Sunday, August 08, 2010

An ode to disc golf in Singapore

Not a lot going on in Leaner land, but I thought I'd direct your attention to something I wrote about Singapore's tiny disc golf scene, such as it is.

This column originally appeared in last Sunday's Straits Times, and can be accessed here, provided you have a subscription. In case you don't, I've also reproduced it below. Lemme know what you think.

Round of disc golf, anyone?

Standing on the 18th green, putter in hand, I test the direction of the wind with a pinch of grass before I line up my shot. A moment of breathlessness as the putt heads towards its target... and drops! Birdie. It’s my best golf score yet.

But this is no ordinary game of golf. This is disc golf.

Its rules are identical to those of the traditional game. But instead of balls and clubs, this game uses discs – not Frisbees – of various moulds to reach the target, which can be a tree, a pole or, on a proper course, inside a metal basket.

Disc golf has been a hobby of mine for nearly half my life. I’ve won money in tournaments and have played courses on four continents: North America, Europe, Australia and Asia (I have not yet made it to the course that exists in Antarctica).

Singapore does not have a formal disc golf course. But that does not mean the game is not played here.

A couple of times a month, a group of us meet for a round. The size of the group varies, and it consists mostly of expatriates. Sadly, locals rarely venture beyond the invite list.

Disc golf can be played anywhere where there is a handful of open acres, preferably with a few trees for obstacles.

Such places are surprisingly numerous in Singapore, and we take our show all over the island, setting up nine portable “baskets” made of canvas and netting to create impromptu courses.

We’ve been known to take over the open spaces near MRT stations like Kallang, Bedok and, most recently, Outram Park, throwing discs and trying to make par.

Passers-by observe us with a mix of awe and bemusement. Many stop to watch the strange sight of ang mohs chucking things in a field.

Rarely does a round pass by without one of us explaining to an inquisitive onlooker what it is we’re doing (“It’s just like golf...”). Once that’s understood, it’s all chuckles and suspicious smiles as they wait for us to demonstrate.

A hefty drive – up to 150m with a good pull – never fails to elicit oohs and aahs and, of course, an enthusiastic “golf clap”.

At first, these occasional weekend rounds were enough to satisfy my disc golf habit.
But after a few months here, I was getting urges to play on weekdays, in the mornings, in the evenings – whenever I could. But Singapore doesn’t have anything resembling a permanent course.

So I decided to build one.

One day about a year ago, I was in a taxi in Upper Serangoon and happened to pass by the old Bidadari Cemetery. My eyes got wide. Such a boundless expanse of unused public land is a rare sight in Singapore. In short, it was the perfect place for disc golf.

I did my research and learnt that Bidadari had been a mostly Muslim and Christian cemetery until it was closed in the 1970s and exhumed beginning in 2001.

It has apparently been slated for development for the last several years, but the only perceivable sign of civilisation is the North-East Line’s phantom MRT station, Woodleigh.

In the meantime, I’ve designated some tees, collected some fallen branches and stuck them in the ground for targets and – voila! – it’s an 18-hole disc golf course. I hope the ghosts don’t mind.

Yes, disc golf is fun to play. But for me, it has also been a vehicle to explore and interact with new and local landscapes.

I’ve played courses in vastly different settings, from the ancient redwood forests in California to the crags of the Rocky Mountains. Each individual spot reveals its own unique flora, fauna and history. Bidadari is no different.

Photographers armed with telephoto lenses stand quietly near Hole 8 trying to catch a glimpse of the rare and brilliant birds flying from branch to branch of the sprawling banyan trees.

At Hole 2, the seeds of saga trees, hard and red as rubies, fall to the ground. An old man gathers them to line the bottom of his wife’s fish bowl.

Relics of Bidadari’s past litter the grounds. From the conical tops of Muslim grave markers to what appear to be directional signs scrawled in Arabic, mementoes of this land’s history are everywhere.

Disc golf in Singapore pre-dates me. The evidence sits along the Nicoll Highway, across from Suntec City behind the Raffles Education Corp College, in the form of a proper, metal disc golf basket.

I have been unable to ascertain why or how it exists. Hopefully the spirit that brought it here and keeps me playing will carry on long after I’m gone.

