Thursday, 20 December 2007

1 year, 100 posts, 10,000 experiences

In retrospect, I'm glad I started this journal. Looking over the previous 99 posts, I have the same feeling I hav when review the notebook from my first China trip where I can re-read inane and insightful observations long since forgotten. I'm not a diary person; business organiser maybe, but personal diary no. Yet it is often suggested by diverse pundits from personal effectiveness, personal growth and even happiness experts that even just a one line note about your day made before going to bed is a valuable, long-term habit.

I digress though as this journal is not that much about me and a lot more about the people around me. I've learned a lot in the last year; there are certainly more known-knowns, but there are also more known-unknowns so there is plenty of adventure ahead.

It is appropriate at this time of year to reflect and I thought I'd pick out a few notable, even favourite posts from 2007:

Here's to the next 100. Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Beep, screech, crunch, tinkle

It's a combination of sheet metal rumpling, glass tinkling and plastics shattering; the sound of a car crash is quite distinctive. It's also dramatic and fascinating and I'd be a liar if I said I didn't leap up and have a look out of the window when I heard it the other morning. Out on the main road, a taxi was mid U-turn across a dual-carriageway and a small black car had bumped into the back of it.

First rule of accidents: accuse the other guy before he tries to blame you. First rule of deciding who is really at fault: pick whoever was turning/changing lanes. In this case, the taxi was way out of line, starting from the left side of the road, turning across lane #2 to effect a U-turn is a dodgy manoeuvre requiring strict visual verification. The taxi driver looked like he'd swallowed a cigarette butt and was taking the other guy's ranting with glum acceptance.

But not so fast. I did say the horn was the first thing I heard. There's an old rule of aviation priorities: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. It highlights that no matter what the crisis,the first job is to keep the plane in the air. Next is to figure out which way to fly and only then, if you have time, do you get on the radio. Obviously, with co-pilots you have more options but it works for motoring as well. In an emergency, you should be braking and steering your way out of trouble. If you have time for beeping the horn, then you are not yet in an emergency.

I reckon the driver of the black car saw the taxi start to pull away and turn, gave it some sound as a warning, but only braked when the taxi started to block his path. A defensive driver would have given himself more options and braked earlier. The light impact of the bump indicates how avoidable it was.

The taxi driver will likely take the full rap, and he'll be well out of pocket. The LTA has just allowed taxi fares to rise slightly but driving a cab is not a path to riches. The driver will rent the cab from one of the big firms for about SG$105 per day (£35). In a 12 hour shift, he'll use $40-$50 of fuel and take about $200 in fares, thus clearing about $40-$50 cash. Have an accident and he loses the fares and has to pay for repairs. A tough break in an occupation that has so many risks with little financial upside.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Pirates of the Straits

Singapore is pretty well served for TV and video. There is cable with both free and paid content from StarHub. Arch-rival SingTel recently moved into the market with it's Mio box, an aDSL-based, Video-On-Demnd (VoD) service. SingTel lacks premium content (e.g English Premier League football) that StarHub has but has carved out an initial niche with some Hokkien programming. It's just been delayed, but sometime in the next few years the national Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service will be deployed that will provide huge bandwidth for VoD so these services will improve considerably with more high-definition (HD) content.

So the future is certainly bright for online video, but what about DVDs, and their stubbornly popular cheaper bretheren VCDs? They seem to be doing quite well actually. Local shops sell some English/US titles for around £10 but mainly stock Chinese, Hong Kong and Korean discs. But any discussion on DVDs wouldn't be complete without acknowledging the huge influence of pirate copies that are freely available in Malaysia. And when I say freely available, I mean openly sold from stalls setup underneath signs that say "No pirate goods to be sold here" with policemen walking up and down. From Singapore, it's easy to pop over to JB in the car, have a nice lunch, get the car valeted, pick up some cheap essentials at the supermarket and get the latest films for about £1.20ea. New releases (apparently) should be avoided as they can be camcorder recordings in a cinema, complete with coughs and popcorn rustling.

Singapore doesn't allow such trade and is tough on sellers. I was told that you can order discs by 'phone and someone will deliver them in Singapore a few days later, but when pressed, it seems to be more urban legend than an actual service. I don't advocate such copyright infringement and the studios should follow Microsoft's lead (who are selling Windows in China for US$3) and sell at prices people can afford. It's interesting and concerning that whole countries can become comfortable with blatant illegality. People growing up in that environment become disrespectful of all laws and while that doesn't mean they will be immoral, they may well be amoral.

