Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on Creativity, and OK Go

Sometimes I overlook how great OK Go’s music is, because I’m too overawed by great their music videos are. In case you need a reminder, OK Go, an alternative rock band from Chicago, are best known for their elaborate, original, and extremely complex music videos, often involving complicated mechanisms, and shot in a single take. Dancing on treadmills, an 89-step Rube Goldberg mechanism, a time lapse music video shot over days, are just some of the amazingly creative music videos they’ve done.  

It’s their latest music video, “Needing/Getting”, which set me thinking about the nature of creativity, and the misconceptions we have of it. No one would deny that the concept of this music video (in a nutshell: the band, in the car, sings while car plays various musical instruments by driving past them) is creative. The question I often heard asked in Singapore is how we should teach creativity to our students, or foster creativity in our artistic communities - yet we often misunderstand what creativity is. 

Creative thinking is work 

When we talk about creativity, we often focus on the intuitive leap, that moment when an idea pops into the head of the thinker, whole, complete, unique, novel and ingenious. We even have a name for it: the “eureka!” moment. There’s no doubt this is part of the process of creative thinking, but it’s only one part, and it often overshadows what comes before, and what comes after. 

What comes before “eureka!” is the context that allows that creative leap to take place. It is partly the history of the creative thinker, the skills and training they’ve acquired, often slowly and painfully, over the years (think of the years Da Vinci spent training in technique). It is partly the context of other ideas, from other thinkers, which inspire, inform, and incite: thinkers may build upon other thinker’s ideas, challenge them, riff off them, or rip off them - but in all cases, their great and ‘novel’ idea couldn’t have existed without the background and context of other great ideas. It is partly the context of time and opportunity, of random events that set off the chain of thought, of being in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time. 

Putting the “create” back in “creative” 

What comes after is the work that brings a creative idea to fruition. There are almost 7 billion people on this planet. That’s seven billion thinkers, some consciously working hard at generating new ideas, others idly day-dreaming, but all thinking. “There is no new thing under the sun”, goes Ecclesiastes, and statistically, that’s likely to be true. Very few of those creatives ideas, however, are brought to fruition, because it takes work, real work, to create something. OK Go are hardly the first people to think about using a car to make music: in 2009, Honda paved a road in Lancaster, California with strips that played (albeit badly) the William Tell Overture when a car drove over them. Somewhere out there, some one, watching the OK Go video, must be thinking to him or herself “I thought of that once!” The difference is they didn’t put in the work to bring those ideas to fruition. It took OK Go four months to set up the music video, and then four whole days to shoot it. Making 1157 instruments from scratch, planning and setting up the track, and working out the mundane logistical details doesn’t seem very glamorous, or creative. Getting 288 guitars and 55 pianos at short notice seems more the province of a supply clerk than an artist. The lead singer took lessons in stunt driving to prepare for the video, so he could drive a 1000kg car with the finesse of a musical instrument, while singing. It took four days of takes and re-takes until they got it right. Nowhere in there can we discern an “eureka!” moment, yet without all this, they wouldn’t have created something. 

When we think about teaching creativity, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach our children “get” creative ideas, when it turns out “getting” those ideas is only half of the problem. People “get” ideas all the time - and, with so many people on this planet, odds are that interesting ideas are being generated all the time. There’s a story I once heard about Christopher Columbus, and it goes like this: returning from his discovery of America, he was feted at a grand dinner, where guests sang his praises. One guest, however, jealous of the attention Columbus was getting, was heard to ask loudly what the big deal was. All Columbus did was sail west until he hit land: any one could do that. Columbus rounded on the man, and challenged him to balance an egg on its end. The man said it was not possible, and Columbus promptly took an egg, tapped it on the table so the shell flattened, and stood it on its end. “But any one could do that!” the embarrassed guest exclaims. Yes, replies Columbus, any one can - once someone does it first. 

Creative work is hard work

Creative work appears easier when reverse engineered (and I’ve often wondered whether this could be an easy heuristic to distinguish creative from non-creative work). We focus on the ingenuity of the idea, but ingenuity is only hard to achieve the first time, and easily copied the second. It is the wrong thing to focus on. Friends who are in the creative industry tell stories of clients asking them why they should pay so much - “I could do this myself” is often the refrain, whether its photography, writing or design. Yes, any one could do this: but it takes a creative to do it first. The ease with which something is replicated in subsequent reproduction is not indicative of its worth, or the worth of the work of the person who created it. 

