The Rise and Fall of Games Online, Part Three: January 1996
Note: I reviewed this article on May 7 1996 and again in December. Revision are in parentheses and marked with a “rev.”
A black, plastic, scotch tape dispenser sits on the table.
“Tell me whatever comes to mind about this object for three minutes,” I ask the candidate applying to be one of our writers.
Candidate one: “Well, it is a dispenser for sticky tape, right?”
Candidate two: “It seems to be not quite heavy enough. Should be heavier, so it doesn’t move so much.”
Candidate three: “Well, um, there is not so much I can say about this. It is pretty simple, right?”
Candidate four: “This is an alien device for taking over the world by using sticky tape to pull all of people’s body hair off.”
Hey, you know, we might just pull this off!
You Live Here, Lah!
I have finally come completely to terms with the reality that I live in Singapore. It took a while, but I have finally gone two weeks without suddenly sitting bolt upright in bed and asking myself, out loud, “what the hell am I doing here?!”
Don’t laugh. That was a serious problem for the first couple of weeks that we were in the apartments. As long as it was just Joe and me living in the Mandarin Hotel, on the tourist strip, there was that illusion that this was all some kind of weird vacation. It acted as a kind of psychological insulator, preventing me from confronting the reality that this is it. Home.
Once we moved into the apartments that little psychological safety valve was switched off, however. We made the apartments into a home, albeit a rather sparsely furnished one. Returning here after work feels different than returning to the hotel. There is a routine at last. We go shopping. We have our regular shows on TV. We have a well stocked larder, dishes to wash, laundry to do. There are ants on the stove, and the occasional turbo-roach needs to be hunted down and killed (nature has gifted Singapore with a spectacular collection of the world’s fastest insects; ants here break the sound barrier on a regular basis). We are on a first name basis with the neighbours. We are buying major appliances.
Now you would think that all this homesteading would increase the comfort factor, create a personalised refuge, and so on. Well, in one sense it does, but it also forces you to confront the reality that you do, in fact, live in Southeast Asia. No more hotel/tourist illusions. Hence those occasional sleepless moments.
As with all things, it seems to be a matter of time, though. To be sure, there are things that we all miss. An abundance of entertainment options, cold weather, our friends and family, etc. On the other hand we are learning what Singapore has to offer by way of replacement for some of those things. And, over time, the sneaking suspicion that something is horribly out of whack has diminished, I am pleased to report.
Of course, there is still the occasional reminder that we are not in our native environment. Linguistic and cultural pitfalls still arise occasionally. There are a few things we simply cannot bring ourselves to eat. The manner in which business functions is very different. But we have reached a certain comfort level, after over a month in our apartments.
Now I sleep peacefully through the whole night, under my ceiling fan, invariably set on full. Until I remember just what it is we have set out to accomplish here.
Then I sit bolt upright and ask myself, “What the hell am I doing here!?”
“Lah” is the all-purpose Singaporean syllable. It is often placed at the end of a sentence to add emphasis. “You want delivery Tuesday lah! No way. Thursday soonest!” or “That is really cool lah,” or “Michael Fay lah! They sure caned the shit out of him!”
Sure helps when all the local slang is collapsed into one word.
“Lah” is not the only Singaporean slang word worth remarking on, though. Another one is “blur,” which means stupid, dense, or out of it. You don’t say someone is “blurred,” or “blurry,” simply that thay are blur. It is wonderfully evocative. “Man, why are you so blur today?” Or, for the advanced Singlish user, “Don’t be so blur, lah!”
It is mid January now. We are well ensconced in our apartments. The entire American team is here now. We have hired the core of a good staff. Against all odds, some progress has been made. On the other hand, as fast as we deal with obstacles, new ones seem to appear, and we still get frustrated on a regular basis.
In brief, this is where we stand. All of the guys are here now. Mike MacDonald, Koji Goto, and Paul Deisinger arrived from the states on December 9th and have settled in nicely, although Koji gets deathly ill periodically due, we think, to the copious amounts of MSG used in the Chinese hawker stall food. (MSG is practically a component flavour in the fried rice of one place we were patronising.) Rob arrived just after Christmas, and Joe’s wife, Akiko, arrived a week and a half into January, after some confusion as to whether she would need special paperwork to enter the country, being pregnant. (Miraculously, the answer was no.)
