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Notes from the Lazarus pits

In the Batman comics, there is a mystical spring which has the power to revive the dead and rejuvenate those on the verge of death. Its power, however, comes at a cost: every successive use drives the person further from himself till he finally is driven from himself. This has become what each revival of this blog feels like. Each time I revive the blog, I am a different person from the last time I let it die, and throughout the years, the blog has become a collection of snapshots of me at different points of my life.

It is not a collection of self-portraits at my best. Looking through some of these posts, I can see myself as an angry ineffectual person, obsessed with failure and hatred. In one period, I found a dozen drafts of posts on my hatred of politicians. I suppose that looking back now, I don’t really know why I was so angry at politicians. I still do not like them. I wouldn’t have any of them round for coffee, but I also wouldn’t write angry blog posts denigrating them and publish them on the internet.

Perhaps in a way, this is a step backward. I still dislike most of the things I have on this list over three years ago (except cats; I suppose I have become a cat person of late). I just no longer care enough to be intolerant about them, and I suppose this live and let live attitude is more a sign of apathy than a sign of mellowness. I have developed an interest in theoretical things (like logic and economic theory) that have no need for real people and their little quirks, and this allows me to be more or less an emotional tourist in the real world. I mean this in the sense that I do not need to feel anything when something happens, for example, when there is another scandal in Singapore or when there is some horrible tragedy in the middle east. I am interested and most definitely concerned, but I no longer really feel upset or angry. I think this makes me unhappy less often.

Anyway, when I was thinking of reviving this blog, I had in mind picture posts of my trip to Thailand and maybe a review of this cute little indie game I am playing (Limbo, in case anyone is wondering). But reading my archives have put me in a thoughtful and retrospective mood. Not a melancholy one though; half-working on a set of notes on microeconomics and half typing this post, emotion is the furthest thing on my mind. I do not feel the roil of anything. I think I feel content.

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Misogynistic Confessions

The spate of confessions pages popping up everywhere has given me an interesting opportunity to confirm something I’ve been thinking for some time, that perhaps the feminists are right and Singaporeans are really quite misogynistic.

When I was about 7 or 8 months into my NS term, I started talking again to Robyn again, and, how I cannot remember, we started talking about feminism, which turned out to be a great cause of hers. I confess that at that time, my interest in it was somewhat academic, a little akin to my interest in talking about theology. So things like male privilege, rape culture and intersectionality made sense as analyses of society, but they were not things I noticed or experienced in my life. Rape culture was something that existed on college campuses, male privilege referred to WASPs in New York and intersectionality was the struggle of the black single mother living in London’s East End.

But talking about such things made me notice these things more. Rape jokes (see 1st postscript). Objectification of women. Double standards. You know, the standard feminist oeuvre. I mean, I really plead that I did not know of this before. Guys who really hate women. Who really think they are contemptible money-sucking creatures to be appeased with handbags and money. Heartless faithless worthless trash. And for some reason, stupid.

sexist comments

But it was always possible that my observations were uncharacteristic of the population. Perhaps the people I went to work with were particularly sexist. So I was glad SAF Confessions, a popular page with over 12,000 ‘likes’, is on hand to confirm my suspicions.

There are a few common tropes here. There is the evergreen treating women as sex objects/with blatant tastelessness:

yay more sexism

This sort of comment, as well as complaints by women against men creepily checking them out (see NUS Confessions page) often draw comments along the lines of “guys will be guys”, or “what do you expect”. Well, it still does not make it a desirable sort of action in any way.

Another favourite is the army break-up story.

Immortalised in the terrible Jack Neo films Ah Boys to Men parts 1 and 2, the faithless woman who breaks up with you when you’re in BMT is a familiar and widely hated SAF villain. For example, the page gives us this rather despairing young lady:

“As the GF of a new recruit who has just completed PTP, I feel that the Army is retarding my boyfriend into a childish being whose spoiled traits are getting stronger everyday. Opposed to maturing into a man, he’s regressing into a negative little boy who feels he’s entitled to so many things and that everything is worthless and a waste of time. I’m starting to understand why most girls would break up with their recruit boyfriends if this is what they are like. That said, it’s only PTP, hopefully things get better soon.”

