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1-10 July 2003

10 JulProofreading Greek
10 JulConflicted policy
10 JulEnvironmentalism writ large
10 JulNewspeak
10 JulSCO vs. Linux decision matrix
10 JulInvisibility
10 JulLegitimate state interest
9 JulGay rights & economic survival
9 JulThe Degree Confluence Project
8 JulBar-top dancing allowed
8 JulHorse quartet
8 JulTalk about hallucinations
8 JulThe search for WMDs
6 JulFollow-ups: Gays, Arnold
5 JulDistributed proofreading
4 JulThe Third Miracle
4 JulThe search for extrasolar planets
4 JulStar Trek & witchcraft
4 JulGay issue update
3 JulI get my road sign
3 JulAbolish Marriage
2 JulTeachers
2 JulSPG spirit
2 JulLet Ah-nold be Ah-nold
1 JulThe Chinese language in Singapore
1 JulNot again...
1 JulCity of God
1 JulJust for Fun

Proofreading Greek

10 July 2003 10:45 PM SGT (link)

It's times like this when I wish I were a polyglot - specifically that I knew Greek. I just finished proofreading a page (at the Distributed Proofreaders site that I talked about here) that had an extract from Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes. The passage is as follows:

                                    ὲν δὲ γαίᾳ
ζόα φονορυτῲ
Μεμικται, κάρτα δ' εὶσ' όμαιμοι .

- Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes

(Note: the characters above are encoded in Unicode; see here for the Greek alphabet & variations in Unicode. If it doesn't display properly on your browser, here's an image version.)

Although Distributed Proofreaders built a special interface for transliterating Greek into the Latin alphabet, & pointed to the Greek-to-ASCII primer at Project Gutenberg, it still wasn't as straightforward as I thought it would be. For one, the print wasn't too clear & I thought the proofer who worked on the transliteration before me might have made a mistake with assigning the correct letters. Second, I was afraid of the marks top & bottom - what the heck? how do I know whether excluding them (as the instructions say) was going to turn the text into gibberish for Greek readers?

I thought I could put in the Greek text & use Babelfish to tell me if they made sense, but alas, Babelfish doesn't support translations to or from Greek. Then I turned to the Perseus Project, because they have an archive of the Greek classics in the original & also English translations, should I need them. After some searching I finally found the source: lines 937-939 (the default settings let you view the Greek through Latin transliteration; click on "configure display" to change it to UTF-8, where the Greek letters will be displayed). Here's the English translation: the lines are roughly, "Their hatred has ceased/Their life has been mingled in the blood-soaked earth/Now truly their blood is one.", except only a later part of the original first line was taken (hence the spacing before it), so I can't tell whether it's "hatred" or "ceased".

& I thought my troubles were over, but no, Perseus's Latin transliteration of the Greek was ever-so-slightly different from the results the Proofreaders' Greek interface gives - it had something to do with the little "i" you see at the end of the first two lines. After some googling I found out that they're called iota subscripts, sometimes put below vowels at the end of words. Apparently they don't affect the pronunciation, but why does Perseus's transliteration turn them into "i"'s? In the end I decided to follow the Proofreaders' interface & correct the simpler Greek-to-Latin transliteration errors.

The final Latin transliteration:

                                    en de gaia
Zoa phonoruto
Memiktai: karta d'eis'omaimo.

So what's the moral of the story? The Perseus Project is great, Google is great, & I should learn Greek if I'm that interested in respecting the original work of erudite writers who casually sprinkle extracts of Greek classics in their books.

Conflicted policy

10 July 2003 9:37 PM SGT (link)

Today's Today had a good article written by Alex Au, gay activist & involved in the failed effort to get People Like Us registered as a society in 1997, but unfortunately it's not online. Here are the two parts I consider most biting & incisive:

...Mr Goh said that he had to implement change without fanfare, to avoid raising the hackles of more-conservative Singaporeans.

However, in some ways, the Government's actions, such as censorship, make it more difficult for itself than it need be. On the one hand, it needs to implement change. On the other hand it keeps the population corseted in outmoded ideas, shut off from a contemporary debate about sexuality.

Naturally, the people's views are stuck in the dark ages. To then blame "conservative" views for not being able to move boldly, is facile.

***

On June 21, MediaWorks TV was fined $15,000 by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for broadcasting an interview with actress Anne Heche on the afternoon of March 16.

A significant part of the interview focused on her lesbian relationship with actress Ellen DeGeneres.

The MDA said that MediaWorks breached the TV Programme Code, which disallows content that promotes, justifies and glamorises such alternative lifestyles.

It was only an interview, not porn. Heche spoke about her own life - a simple truth. Yet the MDA objected on the basis that this was promoting, justifying or glamorising homosexuality.

If somebody were to say that gay people are "born this way", but really, "they are like you and me", isn't this speaker, by the MDA's standards, justifying homosexuality?

And shouldn't the speaker of such words, however sincere or senior, be censored from our media, so that Singaporeans may remain comfortably safe from change?

- Today 10 July, "Time is ripe to look at laws"

Hahaha... but I think we should consider that those comments were made to a foreign publication, Time, & while I'm not saying that the person who said them was so clueless as to think Singaporeans wouldn't hear the news, he probably thought they wouldn't care so much.

Environmentalism writ large

10 July 2003 11:31 AM SGT (link)

The Instapundit has a good article at Tech Central Station, A Lunar Klondike?, about the disputes over commercial visits to the moon, and possible exploitation of its resources. He rightly sees it as the first signs of a looming battle between those who would preserve satellites & planets in their natural state, untouched by humans, & those who don't see a problem with mining & terraforming (for the case of Mars, most likely): altering a planet's climate to make it more suitable for humans. He thinks the former group thinks humans are a kind of cancer on the Universe, & that they're more interested in "striking moral poses than in helping humanity".

