Thursday, 13 December 2012

Once Upon A Spider

One thing I like about writing is that it can bring you unexpected experiences. One of these involved a spider. (No, not your typical house-spider but one that was made by Alfa Romeo, that Italian car maker better known for overheating cars in the 80s (e.g. the 33) that petrolheads liked driving. I particularly enjoyed the 147 (the 2003 model), which was very good at diving into corners and swinging you back out.

Fortunately for Alfa Romeo, that poor reputation of theirs was put to bed when the company was bought over by Fiat and rationalised into a luxury marque together with Maserati in the 00s. Since then, it has been able to stand alongside BMW and Audi. At home in Italy, bigger and more luxurious models of Alfas have been used by Italian prime ministers as staff cars.

I like Alfas for their avant garde styling (such as the Brera by Giugiaro) and sporty personality (I only ever driven manual). If I have a villa in the Alps, I would stock it all with Alfas and drive a different one each day.

The mountainous geography of Italy (a third of the country has ranges over 700m) has certainly defined the character of the Alfa. It is a great performer on winding roads. In the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, 007 was pursued by bad guys in an Alfa 159 (a 3.2-litre V6) along very narrow stretches of a mountain road. That the Alfa was able to keep up with his V12 Aston Martin (not saying it is a great car), insinuates much about what the marque can do. And you don't need deep pockets to own a mountain rocket like the Alfa.

Although the car came to a dismal end in the movie, that chase scene along the mountain road has got to be one of the best ever filmed!

Alfas in Singapore were popular in the 80s and early 90s. But by then the Japanese had made so much headway with their reliable, fuel economical and better integrated cars that Alfa and its European brethren were later ignored. By 'better integrated' I mean the air-con, power windows and stereo decks. The electronics were a huge improvement over the European cars. Using CAD and robotic technologies, the Jap cars were also better seamed and put together and better reflected Asian sensibilities.

Honda and Toyota were in particular the more popular marques. Nissan was not far behind. Remember the 2nd and 3rd generation Honda Accords? Almost every other car on the road was one. Toyota upped the ante with their popular hatchback Corolla. Nissan carved out market share with their Sunnys and Preseas. Their NX coupe was also popular with the Ah Bengs and childless couples. I liked that it had a hole to conveniently stow an umbrella away!

The 90s was a period when Jap cars were seen as cheap, reliable and luxurious. European cars were thought of as idiosyncratic, and servicing them usually cost a bomb - reasons why many people turned to Japanese marques.

However, European cars did elicit a loyal following.

A girlfriend's uncle used to swear by one. His favourite was an executive Lancia saloon. It was dark green and looked a little like a Rover. Kind of bland, if you asked me. Lancia and Alfa Romeo used to be grouped as one company, but has since gone their separate ways. Both still belong to Fiat though.

I don't know why people would bother with a Fiat in the '90s. They weren't what they used to be in the '70s. In trying to compete with the rising Japanese auto industry, they somehow ended up short in the long-term quality area. Parts would inexplicably break down after just a few years.

In the late 90s, I had a friend who was an editor at Female Magazine. Knowing that I wrote with a sense of humour, she had me write some articles for the rag to mostly reflect the male perspective on certain issues. I remember contributing a few short pieces to the He Says, She Says column. One piece in particular explained why I liked the Spice Girls. Her fashion/make-up editor Gemma would often contribute the counter, female perspective.

I didn't write freelance a lot in those days (I had a full-time job). Female was my longest association and the humble payouts simply contributed to mere pocket money. I used it to treat my friends to meals.

My first actual freelance story happened many years prior and was about the misadventure of one plundering and blundering Eric The Viking. I was glad when it got published but not so later on. The magazine was called Glamour Backstage and was supposed to be a magazine about the glamour life and of beauty pageants. In actuality, it was a gay mag. And they weren't coy about it.

Nobody suspected anything at first. But after a few covers of men with naked torsos in skimpy trunks, folks caught on to its drift. At the time, gayness was just starting to come out of the closet. It was about the same time that I was accosted by some gay chaps in the East Coast Park McDonald's (of all places!) They were giving me the once over and come-hither looks outside the toilet. Like most folks who frolicked at East Coast Park then, I had gone to the Mac washroom to tidy up.

But really, gay guys hitting on me? Me, the most heterosexual of men?

In any case, I wasn't interested. The reason was that they reminded me of those young, ugly gay men who hung around pubs like '+' (plus sign) or Sugar, along Mohammed Sultan Road. The waitresses all wore nurses uniforms there. The idea being that the pub was a "First-Aid" station. (Resuscitation, get it?)

The reason I visited that pub was not because it was a gay joint. An expat German friend liked to bring his girlfriend there as Happy Hour was the cheapest among all the watering holes along that strip. Trust a German to sniff that out.

After some visits, I managed to convince him to switch. There's only so much ugliness one can take from gay guys (who's not even a quarter metrosexual). I wouldn't like to be in a pub with ugly women, so why torture myself with gay men who could have auditioned as dwarves san beard for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit?

I much rather enjoy the company of people with 'character faces' - folks whose countenances are shaped by their life experiences and maybe, yes, by the sole love of their mothers. A pretty face with a vacuous mind is as attractive as an empty beer mug during Happy Hour.

In any case, I was at one time hanging out with the editorial staff of Female at one cigar party (somewhere in Clarke Quay) that my editor friend asked if I was interested in cars. I said yes, which guy isn't?

She then confided that she was thinking of doing a car review piece. A car review column? On a regular basis? Wow, that would be my dream job! But my heart sank when she told me it would only be a one-off piece.

"The catch is this," whispered my editor-friend Joyce. "You test drive this sexy sports car and try and see if it is a babe magnet for you!"

"So folks are not so much interested in what the car can do?" I said, disappointment heavy in my voice.

"Yeah, but weave that in if you want. But mostly, we just want to see if babes react to you in the car." Having said that, Joyce took a suck on her ash-laden cigar and blew out some smoke. She made a face. I didn't think she liked the taste. An intern did the same with her cigar and promptly coughed her eyeballs out.

It turned out the assignment needed me to wake up early, which is not the thing I would normally do on a Saturday. But for a sports car, I would. Afterwards, I would test-drive it and then do the social experiment in the afternoon, preferably somewhere along Orchard Road and Holland Village, or at places where "easy" babes could be had, which left me rather clueless. For some reason, we didn't think of going to Geylang or outside Orchard Towers.

Strangely, I also didn't equate easy babes with SPGs (sarong party girls). I guess the reason could be that I wasn't "angmoh" enuf. Not at all!

So early that April morning, I went to Alfa's showroom along Ahmad Ibrahim Road to pick up the brand new Alfa Romeo Spider. It was a beaut, to say the least. Red in color and with sweeping lines.

(Note that Alfa opted to spell their Spider roadster with an 'i' rather than the more common one with the 'y'.)

A Spyder by definition is a roadster; typically topless, and this Spider was. The salesman who handed over the car emphasized how the canvas top should be opened.

"Never in any circumstance should you open the top when it is moving" was what he said. Just a moment ago, he was demonstrating how one must first release the two catches in front, just above the sunshades of the windscreen. Even though that action was manual, the opening of the canvas top was auto-mechanical. At the press of a button, the unlocked canvas top would then collapse out-of-sight behind the rear seat and into a metallic cover.

That was sweet but was not what impressed me at first. It was how unnervingly quiet the car was when idling. I got into the car and wanted to re-start the engine!

Once away from the showroom the Spider proved itself an easy drive. And like most Alfas, it had power to tap on. Unfortunately, the easy revs were immediately limited once the needle touched the red zone. It quickly fell back to about 4000 rpm, which was rather annoying. The pick-up speed of the car was quick. Very quick! So if you were not light-footed, the RPM needle would just seesaw back and forth between 'red' and 'safe'!

Another winning point of the car was its stability. You could turn sharply into corners and not spill coffee. It was true then that the car was positioned for women who wanted a powerful set of wheels but not any "wrangling in the handling".

