Friday, October 31, 2008

Your Fear Factor Index is?

Today is Halloween.

This western festival, which has its origin from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, is not commonly known in Singapore. Vaguely, many associate it with ghostly masks and pumpkins known as Jack-o'-lanterns. Other activities during Halloween include costume parties, ghost tours, watching horror movies and the all time favorite with kids, trick-or treat.

Halloween originated in ancient Europe as a celebration of the end of the harvest. However, thanks to movies and commercialization, the festival is now filled with imageries of the dark and mysteries. Such imageries tend to involve ghosts, witches, black cats and skeletons.

I do not get many reminders of this festival in Singapore. The sight of
Halloween merchandise in shops suggests that the festival is round the corner. Beyond that, I believe today is a pretty ordinary day for most of us in Singapore. Ya, nothing very special.

Yet, there are some sporadic attempts to commercialize the festival.

A 5m-by-5m giant pumpkin is seen sitting on the spindle of the Singapore Flyer. The big helium balloon will be there to greet visitors for 2 weeks, giving them a special Halloween experience.

If that sounds too mild, the Singapore Night Safari will up the spooky factor for you. They have hired actors and actresses, dressed up as ghostly characters standing by the tram rail. They also turned a section of the popular attraction into a 'haunted' forest.

Their special Halloween program, the Singapore version, does not go well with all.

A reader wrote to the Straits Times saying that it is not a good idea to have a program with 'bloody ghosts to scare the daylights out of visitors, adults and even children'. She prefers the 'fun' version with costume parties and trick-or-treats. She was also concerned that the animals would have to put up with all the screaming. Rather thoughtful.

She thinks that such a program is more suited for the Hungry Ghosts Festivals (中元节) only to be rebutted by another reader. The rebutter feels that the traditional Chinese festival is not about scaring people.

Well, just another case of cultural perception difference in this multi-racial and multi-cultural island state.

I do not think that the Night Safari is paying much attention to the significance of Halloween or whether the designed program is better suited for the Ghost Festival. I am sure they put in nothing more than commercial consideration.

In their response, the Night Safari assured that the 'Halloween Horrors' is an optional program out of the view of those who prefer to stick the safer 'Trick or Treats'. They also assured that the 'horrors' will take place away from where the animals reside. How thoughtful again.

Whether it is your cup of tea or not, ghostly stuff do have some commercial appeal to businesses. How do you explain the long queue for ghost trains in theme parks and the Chamber of Horrors in the wax museum?

Singapore is not well known for its film industry but has put in similar attempts in making ghostly movies like 'The Maid'. Like it or not, there are many horror movie fans out there.

The promoter of the latest horror movie, 'The Coffin' was not apologetic with their promotional stunt in getting participants to lie in a mock coffin.

A group of fearless people formed a long queue in the basement of Orchard Cineleisure 2 weeks ago. A pair of movie tickets to the gala premiere would be theirs if they were game enough to lie in the mock coffin for at least 3 seconds. Whether it is for added comfort or to ward off bad luck, all participants were given red packets.

The movie is timed to be launched on, well, Halloween day, of course.

If movies and haunted jungle sound stale to you, try dressing up ghoulishly and you might get a free entry to Zouk's Halloween party. It will be a perfect way to enjoy the latest dance hits in a ghostly ambiance.

I have very poor appetite for horror stuff and I have no plan whatsoever to watch 'The Coffin' or to be spooked at the Night Safari. To all the horror fans, such hair-raising activities are meant for you.

Happy Halloween and happy screaming.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

I Can See You From The Sky!

I drive and I am good at getting lost on the roads.

Maps are made for many purposes. One of them must be to guide lost sheep like me. With a Street Directory in hand, I usually survive.

A map is a 2D representation of the features of an area of the earth. Traditionally, maps are hand drawn by cartographers, or mapmakers. Spatial information were meticulously documented, balancing accuracy, aesthetics and readability.

