Sunday, January 30, 2011

boule de gomme

Easter man was here

Woon was also here

Location: Hatta, UAE

body rock

I was going to write this soppy and awestruck blog about how amazing the human body and mind are in their characteristics and abilities.

Instead, I'll just speak briefly about a few hacks and other exercises I've been working on and some other mumble jumble.

As we all know, our minds and bodies are very plastic to the environment. People who live in high altitudes have very high red blood cell counts and forearm blood flow, people who climb from a very young age have wide shoulders and big ape-indexes, people living in highly ethnically diverse places can be native speakers of four or five languages.

Our bodies and minds are also extremely sensitive to our own modification.


I was reading about free divers (shortly after getting scuba certified) and found their physiology incredible. Huge lung volume, incredible breath volume-flow-rate, extremely low resting heart rate, and of course the ability to hold breath for a long long time. They have everything: strength, endurance and efficiency.

What a wickedly great ability to harvest oxygen and use it effectively, I thought. If I had some of these skills, it would make me better not just at swimming and diving but at everything I do. It would be like a firmware upgrade.

I'm also certain that free divers' abilities are not simply genetically inherited. I think they were cultivated.

Free diver breathing exercises (the ones I found, at least) are interesting, designed to force the body to build better lungs and improve other systems, but also to alter its programming to perform better in low/deprived oxygen environments.


Needless to say I haven't been keeping up with them very well. Doing a good, effective set of exercises means sitting in one place (sometimes walking) and being very focused for more than half an hour. Doing it more than once a week (or month) is just too much inertia for me to handle. Free divers probably do them for hours every day.

What was shocking was how well I responded despite my lack of commitment. By my second session (a month after the first) I could hold my breath sitting down for two and a half minutes. Pretty shocking, eh?

I haven't done the exercises in about three months now. Hopefully I will get my act together soon.


Other hacks and exercises on my plate : object manipulation (spinning), dancing (tango etc), martial arts (capoeira etc), free running, coconut tree climbing, language learning, musical instruments (clarinet etc), ambidexterity...

I wonder what I'm actually trying to achieve.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


...and I'm off!

This week in Singapore was great. I caught up on sleep, ate a lot, did almost everything on my lists and got along really well with the fam. Now I feel ready.

See you in Ghana!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mystère et boule de gomme

Timor is one of a surprising number of countries that use the US dollar as their currency. I've always found this idea fascinating, and puzzled over the idea quite a bit.

Where do they get their US dollars from? (They obviously don't print it, but they don't get bills by simply pulling paper money out of the US economy either: that would affect the US monetary system, actually causing disinflation)

How does the US feel about this?

Is it safe for (someone like you or me) to use a currency not guaranteed by the government of the country we are in?


I did some homework on this, and it turns out that it's much less wild and crazy than I thought.


First of all, the US actually encourages other countries to use its dollar. It helps supply their paper currency. This actually helps stabilise volatile emerging economies by fixing their interest rates and inflation to the (presumably) more stable and conservative US economy and monetary policy.*

*(although it's also criticised for contributing to the attitudes and sentiments that brought about the last economic crisis)

Having other people use their dollars is actually in the US's interest: it makes countries like Ecuador and Panama much more reliable trading partners.


You don't have to read on:

If you haven't already figured out, I'm a pretty nerdy guy. Secretly, I read four or five different economics blogs. On one of them, I found an interesting bit of theory and speculation:

Gregory Mankiw, a high-profile and extremely influential US economics advisor (whose book on macroeconomics I used in college) famously wants to abolish the penny.

What does this spell for a country like El Salvador, which uses US currency, and which also has such a low price index that many common transactions happen in cents, and where people often need to break dollar bills to get change?

Could a country like that cope with adhering to US policy or would transaction volumes become impractical? What if they kept the penny legal tender and all the pennies from the US flowed there? How much would that be? (Billions?) (Is the size of their economy such that) it would cause catastrophic hyperinflation?


I find currencies with "outrageous" units endearing, like Indonesian Rupiah, where it's about 10000 to the dollar, and 1 rupiah is meaningless. Ghana used to have a similar currency but they have since issued new currency with 1/10000 of the value.

I know, isn't it a shame?

Some charm remains: people in Ghana still talk in old currency even though they use new paper: they say "thousand" to mean ten cents" and "ten thousand" or sometimes "ten" to mean a dollar.

Razor bread

Leaving Timor was surreal. Because of how things panned out, I flew from Oecusse to Dili, had a day's errands and layover there, flew to Bali, had a spare day and a work call, and then flew back to Singapore.

It felt like a dream, especially since I was drifting in and out of sleep on all the flights and my mind couldn't really anchor itself on any one thing while I was still awake. The scenery was changing too quickly.


