Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Passing of An Era

It would not be an exaggeration if I say that we will mark an end of an era in Malaysia’s history tomorrow. After 22 years of having the responsibility of the stewardship of our country, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir bin Muhammad will officially step down as Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister and hand over the responsibility to his chosen successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah bin Badawi. For many of the people of my age, Dr. M has been the only Prime Minister that we know and remember as we were too young to remember or understand how the country worked under the guidance of the late Tun Hussein Onn. Like people of my generation, we learn about the country and system of government in Civics class at school and it was during those classes that I became aware about the greater scope of our nation and what government was. It wasn’t really that much of a political revelation for me since I was only 8 years old at the time but when I first watch Dr. M took the oath to be come the next Prime Minister back in 1981, I remember understanding that we were then under the guidance of a new leader for our country.

Growing up with Malaysia under Dr. M’s leadership, I remember a few of the early policies that he implemented. One of the earliest that I remember was the implementation of the punch clock at all government offices and agencies to ensure that civil servants came to work on time. I remember this distinctly because they had a special assembly at my primary school when they first started the punch clock for our teachers. We also started a class room “punch clock” where each student had an attendance “punch card” that we would get the teacher who monitored the school gate to sign when we come to school. I remember feeling so proud and adult-like for having my own punch card although I did lose it a few times during the school year.

Another of Dr. M’s early policies that I remember vividly was the “Look East” Policy that encouraged us to emulate the successes of the people of Japan in terms of making their country an economic powerhouse in the 80’s. I remembered being drilled with the Japanese work ethics and how we were not suppose to only be dependent on the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Looking back, I have to say that this policy helped Malaysians to change our post-colonial mindset that everything Western was a commandment. By showing us what Asian are capable of in the case of Japan’s success, Dr. M paved the way for Malaysians to realize that we were as good as they were and that we, as a nation, could easily have the same successes if put our minds to it. I personally feel that the “Look East” policy was the my earliest inspirations to try to work harder to get better after realizing that if the Japanese can do it, we can do it too.

In the 22 years that he was in office, we have seen Malaysia transformed from a sleepy agricultural backwater to become one of Asia’s economic tigers. We were posting impressive economic growths year after year until the last Asian Monetary Crisis which was relatively painless compared to other countries in the region thanks to the Dr. M’s unorthodox financial remedies. It was during this time that we see the country producing the first national car that actually can run on the road much to the dismay of the opposition party members at the time who told us that it was just Dr. M’s pipe dream and that Malaysians could not even make a simple needle much less a whole car. It is ironic that some of the same people who try to belittle Dr. M’s vision of having our own car industry back then now drive the cars produced by the company that they said would never be.

One thing that observers would almost immediately notice in Dr. M’s administration is the drive to be record breakers. In the 22 years that he was in office, he implemented plans to build structures that held the world record for a time. Under Dr. M, Malaysia once held the world record for longest bridge, the highest free standing flag pole and the tallest twin towers at one time or another. I remembered hearing people gossip back then that these record breaking attempts were Dr. M’s way of dealing with his so-called inferiority complex of not being related to royalty as he previous predecessors were. In hindsight, if there was an inferiority complex in play back then, it was our own collective feelings of inferiority that Dr. M was trying to overcome. By showing solid and undeniable proof that we as a people can break records, Dr. M was trying to tell us that we only fail when we refused to even try.

It has not always been smooth sailing during the 22 years Dr. M was in office. I remembered several incidents that left a blemish on the image of his administration. Among those that I remember most are the “Memali” incident, the resignation of his first Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Musa Hitam, the deregistration of UMNO and of course the most infamous incident of the sacking of his third Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Sri Anwar Ibrahim. Whatever the obstacles that he had to face, he always came out wiser and stronger from these challenges. Of course that there are people who until today still harp on these issue but I for one realize that he did what he had to do for the best of the majority of people in Malaysia. His decisions may not be popular to some but all that he did, in hindsight, clearly has our best interest in mind.

I am proud to have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to say his mind about subjects that are taboo for most people. We have seen him talk and take action against the royal families of Malaysia at a time it was felt that the royals were above the law and brought them down to face the same level of justice that we common folk have to face. He has spoken against the Jews of Israel time and time again in our support of the Palestinian people irregardless of the condemnation and threats that he received from the West. He has tirelessly championed for the cause of the developing countries and against the evils of unchecked process of globalizations. He has spoken against other powerful leaders again and again that other people would not dream of because he believes that he had a right to say his piece that was backed by facts and evidence. Thanks to him a whole new generation of people not only in Malaysia but also in other developing countries now feel that they have a voice that can be heard if they are not afraid to just speak up.

I have only met Dr. M in person once in my life but he left such a lasting impression on me that I could never forget the experience. It happened when I and a few other student leaders were invited to attend a dinner function hosted by the government for student leaders studying in the US. I remembered that we had to line up outside the ballroom and shake his hand when he came by. I remembered being so nervous about this that I was sweating so profusely that by the time that he was standing in front of he, I thought that I would faint straight away. Thankfully I didn’t but I came really close especially when he asked if the name on the name tag that I had on was really my real name. I could hardly believe that he was actually talking to me that I could barely croak out an answer. Just when I thought that things could not be any better, Dr. M actually referred to me by my name in one of his answers during the Q&A session after the dinner. I forgot what the answer was for but somehow my name got dragged into it which of course caused people to turn around trying to find out who this person was. The people who were sitting at my table of course knew my name by then and got a chance to see me do my best impression of a tomato. I didn’t know whether I should be embarrassed or proud that he mentioned my name.

If there is one thing that I would say is Dr. M’s greatest legacy from the 22 years that he was in power, it has been his success in making the whole population in Malaysia realize that we can accomplish anything if we just put our minds to it. His are the ideas and vision that gives new meaning to the often shouted slogan of “Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysia Can). Malaysia can because we have the strong foundation that has been laid down by the forward thinking of this great leader. His successor beginning tomorrow will have an easier time to further bring us forward to our goal of being a developed country by the year 2020 as he will be leading a nation who has been molded to realize that we can make a difference. Dr. M may have his faults but no one can deny the greatness that he as inspired us to strive to achieve. The torch that he passes to the hands of his successor tomorrow is brighter than the one that he accepted 22 years ago by virtue of his wisdom and his strength in leading our proud nation. It is now on our shoulders as a people to ensure that the torch continues to burn bright by working towards the goal of fulfilling Dr. M’s vision of developed Malaysia that can stand proud beside other great nations of the world.

To Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Muhammad, thank you for everything that you have done and given to us the people of Malaysia. We would only be able to repay your kindness and sacrifice by continuing your work in our own way in achieving your vision. May you continue to have a long a prosperous life and be able to enjoy your retirement.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

I'm dusting off my travelling shoes

I was supposed to go on a business trip to Penang last month but that plan got scrapped the last minute. Last Thursday, I was told to schedule the trip for 10 days beginning next Monday. I had to rush to get all the travel arrangement and hotel reservations ready in within a few days and thankfully I managed to confirm everything today. I finally got my hotel reservations confirmed and will go to pick up my plane tickets on Friday from the head office. After that I will be off to Penang on Sunday afternoon and will be staying on the island until the 12th of November.

I’m actually looking forward to this trip. It has been a while since I’ve been to Penang. Of course back then, I was still working with my old company, had an expense account and was able to pick the hotel that I wanted to stay in. Back then I would always stay at the Shangri-La in Georgetown whenever I’m in town because it was close to the center of town. I stayed the so often at one time that the staff knew me by sight and would have the same room reserved for me when I came to town. This time around, the new company that I work with only allows us to stay at a preferred hotel which usually means the cheapest hotel that they can find. For this trip, I was only given the choice to stay in Vistana Hotel. To be fair to them, I’ve never been to this hotel before so I shouldn’t assume the worse about it before seeing it for myself.

The upcoming trip to Penang would also be different this time for me since I will be traveling during the fasting month. I usually try to avoid traveling during this fasting month as I don’t really get to enjoy the sights and sounds during the day as much as I would like since I could not eat during the day. I also find it more convenient to be in town during the fasting month as I would like to be able to get together with friends and family to break fast together during this time. Knowing where to get my favorite food to break fast with is also a plus during this month since I rather avoid any upset stomach problems. I always have a dodgy tummy after a whole day of fasting so I have to be careful about what I take in. I hope that I would be able to find someplace good to eat near the hotel.

