Saturday, October 30, 2010

Amnesia and I

"If you must drink and drive, drink Pepsi."

Author unknown, as seen on a bumper sticker

I woke up this morning lying at the front door of my house; the bottom half of me outside and the upper half in. My head, feeling two sizes too small, was resting on a pillow. My grandmother must have found me there and having failed to rouse me, decided that I might as well be comfortable. The old girl's good at taking things like this in stride.

The last thing I remember was being at a lounge called Home by the Melaka River where Shaki, a homeboy of mine, was celebrating his 25th birthday. I was told to be there at 8:30 pm and arrived ten minutes late to still be the first guest to materialise. So, I dialed Shaki up,

"Why the fuck must you always be on time?" he said, laughing. "Hang on, we are reaching soon."

Only in Malaysia can I get told off for not being late enough. Anyhow, some fellas and I pooled our funds and got him a book which he'd been wanting badly. And yeah, I was the one who introduced him to the original trilogy and got him hooked. The author should really cut me a share of his royalties considering how many people I have gotten to read his books.

The rest of the party was a series of fractured snapshots in my memory bank and I remember laughing too much and generally having a rip-roaring good time knocking back drinks after too many drinks. Then, at some point, my spirit-soaked mind went right off the grid and nothing further registered until I woke up this morning draped across the threshold of my house. After a few phone calls, I managed to piece together the following sequence of events:

An hour before the party concluded, I stopped downing glasses of Scotch. Apparently, I told everyone that that's because I have to drive myself back. Just before I left, someone got a hold of me and asked me if I'm capable of captaining a car on my own. My response was to smile drunkenly roguishly and say, "What do you think?"

Another someone said, "He looks fine. Cut him loose." And cut loose I was. Personally, I don't think many people were in any condition to make sensible judgment calls at that point.

It had started pouring a bit as I was walking to my car. I called my girlfriend up en route because I told her to expect a ring from me after the party ends. It seems that even when I was running on autopilot, I was capable of remembering to do that. She told me that I stayed on the phone the entire time till I reached home base safely. You know what that means right? It meant that I had committed the trifecta of dangerous driving: drunk and talking on the cellphone while it's raining.

Shaki said that their ride caught up with mine just as I was reaching my suburban neighborhood. According to him, I appeared to be driving fine, if a bit slow and unsure. He also said that I did not kill any strays or run any hobos over, and the lack of any bloodstains on my car supports that account. On arrival, Phoebe said I remarked that I wanted to puke and proceeded to do just that because I'm a man of my words ("It sounded disgusting," she said). After my revolting and execrable performance, I purportedly mumbled something unintelligible before hanging up. And then bam! Drunken coma in the doorway.

That's it. I swear I'm never drinking that much ever again.

Irresponsibly liquored twit,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel

"The old man looked up at me. 'Bartimaeus--'
'That's my name,' I said. 'Now, are you going to get up, or shall I come to you?'"

The Ring of Solomon (2010) by Jonathan Stroud

Let's flashback seven weeks ago: remember how I was beside myself in geeky anticipation of an unexpected prequel to the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a series of novels I love? Just last Friday, I walked into the sad excuse of a bookstore we have in small-town Malacca and lo, a trade paperback edition of the book was sitting on the new releases' shelf, lifting the hem of its skirt at me. Considering that I wasn't expecting to see it until possibly early next year, to call it a pleasant surprise would be a gross understatement. I actually gasped when I saw it, and bagged it on the spot. I finished reading it over the weekend with the accompaniment of several Starbucks lattes and now, I'm suffering from some kind of acute literary withdrawal. I feel hollow and irritable. I feel angry at myself for pigging myself out on the new book so quickly, leaving me wanting more so bad.

This spoiler-free review is my way of working it out.

Bartimaeus Ring of Solomon
I shall love it and put a ribbon on it and call it Sally.

The Ring of Solomon is a standalone novel featuring Bartimaeus; the funny, irreverent, charismatic djinni we first encountered in Jonathan Stroud's tremendous (if underrated) contribution to spec fic and children fantasy, the Bartimaeus Trilogy. While the original books were set in an alternate version of London ruled by megalomaniacal, corrupt magicians, The Ring of Solomon turned the hourglass about 3000 years back - back to the time of Solomon the Wise.

For those of you who are counting and are fans of the original novels, that's before Bartimaeus met Ptolemy circa 127 BCE. Needless to say, that's one of the reasons why I was so excited about this prequel; I wanted to know the the demon before the boy.

I consider Bartimaeus one of my top three favourite fictional characters alongside the Batman villain, Joker, and the Raven King from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - and The Ring of Solomon only solidified my opinion of the incorrigibly depraved djinni. Initially, I had reservations about reading one of Barty's many alluded ancient adventures because it might ruin how I imagined his past to be, and a tale writ black and white is rarely superior to the stuff of our imaginations. This new book is one such rare treasure, and I rank it as highly as I rank the first book of the trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand. The book have everything a Barty fan can wish for: a bigger-than-ever serving of Barty's first-person narrative, the historical in-jokes, the laugh-out-loud asides in the footnotes, and the djinni's comical dealings with magicians and other spirits. I sure hope you have at least a passing familiarity with the Bible (or at least the stories about Solomon) because some of the best gags will fly right over your head if you don't.

Nathaniel, who was Bartimaeus master in the events of the trilogy, was the perfect straight man to the djinni's jibes and high jinks. I won't spoil anything but Barty certainly had no shortage of foils in The Ring of Solomon. There's a character here who strongly reminded me of Kitty - a central character in the preceding books - but in the best ways possible. I know how much fans malign Kitty (mostly for stealing screen time away from Barty).

