Sunday, August 31, 2008

In space, no one can hear you... clean.

[Blogging from Narita International Airport as I wait for my flight to Chicago. Strangely, this airport isn't particularly tourist-friendly, unless you happen to read and speak Japanese, want to buy high-end duty-free goods- who comes into the airport thinking to buy a Bvlgari ring?- crave ultra-sweet Japanese candy, or are looking for kitschy Japanese souvenirs. I'm sitting at my gate sipping an iced latte- which surprise surprise, is called "iced latte" in Japanese... Am hoping to have an uneventful flight all the way to Detroit, i.e. no birds flying into plane engines and the people at O'Hare don't screw up and delay me for some random reason again. If all goes well, I should be back in AA in 17 hours. Cross fingers...]

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl is captured by strange forces. Boy saves girl. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl almost loses boy. The couple reunite. They live happily ever after. Yup, at its core Wall-E is a romantic comedy, pure and simple, and I fell in love with it at first gaze into Wall-E's soulful mechanical eyes.

For the first 40 minutes of the movie, there is hardly any dialogue, mostly beeps and chirps between the two protagonists, but this matters little, and you really hardly notice. Because the same people who gave us a piece of baguette in Ratatouille that looked as real as something you'd get at a French boulangerie have given us an animated (non-human) couple with more humanity than most Hollywood actors. Every nuanced emotion- ardor, annoyance, anxiety- is evocatively conveyed, like a Chaplin silent film or Marceau mime, with few words but a whole lot of heart. And by the last 15 minutes of the movie, I couldn't wipe the tears from my eyes fast enough, as if I was watching a heartwrenching 4-hanky weepie...

For those of you who do not stay through the credits at the end of movies, you have to here. You will be duly rewarded because it's one of the best I've ever seen. It was as if an entire other team of animators was put in charge of the credits and it is its own piece of imaginative art. Wall-E might now be my favorite Pixar movie, from its hauntingly eerie vision of a humanless post-apocalyptic Earth (almost I Am Legend-esque, but more poetic) to the sweet purity of Wall-E and Eve's love story, Pixar shows us that animation is way more than cartoon. It's cinematic art.

Look at what Shure sent me ...

I proudly announced in Sept.'07 that I got a pair of Shure E2C sound isolating earphones. And it has been my go-to earphones ever since. I like the fact that it isolates external noise - this was indispensable for the long flights home to Singapore. Also, I really liked the way the earphones stay secure in your ears no matter what you were doing - my old earphones always got painfully yanked out of my ears when I was at a weight machine or on the treadmill in the gym. And besides, for $39, the sound quality was unsurpassed by any other similarly priced earphones out there.

Hence, I was very sad when the cables of the earphones started cracking. I am not sure what the causes the cracked cables but this is a problem that has been experienced by many and is well documented on the internet. And going by the advice that I was given online, I only had to fill out a web form, include my original receipt and ship my damaged earphones back to Shure. And given the 2 year warranty covering the earphones, Shure will repair or replace my earphones. I did that last week, and guess what arrived at my doorstep yesterday ...

It's a slightly different model than the E2C. The Shure SCL2 is the professional version of the old model. From what I gather on the web, this model features some improvements over the E2Cs - an improved and more flexible cable and an improved driver to deliver crystal clear sound. I have to admit that I don't hear the difference yet, but apparently there's a burn-in period for this earphones. So, I am just running all sorts of audio on it to get the drivers in shape. But thus far, I am very happy with the service I got from Shure and the performance of the earphones. I was a little worried about what Shure was going to do with my damaged earphones as they've discontinued the E2Cs with a more fancy (and also more expensive) SE range of earphones. But all in all, I have to say that Shure's customer service is unparalleled. Thanks Shure :)

Now, if only I can justify the purchase of the SE530 to Serene :)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Virgin qik post :)

I first heard about this service from Kevin Lim. And it was more apparent that qik is a web service I should be paying more attention to when the Prime Minister of Singapore showcased qik in this year's National Day Rally. (Check out the video here: But more than anything, it was interesting to see the live streaming of my video as I was using the qik service. You can check it out below:

This is quite a nifty service. And what's more interesting is that this is a homegrown Singapore startup :) I can definitely see myself using this service a lot more. It was pretty easy to install qik on my iPhone. I am quite sure that qik installs on a variety of other cameraphones. It's pretty cool to stream your videos live ... think of yourself as your very own broadcast channel :)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Serene's presentation at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Serene has been invited to give a talk on her dissertation at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Details of the talk are below. Drop by if you are in the vicinity :)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's all about the light...

