Monday, 31 March 2008

Jade, schmade

One piece of direct mail caught my eye from "Lotus on Water". There's a World renowned (sic, that's their capitalisation on world) Feng Shui Master called Yun Long Zi who holds Jadeite Workshops on how Jade can bring protection, luck and happiness.

It's only S$38 (£14), which for a personal reading from an acclaimed master would be a bargain indeed. The top tier Feng Shui masters in Hong Kong wouldn't unpack their astrolabe for less than US$100k if you wanted advice on a major building construction. And the bonus for your S$38 is that you get the opportunity to buy jade of the appropriate colour right there and then.

I've long been suspicious of jade because it can command very high prices, yet has no single definition let alone quality standards. Glass, plastic and a host of other minerals can pass for jade, plus dying, heat treatment, bleaching and resin injection techniques can transform junk into a valuable looking stone. Unless you carry a spectrometer, you can't tell and have to trust the vendor. People talk about the value of deep green Jade, of stones changing colour with long-time wear all of which create a mystique around a lump of rock.

In comparison, diamonds are easily assessed (refraction and 5Cs) and setting aside that gem prices are held artificially high by a cartel, are at least useful industrial materials. Gold is a chemical element with specific physical properties, is nice to look at and vital in manufactured goods particularly electronics. Ditto silver and platinum. You can believe what you like, I know what value is, and it's not astrology with matching jewelery, although at $38 per person it looks like I've missed the point again.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Manners Squad

Stereotypes about Japan are many, just look at their trains; guards wear white gloves, platform "packers" push you onto crowded carriages and then etiquette squads patrol the cars to shame fit, seated people to stand up for the infirm. It's all true, although the last one about good manners patrols is new.

Of course, declining social graces are not confined to Japan, they just take it more seriously; a respect agenda is a verb, not a slogan. In Singapore, mobile phones, iPods and PSPs (PlayStation Portable game consoles) are the self-absorption tools of choice for the determined sitter. Newspapers like the Today freebie are handy last-minute substitutes. Snoozing is good but heads lolling over onto your neighbour is extremely bad here, whereas in Japan it would be understood and tolerated more. So remember: "fake sleep good, real sleep bad".

Singapore has had a seemingly endless stream of public education schemes. In 1969 they launched the "Queue up at the bus stops" campaign and there is an official Singapore Kindness charity that does school events and posters in libraries I think. In 2001 they subsumed the National Courtesy Campaign that launched in 1979. MRT trains have advertising on the outsides and a couple have the current slogan "Practise courtesy for a pleasant journey" down the sides.

So would Smile-Manner squads work in Singapore? No. The Japanese system is voluntary and requires the seated target to have a sense of shame that can be tapped. There are MRT seats designated for the infirm (called Silver Seats in Japan) but the few people who do stand up do so out of empathy such as a woman standing for a mother and baby. There might be a racial bias as well - Chinese making way for a Chinese. Getting a seat is a prize to be fought for and congratulates the occupant on their good fortune and guile.

No, I watch as self-absorbed people heedlessly push onto trains, past those alighting and rush for seats & I laugh. My style now is to wait until everyone else gets on then saunter on last and stand the whole way. Better for the leg muscles & karmic balance.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

For a while, in England, I was a freecycle junkie. If you don't know, it's all about giving things away, locally, for free. You advertise (offer) an item on the mailing list and people claim then collect it. No money or payment in kind is allowed (although one chap insisted I take 2 bags of horse manure in compensation). Good quality goods go very quickly and at one sad point in my life, I changed the automatic Get New Mail interval down to 10mins to try and get ahead of the crowd.

I've followed the Singapore freecycle group for a while but I ended up marking the incoming mail As Read upon receipt. Low critical mass is one issue. Singapore seems to struggle to tap long tail effects and the local freecycle, craigslist and eBay are all small. Maybe there are more scam artists around but people are more wary of online transactions and arranging to meet at private homes. You need a car to collect anything large or heavy so posts tend to be for smaller items like books, CDs & toys. There's no DIY culture here (it's cheaper to get a tradesman in), so you don't see offers for bricks, paving slabs or even large furniture. However the biggest downer with the mailing list is that it feels like most posts are Wants, not Offers.

