This is a very disjointed post

The blog's been silent because I started writing something a few days ago, based on something that happened on Saturday, but the vignette just won't come out right. After whacking intermittently at it for the past few nights, I'm now resigned that it might sit in my drafts folder forever.

Meanwhile, my birthday came and went, I had to write furiously on the days before and after to meet certain deadlines, and how can it be April already?

Actually, I feel like scratching April off because most of the month will be filled up by a work trip, followed by the usual post-trip writing frenzy. I've started to say to friends, "Yeah, let's catch up in May ..."

If you really want to hear me blather on about work, then you should go read this little interview with me over at Nanzinc.Com. Thank you, Melanie! It was a nice post-birthday surprise.

Someday, when I am interviewed, I will say something as intelligent as this:

(There's also a transcript available at Boing Boing.)



Credit where it's due

Today's not a work day for me, but as I was catching up on my RSS feeds, I came across Kate Harding's "A Happy Guide to Not Plagiarizing", which really says all you need to know about writing and giving attribution in the Internet age.

It reminded me of Mridu Khullar's "The Way We Outline", in which she mentions how she applies different colours to quotes from different people, to help with attribution after she's finished writing. And I thought I was being particularly anal retentive when I did that. (Sometimes I use more colours than Microsoft Word can provide in readable hues.)

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Okay, so now we know it's called an iPad

Why you shouldn't let the cat too near the keyboard

(Image above of my old iBook used here for nostalgic reasons. Someday not too far in the future, I don't think we'll be wrangling with keyboards like this anymore.)

Now that it's been more than 24 hours since the announcement of the iPad and everyone's had a chance to freak out about all the functionalities it doesn't have and how it's not going to be the tablet-killer everyone thought it was going to be, let us remember a few things:
Me, I just wish they'd called it the iSlate instead because I'm old school that way --- I think the word "slate" has more resonance. "Slate" also makes me think of all the fun doodling goodness (literally or metaphorically) you could have with it, whereas "pad", once you get over the jokes about feminine hygiene products, merely conjures images of lined notepaper (perhaps even in that sickly yellow hue of legal pads) just waiting to be filled with, ugh, work.

Edited to add (10:48 am): Oops, except that I forgot about the HP Slate --- which I suppose tells you something about how much mind share it holds with me.

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Hello 2010

I meant to write something suitably offbeat for New Year's Eve, but I hadn't finished it by the time I had to go out to my aunt's last night and now that draft blog post just reads wrong.


I still don't know what to call this decade, now that we're done with the Noughties/Naughties/nowhere-in-hell-are-they-the-Ohs. Is the new decade the Teens? The Twenty-'Teens? The Two-O-one-ies as Shan has suggested on Facebook? Someone think of something catchy, fast.

(Speaking of catchy phrases, I like "The Catchphrase of the Decade". A lot.)



Cultural cognizance

I realise this is going to make some sound damn kentang (Westernised), but several times this week I've had to swot up on my Singlish/Asian street cred. To wit:

Leceh (troublesome)
I've been mispelling leceh (troublesome) as leh cheh (see for instance here and here). This has been going on for as long as --- well, ever since I started typing these words.

冬至 (dongzhi, winter solstice)
I did not know anything about the traditional Chinese celebration of 冬至 until I saw Adri's tweet yesterday:
Guy next door said to the only Chinese girl in the group, "don't you know it's a big Chinese holiday today?" (No.) "You from Singapore?"
Now I'm chagrined to find out I've been missing out on a lifetime's worth of annual tangyuan (glutinous rice ball) consumption. Gah!

Potong (cut) vs. curi (steal)
Yesterday I wanted to use the Malay word for 'steal' in an IM conversation. For some reason all my brain would spit out was potong and even with my miserable knowledge of that language, I knew that potong was not exactly the word I wanted. (For curious readers, a little Googling threw up this recent article from The Edge Malaysia, "What is life without 'potong'?")

Anyway I had to resort to Dicts.info's online Malay dictionary, which clued me in to curi --- and the moment I saw the word on my screen, I could hear my mother's voice saying "Sometimes people curi-curi the thing ..." I knew the word, it just wasn't there when I needed it.

All right, with all this talk of cross-cultural communication, it's fitting that I leave you with this rendition of Jingle Bell [sic], which I just received from an Indiaphile friend (not Adri, this time):

Merry Xmas, everyone!

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New book project

The two questions I've been fielding the most lately are:

1. "How are the sales of your book?"
2. "What are you doing next?"

The answer to the first question is that it's doing all right and there seems to be a pretty positive response so far --- though no author rests easy till the book's sold out, so if you were contemplating some kind of Singapore-themed Christmas gift for your friends, may I be so bold as to suggest that our book would be an excellent choice.

As for the second question, I've now got a partial answer: putting together a book of essays on women, gender and sexuality in Singapore and Malaysia. Our call for papers (reproduced below or available on H-Net) was sent out last week. Yes, it'll be a very different kind of book from Singapore: A Biography and with good reason. We're long overdue for a volume like this in our part of the world.

If you or anyone you know might be interested in this book project, read on. Abstracts are due by 31 January!

CFP: Troublesome Women in Asia: The Politics of Gender in Singapore and Malaysia

Since they became independent nations during the period of post-war decolonization, Singapore and Malaysia have made impressive leaps in economic development, becoming the envy of both developed and less developed countries. With economic success has come rapid modernization and urbanization, and today Malaysia and Singapore are two of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in Southeast Asia. At the same time, these two countries are characterized by stable political regimes which often have been criticised as authoritarian, even draconian. Both countries perennially draw concern from international organizations such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, and some of their economic and cultural policies have been singled out as being discriminatory against particular ethnic or social groups.

While interest in Singapore and Malaysia is strong in the fields of international politics, economics and comparative development, less attention has been paid to the ways in which women, and the concepts of gender and sexuality, have been affected and transformed by this accelerated degree of development. This volume intends to bring ‘the woman question’ to the construction of Southeast Asian modernity, creating a text that will be a useful interdisciplinary reader in understanding the role of gender and sexuality in this region. How have women from Malaysia and Singapore adjusted to the fast pace of economic development within both countries? How do women in these two Asian countries walk a balance between tradition and modernity? How have different groups of women – influenced by class, ethnicity, religion or the urban environment – contributed to the changing role of marriage, the family and sexuality, as well as to male-dominated domains such as politics and business? And how have matters of sexuality been affected by how gender is constructed in these countries?

The volume aims to provide a broad representation of how women and gender have been described and problematized by scholars so far, as well as to present contemporary new insights on the subject by both emerging and established voices. We invite contributors from all areas in the humanities and social sciences addressing research on women and gender in Singapore and Malaysia. We are interested in, among other issues, the following topics:

1) Gender theory
2) Political change
3) Representation and culture
4) Modernization
5) Globalization
6) Sexuality

Previously published papers will be considered, provided the author(s) are granted license from the publisher.

