Go with a smile!

Monday, February 29, 2016

Donald Trump

There’s a disturbing trend in the US presidential elections. Let’s look at the elections of the years past, since 1960, when there was television. In many of those elections, the guy who was more telegenic, and had more charisma and presence won the elections. In 1960 it was JFK. In 1964, while there wasn’t much to choose between LBJ and Barry Goldwater, LBJ won because there was sympathy for JFK being shot. In 1968, Nixon may not have been telegenic enough to win, but people were upset about the Vietnam War enough to vote for the opposing party. In 1972, the incumbent was Nixon, and he seemed like a decent enough guy and everybody voted him in. (we now know that that election was so dirty that it started the Watergate scandal). In 1976, Jimmy Carter may not have won, but he was up against somebody who was the US equivalent of Goh Chok Tong, the wooden man Gerald Ford. In 1980 and 1984, the winner was the telegenic Ronald Reagan. In 1988, George HW Bush had the incumbent advantage over Dukakis, who wasn’t more telegenic. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton had that star quality. In 2000 and 2004, the only advantage Dubya had over his rivals was that he was more charismatic. And finally, in 2008 and 2012, Obama had more star power than his rivals, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Mitt Romney. So star power is a very powerful factor in presidential elections.

I’m getting worried that Donald Trump is going to win the elections. He might have an advantage over Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders does appeal to people, and he is the decent man, like Jimmy Carter. But does he have more showmanship than Donald Trump? Trump appeals mainly to the white people of America, because I think he’s pissed off enough guys of other races that they’re never going to vote for him. But that enough to keep him from being elected? It didn’t stop George W Bush from getting elected. The problem is that the people who mainly don’t want to see Donald Trump get elected are mainly concentrated in a few states: the coastal, more cosmopolitan areas, and the southern states on the border with Mexico.

Basically there are three states which determine who’s going to be the president, unfortunately. They are Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio. That’s because they are swing states. First Past the Post sometimes means that you can poll slightly fewer votes than your opponent, and still win the election, as what happened in 2000. When you look at the road that George W Bush led America down, you sometimes wonder a little bit about what a Gore presidency would have been like. I doubt he’d have made a great president, but he’d still be 10 times better than Dubya. There are times when I think about great tyrants of history, and sometimes I wonder how and why they can get away with what they’re doing. But some people are authoritarian. They just love the idea that somebody is in charge. They love the idea of heroes, the idea of idols. When things are going badly, a superhero will come in and save them. We were very lucky in 2008 that somebody looked the part, and he has been a pretty good president (unless you’re talking about foreign policy, and he doesn’t seem to give a shit). But I’m getting quite worried about Donald Trump, and I’m wondering – if he becomes the president of this country, either I’m going to take a gun out and shoot him, or I’m going to get out of this country.

One year before the 1992 elections, we didn't think that Bill Clinton was going to be president.

One year before the 2000 elections, we didn't think that George W Bush was going to be president. (Well it was half Bush half Gore.)

One year before the 2008 elections, we didn't think that Obama was going to be president.

For the longest time, whenever it's a new guy taking the seat, we haven't had the expected guy winning. Anybody who believes that it's impossible for Trump to win is just kidding himself.

If you look at Putin, Xi, Modi, Cameron, the trend these days is for authoritarian mediocrities with cults of personality to take charge.

The American presidency, more so than prime ministers of westminister states, is a theatrical performance. If you don't have good acting skills, you will not get the part.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016


When I was younger McDonald’s was the big new thing in Singapore, a glimpse of a brighter, shinier, more Westernised future. 10 years after the first McDonald’s was opened in Singapore, there was a branch opened in Beijing, and there was a tremendous hoo hah over it. This was 1989, that symbol of the brief moment when it seemed that liberal democracy had triumphed, and would become the default system that we would live under, and bring peace and prosperity to the world at large. Anybody who bought the Francis Fukuyama kool aid would have assumed that China was on the road to westernization. This was half correct and half wrong.

Then around the time that I studied in Snowy Hill, I learnt that McDonald’s in America was the place where lower middle class people went to for cheap meals. It was hawker food for lower class people.

Now, I heard that in depressed parts of the US (and if you drive away from Snowy Hill in any direction, it’s not that hard to find.) McDonald’s is the place you go to if you want to find a drug dealer. If you are in one of their bathrooms, it might be the place where somebody’s shooting up. Think about all the great American companies when we were young – Kodak, Polaroid, IBM, Hewlett Packard, GM, Oracle, Chrysler, McDonald’s. All getting fucked one by one, or suffering the sclerotic effects of middle age.


Sunday, February 07, 2016

20 Things I learned from Snowy Hill part 2

11. Seeing life from another country’s perspective
There are a few things that you always assume as a Singaporean. First is that there’s nothing strange about an Asian who speaks English. That’s not actually true. We just happen to be in an environment where almost everybody speaks the language. You can’t expect everybody to understand that. I’ve actually had to explain myself, as a Singaporean, to Americans.