The novel featured an interesting exploration of the concept of slavery, one which I believe was never properly addressed in the antecedent books. You see, in Barty's universe, all magicians gain power by summoning and enslaving beings such as Bartimaeus to do their biddings - which is a dangerous endeavour for the magicians and an abusive contract for the bonded spirits. The Ring of Solomon extended the theme to ideas of loyalty to one's ruler, nation, duty, ideals and beliefs. I can always appreciate a book which is able to open up new avenues of thought for me.

One of the most triumphant successes of The Ring of Solomon is its entrancing re-imagination of Old Testament Israel as a kingdom ruled by magicians. Likewise, one of the most enjoyable elements in the original trilogy is the invention of Gladstone's London where the royal family was deposed while a Parliament of politician-magicians run a dystopian country at the cusp of decadence and the brink of revolution. The author, Jonathan Stroud, managed to do it again with Solomon's Jerusalem without rehashing his previous ideas. I'm completely behind the man if he's planning more books detailing Barty's epic escapades in ancient Sumer as Gilgamesh's spear-bearer or his long and illustrious career in ye olde Egypt. And I certainly won't say no to reading about his time in service to Scipio Aemillianus Africanus (when he witnessed the fall of Carthage), 13th century China (where he and the djinni Faquarl assassinated Genghis Khan using poisoned grapes) or imperial Prague before it was conquered by Gladstone. Apparently, Bartimaeus was also present at the Battle of Persepolis where Alexander the Great - my personal hero - defeated Darius, so I'm holding out for this one in particular.

Just to draw this glowing, gushing review to a close: The Ring of Solomon is a surefire hit with fans of the first three books and being a standalone work, it is going to delight new readers as well. With luck, it will inflate the djinni's following even more. Hopefully, with an increasing number of people clamouring to read about Barty's adventures, Mr Stroud will get to working on more books to add to the mythology. Everybody wins!

Now if you'll excuse me, I got a book to re-read.

P.S. There is one plot point in The Ring of Solomon which nearly ruined the story for me but considering how awesome the rest of the book was, I was willing to overlook it. If you're curious and have already read the novel, highlight within brackets to reveal: [It's Bartimaeus' use of the titular ring to defeat the marid Ammet - after it was explicitly and repeatedly implied that such a stunt would tear the djinni's essence apart. I nearly threw the book across the room with great force at Stroud's complete disregard of the stakes he had set up in the story]

Wants his own fourth level djinni,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Clearly, I'm the Better Man

"Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

Matthew 7:5

One of the few good things in the Bible. It's from the famous "judge not, that ye be not judged" bit.

First, I would like to state that I am in no way affiliated with the Texas Aggie Conservatives, the organisation which circulated the pamphlets below, and I certainly do not necessarily agree with their conclusions about Islam. I have, however, checked the Qur'anic and hadith quotes they used and confirmed that Islamic teachings were not grossly misrepresented by them though I suspect that they have not actually read the scriptures themselves. For example, if they were genuinely familiar with the Qur'an, they would also know that 4:34 also talks about denying sex to and beating disobedient wives - that's a really conspicuous omission in their reference of the verse. I also dislike the factoids about honour killing and female genital mutilation because they are more cultural practices than they are actual Islamic ones. There are far more juicier and accurate examples of um, "gender inequality" in the Religion of Submission that they could have used, is what I'm trying to get at.

Oh, no, I'm definitely not criticising the practices and teachings of Islam here. Islam is always right. Islam is the super best religion in the world, hokay? I repeat: these are not my pamphlets,

Aggies Pamphlet 1
In some parts of the world, the "face" consists only of the eyes and the bridge of the nose.
The mouth and chin is presumably part of the neck.

Aggies Pamphlet 2
Stoning, what a rock-and-roll way to die.

Took all that in? Good.

The reason why I write far more about Christianity in comparison to Islam in my weblog here is because many Christians are frequently hypocrites who pretend that their faith is so much more wholesome compared to everyone else's and the Texas Aggie Conservatives is one of the worst species of Christian hypocrites there is - also, (a) Islam already has pretty bad PR (b) I just happen to know the Bible better than the Qur'an, and (c) I don't want to die. Christianity is hardly the bastion of women's liberation in the Church's long and malignant history, and in many aspects, the Biblical treatment of women is often worse than the Qur'an's.

The flyers are also laughable because a lot of their admittedly justified denunciations of Islam can easily be reversed onto the circulators' own Jesus cult. There are numerous references in the Bible to how men are created superior to woman and should have authority over the physically inferior sex. And many supposedly holy and righteous men in the Bible are frequently polygamists as well. In fact in Leviticus, God explicitly said that the market price of women are only about half the worth of men in shekels.

Bible versus Qur'an on Feminism
The issue is basically this.

Consider these Biblical verses,

  • "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" - Genesis 3:16. God on how women deserve to be miserable, to suffer in childbirth and to be subjugated by men.
  • "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's" - Exodus 20:17. God says that a man's wife is his property, much like livestock in the Ten Commandments. This is reaffirmed in Deuteronomy 5:21.
  • "And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even. And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean. And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. And whosoever toucheth any thing that she sat upon shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even, et cetera, et cetera..." - Leviticus 15:19-33. God talking about how menstruating women are dirty, icky and full of cooties.
  • "If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you." - Deuteronomy 22:23-24. God says that a woman who got raped in the city and did not cry for help loud enough needs to be fucking stoned to death.
  • "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days." - Deuteronomy 22:28-29. God commands that if you rape a virgin, you get to marry her so long as you pay some cash.
  • "And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life." - Matthew 19:29. Jesus says that he will reward you if you ditch your wife (and everyone else) in his name. Luke agrees in 18:29-30.
  • "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." - 1 Corinthians 11:3. Women should be subordinate to men the same way that men are subordinate to the Son of God™.
  • "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." 1 Corinthians 34-35. Women are not allowed to speak in church.
  • "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." 1 Timothy 2:11-12. In other words, women aren't allowed to teach men and generally need to shut the fuck up 'cause men are the boss of them.
And that's just the scum floating on the surface of the basin of dirty dishwater we call Christianity. There's far too many examples of misogyny and mistreatment of women in the Good Book for me to list here. It boggles my mind that any woman would even contemplate being a Christian (or staying one) considering how inherently abusive and unfair the belief system is towards their gender. And I say the same about all the intrinsically misogynistic and patriarchal religions in the world, Abrahamic or otherwise.

