Where I've Been

Thursday, December 21, 2006

National Instruments in Singapore

This blog entry is specifically intended for those NIers who are hungry for a taste of what cool stuff is happening in NI Singapore. For non NIers, please see the bolded disclaimer in Daily Life in Singapore. Always remember: Do not read my work related blog entries and drive.

Probably the coolest project I’ve done so far involves becoming a Singapore TV celebrity. True. The Singapore government has decided that not enough budding young Singaporeans are finding the tech field “cool”. As a result, they’ve decided to sponsor a reality show. But nothing as boring as “Survivor”, “American Idol”, or “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance”. Nope, it’s an IT reality show. Exactly: not boring. Basically, teams of students from different secondary schools (that’s a Singapore term that means “high school”) compete against each other in different tech related events. Each series of events is an episode and different teams can have their players eliminated or penalized. I actually was able to help design and implement one of the events. Cool eh?

The idea was to have Lego Mindstorms NXT Robots navigating an obstacle course at the nearby Singapore Polytechnic.

But the competitors weren’t there. They had to follow a set of clues that led them to a mall downtown. There they found some info that allowed them to log into the LabVIEW Web Server to control a computer located at Singapore Polytechnic. That PC in turn controlled the NXT Robot navigating the course through Bluetooth. The first team to get their NXT Robot through the obstacle course first won the event. Here are some cool shots of the teams receiving instructions at the mall from the hosts of the show. The hosts are standing there at the left of this picture.

The hosts are clearly “young” and “hip”.

Here are the teams seated at a coffee shop at the mall, configuring their laptops to control the NXT Robots.

The camera crew took some excellent footage of me answering some questions from some of the teams. The hosts even called me the “mentor”. I was very flattered. I think I blushed.

The episode will be airing sometime in February, after which I imagine I will be a highly sought after "mentor" for other "young" and "hip" Singaporean shows. It will be on Channel 5, which is the biggest English language channel in Singapore with several hundred thousand regular viewers. Stardom.

Another project I have been working on since I arrived has been with the Singapore military. Earlier today I returned from a visit to their facility where I was troubleshooting the system we developed with them. I went through all kinds of security and they finally led me to their lab which was abuzz with varied RF equipment. I stayed most of the day, running several tests with multiple configurations and taking some data for further investigation (that sounded pretty “engineering” right?). Couldn’t take any pictures of that though. They’d shoot you.

Besides that, I’ve worked on several other big support issues, including quite a bit of IMAQ stuff. I’ve also given and am currently preparing several training sessions for the AEs.

Well Merry Christmas to all! Tomorrow will find me en route to Korea for a Spears Family Korean Christmas! I’ll probably end up running into this guy:

hopefully with a car.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Malaysia: Johor Bahru

I think this time I'll write about Malaysia and the fabulous fun I've had there. About a month after I arrived in Singapore I had a free day one weekend so I headed across the border to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, or as it is more popularly known locally: "JB".

This involves a ride on the Singaporean MRT (Mass Rail Transit, same thing as subway (not the sandwich chain) or metro (not the prefix to -sexual)). Then a switch to a bus that crosses the Straits of Johor. Here are those very Straits viewed from Malaysia:
As at any border crossing, you fill out an arrival card and go through immigration. Usually these arrival cards are available all over. Here in JB however, you get to stand in line while an octogenarian hands you an arrival card for a small fee. And, if you're a Westerner, you get to pay a dollar. Every weekend, a few hundred thousand people come through this crossing, thus making arrival card distribution an extremely lucrative retirement job (helpful tip for those of you close to retirement).

