gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

I might have mentioned this before, but I'll say it anyway - I happen to be fairly comfortably bilingual, and this is a surprise to a sizeable number of my acquaintances, who for the most part have only seen me speak and write in English. The truth is that my natural language has always been Mandarin, largely because my parents were both former "Chinese school" students. I don't look it now, but I struggled to pick up English until well into my secondary school days. Nowadays I can think and feel in both languages, though I'm not necessarily comfortable doing either interchangeably across languages. That doesn't have to be a problem though.

I've hinted at it before, I like reading comics. I should qualify that - for the most part I like to read comics in Mandarin, which include both Chinese translations of Japanese manga and comics drawn by people of the Chinese race (Hongkongers, Taiwanese, the like). I'm not a big fan of story comics done in English, by which I mean things like Superman and X-Men. I have watched cartoons in English and read a few comics in English, but that was way back when I was a kid and the comics retained a certain level of innocence. I was born into the era of Transformers and GI Joe, and grew up at around the same time as the appearance of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These comics may be experiencing revivals now, but the repackaged version is too different from the old for me to find recognizable.

Anyway, all I meant to say with the above paragraph is that I like to read comics, even at my current age. Nothing to be ashamed about, of course. Some comics are the forgettable type, but others have left strong impressions on me. I thought I'd use a little space in this column to share about my thoughts on some of these comics, but I can't possibly cover them all at one go, so I'll do this slowly. Since I mentioned Hikaru no Go, I might as well start with that. I will inherently assume that you've read this comic or read about it, so if you haven't, go check it out!

Hikaru no Go is, in short, inspiring. Reading it left me gripped in the friendships and rivalries among the different characters. It is a pity that the story was forced to cut short because of some real-life politicking by the Korean Go fraternity, because so many possible storylines were waiting to be fleshed out to their full. Readers who picked up the series late may never know and think the author just ran out of steam. That is so untrue!

It's easy to get caught up in the experiences of Shindo Hikaru, who is the protagonist of the story for a good reason, but I think the character I have the deepest impression of is Toya Akira, his strongest opponent and, in a strange way, his best friend. I admire Akira's sheer determination and hardworking personality - from him these are the things I guess I should learn. He may be fortunate to be incredibly talented and to have for a father the best player, the meijin of Japan. But all that would count for nothing if he was not willing to work hard. To him, a Go match is close to life and death. That's the sheer competitiveness this person has, and that just gives him his focus. That's another thing I'd like to learn too - the ability to achieve absolute focus in pursuit of "the perfect play".

That's not to say Hikaru doesn't have it at all. He does, but Hikaru's different. Until Sai left - and his fading away seemed so abrupt to Hikaru he just got knocked off-balance - it's difficult to feel Hikaru's growth and identify what his own strong points are. Everything he did just seemed to be in Sai's shadow. That's why Akira stood out for me; he achieved everything on his own steam, and until late in the series you could not imagine the two of them having a third equal among their contemporaries.

In which characters do I see shadows of myself? I don't really know. But I can feel every character's passion and their pursuit to improve themselves. With Sai and Toya Koyo, the meijin, the goal was to seek perfection in their game, to play so well you almost feel that this is the only way the game should be played. In practice this is not about having that one killer move at the start where you can see every development thereafter unfold. No, that ruins the beauty of the game. What it is about is responding to your opponent, but always retaining the strength in your position to seek out initiative. When two players of such high standards meet across a Go board, you get the most beautiful and most exhilerating game you'll ever see in your life.

I wanted to be like that. Then somehow I told myself I couldn't hit that level myself, so I devoted my life to pushing others up towards that level. If it sounds unfair that I should place demands on others which I could never meet myself, it is, but there's a reason why those who can't ought to teach.

The Go players in the story exude an aura of their strength. With different characters the aura feels slightly different. Established men like Toya Koyo have an air of calm in their game, while Hikaru and Sai at times just look explosive and riled up. Akira has a grim determination etched onto his face when he takes on Hikaru, but with many other matches he seems either comparatively relaxed (which can be mistaken for being subdued) or plain nervous. Here and there you get an arrogant snob, but that's not new.