We are still commuting down to Boat Quay. The inevitable bureaucratic delays have pushed the start of construction on our new permanent offices back until god knows when, and the temporary office space agreement is being held up by bullheadedness on the part of Ngee Ann Polytechnic administrators. Since we have a staff starting in the first week of February, this issue had better resolve itself quickly.
On the positive side, we have hired several talented people, despite some early anxieties about finding qualified and creative candidates. We are still a few people short, but it looks like we eventually be able to fill out our staff completely. Only our traditional-media art staff remains a void. We need four scenic/manga artists (rev: boy did our look change!), and haven’t found any yet. We have a couple of strategies left to pursue, however.
Astoundingly, our apartments are still un-airconditioned, although the contractors have been here at least a couple of times to make wiring changes and make the holes for the units. Why this should take so long is unknown to us; it all seems relatively straightforward. But considering the glacial pace and lack of initiative or accountability in most Singaporean business matters, it is not entirely surprising. Now that statement is a bald analysis of the manner in which business functions here, and it is proving to be a major impediment to our progress. I’ll explain more at length later. It is really quite astounding.
On the whole, however, we forge ahead. It helps that, despite not having a signed contract yet, it looks like we will all be paid next week. That is a big plus, since there are some morale problems among our American staff due to perilously low finances and ambiguity as to when, if ever, we would be paid. The goodwill that a paycheck for the junior American staff will generate will go a long way. And it was that argument that seems to have greased the wheels. Of course, now we have to see if the money actually appears. We have heard promises before.
Anyway, here is how things have gone for the last six weeks:
Everybody Gets Sick
Shortly after we moved into the apartments, as wave of illness swept through our little group. It started with Joe and me getting sore throats and general malaise. I recovered after about two days, but Joe actually had to go to the doctor and get an antibiotic prescription. We were both periodically troubled by resurgence of the symptoms for about three weeks before everything cleared up for good.
Shortly after our initial recovery, Mike and Koji both came down with splitting headaches and other assorted symptoms of discomfort. At the time we thought they had just become very dehydrated, wandering around the zoo. After a couple of repeat incidents, though, we have a theory that they are both sensitive, in varying degrees, to MSG. We eat at hawker stands a lot because they are cheap, and the food tends to be tasty. There are a couple of disadvantages, though. The more native hawker stands and wet markets (see below) boast sanitary conditions that put Mengele off surgery, and MSG is treated like a condiment at many of the Chinese food stalls. We were getting fried rice at one place in Funan Centre until Mike happened to watch them cook it one day. Into one serving of fried rice he saw them add what he estimated to be a quarter cup of MSG. Needless to say, our intake of fried rice decreased markedly shortly thereafter. We also noticed that, at the larger supermarkets, you can buy MSG in giant, ten KG flour bags. This does not inspire confidence. We are eating more Indian food lately, due to the lower MSG content, and my having introduced everyone to the wonders of a really good vegetable somosa.
Speaking of less than sanitary conditions, Singapore boasts something called a Wet Market. The name alone should be a warning. A wet market is simply an outdoor butcher market, where you can buy chickens, ducks, pork, beef, mutton, produce, etc. Poultry tends to be butchered on site, although larger animals are shipped in piecemeal. Although the prices seem pretty good, the combination of tropical heat, the thick smell of chicken shit, and the suspicious sanitary conditions have prevented us from trying to buy anything at our nearby local wet market so far. We are not too humiliated by this as we have two supermarkets and a butcher shop within easy walking distance, and Yu Min, our local cultural guide has admitted that, despite having grown up in Singapore, he has never shopped at a wet market.
The phenomenal thing about the wet market is that you are reminded how picky Americans are about what part of the animal they will eat. The Chinese sell, and, presumably, eat everything that can be extracted from a pig. Muslims must recoil in fear from the Chinese wet markets. Pig heads, pig skin, pig hearts, pig intestines, pig stomach, pig tongue, pig feet, and, yes, pig sphincters are all available here. So far none of us has been up for a pig sphincter stir-fry, but, as one of our group pointed out, you get pig sphincters in any pork hot dog, so what’s the big deal?
Fine, you cook.
