Sunday, December 30, 2012

An eventful few months

This is a personal post, meant to update the people who actually read my blog whom I may not have met in some time.

[Yes, as odd as it may seem to the people who read my blog for my insights into current affairs, this blog still does serve the purpose of a journal of my thoughts and experiences =)]

I ended a brief relationship a few months ago. It was my first real relationship. I learnt a little about myself, but more importantly, I learnt with certainty that I need not be in a relationship to be happy. It would be nice to have someone of course, but to be with someone with whom things are not working out should not be a goal to aspire to in itself.

M., if you are reading this, I do treasure the moments we spent together. It is rare for me to put into words in the public domain an intensely private experience, but here it is. I should not allow the moment to pass before the desire leaves me.

It means something to me that you touched my life in a positive way. If nothing else, being with you gave me a push to move forward in my life. When things ended between us, I told you that I did not learn much about myself that I did not know already, and that is true, but I did grow from our time together.

Perhaps it is true that we prepare our previous partners for better relationships ahead of them in the future. If so, I hope that I left you with something that will enrich the relationship with whomever you will be (or are) with.


I passed another one of the actuarial exams which I had taken in October 2012. Results were released less than two weeks ago. Another step to qualification as a Fellow in my plan to complete a career transition from research engineer to actuary.

The result was not unexpected; I generally know once I see the exam paper on test day itself whether a pass is in the offing or not.


I found a new job. Surprisingly enough, it was the job with the very selective requirements that I blogged about in a previous post.

Turns out one interview (albeit a very long one at two hours) was enough to cement their confidence in me.

After a number of career setbacks, it was a strangely affirming experience to have someone else validate my view of my own abilities. It also didn't hurt that the new job came with a large pay rise that exceeded what I used to draw as an engineer.

Then again, perhaps it was because my new bosses are American and new to Singapore. Unlike other hiring managers in the industry, they did not have the convenient fallback of hiring only from a pool of people of known quality that they already knew, as I blogged about previously.


I'm currently in progress on a personal project that may or may not help in my new job. Learning Python and the Django framework to allow me to build database driven websites.

This was related to a project proposal that I had submitted which unfortunately did not get funded. However, that doesn't necessarily mean the project will die.

In time to come, with the skills that I intend to acquire, I may embark on the project on my own anyway.


After a hiatus of a few years, I returned to the Pokhara valley in Nepal for two weeks of advanced paragliding lessons. Sarangkot beckoned.

I was originally signed up for an SIV course (Simulation d'Incidents de Vol -- french for Simulated Incidents in the Air).

For a good idea of SIV, see this video. It's not a course for the faint of heart; it involves simulating adverse incidents in the air and learning to recover from them under radio instruction. Basically, doing all the things you are NOT supposed to do while in the air. Ironically, this makes you a much a safer and more confident pilot, now that you know the limits of your glider.

For safety reasons, SIV is almost always done over a large water body, like a lake.

Well, I bailed on the two friends of mine who were also doing the SIV course. Instead, I found out about and switched to a concurrently running thermalling course which I thought would be better for my development as a pilot.

As it turned out, the thermalling course involved learning some SIV maneuvers as well. Looks like I would get plenty of opportunity to scare myself as well.

Only the SIV pilots got to do the really scary stuff: spins/SAT, full stall/backfly and reserve parachute deployment.

However, I had the same opportunities to do frontal collapses, asymmetric collapses, B-stall, dynamic turns and wingovers.

Bottom line: Amusement theme park rides now hold absolutely zero appeal. My adrenaline threshold just got raised again.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wearing Abercrombie and Fitch in Singapore - How declasse

One of the things I've written about in the past is on how as mass immigration has enlarged our working and spending population in Singapore, international brands are increasingly finding it attractive to locate flagship stores here to capitalize on a lucrative market.

Hence, Singaporeans no longer need to venture out of the country for their togs from the likes of say,  Topshop, Gap, Banana Republic, H&M and Abercrombie and Fitch.

The irony is that now that the clothes are widely and easily available here, they've noticeably lost their edginess and exclusivity. It was one thing to wear Gap when it was not available here, it's quite another when it is now easily available and no longer exclusive.

[Sidenote: Up until several years ago, Gap in fact manufactured some of its clothes in Singapore. This was before it started distributing its clothes here.]