Abstracts of no more than 500 words should be sent to the editors, Adeline Koh and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow ([email protected]), by January 31, 2010 for advice on whether a full paper is required for the reviewing process. Full contributions of 4000-6000 words will then be required. Longer papers will be considered on an individual basis. Please send all completed submissions by June 30, 2010.

About the authors

Adeline Koh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore, and will be Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Richard Stockton College in 2010. She has published an edited volume on third cinema, and is currently working on a book on postcolonial women’s literature and political theory. Her research interests are in comparative feminisms in Africa and Asia and in new media and globalization.

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow is a writer and independent scholar based in Singapore. She has co-authored with Mark Ravinder Frost Singapore: A Biography (2009) an accessible yet rigorous history of Singapore spanning seven centuries, as well as worked extensively on research projects with the National Museum of Singapore. Her current interests are in post-war women’s history in Singapore and the relationship between the internet and civic participation.

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There and back again

Earlier this year, at Pin Pin's invitation I wrote the essay "Once Bonded" for s/pores. It was published in July.

Over this last weekend, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission (the government body which disburses government scholarships) Eddie Teo delivered a speech "Defending Scholarships but not all Scholars" in London.

You may come to your own conclusions.

Edited to add (4 Nov, around 2 a.m.): Apropos, the Economist has a report on "A tough search for talent", with respect to the civil service or public service in various large Western countries (via Alvin on Facebook).

Further edited to add (4 Nov, around 11 a.m.): Today there's a report in the Singapore newspaper Today on the speech: "Young scholars with an attitude" (via Phillip on Facebook).

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Neil himself

Neil himself

I didn't have a plan, but I had the kindness of friends and somehow everything fell into place, better than if I had tried to orchestrate it weeks ago.

The line I paused to scribble down in the middle of the session was Mr Gaiman's description of what it felt like to be in Singapore again:
People in Singapore are enthuasiastic – but you're all very enthusiastic in a quiet, polite and organised way.
We laughed, of course, but in an organised way.

Yesterday the planets were in alignment, the ineffable Mr Gaiman did a rollicking Alan Moore impression, and everything fell into glorious place, including the last few paragraphs of the essay I've been struggling to finish since September. I'll write more about its genesis when it's published, but for now I'm pleased that it's done.

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Reading about writing

Karen blurs by

The Singapore Writers Festival is on, plus I need to close some my Firefox tabs, so here's a writing-related linkdump.

1. "When Writers Speak" by Arthur Krystal in the New York Times

... writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists; it’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write.
This is why I still love blogging and books, of course, while all around me people have moved on to Twitter, podcasts/vodcasts and exciting TV gigs.

2. "Reading Faust in Korean" by Anne Michaels in The Atlantic
(via Qian Xi on Facebook)

Do we belong to the place where we are born, or to the place where we are buried? When one is dispossessed of everything—home, country, landscape—what is left?
Interesting apropos of the debate earlier this week at the announcement of the new MAC Fiction Prize, about whether only Singapore citizens should be eligible for the prize or if Permanent Residents and/or other residents should be considered as well.

On a separate note, my favourite line in Michaels' essay is: "We are marinated in our childhoods ..."

3. "Writers, Visible and Invisible", a speech by Cynthia Ozick as part of the 2008 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony
(via Dave on Facebook)

Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.
See also my quoting of Anthony Lane last week.

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Qikly does it

The thing about having coffee with Kevin Lim at Highlander Coffee, is that you never know when he'll suddenly ask you, hey, do you mind if I grab a video of this conversation? And what he means is: using Qik, he's going to upload the video live from his cell phone onto the web.

Now you can hear how quickly I speak in real life.

Also good if you wanna hear me maunder about writing, travel writing and being a freelance operative.

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The week whipped by

Look at all that cool stuff behind us
Taken by ampulets

Earlier this week, a friend posted on Facebook a quote by film reviewer Anthony Lane:
Writers should be treated like rubber plants: lightly pruned, occasionally watered, but basically left to do their own thing in a corner, away from direct sunlight.
Every time I had to gear up for a book-related event this week, I thought of that quote. I mean, I wrote the book already --- now I have to go talk about it? Which is mostly the childish trepidation talking, but still. It'd be nice if one could just release one's books into the wild and let them find their own way, but that's not how the business works.

So --- to business it was. I summed up most of the highlights on our book blog earlier today. I'd optimistically planned to post event updates within a day of each event, but completely failed to account for post-event fatigue, which is why even this blog is only being updated right now (and I'm still short of sleep). I can't imagine how authors on proper cross-country book tours keep up the momentum.

In between all that, I was reading New York Times reporter David Rohde's five-part account of his kidnapping and captivity by the Taliban, watching the awesome Intel "Sponsors of Tomorrow" TV ads, reading Suchen Christine Lim's Rice Bowl and playing with Tweetie (despite sangsara's best evangelisation efforts, I'm still not sure if I want to start Twittering again). Oh, and doing some pay copy work too.

Plenty more ideas swirling around in the old noggin, but it'll be a couple more weeks before I can sit down and think about them properly. Meanwhile, two more book events, ho!

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Hot off the press

Hot off the press

Whee! My very first copy of Singapore: A Biography. Now I have an actual book to show off and paw and fuss over, not just the cover art (which is very eye-catching in its own right).

The book will be in Singapore bookstores from next week. Don't let its heft put you off. It's eminently readable, gorgeously illustrated and does not once refer to Singapore as a "little red dot" (although someone's "little red book" makes an appearance, and I don't mean Mao Zedong).

For those of you who placed pre-orders, the books will be delivered to me next week. I'll get in touch with you then.

Mmmmm ... new book smell ...

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Just another day

Not every day is about writing.. Today was about scratching things off my to-do list, which is scribbled in ballpoint ink on a piece of used paper.