The Great TV Debacle
Shortly after moving into the apartments, we came to grips with the fact that we needed to buy a television set. Not that there are any great offerings on Singaporean TV, mind you. Local TV is strictly low-rent for the most part. The only local shows that we can bring ourselves to watch on a regular basis are our favourites, The Silly Hat Show (a Hong Kong product actually called The Great General) which I wrote about last installment, and which all of us but Rob are now hopelessly addicted to, and a local cop drama that we call Singapore Chick Cop (in color!).
Singapore Chick Cop is actually called Triple Nine (999 is the Singapore version of 911), but, like The Silly Hat Show, we had our own name for it before we found out what it was really called, and it stuck. We think our names for the local shows are much more vocative of their content and spirit. Singapore Chick Cop follows the exploits of the gallant, young, and preternaturally attractive CID cops of a precinct Somewhere In Singapore. Singapore Chick Cop herself, played by an attractive actress named Wong Li Lin, is actually about number two on the hierarchy of the ensemble characters. She just figured prominently in the first episode Joe and I saw.
Anyway, these stalwart, young, and sexy upholders of the law work tirelessly on a weekly basis to clean up crime in Singapore. They bust drug runners, arsonists, thugs, extortionists, triads, etc., facing the usual litany of romantic and interpersonal problems. The funny things are that the crime portrayed on these shows wouldn’t rate a subplot on an American cop show, which is an interesting indicator of the different relative crime levels and perception of the nature of crime in Singapore and the USA. The other thing is that it is all fantasy, because, as near as we can tell, there is no actual crime in Singapore other than the occasional bilking of tourists (which is too inconsequential to even rate an episode on Singapore Chick Cop).
The final thing worth pointing out about Singapore Chick Cop is that apparently no one on the island of Singapore can actually act. They all suck. Bar none. That is why we will not rest until one of our staff gets to make a guest appearance on the show as an evil imperialist ang moh villain. We figure we’ll be up for an automatic Emmy, or whatever the local equivalent is (Hammy?).
Actually, TCS (the Television Corporation of Singapore) and Sembawang Media are interviewing prospective hosts at Boat Quay for a new show on computers and new technologies. None of us tried out for the hosting job, but we will be featured on an installment of the show. We were all scared away from auditioning when we saw that the Internet was referred to as the “Super Information Highway” on the audition script. I predict a rough road for the show. I may offer my services as a consultant. Or I may steer clear, considering that our own project, GOL, is always one step from disaster itself. (Rev: Yes, I ended up on the show, Cybertime, as the software reviewer!)
Anyway, with such glittering prospects spread out before us, how could we not want a TV right away? We found our local electronics superstore relatively easily, mostly because it is in the most hideous building ever conceived; a giant, safety-yellow block with red exterior girder work. We could have spotted it from Malaysia. We headed down there and scoped out the scene. Joe eventually decided on a nice large set, and a VCR, both made by Thomson. Joe filled out an inordinate amount of paperwork to buy the TV, and was told that we could expect delivery in four days. Four days?! Hey, we’re Americans, and we expect immediate gratification! Well it was just before Christmas, they explained, and their delivery system was overtaxed. Well, we just had to have TV right away, being starved for brainless entertainment. So we asked, if we could get a vehicle to the store, if we could pick up the TV ourselves. “Yes,” said the salesman. All right. All very simple.
Well the first problem was getting a taxi large enough to hold the TV. We called every cab company we could think of trying to get a London style cab or a station-wagon cab, both of which are available in Singapore. After an hour of attempts, Joe conceded defeat, and we gave up until the following day. The next day, Joe spent another hour (literally) on the phone with various cab companies until he got an arrangement for a station wagon taxi to meet us at the store. Filled with the spirit of optimism, Joe and Paul trooped down to courts, met the cab, and the found the salesman, who cheerfully informed them that they could not pick up the TV as stock was kept at a central warehouse, and delivery was handled by an independent contractor.
This was our first experience with the dreaded “Singapore Yes,” and we have learned to be cautious. In much of Asia, including Japan and Singapore, you will often be told “yes” when the real answer is “no.” This is done not to be deceptive, but as a courtesy. A direct refusal is considered to be an affront to the feelings, and very rude, no matter how emphatically negative the answer should be. Consequently, you will almost never be told “no.” You will be given a qualified “yes,” or expected to understand contextually when a “yes” is sincere, and when it is simply to prevent hurt feelings and lost face. Unfortunately, as Americans used to being told “up yours, Jack, we’re fresh out” in no uncertain terms, it took us a while to begin to learn the difference. Even though Mike and I were on the lookout for just this kind of thing, due to our reading of the cultural guidebooks, anticipating it and learning to deal with it in practicality are two very different things.
