Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My new book on Blurb - Cambodia travel photos

One of my goals for 2008 was to finally create and publish a photobook on Blurb. (Let's not talk about the goals I did not manage to accomplish).

It's just done. Uploaded 30 minutes ago, then I went through the settings to see what options Blurb provides for marketing the book.

The Blurb site features "badges" - image links to the book on the Blurb catalog, an easy click-through to browse an online preview and place an order. (all major credit cards accepted!)

digitally edited t...
By Philip Lee

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Steinbeck and a likely mid09 holiday!

Was planning a family holiday to the bay area in Summer next year - a chance for Laura to visit with her older sister at the Stanford campus, and perhaps sneak into a lecture or two.

As we talked about how the trip could be structured, Monterey came up as one of the likely places we'd visit. We'd been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a trip to California many years back, and this was a wonderful place I'd be happy to spend another full day at. The Aquarium is situated at one of Cannery Row, a street immortalised by Steinbeck in his book of the same name, and the follow-up novel "Sweet Thursday".

Tortilla Flat was the first Steinbeck novel I'd ever read (borrowed the book from the CJC library back in '78, 10 years after Steinbeck passed away), and this book had me sold on the author for his laid back style, odd but richly rendered characters and deceptively simple but effective descriptions of the sets (the scene backdrops, the surroundings of the action). Set in Monterey, as were Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, these stories made me want to visit that section of the CA west coast, see the marine life that provided Doc with his living, sit in the dunes where the troubled minds would visit for comfort and perhaps a bit of wisdom......

At PageOne (in Vivo City) about a month back, I came across a beautifully packaged set of Steinbeck's manuals. Lovely cover art and design - that captured the spirit of men of old I associate with California - men like John Muir, Steinbeck himself, Francis of Assisi - people who travelled, observed, had ideas bigger than their bodies could contain.

Much to my delight, I came across a Steinbeck piece in the "Blowin' in the wind" blog, and it's linked here for your reading pleasure.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Secret Santa

Larry Stewart died from cancer on Jan 12th, 2007. From 1979 to 2006, he had a secret identity. He would anonymously seek out people in need and give them $100 bills, asking in return that they perform acts of kindness to others. According to Wikipedia,
"...he believed in handing out cash directly to people in need because it is something people do not have to, as he said, "beg for, get in line for, or apply for."
Before he died, he revealed his secret identity to encourage others to act with similar generosity. Larry's project lives on because there are now others to carry on his work. One of them is featured in this Dec 24th 2007 article:

ABCNews: Secret Santa Hands Out Crisp $100 Bills
Donor Distributes Money for Good. Only Catch: He Wants You to Pay the Kindness Forward

The new Secret Santa is still anonymous. In a quote from the article above, he says:

"He'd hand him a hundred dollars, just like I'm handing you," Santa said to one lucky recipient. "All he would ask is that you do something nice for somebody, and pass the kindness on," Santa told another.

In his first year on the job, this new Secret Santa has, so far, changed the fortunes of 600 strangers. "If $100 can inspire 1,000 people to commit a random act of kindness and pass it on, that's the best investment I can get on my money," he said.

In yesterday's Sunday Times, there was a feature from AP, about this same Secret Santa on his second christmas since his recruitment by Larry Stewart. Much of the text from this article appeared, interestingly enough, on the China Daily website.

Secret Santa began his work in Kansas. So it's appropriate to link in a Dec 6 2008 article from the KansasCityStar.com website titled:

Secret Santa amazes St.Louis

I met a man with a similar philosophy somewhere on the streets of Singapore more than 30 years ago. I have forgotten what he did for me - but he was a stranger, and had helped me more than I would have expected a stranger to. I remember asking him how I could pay him back. His reply was "to do good to other strangers". He never told me his name, or how I could contact him again. Anonymous.

I've had the chance to help a few strangers out since. Changing a car tyre by the side of the road. Offering a lift. Carrying a heavy bag a few blocks. Guiding a car through a tight passage. Offering parking coupons with some minutes of unexpired time on them. Holding doors open for cleaners with laden trollies to wheel past. It's only to the children that I ask for repayment by their doing something good for others. I prefer to assume the adults will know what to do.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Joan's letter to ST Forum (18th Nov 2008)

Several weeks back, Joan sent a letter to the ST Forum which was published in the 18th Nov issue of the Straits Times. Reproduced here for your reading pleasure!

Subject: reduce electricity tariff for All Singaporeans, not just companies

I refer to Fiona Chan's article, dated Nov 16, where companies are seeking govt relief to cope with the downturn. Companies are asking for reduction in utilities costs and transportation costs such as road tax and ERP charges. I urge the govt to have a heart and reduce such costs for ALL Singaporeans who are hurting from the financial crisis. Otherwise, the man- in- the- street would effectively be subsidising the costs of these companies. The recent 21% hike in electricity prices in the wake of the already unraveling economy was an especially cruel blow to all Singaporeans and others living here, already reeling from the GST hike slapped on earlier this year when signs of cracks in the global economy were starting to show. All Singaporeans are hurting. We are all struggling to cope and worried about making ends meet. To the government of Singapore: I speak to you directly. Please have a heart. Show your compassion to all. Kindness given benefits both the giver and the taker. And as all economists agree, we need to stimulate the economy with increased public and personal spending. We cannot do this when our wallets are empty.

Friday, November 28, 2008

An appetite for spirituality

This weeks' New York Times Critic's Pick video review is Babette's Feast.
You can watch the NYT review by A.O.Scott here.

Babette's feast was written by Isak Dinesen, and made into a 1987 film by Danish Director Gabriel Axel. The three main characters are women. Two, elderly spinster sisters, are running a small protestant community in a remote and barren land. The community was started by their father, now deceased, and practices an austere form of the religion. They are pious and strict, yet the community is not at peace - there are frictions, making it seem very unlike the ideal state presented in the Acts of the Apostles. The sisters do not live their own lives. They live out their father's will - all is about duty, and their own loves, desires, passions and even God given gifts are sacrificed at the altar of duty.

Into this world or order, blandness and predictability comes the third woman, a French woman, fleeing war. She is very unlike them. She brings about spirituality via the creation of beauty in cuisine, and draws out the nuances and varieties from what we typically think of as being a single, monolithic appetite.

For a while, as Babette prepares her meal of thanksgiving, the sisters look with horror at her work and believe it will bring evil and harm to the community. In this, they are sincere but so wrong. Before partaking of the meal, the members of the community, all elderly, conspire to taste the food, but refuse to enjoy it.

At the end of the meal, their guest, an elderly General who has tasted the good life and seen the world, but carried an emptiness in his heart (for he was the unsuccessful suitor of one of the sisters) finds himself astounded and spiritually moved by the magnificent meal in the austere setting (a setting that to him had represented the end of love and hope in his life).

While watching the film, one thinks of how before fully understanding, Francis of Assissi not only denied his appetites, but also mistreated his body, seeing it as the source of his appetites. Towards his end, he began to recognise that his body was a gift, one he should have taken better care of and better respected - perhaps at this time, he also began to realise that all appetites are good - none should ever be over indulged, but neither should any be denied.

A few other thoughts that come from watching, are about how the main characters are all women, how Babette does not speak the language nor attempts to change the mindset of the community that is giving her refuge. In providing them the feast, she is trying to thank them in the most sincere way she knows how. In her sacrifice of all her wealth, and the food and drink, there is an aspect of the Last Supper hovering in the shadows, just out of sight but with a presence one can feel over the marvel and color of the glorious food.

This film is truly food for thought. (Just couldn't resist - my apologies).
I got to watch it many years ago, and it still haunts me. There's another film where food plays a very central role, and that is just the opposite - it's very surreal, but equally enjoyable (in a perverse way) - I'll write about Tampopo another day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Before Sunset

I had the pleasure of re-watching this brilliant movie today.
Or rather, re-listening. It was playing on my video iPod, and the iPod spent most of it's time in my pocket thanks to my standing in a crowded bus. I smiled a lot while listening, enjoying the humor and regular digs and outrageous and totally untrue statements Celine and Jesse hurled at each other. There's something to be said for listening, rather than watching, a movie that's primarily dialog driven. It really works this way.

