Saturday, July 25, 2009

From Phoebe, With Love

"A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver."

Thomas á Kempis

I probably should have written this earlier, but I was totally stricken this entire week by a haze of obsessive-compulsion to read, read and then read some more. It has happened before, and I usually fall under this brand of madness several times a year, but this particular episode has been especially strong. Never before have I managed 10 books within the span of just 3 days. In fact, I just got back from a bookshop at the mall, having spent 4 whole hours standing in front of a shelf - ignoring the exquisite aches I have acquired in my neck, back and legs - just to finish a book I can ill-afford to purchase this month. Anyway, 5 of the books I've just read belong to a young adult series I've just discovered (a completed one, by the way) and I have a good mind to review them in a post later. We shall see.

On the eve of my birthday this year (id est, last week), I went to the post office to retrieve a package in my name. This is that package,

Now, the terrorists will never find me! Muahahaha!

The postal worker came calling on Saturday but I was asleep, and the doorbell have not been working for 20-odd years now.

The package came from KL, from Phoebe's Mom. Phoebe left it in her possession before she (Phoebs) left for India in March, so she (Phoebs' Mom) could mail it to me right before my birthday. Somehow, it's important to Phoebe that I should only receive it in the vicinity of the 14th of July instead getting it on a much earlier or later date of convenience. She could have waited till August, when she returns to pass it to me in person and save on postage. She could have just given it to me back in March even seeing that I am not someone who would consider the numbers of any calendar date to be of any special significance. I treat every holiday like how children treat Opposite Day. It can be on any damn day of the year I wish it to be. Sames goes for my birthday.

Which is probably why Phoebe insists on making sure I receive the package on my actual birthday - it's her way of saying, 'that's nice, dear, but I don't care for your crazy ideas on how the world should work at all'.

"Is it a shirt?" I asked her, before I went to collect it.

"No, it's not. You'll know when you get it. It's a surprise," she said.

"Is it... a book?"

"No, and stop asking because I shan't tell you!"

I went on making another 200 guesses until she finally gave up and admitted in exasperation that my very first guess was correct after all - it WAS a shirt. It's my way of saying, "I annoy you because I CAN!"

And it was a shirt that I really wanted, a black formal. Technically, I already own a black shirt, one I purchased in quite a hurry for my college ball (a couple of hours before the ball, in fact), but that's the problem, see. I was in so much of a rush that I have neglected to take a good look at it when I tried it out. You can pretty much imagine my horror when I discover later that there are flowery prints all over it, visible only when light falls on them at a certain angle. Phoebe's gift is perfect.

Along with the package, Phoebs also sent a card, one of her trademark handmades,

Her way of partying with me.

It actually came with a detachable party hat and a little blowout! I'd show you the inside of the card, but it's private :)

Anyway, Phoebe is coming back real soon and with luck, she might come down to Malacca for a weekend - and her birthday is flying in quick. Any suggestions on what I should get her? I'm not much of a gift-chooser so I can really use a bit of help (particularly since Phoebe made it quite clear to me that if I give her another book, she'll make me eat it - not in those words, of course, but... yeah). Phoebs' college internet connection is so crappy that she have practically given up trying to come online so she'll probably never read this. Gimme ideas now!

In the meantime, I have to go crash-land on a pillow somewhere. I slept only 10 hours in the past 3 days thanks to my little transient spell of book madness and I'm not sure if I can feel my face anymore.

For what must the nth time I've said this now; I'm just darn glad Phoebe's my girl.

Phoebe's boy,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, July 20, 2009

We Are Saving the World This Thursday

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Mahatma Gandhi

I'm not sure how many MMMC students read my web-journal, but bugger me if you expect me to bother finding out - but here's an announcement for you if you're one. It's about the recycling drive we're organising this week,

Uncle Sam Recycle
'Cause Uncle Recycle Sam sez so.

I've already put this notice up as the wallpaper of every lecture hall's desktop, but every job worth doing is worth overkilling for, I always say. So boys, all you need to do is dump your garbage, trash, rubbish, refuse right outside your door and we'll come by and collect them this Thursday like your bitches. That's not too much to do for our damn planet, isn't it? Just put your shit out and then feel good about yourself for helping us save the environment.

