Home > Archives > August 2003 > 11-20 August 2003


11-20 August 2003

20 AugThe Old Man and the River
19 AugGood Luck!!
19 AugTutorial balloting
19 AugKevin Costner
19 AugHoping against HOPE
18 AugFirst week
18 AugThe Singapore Dream
17 AugFlash mob backlash
17 AugAnti-science poetry
17 AugBlackout experiences; the arms man
17 AugFlash mob in Singapore!
16 AugLost in Japan
15 AugThe sweet aroma of a book
15 AugThe square root dispute reappearance
14 AugNatural theology, & an interesting rebuttal
14 AugTime magazine, & Today, do it again
14 AugNUS vice-dean murdered
13 AugMahathir on weapons proliferation
13 AugMineral water bottles
13 AugBidding IX
12 AugBidding VIII
12 AugHome Run
11 AugAuggie Rose
11 AugBlack Hawk Down the movie
11 AugWhat to post?; the Ferengi
11 AugBidding VII

The Old Man and the River

20 August 2003 10:04 AM SGT (link)

This looks promising: a short film by Royston Tan, narrated by an ex-coolie/roadsweeper Chia Tiong Guan in Hokkien. It will be shown at the Singapore History Museum at its temporary home at Riverside Point, starting on August 30. See Fresh spin on the river (ST 20 Aug) & the Singapore History Museum for more details.

Good Luck!!

19 August 2003 10:07 PM SGT (link)

I've finished another Jap drama. It's relatively new, from Japan's spring season this year. Kimura Takuya stars as Shinkai Hajime, a new copilot at ANA, & the show's about his experiences on the job with various captains, especially the stern Captain Kouda, who had a pretty bad experience in the past that explains his harsh demeanour (a pretty common theme in Jap dramas), Captain Jane, a (male) flamboyant Japanese-American; CAs1 like Togashi-san (Kuroki Hitomi, a motherly figure amongst the CAs) & Fukaura-san (Uchiyama Rina, a new young pretty CA who has a crush on handsome pilots like Shinkai); & last but definitely not least, a tomboyish & bad-tempered servicewoman Ogawa Ayumi (Shibasaki Kou), who gets off to a bad start with Shinkai when she scolds him for a bad landing, but afterwards becomes his girlfriend.

The show celebrates the occupation of service in airlines, be it pilots, who are cast with the heavy responsibility of 300 or so people in the air; CAs, to provide the best service to their guests; servicepeople in charge of maintenance, to support the front-line staff. The more cynical viewer would regard it as a great advertisement for ANA - but hey, you got to admit, it's done very well.

What I liked about this show were the little things - the opening & closing credits that fluidly move from one character/cast member to another, even Shinkai's crazy neighbour (played by Yoon Son Ha, from the K-drama world I believe). Conversely, I thought there was not much of an overall theme (the one about celebrating their occupations couldn't sustain the whole show), & the characters & plots are pretty superficial. I agree with the reviewer at the Japanese Drama Database who said Shinkai was not one of Kimura Takuya's more memorable characters. Good Luck!! (two exclamation marks, people; no more, no less) is pleasant to watch, but it's not earth-shattering or "great".

Some trivia: the show apparently struck TV ratings gold in Japan, something like an average of 30%, comparable with shows with such legendary high ratings like Beautiful Life and Hero. Notice they all star Kimura Takuya - the man is unbeatable. & he looks as great as ever as Shinkai.

1 Apparently ANA (All Nippon Airways), the airline which all these people are in, calls its stewards/stewardesses CAs, cabin attendants. With the Japanese tongue it's pronounced shi-ay.

Tutorial balloting

19 August 2003 9:58 PM SGT (link)

The first round of balloting for tutorial sessions started yesterday & ended this evening; results will be available tomorrow morning. The system wants us to rank our tutorial slots by priority, regardless of module - I find this pretty confusing & problematic. What if two or more of your modules have tutorial slots at the same time? You can't submit ballots for two slots for each module because the system thinks you're balloting for the same time slot, & indeed you'll have a problem if you end up getting slots for both modules at the same period. On the other hand, this means that if you submit a ballot for Module A, & it's unsuccessful, the same ballot for Module B's tutorial might have been successful if only you could submit it. Wouldn't a better solution be to allow students to rank their tutorial session choices by separate modules? Right now the rankings don't make a lot of sense.

Anyhow I tried my best to choose the tutorial sessions, & we'll see how it turns out tomorrow morning. This is even more complicated than my monthly ritual of devising a plan of recording/watching movies on cable: each movie is shown a few times, & I have to see when I should record them, should they clash with other programmes.

Kevin Costner

19 August 2003 9:17 PM SGT (link)

MSNBC asks two questions about Kevin Costner - The Comeback Kid?: "Is Costner still a viable leading man?":

During the coverage of last week’s blackout, a well-respected anchor from a major news network observed the stranded souls sleeping on the streets and in the doorways of Manhattan. The scene, he said, was like something out of a bad Kevin Costner movie.

THE FILM HE was referring to — “The Postman” — was, admittedly, a three-hour anesthetic. But is there a major, seemingly intelligent and, heaven forbid, down-to-earth star as commonly derided as Costner? One minute he’s the next Gary Cooper, the next he's a punch line.

- MSNBC, The Comeback Kid?

The writer commends Kevin Costner on his latest western, Open Range, & asks whether this could be the comeback movie for him. Ever since Costner's critically-acclaimed Dances with Wolves & its many Oscar awards garnered, his films have been flops at the box office or with critics or both (usually both). Everyone laughs at the successive two big sci-fi bombs of probably all time, Waterworld & The Postman, both of which Costner stars & directs.

I've watched quite a lot of Kevin Costner movies, old & new, & I actually have a pretty favourable opinion of the guy: Fandango (1985), the hilarious last adventures of a few devoted friends who are splitting after college, to the Vietnam War & other places; Field of Dreams (1989), "if you build it, they will come", a supernatural fantasy that celebrates baseball; The War (1994), the kids of a Vietnam War invalid learn the bitter consequences of conflict amongst themselves; Waterworld (1995), a post-apocalyptic oceanic world where the ice caps have melted & people scrabble for survival; The Postman (1997), in another post-apocalyptic world where the US government has collapsed & anarchy reigns, a lone postman starts the revival of civilisation...; Thirteen Days (2000), a reenactment of the events in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Star Movies is showing For Love of the Game (1999) this month.

Having watched the aforesaid box office bombs, I have to agree that they were long-winded & could have been much better, even for a person who has admitted to liking such sci-fi settings. Having read the book by David Brin before I watched The Postman, it of course came off unfavourably, & it did make the whole postman idea look like a total farce. Perhaps this is more of a tribute to Brin's storytelling skill than Costner's lack thereof; I was enthralled by the book, though I considered it a tad parochial in that it addresses only the fall of the United States & not other countries. (The United States government, & law & order, was destroyed by internal civil strife, not some global cataclysm.)

I watched Waterworld after The Postman, & that turned out to be a bad move. The female interest for Costner the male lead was played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, who bears a close resemblance to Olivia Williams, the female interest in The Postman, so much so that I thought Costner had reused his female co-star! Both movies also have big over-the-top bad villains, played by Dennis Hopper & Will Patton respectively. Another idea that was reused was that this female interest "hooks up" with the male protagonist, a loner & man of few words, & asks him for his sperm (probably in "nicer" words) so that she can bear children (in Waterworld this was because the colony wanted to expand the gene pool, in The Postman because the woman's husband was impotent). I first encountered this in Brin's The Postman, so I thought Waterworld was shamelessly ripping that idea off. It's these little things that really irritated me; other than that, Waterworld had pretty good effects, things like the futuristically-primitive weapons & ships.

So I submit that Kevin Costner movies aren't really as bad as people imagine them to be, & in fact you can see a common thread in them, the themes of friendship, morals & humanity, the hokey stuff movie executives & stars want their movies to be known for. As a movie director & actor, Costner's quality is uneven (I may not have watched the worst of his movies), but I think his works are stil worth watching.

Hoping against HOPE

19 August 2003 9:33 AM SGT (link)

Now, self-reliance is equally important for less able Singaporeans. But we may have to give them a leg up, to help them become self-reliant. You see, many poorly educated Singaporeans have fallen into a poverty trap. They tend to have more children than they can afford. And because they cannot provide enough for each child, the next generation remains poor. MPs see many such cases turning up for financial help.

