Saturday, September 13, 2003

The Sands of Time

The Sands of Time

All my leisure time is now fully occupied with the various projects--both personal and work-related--that I have been pursuing. There's so much to do in life and I am always conscious of the fact that Time is finite. Wasting time is the greatest sin that one could ever commit.

I always imagine that the time that we have is like a huge bunch of coins in our pockets. We obviously have to spend it wisely. Only trouble is there's also a hole in our pocket and coins are dropping out one by one without us realising it. We could one day wake up to find that our pockets are already empty.

The sands of Time are slowly slipping down the hourglass...

Is blogging a waste of time then? Yes and no. Yes, because sometimes we are so over-obsessed with our own blog that we waste too much time fiddling around with it, making one small cosmetic change after another--a bit like preening in front of the mirror.

No, because blogging is like writing in own's journal. You record your thoughts and views; you remind yourself of things that are important; you think aloud and as a result see things much clearer; you solicit views from other people and you learn and grow in the process. For some of us too, it is a chance to learn a bit of Web technologies, which could be useful in our career.

In the movie Red Dragon, FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), impatient with questioning Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) said:

"I don't have much time!"

Hannibal Lecter, ever so cool and sinister, replied:

"Oh but I do....I have oodles"

Unlike Hannibal the Cannibal, languishing behind bars, most of us don't have oodles of time. But we should also not live life with the desperation of a man gasping for his last breath of air. LIke what I've mentioned in a previous blog entry, there's a natural rhythm to things in life, we must know how to listen to this rhythm and live life in harmony with it. Rushing here and there like a blind rat and working feverishly without rest will only increase our chances of dying young through heart attack.

Balance is the key. And balance is the most difficult thing to achieve in life. But we'll try, as the Sands of Time continue to slip quietly through the hourglass...

Friday, September 12, 2003

Age and Transformation

I've been thinking a lot about my university days lately. The other day I was discussing with my friend, Chua about whether our minds have deteriorated since we were students together.

I am of the opinion that it has improved--or at least I would like to think of it that way. To me a lot of the things that I studied then are a lot clearer to me now. I might not remember all the mathematical equations exactly but I understand their significance better. I might not have the patience and diligence to derive equations now, but I certainly have a better intuitive grasp of things.

I feel a bit like the astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After having been sucked into the Black Monolith outside planet Jupiter in the first movie, in 2010: Odyssey Two, the sequel directed by Peter Hyams, he returned--apparition-like--to appear before Dr Heywood Floyd ( Roy Scheider) warning him about an impending "cosmic event". To quote Bowman: "You see, it's all very clear to me now....the whole thing... It's wonderful."

Before his encounter with the "higher intelligence" in the first movie, Bowman was struggling to grasp the mystery of the Black Monolith and its significance. Now that he has been transformed into a non-physical "Starchild" , it's all "very clear" to him now.

As we grow older, our powers of abstraction improve. Though we might not have the mental stamina to deal with details, we can see the big picture better. Like an experienced football striker, we know how to anticipate where the ball is going to fall and how opposing defenders are going to react, and time our runs perfectly, to beat the offside trap. Our sense of positioning becomes better.

It will be very sad, if our minds fall apart as we grow in age. Sometimes we ourselves allow it to happen. We become lazy to think. We shy away from anything that seems slightly intellectually challenging, preferring to shrink back into our comfort zones.

I like to see the process of growing old as one of transformation--like Bowman's--rather than one of deterioration. Well, luckily I am not that old yet--many still see me (erroneously, I must say) as a swinging bachelor refusing to be tied down. But I look forward to age as transformation. Transformation--physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual--is something positive, something natural, something that is driven by some "higher" divine impulse.

Life is transformation. And like what Bowman said: "It's wonderful".

Thursday, September 11, 2003

The End of an Era

Security everywhere in Jakarta is especially tight today because it is the day. The area where my office is located is coincidentally called the World Trade Centre too; so you can imagine the paranoia.

When September 11 happened two years ago, I was in Taipei on a business trip. I had just arrived on an evening flight from HK and checked into Shangrila's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel when I heard the news over CNN. The hotel room had a small television set inside the bathroom; it was a strange feeling watching the two towers collapse while I was taking my shower.

My American colleague Brian who was with me on that trip was so distraught by it. He had a tough time getting a flight back to Chicago.

That day closed a chapter in many of our lives. Things sort of fell apart after that. It also gave a definite end to the dot-com and telco boom which was already going downhill then. It was the end of an era; an era of unbridled optimism, hype and excess.

