A trip down memory lane with Creative Technology

One of my friends shared this on Facebook yesterday. A genial middle-aged man in a dress shirt and slacks seems to be giving a standard product demonstration of a drum keyboard, but somehow it becomes this crazy drum solo, before ending as a standard presentation again. I probably find it particularly amusing because it starts with the stereotypical boring conservative Singaporean but gives you a glimpse of the underlying lightheartedness that I like to think runs through many of my countrymen.

This “Asian equipment demonstrator” is a Singaporean (probably) who is showcasing a product from Creative Technology, a Singaporean company that in the 90s made the Sound Blaster sound cards that pretty much had a monopoly on the PC market. They also had a line of MP3 players which were very feature-rich, and hold the patent for the invention of a user interface for portable media players. I owned one and was a big fan, happily filling it with anime soundtracks and Canadian pop-rock-punk. The media players, like everything else, died as the iPod ascended, something I watched with sadness while realizing that technical superiority was not enough: you had to make people feel good about your product.

I’m suddenly realizing this is probably the true origin of my interest in product design and usability. I actually got asked something similar the other day – which stumped me, I mean, I’m just…it’s interesting? I’ve always liked it? I’ve always been an artist something something something? Eventually I dashed off something lame about getting frustrated having to use US-centric resources as a non-US person. (“Enter your five-digit zipcode to view this information” – god! I still get riled up.)

When I was eight-ish I read Creative cofounder Sim Wong Hoo’s autobiography, which described No U-turn Syndrome and a lot of other stuff I didn’t fully understand. I am only now suddenly remembering that he had a chapter about taking computing exams in school and leaving answers dramatically unfinished to impress the grader with his integrity at stopping precisely when “pens down” was announced by the proctor. I know I definitely copied that behavior during later exams.

It’s funny I remember the book so vividly. It had spiral binding, “hyperlinks” by means of page number, and an awfully designed cover.

I miss moving

In other news, last night I learned from my fellow sci-fi/fantasy club member Emily how to do a safety vault, a very basic parkour move. It was really fun!

I put aikido on hold shortly after the start of this semester because I was overloading myself and saying yes to too many things, but I miss doing a skill-based physical activity, and last night really reminded me of that. I reassigned this month’s gear budget to a donation to Medicins Sans Frontieres (click here to donate), but since I’m spending half of December back home, I may use part of next month’s food budget on getting a mat for my dorm room so that I can at least practice rolling and falling, and not black out within ten minutes of resuming training. Rolls mysteriously got a lot harder on my body earlier this year, and right now I can’t even do one from kneeling without getting dizzy and having the ol’ orthostatic hypotension kick in.

Humility in the face of mathematics

Our professor for Fractal Geometry, Michael Frame, a wonderfully sweet and somewhat melancholy man who worked extensively with Benoit B. Mandelbrot, likes to make lectures more interesting by telling us bad jokes, Mandelbrot stories and existential musings on life.

It’s 11/11 today, which started as an ironic celebration of young-adult singlehood in a culture that has an odd relationship with romantic relationships, namely, that they should be avoided at all costs before college, as long as a partner and multiple babies spontaneously manifest by age 30. Alibaba and other clever merchants have turned it into the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday. Happy 11.11, I guess. I’d like to share something a little less depressing and blatantly consumerist.

Our professor for Fractal Geometry, Michael Frame, a wonderfully sweet and somewhat melancholy man who worked extensively with Benoit B. Mandelbrot, likes to make lectures more interesting by telling us bad jokes, Mandelbrot stories and existential musings on life.

Today’s Mandelbrot story was that back in the 40s or 50s, when Mandelbrot was studying at Princeton under John von Neumann, people were fond of walking around (and driving) lost in theoretical contemplation without paying much attention to their environs. Once Mandelbrot nearly ran over three people who meandered into the path of his vehicle. The three were Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who were a little cross but went on their way.

Most of the class had been about cellular automata: fun little machines, if you can call them that, comprised of very simple rules that are applied iteratively to 1s and 0s. Rules as simple as “a 0 to the right of a 1 changes into a 1 on the next timestep”.  You give it a certain starting configuration, start it, the automaton follows the rules, and things happen. Apparently at least four known cellular automata are Turing-complete. That the automaton is Turing-complete means that it is capable of universal computation – in theory, capable of executing every possible computer program that could ever be created. This is a very powerful claim that looks far less important than it actually is.

Today’s existential thought was hence that every text in the history of Earth – the works of Shakespeare, the speeches of Churchill, the first words you spoke, the last words I will say – every image – every video – every sound – could be created on one of these simple, stupid machines, if you just had the right combination of initial conditions and enough time. It’s quite remarkable, really.
He ended with a sentence that I quite liked, and have added to my to-calligraph list.