One can find engrossing & insightful developments on both fronts. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) throughout puts the debate between those who will preserve "rocks & sand" & those who will build at the forefront. A short story by Brian Aldiss, "III" (in the Supertoys Last All Summer Long collection), has megacorporations wantonly destroying habitats & alien life in the solar system for profit & in the name of progress. Of course I think there's a compromise to be had between the two: we can study planets & satellites in their state untouched by humans, but in minor ways they will be affected, first by spacecraft, then by manned missions, then by settlement. Unless we want to retreat from space exploration & migration to other planets, what we should do is preserve what we can but also built what we must.

Newspeak

10 July 2003 11:27 AM SGT (link)

A slightly extreme article, but one with some truth in it: The PCspeak of Diversity at Fox News says that Orwell's dystopian vision of a Newspeak that pares down the old language to be used for defining the ideological goals of Ingsoc - English Socialism - & nothing else. "Free" might be preserved, in the sense of "my shoe is free of dirt", but no longer in the sense of "freedom", & the Party believes that getting rid of these words & the concepts behind them will make their control over the people permanent. The conservative bloc also has its terms that evoke raw emotions instead of rational thinking, like "death tax" to mean the estate tax, but I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as what's mentioned in the article.

SCO vs. Linux decision matrix

10 July 2003 11:25 AM SGT (link)

Via Slashdot, someone has come up with a decision matrix explaining the various claims & facts relating to the SCO vs. Linux case (actually SCO vs. IBM, but SCO's trying to undermine Linux too).

Invisibility

10 July 2003 11:20 AM SGT (link)

Wired magazine for August has has an article on the state of development of invisibility machines, or what Trekkies will call cloaking devices (Being Invisible). With webcams & laptops, anyone can test the basic idea of using the webcam to capture what's behind you, & sending that live image to the laptop screen in front of you, but that's certainly not enough to create a good illusion of invisibility. The article has more on what researchers are doing to improve the execution of that idea.

What's more, the invisibility we're discussing is optical invisibility, not infra-red or others, so you could still be detected if people want to, & it's not like Hollow Man where the evil scientist can roam free raping people, or like Star Trek where cloaking or making people invisible is done with some kind of particle or quantum phase change (whatever that is).

Legitimate state interest

10 July 2003 11:03 AM SGT (link)

The major blogs have all been pointing to Lawrence Solum's analysis of the concept of legitimate state interest, especially following the debate between Justices Kennedy & Scalia in the Lawrence v. Texas decision. He has information on its historical development & possible contemporary definitions.

What I find interesting is the three possibilities he gives for analysing the claim, made by Justice Kennedy I think, that the state has no legitimate interest in morality, that promoting moral conduct or banning immoral behaviour is out of its bounds. They roughly correspond to ethical & political philosophies adovcated by John Stuart Mill (states may not act to prevent people from harming themselves, physically or morally), Aristotle (states may not act to prevent people from harming themselves only morally), and John Rawls (states may act in such cases only with the backing of "public reason", a concept he explains). The confluence, if you'll mind the pun, of law & philosophy here is what fascinates me, because it brings law up to the higher level of how & why we organise societies, rather than banal rules influenced by precedent, & philosophy to the "lower" level of practical problems rather than highfalutin speculation.

The first one is explained clearly by John Stuart Mill in this paragraph:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

& from what I said here about gay rights in Singapore, it can be guessed that I'm pretty much a Millsian. Solum doesn't wholly accept the Millsian concept of constitutional libertarianism because he suspects that Justice Kennedy doesn't mean to invalidate other laws that similarly prevent people from harming themselves, like growing marijuana for private consumption. & definitely, what Mills says here is not blind dogma; if something we feel should be banned isn't covered by his words, then I guess we have to formulate new philosophical understandings of why this is so.

That said, I can't really agree with his other two proposals (the Aristotle & John Rawls ones), particularly John Rawls's, because his idea of public reason isn't too specific on what constitutes reasons that can "appeal to the public at large": does this mean that demagoguery should set the laws of society? Or that if the majority of the population, but not all, is Christian, for instance, the state is legitimate in becoming theocratic? Maybe I'll have to read his book to get a better idea of what he's really saying.

Gay rights & economic survival

9 July 2003 8:20 PM SGT (link)

Today's ST has Dr. Koe summarising recent developments for the gay community in terms of gaining greater respect & acceptance (Big step forward for gay cause), namely the Lawrence v. Texas Scotus ruling that effectively makes anti-homosexual sodomy laws unconstitutional, gay marriages in Canada, & PM Goh's recent acknowledgement that (wow) gays are people too, that they are (probably) born that way, & that the government's ready to employ them. I took offence with its pro-gay foreign talent sentiment last week; Dr. Koe prefers to ignore that & see the glass as half-full:

...In urging Singaporeans to be more tolerant of sexual minorities, Mr Goh has demonstrated the same strength and courage that led to the abolition of 'popular' views of their time, such as racial segregation, slavery, religious intolerance and sexual discrimination.

Governance is more than just imposing the will of the majority; it involves respect for, and protection of, minorities, even if it is not a view that the popular majority subscribes to.

This is a big step in making us feel truly at home. As a gay man, I am no longer an outcast because of my sexuality, but an equal, contributing member of our meritocratic society.

For this, I thank the Prime Minister. I am certain the gay community in Singapore feels the same.

- ST 9 July, Big step forward for gay cause

& Ms. Chua Mui Hoong says, It's not about gay rights - it's survival:

SO SINGAPORE is, discreetly, laying out the red carpet for talented people who happen to be gay.

It is quietly hiring self-declared homosexuals, even in sensitive jobs in the civil service, as the Prime Minister revealed in an interview with Time magazine recently.

When a Cabinet made up of conservative Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus liberalises rules its members know many of their constituents will not agree with, you know there is more than just values at stake.

You know there's an economic consideration somewhere. And, more likely than not, that this is about survival, that arch motif of Singapore's history, again.

The link may seem far-fetched at first. What have gays got to do with the economy? And how can being more tolerant towards them be good for the economy?

