Monday, 28 July 2008

Artistic Bodacity

Typing this on my new laptop. Feels strangely liberating, even if the keyboard's layout feels awkward. Can't wait to take it on tour, doing the rolling meditation stuff. Moleskines are so last millennium.

This month's Readings is a bit of a departure, even though it feels like the ship already left the port last month. We had an American expat, a historian, three poets and a medical student, plus a musician and stage actor for after-reading entertainment.

It started with a bit of deja vu involving liquor bottles. Unaware the corkscrews had extensions for leverage, Shahril Nizam and I tugged and tugged and tugged till our faces turned red (not just from the exertion). Sharon had to call in an expert, otherwise we couldn't proceed. And MPH's Tan May Lee (may have) photographed the sideshow.

Oh well, at least it was entertaining.

I'll admit that one main reason why I dropped by was to touch base with Kathleen Choo, whom I last saw at a mutual friend's book launch in 2006. Besides being floored by her poetry slammin', I got a chance to see her smaller-than-notebook notebook PC. Does the speed of technological evolution bring to mind malevolent biological agents from a sci-fi horror script?

Nicholas Wong returns! This was the young poet whose presence at a previous Readings was the condition for a veteran's participation - such is his reputation. Nic channeled Pixar by titling one of his pieces "Oogway" [sic], on top of reading a poem he composed (four pages long!) just two hours before.

With some history by Dr Shih, performances by Kathleen, Sheena Baharudin, Nic and the Wayang Buku (Book Theatre) guys, a bit of comedy writing by a doctor-in-waiting, the July Readings just reverberates with sheer awesomeness.

Another deviation in the usual proceedings is an announcement by some Arab dude (by his own admission) about a reading project. Zain also suggested spreading word about the project via the Internet because "Malaysia has a huge blogging community". Don't believe him? Believe Blogger then; it just announced the availability of the Malay interface because, "...Blogger has a large base of users in Malaysia".

Large number of bloggers, yes. Large number of good bloggers? Well... heh.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Secret Of The Secret Lies In The Secret - Not

From "stealing secrets" to "no secret". Honestly... .

Anyway, my point is that the secret to The Secret is really no secret at all. The Secret rebrands and emphasises the power of positive thinking, and says that's all anyone needs. What kind of secret is that? And then these guys come in and say The Secret is not the secret everyone's looking for, but there is a secret, and that's the secret they've got and knew all along. They also claim that The Secret secretly subverts its adherents into going against their secret, while promoting laziness and wishful thinking. So the only way out is to embrace their secret, a beautiful mystery that's not really secretive at all - just mysterious.

In Kung Fu Panda, the secret is not really a secret at all, either.

No secret here

first published in The Star, 18 July 2008

Blissfully drowning in my sorrows for the past year or so, I was unaware of the phenomenon that is The Secret. At one glimpse of the cover, my tired mind registered, "Not another novel..." It wasn't until I got my hands on another book that I found out I was totally wrong.

Through The Secret (originally a film, which was then developed into a book), Aussie TV writer and producer Rhonda Byrne explores the New Age concept called the Law of Attraction, which says that people can control their lives by the power of their own thoughts and emotions - in short: think (hard), and you will receive.

Wow, and all this time I called it "wishful thinking". What The Secret claims, however, is that it works. It's no wonder then that certain quarters are behaving like hungry lions watching a zebra herd. Just as with The DaVinci Code, numerous detractors published works countering The Secret. One of these is The Secret Revealed.

Had I taken a much closer look at the cover, I probably would have given it a miss and spared myself some pain. Why, you ask? Previously, James L. Garlow (who's also a pastor) had written another book, Cracking Da Vinci's Code. I remember the firestorm surrounding that one - the Jesus/Mary Magdalene hoo-ha that so terrified the Vatican and devout Christians everywhere that some form of rebuttal had to be made or the religion would collapse (The DaVinci Code is still listed under "Fiction", by the way).