“We should have a little humility in the face of mathematics.”

Fenster, Rauchen, Tür: German windows, smoking and doors

In which I sing the praises of German windows, am puzzled by smoking in Europe, and scoff at German doors.

German windows are fantastic. I’m seriously considering getting some for my abode when I grow up and become not-broke, just so I can show them off to visitors. They open at the top: the verb to describe the action is kippen, to tilt. Like so:

I know, it blows the mind. (If that was interesting, have a look at these various contemporary styles of European windows – the 3D renders have occlusion shadows! Hover over a window on that website to see how it opens.)

From the existence of a window position specifically for letting in air from outside, you can tell that Germans have a bit of a thing for ventilation and fresh air. In green spaces, people comment on how good the air is and how you’ll never get that in the cities – and check out this lengthy German Wikipedia article on ventilation.

This puzzles the heck out of me because Germany has one of Europe’s higher smoking rates, which has been causing me lots of misery. (I hate smoke.)

In general, Europeans smoke much more than what I’m used to, and the phenomenon seems more loosely linked to socioeconomic class and far less stigmatized. Look at the numbers: In the US 18% of the population smokes (2014 figure) and in Singapore only 14.3% of the population does (2010 figure). Compare this to, as of 2011 for male smokers: 22% in the UK, 30% in Denmark, 31% in Switzerland, 35% in Germany, 39% in France, 46% (!) in Austria. Germany also has cigarette vending machines everywhere, one per 133 inhabitants; every two blocks or so in Mannheim you can see an ugly metal box affixed to the wall with ZIGARETTEN stencilled on its side. Now, in China the smoking rate is 47%, and in Indonesia it is a whopping 67% – but that’s something you sort of expect. I can’t say I entirely understand it in Europe. These people recycle obsessively, they eat organic food, they work out – they breathe smoke as if it were air. I don’t get it.


Now German doors are not quite as fantastic as their windows, except for their rather clever soundproofing, which, when present, involves a partially recessed frame, and is the reason hotels here are impossibly quiet even when full of guests. But for some reason all the doors I’ve run into in Germany in everyday life are usability nightmares. Take this one near the neighborhood supermarket, which had me stumped and lurking in a corner furtively waiting for someone else to show me the correct way to escape:

Confusing German door


Look at those large curved handlebars, invitingly calling your name! Do you push? Do you pull? Both wrong. You use the little door handle on the inside. What?

My aikido dojo here offers another horrific example of German door-engineering, so convoluted I can’t even find a photo of a similar one on the internet. It involves a metal plate that sticks out slightly from the door proper, and a handle underneath it that seemingly serves no purpose, as to open the door you must pull the plate. Yes, you pull the metal plate.

Only slightly more stupid than the ‘pull’ plate in this unfortunate set. (source)

For all the smoke and weird doors, though, I am sad to be leaving this country – this continent, really – in a few weeks. I’ve settled in quite well in my apartment, and I’ll miss cooking. For now I am making the most of it: tomorrow I will buy a whole chicken (hopefully my landlady’s rubbish knives are up to the task of chopping it up) and attempt to make chicken rice, that most wonderful of Singaporean dishes.

1. For further reading, Don Norman writes about doors quite a bit in The Design of Everyday Things.

2. While checking noun genders for the title of the post, I finally realized that Tor and Tür are actually not just different forms of the same word. An elementary mistake, but one unobtrustive enough that I’d never bothered to look it up. Wikipedia says:

Eine Tür, vor allem ober- und mitteldeutsch Türe, auch Tor für größere Exemplare, ist eine Einrichtung zum Schließen einer Öffnung in einer Wand, in einer Mauer, in einem Durchgang oder in einem Einstieg.

So a Tor is a large Tür – a large door. There doesn’t seem to be an exact definition, but often Tore (pl.) are more like gates – large, somewhat grand, two doors if there are any – for instance, das Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate. And of course, in football, a Tor is a goal.

Thumbnails for the Yale Record Nautical Issue

I’ve got a new phone, the Motorola Moto X. If anything about it particularly strikes me, I will write a short review after a few more days/weeks with it.


I have finally, finally taken a first step towards working on one of the projects I had for the summer (other than German). Above you can see some thumbnails for a magazine cover illustration I need to submit a first draft of by June 10th.

This is one of those things I just find ridiculously difficult – drawing scenes and placing people in them. The only good compositions I have are ones that draw heavily from existing Golden Age illustration. I know that developing the mental camera takes a ton of time and practice, but continually running into this wall is disheartening.

I’m looking forward to starting this one my AD approves it though! I’ll most likely be doing that in Germany since I want to use the time I have left in New Haven for work that requires uninterrupted focus.