Hikaru no Go left me even more amazed and fascinated by the family of chess games. From it more than any other game I gathered an obsession with strategy. This happened because the possibilities look even more infinite. Reading the comic, I almost felt that the Go board was an entire universe waiting for me to place the stars. And when that's the level of control you have, coupled with a sensation that the balance is so delicate that your every move determines whether the fragile universe stays together or collapses into a black hole... Well, you have the perfect cocktail for paying attention to strategy.

So maybe I'm a strategy phreak, and that makes some think I'm stark raving mad. Well, I don't mind feeling that way. In fact, I love it. Every single second I am challenged to be as surgical and as precise as I can when I play out my moves. Every single second feels like life and death, and that my decision will swing thousands upon thousands of things. Every second I'm put on the razor's edge. I like the buzz it brings, because the lesson from this is that everything you commit, you commit fully. That's experience maximization, and if you're doing something you might as well milk it for all it's worth.

At the end, it's not about the titles and the trophies you collect at organized tournaments. It's about the process, it's about the feeling when you sit down and play, whatever the circumstance. It can be a friendly game, but that's no excuse for not taking it seriously. Sure, play a bit if you like without the competitive mindset, but give the game the respect it deserves, and let your opponents have some fun getting challenged without getting overwhelmed.

That's what I've learned. All that, thanks to Hikaru no Go.

gambitch [ 3:12 AM]

Friday, June 25, 2004

I had to add this, in a separate article, because. Thank goodness Blogger(tm) prints in reverse chronological order so the latest posts show up first.

In his work, my friend made a critique of my personality which I feel is pretty accurate. He said that I am by nature kind and honest in my opinion. I may be blunt, but at least my personality isn't hypocritical. I say things like it is, but I am good-intentioned about it. People who don't know me well may see me as an offensive, arrogant showoff, but closer friends know I'm just honest but unmaliciously careless.

So before anyone wants to reject my opinion in my earlier post below and think that I'm spewing rubbish, all I have to plead is this: If you think that my motivation for doing any of this is even slightly sinister, stop and ask yourself why an outsider would even bother rather than find better (for himself) things to do. Then ask yourself whether my criticisms have the slightest possibility of being true. If your answer to that is "yes", then at least we are agreed on something. That's all that I'm trying to do.

gambitch [ 9:14 PM]

I eventually went back to do the old job and provide some help. It took a small amount of persuasion from some friends (two, to be exact) and a massive reshuffle of my sleep schedule, but I went back anyway. It turned out to be a good thing, because I was not financially hurt by the decision (the organizers cancelled the registration fee).

I don't usually spend time using this column speaking about what I think on the state of affairs of the people I used to manage, not even when I used to manage them. I don't do this because:
(a) it targets a very small audience and alienates everyone else, and
(b) that small audience seldom makes an effort to pretend to listen anyway.

But the excursion this week has led me to draw some very ominous conclusions about the way things are going with these guys and girls, and I have to break with convention and talk about this (in my usual way), because:
(a) if I didn't say it I would worry myself senseless and feel unnecessarily guilty for withholding my opinion, and
(b) I sincerely believe it is beneficial for these people to know my opinion on the matter.

To start, I refer you to the latest article by Soccernet's German correspondent.

I want to highlight a few things. Like Uli, I still have some sentiment for the people I managed, as a club. It is for that reason that I even think about this issue at all. Secondly, while these guys aren't running a major competition akin to the World Cup in any hurry, the issues are essentially the same. For too long now the overriding obsession among the bunch was to win trophies in the here and now. That's good and fine, but the only problem is that this can't go on forever. The "kids" as I still refer to them are going to face a period of massive change soon. Easily three or four of their best players (that's a whole generation by the way) are going to retire in 13 months' time. This is an inevitable event - don't even try to fight it. The rest have to catch up. They're not doing that enough. It's like Germany after Klinsmann and Haessler, after Effenberg and Sammer. They may have a Kahn, but they also have only one Ballack. Look where they are now. Their team has mediocrity written all over it - highly unbefitting the nation's great reputation.

