Fireside Chats

What do you think about fireplaces and firewood?

To a tropical ole Singaporean like me, fireplaces instinctively bring to mind Christmas and socks, and wondering how the socks can be hung over fireplaces without catching fire, or getting soot and ash all over them, and whether people continue to wear them after that. However, I’ve never thought about the idea of firewood to be a way of life, something one thinks and fusses about daily. Sometimes we just don’t understand how certain things can be an obsession to a whole community of people, much like this.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/world/europe/in-norway-tv-program-on-firewood-elicits-passions.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Really? Watching some wood burn on television for hours? Writing in to suggest where the wood should be placed next? This sounds more like an app to lull people to sleep, or some kind of Tetris game. But it’s a culture of a far-off country where winters can be very cold and burning wood for warmth is an important survival resource. What with the invention of electric fires and radiators, it can be hard to imagine that anyone can still place such heavy reliance on axes (isn’t logging illegal for environmental concerns in this era?) and it can seem like a backward practice in a backward place. Or at least, that is what it seems to me.

But I suppose this is where the fascination lies. Norway isn’t an especially backward place — it is one of the most comfortable countries to live in according to many surveys — and it is precisely because in many ways it is similar to our perception of a typical developed country that this stubbornness towards tradition is appealing. It’s not just forest tribes who cling onto the old ways of doing things, but surprises can pop up even in societies so similar to ours. This is what makes the study of different countries much less bland and much more colourful.

Many countries like Singapore aim to be more like the United States. They want to be modern, fast-paced, successful, rich, well-known, bustling, happening. It becomes taken for granted that naturally everyone else wants to aspire towards that too. But is that really the only pace of life we can and should adopt? Many people want to move to places like Australia or New Zealand when they retire. It’s a lot more peaceful there, they say, and slower, and they’ve the liberty to do as they wish. Is it strange then that in their homelands it’s not peaceful, too fast for them and they’re restricted in what they can do? Why can’t people live as they wish in their own home countries, and be friendly and nurturing to each other? Why can’t people watch a show about firewood burning to de-stress, instead of being faced with incessant commercials and violent shows?

Most people think cities are over-urbanised, stressful, fast-paced, full of pollution, congested. But most of them also agree that they wouldn’t want to move to a more rural area, because they need their handphones and their computers and their convenience. Is it possible to ever have a city that combines the best of both aspects, I wonder?

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Musical Breakthroughs

I’m not sure if this is a common experience or it’s just me, but I get very conflicted when I listen to a new song by my favourite artiste. If the song sounds nothing like the artiste’s usual style (like UVERworld’s Reversi), I think that the song sounds terrible and the artiste has lost his old endearing charm. If the song sounds just like the artiste’s usual style (like Flow’s Bureiburu), I will think that the artiste has run out of song ideas and is repeating the same old formula.

It’s a tough life to be an artiste, but I think this conundrum applies to all creative industries. How does one make a breakthrough and create something different, but not let it lose the flavour that fans love? And fans adore such different aspects of the same product.

One solution, I suppose, would be to churn out a whole lot of songs of all different kinds, and surely some of them will be liked by all kinds of people. A hit-and-miss solution isn’t a bad idea at all (especially to someone as quantity-minded as I am) but it does run the risk of losing the artiste’s personal voice. Just what is the artiste trying to do if he does everything? And of course, the most glaring flaw to this solution is the amount of effort and money one must devote to make so many more songs than you normally would.

What I would like my idols to do is to alternate. Have a theme in each album or set of singles, where some themes would be closer to their original style and other themes would branch out into experimental territory. I think this would make it easier to market too. And fans know what to expect. They know at least that the current theme will only last this long and that their favourite ballads will come next, or something like that. But maybe they intentionally want to keep it suspenseful, so that fans never know what to expect and end up buying every single.

