Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thoughts on the Noughties

Henry Hill (Ray Liotta):
...When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it's all over.
And that's the hardest part. Today everything is different; there's no action... have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food - right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup...

- Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese

The noughties began on the crest of optimism. It was the height of the dotcom boom. Life in the IT industry felt like a neverending party. The party, which started in the mid-nineties, rose to a giddy crescendo at the turn of the millennium. For a brief moment, we felt like Masters of the Universe.

Then everything came crashing down. September 11 2001 was the symbolic turning point.  The noughties then became our decade of hangover. Nothing felt the same again after that. Everything tasted like egg noodles with ketchup.

Maybe the mobile revolution did finally come of age and social networking might just be that much-heralded Web 2.0. But somehow, it feels like we've sold our souls to the Devil just to recapture a glimmer of  our lost youth--the world now thinks that it has a right to intrude into our lives.

There's no longer any place to hide in that space-time continuum of cyberspace. Big Brother Google watches every move you make. And if you think you can find a bit of safety and reprieve in meatspace, your cellphone will turn snitch at the very first opportunity, pinning down your exact location there.

What does the new decade bring? I suppose one should always look forward with an air of optimism. I'll end my last blog entry for this decade with astronaut Dave Bowman's words in 2010: Odyssey Two (the under-rated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey):

Heywood Floyd: What? What's going to happen?
Dave Bowman: Something wonderful.
Heywood Floyd: What?
Dave Bowman: I understand how you feel. You see, it's all very clear to me now. The whole thing. It's wonderful.

Let's hope it's going to be wonderful. Welcome 2010.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Blogging with Scribefire

The reason why I'm blogging today is simply because I wanted to try out this blog client - Scribefire, which is a Firefox plugin. For many years I've been using Bloggar as my client--especially during my days in Indonesia. At that time, I blogged daily from a cybercafe. I remember having to download and install the client everyday onto the PC that I happened to be using, because the owner cleaned up all unauthorized applications regularly.

Bloggar was good enough for my purpose, until these last couple of years when it was not regularly maintained by the creator, and it didn't keep up with the changes in the API.

I know many bloggers blog directly from Microsoft Word, which is capable of posting to most of the popular blog sites, but I prefer a lighter client. I tried LiveWriter for a while, but didn't find it fuss-free enough for my liking. And I must confess, I'm no big fan of Microsoft applications, nor am I an Apple freak. I like my computing platform to be light, unintrusive and doesn't try to call attention to itself. It should just fade into the background.

I still have Windows on my notebook, but most of the time, I boot from my Ubuntu partition. I find it easier to do my development work on a Unix platform. SSH terminals are my best friends because I need to log on to the server all the time. And Ubuntu certainly feels faster and lighter than Windows.

So this is my first entry using the Scribefire plugin as my Blogger client. So far so good. I've been able to insert links quite easily. And if this gets posted successfully, I'm going to start using it regularly!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Finite Pleasures of Life

I used to fly every other week, but this year has been a record of a sort to me: It's already the end of November and I have not made a single trip out of the country this year! The last stamp on passport was from the Singapore immigration, made sometime end of last year.

What has become of me? Is that why I haven't been blogging? Do I foresee any change in the coming year? How will I look back on these years that I spent in KL?

What have I enjoyed most these past years? Reading, playing the piano, watching EPL matches, drinking with friends and most of all, being able to take care of my old folks.

Playing the piano is something that I have not been able to do much since I left my hometown for studies and work. Only a few years back, looking at ways to fill up my bare apartment and driven by a nostalgia for my childhood days, did I decide to buy myself a digital piano. This has allowed me to spend many happy evenings after work playing my favourite Chopin waltzes and Nocturnes. I must confess, my playing is embarrassingly bad but I find these quiet finger-flexing sessions on the keyword quite therapeutic.

It's also great that one can download lots of free sheet music from the Internet these days. One of my favourite pieces is Ryuichi Sakamoto's theme music for the movie The Sheltering Sky, which I managed to find on the Net. Such a sad and haunting tune. I loved the movie too, which starred Debra Winger and John Malkovich, one of my favourite actors.