I shouldn’t be too negative about this trip before even starting to pack for it. Who knows that I might even enjoy it more this time. I’m not sure yet on the logistics for me to continue updating this blog site while on the road but I hope to continue publishing online if the chance presents itself. I may even be able to finally write that travelogue that I always wanted.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Musing on Fasting

For one month in every year, Muslims all over the world are united in the observance of Ramadhan regardless of where they are and their station in life. During this holy month, we Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking, smoking and any form of sexual intercourse between the hours of sunrise to sunset. We are also encourage to strive to be better Muslims by avoiding acts that would run counter to the teachings of Islam. It is said that any good deeds done during this holiest of months would be rewarded many fold and it is to our benefit to fill the months with acts of kindness and piety towards God. Fasting also allows Muslims to share and be mindful of the burdens of fellow Muslims who suffer starvation in their daily lives in some parts of the world. This realization of how it feels to be without the things that we sometime take for granted is hoped to spur all Muslims to be more thankful of what has been given to them by God.

Abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk is not that difficult once you get used to it. All Muslims are taught how to fast from a young age. I can’t remember exactly when I first fasted for Ramadhan but it has to be before I was 7 years old as I already fasting the full day by then. I do remember that I was taught to fast first a few hours during the mornings before being coaxed to fast half the time that the adults fasted. I remember distinctly that my mother would ask us children to alternatively fast during the mornings on one day and fast during the afternoons on the following day. By teaching us this way, we were able to quickly adjust ourselves with the different challenges of fasting during the day. As an added incentive if we managed to fast for the whole day from sun up to sunset back when we were children, my mother would always give us a special treat at the break of fast. I also remember back when I was learning how to fast, my father would promise me a certain amount of money to be given at the end of the fasting month depending on the number of full days I fasted. Everyone in my family went through the same experience of learning how to fast and I don’t think that this experience in not that dissimilar to other families in Malaysia.

There are some local customs and traditions in Malaysia that you would only see during the fasting month. One tradition that is prevalent in Malaysia among Muslims during this time of the year is the pre-dawn meal that we call “Sahur”. This meal is taken before the dawn prayers to prepare ourselves for fasting in the day ahead. In my household, this means waking up at 4:30am in the morning to heat up the food that we have prepared the night before and sit down to eat as a family. I wouldn’t usually have any problems waking up at that ungodly hour but I rarely do it if I’m not at home with my family. It doesn’t feel the same waking up at 4:30 am in the morning to have sahur alone. If I’m at my apartment, I would usually skip it altogether and instead have a late supper before I go to bed. Another tradition that comes to mind is the Ramadhan bazaar that is organized by small traders in almost any populated area in Malaysia. It is at these bazaars that Muslims would congregate to buy food stuff, dishes, cakes and other delicacies for the meal to break fast with. In some of the bigger bazaars, one would be able to find local delicacies that would not be available any other month of the year. It is actually somewhat ironic to think that the fasting month is the best time of the year for any tourist who really wanted to sample true Malay cuisines and delicacies.

Muslims are reminded not to be wasteful during this fasting month. Not allowed to eat, drink, smoke and have sexual intercourse during the day time is not an excuse for excesses in any of them after the breaking of fast after the sun goes down. We consider people who waste food, for example, from the breaking of fast meal as not understanding the meaning of fasting in Islam. Fasting is a time for both moderation and meditation. It is a period of moderation in the sense of everything that we do before, during and after the fasting period. It is also a period of meditation in the sense of our relationship with God and fellow man. The month of Ramadhan allows us to contemplate the suffering that some people who have to live without sufficient food or water have to go through daily and allows us to share their burden. All able-bodied Muslims who meet certain criteria are also required to pay our yearly tithe during the month of Ramadhan which is usually the currency equivalent of a bag of rice per person. The alms that is collected during this month is divided fairly among the poor of the area that one lives in so that their suffering would be eased a bit during the holy month and that they would also be able to celebrate the end of Ramadhan with a little more cheer than they would have if they had nothing at all.

Ramadhan is the month that most Muslims look forward to as a month when we all can be spiritually recharged. It has been promised that during this holy month all good deeds are rewarded many fold, prayers are answered and forgiveness is easily given by God. It is the month when we can share the burden of hunger and thirst of the fellow man and do something to help ease the suffering that they have to go through day after day. The sense of brotherhood and unity among Muslims are the strongest during this month as we all have something that we share in common regardless of nationality, race or station in life. Every day in the month of Ramadhan is faced with patience and meditation in hopes that we will rewarded for our acts of piety. We would also celebrate the end of the fasting month with the Hari Raya or Eid celebrations not because we can eat during the day again but because we Muslim have successfully fulfilled our obligations to God for another year. It is this obligation that I for one am looking forward to successfully complete to the best of my abilities one day at a time.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Book Review : "Blackwood Farm" by Anne Rice

What would life be like if you could live forever but never again be able to see the light of day without being utterly destroyed by the experience?

Anne Rice gave the world the answer to that question when she wrote her first Vampire Chronicle book, “An Interview with the Vampire”. For the first time in recorded literature history, it was a story told from the point of view of the monster, if you can call her vampire characters that, which has never been thought of before. After the publication of that wonderful work of fiction, the previously single dimensional creatures of dread and loathing had suddenly been given a fresh facet of their existence that paint them as tortured, lonely, sensual and seductive creatures of the night. In that first book, Anne Rice gave the world such compelling characters in the form of the tortured Louis, regal Armand and of course, her greatest literary creation, the incorrigible Lestat who were all quickly embraced by her readers. Many other characters would be introduced in subsequent installments of the Vampire Chronicles, which now number 11 books, but Lestat will remain the constant in all her books including her latest installment entitled “Blackwood Farm”.

In this latest addition to the Vampire Chronicles, we are introduced to Tarquin “Quinn” Blackwood, a young fledgling vampire and master of the titular farm. Even before he received the “Dark Gift” that would turn him into a vampire, his previous life was already deeply entranced in the supernatural by virtue of the ghostly doppelganger who was his constant companion since childhood. This mirror image spirit that he calls “Goblin” has long provided Quinn with protection and companionship but it had turned increasingly violent since Quinn was brought over as a vampire. Fearing for his life and the life of the people he loved, he decided to seek out Lestat irregardless of his warning that no blood drinker was to set foot in New Orleans where Lestat kept his lair. Quinn’s fearlessness and vulnerable honesty intrigued Lestat enough to stay his hand and hear what Quinn had to say to him. Relieved that he was not to be destroyed, Quinn put forth his plea for help to destroy Goblin before he became a menace to his loved one. Further intrigued as well as captivated by this beautiful youth, Lestat listened attentively as Quinn told his story.

It is this story that fills the pages of “Blackwood Farm” and takes the reader through a new adventure populated by some of the most memorable characters to appear on page. Quinn tells the story of how his family came to be and how their magnificent manor was built on the lands of Blackwood Farm. The readers are introduced to a variety of wonderfully memorable characters such as Aunt Queen, the world-traveled matriarch of great gentility with a passion for cameos and high heels, Mona Mayfair, the 15 year old nymphomaniac with a dark family secret that was slowly killing her, and Jasmine, the sensually beautiful and trustworthy employee totally devoted to Quinn. Their story unfolds like an epic Southern gothic story complete with the prerequisite elements of dark secrets, betrayal, death and ghosts that continue to haunt the living. We learn of the ghost Rebecca who haunts Quinn in an effort to solve a long kept family secret. We also learn of how Quinn had been turned into a vampire by the hermaphrodite vampire Petronia, a character so bizarre and fresh compared to the other vampire characters in her canon. The story of Quinn and these characters are woven masterfully and all led up to a somewhat explosive cliffhanger that opens the possibility of a sequel to the story.