Sunday Times
August 8, 2010
Page 33

Thursday, July 01, 2010

For the last time -- it's soccer

It was a sad end last weekend to the US's glory run into the knockout stages of the World Cup. The US team generated amazing amounts of excitement Stateside; the game against Ghana was the most-watched soccer game in US history. But alas, it was not to be.

That's OK, though, because I can point to another victory for Americans that took place off the field and appears to have been won last year, upon the publication of the book Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the US, Japan, Australia, Turkey — and Even Iraq — are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport.

I wrote more about the book (and made the following point) here, if you're interested (in short, the book is worth reading).

It was penned by Financial Times sports columnist Simon Kuper and sports economist Stefan Szymanski, both of whom are bona fide Englishmen (or at least British citizens). On the subject of whether or not the game should be referred to as "soccer", these Englishmen write (emphasis my own):

"At this point, let's agree to call the global game 'soccer' and the American game 'football.' Many people, both in America and in Europe, imagine that soccer is an American term invented in the late twentieth century to distinguish the game from gridiron. Indeed, anti-American Europeans often frown on the use of the word. They consider it a mark of American imperialism. This is a silly position. 'Soccer' was the most common name for the game in Britain from the 1890s until the 1970s. As far as one can tell, when the North American Soccer League brought soccer to the Americans in the 1970s, and Americans quite reasonably adopted the English word, the British stopped using it and reverted to the word football."

I think we can safely say the case is closed on that debate.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kicking balls, American style

I'm immersed in one of my most patriotic streaks of recent memory, watching the plucky USA soccer team maneuver its way through the World Cup. Only a few hours till kickoff in the round of 16, and though Ghana will hardly be a pushover (especially with the whole of Africa behind them), there's no reason the US shouldn't be able to avenge the loss from 2006.

(By the way, do the Americans really not have a cool team name like the Ghana Black Stars or the Algeria Desert Foxes... even the Australia Socceroos? I know the US rugby team is called the Eagles, which is OK, I guess. But nothing for this up-and-coming soccer team, really?)

The USA is an extremely fun team to cheer for, in the same way the "Cardiac Kings" were in the early-auts. They're unfavored, but full of heart. They play hard and could potentially win any game. They just need to cut down on the catastrophic lapses that lead to easy goals, and shake their bizarre preference to play the best when they're down a goal (or two!).

The New York Times says we are witnessing the emergence of a new "American style" of soccer, one that is brasher, bolder, and dismissive of convention. When Landon Donovan blasted that shot right over Slovenia's keeper's shoulder in Game 2, writes Times soccer blogger Jesse Pennington:

"A kind of American impatience with custom and formality brought forth a different sensibility, a bit more roguish one. Think Indiana Jones blatantly disregarding politesse by scoffing at (and then shooting) the scimitar-wielding thug in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Think Han Solo blasting down Greedo in the “Star Wars” cantina before the green dude knows what hit him."

(I'll skip the complaints about getting soul-fucked by the ref in that game, because it ultimately had no bearing on anything. But that game did encapsulate everything that's so fun about cheering for this team.)

The Algeria game was amazing. And all the American naysayers, if there are in fact still any, needed only to witness the thrilling end to understand how riveting this sport can be. Crowds all across America certainly understood.

Sipping a brew called American Pale Ale at a microbrewery in Singapore -- Brewerkz on Clarke Quay, which has posters of Sierra Nevada Celebration and Anchor Steam adorning the walls -- we went nuts. Classic explosion of excitement, jumping up to high-five the strangers to either side of you. It was pandemonium for the 100 or so of us crammed in there. A spontaneous chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" erupted and I unabashedly and earnestly joined in, probably for the first time in my life

And now I'm off to watch the next game, kicking off at some absurd hour (2:30am). It kills the sleep patterns, but there's something exciting about staying up till dawn watching global sporting events. Go USA!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Flipping in the Far East -- inside the world's best disc golf event

There is no better disc golf event on earth than the Japan Open, which was held this month. I had heard it was great, and my expectations were high going in. But my expectations were obliterated -- truly, nothing else compares.

But I don't want to just gush here. The Japan Open is one of disc golf's four major events of the year (every other year, really -- the fourth major is held in Europe in odd-numbered years), so the competition is world class. In addition to the Americans and Japanese at the Nasu Highlands (Tochigi, Japan), players this year came from Canada, Finland, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and elsewhere to compete.

