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Monday, 24 December 2007

Ubuntu: a Linux first timer's thoughts

(My Ubuntu Linux desktop!)

(My newly reinstalled Windows XP desktop!)

I hope it's not too late to wish Selamat Hari Raya Aidiladha. To all who performed their haj and qurban this year, I hope Allah accept your amal and reward you abundantly.

I spent a few days before Raya working on my latest project: installing Ubuntu Linux on my PC. I recently got a new hard disk and I backed up my old hard disk on it. That went well, alhamdulillah.

(However I did not backup my primary partition (drive C:) the drive where Windows is installed. That is like begging for trouble, more on that later.)

I've talked about going into Linux before. I've read up a bit what I should expect when I'm switching to Linux, especially Ubuntu. And I had my own expectations and reservations. I was quite concerned about my aging PC since it's now 5 years old. I heard that Xubuntu handles old systems quite well with its low resource requirements, so I thought I could always switch to that if things starts getting slow(er).

The installation

After backing up, I turned off the PC and disconnected the new hard disk. I was trying to avoid any problems for new the hard disk since this is where my backup – gigabytes of it – is stored.

Ubuntu is comes as live CD. A live CD means that when you restart (reboot) your PC, the CD will load Ubuntu Linux into your memory and make your PC run in Ubuntu. You can familiarise yourself with Linux using it and I've tried it before. Turns out you can't do much other than what comes default with Ubuntu. For example, playing MP3 is not automatically enabled in Ubuntu (due to legal reasons).

The installation was confusing at first because I could not see the 'Next' button in installation window. I was annoyed by this because I thought there was something wrong the installation wizard. The solution to this problem was to decrease the font size displayed. This made the window fit entirely on screen and I was finally able to see the 'Next' button. I never heard other people complain about this issue, so I'm guessing its the problem with my own hardware.

Once installation started, everything went without a hitch.

That was until as message appeared, something about unable to reach 'mirrors'. I thought the process had stopped abruptly, so I forced the PC to restart. Bad idea.

Let me re-clarify that at this moment my hard disk is divided into two: one part with Windows XP installed; and another empty, unformatted part for installing Ubuntu. Restarting the whole thing– as I found out the hard way – caused the part with Windows XP on to be erased. Oh dear God.

(Bye-bye, unbacked up articles, passwords, ebooks and all.)

Long story short: I had to reinstalled Windows XP from scratch, free up some empty disk space and install Ubuntu again on it again. I'm still slowly restoring my XP back to its former settings, but I'm not complaining. One blessing out of this blunder is my XP is now runs faster than I can ever remember.

Using Ubuntu

Can Ubuntu make me ditch XP for good?

My first impression of this operating system (OS) is that it is well-designed for even the most novice of users. I've came across a few of the "even my granny can use the PC now thanks to Ubuntu" stories, and I can see how that can be true. If you need to do basic stuff like typing documents, emailing and surfing the Web on your PC, Ubuntu will help you get started in no time. Everything is organised so that you can find folders, save documents and customised your OS with ease.

In some ways, its easier to get things on Ubuntu than on XP, like installing and removing applications. Ubuntu uses an integrated application system called Synaptic Package Manager, an approach that eliminates much of the headache that comes with failed or improper applications installation/removal.

Connection to Streamyx is not automatically done but I found the steps to do so in the Help section. Ubuntu's Help section gets my thumbs up for its clear and friendly explanations.

Enabling things such as MP3 playback, Microsoft core fonts and Java required a tiny bit of extra work, but well worth it if you're a seasoned Windows user.

Overall, after a few days of tinkering around Ubuntu, I manage to settle into Ubuntu comfortably, accepting both its advantages and disadvantages over Windows. I especially love the way how things are organised in Ubuntu. Microsoft could learn a thing or two from Linux, IMHO.

Issues encountered

So, can I now sign the divorce papers and start a new life with Ubuntu?

The issues I have Ubuntu right now may likely due to my aging hardware. The only way to solve them is to get a new PC. But my copy of XP is tied to this PC, which means I can't installed it on another PC. And there's no space in my room for a new PC. (I would also need another house because the other rooms in this one are all used up).

Why I'm still using XP as my main OS reason #1: the display in Ubuntu is OK, but not as good as in Windows. I use a GeForce 2 card that is no longer supported. In this sense, Ubuntu can't do anything much to solve the problem.

Reason #2: Firefox in my Ubuntu looks awful. The websites are oversized and becomes painful to look at after some time. I tried Opera, another favourite of mine, but strangely Opera can't detect the Flash plugin. That means I can't watch Youtube or use any Flash-based stuff with Opera. This is a bit disappointing because Opera do make the websites look better.

Another confounding issue that I have is that Ubuntu cannot shut down the PC. Ubuntu will boot off, the hard disk will quiet down, BUT the power is still on! After going to the Ubuntu forum I learned that I'm not the only sufferer. It is suggested that old hardware could be the cause.

I also wouldn't recommend Ubuntu if you don't have an Internet connection. Installing new applications and updating the OS means a lot of downloading. Without Internet connection, you'll be stuck with a bare bones setup, which is OK if you're not expecting too much. But if you're an advanced or power user, not being able to play around with system because the the Internet is inaccessible is a major drawback.

Conclusion

To be frank, I'm very, very much impressed by the work has gone into making Ubuntu as a workable alternative to Windows. Had I own a newer machine, I'd probably have nicer things to say about Ubuntu. But my interest in learning how to use Ubuntu hasn't waned down just yet. I have learned some valuable lesson during those few days.

As for the unable to shut down problem, my solution is to restart the PC in XP and shut it down from there.

Final words: Ubuntu works, and works rather well and right from the start. Ubuntu can help you do your stuff, but in a different way compared to Windows. You're going to learn and unlearn a lot, so don't fret if don't succeed at first. Just have fun and make the most of what can be achieved.

If you want a smoother transition from Windows to Linux, you'll need to do some hacking here and there. And to that I say, let the hacking begin.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) is considered one of the best sci-fi novel ever written. Also, one of the most hilarious.

Douglas Adams picked the right character to carry the story. Arthur Dent is the quintessential everyman hero, with an fairly boring life and no prospects in the romance department. One day he wakes up to learn that his house is about to be bulldozed by a road construction company.

In the same day, he learns that his friend Ford Prefect is actually an alien in disguise and witness planet Earth blown to dust by the alien Vogons, part of their plan for a galactic highway.

Now clueless, homeless and planet-less, Arthur find himself in a bizarre journey with a runaway president, a human woman who once turned him down at party, a depressed robot named Marvin, mice, bad alien poetry and dolphins in tow and a book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in possession.

H2G2 spawned several sequels and a rather dark ending in the last book. Many still thinks that H2G2 overshadowed the rest (a lot like the original Matrix movie and its two predecessors).

In this genre science and religion usually don't play well. Adams himself is a self-professed atheist. Taken with a pinch of critical salt, H2G2 is enjoyable mostly thanks to its off-beat humour. I'll read it again just for the fun of listening to Marvin whining about what's the point to anything. As Arthur points out, Marvin is not very much a robot but "more a sort of electronic sulking machine."

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Mindless pedaling

(Finding yourself is more difficult if you're always not around...)