Outside the sun was shining with the sky only slightly cloudy. So, this is what's it's like to drive topless! My dad used to drive an open-top Triumph, something I rode in often as a kid but never drove. That experience made me want to own a Mazda Roadster, but each time, I would settle for a practical choice. In our kind of tropical weather, it is hard to justify owning a topless car or one with a slashable canvas roof. You would either drown in monsoon rain or be sunburned from the noonday sun. Or have your belongings stolen by opportunistic car park thieves. It happened often in the Orchard Somerset car park area. (Back when there was still an open car park.)

That's how I felt after test driving the topless Alfa Romeo for a while along Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim. I was dressed East India Co light but was still roasted by the sun. It would get worse came noon. But I was enjoying myself too much to notice.

After a while I decided to call my friend Set for a second opinion. He was a car aficionado like me and once owned an Alfa. He also once fixed a Skyline engine into his dad's Volvo, sending it to the stratosphere at each traffic light race. Only in Malaysia can you build crazy stuff like that and get away with it. Or race along unmonitored B-roads..

Set and I took the car a longways to Changi's quiet Nicoll Drive to test-drive it. Set was elated to get behind the wheel. Not many software engineers in their day jobs get to test-drive a sports car. In a way the Spider test-drive was to reward him for the many March Madness (see other stories) outings he once initiated. He loved his cars (he owned two '70s Minis as a hobby) and was a very good driver. What's that saying about friends sharing good times? That's basically what I did.

Set's verdict of the Spider was that it was a good car. Not a wild sports car but one that was refined. We both wished the RPM limiter to be switched off but the showroom owners must have decided to play it safe. I was sure we weren't the only ones to test-drive this new seductress from Alfa. There could be other journalists waiting. We both felt the Spider crying out to be let loose and was disappointed that we couldn't let it fly.

I asked Set how much of the Alfa DNA was in the Spider. He said the major characteristics were still there. The hurry to get somewhere and the note of the engine. It always sounded fun and flirty.

Set gave the Spider longing looks upon parting. I knew he wanted to drive it some more but I had an assignment beckoning. Time for me to go flirting instead of being flirted with. The Spider, with its passionate ruby red color and somewhat feminine sleek lines, was indeed seductive. It worked on us guys but will it work on the girls?

My first stop was Holland Village.

I parked next to a cafe to see if any hot babe would come check me out. Heads turned but they soon returned to their conversations. I was actually feeling rather amused as I had never done anything like this before. And it wasn't like me to go picking up women anyhow.

An elderly Chinese lady in a sunhat came by. "Ah tee, ler eh chia jing sui," she said, in Hokkien, meaning my car was pretty. Great, not only was I not attracting the young ladies but older women were taking an interest. Much older women at that.

"Er, OK lah, aunty," was my embarrassed reply.

I turned on some music and pretended to tap along. It only got annoying stares from the people at the cafe.

I then decided to exit the car and bum-lean on it looking like I was waiting for someone. From under my sunglasses, I was spying to see if any passerbys would take notice of the red-hot Spider. No one seemed bothered. Not with the car, not with me.

I was a strapping chap then weighing some 56kg. I would know because I had lost like 10kg the months prior... All because I got a bit laggy during Reservist. I was struggling to get out of a two-door coupe during one in-camp. I am sure it wasn't all that bad a weight issue but I had always been tops in my fitness and that one occasion finally convinced me to do something about it. That and the delicious ox-tail stew someone cooked up that Christmas prior in Bedok. It was either more of that and fat, or less of that and lean.

I decided enough was enough and went on a diet. The diet was simple: avoid all carbohydrates and sugar. Eat fruits as snacks and run 15km every week. More, if time allowed.

It worked. I lost 10kg in three months and put three back. What, put three back? Yes. At the next in-camp, I found myself too light. All the army stuff I had to carry on my person was biting down on the new fat-less me; I needed more meat to buffer all those sharpy buckles, straps, etc. Still, at 56kg I was very lean, and it felt good.

Truth be told, a strapping me standing next to a hot car would be more ideal in the 00s. It better conveyed youth and dot-com success, not the year after a financial crisis. Folks probably thought me silly (or a show-off) to even buy a new sports car!

Or maybe ultra-rich.

In any case, the Spider's styling wasn't as aggressive as a Lamborghini or as futuristic as a Ferrari. It was kind of gentle, so maybe that's why it didn't really catch anybody's attention. Besides, unless you were a petrolhead, Alfa Romeo wasn't a sports car brand you would recall off the top of your head. Porsche, more likely.

Later, the situation was the same along Orchard Road. People glanced at the Spider but no one sidled up to chat with me.

All in all, I had spent the whole morning driving the car with the top down and the better part of the afternoon hanging about kerbside like a prostitute waiting for customers.

It's kind of sad to treat your body like a taxi where everybody with some money can jump on for a ride. Kind of difficult to hold on to your self-esteem when that happens. The same can be said for actors/actresses in the adult movie business. It's an emotional fracture that's not easy to heal. Just ask Annabelle Chong. Even goal-setting (that gang-bang fest of hers) did not make - what she was doing - agreeable.

Agreeable was the word. I wondered if what I was doing was 'right'. Could I pretend to be a cad, who is by definition a guy who has no qualms about bedding any woman? Cat or dog, for that matter.

All that was running through my mind sitting in that red Alfa Spider. I was no cad and so decided to treat this whole thing as role play. After all, the whole affair was like a guy's dream to be given a hot car to attract hot babes. But I worried about what to write if the social experiment failed. I decided help was needed and called my friend Jane. As  expected, she was again in town shopping. Finally, I was going to have a hot babe in my car!

Jane was a career girl and not a bad driver. Although well off, she loathed to own a car as she viewed it as a bad investment in Singapore. If she needed one, she would drive her dad's (or one of her boyfriend's). What was her verdict of the Spider? Well, she didn't find the foot pedals too close together like in the old Alfas (they were positioned such for fast heel-to-toe action. A practical idea for fast drivers but a pain for girls with heels!) She also said the Spider was built like a Saab. After a while, I could tell that Jane was becoming addicted to the vehicle. As I prised her fingers off it, I noticed that her nails were polished the same ruby red. I think she liked the way the car gave her that Pretty Woman image: top-down car with shopping bags in the back seat. Or a very Hollywood Rodeo Drive kind of thing.

After my time with Jane, I met up with Gemma in her open-top Ford Escort at the Goodwood Park Hotel car park to take pictures together. It would be a pix of a guy and a gal in their respective topless wheels.

The picture spread eventually looked good in the magazine, my red wrinkle-free shirt from East India Co. complementing the red Spider very well.

Even though I did not hook any girl for a ride that day (which was actually a relief personally) I enjoyed driving the Spider. It was towards the evening when I returned the car that I realised I was suffering from borderline heatstroke, so engrossed I was driving the car top down! Needless to say, I came down with sunburn as well.

My girlfriend May arrived to fetch me home. She was in good humour about the whole social experiment knowing that I was doing it more for the car than anything else. And I realised something else getting behind her Honda Civic hatchback: it was a damn soft drive compared to the European-made Alfa. Speeding up the car was like stepping onto tofu!

Well, that's a Japanese car/engine for you. At that moment, I realised why some folks could be so loyal to their European brands. The difference in drive characteristics was like night and day. Ok, the Spider was a sports car and it wasn't fair to take that as your everyday typical, but I was thinking that in general, continental cars had more oomph and power. A Jap car was smooth and refined and not at all angry even at the high revs, which made them agreeable especially with no-fuss drivers.

So on that day, my affair with the Alfa Spider lasted from 7am in the morning till 6pm in the evening. I was half-dead from sunstroke and half-amused with the failure of our social experiment. But I was one happy petrolhead given a chance to drive a new breed of Alfa Romeros out to charm a new generation of drivers. For that, I would be forever and eternally grateful to Joyce, my editor-friend from Female then. On another occasion that gratitude would be reserved for another editor pal of mine. That time, it was an opportunity to edit a newsletter for Saab car owners. Heheh, who was it that said "Have pen will travel"?