The answer lies in recent thinking about the roots of creative cities...

- ST 9 July, It's not about gay rights - it's survival

She talks about CMU academic Richard Florida's thesis in The Rise Of The Creative Class, and in other writings, that a tolerance for diversity - racial, sexual, cultural; sex-orientational (?) - leads to this "creative class" of engineers, artists, scientists etc. to drive economic growth with new ideas, inventions & creations. So, Ms. Chua asks:

....How does Singapore rank as a tolerant city?

We do well in ethnic diversity and tolerance. The arts and entertainment scene is lively. But we remain intolerant and parochial in our social mores. And our top-down, authoritarian political system does not help either.

Can Singapore open up enough to allow unorthodox people their space, both physically and psychically, while not eroding the conservative values held dear by some?

Maybe the question has to be rephrased: Can it afford not to?

- ST 9 July, It's not about gay rights - it's survival

Besides the main points Ms. Chua makes about diversity & economic survival - valid ones, probably - I seem to feel that there's more than meets the eye. An undercurrent of satire, perhaps; it's quite disingenuous that the columnist who bravely raised the point about civil liberties during the height of the SARS crisis would advocate diversity & economic survival, over gay rights on their own.

The standard "sales pitch" by the government and others for opening up our society, allowing gay bars & the like, is somewhat along the lines of Mr. Florida's ideas, that diversity & openness, or maybe just making Singapore less "boring" for foreigners, is key to our continued economic success. But my guess is that the so-called conservative majority of Singaporeans aren't intolerant of gays because they haven't read The Rise of the Creative Class, that they're actually hurting their own pockets in the long run by shutting their country & their minds to gays & others, that maybe if the government did more publicity using Mr. Florida's book & others, they could perhaps reduce the anti-gay sentiment in the heartlands.

This might be a case of using the wrong means to get the right end, such that Dr. Koe & others can feel accepted in Singapore. But I'm the kind of guy that opposes wrong means, whether the end is favourable or not, because I think starting with the right means, the right mindset, is key to achieving what you aim to achieve, & not a hollow & illusionary victory.

No, the conservative majority are intolerant of gays because they think they have the higher moral ground, that homosexual behaviour & relations is disgusting and/or against the wishes of whichever God they believe in. & further, not only being disdainful & hostile towards gays, they feel the government should be empowered in law to supervise the population such that no homosexual acts take place; the only reason why there haven't been more arrests & prosecutions of sodomy is because policing gay sex is like policing jaywalking - the manpower & financial resources required are disproportionate to the benefits of reducing this category of crime. The conservatives see gays as being subhuman &/or guilty of great sins, & they want a polity & a judiciary that enforces this moral standard on the whole population.

Now I can't speak intelligently on PM Goh's emotions & thinking about this issue, but from what he has said, to Time & the local media, it can be gathered that he isn't a fire-breathing anti-gay conservative; he acknowledges them as equals, he's ready to put them in government & the civil service, but he's against decriminalising gay sex because he thinks the conservative majority will oppose such a move. But it could be argued that this majority will oppose gay bars, gays in government & so on, so PM Goh & his supporters on this issue have to bring in the rationale of "economic survival". Unfortunately, this doesn't wash with its intended audience, only those who are somewhat on the fence; they don't want gay culture in their faces, & in their children's faces, but they also have a vague feeling that it's not right to persecute them.

Over time I think Singaporeans will become more open & accepting of gays & other people with alternative cultures & lifestyles, but that will not come about through rhetoric about "economic survival", just as many aren't convinced about the same rhetoric on foreign talent. If the government & civil society sincerely want to see an end to discrimination & persecution of gays, not to mention opposition to foreign talent, they have to address the issue at its core.

Singapore since its inception has been an open society, thanks to the far-sighted thinking of Raffles & his colleagues in the early days. This doesn't just mean free trade & mass immigration for labour: it means the mindset that says anyone, regardless of what colour his skin is or what language he speaks, stands a chance of bettering his life in Singapore. This policy, official & unofficial, legal & mental, was key to our success as a trading post, until times changed, the British pulled out, & our government & our people embraced the new ideas of citizenship, nationhood & a strong government-led economy.

Of course, a stark dichotomy between laissez-faire & strong government, open society vs. closed, repressed society etc. doesn't exist, & I'm not saying that one is better than the other: in general, there are many more commendable things about the Singapore of today than in the British times. I just think that Singaporeans should acknowledge that we cannot depend on strong government to always direct economic & social policies anymore, & we have to look at which portions of the old societal organisation helped make Singapore a success in its more laissez-faire colonial days. Namely, openness & acceptance of new & unknown cultures & ideas, and the people behind them.

Addendum: A letter based on what I've said in this post:

It is about gay rights, not just survival

I read Ms. Chua Mui Hoong's article "It's not about gay rights - it's survival" (ST, 9 July) with some bemusement. Her overt point that economic survival demands we embrace diversity and "talented people who happen to be gay" seems to be accompanied with an undercurrent of satire. Our government has pressed the same point of economic survival with regard to foreign talent, and still Singaporeans gripe about foreigners stealing their jobs. I think this dissonance between common thinking and government policy arises from both sides talking past each other. I feel the only way to have Singaporeans accept gays, talented or mediocre, foreign or local, lies in greater openness and understanding, not through any economic rationale.

The "conservative majority" PM Goh cites when saying why gay sex cannot be decriminalised are anti-gay not because they haven't heard of Mr. Florida's "creative class" thesis, not because they do not realise they are hurting their own pockets in the long run (assuming that's true). They are anti-gay because they think homosexual behaviour is sick and/or sinful. This is a line of thought that arises from common custom and religion, and they are entitled to their views.

However, they go beyond having such views, or even cracking bigoted jokes. The conservative majority wants to empower our police to arrest people committing homosexual sex, and our judiciary to fine or jail people for such crimes. They want to use the power of the government to impose their moral standards on every Singaporean, whether he/she believes in a religion that forbids homosexuality, and whether he/she believes that private consensual sex between adults is none of anyone's business but his/her own.