We have to counsel these Singaporeans to keep their families small, and give them the incentives to do so. Then they and their children will stand a much better chance of staying above the poverty line. That is why I am introducing a new programme called HOPE. HOPE stands for Home Ownership Plus Education. It will help these families build up their self-reliance and break out of the poverty trap. HOPE will replace the current Small Families Improvement Scheme.

HOPE will help beneficiaries pay for their HDB flats, their children's education, and skills training. The mothers will be encouraged to work, and stand on their own feet.

In total, families on this programme will each receive $100,000 in benefits.

- PM Goh's National Day Rally 2003 speech

The ST also found some space to report on it today (ST 19 Aug, $100,000 will bring hope to the poor). When watching the speech broadcast on TV, there was an awkward silence at the end of PM Goh's words on HOPE - an extremely awkward silence. It was almost like everyone was just thinking "what's next, come on" with regard to the more important issues like CPF changes & political succession. It might not have crossed their minds that this "little" scheme can help many families (especially Malay ones, as PM Goh also mentioned the HOPE programme in his Malay speech), & should also have been applauded.

First week

18 August 2003 9:17 PM SGT (link)

I realise I said here that I'll be doing a sort-of review of the first week of university life, lectures & all, but it's so easy to break a promise in a blog post, because nobody's looking over your shoulder to remind you. (I would add that there seems to be literally nobody visiting these days: is everyone busy with university too?)

A digression: in Japanese, a promise is 約束, yakusoku, \yahk-SOku\ (the middle vowel is silent), but as you can see, the kanji, borrowed Chinese characters, means "a restraint, a restriction" in Chinese. (The equivalent of "promise" in Chinese is 约定, yue ding.) Could it be that the Japanese see a promise as more iron-clad, & accordingly express that opinion in their word for it? Never mind...

My first week was pretty good: tutorials haven't started yet, so on average I only have a few hours' worth of lectures every day. Paradoxically, although the official workload has been light so far - most lectures are barely past introductions, & the lecturers haven't started on the heavy-duty stuff yet - I feel that there's more to do than what I ever had in secondary school or JC. It may be that I'm trying too hard to read ahead, or that I still have the nagging feeling that sticking to the official readings in my Writing module isn't going to be enough to write an exegesis (critical explanation & analysis) of an extract from it. That's my first official assignment, by the way - handed out today, due the first of next month.

Another somewhat creepy thing I've noticed is that the boundaries between the modules I'm taking are becoming less defined. For instance, the anti-science poetry I wrote about was actually taken from a reading for Mathematical Ideas, yet the idea of opposition to the "cold philosophy" of science & mathematics has a close relationship to the opposition to Darwin's ideas about natural selection & evolution, & even my Calculus textbook has a section on how to unweave Keats's rainbow (!).

Also, from an extract from the Recapitulation & Conclusion of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Darwin emphathises with the opposition of fellow naturalists & natural theologians to his theories, comparing the vast epochs of time where the fossil record has accumulated, & where evolution has demonstrated itself, with the similarly vast epochs of geologic time where mountains, oceans have rose & fallen & alternately been moulded & destroyed. I find similarities with something Adeimantus says about Socrates & his method of argument:

...[t]he chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting to any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps. The difficulty is the same as that felt by so many geologists, when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed, and great valleys excavated, by the slow action of the coast-waves. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.

- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, from the "Recapitulation and Conclusion"

[Adeimantus:] "...No one can contradict the things you say, Socrates. But each time you say them your audience has an experience something like this: they think that because they are inexperienced players of the game of cross-examination, they are tripped up by the argument – a little here, a little there, at each of your questions... When all these small concessions are added together in the end, they find they fall flat, fallaciously contradicting their own starting points. Just as novice game players are in the end trapped by masters, and cannot move, so this lot are trapped and have nothing to say in this different sort of game, played not with counters but with words.

...Yet they aren’t the least bit inclined to accept the conclusion for all that. I have in mind here our own present position. Someone might well say now that he cannot, as each question is asked, oppose you in argument. Yet he sees perfectly well that – unlike those who take up philosophy lightly and put it down quickly, as young people do who are only after a touch of intellectual polish – those who devote themselves to the subject seriously and continuously become a bit strange in the head, not to say complete rascals. Those who seem the best of these end up suffering for the sake of this pursuit you praise so highly – even to the point of making themselves completely incompetent to engage in practical affairs."

[Socrates:] "The intolerance of the many towards philosophy is due to those outsiders who, like drunken revellers, force their way in where they don’t belong. They constantly insult each other and quarrel; they always talk in personalities, which is quite unsuited to philosophy. – Yes, truly.

The man whose thoughts are indeed directed to true reality, Adeimantus, has no time for gazing down at the affairs of men, and, by entering into petty squabbles, becoming filled with malice and ill-will."

- Plato, the Republic, Book VI

I find similarities in that in both cases people do not dispute the facts - whether they be the findings of naturalists like Darwin regarding the homologous features of various animals e.g. similar bone structures, vestigial parts; or the little admissions & postulates that Socrates teases out of the people he converses with - but when the earth-shattering conclusion is brought before them, both Darwin's colleagues & Socrates's interlocutors hesitate to put two and two together, & it's hinted that it's not because of a lack of conviction in the intermediate steps & the logical argument, but rather other concerns like the intellectual & spiritual devotion to dogma, or one's pre-conceived biases, that prevent them from seeing the truth.

Incidentally, there's more to Socrates's reply than what one sees here: it has to do with his larger argument that philosophers should rule the ideal state, & also with the attitude of Athenians towards philosophers that Plato/Socrates thought was deeply mistaken.

This cross-fertilisation of ideas, if one may be daring enough to call it that, is awfully exciting & intriguing, to the point where I'm afraid I'll go down some path of thought in one of our USP seminars that actually belongs to another module =(. I don't know whether my case is unique in that I happened to choose the modules that allow for such interaction, but I wish more could have this kind of experience. It makes learning much more enjoyable than by the traditional rote means.

The Singapore Dream

18 August 2003 11:38 AM SGT (link)

PM Goh in his National Day Rally speech last night mentioned ST journalist Laurel Teo's article on the demise of the Singapore Dream. I wrote about it in May - Good that Singapore Dream is over.

It was a good column, & unfortunately PM Goh may have read it too literally, thinking that these youngsters were gloomy & despondent about their future because of the bad economy. The angst of these young adults & teenagers was not - should not be - merely about economic survival. "There are many reasons why civilisations rise and fall, and why cities wax and wane. The biggest factor is their ability to adjust and adapt to their changing environment. I believe that young Singaporeans will adapt to the changing environment." In other words, PM Goh may not have grasped the point I thought Laurel Teo was trying to make, that the single-minded pursuit of the Singapore Dream - the 5Cs, general material wealth & creature comforts - was in jeopardy, but that's good because it allows us to welcome new ideas, try out new things, & discover a deeper meaning in life.

In today's ST, Laurel Teo has Why I wrote that column where she gently brings out that point with the same "gutsy graduates" PM Goh also mentioned in his speech. It's not so much that they are willing to "squeeze water out of rocks", to be unafraid of losing face to get & keep their jobs - though that's worthy & commendable - but also that they broke out of the mold, the societal prejudice with regard to social position & wealth. The more profound change that these graduate gao luk & porridge vendors have brought about is to look beyond the material trappings of wealth & fame, & see that the life of the layman can too be a worthwhile life to lead.

Flash mob backlash?

17 August 2003 10:30 PM SGT (link)

The New York Times adds to the literature on flash mobs:

...But the flash mob juggernaut has now run into a flash mob backlash that may be spreading faster than the fad itself. The collision has ignited a decidedly Internet-style debate on the nature of social connection in the digital age.

Anti-mobbers lump the flash mobs in the prank tradition of phone-booth stuffing, streaking, flagpole sitting and goldfish-swallowing. E-mail lists like "antimob" and "slashmob" have sprung up, as did a Web site warning that "flashmuggers" are bound to show up "wherever there's groups of young, nave, wealthy, bored fashionistas to be found." And a new definition was circulated last week on several Web sites: "flash mob, noun: An impromptu gathering, organized by means of electronic communication, of the unemployed."

