Back Home Again

Hi guys! I'm back in Malaysia again, and have been since Sunday. Thanks to all who have been following my trip abroad (Adzam tells me that there are more than a few!) and now that I'm back, I have to do the following (in no particular order):

In the meantime, I am more than happy to meet up with all and be given free teas and lunches!
posted on Wednesday, July 09, 2003 - permalink
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5 July 2003 - Somewhere over Bucharest on Flight MH003
The Recruit

How do airlines choose what movies to show during inflight? Do othey just accept films at random from studios? Is there a panel that chooses from a selection? Or is there some sort of secret algorithm?

However they do it, I know that it's a lucky dip when you get to the plane. The choices on this flight are: Just Married, National Security, The Recruit, Children on their Birthdays, Kangaroo Jack, A Guy Thing and Juli Juli Bintang Tiga. I stuck my hand in, rummaged around and came up with... Colin Farell and Al Pacino.

The Recruit is about a young man (Colin Farrell) with a bright future heading towards MIT whose life is turned upside down when he is approached by a recruiting agent from the CIA (Al Pacino).

Now, I'd like to be James Bond as much as any other person, but I know what I'd do given the choice between spending three years as a student hanging out at frat parties and a year undergoing the most rigorous of training regimes learning how to jump through windows, how to be shot at and how to be tortured. But I didn't have a father who was employed by the CIA and killed in the line of duty, so I guess I just don't have the right motivation.

During training, he meets up with a stunning fellow recruit who immediately grabs his attention and presumably his more baser instincts, since we're talking about an action-thriller here, and not a romantic-comedy.

However, before he can finish his training, he slips up somewhere and ends up a wash-out. But he isn't, says our omniscient CIA trainer. He's actually in special ops. And our belle in training school is a double agent.

You know how when you're at a party, and you meet this guy who thinks he's pretty sharp and a hit with all the ladies, but actually he's not? Well, The Recruit's a bit like that. It thinks it's a really clever movie full of plot twists and smart dialogue, but it's just too full of unbelievable things that I felt like banging my head to a pulp against the food tray in front of me.

Let's just take this as an example: there's a killer virus out there that can travel through electricity lines and infect and affect every piece of electronics it encounters. Since this is taken with a straight face by an MIT candidate, I guess MIT likes people who follow orders well and keep an open mind on most things. No, make that all things. Actually, make that all things needed to make a hole-ridden plot work.

Here's another one. Somebody's stealing this code from a secure lab. We know it's secure because there are no floppy drives and no printers in the lab. I know how I would do it. It would involve a video camera and the 'type' command. But what do I know? I'm not a Hollywood scriptwriter. I would have never thought of using an external USB drive.

Even the great Al Pacino can't save the movie. And although Colin Farrell a pretty enough face, pretty doesn't cut it in a film like this.

You go to a movie to suspend disbelief, and be transported away to somewhere for an hour or two, but it's an awfully hard thing to do when you're faced with things that make you go "Wha-?!!" every few seconds.


posted on Saturday, July 05, 2003 - permalink
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14 June 2003 - Somewhere just outside Paris on the Eurostar

Back in the old days, Britain was an island, aloof unto itself, protected from the vagrancies of the rest of Europe by the English Channel and all that water around it. Getting to England from Europe required a boat, and the most popular route was via Calais and a ferry ride across to Dover. To get from Paris to Calais or from Dover to London was another problem to be solved.

Now, Britain is still an island, both geographically and politically, but there is this tunnel connecting it with France and you can take the high-speed Eurostar train from Paris, through the French countryside via Lille, under the Channel and up again into Ashford, England and then into London.

The advantage is that in about three hours you get from the centre of Paris into the centre of London. If you fly, it takes about 50 minutes, but you need to be at the airport at least an hour before the flight, and takes another hour or so to get to and from the airports.

The big disadvantage is usually cost. The price of a single second-class ticket is EUR140. However, there is now a special offer, on limited trains, to travel for only EUR35. Seeing that a plane flight costs about EUR80, it is a stupendous deal.

Travelling on the Eurostar is a little like travelling on normal trains except for the bureaucracy. How on Earth Britain expects to be taken as part of Europe, I don't know. This is the only country since I've entered Europe that have had serious immigration checks, and the only one where I've had my passport looked at not once, not twice but three times. It's checked twice in Paris, once by French immigration, another time by British immigration and then you have to queue up again when you reach London. Does this make sense? No. Does this look like a way forward to a United Europe? No. Do the Brits look as if they're trying their darndest to stay out of it? Yes.