Time for some hard data. In 2007, the Singapore group had 4,684 posts, of which 42% were Offers, 16% Taken and 33% Wants (based on the text of the subject line). In comparison, Oxford had 48% Offers, 20% Taken and 30% Wants. If you add Offers + Takens, the gap widens to 10 points (58% vs 68%) which validates my instinct that the SG group is less ... giving.

There's more social effects at work here than just these numbers. It shows how the culture of a group (whether online or not) finds different equilibrium especially where leadership from moderators is weak. I've argued before that while untidy, leaving an old sofa in the void deck affords residents a chance to re-use it for free before it is trashed the following day by the maintenance guys. The local council will collect such large rubbish without charge but then there's no re-use.

The bring'n'buy sale, WI, car boot attitude of social generosity displayed by middle England has different outlets in Singapore. At the middle to lower class that SG freecycle seems to cater to, the discards at the HDB void deck offer more.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Let there be (more) light

This blog is brought to you on upgraded HDB electrics. The contractors switched off the power early at 8:30am and started ripping off all the meters, mains wiring, mini trunking and ceiling lights. By the lunchtime break, they had the new maxi trunking up and most of the wires in place but un-terminated. Power was back on by 4pm but my UPS had given up before noon so I lost Starhub broadband & phone but carried on with 3G.

It looks good. Some of the mitres in the maxi trunking are approximate as they are all done by eye. They've used thicker wires (~20mm sq) but 3 or 4 flats are daisy-chained so it needs to be. It's the same meter but in a smart grey ABS enclosure instead of the old wooden backing board. Handily they moved the meter a few inches away from the door so the external gate can swing back all the way to the wall now. And more ceiling lights, one in front of every door as well as extras between flats.

Technologically it's status quo. No digital meter, no remote meter reading, no dual rate tariff, no PIR-activated lights. Just fatter wires for more consumption. So much for global warming.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Playing the Property Game, Level 1

Since we look like being in Singapore for a while, continuing to rent a flat is not necessarily the best fiscal policy, so we have joined the great Property Game. We started by saying we were just educating ourselves but it has to turn serious at some point otherwise the effort cannot be justified. Since we are in a pretty nice HDB flat in Yishun, we started there.

The property market is crazy; some prices have doubled in 9 months and there is rampant speculation and padding of asking prices. Since we are just looking, I haven't worried about price and negotiation yet. Finding a guide to the property maze is ludicrously easy. Singapore has thousands of full and part-time estate agents, hence the mass of junk mail. It's like the American system of independent, commission-based agents and you meet them at parties, shopping malls, everywhere. We got chatting to Sally as she was the agent that let the next door flat. She's a full-time agent for one of the major companies. That'll do for a start.

Perhaps I should give some background. HDBs are Government built since 1960 as cheap housing for the masses. Akin to council housing; think working family, no car, maybe a maid / nanny. They are predominately blocks of flats, 12 - 16 stories high using a common design with a void deck. Arranged in clusters around shops, amenities and transport, such estates are commonly referred to as the Heartlands. There's been some tweaks to this scheme over the decades with Executive Condos and high quality flats for senior civil servants, but we'll get to those later.

Initially they were for rent, now many have been purchased and after a grace
period, may be re-sold or let, so there is a flourishing market. Early models were small, to suit the times and budgets while later models grew a bit. The layout is a hall (living room) with bedrooms and kitchen off. One bedroom usually has ensuite (lavatory, shower, no bath) and there's a common lavatory off the kitchen. Where there is a box room off the kitchen, that's a +1 for storage or maid's quarters. So a 1,200sqft flat might be 3+1, that is, 3 bedrooms plus maids room. Many HDBs had a sun room (think balcony that doesn't protrude) but mostly these are now glazed in and join the main room. To save money, the elevators of older flats only served a few floors (e.g. 5, 9, 12) so you take the elevator and then stairs for other floors. The iUP programme is installing new elevators serving all floors.

