Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cheng hates ties

Warning: Rant follows.

I've been a salaryman (I suppose gweilos would be more familiar with the term 'white collar warrior') for 3 years, all of it in Malaysia, and every day of it, a little voice in the back of my head did speak to me. His name is Doubt. He is the best friend and worst enemy to every empiricist, and one of the first things he said to me when I started work in Cubicle Land was this:

Cheng, why the fuck are you wearing that tie?

Malaysia, in case you didn't know, is hot. Absurdly so. It is hot and humid, and even more so in Kuala Lumpur. By day, the temperature does not drop below 30C. By night, anything less than 20C is practically an Act of God*. It is a land of glass, steel, concrete, sweltering heat, torrential rain, rabid greenery, plague-bearing mosquitoes, diabolically unhygienic (but tasty!) food, monster cockroaches, the most tasteless Chinese diaspora on the planet**, and for some odd reason, the local white collar community seems to think that the necktie should be part of the "proper" dress code.

"But," the sane among us will protest, "It's really, really hot here!"

"No problem!" retort the fat cats, "We'll simply turn up the air conditioning until every indoor space is cool enough for ties and blazers to be worn!"

You. Fucking. Cunts.

Epic double facepalm fail does not begin to capture the idiocy of Malaysia's white collar class in wasting obscene amounts of electricity in cooling office buildings so that ludicrously overdressed cubicle jockeys and their feckless bosses can sit in comfort, admiring their silk ties.

Just what is the point of the necktie? And in asking this question, I ask it from the point of view of someone living in the boiling tropical hell that is Malaysia. Does it look good? Is it pleasurable to have something wrapped round your neck when it's hard enough to breathe KL air as it is? Is it some sort of phallic symbol? "My tie is more expensive than your tie, hahaha"? Is there a certain masochistic appeal to having to fish the wretched thing out of your coffee or your soup? Does it provide protection from the strangling fingers of disgruntled*** employees?

I will concede that, in more temperate climes, it does actually look pretty ok, and some people can pull it off pretty well:

But seriously, wearing a necktie in Malaysia is just stupid, and wasting energy cooling buildings so that shallow minded idiots can dress themselves up in the height of Western/East Asian fashion, made for climates at least 10-25C colder, is astronomically so. It's at least as stupid as people calling themselves "pro-life" and going to church to shoot a doctor. Maybe even more so, because that adds up to a LOT of energy that could be put to better use for reasons far more noble than mere vanity.

How much energy, exactly? Ooh, there's question I'd like to see answered. Not by the Malaysian community on Yahoo! Answers, obviously, coz damn, they're inept, inane, inarticulate, insipid and a complete fucking waste of time.

Hmm. Done ranting. Happy kitty sleeping on my mouse is stealin' mah rage...

* Ahahaha... Did I take someone's name in vain?

** Go ahead. Go to Sungei Wang Plaza and try to prove me wrong.

*** I love how the word 'disgruntled' has shifted in meaning from "slightly miffed" to "homicidal apeshit mad".

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Tottenham Ayatollah's daughter

Those who have read any significant portion of this blog will know that I do love a good laugh at the expense of religion. Alas, for the most part, it is a bitter laughter, the kind that blurts forth when you see the cancerous tumour in your head has formed an amusing shape. This is because there is really no quick cure for religion at the level of society as a whole, such is the seductive power of mass, organized stupidity. So one laughs, and draws what little pleasure one can from the screeching, howling, gibbering abyss that religion has plunged so many otherwise sane people into.

Take this asshole. An embodiment of intolerance, an avatar of blind, foaming, raging hatred, one of the ugliest faces of modern Islam, it's hard to see how one can derive any form of laughter from his existence. Now take his daugher:

Hell, I just have to laugh at the fact that Omar Bakri Mohammed is the reason for the kinkiest picture ever to grace this blog. Apparently she's a pole dancer. And daddy paid for those kahunas. More details here, and never to be outdone in the publicization of the tasteless and sordid, New of the World has tales of her sex life.

Ah, sweet irony...

Monday, May 25, 2009

What's 'Samaritan' in Chinese?

Babelfish churns out "撒马利亚人", which is possibly the ugliest translation I've seen since reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in Mandarin*. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is this wee article. In all honesty, I kinda side with Mr Lai.

* Word of advice: Don't. It's actually physically painful to read, and doubly so if you've read it in English before.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ah, Wikipedia...