Ancient maps were illustrative using more pictorial representation than words. Long before we have had written words, maps were already in use. The first known map is believed to be more than 10,000 years old. Singapore maps do not date back so far but it is interesting to imagine the earlier days from the illustration on these maps.

With the advent of modern surveying technology, maps became more accurate over time. Maps were never interactive until computers came along. Now, maps are digitized.

Google maps is a free web mapping service application and its related product, Google Earth allows satellite views. This brings us to a new era of map reading which potentially promises real time information.

Google Earth provide satellite imagery of varying resolution. At its best, we can only see the top of buildings leaving out other details. Certain images are also partially covered with clouds.

Privacy concerns are obvious. Some have expressed that they do not wish to have their properties shown. Google Earth explained, "The images that Google Maps displays are no different from what can be seen by anyone who flies over or drives by a specific geographic location."

I disagree. Google Earth has made 'flying over' my house a whole lot easier now. Caution, someone may be catching the view of you sunbathing on the roof deck.

To give another dimension to map viewing, Google Maps added 'Google Street View' last year. It allows a panoramic 360°view at street level. At the moment, images can be seen in selected cities in 5 countries (USA, France, Italy, Australia and Japan).

Earlier this month, Google Maps was jetting around Singapore streets with cameras mounted on their vehicle. They were here taking pictures of landmarks, stores and hotels to be added onto 'Google Street View'. When the project is completed in a few months' time, Singapore will be the next country being featured on 'Street View'.

If you find reading 2D maps confusing, the new way for navigating is perfect for you. It will offer you a real, 3D, ground perspective of how to get to places. The next time you read maps, it will be a 'as if you're there experience.'

Now, with GPS built in digital maps, no one should get lost anymore. If you are still troubled by the fact that 'women can't read maps', your concern will soon be over.

Experience your panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge‎ here.

"I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be."
- Douglas Adams (1952 -2001) English Author

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What Did You Say?

I use 3 languages: English, Chinese and Malay.

It may sound a little over as Singaporeans are mostly bilingual. However, if we consider the number of languages in the world, what I know is puny.

There are about 7000 languages currently spoken around the world. Over 60% of the 6.5 billion world population speaks 30 most spoken languages. That leaves the other languages with only a small number of speakers. 516 of these languages are classified as nearly extinct, as only a few elderly speakers are still living. Every 2 weeks, one of these languages dies. By 2100, more than half of these languages will likely to disappear for good.

It is generally agreed that Chinese is the most spoken language in the world (more than 1 Bil) and that is followed by Spanish and English (more than 300 mil each).

Ain't I glad that I do have some basic command of the world's most widely spoken language?

Many concede that Chinese is not an easy language to handle. Learning Chinese writing in particular, can be agonizing and mind-boggling.

Chinese writing was invented more than 4000 years ago and the modern writing has evolved from the earliest form of 'Oracle Bone Script' (甲骨文) (jiăgŭwén). For centuries, Chinese writing did not undergo any alphabetization and it remains in the form of logograms.

Logograms are visual symbols representing words. Compared to alphabetic written words (eg. English), it is harder to guess the sound of the words. Whereas, it is easier to guess the meaning of logograms. The ancient Egyptian writing is another example of logogram.

There are more than 40,000 Chinese characters. For basic literacy, you need to know at least 3000 characters. There is almost no shortcut to learning each and every character. Many of these characters are only differentiated with a mere dot or stroke.

A Chinese word is a combination of 2 or more characters with each character representing one syllable. Knowing the meanings of the individual characters in a word helps to infer the general meaning of the word. Sometimes, such inferences may instead, lead to absurdities.

The order of the characters that make up the word is also crucial. Confused learners who mistakenly jumble up the sequence may find themselves paying a price of miscommunication.

Honey is 蜂蜜 (feng mi). However, if you ask for 蜜蜂 (mi feng) instead, you may earn yourself some nasty stings as it means 'bee'.

Chinese character tattoos are very popular today. The characters are beautiful and are considered an exotic form of expression by many. However, another common mistake is having the wrong character tattooed due to the lack of understanding of the tattoo artists.