Next story:The Pantsuit Lady

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

In The News 1

As a Technology reporter, you get to be at the forefront of the Tech Industry. In my case, I started with IT and then moved on to serious R&D science reporting.

Reporting IT during the Dot-com Era was exhilarating: There would be something new to write about every week. The press releases we received piled up as thick as a loaf of bread!

Back then, the IT industry was as a whole (i.e. on a worldwide level) nascent: hardware, software, applications, etc, - all were new, mostly driven by new PC/server releases and internetworking products. There was LAN then WAN. Conference meetings on the PC platform went from audio to video. Video feeds evolved from analog to digital. The whole PC platform got hijacked into a mobile phone. And thus was born the smart phone and 3G network.

In a gist, that was what happened. But, of course, the Dotcom Era was more than that. It was a time of intense competition. The reason: everything was new. Products, as well as network speeds.

Ethernet crawled from 10MHz to 100MHz to 1GigaHz beating Asynchronous Transfer Mode or ATM to the desktop. It was cheap and legacy friendly. But ATM's 52-cell data stream format was later preferred serial streaming for fiber-optic WANs. Remember all the many ATM Forum meetings and conferences we used to have? The wonderful thing about a cell-like data stream is that it can weave its way through various router paths and yet arrive at the same destination. Mobile comms data follow the same schema. But the 'cell' term in mobile telecoms also refers to how an area is divided into a mesh of honeycomb cell-like transceiving areas. So, please don't confuse between the two!

When I first started reporting IT, a PC running on a 80486 DX4 processor was considered high-end. The toaster oven-shaped Macintosh was competing for desktop space in homes and editorial offices, not so much for business. Remember Apple's Lisa business computer? It failed miserably.

It's no wonder because Steve Jobs never felt comfortable in a business suit. He and his products were just not that sort. He much preferred the "smart casual"!

Having both Apple and Windows products in the office in that era was a pain in the ass. Each required a separate IT network to link up. Interoperability was still the Holy Grail. In the 80s and early 90s, there was the Apple vs PC debate; but it applied only to the personal PC arena.

Besides each spotting a different OS and physical look, inside, there was also hardware battle. At the time Motorola (the semiconductor giant) was aligned with Apple. Intel sided with Bill Gates and Windows. It was 68000 architecture vs 80x86. As training engineers in the 80s, we learned to deploy with both - the schools did not want to take sides. We also learnt something better: microcontrollers. These were touted as the processors of the future for Control Systems, stuff that controlled everything from intelligent buildings to washing machines. Back then, each microcontroller needed supporting role chips such as a digital to analog converter, I/O ports, timers, EEPROMs, etc. These days, you'll find everything in one solid integrated package.

After the 486 came the Pentium ones from iteration 'I' to 'V'. In terms of Windows, it was from version 3.0 to 95 to XP in 2001. That year, I was invited to the Microsoft Redmond head-office to witness the launch. I was, as mentioned in a previous blog, invited to be part of a press junket consisting of prominent journalists from Asia. I was executive editor of two prominent PC magazines then, one dealing with Windows user naturally, I was on the PR media 'Priority List'.

I was excited, of course, to go to Microsoft's campus in Seattle. Anybody would, even if you were entering 'Borg' territory. You know that joke about 'Resistance being futile, and that all will be assimilated'? Yes, Microsoft was huge and intimidating back then. Given its rivalry with Apple, it had that "it's either me or them" mentality.

Apple in 2001 was still largely a niche player. Their fast 'G' series of Power Mac computers (with their good displays and slightly more powerful processors) were mainly used by the advertising and graphic design agencies. But by then the PC makers were already introducing new architectures and speedy motherboards (especially with faster front-side buses) and improved graphics cards. It was around that time when graphics cards started sporting their own GPU or graphics processing units with their own memory banks. This offloaded a lot of work from the main CPU, freeing it to do more important computational tasks.

The publishing company I worked for used Windows PCs instead of Macs to design and layout their magazines. It was rather unusual but they weren't disadvantaged at all. Another much larger publishing house was doing the same.

In fact, the advantage to using a PC has always been that it is a Commodity Product; an off-the-shelf purchase that can be bought anywhere with components mixed and matched. Unlike Apple, which was proprietary. That's one thing I couldn't stand about them. Buying an Apple printer meant connecting only to an Apple machine. What a waste!

As a practising engineer before, we seldom thought of using an Apple machine. With a DOS-based PC, it was so easy to design an interface system or write a driver. You just had to know C++. And you could literally 'plug & play' - why so many equipment manufacturers of oscilloscopes, signal generators and digital analysers were on the PC-Windows bandwagon. The learning curve to deploy them was so much shorter. It was economical too. Imagine having to buy all your PC paraphernalia from just one Apple company. They wouldn't be able to cope with all that hardware and driver demand as well as upgrades and partner issues.

Till this day, the Windows PC remains the choice of engineers everywhere. They even have one that runs on Ubuntu Linux, what with the programming community so strong on that one. The introduction of Android has further increased the community's expertise tremendously.

Till today, Apple's PCs remain undeployable to engineers as an interface machine. (1) They look too pretty. (2) They are not intended for that use. Unless Apple suddenly come out with something like the Raspberry Pi (a bare bones computing unit for rural projects and hobbyists) I don't see the situation changing. Or if they create something more professional. It will never happen with Jobs...Wozniak perhaps.

But what Apple did right was to come up with certain products that were easy and friendly to use, such as the iPhone and iPad. These portable machines have encouraged engineers and hackers to crack into their OS shells to let them do stuff their OS did not intend them to. In Android, this is called "rooting". In iOS (Apple's OS), the same is called "jailbreaking". Rooting can allow your Android smartphone to be used as a Wi-Fi tether. Jailbreaking lets you manipulate an iPhone's icons and menu display... among other things. All you have to do is look around and fiddle. Or join a tech forum for tips.

You might wonder why the popularity of the iPad and Apple's laptops has not translated into bigger market share for the company. It's because the Windows PC world is much bigger than what we see on our desk and laps. Discounting the corporate market, it is due to the use of the Windows PC in other areas. Specifically, a huge market exists for the "industrial PC".

Not sure what that is? Well, it is basically a PC made to fit an industrial use. As such, these machines come in all shapes and sizes. In technical-speak, that's "form factor".

Say you need a slim PC to fit into an equipment rack. No problem. Someone can offer you one that is 2U in size ('U' being a unit shelf of 1.75 inches in gap). How about one that can be used in rugged conditions such as rain and snow? No worries, companies like Grid Computers have been making laptops that folks could bring with them to the desert or to wars. Such laptops can be dropped from a metre height and still function. Or slid on the floor and be stamped on. The present-day Panasonic Tough Book is an advanced example. You would probably have seen their funny (and impressive) ad featuring an elephant and a monkey.

A more common example of an industrial PC is that found in a car park payment machine. That PC runs the currency reader, the LCD display and the ticket reader. It is also connected via LAN to a server and via RS-232 to a barrier gate control system at the entry and exit points. It is a busy little PC (no pun intended) often tasked to run under very hot conditions. If you think your PC is puffing hot air on your desk, imagine it being cooped up in a walled box with few air slits. It is the reason why your change from the fare machine would always feel warm each time, ditto the $1 coin refunded from an SMRT ticket machine. At times, the returned coin can be too hot to handle!

Other industrial scenarios where special form factor PCs are used include the inside of a petrochemical plant, an aircraft or even a battleship. Many point of sales (POS) cashier machines now are PCs running on Windows. It's easier to hook them up via Wi-Fi to a backend wireless server.

Why are there so many different PC form factors?

