Wednesday 26 June 2013

MinnaCon: The Convention Two Years In The Making

22 June 2013 marked the end of a long two year journey to bring the NUS Comics and Animation Society's (NUSCAS) very first major event to fruition.

It started with a dream I had to put NUSCAS on the anime map. To have a hallmark event that people will mark down on their calendars as an event to look out for. For a year, MinnaCon stayed as an idea, slowly being fleshed out in the back of my head, occasionally bouncing ideas of other like minded people in NUSCAS to see how we could make this plan a reality. Finally, at the beginning of 2012, concrete plans were laid out for MinnaCon 2013. NUSCAS brought NTU Visual Arts Society (NTUVAS) into the picture, making MinnaCon not only the first university-organised ACG but also the first regional cross-university anime convention. This partnership also allowed the scale of MinnaCon to grow even larger than anything NUSCAS could have undertaken by itself. 

We originally slated MinnaCon for January of 2013 to fill in the gap in the anime calendar that was once occupied by the now defunct Start Of Year (SOY) organised by the Japanese Tsubasa Club from Ngee Ann Polytechnic. In hindsight, it was a blessing that we delayed the event to its final date in June because even with the extra six months of preparation, there were still a number of hiccups that happened at MinnaCon due to a lack of preparation. This would've been obviously compounded by the fact that I would be absent due to my student exchange to USA.

So just before I flew to USA, the decision was made to postpone MinnaCon to 22 June 2013 after some fierce discussion amongst NUSCAS and NTUVAS. One major concern with the new date was that it was perilously close to Cosfest, quite possibly among the three biggest ACG events in Singapore so rather than directly compete against Cosfest, we decided to leverage on these circumstances and struck a deal to include the organisers of Cosfest, Singapore Cosplay Club (SCC), in the planning of MinnaCon.

During my half year absence, MinnaCon was left in the capable hands of Yanxu and Shawn from NUSCAS, Stifler from NTUVAS and finally Stephanie from SCC as they fleshed out the skeleton of MinnaCon that had been built over the previous two years. In the beginning I tried beating the time zone difference and attempted to join in the discussion over Skype but the 13-hour difference very quickly beat me back. So I resigned myself to being the man behind the Internet facade of MinnaCon, answering emails, designing and updating the website and maintaining MinnaCon's presence in Facebook.

Fastforward to 24 May 2013, one month before D-Day. The day I touched down back in Singapore. A lot the pieces have been put into place so all there was left to do was some aggressive publicising. Balancing Rag and looking for an internship along with MinnaCon was tough but fortunately still doable. There were some setback such as internal conflicts within the executive committee but fortunately for us, we managed to dodge any mission critical mishaps so MinnaCon moved forward like the steadfast ship that she was.

One week before MinnaCon, disaster struck. One that was beyond the control of the entire committee combined. Singapore was struck with the worst haze situation ever recorded in Singaporean history. The day before MinnaCon, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reached a record 401, obliterating the previous recorded high of 272 set in the 1970s. The government was constantly advising the public to stay indoors and rumours spread that MinnaCon may be cancelled due to Singapore's ever worsening haze condition. Once again, the God of Fortune must have been smiling on us as we had all along planned MinnaCon to be an indoor event and the air-conditioning shielded us from the brunt of the haze's force so MinnaCon could proceed mostly unfazed. Nevertheless, the publicity department had to go into overdrive as we had to not only settle last minute entries to MinnaCon's various events but also constantly assure the public that MinnaCon was going to proceed as planned.

And finally the time had come. 22 June 2013. The morning was hectic and tensions ran high as the day opened with hazardous levels of haze (PSI = 320), the crew was scrambling about setting up the event and a miscommunication between one of our external event organisers and their participants had some participants showing up a 2.5 hours earlier than expected. Luckily, the entire crew held its own and order was quickly established just before the doors opened.

Things were looking up for MinnaCon as the day progressed. The haze dropped below unhealthy levels (PSI < 100) in the afternoon and participants continually flooded throughout the afternoon. The stage events had to be delayed due to a delay at another event which some of our participants were participating in but our stage crew very efficiently handled the situation and the rest of MinnaCon ran smoother than an arrow sailing to the bullseye.

