Sunday, 9 June 2013

What would Austin Powers do?

 For me, my super hero is, and always will be, Austin Powers.
Austin Powers, from the sixties, who travels through time to haunt his arch enemy, Dr Evil. Austin Powers, who is challenged to readjust his sixties values to other eras.

A pursuit for justice, conquering all obstacles in a cunning and creative way. Austin will always find his way out, and teaches us useful things while being on his quest.

For instance, he teaches us about laws of economics. Take inflation. Did you know that 1 million USD in the 1960s is now worth 100 billion USD?

But also, more fundamental life lessons are not avoided, as can be seen in this scene from 'Goldmember' where Nigel Powers (Michael Caine) states the following on culture: "There are only 2 things I can't stand in this world: people who are intolerant of other people's cultures, and the Dutch."
Me in my awesome Austin outfit

Now me being Dutch, I could easily be sidetracked by the 'Dutch' remark. But I am sure that he has nothing against the Dutch in general, and that he is probably only emotional about this topic because of a one time indigestion after eating overly mature Gouda Cheese. No, the point here is that living in another country makes you so painfully aware of how relative your own culture is. And therefore, that a cheese sandwich is not necessarily the preferred choice of lunch all around the world.

To reduce intercultural misunderstanding, it is also important to learn other languages, as is effectively illustrated in a scene where subtitles are misread, and body parts are named that should not have been named. The moral of the story being: if only Austin had learned Japanese, this awkward situation could have been avoided.

Now there are a few points where Austin and myself fundamentally disagree. But they really all revolve around opinions on body hair and the use of deodorant.

For all other topics I can rely on Austin. Whenever I am stuck in a difficult situation, and there seems no way out, I just ask myself: What would Austin Powers do? In real difficult situations, I always put on my Austin Powers outfit to get the right feel. I do look quite cool in that, which, in all fairness, is largely due to the lush fake hair.

If only I could get the Austin Powers version of one of those Superman-revolving-doors. A revolving door where you go in on one end dressed like a nerd, and get out on the other end dressed in red briefs over blue tights, and a cape.

But I guess I should have chosen that other super hero for that to happen.


Monday, 3 June 2013

What the Hell? - Thank you readers!

I received the message that my Blog has been chosen as a finalist for the Singapore Blog Award.

I had subscribed for this myself, I still remember how it happened.
 I had just come back from the gym,  where I had run a solid 15 mins on the tred mill and where I stationary-biked until I was warned by the built-in computer that my heart rate was too high. I was tired, yet  satisfied. I had pushed my boundaries. I looked in the mirror, feeling happy about how I conquered my laziness. It was in this rush of victory that my girlfriend pointed out there was a Singapore Blog Award. I decided to subscribe.

I found out however that there were defined categories where the blog should fit into. But I realized that the photos I had put up would not nearly make it suitable for the 'Photos' categorie, nor would my cool helmet remark and cycling jersey make it fit the 'Fashion' category. I could not make it fit 'Travel' even though I am a foreigner, so a traveler by default. Or 'Food', although I did mention local food several times.
Fortunately, my eyes were caught by the 'What the Hell' category. A title that adequately describes the content of my Blog. Needless to say, it was in this category that I subscribed.

Contrary to the expectations of me, my brother, my girlfriend, my close friends and all vague acquaintances,  I then was informed that my blog is one of the finalists for the What the Hell category!

I checked out some of my competitors in this underrated category.
I noticed that most of them are quite pointless.
Yes, I am facing tough competition.

Now I hope you will find my blog the most pointless of them all.

I hope you will vote for me (Click here)!

Unfortunately, only Singapore residents can vote (ID number required). The phone number does not have to be real (you can even put '#' in)

but if I don't win.....What the Hell?

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Urban Cycling: Swallow your pride

At the start of the OCBC cycling tour
Being of Dutch origin, I have cycled pretty much all of my life. I vaguely remember learning to cycle (without side wheels) when I was 5 years old,  and since then it has always been an essential part of my life. I rode urban bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, recumbent bikes, and OK yes.... motorbikes. I did beat Dutch wind, got frozen and soaked in Dutch rain, and I climbed Swiss mountains. I cycled in snow, rain, hail. I cycled in -15ÂșC, with so many clothes on that  I could hardly move. I cycled, ploughing with my mountain bike through 30 cm of fresh snow, where the inevitable crash resulted in a soft, silent landing. If it weren't for the ice cold melting snow running down my back, the crash was not even a bad experience. 

