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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Short stories v Novels v Movies: which to write, and how to go about it

My writing activities have evolved a little over the course of the year, compared to what I was concentrating on last year. Traditionally, I've focused on the traditional prose forms, ie short stories and novels, but this year I've been working more on movie plots, which I think (hope) will improve my storytelling skills overall.

To be honest, both the short stories and novels have been a little frustrating this year. I've been working on the same set of short stories for the last few years - the better part of a decade - without making much progress. One of them did get picked up by Spinetinglers.co.uk, a monthly contest, for which I'm super grateful - actual money for getting a story published somewhere! Someone at World Fantasy Con last year was even super nice when I mentioned it, saying that it meant I could actually call myself a writer now.

Only problem is that I haven't followed that initial success up with any further publications. I've submitted the hell out of a couple of other stories this year (probably racked up more submissions between those two than I have over the last few years combined, which should give an indication how much I was slacking on that front), but no bites. More frustrating, when I workshopped one of those stories, one of the pros kept suggesting magazines that I'd already subbed it to.

With the other stories, the ones that I haven't deemed ready for prime time, I'm stuck in another quandary: namely, do I go back and revise them once again, or do I give up on them? The reason I'm a little reluctant to give up on them completely is because I don't seem to have any short stories in me anymore - I eked one out last year, which was my first since 2010, but I'm not sure it's worth going back and revising. And I'm not sure any of the others are, either.

It's similar on the novels front. After spending three years drafting and re-drafting my "vampires vs superheroes in an epic fantasy setting" book (I still love the idea, btw), I hit an impasse that so drained my momentum that I ended up throwing the manuscript in the trunk (the metaphorical trunk, because it's on my hard drive, of course). I have another idea that's been percolating, and that reuses characters and settings from another trunk novel, but I haven't really had the brainpower to devote to it.

Which is why the movie treatments I've been working on have been so valuable. I finally picked up Robert McKee's Story a couple of years ago, which introduced me to the idea of formalized, three-act story structure. Following that, I also bought Screenwriting for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, which dismisses McKee as the domain of Greenwich Village-haunting intellectuals and lays out a very simplified story structure:

Act 1: Get a likeable guy stuck up a tree;
Act 2: Throw rocks at him;
Act 3: Get him down out of the tree.

Using that, and the script treatments that Lennon and Garant kindly publish at the end of their book, I've written up a few treatments of my own, and I feel like I'm starting to finally crack this story structure thing. After setting myself the goal of doing one each quarter, I feel like I've seen a visible improvement in how I move the characters and scenes along - I just finished the third last night, and it seems to have gone much more smoothly than the two before it.

My hope for the long-term is to use these skills in improving my novels - although if I could use them to break into screenwriting I'd be pretty happy too. I slightly question how slavishly we need to follow McKee's three-act structure, or Campbell's "Hero's Journey" template, when writing prose, but I'm kind of encouraged to know that two published authors I knew back in London said they used another screenwriting book, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, for their own structure.

As far as the short stories, I'm still deciding whether or not to give up on them completely. I think the idea that writers need to focus on them first has fallen by the wayside - although some writers, like Daniel Abraham or Myke Cole have taken that route, others have just skipped straight to novels, like Peter Brett and Joe Abercrombie. Not that I'm comparing myself to any of those four - I'm just using them to prove a point (and remind myself how much work I still have to do).

And all four writers prove Steve Martin's maxim of being so good that no one can ignore you. My shift from short stories to novels and then movies is in this same vein - as long as I prove I can write, does it really matter what form I write in first?

What's keeping me from giving up on short stories altogether, beyond the fact that I genuinely think I have some neat ideas in the ones I'm submitting/revising, is the advice from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. He points out how success frequently comes just after the moment of deepest crisis, when the successful person was on the verge of quitting. It may be silly, but it's what keeps me submitting the stories that I really think have potential - the next magazine I submit it to may be the one that takes it and sets me one step further on the road to success.

