Thursday, September 25, 2008

Singapore Travelogue: Adieus

(Posted on behalf of Kumar)

Like everything nice, the Singapore trip had to come to its natural conclusion. The project report was published, and I took off to India (Chennai to Vizag). As with many of my travelogues, I tend to keep my business participation to a minimum – enough to provide a context. That was by design – not to get the reader bored with the shop talk.

The break in Vizag was very pleasurable. There is never a greater satisfaction than seeing one’s parents and sibling. It is unfortunate for me that it had to be the case that I need to travel 10K miles to see them. But, this is a life of my choosing, and hence must be endured.

While I was out here, I was secretly missing my kids. They were pulling me in a number of directions: I was missing their love, worried about their education and finally their tests/marks, etc. Children may never realize their parents’ anxiety (especially of Asiatic style, where parents still think they are responsible for their children’s success) until they have their own.

Singapore Travelogue: In the City-State

The arrival in Singapore was almost as smooth as arriving back at US. All phones worked nicely; the blackberry had no issues. The hotel-chauffer came by to pick me up, and the customs/immigration took a few minutes to finish. In about half-hour I was in the hotel.

A comment on commute is warranted here. I can not recall how many times I asked people, whenever I was travelling in a cab, “how long will it take?” only to be told “10 minutes” or “15 minutes”. The longest time I travelled was for about 30 minutes, and that was probably from one end of the city-state to the other (Mandarin Oriental to the Zoo). Everything else was shorter. City-states have many advantages. Sometimes I refer to Singapore as a large (very large) cruise ship.

I must admit that my stay in Singapore has been very tiring. Rarely do I get tired, but this one pulled me down – 18 hour days were the norm, and Saturday was no different. I am really happy that it was over, and I hope all that hard work would pay off.

  1. Customs & Cuisine
    Having been awake and spent about 18 hour days on business work during the stay, my ability to observe Singapore customs was reduced to 2 isolated trips of 5 hours each to the outside world (outside of my office & hotel). But a keen eye to the days comings-and-goings reveal much more than one can imagine.

    At the hotel, which I believe is not very expensive (about USD 200), the reception was 10 times more courteous (than US), but not quite as ceremonial as in Japan (again, Japan 7 years ago). The reception, checking-in, all of those formalities were done in your own room (you don’t wait, they come to yours). It is possible that such convenience exists in very high-end US hotels, but I am not aware of any (having been to Hiltons and many other chains like that).

    My Singapore corporate colleagues seem to take time to eat lunch (or were they doing this in the honor of the marathon meetings we were going through?). This is a contrast from normal workings in US where noon meetings and 1PM meetings are not only very common, but you even have conflicts of meetings during lunch. So, sitting down for lunch has become a charming idea.

    Food courts are a sign of diversity, only rivaled (in my experience) in Tokyo. The variety is amazing – you can actually get Malaysian or Chinese or Thai, as opposed to “Asian” food. You can get Indian food, and of course, the usual western style is always present. The food is served in a banana leaf on top of a plate – whether it is Indian/Thai or Malaysian food.
    I am not sure where the banana leaf as a holder of food originated from and spread to – India to SE Asia, or the other way around? The interesting aspect is that it is not a common part of the food-accoutrements in North India. The more I think about it, the more I feel South India has more in common with South East Asiatic food, than with North India, just like, the North India has more in common with (probably) Pakistan and Afghanistan (food wise, please) than with the South. Again, with frequency of travel, and with the inter-mixing of cultures, there is probably less and less “distinctiveness” and more and more of amalgamation. Although I still believe Singapore is not a melting pot, but a mosaic. Melting pot implies all are forged into one common molten metal. But, I digress.

    With all this variety, you can choose a great lunch for under six or seven US dollars.
    Environmentalism seemed in-built (nothing fancy or with any fan-fare) in these food courts. The vendor does not provide any napkins (or, water). You purchase water separately (which I think is a matter of convenience for the vendors – they sell what is distinctive of them). The napkins are also purchased from the same water-lady. She goes around with a mobile vending stall with water, napkins and some other beverages. This was very appealing because we could buy for 20 cents a pack of napkins we can all share.