- New York Times 17 Aug, Guess Some People Don't Have Anything Better to Do

Speaking of a backlash, there may or may not be negative letters to the ST Forum in the next few days on Singapore's flash mob yesterday. I find it hard to believe why anyone would form "antimobs" & "slashmobs" just because they found the idea boring or ridiculous. I mean, if you're not interested in them, don't join them then! I guess some people don't have anything better to do =)

Anti-science poetry

17 August 2003 1:26 PM SGT (link)

This is inspired by one of the readings for Mathematical Ideas: "The Centrality of Mathematics in the History of Western Thought", quite a bold claim to make IMHO. I'm not able to produce a detailed analysis/critique of it yet, but I just thought I'll gather the works of the big names of poetry who have attacked science, mathematics, reductionism etc. for being "cold philosophy" & destroying beauty. This is said to be a reaction against the success of certainty in mathematical abstraction, & the growth of science.

First is William Wordsworth (1770-1850). The highlighted paragraph was mentioned by the Centrality piece, as well as by Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Ideas.


UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

- William Wordsworth, "The Tables Turned"

Richard Feynman, acclaimed physicist, once said that modern particle physics was like taking two TV sets together & slamming them into each other at great speeds, & afterwards studying the remains of the collision to see how TV sets work. This is an analogue of basically what particle physicists do with accelerators, because only at sufficiently high energy levels do the particles interact to produce new particles & new configurations. However, I doubt Wordsworth will be very concerned with the "misshaping" & "dissection" of protons & neutrons.

(We can substitute watches for TV sets, which nicely, or confusedly, depending on your opinion, links up with Paley's citation of one in explaining how the world was designed by a Creator.)

But I think we understand what Wordsworth was getting at, the myopic sense in which nerds & book-lovers claim to be studying nature when they are actually the ones most isolated from the real nature. He would not approve of anatomists & biologists toying with dead frogs or cadavers (though it should be pointed out that those people are not murdered for the purpose of experimentation). The modern physicist's or chemist's lab would seem even more divorced from what Wordsworth knew as nature, even though both sciences are as powerful as they ever have been in the quest of exploring & understanding this same nature. More on this paradoxical situation later.

Second contestant, Walt Whitman (1819-1892):

When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

- Walt Whitman, "When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer", from Leaves of Grass

Coincidentally, on this issue of star-gazing, I had a talk with one of the seniors at the NUS Astronomy Society (NUSAS) Welcome Tea on Friday evening. I said I didn't want to be a spoilsport, but the photos they presented of colourful nebulae & grand spiral galaxies - e.g. the Ring Nebula & Horsehead Nebula (both from the Hubble Heritage Project) - were more eye candy than anything related to astronomy as it's practised in NUSAS, or Singapore for that matter. Often the colours & shades in the photos are adjusted for higher contrast, & some may not even be taken in our visible light spectrum. This is understandable: readings in ultraviolet, infrared, or even X-ray light can give information on chemical & astrophysical processes taking place. But let's say we confirm the photo we have, like one of my favourites, that of the Keyhole Nebula, is indeed a visible-light image. One needs huge telescopes or the Hubble Space Telescope to get such a spectacular view; from our small telescope & binoculars, we can only expect to see the planets, major constellations, Messier objects & meteor showers. & that's if we're lucky: Singapore is in the tropics where cloudy skies are more the rule than the exception, & in addition, light pollution from everywhere makes conditions even tougher for the enthusiast.

Why do I still maintain I'm not a spoilsport? I mean that many people may get the misconceptions from the use of such images that (1) the nebulae & galaxies actually look like that, when no human actually looks through or at anything to see it that way (the images are "seen" & assembled by computers); (2) & you can see them if you're into astronomy in Singapore. I think it'll be better if we refrain from "sexing up" astronomy in Singapore, & instead try to tell it as it is. I think a view of the night sky & all its stars, knowing that these stars are tens or hundreds of light-years away from us, is a more evocative sight than the colourful pictures downloaded from Hubble galleries, nice as those are too.

Here's where Whitman comes in: even if he lived in a time when light pollution was not such an acute problem, & you could see most of the Milky Way & other stars in the night sky, there would be limited information he could get from his gazing. Before science & astronomy man looked at the stars, spun elaborate tales of gods & animals they saw in the constellations, but knew nothing else about them. Before Newton's theories of gravitation, people consigned the stars to the heavenly realm, separate from the "flawed", imperfect earthly one. His theories showed that the Earth, Moon, planets & stars are all part of our world; the same laws govern the planetary orbits as the lunar orbits, the rise & fall of the tides, & loosened apples falling from trees to the ground.

Before Newton & the astronomers, people would gape & marvel at the vastness of the universe & the stars in it, but they had no idea of its true vastness, that we are inhabitants of a nondescript planet, orbiting a nondescript sun, located in one of the arms of a nondescript galaxy, among billions of galaxies in an expanding universe. No one could possibly have conceived such levels of grandeur. In Newton's gravitation people could understand much more, & solely through the faithful application of gravitational theories, astronomers pinpointed the location of Neptune (The Neptune File), hitherto unknown as another planet orbiting our Sun. Today our telescopes spy ever more fantastic phenomena like the Hubble Deep Field, our space probes are zooming past the boundaries of our solar system, & astronomers-cum-cosmologists are probing our universe's extent & history in ever greater precision & detail. All from these "proofs and figures"!

So Whitman was quite wrong to think himself more learn'd than the astronomer because he kept touch with his object of interest. Human acuity & ability is limited compared to the tools he devises & the theories he invents, & the astronomer is one who seeks to develop these tools & improve these theories. What we are seeing in the Hubble or big-telescope images may not be what the nebulae or galaxies really look like, but who is to say the visible-light image is more real than the ultraviolet-light image, or an explanation in physics & chemistry of how it came about? These all seem to me like worthy objects of study, though we may have a sentimental view towards just stepping out of the office & looking at the night sky, mano a mano. I suppose astronomers get this feeling too.

Last but not least, John Keats (1795-1821):

...Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

- John Keats, extract from Lamia, part II

Richard Dawkins has another book called Unweaving the Rainbow, taken from the second-last line in the extract from Keats's poem above. He explains why Newton didn't "'unweave the rainbow' by reducing it to its prismatic colors, as Keats contended": "Newton's unweaving is the key to much of modern astronomy and to the breathtaking poetry of modern cosmology." I don't remember the particulars of Dawkins's rebuttal of Keats (I read the book a few years ago), but I think his response will be similar to what I said against Whitman's opposition to the Learn'd Astronomer. Again the focus of accusation is Newton, with his new optics & chromatics - but does one really appreciate the rainbow better when it is "unweaved" & not truly understood? Newton's theories in this regard, & further advances, give us the power not only to explain why rainbows form & what they are (sunlight refracted in raindrops), but also calculate their angle of elevation (the Stewarts calculus textbook has the details on page 232; sorry for referring to it so often, I just thought of the example it contained). In what way does Keats think the rainbow is any less beautiful when we have a scientific explanation of its formation, when we can say we understand why it is such, rather than have it remain shrouded in mystery?

Blackout experiences; the arms man

17 August 2003 12:53 PM SGT (link)

AP has a whimsical piece on Iraqis' top 10 tips for enduring blackout in the heat. There are also two interesting personal reactions from New York to the blackout, one from Colin Goh, of Talkingcock.com fame (How I learnt to stop worrying and love the blackout, ST 17 Aug), & another from Frank McCourt (Blackouts, a Rite of New York, New York Times 16 Aug) of Angela's Ashes & 'Tis fame.

Slate has two good articles on the blackout too: The Al-Qaida Question: "Could terrorists cause such a massive blackout? Not likely." - there's something to be happy about the fact that not only were terrorists not responsible, but that they probably couldn't cause such a widespread disruption, & that the results, in any case, weren't catastrophic. The second article is a History Lesson column, Where have all the looters gone?. The cities affected by the blackout were largely calm, save some trouble in Ontario, & Slate compares it with the unrest in the blackout of 1977, & asks how much of the difference was due to 9/11.

There'll be a blogathon here today, sort of - I want to review the first week's worth of lectures & lessons, & talk about some things mentioned in Saturday's lecture on Mathematical Ideas. But then again, I also have to get quite a lot of readings done...

Lastly, the New York Times Magazine has an article on one of those folks Dr. Mahathir was alluding to here: Arms and the Man. Seems important.