A PC is, after all, just a collection of chips and I/O ports and connected devices. They can take any shape and form. Not necessarily to be put into a rectangular box (desktop) or one that looks like a pizza flat-box (e.g. laptop). In the past, much was decided by the inflexibility of printed circuit boards or PCBs. But since then, these PCBs have become multi-layered like kueh lapis but still much thinner. Different PCB materials let you do that.

My favorite PC has to be the one that comes on a backplane. A slim one no thicker than two inches that slots into a rack (what you see in most spaceships in a sci-fi movie especially when the hero has to enable or disable something behind an instrument panel). There are those that run not on hard memory but flash ones instead. The Compact Flash memory card format (remember this one?) was popular back then as they were the only format capable of providing high and speedy memory storage. But I am sure they would have graduated to the smaller SD cards by now, if not the micro-SDs.

Imagine a computer whose OS and start-up software all run from memory cards. There's no need for a hard drive even, or PCB-mounted memory chips. Industrial PC makers have been doing that since 10 years ago; tablet PC makers are only just doing that recently. To be fair, it had all to do with cost. A consumer is only willing to pay so much for a retail product. With industrial PCs, user companies don't mind paying extra for custom features as long as it does its job well in the stipulated environmental conditions. In such cases, the higher quality components do cost more to produce, test and qualify (like the MIL spec).

Also, SSD (solid state device) memories have come a long way in terms of capacity and cost. It used to be a dollar a MB. Now it is $2.5 for a GB. How times have changed! I think of the 21MB Hitachi disk drive in my 1985 XT PC and laugh. But it was such a solid disk drive that I am inclined to put it on an alter to be worshipped. It withstood a major electrostatic shock and kept on working. Many would have expired at first spark. (I was at the time building a PC interface card to trigger a weather warning system.)

What does having a drive-less PC mean? Well, you can store all your programs on a smart phone and have it connect to such a PC (like a drive-less backplane computer, for example) and run apps off it (via a micro-B USB port). It's a hacker's dream. A scenario like this was played out in Aliens (1986, the second Alien movie), when the robot Bishop had to use a handheld computer to hack into the facility's IT network to call up a spacecraft to bring him, Ripley, and the young girl home. A computer with a hard disk cannot be small, like the trendsetting HP 95LX palmtop.

One of the more interesting PCs I've seen ran as an emulator machine. It's no big deal now but 11 years ago, it was. That particular emulator machine (from Celoxica) allowed software from old game machines to run off it, old game machines like the Commodore 64 and Atari. But that PC was actually built to run complex 3-D biological simulations to aid drug discovery. Emulating old games was to demonstrate a point.

(And I've seen an old BBC Micro 8-bit computer being used to control a one-legged hopping robot in the early 00s. British engineers are nostalgic that way. It proved that you didn't need much in terms of hardware to accomplish something very complex.)

Do you know that there's a free Nintendo DSi emulator floating around on the WWW? Download it and you can play all the DSi games on the PC. It does expand the gameability of a netbook (one that is dual-core at least). And there are many free downloads of Nintendo's DS games online (one popular site in particular). I don't encourage piracy but the prices Nintendo charge per game at the shops is just plain ridiculous. $45-$75 per single game card? No wonder pirate game cards that use micro-SD memory cards to store games exist. With these 'R4' or 'R4i' cards, you can store multiple games limited only by memory card capacity. A typical one requires only 4GB and it can store some 80-90 games depending on game file size. The solution is a godsend for parents wanting to save money on games. Let's face it: there are only a handful of engrossing titles out of a few thousand. Are you going to spend a fortune to find out which one? Game reviews offer limited help.

But not all Nintendo games are for children. If you feel you are getting senile, I suggest playing one of Nintendo's many puzzle games for adults. Brain Age is one, Soduku is another.

Probably one of the most earth-shaking bit of news in the IT industry in the last decade (no, not Jobs dying) has to be the switch of Apple hardware from Motorola to Intel. It's like Richard Dawkins suddenly embracing religion; it was that weird. But I think the winners in this were Apple and the PC user. No longer do we PC users have to worry about interoperability issues any more. Microsoft Office files can finally be easily interchanged. That's quite remarkable, isn't it? And with greater general acceptance, Apple went on to sell more Home and Office computers. Apple became the bling PC to have in the office. Quite a change in fortunes for this little company, no? I mean who could have imagined the proverbial Montaguts and Capulets getting along like that?

With speedy PC machines these days (i.e. dual/quad/dual-quad cores), software emulators perform just as well as hardware based ones. They used to lag behind so much, especially when 3-D graphics are involved. All those vector computations can really slow an emulator program down.

Speaking of multi-core PCs, they really killed the market for parallel processing ones. I remember a local company in Singapore used to do that. It was run by a Taiwanese physicist doctorate. They built their own parallel processing boards out of Intel processors. They sort of piggyback on one another and were intended for the server market where computing speeds (in MIPs) mattered most.

Of course, nothing prepared me for the PCs in Japan. This was before multi-language capability (in an OS like XP) was introduced to a desktop PC. In Japan then, they wrote their own OS and all their PCs worked in Japanese. NEC was a big player then, like how IBM was the same in the US. They created mainframes, client stations and also desktop PCs.

It took the Japanese many years to switch to Windows and be more compatible with the rest of the world. The multi-language functionality of XP really helped the World Wide Web to be truly international. All of a sudden, we could all type in a foreign language without having to download a driver or buy some special keyboard.

With Google Translate now, we have certainly come a long way. Ten, twelve years? It's been a blink of an eye compared to the way other new stuff get introduced, such as pharmaceutical drugs for example. Their introduction can take decades.

But OS technologies have come a long way. Just look at Android. Since 2010, four or five new versions have been introduced and it's all open source! Expect more innovations to come in the next couple of years. (I knew a guy once who wrote an OS for a local shipboard communications system. That was in the early to mid 90s. Singapore do have the talent in this software area.)

And which technology will next make a big impact?

Well, I cannot wait for the day when speech recognition in a machine becomes natural. Things will happen in a split second or as fast as you can speak. Or as fast as the machine can infer what you actually mean. Hearing is not the key; inference is. And that has been the harbinger to speech recognition. But hey, didn't they used to say the same about video? These days cameras can discern the 'intentions' of people they film... to ascertain whether they are friendly or hostile.

It's important because flying drones in the battlefield need to know if they should shoot at you or simply ignore. I've seen flying drones that are like small helicopters equipped with machine guns. Run like hell or carry a 'friendly' mask to wear. One of Bill Clinton maybe. Ha ha.

But really, cameras like these are already deployed in London to pick out rabblerousers and hooligans in crowded places.

We are actually farther into the future than most people can imagine. And it is always the space or military folks that lead the way. Folks with the money and wherewithal to explore and devise; usually not having to contend with commercial safety standards and ethical use. A prime example is "directed energy weapons" or DEWs. They can microwave-fry you from a distance. Ah, technology. After so many years, it is still fun to report about. But I will stand far far away, thank you.

Afternote: In 2002, I brought a start-up company to the CeBIT IT fair in Hannover, Germany. We went there as an EDB contingent of promising companies. In this group was a company called Muvee. They claimed to have invented a software that could create an edited wedding video from a long one, with music accompaniment no less. They showed how it was done and was quite amazing. Imagine shooting a wedding and leaving a computer to do all that editing work!

The next story: Once Upon A Spider

Inside a ticketing machine.

A program that reads faces and moods and 
creates an edited wedding video from a long one. 
With music! (A Singaporean invention/product)

Monday, 3 December 2012

Burnable Bling

Speaking of funerals in a recent blog post, I must admit that I find traditional Chinese funerals rather alien and outdated.

They are noisy and involve Taoist prayer stuff I don't fully comprehend. I have seen quite a few recently at HDB void decks (which instigated the opening of a coffin shop nearby) and they all looked the same to me. Strangely or coincidentally, they were all in Hokkien or Teochew. I am Cantonese, so, will my rites be the same?

Pretty much, I think.

