329. Deadlines, Datelines, Dead Lines, Date Lines

At the time of writing, I have completed 5 of 7 submissions. Out of the 2, I only have time to develop 1, and that’s if and only if sudden inspiration strikes.

(where’s the bus?)

While the mystical public bus of inspiration does not show up, I still have pressing matters at hand: a 5,000-word report that needs to be submitted tomorrow. Out of the 5,000 words, I have written… Oh, 2,000. Not too shabby. But remember: due tomorrow.

As much as I’d like to adopt a first-in-first-out system for dealing with deadlines, human nature dictates that I put everything off until the last minute, and then binge-complete all the things that I have to do within the last 3 days in a panicked frenzy. It has happened before, it will happen again.

There’s just no helping it.

A dateline is what you’d see at the beginning of a news report, or an article. It’s the time stamp that tells you when the essay was published. In my case, if by some miracle my lecturer decides that my work is somehow publication-worthy, everyone would be able to see that there were only 2 days between the date of writing and the research dateline.

It’s not a very pretty thing to show, but I can only give what I have.

1 out of the 2 submissions that I’m not likely to complete is called “Mary Marcel’s Magic Mirror”, a tale about a woman… and her magic mirror. It doesn’t get any more creative than that.

These are the days when I wonder if I should just pack and pursue my childhood dream of being an accountant in a bank.

There are about 3,300 written words so far, and I honestly have no idea where the story is heading. I only wish I could be like Mr. Gaiman, who takes his sweet time with every story – some even taking years to complete – but I am only mortal. So the pages are filled with lines and lines of dead words, which pretty much adds up to paragraphs and paragraphs of dead lines. Lines that stay as pretty words strung together, never quite having the energy, or life, to leap up from the page and into the reader’s mind.

I try not to write dead lines. A doctor also tries not to kill his patients. We will both fail.

The international date line is the line that runs from the North Pole to the South pole along the latitude line, and is found between the United States and Russia. This is useful for a number of reasons:

  1. It tells us exactly where does a new day begin, which happened to be Phileas Fogg’s saving grace in “Around The World In Eighty Days”.
  2. It tells us where to split the globe for a 2D representation of the world map, establishing our notions of what is “East” and what is “West”.
  3. It helps the United States stay as far away as they possibly can from Russia. Only virtually, but as they would have you believe it, it’s the thought that counts.

Get it right.

248. The Librarian Threshold

Take the number of books you bought last year. Minus that with the number of books you’ve given away. Now divide it by the number of books you’ve finished reading last year. The number you get is your Reader Index.

If your Reader Index number is more than 10, you’ve passed the Librarian Threshold.

(that’s okay, I’ve passed it a long time ago)

I’m not sure about you guys in other countries, or even in the other parts of Malaysia. But where I live in the Klang Valley, the people here buy a lot of books. I’m talking about volumes and entire series – like how I’ve heard people go Netflix binging, the denizens of the Klang Valley go on book-buying binges. With one trip to the bookstore, they’ll emerge with about 10 titles in 2 plastic bags, and most of this usually happens just before April.

Because, y’know, tax deductions and stuff.

It gets even more egregious when this certain sale called the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale comes around. When you walk into the space, you’re given a box – A BOX – to load up with books, and people usually do load their box (or boxes) full of books, because every volume is going at an average price of RM8 (that’s about USD 2.50). Why? Why not?

But books bought do not equal books read. If you took all the books in my house and stacked them one on top of the other, I’m pretty sure the stack will be twice the height of the double-storeyed terrace house in which I live. If the stack doesn’t first fall over and kill someone.

(what annoys me: when word processors do not recognize the word “storey”. My house never had 2 stories told about it – it’s not a 2-story house. It’s a 2-storeyed house, for goodness’ sake!)

