great TV experiences for me.

I like it that many people on the show are geeks. I think that was necessary because mostly the people who would watch a show like this would be geeks. The Dharma Initiative is full of nerds and geeks. Charles and Penelope Widmore are geeks. Daniel Faraday is definitely a geek. Even the action heroes are geeks: Jack the surgeon. Sayid the torturer cum engineer. Sawyer the redneck cum bookworm. Charlotte. Miles. Juliet is a gynecologist. Jin is a fisherman. Sun is a gardener. Michael is not a geek but he’s a construction worker. The leader of the Others for most of the show is Ben and he’s a geek, although an extremely cunning one. Even Jacob is a geek.

Charlie and Hurley are not geeks but they’re affable jokers.

Plot holes in “Lost”
1. Was the Man in Black supposed to get off the island with the help of the candidates, or was he supposed to kill all of them before he got off the island? Because from the fact that he tried to murder them on the sub, it seems that he doesn’t mind killing them. And if he wants to kill them, why doesn’t he do that in his smoke monster form?

2. Is it really so important whether or not people are selected as candidates? When Jack found out that he had been spied on all his life, and realised that he was a prospective protector, he took it very badly. But the irony is that the protector who was there for the longest time – Jacob – didn’t even give a shit about it, though he was served by two very capable leaders in Richard and Ben. Jacob already said that it’s just his own personal shopping list. Things look very different from the perspective of a God! Which brings me to the next point: is Jacob a good or a bad person? Why did Ben run the Others like a very paranoid and secretive leader? Was that a reflection of what Jacob was like? Could the purge have taken place without Jacob’s consent? (No, I don’t think so.) How on earth could Jacob ever be a “good guy”? If Jacob really wanted the candidates to lead the island, why was his attitude towards the survivors so unfriendly in the first place?

3. Why would Charles Widmore change his mind about the island so drastically? First, he was the leader of the others. Then when he was exiled, he hated the island so much that he didn’t mind getting mercenaries to kill everybody on the island. Then somehow Jacob managed to convince him to make another 180 degree change on the attitude by bringing Desmond over to save it.

4. If it was so important to research on pregnant women, why were the Others so nasty about kidnapping pregnant women? And why did they have to capture the children as well? Why did they capture Walt only to let him go? Why did they capture Jack only to let him go?

5. The early behavior of the smoke monster did not match its eventual role as the main antagonist. It killed the pilot of the 815 – but why? There was no need to do so because the pilot would have been useless in helping them get off the island. The only purpose it served was to delay the eventual revelation that whatever radio signal would have been jammed in any case. It posed as Christian Shepard in order to lead Jack to the water. But did it want the candidates to survive at all? Anyway, for a story that had so many twists and turns, it was probably a job well done that I could only find five main points to nitpick with, given the 90 hour running time. Also, the great part of “Lost” was not that everything had to make sense: after all this was a show that succeeded in spite of mightily stretching your incredulity. This is a show succeeds because it gets away with it, not a show that succeeds because it leaves a lot of things unexplained. You had to smile at how tall some of the tales were. It’s strictly for people who enjoy seeing that in spite of having your leg pulled all the time, there was still a coherent tale somewhere there.

Anyway, there were some loose ends that were never followed up on. The story telling may have been extremely improvisional, and as a result there were some elements that were not followed up upon, because they couldn’t weave it into the story.

1. Walt. I’m sure that they wanted to make him special in some way, but how were they to do that? Anyway he spent way too much time off the island to be of any importance. Maybe at most he is a future candidate. I can’t imagine Hurley living forever because cardiac problems will get him in the end.

2. The whispers. The whispers were also under-utilised. After so many people who had heard them, and didn’t really believe that they did, the payback was exactly one conversation between Michael and Hurley – not exactly a great return.

3. The Hurley bird. What purpose did those things serve, if at all?

4. The Dharma Initiative animals. What was the shark, the polar bears and the rabbits for? They didn’t exactly serve great purposes. In any case, the producers had stated that animals were very hard to film.

5. The numbers. Hurley believed that the numbers were evil, and was even more convinced of that when they were broadcast to a crazy guy. But then again, they saw the Dharma station being built, and it seemed nothing more than a harmless serial number.

6. Room 23. It was used to brainwash Karl. And then…? Did it have any purpose other than to show how evil the Others were?