One cannot help but compare this film to Before Sunrise. In the earlier film, you see 2 young people, critical of their parent's lives and while realising they weren't perfect themselves, "knew" they were going to do much better.

Now, in Before Sunset, they seem to have done worse than even their parents had done. The future does not look good, and they blame their unhappy lives on their stupidity of not ensuring the 9-year ago meeting at the Vienna train platform by at least exchanging phone numbers.

They allowed that night they spent in Vienna 9 years ago loom so large in their lives as to destroy their future. They can't get over it.

One recalls the final lines from Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. ... And one fine morning ---- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

In the early part of their Paris reunion, Jesse and Celine are cautiously getting to know each other again in a Parisian coffee shop. They speak of living in the moment, which brings back the earlier scene where Jesse is describing the possible plot of his next book - in which one can live two moments - one in the present and one in the past - simultaneously. Just like the characters, in living their current meeting simultaneously with their past meeting, we viewers who have enjoyed the first film are also watching two films simultaneously. As we watch "sunset", out minds are reliving "sunrise" - looking for parallels of word, image and concept.

They grow in anguish as they talk about the near misses. How fate seemed to keep bringing them so close, and yet not letting them connect. Like the 2 magnets a child holds facing each other - close enough to feel the force of attraction pulling the magnets together, but with just enough force to keep them from closing that final less-than-a-millimeter gap that stands in the way of union.

The dialog throughout is superb, but there are two parts I choose to highlight in this post. It just doesn't read as well as it's heard - thanks to Celine's expressive french accent, and Jesse's laid back manner.

Jesse: I was once a... ...a drummer in a band.

Céline: You were?

Jesse: Yeah, we were pretty good, actually. But then...the lead singer guy, he was just so obsessed with us getting a record deal. (Céline reaches into her bag and withdraws a cigarette.) You know, it's all we talked about, it was all we thought about, getting bigger shows, and everything was just...focused on the future, all the time. And now, the band doesn't even exist anymore, right? And looking back at the...at the shows we did play, even rehearsing...you know, (motioning for emphasis) it was just so much fun! Now I'd be able to enjoy every minute of it. Can I have a drag? (She hand him the cigarette.)

Céline: Well, your book has been published, that's... that's a pretty big deal, and you've been all around Europe with it. Are you enjoying every minute of it?

Jesse: (Exhaling smoke, and shaking his head.) Not really...

Céline: Not really? (They both laugh.)

Jesse: Do you have another one of those?

Céline: Yes, of course. (Hands him a cigarette.) Um, here. (He takes the cigarette and taps it 3 times on the table.) In my field, I see these people that... (Hands him her cigarette so he can light the one she has given him.)...uh, sorry...come into it with big idealist visions of becoming the new leader that will create a better world. They enjoy the goal, but not the process!

Jesse: Right.

Céline: But the reality of it is that the true work of improving things is in the little achievements of the day. And that's what you need to enjoy, just in that field.

Jesse: What, what do you mean, exactly?

Céline: Well, for example, I was working for this organization that helped villages in Mexico. And their concerns was how to get the pencils sent to the kid in these little country schools. I was not about big revolutionary ideas, it was about pencils. I see the people that do the real work and what's really sad, in a way, is that...the people that are the most giving, hard working and capable of making this world better, usually don't have the ego and ambition to be a leader. They don't see any interest in superficial rewards, they don't care if...if their name ever appear in the press. They actually enjoy the process of helping others, they're in the moment.

Jesse: Yeah, but that's so hard! You know, to be in the moment. I just feel like I'm...designed to be slightly dissatisfied with everything. You know? I mean, like...always trying to better my situation. You know, I satisfy one desire, and it just... agitates another, you know? Then I think, to hell with it, right? I mean, desire is the fuel of life, I mean, do you think it's true that if we never wanted anything, we'd never be unhappy?

*****and another............

Céline: (Shaking her head with eyes nearly watering.) You know...it's not even that. I was...I was fine, until I read your fucking book! It stirred shit up, you know? It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was, how I had so much hope in things, and now it's like...I don't believe in anything that relates to love. I don't feel things for people anymore. In a way...I put all my romanticism into that one night, and I was never able to feel all this again. Like...somehow this night took things away from me and...I expressed them to you, and you took them with you! It made me feel cold, like if love wasn't for me!

Jesse: I... I don't believe that. I don't believe that.

Céline: You know what? Reality and love are almost contradictory for me. It's funny...every single of my ex’s...they're now married! Men go out with me, we break up, and then they get married! And later they call me to thank me for teaching them what love is, and…

Jesse: (Smiling sympathetically.) Oh God. (Rubs his face with both hands.)

Céline: …and that I taught them to care and respect women!

Jesse: (Pointing at himself.) I think I'm one of those guys.

Céline: (Yelling.) You know, I want to KILL them!! Why didn't they ask ME to marry them? I would have said "No", but at least they could have asked!! But it's my fault, I know it's my fault, because...I never felt it was the right man. Never! But what does it mean the right man? The love of your life? The concept is absurd; the idea that we can only be complete with another person is...EVIL!! RIGHT??!!

A good place to read the script:

The first of the segments above really got my notice, because just the Sunday night before, I'd spoken to my Aunt, who's a not-so-young nun working in a small convent way out in the Sabah jungles. I was asking her what Laura and I could bring on our trip for the nuns and the people they serve, and was ready for big asks. Her reply surprised me.
"Erasers and Ball Point Pens"

After more prodding, I got her to accept a lot more, but after a week of thinking what she wanted us to bring for her, foremost in her mind are what I would think of as being very small things!
Yet, this situation is exatly mirrored in the film, where Celine speaks of transporting pencils to outlying villages in Mexico.

I'll end with a short return to the Great Gatsby. The BBC recently ran a radio dramatization in 10 parts. It was abridged and I was suprised at how much I got out of the broadcast. I had read (carefully!) the book, and enjoyed it a great deal. But now, listening .....I found myself with a new and stronger appreciation of how Fitzgerald conveyed his ideas with his use of language - things that I had missed while reading.

Sometimes, using a different sense to experience something familiar to another sense results in a new experience.

Which was certainly the case with my listening, rather than watching the film Before Sunset.

A film I would readily summarise with the phrase "boats against the current".

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Where Fresh and Sea waters meet

I came across a NewScientist video on the Dead Water Effect in an eMail newsletter on Friday.
It caught my eye not because it was NewScientist (I used to read every issue in the library at CJC during my JC years) but because of the recent completion of the Marina Barrage.

Where fresh and sea waters meet, the place becomes more interesting. You have creatures living there that thrive in both environments. And some that you won't see anywhere else (mud skippers come to mind). Over time, the sea water in the basin is going to be displaced by the fresh water brought in by the Kallang and Singapore rivers. Given the size of it, that'll be a long time. Fresh water will tend to "float" on top of the denser sea water, and with the barrage shut most of the time, there won't be tides to mix the fresh and sea waters around.

In the final episode of David Attenborough's excellent "Planet Earth" series, he has a segment where the Ganges River meets the sea - the creatures that live there, and how the water has changed from when it first originated high up in the himalayas. And in Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", Bryson has a section that talks about how layers of water, less dense warm layers and more dense cold layers, interact to give rise to complex systems that pull and push sections of water around the oceans. These water flows are influenced by, and influence in turn wind currents and storm systems, and the delivery of rain, our source of freshwater, to our lands.

I'm thinking of where that interface where different human communities, with their distinct ideas and practices mingle and interact. How interesting hybrids arise, how there is sometimes dilution, sometimes strengthening. But always creating something new, and feeding into a system of energy flows that is too big and complex for us to understand, and that ultimately creates the future of humanity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Storm

There was a big storm last night. The rain fell hard and loud. Reaching out to pull the windows shut, my right arm was all wet and cold from the 3am downpour. It wasn't long before the lightning and thunder came. I kept the windows in your old room slightly ajar, and the door open, to allow the cool, rain-fresh air flow through, and carry with it the sound of the drops on the leaves outside.

I love listening to and watching storms.

The last one I had a chance to enjoy was on Tuesday lunchtime. Obama had just stormed into the White House as president elect. I needed to go somewhere quiet to recover from the excitement of the morning, and Colbar in Portsdown was the place.