After only a few minutes in Malaysia I had a new friend who met me and took me to get some refreshments. He even paid! What a swell guy. As in most cases where you're befriended by a local within ten minutes of border crossing, this guy later tried to rip me off. He managed to get some money out of me after a lengthy confrontation. I've thought many times on this topic, in fact each time I get ripped off while traveling. My solution is to set aside a certain amount of money as "I'm gonna get scammed" money. The alternative is to isolate yourself and mistrust everyone you encounter, which defeats the whole purpose of travel: to broaden your perspective and appreciate new cultures and viewpoints. Most of this money seems to be lost in the first few days of arrival in a new place which can be disheartening, but that's also the time when you're most willing to explore and meet new people, so it's only proportional. Just some observations, on we go then.

Well before getting ripped off I went about and saw some of the sights of JB. Here is a graveyard that would be very painful to sit on:

And here is a very big mosque:

This is where the Sultan of Johor lives.
Malaysia has a bunch of Sultans, one for each state (almost, really 7 of the 9 states). Every few years they rotate who is Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king) of all of Malaysia from the pool of Sultans. Even if you're not Yang di-Pertuan Agong, being Sultan is a great job, you have some nice palaces, oh here's another one of his palaces.

You get your own army, and you and your family even get to kill the common people if you like. True that, the Sultan beat his golf caddy to death a few years ago for laughing at a bad shot, and his son killed a man in a night club. But that's ok, being Sultan and thus being enlightened or chosen by God or something like that, you're pretty much free of retribution from everybody that pays to support your modest lifestyle. Good thing we don't have anybody like that in the good old USA, right Kennedys?

I drifted a little out of the city to a little town or "kampong". The houses are built on stilts because the surrounding area is under water at high tide. At low tide it looks like this:

I didn't stick around for high tide because I saw this menacing guy coming down the streets

About this time is when I was ripped off. My wallet a little lighter I set out to find the only thing that would refresh me: Pepsi.

Yes, that is an official, laminated certificate you see from PepsiCo at the top of the display. But honestly, who in recent years has doubted the inevitable advent of Pepsi footwear? Were not the harbingers clear enough? First Gatorade controlled by Pepsi, then Fritos and Quaker Oats. Look at the signs people, shoes were only the next logical step.
Oh, if you could only know the sorrow in my heart when I realized that Malaysia, like Singapore, does not yet have the manufacturing facilities to produce shoes big enough for these two feet of mine. Maybe George's visit to the APEC summit in Vietnam will change all that (fingers crossed!). So the Pepsi shoes, which were to be the envy of all the kids at school, and finally launch me into the cool clique, were left with a longing backward glance. What couldn't I have accomplished with a pair of Pepsi shoes? The world will never know.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Daily Life in Singapore

I've had several requests for more info on daily life in Singapore and less of my bad jokes. I'm bad at multitasking, so I'll handle the first request this time.

This much requested entry describes my average day in the city-state of Singapore, a.k.a.: “The Lion City”.

My 7AM alarm comes only about 30 minutes after dawn. Since we practically (and painfully) straddle the equator, sunrise is about the same time year round. By 7:45 I’m stylishly dressed in my Orchard Rd. fashions and striding through the condominium complex I live. Here is a view of the building I live in:

Then I walk by the pool:

Nice eh? Everyday it’s like I’m in a resort. So plush.

Then I sit down here for a bit because I’ve been walking for up to 3 minutes:

This is where I wait patiently for the 173 (it’s a rhyme to pass the time).
After about 45 minutes and a bus switch I arrive at the International Business Park.

They call it that because there are a lot of international businesses here. And the park part is because there are some monkey bars behind the fountain there in the distance (I haven’t actually checked, I just think there probably are, monkey bars don’t really “do it” for me).

After my long journey through the Bukit area of Singapore (it means hill, but there is no hill) I’m usually pretty hungry so I go and get some breakfast at the Yummy Yummy Cafeteria. I’ll usually get some noodles with some fishballs (yup) or some tofu skin wrapped sausages. Then I get some juice.