I looked out the window of the airplane as we approached Singapore, thinking we were over Malaysia but recognising nothing. I frantically checked my cardinal directions as the plane flew big circles and just as I thought that we were definitely in an imaginary place, we flew in over the Singapore harbour.

I looked down to see a fleet of huge oil tankers and massive cargo ships, more than I had ever seen in my life.

That old Talking Heads song jumped into my head: "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife! How did I get here!?"


I've hung out a lot with an old friend (one of my oldest) these last few days in Singapore.

We don't see each other very often, but it's always felt easy to be comfortable around each other again.

I used to talk with him about music, girls, food, The Future, you know, when life was perhaps simple. Now we talk about how Singapore is broken and why we're never coming home.

It feels like the final nail in a coffin for my youthful innocence.

Friday, January 21, 2011

back Into the wild

Well, friends, it's over. I don't really have much to glow about that I haven't already said on the Kopernik blog, but for the benefit of folks who don't read it (you should read this one), Timor was great. I will miss it there.

I didn't expect it to be such a good time, I didn't expect to enjoy myself so immensely, to be so close with the FEEO folks, to meet such neat and such terrible expats, or for Timor to be such a strange and fascinating place.


Now it's back to Singapore limbo for a bit before Ghana. My Indonesian is (terrible but) now better than my Chinese, I haven't cut my hair in half a year, and everyone tells me I've lost weight (is that possible?) (I don't want to lose weight!). It's time to get razor blades and rabies shots, restock my supply of nuts and update all the program packages on my ubuntu machine (:

I'm so tired these days. I've been falling asleep in every car and aeroplane I get into, which is strange considering it didn't happen in Oecusse.


It probably means nothing to you, but I'm extremely pleased with the title of my last Kopernik blog.

"Nada dan irama" is a Timorese joke in Indonesian for "you're welcome" in Tetum, and ending on this note makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


The one line I get most often here is "are you Japanese?" to which I usually answer, "no, I'm Chinese, from Singapore..."

Recently, I've started to answer this question with a hint of sadness in my voice, but it's not why you think I do. Indeed, when people ask me "are you Chinese?" I snap back, "yes, from Singapore!"

I thought at one point I really wanted them to think I was Japanese so I could tell them I was from Singapore instead, but perhaps I just want to be Japanese.


It's one of those super busy work times, hence the silence. Work blogs up soon.


Michael is a really difficult name to spell, if you don't already know how to do it. Indeed, the correct spelling of it might be one that makes the least sense of all.

People in Timor struggle with my name, and often come up with creative new ways to spell it. I actually really like it-- I've seen such great inventions as "Maiquel" and "Maycell", all of which are more phonetic than "Michael".

My favourite so far: "Maiko". Maybe I'll change my name to that someday.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

old timer

I cheated and back-dated this one so it seems like I haven't left a long gap between posts.

If it's any consolation, I chose a binary time an date.

In other news, I got an immunoglobulin injection to make me completely rabies proof.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Awesome T-shirts from Timor

Have I told you yet that the coolest clothes end up in Timor? I guess they filter in from all the places that donate old clothes to poor countries.

Old Obey, D.A.R.E, and Linux T-shirts, fake brand-name stuff, old "Singapore: Garden City" T-shirts that are so vintage even I want a piece of them. Here are two good ones I managed to get pictures of.


Here's a lesson in empathy I didn't plan to learn. Two nights ago, I was walking home from dinner, enjoying the cool night after the evening rains. I had actually turned down the offer of a motorbike ride home.

On the say home, I was bit by a dog. The little son of a bitch ran up from behind me as I was walking away from his house and bit me without warning on the leg. I was surprised and uncommonly upset, and looked back in anger, shouting at the dog as it retreated. Then I took out my phone to shine light on my leg. Although the bite hadn't hurt very much, I was bleeding.

After cursing out loud for a little bit, I stood stunned for a few moments: the reality of being bit by a dog in just about the most remote place possible to be bit by a dog was really ruining my evening.


I realised in that moment --maybe realised is the wrong word, because I felt and understood and experienced-- what getting bit by a zombie feels like. In all those beautiful, violent, poetic movies that we love so, we feel dread and sympathy for someone after the perhaps get through the zombie attack and realise they are wounded, and have but hours or even seconds before the infection turns them into a zombie themselves.

Still we don't really know what it feels like or what goes through the person's head. Well, I knew right then, as I looked down at my bleeding leg. It didn't help that I'd read up about rabies in the past and knew about how it attacks the nervous system and how the vaccine has to be administered before it becomes too late. This was it. I was going to die from rabies in Oecusse... After an intensely painful corruption of my consciousness as it took over my nervous system.

