Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

My first club DJ gig w/ Xponent: MAMBO JAMBO

April 16, 2009

Few hobby DJs ever make the transition from DJing in their bedrooms to Djing gigs in real clubs.  The pinnacle of a typical bedroom DJ’s short-lived career is a “Woweez this mix roks!” user comment on his 10-minute YouTube mix, or a fratboy’s drunk congratulations on his “awesome” mix during a Bosses-N-Secretaries-themed frathouse party.  However, within the cesspool of bedroom DJs clamoring to be recognized for their misguided self-belief masquerading as “talent”, there are a few DJs blessed with real talent: the God-given ability to listen – really LISTEN – to music, and a natural attunement to the musical zeitgeist of the future.  These are the DJs – Aldrin, Tiesto, PVD, Oakenfold, to name a few – who successfully transition from bedroom to club, from part-time hobby to paid services, from Zoukout to Ibiza.

Unfortunately, I am not one of them – so I approached my first club Djing gig with the proverbial blue balls.  Club SG was organizing DiaS’pura 2, and had promised a “Mambo afterparty” at an Olde City club/lounge.  Due to my history with Club SG/DiaS’pura, I volunteered my services, expecting a small, private party crowd in the upstairs room of a dingy Philly lounge, where my elaborate set would be met with the same enthusiasm as any random person playing the Mambo Jambo CD on repeat.

A few days before the event, the curveball came – the venue was changed to Level Lounge, which, in spite of its name, was a three-storeyed CLUB in Center City.  Worse, I would be spinning on the first floor of the club, and all partygoers  would first pass by our floor on their way to parties on other floors.  That meant that the first strains of music that these paying customers would hear upon entry would be from my as-yet incomplete setlist.  I had been prepping with the little free time afforded to me by work (Thanks to Andrea for being understanding as I was spending all my waking hours mixing), and that was inadequate for a full three hour set.  The prospect of something going terribly wrong and then having to face a jeering audience, or worse, no audience, weighed heavily on my mind.

Disclaimer: I use the word DJ very loosely to describe my mixing.  I’m not a turntablist and I don’t use vinyl, so my version of “spinning” essentially refers to a few mouseclicks to drag and drop an mp3 into Torq, and using an all-in-one midipad Xponent to mix the tunes.  I’ve DJed for two of my own house parties before, but that’s as much experience as I’ve had DJing.

Here’s a list of the gear that I lugged from NY to Philadelphia for this gig:

M-Audio Xponent
15′ Macbook Pro Unibody 2.4 GHz w/ 2 MB RAM
Stanton Uberstand
Software: Torq 1.5

All stuffed into an overpriced Xponent gig bag, which does NOT protect your Xponent from bumps/shocks at all.  The padding in the bag is way too thin, and the Xponent fits a little too snugly in the bag for my liking.  Might have to invest in a hard casing eventually.

I left the musical about an hour early to set up, which seemed like a reasonable amount of time to set up my equipment to do a soundcheck.  Without an inkling of what the protocol for a DJ at a club was, I sauntered up to the velvet rope and dropped the line:

“Hi, I’m the DJ for tonight’s party.”

And that was when I realized, dammit the success of this party is gonna fall squarely on my shoulders.  THE DJ.  For THE party.  My heartbeat went from nervous to frantic, reaching the same beats per minute (“BPM”) as the muffled thump of the bass coming from another party on the floor above mine.  The club owner dumped me in the DJ booth, which was next to a kitchen sink and had a couple of naked bulbs dangling from the ceiling as lighting.  He also left me with the most rudimentary of instructions – a few cursory introductions of the mixer and volume control, etc.  He had that “Do I look like I give a f*ck” look on his face, not unlike that of an air stewardess demonstrating how to put on a life jacket in the event of a plane crash.  Apt analogy, as the gig started to look like it would be stalled on the runway.

First, the inputs.  When I whipped out the Xponent and placed it on the deck, the owner gave me a an incredulous look

“You’re using that?”

