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Sunday, Oct 13, 2019 - 00:06 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Dragon Prince's Dilemma

[Or: The Third Instalment of an Insight into
the Minds of The Leaders of our Time,
after Last Days Of Empire & The Emperor's Compassion]

The Prime Minister of a sunny island-state set in the sea sat down. It did nothing for the tension in his shoulders.


Life had been so idyllic, just a few years back. Sure, there had been hiccups such as the 2008 financial crisis and the minor 2011 election setbacks, but nothing of any real significance. Any opposition was mostly a harmless nuisance, and if warnings or payoffs weren't enough, as with at least one troublesome political cartoonist, suing their pants off was easy as pie. Election rules could be changed at the drop of a hat, taxes could be raised at a whim, wifey's investment company would remain flush with cash even if they had to redirect attention from mounting foreign losses by directing the state propaganda to play up their local wins... yes, life had been good overall.

And then TRUMP blew Hillary away, screwing our TPP commitments, which led to certain party members muttering about registering our discontent with our U.S. friends.

Well, let's take a look at the canonical case studies of us "standing up to the superpowers", shall we? There's the 1994 Michael Fay caning case, but that was merely a no-name juvenile vandal who could have been shot out of hand, had he pulled his stunts on the wrong side of town in America. Additionally, we reduced the sentence under pressure anyway, so it's not so much "standing up" as "going down on only one knee". And then there's the resisting China in Papa's era, but let's get serious, China was barely recovering from massacring tens of millions of their own people, were irrelevant in terms of world trade, and had no real force projection capabilities back then; they were barely even a regional power at the time!

And of course, there's the celebrated story of the CIA trying to bribe Papa in 1960 to hush up an espionage attempt, only for Papa to reject the bribe and insist on a formal apology and economic aid. Extremely noble, definitely, but again, does this qualify as "standing up"? I mean, the CIA probably appreciated a guy with balls, but the key factor was that Papa was fighting the Commies then. In other words, he was basically on the same page as the CIA. Seen in this light, the CIA's response was analogous to a 350-pound football linebacker teasing a kid by pretending to steal his ball, being impressed by the kid's gumption in daring to reproach, and handing out candy as a reward. If the Barisan Sosialis had won and introduced Communism, there would have been no such light touch, and I don't want to know what would have happened, balls or no.

Fast forward to today, it's America versus the Commies again, and Uncle Sam's calling his banners. What do you think we can do? Fact is, the previous episodes of so-called "standing up against superpowers" were either in matters that they barely cared about, or where we were being backed by a bigger fish. But today, today it is different. It's not a game any longer. This is for all the marbles, it's Cold War II: Unelect Winnie The Pooh.

New Poohbear, same as the old Poobah
(Source: i.ytimg.com)

Yea, there was that spat between Bilahari Kausikan and his former boss Kishore Mahbubani, from a couple of years back. Kishore, recently dean of the LKY School of Public Policy, opined that "small states must always act like small states", to which Bilahari indignantly reacted that we should not act subservient. With due respect to both - not many scholars have enjoyed the honour of being name-dropped in texts such as The End of History and the Last Man - the key word here is "act". It's one thing to thumb noses at third or fourth-rate powers such as Indonesia or Malaysia, but quite another thing to openly defy the thousand-pound gorilla having your back - i.e. the United States of America - when you're doing the nose-thumbing.

He for one wasn't about the forget the Prime Directive of Geopolitical Hard Truths that Papa had privately passed on to him: the Americans were the boss. Sure, the scholars in the Public Service Division could invent crap arguments such as our "strong contesting of Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia in 1979" was to demonstrate our "self-commitment to sovereignty" because it opposed Vietnam's - actually quite convincing - justification of invasion due to Cambodia's internal affairs [?!]. No, we took this stand purely because Vietnam were Commies - Saigon had just fallen in 1975, remember? The indisputable counterpoint was that if defending other small states' sovereignty had truly been our guiding principle, we would have rightly also called out Uncle Sam's many various regime change adventures from the 1970s on, for the sake of consistency. Obviously, we were never that dumb.

Oh yes, but we did protest Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, while happily getting in on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite that not being in conformity with the U.N. charter. Recognize the pattern here?

Honestly, any competent polisci student with half a brain would, after analyzing all our major foreign policy directions and stands since our separation from Malaya, admit that they make sense only within the context of being a de-facto American puppet state; or, in more polite terms, loyally aligning with the U.S. whenever they insist, and usually even if they don't. Which brings us back to the core of the Kishore-Bilahari spat: some of our very well-educated blue-blooded politicos appear to have forgotten the Prime Directive; as Ngiam Tong Dow had also tried to point out, they were believing their own propaganda. Or, in drug-dealer lingo, never consume your own crack.

It's kinda telling that the proudest example we could come up with to showcase our "independence", is genocide support...
(Source: voacambodia.com)

Of course, many of our own citizens might not be able to accept this truth, but fortunately there were many ways by which to save face. Basically, we were always being led by the U.S., but maintained a sufficient distance from them to maintain plausible deniability. They turned left, we would look at our watch a bit, then shuffle left; they turned right, we would stop to chat with the janitor, before hurrying to catch up before being left behind. They scratched their butt... well, we didn't have to scratch ours! That's sovereignty for you!

