Wednesday, December 8, 2010


This whole WikiLeaks thing reads like a James Bond plot. Julian Assange looks like a typical James Bond villain, and even his name sounds like it came straight from Ian Fleming’s pen. A brilliant hacker and maladjusted man of mystery with a checkered past, he is a hero to some and a scourge to many. His plot is not to steal gold or an advanced weapon and use extortion or blackmail to dominate the world. It is to use the modern day version of wealth in the form of information, possibly to bring down governments.

One expects to see 007 chasing him down the Swiss Alps on skis, with machine gun bullets kicking up snow all around him. Then, back at the chalet, a brief encounter and some witty repartee before one escapes from the other. Assange does not live in a fantastic hideout beneath the sea, but his whereabouts are never known. Maybe he does live in a fantastic hideout beneath the sea, with hundreds of soldiers prepared to do his bidding and die for him.

So when it was announced that he has turned himself in, I was sceptical. It seems too easy. It’s also taxing to keep up with the latest accounts of this story, an example of truth being stranger than fiction. I think I’ll just wait for the movie to come out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Thanksgiving Day

We recently celebrated Thanksgiving, a day when I especially miss home. In Miami we would have the extended family gather for a huge meal of roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, apple pie and other desserts, and football on TV and in the street. My Singaporean Thanksgiving usually features a roast chicken in place of its larger cousin, stuffing, and apple pie if we can find one, and that’s about it. This year’s meal was even less. I had a massive buffet lunch (one of the perks turned occupational hazards of being a trainer) and had little room for dinner, so we had chicken rice, with chilli instead of cranberry sauce. If I ever get less traditional than that I could not in good conscience even call it Thanksgiving.

In the US nearly every radio station plays “Alice’s Restaurant” at least once on Thanksgiving Day, and never on any other occasion. This is an 18-plus minute song/story performed by folk singer Arlo Guthrie, whose folk singer father, Woody Guthrie, is best known for another American folk standard, “This Land is Your Land.” “Alice’s Restaurant” is about a memorable Thanksgiving when Arlo and his pal helped their friend Alice dump some garbage and got arrested for littering. Some time later, at the neighborhood draft office (this being during the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War), Arlo found himself deemed unfit to serve in the army and shoot people because of his littering conviction. It’s impossible to capture the flavor of the song in a paragraph, but the curious reader is directed to Youtube.

This Thanksgiving I decided to make “Alice’s Restaurant” part of our family tradition. After our chicken rice, I fired up the computer and played the video for Cherisse. She found it boring, so we tried Woody’s version of “This Land is Your Land.” Cherisse found this boring too, so we tried the Bruce Springsteen version. Same result. I guess she’s just not ready for it, so I’ll try again in a year or two.

However, I did tell her the story and its significance. “Alice’s Restaurant” has become an anthem of certain important American values, namely civil disobedience, questioning authority, independent thinking, and standing up against injustice. However, these are not particularly Singaporean values. Cherisse is pretty good with the traditional Chinese values such as “calling ah mah,” which means she has to say “ah mah” whenever she greets her grandmother. It is absolutely essential to do this, and considered extremely unfilial not to. A big hug, a kiss, a handshake – no other form of greeting no matter how warm can replace the mandatory (even if perfunctory and robotic) uttering of “ah mah.” So I want to make sure her American values are similarly inculcated. In my mind, the substance of “Alice’s Restaurant” is more important than the form of the bird being gobbled.