Sunday, March 27, 2011

Courtesy, Good Manners, and Other Endangered Animals

"... Alice said with some severity: "it's very rude.""

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
by Lewis Caroll

Pay attention because this is going to be part French lesson and part study in ettiquette. Consider the RSVP: four letters which stands for "répondez s'il vous plaît" or "response, please" en Anglais. That is common enough knowledge and easily google-able. What most people don't realise is that it also stands for "fuck you, whoreson, for not responding after I said PLEASE."

It isn't brain surgery, rocket science or quantum fucking physics. When you see that quartet of consonants on any invitation courteously extended to you, it is customary - nay, mandatory - to return due courtesy. Tell that person, who had graciously and thoughtfully asked for the pleasure of your company, whether you are (a) coming or (b) not. In the days of auld lang syne, one is expected to write back in pigment on a bit of dead tree; remember that? Sounds loik a fecking 'ardship, innit? But thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can now reply in seconds via electric mail, needing only the paltry sacrifice of having to push a few buttons. In the case of invitations sent through Facebook, good manners is not three, not two, but just one click away! There are three buttons covering the entire spectrum of possible answers: attending, not attending and maybe attending. Pick the one most agreeable to you. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Now, against my better judgement, I organised an unofficial meet-up for members of MAFA (Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers & Agnostics) last week. The response was far better than I expected - about a dozen heads promised that they would come. Yes, that's what a response to an RSVP is; nothing less than a binding social contract on the honour and good name of your family. Yours truly, however, is an atheist and having no faith in mythical beings like gods, fairies and intelligent Facebook users, decided to enquire after the individuals who confirmed their attendance. And boy it was lucky I did because one by one, they snaked out of the attendees' roster like raging boners from the robes of Catholic priests at the sight of little boys.

Lesson: do NOT respond to an RSVP saying yes if you aren't ready to commit to it. If you proceed to make other plans after saying you'll come, you are an oath-breaker and a pocky anus.

Then, there are a few I am certain are functionally retarded. One in particular stood out like a scorching beacon of stupid that will stand through the ages as an inspiration to halfwits everywhere,

Damn Stupid Atheist
Every Japanese smilie you use makes you appear twice as stupid to others. Fact.

Can you even begin to imagine the thought process which went through her mind when she did what she did? It must have went something like: "I'm not attending - sooo I'm going to say I am. That's what I usually do! Wheeeee! Furthermore, I like bunnies and rainbows! And my father brutally raped me in my mouth when I was six!" That thought sincerely inhabited her psyche and she saw absolutely no problem acting on it. No neuronal short circuits. No mental fail-safes. It's a bloody miracle she's even able to dress herself in the morning without biting her tongue off and choking on it.

You have no idea how close I was to losing it. It took me all of my resolve to stop our conversation right where it was and back away slowly from my keyboard. I thought I was going to stroke.

After vetting out the brain-damaged would-be comers, I ended up with two blokes who were absolutely positive they would materialise, rain or shine, so I decided to proceed as planned. On Sunday, I arrived at the designated venue at noon precisely because punctuality is yet another common courtesy I extend to anyone and everyone - and this time, I crossed a fucking sea doing it. I'm the sort of man who wouldn't even make my enemies wait if I can help it.

But I waited alright. Ho yes, did I ever. I waited for two whole hours nursing a warm glass of Coke and a hopeful song in my heart. I even went as far as to inscribe a grubby receipt I had in my wallet with the initials of MAFA and displayed it prominently so no one needs to play Spot-the-Atheist. The Long-Suffering Girlfriend™ waited alongside me even though she wanted no part in my godless doings, but that's why I love her. At 2:00 PM, it was plain to me that no one was going to turn up so I bought a couple of books and drove back to Butterworth - just so the entire trip wouldn't be a complete loss. If you're interested, they are Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds and Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear - the long-awaited monster-sized sequel to his amazing The Name of the Wind.

At about 4:00 PM, one of the two anticipated members did surface eventually. Finding that our agreed venue was conspicuously devoid of secularists, Ie Tzan (for he was named thus) rang me up and, we ended up arranging an impromptu meeting on the mainland in Raja Uda. The following photograph, taken using Ie Tzan's cellphone, is the only evidence that it happened,

Penang MAFA Meet
From left: the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™, Ie Tzan, Amanda, Adrian and I.

The 1st Northern Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers & Agnostics Meet-Up consisted of two atheists, a pair of Baptists and a lapsed Presbyterian. All things considered, I declare it a roaring success.

P.S. On the next day, I went on a hastily planned island vacation to Langkawi with the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™ plus three colleagues who graduated with me from med school. We had the 2nd Northern Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers & Agnostics Meet-Up there over duty-free booze. Only one Baptist this time and four atheists - and two of them are middle-aged Swedish women.

P.P.S. And the night after that, we followed that up with a three atheist meet-up (this time with a freethinking Mongolian delegate). The world's getting more godless everyday, people. Rejoice!

Believes in good manners,
k0k s3n w4i

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sucker Punch: A Review

"If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

The Wiseman in Sucker Punch (2011)

I was unprepared alright - unprepared for so much suck, that is.

"If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," warned the Wiseman (Scott Glenn) in Zack Snyder's much awaited 2011 motion picture, Sucker Punch. That's what he does awkwardly throughout the film - spout fortune cookie bon mots and provide lumpy blocks of exposition. Anyhow, this is one advice I'll take. After I exited the theatre, I immediately began composing a glowing apologist's review defending Mr Snyder's latest work in my head (against all the savage criticisms which I just know will be directed at it) but after some thoughts, I reconsidered my tune. Yes, Sucker Punch was my most anticipated movie of the year and yes, I am very fond of Zack's previous directorial efforts (all of 'em) - but I fear this longtime fanboy has to make a stand here. Sucker Punch is terrible, ladies and gents, and there are not many people more disappointed than I am.