At least the trains leave on time. You wait in a boarding lounge (just like you would for a plane) and there is a queue to get on board (just like a plane) and there are announcements when you're in your seat (just like a plane) and if they're too many trains trying to get into the station ahead of you, you slow down a little (just like a plane).

The seats are a little cramped, but you get a nice tray that folds out to put your AlphaSmart on. I have to say that there is something about train travel that rocks me off to sleep. I have absolutely no problems nodding off on buses and trains.

EuroStar zips through the French countryside at some incredible speed - something like 200kmh, but has to slow down for the tunnel and the English countryside. In fact, they were strongly advertising that train travel the next day would be interrupted by vital works on the railroad that would improve service quality and cut journey times by half an hour. There was a lot of stress on this being work done on the English side, and I like the way that it was stressed as being "improvements" and not as "things we should have gotten right first time round but somehow failed to". A fellow passenger grumbled about the English inability to do things properly first time, and maybe that's the way they should look at joining Europe as well.

Because of problems on the line, the train reached Waterloo station about twenty minutes behind schedule. Add another twenty minutes for immigration. My brother had to actually call me up to find out where I was.

After all that, immigration was a breeze. I thought they would ask me to dig out my plane ticket to prove that I was leaving the country, but that didn't happen. Best of all, Adik was waiting outside and we immediately headed off for a great steak dinner, but that's another story.


posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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The Impressionists - Part II

Already by the late 1860s Monet and the other Impressionists were trying to paint the world as they saw it outdoors. Shadows cast a different colour in daylight and reflected hues make an even greater difference. This was radically different from the style of the time.

The Academy in Paris were unsure about this new direction and rejected them from exhibition. This spurred the new group to set up an exhibition of their own. In 1874 the first Impressionist exhibition was held, in direct confrontation with the annual Salon held by the Academy.

Although the movement had a few patrons, it took years before it was accepted. In this time, the various artists developed their own styles and ideas.

Monet's Coqueliots presents many of the ideas of the Impressionist movement. Depth is not characterised by perspective lines, but by colour. Things that are nearer have stronger colours and thicker strokes. The movement of the wind is captured in visual cues, such as the umbrella and the hat slightly askew, and in the blurring of colours, as in the grass on the right-hand side.

One reason for the "fuzziness" is because of changeable weather conditions, the paintings had to be painted quickly and there was no time for detail. The compromise meant that these paintings had to be viewed not up close and in detail, but from afar. The painting had to be viewed as a whole, and not as a sum of detailed parts.

This idea dictated the construction of the exhibition halls in the Musee d'Orsay. Instead of angled spotlights shining on the paintings, sunlight is the primary source of illumination. The impressionist gallery is placed close to the roof so that the best light is available, and it is acknowledged that the paintings will look different over the day as the sun changes position and colour. The idea is that spotlights will focus a viewer's attention onto a few parts of the picture, whereas changing sunlight will make a viewer look at the painting as a whole in various ways.

Degas, on the other hand, favoured the accenuation of movement. Movement is emphasised through a variety of methods. One is by blurring the details and using sudden changes in colour. Another is the framing of the picture off-centre, which gives the impression of it being a candid shot from a camera (Instant photography was a recent invention in the 1870s and Degas was a hobbyist photographer).

Although Renoir and Monet were good friends and frequently went to the same places to paint, they began to diverge in interpretation in the late 1880's. Renoir began to include many classical elements in his painting, such as attention to detail, but they were still impressionistic by the use of bright, complementary colours.

Monet became more interested in how light and climate affected colour. He purposely chose subjects that had a lot of moving light (such as seascapes and landscapes that had a lot of water) or diffused light (such as foggy weather).

The series of paintings of the cathedral at Rouen was, for him, a demanding study of the different aspects of light, the same cathedral at similar angles, just in different climates. The result is a stunning series of paintings, each individual although of the same subject from the same position. He later developed a similar series of haystacks that prompted Kandinsky to say that the subject does not matter any more and that only the colours are of interest.

The Rouen Cathedral series paintings are far more impressive in real life than in print. The paintings have texture, in Monet's effort to capture the light. Up close they resemble a random collection of vigorous brush strokes and the paint is clearly thicker in places. The painting is, in fact, three dimensional, looks quite different depending on the light source and the angle you view it at. The raised sections correspond to the highlighted areas of the subject, where the light catches a potrusion in the foreground.