Choosing the wrong expression can be embarrassing. Other more common mistakes are tattooing characters with missing strokes or inking it backward. It can get messy to undo such mistakes.

Chinese characters evolved over the past thousands of years. In 1949, China officially adopted the simplified Chinese script in an effort to eradicate illiteracy. Today, this set of characters is also used in Singapore.

Simplified no doubt, it has not make Chinese writing easy, at least, to me.

In a passage, the Chinese characters can be written horizontally either from left to right or from right to left. It is also acceptable to write vertically top down, starting from the right to the left. This flexibility in itself poses some difficulties. Reading a passage in a wrong direction will certainly make the content sound quizzical.

Chinese was officially romanized in 1979. Since then, the 'Hanyu Pinyin' system has been used to teach Chinese to school children and non-native speakers. It is also used to spell Chinese names in foreign publications and to enter Chinese characters on computers.

I was exposed to the Chinese language since young. After decades, I still find it difficult to grip a good command of the basic. I can choose to push myself towards and beyond the basic proficiency. Alternatively, I can choose to banish it and lose the ability to communicate with more than 1 Bil people in the world.

The choice seems obvious.

"The world is of the opinion that those who know Chinese characters are wise and worthy, whereas those who do not know characters are simple and stupid."
- Zheng Qiao, 郑樵 (1104-1162)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Tune Of Freedom

I listen to songs on my MP3 player and many others are like me.

It wasn't too long ago when I had to listen to music only on Compact Discs (CD). Even though CD is still very much alive, the way music is being distributed is changing at a very fast pace.

The music industry is largely dominated by a few record labels. They make their money by signing up artists and selling their music via controlled distribution. In the past, music was stored in vinyl records. Then in 1980s, audio cassettes became popular. Now, we see mainly CDs.

Although the 'containers' have changed, the record labels continue to take control over music distribution. They decide on how and when the music should reach the fans.

But that is about to change.

Increasingly, music is being purchased via the Internet. If this goes on full swing, it certainly will spell death for the records labels.

For years, major record labels have been taking the stand that it is illegal to copy songs from CD to portable device. During the past few years, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) have tried valiantly to halt the unauthorized distribution or use of digital music. They are against individuals engaged in nonpermissive downloading of copyrighted MP3 files from the Internet. They are also against the makers of MP3 players.

They took makers of 'The Rio', an MP3 player, to court. They argued that the makers, Rio Diamond, engaged in "contributory copyright infringement" as they sell a device whose principal use was to engage in copyright infringement.

Good news. The tiny Rio Diamond Multimedia, fought and won the case. Now no one can doubt if it is legal for Apple and Creative to make their own music players such as the iPod and the Zen. Thanks partly to that decision, iTunes is now the largest music retailer in the world.

Record companies now have less control over the sale of music over the Internet. Gone were the days I have to spend $20 to get a CD just because of 2 songs i like. The artists are also freed from the middle men and they can choose to release their music directly over the Web. They no longer need to rely on record labels in order to get to their fans.

Madonna abandoned the large record label Warner Music Corp after 24 years. She said that "The paradigm in the music business has shifted and as an artist and a business woman, I have to move with that shift." She explained "For the first time in my career, the way that my music can reach my fans is unlimited."

The death of the record labels means that artists and consumers can now deal with each other directly and on their own terms.

Last year, the rock star, Prince, gave away 2.8 million copies of his newest album Planet Earth by including a free CD with the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday. Understandably, that has brought much criticism from UK record stores.

This is a critical turning point. The era of music being distributed in 'containers' might be over soon. We are now moving into a new era of 'music on demand'. Pay for what you need and what you use, directly from your favorite artists.

Goodbye, middlemen!

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Get Booted Up - Not Booted Out

I blog regularly on random topics.

Usually, I do not have much difficulties coughing out a short article. However, there are times when my brain seems to have frozen and I would be staring at anything and hoping that my mind would boot up. The feeling is not nice.

I wish I could push a button on my head just to get my brain stimulated. Something like a 'restart' key.

