Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wuthering Heights

Out on the wiley, windy moors
We'd roll and fall in green.
You had a temper like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy.
How could you leave me,
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you. I loved you, too.

From the Wikipedia entry on Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights:

Written when Bush was just 18, the song's lyrics are based on the story of the novel of the same name. Kate Bush was inspired to write the song by the last ten minutes of the 1970 film version of Wuthering Heights.[1] She then read the book and discovered that she shares her birthday (July 30) with Emily Brontë. Bush reportedly wrote the song, for her album The Kick Inside, within the space of just a few hours late at night, looking to the moon through her open bedroom window for inspiration.

Lyrically, "Wuthering Heights" borrows liberally from the novel's utterances of its protagonist Catherine Earnshaw, most notably in its chorus, with Bush utilising the famous ghostly phrasing "Let me in! I'm so cold!", as well as in the verses, which reference Catherine's confession to her servant of having "bad dreams in the night."

Musically, this is an amazing song, with Bush's high pitched calling out to Heathcliff, and singing in parts like a wailing ghost. Back when the song was first released and played on Singapore Radio, the lyrics were hard to catch and I had no clue how dark and sinister the lyrics were - the melody and instrumentation were pleasing enough to provide entertainment. That changed 2 years back when I found myself wanting to listen to the song again (no idea what possessed me), and I got hold of a copy, and was stunned to discover that the song was basically a haunting set to music.

Heathcliff, it's me, your Cathy, I've come home. I´m so cold,
let me in-a-your window

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We come in peace for all mankind

Forty years ago, I was a primary two student, eagerly consuming the many commercial tie-ins with the apollo space program that ice-cream companies, children's magazines, biscuit manufacturers, coloring books were speeding in our direction.

Walls, an ice cream company, had the best offering. They sold you a book that had spaces in which you pasted little picture cards. You got a card with each ice-cream lolly (called SkyRay) you bought from them - it was in a little slot in the paper covering. The lolly was cleverly shaped like a futuristic spaceship - in 3 sections - each a different fruit flavor.

Collecting all the cards and filling up the book seemed at that time to be the most important thing in the world. More important than homework, the vietnam war, the difficulties of a young nation ejected from the Malaysian Federation just a few years before, the facing of a pullout of British forces which would have a huge impact on the defence and economy of the island.....

Perhaps there was one thing more important. The landing of the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility.

July 20th, 1969. The names of 2 heroes forever entered history that day.
"the eagle has landed"

"we came in peace for all mankind"
For a little while, we were not chinese, african, russian, malay, vietnamese, british, american or indian.
Were were not men or women.
Were were not young or old.
We were just a collective mankind, looking together in wonder at this amazing thing happening far away, on a place we could look at on most nights and which featured so prominently in much of our legends and fiction.

It was a truly magical time.

Many years later, an Insurance company ran an advertisement on Singapore TV, using Dick Lee's "Life Story", and featuring a young boy living in the 60s. In one scene, the family is in a darkened room, illuminated only by a black and white TV showing the moon landing. I'd love to get a copy of that advert. It's probably the most enjoyable advertisement I've ever watched, and the moon landing scene is definitely part of the reason.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The New Frontier

Are we up to the task .. are we equal to the challenge? Or must we sacrifice our future in order to enjoy the present?

That is the question of the New Frontier. That is the choice our nation must make .. between the public interest and private comfort .. between national greatness and national decline .. between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of "normalcy" .. between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity.

All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we will do. We cannot fail their trust, we cannot fail to try.
On the 15th of July, 1960, a young man accepted the nomination from his party to stand for election against Richard Nixon, in a competition to become the president of the United States of America.

His acceptance speech, which you'll easily find on the web, is often referred to as the "Kennedy New Frontier" speech and is amazingly relevant today.
Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric...
The full text of the speech and the MP3 version are available at the American Rhetoric page here.

I've just finished reading Darwyn Cooke's amazing, marvellous, awesome series, "The New Frontier" collected into a hardcover book that I borrowed from the Singapore National Library (Call Number 741.5973). It's the story of the transition from the superheroes of the golden age to the new world of the superheroes of the silver age. In the backdrop lurk McCarthyism, atomic weapons, racism, the conflicts spawned by the cold war, experimental aircraft that pushed the limits, ethical treatment of women ..... There are soldiers, dinosaurs, aliens from outerspace, monsters, magicians .... what fun! The link with the start of this post is that Cooke's graphic novel's concluding panels paraphrase parts of the Kennedy New Frontier speech to excellent effect.

This is a piece of work you don't want to miss. Cooke's drawing style is perfectly suited to a story that takes place between the end of WW2 till the 60s. His character design for Diana of the Amazons is particularly appealing. The section in which she defends the actions of a group of vietnamese women who have massacred their former captors and torturers (using weapons Diana put within their reach) to a stupified Clark Kent (in his alien persona) is priceless.

Diana: These women have reclaimed their home. And their dignity. I have chosen to train them to survive the coming war. Surely you see the virtue in that.
Clark: You're supposed to set an example! But to allow cold-blooded murder... and then to celebrate.
Diana: What, hand them a smile and a box of flags? Their families, their mates ... their children were murdered before their eyes. This is civil war. I've given them their freedom and a chance for justice .... the American way.