For most songs, the single unifying theme is really the voice. Most of my favourite artistes have distinctive voices, and it is this touch of familiarity that reassures me across different genres. I’m not well-versed in instruments, and I can’t tell the difference between one band and another. I wonder if an entire band can be replaceable as long as they keep the vocalist? The only time players in a band, aside from the vocalist, can shine their own unique ways is in a music video, and even in music videos the vocalist takes majority of screen time. I can see why most agencies would spend more money on making the vocalist look good.

Music is a curious thing. We tend to like music that we’ve heard before, so when it comes to musical breakthroughs, my suggestion is to make a song that sounds a bit like the usual successful things you’ve done, and best of all, also sounds like successful music out in the market in general. And then bump it up with tons of advertising. People can’t really accuse you of copying musical scores if you take only the flavour of the song and not the entire chorus.

Yes, take this advice from a non-musician.

Goshujin-samaaaa~

~~~ *** Welcome to the sparkly sparkly pink bubble world of the Exalted Salvation Maid Cafe! We’re so overjoyed that you’ve decided to return home! *** ~~~

If you take a seat, you’ll quickly have a waitress dressed in a French maid costume serving you with a menu, asking you politely what you want to eat. Within the menu are sweet desserts and drinks, with some typical Western main courses like spaghetti bolognese. The food will be ready in about ten minutes (because most of them are readymades and just involve putting into the oven or taking out from the refrigerator anyway). If you look rich or are a solitary guy, a maid may sit down and talk to you about your interests, feigning interest and knowledge. In the end you won’t be able to resist taking a photograph with one or a group of maids, costing you another $5 aside from the already overpriced food. But the service is indeed one of a kind and definitely worth the payment!

Unless, of course, you’re outside Japan. I was supposed to go to a maid cafe yesterday but didn’t, and I really didn’t hold high expectations of the ladies’ appearance anyway. Somehow non-Japanese maids simply don’t capture the maid effect that we want. I’ve been to a maid cafe in Anime Fest Asia and I really didn’t want to go there again. Some of the girls obviously did not even know Japanese and their voices and gestures weren’t cute enough. One must act the part.

Is it something about the Japanese and their ability to act much better than Singaporeans? It’s true that the Japanese cute culture is very defined and developed, and they appreciate cuteness in everything, not just in girls. Figurines are especially cute over there, they’ve got the cutest little boxes to store things in. And of course not to mention that in the modern day era, 80% of  pop songs sung by females have to be so high-pitched they sound like a 5-year-old sang them. So cuteness is natural to them, an innate reflex honed in girls from young.

Another reason, I think, is that the Japanese are a bit on the extremist side when it comes to passion. Cosplay only became a thing when hordes of Japanese anime fans decided to try to imagine what it was like to be an anime character, and did so well in their roles. Many Japanese TV shows I’ve seen involve people believing themselves to be some divine god and being able to kill all who stand in their path (try working that storyline into American high schools and see what people think of you). The fact that hikikomoris and otakus exist goes to show how far fantasy has penetrated the lives of Japanese society, that they can be so engrossed in their own world that they shut out the reality around them. Maid cafes are an embodiment of this fantasy, letting customers think that they’re wealthy masters with French maids dying to do their bidding.

Did that sound like it had sexual undertones to you? Japan has plenty of that too. In a country where sexual harassment and discrimination at work is still legal and common (and yet ironically Tokyo is supposed to be one of the most technologically advanced cities too), one does not regard a lady without thinking of some kind of sexual fetish. In fact, when I was holidaying in Taiwan, I heard from the tour guide that the prostitutes there hated Japanese clients the most. The Japanese made them do all manner of strange actions, but they did pay well. That must be conceded. The more innocent a lady looked, the more exploitable she was in the minds of lecherous men. And this is why maid cafes are such a hit. No matter how you think about it, the purpose of maid cafes is to proliferate the sexual superiority of males.

But I do long to visit a good proper maid cafe, or even a ninja cafe that I heard existed in Tokyo. Someday when I visit Akihabara again, I shall geek out at all the fun places.

All In!

