Thursday, July 31, 2003

So after failing to stop the file-swopping services, they're now targeting individuals. The Recording Industry Association of America is planning to sue individuals for alleged copyright infringement, and have obtained close to 1000 such subpoenas demanding the names of file-swoppers. ISPs handed them over without complaint (except Verizon who is bravely challenging the subpoena in court). Quixotic? Maybe, but there will be some of the intended effect. Parents will punish their kids (true, not many tech-savvy parents but I think that will change if the parents think they're in danger of lossing thousands of dollars) and universities will crack down on their students even though the schools will try to shrug off the subpoenas. Just thinking about going to court costs lots of $$$.

Not that I condone the RIAA. In fact with the vast majority of its critics I think it's a very short-sighted move. I also believe that file-swopping as it exists now is truly illegal, and that musicians have a right to a decent living. However, copyright law is simply too convoluted and counter-intuitive to grasp for most ordinary people. Hence all these myths about downloading MP3s like : "It's OK if you get rid them within 24 hours (who does anyway?)."

In my opinion, the record companies are to blame for all this. The current business model employed -- charging incredible amounts for CDs and producing lots of trashy expensive music videos to go with the overpriced CDs -- is probably responsible for the current glut of substandard acts. Popular music these days is awful. Teenage pretty boys and scantily-clad pre-teens who release a few forgettable albums and then fade into obscurity.

The artistes are criticising the wrong people. They should be rising up against the record companies for screwing them in unfair contracts instead of accusing the fans of depriving them of a decent living.

The Internet is making the existing business models that record labels and their executives got fat on, obsolete. The industry has been chosen to be blinkered. It took Apple -- a computer company and a great one at that! -- to show that selling music on the net was workable where so many others failed.

Perhaps these lawsuits are mostly useful as the stick to the carrot of online music services that are actually workable. I hope for a massive backlash against the industry. Will we see an industry where artistes have freedom to distribute their work online and to earn a fair amount from their songs instead of having a disproportionate amount siphoned off to music videos, paying industry executives and other costs? Will people be able to pick and buy the songs they want instead of buying CDs at more than 15 times their cost of production? Will the market be allowed to weed out good talent from one-hit wonders?

I'm not too optimistic, but let's see. The RIAA has lots of enemies, but also friends in high places.

For those interested in this subject, I heartily recommend Jessica Litman's Digital Copyright, for starters.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Am in the middle of watching Gundam SEED. This is the latest incarnation of the long-running Gundam franchise, of which I am an ardent fan. The criticisms of long-time Gundam veterans are valid to some extent -- SEED is the original Mobile Suit Gundam all over again, it presents nothing new, the mecha designs look lousy (why in @#! are there Zoids?), no original characters and *another* Char clone?!?

Well, I don't think it ranks up there as one of the great anime series of all time, but the series is decent to watch. The animation could be better, considering how famous the series is (maybe all the budget was spent on generating hype). Perhaps it's best to think of it as a retelling of the original Universal Century timeline with Gundam Fangirl-esque elements. An update to fit the tastes of today's Japanese youth and appeal to the Americans.

Speaking of Gundam, I was trying to get people back home interested in the Gundam War card game. While popular in Japan and in Taiwan (thanks to a licensed Chinese edition), interest here is virtually nil. The main reasons are cost, availibility and language. The cards are sold here with at least a 50% markup, and with the Japanese yen gaining against the Singapore dollar of late, these are some admittedly damn expensive cards. The Japanese department stores that once carried boosters and starters apparently no longer do so, so no-one knows where to find a steady supply. Lastly, the game is wholly in Japanese.

Well, so much for that idea :( Looks like I'll be alone in enjoying and collecting (when I can) the cool cards from this game. All new mecha art and high-quality screen captures, but no-one's keen on them.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Feels really nice to be typing this on a new computer :) Replaced my antique 350Mhz one yesterday. It's a great feeling to have everything work like you expect it to, for once. Not having to worry about crashing your PC everytime you open a second window, not having to wonder why Word crashed, not having to wrench your CD-ROM open to extricate a disc... Now if I can just get broadband I'll be all set :)

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

If the changes I made to my blog settings "have [already] been saved", then why don't they show up? Maybe I need to post something :p
[on Tokyo]

Since this was my second time there, I didn't visit any of the many sights in the city. This doesn't mean that there's nothing to see in Tokyo. For one thing, it's not all steel, glass, concrete and asphalt. If you look upon the city from the free observation deck in the Metropolitan Government No 1 Building, you'll see scattered splotches of green around the city, like little cancerous growths of moss. Nature's last, carefully tended bastions.

