Sunday, September 26, 2004

Statue Feet


Statue Feet, originally uploaded by Wahj.

Another photograph from the Cambodia trip. Wandering through the ruins, one suddenly comes across a statue like this. The temples in Angkor Wat were full of statues left with only their feet - the victims of defacement ancient or modern.

Booking Out

Anyone who's ever done National Service here knows what "booking out" and "booking in means". It's not so bad as a reservist - for one, I get to decide the book-out and book-in timings this time round (except when my CO makes a decision), and so I've managed to give my company the night off for the past few days, though we've had to fight hard to get things moving fast enough for us to book-out on time. Yesterday, for example, we had cancelled dinner (a step in the right direction) so the guys could leave earlier, but then the training programme was so packed that it wasn't till dinner-time that we could leave, and even then I had to convince both HQ and the trainers to stop the remaining training and resume on Monday.

I'm off to a nice dinner at Jerry's now - looking forward to something lamby and juicy after army food (which, admittedly, isn't at all bad now). I've spent most of this day just sleeping, enjoying my comfy bed, the peace and quiet of home, and not having people constantly asking me what to do.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Confessions of a Wargamer

I've decided to start a separate blog for my wargames stuff, since this blog is increasing cat/photography/cat-photography oriented.

(except for the occasional strange rant)

So, with a ta-da and a flourish, here are the Confessions of a Wargamer.

(Be warned - it is slightly obessive in a specialised hobby-interest sort of way)

Watching the Reverse Bungee


Watching the Reverse Bungee, originally uploaded by Wahj.

The last of my photos from Eye the City. This is the most ordinary of the three, but I like it for very personal reasons - the sense of a lazy afternoon with this family watching the reverse bungee jump; the slight sense of mystery, with only the backs of their heads visible; and the sense of optimism ... I guess that's what I liked most about it - like I said before, I was consciously trying for something more optimistic and forward looking than the ratehr pessimistic nostalgia that I felt dominated the event.

It's not a great photo, but it's one I'm comfortable looking at again, which is enough for me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

New Kitten


New Kitten 1, originally uploaded by Wahj.

New kitten that sister-in-law has adopted. Almost all mammalian babies are cute when small and fluffy, this one (as yet un-named) certainly no exception.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Walking skyscraper


Walking skyscraper, originally uploaded by Wahj.

Another shot from the last day of the last year. This was the most "composed" of my photographs, in the sense that I saw the location a few months before on a walk through town, decided it made a pretty quirky photo, and returned to it on that day to shoot it again.

I waited a fairly long time for some human interest to walk through the scene, and only two people did in the end.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Sausage splash


Sausage splash, originally uploaded by Wahj.

Just had to post this picture. On the right: one bratwurst sausage. On it's right: a knife.

On the left: one copy of Patrick O'Brien's The Nutmeg of Consolation.

Linking the two: one long stream of sausage juice that spurted out when the knife touched the sausage. In the middle: one lucky GPS that avoided getting hit.

For some reason, I really like the way the sausage spurt has splashed across the table, in an aesthetically pleasing straight line. =)

In other news today: K and I found our first geocache! (hence the GPS at the lunch table. If you look closely at the photograph, you can also see the words "I found it!" on the newspaper, in a seredipitous coincidence). This was the geocache called Doubletree, and we had a pleasant walk in Sembawang to find it. I refer you to K's blog for pictures, and a fuller description.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

What happens when you lose the memory card from your camera

Stumbled upon this site today. I can't decide if it's an ingenious hoax, an awful invasion pf privacy, or the most creative way I've ever seen of giving meaning to mundane snapshots . You might want to start with the explanation page that puts everything into context. I'll definitely be following this one as the year unfolds.

Balloon Man


Balloon Man, originally uploaded by Wahj.

Finally got back my negatives from the Eye the City event last year. They've also saved me the trouble of scanning, with a CD-ROM of the negatives. I'll be posting some of the few nicer photos from that day.

