Friday, November 24, 2006


the cushion of language

a few days back i was at ninoi aquino international airport manila four hours early due to a stupid mistake on my part (as usual) misreading the flight schedule – but this happens all the time as i never bother to check anything or remember anything as far as i can help it – and to while away the time picked up the new GRANTA 94 Summer 2006 issue which i bought at the national bookstore ( Glorieta makati, just a few minutes walking distance away from oakwood hotel where i stayed. ) and to my surprise this recent issue was already on (bargain) sale at only seventy five pesos (approx RM6). This bookstore chain (as other shops ) is currently having one of their sales season and if you are patient enough you can find some real gems in the bargain bins. And my surprise find this time is a huge coffee table book monty python an autobiography by monty python .

As i was saying, if not for this silly mistake i could have stayed in the hotel still and would be able to catch the manny paquiaou vs morales fight which is a huge event it seems to be here. you can see the banners about this boxing match everywhere and since this is a pay per view fight there are many public places that have it live and people will come and pay a couple of hundred pesos or so and watch the match on a big screen. since this is a title fight and a pilipino (paquiaou) will fight the legendary mexican morales you can’t escape the talk of this fight everywhere . on my part i’ve never even heard of this guy until yesterday but can’t help to be sucked in by all the excitement.( paquiaou won by ko in the 3rd round by the way).

so there i was reading granta 94 while waiting for the check-in counter to open in a couple of hours time but which is quite fine with me . as long as i have a good book in hand i can get totally immersed in myself even surrounded by the din and chaotic flux of passengers banging each other with their baggage trolleys in this disorderly place (as many of the philippine places tend to be) .

and granta 94 on the theme of ‘where travel writing went next’ not only is an apt reading at the moment but a good read as all granta volumes always are. These days i tend to pick writings by unknowns first rather than all those writers which we are all familar with and thus i picked the first piece “we went to saigon” by one tia wallman who is described in this issue as having made an LP on folk songs in the seventies and sang once at vieux colombier (wherever the hell that is) and “this is her first published piece”.

i was struck by her observation about the english language in her very first paragraph :
There’s something in the grammar and structure of the English language that lets people down gently. As Paul Scott wrote, it’s an ambiguous language: there’s plenty of room for deception and dissembling, even comfort, if that’s what’s called for; if that’s what the speaker has in mind. It’s the natural language of any peace treaty because it so encourages a sense of vae victis, woe to the defeated without ever seeming so.

i don’t know who the hell this paul scott is or what on earth is meant by “a sense of vae victis” but how true that observation is. i can never claim to be completely at ease with the language as english is my second language (and i’ve only become fairly at ease with it may be as recent as around the past 15 years or so) or able to detect the most subtle nuances of the various dialects and slangs but still i can’t help feeling that it IS a gentle language. At least that’s how i sense when gentle folks converse in most cases. That’s not to say one can’t use it very colorfully but even then you don’t seem to detect terrible malice or inherent crudeness in the words. And maybe that’s why even some of the most violent films or fictions can seem to be almost poetic in their dialogues. but of course you can be knocked out flat with well aimed and choice words of insults as with any other languages. and i recently got a smelly e-mail blast when called a ‘piece of shit” (beg to differ) but even then....

and here’s another thing. only a few days ago i was having a conversation with this swiss german guy at one of these damned expensive dinners (shhh expense) in one of those exclusive restaurants in beijing that has terribly flat tasting food which i totally dislike and all of a sudden he started talking to me in very good bahasa indonesia. And i was quite surprised when he noted that indonesian language is very similar to european languages, in fact very much like italian in intonation and unlike english which is ‘very flat” – the way he described it. And i guess what he meant is that english is a very ‘calm’ language. no panic even in the face of death . and he finds it very easy to learn Indonesian which i suppose is also the same with Bahasa malaysia. (As proven by all those nepalese, myanmar and bangladeshi immigrants that can master the language within a couple of months of stay in Malaysia without any formal study or language trainings).And he so liked indonesia that he bought a house in tanah lot in bali. “Ah, bapak ada cewek di sana ya?” i asked and he was taken by surprise by my comment and categorically said that no he didn’t which took ME by surprise.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


davao's mangoes with gauguin's color

i was in davao mindanao for a very short visit a few days back and as always never failed to visit one of my favorite places here which is right in front of marco polo's hotel, the avedico shopping arcade. All the little shops here are a hundred percent owned by the maranao muslims selling all the usual cheap touristy stuff... batiks, filipino clothings, trinkets, beads and such. But there are a few shops that sell mindanao muslim works of arts, the most notable being beautiful wooden chests made of local harwood ( nara?) and beautifully decorated with inlaid shells and you can also get the long Mindanao krises and ceramics , some of which may be genuine export potteries from china salvaged from varios ship wrecks . Apparently this place was also a favorite haunt of the former museum negara director dato shahrom and one of the young shop assistants mentioned a few things about this gentleman which i won't really go into here.

