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1-10 May 2003

10 MayAtheism vs. Deism
10 MayBill Gates, Philanthropist
10 MayMilitary-Industrial Complex
8 MayUnrest in China
8 MayPM Blair turns 50
8 MaySaddam tries a comeback
7 MayNew North Korean strategy
5 MaySARS War Room boss
5 MayEnterprise Makeover
4 MayHow to Make an American Quilt
4 MayA Philosophy Professor reviews 'Heroes'
4 MayLibrary Tour Final Decision
3 MayThe distressing "Contact Bowl"
3 MayTogether
3 MayRoad sign auctions concluded
1 MayOnce and Again: A Tribute
1 MayRejection Email #2
1 MayIgnored Regions of the World

Atheism vs. Deism

10 May 2003 10:05 PM SGT (link)

These recent posts from Steve den Beste (Belief in atheism, The Theist responds) are a few days old now, but it's one for the ages: he discusses the reason behind his atheist faith as opposed to that of "evangelist atheists" like The Raving Atheist, who say that not only is their cause the true one, but it can be proved, and hence it's superior to other religions. Steve argues impressively, and convincingly to me, that atheism is grounded in faith as much as other religions are, and demolishes the fallacious belief that it can be proved logically & conclusively. For this he proposes his Theory of Fred:

...The basic idea goes like this: God, whom I tend to refer to as Fred in the discussion of this theory, used His powers to cause the Big Bang. Since then, he's been watching the universe as it has developed because He wanted to see what would happen (because He didn't know). But Fred does not interfere in the universe, and Fred did not design the outcome. For instance, Fred did not try to manipulate the initial conditions so as to cause humans as a species to appear; it's just one of the many things He has observed while the experiment continues. Too, humans have no souls and when they die they're dead; they're just part of the universe which resulted from Fred's one action in setting the whole thing off. Fred does not listen to prayer; Fred does not interfere. Fred just watches, and He's just as surprised by what's happening as we are.

He is not part of the universe and is not subject to its laws, and is capable of watching it in a way which does not affect it, quantum mechanics notwithstanding. If it pleases you to do so, think of Fred as running the universe as a gigantic computer simulation, where He can see what's going on by getting printouts every once in a while or by watching some sort of massive graphics display. Or perhaps He's feeling the lumps underneath the curves of space induced by all mass, Braille-style.

In Fred's creation, everything happens strictly mechanistically; the only thing Fred ever did was to start it all in a way which Fred deliberately made indistinguishable from a natural equivalent. Fred has made the active decision to do nothing which would perturb the natural process of development of the universe, and Fred makes no mistakes.

- U.S.S. Clueless, Belief in atheism

As Steve goes on to say, this is almost Deism - that would be a system of belief that says, in addition to this "wound-up universe" scenario, that we humans would know it to be true because of reason and observations of nature, not because of revealed religion like Christianity or Islam. Not that this directly matters, but Albert Einstein was one who saw an impersonal, non-anthropic God behind the intricate workings of the universe, and this was what drove him in his pursuits in physics.

I once declared myself an atheist-leaning agnostic, which in retrospect makes me look like I'm trying to weasel out of a true atheist position. That's because I'm not really confident enough to believe any side for now, but I tend to believe there is no God. So I have to admit I don't appreciate the Theory of Fred as so clearly articulated by Steve above, not because there is no room for human involvement - whether it be a moral compass to guide our lives or explain our purpose in the universe, but because there's no way to prove it!

Again, I don't find the Deist cosmology distasteful, more like awkward. Assume Fred has designed his SimUniverse well enough that he never has to intervene. While we, the inhabitants of this simulation, could conceivably come up with scientific theories to explain the regularities in our universe, there's no way to verify Fred's existence if he chooses to opt out of intervention in the universe. On the other hand, assume Fred occasionally intervenes, whether to fix things or for his own amusement. That's where we could conclude that "miracles" have occurred, or revise our science to keep up with the new phenomena. Whatever the case, we could never have any iron-clad argument for or against Fred's existence, because Fred is ipso facto a behind-the-scenes universe-keeper.

So why do I believe (or not believe) what I believe (or not believe)? I'm pretty muddled up myself, but I think it's a faith in rationality that makes me lean towards the falseness of the common theological position on God & the universe, the "revealed religion" that Deism is opposed to. A faith in rationality like Einstein's may lead one to the impersonal God of Deism, but I go with not assuming things that can't be proven for sure. Heck, after I have learnt more and cleared up my thoughts, I'd probably "come out" as an atheist "officially".

OK, enough about my personal beliefs. In Singapore, according to the 2000 Census, only 14.8% of Singaporeans regard themselves as having no religion, but this might be higher after adding the non-practising Buddhists, Christians & others. Religion is an extremely sensitive issue and the government has no hesitation in drumming in the lesson of the race riots in 1950 and 1964 as examples of the high price to pay for playing fast and loose with religious sensitivities. However, persons of no religion are known as Freethinkers, and the religious majority seem to regard these as potential converts, when in fact they may already be committed to atheism, Deism or any other non-mainstream "-ism". I personally wonder if anybody could declare himself an atheist in public and be understood as also having a private faith, and not merely an uninformed blank slate or a wild-eyed anti-religionist.