A fair enough complaint surely, but one which was not well-received. Some tried to defend the boy, but others resorted to naked hostility:

sexist comments 2

In contrast, there are a few posts by women who express sympathy for the travails of the NSF and these woman are widely lauded.

[No picture because I cherry-pick. Too bad.]

At the heart of these attitudes perhaps is the notion that women are not entitled to break up with men because they no longer like them, but must cling to them with loyalty and adoration. “If you love him enough” is a common refrain, and there is such anger that women can possibly not love their boyfriends! That they can change their minds!

Or perhaps, and this strain is independent of the other one, the complaint is against the woman’s lack of sympathy for the person’s struggles. Fault cannot be found with the BMT recruit, because hey, he’s having it tough.

All these attitudes are reflected in possibly the most hostile thread on the whole page. So much hate that this is going to take four pictures.

more sexism

moar moar sexism

moar moar moar sexismsigh this is getting oldsighsighsigh

I hope you didn’t bother reading all that because it is depressing. As one comment pointed out, these people do not know the context, nor anything about the relationship WHATSOEVER. They did not know the extent of the commitment in the prior relationship or how it ended. And based on what little they have, they are happy to call her all sorts of names, generalise her to be typical of women, threaten her with death and the seduction of her future child.

The problem with this is that the SAF is really a cross-section of the Singaporean male population. Do so many Singaporeans really have such misogynistic attitudes? What is causing them? What can we do to stop all this abuse?

PS1: Rape jokes are something that I’ve talked about before, and I stand by it. I don’t believe all rape jokes are acceptable, but perhaps I was unclear about “depending on sexist attitudes”. The “joke” here is a clear example.

sexist rape joke

Here, name-redacted-in-white is making a “joke” which depends on the reader finding the notion of gang-raping a servicewoman every morning in the toilet funny. So this, and more sophisticated versions of this, are rape jokes that I find unacceptable.

(And how horrible is name-redacted-in-white? “Drag her into the toilet”? “Mass ritual daily event for everyone”? “Tuning”? This is just disgusting stuff.)

The National Conversation [Review]

The Singapore Conversation
26 January 2013, 9 am-12.30 pm, SMU Administration Building

Try as people might in flowing articles of wit and passion, it is difficult to truly sustain a belief in the notion that one’s voice or vote has any substantive impact on anything at all. This is the case here. 3 and 1/2 hours, lots of frothy discussion, but ultimately a sense of emptiness, much like the feeling after finishing a game of Minesweeper. It is the feeling of achievement without weight.

This is not, I think, a criticism of how the conversation was conducted, which was by and large well thought-out. About 40 participants were split into 6 groups of 6-7 each, with two dozen or so facilitators. After an introductory brief, we split into these small groups and

The session I attended was split into two parts, one in a small group of about 6 participants and 4 facilitators (not ominous enforcer-types, but rather bored people interested in people talking), and the other in a large group of about 50 people. First, we spent an hour and a half in these small groups, making our way through whatever the people in the group brings up, and then in half an hour or so, the groups were combined, and the dialogue was conducted in this larger setting. I did not experience any significant trouble with the usual pitfalls: an unequal conversation dominated by a few strong players, hostile disagreement, or inept facilitators.

However, the experience is largely dependent on the quality of the group. Mine was largely comprised of rather high-flying career types: 3 had jobs with an international focus, and hence were quite vocal on Singapore’s need to stay competitive vis-a-vis the world, another was a high school teacher of Chinese who largely looked quite sleepy, and lastly, we had a rather bubbly student from a polytechnic who has a place at UCL this fall (and in a dramatic twist, who turns out to be one of the members of the Singapore Conversation committee). It turns out that we were pretty much in agreement: we believed in the need to be economically competitive, that a Singapore identity cannot be force-shaped in a theoretical test tube, and that there are elements of the system that could be better designed, such as including more educational through routes. It might have been more interesting if we had a strong proponent of the popular welfare-Singapore alternative view.