This was what the wise Kishore was getting at, he supposed. The first and second generations of our diplomats had few illusions of who was calling the shots (hint: the U.S.), and they moderated their behaviour accordingly. Some of the young punks, however, appear to actually believe that we have an independent foreign policy worth the name, after enjoying mild prosperity and climbing near the top of some worthless ranking lists! Sure, we did create some informal groups such as the Forum of Small States, but seriously, they're mostly honeypots used by agents from big powers to gauge dissent and select their next victims. These small fries are here for the kopi and pastries, my friends. The most that could be expected from them, were we to be embroiled in any real conflict, would be a strongly-worded letter to the U.N. - if at that.

He had unavoidably noticed it himself, of course: the odd snigger or smirk from fresh interns, when he spoke of the island-state's "sovereignty" at global meets. The senior diplomats would applaud the statement with their standard-issue smile, but that was their job description, wasn't it? To listen to and say the most ridiculous bullshit, while maintaining a cordial expression throughout. It was a big problem, you understand. As PM, he could hardly step in personally to rein in all those idiots with a laughably badly-developed sense of proportion/self-preservation. Kishore having to appeal directly to the public probably meant that the rot had set in too deep.

Oh, Bilahari was not completely wrong about us not appearing subservient and punching above our own weight. Borrowing his boxing parlance, we've had sporadic bouts with Malaysia for instance, all the more with Bapa Mahathir back in charge. We're a pretty good flyweight, if he did say so himself - we've bloodied our fair share of bantamweights and featherweights, one or two weight classes up. But when f**king superheavyweights such as America or China step into the ring, it's not a question of courage or principle or respect or what have you, any longer. It's a question of survival, as Papa so decisively invoked when he switched allegiance to the invading Japanese, once the British were losing. Personal honour is nothing in the bigger picture. Adapting another famous quote by Papa, "Equality (between nations) is an aspiration, it is not reality, it is not practical".

In real life, Goliaths wear full head protection
(Source: telegraph.co.uk)

The brave Bilahari talks about not being meekly compliant; but does Bilahari understand the reality of that? Our not grovelling, it seems, is best exemplified by Uncle Goh - as Prime Minister, mind - having to go through a private golf buddy just to get face time with Bill Clinton, all of this because of one lousy teenaged hoodlum... and being proud of sneaking in by the back door. This, dear Bilahari, is the practical sum of our national dignity. Sure, there's the famous Holdridge denial in 1981 over a minor ASEAN resolution on Cambodia, but is the good ambassador aware of the calculated risk taken over the former CIA spook likely going out of favour in his own administration, back then? And of the dozens, nay, hundreds of incidents when we "just happened" to abide by the U.S., for every such pushback?

You see, for all the public hand-wringing over not being drawn into the orbit of either the U.S. or China, seasoned by wumao influencers supporting the latter, the sad and brutal truth is that there was ultimately no decision to be made; the decision would be, and had been, made for us. By default, we were firmly, deeply, within the American sphere of influence. Some wumao are for example trying to sell the story that "China [impounding our] armored vehicles in Hong Kong in November 2016... convinced [us] to no longer echo U.S. views over the South China Sea", but let's get real, those Terrexes are like, tens of millions cost price? Compared to having half of our air force, our main technological advantage worth untold billions, effectively held hostage - willingly, mind - in the States? And we're possibly jumping ship to China and giving all of that up? Is that a joke?

There simply wasn't much, if any, space for maneuver or petty tricks at this level, honestly. Fact is, we have always had next to no leverage. Oh, nobody expects us to admit it, obviously, but they know it nonetheless. The Chinese had their own agenda, it went without saying, but a particular remark by one of their generals struck him hard: we were no longer seeking balance between big countries, but all too openly playing big countries off against each other. This was, indeed, playing with fire.

He had dragged it as long as he conceivably could, but the endgame had come, and nobody could mistake our extension of the American pact for another fifteen years as anything other than a taking of sides for the U.S.; the barefaced lies about not being an American ally could only go on for so long, especially after TRUMP opened the post-signing remarks with "We signed a very important agreement having to do with defense and mutual defense, and I guess you could say mutual offense, also". It took all his willpower not to faint there and then, as he had done during the 2016 National Day Rally! He shot an urgent missive to the state newspapers not to include that detail in their reports, but there was no doubt over America's intent.

(Original source: straitstimes.com)

But really, what could he do? Disagree with the President of the United States? He was fortunate that the camera happened to have panned away when the "mutual offense" bombshell dropped, and he was crying inside as he deliberately avoided repeating the o-word, while turning the topic to trade. Ah, Bilahari, it's one thing to tell a CNN lackey that we're "not an American ally", and it's quite another to suggest that to the POTUS's face! And you know what? He had nightmares each and every time he or MINDEF or some other ministry had to gently affirm that they were "not a treaty ally", because there was always the chance - however small he hoped it to be - that TRUMP would get wind of it, and tweet the equivalent of "we respect your decision to be a strong independent city-state that don't need no U.S., kthxbye" and then we are finished! And, unlike Bush or Obama before him, the sonofabitch will do it! Heck, Japan and Pakistan aren't safe, and they are so much more strategically important!

Oh, some of his braindead advisors would say, there's always China, let's make some inquiries. It has become popular to claim that China respected Papa - that was part of the image-building propaganda, after all - but do you treat someone you respect by swindling him of US$90 million in your first joint venture? And that was when China was relatively weak, and when they should have been trying to make a good impression, and they just didn't give a shit! What sort of deal do you think we can get, then, if we had to go cap in hand to China with no viable great power alternative, after our long history of siding with the U.S. against them? He might as well simply hand over the keys to the republic, were that to come to pass.

