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Farewell, Singapore.

By on Aug 30, 2011 in Personal | 56 comments

This post has taken me far too long to write and publish. Well, most of it was written on my last day in Singapore – on the rooftop of NTU’s Art Design Media building, as I cradled my netbook on my lap protecting it from a drizzling rain with my umbrella. Now, home alone in my new house in Portsmouth – my housemates don’t move in until next month – England welcomes me back with the same weather. On the way, this post has been edited in train stations, coffee shops, airports in four different countries and yet I still am not sure whether I’m satisfied with it. Yet Another One that runs into thousands of words. Anyway. Many people have asked me why I chose to go to Singapore, of all places, on an exchange programme. (Bear with me or skip the next couple of paragraphs in case you’ve already heard this bit from me.) When I was informed by my university that I was eligible for an exchange programme, I knew that I wanted to go on for a full year and not just a semester. A single semester sounded like a holiday, a full year would be a life experience. When you go for exchange for a semester, most universities transfer back credits for courses taken on a pass/fail basis. If, however, you want to go for a year – at least with my university – credits as well as grades are transferred back. This narrowed my choices considerably as it required my university to have bilateral agreements any place I wanted to go for exchange. My choices came down to three: Australia, where the partner universities were two specialising in business; USA, where Surrey has a couple of tie-ups (Cincinnati and NCSU); and  Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I wanted a place had a good faculty in digital media and computer engineering. NTU sounded like a good fit, particularly because it had an Information Engineering & Media department. (Let me take a step back here to talk about what degree I’m pursuing for those interested. Technically, my degree is in ‘Electronics and Computer Engineering’. What I was actually interested in though was Digital Media Engineering, offered as a specialisation by the same department. The only catch was the Digital Media Engineering batch was started in 2008 (?) and although it’s a recognised degree, it does not yet have professional bodies such as The IET accept it as a path towards becoming a chartered engineer. As the courses are offered by the same department, taking an ECE degree allows me to take the same courses as DME students while still giving me the flexibility to take up other specialisations if I so want to – and get an IET-accredited pathway for chartered engineer status. So there. While degree title doesn’t quite match up, what I’m studying resembles the Digital Media Engineering pathway the closest.) What really swung the deal for me was the reason that drove me to attend that first workshop organised by Surrey University on a December afternoon – I wanted a life experience. I wanted to live long enough in a place to get to know it. I had saved up too and wanted a base that made it cheap and easy for me to travel. (That’s right. I paid for all the travelling I have done over the past year from personal savings.) Europe was my first choice (Surrey had many options for exchange within EU) – I won’t lie – but it was out of contention already as most European universities don’t teach in English for my degree (until final year or masters level). The US didn’t present as many opportunities for travel, and the choice of courses I was eligible to take at NTU seemed to be a better fit for my degree. Done. Flights booked. Shenanigans at Changi Airport = done. Singapore is a small city, about half the size of two cities I know best: Delhi, the city I grew up in; and London, the (major) city closest to where I live(d) in the UK. People call it ‘Asia 101’, a place where Westerners can come to experience Asia without suffering culture shock. Singapore helps keep up appearances too; with clean streets, planned out roads, trees planted precisely measured distances apart, shiny malls everywhere with exactly the same stores selling everything at the same prices. This is the impression most people carry away of Singapore: a model city done right – perhaps done a bit too right – with funny signs all over the place and a bit of fetish for cleanliness. Where’s the culture, you ask? See, assimilating foreign cultures without barfing is one thing Singapore has been incredibly successful at. English is spoken so widely, down to the level of the ‘uncle’ who cleans plates at the hawker centre, that language is never a problem for aliens. Even though the largest ethnic group is of Chinese-origin people, you never are challenged into having to learn Chinese (or Malay or any other language spoken extensively in Singapore). If you landed at New Delhi airport, sooner or later you will run into someone who doesn’t understand you – perhaps the cleaner at the airport toilet. Or if you land at Heathrow, sooner or later you will run into a Scot or a Welsh and have no idea what...

