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Rowling outs Dumbledore October 20, 2007

Posted by Tim in Literary.
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Picked this up from Digg, Leaky Cauldron is running the highlights of a recent Q&A with JK Rowling on that series of hers.

Among the usual “who-marries-who” and “what-ifs”, Rowling answered a thoughtful question:
Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?” by outing him as gay and revealling that he had at one point been in love with the man who would become his nemesis.

In fact, recently I was in a script read through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying I knew a girl once, whose hair… [laughter]. I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, “Dumbledore’s gay!”

Interestingly, she got an ovation from the audience. But I doubt this will go down well with the fundies who’ve already accused her of everything this side of murder. She didn’t shed too much light when asked exactly how much Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth liked goats (come to think of it, what a mental family).

Some may think she’s been reading too much fanfic or that she’s just looking for free publicity, but personally I think it gives you another reason to go through the books again and see if you can pick up anything you missed before :). Poor McGonagall…

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Rowling’s Magic August 3, 2007

Posted by Tim in Literary, Personal.
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Magic, pure magic – that’s how I’d describe Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Anyone who has read any of the books will already know that Rowling is a storytelling genius: the world of Harry Potter ranks right up there with Middle-Earth or Narnia – perhaps higher, given how easily you can relate to her world and appreciate her parodies on society and politics ([edit] I’ll say it again – the Ministry of Magic is sooo like our Govt, have you read about how they’re trying to paint Anwar as a lapdog of the US and the Jews?) without squinting for religious analogy or keeping track of odd names. Granted, her writing isn’t impressive in a literary sense (I believe someone commented that Rowling “never met an adverb she didn’t like”) – then again, I cringed at Tolkien’s attempts at songs too. She also takes pains to flesh out her characters, even the minor ones, and lets them grow with every book. And of course, I’m also a personal fan because of her rags-to-riches story writing the Great British Novel(s).

The last book was like the finishing of an intricate spiderweb. (Seemingly) small details from the previous books came together, nearly everyone has their moment in the sun, and the pace was breathtaking. The final chapters especially were glorious. The only problems I really had were the last two deaths, which didn’t seem to contribute to the story much by that point; and the epilogue, which was horrendous. She’s going to produce a final booklet for charity though, and if you want a better epilogue check out the transcript of a 90-minute chat between Rowling and MuggleNet.

Will end with a quick note about the Deathly Hallows price war: A letter in the newspaper observed that the major bookstores are getting a taste of their own medicine – many small retailers haven’t bothered stocking Harry Potter even before this, because they could not match the prices of the major chains. That said, it was a little… weird to see Deathly Hallows being promoted in a Carrefour newspaper ad – next to a promotion for potatoes. I preordered my copy from Borders, so it didn’t set me back much anyway – RM88 total, with 20% off the next two books.

Examining Expletives May 25, 2007

Posted by Tim in Humour, Literary, Thoughts, Trends.
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I sometimes find myself “filtering” conversations with others.

Take for instance something that happened to me recently – two months ago, I borrowed a book from the library to refer to for an assignment. After I was done with it I passed it to a groupmate, who was supposed to return it to the library for me.

Long story short, I went to the library to fill in a clearance form before graduating and I’m staring at a big fat fine on the screen.

If I were telling this story to someone I don’t know well (including you, dear blog reader), it’d go something like this:

1) “You know, I reminded him many times to return it but he didn’t!”

Which is fine, but fails to convey how I really feel.

Telling this story to say, my mother, it’d go:

2) “You know, I reminded the stupid guy many times to return it but he didn’t!”

To a friend from church?

3) “You know, I reminded the guy so many darn times to return it but he didn’t!”.

You see where I’m going here? To someone I know well and am more comfortable with, I’d just come right out and choose the precise words to convey it:

4) “You know, I told that stupid fucker so many damn times to return it but the fucker didn’t!”

Only 4) properly conveys the extent of my aggravation then; 1), 2) and 3) are politically correct, but gives the impression that I’m only slightly annoyed.

Are You Sure You Still Want to Use That Term?

Now let’s digress a little for another story: about a week ago I came along a post in a friend’s blog. She was concerned about how people were using the word cam-whoring. She linked a definition from Wikipedia:

A cam whore (sometimes cam-whore or cam-slut) is an individual who exposes himself or herself on the Internet with webcam software in exchange for goods, usually via enticing viewers to purchase items on their wish lists or add to their online accounts.

ARE YOU SURE YOU STILL WANT TO USE THAT TERM??? (sic)” was her conclusion.

If you read through the rest of the Wiki, however, the entry continues:

While the label is usually considered derogatory and insulting,[3] it is also used by these people to describe themselves, occasionally in a self-deprecating manner.