There was nothing for it, but to squeeze as much juice out of the impending American alliance as he dared. CNN referring to us as the "fourth American ally in Asia" when proclaiming our acquisition of the F-35 was no coincidence, of course; it was a pointed reminder of the expected price to be paid, and a veiled warning not to try anything too funny. The chaos in Hong Kong was further proof of what they could foment, without even trying, and the casus belli was merrily being constructed in the American media, with the sudden concern over the Uighurs; since when did they care so much about Muslims? Well, as our foreign minister said, we did not believe in becoming a client state, but Papa believed that we had to be part of Malaysia too, and where did that get him?

There was nothing to do, but to make the best of the new reality. MNNA status would allow increased participation in Department of Defense projects, for one, and he would lobby hard for a slice of that pie. He'd also have to expend his remaining credit with China, if they would accept it - they were surely aware; there had been so much undercover moving of pawns, with Cambodia and Laos probably solidly under their influence already, so much for ASEAN unity. Bapa Mahathir was thankfully likely too sly to be fooled, the old fox, which would give us some much-needed breathing space. Still, the pain would come, and he was dreading it. Sigh, if only he could be at Cambridge, solving open math problems! Guess there's always suing a random blogger to release some stress, before sabotaging the opposition in preparation for the next elections. He could still do that much, at least.

The Lion King, and the Lion City;
their fates entwined evermore

(Source: r/the_donald)

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Tuesday, Oct 08, 2019 - 22:24 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Alles Allies

From the PoliticalDiscussion subreddit grapevine, Singapore is due to be officially declared as a major non-NATO ally (MNNA) next year, together with Chile and the United Arab Emirates, by the incomparable GOD-EMPEROR OF MANKIND, he of "great and unmatched wisdom" (I live for these moments). What made this indication all the more damning, though, was our Prime Minister/President explicitly stating on CNN a couple of days ago, that "Singapore, while not an ally of the US... also has its biggest trading links with China".

So, who's gonna be accurate, the PM of Singapore on CNN (which probably reduces the credibility of the statement, though), or one anonymous first-class boi on Reddit? Then again, they could both be right, if you interpret the PM's statement as "we're not allies *now* (i.e. in October 2019)".

Personally, if it looks like a client state, walks like a client state and talks like a client state, I'd gather it's fair to simply call it a client state, because there's functionally no difference. This established, what do you call a country that's essentially opened up its air and naval bases to a foreign power? Like every Instagram hottie stringing along a gaggle of boyfriends, there has to be an eventual accounting; it's just the old fable of a maiden who, faced with one poor but handsome suitor, and another rich but ugly suitor, declares that she would wish to eat at the house of the east, but sleep at the house of the west. China certainly isn't that dumb, going by how a PLA general has already complained a few years back: "Singapore claims it is a non-aligned country and its Changi Naval Base is an open port. But why don't you invite the Chinese navy to berth at it?"

Well, it seems like our government's reached the end of the talking-out-of-both-sides-of-mouth neutrality runway, as not unexpected, and once the MNNA status becomes official, I'd gather life might get a bit more colourful. Of course, GEOTUS might agree to keep it under wraps and spare some hurt feelings, but personally, having our leaders manning-up for once doesn't sound half bad either!

And the geopolitical winds blow again...
"Here, the four winds know/Who will break and who will bend"

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Saturday, Oct 05, 2019 - 21:36 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Place Of Privilege

It's heartening to see how our ministers are exploring sophisticated literary forms in their proclamations recently, with last month's comments on the previous Presidential election now followed by an assertion that the electoral boundaries committee is independent and not politically-motivated, despite it being headed by the spouse of another party member (and Minister of State); the exemption of satire from being Fake News has certainly turbocharged its development as an art style here! Overall, I applaud this new aesthetic cultivation amongst politicians, although it has been hard on parody news veterans such as The Babylon Bee, who have recently admitted to being unable to compete with reality in formulating funny headlines. As such, their only recourse was to branch out to real news.

One can well understand The Babylon Bee's woes, from how American congressmen are piling into the satire business too, with Adam Schiff for example passing off his entirely made-up account of a call between GEOTUS and the Ukrainian President (who's a comedian by trade, and something of a terrific troll himself) as a parody. Then again, given that their traditional income stream of lobbyist favours and kickbacks is dwindling, as the current U.S. administration drains the swamp beginning with Biden Junior, it's only natural that they're in for some diversification. Never one to be outdone, the master memesmith of the Oval Office has summoned Nickelback to his cause, but we'll leave the breakdown of the latest pathetic coup attempt for the in-progress Democratic debates roundup.

Hustlers (2019)

Successful businesswomen enjoying the fruits of entrepreneurship
(Source: glamour.com)

In this Oscar dark-horse masterpiece and unofficial prequel to Crazy Rich Asians, a down-on-her-luck Rachel Chu reprises her life story before attaining her lectureship at NYU, which explains Eleanor Young's prejudice against her somewhat. Not that it's warranted, you understand - disrobing is, after all, a time-honoured means for less well-off young ladies to pay for college (though she doesn't help Asian stereotypes by mugging in the club), which I'd reckon is a much more admirable attitude than that evinced by the pampered princess of the last review.

Destiny - that's her stripper name - rapidly masters anatomy, rotational physics and applied psychology under the benevolent tutelage of Jennifer Lopez and real-life practitioner Cardi B, supporting well the Singapore government's latest stance that it's expressible skills, and not paper qualifications, that are most sought after by modern employers.