So conquering Urban Singapore Roads only seemed a logical next step. Less windy than Holland, less mountains than Switzerland, and less cold then pretty much anywhere in the world. What makes it a real sportive adventure however is the combination of 1 million cars, driven by 1 million impatient drivers, on a 710 square km surface area. And virtually no cycling lanes. Total bike control, eyes in the back of your head and willingness, no a WISH to sweat a lot are absolute prerequisites for even thinking of cycling in Singapore.

I finally decided to buy a bike, a foldable bike, a Brompton bike. I am a big fan of the Brompton foldable bike, but I would like to start off with the fact that I am not funded by Brompton by any means. Which I believe is a big injustice. Because I love my Brompton. It is relatively fast: 25-28 km/h average is achievable, once in shape. And it folds into ridiculously small proportions. I put it in the boot of taxis. I take it in the subway. I fold it and put it under the table at the hawker centre. The question 'is that a bike'? comes up all the time. And a demonstrative folding or unfolding puts a smile on many faces.
Folded Brompton
Two Bromptons stowed under the table
The downside of the Brompton Folding Bike is that it is a folding bike. So the coolness factor kind of suffers. It ranks in the 'luke-warm' category at the most. It IS a folding bike. I try to make up for that by wearing a cool helmet and some mean shades. I also practiced an 'I-ain't-taking-no-shit-from-nobody' face in front of the mirror. That did not help though. In order to survive on a bicycle in Singapore traffic you have to take a lot of shit from everybody.

My girlfriend, who is from Singapore, had taught me to swallow my pride when going on the road. "Don't expect to get your right of way at any given time". Also, she taught me that if you go straight on a big crossing with filter lanes for left and right, and stay in the middle lane as you are legally supposed to, the cars that want to turn left will honk at you. Because they have to slow down for you. And they don't like to slow down for you, as there is always a next traffic light to race to. 
When the honking in that situation actually happened to me for the first time, I could not help laughing because of the predictability!

However, things are changing in Singapore. More and more Singaporeans realize that a bicycle is actually a good means of transportation in an urban environment. Clean, healthy and not causing any traffic jam. Also, the Singapore government is building so called Park Connectors. These are separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians that cut through more remote areas and are an absolute pleasure to ride on.

And there is the yearly OCBC cycling tour, where everything from serious road racing to leisurely foldies cycling is meticulously planned. There were some 11000 cyclists this year, and I participated in the foldies ride. It was a fantastic experience, with a strong 'we' feel. Even the expressway was blocked for the occasion. 
For a few hours, I could imagine a bicycle friendly Singapore. A Singapore with cool folding bicycles and non-honking cars.

Until that time comes, I will cycle the Singapore roads with no pride, a cool helmet and a smile to any honking car. 

Cycling on the expressway

Monday, 25 March 2013

Annoyance #1: Aircon:  Submission to the Central Controller

One of the reasons for me to go to Singapore was its warm, tropical climate. Sipping fresh coconut juice under a palm tree,  a dip in the blue water of the pool, eating a fresh mango. Just the idyllic picture a westerner has of tropical life.
Although the coconut  and mango bit are in fact true, I severely underestimated the resentment that Singaporeans feel towards their own climate. And the fact how efficiently they banned the climate out of daily life. Through Airconditioning. Or Aircon, as it is referred to locally.
Singapore offices and public spaces can be cold, very cold. 
I have been in meetings where I wore a t-shirt, a shirt, a cardigan, a fleece and a scarf to stay warm. (OK the scarf bit came from my phantasy)

Here is an interesting quote I found in this article from the New York times (see also the quotes further below):

'Some people contend that Singapore suffers from air-conditioning overkill. Engineers say offices here typically keep their thermostats at about 72 degrees, making cardigans part of many an office wardrobe.'

