It’s been a while…

and I’m typing this on a new-ish Bluetooth keyboard which I’d bought after convincing myself that it would make me blog more. I have gotten to the point that I’m disgusted with myself for not writing, for not reading, for – in fact – spending any spare time racking up levels in an admittedly addictive video game while listening and re-listening to some favourite podcast episodes. The lack of meaningful interaction with words has finally gotten unbearable.

Pessimist: And this will be another blog post in a series of really infrequent blog posts.

Optimist: I will plan blog posts in advance! The next one will be about my favourite podcasts.

Realist who does not want to be a wet blanket: Let’s see how long this lasts.

Rummaging through my “to be blogged” list, I find

  • The first nightmare I have had in a while. Even one or two years back, I would still have occasional dreams in which I did not prepare for school. I can’t remember the details, but they were about not preparing for exams or some embarrassing situation that arose because I was not prepared, and often came during periods of stress at work. It amused me that I did not dream about the stressful work situations or something else at work instead, and I thought more than once that I just missed school, and my dreamer-self did not want to totally traumatise me by situating the dream in the scary scary work world, this after more than 10 years of work, which – come to think of it – is less than the 16 years I’ve spent in school. This most recent nightmare though was finally in the context of work. It was a major international event, something unexpected but which I was still expected to be prepared for happened, and I had to give a speech in front of a big audience which included my boss’s bosses. For some reason I had no draft for the speech, and for some other reason I was calm about it in the dream, as if I knew. The dream ended before I had to go on stage.
  • A stormy night. It was some weeks ago now, but I think this was on the first workday after the weekend, in the very early morning, when the skies crackled with lightning so bright I thought it was time to wake up, and the thunder which followed was so loud it could be felt in the bones, like jarring smashes on the walls of the house. The storm was over before long, but judging by the audio-visual display it was the most intense I’ve experienced in many years.
  • Something funny. I use my iPhone as a watch a lot of the time, and a lot of the time when I am using it – browsing the Internet or Twitter timeline etc. – I just look at the top of the phone for the time. So a few weeks back, while reading an honest-to-goodness book, I wanted to know how long I’d been doing that, and glanced at the top edge of the page I was reading. It took me several instants to figure out what had gone wrong / what I had expected to find there, but when I did, I couldn’t help chuckling and then marvelling at my thickheadedness.
  • My favourite episode of 99% Invisible. Ever since it came out, my favourite episode had been Higher and Higher, because the image of the two friends-turned-rivals competing to build the tallest structure in the world and one sneakily constructing a spire *within* his “growing” building that gave it the winning peak was just so compelling. But now it is my second favourite episode, after All in Your Head, which is about how horror movie music is made. So good.

Skinny pizza again and a Corrine lament

Since I discovered Skinny Pizza (see reviews here (with pics of the below-mentioned squid ink pizza) and here) last year when my colleagues and I happened upon the Wheelock Place branch for lunch, I’ve been there maybe six or seven times.  When I introduced my sis to the place, we had the truffle fries (a must-try that has gotten less and less special with each visit; I think it’s gotten more oil-laden and less truffled…) and the curry chicken babaganoush (we agree that the hard-boiled eggs are a touch of genius, and that the Skinny Pizza folks could be more generous with the curry gravy).  When I introduced my pal to the place, we had the squid ink pizza at the Suntec branch, and it was good – the squid ink gravy that soaks the centre of the pizza is an appetising mix of savoury and slightly sweet tartness.  And when we had it again last Friday at the Wheelock Place branch, the grilled calamari and prawns were done to perfection, with just the right bit of char.  The only imperfection was the red onion slices that were strewn over the dark crust and that left a lingering sting in one’s palate.  On Friday we also had the bitter chocolate tart, and while this was yummy on many levels – like a multilayered piece of fine chocolate – it also packed the sort of richness (heatiness, we Chinese would call it) that has been known to lead to spontaneous nosebleeds.

Later in the evening, we heard Corrine May’s Song for Singapore over the radio.  Corrine May has a wonderful rich voice, and I think she puts up a great performance for this song.  It’s just a pity that some of the lyrics are cringe/wince-worthy.  Seriously – “I want to sing, sing a song for Singapore”?  “You’re my brother, you’re my sister”? 