In the approximate order in which they were completed:
  • Called my mom 'cause it's her birthday. Yay, Mom!
  • Confirmed a radio interview for next week for Singapore: A Biography and drafted some talking points for it. (First time in my life I've drafted talking points for my own use --- it doesn't get any easier.)
  • Made loose plans to meet a Lonely Planet writer who'll be in town next week.
  • Made loose plans to meet one of my best friends' boyfriends who'll be in town next week too.
  • Sent out an email reminder to a rather long list of friends and associates about the upcoming book launch events (which kick off on Sunday at the National Library --- are you gonna be there or what?). Fortunately I didn't break my Gmail doing it.
  • Secured a good freelance writing/editing partner for a small job next month that I don't have the time to do on my own (yay for pay copy).
  • Turned down another copywriting job that totally doesn't interest me.
  • Shilled for the book at the National Education mothership of Singapore.
  • Contemplated the niceties of starting a Facebook Fan page for Singapore: A Biography, considering the book is still at the printer's and will only be in bookstores next week (but you can buy it at the National Library event on Sunday).
  • Made loose plans to meet a couple of Singapore writers at the opening of the Singapore Writers Festival.
  • Emailed some contacts for a Vietnam trip next month.
  • Compiled a bunch of information for a government tender and updated a proposal document that one of my collaborators drafted.
  • Attempted to do a friend a favour and play around with the new Raffles Alumni website, but there was only so much I could do when it didn't send me my password.
  • Daydreamed (although we did this after dinner and via IM) with a good friend about the Really Cool Business we're going to set up --- someday.
  • Ignored Ink whining for more food because he's had his full ration for the day.
  • Bought more bandwidth for the Singapore: A Biography website (I suspect there's a not quite optimised-for-web image that's doing us in).
  • Scratched Sisu's head till she stopped whining at me (after lunch and now, as I'm typing this in bed).
  • Avoided finishing that essay I started a few weeks ago.
Pretty damn productive.

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I need to be working harder, but ...

I've rounded off the week with:
Oh, and then there was the photo shoot today for an alumni magazine. Let us not speak of that again (except to say that it was absolutely not the photographer's nor the magazine's fault fault – I am a horribly self-conscious subject and I do not wish the task of shooting my portrait upon any photographer).

I have to do prep work this week for the upcoming book events, as well as other pay copy work – but in a few days, I should have Singapore: A Biography in my hands. If you haven't read the book previews yet, now is a good time to start. So far we've released 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out' and 'The education of Singapore girls'. Look out on Monday for: 'Captain Mohan Singh's dark night of the soul'.

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Coming soon to a bookstore near you

Singapore: A Biography book cover art
Singapore: A Biography
by Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Ladies and gentlemen, may I humbly present to you the book Mark and I have been working on for the past two years: Singapore: A Biography. After we worked together on the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore in 2006, we proposed turning the material into a book --- a lively, substantive yet eminently readable book that would do justice to the stories and make people, you know, dig Singapore's history a little more. Our narrative kicks off in the Temasek period (13th century) and winds up around the 1970s. Yes, we've got Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew, but a whole lot more as well; just take a look at the people I name-checked in a recent post on the book website.

Anyway, writing this book took, um, a little longer than we bargained, but the book is at the printer's as we speak and our publisher has promised that I will have crisp new copies in my hands in one week's time. Hurrah!

If this sort of thing interests you, please come and hear us talk about history, literature, Singapore and our book at the following events:
For more event details, check out this lovely e-direct mailer (thank you, ampulets!).

If you're in Singapore, you should see the book in stores in about 10 days or so. Outside Singapore, the book is schedule to hit Hong Kong, China and Australia in late October. It'll be distributed in the US and the UK in early 2010. For pre-orders (20% off retail price, i.e. S$40 instead of S$50 for a hardcover 400-page book) or other inquiries, please contact me.

Am I excited? Oh yes. I think I will squee when I first see the book, and possibly a few more times after that. I was just reading several sections aloud to myself today (test-driving them for the upcoming readings) and I'm so pleased with the book turned out.

Please tell your friends and please come to a book event! We promise to pronounce "Farquhar" correctly.

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Some assembly required

Speaking of pay copy, today I completed a project report for a corporate client --- executive summary, appendices and all. I think this is the first formal report I've written since I left the civil service almost four years ago.

In terms of style and tone, it couldn't be more different from the personal essay I've been working on since last week. The latter is growing very much organically and I'm learning what the argument is as it goes along, whereas with today's formal report, all I had to do was slap on the standard headings (executive summary, introduction, some chapter titles and conclusion) and everything fell into place. Just add page numbers, numbered paragraphs, list formatting and stir. Having a rigid structure to fall back on was almost therapeutic.

This is why I used to enjoy mathematics in junior college, I suppose, which was rare for an Arts stream student. No reading or essay-writing or struggling find the words required --- just apply the formula (assuming I'd understood it in the first place) and go.

I'll be writing another report next week. Perhaps I'll be tired of the format by then.



Bits and pieces, here and there

A week ago, I was getting very, very drunk on beer and soju. I blame it on the Korean friends (old and brand-new) who were in town. As I wrote in my "Food & Drink" chapter for the Lonely Planet Korea guidebook update, "Koreans drink enough soju that the brand Jinro Soju (the green bottles are everywhere) is the top-selling brand of spirits worldwide."

A day (er, night) ago, I was at HOME Club, people-watching and catching up with old friends. It's good for that, plus right around 1 a.m. on Friday nights, they like spinning The Killers.

A month ago, I was madly writing about Korea.

This past week, I've been wrestling with the essay that is taking shape oh-so-slowly. It's a spot of pro bono work, so I'd better load up on some pay copy after this.

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A little fogged up

Kite flying at Marina Barrage

As I told sarah earlier today, I spent this afternoon trying to write something, a very nebulous idea that is taking its time to unfurl out of my sluggish brain. The idea is going somewhere, but very much at its own pace. It will not be forced, only coaxed, and I am a little afraid that at the end of it, it will be a very bad piece of writing despite all this hard work.

Oh well, you never know till you try.

In other news, for a weekday there were a surprising number of people flying their kites at the Marina Barrage this evening, and quite a few of them were teenagers. As the haze settled over the city, it was all so very surreal.

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Fire bad, tree pretty

One last look

My brain is so tired, the first time I typed that, it came out as: Tree bad, fire pretty. I'm not sure Buffy would have approved.


Korea done. Writing good. Sleep better. Brain dead. Oh, said that already.

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When life gives you writer's block

Go out and do something else.

  • Have an impromptu rendezvous at the Starbucks outlet at Siglap with friends who live in the neighbourhood.
  • Mosey down to a Korean fried chicken restaurant at Tanjong Pagar.
  • Re-watch Firefly.
  • Blog.
  • Allow friends to redirect you to There, I Fixed It and Emails From Crazy People.

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Writing mode

I didn't mean to take a break, but between yesterday evening's two meetings and today's work-related lunch, I kinda killed the momentum of writing I'd been building up since Sunday. Oops.

More and more I find that to do any substantive writing, I need extended blocks of distraction-free time --- no IMs, minimal email activity, no dips into Facebook or Google Reader, no face-to-face interaction with anyone I know (the postman doesn't count) and no phone calls of consequence. SMSes are probably the only minor interruptions that won't derail my writing entirely.

Needless to say, no social plans too.

Lately I also find myself unable to write in the morning till the brain has had a couple of hours to warm up. So I've had to wake up earlier (my alarm is set for 7 a.m. on writing days), so that by the time I'm done ploughing through the morning news, fun reads and administrative emails, I can still pack in a few solid hours of writing before the stomach demands a lunch break.