I managed to read the book too after I saw the movie. I love the scenes where the author, the late Paul Bowles, makes cameo appearances as the enigmatic Narrator, making voice-over observations on his characters. Here's one towards the end of the movie, a scene which I never get tired watching. Love the cafe atmosphere. Here's the voice over quote in English:

Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

How many more times will I be able to watch these favourite scenes of mine? How many more times will I be able to play my favourite Chopin Waltz in B minor?

Only a finite number of times. But yet we live life as if it all seems limitless.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Careless Thoughts

Why do I suddenly feel like blogging today? It has been months since my last entry.

Blogging used to my way of relaxing after a hard day's work. It allows me to organize my thoughts and let my fingers do the talking.

Maybe it's because the HP Netbook I'm using now is the perfect tool for blogging. The keyboard is excellent; the size of the screen just right to accomodate one blog entry. It feels so natural to start blogging whenever I open up this Netbook.

Work occupies most of my waking hours. My sleeping hours these days have also been drastically reduced. More work and less sleep is no good for me. I'm feeling very exhausted.

I listen to audiobooks more than I read these days. I go to bed with my iPod. I listen while driving. I am actually more attached to my iPod than to my cellular phone. Which is why it is logical for me to upgrade my iPod to an iPhone. Two devices finally merged into one. But I'll have to wait for the price to be more reasonable first. No hurry.

I am not a gadget freak. I outgrew that years ago, while I was working in Singapore. My room then was cluttered with devices and gadgets and I decided then that enough was enough. These days I try to keep my life simple. My secret goal is to live without a car one day. That will be a great achievement.

A carefree, car-less life. I think it is quite achievable.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thoughts from My Sanctuary

I have an apartment where I keep my books. It sits on the 9th floor, overlooking the swimming pool below and further off in the distance, the spacious tree-lined grounds of a university campus.

It's not a bad place to live but I've never spent a single night here. Only my books live here, occupying shelves that reach the ceiling. When I first furnished the place, I made sure that the living room walls were completely lined with bookshelves. There are still lots of empty spaces to accomodate more books and I am in no hurry to fill them up. I am aware of the fact that I'll never be able to read all the books I own within my lifetime.

I use my apartment as a home office, a library and a private lounge: a place where I can think, work and meditate in the company of my beloved books. I try to keep the place free of distractions -- television for instance. I don't watch TV here.

The furnitures are kept to bare necessities--a sofa and a round dining table. The only item of luxury that I have is a digital piano, where I will ocassionally attempt to coax my rusty fingers to rattle off a few Chopin waltzes. Playing the piano--even badly--makes me immensely happy. It is something that connects me to my childhood. And it is from my childhood that my dreams continue to nourish...

This is my sanctuary. A place where I relax at the end of a hard day's work, and take stock of my life: Where am I going next?

In the company of my books, sometimes I am tempted to think, this is all I'll ever need. I don't need to go anywhere else. I'll just sit here everyday and read to my heart's content. What more could a person want in life?

Invariably, my eyes would chance on the title of some of the books on my shelf: Batavia, Bung Karno, Witnesses to Sumatra, Java Pageant, Indonesian Destinies...and suddenly my heart would ache with a certain longing...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Citadel of Trees

I always think of my childhood home, the place where I grew up as my "citadel of trees"--a place perched on the slope of a hill amidst dense foliage and innumerable trees, a safe haven where I can always find peace of mind and comfort.

Yes, there used to be a lot more trees--the rubber trees loomed majestically in front of my house; it was my playground, my magical forest in miniature where I had imagined all sorts of characters from Grimm's fables dwelled happily in rustic existence.

The rubber estate is sadly gone now. Ugly two-storey houses fringe the edge of hillocks where my elves and fairies had played. My childhood friends have all left to chase the dreams of adulthood; the mornings no longer bustle with the chirping of birds and the tinkling of pianos.

This is the sorrow that every generation has to suffer, coming to terms with the passing of time and the vicissitudes of life. We were too eager to grow up not knowing we'll spend the greater part of our adulthood trying to recapture the happiness that we once had as children; children who had believed in the birthright of their dreams.

I remember a fragment of a poem I wrote as a child, an ode to my beloved trees, inspired perhaps by Shelley and Wordsworth: "from them my dreams nourish, and in years they shall flourish".

Whither those dreams?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Faithful Students

I generally love atheists but I don't think they should go about making a big statement about their beliefs. The "There's Probably No God" ads on London buses are cute but I don't think they are necessary.