Fearing a similar crisis of faith following the release of The Secret, the pastor once again whipped out his crusading pen. Predictably, the authors hit the ground running, underlining the fact that Bible passages are used to sell The Secret's glaringly un-Christian concepts. The preaching slowly intensifies from there until the end of the book, where it is implied that there is no secret at all - it's about "beautiful mysteries", and its source is God.

While they admit that there may have been good intentions involved, the authors of The Secret Revealed make no secret of their scorn for Byrne and others who aggressively promote The Secret. They say the Law of Attraction blames the victims for all their woes, while at the same time, appealing to the get-what-you-want-now mindset of the selfish, greedy and lazy.

They also pan the "deliberate" omissions of concepts like God and sin, and the notion that anybody can "will" whatever they want into being is practically blasphemous. They stress the futility of "transmitting your thoughts towards the Universe", when you could direct them to God instead (personally, I don't see the difference).

Sometimes the authors come off as snide, condescending even, when presenting scenarios where the Law of Attraction fails, as well as in the accompanying arguments.

Of course, they do point out that it's not all bad. They applaud Byrne's exhortations to do good and bring joy to others. They just don't like how she's telling people to go about it.

The Secret Revealed puts forth valid points against swallowing any hype in its entirety, but the Christian-leaning slant in the arguments were a big put-off, as is the assumption that without any help, devout followers of The Secret are like lemmings who will eventually march off a cliff towards certain doom (they don't say you're going to Hell if you follow The Secret, just that you might be headed for "trouble").

While flipping the pages I have to remind myself a few times that history is full of stories about weirdo farms and their shepherds, like Jim Jones of the People's Temple, and David Koresh's gun-toting Branch Davidians, so I guess some of the authors' fears are justified. Still, being inadvertently accused of wilful stupidity not only gets my goat, but the whole farm as well.

I won't doubt that The Secret Revealed does in fact fill in the blanks, but not all of them, and certainly not in the way that I would find comfortable. A more secular point of view would have been more convincing, and less cringe-worthy to my psyche.

Yes, my aversion to religious preaching did taint this review. No, I will offer no apologies for that. I will give some praise to the good pastor and his buddy for their efforts, with a gentle reminder that back then, as now, too much honesty is not always a good thing.

The Secret Revealed
Exposing the Truth About the Law of Attraction

James L. Garlow and Rick Marschall
282 pages
ISBN: 978-0-446-19796-0

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

I Has Mobile Computing - Kind Of

OK, I'm the owner of a Dell Vostro 1310 laptop. Sister #2, who's now with Dell, helped me get one. And because the folks thought it'd be a great birthday present, they footed the bill - and the sister piled on the bells and whistles. I'm embarrassed by the attention, and more than a bit ashamed.

And why don't I feel like a laptop owner?

I'll admit, I wanted this piece of technology so I can do stuff on the road. Demands of the new job and all that. But it's a constant struggle keeping the thing safe; I get apprehensive during lunch breaks. Preventing it from getting wet. Keeping an eye on it when it follows me to restaurants. And because I have two bags to carry now, I feel like Houdini when I lock and unlock the doors.

I tell you - it's like having a wife. But at least a wife can take care of herself when I'm not around, and open the doors when my arms are full of shopping bags.

Adjustments are painful.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Windows Patch Zones Out Firewall Users

Earlier this week, Microsoft released patches that prevent some kind of domain-spoofing bug. The patch, however, prevents Internet access on machines running Windows 2000 and XP with a ZoneAlarm firewall. Vista machines are unaffected.

In addition to providing the latest versions of their ZoneAlarm firewall, Check Point (who bought over Zone Labs) has issued a workaround for the problem:

  • Go to the ZoneAlarm Firewall panel.
  • Click the Firewall tab.
  • Move the Internet Zone slider to Medium.

This workaround may reduce the effectiveness of the firewall, but it's better than being locked out of the net entirely. Eventually, affected users will have to install the latest version of ZoneAlarm.

A certain tech-geek subculture is to blame for this. All the talk about creating script-writing kits, bugs and malware for "purposes of education only" is pure bull-crap. If they're smart enough to come up with such tools, they should be smart enough to know what they're unleashing. They do know - they just don't care.