TNG: "Ship in a Bottle"

Moriarty is a holodeck character created by Geordi in Season 2's "Elementary, Dear Data" when he requested an opponent worthy of Data in his Sherlock Holmes holodeck mysteries. Because of this condition, the computer somehow gave Moriarty enough intellectual "power" that he became conscious of his real existence inside the simulated physicality of the holodeck. He demanded that Picard and Data make him real, but Picard lies to him that they didn't know how to convert holodeck matter into a permanent form, and "imprisoned" him in the main computer, much like one would use Norton AntiVirus to quarantine an infected file.

In Season Six of TNG there was a remarkable episode - "Ship in a Bottle" - that provided great philosophical food for thought. It involved Lieutenant Barclay, a bright officer but with a pretty low sense of self-esteem, is doing some maintenance at the holodeck because Data and Geordi, while enjoying another Sherlock Holmes program, found some anomalies with it. He accidentally "releases" Moriarty, and this time he takes Picard, Data and Barclay hostage, and wrestles over control of the Enterprise's main computer. Upon examination, Dr. Crusher, the Chief Medical Officer, discovers that somehow Moriarty has become flesh and blood. The ensuing details are not really relevant here - about how Picard and the others find a way out of their predicament and regain control of the Enterprise. They are successful, and the last scene goes like this:

Riker: How did you do it, Sir?

Picard: We managed to program the holodeck inside the holodeck, and use the same rules that Moriarty used on us.

Data: When he was attempting to contact the real bridge, he was in fact speaking to a simulation.

Troi: You mean he never knew he hadn't left the holodeck?

Picard: In fact the program is continuing to run, even now, inside that cube. [Points to the cube of memory chips.]

Crusher: A miniature holodeck!

Data: In a way, Doctor. However there is no physicality. The program is continuous but only within the computer circuitry.

Barclay: As far as Moriarty and the Countess know, they're halfway to Miles II [their destination, a planet] by now. [Reaches for it.] This enhancement module contains enough active memory to provide them with experiences for a lifetime.

Picard: They will live their lives and never know any difference.

Troi: In a sense, you did give Moriarty what he wanted.

Picard: In a sense. But who knows? Our reality may be very much like theirs, and all this might just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device, sitting on someone's table. [Grinning]

[Pause]

Well, we have a newborn star to study. Mr. Barclay, we'll keep that safe [nods to the memory chips].

Barclay: Aye, Sir.

[Everyone exits except Barclay.]

Barclay: Computer, end program.

[He looks around nervously, but nothing happens. He gives a sigh, smiles and leaves the room.]

- Star Trek TNG, Ship in a Bottle

Watching the episode, one has to work out exactly how many layers of reality have been created, and it's stimulating. Although that wasn't the first time I'd heard of the Deist idea, "Ship in a Bottle" was definitely the most memorable way I remember it by, as it is in turn applied to the creations of the 24th-century humans as they accidentally turn the immense computer power available to them to create conscious beings. This problem will persist in Voyager, with the holographic doctor called on to be the full-time one, and his wish for recognition as an equal.

Worlds within worlds

Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, myself again.. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly, dreaming that I am a man?

- Chuang-Tzu, 3rd century BC

Cynical reaction: simple, he's drunk :-)

We've all heard of The Matrix, of course (though I haven't watched it yet). It says that everything we know is a simulated reality, an illusion. We must shake off the oppressors & be free, and somehow from there we get the big guns and cool stop-motion kicks.

Another show I have watched is The Thirteenth Floor, with a company that develops a holodeck-like system to simulate the Thirties, and later a whodunit when the creator of the system is killed in the real world. It was quite enjoyable.

My Fred

As Steve said in his post, let's get metaphysical. Picard's words bear repeating: "all this might just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device, sitting on someone's table." I've thought of my own fictional version of Fred. He would be a teenage computer geek, freckles & spectacles, complete with a preference for jeans, soft drinks and programming. He obtains this enthusiast SimUniverse program from the Net - part-game, part-engineering simulation - and proceeds to hack it to create his version of the universe. All the parameters of physics and chemistry we know, he would enter as prerequisites for his universe, maybe after having tried some combinations that yielded uninteresting results.