I don't think you've been there before, but Colbar is a relic from the times the British forces were still in Singapore. There were many places like this in Changi and Seletar. Restaurants run by locals, made of plank that ended 3 feet short of the ceiling, with the difference made up by a lattice of sticks or a wire grid so that the air could flow through. The Colbar building is like the houses and shops of old. It's easy to imagine the geckos hiding in the corners, emerging when insects roam too close to the naked flourescent tubes. It's easy to imagine leaks in the roof, with pails and rags placed to catch the drops that inevitably come through when the rains come.

And come they did. A nice, good downpour that made the sky dark and created quite a din as it hit the roof. I glanced at the number plate I'd brought along from the ordering counter that would tell the servers which dish belonged to me. (I'd ordered a rice and beef curry)

It was number 44.

A nice coincidence, because the gentleman who has just won the election was to become the 44th president of the USA.

A thought about Obama's victory.
Should we thank George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Neo-Cons for doing such a bang up job of destroying the US' image abroad, it's own economy and bringing the global financial system to the edge of collapse to the extent that America would be willing to vote in a black man for the nation's top job?

Would that would be like saying it's good that Hitler perpertrated the evil that he did, so that men like Oskar Schindler and Maximillian Kolbe could demonstrate their heroism to a world badly in need of heroes?

Bond the Avenger

Quantum of Solace....
I saw it tonight.

It's all summed by towards the end, as Bond drops Camille off at a train station in a small, out-of-the way Bolivian town railroad station. Before they part, she tells Bond that he's a prisoner, and hopes that he can be free one day.

That got me thinking.

Bond in this film didn't have a sense of fun. No relishing of the good things in life. When he drinks his martinis in the first class lounge in the plane, it's not for hedonistic pleasure. It's to dull his senses. He gets a grand room in the grandest hotel in La Paz, and some company from the very primly British Ms Fields. But there does not seem to be any joy in that either. People remark that he looks like he hasn't slept in days. He hasn't.

This is not the Bond of Connery, Moore or Brosnan. (I don't consider Lazenby or Dalton as worthy Bonds). This is Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson in a designer Suit, an Aston Martin and the body and moves of an athlete/gymnast. The Craig Bond is a silent, brooding person without joy or zest for life. He's a prisoner and is out to avenge those who harmed and took away the love of his life. Very Eastwood. Very Bronson. Not Bond.

That aside, the plot was good. It was actually one of the best written Bond plots I've encountered so far - very real world. I was fascinated to see Britain's foreign affairs ministry cavorting with the evil organisation, all in the name of securing the oil if felt was being snapped up by the Americans, Chinese and Indians. The oil that Russia and the Middle East were offering in less than friendly terms. Reminds me of how many big organisations have large departments working at odds, hardly aligned for the ultimate national good, seeking only to succeed in their narrow KPIs for the sake of career, glory and power.

Camille Montes (played by Olga Kurylenko) was totally believeable as a Russian-Bolivian Spy. Hard to believe she's ukranian - she does sport a latin-american look. Her "origin story" was reminiscent of O-Ren Ishii (the leader of the Yakuza, and her personal assassins, the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill). Recall the young girl who sees her family brutalized and killed before her tear stained eyes by a sadistic, evil man, and then her house is set on fire while she's still in it.

Seeing a black Felix Leiter was a joy, given today's announcement of Barack Obama's winning the 2008 US Presidential Elections.

It's just as well Q did not make an appearance in this film. He would not have fit. Q was about gadgets. About surviving like a lab rat in the subterranean depths of a large, confusing and officious organisation. About a bit of fun.

Best Tech in the movie? The table inteface in the early M debriefing, and later the glass wall display where the name search for matches for Dominic Greene are running. Nice visualizations, M has better interface design programmers than Tony Stark has.

No fun in this Bond film. Just lots of very well choreographed action, and a fascinating, real-world storyline. Good stuff, but still not in the league of the Connery films.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I teach you the superman. Man is something to be surpassed.
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

On my last trip to the National Library, I borrowed two hardcover books. The first was a re-work of the Shazam! origin by Jeff Smith (the genius behind Bone), playfully titled "The Monster Society of Evil". The second was a re-printing of the first issues of Shazam! (DC Archive Editions Shazam! Archives Volume 1).

Captain Marvel first appeared in Facwett's Whiz Comics, published in February 1940, two years after the alien named Clark Kent and one year after the insane earthman named Bruce Wayne made their respective debuts. Interestingly, on the cover of Captain Marvel's first appearance, Cap is drawn hurling a villan's car into a brick wall. On the cover of Action Comics #1, Superman is shown lifting a car (almost the same model as the Captain Marvel car), and ramming it's front into an earth mound.

Another observation - both titles start with letters at the opposite end of the alphabet.

I have nothing but praise for Jeff Smith's retelling. His characterizations and art are wonderful. Excellent pacing, little touches that feel right for a story about two young people facing a powerful menace from the other side of the Rock of Eternity. Smith is true to the mood and humour of the original. Sivana is still evil, but seems more like the Luthor from John Byrne's rework of Superman. A suit with a brilliant mind, in a respectable position in society but with a heart of blackness. No matter - it was the giant monsters that Mr Mind brought to Earth that were the grand pleasure. They stood still most of the time, making them look all the more menacing, and perhaps something like out of Paul Chadwick's Concrete.

Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family were the backdrop from which Alan Moore created MarvelMan, which began life in serialized form in the British Warrior comic. I first came across this comic at the small shop at the MacRitchie bus-stop in the early 1980s, while on my way home from the Nanyang Campus. At that time, V for Vandetta was being serialised and I remember being haunted by David Lloyd's art on the series.

Alan Moore took the corny innocence of the British Marvel Family (led by Marvelman who was a shameless copy of America's Captain Marvel) and turned it into something dark, sinister and absolutely brilliant. Doctor Gargunza looked very much like Doctor Sivana, and the earlier childish Marvel Family stories were explained as dreams plucked from comic books that Gargunza fed into the minds of his test subjects to keep them in a controlled state while their bodies, fashioned from Alien Technology were being probed and manipulated.

The series ended prematurely when Warrior folded. Eclipse Comics reprinted the old stories, and published the new stories in the US, and I lapped up each issue as it appeared. To keep Marvel's lawyers at bay, Marvelman was renamed Miracleman - a perfectly acceptable change if it meant we continued to get more of this fantastic series.

Alan Moore ended his run with the defeat of the grown Kid Miracleman, Johnny Bates in what must have been one of the most violent and gory mainstream comics ever. After "saving" the world, Miracleman sets himself up as leader of a world governed as a Dictatorship, by a Dictator benign, but who had lost all traces of his humanity. Neil Gaiman took over, and did what he did best on his Sandman run - writing short, seemingly unconnected stories that help build up a mythology, that strengthen an overall storyline racing to some tragic conclusion.

We never get to see that conclusion. Eclipse Comics unfortunately went bust, and thanks to a whole lot of competing legal claims to the rights to use the characters, we probably never will get to see the ending Gaiman intended.

Contrast the world of superheroes in the late 1930s when they first emerged, with the world that emerges post Johnny Bates in Miracleman. The 1930s comics were stories of hope and heroism, bright colored costumes and clear distinctions between good and evil, at a time when the world was sinking into darkness, when evil was penetrating the hearts of Europe and Asia. In the world of Miracleman, the superhuman class rule over mankind in a world of technological sophistication and granduer, where there is order and no wars exist, but where all seems dark and controlled and lacking in heart and spirit. Man is indeed surpassed by the superman, but it is not good.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mamma Mia!

"........Here we go again. How can I resist you?"

We just saw Mamma Mia the movie tonight. What a treat!
It was a little hard to watch at first, what with the oddness of the singing and dancing at what seemed like random or contrived moments.
But after the first few songs, the story started to draw me in, and the songs began to get my toes a-tapping, and I was hooked.

Meryl Streep sings very, very well. Pierce Brosnan may have been a great Bond, but thank goodness he never made a career out of singing.
It's high praise that I find myself wanting to buy the soundtrack, to enjoy the songs the way the actresses and actors in the film sang them. Very high praise because I so love the original Abba versions.
At the end of the film, I'm pretty sure I caught a glimpse of a bearded Bjorn Ulvaeus among the group of greeks dressed like they were on Olympus. On wikipedia, there's a note that Benny Andersson has a cameo as an old fisherman playing a piano during the Dancing Queen sequence.

