Sunday, 30 March 2014

Covers for Imaginary Novels: "New Horizon"




Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER MH370 which has been missing since 8 March 2014.

lost horizon022

Still from Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" (1937)

Singapore Day 2014 in London: Disneyland with a two-hour queue to eat at an awesome asian fusion hawker stall


Yesterday I went to Singapore Day in London.






More Queuing



Singapore's not just that "Disneyland with the Death Penalty". If Singapore were a theme park, Singapore would be better described as the "Disneyland consisting of one big asian fusion restaurant where a hundred Singaporeans will inexplicably queue in orderly lines for two hours just to eat one plate of hawker food."

While listening to National Day songs. Oh and fireworks, weapons, and butter knives are not allowed inside, and there is no alcohol menu or smoking area. Someone's going to crack a joke about the increase on cigarette and alcohol tax in Singapore. And yes, they are going to bust out the COUNT ON ME SINGAPORE song any moment now.


But... I was going to bring my Butter Knife Collection
to show off to the other Singaporeans..."

But all that is probably going to be okay with everyone, as long as everyone gets UNLIMITED FREE CHAR KWAY TEOW, MEE SOTO, CHICKEN RICE, INDIAN ROJAK AND BBQ STINGRAY!

I suppose if Singapore were to be re-envisioned as a theme park, it would actually probably look like this anyway: a theme park where people would patiently queue for hours to eat some (very excellent) local food. Everyone would spend ages queuing, and then eating, and then queuing, and then eating, and then queuing and eating and then.... after that everyone would just go straight home. Oh wait that was also exactly what happened at Singapore Day.


Such a day can only be complete after you have stolen some of the chilli sauce from the Chicken Rice stall.

As for other types of entertainment at this Theme Park of Singapore, there will be lots of things to take photos with, and naturally there will be a MINDEF booth where you can do pushups, sit-ups, long jumps, or try lifting a fully loaded army field pack, or take photos of yourself as the stars in various government campaign posters.


HDB Playgrounds


"Wow! How did you know that I have forgotten what HDBs are after leaving Singapore for a few months, so you'll have to tell me in detail about them all over again?


We were trying to tell these ladies that they were holding the dragon playground upside down at first.
They were all like, "WHAT IS THIS? I DONT EVEN KNOW?"


"How nostalgic! Now I can relive the precious moment in which I spectacularly failed my NAPFA test in secondary school!"


"Why of course! How did you know that I'd like to role play as a National Serviceman in my free time?"



In the end, you know they probably didn't mean to sound so didactic. Everyone was filled with good intentions.
They just wanted to make sure that everybody knows that SEAT BELTS SAVE LIVES!!!


Thanks to Lisa and Cliff for going around the place with me, and all the people who flew in to London just to feed and entertain everybody at Singapore Day. All of the food was so good that it was well worth the queuing!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The North Korean Fascination with Missiles (and Blowing up the entire world)

Those Korean lessons I took are proving to be of some use, even if the only thing I can do is read the alphabet. Recently, it came to my attention that Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble has actually been replaced by an all-female band known as Moranbong Band. They are truly uncanny - for one thing they are indeed a modernization on the old fashioned Pochonbo, whose musical styles attracted me because it sounded a lot like the off-beat cha cha of my parents' generation - mirrored in Chinese and Japanese oldies that I am already used to hearing in Singaporean coffeeshops and karaoke bars. Yet when I look at the new Moranbong Band, there is something not right. How can their appearance be both modern, yet somehow.... outdated? How is it possible?

Sparkly sequins, mini skirts, high heels, modern hairstyles.
The all-new all-girl North Korean Moranbong Band.
They could almost have come out of something from Eurovision.
Still, better than looking like something from the 1960s?