In “Blackwood Farm”, we find that Anne Rice returns to the proven format that made her earlier installments of her Vampire Chronicle series a resounding success. Perhaps learning from her mistake of letting another narrate the story of the titular character in “Merrick”, Rice wisely let Quinn have the limelight and tell his story to both Lestat and the readers himself. This literary device is not unlike the ingredient that made “An Interview with the Vampire” a success as it allowed the readers to easily follow the story as it was told to them. This feeling of intimacy between the character and the reader as the story unfolds helps make “Blackwood Farm” an easy and enjoyable read. Rice also pulled all stops by choosing to end each chapter with a cliffhanger that would surely force the reader to want to read the pages that follow. One intriguing difference in this book compared to the others is that the story spans a shorter time frame compared to her previous story due to the fact that Quinn was a fledgling vampire who was not as old as the other members of Lestat’s Coven of the Articulate. While this gave “Blackwood Farm’ a sharper focus to the story, it looses the historic epic span that we have come to know and love in her other works that would usually span centuries.

The characters introduced for the first time in “Blackwood Farm” run the gamut of bland and forgettable to bizarre and memorable. The character of Quinn himself is quite strange in that he continues to share his bed quite innocently with his nurse maid well into late adolescence. I have to say that I did not care too much about the character as Quinn came through initially as a spoilt brat. I actually preferred the character of Goblin who was written quite innocently at first but would later gain a level of increasing malevolence as he grew in strength after Quinn is made into a vampire. Although it was only detailed in a few short chapters, the new vampires introduced in this installment are interesting in that they are older than the other vampires that we know of to date. This new group of vampire lived in Ancient Greece long before the oldest member of Lestat’s Troupe of the Beloved came into being. This opens up the intriguing possibility of another set of vampires that we have not seen or heard off before. Of the characters in “Blackwood Farm” I would have to say that the character of Petronia, the hermaphrodite vampire who made Quinn into a vampire, is one of the most memorable characters that I’ve read about this year.

This latest installment to the Anne Rice’s body of work shares the distinction with “Merrick” of being her attempt to fuse her two popular mythological story lines, her Vampire Chronicles with her Mayfair Witches series, together. I am familiar enough with her vampire series that I could pick up several sly references to previous books of the series that has been inserted in several points in the story. I would guess that references from the Mayfair Witches series would also pepper the work for those who know the stories well enough to recognize them. While previous knowledge of her work from other books of both storylines is not required, it would increase the enjoyment of the book to know some of the previous history that came before. This story is a perfect entry point for those who have never read any of Anne Rice’s works or for those who have long ago left her books behind due to increasing complexity of her previous story continuity. While the ending of “Blackwood Farm” seems a bit contrived and simplified, it does open the door for a sequel to the story that would be doubtless eagerly awaited by her readers.

As a whole, “Blackwood Farm” represents Anne Rice’s successful return to the literary formula that made her famous 20 years ago. An easy, fast flowing and enjoyable read, this book would easily appeal to new readers as well her hard core fans who has been waiting for her to return to what she does best, telling stories that equally enchants and repels the reader with sensual and seductive characters that we wish would come into our parlor to offer an eternity of love and adventure.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Happy Deepavali 2003

Being multi-cultural, one of the many things that we Malaysian get to enjoy in our country is the ability to celebrate the holidays of different cultural groups together. By making these holidays a national holiday, everyone in the country has the opportunity to partake in the generous hospitality and great food that Malaysians are famous for. In honor of the Deepavali holidays tomorrow, I did some research on the web to learn more about the festival.

The word “Deepavali” itself comes from the combination of two Sanskrit words which are “Deepa” or lights and “Avali” which can be roughly translated as a row. The combination of the two words literally mean “a row of lights” which corresponds roughly to the term “Festival of Lights” that is also commonly used to refer to Deepavali. Deepavali if also sometimes know as Dwali which I first heard of while I was studying the States. Since that term was used by other Indian friends who originally came from India and from the UK, I guess that this was just another acceptable term for the occasion that is celebrated every year during the 7th month of the Hindu calendar which falls approximately in October/November timeframe in our Western calendar.

There are several stories that I found which tells about the origins of the celebrations. In one legend that I’ve seen most commonly associated with the origin of the occasion, it was said that there was once an evil and oppressive king by the name of Narakasura who tortured, maimed and mercilessly ruled his subjects with an iron fist in the kingdom of Pradyoshapuram. His oppressed subject prayed to God for deliverance from the hell that they were forced to lived in and their prayers were answered when God descended to Earth in the form of the Hindu deity, Lord Krishna to do battle with the demon king. The fierce battle between the powers of good and evil was said to rage for days before the demon king Narakasura was finally defeated by Lord Krishna. With his final breath, a repented Narakasura announced that he was happy that he was to die at the hands of God and told the people to celebrate the occasion and not mourn his death. The people celebrated by lighting every lamp and candle in the kingdom as a symbol of light banishing the darkness and this practice has been followed to this day as the celebration of “Deepavali”.

Deepavali is primarily celebrated by the Hindu community in Malaysia with several rituals and temple prayers to mark the occasion. Days before the occasions, houses and temples are scrubbed clean and decorated beautifully to welcome Devi (goddess) Lakshmi which is the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. Among the special decorations that are usually used in preparation of the coming of Deepavali are vilakku which are small clay oil lamps and kolam which are intricate designs made by painstakingly arranging colored rice on the floor of the entrance to the house. The people celebrating Deepavali also prepare for the occasion by cleansing themselves spiritually by fasting, prayers, meditation and avoidance of all kind of meat a few days before. They would also go through the ritual of bathing in oils before sunrise on Deepavali day signify purity.

People celebrating Deepavali would then congregate in the temples to offer prayers in the morning. A highly celebrative mood is often found in the temples as people dressed in their finest come together in the temples bearing offerings to their deities. After prayers, they would normally go back to their beautifully decorated homes and open their doors to visitors. In a truly Malaysian tradition, this is an occasion for them to hold open houses for their family and friends of every race and walk of life to share in their cultural celebrations. Several cakes and dishes would be made especially for the occasion to be shared generously with the visitors. Depending on the person, this open house may even last until the evenings. I’m looking forward for tomorrow as well. Not only do I also get a day off from work but I also have been invited to a few Deepavali open houses tomorrow.

For those celebrating Deepavali, a Happy Deepavali to you and may the coming year continue to bring you and your family wealth and prosperity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Out with the old

As I was walking home today, I noticed that there was a number of heavy equipment near the squatter slum that I pass through everyday on my way to work. It seems that the municipal authorities have finally decided to move into the illegal settlement and tear down the squatter houses that have been in the area for quite some time. By the time I passed through the area, the majority of work has already been completed and that most of the empty squatter houses have been leveled to the ground. The police were present just in case any unforeseen incident were to occur but since the people who were previously living in the are had long ago moved out to the new low cost apartments nearby, nothing major really happened. I don’t really know what they have planned for the land but I did hear of a proposed development of another low to medium-cost apartment complex in the area. I just hope that they plan to widen the road leading out of the area if they are planning a new housing complex since the existing road is already congested every morning.

I think that it was about time that the authorities came in and demolished the mostly empty squatter houses. The place was fast becoming a haunt for undesirable elements of our society that it hardly feels safe to travel through it at night. There have been a few cases of break-ins and theft that was traced back to the area in the past 2 years that it would be a relief to surrounding residents that the slum has been torn down. While most of the previous residents of the area had moved into the apartments that were sold to them at a very attractive subsidized price, some choose to remain in the area and make money by selling off their subsidized apartments to outsiders. These people think that they could profit by the state government’s generosity at the expense of other people. Some have even been reported as taken over several squatter houses that were left behind and setting themselves up as slum lords who rent these dilapidated shacks to illegal immigrants.

I didn’t see anyone rounded up when they were demolishing the squatter houses today so I guess that the illegal immigrant residents there have been forewarn about the arrival of the authorities. There were a few small trucks that were ferrying household items for those who waited until the last minute before moving out. Since the situation was calm when I passed through it, I guess that they were given ample notification to vacate the area. I would hate to hear that any one was forcibly removed from their house although in a way the local authorities do have the right since they were already given alternative housing. Although I can appreciate the reason why some people might have to live in squatter slums like the one near my place, I can hardly believe that they would continue to stay there once they are given a better house to live in. It would hardly make sense to continue to do so unless the underlying reason was pure greed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

One month and counting ...