Tokyo is every bit as expensive as Germany and Austria. I had the chance to relearn that little fact. Still, it's not impossible to dine well. The finest of convenience store foods -- a tasty and possibly marginally carcinogenic mind-boggling array of noodles, rice, sandwiches -- are accessible to all so long as you don't mind eating standing up. It's a good way to learn how to balance everything *very* quickly.

No regrets though. For anime fans, Tokyo is the Promised Land, and the Holiest of Holies is Akihabara. This is the place to go for cheap(er) electronic goods (They say Singapore and Hong Kong are cheaper still). Otakudom knows no bounds and so some of the largest anime/manga/anime and manga related goods chains have strong presences in Akihabara. The Gamers main store is 6 levels of fandom goodness. Yellow Submarine caters to your hobby, role-playing and card gaming needs with five stores scattered round the area. You can't miss the Toranoana store, unless you've somehow become oblivious to a large bright orange building with a giant manga comic strip painted on the facade. And when your feet hurt, your mouth is dry and you think you've run up a deficit the size of the US's -- hey! It's time to hop in and out of the little shops that specialise in games, more cards, more manga, more DVDs......

(And if you go to Osaka, you can do all this again at Den-Den Town! Yay!)

Fresh sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, after the wheeling and dealing of the early morning is over. Avoid getting being run over by bicycles and the diesel-powered platforms on wheels (you'll see when you get there), and feast on fresh sushi! Fatty tuna soooooooo good it melts in your mouth...

And when you're sick of the giant video screens and the endless rivers of neon, tired of wandering through the massive department stores and all 7 floors of HMV Shibuya and Tower Records and the endless throng of humans, why not take a day trip out? You could go to Kamakura like I did (went to Nikko the last time). The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) looks asleep. Not a bad idea given how warm and sunny it was. Popped into a few of the many Zen temples in the area as well. But if you really want temples, you should go to Kyoto and Nara and overdose on them.

Otherwise, I spent most of my time rummaging through used CDs for Pizzicato Five and other Shibuya-kei bands. Gawked at shelves and shelves and more shelves of cheap, used manga at Mandarake. Spent hours listening to CDs in HMV Shibuya. Tromped around Shibuya, Akihabara and Harajuku in the intermittent rain. Ate cannonball-yaki (size of a baseball, cooked and served like takoyaki but filled with all sorts of artery-hardening goodies like quail's eggs and sausage and mushrooms and peas and maize). Wished my Japanese was good enough so that I would have an excuse to browse in used bookstores and waste some more time. Wondered why high school girls hitched their skirts up almost to butt-level but wore knee-high socks. Discovered how expensive it is to be fashionable. Ate lots of beef bowls (cheapest hot food around).

Can anyone really define Tokyo? Pick a moment that captures the essence of this urban agglomeration?

Every Sunday, fans of visual-kei (lit. visual style. A term used to describe the fantasy Goth-like, androgynous look adopted by many Japanese hard rock bands who look like they routinely bite heads off of bats but are really nice kids who listen to their mums sometimes and want nice Japanese girlfriends) gather. They're dressed in sometimes outrageous outfits, some with painted faces, all just wanting to hang out. Among them weave curious tourists who snap photos. maybe they have no idea what's going on, or want evidence of further Japanese weirdness to show their friends back home and laugh with over a beer.

I wonder how many of the tourists notice that these youths meet regularly right outside the Meiji Shrine, where the spirit of the Meiji Emperor and his consort are supposed to reside, watching over the nation and the hordes of tourists that visit the grounds every year. This is a traditional Shinto shrine, surrounded by a large sprawling park like Shinto shrines are supposed to be.

To finish this Sunday tableau, a group of Christians singing hymns to the mostly black-clad crowd. They're really into their praise and worship, with electronic organ and songsheets and the choreographed hand movements. When they finished, they set about handing out bibles to whoever looked interested.

So you have inhabiting the same 100 metres: the entrance to a Shinto shrine, youths dressed like Goths but with bleached hair and *actual* style, and earnest believers evangelising a Western faith to them and all passersby.

I don't know if that is the Tokyo moment, but it probably comes pretty close.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Well, unpacked what's come in so far. Am still expecting 5 boxes of books by mail. Wonder what's taking them so long to get here.

