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11-20 March 2003

20 MarGulf War II: Day 1
20 MarAl Gore joins Apple's board
18 MarGulf War II
17 MarUSP Essay; Star Trek, the experience
16 MarControversial Class Photo
16 MarWest Wing, and its Statistics
14 MarSingapore's Stand on Iraq, part II
13 MarSingapore's Stand on Iraq
12 MarLament on Nemesis
12 MarMel Gibson and his Passion
11 MarHot Seats

Gulf War II: Day 1

20 March 2003 10:31 PM SGT (link)

Instead of the heavy, widespread, "shock and awe" bombing campaign promised by U.S. military officials, 40 cruise missiles were used in an apparent attempt to kill Saddam and senior members of his government (Washington Post, CIA Had Fix on Hussein). Iraq has retaliated against U.S. troops in Kuwait with 4 Scud missiles, but no casualties were reported there.

Earlier the Washington Post also reported the news of the State Department's release of 30 countries that had publicly stated their support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq - the "coalition of the willing", but what Slate calls "a gang" - and 15 more privately supporting it (U.S. Names 30 Countries Supporting War Effort). Curiously Singapore is not in the list of 30, and yet both our DPMs have said that the Singapore government's open show of support for the U.S. should not cause divisiveness, so we shouldn't be in the private list. Perhaps we really are so insignificant, not worthy of inclusion in a list that even includes, for example, Ethiopia and Eritrea ("[with] little to offer beyond moral support").

Anyway about the Singapore perspective of this: Singaporeans stay glued to TV), and I was no exception, except that it was the radio & Internet. Yesterday's ST Forum had a furious exchange of letters from supporters and opponents to war. I believe most Singaporeans care only because of its potential effect on the economy, potential terrorist attacks in retaliation, and perhaps even some excitement of the spectacle of war safely fought elsewhere - this should be the reason why hardly anyone bothered to protest in front of the U.S. Embassy as reported some time ago.

Al Gore joins Apple's board

20 March 2003 10:24 PM SGT (link)

My lament on his decision not to contest the 2004 elections. As reported at C|Net, with some interesting details on Al Gore and the Apple board, and Apple itself:

"Al brings an incredible wealth of knowledge and wisdom to Apple from having helped run the largest organization in the world - the United States government - as a Congressman, Senator and our 45th Vice President. Al is also an avid Mac user and does his own video editing in Final Cut Pro," said Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO. "Al is going to be a terrific Director and we're excited and honored that he has chosen Apple as his first private sector board to serve on."

- Apple Press Release, "Former Vice President Al Gore Joins Apple's Board of Directors"

Gulf War II

18 March 2003 11:17 PM SGT (link)

So it has come to this: we heard at 9 o'clock in the morning (Singapore time), through the radio, of Bush's ultimatum, and later in the day, Saddam's rejection. Tony Blair is taking a lot of flak from his nation, the House of Commons and his own government (the resignation speech of Robin Cook, making a persuasive case against the war). Despite the oft-repeated stance that the American military can finish the war very fast, with minimum casualties, there still remains the threat of chemical and biological weapons, not to mention the responsibility of rebuilding a country amidst a troubled region for years. & let's not forget the terrorists and North Korea.

Slate has a good article analysing the failure of a multilateral approach to the Iraq problem, putting the blame squarely on the Bush administration. Good comparisons with the Kosovo problem in 1998, where Clinton worked through NATO and the EU to effect an alliance against Milosevic, and even the first Gulf War in 1991. To me, it's not clear what's more troubling: the damage to the U.N. and relations between the U.S. and other countries, or the greater chance of any ambitious attempt to remake the Middle East will fail because the Americans alone cannot, or will not, commit the troops, money and political will in the years to come.