Singapore is hot, and window direction is crucial. Air con is a common addition but I've never seen double glazing or any other form of insulation. Flats on the top floor may get hot from the roof, of even suffer water ingress. There is an ancient Chinese belief (sometimes attributed to Feng Shui) that your door should face North and have a hill behind you. This has its origins when houses where close together and a good stiff breeze from a hill swept clean (non-foul), cooling air through the house. So agents will tell you immediately which way the door faces. Chinese also like to have a view of water as it's considered prosperous. Bizarrely, a pool full of screaming kids counts. And to round out the Chinese beliefs, because numbers also sound like words, the address is important: 4 = death, 8 = prosper, 10 = certain. But 3 or 4 digits string together to form phrases, so 814 means "wealthy whole life". A really bad number puts Chinese buyers off; good when buying, bad for re-sale.

Typical renovations include replacement windows, air con, floor tiles or laminate, new bathroom fittings, new kitchen cabinets/sink/cooker, coving and painted walls.

Only citizens or PRs (permanent residents) can own property. PRs cannot own a piece of Singapore, so landed properties (houses) are unavailable. Private condos and apartments are Okay, as are private HDB (once passed the 5yr grace period - check the certificate). Most property is leasehold 99 years, some 999 years and in rare cases, freehold.

Singapore specifies racial ratios under the ethnic integration policy. An HDB estate might be 70% Chinese, 20% Malay and 10% Unknown. As a white foreigner, I'm an unknown. Once the quota is reached in an area, you can't buy a flat unless you are replacing the same racial type. You can look up the allocation online at the HDB site.

Each vintage of HDB flats has consistent floor areas which expanded over time and are normally quoted in square feet (1sqm = 10.5sqft), so 1,100sqf is a smallish
3B, 1,300sqf is a more spacious 3B, 1,700sqf is 4B, anything over 2,000sqf is a big house here.

So we can now make some sense of the adverts filling the newspapers and mail boxes:

3S - 3 bedrooms, standard
3+1 - 3 bedrooms plus maids cubby hole
3NG - next generation, bigger than 3S
3A - advanced, a later HDB model, but about the same size as 3S
3I - improved
Jumbo - a 2B and 3B knocked through to create larger flat
EA - Executive Apartment, a nicer, bigger HDB
EM - Executive Mansionette, a 2-level, bigger, nicer HDB
Condo - private development with shared amenities, pool, gym, ...
Apartment - private development but no shared facilities

We started with HDBs in the surrounding area, 3B, 3B+1, an EA and even a Jumbo. The fundamental problem with HDB is the high-density of housing. You are almost always over-looked by the next block, if not all windows, then certainly living room or bedrooms. Finding blocks with some space means moving away from the amenities and MRT, to the point where you need a feeder or shuttle bus to get to the station. An open aspect is an unblock, although the term seems to mean "has a view", rather than "not overlooked" which is a significant difference. Neighbours are always a lottery.

Gawping at other people's houses has its fun moments. The sellers often have an agent, so a viewing appointment is a pantomime of viewer -> agent -> agent -> seller -> agent -> agent -> viewer mobile phone calls and SMS to arrange. On arrival, the agents exchange cards between themselves, sometimes not even addressing the buyers. A Malay family we visited was memorable for having to tiptoe around the people sleeping in the beds. At this end of the market, there's little concept of dressing a house for sale. The Jumbo flat was a 3D puzzle to try and reverse engineer the layout of walls, pillars and nooks. The Executive Apartment was a empty shell and would have needed a complete re-fit, knock out walls, new kitchen but it was closely overlooked.

Frustratingly, buying is strictly an oral process. There are no printed flyers, pictures, floor plans, room sizes, descriptions or asking price; just location and size. Agents won't tell you in advance which floor or whether it's unblock because they want to ensure a visit and avoid being bypassed. So more wasted time with unsuitable properties. Often you only get to know the asking price in the elevator on the way up to viewing. This gives the seller maximum chance to adjust the price according to the look of the buyer. In this regard, Internet sites are better as sellers directly advertise with pictures & and there is often an historical record of prices.