The holy grail for the SimUniverse community is a SimUniverse that gives rise to its own species endowed with consciousness - rather, a shallow form of consciousness, for that they would be aware of their existence, their surroundings and perhaps even a little Newton, they could never know about Fred and his fellow gamers that are the puppeteers behind the facade. Their existence might seem strange to us, because at this stage we don't have the computer technology to create even convincing chess players, let alone entire souls, but follow this: In the SimUniverse - every version of it - their thoughts are the algorithms suggested by the makers & enhanced or modified by Fred. Their physical reality is what Fred designed, much as one would choose the plants in one's garden (or Fred could just do a "Big Bang" and see what comes up). Everything goes like clockwork, as infinitesimally-small sets of computer cycles required to simulate the SimUniverse are reflected as time, the dimension of change. If he so liked he could set his universe going at a million SimYears to 1 minute in his universe, just to take the long-term view. Fred would never be personally affected even if he chose to tweak the parameters mid-way, even if the Simhabitants run around like chickens with their heads cut off, wondering what happened to their science or theology. If need be he could wipe the slate clean and start it all over again.

And when he does, it's just "zip" like when you turn off the TV.

This theory is fun because you think of the conceit of all the theologians, philosophers and mystics that have come & gone in our world, reaching out to what they believe is God, and he might be the alien equivalent of a freckled kid! In fact, a la The Thirteenth Floor, he might even be trying to recreate the conditions of his own universe, like one would play with a chemistry set. But as I said, he can only be someone's crazy idea of a God - even Einstein, who liked his God impersonal, responsible for creating the universe & its rules. To consider what this creator was like was quite beside the point, because you'd never know.

Bill Gates, Philanthropist

10 May 2003 9:30 PM SGT (link)

Salon's Earth to Bill Gates: Thank you, commenting on the TV programme Health, Wealth and Bill Gates: A NOW with Bill Moyers, talks briefly about Bill Gates's involvement in global health issues and his donations of billions of dollars to causes such as fighting AIDS and developing vaccines for diseases that are still the scourges of the developing world (see The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website). Something to think about next time we're tempted to simplistically think of Bill Gates as the Borg or the devil.

Military-Industrial Complex

10 May 2003 8:43 PM SGT (link)

Ars Technica's Hannibal has a post on how dot-coms ("dot-bombs") are anticipating big government contracts for homeland security - communications, information gathering and the like. But what caught my eye was his "pedantic" note on the correct usage of "military-industrial complex":

...(Pedantic note, because I just can't resist: Please note the correct usage of the term "military-industrial complex." When Eisenhower coined the term in his famous farewell speech, he used the word "complex" in the psychological sense of a "guilt complex" or a "God complex," and not in the structural sense of a network or a configuration of entities/institutions/etc. It's important that we keep to Eisenhower's original psychological/pathological sense of the term, because the erroneous but increasingly common usage all but erases the substance of the warning implicit in the original. And this warning is even more relevant now than when Eisenhower first issued it at the start of the Cold War.)

- Ars Technica, Former dot-bombers line up for homeland security pork

Just passing the word.

Unrest in China

8 May 2003 1:25 AM SGT (link)

A while back, Matthew Yglesias posted his response to another blogger's comment that the SARS outbreak and its negligent handling by the Chinese government might spark a larger backlash against communist rule. He's right about both the uncanny ability of the communists to stay in power despite general poverty, famine & mass hysteria (in Mao's time), and the danger of seeing the regime suddenly disintegrate, with the economy, nuclear weapons and other factors considered.

Tuesday's ST had an article which reminded me of this: Peasants riot against quarantine centres in 2 Chinese provinces. It seems thousands of villagers went on rampages against facilities that were rumoured to be for quarantine of SARS patients, as well as hospitals and police cars. It was attributed to high-handedness by local officials to the concerns of the populace, despite the high priority the government has recently undertaken to disseminate knowledge about SARS.

Matt succinctly summarises the history of Chinese government: "Regimes there tend to last for a while and then dissolve into inter-dynastic period[s] of chaos and civil war." It seems the emperors of old had years, if not decades, to whil away their time in their palaces as provinces seceded and threw their support behind new rulers; it wasn't "People's Power" that contributed to these processes - more like backroom politics or external factors. It's my guess too that the SARS outbreak, which could get worse before it gets better, would probably not lead to the immediate collapse of the government, though the push to democracy and accountability will certainly be hastened. The Chinese people have seen the great harm a deceptive, PR-above-everything-else government can do - not merely to the economy, but to people's lives. Now they can't bring themselves to trust the government and official statistics, even if the leaders reaffirm them to be true - the good ol' problem with "crying wolf". It's unlikely that they will allow themselves to be taken for a ride again. At least, that's what we all hope.

PM Blair turns 50

8 May 2003 1:21 AM SGT (link)

Slate's Blair's Birthday Bathos has a good collection of links to British newspapers congratulating Blair; especially check out the Guardian's montage of Blair through the years. However I wouldn't go as far as Slate has in calling it "bathos" (insincere tenderness, or banality) - except maybe the Telegraph's article.

The Times also has an article on Blair's current personal relationships with Bush, Chirac and other political leaders (Blair and Bush: an attraction of opposites?).

