Home is people, not places

July 29, 2013

This has been making the rounds. Is it just me or does it feel vaguely patronising? Pushy and insistent that Singaporeans can’t and won’t be welcome elsewhere, that outside of these few hundred square kilometres likely lies pain? The grass is not always greener on the other side, and the longed-for “escape” may not be all that was hoped for, but it doesn’t mean Singapore is the only place to truly belong. Home is people, not places: it is where family is made and friends are kept. Home shouldn’t be places idealised through nostalgia, it should be the part of the heart populated with people worth staying up till late to long-distance call or walking twenty blocks to take care of when sick.


Fight Club, Reprise

July 12, 2013
Obviously, major Fight Club spoilers ahead. The movie is 14 years old and I’ve just watched it, here’s a few thoughts channeled through Jack’s head. tl;dr, thoughts on a movie that seemed to be about Marxist alienation and revolution, then became “OMG MINDBLOWN who are we really and what do we want to do?”.

Dear Tyler,

It’s been a while. I bet you weren’t expecting to hear from me again. To be honest, I didn’t expect to see you ever again either. But asylums and prison change a man. I learnt a few things in there, took up a hobby or two, picked my life up when they let me out. I still get alternating bouts of mania and boredom every once in a while, but not like back in the bad old days. But, tonight is one of those nights, so I thought I’d write you, seeing as we didn’t exactly part on the friendliest of terms.
Fight Club. It’s been years and they’re still talking about it. They even wrote a book and made a film about it, moderately successful, big hit with young men. Our fifteen minutes of fame, immortalised in celluloid for the next generation of the angry and downtrodden, required viewing for the disillusioned and indebted college dropout waiting tables, up there with the likes of V for Vendetta and Brave New World. And Marx of course, let’s not forget Marx.
It’s fitting how the movie cut you out right at the end; your splicing pornography into kiddie flicks, in reverse. I’ve got to tell you, it’s not just the movie that’s cut you out. The world’s slowly cutting you out. I’ve cut you out and left you behind. The thing is, most people picked up that you aren’t relevant. You weren’t a dashing daredevil or a righteous crusader, you weren’t right, you were wrong.
I can imagine what you’d say. You’d say Hollywood toned it down, they couldn’t very well wholeheatedly condemn the capitalism that lines their pockets keeps their boot heels over the necks of their waiters, their chauffeurs, their ambulance drivers, their plumbers. They cut me out of the closing frames and pretend that love can conquer suffering, that lying back and taking it can replace passion. You’ve forgotten the passion, the adrenaline of the fight, the blood in the mouth, the pain that proves you’re not a cog. Too few taste it, and too many forget, lulled into comfortable degeneracy by cheap pleasures and empty work.
Do you know what you really were Tyler? Not a maverick, not a connoisseur of life, not some kind of Neo fighting the Matrix. You were a madman. A madman and a charming asshole. How else could you have tapped all those guys’ mild unhappiness and twisted it into Project Mayhem? Remember when I said “I felt like destroying something beautiful”? That was you. Charismatic, forceful, non-conformist, you really were everything I wanted to be. Too bad you had a fanatical one track mind. Although, to be honest I guess that was partly my fault.
Your fanaticism was a comfortable lie. You think people couldn’t, shouldn’t, stand being alienated from their labour? You think it hasn’t been going on for centuries? Work happens, shit happens, but people learn to deal with it, they don’t let it eat their entire lives. Only the disaffected and disturbed fell for you, because they didn’t have things like love or other people or occupations besides the Sisyphean task of being grinded down. So dull and so angry. But not everyone is like that, and that’s why not everything is burning they way you wanted it.
There’s a reason we have laws, and it’s not just to put people like you and me away when we’ve been bad. We have laws because we know we’re animals who will bite, claw, tear, and punch each other into a bloody pulp because it feels good. We have them because we want to stay alive, and sometimes we don’t want to be beaten halfway to death. It’s called a trade-off; it’s a term you might not be familiar with, so take your time. We trade some of our freedom to blow buildings up so that when we’re done laying into each other we can tap out and the other guy will stop. So that we can go home and indulge in our wives, or our woodworking, or our shitty golf handicap.
It’s not that I’m completely selling out on you though. Laws are always up for negotiation. Thing is, when you threaten to kill everyone at the table if you don’t get your way, you’ve pretty much already lost. You’ve just got to keep up the poker face and not let the other players get to you. Find the calm, find your peaceful cave, while you play the game, and you’ve won.
There is one thing you did do right I thought I should mention. Remember Raymond K. Hessel? The guy from the convenience store who wanted to be a vet? I’ve always said, on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero, but that one time you, in a twisted way, gave life instead of taking it. That’s perhaps the one good thing you ever did. But it wasn’t enough Tyler, and I’m done with you.

