Friday, December 24, 2010

Singaporean Christmas

After wandering through the muggy tropical night, aimlessly wondering what Christmas is all about (and such tropes), I decided to rest my quickly blistering feet by hopping on a train.

Disembarking I found myself on a main avenue, Raffles Road, walking on past parks and fountains. In an underpass I stumbled past some hip young adults and teens who'd reclaimed the space for practicing break dancing moves.

The youth here, as someone observed, are culturally just hitting the 1970s. Which is all good by me. I hope they like Stevie Wonder.

Following the crowds past the regal hotel driveways I found myself crossing a bridge towards the Marina Bay hotel - the new, casino-friendly, wildly expensive, let's-take-a-shot-at-being-Dubai resort that made international headlines opening earlier this year.

As a foreigner I went into the casino - they charge Singapore residents $100 to enter to discourage gambling. If your passport isn't local you get in free and are free to spend as much as you like.

Singapore has a few things to learn about casinos. I can give them some tips, having been in most of the ones Reno offered.

First - don't make them open and airy. Paths should be convoluted, and entrances hidden. Instead there are plenty of helpful people there waiting to show you the way out - using the broad, easily navigable paths.

Second - mix all the games together. That way if you do poorly at blackjack you can turn around and try slots or roulette. Also: clocks? Seriously? Not a good idea.

Third - I saw exactly, looking carefully, two other white folk. Now, since Singapore is a multi-ethnic society I can't know for certain that the thousands I looked upon weren't perhaps from Hong Kong, or Malaysia. But I don't think the $100 is keeping the Singaporeans out.

The rest of the place was pretty nice - skating rink, food and shops. I walked back across another bridge, a double helix of DNA, (with geeky AT and CG lights - it was nifty) and skirted the waterfront. I found myself by a church - the oldest in Singapore as it happens - right as people were entering for a midnight service. Raised Episcopal (American Anglican) I decided to go inside and sing some hymns.

The hymns were the best part. The service was pretty confusing - lots of elements that Episcopalians leave out, I guess, and the sermon was just plain awful. People started texting, reading, looking at event calendars, chatting... I'm glad I wasn't the only one who tuned out: most of the congregation did.

Around 1:30 I got back to my hostel, unable to walk. Sleeping-in I start Christmas around 11 am by Skyping family. In the hostel Mickey and Scrooge are in the background quoting Dickens.

Singaporean Christmas. Not a bad thing at all.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

People Who Need People

If you've never lived in a hostel you'll find something out very quickly: life here reverts back to the collegiate dorm. If you never stayed in one of those, then... well, that's the only experience that mirrors it.

I spoke for hours with a Londoner who is adrift, without a degree or career, wondering what she wants out of life.

I spoke for hours with a German business start-up designer about Jared Diamond and cultural exceptionalism.

I spoke with Cuban underwater archaeologist, stopping over on his way to Indonesia for his next project.

These are three of the seven roommates I have. And I've only been here three full days.

But, while the delightful conversations are what I most cherish, the dormitory living doesn't end there. The shared sex bathrooms, the beanbag furniture, toast for breakfast, and the huddling in the common room: these are the hallmarks that make me feel ready to go register for classes tomorrow.

From San Francisco to Scotland to Singapore I've hosteled all over. The nicest I ever had was in Istanbul. The worst was Belfast. But they're basically the same. The marks of a good hostel:

Not too many in a room - blankets and bedding provided.

Breakfast, even a token, provided.

Sufficient showers for guests and clean bathrooms.

Nice staff and a nice place to hang out.

Free wi-fi.

If your hostel has these things it's a good joint. Most backpacker's and student hostels will. If they don't have these basics then you should find a place that does. Some try and be buddy buddy - tours! trips! join us Tuesday night for ____ in the common room! Frankly I don't care for these. On the other hand I've been in places where 18 are in a room and no one talks to each other at any time. So happy mediums are worth looking into.

The best breakfasts were in the UK - Liverpool, particularly, had a great full breakfast. Unfortunately many hostels still don't have wi-fi, or internet is just free on the computers provided. This always leads to bottlenecking and unhappy techy hostelers, which is increasingly all of them. If it has neither of these then they're being stingy.

Laundry generally isn't provided, as a service or with machines. There are too many issues to deal with to also have to calm hostelers losing socks and fighting for the next free machine. Don't expect it.

I've heard of places that charge for bedding, which is ridiculous - you are paying for a bed, toast, and a little security. Speaking of which - expect in most to pay a key deposit for either a room or hostel front door key. If you want a locker they probably will charge if they have them.

My current arrangement, 'The Inn Crowd 2' has all of this. The only drawback is that power strips are in the common room, meaning that I can't do simple tasks like charging my phone or computer in my dorm room. Instead everyone sits around in the commons while their tech powers up. In this case it leads to a fairly sedentary group of backpackers. In my specific case it apparently leads to lengthy blog updates.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


...isn't as bad as I thought. But it's currently peaking, so I'm sure as hell in doors. I'm not a rabid canid or a Londoner, after all.

