Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Thinking Man's Crumpet has decided to call it a day...

Just heard the sad news that Carol Vorderman is quitting "Countdown", the Channel 4 day-time quiz show cum national institution, after 26 years of dedicated service.

I first came across Countdown when I was in my undergrad years, when I developed a habit of watching late-night replays of Countdown while getting some midnight snack, and my little sister used to watch it with me if she couldn't get to sleep either. Not only have I always been a sucker for quiz shows, but I particularly relish the gentle and unassuming nature of Countdown - there's no big money prizes (the winner gets a Countdown mug and a dictionary), there's no flashy graphics or stage design (the same Countdown clock has been in use for decades and the set hasn't changed for years), and the games themselves - there is a letters game and a numbers game - are humble brain teasers that simply test the contestants' mental agility rather than their ability to retain useless facts and trivia. The appeal of this gentlemanly show lies in its combination of the best of both literacy and numeracy games, and whether you're as young as 5 or as old as an octogenarian, you have equal chance of coming out on top if you have a quick mind (numbers game) and/or a broad vocabulary (letters game). In the simple, genteel world of Countdown, the reward for being smart is simply the acknowledgement and respect that you earn from an intelligent audience. In many ways, Countdown is like the ideal simulacrum of academia, whether one's forte lies in the humanities or the sciences.

Carol Vorderman herself, along with the late Richard Whiteley, have become part of the national institution through being co-hosts of the show for decades. Carol is one of the few - in fact, I couldn't think of anyone else off the top of my head - overtly intelligent women in show business, whose celebrity turned on the very fact that she is unabashedly smart, whose keen intelligence actually enhances her innate sexiness. One could only sigh at her ability to perform complicated mental arithmetic at lightning speed as she sets the contestants to rights when she reveals the correct solutions in the numbers game. Her contribution to the game show rendered her recognition and acclaim beyond your average "posh totty" used as simple eye candy.

Such is her allure based on a potent mixture of brains and beauty, Carol has earned the epithet of being "The thinking man's crumpet". Her male fandom goes right against the conventional wisdom that men find intelligent women threatening. On the contrary, hordes of men from members of the aristocracy right down to the daytime-TV-watching unemployed found her bright-as-a-button persona irresistable and downright sexy. The fact that Carol Vorderman does not in anyway feel the need to downplay her intelligence in the pervasively chauvinistic environment that is contemporary show business is something that smart women everywhere drew inspiration and encouragement from. Indeed, when the show "Britain's Big Brain Game" came up, Carol was the obvious choice for the host, and it was also no coincident that she was involved in presenting the Cambridge University Science Festival.

What's even more brilliant though, is the fact that Carol has aged gracefully over the years and is still as attractive now at age 47 as when she first appeared on Countdown in 1982 at the tender age of 21, fresh out of an engineering degree at Cambridge. That she managed to stay for 26 long years on a show that is even watched regularly by the Queen is no small achievement - We will miss you Carol! Countdown just wouldn't be the same without you, and I hope this doesn't mean the end of your untiring work in flying the flag for smart women in show business.

The only saving grace is... Youtube!

(The first Countdown episode with the late Richard Whiteley and of course Carol Vorderman, who was introduced thus: "Countdown is in fact about numbers as well as letters, and we've figured we've got a pretty good figure ruling that part of the game. Meet our vital statistician, Carol Vorderman, she's a Cambridge graduate and she works in computers." And already, in the very first numbers game, Carol's mental prowess was clearly displayed, and the two middle-aged male contestants, along with Richard Whitely himself, could only marvel at the brains AND beauty of such a modest young woman)

(A rare Numbers Game where a guy's imaginative sums bests even Carol's)

(A 5-year-old prodigy in the audience solved a puzzle that stumped even Carol).

(Carol showing a jokey side when she got to pick the letters herself).

(An octogenarian champion in a 2008 final of the show.)

(Countdown is officially declared a national institution when the Queen herself is also reported to be a fan).

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

If Fonts Were People...

Just saw the below hilarious video link from CSM Grad's blog. Enjoy!