At any rate, the TV was delivered when they said it would be, and we began softening our heads. Unfortunately the TV has turned out to be the exception for crisp delivery. Joe and I both bought tumble dryers to complement the washing machines provided by Sembawang. Joe had the wrong model delivered, and had to send it back. I was called on the day I was supposed to receive mine and told that it was out of stock. Could I wait, please? We’ll see how long it takes to show up.
I am heading back to buy a TV for our apartment next week. Perhaps I will have better luck.
The Joy of Laser Discs
On the subject of television, one thing I must crow about is my recent acquisition of a laser disc player. Since broadcast TV in Singapore is a tiny wasteland (compared to the States, where it is a vast wasteland) we have been forced to rely on things like movies for home entertainment more than we would in at home. Joe had bought a VCR, but I had become interested in laser disc players, something that I never thought much about at home. It occurred to me to buy one here for a couple of reasons. One, they are common here, and, consequently, much cheaper than in the states, where they are a specialty item. The model I bought cost me about $600 US, and I am told by Paul and Mike, who both owned LD players in the States, would cost nearly twice as much at home. Second, LD rental shops are much more common here than videocassette rental. LD is the preferred medium for renting movies in Singapore, and LD rental and purchase shops are very common. The selection is quite good. LD sound and picture quality beat the pants off of VHS, in no uncertain terms. Watching an LD copy of a movie and then switching to even a commercial videocassette is really quite shocking. It illustrates what a crummy standard VHS is. Finally, movies tend to be in letterbox format on LD, which is great. American audiences, for some reason, have a plex about letterboxing. If the image doesn’t fill the whole screen they seem to feel that they are not getting everything out of their TV. Unfortunately, pan and scan/cropping just doesn’t do justice to a movie filmed in widescreen. For someone who wants to collect movies to own (which I do) or who likes to see the whole movie frame (which I also do) LDs are great. I hadn’t seen Star Wars in widescreen format in over ten years. It was one of the first things I watched on the LD player. The downside is that long movies are spread across two or even three discs sometimes, depending on format, and, of course, you can’t record on them. Still, I have been quite happy since I got my player. And it is NTSC format (as all LDs are), so it is coming back with me when I leave.
Of course, Singapore is a nation with censorship, and I have to admit that not everything I want is available here. Pulp Fiction, for instance seems to be missing, as are a couple of classics that I would like, such as Clockwork Orange. Furthermore, every laserdisc or videotape that you buy here has stickers on it certifying that it has been approved by the Singaporean censors. They don’t alter the content of movies. If they don’t like anything, they simply won’t let it in.
Oh, you have to keep the censorship approval stickers, in case you ever get raided for something (unlikely, but it’s the law).
Now, you can drive across the causeway to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, where things are a little more free-and-easy. It is like going across the border to Mexico. You probably won’t get searched coming back, but if you are they will confiscate anything you buy. Then they will send whatever you have bought to the board of censors. If it is approved, they send it back to you. If it is rejected they either erase the tape or keep the laserdisc. Either way, they bill you for the service.
We have successfully had stuff mailed to us. They don’t search many parcels coming into the country, especially those going to a business address. But you always run the risk. We are having videotapes sent out from the states with TV shows. So far, none of our stuff has been confiscated for censorship, even though Joe’s father sent us a parcel marked “videotape,” which we have since instructed him not to do.
There was one thing that I had to watch out for, though. As in much of Asia, one thing that is very popular in Singapore is the devil hobby, Karaoke. It is insidious. Virtually every bar, restaurant, and club has a Karaoke night. Most malls in Singapore have a central atrium, and it is quite common to find a Karaoke show going on in the middle of the day. It is inescapable.
For posterity, I will now offer my opinion of Karaoke. It is hell. It is dangerous. It persuades people who have no business singing to climb on a stage and open their mouths in front of microphones. It invites ruin and anguish. It is a torture loosed upon the people of the world by an angry god. It is the hobby of the damned. It is the only recreation in Hell, besides shuffleboard. It is a trick to persuade otherwise perfectly sane people to ridicule themselves and offend the senses of others.