It has been just over a month since I’ve decided to quit smoking and I thought that it was about time to take stock of what I have been through since then.

I decided to quit smoking partly because I had promised myself that I would quit if the price of a pack of cigarettes went above RM5 which it did after the last tax increase on tobacco. I also thought that I’ve smoked for long enough in my adult life that it would surely hit me back as health problems if I persisted with my nicotine habit. So with those reasons in mind, I choose a Friday to have my last cigarette and quit smoking cold turkey after that. I had to go though some mild withdrawal symptoms from the absence of nicotine in my system for about a week which I have to say freaked me out a bit at the time. Once I passed that hump, it was slightly smooth sailing after that.

About 2 weeks into not smoking, I began to realize that my sense of smell and taste were returning. My nose suddenly became more sensitive to scent than usual that I would often came back from work in the evening with a stuffed nose. I guess that all those cells in my nose that have been burnt off in my years of smoking are beginning to grow back. Smells were getting intense for a time until I was able to get a handle on it. On the plus side as well, my fingers don’t smell of cigarette anymore. I also lost the yellowish tinge that I had before on my finger tips from all the smoking. My sense of taste also recovered from the years of abuse and everything tastes better now. This of course becomes a problem for me as I find myself eating more since I stopped smoking. In the month that I’ve stopped, I’ve put on an additional 5 kg of body weight. My next goal is to start losing that additional weight before the end of the year.

My mother is of course ecstatic to learn that I’ve quit smoking since she has been on my case about it for ages. My dad not so much because me quitting just adds to the pressure that he gets from my mum for him to quit smoking. The people at work have been very supportive of my decision when they notice that I no longer take smoking breaks every hour on the hour as I would usually do. Some of them even go to the extent of supplying me with tidbits to help with the cravings. For a time, I would always find something left on my desk for me when I came into the office in the morning. Good thing that they have stopped that nowadays as it was fast becoming embarrassing. I do still miss my smoking buddies who I would just sit and smoke a cigarette with before. I still would see them in the halls but our conversations feel different compared to the ones we had while on a smoke break. I have only recently trusted myself enough to be able to resist the temptation to smoke at the places that I used to smoke so I might just be able to go back to the familiar smoking corner for a chat with them soon.

Well, a month has passed and I still have 2 months more to beat my old record. I hope I could do it although it is still to early for me to know for sure. A friend of mine who quit sometime back told me that if things get too hard its OK for me to have a cigarette to help tide things over. He says that it is OK as long as I know that I can control it but I’m not too sure that I can if I fall off this bandwagon. At least not yet. I still have a ways to go before I can be sure that I can smoke one cigarette and not revert back to the nicotine fiend I was.

A ways to go before I find the will power to resist, a ways to go before I sleep.

Monday, October 20, 2003

PC Game Review : Rise of Nations

For some of the computer gamers today, the idea of becoming armchair commanders of an imaginary world in the computer does hold an addictive appeal. It is this appeal that explains the popularity of computer game titles that are squarely defined in the real time strategy (RTS) genre like the WarCraft, Command and Conquer as well as the Battle Realms series. On the other end of the spectrum, there are equally a big collection of computer game titles that fall into the turn based strategy (TBS) that employ a wider scope in their gaming experience as shown in the Civilization and Alpha Centuri series. For quite some time, these two distinct camps of the strategy gaming market was set apart from each other and never would the twain be met until the release of a ground-breaking strategy game title that successfully combine the best ideas from both genres. This blurring of the lines bridged the gap between the two ends of the strategy gaming spectrum was realized in game designer Brian Reynolds’ “Rise of Nations”.

“Rise of Nations” (RoN) allows the player to control one of 18 distinct civilization, each with their own unique military units and civilization advantageous, in a journey that spans 6000 years through all the epochs of human history. Players start off in the Classical Ages and work their way up to the Information Age by researching new technologies and collecting required resources while building an army big enough to sufficiently defend and expend their civilization borders. Like any other RTS games in the market today, players are tasked to efficiently manage their city and resources in order to achieve the maximum output in the shortest amount of time before they run into opposition.

While several game features are indistinguishable from other RTS games of its ilk, “Rise of Nation” sets itself apart from the other titles by placing emphasis on the city itself and the concept of city limits. In the cities of RoN, resource buildings are limited in number and must be placed within city limits which necessitates the need for the player to plan to expand the national borders by establishing other cities in the play continent. This makes each city an integral component of the civilizations well being and players can ill afford not to think ahead a little bit in order to ensure the survival of their cities. Cities are also important as a means of expanding the sphere of influence in this imaginary world which in turn generates income in the form of taxation which is proportional to the size of territory held.

It is the inclusion of the idea of national borders where RoN branches out into the turn base strategy game like the Civilization series. While national borders define the amount of taxes the territory will generate, it also demarks the point where forces of attritions began to impact invading armies. In RoN, the idea of attrition is referred to the damage that invading armies take to its units the farther they move into enemy territory. This concept, previously unseen in any RTS titles, is used to simulate the real life need to establish viable supply lines to support armies at war and this adds a new fresh level of realism in the game. Cities that are attacked in this game would also have the ability to defend themselves in the form of militia groups are generated the moment a city is attacked much like cities in real life. To further add to the level of realism in this game, cities that are conquered are not immediately transferred over to the invader but would need to go through a short period of assimilation before their borders are expanded with the inclusion of the invaded city.

In RoN, combat is resolved in a rock-paper-scissor like method. Each combat unit have been designed with a specific counter which it is vulnerable to. Since the size of the army allowed for each player can be limited by the amount of resources the player possess, it is in the player’s best interest to create the most balanced army they can instead of preferring any particular unit to be the majority of their army. Unlike other RTS in the market, aspiring armchair commanders in this game can also employ quite sophisticated flanking and ambushed maneuvers in their plan of attack thanks to the intelligent game AI engine. Players would also notice that the units unique to each civilization are somewhat equally balanced and that the advantage that these units give the player are of limited duration. Experience players would be able to recognize this and fully exploit the advantage when the opportunity presents itself before its time comes to pass.

The user interface for RoN is fairly similar to other games of this genre and quite easy to understand. The logistics of unit grouping and waypoints creations are similar to other games which I believe is fast becoming a standard of this type of games. There are also a lot of short-cuts or hotkeys that would allow the player to quickly control the units and buildings which is a boon for experience gamers who use them for a fast and furious game. Players also would need to set aside resources to be used for technology research in order to advance in the game world. In RoN, the technology ladder is slightly simplified compared to those we see in other turn based strategy games like Civilization but it is sufficiently broad to capture the flavor of technological progress. An added feature that is welcomed in RoN is that all tech research is conducted in a single resource building which avoids the need to keep track of which building to go to upgrade a particular technology that we see in other RTS games in the market.

Graphic wise, RoN is not much different than the “Age of Empires” series produced by Microsoft Games. Most of the resource buildings look the same between one civilization to the other with the exception of some that have an Eastern feel to them. Units on the battlefield are sufficiently differentiated that trying to pick them out in a skirmish is not as bad as an experience it could be. Players are also able to zoom in close into the game with the use of a mouse wheel for surgical placing of units or buildings but for most of the time players would prefer the larger overview of the land. The soundtrack used in the game is sufficiently accomplished and varied that it was not distracting as some are in other RTS games. The sound effects are used to the maximum effect and are appropriate for each unit action.

The only weakness that can be counted against this game is the lack of storyline based adventure for the single-player gamers. Instead of a single-player adventure that we have come to expect for a game of this genre, RoN gives the single player with a Risk board game like of “Conquer the World” segment. In this segment, the single-player chooses to play one civilization against the other 17 with the goal of conquering the world in several episodic sessions. Each session are time-limited which means singe-player game play is time bounded and are comprised of different scenarios. In some, the player needs to defend their city from invasion while in some the players are tasked to invade another civilization. Users get to employ their turn-based strategy in the world map when they try to plan their invasion in order to grab the most territory in the least amount of time possible and switch to their RTS skills of resource management when the games goes into city mode. While this combination is fresh in its execution, it is hardly enough for single-players of the game. Although RoN does have other single-player scenarios, the strength of this game lines in the multi-player appeal much like other RTS games of the type.

