Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Value of Literary Devices

Ok, there is something very important I really need to get off my chest. Today's Write-Camp featured Laremy Lee who gave a very passionate argument on why we should promote Singapore Literature in our schools.

Fundamentally, I disagree with Laremy, because I don't trust our local literati to be able to share their works in an apolitical manner. I believe, very strongly, that this effort will be hijacked in the interests of the political left. I have yet to see any writer portray the views of the central-right poignantly in a story to have it fairly represent the political interests of the majority here. To put it bluntly, MOE will become an unwitting tool of the Liberally-educated Socialists if this idea is implemented nationwide.

But that's just me. I have my biases and idiosyncrasies.I'm hardly fair and I don't expect you as the reader to agree with me.

As it turns out, Laremy has very relevant points in this presentation. One of his ideas is that local authors enrich the value of their texts by peppering their works with literary devices. Literary devices are tips and tricks to make writing more engaging. Some devices feature a rich use of metaphors. For example, "He's as arrogant as a government scholar." Others feature alliterations. "He's arrogant, anally-retentive and assholic - and these are his good points."

I was actually quite shocked and perplexed that some writers resisted the idea. Writers feel that they are not obliged to write well and actively write with an audience in mind. A person even wanted to pass the buck back to Laremy, expecting the Ministry to change instead of local writers.

I don't like the attitude of some local writers. A writer needs readers ( and very badly !), and Laremy has proposed a method to reach an entire generation of Singapore students.

We should respect his proposal.

Given the low respect and profit margins writers get in Singapore, the last thing you should be is an arrogant, self-indulgent prick when discussing your precious works.

Sometimes I wished I had better training, I would peppers my works with the proper devices ( At least my showing in Golden Point would not be this pathetic. )

And for the non-Literati types, literary devices can prove it's worth in the business arena. Whether you are writing a proposal or making a presentation to senior management, the ability to craft a great narrative and speak in metaphors will have a positive impact on how people see you.

Managers who employ metaphors are consistently rated as better leaders than those who won't.

This probably means means a much bigger pay-check. That's something many Singaporeans do care about.

Some random thoughts from the Singapore Writer's Festival.

This year has ended fairly productively on the writing front.

a) I published 3 e-books, one is an RPG, one is a book on Finance and one final book on Philosophy.
b) Took part in the Golden Point Award, submitted a short story. Too bad I took my writing lessons with Felix Cheong after my submission because I would have stood a fighting chance if I armed myself with some basics on storytelling.
c) Just today, I was given a chance to speak to writers in a 30 minute event. Never really wanted to be a passive player in the world of writing anyway.

Here are some insights I've gotten from the Festival :

a) Publishers here have no idea that they are in serious trouble.

There is this pervasive atmosphere that publishers are overselling themselves and outmoded publishing models to the general public but I think we writers know better than to keep on working so hard for so little. Modern modes of distribution can now provide up 70% margins for the content creator and this restores the balance of power in publications.

I think it's high time that publishers take a long cold look at themselves and ask themselves what they've become. It's almost like a refuge for Luddites who want a career to doing anything technological. Well, time's up ! The future belongs to publishers who can take a written work and create interactive experiences around it. This requires a team of competent IT and engineering professionals. More jobs for techies ! In writing !

b) Writers can be a self-absorbed bunch.

Writers can be a narcissistic lot. A writer was resistant to the idea of using literary devices so that the book can penetrate the student market. Other writers express concern that their work will change too much because of editing.

Personally I don't have a problem pandering to the market. I wished I got that right sometimes. More importantly, it's challenging enough for someone to read your work, I'd be kissing the feet of whoever offers to edit my work for free.

Anyway, I have more insights to share at a later time.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Politicization of Steven Levitt's talk.

I was very privileged to attend Steven Levitt's talk yesterday on unconventional thinking. This is the first time I took time out and paid to listen to 1 hour seminar. In the past, I have been tight-fisted with my money but given that my finances in better control, it's good to pay for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

I would'nt talk about the speech content in this blog. I want to talk about the behaviour of some participants.

During the Q&A session, some participant, knowing that there are prominent ministers in the audience ( I managed to see Yaacob Ibrahim, Lee Boon Yang and heard that Mah Bow Tan was there. ), decided high-jack the Q&A session to express his displeasure at the government initiatives to curb loan-sharking.