Traditionally, our government has never hesitated to impose its own moral beliefs and standards on Singaporeans. However, this time, PM Goh has allowed employment of gays in government positions, but implies that any move to decriminalise homosexual sex is political suicide, leading to the paradox of the government condoning its employees' committing crimes. I think it's unfortunate that the government is hesitant to say that it represents all Singaporeans, anti-gay or not, and while conservatives have their views, our society should come to a compromise between anti-sodomy laws and gay culture, instead of swinging to the extreme of criminalisation of gay sex. This is the reason gay rights should be supported, not because of a crass economic justification.

Regards,
Mr. Lin Ziyuan.

The Degree Confluence Project

9 July 2003 6:30 PM SGT (link)

This is one of the coolest things I've ever heard of: the Degree Confluence Project, or DCP. Basically volunteers from around the world travel to exact latitude & longitude confluences, & post photos & reports of their experiences getting there. MSNBC's report, Seeing the world, degree by degree, has some of them.

According to MSNBC, after subtracting confluences in open water, the number of sites worth going to is about 12,000 (the DCP site itself, however, says there are 13,564 to be found). The most exotic locations are, for instance, 0 deg latitude, 0 deg longitude, made by some aboard a US Coast Guard vessel; but other confluences can just be sitting in somebody's paddy field, as MSNBC says. It's a great alternative to guided tours of the same old places because it's truly a random picking of sites all around the world. What's more, reports of confluences over the years, made by different people, can also help to show how our world is slowly transforming.

It's so cool that I went to check the confluences nearest where I am, & indeed one guy who had some time off from a business trip to Singapore paid his way to 1°N 104°E - "5.9km east of Kubuk, Riau, Indonesia". From the pictures it seems to be in the water near a fishing village. (Here's the picture of the readout from his GPS receiver proving he did go there.) The bad news is that Singapore isn't sitting on any confluences. The good news (sort of) is that besides 1°N 104°E, the other three confluences nearest us haven't been visited yet, so anyone who tries to can be the first there - 1 in Riau, 2 in Johor state. Personally I'm yearning to try 2°N 103°E, which seems to be only about 8km from Yong Peng, an exit along Malaysia's North-South highway; it would probably be on somebody's farm.

Update: Some 8 or 9 years ago, I accompanied my relatives on a trip to Yong Peng, but I didn't really like it because there wasn't much to do. At that time Yong Peng was just a small sleepy town with one major shopping centre; I don't know how it's like now, but it probably hasn't changed much.

Correction: I erroneously put the confluence as 2°N 104°E; it should be 103, & I've corrected it. The 104 one doesn't seem to be very accessible.

Bar-top dancing allowed

8 July 2003 10:25 PM SGT (link)

Channel NewsAsia, 24-hour licensing and bar-top dancing get the nod from authorities: after what seems like a long time since the issue was last debated, the authorities have relented. I can't say whether Singapore will become less "boring", as one interviewed complained, just because you can dance on bar-tops, but it was a pretty silly rule.

Horse quartet

8 July 2003 9:34 PM SGT (link)

Via the Volokh Conspiracy, click on any combination. I have no idea why it's funny too, but strangely it is. One of them sounds like that song by t.A.T.u (got to get the capitalisation right) that's being played to death.

Talk about hallucinations

8 July 2003 9:12 PM SGT (link)

...Mr Pierre Png recounted finding her [fiancée Ms. Andrea De Cruz] sitting upright in bed early one morning - talking to herself. "She seemed to be talking to someone in my direction. I looked around but there was no one else in the room except the two of us..."

[Mr. Rayson Tan's lawyer] Mr Lok Vi Ming asked if her hallucination was just a figment of his imagination. When Mr Png denied so and asked the lawyer to clarify, Justice Tay explained: "You are hallucinating about her hallucinating."

ST 8 July, Pierre accused of having a selective memory

First I will admit I'm paying more attention to this case than I normally would to such cases, or even any cases in Singapore - my main interest is in Scotus-type constitutional legal disputes, but I'm making an exception because of the celebrities involved. I am not watching this for the gossip value, or news of who broke down when etc.

IANAL, but What is the point of this line of questioning? The main dispute ongoing is to what extent Slim 10 caused Ms. Andrea De Cruz's liver to fail, rightly, but I don't see how Mr. Pierre Png's testimony on whether she had hallucinations or not is relevant to that. Is it just Mr. Lok Vi Ming trying to obfuscate the real issues; how come the judge merrily joined in?

The search for WMDs

8 July 2003 5:50 PM SGT (link)

Via Ars Technica: go to Google, type in "weapons of mass destruction" and click "I'm Feeling Lucky". Hahaha.

Follow-ups: Gays, Arnold

6 July 2003 2:43 PM SGT (link)

The weekend edition of Today makes many good points about the problems with PM Goh's "coming out" with the policy on employing gays in government positions. Here are some highlights, but read the whole thing:

In talking about hiring gay people in the context of the hunt for foreign talent, a message being conveyed is that perhaps if it weren't for foreign talent, homosexuality would be less acceptable.

There is also the perception that the Government is prepared to treat foreigners better than its own citizens, long a bitter pill for many Singaporeans.

...PM Goh is flagging a change in mindset rather than on paper. Eventually, he wants to see a more tolerant society to embrace both gay locals and foreigners.

...But in the meantime, it is unclear how people would go about declaring themselves as gay or how and when recruiters would ask potential employees about their sexual orientation.

...In another sticking point, PM Goh implied to Time that the penal code, which in effect criminalises homosexual sex, would remain unchanged, even if the Government hires gay people.

"It's more than just the criminal code. It's actually the values of the people," argued PM Goh.

"The heartlanders are still conservative. You can call it double-standard but sometimes it's double-standard. They are conservative and for the Muslims, it's religion, it's not the law."