I bought Mr. Gaiman’s American Gods so many years ago that the pages have turned yellow. It was only earlier this year that I found the willpower to read it from start to finish. In fact, I think in the last 3 months of being offensively bored at work, I have finished more books than I had in all of 2013. To recap:

  • Neverwhere
  • American Gods
  • KL Noir: Red
  • The Dark Tower
  • Fragile Things
  • The Storyteller
  • On Writing
  • The Wind Through The Keyhole
  • Wintersmith
  • KL Noir: White
  • The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

There’s actually double digits there. I’m happy.

(and if it looks like I’ve been reading a lot of Gaiman… Yes, I have. And I’m proud of it)

But there still remains many books that I have bought just last year: the first 5 books of A Song Of Ice And Fire; 4 anthologies; a collection of Mr. Pinter’s works; Bambi Vs. Godzilla by Mr. Mamet; The Stand and The Green Mile by Mr. King; Hidden Empire by Mr. Card; and all of John Green’s novels, minus the one titled Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

And later this evening, I will be heading out to Bangsar South to hoard more books for my collection.

As long as the volume of books purchased (after subtracting the number of books given away) exceeds the volume of books read, the unread books are just going to continue piling up, at the rate indicated by your Reader Index number. If your Reader Index number exceeded the Librarian Threshold, in no time, you’ll be fit to start a mini-library of your own, loaning books that you’ve never read away for a small fee.

(actually, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea)

When you head out, as I will later this evening, to binge-buy books, remember your Reader Index number, and consider your proximity to the Librarian Threshold. If sitting behind a desk, reading a novel, and waiting for the late fees to roll in sounds like a great career to you, by all means, binge-buy away.

As for me, I’ll have to start working to push my Reader Index number to <1.

236. Research, Research, Research

I’m still working on that steampunk story.

In truth, I had opened up a blank document file in my excitement, typed out a sentence, and struggled to write a second one after that. And then I left it alone and kept the project away at the back of my mind.

And I wonder why I keep missing deadlines.

I think I’ve been writing too much fantasy. The thing about me is that I can keep pretty good consistent internal logic. I have trouble, however, conforming to preexisting patterns of thought.

For example, the Cameron Highlands story that I was writing? It had a black hole in it; and though I’ve handwaved the existence of a solid black hole through the use of fantasy storytelling, I knew I had to research into actual black holes to see how the story would unfold around it. To this day, 30,000 words into the story, I still have no idea what the black hole should do.

God I hate research.

If I wanted to do research, I’d be a journalist, not a fiction writer. I like to make things up, not figure out how things can come together in a useful way. I like shortcuts through logic. But research all too often comes up as a necessity for writing intelligent stories.

A part of me tells me that I can ignore the research and make shit up. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I can stomach being willfully wrong – to thumb my nose at the facts because they’re in the way of a good story. But I will not be able to live with myself if I wrote out of ignorance.

I don’t want to be ignorant, but I don’t want to do research either. Nnngghh.

So I’m 2,500 words into the steampunk story (it should come up to 10,000 words for the 1st draft), and I’ve already spent like 2 solid hours just on researching. The Victorian age accelerated, steam technology advanced, leaving electricity and the internal combustion engine in the dust. What kind of world do we end up with? What does their history sound like?

So far so good:

  • The British Empire never let go of their colonies, and has begun to clamp down on the punk movement with laws that have an Orweillian foretaste to them.
  • The rapid advance of industry meant that Nikola Tesla had a better fighting chance, and successfully marketed his weapon designs to the US military, causing The Manhattan Project to be about perfecting his teleforce design instead of building the atom bomb.
  • Einstein and Feynman remain core contributors to the project, but on a lesser scale, and are more scientists than celebrities.
  • Nazi Germany took the design for the internal combustion engine and perfected it for their tanks, and their subsequent defeat and demonization caused the world to shun the internal combustion engine as Nazi technology.
  • People are just as wary of electrical technology because of the destructive power of the teleforce.
  • Nuclear physics is almost unheard of, due to its late advancement after being pushed aside for Tesla’s electric-based superweapon.