The distribution chain is undergoing change as well. In the US, the huge video rental chain Blockbuster is going through tough times with many stores closing and a new business plan. It's cheaper to rent movies by post than to go to the store so Blockbuster is planning in-store kiosks and movie downloads to migrate away from real-estate to cyber-estate.

Singapore has a company called CineNow which has kiosks in the local shopping areas where you can rent DVDs (and VCDs) from SG$2 (65p). It's a huge box with a selection screen and a slot for dispensing and returning discs. And being a kiosk, it's always open. It seems to be doing business but it's probably an interim distribution model before direct digital downloads or VoD are the norm. I presume the pirate discs will persist as long as prices remain high (in local terms) and the relevant authorities ignore the trade.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Material Aspirations

The traditional aspirations of Singaporeans are the well enough known to have their own Wikipedia page - the five C's: Car, Cash, Credit Card, Condo, Country Club. Inspector Clouseau would say that makes 7 Cs but stay with me. These embody the Singaporean dream of being rich enough to own an expensive house, expensive car, expensive club membership and have money left over to spend. All very materialistic stuff and no one is denying the essential truth of it.

An analysis piece by the Straits Times claimed it contained a new list: Competitiveness, Cohesion, Compassion, Compact, Choices. This roughly translates to "stay economically successful, watch out for the poor, keep the old in the loop". This is political spin designed to soften the collateral fallout from capitalist policies. So no place in our trivial treatise.

Meantime, the aspirations of Singaporean wives appear to have risen over the last 20 years according to this list:

I don't need a CAR, but I want a BMW
I don't need a CONDO , but I want a BUNGALOW
I don't need you to have CASH but I want you to own a BANK
I don't need you to have a CAREER but I want you to be a BOSS

... or better expressed as the new five B's: BMW, Body, Brain, Billionaire, Bungalow. More fantasy than the original five C's as how many single billionaire bank-owners are there?

Or how about the 1 - 5 lists for the different races. Singaporeans' recipe for Simple Living:

1 - One Wife
2 - Two Children
3 - Three Bedroom Condo
4 - Four Wheels (car)
5 - Five Figure (monthly) Salary
Malaysian Malays' recipe for Simple Living:
5 - Five Children
4 - Four Wives
3 - Three Figure Salary
2 - Two Wheels (motorbike)
1 - One-Storey Link House

Weather Widget

I've given up on my PC's desktop weather widget and closed it down for good. It was nice, showed 5 days worth of weather with little graphic representations and numbers for the daytime highs but most of the time, all the days show the same graphic and temperature.

That's not to say Singapore doesn't have weather or seasons, but the short-term outlook is pretty consistent at any time of year. It's now autumn, and as respite from the heat, is the best time of year. January will also be cool but that's supposed to be rainy season (and it does rain)

Singaporean autums (indeed winters, if you can call it that) do not have mass leaf colour changes and bare trees; on some trees, the leaves just go brown and fall off, causing the maintenance guys more work but it must be a confusing time for a tree as it's still warm and humid, so they just immediately grow a new set. All light, verdant green ones, which are very pretty, but I don't need a weather widget to tell me that.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Birdmen of Singapore

Bird fancying. What's that all about then? It's hugely popular here and within an HDB area, there will be a place with bird cage racks on the ceiling of the void deck, labelled with the type of bird to be appreciated there. My local one is for the Merbah Jambul.

Sunday mornings is the main event with, say 20 - 50 men, and it's always men, sitting looking at a ceiling full of hanging bird cages, smoking and chatting. The bird cages are all of an exactly uniform design and size for a particular bird species so it's a pretty sight and they are song birds, so there's some twittering audible over the traffic noise.

At other times, you see the cages hanging on the window bars of the flats. Animals are not allowed on trains or buses so moving them around means car, pickup truck, walk or cycle. For multiple cages, they use a carry stick to hang them off and the cages have neatly sewn cloth covers for transportation. This hobby has equipment.

My take is that it's Singaporean fishing; an ostensibly acceptable activity which men use to get out of the flat and away from the family for a while.