This morning I watched an entire one hour concert of Moranbong Band - their 2013 New Year Day's performance. I've been slowly copying out song titles as they flash across the screen on various songs and then typing them out slowly in Hangeul in Youtube. Naturally, it will come as no surprise that most of these aren't "new songs" - they are really just "modernized" interpretations of what seem to be old favorites in the DPRK. The most astounding, most mind-blowing track of the entire concern is 단숨에 (DanSuMe, also frequently translated as "Without a break"). THIS CANNOT BE MISSED.

This is literally Bond-meets-DreamTheater-meets-DETHKLOK! Almost too over-the-top and bombastic and epic to be real (why is this not even viral yet?), played to a seemingly enraptured crowd of hundreds of North Koreans, initially shown seated in countless rows in a huge indoor theatre, clapping their hands to it the song and images of Kim Jong Un in various everyday scenes.

The finale of the song is accompanied by a video of a rocket being launched, and they've carefully mixed in the sound of the audience cheering wildly. The video and the band has been strategically located so that the rocket seems to come RIGHT OUT OF THE CENTRE OF THE BAND WHERE THE DRUMMER AND DRUM KIT! And you don't notice it at first, but the sides of the stage have even been FLANKED WITH TWO MODELS OF ROCKET MISSILES, which they later reveal with the dramatic stage lighting. (The video even cuts to a shot of a few old men beginning to dance wildly all over the place, along with women dancing in their traditional hanboks. Oh, these crazy north koreans!)

The song climaxes with FIREWORKS! and the ROAR of a rocket mixed in, along with a video of the flight path of the rocket, and then - this part has to be seen to be believed - and then we see that the North Korean missile finally BLOWS UP THE ENTIRE PLANET!

Yes folks. This performance climaxes with a video of NORTH KOREA BLOWING UP THE ENTIRE PLANET!

You might be thinking, BUT WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO DO THAT? Why would anyone glorify the act of blowing up the entire planet???


Obviously the North Koreans have a funny idea about power. I agree that having the power to destroy the entire world represents the ultimate power. It represents their desire to have the ultimate control over Earth's entire existence. Who on earth is editing this? Who scripted it? Who directed this extremely epic performative extravaganza? What structures exist in North Korean to facilitate the production of this sort of work? There are so many unanswered questions! Can we ever know for sure what North Korea is truly all about, without intervention and interpellation from South Korea and the rest of the world media?

Moranbong Band - Without a break
모란봉악단 - 단숨에

More of Moranbong Band and Other versions of "Without a break":

Moranbong Band - Let's Study!
모란봉악단 - 배우자

A Jaunty pop version of 단숨에 with military footage

A military choir version of 단숨에

More from the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble:

Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble - No Motherland Without You
보천보전자악단 - 당신이없으면, 조국도 없다

Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble - My Country is the best
보천보전자악단 - 내 나라 제일로 좋아

Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble - Reunification Rainbow
보천보전자악단 - 통일무지개

Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble - Let's Study!
보천보전자악단 - 배우자

Both Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and Moranbong Band have done notable covers of "Let's Study!", a song which must be targeted at children as well, judging from the bright multicoloured words in the video. The Pochonbo video consists of many shots of children in school studying, using computers and headphones, and visiting what appears to be a museum. But what are all these children studying? What is their curriculum like? What is inside their museums?

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Embodied Voices - Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, Auditory Illusions, and Virtual Vocaloid Idols

I've been interested in Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response for sometime but recently it has occurred to me that the term "ASMR" is not really common parlance; even at a recent sound symposium I realized that not many had heard of it, and even if the term rings a bell, perhaps for some it would be considered as verging on pseudo-science. But I feel there is something about it that is more than just a fluke.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response or ASMR has been a mainly youtube phenomena where people produce videos of "trigger" sounds which give some listeners a "tingly" feeling in the scalp or back of the neck. Some people may be more familiar with this sensation when at a hairdressers, when the sound of the approach of an electric razor on one side of your head gives you anticipatory "prickles" or "tingles" even before the razor has touched your head. Some other common trigger sounds are that of the crinkle of a paper bag, the sound of blowing in one's ears, ear cleaning, the sound of hair being cut.