This wonderful film left me with warm and mellow feelings, and tunes that played over and over in my head, not wanting to leave.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Battle of the Titans

From time to time, to the delight of fans, and to boost sales a little, comic publishers would contrive a cross-over - a story in which two powerful comic characters who normally would not ever meet, clash in an epic 4 part story.

Think Superman vs Hulk. Teen Titans vs X-Men. Batman vs Judge Dredd. Tarzan vs Predator.
You get the idea.

As part of my early education, my parents fed me a pretty steady diet of wildlife documentaries, mental food that I positively devoured. Sometimes, these would be films we'd go to a cinema to view, and there'd often be a short cartoon before it to make us kids happy. Later, there would be excellent documentaries shown in color on the national TV network - usually on hot and lazy Sunday afternoons. (I'm remembering in particular Carl Sagan's Cosmos and the David Attenborough BBC multi part documentaries)

I remember with particular fascination scenes of leopards chasing down the young deer, raising massive clouds of dust at breakneck speed. A vicious showdown between a cobra and a mongoose. Crocs in a muddy river dragging down the struggling elderly wilderbeast.

There were the fights I wish some documentary maker could have captured on film. A giant ape fighting a 30ft anaconda. A fight to the death between a giant squid and a sperm whale. That would have been so cool.

Now, real life has provided a fascinating match-up - and this was reported recently on the BBC in an article titled in a way that I simply could not resist:

Snake bursts after gobbling gator

What a great story! The two giants - a 13 foot burmese python, and a 6 foot croc fighting and killing each other in the Florida Everglades. Here's the link to the article.

Now if only there could have been a wildlife cameraman there to capture the action on film.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Shocking price increase from Singapore Power

The latest in a string of price increases from Singapore companies reporting good profits and growth is a 21% hike in electricity tariffs by Singapore Power.

Here is a letter I wrote to the Straits Times Forum on 4 Oct 2008:

Dear Editor,

Reading your newspaper this morning (ST 4 Oct 08) got me all charged up, thanks to one particularly shocking article titled "Queries on your power bill answered". SP conveniently justifies it's tariff increase by pointing at the 3-month forward fuel oil price, which is odd because 80% of it's electricity generated comes from Natural Gas, and also because everyone expects fuel prices to fall in the near term, as more countries follow NZ, Ireland and France into recession.

Singapore Power's Profit in FY07/08 was $1.085 billion (ref SP website). Very respectable results by any standard, more so against the backdrop of 2008's spiking crude prices and inflation. So why the hefty tariff increase? It seems that SP simply wants more profit, at the risk of adding to the difficulties it's customers already face. Easily found on SP's website is their mission statement: "We provide reliable and efficient energy utility services to enhance the economy and the quality of life". We certainly don't begrudge SP a reasonable profit for the services they provide, but the mission statement is a clear reminder that the well being of Singapore's economy and it's people matter more than profits beyond what is reasonable.

Your article mentions that the Singapore Government "has a poilcy of subjecting essentials like electricity, water and oil to market forces..." We've heard the same argument regarding the prices of HDB flats - where the price is not tied to the actual cost of materials and cost of land acquisition, but to the market value of flats in that area, and the market value of the land the flats are built on.

There is wisdom in not providing or minimizing subsidies, but one must question the assumption that allowing the free play of market forces and business' drive for profit at all costs is the best way to deliver well being for the ordinary citizen. The reputation of the free market religion has taken a serious trashing with the financial turmoil in the US housing market and Wall Street. These markets succumbed to human greed and an emphasis on short term profits at the expense of the long term health of the world economy, and are now dragging the global economy down with them.

A quick survey of the big news of the last few weeks gives us shocking examples of how an overemphasis on the profit motive has harmed those our society should most protect. Young children killed by tainted infant formula. Elderly retirees losing their retirement savings from investments marketed to them as safe.

The US Presidential and Vice Presidential debates have their candidates proclaiming their support for the middle class, and their belated discovery at how badly squeezed main street has become. Election talk, yes. But reflective of the mood of the American public. More market regulation all over the world is a near term certainty, and one hopes that companies will modify executive compensation to reward actions that generate long term benefit and moral leadership, instead of short term profit at any cost.

Perhaps its time for Singapore companies, particularly those that provide essential services and staples to the Singapore public, to move from a quest for profit leadership to moral leadership, and elevate the well being of their customers to the highest priority. Now that would be really electrifying news.

Friday, September 26, 2008

26 Sep 1181 - Birthday of Francis of Assisi

Today is the birthday of Francis of Assisi.
As a teen, I read books about him. Biographies (particularly enjoying the book by Omer Englebert). The translation of the original "little flowers". Nikos Kazantzakis' amazing book on the life of Francis - the best of the lot, a lyrical, strange, tormented and yet beautiful account of the craziness of the little friar. I discovered John Michael Talbot's music because he was a Franciscan. I remember little of the time I watched the Franco Zeffirelli film "Brother Sun and Sister Moon" - coming after reading Kazantzakis, it did not leave much in my memory. Until finding video extracts from the film on YouTube, I did not realse that Donovan had contributed songs.

The video is embedded here - but if it does not play well for you (which is often the case with YouTube videos for me), download it and view using a FLV player. For downloading, I use DownloadHelper (an addon for Firefox), and GOM player for playback.

I liked Francis for his simplicity, his love of animals, his love of nature. The world needed him back in the 12th century. It still needs him today.

And tying nicely into the recent post, where I write about Death, sister of Dream (Morpheus) of the Endless in the Sandman series, is one of the verses from Francis' "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon":
Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Say Goodbye - often and well

Just a week ago, we said goodbye to JenMei at the International Students Centre in the north-west corner of the extensive Stanford University campus. She was with her fellow international students, and we had a flight to catch. It was difficult and painful.

Goodbye and Hello are two sides of the same coin. With creation of the new comes destruction of the old. Sometimes it's the other way around.

In my previous post, El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle are one and the same. Gaiman's Death is the most lovely person one can hope to meet in one's lifetime.  More alive than any living being I know.  

I'm sure it's a healthy thing to say goodbye often.
Goodbye to things. (we travel lighter, and better appreciate what's most important in life)
Goodbye to ideas. (we free up space for fresh insights)
Goodbye to people. (we appreciate them better)

A few years back, I read a book by Karen Kingston about clutter removal and space clearing. Her theory is that physical clutter impedes the flow of energies which result in a sickening of the environment. Clutter is an outward sign that deep inside, we feel a sense of lack, and this sense of lacking draws into our lives more lack. Letting go means we are confident of the future, that we will be provided with what we need and is most important. I have discarded or given away so many of my old things since then.

I did a big round of clearing this weekend - two rooms have completely different furniture arrangements now, and lots of new storage space is freed up, and things that were scattered about nicely put away.

There's much more stuff to let go of, but that's easy, compared to saying goodbye to JenMei on that Stanford lawn 7 evenings ago.

Memorable Death Scenes from Great Stories

Odd title. Morbid sounding.

I stumbled upon an adaption of several (too few) of Oscar Wilde's brilliant short stories by P Craig Russel in the National Library yesterday. One of the stories was "The Selfish Giant". Glancing through, I was reminded of the beauty of the story I'd read as my teenage years were slipping away, the last few drops of youthful idealism evaporating in the blazing heat of grownupness.

The boy who brings about the Giant's conversion, who the Giant waits many years for while allowing the children to overrun his garden, reappears and bears marks of the stigmata. The Giant, now old, is angered and threatens harm on those who wounded the boy. The idea of paradise being like a garden is so appropriate for this story.

Unfortunately, "the Happy Prince" was not among the stories in the library books. There is a scene at the end of the story, where after the swallow has died from exhaustion and the cold and the heart of the Prince/Statue breaks from sorrow, the mayor and his entourage condemn the sight of the dead bird and the scruffy statue, and have them thrown with the rubbish, into the furnace. As in the story of the Selfish Giant, the heroes of the story are rewarded with paradise for the good work they anonymously did, for the love they showed each other.