7. Oldham. The Dharma Initiative’s torturer who was great for one scene, and then disappeared for the rest of the show. But all in all, I have to say that Lost was a great show and I enjoyed watching it – probably even more than the other shows that I enjoyed watching – and I’ve watched very few of them. Most probably only “X Files” and “Northern Exposure”. Overused plot devices in “Lost”

While in general I have nothing but admiration for the level of creativity for the plotting of “Lost”, there were times when they used a few plot devices too often.

1. The Flashback.
One of the great plus points of “Lost” is that the storytelling is not linear. Or rather it is bilinear, meaning that most episodes have two stories that are interspersed with each other. One of my favourite plays that I saw in school (ie this was written by a teenager) was four people sitting at a mahjong table, and they were complaining about their lives: everybody had something to be unhappy about. And this play was written 10 years before “Lost”. So it is a time-honoured narrative device so common that even a teenager knows how to use it. But it’s used very well here.

The problem was that the flashback had been used too often, and too many times. Kate’s flashbacks were notorious for being about just another person she had to run away from while being a fugitive. Sawyer’s involved conning people all the time. Probably John Locke, because he was such a complex character, and Sayid, because he had such a complex background, had the more interesting flashbacks. Hurley’s flashbacks were entertaining. Claire, Charlie, Shannon and Boone, and Rose and Bernard did not have sufficiently complex backgrounds to merit more than one or two flashbacks.

Jack’s flashbacks were good enough, and not only was he the quintessential “Lost” character, his father was the quintessential bad father. The notorious episode “Stranger in a Strange Land” which was profoundly pointless served as the catalyst for the producers to declare that the series would only be six seasons long. The long term planning paid off, because it introduced the concept of flash-forwards in season 4, the constant travelling through time of season 5, and the flash sideways of season 6. It introduced three new storytelling formats and that improved the series remarkably.

It also made the series completely different. Seasons one through three were focused on throwing the viewer into a completely alien and strange situation (typified by Jack waking up in the bamboo grove) and then explaining how the people came to be, and how they got there. Seasons four through six managed to explain a few other mysteries, but it focused on driving the story forwards. Seasons one through three could be watched by new viewers with no problems at all. Seasons four through six would be impossible to watch without some knowledge of what went on in seasons one through three.

2. Charlie’s heroin addiction
Some of the silliest episodes have involved his heroin addiction. Of course it was the backdrop to a tragic story, and that was how it worked best. And it also involved his ability to belong to a real community. That was in essence what Charlie was all about: the dichotomy between withdrawal (no pun intended) into his own shell, and belonging, and making an impact. He could have been one of the principals, but his rashness in killing Ethan Rom early on put paid to that possibility.

The problem is that heroin addiction is not really going to be a big issue when you’re on a desert island. There’s no heroin there, so you just have to rough it out and do cold turkey. And let John Locke handle you. So I suppose the scriptwriters decided to fly in a plane load of heroin and then let Charlie decide if he was really going to handle it.

The episode where he ostensibly quits for the first time looks pretty OK. But after that, in the second season, there was this “will he or won’t he” thing where we never knew whether or not he was using. We only knew that he kept a stash in the jungle, but never that he was ever going to use it. I’m not sure that that’s the way that things work for real heroin users. They never keep a stash unless they’re going to use it. And when they are clean, they stay clean by not ever having a stash.

3. The pawn sacrifice
“Through the Looking Glass” is one of the best episodes in the series, often only rated behind “The Constant”. A zenith that followed the nadir of “Stranger in a Strange Land”. Personally, as a Beach Boys fan, my favourite part of that episode was how Charlie had to key in music from “Good Vibrations” to turn off the Looking Glass. But Hurley langgahing the Others with the DHARMA van was a close second.

The emotional heart of that episode was Charlie’s sacrifice. They didn’t know what to do with Charlie, so they killed him off. But they killed him off well, by making Desmond have constant premonitions of his demise. Then they had one episode of Charlie bidding farewell to the world. That was a great episode.

The next four sacrifices were not that great. Michael had to die because there wasn’t any way they could have allowed that murderer to survive. And it was due to a failed attempt to stop a bomb from going off, so it wasn’t really a premeditated sacrifice. Neither was Julia’s. But Julia and Michael died trying to save the rest of the gang.

To be clear, the sacrifices are: Charlie trying to communicate with Penny and disable the Looking Glass, Michael trying to defuse the bomb on the Kahana, Julia trying to nuke the Swan, Sayid taking the bomb to the end of the submarine, and Jack trying to turn back on the Heart of the island.

All the sacrifices involve one or more of the following: bombs, going beneath the surface, being in the open sea, great levels of electromagnetic energy. Desmond and Sawyer had non-lethal sacrifices, when they turned the failsafe key and jumped from the chopper respectively.