Oh, and this is also rather apposite to the fact that I've now completely (almost) converted to using OpenOffice software now on my PC. Yes, even my dissertation chapters! To boldly go where no MS slave has previously gone before is rather exhilarating!

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Linguistic Excesses...

Oh. My. God. I just read THE MOST UNBELIEVABLE biographical note of an about-to-be-retired professor at my university, and its use of exceedingly cringeworthy superlatives to describe the trajectory of his academic career is so mortifying that they JUST HAVE TO BE SHARED.

(Names are obviously pseudonymised to protect the innocent - chief of whom is the poor professor himself! Let's call him Adam, as in the expression, "I don't know him from Adam", because the biographical note is making him out to be this unrelentingly self-regarding man on a massive ego trip when the poor guy is probably the most down-to-earth and humble person that one could find in the ego-driven environment that is my university - he has to be if he managed to get on well with the students. The toe-curlingly embarrassing and frankly offensively inaccurate use of adjectives are highlighted in bold type to give them extra humiliating oompf... as are those that are clearly typographical mistakes that would have been corrected by even a junior freshman if he has given the text just a second cursory glance before its university-wide circulation. The notes in Red are my own mortifying cris de coeur when I read the text, wailing against the clueless writer capable of such shite yet somehow surviving in academia... Oh by the way, try reading the below out loud in a quasi-Brit accent if you can - after all, a pompous text requires a suitably pompous accent.)

".... Adam has been the epitome of a university lecturer (Hmm, and what would that be? The word "epitome" sounds plain wrong in reference to a profession - anyone heard of "the epitome of a doctor" or "the epitome of a lawyer", without any qualifier as to what particular trait of the profession that the writer believed the individual to be the epitome of? It would have been less jarring to refer to Adam simply as "a model university lecturer"); as a pedagogue par excellence he has devoted untold hours teaching (Obviously it is too hard and pointless to calculate how many teaching hours there were in a career spanning several decades... so why mention the hours at all?? It would have been more appropriate to say "devoted years (or even decades) teaching", as "untold hours" is a phrase one would use in reference to the amount of effort generously expended for a particular project or initiative, NOT an entire career!) aspiring scientists, doctors, pharmacists [the list goes on to enumerate all the various scientific disciplines] (Why the need to list every single one of the disciplines the man has taught? Ferchrissakes a guy with decades of teaching experience would have touched the lives of students across many different programmes and you are either doing injustice to his influence by listing too few or sounding ridiculous by trying to list them all - which is exactly what this sounds like!)... He has been universally popular amongst students and has had a profound interest in the academic well being (First of all, "wellbeing" is one word, or you could spell "well-being", but not "well being"! Second of all, what is meant by "academic wellbeing"?? Are you trying to say "academic standards" or "personal wellbeing"? You can't simply conflate the two, and in any case, all teachers are concerned with the academic standards of their students, so this is almost like damning with faint praise.) of all those in his tutelage... It came as no surprise to all of us when he was recently awarded the Provost's lifetime teaching award in recognition of his consistently superlative teaching ("Consistently superlative"??????????? Teaching that could be described as "superlative"??????????? Oh kill me now!!!!!!!!!!!!!).

.... Many of these research themes derive from his previous appointments at ABC Institute (1901-1902), New University York Medical Centre (Jaysus! If you can't even bother to give your script at least the once-over...)(1903-1904), XYZ Somewhere and ABC Institute (1905-1906) (Why repeat the ABC Institute again a second time? You could simply have written, in the first instance of mentioning the Institute, the periods (1901-1902; 1905-1906). After all, you are simply saying that his research agenda stemmed from his time at these various institutions, and NOT a chronological list of his previous appointments as if you are writing his résumé!) .