I hate to die suddenly and be given such traditional rites just because I am Chinese and have not laid down a will nor put a religion on my Identity Card. It's like someone rapping at your funeral when all you desire is a good Gregorian chant. It is so disconcerting that I might just come back from the dead to right the wrong!

I wonder if my peers of the other races feel the same. Will they be caught in an unprepared bind when they die? Not that it matters given that we would all be already dead. But it does irk to know that we can't say a proper goodbye to the our friends and immediate neighbourhood in the fashion that we want. My nearby fave kopitiam kopi ladies would miss my humour and wonder where their regular 'teh-c gau ka-ler or-lange (i.e. teh-c gau siew dai c-sau (or "orange color)) and newspaper-reading' uncle has disappeared to.

Which makes me think I should plan early or be prepared to die in a din of "tong-tong chiang"! (i.e. the clanging of cymbals and gongs!)

At a Chinese funeral, not understanding the rites is one thing; being taken for a ride by unprofessional priests is another. They come dressed in less than clean robes and utter what could be rubbish.

Then there are the stainless steel frames and fix-ups. They look the same structures as used in lion dances and other celebrations. I mean, are they recyclable? Maybe I am mistaken.

And what's with the blankets (wool or patch work) hung at the sides. These days, they don't all carry condolence messages. Some spout Confucius sayings like "a virtuous life led is a life well-lived," or dire warnings like "life is short, make the most of it." They never say stuff like "rinse in cold water only."


This big blanket as a message board is a mystery. How did it come about? Was it a matter of convenience given that the blanket is easily the largest piece of cloth found at home. As a kid, my siblings and I used to play teepee tent with one.

Long long ago, someone must have suggested sewing letters on a blanket. And there don't seem to be any specifications about it unlike SMS or Internet protocol. At a Chinese funeral, you find all sorts of blankets being deployed. They are charming in a unique and mish-mashed sort of way (see collage pix above). But, I think the quality of production should at least matter. I've seen one blanket with words sewn with vanguard sheet instead of embroidery. I mean what gives? Does the sender not have respect for the dead? It's like sending a hurriedly written Post-It note instead of a proper condolence card.

As we age closer to the grave, we all tend to think of such funerary arrangements; or when our parents pass on. I consider myself still young and so am loathe to make any such preparations yet. We don't want to jinx it, do we?

But the traditional Chinese funeral is altogether something, isn't it?

As a tourist, I would find it all very fascinating. The music, the decorations, the flower standees, the blankets with condolence words and sayings, the many tables filled with kua chi/peanuts/sweets and at times, mahjong and kakis, etc.

A more elaborate one happened near my house recently and it was extremely noisy with the band and Taoist priests praying and chanting loudly for a few nights. Not a normal affair. The usual chanting and noise typically happens only on the last day of the wake when the coffin is moved on to a crematorium or burial site.

In Singapore, we are all 'trained' to ignore such noises all in the name of racial harmony. Do what you want, just clean up afterwards seems to be the maxim. Ditto for void deck marriages. (It says much for "pantang-ness" (superstition) when one funeral function exits a community hall to be replaced soon after by a Malay or Indian wedding. People don't seem to care. Or does the Town Council stipulate a period between events so the smell of the dead goes away first at least? If so, how many days should that be?)

East or West
Many of us Singaporeans have been brought up with a great dose of American TV on our broadcast channels. CSI, NYC, Miami Dade, LA, Las Vegas... you name it; the former (CSI) being the most popular as in the rest of the world. In the past, it was all those police and lawyer procedural serials like Hillstreet Blues, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life On The Streets, Cold Case, The Practice, LA Law, Boston Legal, etc. We do get a surfeit of these, come to think of it. My own favourite had been Hawaii 5-0 (Jack Lord version) and Barney Miller. I am glad Hawaii 5-0 has been re-imagined and made a successful comeback.

Through these shows, we have seen many American-style funerals and wakes. They are mostly quiet and reserved affairs - very different from our local Chinese ones.

And like most Chinese Singaporeans of my generation, me and my siblings have been brought up to observe some kind of Taoism-like ritual such as the burning of joss sticks in the mornings and evenings; praying to our ancestors; going to the temple on certain occasions (like a deity's birthday, for example); the burning of incense during the 7th Ghost Month; etc. We did all that because we were told that that was our culture. It mattered not a hoot whether we understood the rituals or not. As kids we also bathed in flower-scented water every 1st and 15th of the month.

My first real involvement in a Chinese funeral was when I was very young and a grand-aunt had died. She was crazy and unmarried. With no child of her own to send her off on her afterlife journey, I was elected to "tam fan mai shui" - carry the yoke (and water cans) to buy water, loosely translated to mean "ease her way to the afterlife." In modern times, I think the equivalent would be to carry a picnic table. Or be the deceased's luggage porter.

At the wake, I was dressed in dark blue and had to wear that gunny sack material and white-cloth hood. I had to hold a white paper lantern and lead the troop carrying her coffin out. But before that, I had to go through the ritual of putting a coin in my aunt's mouth. This was to make sure her journey through the spirit world will be smooth. The coin was currency in case bribes are needed or so she would not say the wrong thing. Or that she would be reincarnated into a more luxurious life.

As I was young and uncertain I remember someone guiding my hand as I placed the coin into my aunt's rather dead mouth as she laid in her coffin.

Was I afraid? A little. I think I was more curious about how cold the dead could get. But I never got to touch the body. I remember feeling rather disappointed. All that hoo-hah and little else.

Being more English educated than Chinese, you can understand my feeling of alienation to the traditional Chinese funeral. Furthermore, if it had nothing to do with my dialect and culture: the whole thing was just, well, foreign. You might as well give me a wake in Malay or Tamil. -Or Mandarin, for that matter.

Burnable bling
The Chinese funeral is not all lost on me though. There is one thing I like about it and it is the paperhouses. Over the years, as I road-cycled through HDB estates, I've seen quite a few different paperhouses at funerals in the void decks. They range in size and elaboration, kind of like in real life where more money would get you a decent piece of real estate with all the fancy fix-ups.

The most impressive paperhouse I've seen was about 15ft long and 9ft high. It was a massive mansion with a few storeys and a courtyard. Within the rooms and along the corridors were revolving picture scenes, paper servant figures, etc. The paperhouse was neon colorful all over (mostly in green and coral pink) and decorated with shiny and shimmering stuff and tassles. I guess paperhouses are our local Chinese version of burnable bling.

It is kind of sad to see all that workmanship go up in flames later as a funerary offering.

As a kid, I have always wondered why folks don't update the traditional Chinese funeral. I would later blame the Communists for stunting China's growth in this and other cultural areas. How do a people pick up the pieces after so many decades of living under a different ideology, one that banned religious or spiritual practices even?

In Singapore, the Chinese are mostly descended from ancestors who were born and bred in China and then travelled out. Afterwards, it was the local clan associations that pulled people together to help preserve their provincial and dialectal customs.

My own was passed down from my family's elders.

How should a wake be?
I feel a wake should be public where passerbys are welcomed to explore and pay their respects. It's already pretty open at the void decks/general function halls, so why waste the opportunity. The wake should have picture panels that highlight the dead person's life: his way of living, his hobbies, his career, his friends, his accomplishments, etc.

Strangers from the street should be encouraged to come in, walk through the wake exhibition and say prayers or write "bon voyage" messages. Maybe I am saying all this because I used to be a professional conference organiser.

Example: "Look, I don't know you but I sure like your fashion sense! RIP - John"

Or: "Hey, I didn't know you invented chopsticks for left-handed people. RIP - Mary"

Such a wake is a person's last hurrah before everything gets burned, turned into ash, and left forgotten in an urn!

And don't lay the dead person down in the coffin. Just as in life you wouldn't want to look up at the ceiling for too long, you would much prefer to be sitting up in a deck chair surveying the scene in front of you. Is there a law against putting up the deceased up like that during a wake? Would it be disturbing 'public peace' as in the other sort of exhibitionism? I'd be surprised if there is such a thing.