July 2011

By on Jul 31, 2011 in Personal | 2 comments

I’ve been away from my blog for such a long time that it’s easiest to get over with in list style: I turned 21! This was my first birthday spent away from family, the first birthday away from school friends – and I was a touch saddened by that. Then again, my awesomesauce friends in Singapore made sure it was a memorable day. Do I consider this a milestone (kilometrestone doesn’t have the same ring to it)? Definitely, especially, because I spent the better part of a year in Singapore. I spent the past two months working on a research project in NTU. I was under the Division of Information Engineering, in a team working on a next-generation touch computing interface called STATINA. My task was one of the branch-offs associated with the touch computing project: to make a continuous speech recognition engine that could work with Asian accents. The basis of my project was on the ubiquitous Cambridge University Engineering Department software toolkit HTK, based on data recorded at NTU. This was fun, as speech recognition has been one of the areas that has drawn me in over the past months and I got something meaty to chew on while contributing to an existing research project. I was glad to have a supportive professor and PhD mentor to provide me guidance throughout the research project. If I had to single out one thing, I think my main contribution would have been using my readings on linguistics to approach the problem from not just a technical standpoint. The research project was under the Summer Research Internship Programme (SRI) run by NTU and sponsored by the Singapore government (I think, at some level). I highly recommend it to everyone for the exposure it gives you to ‘real’ research. Don’t expect to change the world in the eight weeks or so that you get, this is more like a taster. It pays well too – about S$3000 for two months – and you get experience the culture of an alien country. It’s just incredible to meet 50-odd people from around the world and go through this journey of discovering Singapore all over again through the social events organised – we had regular parties and events to bond over in the weeks here. If this video doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will! I will be leaving Singapore for good – at least for the foreseeable future – on the 4th of August. I’ve lived there just a week or two short of a full calendar year, and all the events of the past year make this one stand out in my life so far prominently. I loved and lost (long distance really doesn’t work out, so it’s better to live in the moment) and loved again and lost and then some more. The past 2-3 weeks have been pretty eventful in ways more than one (and not just because of my birthday) including some wicked parties (71st floor of Swissotel – on a helipad!). I have also been to more traditional, ‘heartland’ Singapore and partaken in activities and food that makes Singaporean citizens cry tears of joy. I dyed my hair blue-black again with less than spectacular results. Not impressed. Semi-permanent dyes seem to give a stronger effect but last less; when they start fading they look hideous. Permanent dyes stick longer but getting the shade just right is hard. Still, almost-there blue-black is better than being a ginger as I once was. Despite the punishing my hair took when I bleached it, I think my hair’s in better health now than it was a year ago. Carry rubber with you at all times. Like, seriously. I found a year-long undergraduate placement in the UK! This had been a huge challenge, as only a handful of companies ever agreed to interview me over phone or video conferencing. I was also actively exploring the option of working in Singapore (most actively pursued, although visa issues were a major hiccup; furthermore, tech companies mostly have business / sales presence here rather than a technical one), Malaysia (Penang is a hotbed of electronics manufacturing), Hong Kong (opportunities were mostly in the business / finance ), Taiwan (d’oh, the electronics industry here is HUGE!). I’m glad to find a company that I really like though, which I will be joining in mid-August. I won’t be returning to my university as this job is based out of Fareham in a company that deals in IC design software and fabrication. And while I’m sure there’s something learn from every internship industrial placement / internship – this is one of the reasons why I opted for a ‘sandwich year’ in the first place – I’m so happy to find a company that offers me a blend of electronics and software work to sink my teeth into. I still need to find accommodation and that’s probably going to eat up my time in the first few weeks back in the UK. Fareham is kinda located midway between the cities of Southampton and Portsmouth, and I for one wouldn’t mind living in the lovely coastal city of Portsmouth. Speaking of Taiwan, I’m currently in Taipei City and will be here about six days. I have friends studying / working here whom I met on my summer internship as well as friends from Surrey University. And the nice-ass (literally, for...

