Nowhere Else, and Sheffield Elsewhere

All I wanted to do was to look for a nice little b&b in Sheffield for the next weekend, but the Internet had other plans…

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What do you mean, this isn’t your hometown Sheffield?

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First we’ll stop over at the Sheffield Motor Inn. Next stop, Nowhere Else.


The Tasmanians sure do have a sense of humour where place names are concerned. Also, I’m not quite convinced that I should stay 17301 km from the Sheffield City Centre. Anyway, in a week’s time, going to Sheffield to present something at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory conference.

See also: Sheffield, South Yorkshire vs Sheffield, Tasmania, Australia

The University, in jeopardy

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It seems necessary to respond and make a note on the whole situation at Royal College of Art. (But if you haven’t heard, I’ve put a list of some news/blog articles at the bottom of this post)

For most of my adult life I’ve been self-guiding most of my learning, of various things, from design to programming. But partly motivated by my desire to be closer to George in London – and also to make the most of what I saw as more progressive educational opportunities in the UK (compared to Singapore), I started applying for my masters, which turned into a bizarre exercise in narrativising the process of how I turned into a person or artist who wanted to return to an academic institution – a story which I would have to tell over and over again to college admission and scholarship boards. I was forced to think desperately about this: why return to university if you could teach yourself?

It is easy to forget that in the debate regarding the state of universities, that people don’t always go to a university because they want to go to that university, but rather that they want to go to a very specific programme, or there are specific people that they want to study under – who happen to be working within the university, but aren’t “the university”. And sometimes these aren’t skills we are seeking, but exposure to different perspectives on working. I thought of it like visiting a big library of people with a wider range of life experiences. For the student, the university may as well be some strange hollow plastic shell enveloping the course that they have decided to take, the workings of which they only become more aware of as they actually enter the institution.

In an ideal world, the university would indeed be a protective shell, a place which protects and nurtures its staff and students. But in the real world, it is a place full of contradictions.

Even well-meaning policies like tenure – which are meant to ensure that staff have the right not to have their positions terminated without good cause (ensuring that there is no institutional censorship to fear) – even this process of tenure can potentially be turned into an instrument which still reduces academic freedom: if the criteria for tenure is opaque, or turned into a complicated review process, then you end up with the fear that tenure is used as a filter to only hire certain people with similar political views or approaches. Or valuing research over teaching standards – dropping professors who might be great teachers but are less productive in churning out research papers – this runs the risk of turning departments into nothing more than over-glorified self-congratulatory echo chambers of archaic practices and entrenched thinking.

In a way, even before I went back to to do my masters, universities in the UK were facing brutal funding cuts – especially with regards to the arts. And these cuts were affecting the way universities were run, changing their orientations and their ability to be flexible, and affecting the overall accessibility of higher education.

Besides the university, there are many places where people can learn without having to attend classes in a specific city, a specific campus, and where people don’t have to pay inflated tuition fees. An example: Several years ago, I worked in a flash design job. It wasn’t a university education or polytechnic education that directly equipped me (or many of my colleagues) with the skills to do that job, but it was years spent fooling around online on forums like newgrounds and flash/javascript/php forums, making crazy websites and learning new things in my free time. Who would have known that all that time spent playing on the internet and experimenting with things online for the fun of it would become a kind of work itself? Once I saw a company hire a freelancer at a completely overrated freelance rate for a one-off project, and this apparently qualified person with some formal degree in interactive design could not even make a simple animation within the timeline, let alone make a scripted animation – so I ended up having to do it for them. In this area, people became good/great at what they were doing if they were personally interested in exploring and building new things, and not because someone told them at school that they had to learn it.

The main thing was that you had to be flexible, and there was always more learning and experimenting to be done. That Flash job which I did once upon a time does not exist in its same form today, as technologies and platforms have moved on quickly; for years Flash has been on the decline, and now Flash doesn’t even automatically run in browsers like Chrome anymore. If one had to write up an adequate curriculum to teach people about something regarding digital arts or digital design, it would be a lesson plan that would need to change and be reassessed from year to year. And one thing I’ve always been suspicious about – was whether universities and huge institutions on the other hand could be flexible enough to accomplish a truly honest review of itself from time to time.

In my opinion, there are few programmes today which are flexible. But Design Interactions was one of the few good ones – worth me relocating and spending two years at at considerable cost. I didn’t even apply to another school or department, there was no second choice in my mind. But even the generous scholarship I had received from NAC could only cover the eye-wateringly exorbitant international student tuition fee, so I had to find my own means to support my living costs there (and Countless thanks must go to my parents and George for all their help and understanding).

I was interested in Tony and Fiona’s approach to it as a kind of pedagogic exercise. (See their School of Constructed Realities). The core of what we did was not learning skills or technologies, but exploring aesthetics and form and how we represented a complicated idea or scenario, or at least that was how I perceived it. Possibly the most interesting part of being there was all the headbutting with people who expressed bafflement at my approach, and people who didn’t understand what I was making. As a writer, I admit I was at times more concerned with the words we used to describe things, more so than the things themselves at times, which I know is probably a bit of a weird way to approach what is still at heart a design programme.