You are Jack’s past, and you’re not coming back.

The Binding of Isaac, or Why I Broke All Those Keyboards In A Rage Last Month

June 6, 2013

Playing The Binding of Isaac is like being a law-abiding teetotalling college kid trying to get smashed at a party. It’s bad for you, you hate youreself, it feels like someone is beating you over the head with a sack of bricks, but when you get to the end it is glorious.

In fact, this damned impossible game rougelike even eases you in slowly like a Bud Lite before the shots of who knows what come along. The controls are intuitive and easy. After a matter of minutes you’re moving around like a pro, having killed a few weak mobs that were no match for your amazing gaming skill and you’re looking forward to what the game can throw at you. And then out of nowhere a new mob appears and it doesn’t fire slow-moving red projectiles, it launches a different coloured arcing projectile that goes BOOM instead of SPLAT and you’ve lost 1 out of your 3 hearts. Before too long you realise that hearts are pretty hard to find and then you’re dead and have to start over.

Round two. Okay, this time, you’re going to be more careful managing your hearts and going to not die. You clear a few rooms and are feeling confident again until you enter a room with 5 death-spitting mobs. But no worries, you dodge a few projectiles and decide to get out of the room and find some more hearts before coming back. And then you find out THE DOORS LOCK BEHIND YOU TILL THE ROOM IS CLEAR and have just enough time to think OHSHITFU- before you die.

Round three. Third time lucky, right? This time you’re determined to beat the game. You fire up a new browser window and go to the wiki to find out how this game works. You find out why you’re taking damage just for entering that special room and that you can actually increase your maximum number of hearts. You find out what different items do, and you discover there’s a “secret” room in every level you can access for bonus goodies. “Right, I know what I’m doing now” you think. This time, you know better than to sacrifice hearts for money at the blood donation machine or to use that item which reduces your max HP by two hearts, and you’re doing great till you come to the first boss which completely steamrolls you.

Rounds four through 20. Ok, now you’re really determined to beat this game. You’ve died and restarted, losing  items or stat bonuses, too many times to count, but you’ve gotten past the bosses. You’ve been at it for four hours or so now, you’ve built up and lost pretty strong characters, and now it’s time for the final boss. You’re not confident, all that’s left is wariness and expectation as you step into the final chamber, and you’ll be damned if you’re going to let this game beat you. But beat you it does. And does it beat you hard. The final boss is nothing like the bosses you’ve met before, and you throw yourself into the battle, using everything you’ve learnt from the game, the reflexes you’ve trained, and it’s no use. You get trampled like a bug with the boss left with more than half its HP.

Round 33. You’ve gotten to the final boss a few more times since the first encounter, and you know all its tricks and special attacks. You’ve lost several really strong characters to the final boss, but this time you’re well and truly prepared. You’ve got more health than a gym full of 20-somethings and more weapons than the US army, and you’ll be damned if you don’t win. And win you do, but it costs you. You lose nearly all your health, but as desperation overtakes you, you snatch victory from defeat and emerge triumphant, with your active items exhausted and your health nearly gone. But you’ve won.

And now, you think “well, that was challenging but it wasn’t THAT hard, I beat it in a few hours. All those people who said this game is “unbelievably hard” and “needs weeks to beat” must have been really bad”. And you keep thinking that, until you find out there are 13 endings, the “final boss” was just the first of many, and you’re going to spend a lot more time on this game. Then that thought just becomes “FFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU”, because you know this is a great game and you sure as hell are gonna get to the end.

Spec Ops: Dubai Horrowshow edition

May 23, 2013

Some spoilers ahead

“Home? We can’t go home. There’s a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary, and then we die.?