If there’s any doubt that creative work is work, take a look at these screenshots from what is (in my opinion) OK Go’s most ambitious music video so far: White Knuckles, involving 12 dogs, performing complex stunts, and moving (almost) perfectly in cue to the music. It took four weeks to prepare, and 4 days and 124 takes to shoot (and it is noteworthy that they ended up using take 72 - yes, they went on for another 52 takes after the optimal one, just to be sure, just to try to do it better). It’s not the numbers that I want to draw your attention to though, but this screen-shot from the music video, of the band: 

Look at their faces: it is the look of concentration, of someone praying please, please, let this be the last take. It’s the look of someone working, hard. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Confucian ethics as you exercise

The last place I'd expect to see a quote from Confucius: the jogging track.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Black Swans and Old Lenses

I've always regretted that the switch to digital photography meant that my Voigtlander lenses sat in the dry cabinet, un-used. About the last time I used those lenses extensively was in Cambodia in 2004. Aside from a few weddings, they've seen little use since.

I've kept an eye out for various options for mounting them to a digital back, but since a Leica M9 is not really a viable option, I've waited. The Micro Four-Thirds system, with the Panasonic then Olympus cameras, seemed to offer the best chance, but I balked at the 2x crop factor. Then came the Sony Nex series.

True, they're still a 1.6x crop factor, but that's something I've grudgingly learned to live with on the Nikon D70 anyway, and I've had good experience with Sony cameras. I bought a Nex 5 and a Leica M-mount adaptor when they dropped the price, in advance of the Nex 7 coming out, and have been waiting for an opportunity to try it out.

As you can see from the shot of the swan, it's not bad at all. This was taken with the Voigtlander 50mm f3.5 Heliar that came with the T101 Anniversary set - my favourite lens, but oh so very difficult to use for fast moving subjects, and all the more so with focusing on an external LCD screen. The Nex's focus assist was turned on, which magnifies the centre of the image to allow for detailed focus, but in practice this takes so much time that only relatively stationary subjects stay in focus. Still, I am quite pleased with how this shot turned out. I could go on about the resolution and detail in the dark areas (in this case, a black swan is a very appropriate subject to test he resolution of a camera) but I what I like most is the feel of the lens: it looks like film, and has a certain aged look - and not the kind that comes with instagram or hipstamatic filters (though I have nothing against those, especially given the limitations of a smartphone camera — but it's nice to have the real thing once in a while though :)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Plumbing the past

A while back I thought of a great business idea: buy and mothball a computer system every 2 years, and then wait 20 years. Set up shop, and offer a service to help people recover their data from media which were no longer supported by current technology.

The first computers I used had 5¼-inch floppy disk drives (that really flopped), then saw the shift to 3½-inch drives (that no longer flopped, but were still called floppy), and then the first hard drives.  I saw the evolutionary dead-end that were the "super-floppies" (and even worked a temp job at Iomega's local office for a while), and then the rise of optical media, and then USB and flash drives.

Each time we crossed a threshold from one media to another, there was a brief window - a few years usually - where both systems of media existed side by side, and you could transfer data from one to the other: computers with 5¼-inch drives alongside 3½-inch drives in the mid-eighties; then 3½-inch drives with hard-drives; then a brief period where computers had hard drives, 3½-inch drives, and an Iomega Zip drive, before CD-ROMs took over, to be replaced in turn by DVDs.  When Apple got rid of the floppy drive from their iMacs in favour of an optical drive, that signaled the crossing of one threshold: similarly, the lack of an optical drive in the MacBook Air signals another threshold crossed.

I found all my old photo back-ups yesterday, a thick stack of CD-ROMs.  I spent today transferring them across to a hard-drive because in a few years, I don't think there will be computers with optical drives any more. Physical media aside, I wonder about the file format: besides transferring from one physical medium of storage to another, I wonder whether jpg files will be readable, or Nikon RAW files for example, will be readable.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

I used to blog: now I Facebook

I used to blog: now I Facebook. I used to spend hours editing, post-processing, and tweaking every photo: now I upload them 'as-is', or maybe with a few in-camera (i.e. in-iPhone) filters applied. I used to shoot on film, or large digital SLRs: now I shoot mostly on the iPhone.

I used to upload my carefully crafted images to flickr, and I used to post them in various groups for feedback, and (of course) appreciation: now I post them mostly on facebook, mostly for appreciation, or a few funny comments - 'for the lulz', in effect. I used to agonize and re-draft blog posts for hours, to get it right, to make sure they said what I wanted to be said, a habit I carried over initially to Facebook and Twitter: now, more likely than not, I'll post a status update with only 5 minutes of pondering.