Second question is, “who are you?” We’ve been in an environment where everybody did the same stuff, for the same reasons. Just get comfortable. Do what you were doing yesterday. Somebody asked me, “why are you studying here?” Could I tell them that it was because I didn’t get into Stanford? Could I tell them that I hadn’t actually heard of Snowy Hill until less than six months before I submitted the application, as opposed to other people around me who had slogged away for most of their lives to get in? And you were supposed to know. You were taking a place that would have gone to an American, just so that you could make an even greater contribution to the intellectual life of the place.

How could I tell them that I wasn’t actually as cool as they were, and that I spent much of my time primed up to becoming a studying machine? That was when I realised that there was absolutely no way that I could walk around in the USA without telling a story of myself first. It was a bit of a conundrum for me that it was in a foreign country that I experienced real adulthood for the first time. At the time when I was the most eager to make a start in this world, I was miles away from those closest to me. Paradoxically, the time when they could have helped me the most was also when they were not available. And paradoxically, it was because I was away from them and forced to fend for myself, that I became more inclined to grow into an adult.

I would spend much of my time back in Singapore getting to know as much about it as I possibly could, so as to avoid being a moron in front of a foreigner.

One of the things about opening your horizons is that you stop seeing Singapore as a kind of prison, where you’re forced to live in against your will, and start understanding that you might have a choice, and you chose Singapore anyway. In Singapore, you are often taught over and over again, there is only one true path, one narrow definition of success, and everything must be ranked according to that measure of success. But after seeing how wide open the world is, I started thinking that maybe it would be better to have a broader range of experiences and live with an open mind rather than strive just for one thing. I started to understand that it certainly wasn’t true that Singapore was a cultural desert. What I truly figured out is that the economy was basically just one way of looking at your life, that art – even high art, was just another way of looking at your life. And no matter how you look at it, they are just facets of the same old question that you have to answer: what is your life all about? What gives meaning to your life? And most crucially, I also learnt that you didn’t really have to give a shit about how anybody else was answering this question.

12. How to be alone
I didn’t have that much of a social life during Snowy Hill. It’s a shame that I didn’t really try to fit in that badly. I’m starting to believe that secondary school was probably one of the last places where I could fit in socially without making too much effort. In JC I was a former gifted program guy in the midst of former express students. In NS I was pretty over-educated in comparison with my peers. In Snowy Hill I was the Singaporean amongst Americans. In the Factory, I was the English speaking egghead guy amongst the Chinese speaking, more hands on ppl. And now I’m in Mexico, I’m again the Singaporean amongst Americans.

In many ways I had already learnt how to be alone. I’ve always been a bit of a non-conformist, nobody had to teach me that. I wasn’t a Mummy’s child, I wasn’t a Daddy’s child. I just did what I felt like doing.

13. Jazz
I had always been very interested in music. I was already into indie pop way before Snowy Hill. I had already travelled some way on my musical journey. Spin had released their guide to alternative music by then, an attempt to catalogue much of a very vibrant genre. When I was in Singapore, I loved indie / alternative music. But when I went to Snowy Hill, it began to feel a little strange that I was so in love with a genre of music associated with white ppl, that most white guys didn’t even care about. I loved the music. But maybe what I didn’t understand that it wasn’t the whole story. It was also about the lyrics, the attitude, the lifestyle. Maybe I couldn’t warm up to all of that.

That’s the dirty little secret about indie music. No matter how much it is about rebellion, about freedom, about sticking it to the man, it’s as white as sliced bread. There have been a few guys of color in indie music. James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins. Sooyoung Park of Seam. Miki Berenyi of Lush. A few guys from TV on the Radio. But to some extent, it was a culture that I had difficulty adjusting to. Very likely I fell in love with indie music at first because I fell in love with being able to say fuck you to the Guns n Roses, Bon Jovi, Warrant, that gang, rather than actually loving that lifestyle. Maybe I identified with the teenage angst and the anger and rage. Also, you can write very long essays about existentialism, but a lot of punk is about existentialism – forsaking a higher authority and trying to govern your life around principles and whatever you consider to be “integrity”. But the lives that those guys led, the aimlessness, the ennui, the mindless consumerism, the endless pursuits of the next big thing, the heroin overdoses – the rest of it didn’t appeal to me.

During my first year, the dorm next to mine had a music program, and they had a big rehearsal room. I even had one or two tryouts, and I impressed one of the guys there enough that he was willing to form a band with me. But ultimately I just had too much on my plate, and I decided against it.

Being in the USA, I had the opportunity to acquire CDs for a cheaper price than in Singapore. I always thought that eventually I would move on to more advanced / complex music like jazz and classical. Interestingly enough, I only caught on to jazz. I had already owned stuff from Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but it was only in Snowy Hill when I began “getting it”, really understanding and appreciating what it all meant. My Antonio Carlos Jobim, Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill CDs began to make sense, and it wasn’t just fancy music that was more complex. (This blog was named after an Andrew Hill composition.)