And I mean the All In! Young Writers Media Festival that spanned 2 days from Saturday to Sunday last week. I only went for the Saturday set as a volunteer, which of course meant I was forced to miss out on the earlier talks when people were still streaming in for registration and I was needed to give out goodie bags. However, I did go to the later panel discussions and there’re some thoughts  I gleaned from it that I can share with budding authors out here.

Another disadvantage with being a volunteer is that I couldn’t choose which panel discussion I wanted to go to — if I was assigned to a room I remained in that room the whole time. But on the flip side, admission is free! It would’ve cost some money if I went as a visitor, so I think being able to remain in that event the entire day without paying is a great incentive. And if you’re lucky they might assign you 2 morning shifts (which I had initially before I asked to switch to 1 full day instead) and this means after your shift you get to act as a visitor for the remainder of the day for free. Now that is value for money.

The first panel discussion I listened to was about Writing For the Internet — Blogs and Online Publications. Aha! Just the right fit for me. What I got away from it was that mainly commitment and thick skin are needed to build a blog following. Commitment in writing in your blog often and regularly — one of the bloggers, Wyelin Chiu, wrote in her blog once every 12 hours! — and thick skin because the best way to build a following is to comment on other related blogs. If you’re a book blogger, find other prominent book blogs and follow them! Read their entries and comment on them, or go on forums that discuss the issues of your blog’s interest and be an active member on there. Once people know you and recognise that you’re sincerely passionate about your craft, they’ll check out your blog too.

Now of course the question is, what if you’re Exalted Salvation and your blog is on a wide variety of subjects? Well they’ve assured us that it is possible to be popular too. There has been bloggers who wrote about life and everything under the sun and still gained a following due to their personality and insights.

The next session was on How To Break Into The Screenwriting Industry. It seems that it’s an absolute no-no to send your full script to a potential producer because there’s a 100% chance that they won’t read it. It’s best to just explain in summary what the story is about. Also, it’s also wrong to write a script for a producer free of charge unless it is a spec script, and by that I mean speculative screenplay. A spec script is by definition non-commissioned and unsolicited. It is written by a screenwriter who hopes to have the script optioned and eventually purchased by a producer, production company or studio. Other than that, under no circumstances should you write a script for free. The company is most likely trying to cut costs and it is not a businesslike method to go about it.

Last of all I sat in on Feature Writing — News and Magazine. And really, working in the media is all about people relations. You’ve got to love meeting people, new people, news-worthy people. To score an internship or job with the media, it’s best to have connections. Knowing English is good but not as important as knowing how to talk to people, as your editor will willingly help you with your grammar but your editor can’t be going out searching for news for you. If you know things like dialect, or how to get people to talk to you, this is a priceless talent and you should consider feature writing as a vocation.

So that’s it for a brief lowdown on what to expect from these 3 writing genres! If you’re young and keen to make money out of your passion, this is a good place to start gathering more knowledge on the respective fields. If you already know what I’ve talked about, I assure you that listening to great local authors like Suchen Christine Lim, Dave Chua and Jason Erik Lundberg will definitely get you motivated to pick up that pen, if nothing else.

A Medical Advert

While I’d love to once in a while entertain myself by daydreaming of the day companies will come to me to blog for them, I must confess that this is not the case and I haven’t accepted any cash to write reviews of products yet. That said, however, I do actively recommend watching this video linked below for medicinal reasons. Most of us will find the product very useful indeed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CU52YAgFxX0

Now I hope you guys have watched a substantial length of the video before proceeding. If you haven’t, please go back to watch it further before reading on.

So, yup, now that you know the truth about the whole matter, what do you think of the placebo effect? Does it really work the way the video depicted? If the placebo effect really trumps conventional medication, why do we even need medication? What kinds of ailments can be treated with placebos and what can’t? After all, things like cancer can be really fatal if it goes untreated for long. Surely such diseases are no laughing matter and we can’t rely on the folly of the human mind to “get over” them.

