May 2008


“We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun,

 But the hills that we climbed were just seasons out of time …”

After a hectic and at times frustrating few months, I finally staggered past the finishing line with the end-of-semester examinations yesterday.  It was a weird and deja vu surreal feeling that I had the entire week – I haven’t studied that hard in almost 7 years (last examinations in NUS was 2001!) and THAT feeling of relief when it was all over was strangely distinctly familiar, akin to meeting an ‘old friend’ again.  And coincidentally, yesterday also marked my fourth month in Egypt – time flies but only when you look back! 

And what better way to end a whole week of mugging than to celebrate with my classmates at a nice restaurant by the Nile, with good food and in good company of course, followed by drinks and more jokes of one another.  Ahhh … that post-examination ‘chiong-ing’ is really exhilarating, once again something I haven’t experienced in a long while.  We finally called it a day at around 2am, and ended on a poignant note – with many hugs and promises to keep in touch for those leaving and not staying on for the summer semester.  Parting is indeed such sweet sorrow (emphasis mine). 

Good memories.  Good company for the past four months.        

  

These are the good people that have made everything possible this semester (from L-R): Eleni (Greek), Edgar (Mexican/American), Iain (American), Faiza (Austrian/Egyptian). 

And sitting there is Abeer, our colloquial Arabic teacher.  With me representing Asia, this class is a mini-UN in itself!    

This is a good article from TODAY Weekend Edition (17-18 May) that is worth a read.  The second last paragraph of the article hits the ‘bulls-eye’ and accurately reflects how certain media outlets by certain parties are indirectly manipulating the masses by sending quiet and subtle half-truths.  Messing with our minds I tell you. 

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READING BETWEEN THE LINES

To uncover news agendas, get behind the subtle manipulation of words

Manoj Thulasidas
 

WHEN it comes to news, things are seldom what they seem. The media can colour news events while remaining technically objective and strictly factual. Faced with such insidiously accurate reporting, we have little choice but to read between the lines.

It is a tricky art. First, we develop a healthy attitude of scepticism. Armed with this “trust-nobody” attitude, we examine the piece to get to the writer’s intentions. Mind you, the idea is not always to disapprove of the hidden agenda, but to be aware that there is one — always.

Writers use a variety of techniques to push their agenda. First and foremost in their arsenal, is the choice of words.

Words have meanings, but they also have connotations. As a case in point, look at my choice of the word “arsenal” in the last sentence, which in this context merely means collection. But because of its negative connotation, I have portrayed writers as your adversaries. I could have used “collection” or “repertoire” (or nothing at all) to take away the negativity.

Using “gimmickry” would imply that the writers usually fail in their efforts. Choosing “goodie bag” would give you a warm feeling about it because of its association with childhood memories. Unless you know of my bag of tricks (which has a good connotation), you are at my mercy.

When connotation is employed to drive geo-political agendas, we have to scrutinise the word choices with more serious care. In an Indian newspaper, I once noticed that they consistently used the words “militant” or “militancy” to report a certain movement, while describing another similar movement with words like “terrorist” or “terrorism”. Both usages may be accurate, but unless we are careful, we may get easily swayed into thinking that one movement is legitimate while the other is not.

Americans are masters in this game. Every word spoken by the State Department spokesperson is so carefully chosen that it would be naïve to overlook the associated connotations. Look at Hillary Clinton’s choice of the word “misspeak” — books can be written on that choice!

What is left unsaid is as important as what is not, which makes for another potent tactic in shaping public opinion. Imagine a TV report that runs like this: “The Pentagon has reported a surgical strike with a laser-guided missile fired from an unmanned predator aircraft killing five terrorists in the US most wanted list. However, civilians claim that the bomb fell on a wedding party killing 35 people including 15 children and 10 women. We haven’t independently verified this claim.”

While staying factually accurate, this report has managed to discredit the civilian deaths by playing with the connotations of “report” and “claim”, as well as by not saying that the Pentagon report also was unverified. Besides, how can super-duper unmanned aircraft and laser-guided munitions miss their targets?