Now a major piece of equipment in almost any karaoke system is an LD player. LD is the most common format for recording karaoke material, since there is usually video material included as well, such as lyrics prompting. I had to go out of my way to specifically locate a quality LD player that had no karaoke features. I almost failed, but in the end I located a good model with no mic inputs. The salesman still wanted to sell me another model, explaining that it came with a free microphone. “No,” I said, forgetting that a qualified yes would be more polite, “I simply won’t have it in the house.”
That is how I avoided the evils of karaoke. Ironically, as a former overnight disc jockey, I have probably sung along with more bad music than any ten karaoke lounge lizards.
Christmas and Discoveries
Christmas was a time of mixed feelings for all of us. All things being equal, I think every one of us would have rather been at home with our families and friends. We tried to make the best of it, however. Joe and I bought a roast for the other guys (not too cheap in these parts where all beef is flown in from Australia or New Zealand), and we cooked up a big, heart-stopping meal which was demolished in half an hour.
vThe best part of Christmas was meeting our neighbours, with whom we’d had only the most passing of acquaintance. On the floor that Koji, Mike and I live on there were two families (now three, since another family has moved into the last apartment). Both families are English men with Asian wives, and children. The first couple is Mervyn and his Sarawaki wife, Tina, and their young son. They invited us over on Christmas morning for a party they were having. It was quite sociable. They were both very pleasant and chatty, and made sure that we were well fed. Tina offered us the use of her washing machine, since we didn’t have one at that point, and were taking laundry all the way to the Holland Village neighbourhood by taxi.
At Mervyn and Tina’s we met a Singaporean friend of theirs named Lenny, who told us that it was not uncommon for Singaporean businesses to promise expatriates the world and not deliver unless really pressed. Of course, that cheered us up no end. Joe and I resolved to make sure the contract met our expectations to the letter before we signed. We are still sticking to that philosophy. Until we like what we see, down to every period, we are not going to sign. Until then, Sembawang owns nothing of ours (intellectual property wise), and we owe nothing to them. They have invested quite a lot of money in us so far, with us as yet having no legal obligation to them, so we don’t expect any serious problems, but we are resolved to make sure.
At Mervyn and Tina’s party we met our other neighbours, Bill and Jenny, and their two somewhat sullen teenage daughters. They, too, were very pleasant, and invited us over that evening for coffee, which we took them up on. Bill was a nethead and CAD instructor at Ngee Ann Poly, so we got into some pretty heavy geek talk.
All in all, meeting the neighbours turned what would have been an otherwise fairly dismal Christmas into a reasonably pleasant one.
Our Christmas spirit was tempered somewhat by our discovery of the cause of one of the major obstructions that we had been facing. Sembawang Media is a new division of theSembawang Corporation, and, as such is under tighter control than other subsidiaries at the same level. CEOs of other comparable Sembawang subsidiaries have up to a million dollars in discretionary spending power. Wong Seng Hon, the CEO of Sembawang Media, has about 50k in discretionary spending power (rev: upgraded this May to $500,000?). It is costing several million to start up Games Online. Consequently, every purchase above Sen Hong’s spending limit has to go all the way up to Sembawang Corporate, who’s natural Singaporean business tendencies (sluggishness and lack of accountability) are exacerbated by their utter ignorance of what is involved in the creation of software, and their questioning of every expense that we accrue.
Singaporean Business Practises
That is the second time that I have complained about slow pace and lack of accountability in Singaporean business, so I feel compelled to explain. This is not just reactionary slandering of Singaporean business practises, it is the result of philosophical differences in the local approach to business matters. In Singapore, the bureaucracy of business functions extremely slowly. There is such paranoia about corruption that it seems they have overcompensate, and made it almost impossible for business to be conducted at a nimble pace. The sentiment is good, but inability to react quickly is the kiss of death in the software industry. If there is a piece of equipment we need, or a show we need to attend, or person we need to hire, that decision will often need to be made and acted upon quickly. The components of software design are interdependent, and the technology and industry change to fast to allow the sluggish company to compete.
The second aspect of Singaporean business is lack of accountability. Preservation of face is very important in Asian business matters. This is an inextricable part of Asian culture and philosophy, and is impossible to remove from Asian business. However, it leads to a few problems. It can be difficult to track down an individual with executive decision making power. People tend to cover their asses religiously as well, and if there is a fault in the system, finding the person responsible can be impossible, making it very difficult or impossible to address or correct the problem.