Funnily enough, I didn't know what GOP stood for until recently, when, of course, I looked it up on Wikipedia. To me GOP had the look of an acronym that would stand for a lot of other things besides Grand Old Party, so I took a peek. And smirked...

Ah, well, it's a good enough cause...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Not amused this time, Mr Clarkson...

I was reading Jeremy Clarkson's thoughts on science and, as distasteful as I find them, I am forced to acknowledge that how he feels about science is not far off from the general public (mis)conception of science, which boils down to a woeful inability to answer these two questions:

What is science?


Why is science important?

I have devoted much of my readings in this life towards understanding the sciences, so the answers to such questions have been a part of me for a very long time. To be brutally honest, I cannot help but feel a twinge of anger at those with no understanding of such questions, and smugly blow them off with those most loathsome words: "Ignorance is bliss". I have vented most furiously on this blog at such people, and more. But then I have to remind myself that such thinking from those versed in the sciences is yet another reason why people get intimidated into the monstrous trap of anti-intellectualism in the first place. Anyway, it's good to reflect every so often on whether I myself have fallen into the trap of blindly adoring science.

So, my answers to the above questions, laid out in the simplest terms I can muster, are as follows:

What is science? - The most common error people (including Mr Clarkson) make regarding this question is mistaking science for technology. Handphones, digital watches, the Porsche Carrera GT and peach defuzzers are technology, though you are free to argue that the Porsche Carrera GT is art. Science, simply put, is the process of gaining knowledge through empirical* means. It is embodied in the scientific method, which is:

  1. Query -Identify the phenomenon that needs explaining.
  2. Hypothesis - Formulate a hypothesis explaining said phenomenon.
  3. Experiment - Devise an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  4. Theory - Based on experimental results, formulate a theory governing the behaviour of said phenomenon. (If you're lucky, clever, or both, your hypothesis at Step 2 won't be far off.)
  5. Testing - Test the theory against the phenomenon.
The thing to bear in mind here is that Step 5 never stops. We keep our eyes and minds open, and if something should crop up proving the theory wrong, the theory must be revised, or even thrown out in it's entirety, making way for new theories to be devised, and perhaps edging a few steps closer to the truth.

Thus, science is a means by which our knowledge of the universe is gained and constantly refined, that is, evolves. Of course, the reality of it isn't quite so perfectly hunky dory, but, as any decent engineer knows, you learn more from your mistakes.

Why is science important? - The answer to this question is twofold.

The first part of the answer is very mundane, but nonetheless extremely important and it is simply that science works. Science, by virtue of it's self-correcting nature, is an unstoppable juggernaught, an ever growing snowball of knowledge. As mentioned above, errors are not an issue, they are a learning opportunity.

The second part of the answer is that science represents an ideal. One might as well ask: Why is truth important? It is the child of humanity's noblest intellectual passions. It is the unflinching, unwavering desire to learn and understand. It is fearlessness in the face of the unknown. It is tearing down the barriers of delusion and reaching out to grasp reality. It is the humility and courage required to admit and learn from your mistakes. It is a shield against the hypocrites, snake-oil salesmen and bullshit-mongers of this world.

Search for and protect truth. Question everything. Hold nothing sacred. And expose falsehood without remorse. It is a powerful, and sometimes harsh, ideal to live up to, and I would be terribly naive to think it to be the reality of the scientific community. Scientists are human, too! But then is that not the point of an ideal? To be a distant star for us to reach for, even though we know we may never attain it? In science we find an ideal with real benefits for humanity. Knowledge. Understanding. These are real. Not childish promises of a blessed afterlife, but let's not drift in that direction.

Anyway, there you have it. My answers to 2 questions which are close to my heart. I should state now that even I don't think science is the be-all and end-all to healthy living, but a small measure of understanding of science** most certainly helps.

Why does kitty always pick this point in my blog posts to forcefully remind me she wants to be stroked?

* The Japanese/Chinese version of this word is actually very descriptive: 経験主義 (Keiken shugi). A literal translation into English yields "experience ideology ".

** Of which, if the Angels & Demons movie is any indication, Dan Brown has none whatsoever.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fred Flintstone must DIE...

An interesting conversation popped up recently in which I was made painfully aware that far too many people on this Earth are under the odd impression that humans walked with dinosaurs, like in the Flinstones. This is unacceptable. As such, I have decided it worthwhile to construct a brief timeline of the glorious history of Earth for the benefit of those unclear on the matter.

