Monday, December 28, 2009

Come Fly With Me

More than penicillin, more than the atomic bomb, derivatives...the most marvellous invention of the 20th century...or so it seems.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Try Try Try

"The things that you try to hold on to...they're the first to go,
and all the things that you try to forget, these are the things that stick."

"The world is hard and cold. It can hurt you bad, but it doesn't mean to. It's nothing personal, but you've gotta try pretty god damn hard not to take it personally."

Stumbled upon the short story which smashing pumpkins's Try is interlaced with. The geographic geek in me noted the British accent voiceover, dreaming of California, while getting freezed off in Stockholm.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A piece of irreverence

Who can say "Fuck you" to the state parliament, and actually get away with it?
Arno can.

Letter to State Assembly

P.S. Can you spot the hidden message in this letter? first letters.every sentence.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Katahdin (Part 2)

As I looked over yonder to the precipice so aptly named, I realised that the fearsome reputation of this ridge is entirely justified. Some parts of the ridge looks knife-thin. It has been described as "a narrow walk in the sky like no other", and I am not sure I could actually appreciate such neat poetry now. The Helon Taylor honeymoon is over. Should I turn back now?

There were a smattering of people on the peak with me. Spent some time taking a few more photos before making the momentous decision--to cross the Knife Edge or not. I am no longer smiling--I am grimacing at what lies ahead of me.

At this point in time, it must be said that the weather was perfectly fine, with a healthy dose of sunshine beating down on me drenching me in sweat. I am worried more about my lack of water supply (and the fear of falling) more than anything else. I could not have imagined any other worse dangers to come.


A father-and-son team came back down from that mound, and told me, "That path is not looking good, and I am not going to take the risk with my boy here." Ominous indeed.

But seriously, how can I turn my back now that I am tantalizingly close to reaching the peak of Mount Katahdin? I could join the father-and-son team right now, but I could not live with the fact that on this day, I turned my back on Katahdin. So i dispelled the notion and forged ahead.

To start on Knife Edge proper, you have to actually descend and then ascend two rockfaces, which form some sort of a valley. This is the valley, with breathtaking views of the entire expanse of forest, rivers and the basins which I trekked though.

The father-and-son team disappear up towards the left side of the valley, back to the relatively safe embrace of the Helon Taylor trail.

This is the right side of the valley, where I saw another team making their way down a path which I was to climb later. This team had done the Knife Edge trail first, and plan on getting down via the Helon Taylor. They had the hard part behind them already.

Knife edge, here goes. The time now is around 1pm, and the sun is still beating mercilessly down.

Doing the Knife Edge proves to be extremely tough for me. I am in fact, not climbing anymore, but reduced to crawling on all fours due to the razor-thin width of the ridge. The fear of falling off the cliff is extreme here. Plus the fact that I have to lug 2 backpacks around--one food supply, one camera bag, which was compromising my state of balance. And I was wishing I had a compact camera with me instead. The D70 is obviously a luxury I can ill-afford ( with my inexperience at mountain climbing).

To prevent the backpack from tumbling over the cliffs, I use my toggle rope to fasten them to me. Handy tools, the toggle ropes.

It is difficult to depict how perilous and treacherous (to borrow the cliches normally reserved for the obligatory mountain passes that fantasy heroes need to cross) the path is. So instead, I took, while sitting on a boulder, the views exposing my left leg,

...and then my right leg. Any false steps, and that's it. The dull ache of the fear has grown into an incessant drum beat--probably from my heart. My heart pounds a little even as i am typing this. I am just glad I am not up there anymore.

Putting things into perspective, then a team of like half a dozen actually skipped past me. Girls, in frilly convent dress and beach sunhat, no less! I drew inspiration from them, and the fact that they are girls, and I forged ahead, boulder by boulder...

...until the trail seemingly comes to an abrupt stop. Of course I could see the blue arrow pointing forward, but I don't see ANY trail. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Luckily a mountain goat came along, and showed me how to do it. "What's the problem?" he asks. He was kind enough to carry my camera bag across this crazy ledge, after which I had no choice but to gingerly tread across with him. I am representing all Asians on this mountain, and I have already lost enough face crawling along on all fours. "There is no question about not crossing this ledge! So quit whining about wanting to go home!", I shouted at my inner voice.

Made it across that fiendishly scary ledge. Alas, the mountain goat was the last mammal I was to see on that day. What transipired to turn this adventure into a nightmare was something else totally unexpected.

Dark clouds had gathered, and a mist had suddenly descended upon me. Visibility was reduced to 10-m at most. And can somebody turn off that woo-woo-woo sound. I can't even hear myself anymore. Its 3pm, and 4 terrifying hours were to pass before I could take another picture.

The heavens soon opened up, and rain fell hard on me. Here I was stranded up on the topmost mountain ridge, in a valiant attempt to crawl my way to Baxter Peak, and the deadly combination of rain, mist and wind are trying to thwart my bid.

Then it happened. A flash lighted up the entire expanse of the mountain range, as far and and wide as the eye could see. This was no longer just a silly rainstorm. It was a thunderstorm, of the biblical proportion. Sometimes the things you learnt in school could save your life. I learnt that the higher up and the more exposed you are up on a mountain ridge, the more likely you are to be struck by lightning. The first thing i did was to scramble off the ridge. Fear of falling? That was so yesterday. I was precipitating from the fear of being struck by lightning even as I was being drenched by the pouring rain.

As luck would have it, the part of the ridge where I was caught gave me more room to maneuver around, and I could at least pick the widest ledge on which to set up my tent-- which consists basically of just the ground sheet covering me. The ledge even had a sort of a V-shape hull to it, where I can lie my entire body down, shielding me somewhat from the fierce winds. But I was beginning to shiver already.

So I had to make sure that the openings of the ground sheet was sealed securely--either with my limbs or by stuffing it frantically through the rocks. It was a rather fragile, but not exactly futile attempt. Sometimes the winds would flay one side open, and I had to scramble to close that gap. I felt like the Dutch boy who had to plug the gaping holes with his fingers when the dyke broke. When I finally settled down, I could barely hear myself panting from the exertions. The winds were still howling outside.