P/S.  I am reading a joke book.  I have been unable to read heavy-going fiction recently; “A Heartbreaking of Staggering Genius” and “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” sit mouldering and unread on my table and my bookshelf, respectively.

PP/S.  So here’s a joke from the joke book: “Men like cars.  Women like clothes.  Women only like cars when they take them to clothes.”  Funny, and with a decent level of accuracy :p

PPP/S.  Opposite to cringe/wince-worthy are the lyrics for Sarah McLachlan’s “Do What You Have to Do”:

Butt kickin’, for goodness!

Came across a few very enjoyable pieces of entertainment the last few days, so I thought I’d collect them all in a post and title it with a quote from a great piece of entertainment from a sadly bygone era :)

I saw YouTube clips of Penn & Teller on The Late Show with David Letterman, doing a macabre trick to promote their video cassette release in 1989 (I remember that one actually had to rewind these ‘video cassette’ things…) and a nice coins-and-goldfish trick on Halloween in 2007.

I read Lawrence Block’s When the Sacred Ginmill Closes yesterday.  I’ve come to enjoy Lawrence Block, who writes immensely readable crime stories where most of the action is in the dialogue and the choices of the protagonist.  I have books about Keller, the amoral yet conscientious hitman.  Keller is always fun – how many times do you get into the head of someone who’s killed so often that he’s come up with a foolproof way of distancing himself from his job and who’s well-adjusted enough to teach that method to his best friend after she had to kill their boss?  I have many starring Bernie Rhodenbarr, the unreformed burglar with a knack for coming across bodies during his illegal excursions and then solving them to save his hide.  The Rhodenbarr books are formulaic but rollickingly good reads – Bernie’s tempted to burgle, he tries not to but does it anyway, he finds a body in the house he burgles or a murder occurs at exactly the same time and he’s a suspect and he can’t of course use his burgling as an alibi, he solves the murder after a roundabout romp and at the classic gathering of suspects.  The Ginmill book was my first about Matthew Scudder, the ex-alcoholic whose melancholic remembrances overflow with bourbon and the fragile brotherhood of drunks.  If it’s any indication, then I’ve missed his best series… until now.  Time to catch up.

I saw this fine and funny reminder that all is well in this world, except for our expectations and impatience :)

I also saw this horrific picture (snicker snicker): the last thing Sparkly saw…

Plato in a joke

In Sun with Moon*, and afterwards at the Borders** Bistro downstairs, I had the conversation I have come to expect with two good friends – thoughtful, opinionated, passionate academia-related stuff. As usual, I came away from our session thinking about teaching and doing research at a university for a living.

This time, we talked about what the teaching and research were for. About how schools sometimes focus their research more on theory – i.e. aiming to unearth a more complete picture of the world – or application i.e. aiming to solve problems.

About what to teach one’s students – how to pick among focused, immediately applicable skills (how to write an “inverse pyramid”-style news story, for example), less immediately applicable “life skills” (say, how to think and write clearly) and probably ultimately useless skills (case in point: do we need to know, really, how to do differential equations if we don’t end up teaching others how to do differential equations?).

About the differences between education in polytechnics and that in universities.

About how that distinction may get complicated again, if we talk about the teaching of professions – in which case the value-add in universities may be teaching would-be doctors how to think about doctoring, for example.

At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned that I had read that, after his student complained about not gaining anything from being at his school, a Greek philosopher had given the student a penny and expelled him. Impressed, one friend asked which book I had read. Here is what I read, and from where:

In the fourth century BC, the great Athenian philosopher Plato established a school (the Academy) at which mathematics was a key portion of the curriculum. It was taught with the utmost rigor of which the times were capable, and it dealt with idealized shapes on which idealized operations were performed.

One student, who was put to stern mental exercise over the Platonic conception of mathematics, kept searching in vain for some application to the various forms of artisanry for which he knew mathematical concepts were useful.

Finally he said to Plato, ‘But, master, to what practical use can these theorems be put? What can be gained from them?’

The old philosopher glared at the inquiring student, turned to a slave, and said, ‘Give this young man a penny that he might feel he has gained something from my teachings and then expel him.’