What Didn't Suck.

Still, there's something to be said about a director who is truly passionate about the films he makes. Zack Snyder is one of the most enthusiastic filmmakers I know - and it lent even Sucker Punch some measure of that charm. That's why my first instinct was to try and review it favourably. There are some genuinely good words I can put in for it, and most of them are in praise of the action sequences. They are Snyder's forte and he couldn't be in better form here. The wordless prologue, zombie trenches and samurai courtyard set pieces were bad-ass, but the runaway bomb train bot-killing smorgasbord was sublime; pure poetry in Snyder's trademark ramped slow-motion.

There are small visual flairs I really enjoyed like how the steam gushes out of the clockwork, steam-powered zombies when they are stabbed or shot, and I liked the cute girly cellphone dangly baubles attached to Baby Doll's handguns as well. There's also a pretty neat trick shot of the girls sitting at their dressing tables and apparently existing on both sides of their mirrors, but I think it's more of a cinematographical look-at-what-I-can-do rather than a metaphor for something more profound.

Most importantly, if it's not for this film, I wouldn't have been able to see Emily Browning in a sexy Japanese sailor schoolgirl outfit and knee socks. If that's not a plus, I don't know what is.

Baby Doll is Hot Stuff
The obscenely gorgeous Emily Browning as Baby Doll.

The rest of this review will and must contain spoilers.

What Did Suck.

The maggot-ridden, pus-filled, festering core of Sucker Punch is the screenplay written cooperatively by Snyder himself and Steve Shibuya, and it marks the first time Snyder makes an attempt at creating something entirely original and non-derivative. He succeeded masterfully in doing the exact opposite. The resulting mess is a schizophrenic geeksploitation flick which blatantly regards itself as being oh-so-cool and oh-so-clever. It has hot girls in fetishistic outfits, giant mechanical samurai warriors, orcs, androids, steampunk WWI zombies German soldiers, a battle mecha, a plane dogfighting a dragon, and enough firepower to take over a Banana Republic. The only thing that's missing is coherence, and I suspect it's dead in a ditch somewhere with multiple penetrative wounds.

Bunny Mecha
Jamie Chung as Amber.

"But all of this happens in the heads of a bunch of institutionalised hotties in a mental asylum!" squeaks the part of my mind which still wants to rationalise the film's flaws. It's true that it's more surrealistic than Inception (which had been criticised for its overly ordered dream world), a film it bore a great deal of resemblance to - and in like fashion, the girls' delusions also penetrates more than one level of consciousness. The difference is that in Inception, that feature is plot relevant whereas in the feverish world of Sucker Punch, it's used with the sole purpose of excusing the disjointed fantasy elements which Snyder borrowed liberally from pop culture. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it takes a master writer to tie everything together neatly - and Snyder is no master writer. I get it that when Baby Girl (played by the sexier than ever Emily Browning) dances in the brothel in delusion level one, it's represented as balls-to-the-wall, kick-ass fight scenes in delusion level two, but boy it felt like a cop out. There's just no way that Baby Girl can dance as hypnotically as it was implied she could and Snyder knew it; hence the conspicuous absence of actual dancing. I mean, after every time she "dances", all the men in the room looks as if semen is about to explode out of their eyes.

"But that's also part of her delusion!" the fanboy lobe of my brain protests. Agreed, but what is her dancing analogous to in the bleak real world of the mental hospital where everything takes place? And more importantly, why is Baby Doll hallucinating when she is not actually insane, and was only put there by her evil stepfather to silence her via a lobotomy? I smell a hole in the plot here. Perhaps, as it was implied by the Baby Doll's dreary pseudo-intellectual existentialist voiceover at the film's climax; it's not her story after all. Maybe it was all seen from Sweet Pea's perspective. But it was said that Sweet Pea was only in the nuthouse slash nightclub in the first place to protect her little sister, so she's not crazy either. Or maybe that's not true after all because that story was told in delusion level one. They may not even be sisters... Oh fuck this shit. I give up.

I correctly predicted that a certain character will snitch on the girls' plan to escape and I totally called the death of another character far ahead of time - and I managed to do it because Snyder and Shibuya set them up with such breathtakingly amateur clumsiness. My more charitable review would have referred to his lack of finesse as "foreshadowing" but even so, I must consider them very poorly done. And do you know what's worse than a bad writer? A bad writer who thinks he's a good one. Sweet Pea's extensive faux-philosophical monologue about destiny et cetera is a good example of such immodest masturbation. So was Scott Glenn's inexplicable appearance at the end as a creepily benevolent bus driver (I believe the expected reaction is "Holy Shit!" but I was all "What the fuck?"). When the movie speaks directly to the audience, telling that it's us who decide our fates, I bemoan mine. It felt like it was telling me, to my face, that it's my own fault I'm watching such a shitty movie.

Abbie Cornish and Skanks
Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), with her sister, Rocket (Jena Malone) on her right. P.S. I really like her hair.

I wish a competent screenwriter was brought on to look through the script and make improvements. All the main characters are worse than one-dimensional and I wondered why Baby Doll getting lobotomised is such a big deal when she has absolutely no personality to begin with. Yes, I don't blame the actors. It's obviously Zack and Steve's fault when even really good actors like Scott Glenn, Carl Gugino and Abbie Cornish performed flatly. Except maybe Oscar Isaac, who played Blue, the main antagonist. Boy, he sucked. He's almost all ham; more whiny than threatening and more spoilt than evil. And John Hamm's appearance right at the very end as the lobotomist was simply painful to watch. He pretty much only had one line: an expression of puzzlement at something in Baby Doll's eyes which he had to repeat ad nauseam.