For a long time, scientists have been studying various stimuli on living things. They believe that the right stimuli can enhance the functionality of human, animals as well as plants.

Some mothers believe in pre-natal stimulation. It involves lots of talking to the fetus through the Mother's tummy, playing classical music (preferably Mozart) and generally establishing communication with the baby before it is born.

A farmer in UK claimed that playing soothing music to his cows was the secret to winning the World Cheese Awards. He reckoned that the tunes calmed the cows during milking in the parlour.

Researchers agreed as they found out that each cow produced 3% more milk a day when slow music (rather than fast music) was played. They have evidence that calming music reduces stress in animals, as well as people.

It is believed that the Kobe cows, which produce the world's most expensive beef, have music as part of their routine ritual.

Even plants need to be stimulated. People with green fingers believe that talking to plants can help them grow better. That sounds rather lunatic to me but I shall resist my temptation to doubt.

Stranger still, it was reported last week that plants can talk! Err ... actually, they meant that plants can blog!

A 40-cm 'sweetheart plant' named Midori-san, which means 'Green' in Japanese, blogs everyday. It does so with the help of a sophisticated botanical interface system which read the weak bioelectric current flowing across the surface of the leaves. The signal is fed into a computer which then translates it into a human language, in this case, Japanese.

On Oct 16, Midori-san's blog read "Today was a sunny day and I was able to sunbathe a lot… I had quite a bit of fun today."

If you can read Japanese, find out other blog entries by 'Green' on its
blog. I assume that 'Green' will not start blogging on office gossips.

Well, even plants can blog everyday, what about me?

I experience writer's block sometimes. The silence from the head can be so deafening that I stop listening to new ideas. The problem is compounding.

I need to feed my brain to stimulate it. I realized that I have to learn to see things differently. This means occasional change of habits, doing something new such as taking a new route or listen to a new radio station.

UCLA scientists have found that "Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function" and searching the Web can stimulate the brain more than other activities such as reading a book.

Traditionally, brain stimulating activities include games such as crossword puzzles, but with the advent of technology, scientists are beginning to assess the influence of computer use, including the Internet.

I cannot agree more.

I have heard comments that Web searching is a waste of time. It is like strolling in the Amazon jungle or swimming in the Pacific Ocean aimlessly. Well, in the first place, you should not even embark on your Web journey if you do not have an aim.

Surely you must have so many unanswered questions everyday. Just pick one and start cruising the Web. After 20-30 minutes, your question may not be fully answered but no one walks out of the Web feeling less informed.

I have an obese cat at home. I am familiar with the sight of 'having nothing better to do'. The thought of being reduced to 'a lump of breathing fur' is frightening. I do not want to be looking like that. I assume it is the same for you too?

It's time to feed my brain! 

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Eye Witness In the Train

What do you observe during your daily trips on the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT)?

In the morning, you probably struggle to crank up your sleepy body. In the evening, you probably feel beat and you just want to go home. But that does not mean that you are totally oblivious to some of the common behaviors in the MRT.

Some of these behaviors never existed until we started to have the MRT in 1987.

As far back as 1967, Singapore city planners have envisioned that this little city state would need a rail-based transport system. After years of debate, construction started in 1983 at Shan Road and the rest was history.

Every month, more than 40 million trips are made on the MRT. Occasionally, I contribute to some of these trips. I am often either amused or disturbed by some of the quirky behaviors sighted during my rides.

Here are 10 of the more common scenes I have come to notice. Check it out: Are you ever guilty of playing the main cast in some of these scenes? If you earn a high score out of 10, go and meditate over the meaning of 'gracious'. :o(

Scene 1: I Come, I Rush and I Dash

You arrive at the platform and there are already many other commuters waiting for the next train. You squeeze through the crowd so that you will be among the first to board. You step over and ignore the yellow lines on the floor. When the train arrives, you ram into the stream of out-coming crowd. Sometimes they curse at you and sometimes, you return with the same.