So after 2 weeks, our main requirements seem to be:

3 or 4 bedroom, minimum 1,200sqf
unblock, not overlooked
close to MRT for easy commute

We've stopped looking at HDBs for now, next stop: Condos.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Manhunt or Womanhunt

Crime stories from Japan that make world news are exceptional and usually involve dead foreigners. One such tragedy is Lindsay Hawker, an English teacher found dead & buried in sand in a bathtub on a guy's balcony. The prime suspect has been on the run for a year now and in an attempt to liven up the search, the police have issued Photoshopped photos including him dressed as a woman.

I haven't mentioned Singapore's on-going manhunt as it's a straight-forward problem: the security forces are looking for an escaped, suspected terrorist, Mas Selamat. In a nutshell, he was in a (very!) secure facility, was being taken to a room for a family visit and asked to go to the toilet. He hasn't been seen since. They have good, contemporary photographs, he's short and he limps.

The level of official embarrassment is hard to quantify. Acute certainly doesn't cover it. MM Lee described the security forces as "complacent"; a very well chosen word. The official coverage has focused on finding him but at some point, especially if they don't re-capture him, there will have it be a reckoning.

In the case of Tatsuya Ichihashi, our bath tub suspect, a reasonable guess would be he's dead. Suicide. He fled with no shoes, little money and as a strange loner, would find it very hard to hide without help. The search for Mas Selamat has been to comb scrub land and step up security around ports, checkpoints and coastal areas. His picture is posted everywhere: MRTs, bus shelters, stations, buildings. A photo MMS was sent to most mobile phones in the country (I received it but don't have MMS capability) and by e-mail to all SingNet subscribers.

Smart money is that he has friends, and has already fled to Malaysia or Indonesia, or is in a safe house somewhere. Given that "escape dressed as woman" gets over 900,000 hits on Google, maybe the Singaporean police should take a tip from the Japanese and get Photoshopping?

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Re-Cyclical Maintenance

The HDB iUP flat upgrade programme work has started in our area. Even the site office is impressive. On a square of grass by the road, they poured a concrete base, say 12m x 12m and put up a 2-storey prefab, diverting services so it has water, sewage and power, then erected a 2m high fence and carefully painted it blue.

There will be covered walkways between blocks but the major work is the new lift towers added to the outsides, connecting to each floor's landing so the first job is to create a safe work areas with fencing around each base and start preparations for the piling. Our block has reach the pre-piling stage but remember, to get here, they have already diverted the surface drains, telephone and cable TV lines. This week is the rain downpipe diversion, then it will be piling work.

At the same time, and under a different contract, they are doing Cyclical Maintenance on the electrics. Most blocks are having their earthing upgraded with a new mesh of flat copper strips dug into the apron concrete and tied back to new earth rod points. Blocks are getting new (and thicker) mains cables put in from the substation which involves substantial holes and trenches as those are over 4' down in the clay. Just as well as the original mains wiring is under-specified for modern lifestyles. Our flat has low-wattage fluorescent bulbs throughout as the landlord was tripping the main breaker when running lights, TV, water heater and air con together.

They resurfaced and repainted the car park tarmac after the phone cable works, and they tidied up again after the electrical cables, including restoring the crab grass. The same verge has now been ripped up, leveled and laid with metal sheets for plant access to the neighbouring block.

The electrical works include the refresh of all the (original) landing light fittings, conduit and cabling up the blocks and along the ceilings. There's also extra lights on the outside at the void deck level (for pedestrians I presume) but they've picked a glarey fitting without a light diffuser. Recall that they replaced all fluorescent tubes a few months back only to be dumped now.

I passed the electrical gaffer the other day looking up at the corner of a block with a troubled look. Each new light fitting has been put in approximately the same position on each landing, but there's enough variation (few inches) that when viewed from below, you see an ugly zig-zag pattern. Ooops. I wonder if he'll get away with it?

