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1-10 March 2003

9 MarSouth Park ORD Program
9 MarKaleidoscope on Iraq
8 MarA Level Results
4 MarThe Woes of the Kurds; Philippines follow-up
4 MarThe Problem with the US Presidency
3 MarProgress on the Library Tour
2 MarThe Pianist
2 MarLearning to Love the Bomb?
2 MarLe Modest Proposal
2 MarYes-But fellows

South Park ORD Program

9 March 2003 12:42 PM SGT (link)

I've been pleasantly surprised by the warm reception to the South Park ORD program I talked about in December, so here's the program to download (I have also put a link in the Links section). The creator of this "wonderful program" specially dedicates it to "poor souls like you and me who have lost our freedom in the name of defending our land", but doesn't mention any restrictions in distributing. However, if anyone has any problem with this, then drop me a note, or point me to the official site if any ;-).

Kaleidoscope on Iraq

9 March 2003 7:38 AM SGT (link)

A Level Results

8 March 2003 2:08 AM SGT (link)

The results for the 2002 batch were released on Thursday and it seems that the overall performance was very good - Channel NewsAsia reported that Nearly 13% of students who sat for 'A' levels obtained 4 As, and that ACJC got into the top 5 for the first time in "over 10 years", at the unmentioned expense of Temasek JC. This ranking is based on the percentage of students obtaining 2 A and 2 AO-Level passes including GP.

Anyway I decided to check out exactly how much the rate of students getting 4 distinctions - 4 As - has improved over the years. Culling data from the MOE press releases every year (here's the report for the batch of 2002), I have charted the trend over the last four batches:

Number of Students with 4 As

Percentage of JC Intakes with 4 As

(Click on graphs for full-size versions.)

As we can see from the first graph, the number of students getting 4 As has been increasing every year, and I have indicated the performance for the top 5 JCs (in terms of number of students getting 4 As). I also did a graph on the percentage of students getting 4 As out of their cohorts (up to 2001, 2002 cohorts by JC were not available, but for the total, 12.9% of the cohort got 4 As). Heh a nice piece of trivia for Rafflesians like me: RJC has had the highest percentage of its students getting 4 As since 1999. That's certainly not a flash in the pan. But come on, all the JCs featured here have done well, so we can save the "my JC is better than your JC" partisanship.

Statistics aside, I find it noteworthy that the MOE itself notes that the revised A Level syllabus, with more input from its part - such that I think what's left of the Cambridge label for the exams is, well, the Cambridge label - did not cause students' performance to drop; on the contrary it has improved. Congratuations to all!

The Woes of the Kurds; Philippines follow-up

4 March 2003 11:20 PM SGT (link)

Kurds: How Screwed Are the Kurds?, Slate asks, and it seems, very much (a good profile of the Kurds at the Washington Post. Recent US efforts to gain passage for their troops through Turkey have involved giving Turkish troops the right to advance into Iraqi Kurdistan, ostensibly because the Iraqi Kurds might incite the Turkish Kurds into rebellion. Although the plan has been stalled by the Turkish parliament, the danger that the Kurds will be sold out yet again, and possibly result in more violence with the Iranians getting embroiled, cannot be ignored.

Philippines: Apparently the uproar in the Philippines over the announcement (my post) that US troops were going to participate in a combat operation against the Abu Sayyaf has resulted in both the Filipinos and the Americans retracting from their earlier statements. Both sides are now weighing their options (CNN). I'm wondering why the Pentagon feels so strongly that it has to get involved with US troops when previous training missions and exercises with the Philippine forces have proved successful in dislodging the Abu Sayyaf from their base in Basilan, and now there are an estimated 400 of them left.

The Problem with the US Presidency

4 March 2003 11:12 PM SGT (link)

Our Idiot Ottoman Sultan Problem: A pseudo-satire on the problem with the American system of electing presidents: basically, how the modern trend is to have presidents that are outsiders, that have little involvement with Washington or federal-level affairs, and how the result for the President and the Cabinet is a game between Viziers and the Sultan. Not directly pertinent to the current administration, but good read nonetheless, especially if you're into Washingtonian trivia.