but this time i was particularly struck by this hawker selling mangoes just outside this arcade and which have this very beautiful magenta green colors. The exact color of one of those banana varieties that you rarely see now. And this is my favorite color in paintings and It reminded me very much of some of those gauguin paintings in his tahiti phase.

i don't particularly like gauguin's paintings although his life story especially his relation with javanese and tahiti women very much shaped my outlook on women during my student days.

i once saw an exhibition at the van gogh museum (on a quick stop over in armsterdam a couple of years ago ) of van gogh togather with gauguin who of course was close to him at one stage and to my surprise when juxtaposed as such I very much prefer gauguin's than van gogh.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


three little misfortunes

ai what a day. extracted my upper right wisdom tooth today. The bottom partner was pulled out a few years ago. will spare all the details as even the like of martin amis whining about his bad teeth in his memoir 'experience' was boring but need to say this. looks like what little wisdom i may have is truly gone now , away with this little tooth that gave me so much pain, for today , with the dull aching pain still not subsided , went to the office and read one e-mail that knocked me out flat. one minute i was included in an exclusive ethereal club of some sort and the next i was unceremoniusly kicked out for the same reason as john kerry recently experienced and described as a 'botched' joke...well i'm no stranger to foot in mouth disease so i'll get over this unpleasant deja vu feeling...

and how clever people are... they say misfortunes come in threes..and how true it is... and now here i am at singapore airport penning this at one of these free internet place to while away the time waiting to board the plane on the way to beijing and i just realised that the temp in beijing is now around 0-16 deg C and i forgot to bring any warm clothes. ah well, need to see the bright side of things. it couln't compare to the time when i went to moscow last february and the temp was below ten but lucky for me some kind russian lady lent her husband's warm clothes so i was spared from being frozen to death.

and, all these are nothing compared to what some poor sods are expreiencing elsewhere, always look down the ladder not up is the thing in this kind of situation... but still...can't escape this mild feeling of ....well ...melancholy is probably the right word...

Sunday, November 05, 2006


the joy of reading

I feel lucky and thank god that I don’t get the writing bug. Lucky because I’ll never be good at it and thank god because I think it would be a torture. I feel that being a writer or journalist or - god forbid - a book reviewer would be the worst job in the world (well, may be after lawyers and accountants which as everybody knows are the pits).

I never understand why some people , even a complete nobody feels the urge to write and must write. Writing for them become like cocaine to drug addicts…they need their fix everyday and this can come at odd hours . Yet, I‘ve never seen or heard anyone that are mad about cars say , seriously think about making cars themselves or those that are mad about durian want to become durian farmers (though a few do) .

All form of arts manifest some kind of addictions to their practitioners, but seems only writing among all the art disciplines that has the strongest addictive trait. You don’t see too many wannabe painters that claim that they get the urge to doodle at odd hours or dancers need to dance when they‘re in bed for example. But with writing any wannabe author will tell you that they sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and start scribbling something when they become ‘inspired’.

Recently orhan pamuk gave a very interesting insight in the guardian newspaper why he needed to write and write everyday and if he doesn’t he’ll become physically sick and deeply unhappy. and today there is another excellent take on the same subject and the pleasure of reading by the famous American author paul auster. Though I don’t understand about the writing bug, I can well understand the joy of reading for I read purely for pleasure. And I am always on the look out for a good book.

But here’s the problem. Although all of us love stories, no two of us agree on what a ‘good’ story is. Not that this is surprising as ‘goodness’ is subjective unlike mathematical truth for example which is absolute. And although like everything else expertise and experience can give you a better judgement of what can be considered good or bad , we still can never come to full agreement on what is good or bad. Furious discussions and disagreements whenever lit prizes are announced is one clear example of difficulty of deciding what a good book is even among experts. And this is not restricted to just books of course.