Could the film had been rescued with some judicious rewrites? I believe so; I saw much potential in it. For example, why was so little attention paid to the the tragedy of Baby Doll who only wanted to protect her little sister from her paedophile stepfather but accidentally killed her in a gunshot which went wide? She didn't even spend one moment processing it. There's also Blue's pervy infatuation with Baby Doll which showed shades of something interesting (especially at the end), but nothing was really made of that either.

The soundtrack consists of mostly refreshing remixed covers of oldie goodies - some of which are performed by Emily Browning like Eurythmics Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) - and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Emilíana Torrini's rendition of White Rabbit playing at one point as I am a fan of her music. My complaints? Most of the songs don't belong in this film and Snyder kept sticking them where they don't belong. They blare out noxiously and anachronistically like musical sore thumbs. While similar criticisms were levelled at Snyder's playlist in Watchmen, I was one of those who thought his song choices were suitable if eclectic there (and I stand by that opinion). This time? Not so much.

The Punchline.

For some reason, Sucker Punch felt incomplete to me; like there's a lot more footage which didn't make the cut, but that's probably just wishful thinking. And if I'm not such a big fan of Zack Snyder, I definitely would have enjoyed Sucker Punch as a trashy, B-grade so-bad-it's-good film - much like I did Legion and D-War. Maybe, as suggested by the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™, I ruined the film for myself by having unrealistic expectations (she saw it with me and liked it) but I disagree because I expected just as much of Watchmen (!), and that movie totally delivered. Perhaps, I should have given it less thought and rode it like the mindless video game trailer it aspires to be, but remember, I'm asking for coherence, not profundity. To expect any less is an insult to the memory of the director's fantastic filmography. For the remainder of his career (for his and this fan's sake), Snyder should stick to adapting comic books or directing screenplays written by others.

That being said, there's a very high chance I will revisit Sucker Punch. Even though it's mostly garbage, it's still a breathtakingly beautiful waste of time.

P.S. We went and saw The Eagle immediately after that. It was pretty damn good.

Suckered but unpunched,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Supplementary

"Homines quod volunt credunt."

Julius Caesar

The following debate took place in the comments section of a post in nicoletta's weblog between c3rs3i, nicoletta and I - and I'm going to just post the whole thing here because I am on holiday and am far too lazy to write a real piece. Besides, I can't seem to post any new replies to the discussion for some reason so I'm going to just write my responses here. Anyone who is taking any kind of supplement or herb for health should find it a riveting read.

In the body of the post, the author expressed the following:

"I don't get why I'm such a tired person all the time. People my age are able to stay awake for hours at a time, pumping caffeine into their blood vessels, which seems adequate in sustaining two or three all-nighters in a row. I sleep soundly despite any dosage of coffee, tea or chocolate."

The rest is colour-coded for your easy reading pleasure. c3rs3i is byzantine some fluffy shade of purple, nicoletta is green and I am black because I'm cool like that.


c3rs3i: Might you be (slightly) depressed?
Or have you not had some sun in a while?
Either one can royally mess up your circadian rhythm.
Or could you be using sleep as an excuse to procrastinate? (I did).

My prescription is exercise, multivitamins (preferably gender specific ones), sun and laughter =)

nicoletta: Hmmm....let's start crossing things out. I certainly get enough sun - too much in fact (dangerous UV levels here in the southern hemisphere summer!!) since the weather here is gorgeous and I've been outdoors a lot. My mood seems to be alright - cheerfuller than the norm for me, thanks to the sunshine as well as the inordinate amount of sleep I get in. And, if I want to prorastinate, I'm usually very deliberate about it, and I'll be doing a whole lot of other things besides sleeping. Like reading, watching TV, listening to music for countless hours etc.

I'm on multivites as well. Nahh, I think I've somehow just sunk into a very relaxing lifestyle, which feels great but unfortunately needs to be done away with in the name of academic striving

k0k s3n w4i: Bah, multivitamins. Unless you're pregnant or living in Sub-Saharan Africa, there's really no reason why anyone needs to waste money on them. They are wasted on a system overloaded with micronutrients anyway. The supplements-for-healthy-life industry is really quite a scam. Excess of certain vitamins like A and D is worse than useless - they are harmful.

c3rs3i: You assume that non-conceiving people who have the means of sourcing nutrients naturally do the advantage of their circumstances justice.

And too much water/oxygen/anything kills too.

k0k s3n w4i: Precisely my point - too much of anything is bad for you, and speaking of assumptions, you're assuming that our host is not adequately nourished and that multivitamins will help with her fatigue. On what scientific basis are you recommending them?

It's damnably hard to be deficient of any nutrients in this day and age. You'd seriously have to go faaar out of your way to deprive yourself of any one. It's one of the great success stories of public health policies.

Besides, oxygen is free and water is almost so. Multivitamins, on the other hand, aren't. Most of the supplement industry at large is a scam. Just for an idea of how unscrupulous they are, take the popular cold/flu cure and prophylactic remedy, Echinacea, for example. even after they have been proven time and time again to be useless, the drug companies kept pushing them out because people kept buying them. Take a look at glucosamine which people take for osteoarthritis; studies have shown that it's useless as well but did the drug company go: "aight, this stuff doesn't do anything so we'll stop making them"? No, it's all for profit and because any substance carrying the label of a "supplement" is so laxly regulated, we really do have literally hundreds of tonnes of utterly useless crap on pharmacy shelves. It's a business that's worth billions and billions of dollars every year.

My mom's taking Vitamin C to prevent upper respiratory tract infections, which surprise, surprise, is also completely ineffectual for that purpose. I showed her the evidence and the studies, but that didn't change her mind either.

If nicoletta was taking supplements for some specific health problem under medical advisement, I'd understand but consuming them for general wellbeing is a waste of good money that can be better served for other purposes.


nicoletta: Nope, no specific health problem and no medical advice on supplements either. But I do live with my parents, and the parental prescription for my frequent bouts of illness and chronic cough especially in the winter, is cod liver oil pills! Delicious. I take other multivites irregularly, and all of them are just the leftovers from my pregnancy. I was warned expressly against taking Vitamin A, though - something about its potential in causing birth defects in developing fetuses.