Also, if it’s been proven that placebos can heal people, then how do we justify paying huge amounts of money for genuine medicine? And how can we be sure that the medicines we’re buying with all this money aren’t a placebo? The thing about placebos is that deception is an integral part of it, making the question of ethics very pertinent. Would you rather be deceived and get well, or be told the truth and render the medicine ineffective?

So maybe releasing placebos into the pharmaceutical world is a really bad idea. And yet on the other hand, if placebos really work, it’s similarly just as unethical to charge people money to buy expensive genuine medicines when cheap placebos are proven to work just as well. There are poor people all over the world with no access to quality healthcare. If placebos can work on them, then is it just as bad to deprive them of this hope? And yet if we do use placebos on the poor, everyone will know — including the poor themselves — that those are placebos because they’re so cheap, and then the placebos won’t work anymore. So it seems that the poor are doomed to never be cured by any means.

I like how I’m making increasingly absurd arguments, but they do make quite a bit of sense to me — granted that of course I’m not very analytical and can’t counter-analyse every argument, especially my own, and most of the time such nonsensical-sounding arguments can be quite easily disputed by somebody who knows what he’s talking about. But the idea of dishonesty being beneficial and even necessary is an interesting and counter-intuitive one, and don’t forget to watch Episode 2 of the same series, where apparently he causes a religious experience in an atheist scientist.

But of course most people suspect that the videos were filmed with hired actors and the whole thing was a double delusion — deception on-screen and off-screen, you know. That’s a very unexciting theory and I prefer not to believe that because it makes my life a lot less colourful. Conscious self-deception. I believe this is a very important ingredient to placebos too.

We Are Unbelievably High-Tech

You know, when you watch science fiction movies or read such books, you would think to yourself, yeah, these are great inventions. Who knows, we might have them in the future, twenty or thirty years from now. Always twenty and thirty years. Always an arbitrarily distant future. But really, who would have thought that in our modern times, we’re already attaining feats of technology not even dreamed about in some fictional material.

Take a look at this.

http://singularityhub.com/2013/01/26/better-than-the-borg-the-neurotech-era/

Doesn’t sound convincing enough? Try this.

http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/onepercent/2013/01/light-emitting-fingernail-disp.html

The idea that fingernails can reflect your screen underneath is unthinkable and somehow an even wackier idea than the one of projecting thoughts onto machines. Projecting thoughts has been covered in sci-fi material, I’m sure, but fingernails? I believe not so much.

Sometimes I marvel at the ingenuity of the computer scientists to create such things, but sometimes I also simply respect the fellow who had the creativity to think it up in the first place. Thinking of how to make something from technology that you have available is one thing, but it requires stepping out of invisible boundaries to let your mind loose and fantasise wildly. To just sit back in a chair and think, “what do I want to do?”

And the after the creativity comes the invaluable team of geniuses who turn your dream into reality. It’s like a game I played back in primary school, where we form groups of 3 people. 1 person acts as the visionary, 1 is the architect and the other is the builder. The visionary was supposed to look at an abstract picture, and then pass on this information to the architect. The architect will then direct to the builder what he is supposed to draw, in order to try to replicate what the visionary saw. It’s like charades in a way, and that’s also the concept behind such technology expertise. A visionary passes on as much of his abstract dream as he can to his architects, who work out from the abstraction how to convert it to reality, and then instruct their builders to do the actual making. Sure, the end result may not be anything like what the visionary originally intended, but the process is complete. Something fantastic has still been built as a result of the visionary’s initiative.