Saddam tries a comeback

8 May 2003 1:02 AM SGT (link)

This news is just irritating to me: Purported Saddam tape urges resistance (CNN). As if it's not enough to already have a leader mysteriously hiding somewhere, exhorting his minions to die "for Islam" - bin Laden at least has an audience for his quarterly radio addresses, sometimes with deadly results, though the situation seems to be improving. But Saddam? He's like so yesterday's-news. Does he think anyone will pay attention, with more pressing matters on hand, like Iraq's reconstruction and new government?

New North Korean strategy

7 May 2003 12:05 AM SGT (link)

Bush Shifts Focus to Nuclear Sales by North Korea: a strategy even more risky than bowing to North Korean pressure for economic aid before their disarmament. Kaplan at Slate asks: Is Bush's new North Korean policy shrewd or just plain stupid? (Plutonium Poker). Meanwhile, TNR proposes an intriguing solution to the potential problem of North Korea selling off their nukes:

...At this point, wouldn't the far better strategy be to announce that we have no intention whatsoever of attacking the North, but that we will assume that any nuclear attack on the United States (or an American target abroad) originated with North Korean nuclear material and retaliate accordingly? That would have the benefit of reassuring the North of our generally peaceful intentions, which might ease along a negotiated end to the country's nuclear program. But it would have a chilling effect on North Korean nuclear weapons sales, since the country could never be sure that the material it sold wouldn't end up being used against Americans, which could trigger a massive nuclear-retaliatory response. (Just so that there's no ambiguity, we could call the contingency plan we set up for that scenario "Operation North Korean Apocalypse.")

- TNR, A solution to our North Korea problem

It's a modified form of traditional nuclear deterrence - but aside from the chaos, slaughter and humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue - because you can't exactly isolate where Kim Jong Il and his lackeys are amidst the rest of the North Koreans - I don't think it's bad, among a litany of bad options on the table now. The assumption is first & foremost that Kim won't do anything to jeopardise his regime, like a nuclear attack - a good one, I'd say. People said Saddam Hussein might be irrational enough to set off his chemical and biological weapons against the invading US troops & go down in a blaze of glory, but it seems he's chosen a more conventional way out - zou wei shang ji (from Sun Zi's thirty-six military tactics: to leave is the first, roughly translated), & apparently with some capital too (CNN: Did Saddam's son make a billion-dollar withdrawal?). Let's hope humanity can continue to avoid nuclear war as we have done for decades.

Update: Another day, another new strategy (Plan for N. Korea Will Mix Diplomacy and Pressure). Or more precisely, a summary and clarification of previous days' hints and comments.

SARS War Room boss

5 May 2003 11:39 PM SGT (link)

Yesterday's ST had an article on the Sars War Room, or where 160 soldiers and 80 NEA (National Environment Agency) and MOH (Ministry of Health) officials work to quickly trace anyone who has been in contact with any suspected or probable patient with SARS, and issue them with quarantine orders if necessary. I just wanted to bring this up because Colonel Neo, the leader behind this "quarantine army", used to be my "big big boss", and he was the no-nonsense kind of guy, so I guess he's the right man for something like this.

Enterprise Makeover

5 May 2003 10:12 PM SGT (link)

First saw this at Slashdot (Enterprise Getting New Aliens, Hairdos, Weapons) linking to Trekweb's article.

...TV Guide also reveals new details about the repercussions of the finale for next season, writing that the Enterprise NX-01 will be "retrofitted for war" and that we'll get our first glimpse at the use of photon torpedos in Starfleet's history. Furthermore, the dangerous Delphic Expanse, likened to the Bermuda Triangle, causes those who enter to "become anatomically inverted (skin on the inside, organs on the outside)." Furthermore, even Jolene Blalock's 'T'Pol', as a result of resigning from the Vulcan High Command, "will sport a new cat suit and hairdo next season."

- Trekweb.com, Change Unchained: New Aliens, New Weapons, New Hairdos, New Mission a TREK "First" Berman Tells TVG

Now, I'm a Trekkie so I'm supposed to be happy and excited at this kind of announcement, but I was horrified. Do they actually think giving T'Pol a new hairdo and wardrobe by themselves are going to rejuvenate the dull, plodding Enterprise? Although I have watched only the first season, it's enough for me to conclude that despite all the great things promised for this prequel, there were basically three kinds of stories: (1) the rare kind, something actually interesting, like "Dear Doctor"; (2) boring or silly ones that probably were rejects from previous shows; (3) stories that tried to introduce some technology or meet some species that appears in the "future".

Why Enterprise Pre-empts so much of Star Trek

Already in Season 1 they've explained how the Enterprise NX-01 is responsible for meeting Klingons and Ferengi, and inventing or encountering the use of holodecks (from aliens), mind-meld (supposedly a Vulcan technique that's "out of fashion"; no word on how it became de rigueur in the 24th century) and force fields. Now they've really done it: the latest Season 2 episode "Regeneration" has the Enterprise crew intercepting "cybernetically enhanced humanoids" who have taken hostages. Yes, the Borg! The two biggest mistakes made in recent Star Trek have now come together: what CleverNickName himself calls the "pussification" of the Borg, and the inept Enterprise (say what you want about Voyager, but it was never this consistently bad).