My long-time colleague Chua from KL has been here in Jakarta with me these past few days. We spend our days sipping wine at the Regent Club, reliving those good and bad old days. We recall all the opportunists and conmen who were trying to make a killing during the goldrush. We laugh at the naivete of some customers who were desperately trying to "dot-com" themselves, not really understanding what they were getting into. It was so easy for us to sell then.

Now we stare ahead into a wasteland of desolation and pessimism. Those days are gone. We all have to reinvent ourselves. I think September 11 was a necessary wake up call for many of us.

I woke up, and I have never been more alive than ever.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Forever Children

How sure can one be about one's beliefs? There are times in our lives when we think that we already have all the answers in life. We feel so sure that we have found the right path.

Life is like climbing a mountain. We struggle to reach a peak, we look down and think the view is very good. And then we shout to everyone around us and say: " Hey, the best view is here, come and join me! This is the right path and spot. Don't waste your time elsewhere!".

Little do we know that there are even higher peaks with much better views. And there are people sitting quietly there enjoying the view before proceeding to higher peaks.

Teenagers on reaching puberty often feel very sure that what the adults want them to do is wrong. They have this spirit and passion to pursue what their heart tells them to. Because it feels so right inside.

When they reach their twenties, they begin to see how childish and immature their youthful beliefs were. They were idealistic. They were unaware of some of the difficulties that lie ahead. But it felt so right then, how could it be wrong?

Right now, I feel that my opinion about certain things are right. In my moments of arrogance I might even call someone else who do not share my views, stupid. Years from now, I might find my own views now laughable.

It is good to have strong beliefs but we must never dismiss the possibility that we could be wrong. The Communists thought that their system was the right one. On paper, some political or economical theories might even look very elegant and appealing to the intellect. Sometimes intellectual appeal is the greatest trap.

Even scientific theories, which can be proven empirically, can collapse overnight. Newtonian mechanics stood for centuries as irrefutable truths until Einstein showed that they are just approximations at speeds very much lower than the speed of light.

The great Sir Isaac Newton himself was humble about his own achievements. He wrote (not exactly in the following words--I'm quoting from memory--but close):

"I do not know how I may appear to the world. But to myself, I've been like a small child playing on a seashore, diverting my attention every now and then to a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the Ocean of Truth lies undiscovered before me"

He had the wisdom and foresight to see his achievements in relation to what was still unknown as the fiddlings of a child. We will continue to grow and learn and find our old beliefs childish. History is one big learning curve which we are still attempting to climb. We will never come to Childhood's End. We should realise that in reality, we are all forever children.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Movie as an Experience

People watch movies for different reasons. But most would agree that we want to be entertained. And perhaps even learn something in the process.

We sometimes disagree on our opinion about the merits of a movie because we all expect different things from it. Some people look for a good storyline or plot. Some look for action; some expect to be emotionally touched. Obviously movies are made to cater for different types of audiences and taste.

There are grounds for debate only if we first agree on what a movie is trying to achieve and then we start arguing whether the movie has successfully done so. Otherwise, some of us could just be missing the point. The Matrix Reloaded and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle both cater for different types of audiences and are made with different intents.

A movie which I enjoyed very much over the years that I've repeatedly watched it, is 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by the late Stanley Kubrick who also co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur C. Clarke. Released in 1968 before the Apollo landing on the moon, the movie contains ground-breaking special effects for its time. Even today, its space sequences still look realistic.

With a running time of two-and-of-half hours, to some people it is also one of the most boring movie ever made--imagine the first line of dialogue was only spoken half-an-hour into the movie!

During its LA premier, Rock Hudson was reported to walk out half-way into the movie complaining: "Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?"

The writer Norman Mailer was even more acerbic: "(The movie) is like one of those long interplanetary voyages where you have to go into hibernation..."

With long periods of silences, and long sequences of spacemen floating in space, and sleep-inducing Strauss waltzes as the background music, one can understand why many slept through most of the movie. Why then is it now revered as one of the greatest movies of all time?

No, I did not fall asleep when I first watched 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1990. But I was watching it alone, uninterrupted, with full concentration. At the end of it, I was enthralled. I sat through the movie again the next day and the following day after that.

Now, what was it about the movie that captivated me? Was it the grand scheme of the plot which spans from the dawn of Man--apemen fighting with bones--to the climatic encounter at the end with some unseen higher intelligence? Was it the visual effects which by today's standard are pretty run-of-the-mill?