Chinami ni, sessha wa kinou no kurasu no toukyuusei tachi ni sumimasen to hanashitai. Kinou no setsumei wa zenzen chigau! 'Man' toka, 'sen' toka ni touwaku sareta no de, ano setsumei o mushi shite kudasai*.

Note: In the course of this entry I will use terms like "turn up" or "appear" in relation to species within a stated geological period. In case this is isn't obvious, I state now that this does NOT mean angels/aliens/gods flew down and put them on Earth, like some sick game or some such. I use such terms as shorthand to say that fossil evidence for the stated species has been observed at such-and-such a time. This will make more sense if you have a rudimentary understanding of how evolution works, which was also covered in this blog, a long, long time ago...

The drastically abbreviated history of Earth is as follows:

~4.5 billion years ago - Earth forms. Somewhere between now and the Cambrian period life happens. The proper term for it is abiogenesis, and it's details are still hotly debated. Many theories have been put forth, some are quite plausible, but you can bet your life that it didn't happen in 7 days. In any case early life on Earth spent a long, long time figuring out how to form cells, then multicellular organisms and such.

~600 million years ago - Beginning of Cambrian period, during which life on Earth undergoes a huge increase in biological diversity. Those happy little trilobites turn up. Some time between now and the Triassic (see below), the earliest amphibians start appearing.

~235 million years ago - Beginning of Triassic period, Mesozoic era. Early (small) mammals and reptiles make their appearance.

~205 million years ago - Beginning of Jurassic period. Seriously large reptiles, i.e. dinosaurs claim the top spot on the food chain. Mammals are still small. Contrary to what that fanciful, if a bit misleading movie/book tells you, T Rex did not make his appearance until...

~65 to 68 million years ago - End of Cretaceous period, and hence the Mesozoic era. Sometime around here, there was a mass extinction event, wiping the Earth clean of the dinosaurs, and opening up new oppurtunities for whatever survived (including, obviously, our ancestors). Geological evidence suggests a cataclysmic meteor impact was to blame, and this is presently the most popular theory, though others, equally plausible, exist. Whatever the case may be, life goes on, and now it's the mammals that gain the upper hand, and we start seeing early horses, elephants and a freaky huge sloth. Things continue in this vein until the arrival of the most diabolical freak of nature of them all around...

~3 million years ago - Earliest known signs of the branch of interesting apes that would later become homo sapiens. Kindly note that the gap from here to the last known traces of dinosaurs is so huge that there is no way at all that anything even vaguely resembling a human had ever had any dealings with what we'd know in popular culture as dinosaurs. From there, some other interesting points in human history are...

~2.5 million years ago - Homo habilis, descendant of abovementioned clever monkeys, starts using stone tools.

~1.9 million years ago - Homo erectus, the upright man. Earliest known hunter-gatherer societies form.

~1.3 million years ago - A split occurs, with homo sapiens on one side, and Neanderthals on the other. On both sides we find the earliest known displays of burial rites. Homo sapiens display their proficiency in the art of genocide, wiping out the Neanderthals.

~450 thousand years ago - Humans figure out fire, and every other organism on Earth knows fear...

~13 thousand years ago - End of most recent Ice Age. From this point on, the history of the human race is best captured in Jared Diamond's singularly magnificent book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Or, if you can't be arsed to read it, you can peek at the light version, The Third Chimpanzee.

And that, in a nutshell is where humans are relative to dinosaurs, i.e. far, far away. As always, comments and criticisms are welcome. And this post now ends here, because there is a cat rubbing herself on my face...

* Oi, wakatteiru ka? Wakaranakereba A2 o hontou ni sanka dekiru ka? Nihongo o naraitakunai no ka??? Orokamono! Of course, if you actually did understand all that, I'm especially willing to hear out any corrections to my Japanese. Onegaishimasu!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I am vexed...

Here I was happily tapping out a great big post about an article on open-mindedness I read in the March/April issue of Skeptical Inquirer, when teh stupid intertoobs decides to misbehave and keep Blogger from saving my post. Okay, no problem, I thought. I'll just keep going until the net's happy again and I'll save then. Well, what did you think would happen? Stupid Firefox done DIED on me is what! Dammit, I was really rather pleased with that post. No, there's NOTHING left. I am vexed.

So here's a video of Brian Cox, giving us an update on the status of the LHC:

Monday, May 4, 2009

Questions about Malay that just hit me...