For those of you who are better human beings than that want to be a little more proactive, make sure that you don't leave anything gross in your garbage. Exempli gratia: banana peels, dirty cotton buds, used polystyrene takeaway containers, clipped toenails, and tissue papers you've masturbated into. Believe it or not but we really don't want things like that. Everything else, including beer cans and empty liquor bottles (as many have asked), is fair game. We'll sort them out.

Yes, we are going to sift throught your garbage using our hands.

Tell you what, it'll really be a great help if you guys can drop your garbage right at the designated venue; at the foyer outside of the Girls' Hostel in our campus. It'll save us from having to use our cars to cart your garbage there. And if you would go this far, you might as well stay for a bit and help us sort the stuff out into their little categories (I think it's aluminium, paper, glass and nuclear waste or something). Of course, you might find something useful to you amongst the junk. I picked up some ace lecture notes and a surgery portfolio in the last recycling drive, and more clean, unmarked writing paper than I'll ever need this decade. Come take other people's garbage back to your home!

And ladies, bring your trash down for us, please. We Y-chromosomed pack animals do not have authorisation to enter your hostel and pick up your garbage. All you need to do is come downstairs.

The proceeds from the drive will be used by the Tzu Chi Foundation to provide free healthcare to the impoverished folks who couldn't even afford governmental medical services. Yeah, that same free clinic I volunteered at in case you're wondering. See the amount of good you can do by simply giving us your garbage? How can you live with yourself if you can't even do so small thing to help? Wait, don't answer that last question. I don't think I want to know.

Hugs trees,
k0k s3n w4i

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter: A Review

"Severus... Please..."

Albus Dumbledore

Now, entirely spoiler free!

I exited the theatre after the credits have finished rolling and found myself unready to return to the real world. Good fantasy feels like a narcotic high. Great fantasy - if I may be so bold to claim - is a transcendent religious experience. I left with the awe of discovery and the chills of true magic still clinging hard to me, and I felt what I can only describe as a form of withdrawal. There was a suffocating sense of dread that I might never ever get the chance again to be an audience of such a stupendous work of art, and I say this without irony or hyperbole. It was so unbearable that I had to stuff my headphones into my ears and put Hedwig's theme on loop just so I don't crash too hard back into my physical body. That is what a genuinely good cinematic experience is like, you know. The comfy seats and optimal air-conditioning, the minimum of intruding noises and errant lights, and most of all, the dark - they summarily serve to dissociate your eyes and mind from your body, and to immerse them right in the Story. A fantasy story demands this far more than stories from any other genre because the minute you remember that none of its elements are feasible or logical, the spell breaks utterly.

Before I proceed any further, let me just put it out here that my acquaintance with the Harry Potter books to be quite irregular. I started by reading the 4th book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, first - disastrously spoiling fan favourite, 3rd book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for myself. Resultantly, I simply cannot appreciate the genius of Prisoner of Azkaban which the majority of the fandom opine to be self-evident. Also, I hate the main character, Harry, and tended to pretend that Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape are the true centres of these novels instead. All these factors ultimately predisposed me to consider Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to be best book of the seven - which I do (you'll know why if you know your Harry Potter mythlore well). So, do not expect any critical objectivity from me.

Half Blood Prince Poster
That tagline is absolutely perfect.

Daniel Radcliffe has always been adequate at playing the Boy Who Lived, but he has to stand in the shadows of actors and actresses far more talented than he is. The movies were exemplary studies in casting. Alan Rickman was the perfect Snape, despite being far older than the character he's suppose to play, and his portrayal inadvertently cemented the sallow Potions Master as my favourite character in the series, both in print and on celluloid.

There are misses, of course, and the furthest miss in the cast was the portrayal of Hogwart's Headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore by Sir Richard Harris in the first two films. He is far too elderly and decrepit to live up to the character's reputation of being the only wizard Voldemort ever feared. After the passing of Sir Richard Harris (rest his soul, but glad he's out of the picture), they brought in Michael Gambon to fill the beard and half-moon spectacles. Gambon possesses the kindliness and authority of Dumbledore's voice, the grace and vigour of Dumbledore's movements and most importantly, the twinkle and steel of Dumbledore's eyes. And in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he finally brought the character to life for me. It was a privilege to have met the real Albus Dumbledore. Give the man a Best Supporting Actor nomination, I say!

Dumbledore and Harry
"Being me has its privileges," says Dumbledore. That's a crowning moment of awesome right there.