As a game, “Rise of Nations” is an interesting and successful amalgamation of two previously different gaming camps in the strategy game spectrum. The introduction of real life concepts not found in other RTS games allows for a new level of realism in the game that puts the emphasis on strategy instead of the normal accumulation of resources. Although it has the potential to be an instant multi-player favorite, the game’s only drawback is the weak single-player offering which lowers the replay value of this game for the lone armchair commander. Other that that seemingly glaring omission, “Rise of Nations” is poised to be one of the more interesting games to be released this year in the computer gaming industry.

Rating : 3/5 stars.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Friday Five

Another Friday and I don't have anything in particular planned for the weekend. I may end up spending some time playing the "Rise of Nations" computer came that I just bought. Maybe even write something about it on my blog next Monday. We'll see.

Anyway ... this week's Friday Five.

1. Name five things in your refrigerator.
I haven’t done any grocery shopping so my refrigerator is quite bare. I think it still have a bag of celery, a bag of baby carrots, cough medicine, mango juice and a tub of margarine.

2. Name five things in your freezer.
As of this morning, I still have a large container of ice, half a kilo of ground beef, frozen pizza and a small tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream. OK ... that’s just 4 items but that’s all I have in my freezer. It is a small freezer. Of course, contents may change since my housemate is at home on vacation and has been known to raid my ice cream stash.

3. Name five things under your kitchen sink.
Laundry detergent, fabric softener, a big stock pot, a frying wok and the trash can.

4. Name five things around your computer.
An old serial port joystick that I don’t use any more but never got the time to throw out, my collection of computer game CDs, my writing journal, the latest bill that I have yet to pay and my copy of “Beautiful Thing” by Jonathan Harvey.

5. Name five things in your medicine cabinet.
Toothpaste, aspirin, Zinc supplement pills, Spirulina supplement pills and L-Carnitine supplement.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Do you want to touch the sky?

Do you have what it takes to be the first Malaysian astronaut to travel in space on board a Russian space craft? If you do, you should register at at a shot of having the honor to go where no other Malaysian has gone before.

It is interesting to note that they are not just limiting the field of candidates to those from the military or the academics for the choice to be Malaysian’s first person in space. Since this space mission is part of the arrangement the country made with the Russians for buying their combat fighters, we don’t really have too much to invest in this mission other than the person’s time and sacrifice during the grueling training period before being able to join the Russian cosmonauts on their trip to space. According to the Malaysian National Space Agency (NSA), what they need is someone who is fit, determined, and intelligent with the correct aptitude.

I have to admit that I did go online to check out the preliminary application form for "angkasawan", our local word for astronaut, candidate that they have on the NSA website. The form asked for basic personal details, educational history, work history and some minimal health details. I was really tempted to fill in an application since I’ve always dreamed of being able to travel into space but considering my borderline hypertension and weight problems I decided against it. Let someone else better suited for the job fill in the application instead of people like me who would only be wasting byte space on their online database with our applications.

Those of us who will be staying behind can still dream of the outer expanse of space as we put our hopes and dreams on the shoulders of the one who will be carrying it on wings of fire.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Pendulum Swings On

I was more than a bit unsettled when I heard of the news about the 16 year old student who was stabbed to death by his fellow student on school grounds earlier today. In a few short moments, the country lost 2 young men of potential due to the seemingly escalation violence in our schools. I have to say that this latest incident is the first time I heard of that a deadly weapon was used by a student on school grounds. Are our local schools in Malaysia today pseudo-Columbine power kegs waiting to ignite? Have we gone that far off that our students today carry deadly weapons to school? The idea that students are carrying concealed weapons in their backpack terrifies me to no end. When did thing go so wrong?

I admit that we were no angels way back when we were students like they are today. We had our share of fights at school grounds and I have to admit to being a party to several of them in my misspent youth. But we always drew a line against using blades, clubs, broken bottle or anything that would cause permanent injury as well as would get you thrown into jail for assault with a deadly weapon. Our fights usually end up with us slugging ourselves silly with skin on skin rather than with sharp objects. I never knew anyone who died in any of the fights that I was a part of and everybody knew the score of what was acceptable in our conduct. That was then and now things have changed so much that I wonder how things came to this point.

Some people blamed the violence that the youth today are exposed daily in both the print and electronic media. I can’t accept that assertion as I don’t think that the level of violence on TV today is any different from what it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago. In fact I think that TV shows were more violent and vulgar back in the 70’s and 80’s in Malaysia then they are today. I remember growing up watching the old TV shows like “Combat” and “Dynasty” as a child that would really tasked out our scissor-happy censors today. Of course back then my parents, like many parents of their time, would set very strict times when we could watch TV so we don’t get to see anything they don’t want us to see. That didn’t stop us from sneaking a peek at the late night shows when they were not around but somehow we didn’t turn out half as bad.

I heard a theory on this particular issue from a taxi driver who was driving the taxi that I took to go to my company HQ last Tuesday. He believe that all the social problems that we are currently seeing escalating day by day are the result of people rebelling against the pressures of our currently conservative society. He notes that our Malaysian society follows a pendulum that swings between a liberal-open society and an ultra-conservative and seemingly pious collection. I have to agree that people today are stodgier and are seemingly obsessed of showing their piety by putting more stock into their moralistic credentials regardless of their religion. My taxi driver feels that this fast evolving ultra-conservative society in Malaysia are shutting off several outlets that would previously allow certain elements of the society to release pressure out of this simmering pressure cooker in a safe manner. Thus in his opinion, this is why we are seeing an increase of social ills in our society today especially among the Malays.

I have to say that I can find some truth in his opinions. People of my generation are actually very skeptical of the generation that came before us. We have been disillusioned by the people who now flaunt their religious and moral credentials as if they were better than others and yet have their own multitude of skeletons in their closets collected from their youth. We know that they are no batter than us when they were our ages so we don’t feel that they have earned the right to chastise us for following the examples that they have set out for us. Regardless of the deceit, I have to believe that things are not as bleak as they sound today. The pendulum will eventually swing again to the opposite extreme of how our society is today. The question is only when will that switch happen and how are we as a society prepared to face that eventuality. My own opinion on this is that we have to find a middle ground where all would be satisfied and that could only happened when people accept that moderation in everything that we do as the key that would help us in finding that balance.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Crybaby ....

My copy of the “Dawson’s Creek: Series Finale” DVD finally came in the mail today! I was so excited about finally getting it that I decided to take off early from work today and rushed home to watch the DVD. Once I reached home, I quickly changed into something more comfortable, pop in the DVD in the player and settled down to watch the best 2 hours of television that I have watched in a while. Of course I have to mention that I totally turned into a sobbing mess watching the poignant scenes in the DVD. I was sobbing my eyes out like baby that I was thankful that none of my housemates were around to watch me cry at watching a stupid teen angst television show. They already make fun of the way I always end up in tears at the end of “E.T. The Extra-terrestrial" and I don’t need to give them more fodder to rib me with. Anyway ... tonight I’m totally exhausted and emotionally wrung out from watching the DVD. I still have to sit through one more sitting of the whole thing to listen to the commentary track or else I would not be able to sleep tonight thinking about it. I just hope that I would be able to control my emotions this time.

I also got news today that the business trip that I suppose to be on this month has been rescheduled for this coming November. If all goes well, I will have to travel to Penang from the 3rd to the 11th of next month and then to Singapore from the 12th until the 21st. Tried as I might to avoid it, it seems that I’ll be spending almost all of the fasting month this year on the road, which I totally hate. It means that I would have to cancel my annual breaking of fast get together with my friends this year. I’ve been having it every year without fail for the past 7 years that I really hate to have to cancel it this year. Of course this also means that I don’t get to break fast with my family this year since I will only be back in town just in time for Hari Raya (Eid Mubarak). Since it doesn’t seem to be anyway of getting myself out of this arrangement, I guess that I have to suck it up and just do it. I just hope that they put me up at a nice hotel this time around. I got to choose the hotel that I wanted to stay in when I was in my old company but I don’t know if they have the same policy in my current one. Hopefully they would have but I guess I would know more when they give me the reservations.