In fact, if we had to add a word of caution: at times it verged on becoming too flexible, which allowed design projects to mutate into monsters of unrealistically ambitious scale and scope. Some of the work also tended to be clustered around certain recurring themes as students took cues from one another or sprung forth from the tightly managed briefs issued by the tutors. Some also were self-aware of the problems of making work which might look too “DI”, as if the department could be summed up in a certain visual style. But if you saw our graduation show this year, this was as far from the case as you could get. Some visitors walked in to our show in the basement grotto of RCA and did double-takes – “Are you guys IED? IDE? DI? Where is the Interaction??? Where am I? What is happening? And what is that unearthly sound?” I loved it when as a whole the room produced confusion in people, toeing the line between what the world might perceive as confused, naive blitheness… or being a complete troll.

There have been articles on design blogs online and newspapers, parroting at first the Rector’s newsletter which was worded in a way that ended up insinuating that it was the departure of Design Interactions staff which caused the college to be “in jeopardy” – something which Paul Thompson has now retracted and apologised for after media attention on it has intensified. Clearly, he must have become aware that sounding like he is blaming staff for leaving doesn’t quite inspire confidence or help in the now highly publicised search for replacements for the department; no intelligent academic needs the damocles sword of “in the future we might consider legal action if you tender early but decide you cannot serve six months notice!” hanging over their heads.

On the wider level of the college, there seemed to be a failure to produce an environment in which students felt that their views would be adequately heard. I remember attending one of the Student Union meetings with Channing and being struck by how dismissive the Rector was towards even the simple questions I wanted to ask on behalf of a course mate. A great anxiety had built up within School of Design over issues of workshop access, as the workshops were plainly oversubscribed in terms of numbers of students. We also saw how other departments experienced their studio spaces becoming smaller and smaller as intakes got bigger and bigger, which no doubt affected the studio environment – how big could you dream and build if you constantly had to look over your shoulder to make sure you weren’t getting in the way of others (or… getting in the way of fire regulations)? Very close to our exams graduation we also received emails that workshops would be closed a week before the final show and that the spray booth was permanently broken for the rest of the year and might not be fixed any time soon.

Even if things were resolved eventually, and even if somewhere in all this there had been some logical plan which would be implemented, the seed of fear had long been planted within students. The overall feeling was that the university would be willing to dilute the educational experience if this would bring in the money it needed. And at what cost? The morale of staff and students? The reputation of the institution? Whilst I’m sure that the remaining Design Interactions students have the strength and courage to shape their final year into something awesome out of all these unexpected events, the fact is that no enrolled student wants to have to worry for the future of the institution they are in, nor should they have to!

Yesterday when I went to a talk/reunion of SPUR (Singapore Planning Urban Research Group), a group of young architects and planners from Singapore who came together in the mid-60s to independently discuss, research, and convince people about alternative strategies that could improve and modernise Singapore. Years ago, when I first found out about their work and writings, I felt so incredibly heartened to realise that Singapore had so many thoughtful intellectuals who were trying to examine and make proposals for Singapore’s planning at such a crucial juncture of Singapore’s formation, and with such a can-do spirit. It was an honour to see many of them in person gathered in one room.

Perhaps it was because we were seated within the National University of Singapore (also my alma mater), perhaps that is why William Lim kept reiterating the importance of the role the university needs to play in facilitating the creation of alternative ideas and in nurturing independent research groups.

If a university is constantly thought of to be in and out of “jeopardy” by students and staff, then how can it become that nurturing space which we wish for it to be?


And on next week’s imaginary reality tv live blog episode:
Tired of becoming constantly entangled with various institutions in crisis(es), Debbie runs away to live in a small shed and attempts to establish a non-conventional school on a temporary island in the sky, floating through the metaverse…


See also:
2 March 2015: Wired.co.uk – Royal College of Art design legends step down
10 March 2015: Dezeen – “Changing of the guard” as more senior staff step down at Royal College of Art

11 May 2015: #silentRCARCA Student Union: Protest at the RCA” – Press Release: This morning at 8.45am students of the Royal College of Art staged a protest to manifest their disagreement with the way the College is being run. Students pay tuition fees of £9,500 and £28,900 per year for home/EU and international students respectively. The Senior Management of the College is perceived by students to make decisions based on operational considerations rather than academic requirements, while excessively complicated administrative procedures dictate the day-to-day agenda of the College.

28 September 2015: Dezeen – RCA in “state of jeopardy” after Design Interactions staff departures
29 September 2015: Channing Ritter – In response to Dezeen Magazine: RCA in “state of jeopardy”
1 October 2015: The Independent: Royal College of Art ‘in a state of jeopardy’ as staff quit and students protest
2 October 2015: Dezeen – Royal College of Art rector apologises for statements about staff

Ring 1.0

I recently went to a couple of jewellers to get sized and enquire about rings. It should be noted that I currently don’t really own much jewellery, and am embarrassingly remiss in the Decorations department. But it has become necessary to procure a set of rings, for it is stated that if you want to have state recognition of your legal, economic and romantic partnership with a special other person, then you might want to prepare rings for… actually, I don’t know, exchanging???

