27 May 2006

I like talking to taxi drivers

I like talking to taxi drivers.

Maybe it's because I am a taxi-driver's daughter, but I find taxi-drivers an interesting bunch, especially on night rides. (When the roads are clearer and they aren't cursing at whoever is cutting into your lane suddenly.) I am usually dead-beat when I get into a cab at night - either from work or from a night out - but I usually enjoy a good dose of conversation.

You can tell alot from cab conversations. Why, you may even be able to construct a cosumer sentiments index from cab conversations!

You learn that times are hard now. People who have worked in places like London and France are now taxi-drivers. I have excitedly exchanged reminiscence about Paris' charm and UK's shepherd pies with them before.

You learn that people are insecure about their jobs. Those working in the weekdays take on night shift driving, some on weekend nights only, but many on weekdays as well. (I am sometimes a bit concerned in such cabs 'cos they might be too tired and fall asleep at the wheel.)

You learn that the folks on the ground have come to their own conclusion that ERP = 'Every Road Pay', NTUC = 'Never Trust Union Compatriots' and NKF = 'Never Keep Funds'.*

You learn the latest upates of the election battles, who is fighting who and where the rallies are. (As a matter of fact, my daily news updates during the elections period came from cab drivers and colleagues around me. I had a big meeting in town that week and had no time to flip through the papers much.)

You learn why there was a shortage of cabs in the week immediately after the Progress Package was given out:

"Aiyah, everyone is shopping mah. Some cab drivers take a break to go shopping, those already shopping come out with big bags and all want cabs. Where got cabs for you?"

My latest one even tells me that he thinks that the latest S'pore Idol contestestants are planted:

"How can this guy possibly pronounce 'Long Long Ago' as 'Nong Nong Ago'? I mean 'L' is not a difficult sound for Chinese or Hokkiens what. Hokkien also got words like 'Ah-Long', how can it be difficult, you tell me? I think sure planted one. Just to add entertainment value.'

I enjoy my cab conversations so much that I am starting to think that it should be made mandatory for politicians to take cabs instead of being chauffeured around. (Assuming politicians are interested in knowing the pulse of society of course; one cannot be presumptuous in such things.) I definitely think cabs will give them a far superior sense of public sentiments than meet-the-people sessions or preccincts walkabouts. Maybe it is Asian mentality or something, but people tend to be very polite in such formalized settings. Worse, if you come by my house unannounced and ask me, "Any problem?", my reflex answer will of course be a polite answer of "no problem". By the time I come up with something I would like to raise to your attention, oops, you have moved on to the next house.

Cabs, on the other hand, are informal and annonymous environments. TPeople are reassured by the fact that their relationship end once they arrive at their destination. This thought sets people at ease and people share their opinions more easily. It is the same reason why Chinese emperors used to travel incognito and sit in teahouses, isn't it? Okay, the emperors might have been using it as an excuse to check out Jiangnan beauties, but certainly one of the reasons must have been to feel the pulse of society.

No individual's words should be taken as gospel truth or even representative, but public sentiments as gathered from cab conversations, is at least a piece of reality whose existence political leaders in tall towers need to know.

*For the benefit of non-S'porean readers, ERP is the Electronic Road Pricing System which charges tolls (some rather high ones!) for certain roads during peak hours. NTUC is the labour union in S'pore, but S'pore has a unique tripartite relationship among the government, union and companies. The term NTUC is hence more synonymous with supermarkets and insurance nowadays. NKF is the National Kidney Foundation, a charity organization for kidney dialysis patients which underwent a spate of scandal recently when its CEO allegedly abused the funds for personal favours and extravagances - such as gold-plated taps.

23 May 2006

No more poof-poof at camera phones

Geeky Jo was made very happy recently when her cousin decided to give her a 3G Sony Ericsson phone. She has been thinking about starting her phone life afresh by switching to non-Nokia phone (*gasp* for the first time), so this was very timely indeed. In cleaning out her old phone, she discovered snippets of her life last year, nicely captured on the spontaneous phone camera:

« Ms T and I passed by a fringe event for Arts Fest 2005. Voyeurism is sanctioned as you get to sit under a glass platform... Ooo.

» My first view of the Istana; I was there to emcee for a cocktail.

« An open-air guzheng concert in a temple. Wonderfully ethereal because the temple was located right in the midst of Mohd Sultan clubs.

» Harpist@Istana: The other instrument I want to learn...

« First time at Ministry of Sound - we waited almost 2 hours!

» The London vs Madrid vs Paris Olympic decision which took place just next to my office tower...

19 May 2006

There is no room for sentimentality in a small house

Over the weekend, I threw out a bunch of stuff to make room for more stuff I was planning on bringing back from the office. Concert ticket stubs. A whole box of saga seeds collected in my childhood. Chan brother travel bags. Figurines, cute nonetheless, but which I have nowhere to display.

I was even tempted to throw out two cushions which belonged to my late grandmother, but which has been sitting in a box, unseen and forgotten.

I came to the conclusion that there is no room for sentimentality in a small house - if one does not aspire to live in a storeroom.

For some time now, I have been using the following rule of thumb to deal with clutter: if Object X has not been recalled or used for the past Y years, it needs to be thrown out. Okay, at most take a picture - a digital one please - of it. (Incidentally, this rule of thumb about Object X and Y years also comes in very handy for cutting down wedding guest list.)

I always feel that one cannot, in the name of sentimentality, hold on to everything. How big a capacity for sentimentality can a person truly have? How many possible 'specials' can there be? In trying to give special meaning to many* objects, many people end up giving meaning to nothing at all. Besides, it is not the physicality of the object itself that is memorable; it is the raison d'etre behind its existence. To me, Object X has already served its purpose by making an impression of that reason for Y years.