Most of my memories of learning the Malay language are not happy ones. Being a victim of the Malaysian education system, which consists almost entirely of rote learning of facts, all doomed to be forgotten not 5 minutes after the obligatory exam, I feel quite justified in saying that. As such, Malay was also another subject simply to be swallowed, held down and regurgitated, and since dragging my hide through one absurd test after another, I never really gave the language much thought*.

In my limited experience, learning a new language when you're older is one of the most interesting and rewarding intellectual exercises imaginable. When you're young, and your mother tongue is happily making a home for itself in your head, language is an instinct, like learning to walk. Through sheer exposure to a language, we, as children, bearing that wonderfully human power of mimicry, consume vast amounts of linguistic information without really having to think about it. During the early years, the formulation of rules of phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics all quietly cobbled together in our subconscious mind, such that even before entering any kind of formal schooling (for all the bloody good that does) we are quite capable of simple communication, and the framework is set to consume far more information thanks to this language instinct**.

But, as some of us may have found, learning language is a completely different matter once you're older and have passed many years seeing the world through the lens of your mother tongue. There will be new words, grammar, maybe even a completely different system of writing to memorize. There will be any number of little phrases that may well make no sense whatsoever unless viewed in the context of the culture that language evolved in. If you're truly cursed, you'll be trying to learn English, that most monstrous chimera among languages, bastard child of damn near every European culture that ever laid eyes on the white cliffs of Dover.

Taking English as an example, on the face of it, it's a truly awful language to learn, riddled with more inconsistencies in grammar and spelling than you could shake a stick at. But dig past these blemishes and you'll find that to learn a language isn't merely an exercise in scarfing down new words and grammar, it is closely intertwined with the history and culture of the people(s) that spawned it. Every word has a tale to tell, and I for one cannot adequately express how much I've gained from learning Japanese these past few months***.

It's been well over a decade now since Malay was forced down my throat, and it occured to me that it might be worth a second look at, now that I'm old enough to know what it means to love knowledge for the sake of knowledge. So here's some questions about Malay that only recently struck me, in no particular order of importance, and mostly inspired by simple curiousity:

- I just learnt from Wikipe-tan that Malay is presently written in the Latin alphabet in a form known as Rumi. Where does this name come from? Does it have anything to do with the Persian poet of the same name? I'm pretty sure I didn't learn this in school. Why not?

- I hear that Old Malay, that is, the form that was in use about 1,500 years ago, is completely incomprehensible to a speaker of modern Malay or Indonesian. Wouldn't it be a good exercise to take a chunk of text in Old Malay and see the evolution of the language into it's modern form? You know, like seeing the King James Bible slowly degenerating into that Bible for Dummies version, the NIV...

- This question doesn't really have as much to do with Malay as it does with my relationship with Malay and cognitive linguistics. Having not used Malay for many, many years, I am now no longer capable of churning out Malay. Well, not completely, I can still rattle off short little set phrases and one or two commonly used words, but it takes me an absurdly long time to form sentences, to the point that if I were to try and hold a conversation in Malay, I really would appear mentally impaired. However, my ability to understand Malay, both written and spoken, remains almost perfectly intact since the day I last took exams in Malay. What's going on here? Do the bits corresponding to input and output for languages occupy completely different areas of the brain? Having encountered in this life many people who have the opposite inclination, i.e. talk too much, barely listen at all, I'm led to wonder about the link between input and output when it comes to languages.

And that's about all I can think up for now. Will update this list if and when more pertinent questions surface, maybe devote a post or two to answers, if I find them.

*Also, living in KL, one really can get by quite easily without knowing any Malay whatsoever.

** If you haven't already, you must read Steven Pinker's book, The Language Instinct. Your brain will thank you for it.

*** And not just to watch anime without subtitles, honest.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Kirikaeshi is good for you!

There are times when, in my unrelenting quest to wolf down as much information on as many subjects as I can, I am struck dumb by the enormity of it all, confounded by the sheer complexity of the universe, despairing of ever understanding it and dismayed by the sheer pettiness of Malaysian society at large. During such times, I find myself somewhat daunted, and wonder what there is I could possibly do to stop the slow, relentless decay of society at the claws of the twin meme-viruses of religion and consumerism.

It's in these moments, when I'm paralyzed by doubt, that I find a cure in being hit very hard over the head with a stick. Repeatedly.

N.B:- Neither of these people are me, but I do practise this and more twice a week, and let me tell you, that helmet is not as tough as it looks...