WHAT IS A RING? What is in the ring? Why do people have wedding rings? Why is it that this is the only vestige of a wedding convention that is retained by most people today? And why do I myself somehow desire to have a symbolic ring or object to exchange on that day, although it is optional? How did this seed of an idea get planted into my head? Is the wedding ring a part of a big advertising scam by the jewellery industry? To be honest, I no longer know. The ring is a bit like a word which seems completely nonsensical after you have stared at it or obsessed about it for too long. In the middle, the ring is visibly hollow. As hollow as your soul after you accidentally stare too long into the dark depressing abyss of a wedding fair in a shopping mall…

RINGS IN SINGAPORE

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I found out that if you go to a conventional high street jeweller, a set of the most basic of bands would still cost almost or more than S$1000 (around £460) – EACH!!! In fact, it seems most people in Singapore can expect to spend around S$2000-5000. WHAT PEOPLE. WHAT ARE YOU ALL DOING? ITS JUST A GODDAMNED METAL RING! The average size of rings in Singapore is apparently around SG Size 12 (which is my size), but I was also told that George’s ring size was too big in Singapore terms and would require a custom resizing which could take over TWO MONTHS.

Fortunately it had never been my plan to purchase an off-the-shelf ring, because I have to do everything the hard way. NO!!! I had already decided much earlier that I would figure out a way to design it by myself.

But unfortunately, after faffing about in Rhino, I can tell you that it is certifiably impossible for an average human being to hope to have learnt how to make a complicated ring after merely watching a couple tutorials on Youtube. I just… can’t even… I… its simply impossible to do in a weekend. Ideally, I’d need a few months to be proficient enough to model something like my dream ring full of organic shapes and other wildly impractical features…

PROTOTYPING AND GETTING A WEDDING RING 3D PRINTED/CAST WITHIN 21 DAYS

After an abortive weekend of banging my head against my mac, trying to get up to speed to modelling a t-splined ring, I gave up and decided I would make a really simple ring in Openscad. Because, who said this ring had to be forever? Why can’t we make a new wedding ring every year? How about iterative wedding rings? Maybe next year George can design it – after all, he is probably better at Rhino than me. We could take turns designing rings and finding different ways of fabricating them ourselves each year. Maybe next year I’ll have even finally built a home metal foundry….

So I made a ridiculously simple ring in openscad. Because… like they always say in design, less is more.

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I emailed the gcode of an engagement ring to George to print a prototype in PLA on the UM2 at home.

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I like it, so I put a ring on it*
* By which I mean I emailed over the gcode of a ring for him to print and test out

I then sent the file to be printed and casted in 14k White Gold. 14K is sufficient, because 18k is too soft for everyday wear. Shapeways is priced by volume, so you are incentivised to design smaller or more hollow objects. My total bill was below S$550 (£240) for a pair of basic customised wedding rings.

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Ring 1.0

It remains to be seen whether it will arrive in time and be exactly as I measured, but in the meantime we could print a backup prototype in Brassfill or some other metal-like filament. Its fine, I mean, its just Ring 1.0 right now. But I mean Ring 25.0 had better be more epic than this…


Other interesting facts about solemnisations in Singapore:

Can solemnization be conducted in a ship or aircraft?
It is possible but it is your responsibility to ensure, with documentary proof, that the ship or aircraft is not foreign-owned/registered. If it is, it is regarded as foreign territory and the marriage cannot be solemnized overseas.

WHY THEN, LET’S ALL GET SOLEMNISED ON A SINGAPORE-OWNED SPACESHIP IN OUTER SPACE

Becoming Peranakan

Yesterday night I did a whirlwind tour of the Peranakan Museum during the Night Festival. Halfway through I became very confused at what I was looking at; I had to turn around and go around looking around for the definition of Peranakan. I even went from the top floor to the bottom floor to look through the flyers at the ground floor, but my confusion increased amidst the thick Night Festival crowds.

The most confusing part was the “Great Peranakans” exhibition upstairs. The list of Great Peranakans included Tan Kim Tian (the leader of the teochew community) Tan Kim Ching (president of the Hokkien Huay Kuan), Tan Beng Swee (founder of the Tan Clan temple), Tan Kim Seng (a leader in the Hokkien community), Tan Tock Seng (a leader in the Hokkien community as well), other famous chinese people like Gan Eng Seng, Tan Keong Siak, the opium king Cheang Hong Lim, Seah Liang Seah (leader in the teochew community).. the list goes on.

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From the exhibition guide to “Great Peranakans”
It is noted that Peranakans refers to “locally born” straits chinese who retain their chinese names and some cultural elements – but who have also embraced malay culture and hybridised it into their own at home. It is also noted that Peranakans were “differentiated” from the rest of the China-born chinese in Singapore because most peranakans tended to be from a higher socio-economic class, and were favoured by the british for their loyalty and fluency in English.

This baffling and preposterous list seems to suggest to me that one becomes a Peranakan by being an ethnic chinese who has many business connections and is very rich and influential and is adaptable to both malay and british culture. The long descriptions for the influential Singaporean Chinese who have been considered “peranakan” shows that whilst some married in or were the descendents of the initial group of 15th century Straits Chinese, many others simply became peranakan just by being really rich and powerful in their dialect communities, and most importantly also were validated by the British authorities as being community leaders.