I drew lines from fatigue and hit a couple of things for which I made remedial suggestions. Upon further revelations, they will clearly not help with her sleep issues because the underlying assumptions with regards the causes I made to start off have all been negated.

But if it were the case that she doesn't follow a somewhat balanced diet, I would stick by my recommendations of multivitamins. And I would base this recommendation on my personal experience whereby I used to feel constantly fatigued despite a lot of sleep and felt a marked improvement after. Perhaps it was a placebo effect, but if all the money I have paid has just gone to tricking my mind into behaving better, then I still think it's money well spent because I wouldn't have otherwise come out of it.

Scientific research collated based on a sample set of 1:
Am I highly deficient (without)?
- Doubt it.
Do I think I could/should provide my body with more nutrients besides what it gets from the lettuce in my sandwiches?
- Yes.
Why don't I eat a salad instead?
- I don't like to eat what I don't like to eat but I have put all my salad money in a piggie bank and exchanged it for multivitamins instead!
Doesn't anyone cook for me?
Can't I cook a nice balanced meal for myself?
Certainly, but I'm just a TAD busy at the mo.
If I eat well occasionally, I should be fine without multivits in the periods that I don't?
I don't doubt.
However, I am at work 8 hours a day and 6 hours in the library after and well... there's only so much you can expect from lettuce to keep you a lean-mean working-studying machine.
Oh, and I hate coffee. So if I can bring myself to drink that vile crap just so I can be a more productive human being, you will understand that I will smack you if you try to take away my multivitamins again.

Any word on the ginko biloba I'm also taking? =p

Yes, I see and agree what you mean about how a lot of people get scammed into buying something they don't need but I hope the above shows you that there are some benefits they possess for the non-pregnant, non-starving.
And Glucosamine info was particularly useful, thanks - I'll pass it on to someone who has probably already stopped taking it despite doctor's orders. X\

Cod liver oil pills delicious?? I hope you did mean pills (which I have no knowledge of) and not capsules cos I don't remember them being pleasant! The orange cod liver oil mix was yumz but seeing as I read the label and wasn't particularly impressed, KSW will probably tell you it's the scam of the seven seas. =p

nicoletta: sorry, yes, I did mean capsules, and I was being sarcastic =) I hate all cod liver oils, and I've experienced them in four forms (the orange gloop, the white, milky, extremely fishy gloop that makes me gag after each spoonful, the capsules, and the actual cod liver oil i.e. the really, excessively fishy, rancid oil) and I must say the capsules taste the best, because they have the least taste of all.

Always nice to have some professional medical opinions on this humble blog =)

k0k s3n w4i: Let me rephrase. When I asked you on what scientific basis are you recommending multivitamins, I meant "Do you know of any well-controlled, double-blinded studies which show that multivitamins actually help with fatigue/tiredness/oversleeping?"

And unfortunately, you haven't convinced me of anything. What you offered is your experience, an anecdote - and as statisticians like to say: "The plural of anecdote is not data." One only needs to read about placebo controlled trials to know that anyone can tell a good story of how treatment x, y or z helps even when they aren't actually getting any. Human cognition is a very poor arbiter of good science - which is why we have the scientific method to really tell us what's what.

And since you asked about Ginkgo biloba, check out this article on science-based medicine on it. I'll spare you the suspense - the title is "Ginkgo biloba - No Effect"

Incidentally, it was written by Dr Steven Novella, an Associate Professor of Neurology at Yale and host of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, one of my favourite podcasts.

From your description of your diet, I find some cause for concern, and it's not because I think you might be depriving yourself of micronutrients (you really need very, very little of those). You actually don't sound like you're getting enough macros, and no amount of supplements in the world is going to help with that. I'm certain that you do occasionally shop for bread and a head of lettuce for your rabbit sandwiches - so it isn't going to take a lot of extra time for you to also throw some cheese, chicken rolls or ham slices, tofu or a couple of apples into your basket while you're at it. It certainly isn't going to take more time than it requires to go to a pharmacy to refill your multivites. Just a friendly advice. You can totally bin it if you don't like the sound of it ;)

As for doctors prescribing glucosamine - well, med schools certainly don't prepare practitioners to think critically. And more often than not, most just don't bother if they think whatever new-agey crap their patients are into couldn't hurt. I defer to the Science-Based Medicine website for easy-to-read skinnies on edgy, kooky treatments and supplements. They trawl the journals so I don't have to. I highly recommend that you bookmark it as well :)

P.S. As it happens, I really have no opinion on cod liver oil and their derivatives - but I'll say this much. I have yet to read any convincing papers saying that the stuff helps to prevent infections or boost the immune system in any way.

c3rs3i: And hey.. the Gbloba study was for people aged 72 to 96 and they were testing for effects against Alzheimers or other forms of dementia.
This study is irrelevant and ineffectual for proving that it does not enhance cognitive abilities in those of other ages.

Aged 72 to 96!!! Imma whack you with my walking stick.

k0k s3n w4i: There is scant research done on Ginkgo for the more sprightly segment of humanity, but the research does show no positive effects on the population which we would expect the most dramatic improvements from. Neither was it efficacious in preventing cognitive deterioration in those who are most at risk for such impairments. On disciplines I have no expertise in, I listen to the actual experts. And in this case, the resident expert, an academic neurologist, did weigh in on the plausibility of the mechanism by which Ginkgo purportedly act through (thin) and the weight of the evidence thus far - which isn't heavy. I ask you in turn: On what objective evidence or proof are you claiming that G. biloba improves your cognitive functions? Should we just pop every root, berry and leaf which was claimed to be good for something into our mouths just because no studies have been done yet to disprove those claims for our specific biology? And after studies on G. biloba is performed on twenty-somethings, are you going to complain next that they weren't performed on Asians? I daresay you were engaging in special pleading or ad hoc reasoning there, pardner. The crux of the issue is this - at present, there's no good, reliable scientific reason to suppose that Ginkgo helps your brain work better.

c3rs3i: Man, your life must be quite tiring/some, always having to verify that something works/exists through some scientific study before allowing yourself to believe that it really does. Look at you, turning your nose up at the power of the anecdote when generations ago or even just before the internet went massmarket, that is all people had to go by (nevermind that they got as many things wrong as they did right).