We did have that in the big group of course, but in such a big setting, the facilitator did not attempt any synthesis of views, merely the noting of them. This of course made the whole thing seem shallow, but the committee was clear about their limited aim in this “first phase” of the conversation. Policy problem-solvers, hence, would do well to only go for a conversation in a later phase. The facilitator was quite clear that the committee was in no hurry to rush the process.

In summary, it was agreeable enough, and a decent way to spend the morning in an argument clinic, but ultimately, those who have a mind for concrete solutions or well-set conclusions would be disappointed. But in a way, the very impossibility of the notion of a common Singaporean vision should have been apparent from the start. In the same way nobody talks of a London direction or a Tokyo dream, a Singapore vision suggests a sort of journey for the country that all citizens agree to embark on, and a common endpoint that satisfies all parties. An absurd utopian dream! And in a way, the very notion of a common goal for a place presupposes a commitment to the collective that may be quite offensive for some.

I think we are past the point where more introspection about direction and goals will be fruitful. We need to get past and finally discard the metaphor of the collective journey, and instead think about what we are actually doing, that is, designing public policies that will be acceptable to the majority of people. Of course this requires us to talk about the sort of country that we want Singapore to be, but only as the end-point of policy. For example, I think it is strange to talk about growth-oriented policies; instead we should examine the policies behind them and evaluate them as a whole, treating the promotion of growth as a factor in the consideration. By considering what we CAN do instead of what we WANT to do will give us a more rigorous understanding of what will actually happen.

All this means that the Conversation is likely to be of little practical use to the government. Which is fine by them, I suppose: hardly their fault if the public does not have a unified or strong voice in any direction.

Oops?Photo credit: Our SG Conversation

Oops?
Photo credit: Our SG Conversation

2013: Predictions for the Year Ahead

Happy new year everybody! It has been a long time since I have been excited about a year, but 2013 is different. This is the year I pass out of the Singaporean system, I go to college and fly the coop, so to speak. It is a year to look forward to.

It also promises to be an exciting year for the world. 2012 will take some topping, but I believe 2013 is up to the task. In fact, I’ll put my neck on the line and make the following predictions about how things will go hilariously wrong this year.

1. Washington becomes ungovernable, President resorts to a nuclear deadline for ongoing debt deficit negotiations

After Congress failed to pass Mitch McConnell and Vice President Biden’s “small deal” and triggered the deflationary fiscal cliff, President Obama, evidently frustrated and running short of options, has proposed a so-called “nuclear deadline” for the continuing talks.

“America needs a solution and she needs it fast,” the President said in a speech delivered in Washington today, “which is why I have ordered the movement of 500 of our nuclear warheads to the basement of Capitol Hill. If we pass February without an agreement, the nuclear deadline will trigger and explode in a massive atomic blast, laying waste to the congressmen, their aides and much of the nation’s capital. I hope this will spur Democrats and Republicans to an agreement.”

The Speaker of the House John Boehner has criticised the President’s plan as irresponsible brinksmanship, and resorting to mass murder to achieve the Democrats’ agenda. “Some Representatives have made their position clear to the government,” he continues, “no deal can be made that does not involve massive tax cuts for selected billionaires and cuts to all programmes that do not benefit the wealth-creating citizens of this country, giant fiery conflagration of doom or not.”

On the other hand, economist Paul Krugman has come down in favour of the President’s plan for finally coming down hard on recalcitrant Republicans. “Further more, the rebuilding necessary after an apocalyptic explosion will surely have stimulative effects on the economy,” he added.

2. Years of secret research pays off; North Korea becomes world superpower after developing Gundam robots

The reclusive communist state has experienced a startling reversal of fortunes recently after its scientists successfully developed a series of robotics technologies that bear a startling resemblance to the robots from the hit anime, Gundam. Over night, the robots have taken over all productive functions in the economy, boosting GDP a hundred times over and allowing all citizens to enjoy a life of leisure after communist redistribution of the gargantuan returns to capital.

“It wasn’t always easy putting our future in the hands of scientists who may or may not have developed groundbreaking robots that resemble well-known anime characters,” Kim Jong-Un, former Supreme Leader (the country is now post-political), said tearfully. “But I’m glad I persisted in my father’s and grandfather’s madness and belief in juche.”

