Sunday, August 31, 2008

Of A Lazy Sunday Afternoon, Clarke Quay And Moon Cakes

It wasn't really that lazy. After all, we spent a few hours walking.

We took the MRT and got off at the Clarke Quay Station. It had been a while since our last daytime visit to the primary nightlife hotspot in Singapore, so what we saw was like a breath of fresh air from our usual office and home environments. Even the artworks at the MRT station looked refreshing.

We went there to have lunch with a friend we'd last seen only two weeks earlier. But her mom was in town visiting and there was this former colleague who just relocated to Singapore. We had good reason to get together and no worthwhile excuses to pass up the chance.

It was a delightful surprise to see colorful floats on the river and equally attractive displays at the side of the walkways as we exited the Central mall. How could we resist from taking pictures when we had a camera on hand and pleasant scenes to capture? As we clicked away, we could only imagine the scenery to be even more beautiful at night, with the dazzling lights and the shimmering waters.

We realized that today, August 31, marks the first day of the eight lunar month, which meant that the Mid-Autumn Festival was fourteen days away. Before relocating to Singapore, we knew the celebration as the Moon Festival and would often times refer to it erroneously, albeit cheerfully, as the Mooncake Festival. We learned more about it from our Chinese friends who graciously showered us with our annual doze of the delectable treat of mooncakes over the years. Now we know that the Mid-Autumn Festival takes place on the the fifteenth day of the eight lunar month, so that would be on September 14 for this year. We also know it as an auspicious occasion characterized by reunions between families and friends, feasting on mooncakes and Chinese tea, and of course, watching the full moon.

Lunch was at Jumbo Seafood Restaurant at the Riverside, ordering some of our usual favorites -- chili crab, sambal kangkong, vegetable with mixed seafood in claypot, chilled jelly fish and rice. Three of us decided diet Pepsi went best with our chow, one settled for the original version while one chose to be contented with the free flowing house tea. We had a healthy dose of chitchat after that, filling each other in with how we're doing at work.

Our next set of activities involved more walking and taking pictures around Clarke Quay. Occasional bumboats filled with tourists -- plying the same route that served flat-bottomed barges transporting cargo in the nineteenth century -- would catch our attention every now and then. My mind tries to see what its like two centuries ago. I wonder, did it ever occur to Sir Andrew Clarke that this place would be named after him during his tenure as Governor of Singapore? Did he ever get to try a similar concoction of the Singapore Sling before the drink got its name?

The skimpy, orange shorts of the waitresses jolted me back to the present as we passed by Hooters. Our friend Rochelle couldn't keep herself from snapping a few pictures. She promised to send me a copy although I don't think it would be wise to post them here.

Several steps and a few moments later, we found ourselves near the site of the adrenalin-pumping GMAX reverse bungee. I've tried the ride only once and I can say it was a very liberating experience. My advice to those who are wary about giving it a shot but are sure to do so anyway: scream your lungs out if you must but don't give yourself a heart attack. The hardest part is letting go! Once the lever is pulled by the operator and you're hurled into the air at a speed of up to 200 kph, you can wish with all your heart for it to stop; but it won't, so you might as well enjoy the ride and take comfort in the fact that the GMAX has a 100% safety record.

I plan to give the Extreme Swing a try next. But I have a valid excuse for still not doing so -- I have yet to remember who among my friends were once willing to give it a try too. After all, it would be so much fun to do with friends than strangers, wouldn't it?

I don't know how we decided to walk all the way to the City Hall MRT Station. But we did; we walked, we talked and we walked more.

We passed by the Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts (MICA) and I took a shot of the Big Bang by Joseph McNally. I guess we were too tired to appreciate the other artworks on display.

Then there was the Central Fire Station just before we entered Funan. It's great to see that this building, which was built in 1908 is still standing and good to know that it was in fact declared a national monument 90 years later. I hope we could get to visit the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery that's part of the building, soon.