I even encountered a real jazz legend when he turned up to teach in Snowy Hill for one year. There were auditions for a “Dr (insert name here)”. So imagine seeing Dr Thelonious Monk, or Dr Miles Davis, or something like that. I didn’t know who he was. There was an audition and I went in, in spite of not being trained in jazz. I played a bit of Jobim but I was crap and we all knew that. He saw that I was a mathematics major and asked if I would be interested in working with him on producing academic work centered around music and mathematics. I probably should have said “yes” but I was thinking very materialistically about “how am I going to explain this to my sponsors?” so I turned him down.

14. Writing
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in Snowy Hill was learn how to write an essay. You guys may be surprised, but general paper was the only thing in my “A” levels I did not get an A or an A- for. Snowy Hill had a writing program in the first year of undergraduate that everybody was required to attend. I remember that I struggled like hell for it. The first course I took was with a music teacher who didn’t seem very sympathetic to what I was trying to achieve. The second course was with a more interesting teacher. She was ambitious enough to make the course ostensibly about English literature, but she also made us write essays about the different art forms: painting, music, cinema. The first essay I turned in got a C- but the last one got an A. It was probably some kind of a feel good effect, but I suppose there was an improvement because I felt like I was getting the hang of something.

I wouldn’t give myself an A for much of what I write in this blog, because there’s so much stuff here and I write it quickly. But there was the exercise of framing of an idea, developing a narrative around it, and developing it into something. It’s ironic that I had already won a couple of playwriting awards, and I was still struggling with my essays.

Later on, I would take a lot of reading courses. I don’t really know how much of them was useful. I took one anthropology class, about race. For the worst of reasons – you know how on the internet outrage is the emotion that’s the most contagious? That professor wasn’t even particularly inspiring, but he started talking about how the US screwed over the Indians and for whatever reason I just couldn’t look away. I think I would have been better of studying the classics or whatever. Towards the end of my stay at Snowy Hill, I was just acing the writing courses. Whatever writing course I took, I would get an A and it would pull my grade up, which is so unbecoming of a mathematics major.

15. Skiing / skating
Snowy Hill had a physical education program, and it was compulsory to take one or two modules. So one of the things we had was skating. It was a natural thing for me to take, and that also meant that I learnt inline skating.

There were also a few snow trips, and I got to learn skiing and snowboarding. I suppose it’s only fair to have these perks when you’re putting up with plenty of shitty weather.

16. Songwriting
As I mentioned earlier, I had always wanted to master songwriting. I had written music when I was 8. I was attending a class for musical prodigies and it was assigned as homework, so I just had to do it. In many ways, songwriting is similar to writing compositions or writing computer programs. After a while, it’s a skill you get familiar with, because you have some patterns or structures in your head that you can use over and over again.

I was walking down the hill that I named Snowy Hill for one day. Unfortunately I had chosen to live in a dorm which was downhill from Snowy Hill. One evening, I was walking downhill, into the beautiful sunset, and this piece of music just popped into my head. In a way it was similar to “I Can See For Miles”. In a way it was similar to something by Spiritualized. But it wasn’t exactly the same.

When you write something for the first time, you can come up with something that’s awkward, and you’d be thinking, “a real songwriter would not have written that.” What Yeats said about poetry is also true of songwriting. You could spend hours trying to come up with the right phrase, but it could sound like it’s not worth a moment’s thought.

We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

17. God
In many ways, we Singaporean Chinese have this very brutally pragmatic and materialistic worldview. And at the time when I was in Snowy Hill, capitalism hadn’t yet become as reviled as it is today. But after being there for a while one of the things I realised was that there were a lot of people who did things simply because of this sense that one has to be great. This was the “mansion on a hill” ethos of Americans. You can be really cynical about it, but they’re great because they just want to be great. And there’s something a little more spiritual about it, which is why – unfortunately there are two main incentives to strive towards greatness, and both of them have their downside. It means that either you’re mercenary as hell and often ask for even more than you’re willing to give, or you become some kind of holier than thou sanctimonious prick. I will never be a Christian because I am not authoritarian enough to be one. I will never submit to a higher authority. But maybe I became a little bit more spiritualized. Sometimes I felt as though I didn’t have to drag myself through things anymore, that there was a greater spirit which would carry me through things.

As Singaporeans, we just have too many out of bound markers, and we are nice people, but there are too many constraints on our behavior. There are too many things that we were told not to do, and we worry too much about transgressing on other people that we hold ourselves back too much. When I was suddenly in an environment where anything was possible, I just decided to test the boundaries a little bit more. That got me into a bit of trouble during the first few years of my working life, because I had a few bosses who didn’t like that, but things got better once I had earned their trust (but I took too long to earn their trust).