Monday, October 13, 2003

DVD Review: Angel (Season 1 & 2)

One of the few TV series on local television that I look forward to week after week is “Angel” which airs locally on Thursdays at 11:10pm on TV2. This series that is now in its fifth season in the States is a spin-off from another popular television series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, that was also shown on local TV sometime back. It was on that show that I first learn about the titular character of Angel who was a 200 year old vampire who happened to have a soul and continue to roam the Earth seeking redemption for all the things that he had done before. While the character initially appeared on and off in the Buffy series, it would soon be one of the fan favorites from the series and in time would merit a spin-off series of his own. The self-titled spin-off series takes Angel out of Sunnydale into the city of Los Angeles where he continues to seek redemption by championing the cause of humanity against a multitude of evil entities. The television series has, to date, been collected into 2 DVD boxes set that covers all episodes in season 1 and 2 respectively. I had the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite episodes from the show recently after purchasing the latest instalment of the “Angel” DVD boxed set.

At the end of Season 1 of the series, Angel has finally accepted his new role of humanity’s champion against the prophesied darkness that was steadily descending on the world. As we come back to them in the beginning of Season 2, we find Angel (David Boreanaz) embracing his occupation in full force with the help of his friends Wesley (Alexis Denisof) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) who helps him run Angel Investigations Agency. They are soon joined by Gunn (J. August Richards) who Angel first befriended in the previous season. While initially things seemed to be happening smoothly for Angel, his mortal enemies who happened to be lawyers at the firm of Wolfram and Hart had set their plan in motion to convert Angel to the dark side and to convince him to work for their benefit. The plan that they initiated involved Angel’s long time vampire paramour, Darla (Julie Benz) who was resurrected after being killed by Angel.

Unaware of the plans laid against him, Angel finds himself increasingly isolated from his friends and becomes more obsessed with Darla who has returned to him as a mortal. This isolation continues to escalate when Darla loses her new found soul and was turned into a vampire in order to save her life again for the second time. Feeling the burden of guilt for not being able to save Darla from her fate and the fear that he would have to kill his old lover again for the second time finally pushes Angel to sever ties with the others in an attempt to spare them his pain. This betrayal and mistrust did not sit well with the others how vow to continue his work without him. While Angel continued to find a way to atone for his guilt, the rest of his crew struggled to find their way in the world with some limited success. After several events unfolded to show Angel the errors of his ways, he goes through an epiphany that his place is with his friends in their fight to save humanity from the evil that he could not eradicate alone. While it was awkward in the beginning, Angel successfully regained their trust and was accepted back into their fold.

As implied in the above season synopsis, the producers of this series had rightly steered the series away from the monster of the week format that made the majority of the episodes from the first season of the series. In Season 2, we find more multi-part episodes that build the character arc of Angel. In this season, we learned more about his past as a an evil vampire who terrorized 18th and 19th century Europe with Darla at his side until the day that he was cursed with a soul that reflected back at him all the hurt and terror that he has visited on other. The inclusion of this mythic arc allowed the viewers to become more involved and vested into the main character of the series. The multi-part format allowed the audience to slowly digest the significance of each episode as it contributes to the bigger story that was being told. In season 2, episodes like “Dear Boy”, “Darla” and “The Trial” were essential to set up Angel’s fall into the dark side before he has to face his paramour again in her evil guise in the wonderful two-parter of “Reunion” and “Redefinition”. The story arc was later admirable concluded in another two-parter of “Reprise” and “Epiphany” which finds Darla realizing that she would never be able to turn Angel to her side.

While Angel was facing his trials with Darla in season 2, the other members of his group were also facing their own trials. The character of Gunn who comes in initially as a leader of his own pack of vampire hunters finds himself increasingly drawn away from his own crew while he worked on cases for Angel. This absence led to some tragic events to the members of his original gang which caused him to reevaluate his position with his previous associations. While Gunn faced this decision, Wesley was slowly finding himself in the position of the leader of their investigation agency as Angel began to isolate himself more and more from the others. This was a decision that scared the character as he has always been comfortable being the position of the follower. Since he was thrust into the limelight of a leadership position, Wesley had no choice but to fit himself into the role and hope that he does not screw things up this time.

Season 2 also saw the introduction of the Host, a green-skinned, red horned demon who can read another person’s future when the person sings, played wonderfully by Andy Hallet. The introduction of this new character not only takes the series to a new wonderful direction but also increases the streak of humor inherent in this series. As a series, “Angel” has always had a humorous side to it, a streak that is much more apparent in this series than from Buffy, which was further enhanced by the running gag that Angel was a terrible singer and would have to embarrass himself to get guidance from the Host. The introduction of this karaoke bar proprietary who happened to be green also gave the opportunity for the cast to show their previously unknown talent for singing as part of a storyline. I have to say that if it were not for the inclusion of this character, I would have never guessed that Christian Kane who plays Lindsey, one of the evil lawyers from Wolfram and Hart, had a really beautiful singing voice which he shared with the audience in a scene from “Dead End”.

Unfortunately Season 2 of Angel ends on a bit of a down note in terms of the story arch. A few interesting storylines were set aside at the end on the season as the characters were transported into the Host’s home dimension in an attempt to rescue Cordelia who was accidentally sucked through. There the crew finds a world where humans are slaves to demons and Cordelia was crowned as a princess slated for sacrifice. In saving her, the group managed to free the enslaved population and found a new addition into their group in the form a long lost Los Angeles resident, Winifred Burke (Amy Ackers) who would play a greater role in Season 3. While the final 3 episode of Season 2 are admirable in themselves, they felt thematically off from the other episodes of the season which may frustrated some viewers. Fortunately the dropped storylines were picked up again in Season 3 which make that DVD set a must for fans of the series.

All in all, Season 2 of “Angel” was when the series really came into its own and we now see that it can stand separate from Buffy which it was spun off from. Wonderful planning of the character arch in multipart episodes by the producers of the series made watching Angel enjoyable and addictive as the audience wants to know what happens next week after week. Even the episodes that were not directly linked to the mythology arch had something to offer to the viewers whether it be a throwaway line that expands the arch idea or just another example of the hilarious with and humor inherent in the series. Many fans of Angel agree that Season 2 was one of the best seasons for the whole series and this DVD set does it great justice. The 6 DVD set beautifully presented the season in widescreen version of exceptional picture and audio quality. I was sufficiently happy with the quality of the set enough to ignore the paltry offerings that were included as special features in the DVD set. As a fan of the series, this wonderful collection of one of the best episodes of the whole series was a welcomed addition to my collection. I just can’t wait for the next set to come out and continue the journey of “Angel”.

Season Rating: 4/5 stars
DVD package set rating: 4/5 stars

Friday, October 10, 2003

Friday Five

I am so bummed out that my “Dawson’s Creek: Series Finale” DVD has not arrived yet as of today. I was so looking forward to watch it this weekend. I shouldn’t be though since I still have my Angel and Smallville sets to go through but I was so eager to what DC for myself after reading what other people have posted on the TWoP DC discussion thread.

No plans for the weekend yet so I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing. I may just end up vegetating in front of the TV or go out and buy that Anne Rice’s “Blackwood Farm” paperback that I saw at the shop last week. Anyway ... you kiddies out there have a nice weekend.

Questions and my answers for this week’s Friday Five.

1. Do you watch sports? If so, which ones?
I rarely watch sports show on TV. I usually tune them out unless if they were fairly important games or something that I know people will be talking about the next morning at work. Might as well get some flavor of what happened during the game so I don’t look like a dork the next morning when people start talking about it.

Usually I would either watch the games from the local soccer league, my old school rugby matches, the national badminton team matches or Formula 1 races. I also still follow NFL and NCAA Football news although I don’t actually get to seen any matches locally.

2. What/who are your favorite sports teams and/or favorite athletes?
If I have any sports teams and/or favorite athletes that I even remotely try to stay current with their news, it would have to be my two favorite American football teams, Green Bay Packers and UW-Madison Badgers.