On watching ‘The Hangover Part II’ in Bangkok, and being a cynical asshole

By on Jun 14, 2011 in Personal, Reviews, Travel | 19 comments

The first part of this blog post – a review of Hangover 2 – isn’t what I what I sat down to write; it just gives me a way to segue into the later bits. I find it funny that the owner of Segway Inc. died when he drove a Segway off a cliff. Segway segue segway segue… *** Every Vegas movie has a shot of a guy sticking his head out like a puppy from a car, awestruck by the dozens of neon signs and a thousand bulbs flashing by. Govinda cavorts around in the Swiss Alps, suspiciously singing and dancing with a bunch of schoolkids. As long as you give moviegoers an armchair vacation, it adds pizzaz to an otherwise lacklustre script. This is what I found myself thinking after watching The Hangover Part II, in Bangkok, the week it released in theatres. I count myself lucky that I got to see the filming locations. Hell-yeah I was excited. A quest to complete the trail and discover Bangkok at the same time! Armed with these guides from Travelhappy and CNNGo, I started off at the Sky Bar and Sirocco restaurant on the 63rd/64th floor of Lebua Hotel. Didn’t go to the top – for one, the cargos I was wearing wouldn’t pass their ‘smart casual only’ dress code. Also, prices – aptly for a place named Sky Bar – are sky-high: a drink costs about 500 baht (US $17)! It is supposed to have one of the best views of Bangkok (Bangkok doesn’t, yet, have a space needle like structure they can use to gouge tourists), so if you’re nattily dressed and have cash to spare, this one place to check out even if you aren’t a Hangover 2 fan. Many generic-Bangkok street scenes were filmed in Bangkok’s Chinatown, known as Yaorawat. Much of the lanes look the same as the next one; still, if you want to see the specific lanes where they filmed then these are Soi Phiphasya 1 and Soi Plaeng Nam. Chinatowns are a fascinating place in any city, Bangkok is no different. You can lose yourself in its sprawling Yaorawat district for a whole day and never get bored with watching life pass by. The Chao Phraya river is very much the lifeline of Bangkok. It flows north-to-south through the city, a major traffic-way that can often get you to your destination faster than Bangkok’s notoriously congested roads. As you take a Chao Phraya Express ferry down the river, you’re sure to find ‘longboats’ – small, private boats for hire with a long shaft connecting the engine to the propeller (hence the name). The Wolfpack travelled in one of these, in the scene where Stu strums a guitar lamenting their night epicly gone wrong. The speedboat scene in the final act is on the same river, though I never saw one myself. Perhaps this is only a possibility if you know international gangstas. Also on the Chao Phraya river, close to the Memorial Bridge pier, is the riverside café where Alan starts playing on an arcade machine – that’s Nang Noun Restaurant. Given the prominent role the riverway plays in Bangkok residents’ daily routine, it is no surprise that so many scenes were filmed there. A short walk from Sukhumvit MRT – a district full of high-rise fancy hotels and tourist-packed shopping centres – is Bangkok’s infamous Soi Cowboy, a lane full of go-go bars. (‘Soi’, in case you were wondering, means ‘lane’ in Thai.) I came here to see the place where Stu finds out he has demon/semen inside him. ‘Siam Siam’ doesn’t actually exist; it was a modified entrance to Cactus Bar. The interior shots were filmed at the Tilac, across the lane. When I visited Soi Cowboy early evening, the *ahem* trade hadn’t quite started, but I could already see expectant wolfpacks and Dirty Old White Men circling like vultures. The girls themselves took this time to gather and have a big family-style dinner together before their work started. I didn’t visit Ancient City, a theme park that was christened ‘Ching Mei Monastery’ in the film. (Don’t confuse ‘Ching Mei’ with ‘Chiang Mai’, which is a city about 700km from Bangkok! Any tuk-tuk driver offering to drive you to Chiang Mai is conning you.) I don’t remember whether I went to Soi Sukhumvit 7/1, where the riot scene outside ‘White Lion’ was filmed, as all streets in the general area of infamous Patpong look very similar (see picture above). Apparently, Bill Clinton visited the set here when filming was going on; this is an opportune moment to make a  ‘what was Bill Clinton doing in Patpong’ joke. You can see pictures from during Hangover 2‘s filming at this forum. And yet, somehow, seeing these places with my own eyes diminishes the exoticness, the unattainability that Bangkok was chosen as a setting for in the first place. For someone who hasn’t visited Bangkok, the narrative remains reasonably fresh because your eyes can feast on ‘something new’ (no, girls, I don’t mean Bradley Cooper). I attribute The Hangover 2‘s box office success to this. Roger Ebert seems to think the film is a deliberate attempt to hurt Bangkok’s tourist traffic by playing up the shady parts of the city but you’d be surprised how many in the audience will see it as an advertisement rather than a warning; a place to...