Some people like to draw a divide between the sciences and the arts. Science deals with the concrete, they say. Concrete, observable, tangible phenomena. The arts are abstract. They study thought, human behaviour, results of human actions, all those mumbo jumbo one doesn’t directly see. But where does computing fit into this spectrum then? I would say that computer programming is even more abstract than the arts. Computers never existed in nature. Everything, from the coding to the display you see, were created by humans. Look at the neurotechnology article. The brain is there, it has always been there, as an object of study. But to make the machines that probe the brain and interpret brain scans is all up to a programmer’s imagination. The manipulation of bits and bytes, 0’s and 1’s, that can somehow capture brain activity requires the highest level of abstraction I can think of. Computing really is seeing the world differently, and reconciling the natural world with the virtual world. And to study a virtual world created by the desires of humans is, I would say, very much a social science.

The World of the Nonya

Back when I was in secondary school, I often told people that my grandparents were born in Singapore. I’m a third-generation Singaporean, meaning my greatgrandparents came from China and made their families here. For most people, however, their grandparents were from China and their parents were the first generation of Singaporean locals. So when they hear of my curious ancestry, they love to ask whether I am Peranakan.

Ever since the wildly popular Chinese TV show The Little Nonya (which I didn’t really find all that great, because they stopped talking about Peranakan culture and started concentrating a lot on the drama and tensions which were really gut-wrenching), Peranakan culture started becoming fashionable in Singapore. Peranakans don’t just exist in Singapore — they are in fact more common in Malaysia and Indonesia — but due to us being the first to create a great show about Peranakans, they have come to belong to our cultural heritage. So what are Peranakans?

They are basically the descendants of late 15th to 16th century Chinese immigrants to our parts. Most of the Chinese around here are descended from immigrants of the 18th or 19th century, so Peranakans are basically the ones who have flourished here for a longer period of time. Due to inter-marriages with the local Malays, they have devised a whole new mixed culture of their own, with their own unique clothing and food. I won’t provide photographs, but it’s interesting to note that their clothing really does reflect a fusion of Chinese and Malay design elements. Quite a harmonious blend it is too!

Oh but in nonya, the best part is its food. Nonya kueh-kueh, which are basically snacks of all kinds. I love the ondeh-ondeh, a green ball coated with coconut flakes, and when you bite into it it spurts out gula melaka, also known as palm sugar. So eat it like you eat the soup dumplings in China — put the entire thing in your mouth before you start biting! Another nonya kueh I like is one whose name I always forget. It is green as well, from the pandan, and it forms a long rolled-up shape with coconut flakes in it. Just like popiah, except it’s green and has coconut within. If you don’t know what popiah is, well, look it up! Or come down to Singapore and eat everything I’ve just mentioned.

Most of the time, it’s really difficult to tell at a glance who is Peranakan and who isn’t. Most of them look just like every Chinese, but a number of them do not know how to speak Mandarin very well, especially if they take Malay in school instead.

Of course, the Peranakans don’t just know how to make kueh. Nonya laksa is apparently a favourite among Singaporeans too, but the kueh remain the most distinctive creations, because no other culture makes anything like they do. Bengawan Solo, now a large-chain confectionery, started off making nonya kueh. Some of us think that the Bengawan Solo cakes aren’t as good as the kueh.

I bet what you didn’t know is that our current president, Tony Tan, and our Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, are both Baba (the name for male Peranakans). In fact, most of our top politicians are famous Peranakans. I certainly wonder why.

Outside The Stage

The life of a performer may be all glitz and glamour on the stage, but sometimes they can be the most poorly abused people in any occupation. I’ve recently gotten quite interested in an article I found. There’re variants of what happened written in different newspapers, but this is the gist of it.

http://www.jpopasia.com/news/akb48s-minami-minegishi-demoted-to-trainee-shaves-head-as-punishment-for-scandal::12951.html

There is a lot that can be said from this piece of news. I’m writing a Sociology term paper about it, and I could go on about why there is such rampant gender inequality existing in Japan (you don’t see Alan Shirahama being demoted, do you?) and about the otaku sub-culture of middle-aged men who are fanatical about their devotion to pop idols like AKB48. You could talk about why Japanese entertainers have to be restricted in their personal lives. Hollywood would defend that the private lives of celebrities should be distinct from their public identities. But really, it’s not just Japan.