I was still shivering, but no longer uncontrollably. Any unnecessary movements would have me shivering all over again. So with my 4 limbs sealing off the ground sheet against the rocks around me, I was contorted into a rather uncomfortable position lying in the V-shape ledge. Economy of movement is of utmost importance here. Be still, be still, I keep telling myself.

Then it happened again. This time I felt somebody light up a blinding flash inside my groundsheet. I was counting aloud now, "one thousand, two thousand, three thousand....", till I came to 12, before the thunder finally roared. Mathematical calculations were racing across my mind. If sound were to travel at the speed of 330m/s and light at 300000000 m/s....ah...fuck it, let's assume speed of light to be infinite far away is the actual lightning storm from me?" About 4km. I was hugely relieved as of now.

The next flash came soon after. I counted again, and each time I counted, I realised the storm was getting nearer and nearer. Like a soldier hunkering inside a trench, with enemy shells exploding all over me, I was wondering when would the next flash be intended for me. The crack of the thunder became even more intense. My ears were prickling, working on overdrive, straining to hear where the sound came from. I need not have bothered. The crack was evidently right in front of me, but the sound reveberated throughout the peaks. So a roar actually diffused into a chain of echos that reverberated all around me and disappeared towards my back. The storm was coming from the front. It was a surround sound system any Omnimax theatre would have been proud of.

I could feel the clouds marching ominously towards me. Fear turned to anger, and I tore open my ground sheet, looked skywards, and came face to face with the storm clouds. Dark and imposing, they were Sauron's troops hunting for hobbits along the mountain ridges, and I was shielded from their methodical gaze by my magic blanket. Lightning struck, and the thunder rang so loud inside my ears. I had run out of space-time to count the "thousands". I thought this was it. Ok, how does it feel to be dead? Maybe it wont be so bad. I would be immediately delivered from my agony now, and I could just fly away from here, fly to wherever I want to go. Thoughts of my family back in Singapore, and how I would now be just another statistic on Mount Katahdin made me feel like a damn fool. Wait. I was still breathing, nothing was burning. They must have struck another peak. I was cowering underneath my groundsheet, and had no idea where it struck. It could easily have been for me. I was now playing a game of Russian roulette with the thunderstorm. About a dozen, maybe 2 dozen peaks. I am astride between 2 of them. Who'll insure me now? Perhaps the risk-loving executives at AIG.

At this point, I was already soaked to the bone, and the cruel irony was I was getting extremely thirsty. I thought I may have to camp up here for the rest of the night, and knew I could go without food for a few days, but not without water. The ground sheet began to sink with the weight of rain water collecting on its top. I was not going to let them go to waste, and began to drink the water off the sheet. I clumsily spilled some onto the ground, but what the heck. I stooped down to clear the water that collected on the rocks. I'll worry about the ringworms later.

I had my watch with me. Tick tock tick tock, it had been like 2 hours, but the rain was relentless. Thunder cracked again. This time the sound reveberated from back to front now. I heaved a sigh of relief. The storm had passed behind me. Possibly the worst is over? I shouted with glee, the worst is over! The worst is over! And uttered some expletives, something to the tune of "fuck you storm". Maybe it was my imagination, but the mountains returned the echoes of my curses.

7pm. The rain had eased into a drizzle. The mist had parted to reveal what was a ethereal sight in front of me. I could almost see the whole of the basin that drains the mountain rivers to the ocean. For a moment I allowed myself to weep. I thought I had never seen something so achingly beautiful before. I could die contented right here.


Taking advantage of the lull, I tot I should snap some photos for keepsake should i make it back alive and well. In spite of the cold, I proceeded to take the only exposed part of my "tent", which was the dreaded fall-off from the V-shaped ledge.

I began to decamp (aka stuffed the groundsheet into the bag) and continue my trek on Knife Edge. But I began to shiver badly again, with the high winds threatening to blow me off the ridge. Fear of hypothermia set in. In fact, hypothermia claims more victims on mountain-top accidents. This could not do--I had to wait out the winds. I set up camp again, trying to shield myself from the wind. I lay on another crevice for a while. It felt warm and cosy. I was drifting to sleep. But there was something wrong with this crevice, comfortable though it felt to me. It felt too much like a grave--my grave. Now came another momentous decision. Should I or should I not camp here? What if I were to be found dead here? Reduced to curling up like a fetus hugging a bag of rotten stinking carrots for food. Or I could end up as the next ice-age man a million years from now. Not appealing at all. Morever, I had the stinking suspicion that my shivering and shaking were just a dirty excuse by the lazy self not to push hard for the summit. So I tell myself, if I were to die, I had better die trying to get to the summit, rather than lying inside what amounts to a very probable early grave for me. My new rallying cry: If you must die, die with dignity!

So I packed up (this time I left the pack of carrots behind, whose stench were to stain my raincoat and bag for an entire week) and forged ahead. This time, I no longer crawled. I skipped, I rushed, I jumped, I hopped--all in the furious attempt to get to the summit. It seemed neverending, all these rocks and boulders that I had to traversed. But looking back, I'm sure it was psychological. The uncertainties of your destination always make your journey seem that much longer. Actually in a short while, a little under 1 hour, I finally reached the summit. So I had proven right that the shivering were just an excuse not to do climb the last stretch of the trail. I actually had enough body heat in me to come all the way up here. It was 8pm by then.

Katahdin. The real summit. The end of the Appalachian trail. The holy grail.

As promised, the way down from the summit proved to be much gentler. It consist of a vast area of almost flat and desolate terrain they call the tableland. It was one of the very few tundra landscapes existing in USA, so there were lots of efforts put into trying to conserve the Artic flora up here. I was spellbound by the utter beauty of it all. The delicate and tender light of the moon had once again lighted up a very beautiful path for me to follow. For a while, I just stood there, contemplating in reverential silence at the solitude of the land.


Anyway, my hopes of getting back safely to base camp were dashed. The tableland falls off rather abruptly towards the edge. There was no way i could attempt to climb down at night in wet and slippery conditions ( I had slipped a few times while walking on flat land). So, I decided to spend a night up here on top of Mount Katahdin. Later around 2am, an ever fiercer storm hit Katahdin, but I was too jaded and tired to care anymore. Worried though I was, I thought I had played up my chances of being hit by lightning too much. Airplane flights do hit periods of turbulence, but the probability of a plane crash is still rather too remote. In fact, I was unable to proceed all the way till around 7am the next day, when the storm gave way to an incessant drizzle, and lastly to the morning mist. But since I am penning this entry right now, it's just another case of all's well that ends well.