While I run the risk of being harsh and insulting by suggesting that the kids are mediocre, compounded by the fact that, at my best, I cannot be as good as they are, I have no choice but to say "to heck with credibility" and bluntly state what I see - the kids ARE mediocre. Do they know it? Yes. Should they be content with it? No. Are they? No. But is anything being done to instigate a massive overhaul of a mentality shift? I won't answer that question - I don't know. But they do. Again it's like Germany. Suddenly the whole nation and the players realize that in two years' time, the World Cup will be hosted in Germany. And that had to be triggered by Germany's woeful but fully deserved first-round exit. Against an improved Europe Germany just proved to be too poor. They were lucky to hobble their way to the final in 2002, but you don't rely on luck forever.

The kids are due for an outing in a week or two in Australia. I sincerely wish them good luck, but I don't know how much of it they're going to get. Their last outing was a horrific disaster. They may say in mitigation that they were undone by dodgy refereeing, and I will accept that a good number of judges have probably been really poor, but I have increasingly come to believe this: If you're good enough to overpower the opposition beyond all imagination, it doesn't matter who the ref is, he'll see it blindfolded, otherwise you're doing yourself one fewer favour. It's a little extreme, but that's the level of excellence you should pursue if you so much as pretend that you're taking this seriously. Forget the free beer (I never took a drop in my day); if you're there for fun, just go on a self-funded holiday - you can even pick your destination! This is business. Kill or be killed.

I've been a big fan of strategy, and it shows. Look at the games I play. Axis and Allies. Smash or be smashed. Foil strategy with counterstrategy. Bridge. Use your resources and cunning. Spot the loopholes and steal the tricks. Look at the comics I read. Hikaru no Go stands out in the list. I might well move on to read another series about shogi next, once I learn the basics. If there's one thing in common I have abstracted from all these, it's the spirit of strategy. And to me "the profession" is exactly the same. At one level it's all about strategy. Get it right and you have engagement. You won't always win - even if you spot the correct response the opponent can be good enough to hold you to a tight contest, and then it's a matter of skill. But if you get it wrong, you WILL lose.

So to the teams I watched, I'm sorry I gave the result against you. In one case I wasn't alone - others in the room came to the same decision as I did - but in the other case I was, since there was no one else there at all. It doesn't matter, but I had to dispel any thought that this was preprogrammed bias. I know you were my charges, I'm sorry for giving the result against you on each respective occasion, but I had to. I had to because you got the strategy part wrong. And if you got it wrong, it doesn't matter what nifty little tricks you came up with that made you look impressive, or how well you built up your stuff. Strategic error killed you for a six-pointer, period.

And in case any of you want to know, I'm fine with the fact that I sat out the last round. One or two of you didn't want to see me in case I handed out another defeat and torched you to ashes. That's okay, because I don't really mind and I'm absolutely not offended at all. I'm okay with the fact that I spent two hours leading Chelsea to a few more wins on my computer game while sitting alone in a lecture theatre. Quite apart from the fact that I enjoyed those wins, I am also comfortable in the knowledge that I have told you what I needed to and I have made the message clear. I was there to help the organizers, and I'm satisfied with my work. It wasn't my place to torture you repeatedly, so I was pleased that I stopped at one, and you might be pleased too, though it doesn't hurt to be greedy and ask to stop at zero.

As a speaker I will never achieve the same level of excellence as some of the kids could. They're just hardworking enough and have the materials in their heads, and that's just not true for me. The only thing I can offer and make up with is my sheer obsession with strategy, and my keenness in dynamically reading the way things are going and identifying the necessary counter-strategy. My implementation hasn't been that good, but I'd like to think at least I have the theory firmly in my head. That's what I'm not seeing now in the kids. And that's what's stopping them from achieving greatness, from making the knockout phases and winning trophies on a more regular basis. They have everything else, and on their day they can prove they are good. But they can't prove they are great when they lack the vision and the strategic dynamism to use exactly the right moves to kill every opponent they see.

Is there a way to cultivate this? I'd like to believe there is, but there is no simple formula. Besides, trying to recommend one would run the risk of offending the new messiahs on grounds of interference, and I don't see the point in making more enemies than I absolutely have to to stay alive. And furthermore, whether or not there is the will to change things around depends on what people see this activity as. If it's all about fun and games, then fine, do things your own way if you find it fun. If they're dead serious about being the uber-competitor, they'd probably have worked on the problem themselves already, and I don't need to care about them because they already are taking care of themselves. If they haven't yet, they can work out their own paths to success anyway. I'm happy to accept the existence of plural ways to skin a cat.