Sit that dead person 45 degrees up so everybody can have a last look. You'll be glad if that person was from your neighbourhood. There's instant recognition, not from some dodgy photograph from yesteryear that makes you wonder about the person inside. Change costumes at intervals if you must, like in some wedding function.

Look snappy, play appropriate music.

Music? Yes. Play all that person's favourites. If music is missing, play pieces from their favourite storyteller like Lee Dai Sor. I've yet to hear someone play LDS at a wake. Many old folks derived pleasure from listening to him in the 60s and 70s and they should relive those moments during their wake. Who knows, the familiar story arcs might bring back a smile, a chuckle or tear. Certainly, people with a sense of nostalgia will hang about the proceedings.

Death should not be mundane. Death is our last chance at doing something impressive. Leave the world with a bang, a resounding note.

How about leaving a last video message? We've seen quite a few of those on Youtube already from people whose lives had been predicted short by cancer or leukemia or some other life threatening malady. But does it feel eerie to hear it at a wake?

I think, as a kid, I would have loved to hear the dead speak. Because as a child, funerals for me were always for adults. The customs, the giving of 'bak kum' (condolence money), the gossips among relatives, etc.

For us kids, we were often left to entertain ourselves with the soft drinks, sweets, peanuts and kwa chi. -Even five stones.

So a dead person talking would make a child wonder about many things. For one, what that person was like when alive, and if he/she had anything interesting to say. For relatives that these kids don't encounter often it is a priceless last meeting.

What would I say at my own funeral?

"Blah, blah, blah and if you want to know more, check out my blogs!" That's the Social Media generation for you. "And on Facebook, don't forget to thumb a 'Like' if you like it!" would be another last repose.

A more happening wake is also a great occasion to get rid of personal effects.

For example, I could divide up my assets into a kind of treasure hunt game. Kids love treasure hunts. Besides, if you have only one child, what is she/he going to do with all your barang-barang? They would most likely be thrown out. Why not turn it into a game for kids living near or attending your wake? I would rope in the neighbourhood library for this by planting clues in their books. It will encourage kids to borrow or browse through certain books, know all the sections. Be acquainted with books on travel or books about food. Art and craft? Even dead, you can (through this treasure hunt) get the kids to know the books you once loved.

That would be something, no? Kids looking forward to the next wake to score something. So, if you are a kid and living near my neighbourhood, pray I die during the June or December school holidays! You will have much to inherit! And if I die outside of these holidays, maybe the undertakers can keep me in the fridge till the time is right for mourning and flea market opportunity! Hmm, I wonder how they charge for freeze storing a corpse somewhere. Now I am wondering who holds the world-record for that. A customer of cryogenics perhaps? Questions, and more questions!

Always more questions in death than living. And that's a lesson in life itself!

The next story: In The News 1

Man in Puerto Rico immortalised on his bike at his wake.
Biking was his passion when alive.

Vicks On The Bum

I woke up one night with an itch on my bum. It started small at first but then soon spread. In no time my two rear cheeks were itching like a rash and I had to control myself from scratching it to shreds.

Why would my bum suddenly itch so bad in the middle of the nite? It is convenient to suspect mites. But I keep a clean bed, so it was very unlikely. Besides, mites don't just bite a specific area, and the itch shouldn't spread like wild fire!

My other thought was that I had eaten something wrong during dinner. I am not given to allergies, so that idea was soon dismissed.

I then wondered about the supplements I had been taking for "strong bone and teeth" (in a manner of speaking). But it wasn't the first time; so any side effect would have surfaced long ago.

Could it be something I was dreaming about? I mean I had woken up with an erection in the middle of the night before dreaming of old girlfriends. I cannot help it. A man's testosterone levels rise and ebb throughout the night, peaking at sunrise (surprise, surprise!). Most men can identify with getting a a boner in the morning. (For the ladies this could be a godsend as they can vouch that morning boners are the best!) Guys don't like it much as "doing it" with a full morning bladder can be uncomfortable. But it helps. (Hey, guys cannot really pee with a boner on during sex. But with effort, they can will it once in the can. Just make sure to be seated and facing the wall as the boner will sprinkle pee in all directions. We all know how water splays when a hose is pinched!

So, there I was lying in bed in the middle of the night wondering why my bum itched so much!

I told a friend the next morning and he said I should be thankful it was not my balls that provoked scratching. I told him I had that experience once, what the POWs in Singapore during WWII called "Changi balls". It had nothing to do with the Cinderella-glass-slipper kind of ball but one caused by eating rice and little else. It's a vitamin deficiency illness. I was on a crash diet once and developed Changi Balls. It was gone after I started eating more rice again.

But that night, with a bum that itched so bad, I had to affirm that my butt wasn't bitten by any insect or parasite. So I turned to my girlfriend who was sleeping beside me and roused her up.

"Jane, I need you to take a look at my butt. Something's not quite right."

Jane was in her deep REM sleep phase and took a while to wake and register what I had said. "What? Look at your what?" she mumbled.

"My butt. It's itching like mad!"

Jane sat up and rubbed her eyes. I had already moved my pants down the waist, half-mooning her.

"You got to be kidding, right?" Jane was a little, er, disbelieving.

I turned on the bedside tablelight to highlight my derriere better. It was clearly visible in the dresser mirror opposite. I edged my pants down a little more in desperation.

"Wait, where are my specs?" Jane asked as she fumbled for them. They were on the bedside cupboard. Jane had a high degree of shortsightedness and making love to her was kind of unusual. She said most of the time, I was just the blurry guy at arm's length, no diff from looking at me though the bottom of a drink bottle. Thank you very much Jane for that!

"It was like making love to a stranger each time."

Er, is that a compliment?

I didn't know whether to be flattered or annoyed. But she was a wonderful partner so I didn't take issue with that. And short-sighted people, I realised, grab on to things like a drowning person to a life jacket. Sometimes disconcerting, most times quite exciting after the fact!

Jane finally surveys the damage and reports that my bum is like a car in a slight accident. Lightly scratched but otherwise OK. Is it red? I asked.

"No, not even in this yellow light." If red, my bum would look a shade of dark brown, something we all learned watching Abyss, that James Cameron movie about aliens in the deepest part of the Mariana Trench.

Can you smack it? I suggested to her.

"Okaaay," she replied, somewhat amused. She did a couple of quick slaps that would have made a drummer proud.

"There! Better?" she said grinning.

"Yes, much better," I said, pulling my pants up before turning round. I took her hand and kissed the back of it. "Thank you, madam."

"Why don't you put some Vicks on it?" Jane then suggested, worried that the itch would cost me sleep. "Here, let me put some on for you."

And so, that's what Jane did that one late night. Put Vicks on my derriere. I must say I felt much better afterwards as my bum was like super cool. Quite a weird feeling if you'd asked me. But Jane was liking it (the Vicks, not my bum) as the ointment also relieved her of a sinus-stuffed nose.

Afterwards, we couldn't sleep. We made love. Kind of strange, to be honest, to make love with a Vick's cooled bum. I was like a waffle served up with ice-cream: one side hot, the other cool. Jane was as usual, lapping up the warmer side of me.

After the quick but ardent love-making, both of us fell asleep. By then, the itch was long gone to be replaced by a dream of tobogganing on the snowy slopes of winter Stockholm. My bum was wet, icy cold and snugged tight with someone in front. No prizes for guessing why.

Next story: Burnable Bling

One Leg Left

One of the things I think thin people cannot enjoy is a good massage. All those meatless body parts and sharp bone corners. It's almost like marinating fish or prawn and get poked here and there. I mean I would rather marinate a slab of three-layer pork. It is so luscious and "QQ" between the fingers.

The same for girlfriends, I suppose, especially those chubbier than Barbie. They are more fun to apply sunblock on.

When I was young, I was very skinny and viewed a massage more like a kind of paid molestation. I believe all skinny people still feel the same - that every touch is just too close to the bone. It's extremely ticklish too, which makes the whole exercise quite impossible to endure.