All of that for 2,500 words of text, and that’s not even including what I had to research for a coffee delivery service that went around in a zeppelin, and the world of steampunk Britain-Malaysia. (Bangsar is still the Bunge-Grisar Estate, for exaple.)

And I still have 7,500 words to go. God knows how much more research I’ll have to do to shape this story into something believable.

But at least I’m not writing out of ignorance. I can at least sleep happy tonight.

191. Warning: Contains Maths

I’ve never quite understood the trouble people have with maths.

“That’s easy for you to say, Joseph, because you’re smart,” a friend from college once said. Far from it – I have known smart people in the past 23 years of living, and I am nothing like them. I’m just a guy who likes to show off the limited knowledge that I have – and unfortunately, this braggadocio usually communicates that I’m somehow smarter than the rest.

(or maybe they’re really saying, “Shut up, Joseph, and stop being so arrogant”, but I’ve never been good at reading between the lines. See? Not smart)

I mean – what about maths is so difficult? 2 + 2 is 4, and 2 + 2 + 2 is 6. Throw in subtraction, multiplication, and division (which I’m sure – or I hope – everyone with a reasonable education knows), and you get all the maths you’ll ever have to do in one lifetime.

Well, there’s also algebra and calculus, but I think algebra has more real-world significance.

Earlier this week, I shared with a writer’s group a short story I write in 2012, titled “Malfunction!”, which was about two scientists trying to salvage a situation caused by a malfunctioning time machine. Most of the comments that came back more or less said: “Oh God. Maths. Cool story, though.”

Which I didn’t get. It’s alright if they didn’t catch the technobabble about the nature of space/time, or the rotation of the earth, or the tenets of general relativity. That’s fine – I didn’t understand many of those things either, until some weeks ago, when I became bored enough to look them up.

(I suppose I could learn to do just about anything with the free time that I have at work – but what the hell, I like writing)

But maths! It’s just a string of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers. Chop the long equation up into small parts, and the average 12-year old would be able to solve it!

I’ve never understood what was so difficult about maths – until I reached Form 4 and was forced to take Additional Mathematics as a subject.

Boy, that didn’t go well.

For most of my Form 4 and Form 5 career, up until 2 months before the government exam, I didn’t understand a thing from Additional Mathematics. It was like the knowledge of how to ride a bike – those who knew how to do it sped ahead like it was nothing. The rest of us who didn’t know how to do it were left in the dirt, wondering what sorcery it took to make such devilishly complicated things work.

I failed my Additional Mathematics paper every single time. When the forecast results came out, they didn’t expect me to get anything better than a pass.

But hell, I didn’t believe I couldn’t understand Additional Mathematics.

So one day, I sat down, created a 2.5 hours playlist on the computer, and as the songs played, I made myself learn Additional Mathematics. When I reached the end of the playlist, I started over from the top, and only when the the last song finished playing for the second time did I stop doing maths for the day.

I did this for a month. The government exam came and went, and I got an A1 for my troubles.

See, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as an inherent inability to do maths. Dance, maybe – some people can’t get a groove to save their lives. Singing, maybe – some people are just not as sensitive to notes and chords. But maths relies on one’s basic ability to understand rules and to apply them – the same skill that tells you not to touch the fire because it is hot.

The difference is that maths doesn’t burn you when you get it wrong.

I believe if you tried long enough, hard enough, and didn’t give up and conclude that you’re just not a maths person, you can do maths just as well as any other person. Maybe maths is not your thing – it isn’t mine, either – but maths is definitely not something that’s only doable by the intellectually gifted.

The next time you come across a maths problem, grab that damn problem and wrestle it to the ground. It’s an intimidating-looking fellow, but really a softie who gives up pretty easily.

Besides, whoever said that you aren’t intellectually gifted?

156. Bored to Metaphoric Death

Reporting live from work: I am going to set fire to the pantry if nothing interesting happens soon.