The combination is very difficult for us, as Americans to get used to, although we are trying to adapt, and also inimitable to the development of software in a nature competitive with the American games industry; our stated goal. We are trying to shape Games Onlineinto a hybrid that will not offend Singaporean sensibilities, but that will allow us to make successful games in a reasonable amount of time. How successful we will be remains to be seen. We are fortunate to have at least a couple of allies, but it is a long road to hoe.
The current upshot of these problems is that we have a staff reporting in just under three weeks but:
…We will have no permanent office until March, it looks like now. We won’t even have a temporary office until just before the staff arrives, making setup a last-minute nightmare. We have no finished, signed contract, so we almost didn’t get paid for the work we have done for the last two months. We have no computers for the general staff yet, and only got our own desktops two weeks ago. Our development schedule will be at least two months behind what was originally projected, making us more vulnerable to competitors. Etc.
On top of all that, Chinese New Year is approaching in the end of February. This year, the new year coincides with Hari Raya, the major Muslim holiday. This is a once in a century occurrence, so the entire country will grind to a halt for a while, ensuring further delays. I figure we’ll just have to party then.
We Got a Car
On the other hand, we did get a car, which was something of a minor miracle. Provision of a car was specified in our original and, as yet, unsigned contract. Sembawang tried to nickel and dime us down to an underpowered Malaysian sedan, but Chris went to the wall for us, and Sembawang finally coughed up a rather nice Mitsubishi sedan that will seat five of us, although without any room to spare. We have been doing a lot of driving since we bought it, which has allowed us to explore the island, and has made the commute to Boat Quay a great deal more tolerable.
So far, Joe and I are the only ones driving regularly none of us had any real left-hand driving experience, so we had to make some serious adjustments. For a while, I was sure that one of us was going to make a right-hand turn across traffic and into the oncoming lane, following our American driving instincts to certain death. So far we have been able to avoid that, however, and Joe and I have become pretty comfortable with local driving. Some things that we have learned. Lane choice in Singapore is very arbitrary. Cars end to drift a lot, and people tend to bunch up quite a bit. We are amazed that contact isn’t more common. We hear that it is more common in Malaysia, along with car theft, which may explain why we aren’t allowed to drive our rented company car into Malaysia. Also, all trucks and commercial vehicles are assigned a lower speed limit; either 40 or 50 km/hr depending on their size, as opposed to the nominal 80 km/hr expressway speed limit. Commercial vehicles, large and small, also all have a yellow light affixed to the roof of the cab that flashes when the vehicle goes anything more than a bit over it’s assigned maximum speed. We call this light the “bust-me light,” but it doesn’t seem to attract a lot of attention from the Singaporean traffic police. All taxi cabs are also equipped with a chime that goes off continuously when the vehicle goes over the speed limit. Rare is the cab ride we have taken that hasn’t been steadily accompanied by the two-tone ding-dong of the speeding chime.
It is worth pointing out a couple of other things about driving in Singapore. First, it is surprisingly easy to park, due mostly to the vast amount of money necessary to buy even a shabby car, and the daily ($3) or monthly fee ($60) imposed to drive into the downtown area during business hours (a system I would like to see imposed in San Francisco).
There are a lot of pay parking areas, usually 45 or 90 cents per half hours depending on where they are. Instead of using parking meters they use a coupon system. You buy a book of ten 90 cent coupons. The coupons have round tabs that can be punched out to indicate the date and time of use. When you are parking in a pay zone you punch out as many tickets as you are going to need for however long you are going to park, starting with the time you arrive, and going in half-hour increments.
Well, you say, if the tabs don’t punch out completely (which they don’t), couldn’t you just fold them back in and reuse the ticket? After all, it is sitting on your dashboard, and they can’t pick it up to inspect it. Well they way they guard against this tactic is thus: the fine for overstaying you time limit is nominal. Ten bucks or suchlike. The fine for attempting to cheat or reuse parking tickets is vaaaasssst. Furthermore, the metermaids (and I use the term loosely) in Singapore don’t leave a ticket on your car. They just record the violation. A month later you get a bill in the mail. And we suggest you pay it! (Rev: Actually, they will put parking tickets on your windshield. It’s moving violations they get you for in the mail.)
