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1-10 December 2002

10 DecNew Traffic Lights
8 DecWhat were they thinking?
6 DecI, the Robot movie
6 DecORD email
6 DecPrivacy vs Security
6 DecThe Amazing Race in Singapore
6 DecEast Timor violence: Follow-up
5 DecStar Trek's Impending Demise?
5 DecStar Wars vs Star Trek
4 DecEast Timor violence
1 DecThe Lure of Explanations for The Lure of the Rings
1 DecNature & Government Policies
1 DecThe Words of Religion

New Traffic Lights

10 December 2002 11:54 PM SGT (link)

Some months ago when I noticed that some old incandescent-bulb traffic lights were being replaced with LED ones (go near one of them; it's fascinating to look at*), I speculated about the reasons. Here's something like a confirmation:

The light-emitting diode (LED) illumination revolution is underway. Cities around the world are replacing incandescent traffic lights with arrays of LEDs, solid-state electronic lights that require less than 10 percent the power of an incandescent bulb to generate the same apparent illumination, and last up to 20 years between replacements.

- LED Lights, MIT Technology Review

Actually the article is a review on some LED flashlights, but that paragraph above caught my eye.

Note: * Yes I have weird fetishes. As my friends will know better, that isn't exactly new.

What were they thinking?

8 December 2002 3:33 PM SGT (link)

Take a close look at the picture of Star Trek: The Next Generation crew Picard, Riker and Data on page L12 of today's Life! (middle right) - the picture is inverted left-to-right. The comm-badges are on the wrong side, and Data usually sits on the science station & not the helm as pictured. So, what were they thinking?

I, the Robot movie

6 December 2002 11:07 PM SGT (link)

The Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

- I, Robot, Isaac Asimov

The movie is a futuristic thriller in which a detective investigates a crime that might have been perpetrated by a robot, even though that seems an impossibility given those three prevailing rules.

- Reuters: Will Smith Winds Up 'Robot'

I just hope Will Smith, of Independence Day fame, doesn't muck this one up. I loved the book - each short story would pose the puzzle of what new situations or problems would occur within the strict confines of the Laws of Robotics. I found a paper by Roger Clarke (Asimov's Laws of Robotics - Implications for Information Technology) on the subtle potential pitfalls of reasoning by these Laws, among other insights.

ORD email

6 December 2002 10:45 PM SGT (link)

I was fascinated by yesterday's WordSpy entry:

Exit Memo
n. A memo addressed to the employees of a company, written by a person about to leave the company.

Synonyms for the exit memo are the goodbye memo (1988) and the departure memo (1989). Nowadays, exit memos are most often sent via e-mail, so some variations on the theme are exit e-mail (2002) and goodbye e-mail (1992).

- WordSpy: exit memo

May I add one more: ORD email, which has been an informal tradition in my office for at least a few generations of NSFs. Mostly it's to give thanks to the people that have worked with you for two-plus years, & to gloat to the newer ones about the fact that you're ORDing. I myself haven't decided whether to write one, or if I do, what I should say.

Privacy vs Security

6 December 2002 10:28 PM SGT (link)

Even as the Justice Department's Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) program is quietly killed, the American security agencies are closely looking into the promise of Total Information Awareness (TIA).

To recap, the Justice Department proposed recruiting "a million" citizens, anyone from postal employees to truck drivers, to report any "suspicious activity" from people they meet in their line of work. Imagine everyone spying on everyone else, & people taking advantage of this climate of suspicion for their own benefit, as what seems to have happened in totalitarian societies like the old USSR.

Links: Wired News: Feds' Spying Plan Fades to Black on TIPS' demise, and Salon: Is Big Brother our only hope against bin Laden?, which looks at the technical aspects of TIA.

