28 February 2006

The Joy of Owning A New Car (and Taking Swipes At A Friend)

My good pal and colleague Chris collected his new car today. Although Chris was not a first-time car owner, this was the first time that he bought a brand new car. And at a basement bargain price of less than 50K on the road, what a joy it must have been for him. I was on afternoon leave to share his joy and a lunch with him. What are friends for anyway?

But the problem was that Chris' favourite car colour was actually black. However he finally settled for champagne gold because it was his wife's favourite a more neutral and popular colour. A few weeks ago, I was at Lifestyle (yes the shop in my last post which had since closed down). I saw a model car which was the car model Chris bought and it was in his favourite colour. So I bought it and would be presenting it to him tomorrow as a gift:

So you see, I do bring business to the shopping centre, not just window shop and take photos. (Big mistake, Miss Moods shopkeeper!) Sigh, the extent I would go to, just to please a friend, not just to put up a blog. And the extent that a friend would go to, just to take a swipe at me. Some people can be ungrateful. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

26 February 2006

What Is A Camera For Anyway?

Since I bought my digicam 2 months ago, I nearly ran into trouble as many times. In an earlier post, I related how a man violently protested when I took his photo without permission. Then yesterday, another similar incident happened in a shopping centre near where Chris stays. Now you know how I risked life and limb to get my photos on my blog.

I noticed that a lot of shops there had either moved away or were closed down recently. One reason could be due poor business. (Read on - I soon found out that there was another more likely reason.) Customers seemed to prefer visiting shopping centres in another nearby town.

Some examples of outlets in the shopping centre which had closed down:

Immediately after I took the bottom right photo, a shopkeeper came out from the adjacent shop and confronted me. Obviously she was damn free did not happen to have customers in her shop at that time. This was the dialogue that followed:

Shopkeeper: Do you have permission to take photos here?

Me (quoting the good-to-use line from Kenny Sia): Is there any sign that says I can't?

Shopkeeper (sensing that my English is quite powderful): It's implicit.

Me: And do you have permission to intervene?

Shopkeeper: You stay here! I am calling the security guard.
With that she turned around and walked briskly back into her shop. Now, I was not afraid of the security guard but ever since I left National Service, I never followed orders barked out to me that way. So I also turned around and walked briskly away.

While making my getaway, I saw this sign posted outside a lift in the shopping centre:

Oh, so what I did was considered 'suspicious behaviour'? What was the shopkeeper thinking? Did I look like a txxxxrist who was taking photos with intention to bxxb the place? Even if I were, I wouldn't have chosen a shopping centre so devoid of human traffic, would I? Couldn't I be a potential customer who was only trying out a digital camera on sale there? What's the use of a camera if I can't even take photos of something as inanimate as a closed shop? And if I had always asked the rightful owner for permission to take photos, do you think you will get to see all the interesting photos on my blog? Fat chance okay. What is a camera for anyway? To take family snapshots or make stars of of ourselves in blue movies for our own private consumption? How boring!

Now, the real reason why this shopping centre was suffering a diminishing crowd of shoppers must be due to hostile and overly suspicious shopkeepers. Incidentally, the shopkeeper's shopname was 'Moods' and she must have been in a bad one that day considering that her shop had no business. Especially to Chun See - considering the circumstances, I am willing to forgive and extend the olive branch to her, that is if I ever step into that shopping centre again and her shop is not closed down by then.

25 February 2006

A Visit to the National Library

On 12 Feb 2006, I visited the spanking new National Library at 100 Victoria Street. It was my first visit since the library was opened to the public on 22 Jul 2005. I wanted to see for myself how different the new library was from the old red-brick one at Stamford Road.

It might not be obvious from the above photo but the 16-storey building actually consisted of two 16-storey blocks linked by 'sky-bridges' on every level. It certainly looked very modern and imposing from the outside, a far cry from the humble National Library of yesteryear.