One thing that struck me while packing, was how unnecessary the vast majority of my book purchases were. I developed a love for reading from childhood, but it was not until recently that I managed to divorce that from a love of hoarding books. Those are related, but really separate things altogether. In my case, I ended up buying just about everything I wanted to read without thinking much about whether I would reread it. With the exception of a handful of works, I generally can't be bothered to reread books. Once bought however, books these days have horrid resale value and they take up precious space in little rooms like mine.

I have resolved to use my neighbourhood library more. Heck, Singapore's so small and public transport's so good - I don't mind travelling to Changi to get a book I want if I have to. Which I probably won't 'cos the library system here has been modernised to an amazing degree. No more stodgy dusty spaces crammed with bookshelves. Instead, bright colourful decors, helpful staff with proper uniforms and a collection that meticulously updated, with videos, CDs and software. True, you still have to wait a long time to get the books you want, but usually it's not a big deal. Indeed, I feel ashamed to not have used the system more.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Am back in Singapore, so this post is really late. Still, bear with me, ok?

/clears throat

To Germans and Austrians, it's Wien ('cos they pronounce W as V and a 12th century English scribe in a fit of ignorance wrote it as it was pronounced and so we have been left with the horrifying legacy of the "weener").

To English speakers, it's Vienna.

To me, it's expensive and arty. Like Prague's sister who likes to go shopping a lot. With the Habsburgs who provided the money, some of the results are sumptuous, sprawling palaces, beautiful museums that still struggle to match their contents. The Kunsthistorisches Museum (which somehow translates into "Fine Arts Museum") is perhaps the pinnacle, with a mind-boggling collection of fine and famous Western art. If you're a fan of Bruegel (the Elder), Reubens or plush purple couches that are more comfortable than your hostel foam mattress, this is the place. For behold! The couches are aplenty and the audioguide is included in the ticket price.

Alas! Alack! I missed opera season. Instead I found purveyors of "The Classical Top 40", attired in Baroque court clothes with wigs and all instead of the 20th century garb their contemporaries in Prague wore. Eh.

Wiener Schnitzel? The city's namesake dish should be tried but only in the same way you're nice to your bratty cousins at a family wedding - 'cos you're there. It's a very large breaded thin pork cutlet. An extra large tonkatsu if you will, but served with salad and sauerkraut instead of wheat noodles. Not saying it's bad. It's just only as good as a deep-fried chunk of meat is.

Not all of Vienna's stuck in the past. As part of summer festivities, the city authorities have set up a giant screen in front of the Rathaus. The grounds right in front of the City Hall were filled with food stalls selling beer and food (not snacks but real, meal kind of food). Tables and benches formed a large dining area that was packed when I was there. And on the giant screen? Films every day. Well, not really films but recorded concerts and dance performances but the important thing is that there was a giant screen in front of City Hall and you could go watch a something arty every single day for two months. Now we just need someone to convince the Austrians that Playstation 2s are artistic.

The most memorable part of my stay in Vienna is courtesy of two Australians (Hey Peter! Jeremy!) whom I had the fine fortune to meet at the hostel. One night we tried to get into a club. So we went there, found out that we had an hour to spare and naturally we went to a neighbouring caf� and drank for two. We returned to the club, only to be told by the burly folk at the door that we had to be on the "guest list". So we left, unhappily, while one of the Aussies questioned whether the list dated from the Third Reich. On our way we came across an Austrian karaoke pub.

Did you know that there's a song called "I am from Austria"?

The pub was packed - we discovered (how did we do that?) later than we'd crashed a personal birthday party. No one spoke English, and being model tourists we couldn't speak any German. But a fat Goth male, with a bald head and a large beard to match his girth, wearing occult symbols around his neck, was the friendliest towards us. He seemed to be a dominant figure and I'd like to think that was why we survived the night. We were mostly ignored, and so the Australians and I murdered the German language endlessly that night.

But we really enjoyed� umm� hanging out with the locals. We like to think of ourselves as having made, tentatively perhaps, in our own little individual drop-in-the-mightly-ocean way, a small step towards international friendship, world peace and the end of global poverty. Peace through inferior singing!