But I'm not proud to say that a search party was underway in the morning looking for me. They had this system of requiring all hikers to sign out prior to embarking on the mountain trail, and signing in again upon return. The rangers would cross-check with each other across all the different check-points to confirm all hikers were safely back by evening. So when I failed to sign back in that evening, they already knew there was someone trapped up there in the mountains.


Next morning. Tom the ranger who "rescued" me. We were mighty relieved to see each other, perhaps me more than him. He has a youthfulness which belies his 40 years of age. Amazing. The mythical elixir of youth must be flowing through these mountains. Ever gregarious, he shared with me his adventures up in the mountains, down in the rapids, and his first love--fly fishing, and how he was so relieved not to have to call up the Coast Guards for yet another missing hiker (about a dozen a year, it seems.) I was apologising profusely for having wasted their precious time and resouces due to recklessness on my part. But he would have none of it and stated firmly, "This is our job. This is what we rangers do." Anyway it just goes to show the critical importance of staying on the trails. As long as you stay on the trails, the rangers will be bound to find you.

A write-up about Katahdin via Knife Edge in one of the guides I was to find only later. Would I then have attempted the Knife Edge after reading this? I have no idea, but my friend thinks that words like "most dangerous" and "extreme exposure" and "many fatalities" would, instead of discouraging me, only spur me on. Maybe he's right. And I have a strange feeling that my story with the mountains is not over yet. The heartbreaking beauty of the mountains may once again lure me up there. Some day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A trader is like...

A trader is like a rodeo rider. The market gets violent and shakes everyone but the most determined and convicted trader off its back.

A trader is like a surfer. He analyses wind conditions and tide levels and catches the waves just as they are about to form.

A trader is like a midnight clubber. The booze is on, the music is playing, there are hundreds of people dancing, but everybody has his eye on the exit door.

A trader is like a hunter. He waits in stealth, locks in on his target, goes for the kill, and gets out fast. He lives by the motto "one shot, one kill".

A trader is like a coin-picker. The coins are littered all over the road. They seem easy pickings but a bulldozer is parked right there.

A trader is like a poker player. The market always acts like it has a hand. He either plays along with it or calls a bluff. And he has a trump card--stay out.

A trader is like a trench soldier. 90% sheer boredom, and 10% sheer terror.

A trader is like a daredevil. He makes his judgment of the braking distance, and stands in front of the locomotive train. Get it right, and he lives, but only if he gets it right.

A trader is like a doctor. He monitors the pulse of the market with the EEG, and when the market goes into cardiac arrest, he performs elaborate maneuvers to rescue the health of his portfolio--calmly.

A trader is like an alchemist. He transmutes what is essentially trading noise into the most precious resource of all--gold.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Katahdin (Part 1)

Mount Katahdin is the northernmost peak of the Appalachian mountains that stretch from as far south as Georgia to Maine, and some say, to Canada too, depending on how pedantic you are on cartographing the mountain peaks. It has inspired hikes, climbs, poetry, paintings, a piano sonata and most notably, the writings of Henry Thoreau, who wrote of Katahdin:

"The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, such as savages, do not climb mountains -- their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn".

Katahdin actually means the Greatest Mountain in native Indian language. The Indians are obviously not well-travelled. Katahdin is by no means the greatest mountain in the world, whose height (1600m, slightly taller than Cameron Highlands) would barely cause a ripple among the sheer enormity that is the Himalayas. But there must be something about this particular Maine mountain that so inspired such dramatic prose. So it was not mere coincidence that I decided to embark on this pilgramage in the summer of 2009 to Katahdin, having been acquainted with both the Appalachian mountains and Henry Thoreau before.

I took off on a 330-mile drive via Interstate 95 from Boston to Milinocket, the nearest town to Mount Katahdin. Car rental is costly, especially if you are travelling alone, so you can be sure that I had overturned every timetable in every single bus company (Greyhound, Vermont, Concord) that ply on the Maine roads before deciding to go rental. I keep telling myself, how much would I pay to see Katahdin, and the practicalities of financial matters paled into insignificance.

Interstate 95

The mountain ranges loom far ahead , up among the clouds.

Welcome to Baxter State Park

Katahdin lies inside Baxter State Park. The story goes that Governor Percival Baxter was so spellbound by Katahdin that in order to prevent loggers from mining the surrounding area that he bought over the entire piece of land around the mountain, and entrusted it to the care of the state of Maine. That was how it became a state park. For the record, 204733 acres is slightly bigger than the island of Singapore.

The infrastrature of Baxter Park is laid out in this way: there is only one road leading into the Baxter Park, via an entrance. The nearest town, Milinocket, is probably 20 miles away. The base camps scattered around the main mountain ranges are located about 5 miles away from the entrance. You can elect to drive your vehicles to some of the base camps (like Roaring Brooks, Katahdin Stream and Abol), and you pay $24 per day for vehicle+man, or you park your car at the entrance and hike your way into the base camps--for $11 a night. At no time are you allowed to spend the night anywhere else in the park, so basically it means every night spent in Baxter State Park costs at least $11 per head.

I parked my car beside a lake, which was near the entrance. Seemingly tranquil and serene, but who knows what lurks beneath.

Since i would be away for a few days at least, thought it would be prudent to have the number plate recorded just in case the car gets stolen. But it was remarked to me (later of course) "nobody would come here to steal cars one lor." True.

Recording the numbers for security, not for 4D.

Spread out my barang-barang. From left to right:
Insect repellent (25% deet), Crumpler camera bag with D70, 17-70mm auto and 70-200 manual lens, a dozen toblerones and snickers, peanut butter, guide book with map of Baxter state Park, note book, Paul Theroux reading material and pencil, a pack of organic carrots, torch light, bread, Campbell soup tin can, 2 toggle ropes, rain coat, groundsheet, and an Adidas backpack.