Sidetrack: This brings us to the latest outrage of modesty uproar here, which came after an NUS undergrad had his sentence for molest reduced as a side-effect of his "good grades" (which weren't even that exceptional, IMHO). There has very rightly been much indignation at the apparent encroaching elitism, specifically as to why getting more As should be a valid mitigating factor, all the more due to the precedent it sets. The university's reputation is once again weathering a battering online, not helped by another badly-timed peeping tom case, but really, it's not as if we were responsible for the sentencing; had those fellows sought their Destiny out more boldly, or simply turned to the wonders of the Internet like most well-adjusted young men, there would be less malarkey all around.

But back to the inspiring biopic on female empowerment, which went from low-profile feature article to probably award-winning-flick in all of three years. From a wider context, it should be recognized as a companion piece to 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, filling in as it does the other half of high finance's puzzle. While Wolf peers into how the trader Chads make their moolah (the girls sort them into three classes, in roughly ascending order of wealth & power, and concomitant descending order of vulnerability to manipulation & tricks), Hustlers explains how their fairer counterparts relieve them of the loot in turn. As Mufasa teaches Simba, it's just the circle of life.

Sad spoiler: he's the only one to go nude in the entire show
[N.B. He's a specialist & Wolf holdover, which may make up for it]
[N.N.B. But seriously, they couldn't find a bathrobe or towel?]
(Source: slate.com)

And boy, do men have it rough in this film. Yeah, let's be realistic, they're no saints - one slimeball drew the loudest gasps of the night, for cheating Destiny by leaving three twenties instead of the agreed-on three hundreds for a custom job - but it remains kinda sad as to how they're put through the wringer. It begins, as it tends to, innocuously enough: the ladies sashay about in temptingly-revealing digs, and offer one-on-one (or four-on-one, if that's his thing; as the original has it, "while most men might be able keep their wits, and their wallets, around one scantily clad, sweet-smelling sylph, they tend to lose their grip around three or four") private life-coaching tuition to the boozed-up clients; Destiny soon discovers that the club and various hangers-on will extract a goodly chunk of this income, which to be fair did prepare her for how grant overheads and indirect costs work in academia.

If your reaction is that this exploitative business model is ripe for disruption, you'd be right. The expected dynamics, where the clubs paid the performers - their greatest assets, and why the men were there after all - had been overturned in the 1980s, which left the girls as independent contractors (a profit-enhancing dodge that Uber and the like have also used). However, the financial crisis of 2008 would tilt the balance of power back in favour of the performers, with Ramona (J.Lo) and gang realizing that the club needed their contacts plenty more than before. They meet the demand themselves for a bit, before discovering the joys of outsourcing, as those in their position often do, all the more as they were getting outcompeted by hungry newcomers from Russia and Colombia.

Here's where the cautionary lessons for entrepreneurs come in. Number One: hire good personnel. Yes, the selection's not great, given that they were recruiting from the back page of Craigslist, but as Destiny recognized, not being an addled cokehead is a reasonable requirement, even if actual morals was perhaps too much to ask for. Now, while her mentor Ramona can be a cosy mama duck, she was far too trusting of down-and-out gals. As might be inferred when someone's fleeing a hospital parking lot in her lingerie, this was a recipe for disaster.

They might yet have survived this handicap, though, but for the second mistake - oversized greed; one can hardly miss the irony, given that this was also what brought their Wall Street bro counterparts down. Again, Destiny identified the problem beforehand: drugging the rubes to total memory loss wasn't an issue; heck, some of the overgrown frat boys probably expected it. The issue was cleaning out their bank accounts afterwards. Ramona's habit of doing so ensured that there would be next to no reliable repeat customers, which pushed them into riskier and riskier gambles... and like the traders, eventual implosion.

The scam was finally busted when a cardiologist, who had thought he was engaging a comely nursing student for a mutually-beneficial relationship, worked up the courage to report that he had been taken in four times. Destiny does get off kinda light - five years' probation - after taking a plea deal, written a book about her experiences, and apparently become an economics professor, as we have seen. It probably doesn't pay more, that said, and whether it actually qualifies as a more honourable calling would depend on what theories she's selling.

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Sunday, Sep 29, 2019 - 20:56 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Entrepreneurship In Three Tellings

The Bitcoin double top's finally played out as anticipated, if quite a bit later than originally thought, which means that the firm of H.L. Ham has secured some lunch money. Interestingly, the currency basket of Facebook's Libra has also recently been revealed, as having a makeup of 50% greenbacks... and 7% Singapore dollars?! Not sure how they came up with that, but we can hardly complain, can we?

So, in celebration, here's to explaining entrepreneurship with three movie reviews, two of which were viewed in-flight on my recent Kenya/Dubai trips (I was debating releasing all of them in a single blog post, but figured it would probably be too much for most readers). Without further ado, let us kick off with the only entirely-negative title:

Trudeau (2019)

The despicable protagonist and his post-wish harem
(Source: cbc.ca)

A remake of that monstrosity of cultural appropriation otherwise known as Aladdin, this Disney cash-grab sets out to offend as many sensibilities of right-thinking citizens as possible... and succeeds. It was a blessing that I caught it from the back of an economy plane seat, that I did not have to suffer through obscenities at any scale larger than a postcard. Notwithstanding my staunch disposition towards free speech, I confess to not being too aggrieved were the Media Literacy Council to ban this degenerate flick, lest impressionable young minds be poisoned.