Scene 2: What Are You Reading?
You are bored and you start to scan around the coach. The commuter seated next to you is reading his morning papers. At the corner of your eyes, you discreetly share his papers and gleefully update yourself with the day's headlines. When he turns his page prematurely, you give up your half-read article reluctantly and silently blame your benefactor.

Scene 3: What Do You Mean You Can Hear Me?
You board the train with your MP3 in your hand. Your favorite tune pumps forcefully into your ears with enhanced bass. The beats are so great and it takes away your blues. Occasionally, other commuters turn to you and give you dirty looks. They seem annoyed while your music generously oozes out from the edge of your earphone. Totally drown in your own world, you shut your eyes and are too absorbed to care.

Scene 4: Why Can't I Sit Here?
The train is crowded. You count yourself lucky getting a seat next to the train door. The other 'not so lucky' commuters are standing around you. They alternate their glares between you and the sign above you. The sign reads, "Please offer this seat to someone who needs it more than you do." However, you decide to plea 'temporary illiteracy' and you ignore those disgusted looks.

Scene 5: What's Wrong With PDA?
You are with your girlfriend (or boyfriend) and all you can see is the sweetest face on earth. You have so much to share with her. You talk, you laugh and you smooch. The train is not empty but you can only see her. Your Public Display of Affection (PDA) is within full view of everyone around you but you feel nothing. Meanwhile, some little fellow commuters are gawking at what might seem like a rated movie. However, you decide that the show should continue without any censorship.

Scene 6: Me? The Human Pendulum?
After 20 minutes into a long ride, you gradually drift into a comatose state. The images around you begin to turn blur and you cannot quite remember what you see next. You oscillate between the commuters seated on your left and right, much to the amusement of those watching you. They swear that they can even see you drool. (Note: The above gadget might solve your problem.)

Scene 7: Why Would I Need A Leash?
You are traveling with a free rider because he is below the height of 0.9m. Everything is fine except that your little companion is too excited about the free ride. He creatively transforms the coach into a temporary playground, hanging himself on 'monkey bars' and swirling around the metal poles. You cannot understand why he is
so adrenaline-filled. You also cannot understand why the other commuters are staring at you as if begging, "Would you please leash that little being of yours??" At your designated stop, you stroll out of the coach and the unleashed free rider dashes out of his playground.

Scene 8: Pole-Dancing? Did I?

The train ride is generally smooth but with some occasional 'turbulence'. You appreciate the metal pole next to you as it helps you to fight against the centrifugal force. You get carried away. You begin to run your fingers up and down the pole. You lean your body on it and gently twirl yourself around it. Meanwhile, the other commuters stand wobbly as they are deprived of the much-needed support. You are oblivious while others grit their teeth and give you a 2/10 rating for your amateurish pole dancing.

Scene 9: Hey! Good Looking!
You spotted this gorgeous belle (or hunk). You decide that it is such a pleasure just to ogle at her. You know it is nothing flirtatious but you allow your eyes to indulge. She comes to notice your inappropriate stare and returns you with her dirty look. You sheepishly look away.

Scene 10: What's That Cool Stuff You Are Holding?
You are attracted to this guy (or gal) or rather, the sleek and shiny gadget he is holding. You become curious. You observe what he does with his geek stuff. You quietly wish that you too have the same toy. You inch yourself closer to get a better view only to groan when he pushes his toy back into his pocket.

The above scenes look mild if I compare with the depressing behavior of track jumpers. Every year, about 30 perpetrators intentionally or accidentally land themselves on the tracks. Some never get back onto the platform alive. All the cases took place on the above-ground portions of the train line.

Although long overdue, it is good to learn that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will be installing 1.5m half-height platform screen doors at 3 above-ground MRT stations (Pasir Ris, Jurong East and Yishun) by the end of next year. The other 33 above-ground stations will get the same by 2012.

Hopefully with the gates in place, no one will stray onto the tracks and cause thousands of other commuters to be stranded by stalled train services.

The next time you are on board a train, stay observant. Watch the behaviors of others and those of yours too!

Next stop: Gracious Station.

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