The smiling lady on the right gives me juice about 4 times a day (in return I pay her cash). She blends it up for me then hands it over and says “xie xie” (you pronounce it “shi shi” like “shin” or “shift” or…...or ”shin” again) which means “thanks”. She says “xie xie” a few times and I say “xie xie” a few times. One might say we are full of “xie xie”.

Can I tell you about the juice here? Oh my. As you can see, there are a plethora of fresh fruits that are ALWAYS in season in Singapore (equator straddling will do that to a country). So you can have mango, soursop, kiwi, guava, dragonfruit, avocado, starfruit, ciku, celery, carrot, jackfruit, pear, apple, orange, etc, etc. juices whenever you want. Some juices are better than others, think of drinking a stalk of celery, your tastebuds bleed.

After that I hop on the elevator (they call it a “lift”, imagine that! Sure it describes what it does, but elevator has so many more syllables) and head up to National Instruments.

Here are some of the AEs smiling at you.

At lunchtime we all head out to eat, either at the Yummy Yummy Cafeteria or in another building. It’s also yummy yummy, but they don’t shamelessly promote it. Lunch runs about $2-3 in glorious greenbacks so I stock up. That way I won’t have to eat for like a month after I come back to Austin. Even in the cafeteria the food is great. A staple is chicken rice. That's roasted or steamed chicken, rice, some sauce, cucumbers, and usually cilantro. Then there’s the soup stall, hotpot stall, “economy food” stall, snack stall, vegetarian stall, and “Muslim food” stall which is basically Malaysian food: spicy and sweet.

Disclaimer: This paragraph is for my fellow NIers and will contain several acronyms and terminology that has been known to induce narcilepsy in non-employees. If you are operating a motor vehicle while reading this blog, please pull over.

Working at National Instruments Singapore has been extremely challenging so far. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on a POC for the Singaporean military. I’ve also learned and taught TestStand, done a LabVIEW Hands on session, assisted in building demos for tradeshows, created training for the AEs over here, abused some of my connections in getting demos sent over, argued with Todd about getting some equipment (you know I love you brother), and I am flying to Malaysia next week for LabVIEW Intermediate. The office is really tight knit, I sit right beside the FSEs and ISEs (yea they’re engineers here). Marketing and operations are just a shout out away. Phone routing isn’t usually a problem, you can always just stand up and talk to the person if you’re having problems. Work starts around 8:45 or 9 and goes until…well it’s kind of like a game of chicken, everybody seeing how much longer they can stay in the road than the other guy (ever seen Footloose? Yea, when they sing the “I Need a Hero” song and Kevin Bacon gets his shoelace stuck on the pedal and can’t jump? Yea, it’s like that). That photo above of the AEs was taken at about 9:30 PM. About 8 of the 11 AEs had their shoelaces stuck to the pedal too. In reality though, we’re all gearing up for NI Days that’s about to happen all over the region. Think NIWeek with the word "week" taken out and replaced with "days". The work is a lot of fun and everybody has a great attitude.
Afterwards we go and get some dinner. Here we are eating some cheese prata:

Mmm. It’s a thin Indian pastry stuffed with cheese that’s eaten with a souplike curry sauce. Nice. Following my stream of consciousness: I have hardly eaten any “Western” food since I’ve been over here. Last Sunday though I had a little hankering and went to an Italian place for some pizza and pasta. I almost ordered a calzone, as the menu tantalizingly described it as “a folded pizza, similar to a large currypuff”. For those of you who aren’t familiar with a currypuff, it’s like a small calzone.
A zoomed out view of the cheese prata place.

Well that about does it for this time.
Next time I may tell you about how easy it is to find a shoe that fits me in Singapore, being that I have a foot that’s as big as most Asian females (notice I didn’t say females’ feet, I said females).

Maybe I'll even talk about some of my "cultural excursions" like karaoke night.

Yea, look at me rock out.