The cultural exchange this event offers is certainly one of its selling points. Interactions with people from all over the world are impossible to avoid, whether it's during a golf round, recovering in the hot-spring spa or hanging out late-night with the free flow of booze at Joe's Bar.

One of the most interesting things of the tournament was seeing how the personalities of different nationalities are expressed in players' golf games. The Asians are very compact, quiet and efficient in their driving, getting an incredible amounts of power out of surprisingly limited movement, and their putting games are precise and confident. The Europeans are powerful but modest, throwing a mile but never getting too worked up when a round goes awry. The Americans are also powerful, but noisy, both in the physical approach to the game (lots of movement, heavy steps, flailing limbs, involved putting routines) and the constant chatter and need to complain about errant shots (I include myself firmly within this characterization). Very educational from a cultural and anthropological standpoint.

The host country leaves its distinct mark on all aspects of the event, from the delicious cuisine to peculiar disc-weight requirements (nothing heavier than 159.9 grams). Each individual golf round kicked off with the rhythmic booms of a group of Taiko drummers (left), pounding the skins as if we were setting off to battle.

Indeed, the courses themselves were veritable battlefields. There were two of them -- the Raijin (god of thunder) course and the Fujin (god of wind) -- laid out on the grounds of a ball golf course (which, by the way, must be one of the world's most scenic... top-tier at the very least). The holes were long, open and often prone to extreme elevation changes -- basically a disc golfer's dream. But every bunker and cart path were out of bounds, turning dreams to nightmares. Rarely will you see a course that forces a mix of such distance and precision. Veterans of the sport like Gregg "The Miniac" Hosfeld who have played upwards of 1,000 courses rank the Nasu courses among their favorites.

Taiwanese player Chia-Shih Lo teeing off on Hole 12 on the Raijin course. The basket is 518ft away and straight downhill -- a helluva heave. Lo is a solid player and he and I went head to head for much of the tourney. I think I edged him by two strokes in the end, but they were hard-fought.

The tournament's payout this year totaled 4,000,000 yen, and the men's winner brought home 500,000 yen -- about $5,000. Hardly your average weekly doubles purse. And the final battle in the men's field was epic.

Defending champ Dave Feldberg, arguably the world's best golfer at the moment, was leading youthful upstart Nikko Locastro by two strokes going into the "Final 9", a decisive showdown between the top four players in both men's and women's divisions.

The personality differences between these two players was as much a part of the storyline as anything: Feldberg is known for his cool, almost robotic composure, not the flashiest player, but excellent at everything and extremely tough to shake. He's been playing at a top level for years and years, and knows how to maintain a lead. Nikko is in many way Feldberg's polar opposite -- he's flashy, hot-headed and prone to tantrums and breakdowns. He's only 21 and his personal growing pains have been on full display over the course of the professional disc golf tour. The buzz around camp was that Feldberg would cruise to a repeat title and Nikko would have at least one breakdown round, frustrated by the rampant 'OB' and unable to cope.

The "Final 9" players, from left to right (and finish): Nate Doss (3rd), Ken Climo (4th), Nikko Locastro (1st), Dave Feldberg (2nd), Valerie Jenkins (1st), Mayu Nonaka (2nd), Des Reading (3rd), Carrie Berlogar (4th).

But here they were, facing off in the Final 9 (Ken "The Champ" Climo and Nate Doss were in a battle for third). The first several holes went about as well as possible for Feldberg, as he steadily built his lead to five strokes with four holes to play. But Nikko kept his head in it and slowly started chipping away, a stroke at a time. Up three strokes with two to play, Feldberg smartly avoided the 'OB' on a hole and laid up for par while Nikko, with no other choice, blazed home a drive, parked for birdie. They approached the final tee with Feldberg clinging to the two-stroke lead he had going in to the round. It was a fairly simple and short hole: a very straight-forward par. Everyone in the 200-strong crowd knew what had to happen for Dave to win -- just an easy layup, steer clear of 'OB', take the par and first place. It was a play anyone watching could have made.
Nikko parked the shot for birdie, as he needed to (he didn't get the ace, which we all figured he needed to have a chance). Feldberg calmly took the box, clutched his trusty Eagle... and completely shanked the shot. It went high and way too short, and the crowd gasped as we watched it plunk into the center of the bunker. OB. Feldberg swears otherwise, but it looked suspiciously like he decided to go for the green instead of lay up, clearly the wrong choice. It's hard to know what exactly was going through his mind at that moment, but one thing is obvious: he choked on the biggest shot of the tournament. Everyone was utterly stunned.