This film also brought us Jim Broadbent in the shoes of Professor Horace Slughorn, who was enticed out of retirement by Dumbledore to return to Hogwarts as Potions Master. He taught Lord Voldemort when he was still Tom Riddle, and also Harry's mother, Lily. Now, I will not reveal too much about this character for the benefit of those who have not read the book or watched the movie but I'll say this; he is a deliciously complex character and moral study, and holds much of the same appeal to me as Snape. Horace Slughorn is a coward who wants no part at all in the wizarding war at large between Voldemort's Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix. All he wants to do is profit from befriending Hogwarts students who he believes will one day be in positions of influence and fame. Beneath this character, however, is a man with a bent back carrying the weight of a tremendous guilt. The object of his guilt, coincidentally, is yet another aspect he shares with Snape. I will not reveal to you whether Slughorn managed to find absolution or not in The Half Blood Prince, but it suffices you to know that the end of that particular plot strand was heartbreaking. I credit Jim Broadbent's stellar acting for this. Unfortunately his stellar acting talent also showed me just how lousy an actor Daniel Radcliffe really is in their final scene together.

Slughorn and Harry
Slughorn handing Harry a plot-important item.

The essence of the story of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is tragedy, make no mistake about it and I have an unhealthy fascination with tragedies. Happy endings tie up stories in neat little bundles and let everyone forget them with a smile. A sad end makes one pensive and thoughtful, sometimes for weeks. The moment of peripeteia in Half-Blood Prince is quite possibly the most memorable tragic turn in recent fiction so much so that even people who haven't read the books know about it (thanks to that pernicious "X verb'ed Y" meme). The anagnorisis of the titular Half-Blood Prince's identity, in my humble opinion, was the highest point of the entire Potter series. It endeared Rowling's books to me and made me a late but no less enthusiastic participant in the fandom (prior to that, my interest in Harry Potter was pedestrian). The equivalent scene of peripeteia in the film matched my expectation, though it did not exceed it. The anagnorisis, however, fell starkly short. I blame this on the screenwriter. He thought it was okay to cut out all the bits in the book about Hermione's investigations into the man behind the moniker, and it severely undermined the bludgeon of the eventual reveal. The 'I AM THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE' line in the film just failed to raise any goosebumps.

Also, It pains me to say that Alan Rickman wasn't as impressive as I expected him to be this time, but it's probably because Gambon and Broadbent were so damn good.

Snape and Malfoy
Draco Malfoy was handled surprisingly well in this film. I like how this promotional poster paralleled Harry and Dumbledore's one.

The commonest complain I hear about the Harry Potter movies is the non-inclusion of certain plot elements which will later become very important to the overall mytharc. They say that moviegoers with no knowledge of the source material will be baffled by the events in the later films. I fully agree with that, but since I have already read all the books, I would subconsciously insert all the missing details as I watch the movies and will not even notice any gaps in the story at all. Therefore, I watch the Potter films for the characters (and the magic, of course) almost exclusively. Director David Yates did the right thing by me when he chose to invest most heavily in bringing the characters to life. Incidentally, I can finally see why the fans wanted Harry and Hermione to end up together so badly, and Yates really loves rubbing salt in that wound with a wire brush over and over again in Prince. However, as much as I applaud the makers of Half Blood Prince for most of their artistic decisions and directions, I think it's criminal that they did not include a certain funeral at the end of this film. It was not only deserving for the character in question, but it's also quite important to the plot. I fear that they have taken a gun to their own feet.

The cinematography and visual effects in this film is by far the most impressive of the 6 Potter films released so far. If I have any say at all, I'd nominate it for an Oscar in both categories. Harry's ink-in-water visitations into Dumbledore's and Slughorn's memories of a young Voldemort was breathtakingly beautiful in their execution, and so was the concept of Apparition. That scene in which Dumbledore stirs a massive inferno above him in the seaside cave totally made this movie for me. It's easy to forget that you're seeing something extraordinary when you've been exposed to so much of it. Magic has been incrementally relegated to the role of a plot device with each successive Potter film. Half-Blood Prince, I feel, have brought the wonder and magic back into the series. It was promised in Harry's face at the start of the film, when Dumbledore restores a thoroughly wrecked Muggles' house with the merest flick of his wand - and I deem that promise fulfilled.