The problem is that a lot of things in Singapore are a lot like earning 100 marks for a test. We just become trained seals. To a certain extent, I reviled that and I still do. Too much of what grade school in Singapore does is too similar to getting all of you to validate yourselves by submitting to a higher authority. That is obviously not healthy and only in your ECAs are you ever taught anything close to what real leadership skills are like. Too often you are told that there is only one right answer, or else there are a certain set of talking points that have to be raised in an essay question.

I had become a little bit more brash once I embraced the spirit. Maybe I learnt a little bit more to use my gut emotions. But since I am who I am, I very often temper those gut emotions with a good dose of reality.

18. Mathematics
When I was in secondary school and junior college, I was a good mathematics student, and at one or two points, I was chosen to represent my school, but not really often enough. I was overshadowed by a few of my peers, and, rather ignominiously, my little sister. In fact, in Snowy Hill one or two of the Singaporeans knew my sister, and asked me straight in the face what it felt like to be overshadowed by her. (The answer to that is that she does not have as much musical talent as I do and I’ll always be better than her in one or two things.) I probably took it because it was labelled as the “honors course” and I wanted to stretch myself. My sister was one year after me, so she got to enter university before I did, (guys are delayed for 2 years because of NS). And she went to a really good school and told me that the advanced maths and physics courses taught stuff that was far ahead of anything that people in the Olympiad training teams were learning, so I just wanted to see what that was all about. After all, what I felt was that in secondary school, I achieved a lot of my aims, except for being able to regularly represent my school in academic competitions.

As usual, my zeal for it quickly wore out. But thankfully there is an emotion that is more durable than youthful zest, and that is … for me, it is easy to be persistent. I’m a naturally stubborn person. I’m also a procrastinator, but I usually throw things at the problem until the problem gets done.

So I set out on a crusade, early on in my time at Snowy Hill, to take on the hardest maths classes. At the end of my first year, my decision on a major was three ways between computer science, physics and mathematics. Snowy Hill was really famous for physics and computer science, but in the end I chose mathematics because it was the closest to what I felt like doing. I took the courses labelled as the hardest introductory courses in all three subjects, and ended up screwing up my grades for the first year, and paradoxically that just made me go down that path over and over again: I just ended up taking the harder courses and not giving a shit about my grades because they were all screwed up anyway.

But for me it was not straightforward. No matter how much I worked (and I worked hard), and how talented I was (and I was talented), I just didn’t have the discipline or the focus to truly excel at mathematics. It requires a certain kind of temperament, a coldness, a focus, and a lot of patience. I just coasted along. I liked what I learnt in mathematics, I liked learning about how a proof works, and how understanding how ideas were related to each other. But I absolutely could go no further than that in pure mathematics. There was one course, abstract algebra, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful branches of mathematics. But one day after spending three hours writing a proof for some obscure theorem, I put my pen down and yelled out “WHO GIVES A FUCK ABOUT THIS SHIT?” Mathematics is something that’s so unworldly that in order to succeed you truly have to not give a shit about the rest of the world and just like logical structure for its own sake. Even I was not that much of a nerd.

19. Psychology
At Snowy Hill, the introduction course to Psychology was famous. Psychology was probably one of the most important courses I could have taken, although I could not have known it back then. It was one of those rare courses that didn’t count towards my degree in any way. I had always been bad with people, and not very aware or not very good at reading them. There was a period of time when I opened my feelings up to an extent that was rather unusual for me, part of the reason was the girl I was seeing (online, at least) and the other part was how my taking psychology taught me how to think about motivation.

The thing about life in Singapore, when it’s so structured, is that many of us don’t really think very much about psychology. It’s not really taught that much in school, except obliquely, in subjects like literature. Even when people were deciding what to study, people did not treat psychology as a serious subject.

People lead a blinkered life in Singapore. You were supposed to achieve economic success, and you had a few ways to do it. If you wanted to take some subjects like arts and sciences, they weren’t very well regarded, and people often thought you did them because you didn’t meet the points cut off for STEM / medicine / law.

I’m a person who was relatively alright with the Singapore system, but I never bought into their ideas completely. It gave me a lot of grief. I never felt alright with that. There was some psychological barrier to me giving it everything I got. The preceding years, in JC and in NS were some of the worst years of my life, because there was a lot about my life that felt wrong. I couldn’t understand the meaning of my life. I was probably seeing a psychologist at that time, just a few sessions. The way I saw it, my life ahead of me was a lot of doing things I didn’t want to do (probably the soulless acquisition of wealth), in order to achieve the things I didn’t want. I hated the rat race. I probably was a bit of a misanthropist at that time. I believed in higher, more abstract ideals, and I didn’t trust what I considered to be baser things, like money and sex. The more highfalutin it was, the more I wanted to believe in it.