The earliest of memorable literary death scenes that I can recall clearly is the ending from Watership Down (written by Richard Adams). Hazel has grown old, the warren is doing well, and it's a beautiful day in the English countryside. El-ahrairah appears to him, and invites Hazel to join him in a better place. It's clear to us that El-Ahrairah, portrayed earlier as the legendary hero, the prince with a thousand enemies, is also the Black Rabbit of Inle, a being who seemed an enemy to be feared and avoided. Hazel notices how tired his old body feels, leaves it behind, and finds himself with new strength and leaps into the sky with the black rabbit.

Death, the delightful lass from Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, is first introduced in a story titled "the sound of her wings". The story exudes Mary Poppins - with the reference to "feed the birds", and the location she meets with Morpheus in. In the story, Death brings dream along with her on her rounds - when she takes people of varied shapes, sizes, faiths. Two are memorable. The baby who asks "is this all I get"? And the elderly man, recalling the prayers of his jewish faith to be recited at the end of his life. "The High Cost of Living" mini-series was another brilliant story revolving around Death - there's again a sense of Mary Poppins, wide-eyed innocence, and the idea that life is really a treasure and death helps us realise it's worth. After Morpheus' life is taken by Death at the end of "The Kindly Ones" story arc, a new arc titled "The Wake" begins - and is amazingly wonderful as a read - pulling back ideas and characters from the earlier issues. I dare say such richness of storytelling around the idea of death, with few macabre aspects, will be hard to find elsewhere.

The Sandman story arcs were good and are an unqualified must-read. But the standalone stories are often superior. In one, Facade, Death comes at the end for a metamorph - who's led her life in seclusion and misery, and delivers this memorable quote which is apparently based on something Terry Prachet wrote:

"When the first living thing existed, I was there, waiting. When the last living thing dies, my job will be finished. I'll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave."

Back in my army days, the call for Lights Out could be a blessing - when the work was done after a long hard day and one was dying for sleep in a clean bed...... or a curse - when there was much left to be done in preparation for exercises or inspections the following day.

When death comes calling, some don't want to leave. Others are pleased and relieved. It all depends on how one has lived one's live in each moment of now. Give me pleased and relieved any day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Return" - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a family outing - all 4 of us, popcorn, drinks ..... and one member sleeping through practically the whole film.

The film employs the familiar but always fresh chases, stunts, mystical symbols, ancient civilizations and jokes about Jones's fear of snakes. There are shades of Erich Von Daniken, whose books (led by "Chariots of the Gods") were extremely popular in the 70s. The idea of Aliens being behind major earthling religions was more fun to contemplate than the end of the gold standard, or the possible communist takeover of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Irina Spalko makes a wonderful villan(ess). Cate Blanchett is a far better baddie than she is a Fairy Queen (think Galadriel, LOTR). As Irina, she projects this cool, aloof, confident arrogance that makes her destruction that much more satisfying.
Indiana Jones: Careful, you may get exactly what you wish for.
Irina Spalko: I usually do.
Demanding knowledge from the Aliens, she gets bombarded by more than her being could contain. Makes you think back to the threat about how eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge would bring about hardship and pain. (Genesis).

By same token, recall the end of the Nazi Baddies in Raiders of the Lost Ark - to save them both, Indy tells Marion "don't look". Which recalls Lot's wife turning back to look on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and turning into a pillar of salt as a result.

There are a few throwbacks that are fun to look out for:
  • Mutt's look is a throw back to Lucas' early success - American Graffiti
  • The design of the Alien is a throw back to Spielberg's aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Indy says "I have a bad feeling about this", which brings you back to his Han Solo Character in Star Wars, where these words are uttered by Luke Skywalker.
There are probably many more - I have to watch the film a few more times to catch them.

When one thinks of the word "throwback", one also thinks of the word "return".

"Return" is used a lot in the film.
  • The Alien commands Harold Oxley to "return" the crystal skull to the spaceship.
  • There is the Return to Peru, which is where the first Indy film opens.
  • There is the Return of Marion.
  • There is the Return of the Ark - you see a part of it through a broken off section of a wooden crate during Indy's attempts to escape Spalko's men in the Area 51 warehouse.
Colonel Spalko is the single best thing about the film.
Indiana Jones: You're not from around here, are you?
Irina Spalko: Where is it you imagine I am from... Doctor Jones.
Indiana Jones: Well the way you're sinkin your teeth into those v-ouble-u's, I should think Eastern Ukraine.
She brings to mind other memorable Russian women villans/spies:
  • Barbara Bach's character in The Spy Who Loved Me, Anya Amasova. (Barbara Bach's hunsband is Ringo Starr)
  • Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love
  • Natasha Ramanoff - the Black Widow - created by Stan Lee, and who was so memorable in the early Frank Miller run on Daredevil
  • Xenia Sergeyevna Onatopp - in Goldeneye - played by Famke Janssen, (later Jean Grey in X-Men). Now this was a funny woman - she got sexually aroused when killing men.
Since the start of the Indiana Jones franchise, Lucas and Spielberg have tapped into ancient legends, evil empires, 1940s machines (trucks, planes and tanks), and swashbuckling hero movies of old. It's been a recipe that worked with fans like me - filled with ingredients of the diet of heroic fantasy I stuffed myself with in the 60s and 70s. It's a taste of nostalgia - one that leaves one hungry for more. Although sad that this is probably the last Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones film, I'm glad at how well the series has ended. Closing the loop, and branching out a fork for something new, perhaps featuring Mutt Williams in the leading role.
Mutt Williams: I don't understand. Why the legend about the city of gold?
Indiana Jones:: Well, the word for 'gold' translates as 'treasure.' But their treasure wasn't gold, it was knowledge. Knowledge was their treasure.
Treasure. Knowledge. Good and Evil. Banishment from the garden of paradise. The human condition. Prisoners of ideas and beliefs. Look to the skies.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Holiday in Switzerland, A Kind Angel in Bellinzona, Deadly Angels in Dr Who

Just back from our family holiday to Switzerland (3rd to 13th June 08) - our last with the "kids" - as I will have to start considering JenMei as an adult once she's left for her University studies this September.

It was a lovely holiday, full of incidents, laughs, tastes, trials and interesting people.

A few that come to mind:

It was everywhere. In the Zurich Central Train Station, there were massive statues of football personalities, in their team uniforms, occupying a large area near where the train platforms start. In the three days we walked in and out of the station, we got to see the pieces come together, and look a lot less creepy in the process. Advertisers were having a field day with football tie-ins. We got to see most of the matches on local TV - either in our accommodation or in restaurants. The Germany-Poland match was excellent - we watched this on the large screen TV in the apartment we stayed in in Zermatt on a Sunday evening. During the terrible Italy-Netherlands match on the 9th, where Italy suffered a 3 goal defeat, we were having dinner in an Italian Restaurant where the owner had placed many framed photos of himself, each with unusual perspectives, on the wall our table was placed next to. The owner was supposed to get back to us with details of the desert his sister had made - but he did not show up. I found him minutes later, behind the cash register watching the TV, looking distinctly unhappy. Netherlands must have scored a goal just before that. On our last evening in Luzern, we had dinner at the Helvetical Restaurant (excellent food!), sitting outside in the cold because of the cigarette smoke coming from the next door bar into the restaurant dining room. The bar was full of football supporters, watching the Switzerland vs Turkey match. Cars had been passing us with loud honks and waving flags during our walk to the restaurant. Switzerland scored. The bar went wild. We congratulated the waitress on her country's goal - but she simply repeated her prediction that Switzerland would not win the match. This proved prophetic, as Turkey equalised, and then in the closing minutes (injury time, I think), scored again to win 2-1.

Our source of Papaya, Kiwifruit, Roast Chicken, canned Chilli Con Carne and Ravioli, Frozen Pizza and Lasagne, Brown Bread and terrible house-brand spaghetti sauce!
Coop supermarkets were in every town we went to. They're like NTUC fairprice back home. Coop is also in other businesses - furnishing, financial services.....