Granted, the Xponent looks like a cheap plastic toy, but underneath the machine’s LED-studded plastic hood is an elegant and powerful engine.  However, the Xponent only has RCA outputs, which appeared to be incompatible with the club’s XLR-input speakers.  When I asked the owner how I would connect my Xponent to the speakers, he shot me the inevitable questi0n:

“Is this your first time Djing in a club?”

At that point, I decided to ditch all pretense of knowing what I was doing and asked him to help me set things up.  This is not like my job, where I can usually get away with pretending to be more knowledgeable about a subject than I actually am.  I mean, there’s no way I’d ever look cool pressing buttons on the Xponent, so I might as well fully embrace the part of the curious geek tinkering with a new toy.  Thankfully, one of the club’s resident DJs was around, so he helped me get around the RCA problem by routing all the sound through one channel in the mixer.  I turned up the volume, pumped up the bass, switched on the monitors, and was ready to partaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!

Except that the place was completely empty. And remained so, even half an hour into my set.  That was the next big problem.  I got a couple of pitiful looks from partygoers who were stopping by on the first floor to use the adjacent bathroom. The musical had run a little late, and there seemed to be a reluctance to leave the exuberance of the Sing City set behind for a crummy little Philly club.  So there I was, lone bespectacled Asian nerd, playing with a cute light-up machine and an Apple Macbook Pro paid for by the rents, spinning for a non-existent crowd of friends who all RSVPed “Maybe” on the Facebook event invite.  And we wonder why so many violent gunmen turn out to be Asian immigrants.

WTF WTF WTF looped through my mind.  The stream of people entering the club, glancing at a completely empty dancefloor and heading straight up the stairs was a big downer.  Each time I saw an Asian group of kids entering through the main doors, I thought to myself: Singaporeans!  Finally!  But I was always disappointed – they all headed upstairs.  I considered just stopping the set as a self-imposed mercy rule.  When a couple of Singaporeans finally arrived, they unpatriotically plonked themselves on the couch with winter jackets still on, seemingly engrossed in discussions about where to go next.  Urgh – quitters.

Then I went through an introspective phase in the middle of playing Robbie Williams’ “Rock DJ”.  I was mixing for a inter-state gig (sorta) in Philadelphia, all my gear was functioning properly, I was hooked up to a massive speaker system that I would never be able replicate in my own home, I had a chance to practice a full-length Mambo Jambo set – all the conditions were in place for me to have a good time.  With that cognitively dissonant boost of optimism, I focused on completing a full 3-hour set, regardless of the turnout.  After all, one or two people were starting to bob their heads to the music – who knows where it would go from there.

And then people started arriving.  It started with a couple of familiar faces from Penn, then small groups of out-of-towners.  The night reached a turning point when a guy in a suit started waving the call me/shaka hand sign in time with the lyrics of the song, “Call Me” by Spagna.  A Mambo regular!  Mambo is NOTHING without the moves!  In fact, Mambo as a concept is really cumbersome to explain to non-Singaporeans, so having people who actually knew the actions to the main songs would be KEY to showing non-Singaporeans how to appreciate the finer points of a Mambo party!

[As an aside, I have used the following words before to try to explain what Mambo is to a non-Singaporean: retro, pop, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, mish-mash, Zouk, Wednesday night, synchronized dance moves, hand actions in time with the lyrics, standing in a circle and dancing, no grinding, anthemic, conformist culture, influence of the military, lame, clubbing initiation, ah bengs, loads and loads of fun]

Of course, I still got the house/hiphop requests from some people, to which I could only reply, “sorry, the organizers want me to play this type of music.”  Turning down a request for a Flo Rida song was HUGELY gratifying.  Anyway, by that point, a crowd was starting to build – people started doing the Singaporean thing of standing in circles of 4-5 people, facing inwards and shaking the dust off the old Mambo moves that had been closeted ever since they went west (life is peaceful there).  It was also strangely satisfying when someone ran up to the booth and begged me to play “Summer Rain”, as it reminded me of the whole masochistic thing when a dog holds a stick in its mouth, begging for its owner to “please throw it!” (in this case, begging for a song to be played so that everyone can do the same dance moves together).