Feldberg had a chance to atone with a 30ft putt, but he clanked it off the basket -- even a robot like Feldberg would be devastatingly rattled after such a colossal mistake moments earlier. So they went to a playoff. Nikko calmly parked his third straight drive, and Feldberg, again, plunked his drive into OB. An easy 12-footer for Nikko (above left), and the tournament was over. The kid was understandably ecstatic, pumping his fist (right) in the air and bear hugging the chains of the basket ("I love everybody!" he said in the post-round interview). Feldberg disappeared. The crowd was in complete shock. For the next hour all anyone could say was "Can you believe that?" or "Have you ever seen anything like that?" No. Can't. Never. (Watch it all unravel here. It's worth it.)

But it was a fitting end to a truly epic week, and both the winners fully deserved the podium.

Japan Open 2010 Champions: Valerie Jenkins and Nikko Locastro

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A front-row seat to democracy in the Philippines

I spent Sunday afternoon down at the Philippines Embassy in Singapore, interviewing expat Filipinos after they cast their votes for president, vice president and legislators -- I was a one-man exit poll. Then I wrote this story.

Filipinos are a generally joyous bunch and it was clear the thousand or so that voted on Sunday were excited to be exercising what many characterized as their civic duty. Many people stood outside the walls of the embassy in the scorching sunshine taking pictures of their ink-stained index-finger nails, documentation that they had actually voted. (Voters' nails are splashed with indelible ink that remains for a week so officials can be sure no one is voting more than once.)

Many of the people there were first-time voters, or second-timers at most. The Philippines instituted overseas voting in 2004, so for many of the Filipino women who have worked as maids and nannies in Singapore for decades this was a rare chance to have a say in the goings-on back home. Indeed, most of the people I met there said they were domestic "helpers". Many of them were shy, but they clearly enjoyed the opportunity to vote.

I asked everyone I talked to who they voted for, but that was not information everyone offered up easily. Most people younger than 35 had no problem discussing their choice with me. It was the older crowd that was a bit cagey. Some told me they didn't think it would be appropriate to reveal their candidate of choice. Others were decidedly more paranoid. One woman told me she had a son in Manila, and wouldn't want him to get any unwelcome visits. Given the history of election-related violence in the Philippines, I can't say I blame them for being cautious.

The big buzz surrounding this year's election was the introduction of automated voting machines. As far as I know, they were not made by Diebold. Still, pre-election reports that the machines were glitchy led some to wonder if they might cause more problems than they solve.

Most people at the embassy on Sunday were pleased with the new machines. Sure the new system was no guarantee against "cheating", may of them said, but it's a big improvement over the old method of writing in your candidate's name and having the ballots counted by hand. "If we're not going to start it now, then when? We don't want to be stuck with manual elections forever," one woman told me.

All indications (including my one-man exit poll) are that Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino would win the presidency in a landslide. I honestly can't say what this will mean for the Philippines, but Aquino, if nothing else, has impressive roots. Here's hoping he does his nation proud.

Friday, April 30, 2010

I (look like) Gumby, dammit!

The Shanghai Expo opens this weekend, and China's second city has pulled out all the stops -- the city has spent more than twice as much on its coming-out party than Beijing did on the Olympics.

But as with so many things China does, this event is not without controversy. It turns out the Expo's cartoon mascot, Haibao, looks an awful lot like Gumby, and organizers of the event have been accused of plagiarism.

Haibao creator Wu Yongjian pleads innocence and says he's never seen The Gumby Show before. Haibao, which means “treasure of the seas”, is based on the Expo emblem shape (δΈ–), the character for “world,” and was picked from 26,655 submissions, according to Chinese celebrity news site May Daily.

I happen to believe Mr Wu when he says he had no intention of riping off Gumby. But the similarity is amusing all the same.