Progress on the Library Tour

3 March 2003 3:34 PM SGT (link)

The Pianist

2 March 2003 11:38 PM SGT (link)

Simply superb: The Pianist is the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist in Warsaw, Poland, who survives the Nazi occupation and Holocaust with luck, pluck and the help of a lot of others. Initially a good-humoured person, Szpilman is reduced by hunger and cold to a shadow of what he once was, but determination and his art keep him alive.

The first part has Szpilman and his family desperately coping with the circumstances of Polish defeat and German occupation: the Jewish community is first forced into a ghetto - the milieu of starvation and death is haunting - and dehumanised by having to wear armbands with the star of David, and they are subject to random humiliation and shootings by Nazi officers. This is horrifying whenever it happens, more so than the violence inflicted by soldiers on soldiers in war films like Saving Private Ryan - this is wanton cruelty inflicted on people guilty of nothing else than being Jewish. "If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" Shakespeare's words are said in vain.

"Ich bin... Ich war ein pianist."

Later with the assistance of the Polish resistance and friends who know of his importance, Szpilman manages to escape the fate of being sent to the concentration camps, and struggles to survive incognito in Warsaw. Despite the generous help of these friends and strangers, his survival is never assured, and in the end he is forced to fend for himself. I found the coda of the show the best part: as the pianist is hiding in the ruins of Warsaw, trying to open a can of pickles, a German officer sees him, and asks him what he is doing there, and who he is.

"Ich bin... Ich war ein pianist." ("I am... I was a pianist." - a remarkable statement.) The German officer gestures to the baby grand in the room nearby, "Play something." Szpilman trembles, as by that time he hadn't touched the piano in years, either because of illness or the need to keep quiet for fear of being discovered, but eventually he executes Chopin's Ballade No. 1 grandly, and the German officer is impressed beyond words.

That powerful scene by itself should result in director Roman Polanski's Oscar, I hope. It's hard to compare the work of different movies, but there was nothing of this level in Gangs of New York, for instance.

Later the German officer returns with some food, and a can opener, which is the high mark of black humour - funny yet incredibly sad at the same time. He helps Szpilman get through the weeks before the Russians enter Warsaw, but persists in calling him Jude, Jew. This German officer - Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, it is later revealed - might still think of Szpilman as something less than human, but he can still be compassionate to a true artist of the piano. His motivations are intriguing: perhaps he was being more generous in the looming prospect of German defeat, or else he respects art more than the divide of race. This results in us not being able to leave the theatre with the simple caricature of all Nazis as pure evil racists.

The Credits with the Grand Polonaise

It should not be considered a spoiler to reveal that Szpilman survives the war and continues living in Warsaw, since this movie is adapted from his memoirs (Amazon). At the end we see him performing Chopin's Grand Polonaise for piano and orchestra. This was the first time I have ever stayed behind for all the credits, because they are presented as the piece is played and the camera focuses on his fingerwork. The highlight of this part, and indeed the whole movie, has to be Szpilman's piano playing, for it's fantastic - he's not so much playing the piano as letting his fingers glide over and caress and dance on the keys, and we see this time and again with the camera, and us, paying close attention. This kind of exhibition of skill with the piano always leaves me in two moods - amazement at how some people can achieve it, and despair of whether I can at least play the piece that well eventually. But I know that the alternative to working at the playing day after day is to throw in the towel, and if I choose the latter then it's guaranteed that I'll never reach that standard.

Show-off

My enjoyment of The Pianist was slightly marred by the folks sitting behind me, one of which decided to talk, quite audibly, about the Holocaust and the German war against Russia at the moments they appeared on the screen, apparently to impress his (female?) companion, or to assure himself that he could apprehend the events happening, that they were amenable to his rational faculties, that somehow randomly shooting innocent people for sport, and all the deaths from starvation, disease or gas chambers could be explained away as a historical tragedy or madness, when they are just as inexcusable as they were in 1940.