The worst types of entertainer abuse seem to come from Korea, and it’s far more than restricting their romantic lives or demotions. Trainees are worked to death practising dance techniques, learning to do splits, for hours and hours. It’s literally training work all day and then a bit of sleep at night before going again. They cannot leave because their companies make sure that they always remain in debt. This debt accumulates, naturally, once they’re famous. The company insists that they have to pay it back for all the clothing, training and publicity spent on them. It’s no shock to hear of Korean stars being overworked so much they’re ill and almost dying. When they go to perform in their hometown, they’re not allowed to go home to visit their families. No matter how much they earn from sold-out concerts, only a pittance goes to them, perhaps more miserable than a blue-collar worker. Their only perk is getting to wear skintight clothes and having insane fans chase them day in and day out. I’m not kidding about the latter point at all.

There’s a word in the Korean entertainment industry for rabid fans: sasaeng. Sasaeng fans are capable of all manner of stalker activity, such as hacking into Twitter accounts, breaking into dormitories and stealing stuff, attempting to kidnap, blocking the path of vehicles, stalking, slapping (just so he could remember her better) and sending their own menstrual pads, among others. There is little wonder that Korean entertainers are so often driven to suicide by stresses from their own companies and these unsupportive, uncaring fans. What is so great about having a public image, I wonder?

Anne Tyler wrote a book once where the female protagonist did sorta act impulsively and caught the attention of the male protagonist, who was the singer of an indie band. It’s called A Slipping-Down Life, and you can imagine it didn’t entirely end well. It isn’t my favourite book because I think her writing style was still very immature at the time, but it’s still worth a read.

I hope that the industry treats its celebs much better in the future, because at the rate this is going, the entertainment industry is just giving us all a clear sign of how degenerate our society has become.

Give Me An A, An M And A V!

What do you get? AMV!

So what’s AMV? It stands for Anime Music Video. People who have watched anime long enough, and hung around on YouTube long enough, would have seen a number of AMVs for all kinds of anime and all kinds of songs. AMVs are basically fan-made videos combining anime video footage, either from one or multiple anime, and usually a song. It can be a Japanese song or an English one, or one of any other language.

Now I originally intended to link a video of a good AMV for you. I saw one back about 2 years ago and it was so good it really impressed and enraptured me. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the link and can’t remember enough of the video to show it to you again. I tried searching on YouTube but none of the videos I saw even came close to that perfect one, and so I’ve decided to give nothing but the best, and if I cannot give you the best, I give you nothing.

But you’re free to look up AMVs on YouTube on your own. As with all artistic forms, the quality you find can vary drastically. The best ones can be staggering, though. Most comments go something like “you can’t tell it was made from bits and pieces; it looks so much like the original, a seamless whole”. And really, AMVs are to anime what fanfiction is to novels. Fans who love the original work hard at creating a product that can do it justice and show off all its glorious elements. Some AMVs are so good that I feel drawn to the anime after just watching them.

I used to think about making an AMV of my own, but never got around to it. I do, however, have a copy of Adobe Premiere Pro in my laptop, the tool for all video makers. If you guys happen to have Premiere Pro as well, the Adobe website has free tutorial videos (10 parts in total I believe) to guide you step by step in using the software. It isn’t any harder than Photoshop, really, once you get used to how it works.

There is a website out there that specialises in forging a community of AMV makers. It’s called animemusicvideos.org and if you register, you get to ask the pros for guidance, watch some good AMV products never released to the outside world, and take part in and win some video contests. Animemusicvideos.org, in fact, has something known as an annual Viewers Choice Award.

Making AMVs can require quite some skill too. Most importantly, you’ve got to choose scenes that fit with each other, and most of all fit with the beat of the song. It’s immediately obvious when AMVs are amateur, because motion graphics are working independently of the music. Only when there is harmony between the visual and the audio that an AMV is good. And videos are really getting increasingly essential in the business world. Marketing videos and corporate videos now look extremely flashy and professional to lure customers, clients and employees, and making an AMV gets you on the first step to learning video effects and other components of making a good video in general. This can make for a great portfolio piece if you ever think of working in media too!