March is turning out to be a bad month for geeks around the world. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, died earlier this month and Arthur C. Clarke, one of few remaining writers from the Golden Age of science-fiction and the last of the “Big Three”, has just died today at the age of 90. These days, the media remembers Clarke mostly for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, predicting the concept of geosynchronous communications satellites before the technology for them became possible and for the often used quote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
For me however, Clarke’s most memorable work was Childhood’s End, a novel about humanity transcending itself. It’s also the only one of my novels that my mother liked. Growing up, I had piles of science-fiction and fantasy novels lying all around the place and my mother would occasionally pick one up and flip through it. Most of the time, she never got past the first page. To my surprise, not only did she finish reading Childhood’s End, afterwards she asked me, “I liked that one. Do you have any more like it?”
Childhood’s End had captured my imagination ever since I’ve read an extract of it published as a short story in a collection edited by Isaac Asimov, another one of the “Big Three” writers, who died in 1992. It was collections like this that convinced me that the true soul of science-fiction, as the literature of ideas, lies not in novels but in short stories. I also remember the palpable awe that I felt when I first read Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Nowadays, gigantic spaceships in space is an overused theme, but Rama was one of the first examples of it and Clarke’s words captured the huge scale of it in a way that no other author has been able to replicate since.
Clark’s later life in Sri Lanka was blighted by allegations of pedophilia that has been proved to be false and although he tried to continue writing, he never could quite keep up with the new crop of writers. Nevertheless, his place in the history of science-fiction is assured and he will be forever remembered.
My wife and I visited the U.S. War Memorial here in Honiara over the weekend. We’ve been here plenty of times already but we didn’t take any photos. Guadalcanal Island was a major battleground of the Pacific theatre during World War 2, with many losses on both the American and Japanese side, so it’s not surprising that there is a well maintained memorial here. The U.S. military makes regular visits to the Solomon Islands, sending personnel and fighter jets in honour of their war dead. The film The Thin Red Line is based on the Guadalcanal campaign and is worth watching if you can put up with its 3 hours running length.
The U.S. Memorial is located along Skyline Ridge, on a hilltop that overlooks Honiara, so it’s a rather pleasant and scenic place to visit. The memorial itself is simply a collection of marble slabs with details descriptions of the battles and lists of losses. They make for good reading if you’re interested in World War 2 history, though in the case you should probably go read the Wikipedia entry on the subject instead.
There are plenty of free web games around these days, but I dare say that none can match the cheek and humour of Forumwarz. Many of its mechanics merely replicate the familiar monster grinding for experience points and loot of traditional role-playing games, but everything else is hilariously different: instead of a generic fantasy world, you’re placed in a Bizarro version of the Internet with parody versions of familiar web services, Sentrillion for example, replaces Google, sTalk replaces instant messaging services like Skype and the game wiki is called appropriately enough the Spoilerpedia; instead of slaying monsters for xp, you’re given the job of pwning various Internet forums; and instead of slashing with swords or blasting with spells, the attacks in your repertoire have names like “ASCII Art Attack”, “Drool on Keyboard” and “Insult”.
At least these are the attacks that I learned as a troll. Other classes available are the Cam Whore and the Emo Kid. Anyone familiar with the dynamics of Internet forums should be familiar with these archetypes. To liven up your frequent attacks on forums, you also occasionally given the opportunity to perform some side missions including a gloriously retro text adventure minigame. The writing throughout the entire experience is fantastic and pokes fun at the full range of Internet culture though you might get tired of the admittedly simple combat pretty fast. If you make it a daily habit to visit one or more online forums, you owe it to yourself to at least check this awesome game out.
Before the elections, I expressed some doubt about the governing experience of the opposition parties, especially the DAP, and unfortunately, it seems that I’m being proved right. The opposition so-called Barisan Rakyat has shown a crack just days after winning historic gains in the election when DAP leader Lim Kit Siang publicly spoke on behalf of the DAP Central Executive Committee to state that they disagreed with the decision of the Regent of Perak Raja Dr Nazrin Shah to appoint Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin of PAS as Menteri Besar of Perak and even called for the DAP to boycott the swearing in ceremony. Their grounds for doing so is that PAS won the fewest number of seats in Perak and that they would be happy to accept either DAP’s or PKR’s candidate for the post instead.
