"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Word of the day: "serrate"

Shards of pain dragging through inside of sinus and throat today. I don't think it's another bout of flu; just the usual morning congestion of the nasal and bronchial passages that I've been cursed with since birth, only a lot worse than usual this morning.

Out of disaster; opportunity. Had to fetch my sister down to the bus interchange on the way to work today, which irritatingly necessitated getting up earlier than usual, but for once I held my acerbic peace, because she was going down for a funeral. A funeral for a friend; an experience most people our age, which, if they're lucky, have never been through yet. It seems I've had more than a few - three at last count - but they've always been, mostly, nodding acquaintances, people I knew, but did not truly know. Is that something to consider fortunate? I don't know what it'd be like if a truly close friend shuffled off this mortal coil; particularly this early in life. And I hope I don't find out.

As is customary, I invoke my favourite phrase on death and dying: "They say death teaches you the meaning of life, and I suppose it does. As long as it happens to someone else."

The opportunity part kicks in because, this Wednesday, my father had scored several Village Gold Class tickets for the preview screening of The Two Towers. Now, thanks to my sister's sudden absence, it means I can call a couple of friends along. As per expectation, there was a surfeit of willing candidates; had to painfully screen them down to a couple of my happy nerd coterie back from Melbourne who weren't otherwise engaged that week. Morbid opportunism.

Fetched my sister to the interchange in complete silence. There wasn't really anything I could say, and my own brand of wisdom would not have been welcome, particularly given that any sense of sibling kinship between us was purely at the genetic level. And so, there we were, brother and sister, stranger and stranger.

"She is dead. But you are alive. So live."

Last Saturday was a reasonably good outing; by a twist of fate, several of my friends in Melbourne were my cousin's high school classmates. So, I rounded up my half of the posse, and he rounded up his half of the posse, and we all met up at Chill in Phileo Damansara. Interestingly enough, the half that he rounded up tended to be what the man on the street would have called "the cool crowd", while the half I rounded up were all bespectacled, hair dishevelled, wearing polo shirts, office slacks, and incessantly chattering about computer games and fantasy books. The reader can guess the .. weirdness of the situation. Although most of them were from the same class, it was clear that evolution had branched out in two different paths, and it will be obvious which schism I had the most affinity for. (Hint: it's the one whose adherents don't use hair gel)

I had borrowed my sister's Nikon digicam, and it was incredibly fun playing with one for the first time. Consumer electronics turn me on:)

In the end, my fellow geeks and I headed off to the 24-hour A&W near State, and one of them remarked wryly, "We should have gone straight to a mamak stall."

As always though, it felt good to catch up, and I realised just how poignantly I've missed weekend spent crashing at friend's houses, going out for movies with uni-mates, sitting around scarfing down pizza, playing network games. And talking, of course. Not typing frantically on an ICQ message box.. but pure, unadulterated, talking. Conversation. Being with friends who are on the same wavelength, who appreicate the things you do, where one isn't a piquant freak, but, rather, part of ongoing social interaction. To have friends who are genuinely happy to see you after a long time. Despite my normal hunger for solitude, I guess I've tasted just a little too much of that over the last 9 months of "work, go home, stone on PC, work, go home, stone on PC."

The afternoon before that, I had gone to watch Infernal Affairs starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung. Despite the characteristically hao lian cinematography so endemic to HK film these days (jump cuts, vertigo shots, slo-mo/zoom framing, gratuitous pan-arounds), it had a surprisingly interesting storyline, and Tony Leung's always managed to portray resigned dissoluteness (ref In The Mood For Love - okay, I know a lot of people found it boring as hell, but...) in a fashion that I like. Andy Lau, as always, seems to be the HK equivalent of Michael J Fox - ie. unaging.

I have to confess that the name and opening credit sequence made me think it was some kind of horror show, but it turned out to be a pure cop/action flick after all.

Had gone to watch with the my only close friend who had graduated from Melbourne and returned to Malaysia; he'd been working for two years before I came out. This year, we'd only met once - such is one's social life when working I guess. When everyone's just too... stoned to meet up on the weekends, seeking only rest.

The conversation, as usual, was kept lightly banal, with acerbic condemnations of working life, and the usual bitching that I go for in a big way:)

Sunday was spent frantically trying to get the digicam pictures into my PC. Now, I didn't have the Nikon software; my sister didn't bring back the CD-ROM, and for some reason the installer wouldn't download properly from nikon.com. Finally, I extracted them all into my sister's laptop, and tried using a serial cable to transfer the files over. When I saw that the file transfer time was approximately 32 hours, I despaired and disconnected. In the end, had to use the rather roundabout solution of plugging the laptop modem into the phone, logging on, emailing the files to myself, and then re-connecting to the web via the PC to retrieve. Damn it, I realise I've taken having an Ethernet card for granted, but I was just too lazy to reinstall it on the PC and go buy some coax cable....