The Glacier Express
Specially designed carriages had the glass windows extending up to part of the ceiling - to enable us to more easily gawk at the stunning scenery. Some of the tracks had us literally go in circles - spirals going higher or lower in order to have a gradient that the trains could manage. At one point, to climb to the highest parts of the route, the engine had to be changed to one that would use a cogwheel to help pull the carriages up the steep tracks. The head "waiter" was an indian man with earrings - he brought us 2 bowls of Goulash, which the girls made quick work of. I had the pleasure of a beer and a coffee to accompany my view. Highlights of the journey were impossibly high viaducts, a frozen lake at the highest point, and photos of Timmie staring out at the landscape. A Finnish lady sat at the table next to ours. She was traveling around Switzerland on her own, going where the fancy took her, not knowing where she'd end up after Zermatt.

We stayed at this B&B for the one night we were in Milan. There's a vietnamese restaurant attached, where breakfast was served, and like the rooms, was dressed up with Vietnamese furniture, fittings and colors. The decor was the hard work of the owners, Christiane (mostly) and her Husband Dario (who owns a cool BMW motorbike). At breakfast, we were treated to a pear-sponge cake and Vietnamese coffee, both of which tasted exquisite.

Hillary Concedes
While in transit in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, watching CNN to while the wait away, there were first reports that Hillary was conceding, followed by reports that the Clinton Campaign's manager was denying that Hillary had conceded. The next morning, in Zurich, we got to watch Hillary Clinton give a dignified closing speech to her campaign, and asking her supporters to back Obama. Finally. I have to hand it to her for fighting on so long and hard. I was listening to "Audacity of Hope" while on a long road trip during my recent visit to Sri Lanka - after which I was rooting even more for Obama, so his clear path as Democratic Party nominee is good news from my perspective.

St Moritz
St Moritz for me was simply a means to an end - a necessary stop to start our journey on the Glacier Express to Zermatt. Instead, it turned out to be a lovely part of our trip that began with a walk around the lake. We collected lots of pine cones, enjoyed lovely views, took a super-long escalator ride from the train station to the swankiest section of town, and got stuck in the Coop because of rather heavy rain. In the end, we had to call a taxi to take us back to Hotel Stille, on the other end of the lake, and run by an energetic elderly lady with spectacles, long blonde hair tied in a pony tail (to save haircut money, she says). Had a lovely game of Chess with the girls that night, on a wooden set that was grand looking except for a missing white pawn, oddly and inadequately replaced by a small green plastic chess piece.

Matterhorn Strip Tease and Mass in Spanish
Our one full day in Zermatt was a sunday. We walked up the opposite slope from the Matterhorn in order to get a good view of the iconic mountain. The path up was small and steep - and a tough climb in places. Laura kept leaping far ahead. JenMei walked slowly behind, contemplating the trees. When we could see the Matterhorn, it was just a small part - some significant and different part each time was always covered by cloud. During the hours on the path, and at the restaurant in Sunnega (where we had great Rosti, Spaghetti, Ice Cream, Beer and Coffee!), we never got a complete view of the mountain. We attended 4pm mass, which was in Spanish, and went back to the apartment after a short walk afterward because the rain was starting. Sometime in the evening, Laura noticed that the Matterhorn peak was not just totally revealed - it had the evening sun hitting it's western face, making for a lovely photograph. It was stunningly beautiful.

An Angel in Bellinzona
It was already evening, and we were having trouble finding a hotel on the turnoff from the Highway A2 to a town called Bellizona. Joan had already gotten out of the car several times to ask for rooms or advice. At the entrance to a supermarket attached to a petrol station, she found a man who spoke english (we later found he has lived in Switzerland and Italy, and his first language was likely italian) who went the extra mile to help us. He asked for a minute to make his purchase in the supermarket and "comtemplate" - and used that time to not only buy his carton of milk but to also ask the views of others in the supermarket. He led us to town in his car - and brought us to a hotel close to the train station. It had no rooms, so he walked us to another restaurant some 100m away. He spoke in Italian to someone on the phone there but no rooms were available. We eventually saw a sign for Zimmer Frei as he was leading us by car to the highway entrance, and found our place for the night. Regret not getting his name or eMail address - we can't reach him to thank him again, but we can remember him as being extraordinarily helpful and being so nice about the way he was trying to help us out.

Dr Who and the Voyage of the Damned
I watched 2 movies on the Thai airways flight to Zurich, and 3 on the way back to Bangkok. One really stood out - a Dr Who special that had been shown on Christmas day 2007. I remember clearly the electronic music and starting graphic graphics from the black & white TV broadcasts in Singapore back in the 60s. I also remember finding the series somewhat scary. It's easy to recall the Tardis and Daleks still, but not much else. It's been many, many years since, and I can honestly say this re-introduction to Dr Who (the 10th, played by David Tennant) has blown my mind. Sharing star billing with Tennant is Kylie Minogue, playing a waitress with a desire to travel to other worlds. She comes across as very likeable, and it's too bad she meets her end saving the doctor from the villainous Max Capricorn. There was so much to like about the film. Brilliant concept. Seeing Titanic as a space cruiser was a joy. The logical arguments the Doctor used on the Angel Androids (programmed to kill surviving passenters and crew) to stop them killing him and to get them to take him to their leader was like something from Douglas Adams (who incidentally had been one of the many script writers during the original Nov 63 to Dec 89 run). Interesting cast of characters, all very british in their manners and speech. Except for the odd (funny in both senses of the word) character named Bannakaffalatta, a short chap with a red head, spikes growing out of it all over, and a black mouth. He talked in a comical voice, wore a suit and resisted being called by a contracted name by the good doctor. He turns out to be a Cyborg, and like Kylie's character (Astrid), gives up his life to help the survivors after the Titanic is damaged by the meteor shower. Well designed visuals and effects. Good amounts of conspiracy and little plot elements in the early parts that add to the story later come together to make this an excellent way to pass 70mins whether or not one is flying over a darkened indian ocean at that time. Strongly recommended. The BBC sells a DVD of the film on their website, and it's available on Amazon UK as well. I spent a good part of today re-acquainting myself with Dr Who. Here are some links, if you'd like to find out more:
* BBC Episode Page
* Wikipedia entry for Doctor Who
* Wikipedia entry for "Voyage of the Damned"
* Doctor Who Guide detailed plot

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Iron Man and the Merchants of Death

It's rare that I enjoy films based on stuff I've read and loved. Up till recently, the one notable exception has been Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy. Having read (and gone gaga) over Tolkien's the Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers and the Return of the King over and over again, I found myself amazed, and the breath taken out of me by the visualizations in the films. Something more had clearly been brought to the experience of the story.

Another exception has just come around. Iron Man. Just saw it with the family a few nights ago, and it's very different from the stories I used to read ages back. But different in a good way. It's an excellent rework of the origin, one I'm ready to accept because of the little touches that add to the bigger story. Some origin reworks have gone very well - what Miller did with Batman, what Moore did with Swamp Thing, and certainly, what Gaiman did to Sandman (Ever read the original Jack Kirby Sandman? You will laugh. Here's a clue. Evil man-sized talking frogs).

On the surface, Iron Man is a fun and high-tech superhero beat-the-overwhelmingly-powerful-bad-guys flick. Scratch a little deeper and it's a story on the evils of the arms industry that seems to be so acceptable in modern society. Deeper still, and you have the man-machine interface. Is flesh and bone enough to make us man or do we need a heart to truly be human? Does one become less human when one's physical powers are augmented by servos, circuits, pneumatics and power-generators?

Iron Man has been present since my earliest days of reading comics. The random issues that Uncles Tom and Igni used to get from a house along a road whose name I do not know, but can still see the route to in my head as clear as day, were treasures back in Green House Area, Taiping, days. Iron Man was in standalone issues of his own title. He was also with the Avengers. The stories continued across multiple issues, which was a bit of a problem because the comics we had then were pretty random. Mildly frustrating, but not a huge issue for one of a tender age.

I got serious about reading Iron Man during the run by David Michelinie and John Romita Jr/Bob Layton. They had begun a story arc titled "Demon in a Bottle" in 1979. It was the year of my A-Levels, National Service was looming around the corner, and this was the time I decided to really diversify my reading habits and was making excellent use of my CJC library card. "Demon in a Bottle" was, I think, the first ever story arc on a superhero having to deal with alcoholism. As Tony Stark loses control to alcohol, his enemy, a rival industrialist (Justin Hammer) discovers a way to take control of the Iron Man armor remotely. At a critical point in the story, Iron Man's repulsors turn on and blast a hole through an innocent foreign dignitary, killing him instantly. Tony Stark is now a murderer, the killing took place in full view of TV cameras and all hell breaks loose.