SOUNDsculptures - 3D Head Massage (No Talking)

SOUNDsculptures - 3D Hair Clipping (No Talking)

Deep Ocean of Sounds - 3D virtual laryngologist (No talking)

The level of professionalism in ASMR videos has risen sharply over the last year or so, with countless ASMR youtubers investing in serious binaural microphones - specialised ones which are spaced apart to reflect the distance between a human being's two ears, so that what the microphones hear can be exactly that of what a human would hear. Some of the best ASMR video producers are practically 3d foley artists, and very good ones at that. There has been a great demand in developing virtual sound role plays, and a lot of them have become very sophisticated, and highly realistic. If you listen to them, you will swear that the distant hum of the plane was the distant hum of a plane in your own reality. This is much better than all those old and tired sounding "auditory illusions" that you can find on the internet.

DonnaASMR - Brushing the Microphone

I believe that there are sounds (being vibrations themselves) which transcend being just a sound experience but also produce physical sensations. For example, I enjoy standing next to a giant speaker in a club with a very low bass because it is more than just sound by that point, when the room around you is also affected by the vibrations. Similarly, I cannot tolerate spiciness in food, but I do enjoy it when food is so cold or hot or spicy to the point that it transcends a matter of taste and becomes an actual physical experience (of pain receptors responding in the tongue, of sweating from the heat, of numbness in the face and extremities from overstimulation).

I'd love to do more research into the phenomena of ASMR but it seems that one impediment to it being studied or taken seriously is its inherent association with pseudo-science or even the supernatural. In theory it bears some similarities to the idea of Electronic Voice Phenomenon and the notion of one being able to perceive voices or speech from electronic static and background noise. Not everyone perceives ASMR, so it is assumed by some that it is also because the individuals who do report it must be already predisposed to it or easily influenced into believing the sensation exists. Not too long ago I had a bizarre experience on Bus 9, where I was having a conversation with my classmate about virtual reality and I started to tell her about ASMR. Later she disembarked from the bus, and an african man came up to me from the back of the bus and told me sternly, "I HEARD WHAT YOU SAID JUST NOW. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY", before getting off, leaving me very puzzled. What I eventually made of it was that even my objective layman's description of ASMR could also sound a lot like a paranormal or odd spiritual/ghostly experience to someone who was inclined to read it in that way, so the man probably disapproved of my "meddling" with these unknown things.

I am obsessed about certain sounds used in electronic music, like white noise, crackling, static, pops, especially if accompanied by with very low moving drone basses. One of my favourite examples would be Fennesz's Rivers of Sand (to be listened to with headphones). Actually, many things on Fennesz's Venice and Endless Summer album have those sounds for me.

Fennesz - Rivers of Sand (From Venice, 2004)

Fennesz - Happy Audio (From Endless Summer, 2001)

I don't need to listen to Diana Deutsch's examples to understand how repetitive sounds produce certain auditory illusions after sometime (not when there is already music that illustrates it and is even more musical and evocative). But the point is that I wonder if there is scope for someone to make a music which makes uses of known auditory illusions, especially in the area of electronic music and experimental music today. AHHHHH IF ONLY I HAD MORE TIME TO MAKE MUSIC THESE DAYS!

鏡音リン - 炉心融解

Speaking of strange disembodied/embodied music, not long ago I also found a new video for Kagamine Rin's Meltdown - a lot of it is coming out from Project DIVA which is a series of rhythm games; so I guess that explains why there was never an official video - since the "performance" of the song is the basis of the video game Project DIVA.