Virus-coding is no longer confined to a shadowy group of elites. Now, anybody - from bullied ten-year-olds to forty-something washouts - who wants to overcompensate for real-life deficiencies are so well-educated, they can create digital equivalent of the bird-flu virus with a few keystrokes and a couple of mouse-clicks.

Just because nobody's getting killed doesn't make these script kiddies and those who enable them less of a terrorist. I think they're even worse.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

An Exceptional Exception

As I went over to the counter to settle my bill, the Indian/Bangladeshi manning the cash register stopped me. "Sir, we have dessert waiting for you, sir, on the house," he said. "Please take your seat."

Confused, I returned to my place at the table. What gives, I thought. It couldn't have been the digicam. I'd ordered a starter-portion oxtail soup and a smoky ranch steak, which I snapped photos of before tucking in. Normally I don't mind dessert, but it was late and I was full.

G*d, I hope he doesn't think I'm a member of the press or something.

My dessert arrived: half a poached peach in syrup topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, crowned with a single mint leaf. Not a bad dish, really. It's been months since I ate there and the food is still okay.

The air cleared when I finally settled my tab. "Are you with GZK?" the Indian/Bangladeshi asked. I'm really sorry, but I don't know exactly who he was. And it's probably rude to ask.

"No," I said, feeling bad. I told him who I was working for now; no point having a free dessert I didn't deserve. I used to work with them - sort of - but not anymore.

The man at the counter shrugged. "Ah well, we don't have any arrangements with them, maybe soon." What he said next surprised me. "Didn't I give you one of these cards before?"

He, in fact, did. That was months ago, too. Get one stamp for each order of soup; drink X orders of soup and get one free. Too bad the card disappeared yonks ago. But his memory wasn't the only surprise he had in store.

"Never mind, I give you one more card," he said, and made two stamps on it. "One for the last time," he added.

Now, who was the whackjob who said Indians/Bangladeshis were nothing but trouble? When you meet an exceptional exception to the "rule", you just have to wonder.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Nobody Expects The Spanish Kama Sutra

Can the story of a fictional Casanova be used as a love manual? When the author's repertoire includes such books you have to wonder. There should be a disclaimer on each copy, something to the effect of, "Not a substitute for Valentine Day cards or bouquets"). Cards are much cheaper.

The title is a play on Monty Python's "Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition"; no, I didn't expect to read a Spanish Kama Sutra. Did anybody expect the Spanish to win Euro 2008?

Stealing secrets

first published in The Star, 04 July 2008

Gone are the days when personal diaries were kept under lock and key. The delicious thrill of having your inner thoughts read by the masses are driving many towards blogging these days. Even Don Juan is getting into the act.

OK, so it's just Douglas Carlton Abrams, doing something akin to blogging. After co-authoring a few books on spirituality, love and sexuality, he tries his hand at narrative fiction, writing as Don Juan under the rather pedestrian title, The Lost Diary of Don Juan.

Kudos to Abrams for sneaking the handbook, How to Really, Really Love a Woman into this novel. Unfortunately, the package also includes How to Infuriate Said Woman's Parents, How to Tick Off Your Boss and How to Offend Fanatical, Uptight Clergymen – which I'm sure we all could do without.

Spain in the 16th century wasn't a very nice place. Plunder from the newly discovered American continent made the nation rich, but it brought about an increasingly venal, corrupt and "liberal" society. One of the results was Juan Tenorio.

Abandoned as an infant, Juan was raised in a monastery but ends up being a pickpocket and burglar in Sevilla. His "talents" soon catch the eye of the Marquis de la Mota, who trains him to steal secrets, and the hearts and virtues of women, especially those from his political rivals' households.

A slight deviation: Abrams' Don Juan goes on his rounds in a Zorro-like get-up, complete with a getaway vehicle, a carriage chauffeured by his loyal servant Cristóbal. I was half-expecting it to arrive at the Bat Cave on the next page, if not the next chapter. Fortunately, the campiness stops there.

At the height of his dubious career, Juan's patron nags him about writing a tell-all, intending to use it as blackmail material. Juan struggles with the request, knowing that he's expendable once it is completed – but he gets down to keeping one anyway. Even rogues need a hobby.