The term “cam whore” is also used to refer to individuals who post pictures or videos of themselves on the Internet to gain attention. The term disparages those who post pictures of themselves at inappropriate times or places, and usually implies self-absorption. This second usage of the term, deriding vanity and histrionics, is overtaking the prior, more intuitive definition. It is usually synonymous with attention whore.

Trends in Terms

The first thing to realize is that the meanings of words change. Damn, for example, comes from damnnation: a punishment from God. Fuck is right up there on the list of expletives, of course. The etymology of fuck is actually a good read – mainly because for all its controversy, the actual origin of the word is obscure (For the more liberal readers, there is a popular Flash of the various ways you can use the word). It literally means “sexual intercourse”. But I was obviously not condemning the offending person to fire and brimstone, nor am I privy to his nocturnal activities.

The Guardian published a list of TV’s most offensive words based on a survey, assigning an “offensiveness” rating to every phrase (to my credit, I know only about half of them). It shows that different groups of people have differing opinions on how offensive the phrases are. Arse is only “mildly offensive”, while arsehole is “quite strong” for some. Yet, bum, which has the same meaning literally, is rated “mild”. The most offensive body part is cuntcock is only “a middle of the road” word (I wonder if feminists will be up in arms about this).

A common practice is to bowdlerize “offensive” words. “Oh my god” becomes “Oh my goodness“; “damn it” becomes “darn it“; “fucking terrible” becomes “freaking terrible“. When I was growing up I learnt the the thing in front was dadu (DARE-do); the thing I didn’t have was dudu. Internet slang has also conveniently introduced shorthand – people rarely take offense when you type OM(F)G, WTF, WTH, FFS, etc.

A friend of mine blogged about a comedy routine by George Carlin, who went one step further. Carlin made a list of “unspeakable” words, and assigned numbers to them. Now, would “You 6ing, 7ing monkey 5er. You think your 1 don’t stink well 3 off you 3ing 3er” be allowed on TV? Would it be any different from inserting strategically-timed beeps?

Enid Blyton was a very conservative children’s writer – you won’t find subtle philosophical insights or social upheavals in her writing (unless Georgina was a closet tranny!). But meanings change, and once-innocuous names like Dick (my favourite of the Famous Five) and Fanny have been censored with politically-correct versions. Same for the poor golliwog, a children’s toy that became a symbol of racism.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most memorable novels a child can read – on one side a captivating tale of childhood adventure, on the other, a glaring look at the racism of those times. Jim, the black slave fleeing down the Mississippi River, is elegantly portrayed by Mark Twain: black people were regarded as inferior, but Jim proves to be the only good man in the story. And yet, to this day it remains one of the most banned books in the US. The century-old controversy revolves mainly around the usage of nigger and negro. Apparently this makes the book “racist” and “offensive” – never mind that this is precisely what the novel portrays, the racism of those times!

What Matters

We need to realize is that words are a social construct. Words have no power except what we choose to assign to them, and the intent behind them. Bocor isn’t a swear word, but in the context where it was used recently, it was definitely offensive. Which is not to say that I encourage freely replacing all your adjectives with expletives (mainly because people won’t be able to tell if you’re angry, or REALLY REALLY angry), nor should you throw insults around for no good reason – rather, examine the intent, not the letters on your screen.

For those still squirming at the un-PC-ness of this essay, I hope I may soothe you with a catchy advertisement you won’t find showing here any time soon.

Dawkins, Behe, and TIME’s 100 May 10, 2007

Posted by Tim in Literary, Science/Tech, Thoughts, World.
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I usually read TIME in the library now (it’s $), but their recent edition of the annual Time 100 (Most Influential People in the World) is worth a look.

Slightly US-centric, I don’t agree with some of the names there, and have to admit I know less than half of the names anyway. The interesting thing about TIME‘s 100 is how the list pairs the subjects with the authors. Oprah Winfrey’s entry is written by Nelson Mandela. The article on businessman-turned-philanthrophist Warren Buffet is penned by Melinda Gates. Michael J. Fox authors the section on Douglas Melton, the co-director of the Havard Stem Cell institute. The legendary professional gamer Jonathan Wendel aka Fatal1ty honours legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo.

But by far the most interesting pairing for me had to be the piece on Richard Dawkins, the outspoken evolutionist who pioneered the concept of extended phenotypes. The author paired to him? Michael Behe, a leading intelligent design advocate who coined the term “irreducible complexity”. This shocked me enough to immediately buy the issue.

Some online digging brings up Behe’s original, unedited article. He seems miffed at the sections they cut out, though I can’t see that the core of his essay changed any.

What’s baffling is that he is unhappy with TIME for rephrasing his sentences, e.g.: “the Bible advises us [to be hot or cold but not lukewarm]” .

