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Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

I haven't talked about "the profession" for an eerily long period of time. So I shall change that, and talk a bit here about some of my own strategic experiences and (admittedly) preferences. This isn't the only way to go, of course, but I've largely profited from doing things based on these experiences, and I might as well discuss them here. Otherwise I might well never get a platform - my most recent offer to help out with a bunch of schoolpeople looks pretty much dead in the water, and a political rift makes it difficult to work through the establishment's standard channels.

Anyway, if you're totally uninterested in learning about "the profession", you may move on to another blog now. See that nice "Next Blog" button on the Blogger bar? Go, click it.

Okay, class, now we may begin.

Today's session is about what I will encode here as "solution-driven discourses", otherwise frequently referred to as two six-letter words beginning with P.D.. This is where you are presented with a problem and have to come up with a solution. It's about action statements or action plans, like a US military pullout from Iraq or the legalization of hate speech. This is different from a value judgment statement like "we have learnt nothing from September 11th". Don't laugh - it has been done before!

A "solution-driven discourse" can be roughly divided into two parts - the problem and the solution. That much should be obvious - a solution should aim to solve something, so there must be something to solve, which is usually called the problem. Now, of course the entire discourse can centre around whether there really is a problem to start with, and why whatever is claimed as the problem really isn't a problem. But then, that's not the only way to do it, and it certainly does not usually make up the bulk of the case for the proposer.

This leads us to our first strategic lesson: Never, never have the entire first six or seven minutes dedicated to ranting on about why the problem is a problem. That's way too much time. I've a negative example which I saw just the other week. Names hidden, but I saw this thing the other day where the entire first six minutes were spent trying to convince me that mass genocides in localized conflicts (e.g. Sudan and Bosnia) necessarily involved violations of human rights and global justice. Which is fine, except the issue at hand was whether or not foreign intervention in such cases is actually justified. Going back to the strategic 'rules', the focus is on the solution, so the problem should be established quickly.

I had no speaking rights in the course of the actual discourse (I'm fine with that); if I had them, I would have kindly said, "Sweet darling, of course genocide is bad, but what has that got to do with why we should do what you suggest?" It's a logic problem, and that brings me to something else. In the course of suggesting a solution plan, that solution plan must aim to solve whatever is identified as the problem. Whether the solution plan realistically succeeds is a secondary consideration to this basic requirement - if you had another problem in mind, that's great, but you're in the wrong discussion. So it's absolutely vital to establish a proper, solid problem-solution link when it comes to "solution-driven discourses".

In this case a better (though perhaps imperfect) link would have been something like "Genocide is a crime against humanity, which is basic and universal (blah blah blah). The international community, with its great humanitarian spirit, cannot content itself with sitting back and doing nothing as tragedy unfolds and international laws are broken. Therefore third party intervention is justified in the name of upholding laws, both natural and artificial." Or something like that. Whatever. I'm writing this in the middle of the night and my brain is only partially engaged.

Going back to the issue of spending too much time talking about the problem, there's another technical reason why that's a bad idea. In a "solution-driven discourse", the emphasis is on the phrase 'solution-driven', which means most of the talk must ultimately centre around the solution. Whether it's a matter of principle (like the vague "the First World must do more to combat Third World AIDS") or a full-fledged, detailed discussion (such as "the First World must suspend patent rights awarded to First World-based pharmaceutical companies for drugs and related processes for AIDS treatment, and commit some amount of money to produce condoms to be given to the Third World for free"), the discussion must centre around the solution, not the problem.

Holding back meaningful discourse on the solution by failing to argue it in the first six or seven minutes can be considered a technical error worthy of the label "Immediate Failure". More specifically, whoever does it leaves everyone hung by the jockstraps - a very unpleasant experience. It makes the first twelve to fourteen minutes of the discourse - a huge amount of time - utterly useless, because the meat then isn't coming until the second course in what is ultimately a three-and-a-half-course dinner sans aperitif, hors d'oeuvres, dessert, vin et cafe. From a dining perspective, that's a big, bad thing.