To be sure, there was another type of sacrifice, and that was to fulfill the premonition of one’s death. Charlie, John Locke, Daniel Faraday, Jacob and maybe even Charles Widmore satisfy this pattern. But this is not the traditional sacrifice. Then there were the deaths that were more like misadventures, that did not serve to save anybody’s lives, like Shannon, Boone, Ana Lucia, Libby, Mr Eko, Sun-Hwa, Jin-Soo and Charlotte. As well as the entire DHARMA initiative.

It was probably the case that everybody had to die. But I think that after people got sacrificed one by one, they started getting less satisfying. Definitely, other than maybe Sayid and Jack, they didn’t have the impact of Charlie’s.

4. Claire’s baby
I think that some of the producers had admitted that the purpose of Claire was to produce some form of vulnerability for the group as a whole. They wanted to produce some plot points where Claire would be kidnapped. But it got pretty boring in the end. And the time when Charlie got shut out of the loop and had to try to kidnap Claire’s baby in order to baptize him – that was pretty ludicrous.

Kate being a foster mother to Claire’s baby was more interesting, and it would prove to be a point of conflict between the two of them after Kate returned to the island. So that’s all right.

5. Tearful reunion
After a jungle trek or a dangerous mission, there will be a tearful reunion on the beach. If a person or a bunch of peoples disappear after a long time, and they go back to beach camp, there’s always a big welcome. This is pretty inspirational for a few times but after that it gets a little trying on your patience.

6. All the Best Cowboys have Father Issues.
It was almost a cliché that all the main characters had problems with the father. Jack’s father wasn’t emotionally available, was a drunkard, and fathered Claire out of wedlock. Kate’s father was a molester. Her mother was the one who turned her in. Sawyer’s father killed his wife before killing himself. John Locke’s father was the swindler who victimized Sawyer’s father. Shannon’s father wrote her out of the will. Hugo’s father disappeared and ran away. Sun Hwa’s father was an evil chaebol boss.

7. Character stereotypes.
Jack fixes things because it’s in his nature to fix things. Sayid kills because it’s in his nature to kill. Kate runs away because it’s in her nature to run away. Sawyer’s a conman / playboy because … After a while this gets ….

8. “I lied”
How many times does Benjamin Linus have to say that?


Friday, June 06, 2014

Allconsuming is dead

A few weeks ago I received news that allconsuming, which was the online app that I've been using to help me organise my reading list, is dead. I'm thinking about it - I've devoted so much of my life to books. I'm still wondering about those books. I was thinking about books in 2010, which was my last free year for quite some time. Now I'm still thinking about them.

When I got back from Snowy Hill I had just picked up the habit of reading. I didn’t really have a reading habit, even during my JC days. I tried to pick up something during my national service days, but I spent a lot of time trying – and failing – to read a lot of fiction.

During that time, Borders opened in Singapore. Somewhat briefly. The book megastore can and should be seen as a turn of the millennium relic. It’s there to promote a lifestyle – coffee and books. And a nice, cosy environment to enjoy the two. It’s quite notable that neither of these exist anymore. Ebooks are cutting into the business once dominated by the proliferation of “megastores”. And rising rentals in big cities in America are threatening the business model. It is ironic, because these businesses at first thrived because information technology was making it viable in the first place for businesses to run big chain stores and manage large inventories.

I used to manage the list of books I read on allconsuming. Now they’re going to shut the site down. I think that probably between the years of 2002 and 2007, that was when I spent the most amount of time reading. In fact I’m starting to wonder why I spent so much time reading books. I thought that it was more a case that it was something that I simply enjoyed doing, that it was pretty harmless to gather around a lot of knowledge, and that I was just biding my time.

All well and good, I suppose. But there was a point beyond which all that would be useful, and I think I passed that point some way back. I remember when they used to have warehouse sales on books at the expo, and back then, such was my lust for books that I used to grab them by the boxes. And then there was once when I was hailing a cab to cart all my books back home. The cabbie asked me if I was really going to read all those books. He said that I should really be going out to nightspots on a Saturday and meeting people. I wasn’t sure about that. But as time went by, he was probably right.

At that time when allconsuming got shot down, I had 500 books listed as read. I should have stopped at 300,400, and then after that move on to something else. I did recognize why I liked reading so much. My MBTI type is INTP. At certain points in my life I may have acted more like an ENTP or an INFP. Anyway the patron saint of INTPs is Albert Einstein, who loved nothing more than to sit back and contemplate the universe. AND DO NOTHING. That’s the worst part about INTPs. There was a chapter in my Chinese textbook a long time back where somebody praised a person for “learning for learning’s sake”. Now I do that way too much. Only a textbook writer would praise something like that. The teacher’s mission is to impart knowledge – well and good. But when you go beyond that and start thinking that knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the centre of the universe, that’s the first step to going bonkers.