On the other hand, I don't really read a lot of short fiction (although I do have a collection of Ted Chiang stories on my Kindle, which I bought with the intention of studying the form from a writer who's widely held to be a master). I do read novels and watch movies though - so it feels like that's where I should be focusing my craft.

The main problem, when making decisions like this, is avoiding going in circles (as I just did above). Whichever happens, I can at least assure myself that I'm working toward the goal of living off my writing (and amassing immeasurable wealth and power in the process, of course). And as long as I'm working on it, I can hope to come back to the short stories or novels if my improving craft allows me to crack the problems that previously stopped me completely.

Fingers crossed!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Capital in the 21st Century: Using Piketty to Explain Soccer's Rising Inequality

Had a funny experience the other day at a conference I went to for work. During one of the networking breaks, I got to chatting with a Swedish guy about the not-particularly-work-related topic of soccer. I interrogated him about the state of the Swedish league, and was pleased to learn that unlike the bigger leagues in Europe, Sweden's isn't a one-, two- or three-horse race. Apparently (a quick look at Wikipedia has borne this out) seven different teams have won it since 2004.

Contrast this with the English Premier League, which has been won by three teams in that same period (Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea). In fact, since the English top-flight became the Premiership (and then the Premier League) in the 1992-93 season, it's been won by only five teams overall (Arsenal and Blackburn being the others). In Scotland, you have to go all the way back to 1985 to find a winner other than Celtic or Rangers.

Naturally, we didn't go that deep into the stats (although I'm sure we would have, if cell reception in the hotel had been better). But we did register the comparison, and the conversation swung into another direction when I noted that this concentration of titles, and the bad run of form Swedish teams have had in the Champions League, was just the same hollowing-out of the middle class that we've been seeing in, well, every single other facet of life.

Naturally this brought in discussions of Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century. Even though neither of us had read it, we marveled at how it's become beach-reading for a goodly number of the Western world's citizens, and at how applicable it is even beyond the normal realm of personal and national finances.

Because it's certainly true of soccer - leagues were generally more equal (er, Scotland aside), and so were the European club championships. But no club outside the top four leagues (England, Spain, Germany and Italy) has won the Champions League since 2004, when Porto won it, but even that was an outlier - the last one before them was Ajax in 1995. Not only did the title go to teams from seven different countries during the 1990s, but in 1991 the winner was Red Star Belgrade, of what was then Yugoslavia.

The fall of Communism may have been expected to reap benefits for Eastern Europe, but it certainly hasn't done so in football.

Contrast this with the Super Bowl: eight teams have won it since 2004, showing that the NFL has been even more equitable recently, as six teams won it in the 1990s. American sportswriters like to harp on this meme of the "socialist" NFL with the "capitalist" European leagues, but it's hard to fault them when you look at numbers like those. US leagues don't feature relegation, for one thing, and the last-placed team typically gets the first choice of the new crop of players coming out of colleges.

The interesting thing, at least in the Premier League, is that while the bottom three teams get relegated, they typically also get a bigger payout than the teams who placed just above them, who don't get any cash at all. This effectively makes relegation from the Premier League more desirable than hovering somewhere in the middle - and as evidence you could point to the fact that, of the promoted teams, one typically stays up, only to go down again a year or two later. This has been the case almost every year since the Premier League started up - of the three teams that get relegated, only two were among the teams that won promotion at the previous season's end.

You might argue that this polarization is good for fans - after all, it means that top talent like Ronaldo, Messi and Rooney (on those now-vanishingly rare occasions when Manchester United gets into the European tournaments) get to play against one another, making for more unforgettable games. Except that, at least when teams from the same country play each other, the result is typically more likely to be a low-scoring game or a dour 0-0 draw.

It's also bad for fans of teams from the smaller leagues. As my colleague pointed out, one of the reasons the Swedish league is so equitable is that each year the winner relies on a couple of standout young players. However, at the end of the season these players get lured away to a bigger, foreign league, where they typically warm the bench and are never heard from again. This means a league winner can't capitalize (there's that word again) on its success, whether at home or abroad.