From 2004 to 2008, most of my 'creative' (small 'c') output was on flickr and blogger, and it consisted of generating ideas (like this) in a style of writing that would have been familiar to essayists throughout the centuries, and in photos (articularly infra-red landscape shots and 'hockneyesque' composite shots which required hours of work in photoshop or GIMP). From 2007 onwards, most of the data I've generated has been on Facebook, mostly pithy observations (at best) and throwaway comments (at worst). Disposable ideas for a disposable age. Fast production for a culture of impatient consumption.

The brief and immediate have triumphed. There are still moments of considered, weighed and weighty pondering on Facebook (just as there were moments of the frivolous on blogger) but the balance has shifted. The fact that I am typing, and soon uploading, this on an iPhone shows how technology has shifted the foundations of our culture rapidly, giving us the new New even as we've barely got used to the current New. I used to joke that blogging was like maintaining a homepage, but without learning HTML; Facebook, when I first encountered it, seemed to me like blogging without content (back when 'content' meant 'original ideas you generated' rather than 'here's a video I like'). Twitter, i initially thought, would be like blogging without even the thought. It's more than that, of course, insofar as any tool is limited, or has it's potential fulfilled, by how people chose to use it: for every Twitter account that is nothing more than a series of retweets, or an endless moan about the minutiae of someone's sad life, there are many which genuinely offer insight - albeit 140 characters at a time.

And that's what is on my mind right now: how to bring the balance back. All this was spurred by a conversation with Wesley on the changes in photography over the years we've known each other, as well as the unexpected wave of nostalgia started by Steve Jobs's death. It's a bit of a cliche at this point in time to talk about moving forward, but I am reminded of Heraclitus: you can't step into the same river twice: the river has changed, and so have you.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

How to assemble a PC

No, we didn't really use the hammer. Or pliers. Or knife. But the screwdriver was used to short-circuit and start the computer when we were testing the motherboard. I spent the afternoon helping a friend put together a computer: good fun, and great catching up! :)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In Memoriam Steve Jobs

In memoriam Steve Jobs:

It's safe to say we're a Mac household. Over the past ten years my wife and I have owned, and enjoyed, many Apple products. I heard an interviewee on BBC radio today point out that people develop an emotional connection with Mac products that they don't with other products: how very true. We've never thrown away a single Mac product, and most of them still work. I didn't think I would be so moved by the death of someone I didn't know, but then again, a bit of him was in everything Apple made.

Everything on this table is a Mac, and all but one were because of Steve Jobs (bonus: spot the one Mac that isn't the result of Apple)

Clockwise from top left: MacBook Pro circa 2007; iMac circa 2000; iMac G5 (2005?); iBook G4 circa 2004; iBook G3 circa 2002; Titanium Powerbook circa 2003ish; iPad; iPad 2; MacBook Pro 2010

Small devices in front row: original iPod circa 2002; four-button iPod; 3rd or 4th ten iPod; iPod Shuffle 2GB; iPod circa 2007; iPod touch original; iPod shuffle (second gen?); iPhone 4. Oh, and a magic mouse.

Thanks for making our lives a little better: you'll be missed.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Showing versus Telling

I've been following the Egyptian protests on the radio, and it's been an interesting experience.

I grew up in the era of Television news, and I'm living through the age of the Internet press. I've been fed a steady diet of images and text, moving and still, broadcast and streamed, on-demand and pushed, collaborative and not. Recently, however, I've been so busy that the only news I've been able to consume has been on the commutes to and from work, the meal of choice being the BBC World Service.

It's strange listening to someone describe a scene to you, rather than seeing it yourself. Television shows; cellphone video footage shows; radio tells. Granted, there is an attempt at scene-setting - background sounds of protest dubbed over with commentary- but the basic mode of radio is description and telling. When a radio reporter says "These are the most amazing scenes I'd never have thought I'd see in Cairo", you're left largely to imagine what those scenes are.

On the Television, and on blogs, there's a clear division between commentary and viewing. A news reader will say "Let's watch this amazing footage coming out of Cairo", show a clip, without any commentary, and then tell you what you ought to think of it. A blogger will write "Just click on the link and watch the video", and then comment afterwards. On radio, however, the line between description of events (reporting) and interpretation of events (commentary) is unclear. The reporter both describes and comments at once.

You might think that I am implying that radio is less reliable as a source of news than Television, or other visual media. After all, seeing is believing, and with radio, you never see. However, I think quite the opposite happens: the apparent truthiness of video gulls us into a false sense of confidence. We think that video shows us the facts, and gives us the freedom to decide for ourselves, when an interpretation is implicit in the choice of what to shoot, what to focus on, who to interview, what to edit and juxtapose, and many other features of a video opaque to the viewer.