3. Are there any sports you hate?
I absolutely abhor WWE wrestling, if you can call it a sport, with a vengeance. Unfortunately for me, my housemate is a big fan and would often subject me to hours of it unless I manage to get to the TV remote first before he does.

4. Have you ever been to a sports event?
Yes, mostly for rugby games that my old secondary school played. I’ve also watched some Badger’s home games while I was in college which was tons of fun especially the traditional fifth-quarter parties. Sadly, I have not been able to go and watch any games live in a stadium since I’ve been back and started working. Too busy to care, I guess.

5. Do/did you play any sports (in school or other)? How long did you play?
As a rule I avoid getting involved in any type of sports because I seriously think that I am jinxed when it comes to playing sports since I always seemed to get injured in every type of sport I’ve tried. To date I have broken my nose three times playing softball, cracked my ankle playing field hockey, broke my collar bone 4 times playing rugby, tore my back muscles at archery and dislocated my shoulder during shot put among many sporting related injuries that I can remember.

I’ve tried almost all types of sports in school at one time or another and it only lasts until I get injured or something. I guess that someone or something is telling me that I don’t do sports.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Sometimes when I am alone and feeling down, I often think about this poem here and in a way it helps me put things into perspective.

Nothing Gold Can Stay – by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I first learned about this poem from watching the movie “The Outsiders” at the age of 9. It was one of the earliest movies that I really understood the message it carried and have held it dear to my heart even to this day. Thanks to this wonderful movie, I discovered both SE Hinton and Robert Frost whose works I would tirelessly pour myself into as a child and adore until today.

As I understand it, the poem talks of how fleeting everything is and that things will always change no matter how much we want it to stay the same. To me, nature’s first green is a metaphor for youth or this particular moment in time depending on the context of the reading of the poem. It is this item that is hard to hold on to as it would have to fade away with the passage of time. Since that passage of time is unstoppable we have to be always mindful that nothing lasts forever and that we should cherish every moment from one moment to the next.

Every time I feel down about something and am reminded of this particular poem, I realize that however bad things seem to be at the moment, I would be remiss if I don’t appreciate the moment for what it can possibly be. A particular moment in time that comes to test my resolve in this journey along the swift eddies of life. Each point in the river is a milestone for good or bad and would never return once passed. Rather than deriding my fate at that particular point in the journey, wouldn’t it be much better to celebrate the moment for what it is and move on knowing that we had not wasted the first hue carelessly?

Whichever way I see it, this poignant poem is one of my favorite poems of all time and one of the very few that I can quote from memory. It also inspired the song “Stay Gold” by Stevie Wonder which was also the theme song for “The Outsiders”. This song is a worthy companion piece to the original poem. I would never tire of both watching this movie and listening to this song although the movie is close to 20 years old and I must have seen it about 25 times.

Stay Gold – sung by Stevie Wonder from the movie “The Outsiders”

Seize upon that moment long ago
One breath away and there you will be
So young and carefree
Again you will see
That place in gold

Steal away into that way back when
You thought that all would last forever
But like the weather
Nothing can ever...and be in time
Stay gold

But can it be
When we can see
So vividly
A memory
And yes you say
So must the day
Too, fade away
And leave a ray of sun
So gold

Life is but a twinkling of an eye
Yet filled with sorrow and compassion
Though not imagined
All things that happen
Will age too old
Though gold

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Governator Attacks !

It’s official!

Arnold “Terminator” Schwarzenegger is the new governor of California.

So how exactly does this impact me? It doesn’t at all ... I'm just having a really off night and have nothing else better to report.


(as reported in Yahoo News)
Davis Out, Schwarzenegger Wins in Calif.
By ERICA WERNER, Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES - Seething over taxes and red ink, voters dumped the unpopular Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with political novice Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday morning, the recall was favored by 4,092,411 voters or 54.3 percent, and opposed by 3,438,424 voters or 45.7 percent.

Among the replacement candidates, Schwarzenegger was ahead with 3,500,184 votes, or 47.9 percent of the vote; Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante had 2,361,466 votes, or 32.3 percent; Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock had 965,095 votes, or 13.2 percent; and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo had 205,861 votes, or 2.8 percent.

Davis, the Democrat who presided over California's economy as it careened from boom to bust, was recalled Tuesday less than a year into his second term. According to partial returns, more than 54 percent of voters called for his ouster.

Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican with tons of charisma but virtually no political experience, was easily elected among candidates to replace Davis just two months after shocking even his closest aides when he declared his candidacy on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

The action movie hero may find that the hardest part is yet to come. He will need to quickly assemble an administration and work with a Democrat-controlled Legislature to close a projected $8 billion shortfall for next fiscal year. Schwarzenegger scheduled an afternoon press conference Wednesday to discuss the transition.

"We have tough choices ahead," Schwarzenegger said in declaring victory. "The first choice that we must make is the one that will determine our success. Shall we rebuild our state together or shall we fight amongst ourselves, create even deeper divisions and fail the people of California? Well, let me tell you something — the answer is clear. For the people to win, politics as usual must lose."

"Tonight, the voters did decide it's time for someone else to serve, and I accept their judgment," said Davis, the career public servant who became the first California governor and the second in the nation ever to be recalled.

"I'm calling on everyone ... to put the chaos and division of the recall behind us and do what's right for this great state of California," Davis said.

Barring a legal challenge, Schwarzenegger will be sworn in no later than Nov. 16 to serve out the remaining three years of Davis' term. First the vote must be certified, a process that can take more than a month. He would then be up for re-election in 2006.

Schwarzenegger prevailed despite a flurry of negative publicity in the campaign's final days, including allegations of inappropriate conduct toward women.

"The truth of the matter is the voters never took their eye off the ball," Schwarzenegger spokesman Sean Walsh said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Schwarzenegger will need to turn in a budget plan by Jan. 10, giving him just a few months to deliver on campaign-trail promises not to raise taxes or cut education spending, which consumes roughly 40 percent of California's budget. Throughout the campaign, Schwarzenegger refused to say what he would cut and promised to repeal this year's tripling of the state vehicle license fee, although he has not said how he would make up the $4 billion that would cost.

Schwarzenegger must work with Democrats, who are a majority of both houses in the Legislature and hold all statewide offices except his newly won governorship.

He dismissed the problem on the campaign trail, saying he knew how to work with Democrats because he's married to one — Kennedy relative Maria Shriver.

Despite the rancorous recall, Bustamante and other Democrats quickly pledged to put partisanship behind them and work with the new governor.

"As I see it, we campaign as partisans but we govern as Californians," said Bustamante, whose term expires in 2006. "I know how to balance a budget and I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work."

Schwarzenegger, 56, weathered last-minute allegations from 16 women who said he groped them or made unwanted sexual advances, and accusations that as a young man he spoke admiringly of Adolf Hitler.

He denied the Hitler claims and dismissed some of the groping allegations as lies while admitting he "behaved badly sometimes."

By the time those charges surfaced, voters' desire to oust the deeply unpopular Davis was too sharp to curb.

Exit polling showed that many Hispanics and union members — two key groups in Davis' past electoral successes — deserted him as he suffered extraordinarily low job approval ratings amid widespread discontent about the state's economy, according to voter surveys conducted for The Associated Press and other news organizations by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

But the recall was more than a message to Davis, said former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who called it a warning shot to all officeholders.

"It's a revolt of people who are increasingly angry at the crises that face them, and at the failure of leadership," Panetta said. "If I were a Republican, I wouldn't get too cocky about what happened."

Schwarzenegger's improbable rise to political power played out before a rapt international audience. He campaigned as an outsider, borrowing a line from the movie "Network" to tell charged-up supporters, "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!"

The 135 candidates included a parade of bit players, including Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, former child actor Gary Coleman and a porn actress who wanted to tax breast implants. But to many Californians, it was serious business.

"I'm horrified at the thought that Schwarzenegger can be our governor," said Gretchen Purser, 25, of Berkeley, who voted against recall. "I'm sick of Republicans trying to take over the state."

Jim Hall, 62, voted yes for the recall and for Schwarzenegger. "Call him the governator or the gropenator, we're going to see some action now," Hall said early Wednesday as he passed through the weight room at 24 Hour Fitness Sport in Camarillo.