Soccer, it turns out, is an excellent system for studying these effects - you can see how quickly a massive infusion of wealth turns into success, and how quickly success feeds on itself: look at both Chelsea and Manchester City, neither of whom had won the English league in about 50 years, before their respective sugar daddies showed up.

The trick now is for economists and governments to turn this knowledge into fixes that have real-world benefits. After all, the rise of inequality in soccer wouldn't be so frustrating if it weren't happening in parallel in people's daily lives.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Same Old Song

Because I'm something of an obsessive person, every once in a while I put myself through the process of listening to my entire music collection on iTunes. It's something I started doing back in college, when my music collection was smaller (and yet paradoxically, less portable): at the start of each quarter, I'd listen to all of my CDs in alphabetical order by artist, and I'd listen to each artists' albums in chronological order (because listening to all my Blur or Smiths CDs in alphabetical order is just crazy, amirite?).

This was workable because I only dragged around about 100 CDs in my carrying case, and because I listened to music constantly while I drove or studied. I kept up with this until I got iTunes and an iPod in 2006, although I'd shifted to doing it yearly by then. And the advantage of doing it on iTunes was that I could then keep track of which songs I listened to the most (told you I was obsessive).

The problem was, each year the whole sweep of my collection took longer and longer, because I was buying CDs pretty much constantly. I came to downloads pretty late, and most of those I actually did through Amazon or Spotify, rather than iTunes - no particular reason, except that after I got an Android phone I could put those MP3s on it, but not the files that iTunes converts into (iOS is a closed ecosystem, my ass).

Eventually I gave up on it, when I decided it was getting a little silly (and taking ages). The last time I did it was 2011, when it took almost six months.

Until this year! I figured moving across the world was a big life event, so I decided to mark it by listening to the whole collection again. And this time it took a full nine months.

That was partly because my music collection is a lot larger than it was three years ago (thanks to that full collection of 200+ Bach cantatas I got for Christmas one year), but also because listening to music has ceased to become an automatic activity for me. iTunes lets you keep track of a lot of metadata, including the last time you played a song. A lot of my music has sat unlistened to since that previous sweep, so I could see that at the time I was playing music early in the morning, when I was getting ready for work, and late in the evening as I spent my customary hour of reading before bed with my laptop on.

This year, I noticed, my music listening was limited to pretty much the weekends and a couple hours each night after work (when I wasn't watching Netflix). You'd think that with my increased driving I'd be able to make up for that, but no - my car's CD player is broken, and the car's so old anyway that there's not much point in fixing it.

But the kicker is that in the last nine months or so I haven't bought any new music. Sure, I received a couple of CDs for Christmas, but haven't felt the need to go looking for anything new since then - I'd heard "Unbelievers" from Vampire Weekend's new album on the radio a bunch, and figured I'd pick that up, but it appears I'm one step ahead of myself, as I discovered it was already in my iTunes when I got to V in my collection.

It's a little depressing when I think about it. I've got music to soundtrack pretty much every era of my life - high school and earlier, my first year of college and my last, the years after I graduated, and the year I spent here in Palo Alto temping and applying to grad schools, for example. But nothing really stands out from this year, which suggests that 2014 will kind of occupy a blank spot in my memory in future. Apart from that Vampire Weekend song, there hasn't been much on the radio, because like me, Live 105 is clearly more interested in music from the 90s than in finding anything new (burn!).

And yes, that's probably the real issue here. A few years ago, around the time of that really terrible Grizzy Bear concert, I got bored with what was going on in indie rock. There's only so much you can do with an electric guitar, bass, drums and/or synths, and the bands of the last couple of years have been on a crusade to show the limitations of that combo. Even (especially) the bands that seemed so promising in 2000-2005, like the Libertines or Bloc Party, have had so much trouble with making their subsequent albums interesting, that I've frankly given up on them. The last new band I got excited about was the Hold Steady, but they're hardly new, are they?

So is it any wonder that I gave up on indie in favor of classic rock, hip hop and classical? The problem is that, as I said, I'm not going automatically to listen to music whenever I'm home. Even Spotify has turned into just another place to keep playlists of stuff I already like (and don't try to convince me that Pandora or Songza are suitable replacements; I want to listen to the song in my head, not something vaguely similar thrown up by the computer algorithm).