It’s a belief of mine that the best thing you can do to a writer is to bore him to metaphoric death. Deny him entertainment. Starve him of stimuli. Cut off the supply of distraction. When he’s doing thrashing around the empty room, and when you’ve helped him to patch up his skull that’s been broken after one too many hits against the wall, he’ll thank you.

Because when you take everything away, the writer turns to his only remaining source of entertainment: his imagination. If there’s a good substitute for last-minute panic to inspire some creativity and productivity, it’s dreadful, soul-crushing boredom.

(though this only works as far as creative work is concerned. The typical response to attempts to bore a person into doing tedious work is: “I’m bored, not desperate”)

Sitting at the desk right now, my whole body feeling like it’s going to burst from inactivity, I realize that boredom is also the worst thing that can happen to me. To illustrate, first a science lesson:

You know why deep-sea divers wear full-bodied suits when they dive. Water pressure increases exponentially with depth, and if you dive deep enough, the water pressure will first make it uncomfortable to even stay at that depth. Go deeper, and it becomes increasingly difficult, then eventually impossible to breath. Go even deeper, your blood will stop flowing. You’ll be long dead, of course; but in the chance that you manage to go even deeper than that, the water pressure can and will become strong enough to crush your bones.

But the opposite happens in space. Outer space, to be exact. In outer space, the pressure you have to worry about isn’t coming from the outside – it’s coming from inside your body.

The mixture of air that makes up the comfortable layer of atmosphere that we breathe in is at that perfect pressure for our bodily functions to work properly. It allows for the exchange of gases in your lungs as your breathe. It keeps your eyeballs from popping out of their sockets. As you travel into the higher levels of the atmosphere and out of it, however, this pressure around you drops – and you will be literally bursting out of your skin. Your blood doesn’t flow correctly. You can’t breathe properly.

It’s why high-altitude jet pilots wear full-body suits and full-faced masks. It’s why airplanes have pressurized cabins. It’s also why astronauts need such big, cumbersome suits.

The perfect work environment balances pressure from the outside – deadlines, tasks to be completed, audits, etc – with the innate pressure on the inside of us to bloody do something. Too much pressure on the outside, ad it’ll crush you. Take it all away, leaving you in an activity vacuum, and you get what I’m feeling right now.

On second thought, boring a writer to death probably isn’t the best thing you can do for him. Just give him drugs and have it done with.

151. Achieving Immortality

There’s something primal about the fear of nonexistence. Sure, spiders and ghouls and demons are creepy and all; but there’s just something deeply vast and dark and disturbing about total emptiness. In fact, nothingness is so incomprehensible – so alien to the human brain, that you will literally begin to go crazy.

Orfield Labs’ anechoic chamber in Minnesota has grown famous as “the quietest place on earth”, and for good reason – it blocks out 99% of all external sound. It doesn’t sound very quiet at first glance, but just take a moment right now to listen to the sounds all around you. If you’re in a house like mine, there’s the ticking of the clock on the wall. There’s the hum of the motor running in the ceiling fan. There’s the whirring of the hard drive in the laptop. There’s the distant sounds of a dog barking. There’s a faint buzz of factory machinery working late into the night. Now imagine all that sound gone – and chances are, if you’re like me, you’re imagining a sharp ringing sound in your ear in the absence of all that background noise.

Our brain is so comfortable with stimuli that it actually freaks out in the absence of it. Ironically, it takes a lot more effort to imagine absolutely nothing than anything else. Researchers have also found that if you tape halves of ping pong balls over your eyes – just enough to cover them and shut out the light, while still allowing you to open your eyelids – you will begin to hallucinate. The brain just cannot take it.

It’s perhaps something inherent to the universe we live in. Even that which we call a vacuum is not completely empty. As incredibly empty outer space is, there is still that odd hydrogen atom floating around. Think about it: our universe has objects so dense that even light cannot escape its gravitational field, yet nowhere there exists a perfect void. We have supernovas bright enough to blind you from billions of miles away and hot enough to liquify our solar system before our brains can even register that it’s happening, yet there is nowhere that is in absolute darkness, or in absolute coldness.