Please note that 72 degrees F (22 Celcius) is on the warm end of the Aircon spectrum, often temperatures can drop below 20 Celcius. This is OK when you wear a sweater, but very chilly when you wear summer clothes (shorts, t-shirt, flip-flops)

Yes, I have a whole cardigan collection at the office, corresponding the the room where I have meetings. The lighter ones I can wear in my own office, while the thick, heavy duty ones are for the notoriously cold offices. 
Now here comes the part I find more difficult to understand: Aircon temperature is regarded as the weather, it is just the way it is, you have to accept it. Whenever you are freezing your butt off in a theater, cinema, office or restaurant, and mention this to a member of the staff, you always get the same answer: 'cannot change it, is centrally controlled'. The employees do not seem to have any influence over it. It is also consistent with Singapore Airlines flights, that are by far the coldest flights I've ever experienced. But the Singapore Airline passengers know this, apart from some poor, freezing tourists in shorts and t-shirts. The regular passengers come prepared with thick sweaters and sometimes even coats. They know that the temperature is Centrally Controlled.
 Reflecting on this, I realize that apparently, in public places in Singapore there are no a thermostats with an 'up' and 'down' button. It is all done by the Central Controller. If the Central Controller were a person, you could ask that person to tone down the aircon a bit. If that were a possibility, obviously people would have done that. The Central Controller would push the 'temperature up' button a few times, and everybody would be comfortable. But that does not seem to be an option. So one can only deduct that the Central Controller is a superhuman entity, a mysterious being with a lame sense of humour.

But it is not only humour at the expense of freezing mortals that drives the Central Controller. There is more to it, and that has to do with Singapore's recent history.

'Shopping and dining in air-conditioned buildings became a mark of upward mobility. ''Escaping into A.C. was a way of escaping your past as a poor country,'' said Chua Beng Huat, a sociology professor at the National University of Singapore.'

And in a modern, rich country, even the deceased deserve aircon at their eternal resting place:

'For some, air-conditioning is a matter of both life and death. At the Ji Le Memorial Park, $7,000 buys a his-and-hers niche where cremated remains rest in climate-controlled peace. ''Chinese are very superstitious,'' said a Ji Le caretaker, Rick Chu. ''Now they're enjoying the good life. After they pass away, they want to make sure they're still comfortable.'

You can even buy duvets in Singapore, including thick winter duvets. Yes in Singapore, where night temperatures rarely drop below 25 degrees C. Searching for an explanation, I was told that some people turn their aircon down to 16 degrees C, and then use the duvet to stay warm. The world upside down: You need to create the problem because you want to use the solution.

But aircon in Singapore is not about being cool or about absence of sweat. Aircon is about wealth, about development into the modern age. 

For this sense of wealth, the following guidelines apply:
Warm = Poor, sweaty, dirty
Cool = Good
Cold = Luxury
Freezing = Bathing in gold

The Central Controller understands these guidelines like nobody else.

Friday, 9 November 2012

This was getting really weird

I wanted to buy I hard drive. Or better said: I NEEDED to buy a hard drive, I needed to buy a 1 Tera Byte Hard Drive. My old one had ceased to be, and I have not made back ups from my computer since more than half a year, give or take a quarter. And going from 500 Mega Byte to 1 Tera Byte seemed only logical. Problem however is that buying a hard drive is as uninteresting to me as buying shoe polish, detergent, staples that fit my stapler, or the little tool you need to remove the staples after you accidentally stapled the wrong stack. It is simply not the kind of product you take home, unwrap and then indulge in a lively 6 hour back-up session.

I had been canvassing the different choices for a while, and in all fairness, the Sonys, WDs and Samsungs of this world have done a great job in attempting to make a sexy product out of it. Different colours, styles, robustness, add-on covers to personalize your cool 1 Tera Byte Hard Drive... For me however it is still a far stretch of the imagination that teenage kids these days would be impressed by this. "Dude, check out my new 1 Tera Byte Hard Drive. It backs up like crazy! And it has like, REALLY many many bytes".
Anyway... I finally got into the buying mood and stepped into a store called Challenger. I stood at the hard drive shelf for some 10 minutes, looking at all the choices. Narrowing it down to the 1 Tera Byte ones. Looking at the USB 2 ones. The USB 3 ones. The Thunderbolt ones. The shiny ones, the matte ones and the just-in-between ones. I finally opted for the Sony, in a cool brushed aluminum style (to impress my teenage nephews). It was S$149 (member) or S$179 (non-member). I had made my choice. I wanted this cool looking Sony Black Brushed Aluminium 1 Tera Byte Hard drive. But I did not want to become a member. I know what memberships mean in stores like this... tons of spam, 'personalized' brochures in your mail box ('a special offer for you, Mr Ben') and a customer card you need to carry around at all times, and that all for probably a one time purchase at the store.
I stood in line, proudly with my Sony Black Brushed Aluminium 1 Tera Byte Hard drive in my hands... tonight I would back up like I never backed up before! Mega Bytes would elegantly flow at light speed from my MacBook to my Sony 1 Tera Byte Hard Drive! I was really looking forward to this. When it was my turn, a friendly girl in her twenties served me. The inevitable 'You member?' question came.
'No' I said
'You want to become member?'
'No' I said
'You get a lot of advantage if you become member.'
'Thank you, but I do not want to become a member, I will pay the full price' I said.
This clearly was unheard of. Her colleague, from the next cashier, overheard this and came over.
'You get a free pen', she said,  'And a torch. And lower prices. And a fabric thing' (OK I do not think she said 'fabric thing', but she showed me a fabric thing). You pay 30 Dollars for membership, so same price in the end.'
'OK I see that, but I still want to pay without becoming a member' I said.
' But Sir, why would you do that, you can get the free goodies, including the fabric thing, plus membership for the same price'  the first girl said.
'Er.... I do no like to go through all this registration' I tried, really cornered now.
'No problem Sir, I can fill out the form for you'
'Look, I JUST want to pay without becoming a member, OK?'
'But Sir, you will pay the same price'
I did not want the membership, but these girls had paid a bit TOO much attention to the 'close the deal' part at their sales training.
It was clear they would not let me buy the hard drive without me becoming a member.