Radio, on the other hand, makes me painfully aware that someone, a human being with prejudices and opinions like me, is interpreting events for me. My experience of listening to the radio is one of questioning: I find myself being critical of the report in ways that I am not with video. I ask myself questions about the nature of the evidence for the conclusions reached, I question the objectivity of the report, I am skeptical of poorly supported and poorly reasoned commentary, and I am on guard. This same alertness is not present with watching the news on tv: you're more likely to just sit there and go "Gosh, that's a violent demonstration".

Radio is a poorer medium than video - it is less rich, conveys less information, is less compelling- but news reporting over the radio (at least of the kind we get from the World Service) makes for a richer experience than the passive consumption video, whether on tv or YouTube, promotes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Every nuclear explosion from 1945 to 1998

I find this visualisation (by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto) of every nuclear explosion from 1945 to 1998 compelling for so many reasons.

There's the strange video-game aesthetic to the whole thing, and not just any video-game aesthetic, but a particularly 1980s-arcade feel - the midi-like beeps and tones, the slightly jerky/stepped "zooming" effect, the crosshairs that extend to the edge of the screen (think Blade Runner, the scene where Deckard is analysing the photograph), the "score" tally at the top of the screen. It's Wargames - except every nuclear explosion here is real.

We spent the Cold War years worrying and wondering and fearing what a nuclear war might look like, but we nuked our planet over 2000 times in the 45 years represented in this video.

Once every 10 days, on average.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"The best camera is the one you have with you"

These are photos taken with my iPhone, with minimal processing.

the old capitol cinema

I view them in the same light as the photos I used to take with my Holga in '98 and '99: they are lo-res snapshots that capture a slice of life as I see it, walking around the city.

handbag spectrum

"The best camera is the one you have with you": I read this many years ago somewhere on the net (and now there's a book dedicated to it, as well as other articles), and it rings more and more true as each year goes by.

Statues on Orchard Road

I have many good cameras, but I often only have my iPhone with me: in a way, this is not so much trying to work around a limitation, as a return to the basics. Once resolution, sharpness and focus are out of your control (as they are with cheaper cameras) then composition is the only thing you can determine. Tone can be adjusted slightly afterwards, but shooting with the iPhone makes me concentrate on composition. I regard these photos as practice, as well as a record of life.

May the best hand win

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


diver, originally uploaded by Wahj.

This shot captures a lot of what scuba diving means for me - the sense of mystery and exploration, the alien landscapes (seascapes?) of coral reefs, and most of all, the fact that scuba diving is like flying - the closest we'll ever get to three-dimensionally free moving flying.

Though I've been scuba-diving since 2006, I've only recently got a proper underwater photography kit. Most of the photos I took on this dive trip to Pulau Aur were what I'd call "procedural" - the equivalent of tourist snapshots, albeit at depth. This is the only "art" shot I made on the whole trip, and even so it was a case of neccessity - the flash on my camera had limited range, and the whole photo came out too blue.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Penang: it's the food

penang gurney drive IR
View over Gurney Drive

So our little trip to Penang is over, and we're safe at home with the cats. The verdict on Penang: it's the food. I hate to say this, but all the historical heritage in Georgetown couldn't drag us away from the food. Now, next time I visit Penang, I'll soak up the history in Georgetown till it comes out of my ears ... but this trip was for the makan.

No 17 Jalan Irrawaddi

Not that that's all we did. There was some time for some history of a more personal nature - my wife went looking for her grandma's old house, which in the end we figured isn't standing anymore. All we have are pictures of where it might have been - but it was an interesting walk to get there, and it's something less than usual for us.

But in the end, it was all about the food =)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Fishing off Gurney Drive

fishing off gurney drive
Fishing Off Gurney Drive

Walked around today, looking for an old address that my wife remembered. Walking around, you see a city from street level, and you see the small things - like this boy fishing off Gurney Drive.


Though I've never been to Penang before, I have been to countless Penang Hawker food events at various hotels in Singapore - so it's quite something to finally get to Penang, and actually sample that same food in its natural environment. Although I tried very hard not to let the context influence me unduly (everything on holiday just seems better because (a) you're on holiday and (b) you have a vested interest in creating a positive memory, to justify the expense and trouble of all that travel) the food did taste better. Food-wise, Penang is all it's cracked up to be.