But there are two nice Londoners in my hostel.

Singapore. After an uneventful flight rife with fun-inducing turbulance (it's like a roller coaster!) I got in around midnight. I bought a sim card for my phone, and now have a new telephone number to use for Singapore business.

Then I went to my hostel, checked in and slept in until 8. Taking my new metro card I canvassed the areas I need to know for meetings coming up, went to the main branch of the National Library (what year was it, again, that the world's libraries decided to modernize and make all of their walls glass? 2003?) and Anderson Junior College, where I'll supposedly be teaching.

The MRT (trains) are really great. I hope to find a decent apartment near to my work fairly soon - two weeks would be great for a January 1st move-in. In the meantime I'm in a nice little hostel, the Inn Crowd, in an eight bed mixed dorm.

So far the only downside is that my right foot is acting up, and a limping 6' ang mo (trans= roughlt 'red hair' or 'red devil barbarian') like me tends to stand out pretty badly. (Incidentally I'm working in Ang Mo Kio, which translates to 'red tomatoes'. It's MP is the PM, Lee, too.)

So far it feels like New York - enclaves of ethnic groups, a little grimey, but pretty darn modern. Taking the MRT basically all around the city, most of it above ground, I got a good idea of the predominance of NYC-style apartment islands. But since the population is predominately Chinese the ethnic shock isn't very pronounced - it just feels like a big Chinatown. I mean, SF is a pretty good practice ground for Asian immersion.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

List Compulsion

Apparently, list-making is not always a bad thing.

This is tremendous news for someone like me who makes lists all the time. Umberto Eco gave a nice interview a while back on the subject:,1518,659577,00.html

In many ways my curriculum building acts as a means of list arrangement. Planning out my courses ahead of time and what I'll do on which days gives listing a practical outlet. Which historical events are most important, and in what order should I cover them to facilitate clarity?

I have to pick an extra-curricular to guide or teach when I get to Singapore. Last year it was comedy improv. I'm not sure this will go over well, so I'm scratching my head, and making lists, of possible alternatives:

Cooking. I love cooking, and haven't had a chance to use my skills in a long time. I imagine a class where every few weeks students are challenged to recreate dishes I set before them with the specific knowledge of the previous lessons. The problem is that too many cooks in the kitchen can be awful, and costs are high. Not to mention the need for facilities.

World Cinema. A chronological tour through cinema history and world differences. Highlights would include early German and Soviet films, French new wave, classic Indian and Japanese noir, and contemporary Chinese and Latin American works. Possible problem: censorship of media/unavailability of certain landmark films.

Art History. Every year I cover the basics with my students: Rembrandt, Greek red and black ware, Raphael, Picasso, etc. Honestly, though, the basics are pretty much what I've got, and while I usually spend one day on Chinese Art of the Song Dynasty, I can't claim to have much knowledge of world art. Students might not be interested in a class focused solely on Western art.

Western Philosophy. Much of the bulk of Eastern Philosophy is going to be taught in my history classes anyway, as national requirements have it. Perhaps there is some interest in philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the 20th century? The problem here becomes one of exclusivity - only some students can handle the material. Philosophy, past the Greeks, is best left to students 16/17 or older.

American Music of the 20th Century. Now I'm reaching. Covering music and styles from ragtime to 90's pop, with blues, jazz, rock, r&b, hip hop, and show tunes. I'd probably have interested students for this one. But I'm not sure if this is a 'legit' enough offering from a school's point of view...

Epic Literature. Anyone want to read Moby Dick?

Geopol. Each week students learn about critical geopolitical countries and their...stuff.

Book Club. books?

I guess I'll have to wait and see what things are like at the school I'm working at.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Glimpse of Author

A blog can be an impersonal thing, like a letter written by a stranger. Intonations are lost, meanings remain hidden, connections lie squandered.

So, in an attempt to make my online persona more accessible, here are some random selections from my Amazon wish list. I should think they give a decent idea of my personality.

"The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy" by Brillat-Savarin, price: $16.50

"Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" by Abelson et al., price: $68.99

"The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon", price: $22.12

"How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator" by de Guillame, price: $5.00, used.

"The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Gibbon, price: $9.79

"Krazy and Ignatz: The Kat Who Walked in Beauty" by Herriman, price: $22.76

"The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious" by Freud, price: $10.20

"The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, in Ttwo Volumes", price: $26.75, used.

"Oeuvres de Fermat", price: $29.99

"The Dream of Red Mansions" by Cao Xueqin, price: $34.15

So there you have it, or a sampling of it, anyway. A little gastronomy, computer science, autobiography, humor, history, comics, psychology, art, science and literature rolled in to one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

World History

I'm in the process of editing a very, very concise world history text for adolescent readers. Covering Austrilopithecenes to Y2K in 50 pages is, obviously, a little ridiculous. Here, instead, is the same outline, in 1,000 words. It is totally ridiculous.