Our general confusion in what constitutes the definition of “peranakan” seems to have been foreshadowed by the British confusion and difficulty in defining chinese hybrid identities, yet formally requiring some “name” or term to differentiate the original straits chinese (whom they could trust and give power to) from the newer chinese migrants (whom they thought of as being poor, transient, less loyal and more ideologically dangerous).

Before this, I must confess that I knew very little about who was Peranakan in Singapore. The day before I had been at NUS Library (still undoubtedly the best library in Singapore) and I had picked up a paper by mistake about the decline of the babas (babas refer to peranakan males, nyonyas refer to peranakan females). The title was very long and poetic so it attracted my attention and I skimmed through it quickly. I took a picture of one of the pages because the lines jumped out at me:

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…their culture culminated in their unwitting rejection of their culture as they waved the “banner of modernity” at their elders… The question of money too played an important part in phasing out of the old-style baba wedding….

If the identity of the peranakan is defined by its flexibility and adaptiveness in hybridizing the chinese and malay cultures, then why isn’t it more prominently mentioned everywhere that this same adaptiveness also involved money! Being rich allowed one to ostentatiously spend on cultural objects, and fund the creation and design of hybridised cultural objects. And another thing is that it clearly involved becoming modernised, or in some part perhaps even being an anglophile? What

What I am disturbed by is: why does the Peranakan Museum seem so fixated on displaying the aspect of it being an asian fusion of malay and chinese? What of their westernisation, and their willingness to embrace modernity? Isn’t this foresight and embracing of modernity something which predisposed these ‘peranakans’ to becoming shrewd businessmen and community leaders? Is the notion less marketable as a ‘cultural attraction’ if the peranakans are also seen as being ethnic chinese who basically modernised and absorbed BOTH malay and british culture?

I mean, I am a locally born ethnic Chinese; I only speak English with my parents; I cannot speak Hokchew dialect and feel no direct connection to my Chinese heritage; I can speak a smattering of functional malay words; I often eat and cook malay/indo/chinese fusion dishes at home; I’m self-confessed anglophile who spent four years studying English Literature and another four years (so far) living in London; perhaps if I tried I could pull off the outward pretense that I’m somehow becoming richer and more influential and more upper-class (hur hur hur).. so..

…GUYS, I THINK I’M BECOMING PERANAKAN.

On next week’s reality tv episode:
Debbie has announced that she has decided she is becoming Peranakan and tries to get George (British Person) to validate her Peranakanism so she can design and throw a lavish peranakan wedding. But George has other ideas. And where will they get all that money? What will happen in the next episode of the Great Peranakan Dream? Stay tuned to find out…

Moire Colour Banding

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Moire patterns occur when two patterns are superimposed upon each other, such as the scan lines of a tv meeting the way in which a mobile phone camera’s CMOS chip scans the scene line by line. A similar effect can be easily reproduced in photoshop. Create a small 1x3px or 1x6px RGB grid and turn it into a pattern in photoshop, overlay or multiply the pattern layer over a photograph, lower the opacity of the pattern layer to something visibly acceptable, then liquify.

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Red/Green/Blue pattern

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Photograph taken on Brighton Beach, 2014

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Multiplied with RGB layer

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Zooming in reveals tiny bands

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Liquify (Under Filter > Liquify…)

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FFF/FDM (Fused Deposit Modelling) vs SLA (Stereolithography)

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I spent the last few months producing over 100 prototypes for an exhibition which is showing at NUS Museum at this moment (It was also the work I showed at my graduation show at RCA). In practical terms, this meant that I pretty much sat next to the 3D printer the entire time tuning it. The conclusion? I NEVER EVER WANT TO RUN A RAPIDFORM SHOP THAT PRINTS THINGS FOR OTHER PEOPLE. Whatever the advertisements tell you about the miraculous magical instant dream of 3D printing – ITS A LIE. There are still many material limitations.

I have also thought very seriously about selling off the UM2 (FDM printer) to get the Form 1+ (SLA printer), but have come to the conclusion that it is not worth it. Here are some of my thoughts on both types of machines:

FFF/FDM PRINTER

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FDM stands for Fused Deposit Modelling but technically Stratasys owns the term FDM, so an alternative term for it (if you care about the legal semantics) is also FFF or Fused Filament Fabrication. The reason for so many cheap FFF machines is that the patent has expired on this technology so many cheap and DIY version of FFF machines have been developed.

Imagine a tiny jet extruding tiny blobs of plastic which solidify into a larger solid – which makes your object. Its that simple. I’ve been using the Ultimaker 2 so far, as it has had some of the best reviews. Although the UM2 technically can do up to 150mm/s, 50mm/s is usually the top speed that I can go if I want really high quality and no risk of unexpected under-extrusion. Most times if I see a “difficult” portion coming I might even tune the speed down slowly.

Printing notes:

1. Slowing down the first layer helps: If a print lifts off the heated bed on the first layer with a newly calibrated bed, I sometimes stop the printer and force the printer to start the first layer at a face-slappingly slow 15-20mm/s. This actually seems to make all prints work better in general. If the print is not well stuck on the first layer, the whole print may be problematic.