Dismiss all these pharisaical squabbles between pious pots and zealous kettles about how their own faith degrades women less in comparison to other faiths - they are, in essence, all of one colour. I am an atheist and when I say that I believe men and women are equal, you know that I am telling the truth.

That's because I am better than them.

P.S. In fact, I am better than even my lapsed Presbyterian girlfriend who thinks that women are naturally malicious and are inferior to men, and that they deserve everything they get and then some. She never made it clear if she was joking or not.

P.P.S. I know that a conservative does not a Christian make (and vice versa) but according to this 2009 Public Religion Research Institute poll, US conservative activists are "almost exclusively Christian".

A godless male feminist,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Losing the Battle for My Soul

"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be."

Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819)
by William Hazlitt

Two fingers' breadth above the xiphisternum. Place heel of one hand and interlock fingers. Arms straight. Pressure two inches deep. One hundred compressions a minute.

I positioned myself beside and over the old woman with my hands on her breastbone. With my waist as the fulcrum, I levered my weight onto her heart. The idea was to squeeze the blood out of her non-beating heart into her system to keep her organs - her brain, in particular - awash with whatever little oxygen we can feed into the lungs. The idea was to do it for as long as necessary.

Let's backtrack a little. She had no pulse. For a short moment, the cardiac monitor showed her heart flickering between ventricular tachycardia and asystole before it decided on flatlining persistently. A house officer zoned out for a second, stared at the brilliantly green horizontal axis and then said, almost with robotic disinterest: "Asystole. Start CPR now."

It's not like in television when all personnel manning a hospital's casualty unit would snap to immediate attention and swarm around a dying patient in an excited bid to save a life. Reality is a far more sedate affair. No one ran - they walked briskly. One house officer produced a bag valve mask and started pumping air through the old woman's airway. Another house officer, in his second day there, appeared a little undecided on what he should be doing. I can identify: it was only the second day of my A&E posting too, but as a medical student.

"What are you waiting for? Start chest compressions," a colleague of his chided, and he obeyed. There's no panic, which was good. There's no sense of urgency either, which was unsettling. I suppose that that's only natural. In the emergency department, emergencies are routine.

"I'm tired," said the house officer, smiling sheepishly after performing five minutes of rapid and furious calisthenics on the old woman. He met my eyes. "Hey, med student. Wanna take over? Put on some gloves." I did. And that was how I ended up helping to keep a geriatric in her 70's hang on to the tatters of her ghost.

Two fingers' breadth above the xiphisternum. Place heel of one hand and interlock fingers. Arms straight. Pressure two inches deep. One hundred compressions a minute.

I felt sweat beading on my forehead and under my shirt in the chilly, air-conditioned resuscitation zone - it was hard work maintaining the rhythm and pressure, to be sure. As the minutes trickled by, I took to thinking more and more that the human being under my hands was a CPR practice dummy. It occurred to me at that time that it's pretty hard to tell if a person's really dead. Sure, I understand death in theory but on an emotional level, when I personally created and held every beat of the old woman's heart in my own two hands, the distinction became a lot less clear. Was I helping a person stay alive or was I making a corpse appear alive? Five minutes passed without my notice before I was asked to step down and another newly recruited med student was put on the case. We took turns.

"Just another fifteen minutes," said a house officer, checking the clock on the wall and writing in some case sheets. It was a countdown. It was admitting that there's nothing further which we could do besides maintaining her body a little longer for her, just in case she decides to come back. There's an empty spot in the room which optimism usually occupies, but not today.

Arms straight. Pressure two inches deep. One hundred compressions a minute.

"Alright, stop," someone told me, but I can't remember who. I promptly let her go and was surprised at how ridiculously easy it is to do so. I just let a human life go. Wow. I snapped my surgical gloves off and began washing my hands at the sink. Someone opened the double doors and walked outside.

"We did our best. Come in and see her one last time,"
I overheard him say his rehearsed lines. "Come in one at a time."

Unbeknownst to me, there were at least twenty kinspeople of the recently departed who have been waiting in the exterior the entire time. They filed in solemnly wearing various states of grief. Some remained stoic. Some were crying. There were looks of disbelief, defeat and confusion. For them, what transpired in the past several hours - hidden from their view - was certainly outside of routine. As I dried my hands, I watched as they surrounded what's left of their beloved matriarch and perhaps wondered as I had, how diminished a person looks after she had left her broken shell behind. "Ma... ma..." one or two of the women called feebly and mechanically because they have ran out of rational responses for what was laid before their eyes. A weeping grandchild asked her grandmother to wake up, but no one told her she's being naive or stupid.

I walked into the adjoining yellow zone, separated by some screens. Every once in awhile, the heart monitor gives out an orphaned beep - residual effects of adrenaline in her system. I imagined that it could easily be misinterpreted by someone unschooled in the science of medicine as a sign of life. "Shouldn't they have unplugged everything? Make her more presentable before letting the family see her?" a colleague of mine wondered out loud but out of earshot. Another colleague of mine, a girl who was helping with the bag valve mask, was visibly shaken and was crying. I think it was the first time someone died in her hands. Died. Poof. Just like that. It was the first time someone literally died in my hands too - but I was so detached I was barely there. Analyse and rationalise. Empathise, but not too much.

