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.

Catherine Lim's Blog Posting on the Mas Selamat Scandal

Of the many, many words typed for blogs, newspapers and forums on the Mas Selamat Escape and Commission of Inquiry Report, this blog posting by Catherine Lim is one of the best.

Once you've read the blog post, read the comments. There's an interesting post which points out oddities and contradictions in the COI report. Many of these have appeared in forum posts, but the points are nicely laid out here.

I first heard of Catherine Lim while a student in Catholic Junior College. Apparently, she had been a teacher there, or had given lectures or seminars there. Her short stories are what I've enjoyed most from the few of her books that I've read. I remember reading a collection of ghost stories (the title may have been "They Do Return....but Gently Lead Them Back" ) that I found in the queenstown library many years ago.

You can find a good number of her books on Amazon.com, but the older books seem to be available in very small quantities only. Which is sad. There is a wikipedia entry on her writing.