Inside, the first floor lobby was no less impressive. In fact, I thought that it resembled the lobby of a 5-star hotel:

Every floor of the library had a pair of escalators but most of them did not appear to be working:

However, I found out why soon enough - I stepped onto one and nearly fell forward when the escalator suddenly moved backward. So the escalators had a power-saving feature which shut them down when they were not in use for some time. How suaku of me! Not only that, I had stepped onto the wrong one - there were actually tiny directional traffic signs beside each escalator:

I certainly was not aware that one needed a pass in the highway code in order to use the escalator safely. So paiseh, even though I had passed my highway code some 3 decades ago, I had failed to notice the tiny signs (must be my failing eyesight). If I had fallen and injured myself, I would definitely become the laughing stock of friends like Chris for getting myself injured while engaging in an activity as innocuous as a library visit. Luckily not many people older than me elderly people used the escalators, otherwise the library should seriously consider having an in-house doctor to treat fractures. (And the library was supposed to be elderly-friendly.)

I went up to the 14th floor which was as high up as I could venture. The glass windows at the lobby offered a panaromic bird's eye view of the city. One could see as far as Orchard Road or as near as the next building, St Joseph's Church:

On the day of my visit, the library was a hive of activities. There was even an opera performance at the Plaza which was part of Lovebites 2006, a charity event held in aid of the Association of Persons with Special Needs (APSN):

(Frannxis, an avid Cantonese opera fan whom I knew in blogosphere, would have been delighted. However, although I was not sure what language they were singing in, I was certain it was not Cantonese.) Besides talks, workshops and performances, there were several exhibitions which were held concurrently, including:

1 Zheng He (Admiral Cheng Ho):

2 Dream of the Red Chambers;

3 Singapore Literary Pioneers Gallery (permanent exhibition on Level 11); and

4 From Books to Bytes: The Story of the National Library (permanent exhibition on Level 5)

I visited the last 2 exhibitions and gawked at several antiques which brought back nostalgia for me. Among the items were:

A Remington typewriter with fountain pen and ink bottle:

The personal computer has largely replaced the functions of the typewriter, fountain pen and ink.

A red brick:

At least 5,000 of such bricks were retained from the old building in 2004 and now form part of a wall in the basement garden of the Library at Victoria Street. The bricks were baked at the Alexandra Brickworks factory, with clay from Jurong.

A book press:

This press was used in the book binding unit located in the basement of the Stamford Road National Library. Library staff were required to repair and strengthen books and periodicals through careful sewing and binding by hand. Notice that the book press was made in London and imported by a Singapore company located in Kling Street:

(Extract from singlishdictionary.com: "Chulia Street, called Kling Street once because Indians from southern India, known as 'men from Kalinga', or orang kling in Malay, lived there. Kalinga, an ancient southern Indian state, was corrupted into kling long before Indians arrived in Malaya. By 1918, however, kling had become derogatory, so Kling Street was changed to Chulia Street, with nobody seeming to mind that Chulia was just the northern Indian term for Kalinga".)

Microfilm, microfiche and reels of film:

According to the explanatory notes, these technologies appeared in the 1960s and 1980s. Microfilm and microfiche technologies are some of the more stable means of preserving information in today's information age. (No kidding? Can they be more stable than my computer hard disk and CD-Rs which I use to store my data?)

The library still had plenty of the traditional stuff:

But self-service terminals had largely replaced the traditional staff:

Even so, my unequivocal verdict was that the new library had a much more pleasant and conducive learning environment compared to the old one. You should visit it soon if you have not done it yet. I am sure that you will find the experience as fulfulling as I did. Do be extra careful when using the escalators though.

19 February 2006

Unscrupulous Ways of Doing Business

Over the past few months, I have encountered 3 separate incidents whereby business was conducted in questionable ways. I am not talking about the NKF issue nor the several corporate scandals that happened last year. I would say that the companies involved were downright unscrupulous. Mind you, out of the 3 companies involved, 2 are reputable household names - one of them a well-established foreign bank and the other a large telecommunications service provider. The third has its office in downtown and posh Shaw House, right in the smack of upmarket Orchard Road. However, I have not heard of this company before. Yet all three companies were shady in their dealings with me.