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Fused Deposit Spaghetti Machine – first layer failed to stick to bed

2. Level the print bed: You can mislevel the bed such that if you are doing 4 prints on the same bed at each corner of the bed, then just one or two of them will be less “stuck” to the bed. So levelling the bed is important. At times, it just seems impossible to do right!…

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Three were fine but one had a terrible and stringy brim

3. Don’t print multiple prints too close to each other: If you print multiple objects on the same bed at the same time, sometimes the heat from the nearby prints can cause general warping or for parts of the “foot” of a print to curl up from the bed. I try to print objects one after another, not all at once, it seems to work better.

4. Increasing the temperature by 5-10 degrees can help – but only for a while: Raising the temperature slightly can help some prints along at times. But if you set the temperature too high for too long, it will burn the filament (it will turn brown in parts) and cause a filament jam.

5. Get some good lubricant: You’re supposed to oil the machine once in a while. I ended up buying Ballistol which is suitable for use as a gun parts lubricant. I’VE TRIED MY BEST, IS THAT STILL NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU, MACHINE?

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6. Check for random problems: Finally, I had a period where all my prints weren’t working for a few days and it turned out that the colorfabb roll has a design which makes it snag on the especially long M3 screw I had sticking out of a new material feed that I had installed. AARGHHH! There was no choice as my local hardware shop only sells M3 bolts in a few fixed dimensions and that was the only one I could use. There was no way to stop it from accidentally snagging, and I couldn’t find replacement bolts immediately, so I eliminated the filament spool entirely and unrolled it out. Actually, after this I managed to print without A SINGLE FILAMENT JAM for a few solid weeks. MIRACLE!!!

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Who cares if this looks like crap on the table if it works

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Countless ways to do it wrong
Basically FDM printers can seem frustratingly temperamental because they won’t tell you exactly what is wrong with them, so you have to figure out what went wrong. Most of the time the under-extrusion problem can be due to filament jam (mechanical issues), temperature problem, speed problem, etc.

SLA PRINTER

In Stereolithography, laser shoots through a photo-reactive resin/polymer bath and solidifies parts of the liquid into a solid, then the print emerges from the liquid bath like terminator.

The main reason why I never got an SLA printer in the first place was because the 3D Printer was going to live in a home environment. But since George and I moved to a big new house in March I thought for one brief moment of madness that maybe, maybe, I could allocate some space to a Form 1. But the problem is that I still cannot justify having a machine with such toxicity to humans and environment, as the prints would require curing treatment, which can also affect the size of the print (possible shrinkage/curling). And although SLA prints would have the potential to have thinner walls and higher detail without as much overhang problems, the type of materials and colours in which I could print with would be much more limited.

My assessment is that as a user I mainly want:
– large range of colours
– large range of cheap materials
– a dry work room (no “dirty” sinks)
– not having to potentially contaminate my living/working space with fumes

So FFF/FDM wins over SLA.

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Maybe I will just have to embrace the UGLY OVERHANG aesthetic…

I also don’t know how our pet snails feel about having the 3D printer next to their tank. There is no precedent for this even – I can’t simply google for “Are snails disturbed or traumatised by stepper motor sounds? Or do snails enjoy the vibrations from 3D printers?”. Anyway, more on our friendly domestic slimeballs in the next few overdue updates of this page…

In Praise of Insignificant Details

The other day I had a dream in which I wandered into a room and there was a white table with papers flying off into the sky. Behind it, there were shelves in which the books of all of Singapore’s literary pioneers were arranged, as if these books had been magically plucked out from the shelves of the library and lovingly collected into one room for our easy access…

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Oh wait! I’m kidding, it wasn’t just a dream, it was real, and you don’t even need to wait a moment longer to experience the exact same thing in person if you’re in Singapore, for this very exhibition has actually been up at the National Library for the last ten years at Level 11. (Wait, what? Ten years??)

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Some of the books on these shelves lay in a disarray, as if others had also picked them up and flipped through them recently before replacing them back onto these shelves. So I picked up a book…

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It was at that point that I realised it was not a book! It was just a solid block of foam with a scanned reproduction of the book cover printed on top of it! A bizarre Cronenburg-esque moment, all around me, what seemed like regular National Library books with the distinctively colour-coded stickers on their side turned out to be nothing more than hollow blocks of foam, devoid of words or detail on the inside!

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Curious as to the origins of this exhibition, I looked it up and found records which show that the “Singapore Literary Pioneers” exhibition originally opened in November 2005, along with the National Library’s move to Victoria Street. Perhaps at some point during the past, these shelves in this exhibition actually held the original books, yet by this point they had all been put back into the collections, leaving nothing more than the skeletal, hollow foam board simulacrums of themselves behind…

The National Library has now been at its Victoria Street site for ten years now! Prior to that, the National Library had been at Stamford Road behind The Substation since 1958. In 1953 the rubber and pineapple king Lee Kong Chian donated a large sum to set up a national library which would be open to the public; in 1957 he laid the foundation stone for that iconic red-bricked building. But in 2000 it was announced that the building was to be demolished for the construction of a road tunnel and the new SMU campus. So the site of the former red-bricked NLB building unfortunately became a vehicular tunnel; a cruel twist which seemed almost emblematic of the denigration of people’s fondly remembered cultural spaces in the process of urban redevelopment – the library’s architectural and historical merits apparently insufficient for it to be have been gazetted as a national monument.