Humans evolved out of Africa roughly 200,000 years ago likely on forest peripheries. Their precedent species had already developed tools, fire, walking upright, art and religion, so Homo Sapiens didn't accomplish much besides eliminating all opposing Homo species (Neandertals) and moving to everywhere. Women did most of the labor and child rearing since men have useless nipples, but since women's foraging provided most of our calories they were respected, while male hunting was respected for the imminent death factor. Travelling with migratory animals we may have planted seeds hoping they'd be ready to eat when we returned. Once we decided to keep animals rather than follow them around we needed to make sure there was food, like vetch, for year-round pastoralism. Then 2+2= agriculture for humans.

The 'agricultural revolution' took place only about 20,000 years ago but, significantly, ensures human survival in new ways if food is a guarantee. With sedentary farming the tribal families morphed into both collective village security and increased awareness of ownership as plots of land become inherited based on direct patri-lineage. River valleys are conducive to this farming and villages grow - they now need more organization and protection from free-loaders and raiders. Worldwide astronomy pays off with it's predictive-religious powers, such as in Egypt where knowing the seasons lets you foretell Nile floods.

Village contact is regulated through periodic warfare to reconfirm boundaries, and through trade which requires oversight and regulation. Courts of law, born from tribal custom, along with quantifiable weights and measures, and chicken-scratch writing like cuneiform all help with these tasks. With agricultural surplus comes population growth and some people no longer work on the farm for a living - an elite class of artisans, priests, and rulers. Bureaucratic scribes keep the necessary records, and importantly, calendars. As Burke points out "with a calendar you can give people a date and a deadline" which allows more efficient tax collection, regulated time off, and schedules for construction and labor.

Bigger cities, more trade, more raids, bigger walls and bigger, standing, armies. Mathematics is refined and literature is recorded from oral narratives. Since many rulers claim divine status they must quell foes or their religious power is questioned: ergo empire. Vast wars lead to vast civilizational dominance, such as in China, Mexico, India, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Non-fertile areas, like Amazonian South America, the frozen Arctic regions, and the deserts from Australia to the Sahara ensure these areas remain nomadic and develop only the most limited agriculture. Likewise Pacific islands don't unify until the Polynesian Empire in the early Common Era.

The Jews make a series of important leaps: monotheism (which means not shifting gods when the crops fail) and historization of their creation. Adam was, not a archetype or mythological person from the 'before time', but a historical person with a traceable lineage. Inadvertently, through genealogical fastidiousness, history was born. An explosion of prophet-religions in Eurasia made rulers mortal politicians. Empires of note were the Romans, Han, Guptas and Maya.

Although ambitious trade and sea-faring had existed since the Phoenicians it fell into decline for Europe and Asia for roughly 1,000 years. In the Americas a couple of empires began to emerge, from a diverse patchwork of nomadic and agricultural entities. A rekindling of Eurasian trade and warfare with the Crusades jump-started a political and economic revival. Europeans, now Christian, wanted to bypass the Middle East, now Muslim, in order to get goodies from India and China (now Hindu and Confucian, respectively). Portugal and Spain initially dominated, going West and East and colonizing what they could. China had already done it's exploration thing and decided to close it's ports; likewise with a newly-unified Japan.

Since peoples in the Americas were generally not agriculturalists they hadn't lived with livestock, and as such did not benefit from millenia of immunities to livestock diseases. So when the Europeans came and depended on the aid, willing or no, of local populations for their colonies, this inter-mingling of populations lead to a mass die-off. Likewise, West African populations were effected, since European racism and military superiority elevated colonists from labor, slaves populations were imported. Empires were depopulated of their males and African civilizations and cultures reeled.

Meanwhile France and England had a dynamic, bloody rivalry which, in extending to colonialism, eventually eclipsed the Portuguese and Spanish. Include the Dutch and nearly all of the globe was now under the influence of five or six major European powers (including Russia) - the only comparable bloc remaining being Qing China, who shared influence with Europeans in it's sphere. The English gained the upper hand with the harnessing of water, and then steam, power. Combined with a new type of steel and ample reserves of coal Industrialization was off. Populations grew faster than ever, factories made production mindless, efficient, and mechanic. Ever since explorers had looked to private funds for financing voyages there was now a very prosperous middle class, and wealth was amassed privately on unforeseen scales.

Some cited, correctly, that this rich-poor gap was unfair and perhaps should be stopped. The concept of privilege, however, was finding defenses in all sectors, from pseudo-scientific racism to economics. Scientific method, in the 1600s, had allowed for increasingly rapid discoveries and improvements to technologies and well-being. Likewise medicine improved, often to fix the broken soldiers who were being damaged by improved military technology. This culminated in the wars of Imperialism, and the First and Second World Wars.

In the 20th century empires were abolished for common good, and new concepts like human rights were spread with a new global fervor. Competitive political-economic theories of Communism and Liberal Democracy eventually favored the latter. Globalization necessitated global communication and increased awareness. Lifespans increased in well-off countries, while subsistence was no longer guaranteed for those who had once been colonized. While America was going to space and cultivating polio-inoculated Wall St. billionaires, many elsewhere were suffering in every conceivable fashion. The retaliation is the beginning of the story of the 21st century.