It was time to go home after that. A few minutes in dreamland was a perfect way to end a lazy, Sunday afternoon.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Of Mind Maps, Outlines And Personal Brain

I cannot recall the first time I used mind maps to do brainstorming. I do not even recall when I first became familiar with the term. I do remember however that early in my career (not that it has been that long), I started drawing mind maps in my notebook during long and boring meetings. I realized I remembered more of what was said in those meetings compared to the ones where I took down notes in the usual manner. Still, I didn't even know they were called mind maps.

Later on, I learned to use mind maps when conceptualizing a short story or an article. I found it was often better to draw mind maps before coming up with an outline especially for short stories. Because I didn't know exactly where to begin or how to end, making use of the tool somehow led me to discover the path where I wanted to go -- serving like a real map. It not only helped me with figuring out the plot but it helped reveal the connections between the characters as well.

At the peak of the conceptualization process for articles or blog entries, when ideas race through my mind and the need to capture the them quickly before they permanently dissipated was of the extreme urgency, I find that a mind map is more appropriate than an outline. It was simpler and faster to do because I didn't have to worry about the hierarchy at that stage. I just kept adding and connecting one thought to another, key word after key word. I also find mind mapping more stimulating as it seemed like new ideas popped out more easily than during outlining. Perhaps the linkages and the drawings tapped something in the brain that was left unstimulated during outlining. By the way, the picture imposed at the right of this paragraph was a mind map I did to plan this entry.

When I was new to it, I still had to write an outline after drawing the mind map to better organize my thoughts. There were also times when I just went straight to outlining because it was pretty much clear in my head what I wanted to do. Over time, I became more proficient with mind mapping and could afford to skip the outlining process. But then, a lot of my mind maps began resembling that of an outline, like in the case of the one in the image above that I had created using a free software called Personal Brain. I do have ugly drawings on my mind maps when I do them on paper though. Software or paper, my MMOHs (mind map outline hybrids) have been an indispensable tool for me.

I also learned to use mind maps in other areas that needed a bit of planning and thinking. I used it when making presentations, putting together technical papers or documentation, preparing for a brief talk and even studying. I wished I had learned the technique earlier so I could have applied it in school because I seem to retain more useful information from a books I've read after I've drawn some mind maps on what I just learned.

As for the software, I found Personal Brain 4.0 by TheBrain Technologies through Google Ads in my Gmail. It offered a free download so I thought I'd give it a try. Upon installation, I found out that Pro Edition features are available for 30 days.

I think it's a cool software and it looks pretty promising. I haven't finished trying out all the features but it looks to me like it has other practical uses apart from my original intention. I think it can even be an answer to a project I was proposing to a friend who is working for the media -- I was telling him it would be great to come up with a page in the news site that featured a visual linking system that can show how politicians are related to one another, including other prominent people in society. Anyway, some other interesting features of Personal Brain include being able to incorporate notes, link web pages, attach files, make use of a built-in calendar and integrate with MS Outlook. Of course, a lot of these will be deactivated when my trial period is over. But even with the Free Edition, I think it will still be quite useful. If it becomes something difficult to live without in the next few weeks, I may just purchase an upgrade.

Who could benefit from mind maps? Well, anyone who needs to write, plan, think or study. That's practically everyone. Need to build a web site, answer an RFP, plan a project or a trip? If you haven't tried it before or you've always made use of outlines, I urge you to do so and see how it works for you. Software or no software.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Of The Olympics, Unbiased Judging, And Technology

Over the years, the Games have not gone untainted. Incidents, controversies and scandals have hounded the Olympics, giving the media more news to report and people additional topics to talk about.

One such controversy occurred in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games figure skating competition, where the judges gave a higher score to the Russians over the Canadians despite an error committed by the former in the free skate routine and a flawless execution by the latter. The Russians got the gold medal while the Canadians had to settle for silver. The French Judge later admitted to having received pressure from the head of the French skating organization to vote for the Russian pair no matter what. In the end, the silver medal of the Canadians were upgraded to gold while the Russians were allowed to keep theirs. The French Judge and the head of the French skating organization were subsequently suspended. The long term effect is the revision of the sport's judging system.