There was also a practical reason for the NLB’s move; I was reading the 1989 report of the advisory council on Culture and the Arts, which noted that book holdings in the National Library building in Stamford Road had already “exceeded the space available” – which was to the detriment of Singapore’s cultural development. So moving to a new building on Bras Basah would in theory allow for much more space – space for more collections, more books and more exhibitions.


I’ve graduated from RCA and I’m back in Singapore now! I have lots of things to document from the last few months (which I will document here in due course), but right now I’m working on something in September, on behalf of The Substation. I’ve been spending a lot of time at The Substation and the National Library building of late, constantly pondering the dilemma of writing text for an exhibition that is about an art space – but the exhibition will be held in a site other than its own – it will be at a library!

Mind you, I’ve also basically spent two years at a design programme being reminded that the gallery is not a library, and that the number of words in a gallery and museum should be kept as few as possible, because people came to look at things, not to read! But even now, when I’m preparing an exhibition to be set in the library, where the words should be more plentiful, where we shouldn’t need to be shy about shoving books in people’s faces, the caveat about not overwhelming the reader/viewer with too many words still exists.

I wonder, if that is why there aren’t words inside the books in the Level 11 exhibition? Would the presence of so many words in the space make everyone less likely to engage with the content fully? Perhaps it was feared that putting the actual books on show would induce viewers to get stuck at the first book they came upon, rather than skimming through this condensed history of Singapore’s literary landscape.

Maybe this is a matter of exhibition design. Let’s talk about in numbers, since most Singaporeans seem to understand things better in terms of numbers. How many words can we realistically hope that the average person will read at an exhibition? The average reading speed of a native English language speaker is said to be between 250 to 300 words per minute. Let’s give it a bit of wiggle room and assume that the bilingual Singaporean (in a moment of idle distraction!) reads only 200 words per minute.

If an average visitor spends half an hour in our exhibition space, but only spends 50% of his or her time actually reading the text on the wall (the other 50% being spent on talking to people, looking at the pretty pictures, looking out of the window at the skyline, or watching the videos), then perhaps we can hope for 15 minutes x 200 words or about 3000 words to be consumed during an average visitor’s half-hour long trip to an exhibition – if we are so lucky!

This means that if I write more than 300 words for each of the 10 sections of the exhibition, then maybe most people won’t be able to read everything I’ve written in an average visit to the exhibition.

But how can I possibly tell you the 25 year history of The Substation within 3000 words – scarcely more than an essay’s length? Would it be better if I put more shiny pictures on blocks of hollow foam? But the photos are so few. And all I have are so many of these texts, quotes, paraphrased rumours, and snippets – surely this amounts to more and more words being packed into the show!

But maybe the most important thing is not just the big, beautiful, totalising statement that will sum up everything within my 300 word count. The things I want to tell you come in the form of almost insignificant details. Maybe there isn’t anything metaphorical about it.

I’d like to believe that what seems like textual fluff, the description of events and people and programmes and objects and their seeming insignificance in relation to the larger narrative, actually is key to our understanding of it. In his essay The Reality Effect, Barthes argues that these small insignificant details, when put together, signify the real, the l’effet de reel.

For me, there is something so important about all these insignificant, longwinded details. In La Nuit des prolétaires: Archives du rêve ouvrier (which was published in English as “Nights of Labor”, or “Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France”), Rancière presents a series of fragmentary, seemingly insignificant details and contradictory accounts of a small group of worker-intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s. I like his seemingly anti-sociology, anti-historicising approach in digging through the archives to excavate these accounts. In the introduction, Rancière writes:

If the protests of the workplace are to have a voice, if worker emancipation is to possess a human face, if workers are to exist as subjects of a collective discourse which gives meaning to their multifarious assemblies and combats, those representatives must already have made themselves other in a double, hopeless rejection, refusing both to live like workers and to talk like the bourgeoisie.

This is the history of isolated utterances, and of an impossible act of self-identification at the very root of those great discourses in which the voice of the proletariat as a whole can be heard. It is a story of semblances and simulacra which lovers of the masses have tirelessly tried to cover up.

The night forms the grey area where poor workers unexpectedly double up as clandestine intellectuals; Rancière chooses to give significance to quotes from hybrid figures, painting a much more incongruous picture of the digressions, distractions and conflicting motivations behind each individual that is often taken to be part of a whole, giving significance to the words and stories which could have easily dismissed as meaningless since they were hard for us to process or to summarise into a ‘pure’ or neat theory.

In choosing to structure an exhibition around “spaces”, I feel that the goal of my role as ‘curator’ or ‘mediator’ of the archive would be to position these hundreds of extracts from the Substation’s archive in a space between a conventional confinement to their “place” in time and space – and a completely utopian or metaphorical abstraction of the spaces…

The Ridiculous Handrail and other oblique functions

Several events conspired to keep me from writing here in the last few months; first, we found a beautiful new flat and moved to a hill on Haringey, where I ended up without internet for some weeks before travelling to Singapore and France, meaning that I was forced to tether to the slowest mobile internet in the world in order to send massive files to various printers and people, meaning that there was no bandwidth for uploading photographs and no time for my frivolous warblings on this blog.