The sudden enrichment of the hermit kingdom has led to a cultural flowering as well, with North Korea’s Department for Communication scoring a surprising hit single in the US charts with their adaptation of a 2012 song. Their single “Gundam style” is accompanied by a spectacular video featuring Gundam robots dancing in the Himalayan mountains and in space.

3. Palestinian scientist’s invention of pocket dimensions leads to an anti-climatic end to Arab-Israeli tensions

In another scientific triumph, a Palestinian scientific team announced the discovery of pocket dimensions, an achievement that quickly led to the relocation of the Palestinian state to the dimension.

The science behind the move is still unclear at this point, although one prevalent hypothesis has to do with the vibration of strings in string theory. “There could be over hundreds of such dimensions,” one researcher, who declined to be named, said, “the potential for the development of the human race is immense.” Palestine has laid claim to all these dimensions and all natural resources found within them.

In a surprising side-effect, Palestinian have agreed to cede disputed territories completely to Israel. In a statement, Mahmoud Abbas said, “with all these natural resources and vast swathes of land that our scientists have found, quarreling with Israel over an eggshell seems a little childish. They can have it; our people’s migration to our new holdings will commence immediately.”

When asked for comment at the sudden resolution of a centuries old conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared dazed by the reversal. “Well to be honest, it was a massive shock for us all,” he mumbled, “I mean, the boys were all set to go. We have been prepping for this push for years.” When asked if he was pleased by this unconventional two-state solution, he expressed uncertainty. “Well, in a way, we did win, and we still have Jerusalem, which is good,” he said,” but at the same time, I am a little bummed out that Abbas got such a good deal. Isn’t there some way to claim that this move on their part is some sort of unilateral aggression?”

4. European leaders propose divisive solution to Eurozone woes, raising spectres of the past

European leaders continue to grapple with economic uncertainties, as the latest set of currency runs occurred on East European economies. A faction in Brussels proposing a division solution has reportedly gained traction.

“The idea is simple,” MEP Milos Janik, one of the architects of the proposal, tells us,” Europe has a two-speed economy: the well-developed economies of France, Germany and the Scandinavian states on one hand, less developed economies of the East and the Mediterranean region on the other. An administrative division into two Eurozones with separate Central Banks and monetary policies will be better able to cope with the crisis in weaker countries without affecting healthier Western economies.”

The plan has been greeted with some alarm, with some accusing Mr. Janik’s faction of retrogressing to a pre-1989 division. Mr. Janik denies the similarity. “Well it can, for convenience, be called East and West Europe, although I can see why historically speaking that might be confusing,” he admits. He however notes that the split between the two regions is not ideological. “Prudent fiscal governance and economic-friendly policy is not exactly an ideology,” he says, a little scoffingly.

But even supporters of Mr. Janik admit that there are kinks to be worked out. Particularly divisive is the matter of the Common Market, one of the key attractions of the European Union. “There is a lot of debate about the trade relations between the two blocs if the plan goes through. There is a vocal minority that calls for continued free trade but practically, there will be some barriers to trade,” a Brussels insider says. “Enforcement will be an issue as well. The borders between East and West Europe are particularly porous, so I have heard proposals for some sort of physical barrier, a fence of some sort, perhaps a wall.”

What’s a humanz kid to do with physics?

(Humanz is how my school used to abbreviate “humanities”, which is forgivable largely because humans would not have made any sense.)

I’ve been having this illicit thing going on for a while now. A year ago, I started craving something more…exotic and subscribed to New Scientist on my feed, and then the Cosmic Variance blog. Often I was so stunted in the field that I could not understand much of what was being said, but what I could get I found really interesting, and after watching Brian Cox’s A Night with the Stars, I decided that I should heed Snow’s advice and at least be literate in some scientific concepts. I borrowed two books from my local library, George Johnson’s The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (a light-reading thing) and In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin (to ease me into something I have not touched properly for a long time), with a mind to learn some quantum theory.