But despite the toxicity of your cynicism, I still appreciate your sharing of what you know, your perspective and concern.

You'll have to excuse a lot of people, me included, for not jumping on board immediately - for as many studies as there are saying nay, there're that many saying yay as well. Yay by Council for Responsible Nutrition, US of A!

And besides.. we heard yay first.
Anyway, statistics is one of the toys I play with for a living so I have an added dimension of skepticism in that I know you can get data to pretty much say anything you like, double sided, blind controlled or whatever.

No, my sandwiches come straight from the sandwich shop and my fave's bacon and chicken deep fill - So do I have your approval to hold off buying macronutrient supplements for the time being? =D
But yes, I think I will visit a grocery shop for the first time in a month, ignore all the studies negating the benefits of bananas and pop a bunch in my basket. 

k0k s3n w4i: Actually no - I just have a healthy respect for reality and mislike being taken for a ride by people out to make a buck. And you assumed that I obsessively look up every aspect of my life; which I don't. It's just that the nature of my profession requires me to keep abreast of the current scientific understanding on all things health related. If a patient asks me if Ginkgo biloba makes them smarter, I'd have to be able to tell them what science does know at the moment. And that answer is "There is no evidence for it." It's an answer that may sound ambivalent, but it's about the closest science will ever get to negating any claim. We are quite unlike the new age health gurus who will often tell you in no uncertain terms that their magic potion, pill or tincture will boost your IQ, cure the common cold and vacuum your house. Call it "toxic cynicism" if you like, but I prefer the term "scepticism" which I assure you, is not synonymous with the former. I was unaware that you consider caring about the truth to be such a negative quality for anyone to have.

And before there was the internet, there was the scientific method - a mighty useful tool which had been formalised by our species to offset our limitations in understanding the world. There were universities, academicians and journals. The net merely expedited our access to these resources, and I consider it criminal to not take full advantage of it.

In the medical field, we rarely rely on any one study for our practice. What we would (or should) consider in formulating health advice is usually based on a long-term look at the pattern of research (and if we can get it, a systematic review by an authoritive journal like the NEJM, JAMA or BMJ which is the closest thing to a last word on any healthcare subject).

On to the CRN report you just posted: it merely confirmed what I've been saying. Supplements are only useful in those who are pregnant, at-risk or deficient. We routinely prescribe pre-conceptional folic acid to women to prevent neural tube defects; that's true. Calcium and Vitamin D helps stave off osteoporosis in the elderly (strange that you're okay with the age-group here - cherry-picking much?); no one's denying that. No word on your miraculous brain herb, though. The rest is some iffy projections and over-optimistic claims. If you are aware, you'd also know that the anti-oxidant craze had been undergoing heavy scientific fire in recent years as well. However, the part of the report which interested me the most is this little tidbit at the bottom:

"The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), founded in 1973, is a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing ingredient suppliers and manufacturers in the dietary supplement industry."

I'd get my information from a source with a little less conflict of interest if I'm you. If you're interested, the CRN is mentioned in quite an unflattering light in this piece here. And macronutrient supplements? I usually call them "food".

k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We Shall Meet Godlessly This Sunday

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me."

Emo Philips

I have no way of knowing if I have any readers residing in Penang and the surrounding region, but there's going to be a first ever something (to my knowledge) happening on the island this Sunday.

MAFA Emblem
This is our club.
A few days ago, I um, accidentally organised a modest lunch meet-up (with the help of Rewarp) for the more northerly members of the Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers & Agnostics, or as it is usually acronymed: MAFA.

Here's the skinny,
        • Date: Sunday, 20th March 2011
        • Venue: Pastamania, Gurney Plaza
        • Time: 12:00 PM to 3:00 PM
If you're an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, secular humanist, sceptic, apatheist, deist, pantheist, Pastafarian or just another thinking person who questions the validity of religions (and you happen to be in the vicinity this Sunday with nothing pressing on your schedule), do come and join us. We totally want to meet you.

If you're someone who invests in the whole faith thing (be you a Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Shinto, Bahá'í, Rastafarian, Raëlian, Scientologist, Wiccan or member of any of the estimated 4200 religions on the world) but is looking to ask questions and understand what it's really like to be an unbeliever, you are welcome as well so long as you don't try to sell us anything.

If you want to come and can't make it because you're making Panda porn in China or saving tsunami victims in Japan at the moment or something, tell a friend who might conceivably be interested attending. We can always use more heads.

So, what's the agenda? Good question, because I have not the least fucking clue myself. I expect we'll meet up godlessly, eat and drink godlessly, and have godless conversations about godlessness. I believe that there's a desire for most people who don't subscribe to any organised religion to reach out to folks of like mind - our philosophical brethren so to speak - because too often, we find ourselves lone buoys bobbing about in an ocean of faith and belief which we find so alien to our sensibilities. It's reassuring, I bet, to fraternise periodically with kindred spirits who understands intimately what it's like to disbelieve in the supernatural in a country as steeped in religiosity and superstitions as ours. And it's probably cathartic to be able to let down our guards and socialise with individuals who will not look at us as lost souls, potential converts or devil worshippers (no, we don't believe he exists either). I wouldn't know for sure - I have never attended one of these secular soirees afore. I reckon it's high time for me to pop my atheist meet-up cherry.