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Baru-baru ini

Tengok Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka. Rencana pendek tentang apa yang tak dicerita banyak dalam buku teks sejarah tentang kelahiran negara ini. Tengok seorang diri. Ada ajak seorang hamba Allah tengok sama, tapi dia tolak. (Masa itu dia ada masalah rumah tangga.)

Pertama kali pandu MPV. Ada orang tak sihat, dia minta bawakan dia ke klinik. Guna MPV dia. Risau juga masa nak letak. Tapi alhamdulillah, ada jumpa tempat ruang yang luas.

Jumpa kawan lama dari Indonesia. Masa raya dulu dia pulang ke tanahairnya selepas tamat belajar. Tak sangka dia kembali ke KL. Tapi minggu lepas nampak ada perempuan tengah bawa 'baby' lelaki baru pandai berjalan berjalan-jalan. Eh, itu isteri si Dhani (bukan nama sebenar). Kata saya dalam hati. Mana Dhani?, saya tanya Mrs. Dhani. Dhani? Oh, dia di bangunan sana. Saya tak sempat nak ke tempat kawan saya, tapi beberapa hari kemudian saya telefon dia dan kami berborak panjang. Dah lama kami nak ke kedai buku Indonesia di Wisma Yakin, tapi tak jadi-jadi.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Here, have some more Herriot

Boss: Did you you enjoy the Herriot books I lent you?

Me: Tremendously. Here they are. Thanks a zillion, boss.

Boss: Good. Here you go.

*Boss drops a stack of more James Herriot books*


Me: Err... Actually, I was hoping to go home with a lighter bag...

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Card-bo!

I played around with Inkscape some more, and ended up with...


Card-bo! (Complete with coin slot on the top left side of its chest!)


Hope you like it. Originally from the pages of one of my favourite(st) manga, Yotsuba to!

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Man and Boy


This one of the very few books that I actually re-read.

Harry Silver had a touch of the mid-life crisis. Plagued by doubt, fears and short-sightedness, a slightly drunk Harry wobbled into the bed of a vulnerable female colleague one night. For someone with a decent job and an adorable family, that was the tipping point. The end.

A new beginning awaited Harry, a life without his talented and beautiful wife Gina. Gina is now an opponent and their son the prize. The contest: who'll live the happiest without the other.

I'm not sure if a female reader would understand this book the way a male would. I loaned this to a close female relative and she didn't think much of it.

I re-read Man and Boy because its struck a nerve with me. I don't understand why Harry would throw his marriage over a stupid thing like this, while at the same time I do. The inside of Harry's head feels frighteningly similar, I almost couldn't believe what I was reading.

I'm not sure much we males and female understand our differences, especially when it comes to the brain. Business guru Tom Peters believes that no way men can design a women's product. Not in the way women design would. So he says, stop pretending like we can.

Man and Boy is not the most brilliant book I ever read, but it did made an impact on me in terms of its insightfulness. Hats off to Parsons for a painfully real journey into the male mind. It's also very, very funny, and have known to make grown men weep.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Open the Windows Explorer with zero clicking

Using the computer sometimes means a lot of time finding and opening files and folders. And that usually entails tons of mouse clicking.

Do you know you can bring up Windows Explorer using a simple 2-key shortcut? If you haven't discovered it, try pressing Windows Key and E together.

The Windows key is commonly found in newer keyboards. This shortcut works for XP and Me, but I'm not sure about Vista since I haven't used it.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Kiblah in space

This is a short continuation of the last post. I tried to find actual article on finding the kiblah in space on the Wired News but I couldn't find it. I did however find something on the article at Ted Mahsun's blog (thanks, Ted!).

And here's the link to Dr. Kamal Abdali's The Correct Qibla (.pdf file).

Friday, 2 November 2007

New blog on the block: Chasing the Imaginary

199x. The place, a lecture hall where an Islamic Knowledge class was being held, somewhere in a matriculation centre. The class was almost finished.

"Any questions?"

A hand went up. The lecturer gestured to approve.

"Sir, how do astronauts pray?"

Stunned silence. Everyone turned to the questioner. You can almost hear the lecturer's brain rattling.

"That's a very good question. You know, this is the kind of question we Muslims should be asking." He couldn't provide the exact answer but he was continued to discuss the role of Islamic Knowledge in these areas.

I don't know about my classmates but I know I was mind-blown. So much that I still remember the question till day, and it's been a while since the year 199x. With the recent flight of our angkasawan, I'm glad to know that the Department of Islamic Development had prepared a booklet on how to perform ibadah in space. (Sadly, the booklet is not available online.)

At least I know now that the question I heard back in 199x has now been answered.

Let me introduce you to the questioner just now. He is my old chum, one of the first persons I met when I entered the matriculation centre.

He is Rafeek, and he has started a blog. Not just any blog. He only has wrote two post so far, but they contain more knowledge than my entire blog.

Go on and pick Rafeek's brain at Chasing the Imaginary.

(Pretty clever title, don't you think?)

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

If Only They Could Talk


I can be a bit slow when it comes to trying out other people's recommendation and this book is proof of that. My boss lent me this book after I lent her Teacher Man. You're going to love this, she enthusiastically beamed.

I'm happy to report that she is absolutely right. After 5 months of letting it sit still on my shelf, I picked the book up a few days after first Syawal.

If Only They Could Talk follows the journey of veterinarian James Herriot in his first year on the job. It was it first (and last) job fresh out of college, serving the agriculture community of North Yorkshire in the 1930s. He was hired by Siegfried Farnon, an experienced and dashing fellow practitioner. Siegfried had earlier bought over the practice and was running it with his younger brother Tristan.

I'm not sure if it's Herriot himself or the folk of North Yorkshire, but it seems as the place is never short of amusing stories, in and outside the farmyards.

In one story, Herriot was called to examined a sick cow by a very sceptical farmer who watched his every move like a hawk. Herriot, struck by nervousness, proceeded to take the cow's temperature by inserted the thermometer in the animal's rectum. He only turned the other side for only a second, and saw the thermometer had disappeared inside the rectum. I was cracking up as I imagine the look on both Herriot's and the farmer's faces.

Another particular story that still makes me laugh every time I recall it is about an old man who worked a caretaker for a wealthy widow's little pig. She named the pig Nugent, after her uncle. The old man couldn't properly pronounce the name Nugent, probably because of his accent. So whenever Herriot came to attend to the pig, the old man would ask, "Has you come to see Nudist?"

(If you don't know what a nudist is, do look it up. :D )

There are also stories of his boss and his boss's brother. Siegfried, despite being a top-notch veterinarian, has the tendency to be forgetful sometimes. Meanwhile, Tristan is more laid back, maybe too laid back for his own good. On several occasions Tristan even had been fired by Siegfried (like the time he lost the chequebook). But after some time had past and Siegfried being the forgetful person that he is, the brothers went on to work as usual, as if Tristan was never fired.

Herriot writes frankly about his successes and failures. The charm of the book lies in his optimism when times seemed bleak and his willingness to write of his blunders and failures. It's hard not to root for him whenever we find him in tricky situations.

According to ulama, some Prophets were trained by Allah as shepherds before they were given their first revelation. This is because working with animals can be a humbling experience, as evident throughout the stories.


In the US, this book is collected together with the second one (It Shouldn't Happened to a Vet) as All Creatures Great and Small. I disagree with the renaming, as it downplays the humourous feel conveyed in original titles. I feel the same way about the new cover, but you be the judge.