I suppose, there were three things that happened at around the same time. First was the opportunity to see life from a different perspective. I saw a side of the Americans that was very practical. They were just allergic to bullshit, or another way to put it was that I saw what life could have been like if it was unencumbered by the sort of bullshit that we see in Singapore. Singapore is a highly developed, highly civilized country on the surface, and we have a very good structure and system. But we have also mostly absorbed the wisdom from other civilisations – the West, China and to some smaller extent India and southeast Asia. And we don’t always understand the deeper context in most cases. Like the Indian civil service, we adopt what we think are the right practices without understanding why they came about.

Secondly, I developed a form of independence after living abroad for a year. I wasn’t behaving like a superstar or anything, but I did push myself a little. I lacked discipline, though and I bit off more than I could chew.

And last of all, I started to have a lot of movies that taught me how to read people. I used to be truly, truly bad at it, but after a while, I learnt to ask a few questions. What motivates him? What is he like? Psychological motive is the thing that distinguishes us from mindless automatons. Our concept of pleasure and pain is what makes us who we are. I learnt that it was very important to understand how to psyche yourself up, how to manage your mood, and how to manage other peoples’ mood. But unfortunately this coming of age took place at a time when I didn’t have a lot of friends. I wish that I had learnt all this in JC and NS when I was surrounded by people all around me to practice this knowledge and understanding on. I might have made a lot of friends who would put me in very good stead for my future.

I used to be quite foolish, and I don’t think I’m very good at it, but at the very least, I stopped being laughably incompetent. I developed a theoretical framework about how human interactions work, and before this, I didn’t even have a theory to work with. I would say this was crucial to my life getting better. After I returned to Singapore, my first few years in the workforce were tough, but I was able to put this knowledge into practice and that’s how I grew as a person.

20. Jerking off
Yes, well, there wouldn’t be a number 20 if not for that. And just as well that I only got into this during my second year. During my first year, I had a roommate, and it is very inconvenient to jack off when he’s around.

On the minus side, I probably made very few friends outside of the community of Singaporeans, that I would still be able to contact today. I probably would have been forgotten by now, if I were to go back. But I would still want to go back. I promised myself that if I were to get married, I would bring my wife there, in the middle of winter, to show her around.

I didn’t attend any frat parties. I didn’t make a lot of American friends. I probably had enough talent to be in a band, but I never formed a band. I didn’t learn about the pleasures of alcohol and caffeine until much later, when I was in my thirties. I didn’t have any exciting ECAs. I was very often guilty of doing nothing for days, and sitting on my ass. When you go to a place like Snowy Hill you immediately realize that you will, for maybe four years, have the door open to a world of possibilities, and you only have a limited amount of time to grab everything you can until it closes. But I had one big item on my agenda and I did fulfill it. I was there to understand the meaning of life, and I believe that after I left Snowy Hill, I had some notion of it. It wasn't completely coherent, and actually it's not that important for this vision to be coherent. But this vision must be broad reaching enough to inform most of the things you do. You should already come away with a set of processes and values that are going to shape everything you do, everything you touch.

These are the last two paragraphs of Tolstoy’s masterwork “Anna Karenina” and it reflects what I felt about finally making a passage towards being an adult:

"This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith—or not faith—I don’t know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.
"I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."

I used to ask myself, what would I do with all the opportunities that I had missed out on? Singapore is different. Singapore, to some small extent, blinkers you, and keeps you on the straight and narrow. It’s not exactly conducive to letting you take a step back and see things in perspective. When you go to a great university like Snowy Hill, the world is wide open. And if I had gone to a university in a major urban center, it would have been an even greater experience.


20 things I learnt in Snowy Hill part 1

It’s been more than 10 years since I graduated from Snowy Hill, and for some reason, it still manages to be one of the most exciting things about my life. What a shame about that huh. I suppose a lot of my ideas, and my viewpoints in life were formed around that time. Some of them were changed gradually after I left the place, but I don’t think there was another part in my life since then where there was so much personal growth compressed into such a short period of time. The other day, I was watching “Yi Yi”, which was one of the movies that I enjoyed very much when I was still in Snowy Hill, and I still remember which movie theatre in Snowy Hill I watched it, I remember marveling at how a three hour movie was so great that it felt like a two hour movie.

1. The meaning of wealth / Economics
The way that I would use the word “wealth” in this instance was that there were different aspects of it. At first, I thought that it only meant money. But then people are already divided over whether it meant how much money you were holding on to, or how much money you were making and spending. Then later on, I realised that opportunity was a form of wealth. Being in a right position to make trades was a form of wealth (that’s why real estate in big cities are more expensive). Health was a form of wealth. Having choices about your life was a form of wealth. Being happy was a form of wealth. Having influence was a form of wealth. Having energy to do stuff was a form of wealth.

Sometimes these forms of wealth would be mutable and transferred to each other, and sometimes it was not. But very often it was, and what I realised was that the idea – not just in the business world, but in life itself – that a life well lived was how you transformed these forms of wealth from one to another. People who are rich probably thought about things in terms of potential. I don’t really want to talk about positive thinking, because it’s overrated. But you have to understand that wealth is something that’s a subset of a larger thing – desirable things, good things. People just like the distinguish the spiritual from the material, but they are not easily separated. They just feel different.