What he first wrote was “Someone once advised us [to be either hot or cold, but not lukewarm.]”

The irony is: wasn’t this precisely what was wrong with intelligent design?

They Changed the Names May 5, 2007

Posted by Tim in Humour, Literary, Personal.
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When I was reminiscing in an earlier post about the Enid Blyton books I read when I was a kid, I mentioned that I’d heard some names had been changed in modern editions to be politically correct. I wasn’t sure about it at the time, only having read about it on Wikipedia.

But today I was in the bookstore and remembered to check – and it’s true! No more Dicks and Fannies.

Below are pictures from two different editions of The Folk of the Faraway Tree (click to view large versions):

Original Names intact:

Modern/politically correct versions (2005 edition):

Forgot to take a pic of “cousin Dick” becoming “cousin Rick”. Oh well.

And what is it with the lame-ass illustrations in the modern version?

MMU’s Blogging Initiative April 10, 2007

Posted by Tim in Literary, Malaysia.
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MMU introduces a twist in its Engineers and Society course this year: as an assignment, all students are given MMU-hosted blogs, and have to update them regularly, as well as read their classmates’ posts. Link here [Might only be accessible from Malaysia].

This project is the brainchild of Pau Kiu Nai, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Michigan Tech and a Masters of Management from IIUM, and has been an MMU lecturer since 1999. When asked how he came up with the idea, he said that having taught the subject for a number of years, he observed that students needed to interact more. He was also worried about the non-technical skills of MMU graduates. “From the feedback from industries, our students are weak in reporting or writing”, he observed. “Blog(ging) is the best way to encourage them to write”.

Mr. Pau’s class, like many others, comprises students from varying majors and years of study. By enforcing a system where students are required to blog regularly, and receive bonus points for commenting and rating fellow bloggers’ posts, students learn more about their peers – and maybe themselves as well.

To date the students have logged about 3,000 posts and more than 35,000 comments – not bad for a 10-mark assignment! Yes, there are the uncooperative ones who plagiarize articles off the Net and form “I rate you high, you rate me high” conspiracies. And the general level of English is hardly stellar. But by and large the students seem to be embracing the idea. Nearly all of them have uploaded photo avatars, and are posting on practically every subject under the sun: pet hedgehogs, stacking Pizza Hut salads, mountain hiking, stringing for a local paper, university events, becoming a cowboy, baby pictures, the ubiquitous love stories, and many more. Lecturers and tutors are regularly reading their students’ blogs – not merely to criticize or grade, but to know them better. Pau says the posts that are “written from the heart” are particularly memorable. He also pays attention to any complaints and posts that need moderating.

Some students have requested that their blogs be made permanent and retained in the system even after they finish the subject. Pau is also considering converting the existing system into a more formal one for all MMU students if the response is good enough.

The blog system is based on a modified WordPress engine and is hosted in MMU. Popular blog posts, as well as blogs that have not been “peer-reviewed” are highlighted. Various tweaks were also made to tailor it to the assignment needs and to make it run faster.

Pau says that blogging can be a new teaching tool. “I’ve always believed learning can be fun”.

Engleesh April 1, 2007

Posted by Tim in Literary, Thoughts.
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[No, this is not an April Fool’s post – had a lot of fun telling friends there had been a fire/riot at MMU and it would be closed tomorrow though]

If you’re acquainted with me you’ll probably know English is my “thing”. People ask me for the meanings of words all the time, or to proofread articles and resumes. Heck, when I read the newspapers sometimes I subconsciously analyze the text while reading the story. Here’s a picture:

Grammar Nazi

I’m told that I could spell Pinocchio by the time I was 2 (although I can’t spell it with confidence at the age of 23). Mum started me on Peter and Jane, then Enid Blyton books.

The majority of books I read when I was young were by Enid Blyton, and I still don’t allow Mum to throw them away. Which seems like a very long time ago – a time when I laughed at “Timmy the dog” sharing my name but not at Julian’s brother “Dick”, or “Fanny” from the Faraway Tree series. I’ve heard that in modern editions they replace “Dick” with “Rick”; “Fanny” with “Frannie”…
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Chicken to the Slaughter March 17, 2007

Posted by Tim in Humour, Literary.
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While waiting to take a mid-term test this week, I happened to peer into one of the neighbouring lecture halls and noticed the students dressed up and the lecturers watching. It was that time of year…

About the only time I’ve ever had geniune interest in a subject in my years in MMU was during my foundation year, in English III. Every group has to select from a pool of classic short stories, and produce a 20-minute sketch. Other than contributing towards our final grade, the best sketches would also be narrowed down and IIRC a final ten would be invited to present in the Main Hall.