History will almost certainly judge Chirac and other European politicians harshly for blocking what could have been a unified front against Saddam - especially if the war is swift, casualties are low, and new evidence emerges of Saddam's brutality and possession of weapons of mass destruction. Still, the excuses now being made by the Bush administration and its allies ("The French are perfidious!" "The Turks will be sorry!") have a certain dog-ate-my-homework quality - of blaming others for a failure that was equally the result of their own desultory efforts. Even as his strategy was failing, the president recently remarked that "we really don't need anybody's permission" to invade Iraq. In a strict sense, of course, that's true. But his words suggest that he still doesn't fully understand - as virtually all his recent predecessors did - the value of formal alliances in fighting wars and in keeping the peace afterward. America should have been able to invade Iraq with an alliance, or at least a broad coalition. Instead, all we have is a gang.

- Slate, Turkey Shoot: How Bush made enemies of our allies

USP Essay; Star Trek, the experience

17 March 2003 11:35 PM SGT (link)

"Describe an experience that you have learned from or that has changed your life."
(Note: You are free to select any particular experience that you have had, regardless of the nature of the experience. For example, the nature of your experience may be one or more of the following: intellectual, social, emotional, moral, political, financial, etc.)

- USP application essay topic

A while back, while reviewing Nemesis, I mentioned that I was writing an essay for the USP application, but had rejected one based on Star Trek as the experience. In these few days I rewrote the essay, but it's still not to my satisfaction, so I have chosen to submit one on classical music/piano/Chopin instead (maybe I'll put it up after I get good/bad news from them). The third one I mentioned - I wrote three - is about the SAF Day Parade, which for legal reasons I cannot post here. I don't care what others say: that was a very important experience for me. Those who see me should be quite familiar with my rants about the injustice of it all, but never mind.

I suppose it is my failure as a writer, a communicator of ideas, that I could not explain the effect Star Trek has had on my personality, my character and my goals in life within the confines of 400-600 words and my language capabilities. On Sunday I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first movie in the Star Trek saga released way back in 1979, competing with Star Wars (1977) but harking back to the traditions of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The pacing was bad, the acting terrible, the story a bit corny, the special effects amateurish after Helms' Deep - and I've never been close to the Original Series crew - but it did have something special - the main theme by Jerry Goldsmith that was later used for TNG, and practically all of the movies after ST: TMP. STinSV - Star Trek in Sight and Vision - has sound clips of the theme, and troves of other audio and video clips too.

To a TNG fan, this theme is evocative of all the wonderful experiences I've had with the Enterprise-D and its crew for 7 seasons of the TV series, and 4 movies. Its grandeur reminds me of the Enterprise's mission of exploration and seeking knowledge, striving to advance beyond the limits of our technology and our imaginations - for example, witness the conclusion of Star Trek: First Contact, a flawed movie IMHO, but with a great ending. We move up from the forests of Montana, where first contact between humans and Vulcans is taking place, towards the stars and beyond, signifying the great leaps humanity is about to take, and this theme comes on...

Later it enters a more dolce, moving phase which reminds me of, say, "The Inner Light", a touching TNG episode where Picard in the span of minutes lives decades as another person in a civilisation that turns out to have been destroyed long ago; the civilisation constructed a device to allow someone else to experience what life was like for them. My point is that I am unable to explain it well enough such that the people vetting the application essays can understand my sincerity and not denounce me as another crazed Trekkie, as a friend put it.

Anyway here's my failed attempt at the essay. The two stories from TNG I related in the fourth paragraph are "Q Who?", Season 2 (first contact with the Borg) and "Tapestry", Season 6 (Picard's experience of changing his past). Referring to the 8 movies, I have only not watched nos. 3 & 4.

Star Trek

I have watched two of the recent television series of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and Voyager, and 8 movies. To me, it has come to be more significant than any ordinary television show or movie.

In Star Trek humans are members of the United Federation of Planets, a pseudo-United Nations made up of many civilisations bound in economic co-operation and collective security. This is a near-utopia where historical enmity, discrimination and violence have mostly been abandoned for the greater goals of bettering oneself and society. The usual fictional dystopia serves to warn us of disastrous courses of action, but Star Trek's unconventionally optimistic message that humanity can overcome its quarrels, avoid self-destruction and embrace rational knowledge and peaceful exploration was incredibly uplifting, and I yearn to participate in making such a future.