Worse, unbeknownst to many, some brands have become totally uncool in their home countries, like Abercrombie and Fitch for instance.

Disclaimer: I am not a fashionista. I hate shopping for clothes. In fact, I hate shopping period. So, don't take what I write as fashion criticism, cuz it's not. This post is a meditation on how ironic it is that the people who think that they're being fashionable wearing A&F are in fact the height of uncool.

Frankly, I'm amazed every time I see an otherwise well-groomed person on the street wear Abercrombie and Fitch (or Hollister). If I meet someone new for the first time, and they're wearing Abercrombie and Fitch, I automatically dial down my impression of that person.

Don't these people know what the brand stands for?

Abercrombie has carefully cultivated the youthful preppy WASPish look, and coupled it with its racy catalogs adorned with half-dressed models. I have nothing against the latter, except that it's boring and unremarkable in today's increasingly porned world (see The Porning of America in my reading list), but the former is certainly something I reject completely.

This is a company that has been subject to lawsuits for racial and sexual discrimination. A simple Google search would throw up the results for anyone curious enough to find out more.

Just a few months ago, controversy struck in South Korea over the bad behavior of its models at a store opening.

For most Singaporeans who are ethnic Asians, to aspire to wear the vaguely white supremacist label of A&F is, in a word, bizarre. And if you're a straight male, a little weird too, seeing as how the advertising for the brand is famously homoerotic.

But all this is probably intellectual claptrap for the trendy wannabe fashionista in Singapore still wearing A&F.

Problem is...the brand itself is rapidly losing cachet among its target demographic in the United States, as well as among youth fashion tastemakers. It's "passe", according to a group of high school students in the US, who were unanimous in their dismissal. That's the true fashion death sentence.

The sex-soaked marketing campaigns are looking dated, and it's not just me saying that. One article here and one article here for reference. The money quote from the second article, from Bloomberg Businessweek:

“Abercrombie is still running an offense which is a huge banner of a bare-chested guy with a cute girl who’s not wearing enough clothing,” says David Maddocks, a former chief marketing officer for Nike’s Converse label who now runs a brand consulting firm. “It’s vacuous, there’s no core idea there anymore.”

A&F is an object lesson in how NOT to market to Millenials. They're dropping the ball on reaching out to this key demographic. And the final flourish at the end of the article:

So far, Abercrombie’s woes at home haven’t hurt its popularity in untapped markets. Its Hong Kong flagship, which opened in August, logged more than $1 million in sales in its first five days. Abercrombie is considering more locations in China and the Middle East. Still, in a hyperconnected world, it won’t take long for the brand’s fading cool to catch up with shoppers in Dubai and Shanghai, says Lindstrom.

"Vacuous" is an accurate description of the brand's adherents. The really cool fashionable people in Singapore wouldn't be caught dead in A&F, and that it takes an unfashionable person like me to point that out to the wannabes, well, that's just the patina on their rapidly fading cool.

PS: No moose (meese?) were harmed in writing this post.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly."

Earthbound, but practice makes perfect.

Ground handling at Woodlands Drive 17. Light winds, overcast.

Credit to J. for the pic.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SMRT Strike - Breaking the sacred chain of command

Yawningbread had a post on the recent SMRT bus strike. In his post, he commented on the ineffectiveness of official channels for dispute resolution. Here’s the pertinent section:

The government has also said, repeatedly, that workers should have “discussed” their issues with management. Knowing Chinese workers, I am sure they have, many times and loudly. It’s in their nature. The problem is that the system is stacked against them. It’s a very Singaporean system: where lower-rank people don’t have rights to justice, but can only plead for better treatment. It’s a microcosm of the political system this government has created. Citizens have no substantive rights; they can only plead for their wishes to be taken into account. There’s a term for this: The petitionary state.

My first reaction to this was: but the Chinese workers came from *the* original petition state (see here for instance), so surely they should comprehend the Singapore system perfectly. 

But I digress. Snarky humor aside, I have another insight to share. But first, let me tell you a story.

I used to work in a division of a quasi-government company headed by a former SAF general. He had a pet peeve, and here when I use the word “peeve”, I really mean (from the perspective of the general) reprehensible, egregiously bad behavior that deserves to be excoriated in the strongest possible terms.

You get the idea.

This pet peeve was what the general called “breaking the chain of command”.