Other than that minor technical exercise, (also managed to figure out how to extract embedded images in Word documents. yay!), my other achievements for the day included finishing up Fool's Errand. It's a good follow up to the Farseer trilogy, which ranks among the more depressing fantasy series in history - the hero ends up a hermit with his wolf, presumed dead, body damaged by repeated beatings, and in constant depressive fits and addiction withdrawal symptoms. The narrative is also largely a first-person description of a boy growing ostracized, repeatedly tortured, angstily suffering in the rain, learning to be an assassin, being repeatedly betrayed and still remaining brutally, iron-clad loyal, in a twisted way.

Fool's Errand is a strangely evolved follow up, even if the first 200 pages or so of the story was spent playing "what has gone before". There's also some a just-short-of-blatant tie in to the events of the Liveship Traders books; Robin Hobb really has this thing for consciousness transfer in her stories:). But what I appreciated most was the way the tone of the main protagonist has evolved; it's a grown man's angst now, with a grown man's concerns (children, in an oblique way) and a maturity of perception. And there's a nicely circular resonanc with Fiz being re-cast a teacher and a man now, compared to being a callous youth straggling his way.

But above all, the books are about loyalty. That I can relate to.

"For grief has always seemed, to me, not a time to heal, but a time to get accustomed to suffering."

The book left me quite happily anticipating the sequel, Golden Fool. Unfortunately, as always, hardcover is out first, and so it'll be another.. nine months waiting I guess. Ah well. I have time. If nothing else, I have that.

Onto usual commentary and scattered thoughts

a) My new office cubicle is really cramped. Can't stretch out all the way. No water-dispenser (dehydration time!). No photocopier. No fax. A few plus points though, I can stack up a few empty boxes in a stair-case pattern to form shelves, and I've a new chair with significantly better posture control and a little more sproing to its spring.

b) Just thought of another Die Another Day nitpick. If the bad guy was laundering African conflict diamonds while pretending they came from a mine in Iceland, how is it that Bond was able to ascertain it almost straightaway, while armies of geologists, purchasers, and the like haven't noticed a single thing for over a year? I mean, even I know that diamonds have significant chemical and structural characteristics depeending on their point of origin which are quite easily detectable with the right equipment...

c) I thought that site you sent me was just another erotica story (which surprised me, because you never struck me as the sort to licientously scroll through porno literature), but suddenly the words Angel Grove, Kimberly and the like kicked in, and it was like a horror unfolding. Chthulu! Chthulu!

d) Have fun in London

e) There's a serious gambling mentality at work. One of our colleagues, who's a senior exec, claims that he had euchred for himself into a proper periphery office with our uber-boss. However, as uber-boss is in New Zealand until Christmas, no one else has had any verbal confirmation. So he'd happily settled himself into his new workspace, and now the entire department is taking bets as to whether he stays... Little entertainments.

f) On Islam -

I'm not going to waste my time and yours trawling through every single sreligious criptural text on the planet looking for absurdities. In particular, I found immensely laughable your assertion, considering that you haven't even *read* the Bible cover to cover, that Christian scripture contains less contradiction and is more inherently functional than Islam. Let alone the Vedas, the Tripitaka, the Torah, the Talmud, the Bhagavad-Gita....

But above all, the point is this - there is nothing in Islam that makes it any more or less absurd than any other idiot religion. Every religion has its share of kooks and schismatics who insist on following some scriptural metaphor to a literal extreme - witness the whole creation-evolution debate that is still raging in American schools within the Bible belt. Also note that primarily Christian-motivated inhibition against abortion and euthanasia and stem cell research is what inhibits our evolution as a rational, scientific culture.

My point is, as I have repated to you before, not that Islam is not absurd, but that Christianity is no less absurd. Or Judaism.

To take from the donkey's hind-end: "Fanatic Christian arguments against stem cell research or some Jainist teachings advocating against hurting plants is much MUCH rarer than the teachings of deluded Islamic radicals. The scary thing is, many Muslims follow the teachings of Mr Abu Bakar Bashir and his ilk. Not many Christians believe in faith healing."

Fanatic Christian arguments against stem cell research are NOT rare. They are the ethical anachronism that is holding back any rational, bio-ethical debate about cloning or such research in America and Europe. Dare you deny that all the ethical discomfort felt by the Westerners towards this topic is largely due to an ethical world-view which has its roots in Christian orthodoxy?