Flash mob in Singapore!

17 August 2003 10:04 AM SGT (link)

IT WAS just an ordinary set of escalators outside Popular bookstore in Orchard MRT station.

But yesterday, at 2.10pm, 12 Singaporeans rode up and down them three times, waving and yelling.

The group of 20- and 30-somethings comprised lawyers, teachers, journalists, advertising executives and others who did not know one another.

But together, they formed a flash mob - a group of people who have been alerted via e-mail to gather at a particular place to do something silly, and then quickly disappear.

The phenomenon, which apparently began in New York in June, has since spread to nearly every major city in the world.

In one incident, hundreds of New Yorkers perched on a stone ledge in Central Park making bird noises.

In London, 60 people gathered to simultaneously peel bananas.

In Cape Town, 150 converged to quack like ducks.

In Singapore, 50 gathered at the open space above Raffles Place MRT station on July 17, and set their mobile phones ringing non-stop for what they called The Spontaneous Orchestra.

Most of these activities lasted for no more than a few minutes, so that they would not disrupt the normal flow of activity at the venues.

Like organisers elsewhere, those here indulging in such past-times prefer to remain anonymous. Media coverage worries them.

'We don't want the authorities to panic for no reason and choke the whole thing off,' said one.

'We're just trying to have some harmless, spontaneous fun.'

Yesterday, people using the Orchard underpass stopped and stared at the whooping group.

Older folk passed loud disapproving remarks; tourists sniggered and took snapshots, and two teenagers argued with each other over whether they should join in.

But even as they decided, it was all over.

The so-called flash mob had melted back into the crowd as quickly as it had formed.

- ST 17 Aug, Mob mentality gets a flash of inspiration

Fantastic! I got the email but wasn't free to go - it's really too bad. But congrats to the organisers & participants!

Lost in Japan

16 August 2003 7:55 PM SGT (link)

I reviewed the pilot of new Channel 8 Jap drama Home and Away last week. Already, with Thursday's second episode, I can't understand the route Kaede (Nakayama Miho) is taking round & round Japan, so that she can touch the lives of the strangers she meets, even when all she wants to do is return to her home in Tokyo.

Before I talk about that, perhaps I should just say a bit about her predicament on that "no man's island" that we left her off at in the pilot. Kaede moaned that she should have paid more attention when she watched Cast Away - "what did Tom Hanks do?"; I thought it pretty funny. She wasn't forsaken by the rest of the world for long though. In the night, a boat ferrying some female illegal immigrants comes by, & the boat-owner thinks Kaede (who changed into a Chinese blouse in the meantime) was from China. Inevitably the Coast Guard shows up, & Kaede is thrown into jail despite her pleas that she's true-blue Japanese ("foreigners speak good Japanese these days", comments the interrogator to the Chinese translator). The only thing she still has with her is her checkered green-&-black suitcase full of souvenirs from China, which doesn't help her much (she lost her purse & handphone in the first episode - long story). But anyway, this mess is soon cleared up & Kaede almost catches the bus to Tokyo, but for the father & son she meets & inevitably helps.

You might think all this inevitability makes for a predictable & dull story, but it's exactly the opposite: you never know who she'll meet or what happens next, even though you know she'll meet somebody & something interesting will happen.

About my geographical problems: I think she was brought, along with the other illegal immigrants, to Aomori, which is in north Honshu (considering she took a boat from Hokkaido, that's reasonable). At the end of Episode 2, she hitchhikes to Tokyo with a truck driver, friend of the person she met earlier. She falls asleep in the middle of the long journey & when she wakes up, it's dark, & she can't identify her surroundings immediately (she thought she would be in Tokyo by then). To her shock the driver says he's taking the route by the sea, through [city name I forgot], Niigata, & past Mount Fuji, & she's in... Osaka! (The Japanese pronounce it as \OHHHH sa KAH\).

I found a map of Japan that nicely includes Sendai (the airport she returns to Japan to), Hokkaido (first episode), Niigata, Mount Fuji, Tokyo & Osaka. If this truck driver friend had promised to take Kaede back to Tokyo, how could he have managed to drive to Osaka, bypassing the very place he was supposed to go to?! I hope there's a good answer in the next episode.

Maybe this kind of thing is a guise by the scriptwriters to keep people hooked to the drama. If that's so, it's working on me alright. They surely have to be very creative to keep Kaede lost in a country that has a well-developed transportation network - planes, rail, bullet-train, roads, even ships...

The sweet aroma of a book

15 August 2003 9:55 PM SGT (link)

When I was in secondary school, I encountered a Chinese comprehension passage that, unusually, was about the author's perspective on the scent of books. It was written in the first person: the writer was telling us about his habit of taking a whiff of each book he buys, & how this is related to his experience with them as a reader & lover of books. We're not talking about perfume or cologne here: he means the smell of the pages as you flip through them. I believe Chinese books, especially those printed in China, have characteristic smells, while English books rarely do. Perhaps it's because of the different types of paper used or manufacturing processes or something. Now, I did the comprehension as I would normally do any such exercise - read the text, answer the how? why? etc. questions - but at that time I didn't comprehend, & frankly I thought the author was a crackpot. Evidently many of my classmates who did the same comprehension exercise did so too. I may still have the worksheet; I'll go look for it one of these days.

Recently I've acquired some idea of what that writer meant, but in the negative sense: my copy of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins - a classic of popular science, & evolutionary theory too - has a pretty bad smell that's noticeable when one holds the book pretty close to one's face. I think it's something like pesticide, but I can't be sure. (I don't go around sampling bad smells & maintaining a database, thank you.) I've tried not to let this affect my reading experience, but it's still irritating. The next time I visit Kino, I have to check out the shelf from which I got the book to see whether all the copies have the same problem.

The square root dispute reappearance

15 August 2003 9:37 PM SGT (link)

In today's Calculus lecture, the lecturer happened to bring up the controversy in the ST Forum over the square root of 9, back in January. He was telling us that by convention, the square root of a number is its positive root i.e. square root of 9 is 3. He admits that -3 squared will also give 9, but the reason he wanted to designate only the positive square root as the square root was because later on the square root of x is used as a function (like here), & functions cannot be one-many relations. (For those who have the Stewart textbook, it's like Figure 18 on page 18. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, never mind.)

The funny thing was when the lecturer brought up the ST Forum square root dispute, he confused the two sides. Dr. Stephenson was the PhD who first wrote in complaining that JC students were being taught wrongly that there are two square roots of each number, & one is positive, another negative; the Oxford professors responded saying that that was false, that there are indeed two roots (Dr. Stephenson wasn't very clear in his original letter that he meant that, by convention (again) the principal square root is the positive one. The lecturer thought it was the other way around - that Stephenson was the positive & negative-roots guy & the Oxford dons positive-root! By turning the tables like this, it of course helped him make his "convention" case. It's insidious! (read it as Garak does in the root beer quote.)

Anyway he said he wondered at the time why it took professors from all the way in the UK to write in to the ST to clarify the idea of a square root: why did the NUS Maths department remain silent? He said he asked his senior colleagues & they said they were confident the JC students were taught correctly by their teachers. Whether one should read into this a commentary on the Singaporean mentality is for you to decide.

Natural theology, & an interesting rebuttal

14 August 2003 8:12 PM SGT (link)

One of the most prominent writers of what's called the Natural Theology school - looking at Nature to infer the existence of (the Christian) God - is William Paley. His work of the same name has the memorable analogy to watches, which he uses to explain the Argument from Design:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for any thing I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever; nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that, when we come to inspect the watch we perceive - what we could not discover in the stone - that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose...[Description of watch omitted.] The inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker - that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

- William Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, 1809

Victorian Science is a site containing essays, biographies & other resources on the subject, compiled by a NUS Fellow. On it, Thomas Hart has a description of this extract & an exposé of its fallacies.

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, rang the death knell for Natural Theology, with the increasing acceptance of evolution as a mechanistic, non-religious explanation for the complexity & diversity of the natural world. Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea explains the power of the "dangerous idea" & shows how it refutes the reasoning of natural theology exemplified by Paley. He does it not by directly attacking the watch analogy, but highlighting the philosopher David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion & shows how he incisively attacked the flaws of the Argument from Design, but held back from accepting what to him was inconceivable, because before evolution, he too had no good alternative theory. I find Dennett's book very informative & also helpful in explaining evolution & some of its developments in non-biological areas today.