Until next time, remember that all good travellators go to heaven (thankfully, there seem to be hypermarts there as well, whew, I was worried.)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bali and Surabaya, Indonesia

And so begins the history of my blog. This blog will be a blog of my travels. I’ve been a little reluctant to start a blog considering that once anything is added to the internet it essentially stays there forever, and being that I am clearly destined for a meaningful political career in the future and the stupid things I will say will only hurt the chances of a presidency or head of some women’s union or something else of commensurate merit, I’m doing it anyway.

A short and perfectly skippable history of the title and URL: One day I was in Belize and I saw this guy selling a stonecarving he had made of the Mayan god of travel. I tried to bargain him down to buy it but while doing so somebody else up and paid full price (idiot tourists). But I decided the carving was a cool enough thing that I thought I would name something meaningful after that Mayan god of travel in the future like a dog, a baby, or a blog. I have fulfilled my obligation. Oh, and the travellator is from this:

Which are the ingeniously titled moving walkways in Singapore.

I’m currently working in Singapore for National Instruments. I’ll go into Singapore later. But a week after I came to Singapore we had the Indian festival of Hari Raya. I don’t know what that means, but we were awarded two days off work. I realized I had a four days weekend four days before the weekend. So I booked a flight on Garuda Airways (an Indonesian airline) for a weekend of luxury in Indonesia. I really wanted to visit Bali because I’ve heard incredible things about it and President Bush told me that if we are afraid to go about our everyday lives then the terrorists have already won. He can’t possibly be wrong. Unfortunately, Bali is a favorite destination for many locals, especially other Indonesians and getting a flight there proved to be impossible through about 12 airlines. Fortunately, I booked an open jaw flight: arriving in Surabaya, Java and leaving from Denpasar, Bali 3 days later. That garnered numerous objections from my coworkers, even the Indonesian guy told me: “you’re going to Indonesia? Alone? You’re going from Surabaya to Denpasar?? How?? Alone??? They don’t speak English in Java, it’ll take a day to get there, transportation is bad…” I’m sure he kept going, but with eyes and jaw wide open I boarded the plane.

I arrived in Surabaya around noon to find that I didn’t have enough money to pay for the visa to enter the country. Normally I’m smart with these things but I needed to buy congee with century egg (a very interesting Chinese breakfast) while in the Singapore airport and now didn’t have enough money. The customs guy was generous enough to take my passport and send me to the street outside the airport to look for an ATM. Now I used to live in the Philippines and so I’m used to having random (and by random I mean everybody within earshot of the crowd of people yelling that a white guy was walking around) people staring at me, but it’s always flattering. I can only assume that they go home and sit around the dinner table, breathing excitedly “and you’ll never guess what we saw at the airport today”. I found an ATM machine, it didn’t work. I was somewhat worried that I wouldn’t be able to find one. But after walking for about 20 minutes, sure to not let on to anyone that I was looking for a way to extract a large amount of money, I found a working ATM, paid for my visa and promptly set about finding a domestic flight to get me to Denpasar in Bali. They were all booked. All of them. I tried twice. All 4 airlines were booked solid that day. I walked about, chagrined. A guy offered to drive me there for $100 (5 hour drive and 2 hour ferry). I thought about it, hard. I decided to try the airline another time. Ah, the charmed third time. This time they miraculously produced a ticket that left at 8PM. It must have fallen behind the desk before. Incidentally, when I finally boarded the flight it was about 2/3 full. I just don’t know, people. I just don’t know.

With my 5 free hours I decided to see the city. So I sat down at a little café where a few guys my age were sitting. Here they are:

We started talking, me in English and them in very poor English (I not so good too). Finally they got the gist that I wanted to see the city. One of them offered his bike and away we zoomed. Here are random pictures I took on the back of the bike. Indonesian people are really cool. They all smiled at me.

This lady is carrying a birdcage with a cover on it so as to not to frighten the birds who are notoriously afraid of dangerous driving (like driving a motorbike while carrying a birdcage).

This guy is hanging out of a bus. Look closely, he has an electric guitar in one hand and is waving at me with the other. Rock on brother.