Oh, & when Szpilman is playing Chopin's Nocturne (Chopin Files has the score) on Polish radio in the beginning, this same guy utters excitedly "it's in E major!" It's actually in C sharp minor - e lento con gran espressione (Italian: and slow with great expression; just to join in this snobbishness) - so this guy almost had it, but I was quite disgusted. There is no reason one would need to mention that in the middle of the movie except to show off; ditto for the rest he said about Auschwitz - he pronounced it wrongly, and besides most of the Warsaw Jews, including Szpilman's family, were sent to Treblinka, northeast Poland, to be killed, not Auschwitz. Imagine how obnoxious it would be if I went "oh here's Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor!" "Here's Beethoven's Moonlight sonata!" & so on, and you get the idea. It's not so much about whether you know something about the music or the wartime history but whether it is directly relevant to the story - which is no - or whether you're saying it just to pretend it is. The film's greatness is that it transcends above the cold facts to show us the very personal story of a pianist, or rather, a man who survived the war, and how his art allows him to retain his humanity.

Learning to Love the Bomb?

2 March 2003 11:35 PM SGT (link)

With the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir flaring up every now and then (both nuclear-capable countries), and now the North Korea crisis, the issue of proliferation of nuclear weapons is at the forefront of people's minds again. Reason magazine has an interesting article, Learning to Love the Bomb, where they review The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, a book which "addresses crucial issues in a clear and provocative way that should engage newcomers and stimulate rethinking by those familiar with the subject". The two authors spar on the issue of whether it might actually be better for more countries to possess nuclear weapons, on the theory that it might make cautious about using them in the same way it made the Cold War a "long peace."

Personally I'm inclined towards the anti-thesis: more nuclear weapons means a higher chance that some country's military or political leadership will screw up with security and allow it to be used wrongly or fall into the wrong hands, or conventional attacks might be misinterpreted as nuclear attacks and nervous military brasses retaliate as such. It will be a more unstable world instead.

Le Modest Proposal

2 March 2003 10:45 PM SGT (link)

Centuries after Jonathan Swift's classic Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal (read it at Gutenberg), a satire where he suggests a way to make the children of poor people "beneficial to the Publick" by fattening them & feeding them to wealthy land-owners, are as biting as ever. In this tradition, Frenchman Régis Debray in The Edict of Caracalla, or a Plea for the United States of the West by Xavier de C*** argues that the only way for Europe to avoid irrelevance is to join the United States. In a review in Foreign Policy:

Debray intends his book as satire, and the book is often quite funny. But de C***'s presentation is also perversely seductive. And for some in France, it turned out to be uncomfortably close to the bone. The slim volume was greeted with stunned silence in Paris literary circles. Jean Daniel, a close friend of Debray's who edits the left-leaning magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, echoed the sentiment of disquiet the book's publication received. "The demonstration a contrario by the anti-hero ends up being too effective," Daniel wrote. "The tongue-in-cheek inventory of humiliations becomes more and more convincing."

- Foreign Policy, Le Modest Proposal

Aside: There seems to be quite a few mentions of French popping up recently: The Language of Diplomacy for instance. I know the title is bastardised French; according to Babelfish, it should be something like la proposition modeste, but the title was taken from that of the Foreign Policy article.

Yes-But fellows

2 March 2003 10:25 PM SGT (link)

My apologies for this coming late, but Safire's editorial The Yes-But Parade (f.r.r.) is interesting in the way it hits at most of the objections we've heard to the war on Iraq:

After his resounding re-election in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt turned on the right wing of his Democratic Party. "He invented a new word," recalled his speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, "to describe the congressman who publicly approved a progressive objective but who always found something wrong with any specific proposal to gain that objective - a yes-but fellow."

- New York Times, The Yes-But Parade

He then follows up with twelve "banners of today's yes-butters". Good for (re-)considering one's position towards the imminent war.

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