.... In the same spirit as his devotion to teaching he has been an enthusiastic and untiring supporter of student sports. Adam is a keen sportsman himself (Ah, the old chestnut of always emphasizing a male academic's virility since academic credentials are by themselves no guarantee of street cred) and is a long-standing member of both the XXX Houses Athletics Association and University Ancient Running Club with a Funny Name. Indeed (Why the need to put in the word "Indeed", as if his completing "no fewer than 30 marathons" is something exceptional when it was already established that he's a long-standing member of a running club? Why not simply the word "and" to link the two sentences together?), he has completed no fewer than 30 marathons. Aside from his passion for sports, Adam has been a zealous (Methinks actually the use of superlatives in this document is rather overzealous! What's wrong with "avid"? In any case, "discernment" would have been a more admirable quality in an art collector than plain zeal) collector of art; given the extensiveness of his collection (Hmmm, obviously his collection has to be extensive for him to loan hundreds of pieces for display in College, so why the redundant aggrandisement? It would have been classier to simply state, "Adam has been an avid art collector and for years has generously loaned hundreds of pieces from his extensive collection to the College") he has loaned hundreds of pieces to the College and these adorn many rooms throughout the Building and University. (Hah, the Building name that is mentioned is also part of the University, or have you failed to notice that it is?)

In recognition of his unstinting loyalty (Loyalty to whom? College? "Unstinting" loyalty is appropriate to describe the devotion to a friend, or to his team, or even to his students. But to an organisation? Er, not so much. You're making him sound like a lapdog. This could have been simple to remedy if you actually insert "to the College community" so that there is a humanizing object to his devotion), capacious generosity ("Capacious Generosity". Are you having me on?????????? Have you any idea what "Capacious" means?????????? In case you haven't noticed, "generosity" is a quality, and pairing it with an adjective used more in reference to physical quantity is never a good idea. This is one of the worst examples of indulging in verbosity by fiddling with a Thesaurus. Just because "capacious" is the synonym to "ample" doesn't mean that you could simply substitute it when it comes to indicating boundless generosity. And all for what? Just because "capacious" has more letters than "ample" doesn't make it more academic or more right! Oh. My. God. Kill me now. Again!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and his consistent service far in excess of normal standards (I can see you are clearly at the end of your tethers where superlatives go and you cannot for the life of you imagine what his service could be "far in excess of" so "normal standards" would have to do) a reception will be held to mark Adam's retirement... If you have any interesting pictures of Adam for our photo collection (Because we really need more incriminating photos than the toothily-grinning one that was used as a BACKDROP to this extremely mortifying biographical text because we are not done with humiliating the poor man yet), please send them as jpg or tiff files to The.Secretary.Who.Is.Clearly.Having.A.Laugh.Producing.This.Note.

[Followed by the names of the Great and the Good of the University who obviously had not even read through the note once - or even to open the damn document (as otherwise they would have seen the tastelessly colourfully-reproduced and enlarged Adam grinning back at them and would have demanded a more respectful photo treatment of their colleague) - before agreeing to add their names to the signatory list].

Sigh... With friends like these, who needs enemies? The professor's humble wish of having a dignified retirement ceremony is dashed - just dashed - by this carelessly written and obviously unvetted circular. But this is just SO UNLIKE any of the other respectful-but-dull retirement circulars that have been sent around in the past, that I am actually willing to bet that his presentation fund is going to swell by donations from many people like me who feel moved to give if only out of a sense of pity at his misfortune at the hands of a witless circular-drafter more than anything else.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Fun weekend with siblings (or an attempt to pass down the so-called feminine arts...)

(Have been meaning to upload the below photos which were taken last weekend. Funny how both ReadandEat and LCL also shared baking fun with their family last weekend - I daren't leave a comment though on R&E's blog because I took the shortest of short cuts in my baking, which is very far from the idyllic pick-your-own-berries pie-making that R&E did.)

My little sister and little brother slept over at my place last weekend (and this weekend, they are heading off to Barcelona for a week-long holiday with my parents, lucky brats!). By now they learnt the hard way that they have to bring their own entertainment with them when they come over, since I don't have Playstation or Nintendo or any sort of video games at all in my apartment, my desktop is strictly off limits to them and worse, I don't even subscribe to the cartoon channels on Sky (jeez, what a bore I am compared to kids' expectations of a good time these days).