Here's us

Because people in southeast Asia love to shop they assume everyone else does as well. So the first place we went was a huge plaza (mall) that had just opened and had everybody excited. Naturally the whole mall stared at me. Including a couple of teenage girls who stopped and said hi. Then came back and took a picture with me on their cellphone. Then came back and took me to a photo studio they had booked and took pictures which I can only describe as “engagement-like”. In gratitude I took this picture of them with me. I’m the tall one.

Then my new friend and I started touring around. He had an interesting sense of time. He told me it would take an hour to get from the airport to town. It took 20 minutes. The he told me it would take another hour to get from the mall to Chinatown. It took 25 minutes. My suspicions were confirmed when I asked him to take my picture and he asked me to wait ten minutes while he put the kickstand down on his motorbike. After 17 seconds we were back on the road.

Here is a picture of a Buddhist shrine:

Here is another Buddhist temple. I absolutely love eastern temples. Especially Chinese Buddhist. I could stay days in there. The incense, the smoke, the lights, the different altars, the people bobbing and kneeling, the carvings, the architecture. Love it, really do. So we went to a few temples, then back to the airport. You were good to me, Surabaya 2006, I’ll remember that.

That evening found me in Kuta, Bali, the center of backpackertown. After finding a place to stay, I walked around Kuta. All around were Aussie surfers in their shorts and t-shirts, Europeans in their man capris and loafers, hippies in their hemp and dreds, and local guys and girls out looking to score any of these. I walked by the monument to where the bombings happened back in 2002. Remarkably near to where the bombings happened in 2005. Both in the month of October, only a few days from the day I was there. Luckily, my buddy George's words kept echoing in my mind and I stayed safe. “Stay the course” “Take the fight to them” “Bring ‘em on” “We’ll smoke ‘em out”. That’s my boy. That night was a blur of music, lights, Aussies pouring Fosters on each other, and Paul Hoganesque voices yelling drunken epitaphs to Steve Erwin. The next morning I awoke and went to the beach, or maybe I woke up on the beach, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I was viewing some of the best surfing in the southern hemisphere. Waves crashing about me, I bought a bamboo mat and laid on the hot sand. My surfing was a little rusty since I had last longboarded in San Luis Obispo so I passed and headed to get some food. Eating at supposedly the best restaurant in Kuta cost me $12. And here it is:

mmm. I chatted with the waitstaff quite amicably for an hour or so and then hopped a taxi for Ubud in the center of the island.

Can I tell you how much I love Bali? And especially Ubud? Currently Bali is in a thai with Thailand for my favorite place on earth (this sentence has a joke in it, see if you can spot it). The people are extremely friendly and speak decent English, there are beautiful beaches, mountains, the food is quite good, it’s cheap for us Americanos and the Bali religion deserves a prize. I think it’s the coolest religion I’ve seen. They’ve got to be the ones that get saved, or at least get Honorable Mention. First off, they are Hindu, but not like Indians or Nepalese, they are Balinese Hindus. And that’s something special. As such they believe in a pantheon of gods but technically only worship one god for the Muslim government of Indonesian to recognize them. They build temples religiously (which kinda makes sense). Every family has their own temple which consists of a gate, a shrine, some statues to ward off evil gods and spirits, and assorted other stuff, generally all made of stone. It is their duty to dress up the deities, like these:

Then each village has three temples, one towards the center of the island where the highest deity can visit, one in the center of the village for everyday worship and one toward the ocean to appease the evil gods. Then there are temples for the cardinal directions of the island, and then a great Mother Temple complex for the whole island. My taxi driver stopped in the middle of road for me to take this picture of a temple. Cars were honking behind us, to encourage me to take the best picture I could.

As a result of the ubiquity of their temples they are always dressing up and going to make offerings, pretty much every day. The offerings are generally just little banana leaf baskets held together with bamboo splinters and containing rice or flowers. The offerings can be at the temples or really anywhere. Here’s a picture of one that I found outside my door in the morning.