    The other aspect that I really liked about the food courts is picking up after you finish eating. You just don’t. Unlike in US (and from what I can tell from my English colleague) and unlike the queen’s country, you don’t need to pick up after you eat. Someone else comes and cleans up. This is very beautiful! I wish some of these are incorporated in the US.
  2. People
    I should say, with little hesitation, I have not come across a frustrated or angry Singaporean -- frustrated not about you, but about anything else – like “other” customers, politics, or simply the weather. When they are the service providers or vendors, it is almost expected that they are on their best behavior, but even when you are in a mutually relaxed situation and trying to pick their brains. Either they have accomplished a state of Right-Brain driven nirvana, or simply they don’t open up to foreigners (it is as easy to recognize that I am a foreigner as it is for you to recognize a wooly mammoth in your closet) – with all my cameras, inquisitive eyes, prodding questions and so on.

    One should understand that Singapore’s first-language is English. So, the inability to express frustrations couldn’t be the tongue. Although, I must admit, I have not seen the kind of fluency in the tongue from as many as I would have expected from a native country. That was somewhat an odd feeling – if English is their first-language, and they learn from birth, why aren’t they a lot more at ease with it, and with the myriad consequences you get by thinking in that language. Or, their English (and the norms) are more British, and they learn – along with the British English – the oft-praised British reticence (I am yet to experience this – most British I came across were very talkative and friendly; one day when I go to the queen’s country, I will have the opportunity to observe more).

    Walking into the state, I had almost a religious reverence for the society’s elementary education. They are the best according to many a metric I have come across. However, more often than not, I was told by many colleagues (from western societies - -I must add this because I have to take it with their bias into account) that Singapore’s education is rote-based. I understand what rote learning is – better than many generations of Indians, and most definitely better than many Brits and Americans. But is this complaint from western-expatriates a serious one, or is this because their children simply could not compete with the zeal and vigor of the native born? Or is it a combination, but they focus only on one? I don’t know.

    A comment on rote learning: Often rote learning is demonized. Rote has its place, and one day I will probably write an essay on “In praise of Rote Learning”. But rote is not a substitute for analytical learning, and nor should the other way around be (and this later part is not well understood by western educated individuals). After understanding enough of brain-circuitry, which I continue to do more, I have acquired more respect for rote. Rote is like the completion of synaptic wiring – enabling short-cuts and speedy access, once connections are established.

    Rote helps you climb next steps faster – rote is like a pre-defined subroutine in a computer programming language; rote is like a pre-cooked concept, once understood, don’t need to waste your brain cells re-analyzing again and again, but instead remember the input and output, so you move onto bigger concepts. Rote is like your “mother” or “father” concepts. You don’t re-analyze – father means one who donated the sperm with which an egg – the donor of which is called the mother – mixed and produced the zygote – the mother cell from which you were born. Once understood, we memorize these concepts, so we can learn and understand bigger concepts like parental love and filial obligations (continuing on the analogy) rather than constantly starting from scratch.

    Now, having raised rote-learning to a slightly higher pedestal (with or without the reader’s agreement), I must quickly add before being stereotyped into an Asiatic blinded by one’s own faith, every culture praises rote learning. When a speaker quotes the basket ball player Yogi Berra [who played on the same team as Elvis and Michael Jackson, no doubt -- Dawn], or when they quote the budget numbers (rather than look up their notes), or recall from memory the un-pronounceable name of the president of Iran, the speakers command the respect of the audience. Imagine, if you are talking to a reporter, and the topic comes up about a budget item, and you recall the numbers (correctly) or look up a note book – which one gets you more kudos?

    So, I do believe rote plays in some small way role played by songs/poems – a good way to provide a summary – a recapitulation or sometimes a new way to make the reader think. It never substitutes for “why”. When you say “I have miles to go before I sleep” or “Two roads diverged in a wood…”, you are referring to an entire description, but by its summary line. Same way, when you refer to a formula (say, the Pythagorean or some other), you are referring to the summary (almost ignoring the proof – the “why” part).

    Singapore is a population of 4.5 millions, and hence its place in the scientific literature may not be as firm and encompassing as Japan (or China) with 100s of times more population. So, their relative paucity in publications could not be attributed to lack of analytical learning (i.e., blame rote learning). I do recall that Singapore is a big player in reproductive science/engineering. I guess the laws here permit more freewheeling with the zygotes than US does.
  3. Places
    The places I have been to are all very advanced. The cable-car from Singapore to Sentosa Island, or the island itself, the zoo, etc., are all very wonderful. The Sentosa Island seems like a combination of a museum, theme park (“Sea World”), and finally some national tourist spots (Mer Lion / Statue of Liberty, etc.), all in one place.

    I really liked it for its novelty. The dolphin show for example was “open air” as opposed to usual “closed room” presentations in US (Equatorial weather has its benefits). The aquarium is similar in size to the Trenton aquarium but has a very good “belt” that takes you through an underwater tunnel (ocean fauna inhabit naturally around you – who goes through a tunnel under the sea). The belt is similar to the baggage carousel in the airport – except that you stand on it.