I think this is vulgar and uncouth behaviour, you can disagree with the government on many forums including Facebook or even the elections, you don't have to choose a paid seminar to do that. Many participants wanted to pick on Steven's brains on economics and unconventional thinking, so making a long speech during Q&A would just waste everybody's time.

Which leads me to a point I want to make about politicisation. Sometime on my Facebook, I want to describe a generic problem faced in society, like "Why can't we have more entrepreneurs ?". Invariably someone will jump into the fray and say that it's the government's fault. Some very disgruntled experts can politicise issues like dating and even family relationships.

If you take a step further, such behaviour reflects upon just how dependent we are on our government. The government has to take the blame even in a forum where they they should'nt.

In this aspect, we have to accept that if we can't curb our behaviour, it's probably better for everyone that more control is exercised in Singapore. That louts who waste everybody's time have their rights to ask questions taken away by a Big Brother organization. Is this the Singapore we want ?

I propose that tools like twitter and social media be used to allow participants to twit their questions to a moderator for filtering in future talks.

Anyway, the question I wanted to ask but could'nt was whether should we provide an incentive for University students to drop out to run businesses. ( First proposed by Peter Thiel )

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why most of the time, it does not pay to be a Generalist.

Life is'nt fair.

Many sales pitches can be thwarted by the most inconsequential detail. From what I have encountered so far, a heartlander accent can project an unprofessional image and may tilt the decision in the wrong direction.

The intangible often has very tangible consequences.

As such we may need to think twice about about playing to society's expectations.

MM Lee's initial approach to the bilingual policy is something I've always disagreed with. As Singaporeans we need to be be good at both languages. My personal experience, is that I only started to excel after I gave up studying Mandarin while I was in NJC after a D7 in my AO exams. I told my tutor to give up on me and let my mandarin rot in hell, I'll make it up with my other talents. After I quit, I started getting doing better in my special papers and even was in a training squad for the programming Olympiads.

This brings to my critique of Singapore's approach towards languages.

Singapore expects us to be polyglots. Polyglots are folks who are awesome at all languages much like Polymaths are awesome at everything.

Fine and good provided you are someone like Chen Show Mao.

But most of us are not awesome. We make trade-offs and optimizations to get along in this world. Sacrifice and trade-offs is part of life.

The victims in the industrial landscape today based on personal observation does not include the slick salespeople who speak standard English, they are comfortable making great presentations and fulfilling their sales quotas. Ask any high-earning ACS boy working in the finance industry, has his Mandarin ever been an impediment to his rise to high society, China's economic ascension notwithstanding ?

Victims of the bilingual program cover the lesser mortals like myself who just decide to plug at Mandarin continuously until we end up maybe being like 7/10 in both English and Mandarin. Then at a professional setting, a heartlander's home-grown accent from a Chinese speaking family causes him to lose out only slightly to a polished and accent less English presentation.

For want of a nail, an entire nation was lost.

I think a policy change should be in place. Ensure that all Singaporeans are excellent at standard English and can handle basic spoken mother tongue. Then for those who demonstrate proficiency in languages, they can choose to develop their mother tongue further to make them all potential Chen Show Maos.

Furthermore, this principle an also be applied to other areas of education and policy making.

There's always this talk about being a Generalist or Polymath or Renaissance Man. I think this is a nice sentiment, but its almost as practical as asking a guy to grow two penises.

Not giving students a choice to specialize, to put 10,000 hours into his talent and instead focusing on his weaknesses, is like denying his erection and asking him to grow a new dick.

Singapore is not likely to produce a Master of All. You're likely become a Jerk of None.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Write-Camp Presentation Idea #2 : Platform for continuous and never-ending failure

Suppose in a fit of temporary insanity, you start a web magazine. You ignore the conventions that most information junkies already have a fairly mature set of RSS subscriptions, you just go ahead because you believe in following your dreams, and spend a lot of your precious time publishing it.

Notwithstanding the fact that you refuse to use advertisers or even have a faintest idea of what who your niche market it. You just can't find a way to monetize it.

The biggest problem with you plan is not that it cannot succeed. In my opinion, the biggest problem with your plan is that you can't fail.

You can't fail because you don't have the courage to admit to yourself that if you can't get $100 a months on this, then you're wasting my time and should, perhaps, get a job flipping burgers instead.

Artists or writers can go on for years in that zombie state between success and failure. This state is infinitely worse than simply failure.