First, this bank which I had signed up 2 credit cards with, sent me a letter in Dec 2005 to say that I did not need to settle my credit card bill for Dec 2005. 'Wah, ho sei liao,' I thought but my happiness was short-lived. When I perused the letter further, I realised that I could only delay payment till Jan 2005:

Not only that, I would not incur late payment charges but the usual interest rates would apply. My alarm bells started ringing immediately. Being a responsible and creditworthy credit card holder, I always settled my credit card bills fully via Giro payment. Why should I incur extra interest charges (at an exorbitant 13% p.a.) when I didn't need the payment holiday? What kind of promotion was that when I had to pay more for credit which I did not need? Since the letter did mention that I had a choice (see word circled in red above), I immediately called up their hotline. I was assured by the staff who answered my call that customers on Giro would not be affected by this promotion, i.e. they would still be billed normally for Dec 2005. Despite having called the hotline to opt out of this 'promotion', I was therefore very surprised to receive a Jan 2005 bill which reflected extra (interest) charges of $37.28:

I immediately called the hotline again to give the bank no peace of mind a piece of my mind. The staff on the other end of the line was unapologetic and only said, 'We are aware of this problem. The error will be rectified in your next bill'.

Indeed in Jan 2005, I received a letter from the bank apologising for the glitch:

However to me, the damage had been done. As they say, 'sorry no cure' (especially when it came so late). In fact, this was not the first time that the bank made an error in its dealing with me - a few months ago, the bank deducted my housing loan payment from my savings account instead of from my CPF account which it had been doing regularly. Luckily I checked and called them immediately to rectify the error. Again, the bank said that it was aware of the problem and it had been corrected even before my call. Was that a case of never admitting one's mistake; sorry is the hardest word; just face-saving or all 3-in-1? Then how about those pre-approved credit cards which the banks sent out to creditworthy customers a few years ago? If you did not opt out, then you were automatically considered as 'in'.

In the second incident, my mobile phone service provider recently sent me a bill which reflected an extra charge of $1 by mTouche:

Although $1 is not a lot of money, if that amount is collected from each subscriber, it would have added up to 1 or 2 million dollars, certainly no small beer by any standard. In any case, it is not the amount of money involved but rather the principle behind it that I am questioning.

This incident was widely reported in the media over the past few days. After several irate subscribers wrote to the press, the 3 main mobile service providers had publicly clarified that mTouche had 'incorrectly charged' for a CNY SMS greeting which was intended to be free. They even went as far to say that 'we are neither involved in nor do we control such content providers' operations and/or marketing strategies.'

Incidentally, I now have an explanation on why that company was called 'mTouche'. 'm' probably stands for 'money'. It is in lowercase since it is only $1. 'Touche' is a 'stylish French-sounding' word for 'touch' - the company wants to touch our money even though it can't have it. Hahaha.

So the 3 mobile phone service providers claimed that they just 'innocently' collected the money for mTouche? Never mind that, they would be still be considered as partners in crime even though the money involved would be refunded to all customers affected. Again this was not the first time that the telecommunications service providers committed such an 'oversight'. A few years ago, subscribers complained that they were being charged for a value-added service which they never asked for in the first place. They were billed just because they had not opted out of the service after the free trial period.

For the last incident, a dubious company sent my wife a letter to say that she won a car:

And you guessed it right - this was also not the first time that she received such a letter either. A few months ago, she 'won' a 42-inch plasma TV. Hey, how come I never win anything? Maybe it's because I am more wary about filling up lucky draw entries and survey forms. Grow up, if we keep on winning such things, we never have to buy anything. Get real, we never win the real lucky draws, only bogus ones like this. In fact, Chris also received such a letter recently. (See his 'I Should Be So Lucky' post.)

I could not help but felt amused by these details stated in the 'terms and conditions' of the letter:

This program is for married or engaged couples if one is not convinced, the partner will do the convincing for us; both must be at age of 30-70 we do have a heart you know and will not con youths and the elderly with combined household income of above net $5,000 per month half of which will henceforth be our profits and having a valid, non-expired major credit card which you are prepared to max out and are Singaporeans or PR, both English speaking (sorry, we don't speak Hokkien). You must arrive with your spouse or partner, without distracting children, friends or relative, and take part in an approximately 120 minutes introductory at the sponsoring company's office or venue. Awards presented at the end of the introductory if you survived all that. Sponsoring company would respectfully request you to switch off your mobile phone during the introduction so that you will not be rudely jolted out of your hypnotic state. Should there be any inconvenience caused, ambulance secretarial service will be provided.