What I do have however are board games (Scrabble, Cranium) and good old fashion games like Jenga blocks and cards. Thankfully, I did manage to instill in them from an extremely early age a love of these altogether unplugged children's games also (my little sister is now a master of the Chinese marbles game and now more often than not beats me at what I considered to be my forte, while my little brother actually begs people to play the Chinese flying board game with him since he's addicted to it - incredible as that may sound for a kid in this day and age, and the two of them are both avid player of Monopoly). So they brought with them a new version of Cluedo that they got as a pressie from a family friend and proceeded to teach me how to play it. Of course, they also brought along their PSPs just in case.

But what they were really looking forward to, they said, was to actually bake something, anything. I think they were hooked on the idea when they found out that the cakes and other baked goods I made for them before were, contrary to much else perhaps, actually edible, and really wanted to see for themselves how I actually managed it - you know, just in case I just bought something from a shop and pretended that they were mine, har-de-har-har. Even my mother wanted to find out how to make the mini quiches I gave them a good few months ago. I guess baking is a novelty to my family since we don't have a tradition of using the oven at home except for roasting turkey for Christmas.

So, after playing the new version of Cluedo (which, by the way, is a travesty of the game as it doesn't really exercise the brain since you are not required to formulate questions yourself to get the clues, instead everything is handed to you and all you needed to do was to roll the dice - it really is not a patch on the classic version, but I will concede that it is an easier version to get kids' heads around the idea of the game) as well as Scrabble, I decided to bake some scones so that we would have that for breakfast the next morning. I pre-heated the oven and got my little sister and brother to help set out the things that we would need for baking (measuring jug, baking tray, flour, sieve, milk, butter, etc.). Alas, when my little brother poured the milk into the Pyrex jug, we discovered that the milk has gone off even though there was almost a week before the stated expiration date. So my dad had to specially come over and drop us a pint of milk when he finished work (as it was too late for us to get milk from the nearest newsagent then) late in the evening. By then it was 11pm and it was time to bed.

The next morning - a Sunday - turned out to be a gorgeous day. They got up all eager and enthusiastic about being able to taste scones fresh from the oven for their breakfast. So we set out to work, my little sister putting on my pink-and-white stripy Avoca apron and my little brother in an old t-shirt of mine. As we were keen to eat soon, instead of doing it the proper way (the long way), I cheated and used the quick scone mix that I had in my store cupboard, which had all the ingredients pre-mixed, including the raisins. None of us are fans of having raisins in our scones so my little brother helped sieve out the raisins before measuring in the milk and my little sister helped turned them into a dough with a wooden spoon. Then I sprinkled flour onto my glass dining table (the only surface big enough for us to roll out the dough because I have extremely limited worktop space in my kitchen) as well as onto the pre-heated baking tray, and finally, we could let the fun begin!

I have a whole collection of Nigella Lawson cookie cutters as well as a range of heart-shaped ones I got from Debenhams. So after rolling out the dough onto the floured surface, my little sister and little brother had a great time picking out stars and hearts and numbers and making their own unique scones. We used up the whole bag and bunged everything into the oven, and fifteen minutes later (time used for preparing the traditional big breakfast fry-up so that we had a proper Sunday brunch, while my siblings helped clean up the floury mess), here are some of the fruits of our labour:

The numbers turned out great, though perhaps not so much the hearts. I only realised via this exercise that 5 is apparently my little brother's lucky number.

When you opened up the heart-shaped scones and then add butter and raspberry jam, they do look like proper hearts :)

As we used up all the dough, there are plenty of these miniature cute shaped scones left over for my siblings to take home to my parents.

But of course there's always the cleaning to do at the end...