The second part of my speech will focus on the concept of building a platform for continuous and never-ending failure.

Singaporeans are by nature, very averse to failure. They think that if they fail, it's a reflection of their lack of ability or talent. By reaching a stage where your artistic pursuits can be sustained without losing your pants, the next thing to do is to create a means in which you can fail quickly and decisively. Time saved can be used to create the next generation of products to please your customer more.

This platform should have the following features :

a) Provide a quick method of product prototyping and delivery.
b) Keep production costs to a bare minimum.
c) Allow instant feedback on how your product is doing with the customer.
d) Automated payments.

Prior to the latest developments on the web. The most popular method of publication in Singapore is printing your manuscript, paying for editing and design and then working with a good local distributor. Each product costs about $5,000 to launch and takes about 6 months to get your first pay-check. So a writer technically spends about $10,000 to fail twice every year.

Now with the latest e-publishing platforms, you can float a $0.99 book that contains a key idea for next to zero cost if you have friends who are willing to proof-read for you. Publishing 10,000 word tracts at the rate of 1 product every 2 weeks allows you to fail 26 times a year at a cost of perhaps your internet bandwidth.

This new model for publishing is a very attractive one for Singaporeans as it allows us to have our cake and it eat and take on artistic projects at a magnitude where we can easily bear the cost of failure.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Write-Camp Presentation Idea #1 : Sustainable Artistry

A lot of writers and artists struggle with the question of whether they should quit and go full time with pursuits that they are passionate about. Understandably, that is a challenge in Singapore because inevitably, you will find yourself discouraged by your well-meaning friends and family.

A very tempting option would be to simply ask the artist the question to live his dreams. An artist should follow his passions and somehow things will just itself out. This can make the guru a lot of money, just come up with books like The Secret or The Alchemist and you can live live happily ever after. Your victims will be your readers who actually buy into your ideas.

The logical flaw in such books is that it indulges in the fantasy and fallacy of wishful thinking. That the environment will change just because you engage in positive thinking.

But for the folks attending Write-Camp,there's yet another problem, we live in Singapore. Where artists seldom even get paid by the folks who commission their work. Asian societies are different from Western societies because we're built to be more interdependent.

When you embark on an artistic lifestyle, you are expecting someone else to take up the slack in looking your family. So it's not just about living a non-conformist lifestyle. It's no surprise many artists wind up looking like self-indulgent, narcissistic dicks who can't live up to society's expectations.

I think too often we're stuck in bipolar thinking. Either be an artist, and live a life where you can't even afford to pay for plate of duck rice, or spend the rest of your life working for the Man and being a conformist corporate robot.

The first part of my speech is about the third option :

a) You do the bare minimum to sustain yourself. Perhaps holding a job part-time or working harder to generate passive income. You do just enough by being frugal and fed.
b) Once you can sustain yourself and can look normal to the rest of society, you start building an artistic platform where you can FAIL FAST AND FAIL OFTEN.
c) Keep trying until you succeed.

Artistic endeavours is a challenge in Singapore. It's easier to simply assume that you will fail but success can come to the person who fails the most often and picks himself up to try again.

In the worse case, you can always come back and be a robot.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Just signed up for Write Camp 2011.

I just signed up to speak for Writecamp 2011. This is one of my major goals I set for myself this year, which is to speak in the Singapore Writer's Festival but since I believe I lack credibility amongst the Literati, for now, I will focus on performing in the un-conference.

Writecamp Link

I have not completed the plan for the speech, but I expect that it should include the following :

a) People who pursue artistic pursuits take a lot of personal risks to live their dreams. Some quit a day job to focus on their writing, others never publish because of their busy work and personal lives. A workable financial plan can allow you to pursue your artistic dreams while putting food on your table.

b) Some financial figures on my expenses to get my three books published and how I reduced my costs for subsequent projects.

c) Some very compelling cost and profit figures will be shared on the Kindle Development Platform for local authors.

This post will be edited as I develop the Powerpoint slides for my presentation. In the meantime, share with me what would you like to hear in my talk.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Is being good in Chinese a financial liability ?

Just the other day, my good friend and ex-colleague, told me he liked my article because of my observation that a large number of unemployed IT professionals come from HCJC and I suddenly had an eureka moment.

I just realised that my friend is from ACS and then ACJC, and I don't remember seeing a single resume coming from this institution.