Highlights of the series are the new variants of the armor for different environments, and the fall from the SHIELD helicarrier, in which Stark does a mid-air routine of opening the suitcase, putting on the armour segments, activating the armour and getting the repulsors to work just before hitting ground. Excellent visual sequence by John Romita JR!

The film opens with Stark's capture, not by Vietcong soldiers as in the original origin, but by Afgan Mujahideen. Just prior to the capture, he has been demonstrating Stark Industry's new missile system to an appreciative US Military audience. The new missile system seems like a super-intelligent cluster bomb system. It's code named "Jericho"

The city of Jericho is now part of the West Bank in the Palestinian Territories - which we hear so much about in the news. This is the same Jericho we read about in the Old Testament. The one whose walls were brought down by Joshua, together with the power of the Ark of the Covenant (shades of Indiana Jones!). Part of the process involved in destroying Jericho's walls included walking around the walls of the city every day for 7 days, with 7 priests carrying rams horns in front of the arc.

In real life Jericho is a term given to Israeli Ballistic Missiles, now already in the third series. Interesting that the writers for the Iron Man movie chose this name for the new Stark International weapon system.

Not far from Jericho is another country that's very much in the news - Lebanon. In the recent Israel-Hezbollah war, Israel was condemned for using cluster bombs in Lebanon by no less than the United Nations.

A couple of weeks back, on the BBC World Service, there was a story about moves to ban cluster bombs. Two days ago, the BBC carried a story on the Cluster Bomb treaty signing which is excellent news indeed. The not so good news, though, is that there are 111 countries that chose to boycott the treaty.

The treaty would outlaw all current designs of cluster munitions and require destruction of stockpiles within eight years. Although the US refused to sign the treaty, there is the possibility that European allies could order U.S. bases in their countries to remove cluster bombs from their stocks.

There is a sense of Deja Vu when looking through the list of countries that boycotted the cluster bomb treaty. Just think back to the earlier efforts to ban land mines - a cause that had a highly prominent spokesperson in the form of Diana Spencer.

Princess Di angered Conservative Government Ministers by calling out publically and strongly for an international ban on the use of landmines while on a visit to Angola with the International Red Cross in Jan 97. During that visit, she walked through a minefield in view of international television crews .....TWICE ...to really get the point across to the journalists who loved following her every step and utterance.

The British Labour Party, then in opposition, supported Diana's call. A few months later, in May, Labour swept to power, and the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, promptly promised to ratify the international Ottawa convention on banning landmines. Diana was killed in the fatal paris car crash a few months later, in August that year. Perhaps her great purpose on this world was done with that brave action in Angola, and she could then leave this valley of tears. Her legacy still survives in that Britain, under Gordon Brown, has also been strongly in support of the treaty to ban Cluster Bombs.

Of the many things she has done, and the many causes she championed, this is what I will most remember her for.

As I write this post, I find myself thinking of two things I have in common with Diana - she was born in the same year as I, and she harbored a great admiration for Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

I think also of how the Iron Man story arc by Michelinie/RomitaJR/Layton about human fraility and heroism that I so enjoyed back in 1979 was running at the time Prince Charles was starting to court Diana. Had she never entered the tragic marriage into the British Royal Family, she would never have had the stature to draw the world's attention to the evils of land mines.

Prophecy, Destruction and Real Life in SEA

Eight Months ago, as monks led peaceful demonstrations in Myanmar, soldiers and spies were everywhere - noting who was participating in and supporting the street protests in preparation for the impending crackdown - visits in the night, imprisonment, disappearances, examples made to frighten the populace. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, these soldiers seem strangely absent. Monks are again on the streets, working with residents on the clean-up efforts. News reports speak of the few foreign aid workers allowed in, seeing the military being more concerned with manning checkpoints to monitor and control their movements than to ease the suffering of the people.

A TIME report in their 19th May 2008 issue mentioned speculation among Journalists in Yangon that the natural disaster wrought by the cyclone, as well as the monk-led protests had been predicted by soothsayers, and these predictions were behind the shift of the administrative capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005. Naypyidaw was spared by the cyclone.

Another article from AFP mentions not only Burmese soothsayer predictions for the Cyclone Nargis, but also the Sichuan Earthquake and another major natural disaster in the region, still to come in the year 2008. AFP Story: After cyclone, Myanmar astrologers see more tragedy in 2008 (Thu May 15, ET)

One of the books I've most enjoyed reading in recent years (I read most of it during a family holiday to Sydney in Dec 2004) is "A Fortune-Teller Told Me - Earthbound Travels in the Far East" by Tiziano Terzani. This is the back cover blurb, which does a good job of describing the book:

Warned by a Hong Kong fortune teller not to risk flying for a whole year, Tiziano Terzani - a vastly experienced Asia correspondent - took what he called 'the first step into an unknown world ... It turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.' Travelling by foot, boat, bus, car and train, he visited Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Consulting soothsayers and shamans wherever he went, he grew to understand and respect older ways of life and beliefs now threatened by the crasser forms of Western modernity.

I most enjoyed the sections where he travels through south east asian countries, and consults with fortune tellers. Most seem to be fakes - though not all are out to cheat as they seem to want nothing in return for their service. A very small number some seem to have real insight that they could not possibly know by natural means. Terzani is passionate about the loss of cultural identity he sees during his travels, a wealth being eroded by western values. He seems to feel that the ancient asian traditions are like real gold and jewels, and what the west offers instead are well packaged trinkets - attractive and irrisistable on the outside, but cheap plastic and glass on the inside.

There is a chapter devoted to a short trip he was able to make into Burma, from northern Thailand. In it, he writes of how astrology and occult practices were of great interest to General Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup in 1962, and stepped down after massive student protests in 1988. Examples like the strange denominations of the currency notes, and odd behaviour to ward off predicted evils are fascinating to read. He ends this section with this line: "In Asia, the future is much more important than the past, and much more energy is devoted to prophecy than to history."

In 1973, a book called "The Spear of Destiny" caused a small stir. The spear is question was the one used by the Roman soldier who pierced the side of the crucified Jesus on the cross, to prove he was dead, and not in need of having his bones broken to hasten the death of the crucified. This spear came to be owned by a succession of leaders who achieved amazing military success (Alaric and Charlemagne being among them), and the legend was that whoever owned the spear would be able to conquer the world. Napoleon was supposedly unsuccessful in trying to gain possession of it, but another man known for brutal conquest was.....

Hitler annexed Austria, where the spear was in a museum owned by the Hapsburgs, and ordered the museum contents to be shipped to the Nazi headquarters in Nuremberg. From that point came Hitler's greatest military successes. The book asserts that Hitler killed himself in the Berlin Bunker soon after the American Forces gained control of the vault in the which the spear had been hidden.

A fascinating story, though not completely believable, especially for a young teen with a fondness for a reading diet heavily slanted towards science fiction and fantasy.

A young teen who several years later, in June 1981, in a cinema near Mountain View, CA, would be sitting transfixed before a cinema screen, totally blown away by a film in which Aldof Hitler is trying to get his hands on a major occult prize to feed his collection of ancient artifacts of spiritual power that would enable him to rule the world. The prize in question is the Ark of the Covenant, and the film (in which Hitler is mentioned, but never appears) was "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

Just writing about it today, 27 years later, still sends the shivers through my bones, and makes my breath shallow and rapid, as I recall the story line, the action sequences, and the sheer audacity of the plot. Bloody Hell. What a fantastic, utterly memorable and expletive deserving film.

The latest Indiana Jones movie is here. I've downloaded the iTunes trailers. It's cool to see Cate Blanchett as an uptight Russian Dominatrix. The film will have ancient prophecy and sacred treasures. The will be action sequences full of destruction and people will die. There will be heroes and villans. The elderly and the young. The passing of an age.

Just like real life in South East Asia.

See the IMDB page on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Life Story

"Get up, he said.
Hurry or you might be late...."

Woke up late today, a Sunday, with Dick Lee's "Life Story" playing in my head, and vivid scenes from the Insurance TV Ad that used his song so clear before my eyes. The living room with black&white TV announcing the moon landing. The malay girl with the enigmatic smile. The caning. The dress, hair and spectacle styles, the old style house.