The G Hotel is slightly more cosmopolitan than we imagined ... I thought it was some sort of beach hotel, but it turns out that Gurney Drive overlooks more mudflats than beach, and the hotel is next to a shopping mall - well, to be fair, they're so close I'd call them conjoined. This is not a problem for Singaporeans - we just inserted more shopping into our plans =)

red moon over penang

After dinner, we had a short walk along Gurney Drive, and saw a red moon rising over the horizon. By the time we started photographing it, it was more blood orange, and over the course of our attempts to take a clear photo, it became yellow. The locals must've thought we were made, the way we contorted our bodies trying to find a stable spot for the camera.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009



The last time I went to the US, 11 years ago, it was my last big Journey as a student. It was the last time I traveled the way I traveled as a university student - you know: on a budget, dirt poor, hostels and backpacking and such. Everything after that was Vacations - because Vacations only exist when you Work, and indeed they are defined in contrast to Work. Vacations connote a minimum of 3-star hotels, room service, and bathrooms you don't have to share with the entire floor. Oh, and baggage that rolls on wheels, rather than weighs on your back.

This most recent trip was worse than a Vacation: it was Work. We were travelling to meet with several universities, along a route that was eerily similar to the route I took the last time - except everything was different. Instead of traveling with friends, it was colleagues. Instead of buses and trains, domestic flights. Instead of grubby youth hostels, business hotels. And instead of Seeing The World, it was Meeting Important People.

So I can't really say I got to see the US the same way I did in '98 - after all, to paraphrase Heraclitus, you can't go on the journey twice. The country has changed, and so have you.

dark city
Dark City

I did manage to sneak some time away to go for a few walks through the various cities - Washington and New York primarily - recapturing a bit of that old feeling of excitement, wandering alone through a foreign city. For various reasons (sheer exhaustion and the cold being high on the list) Boston was experienced primarily indoors, or within the various meeting rooms of various universities. New York remains for me one my favourite - if not the favourite - cities, for the simple reason that I've never felt like a stranger there - not when everyone feels like a stranger. There's an equality of alienation, and, because of that, a sense of being at ease. You're much more yourself than you could be elsewhere.

I have a dream
I Have a Dream

It's a bit ironic that the only time I can undertake major journeys now is when they are work-sanctioned: other than that, the thought of a long journey seems impossible, with the conflicting schedules my wife and I have. I have thought about returning to visit my old University in the UK, but such a trip seems impossible to plan now.

times square
Times Square


I have been reminded umpteen times by the wife that I haven't posted on this blog for quite a while, so I thought I'd finally post an update on few things that have happened - mostly trips abroad.

Let's start with Melaka:

Our second driving holiday in Malaysia. There's something nice about driving yourself on holiday - besides the fact that it's cheaper, it keep you closer to the ground, literally, but also figuratively in the sense you see more of the country. Chasing a double rainbow on the North-South highway driving home was an added bonus - she drove while I desperately tried my hand at that obscure field of photography called "Digital Infra-Red Rainbow Photography (moving vehicle sub-set, high-speed category)". Suffice to say that, had the shots turned out well enough to show, they'd be here.

face glimpsed through a door

Melaka was a nice quiet town to visit for a day. I'd say it reminds me of what Singapore was like in the early Eighties, when I was growing up, except it feels like the time warp is even longer than that - the seventies, it feels like. Life on Mars Melaka, as it were.

We stayed at a lovely little hotel (read: "boutique", as they mostly are nowadays - we don't really have a tradition of Bed and Breakfasts' in this region, unfortunately, so the evolutionary niche of "Hotel, Small, Quaint and Charming" has been filled by the boutique hotel ) called the Majestic, with a lovely attached spa, and enough Peranakan vibes to keep even the most hardcore TCS fan satiated.

the majestic melaka

No, we did not get enough Peranakan food. This fact alone makes a follow-up trip more a necessity than a possibility.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

4 Days to Change

Our host described Jakarta was a city of juxtapositions. How true: driving through the city is like a cutting through a layer cake of society: slums next to gated luxury apartments. Our driver took us on a short cut through a poor district, where the houses crowded onto the road and I could literally wind down the window and knock on someone's front door and where 50 metres after I saw a little boy taking a dump into an open drain, we emerged straight into a shopping centre where the Gucci and Prada was separated from the outside world only by the metal detectors and security guards.

One more thing: the Jakarta Post is counting down to Obama's inauguration on their front page: "4 Days to Change", stamped right across the banner title. How cool is that.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Pictures from a walk round the Padang.

The Cenotaph, first in infra-red:

then, for comparison, in visible light:
cenotaph visible

While I like both photographs, I think the photos make it quite clear why I go to the trouble of shooting in digital infra-red: it affords the opportunity to see the world in (literally) a different light.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fraser's Hill


Or Bukit Fraser, as it is now known.