My self-imposed writing lockdown has prompted one friend to email me to "check in" --- I suppose, to make sure I hadn't fallen and hit my head, or passed out from a lack of food or anything. Ironically, he sent that email today, when I was completely not locked down.

I'll be resuming life as a hermit tomorrow.

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Once bonded

The article I was working on earlier this year has been published at s/pores. I gave it the title "Once Bonded" --- you can decide for yourself if you think it's appropriate. What's it about? Here are the opening paragraphs:
When I was 19, I inked my name on a legal document to affirm that I would enter upon and diligently continue in an overseas university course specified by the government of the Republic of Singapore, complete it to the best of my ability, then return immediately to Singapore to serve the government for a period of eight years (hereinafter called the ‘Bonded Period’) in any body or organisation whatsoever in any appointment which the government might deem appropriate.

In exchange, the government would foot the bill for my education, pretty much.
I think you know where it goes from there. Don't worry, it doesn't exactly re-tread the ground I've explored on this blog before (here and here).

s/pores is a multi-disciplinary online-only journal that focuses on "Singapore studies". Besides my article, the issue contains Ho Weng Hin's "Reminiscences on a HDB Point Block" and Lee Huay Leng's "学语以外 : Beyond Language Learning". I was very pleasantly surprised to be invited to contribute something, and I'm doubly pleased at how the article turned out (even though the writing of it didn't come easy). Thank you, Pin (guest editor for this issue), and the friends who chipped in with comments and suggestions along the way.

This new issue of s/pores will be launched at a casual drinks session at food #03 on Sunday, 26 July at 6:30 p.m. Come by for some Vitagen vodka, fair-trade coffee or yummy vegetarian food (cash bar basis), and I promise to show you my "wilting, yellowed copy" of my scholarship contract with the government. Alternatively, we can just chat, and I promise not to, um, drink too much organic red wine.

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Get your Grammar Nerd Corrective Label Pack

I've been admiring the artistic stylings of Dylan Meconis for many years, and this week she put up these awesome Grammar Nerd Corrective Label Packs for sale at her online shop.

As Dylan notes: "For a low introductory price of $3, you can now pedantically correct your neighborhood signage!"

Given how signs tend to be worded in Singapore (sangsara didn't start the SGFAIL Flickr group for nothin'), I can see these coming in mighty useful.

Assuming, of course, no one arrests you for "vandalising" a sign.

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As it is spoken

Upside-down sign

One of the first things my friend visiting from Australia asked me on Sunday was, "So what language do people speak here?" Which surprised me because he'd already had breakfast at the Fairmont, not to mention successfully navigated his way from Harbourfront MRT station to the backpacker place Ali's Nest in Little India the night before. He's a bright boy --- how had he not figured out that we speak English, yo?

Well, he'd thought it was English, but had been confused by the babble of languages that swirled around him. "On the train, there were, like, these Chinese girls speaking French."

Okay, that's pretty unusual.

"Almost everyone speaks English," I told him, "we all learn it in school. In fact, if you meet someone who doesn't speak English at all, they're probably foreign and didn't go to school here."

Some hours later (this might've been when we were wandering around Tiong Bahru), he asked, "So how do you greet people here?"

I gave him a look. "'Hello.' Or 'Yo, wassup?' Okay, fine, Chinese, it's 'ni hao.'" I didn't get into the rest of Singapore's official languages (Malay and Tamil) because, "This isn't Vietnam. You don't have to learn to say xin chao to break the ice."

He laughed.

That night, when we were sitting around a coffeeshop table having dinner from Big D's, one of the people at the table was from Beijing and her mother was in town visiting. There were polite introductions all round in Mandarin, which was all her mother spoke, but even though all of us except my Australian friend had studied Mandarin in school, only one person was fluent enough in the language to carry on a proper conversation with her for the rest of the evening.

Needless to say, it wasn't me. I wish I could've, but I'd've had to spend the afternoon swotting up first.

So now that I think about it --- my friend's reaction to Singapore's mixture of languages (a mixture he found pretty cool after Vietnam), juxtaposed with the older woman from Beijing, surrounded by (mostly) Chinese people in a country that's predominantly Chinese, but where only one person besides her daughter at dinner could converse in Mandarin with her while the rest of us chattered effortlessly in English --- well, there you have it, the kind of place Singapore is. Visibly Asian, audibly Asian (mostly), but not only Asian, not anymore.

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"The work, that is another thing"

Ah, Cary Tennis. Always hitting home with the hard truth. From "Should I leave L.A. after one year?":
There are dreams and there are career plans. They are not the same. Some dreams are compensatory: visions that we retreat to in times of stress, like blankies for infants, things that comfort us and tell us what we need to be told. The dream of being a famous writer can be like that: a dream of infantile power and attention that disguises the more immediate need -- for safety, self-love, serenity, peace in our hearts.

But the work, that is another thing. The real work is staggering; the real work is work. It is not dream. It is pushing against the wall; it is hearing what we do not want to hear; it is doing the numbers; it is learning the new terms as they come along; it is sitting through evaluations and self-evaluations. It is an eternal object lesson in our powerlessness and our smallness. The real work is grinding and slow.

When I look at all the writers who have won coveted prizes and all the filmmakers and artists who have had success, what I notice is that they are the ones who actually filled out the applications for fellowships and sent their work around for critique and rejection; they are the ones who locked themselves in rooms and worked at it; they are the ones who did what was required; they are the ones who allowed themselves to be beginners and to begin at the beginning and do the next obvious thing.
(Via alf.)

I've resumed a leisurely pace of work this week, which is an improvement over last week but still not clip-cloppy enough for my liking, and certainly not clip-cloppy enough for any dreams to be realised. I need to work up to a point where I can start locking myself in a room ...

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At the National Day Parade 2009, get ready to ...

I've noticed recently that the National Day banners have gone up all over Singapore, proudly bearing the theme for this year's National Day Parade: "Come Together".

"Come Together".

In an age of rampant internet porn and off-colour humour, I'm really, really surprised that this passed committee.

I mean, it's "Come Together", not "Let us come together" or "Come together to celebrate ...". And even though the full theme is "Come Together --- Reaching Out, Reaching Up", I'm not sure the subtitle improves anything.

Also, the official logo makes it really all about, well, you know:

Plus: note all the bursty stars.

Insert your own joke here.

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Tiong Bahru walkabout III

What a week. I'm not sure where it all went. I mean, if I sit down and look back, yes, I know where it went, what I was doing. But it spun really quickly, a haze of conversations where drinks, food and cigarettes (not mine, Mom) were the excuse, not the object.

And then, broadsided at the end by bad news, the kind where no one knows the right thing to say.

