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Singapore daily life

Things are settling into daily life.

University classes started this past Monday, so suddenly the campus is busy and there's lineups at the food places at lunch. We've never had a problem finding somewhere to sit, though. Sometimes it's the whole group going together (including the professor); other times it's just three or four people.

I continue to try different foods. This evening I had a Chinese pancake-cheese-peanut creation. The picture looked vaguely like pizza, but it turned out to be more of a snack/desert-type thing. I think the chopped-peanut topping had sugar in it.

Of course, if I want pizza imitation without paying eight times the normal price for a meal, I get Indian cheese naan bread with some kind of hot red sauce. That was unexpectedly good, although I had to wait for a while for them to cook it. I'm not certain if I'll go back there... maybe when I'm on my own. I feel awkward joining the meal table when everybody else is halfway finished.

Breakfast today -- at noon -- was Thai fried rice. I was told that it was vegetarian, but it came with a few shrimps or prawns on the top. I scraped those off onto another person's plate.

I'm not really certain what to do about breakfast. I like arriving at the lab before other people, but that means that I skip breakfast to get there. I'm also not starving in the mornings. Now, I could leave at 10am or so when I start to get really hungry... but then I'm leaving for food just when other people are arriving.

I also discovered that the Engineering canteen is much better than the Arts or Business canteens. Spaghetti, with meat, for S$1.80, and a coke from the drink fountain is S$0.50. In the Thai place, for example, a coke was S$1.20. My "comfort" meals are mostly spaghetti. I sometimes have a chicken burger at the local (to my apartment) food court -- this was the one that I avoided on the second day, but upon later investigation I found there *was* a "Western" place. Again, it was filled with fried chicken stuff, but the chicken burger looked safe.

I have yet to make eye contact with any Caucasians in Singapore. I haven't gone out of my way to stare at people, but whenever there's another Caucasian, I'm aware of them and get ready to meet their eyes and smile. But they all studiously ignore me -- even when I sit next to them on the bus.

The reason I mention this is because a famous blogger (a black guy teaching English in Japan) recounted a story where he met another black guy in Japan and gave him the Black Guy Nod (tm). The Japanese person he was walking with was amazed and asked how he knew the other guy. The exchange-teacher explained that he'd never met the other guy before in his life, but that all black men had a special Black Guy Nod (tm). He mused on whether other minorities had similar greetings.

Well, it appears that there's no White Guy Smile (tm). At least, not in Singapore. On one hand I'm disappointed, since I love having secret handshakes and whatnot, but on the other hand it reinforces the multicultural native of Singapore. I have to say, although Canada prides itself on being multicultural and stuff, Singapore beats the pants off Canada.

Simple example: all the food courts here have color-coded trays. Muslim places give green trays, Chinese places give red trays, and Western places have black/brown trays. When you return the tray to the tray return area, there's a separate rack for Muslim and Western only. Cultures that use pork and whatnot (forbidden by Muslim Halal) can't put their trays on those racks. Oh yeah; most Western places here are certified as Halal -- they don't offer any pork or use lard or whatever.

This really impressed me. I mean, sure, in Canada there's strict laws against discrimination on religious grounds... but there's no such thing as separate utensils for faiths that want to avoid certain foods. To put it in philosophical jargon, in Canada one has a negative right to multiculturalism, while in Singapore they have a positive right.

Still no rain here. Some locals are now talking about how surprising it is that it hasn't rained in so long.

I finally washed my clothes, but I was surprised at how long it takes clothes to dry in the air. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course, but I just never thought about it. There don't appear to be any electronic dryers in the country.

Another random tidbit: my hair seems to be changing to a lighter colour. Is that normal for sunny places? Or is this an effect of the small bottle of shampoo I got upon checking in? Or am I probably imagining things?

I'm really playing a leadership role in the group, and keep on having to give impromtu lectures about Karplus-Strong physical string modeling or Gamelan ensembles. I'd be lying if I claimed that it wasn't going to my head, but in some ways I wish they didn't realize how great I am -- for the past few days I've spent about half my time mentoring PhD students.

Now, my first thought is that I can catch up on my own work on Saturday, but this coming Sat there's a research group meeting and I'm giving my thesis defense again (expanded to fill an hour). And Friday has lots of meetings about the various research projects.

Oh well. I'll see if it settles down next week; if not, I'll ask the professor about what he wants me to do.

Questions Answered 1

I'm going to answer a bunch of emailed questions in this blog post, under the time-honoured teacher theory that if one person asks a question, 10 more were thinking it.

Singapore has an extensive public transit system. The main backbone is the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), which is a mostly-above-ground subway. There's a single prepaid card you use for both the MRT and busses, which makes travel very convenient. You tap the card when you enter and exit, and you're charged based on the number of stops you travelled. I haven't seen any car rental places, but there's lots of taxis around. Getting to NUS involve 10 minutes on the MRT and 15 minutes on a bus.