Kagamine was the second vocaloid program to be released and it consists of two characters, Rin (female) and Len (male) – a slightly lower toned female/young male voice. Back in 2011 I managed to see Hatsune Miku and Kagamine Rin at Anifest back in Singapore. This is an annotated picture of the performance I went to back then:

"Kagamine Rin" at Anifest 2011, Singapore

To be honest I am the sort of sap who is wont to overread into things or overdo it with a prac crit of what's basically just a bit of fun, but I think the main reason that I'm still really attracted to tracks released by the virtual idol Kagamine Rin is because Kagamine Rin's name 鏡音リン is derived from Kagami (鏡, mirror) and Ne (音, sound) and Rin (リン Rin / sometimes mis-transliterated into 鈴 Lin, bell). I mean, what better example could you have of a virtual idol, whose name even defines her as a sound mirror of reality? Where else can you see a concert in which kids come to see an original projection along with live event projections that inadvertently consist of hordes of kids cheering and watching a projection of something entirely virtual? This would be a perfect example of third-order simulacra (as according to Baudrillard).

Similarly, Hatsune Miku's name, 初音ミク, is supposed to mean "first sound from the future" - Hatsu (初, first), Ne (音, sound), (Miku (ミク, like 未来 mirai). As a name it is much less interesting to me but also she is ridiculously high pitched and yes there is a limit to how much high-pitched singing I can appreciate in one sitting. (Kagamine Rin and Kagamine Len is typically less high-pitched)

It is a great example of how we expect sound to render or embody matter - because she sings, because she is in a program that you can use to make songs that "she" will "sing" for you, the character of Kagamine Rin has to exist. I really did not like Spike Jonze's "Her" for being too literal and terribly flat (as if written by some dunce who didn't even know how computers or natural language processing normally work), but I know it is very popular as a film simply because it plays on the idea of the disembodied, digitally generated human voice becoming virtually embodied into what we imagine to be a seemingly material being - just through the production of an artificial human voice. Even today, the ways in which actual living media personalities and celebrities exist and perpetuate themselves is in a manner that could very well be entirely virtualised. In contemporary culture, there is little difference perceived between the biological and digital body; after all, you only experience media. Kagamine Rin's face can even change to look like ACTUAL EMOTICONS which people use to express emotion - and yes I've seen her face like this before --> ≧∇≦ ) So really, who needs a real physical idol?

Kagamine Rin

From "炉心融解":

時計の秒針や [Tokei no byoushin ya]
テレビの司会者や [Terebi (Television or TV) no shikaisha ya]
そこにいるけど見えない誰かの [Soko ni iru kedo mienai dareka no]
笑い声飽和して反響する [Waraigoe houwa shite hankyou suru]

Second hand of a clock
The host of the TV
Someone who is there but invisible
The laughter becomes saturated and now echoes

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Material Culture and the Artefacts of Science History (Treasures Cadogan, Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

In a small, special room tucked away in one corner of the Natural History Museum are a number of significant artefacts from the history of science in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery. After the mineral and rock collection - for which I have a soft spot - this definitely has to be my next most favorite part of the Museum. This is the scientific equivalent of going to the Louvre and seeing the originals of all the works you have ever read about in books - right there in front of you! The museum is complimented by a thorough history and contextualisation of each item (through a series of interactive screens) which are worth your time to read. A lot of importance is placed on this notion of having acquired the original, authentic specimen, but at the same time the "significance" of a scientific artefact in this room depends on what it has done for science. For example, a plant in Linnaneus' book may not be exceptionally special, but because it represents something that has been used to bring scientific understanding forward, it is valuable for that reason. Obviously a lot of information is conveyed through other means (in this day and age when everyone can just google anything), but in the end, I like to think that material culture plays an crucial role in knowledge construction. More than just being a way of representing the scientific knowledge after the event of making a connection/discovery, I like to think that the materiality of these scientific artefacts is what brings us to the point where we can make connections in scientific knowledge.

A few selected highlights:

Dodo Skeleton

This is the Natural History Museum's full and complete dodo bird skeleton. It is actually a composite made from bones from several dodo birds. So in actual fact it may be difficult to determine if this is the archetypal dodo bird. There are no complete dodo bird skeletons to go by. First seen by dutch sailors in 1598, it was to become the symbol of extinction after sailors and their domesticated animals hunted the flightless bird into extinction. In 1662 the last dodo was sighted, never to be seen again; since this was so very long ago, in the intervening years since then, some even considered it to be a mythical creature.