Technology is a force for good - transporters instantly bring one from ship to planet, replicators materialise food seemingly from thin air, and Starfleet's flagship Enterprise builds colonies, studies nebula and explores the galaxy. The scourges of poverty and suffering have essentially been banished. It takes time, but artificially-created lifeforms are eventually accepted as equals. In TNG, an android (machine made to resemble and behave like a human) named Data aspires to become more human in thoughts, emotions and morals, and he has earned from colleagues and friends respect and even love. In Voyager, the ship's doctor is the Emergency Medical Hologram, a projection of light and force fields and a sophisticated computer program that includes the expertise of the Federation's best physicians and more, albeit with a curt bedside manner. As he augments and improves his program through new experiences, he yearns to advance beyond his original functions and do more for his crew, and he does get chances to do so.

Although Starfleet operates as military security for the Federation, its main mission is to "boldly go where no one has gone before", both in the exploration of space-time and new lifeforms and civilisations, and examination of one's knowledge and character. For example, an omnipotent alien being called Q once forced the Enterprise 7,000 light-years away to meet the Borg, a collective of fused organic-synthetic beings with the instinct to assimilate other species and technologies in order to grow stronger and approach "perfection". This was a rude shock to the Federation because this enemy was unmoved by reason or diplomacy: indeed Q did this to shake up the complacent Federation and remind them of greater challenges ahead. On another occasion, Q allowed Captain Picard to relive a crucial moment in his youth where he impulsively got into a serious brawl. Picard chose to shun the fight, and subsequently his whole life has changed: instead of a confident, assertive captain with an illustrious career, years later he is a meek junior officer, a nobody. Picard hence realises the importance of the intricate "tapestry" of his beliefs, principles and events in his life, and how a seemingly simple change to one could upset the whole. Such events let us learn more about the crew and the Federation by putting them in unexplored territory and seeing their responses. Difficult political questions and deep examinations of character, together with the rich possibilities of science fiction, make Star Trek not only very entertaining but often thought-provoking too.

In short, the positive values of peace, celebration of diversity and furtherance of knowledge that Star Trek portrays has opened my eyes to the majestic possibilities humanity as a race can achieve, and greatly motivated me to work towards such a future, in my own small but hopefully significant way.

Controversial Class Photo

16 March 2003 11:41 PM SGT (link)

The story broke in The New Paper on Saturday (JC girls' silly prank backfires on them), and I think the Chinese nightlies too, and the JC in question has reiterated its response online.

While we can all wag our fingers, say "tsk-tsk", agree it was indeed a "silly prank", that the girls behaved inappropriately while in school uniform & taking a class photo, that we can start condemning the "kids these days", personally, this incident does not incite in me visceral disgust, not like if it were two guys instead (but I have nothing against homosexuals, male or female.) And I'm told the photo is more offensive to girls than guys. Is this some kind of biological trait, that we are offended by homosexual scenes of our own sex more than that of the other sex? Curious.

West Wing, and its Statistics

16 March 2003 11:18 PM SGT (link)

I have never found it easy to watch The West Wing, mostly because there's a lot of dialogue and sometimes in all the quips and rejoinders some dissipate into the ether too fast, or else they use some elaborate metaphor using American football or some cultural curiosity like that. But it's still a good show; last week I watched "Hartsfield's Landing" (Season 3), where the President alternately plays chess with Sam and Toby and resolves a burgeoning crisis in the Taiwan Straits, while Josh and Donna try to win over two voters in Hartsfield's Landing, a small town in New Hampshire that happens to cast their votes in the primaries after midnight, and CJ and Charlie get into a childish spat (summa ry and information links). Yes this amount of events going on simultaneously in a White House where everyone seems to work 24 hours is not new. I found this episode entertaining and fascinating, if not too heavy on the policy side.