ANYWAY! I’ve got a big backlog of writing to push out here, but I wanted to start off with a story of a curious handrail I saw at the National University of Singapore (my alma mater) when I was back there in March…

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I was very amused by this redundant handrail design at Yusof Ishak House. When I saw it for the first time, I was not even sure if this was some practical joke or art installation of a handrail – for it was an awkward design for a handrail, and it wasn’t even properly secured to the wall. If its in the same shape as the step below it, then how does one expect to run one’s hands up it for support as one walks along? Who on earth made this handrail, or ordered its installation here?

Today all stairs of a certain rise are required to be constructed with a handrail. Although the handrail is defined within part of the building code itself in Singapore, which means that most stairs will require a handrail, it is more common to see the handrail designed separately from the stair, or considered separately from it.

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Someone had taken the initiative to warn users of its dangers – but only at the top of the stairs! (Too bad for the people at the bottom of the stairs)

I have always thought it apt that both National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University are constructed on hills and sloped land; I’ve spent significant time in both in the past and associated the stairs and slopes with a kind of semi-leisurely pursuit of knowledge – procrastinating on school work by obstinately lying down on the slug and ant infested slopes of NUS’s AS3 for a picnic, scaling the turfed roof of NTU ADM and peering over for a laugh, conducting midnight walks to test out the urban myth of the “yellow line” which runs from Arts to Science; conveniently idle explorations of each universities’ geographies as momentary distraction from one’s studies.

I’ve been reading the writing of Claude Parent and Paul Virilio on the notion of the Fonction Oblique (Oblique Function), in which they eschewed the verticality of cities for slopes and oblique planes. They propose an architecture of disequilibrium, using these oblique angles to express a kind of dynamism in the space – by changing our relationship with the horizontal. The idea would be that you would no longer need to find a chair, you only had to lie down on the slope; the stairs would be redundant if everything was constructed in angles, where we would be challenged to scale these ramps on our own. The conventional notion of the door, wall or pillar and so many other things would potentially be transformed if we thought of it as a “domestic landscape” and designed everything in an oblique fashion.

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On an aside, it explains why I like the Rilakkuma bear so much. It is never pictured with furniture, yet it is always at rest, lounging in abstract space. It doesn’t need a chair or sofa because it can just lounge on some imaginary sloping surface. As a consciously designed toy character, it was made to convert any surface into “a napping space” with its body.

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I suppose I am attracted to the idea (or reading about it) partly because for me the slope cannot be separated from the sensation of vertigo. I suspect that I experience more vertigo than the average person – it is something I’ve developed only in adulthood and for me it is a complete mystery where it came from! I feel a lurching sense of vertigo in moving lifts, on swings, whilst standing on breakwaters or on piers, and am consistently reduced to crawling on all fours on anything that is a little more steep than usual.

In recent years I have developed more and more vertigo, to the point where if my feet are completely concealed from my view, then I cannot balance or even ascend or descend a flight of stairs. Normally I have zero problem with stairs, but if I am carrying a big box that hides my feet from my view then I am suddenly unable to use the stairs! I don’t know where this came from. I got stuck in the tube recently with a heavy big box with the prospect of taking a few more connections home, and after googling ahead to see if the stations had disabled ramp or lift access, I saw there was none so I gave up and took a cab. There is no physical reason why I cannot go up and down stairs if my feet are concealed from view, yet for some reason, I find it really difficult!

Vertigo seems to present itself as a physiological sensation that is caused directly by my experience of space itself, and I can either read it as something which is there to warn me or dissuade me from going further (if this is part of my primitive fight-or-flight response to mistakenly perceived danger), or it can be read something which excites me by being physically challenging. I think I prefer the latter reading, unless I get stuck in one place for too long and end up requiring rescuing, like a cat stuck on a tree.

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For me, it reminds us that the surface that we stand upon doesn’t have to be a calm, generic flat plane which is there to reassure us of the rationality and stability of the world we live in. Perversely, I suppose that maybe the idea of installing a ridiculous handrail is a bit like that…

The Spherification of Edible Liquids for Impatient People

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After a few hits and misses doing spherification experiments over the last few years for fun, here is a collation of some personal observations or lessons learnt about spherification that people don’t generally seem to explain properly in all the other recipes or online posts about spherification.

Basic Spherification
1% Calcium Lactate Bath (1g to 100g mixture)
0.5% Sodium Alginate Mixture (0.5g to 100g mixture)

Reverse Spherification
0.5% Sodium Alginate Bath (1g to 100g mixture)
1% Calcium Lactate Mixture (1g to 100g mixture)
[better for milky/alcoholic mixtures]

Why do some people use Calcium Lactate instead of Calcium Chloride?

I noticed a lot of people online have suggested that people can use Calcium Chloride. The problem is that I don’t like Calcium Chloride because it has a salty/bitter taste, where as Calcium Lactate doesn’t really have a taste. You can “wash” off the salty taste in water, but the fact is that I don’t really like Calcium Chloride, after I learnt that Calcium Chloride reacts strongly to humidity. I brought a bag of it from London to Singapore, and my double-plastic-wrapped bag of Calcium Chloride must have gotten a tiny hole in it, which allowed the humid air in, and next thing I knew I had a mysterious chemical spill on my wooden floor which was near impossible to remove. Turns out that if Calcium Chloride is exposed to humid air, it will absorb a few times of its own weight in water. I have never heard of such a ludicrous thing happening with Calcium Lactate. And since I really don’t want to worry that one day my food chemicals will be reduced into a big puddle of water in my toolbox, I’m steering clear of Calcium Chloride from now onwards just to be safe.