Where can we even begin? Entertainment being what it is, it is perhaps impractical for every offering to elevate its audience morally - for who can resist an occasional copious overdose of pyrotechnics, horror and gore as a guilty pleasure? - but this repellent minstrelsy stands out in having absolutely no redeeming qualities. It begins with the premise itself; in contravention of its source material, the indisputably Chinese identity of the main character has been forcibly erased (this is par for the course for Hollywood's brand of selective passive-aggressive racism, where they throw out an oh-she's-so-smart minority Mary Sue sideshow every so often to quell substantive criticism, while routinely shooting up, beating down and otherwise humiliating the threatening ethnicity of the season)

But perhaps it's just as well that the leading man's traded in his rice farmer's paddy hat for a turban, given what an inveterate scumbag he turns out to be. As showcased throughout the opening parkour montage, guy's a strapping, fit young man, but does he turn those gifts towards the betterment of society? No! Agrabah is, by all appearances, a bustling and prosperous entrepot city, the sort with near-zero voluntary unemployment akin to present-day Great America, and one imagines that a honest lad would be able to snag any number of fine opportunities - security guard, shop assistant, deliveryman, promoter... he certainly had the social skills for it. Heck, busking with the chimp would probably have brought in a pretty penny.

None of these jobs were good enough for the "hero" that's getting shoved down our throats, though. No, his idea of fun is to live on the dole, while cheating and robbing mom-and-pop merchants merely going about their business to feed their families. To top it off, he regularly maims the local police constables trying to maintain some semblance of order, and no, you won't see their side of the story, as they're unconscious in the ICU surrounded by their weeping wives and kids. So he tried to win some sympathy by sharing a loaf with some urchin, but are we really going to say Al Capone or the Yakuza are good guys now, due to such calculated public-relations stunts?

Capone ran a soup kitchen, what did Trudeau do?
(Source: myalcaponemuseum.com)

Oh, it gets worse. Most of the robber barons of old, after earning their initial fortune via unscrupulous means, at least had the foresight to reinvent themselves and make a second career on the straight. Not this reprobate. Despite regularly pawning pickpocketed jewellery at the underworld fence, guy remains perpetually broke, never having thought to sensibly deploy those ill-gotten gains. Gentlemen, I'd call him a parasite, but that would be unfair to leeches, which do have some specialty medical applications. Not that accurate labelling is legal in the current SJW-dominated era, where you'd probably have to refer to him as an "undocumented trader", or risk a punitive fine.

I'm barely suppressing the urge to throw up, so let's go on to the other main character, Princess Jasmine. Clearly, from her name, this chica should be Chinese too, which would have at least given Singaporean business undergrads a second option when selecting a role model for case studies. Right, so there's some possible Persian etymology, which still doesn't explain how Disney went on to cast her as British-Gujarati, but you'll understand if I don't want to get into all that hot mess.

And a hot mess, she is. This spoilt crazy cat lady in-waiting - I mean, just look at the size of that pussy, what is she feeding the poor chonker? - doesn't seem the type to gracefully age into eccentric cookie-baking aunt; she's well on the road to bitter expired-socialite-dom, the kind that says shit like "I mean it's one banana, what could it cost, ten dollars?". Actually, that sort of affluenza's not so bad, because they might at least offer to pay the ten bucks. Not our narcissistic raisin, who instead displays her latent Communist tendencies, by straight-up appropriating the goods of an unfortunate hawker, before having the effrontery to act all offended that she was expected to compensate him, like a common peasant. She didn't even have the manners to offer to flash her boobs in lieu of payment, as the lower-born but far more dignified working girls from the next movie would have done. Her parents should be ashamed.

As a matter of fact, he is. Sultan-daddy's suffered a multi-year headache attempting to procure a suitable husband - heaven rest his soul - for her royal pain-in-the-arse highness, only for her to reject her latest sincere suitor out of hand. The fellow's offered a whole bloody army, mind, which I'd say is a complete steal for one wilful and frankly not-very-bright lass; guy's pretty rad with the dad jokes besides, and has like the coolest fur hat, but she snubbed him basically because "he's not a cat person"?! And then pines after the motorcycle-straddling bad boy without a lamp to piss in? I mean, not that he has a motorcycle either, but it doesn't matter, the point is that these two delinquents were made for each other.

Ah, right, there's a third star. Behold:

Bro, you got a problem or sumtink, bro?
(Original sources: james-camerons-avatar.fandom.com, cinemablend.com, breakyourownnews.com)

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be Will Smith when the Avatar sequel comes out in 2021. As Trudeau is belatedly discovering, what seems a right hoot now could well transpire to be unspeakably racist, with the passage of time.

No, the only bright light in this story, the only named character who's not some variant of opportunistic outlaw-terrorist, insufferably elite by dint of having fallen out of the right sequence of vaginas, or a lazy fantasy rapper-caricature slathered in hip ultramarine sunblock, is the Grand Vizier, Jafar. The Sultan may be a well-meaning figurehead, but if there's one man who's made Agrabah the functioning trade hub that it is today, it's Jafar. Fellow joined the civil service despite being a street rat - completely unlike the protagonist, mind - claws his way up for decades doing all the dirty but necessary work such as forceful retrenchments, and all he gets is a "know your place" by a dimwitted monarch whose last independent achievement was probably locating the correct teat? I'd be pissed too.