To summarize all that, it all boils down to this - pack the whole thing about explaining the problem into about half of the first six minutes or so, maybe even less. You might be reassured to know that you aren't required to brief Martians who have no idea what's going on on Earth - many of us average people with access to newspapers, radio and the Internet do know there's a war on in Iraq, that guns are a problem across the US, and that the Church is having real problems with paedophilia. That much we know.

What do you do with the rest of the time, then? Well, explain why your solution works to solve the problem, why it follows certain correct philosophical principles, and other stuff like that. Half an hour isn't nearly enough to cram all that in, so there's lots of juicy stuff for you to play with.

Conversely, if you're the side not doing the proposal, you should absolutely listen carefully to see if the proposer has been caught not talking about the solution on the first attempt. By that I don't just mean saying what the solution is; I also mean saying why this particular solution and not something else should be adopted. If they have indeed failed to do so, that gives you something really big and nice to hit - though it is obviously not the only target you should focus your fire upon. There are many others, like what they actually did mention. But I can't go through that in great detail without examples, and I don't have one at hand. Besides, time's up.

Well, that's the lesson for the day. If anyone would like this series to continue, please send a cheque to the usual place, or just click on the comment button below.

Refreshments are served outside, while stocks last.

gambitch [ 1:24 AM]

Friday, December 03, 2004

James Traub wrote the following for the Los Angeles Times. It's reposted here without express permission from the Times or the author himself, but I've always been an advocate of the principle that intelligent writing should be shared around - haggling about prices can wait.

The article is interesting. Makes you think just what the United Nations is really there for.

Lynch Mob's Real Target Is the U.N., Not Annan

Kofi Annan must be wondering whose dog he shot. A right-wing mob is gathering around him, howling for his head. And why? Because the gentle and generally accommodating leader of the United Nations has, as New York Times columnist William Safire recently put it, "brought dishonor on the Secretariat of the United Nations" through mismanagement of the U.N.'s "oil-for-food" scandal. The secretary-general must have been surprised indeed to learn that Safire and the anti-U.N. crowd hold the organization's honor so dearly.

The scandal itself is quite grave. The oil-for-food program was created in the mid-1990s to mitigate the human toll of international sanctions on the Iraqi people, but it was misused from the start. The blithely cynical administration of the program will almost certainly turn out to have been the worst managerial catastrophe in the U.N.'s history.

Saddam Hussein manipulated the program to steal billions of dollars, and there is every reason to believe that he bribed political and business leaders to look the other way. He may even have bribed a leading U.N. official, though that official was not named Kofi Annan.

Investigators have not yet determined who, if anyone, committed criminal acts, nor whether Annan's son, Kojo, traded on the family name to help a company he worked with win a major contract administering the program. Of course, the vigilantes at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page won't be deterred by that hoary principle known as "innocent until proven guilty." But Kofi Annan's critics are not just jumping the gun; they are barking up the wrong tree.

The oil-for-food program was developed and directed not by U.N. civil servants but by the U.N. Security Council, as are all the organization's sanctions regimes. The diplomats who ran the program worked for the council's member states, including the United States and the four other permanent members. And they ran it according to the interests of those states, with the U.S. and Britain determined to prevent Iraq from importing items that could be used for military purposes and the French, Russians and Chinese equally determined to give the Iraqis the benefit of every doubt. Preventing theft was at the bottom of everyone's to-do list. The U.S. government had dozens of people monitoring the contracts but didn't hold back a single one on the grounds of corruption, price irregularities or kickbacks.

The secretariat deserves some portion of the blame, both for failing to sound the alarm over Iraqi swindling and for a slow and grudging reaction when the allegations first surfaced earlier this year. But the idea that this constitutes a firing offense for the secretary-general — especially when the call is coming from the folks who rallied to Donald Rumsfeld's side after Abu Ghraib — is hard to take seriously. I suspect that Annan's persecutors are after something else: not the man, but the institution itself.