The doctors, nurses and medical assistants left the little clan alone to grieve and with pragmatic indifference, continued to function and man the casualty machinery - because someone's got to do it. The cries, the sniffles, the halfhearted conversations with the dead in the next room were relegated to background noise. Other patients required attention. Forms and case notes needed filling. Blood needed to be taken and sent. And someone dying in the department necessitates its own slew of paperwork, I'm sure. Being human is not a luxury that a person working in medicine can freely afford to indulge in.

It's a lesson I need to learn and a sacrifice I am expected to make. It's a job that requires me to be more than human to perform. Or less of a human. The distinction was never made clear to me.

Ever so slightly hollower,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reality is a Majority Vote

"Have you ever felt like you're the only sane person in the world," I asked her right out of the wild blue yonder. "Like everyone else is crazy?"

There are questions and there are surprises. She was surprised. We were just colleagues, acquaintances sitting in the same car because circumstance put us there - not choice. It's understandable.

"Um," she hesitated. "Never thought about it. Don't think so."

"Oh," I said. That's a personal watchword of mine. Oh. It's brief. It's meaningless. It feels round in my mouth. It means I have a lot of things to say which I don't think I should be saying. Oh reminds me to kill conversations when they stray out of the comfort of banality and start liaising with socially unacceptable weirdness.

Do you know that we have no direct access to reality? Our senses - our sight, hearing, our faculties of smell, taste and touch - gather data about reality. Not of reality, mind you. About reality. Then, with the help of all these information, we reconstruct an approximation of reality in our brains. Look around you right now - it's all a reproduction. The closer this model resembles the real world, the saner we are measurably. The reverse is true. Our personal subjective realities are just interpretations.

"Have you ever thought that you're the only sane person in the world - and everyone else is mad?"
I asked a lot of people this question, usually at random. Always, I got reports that the world is well and level. The world, diagnostically, is overwhelmingly healthy in mind and spirit.

I ask because every single day, every hour within those days, down to every last second within those hours; I am haunted by this uncanny sensation I can't shake off that every single person on Earth - except me - is insane.

It's driving me nuts.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Buried: A Review

"... it was they who had buried me as a dog - nailed up in some common coffin - and thrust deep, deep, and for ever, into some ordinary and nameless grave."

The Premature Burial (1884) by Edgar Allan Poe

Buried Poster
Why can't more movie posters be like this?

I remember staying up in bed late at night as a kid after reading about the accounts of people who were accidentally buried alive back when the science of medicine was still an infant and lacked the sophistication to distinguish the deathly from the dead. There I was, lying on my bed, alone, in the dark and enclosed within the ceiling, the floor and the four walls of my bedroom, I contemplated the horror of finding oneself waking up in a coffin several feet beneath the crushing weight of dirt. Death is merciful when it's quick. Death is cruel when it allows you the time to acquaint yourself with the gravity of the situation: one in which you are inhumed in a box in the belly of the earth and there's nothing you can do to save yourself. Even if you scream till your vocal chords snap. Even if you claw at your prison till you rip your nails out of their bloody roots.

Buried is a film built around the premise of a man being buried alive. The entirety of the film takes place within the confines of a makeshift coffin, underground. There's no cuts to the outside world, not even in flashbacks. Ryan Reynolds is Paul Conroy, and he's the only character you'll see on screen. The film's running time is an hour and a half. Let all that sink into your mind for a sec.

In defiance of common sense, Buried turned out to be far more interesting and exciting than I thought it's restrictive and claustrophobic premise would allow it to be. Interred with Paul Conroy is a cellphone, and that's the complete extent of his access to the outside world. What would you do if you are in Conroy's horrifying predicament? Who would you call?

The film sought not only to tell the story of a man who is buried alive; it replicates the experience of being buried alive. We are stuck in that box with Conroy. He talks to people topside through the phone and they tell him what's happening above ground - but he had absolutely no idea if everything he's told is really the truth; an uncertainty we are forced to share with him. The movie plays a bit like a mystery as we slowly discover who Paul Conroy really is, how he came to be trapped by who and at where, and why.

The plot of Buried inherently invites the question: Will he escape? But I'm not the sort of person who cares about that terribly. The question which I find more engrossing is how he plans to do it.

I entered my screening and found, to my pleasant surprise, that the theatre was almost completely filled. I thought that it's a miracle that a film such as this could manage to get a wide release - and I consider it an even greater miracle that our local Malaysian cinemas would pick up such an unconventional film to screen. A near full-house of Malaysian moviegoers for Buried? There must be some sort of misunderstanding here, Mr Reality, sir.

As it turned out, there was a misunderstanding after all - a big one. Two fat Chinese girls beside me got progressively more and more frustrated as they slowly came to the realisation that the camera was never going to leave the coffin and all they would get are more closeups of Ryan Reynold's sweaty face. I had to shush them because their Mandarin complaints were fraying my nerves. Eventually, they lifted their fat asses from their seats midway through, declared that the movie was "retarded" and walked out, good fucking riddance. And it's not just that two philistines either - a low, continuous murmur of disapproval and derision prevailed in all corners. It ruined a lot of the quieter, more reflective moments of the film designed to let the implication of the character's situation hit home. Like I said earlier, the most distressing thing about being entombed alive is that it gives you time to think about it, and their bitching was ruining the experience for me. I almost stood up screaming: "Either shut the fuck up or get the fuck out if you hate this movie so much!"

This is a film about a guy being buried alive. The film's name is Buried. Just what the fuck did they expect to see? My girlfriend helpfully offered, "Maybe they expected Ryan Reynolds to get out in 5 minutes and kick serious ass, like the Bride did in Kill Bill."

I went in knowing full well what I was in for, and I got far more out of this film than I foresaw. The suspense never lets up but yet, it did not feel exhausting. The pacing is deliberate, picking up at times to highlight the crisis of time running out and slowing down when it needs to massage the essence of a moment into your head. There are scenes of genuine wit and humour. There are also scenes of thrilling, bona fide action, if you can believe it. At its core is a great story which meditates deeply into the poorly-lit labyrinth of human nature. There are revelations so devastating that they will haunt you long after you left the dark. And all of it is contained inside a coffin, deep beneath the ground.

