Ship or Sheep?

Earlier I wrote about the “his/he’s” distinction in Singapore, which corresponds to the “ship/sheep” distinction this pronunciation book refers to.

Apparently people have been struggling to differentiate these two words at least since the time of George Eliot. This is a passage from Middlemarch, published in 1872.

“I hate grammar. What’s the use of it?”
“To teach you to speak and write correctly, so that you can be understood,” said Mrs. Garth, with severe precision.
“Should you like to speak as old Job does?”
“Yes,” said Ben, stoutly; “it’s funnier. He says, ‘Yo goo’—that’s just as good as ‘You go.'”
“But he says, ‘A ship’s in the garden,’ instead of ‘a sheep,'” said Letty, with an air of superiority. “You might think he meant a ship off the sea.”

Middlemarch by George Eliot

When I read Middlemarch in 2015, I was surprised when the focus shifted away from the character I thought was the protagonist. In fact, the book has an ensemble cast whose stories are woven together by a variety of relationships all contained within the same geographical area, the town of Middlemarch. Hence the title.

One of the Hungry Hundred Book Club members said the book was about “knowing the other”, though obviously not in the science-fiction sense of knowing aliens from other planets. I very much agree. The plot relies on characters who make assumptions and project their own worldviews on others unknowingly, then find, having hurt others or themselves, that they were mistaken.

The characters are not to be blamed for not understanding each other perfectly to begin with (such problems are perennial human ones), but we can certainly judge them for the actions they take and the attitudes they adopt when they realize they are wrong.

My evaluations of some of the characters below as well as information on when and why I read the book.

Continue reading Middlemarch by George Eliot

Arrival (2016)

I’m so glad a friend who wanted to see it it invited me along or I would surely have overlooked this gem.

In Arrival, lonely linguistics professor Louise gets called in by the top army brass alongside your more typical math/physics guy to try to figure out how to communicate with the aliens in one of twelve lens-shaped black ships hovering over different parts of the world (the answer: coffee rings!), but the clock is ticking because the win/lose approach favored by the Chinese (and by some rogue American soldiers, for that matter) could result in catastrophic alien retaliation.

Arrival is not very actiony; there’s a lot of quiet drama in with the sci-fi. There are a couple of nice themes, but nothing overbearing. The film never even gets near the “hold hands and sing kum ba yah” cliche, which I perhaps was dreading. The black lenses recall Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths, but that’s the only similarity Arrival has with 2001:A Space Odyssey. Nor did it have the nonsensical transcendent mystery of Close Encounters. Nor was it anything like Independence Day (1995). The movies it’s being compared to are all movies I haven’t yet seen (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian).

The movie has been described as “sophisticated”, “intellectual”, “thoughtful”, “pensive”, and “cerebral”. That’s great. Quibble how you will about inaccuracies in the depiction of linguistics, the fact that Hollywood deigns to depict a linguist at all is nice.

I further approve of this movie because it didn’t announce that it has a heroine (rather than a hero). Arrival contains absolutely no obtrusive feminist rhetoric, spunky, defensive or otherwise. There’s just a likable woman smack at the center of the story. The heroine is played by Amy Adams, seen ten years ago in Disney’s Enchanted. The male scientist (played by Jeremy Renner, Marvel’s Hawkeye) for all his supposed skills, is just along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, difficult to describe without giving the game away, somewhat like Predestination (2014). I’m also reminded of The Three-Body Problem, which also dramatizes the effect of aliens on humanity.

Since the not-fictional Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is part of the backdrop of the movie, I would like to point out that learning a new language—learning anything—does change your brain, but not like science fiction (or even the real Sapir and Whorf) would have you believe.

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Also see below for a brief comparison of the movie and the short story it was based on.

Continue reading Arrival (2016)

Shop theft is a crime

The guy who posed for this ubiquitous crime-fighting cardboard cutout is a minor celebrity in Singapore. His marriage was much celebrated—and much mourned.

I’d like to point out that “low crime does not mean no crime”. Singapore is safer and cleaner than just about anywhere else, but it’s not utopia.

I’d also like to point out that the phrasing of the sign is just weird, even if you’re accustomed to the term “shop theft” rather than “shoplifting”.

I would understand if it said “shoplifting is a crime”. Maybe there are people who rationalize the act referred to as “shoplifting” by thinking of it as the harmless liberation or redistribution of small items. Euphemisms, slang, and jargon all obscure what they refer to: the word businesses use for “unexplained” decreases in inventory—decreases largely due to theft—is “shrinkage”.

As it is, the sign is just providing an intuitive definition. It’s as if someone put up a sign that said “cars are vehicles”. Duh! I can’t imagine anyone being able to construe the word “theft” in any way that doesn’t involve crime.

I would understand if the sign said “shop theft is stupid”, because then the sign would be assuming you know what shop theft consisted of but not how it should be characterized.

Just because the message is a tautology with almost no moral weight doesn’t mean the sign is useless, however. At least one of the pop-psychology books I’ve read said studies show that displaying faces, even if they are cartoon faces, can decrease bad behavior by making people subconsciously feel that someone is watching and judging them. The abstract idea of someone’s eyes pointed in your direction is sometimes enough to tip the balance! The cardboard cutout is not magic, but it does help.

Ice truck slogans

I’m fascinated by the commercial vehicles in Singapore, especially JM Ice trucks.

J.M. Ice: There’s always a better service!

This bizarre slogan is struggling mightily to convey the message, “Our service is always better!” but unfortunately suggests that “There’s always a better service than ours!”

Iceman: You ring, we bring.

Descriptive, concise, memorable. Could apply to anything being delivered, though.

Tuck Lee: Have ice will revel.

So pithy, clever and downright hip, it’s no wonder they trademarked it! You win, Tuck Lee.

Jackie Chan comes to Plaza Singapura to launch Kung Fu Yoga

When I went to see Railroad Tigers, I saw signs heralding Jackie Chan’s visit to Plaza Singapura, so I made sure I was there. I should have made sure I was there earlier…

Below are the best of the lousy photos I managed to snap amidst the forest of arms. Clearly I was not cut out for the life of the paparazzi. Still, I did get to hear and glimpse one of my favorite movie stars, which is a thing I never really expected would happen—especially because Jackie Chan routinely almost dies.

Continue reading Jackie Chan comes to Plaza Singapura to launch Kung Fu Yoga