This is what I read this week:
These are some new words and phrases that I learned this week:
  • "out of pocket" --- not with reference to business expenses but to one's contactability (see a recent Language Log entry).
  • "sitzfleisch" --- courtesy of "What Is a Master’s Degree Worth?"
  • "dots" --- you'll have to ask sarah (or me) about this.
  • ossement --- okay, it's French for "bone", which in itself isn't a remarkable word, but there's a heartbreaking story associated with it that I'm filing away for future use.
Happy Fourth of July, everybody

Today I attended a wedding, a funeral wake and a Fourth of July celebration. There was almost a mahjong session to round it all off, but we settled for Citadels instead.

I wonder how long I can keep spinning for.

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So, about Vietnam ...

Hot off the press

While I was triaging 7 weeks of snailmail on Thursday, I found a chunky package wrapped in white paper (rather than an envelope) with my name and address scribbled on it. I ripped it open as if it were a gift, and it practically was, because the package turned out to be the new 10th edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Vietnam.

Of which I wrote three destination chapters: North-Central Vietnam, Central Vietnam and Central Highlands. If you're interested in glorious landscapes, history, the American War in Vietnam, minority groups and cool weather, those are the chapters you'll wanna read first.

On Friday night:
Suzie: how chuffed are you!
ME: very chuffed
ME: i kinda pull it out in a pai sei way to show people
ME: but then they are chuffed, so i am more chuffed
The book doesn't hit stores till July, so if you were planning to pick up a guidebook to Vietnam in the next couple of weeks, hold your horses till you see this one. The new edition has a cover photo with conical hats (predictable, I know) and basket boats on a river. Or buy it here at LP.com.

Meanwhile, I'm toting my first copy around in a protective Ziploc bag, to show to all and sundry.

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I have never been at once so happy, and so jealous. Tonight I got a Facebook-mail from an old friend, telling me she's secured a publishing deal in New York. It doesn't matter what book, it doesn't matter which publisher --- the only thing I could think of was that someone I know, someone who's had similar advantages I've had, is going to have her name on a book published and distributed by a real New York publisher.

While I ...

This news comes right after I've been wrestling with old ghosts, writing about the scholarship bond I left behind almost four years ago. It's been two, three weeks of sporadically picking at old scabs, as Pin put it, and revisiting the what-ifs. And now, this.

I'm so happy for my friend, really. She's worked hard and worked smart to get to where she is. But as I told ampulets tonight, I've always compared myself to this friend because we had similar advantages and trod a similar path up to a point. Then our paths diverged because I had a scholarship bond to come home to, and she didn't. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life; she not only knew what she wanted, she went right out and got it.

I'm not saying I could've done what she's done. But I have never felt the taunting of a path not taken as strongly as I do tonight.

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Link dump

Because I have too many tabs open.

In no particular order:
Yes, these links are all about writing. Some weeks, it is all I read about.

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Hitting the notes

I've spent the better part of the last few weeks compiling endnotes for one of the books I co-authored. In other words: my co-author and I have been going back through our notes and earlier drafts, painstakingly hunting down exactly what page it was that Raffles called Singapore his "almost only child" or chided Farquhar for his "Malay connexion" (I love that archaic spelling). That also means much time spent in the library, verifying sometimes lurid accounts of pirate attacks in the mid-19th century or checking when the Japanese banned "imperialist" Western films during their Occupation of Singapore.

If it sounds both fun and, er, not at the same time, you're right. We could've saved ourselves the grief if we'd kept better track of these references while we were writing, but oh well. This is why I need to branch out into writing fiction; then I won't need to footnote every other darned thing.

This book, incidentally, is a popular history of Singapore, tentatively titled Singapore: A Biography. More details to come, but the important thing to remember is that it's not a textbook and not a government glorification piece. It's a story about this funny little island I happen to live on, and it's an island that has seen quite a few stories indeed.

Anyway, for now I hope to be done with all the endnotes after this week. Then I can stop squinting at old books on microfilm and focus on learning how to read hangeul instead.

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The wind begins to howl

Sometimes I reread old blog posts, and I wonder why I don't write like that anymore.

I'm rereading those posts because of a related article I'm working on --- or ought to be working on (don't panic, Pin), but all I've got are half-formed thoughts scrawled in ballpoint pen across recycled paper and two old-but-well-written blog posts staring me accusatorily in the face. It's one thing to have an inferiority complex, it's quite something else to have an inferiority complex about one's younger self.

To avoid thinking about the article and other melancholy subjects tonight, I went for my weekly Pilates class, followed by a late dinner at Peperoni Pizzeria. Parma ham, rocket salad and mozzarella on a pizza make a surprisingly good diversion. Good conversation always helps too (thank you, Darren and melch and friend).

There would be a picture of the pizza here, but I ate it all.

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I love watching TED talks and I love this one I saw earlier this week, with writer Elizabeth Gilbert taking about creativity and genius and snatching a bit of the divine.

And what I have to sort of keep telling myself when I get psyched out about that, is: Don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts --- then, ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow and ole to you nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it: ole to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.
But you really ought to watch her entire talk to appreciate what she's saying.



Things that make me smile

Find your own bodhi tree

  • Text message from a cute guy.
  • Email from a publisher offering me Work I Want Very Very Much (details to be announced after negotiations are concluded).
  • Good meeting with an existing publisher for the marketing strategy for our book.
Yes, I'm a writer. Yes, I have books coming out this year.

Gosh, this feels good.

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What writers do

I'm still getting used to introducing myself to strangers as a writer. But it always feels disingenuous for me to imply association with someone like, oh, say, Haruki Murakami. Who is this kind of writer:
I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. [...] I fully believe it is the novelist's job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories -- stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.
From his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, which is well worth reading in full.



Working up to Christmas

Between the moving and the deadline, I've been too busy to do anything Christmasy except order food for the family Christmas lunch and marvel at other people's idea of a Christmas greeting.

So in lieu of any traditionally festive posts, I offer you this rather nifty travelogue instead: "The road to Bethlehem", wherein BBC correspondent Aleem Maqbool follows in the footsteps (and donkey-steps) of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Personally, I love the opening to the December 17 entry:
"Why are you standing there with a donkey?" said an old Palestinian man.

"This is a nice modern city, and you're standing there with a donkey! What are you trying to say? What's wrong with you?"

Clearly, not everyone was as happy as I was to meet my new travelling companion in the centre of the city of Jenin.

The old man thought I was trying to show Jenin as a backward place. He refused to accept the nativity explanation, and went on his way muttering about how deceptive the foreign media is.
I can't wait to hear more about the donkeys.

Also, I want to write a travel/news story like this some day.

(The only irritating thing --- and this is a technical issue --- is that the posts are ordered in reverse chronological order, like a blog, which would be fine if they were all individually hyperlinked, like blog entries would be, and one could navigate through them from an archive page. But you can't, so it all feels very manual and pre-Web 2.0. The correspondent should just set up a free Blogger or Wordpress account instead.)