This was getting really weird. I realized I just entered a lose-lose situation.

Option 1: tell them to bugger off, that I wanted to pay the regular price for my Sony Black Brushed Aluminium 1 Tera Byte Hard drive WITHOUT becoming a member. But after all this, I had just made the internal decision that I did not want to buy at this store anymore. Or at any Challenger store in Singapore. Or any Challenger store anywhere. Or at any store that had any permutation of a subset of letters from the word 'Challenger' in its name.

Option 2: grasp my Master Card out of the girl's hand, saying 'I do not think I want to buy here' and walk out the store, facing a boring evening without exciting things like REALLY fast backups.

I made a split second choice between the two.

I should have made bold statements on consumer rights, on how the tyranny of customer loyalty programs touches the very essence of free hard disk choice, but instead I took
option 2.

The girls were speechless.

I am still looking for a good 1 Tera Byte Hard Disk.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Annoyance #2: Drivers

My #2 annoyance in Singapore may be related to the previous annoyance, as it has to do with people going from point A to B. I want to talk about drivers.

I do not drive in Singapore which I've explained in my previous blog. I explained that the prices of cars are just too high. Meanwhile, prices have gone up further; the COE (the piece of paper, valid for ten years, that you need to buy a car) costs S$86000/EUR56000. After this, you still need.... a car. I like Singapore very much, but not enough to donate that much tax money to the government.

Besides the costs, there is another reason for not wanting to drive here: the traffic is CRAZY! There seems to be a personality change that happens to Singaporeans when getting behind the wheel of a car. Suddenly, 3 millenniums of rich oriental culture, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism will be forgotten, and replaced by Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' principles. Needless to say, owning a bigger car than your neighbor is advantageous to sustain these principles.

A few types of behaviour are particularly striking.

The Tailgating/not signalling/not-let-anybody-in-your-lane cluster.
These three are closely intertwined. There seems to be an unwritten rule to leave a 1 meter space or less between cars. This is regardless of the speed. If, for some reason, you forget about this rule for a second, another car might quickly change lanes and take the position in front of you! The not-let-anybody-in-your-lane principle kicks in, as this cannot be tolerated in Singapore traffic. After all,  you would lose face and would be ridiculed for the years to follow. So the moment you see somebody signalling to get into your lane (yes, it is called YOUR lane for a reason!)  the only fitting response is to quickly accelerate to fill the space and prevent this evil act from taking place. This is where the three liter turbo charged engine is an indispensable tool, and I am sure this is part of the explanation for its popularity. Of course, your fellow drivers are not crazy. They too drive the Singapore roads daily. So they know that signalling to change lanes is as futile as asking for a napkin at a hawker centre. So the Singaporean driver will act swiftly and change lanes signal-free at the moment there is a small space available in the other lane, where one symbolic blink may be given right before completion of the maneuver.

Inability to stay within their lane
For many drivers, staying between the lines is a task that is difficult to master. I suspect those were the kids in kindergarten that screwed up at any color-by-numbers assignment, but were never corrected, as their proud parents saw that merely as a sign of borderless creativity. This borderless creativity however is less of an advantage in modern day traffic. These drivers see lines - even when double white - only as a friendly suggestion by the Land Transport Authority where they could possibly drive. After a multi-lane turn, they will make a random choice in which lane to continue after the turn. This, in combination with the tailgating, actually causes many accidents.

