31 January 2006

Chinese New Year Visits

Over the first 3 days of the Year of the

I visited relatives (not the kind in the above photo), most of whom I see only once a year. Even though it is so infrequent, it is not something that I particularly enjoy doing. It is not the angpows that I loathe giving but rather the visits are considered as a tradition or obligation that I have to fulfill, more like a chore. To justify my feeling this way, this 'wordsmith' (according to Chris) coined the phrase - 'Friends are by choice, relatives are by chance'. Isn't there at least some truth in this statement?

It's not that I am envious or suffering from inferiority complex. But it just did not help when most of my relatives seemed to be either having a higher standard of living or living in better conditions when compared to mine. Some live in posh resort-style condos with facilities they never use:

Yet some others stay in so-called 'humble' HDB flats like mine but enjoy a spectacular view quite unlike boring views of neighbouring blocks which I see from my flat. They can even tell you when each ship will leave the harbour or whether any flight is delayed just by looking out their windows:

They even have an expansive (not expensive) football field right downstairs:

But the highlight of this CNY for me must be the visit to the Istana today (31 Jan 06), although the President didn't give me nor my children any angpows. We didn't even get to see him because we went in the morning and he probably made his appearance only in the afternoon. There were thousands of visitors and hundreds of security personnel:

The Istana is open to the public only a few times a year during the major festivals. Locals enjoy free admission while foreigners have to pay $1 per head with proceeds going to the Community Chest (not NKF) as donations. We observed that there might be more foreigners, especially Chinese nationals, than locals who visited today.

Donate another $2 and you get to view certain portions of the Istana Building itself. (You still don't get to use the building's toilets or lifts though.) Many artifacts, mostly gifts from foreign governments, are on display. On display too in the Istana grounds are many signboards telling visitors what they are not supposed to do. There are hundreds of police personnel to make sure that the following rules are not flouted:

The above photo montage certainly looks like a 'Singapore is a fine city' t-shirt doesn't it? The signs can be expected - Singaporeans especially, need to be told what they can't do. Otherwise they will assume that whatever that is not stated explicitly is permitted. If they are told that something is prohibited, they will instinctively ask, 'Got sign to say so meh?". This happened to Mr Kenny Sia when he was told not to take photos in an MRT station. But then he's a Malaysian.

And you can't claim that you are illiterate either. All who can see and who at least completed nursery school should be able to understand what this sign is all about:

Not only that, Singaporeans also need to be told when they can do something right and where to do it too, as shown in this montage:

When it comes to having initiative, Singaporeans still have a long way to go.

But overall, it has been an enjoyable CNY holiday for me and I hope that you (especially Evan) have enjoyed yours just as well.

28 January 2006

SMS Greetings Replacing Hardcopy Greeting Cards - Good or Bad?

Tonight is the eve of the Lunar New Year and firstly I would like to wish everyone a Happy Chinese New Year (CNY).

In the good old days (some readers just love this term), we used to send hardcopy CNY cards by post or by hand to wish all our friends and relatives a happy CNY. The same was done for X'mas and all other major festivals. The more traditional of us still practise this as I continue to receive some paper X'mas and CNY cards each year. Most of such cards are handwritten, adding a personal touch to the greetings which somehow can be felt by the recipients.

However it should be obvious to everyone that there is a growing trend in the last several years. First, the electronic cards were popular and still are. We would exchange them with fervour using our office as well as personal email accounts. Then in the last few years, we also started to receive and send more and more SMS greetings, even MMS ones. With the advent of the electronic age and the Internet, I guess this is an inexorable process. Nothing bad about that (unless perhaps when you happen to be Singpost or is in the card-related business).

It is true that SMS greetings lack that personal touch. A text message cannot contain very much emotion although we try to include as many smileys and emoticons as we could to mitigate this shortcoming. On the contrary, even if you use ALL CAPS (interpreted as SHOUTING in emails and SMS) the recipients may not understand that you are shouting at them. They may be unaware of this convention, thinking that it is your habit or a matter of convenience. They don't get to hear the tone of your voice and neither do they see your facial expressions. 3G video phones may change all that in the not too distant future but right now, not many people have them or even want to have them. (Perhaps there are some people who either consider their own faces to be not worth looking at or consider that the people they often call have such faces.)

Besides, what makes SMS greetings really impersonal is that most of the greetings are actually being forwarded from person to person hundreds or even thousands of times. Why, I have received exactly the same SMS greeting from different people before and I believe so have you.

Therefore SMS greetings should be used with care and discretion. Tonight, I received a SMS greeting from an old friend which I'd rather not have received. Let me explain. Here are 2 screenshots of that SMS. (The identity of the sender has been masked out with M's to protect the guilty innocent.)