My quibble is not merely about the fact that they previously established that human contact with the Klingons and the Ferengi came much later than this (around 2151), and the Borg were first encountered when Q intervened to move the Enterprise-D 7,000 light years away from Federation space in TNG's "Q Who." The latter was definitely the first time the Federation had contact with the Borg, and in that encounter and the first battle with the Borg at Wolf 359, the Federation was losing badly and barely defeated the Borg. It's obvious that the scriptwriters have just thrown out the book of the established history of the Star Trek universe, and the rules of logic too - in fact, some fans have taken to the desperate theory that maybe they're doing it on purpose, that the events in Enterprise came after the events in First Contact the movie, when the Enterprise-E's intervention against the Borg altered the course of history. This camp believes that the timeline was greatly changed by Picard & crew's actions, and hence we're seeing all this technology and first encounters with Alpha quadrant races much earlier, as well as the weird unheard-of events of the Temporal Cold War transpiring that have been Enterprise's attempt at a running story.

I will try to make sense of this despite my near non-existent knowledge of the relevant (real) physics:

  1. The original timeline: what we have known it to be before First Contact.
  2. Picard leads the Enterprise-E to intervene in the events of FC with the Vulcans (in 2063) - they manage to defeat the Borg that were trying to sabotage it, & leave Zefram Cochrane (the inventor of warp drive) and others with a lasting impression...
  3. After the events of FC, everything is not the same as it was "before" - that is, what happens after FC in the original timeline is different. Technology is developed faster, inspired by the Enterprise-E, its gallant crew and their achievements, and alien contact and exploration of the quadrant come faster. "New" events (new to us viewers, but part of life for the inhabitants of this timeline) like the Temporal Cold War also happen.

Since what we're supposedly talking about is a single timeline, yet we are trying to compare events of a "previous" timeline (pre-FC) and the "new" timeline (post-FC) - it seems to assume the existence of another dimension over time - "super-time" - where timelines are laid & amended by some omnipotent beings (actually it's the producers & scriptwriters, but please, I'm on a roll here). But even if we assume the existence of such beings and such powers, how can mutually contradictory timelines both exist?

Timeline change

If the original timeline was tampered with at the event of FC, the "new" timeline should somehow spring into existence & the old one "destroyed" - both cannot exist at the same time because even the "original" timeline's events have been altered by the Enterprise-E's actions. Then how is any Enterprise-E to intervene when it may not even exist in the new timeline? Who brought about the change then - these "super-time" omnipotent beings? In FC, the problem was dealt with by saying that the Enterprise-E was "caught in a temporal wake" that "shielded" them from the effects of the changes the Borg sphere would have made had it done its mission successfully - a Borgified Federation. This seems to be similar to the "chroniton shielding" in Voyager's "The Year of Hell", a 2-parter I liked very much. An exciting idea: that one could shield vessels and people not merely from weapons or energy discharges, but changes to entire timelines! The Voyager episode is very interesting to examine, but that's another story. Also another thing for another day: where the Enterprise-E crew's "vision" of a Borgified Federation went. Did it ever exist? As another timeline?

(I would like to point out also that Star Trek has made use of the "many worlds" theory that arises out of quantum physics, basically saying that when an observed object's wave function "collapses", instead of merely churning out a certain answer, it "splits" into as many universes as the possibilities allow. We observers, and everything else as we can tell, remain in only one universe out of the "multiverse." This was used in the TNG episode "Parallels" when Worf travels through an anomaly of some sort & his "reality" begins changing. What I mean is that the confusion about timelines could be explained through these many universes, but that needs more work. I wonder if the Enterprise-E problem - which ship causes the event - can be explained by this.)

OK back to the "rational viewer" mode - are they going to say, "Forget about everything in the Original Series, TNG, DS9, Voyager and the 7 movies" - that timeline is gone, finito, and here's what were dealing with now. Everything could change! - beginning with that Temporal Cold War. It's also why races & technology are popping up when they should not be." Even if they were really reshuffling the deck, I wonder if any Trekkie could accept that. And no wonder, with the idea of timelines changing themselves and morphing into others that one has to accept. What about Occam's Razor, that would say that the scriptwriters are basically running out of ideas? Heh, only in Star Trek could lazy, lousy writing be explained away with grandiloquent temporal physics theories :-)

How to Make an American Quilt

4 May 2003 6:08 PM SGT (link)

So I watched the movie on cable and was reading reviews by Roger Ebert and others, and they seem to be united in calling it a weak imitation of The Joy Luck Club, in that it's also a collection of tales of several women young and old, centred on an observer from a younger generation (played by Winona Ryder as Finn and Ming-Na Wen as Jing-Mei respectively). I don't know whether there was any conscious plagiarism though; both were adapted from books, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club coming first.