I found a site, Nomad's Realm, where the guy has collated statistics on The West Wing, including the screen-times devoted to characters by season, screen-time devoted to relationships, cursing frequencies of the characters, and even who abuses the multi-purpose phrase "the thing" and how many times. This is absolutely amazing, and good knowledge for dedicated fans, of which I'm not (I enjoy most episodes I watch though). For instance, you'll be surprised at which character gets the most screen-time overall: there's someone who still beats the POTUS (if you still don't know: The President of the United States). Also of note is the typically witty and even instructive banter between Josh and Donna (here are some of the best examples: I like the one on the budget surplus most).

Singapore's Stand on Iraq, part II

14 March 2003 10:14 PM SGT (link)

Our Minister for Foreign Affars, Prof. S. Jayakumar, speaks on the Iraq issue in Parliament, and is even more emphatic than what our U.N. ambassador Mr. Kishore Mahbubani said yesterday:

..."Even if there is no second resolution, it doesn't follow that action against Iraq is taken outside international law or the UN Security Council's authority," said Prof Jayakumar.

"The fact the Security Council cannot reach a consensus on a second resolution can't be an excuse for inaction."

- Disarming Iraq is in Singapore's fundamental interests: Prof Jayakumar

Well, although Mr. Mahbubani implied this hard-line stand (hard-line with respect to the prevailing opinions on the Security Council now), Prof. Jayakumar spelt it out loud and clear.

Singapore's Stand on Iraq

13 March 2003 10:42 PM SGT (link)

It looks like my earlier apprehension about our little city-state's stand on the issue was exaggerated. Our ambassador to the UN, Mr. Kishore Mahbubani, delivered this message regarding the Iraq crisis to the Security Council. He covers all the important points and I agree wholly with his stand; this is a really incisive statement. Bravo!

1. Today's meeting is both timely and critical. The UN Security Council is at a crucial decision point on Iraq. We all agree that the preference is for a peaceful solution to the issue of Iraq. We also agree that war must always be a "last resort". And of course all of us would like to see a second UNSC resolution passed.

2. But at the same time, we must not overlook certain fundamentals. The primary responsibility remains with the Government of Iraq, not the international community, to demonstrate compliance. It is imperative that Iraq disarm immediately and comply fully with all UNSC resolutions. During Singapore's term on the UNSC, we consistently took the position that the Iraqi authorities must comply with all UNSC resolutions. This is based on the important point of principle that international law must be observed. Singapore voted in favour of Security Council resolution 1441 on 8 November 2002 in the expectation that international law and order would be preserved.

...

7. But even as we focus on these important questions, we must not lose sight of the human dimension of the Iraq issue. Singapore attaches great importance to improving the humanitarian situation of the people of Iraq. They have already suffered greatly as a result of the Government of Iraq's failure to comply with its disarmament obligations. Their suffering should not be prolonged. Once again, we urge the Government of Iraq to make the right decision.

- Statement by Mr Kishore Mahbubani, Permanent Representative of Singapore to the UN, 13 Mar 2003, for the UN Security Council Open Debate on the Situation between Iraq and Kuwait

Lament on Nemesis

12 March 2003 12:35 AM SGT (link)

I watched Star Trek: Nemesis on Monday (without the "Star Trek" in Singapore; apparently they thought it would turn off potential audiences, or something). It was touted as the "a generation's final journey", and that certainly was quite right, because (*spoiler*) a character close to my heart, well, meets his demise, and the crew split for good as Riker and Troi take up new assignments on the U.S.S. Titan.