So far so good. It would have been alright if the SMS ended there. But when I scrolled down further, this screen appeared:

Now, I am not particularly superstitious but neither am I a fan of chain mails, er... sms. (This kind of stuff is for kids and the immatured.) So is this a threat? What is the greeting trying to convey? Goodwill or bad? What have I to regret if I just hit the delete button? Why send (or forward) such a greeting at an auspicious time like this? I am sure that my friend (until now) meant no ill-intent. But still, I consider his sending me the sms as indiscretion on his part, to put it very mildly. Or in poor taste, to put it slightly more strongly.

My wife received an even more badly-worded chain SMS a few years ago. It cursed that some misfortune would befall her if she didn't followed the given instructions. My wife just deleted that sms and the sender from her list of friends and was none the worse for the incident, giving me even more courage to do something about the sms.

I am usually not a shrewd and calculating person although I can be quite clever and witty sometimes. I thought long and hard at how I should take revenge respond, if at all. To ignore the SMS would have been impolite. I figured that I should show some displeasure to convey the signal that such actions should never be repeated. But I cannot be seen as too rude. So my response was:

I didn't get any response from the sender which may be interpreted as good news. Maybe he got the message. But I thought that if he did, he could at least have the courtesy to say a word of apology, no? (So friend, if you are reading this post, I am still angry with you.) Okay I know that it's hard to say sorry and I should live and let live. Why let such a trivial matter spoil the festive spirit?

So 'Happy New Year again to all and sundry'. (Frankly, I would have been very happy to receive such a simple SMS greeting myself.)

10 January 2006

Odeon Theatre Then, Odeon Tower Now

I am sure many people of my generation remember fondly the Odeon Theatre at 331 North Bridge Road. Some of us (not me) might have had their first dates there, not necessarily with our spouses. It was an ordinary theatre which was a well-known landmark in that area. It was the place where families and courting couples spent many hours watching movies like The Ten Commandments and other war movies. That is until the building was demolished in the 1970s, I think.

Today, a spanking new building stands in its place - the Odeon Tower:

The ground floor entrance to the tower is just as spectacular:

And so is the view from one of the upper floors:

In fact, for a photo buff like me, there is no lack of interesting subjects in the building. Here's a worm-eye view of a spiral staircase leading to a designer furniture shop on the first floor and a pub on a higher floor which I think might have closed down:

Last week (3 - 6 Jan 06), I was at Odeon Tower to attend an IT course. I recently bought a new Samsung L50 camera from a fellow Renault car club forum member for $270. I considered it a very good buy since its market value was at least $415. In fact, it was such good value that the seller made me promise not to resell it for a profit.

As you can see, I have faithfully kept my promise - these photos were taken with the new camera. They come with date-time stamps, just like in Chun See's photos. So Philip (camera seller's name), if you are reading this, I've kept my promise so far and therefore you cannot shoot me... just yet.

Back to my story on Odeon Theatre and Odeon Tower. Old foodies would know that there used to be a coffeeshop near Odeon Theatre which served very delicious Hainanese beef noodles and it was normal to have to wait more than half an hour for it:

So naturally, when it was lunchtime, I went hunting for similarly delicious food. I passed by the restaurant which you see on the left of the entrance photo above. The restaurant served an unbelievable $3 lunch, including a small dian xin (点心) like lao po bing (老婆并) free. Tea and coffee prices were only at 70 cts a cuppa with no 'plus-plus-plus' too (meaning no GST, service charge, tea and towel charge). And they served beef stew rice which was yummy. Needless to say, even though fully aware that beef is cholesterol-laden, I had this dish for two days in a row. Only when Odeon Theatre was still around could one find restaurant food at such a bargain. So what's the catch? One had to lunch al fresco at one of the four tables you see on the right of the photo. The table umbrella would be opened for you but it was of little use in foul weather. Another catch - the fish porridge which my colleague ordered took more than half an hour to come and he left without eating it. Some things never change.

I must say the IT course brought back EAT memories for me and I had great company for lunch too. By the way (I don't mean to give you any assignment since school has started) does anyone know where the beef noodles of yore has moved to, that is if it is still operating?

03 January 2006

E-auctions - A Modern Day Version of 'Sungei Road'

Ever since the advent of the Internet, people have set up 'e' everything - e-commerce, e-banking, e-payment, e-news, e-auctions, etc. Today, many transactions take place in e-auctions. 'E-bay' and 'Yahoo Auctions' are 2 main e-auctions websites available to Singapore buyers and sellers. Both of them are very similar but I think 'Yahoo Auctions' is the more popular of the two. This post will only describe Yahoo Auctions.