By the time I got through to around 125 BPM, the floor was packed.  That was also the point (1+ am) when people realized that this was it, this was the party, there wasn’t going to be any hiphop/trance/house – might as well let go of their inhibitions and follow the herd.  I was a little further from the dance floor than I would have liked, but what I saw looked like it was Sunday in a charismatic church.   A cyclone of sweaty bodies collectively raising their hands together in a trance-like state, going “square rooooo-ooooms”.  Amen!

I was done with half of my set when I realized that I had only 20 minutes before the club closed.  The second half of my set was the more experimental section (or so I like to believe – I consider Enrique Iglesias pretty “experimental”).  Another point to note is that yes, I had a pre-planned set – but it had in/out points where I could jump to other sections as need be, depending on time constraints or on the mood of the crowd (I even went as far as a printed and formatted excel table, with cue points explained for every song in my set).  After the Grease megamix, I skipped a half-hour of my set and jumped right back into the Mambo favorites, much to the delight of the floor.  “I Heard A Rumor” was met with some dude’s shrill screams of OMG OMG OMG.   Even with this clusterfucking measure, I was still unable to complete the second half of the set and was foreced to stop right after playing the perennial Kylie fav “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”.  At 2 am (it’s Philly after all – how do you stay awake after one of those cheesesteak dinners?), a burly bouncer stepped onto the dance floor, signaled to me to kill the music, then barked at the crowd that the party was over – a move which elicited a chorus of boos.  As the lights came on, people wiped their glistening foreheads, caught their breath, and lamented their sore throats/temporary deafness, all with the cheery afterglow that only Mambo + alcohol can bring.

As I had pessimistically predicted for my first DJing gig, there were indeed jeers that night.  Thankfully, they weren’t directed at me.


Danny Tan, NeuroMOD on Business Times

February 13, 2009

Here’s Danny Tan, someone with whom I worked on a business plan with during my final year at Penn, featured in an article in The Business Times Singapore:

Winning with a strategy for commercialisation

BY DANNY TAN, Founder of NeuroMOD

FACING off against 500 other teams in an international competition was no mean feat, but emerging champion was something that I did not expect.

I was part of a team of Singaporeans who competed in the prestigious Intel+UC Berkeley Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge 2008. The competition, hosted by the Haas School of Business at the University of California, had a judging panel comprising more than 30 Silicon Valley-based investors, including representatives from Intel Capital, the giant chipmaker’s venture capital arm.

I founded the winning team, NeuroMOD Technologies, when still an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) School of Design and Environment. The firm is a development stage company that designs, develops, manufactures and markets implantable medical devices for patients suffering from neurological disorders such as epilepsy.

It was selected to represent Singapore and NUS at the Intel+UC Berkeley Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge after impressing judges at Start-up@Singapore 2008, a national business plan competition organised by the NUS Entrepreneurship Society and supported by NUS Enterprise.

At the international competition, we locked horns with national winners from various countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, France, Brazil, India and China.

The business idea for NeuroMOD Technologies was first conceived in late 2006 during my year-long work-cum-study stint at the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme in Bio Valley, Philadelphia. As part of this programme, I was doing a full-time internship in an early-stage venture fund while taking technology management and venture finance courses at the University of Pennsylvania.

Through the NOC programme, I met Karen Anne Moxon, a researcher at Drexel University who was facing difficulty in attracting commercial interest for her invention. She had developed an electrode that could chronically record precise neurological signals from patients, which can then be used for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

I was excited when tasked by my internship company to help Dr Moxon further develop her commercialisation plans, as I was impressed by her technology and its potential to improve the quality of life of epilepsy patients.