It's not like China doesn't have a reputation for intellectual property theft. As the New York Times recently reported, Shanghai's bootleg DVD shops, a Chinese staple, have gone temporarily underground (or at least behind false walls) while the world's eye is trained on the city. This is exactly what happened in Beijing in 2008, as I wrote here. And just like in Beijing, once the Expo hoopla dies down, the shops will sprout right back up and the vast market of knock-off goods will kick back into gear.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The lifeblood of commerce, visualized

As a bit of a follow-up to the video I posted last week, here's what Europe's airspace looked like after flights resumed:

That, in essence, is what the circulatory system of $3.3 billion dollars looks like.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Could health care bill kill incentive to marry?

I came upon a potentially ominous analysis of the new health care bill that argues the bill's implementation in 2013 could spell the end of marriage. At least it would make marriage seem much less attractive for middle-income earners.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, who clearly was not impressed with the Democrats' epic push to reform the American health care system, writes about the bill:
"Two singles would each be able to earn $43,000 and still receive help to purchase health insurance, but if they got married and combined their earnings to $86,000, they would be far above the limit. As a married couple, the most they could earn and still get government help would be $58,000, a difference of almost $30,000, or 32%. This looks like a substantial disincentive to getting married, or to working while married."

I agree that this particular reality of the bill is less than desirable, and it's something I'll be forced to deal with if I ever make it back Stateside. It doesn't seem fair for the would-be brides and grooms of the lower middle class to get tangled up in the intersection of tax brackets. But the cutoff for government tax credits has to be somewhere, doesn't it?

I'd also be willing to bet that workers earning a salary of 40-50 grand would have jobs that provide health benefits anyway, and, as so many health-care-reform opponents frequently pointed out, most Americans are happy with the health plans they currently have.

Ms Furchtgott-Roth has a point that workers at this unfortunate crossroad who are thinking of marriage will have a tricky decision to make. What I am unclear about is how employer-provided health insurance is affected by these tax credits and whether or not employers are somehow let off the hook if their employees are receiving credits. At what point are employers required to start paying a fine if they're not providing insurance, and is the insurance employers provide necessarily better or worse than what can be bought with credits? No one ever said this wasn't complex... any ideas out there?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A new look

So I've been doing a little bit of tinkering with the layout of this blog thing. I thought this one looked nice -- clean and simple with comfortable space to breathe. (I got the idea to tinker after I saw this post from Mashable, which directed me to Deluxe Templates, the creator of this layout.)

Whether or not this inspires more consistent output on my end remains to be seen. The truth is, I post more to my Twitter account these days (see here, or over there --> ). My thoughts of late are more of the micro variety, I guess.

And while we're housekeeping, as they say, the Leaner's old address at UBC has been wiped from existence. That is what was causing some of the trouble you may have experienced trying to access this address a while ago (long story). I will hopefully be moving some of the more interesting content from that address over here, but who knows when I'll get to it all. But if you happen to have any links to that old address, do please update and direct the link this way. Thanks.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

With one modest belch, our arrogance is swept aside

It is easy to forget amid the saturated media coverage that the plume billowing from Iceland is more than just a monumental inconvenience to millions of passengers and a thorn in the side of businesses around the world. It is also a profound reminder of our insignificance and utter submissiveness to geological rumblings.

An editorial from the Observer posted on the Guardian's website takes a meditative step back, and it's a thought worth repeating:

By colonising the space above our heads and above much of our continent, the eruption provides a reminder of our status in relation to our planet and over which we have arrogantly seized stewardship. We imagine ourselves its master and yet with one modest belch it hems us into our little island, sweeping instantly from the skies the aeroplane, which we consider to be an example of the irrepressible genius of our species... It would be crippling to retain that kind of perspective on a daily basis – anyone who set their watch by geological time would never get out of bed – but a glance at ourselves in proportion to the universe is salutary on occasion... We cannot blame the volcano, only observe how liberating it is sometimes to be powerless before nature.

On a side note, the timing of the massive halting of much of the world's air traffic is interesting (to me) because it comes just a few days after I saw this video (below), which is pretty cool-looking regardless. I wonder how different it would look these days.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I do not exist

I was excited to fill out the census this year. For the first time, I'd be counted as a real person, not just some hanger-on.