Having never hiked overnight before in my life and lacking necessary experience, packing up has been a woeful hit-and-miss affair on hindsight. Why in the world would I want to carry reading materials up there? I realised my folly halfway up the mountain, with the weight of the books digging into my flesh. And what's with the 70-200mm lens? I had thought about it, and thought that I will never forgive myself if I come face to face with a bear and do not have a good zoom lens with which to shoot the bear with. Incredulously naive, because the first thing I should do is to make as much noise as possible to drive the bear away, and then run in the opposite direction--for dear life. On the other hand, the toggle ropes proved to be very useful later when the hikes turned to climbs. Finally, I can never overstate the importance of that humble groundsheet, without which, hmm, I could not contemplate beyond.

After packing my stuffs, remembering specifically to lock my car, and paying my dues to the rangers on duty at the entrance, I began to hike my way into Roaring Brooks camp with a spring in my steps. Loved every minute of it, but a very friendly ranger driving by insisted on picking me up along the way. Learnt from the ranger that Baxter State Park is a very well-policed park, with over 40 rangers on duty at any one time, unlike his last call of work, Denali National Park in Alaska, while 10 times larger in area, had only 4 rangers working in it. I guess he must have had a back-breaking time in Alaska. But I was getting excited too, because Denali (McKinlay) was also where Christoper Mccandles perished, and he must surely have heard of him, but I was careful to keep mum. I didn't want him to think of me as another silly college boy trying to tempt fate just because he watched "Into the Wild" on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Instead I joked about his workload being cut up by 40 times, which would otherwise never happen in the corporate world, and he beamed, "It certainly is!".

At this point in time doubts began to creep in. I had wanted this trip to be wild, but not so wild that I would lose my life, nor so mild to be like a walk in the park either. And with over 40 rangers policing every aspect of life in Baxter, it certainly sounded like a trip to Central Park indeed.

Spent a night inside one of the huts at Roaring Brooks camp. It is primitive, with wooden planks for bed and candles for light. "I am the noble savage, living in the primitive age of the world." It's always cool to be able to quote Thoreau and actually mean it. When darkness descends upon the land, the woods comes alive with fireflies dancing in the trees and the river sparkling with moonlight. These are enchanting moments that will remain in the deep recesses of my soul for long to come.

The morning after. Washing up beside Roaring Brooks, the icy-cold water stings me awake and hydrates me for what is going to a gruelling day.

I was carrying a few nigging fears with me at this point. I had forgotten about buying iodine pills in Boston, and was obsessed with the fear of drinking from the streams, until a fellow hiker said,"Just drink it up, let's worry about the ringworms later." Also, I had read that summertime was black fly season, and had heard stories from a Canadian traveller earlier that his face got stung so bad that it swelled for a few hours. So there, my 2 obsessions coming at the start of the hike, fear of black flies and fear of drinking poisoned water.

To get to the mountain proper, I had to cross a few miles of thick forest, but rest assured, paths have already been cleared for us. There is no need to trailblaze through. And, temperate forests, with their sparse undergrowth of soft lichen and moss, are a joy to walk in.

Into the wild...

Started the trail around 5am, with the sky already quite bright. I had elected to do the Helon Taylor trail, which is a hike with only a few climbs, after which it should adjourn to the infamous Knife Edge before reaching Baxter Peak, the tallest peak of Mount Katahdin.

This is the Helon Taylor trail, which involves jumping along these boulders.

Oh yea, and one more fear, the fear of getting my boots wet. So this stream was a considerable challenge in keeping my boots dry. My Timberland Gore-Tex held up nicely, and passed the test with flying colours. Of course I replenished my water supply here too. River streams don't come by so often in the wilderness.

A 2-m tall boulder, one of the few climbing challenges along the trail, facing me.

Easily done--looking down.

This is getting fun. At this point, I had still thought of Baxter State somewhat like a more rugged Sunday climb at the gym. I recalled the joke in the Peep Show, where Jeremy mentioned that "the world is his gym, the mountains, the rivers.", whereupon Mark concurred, "The world is my gym too, well, just that little bit where it is actually a gym." That's the polarity between country and city life.

Wildlife--I mustn't forget to photograph the wildlife I encountered along the way.

Slowly the treeline becomes more exposed. I think I am halfway up the mountain already.

The scenery gets more breathtaking as I go higher up.

More wildlife.

I am soon up among the clouds. I expended approximately 5 hours of non-stop hiking to get to this far. Everything goes to plan. This is still a stroll in Central Park.

Steep climb

Uh-oh. The steepest climb yet. I think it was a 2.5-m climb here. There was no other way but to somehow haul myself up. After much difficulty, including throwing my 2 baggages over the top, could I actually overcome the boulders here.

After doing a few more 2-m haul-ups, I soon realised that its not so easy after all. Looking down, I was thinking, oh my gosh, I am actually CLIMBING now! Quelling my fears, I keep telling myself, "Comon, you've done all these before at the Kallang gym."

One advice they always give...

...Don't look down.

And a new fear supplanted the old ones--the fear of falling. This particular fear of falling is quite unlike that encountered in roller-coaster rides. It is as if the sheer intensity of a roller-coaster ride gets diffused across time, resulting in a less acute but no less palpable throbbing of the heart. It doesn't matter how high you go, because by the time you climb to a certain height, it doesn't make a difference to your brittle sack of flesh anymore. I was thinking, the Helon Taylor "Central Park" trail must have ended, and I must be on this so-called Knife Edge already. If so, then I must be near the peak already.

Is over yonder the peak? No it isn't.

Sometimes you couldn't see over yonder, and you thought that what you saw was the peak. You hastily scramble up, only to see yet another of such mound, and yet another, and yet another. Its beginning to take a toll on my physique.

Taking a break. I'm not alone in getting tired from all these humps.


Wildlife shots indicate my generally high state of morale for I still have it in me to find the mood, not to mention energy, to observe wildlife (mostly insects unfortunately) around me. For a while, I was worried about snakes lurking beneath the undergrowths. But bah...none whatsoever.

This is getting a bit hardcore now. Not unlike one of those fearsome obstacles you have to overcome in those Nintendo games in order to progress to the next stage. I was thinking, hmm, should I just give up and turn back? At this moment, the choice still lies with me, because I had hiked over what is not too difficult to backtrack--a gentle slope punctuated by some large boulder climbs.