(UPDATE: Actually the renaming was an idea by Herriot's own daughter.)

Herriot has written a total of 6 books in the series. I'm slowly making my way through number 3, Let Sleeping Vets Lie. In this one, we get to see how Herriot pursued his future wife, a local farm girl who shares his love for animals.

As Herriot pondered at the end of of the book, if animals do could talk, what would they say about us humans? Well, if the the farm animals of the Yorkshire Dales could talk and read, they'd probably be telling us to go on and check out Herriot's books.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

I checked my SMS inbox and found a message from an unidentified number

It reads,
Assalamualaikum Mak.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri - Maaf Zahir Batin - Eid Mubarak

These last few weeks have been crazy for me. My schedule has jumbled up and I haven't got my haircut yet. And the Municipal Council recently tore down my usual roadside barbershop, God knows how I greatly dislike going to a new barber, especially one I'm not familiar with.

Anyways, my sincerest wishes that our efforts for Ramadhan will be accepted, and that may this Aidilfitri brings much blessing and happiness to us, our families and all Muslims, insya-Allah, amin.

Special thanks to those who sent me cards, I'll try my best to reply. Take care, people.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Wondering...

I saw this in a special episode of Honey and Clover called Chapter F, and thought how this one frame seems to mirror the state I'm in at this of point in life... the sky, the wind, hair that needs cutting, the mind lost in thoughts, wondering...

Have a great Ramadhan, everyone.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

All Over but the Shoutin'

At one point in my life, I did something that something regrettable. I stopped reading.

I won't go into details. It's suffice to say that I lost a lot precious learning opportunities during that time, and that is one mistake I sincerely believe no one should repeat.

Getting back into the habit wasn't as easy as I thought. I realised my reading speed had declined greatly. I used to finish one or two books a week. Now a book every few months is enough reason to climb to the top of the nearest hill and yell, "Yeah!!!".

When I was struggling to become an active reader again, I resorted to friend's bookshelves. My long time bro profar loaned me a couple of John Grishams, and I got my first glimpse of the so-called beautiful South. From those pages, places like St. Louis, Biloxi and Baton Rouge became familiar sounding.

And after a long time apart, I felt like I was summoned to come back and visit. This time it would be Alabama, and the voice calling me was Rick Bragg's.

If you have very little idea about life in the South, then All Over but the Shoutin' is a good place to start. But it won't be a happy start. This book may cost you a few boxes of tissues. This is the story of Bragg's childhood, and what it's like to white, and poor.

White poverty is somewhat a taboo subject in America. Most people tend to think that white, Caucasian folks as affluent people or at the least well-to-do. In reality, poverty does not discriminate. Like many who struggled, the Braggs did everything that they could to go on living. This book will also change what we might think about living in poverty, and that it often never as what we imagine.

Bragg went on to carve himself a career in journalism. He started covering sports and local stories, went further to the big name papers including the New York Times. His shining moment came when was able to get his mother to New York (she disliked the idea of travelling so far at first) and witness him accept the Pulitzer Prize. The proud look on her face, the mother of a simple reporter man from Alabama, meant more to Bragg than the prestigious award itself.

If there's one thing the writer wouldn't want readers to forget about his book, it would be his mother's great sacrifice for her three sons. She went 18 years without a new dress, while she cleans and irons other people's clothes, and starved herself so her boys could eat.

There is no doubt Bragg is a gifted writer (the Pulitzer was rightfully awarded, IMHO). I enjoyed the book tremendously. Having to put it down after finishing it felt like having to reluctantly say goodbye to a bunch of people you've grown to like, because the express bus home is leaving in half an hour's time.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Selamat mengimarahkan bulan Ramadhan

Kata orang bijak alim kita, bertemunya kita dengan Ramadhan bermakna Allah telah memilih kita untuk termasuk golongan yang akan mengambil manfaat daripadanya. Insya-Allah, sama-sama kita buat yang terbaik, moga-moga kita dikurniakan rahmat, keampunan serta kemerdekaan yang telah ditawarkan.

Amin.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Empty email inbox (you gotta try it!)


I use GMail as my main email account. GMail has a couple of feature that I love, and one in particular is Archive Mail.

This feature makes your GMail looks as if it has at least 2 separate sections. One is the Inbox, for incoming mails. Two, the All Mail, where all archived mails are stored.

Here how it works:
  1. I read the mail that arrives in the Inbox.
  2. If I wish or need to read it again later, I could Label it (to make finding it later easier) and save it using Archive Mail.
  3. If I do not wish to read it anymore, I simply delete it.
The result is a clear Inbox. If there's nothing coming in, I'm greeted with an empty one. Since I don't get emails a lot, at most I will get is a bunch. The system helps me eliminate unread mails.

No more staring at 400+ mail in my Inbox (that's in my other email account, yet to be cleared into an empty Inbox). And that, my bro and sis, is why you gotta try this.

(Anybody knows how to make this system work for Yahoo! Mail?)

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

"Don't you want to be like them?"

I have the privilege of knowing a friend who looks up to the ulama' the way others look up to footballers or rock stars or mangaka. He once showed a memoir by a well-respected alim and I was surprised that such book exists. Needless to say that this alim's life and mine are like day and night.

And then my good friend asked me, point-blank, "Don't you want to be like them?"

I was lost for words. Nothing crawled to mind.

For me it isn't a question of "want to or not?". It is more of a "possible or not?" question.

May Allah bless the alim for his patience. His upbringing was harsh, but amazingly he was grateful for it. He was 'reminded' by Him on several occasions about his mistakes in ways I don't even believe I could take.

And till this day I'm still looking for my answer...

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories


Rashomon is a movie by the legendary Japanese director, Kurosawa Akira. In the movie, a traveling pair of husband and wife fell victim to a bandit. The bandit was caught and an investigation was launched. But as the criminal, the victim and the witness describe their point of views, the story becomes very complicated as some of the details given begin to contradict. A more recent film which also uses this storytelling technique is Hero, starring Jet Li and Tony Leung Chiu Wai.

Psychologists have borrowed this idea to describe how people who went through the same experience may have different views and understanding of what happened. Known as the The Rashomon Effect, this concept highlights the subjectivity of how people perceive things. The different views may contradict one another, but they are also plausible at the same time.

I haven't watched Rashomon the movie, so I guess Rashomon and Seveteen Other Stories is the next best thing.


Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories is a short story anthology by another master, Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Rashoman the movie is in fact based on two of Akutagawa's short stories, Rashomon and In a Bamboo Groove. Kurosawa adapted the story of In a Bamboo Groove as the movie's plot and Rashomon as the movie's setting (somewhere during the Heian period).

Akutagawa is revered as a master for good reasons. One of it is his ability to write about the many periods in Japanese history. O-Gin touches upon the Genna period, when Christianity began to spread on Japanese soils. The Story of A Head that Fell Off — an amusing tale of mortality and repentance — takes place during and after the Sino-Japanese war (fought in order to win Korea). The final part of the book contains Akutagawa more autobiographic and contemporary pieces, like The Baby's Sickness, his struggle between a successful father and an accomplished writer; and Life of A Stupid Man and Spinning Gears, are haunting and melancholic self-accounts that were published posthumously. One story in particular, Hell Screen — about a despicable artist obsessed with painting scenes from hell and ending up paying dearly for it — simultaneously frightened and delighted me.