But as it turns out, the Census Bureau does not deem me worthy of inclusion in its decennial tally. As an American expat living abroad, I, for all statistical intents and purposes, do not really exist. Even though I am an American passport-holder (now with a new biometric chip, since my old passport went through the washing machine) and fully plan to vote in the November elections, by taking up residence overseas I am essentially a castaway for the next decade. When it comes to the census, my status is less than that of an illegal immigrant.

Apparently it's too complicated and expensive to count people like me in the census. According to a Wall Street Journal article last year, the Census Bureau examined the possibility of distributing census forms to Americans overseas, but decided it wasn't worth the cost or the headache.

I suppose losing some constitutional rights are just a fact of life for those of us who choose to reside outside US borders. I've managed to get myself counted by having my parents fill me in as a third resident at their house in Northern California. That is my permanent address after all, and is the district in which I'll be voting. But a hanger-on I remain.

Still, I'm surprised the bureau doesn't at least count absentee ballots in this whole process. But then I'm no demographer.

I also want to fill out the census just to spite those idiots that are convinced the census is some sort of leftist conspiracy. It's embarrassingly absurd. Even Karl Rove says it's OK to fill out the forms.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tender Ankles: A snap shot of health care in Singapore

An article in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago looked at Singapore's health care system in comparison it to the US model. Among other things, it said:
Singapore spends less than 4 percent of its GDP on health care. We spend 17 percent (and Singapore's somewhat younger population doesn't begin to explain the difference). Matching Singapore's performance in our $15 trillion economy would free up $2 trillion a year for other public and private purposes.

Impressive. As the article says, adopting all of Singapore's practices would not really work for American patients -- the country's notoriously intrusive tendencies in personal matters is nothing to admire.

But here's a little anecdote, just for matters of comparison. Earlier this month, I tweaked my ankle playing basketball. I knew it was nothing serious, but a few days later it was still a bit tender . So I decided to see the doctor, just to put my mind at ease.

This is something I would never even consider doing in the US -- peace of mind is not worth the however-many-hundred dollars a 10-minute doctor visit would cost. Such exorbitant cost is not something I have to worry about here, though.

I showed up to the clinic without an appointment and had the doctor look at the ankle. As I suspected, nothing a few more days of rest wouldn't fix. He gave me some cream to rub on the muscle to make it feel better. Since I was there anyway, I asked him about a wart on my toe I've had for a while. He gave me something for that too. The grand total when I left, including all medication, was three Singapore dollars -- less than two US dollars.

In the US, I would have spent half an hour or more filling out gratuitous paperwork, waited another 20 minutes for the doctor to see me, probably gotten an X-ray "just to be safe" because the doc doesn't want to get sued, and who knows what else. One thing's for sure -- I would have felt a lot worse after I saw the bill than I did when I went in.

I doubt Singapore has the best health-care system in the world, maybe not even one of the best. But it sure beats what's on offer Stateside.

And one more thing to respect about the way things are done on this side, from the Post piece:
In Singapore, if a child is obese, they don't get Rose Garden exhortations from the first lady. They get no lunch and mandatory exercise periods during school.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

How Vancouver won the green medal

The Vancouver Winter Games have come to a close, and the Canadians did indeed "own the podium", just as they set out to do. Good for them.

The 2010 Games have been billed as a great success, probably the most-watched winter event in history (though die-hard Olympic skeptic Dave Zirin obligingly challenges the merits of this particular edition).

VANOC has also declared this to have been the "greenest Olympics ever", and they're probably right, even though I can't imagine the 1896 Games belched nearly as much carbon into the air as any modern iteration. Regardless, the notion of green Games doesn't really mean much these days.

Still, there were valiant efforts to reduce the Olympic footprint. The odd-looking, wavy medals are probably the best example -- they're comprised of gold from recycled e-waste, an innovative use of one of our most daunting environmental scourges. Have a look (via Motherboard.TV):

Whatever the level of green-ness at the Vancouver Games, you can be sure it will trump the next Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where environmental degradation is already running rampant -- only one of many problems facing Sochi.