P.S. Yes, choosing Pastamania as our meeting place was an intentional reference to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Also, because their outlet is spacious.

Godless in Penang,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, March 14, 2011

Three Agendas, Two Malls, One Day

"'Cause I, I, I, I, I'm gonna love you
Gonna hold ya through it all
I, I, I, I'm gonna love you
Gonna never let you fall
Through it all, through it all"

Through It All (2009) by Alicia Keys

The chorus is so catchy and sing-along-able.

On Saturday morning, after about two hours of last-minute whirlwind preparation, I set off northward towards Butterworth with a scheduled day-stop in the Petaling Jaya and Mutiara Damansara area. I had three things on my to-do list.
  1. Catch the 3:30 pm screening of True Grit at the cineplex in 1Utama.
  2. Use my RM 15 discount coupon for any RM 100 purchase at the Borders bookstore in The Curve because it's only valid till the end of this month.
  3. Have either lunch, tea or dinner with Jen.
True Grit, along with Winter's Bone, were the last two 2011 Oscar Best Picture nominees I have not seen and I'll probably have to watch Winter's Bone by crooked means. True Grit also failed to reach theatres in the old hometown, but since it's still playing in many theatres in KL and Selangor, I couldn't in good conscience miss it whilst I'm in the vicinity. If a film I want to see is available, I'd chose to see it in a cinema 10 out of 10 times.

True Grit poster
Would you believe that I did not know Matt Damon is in this film?
Anyway, there I was sitting there is a half-full theatre (on a Saturday afternoon in 1Utama, would you believe?) when I noticed that the trailers they play in front of the movie were inappropriate - all romcoms and romantic dramas. Then, when the feature finally started, it suddenly became clear to me; they were playing the wrong reel and I was treated to the first 5 minutes of Beastly, a schlocky Twilight-wannabe retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in modern day New York. I tell you, Twilight is ruining all that is good and wholesome in art and literature. Have you seen the Young Adult section of a bookstore recently? They are completely mired down balls-to-the-wall with rubbishy pubescent wet fantasies of teen girls fucking vampires, werewolves, ghosts, angels, demons - basically any supernatural being that can conceivably have a penis attached to it. All of them have the same pretentious black cover or dust jacket. All of them sport praises from Stephanie Meyer or quotes touting them as the next Twilight. What the effing fuck.

Sorry, had to get that out of my system. Anyway, it didn't take too long for the projectionist to give me back my Academy Award nominated film and it was, I'm happy to report, a wagon load of fun. Hailee Steinfeld, who was only 13 when she acted in True Grit, was as eminent a screen presence as Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon - and considering how much the two veteran actors gave in this old-style Western, that's very high praise for the junior thesp indeed. Should she have won Best Supporting Actress? I don't know, but I was certainly far more impressed by her than I was by Melissa Leo in The Fighter. Just sayin'.

While I was in 1Utama, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the atrium,

sheeples at 1u
There's so much oestrogen in the air that men started growing boobs.
Some bloke who was clearly in touch with his feminine side was sitting at a table signing autographs. I had no freaking idea who he was. I looked around to see if there were any posters or flyers which could clue me in but all I could see was a multi-storey high banner for Maybank's RCUBED shopping campaign. I would have asked a fangirl, but I didn't want vaginal juice all over me.

Can anyone tell me who he's suppose to be?

famous dork
"I have two vaginas! Two!"
He's probably not a world famous author or a Nobel laureate who cured AIDS, or something like that. Just a hunch.

who the fuck is this guy
Jen eventually called off our meeting because she had a conflicting dinner plan in the city (and I could not meet her earlier because I must must must watch True Grit). It seems to me that after she got her new job with an airline, she became quite adept at flying aeroplanes.

It was 6:00 pm by the time I made it to the Borders bookstore in The Curve and boy, what they had in stock were really disappointing for a retail store that size. From my book list of twelve titles, I could only locate Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection. And it's not just because the books I want are obscure or hard to procure. I did a search for a few staple classics I've been wanting to read like Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, but even those were unavailable. Un-fucking-believable. I finally settled for Olympos, the sequel to Dan Simmon's Ilium which I liked, and The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia. I've been looking for another book by Sedia, The Alchemy of Stone, for a couple of years now to no avail, so I thought it's high time I give her other works a go.

discount books from borders
I really wish the cover for The Secret History of Moscow is less contemptible. It looks like one of those cheap bodice-ripping romance novels. All it lacks is a muscly beefcake for the girl to cling on to.
In other news, I'll be attending my first ever atheist meet-up in Penang this coming Sunday at 12:00 pm in Gurney Plaza. We are still ironing out the details of the event in Facebook (like exactly where in the mall) but once they solidify, I'll be disclosing them on this site.

P.S. To fly aeroplane is a local colloquialism for failing to keep an appointment or standing someone up. From my stats, I understand that more than half of my readers aren't Malaysians so I'm obligated to explain these things.

On the move,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, March 12, 2011

These are the Things I Am

"Right here above the street
Watching the city span beneath
I couldnt help but feel like an outsider
Lifting up off the ground
Seeing for the first time now
This is where I became an outsider"

The Outsider (2004) by The Daylights

On Thursday, Dr Xavier (no relations to the founder of the X-Men) from the Psychiatry Department conducted a sort of informal lecture and group exercise in understanding the "self", communication and relationships for us, the outgoing graduating class. There's more than a hundred of us, so I fully expected the turnout to be abysmal (hey, you don't know my class and apparently, Dr Xavier didn't either). Personally, I wasn't very inclined to attend, but I did anyway because I knew most of my colleagues would either be out of the state by then or too inebriated to show. That's the sort of person I am. I feel responsible to help swell headcounts when they dip too low.

A total of six students - including yours truly - turned up. A seventh joined us midway.