The team working on this project comprised Andrew Khair, then a PhD student in Dr Moxon’s laboratory, and Terence Chia, a fellow Singaporean who was pursuing his final year of undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reaching out to epileptics

After a series of discussions with Dr Moxon, our team decided that the first application of the technology should be targeted at epilepsy, a disorder which affects more than 50 million people in the world today.

About 20 per cent of all epilepsy patients currently do not respond to any available treatments, and suffer from regular seizure attacks which affect their daily lives.

At the same time, developments in other treatment methods are expected to hit major roadblocks. Here was an opportunity to improve the quality of life of patients suffering from epilepsy, and fulfil an unmet medical need.

Since none of us had any experience in bringing a biomedical device to the market, we spent many hours trying to understand the highly regulated and complex biomedical device industry. We were fortunate to meet many experienced industry practitioners who were willing to guide us along.

The thing that surprised us the most was how supportive people can be when they see that you are fully committed to something meaningful. In fact, we found that there was almost no stigma attached to us being students when it came to seeking advice from our mentors.

As we felt that the competition was stiff, it came as quite a surprise when NeuroMOD was announced as the winner. I think what differentiated our business plan from those submitted by the other teams was that we had a well thought-out commercialisation strategy.

This was the result of extensive research to better understand the needs of customers, and also spending time to talk to industry experts about the best way to bring our invention to the market.

In short, we made sure that our business plan was robust and could stand up to scrutiny by the experienced judging panel and potential investors.

The prize money of US$25,000 that we won will be used to invest in the further development of the product. Following the competition, NeuroMOD has since received private funding, and is presently conducting animal studies for our device in the US.

While I am currently back in Singapore to further my education, my partner Andrew is working full-time to bring our technology to the next stage. If all goes well, we expect our first product to reach the market in four to five years’ time after undergoing additional tests and clinical studies.

The writer is a fresh graduate from the 2008 class of the NUS School of Design and Environment.

This article was first published in The Business Times on February 09, 2009.

I was really proud to see Danny featured in the Business Times.  Although I was mentioned in the article, it didn’t feel deserved as I was unable to play the more active role that I had initially envisioned for myself when I first joined the team.  Danny did all of the heavy-lifting for the business plan and I was just happy to have been along on the ride, building a faulty 3-statement model and neglecting to build in more assumptions about working capital and the long approval processes in the medical device industry.  We had a good run with the first iteration of our business plan – making the finals of the Jungle magazine business plan competition (which, coincidentally, was held in the now-defunct Bear Stearns’ NY corporate office) and the semi-finals of StartUp@Singapore 2007.  Unfortunately, we never won any of those competitions due to the skepticism surrounding the  nascent and unproven technology at that point of time.  It did, however, alert us to the strengths/weaknesses of our business plan and presentation skills.

The business plan was deemed to be premature when we first pitched it – one of the judges at the competition thought that the idea of wirelessly charging an implanted medical device was completely ludicrous, and suggested that we should have written the business plan about that technology instead.   Thankfully, Danny never lost faith in the commercial potential of the product, and continued to work on it even while finishing his last year of school.   He took the criticism, learnt from it and used it to fashion a bulletproof business plan which he brought all the way to 2nd place in Startup@Singapore 2008, and then to US$25,000 in California.  Definitely a proud achievement for Danny, NOC, NUS and even Singapore.  Shows you that hard work does pay off.

Oh, and as a final note, we know today that the concept of charging wirelessly using electromagnetic induction is no Blade Runner fantasy.  In fact,  it’s going to be on a soon-to-be ubiquitous communication device – the Palm Pre.

Zouk Mambo Fighter: “Streetsmart” vs “Booksmart”

January 7, 2009

This past weekend, a friend and I got lost looking for the A-C-E subway station in Chinatown and we decided to approach a scruffy-looking ang moh dressed in a plaid shirt for directions.  Given his hipsterish demeanor, I expected him to be a seasoned commuter, able to tell Local from Express stops and the travelling time between W4 and anywhere in Queens, down to the exact minute.