Considering today's hi-tech world, shouldn't judging scandals be the easiest to avoid in the future? Wouldn't everyone be better off by keeping the subjective aspects of judging down to a minimum, if not totally eliminated? Can we consider relying more on computers instead of human judges?

Take a look at the advent of the Hawk-Eye system and it's part in the adjudication process in the game of tennis. The Hawk-Eye allows visual tracking of the ball's path, recording of data, and the retrieval and rendering of that actual path as a graphic image. The system, which was invented by UK engineers, are based on triangulation and relies on visual images and timing data from high speed video cameras around the court. With the Hawk-Eye in Tennis, players are allowed to challenge line calls they feel doubtful about. In the Olympics, I've seen the Hawk-Eye in action last night at the semi-final match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Of course such computer systems may not be perfect especially in their early implementations. Even the Hawk-Eye didn't go unscathed with some minor controversies in the 2007 Dubai Tennis Championships and the 2007 Wimbledon Championships. But over time, just like humans, they get better. Except that they don't die, get influenced or become biased.

Ian Ayres showed in Super Crunchers how number crunching is changing the world of decision-making. Super Crunching, also according to Ayres, is more a story of advances in technology instead of statistical techniques. It relies on tons of data (terabytes, to put it more accurately) and processing. That equates to disk space and CPU, both of which are relatively cheaper nowadays.

Ayres also gives an explanation why humans are bad at making predictions and how "our best and brightest experts in different fields are losing out to Super Crunching". Part of his explanation states that "the mind tends to suffer from a number of well-documented cognitive failings and biases that distort our ability to predict accurately." I agree with him and I argue that these same cognitive failings and biases coupled with our limitations in terms of perception give us reason to make judging errors. Is that an obvious point, one that justifies the familiar expression "We're only human"? Unfortunately, the athletes who practice day-in and day-out in their quest for near-perfection are the ones who suffer most because of such lapses. Quoting Alanis Morissette, isn't that ironic?

I thought about making this entry after watching a portion of a synchronized diving event. The four of us watching couldn't figure out why a pair who were obviously not in sync got a higher score over a team who did a better job than them.

"Aren't the judges allowed to look at the slo-mo replay?" one of my companions asked.

"It's because they're from _____________," another theorized.

My mind was already forming weird ideas on how to possibly automate judging in synchronized diving. The first that came to mind was making use of invisible lasers that registered and tracked movements as the divers moved through the air and into the water, similar to the ones used in museums to prevent theft only at a much wider scale. But couldn't the Hawk-Eye system be simply tweaked to cater to this? Are advances in face-recognition software helpful? Can this be applied to gymnastics as well?

What about boxing? Can they make the boxers wear a headgear plus some sort of body armor with embedded sensors that get turned on and register impact when either of the opponent's gloves makes contact? Can they re-hash the ones used for fencing? Can this be applied to judo, taekwando, wresting and other contact sports?

Rather than dropping judged sports from the Olympics as some suggest, I prefer making use of technology to give whole new meaning to the term judging. I don't think it's a question of feasibility; the technology to make it happen already exists. I'm guessing that it's only a matter of time. I'm not as worried about those people who would argue that this might signal the end of the artistic and human side of judging as I am about those who would reject the idea in the interest of greater glory.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Of Turning Japanese And Hi Sshou

Here's a theory: There are three kinds of people in the world -- (1) those who like sushi, (2) those who don't and (3) those who still don't know what it is.

It's not as bold or insightful as The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention by the Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman's, which states "No two countries that both had McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald's." But it pretty much sums up what I've learned about other people in relation to the now world-famous sushi since my own discovery of the delectable Japanese delicacy several years ago. By the way, the Golden Arches Theory has since been disproven.

My theorizing was a result of two seemingly unrelated events brought together by a common ingredient: my dining at hi sshou last Thursday and my reading of Sasha Issenberg's The Sushi Economy, Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy.