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The first words are the hardest

Which is why a headline like "I'm rewriting the same paragraph over and over and over!" is guaranteed to get me to click on it.

I figured Cary Tennis's advice (or anyone's, really) would run along the lines of "Just write it, dammit!" But I didn't expect him to approach it this way:
The rule I have made for myself [because he's on post-operative painkillers] is that I cannot go back and fix, or rearrange, or rewrite what I have done. I realized, on the first day of this experiment, when I absolutely lacked the mental concentration to do that kind of rearranging, that I would have to give it up. Thus I was forced to write this new way.

[...] This disability is forcing me to simply keep writing and moving forward.

Of course I fear that I will not be brilliant enough. This fear will have to wait. I cannot hide from it.
He also says:
In the case of writing and rewriting a paragraph 20 times or 50 times, we may fear the plainness and simplicity of what is in our minds; we may fear that unless we unleash a dazzling fusillade of verbal inventiveness, the reader will turn away in boredom and disgust. So we keep tinkering, trying to perfect the bomb.
I've often said I'm a highly inefficient writer (in terms of word count per day, which often translates into income per day) because I spend all this time "tinkering, trying to perfect the bomb", as Tennis puts it. The last few weeks, I've been plugging away at the Lonely Planet assignment, trying to write with "colour and flair" while "telling it like it is" (their mantra, don't you know). Which means I get stuck rewriting the same sentence over and over --- don't even get me started on paragraphs --- and the opening words to any new section are the hardest.

Of course, even harder than writing a good opening, is when you write one and then realise that there's no way you can use it in the book. For instance, this is an outtake for my opening to the history of Hue:
The emperors loved it, so the French sacked it. The North Vietnamese coveted it and stole it; the South Vietnamese and Americans wanted (and took) it back. The Communist government didn't really want to have anything to do with it --- but then the tourists started turning up in droves.
Copyright ME --- just because I'm not giving these lines to Lonely Planet doesn't mean anyone can steal them.

I know that I need to "simply keep writing and moving forward", but I don't know that I can. I guess sheer desperation will kick in at some point, as my non-negotiable deadline looms.

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"So what are you doing now?"

That's what a couple of people have asked me since I got back in circulation in Singapore. Some of them thought I'd finished my Lonely Planet writing while I was in Vietnam. To which I shake my head fervently and mention the 65,000 word count I've got to complete by January 9. Sure, some of it got written while I was there, but all the longer texts (i.e. anything longer than 50 words per block of text) still need to be done.

In between writing getting the writing started, I've also initiated the apartment-hunting process. I have until January 21 to relocate. Ideally, I'll be able to wrangle a new place with a move-in date in mid-January, thereby allowing me to complete the Lonely Planet work in peace.


The other thing I've been doing is sneezing regularly. The spates started in Saigon, where I had a slight itchy-eye/sneezy reaction, but it's become full-blown now that I'm home. I wonder if it's the cats or the general air quality. (It's definitely not a cold --- different type of sneezing.)

Tomorrow I'm going to my first Thanksgiving dinner in 11 years. There'll be a roast rack of lamb instead of roast turkey, Caesar salad instead of green beans, and potato au gratin instead of mashed potatoes --- but it's the spirit that counts. Besides, there will be pumpkin pie.

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Google, I am not a bot!

Every time I use the "define:" operator in a Google search, it thinks I'm sending automated queries and makes me type in a CAPTCHA to prove that I'm human.

Maybe I use "define:" too often.

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What is't but to be nothing else but mad?

I've been watching quite a few Singapore films lately, such as A Wicked Tale, which I liked very much, and Mad About English, which I didn't. My opinion of the latter seems to put me firmly in the minority, though. Other people say:
  • "This piece of work is huge fun from start to finish. It has more laughs, poignancy and warmth than any fictional movie in recent memory. And it beats any of this season's CGI-laden blockbusters for sheer enjoyment value." --- The Straits Times
  • "... a hilarious look at China as its people embark on a mad rush to learn English before the Beijing Olympics. ... this film shows how ordinary lives are changed as China flings its doors open to the West." --- The New Paper
  • "... does a great job capturing the charm and quirkiness of the people." --- movieXclusive.com
  • "Mad About English is highly recommended, and goes into my books as contender to be amongst the best of this year's theatrical releases." --- A Nutshell Review/Sinema
Uh ... no, no, no and no. The film aggravated me enough that I spent part of the weekend writing down what I thought of it (without being ranty, despite the aggravation). Your mileage, as always, may vary.

In a scene from the documentary film Mad About English that also appears in the movie trailer, a police officer in Beijing unleashes his repertoire of Brooklyn-accented English: "Hey, whaddya want?", "Fuhgetabowdit!", "What's up, man?", "Put yer gun down!" Yes, he sounds as if he's been watching too many Robert de Niro movies.

We laugh, of course, because of the incongruity between the chubby, pink-cheeked Chinese mainlander, and the harsh New York slang that he rattles off so unthinkingly. But in the film we never find out how he picked up this accent, when he thinks lines like "Fuhgetabowdit!" are going to come in useful in his daily patrols, or why he enjoys chatting with tourists while he's in uniform (he's supposed to be a police officer, not a tour guide). He's an object of curiosity, both to the tourists he meets and to us watching him as he rehearses his "Welcome to Beijing" lines in English, German, Japanese and other languages. And he remains just that: an oddity, a strange bird, nothing more than a funny little Chinese man.

Multiply that by 92 minutes, and that's the sum total of Mad About English. Every English learners featured in the film, from a 12-year-old cherub to a 74-year-old retiree, is introduced with all the fanfare of, "Oh look! Here’s another Chinese person who’s a little nutty about learning English!" Then we hear the person dutifully recite a few English sentences – with some incorrect pronunciation or grammar, or moments of pure misunderstanding for "comic relief", of course. Perhaps he or she gets some airtime to murmur something about how important it is to learn English so as to welcome foreign visitors to the Beijing Olympics.

Then the film cuts to the next character waiting in the wings. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No matter how many times we come back to any of these people, we never find out their full stories. Where do they come from? How do they feel spending so much time and energy to learn a language that is so historically, culturally and grammatically divorced from their own? What are the implications of learning English when China is on the ascendant? Are these people fringe elements or truly representative of English learners in Beijing (or, for that matter, the rest of China)?

So many questions, hardly any answers. There's only so long that you can watch people stumble over learning a foreign language before it starts to feel not only trite and tired, but also mean and cheap. Stick a camera in front of anyone learning a foreign language – especially a language with such different roots from one's native tongue – and you’d pretty much get the same result. There are signs in Paris that have just as entertaining (or apparently insipid) translation errors in English as they do in Beijing. There are Americans or Europeans learning to speak Mandarin who make just as egregious or laughable errors as these Chinese mainlanders stuttering their way through English. Mad About English doesn't tell us anything that we don't know already.