A note to those driving up from Singapore, (as we did). If anyone tells you the journey will take 4.5 hours, or even 5.5 hours, don't believe them. We took 8.5 hours to reach the foot of Fraser's Hill. Admittedly, we did get lost a bit in Kuala Lumpur, and get caught in inner-city traffic, but I don't see how anyone can make the trip in 4.5 hours short of running the North-South highway (and its gauntlet of highway police) at insane speeds. We made better time on the return leg by ignoring the GPS, and following the advice of the hotel owner and taking a longer but faster route. This turned out to be the same route that Google Maps and Google Earth recommended, so if anything, I'd say the lesson from this is to trust the following in sequence for route advice: the experience and brains of people; the computing power of a Google application rooted in some massive server somewhere; and last of all, the rather small chip in your handheld GPS unit.

At the foot of Fraser's Hill

When we reached the foot of Fraser's Hill, we had to wait an hour as the final stretch of road is so narrow that the direction traffic alternates up and downhill on odd and even hours respectively. We got there at 6.05pm, so we had to wait till 7pm before driving up. Apparently, after 8pm and till 7am, the gates are left open and traffic is two-way - but take it from me, DON'T try it. I can't imagine driving that narrow road with its switchbacks at night, let alone two-way traffic on a road that in parts is really only one lane wide.

instruments 2

Speaking of GPS units, counting the 2 mobile phones I was carrying, there were a total of 4 GPS units in the car with us. If you'd told me 5 years ago that I'd be carrying 4 GPSes on me for one holiday, I would've laughed ... Anyway, for those so inclined, this second photograph tells you all you need to know about where and when the first photograph was taken (the watch is showing the altitude, for completeness' sake). You can go to Google Maps/Earth and figure it out.

Ye Olde Smokehouse

Home for the weekend was Ye Olde Smokehouse, one of the oldest hotels on Fraser's Hill, and a place for which it is almost impossible not to use the words "quaint" and "English" in describing. I dare you to stay there one night and not use these words. Go on. I mean, look at this:

The Smokehouse, Garden gate

Devonshire cream teas served every afternoon in an English garden, ivy-covered brick walls, vaguely Tudor-ish black and white buildings, four-poster beds, and more fireplaces that you could chuck a log at. And it was cold enough (at 1250m altitude) that you could very well chuck a log into the fireplace.

The garden, Smokehouse

New Haven Suite


Did I mention the cream teas? They were so good we went back for seconds, and spent a lovely afternoon reading in the garden. Not shown in the photographs, of course, is the rain that forced us indoors after a while, but even that was quintessentially (and quaintly) English.

afternoon tea

tea in the garden

What's there to do on Fraser's Hill, besides afternoon teas in the Garden? Well, I completed reading Book 2 of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and if you know how long the Baroque Cycle is, that tells you a lot. I did manage to take some interesting photographs of the many dew-laden spider webs you can find at dawn, when the hill is invariably shrouded in mist (or poking it's head into the underbelly of a cloud, depending on which way you look at it).

spider web net

dewy spider web

After having gone to the trouble of digging out my old Sony Cybershot and charging in in expectation of some lovely infra-red photography, I discovered, 450km too late, that I'd left the Hoya R72 infra-red filter at home. While not quite a complete disaster, it meant that all of my IR shots were hybrid IR/visible light shots (take a look at the larger photo of the garden, and compare it with the smaller photo below in visible light to see what I mean). Instead of the glowing white leaves that pure IR would produce, I got a faded green tinge, which resembles old hand-coloured photographs. Not too bad, but I allowed myself a facepalm moment for forgetting the pack the filter.

That's about all I can say about the trip for now.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Laksa, originally uploaded by Wahj.

Nothing beats Laksa for breakfast. Except maybe prata. Or Nasi Lemak.

But Laksa still edges, marginally, past them all.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Chopin in the Gardens

chopin statue, botanic gardens 1

A recent addition to the Botanic Gardens is this statue, donated by the Polish Embassy, of Chopin. It looks a bit strange at first sight - two figures in period costume at the top of the hill, and the piano keyboard is strangely abstracted, looking like some synthesiser, adding a slightly anachronistic touch to the whole thing ... as if the sculpture can't decide if it's traditional realist or some fancy abstract idealist thing ... but still it makes for some nice photos.

chopin statue, botanic gardens 2

The Botanic Gardens were a regular haunt for me every school holidays as a child, and I have very fond memories of it. There are many 'happy' places for me left - places where the resonances are all positive - places were I can take emotional refuge - and the Gardens are one of them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mac, fearless ...