Music is just hard to keep up with, now that I haven't been paying attention for a while. I could read Pitchfork every day, but it doesn't seem all that friendly to someone like me - lord knows I'm not averse to left-field stuff, but at least in the guitar-based stuff, there's a big gap between what I find innovative and what they find innovative (I swear I'll strangle the next person who says Grizzly Bear's albums are "composed", like classical music).

(As an aside, no, I don't hate Grizzly Bear - just their third album. I realized the distinction when I got to G this year - Yellow House and Veckatimest are fine, but Shields is a 48-minute sleeping pill.)

I suppose this shift in my attitude toward music is just part of the aging process. I've heard that you always stick with the music you loved when you were 24, an age that, let's be honest, has pretty much already disappeared from my rear-view mirror. But I just wish there was some motherlode of exciting, new music that I could discover - previous discoveries were Britpop in the 90s, the wave of indie that the Strokes kicked off in 2001, and the stuff coming out of the Midwest and Brooklyn from around 2006-07, like the Hold Steady and Sufjan Stevens.

I think those of us that really care about music are drawn to the stuff that tells us we're not alone, that someone else has the same feelings, fears and doubts and pleasures, as we do. It'd be nice to find someone new who can tell me that, rather than revisiting the stuff I already know I like.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Excelsior: Where Have All the Good Comics Gone?

I used to be into comics, but about ten years ago I gave up on them, for reasons of budget and limited space to store them (this was the period when I moved from Southend to California to New York and back to London). At the time I was reading more of the post-superhero stuff, like Preacher, the Authority and Planetary, but as those ended or turned shit or moved to uncertain publishing schedules, I let them drop off.

And on the occasions when I'd flip through a Superman or X-Men comic, I'd be reminded why I stopped - they were still telling the same stories they'd been telling in the 90s. And I've never liked that argument that comics are for kids, but the really mainstream stuff hadn't gotten any more sophisticated, just more violent.

So I remain a casual, dipper-into rather than a proper fan. It seems a little odd to say, seeing as how comics are everywhere on the pop culture landscape. Of the four movies I've seen at the cinema this year, three were based on Marvel characters (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy). I gave up on Agents of SHIELD but started on Arrow, and still have seasons 2-5 of the Walking Dead to catch up on. And one of the videogames on my shelf, waiting to be finished, is Batman: Arkham City.

It's clear that even if I'm not reading the source material, I'm still reasonably conversant with it, even if I can't name the current line-up of the X-Men or the Justice League. So why am I not interested in what's going on in comics, apart from that stuff I've listed above?

DC is probably the main culprit for my lack of interest. I went through a big DC phase in the early to mid-90s, between when I discovered Keith Giffen's Justice League run and when I discovered classic SF novels. They didn't always have the flashiest artists, the way first Marvel and then Image did, but they had the best writers. DC, remember, was the publisher of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan and Garth Ennis's Preacher. When they bought Wildstorm from Jim Lee, they gave a home to talents like Alan Moore, who revitalized the hell out of Lee's off-brand X-Men knockoff WildC.A.T.s and turned the imprint into a home for some of the best superhero comics on the scene at the time.

At around the same time, I'd say 1999 to 2001, Marvel was coming out of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and other disasters, and had just promoted Joe Quesada to editor-in-chief, on the strength of his run on Daredevil under the Marvel Knights sub-imprint. All of a sudden they were taking risks with their stories, and attracting talent like Garth Ennis for the rebooted, back-to-basics Punisher.

This all went with my theory that the pendulum of creativity would swing back and forth between DC and Marvel at the end and beginning of each decade. 1999 was when Warren Ellis was doing Transmet and turning StormWatch into the Authority and Planetary; a couple of years later, Garth Ennis was on the Punisher, telling some of the character's best stories, and Marvel had introduced MAX, a mature-readers label to explore more adult aspects of the characters.