My experience was the opposite of these critics': I quite liked How to Make an American Quilt but not The Joy Luck Club. To be honest, I thought the latter long and quite dull. Perhaps it's because the tales of hardship and discrimination against women in traditional Chinese society, as told by the Chinese ladies who have since moved to America, were not new to me, appearing as regular material in Chinese dramas and movies. The problem with both movies, to a certain extent, is that the stories are too short to get us to know the characters more deeply, and inevitably it feels incomplete. But I'm ready to overlook that because the drama's pretty good in itself.

A Philosophy Professor reviews 'Heroes'

4 May 2003 5:55 PM SGT (link)

I found John Holbo's blog via Matthew Yglesias's, and also found out that he's teaching Philosophy at NUS (specifically, module PH1101E), which means I'll probably be taking his class in a few months' time. Very interesting, meeting in the flesh someone you first knew online. Meanwhile read his entry A Day Late, a Dwarf Short; and Our Text For Tomorrow (scroll down) where he describes his experience playing "Heroes IV: of Might and Magic".

Library Tour Final Decision

4 May 2003 3:15 PM SGT (link)

It has been far too long since the germination of this wacky idea (February) and my subsequent thoughts about it (March). The delay was mostly because my friend, still the only one to confirm his full participation, could only be free this month.

I realised that of late, I've been spending as much time on planning as on negotiations with interested people, who turned out to be interested only if certain conditions are fulfilled. These folks want the tour to be done only on certain days, when they are free, and they will only show up for certain stops, not the full tour. What's more, the onus was to be on me to contact them about when I would arrive at those certain stops! I think I've spent too much time bending over backwards, trying to find a plan and a date that can meet everyone's requirements while also having a chance of accomplishing the mission. So forgive me if you think I'm being obnoxious - I'm just trying to do what I set out to do, not have my mission turned into something unrecognisable and miserable, even if I do "succeed". I'm going unilateral here because I'm just not interested anymore in suggestions that do not directly improve the odds of success - so sightseers, as I call them, should just plan their own missions and dates and not have me conform to theirs.

OK, with that said, I will attempt the tour on a weekday, the 26th of May (Monday), because that's when he's free (and the difference between him & sightseers is that he's committed to the whole shebang & is willing to do the plan for it), but I will also do it myself on a Saturday (the 17th of May), barring any unforseen circumstances, because it seems that my latest plan based on a Saturday, Plan F, could have a better chance of success. What's the difference between weekdays & Saturdays? you might ask. It's because all libraries save one open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, but it varies for Saturdays: 10-5 or 11-8 for most of them. A blessing in disguise that emerged from the negotiations was the realisation that the Saturday plan, though it would be less flexible because of the different closing hours, could still be successful because of the earlier opening time of 10. Sad to say, Sunday's virtually impossible because some libraries open from 1-5 p.m. - definitely too restrictive for any successful plan, though I welcome anyone to try.

Here is a table of each branch's opening and closing hours that I've culled from NLB.

Library Branch
Weekdays
Saturdays
Sundays
Open Close Open Close Open Close
Ang Mo Kio 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Bedok 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Bukit Batok 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Bukit Merah 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Bukit Panjang 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Central 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Cheng San 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Choa Chu Kang 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 9 p.m.
Esplanade 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Geylang East 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Jurong East 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Jurong West 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Marine Parade 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Orchard 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Pasir Ris 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Sembawang 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
Sengkang 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 9 p.m.
Tampines 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 9 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Toa Payoh 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 10 a.m. 5 p.m. 1 p.m. 5 p.m.
Woodlands 12 noon 9 p.m. 12 noon 9 p.m. 12 noon 9 p.m.
Yishun 11 a.m. 9 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m. 11 a.m. 8 p.m.

I'm trying to get a digital camera for the occasion so that my reports (exclusive to l.z.y./Data, of course) will have photos as well as the book borrowing receipts that will certify that I was at those libraries at those times. I will also write about my experiences during the journey - interesting things about the libraries or what I see along the way. & I'm hoping nothing bad happens, like an accident on the roads that delays the bus, or track closures that stop the trains.

People, it's going to happen, whether I have anyone doing it with me or not. So just wait for the good news in a few weeks' time. :-)

The distressing "Contact Bowl"

3 May 2003 10:54 PM SGT (link)

Sixty-four businesses in Singapore have joined a newly-launched programme to help SARS contact tracing using name cards.

Called "Singapore Contact Bowl", all you have to do is drop off your name card at the participating businesses in places like restaurants, shopping malls or cinemas after your visit.

NTUC, which launched the initiative, and the participating businesses have assured customers that their name cards will not be used by anyone for the purpose of telemarketing.

The contacts will be kept in strict confidence and after two weeks, the cards will be destroyed.

To encourage customers to take part in the programme, some businesses have come up with lucky draws.