It was really tough getting up that wall, but I kept telling myself, this must be the Knife Edge, and I must be nearing my journey. I was elated to see a signpost upon scaling that final rockface, only to realise its not Knife Edge. It was only the Helon Taylor Trail that I had done, and its already 11am now. I had taken 6 hours to trek just 3.2 miles? That must be terribly slow by anybody's standards. And in order to get to the real peak, Katahdin Peak, I have to trek through a 1.5 mile long ridge called the Knife Edge.

Signpost that says Pamola Peak (not Katahdin), and gently points Katahdin-bound hikers to what lies to their left...

...the Knife Edge.

to be continued...soon...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

BNP Nick Griffin on BBC Question Time

I don't know anything about British politics, never heard of the British National Party (BNP), and much less of their leader Nick Griffin and his extremist views that Britain should remain fundamentally white. While white supremacy is nothing new, what is refreshing is that BBC has given him an opportunity to air his views in public. Giving white supremacy any sort of attention, much less on prime time television, is a very dangerous affair, and the controversy was brewing for some time on Financial Times, so I decided to check out what's the whole deal about.

And what transpired from the video I watched was, in my opinion, a triumph of free speech and democracy, where ideologies and arguments are allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. Against a panel of admittedly very illustrious opponents, Nick Griffin, a more oratically gifted one perhaps(an Obama with that Hitler moustache?) could have grasped control of the stage and turned the table against the incumbents. Instead he hemed and hawed, backtracked many times and and was reduced to nervous laughter, which drew swift and sharp rebuttals ("Why are you smiling? It's not a particularly funny matter."). The straw men he built over the course of his political career, denying the Holocaust for example, cosying up to the Ku Klax Clan for example, were admittedly his major liabilities. His rambling ways betrayed a complete lack of clarity of thoughts.

But of course, BBC must have known the outcome in advance. They strategised right down to the last detail--why else invite an American black woman on the panel, who would be both an academic and moral authority to speak on the Ku Klax Clan--to milk maximum humiliation for all Nick Griffin was worth. The trojan horse was delivered, and the bait was taken. The only person there to defray the heat was hapless Jack Straw, UK Home Affairs Minister, who was being blamed for giving birth to the BNP through 12 years of lax immigration laws. So we have a curious case of unwilling father and bastard son, sitting uncomfortably side by side. The 2 women panelists came off with their reputations enhanced. You wouldn't want Sayeeda Warsi sitting opposite you in any debate competition. Eloquent and displaying a sort of economic rationale that is difficult to refute--"this is no longer a race issue, but a resources issue"--she is one daunting opponent. Bonnie Greer, disarmingly humourous and chummy with her snide comments, is just danger.

Add to the mix an engaging and at times emotional audience, and a sprinkling of beautiful people, this is as fun as politics can ever be.

Last note, if the programme had set out to humiliate Nick Griffin, it would have comfortably met its objectives. But I don't think anybody from either side of the ideological divide--liberals and supremists alike--would be convinced to switch camp on the sole basis of a TV programme. Thoughts are entrenched in people over the course of a lifetime. The brain entertains a million thoughts a day, but most of them are just repetitions in various guises, and only reinforce the structure of the brain, compelling the next thought that comes along to travel along well-worn synapses. It is less a philosophical problem than a biological one. It takes enormous commitment and intellectual honesty to come clean with oneself and reorganise our own house of thoughts. Far easier to let the cobwebs manifest themselves in their own ways, rightly or wrongly, and allow ourselves to be forever entangled in our own convoluted web of thoughts.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Mr Market

I used to think Mr Market was some kind of omnipotent masters of the universe, and we are mere slave to his whims and fancy. But as long as we fear him accordingly and give him the due respect, we would be shown mercy. The streets are littered with the bodies--hang, drawn and quartered no less-- of those who have been victims to his occasional but unspeakable wrath. They serve as stark warnings to the survivors.

But Mr Market is an elusive one. Nobody knows who he is, or has even looked him in the eye before. Some claim to be able to communicate with him through tongues. We call these people chartists. Those who are unable to comprehend these strange languages resort to vague ideas of superstition. So superstitious was I about Mr Market that I worship him in my mind, and refused to even mutter anything that would be construed as disrespect to Mr Market, much like how people do not speak ill of the dead, or of deities. A book I read warned just that, that we shouldn't speak of "fighting the market", for it will hit back, and hit hard. You should think of Mr Market in more benevolent terms, as a figure who will conspire to fulfill your wishes so long as you go with the flow. It's more Zen than biblical.

But now I know better. Mr Market is just indifferent. You can say anything you want, you can do anything you want. It doesn't matter. You can bet against the Black Swans all your life and retire rich. Others blow up even before they start. Go ahead, be so mighty impudent once in a while and remove your stop-losses just before it hits. Don't worry. Nobody is going to come up to you with some sort of a probability bill to pay afterwards, and certainly not Mr Market. He is just a psychological construct. He is just like God.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fighting the world is tough

a great story on the struggles of a molecular scientist Ted Steele, who seem to suffer setbacks after setbacks in his quest to convince the world of his ideas.

...and a few thoughts flashed through my mind while watching the vid.

1) Science acts as a very strict gatekeeper between mainstream ideas and everything else on the fringes. With the modern-day rigour now demanded on all research, it is not easy for any new ideas to gain membership. And that is good. If not, we would be wasting valuable resources entertaining all sort of drivels from flat earthers and creationists.

2) If you want to fight the world, be prepared to get hurt. Perhaps a lifetime of torment, and then be cast into oblivion.

3) Not all scientists had it so tough as Ted Steele. Perhaps this is the difference between true geniuses and mere mortals. Geniuses are always recognised early, and worshipped accordingly. Look at Richard Feynman, whose ideas had always tended to be accepted willingly by the scientific community. At age 20, he was already invited to participate in the Manhattan Project. And by age 47, he was already a world famous nobel laureate. That's the mark of a true genius--a blessed life. Einstein had it very tough with his theory of relativity. Perhaps Einstein was right when he said he wasn't a genius, merely someone who thought a lot.