I don't know how you justify "much MUCH rarer", when you consider that fanatic preaching of other religions are LEGION in many parts of the world. What about crazy Judaist preachers and rabbis in Israel? (In pure numerical terms, there are less fanatic rabbis. But as a relative percentage of the adherents?). Or nutty preachers on televanglistic shows in America with their own cable networks? People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Graham who even the US President have acknowledged as ideological supporters?

I *will* agree that mainstream Islam as we commonly recognise it, (using a hermaneutic definition of main-stream; ie. the generally practiced form of moderate Sunni), as comapred to mainstream Christianity, (moderates of all denominations; let's not get too sectarian) tends towards a more backward, fundamentalist slant. But, as I have argued before and repeated, that is no more than an accident of history and a result of economic and social and political pressures. I've already explained my theory about each being easily substitutable for one another; if history went a different way.

But even if you don't want to take "virtual history", remember that at a point in time, in the 12th century, *Islam* was the enlightened, forward-thinking religion which encouraged experimentation into the sciences and fostered a libertine society, as compared to the West of the Crusaders where technology was focused either on developing better siege engines while the Inquisition scoured Europe for heresy. The reason why this position reversed was, again, due to factors in which religious evolution and attitudes were, to my mind, more a result of other historical events than a moving cause. Of course, it's impossible to narrow down just what caused what with scientific precision. But, in my opinion, there is nothing *inherent* about Islam as a religion that can't be reinterpreted and liberalised and even slackly ignored, as mainstream Christianity is today. A Christian of the 10th century would be hideously offended by the behaviour of his descendants a millennium hence.

Put it this way, Christianity was the religion of a society in the ascendant, for, again, technological and economic factors, and Islam remained the religion of the backward largely because that acscendant Christian society built its prosperity and success on the colonial back of that Islamic bloc. It could have gone the other way around, as I said. In fact, I could even say that it was morally easier to suppress people of a different faith; they're just infidels, aren't they?

You say "some aspects of Islam resulted in its current state." A lot of aspects of Christianity result in our current moral dilemmas and inhibitions as well. The only reason Christianity is able to evolve further, morally speaking, is because of the technological and economic gap its culture bridged and bootstrapped on the backs of the culture and economies of Islam's adherents (And others, of course).

There *are* fanatic fringes who follow the Old Testament to the letter. There are a lot of Muslims who do take Islamic law with a slightly more pinch of salt, even if *generally* speaking most Muslims tend to stict to a more fundamentalist interpretation compared to Christianity. Again, the latter is explained by backwardness, the absence of education, a feeling of being economically and culturally oppressed - of course if that's the case you take as hardline a religious stance as possible. Look at the ultra-Orthodox Greater Israel fanatics. Look at the Mormons in the early 19th century fleeing persecution to Utah. That's why people prefer the more "ascetic and puritan" interpretation;' they haven't got the luxury of venality and MTV to distract them otherwise:)

Note - I've always nurtured a grudging respect for fundamentalists, despite my abhorrence of the lifestyle they would inflict on me. This is because, to my mind, they have the courage to stick to their convictions, comapred to the moral backsliding and namby-pamby compromises most modern so-called 'religious' make. All the great religions (except Buddhism, and I say that with only partial qualification) are fundamentally strict, doctrinaire, brutally rigid theocracies. But in my opinion; you either believe all the way, and stand by your convictions... or at least have the courage to say, "Fuck it, this religion is total bullshit." I lose all respect for those who simply waffle because they want it both ways; creature comforts and modern hedonism while still hiding behind the pathetic security blanket of a warped and sullied religious framework, and justifying it with catch-phrases like "It's a living religion" and "Times change". People always want their cake and eat it. Face facts. Religions prohibit sodomy; they oppress women, they impose restrictions on food, economic activity, lifestyle, and general happiness. It's only that mainstream Christians make a lot more excuses because of their growing prosperity and technological opportunity relative to the rest of the world, and hence they appear more 'liberal'.

And as per your point on fasting. Catholics are (theoretically) supposed to fast on Lent, and not eat meat on Fridays (except fish). Fasting and denial's an essnetial part of almost every religious framework; Buddhist priests and others regularly go into fasting periods during holy days as a sign of denial and contemplation of the ephemeral.

In the final, final analysis, I've made all the crude racist and Mat jokes; I've laughed at the pork-eating japes, and I'm just as bigotted and prejudiced as you are. The only difference is not that I hold Islam in some higher respect than you; it's that I don't think any of the monotheistic religions is inherently better on purely theological/doctrinaire grounds.
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