A decade before, DC had been publishing the Sandman, Hellblazer and the rebooted Doom Patrol; by the early 90s, the pendulum had shifted to Marvel with Jim Lee's run on the X-Men, and would probably have continued that way, if Lee and a bunch of other artists hadn't defected to create their own characters at Image.

But now it feels like DC's stuck having a universe-wide event every summer, and is rebooting its continuity every couple of years. They went from Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, which was meant to corral the preceding 50 years into a single timeline, to Zero Hour in 1994, which intended to clean up the inconsistencies that had cropped up here and there. But then they had the Identity Crisis event, followed by Infinite Crisis in 2005 and then Final Crisis in 2008, which seems to have reset continuity to something resembling the pre-1985 continuity. These days, very little that I see from DC is in any way appealing - it's all the same stuff that I was seeing in the 90s.

Marvel also seems to have toned down their risk-taking, in favor of generating properties for Hollywood. I'm aware of the new female Thor and black Spider-Man, of course (the latter being only in the spin-off Ultimate Spider-Man continuity), but then you also get the brou-ha-ha over hiring Italian erotic comics artist Milo Manara to lovingly render Spider-Woman's butt, so it's clear the House of Ideas isn't firing on all cylinders.

These days the creativity (and the creator-owned work) seems to have all migrated to Image, which is actually a pretty positive development, since they're no longer doing knockoff versions of Marvel teams. And I guess that's not unreasonable to expect - after 70 years (for Superman or Batman) or 40 years (for Spider-Man and the X-Men) of publishing, it becomes harder to tell interesting, novel stories. It probably helps that most of what Image publishes isn't meant to run forever - I suppose the Walking Dead will end when Rick Grimes dies, for instance.

But it's a shame to see the two biggest players in comics reduced to such a void of creativity. All their efforts seem to be going, as I said, into movies and TV, with mixed results: Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight was great, but Man of Steel was little more than a two-hour headache. And Guardians of the Galaxy felt like an acid trip, but with a less-coherent plot. I could go on about the various TV shows both companies have spawned, but suffice to say those are generally hit and miss.

Or maybe I'm just an old fart lamenting that comics today aren't as good as the ones I enjoyed when I was in middle school or high school. It just seems to me that, in this environment of near constant entertainment, kids who want a good story aren't going to comics - because the good stuff is being repackaged (sometimes disastrously) for the movies.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

#Indyref: They Think It's All Over

So Scotland has voted "no" to independence from the UK. Alex Salmond has resigned, the rest of the UK is celebrating (apart from the small bits that are rioting) and talk has turned to "devo max", which means further devolution for the UK's constituent parts. All in all, it's been a pretty exciting week in British politics, and for nationalist politics in general.

Not being Scottish, the vote didn't mean a great deal to me either way. On the other hand, as someone who only managed to escape the Empire's clutches less than a year ago, I could hardly begrudge the Scots wanting to do the same thing. That is to say, had I been a Scottish resident, I'd probably have voted yes.

More seriously, I've been hearing about the Scots' march toward devolution and referendum for over ten years, so it was interesting to finally get to an inflection point, where the parties involved would actually get to argue their respective cases and the people would get to decide. Looking at it from a world-historical perspective, it was also interesting to imagine how peacefully the process would play out - after all, as recently as 2010 Adam Roberts's New Model Army imagined that Scottish independence would be accompanied by bloodshed.

But I find it interesting that the question can even be raised. History is full of groups of people fighting to be free of a particular colonial or ruling power - having the question settled by the people has been tried, to my knowledge, only in very few places (Quebec's the only one that springs to mind right now).

I also believe the question will come up again. From what I read, this time the question was defeated by older voters (check this link from the Guardian for a demographic breakdown), and by the questions that were raised around currency and long-term economic viability. I can imagine future generations of Scottish leaders being able to answer these questions better - this is likely a big part of why Alex Salmond has resigned, so that the drive for independence won't be held back by being forever associated only with his name.