In our case, the story was “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl – no, he didn’t write only children’s books, he produced quite a few short stories for adults that were appreciated for their dark humour.

For the uninitiated, the story revolves around Mary Maloney, whose husband confesses to an affair. In a fit of rage, she seizes the nearest object at hand – a frozen leg of lamb – and buffets him over the head with it, causing his death. After regaining her composure, she calmly goes to the grocer for peas and potatoes, returns, prepares a supper of roast lamb, and calls the police. Upon their arrival, she feigns grief, the grocer provides her alibi, and the story ends with the police joining her for a supper of roast lamb.

First thing was to replace the “leg of lamb” with a whole chicken from TESCO. Lambs are expensive in Malaysia…
I thought it would be interesting if the whole script rhymed. That took up a lot of effort! But we liked the result.

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The Time-Traveller January 5, 2006

Posted by Tim in Literary, Science/Tech.
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Greetings. I am a time traveler from the year 2036. I am on my way home after getting an IBM 5100 computer system from the year 1975.

My “time” machine is a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric. The unit is powered by two, top-spin, dual-positive singularities that produce a standard, off-set Tipler sinusoid.

Sounds like the start of a science fiction novel or movie, doesn’t it? It’s not. The above is a post made on an Internet message board by “John Titor” on January 27, 2001. Over the next few months he talked online with skeptics and believers before stating that he was returning to his own time on March 24, 2001. He was never heard from again.

People claiming to be time-travellers are not unheard of, especially with the anonymity of the Internet. What made John stand out was his ability to describe the theories and physics behind time-travel that fit into existing concepts of spacetime, and black holes. He even posted pictures of his device, and technical manuals accompanying it.

He stated that time paradoxes like the grandfather paradox did not exist, but that the Everett-Wheeler model (Many-Worlds Interpretation) – of a multiverse in which all possible actions are carried out – is correct.

Most people were of course very skeptical about Titor’s claims. He in turn would often state he was not concerned whether people would believe him, and rather assumed people wouldn’t – “What would it take for you to believe in a time traveller?” Skepticism, he said, was what made discussions interesting, rather than people accepting every word he said. He stated his purpose was to gauge the reaction of people to him. Some critics observed he would often parry the most direct questions posed to him, and reflect them on the questioner. But to his credit he did answer many questions about time and time travel, and the future.

Titor made a number of predictions about the future. Some, set in the near future, appeared on surface to bolster his claims as they came to pass. He mentioned that CJD (mad cow disease) would become more widespread but be played down, that Iraq would be accused of possessing nukes, and that the US government would begin to sacrifice civil rights for security (bear in mind his posts predated 9/11). He also knew obscure details, like certain UNIX systems having a year 2038 bug, and the IBM 5100 having hidden functions. He even hinted that the anticipated y2k bug problems did not come to pass because of future invervention.

He often described the philosophies and cultures of his time:

The war had very profound affects on people and how they relate to each other. As individuals, almost everyone in 2036 is very familiar with death. We all have stories of loved ones that have died from disease, war or acts of inhumanity. Most of us have even taken part in dishing the same thing out to the other side. As a result, we have become far more compassionate to the ones we love but mush less forgiving to those who don’t pull their weight. We are more accepting of other’s differences in our community because we depend on them to survive. We are also more conservative with our resources and closer to God because for a period, life on Earth was Hell.

The other major difference is in the concept of good and evil. With multiple worlds come multiple decisions and outcomes. For every good act, there is an equal and possible bad act on another worldline. Taken to the extreme, this must mean that in God’s eyes, there is no total good and total bad in the superverse. It balances itself out to infinity. I believe we are judged on the decisions we make as individuals and the good/evil I see on my worldline is an illusion that has no worth to God. My reaction to it is what’s important to God. Although this may seem rather heartless, it does allow me to see past the evil that people do and acknowledge the core of potential goodness inside them.

He also made apocalyptic statements about the future: Civil war in the US starting 2004-2005, and a third World War in 2015 which would see the US barraged by nukes. At the same time he stated that because worldines diverged (he estimated a divergence of 2% between our world and his), nothing was set in stone and we still could avoid the bleak future he knew. Skeptics observed that this made most of his claims impossible to verify, others said he was bringing a message of hope.

Was John Titor a hoax? Probably. His depiction of the future suspiciously mirrored popular science fiction themes, 2005 has passed with no signs of an American civil war, and his explanations of how his time machine worked was mercilessly shot down by science experts. But his story still entertains, and sparks thought about the direction that the human race is taking, sort of like what War of the Worlds did on radio in 1938. Time-traveller or storyteller, the tale of John Titor remains a memorable Internet legend.