Another thing about this sleepover weekend: I finally got some time to properly teach my little sister how to wax her legs using Veet's wax strips (they have a version for sensitive skin which is really good). When she was very little - I guessed she was around five or six at the time - she once saw me shave my legs and then, horror of horrors, when I went to College one day she took it upon herself to shave her own bare legs with my razor and actually cut herself so badly that she had to have a huge plaster around her leg for weeks.... My parents obviously gave me a really hard time about it which I totally deserved, and thank goodness my little sister didn't scar her leg for life. But she was scared off razors for life (which was not a bad thing actually, come to think of it, but again it's all my fault). Thankfully female hygiene technology has improved so much that home waxing is no longer the absolute nightmare that it was before (I still remember the first time I tried a home waxing kit in my dorm room, having to wait for the wax to heat up using hot water from the tap in the en suite shower room as I didn't have my own kettle, which meant I had to keep refilling the hot water as it got cool rather quickly; then trying to apply the sticky goo willynilly with a spatula quickly before the wax cooled, perching gingerly on the bed as the shower room was too tiny to manoevure and everything was an absolute mess). The modern disposable wax strips in comparison are simple, easy to use, leaves no mess and there's no washing necessary afterwards. On top of that, it doesn't sting that much and obviously there's no danger of my little sister accidentally cutting herself anymore. And the best thing is, the hair will get finer and finer over time with waxing, so there's no danger of so-called "leg stubble" that one will have with shaving (yes, this is the danger that we female of the species have to contend with these days, imagine that! Or rather, don't imagine).

But then my little sister said that her best friend was being taught by her elder sister how to pluck eyebrows... hmmm, okay, that will be the lesson for another time then... (if only we indeed have the eyebrow-threading clinics like ReadandEat experienced in the States!). Oh, the fate of us females even in this post-feminist age of the pressure to be well versed in the arts of handling a kitchen and being presentable in the living room!

I cannot believe that my little sister is all grown up... Although I'm rueful over the fact that my little sister is not a kid anymore, I'm rather enjoying this new phase of our sibling relationship. I used to envy my cousins who are an all-girl-bunch, who get to share all the girlie stuff growing up, whereas I had to put up with my younger brother and engaged in endless physical battles with him (gosh our fights were legendary and I still have the scars to prove it!). Now I finally get the chance to do girlie stuff with my little sister, and I'm really relishing this opportunity to be her so-called guide - at least until she's wise up enough to challenge my rather flimsy authority on matters of make-up and fashion... but I'm dreading the inevitable subject of boys which will quickly follow any time now...

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A taste of one's own medicine...

The New Yorker magazine's most recent cover entitled "The Politics of Fear" (July 14th issue), features Barack Obama in a turban fist-bumping his wife Michelle, who is portrayed as a gun-toting terrorist, in the Oval Office with the American flag burning in the fireplace and a picture of Osama Bin Laden hanging above the mantelpiece.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's series of cartoons entitled "The Face of Muhammad" features, among other images, the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban, the faces of Muslims being either women in full burqa exposing only their eyes or a blind-folded elderly male wielding a traditional sword, and jihadist Muslims being stopped from entering heaven due to the shortage of virgins.

The editors of both of these publications claimed that the cartoons are satire, aimed at lampooning or caricaturing prevalent stereotypes. In Obama's case, the cartoon "satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama's campaign" (according to the cartoonist Barry Blitt). In the Danish case, the newspaper's cultural editor Fleming Rose "invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him" in order to make a political point about the place of Muslims in Danish society, as he wrote for the Washington Post: "We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims."

The point however is this: neither of these cartoons qualify as satire.

Simply deploying stereotypical images of one's target is NOT lampooning the stereotypes, but rather affirming and reinforcing them.

Portraying the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist in no way skewers the misconception that Islam is a warmongering rather than a peaceful religion. Portraying Obama as a terrorist-loving Muslim in no way puts paid to the false rumours that he is a Muslim when in fact he is a Christian.

In both cases, the portrayals are simply that - a portrayal, and a deliberately false one at that. They are thus devoid of any satirical content.

Caricatures require the element of fundamental truth to make them work. A good lampoon skewers the essence of the target to the quick. Think of all the brilliant political caricatures of times past and present - of the Lady Macbeth-incarnate Margaret Thatcher; of the bumbling ingratiating gnome that was the former Hong Kong Governor Tung; and last but not least, of the chimp-like George Dubya Bush whose ignoramy could only ever be approximated with any degree of fidelity by showing him as a buffoon. The tie that binds them all is the ring of truth. Satire is vital to a well-functioning polity precisely because it dares speak uncomfortable truths to power.