Break a leg

By on Jun 4, 2011 in Personal | 32 comments

The sound of bone crunching is very visceral. I have never heard it. The scream that you let out when a bone breaks is very animal-like. The pain that you feel is beyond imaginable. I have never broken a single bone in my body. My ribs came close to, once, but they didn’t actually break. I sound like the serial killer in Jeffrey Deaver’s The Bone Collector. I want to have a tooth knocked out by a blow from a knuckle-duster. I want to hear cartilage snap as someone punches my nose so hard that it breaks. Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction… I do not know how to make fire by rubbing sticks together, and how helpful that skill would be if I am about to sleep cold, tired, and hungry in a cave. Yet, it’s what my ancestors did purely by chance thousands of years ago. They probably had an IQ of a newt, and yet, they could do it – so why can’t I? I am fucking terrified of dogs, which they can sense because they always start barking and acting aggressive towards me. Maybe I will push my luck too far one day by trying to run – and failing to make that extra step – rather than trying to stand-up and face them. Cats, on the other hand, them I like. If I ever get one, I will name it Furball. Cats are nice because you can fuck off on a trip and they’ll still be there, alive, when you come back unlike needy domesticated dogs that need constant care. I will try feeding chocolate cookie crumbles at least one time to Furball; I have no clue whether s/he will like it. I have never experienced what real starvation or hunger is – and I’m not talking about ritual fasting or a hunger strike here. To be lost in a desert where you have too much sunlight or to be locked up in a tiny cell where there’s too little – of both sunlight and hope. I want to know how it was possible to survive on a meal of watery porridge with a handful of rice grains twice a day. I have tasted pig intestines, jellyfish, chicken feet, pigeon, shark, stingray, crocodile, frog, water beetles…and yet I’ve never tasted snake blood, or foie gras, or caviar. How fucking hard can it be to make this possible? I want to help out someone in a helpless situation and make life better for them. This could due to poverty or injury or mortal peril or whatever – and I will do it without regard for myself or expecting anything at all, even gratitude, in return. I want to slit the throat of a chicken or a goat that I later eat, like Mark Zuckerberg does for all his meals. Many people will be confused with what I’m saying here; I only have “lmgtfy” to tell them. I want people to mistakenly think this is because I look up to him as some sort of idol. I will make the kill as quick and painless as it can be, but I also want to stick around and watch the animal in its death throes. I just finished reading The Beach by Alex Garland. I think it is the cause for me writing this, right now. I want to have an equally engrossing story to tell. I arrived back ‘home’ yesterday – and I am already itching to book my next trip. I want to bungee jump off Macau Tower – the world’s highest bungee jump – carrying my own digital camera in my hand, and then worry about a $150 piece of shit that tumbled and fell from my clasp from that high up. Before the adrenalin fully kicks in and I have a laughter fit. Then I want to experience the same rush again by skydiving. And then yet again by BASE jumping. I want to break open a door by kicking it or barging at it with my shoulders scrunched. I want to sketch out rough-looking drawings of what I’m thinking with charcoal sticks, much like they characters in horror movies do. I want to live – even if for a few days – among a jungle tribe, not knowing their language and cursing the oppressive humidity in the forest, the bugs, and that vile soup that they drink ceremonially on Thursdays. I met an American guy in Saigon – no, this is not a ‘Nam story – who climbed Mount Everest solo, carrying his own tent and equipment. You can be an armchair cynic and claim that climbing Mount Everest isn’t as difficult as it once used to be (they even have 3G connectivity at the summit these days, you know, just in case you wanted to check-in to Foursquare), and you’d be a twat for saying that. On the best of days and conditions, Everest would require cojones that would need a separate rucksack to carry them in. I want to do that, some day. I want to see piranha fishes in real life. Sharks, well, everyone’s seen sharks on the Discovery Channel or Jaws. Piranhas…now that is more exotic. I want to volunteer for a charity in any impoverished country in the world. I hope my effort, however tiny in the larger picture, will at least make a handful of lives better...

My rap band’s first album!

By on Apr 1, 2011 in Personal | 3 comments

Chromed text – check. Gold text border – check. Lazy album cover ‘design’ – check. Guys, my rap band – Gunz Bubba – released its first self-titled album today! Pick up a copy in your neighbourhood store today! (Also, our band is so awesome that it has rectangular CDs, to fit the rectangular album...