How to lie obediently on a massage table and let the masseur work his/her magic?

Given such reservations, it was thus no wonder that I seldom went out of my way to look for a massage before.

Growing up in Marsiling, I had a neighbourhood friend who would ride his motorbike into nearby JB to get his 'fix'. I put that in inverted commas because in JB then, a massage came with 'extra services' - the kind that's usually provided by the back-alley folks in Desker Road under certain red lighting conditions. The word "massage" became an euphemism for that sort of thing, oft-used on clients in karaoke lounges even.

My first massage did not happen in Singapore; it took place in Taiwan. I was there for my National Service and we had just wrapped up a two-week training stint and into our R&R (rest and recreation) break. All of us were expecting a three-day holiday in Taipei but for some reason, we ended up in Kaoshiung instead.

Our hearts sank a litte because we had heard of how fair the ladies in Taipei were as compared to the ladies further south. We had trained in the mountains of Hengchun near the southern-most tip of the Taiwan peninsular and seen folks so sun-tarnished that they could pass off as Malays or even Thais. And so we thought the ladies in Kaoshiung would be the same.

Fortunately, it turned out to be not true if the salesgirls serving us in the shops and departmental stores were anything to go by.

Even the girls we had seen riding on their scooters in the city streets were fair - being protected by long sleeves and gloves and sunhats during their rides. It was quite the sight when a bunch of them stopped at a traffic light. On a windy day, their sundresses would billow and their long hair flutter. It was exactly like some Kao shampoo ad on TV! I remember a similar scene in Ho Chi Minh City of girls in traditional dress and on bicycles.

Oh, before we SAF army boys were let loose in Kaoshiung, we were briefed by our platoon sergeant Staff Karu on what to expect and what NOT to do in that newly industrialised city. Or rather, what HE expected us not to do.

"Don't let me catch you in one of those barber shops. You botak guys definitely don't need a haircut. If you want "extra services" just answer your door at night in the hotel. It's not me knocking but you know what I mean." Chuckles all round. We had all been told that "xiao jie" (lady/prostitutes) would come solicit for business in the middle of the night. It happened at all the hotels... 3-star, 4-star not withstanding.

"And of course, don't forget to use this," added Staff Karu, holding up a packet of condoms for all to see.

"What I don't want you to do is go insult some hardworking mom hairstylist in this fair city. Not all of them want to give you "extra service" or cut your cock hair. Kabish?" We had yet to earn our officer-rank bars so we all nodded furiously in 'kabishment'. Got it! Keep away from barber shops! Of course, we all laughed at the cock hair bit. Our platoon sergeant was Indian, plump and hirsute (hairy); he conjured up quite the funny image. God save the lady in the barber shop who has to cut his, um, cock hair. Where to begin and where to stop?

Then again Indians were seldom seen in Taiwan at the time, so all things considered, they were exotic like the black negroes. Maybe even without asking, he would get an extended haircut and "extra service".

Someone shot up a hand and asked: "Staff, how about massage parlours?"

"I am going to one. If you see me, stay the hell away. I've seen enough of you guys for two weeks," said Staff Karu half in jest and half in murderous intent.

The rumour going round the camp at the time was about the fights the previous batch of NS men had gotten into. One was at the famous President underground departmental store; the other was outside a massage parlour. The NS-men were unit-level "Hokkien-peng" (dialect-speaking soldiers) and thus understandable. They would often "'pak" (fight) first, then talk later. We were officers-to-be and thus expected to behave better. But the fact is that we were all bookworms from an A-level Pre-U batch, so we were more likely to walk away from a fight than get physical. But in a foreign country, you never know what can happen.

So after reaching Kaoshiung and checking into our respective hotels, we each formed into our own pal-groups and went about exploring the city - Taiwan's second largest. The place looked neat and homey, so where were the barber shops and massage parlours soldier folks talked about?

In my group were Eddy, Siew Chong, Yew Kuan and Tiah Ann. Eddy was the most talkative amongst the lot. Siew Chong had an angel face but in reality, a really filthy mouth like some Hokkien peng. He was usually a quiet chap. But step on his tail and he will bite like a rattlesnake.

Yew Kuan was always reserved and contemplative but would laugh at our jokes. Tiah Ann was neither reserved nor gay (happy outlook). He was a sturdy chap and very helpful. He would go the distance without complaint. Tiah Ann was also the "koon king" (sleep king) of our platoon and would soon fall asleep whenever he stepped into an army three-tonner. It didn't matter where he was sitting - on the floorboards or on the bench - he would immediately fall asleep once the vehicle got moving, much to the annoyance of our platoon sergeant. Not even the threat of "signing extras" could change him. In the end, we just let him be and made sure someone else sat by the tailgate (whose duty was to keep an eye open to make sure no one fell out of the truck during transit).

I don't know why we formed this group of mostly kwai kias (well-behaved kids). Perhaps they felt I was fierce and gang-ho and could take care of them. I usually got along fine with everybody and it didn't matter who was keeping me company. I could always chat somebody up - a trait that held me in good stead as a journalist later.

In any case, the few of us wandered around the city streets to take in the sights as well as to do a bit of window shopping. A part of Kaoshiung was very new at the time and reminded us of Orchard Road with its big glass office buildings and shopping centres. We guessed that Kaoshiung was doing well and industrialising and turning into a financial hub. But it was in the old part of Kaoshiung that we liked better to loiter in, where the small shops and eateries were. Lest they soon disappear, like what was happening back home in Singapore at the time.

In one old street, we came across an old zinc-sheeted warehouse that had been turned into a cinema. We were tempted to watch it but its promotional poster was half-torn leaving some words that confused us. We then asked a resident nearby what the movie was all about.

"Na ge shi yi fu san ji pian," was the old uncle's reply. That's a Cat III film, was what he said.

"San ji" meaning Category III, and "pian" meaning film. So it was a porno movie. We had heard of such "yellow" movie houses in Taiwan before. To come up against one was still gobsmacking. In Singapore, our film censorship was still the blanket type. The only cinema that came close to being nicknamed a Cat III one was Yangtze, where DOMs (dirty old men) would gather to watch "artistic" films screened there. Films that often starred Amy Yip and her famous frontal assets. The most popular movie was however "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" starring Daniel-Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche. I think the honest and explicit sex scenes did the trick, never mind the existential theme of the movie.

Still, for a group of army boys to find a Cat III cinema on their first trip out into town could be ranked akin to a prospector finding gold on the very first try. But funnily, none of us were keen to waste our time in some old building that looked more like a make-shift factory painted in rust-red. It was surprisingly located in a congested neighbourhood of stacked residential wooden homes and narrow alleyways. Well, in any case, I thought what a bunch of kwai kias we really were!

From the cinema, we emerged along a five-foot walkway by the main road. A couple of home eateries operated there. One sold beef noodles; the other sold the famous "mu gua niu nai" papaya milk drink. We ordered the largest cc one, which was huge, more like 500cc! That's how it was sold then, what was actually quite the novelty.

Afterwards, we walked a bit and came to a massage parlor. It was located on the ground floor of a small office building. We looked at each other as if we had hit the jackpot again. Tiah Ann was quick. He had already leapt up the few steps and turned around to report. "Staff Karu is not here!" We all "Wa lau eh!" and laughed at him for taking our platoon sergeant's comment so seriously.

"Hey, let's check and see how much they are charging," one of us suggested. We know we Singapore boys often got fleeced in Taiwan like any tourist in an unfamiliar place, so it was better to be sure first.

At the counter, we all ogled at the price list. It all seemed rather proper and agreeable. Each massage was not only time-based but 'parts based' as well, meaning we could specify whether it was Upper Body, Lower Body, Head, etc., that we want smacked and kneaded.