- Channel NewsAsia, 64 businesses join project using name cards to help SARS contact tracing

...Those taking part include the Shaw, Cathay and Eng Wah cinema chains, Metro and Takashimaya department stores, the Crystal Jade Palace Restaurant and Tung Lok restaurants, and several hotels.

- ST, Stay in touch - with outbreak

I don't know about you, but I have qualms about "staying in touch" - unwanted telemarketing is one of the concerns, but there's also the thought of others knowing where you have been at what times and how they could make use of that information. How far are we from the argument for the nightmare of cameras (and spies) everywhere in times of public health crisis, where indeed it would be great to know where everyone had been at certain times? OK maybe I'm going Orwellian again.

Together

3 May 2003 10:23 PM SGT (link)

'Together' movie poster Chen Kaige is one of the members of China's fifth generation of filmmakers, the likes of which include Zhang Yimou, whose works like Not One Less and the recent Hero I admire a lot. Yesterday I watched his new movie Together (IMDB) based on a favourable review in Today.

It's a story of a violin prodigy Liu Xiaochun (Tang Yun) and how his father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), brings him to Beijing for a national competition and subsequently in search of greater success. Along the way Xiaochun meets Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), an unkempt, eccentric music professor complete with the Einstein hairdo. He recognises Xiaochun's skill but laments that he probably will not be able to achieve great acclaim because he's a "peasant" - from the countryside. Xiaochun also strikes up a friendship with Lili (Chen Hong, Chen Kaige's wife), a neighbour who's a flamboyant call-girl, and later gets taught by Professor Yu (Chen Kaige himself), a strict taskmaster who's affluent and has a string of successful pupils. The story alternates between these characters, but the main track is very orthodox Hollywood - will Xiaochun succeed? - with an uplifting conclusion where The Pianist succeeds but A Beautiful Mind fails. Those who don't like this kind of movie, even if it's done well, should probably save yourself the grief.

Don't go to this movie looking for a "Chinese" film - besides the inevitable debate over whether there's such a thing, Together could easily have been made in the US - only here and there do you get snippets of Chinese society and culture, such as the deep bond between Xiaochun and his father, who gets work in the capital to pay for his son's music lessons, and chases after professors to beg them to teach Xiaochun. There was also a part I smiled at: when Xiaochun gets disgusted enough with the mess that is Jiang's home, he tidies it up, and Jiang returns home to find his rescued stray cats locked up in a cage (he usually lets them roam free in the rooms). "What are you, a fascist? (Fascist)" he cries. That was quite a good dig at the Chinese government that keeps its citizens on a tight leash, if not locked up. The income disparities are evident with the contrast between the small room Liu Cheng and his son rent in Beijing, and Professor Yu's Ikea-showroom apartment (it reminded me of Will's apartment in About a Boy, but less sophisticated), and the camera focusing on simple events like someone squeezing orange juice from the fruit in Yu's kitchen. But there could have been more of these. Lili's role was not very clear, and while one could say that Chen Kaige's message is to warn against sacrificing family for the sake of fame and success, it's told in a pretty simplistic way: rich - false, bad, poor - genuine, good.

Still, I enjoyed Together very much. Liu Peiqi's acting (the father) is laudable, and of course, what I loved were the displays of violin virtuosity, especially the finale, an international competition where the piece to be played (with orchestra) is Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, the finale allegro vivacissimo. I have the utmost admiration for violinists because of the sheer amount of finger dexterity they have to possess, and any allegro of standard performed by a violinist is a sight to behold, not to mention a feast for the ears.

Road sign auctions concluded

3 May 2003 9:36 PM SGT (link)

Road-sign auction hits online gridlock (ST): Of course it could have been expected, but personally I'm just thankful that my competitor, whoever he was, did not manage to get in a last-ditch bid. Oh & the article concludes with this interesting bit of information:

...The organisers are considering holding another auction for 1,024 signs that did not attract any bids.

- ST, Road-sign auction hits online gridlock

So far I've not decided what to do with my road sign when I get it.

Once and Again: A Tribute

1 May 2003 11:50 PM SGT (link)

Today I chose an easy way to spend my May Day holiday - I watched some old episodes of Once and Again. It's amazing how the drama is still fresh, touching and enjoyable even when it's the third or fourth time I'm watching it.

I love the way every character is clearly defined so that we can understand why they say or act the things they do, and cheer them on or feel sad for them, yet they are not so stereotypical that they become clichés. For instance, you won't find sullen fathers, fussy mothers, hard-to-please mothers-in-law, triangle relationships, hate-turns-into-love romances or the worst, the Bad Guy causing all the problems. Instead what we have are people who feel genuine, trying to live their lives and relate to each other as best they can. One might think two divorcees that come together, and end up with 4 children between them, and siblings and ex-spouses for the tow, is unrealistic. Not to me - I would challenge others to find any person in real life that plays the Bad Guy consistently: who is constantly backstabbing and lying and doing evil. You won't find this kind of person: he's a caricature. That might be acceptable in action movies and video games, but when they show up in family dramas they are just unconvincing. There are motivations even to the baddest of the bad, but the lazy scriptwriter barely considers this.