... and more than a little daft. If Macavity were living in the wild, he would be the kind of cat who would find himself up a tree, mewling piteously, while some poor fireman climbed up a ladder to get him down - because even in this small apartment of ours, he regularly finds a way to climb up to spots where he subsequently can't get down from.

After a few minutes of meowing, when he figures out that we're not going to help him down, he usually manages to get down by himself.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More serendipity

This is one of those weird moments. I was walking along the Esplanade yesterday, and I realised that the construction noises from across the Bay were melding together rather nicely into an almost-musical pattern. I don't know what they were doing - piling works, some sort of hammering noise - but it came our rather tuneful and tone-ful, and more importantly, had a rather neat rhythm going on. Depending on whether you like these things, you'll either find this incredibly banal or intriguingly serendipitous. Enjoy =)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Is your fridge too cold?

... because, if it is, you might find what I just found: your eggs freezing to the container, such that when you open the box, the top half just comes away ...

You have been warned.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Wushu, originally uploaded by Wahj.

The WuShu performance at the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Windows: Hating every minute of it

Some time back I gave in and bought a PC - a Windows machine - as a gaming platform. This was partly because it was increasingly difficult for my MacBook Pro to serve as an office work station, a repository of all my photos and music, as well as a gaming machine. It was partly also because most games can only be played on a Windows machine.

While I wish I could say the PC is a great gaming machine, I can only say it is a great machine when it works. Using it only reminds of how my Mac "just works": in comparison, using my PC involves running through a list of arcane and semi-mystical actions in the hope of getting something to work properly.

50% of the time, I have to start the computer twice. The first time I push the power button, the lights come on, the fans start spinning, but nothing happens: the computer hangs before it even starts up, which is quite a feat. A restart is required to get the OS going.

EVERY time I start the computer, something goes wrong with the keyboard. While one could point to a lack of coordination between the peripheral maker (Razer) and Windows, the fact is that on a Mac, things just work. On my Windows machine, on the other hand, the keyboard consistently fracks up - certain keys won't work (different ones each time), the keyboard lighting goes haywire, and certain keys key registering long after they have been pressed. You can imagine the havoc this plays with the user experience - imagine not being able to wake your computer from screensaver mode because the key for one of the letters in your password is no longer working - or to be playing Warcraft, in the middle of PVP, and suddenly find a key not working, or your character inexplicably walking backwards without any control. It's galling to lose a PVP fight because your keyboard and your operating system won't see eye to eye. I've found a simple solution - the keyboard has to be unplugged and re-plugged each time - but the point is I shouldn't have to.

Most Windows users get used to this sort of routine, a secret arcane ritual of actions, restarts, unplugs, resets, digging deep into obscure directories for strange dll files, installing drivers - as the norm of the user experience. Mac users know that there is another way - a sensible alternative that is more humane to the user. We shouldn't have to be doing the software equivalent of thumping the computer on the side (though I'm guessing some PC users actually do that as well) in order to get things working properly.

The saddest thing? I still have to use Windows if I want to play my games, so I have to put up with this. Like millions of users out there, I'm going have to re-shape my notion of the "normal" user experience to accept what I can't change. My only consolation is that for work, and for my music and photos, I'll still use my good old MacBook Pro.

Friday, September 05, 2008



- in the morning, I read this XKCD cartoon, and am completely baffled (discussion thread on the comic here, for those who wish to read more). I make a mental note to myself to figure out what it could possibly be referring to.
- in the afternoon, I stop by Borders and this book catches my eye on the shelf. I buy it from pure curiosity (and because the blurb reminds me of Nabokov's Pale Fire)

It turns out, of course, that the cartoon was a parody (or perhaps homage?) of the book. So.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

More media than you can shake a stick at

I have more books than I have time to read; more DVDs than I have time to sit in front of a TV; more CDs than I have time to savour. I download podcasts from BBC's In Our Time and listen to them on the morning drive; I watch TED talks when I'm waiting around to meet people; I carry a book with me to the canteen when I have my lunch and coffee breaks. I still can't read, listen and watch faster than it piles up.

I used to savour albums one by one, and read and re-read my Sci Fi books till they fell apart (my old Asimovs in particular were read to pieces); now I have a pile of shiny new books that I don't have the time to read through even once, not properly, and CDs where I've not bothered to read the inserts or ponder the album art.