Singapore food portions tend to be smaller than Canadian ones, so I'm generally hungry even with 3 meals a day. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- it makes the food I do eat seem much more tasty. For example, the best pasta I've ever had in my life was S$2.00 (or about CDN$1.80 and US$1.60 -- I got the exchange rate the wrong way around in the last post).

I'm using my eee strictly for personal business. Some days I don't even bring it to NUS, although luckily I brought it today (I'm in a seminar which just had two Chinese speakers). I only turn on the windows computer when I need to proofread somebody else's papers. So most of my life is spent on the Mac Mini running OSX 10.5.

The research group has 15 people. I think there's approximately 3 undergrads (NUS has undergrads doing significant research -- the speaker just now said it was a full year of undergraduate research, which seems incredibly high). Maybe something like 3 Masters students, 6 PhD students, 3 PostDoc / Research Assistants... plus the professor. Ok, subtract 1 from one of the above numbers. Other than me, everybody is Chinese or Singaporean with Chinese ancestry.

The violin in the lab was bought a few years ago, and had sensors put on it. They hired a few musicians to play it, while they videotaped it and did bow-tracking or something like that.

The mobile device orchestra will of course be videotaped. I'll try to get it posted online, but at the very minimum I'm sure I can bring a copy back to Vancouver.

The proofreading was proofing other people's papers. I can communicate fairly easily with people in the group, but even the best English speakers here do things like writing "for buffering mechanism". (either missing an "a" or an "s")

The apartment has a rice cooker, kettle, and a hot plate. I've found a local supermarket and a "mini-mart". I haven't bought anything yet, and I'm not certain if I'll bother. I mean, eating out is so cheap, and has no hassle of cooking or cleaning up. This was in the local mall, which had other stores at well.

Weather is a mixture of sun and cloud, and probably constant between 25 and 30. The past few days have felt a lot better than the first few days, but I'm not certain whether that's due to me wearing shorts and white t-shirts, getting used to the climate, or any actual change in temperature. I saw two brief (less than 1 minute) rain showers, but no real rain yet.

Second to Fifth day in Singapore

I forgot the power cord for my laptop at NUS on the second day, was too hyped up to write anything on the third day, and was too tired and stuffed to write anything on the fourth day.

Second day - Thursday

On the second day, I had breakfast at a cafe called "The Grinning Gecko", overlooking a jungle mini-valley at NUS. You'll be amazed at the pictures when they come probably next Sat. I had their breakfast set C, which consisted of eggs, toast, chicken bacon, lettuce, and a tomoto. I also had some mango lemonaid, which tasted ridiculously good.

I then filled out more forms, collected a PC from tech support and a mac mini from my supervisor's other lab, and met most of the other people in the research group.

I've never been in a research group before. Sure, at UVic there were a bunch of people who occasionally worked on projects together and some of whom sat in the same room, but it wasn't like this. Dr. Wang's group gets together to play sports and have spring music evenings and stuff. They even eat lunch together!

Speaking of which, the first lunch was a disaster. They all got Chinese food, so I followed suit, but that particular stall was out of vegetarian dishes, so somebody suggested something with chicken in it. For those who don't know me, I'm very picky about meat. Fatty or bloody parts trigger my gag reflex. This chicken dish was not composed of pure breast meat. I managed to choke down about half of it.

Oh, and you know those little spoon-like things that you use with chopsticks to pick up hard-to-get pieces of spoons? I thought they were spoons, so I took one and left the chopsticks alone. Score another point for ignorant Westeners! (if anybody knows what those spoon-things are called, I'm curious)

In the afternoon I got a walking tour of NUS from my supervisor and discussed research plans in general. He also commented that I was very overdressed (black jeans and an olive button-up shirt), and that nobody at NUS cared how you were dressed and he could even give lectures in what he was wearing. That relieved me, since I'd noticed that working Singaporeans all wore buttoned shirts, but I figured it was better to make an initial impression as being too smartly dressed rather than insufficiently dressed.

For dinner, I went back to the same food court but had pasta (spaghetti) from the "Western" stall. Their notation of "Western" seems to resolve around fried chicken, and included a few dishes that definitely weren't Western... but pasta definitely qualifies. It was very cheap (S$1.80, which is about CDN$2.00 or US$2.25), but I discovered that it didn't have any meatballs in the sauce.

Third day - Friday

opened a bank account. I then had the same breakfast as as the second day, followed by more forms.

The morning ended with a presentation to 33 high school students from a "top high school" -- evidently Singapore does the sensible thing and streams students, instead of the silly Canadian system where everybody goes to the same schools. Anyway, he gave a short presentation about music computer research. As part of that, I inserted a mini-lesson about the relationship between frequency and string length, mass, and tension. He had the formula on the slide, but I figured that a one-minute speech with violin demonstrations wouldn't hurt. The kids even predicted what would happen when I put my finger halfway along the string... although in retrospect, grade 12 students aren't stupid. If I couldn't have done that by grade 8 -- even without having played cello -- I'd have been mortified.