But all he could was to sheepishly bite on his lower lip and shake his head .  “Sorry, I have no idea.”

His Brooklynite struggling artist appearance belied his Murray Hill cluelessness and predilection for travel by taxi. Back to your Blackberry and your Grey Goose, imitator!  I cursed the faux-hipster with his streetsmart under my breath for not having the MTA subway system at his fingertips.

My friend then mused that we never hear of the term “booksmart” being a compliment, while “streetsmart” always conjures a sense of cosmopolitan savviness.

I can still fondly recall the time in BMT when some overzealous ex-JC canoeist kicked his ex-Poly platoonmate to motivate him to do his stretches properly before the morning jog.  Something in that ex-Poly kid exploded, and he lunged at the ex-JC kid like a wild dog, barking accusations of “you look down on Poly izzit!!!???!!!”  This turned out to be an issue everywhere I went in the army.  The general consensus was that JC kids couldn’t really do, we studied.  The Poly kids on the other hand, were the streetsmart ones who got things done and were generally, well, cooler.  JC kids were just tut.

So imagine my surprise when I found out from an old friend that a couple of RI kids from my class (Class of 1998!) had competed in Zouk Mambo Jambo’s 16th anniversary dancing competition, and they WON!  One for us nerds!  Who says people can’t be booksmart and really cool at the same time???!!!???

Video of the triumphant revenge of us nerds here (they’re the team on the right):

Thank God for the cellphone, another angle here for those of us still savoring the victory:

[BTW, for a very concise and spot-on description of the Mambo experience, this one from Absolut College Girl is the (absolute) best I’ve read.]

Man takes ball in the balls for “science”

May 21, 2008

I once had aspirations of doing academia, and running cool experiments like the one here, where a brave dude volunteers to have a tennis ball shot at 50 mph at his nuts.  I love it when they slow-mo his reaction.

NBA playoffs

May 11, 2008

I think this season’s playoffs might be the most interesting since the days of Jordan vs. the rest of the NBA.  What I like:

  1. Every team in the West had a legitimate shot at winning it all
  2. The East has the best team (on paper), with the best record and three very hungry veterans
  3. Kobe Bryant has finally won the MVP award, years after garnering all those rings, and in the same season in which he had initially asked to be traded
  4. We get ESPN HD in the office pantry

Excerpt from Tanamera, Ch. 13 by Noel Barber

May 9, 2008

God, it was good to be home!  As we approached the roads outside the harbour in the early morning the sea haze lifted and there, in dancing, almost liquid heat, lay Singapore – an unromantic line of shining circular petrol tanks on the left and on the right a fringe of coconut palms; a flurry of sampans, a forest of junk masts, and all round were tiny off-shore islands, some little more than rocks in the sea.  Above everything else rose the sun.  As I guided Irene down the gangplank of the Orient Princess a blast of hot air hit me in the face; the sweet smell of the river clogged my nostrils; the clamour and the chant of coolies, the strident voices of Chinese overseers, the cries of hawkers, hit my ears.  It added a spring to my step.  When I breathed in deeply it was not just a biological process enabling me to stay alive; I was breathing in the joy of living.  This was my home, the city I loved more than any other I knew, and I was too young to be plagued by the lassitude, the enervation, the cynicism that gripped older men.  Not for me a stifled longing for England, for snow, for fog; this was my home, so that arriving in Singapore was like breaking free from a jail in a cold and inhospitable climate.

Pretty much describes how I felt when I stepped off plane onto the mobile gangway thing at Changi airport.

My portfolio, online

May 8, 2008

I finally pulled my act together and organized the random things I’ve done in the past few years into a portfolio… mmm the word “portfolio” makes me think cobblestone streets, lattes and boundless creativity.