Out in the open sea, with nary a city light in sight, Jude and I have never seen a more gorgeous sunset, a moon more resplendent, or light on the water more shimmering. We had our reservations about going on a canoeing expedition around Ao Phang-Nga (Phang Nga Bay)- a group of 132 limestone islands an hour away from Phuket- mostly cost-related, but I have to say now, it was worth every penny. Because we were in kayaks, it was about as close to the water as you could get without actually jumping in, and the views of the sea, the islands and the landscape was truly breath-taking from that perspective.

After bustling in Singapore for close to 2 months, being away in Phuket even for a few days was a relaxing break, especially enjoying the sun, sand, and sea. We've been away from any kind of coast for so long that just seeing the pristine beaches and feeling the warm grains of sand between my toes was divine. If Jude and I have one recommendation for those of you thinking of visiting Phuket, it'll definitely be to avoid the Patong Beach area altogether (congested and too much sleaze) and just head straight to either Kata or Karon Beach for pure seaside heaven. The whole experience was about as removed from city life as you can get and it was most refreshing. Data, charts, deadlines, proposals, submissions- everything faded away as we traversed the seemingly infinite horizon of the Andaman Coast- exploring limestone caves and lagoons, and dipping our hands into the waters to watch flickering bioluminescent plankton.

Seeking that Alex Garland, The Beach experience? This probably comes very close... :)

[Photos here.]

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I think I'm a Death Cab for Cutie snob...

I'm sorry, but just because you know the lyrics to "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"- and only that song- and remember the *two* Death Cab songs from the O.C. soundtrack does not make you a Death Cab For Cutie fan.

Yes you. And you, and you too. Those of you sitting in the dozen or so rows in front of us today who didn't seem to know half the songs in the set. You know who you are- you of the O.C. generation who looked puzzledly at your friend when "Styrofoam Plates" came on; who barely recognized the riotous opening strains of "The New Year"; and in the name of all that is good and pure, I can't believe you didn't sing along to that awesome finale track... You actually looked bored.

Jude and I (together with an ecstatic Sam, Terri and Sam's friend Hannah) on the other hand, had a blast. We thoroughly enjoyed the concert more than the one they did in Ann Arbor in 2005, mainly because they played more tracks from their older albums, or as Jude and I like to think, their *better* albums. I suspect that most of the crowd only got to know the band more after Plans, which is why today's pre-2005 set-list might not have appealed to them as much. I loved it though- "Photobooth", "Sound of Settling", "Title and Registration"- all the stuff they did before they started wearing their bleeding indie hearts so much more readily on their sleeves- each and everyone of them made me so very, very happy :)

And then of course, essentially the one track we paid $70 to hear, Death Cab for Cutie's legacy, the one inspired poetry of a song in all its blissful glory, kept till the very end, every bit as divine as we remembered it to be 'live'. And Jude and I sang every word.

Great job, Death Cab. I'm sorry I ever said you weren't good 'live'. I changed my mind- I'm very glad I saw you tonight :)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Someone say "Lens Envy"?

Over the weekend, Jude and I helped my sister and her fiancé, Piao, take some pre-wedding photos. They're thankfully eschewing the whole exorbitant wedding photography package nonsense and wanted instead, something more fun and spontaneous. So they settled on us taking their photos in the picturesque Botanical Gardens and the pretty- and increasingly gentrified- Ann Siang Hill area in Chinatown. While we love taking photos, we clearly don't have the kind of professional gear necessary for wedding-quality photos. But apparently, there is now a burgeoning business in Singapore leasing cameras and lenses. So all thanks to a Canon 5D camera and a monster of a 70-200 F2.8L lens (plus a couple of our own cameras- hence the very meta photos of the photographers...), you get photos like these:

They're nowhere near professional quality, of course, but we're still quite happy with what we achieved- at least the future newlyweds seem to be :) It's amazing what a huge difference a good camera and lens can do. Shots like this and this would have been impossible without high-speed, paparazzi-level equipment. Which is why for the last couple of days, I've had to deal with a somewhat antsy husband who seems to be going through a bout of rather acute lens-envy-citis for what now seems in comparison to be our very humble and modest Nikon D60... ;)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Kidding around