At the end of the day, I honestly couldn't be more proud of how MinnaCon turned out. Though I was practically grounded at the stage the whole day due to my emcee duties, my few trips around the venue along with our ticket sales and the reports I hear from other friends and staff blew my expectation out of the water. There were definitely a number of problems which arose throughout the journey to this point and the haze situation put a major dent MinnaCon's success but despite all that, MinnaCon's success, being a first time event, surpassed all the benchmarks set for it. It has been a long an tiring journey to this point but there is certainly an undeniable sense of accomplishment to see a dream two years in the making come to life and become something greater than even my wildest imaginations.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Tips and Service

There's one more thing I picked up from USA which I feel that should be implemented elsewhere in the world and that is the culture of tipping. I've lived all my life in either Malaysia or Singapore, both countries that favour charging a service charge over tipping so I've never seen how the service industry of a country that employs tipping works but having seen it in action, I'm almost convinced that tipping is a superior system that should be adopted in more places around the world.

The rationale behind tipping is simple, people in the service industry such as waiters, tour guides and private bus drivers earn additional revenue based on how their customers feel they deserve to earn. The average tip is about 12-15% but if you're feeling generous, 18% is about right. The crux is that tipping is entirely optional. If the waiter did a terrible job at their job, the customer is entirely entitled to not leave a tip. If you factor in the measly wage some of these professions have (we noted somewhere that a waiter can earn as little a $2/hour), the money they earn from tips becomes all that important so service industry employees continually strive to impress their customers in attempts to get a better tip.

I'll pull up an example of how terrible the service industry can get in the absence of tipping. Australia is a country that not only lacks the practice of tipping, employees are all protected by Australia's insanely high minimum wage (if my memory serves me well, a stall attendant earns about $12-$16 per hour). As a result of these compounding factors, employees take for granted the belief that they are entitled to their abnormally high wages regardless of the work they put in. This is especially evident among young employees. Too many times I encountered absolutely terrible service during my stays in Australia. More often than not I meet waiters who couldn't care less about their customers, carrying themselves with a demeanor which could rival a poor desk jockey stuck with a permanent data entry job. If their earnings were determined by tips, most of these waiters won't even a tip, let a alone the minimal 10% the underperforming waiters get. 

While I'm here advocating tipping to be implemented in other nations, the critical part of me understands that the practice of tipping can only exist in a society with the culture of tipping, a culture that is sadly absent among Asian societies, particularly Singaporean society. I don't really wish to attack the culture that I live in but by and large, it's all completely true. By our very nature, we're particularly stingy over things we don't want to spend money on. A Singaporean friend of mine living in USA for a year quite shamelessly advised us that if we don't intend to visit a restaurant ever again, we could just not leave a tip, regardless the level of service we get.

Another possible problem with tipping is that the customer's perception of how much to tip may be greatly swayed by forces beyond the service employees control. If the chef is having a bad day and dishes out mediocre food, the waiter's tip could be in jeopardy because the overall dining experience is still spoilt. If a customer is feeling disgruntled for their own personal reason, again the waiter's tip could be adversely affected. I feel that Asians, on top of not embracing tipping culture, prefer predictability and having a handle on things so the unpredictability of tipping is the least bit desired.

At the end of the day, tipping is still a valid form of extrinsic motivation which would greatly benefit the service industry but it would take a culture that knows how to embrace it before it could properly function. Maybe one day, Asian cultures will learn to adopt tipping, for the betterment of service.

Monday 20 May 2013

An Exchange Student's Academic Experience

So in the post below I talked about the greatest thing the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (UNC) gave me, friendships that changed my life. However, at the end of the day I'm still a student, exchange or otherwise, so it'll be irresponsible of me if I didn't talk about the academic side of these last semester.

Now future exchange students from Singapore or other major Asian universities, there is a grand rumour of how easy studying is going to be if you go on exchange in USA. I learnt the hard way that there are exceptions to this rule, even outside the set of legendary universities known as the Ivy League and other similarly prestigious colleges. I spent my semester in UNC, a university that no one outside of the US has even heard of, and I got my ass handed to me by the workload. Back in NUS, most lecturers gave students a week or two to settled down before ramping up the pace. Here in UNC though, you hit the ground sprinting. Within the first week, the first of our numerous assignments comes in and the pace doesn't drop at all till the end of the semester.