His dismissal probably spelt the slow decline of the city-state, but being a responsible and industrious man - virtues that do not apply to the rest of the lot - he took the initiative to restore himself, and moreover repaid malice with kindness, by offering his fellow urchin-to-be-made-good a job. Of course, the Yellow Ribbon Project fails, as the thief reverts to looting mid-salvage mission, and gets his deserved comeuppance by being trapped in a rockfall. And the world would have been the better for it, had he not resolved to rub one out in the darkness, and been awarded three wishes out of nowhere by a bastardized Na'vi.

And I say the world would have been better off because, what would a prudent, honourable man spend his precious wishes on? World peace, trite as it may be? An endless supply of food, to feed the hungry? Simply ending poverty? Perfect justice? To know the mysteries of the universe, as the more scholarly such as Jafar would have (and in fact, did), and which would have allowed him to achieve all of the above outcomes to a degree? No, Mr. Dashing Rogue wasted his first wish just getting out of there, when he could have easily synthesized it into creating a secret underground lair with minions and aliens and Godzilla or something. Okay, lad's not very educated, far better men than him have come to ruin when faced with a lottery windfall, fine. Two more chances, what'll it be?

"I want to be a prince."

No, you dumbf**k, the world has enough idiot princes already! And even if that status was that important to you, you could have claimed it as a side-effect of any number of supernatural magic powers that, you know, normal princes wouldn't have! I had to cover my eyes when he then rode into Agrabah on an elephant clogging the main throughfare with his entourage like some classless nouveau riche flaunter, because disrupting the city's trade as a private citizen wasn't enough for him. It was a great relief when Jafar eventually took custody of the magic lamp, because it was clearly not being used to its full potential.

Soon enough...

Help, help, I'm being oppressed!
[Guard's expression: is she *seriously* singing in this situation?]

Little Miss Princess has taken badly to the long-overdue transition of the kingdom to the far more competent Jafar - and this is before he also becomes the most powerful sorcerer in the world. Instead of appreciating what his abilities could do for her people, Jasmine's instead all me, me, me, and takes to squandering her days on bad karaoke. My respect for Jafar only grew, when he took one for the team by agreeing to wed the irritating dame for continuity of lineage and all that, and I must admit to having mixed feelings, when she nicked the lamp and dove off the balcony. On one hand, the last major obstacle to Agrabah rising to becoming a significant global power had been removed, but on the other hand, should Disney really be glorifying suicide to kids? Anyway, I switched over to watching the flight information updates at this stage, because I couldn't bear them tearing down the only true go-getter here.

In summary, this movie promotes some extremely deplorable and selfish wish-fulfilment habits, and I would strongly discourage parents from letting their children near it. Shame!

*ding ding*

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Tuesday, Sep 24, 2019 - 23:05 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

The Emperor's Compassion

The strongest man on Earth sat down.

Few alive could know how intensely the power to destroy the world - absolutely no exaggeration in his case - wore on the soul; invincible might engendered immense temptation, and it was all he could do, to fortify against it. The lives of entire nations hung on his every word, whatever his jealous naysayers might think, and it was only through his exceptional love and forbearance, that Great America had not been drawn into renewed martial conflict. He allowed himself a wry smile. Odds were that a so-called "peace-loving" Democratic President would have dragged them into hot border clashes with Russia by now - and gotten the Nobel Peace Prize for it.

No, in his governance, he would faithfully take after the only One he recognized as his equal. Yea, verily he would love them as his friends, for all men are brothers, in rebuke to those that sought to divide and inspire hate; and as such he said that Putin was his friend, and Xi Jinping was his friend - a sentiment kindly reciprocated. And Orban and Duda and Salvini and Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman, that last recently the victim of a cowardly and treacherous sneak attack, one and all his firm and loyal friends. The lamestream media might slander him as bigot and racist, but was there ever a man who had won the affection of such a diverse bunch of leaders? He thought not.

He had so many friends, in fact, that he had to be constantly on his toes, to not elevate any over the others. Take when he jocularly addressed Al-Sisi as "his favourite dictator" a couple of weeks ago at the G7: one could almost feel the enviousness that came over the other worthies present! Jong-un, that chubby, cuddly cinnamon roll in such need of a proper father-figure, was positively distraught, so he heard. He had to make it up to the boy somehow; perhaps he'd drop over for tea soon?

Like, he's not gonna win how?

It was, after all, mutual respect and love that made the world go around. Take Modi: he had gone out of his way to affect Indian speech features with him last year, and the fellow all but adopted him into the family a few days back. Oh, he loved Indians, they are a swell people - yea, even the fake ones, for who is without sin or an entirely fabricated Cherokee heritage? Again, he loved them all - black, white, Hispanic, Chinese, Indian, maybe Eastern European a little more than most... as long as they immigrated legally, and especially if they had nice assets, and were willing to divest of them in his various upscale and very classy establishments. He had much proof of that. And, naturally, the good people loved him so much in return.

His reverence for the sacred ideal of friendship, indeed, had seen him suffer for it, time and again. As when the hostile press tried to turn him against dear Salman on fragmentary evidence, or when they discounted Bibi's intelligence, or smeared Salvini for enforcing his borders, as any respectable nation would have done; what could he do, but support them? No, he would be friend to all who would have him, including that handsome dark-skinned Arab that Canada had apparently just elected as their first black prime minister, following decades of pointless progressive posturing. He liked the cut of his jib; definitely a better looker than the previous occupant of the office, anyway.