I did have some doubts about reading something classical like this book. Maybe it is my misplaced idea that classics, especially a foreign one, may be overwhelming wordy. Instead, the book surprises me with its clarity and humbleness. It is anything but lofty. Akutagawa beautifully crafts every story like a finely prepared sushi.

The translator and publisher are also to be congratulated for a job well done. The notes that accompany the stories help clarify many of the references and lend a sense of intrigue to the stories.

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories proves to me that classical works are to be discovered, not feared. They say classical works are in league of their own, and personally I believe that they are different in the way they approach things. In our kinetically-charge generation, everything is delivered dizzying fast (blog is one ironic example). Back then, things that come out from people's mind were well-put and rarely rushed. Sadly today, the art of conveying ideas across elegantly is a dying one. But fortunately we still can learn from the earlier minds.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Bowling in Inkscape


At one time I directed a lot of my focus on mastering Inkscape, the wonderful, open source vector graphics editor. But things didn't pan out as planned.

Inkscape isn't as intuitive as I thought, which is not a bad thing. It's just that it's a tool with a learning curve. Figuring out how to use it means spending time trying its functions and features, and not by guessing which one does what.

I took the latter approach got disappointed. Inkscape seemed easy at first, but frustrations took over as I couldn't find the way the things I want. For example, I tried to create a magazine-style layout using it but the final output was not sharp enough and the size ended up wrong. I abandoned Inkscape for some time, thinking of giving up entirely.

But later (can't exactly remember when but about months later), I gave Inkscape another try. I was bored and I tried some things that I never tried before, like using paths and nodes. The result is the above: the bowling pin.

Yes, it looks like sketchy, amateurish at best. But it is a badge of courage for me. I played around with nodes and paths, something that scared me back then, when I thought Inkscape wasn't as easy as I would like it to be.

I took a leap of faith. It was scary, like it should be. It's a good reminder for myself that the scary possibilities are sometimes the ones that change things for the better.


A bit about the bowling pin. Initially it was a round shape converted into a path. In path mode, nodes can be added. Nodes can be manipulated to give an object the shape or curve we want it to have. For example, I added nodes to the circle to form the neck of the pin. It's a fairly simple manipulation, but I wasn't successful at manipulating paths and nodes before and that caused a lot of the frustrations.

Now I'm less scared of Inkscape. It takes time to learn it and I'm willing to give whatever it takes to get it working.

(The bowling pin is blue because one of the first bowling pins I ever saw were the plastic toy ones that my father bought me when I was wee lad. It had other colours too. And please never invite me to go bowling, because like virtually all other sports I'm just awful at it.)

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Don't You Have Time To Think?


People remember Richard Feynman for many different reasons.

He was one of the scientists who was involved in the Manhattan Project, which lead to the creation of the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima (something he was confronted with later in his life). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965 for advancing the field of quantum electrodynamics. He served on the committee that investigated the crash of the space shuttle Challenger, and on live TV demonstrated through a remarkably simple experiment how the one part of the shuttle was damaged and caused the crash.

In Don't You Have Time To Think?, we are introduced to a man who is a definite rarity. Feynman is scientist as well as a passionate educator who strived to make science interesting and approachable to the common people. His books, including The Feynman Lectures On Physics, speak volumes about his effort to dispel the 'science is scientific folk only' form of thinking.

Most of the book are letters that were send and received by Feynman to and from people of all sorts – colleagues, students, family, friends, fans, critics, skeptics.

It's amazing to see how many letter he had answered. Some asked for career advices, while a few expressed their admiration for Feynman incredible passion and playful teaching approach to a subject generally deemed as "boring". In between, letters from handful of amateur scientist buffs (if that is the correct term) appears, discussing some ideas they have stumbled upon. And with patience and encouragement, Feynman wrote back. The rest are largely letters to colleagues and family members, which also showed many sides to his unique individuality (two of Feynman's well-known hobbies happen to be lock picking and bongo drumming).

Even as a scientist of Nobel Prize stature, Feynman took the trouble to reply many of (if not all) the letters he gets. I personally can't imagine anyone, even an ordinary person, who would take the time to answer their personal mails.

Feynman also served as a textbook reviewer for the California state and I really, really think that his article on how to write mathematics textbooks for school-age students titled 'New Textbooks for The 'New' Mathematic' should be read by the people at our ministry.

Don't You Have Time To Think? is an anthology of the man named Richard Feynman. More than just an accomplished scientist, Richard is son to Melville and Lucille Feynman, husband to Arline (who died at a young age) and Gweneth, father to Carl and Michelle, a wise friend, an friendly educator, a cancer survivor and an inspiration to a countless many.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Full Circle: A friendly guide to Linux Ubuntu


As Linux grows more user friendly in the last few years, a lot of us are thinking now would be good time to get our feet wet with Open Source. But making the transition can be quite a challenge, especially if you're beginner with no idea where to start.

Well, breathe easy, young grasshopper, because one of the friendliest-looking guide has just arrived. Full circle is a PDF magazine about Ubuntu Linux and its cousins Kubuntu (Ubuntu + KDE), Xubuntu (Ubuntu + Xfce) and Edubuntu (Ubuntu Linux for education). True to the collaborative nature of Open Source, the magazine is put together by a team of volunteers using Open Source software (Inkscape, GIMP and Open Office).

Issue 1 is impressive, IMHO, because it features a walkthrough of how to install Ubuntu Linux, with full colour screenshots along with tons of other Linux-related info. Two issues have been released so far and issue 3 is currently in the works.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

New MS Office, new problem

I started my job recently. I was hired maybe because they need someone to help setup a simple database for them. And some do design work, but not so much because they have a studio that takes care of the all designing work. But actually it's paperwork – proposal and conceptual paper writing – that actually needs a lot of doing and someone to do them.

From the first day I found myself in an unfamiliar territory. It's not the job or the industry (agriculture entrepreneurship), but it's Microsoft Office.

I've being using OpenOffice for a few years now that MS Office seems so new and different. I had to reacquaint myself with it. I never thought something like this could but here I am trying to figure out how to get things done with Office.

OpenOffice is not a 1-to-1 substitute to Office. They are similar but do several things differently. For example, Office comes with a automatic spelling and grammar checker, while OpenOffice requires additional setup to get these features working. It's just a matter of finding the way how to do the things, by keeping in mind that there are differences between the two.

I often hear that people say OpenOffice is not easy to use and has a confusing interface. I have to disagree with this. Like Office, OpenOffice's interface (menu layouts and so on) can be customised. To get it to look exactly as Office would not be possible, and customising OpenOffice's looks require some patience and learning. But the key thing here is to learn.

I think people are too acustomed to Office that they think anything else is a bother. Why can't it work like Office?, they ask. I think they be asking, Can it work better than Office?

The answer is Yes, only if you're willing to learn. After all, isn't knowing how to use two different office productive suite an advantage?

Furthermore, OpenOffice uses open format standards and handles Microsoft format (.doc, .xls, .ppt, etc.) quite well. Microsoft uses their own (i.e. proprietary) formats which they own and control. If you've encountered the new Office 2007 file formats like .docx, we'll know what I mean.

We recently got a document from the Youth Ministry, in .docx. I had no idea what it was until we Googled it. Thanks to some geniuses at MS, previous versions of Office like our own 2003 do not recognise .docx. We had to convert it via an online file format converter, which consumed time and required an Internet access (our office is out of Telekom's Streamyx coverage so we had to settle for a slower, shared 3G connection).