Do I really need to use distilled water?

Yes, this is very important because many cities have very hard tap water, even if you use boiled water or water filters. This means that all your alginate mixtures will become very goopy instantly if you don’t use distilled water. London tap water causes the sodium alginate to start its gelling reaction almost immediately. Even the utensils should also be washed in distilled water before and during use, otherwise gelling will occur on them as well when preparing the bath or mixture.

Do I really have to wait 24 hours for the bubbles to leave the Alginate bath/mixture?

The bubbles can be really huge. If you don’t care about the bubbles like me, then don’t bother leaving it overnight. I find it still works the same, just not as pretty and perhaps disrupting the illusion of it being a perfect sphere of liquid. Also if you used tap water (eg London) then you will already have huge bubbles whilst stirring because the gelling will have started by now and you will have stirred bubbles into the goopy alginate bath.

Do I really need an immersion blender?

It would be ideal and it really makes a difference. But it will work even if you don’t use an immersion blender or hand blender to mix it up. You can also use just a spoon, if you’re all DIY or lazy like me. But remember, that for some reason all of these chemicals HATE to be dissolved into water and you will spend what seems like hours grinding a spoon into a big bowl of water and powder and screaming at the bowl of water.

Is it really necessary to pre-freeze the mixture into half-spheres for Reverse Spherification?

You will have seen the half-sphere silicone moulds, seemingly sold on every other molecular gastronomy webstore. The reason why people do this is that it does truly takes skill to make the shapes spherical with the Reverse Spherification process. You can’t just “drip” it into the bath, half-heartedly, (as you might do with Basic Spherification, and get away with it). You have to throw or plop it down bravely, but yet not too much otherwise it will hit the bottom of the bowl and become flat, which I find to be quite difficult to do. Basic Spherification seems to be more forgiving in terms of technique, you’ll probably end up with something roundish even if you have poor hand-eye coordination. So in order to give their spheres a better chance of having a better shape when doing Reverse Spherification, people pre-freeze their mixtures into half sphere shapes.

What if I “guess-timated” the amounts and it doesn’t work? How can I fix this confusing gloopy mess?

After several “guess-timation” failures on my part, I’ve learnt that this is a matter of understanding the ratio/texture that the mixes ought to reach – it mainly means that the concentration for either the alginate or the calcium is inaccurate, and usually it means it was too little. So as a possible way of fixing things, for basic spherification, add slightly more alginate to the mixture, and for reverse spherification add slightly more calcium to the mixture. For the alginate, the goal is to reach 0.5%. For the calcium, the goal is to get to 0.18% calcium, which is usually 0.5% Calcium Chloride, 1% Calcium Lactate, and 2% Calcium Lactate Gluconate.

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And finally, yes, if you squeeze your spheres, they can and they will explode.

I’d love to hear from other people who have been playing with their foods like I have. Are there other tips or suggestions for impatient people who want to do some spherification of their edible liquids?

RiTA Toolkit: Markov and other text experiments for the Masses

This week I became aware of Markov generators for the masses! Yes! Now anyone can have instant word glossolalia! And now up to 200% more easy to use! Because the future is already here! The future came and then left the building some time ago! I think it came around last tuesday, did you miss it? Did you not already hear?? Aw man.

TO DEMONSTRATE THIS I WILL PROCEED TO WRITE THIS POST IN UNDER 5 MINUTES!!!

The challenge was to find the easiest way to do a markov generator mashup of two texts. A friend who was unfamiliar with programming asked me what was the easiest way to make a text mashup. Recently I saw Pete’s Unpredictive Text installation at the WIP show and I found out he was using a library called RiTA so I downloaded it and realised it was oh so so so simple to play with…

First you need to install Processing, and then you have to install the RiTA library into Processing. I had almost forgotten how to install libraries actually, due to not using Processing in some months, but the long and short of it is that you just need to find the “Processing” folder which will have been automatically created in your Documents folder when you installed Processing.

On a mac it will probably be
MacHD/Users/Username/Documents/Processing

On a windows it will probably be
C:/My Documents/Processing

In this folder you create the folder “libraries” and copy in the “library” folder which will be inside the RiTA zip package you downloaded. The library should now be here like this:

/Processing/libraries/rita/library/rita.jar

Look in the examples folder for Kafgenstein.pde. That’s the kafka+wittgenstein mashup. The text files are in the folder /data. Make your own text files, substitute them in the markov.loadFrom line.

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Here is Enid Blyton’s Holiday Book meets John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

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=

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The other examples are equally interesting to play with.

No need to thank me. All thanks to RiTA.


Actually I lied, this post took 15 min to write cos, y’know, it takes time to make screenshots and upload them.

More of my previous markov experiments here:
Ghost Trap – Markov Text Generator
A Dream Generated from Other Dreams