"Where's the charge for you-know-where?" someone joked, about a specific body part that was dear to us boys but not found on the list. I looked at the lady behind the counter to see if she understood what was being said. Nope, no reaction. As a matter of fact, she appeared rather impatient. I hoped no SAF unit soldiers had gone there before us to "spoil market" and her mood. We could then be in for one hell of a session. You know, bones and muscles cracked in furious and merciless payback fashion.

"I don't think this one is that sort of place. Look at the uniforms." It was true, the girls had on some grey-white cosmetic girl get-up. It all looked pretty professional except for the expression on their faces. They could be mistaken for running a funeral parlor.

"Look, Eddy, I think you have to do it yourself back in your hotel room," I smiled, as I ribbed him for making such a lewd suggestion. Eddy was actually not that sort; he was just being a smart-aleck.

In the end, only three of us opted to try. Yew Kuan and Tiah Ann decided their time would be better spent shopping for music cassettes, and so off they went.

I stepped into the massage parlour and took a sweep of the place. It was well-lit and quite spacious. It had about four tables side by side in a row. Above the head of each table was a TV set. Hmm, not bad customer service, I had thought then.

Do I need to change? I asked the masseur assigned to me in halting Mandarin. I thought I had to be butt naked and in a towel or something. It always was like that on TV or in the movies. That's how the hanky-panky starts, no?

I was in my OCS all-white PT kit. My masseur, a woman in her early 30s, told me I needed not strip. I thought it rather unusual but did not question her any further. In my mind, I was wondering what if she needed to oil me up. That would stain my whites, no? Platoon Sergeant Karu would not be happy about that.

More questions.

In any case, I lay myself down on the massage table as instructed. First prone and then on my back. The table was like any found in a doctor's office: rectangularish and cushion-wrapped in grey vinyl.

She started with my neck, then shoulders, then arms, then back. Lying down prone, I couldn't see the TV at all. I wondered maybe they should have one on the floor as well, you know, one of those portable 7-inch type, angled so I could be entertained in that position. But it was rather unnecessary as I began to feel drowsy from all my masseur's rolling hand-action. The last thing I remembered was if I should keep my wallet down the front of my pants, near my crouch. It would be safe from pilfering in that location. Right? Zzzzz......

I woke up to find that I was already flipped over. Did I...? Did she...? In any case, the masseur lady was already working on my right leg. She didn't seem in any particular hurry kneading it. In fact she was distracted by something in the ceiling. I look to where she was staring at and saw the TV that was there earlier. It then dawned on me that the TV was for her, not me. She was watching a daytime soap opera all the while massaging me 'blind'.

I felt ignored. But never mind.

Never mind that this was not an "extra service" massage parlour; the masseurs were not even particularly skilled nor customer-oriented. I think I could have done a better job massaging myself. I could have entertained myself too!

I was not alone in thinking that as I looked across to Siew Chong and he gave me that "what-is-going-on" look and shrug, as much as he could lying prone on that cushioned table clone. It was as grey and dull as our mood.

When my right leg was done, the masseur stopped and said, "Hao le."

What? What hao le (OK)? I asked.

"Yi ge cong tow dao le," she said, meaning my hour was up.

I checked my left leg. It was the same one that I had walked in with. The same one that had become tense after two weeks in the mountains of Hengchun. Tense still from that long bus ride to Kaoshiung. And tense still from the climb of steps into that massage parlour.

Mostly, it felt unviolated, untouched. I said this to the xiao jie: "Er, xiao jie. Ni hai mei you long je zhi qiao." (You haven't done this leg yet.)

"Shi jian dao le," she repeated, saying time was up.

"Ni na ni ke yi je yang zhou yi pan jiu ting?" (How can you stop halfway?)

She looked at me and saw that I was determined to get my other leg done. I was more pissed that she was watching TV and did not concentrate on her job properly. How could she leave me three-quarters done? It was like getting an half-ass haircut or being shooed from the cookhouse with still half a platter of food left. Not in the army, and certainly not in some massage parlour that I am paying my hard-earned NS dollars for.

In the end, the xiao jie relented and massaged my left leg. She did it in so perfunctorily a fashion that she might as well have just dug her nose. That would have required more time and effort!

After the session, the three of us gathered outside the parlour and exchanged notes. "That was some session, wasn't it?" I said. Siew Chong let out an expletive; he felt cheated. Eddy simply shrugged.

Later, when we met up with our other fellow cadets, our massage session became "incredible" (that the masseurs were so blase), "arousing" (only our intense displeasure), and "one-of-a-kind" (never again!) experience.

In a way, it was all true, which makes us wonder about all those "extra services" that the other guys bandied about. Perhaps they too were too embarrassed to say that they had been taken for a ride!

The next story: Vicks On The Bum

Singapore's First LARP

What's a LARP? you may ask.

It is Live Action Role Playing - a kind of game. Just in case you think Singapore is too boring or staid to be having such great outdoor fun, think again.

In 1990, many people came dressed as knights, fairies, adventurers, witches, warlords, etc., to do battle on Fort Canning Hill where a medieval village was built complete with a tavern (with beer), costume shop, apothecary (spell merchant), sword maker, slave auction site and gladiator arena. There was even a maze.

The whole of Fort Canning Hill was converted into a ghoul infested medieval country where the righteous did battle with the wicked; the latter nursed and encouraged by a Witch Queen - a tall and imposing figure reaching some 12 feet in height.

The Curse of the Witch Queen LARP opened and closed the Arts Festival Fringe activities that year; it included dance performances from Africa and a traditional drumming outfit from Kelantan, Malaysia.

The COTWQ event was planned, run and executed by the Science Fiction Association, Singapore, better known as SFAS. I was one of its past presidents. SFAS still exists today but only as a Google Group (no admin compared to being under the Registry of Societies).

At COTWQ I was its chief builder in charge of making everything that was on Fort Canning. I was not alone in that. I had great help from a number of fellow enthusiastic volunteers, many of them students, full-time NS men and mostly avid RPG PnP (role playing game, paper and pen) players from our sci-fi society. They came forward to spend many weekends and week-nights at two workshops in Bedok Vocational Institute to saw, hem, paint and paper mache various props. We shuttled back and forth, drank lots of coffee, and went days without bathing. So committed we were!

The Art Council gave us funds and Black & Decker sponsored the necessary power tools. Wood was bought from timber yards in Kranji and food was "tapowed" much from Bedok Central hawker center.

The COTWQ demanded a lot from all those who were involved but never mind. It turned out to be a huge success and ultimately a most unforgettable event in the annals of Singapore's literary and role-based gaming history. Now, I have to ask: Were you there? Heh-heh.

More photos here: Curse of the Witch Queen  The next story: One Leg Left

Me figuring out how to build the maze.
We (volunteers) spent about three months at a workshop in Bedok VI making costumes, props and furniture. What a time we had! Those with jobs came after work, stayed over and left in the morning to return in the evening. Weekends were especially special as we all stayed overnight from Fri evenings through to Sunday!
We at the Bedok VI workshop. Between making props and stuff, we indulged in some Dungeons and Dragon stuff. I mean the LARP was helmed by the Science Fiction Association of S'pore. Many members were also role=playing boardgamers.
Top left: Man Loon, our chief props maker and artistic head (in glasses). Bottom left: Drummers from Kelantan. 
The "Queen" giant puppet. Forces of good and evil do battle. Red (bad), Blue (good. ;-)
We were part of the Art Fest Fringe event.
Top left: Me planning the maze. Volunteers helping each other with make up and there's Dawn in-charge of costumes making. 
We had dancers at the tavern, volunteers helped to make the costumes, etc.
We had weapons, costumes and masks.
We had tents and built structures for the apothecary, armoury, etc. Even a tavern! Bottom right: Alicia, our make-up head. Loved her laughter. Years later I discovered that she was my primary school classmate's sister!
Gladiator fight rehearsals. Right: Slave auction (two volunteers (both very fetching SIA gals) acted as the slave girls up for auction. Very sporting!
At the Gladiator Arena (which we built).
The Finale - Did Good win over Evil?