Where is the line, in Spec Ops: The Line? At what point does the blood spilt in the sand becomes too much? When you have to ask yourself, as one loading screen tauntingly does, “How many Americans have you killed today?” When you become not just a soldier, but an executioner? When you bash an unsuspecting combatant’s head into a bloody pulp? Or when you go in a scant few hours from saying “It’s about doing what’s right” to “kill everything that moves”?

“But”, you say, “it’s just a game, so what?” To which I say, “parts of it made me feel terrible, like I would expect some movies to do”. Spec Ops inverts the Call of Dudebro paradigm of modern shooters, with its callous attitudes towards war, death, and suffering, but here I want to consider it simply as a piece of media; not in relation to the development and growth of the game genre of games in general.

Thematically inspired by Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness (the primary antagonist is, after all, named John Konrad), Spec Ops deals with the awfulness of war and what it makes of the people caught in it. In the opening credits, we learn that six months ago, the 33rd Infantry Battalion of the US Army, fresh out of Afghanistan and led by Colonel John Konrad, volunteered to assist the evacuation of Dubai as it was battered by enormous sandstorms. Disobeying orders to leave the city as storms intensified, all contact with the unit was lost till two weeks ago, with a transmission by Konrad announcing the complete failure of the evacuation.

Enter Captain Martin Walker and his two fellow operators. Their reconnaissance mission into Dubai goes FUBAR and what we get is the tragedy of Spec Ops. Dubai has turned into a disaster zone, a house of horrors that drives Walker and his team slowly mad. Like war, the game provides an illusion of choice: there are points where I was left agonising over two equally distasteful choices, or had my hand forced by the situation, yet the choices made did not seem empty and devoid of meaning, but a reluctant erosion of the human spirit.

Huge Spoiler
A major plot point in the game has Walker faced with a huge host of the enemy, with the option of using white phosphorus (incendiary munitions) against them. The player can try to find alternatives, and squadmates disagreement over its use adds to the illusion that alternatives exist and that a more humane solution is possible. It seems like the player has free will over his decision, the same way real soldiers can choose the noble course, but the reality, in both game and actual war, is that in situations of extreme stress anyone can become a monster.

In the aftermath, Walker and his team discover their mistake. Walking past dying soldiers, one of which moans “we were only trying to help”, they discover they have slaughtered innocent civilians being held at the enemy’s position as well. And thus begins Walker’s accelerating slide into madness.
Spoiler End

The game is primarily two things. Firstly, a horrorshow of the darkness all people are capable of in extreme circumstances. And secondly, the growing numbness to that horror and the potential for madness. The ambiguous finale (and multiple endings) leave it as an exercise to the player as to just how much madness the human mind can take. Also, it’s a mostly meaningful inversion of the shooter genre with decent enough mechanics. Play it.

Canada Americana

April 19, 2013

America, land of liberty, why the difficulty to travel to you?

One missed plane, one new biometric passport, 36 hours on the road, a night in Vancouver, and the wonders of modern technology means I can compose this on the 8hour bus trip to Portland. Well, actually just the technology, the rest wasn’t really that amazing.

In other news, time is still a tickin’, things are still a happenin’, jobs are being done, universities are handing out offers and decisions have to be made. Which means jobs are being quit (see upcoming post, hopefully soon), scholarships are being hoped for, money is being considered and Jing Xians are going to the US of A to see a college. And to visit much-missed sisters in Vancouver too, but hey who wants to read about that?

But why all this fun and bustle and activity? In America or in Singapore, it all feels the same: and endless hopping from one situation to the next. From admission essays to scholarship applications to the job at SPH to school decisions to worrying about money, life seems to have become an endless drama of issues to resolve. Is this what growing up is like? More worry and less play?

(to all those who didn’t get accepts to overseas universities or feel like decisions are being made for you by fate, I think there’s something to be glad for in that too. [and before the calls of elitism and being out of touch {as if I have that many readers}, yes I do know how extremely fortunate I am] there is a weighty weighty decision about money and studying overseas and the moving abroad.)