I also criticized the slides just before the presentation. One slide in particular had a lot of black text and was unnecessarily confusing. I suggested removing some text (in particular, "music -- appreciation -- ears -- brain". You can't appreciate music until it's reached your ears, let alone your brain!), as well as adding some colours. After the presentations, I also sent more criticisms to him.

I was a bit cautious about my initial comments, because some people don't like criticism, but he loved it. That was a great relief for me, since I hate working with people who don't like criticisms. Eventually I stop making suggestions to avoid upsetting them, and then I just sit and stew with the knowledge that I could have made things better. But that isn't the case here; I definitely made a positive impression with my suggestions.

I also wrote a long email with suggestions and links for the mobile device orchestra. They were using the accelerometers in the ipod touch to trigger drum sounds. Some of you may remember my performance of the Swan and Rachminoff's Vocalise while I was an undergraduate student at UVic. It seems like I'll be returning to that kind of work, which is nice -- this was the first area of music technology that I pursued.

For lunch, I tried the Indian stall and got something that looked like a big, thick crepe. It might have been mashed potatoes covered in batter, although that sounds a bit weird. It came with some sauce which was somewhat spicy.

For dinner, I didn't eat before I left campus, since I'd spent all my cash on my initial bank balance deposit (actually, I had to withdraw some cash from my Canadian debit card... I shudder to think of the bank charges I incurred in doing so), and the first bank machine I visited was out of cash. So I started walking along the main street in front of my apartment, and eventually (10-15 minutes?) arrived at a shopping plaza. It had a McDonalds, which I started to walk towards, but then I noticed a pizza hut sign.

I got a regular (9") pepporoni pizza. It was S$16 (including drink), which is ridiculously expensive by Singapore food prices, but I figured that I deserved a treat. I think this might become my standard Friday night thing... it's too expensive to have on a regular basis, but I was dangerously low on one of the main food groups (grease), and it felt very good to stuff myself.

Fourth day - Saturday

My normal breakfast place at NUS was closed, so I went straight to the lab and started working. After about half an hour, some more people arrived. Just as I was going to leave to have breakfast (about 10:30am), my supervisor arrived. He was horrified that I hadn't eaten yet, so he took me to eat. We went to a Chinese stall, and I got him to order something vegetarian for me. Apparently at this stall, you get rice plus X side dishes, so he simply pointed at three different vegetables. There were some asparagus-like things that were quite good. I think they were a type of bean?

More discussion about research projects followed, and in the afternoon I finished proofreading my second paper and started looking at iPhone/iPod touch development. Around 2pm I went and got lunch at the Subway on campus, and by 3pm I headed home to sleep.

I dozed for a few hours, but then woke up at 7pm and went to find more food locally. I found a food court almost immediately, but it was really intimating -- very noisy, everybody speaking non-English (and non-French and non-Japanese) languages, and not a scrap of English on the signs for each stall. I ignored that area and kept on walking.

After 5-10 minutes of walking, I discovered another food court, but this time I went in. The best bet seemed like a Muslim or Indian place, where I got some small pancake-looking things. Judging from a quick glance at wikipedia, it was naan. Anyway, that came with a soup (or maybe just runny curry?). I tried dipping the pancake-like thing in the soup, which seemed quite nice. I have no clue if that's what I was supposed to do, but it seemed to work.

Fifth day - Sunday

I'd decided early on -- actually, I meant to add this to my resolutions for Singapore -- that I wouldn't go in to university on the "day of rest". That was reserved to catching up on lilypond, writing blogs, and housework. (Mao, it's already 16:15!)

My MRT station is almost at the end of the line, and I'd heard that there was a big shopping centre at the end, so I went there. I also needed to buy a SIM card for the phone my supervisor lent to me, and I figured this could count for my "tourist thing of the week".

I ended up having breakfast at Burger King. As per usual with Western food places, a meal comes to around S$7. That might not sound too bad (and it certainly isn't), but complete meals at non-Western places are generally S$3 or S$4. And you know that I'm a ridiculous skinflint.

I returned to my apartment, then set out for lunch. I went slightly farther than last night, since I'd heard that there was a mall there. I found the mall, then went to a food court. I got some sugar cane juice. This is produced by putting a length of sugar cane through a juicer. Like, right there and then. Fresh squeezed sugar cane juice!

It turned out to be quite bad. Somehow it had the consistency of milk, with a sugary taste. Almost like strawberry-flavored milk, but... somehow wrong. I'm sure it could be an aquired taste, though. Anyway, to choke that down, I found a vegetarian food place and asked for rice and 2 veg, then pointed at two of the vegetables I'd had for breakfast on Sat (including the bean-like things). To make life more interesting, I tried using chopsticks.

I really should have learned how to use chopsticks before coming to Asia. I'll have to ask somebody to teach me at lunch tomorrow.