It's one neat package, is what I'm saying. It's one of the neatest packages I've seen all year.

P.S. The ending was brilliant. Loved it!

buried rave reviews poster
If I had a penny for every time I saw a psychological thriller being compared to Hitchcock...

Shared a coffin with Ryan Reynolds,
k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Studying the Atheistic Animal

"The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike."

Delos B. McKown

I recently joined a Facebook group called MAFA, which is an acronym for Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers and Agnostics which, at present time, boasts a measly 400-weak membership. The obsessive in me wishes that it spells MAAF (Malay for "sorry") instead even if there's really nothing we should feel apologetic about - it's at least a real word. But we can't always get what we want, right? How about FAHAM (Malay for "understand"), standing in for Freethinkers, Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics of Malaysia? I must remember to bring this up some day.

The week's not even out and I've already fallen into an argument with two other atheists with me
defending the agnostic position when I'm not even an agnostic myselfaddendum, see below. I guess we godless types are just a bicker-some, argumentative lot. I often thought that our strength lies in our diversity of ideas and our courage in voicing them rather than in the solidarity of thought anyway.

Seeing how outnumbered we are in a country so stuck up the butthole of religiousity as deeply religious as Malaysia, learning about where we stand in the demography of the world is of especial interest to me. I'll briefly discuss two studies in particular which in many ways, confirm what I already suspect. Please remember that I neither conducted nor participated in these studies - the numbers were not pulled out of my ass. I am merely conveying the data to you.

Atheists and Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious People.

Take this recent study published a couple of weeks ago by the researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, for example. What they did was dial 3400 Americans and quizzed them using 32 questions pertaining to the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life. As it turns out, the most knowledgeable people on the subject are - would you believe - atheists and agnostics!

Pew Forum Chart
One way to look at it is that we just enjoy being right.

The fact that atheists and agnostics would be more conversant than religious people on things they either have no interest in or outright disdain might be counter-intuitive to a lot of people, but if you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. I cannot speak for other godless people but my attainment of an atheistic worldview was purely accidental; a byproduct of trying to learn more and wanting to convert into one of the Abrahamic monotheisms, either Christianity or Islam. You see, the more one learns about religion, history and comparative theology, the easier it is to see that the whole "God" thing isn't a very intellectually tenable position to hold. After awhile, all religious people starts to appear alike: each one jealously hugging his or her collection of ridiculous superstitions close to heart while shrilly declaring that everyone else's collection of ridiculous superstitions to be fake or stupid.

To quote Dave Silverman, el presidente of the American Atheists: "I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists"

True enough - that's how I was made. Besides, it's also easier to win arguments against the faithful when you know as much as (or even more than) them about their religion, and I do so enjoy beating people at their own game. Just for a bit of anecdotal fun: I was arguing with a Catholic colleague awhile back over something within the Christian scriptures. At one point, I confronted him directly with the question: "Do you even know what's in the Bible?" He promptly admitted that he had never read the book.

Most Scientists Disbelieve or Doubt the Existence of God.

I wanted to write the subhead as "Atheists and Agnostics are Smarter than Religious People" and describe Helmuth Nyborg and Richard Lynn's 2008 paper which found a "highly statistically significant" correlation between atheism rates and level of intelligence in the 137 countries surveyed and that atheists score 6 g-IQ points higher on average than those adhering to a religion from a study of 6825 American adolescents - but that's just oh-so masturbatory even if its oh-so flatteringly true.

Instead, I'd like to talk about a landmark survey performed in 1914 and 1933 by eminent US psychologist James H. Leuba on the prevalence of religious belief amongst men of science. Nature, one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, repeated Leuba's study in 1998. Can you guess what numbers they came up with?

Leuba and Nature
Newsflash: Very smart people thinks belief in personal God is rubbish.

So yeah.

Just so we can all be clear here, the Leuba's pool of
"greater scientists" was based off the designations in the standard reference work, American Men of Science (AMS). Nature's collection of "greater scientists" were members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which supposedly is an even more elite sample compared to Leuba's. What they discovered was that 93% of these "greater scientists" either disbelieve or doubts the existence of a personal God. When you consider that in the American general public at large (as surveyed by ARIS in 2009), only 15% considers themselves to have no religion, that discrepancy can be quite the shocker. We have known for a long time now that learned men of science tend fall more on the godless end on the spectrum of belief in comparison to the average person on the street - after all, our two most recognisable icons of human intelligence, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, both reject the notion of a personal god. What I did not expect to see is that only 7% of America's foremost scientists hold some kind of religious belief.

There's two main ways we can interpret the data. The first is that atheists and agnostics tend to gravitate towards finding naturalistic explanations for everything, and are more likely to have a career in science. The second (and I think likelier) interpretation is: the more a person understands how our world really works, the higher the chance there is that that person will reject the agency of supernatural beings in natural phenomenons. Remember people, scientists are the folks we rely on to describe reality and the universe to us. I'd sooner trust them than trust some old books written by ancient desert nomads who (gasp!) heard voices in their heads and thought that the sun revolves around the earth, wouldn't you?


The data and statistics are sound but I must caution both my godless and godly readers alike to be very careful in making any conjectures. Correlation does not automatically prove a causal relationship. We can't assert conclusively that smart people are drawn towards godlessness while dumb people are drawn to religion - neither can we say that holding an atheistic or agnostic position can make someone more intelligent while faith turns brains into mush. The only thing we can say for sure is that the godless, on average, knows more about religion than religious people. We can also say that the more intelligent a person is, the higher the likelihood it is that he or she will dismiss - or at least doubt - the existence of God.