The other interesting point is the expected further devolution, what's being called "devo max". Some were saying this third option should have been on the ballot to start with - it's unclear to me whether Salmond or David Cameron is to blame for it not being included, but it looks like it'll happen anyway.

I'll be curious to see what form devo max takes: whether it means more oil revenues to Scotland, and whether it will mean a regional parliament for England (which is the only home nation that doesn't have one). I'll also be curious to see what comes of devolution and moves for independence if the UK ends up voting to leave the European Union.

I expected that the UK leaving the EU would be good for an independent Scotland - but in either case, I'm hoping whoever spearheaded the "Better Together" campaign this year will be available in 2017 to do the same job and keep Britain linked to the continent. Because that's a form of devolution that really would be disastrous.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Filling Up On Singapore

As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, I'm a big fan of Asia. I've been three times now, twice to Southeast Asia and once to Hong Kong, and I remain as fascinated as I ever was. My latest visit was to Singapore, because I figured it would be an easy trip (I was traveling solo, and not staying with locally based friends), and English is widely spoken. A number of friends, coworkers and relatives had suggested I'd have trouble filling a full week there, but I'm happy to report that for an initial vacation, a week is the perfect amount of time in which to see Singapore. I could even have hung around an extra day or two.

I'd say I managed to catch a good number of the tourist sights, like the Singapore National Museum or the Botanical Garden. I also spent a lot of time walking, clocking several 12-mile days, visiting the various ethnic neighborhoods that make up the city.

View of Little India from my hotel

Sometimes this made for some nice juxtapositions - for example, the street behind the Sultan Mosque in the Arab Street neighborhood is apparently where Singapore's punks hang out on a Friday night, and is also home to a number of trendy coffee shops and cocktail bars. My hotel in Little India was also right next to a mosque, while the main Hindu temple actually sits in Chinatown. This all reflects Singapore's past as a meeting place for traders from all over the world, whether Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab or Western.

Arab St and the Sultan Mosque

From the very start I found myself comparing the place to Hong Kong, which is the only other large Asian city I've visited (when I went to Thailand four years ago, it was to the resort island of Phuket, rather than Bangkok). My Lonely Planet city guide had led me to believe that it would be pretty much the same, but I found that wasn't the case - although Singapore is physically smaller than Hong Kong (276 square miles, vs 426 square miles, including 19 square miles of water), it felt a lot more open, with more trees and wider avenues. And while Hong Kong had one large tract of parkland (at least that I saw), Singapore had several, from the Botanical Gardens, which are home to a postage stamp's worth of original rainforest, to the Bukit Timah nature preserve, which I regrettably missed on this trip.

It was also a little more downmarket in certain ways, which is both good and bad. Good, because it was less full of ridiculously expensive European brands crowding every single mall; bad, because it meant that whenever I ventured into one of these malls, more often than not I had to wade through KFC, Burger King and Starbucks to find something local. Although I will cop to having had lunch at UK grilled chicken chain Nando's while I was there, reasoning that it wasn't something I could easily get at home.

Orchard Road and its malls

That said, the food situation was absolutely amazing - pretty much every mall, no matter how posh, had a local-style food court, with each stall serving local dishes like laksa, nasi goreng and Hokkien mee. And just as remarkably, the prices in the posh malls' food courts weren't much higher than those in the older, less posh malls.

It certainly takes away some of the sting of paying for accommodation or booze in the city, both of which are pretty expensive. Beers in certain places set me back more than S$10 (which is probably a little less than US$10, but I assumed parity while I was there, to keep myself from blowing too much cash), and a Singapore sling at Raffles will set you back S$27 (plus tax). I assume being up there with the Scandinavian countries on the Human Development Index means they have to charge similar rates for alcohol, although given that I don't believe the locals are such big drinkers, it seems more like a tax on foreigners.

A courtyard at Raffles

I did see quite a few foreigners while I was there, although I did note with pride whenever I was the only Caucasian in a food court or on a bus. The split between tourists and workers was probably about even, especially in "downtown" spots like Raffles Place, and I can admit that I did imagine myself living the expat life there, at least for a while - it helped that I met up with a locally based sales guy from my company (a Singaporean), and one of our stops that evening was a rooftop bar in the financial district that looked out over the entire city.