    They have a museum “Singapore Images” (or something like that) in Sentosa. This was a really out of the world museum. The Edo museum of Japan was similar in grandiosity. The museum has real-life settings of people, their old habitats, the history, etc., in a very educative manner. The theme is unity in diversity. They show how the four winds (China, India, Malaysia and Europe) were responsible for setting up the society of Singapore.

    I must say the museum was very well conceived, and well constructed. Better than many of the European or American museums – if your interest is to learn about your own country. It instantly reminded me of Japan’s museums – fantastic, and fully “life sized”. You are not seeing a museum. You are experiencing the museum.

    A few things I learnt here are the non-uniqueness of Indian customs. Either India imparted these on the SE Asia or it was the other way around, but simple things like shaving a kid’s hair after they attain an age of one year (a religious tonsure) is both Malaysian (especially shown in the context of a Islamic tradition). Given that India once colonized this part of the world (Srivijay Empire), the chances are that these are old customs that India “encouraged” the natives to follow. But, I am speculating.

    The kids would love this museum. I can see them learning more about the East in two hours than in any semester-long classroom teaching. I believe it is good for kids to know more about these places, because by the time they grow up, SE Asia will play a more stunning, more demanding and more commanding role (save only China) than any other European or American nation would. The next 100 years are of Asia. This is an Asian century – with a hiatus of 400 years.

    What was missing in this museum – almost too disturbingly quiet – was the contributions of Singapore to the world. For an Asiatic country, it is important to announce what they did to the world. Whether it is the Indian museums or the Japanese, or even the Europeans’ museums, they do tell this very overtly. Why Singapore chose to be quiet on this topic is something I am not sure. They could have talked about some contributions – whether it is modern as in reproductive sciences – or ancient as in some agricultural or maritime or mercantile – all of which Singapore innovated in one way or another – they choose to be silent.

    This silence of self-expression is unlike any rising “tiger” of the east. Is it because of the Singapore’s disciplinarian government? Is it because it wants to show more of conformance than of creation? Is it because it wants its children to learn to be “eager to blend” than to stand out? I don’t know. It is another puzzlement that I can not possibly get from any book as much as from a shrink of Singapore origin with the intent and willingness to examine his/her experience and reflect on it.

    There was a distinct unsavory feeling though. There seems to be an effort -- too strong an effort – made to show Malaysia as a foreign country (almost on par with India, China and Europe – the other three winds). Geographically, Malaysia is the parent archipelago that Singapore belongs to. So, why and how did they become separate? What was the motivating factor? I know that the British had a say in it, but precisely what happened is something I have to research through. Unfortunately, my old friend “Glimpses of World History” is of no avail, because Nehru stopped his book just about the time of the Second World War (after which he became the prime minister and had no time to write books). This is a puzzlement I need to resolve at some point.

    Needless to say, the white-washing of one’s past is not new to Western nations. You would hardly find the treatment given to Natives in the NY’s metropolitan museum (actually they show native Americans along with animals – manikins). I had my share of arguments, debates and fights with many a curator demanding more equitable representation to the natives. To this day, in the “famous” Yosemite, there is a certain “Thorpe’s Log”, where they boldly declare that Captain Thorpe, accompanied by two Yokote Indians, discovered this gorge. Nor would you hear the atrocities – well documented atrocities – committed by the troupes of the beloved governor – Columbus to the Arawak Indians.
    However, one wrong does not make another right. So, I’d have liked to see a more candid (and possibly an opinionated) story of the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore, rather than the glossing over presented here. Or, may be there isn’t any. I need to explore this sometime.

    Also shown in the museum was the lack of love for Japan – which occupied Singapore for a few years during the WWII. Again, did they occupy only Singapore or the entire archipelago (I should consult Nehru)? Japan needs to do more to fix up its foreign relations with Singapore and China, as compared to Germany towards England or France.
    Japan has more to be concerned about than mere Singapore. The Asiatic lands have learned how to succeed in western ways of life – the Engineering, the sciences, the discipline and the gestalt of money-making. Japan is no longer the only curious land of the East with the development rivaling the west.

    The zoo was particularly delightful. For the first time, I heard species that are Indian but you don’t get to see anywhere in such a variety (e.g., a group of Indian Elephants), a number of types of Indian deer (again, the exact names of the species escapes my mind), etc. It is truly remarkable that Singapore took full advantage of its equatorial climate to build a zoo that truly rivals the western zoos. Due to rain, we had to miss a show of the animals (similar to a circus – I was not that desperate to see it).