If you believed all that (minus the strikeouts which are my own of course), then you would probably also be gullible enough to believe the company's claim that it 'does not feature timeshare holidays'. (Yes maybe it only specialises in con jobs). We did not respond to the letter since we already got a car. But out of the thousands of mails that this company probably sent out, there would bound to be some gullible and greedy victims who fell for the scam. These people would invariably end up in CASE, with each one fighting their own futile case.

Why do companies have to resort to such underhand tactics to do business? I thought that the economic growth last year has improved to 6.4% and the good business environment should not justify such means? In addition, why is it that whenever such acts are committed by companies, they are always called 'a technical problem' or 'an unintended human error/oversight'? Either that or it's always somebody else's fault and never the companies'. Then, whenever the unethical issue is publicised, an insincere-sounding apology follows and then comes damage control. How many times do these companies want to test our trust, patience and forgiveness before they think that they could be shattered? Come on, if you have made a mistake, be honest about it, admit it, apologise sincerely for it and move on. And very importantly, never repeat the same mistake or a similar one. However, sad to say, this does not seem to be happening anytime soon.

14 February 2006

The Evolution of the English Language

I just read a New Paper article dated 11 Feb 06 about the appalling standards of Mathematics and English of many students seeking admissions to top UK universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Many of these students cannot write in proper sentences or think for themselves. The Internet is a great research tool but it also makes it extremely tempting and easy for students to plagiarize other people's literary works (yes and photos too, no offense to Chun See and Chris) by just a few mouse clicks. Unlike my good friend Chris, these students have lost the skills of reading books.

Chris postulates a theory for the declining standard of English which seems to be prevalent amongst Singapore youths too. He attributes it to the frequent use of SMS text messaging. And he may be speaking some sense for once here. Our PM also gave a Korean definition of youth in his 2004 National Day Rally speech: "A young man is somebody who can do an SMS with one hand with the phone in his pocket."

Consider the following SMS text:

tku v m lol. imho altho u oredi hv dat. dis r gr8. rotfl. btw wru nw? bbl ttfn luv.

Laudies (another good example of the bastardization coining of a new term by Chun See to mean oldies or old folks) may not understand the message at all. But to the young recipient it means:

Thank you very much. (Laughing out loud.) In my humble opinion, although you already have that, these are great. (Rolling on the floor laughing.) By the way, where are you now? Be back later. Ta ta for now. Love.

As you can see, the use of abbreviations has shorten a more than 200-character SMS to about 90 characters, achieving a compression ratio of less than half. Not bad, considering that no technology was involved at all, only a little ingenuity.

We can almost always tell that a blog is likely to be written by a youth, typically from 20 to 30-year old. People of this age group tend to make scarce use of punctuations, especially capitalization. See for example the passage below. How easy is it for one to read it?

yes boba milk tea is the best! when i lived in l.a. i used to go over to a place called "volcano tea house" in the japantown section of west l.a. for one when i wanted a treat, or to monetery park, where you could get them in just about any chinese bakery. i have been disappointed with the "bubble teas" you can get in beantown (chewy, dry tapioca pearls and oddly flavorless tea), but lately my favorite bakery in chinatown here was replaced by a place called "bao bao tea" that served up a boba milk tea that reminded me of the good old days--rich tea flavor, sweet and milky with nice soft tapioca pearls. a friend of mine who did field research on formosan macaques on taiwan was very familiar with them and turned me on to this, one of my favorite beverages. all hail boba milk tea!

Then there are shop signs that don't make good English sense. This one seems more appropriate for a psychiatry clinic:

And this one is not even pronounceable. I tried but I sounded like I was spitting:

So how can our youths learn good English when our environment is not conducive for them to do so?