Dumbledore Inferno
This is the point when my jaw fell right off my skull and rolled down the aisle.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince equals the book it was adapted from. With Yates still at the helm, I am expecting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the two-parter adaptation of the last book to be superior to its source material in every aspect (though that's not saying a lot since I personally consider Deathly Hallows to be a terrible novel). I truly believe that something incredible can be salvaged from it.

We should be so lucky to get another repeat of the performance we saw in the Half-Blood Prince. Whether you like the Harry Potter series or not, you can't deny that it's one of the most influential monuments of modern literature. Its finale deserves a bang like no other. I like the depth of the darkness of Deathly Hallows to be plumbed completely, as David Yates demonstrably proved he could do in Half Blood Prince. There are moments in Prince which truly scared me. I would very much like to find myself experiencing nightmares after watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, please.

It's a good time to be alive, and a lover of the fantastic.

P.S. Best movie of 2009 so far! Suck it, Transformers.

Dumbledore's man through and through,
k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Le Quatorze Juillet

"Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what happened."

Jennifer Yane

I think that birthday celebrations are essentially pointless, if you consider their essence to be the rejoicement of someone's birth - it's like saying "glad you were born" to someone every year. The point of my contention is that how can you know whether anyone's birth is a good thing before the result of that event - in this case, that person's entire life - has ended? Did Hitler's high school buddies knew what they are being glad about when they celebrated the future führer's birth into the world? Today, you might be celebrating someone's birthday. Tomorrow, that person might blow up a school bus. Carrying this to its logical extreme, the only time we can celebrate a person's birth in good conscience is after that person's death, after we have confirmed that yes, this bloke is one of the better things to have happened to this world.

As you can probably tell, I'm not a big fan of birthdays. I have a poor head for my friends' birthdates and occasionally, I even forget mine. This year, my own birthday caught me unaware when it arrived yesterday in the shape of a phone call from India, with my girlfriend on the other side wishing me a happy 23rd birthday at the stroke of midnight. "Oh, it's my birthday already?" I answered groggily, as I was already in bed at the time. Later, the SMS'es started flowing in, including one from an old high school friend who shares my birthdate. I had to put my phone on silent just so I could get back to sleep.

I know that birthday wishes are good things to receive, and I should be grateful that people remember what happened on the 14th of July circa 20 years ago. In fact, I'm very impressed that people actually took the trouble to remember it. But that is what made it so hard for me to accept these wishes, you see. I never bothered reciprocating, and that made these wishes feel like little guilt trips.

"Where's the party?" asked a colleague of mine in class in the morning after. I told him that it's in my head, and he remarked that that's not right. Sure, I can honestly say that I'm pretty darn glad that I was born, but I simply can't be bothered to throw a party to commemorate it - not that there's anything wrong with people who think it's a good idea to do such things, of course. I just happen to have been brought up in a family who never thought much about birthdays...

... Sorry, I had to interrupt the writing of this post, which I wanted to complete yesterday night, but Shaki called and asked me to come out of my house. Luckily, I opted to put on a proper pair of pants over my boxers before I did - because what I found outside was a whole bunch of my friends and colleagues doing that "Surprise!!!" thing. They succeeded at being surprising, of course. I never expect these things, ever. I never considered myself deserving. It's like the last surprise birthday celebration sprung on me; I was sitting in front of my laptop doing stuff and not giving much of a fuck about my birthday.

Birthday 2009
L-R: Li Lian, Lai Yin, Sanjeev, Yin Yee, Kok, Smooth Lum, Shaki, Jun Han, Nana, Daveen and Raj. Nickson took the picture. And that's the way I smile, alright. I'm just not very good at it.

Guys and girls, I have a confession to make. When you asked me to make a wish before blowing out the candles, all I did was close my eyes for a few seconds, and then lied that I made a wish. It's not for the lack of trying though. I simply couldn't think of anything I'd want more than anything else at the time. At this point in my life, I can say without the slightest trace of irony that I am happy and contented, and I've been feeling that way for awhile now. I'm having a great time in med school. I have the perfect girlfriend who loves me like I'm somebody better than I am. Not at all the least, I have friends who thought it's a shame I don't care about my own birthday at all, and that my birth is something worth celebrating.