I used to think that making money for its sake was very vulgar and unworthy. Before I went to Snowy Hill, I went to New York City with my parents, who helped me settle into college before I began. NYC, as you know is where you have all the greatest art galleries. It was also a few years into one of the biggest gentrification process you ever saw, and by the time I went there it was all cleaned up and sanitized. I don’t know what I feel about not visiting there more often, but maybe NYC is not really my sort of place. (even though it’s the great capital of jazz and punk and I did catch a Sonny Rollins performance). Anyway as we were leaving, my father said to me something: “you know, you have all these beautiful artsy stuff, and people living in high culture and all that, but it wouldn’t exist without money.” And that was something that I had eventually learnt to reconcile with. The spiritual and the material are not separable from each other, but rather they will always be linked. Not everybody will agree with me, but that is what I believe.

The other thing that I learnt from economics were the supply / demand curves and the production possibility frontier. I also learnt a lot of optimization / linear programming stuff. But of all the social sciences classes I took, those were the least satisfying. First, there was something extremely unsatisfying about reducing everything down to a bunch of equations. And second, you can only use those models if a lot of assumptions are satisfied. A lot of what’s wrong about economics is you have a lot of people saying “well the assumptions are not satisfied, but let’s pretend that they don’t matter”. That’s complete bullshit. If assumptions did not matter, they wouldn’t exist.

2. The girl
One of the biggest things that ever happened to me when I was in Snowy Hill was, strangely enough, not a person from Snowy Hill. I met her during a pre-departure BBQ dinner at somebody’s condo, 5 blocks away from my grandmother’s house. Actually, I met her in secondary school. I didn’t think much of her, then. Then we had a temp job at the end of JC1. JC1 had been quite a shitty year for me, even though, when I look back upon it now, it was also kinda great. But maybe it was around JC1 when I started wondering if she would be a girlfriend.

I dragged my heels a lot. In JC2, it was one of my most crucial years, and I aced my “A” levels, so in a way it was just as well I didn’t have any distractions. Then there was national service, but those were fallow years, wasted years. Then I bumped into her again and I discovered that she was friendly. I kept in touch with her and emailed her once or twice during my first year in college. My first year in college was a complete culture shock, and it was just about me getting used to this place.

I realize now that my first year of college was just there to lay a foundation for the next few years of college, which would prove to be extremely momentous for me. And one of the things was that I went out on one or two dates with her. I never got to kiss her, and I don’t really understand why. Then we followed up with one email. Then another email. Then came a torrent of emails, of instant messaging. You couldn’t imagine that I would fall in love with somebody who was just some cursor flashing on a screen. But that was basically what happened. Of course it helped that I had seen her in real life and that she was quite good looking.

There were a few circumstances in my favour. First was that we were growing kids at that point in time. Yes, I had finished army, and she was about to be called to the bar as a lawyer. But we were still growing, exploring, and seeing the world, and so there was a lot of overlap at that point. I was a mathematics student who was also into literature and arts. I got interested in movies. Maybe she saw in me a life in a foreign university. She was studying in a Singaporean university at that point in time. Consider this: For the rest of our lives, from around the time that I went home, to around now, she would be in some foreign university. Also, one of the things that she studied, as an academic, was cyberspace. Living your life online, and having an online persona. Now she’s had quite a few boyfriends, and I only had her for a short while. But what she did with her life was pretty consistent with what I probably represented to her.

But in another way, I wasn’t that true to the relationship. That part of my life involved me living in a temperate country. Since then I’ve lived in Singapore, and in “Mexico”, which is in the southwestern, desert part of the USA. She’s had a big influence on me in her own way, but I’m not so much an artsy person right now. That frame of mind that I was in could only have existed in the border regions between teenage years and adulthood.

Later on, I would still be hanging on to her for the first few years after Snowy Hill. But deep down we started drifting apart. She started getting contemptuous and eventually I also did likewise. I became more of an engineer. I began seeing the world as being divided into two types of people: those who cared deeply about how the world saw them, and those who didn’t. She was from the first, and I increasingly belonged to the second. Towards the end, it was only me making contact, and after we had a quarrel, I decided that she was no longer going to be part of my life, and I stopped. And I didn’t hear back from her either. She was a vain person and as much as she had grown tired of me, I don’t think she would ever forgive me for disappearing.

I would occasionally write to her and she’d write back, but it would never be like the old days. We had well and truly run out of things to say to each other. I knew that anything short of pandering to her ego and telling her how much I still loved and missed her would not make her interested anymore. And of course I wasn’t going to say anything that wasn’t true. A lot of people say that you never stop loving your ex, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that some people well and truly move on.