It was also ironic that all the Chinese interviewees largely spoke in English, whether they were being interviewed or interacting with other (Chinese) people. It felt as if they were constantly having to perform in English, with little opportunity to speak in their native tongue and say what they really thought and felt. Perhaps this was deliberate, to show exactly how "mad" about English these people are, but it only made them seem more inscrutable and kooky (ah, those inscrutable Orientals!), allowing them to be laughed at but not understood.

And really, why should we laugh? Because they make mistakes, as beginners always do? Because they speak English "wrongly", as shown by the bewilderment of the white man they’re speaking to? The laughter makes us complicit in the white man's criticism (not critique, which is what's lacking here) of non-native English speakers, without questioning if that criticism is justified in the first place.

Sure, it's funny for about five seconds to hear a little old lady struggle with saying "bowel movements" and "take off your shirt" (she’s a doctor learning phrases she’ll need to communicate with foreign patients). But the job she does, the life she's led and her determination to learn shouldn't be dismissed on the level of toilet humour. All these people learning English – they deserve better than this.

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Hrm, redux

And today, it turns out that I've been misspelling "inoculate". Could've sworn it had two "n"s!

Related post: Hrm

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I just typed "output" as "outpoot". This doesn't bode well for a Monday.

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Yan Yan teaches you English

When I first started eating Yan Yan in the '80s, they came in two flavours --- chocolate or strawberry (feel free to say that in a "Okay Pocky" voice) --- and the biscuit sticks were plain and unadorned.

Now the biscuit sticks try to teach you English.

Yan Yan teaches you English

More accurately, they try to teach word association in English. This is what the sticks say (the animal name is on the top end of the stick, the rest of the words on the lower half):
  • Bat --- Only in the night
  • Stag beetle --- Love it
  • Rhinoceros --- Think big
  • Elephant --- Jumbo
  • Cow --- Muuuuu
  • Frog --- Amphibian
  • Rabbit --- Eat more carrots
  • Owl --- Active at night
  • Panda --- Go for more
  • Sheep --- Wool sweaters
Now what I want to know is: who gets to be the copywriter for the Yan Yan sticks, and where can I sign up?

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Good reading fun

I had a work-filled weekend (except for the ROJAK interlude), so it's only today that I can get around to posting some neat reading-related links:
  • Since so many people got a tickle out of "The challenge of problem with office-speak", here's Slate's "Notes on Catch: Which catchphrases should be 'thrown under the bus'?" (via kitschy potemkin). Excerpt:
    It is possible to think of catchphrase use in stages. There's Stage 1, when you first hear a phrase and take pleasure in its imaginative use of language on the literal and metaphorical level. ...

    Then there's Stage 2, when you use it to establish "street cred" (time to throw "street cred" under the catchphrase bus?) or convey a sense of being au courant.

    Then there's Stage 3, when the user acknowledges a phrase's over-ness and tries to extract some final mileage out of it by gently mocking it, usually by using ironic quotes, or adding "as they say" to the end.

    Finally, there's Stage 4: terminal obsolence, dead phrase walking. Take "at the end of the day." It kind of stuns me whenever I find someone still saying "at the end of the day" with a straight face. What are they, stuck on stupid, as they say?
  • Also from Slate (also via kitschy potemkin), ";( Has modern life killed the semicolon?", wonders Portland State University faculty Paul Collins. I have a soft spot for the semicolon, and an even softer one (as I'm sure you can tell from reading my blog) for the dash.

    I also really like the penultimate sentence of this essay:
    When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling.
  • Alison Bechdel, one of my favourite authors, gives her take on "Compulsory Reading" (via Bitch Ph.D.), about all the guilt we bibliophiles feel about the books we oughta read that we haven't read yet. This one's a comic-strip essay, for those of you that don't feel like dealing with any more prose right now. (If you like it, borrow her graphic-novel autobiography Fun Home from me.)

    My personal list of I-really-oughta-reads includes: War and Peace, London: A Biography, any novels by James Joyce and anything at all by Charles Dickens (I don't think the opening two pages of Hard Times or the adapted-and-illustrated-for-children version of A Tale of Two Cities counts).
After proofreading for an entire week, I'll be glad to get back to a little old-fashioned reading for a change.

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Busy proofreading, no time to blog. But G-man sent me a gem of an SMS yesterday:
Walking through a HDB town centre at lunch ... overheard snippet from a conversation between some mobile phone sales staff ... Indian guy saying "You want to see my ex-Chinese girlfriend?"
So if she's not Chinese anymore, what other race would she be?

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Wherefore art thou, irony?

Behold the headline of a Channel NewsAsia report from yesterday:
Nationwide campaign launched to get entrepreneurs to think out of the box
I am speechless.

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Get your own Swedish furniture name

$61.70 worth of stuff from Ikea

I have a love-hate relationship with Ikea, so the Blogadilla Swedish Furniture Name Generator made me giggle.

My Swedish furniture name is YYMEI --- what's yours?


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The challenge of problem with office-speak

I'm glad I'm back at my email and reading BBC News today, or I would've missed the BBC News Magazine's "50 office-speak phrases you love to hate". I think most of my pet peeve corporate-speak phrases are on the list, including the vomit-worthy:
  • "going forward" (#1)
  • "incentivise" (#4)
  • "challenge" (#10)
  • "paradigm shifts" (#35)
  • "stakeholder" (#36)
  • "cascading" (#39)
  • "leverage" (#42)
On a related note, Slate has the sparkling "Lazy Bastards: How We Read Online" (via kitschy potemkin).

Related post: On being plain-spoken

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An occupational hazard of being an editor

This week on Facebook, I announced that I was geeky enough to have read The Economist Style Guide, prompting two friends to step forward and say that they, too, had done it. Along with Suzie, who recommended the book in the first place, that makes three people I know who've read it.

What impresses me is that the other two not professional editors. And they're guys --- almost everyone I know who loves quibbling over the placement of a comma or the capitalisation of a word is, like me, female. Make of that what you will.

Speaking of The Economist Style Guide, I was reading it on the bus and an older gentleman (probably in his 60s) sitting beside me keep glancing over my shoulder at the pages. Eventually he asked me what the book was. I showed it to him and he nodded approvingly, then asked where he could buy it.

Even geekier than reading the Style Guide, I realise, is triumphantly spotting typos in it.

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It's a curse

So the friend slash co-author for one of my projects recently lent me his copy of Shakespeare: A Biography, which is the first Peter Ackroyd I've read and very, very good. So good, that while I'm reading it, I've been rendered incapable of writing the book I'm supposed to be working on.

Which turns out to be the same curse that afflicted my friend slash co-author while he was reading the book a couple of months ago.

Which made me think last week that I'd better finish reading the book stat, or I'm not going to finish writing the other one that's due, er, stat.