With the sound of tourists. Salzburg is full of them. They come for the Mozart and The Sound of Music movie. The Sound of Music tour was shamelessly advertised everywhere in my hostel and the endorsement by the original Maria von Trapp is kind of pathetic. But I can't blame them - whoring cultural icons for tourists is everywhere. It's much worse for poor Wolfie. He's got his own chocolate with competing brands. Do you want the mass-produced one? Or the (allegedly) original Mozartkugel? Or the one that noone's ever heard of? There are Mozart liqueurs, Mozart scarves, Mozart ties, Mozart silverware and even Mozart cologne and perfume. How ironic that the genius died depressed, overworked and dirt-poor. He was buried in an unmarked grave and the memorial you see in the Vienna graveyard in which he was not buried, was put together by gravediggers from gravestone scraps.

It's so strange. The Mozarts sold all their furniture. The reconstructions you see in Salzburg, they're all from contemporary accounts or from details dropped here and there in family letters (wouldn't sell I'd bet). To see a cardboard cutout of Mozart holding a modern box of chocolates and smiling outside a shop, is an incredibly unnerving experience.

That said, I managed to catch a performance of Mozart's Requiem in a church. The performers included the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra so there was some kind of standard. That, my friends, was the high point of my stay in Salzburg. Even the stupid girl (I shan't name her country of origin) next to me on a school trip doodling noisily with her ballpoint pen until I asked her to stop, couldn't spoil it for me.

Oh, and the silver-wrapped Mozartkugels taste better than the mass-produced gold Mirabell ones. Remember that when you go :)

Next: Tokyo wa yoru no shichi ji!

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Am now in Tokyo, where i have been reacquainted with the meaning of humid. It rains pretty often here and when it's not the sun's nice and bright. But the humidity is more or less always here.

At least I can make myself understood here. Czech looks difficult to pronounce with all those consonants and far too many accents on the letters. The net effect is that when I say something and a Czech speaker repeats it to me, the two words sound like chalk and Roquefort. For instance, thank you is written dekuji (insert accents at your own discretion) and is pronounced something like yeh-ku-ii. Many can speak a bit of anglicky though, so smile a lot and give it a go. :)

For the sake of continuity, there is also an extremely ugly TV Tower in Prague. This one looks like concrete blocks haphazardly stacked on top of one another by a giant toddler. Franz Kafka has his grave in a cemetery under that thing. I wonder if that's somehow ironic? But Kafka's not dead -- how can you be when you're advertising the Prague Marathon?

By the way, I was informed that Shanghai's building an ugly TV tower too. Maybe it's an ex-Communist thing. Y'know, in denial of all those wasted years or something like that.

Yeeeeees... the legacy of Marx is bad architecture and 80's music. Everywhere I went in Prague there was 80's music on the radio. Sure I heard Czech pop. But more often that not Bananarama or early Madonna or A-Ha or Duran Duran would greet me in the shops. If I was lucky I'd get early 90's Annie Lennox. Is this Prague's way of compensating for all those lost years?

Not that it has to. The city is as beautiful as everyone says it is, even if they haven't been there. Baroque, Renaissance and Art Nouveau architecture everywhere and walking around the city is really the only way to savour the sights. But really -- would you expect less of the former capital of the Holy Roman Empire?

Is that where all the statues came from? I wasn't prepared for the profusion of statues in every nook and cranny of the churches. They even put 30 of them on the Charles Bridge, flanking the endless swarm of tourists, starving artists and pickpockets. One of the statues, of St. Jan of Nepomuk who was caught in a power struggle between the King and the Church and thrown off the bridge for refusing to reveal what the Queen confessed (probably to having had too many cupcakes at dinner), has two bronze plaques. Legend goes that if you rub the plaques you'll return to Prague someday, so as you might guess they're rather shiny. Which lends credence to my theory that it was a rumour begun by lazy cleaners.

Maybe they had thousands of tourists way back when too. I'm sure someone must have wanted to come see the original Golem. Rudolf II was a huge fan of alchemy, inviting alchemists and scholars from all over Europe (Kind of what the Singapore government's trying to do with it's biological sciences industry) but the Golem - aha! - was locally made by Rabbi Loew from the mud of the Vltava river to help people (You can see one outside a tourist agency in Josefov helping to hold pamphlets). There are a gazillion variations of this story. Some say the Rabbi realised that his creation would be used for evil more often than for good and destroyed it. Some say that the Golem is still alive, able to change its features at will and is really disguised as Cher.

Best of all to my dear Singaporean heart and wallet, is that Prague is inexpensive. One US dollar gets you about 25 koruna these days. Klobasa with mustard and a slice of rye? 23 Kr. 1.5 litre bottle of drinking water? 7Kr. 500ml bottle of beer? (and good Czech Pilsen beer at that). If you're paying 30Kr or more you must be a tourist.