Monet's later works became more abstract, as he tried to capture the essence of the light before him. This further abstraction led to the neo-impressionistic movement, and painters such as Seurat and Van Gogh, but since that's beyond Impressionism, we'll stop here.


posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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12 June 2003 - Musee d'Orsay, Paris
The Impressionists

One of my most favourite places in Paris and definitely one of my favourite art museums in the world, is the Musee d'Orsay, which house one the best collections of impressionism period.

The museum is housed in an old railway station, and contains art pieces dating from the early nineteenth century up to the early twentieth century. Slap bang in the middle of this is the Impressionism period, which includes artists like Monet, Renoir and Degas. I've long been interested in their art, specifically their motivations for making what I call "fuzzy pictures". My intrest was piqued by the collections I saw in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and when I found out that they were giving guided tours specifically about the Impressionists, I jumped at the chance.

They actually give a lot of tours, but very few are in English. Fortunately, one of them was on a Thursday, when the museum extends its opening hours until 9.45 pm, which allows me to hang around until I really get tired of looking up close at fuzzy brushstrokes.

The impressionistic movement is officially said to have begun in 1874, when a bunch of young upstarts exhibited a series of paintings that formed a new movement in the art world. It was their work that gave impetus to later, more abstract forms of art, such as by Cezanne and Kandinsky. It is ironic that I celebrate this in-between period so much and yet loathe the bastard offspring.

The roots of the movement were embedded the work of French artists who, if you like, wanted to go back to Nature. They abandoned the warmth and comfort of their studios and ventured forth into the forests of the countryside. This was unusual, for at that time artists made their own paints and it was easier to do this within the confines of the studio. To go outside was to court additional difficulty, but this new breed of artists wanted to paint nature in its environment, and not as they saw it under a roof. Artists like Diaz de la Pena were considered to be outside the art community and they reslished their separation and celebrated their commune with nature.

Although they were outside the conservative art world of the Academy, they still adhered to the traditional romantic period style. Their landscapes were moody studys of a brooding Mother Nature, overlooking Man with her might.

Nevertheless, these rebels inspired the future generations of Impressionists, probably with their derring-do, as well as their body of work. Since these new young wild ones wanted to follow a path not deemed to be "classical", the only teachers they had were each other, and the only references they had were the work of those that inspired them.

In 1861, the work of a recently deceased artist named Delacroix was put on exhibit, and one piece in particular, The Lions, further captured the imagination of the Impressionists. The Lions was an unusual piece of work because it was a sketch for a later painting and not a finished product, but in it you can already see the factors that would inspire Impressionists to come.

Three things stand out. Firstly, the choice of colour veered away from the traditional dark, earth tones, and instead was bright and had plenty of contrast. Complementary colours (such as red and green) was the key.

Secondly, movement was accenuated by the use of colour. Instead of a gradual shade from dark to bright, form and movement was determined by different colours. Paint was placed on top of one another haphazardly to create an effect.

Thirdly, the brush strokes were very rough and seemingly imprecise. The texture of the strokes can be seen in the paint and you can see its movement as the artist moved it about.

These ideas crop up again and again in Impressionistic art. In the ten years between that time and when they finally presented the exhibition, another movement cropped up, which would further influence the impressionists - the Realists.

Manet was one such artist. He felt that it was time to begin painting life as it was, and not an idealisation, as was the thinking at the time. He rejected ideas such as the perfectly proportioned body, the goddess-like faces, inspired by Roman-Greco art, and instead began painting people who had lumps in funny areas, if you like, wearing fashionable shoes and jewellry. Furthermore, he recognised this rebellious idea, and proceded further to abstracise peripherals and props. This further inspired the impressionists to break out of the current mould and begin something anew.


posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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10 June 2003 - On a train somewhere between Prague and Breclav
The Prague countryside through a train window

You get to see some quite stunning countrysides when going on train. The trip down from Stockholm to Malmo was beautiful, and so was the track down from Hue to Ho Chi Minh. On the other hand, travelling through Germany and Hungary wasn't quite as exhillirating, and the Russian countryside from Irkutsk to Moscow was a bit too staid for my liking.

Train travel in the Czech Republic is somewhere in between. The countryside is reminiscent of England, with it's gentle rolling hills, large meadows and small buildings. It's quite pretty without being overwhelming.