– Joke 142 of Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor

Here’s Joke 137 from the same book. I do hope my friends won’t turn out to be too much like the good Professor Krumpelmayer:

‘I have brought a frog,’ said Professor Krumpelmayer, beaming at his class in elementary zoology, ‘fresh from the pond, in order that we might study its outer appearance and later dissect it.’

He carefully unwrapped the package he carried and inside was a neatly prepared ham sandwich.

The good professor looked at it with astonishment. ‘Odd,’ he said, ‘I distinctly remember having eaten my lunch.’

And here is Joke 156, about the utter uselessness of it all. Maybe.

Finkelstein had made a huge killing at the races and Moskowitz, quite understandably, was envious.

‘How did you do it, Finkelstein?’ he demanded.

‘Easy,’ said Finkelstein. ‘It was a dream.’

‘A dream?’

‘Yes. I had figured out a three-horse parlay, but I wasn’t sure about the third horse. Then the night before, I dreamed an angel was standing over the head of my bed and kept saying, “Blessings on you, Finkelstein. Seven times seven blessings on you.” When I woke up, I realized that seven times seven is forty-eight and that horse number forty-eight was Heavenly Dream. I made Heavenly Dream the third horse in my parlay and I just cleaned up; I simply cleaned up.’

Moskowitz said, ‘But, Finkelstein, seven times seven is forty-nine.’

And Finkelstein said, ‘So you be the mathematician.’

Or the person who learned the right math. Or taught it.

*One friend had the wafu ramen, which came with red dates. The other had a pork don. Both dishes got enthusiastically positive reviews from their tasters.

**I’d have added a link for you to subscribe to the Borders newsletter, which delivers some pretty good discount vouchers to your email address. Thing is, one has to print them out. And that’s tree slaughter. Anti-greenery is not cool.

A day on leave

So I was on leave today. Did enough things I don’t normally do to realise that work – those eight to twelve hours spent at a desk typing or at meetings talking or reading or thinking – really does take up an enormous amount of our time. In turn, this got me inspired to do more with all the time I spend at work. (Wonder how long this will last :p)

Just listened to Slate’s most recent euphemism contest podcast. This one was for euphemisms for “death”, and I thought these were funny:

  • taking a dirt nap
  • lost his fight with entropy (cited by an Isaac Asimov fan)
  • leaving the sample (used by a political pollster to describe a respondent who will no longer be a respondent)
  • eat the grass by the root (French, apparently)

Really looking forward to the Sandy Lam concert on 9 Dec.

You don't want to be promoted to customer…

So I was listening to Slate’s podcast on its most recent euphemism contest, and this one was on corporate euphemisms. Perhaps because of its wide scope and rather cynical subject matter, the euphemisms weren’t as entertaining as those for stupid, which I wrote about a few blogs back. Anyway, here are some I thought were rather fun:

Liberating captive assets [In other words, stealing office stationery]

I can’t say enough good things about her. I could not give this applicant a higher recommendation. If you can get her to work for you, you will be lucky. [The killer recommendation letter trifecta]

Promoted to customer / on eternity leave [Fired]

You're… er… a few fries short of a Happy Meal…

So I had bookmarked this podcast about Slate‘s Euphemism Contest a couple of weeks back, and I finally got around to listening to it. The podcast hosts had invited listeners to submit euphemisms for “stupid”. For example, the subject of this little post: “a few fries short of a Happy Meal”. The podcast was quite funny. You should really download it and listen to it if you can. I particularly liked these ones:

His elevator doesn’t go to the top floor (or its Spanish counterpart: His pail doesn’t come up to the top of the well)

The wheel is turning but the hamster is dead [A bit morbid, this one.]

As sharp as a blimp / the leading edge of a basketball [There must be many, many of these similes around…]

He’s got his solar panels on the north side [Err… I don’t know… even if they’re on the north side, they’ll get some sun, no? But I liked the thought put into this one.]

At the blackjack table of life, he stands at 11 [If you don’t get this, see if you can ask someone who plays blackjack to explain this to you.]

All vacuum and no tube [Very evocative, this one.]

Homeschooled by poodles [Well, at least one would know how to bark and prance around…]

His faculties will never be tenured [For those pursuing higher education :p]