    The interesting part of this zoo is that you can walk through many of the animals, and there are rangers everywhere. The zoo is organized in a way that is very different from Bronx zoo. For its size and variety, Bronx zoo is a great zoo. However, like everything else, the time has come for the East to show its innovation (move over Bronx). One may not like the comparison, but comparisons like this come up often, and should not be misunderstood as disloyal. Nehru has influenced my observational skills for ever. Everything I observe, I try to correlate reason and come up with a framework.
  4. Little India(Little Madras)
    The pilgrimage to Little India is a necessary ingredient of the Singapore Experience. This is a place frozen out of 70s Tamil Nadu, and spiced with all the modern shopping malls around it. The restaurants are “authentic” with the coffee tumblers and cups (to pour in and out), the chutneys, the concept of “plate meal and full meal” that only a southern Indian can comprehend, and so on. It is a wonderful place to go around as long as it is not a Sunday evening (or, you feel like you are in the middle of a Monda market of Hyderabad or Poorna market of Vizag or something similar in Chennai) – an ocean of people; you genuinely suffocate purely because there isn’t enough oxygen.

    The Tamil restaurants are very good, the service is nice (not as elevated as “usual Singapore” but very courteous). These people do show their feelings but are extremely courteous – like the rest of the island. The place is very clean, especially given the denizens are of Indian origin, and are attributed with unclean habits. I really enjoyed the food, the people, the shops – to see how Indian “Big Bazar” might have emerged from “Mustafa”, and how much Indians are fond of shopping. This part of India, I never get. Even when I was a teenager, and was around in Charminar (in a trip to Hyderabad), dad and I were infuriated that we could not find a place to eat, but tons of places to shop for pearls (Charminar is the world capital of Pearls – or something like that). Why do people shop so much? I don’t really understand.

    I often compared Singapore’s little India with Amercian Little Indias (NY or NJ or Cleveland, etc.) and the Singapore Little India is a lot cleaner, much larger and tons more courteous. Also, Singapore’s little India is distinctly more south Indian, than any other Little India I have seen. More often than not, US’s Little Indias tend to be Little-North-Indias. Here, it was a bold statement of Little Madras selling itself as the representative of the tricolor. Good for them!!

Singapore Travelogue: The Departure

(Posted on behalf of Kumar)

The flight was scheduled to depart at 11PM, and I was at the airport at 8PM, the requisite 3 hours in advance. I believe it was overkill. There were 2 people in line ahead of me (travelling by business class has its advantages), and security had a separate line for business class (I did not know till now – not having travelled in business class since 9/11). I whiled away the 2 hours in the waiting lounge, with last minute conf-calls to the teams, goodnights to the kids and wife, and chatting with a co-passenger. All in all, the waiting lounge was very good, with the expected supply of requisite amounts of C2H5OH imported from different regions of the world, and vegetarian food.

The flight! The flight was a vey different experience. I have traveled business class a few times cross-continent and once across the Pacific. But these seats and this plane are somewhat new. First, I was warned in the lounge that this is some kind of “first of its kind”. I paid no attention. Once inside, I instantly realized, and was incessantly reminded, that this is the only flight in the US that flies to Singapore – all business class! There are no other types of seats!! It has about 200 business class passengers, and no one else!!

The seats are all equipped with flatbeds. In other words, these are like Indian Railways’ Two-Tier AC berths next to the windows (topologically speaking only; the analogy stops there). Singapore Airlines brings ergonomics and hedonism mixed into conveniently sized goblets of ambrosia, served delicately by the dainty Singaporeans, right at your flatbed side.
There are only 4 seats (1-2-1) in the entire width of the plane (2-seaters are intended for couples, I guess) and I got my own window-and-aisle seat; the most common format is 2-3-2 (in most other classes). The nap on the flatbed reminded me of travelling in the Indian Railway berths, adding a cradle like or hammock-like cadence to the experience. All in all, I must say it was a very desirable and different experience! There was a US-Electric supply available for my laptop, and a small compartment to put away accouterments. A three course meal was served as soon as we were 30K feet up (almost as tall as the Mount Everest, or, 1/3 the height of Mt. Olympus as Sidharta’s quick repartee would remind me). [Well, actually, Sidharta would be referring to Olympus Mons, Mars' mega-volcano, but who's counting? -- Dawn] There were three choices of vegetarian – reminded me of old days when they used to ask – do you want HVML or AVML (Hindu versus Asian). The meal, Indian Vegetarian meal (I guess should be IVML) was reasonable. Not at the same level as I would have expected – it was still packed, not prepared on board, although served in plates instead of packages. Now, you may say preparing on board for 200 people is unreasonable at best. That is correct, and they knew it. I was just trying to see how far I can imagine! If we can accomplish that, these planes would be like flying cruise ships. After the meal, I went to bed listening to Mahler’s first Symphony 3rd movement.