People usually attack the flaws in Paley's reasoning - that because watches are so intricately designed, & its parts well fit with one another, that the universe similarly must have a designer, Paley's Artificer - by questioning how the Design argument leads to a perfect God (vs., as Hume says, "a plodding mechanic"); how it leads to a universe based on something resembling the human mind, despite its vastness & man's insignificance in the cosmos; how it merely postpones the argument of where an Artificer came from.

Hart attacks the argument on yet more fronts with his fallacies. He updates Paley's thought by looking at his Omega watch: does it follow from the watch's intricate design & impeccable compatibility of its parts that the materials & additional work done to make the watch (e.g. engraving) are (1) done at the same place? & (2) done by the same people who designed the watch? Obviously both points are untrue; I think we can call this the Refutation by Globalisation (!). When we have been careful to separate Artificer from Designer, he shows Paley's argument can lead to many different theological implications:

...There could, in any real object, be a separation from the designer and the artificer. Applied to religion this would lead to a variation of gnosticism in which one entity designed the world, and another, subordinate to the first, actually made it. There could be a multiplicity of designers and manufacturers. The watch could have a designer for the quartz movement, and a designer who integrates the movement into the overall mechanism of gears and other things that make up the watch. This would lead to polytheism in which one entity is responsible for the creation of part of the world, and another, or multiple others, responsible for the design and creation of others. It is also not necessary for the designer of the overall mechanism to be present. He could be dead, and others could be following his instructions in the form of blueprints or diagrams. None of this leads to a discovery of unity in the orignator of the watch.

- Thomas E. Hart, Fallacies of Paley's Argument (emphases mine)

He also makes another point that anyone who claims that a God or gods have to be the source of beautiful arrangements & adaptations of the flora & fauna with each other & with the natural environment has to also explain the flaws that are too present, like the difficulty of childbirth for human females because of the position of the birth canal & pelvis. I will add that further, one must show exactly why the arrangements & patterns we have are compatible with what we postulate to be a moral God, when some seem, to humans, extremely inhumane & cruel (like female praying mantes's habit of eating the male after mating). If one wants to ensconce morality in religion, I think one also has to demonstrate its correctness in the face of alternatives, just as one does with biological phenomena.

Time magazine, & Today, do it again

14 August 2003 12:40 PM SGT (link)

THE latest issue of Time magazine was devoted to the theme "The Asian journey home: Returning to our roots". In it, Asian writers living overseas wrote about their voyage home from the Philippines to Japan, Myanmar to China. Eight countries were featured and Singapore was not one of them.

Understandably, since Singapore is a much younger and smaller nation than any of the countries mentioned. And, this city state is made up of a migrant population anyway.

But Singapore was given prominence in the same issue of Time on an unrelated topic. The headline screamed: "Singapore: It's In to be Out".

It was a travel feature on our island as a place of interest for gay travellers.

Without intending to, this latest issue of Time magazine symbolises the crossroads our 38-year-old nation is at.

- Today, Mr PM, please hear me out ...

By doing it again I'm saying that Time magazine is somehow directing the political discourse in our little nation, even though our government has said time & again that it will not allow foreign elements to interfere in local politics. The writer of the article in today's Today links it to the "Great Jobs Debate" & the simmering unhappiness over foreign talent robbing locals of jobs, which is linked to the "Great Loyalty Debate" - PM Goh's harsh dichotomy of "stayers & quitters" in last year's National Day Rally - ending with a call to the PM to "at least parade[, if not slaughter]" the venerable bovines of Old Singapore this Sunday. In short, it's a Grand Unified Theory of contemporary Singaporean political, economic & social angst! I think the PM should just give up hope of delivering a speech that can address all these issues satisfactorily, & just refer the audience to the refreshments.

But let's return to Time for a moment. The article writer's hypothesis is that even if it wasn't intentional on Time's part to juxtapose a lack of mentioning Singapore as a home for migrants to return to with the vitality of our gay/lesbian nightspots, the juxtaposition is still meaningful. How so? Perhaps it was indeed a coincidence that the stories were positioned that way; Time had to respond in some way to the furore its article caused, & in another department, it couldn't fit in a Singaporean's tale of returning home. I also notice Malaysia, Thailand & Indonesia are also not represented in Time's profiles, so I really think the article writer is making too much of Singapore's omission. I do not think there's some agenda at Time to see Singapore as merely one big party destination for people in "alternative lifestyles", to use the lingo.

Now, even if we grant that the juxtaposition is meaningful, the writer leads us into a morass of controversies & disputes & complaints that have cropped up in the last few months or so. It gives me the impression of a speech by a wretched taxi driver or kopitiam regular Uncle, in that every problem is related to every other problem & the PM/SM/God is supposed to wave some magic wand & abacadabra, we'll have jobs galore, no wage cuts & retrenchments, no gripes about foreign talent overshadowing locals, greater political freedom & participation, less racial segregation among primary school students, & maybe even some leftover free gifts for everyone. What a wonderful world...

When are we going to realise the government can't solve everyone's problems & confer on people a sense of our roots? This has to arise from the people themselves. The gay/lesbian party scene, as alienating or even disgusting as it may be to some Singaporeans, will be part of that identity, that national character. We won't be seeing a Time article on heartlanders or our staid politicians any time soon, but those are too components of our identity. Let's explore the different facets of Singapore's & Singaporeans' identity, like what the ST did with profiles of 38 interesting Singaporeans in last week's National Day Special. It's better than recycling the litany of old complaints without any interest in finding any solutions to them yourself.

I find Today has a habit of publishing articles that talk about everything, & hence end up talking about nothing. This is one of the worst examples. But then, it's free, so I suppose we shouldn't ask for too much.

NUS vice-dean murdered

14 August 2003 12:17 PM SGT (link)

I first heard of it from Channel NewsAsia, & then later from the NUS President's email.

What really irritated me yesterday evening, when the news was given some prominence, was that everyone was going on about how NUS staff & students are shocked, shocked by the incident, & that everyone was worried about campus safety. Today's coverage was better, not so sensationalistic - NUS prof slashed to death (ST), Grisly murder at NUS faculty (Today) & University technician kills NUS academic during staff meeting (Channel NewsAsia).

I think we, including NUS students, realise workplace shootings or stabbings or murders are freak incidents, rare & isolated, & that that doesn't mean there's some general threat to students' well-being. (In Singapore, with the low crime rate, every murder is pretty rare & isolated, & all deserve some concern.) To those who jump to the conclusion that NUS students must necessarily be shocked enough to worry about this: what kind of reaction are you expecting from us? If we did know the victim or assailant, we would indeed have a reason to be shocked & distressed, but for the rest of us? The incident was regrettable & tragic, but I think we needn't be uneasy about it, & the media should just stop sexing it up. What I'm saying here is pretty obvious to NUS students, but unfortunately not to the media.

Mahathir on weapons proliferation

13 August 2003 1:03 PM SGT (link)

Mahathir, a fierce critic of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, accused "high pressure arms salesmen" of forcing poor nations to buy weapons.

"To encourage (poor countries to buy), it was pointed out that their neighbors have already bought or are about to buy these weapons," he said.

...Although not specific data was immediately available, Malaysia has boosted defense spending in recent years, allotting billions of dollars on new U.S. and Russian jet fighters, submarines and Polish tanks among others.

Last Tuesday Malaysia signed a $900 million deal to buy 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKs from Russia.

- Reuters, Malaysia's Mahathir Blames Weapon Sellers for Wars

Thanks to Instapundit, who said in response to the last paragraph: "Those damned smooth-talking Russians, with their vodka and promises!"

Normally, I'm not too interested in military technology, but Global Security.org had something interesting here:

...In May 2002 it was reported that studies in a Boeing simulator complex show that the Su-30MK can defeat an F-15C “every time” by using a combination beyond visual range (BVR) attack with an AA-12, followed by a close approach and attack with an IR-guided AA-11. The Su-30 penetrates the F-15’s Doppler radar net because it can rapidly dump speed to zero relative to the F-15, then attack from below and accelerate away. Similar tactics, say the analysts, would not work against an F-22 or F-35. The maneuver also requires great pilot skill, of a level very rare outside leading Western powers. It is also possible that the test is set up to justify purchase of the F-22 and F-35 along with various new air-to-air missiles. Critics point out that the maneuver will also not work against the F-16 and F-18, since with their smaller radar signatures they are not so vulnerable to the BVR portion of the attack.