There are also these large fields dotted with poppies that look a lot like a Monet painting, and almost as blurry when viewed from a moving train. They look very photogenic, and I will prove this to you, once I master the art of taking pictures with a slow-reacting digital camera on a fast-moving train.

posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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10 June 2003 - On a train in the Prague suburbs
Prague Castle

The most visible point of the Prague landscape is its castle. Like most castles, it sits on a hill and can be seen from most parts of town as long as there are no buildings in the way.

The walk up to the castle is pretty enjoyable, despite it being up a fairly steep hill in places. It's got something to do with all the shops that line the road up, making it a pleasant experience, rather than a slog. Admittedly, there was one portion where all I could see were steps disappearing into the distance, but I need the exercise anyway.

When I was walking up the Buda hills, at one point, I was doubting my sanity. In Prague, I thought, "What a pleasant walk". Being in a nice town makes all the difference, I guess.

The castle complex itself is a network of buildings connected by cobbled pathways (not to dissimilar to the centre of Prague). You can wander outside the buildings for free, but you need a ticket to get inside.

The tickets aren't that cheap. The one that lets you into all of them costs CKR220 (about RM25). There are various other types that let you into fewer buildings, at marginally smaller prices. The strategy, I guess, is to make you think that there's not that much difference in price between them, so you go for the most expensive one.

To be honest, I regret slightly buying the ticket. CKR220 buys you a good lunch (although I would have probably spent it on a t-shirt) and apart from the main chapel, everything else is basically just stones with stuff in Czech written to explain them. Would I have gotten better value from a guide? Maybe, but the guides I overlistened not-quite-by-accident to were not incredibly interesting. If you want to know who built what when, fine. But I'm at a stage where I'm interested in the whys of history and not the whats.

Probably the most disapppointing was Golden Lane. I had to pay money to go into a narrow alleyway lined with souvenier shops? Something I definitely didn't get there. There was a tower/building at what end, but it was so overflowing with tourists that I gave it a miss. Perhaps that's what all the fuss was about.

Anyway, perhaps I didn't look at things properly, and it may have helped if I had gotten a guide, but the next time I'm in Prague, I'll spend more time wandering the streets and less time inside.

posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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8 June 2003 - Extol Inn Hostel, Prague
Prague, the Paris of Eastern Europe

I'm so happy with Prague that I can't believe that I actually considered not coming here. It was all because it costed close to EUR50 to buy a ticket from Budapest, which was a lot more than I expected, considering that I had an EURail pass with me. In comparison, the cost from Prague to Vienna (with an EURail pass) is only around EUR15. I have to thank Errolyn for nudging me into the right direction, even though she's never been to Prague herself.

Why do I like Prague? Because it's nice. It's like your favourite jumper on a cool day. It envelopes you, you feel comfortable in it and the fact that it's old is part of the appeal.

It's a paradise for a walker like me. I'm not talking about the whole city, you understand, just the centre of it. It's actually very enjoyable to wander the streets, taking turnings at random. There is almost always something interesting down every alleyway, that pops up to surprise you. I've found three interesting bookshops, two wax museums and one museum of sex machines, just by walking around without a plan. Okay, so it's not exciting and gripping (I didn't go into the museum of sex machines), and things seem quite laid-back, but I like that in a city. Oxford is similar but on a much smaller scale (aside from Cornmarket on a busy day).

The architecture is just beautiful, if you're into that sort of thing. It's like every other block has angels carved into the side or saints or lions. It's not what you normally expect from a city centre.

It's small enough to walk around at a leisurely pace and even though it was really hot today, the streets are narrow enough that the buildings give you shade.

The city is split in two by a river, with the castle on the hillier side. The most famous crossing point is the Charles Bridge, which is a tourist attraction in itself. Statues dot the balustrade every few meters or so. The only thing that mars this is that there are so many tourists and vendors lining the bridge. I found it impossible to get a good shot from any angle without somebody's head in the way.

All around there are these sidewalk cafes that promise three-course meals for under EUR10. This is extremely good value for money compared to the rest of Europe, but it's still a little to rich for my blood.

The people here are nice. They're not extremely friendly, they don't go too much out of their way for you, but they are ready with a smile and are pretty much always helpful. There even was this lady who was walking around with her friend and two kids who wanted to help me carry my very heavy bag to the hotel down the road.

All in all, it's a very nice place. I could just about live here, except that just about the only parts of it I've seen is the town centre. For all I know the suburbs may be a mess, but if it's half as good as the main town itself, it'd still pretty charming.

posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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