This one was taken around 7pm on 31st Dec 2003. The street performer had just put his head into the balloon, and the little girl was fascinated by this strange creature with the bubble head. It was a surreal moment, and I was lucky to have my last few frames left to shoot this.

None of my photos were selected this year, and in retrospect (having seen the selection) none of them met the criteria - a certain nostalgic, backward-looking sentimentality for the year gone past. Most of my photographs this year were consciously taken with a view towards moving away from that sentimentality, which I wasn't very comfortable with anymore. I tried for a more optimistic, quirky view of the times, and having seen the negatives in detail at last, I'm quite happy with the few shots where I managed to get a sense of this. (success rate is still very poor though: out of 36 shots, I only found 4 that I liked in the end)

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Faster. More Intense.

My taxi driver this morning couldn't get the credit card reader to recognise my card. So he swiped it again.

Harder.

And again - faster, and with increasing violence. Thanks to him, a groove has now been worn into a pristine card, after about 20 swipes that would've cut through the machine were there an edge on my card.

It's interesting how primitive our reactions are. People waiting impatiently at a pedestrian crossing will press the button repeatedly, with increasing frequency, and harder, even though it makes absolutely no difference to the machine. To it, a button push is just a button push, regardless of how limp-wristed or muscular the push was. The same thing happens in lifts (although I suspect people engage in intense button pushing partly as a means of avoiding eye contact in a cramped space). For all our sophistication, our instincts are still wired for a world of simple physics and interactions - action causes equal and opposite reaction, our minds tell us, so to get a bigger reaction, just start with a bigger action.

All this ignores the fact that our world is peopled with machines and technology that mediate our actions from the final reaction. The card-swiping has nothing to do with how fast or well the credit card reader processes the transaction, because of the multiple intervening steps between the start (swipe card) and the end (get printout), but because the mediation is transparent to us, we assume that one directly causes the other.

If we think of society, and social structures, as mediating our actions in a similar way, we see how simplistic thinking like this about cause and effect ultimately underlies some really dubious decisions. Like invading another country as a solution to security problems. Or monetary incentives to declining birth rates.

Or swiping someone's credit card through the reader with the force of ten ginzu knives.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Infra Red Photographs


Iffy by Infra Red 3
Originally uploaded by Wahj.
Took a bit of cut and pasting, but I finally managed to get two photos in one post.

One of the problems photographing cats (like Iffy here) is trying to get that oh-so-cute look they have with their pupils wide open. This is very hard to photograph - it has to be dark for their pupils to dilate so much, which means slow shutter speeds, and therefore often a blurred image (and low contrast to boot). I realised a few weeks ago that the answer was right in front of me: the nightshot mode on the Sony digicam shoots in infra-red, so the pupils don't constrict, and the shutter speeds remain reasonable. The only downside is a greenish cast to the photo, which I corrected in PixelEnhance by making it black and white.


IR006
Originally uploaded by Wahj.


The second photo is from the ruins of Beng Melea in Cambodia, this time with traditional infra red film (Kodak HIE). Very troublesome to work with (load and unload in complete darkness, temperature limitations, film window on camera back has to be sealed off), but worth it all for the surreal, glowing look.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Readability

One of the things I love about the little corner of the blogosphere I'm in is the endless supply of interesting links from others blogs.

Like this one from T's blog. I have actually had to use readability tests as part of my work (which involves, among other things, reviewing textbooks) and would've loved to have had this site around to calculate the readability scores.