The trip is a non-stop night of 20 hours. There is no Sun seen in the trip, and hence, you break it up as “nights”, “mornings” and “daytimes” as you wish. After a few hours of sleep, I woke up, pretended that it is morning, and asked for breakfast – served again in style. I tried to sleep a little more and then got myself ready for the upcoming meetings by studying all the presentations, papers and such.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kumar's Singapore Travelogue: Prelude

(Posted on behalf of Kumar)

Seven years after a previous non-stop long-haul from the East coast of the US to the Pacific Rim (PAC Rim), I left this time to a tinier country, nay a city state, and possibly on a more daunting business mission. Whereas the previous trip was to educate through case studies some key businesses in Japan on Rational Software tools, this trip after 7 years was to understand, analyze and publish an architectural review of a major software platform my company is developing; very different purposes, people & destinations.

What a change can seven years bring! My daughter was barely 3.5 years old then, and now a flourishing eleven with the ability to understand and absorb information, science math or languages -- as rapidly as a black hole sucks matter! My son was barely 3.5 months old then, and now has amassed enough knowledge to keep me on toes while he professes his faith in a long-lost sea creature in a certain lake (the infamous Loch Ness monster) or, lectures on types of baleen whales or types of volcanoes – all in one fell swoop. The family cousin was yet to be born, whereas now she can bellow mavayya for the entire suburb! There are other large-scale changes as well[1].

This is a memoir [2]of my trip to Singapore, and yet again, the pre-teen in me jumped up for another adventure! Adventure borne by the audacious intent of (or maybe hubris?) being able to observe an entire society, culture and country in a matter of 2 weeks, and summarize the observations as if they were fully accurate. But, again, without adventure, without risk and without a tad bit of hubris, nothing big has ever been accomplished[3]

A minor digression is warranted about the pre-teen that jumps out of me every so often; 1973 is my most favorite year in life. Dad had just returned from Canada in the early summer, along with Mom & Sister all of whom disappeared for a couple of years in the pursuit of his Ph.D. The reunion, as exhilarating and fun-filled as it was, it was nearly not as revolutionary as the post-reunions track of years - a track that as I climbed more, I could see more. He achieved this by negating everything I believed in – by saying “don’t believe anything until you have a proof” – starting with religion, caste, math and everything I knew. This led to a forceful and relentless pursuit of roots of any topic I endeavor to understand – because I could no longer be persuaded by mere assurances of mere mortals. I needed a proof
[4]! This attitude has benefits of any exploration and discovery, but the pains of having to spend enormous energy to explore and discover. Additionally, it required years of practice to refrain from commenting on other peoples’ un-explored and unexamined opinions. It is this well nurtured zeal for discovery of roots that makes me what I am: a constant skeptic in pursuit of knowledge so I can continuously correct myself, and defend myself or others in an intellectual judo.

This story of Singapore, therefore, is another discovery or exploration to achieve a smattering of understanding.

Hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing. Don’t believe everything I say; discover for yourself!

[1] For example, Japan is no longer the pre-eminent manufacturer; China is. India is no longer an exotic curiosity with snake charmers, but the destination of millions of dollars and workers with a giant sucking sound of flow of capital from US!
[2] Hopefully my daughter would read it with 1% the zeal, rapture and ardor she has for “Crack of Dawn”, a novel she’s been reading of late. [editor (Dawn)'s note: Make that "Breaking Dawn" -- Kumar is well known for forgetting details that are beneath his dignity]
[3] As Hardy puts it in his memoir “A mathematician’s apology”, (paraphrase) a math professor has to exaggerate the importance of his subject in the firmament of knowledge, and his own importance among other explorers of the firmament.
[4] As Plato and Erdos after him said, Proofs come directly from God’s book.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Putting the Potty to Good Use

Now here is the wave (or perhaps I should say flush) of the future!

The San Antonio Water System is apparently recapturing methane generated during sewage treatment, and selling it to an energy company, to the tune of $250,000 per year.

Now that's probably a drop in the bucket to an organization with a $300,000,000 or so budget, but let's think about it. What were they doing with that methane before? Burning it off. So why not get a free $250K, and use the gas for something useful?

I wonder how our town can get in on the action.