Moving violations work the same way. There are red light cameras at busy intersections that will photograph cars that run red lights (at night you can tell when they get you because they flash). A few weeks after they zap you, you get a ticket in the mail. Pay up. Even police cars may not pull you over unless you are being really reckless. They’ll just take down the license plate and write it up later. For the first couple of weeks after we started driving we kept expecting to get parcel in the mail with something like twenty tickets. Hasn’t happened yet, so maybe we didn’t commit any fouls.
Our New Year was considerably less exciting than our Christmas. We played poker in Joe’s apartment. At the stroke of midnight I welcomed in 1996 by cracking open a foul Tiger Beer. Hurrah. Next year we are hoping for more of a rager. There was a party at Boat Quay, but a quick poll of our Singaporean friends revealed that none of the people we really liked from SembMedia were going to be there.
We Got a Staff
In one of the more promising developments of the last month, we have hired the core of what we feel will be a good staff. People start reporting for work on the second of February. We will be staggering our new arrivals over a month or so.
When we first started interviewing people, Joe and I were a little pessimistic about our chances of finding good people, but for most positions that turned out to be a groundless anxiety. We found more good writers than we could hire, including a woman with two published novels, a guy who got a cyberpunk genre comic off the ground, a forty-year old Australian who moonlights as a music instructor, the chairman of the local Science Fiction Club, and, possibly, one of the senior writers of the most popular television show produced in Singapore, a sitcom called Under One Roof. (Rev: Hired all but the sitcom writer.) Our programming staff will include a two New Zealanders, and an American with a Ph.D. in Psychology, as well as some locals. (Rev: well, that changed a bit…see installment 4.) We have three excellent 3D artists, and some good graphic artists. We still need some more 2D artists and at least one more programmer, but we feel pretty good about our prospects and the people that we have hired so far. Another round of recruitment is ahead, as we try to fill out the art staff.
Escape From Bachelor Hell
Joe’s wife, Akiko, finally arrived on Friday, the 12th of January. It was a good thing, too because Joe desperately needed to have her here. His apartment had disintegrated into a complete war zone. I knew that he had hit rock bottom when I caught him making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a hot-dog bun. “Man,” I said, “you are the guy most in need of his wife that I have ever seen in my life.” Fortunately for Joe, he was not long in waiting after that. Now we have to find a way for Akiko to keep from going crazy from boredom. She was working in Tennessee, but here she is relegated to housewife status for the time being, although she may get drafted into helping with some GOL Japanese language issues down the line.
There was a little stress before she arrived because Singapore requires women more than six months pregnant to have an entry visa. We had to calculate that Akiko was under six months pregnant (which she was) and hope that she wasn’t showing enough to cause any problems (which she wasn’t). In the land of the gods of paperwork, we expected the worst, but everything went smoothly.
The Ngee Ann Polytechnic Staff Apartments, where we all live, are obviously expatriate central. I don’t think there is a native Singaporean family anywhere in this complex. That is not entirely bad, but it is interesting. We are a bit removed from the Singaporean mainstream, surrounded by Brits, New Zealanders, and Australians. It seems that the Polytechnic has a largely foreign teaching staff.
One is Always Haunted
Science has shown that if you buy more than two computers, one of them will always be haunted. This should surprise no one. Computers are one of the places that evil spirits most like to haunt. Just ask anyone who has ever worked around a large group of computers. Always one will be haunted. It will act funny. It will crash. It will make strange sounds. It will suddenly not work, and then, just as suddenly, work again. Cure that computer and the demons move to another one, or, worse, they move into the network.
It was this way when we bought our four laptops. One of the NECs was seriously infested with evil spirits. It still is. There is nothing we have been able to do about it. When we got our six Dell P-133 desktops, the one Mike picked was haunted. It took us a day to exorcise the spirits, and they just moved to Koji’s computer. I suggested putting up a shrine to the computer gods when we got our own office space, and then sacrificing some chickens, or maybe an old 286 machine. That idea met with general derision. We are considering having a feng shui man come in and make sure that we have aligned our office correctly to prevent the confluence of evil forces, or hiring dragon dancers, who practise at the polytechnic, to do a dance at our office space and drive out any lingering evil spirits. We’ll see what we can afford. (Rev: We are expecting a large batch of demons to arrive with our soon-to-be-delivered shipment of 25 desktops and 3D machines and 3 servers.)