Our block is half done; conduit is in (pre-wired) but light fittings and mini trunking is pending. All the (again, original) electrical meters are being replaced which unavoidably means a power outage. We'll have to see if they are just replacements or a technology upgrade with, for example, remote reading. At present, a man walks around every few weeks with a handheld to read off the electric, water and gas meters. Replacement is done in batches of about 12 flats at a time. I've just received the flyer; we're due next Tuesday, 8:30 - 5:500pm. My phone and broadband are on the cable modem that will run with the computers on the UPS for a couple of hours. I reckon they will try to be quick so that might be enough. I suppose they have a plan to read the meter at cutover - that's the sort of procedural detail Singapore is good at.

So while the whole area is a building site, it never feels like one with order being restored at every point. You have to admire the care with which each contractor tidies up, even if the next guy comes along to dig the same hole the following day. Labour is fairly cheap here but there's no attempt to optimise the work; it makes a mockery of "Reduce, Re-use, Re-cycle", in Singapore, it's just Repeat.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Junk Mail Deliverance

Long time readers know that last year I collected then analysed a 3 month sample of the junk mail flyers that clog up Singapore's mailboxes. It's mostly real estate related with agents or (claimed) buyers looking for people who are selling up. A smaller set of junk is delivered direct to one's door where 3 or 4 different items are rolled up and stuck in the security gate's scroll work.

I find this more intrusive, but no more effective. My current use of the glossy flyers is as disposable plates when feeding the white cat downstairs but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Some people install a basket outside their flat door for newspapers (or other deliveries such as bread) so their flyers get thrown in there as well.

I wondered if the students delivering this stuff would leave less junk if I displayed a explicit lack of interest in reading it and devised a simple experiment. I took anything left in the gate and pushed it into the gap between the gate's frame and the door jamb. There they stick out as flags of indifference, a totem of ignored junk mail. At the experiment's peak, I had 5 vertical feet of junk mail and had to scrunch the early stuff up together to make room.

The proposition to be tested is whether turning junk mail into trophies of contempt would discourage further deliveries. I've been running this experiment for a couple of months now so it's time to write up the results: it makes very little difference, maybe 1 in 5 times I see other houses with new junk and mine without.

There's definitely a sense of shame on the part of the students. With my door open, I see them come round and at my door they stand to one side and quietly sneak it into the edge of the gate, trying not to be noticed. But mostly, they still deliver. They'll be on piece work and their motivation is to complete the job without hassle from the paymaster. What care to them the attitude of the householder: extreme indifference or total indifference?

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Curteous Singapore

The Institute of SE Asian Affairs, Singapore (ISEAS) held their 40th aniversary session in January and the the 9th January edition of the Times reported an interesting exchange during an event hosting MM Lee, the elder statesman of Singapore and a much respected figure of political life.

Here is a reply prompted by Dr. Euston Quah who asked about Singapore's progress in terms of social graces and environmental consciousness just as the country succeeds economically:

"I will not see it, maybe you will live long enough to see it; I wish you well.

I think it will take more time to develop and mature culturally as a people.

Even the British sitting at a very high level over an empire for nearly 150 years before they developed their culture and then being invaded by football hooligans and foreigners who are now joining them and coarsening their society.

So it's very difficult to get a rough society onto a cultivated plane and it's very easy to bring it down.

Environmental consciousness, on the other hand, will come very quickly when something happens and they say, you do that, your whole environment changes and you are in trouble.

The idea of a gracious society where people are considerate to one another, where you don't make more noise to upset your neighbour more than you need to, where you tell the other motorist, please have the right of way is harder to come by.

It will take time, but I hope it will come with cultivated living over a long period of time.

45 years ago Singaporeans wanted to take their chickens with them when they were resettled from kampungs into high rise flats.

So it took some time to get adjusted. A more cultivated way of life takes a very long time.