08 February 2006

The Perils of Blogging (2)

On the morning of 3 Feb 06 which was the very next day, I was back at Mohamad Ali Lane again. I remembered that there was this barber who operated in the backlane there. In my haste to get away from that mad man, I had forgotten to snap a photo of this vanishing scene. This barber could have been the same one who shaved Chris' hair when he was a kid. How could I pass up a precious opportunity to capture the memory for Chris? I love challenges, especially in difficult circumstances.

After thinking hard for a solution to the problem for one whole day, I was also back again to try out my new stealth technique of photo-taking. I had set the camera's flash and electronic shutter sound off. I had brought along a mini tripod and was ready to use full telephoto zoom if necessary, i.e. 2.8 x optical coupled with 4 x digital zoom, making a total of 11.2 x zoom. So after I parked my car in the open air car park at Club Street, I proceeded to the battle zone. I found the man lying down at the same spot, clearly exhausted from the previous day's tormenting from me. I also noticed that his set of clothes was the same set as that of the previous day. Maybe he had several sets of the same clothes.

I proceeded to try out my new technique from a distance of about 50 feet. Voila, he didn't stir one bit:

Now I have 2 photos of the likely suspect should you suddenly find me dead in the vicinity of Club Street some time soon after. Please lodge a police report for me and show them the 2 photos. Catching the suspect is going to be easy, never mind that the man's face cannot be seen clearly – just look for a man wearing that set of clothes.

I saw another old man who was sitting nearby. He saw me taking the photo of the mad man and asked me how the photo turned out. I said, 'Good' and showed the photo to him. I then related the previous day's incident to him. This man was very affable, a stark contrast to the mad man. He said, 'He shouldn't be angry. It's free advertisement for him mah.' Despite the man's friendliness, I didn't venture to take any photo of him because I already got my man.

I then sat down at a table at the nearby coffeeshop and ordered a cup of tea. But before the tea could be served, I noticed the mad man staring at me from about 20 feet away. He clearly recognized me and was obviously still angry over the previous day's incident. I got up immediately and headed in the opposite direction. I even crossed South Bridge Road and went into Mosque Street - to hide and yes, to pray. After about 15 minutes when the coast was clear. I headed back to my car. Alamak! I had forgotten to display a carpark coupon and there was a love note to say so:

Nevertheless, I considered that a $30 fine was a small price to pay for my safety. Imagine what could have happened if I had stayed on to watch my car and drink that leisurely cup of tea. The next day's newspaper might just have an article with this catchy title: 'Man Clubbed to Death in Club Street'.

In summary, taking a photo without being detected is the difficult part. Later I can modify it any which way I want, using a digital imaging software like Photoshop. If only the mad man was a little nicer to me, I would have protected his identity by modifying his photo in one of the ways shown below. After editing the photo, I assure you that you won't be able to recognize the subject. To illustrate, I have used a smiling face which I obtained from an image search on the Internet:

I have originally intended to use the smiling Buddha's image from my previous post. However Chris warned me against it. Besides being at the likely wrath of the higher forces, I might be guilty of blasphemy or worse, cause a riot that might kill scores of people just like what is happening now elsewhere in the world. I always heed Chris' advice, except the one about not taking people's photo without their permission.

03 February 2006

The Perils of Blogging (1)

Over the 3 days immediately after the Lunar New Year, I was on vacation leave. (Apply for 3 days' leave and get 9 days' rest - why not eh? Besides I still have unconsumed leave from last year and I also needed a well-deserved break badly.) Other than the usual chores duties of chauffeuring wife and children to/from work and school respectively, I was free to do whatever I please. Blogging being my new-found assignment passion, I roamed around town, hoping to get inspiration for my subsequent posts. I took a lot of photos and got plenty of inspiration, some of which were definitely not of the type that I desired. I learnt from first-hand experience that there were some perils in blogging which I was hitherto unaware of. I would like to share my experience with all of you so that you would not repeat the same mistakes that I made. Some of these mistakes were not obvious to me until after I have made them.