"For the first time, we'll have somebody who will probably listen to the people and figure out what it is that has to be done, not the same old thing the way politics goes."

Voters also rejected Proposition 54, a contentious initiative that would have banned state and local governments from tracking race in everything from preschools to police work. Californians also said no to Proposition 53, which would have set aside up to 3 percent of the state budget every year to build and rebuild infrastructure

Monday, October 06, 2003

CD Review: "Michael Bublé" by Michael Bublé

I’ve always been partial to American music from the 40’s and 50’s. In my mind, selections from that time period always represented my ideal image of Americana culture. I discovered most of the music from this time period from old American movies that I used to watch as a child as well as some of the newer ones that they shown locally. Most often than not, a song would come through in the movie that would simply captivate me and start me on a journey to discover the artist and their other works. It was by this way that I learned about Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sarah Vaughn among others. Their timeless songs and tunes have been reinterpreted by many and the latest name to put their mark on this illustrious list is Michael Bublé (pronounced boo-blay).

I first found out about this 25 year old Vancouver native from his appearance on a local music variety show a few weeks back. The first thing that struck me about this young artist is how mature he sounds despite his young age. In the show, they showed a music video clip of his rendition of “Sway” that immediately impressed me with the vitality of his interpretation. As an artist, Bublé specialized in covering songs that my grandparents used to hear and unfortunately have been overlooked by my generation. The songs that he covers in his self-titled debut items are best loved standards that have been lovingly reinterpreted for a new generation of listeners to appreciate.

The 13 track album, running just under 49 minutes, starts off with a smoldering rendition of Peggy Lee’s, Fever. His smooth vocals tease out the sensuality of the song with each note and he puts in just enough of an edge in the song that could easily heat up any situation. The slow burn transitions effortlessly into the next song, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. Bublé’s rendition of this song is backed by an instrumental arrangement that harkens back to the Big Band period that gives the song a very welcomed bounce and leaves the listener with an enjoyable finger-snapping tune.

George Michael’s “Kissing a Fool” is given a slow piano lounge remake as the album’s 3rd song. I have to say that I personally liked the original version better but I have to admit that Bublé did admirable work in his interpretation. His cover invokes the image of an intimate and smoky piano lounge show specially performed for us, his listeners. “For Once in My Life”, which comes next, is an up tempo swing song that showcase Bublé at his best covering Ole Blue Eyes himself, the late Frank Sinatra. Bublé effortlessly channels the same energy and styling of the master with a hefty dollop of charm oozing with each line he sings.

I found that the inclusion of the Bee Gee’s song “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” a bit jarring compared to the rest of the album. I guess this is because I didn’t get the same old time vibe from this song compared to the rest. On its own, this song is a soulful ballad of yearning perfectly presented by this young artist but as part of this album, it sounds tonally out of place. Fortunately we get back on track with the next song, “Summer Wind” which is another timeless swing song. I’m not sure if this song was originally sung by any of the Rat Pack but I definitely am reminded of them at the height of their success while listening to this song.

I was slightly confused by the next song, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” since it sounded so much like “Now It Can Be Told” by Ella Fitzgerald. I wasn’t sure if this is an original song or a cover of an earlier song that sampled Ella’s song. Although an enjoyable torch song to listen to, the confusion the similarities caused somewhat bugged me in this track. The choice of redoing Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” into an up tempo Graceland-Presley vibe is an interesting choice. It does imbue a level of swinging energy boost that fits well with the theme of the album although some Queen purists seem to hate Bublé’s version with a vengeance.

The song that follows can only be described as the best swoon-worthy rendition of Leif Garret’s (or Paul Anka’s depending on who you ask), “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”. This timeless standard was given the royal treatment that easily stirs the heart and awakens the romantic inside no matter how jaded the audience it. It would easily point to this song as the showpiece of the whole album followed very closely by the next song, “Sway”. This perennial swing standard is given a Latin boost by the percussions and smoothly styling that reminded me of a young Dean Martin. The rhythm and beat easily invokes the sensuality of the song that is hard to resist.

I wished that I like Bublé’s version of “The Way You Look Tonight” that follows but I have to say, although it was an accomplished attempt on his part, I just happen to like the Tony Bennet version better. I guess that I feel that this song is best sung at a slower tempo than the one Bublé covered to better appreciate the mood of longing this song carries with it in its beautiful lyrics. I have the movie “My Best Friend’s Wedding” to blame for this preference. I will never be able to listen to this song without thinking about Julia Robert’s character in that movie and how she was pining away for her best friend.

The quintessential Frank Sinatra song, “Come Fly With Me” is given yet another royal treatment by Bublé which further emphasis the fact that he can do Frank better than anybody else in the business today. Bublé effortlessly imbues the song with the right amount of charm and mischief that the listener is left soaring with each foot taping, finger snapping note. As an encore presentation, we are presented with a wonderful slow burn torch song “That’s All” that easily invokes the beauty and glamour of the Big Band era of 40’s Americana. This song is a perfect bookend to a wonderful album that encapsulates 50 years of swing and timeless standard in a package that spans a mere 49 minutes.

Filling in the void left behind by Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé effortlessly steps up to the plate with his good looks and smoldering vocals. In an age of hip hop and nu metal, artiste such as Norah Jones, Josh Gorban and now Michael Bublé are a welcomed addition to the music scene. In their own way, they are showing successfully that not all that are old are to be forgotten and sometimes old can be new with the right touch. As for Bublé, I seriously think that his natural style and flair for this genre of music is refreshing and this debut album is much superior that Robbie William’s effort released some time back. Although there are many who calls this young artist as the next Frank Sinatra but I definitely think that he has the goods to step out of that distinguished label and step out very soon as himself, Michael Bublé, the crooner for this generation.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Friday, October 03, 2003

My Love Relationship with TWOP

There are 5 new questions this week on Friday Five but it is pointless for me to answer them this week. The reason being is that this week’s questions are about the car that you drive. Since I don’t drive, none of the questions apply to me this week. So it will be another bye week for my Friday Five.

In other news, a bunch of my favorite TV series has started their new seasons in the US. This means that I’ll be following the recaps and forums on Television Without Pity site much closer now. It sucks that I don’t get to see them until at least a year after they air on American TV or until the release them on DVD but TWOP helps ease the suffering. If for nothing else, I’ll tune into that wonderful website for the snark.

Among the threads that I follow closely on TWOP site:

1. The Amazing Race
Enjoyable recaps that don’t shrink from calling the contestants out if they did something stupid. They also have a really active forum for this show at TWOP.

2. Angel
I found TWOP (when it was call Mighty Big TV) while looking for any stuff that I could find about “Angel” on the web. This recap thread was basically the first that I read from the site. It’s fun and funny to read especially when the recapper starts ragging on David Boreanaz’s chest and Charisma Carpenter’s clothes in the series.

3. Carnivale
This is a new series on American TV that caught my attention since it sounds so much like what Clive Barker would write about. I’m getting an “American Gothic” vibe from it.

4. Jake 2.0
Another new series debuting in the fall season and stars Christopher Gorham who I last saw in “Popular”. He was one of the reasons I never missed an episode of that show (the other being watching Bryce Johnson).

5. The O.C.
Serious eye candy and HoYay content evident even from the recaps. I would definitely get this one when it comes out on DVD.

6. The Real World
Not only do they have recaps of all the episodes of this series for the last 12 seasons, each one is really funny to read. I think that this thread is the longest and the most complete one they have.

7. Smallville
A.K.A the show with the most HoYay content (except when the producers decide to focus on Lana) on TWOP thanks largely to the efforts of the recapper. Watching the show after reading the recaps here really gives another layer to the show to enjoy. The Clark/Lex on-screen dynamics will never be the same once you read these recaps.

8. Survivor
Since we get to see “Survivor” just a few hours after the folks in the US do, I usually try to avoid reading the recaps here until after I see the show for myself. That way I’m still excited about finding out who gets voted out at the end of the episode. It is really funny reading the recaps afterwards and finding out all the things that I missed out on my first viewing.

The recaps are not the only things that they have on TWOP. Their forums are quite lively and hilarious to read as well. I can just spend hours lurking on the message boards and reading about my favorite shows. Definitely one of the links on my daily visit list.