Sure if you intend to coast right through, you could forget about doing all the coursework and attempt to barely escape a failing grade to get your credits transferred back but you could very well do that in your home university. If you wish to get a respectable grade however, you're going to have to work hard for it. And work hard I did. I was stuck in the drawing studio till at least 3am no fewer than twice trying to finish off an assignment and countless more times in the comfort of my own room.

Those of you who were closely reading that last sentence would've noticed I said drawing studio which brings me to my favourite part of UNC's academics. UNC boasts its own studio art department, together with its own art museum. Now I'm a computer science major but graphic design has always been a point of interest for me, so much so that there was a point in my life where I actually considered the possibility of pursuing a BFA instead of a BComp. NUS does not offer anything remotely close to digital art or studio art so when I found out that UNC had a studio art department, I immediately jumped on the chance and took two studio art courses. Doing studio art was certainly a refreshing change of pace from my coding-intense 2.5 years. Considering that this is the first time I've ever done art properly since forever, I'm actually quite proud of what I managed to produce.

Nevertheless, being a Comp Sci. major, it's impossible to completely avoid coding so I took a serious game design course because that was the closest thing they offered to game design course. Let's just say that it wasn't a particularly pleasant experience. The lecturer spent half the semester covering game design topics that I was already familiar with and spent the second half making all the students present 'research topics' which were essentially 10 minute guest lectures by the student in the class. The second half was mostly hit and miss to say the least. However, what took the cake was my final project group. Since the course was a special course which non-computing students could take, we had one person in our four man team who was an English literature major and fellow Singaporean exchange student so the remaining coding had to be managed by the remaining three of us. The kicker was that the two team members who were supposed to be the most likely to go AWOL ended up being the two who had to carry the entire workload of the team. I'm not asking to be given my regular coding team from back in Singapore but at least give me a team that could do work. When 95% of your code base was contributed by the one person who's grade doesn't transfer, you know you should either reconsider your field or some of the life choices you're making. Needless to say, our final product was lacklustre at best, salvaged only by the design document which was written almost entirely by our non-coding team member.

To sum it all up, this exchange experience taught me a couple of lessons which I feel should be shared . Firstly, for all you software engineering folk and other similarly team-oriented majors, never ever underestimate the importance of team dynamics. If you find a team that works well with you, never ever let that team our of your sights. Secondly and by far more importantly, don't just treat an exchange as a semester long holiday. I'm not saying that one should forsake experiencing the country for a regime of book bashing in the library nightly but do not forget that even if your grades don't transfer back, you're here as a student and nothing else. Choose to study things that aren't offered back home or at very least things that would interest you greatly. If you find an intersect between both sets, it's as good as finding gold.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Friends From a Foreign Land

Just after the turn of the new year, I stepped into USA for the very first to start off my very first experience as an exchange student. There were a number of mishaps and oversights following up to that moment but despite all the setbacks, I was insanely excited to be in North Carolina.

"Wait a minute. Did you just say North Carolina? Why of all places I USA did you choose to go to North Carolina?", you may be asking as you read that last sentence. The reason is quite simple actually. Because that was the best choice left when I applied. Now don't misunderstand me. In retrospect, I couldn't have made a better choice.

The University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (UNC) and her students have treated me so well I cannot ever do enough to repay them. I'm fortunate to have gone to a university with such a large exchange batch from NUS because that just made road trips and all my other travels across the US that much easier to organise. They have been a wonderful bunch of people and I do hope that we continue being close once we return to our lives back in Singapore. 

Nevertheless, while it's certainly nice to see familiar strangers in a strange place who have similar tourist dispositions as myself, anyone who goes on exchange should know that the gem of an exchange experience is getting to know the locals. And indeed I did. I'm grateful that I managed to meet so many locals and make so many friends in my short stay here in UNC, perhaps too many friends even.

What makes North Carolina such a wonderful place for me is its budding dance community. From the outside looking in, nobody recognises North Carolina for its dance community so I was incredibly fortunate to have found this active hip hop dance community here. The community has a unique flavour that I might not have found in other states like LA or New York. All the dancers in the state are like a giant family.

They don't have the luxury of having established dance studios which teach hip hop dance so they have to rely on themselves to build themselves up. They have community workshops almost every other weekends and more often than not, these workshops were conducted not by professional dancers but college students like myself and people travel up to three hours from all around the state to participate in such workshops. In a single semester, college dance clubs participate in numerous small performances and each performance is choreographed and produced in house by its 20 odd members.

