Saturday, April 10, 2004

Disorder: The Order of Nature

Disorder: The Order of Nature

I've been spending my weekends cleaning up my room. Housekeeping is a bit of a chore but it has to be done, especially when you only do it once in a blue moon. Now that I'm working a lot from home, I need to ensure that my environment is conducive for productive work.

I admire people who always keep their living and working spaces tidy. I find it difficult to do so for I have a habit of accumulating things and never wanting to throw them away. From now on, I plan to throw away something everytime I acquire something new. Only by constantly clearing away old stuff, will my living space remains uncluttered.

My taste for interior decor has also changed over the years: I used to admire the cluttered Victorian look but I think I am more inclined towards a minimalist, Zen style nowadays. We can furnish our interiors to perfection in whatever style we choose as long as we are willing to pay for it, but the real challenge comes from maintenance. If one has the luxury of a maid, then the burden is lessened a lot. Unfortunately hiring a maid comes with its own set of problems: I've heard so many horror stories about Indonesian maids from my friends here, sometimes I think we are just substituting one pain for another. I'd rather stick with the pain of doing housekeeping myself.

We are always fighting a losing battle against the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that entropy shall always increase. Keeping your house in order is such a difficult task but messing it up is so easy.

Everyday nature works tirelessly to destroy the vanities that we so pain-stakingly acquire and nurture. The glorious bloom of a flower is but all too brief. Our youth shall wither into old age one day. Knowing the inevitability of decay helps us see our lives in its proper perspective. For ultimately, disorder, is the order of nature.

Friday, April 09, 2004

A Daily Habit

A Daily Habit

One of the main purpose of this blog is for me to do a daily analysis of my thoughts besides serving as an avenue for me to practise my writing. Like what I've mentioned a couple of times in previous postings, this blog is more of an "exercise book" rather than a platform for public expression. Which is why I never bother much with the cosmetics of the site--I haven't bothered to update or change my template for more than half a year now nor do I ping to the Petaling Street Project portal anymore.

I also try not to visit my own site more than necessary because It is a bit like preening in front of the mirror. I only visit it whenever I publish something new and take the opportunity to reply to comments if I need to. It is certainly not the default homepage of my browser--I set mine to BBC World Service.

After more than a year of blogging almost daily, I think I've gained a better understanding of myself. I realised that I don't have the habit of ranting that much in my blog (even though I do enjoy reading other people's rants). Instead, there are a lot of reflections and meditations--often tinged with a sense of nostalgia.

My main motivation is to explore, to understand and to blend different strands of thoughts together--the past with the present, the arts with the sciences, the theory with the practice. It is an act of mental housekeeping: by rearranging and recombining all the bits and pieces of ideas and thoughts I have inside, I hope to find certain patterns and insights. I hope to evolve and grow.

I try to embrace at least one of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Empathy is the first step towards greater understanding. Every person we meet in our lives offers some useful lessons for us--even those whom we have a natural dislike for.

The quest for understanding is a life-long one. As we grow older we often lose our desire to explore and learn; as a result our minds start to desintegrate. My daily habit of self-reflective blogging will hopefully help me to check that slide.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Worlds Apart

Worlds Apart

I am not that old but I'm old enough to remember a brief time during my early childhood when the television did not exist. Ever since the TV intruded into our living rooms, it feels as if our innocence has been lost; our concentration has been forever diverted, and all meaningful family conversations have died away. Family members who habitually sit in front of the TV look like zombies trapped in an interminable, electronically-induced coma.

I am no Luddite and I have nothing against the television for I grew up with it too. As a child, the TV was a window to the world: It helped to quench a mind hungry for knowledge and fuelled my dreams and imagination. And I have to confess: I was even addicted to it.

The child today has even more distractions than the TV: Internet, Playstations, McDonalds, video arcades and endless shopping malls. With all these things vying for a child's attention and a thousand and one stimuli bombarding his senses, does the average child grow up to be a better individual? I'd like to believe that they do.

However what I do lament is the fact that they'll never know a world without the TV. They inherit a technological world that takes noise as a given. Go to any home today, the sound of the TV fills the void continuously. It is as if we nourish on random noise--as if its absence would leave us gasping for air.

The world without TV was a different world. And to me, it was one tinged with magic: In the absence of the intrusive idiot box, homes seemed to be filled with the warmth of human companionship, with the comforting bond of silence and the intimacy of closed spaces.

Was it a better world then? I dare not say so for every generation has a habit of longing nostalgically for a more idyllic past. The children today will tell their children that there was a time when people do not jack themselves into virtual reality worlds and that healthy families spend their evenings sitting down together to watch TV.

But who is to say that their world would be an inferior one? Today we have bottled mineral water and oxygen bars. Our children's children will probably be able to plug themselves into a virtual reality machine where they can choose to experience a world where there's complete, blissful silence--a world without TV.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Poet of the Skies

The Poet of the Skies

Sixty years ago, the French author and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery flew out in good weather on a reconnaissance mission south of France and never came back. He was believed to have crashed but no trace of his plane was found. He was 44 when he disappeared.