Also, if you're looking to kill a lot of godless people at once, it's safe to say that blowing up a university, a research institute or a scientific symposium will probably guarantee a good haul. Statistically speaking, of course.

P.S. Alright, before any one can quote Stephen Hawking, let me just do it first. Someone asked the guy what his IQ is and Hawking bluntly replied: "I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers." That being said, I personally don't know what my IQ is either.

Addendum: I'm an agnostic now. It turns out that I'm really an agnostic atheist all this time. Agnosticism is not the middle ground between atheism and theism, apparently. The latter two deals with the question of beliefs while the former deals with the nature (and limits) of knowledge. So now I'm really defending the agnostic position as an agnostic.

Statistically likely to be smarter than average,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, October 10, 2010

To Quest Maxwell Hill

"You are the risk I'll always take"

I'll Hold My Breath (2010) by Ellie Goulding

How do you know if your girlfriend loves you?

Easy. Make her accompany you on a 18-kilometre hike up and down a hill in the wilderness and if she's still sticking around after that, she does. Oh boy, does she ever. I could have been imagining it but at times when I was walking ahead of her in our climb, I could feel her murderous intent (of love!) burning a spot on the nape of my neck.

MH Long Way to Go
The cold shoulders (of love!) from the girlfriend.

It was September, when the rainy Southwest monsoon was still blowing. For some reason, I thought that it was the perfect time to go on a nature walk to visit a hill station in Taiping - and Taiping, if you don't know, is widely considered to be the wettest town in the whole of Peninsular Malaysia. Pay attention to the information I just divulged to you. This, my friend, is called foreshadowing.

Maxwell Hill or Bukit Larut is probably the least known hill station in the entire country and it was locked out of development for decades. I have difficulty in deciding whether that was through design or neglect but the result is that the place retains a locus-lost-in-time charm and an atmosphere of rustic alienation, slightly overgrown. At the foothills, there's a government run office making hourly jeep runs to the peak which would have cost us a measly RM 6.00 a pop, return. Privately owned vehicles are not authorised from making the ascent - which is probably for the best considering the steep incline, the narrow road and the several hundreds of hair-raising, hairpin turns. Aside from the jeeps, the only other way to get up there is to hoof it.

Phoebe looked me in the eyes beseechingly, turned to look at the jeeps longingly and then turned back at me again. I grinned and gave her a thumbs up enthusiastically in reply, saying "We can do it! The exercise is good for us!"

She stared at the immensity of the hillside wearing a sort of strangled expression for a minute. Taking a deep breath, she asked: "Can we take the jeep down then afterwards?"

"Of course!" I lied.

MH Falls
Water falling down a waterfall into a crystal-clear rock pool. This is also a foreshadowing.

The park ranger told us that our feet should expect anywhere between 3 to 5 hours of punishment, depending on how fit we were. I'm a big fan of walking and I hit the stairs whenever I can. Phoebe is also a big fan of walking so long as it's performed entirely within the air-conditioned confines of a mall, and considers stairs to be relics of the past which should have been driven to obsolescence long ago by the advent of escalators and elevators. Maxwell Hill towered at more than 1000-metres into the clouds (which by the way is as high as the Cameron Highlands) and Phoebe clearly wasn't enjoying herself in our attempt to conquer it on our soles. After putting just the first two kilometres behind us, she started slowing down to a molluscan pace, wishing out loud for us to turn back and take a jeep. Every twenty minutes or so, she would stop completely, pronouncing dramatically "I'm DYING!" and "I'm... really dying... not kidding..."

That Phoebe. What a joker, eh?

Then there's the bugs, of course, and I don't think I need to explain just how much she adores the little motherfuckers,

MH Weird Fucking Spider
I don't know. It's either a spider of the Gasteracantha genus or some unholy horror from the deepest bowels of hell.

There was even a point when she was attacked by three butterflies. This is not a joke. Three scaly-winged critters flew out of nowhere and decided that the airspace around Phoebe's head is the best possible place for them to flutter about in some sort of threesome mating dance ritual. I wish I caught her on video now. Her terrified shrieks and panicked flailing of umbrella at three harmless butterflies was one of the most absurd things I have ever seen her do.

As we slowly gained altitude, the air began to cool perceptibly. I checked if the crisp mountain air had improved the girlfriend's mood and she told me, "If I want cold air, I'd turn the air-conditioner in my bedroom on."

Still, we beat the odds somehow and managed to make it topside under 4 hours,

MH Triple-Storey Gazebo
Some triple-storeyed gazebo that's falling apart - which meant that I have to climb it at all cost, of course.

MH Bee
Bees. Of course, there are bees.

MH Weird Yellow Flower
Unidentified Floral Object #1.

MH Bells
Unidentified Floral Object #2.

MH Purple Flowers
Unidentified Floral Object #3

MH Sign
Weee are the chaaampions, my friends/And weee'll keep on fightiiin' till the end...

MH View
Check out the panorama.

At the jeep-stop, we met a jeep driver and made arrangements to hitch his ride back down at 4:00 pm, which is the final run of the day. The bloke and us parted ways after that - he was off to pick up some tourists littered all around the hilltop while Phoebs and I pottered around a bit.

At about 3:40 pm, the same jeep driver drove by us with a car-ful of sightseers. He slowed down a notch, rolled down his window and asked in Malay, "Nak turun?" That meant, "Wanna go down?" in English.

"YEAH!" I told him.

"Okay!" he cheerily replied and blew exhaust in our faces as he drove further and further away, leaving us holding a nice mix-bag of feelings. Bewilderment was one of them. Sudden paralytic apprehension was another.

"Um, maybe he wanted us to board at the jeep-stop?" I ventured uncertainly. Operating on that assumption, we started to walk briskly back to where we met the man in the first place. While we were on our way, it started raining in torrents down on our little unprotected mountainside, I shit you not, and Phoebs' tiny blue umbrella and makeshift butterfly cudgel offered scant shelter from meteorological vengeance of the unforgiving Southwest monsoon.