This sets up a potentially absurd situation where the Government will have among its ranks people who might be going home each night and engaging in illegal activities.

- Today, 5-6 July, Local gays, foreign gays

There's also an amusing opinion piece in the New York Times, From Cyborg to Governor?, looking at Arnold Schwarzenegger possibly becoming governor of California from the perspective that his movie career has been an extended political campaign. A must-read for those who have followed Arnold's career. A sample:

...Tempting though it may be to project the qualities of a Governor Schwarzenegger from the screen behavior of Arnold the star, the movies don't supply many clues. We have to assume that his solutions to the real problems of California will not take the form, as they generally do in his films, of strapping on a small arsenal's worth of automatic weaponry and blowing stuff up. (It's amusing, however, to think of him dealing with the State Legislature as he does with a roomful of unruly toddlers in "Kindergarten Cop" : planting his feet, taking a deep breath, and screaming, "Shut up!")

- New York Times, From Cyborg to Governor?

Distributed proofreading

5 July 2003 9:48 PM SGT (link)

I have to thank Slashdot's post Project Gutenberg's 32nd Birthday for introducing me to Distributed Proofreaders, a volunteer project to proofread scanned pages of books whose copyrights have lapsed, so that they can be available online in digital format for everyone, at Project Gutenberg & other places. I once thought of volunteering for the latter, but I don't have any really old books to scan & digitalise, so proofreading is a great solution. It's kind of boring (mostly correcting OCR errors & changing some of the formatting), but somebody's got to do it.

I've also created the team Team Singapore, which was surprisingly not there - either the Singaporeans participating in the proofreading aren't interested in identifying themselves as such, or there weren't any before me (which IMHO is unlikely). So take a look & see if you're interested in joining this effort.

The Third Miracle

4 July 2003 10:06 PM SGT (link)

Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) is a man wrestling with his inner demons - he's a postulator, a person who presents an application for beatification, and 8 months ago he rejected one applicant, devastated a community & became the "Miracle-Killer". He's sent to investigate a new application from the Church of Saint Stanislaus, where a statue of the Virgin Mary weeps blood, and a girl has been cured of lupus. The candidate is Helen O'Regan, who lived in the church & did community work; her daughter Roxanne (Anne Heche) doesn't care - she still blames her mother for abandoning her to move to the church.

Throughout the process of investigation, & later the meeting with the Vatican officials where he argues for Helen O'Regan against the Devil's Advocate, Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who's condescending towards the American Catholic Church & any saints from America in general, Frank struggles to come to terms with the degree of his faith, especially when he sees more evidence for O'Regan's cause, and falls in love with Roxanne.

Movies that are this intellectually stimulating, & well-performed are rare, & for that reason valuable. I think it's regrettable that most reviews I read of this movie mention the other movies that were released at that time & that had Roman Catholic references, like Stigmata (which I haven't watched) & The End of Days (which I sort-of reviewed here), because to do this is to ignore what The Third Miracle has to offer.

Who has not struggled as Frank does with his faith, be it Roman Catholic or otherwise? For him it becomes a kind of spiritual hunger: as a postulator, it was his job to argue for beatification, but also to expose frauds, & although he did what he had to do, he was pained, because just like the petitioners, he wanted to believe. When Roxanne asks him what a saint was, & whether he really believed that "her mother was in Heaven with a hand on God's shoulder, whispering to him her worshippers' prayers & getting him to answer them", Frank has no good answer for her. So in a way he's perfect for his job.

There's also the great question of what the third miracle is supposed to be. The rules have it that there need to be three miracles, with evidence to back them up, like medical records of those who have been cured, or blood analyses for weeping statues & the like. (I was fascinated by the pseudo-legal process the Church undertakes to confirm sainthood, with the adversarial process & presentation of evidence & witnesses' testimony.) (Mild spoiler) Helen O'Regan is shown to have two. Read in a simple sense, the title might just mean the event that would lead to a person's successful beatification. But you get the feeling that this is just the facile version told to the uncritical viewer, while the real answer is be found in some subliminal message the movie conveys. When I first watched it last year, I thought it might be Frank finding his faith again. Now I think it's actually got to do with Archbishop Werner (there's a twist at the end involving him). I may never know, & that's why this movie's good enough to watch over & over again, just as the quest for epistemological & theological answers should never cease in one's life.

The search for extrasolar planets

4 July 2003 1:32 PM SGT (link)

Solar system similar to ours discovered (CNN), Similar Solar System Found Only 90 Light Years Away (New York Times): In terms of having a similar star & a Jupiter-sized planet at roughly the similar orbit. I think the effort to detect planets orbiting other stars is one of the more exciting ongoing developments in astronomy; as the technology improves scientists should be able to reach the next Holy Grail, Saturn-sized planets, or maybe someday Earth-sized planets. (I might be wrong but I think the success of this technique of using star "wobbles" to detect planets depends on the mass of the planets orbiting the star, & Saturn's mass is an order of magnitude smaller than Jupiter's; Earth's is 3 orders.) It's not exactly a search for extra-terrestrial life, or better, intelligence, but the search for similar conditions in which we knew life started on Earth, & it's a worthy first step. Books like Planet Quest (Ken Croswell) explain the technology & interview the main personalities that are pushing the effort forward.

Star Trek & witchcraft

4 July 2003 12:43 PM SGT (link)

...The central theme of these series is responsibility. These programmes [Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed] do not glorify the powers that are bestowed on the lead characters, but present to teenage viewers the saying, 'with great power comes great responsibility'.

If these programmes are to be questioned, what about classics like The Addams Family, Bewitched, The Genie, The Munsters and Star Trek, all of which contain elements of witchcraft. Even Shakespeare featured witches in the opening scene of Macbeth.

