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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.

First day in Singapore

I'm now competent at getting around in Singapore, have a grown-up email address (percival@location -- previously only my father has one of those!), and have my employment pass.

Getting the MRT (their version of skytrain, which is Vancouver's mostly-above-ground subway) was ok. I made trips to a few electronic ticket booths before finding out that I was to buy the EZ pass (prepaid debit card system for transit) at the counter.

I then might have committed my first cultural blunder. There was an escalator that was crowded, and stairs that were unused. I assumed that everybody was being lazy and went up the stairs, but when I was almost at the top I noticed an "exit" sign. There wasn't a "do not enter" sign at the bottom (I think -- I'll have to check on my way home). And I haven't noticed any distinction (other than running escalators) in other stations. I felt a bit conspicuous, though.

Got to NUS, but couldn't reach my supervisor's office -- it was behind a keycarded area. I hung out in front of the door for a few minutes, trying to see if I could send him an email (I couldn't), and a girl (or woman) came along. I asked her to knock on his door, but she just let me into the area and I made my way to his office and met him.

He was suprised to see me so early; he'd told me that I should be well-rested for my first day in Singapore and we didn't have to meet until 11 or so, but since I woke up early I figured there was no point not going. We then chatted a bit and then saw the HR person for advice on which formalities should be done next. Unfortunately the answer was "get the employment pass", so I headed off downtown to visit the Ministry Of Manpower. And yes, they do actually abbreviate it as MOM.

When I arrived and got my ticket, they were processing number 265. I was 404. That's not quite as bad as it sounds, though -- in the first 10 minutes, they handled 25 numbers. Later on I estimated that they'd done 60-70 in half an hour.

What is as bad as it sounds is that after receiving my documents, they took them off to be processed. Come back in 3 hours. I wondered whether to transit back to NUS, but it was two MRT lines and a bus ride, so I opted to wander around in downtown Singapore.

Ravenous for food, I started looking for some. I ended up in the food court in the main mall in Chinatown, whereupon I... well, I'm sure you can all guess. I left as soon as possible and wandered in the direction that seemed most likely to get me Western food.

Yes, I know that I'll be unable to survive in Singapore if I don't try other foods, and yes, I should have done more preparing. I was actually intending to suggest Asian take-out whenever my friends got together to watch anime, but that hasn't happened sinnce... I don't know. September? July?

Anyway, there's a time to try new food, and a time to stick with what you know. On a day like today, you stick with what you know.

After about 30 minutes of walking in the insane heat and sun, I saw a 7-11. I considered going there and getting whatever they had (warmed-up hot dog, maybe? I don't know what they have in 7-11s here), but it was on the other side of a major street and there weren't any cross-walks around. So I kept on walking, and saw a KFC in the distance.

Just as I was about to enter the KFC, I noticed a sign for Subway on a bus stop. It was pointing towards the building, and I then noticed a mall entrance beside the KFC. Inside the "electric town" mall, I found the subway. Which was good, because I had been seriously considering asking somebody for directions. Now, that might not sound so terrible, but I'd have asked for "Western food", not just "food". I don't know quite where that ranks in the list of stupid American tricks, but it's got to be in there somewhere.

On way back from that mall, I noticed other Subway store and Western food that I'd missed -- mere meters away from the MRT station I left. I spent a good deal of time walking through that mall ("Central mall"), which seemed to be aimed at tourists.

At MOM again, I was 470 and they were processing 380. I waited for another 60 minutes in the queue. I don't know why we couldn't pay when we drop off our passports and whatnot. The pickup would take a minute! Come to think of it, even though we had to pay, I still don't know why it took some people longer than a minute. I mean, I handed over my ticket number, my old ticket number, and S$100 in cash. The clerk gave me back S$50 and told me it was only S$30, fetched my bundle, and gave me another S$20. Literally over in 60 seconds!

It was 4:40pm at that time, and I'm still jetlagged, so I went straight home. I've got the wireless working now (the magic words were "wep_key0", which do not appear anywhere in the man page for wpa_supplicant. Looking up help online for how to connect to the internet is one of the most frustrating things. Especially in this case, where I knew it would take at most 3 minutes... oh well. Got it working now.

What I don't have working is email. After trying to send email a few times from both NUS and my apartment, I realized that my computer was still set up to use shaw's smtp server. No wonder it was dying! However, I haven't found any info about smtp servers here yet.