It's not news, of course, that conservatives dislike and distrust the U.N. But the debate over a resolution authorizing force in Iraq was, for many of them, the last straw. Annan himself played only a very small role in this protracted agony; the Bush administration couldn't get the resolution it wanted because it could not persuade even traditional allies on the Security Council that war was necessary.

And that's just the point: It's not about Annan or "the secretariat." Conservatives were infuriated that the Security Council would withhold the stamp of legitimacy from a war they considered self-evidently just. The incident proved to them, as if they needed more proof, that the U.N. was not a place where the U.S. could transact serious business.

Thus the godsend of oil-for-food. For those who want the U.N. simply to go away, physically as well as politically, the oil-for-food scandal proves that the entire enterprise is irremediable (though this seems tantamount to arguing that the recent spate of corporate accounting frauds demonstrates the failure of free-market capitalism). What conservatives cannot accept, at bottom, is the premise that an international body, even one over which the United States exercises enormous sway, should be allowed to pass on the legitimacy or legality of American actions. And if you can't accept that, you can't accept the U.N..

It's striking that the Bush administration, for all its notorious unilateralism, has not yet joined the chorus (though neither has it tried to stem it). Annan infuriated administration officials when he called the Iraq war illegal and again when he argued against the recent assault on Fallouja. But just now, the administration finds itself needing the U.N. and its vexed legitimacy in Iraq, where the organization is helping set up the impending elections. The administration wants more U.N. election advisors, not fewer. Perhaps, secretly, it also wants a bigger U.N. role so that it can blame the organization if and when the elections fail. But that too makes the organization indispensable. It makes you wonder what the mob would do with Annan's silver scalp if they ever got it.

In other news, the Bush Backdoor Draft for Iraq may just be on after all... Thanks Reuters!

gambitch [ 6:13 PM]

Thursday, December 02, 2004

I've just jumped another 1,000 thousand places or so in the Blogshares rankings, which means I'm making lots of money. It feels good, except it's not real cash, and I'd gladly trade all my virtual dollars into actual money. I could use some of that now.

In other news, there's lots of talk about building a casino. Correction - there's lots of government talk about building a casino. From what I can tell, the general population is not particularly hot about the idea. There's the usual section of groups, led by religious conservatives, who are furiously pleading that the Government should just simply drop the idea. Then there's the general population, who can't really be bothered about the whole business, not when it interferes with their weekly queueing to buy lottery tickets in a bid to hit the big jackpot.

Not that many people are actually lining up and showing firm support for the whole casino idea. But then again, they don't have to - this government that runs this place has a track record of pushing through all sorts of plans without waiting for popular approval. Support from the citizenry is a bonus, not a requirement. If it's there, fine. If not, we'll make them understand if we want to.

The other day I saw this little snippet on television showcasing just how the casino resort of Atlantis in the Bahamas works. For those who don't know about Atlantis, find out here. Which really isn't too amazing, except the snippet was airing as part of our regular news programme. Now sit down, pause a bit and ask yourself - does a promotional video of Atlantis Resort, with its casino, scuba diving paradisa and other such things belong in a news programme, side by side with actual news about the election fallout in the Ukraine, bird flu in Malaysia and the local Christmas tree light-up? I didn't think so, but this isn't about news, is it?

The little promo video slipped in is just a piece of propaganda. It's very transparent if you think about it, but the truth is most of us don't. That's right, folks. People who use their brain and think through everything make up a very small percentage of our population. That's why we have boys and girls swarming and chasing after their favourite idols, and that's why adults lead uneventful lives going to work, shopping for groceries and doing all those other mundane things that require no serious, social brain-work. These are people who will sit down and swallow the junk that pass off as local television. Occasionally one or two wise up and write letters of complaint about the crap they're served, but that's never helped change the status quo.