Which nicely bring me to another favorite topic, Paintings and on the same theme of what good or bad is. Today I read a hilarious rant in the observer about Jackson pollock’s painting number 5, 1948 that was sold for $140 million US dollars by David Geffen , an interesting guy (as this article shows) who gave us some of the best Californian rockers in the seventies –Crosby Still and Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Brown , Linda Ronstadt to some unknown mexican- the highest record for paintings now .

An excerpt from this article…what a gem…

Pollock's widow report that the couple would dream up names for the works once they were finished; Pollock wasn't painting anything in particular, even in abstract. He was just dripping paint like a leaky tap while listening to jazz. Yet surely great art requires great thought. It rings true when the widow says of him: 'He was missing about half the components of a mature human being.' A monkey could do a passable Pollock, but would spill a lot of Dulux before copying a Holbein.

Pollock has never been free from controversy from the beginning and as this amusing article showed , even now his achievement and those who have the means to buy them are viewed not without a hint of envy and jealously. And like the author of this article I also distinctly remember that the first time I heard of him was that very long time ago in my student days in Tasmania (of all places) when there was a great outcry when malcom frazer who was then the aussie PM bought a Pollock for the aussie art gallery for around 1.3 million aussie dollars (seems like peanuts now) and I had to thank this scandal for introducing me to the great world of abstract expressionism.

Art and reading are essentially a lonely pursuit and to be savored in isolation privately and incidently, there is also a very good article on why traveling alone can be very rewarding (barring a few pitfalls) and in fact my preferred way of looking at the world at large which I’ll be doing again next week as I’ll be going to Beijing and then directly to manila and Davao in Mindanao, Philippines. That is a mess actually as originally I thought of taking my way back from Beijing by train via shanghai to kunming then fly out to KL …then go to the Philippines and not only in the relatively safe city of davao but to the more interesting muslim areas of maranao people in merawi but that’ll have to be for next year may be…

Saturday, November 04, 2006


bush or osama ?

Consider this scenario. If george W bush and osama ben laden are lined side by side standing against a wall and you are given a gun and on pain of death if you refuse, and you are asked to choose and shoot one of them right between the eyes, who would you choose?. I personally can make that decision within half a second.

The survey in the guardian today showed some interesting results. Even in countries considered strong allies to the US Bush is seen as a more dangerous threat to world peace than top guys in the “axis of evil contries” - brother kim of north korea or my fav guy ahmadinejad of iran . osama is still considered top nut though. But I beg to differ. Osama is just a pussycat compared to bush.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


creation theory made simple

One of the most widely held belief - may be by almost half of the world population - about the creation of world and everything in existence in the universe is something like this: One day a bearded guy who looked somewhat like that guitarist in the 70s rock band Z.Z Top (or that old british guy that I met at Angkor Wat a couple of years ago) found himself quite bored so he decided to create the world. First he made the world and he sat down and get some clod of mud or some kind of plasticine and sculptured all kinds of animals…ardvaarks, dodos, woolly monkeys , dinosaurs, centipedes, rats, cockroaches, tigers, crabs , squids , fish , birds , butterflies and all the rest . Before this I guess he also made all kinds of trees and plants (though not clear if they were made from clods of mud or some other matter) – durian trees, bananas, avocados, sorghum, millet, roses, orchids , juniper berries etc. And after this, he made his masterpiece, the first human as we know it today – a significant detail here: he made a male version first So i guess we know who takes priority eh? And then he made the female partner and they were called Adam and Eve. And the rest , as they say is history. And he did all these within six days and on the seventh day he got tired and had a rest. And I think this guy has been sleeping right through the ages till this day – judging from all the mayhem and havocs his creations had wreaked and continue to do so unabated till this very moment – without as much as a gentle admonishment or direct clear cut intercession from him to get things right. And so we have guys like george bush bullying the world, innocent young girls get raped and tricked into becoming prostitutes, old grandmothers got robbed on the way to the wet markets and the list goes on…and not only that , we have earthquakes, tsunamis , floods and all kinds of ‘natural’ disasters that wipe out the criminals and the innocents amongst us alike…and the worst of all is that he was very unfair in another way. Why doesn’t he make everybody looks like brad pitt and as bright as bill gates or for women folks to look as beautiful as that young naked Japanese girl I saw on the net the other night?…but that’s not the point of this er..musing…