- ST 4 July, Responsibility is the word

witchcraft (n)

  1. Magic (The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.); sorcery (Use of supernatural power over others through the assistance of spirits.).
  2. Wicca (A polytheistic Neo-Pagan nature religion inspired by various pre-Christian western European beliefs, whose central deity is a mother goddess and which includes the use of herbal magic and benign witchcraft.).
  3. A magical or irresistible influence, attraction, or charm.

- Dictionary.com, witchcraft

I agree with the writer's general message, but not his grouping of Star Trek with programmes that involve witchcraft. Maybe the writer's talking about the original series, with Kirk, Spock & all, but the Star Trek I know is the show with the most modern outlook towards science & religion - it certainly doesn't involve any supernatural phenomena. In fact at times it's so politically-correct that when I started watching Voyager, I objected to their common use of "alien" - I thought it should be "unknown lifeform", because "alien" sounded a bit perjorative! (& to a certain extent, I still think it is; maybe it's because it's too closely associated with alien abductions & such voodoo.)

This is the best example I can find of how unlike witchcraft Star Trek & its ideals are. It's from DS9's first season, last episode, "In the Hands of the Prophets", where Bajoran Vedek Winn (a high priest) visits the station & condemns the teachings of the school there set up by Mrs. O'Brien (a human). She objects to her teaching about the Wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant in its scientific terms instead of its status among the Bajorans as their Celestial Temple. Everyone is caught up in the dispute (& it's part of a larger story that spans three episodes), and here Cmdr. Sisko explains to his son Jake why Vedek Winn's opinions don't deserve to be dismissed out of hand:

Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko: I heard about what happened at school. Did Mrs. O'Brien call classes off?

Jake Sisko: No but there was only me and 4 other kids left, but she still kept the school open. She changed the lesson to teach us about Galileo. Did you know that he was tried by the Inquisition for teaching that the Earth moved around the Sun?

B: Tried and convicted. His books were burned.

J: How could anyone have been so stupid?

B: It's easy to look back 7 centuries and judge what was right and wrong.

J: But the same thing is happening now with all this stuff about the Celestial Temple and the wormhole. It's dumb.

B: No it's not. You've got to realise something, Jake. For over 50 years, the one thing that allowed the Bajorans to survive the Cardassian occupation was their faith. The Prophets were their only source of hope and courage...

J: But there were no Prophets. They were just aliens that you found in the wormhole.

B: To those aliens, the future is no more difficult to see than the past. Why shouldn't they be considered Prophets?

J: Are you serious?

B: My point is, it's a matter of interpretation. It may not be what you believe, but that doesn't make it wrong. If you start to think that way, you'll be acting just like Vedek Winn - only from the other side. We [the Federation] can't afford to think that way, Jake. We'd lose everything we've worked for here.

- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 1, "In the Hands of the Prophets" (synopsis)

Gay issue update

4 July 2003 11:54 AM SGT (link)

The ST reports on PM Goh's comments in Time that I talked about here - Govt more open to employing gays now. It confirms again that the government is concerned here about its employee's sexual orientation because of possible repurcussions like blackmail - it's OK to be a homosexual, just not to perform homosexual sex. While this may be perfectly alright under the law, I think it's a very conflicted policy.

I get my road sign

3 July 2003 3:51 PM SGT (link)

Way back in March, I wrote about LTA's auction of the old street signs, of which the proceeds will go to the Community Chest. I later decided to bid for one myself, perhaps just for the sheer fun of doing something strange like this, & I won the bid.

Today I went to the LTA office at Hampshire Road (near the Little India MRT station) to collect the street sign - at last! After all the paperwork & waiting. It's bigger than I thought, perhaps because I'm now holding it up close, instead of seeing it from a distance. The taxi driver asked about it, & seemed pretty non-receptive to the idea of owning a street sign. I suppose most will take it to be a waste of time or simply a crazy thing to do, but hey, ask yourself, when was the last time you did something purely out of fun, because you enjoyed it & thought it would be cool, as opposed to doing it because someone wanted you to, or for profit?

But never mind him. The pressing question now is of course - where to put it?...

Update: I was wondering if there'll be a difference in the way males & females see the acquisition of an old street sign: perhaps males will value its "geek-ness" while females lament its lack of aesthetic value (in a conventional sense). But so far that hasn't happened: in fact females seem more enthusiastic about the issue of finding a good place for it.

Abolish Marriage

3 July 2003 3:35 PM SGT (link)

Rather, government-sanctioned marriages - Michael Kinsley at Slate raises an idea that compromises between the bitterly-divided two sides. Conservatives are horrified by Lawrence v. Texas & see gay marriage as coming next are calling for a constitutional amendment to ban it (namely Sen. Frist, Majority Leader, but Bush [is] uncertain about gay marriage ban (CNN), while gay rights activists want the same kind of recognition accorded to heterosexual marriages. Instead of the polarised sides petitioning the government to do what they want, Kinsley writes, why not have the government step out of it altogether, not favouring any kind of marriage - hetero, homo, threesome, with oneself (!), whatever - then the complaint each side has with any kind of official bias or support for any kind of marriage magically disappears. Spoken like a true libertarian.

Of course regulations where the state uses conventional marriages as handy guides to procedures regarding custody rights, taxes & health care benefits would have to be changed after marriage is privatised, but as Kinsley says, "the alternative is arguing about gay marriage until death do us part". Actually I believe society's attitudes about this issue will continue to evolve, & while we may not totally rid attitudes like racism, the situation is slowly but surely improving or moving to a new equilibrium. But I must admit the attractiveness Kinsley's idea has.

Teachers

2 July 2003 8:31 PM SGT (link)

Boston Public, created by David Kelley, revolves around the faculty of a high school where drugs, guns & apathy abound. & being a David Kelley show, it's of course very "sexual": male students lusting after female teachers, a male teacher having an affair with a female student etc.; and the character development is non-existent, so characters get into relationships with each other for not much reason.