There has been many things the government has been trying to do to us Gen-Xers in the past. Two of which is to develop skills in Mandarin and take up courses in Engineering.

The Chinese High-HCJC elites have traditionally adopted the government suggestions, they are stereotyped as math wizards and have the stoic, taciturn and conscientious outlook in life. The ACS-ACJC students stayed true to their Methodist tradition, they were stereotyped as being poor in Mandarin but excellent salesmen, have great practical intelligence and generally go into the banking industry.

I think this is where the government can have a breakthrough if they are simply willing to reveal some numbers to us.

With SAP schools targeting the top 10% of the student population, I'm sure that statistics point to the fact that your income is correlates with mother tongue proficiency. I don't need a statistical report to accept that if your chinese score is higher, odds are your salary is also higher for the general population.

But we would be fooled if this fact was used in personal decision making. We should be benchmarking people of equivalent intelligence and background, and then comparing their salaries based on the effort they put into the mother tongue.

Differences in ACS-ACJC versus CH-HCJC philosophical outlooks can serve well in this regard.

They are students, generally, of equivalent intelligence and capabilities. Only exception is that one group chose to stoically devote time to Chinese language and culture and the other proceeded to develop superior communication skills, salesmenship and personal character.

The results would be mindblowing but ultimately useful to all Singaporeans.

If CH-HCJC salaries come on top, then the government does not need MM Lee to keep reminding us to develop mother tongue proficiency. There is a financial premium that goes towards being good in Chinese. We Singaporeans are a practical lot and will happily adopt CL2 as a first language if such is a case.

However, if the ACS-ACJC salaries come on top, all hell would break loose.

The Generation X guys in my generation will go away knowing that for all this effort to develop mother tongue, we'll just handicapping our future. We will then know that there is a discount attached to developing an affinity for Chinese culture.

This will result in the most earth shattering discovery for ethic Chinese in Singapore. If we take Mandarin seriously we will crippled financially by our personal choices.

If ACS-ACJC salaries come on top, I would not want to be a Chinese teacher in this country.

Regardless of the results, I think Singaporeans deserve this level of granularity to assist us in decision making. If we make our beds with Meritocracy and Pragmatism, then we should apply the same principles in deciding here to devote our 10,000 hours of deliberate practice into.

Remembering those bad old days in NJC where I could score straight As and still get a letter home to my parents because I failed my CL2, I've always argued aggressively ( in mandarin, mind you ) that decision to develop a language should be an economic one and not one which is clouded by some sentiment of superiority of Chinese culture or spirit. And the list of silly proverbs we had to memorize do not move towards that aim, we should reading Chinese business contracts instead.

We are Singaporeans first and ethnic Chinese second.

Today I am a good Mandarin speaker and my old secondary schools friends find it very freaky.

And that is only because my wife refused to park toh with me if I keep speaking English in dates.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

TCS 8, is $4,000 not enough for a Singapore man ?

I saw this article on the web and decided to share it with my Facebook.

TCS 8 mocking Singaporeans

Initially I was a little indignant. The cap on my monthly expenses which covers giving to my family is about $4,600 because that's how much passive income I get every month from my investments. As a policy for me, earned income is invested into education or income generating assets.

My breakdown of my expenses are as follows :

Wife and daughter allowance $1,500 ( Mum in law helps look after baby )
Mom $1,000 ( Mum cooks for me )
Taxes $300
Telco expenses $120
Insurance $160

That leaves barely $1520 for my transport, food, certification classes, games expenses and costs incurred in publications. I draw about $200 from the ATM every week.

If you examine Calvin Soh's character, he earns $4,000 before CPF and taxation so he's at a fairly hard place in Singapore. It's miracle he can feed a car and pay rent but odds are someone like him can't really afford to help his parents out. He's someone who barely makes it.

But if only if the viewer thinks that he's the only source of income around the house.

But if you look from another POV, modern Singapore families show wives helping out with the finances. Over time, you see wives chipping in financially so if Ng Hui's character draws $3,600 take home, we have a fairly comfortable Singapore family here which gets even better if they ditch the car and use public transport.

I think the moral of the story is that we have to take stock of our earnings and save first before we decide on the lifestyle that we can afford to have. If I were Calvin Soh, I am aware that I make about $4,000 a month, the last thing I would do is to date a woman who has aspirations that I cannot afford. Men in this spectrum actually have no choice, they need to marry a financial equal and plan conscientiously to have a working retirement.