That's typical MM Lee thinking; drawing sweeping lines through history to connect the dots for the benefit of his audience. In this case, he could have chosen better dots. British football hooligans never invaded and were not a mass cultural movement but a criminal minority that should have been addressed more quickly by the football authorities by banning fans from away games and docking points from teams with violent supporters. How an Empire is relevant to domestic cultural attitudes eludes me.

More relevant are globalisation trends since the mid 20th century. Ever since we traded hats for baseball caps, the Queen's speech for Neighbours and the WI for GNO, the relaxing of social courtesies has been relentless. Peace and prosperity hasn't made opera the dominant music influence, instead it's Hip Hop.

It also entirely fails to distinguish between the hectic, surly lifestyle of modern super cities and more moderate semi-urban / rural communities. The Government has already floated a policy of immigration to grow Singapore's population by about 50% to 6.5m, making it the world's most densely populated city. Singapore has picked a tough point in history if it aspires to transform a curteous society into a courteous one.

Monday, 17 March 2008


We have new neighbours. The young Chinese professional couple living on one side of us quietly moved out at the end of last year and after a period of non-occupancy have now let out the flat.

This involved a sequence of gathering boxes, then moving out the stuff they wanted, then finally calling a clean-up company to dispose of the rest and spring clean the flat. You might have thought professional house cleaners would be well prepared but this lot were more like scavengers with mops. Everything being thrown away was picked over for residual value and the rest thrown into whatever box or bag they could find to be dragged along the corridor, down the lifts and dumped in the void deck.

Then the estate agents turned up. Cue difficulties with keys and much malarkey on the mobile to owners. I think it was badly cut key copies but it took 4 people to sort out.

Then the stream of rag-tag families traipsing to viewings. It was at this point we moseyed over to have a nose about. Their place is a rough mirror of ours, a 4 room flat, i.e. 3 bedrooms plus living room and kitchen. It's being let semi-furnished (sofa, tables) but no white goods or beds.

A new family has now moved in but I've no idea of how many or what relation everyone is. It's the cast of War and Peace over there with untold relations, friends and kids visiting. Moving in the main furniture was done by a removal company. I say company, but it's a gaffer, a flat-bed trunk and 2 lifters. Imagine the 3 Stooges with mattresses. These basic removal services are very common here and provide a reasonably cheap way to move things around, but it's best to keep an eye on them and your stuff to avoid bumps, breakage or even loss. In this case, the confusion peaked when they tried to manoeuvre a mattress into my living room.

Next day, a guy arrived with a bottle of gas for the cooker. These flats are plumbed with city gas but there's a monthly standing charge so many people use bottled propane instead because it's as cheap to eat out or buy back (da bao) than to cook. Our landlord left a bottle with a couple of inches of gas sloshing in it. That was 18 months ago and we are still using it.

Then the new furniture arrived (matresses and some cupboards), delivered with a bit more care. and since then, a never ending stream of junk, carried each day by the returning hoard. Now, you may think that a pejorative description, but you haven't see it. 8 stacked plastic stools? broken mops, odd lamp shades, a busted window air con unit, countless unidentified bags. The place must be nearly full after a week of these ad hoc deliveries.

They seem pretty quiet (significant praise coming from me) and for the most part, the only visible difference is the clothes horse and so called shoe rack outside the door. As usual, it's full of tatty sandals, flip-flips and smelly trainers that absolutely no-one will ever steal. These ex-shoe collections are a common sight on landings. I would have taken the opportunity during a house move to whittle them down to the ones with a chance of being worn at some point. Alas not.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Wealth, Success & Prosperity. Guaranteed.

The local Chinese temple ran 12 days of celebrations over the CNY (6th Feb - 23 Feb) and their game plan for devotees was comprehensive. Suggested topics for supplication were success at work, excellence in your studies, good interpersonal relationships, good marriage, to ask for a life partner or offspring, avoidance of lawsuits and lastly, safety & security for one's family.

First, to ensure the temple's control of wealth in this year of the Rat, they permitted devotees to nourish their vault (you could donate money to the temple). In fact, three vaults; Heavenly vault for the future, Earthly vault for past debts and the Waterly (sic) vault for the present.