- Global Security.org, Su-30MK

It does indeed seem hypocritical for Dr. Mahathir to be blaming "high pressure arms salesmen" (you can imagine the nice suits, opaque sunglasses, gruff tones, & Uzi-toting bodyguards) for weapons proliferation, when his own country participates in this trade too. I found the "neighbours" part especially intriguing: you can also construe it to be a subtle anti-Singapore barb. You see, we've bought our fair share of submarines (refurbished ones from Sweden) & fighter jets (US F-16s). So Mahathir might say that he, & Malaysia, had no choice but to compensate with their own purchases & weapons upgrades. He also probably wants to assure us that Malaysia has no designs on Singapore, while you have one of their military officers suggesting poisoning the water supply as a tactic, & talk of "war" in the recent water disputes, & in general, there is manifest hostility.

Either that or by logic, he's saying that Malaysia isn't a poor country, so they're OK with buying expensive weaponry: that's something that doesn't square with other statements he has made, even taking into account that politicians usually don't go around proclaiming their countries' wealth.

As much as we all want a world where billions of dollars wasn't spent on weapons manufacture, purchases & research every year, it's hardly possible to get countries, or even all the world, to renounce deadly weapons, or even categories of especially deadly ones like the NBC (nuclear, biological & chemical) weapons whose fallout extends far beyond the combatants, in space & time. Didn't we see the last time in Iraq that even with the NPT & international scrutiny, some countries are hell-bent on acquiring such weapons as guarantees of protection for their regimes? I think the world has made much progress through the UN to promote treaties limiting the kinds of weapons (like the NPT) & the regions they'll be used in (e.g. the Bangkok treaty, or the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone). Besides multilateral & bilateral (US/Russia) treaties of disarmament & weapons restriction, there can also be more done to curb the proliferation of small arms like rifles & RPGs into war-torn areas like some parts of Africa where they only prolong the violence & misery. With the threat of global terrorism, arms curbs & control, especially in vulnerable places like Pakistan's nukes, becomes all the more important.

Maybe Dr. Mahathir is referring to this as an abomination to civilised peoples & poor nations, but I hardly think so. He wouldn't be buying from the Russians in that case, the same folks who have helped out Iran with their nuclear technology. A weapons-free world is a fantasy: it's not a game-theoretical stable strategy. If everyone is unarmed (even if that's possible), then anyone who has better weapons, be it some rogue regime or power-hungry warlord or even aliens, will get the upper hand almost immediately. Why else do you think there are arms races, comparable to evolutionary development of species? We might bemoan historical examples of countries with better weaponry oppressing & conquering others, like the Spanish conquistadors, or in the Opium Wars - but it's an inexorable result of arms races: ceteris paribus, the better weapons win. The answer is not to wish all weapons away but to curb our "enthusiasm" for them, to emphasise diplomacy & dialogue to ensure no "accidents" happen, to foster greater respect for all humanity, & to have strict international scrutiny. By encouraging understanding & condemning (but not renouncing) violent conflict & war, we can work towards a better, more peaceful world, even with the presence of deadly weapons.

Dr. Mahathir's a smart man. I believe he understands this perfectly well, but just likes to bluster sometimes.

Mineral water bottles

13 August 2003 12:26 PM SGT (link)

Reusing mineral water bottles can be risky, so today's ST says.

Bidding IX

13 August 2003 11:32 AM SGT (link)

After the first round's "gentlemanly" error, & yesterday's tactical error, I resolved to fix the problem & get my two Maths modules today, or else.

Why was yesterday's miss a tactical error? I should've bid for the Arts slot for Calculus, because yesterday it had 252 places & today 182 - there's plenty of space. Also, what I thought was a problematic timeslot, a lecture coming right after Philosophy, was actually not: the lectures actually take place one after the other in the same LT. I should've realised that earlier.

If I had bidden an easy bid for Calculus, I would've been able to spend almost all my Programme account points on the hotly-contested MA1100, Basics of Maths (3 vacancies, 10+ bidders). I didn't get it, & now there are no more slots to bid for. But... this morning I received an email from the same AO saying that I've been admitted into MA1100S(pecialist), yay, & that we should drop our MA1100 slots because we'll be preallocated them after the end of bidding. (So that's what she meant; I misunderstood her.) I mean, what kind of an outcome could be better? It's excellent! The stars are aligned in my way! or something like that.

So come this evening, I'll be the happy recipient of an Arts slot in Calculus (whose quota was grossly overprescribed) & a few days later, a slot in the elusive Basics of Maths lectures. The Bidding saga hereby ends - on the best possible note!

Bidding VIII

12 August 2003 9:20 PM SGT (link)

I cannot believe this: I have lost the bidding for both Maths modules again, even though I tried to achieve a balance of bids between the two (if you stake everything on one, you won't get the latter). I just have to try to fight for the remaining crumbs tomorrow, or send in a pretty absurd appeal. This sucks.

Home Run

12 August 2003 9:10 PM SGT (link)

I was correct in that Jack Neo has made Home Run to be about more than the Children of Heaven about siblings & a pair of school shoes. It's much richer in story & symbolism than anyone could have expected from Jack Neo, including me. Jack Neo has borrowed Majid Majidi's story, & that's pretty much the same, but he's added significant political satire & commentary. The original story suffers somewhat because the two themes don't gel too well together; it's almost like he tried to do too much at once, but then again you wouldn't want him to aim low & leave the movie incompletely developed. & thank goodness it wasn't about fashion trends.

This is hardly statistical, but it seems that many regard Jack Neo with even less respect than I do. Actually I do respect him: he's practically the only successful filmmaker in Singapore, & his movies aren't lousy. It could be that I'm looking for him to be the "great" Singapore filmmaker, & he is trying to be one, just one in Jack Neo's unique way & not my way. I hope nobody decided against watching the movie because of my earlier comments!

With Home Run, no one can say he's just a pedestrian storyteller with low expectations of his audience anymore. So the movie was pleasantly surprising, & very intriguing as well (see the hidden comments below). I'm no psychologist, but I daresay his previous shows' popularity, & his personal fame, is having a reverse effect in dissuading some from watching his show, or even seem to be eager to, because they want to elevate themselves above the madding crowd. "A Jack Neo movie? He's so... crude! common!" These same folks aren't exactly the Glen Goei or Royston Tan crowd, I'd bet: they probably have no problem watching Terminator 3 or Finding Nemo. If that's so, then it's their loss.

Familiarity breeds contempt?

One flaw that I find's beginning to affect the quality of Jack Neo movies is the participation of his good friends like Mark Lee & Patricia Mok in the cast. A theory I tentatively hold is that over-familiarity with the cast as celebrities lowers the audience's ability to concentrate on the story - that's why, I think, Japanese & Korean dramas are popular in places like Singapore, where in Japan & Korea themselves they're just part of the environment, nothing worth kicking up a fuss about. What I mean is, they're popular in their home countries, but I think even more so offshore because when we watch the show we aren't saying, "oh that's Kimura Takuya" - coupled with good acting skills, he effectively becomes the character he plays. Kimura Takuya also doesn't appear all the time in music videos, talk shows, advertisements, interviews, gala events etc. In Singapore, local dramas & movies are promoted largely based on celebrities than stories, so one might regard Home Run with the "oh those are the I Not Stupid kid disciples of Jack Neo" & have a less than satisfactory experience. I suggest Jack Neo start with a totally new cast in his next movie.

This is also why I think Jennifer Lopez movies have not been that good - e.g. Angel Eyes, Maid in Manhattan, Enough; The Cell was interesting though - because in nearly every one we watch thinking "ah that's Jennifer Lopez", so every movie role becomes part of her personal media exposure empire.

The best way to test such a hypothesis is to have a locally-produced drama not be promoted with who's starring in it, but what the story's about. The cast & their representing company (MediaCorp/Works) may also have to sign some non-disclosure agreement with the producers not to have any publicity before or during the show, when it becomes pretty obvious that we're dealing with the celebrities, & the show's just a vehicle for their stardom. They must absolutely be restrained from doing what they're used to doing. I'm not saying we leave the show with hardly any publicity & expect it to do as well as normal ones - why not have equivalent levels of publicity, but publicity not based on stars? If this fails, maybe it is that familiarity really breeds contempt, or just distraction.