The Amazing Race in Singapore

6 December 2002 10:20 PM SGT (link)

Yesterday's ST (Hey, don't pray, pray, ok?) reported on the negative reaction by some members of the public to the news that Phua Chu Kang will be featured in the TV show The Amazing Race (which was also shown last night). Some have deemed the "illiterate, odd-looking man in yellow boots" unworthy of representing Singapore in this international contest. Today's ST has a follow-up report, but it's not online.

Well after watching the episode in question, I found that this supposed role as Singapore's ambassador was really not as important as he was made out to be - he simply handed clues to three teams that had to find their way to this flat in Choa Chu Kang (Phua Chu Kang in Choa Chu Kang - hahaha). Besides, people should realise that it's a MediaCorp coup, which is why they've been playing those PCK teasers all week long (his screentime in the end lasted about as long as a single teaser). MediaCorp has little reason to select a person that will best represent Singapore (& god forbid should that person be remotely associated with MediaWorks); it's a purely commercial decision, & it suits their interests to promote Phua Chu Kang the character. This might sound somewhat cynical, but I believe the ones who objected to PCK as ambassador have misunderstood the nature of this event as a national instead of a corporate one.

This was my first Amazing Race episode, if only to see what the fuss was about. It's quite an interesting reality show that seems to be more meaningful than, say, Temptation Island or Survivor - of course there's still the fun of seeing which teams win, & even the interpersonal intrigue. Still even as they're frantically finding places, I suppose they did have time to learn something about the countries they were visiting.

I became conscious of the different ways people in contests react to stressful situations. I really wouldn't like to compete with people like Ian & Flo, and I've met this kind before: they're so pumped up with adrenaline that they'll yell at you if you so much as do anything that seems like you're slowing the team down. Then when the race is done they cool down & pretend everything was fine. The other guys seemed quite nice.

I was also quite surprised to find out that people had trouble with "all streets in this district being named Choa Chu Kang", or that the lifts didn't stop on every floor! (Apartment numbers: OK, they can be tricky to the unprepared mind). That was a lesson in my unquestioned assumptions and cultural beliefs. But just think: if they had to use public transport (i.e. buses & trains), I can assure you everyone would have had a lot more trouble.

East Timor violence: Follow-up

6 December 2002 12:00 AM SGT (link)

The details of what happened have been cleared up; see, for example, ABC News's East Timor Arrests Dozens After Riots. The government has started the investigation and apparently the capital is recovering.

"If you burn people's houses and steal their possessions, they will leave," Gusmao said in a public address. "If they will leave, what is going to happen to us? We will be alone with our poverty, without help, forgotten."

- ABC News, East Timor Arrests Dozens After Riots.

The Straits Times has it that Mindef has confirmed that the Singaporean peacekeepers are "fine":

'Our company of peacekeepers is deployed in south-west Timor-Leste. They have not been called upon to deal with the situation in Dili,' a spokesman said.

- Straits Times, 5 Dec 2002: UN troops patrol Dili streets after deadly riots.

That's it, I guess. One hopes that this is just a temporary setback for the fledging nation.

Star Trek's Impending Demise?

5 December 2002 12:56 AM SGT (link)

Also from Salon, The Trouble with Trek purports to analyse the troubles the franchise is facing with Insurrection (a fair Salon review) barely recouping what it cost to make, and the possible saturation of the market with Star Trek TV series, books & memorabilia, and declining interest (with the concomitant "rise of fantasy"?). It also has interviews with Leonard Nimoy, better known as the actor who played Spock. The journalist lays the blame mostly with Rick Berman, the appointed successor to creator Gene Roddenberry's legacy. All I can say is that there are as many opinions as Trekkies for questions like which series is the best, what should be the focus of the next one, & whether Berman has ruined it all - ah, the answers are never very clear-cut. It's a fascinating look, even if hardly anyone will agree with everything said in it.

Sidenote: Some feel that there is a scale for describing the level of fandom you exhibit: travellers follow some of the movies & TV series but aren't really "into" it; Trekkers watch significant amounts of the movies & TV series & know quite a bit about the Star Trek universe; Trekkies flock to conventions, own action figures & uniforms, & even play-act as Starfleet officers once in a while. Personally, I use "Trekkie" to describe both Trekkers & Trekkies, but I'm a Trekker ;-).