This happened because .docx is the new default format for Word 2007. Most users don't bother to check it or probably ignored it and assumed that it would work the way .doc format does.

I'm sure we're not the only ones facing this .docx confusion. This is exactly the kind of potential problems with using proprietary file formats. When one company controls and restricts a crucial piece of technology, people will end up being at the company's mercy.

So, is proprietary developed format bad? Not necessarily. Take for example the ubiquitous PDF. It was developed by Adobe, and the company adopts an open approach where it shares a lot of the technical specifications with others. As a result, PDF use has become widespread and it's even hard to imagine working without it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

The No Asshole Rule


No more! No more special treatment for company's top performers who treat others like dirt. Those who spew venom and drain the energy out of the people they work with. The end begins here!

So say the premise of this book. The No Asshole1 Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't is not meant to be cheeky or rude. According to Sutton himself, there's no other word that can "quite captures the essence of this type of person."

An a-hole is someone who passes both these tests:
  • Test 1: After talking to the alleged a-hole, does the "target" feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

  • Test 2: Does the alleged a-hole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?
We know the type. We've met them before somewhere, if not at work. But since this is a management book, most of the example are from the workplace and businesses.

Sutton, if you still remember, is a Stanford professor who also wrote another book, the previously reviewed The Knowing-Doing Gap. He even comes up with about a real, quantifiable cost of a-hole behaviour ("the total cost of a-hole") and a self-assessment a-hole test ("Are you a certified a-hole?").

The book itself is refreshing, especially when a lot of business people associate being nice with being weak or a pushover. Individualism (in Western cultures) and high power distance (in ours) allow a-holes to thrive and run free. Those who can't cope are shown the door or keep silent.

Sutton also points that we all are potential a-holes. He even recalls a time in his career when he being one himself, to show that we all need to keep ourselves in check. Becoming an a-hole is often something that starts when we try to preserve our self-interest, like covering our mistakes from being noticed or trying to pin the blame on others. As we continue to behave in ways that are provable by the above tests and without any intervention from anyone around us, we're actually on the path to become true a-holes ourselves.

Sutton warns that a-holes in power often bring onboard other a-holes and this is how poisonous organisations are born.

There's also a devoted chapter on the good things about a-holes, in order to be fair to the subject. In doing so, Sutton hopes to cover the subject from every possible angle and open more opportunity for discussions.

The No Asshole Rule is an easy book to recommend to anyone, even if they don't read management books. Just be careful you when mention the book's title to other people.


1I personally can't agree with Sutton's choice of word, which I find crude but spot-on nonetheless.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Picked up lines

Some interesting things said by people and read by yours truly.
  1. The bullet you don't hear is the bullet that hits you.

    An army saying, quoted by US science fiction author Greg Bear during an interview. He was talking about how the US government shouldn't only be concerned with the threat coming from outside, but also threat coming from within the homeland. Bio-terrorism came up, and Bear exposited how advancements in biotechnology may make it easier for people outside labs to create deadly pathogens (in similar ways to how hidden garage labs makes meth).

  2. Lupus est homo homini (man is a wolf to man)

    Old Latin saying... and still very pertinent today.

More later, insya-Allah, if found.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

When pillars fall

(There won't be a third part to "More on the previous stuff" installment. After much thought, I don't think there anything significant to be added.)

I am lost for words last week.

My old neighbour from childhood, Uncle Karim, passed away Monday last week. His children were my friends back when we lived in Terengganu. Uncle Karim and my father were colleagues and golfing mates. For the last 15 years or so, both of us live only 20 minutes apart.

It is wrong to smile a lot at a funeral? I was the only thing I could manage to do right that day.

When we got to Uncle Karim's house after hearing about his death, my father went and hugged his sons (his are all boys, 6 of them). I haven't seen them in about 16 years. I thought about whether I should hug them or not, and I froze. I shook their hands instead.

I sat next to Ooni, the eldest son. He and I were the closest and we only have a year's difference between us. But he was busy repeating his Yaasin as much as he can for his dear father. I waited for a chance to talk to him.

Everything was done quickly. The jenazah van came about an hour before Asar, and by Asar Uncle Karim's jenazah was already wrapped in kafan. I stood on the edge of the crowd as his boys helped with the process.

When azan for Asar was called I walked to Ooni and he hugged the tears out of me. Abang Ooni is now a father and a husband and he is as calm as ever. He was sad, I can tell, but he could not let the feeling of lost get in the way of preparing his father for the journey ahead. He thanked me for coming. Suddenly I was hearing Uncle Karim's voice in my head, the conversation he had a few weeks ago. My heart was gripped with the realisation of him no longer being with us in this world.

By 6pm, everything was settled. He went back to his house. Uncle Karim's wife and mother were patient throughout the ordeal. It was kind of healing seeing them braving such a great lost.

And it is a great lost, for me. Uncle Karim was one of the persons whom I look up to. He was the good neighbour, the kind of person who is honest and always showed care for others.

This blog is somewhat a grieving mechanism for me. Here I've already wrote about the death my neighbour Pak Ad, my aunt and my grandfather. I've just realised this recently.

What all these people have in common is they are good people. The kind you wouldn't hesitate to call "good". Their kindness and selflessness shined upon the people around them. Their departure leaves a large, gaping hole in other people's lives including mine.

The are the pillars in my life. They are the ones who showed me that what we do and how we treat others do matter. They show me that we can make a different in the world, in people's lives, without realising it, by doing the right thing. Even when doing the right is very difficult.

I'm slowly feeling the effects of their absence. A world without them is a changed one. But I am powerless against this change.

However, I do see now what I do. I must become a pillar myself. Not by feeling that I am one, but by doing what I need to. Even when it means doing the difficult things. May God help me and all of us, insya-Allah.

Monday, 25 June 2007

More on the previous stuff, Part II

Sorry again, folks. The last time I apologised for sounding a bit negative about reading, without realising that I was doing the same thing about looking for work. My bad. I guess I have to work harder at this positive thinking thing. Thanks for your concern and wishes.

***
God knows how many times I've tried to write reviews. And a lot of the time I was stumped because I sensed that most of my reviews of anything (books, anime, etc.) tend to follow a similar pattern. I'm not sure what or how but I can sense the pattern repeating itself. That's why I've a number of reviews still in draft form dating back from months ago, a year ago and even further back. It makes me feel like one-phrase parrot sometimes.

Still no matter what, I seem to always find myself writing a review of something, at least in my head. And even when it's very, very difficult to do so. Most recent example: Jonathan Franzen's How To Be Alone.


It's one of the most challenging book I've ever read in my life. But my friends from Bachelor of English would probably breeze through it like a Porsche on a deserted highway.

I got to know Franzen through his third novel, The Corrections (another unsuccessful review, I've already written two drafts of it). I was fascinated by the book, which seems to discuss a lot of things gone awry in America today, while disguising itself as a "comedy" (Franzen's own word) about a Midwestern family weathering the changes in their lives. Some of the observations made in the book the include the dwindling of the marriage institution, 'hands-off' parenting (an interestingly apt description), the pervasion of technology (the new 'religion') and the influence of pharmaceutical giants in people's lives.