I try to make sense of it

The rest of my comments have to do with scenes in the movie. However, I don't want to spoil it for those who are still going to watch it, so please click here to have what's next magically appear below. You can click the link again to hide it. (Update: for those who are having problems getting the magic link to work, & aren't using an antiquated browser, please try refreshing the page. It's to load the script I added to make the magic link work.)

Auggie Rose

11 August 2003 11:21 PM SGT (link)

More info at IMDB. This is a wonderful movie. It's shown on Cinemax a few times this month, so check it out if you have the channel.

John C. Nolan (Jeff Goldblum) (what a plebeian name!) is a rich life insurance executive - he's elegantly tailored, & Jeff Goldblum really seems to be made for wearing suits - who visits a deli one night to buy some wine. A robber comes in pointing a gun, & in the end John & the deli owner are OK, but the new assistant was fatally shot in the stomach as he emerged from the back after getting John a replacement bottle. John tries to help him but can't do much, but he rides in the ambulance with him on the way to the hospital & he (the assistant) says his name is Auggie Rose, & he even assures John that "it will all be all right". In the hospital he succumbs to his injuries.

John can't get Auggie out of his mind: he later finds out he's an ex-convict, visits his spartanly-designed rented apartment, & keeps reliving the event in his mind. If only he had just made do with the scratched label - then probably nobody would've died. If only... It's not merely that John thinks it's partly his fault - & of course the people around him try to tell him that - but also his realisation that a man like Auggie can be so alone in the world, without even anyone to collect his corpse from the morgue, saddens him. John feels duty-bound to keep the memory of Auggie Rose, unknown individual, alive, to give it the significance it calls for.

From John's gradual delving into the life of Auggie Rose, the movie nicely segues into his own existential crisis: his close brush with death makes him realise that deep down, he's unhappy with his life, even though he has a great companion (long-time girlfriend) & tons of money from his business success. "Is that it?" is his question after witnessing Auggie's demise, & worryingly, he begins to fantasise about assuming the identity of Auggie Rose & escaping from his own life for a change, just to see what the possibilities are.

Here's where the fun begins: John discovers letters & postcards from a female pen-pal who wrote to Auggie while he was in prison. Lucy (Anne Heche) is from out-of-town, & in a few days' time she's coming to see Auggie for the first time; the two have never exchanged photos or spoken on the phone. John's now faced with this responsibility, one of many he gradually undertook on Auggie's behalf, to somehow tell Lucy that her pen-pal is dead, just like that - but (spoiler) he couldn't resist & he becomes Auggie for Lucy. (Certainly if she wasn't, um, in the likeness of Anne Heche he might have reconsidered.)

But the movie doesn't get transformed into a madcap comedy, rest assured. It's a mature, serious look at a serious subject: now the one with existential doubt, with "what's the meaning of life?" problems, is John himself in the "role" of Auggie, & not John talking & thinking about Auggie. Of course there are cracks he has to paper over, & of course we watch on to see whether Lucy ever gets to find out the truth, but also what John finally decides to do: carry on with this alternate identity, or somehow reconcile himself with being the old John C. Nolan, & using Auggie Rose as a temporary "vacation" (a la Beach Boys)?

In conclusion, the acting is fantastic, the sentiments genuine, the problems & questions of the meaning of one's life engaging. & did I say Jeff Goldblum looks great in a suit? Well I did; but it's not only his sartorial elegance but his way of conveying his character's thoughts & ideas that are really a treat to watch.

Black Hawk Down the movie

11 August 2003 10:39 PM SGT (link)

I remember that when the movie was still being shown in cinemas & friends came back from watching it, they would inevitably mention the egregious amount of weaponry & ammunition, & the number of Somalis killed. If you don't know the basic story, it's to do with a botched military operation involving the US Army Rangers & Delta Force to capture a Somali warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, in 1993. Apparently Marines had been sent in to back up the UN peacekeeping force that was trying to bring in food aid for civilian victims of famine & civil war, & the mission took place when they had withdrawn & Aidid had started to disrupt food distribution work.

What was expected to be an incisive insertion into the heart of the city turned out to be a nightmare for the soldiers: two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by RPGs, the area was barricaded by Aidid's militia, & some Rangers & Delta Force people were trapped & had to fight what seemed like half the city to survive before reinforcements arrived to evacuate them. 19 American soldiers died, & CNN video of a dead Ranger's body being dragged through the streets by jubilant Somalis was instrumental in Clinton's ordering of the complete pullout of US military personnel weeks later. I believe since 1995 the UN hasn't had a presence in Somalia, without any military support, & the people there have been left to their own devices with warlords & wanton violence, even though some parts of the country have become peaceful & stable.

The movie's produced by Jerry Bruckheimer & Ridley Scott, directed by the latter, & the story's adapted from Mark Bowden's book (which I unfortunately haven't read). Ridley Scott was also behind the ghastly Gladiator, which has "overhyped" stamped all over it. It was all so much violence without a purpose - & the two don't have to be an oxymoron. In Black Hawk Down there is also plenty of violence, & there were lessons to be learnt - but again this all-American-action team chose to downplay them. I submit that movies like Saving Private Ryan were let down by too much mulling, too little story & action, & Black Hawk Down has the exact opposite flaw.

Josh Hartnett plays Matt Eversmann, a staff sgt. I think who leads the team of Rangers that gets stuck in Mogadishu hell - he's the idealistic one who truly "believes in the mission": he's there to get food aid to the Somalis & protect them from the warlords. "Look, these people, they have no jobs, no food, no education, no future. I just figure that we have two things we can do. Help, or we can sit back and watch a country destroy itself on CNN." Of course he finds some shades of gray between that harsh dichotomy. He's shell-shocked at the tough fight & the toll on his men, but the movie seems to tell us that no matter what great ideals you harbour when you enter a place like Mogadishu, ultimately it's about fighting for your survival, & what another character says, "the men next to you. That's all it is." I see this as the movie, like the soldier, shrinking back from the real lessons of the disaster.

On a certain level it's true that soldiers can hardly be expected to, say, march to the battlefields defending abstract concepts like Singapore as a nation, or our territorial boundaries, political sovereignty etc., not to mention even more high-minded things the Americans think about like bringing succour to war-torn areas around the world. (We Singaporeans confine ourselves to patrolling East Timorean villages, & only SAF regulars, what's more.) It may not even come to defending one's family & friends, as the commercials put it: I suppose the soldiers have to be concerned about their here & now, which means the people around them, & that's applied to their thinking, not solely in a tactical sense.

The Mogadishu disaster can be analysed on many fronts, primarily from a military point of view: intelligence on the number of militia & their organisational & offensive capabilities was sorely lacking. It could be said that the major-general in charge was complacent. Also, FIBUA (fighting in built-up areas) is tough even with the best-trained men, & the casualty rates are much higher & the gains less obvious. Since Mogadishu the American media has emphasised this point, together with the quagmire problem exemplified with Vietnam; remember the analyses about how fighting hand-to-hand with Saddam's Republican Guard outside & within Baghdad would most likely result in unacceptable casualty rates for the Americans? It seems technology like using IT & GPS to let the "intelligent" soldier know the whereabouts of friendlies & foes can reduce the toll, but it's still horrific. The difficulties of urban warfare was only lightly touched on - the action was mainly in the Rangers' desperate situation & their bravery & composure in the face of it.

Another thing: the merits of the American military presence, & the significance of the goal: capturing the warlord. I heard this issue is explored in more depth in Bowden's book, so I'm quite looking forward to reading it. Mainly I regret that Hartnett's character's ideals are pretty much unanswered in the aftermath of the tragedy. It's all well to say that when you're in a hellhole you fight for yourself & the men around you, but really, should these soldiers refrain from commenting on, or even thinking about, the reason why the Americans were doing this? There is no response except maybe one of the militia's warnings to the Americans that it isn't their war & they should stay out of it for their own good. Really? Sit back & watch Somalis exterminate each other on CNN, & shrug our shoulders & get on with our lives?