But in the middle, that second year of college, whatever took place between us was the thing that made all this stuff worthwhile. I felt like I lived nine lives during that period of time, and died nine deaths. During your first love affair, you will experience all those emotions that you never knew existed. And it’s not the mature love of placid and contented middle age. It’s wild, raging passion, from extreme jealousy to extreme ecstasy. It was a form of intimacy, we were exchanging secret childhood stories about our past. We were the key to each other’s past, as though we found a key that would transport back to a happier, more hallowed era. And yet, we also saw each other as the tickets to the future. We were thousands of miles apart, and we could never stand to be apart. She was in the tropics, and I was in the middle of the coldest of winter and six feet of snow. There’s something about winter that makes love affairs even more intense, because the passion just feels even more heated when there’s snow and ice all around you, as though everything is dead for miles around and the only thing there for you is her.

And I was just making that journey after journey of discovery and getting it on with her at the same time. It just made everything more alive and more intense. But that’s the paradox of the whole affair. I don’t know if it was exhausted. I don’t know if I was satiated. I don’t know if I was like Harper Lee, who wrote such a great book that I didn’t think I could make anything as great as that. Or maybe I knew how much work it was, how much it took out of me, and I demurred.

Eventually, though, I got sick and tired of it for the same reason that I got sick and tired of long distance running. It began to feel a little bit like a drug habit. I would be craving for that one more hit, and it might or might not come. She could make me really happy, but a lot of the time, she didn’t. There were a few things that I always found annoying about her, but when the relationship went downhill, they just became much worse.

But anything else I learnt in university just because more intense because of those few months.

3. Movies
Snowy Hill had a cinema. I suppose it made sense because it was a bit of a liberal arts college. Problem is, I spent way too much time in there, and not actually having a real girlfriend. But I don’t really mind because I think that for a while, at least, I had some of the greatest cinematic experiences I every experienced. Some movies just seem greater when you’re young and in love, and especially if they’re masterpieces. I watched quite a few of the masterpieces. You can cross reference the entry on psychology. I tried to analyze what the movie characters were going through, and I think I learnt quite a bit from that.

4. Winter
I had spent 20+ years in a tropical country before going to Snowy Hill, where the weather was completely different from Singapore. I resolved to get used to the winter during my first semester, and for a while I loved the novelty and the change. But sometime around February you will get sick and tired of it all. There wasn’t that much sunlight, and there were days when I would get out of bed only one or two hours earlier than sunset. That would be pretty horrible. Also another thing that made me not suited to Snowy Hill was my inability to …. Let’s put it this way: if a class was at 9 in the morning, I would probably either be copying all my notes from a friend, or doing all my homework downloaded from the internet as though it were a correspondence course. It was an ordeal to wake up early in the morning every day. I suppose that’s something you really want to think about before you go to school in a cold country.

Snowy Hill was also my first taste of seasonal affective disorder. There were ways for me to cope with that, eventually, but I wish that during my first few winters I had learnt to do that better. The other way for me to cope was to fill my bath tub with hot water and soak in there and study for a few hours. This was probably quite obnoxious and earned me the sobriquet of “Archimedes”.

5. Politics / History
As you can imagine, bathtub reading was especially suited to politics and history. I had gone to Snowy Hill to study mathematics, but I also wanted to pad it up with other stuff that used more of the right brain. So I did politics / history / international relations. I didn’t know anything about international relations, it just sounded like an interesting title.

Reading about politics and history was an unexpectedly unpleasant experience, but then again, that was probably due to reporter’s bias. You don't read about peace and prosperity. It only makes the history books when things go badly wrong. There was a lot to think about and mull over in history and politics. There was a lot of people questioning their own assumptions, and analysing the underlying structure of these assumptions.

In fact, most of the time we studied the assumptions because it's just so much easier to recognise that people just walk in with a lot of philosophical baggage, and after you agree with that baggage (which is never) you'd eventually come to their conclusions. Therefore the truly meaningful discussion is whose assumptions, and whose way of seeing the world is more accurate. History teaches you that it's not only the facts, but also how they are interpreted that matters. And in a way, the same would be true of anything to do with people. In engineering, in computer science, you're always going to interpret human behaviour and if you don't understand what unwritten assumptions you have, then it's very dangerous. Also what scale you're viewing things is also important. And this is also true in engineering. Suppose you wanted to measure productivity. Did you do it on an hourly basis, or a daily basis? Because the scale that you were looking at would tell you different things. It's a shame that so many people who do engineering aren't also studying history, because there's a lot that history can teach you about analysing human systems.

6. Cooking
I was forced to cook from my second year onwards. For the first year I had a dining plan, and it was pretty cool, they actually cared about the quality of food (that’s because Snowy Hill was a depressing place and they had to compensate). So for my first year I ate at the dining hall almost every day, and it was a big buffet every day. Pretty cool, a bit like being on a cruise ship.