As far as the locals, I wouldn't say I got a lot of chances to interact with them (being a rather shy and retiring type), although whenever I had to ask someone for directions, they were super-polite, very helpful and spoke excellent English. I'm given to understand that this particular trifecta isn't all that common in East Asia, for example in Tokyo. And I'm reminded of an incident in a 7-11 in Phuket where the shop clerk tried to charge me twice for the same drink, because I came back to the counter a minute after having paid, and she didn't recognize me. It took one of her colleagues, who clearly understood more English than she did, to explain that I'd already paid.

View of Changi Point from Pulau Ubin

I feel it would be remiss not to mention the political dimension to Singapore here, which is generally justly derided by Westerners (apart from a curiously tone-deaf Lonely Planet reviewer a few years ago who, comparing Singapore with Bangkok, suggested that democracy was a little overrated if it meant the chaos and dirt of Bangkok; my response is that neither country is really that democratic). I'm aware that Singaporeans are pretty apathetic to politics, and that Lee Kuan Yew (or Harry, as Paul Theroux always refers to him) has held a pretty steady grip on the place.

However, if it is that authoritarian, they certainly hide it well. I'm intellectually aware that there were surveillance cameras all over the place - on my first day I got a bit paranoid about what would happen to me if I dropped a plastic cup in the wrong recycling bin - but it felt less intrusive than the surveillance apparatus in London, for example. What I did notice was a certain infantilization of the place, for instance in the ads on the MRT, that suggested enforced puritanism. Contrast the generally insipid bookstores of Singapore with the newsstand I perused on my layover in Tokyo, which featured bondage porn magazines at around eye level, something you wouldn't see even here in the US or in the UK.

Returning to slightly less salacious shores, I thought the dress of the locals, particularly Chinese office workers, was reminiscent of the 1960s - white shirts and slacks for men, floral one-piece dresses and high heels for women. I kept wondering at that, until I decided that maybe it was because the same government had been in power since the 1960s, unconsciously enforcing a resistance to change among the city's adults. The college students and teenagers, by contrast, looked pretty much the same as they do here in the Bay Area, although I was intrigued to see that the more fashion-forward ladies of Singapore were favoring enormous baseball caps.

Hindu temple in Chinatown

To sum up, I really enjoyed the week I spent there, and as I say, I wouldn't have minded a little more time to keep looking around. If there's one thing that appealed to me about the place above all others, it was the diversity of it - the fact that Chinese, Malays and Tamils have come together to create a society on the island, and use English as their lingua franca, makes it feel impressively cosmopolitan, and possibly more welcoming than Hong Kong. The fact that it's rich also meant there weren't so many of those couples composed of enormous, old white men with extremely young and tiny local girls that you seem to see so often in Thailand.

And if Singapore doesn't have the personality it used to, when the river was home to warehouses and sampans plying their trade twenty-four hours a day, its personality has receded to the ethnic neighborhoods. Visitors who go looking for it will be rewarded.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Quick One While I'm Away

Not that I'm away yet, but it'll be a quick post this week, because I've been doing productive stuff like playing Skyrim and going to 49ers games. But I just wanted to give a quick rundown of one or two things I'm planning on doing on the blog soonish, and note that I'll be away the next two Sundays, as I'm flying off to Singapore for a week or so next Sunday.

Singapore will probably be the subject of an upcoming blog - since I set up my trip, a lot of people I know have said I'll struggle to find a week's worth of things to do there. I'm not so sure, and I want to (hopefully) prove them wrong. And if I'm bored the entire week, I'll report that on the blog too. Possibly even from an internet cafe in Singapore.

The other thing I'm sort of thinking of doing is a little essay on my train trip from London to Turin, which I took earlier this year. I took some notes while I was doing it, and hopefully I'll get something interesting out of it.

That's probably enough for now - I'm looking forward to the trip, and hope to spend the week getting nice and ready for it! See you soon!

Byeeeee