Aside on continuity problems: Actually the TNG movies have ignored Worf's transfer to DS9 and subsequently to the Diplomatic Corps. Instead they have arranged for him to rejoin his old crew with a litany of excuses: fighting the Borg on the Defiant (First Contact), just passing by (!) (Insurrection) and with Nemesis, one of the wedding guests. As IMDB notes in its Goofs list, Worf isn't even supposed to be in a Starfleet uniform anymore, as should Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher - he's the boyish-looking man sitting to the left of Dr. Crusher at the wedding reception when Picard is delivering his speech; his speaking parts all ended up on the editing floor. Wesley resigned from Starfleet Academy back in TNG's Season 7 to join a powerful alien lifeform, the Traveller, in search of greater spiritual knowledge. Anyway these things are mild annoyances only for Trekkies.

As a Trekkie who has watched TNG, Voyager and some movies with the original cast, and who still likes Picard and his crew the most, watching Nemesis was a heartbreaking experience, and I certainly cannot give a proper review to non-Trekkies who want to know whether it's worth watching. (Trekkies are happy so long as everyone appears in uniform with the ship - we can thrash the movie's plot, but we're still happy to see them.) What I can say is that it's not a bad movie if you're looking for sci-fi action with a bit of intelligence, as opposed to just, for instance, "the bad guys are invading, kill 'em all" (ID4?). No movies with the TNG crew have really been bad - one might call Generations (1994) unfocused and boring for non-Trekkies, but it's not trashy like No. 5 was.

I am in two minds about Nemesis, as I have been for all the 4 TNG movies. Besides the feel-good factor of seeing the crew again, there is something to look forward to in nearly every movie - the battle against the Borg in No. 8, the nice landscapes in No. 9, and the longest space battle I've ever seen in a movie in Nemesis. The action and pacing have all in all been polished and professional, and the computer graphics get better with every movie.

That's the good part: the bad part is that we've all seen it before. The scriptwriter is a Trekkie and a great fan of No. 2, which incidentally Trekkies have rated the best movie starring the original crew - so Nemesis takes after its basic plot of a super-villain close to the captain, then Kirk, now Picard, and the use of a doomsday weapon. Furthermore, an ugly menacing ship? No. 9. Data saves Picard's life? No. 8. In his review, Roger Ebert is very frustrated with the shields going out and everyone getting tossed about when phaser blasts hit the Enterprise and everyone is thrown off their chairs - this kind of thing appears in every Star Trek movie. Still, my verdict is that it's the best TNG movie, possibly the best Star Trek movie ever, but this is given grudgingly as no Star Trek movie has ever really met my expectations (and there always seems to be something wrong somewhere).

My dissatisfaction with the movies is that they are so different from almost every single television episode, in the way nearly every movie seems to have one big bad villain the crew, or the captain alone, has to defeat to save the Federation, or most of the time simply "Earth." I can honestly say that I would not have become a Trekkie if all day long they were fighting against big villains addicted to blind hatred and bent on revenge or wanton destruction. Star Trek explored so many other areas, and the problems they tackled rarely had such simple scenarios where you just defeated the villain, which we all know you will eventually do since you're the good guys, and go home. It seems that the scriptwriters, producers or Paramount executives lacked the gumption to try something new, something perhaps on the lines of very good episodes with fresh concepts like these:

These are just some of the great dramatic ideas that have come from TNG in its seven seasons, yet when it came to the movies they still elected to go with the tried-and-tested big bad villain plot, perhaps afraid that too intricate or unusual a story might alienate the non-Trekkie audience. Judging from the sheer bomb Nemesis was at the U.S. box office last December (I talked about it here), this strategy has also failed big-time. No doubt the unsuitable timing had a part to play in this, but perhaps the larger reason is that Star Trek has not been showing anything new for the audiences to appreciate - the old tired plotline centred on Picard and Data against the Big Villain just doesn't cut it anymore. Also it might be pointed out that Nemesis came 4 long years after No. 9, and with no more Trek on TV now besides the lousy Enterprise, everyone probably lost interest. No. 10 needed to be fresh and inspiring to reinvigorate the Trek fan base and bring in new blood, but it catered to yesterday's interests instead.