Second year onwards, to save money, I moved off the campus dorm and rented a place a relatively short walk from the school. I had to learn to cook. At first, I was just going to be very creative and mixing all kinds of crazy stuff in my food, including one time when I mixed in milo and grape jelly. That episode became infamous and amongst my Singaporean peers in Snowy Hill I never recovered my reputation for food. There was another time when I spent 2-3 hours every day preparing food and cooking. I think it’s crazy now but a few of my relatives were very good cooks, and in a way this was my way of being nearer to them spiritually.

7. Coding
I never took a module unless it contributed to my degree requirements, until my last semester. Yes, Snowy Hill was one of those places where you could take all sorts of crazy stuff and they would still count to your degree. I declared as a mathematics major, but only half of my classes had anything to do with mathematics. (Although the ones that did were quite demanding and rigorous).

There were one or two modules that didn’t fulfill any requirements, and one of them was actually a fairly heavy computer science course, the software / hardware interface. I didn’t have to do it, and people thought I was crazy, but I was thinking ahead, and I think it helped me in some small way when I applied to the University of Mexico to do computer science. There was another module that didn’t fulfill any requirements, but I earned a letter from that prof and it also helped me. So these were things that helped me return to the states.

My introduction to coding was a rough one. The guy who taught us in the introductory course was the obligatory crazy larger than life professor who unfortunately may not have been the most coherent at explaining stuff. And he just threw a lot of crazy stuff at us, and got a lot of us coding in Java. For the final project, we had to write up a program whereby it solved a maze. I was coding like crazy until the end, and inexplicably, I got the program completed 1 hour before the deadline. I won’t forget that. Most of my life, I had been trying to get away with late homework, and in computer science, they don’t allow that.

The next course I took was one on functional programming. I probably took it because it was labelled as the “honors course” and I wanted to stretch myself. But actually it taught stuff that was completely different from the non-honors version. But I wasn’t used to thinking about programming in that way, and at the same time, I was starting to understand that programming wasn’t a piece of cake. It should have been a fun class, an interesting class, and I think the professor did a great job teaching us stuff and keeping us entertained at the same time. He and his wonderful gang of TAs were creating lots of homework problems with fun stories behind them. But I don’t think I did that well for that class, although that was the one which introduced me to how fun computers were. I made the decision not to major in computer science and did mathematics instead, although that decision could have gone either way.

8. Importance of exercise
One of the things I learnt about the hard way was seasonal affective disorder. In fact, I have had to learn about these things. Snowy Hill was the third place in a row that I had been to where I’ve had to deal with a depressing place. In fact, when I think about the 12 years that spanned my being in JC, then national service, then Snowy Hill and finally my first few years at the Factory, those were the places where I had the biggest problems with depression. I was probably also in the depths of depression after my first breakup with codfish (who was the icq nickname for the girl). It was one of two periods in my life I had suicidal thoughts. Thankfully it didn’t happen since then.

One of the things I learnt from this – let me call it a quarter life crisis – was that it’s very very important to take care of your mental health. It’s always been one of my highest priorities.

9. Grinding it out
Even during the worst periods of my “A” levels, I had never had to work that hard for a school project. Maybe those annual projects that we had back in school, which I invariably left off until the last minute. But it never influenced my final grade, and I never felt as though my career depended upon it. By the time the “O”s and the “A”s arrived, I had been drilled to death, and I was actually quite calm when taking my “A”s and I did well (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about Snowy Hill.)

This was different. Towards the business end of the semester, a lot of things would suddenly be due at the same time, and whether or not you had kept up with the readings, and whether or not you had mastered the concepts for the exams, everything would be due. And it was invariably a chaotic time for me, no time to do cooking, or wash up. And after that, if you were living in an undergraduate dorm, they kicked you out. (I think the big perk of being a graduate student was that they didn’t do that to you.) Over time, I learnt how to mitigate this, and my grades generally improved from year 1 to year 4. Other than a year 3 slump, which was caused by my breaking up and suffering a mild depression. But I never really mastered how to do that.

10. Books
I suppose this was another offshoot from my academic activities. I loved to go through the bookstore at the first week of classes and go through the books and look at what was assigned as reading. I can’t really believe how hungry I was for knowledge back then. These days I still like it but I’m not a maniac like back in the day. I wasn’t even a particularly fast reader but all I wanted to do was to read and read and read.

Funnily enough, before going to Snowy Hill I’d have been more interested in fiction and in art film. After learning about politics, and learning the basic ideas of politics and economics, those became my favourite subjects instead. Snowy Hill was this great divide: before that, I was primarily interested in fiction. After that, non-fiction. Perhaps it was because I was studying literature for “O” levels instead of history. In a way I thought of all the books in the world as different parts of a great system of novels, and every one of those books told you one significant, but very small part of the system. You had to go through quite a few of them before you got the big picture. Sometimes you would read two books who are arguing directly with each other. And in a way, the many books that make up your shelf form a very fascinating community.