Thanks for everything :)

Then we headed out to my mom's shop for a drink, some conversation and a lot of laughter. Shaki and co tried to get me drunk off my ass for the first time in my life, but they didn't quite succeed. But still, I had so much beer in me that I went to class the next morning still high as a kite, and feeling like I was going to puke at any second.

Good times.

18 years old plus 5 years of experience,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, July 06, 2009

Laika, Good Dog

"Now I’m floating free
And the moon’s with me
And it’s bright enough
To light the dark
And it’s so high up here
And the stars so clear
Are they close enough?
Will they hear me bark from here?"

Space Doggity (2008) by Jonathan Coulton

I cried today, after listening to a song Jonathan Coulton wrote in Laika's honour on YouTube. I was perfectly fine the minute before, I swear, and before I knew it, I had my face in my hands on my tabletop, sobbing my eyes out. I read all about Laika before this, of course, but it didn't quite hit home till now.

Laika was not the first animal we've killed in the name of science and progress, and in service to the good of humanity, and she was most definitely not the last. Somehow, I've always managed to live my life ignoring the background slaughter our civilisation is built upon, murders which sit on my dinner plate every night and the callous dismissal we treat these things. I suppose that's the only way I can deal with it without being driven completely nuts by the senselessness of it all. I know they aren't senseless, the killings. They just feel that way.

If you have cancer, you're going to take the treatment they offer you even if you know it was discovered through animal testing. I'm willing to bet that you're going to take it even after you found out that it was discovered through testing on thousands of innocent children in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. I don't know what I'm trying to say with this, really, but make of it whichever way you will.

One YouTuber have this to say after watching the same video and listening to the same song I have,

"Is knowledge worth killing something that can love you greater than the universe is big?"

That's a really hard question, but a fair one. It's a question that needed to be asked. I would like to answer 'No', but that would be my feelings talking. Stupid human feelings.

Laika was a stray wandering on the streets of Moscow when the Soviet scientists brought her in and trained her up along with two other dogs for their little space experiment we all know as Sputnik 2. The aim of it? To see if mammals like us can survive in space - or not.

On November 3, 1957, Laika, chosen from the three, was launched into space in Sputnik 2 with no intention or means of actually bringing her back to earth. That spacecraft they shot her into space in was intended to be Laika's tomb from the very beginning. I applaud the Russian scientists for being able to work on that mission knowing this the entire time because I'm certainly not strong enough to go through with the entire charade. I might do something stupid like springing her loose when no one's looking. And what about Laika's trainers? How do you launch a living thing which looks upon you as her master, loves you enough to let you put her through weeks of gruelling training, into space?

There is a single bright spot in this story, though. Before the launch, one of the scientists took Laika home to play with his children. In a book chronicling the story of Soviet space medicine, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote,

"I wanted to do something nice for her. She had so little time left to live."

I wondered what was going through Laika's little doggie mind when she finally took off. Unfortunately, that's something we will never know for sure. What we do know was that her heart went up from 103 beats per minute to 240 during the early acceleration of the launch. It must be a horrifying experience, being shot out of the atmosphere. I wonder how much more horrifying it was for a creature which did not understand what it was going through at all. Laika was the first living animal to go into orbit; her sacrifice made all future space exploration endeavors possible. Too bad she didn't know it.

For many years after the day Laika went into space, the Soviet Union have given conflicting statements regarding her fate. She either suffocated in her tiny cabin after the batteries ran out, or she was euthanised with poisoned dog food. Then in 1999, they said she died after her cabin overheated on her 4th day.

It was only in 2002 that the truth finally surfaced,

Laika died five to seven hours after launch from overheating and stress. Due to bad spacecraft design. A spacecraft which they designed and built in only 4 weeks because they needed to meet some deadline. I wonder what Laika thought about in that last few hours she spent cooking slowly at 40°C. For a 3-year-old stray dog living on the streets of Moscow, life must have been pretty harsh, cold and hungry.

Personally, I like to think that she was reminiscing that time Dr. Yazdovsky brought her home to play with his kids. I like to imagine her wagging her tail weakly, thinking about that one day in her very last minutes - just before the heat brought her under.

That must have been the happiest day of her life.

Bye Laika. You're a good dog.

Oleg Gazenko, one of the Russian scientists responsible for Laika's demise, has this to say about the whole sorry debacle,

"Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."

Sappy, I know,
k0k s3n w4i