The Corrections was picked by Oprah Winfrey in 2001 for her Book Club selection (which only the BIGGEST book club in the world). That was actually a start of a controversy. Franzen later expressed his uneasiness at seeing the Oprah's Book Club logo on the cover of his book and he was disinvited from the Oprah's show. I didn't see what all this were about until I finished both The Corrections and How To Be Alone.

How To Be Alone is Franzen's collection of essays, which surprisingly covers many topics. He tackles topic like the postal service (Lost in the Mail), mental disease treatment (My Father's Brain, also a theme that appeared in The Corrections), maximum security prisons (Control Units) and the sex advice industry (Books In Bed) with his dry wit, imaginative trope and lots of big words (see this post).

The book itself is a mixed bag. There are parts that I enjoyed going through and there parts where I have little idea what Franzen is going on about. But one undeniable fact is the book reveals much of Franzen's soul. And despite the big, uncommon words he throws constantly at the readers, Franzen often makes interesting and poignant observations about the topic he covers.

Meet Me in St. Louis is probably the most personal essay in the book. In it Franzen recounts his brief experience as an 'Oprah author', before he got disinvited. He expresses his anxieties about several things include having to pose for a footage to be shown on Oprah and having to revisit his childhood home. It was an especially arduous emotional ordeal having to act and unearth long buried memories just for the camera.

And it slowly becomes clear to me why he didn't like being known as an Oprah author. The Corrections was intended to be a social commentary novel. Oprah, being the media and commercial force herself, is probably one of things Franzen confronts with The Corrections. I can understand how the the sight of Book Club logo would be unsettling for him. (It's on the cover of my copy.) At least that's my theory. Franzen wrote that shortly after his book was picked by Oprah there were people who came to him saying, "I like your book and I think it's wonderful that Oprah picked it," and, "I like your book and I'm so sorry Oprah picked it."

There's no spewed poison here, however. Instead of bashing Oprah or anybody, Franzen tells his side of the story in a "do you know what I mean?" kind of way but with a layered choice of words. And The Corrections is still in the Book Club's 2001 selection list.

As I've said, it wasn't an easy book. However, I really enjoyed the parts I understood. It's going back to the shelf for the moment as I wait for a suitable time to reread it. Or until I can get one of my Bachelor of English friends to read it and explain it to me.


(To be continued. The last part, insya-Allah.)

Friday, 22 June 2007

More on the previous stuff, Part I

I've got nothing much to write about these days. Aside from amassing a number of rejected job applications. I got into a knot when I got the first one, then I developed a thick skin as a shield. Now I'm taking one day at a time. Still doing my current job, and on the lookout for offers.

Anyways, now I just going to add some more thoughts that didn't make it into the last few posts. Some that got sidelined while I wrote, some are new things that popped up into mind recently.

***
In the last post, I mentioned that FORCED myself to finished a book, The Knowing-Doing Gap. I realised after I posted it that I sounded a bit negative.

Forced? To read? Reading?

Truth is at the time, my ability to focus was near zero. My mind was everywhere. I was unable to anchor it even for a short while. My work suffered because of that. The quality of work I delivered was below my own normal standard. That disturbed me, and caused my inability to focus to worsen.

I've learned that in a job where reading is a key skill, being able to focus is critical. Without it you can't do anything. But it could also well be a motivation problem, I'm not too sure.

I like the book, but it wasn't the kind of book that I can't stop reading. Still a pleasant read though, I didn't have much problem digesting the proposed ideas. I did however stumbled a lot during the example cases given, which were about companies and the right or wrong things that they did. Those were the ones that demanded a large bulk of my attention.

I also felt that as if I've given the impression that reading (for work or anything else) is boring. A trudging but necessary thing to do. Can there be a bigger crime against reading? Especially nowadays and here (Malaysia, to be exact), when and where reading and the love for it are slowly withering?

I attended an informal gathering of knowledge managers near Damansara recently. The moderator, an exec from Genting, mentioned that the level of communication skills (writing, in particular) among Malaysian workers as awful. The deduction: "because we don't read". Nobody can write properly if they don't read. It's not a rule, but even I can't how it can be otherwise. Good writers are almost always readers.

In Australia, even small districts have large public libraries. In Malaysia, even big town libraries are... sad (I'm actually holding back a couple of strong, unpleasant words here).

Reading should never be something forced. You can't possibly love every book ever written, but the least you can do is not make reading sound bad. I apologise to everyone whom I've given that wrong impression. I'm sorry.

The book's authors did a commendable job in giving straight answers without tossing in unnecessary business jargons. If you're unable to get it, this article based on the book itself is the next best thing, IMHO. It covers most of the ideas contained in the book, with an added dash of humour. Read, ponder, discuss, enjoy.

[ Fast Company: Why Can't We Get Anything Done? ]


(To be continued, insya-Allah.)

Thursday, 14 June 2007

The Knowing-Doing Gap

I forced myself to finish a book recently. It's for work, to help my boss prepare for next semester's syllabus.


The book is Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. The authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, observed how the high numbers of courses, MBAs, trainings and other knowledge pursuits still fail to develop remarkable, successful companies. Most of them are stuck on doing things 'the old way' while other fail utilise their knowledge due to action substitutes (things that takes place instead of action).

The ideas contained in the book are based on a breadth of research done on numerous industries and companies, both successful and unsuccessful at closing the knowing-doing gap. Some of the success stories highlighted here include GM"s Saturn Motors, design firm IDEO and clothing chain Men's Wearhouse.

Action substitutes include talk. It's amazing how in companies people are often rewarded or promoted for 'talking.' They pitch all sort of things and impress the top people into buying into them. Yet on the implementation side, it's another story. Very few people are rewarded or promoted for actually implementing something. The authors point they this is how we run our business schools today, by teaching students more on how to talk instead of how to do. As a management graduate myself, I can't agree more while feeling embarrassed at the same time. (Sometimes the truth can really sting.)

Other actions action substitutes mentioned are memory ('the old way'), measurements (that complicates instead of helping), fear and internal competition.

Most of the things covered in the book are common sense. But the most interesting point in the book for me is the argument that competition is harmful to a company. 'Old school' management thought have always praised the virtues of competitions within the company, such as between teams or departments. This could another one of those management thoughts that are drawn-out from sport analogies. Of course sports are mostly about competition. In business however, it's a different story. Dean Tjosvold, competition and cooperation expert, says, "Competition stimulates, excites, and is useful in some circumstances, but those situations do not occur frequently in organisations.” I'm no management expert or anything, but I always believe that an organisation as an interdependent system in need of cooperation, similar to the human body. Internal competition is like the subunits of the system cannibalising each other, where one wins and the rest loses (win or nothing). Anyway, it's good to see a researcher like Tjosvold putting the idea into context instead of just something what people think they ought to belief.

So what do the author recommend we do to close the knowing-doing gap? Do, and learn by doing. It's a deceptively simple advice that most people miss. Again it's common sense, but people don't always act or think sensibly.

Despite being academicians, the authors (both from Stanford) adopts a straightforward style in delivering their points. This is my second reading a book by Robert Sutton, his The No Asshole Rule being the first. I'm grouping Sutton together with Donald Norman (The Psychology of Everyday) in the category of writers-I-like-who-are-also-academicians-but-do-not-sound-like-one. Not that I hate academic writing, I just seriously wish it would be livelier in style. Thank God for academicians who write books and blogs.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

More words, part II

My previous post was triggered not by the thought of the great number of words out there that I don't know about. Rather, it was more about learning new words but not having the chance to use them and slowly over time forgetting about them. There are many times when I see a word that I know I've looked up its meaning in the dictionary but could not remember what it is.