4) Sometimes you bring trouble onto yourself. Ted Steele's uncompromising stance and controversial headlines may have invited the vitrol directed personally at him. In his quest to convince the world of his ideas, he may have allowed his ego to take control of the proceedings. If the key word here is convince, he may do well to adopt a softer approach.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Foreign Talents

A good friend, with whom I have had a long-running disagreement over the issue of foreign talents, fired the latest salvo by sending me a link to an article published in the Malaysian Star:

The Malaysian report purports to report that employers' hiring message in Singapore these days has morphed from the seemingly innocuous "Foreigners welcome" to the downright explicit "Foreigners preferred".

Such an article would have provoked a stir of dispproval among Singaporeans. The argument sounds almost absurd: Where else in the world are citizens increasingly marginalised by influx of minoroties into the country? But reading the article only reinforced my own set of arguments.

1) "Every time such an ad appears, it cuts into the popularity of the government, which won 66.6% of the popular votes in the 2006 election."
The article correctly points out such politically sensitive ads would never have been allowed in other developed countries. But that's only because the citizens in those developed countries know to show their displeasure with their votes. The winds of change has been sweeping across countries more accustomed to long-standing one-party rules. The LDP of Japan has lost power for the first time in 50 years, and UMNO of Malaysia is looking cautiously over its shoulders after a demoralising setback last year. But Singapore? It seems that we are a small island sheltered from typhoons and political winds too. Against the backdrop of a docile electorate, the government is only being rational in putting the rights of its citizens on a backseat. Ask yourself: How many times do you place the concerns/complaints of a more vocal client over that of a more compliant one?

2)"The foreigners, hungrier and without family responsibility here, generally work longer hours for less pay – something that married Singaporeans with a home mortgage to pay cannot possibly match."
While serving NS and having reservist call-ups are valid gripes outside the sphere of control of Singaporean (males), having a family are personal choices. We always forget that the foreigners are also human beings who, by dint of circumstances, have given up the joys of having a family for the sake of surviving in a cut-throat world. And then comes the average Singaporean who, perhaps somewhat complacently, decides to settle down, saddles himself with debt, only to find himself unable to compete with the hungrier foreigners. Is this a case of having the cake and eating it too?

3) Lastly, the problem of foreigners flooding a country or industry is not a uniquely singaporean affair. Just like there is very little Hainan about Hainese Chicken Rice, and very little European about European options, there is very little English about the English Premier League. Foreigners outnumber locals in this highly lucrative industry. Teams like Arsenal frequently boast 11 non-locals in their lineups on matchday. Managers have no qualms going on record stating that they prefer foreigners to English, because they are more talented and/or cheaper. European law makers have been silent on such cross-border employment, because they were the ones who set the wheel in motion, but are now powerless to stop it. So now we have a situation with Singapore fans griping about the flood of immigrants in their country while cheering for foreign players like Ronaldo (Portuguese) and Thierry Henry(French)in the English Premier League. Now this is uniquely Singaporean.

I could go on about the dominance of foreigners in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and how the centuries-old open-door policies have been the cornerstones of American and French nation-building, but that's another point.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The modern world

The vague concept of "the modern world", which has for a long time coming been a convenient scapegoat for all the ills of our times, can actually help bail out those religious fellas who got onto the wrong side of law.

A: Because I'm a modern monk. Can't you see? The world has changed...
I can be closer to my devotees if I stay in Orchard Road....

A: Because I'm a modern monk. Can't you see? The world has changed...
Who doesn't watch porn nowadays....?

A: Because I'm a modern monk. Can't you see? The world has changed...
And it last longer... You should try....

A: Because I'm a modern monk. Can't you see? The world has changed...
And also it's a gift from my devotee.... Not I buy one...

On a different note, we tend to cast a disapproving look when we see monks mingling at high-end streets like Orchard and Sim Lim Square (of course!), and we react with glee upon seeing them stray onto the wrong side of law. We string them up, strip them of their dignity and robes, and scrutinize their private lives, right down to the underwears they own. And when we find that they lead lives not dissimilar to our very own, we start berating them for doing the very things we do, like giving in to materialistic excesses or lust or whatever that people in the "lousy modern world" do. Shouldn't we allow for some harmless failings on our fellow humans from time to time, especially if the crime committed is inconsequential? What is it with this selective inconsistency, or if you prefer, hypocrisy, that we have in abundance inside us? The christian bible may be another overrated relic, like justin timberlake or mutual funds, but it does say something wise from time to time: let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Into the Wild

"There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy...", so began a song written in the wartorn 40s, which tells a fantasy of a boy who "wandered very far, over lands and seas" only to learn that "the greatest thing... was just to love and be loved in return". The song could very well have been about Christopher McCandless, whose story has haunted me ever since I caught the movie Into the Wild.

Uneven at times and beautiful in parts, it tells the tale of a boy who hails from middle-class America, but found himself in spiritual discord with the excesses of modern times. To him, a career is a 20th century invention--smart suits, sharp ties, empty souls--and he didn't want anything to do with them.

Paraphrasing Henry Thoreau, he said, "Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness, give me truth." After fulfilling the tedious and absurd duty of graduating from college, he set off on a journey to seek his truth. Starting from Atlanta, he crossed the great American plains, worked his way to Nevada, and into Mexico via the Gulf of Mexico, and crossed the desert back to the US. Having gained an intimacy with the North American continent, his wanderlust now took him to the ultimate wilderness frontier: Alaska. Trekking alone into the Great White North, the wilderness finally caught up with him and, remorselessly, claimed his life. He got himself killed all because he refused simple navigational tools like maps and compass. The tragedy was not that he seemed so lacking in basic sense that he somehow threw away a life like that. Thousands of nutcases get themselves bumped off the gene pool all the time. The tragedy was he was otherwise a very competent and intelligent guy, fleet of foot and quick of reflexes, and he should never have died under the circumstances.

The director was rather heavy-handed in trying to explain the inner soul of Christopher McCandless, alluding often to his overbearing father and the dysfunctional element which ran in his family. While no doubt he had to escape his life because his family embodies all that he hates about society, I think the director is missing the point. It is simply the call of the wild. The same siren song which led Columbus to the Americas, Marco Polo to the far east, and Dr Livingstone to the heart of Africa. The wild promises adventures that enrich your life, a spiritual reunion with the earth, and a peace that simply cannot be gotten from our modern-day jungle. It stirs you alive. All I know is when the siren song of the wild beckons, I have to go.