Tl;dr being an adult isn’t fun (or I’m just grouchy from traveling), pics to come

That Face

March 6, 2013

The face of someone who almost just had their day ruined

Rewatch x100

Review: Good Old Neon

February 18, 2013

Warning: There be spoilers ahead

There have been many things on my to-read list, and Infinite Jest has been there for pretty long. But this isn’t about David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, or his voice-of-a-generation reputation, it’s a reflexive response to a single short story, Good Old Neon, from his 2004 collection Oblivion:Stories.

I came at the story with no expectations whatsoever; A friend said “this is the story of my life”, so of course I immediately read it. The first thing that strikes you about it is it’s denseness. DFW and Hemingway may have both been journalists, but 60 years on Hemingway’s style seems dated and disused, a sign of the undeveloped writer who has not yet mastered the use of exotic punctuation like em dashes or parentheses that DFW uses liberally in Good Old Neon. In this, as the New York Times puts it, “most personal and approachable of the stories”, the multi-page paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness slam into the reader like the narrator’s forehead into his car’s steering column when he finally puts himself out of his misery.

But what stylish misery. It may be at at times frustratingly impenetrable, but have no doubt that this is also a clever, clever story. Delving into the narrator’s “fraudulent life” and inauthenticity and his dissatisfaction, DFW goes one step beyond “show don’t tell”. The narrator’s choice of words, to his psychologist and to the reader, and the way in which he structures his tale point towards his tortured, conflicted inner experience. The ease with which he slips into character, performing for the ever-watching audience, confirms the fact that he is, as he says, a lifelong actor.

Besides the concern about inauthenticity, the story is brimming with other ideas DFW is itching to write about, but cannot within the confines of a short story. The pained grasping for appropriate words illustrates his point about the inadequacy of language. The narrator’s pondering over logic and paradoxes hint at deeper contemplation of the absurdities he wants to explore. Despite, and also because of, the obtuse language, DFW leaves the reader with the possibility that the experience of time is subjective, that words need not come sequentially, but can be consumed in a single instant, much like the story is not primarily a narrative with time-like rules, but a still snapshot inside a troubled mind

Which leads me to my biggest gripe about Good Old Neon. The narrator’s troubles are essentially self-absorbed navel-gazing. He has trouble being authentic, being true to himself, being existentially fulfilled. Literature of this sort is too far removed from the simple Bildungsromans or good vs evil struggles for me. Its self-involvement, its lack of concern of the reality outside the narrator’s head puts me off. The irony of DFW contributing to the tradition of American literary solipsism, having described Mailer, Updike and Roth as “Great White Narcissists”, is rich.

Not to say that DFW isn’t very, very, skillful. I’m still going to read Infinite Jest and see how that turns out.

Movie Season: Les Misérables

December 28, 2012

‘Tis the season for movies that intend to contend for Best Picture, so let the movie-watching begin!

I confess, my extent of knowledge regarding Les Mis going into the movie was Victor HUgo, award-winning musical, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway. Of which, award-winning musical and Hugh Jackman are more than sufficient draws. And now, with my cultural education advanced by a jot, I declare Les Mis to be mostly about redemption in God; mad, stupid love; and anguished, extreme, close-ups. Especially the close-ups.

I’m a sucker for revolutionaries and freedom fighters and people dying for honour or a cause:

But of course Valjean must be redeemed:

And in between all of that we have terrible unrequited love, and terribly silly love at first sight and “nevermind the revolution and all your dead friends, we have EPIC ROMANCE to conduct”.

I guess I have a musical to watch and a book to read, after the rest of this season’s movies

Gluttony, or I’ll Have What He’s Having

September 5, 2012

Can a man know another’s suffering without making it his own?

I don’t purport to be wise enough to suggest an answer, but I am stupid enough to try and find out what someone else’s suffering feels like. This time around, suffering comes in form of the Roadhouse Terminator Challenge Burger.


A mightily-sized image for a mightily-sized burger. Suffering never looked this enticing. At least, until midway through the third juicy (but far less delectable than the first two) hunk of beef. And that is where the suffering begins. Blame goes to Kester twice, first for suggesting the dining location, and secondly for tempting us with the order of this seemingly finishable burger. And by the time he seemed to hit some trouble midway through the third burger  patty, it was far too late to rescind the orders for more Terminator Challenges. So, challenge we did, fail we did, and suffer we did. But, still, pretty delicious burgers.