We were treated to staple interpersonal heuristics like the Johari Window and Triangular Theory of Love, and did stuff like list down what we perceive to be our strengths and pass around a piece of paper so everyone else can tell me what they think are my positive traits. Mine came back with these,

List of Strengths
Haha, hardworking?

We were then asked to compare this list with the one we wrote about ourselves, to see if there's any overlap. As it happens, my lists had none - which means that how I see myself is radically different from how everyone else sees me. I sort of expected this really since there's only one person in the room with whom I actually hung out to any degree of regularity at all (and even so, we are in no way close to each other). I worked briefly on a project with the bloke who wrote "You have brilliant ideas" - which basically translates to me being all talk and no action. True that. As for never poking my nose into other people's business; that's because I'm so self-centred that most of the time, I rarely even realise that there are actual people around me.

Still, I wasn't too surprised. These are the qualities I semi-consciously project for the general viewing public (or at least, want to be thought of thus). With the exception of being "hardworking", of course. That's so off-base that I laughed a kidney out the moment I saw it. And so did the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™ when I told her.

Then, we were told to make a 5-minute sketch on how we were feeling at the present à la art psychotherapy. This was what I handed in,

Feeling Sketch
I inverted the colours for absolutely no reason at all.

Then, we were asked to talk about what we have drawn with the amount of self-disclosure we want to provide at our own discretion.

"Um, as you can see here, I've drawn a nice little house atop this hill and all around, it's a sunny, blue day with few clouds," I explained cheerily. "And down here, a raging forest fire is consuming the countryside with huge columns of black, charry smoke rising into the sky."

So yeah.

P.S. This is a scheduled post. By the time you read this, I'm already outside of Malacca.

k0k s3n w4i

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Heavenward Excursion

"And if you say I'm not okay with miles to go
If you say there ain't no way that I could know
If you say I aim too high from down below
Well, say it now 'cause when I'm gone
You'll be callin' but I won't be at the phone"

I'm Good, I'm Gone (2008) by Lykke Li

It's decided; I'm going backpacking in the Western Himalayas. The itinerary's not fully fleshed out yet, but the centrepiece of this vacation would be my favourite place in the whole wide world: McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, and it will include a trek up Triund, the glacier at Laka Got and Lahes Cave - and if everything goes smoothly, I might even try to make it to the Indrahar Pass more than 4000 metres above sea level.

The views, I heard, can blow totally minds,

Triund 04

Triund campsite

Triund 02

Triund 03

Triund Grazing Sheeps 01

Triund Grazing Sheeps

The skeleton of the plan is pretty solidly drawn out at the moment. I'll be leaving for Delhi on the 2nd of April - a Saturday - and I hope to make it to the hills by Monday afternoon. Unless I got mauled by a yeti or eaten by carnivorous Himalayan yaks, I expect to touch Malaysian ground on the morning of the 28th. It's costing me about RM 1000 to fly there and back again, and I was hoping Jen-with-the-airplane-job (formerly Jen-with-the-ice-cream-job) could score me a discount, but no luck there, unfortch. At the moment, I'm making all the necessary preparations to make it happen like renewing my passport; procuring a traveller's visa; cross-referencing my old Lonely Planet guidebook with the new updated edition in bookshops; boning up on frostbites, acute mountain sickness, high altitude cerebral and pulmonary oedema; and learning how to pitch a freaking tent (which, after med school, is going to be a soft, creamy piece of cake). I'm also training to bring my stamina up to scratch, and to lose all the extra cargo I've taken on board throughout my rather sedentary exam month.

The last time I was in McLeod Ganj was 3 years ago and it was just a two-day stopover in my breakneck, month-long, cross-(sub)continent North Indian backpacking extravaganza. I've been aching in my godless soul to return there ever since and to explore the Kangra and Chamba valley systems surrounding it. With at least 3 solid non-transit weeks there, I'm determined to have a leisurely holiday this time around. My schedule is going to be far less rigid as well with a lot of wriggle room for spontaneity on the go. I intend to unwind and come back a new man, or at least a less world-wearied one.


So, I welcome anyone at all who wants to join me - you'll still have more than half-a-month of prep time and I estimated that it shouldn't take more than RM 4000 including passport, visa and plane tickets. I'm also open to meeting up in Delhi or any of the towns in the western Himachals. For the rest of March, I'll be in Butterworth with the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™, making up for lost time.

Sigh, if only I can bring her along with me. I put these pictures up to make her feel sorry she couldn't come because I'm horrible like that.

Note to self: Must remember to bring my Swiss Army knife.

Heading for the hills,
k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

127 Hours: A Review

"I can be wilder than the wind
190 miles an hour
I'm in a whole other dimension
Dancing doubles on the floor
You think I'm crazy, a little bit hazy
But I'm stone cold sober"

Stone Cold Sober (2009) by Paloma Faith

There are three things you can do. One, if you are unfamiliar with the real-life story of Aron Ralston - the subject of 127 Hours -  I advice you to stop reading right now (don't even read anything anywhere about this movie or watch any trailers), run to your nearest theatre and see this film because you are in the enviable position of still being able to be experience this without any prior conceptions. Two, if you know the gist of what happened to Aron Ralston, you should still go see this film first because I am planning to delve into quite a number of spoiler-ish details, both historical and in the crafting process of this movie. In case you are waiting for my stamp of approval: Yes, 127 Hours is an amazing film. James Franco, who played Aron Ralston, was quite possibly the most likable and heroic leading man to grace the silver screen in 2010, and Danny Boyle performed the nigh impossible task of making Ralston's tale into something cinematic and truly captivating to an everyday audience.