The effect is not quite the same as your garden variety writer's block. When we're thusly afflicted, we have our research, we have our chapter outlines, we know what we're going to say --- we just can't make the words happen.

So it was with grim determination that I finished reading Shakespeare: A Biography today. Now those writing juices better start flowing again ...

Or maybe I should henceforth refer to this as "the Ackroyd book" instead of by its title.


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Tired as hell

It's a strange sort of day when I typo "mind-boggling" as "mind-blogging".


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On being plain-spoken

After spending a day or so trawling through interview transcripts wherein government employees regurgitate corporate jargon as if it were the gospel truth, it was something of a relief to find out (via the World Wide Words newsletter) that in the UK, at least, the Local Government Association recognises the importance of speaking plainly and has singled out certain "non-words" that are to be avoided, such as:
  • capacity building
  • engaging users
  • outcomes
  • pathfinder
  • stakeholder
  • synergy
(Those are just six out of the top 100 "banned" words, by the way.)

The Local Government Association's logic is simple:
Without explaining what a council does in proper English then local people will fail to understand its relevance to them or why they should bother to turn out and vote. Unless information is given to people to explain why their council matters then local democracy will be threatened with extinction.
Besides local democracy, I think fruitful and intelligent thought is also threatened with extinction if people keep talking in Newspeak. You know society's in trouble when even teenagers are parroting phrases about "lifelong learning" back to you.

I am going to wave that list of 100 banned words in the face of the next government client who asks me why I didn't just use the language in their press release. Maybe their new motto oughta be: Jargon Less, Say More!


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I can't believe I've been saying it wrong

I've always said I have a limited command of Singlish because I don't speak Hokkien. I didn't get the humour in Money No Enough and other Jack Neo classics because of that, and even my swearing is limited to a couple of common phrases I picked up on the school bus.

Now it turns out that I've been getting a bit of my Singlish-of-Malay-origin wrong too. I've been saying "pasar", as in "not my pasar", which I thought meant "it's not my concern" or "it's not part of my job" --- but it turns out the correct word is "pasal". "Pasar" means "market", which I knew but never spotted as being at odds with the phrase, while "pasal" means "business", which is where the phrase comes from.


Interestingly, no one's ever corrected me till a few days ago, and the Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English lists "pasal" as a variant of "pasar". Even so, I'm going to try and say the right word from now onwards.

Oh, and "Sarawak"? Is pronounced "suh-RAH-wahk", not "SAIR-ruh-wahk". Damn my Americanised pronunciation sometimes.

Edited to add (March 7): I recently learned that I've been getting "hentam" wrong as well. It's not my fault --- my mother and many people I know say "hantam" instead!

Oh wait ... they're all Chinese ...


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What English am I speaking?

I was talking to a friend about another friend, Jamal, and for some reason I started pronouncing the name as "Juh-MAHL" instead of "JAH-mull". To which the friend I was speaking to said, "He didn't grow up in Noo York, you know."

I have no idea where that moment of cultural disconnect came from, but I felt very contrite. I felt even more contrite when I was thinking a little harder about the name and my brain switched channels to "Malcolm-Jamal Warner" --- yes, he of The Cosby Show fame (or lack thereof). I knew watching hours and hours of that show as a kid would someday come back to haunt me.

Time to spank the inner street slangster and get my tongue back to a less affected local pronunciation.


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Random run-ins today

At Bugis Junction, I was intercepted by a slip of a girl claiming to be from a modelling agency and would I like to ... "I'm not interested," I said, and waved her off. I have no idea what she wanted. I mean, I was wearing a boring button-down office-y shirt I had resurrected from the back of the wardrobe because I needed to look respectable and in case the weather turned cold, paired with skinny jeans and wedges --- the faux successful "creative" look, as one might generously call it. Definitely not one of my better-dressed days.

Also at Bugis Junction, I'd arranged to meet someone off one of my email lists to buy a secondhand Margaret Atwood book off her. Which may not sound that remarkable, but given how all-over-the-place my schedule has been in the last twenty-four hours, I'm amazed no one else beat me to it. Guess there aren't that many prospective purveyors purchasers of Moral Disorders after all.

In other randomness, it looks like both the projects I was rushing to get finish before Xmas are pushing their deadlines back --- due to circumstances that have nothing to do with me, of course --- so maybe I'll get to enjoy a little pre-Xmas jollity next week. Earlier this week, I was in a house that had two real Xmas trees and real Xmas wreaths scattered throughout all the ground-floor rooms. It smelled incredible.

Finally, for my l33t-sp43k1ng fr13nds: who'd've thunk it that "w00t" would make Webster's word of the year?


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Better than the SAT

Via Mr Miyagi, I've found FreeRice, which pledges to donate 10 grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program for every vocabulary word that you define correctly (don't worry, it's multiple-choice). In 10 minutes, I've clicked through 500 grains of rice and my vocabulary level is hovering around 45. I'm particularly stoked that they had "grok" and "reave".

I'm not sayin' that this is the best way to do something for charity. But if you're going to fritter your time away on the internet anyway, and you like word games, this is as good a place as, say, Scrabulous to spend your time on (you know who I'm talking about).

Plus I got to learn what "nictitate" means.


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Rhymin' games

I typed this in an email today: "online moniker Ondine".

Now say it five times fast.


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Random word-related observations of the day

Dear Channel NewsAsia,

I refer to your news report dated 23 October 2007, "Penal code should be updated to avoid gender biasness".

Please note that "bias" is already a noun and there is no such word as "biasness", nor any need for one.

It's not clear from your news report if Member for Parliament Charles Chong used the word "biasness" in his actual remarks, but if he did, you might want to tell him that too.


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Speaking of unexpected errors, I was just revising something I wrote two weeks ago and found that I'd written "breakbacking work" (instead of "backbreaking work", obviously). Oops.

Maybe I should thank Ang Lee, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal for making "brokeback" a household term.


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The most unexpected language error I found today

"Hick-ups", instead of, well, you know.

It's a strange error to find, especially since it's in a Singapore publication from 2002 and it's not like Singapore wasn't thoroughly so English-educated then that people didn't know then what hiccups were.


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Fighting the good fight

I failed to read blogs for a few days (as I, um, often do) and when I popped over to Little Miss Drinkalot, I found a Grammar 101 question (yippee!) and a misguided answer (boo!). So I exercised my elfin bow of gold and pointed out that an apostrophe-s is used to denote a possessive only if the noun in question is a plural form, not necessarily with proper names that are singular.

On hindsight, it was a very restrained explanation --- much shorter than the detail I went into on this blog last year (Raffles' vs. Raffles's was the proper name in question at the time).

Predictably, there was a detractor (predictably, an anonymous one) but two subsequent commenters, armed with their respective elfin bows of gold, took care of that. I'm just glad I didn't have to whip out New Hart's Rules all over again.


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