I write this because it struck me in the course of my inquiries that there are differences between scientists and philosophers (or at least a gap between my thinking and the inherent assumptions held by the books’ authors). The first thing I found a little troubling is how physicists talk about extremely specific things. Like light,  water, oscillation etc. What’s so special about oscillation? And that’s the thing that is never really explained: why precisely we should take a pendulum with weight g and care about its frequency.

Obviously, there is probably something important about oscillation, but my point is that there is a gap between the humanities’ habit of dealing with the general (it makes little sense for philosophers to have an American morality for example) and the scientist’s way of starting from the particular, possibly because they have no way of knowing what is general. This synthetic (in the analytic/synthetic sense) nature of scientists’ knowledge is alien to humanities students, who often do a lot more a priori thinking. Remember the problems of induction and the many pointed arguments raised in the philosophy of science against the practice of the scientific method and we reach the conclusion that philosophers are uncomfortable with the lack of necessity, the essential underdetermination that underlies our scientific efforts.

Let me give you a personal example to illustrate what I mean. I have finally understood the essential conclusions of the double slit experiment and the particle/wave duality thing that seems to be important in quantum theory. But it seems to me that the logic was never very sound. Essentially, the argument presented by Brian Cox is:
1. Doing the double slit experiment with a wave will result in light bands.
2. Doing the double slit experiment with electrons or light results in light bands.
C: Electrons and light behave like waves.

Now, particle/wave duality is probably true, but it is not logically valid. Just because electrons behave like waves in this case does not mean they will do so in other ways.

And I think this is the primary thing that makes science so strange for me. The focus on very particular examples to illustrate larger concepts and that logic does not play much of a role at all (Popper not withstanding).

P.S. Corrections to misconceptions very welcome.

Peter Oborne and modernisation

Peter Oborne indulges in some distortion of meaning.

BMTC

I remember that my officer commanding yelled at us one day that you will not succeed in life without the army. So, the majority of the people in the world, I’m sorry. I’m also sorry to inform my female friends, especially those off to pursue knowledge at our government’s expense, that, despite PSC’s brochures and the well-meaning words of career counselors, your slow slide into mediocrity has already begun. Unfortunately, you did not enlist to live your life by the 7 SAF core values.

But try as you might, you do not fight off the taint entirely; like phyrexis, it inevitably corrupts. When our sergeants brought our platoon to watch Battle: Los Angeles, I could not help thinking “he’s holding his gun in high alert position”, “oh my god he’s popping a grenade, I can do that” or “they’re echoing commands”. I was so engrossed by the military aspect that I almost forgot to be repulsed by the cheesy lines and the pro military plot.

And the fellow recruits. Well, hell is other people. I’m sure other people couldn’t stand me, and I definitely couldn’t stand other people. Of the three main types of recruits (pampered brats, unnoticeable and loud and obnoxious), I definitely hate the loud and obnoxious ones the most. After all, whining isn’t nearly as loud as jeering, booing, cheering, clamouring for more cigarettes etc. ad infinitum.

So, goodbye BMTC. There is no love lost between us. I’m sure unhappy time here is as much my fault as yours.

P.S. Battle: LA is a terrible movie. Roger Ebert says so.

P.P.S. Look, to be honest, I thought it was a little better than half a star. But I’m fresh from watching the SAF’s own disaster scenario pro-military short film, which was 10 minutes of proving that their sophisticated weaponry can comprehensively dominate dirt and empty buildings.

Slogans

I want a first world parliament!

+

God save the Queen.

Goodbye workplace

I shall miss working. 😦

How to fix the budget

The drama over the American budget has seen another development recently. Paul Ryan has unveiled his budget, and since I know relatively little about American policies, I leave respected political commentator Ezra Klein to summarise his plans.

To the untrained eye, his plan seems like old style aristocracy wrapped in malice, served with blind faith sauce, a dash of ignorance and a side of delusion.

Anyway, there’re plenty of angry commentators, so here’s Democracy in America and Free Exchange with extremely sensible points. Paul Krugman is predictably (and very rightly) snarky.

Note that the predicted unemployment rate is being ridiculed. Hahaha.