Star Wars vs Star Trek

5 December 2002 12:20 AM SGT (link)

Someday somebody is going to write the definitive article about Star Wars vs Star Trek, but an informal search shows that people are more interested in comparing shields and weapons systems (sigh). For now:

I found this article by David Brin at Salon - "Star Wars" despots vs. "Star Trek" populists. Yes he's the acclaimed science fiction writer of the Uplift saga & The Postman, among others. Check out the graphic on the first page where you have Picard taking aim with his phaser at Darth Vader - very cool :-)

Seriously, Brin does an intriguing analysis of the two pop science fiction mega-empires by looking at their way of telling their stories: he places the tale of Star Wars in a long tradition of demigod storytelling where good and bad are clearly differentiated, the protagonist is destined to seek something or achieve something, & in the face of numerous challenges and self-doubt he triumphs to return to his people in greatness. In contrast, he says, the science fiction of the 1950s-era pulp magazines, novels, and in most of Star Trek, stories are told through a more egalitarian way, where everyone, no matter how lowly, has a say in correcting mistakes and contributing to the advance of mankind. He also takes the chance to lambast George Lucas for his unabashed preference for strong benevolent dictators and the insidious agenda in Star Wars he is 'peddling':

Of course, Brin also realises that Star Trek is fundamentally a typical American vision of the future - friendly technology, progressive institutions, democracy, and the ever-ongoing exploration of what it means to be human.

Some caution is warranted though. For instance, science fiction doesn't always celebrate the everyman at the expense of demigods. For instance, Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga places the fate of the human diaspora in the hands of Hari Seldon with his psychohistory, although the saga is much richer than that. Also, you have to wonder why all the big events only happen to the Enterprise crews ;-). The field is broad enough and generous enough to admit even those who don't write in the "conventional" style Brin advocates. As for the heavy criticism of Star Wars - at a point, even Godwin's Law comes into play - I haven't watched it, so I can't really say how much I would dismiss with the standard excuse "it's just a show".

Nevertheless Brin raises several important issues that we all - not just Star Wars or Star Trek fans - need to think about.

East Timor violence

4 December 2002 11:50 PM SGT (link)

The youngest nation in the world has been rocked by violence in the capital for the past few days, where student protesters have razed the Prime Minister's home & some shops. There are unconfirmed reports of at least 1 protester dead, and the rioters have ignored appeals from figures like President Xanana Gusmao to end the violence. Of course, my interest in this stems from my understanding that UNMISET (U.N. Mission of Support in East Timor), with a small contingent of <100 SAF personnel, should be taking the lead to calm the populace, given its mandate of "provid[ing] interim law enforcement and public security". But I'm not saying that I'm only concerned for the Singaporeans; I just want more information on the UN mission's role in all this. I'm concerned about reports like this:

The U.N. forces tried to disperse the crowds with tear gas around 1:00 p.m. (0400 GMT), but were unable to control the rioting and looting, which began to quell around 4:00 p.m.

- CNN: Police patrol riot-hit Timor

Most of the news I'm getting are from Australian sources who naturally focus on the larger Australian contingent & civilian staff based in Dili (e.g. The Age: Police open fire as riots and arson grip Timor; find more at Google News); the Straits Times has nothing for now save an AFP report.

Addendum: A brief Q&A on the recent troubles from the BBC.

The Lure of Explanations for The Lure of the Rings

1 December 2002 6:21 PM SGT (link)

In secondary school we were given 20 minutes in the morning after school assembly but before formal lessons to read, & on some days we would read Newsweek, not Time. Perhaps it's for this reason: sometimes they are driven to find pop-psychology explanations of social phenomena that sound good but may not be anywhere close to reality. For instance, does anyone remember how in the Man of the Century issue they tried to sell Einstein's great contribution in our century because his relativity theories presaged postmodernism? Everyone, not just physicists, should roundly dismiss that as nonsense.