Size had nothing to do with it either. Take the nice tropical island now best known for hosting the first U.S.-North Korea summit. His advisors told him that they were a longtime client state too, and he supposed that it was true. Very well-kept, very orderly, zero tolerance for illegal immigration, exactly the sort of nation that Great America should associate with. True, they claim to be "neutral" and "friends with everyone", but those are some very brave words from someone whose not-so-secret strategic military masterplan is "try to hold out for a week until the Seventh Fleet arrives", and anyway, as Machiavelli had wisely observed, the problem with trying to be faux-Switzerland friends-with-everyone is that one could find oneself considered true friends with no-one, when push comes to shove. It's not something everyone could pull off. Like himself.

But, as he had said, they were a de-facto client state anyway, whatever their "official stand". He had never been much for weasel-word diplomacy himself, but hey, whatever works for them, he wasn't going to criticize his friend over such trifles - a foothold in China is very valuable, as everybody knows. No, he was going to help his friend, without thought of recompense. Perhaps he was a far gentler and kinder man than their esteemed founder, but they had so much in common: a will to victory, a disdain for the Fake News - though the elder Lee had been far more brutal with his shutdowns - and above all, being a loving, supportive dad to their kids. If nothing, he could gladly assist with all the nonsense over their supposed race-based fixing of elections. Goodness knows, crazy identity politics would have been the death of Great America. He understood.

You President now!
(Source: Official White House YouTube channel)
[N.B. And GEOTUS got the pronunciations right, unlike his predecessor]

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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019 - 18:37 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert


There's always plenty to catch up on after a couple of weeks off, such as carboloading the hamsters. The local anti-Fake News fiasco doesn't seem to have abated in that period, with the Media Literacy Council somehow managing to class satire under Fake News, to which our Law and Home Affairs minister - already busy fighting a flailing rearguard action on cannabis acceptance - had to state the bloody obvious. That didn't prevent the satire definition getting distributed to Primary One kids, who may honestly be a bit in over their heads, as the authorities rush to start the inoculation young - and have we mentioned that the crafting of the relevant Act has the government legally free to spread their own Fake News?

This is perhaps just as well, from how another up-and-coming minister has gone on the record that the changes to the Presidential elections were not for political gain, which come to think of it, may qualify as excellent satire. Local football may have to apply for a pass too, with the cosmetic rebranding of the Singapore Premier League last year, now followed by a pledge to get to the World Cup finals in 2034. This would have been slightly more convincing had it not come off the back of steadily-sliding rankings to the point of being at the level of traditional Southeast Asian minnows, the closure of the national elite youth academy, and being assigned an importance ranking of "completely useless" in the meticulously-researched Football Manager series. Next to none of the actual problems are being addressed, as is common knowledge, but I guess the plan is to double down on the bold claims and aim for the World Cup trophy itself, after Goal 2034 inevitably falls through.

And to follow up on a couple of expected consequences, the beginning of a plastic bag charge may already be precipitating poor rubbish chute hygiene, because twenty cents is twenty cents. Over in America, the economics of fetal organs also seems to be playing out as anticipated from a few months back, with a sting uncovering evidence of Planned Parenthood executives haggling over the sale of baby body parts because, seriously, what did you expect? To California's credit for once, they're cracking down on private for-profit prisons; now, if they could just get over that plastic straw ban...


On the the academic end, the value of pairing computer science with economics - which was to me kinda natural from overlaps in game theory, optimization algorithms and of late cryptoeconomics, etc - is finally gaining momentum, with MIT, Brown and now Yale coming out with joint majors. That aside, the rise of the pre-doc in economics had me concerned; yes, going for a Masters to boost one's profile for top Ph.D. programmes was always a thing, but a pre-doc on top of that, just to get to the starting line? This is probably just the next natural progression of acadame's pyramid scheme, after the normalization of stacking multiple (and, to rub it in, possibly unpaid) post-doc terms, especially in bio and basic science.

There's also something to be said for orthodox economic theory being employed as a coordination device, by the way - as a sage Hacker News comment has it, "Basically, nobody knows anything. But if everyone were to admit that, there would be no basis on which to conduct policy... So people make up and promote a narrative (bullshit story) and if enough people believe or are made to believe in it, then you have a basis for relatively stable and coherent policy regime". Under this viewpoint, the gatekeeping of prestigious journals and think-tanks effectively serves as a policy instrument... which seems about right. Consider for example the band-aid of utilizing housing grants to support the real-estate-as-sound-money paradigm, which however may or may not simply further delay the reckoning as sellers raise prices in tandem.

Conspiracy Fallout

They gave him a consolation ribbon after that
(Source: r/funny)

So much for the Area 51 raid, which went from a grand spectacle of massive hilljack, rockthrower, Kyle and of course Naruto runner formations, to a few hundred fellas reaching the gates (which should by the way reinforce the usefulness of walls). This was however also recognized by grizzled theorists as merely a distraction from the Epstein case, in which it was revealed that the camera footage from outside his cell has been deemed unusable. Given that both cameras supposedly malfunctioned at the same time (recall, as both guards napped), suspicion is understandably mounting even among Epstein's own lawyers... who had however also overseen a change to his will that likely will keep his fortune from his accusers, just two days before his "suicide". It's all too convenient.

Some heads are at least rolling, most prominently perhaps Joi Ito, formerly director of the MIT Media Lab; again, it was not so much the deed (Harvard just barefacedly owned it in TRUMPIAN manner, for one) as the cover-up, with the lab snagging over seven million bucks from Epstein and pals, which to be frank they probably could have done with.