Alas, got caught in the rain on my first day while avoiding Hare Krishnas and came down with a cold, so no absinthe for me. I shall meet the Green Faerie some day when I'm not drowning myself in orange juice.

Even for the non-alcoholics, there's plenty to see. Charles Bridge, the mechanically-cool Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, the spawling Castle, the churches... Vienna's better if you like music, in my opinion. True, Prague has chamber concerts galore every day in this church or that hall. The problem is that they're small chamber groups who probably meet every weekend to drink Gambrinus beer and decide on a common repertoire. You don't need to be a psychic to predict that, for an average of 300Kr, on a random flyer for a musical performance handed to you there will be one or more of the following:

Bach - Air
Vivaldi - one or more of the Four Seasons
Mozart - Guess. Hint: initials are ELN
Dvorak - Slavonic dances
(Runner-up) Pachelbel - Guess which one? Rhymes with Ganon
The best of Broadway musicals (Not a joke).

Prague is also famous for Art Nouveau and Czech Cubism. Apparently you can only find Cubist Architecture here (I'm not surprised it didn't catch on. Multiple dimensions, prolific right angles and opposing perspectives make building things to live in a bit tricky). I really like Mucha's works, so it was a happy situation for me. I now own far too many Mucha postcards, but I love them all :)

Thursday, July 03, 2003

My second day in Prague is coming to an end. I haven't written anything about Berlin yet, have I?

Berlin isn't really my kind of city, even though I don't regret going there. I don't go to clubs, I hate techno, I can't tell my Bach from my Beethoven and I don't like beer that much. But I love their public transport and Berlin has great museums and churches.

Dom zu Berlin cathedral is wonderful (in an area called Lustgarten), and the Pergamon Museum is a must-visit. The latter is so named for the Pergamon Altar (from - well you can guess) with it's 113m long frieze depicting the Greek Gods laying the smackdown on the Giants. Zeus takes on three of 'em (including their leader) and special mention is given to Athena. Too bad some of it was being restored. The restored Reichstag is majestic but there are always hordes of people queueing to get into the observation decks. Most of them came from the nearby Brandenburg Gate; all it welcomes these days are tour buses.

One of the first things you notice is the Fernsehturm or TV Tower. although I suspect in German it really means "Big Eyesore". The tallest structure in Berlin is visible from every d*** where. So while you can get nice views from on top, everywhere else it's annoying. Like the aunt who insists on appearing in every photo you take during family reunions. Imagine a large concrete golf ball tee. Cut it in half, stick a disco ball (appropriately sized) in the gap, paint the tee above the ball orange and let it be the antenna and there you have it. It's irritating. Like having Max Palevsky appear in every photo you take at the UofC.

This past weekend, the Christopher St. Parade happened -- largest gay pride parade in Germany and I missed it. I thought it was on Sunday when it was on Saturday. So while the parade was happening I was watching the Swatch-FIVB beach volleyball Women's finals. I stumbled onto them by accident, honest. USA vs. Brazil -- Brazil won. they had better supporters anyway. What's odd is that Berlin is nowhere near a beach. In fact the playing area (with tons of beach sand trucked in) is next to the ruins of a palace. And there was also a sand sculpture exhibition somewhere in Berlin, nowhere near any ocean.

My hostel was in the former East Germany, and it looked appropriately run-down. I did go round looking for remnants of the Cold War period. Checkpoint Charlie no longer exists, but a 300m long section of the Wall still stands covered in all it's graffiti-ed glory. Also found out that while the Wall was up, the West German trains (S-Bahn) had to pass some stations in East Germany on their routes and those had to be walled up and guarded for years. Soldiers in ghost stations watching forbidden trains speed by.

Beer is cheap and good - which it is neither in the US. And the names sound cooler too. You could lean over the counter and ask for a timid-sounding "Bud" (which is a poor version of the real, better Czech Budvar) or a mundane "Miller", but over there you can demand a FRANZISKANER! Or a WARSTEINER! Nothing like German to make alcohol sound cool (dare I say, macho?), even if sometimes you wonder if they're not just replacing c's with k's and spelling things differently to irritate the English.

Beware when crossing the roads -- there are usually two traffic lights at crossings . One in the middle of the road and one opposite you. The catch is that the middle one and the far one don't always match. One can be green and the other red. Those nefarious little red and green midgets, immortalised in souvenirs all over Berlin! Nearly got run over near the Siegessaule (Victory Column). You have been warned.