Anyway, I digress. The Atlantis video was just a propaganda gig. And the frightening thing about it is this - it does not matter how many people are actually convinced that the Atlantis model is great and good. Whoever came up with that propaganda rubbish will invariably report that the move has been a success. It will be reported as such, because failure is not tolerated. It is not an option - the march must continue. This takes propaganda to a new level. Success is not measured by straw polls (they've never been a popular thing here anyway) but by the word of a mid-level publicity manager.

When a minister comes up and tells everyone that the whole thing about building a casino is not about a debate between money and morals, but about whether society is mature enough to deal with having a casino, we know that the plan is pretty much signed and sealed. They're just looking for bidders and proposals. Of course, they'll go on to reject all those proposals... and then go on to award a no-bid contract to the only legal pools operator over here. Or maybe the Kerzner International consortium will get the bid, ahead of regional opponents like Stanley Ho. Either way, it sounds like a signed and sealed deal. Why, even our most venerable leader (who has officially stepped down from the job of running the country, but is still somewhere behind the proverbial Chinese curtains) has recently said in a Bangkok event that whether or not to build a casino is no longer his call, but one for the new generation of leaders. Given that he was once firmly against the idea, this is as good as hinting that there will be a casino.

Yet we have to ask ourselves this: What's the odds that a casino - sorry, an all-round entertainment resort - is going to fly here? Frankly, I am doubtful. Not too long ago I made a trip to Genting Highlands. You know, that famous gambling resort up in the hills of oh-so-very-religious Malaysia. It's a religious place, but they've room for a casino. Same story in Dubai apparently, but I'll ignore that. Anyway, I have been to Genting many years ago, and I did enjoy the amusement park and video arcade they had there. A little. But that was many years ago. My more recent trip was some time after a nationwide sweep on video game arcades - very many fewer video game arcades can now be found in Malaysia, and they also carry fewer machines now. The sweep had an effect on Genting, too. Also, global warming removed much of the enchanting fog that tended to cover the hilly resort, and I could walk around wearing just two layers - one of them a cotton short-sleeve shirt. To top it off, the kiddie amusement park was falling into disrepair.

I've also been fortunate to pay a visit to the Crown Casino in Melbourne. Well, I didn't enter the casino; I was mostly hanging around the chic shopping and riverside dining. I had tea and cheesecake in one such little restaurant, while crunching Mabhubani's Can Asians Think?. As you can tell, I was alone - somewhat miserably alone. The stories about Crown in Melbourne aren't all good. It's beautiful and stuff, but Australia did have problems with compulsive gamblers. The casino is the jewel in Crown's, um, crown - everything else hardly gets a mention.

I've not been to Macau's famous Casino Lisboa, I've not been to Monte Carlo, and I've not been to Las Vegas. But I don't have to. Despite our government's best efforts to play down the casino and emphasize all the other parts, the truth is that Vegas is known mostly for Caesar's Palace and other such casinos. It's the City of Gamblers, not the City of Entertainers, even though many top entertainment acts do congregate there to perform on stage in scenes that can be simply described as grand and somewhat nostalgic. (Anyone who has seen the first few minutes of both Sister Act movies will know what I'm referring to.) And the truth is, that's a part of Vegas that cannot be replicated here - even though we will perhaps try. We just haven't got the entertainers.

As for theme parks, well, they're littered all around, and very few have come anywhere near taking off. One by one they've opened, one by one they've closed. We just can't do theme parks right. Alton Towers, England or West Edmonton Mall, Canada? I'd be happy if we can even equal Ocean Park, Hong Kong.

The casino thing is, I'm sorry, a really bad idea. It is not going to work wonders for tourism, local or international. And it can genuinely cause too many social problems that the government has always had qualms about handling. Frankly, the tourism officials should just sit down and take a serious look at how this little place has belly-flopped in its attempt to lure visitors over. And they should come up with something else to give tourists more things to see. Maybe something of genuine cultural value, or a proper theme park that isn't so run-of-the mill.

But not a casino, please. We've resisted the temptation for more than twenty years. What's another twenty?

gambitch [ 11:14 PM]

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

So another wave of Idol fever has come and gone. Ho-hum.