And speaking of e-waste and Vancouver, here's something from the J-school students at my alma mater, UBC, that is quite old but always worth knowing about. It's a Frontline investigation into what happens to the e-waste from North America after it leaves the continent (it goes to impoverished areas of Africa and Asia) as well as the potential national security questions the practice of exporting e-waste raises (not to mention environmental and human security). Watch the video here.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The only thing controversial about the Super Bowl was the music

One thing is obvious after watching the Super Bowl: Sean Payton has balls. The interception return might have been the play of the game, but the onside kick was the decision of the game, hands down, and was key in setting a second-half tone that allow the Saints to win. Awesome.

I watched the game at Chili's in Singapore (no baby back ribs or Dunder Mifflin staff that I could see). Shockingly, this and another place were the only venues that seemed to be showing the game on the entire island. The other place was booked solid days in advance, and there was standing room only at Chili's.

One guy I sat near was peeved that The Who were playing halftime. Not because they're washed-up has-beens -- he adamantly believed an "American band" should play the Super Bowl. He must have said it four or five times. It's a comment that's hardly even worth refuting. Never mind the fact that the game strives to attract a global audience, or that half the commercials are from non-American companies. "At least it's not U2," he said. Sigh...

Far more worrisome is the alleged plagiarism of a White Stripes song on an Air Force recruitment ad. The Air Force denies any intent to, as the White Stripes allege, "re-record and (use) without permission" the band's song Fell in Love With a Girl, saying an outside company was responsible for creating the soundtrack to the commercial (which has since vanished from the web, from what I can tell). It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Will the US Air Force be the new Men at Work?

As for the pre-game controversy over the Super Bowl ads, here are my thoughts.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

CBS's obvious double standard for a Super Bowl of irresistible storylines

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I watched more NFL games this year living in Singapore than I have any year I lived in North America. That's the power of a DVR and a night shift -- wake up and tear through three games in about three hours, all before work.

But even the casual fan can be excited about what's on tap for the Super Bowl this weekend. The storylines are innumerable and captivating.

The commercials, of course, are always part of the Super Bowl story, but this year the pre-Bowl hype has reached new heights. It all started with Tim Tebow's Focus on the Family spot. Lefties and women's groups were in an uproar that CBS would allow such a controversial message on the airwaves during the big game. Let us watch the game free of politics, they implored.

I don't really have a problem with athletes expressing their political beliefs(douchebags like Paul Shirley aside). For the most part, I think people in prominent positions should use their status to make the world a better place (even if I happen to disagree with their methods).

What I do take issue with is the obvious double standard CBS employed when deciding who and who doesn't get a piece of their precious air space. I wrote about it here, at the Straits Times blog.

(I will also say that I'm bummed I won't be able to watch any of these ads during the game. The stupid simulcast keeps the rest of the world locked out. Even Canada doesn't get to see the commercials. And there might be some good ones this year -- I've heard the Simpsons have a spot (Coke, I think) and I hear LeBron's McDonald's ad reprises the classic Jordan/Bird "nothing but net" spots. Sure, I could watch them online after the fact, but that just seems like a waste of time.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Satan's response to Pat Robertson, the dark lord's faithful servant

You've probably heard by now Pat Robertson's "pact-with-the-devil" comments regarding the devastation in Haiti, and gagged with disdain (but, sadly, not disbelief).

The callousness is unthinkable, but fortunately the Devil himself -- somehow channeled through a woman in Minnesota and onto the pages of the Star Tribune -- has responded to Robertson. (Since letters to the editor tend to have short life in cyberspace, here's the text of the letter reprinted in full):

Dear Pat Robertson, I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll. You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract. Best, Satan


And in another welcome rebuke to Robertson, the consummate Christian extremist, here's former Sacramento Kings center and prominent Haitian activist Olden Polynice talking to The Nation's Dave Zirin:

DZ: I have to ask you your thoughts about Pat Robertson saying the earthquake happened because Haiti made a pact with the devil for independence.

OP: Pat Robertson can suck a big one--you can quote me on that. He is not a man of God and shouldn't claim to be. And you can quote me on that. Please.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You can't mosh to this -- spending time onstage with Fugazi

I am a man of many regrets. I cringe when I hear these optimistic types proclaim they have no regrets in life. If that's really the case then they are either too simply satisfied or they are deluding themselves.