Excessive Honking
This is my personal strongest annoyance when it comes to traffic. I live downtown, opposite of Mount Elisabeth Hospital. As in any big city, traffic will sometimes come to a full stop for a while. But you would think that in the vicinity of a hospital, where people are not at their best, to put it mildly, and usually dying to get some sleep (pun not intended), drivers would refrain from honking. This however does not seem to stop anyone from expressing their annoyance by excessive honking. And I do not mean a short and clear honking signal, like to prevent a pedestrian to step in front of your car (I already explained the unpredictability of the pedestrian's behaviour), no I mean a continuous honking. This can be sustained sometimes for 10 seconds or more (scientifically measured using my 1987 Casio watch). The underlying assumption must be that the lorry driver with supplies at Paragon Mall will actually finish his maneuver faster when he hears the ominous sound. Or that the gridlocked crossing will miraculously clear by the cleansing power of the horn.

Witnessing all this behaviour from the back seat of a taxi is damaging enough to my blood pressure; I fear that if I would drive myself in Singapore, I would eventually lose my composure and drag a misbehaving fellow driver out of his car and tell him off. I would explain how irrational and dangerous his behaviour was, not proud of losing my temper, but happy that I would have contributed to safer roads in Singapore. Or at least that is how it would happen in my fantasy. In reality of course I would just use the horn for 10 seconds.

In Singapore these issues are now acknowledged, and the authorities wonder why the traffic behaviour and agression is so much worse than in other, much more congested cities like New York and Bangkok. Measures like refresher training and on-board video cameras are contemplated. Funny enough, they even use the small town of Drachten, Netherlands as an example!  (see article)

Meanwhile, I will rely on MRT and taxis and protect my blood-pressure.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Annoyance #3: Avoiding the Risk-Pedestrian

Is Singapore a perfect place? Almost.... Of course, at any place in the world there are big things and little things that are annoying. I thought it would be a good time to give you my top 3 annoyances, which will be the topic of my next 3 blogs. Today, at number three we find:


Ever since I have been living in Singapore, I keep on bumping into people. Walking down the street, or in shopping malls, requires a sharp eye and full concentration for a continuous sequence of pedestrian avoiding maneuvers. I tried to make an analysis of this, since beside being an annoyance, I hope it can be of help to those new to Singapore.
After thorough study, I must conclude that he major Risk-Pedestrians tend to fall in either one of the following categories:

The Impulse-Stopper
This is most tricky Risk-Pedestrian, and the cause of the majority of my pedestrian collisions. The Impulse-Stopper can and will, at random moments, decide to stop in the middle of a full stream of pedestrians. A look at the iPhone, a billboard, a store with an 'ON SALE' sign, a sudden thought..... the Impulse-Stopper will stop when he or she feels like it, without any look over the shoulder. When walking behind an Impulse-Stopper, the sudden stop requires a split-second reaction. One possibility is to stop immediately as well. This is risky, as the pedestrian behind you will now see YOU as the Impulse-Stopper and has to react. Another, more safe and effective maneuver is the quick-side-step-maneuver, fluently bringing your arm and shopping bag with the six-pack and bottle of wine behind you as you pass. The elegance of the quick-side-step maneuver varies greatly with the given reaction time and the available space.

A more innocent Risk-Pedestrian:

The Direction-Changer.
 The Direction-Changer can be on either side of you, walking at the same speed, and than suddenly change direction towards you. The Direction-Changer can usually be avoided by a subtle acceleration or deceleration.

The most challenging Risk-Pedestrian is:

The Collision-Seeker
The Collision-Seeker is the only Risk-Pedestrian that I believe has evil intent. The Collision-Seeker will, as implied by the name, seek a collision course. The Collision-Seeker however will not look at you, but she (they tend to be females) will stubbornly look down, and act as if she only sees the one meter in front of her. She pretends not to see you. But YOU know she saw you. And you know, that SHE knows that you know that she saw you. She seems to enjoy the thrill. The next few seconds are crucial; a miniature chicken race at 5 km/hr; if you both keep bluffing, you will collide. Who will change direction? Or, the ultimate humiliation, even stop? One has to give in.....Unfortunately I do not always win. But I am getting better at it!