What are the similarities between Yahoo Auctions and Sungei Road? People can buy and sell anything and everything (not necessarily old stuff) on Yahoo Auctions, just like in Sungei Road. But there are things that are strictly a 'no-no' - controlled drugs (including Viagra), stolen or smuggled items (only if this could be proven), pornography, soliciting for sex, recruiting mercenary killers, weapons (Frannxis' spent cartridge would have been classified under this category), terrorists' propaganda and paraphernalia, etc. Pirated or fake goods are a grey category - they are being openly sold on Yahoo Auctions but nobody acknowledges this. Euphemisms being used for 'pirated or fake goods' are 'compatible version', 'copy', 'almost like the real thing', etc. However, one can always tell a fake good from the real thing just from the asking price - it is always a mere fraction of the cost of the genuine item. A very good example is when Chris' $10,000 made-in-Malaysia Louis Vuitton wallet is being sold for a mere $10 on Yahoo Auctions.(A more comprehensive list of prohibited items is given at Yahoo Auctions Singapore website here.)

A few years ago, the news reported a Sillyporean trying to auction off his skills to make a projectile or a rocket! No doubt that the Idealogical Social Department must have intervened to counsel that guy and probably even thrown him into jail sent him to a place where he could spend some time to do some quiet self-reflection. That was despite his claim that he was just selling his technical expertise and not the physical product itself.

Both means are free for sellers - no auction fee is levied by Yahoo Auctions and no rent or GST is collected from sellers in Sungei Road. Unscrupulous sellers abound in Yahoo Auctions, just like in Sungei Road. (Sorry if I sound like a worn-out record, repeating the same old advice i.e. caveat emptor or buyers beware.) Not only that, unscrupulous buyers also abound on Yahoo Auctions too, but that should be regarded as a difference rather than a similarity with Sungei Road.

What about the other differences? For one, the Yahoo Auctions seller does not need to watch over his wares like a hawk. Neither the seller nor his wares need to be physically present (at one place). He can be anywhere else doing anything or nothing. All he needs to do is to log into his Yahoo or e-mail account at least once a day to check if there are any interested buyers who bidded or asked any questions about the item on sale. The item will be offered 24 x 7, i.e. round-the-clock, rain or shine. The seller could choose up to a 10-day expiry for the auctioned item and also re-submit the auction for the item automatically for up to 5 times. If after 50 days, the item is still left on the shelf, the seller should seriously consider pricing his item more competitively. Of course, the sooner he does this, the better will be his chance of selling off the item. After all, in any market place, the basic rule of supply and demand applies.

Sellers too should beware of unscrupulous buyers on Yahoo Auctions because unlike in Sungei Road, a Yahoo seller has not met the buyer face-to-face yet even at the time when a deal has been struck. Most importantly, the seller has not received payment yet. Every now and then, one would come across a dubious buyer, usually a non-local, asking silly questions and then making an offer-to-buy that is just too good to be true. This buyer's intention is probably to get the seller to send him the goods first. If the seller is naive enough to do that, he will probably find out later (and too late) that the payment never arrives. I do not know if anyone has been cheated this way. There must have been quite a few who are. But there are many sellers who could recognise such a scam right away. They would swear four letter words at reply the sellers in unrestrained language which refined people like Chun See would never use. (Once a seller replies to a buyer's question, the question-and-answer could then be seen by the 'whole wide world', uncensored.)

Sellers could be unscrupulous on Yahoo Auctions too. Some sell items that are defective. (If an item is defective, it should be declared to buyer beforehand.) Some items may be older or are in worse condition than claimed. Some sellers would register several Yahoo accounts each and then single-handedly bid up the prices of the items that they themselves are selling, just to create an artificial demand. Or they could ask their friends or colleagues to do the same. Some sellers may not even actually have the items for sale or any intention to sell but are only 'testing the market'.

Then there are sellers or buyers who back out of successfully closed auctions for a variety of reasons - they realise they have been duped, they change their minds, buyers found a cheaper alternative elsewhere or sellers found another buyer willing to pay a higher price. Of course these practices are unethical to say the least. Unfavourable ratings (an open system for successful buyers and sellers to appraise each other) will then probably be exchanged between buyers and sellers. Nothing to worry about. If one collects too many unfavourable ratings, one can always start afresh on a clean slate again, just by registering for a new Yahoo Auctions account using a different username just like how some banned maids return to Singapore on forged passports.

I have successfully bought and sold a handful of items on Yahoo Auctions and am proud to say that I have so far not had a single bad rating yet. (That is without registering for fresh accounts). In fact, Chris has been saying that I always spoil the buyers market by pricing my items too low, providing personal 'money back' warranty and free delivery. He can say what he wants but I still much prefer selling on Yahoo Auctions than on Sungei Road like what my classmate Mr Toh Hai Leong does.