Finally! After years of posting about Sesame Street and my favorite guest appearances (see here and here), in preparation for the show's 39th (!!!) season, Entertainment Weekly has put together a list of 25 Classic Sesame Street Visits. It's so awesome to see some of my favorites making the list (notably Norah Jones, James Stewart, R.E.M., Andrea Bocelli, and Feist). New ones to love- James Blunt and Telly in a melancholic duet (losing your triangle shouldn't have to be so sad...):

and Richard Pryor's expressive, irrepressible recitation of the alphabet:

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

My prisoner's dilemma

[As Jude kindly corrected me- told you he knows his stuff-, the situation I describe below is actually not so much the Prisoner's dilemma as it is the Diner's dilemma, which is essentially an n-player Prisoner's dilemma. While the fundamental ideas are the same, the dynamics are slightly different.]

So according to classical Prisoner's dilemma theory, when two individuals are faced with the choice to either cooperate or defect and if their only concern is with maximizing their own interest without any concern for the other person's payoff, then the rational decision is to defect (or "betray") even though each person's individual reward would be greater if they cooperated. This is of course a very blunt and naive distillation of what is essentially a very nuanced theory (which if you're interested, you can go read Jude's 60-page prelim paper...) and I bring this up not to provoke some sociological economics debate about self-interest, altruism, or one's commitment to the public good (again, for that, you'd have to go to my husband).

So last week, I found myself standing in line at the taxi-stand, very frustrated. It was 10.15pm and I had been standing in the queue for almost 40 minutes. I was fourth in line and had been fourth in line for the whole of those 40 minutes. The line had not moved. And there was at least 15 people behind me. Since we've been back, Jude and I have made a very conscious decision to take the train more and avoid cabs as much as possible. Between the rising cost of cab fares and the traffic jams you invariably encounter, it just is more cost- and time-efficient to take the train. But on this Friday night, I was tired and not too far from home so I figured the fare wouldn't cost too much. Besides, it looked like cabs were streaming regularly through the taxi-stand so I wouldn't have to wait long either.

But I was wrong. About the wait, at least. During the time I was in line, I could have taken the train and be home and rested. What I wasn't wrong about though, was the number of cabs coming through the taxi-stand. Oh there were cabs alright, just not cabs that were available for street hire. In that 40 minutes, every, and I mean *every* cab that came through was "On Call", i.e. reserved via phone. For an extra $3.80, you can call the cab company, and any cabs near your location will swing by and pick you up, without you having to wait in line at the stand. Now, there is nothing wrong with calling a cab, of course- this service is a godsend in an emergency or when you're late, but something just didn't feel right in that situation. By calling for a cab without standing in line (or while you were standing at the end of a long line), you are essentially depriving someone who has been standing in line- or someone ahead of you in the line- of a cab that otherwise would have come into the stand, available for street hire. Meaning, if I don't call a cab because I'm unwilling to pay that extra surcharge, I am destined to stand in line indefinitely. Think about it, if you were a cab driver in the vicinity of that taxi stand, faced with a choice of picking up someone who calls in (and earning an extra $3.80) and just driving into the taxi-stand and picking up whoever is waiting, what would you do?... Yup, and that's why you end up with hordes of cabs plying the streets waiting for reservations and never driving into cab stands.

[Photo from mr brown who seems to share my sentiments...]

So this is where the prisoner's dilemma comes in. Sort of. If everyone starts calling for cabs- which will evetually make taxi-stands irrelevant- then everyone will inevitably be worse off because 1) you won't be able to flag cabs down on the street; and 2) everyone will have to pay an extra $3.80, driving the ultimate cost of fares up. So much for an affordable public transportation system available to and affordable by all. However, if people refrain from calling for cabs unless there isn't a cab stand nearby and there are no cabs on the street, then even though we will all have to stand in line, the wait won't be long because cabs won't be driving around waiting to pick up customers who call, and are thus forced to have to drive into cab stands instead.

I know this is turning into a really long post, and a rant of sorts, and it probably sounds a little trivial. But it's been on my mind these past couple of days. Jude even tried helping me work this out theoretically over coffee last night. There is no easy solution of course, and it's hard to pin blame on anyone. As rational decision-makers, we can't help but act in ways that are self-interested. But standing in line for that 40 minutes made me appreciate the possibility of a time when self-interest will neither be a primary motivation or an act of first instinct (who knew that aching feet and a frustrated mind inspires such profundity?...) It's kind of like the Joker's social experiment with the two ferries in The Dark Knight- are you willing to give up the security of self-interest for the eventuality of larger social good?