On reflection, though, it's odd how I even have so much to say on this matter, considering that I had once come so close to totally swearing off all involvement in "the profession". As a friend put it, it's probably in the blood already. I'm no longer "in it" as much, nor do I intend to be (so if anyone wants me to come back, visit, and give the odd opinion, sorry, I just don't do that, it's not my thing). But that probably doesn't stop me from looking out for their results if the thought ever crosses my mind. That's how much this is still a part of me. I can either swear it no longer exists, or I can give it a little room. It's no longer the centrepiece, but it's still hanging around.

And if anyone wants to contact me, you know where the comment box is.

gambitch [ 7:16 PM]

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Playing SimCity 4 has had the unexpected effect of inspiring me to take a closer look at buildings in my own area. I have always had a small interest in architecture and design, and while I don't have the expertise to tell a Victorian design from a Tudor one, that shouldn't stop me from looking at buildings and having some admiration of how beautiful they look.

I have also become aware of the usage of space in buildings. You can say that this is somewhat related to architecture, but it goes beyond that. The issue of location and context also matters. The most significant element in SimCity 4 that led me to consider this was the distinction between Commercial Office buildings and Commercial Service buildings - the highlighting of the difference between office space and shop space has an effect on how we view the use of space in public buildings like so-called shopping centres.

A few days ago I made a trip down to this area that had a number of shopping centres. Not a big deal, perhaps, until I mention that these shopping centres were deathly quiet. No major supermarkets to anchor any of these shopping centres, no massive food courts, no cinemas, nothing of the sort. Many of these shopping centres didn't really have that many shops; instead most of the space was used as offices for transportation and security companies, with the odd hair salon catering to 50-year-old tai-tais. And that's referring to the places that were in operation.

A good percentage of office space was marked as "for rent", with the usual phone number if anyone wanted to contact the agent. I doubt the agent will be receiving phone calls enquiring about these spots. The reason I say that is simple - these buildings are way out of town. This area is better known for its old rustic charm, mouth-watering local delicacies and brilliant nightlife. Two things about the nightlife, though. Firstly, the profile of customers is dominated by middle-aged businessmen who have cars and are out for a beer. The youth clubbing scene is not very big here. The second thing is that the area has been rocked by a sex scandal in March involving one of these clubs operating in a so-called shopping centre.

Can the space be better used? I suspect so. Doing it though may involve redevelopment. Some of the commercial-residential towers just stand out in all the wrong ways, especially on the interior. Perhaps a conversion to something more low-rise could be appropriate. Or maybe they just have to design something with wider corridors that aren't flanked on both sides by dark-tinted glass panels. I'm not a big fan of pubs and bars filling multiple floors in a shopping centre, not least because they eat up so much shop space and business doesn't start until the early evening. Of course, it'd be nice if they could double as mini-restaurants of some sort in the day. I'm not sure how realistic this idea is, though, but I suppose it is doable.

gambitch [ 5:09 PM]

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Recently the issue of 1-900 chatlines has become a topic of concern for many in this part of the world, not least parents who have teenage children. For those who don't know, these chatline services are avenues for people to look for other people to talk to. This service seems to be insanely popular, because companies running these chatlines (there aren't really that many) have taken out lots of advertisements in newspapers (tabloids only - these ads don't make it into the national rags), magazines and even entire buses. There was a time when these chatline services even ran commercials on television, but I have not seen these for months - it appears that the 'in' ads of the moment are for slimming pills, skincare products or bust enhancement services, none of which the average male has any use for, but I digress.

A news report cited the case of this teenager who was so addicted to the service, he frittered away S$20,000 in the space of six months. At a rate of slightly over one dollar a minute, you can work out how many hours the youngster was spending on the phone when he could have been doing, well, less costly things. I don't understand how anybody can be this addicted - my monthly mobile bill hardly breaches $50, and that includes my Internet bill. (I just like how these guys lump everything into one bill in an attempt to save paper, not that it always works.)