Today, a French underwater salvage team finally found the wreakage of his plane in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Marseille. However the reason as to why he crashed would still remain a mystery as the weather was perfect on the day he set out and there is no evidence indicating that his plane was shot.

I read some of Saint-Exupery's books a few years back while I was in Singapore and admired them very much. Two of his works, Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras rank among my all-time favourites. He is however famous throughout the world for his touching children novella called The Little Prince. First published in the 1940s, The Little Prince is among the most widely translated book in the world, and is said to be the third most read book after the Bible and the Quran.

St. Exupery flew many dangerous missions over Europe during the WWII and survived many crashes. He also flew the pioneering mail routes across the Sahara desert in Africa and the Andes in South America. His writings are mostly autobiographical recollections of his adventures and they offer us an intimate glimpse of his meditations during those long lonely hours in the air.

Reading his books, one shares and feels his deep passion for flying and gains an admiration for the courage of flying men during those early days of aviation. Saint-Exupery could evoke the romance of aviation with sensitivity and insight, with prose that soars to the level of poetry and often tinged with a deep sense of nostalgia.

Reading the news about St. Exupery makes me feel compelled to dig up copies of his books from the storage boxes (untouched, since I shifted my stuff back from Singapore 2 years ago) under my bed and reread some of his words. In Wind, Sand and Stars, he writes about the experience of taking off from water:
"As he takes off, the seaplane pilot enters a relationship with water and air. ... Moment by moment, as it gathers speed, he feels the seaplane charging itself with power. In those fifteen tons of matter he feels the coming of that maturity which makes flight possible. The pilot tightens his grip on the controls, and gradually, into his empty palms, he receives that power as a gift. Those metal organs of command become the messengers of his strength. When that maturity is reached, and with a movement more supple than the picking of a flower, the pilot separates the plane from the waters and sets it within the air."
And on the experience of flight, he observes:
"A plane may be just a machine, but what an analytical instrument it is! It has revealed to us the true face of the earth. Through all the centuries, in truth, the roads have deceived us...Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line. The moment we are airborne we leave behind those roads that slope gently down to water-troughs and cowsheds, or meander from town to town. Set free now from beloved servitudes, released from our dependence on natural springs, we head for our distant goals. It is only then, from high on our rectilinear course, that we discover the essential bedrock, the stratum of stone and sand and salt where life, like a patch of moss deep in hollow ruins, flowers here and there where it dares.

Thus are we changed into physicists and biologists, scrutinizing civilizations that adorn valley floors and sometimes open out miraculously like great gardens where the climate is favourable. Thus do we now assess man on a cosmic scale, observing him through our cabin windows as if through scientific instruments. Thus are we reading our history anew."
And today we found out where and how his flight finally ended. May his immortal words continue to soar in our hearts and minds.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The Malaysian Bacon-nection

The Malaysian Bacon-nection

"Six degrees of separation" is a widely used phrase today on the Internet. It refers to the rather surprising fact that any two individual in the world today can be connected through a chain of intermediate acquaintances, averaging not more than six people.

We all have, one time or another, experienced the it's-a-small-world conversation when we meet a stranger who happens to share a mutual acquaintance with us. The fact that it takes on the average six hops between you and the President of the United States--probably even less--explains the ease and speed by which viruses and rumours spread over the Internet and demonstrates the immense power of interconnected networks. We are interconnected to everyone else more intimately than we ever realized.

Since it was first proposed by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the sixties who derived his conclusion from experiments using postal packages, this six degrees of separation theory has been the subject of a lot of research. The Small World Project attempted to use the Internet to verify his findings. Volunteers of the program were asked to forward e-mail messages to certain chosen target recipients worldwide through their immediate acquaintances. Results have indicated this six degrees of separation to be true, more or less.

An interesting offshoot of this theory is the so-called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game. Kevin Bacon who first achieved some measure of fame in the 1984 movie Footloose has in his Hollywood career co-starred with many other actors and actresses. The object of the game is for participants to find the shortest possible connection between a given actor or actress to Kevin Bacon.

Take Elisabeth Shue. That's easy: She starred directly with Kevin Bacon in the movie The Hollow Man. So she has a so-called "Bacon number" of 1. But what about Keanu Reaves? Keanu Reeves never acted in any movie together with Kevin Bacon. But Keanu was with Laurence Fishburne in the Matrix trilogy and Fishburne happens to have starred together with Kevin Bacon in the recent award winning movie Mystic River. So Keanu Reeves has a Bacon number of 2.

The surprising thing is that, given any arbitrary actor or actress, it is very likely that his or her Bacon number will be less than 8. Most would score a 2 or 3. It is found out that the average is 2.941. The smaller the number, the closer he or she is to the "center of Hollywood"--Kevin Bacon. (Kevin Bacon himself would have the unique Bacon number of 0).

The Oracle of Bacon is a popular website that allows you to key in an actor's name to find the corresponding Bacon number. The information is derived from data taken from the Internet Movie database.