I love the way male and female behaviour and thinking are juxtaposed, conveyed so subtly that you might not even notice because they're so obvious. There was a scene where Rick, Lily and Zoey were playing a card game (bridge? can't remember) - Lily is fretting about her coming radio syndication interview, and in two minds about whether to do it, whether she's ready for it & all that, but when she tries to talk to Rick about it he's busy with his cards and doesn't respond with full attention, but at least he says something encouraging. Being a guy I can say with some certainty that generally we don't talk about personal issues or other things during card games: we concentrate on the game! So having such scenes appear in O & A is a tribute to the scriptwriters' incisiveness in noticing the little features of male vs. female behaviour, as well as an insight into how men & women could better relate to each other if they would understand these quirks, and not be too offended. Anyway, guys aren't the sort to pour out one's problems to one another, during games or any time. It's not a virtue or a vice - it's just the way it is.

I love what has become the trademark of O & A: the "Inner Views" where characters convey their thoughts or feelings depending on the situation (see some here). Insights as varied as how the kids think about their parents, on school, & friends; parents worrying about their kids and careers; emotions that are normally hidden from the world because they're too insensitive, mostly. Sometimes a frown, a smile or just a look is sufficient. It's like they are talking to a therapist: it's shot in black and white, and they're usually seated by themselves on a chair in a black background, talking to the screen - at the "therapist", but also to the viewer. It's also something like John Cusack's performance in High Fidelity, only that got boring after a while. O & A's Inner Views are never boring.

Of all the characters I have to say that I could identify with almost all of them: Lily's struggle to be a good parent while amicably handling the divorce with Jake and the effect her romantic relationship with Rick had on her kids; Rick's struggle for success in architecture (this is illustrated by a saga with Miles Drentell in Season 2); Eli's career indirection; Grace's attitude to her classmates and teacher/mentor Mr. Dimitri (in Season 3) and teenage-hood in general; Jessie's insecurities etc. Because of the particular stage I'm at in my life now, I can empathise with both the parent's and child's side of the equation - Grace's frustration, for instance, at how everyone frets about her when she feels she's perfectly capable of managing her own affairs; coupled with Lily's worry that she's losing touch with her daughter (in Season 3's "Experience is the Teacher", one of my favourite).

I was very upset that the drama was cancelled mid-way into its third season, and it shows: the final episode did wrap up most of the loose threads professionally, but I felt cheated, as I'm sure many O & A fans did. There were so many events that had yet to be developed and explored: Rick's architect career, Lily's radio talkshow career, Eli settling down, Grace going to college, Jessie and her relationship with Katie, even Karen! All these had to be hastily finished or discreetly put aside. It was such a waste.

Another thing: I was intrigued by the relatively good relations between the divorced couples, Jake & Lily and Rick & Karen. Though they have arguments from time to time, they are about the children, and you can see that they have pretty much settled their grievances with each other and are trying to be the best parents they can be. From personal experience, that wasn't the case with my parents, and indeed I became the proverbial kid-caught-in-the-middle. In those days, I really couldn't be bothered about all the disagreements and problems they had, as much as they wanted to win me on their side - one, it wasn't my fault, & two, I thought they should have settled it themselves. I suppose a therapist might say that watching O & A was cathartic for me in that it helped me see the possibility of more healthy couple relationships, even divorced ones. I'll just say that when Lily complains about Jake's behaviour with respect to finances and fidelity in her "Inner Views" - though she's largely over it, I suspect women take them to heart much longer - I was pretty familiar with such things. It wasn't more enjoyable, needless to say - I just understood such feelings better.

Rejection Email #2

1 May 2003 11:32 PM SGT (link)

My letter on the Worrying Implications of the Infectious Diseases Act amendments isn't going to be published. However, as a friend reminded me, the fact that the ST didn't send anything on my 2nd letter (the chemical weapons one), and that they seem to make it a point to notify me for the rejected ones, means that that one might not be as dead as I previously thought.

All the same, it isn't just my ego complaining when I mope about my letters getting rejected, believe it or not. I'm not too pleased that the issues I was trying to raise were not raised, and I'd like to think that I could have helped get them into public discourse. It's sad that everyone is still more obsessed about death rates and such rather than possible power grabs and unreasonable infringements of our rights in times of crisis.

By the way, I'm trying "permalinks" for the posts (the "(link)") so that you all can directly link to posts if you wish.

Ignored Regions of the World

1 May 2003 11:19 PM SGT (link)

Matt Yglesias wrote some days ago about a Geography quiz for the Middle East and general north African & Central Asian region, and how it reminded him of some countries that are down in the dumps and generally forgotten by the world because of their lack of strategic importance. Try it yourself, & if you got a perfect score on the first try, like Matt - you're amazing.

Also, his later post on the quiz.

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