For this reason, I am known to be merciless at spring cleaning. The other mistress of my house is the direct opposite. She agonizes over every single object. Half of what I throw out, she takes back in. It's like we are playing conveyor belt sushi.

Come spring-cleaning time, you will see two women at different extremes in the house: one eagerly trying to clean, organize and regain control in her life, and the other eagerly trying to avoid, dart, and procrastinate about dealing with the past.

Perhaps the two polarities stem from different comfort levels about the central assumption in the rule of thumb: this assumption is that of the infallability of memory, and to a certain extent, of technology as well. One woman believes in the infallability (or perhaps, accepts its limits) of memory and technology, while the other is convinced of their unreliability.

From a piece of fabric, to a photograph, to an intangible byte on the computer - I admit it can be a leap of faith.

So I decided to let the cushions be.

*Of course, the word "many" is subjective. This number varies from person to person, but in 99% of the situations, surely it must conform to:
No. of objects in the house > No. of possible special remembrances

11 May 2006

Eureka moment

2 hours ago, I decided that I was still quite alert and wanted to watch a movie. So I went through my DVD collection for films I haven't watched and decided on Love on the Run. It was a suitable pre-bedtime film because it didn't contain violence, was a suitable 90-minute length and was also a Criterion Collection.

One hour into Love on the Run, I was happily enjoying the sound of the French language and deciphering the intertwined relationships between the characters when I saw this:

Eureka 1
I thought, "The French must really like Balzac. Balzac was in 400 Blows as well."

Then the next frame came:

Eureka 2
Oh my god. This IS from 400 Blows!

So I paused my film and went on Flikster to check 400 Blows. Voila, it's the same director Francois Truffaut!

I think the moment felt so wow because just 48 hours ago, I was commenting precisely on that Balzac connection in 400 Blows:
Flikster commentAnd it felt all the more Eureka because I didn't expect the connection at all until that very frame. (I have never noticed who directed 400 Blows.)

Very nice Eureka moment there. This is my lucky movie weekend. I shall plan on watching more.

04 May 2006

It really does hurt to wait - the economics of dread

Would you prefer to wait for the chance of good news, or know bad news for certain? For some, including yours truly here, anticipation can be as bad as pain they know is coming.

Click here for the original CNN article.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Anyone who's ever taken a preschooler to the doctor knows they often cry more before the shot than afterward.

Now researchers using brain scans to unravel the biology of dread have an explanation: For some people, anticipating pain is truly as bad as experiencing it.

How bad? Among people who volunteered to receive electric shocks, almost a third opted for a stronger zap if they could just get it over with, instead of having to wait.

More importantly, the research found that how much attention the brain pays to expected pain determines whether someone is an "extreme dreader" -- suggesting that simple diversions could alleviate the misery.

The research, published in the journal Science, is part of a burgeoning new field called neuroeconomics that uses brain imaging to try to understand how people make choices. Until now, most of that work has focused on reward, the things people will do for positive outcomes.

"We were interested in the dark side of the equation," explained Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University, who led the new study.

"Dread often makes us make bad decisions."

Standard economic theory says that people should postpone bad outcomes for as long as possible, because something might happen in the interim to improve the outlook.

In real life the "just get it over with" reaction is more likely, said Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. He offers a personal example: He usually pays credit card bills as soon as they arrive instead of waiting until they're due, even though "it doesn't make any sense economically."

So Berns designed a study to trace dread inside the brain. He put 32 volunteers into an MRI machine while giving them a series of 96 electric shocks to the foot. The shocks varied in intensity, from barely detectable to the pain of a needle jab.

Participants were told one was coming, how strong it would be, and how long the wait for it would be, from 1 to 27 seconds.

Later, participants were given choices: Would they prefer a medium jolt in 5 seconds or 27 seconds? What about a mild jolt in 20 seconds vs. a sharp one in 3 seconds?

When the voltage was identical, the volunteers almost always chose the shortest wait. But those Berns dubbed "extreme dreaders" picked the worst shock if it meant not having to wait as long.

The MRI scans showed that a brain network that governs how much pain people feel became active even before they were shocked, particularly the parts of this "pain matrix" that are linked to attention -- but not brain regions involving fear and anxiety. The more dread bothered someone, the more attention the pain-sensing parts of the brain were paying to the wait.

In other words, the mere information that you're about to feel pain "seems to be a source of misery," George Lowenstein, a specialist in economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in an accompanying review of the work.

"These findings support the idea that the decision to delay or expedite an outcome depends critically on how a person feels while waiting," Lowenstein added.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the research. What's the link between dread and drug use? It's indirect, but now that scientists know how healthy people's brains anticipate unpleasant consequences, future studies can compare how drug abusers process such information.

01 May 2006

Poor Mr Merlion

Am I getting patriotic, losing my sense of humour or is this ad just plain rude?

Faithful readers of this blog, time to tell me if I am getting neurotic / old-fashioned - hit the comment button pls...

An honorary archaeology degree for the hermit crab

SIBU ISLAND, MALAYSIA - Who would have thought that a creature as small as this...

small hermit crab
...has the ability to dig so much and create sand patterns as mysterious as these?

sand pattern 3___ sand pattern 2

sand pattern 1 ___ sand pattern 4

May all archaeologists be equally enthusiastic diggers like the hermit crab! :D

The sun, the sea and my sandy feet

An idyllic Labour Day weekend on Sibu Island...

red rock sky

one cloud sky

my sandy feet