If you pick up the current English newspapers, you'll likely to see the word "indelible" being mentioned. It appears in the news about the Election Committee's (EC) proposal to use indelible ink (and the voter's thumbprint) as a way to ensure the integrity of the election process. Indelible ink is said to be used in countries like Iran and India.

What's another word for "indelible"? "Unerasable".

I'm sad to mention that I had to recheck the word's meaning when I saw it, although I've encountered it before.

This is a Fullmetal Alchemist wallpaper I downloaded back in 2005. It has the word "indelible" on it, proof that I've came across the word already. And just after 2 years, I had flip through the dictionary again.

Getting back to the news, the use of indelible instead of unerasable is quite understandable. Indelible is a more technical and formal term, while unerasable is a more literal one.

It is also a dilemma for a writer (i.e. anybody who writes something) to choose words, either the uncommon or a common substitute. Regarding this I would like to share a short excerpt from an essay by Jonathan Franzen called Mr. Difficult (2002). I've read one of his novels and he does use tons of uncommon words. The essay's early parts are Franzen's reflection on the matter.
For a while last winter, after my third novel came out, I was getting a lot of angry mail from strangers... A few month later, one of the original senders, a Mrs. M–– in Maryland, wrote back with proof that she'd done the reading. She began by listing thirty fancy words and phrases from my novel, words like "diurnality" and "antipodes", phrases like "electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces." She then posed the dreadful question: "Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read." And she offered this caricature of me and my presumed audience:

the elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don't smoke, have abortions triyearly, are antiseptic, live in lofts or penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper's and the The New Yorker.

The subtext seemed to be that difficulty in fiction is the tool of socially privileged readers and writers who turn up their noses at the natural pleasure of a "good read" in favor of the invidious, artificial pleasure of feeling superior to other people. To Mrs. M––, I was "a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole".

One part of me, the part that takes after my father, who admired scholars for their intellect and large vocabularies and was something of a scholar himself, wanted to call Mrs. M–– a few names in reply. But another, equally strong part of me was stricken to learn that Mrs. M–– felt excluded by my language. She sounded a bit like my mother, a life-long anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical "average person." My mother might have asked me if I really had to use words like "diurnality," or if I was just showing off.

(Mr. Difficult is part of Franzen's collection of essays, How To Be Alone. The very lovely Fullmetal Alchemist wallpaper above is by Tama-Neko of desktop anime (da!), who thinks indelible sounds cooler than unerasable and that it rolls off the tongue smoother.)

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

More words

How many of the words below do you know? By know I mean able to explain their meaning and know how and when to use them properly.
abjure abrogate antebellum circumlocution deciduous enfranchise fatuous jejune loquacious lugubrious moiety obsequious pecuniary precipitous suffragist unctuous winnow
My score? Zero.

These are some of the words every high school-leaving American student should know, according to American Heritage® dictionaries editors. The entire list contains 100 words. The editors claim that it is not a benchmark, just a measure of one's level of English language mastery.

To tell you the truth, I do struggle with these kind of words. They're not commonly used, so you don't see them often. A word that is used often and correctly reinforces our grasp of it. These words used very rarely and usually substituted by a more commonly-known equivalent word. But then again, they are not often used because not many people know their meaning. So basically it's another 'chicken and egg' situation.

Without a doubt, these words do have their place in the language. Sometimes similar words invoke different feelings and impressions. For example the words quick, fast and swift suggest a similar meaning. But they are not always a substitute for one another. It depends on the context and subject being discussed as well.

Should we add these words to our vocabulary? I don't know about you, but it is said that the ignorant are prey for the learned. I suppose another 100 new words wouldn't hurt, would it? Let's grab our dictionaries and all the best!

[ 100 Words That All High School Graduates — And Their Parents — Should Know ]

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Preview: Lovely Complex

Lovely Complex (LoveCom) is based on the manga by Nakahara Aya which tells the oft-told tale of high school love with a twist: height complexity. Koizumi Risa is the unusually tall girl and Otani Atsushi is the guy who wishes that he could be taller (since he's in school basketball team).

Right from the start it can be sensed that there's chemistry between the two, and they ended up being dubbed by their teacher as a comedy duo ("All Hanshin-Kyōjin"). The rest of the first episode had me laughing to the point of tears.

Both Risa and Atsushi are considerably unlucky in love, so they decided to hook-up one another with a friend. The plan backfired instead (the friends fell for each other), so they made a bet to see who gets a boyfriend or girlfriend first. And that also seems to backfiring too as Risa begins to develop feeling for Atsushi...

LoveCom is the series I've been waiting for some time. Shoujo comedy is a sadly ignored genre.

Shoujo is difficult genre to describe. The best way is experience it yourself. I'm drawn to shoujo mostly by the way how the characters are made central to the story. Most of time the emotions of the characters affect the plot greatly, instead of the other way around. In the end, you can't help but to feel acquainted with the characters, after seeing and feeling what they've been through in the story.

Unlike in other genres, shoujo characters don't wear the same clothes all/most of the time. Same goes for hair. The lead is usually a plain Jane, pining for for the shining armour-clad knight. And flowers bloom in the background, when feelings of love surfaces (an almost sure sign of something being shoujo).

So far the series, after 7 episodes, is a bit inconsistent in the comedy department. Some episodes like the first had me in stitches, while the rest focused more the story's progression. Not that it's a bad thing.

LoveCom's charms lie in its characters' foibles. Who really haven't struggled with a complex of their own? Risa struggles with a confused feeling towards Atsushi and the possibility of finding a guy to match her height. Atsushi himself also suffers from an inferiority complex, after a former girlfriend broke up with him for a tall guy (that's what Atsushi seems to believe, anyway). Plus he's all blur, unable to pick up on Risa's feeling although the clues are very clear.

LoveCom may not be the funniest or most original story I've seen, but interesting enough to make want to stay for the rest of the season.

(Many apologies for an image-heavy post.)

Monday, 14 May 2007

Teacher Man

Shortly before the paper we were working on was submitted, my employer and I went through a furious stretch of editing, rewriting and pruning of the bibliography. We worked remotely, updating one another via phone calls, SMS messages and emails. Several hour later, the paper was ready and emailed to New York, its destination. The storm had passed. We sighed with relief. Alhamdulillah.

I hope that this didn't scare you from ever considering to join academia, my employer remarked.

Nope, I told my employer, reading Teacher Man did that to me already.

Teacher Man is a reminiscence of Frank McCourt's life as a teacher in New York. It is the part of his life shortly covered in his previous memoir, 'Tis. I finally got around to finish the book, which was bought last year. I know from experience that once I pick up anything by McCourt, I would have difficulties putting it down.

This book confirms what most people think of the teaching profession. We all believe strongly in it. But it's basically a job that nobody really wants to do, understands or appreciates. Just take a look at what teachers wrote in the letters section of the newspapers' education pullout. As woefully described by McCourt, teaching is the "downstairs maid of professions."

But despite all that, McCourt held on. He braved flying sandwiches, ethically-diverse classes, administration interferences and personal crises to deliver his student the English and Creative Writing lesson they deserve.