Now that global terrorism is the prevalent threat against the US & its allies, & Somalia is one of the possible sites where terrorist camps can be established, I think this issue is all the more important. bin Laden himself reportedly said that the US withdrawal in the face of the deaths of a few soldiers taught him that the Americans were cowardly & don't have the gumption to fight against his jihadis. Various Al Qaeda attacks in Africa & the Middle East added to his confidence. I think we shouldn't regard this as a dare from bin Laden & anti-American terrorist organisations - Mogadishu was just a cue he took, & the issue of how best to intervene & resolve messy conflicts like in Somalia is still an open question. It would be nice if there was some good way, but in the meantime it's easier, & more important, to fight the scourge of terrorism than to "help."

What to post?; the Ferengi

11 August 2003 9:38 PM SGT (link)

Today's the first day of school - I had a USP seminar early in the morning at 8 (as my tutor said, it's "uncivilised") & Maths lectures in the afternoon. Technically I was crashing them, because one was Calculus, which I haven't officially gotten yet, & another Linear Algebra, which I was checking out in case Basics didn't work out; & also to join Eugene - it was fun. Traipsing around campus with the calculus tome was not, though.

Now that school has begun, obviously most of the things I blog about will be related to NUS, the faculties, the modules etc. This has been on my mind for a while: what kinds of stuff should I post here? I'm hesitant to post all, or even most, of my thoughts on things related to the syllabus, lectures, tutorials, readings etc. because I'm selfish & I don't want to share the goodies with the rest of the world...not! Anyway we participate actively in tutorials & seminars, especially for USP, so ideas get thrown out there to be digested & deliberated upon; it won't do to hold your cards close to your chest & show them all in a brilliant last move to "win" the game. I don't think this applies only when class participation is counted in the final grade, 5% or whatever - I think the original person stands to benefit the most, even while everyone else is privy to one's good ideas, because one can garner different perspectives on it, rather than be limited to one's own prejudices & judgements as a result of our backgrounds.

& what's more, those are my ideas, my thoughts: what about others' thoughts? I really think it won't be appropriate to be posting near-verbatim transcripts of tutorials or seminars, or be rebutting the USP tutor's statements one by one (even though that would be fun - my USP tutor seems to revel in making controversial statements). I guess one feels responsible in a vague way, perhaps in the sense that this is intellectual property that participants in the lecture/tutorial/seminar should be privileged to, not only because they pay school fees but because they are the participants, & not any Tom, Dick & Harry off the street. Also, I wouldn't feel comfortable to have all, or most, of my comments & ideas reproduced in any other medium without my permission, however noble the intentions of the person behind such a scheme.

So I guess most of the things I will post here relating to school & modules are things I've thought about long & hard, & (1) I find sufficiently idiosyncratically mine, so I have to express them here instead of just in class, & (2) I'm probably the only guy interested in such a viewpoint or theory. Of course posts will have the character of an esprit d'escalier - this is a great word. To paraphrase Voltaire, if the word didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it:

ESPRIT D'ESCALIER (\ess-SPREE dess-kahl-YAY\) (n) A remark that occurs to you only later; the thing you should have said, but didn't think of at the time.

[This wonderful French expression literally translates as "wit of the staircase." The English quickly recognized its usefulness and adopted it by the early 1900s. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines "esprit d'escalier" as: "An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one's way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room."]

The Ferengi

So may I humbly post today's esprit d'escalier: it's to do with my USP module, Questioning Evolution & Progress - OK technically it isn't d'escalier: I thought of it in class, but there wasn't an appropriate moment to mention it, but never mind... We were talking about how a capitalistic mindset to success & progress in the context of Singapore's national policy & goals might be reconciled with other considerations like family values. I immediately thought of one of the most fascinating species in the Star Trek universe: the Ferengi!

Deep Space Nine has a regular Ferengi character by the name of Quark, who runs the bar on the space station, & often through him & his (mis)adventures we get glimpses of Ferengi society & customs. The Ferengi are a race of short brown-skinned humanoids (just image-google "Ferengi" if you want to see what I mean), with much larger ears than those of humans (whom they condescendingly call "hew-mahns"). Politically, they are not part of the interplanetary Federation, & have no imperialistic or militaristic ambitions - to most Starfleet personnel they are a sort of nuisance because of the shenanigans they're involved in. They are known as merchants and/or smugglers, and their society is a caricature of out-&-out capitalists: they worship the idea of (monetary) Profit (in the form of latinum bars) & regard it as life's most important goal. They have a Talmudic text called the Rules of Acquisition (here's a list compiled from various DS9 sources; this one indicates which episodes they were mentioned in) that they probably quote from a few times a day. E.g. Rule No. 1 (presumably the most important one): "Once you have their money, you never give it back." Witness Rule No. 6: "Never allow family to stand in the way of opportunity." (Go to Star Trek in Sound & Vision to get sound clips of the rules spoken.) I'm itching to explore the evolutionary implications of such a cultural (or even biological!) rule.

From a socio(bio)logical-political perspective, this is an utterly fascinating Big Idea: a society whose values, even family values, are predicated on the cold hard materialistic logic of capitalism. It's like a thought experiment on the scale of a civilisation! How could the Ferengi have a cohesive society if everyone's at everyone's throats (if not literally, at least with regard to profit), even family members? E.g. 1: their supreme leader, the Grand Nagus, seems to be a monarch, but also has the right to appoint his successor (cf. "The Nagus", Season 1). E.g. 2: what is the role of their government? An idealistic (to some) laissez-faire regime which only keeps the peace & establishes common rules for Ferengi profiteers? E.g. 3: What about social unrest: certainly not every Ferengi can turn in a profit! Will they lose their sense of self-worth (this is developed in the character of Rom, Quark's brother, who is a failure at business.) I think exploring the nature of the Ferengi society can be helpful in illuminating exactly how far one can run with the principles of capitalism, & how this relates to Singapore's state-as-corporation model that emphasises economic development.

Bidding VII

11 August 2003 9:08 PM SGT (link)

It's so frustrating when you spend a good amount of time & effort crafting an enquiry through email, & the response you receive shows that the person on the other end clearly didn't bother to even try to understand you, & took the "stop bothering me" attitude.

I am a freshman majoring in Maths. I was hoping to take the modules MA1100 & MA1102R, but I was not successful in bidding for them in the earlier rounds. According to the CORS, under "Lecture groups available for open bidding", there are vacancies in other faculties & groups for MA1102R, so I presume we can bid for them starting from Round 3A. However, there is only 1 space for MA1100, & it seems that this will not increase in later rounds. I wonder if it is possible for the faculty to add a few places in the MA1100 lecture so that we can bid for them?

Also, I applied to take the MA1100S module, which I understand shares lectures with MA1100 but has different tutorials. Will my success or failure in applying for MA1100S affect whether I should bid for the MA1100 lecture slot?

[Previous emails included below]

I won't put the administrative officer's reply here, but basically she said two things: (1) she won't repeat herself on the quota issue. You can see that I did briefly summarise what she said - starting from Round 3A, the quotas across faculties & amongst different types of students (new vs. returning) will be merged, & we will be allowed to bid for these remaining places. I looked at the list of vacancies for Round 2C, the round immediately before 3A, & there was only 1 vacancy in MA1100, which was surely to be gone by 3A. That was what I was getting at: it's obvious that there won't be any vacancy, merged quota or not, come 3A, so could the department do something about that for us?

What does her answer indicate? That she just wants to shrug it off & refer me to the previous answer which most certainly did not take into account the case of having zero vacancies. This blindness is galling, to say the least. But the situation has changed since then, no thanks to her I'd bet: there are 3 vacancies & 7 bidders, so I'm now sharpening my sword for battle...

(2) If you can get MA1100S, then you should drop MA1100. Beahhhhhhh!!!!! Wrong answer. The two modules share the same lectures - unless one wants to argue that there will be two lectures simultaneously in the same LT (cf. info in the Module listing) - the difference is just that MA1100S has an additional tutorial & more challenging questions. Earlier I had already ascertained that one needs to bid for the 1100 lectures whether or not one will be going to take the 'S' tutorials. My point was: if I really couldn't take the 1100 lectures, I can't possibly carry on with 1100S tutorials. This is worse than being blind & obtuse: plain wrong advice that could get a more gullible person in real hot soup.

Moral of the story? Heck, I think I'll just be happy when this mess is over; & it won't happen again.

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