However I do admire how the statement is worded: the word "probably" shows that these people do admit a certain amount of doubt in their belief. If one day science proves that God does exist, I trust that they will reluctantly discard their own atheist dogma. Or will they?

These days, we are witnessing a sort of "revenge" from the atheists, with authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as their celebrity evangelists. Bill Maher's movie Religulous, is a wonderfully humorous jibe at religion. I love it, but let's not take it too far. Atheists and agnostics should be accorded the same respect as God-fearing people in society. But let's not over-react lest we make the same mistakes that many religion made throughout the ages--imposing your views on others.

I'm certanly not an atheist but I don't mind being labelled an agnostics. The definition of agnosticism is actually pretty wide (there are agnostic theists too--people who believe that God/gods do exist but accepts the fact that their existence can't be proven, or unknowable).

One thing's for sure: I'm awfully interested in spirituality and religions. I've spent a greater part of my reading life in the study of these subjects. If labels are necessary at all, I'd rather call myself a student of religions.

Some atheists, like their fanatical counterparts, are prone to dogmatism too. Once we treat these things too seriously, we are prone to becoming "sensitive" and would find ourselves easily "offended" or "confused" by remarks or views that are not in line with our beliefs.

For some reason, we humans find a certain comfort in certainty; we need ideological foundations to give meaning to our behaviour and actions. We feel good when we have a cause to fight for. We feel secure when we belong to a particular group or tribe. That is human nature, a behavioural quirk that is hardwired in our genes. Religious dogmas and fanatical ideological beliefs (such as communism and atheism) fulfils this need.

If we understand this well, we'll know how to handle these natural instincts responsibly. Every idea or belief is worthy of our examination, in the spirit of science and free enquiry. So let's all call ourselves students. A faithful student constantly seeks knowledge and recognizes that he or she still has much to learn. And if God does exist, I'm sure He's a good teacher. And if God doesn't exist, well, let's try and learn from Nature instead.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A World of Axioms

It's Chinese New Year's day and I've been taking it easy for the past couple of days, catching up on my sleep, reading and helping out with household chores. I've also been doing a bit of reflection on religion--especially the question of dogmas and rituals.

I know a lot of people who get turned off by religion because of its strict rituals and dogmas, which sometimes border on superstition. I've expounded my views on the subject of religion many times in the past. I'm personally not a religious person but I consider myself spiritual.

Let me explain. I live my life guided by a set of--for lack of a better word--axioms. In mathematics and science, axioms are basic propositions that require no further proof. These propositions are considered "common sense" and are used as basic assumptions so that their consequences--theorems and colloraries--can be studied. The 3 Newtonian Laws of Motion, for example, are axioms. By using these axioms, scientists were able to derived principles and laws of mechanics which have allowed us to build aeroplanes and bridges.

The Newtonian axioms might not be completely correct (as Einstein has proven with his Relativity theories) but they are "good enough" for our practical purposes (objects of relatively small mass and travelling at speeds much slower than the speed of light). Axioms are not dogmas.

In science, we can always conduct experiments to prove or disprove a theory. This is the scientific method. Anyone can challenge existing theories and propose new ones. Science is self-correcting, because axioms and theories are not dogmas that cannot be challenged.

Religion runs into trouble because it relies on dogma. Some of these are based on obscure texts, translated, copied and edited over the ages by people with biases and vested interests. We have to rely on certain authorities (who are also human), to interpret them.

Let me put forth my first axiom: Spirituality is a basic human impulse. I cannot prove this. But it's based on my observation of people, my study of history and religion. We human beings did not invent religion because we feared things we did not understand. We have religion because it is natural for us to do so. Like music and art, every culture finds its own way to express their artistic impulses. Religion is simply an expression of the spirituality that's innate in the human soul.

If we ask why is this so, it's like asking why do we enjoy music. Why do we find pleasure in strange combinations of different sounds and rhythms? Why do we dance?

Why do we pray to different gods? Well, it's human nature to want to worship and submit to an authority. But worship is only a small portion of what constitutes this basic spiritual impulse. We are all spiritual because we aspire to something that is higher; something that transcends the limits of our human bodies; something that connects us to the universe, to its origin and destiny.