The NHM also houses the famous dodo painting also known as "Edwards' Dodo", as it was painted by the ornithologist George Edwards in 1626. Because there exist no other definitive images of the dodo, Edwards' Dodo is often used as the source for numerous other dodo illustration, and it depicts a particularly fat dodo bird that might be inclined to waddle about. It is debatable that the fat dodo image is a result of these images and paintings being based on a fat captive bird, or a poorly stuffed specimen, or even a dodo puffing itself up as a kind of display.

Archaeopteryx (London Specimen, BMNH 37001)

This is apparently the most valuable fossil in the NHM's collection, and needs no introduction - this is the FIRST skeleton of the Archaeopteryx to be ever found, and it was unearthed in 1861 near Langenaltheim, Germany, and eventually sold to the NHM. It is the earliest known bird (that is universally recognized - there are a few so-called "older" fossils whose authenticity are disputable, but almost everyone can agree that archaeopteryx is likeliest to be the most primitive bird) and this specimen was the first Archaeopteryx ever found by man. The Archaeopteryx specimen provided the first evidence that birds had evolved from dinosaurs. This item is the "type specimen", which means that is it referred to by scientists as the first known description and reference of the animal. There had been an interesting debate on whether the feather should represent the type specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica, but in 2011 the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature declared the entire skeleton fossil to be the type specimen, something that apparently generated a lot of discussion and debate amongst taxonomists.

The ONLY piece of Apollo Moon rock that was given to the UK by President Nixon. In order to prove that the US moon mission was a peaceful one, flags of 135 countries were sent up with the astronauts, and fragments from the moon were taken back and distributed on plaques with these flags that had travelled to the moon and back. For some reason I can't quite explain right now this gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Blaschka glass models

The label for this item actually reads: "Glass models of marine invertebrates made by Leopold and Rudolf Blascka using techniques no one has been able to replicate." When I read this, I was like, "OH YEAH? CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!" Sadly I am not a glass worker. But surely someone else with the ability to work with glass has read this before? COME ON!

Having seen these models, and then the fungi glass models at Uni of Cambridge not long after, I have to admit I never thought there was a thing about making glass scientific models. Just to be sure, I went to check up, and the glass fungi models at Whipple Museum were made by a fungi specialist Dr. Dillon Weston's glass models. Those were made between 1936 and 1953, and seems to have been created because he wanted a beautiful demonstration tool he could show to people and farmers.

Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf made their models about 70 years before that, at a time when it was hard to find good teaching models. They also apparently produced other things like exotic flowers, sea slugs, and all sorts of other animals in glass, and were valued because of their attention to detail. Since glass could keep forever, it apparently represented an improvement over other methods of presentation and preservation. So I am surprised - why are there not more scientific glass models today, or an even more sophisticated glass modelling methods today? (This is something I will need to find out more about...)

A page from Audubon's amazing hand-coloured prints from The Birds of America. John James Audubon is considered one of the greatest bird illustrators. The book itself consists of 433 life-sized paintings of birds, and he dedicated his entire life to this great work - having decided at age 35 that he would go on to draw EVERY BIRD IN NORTH AMERICA. I like this kind of obsession. He had to travel to England because his engravings were so large and they could not be done in America at the time. NHM changes the page every other month to prevent fading to any particular page.

The story of how Audubon's book came to be is also an interesting study of the economics of art and the production of rare books - for example, he apparently did not have any text in the book because it became so extravagantly costly to produce the book that he had try to avoid having to give free copies to public libraries (circumventing legal deposition requirements) in England.