Here's the readability report for this blog:

Readability Grades

  • Kincaid: 9.5ARI: 10.6
  • Coleman-Liau: 10.3
  • Flesch Index: 66.2
  • Fog Index: 12.9
  • Lix: 42.5 = school year 7
  • SMOG-Grading: 11.2
Sentence info
  • 14397 characters
  • 3243 words, average length 4.44 characters = 1.40 syllables
  • 146 sentences, average length 22.2 words
  • 52% (76) short sentences (at most 17 words)
  • 26% (38) long sentences (at least 32 words)
  • 19 paragraphs, average length 7.7 sentences
  • 3% (5) questions
  • 45% (66) passive sentences
  • longest sentence: 100 wds (at sentence 17)
  • shortest sentence: 1 wd (at sentence 43)

Word usage

verb types:

  • to be (94)
  • auxiliary (24)

types as % of total:

  • conjunctions 6(195)
  • pronouns 10(315)
  • prepositions 12(403)
  • nominalizations 1(40)
Sentence beginnings
  • pronoun (52)
  • interrogative pronoun (4)
  • article (9)
  • subordinating conjunction (4)
  • conjunction (6)
  • preposition (5)
As with all statistics, the question is "What does all this mean?", so I'm going to mull over this and try and come to some conclusions on my style of writing. Am I starting too many sentences with pronouns? Are 7.7 sentences too many for a paragraph? Hmmm ...

Jumping through hoops

It's the season for reading: having ploughed through The Wisdom of Crowds yesterday, and The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons in my mini Dan Brown marathon last week, I've just finished How Would You Move Mount Fuji? (subtitled "Microsoft's Cult of The Puzzle").

In a nutshell, the book examines the types of logic and lateral thinking puzzles that Microsoft is famous for asking candidates during job interviews. The title is one example. Others include:

  • Which way should the key turn in a car door to unlock it?
  • How many times a day do a clock's hands overlap?
  • How would you locate a specific book in a big library, without a catalogue or a librarian to assist you?

It tries to both analyse the history of how puzzles came to be part of the Microsoft interview (and in so doing gives a short history of IQ testing), as well as giving examples of the kinds of puzzles that are used, and a critique of them. (an excerpt for those who'd like to read more)

One of the myths/mis-conceptions debunked throughout the book is the notion that the ability to solve these puzzles has anything to do with predicting the potential employee's future job performance - in fact, the (reasonable) conclusion it reaches is that these logic puzzles serve at best to highlight unsuitability - i.e. if you can't solve the puzzles, you're likely to not do well in the job, but if you do solve them, or solve them well, it doesn't correlate to better performance either.

I must confess to being intrigued by these kinds of puzzles - I like the challenge of solving them, even though I only do moderately well on lateral thinking puzzles. (I've got better over the years though, which highlights another flaw with the assumption of IQ/intelligence testing as a measure of "raw" or "innate" intelligence - trainability) The use of IQ, logic, or lateral thinking puzzles is just another expression of the assumption that selection for jobs/placement in schools/etc can be done by making candidates jump through increasingly difficult hoops, until the required number are left. (I had to jump through one of these hoops when I was 12 to get into my secondary school, and again at 18 on the way to getting my scholarship)

The problem is that hoop-jumping has little or nothing to do with what the candidate is being selected for - unless your future job is to solve IQ puzzles full-time, then your performance in solving these very abstract tests is mostly irrelevant.

It would be somewhat relevant if the tests measured generic intelligence, but that concept is itself fraught with pitfalls and traps. We're each intelligent to varying degrees in so many different ways that it's a poor fit to label someone as "dumb" or "smart", and the world we operate in has so many different requirements for these varying expressions of intelligence that actual performance in life depends more on context than on IQ - i.e. being in the right place at the right time (such that your talents are relevant) is more important than being high-IQ (which explains why success in life doesn't correlate to IQ, and the existence of high-IQ plumbers as well as professors).

As a teenager, I was fascinated by IQ tests: they provided another measurable component in a highly competitive academic environment, and I (and quite a few of my friends) actively sought them out. Over the years though, they've become increasingly irrelevant when I realised that they didn't have anything to do with the really important things about a person - like integrity and soundness of character, for example. Or whether that person was nice. Or had leadership ability. Or had huuuge ..... tracts of land (depending on what you were looking for =) I still like to try these puzzles though, but I view them as mental gymnastics more than anything else. A similar motivation lies behind the wargaming as well.

(Wargaming is more fun though - pit your wits against someone else, and play with toy tanks: could it get any better?)