Offerings to appease the evil gods, on the other hand, are usually rotten and are left about because evil gods like that kind of thing. It’s all extremely fascinating. To enter into their temples during certain times you have to dress in special clothing, even the tourists. But then sometimes you don’t, I'm not quite sure when the rules apply. Here’s an excellent shot of me pointing the camera at my lower half.

You’ll notice I’m wearing a green sarong and a yellow sash. Y’all will note that I normally prefer to wear a baby blue sarong with a beige sash but, when in Rome…

I could go on and on about how fervently they believe in the appeasement of these gods and their duties and the festivals and cremation ceremonies and their cleansings and rites of passage and caste system and housing arrangement but let’s first talk about monkeys.
Monkeys are sacred. As such, they have a holy park set aside for temples and monkeys. You pay to go in and see the monkey temple park, and you can also buy bananas to feed to the hl monkeys. This is me in a sort of holy communion with the sacred monkeys.

This sanctimonious old lady was trying to stare me down. She won, she always does.

Here’s one of the evil god temples in the monkey park.

Note that the witch widow goddess is about to eat a smiling baby. That may strike you as odd until you realize that they’re both made of stone and there’s really not much eating going to happen there at all anyway.

Here are more picture of the sacred monkey park.
If monkey sexuality offends you please do not look

Ubud is characterized as the artistic heart of Bali and, as such, there are incredible traditional dances that occur there every night. Being an incredible dancer myself I went. Unfortunately, my camera decided to start being very bad that night. This is the best of a series of extremely dark and depressing pictures that came from my camera that evening.
It shows the gamelan which is an all male a capella chorus of about 100 guys in black and white checkered sarongs with a red sash. They sit in a circle surrounding a rack of torches telling the story out of the Ramayana or Mahabharata (Hindu epic stories) while dancers in full costumes come to the middle and act out the epic. The dancing is similar to Thai dancing in that they make very angular body shapes like they have cramps in several major muscle groups simultaneously with their eyes open wide, eyeballs darting back and forth. It’s different than watching Britney Spears dance, at least the gamelan have a better voice.
They are really quite incredible, the show is about an hour and a half and their a capella is like a syncopated rhythm chak chak chak chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chakA chak chak chak interwoven with solos, then slowly and morosely and then back to the rhythm (the A is the offbeat in chakA, feel it people, just feel it). Evidently when the dances are actually done in worship, the gamelan put people in a trance, who then run through the fire. That’s exactly what happened afterward. A guy kept walking through flaming coals as the gamelan chanted. Sorry, the camera didn’t want to have any part of that. But here’s a picture of me with one of the stars of the show. Evidently I was rather entranced myself.

I enjoyed the art and culture so much that I bought a nice painting. I will display it rolled up in the corner of my room with my rolled up paintings from Tanzania, Argentina, China, and my sculpture from Zanzibar.

Indonesians drive on the left side of the road which is inherently dangerous and should be avoided. But luckily I had a stylish helmet from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here’s me on my hog.

Ubud also has a nice palace that has some Dutch colonial influence since they inhabited Indonesia a while back.

Ubud has a lot of beautiful rice paddies and most guesthouses will even advertise a “rice paddy view”. Here is a “rice paddy view”.

The final place I went on the way to the airport was Tanah Lot, a temple on a rock in the water which can only be reached at low tide.

Holy Snake! Yes I paid to see the holy snake which is what that guy to the left is charging for. I even touched its Imminence.

Just a sweet shot.

Here's a place in town with a bunch of people resting. Those are carved fish skeletons hanging from the roof. I don't know why.

And here's another temple. I told you, there are a lot.

Full of admiration for the Balinese people and their beautiful culture I boarded the plane and headed back to Singapore. Until next time.

That's me, I'm the Travellator