I am not talking about controversial blogging contents here. We all know that there are OB (out-of-bounds) markers and unwritten rules even in blogosphere, especially after 3 racist bloggers were charged recently. Don't ever think that you can hide behind a nick and that 'the powers that be' can't track you down if they want to.

Any topic that has the potential to cause racial or religious disharmony is a no-no. Taboo too are:

1. State secrets (please see Miyagi's article);

2. Pornography (no link provided since everyone who wants one would know where to get it);

3. Inciting of violence;

4. Issuing of threats; and

5. Passing slanderous/defamatory remarks. Vulgar language included.

Topics like politics and government policies, if ever discussed, should be handled carefully, rationally and objectively. You should be able to stand up to your comments if you were ever asked to. Remember the Dr Catherine Lim case in 1994?

Another likely peril - if you spend too much time blogging, your relationship with your loved ones may suffer. Imagine what kind of sex life can there be when you blog into the early hours of each and everyday? And when you do not sleep well, your study or work will be affected. Ultimately your health may be affected too.

I found out recently that there is yet another potential danger in blogging - it could be hazardous to my health (in another way) and wealth too. How could this be, you may wonder. (That's why I said in the first paragraph that it was not obvious.) You see, I like to include photos in my blog. It makes my blog more interesting for the reader. As they say, 'a picture paints a thousand words'. Now, it would be alright if I just took photos of inanimate objects even though they might look deceivingly animate:

Some would even have a ready smile for the camera:

Even animate subjects are alright so long as they don't know how to complain (and don't give you bird flu):

On 2 Feb 06 (正月初五) I was at Mohamad Ali Lane which is near Club Street where Chris grew up. I was there to find out if activities similar to those in Sungei Road were being carried out there. I was standing about 15 feet away from this lone amicable-looking old man. He was fiddling with an old stereo set. Besides him was a cart with lots of other rubbish old items, presumably to be used for conning gullible people sale to interested buyers. 'Ahh, what an ideal photo for my blog!', I thought to myself. Immediately and instinctively, I drew out my equipment camera and aimed it at the man. In my haste to capture the moment, I forgot to turn off the flash. Immediately after the flash fired, the man looked up, got up and swaggered menacingly towards me. Below is the dialogue that followed as faithfully as I recall it. It has been translated into English from Hokkien.

Warning, NC13 Rating: The man's portion of the dialogue (below in blue) is extremely crude and vulgar. In the process, even my ancestors were insulted. I have toned it down by using standard abbreviations. CAPS signify shouting. Parental guidance strongly advised. (If parents are not around, you may scroll down very quickly to skip the dialogue or quit this page.)


Me: Er, ya just one for...


Me (thinking, 'Me too, why are you snapping at me like that?'): Sorry, sorry.


Me (trying to think on my trembling feet): Er... I am a tourist lah, only taking some personal snapshots.


Me: This camera got no film one.


Me (pretending to delete the photo but in reality, there's no way I was going to delete a photo which I risked life-and-limb to take): There you are, it has been deleted.


At this point, he started to get aggressive and violent. He gave me a push. By now, there was a small crowd gathering. The crowd was made up of people from the nearby coffeeshop. They all stopped drinking their coffee to watch the show. Fearing for my life and the safety of my camera and its loot, I turned around and ran for my life beat a hasty retreat. The beast man ran after me for a while but he soon gave up after realising that he couldn't catch up with this agile monkey who was younger than him. Besides, his personal belongings, i.e. the radio and the cart, were left unguarded.

Chris must be laughing now. In Nov 05 when he found out that I took a photo of a young girl toddler without getting her parents' permission, he commented (see my post of 26/11/05) that 'People got beaten up for doing the thing you did, Victor. Don't say I didn't warn ya.' Chris has this uncanny ability to predict events. Maybe I should ask him for some winning 4D numbers.

Now what have I learnt from this incident? No, it is not that I would no longer take candid shots of people for my blog. Neither will I ask them for permission first. The answer? I already have it and have tested it out successfully the very next day. Watch out for Part 2 of this post where I'll also explain how my wealth was affected by this incident.

(To Chun See - This is my first take. Still owe you one more take - to be continued.)