There's a bit more to the exchange, and you can read it yourself. But I love the last panel of this sequence. Diana says with a stern look on her face, "There's the door, spaceman."

Highly recommended. This is a must read.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Robert McNamara ...looking back at the Vietnam War

In an Opinion piece in the NYT Apr 21st 1999, Robert McNamara wrote about how post-mortem discussions with Hanoi revealed that the death toll and economic cost of the vietnam war could have been so much smaller - had each side not made very wrong assumptions about how much punishment or boldness the other side could tolerate, and about how open the opposing sides were to negotiations.

For example, in Vietnam each side miscalculated by repeatedly underestimating the costs and risks its adversary was willing to accept. The failure of the United States to anticipate the almost incredible losses absorbed by Vietnamese Communists, both north and south, is well known. But we learned in our dialogues that the North Vietnamese were prepared to absorb far greater punishment than was ever delivered by the American bombing. Likewise, the Hanoi Government, in a series of disastrous miscalculations made from 1961 to 1965, repeatedly underestimated America's willingness to prosecute the war in the South on the ground, and in the North via the bombing. In Vietnam neither side understood the bottom line of the other with regard to how South Vietnam should be governed, by whom and for how long. Each side, American and Vietnamese, discovered during the course of our dialogues that its former adversary was much more open to negotiations -- to a neutral, coalition government in Saigon -- than was believed at the time.

The point is this: These mutual misjudgments were not preordained by some process of escalation that, as is implied by many who see the Balkans through the prism of Vietnam, was beyond human control. Both the Americans and Vietnamese in the dialogues, who for the first time had access to one another's real intentions at the time, concluded that many opportunities existed along the way for leaders to do what they should have done -- lead! -- rather than ignore the Vietnam crisis in slow motion.

By the time Nixon ordered the withdrawal of US forces from South Vietnam, 3.5 million Vietnamese and 58 thousand Americans had lost their lives. He ends the opinion piece, which calls for the application of lessons from the Vietnam War to the Crisis in the Balkans, with this quote:

It was once famously said that the United States did not have 10 years of experience in Vietnam, but one year of experience 10 times over. Will we say the same about the Balkans?

During his military stint during WW2, during his time with Ford, and later as Secretary of Defence, McNamara applied systems analysis to bring about efficiencies, cost savings and support decision making. The systems approach supported his work well and the success it brought him set him up to trust them enough to apply them to the Vietnam War (source: wikipedia):

McNamara's plan, supported by requests from top U.S. military commanders in Vietnam, led to the commitment of 485,000 troops by the end of 1967 and almost 535,000 by June 30, 1968. The casualty lists mounted as the number of troops and the intensity of fighting escalated. McNamara put in place a statistical strategy for victory in Vietnam. He concluded that there were a limited number of Viet Cong fighters in Vietnam and that a war of attrition would destroy them. He applied metrics (body counts) to determine how close to success his plan was.

With hindsight, it is easy to see that even the best methods and processes for management, when supplied with incorrect data/assumptions, can generate tragic results. McNamara was definitely a brilliant man - a Harvard Associate Professor, President of Ford Motor Company, Secretary of Defence who achieved great things during his lifetime. But the folly of the Vietnam War that he's credited with architecting is the one thing that he will be most remembered for. To his credit, though, he did have a change of heart about how the Vietnam War was being run, and tried to persuade President Johnson to take steps towards ending America's involvement in the war. But things had gone too far .... America's prestige was on the line and perhaps too many in big-business who stood to profit massively from continued hostilities were pushing hard on their lobbyists. His failure to change LBJ's mind led to his resignation and a new job with the World Bank in 1968 where he is credited with shifting the Bank's focus towards poverty reduction.

Robert McNamara passed away on 6 July 2009. The BBC carried this obituary on it's website.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A gift of Naipaul from Books Actually

I discovered my favorite Singapore bookshop while walking around the Amoy Street area during the lunchtime break of a course I attended in mid april this year. The shop is question is one of a row of restored shop houses along Ann Siang Road, up and then halfway down a hill from Amoy Street.
Books Actually is a little piece of heaven for storybook lovers. The decor, smell and selection seem just right, and one feels compelled to purchase something because of the feeling that it would be a great crime to leave without a new book, casually underarm, protected by a simple paper bag.

You can find them at 5, Ann Siang Road. (Wikipedia has an entry on Ann Siang Hill here)

View Books Actually, 5 Ann Siang Road in a larger map

And purchase I did. A collection of snippets of VS Naipaul's writing. Taking prominent place in the collection were the prologue and first chapter of "A House for Mr Biswas". This was a book I first read as a literature text in Secondary school, and later again as an adult in my early 30s. I thought I had gained so much more from my second reading, but now, revisiting the book with the widened eyes and narrowed heart of a 47 year old, I find myself astounded by the depth and beauty of Naipaul's storytelling. Perhaps some of my own story had somehow gotten mixed up into the pages, disguising itself and possessing the seemingly simple sentence structures Naipaul employed in his story of a most unheroic hero, an everyman who was as unremarkable as can be, yet special, unique and admirable in his clumsy striving for his place in the world. It was painful to read. And beautiful too.