If you've already watched 127 Hours, read right on,

127 Hours Poster
It's not a subtle film.
I decided to catch this film to escape - if only for an hour and a half - the crushing tension of my final medical school exam. I figured that it would be a cathartic experience to watch some fellow getting his arm crushed under a boulder and ultimately having to amputate it with a blunt knife, on his own, all without the mercy of general (or even local) anaesthesia; because my own ordeal can scarcely compare to that. Besides, I could really go for something in the triumph-of-the-human-spirit vein, since my own immediate future is looking so foreboding and bleak (note: at the time of writing, I was still in the middle of my finals). I think this is going to be my go-to mantra every time I find myself in a difficult spot: "At least I don't have to cut my arm off."

Of course, with films of this nature, one naturally wonders about 127 Hours' authenticity. Here's what the real Aron Ralston had to say about it in this excerpt from The Guardian,

Boyle shot 127 Hours at the exact spot where Ralston had the accident but added some fictional scenes, such as when he splashes in a secret pool with the women he meets before the accident (the reality – helping them with a few basic climbs – was much more prosaic). Ralston was uncomfortable with these at first but belatedly understood that such changes enabled the audience to "experience it in a truthful way" and did not undermine the "authenticity" promised by Boyle. "The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama," he says. "I think it's the best film ever made." He has watched it eight times and cried every time.

I can't talk about 127 Hours without drawing parallels to Buried, another film which featured one actor stuck in one spot for the entirety (or at least the vast majority) of the running time - but in many ways, the two are actually diametrical. Buried is all about the Situation while 127 Hours focuses on the Person, or rather, his Mind. Buried is operates like a mystery which could end any which way while 127 hours is biographical in nature, the ending of which is predestinated common knowledge. Buried is committed to staying strictly in situ and relied on many novel and ingenious contrivances to fold its audience's attention, but 127 Hours made use of every trick in the book to go beyond the premise of one bloke trapped in one place for 90 minutes including using Ralston's thoughts, dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. The average filmgoer would find it far more palatable, no doubt.

127 Hours Oh Crap
127 Hours is not a subtle film. It has a few themes which it pounded home over and over again. They are the dangers of being a loner and over-reliant on oneself, the tenacity of the human spirit to survive at whatever the cost, and don't buy crappy Chinese products. It's the Scrooge story of 2010, kinda like what Up in the Air was for 2009. Aron Ralston is cocksure and armoured with the illusion of youthful invincibility. He decided to go on a weekend canyoneering adventure on his own without telling anyone where he was going. He did not return his sister's and mother's calls. When he was asked by a friend at an outdoor supply store where he was heading out to, he deliberately said he was uncertain when he already had a destination in mind. He's someone who pursues his privacy to his own detriment because when he did not return, no one knew where to look - or if they should be looking at all.

Ouch, cut a bit close to home there.

The film invites the people watching it to imagine themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place (see what I did there?) the way Ralston was and asks if they have the cojones to do the same. Does it require an extraordinary reserve of courage, or merely the will to live which we, as a species, universally share? 127 Hours was rather coy about this but it does portray our protagonist as a resourceful and practical man. One of the first things he did after he was pinned was to lay out everything in his backpack, to see what he could use to free himself. Being an engineer, he devised a makeshift pulley system using carabiners, harnesses and climbing ropes to try and hoist the rock - an endeavour which we knew was doomed to failure. I don't know what I would do in his place, but I suspect I would pretty much go through the same stages he did. And I suspect that I'd cut my own arm off too.

Ralston also compulsively documented everything he did with his hand-held camcorder and digital camera, and two of my favourite scenes in this film revolved around these devices. This first was his mock radio interview with himself where he lampooned his predicament - ripping brutally into the personality flaws which got him stuck there. It was a hilarious sequence in which shit got real very quickly. When you're on your own for 127 hours, there's really no where to look but inwards.

My second favourite scene was right after he freed himself. As he was walking away from his prison, he turned back to snap a picture of his dismembered limb. That's precisely what I would have done.

127 Hours Hand in Rock
Hey, don't pretend you wouldn't have done the same.
I read once that a movie is one-third moving pictures and two-thirds sound. I wonder - would the amputation scene be half as disquieting without that chilling, unmistakable sound of snapping bone? We were treated to it twice because he had to to torque his ulna and radius separately to break them both. After that, he started work with a blade less than an inch long; slowing slicing through the skin, muscles, tendons... till he touched a nerve (literally) and the most distressing, otherworldly noise exploded from the film. If you ever banged your elbow and felt that unholy pain shoot down your arm, you'd feel Ralston because having to slice a nerve must feel a million times worse. Of course, that was just one nerve (the superficial branch of the radial nerve, if I remember correctly). He still had the deep branch of the same nerve, the median nerve and the ulnar nerve (the so-called "funny bone") to contend with, but the film mercifully glossed over those. I heard there were people who fainted watching that admittedly very demanding scene. A. R. Rahman, who collaborated with Danny Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire, wrote an amazing, riff-ey and visceral piece for that entire sequence, and it's one of my favourite tracks of the movie year.

127 Hours Blue John Canyon
Did I mention that this film looks spectacular?
If 127 Hours aimed to give us a taste, just a little while, of what Aron Ralston endured throughout his ordeal, I'd declare it a runaway success. There's a strong, almost fetishistic fixation on water with multiple shots of it traveling through the inside of a drinking tube and sluicing about in a tumbler. I felt parched just watching Ralston eke out his pitiful ration.

Overall, it may sound like a rather harrowing movie experience but it is really quite enjoyable. Honest. Humourous bits are abundant, even if they are of the gallows variety, and there are many engaging meditations on the nature of humanity which just about anyone can identify with. The weakest part has got to be the end when it overdid the cloy - which nauseated me more than when Ralston drank his own thick, yellow piss. Yes, Ralston continued to be a bad-ass sans right hand. Yes, he went on to get married and had a kid. Yes, he appreciated his family and friends more. Ugh. Like I said, the film's many things but subtle isn't one of them.

Glad to be fully-limbed,
k0k s3n w4i