Hi Sshou

The Land of the Rising Sun is a little over five thousand kilometers away. But a mere twelve MRT stations and three bus stops away from City Hall, tucked innocently in a corner of the Pasir Ris Community Centre lies hi sshou, a little Japanese getaway, if only for an hour of good food.

It was a good thing that my dinner date, who opted for a combination of sushi and sashimi from the menu, was also fond of Japanese food. I went for the bento set, which was comprised of miso soup, assorted sashimi, chawamnushi (custard steamed in a cup), fried chicken, mackerel, rice and a bowl of fruit dessert.

I was happy with my choice as it was as satisfying as I remember it. The bento set was really filling but the serving sizes for the sushi and sashimi were rather small in comparison to other restaurants and sushi bars. As for the ambiance, there is noticeable improvement from last year's; the lighting must have done the trick.

Would I be going back to this restaurant anytime soon? You bet!

Turning Japanese

I wasn't always a fan of raw food. I started out with the less demanding Japanese cuisines such as shrimp tempura, yakitori (skewered chicken), tonkatsu (breaded deep-fried pork), yakisoba (fried noodles) and agedashi dofu (deep-fried tofu) before eventually moving on to the maki, then the sushi and finally graduating to the sashimi. Once I had discovered the irresistably chunky, otherwise evanescent, juicy, fatty flesh of fish and had grown accustomed to the potent yet exhilarating combination of wasabi and soy sauce, I was hooked.

Going back to the theory, over the years I have found friends who also have a liking for Japanese food, the raw stuff included. One such friend is Odie. Together, we went around looking for authentic Japanese restaurants. We were quite successful at the endeavor that we were soon bringing other friends, especially those who have had a chance to live in the "sun-origin" archipelago for a number of years, to the restaurants we really liked. Most of the time, they confirmed our findings.

Of course, also all around us were people of the second kind, the ones who have declared they didn't like sushi, sashimi or even the California maki.

"I don't like Japanese food, particularly the ones with raw fish."

"Why?", I ask.

"I don't know. I just don't like them."

"Have you ever tried them before?", I try to probe deeper.

"Umm.. Not really."

Such conversation reminds me of a former boss's story who had taught his kids to try a particular food before saying they didn't want it. His advice to his kids, "It's stupid to say you don't want something until you've given it a try."

His advice backfired when once, they had a guest whom they offered some food but had refused. One of his kids bellowed, "Daddy, is he stupid? Because he hasn't tried the food yet but he's already saying he doesn't want it."

I can name a few people off the top of my head who initially thought they didn't like sushi but changed their minds after their first try. The most recent one was Chung Mon, who gave me a lunch treat at Sakae Sushi in Harbourfont a few days before I permanently left my former company of six months.

This is not to suggest that it's wise to try every food there is before deciding if one likes it or not. However, it might be a good idea to know the reason behind the disliking. Is it the taste? The smell, perhaps? Possible high mercury levels in sushi can be a real concern especially for those who are pregnant. Anisakiasis, a parasitic disease, might be another thing to be wary about but this has been more or less addressed by the process of freezing the meat before it gets to its final destination.

To complete the theory, there's the third kind. I really can't blame the guy if he's a vegetarian. But someone else:

"Hey! You wanna go eat sushi tomorrow?"

"What's that?

"Come with me and you'll find out!"

He'll either be among the first or the second kind after that.

On The Sushi Economy

It's a great book if you want to learn about how that Japanese delicacy made its travel all the way from Land of the Rising Sun in the previous century to the sushi bars of the present; all in celebration of globalization. Among other things, get to know about The Day of the Flying Fish, how the favorite part of the tuna nowadays was once saved for cat food and how General MacArthur might have had a hand in raising the price of tuna.

By the way, you might chance upon kids practicing their kung fu in the open area near the Pasir Ris Community Centre after your dinner at Hi Sshou. It's a delightful treat as well.

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