Last year was the centennial of Robert Falcon Scott's epic journey, so we were suitably inundated with a revival of the story and the story has really fascinated me and here, here is the actual egg. One of the five they picked up and hid in their mittens. 2 broke along the way, leaving only 3, and this one is one of the 3 eggs to make it here.

[Alright there were many other great stories in the gallery but I will stop here now and you can go and see them for yourself.]

Monday, 3 March 2014

Scientific Illustrations for the Blind (Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

In the last few months I've gotten quite interested in scientific illustration and scientific models. Just as I am fascinated by maps as both art and information, I suppose I really like scientific images because they are also both art and a record of the natural world. I am actually more excited when I see a scientific image/model which is fantastically detailed and beautiful and then discover that its maker says that they consider themselves to be a scientist/botanist/anatomical specialist first and foremost before considering themselves an artist, because more often than not it will indicate more attention to detail and accuracy. (Alas, I have to admit I am quite pedantic and a geek at heart). Even though there can be photographs (and in the case of mapping, satellite data), in the end there is a lot more value and skill involved in scientific illustration and cartography because they often capture details which other methods of imaging cannot. The color and form of a living object can be captured forever and selected important details can be extracted and highlighted so as to make it more understandable and valuable as a record than just a photograph could.

Since school is so very close to the Natural History Museum, it has been my goal to go there as often as I can. Unfortunately its vastness often means that I spend a lot of time just wandering about or blithely finding my way around the exhibits (I am also that annoying sort of person who has to read all the text, which then takes a very long time).

The other day, I FINALLY found the Images of Nature section (how did I miss it before?), which included a very interesting Braille and Tactile guide to its exhibits. I was very excited because I had been told these guides existed but hadn't really noticed or found them before. This is what they looked like on the inside:

Images of Nature - Braille and Tactile Guide





Textures and arrows!

The textures were very interesting to touch, but… I don't know about you but I seriously cannot imagine what meaning an arrow would have for a person who has been blind since birth. Not to say that a blind person could not learn what an arrow means, but as the most expedient manner to explain something - what is an arrow? An arrow does not exist in a blind person's world, surely! What meaning would an arrow have to a person who cannot see what it is pointing at? How would that understanding that an arrow means to refer to something, or to gesture towards it or a direction (or to direct one's gaze towards something). Would it work the same way for a blind person then?


More exciting textures

Braille (lots of this)

As you will have noticed, a lot of these images were just outlines of exhibits, with their outlines raised up. I was very amused by it but also not sure if this was sufficient to explain a thing. Perhaps it is - i don't know myself since I have never had to rely entirely on touching to understand an exhibit. But let's say a blind man could touch every single part of an rhino on a page. Would it make it any clearer to the blind person that this was a rhino, and this was what it was like? Is this not a bit like that joke where a group of blind men approach an elephant and each of them happens to hold on to a different part, prompting each to say "the elephant is like a long string!" (tail) or "the elephant is like a tree trunk!" (leg) or "the elephant is like a papery flat sheet!" (ear)

There was an exhibit comparing the different representations of dodo birds in scientific illustrations. The guide tries to explain that there are differences (subtle differences) between the two drawings. I am not sure but will one be able to tell the difference through touch? DOES IT WORK? Will someone visually impaired please tell me?

The two different dodo bird pictures in reality.

Touching a dodo...

An interesting fact is that the "original" dodo skeleton they have at the Natural History Museum is actually made up from several different dodo skeleton, and this means that its famous depiction as a slightly dumpy fat bird might actually be flawed, and there have been attempts to reimagine it as something a little more "svelte" than it is thought to be by most. I'll write about that more in another post about their "Treasures" collection (which is also absolutely fantastic for anyone interested in the history of science)...

The funny part is imagining a blind person touching an embossed impression of a bird that now no longer exists, and on top of that perhaps even the impression of the dodo bird is all wrong anyway, because even the seeing-people don't really know either!

Incorrect use of the braille sheets.

What can I say, with all the children and their pencils running around the museum, it was bound to happen...