7th day of New Year (13h Feb): Man's Birthday. Deities descend to grant wishes which are granted on the 15th Feb as the heavenly deity, Heavenly First Official Emperor descends from heaven.

8th day (14th Feb): Jade Emperor's Birthday. Celebrations run from 11pm through to 3am with an experienced priest from China officiating. Prayer packs (incense paper, fruits) were available for S$50 (£17).

15th day (21st Feb): Heavenly First Official Emperor. This is an important one as wishes made on this day are said to be 10 times more likely to come true than those made on other days.

Throughout, complimentary vegetarian noodles (bee hoon) were available. Although not a spiritual belief system, renowned feng shui master Mr. LI Yu-Lin was on-site for advice also. I didn't attend but to Westerners (Christians), the unashamed emphasis on self and money is a notable difference of tone.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Weather Report from 1deg North

Given I live 1.42deg north of the equator, my expectations for a warm life should be assured. Not so this week which has me wearing the same clothes I wore in England in February. Today's Times reported what we all knew, that so far, the average temperature this March has been 25.6C, not much above the all time low of 25C set in 1934. Overnight lows have been down to 21C - I needed to put on actual clothes and close the windows to keep warm.

It's also been very wet with dull, rainy days for most of the week. The Kranji area had 401mm (that's 15.7") of rain in one day, while most places had over 100mm (4"). That's not a problem since such downpours are engineered into the drainage system and only odd low-lying areas suffer surface flooding. Last year, one of those made the news with 1m deep water, but the area is a plant nursery so it's hardly a tragedy. The rain does make commuting a pain as you are bound to get very wet feet/shoes/trousers.

More rain is forecast, but with only half of March gone, I doubt if the 74 year record is in danger. Today is nice and warm (27C at 9:30am) and I'm feeling better already.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Big Dummies' Guide to Singapore

Maybe I should write a book. It's said that everyone has at least one book in them, although after objective consideration of the slice of humanity I interact with, I lean towards the less ambitious observation by Seth Godin that everyone has at least one blog post in them.

This train of thought was triggered while in the library by a lady sat opposite lady reading one of those yellow and black How To books called "Baby Massage for Dummies". I remember the time when they were the "Big Dummies' Guide to xxx", but perhaps a marketing strategy which belittles your customer's knowledge has limits and the publishers toned it down a notch. The title re-arrangement also avoids the possessive and hence the need for an apostrophe which Lynne Truss made socially embarrassing, is mocked by typographers, has their mis-use cataloged and has a society for their protection.

At least "Big Dummies' Guide to ..." is clearer grammatically. "xxx for Dummies" leaves itself open to syntactically correct possibilities such as "Crash Testing for Dummies", "Standing Still for Dummies", "Modeling Clothes for Dummies". It looks like Wileys, the publisher, had the same thought as there is a "Breastfeeding for Dummies". While I mock the genre slightly, there are over 1,300 titles in the range including Kabbalah, Einstein, Parrots, Adoption, Prostate Cancer & Florida.

I saw the other day that is holding its annual poll for the oddest book title of the year. At #2 was "How to Write a How to Write Book", that is "Writing Dummies' Guides for Dummies"? Note, they do have Technical Writing, Writing Copy, Writing Children's books, Writing A Romance Novel and Screenwriting but there's clearly an opportunity for someone.

Now I suppose you are wondering what the full list of bad book title contenders were? Okay, here they are:

  • I Was Tortured By the Pygmy Love Queen
  • How to Write a How to Write Book
  • Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues
  • Cheese Problems Solved
  • If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs
  • People who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood

Tough call.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Say what you really think

Tuesday's Straits Times reported on an Islamic (Sharia) court in Terenganu, Malaysia which passed a 2 year jail sentence on a 57 year old woman for being a follower of a cult centered on a giant tea pot. Her (religious) crime was to declare herself apostate while still a Muslim. Apostasy can be a capital crime for Muslims and she did refuse to repent but you have to wonder if the real offence was taken over being spiritually dumped for a piece of crockery. That's got to hurt. The money quote is from presiding judge Mohamad Abdullah:

"What she did was not within the concept of freedom of religion".