Ito would shortly be topped by none less than free and open-source software guru (note magnificent beard) Richard Stallman, who too resigned from his MIT positions. Thing is, Stallman was, to the best of public knowledge, not involved in Epstein's hijinks, financial or otherwise. His sin was in going full Amos Yee in very awkwardly defending Minsky, by positing that the minors involved could well be entirely willing. Technically, there could be an argument for it, I suppose, but as with Gödel discovering a loophole in the Constitution during his citizenship interview, it probably wasn't the best of times or places to ruminate about distasteful scenarios. A shame, really.

Chat App Etiquette

I've got to admit that it's not easy to figure out the correct degree of interaction with mobile-based groups chats (WhatsApp, WeChat, etc); compare previous iterations - email-based messageboards such as Yahoo Groups made no pretense as to immediacy, while Internet-based chatrooms like IRC and ICQ were session-based, with no expectation of permanency. Phone calls and SMS might demand attention, but they were at least generally limited in scope to one-on-one interactions. WhatsApp, however, brings together the best/worst of all worlds: an always-on, 24/7, deluge of unfettered social dynamics, plagued with concerns over responding too quickly and getting mired in conversation/flooding the group, or whether to return to a previous thread and possibly disrupting the current flow, with all the concomitant misunderstandings that could ensue. Group chat transcripts must be a sociolinguist's dream, frankly. Personally, I'm uncertain whether humans were designed to operate under such enforced scrutiny.

Face-Name Association

Got remembered as "Gabriel" once again recently - note that I'm hardly upset, given how terrible I'm with names and sometimes faces, myself. I'd say this may shed some light on the workings of memory. Could it be, for example, that this was down to the recall of "G", which then segued into the most-likely reconstruction? I don't have any hard local stats, but "Gabriel" does anecdotally seem more common than "Gilbert" here, and up to ten times more popular when the 1980s came around. Quite fascinating how memory and knowledge works, really - perhaps another example would be how there might be an impression that New York and London are at roughly the same latitude, due to their unique statuses in the Anglophile world, when London is in fact significantly (about eleven degrees) further north than NY... and indeed even Quebec City. Geographic intuitions can be kinda unreliable.

Faces have always held a special affection in computer vision since the days of Lena, and the rise of various GANs (generative adversarial networks) has seen ultra-high fidelity generation and reconstruction of facial images become feasible in the past year or two, definitely a huge leap from the days of principal component analysis and eigenfaces. The dark side is then, unavoidably, the continued erosion of privacy by Big Tech, with reliable lip-reading and casual behavioural monitoring thought-crime very much on the cards... which only makes the Epstein surveillance failure more and more improbable.

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Monday, Sep 16, 2019 - 21:34 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

MR Loh

My National Service commitments are finally over, some fifteen years after my full-time stint, and I can't deny that it's been a bit of a slog, mostly as I'm no true soldier by temperament (which I'd suspect would apply to many of my peers). Now, I've weathered enough of the nation-building propaganda myself, but can still grudgingly acknowledge the logic behind shaking every guy down for 2+ years of their lives - allow exceptions, and you'll soon realize just how many out there would be willing to game the system. I'd gather the generals and politicians holding forth on the privilege thereof of serving would really not want to have this assertion put to the test by making service entirely voluntary, and observe just how many of our hot-blooded young lads agree by joining up...

True, this might destroy most of our best (e-)sports talents (now that it's making big money; Ben Davis has just debuted for Fulham, and understandably isn't returning), but this and the oft-unrealized corollary from the Patrick Tan saga send the same message - however talented or privileged one might be, the Singapore Armed Forces is still gonna own your ass for two years, cushy vocation as it may be. The new cybersecurity operator role (moreover leading to a bona-fide degree) would seem a no-brainer to many who're aiming for that field anyway, and gives new meaning to the "keyboard warrior" phrase.

Part of the (oft-anonymously-expressed) resentment towards NS, one supposes, stems from military service by and large not being particularly respected here, in contrast to say the U.S. (long-term treatment of down-and-out veterans aside), perhaps best exemplified by a poor recruit standing in an empty MRT carriage a few years back, probably out of fear of being STOMP-ed by nosy civilians and signing extras. This disdain for conscripts has deep roots in Chinese culture by the way, where it was common for mainly criminals and other unsavoury characters to get roped into the ranks; accordingly, being an official/officer mitigates this effect somewhat.

Well, it is fortunate that most NSmen - of all ranks - are in my estimation fairly decent chaps who're just out to complete their duty, and my unit was for one humane enough to arrange a convenient six-day ICT with free weekend, for which I'm grateful (the current reservist commitment is 10 NS cycles including 7 [high-key] ICTs of seven days or more, for non-commanders, with seven or more total service days separately accrued in a work-year, also counting as a high-key ICT). On the other popular complaint, the food, I've never had much of an issue; in fact, I'm kinda surprised at how many NSmen make it a point to patronize the canteen - and pay - for all their meals. Perhaps it is the availability of choice and self-determination, however minor, in an otherwise technically completely regimented environment (note: finally figured out possibly why backpack straps had to be taped, back in basic training)?

And a final appeal from a guy who's run the course - the authorities might consider the unspoken sacrifice, especially by the self-employed and vulnerable/marginal employees. There seems to be a certain dismissal of the very idea that bosses might view reservist commitments as a career handicap, which I'd gather is actually not at all uncommon. Some latitude in this respect, I figure, would be very much appreciated.

Got MR cert, doesn't matter anymore
[N.B. Shopee's expanding fast, it has to be said]

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