Barry Lopez, a landscape photographer who writes for National Geographic, and who too had found his calling in wilderness attributed it to a sense of loneliness. He writes, "The cure for loneliness, I have come to understand, is not more socialising. It's achieving and maintaining close friendships. The trust that characterises that kind of friendship allows one to be vulnerable, to discuss problems that resist a solution, for example, without having to risk being judged or dismissed. I bring this up because the desire I experience most keenly, when I travel in landscapes like the ones made so evocative here, is for intimacy. I have learned that I will not experience the exhilaration intimacy brings unless I become vulnerable to the place, unless I come to a landscape without judgements, unless I trust that the place is indifferent to me. The practice I strive for when I travel is to meet the land as if it were a person. To encounter it as if it were as deep in its meaning as human personality. I wait for it to speak. And wait. And wait."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

It ain't over till it's over!

Towards the end of the match, I was asked to come up with a hypothetical headline to sort of capture the amazing spectacle that had earlier unfolded before our eyes. "Man U Thrashed at Theatre of Doom". Nah too long. "Red Devils slaughtered like lambs". No punch. "4 shoved up Man U's ass". Too vulgar. "Liverpool spanks Man U into meek submission". Too erotic. And my tongue started twisting as I was launching into the next one, which sounded like "Day of the Triffids at Old Trafford"... Writing headlines is not an easy job.

Why not just "Liverpool beat Man U 4-1", asked my incredulous friend. No! We Liverpool fans had been waiting for a day like this for a long time coming. It would have been a journalstic travesty to let Man U off with just any other headline. For almost 2 decades(can anyone even fathom the length of 20 years?), Liverpool had been living in the shadows of a dominant Manchester United team. If there was any team who had gotten on the wrong end of a stuffing, Liverpool would be it. Painful memories of a Jamie Carragher double--own goal doubles-- way back in 1999 came flooding back to my mind. A last min O'Shea goal at Anfield a few years back nearly set off an internal haemorrhage. At last, I managed to make peace with the devil and actually admired how Manchester United make the art of playing effective soccer seem so easy. Why? All you need to do is to send your defenders up at the last minute and pop your head at goal. Liverpool had become so pathetic that a draw at Anfield was considered a gift from the gods.

In many ways, we found our lives running in parallel with the fortunes of the football club we support. Somehow cheering for a chronic loser seem to condition one to be a loser in life. We learn to accept our lot, and learn to accept that the others will always have it better, and easier. Liverpool fans tend to hang their heads a tad lower, and smoke, and read Camus.

Until today, that is. We simply could not believe our eyes as the goals went in one after another. Manchester United given a hiding at Old Trafford? The expensively-assembled team of arrogant entertainers taught a footballing lesson from the gentlemen of Merseyside? It was like George Bush pleading for forgiveness for his Iraq fiasco. But happened it did. The last time Man U was thrashed at home by any team was in 1992, and by Liverpool, 1936. 1936! John Lennon and the state of Israel weren't even born yet. Perhaps it was the genius that was Torres. Perhaps it was the inspiration that was Gerrard. Or perhaps the industrious Kuyt, or the exuquisiteky-skilled Aurelio. (I always tend to notice the underdogs, even in a team of underdogs.) It didn't matter why. When Andrea Dossena signed off the match with a lob that floated into goal with such careless mockery, we were already delirious with joy and pride. With new-found self-confidence, and boasting pools of testesterones we never knew we had, we roared ourselves silly with delight. And with each roar, the years of frustration just melted away. And they always say, "Even the dogs have their day". But I say, this is a new world order. If it's always about fighting anyway, let's just fight to the end.

As for the headline, how about this: Liverpool strips Man U off their cloak of invinsibility. Summer is coming, but Man U may yet catch a chill they're never forget.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Don't Panic

Oh, we're sinking like stones,
All that we fought for,
All those places we've gone,
All of us are done for.

We live in a beautiful world,
Yeah we do, yeah we do,

Oh, we're sinking like stones,
All that we fought for,
All those places we've gone,
All of us are done for.

We live in a beautiful world,
Yeah we do, yeah we do,

Oh, all that I know,
There's nothing here to run from,

And there, everybody here's got somebody to lean on.

It seems to be creeping out from everywhere nowadays. This is a song of the times.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

This is criminal

After agonising over the almost haphazard notations on the lecture notes provided by my course on Black-Derman-Toy interest rate model, and getting absolutely nothing out of it after almost 2 hours of my life, I decided to appeal to Emmanuel Derman himself.

And soon the whole gist of the story became clear to me. It was not particularly because the original paper was well written--and it was sparkling in its clarity, as befits a typical Fischer Black paper--but because the idea was essentially very simple. Add-and-subtract simple. Heartbreakingly simple.

And I looked back to my lecture notes. I was not alone in getting all muddled up reading them, judging from the collective confusion in the class after the lecture. And I had to wonder, and perhaps never getting a satisfactory answer--how could anyone make something simple appear so incomprensible.

Richard Feynman once said, "If you can't explain anything simply, you don't know what you're talking about." Does the guy really understand what he is teaching? This is a complete and systemic breakdown of communication. And we, as the students, are made to pay, with our time, with our money, with our pride. Sometimes, I find no difference between institutional education and institutional abomination.

Post-remark (26/02/09):
Now I realised I had missed the point completely when my rudimentary understanding of the Black-Derman-Toy was cruelly exposed in an exam. In order to back out a r(2,-2) short rate, I had to perform tons of frustrating calculations, which I had later realised was completely unnecessary had I actually understood the powerful concept of state pricing. With state pricing, I could back out short rates, yield curve, and even forward yield curves. And that was what our lecture notes had been driving at all along. I learn, I learn...But the notations are still terrible!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Awakenings from a false dawn

At the start of the year, investors, fresh from the festivities, continued where they left off in the so-called year-end rally, and started bidding stocks higher. That helped the stock market rebound more than 25% from its November 21 2008 low. With more money in debt and money markets than equity markets for the first time since World War II, a rally could be spectacularly explosive. Looking at all the positive market indicators--rising oil prices, higher volume, rising indexes--there was a real sense of anxiety that the worst may be over. It may not sound right, that you actually wish for the worst to befall others. But it's just greed. It's just business.