It was all an immense culture shock for me coming from NUS Dance Blast! where our yearly intake is more than twice the size of the entire club here and we can get professionals to produce all our performances. Yet, I wouldn't trade my experiences with college dance clubs here for anything. They're small so I honestly felt like I was a part of a family rather than a person in some random club and because they don't have the same support that I could get back I Singapore, everyone had to push all that harder, myself included. Granted the end product may not match the polish that Blast! dishes out for their performances, there is a certain appeal being a part of something homegrown.

The semester is now over and under normal circumstances I would have been elated to bid farewell to exams and welcome in the holidays. However, as I boarded my LA-bound plane leaving North Carolina, I was filled with only conflicting feelings. I've made so many amazing friends in here and it crushes my soul a little to know that I probably won't meet most of them in person ever again.

As I finish writing this on my way back from the Grand Canyon, it is no doubt that the sights and sounds I've experienced from my travels all over USA from Miami, the Key West and Washington, D.C. to LA, Las Vegas and San Francisco are all a spectacle to enjoy but the memories from this exchange that I will truly cherish are those of the people in North Carolina that impacted my life forever.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

The Talent-less

You can go ahead and say that we're good at what we do. If anything, we love to hear compliments like that to give our egos a boost every now and then but do not ever, EVER, call us talented.

'Talent' is such a dangerous word to throw around. Most people harmlessly mean it as a compliment but calling it talent in subtle ways disregards the hundreds of hours we dedicate to our craft to get as good as we are. I'm a dancer and truthfully, performances are a thankless job. Quoting a friend, "For every minute on stage, we spend 10, maybe 20 hours preparing for it," and people who are not quite acquainted with performing arts don't appreciate that fact. Most, if not all the time, great performances aren't the product of talent, they're the product of hard work.

I'm not saying that there's no such thing as talented people. Any and every field has their fair share of people who are talented but being good and being talented couldn't be more different. Talented people may be able to catch choreography faster than you, they may require less practice to be as clean, they may be able to do tricks and stunts that you can't but even talented people aren't good automatically. It is also important to realise that the lack of talent is by no means a barrier to being good.

I think that sometimes, it's important to disregard talent. When you acknowledge talent, you're basically drawing a line between those with talent and those without and if you're on the wrong side of the line, you're essentially screwed. Even if you're on the right side, it's human nature to look upwards, to further subdivide each section into those who are less talented and those who are more talented. We watch Youtube dancers, people like Keone Madrid, Vinh Nguyen, Kyle Hanagami, Brian Puspos and some of us dismiss them as the ultra-talented but at the same time we forget how much of their lives they've devoted to the art they love the most. The hours upon decades that made them into the dancers who they are today. Even choreography is not something that comes out of talent. It has to be grown, nurtured through countless hours of labouring in the pursuit of becoming better

When you stop acknowledging talent, it's easier to motivate ourselves to strive for seemingly unreachable goals. I would grant, realistically there are goals that require talent to be reached but no one can determine the divide between what is reachable by hard work and what can only reached by talent. If we limit ourselves to the bounds of our talent, one day we'll all hit that boundary and just stagnate but if we ignore talent, we stop being chained down by that self-imposed limit. In this world, there will realistically always be unreachable goals but if we keep working towards those unreachable goals, at very least we'll find ourselves better than we were yesterday.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

The Extroverted Introvert

So here's another one of those private confession posts that I'll be writing. It's about a small misconception that people may have about me. If you take a public opinion on whether I'm an introvert or an extrovert, I'm sure that it'll generally be swayed towards me being an extrovert and I can't fault that impression. On the outside I look like a textbook extrovert. I like public speaking, emcee-ing, etc. I like meeting new people in social camps and such. I like being a mascot or public figurehead for things.

But then again, all of that is just on the surface. There's more to introversion than just an aversion socialising and at its core I personally identify more strongly with the qualities of an introvert than those of an extrovert. A great series of videos called 'The Power of Introverts' inspired by Susan Cain's similarly titled book helps elucidate the world of an introvert. 