This is a ridiculous stand to take when even Ngeh Koo Ham, the DAP candidate for the post, had already stated that all three candidates from the DAP, PKR and PAS would accept whichever one of them that the Regent picked to be Menteri Besar and that all three parties would cooperate to govern the state properly. It looks like Lim Kit Siang is determined to make a liar out of his Perak state party chief. Predictably, MCA Perak state chief Ong Ka Chuan is trying to widen the crack as much as he can by saying that if DAP allows a PAS member to become Menteri Besar, they would be betraying the trust of the Chinese who voted for them.
Most people willl be familiar be the seven deadly sins in Christianity: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. If you’re not, just go watch David Fincher’s Seven. In an effort to keep up with globalization and the modern world, the Vatican has apparently decided to add a bunch new sins to the old list including drug abuse, polluting the environment, genetic manipulation and contributing to widening the divide between the rich and the poor.
Now the original seven sins never did make much logical sense, for example, you could argue that Lust, Gluttony and Envy are all variations of Greed, but at least they have a sort of poetic resonance. You can’t really say the same for these new ones and isn’t worrying about the divide between the rich and the poor yet another variation on the Greed theme? Besides, by explicitly condemning genetic manipulation as being inherently sinful, the Vatican will be contributing to the rising tide of anti-science protesters around the world and making it harder to bring the benefits of the technology to the world. Is genetically manipulating bacteria to create synthetic versions of fossil fuels sinful for example?
The irony here is that without genetic manipulation, humanity wouldn’t be what it is today. Civilization was built by early human hunter gatherers settling down to become farmers and in order to do that, they had to selectively choose animals and plants to breed in such a way as to reinforce the desirable traits in them and to reduce undesirable ones. In this way, wolves were tamed to become work dogs, wild plants were cultivated to become reliable food crops and the fearsome aurochs of our ancestors’ time have been turned into the placid cows of today. Humans took what they found in nature and manipulated their breeding across generations so that their descendants would better serve our needs. All of that counts as genetic manipulation even if it wasn’t done by men in white lab coats.
My wife and I have been watching the first season of Lost (yes, we’re slow) and one of the episodes featured a classic French song, La Mer by Charles Trenet and after that I just had to search Youtube for the full version of it. In fact, we’d recently spent one evening searching for classic French songs after learning of the surprise win by Marion Cotillard of the Best Actress award for her role in La Vie en Rose, so I thought it would be nice to write a post of some of the songs we found.
When studying the French language at the Centre de Linguistic Appliquée in Besançon, one of the exercises we were given was to transcribe the lyrics of French songs, beginning with nursery rhymes and moving on to classic songs and more modern pop music, which was how I learned about many of these songs. I’d actually guess that most English speakers in Malaysia would actually have heard of them in one form or another, only most won’t know their titles and singers, so here they are.
Ok, here’s another round of China bashing by me. The Chinese government has just banned actress Tang Wei, who is of course best known for her role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, from all media in China. The kicker here is that although Lust, Caution was understandably controversial in China, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) had already approved it for release last year after its producers cut some footage from it. It seems however that the release of even the censored version offended someone higher up in the government so it has put pressure on the SARFT and the film’s producers and this is the result.
What really angers me about this, aside from the issue of a government handing out an approval from one hand and taking it away with another, is that the Chinese government chose to ban Tang Wei and only her. Why not slap a ban on co-star Tony Leung as well? What, it’s okay to show a Chinese man having sex but it’s not okay to show a Chinese woman having sex? Why not ban Ang Lee as well? After all, no one is more responsible for what happens in a film than its director. Of course there’s the little fact that both Tony Leung and Ang Lee are internationally renowned artists and who can forget how gushingly proud all Chinese were when Ang Lee won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain despite its very politically incorrect content in Chinese eyes.
Meanwhile, Tang Wei is just an unknown starlet who took off her clothes in front of a camera for the whole world to see, embarrassing China in the process, so it’s perfectly alright to censure her for it. Good job, China.