These days are not a good time to be a Trekkie: not anticipation, nor excitement, but trepidation was my feeling before I went in to watch No. 10. What was wrong with the movie that it had done so badly? and even Trekkies were divided? Was this really the end of Star Trek on the big screen? This is not good - it shows how far down we've come from the heyday of modern Star Trek, probably in the mid-90's. (I talked about the franchise's possible demise here.) Why am I apprehensive about the future of Star Trek movies? With the TNG crew's final adventure done, there is simply no crew or person to take over. DS9 did not have as big a following as TNG - Voyager even less. What's more their stories were largely wrapped up within the TV series - any plot involving the political intrigues and the Dominion War in DS9, or a possible extended experience with an alien civilisation for Voyager, would have to be pre-dated, even if the material is good. Enterprise is still new, and besides, in my view, hardly anything about the crew or their stories is compelling. Introducing a new crew in a movie is by far the most risky option of all.

So I was heartbroken after watching Nemesis - ironically, not because it sucked - it was very good - but because it was the conclusion of the story of a crew I've gotten to know and love over these years, and the end of my favourite character (there, the secret's out). Worse, probably the franchise itself will not be able to recover from the devastating blow of Star Trek fading away from the general public interest.

By the way, I will be putting up an essay I did for the USP application - I did three but didn't choose this one that talks about how Star Trek changed my life. Coming soon...

Mel Gibson and his Passion

12 March 2003 12:19 AM SGT (link)

I think this got pretty prominent coverage on the "latest celebrity and showbiz news" columns sometime back - Mel Gibson is directing (and apparently also bankrolling) The Passion, a movie about the last 12 hours of Christ. The interesting thing is that he insists that it be in Aramaic and Latin with no subtitles; instead "filmic storytelling" techniques, and no doubt a lot of faith, will allow audiences to understand what's going on. The film uses largely unknown actors save for James Caviezel playing Jesus Christ (apparently Caviezel is also a devout Catholic). I'm quite fascinated with this; I wonder whether Mel Gibson will succeed with his film, subtitles or not. There's a certain chutzpah in filming something in two dead languages, and going against conventional thinking about filmmaking, to serve your spiritual beliefs.

From this, the New York Times magazine (free reg. req.) shines the spotlight on Mel Gibson and his Catholic traditionalist faith, which believes that the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) and its reforms are sacrilegious, and advocate going back to the practices of Catholicism in the past few centuries before it was "corrupted". From what the article says, some of them might also harbour radical extremist theories about the Jews and the Catholic Church, hence Is the Pope Catholic...Enough?. That's the dark side of the difference of opinion with the Church.

Hot Seats

11 March 2003 11:55 PM SGT (link)

The Economist has an article on the Reluctant vote-wielders on the Security Council, with an exquisite chart (their trademark) showing which countries on the UN Security Council are for or against the new Iraq resolution, and those sitting on the fence with tough decisions to make (Pakistan, Mexico, Chile, Cameroon, Angola, Guinea). Of course these countries have to consider their future relations with the U.S. or France (who is spearheading the anti-resolution faction), but Chile is waiting for its free-trade agreement with the U.S. to be ratified, while the African countries all receive American aid, and for some French aid as well. The choice seems to be less and less about Iraq and more and more about realpolitik: goodies dangled by the U.S./U.K. and France/Russia, or perhaps even blackmail.

This article reminded me of a comment my friend made about how fortunate Singapore is that we are not on the Security Council now, so we don't have to make this difficult decision (our membership ended at the end of 2002). But I think it won't be that bad, because our leaders have made it clear that Iraq must fully cooperate with the UN inspections, and given our status of strong military ally to the U.S., it would be very odd if we were to be anti-war. And we also have a free-trade agreement waiting to be ratified ;-) At least we aren't beholden to foreign aid, hence the "highest bidder". What slightly irritates me is our leaders brushing off the seriousness of the Iraqi crisis, taking it as a mere hindrance to economic recovery - "the sooner it's over, the better", that's their attitude. Trying to placate the Muslim ground by reassuring them that it's not against Muslims - that's appropriate.

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