In Juan's point of view, he's no womaniser; he considers himself the balm of the lonely hearts of Sevilla's womenfolk. Of course, there is a very long queue of people who beg to differ, and pushing his way to the front is the Inquisitor Fray Ignacio de Estrada, who has pledged to rid the city of Juan at any cost.

In the face of these hazards is de la Mota's challenge: to steal the virtue of a chaste young noblewoman called Doña Ana. Juan accepts, and soon gets into the bad books of the woman's father. She proves to be a challenge for the suave, sweet-talking libertine, and eventually gets under his skin. Then, his boss shakes things up with his intention to marry Doña Ana.

Oh, the drama. What should Sevilla's notorious metrosexual do?

However, Abram's Don Juan is more than the stereotypical shallow, metrosexual narcissist. Juan is a loyal friend and faithful lover – the main reason for his (initial) reluctance to name names in his diary. He is also a good employer; in one chapter he even offers Cristóbal some advice on courtship. Towards the end, he reveals why he never laid one finger on the prostitutes in his best buddy's tavern.

You can see Abrams' application of his field of expertise everywhere – and that's the trouble with it. Hair-raising phrases like, "I sipped the moist nectar of her mouth as she opened her petals to me" abound, as well as his professions of "woe-is-me" and self-righteousness. There is also a totally unnecessary master-disciple scene, where terms like "Ultimate Skill" and "Supreme Pleasure" are bandied about (I am so glad kung fu was developed in the East).

To girlfriends and wives who think that The Lost Diary of Don Juan will help re-ignite that dying flame, do bear in mind that it's just a lit-fic novel. It's not a bad read, if you can stomach the cheesy parts so integral in such stories. Strange things happen when fiction is taken too seriously – remember The Da Vinci Code?

The Lost Diary of Don Juan
Douglas Carlton Abrams
Atria Books
307 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4165-4701-3

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Bits From The Beebs

I opened up the BBC News web site and see this headline: Colombian rebels FARCed!

Gosh, it's been a while since the last-shock-to-the-system: Steve Irwin's untimely demise - but that was from Yahoo! News. Anyway, it's a great start to a crummy day. The rebels were nothing more than thugs, no better than the people they sought to overthrow. If the Colombian government is smart, they'd capitalise on the political goodwill generated by this rescue - while continuing to keep the now-free Betancourt safe.

Another tasty bit is about China's latest embarrassment: algae off the shores of Qingdao. Thanks to possible factors like pollution, the seaside has never been more "qing".

But chalk it up to Chinese politburo PR to deliver this gem of a whitewash.

...China, embarrassed by the most vivid proof yet of its environmental problems, says the algae is a natural occurrence, and blames the sea for being too salty, the sun for being too hot.

At a news conference earlier in the day one official suggested that algae could be good for you.

"The Japanese eat it," she said.

— Unnamed Chinese official kills two birds
with one stone (emphases mine)

Even if they do eat algae, I'm sure the Japanese have better sense in selecting which ones are safe, despite their fetish for neurotoxic seafood.

Why don't you, Madam Chinese Government Mouthpiece, pick up a strand of good green Qingdao algae with a pair of chopsticks, swirl it around a dish of soy sauce and sesame oil and take a deep hearty slurp, and let us know how it goes?

If you're still alive after a week, you just found a solution to your tangled verdant mess. The Beijing Olympics, if you didn't know already, kicks off next month. The bogged-down volunteers can just eat the mess away. You don't need the Japs for that, do you?

Blowing In The Wind

My first piece for Off The Edge, in the July 2008 issue. Though not one of my best ones, I felt that "firsts" should have a place in any portfolio.

"Blowing in the wind", Off The Edge, July 2008

It was potentially hackle-raising, because it had to be a "balanced" piece on corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, with some focus on HSBC. Needless to say, I found a whole lot more about the subject than was needed for the piece. It was never our intention to question the motives in any firm's adoption of CSR.

Sincere apologies for any offence caused by this article.