Personally, I have never used such services, not because I didn't want to make more friends (I do, actually), but because I know this is a frighteningly unaffordable service for me. Think about it. We know about how parents used to nag at their teenage daughters for spending long hours on the phone talking to their girlfriends or boyfriends. In fact there is a Cantonese slang that likens the process of such long telephone calls to cooking porridge. And that's when people paid regular rates for a phone call on their home phones (or landlines, as they are now referred to). With these 1-900 services, the charges go up so much higher, yet there are still enough people willing to pay so much to talk with total strangers, going through them like turnstiles at times, and seemingly unwilling to switch to their regular phone connections (amazing given this age where every kid in primary school is armed with a new mobile phone every four months). If I tried to get myself a girlfriend using a 1-900 chatline, I'd probably bankrupt myself before sniffing the slightest chance of success.

It gets more sinister. Some of my more knowledgeable friends are convinced (though I've never actually had proof - I don't use this service, remember?) that some of these chatline services are little more than fronts for phone sex. Now, phone sex is a popular thing overseas, from east through west. I've seen phone sex ads and commercials in England, France, Taiwan and Japan, but you'll never spot an overt phone sex ad in this part of the world, because at least on the surface, it is outright illegal. I'm not totally convinced this is true, but having said that, after hearing stories of how "traditional Chinese massage centres", "health centres" and "hairdressers" are really fronts for all sorts of illegal sexcapades, I think there may well be a grain of truth in this story.

Of course, in this age of supposed sexual promiscuity among local youth, this kind of thing doesn't entirely faze me. Kids being kids, at their age they wouldn't really find the idea of accidentally running into a phone sex service all that repulsive. Blame me for stereotyping if you like, but these kids have already taken the bold step of trying to make friends via phone in the middle of the night, most probably with their parents and siblings altogether unaware; what makes you even think they'll turn around and puke when they find out that the girl on the other end of the line is "wearing a sexy bra and thong" and "wanting you tonight"? (I put quote marks because they are probably lying; third-hand experience from watching MTVs tell me this is almost standard practice.)

No doubt many parents believe that if they had their way, these 1-900 phone chat services, as well as similar SMS chat services, should be banned entirely. New legislation set to come into force next month (I think) states that these phone chat services cannot advertise in media that are specifically targeted at youth, by which they mostly mean magazines that advise teenagers what to wear for proms and how not to get pregnant too early. If the idea is that doing this is supposed to suffocate these services by removing their primary means of advertising, rest assured the companies will be very clever and start bombarding the newspapers and television more heavily than they already do. The outright ban seems the best way to remove a potential social menace, but doing so could run the risk of alienating a sizeable chunk of youth who will be eligible to vote in the next election, due in about two years' time. Or maybe that doesn't matter.

What I'm more curious about, however, is the background precipitating this strange phenomenon of phone chat services. This is my hypothesis, and I'm not a trained social scientist, but I believe that youth today are a lost bunch who perceive a need to make as many friends as possible. Perhaps this is an effort to assert to themselves that there are people like them, to chase away a continued feeling of being lonely. These youths are seen by many as a hedonistic bunch, who are only out to enjoy. They try to sneak their way into clubs because they're underage, they go out and get older friends to buy beer for themselves since they can never lay their hands on some on their own, they spend plenty of time playing pool in the parlours (bowling used to be the 'in' sport, but that's changed). Yes, that's a bit of a stereotypical caricature, but the image that clearly stands out from this description is that of a young man who doesn't quite know what he wants to do with his life (apologies to feminists, but look at the number of gendered words in that sentence - catering to you would be too clumsy). People like that keep thinking society doesn't fit them, yet what kind of society would fit them is a question they struggle to answer well. Issues of self-esteem are involved, because they seem to believe that all the adults who portray themselves as sensible aren't understanding them enough, and everything they say is lofty waffle. With a "the adult world is setting itself against us" attitude, and a lack of ideas on how to fight back, they settle for the weaker option of trying to find more friends like them, just to assure themselves that they aren't in the wrong. They're possibly desperate for friendship, recognition and identification, and to them life is about continuously making friends so that they can build themselves a sprawling network of people who mostly think the same. The old theory of security in numbers, really.

To me, it takes a certain amount of courage for these people to go out there and make friends by dialling a number. That's courage I'm not able to muster. On the other hand, the few friends I have are all very close to me on an intellectual level. Some have even helped me out in times of distress (I don't talk about that an awful lot, but bad things happen to everyone at some point or other). All those friendships, I've earned and built without spending a cent on a pseudo-phone sex line.

gambitch [ 1:33 AM]


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