Try and imagine the nothingness before creation – you can’t. Your mind rebels against the thought. Just as difficult – if you don’t believe in heaven, hell, or anything in between – is to imagine an emptiness after death.

Imagine that: Nothing. Forever. The time in between the birth and death of the universe is indescribably small in the enormity that is eternity. The universe can live and die a billion times a billion times, and it still wouldn’t be long enough to be anything of significance in the scheme of forever. What is a human life, compared to these things?

Maybe this is why we strive so hard for immortality.

Regardless of what you believe in or what you call it – heaven, significance, legacy, empire – everyone who has ever lived have strove to live on beyond their deaths. Some believe in a spiritual place where the souls leaves to rest after the physical body has perished. Some believe in leaving something behind on this earth, whether in words, in music, in ideas, or in physical constructs. Realizing how fragile, how short, and how pathetically insignificant life can be, the primal fear of nothingness after death drives us to create. To work. To do whatever it takes to live on, even if it’s only for that little bit longer.

But what does “immortality” even mean? Does it literally mean to live forever? To live beyond one’s natural lifespan? Since the suffix “im-” translates to “not”, we can safely say that “immortality” covers any grounds outside of “mortality”. What, then, does it mean to be mortal?

The word “mortal” comes from the Latin “mortalis”, which means “to be subjected to death”. Death of what, exactly? Of the physical body? Of the soul? Of the memory?

The eminent Isaac Newton, a great scientist (who called himself a “natural philosopher” at that time, because the word “scientist” wasn’t coined yet), was very much into alchemy. The study of transmutation. Of particular interest to him was an object called the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary artifact which could, among other things, turn lead into gold, and grant immortality.

Needless to say, Sir Newton has since passed on with his quest unfinished. While his physical body has been buried, rotted away, and broken down into chemicals; can we say that he has, once and for all, truly died?

There’s a saying that every man dies two deaths: the first when he breathes his last, and the second when his name is uttered for the last time. Sir Newton have died the first death, but he lives on: in our textbooks, in our historical records, and in our memories of the great scientists. He lives on, his memory passed from one mind to the next, whenever someone learns about Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. He lives on when someone, somewhere does calculus. He lives on whenever the story of the falling apple is told.

Even Mr. Shakespeare took a jab at the subject – a very romantic one, to boot, in Sonnet 18. Recall the final lines of the sonnet: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

It appears that while most of us have given up on defying the first death, we still try out hardest to struggle against the second death: the death of our memories. So we give. We live altruistic lives. We sow seeds of ideas into the lives of others. We do good unto our neighbors. We attempt to do great things. We share our thoughts. We teach our children to follow in our ways. Our earthly shells must and will return to dust, but we have found other ways to be immortal.

Now consider this: every word that you have uploaded into the internet will survive for as long as the server does. Every picture ever taken of you will likely outlast you. Papyrus scrolls have been discovered with their writings intact even after thousands of years, and there’s no reason to think that your diary won’t last at least as long. Your government has a file with your picture and information in it, and they will continue to keep that file long after you have passed on. If you give good advice, your advice will live on for generations. If you have children, part of that child’s DNA – and every child that comes out of that – is uniquely yours.

We all strive to leave something behind. We all want to believe that there is some form of life after death. We are all in the pursuit of immortality in a world full of mortal things. In our quest to defy insignificance, to rebel against nothingness, to fight against death – there is something that we’ve missed, or have forgotten:

We have all already achieved immortality.

72. Why Men Aren’t Really Men Anymore (and the Bell-Shaped Curve)


Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to have the pleasure of introducing to you all: the bell-shaped curve.

In normal distribution, provided you have a sample size sufficiently large to represent the population, the bell-shaped curve is what you would normally get when you begin plotting a graph to represent your data.

Now, this all may sound very confusing to some of you, so let me break it down: imagine we are studying the probability of a random person’s IQ being higher than, say, 140. So we get a million participants to join in our little experiment.