The point is; that is one of the many versions of the theory of creation. It is a very interesting theory, but there are many rival versions which are equally fantastical and imaginative. Some have gone hopelessly out of fashion but some are still alive – albeit clung to by only small isolated less civilized tribes - such as the ‘dreaming’ creation theory of the Australian aborigines to name just one. I personally quite like the theory put forward by Douglas Adam in his great ‘Hitch hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series. One of the most memorable piece is about that guy who got first prize for creating the fjords in Norway …hmmm

But all of these versions are arguably merely speculations or imaginings of people who probably got high on some toadstools or in the throes of religious mania or trance. None are verifiable or proven either mathematically or scientifically. And here’s the thing. The scientific version of the theory of creation are even more fantastical and stranger than fiction. Take the current theory of creation. It started with pornography. The universe as we know it starts with the ‘big bang’. Before this we have nothing, or if you wish a ‘singularity’ as the scientists termed it, a point of nothingness of infinite density and heat. This nothingness paradoxically contains all the mass and energy of the universe, that suddenly decided to burst out and expand ever since.

So, the scientific theory of creation not only started with porn but also an oxymoron. But the beauty of this theory is that it can be mathematically proven. The expansion of galaxies in the universe can be observed and measured (as indicated by ‘red shift’ of light waves) and from this it can be extrapolated backward to arrive at the point of nothingness –the singularity- at the start. Imagine a child blowing a balloon, it will expand and expand but it started from just a flabby little elastic balloon. And these clever physicists and mathematicians can even calculate when this big bang occurred. 13.7 billion years ago to be exact. The only problem is we don’t know why this nothingness decided to burst forth and expand and become galaxies and stars and planets and why we have frogs, newts, nematodes and people like brad pitts and ugly sods like george bush and dick cheney (although Charles Darwin have heroically postulated a fairly credible explanations on these last issue mentioned – theory of evolution and survival of the fittest and all that).

And that’s only just the beginning. When scientists ponder over the theory about the bearded guy making living things out of clods of mud they decided that well, technically speaking yes but…scientists being very clever people that they are, decide to analyse this and they do the most obvious and logical thing, if we cut something –anything- into smaller and smaller pieces until we can not cut it further what do we find? And here things get very interesting. The jury is still not out as to what is the smallest thing –the fundamental particle- is, but one thing everybody is in agreement is this: Whether it is a human being, a newt, a toad, a durian tree, a piece of wood, a glass of water or a piece of jewellery, EVERYTHING is in fact made of the SAME building block of material. You or I or a cow or a block of wood is actually made of the same thing. At first this building block is thought to be atoms which comprise of neutrons and protons and electrons. But now things have become more complicated.

I was reading an article in a magazine recently about the building of the most powerful ‘particle collider’ , the LCH (Large hadron collider) at Cern Switzerland which will be completed sometimes next year (2007) and the several thousand or so physicists from different countries all over the world just can not wait to start their experiments to answer some of the most interesting questions in the world. On the surface of it, the LCH’s purpose is simple enough. This Structure’s main feature is a huge 27km circumference underground tunnel that will be used to spin ‘particles’ of proton beams in two opposite directions at higher and higher velocity and smashed them literally to oblivion and collect the broken bits and pieces and analyze what they are. And what they are hopefully will answer all these big questions about the nature of the universe.

Apparently the primary and smallest particles –the fundamental particles- are not protons or neutrons or ‘hadrons’ as these particles are termed in general but stranger stuff called quarks, leptons and bosons and some other strange stuff. Quarks for example , there are different versions of these and they have ‘colors’ and have their counterparts ‘antiquarks’ and things get muddier and muddier thereon. Seems like these fundamental particles actually correspond to different versions of STRINGS. Some of these strings are straight and open ended and some are closed loops like rubber bands, And some wiggle this way and some dance that way and thereby produce different fundamental particles which in turn finally produce us human beings, and toads and trees and rocks.

So ladies and gents, we are nothing more than just mere strings ! (so when somebody says someone is pulling strings they aren’t very far from the truth although not the meaning physicists have in mind of course). Little wonder why half of the world prefer to believe the version about the bearded guy sitting there making crocodiles, jelly fish and all that and goes to sleep on the seventh day. Any savage in papua new guinea can buy that.

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