Management Models or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love What I Do

August 28, 2012

I’ve never been a big fan of management models or leadership strategies; they presume a degree of involvement with and dependence on  squishy, iffy, essentially undependable other people, rather than diligence and skill. Also, the idea of mangament reeks of the black magic of the (recently out-of-vogue) financial industry: profiteering from the labour or capital of honest people. Producing value through one’s own work must surely be a great deal more gratifying than managing superior talent and genius who merely happen to lack organisational acumen or tools.

Regardless, managers are here to stay, for as long as large, impersonal organisations exist, and the software or tools we create to harness and manage crowdsourced intelligence can’t outperform humans. Managers will manage, and they will have wage slaves, conscripts, prisoners, and a whole menagerie of unwilling or unconvinced subordinates to, if not win over, at least put to good use. As an NSF I clearly have vested interest in understanding the dark arts managers use to cow their unwilling subordinates, so, let’s take a look at one of these methods I’ve encountered recently.

In an attempt to improve productivity (the lifeblood of management), an officer presented a model explaining Event Management and Worker Motivation and other mysterious forces that only management can even begin to pretend to understand. In its simplest of forms, it goes as follows:

Events <- Patterns <Structures <- Mindsets <- Vision

From what I fathomed, it has something to do with the levels at which management can intervene to prevent Bad Things in order to win Manager-of-the-Month awards and similar accolades. The most junior and inexperienced managers are capable of only reacting to events as they occur, and coordinating damage control, but as they learn the tricks of the trade they usually become capable of formulating structures, rules, and onerous regulations that mitigate or prevent events. However, it is only the truly talented, the brilliant few who can, through subtle bullying, coercion, masterful use of charisma, probably some backstabbing and playacting, and perhaps some sort of dark sorcery, worm their way into their wage slaves’ minds and win them over to a vision of excellence for a cause that does not serve them.

Few managers ever reach that pinnacle of achievement, but the insidiousness of that reaching into and turning the mind is morbidly fascinating. How exactly is it done?

What follows is purely speculation, so there can be no guarantee of truth, rigorous fact checking, or accuracy. What I do promise is a couple of hypotheses into the methods of management, one forwarded by a manager, and another, more insidious one, that occurred to me.

The first hypothesis (the one that both workers and managers would like to believe true) is that management, through inspiring leadership and teaching, uncovers and illuminates in workers a belief in the cause. Workers who see their work furthering a purpose they have neither stake nor belief in are, perhaps through incisive questioning, brought to a realisation of their false assumptions and faulty thinking. Like Plato’s cavedwellers, they are brought to the surface world and see things as they truly are: that their position is that of cogs in a mighty machine serving a True Cause and Worthy Objective. Nothing boosts worker motivation, makes positives mindsets, and aligns personal aspiration with organisational vision like turning disillusionment into worthwhile, fruitful, accomplishment.

There is a problem with the first hypothesis though. It holds only in cases where the true purpose, the one that is clouded in the worker’s mind but subsequently revealed in all its brilliance, is actually something the worker can find palatable and worthwhile. If a worker comes to the conclusion that he is frustrated by his work (and hence, an unproductive and bad worker) not because it is onerous, but because it is actively opposed to his personal core beliefs, he becomes an even larger liability. This, however, is remediable if the second hypothesis is true.

The second, disturbing, hypothesis I have arrived at is really very simple. Banking on the usefulness of wage slavery (or other means through which workers and chained to their work), managers can keep their workers toiling away at jobs that eat away at their inner being. And, indeed, this erosion of the spirit occurs. But, the human mind is a resilient thing; it adapts to difficult situations to ease its burden. As the cognitive dissonance of believing in one thing and doing something apart or counter to it mounts, the worker comes under increasing stress. Eventually, the pressure builds up unbearably, and the mind collapses. Thankfully, the human mind is surprisingly failure resistant. We don’t end up with babbling monkeys on the shop floor, only workers who have convinced themselves (or been forcibly convinced by the futility of their situation) that they do believe in what was hitherto soul-crushingly futile.

And that is a plausible explanation I’ve come up with for converting workers to the cause. It seems plausible enough, although we should allow for the process of rewiring to take some time; no one is predicting overnight conversions.

Scary innit? I hope I’m wrong