My list of regrets could fill volumes, but I'm focussed on one in particular at the moment: the fact that I never got to see Fugazi play live. The extent of the regret is somewhat tempered by the fact that I can't remember any specific time they were nearby and I made a conscious decision not to go. But it's a life failure all the same. (Maybe a lifetime of abstaining from substance will allow them to bust out on the road again sometime, but you can only expect so much from a group that must be pushing 50.)

But I did just get a bit of a flavor of what one of their shows might have been like, even beyond the essential "Instrument". It's a compilation of stage banter, sans music, just 40 minutes of the guys castigating moshers and just being general badasses. It doesn't sound like much, but how can you not get a kick out of hearing Ian MacKaye say things like "I'm wearing an inordinate amount of Ben Gay" and muse on the importance of democracy (in this case, an audience petition to get the band to turn the venue lights off). It's really quite entertaining.

Check it out if you have a chance or have 40 minutes of menial work to do (cleaning the bathroom, in my case). I'm sure it pales in comparison to actually being at a show, but at least it will remind you what a legendary outfit they are/were and, if you're like me, what an unfillable void you have in your life.

I heard about it from the Pitchfork blog, which will direct you here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Another smashing benefit and bash in the little town of Washington

You haven't been to a party till you've been to a Buck Rainey party.

I've been to a few, mostly back when they were held at the Peppermill in Reno (the winter versions, anyway). But 2009 was my first experience at the Washington Party, spawn of Peppermill.

Postmaster Buck -- chief mail sifter for the little town of Washington -- is the consummate host, and he goes all out.

After trekking to Reno got too cumbersome, with the oft-impassable Donner Pass limiting attendance, Buck decided to bring his year-end bash back to Nevada County -- and he brought the casino along with him. Buck built by hand a regulation-size craps table, a blackjack table and a roulette table. Once a year, he lugs all of them into the dining room at the Washington Hotel and sets up the sweetest casino the sleepy little town has seen in centuries. (See the pics of Buck building the tables and more information about Buck's party-planning at The Wild Buck website (login: "guest" pass: "friend").)

Friends come from far and wide to gamble freely and imbibe deeply. Nevada City's harpist sensation Joanna Newsom and her beau, SNL's Andy Samberg, are regular attendees. Washington's population comes close to doubling on that night, and it's quite likely that the hotel (and bar) makes more money on that single night than it does during any single month the rest of the year.

Sure, it's an excuse for everyone to party like only Nevada City crits know how -- uproariously. But in the end, it's a big benefit for the host town. The hotel rakes in fistfuls of cash, sure, but all the gambling benefits go to the town council. Some $800 was donated this year. It will help pay for the town's electric bill and go towards building a new stone sign at the city limits.

This year's bash is still in the earliest of planning stages, but if you are anywhere near Nevada County around Christmastime 2010, it is an event not to be missed.

Seeking a creative spark in 2010

I have just returned to Singapore after three weeks in lovely Northern California. I've said it before, and now, once again: I'll take a pine tree over a palm tree any day (though I fall in love all over again with the "live oaks" every time I'm in NorCal).

It's a new year, and for the first time I can remember I've jumped on the old resolution bandwagon. In addition to studying Chinese at least five times a week (I'm currently on once in 12 days), I really want to get my writing gears back in working order, as they seem to have rusted to a halt.

Quite simply, my mind has gone fallow, and it frightens me. My level of inspiration is stuck at zero. I feel like my vocabulary is shrinking, not growing, and that anything resembling a creative peak that I may have had has long past.

I've been feeling this way for months. But it was a conversation a few days after Christmas that really got me self-evaluating. I was talking to someone I've known for years at a party in the little town of Washington (more about the party here). I was trying to talk to her about my life and current interests when she looked at me in mild disbelief and told me plainly: "You've lost your spark."

It was a rather jarring reality unexpectedly thrust in my face, but I could not disagree. She had me nailed.

So please forgive this public reckoning with myself. I'm hoping I can, in 2010, rekindle whatever "spark" I once had and kick this dearth of inspiration. Perhaps it'll require a change in my physical environment, or maybe just an adjustment of attitude. I'm trying to read more fiction and plan to buy a guitar, see if those things help me tap into some dormant creative juices. But this will be a real undertaking, akin to self-reinvention. If anyone has any advice on how to proceed, I'm eager to hear.