He would expound on the importance of the chain of command every time a complaint surfaced from the staff at the ground level, bypassing him to reach the ears of human resource, other senior management, or the CEO himself.

In simple terms, he hated it every time a problem in his division cropped up without coming up through the official channels, namely through him. He probably thought it made him look bad, which to be fair, is a pretty logical deduction to make.

His take was that even if a problem required the CEO’s intervention, the request should be escalated through him rather than brought up directly by the individual.

It never occurred to him that part of the problem was with him, that some staff were either not comfortable coming to him with their grievances or that they felt their concerns would not be properly addressed.

The uncharitable would add that most people avoided coming to him because they expected (correctly, as was unfortunately often the case) that his initial reaction would be to stonewall them.

In my experience, the expectation of the general that all staff adhere to the chain of command was really not that unique of a trait among SAF personnel, both former and current. I clearly remember the commanding officer of my NSF battalion espousing a similar sentiment.

The point of the foregoing story is this:

Our government is stuffed to the gills with people who think this way, from former fulltime professional soldier officers like the recently anointed Chan Chung Sing and Tan Chuan Jin, to our Prime Minister who formerly held the illustrious rank of Brigadier General.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the government likes to stress the importance of working through official channels when it comes to resolving disputes.

There are lots of issues worth exploring here.

One issue is whether recourse can truly be found through official channels in Singapore. Whether you think so or not depends on how cynical you are, and whether you have had firsthand experience navigating the system.

Yawning Bread has brought another issue into his post: namely the lamentable state of our petitionary state. That sounds quite anodyne really. I prefer to call it the PAP’s dictum to Singaporeans to “Be silent and be governed.” Citizens’ opinions don’t matter until seats in Parliament are suddenly up for grabs. The recent national conversation is really just a grand exercise in perception management.

My preferred issue to focus on is what this strong aversion to anything that doesn't originate from official channels tells us about the decision-making processes in the higher echelons of the Singapore government.

That the government constantly stresses that labor relations (and other matters by extension) can only be negotiated only within the ambit of official channels indicates that the government:

  1. Cannot handle uncertainty. Our officials are world champions at planning, but are frequently caught flatfooted whenever a situation develops that they failed to anticipate. That’s not to say that other governments do better all the time in unscripted situations, but a tendency to over-plan typically means less of an ability to adapt to a changing situation. The fact that even elections are carefully choreographed affairs is not complimentary of our cabinet ministers. For supposed consummate actors in the rough and tumble world of politics, our ministers are in a word, coddled.
  2. Cannot handle negative media attention. This has to do with point (1) above. Our officials are bad at adapting to dynamic situations. When was the last time we had a minister answer unscripted questions posed to them by an independent journalist or interviewer who had not been warned implicitly or explicitly to go easy on the minister?
  3. Has an attitude that no news is good news.
  4. And that what isn’t surfaced through official channels doesn’t exist and is hence officially NOT A PROBLEM. In other words, the PAP likes to operate within its own personal reality distortion field. Too bad they don’t have the charisma of Steve Jobs as well cuz they sure as hell need it.
Point number 4 above is the most important point. But the other points are related in that the PAP has been so effective at building a safe, controlled political environment for itself that it has started believing in its own propaganda and hence frames its governing decisions accordingly. That's a dangerous place to be, drinking your own Kool-aid.

The upshot of seeing things surfaced only through official channels means tunnel vision, and all the associated bad decision-making that goes with it. And we haven't even brought in the stonewalling that all too often blocks what you can see of the information that floats up through official channels.

Case in point is the recent SMRT strike where unhappiness had in fact been simmering on the ground for months.

The remarkable thing is that considering Singapore is so small, so tightly controlled and with such a precisely defined and controlled government machinery (including the media), that the government still cannot get reliable information and act on it is a severe indictment of its ability to sense-make and come to effective and appropriate decisions.

Who knows what other problems are out there just waiting to explode? All thanks to the reality distortion field associated with the chain of command.

But again, I come to the stupid or evil hypothesis for the PAP, which I can never decide between. Are they really that dense, or are they just plain evil and actually prefer the status quo, which while detrimental to the resilience of our society, benefits themselves and the entrenched power elite.

See Jon Stewart for a more elaborate explanation of the stupid-evil dichotomy.

I am personally more inclined toward the evil hypothesis, but I am also reminded of Hanlon's Razor.