I used to spend entire weekends just reading a lot. But these days I recognize that sometimes all this reading is a cover for not wanting to do anything, for being wishy washy and indecisive.

Is knowledge still supposed to exist in the forms of books?
I have to go back to my college days for this. That was not the place that I was introduced to the medium of books, although that was the place that turned me into a big reader of books. Owing to the amount of books I had to read for some of my courses, I turned out to be pretty OK at it. I will never be a fast reader of books because usually after I had read something, I will always want to contextualize it against everything else I know, and that can be pretty laborious and require a lot of thinking.

Are books some kind of a museum?
But the medium of the book also reminds you of the crowded bookshelf. Once you fill that bookshelf up, it is full, and it will very often be pretty messy. And that body of knowledge sits there, static and unchanging, year after year, long after it has been superseded or maybe fallen out of fashion. The flipside of the library is clinging on to your old ideas. It reminded me of my boss’s office. He used to be a professor, and his office was full of books. And many of them were books, full of abstruse mathematics that I had come across in Snowy Hill, and they once held some form of joy and wonder for me. But now that I look back upon it, it’s some kind of ossification. I never really got through to that boss, because I think he held too fast to his old ideas. He wasn’t willing to accept new ideas that were radically different, and there were some people he didn’t have a high opinion of, he absolutely refused to accept new ideas from them. He was good at what he was good at, but I was pretty aghast at a few instances where he misapplied his engineering knowledge.

What I did notice now was that at one point, when blogs ruled the internet, knowledge would come in the form of some kind of a library where you could retrieve any article you want. These days, it’s been replaced by feeds, like the one you have on Facebook. It was no longer possible to look for all the articles that were of a certain date range, but instead you had to search for it on Google and if you couldn’t – too bad. If you wanted to get back all the stuff you read yesterday, you needed to scroll to the bottom and force the database to fetch some more articles to scroll down.

In this instance, knowledge became something like a stream, or a bus that you stuck your hand out to catch at the right moment, rather than something eternal that will always pile up, always take up space on your bookshelf, and be read by people 10, much less 100 years from now.

The books that I had read were pretty ephemeral anyway. Many of them were extended magazine articles, or collections of magazine articles that talked about the latest ideas. Many of those ideas would be merely fanciful speculations that would prove themselves to be wrong pretty quickly. Or they would be first or second drafts of history, that would be later on discarded for more definitive versions.

What’s happened now that data has replaced books?
What I found in graduate school is that the journal has replaced the textbook as the central domain of knowledge. Perhaps this is about engineering being more about practice and absorbing new ideas, and replicating recipes rather than getting introduced to the canon of great books. Notice that there is never any such thing as the Great Books in engineering.

The other day I was arguing with my sister about the impact that the easy access to information has had on us. I am the last generation who has grown up without access to the internet and thank fuck God for that. She said that it was a good thing that back then our libraries were so crap that we had to hunt high and low for good books – it was a good thing that it forced all of us to be really picky about what books we read. I said that it wasn’t entirely a bad thing that people suddenly got a lot of information, but a lot of the time they got a lot of information that reflected what they already know. So you would have a lot of climate change deniers who managed to surround themselves with a wealth of knowledge on what previously used to be a pretty marginal section of quackery. And mistaking that mountain of information for real knowledge. The problem is that there is a plethora of junk and it is very easy to convince yourself that just because there are so many serious sounding “facts” and “evidence” that climate change is not man made, or that God really did create the world in 7 days, or that 9/11 was the work of the Zionist conspiracy.

When you read a lot of books very quickly, you don’t necessarily grab the main ideas out of the books. There is a reason why going to school is important: because having the old style classical education will draw you to the big questions that have always been asked, and mainly the people who teach you stuff are correct about many of the big ideas – until the next information revolution comes along. But a lot of the classical knowledge is still sound. To use an example, Einstein managed to make a big dent in Newtonian physics, but it’s only a dent. For most intents and purposes, it is still valid, it is still taught to people all over the world, and it is still more relevant to our life today than relativity. Scientific revolutions can only make so much of an impact.