Frankly, I didn't really care about this entire show business. I didn't attend a single live recording, and I didn't SMS a single vote. I didn't even sit down and watch a single episode, even though someone else in the family had the whole show taped for reasons I didn't even bother to know. At the end of the whole thing, I couldn't even be bothered to track who won. I mean, does it make a difference?

So this season is over. Although, I suspect, it won't be the last. The show is certainly still popular in the United States - Season 4 is already slated for January, and the official website is already up here. The odds are that the global phenomenon that is the Idol franchise will continue on for a little while longer, and over here where I am, the story will likely be much the same.

However, at this point I shall continue to maintain my stance as I did before the final episode was aired. To quote the trailer line for Alien vs Predator, whoever wins, we lose. At the end of this whole thing, we are all not in any way better off than we were in the beginning. I have heard crazy stories of little teenagers splurging thousands of dollars buying prepaid credit mobile phone cards to vote for whoever it was they were supporting. I have heard of people losing nights of sleep doing up placards and hanging around television studios. I don't know what else I've heard of, but they're mostly stories of insanity.

And to what end? Is the show going to, like, miraculously kickstart our local pop music industry? I wouldn't bet on it - it's a sure way to burn money, surer than making all those calls to vote for Contestant X. Hey, at least there's a random chance of a lucky draw prize going your way when you call and vote. But trying to revive a music industry that's mostly been dead for as long as I remember? Not a chance.

You see, at the end of it, those two-year recording contracts the winners have been handed out aren't worth anything near what Clay Aiken got after his run on American Idol. Clay's American, and that counts for plenty, because we hear his music here. But counting on someone from these fair shores to make an international dent? The odds that Arsenal and Chelsea would be relegated from the Premiership together next season are much more realistic. Clay is famous now, which is good for him, but our own boys aren't going to leave much of an impression six months from now.

This is a place where the best music-makers in the Anglopop scene make their good money in pubs like Bar None. It's a place where we've had various vague efforts at forming boybands, who release one or two albums and then go on to bite the dust. It's a place where we're already inundated with British, American and the odd Aussie pop groups and individuals, along with the occasional French-Canadian such as Celine Dion or the curiously Dutch-sounding Hoobastank. Asians have rarely made the cut in Anglopop, at least when they're primarily based in Asia. And over here, the market is hopelessly small.

We may be pretty competent English speakers, and some of us may speak with an accent so polished we could pass off as whites if no one saw our faces. But then, the fact remains that we're a market dominated with goods produced from the West when it comes to entertainment. How many of you reading this give anything close to a damn about local talent? Come to think of it, do we have local talent at all?

That last question may sound so cruel, but let's put our hands on our hearts and ask ourselves just this one question. We've had so many attempts at talentime shows, such as Fame Awards, and they've produced their winners. How many of those who have even been finalists have gone on to become famous pop musicians since then? Even if there have been any (and I honestly cannot remember) there can't be more than ten. In fact, one of the Idol contestants over here was previously a finalist at another televised talentime competition; not that it helped launch her career the first time around. Why, just this week I read about a girl group who won some award a year or two ago, and between then and now they haven't done much apart from changing their group name.

I came across this blog from what seems to be a rather intelligent girl. (I've added her to my list of links, as you can perhaps see...) One of her latest entries was something about hating the Chinese language. Well, here's an interesting piece of information - however much she and her contemporaries hate the language, her generation listens to more locally produced Mandopop than they do locally produced Anglopop. And while she may know one or two local Mandopop idols, she'll probably struggle to name even one local Anglopop idol. Mostly because, in the last twenty years, no one genuinely fitting that bill has emerged.

And personally, in case you're wondering, that's not a situation I'm anxious to see change. The reason? Well, mostly it's because I'm apathetic. Sure, if someone great comes along and does change things around, then power to that someone. But what's the likelihood that that kind of thing is going to happen, really? Don't kid yourself. It ain't gonna happen as far as I can tell.

gambitch [ 11:27 PM]


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