The Gutter Guy and 100% Employment
Singapore prides itself on having nearly 100% employment. Don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone has got a plush gig, though. For one thing, Singapore is in a clear economic recession despite what you read in the government controlled newspaper. Retail sales have been way off this year. For another thing, Singapore’s employment figures are padded by a large underclass of poorly paid service sector employees working jobs they wouldn’t have handed out to lepers during the industrial revolution. These people eke out a subsistence living doing menial work and living in the meanest of the government subsidised HDB flats.
Gutter cleaning duty seems to be the largest single repository of surplus labour in Singapore (along with people who sit next to the ticket machine in parking lots and, when you pull up to the machine, pluck the ticket from your outstretched hand as you reach for the slot and insert it for you). Gutter cleaning is serious work in Singapore, which has a rain-forest climate. There is a lot of accumulated plant debris, and when it rains, it rains hard and water collects very rapidly. Singaporean gutters average two feet deep, and the streetside gutters in outlying areas, such as where we live, are colossal. The one along Upper Bukit Timah road, our nearest major street, is five feet deep and two feet wide. And in heavy rain, it fills up. As Joe said, “Don’t walk home drunk along that stretch. You’ll break a hip.”
A Singapore “full employment” victim that we see regularly in our area is an individual we call the Stooped Gutter Guy. The stooped gutter guy is an old Chinese man who works on a two block section of gutter along Toh Yi road, the road that connects our residential area with the shops of Jalan Jurong Kechil and Upper Bukit Timah. The stooped gutter guy always works the same two blocks, and he works them seven days a week, dawn ‘till dusk. He is literally bent over at a ninety degree angle at the hips. He is shaped like a question mark. I do not exaggerate. He has got a case of scoliosis that God couldn’t cure. This man is stuck in the position that he works in. This is not a joke. We have never observed him to straighten up, even when he is not actually working at the gutter. He has been working this stretch of gutter since the war, is what we figure. (Rev: we have since determined that he is a groundskeeper for the park on that stretch of road, and that the gutter just takes up most of his time.)
Another way that Singapore maintains high employment rates is through bald inefficiency. When we went to pick up Mike, Paul and Koji at the showpiece Changi Airport, we were stunned to see no fewer than six workmen engaged in polishing a section of floor the size of a living room. Labour was arranged thus: one guy drove a large, Zamboni-like polishing machine that, if employed efficiently, could have done the entire airport in a day. Two guys with mops worked the fringes of the zamboni area. Three more guys stood around and chatted. They worked a twenty-five foot square of floor for half an hour. You should have seen the ruckus kicked up when Joe walked across the freshly polished section of floor. Three man-hours of work down the tubes. Mind you, it wasn’t waxed or varnished. Just cleaned.
At the nearby Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Rob observed five guys painting one speedbump.
Now you know how they do it.
No job, eh? Well here’s your rake. You got one now.
I am pleased to report that the live music scene in Singapore is not completely hopeless. Last night (the 16th of January) we went out to see the Foo Fighters and Sonic Youth. The Foo Fighters is the act headed by Nirvana’s former drummer, Dave Grohl. He just put out his first album a few months ago, and I like it quite a bit. He and the Foo Fighters put on quite a good show. Grohl came across as personable and reasonably sincere, and the music was excellent. Also, he wasn’t afraid to screw with his big hits, like playing a very slow version of “I’ll Stick Around,” which was cool. (Of course his drummer was also really sick.) Sonic Youth on the other hand, whom, I must admit, I am less fond of to begin with, put on a much more perfunctory show. They seemed very anxious to get back to the hotel, and I was underwhelmed by their overall performance and enthusiasm. The crowd was pretty restrained, compare to an American crowd, as you might well expect.
All in all, it was quite a pleasant evening, and worth doing. We’ll have to see if any other interesting acts come through. We met a guy who is one of the editors of the local alternative music magazine. He is working with PI on developing an entertainment web site. He is pleasant enough, although he seems overeager to impress us, which confuses me a bit. Hopefully, he’ll let us know of anything cool that swings through.
Well, that’s all for this report. The next one should be interesting, as we should have started integrating and training our staff. I’m quite sure that will lead to some adventures. We’ll keep you posted.