Anyway they've done it again: see Time's review of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers & the success of the first instalment. They attribute it to "audiences looking for old-fashioned moral clarity" in the aftermath of the post-Sept. 11 attacks, & ties it up with a resurgence of interest in fantasy evinced by Harry Potter, Star Wars & even EverQuest etc.

In 2001 the fantasy double bill of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings ranked first and second at the box office, and it's happening all over again this year. In its first weekend alone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets cleared $88 million. Think Star Trek: Nemesis is going to come close to that?

- Time: Feeding on Fantasy

Of course as a Trekkie I'm aggrieved by the comment above, but I think the overshadowing of Star Trek in recent years, despite more of it than ever before (the overlapping shows DS9, Voyager, Enterprise), has more to do with the stereotypes people have of Star Trek as geeky & not so relevant to their lives, the failure of the Berman/Braga collaboration, or even better marketing from the likes of George Lucas. But the rivalry between Star Wars & Star Trek goes deep, & not just because of the similarity in names, but I'll write about that in my next post.

Some points I'd like to submit:

Nature & Government Policies

1 December 2002 6:08 PM SGT (link)

Today's Sunday Times has extracts from a speech delivered by Dr. Balaji Sadasivan, Minister of State for Health, to the Obstetrical & Gynaecological Society. Going along the line of the brain's capabilities & the state policies it has to cope with today, he deftly examines whether these policies should be reviewed to be more understanding of the limitations imposed on us by our neural matter. He touches on such diverse subjects as bilingualism & the difficulty many have with mastering two languages, & how from this many Singlish expressions arise (e.g. as the article's title goes, Chinese speakers tend to pronounce the R sound as an L, also resulting in the famous "Lolex" watches <g>); the medical school quota skewed against women because the resources are limited & women tend to quit from the profession to start families; homosexuality & the almost universal scientific consensus that it is largely a neurological phenomenon, causing us to think whether we can be more tolerant towards their sexual orientation.

While taking care not to overstate the importance of genetics and neurology on political policies and outcomes - like Lee Kuan Yew-style eugenics that have been quietly buried, I think his speech is quite progressive, & if the new coterie of MPs can exhibit this openness with respect to entrenched prejudices in our society, then we could really improve the way of life in areas that sorely need it.

The Words of Religion

1 December 2002 3:48 PM SGT (link)

Words, when written, crystallize history; their very structure gives permanence to the unchangeable past.

- Francis Bacon, essayist, philosopher, and statesman (1561-1626)

Sunday Times: When echoes of the past catch up analyses the origins of three words associated more with violence and subversion than the happiness and unity of religious canons we are more familiar with today: zealot, thug and assassin. Behind these words lie preserved accounts of certain religious feuds and power struggles that have otherwise long since faded into the past. I can think of some more: iconoclast (from Greek eikonoklastes, smasher of religious images, but now mostly used in the secular sense), crusade (which caused the Bush administration some grief when Bush used it to describe the war on terrorism).

People might not think about this too much, but the English vocabulary - and perhaps, more insidiously, the structure behind thoughts and ideas expressed in English - is greatly influenced by the Judeo-Christian faith. Take animal: seemingly innocuous when used to refer to creatures at the zoo, but actually deriving from Latin anima, soul - creatures endowed with the gift of life from God. I wonder if anyone has written more about this...

I used to have a friend who asked whether a classmate who used the expression "oh my God" whether he did believe in a God. I think the latter was just using it as an exclamation, as do I sometimes. Should we insist on remembering or retaining the religious histories behind these words? As I have shown with "animal", that goal seems to be elusive because we can hardly be sufficiently politically-correct: I think it's important to recognise the baggage each word carries, but also to move beyond it & endow them with newer meanings, hopefully of peace & reason.

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