What tickled me about this story is not so much the venerated tea pot, or even a jail sentence for an unusual belief but the problem of communicating with the world from a particular perspective and not sounding daft. It reminds me of when the French were still doing nuclear weapon testing in the Pacific and their Ambassador to New Zealand, speaking at the National Press Club there, tried to correct what he perceived as inaccurate reporting:

"I don't like this word bomb. It is not a bomb, it is a device, which explodes."

Technically correct as all tests were underground by that time, but still a classically funny quote. In both cases, the speaker is factually spot on, but I suspect many non-Muslims will mis-understand the term "freedom of religion" as used here.

The extent to which this is a failure of reporting is hard to judge. The same paper carried an article about one of the paper's own board of Directors essentially arguing that self-restraint, indeed "ex extremis, censorship" is necessary. He came across as a committed journalist but I'll leave you with the final paragraph:

Our role is to read the verdict of the people correctly so that the Government can continue to retain the mandate of heaven to rule.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Two Jokes

The Malaysian prime minister has called elections and campaigning is on-going prior to the March 8th voting day. I don't cover Malaysia or politics much and even Malaysians have a pretty deep cynicism for the seemingly endless stream of promises, racial dog whistling and subsequent cronyism. Still, in that context, I was forwarded a joke in the "St. Peter at the gates" style which is worth repeating:

While walking down the street one day a Malaysian Boleh Minister is tragically hit by a truck and dies. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

Welcome to heaven says St. Peter. Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we're not sure what to do with you.

No problem, just let me in says the man.

Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.

Really, I have made up my mind. I want to be in heaven says the Yang Berhormat

I'm sorry, but we have our rules, says St. Peter. And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell. The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is very happy and dressed in the finest batik there is. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They play a friendly game of golf and then indulge themselves on lobsters, caviar and the most expensive food there is. Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that before he realizes it, it is time to go.

Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises. The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him. Now it' s time to visit heaven.. So, 24 hours pass with the Yang Berhormat joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St.Peter returns.

Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.

The Yang Berhormat reflects for a minute, then he answers: Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think i'm better off in hell.

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell. Now the doors of the elevator open and he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder.

I don't understand, stammers the Yang Berhormat. Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?'

The devil looks at him, smiles and says, Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted.

For a bonus, my favourite joke in this style is:

Three men die in a car accident Christmas eve. They all find themselves at the pearly gates waiting to enter Heaven. On entering they must present something Christmassy.

The first man searches his pocket, and finds some mistletoe, so he is allowed in.

The second man presents a Christmas card, so he is also allowed in.

The third man pulls out a pair of panties.

Confused at this last gesture , St. Peter asks How do these represent Christmas?

He answered, They're Carol's.

Boom Boom!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Universe: One Year Older

Phew! what a Christmas / New Year / Chinese New year / Vacation combo. I managed to get through without major casualties but for local Singaporeans, it's the obligations around CNY that will have dominated. CNY is a time of renewal, so the shops do a roaring trade in bras and knickers as, in theory, you should change out your wardrobe. It's also a time to throw out old furniture and household goods so the local council organise "big rubbish collections" to avoid the inevitable discarded sofas in the void deck. You still get discarded sofas in the void deck, right in front of the lifts where people normally leave stuff. Civil servants must despair at the lack of public cooperation in their well-crafted schemes.

Salesmen run around for weeks with cars full of diaries as gifts to their customers, no matter that the client will likely receive one from their own company and then many more from vendors. It's an obligation.

Much fish salad will have been consumed at 8-course Lo Hei lunches, with the wise eaters just snacking their way through to avoid bloat while the restaurants charge S$100 (£35) a head. Their year starts with a nice bonus.

As for the pause in postings, I'm conflicted because I'd like to believe you've missed the usually steady flow of posts but perhaps I'm hoping you haven't noticed the long gap. Status update: I'm back, the universe is one year older and nothing big has changed. Stay tuned for more small stuff.