I have more media - more information - more data - more stuff than I can consume. Add in the video games (some of which have very rich narratives and story arcs) and this adds up to a huge pile. We live in such a media-rich, information-rich environment that each of us - every single one of us - probably has more data than the Library of Alexandria. That's the Library which was considered the sum of all human knowledge (well, in the West at least ...). That's a mind-boggling thought.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thoughts on the iPhone

Fig 1: Self-referential photo - a photo of a photo of myself taking a photo

(1) Singtel really needs to re-examine their concept of "reserving" an iPhone. I made my reservation a few months ago, and when collection day came around last week, I was told to select a one-hour time slot to collect it in, and I STILL had to queue to collect it. That's ridiculous. Reservations help the supplier: they gauge demand, place an obligation on the customer to commit, and in doing so, make it easier for Singtel to avoid over-stocking or lack of availability. In return for the customer's committment, the usual quid pro quo is to extend some privileges to the reserver - in this case, not having to wait in line for a product expected to have long queues. I've spoken to people who had it worse, who collected on the first day rather than the third as I did, and who feel the same way.

(2) Battery life: this seems to be a main complaint about the iPhone, but if anything, the battery life problems result from the fact that I use my iPhone much more than my Nokia - whereas the Nokia sits in my pocket unless I'm messaging or calling, the iPhone is always out - I'm using the PDA functions, I'm playing games, I'm using the GPS, I'm keeping track of my accounts, I'm posting to my tumblr blog ... As a result, the battery drains dramatically fast. I haven't even used it as an iPod yet, but that would completely kill the battery within a day.

(3) That tiny keyboard. Almost everyone I show my iPhone to asks "is the keyboard really un-usable?" The answer is: it takes getting used to. It'd be nice to have the numeric keypad text entry we're used to on Nokias and other phones, but the text messaging interface is usable. The threading of text messagings more than compensates - to be able to see and scroll through the history of a text conversation is one of those features that you never knew you needed until they gave it to you.

All in all, the iPhone is every bit the phone I wanted. I've started using it for things I never thought I would with a phone - mobile blogging, for example, straight from the phone to tumblr. I should take this opportunity to plug my tumblr blog again, since I expect it'll be seeing much more action. I intended it to be more a photoblog, but now it's morphing into something where I can post quick ideas and pictures as and when they come to mind, all powered by the iPhone.

Omnivore's Hundred

I haven't come across a meme in a long while which interested me, but this one from Tym caught my attention. It's also one of the few memes where I've had to actively use Google to find out what the items were!

The other nice thing about this meme is remembering the first (and in many cases only time ) eating some of the more exotic foods on this list - such as ...

  • The snake, croc and frogs all came courtesy of the "Living Off The Land" course in the Army. All these things (plus monitor lizard and doves) were killed and cooked, by and for us, in the course of one day. After regular dinner was cancelled, it was eat them or go hungry. I can confidently assure you that everything tastes like chicken. Also, given the quality of the food the army was serving then, there was in most cases no difference, and in some a distinct improvement.
  • The hare (well, rabbit really) was courtesy of the Malaysian flatmate of a friend in university, who asked us over for dinner and gleefully challenged us to identify the meat we were eating. After puzzling over the small bones and dimunitive carcass for a while, we got it right.
  • The fresh wild berries were picked off a hedge that bounded a convent I walked by often. One day I noticed there were berries, wondered if they were edible, and confirmed they were. I hope the nuns didn't mind.
  • Almost all the Japanese foods are courtesy of some buffet here or there, including the fugu, which I didn't even know was fugu until I checked the menu after - had I known, I would have paid attention. Fugu deserves your attention. Sea Urchin I had once, and decided I would never again.
  • Krispy Kremes ... ah well. On the subject of fast food, I even remember where my first Big Mac was - the MacDonalds next to Bras Basah Complex. And yes, that Big Mac seemed much, much bigger than they do now.
  • Bagel and Lox came courtesy of a sandwich Seah Street Deli used to make, called Lox Stock and Bagels.

The Omnivore's Hundred
1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you've eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese (aside: doesn't this one just sound obscene?)
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (unfortunately, never both at the same time)
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat's milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth US$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald's Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S'mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs' legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (as with Tym, I believe kway chap qualifies)
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail (to my deepest regret)
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Monday, September 01, 2008

Carrot seedlings

Carrot seedlings, originally uploaded by Wahj.

This was a Teachers' Day present this year. I received them on Friday, watered them on Saturday, and was surprised to see them sprout on Monday. I hope they survive ...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

the heart asks pleasure first

the heart asks pleasure first, originally uploaded by Wahj.

The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain-
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

- emily dickinson

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Singapore Museum Night Festival

fire dancer 2, originally uploaded by Wahj.

Fantastic show at the Night Festival last Saturday. Part of me regrets not being able to photograph the magic, but another part appreciates the fact that moments of magic like that are best remembered, not recorded.