The structure of knowledge is that when you are young, you are going to have a mental framework, and that’s when your values are shaped. And whatever knowledge that you have later in your life will be assessed based on that mental framework. When you read a very important piece of work, it will build your mental framework, and if you’re very very lucky, you will still be able to read a book on the wrong side of 50 that will permanently change that mental framework for you – but that’s pretty unlikely. So I think that I have a pretty solid mental framework for a few things – although I never did build up a good enough mental framework where economics and finance is concerned – there were so many other things going on in my life that I was distracted. And I never mastered any Chinese languages. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I’m old – master Chinese.

The problem is that I just read a lot of stuff because it was bound into books. I was just spending a lot of time reading books. And a lot of the time, I ended up reading a lot of books that repeated material that I had already read before. Or I was learning a lot of facts about things all over the world that were very interesting but did not have very much to do with my life. Now that I’m older, I find that I’m not that clear when it comes to articulating things. It used to be that I had a very clear vision of things when I was younger, and when I had just learnt some things for the first time, I could articulate it pretty well. But now I see both sides and everytime I put forward an argument, there’s this back of my head saying “yeah but” and it’s very distracting and it prevents me from putting that point forward forcefully. In fact some people have speculated that the cognitive impairments of old age are not mainly due to the brain getting old and having neural cells dying, but they are also due to there being too much knowledge to handle and contain that everything slows down. Unless you really have the good wisdom to organize everything down into a very good structure.

There must have been some post in the past where I reminisced about what my long reading habit was like. Come to think of it it was one of the most time-consuming habit I ever had. I mean, ever. But considering also that it came after a teenage-hood where I was bored stiff doing almost nothing, it seems almost like productivity. Before I left for Mexico, I packed away all my books, and they took up - what - 10 boxes? And they're still lying there where my room used to be. And I didn't have a lot of time to read books when I was a student at the University of Mexico. But after I graduated, they allowed me to loan books for another year, and boy did I take them up on that opportunity, although truth be told I probably only read about 10 or 20 books - I would not be as thirsty for it as I was during my heyday as a reader when I judged how far I had gotten in life almost purely based on the books I read. (God how crazy that was...)


Monday, June 02, 2014


Maybe a month and a half ago, I joined quora. It felt great at first, and I did have a lot to write about. I actually managed 100 posts in that time. But then I had to stop. I was turning into a troll.

I found myself getting excited when a post I wrote was voted up, but sometimes I would put a lot of effort into another post and I would not get that many votes. I found that when I wrote posts that conformed to “web 2.0 values” – follow your passion, let your spirit triumph over adversity, stick it to the man – it got voted up more. But when I wrote posts that were more emotionally complex, that held more ambiguous truths, those were routinely ignored. Those that did not sound 100% humble were not voted up. Like somebody would not vote something up if they only agreed 50% of what you said.

At the same time, I realised that a little bit of what I was doing was to write things that a little controversial to get a reaction from people. Then I realized that I was veering towards controversial topics like Israel and the South China Sea to get a reaction from people. That’s the thing – people are more immediately drawn to places where the politics are controversial. Nobody ever talks about the boring stuff that happens in 95% of everywhere else. People only want to seek the things where battle lines are drawn. Somebody once compared a democratic elections to this elaborate ritual where people from two or more tribes would get their tribal gear out and do a crazy war dance with each other – like some ancient backwards African village. You just can’t change the fundamentals of human nature. People are always going to conform to some little pattern.

Anyway, I was looking back at some of the things I said. I was proud of a lot of what I had written and it did represent my state of mind at that time. But there were a few nasty things and people did call me out on that. And I realize that maybe it was a reflection that locking myself up in a room and typing all this stuff out was not 100% healthy for my psyche. Yes, I love ideas and yes I love interacting with ideas more than I love interacting with people. This is not abnormal. This is me being me.

And more importantly, I probably understood that I did not really want to be typing out a lot of controversial stuff under my own name. I didn’t want people to be wondering “what other crazy stuff is going on in that mind of his that he’s not saying? Is he just being polite and not saying the more warped stuff to me?” So this weekend, I saved all my writings and deleted all my posts off Quora.

And thank god. I don’t ever want to have all that stuff coming back and haunting me.

I have never fully wanted my words to be written under anything other than a pen name. I’m a person who has a few faces, a few personas. If I see two sides of the story – then it couldn’t be otherwise. Sometimes I have to cross tribal lines. I don’t want to – just because I paint myself to be a certain person in public – to have to restrict myself from saying something that contradicts that persona. If, like Walt Whitman, I am vast and contain multitudes, somebody could easily say that I’m a traitor. I don’t want to have to waste too much time dealing with fools like that.