But that's not the point; personally I think the show's OK for an occasional viewing, but not following long-term. That's because sometimes it manages to put its heart & mind in the right place:

[Teacher Lauren Davis is upset that her choice of career is always compared unfavourably with her siblings' by her parents (see the Television without Pity review for details) and Principal Steven Harper replies:]

"You know what your problem is, Lauren? You don't have any idea how powerful you are. Things you say in that classroom some of those kids are going to remember fifty years from now, even if you've forgotten by the sound of the next bell."

- Boston Public, Season 1, Episode 2

I don't have any personal examples like that, but I did have a powerful experience when I visited my secondary school yesterday. (Yesterday, I talked about that in the context of Chinese studies in Singapore.)

I had three Chinese teachers in secondary school: one guy who taught me in Sec 1 & 2, was a great source of wisecracks & ahem, sexual innuendo, & who would contribute very artistic (but difficult to understand) essays to the annual school Chinese publication. The one I'm referring to here is the Sec 3 one: she was telling my friend & I that we needn't be too upset at not being able to go overseas to study, or get a prestigious scholarship (actually my friend wasn't even intending to go overseas, & now, I don't really want that prestigious scholarship either, but that's not the point). She said that some of us in life get to take shortcuts, whereas the rest have to go on the long road, but in the end, we will all be able to find our way to our destinations in life.

Although I have no detailed plans for what I want to do in future, I do have some general ideas, & her words really touched me, so that for that one moment, I wanted nothing more than to return to my school years after, after I've achieved what I've set out to do, & see my Sec 3 Chinese teacher again, & have her be proud of me, for reaching that destination of my choice. Now, although it was just for a moment, her words still resonate in my mind, & I'll work as hard as I possibly can towards that goal.

Appreciate your teachers, & not just on Teacher's Day or when you happen to be free to return for a visit. Every year I see more & more of my old teachers move on to other careers, or other schools, so you don't have forever to rekindle old relationships & say things you might have wanted to say, but didn't.

SPG spirit

2 July 2003 7:53 PM SGT (link)

...Singapore will do "whatever it takes" to attract talent, says Vivian Balakrishnan, the government official in charge of the Remaking Singapore Committee. As part of that effort, repressive government policies previously enforced in the name of social stability are being relaxed. The city now boasts seven saunas catering almost exclusively to gay clients, for example, something unthinkable even a few years ago. There are a sprinkling of gay bars, and many dance clubs set aside one night each week for gay customers. Prime Minister Goh says his government now allows gay employees into its ranks, even in sensitive positions. The change in policy, inspired at least in part by the desire not to exclude talented foreigners who are gay, is being implemented without fanfare, Goh says, to avoid raising the hackles of more-conservative Singaporeans. "So let it evolve, and in time the population will understand that some people are born that way," Goh says. "We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me."

Foreigners, gay or straight, will be critical to carving out the niches in which the government hopes Singapore's new economy will thrive...

- Time Asia, The Lion in Winter

Absolutely fantastic - to mention, of all things, gay bars is certainly a move by Time, conscious or not, to violently, & controversially, bring the point across that Singapore is willing to make great adjustments in accommodating foreigners if it thinks it's necessary to keep the economy humming. It's controversial to me not for the usual reason (offence against homosexuals), but this: will our government discriminate between foreigners & locals in applying the laws against unnatural sex - locals can be targeted & arrested under the law, but we'll take a pass at bars & clubs for foreigners, because they bring in the investment?

It hasn't come to that yet, because the whole issue of homosexuality is largely swept under the carpet in Singapore (except for a while back where a society called People Like Us tried to organise a forum but were rebuffed by the authorities), but I think cases like these help illustrate the pragmatism, sometimes leading to cynicism, of our polity. Is this "artificial nation" about economic growth & economic growth alone?

Note: SPG stands for Sarong Party Girl, an Asian girl that's attracted to Westerners (presumably) because of their money, & generally obsequious to anything Western. The British funnyman Neil Humphrey likes to mock them by advertising his "no car, no condo; HDB flat" credentials, and his latest book Scribbles from the Same Island (sequel to his first, Notes from a Smaller Island) is a pretty good read. What's more it's only $12, showing how considerate he is towards the penny-pinching kiasu Singaporean.

Update: Maybe I wasn't clear enough about exactly how the official policy as stated in the Time article is cynical & SPG-like. If the government is against homosexual practices, why keep the antiquated unnatural sex laws on the books to be used - gotcha! - when it arbitrarily chooses? If they say that's because Singaporeans are a conservative lot (which, by the way, doesn't mean, ergo, that they approve of locking people up for homosexual sex), why allow gay bars & clubs? According to PM Goh, because while Singaporeans aren't that tolerant, the government is, or has to be, to further other goals - so long as these moves are done "without fanfare", which things like public fora would not be. & since the goal is to attract & retain foreign talent, gay or straight, locals who try to claim the same rights should be rejected, using this way of thinking. This goes beyond "don't ask, don't tell" in cynicism, not to mention offensive because of the discrimination between locals & foreigners.

Let Ah-nold be Ah-nold

2 July 2003 7:45 PM SGT (link)

Sheri Annis, once press secretary to Arnold Schwarzenegger (for his after-school programme initiative), writes at the National Review Online about her former boss's chance to become governor of California because of the recall of Gov. Davis (as I commented on earlier). The title of the article is reminiscent of the West Wing's "Let Bartlet be Bartlet". She emphasises not so much his credentials for the post as the scrutiny that will be on him, even as some journalists behave more like fans in his presence, and how if anything, Arnold's great with the press.

...Schwarzenegger is extremely media savvy. He has more experience dealing with reporters than any first-time candidate in history, not to mention one of the most recognizable voices in the world.

- National Review Online, Let Ah-nold be Ah-nold

That last bit is true.

Update: OK, not analytically, empirically or statistically, but I feel it's true: gut feeling.