At that time, I just knew that I liked it and it took me a while to figure out why. I finally realised that like a piece of poetry, or a painting, or a sip of good wine, the movie was an experience. One that had to be savoured in its totality.

It was the audio and visual experience of seeing space vehicles gliding in space to the strains of The Blue Danube Waltz; the astonishment of that brilliant fast-forward cut from bone-thrown-in-air to spaceship-floating-in-space; the suffocating claustrophobia of astronaut Poole in his spacesuit, drifting helpless in space, refused entry to his ship by HAL, the computer gone berserk; the experience of awe that borders on spirituality of astronaut Bowman, going through the Stargate to end up in a mundane aristocratic French living room and his final emergence and transformation into a "Starchild", drifting like a cosmic embryo over Earth.

It was one breathless experience. Its slow pace made it a visual meditation. Kubrick could have chosen to turn it into an pulsating space adventure with the materials he had, but he chose not to. Instead he gave us an experience that is both intellectual and religious. He himself mentioned in interviews that if he had succeeded in evoking such feelings in his audience, then he had achieved his intent.

And with me, he certainly did. That is why 2001:A Space Odyssey remains, lingering in my mind until now, an experience a lifetime, to be relived over and over again.

Monday, September 08, 2003

What is Understanding?

What is understanding? What do we mean when we say that we understand someone or something?

Some of my friends' wives would claim that they understand their husbands. They live with their husbands and they see their husbands everyday--of course they understand their husbands best. Maybe they do. They know what their husbands like to eat; they are familiar with their sleeping habits and probably knows what they will say or react in certain situations.

But I am constantly amazed at how much husbands can still conceal from their wives. Many I believe only knows less then fifty percent of their husbands' activities. Husbands too shouldn't assume that they know their wives well. Everyone has secret lives.

Which brings me back to my original question: What is understanding? Does understanding a person means knowing how much he weighs, what is her hobby, what is her star sign, how he spends his day at the office? Or is it something deeper?

In school, when we first studied mathematics, we probably did not grasp the relevance of some of the things we were taught. What was the purpose of solving differential equations? Why did we study set theory? We weren't sure, but yet we studied the rules and techniques for manipulating algebraic symbols and became even quite good at solving equations. We probably did very well in the exams too. Obviously, we understood mathematics. Or did we?

If I remember correctly (I read this somewhere when I was a teenager--I could be wrong), it was the famous mathematician John Von Neumann who once remarked: "In mathematics, we don't understand things. We just get familiar with them".

We claim that we understand our spouses. Check again. Maybe it's just familiarity. Or maybe familiarity is understanding?

Sunday, September 07, 2003

What is your Pleasure?

I went to my colleague Djoni's wedding dinner last night at Restoran Angke, close to Jalan Gajah Mada. As I expected it was a very efficient affair: I arrived at ten minutes past seven; the ceremony was just starting then and the subsequent buffet dinner ended within an hour.

I managed to take a taxi back to Sarinah immediately, purchased a bottle of red wine and plunged right back into my work. There's a certain perverse pleasure in being alone in my room sipping wine, doing some reading and writing on a Saturday night.

I suppose to most people that's not a very healthy thing to do on a weekend. Jakarta has great nightlife. One night in Jakarta can make a hard man crumble too.

But I've had enough of clubbing. After a while one club looks like another. Unless I have good friends for company, just going out to booze and ogle the opposite sex is a rather pointless affair. Life is too short to be "wasted" that way.

I have friends who hold a completely opposite view. Life is short, so we must enjoy it as much as we can. I suppose if spending six hours in a dark and smoky place having your ear-drums pounded by mindless music is enjoyment, then by all means, enjoy!

The ethical hedonists believe that it is even our moral obligation to maximise pleasure in life. What's the purpose of living if one doesn't know how to enjoy life?

I fully subscribe to that. But one man's pleasure is another man's pain. Waking up on Sunday at noon with a massive hangover is pain to me. Staying at home on a Saturday night is an unthinkable pain to others.

One of my favourite horror movies is Hellraiser (which has spawned countless sequels). The first Hellraiser movie was written and directed by famous horror writer Clive Barker himself. It is cheap and gory horror but it is also great fun. It made the Pinhead character a cult hero.

The characters in the movie were driven by their quest for the Ultimate Pleasure. Through solving a puzzle box called the Lamont Configuration, the ultimate pleasure is unleased. But they soon find out that there's a fine line separating pain and pleasure.

Now, what is your pleasure sir? The Cenobites are waiting to deliver them...