Why do we have this impulse? I can't explain it. It's like asking why do we fall in love? It's human nature.

In response to this impulse, we invent metaphors, we adopt symbolisms and we use myths and art to convey our mystical yearning. The arguments over whether there's a creator God, or whether there's heaven or hell or life after death to me are pointless. We can only argue our case with the limited vocabulary of human language. Words are merely suggestions to ideas and objects. They are imperfect. It is foolish to say my dogma is correct and yours are wrong.

People who insist on the infallability of their dogma do not understand the fallability of the human mind.

If you tell me your God is the greatest and others are false, I'll understand why you are compelled to say so. I can understand how it feels so right inside. The exalted feeling of being connected to something higher is a feeling that is difficult to explain. We catch a glimpse of this when we fall in love.

If my friend tells me that his girlfriend is the most beautiful girl in the world, I'll understand why. I won't disagree with him because I know my friend is in love and love is a beautiful expression of being human. It's something that we should celebrate together. Love can never be fully expressed in words. Flowers, courtship and engagement rings are symbols and rituals that accompany true love. But true love is something that you feel inside, not these external symbols, though undeniably they do make the whole experience more fun.

Why can't we treat religion that way? Why do we have to insist that I'm right and you are wrong? Why can't religion be a celebration of what's universal in all human beings--spirituality.

Our world today faces problems because we treat religion as something exact, like law or science: When you die you go to heaven or hell. If you do this, you'll receive this as punishment. If you perform this ritual, you'll be rewarded with this. You can hear the religious zealots screaming:

But religion is serious business! It's blasphemy to equate it other human expressions such as love, art or music! Not only does religion determine our fate in this life it also determines life after death!

Hang on for a second. What makes you so sure? Stop and examine why do you feel so right inside. Is it because you know something that I don't?

You live in a world of dogmas. I live in a world of axioms. Choose your world. I think there's less anger and hatred in mine.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Past Magic

I'm really looking forward to some peace and quiet in the city during the Chinese New Year holidays. It's the best time to go for a leisurely drive in downtown KL.

For the past couple of years, I've been working during the CNY break. Thankfully I don't have to do that this year. Getting the right balance between work and leisure has always been a challenge to me. But I'm learning. Anyway it's just a short break for me as I'm not taking any leave. I'll be back in the office on Wednesday, even though it's going to be mostly empty.

Chinese New Year celebrations are supposed to be noisy and boisterous affairs. Chinese people abhor gloom and solitude. Everything has to be loud, red and gaudy. You don't have to teach the Chinese how to be positive and forward looking--it's in their DNA.

Gambling and drinking are de rigueur during CNY. I'm not into gambling, but as a kid I was quite fond of card tricks. I always had a pack of cards with me and had fantasies of becoming a magician.

No one has probably heard of it nowadays but my favourite TV series then was The Magician, which starred the late Bill Bixby (who later played the role of Dr. David Banner in the popular Incredible Hulk TV series).

When you are young, everything seems to be tinged with wonder and magic. Chinese New Year was a magical time for me with fireworks and childhood games played late into the night. How did we all ended up becoming such dull and serious adults?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Qualities We Need

This is my first blog entry for the year, and hopefully there'll be many more to come in the coming days and months.

My daily routine these days is pretty regimented, with very little chance of variation due to the many work and family obligations that I have. Well, even a bachelor has family commitments--old folks to take care of, mortgages to pay and properties to maintain. And these are tough economic times for everyone. We'll all need to hunker down and weather the storm the best we can.

It is tough times like these that really test our resilience and character. We must remain steadfast and never waiver in our self-confidence. To stand still is to regress. Trudge forward, if you can't jog or run. The key is to keep on moving, and to continue learning.

Learning never stops. Everytime we read a book, we always learn something new. It is impossible to read without learning something in the process. Even works of fiction. Sometimes you'll learn even more from well-written works of fiction.

I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks, as I believe our ears are under-utilized as an input channel. We "abuse" our ears by subjecting them to noise and random sounds. Sadly, only the blind know how to use their ears as a serious instrument for acquiring knowledge.

The Chinese Lunar New Year celebration is coming up next week. Let's welcome the Year of the Ox by reflecting on the qualities of this animal: strength, resilience, toughness and hardwork. Exactly the qualities we need to tackle these trying times.