Introversion is not shyness which is driven by a fear of social rejection. Introversion is a response to external stimuli, including social stimuli. While an extrovert would crave and re-energise themselves from exposure to social stimuli, an introvert would actually re-energise themselves from being alone. Introverts are not afraid of excess social stimuli, they get overwhelmed by it. 

Personally I build up a persona to handle excess stimuli. That overly-friendly, outspoken and slightly hyper version of me, that extroverted version of me, is the persona I build to handle the excess social stimuli. In situations where I can't hide behind that persona to protect me from all the excess stimuli, my brain just shuts down and I stop reacting altogether. Those who know me better may have seen that side of me. I can only handle the socialising once it's broken down into smaller, more intimate exchanges.

I'm a seasoned performer so I'm kinda used to crowds. It's easy for me to do things like emcee-ing, public speaking and dance performances. However, there is one very important feature about these activities that I need to highlight. They're all performances of sorts. Speaking at people (for the lack of better wording) is not the same as speaking to people. When I'm performing, I just activate my 'performer mode' and run on auto-pilot from a pre-rehearsed script or on my improvisation instincts.

I'm perfect comfortable with performing because at the end it all, I still have the performance aspect to hide behind. I'm totally uncomfortable with being thrown into a crowd of strangers and being expected to socialise. It scares the shit out of me. I like to think that my dealings are very calculated. I need to know the type of people I'm dealing with, the social environment I'm in and how far I can stretch before I start accidentally insulting people. I need to know this because I need to adapt to the situations I'm in. I don't have the luxury of such knowledge when dealing with strangers in alien environments. A true extrovert would probably just pick a simple set of social choices and just run with it. I can't do that no matter how hard I try simply because that is not how I function. 

Since I was young, I've always been a little bit of an oddball introvert. I didn't have too many friends and I didn't particularly like mass socialising too much. Since then I grown up a little into a more outgoing and (slightly) less socially awkward person but no one can truly outgrow who they are. For better or worse, deep down I'm still that little introvert I was born as and there's little I can do about that other than embrace who I really am.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Music: The Script - #3

It's been a long time since my last post but I finally had some time on my hands to do some writing so here's an album review of the recently released album, #3 by The Script.

Okay, first things first. Let me confess that I'm a dedicated fan of The Script ever since I came across their debut album. The band could not be more aptly named. What caught my attention the most was the beauty of the songwriting and the lyrics of their songs. Their lyrics read off like poetry with no shortage of clever metaphors and witty wordplay. Their second album didn't just live up to my expectations of the band, in many ways I felt it surpassed their first. So you could imagine my excitement when I heard the announcement for their latest album, #3

Now let me get on with it. Truth be told, I'm honesty let down by this album. This album is perhaps their most personal album yet, with songs like If You Could See Me Now, and also their most message-driven, with songs like Hall Of Fame and Give The Love Around, but overall this album seems to lack the lyrical genius and wit that are The Script's claims to fame. A lot of the songs are filled with needless filler of repeated humming and 'ooh'-ing, as if O'Donoghue and Sheehan couldn't figure out what else to put in. The other two bonus tracks found in the Deluxe Edition of the album, Moon Boots and Hurricanes, are equally uninspiring and are perhaps the worst songs off the entire album.

There are some nice songs in this album though. Six Degrees of Separation in my opinion is probably the album's best song by far in terms of both musical polish and lyrical wittiness but still fails to match up with the stronger songs of their previous album (e.g. Nothing, Science & Faith, For The First Time). I would have liked If You Could See Me Now more with it being the most emotionally potent song of the album but the musical delivery of the song caused it to fall flat. Two other songs worth mentioning would be No Words for being one of the nicer sounding songs overall and Millionaires which barely makes it as this album's answer to Science & Faith's For This First Time, sadly lacking the lyrical punch its predecessor had.

I would like to take some time to talk about the live songs that were also included in the Deluxe Edition. The recordings were taken  during a concert performed by them in their hometown of Dublin and just by listening to the crowd's reaction and energy in each of the recordings makes me wish I was there. The sheer volume and synchronicity of the crowd was to say the least awe-inspiring and as a concert-goer myself, I would have given anything to attend a concert with a crowd like that.

Overall, the release of this album is a tarnish on their track more than anything. The message driven songs just feel preachy and unnecessary, and the album the album lacks the lyrical punch that I've come to expect following their sophomore album. I can only hope that their next effort rebuilds my confidence in them.