The Chinese language in Singapore

1 July 2003 9:26 PM SGT (link)

Today's Today: Will Mandarin go the Latin way?: "Perhaps not, but the language is not reaching out to the young". Dr. Kog Yue Choong laments that his son's attention is wholly on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at the expense of the Chinese book on the Monkey God assigned for reading, and discusses this in the larger context of the declining interest in Chinese books & culture among Singapore's youth.

I actually think it's great that millions of children are curling up with a 766-page tome, temporarily giving up their TV, PlayStation & computer games, just because it's that good a book; Dr. Kog agrees, except that he wishes there was some Chinese writer or storyteller that had the same kind of power J K Rowling has in keeping children spellbound. Although some will contest that, I don't think Jin Yong is at that level yet.

It so happens this article appears on the same day I return to my alma mater to visit my teachers, for no better reason than because I'm free (sometimes you don't really need a good reason). It's sad that my English, Physics, Chemistry & History teachers have left the school (apparently my History teacher left, like, just days ago - that sucks), so I'm left with seeing my Chinese (two, one in Sec 3 & one in Sec 4), Maths & Geog ones. The Chinese teachers talked about how the school's presently revamping its Chinese syllabus, which it hopes doesn't have to strictly follow the MOE's. They are also considering the somewhat radical idea that if working towards a good grade for the Chinese 'O' Level isn't helpful in truly imparting the Chinese language & culture, it should be done away with.

It's not radical to me though; there was a time when doing the through-train was considered radical (as in allowing students to skip the 'O' levels if they're good enough). In my time we really studied for the exam itself, & afterwards promptly forgot the vocabulary & canned arguments in essays, when we might have done better things with our time. I will personally testify that the Chinese 'O' Levels proves nothing, if only because everyone's so good at producing results. As one of my teachers said, because Chinese is used solely in Chinese lessons, & outside of school, students aren't much exposed to Chinese novels, speech & other uses in everyday life, "teachers find it hard to teach; students find it hard to learn".

I think my teachers are deservedly in the vanguard of the effort to boost Chinese education in Singapore, since people always suppose us the premier Chinese school. (I've talked about that fallacy.) & I wish them the best. If nothing's done about this, 10 Jin Yongs won't be enough to stem the loss of interest in Chinese, even among the supposed premier Chinese school.

Clarification: Hmm I think I could have given the wrong impression to some readers: I don't resent my school or something - far from it! I'm just slightly annoyed of people attributing things to it that it isn't, & ending up feeling disappointed or even cheated afterwards. Still, no matter how many times I go back to visit, or talk to my teachers from back then (& they are moving to other things, one by one, as I mentioned), I realise the halcyon days of old just can't be brought back anymore. & it's not just because everybody's moving on to other things, & the people from the principal on down are changing, or even the buildings are getting renovated or whatever (they haven't changed much since I left, because the major works were completed in my last year) - I'm a different person from what I was when I was there - immature, blur & all that, yes, but I did enjoy my time there, even though I don't think I fully appreciated it at the time. Secondary school's the time when your horizons are broadened & you begin to see the possibilities in the whole wide world that's out in front of you, but if you squander the opportunity, you'll rue it years later, as I (to a certain extent) do.

Not again...

1 July 2003 9:22 PM SGT (link)

Mahathir calls Singapore "unethical" in water row (ST 1 July); Syed Hamid criticises Singapore book on water talks, 3 months after release (Channel NewsAsia). Refer to the first one: he just doesn't get it! Sure the price is low, but it's what was agreed on, & it being low doesn't mean he can now charge whatever price he wants & we have to acquiesce.

City of God

1 July 2003 9:00 PM SGT (link)

IMDB link. It's discomfiting most of the time & sometimes horrifying. It's the story of a district at the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro built to settle the poor and homeless, & how gang violence grows & escalates to the neighbourhood teeming with guns, drugs & violence. Three generations of gangsters are seen through the eyes of Rocket, who grows up to become a photographer & manages to leave the City of God. The painful thing to watch is children playing with guns like toys, & inflicting injuries & killing without as much as batting an eyelid. A great work of art, warranting the rating; I would not recommend that any child watch this.

P.S.: Some reviewers compare it to Scorsese's films Goodfellas (also a film featuring gangs & having an insider narrating), & Gangs of New York (also with a lot of violence). Having watched the latter, I don't think watching "The Butcher" Daniel Day-Lewis torment Leonardo DiCaprio with a knife is as scary as watching kids & teenagers doing wanton shooting & murder. It doesn't come close.

Just for Fun

1 July 2003 8:25 PM SGT (link)

Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary is the autobiography of Linus Torvalds, who describes himself as a pretty ordinary Finnish geek, until his creation of a rudimentary Minix clone which he whimsically called Linux, and decisions made early on about sharing the code & allowing everyone to improve on it. That's why he calls himself the "accidental revolutionary" - he's now world-famous & corporations big & small sell Linux & apps on top of it (like IBM), but he certainly didn't plan it that way. In fact, he just wanted to learn more about his Intel 80386 processor as he created his OS. Another big decision: GPLing Linux, or else it probably would never have taken off. You could say that he was at the right place at the right time, & made the right moves.

Overall this book is an entertaining read, especially when Linus expounds on his personal theory of "what is the meaning of life?", and his views on intellectual property. However, at the section of the beginnings of Linux, he talks a bit about how he basically just let everyone improve what they wanted, & made himself the umpire, not a code dictator. But nothing much else follows! As in he doesn't talk at all about his role in developing & managing the Linux kernel in the subsequent years. He also doesn't talk about big disputes in the Linux world, like the Qt library problem KDE had: although that wasn't his sphere of influence, he must have had some thoughts on it.

This might be a joint decision with his co-author, Red Herring executive editor David Diamond, not to frighten off readers with too much C & assembly talk - but that's dumb, because who besides interested geeks would want to know about Linus Torvalds's path to fame? Come to think of it, maybe the suits at firms like IBM & Oracle, or even at Microsoft - know thy enemy & all that. Anyway I sorely missed the insights that Linus could have provided there.

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