Monday, September 13, 2004

The Wisdom of Crowds

On a slightly less eerie note, I have to mention that I've come across an excellent book, The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki, Little Brown, 2004)

One sentence summary: despite the common belief that crowds operate at the lowest common denominator of intelligence, if handled right, a group can make decisions that are better than even the most intelligent person within the group.

Think about that. Most of us (me included) have a healthy skepticism about the ability of a large group of people to make a rational decision, let alone the best decision. We think about mobs, we remember our experiences sitting in various committee meetings where no matter how intelligent the individuals in the committee were, the group level of intelligence (as expressed in decisions made) seemed to gravitate to the lowest common denominator. We have our own (often elitist) distrust of "the masses", and the opinions expressed by the masses. I see this all the time in my work - in fact, I've expressed this opinion several times. We tend to trust the single wise leader, or an expert, over the (we assume) vast, ill-informed, uneducated masses.

But Surowiecki argues that, co-ordinated in the right way, the collective decision generated by a group is better than any individual's, even (and especially) the experts in a field. He suggests that the correct means of co-ordinating a group's decision is not via consensus, but via aggregation. If you've sat in a committee, you're familiar with consensus - discussion, debate, and finally a resolution of differing and diverse opinions into one "best" answer (with varying degrees of compromise or caving-in, depending on how tyrannical your chair is). Surowiecki points out the many pitfalls of this method - strong voices tend to dominate (strong either through persuasiveness, or by virtue of position or expertise) which herd the diverse opinions into one corral; once a majority of people have declared support for one idea, others tend to suppress their dissent; and discussion tends to reinforce established ideas, rather than encourage new ones, or recognise that the old ideas are no longer relevant (what he calls "groupthink".

Aggregation, on the other hand, is as simple as voting. It is the averaging out of all individual opinions, and Surowiecki offers some very convincing case studies of how this actually has worked in real-life - here's a link to an extract about this.

I like this idea. I like it because it appeals to my own fundamentally democratic beliefs. We disparage and underestimate The People too much - the very term "The Masses" has connotations of mob rule ("the blind masses") and irrational behaviour, but Surowiecki shows that properly handled, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and we can trust the wisdom of the crowd.

Aside: one of the things mentioned in the book is how trading markets can be used to value almost anything, and how they predict future events more accurately than experts. For example, he mentions the Hollywood Stock Exchange, where you can buy shares in actors and movies, and where the aggregated opinion of the masses (expressed in the value of a movie or actor's stock) has turned out to be a reliable predictor of how well these movies and actors do.

BlogShares is another example of this - an online "stock market" for buying fictional shares in blogs, where the share price of a blog should (and probably does) indicate a blog's potential for growth quite accurately (after reading the book, I wonder if this whole blogshares thing isn't some corporation's sneaky means of identifying potentially profitable blogs so they can invest in them. hmmm.) Unlike HSX, Blogshares uses "play" money, and so players only get kudos and not real profits, but it's still interesting. Here's how this blog is doing (I wasn't even aware that this existed until T pointed it out to me).

Synchronicity

Carl Gustav Jung's a scary man. As a literature undergrad, I took a course on Jungian criticism, and the ideas I came into contact with - his belief in the existence of archetypes, the notion of the shadow - unnerved me so much I lost at least one night's sleep over them. No doubt Jung would've said I'd experienced a sense of the numinous.

My fascination with Jung carried over to my interest in Joseph Campbell's work on mythology, which I've already blogged about earlier. That, in turn, led to my interest in divination, and in my collection of tarot cards. Tarot cards are about the only thing that I can say I have a collection of: between K and I, we have about 10 decks of cards, ranging from the Vertigo Tarot (based on the Sandman comics, and illustrated by Dave McKean), the gorgeous Cary-Yale Visconti deck (a birthday present), to my latest aquisition, the Victoria Regina Tarot, which is truly a work of art (bought for the engravings more than anything else).