We, of course, have no means of knowing what actually went on there. But we have to discern the process of colouring the report and develop an ability (or at least a desire) to seek the truth and intentions behind the words.

This ability is especially crucial now due to a worrying trend in the global media — the genesis of media conglomerates. When most of the world gets their information from a limited number of conglomerates, they wield an inordinate amount of power and sway over us and our opinions.

Unless we jealously guard our ability to read between the lines, we may be marching quietly into a troubling brave new world.

 

The writer is a scientist from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). He currently works as a Senior Quantitative Developer at Standard Chartered Bank, Singapore. His book, The Unreal Universe, is available in local bookstores and at www.TheUnrealUniverse.com.

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Singapore’s immigrant history and mish-mash of cultures have enabled our food scene to be truly a “melting pot” of dishes.  Some of the dishes have even evolved into truly uniquely Singaporean dishes (think: Hainanese chicken rice) over the years.  It is thus not surprising to find similar dishes just across the Causeway or right next door in Indonesia (think: satay).  But imagine my surprise to find “roti prata” in Egypt!      

Described by some people as the “Egyptian pancake”, the fiteer is actually made with many layers of filo dough and butter.  Watching the chef skillfully twirl and ‘whack’ the dough into its desired shape and texture is delightful in itself.  Once the chef is ready with the dough, each one is stretched to its desired size and baked in a huge oven much like how pizzas are cooked.  The dough is cooked until it turns a crisp brown on the outside, while retaining its ‘flaky’ and chewy interior. 

While they are tasty enough to be eaten on its own (plain fiteer will be served with honey and/or icing sugar), you do have the choice of either savoury or sweet fillings to be added into them.  For the savoury fillings, it ranges from sausages to cheese to peppers to tomatoes or a mixture of these ingredients (or go for the “works” – i.e. every possible filling in the menu!).  For the sweet fillings, it includes powdered sugar, nuts, grated dried coconut, honey or a mixture of them.  Interestingly, I noted that the plain ones are also sold in an XXL size (about 1.5 times bigger than your typical family pizza)!  At the point of blogging, I have yet to verify if this is merely a huge fiteer or made of a different type of dough.  

I managed to try a savoury fiteer and a sweet fiteer fresh from the hot oven.  The tomatoes, green peppers, cheese and onions-filled fiteer was baked to crispy perfection and certainly reflected the good skill of the Egyptian chef.  Somehow, I felt that the dough actually tasted better eaten on its own than our local roti prata kosong.  However, there was really nothing to shout about in terms of taste with my chosen combination of ‘goodies’ inside.  The vegetables and cheese gave a good crunchy bite and it was certainly tasty but not out of the world.   

Yummy?: ***3/4 (out of five stars)

On the other hand, the sweet fiteer of nuts, grated coconut and raisins was quite a revelation.  This concoction combined well and was not cloyingly sweet, so you can eat most of it without feeling too jelat.  The dough was again well-baked and topped with a dash of icing sugar on top of the pastry.  My only complaint? I wish that I had a cup of teh tarik or teh halia to wash all that down!  

 

Yummy?: **** (out of five stars)

Despite not sitting so well with me, the many different type of ingredients that could possibly go into the savoury fiteer could mean that there are some nice combo waiting to be discovered.  The all-important dough was generally already very good and this made an important difference to the fiteer.

Also, while there certainly are many varieties of roti prata in Singapore, I felt that most are either run-of-the-mill stuff (e.g. canned pineapples and sliced canned button mushrooms), or unimaginative (e.g. only one single filling).  In fact, the overall standard of roti pratas back home seemed to have dropped.  While the murtabak is certainly a close contender for something tasty and savoury akin to the fiteer, I have yet to eat a truly good murtabak in Singapore for a long while!    

The fiteer – Egypt’s answer to Singapore’s roti prata?