That does not mean, however, that anything uncomfortable or controversial should be mistaken as the truth itself. Just because it is uncomfortable to witness extreme slander does not render said slander as bearing the ring of truth. Audiences respond with laughters when satirists succeed in confronting the powers-that-be with home truths, and not when the jokes ring hollow due to a lack of internal validity.

If the New Yorker cartoon is to succeed as satire, then one would have to actually agree that Obama is indeed a Bin Laden wannabe. But that, of course, is precisely the opposite of what the satirist avowedly intended. If the joke is really meant to be on the rightwing fearmongerers, then it should be they who should be caricatured, not Obama.

Precisely because neither the New Yorker nor the Danish cartoons trade on truth, but truck in common slanders and falsehoods, that's what they become, in actual fact: mere slanders.

Objecting to these cartoons is not (simply) a matter of sensitivity or taste - though charges on both these grounds are also valid - but because they failed miserably in their purported goal. When a satire is just a stereotype, only the bigot gets to laugh.

And the self-aggrandising segment of the liberal West should finally have a little taste of its own tasteless medicine...

[Update: Just to show an example of how PROPER political satire about fearmongering tactics is done, I present to you the highly-respected caricaturist Steve Bell's latest cartoon in the Guardian newspaper:

(explanatory note to those not from around these parts: the smarmy guy wielding a knife behind the sign is meant to be David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, who tries to make political hay out of the recent epidemic of teenage knife crimes in London by touting a Get Tough policy, using unsubtle rhetoric about targeting black gangs even though research shows that the racial make-up of gangs simply reflects the demographic profile of the neighbourhoods they are based in and there is no predominance of any one ethnic group in gang membership).

To those who might still fail to see the difference between Steve Bell's work above and the New Yorker cover, let me further explain: Bell's cartoon puts the spotlight of caricature forcefully and squarely on the fearmongerers - in this case Cameron and his Conservative party; whereas Blitt's cartoon merely depicts in one handy image the substance of the key rightwing falsehoods about Obama, without any soupcon of visual reference or the faintest of graphical hints as to whether such falsehoods are indeed fearmongering spin by vested political interests. If the image is meant to be lampooning those rightwing spin machines, as it is claiming to be by both the cartoonist and the magazine editor, then the lampoon is so weak and ineffective as to be virtually non-existent.

That Barry Blitt might think he's the bees' knees at the New Yorker, but really, he still has a LOT to learn from the true masters of the craft... That is, if we buy the story that they were indeed really trying to skewer the right-wing false propaganda machine about Obama, rather than actually aiding and abetting it.]

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ode to a dear friend who is soon to be hitched...

After hearing so much about him
And your trip back home
Yesterday I finally met your beau
He's down to earth, honest, and a little shy
Exactly the salt-of-the-earth type
Who will make you happy
Not the whirlwind swept-off-your-feet ethereal happiness
But the solid, quiet, unassuming kind.
The Best kind.

I am so happy for you
After all the trials and tribulations of your previous love
When your brave search for happiness
Brought you all the way to this island
Though you didn't end up with that guy (thank goodness)
And though for a long while you were not even sure
Where you would end up and what you would do
You still have a happy ending.

As the two of you tie the knot next week
In an unassuming private ceremony
That fits the two of you perfectly
Let me raise my glass to you
To wish you both a lifetime
Of happiness, health, and mutual growth.
You deserve it!

(and can I just say, again rather selfishly,
that I'm just so thrilled,
that by virtue of your impending marriage,
You'd definitely be staying put,
and continue to be a lovely friend
with whom I get to hang out :) !!)

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Where are you from?

Que sera sera...

Feed my pet!

Currently getting stuck in...

Have just finished...

Me, Anime...

A bunch of snowdrops by any other name...

S is for Sweet
N is for Natural
O is for Open-hearted
W is for Worldly
D is for Dedicated
R is for Romantic
O is for Original
P is for Perfectionist
S is for Special
What Does Your Name Mean?