The thing is, if we are on the road to recovery, in the sense that the worst quarter for the world economy was the 4Q 2008, which isn't saying much actually because it was extremely bad (or so we are led to believe), then we should see a bottoming out of stock prices anytime now, because conventional wisdom has the stock market as a 6 month leading indicator of economic health.

Indicators are misleading. They pretend to tell you a lot, but actually they don't. (Which is good actually, because you don't want the stock market to flash green lights for all to see so everyone can see its time to buy. Then you'll always be too late.) Oil prices have since rebounded from the rock bottom of $35, briefly touching $50 due to the Gaza wars, and the Baltic indexes have corrected by quite a bit too.

But any talks of a sustained rally is, at best, premature. The anticipated rally from the Obama presidential inauguration on Jan 20 2009 is not materialising. Instead investors are bracing themselves for what could be a worse-than-expected 4Q corporate earnings. In the space of 1 trading session (Jan 12 2009), financials are surrendering their gains since their November 21 low, and are threatening to breach that low all over again. Like a patient in ICU, a "stable but critical condition" has now suddenly--as usual--"taken a turn for the worse."

The depressed market trading conditions is suggesting that the year-end rally is beginning to take shape as just another bear rally in the grand scheme of a severe downturn. The dead cat has bounced? As an aside, the phrase comes from traders, whose morbid imaginations conjure up images of cats which had fallen from considerable heights and died under the circumstances, would nonetheless still bounce upon impact. That's what gloomy stock markets make you think about. You think about death.

Russell Napier, in trying to answer the million-dollar question, turned to history and examined 4 periods of extreme market undervaluations in 1921, 1932, 1949 and 1982, and found common themes, summarised here by FT's Tony Jackson, "Typically, the bottom was immediately preceded by a turn in commodities (copper especially), auto sales, corporate inventories and corporate bonds. Good news was, meanwhile, ignored by investors."

If we work through the list item by item, it seems that most of the conditions for a market bottom has been satisfied, especially with regards to commodity prices like copper which gained back some 20% since December, and oil, which rebounded from its low of $33.87 (Brent North Sea crude) in December 21 2008, to around $50 a barrel. US auto car sales may seem to be headed down, but once adjusted on an "annualised basis", they are actually not doing too bad. There is a palpable thaw in the credit market frozen over in the mayhem after the Lehman collapse. Bond yields have fallen and companies are issuing rights again.

But the conditions are scarcely enough. Dangling off the last of the list is an ominous remark about how "good news was ignored". It reflected the sentiments of those historic bears when markets were so bad that investors, apathetic to all sorts of news, have all but given up on the stock market.

It is clearly not the case now. Any reports of earnings that were less severe than expected would have the shares spiking straight up. Debenhams reported less severe than expected 4Q results and prompted a 20% rise in its stocks. When the BoE announced interest rate cuts to 1.5%, pushing the pound up(I am not sure why at this moment), the shares of British banks like Lloyds, Barclays and RBS rebounded very strongly in the space of a few sessions. Anticipating a massive auto bailout, investors bidded up the price of Ford from $1.50 to $3.50. Not good.

The thing is, if we are in the midst of a horrible bear market destined for an entry in the history books, and not just one of those barely mentionable cyclical downturns --technically the 2001 recession could be seen as one of "barely mentionables"-- then the bear market has further to go.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but analyst Jim Sibbet, paraphrasing Dow theorist Robert Rhea, explains that bear rallies and false dawns are mainly the effects of pockets of misplaced optimism investors still harbour about the economy, and when the true extent of the economic devastation is slowly revealed to us, piece by piece, the optimism will slowly be weeded out. That is when the market slides to its uncomfortable destiny with a truly unimaginable rock bottom, that is when the market has lost all hopes of recovery, that is when lights have been switched off at the end of tunnel, that is when everybody's mind is made up, and there is no way to go but up. And that is also that elusive bottom, the financial El-Dorado that everyone's been dreaming about. To go to heaven, you must first go through hell.

More ominously, there are some economists who think that we are actually having a continuation of a major bear market that began at the start of 2000. The underlying economic structures did not have a chance to fully recover before cheap credit papered over the cracks and ushered in a short-lived era of housing booms and false prosperity. If the fundamentals are severely damaged, it may take much longer for recovery to happen. I don't know why some like to quote from their CFA textbooks that a recession last for at most 1 year. The people who lived through the Great Depression never saw prosperity in their lifetime. Closer to our times, the Japanese endured a decade of zero economic growth. And we--the people of my generation--may become what others speak of in hushed tones, the lost generation.

In the midst of rising unemployment rates...'s high time politicians, so often convenient targets of the common people's wrath, consider fire-proof vests for personal safety. Because what happens when the economy turns bad? You can get fired.

MP hospitalised after man pours flammable liquid on him, sets him on fire

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Shebab of the Sea

There has been a recent spate of piracy along the Red Sea, which caused considerable disruption to oil transportation routes from Middle East to the rest of the world. The acts drew worldwide condemnation of the pirates, who were portrayed as uneducated thugs who would sooner have caused trouble on land if not at sea. So I was rather surprised when AFP managed to catch hold of a pirate who was in the midst of hijacking some Saudi tanker, and actually coaxed some gems out of the pirate himself.
"We are the Shebab of the sea and we can't be scared of the Shebab of the land. Every Somali has great respect for the holy kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We have nothing against them but unfortunately what happened was just business for us and I hope the Saudis will understand."--Mohamed Said, pirate

How thoughtfully worded. So the hijacks were simply unfortunate incidents which he would rather not have happened but for the economic circumstances of the day. And for a moment, I could just imagine him whipping his fellow pirates into a gleeful song and dance with "We are the Shebabs of the Sea!" These pirates must be delightful company.

And some of the hijacks have turned up interesting returns. A cargo of Ukrainian tanks and missiles bound for Sudan insurgencies have been recovered from the pirates by the US Navy, but that would only mean that the arms smugglers are now cleared to continue their illicit business. "I certainly won't speculate on where they might end up," 5th Fleet spokesman Lieutenant Nathan Christensen says. "We want this to end as peacefully as possible." An absurd job on murky waters, these US Navy law enforcers on the Red Sea.