At this stage, when I'm looking forward to the kids growing up and wondering what the next 20 years of my working life will be like, I'm also looking backward - remembering things past, collecting items I'd read and listened to in the 60s and 70s.

Decided I'd really like to get a video of the advert somehow, and did a google for it. I didn't find the ad, but I found that there was a DVD made of Dick Lee's 30th Anniversary concert in 2004, called "life.stories". This would be the next best thing, and the DVD was available for loan at the National Library branch in Ang Mo Kio.

I also found a site where the song was available as streamed audio. No idea if Dick Lee gets any royalties from this site, but since I'm about to buy a copy of his 2004 concert DVD, I can somewhat justify posting the link here:

While looking up the National Library catalog, I discovered that Dick Lee had worked on a play or musical based on Ming Fong HO's "Sing to the Dawn". That caught my eye, because Ms Ho is one of Laura's favourite authors. Ms Ho's books are not happy stories - the main characters are children facing love, loss and hardship, and set in difficult conditions in Thailand and Cambodia. Certainly not happy. But very beautiful.

I recently discovered that Ming Fong Ho's brother is Kwong Ping, of Banyan Tree fame. Ho Kwong Ping has had an illustrious career, and in his earlier years spent time in Detention under the ISD in connection with writing that he had done for the Far Eastern Economic Review. A Straits Times report on May 16th described how the airplane that Ho Kwong Ping was on, about to take off from Chengdu Airport, was jolted repeatedly while taxiing along the tarmac. This was the major quake that hit Sichuan on the morning of 12 May 08. Had the quake occurred as the aircraft was taking off, the flight could have suffered a crash. Instead, the passengers were left shaken and grounded for about 10 hours in an airport without communications and air traffic control services. He's quoted in the article as saying "how fragile life is and how everything is due to luck."

Luck is something I wish in great abundance to the unfortunate victims of the Cyclone Nagis in Myanmar and the Sichuan Earthquake in China. There are horrifying stories - in the papers and radio reports, in emails from people on the ground. But one positive thing that arose for the Chinese leadership is how well they have responded to the crisis. There are countless articles contrasting the Chinese response to that of the Myanmar Generals, and even the response of the Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina's hit on New Orleans. This is a welcome PR break after the bad publicity from the Tibetan protests at the Olympic Torch runs.

Tens of thousands of lives lost in just a short time, from two natural disasters not far from each other. Many millions more lives from far beyond the disaster areas will have their courses changed dramatically as a result of the experiences and stories that emerge from the bravery and hardship of the victims and their rescuers.

"Just my life story
Minute by second a story
That goes on forever with each breath that I take..."

I'm still on the lookout for the video of the advert. I'll keep looking. eMail me if you know where I can find it.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Great New Use for Wikipedia

I've got a new use for Wikipedia, one for which the sometimes questionable accuracy or objectiveness of it's content is of no consequence.

For reasons I can't yet fathom, I found myself recalling films about a Black vampire from the early seventies. (those were my late primary school days). His name was Blacula. I'd seen the movie posters (they were painted on canvas in those days) stretched up on the front wall of the theaters, and adverts in the newspaper. These were also the wonderful times of Bruce Lee. Ti Lung/David Chiang. Shaft. Steve Austin (Lee Majors). Charles Bronson. Chuck Norris. Clint Eastwood. .....and Dracula himself (Christopher Lee, in the classic Hammer films). How does one keep such memories from bringing tears to one's eyes?

The first Blacula film was simply titled Blacula. Blacula dies in the end (vampire style suicide, having seen the second of the loves of his extended lifespan die), and is resurrected in the second film, "Scream Blacula Scream" by a voodoo practioner upset that a lesser rival was chosen as successor to the dying voodoo cult queen. (this sounds like the corporate world to me).

As a primary school kid, I never got to actually see the films - which is probably a good thing as they would have scared the heck out of me. (I'm cursed with an abundantly vivid imagination)

But now, thanks to Wikipedia, I get to know the story line of Blacula in pretty good detail. Unfortunately, the entry for the second film is extremely short.

In the first film, we learn there was a noble reason for our anti-hero ending up in the undead mess of vampirehood. As a Prince, a ruler of an African nation, he sought help to end the slave trade. Unfortunately, he's not very smart about who he turns to for help because Dracula, the supposed helper is a racist, and not only turns the prince into a vampire but imprisons him and his mortal queen for eternity. (note - mortals die after a while in captivity, vampires don't)

Decades later, Blacula's coffin ends up in Los Angeles (read the details yourself in the wikipedia article), the two purchasers of the coffin free him and end up his first victims, and the blood sucking spree of LA begins in earnest.

Those were the days of innocence. Long hot afternoons on a bicycle meandering through kampongs and dirt tracks. Sand Bars at Changi Beach where you could walk out 100m and find starfish and shellfish and stranded baby squid and seahorses in tidal pools. Buses that had paper tickets, and conductors that punched holes into a 3x20 matrix of numbers. Black and White TV.

All this against a backdrop of war in Indochina, the fear that Communism would engulf all of South East Asia, the pull out of British forces from Singapore and the resulting economic hole that would leave, the end of the Gold Standard, the Yom Kippur war, the first oil crisis and the massive inflation that followed. Yet despite all these crises with the capability to destroy civilization as we knew it, those were really the best of times.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

What comes next?

Sufficiently past 45, heading hastily into the half-century mark.
No more excuses about mid-life crises to justify irrational behaviour or purchases.
JenMei is pretty much grown up. Laura is a fine teenager, maturing quickly. I'm very proud of them both.
What should I do with the rest of my life, before it's over, or before my body won't let me do what I want it to do? The wrist and arm strength I used to be so proud of at 17 are not what they are now at 47.
When should I start doing the "next" thing?
I have some clues about what the "next" thing would be about. There would be elements of Technology. And Travel. Education. I'm fond of South East Asia, it's people and history and culture.
Does one wait for revelation? Or does one stumble in a general direction, and over time finds that one's feet have been guided?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Sotong Supreme - Colossal Squid from Antartica being studied

When JenMei was offered a place in Stanford, I started to fantasize. If I had the opportunity to go to Stanford myself, what would I study? The answer was easy: marine biology. The Monterey Bay Aquarium would be a lovely place to spend study hours, gazing at silently floating jellyfish, glaring at piranha, glowering at sunfish and gawking at puffers. The aquarium opened in 1984 and was built with a $55M gift from Dave & Lucile Packard. They gave generously also to Dave's alma mater, Stanford University. Memories of Doc from Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, collecting specimens from lonely tidal pools by the Monterey coast come flooding back. And my specialization in the Marine Biology course? Giant and Colossal Squid.

Imagine my delight when I came across an article on Wired's website last night which revealed, based on autopsy findings of a defrosting colossal squid specimen in New Zealand, that Colossal Squid had the largest eyes of any living creature on earth. Eleven inches across, and a lens the size of an orange. Designed to let in as much light as possible in the ocean depths the squid calls home and hunting grounds.

Doing a little more searching, I found this photo and diagram from National Geographic's site:
The article, titled "Photo in the News: Colossal Squid Caught off Antartica" is at available at this link.

For more detail and great links, Wikipedia has pages for both Colossal (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) and Giant (Architeuthis xxx) Squids.

The first exposure I had to Giant Squid (that I recall) was from the Disney version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In the film, a giant squid attacks the Nautilus, which then surfaces, and the crew emerge with harpoons and knives to fend off the giant squid. A lovely sequence guaranteed to fire the imagination of any young lad.

Not completely fiction though. It's easy to come across accounts of Giant Squid that attacked ships and whales. Even the credible BBC website has a report of a frenchman whose boat was attacked by one of these lovely creatures. Whales do eat giant squid - finding squid carcasses in the bellies of hunted whales attests to this. And giant squid do hunt (and perhaps eat) whales. Witnesses in South Africa watched an hour long attack on a baby southern right whale. The squid won. Would a whale be too big a meal? Perhaps not as the beak of the giant squid can bite through a steel cables.

There is a phrase I encountered frequently during my army days: "blur like sotong". That phrase was thinking of the little 6 inch body specimens you can buy from Singapore wet markets. We probably need to update that considerably for giant and colossal squids.