Which brings me to synchronicity, which was Jung's way of explaining coincidences. I brought the Victoria Regina Tarot to the game on Sunday, and when a friend and I opened the as yet un-shuffled deck, the first and last cards were The Magician and The Fool. He shuffled the deck, played around with it a while, and at one point, spread the cards out on the table. I reached in and picked one from the middle. It was the Magician. He reached in and picked one from the middle. It was ... you guessed it, The Fool. Jung would've called it synchronicity, a scientist would've called it coincidence, and an occultist would probably read something into the nature of the two major arcana cards that we'd picked out. I'm somewhere in between all of that - as a wargamer, I've seen a lot of strange unstatistical results, and my friends know me as someone who believes more in luck than in statistics.

(In case you're wondering, I do have my own peculiar beliefs about divination systems like tarot cards. I believe they don't tap into any spiritual power, but to something more powerful - the unconscious. Each of us has, buried somewhere in our minds, a fairly reliable inner voice that has most of the answers to our problems and queries, but which we filter, censor, and edit that voice of instinct until it's unrecognisable. Also, we don't really like some of the answers that we instinctively know are right. Things like the I Ching and tarot are means of allowing that voice to slip past our rational censoring mechanisms, and express its messages to us. In effect, the internal, personal and often emotional wisdom is re-packaged as an external voice, which satisfies our need for affirmation and is deemed more palatable and reliable because it comes from someone/thing else. Yes, this theory is a wierd mixture of rational thinking and pop-psychology, and is probably more indicative of the fact that I came into it from via Jung, rather than via astrology, but it satisfies both my logical and illogical nature. And a man has to collect something ... = )

Monday, September 06, 2004

Geocache - not found

Our first attempt at finding a geocache failed quite miserably.

I was hoping to find this one, which is on the route from the nature reserve to MacRitchie reservoir, a route that K and I have hiked before. Two of my army buddies came along for the hike, and we covered good ground, making 4 klicks in about one and a half hours to reach the site.

Once there though, the actual cache itself eluded us. The clue was that it was "resting on metal", and the only metal visible was the girders supporting the boardwalk, but a search of the area around the approximate location given by the GPS turned up nothing. Quite disappointing for our first attempt at finding a geocache - perhaps I'll try an easier one next, like this one on the top of Bukit Timah hill, or maybe this one, which is in the city centre and could even conceivably be done during lunch hour. We did set a good pace though: 8-10km in 3 hours, which is very respectable exercise.

Aside: nature trails are now quite fancy. Wooden boardwalks have replaced most of the former dirt (i.e. mud) trails, which is good is all sorts of ways - it keeps hikers and the ecosystem separate, allows wildlife (like snakes, which we saw one of, a dark thin quick thing that slithered across the track incredibly fast and disappeared) to pass in safety under the trail, and keeps you clear of mud in the rain. The only drawback I can see is that hikers now make a lot of noise - clomping heavy boots, and the tapping of walking sticks on the wooden planks.

Another aside: what is it with these walking sticks? We saw a whole bunch of hikers armed with them, with one guy holding two of those high-tech, collapsable, lightweight space age material ones. They seem to be the latest fashion accessory for the well-dressed hiker, and there's a clear demographic that uses them - the young and hip who go hiking in the latest, shinest gear, nubile young things who venture into a mosquito-ridden forest wearing spagetti-straps and shorts. People who hike to be seen, as strange as that thought might be. Well, if they choose to sacrifice their delectable flesh to the mosquitoes so I won't get bitten, that's actually quite fine by me - I didn't get a single bite yesterday, despite having casually dismissed the offer of insect repellant, and I figure they must have had much juicier targets than me to go after.

Yet another aside: Bukit Timah hill was really, really crowded. I've always thought of the nature reserve as a refuge of peace and quiet, but on Sunday, we had coachloads of people swarming around the place. There was some sort of company outing (man with megaphone directing people, bored participant with paperback who obviously doesn't want to be there and so has brought along something to read - we've all been there), there was a busload of kids for an on-the-spot drawing competition (I used to do those as a kid ... never won anything, could never match up to those savant types who would produce incredibly detailed renderings in just one hour flat ...) and various roving bands of hikers ranging from moderately serious looking ones to your giggly, flouncy, completely so you-cannot-be-serious groups. I looked up the hill as we passed it, and there was a column of people trudging up it like a wave of ants.