It's interesting to note that many zombies as portrayed as humans might be if they had rabies: think of 28 Days later or Zombieland (excellent movies by the way).


The rest of the story is slightly less dramatic, if at times panicked: I came to my senses and went to the hospital, where I found they didn't have any vaccines. I tried the UN mission next but had trouble getting in without ID and without referral. Finally, they let me in and I got a vaccine by an Indonesian doctor and a Zimbabwean nurse, who were just as surprised and taken off guard by my arrival as I was thankful for their help.

I felt relieved, but also sad and guilty, it seemed like a privilege to be treated (I felt) so well (or so fortunately): I don't think every person in Oecusse, if put in my situation, would have had the same luck and the same outcome as I did.

Well. This is a story for the grandkids: how I didn't die from rabies in Oecusse. The excitement isn't over, however: the post-exposure schedule for the vaccine means that I will need an injection five days after I arrive in Ghana.

Stay tuned for more excitement and adventure, here on Monkey Music / Woon's Tunes

Friday, January 7, 2011


The latest in Oecusse. Well, the latest you can read. New news is in the works already!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I smell a jinx

Perhaps there is absolutely no connection to the blog post, but the price of petrol in Oecusse has recently tripled, almost overnight.

I kid you not. It's because of sudden problems with petrol crossing the border from Indonesia into Timor.

Petrol stands that used to stock barrels and have hundreds of litre-bottles out for motorcycles stood empty and derelict. I think the problem has eased as prices are coming down slowly.

The post-apocalypse of oil starved Mad Max wasteland didn't come, and my petrol tank is still full from before.

Anyway, cheerios.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"On the ground" as they say

Life imitates works.

I've recently been really busy, an haven't had time for too many adventures outside of work. I've done a bit of snorkeling and socialising, but I spend most of my time doing things like this and this. Well, they are adventures in their own right I suppose.

Sorry for the long gap. I'm doing a double release to make it up to you. Another work blog is also hot in the press, and you'll be the first to hear when it comes out.

Banking on a fact

On an uncharacteristically lavish saturday afternoon, I found myself on a boat eating nice food (I ate an oyster, which I found isn't my favourite food: they had loads of extras and I wanted to see if I liked them or not. I hear they are really nutritious), drinking so-so bottle wine (I've always been more of a box person) and Australian (south of the beer line*) beer, diving in the sea and hanging out with some Dili expats.

*It is not certain where the beer line is exactly is, but some facts about it cannot be disputed: Germany is north of the beer line, Spain is south of the beer line.

I'll spare you the details of the afternoon, but here is an interesting story I picked up. Quinn is English descended, I believe, and grew up in Zimbabwe, doing Safaris first and later becoming a contract pilot (flying in Brazil, South Africa, and Timor among other places). He was adamant that the quality of life and value for money are unparalleled in Zimbabwe and really enjoyed living and growing up there.

This challenges my dystopian picture of the country, and he's not the first person to tell me this. I met another Zimbabwean on a flight to Ghana once who told me the same. Anyway, White Africans are another story for another time and something I don't know much about anyway. On to the story:


Blown somewhat out of proportion by international news, hyperinflation only lasted a few years in Zimbabwe. Certainly, the inflation was terrible (being able to watch shop employees change the prices of goods in real time) but it isn't as much a key part of history as we might perceive.

An interesting feature of those time was an economy that developed organically in Zimbabwe that is (a little) reminiscent of a movie that some of you might have seen: the gasoline economy.

Because Zim dollars had such an unstable value and were worth less and less every second you held them in your hand, Zimbabweans settled on a different currency. They would buy petrol as quickly as they could spend their money, sometimes storing up hundreds of thousands of litres. Because petrol is relatively durable, held its value (and often appreciated) it was a safe way to store . People would trade a few litres of petrol for services rendered and thousands of litres for big jobs.

I think it's absolutely brilliant that this system evolved on its own without planning or agreement, or government approval. It seems to have spread virally, if you will.

The neatest thing about this is that it is an (possible the one) instance in history that a currency had great practical value. Paper money, other than the numbers printed on them, aren't good for much other than scribbling notes on, wiping up messes or snorting...stuff through. Petrol, on the other hand, is used everyday. Compared to the utility of petrol, coins and bars of gold and silver are but shiny paperweights.


I'm trained in economics and also an instinctively practical person: I often have a hard time reconciling the need for a quickly, easily portable and tradable currency with the fact that we (today) are, in fact, exchanging bits of paper with ink on them (or worse yet, electronic records of them). That governments "guarantee" their dollars isn't the most reassuring thing for people (such as myself).

Needless to say, I was terribly excited to hear this story. It made the whole day on the boat worthwhile.