There's another surprise there: Though no Malaysian actor or actress (as far as I know) has starred together with Kevin Bacon in any movie before, there are a few of them who actually has a Bacon number of 2. Who? OK, Michelle Yeoh seems the most likely candidate. She was the Bond girl together with Teri Hatcher in Tomorrow Never Dies; and Teri was in the 1989 movie The Big Picture with Kevin Bacon. So Michelle joins the Bacon number 2 club.

Some of the other unexpected Bacon number 2 club members from Malaysia include Deanna Yusoff, Ramona Rahman, Jacinta Lee and even Malek Noor! In the case of Deanna Yusoff, she was in Return to Paradise with Todd Stockman who acted in Diner with Kevin Bacon. Go figure out the rest!

And for your information, even an actor of a bygone era such as the legendary P. Ramlee garners a reasonably small Bacon number of 4 (Same with Ziana Zain). And how in the world did someone like Salleh Ben Joned get a Bacon number of 3??

As the song goes: "It's a small world after all".

Monday, April 05, 2004

A Canal Tour of Jakarta

A Canal Tour of Jakarta

One of the defining features of Jakarta are the dirty canals that criss-cross various parts of the city. This is a legacy of the Dutch city architects who envisioned Jakarta (then Batavia) as an Amsterdam of the East, with waterways linking the interior with the port of Sunda Kelapa.

Some of the canals used to be rivers that were diverted, widened and straightened to alleviate floods and to allow freeflow of river traffic. Unfortunately such a canal transport system proved to be an untenable thing in a tropical climate; the waterway system soon degenerated into open sewers and became a breeding ground for diseases.

These canals today are a bit of an eye-sore but for some reason they are an endless source of fascination to me. I spent weekends tracing their course and photographing the heaps of rubbish that accumulate at the canal gates. I will probably consider publishing some of my rubbish pictures in my blog someday. Hold your breath.

My favourite is the Molenvliet canal, which was built by the then Chinese Capitan of Batavia, Phoa Bing Gam in 1648. It runs parallel to the busy Jalan Gajah Mada and Jalan Hayam Wuruk. The canal today is but a huge murky and smelly drain. Passers-by and motorists would hardly even notice it. Though difficult to imagine, the Molenvliet canal used to be a popular public bathing place for the locals.

For a grand tour of the Molenvliet canal, sightseers are recommended to take the Busway service to Kota which runs parallel to the canal for a stretch of the journey. However don't expect to see any pretty maidens bathing in their sarongs as in the good old days. But If you happen to take the Busway journey at night, you might be rewarded with the equally interesting sight of young streetwalkers parading themselves along Jalan Hayam Wuruk.

Now, if you are completely enamoured with the sight of these dirty canals, you can choose to stay at the Shangri-la Jakarta: Rooms facing north offer a fantastic "canal view", where you can enjoy the sight of squatters washing their clothes in the mucky water of Kali Malang.

If the stench of sewage happens to be perfume to your nose, you can also try taking the last of the canal-crossing ferries that still operate at the Ciliwung river/canal along Jalan Gunung Sahari. The canal is hardly a few meters across but there's a 500 rupiah boat service that brings people who are lazy to use the bridge to cross from the Pasar Baru side to Jalan Gunung Sahari. According to a Jakarta Post report today, an average of 200 people use the service daily, giving the boatman a relatively good income of 100K rupiah a day.

The thick brown-black colour of the canal waters often reminds me of a good bowl of rawon--that East Javanese beef soup which I'm very fond of. If your appetite happens to be whetted after the boat ride, I'd recommend the best rawon in town at an East Javanese restaurant along Jalan Juanda, located not far away from the Ciliwung canal.

Ah, these days whenever I think of Jakarta, I'd recall the mouth-watering aroma of rawon and the oozing charm of its innumerable canals.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Eating Habits

Eating Habits

I've been eating at home most of the time since coming back to KL. Kind of miss my old Jakarta habit of going to a quiet warung and plunge myself into a good book while waiting for my order of bakmi bakso or nasi goreng kambing to arrive. I do a lot of my reading before and after meals. Probably not a very healthy thing to do.

There are so many nice eating places near the hotel where I used to live: The popular Bakmi GM is nearby, the famous Ayam Goreng Suharti is just further down the road and not to mention all the fabulous roadside stalls along Jalan Agus Salim (also known as Jalan Sabang), selling everything from nasi goreng gila to burung dara goreng (fried pigeon). There's even a Batak restaurant there; but no I haven't tried their dog meat, which they refer to by the more euphemistic label, "B1". ("B2" refers to pork).

I used to have a difficult time deciding where to eat. But luckily I have the habit of eating only two meals a day. I feel a lot lighter and healthier if I limit my meals to two. But I'm no health freak; I'm not into things like organic food or Atkins diet. I just eat what makes me feel comfortable and only when I feel there's a need to do so. I listen to the signals from my body and trust what it says.

Our body knows best. It will always strive to maintain a healthy balance. We just need to listen and be sensitive to its needs. So far this simple health philosophy seems to be working well for me.