Oh, and two more things. We saw a gliding lizard near the geocache, which is the most exciting wildlife sighting I've made in Bukit Timah since the greater racket tailed drongo I saw more than ten years ago. A beautiful lizard: I thought it was a butterfly at first, the shape of the skin-flap "wings" were so similar, and the coloration was a rusty orange with spots. It glided away from us in a smooth flight, and again when we pursued it to its tree, and was gone after that.

Second thing: if you're on a hiking trail in Bukit Timah, and you hear someone shout "BIKE!" a split second before a burly caucasian barrels past you in a whirring of gears and a backwash of sweat, you are not actually on a hiking trail. You are on a bike trail. Resist the temptation to trip the next one who near-misses you, make way for them (mechanical contraptions have a place in the nature reserve too) and make your way to a hiking trail ASAP!

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Follow the white rabbit


Rabbit Bangkok
Originally uploaded by Wahj.

I took this photo in Bangkok last year - one of those incongruous moments when you're suddenly walking down the street and out of nowhere, there's a gigantic white rabbit just sitting there on the pavement.

I remember consciously trying to use the windows on the car to frame the rabbit's reflection, and my own, and being pleased about that: my only regret is that the light was not as bright as I would've liked for this shot. As it is, I've already processed it to brighten the red in the rabbit's eyes, to bring some emphasis to an otherwise uniformly dull (as far as contrast and light are concerned) picture.

(I sense the pendulum beginning to swing back towards photography, as far as my hobby-interests are concerned: I have two big hobbies - wargaming and photography - and I tend to bounce back and forth between them as far as time and money spent are concerned ... this feels like the beginning of a photo-intensive phase)

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Day off

Teacher's day holiday. Accomplished the following:

(1) Air-conditioning finally repaired. Is it colder now in the bedroom? We'll find out in a while - I've set the temperature to 16 degrees to see if it really gets cold.

Which makes me think about when I was studying in England, and 16 degrees would've seemed quite warm.

When it suddenly occurs to me that that was 10 years ago. Which makes me feel very old all of a sudden. Sudden urge to go and dig up old photo albums (the three years I spent in University being quite well-documented photographically, thanks to my trusty Minolta which died some time after) successfully resisted, for I have to continue this list.

(2) Had late breakfast/lunch at Thasevi's. Which accomplished nothing except allowing me to add another waypoint to my GPS. Which is good.

Which brings me to another aside. I decided to get rechargeable batteries since the GPS guzzles them fast. Initial run was disappointing: the first set did not last 4 hours, but the manual (yes, the batteries, like everything else, come with a manual now) did state that 3-4 complete cycles of charging and discharging would be needed to achieve maximum capacity, so I've charged them again and loaded them in.

Another thing I'm quite interested in is the figuring out the eTrex's performance in battery save mode. The manual indicates that in battery save mode the GPS receptor is intermittently turned on and off. What I want to know is how badly accuracy and tracking is affected. I've already noticed that in a vehicle travelling at speed, the GPS tends to lag when turns are made (as when exiting a highway) or when slowing down quickly - I suspect the GPS interpolates your course and attempts to predict in the absence of a firm connection. This has resulted in some very strange looking tracks when the GPS suddenly realises it's been wrong for the past 20 seconds - you're sitting still at a red light, and according to the GPS you're still doing 70km/h - and jumps shame-facedly to the correct co-ordinates. I suspect that at the speeds I will primarily be using the GPS for (hiking) this slight loss of accuracy won't matter: what will matter will be being able to go at least 24hrs on one set of batteries, which can only be accomplished in said mode.

Anyway, back to the list

(3) Caught up on sleep. Played with cats. This very important, this.

Did not fly my kite in the end.