(in truth, 1 million out of 7 billion is hardly a “sample size sufficiently large to represent the population”, but let’s run with it for now)

Now, assuming that this mission people are from all sorts of diverse background: they come from different countries, speak different languages, have different education backgrounds, and different upbringings – chances are, we’re going to get a very wide range of data. We’re going to get people who are Mensa-level intelligent (IQ > approx. 140), people who may be mentally handicapped (IQ < approx. 60), and all sorts of people in between.

As you may imagine, the chances of people with either very high or very low IQs showing up will be very rare; and the general population will have an average of IQ falling around the middle of these two extremes, somewhere around 100. If you’ve done some elementary statistics, and you connect the top of the bars on the histogram, you’ll get something that looks like an upside-down letter “U’, with the edges sloping outwards – which makes it looks like a bell.

Hence the bell-shaped curve.

It shows up for all sorts of other normal distributions: number of chocolate consumed in a year; movies watched in a month; annual salary… The list goes on. But the basic implication is this: in every normal distribution, there are always rare extremes, and there is always the common middle ground.

The implication is also that the world is filled with very normal, very average people; and for every person extraordinarily good at something, there is another person extraordinarily bad at the very same thing. For every saint, there is someone who is evil in equal measure. For every poverty-stricken person, there is someone who is rich in the same magnitude.

Even in your life you can see the application of the bell-shaped curve: you have made some very bad choices along the way to where you are today; but you have also made some very good choices that you wouldn’t replace for anything else. You have incredible memories that you want to relive, and you have awful memories that you wish you can just delete.

Now, why am I talking about the bell-shaped curve?

Earlier this evening, I read an article that pissed me off. Stoic as I am, it’s pretty hard to either piss me off or get me excited about something (see? Bell-shaped curve!); so this gives you an idea of how bad it was. It was an article titled “Why Men Aren’t Real Men Anymore”, published on The Elite Daily (a website which is, frankly speaking, full of shit).

First of all, the title itself presents a whole range of debate topics, starting with: what constitutes a “real man”? Are these qualities quantifiable? If so, how? If not, how does one know if one qualifies as a “real man”? But let’s put that aside for now.

The article, written by a certain Paul Hudson (who identifies himself as a writer and philosopher, among other things), went on at length about the terrible state that Gen-Y is in. The young men of today are not as classy as they used to be, it claims. The young men of today do not exhibit intelligence of charm as the youths 50 years ago did. Society is on a decline, blah blah blah.

The writer, first of all, has been obviously unscientific in his sampling of “men”, and seems to focus exclusively on the legions of youngsters who spend the vast majority of their time on the internet surfing porn and playing violent video games. This, by the way, is called bad sampling. Remember how we talked about getting a sample that is “sufficiently large to represent the population”? This is when sampling fails to do the last three words. Allow me to introduce an excerpt of the article for your reading pleasure:

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Oh wait, I’m sorry. That quote was from Socrates, who lived in ANCIENT GREECE, 400B.C.

It reminds me of a trend that emerged on the ever-popular 9gag about last year, with a string of posts condemning the duckface, most of them accompanied by captions reading: “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore”, or “Where have the real ladies gone?”

Bad, bad sampling. These people fail to understand that for every ugly duckface photo there is on the internet, there are at least 10 others of girls smiling normally, and one of them is beautiful in equal measure to the ugliness of the duckface. When one chooses to highlight the negatives and ignore the positives, they distort our reality, and ultimately our perception of truth.

For every Miley Cyrus (bless her soul), there is an Emma Watson. For every teenager doing something stupid in the name of YOLO, there is one making something amazing out of his life. For Paul Hudson, young writer and eminent philosopher: for every porn-surfing video game addict you know, there is another person in their 20s who is steadily making the world a better place, and setting a higher standard of ethics and class.

So to you, dear reader: the world is beautiful. The world is ugly. The world is both. The world is neither.

It’s how you want to see it.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
-Marcel Proust