Eventually, we got to the stop in one, not-too-soggy piece but found no jeep there.

"Maybe, he's coming back after he dropped those other people off. It's not 4:00 pm yet after all," I said none too optimistically. So we waited there quietly as the rain grew in strength and ferocity all around us, drowning us in a sea of mist and silhouettes. The cold began lulling Phoebs into a fatigued sleep and she laid her head on my shoulder, her eyes closed and fast. Oh, the poor dear. "Long-suffering" does not even begin to describe her.

MH Rain

When it got to about a quarter past four, it became quite evident to us that absolutely no one was coming to rescue us from that isolated, people-less hilltop miles away from civilisation. The deluge showed no sign of letting up and dusk was on a rapid approach. Colour me a pessimist but I don't think being stranded overnight on Maxwell Hill without food or warm clothes is going to improve the girlfriend's disposition.

"We got to walk downhill," said I, bearer of bad news extraordinaire.

"I knew it! I knew it! We have to walk all the way down again?" The look of disappointment on her face would break your heart.


"In this rain?"


"And it's getting dark, am I right?"

I sighed deeply and answered in the affirmative.

"Then no one will see or hear me do THIS!" she snarled.

As quick as lightning, the girlfriend seized me by the throat and started choking the life out of me with her bare white-knuckled hands. I struggled to draw breath but her thumbs have collapsed my windpipe. The last thing I saw was her bloodshot eyes and her nostrils flaring like the Minotaur's, her breaths misting angrily in the chilly air. I kicked once, twice and then kicked no more. Wailing in anguish like a banshee after biting down on a chili pepper charting a million heat units on the Scoville scale, she lifted my limp, lifeless body over her head and threw it down the mountain, watching remorselessly as I tumbled like a ragdoll against rocks and trees, painting them black with my blood and white with my brains.

And that's the end of me and the end of the story.

MH Big Trees
My body is just out of sight, down the side in a ditch.

P.S. Anyway, one third of the way down, we met this lone barefooted and shirtless fat guy in his twenties heading to the summit. He had his waterlogged sneakers around his neck, his wet T-shirt in one hand and was carrying a huge backpack - probably filled with the essentials of a couple of days' stay. My guess is that he must have rented one of those cheap bungalows littering the top of Maxwell Hill. "Am I reaching there yet?" he asked, almost pleading. I told him that he's looking at another hour or more of climbing. He groaned.

P.P.S. Phoebe ended up walking funny for like a week.

Dead and rotting,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Cheque, Mate

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

Oscar Wilde

Ah, my favourite Victorian wiseacre.

I got mail,

Nuffnang Cheque
My real name is Kok Sen Wai. I know, shocking right?

It's a very modest amount, I know; I'm not one of those blog-for-loot hacks. I started this site more than 3 years ago for the sole purpose of sharpening my proficiency with the pen. Owning a functioning journal I can read years from now and meeting great people are just benefits collateral to that, as are the occasional wads of free money from renting out ad spaces. I said "free money" because even if I did not get paid I wouldn't have written this blog any other way

The last time something like this happened was in April earlier this year when I picked up like 300 bucks right off the ground, finger snap.

One thing you may not know is that I once took an oath promising that I would always write truthfully here in this blog, no matter the subject. This, my lovelies, is called integrity and I like to think I have a lot of it. This is why I don't write advertorials; I refuse to have the honesty of my opinions sullied. I want people to know that when I consider something to be awesome or when I heap big, steaming piles of condemnations on something awful, my readers can trust that they are my own sincere (if exceedingly biased) appraisements. I could have earned at least US$ 400 (about RM 1200, methinks) just this year for like a couple of hours' work, but I have chosen instead to decline all comers all because they require me to oh, I don't know - lie through my fucking teeth? Maybe one day, I'll kick myself in the seat of my pants for this but right now, I kinda enjoy being an insufferable idealist and feeling superior to everyone else who have turned into shills for soul-less consumerism.

Of course, had they come to me with products I actually like, I would have pocketed the cake and eaten it too. Alas, alack.

You know what would kick ass? Some publication paying me to review or write about films; which I can totally do without using any cuss-words, easy. I follow film production news from script to screen religiously on my own volition and I have more than a passing familiarity with both contemporary and classical literature, comics and video games (which are the sources of most movies these days) as well as a pretty good working knowledge of pop culture, if I may say so myself. And I can write well enough to hold a reader's interest, sort of (I held yours this far, didn't I?). All that puts me a head above most film critics writing professionally in Malaysia, a lot of which are journos who got pigeonholed into a media niche they aren't crazily passionate about. This is pure speculation on my part, of course. What I can say for sure, however, is that most film reviews I read in print hereabouts are rubbish.

And nope, I have never tried selling myself to any publications. I have always imagined that they would beat a path to my door someday. I've got all my path-beating tools out there in the garden by the way, in case anyone needs to borrow them.

I'm just rambling, really. Point is, I received money for doing absolutely nothing and I like it. C'est tout.

Ever so slightly richer,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole: A Review

"There's nothing wrong with dreams."

Soren in The Legend of the Guardians:
The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

I am a fan of Zack Snyder's style-above-substance sensibility in filmmaking. There's just something refreshingly dependable about an auteur who seems to never cease asking himself, "How can I blow minds with this," instead of worrying his head over what big concept he's trying to sell. The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is another solid entry into Mr Snyder's canon of work, and I have already seen it twice.

The books it was based on has the far more compact name of The Guardians of Ga'Hoole, and it was originally what the film was called before (I presume) some nitwitted studio exec happened by and thought it needed to sound as stupid as Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Go figure. So for everyone's convenience, I shall refer to the film simply as Ga'Hoole from this point on.

Ga'Hoole King
If your mind is going "Aww, so cute," you're in for a surprise.

Critics are polarised and are quite neatly split down in the middle in their opinions regarding Zack Snyder's maiden foray into a fully animated venture (as opposed to his other mostly animated features) but from what I can tell, the average moviegoers liked it and sometimes a lot. I understand the criticisms levelled against it and I fully agree that at its core, the film is just a standard-issue high fantasy epic told in the grand tradition of The Hero's Journey.

But with owls. Non-anthropomorphic owls. The closest example in fiction I can think of is Richard Adams' high fantasy epic novel, Watership Down, which stars non-anthropomorphic rabbits (waaay better than it sounds, by the way). The plot of Ga'Hoole offers little fodder for discussion, so I will avoid doing so. I'll focus instead on the reasons why you should see this movie,

1. It Looks Gorgeous.

Ga'Hoole The Tree and Lanterns
No kidding.

The story is set on continental Australia, judging from the presence of indigenous Australian species such Tasmanian devils and echidnas. From the stark but picturesque mountains where the bad guys hide out at to the breathtaking great Ga'Hoole tree on an island out at sea sheltering the titular Guardians and their people, the sights this film offers are near pornographic. The attention to details which the animators paid really shows, especially in depicting the kinetics of the owls' flight. I'm no ornithologist but it sure looked convincing even in slo-mo (and there's an obscene amount of slow motion in Ga'Hoole, this being a Zack Snyder film we're talking about after all). The protagonist's airborne acrobatics through a rainstorm out at sea and later, through a raging bushfire are the highlights.

2. The Fight Scenes are Awesome! The Owls are Bad Ass!

Ga'Hoole Aerial Battle
Beaks! Will! Drop!

While it's definitely not on the level of Watership Down which somehow managed to turn cute, cuddly non-anthropomorphic rabbits into awe-inspiring bad asses, Ga'Hoole managed to elevate the most adorable of predatory birds - the owls - into convincing players in yet another eternal struggle between good and evil. This is nature red in beak and claw compounded with cruel, ripping steel claw-extensions and sabres. The aerial combats are magnificent sights to behold indeed. Say what you will about Snyder's signature style of speed-ramped fight sequences, but I appreciate being able to see every slash, kick and wing beat in bullet time. It's what stopped this film's most exciting moments from turning into confusing flurries of feathers in mid air, if you ask me.

3. The Owls are Cute.

Ga'Hoole Eglantine
Here's a thousand words for you.

We are talking about birds with faces as round as the moon with eyes as big as saucers here - after penguins, you'd be hard-pressed to find another order of bird cuter. It's a bonus that the animation studio that made Ga'Hoole were the same guys who also brought you tap-dancing penguins in Happy Feet.

4. Geoffrey Rush.

Ga'Hoole Soren and Ezylryb
Our wide-eyed idealist hero, Soren, with his Obi Wan, Ezylryb.

The voice cast is star-studded with names as big as Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith, Elrond, Megatron) playing two characters, Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant from Jurassic Park), Helen Mirren and David Wenham (LOTR's Faramir and 300's Dilios) who's in a role you'll never guess him in but you're welcome to try while watching the film. And Geoffrey Rush - Captain Barbarossa himself - stole the entire film as Ezylryb, the eccentric screech-owl mentor figure who took Soren under his wing as a student.

Ezylryb gets my vote as the most heroic character I've seen in a film this year (so far). Some of the things he said or did made the feathers on the back of my neck stand on ends. It's because of him that I'm dying to get my hands on the Guardians of Ga'Hoole novels. I want to see if his ink and paper counterpart proves to be even half as awesome as he is.

5. The Villains are Easy to Hate.

Ga'Hoole Baddies
Metalbeak and Nyra voiced by Joel Edgerton and Helen Mirren respectively.

The bad guys in the movie is an amalgam of two separate factions in the books - the St. Aegolious Academy for Orphaned Owls and the Pure Ones - and they are basically feathered Nazis under the command of Nyra and Metalbeak; the latter having a villainous, electronically-enhanced baritone to rival James Earl Jones'. They even have their own Hitler Youth.

In Summary.

This movie is not perfect. The running time of 90 minutes scarcely did the richness of the books' mythology justice, and I'm speaking as someone who have yet to read the books here. There are parts which were obviously rushed; the protagonists' journey to Ga'Hoole and their time spent there learning the different owl-arts à la Hogwarts for example. On the upside however, all that proved to be incentives for me to check out the source material. The film will find the books a whole new boatload of fans, I'm sure.

When compared to Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon, it cannot be disputed that Ga'Hoole is an inferior movie obviously targeted at a younger audience (yes, kids like violent, brutal fights in their movies) with comic relief moments intended for that age group. On the other wing, there are also surprisingly mature scenes such as when Ezylryb waxes philosophical on the reality of warfare, the nature of heroes and what doing the right thing means.

So, if you like vanilla-flavoured epic fantasies with a new twist or if amazing fight choreography in bullet time tickles your gizzards (or if you're simply just a fan of Zack Snyder) you'll find a lot to love in The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. Kids will enjoy it. The kid in you will too, if you can locate the little squirt.

P.S. I saw it in 3D the both times I caught it and I think the quality of its extra dimension falls somewhere between How to Train Your Dragon's (whoaaaa) and Toy Story 3's (meh).

P.P.S. By the way, Owl City contributed a pretty neat song to the film's soundtrack which played during a montage centred around the um, owl city. I approve.

P.P.P.S. Tyto refers to a genus of owls encompassing all barn-owls (excepting one or two) and they belong to the family Tytonidae, one of the two families of owls. The other family is called Strigidae which funnily enough, is also called true owls or typical owls. Those wacky Nazis.

Will never look at owls the same way again,
k0k s3n w4i