He also never shies away from confessing his weaknesses: his drinking habit, his womanising ways and other things that may deem him as an unworthy teacher. Teacher Man is a cold and hard at a teacher as a person. I heard from somewhere that one of the most important lesson parents must teach their children is that parents are just humans. I guess this goes for teachers as well.

McCourt is undoubtedly masterful as a storyteller. Reading his books is like pulling a chair and joining him at his table. He sometimes mirrors the speech pattern of the person he's talking about, like the way some people refer to him as Mr."McCord" or Mr."McCoot". McCourt definitely has a keen eye for human idiosyncrasies.

Teacher Man is hugely humorous and personally heartfelt. An emotive read for anyone who's interested about education and teaching.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Friends o' mine

(The Naruto pic above is kinda cheesy, but I heart Gaara.)

I don't consider myself as a friendly person, nor am I known among people by that reputation. I'm mostly a loner (and an expert at that). In school I did my own thing. When everyone were having a good time at the badminton court playing 'galah panjang', I hung out at the library. If anything, that was my reputation.

My class teacher asked me, You go to the library at recess every day? She looked at me with such unbelievability. Short answer: Yes. Slightly longer answer, the one I didn't told her: Yes, because I'm super lame at 'galah panjang' and nobody wants to play anything else.

From childhood to the present, I've been comfortable being outside a group or clique. I do hang out with my regular buddies, but I never see myself as a core member. These people usually do things and go places together, and I'm around mostly to tag along. I'm more a fringe member.

I thought with all this I shouldn't have that many friends. But scrolling up and down my mobile phone address book reveal evidences to the contrary.

Let's see: there's my roommates, coursemates, schoolmates, classmates, people from the same college as I am, former team member from other courses who worked with me in management subjects, anime, manga & comics 'kakis', game 'kakis', people I know from the 'surau', neighbours, juniors, seniors, lecturers, mentors, advisers, intellectual sparring partners, those have helped save my skin at one time or many times over – How did this list get so long?

I do feel bad about not keeping contact with them. Sometimes I feel when I needed them, I kept them close. But when I don't anymore, I go my own way. I feel kinda selfish (and as I've been told, it's the worst kind of fish).

I try to make up for this during festivities. Thank God for multiple SMSes. A warm, fuzzy feeling trickles through my being when the recipients sends back a reply. It's great to know that they still at least remember you and keeping your number. Nowadays I try to contact as many friends as much as my mobile phone plan allows me, insya-Allah. And there's also IM and email for my faraway friends.

I'm writing all this mainly because I'm meeting with a couple of old friends from school soon. One of them is getting married and he insisted that we meet in person so he can hand me the invitation. Another is a proud father of a new bouncing baby girl, a dude whose calmness and perseverance I greatly envied, back when we were studying together.

I ran into another old friend this morning. Turns out she's a bank officer at my school's branch. (For last three years!)

And to friends who visits this blog to keep in touch with me all this while. Muchas gracias.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Initiatives and forethoughts

A large chunk of the work I'm currently doing is research. A slightly lesser chunk of that is organising stuff. Research, as I've come to realise, trains (or perhaps, forces) a person to be organised. And that can be very beneficial in many areas in life.

The task of organising is partly reason why I haven't updated anything here. It's a not difficult task, but requires a lot of focus and forethought (two things that I'm not very good at). I've had nightmares of seeing my future self sinking in a quicksand of books, articles, tapes and Powerpoint slides. Therefore I took some initiatives to prevent the horrific vision from realising.

My arwah grandfather, may Allah bless him with mercy and forgiveness, was trying to teach me this when I was a kid. He never did anything without giving it enough thought. We in the family see this in the way he organise his things, the way he do his work around the home and in his daily routines. This guy is never acts randomly. He plans everything (within his capacity, of course) carefully. So far my life, I've never met a real person who's as pragmatic as he is. I'm not praising this man because he's family. His actions and words speak for themselves.

When he was alive, he lectured me a lot about this. Never underestimate the power of forethoughts. Always do things in a systematic way, he would always say. And that requires a lot of thinking in advance. At that time, I didn't really listened and I didn't see why it is important. Now, sitting at my work desk, I realise how valuable those words are. And I how wish I had realised them sooner.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Get Vista fonts without Windows Vista or Office 2007


Along with a whole truckload of new features, Microsoft has bundled a new set of fonts for the new Windows Vista and Office 2007. The font set is designed to make use of the ClearType technology, which allows for better on screen display and readability. If you've got neither of the aforementioned programs, you still get your hands on the Vista font set by downloading Powerpoint Viewer 2007 (a Powerpoint files viewer, for computers without Office installed). It will also install the Vista fonts.

Personally, I find the set to be a refreshing update. However, like a lot of people, I really hope Microsoft would license the fonts openly so that they can they be used by Mac and Linux users the way they use common fonts (Arial, Times New Roman, Verdana) right now.

Also worth reading: Poynter Online's article on the Vista fonts. I recommend you to read the comments afterwards for some enlightening insights on the topic.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Fell for it

Google got me good.

Last Sunday, Google unveiled a new service: GMail Paper. Google will offer free delivery of printouts (hard copies) of emails in GMail at no cost, "with photo attachments are printed on high-quality, glossy photo paper" ("MP3 and WAV files will not be printed"). The paper used will be "made out of 96% post-consumer organic soybean sputum".

Whoah, I thought. I went through the site looking if they would deliver here. Without luck. I was a tad disappointed.

Until I learned earlier today that the service was announced (*slaps forehead*) on that time of the year. Haha. I should've figured out the whole thing when they mentioned sputum1 and "MP3 and WAV files will not be printed".

1Matter coughed up and usually ejected from the mouth, including saliva, foreign material, and substances such as mucus or phlegm, from the respiratory tract – yes, I shamelessly copied the whole definition from an online dictionary.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Baginda Nabi ketika namanya dipanggil

Dari Maulidur Rasul baru-baru, saya terdengar lagi cerita tentang baginda Rasulullah SAW yang sememangnya sangat tinggi akhlak pekerti.

Baginda sangat pemalu. Lebih pemalu daripada gadis yang menutup diri dengan cador (pakaian Muslimah yang menutup seluruh tubuh termasuk muka, seperti yang dipakai oleh wanita Arab ketika berada di khalayak umum). Bila berjalan, baginda akan merendahkan kepala baginda.

Perkara baru yang saya dapat tahu tentang akhlak baginda ialah tentang bagaimana baginda berpaling ketika namanya dipanggil. Kata ustaz, baginda tak akan sekadar memusingkan kepala ke arah si pemanggil. Baginda akan berpaling dengan seluruh badan baginda. Seluruh badan. Sejauh itu baginda berusaha untuk menyenangkan hati serta memuliakan orang di sekeliling baginda. (Saya juga baru tersedar yang saya boleh dikatakan tak pernah buat perkara seperti ini, berpusing ketika dipanggil.)

Akhlak nabi, jika dikaji dalam-dalam, akan semakin terserlah ketinggian dan kehalusannya. Semoga Allah memberi kita kekuatan untuk mencontohi baginda dalam semua segi kehidupan, amin.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Two Adobe Reader alternatives

UPDATED! FOR A SECOND TIME!

I deal a lot with PDF files in my work. Like most people I use Adobe Reader to view them. Adobe Reader has recently hit version 8. It works, looks and feels sleeker than the previous versions. However, Adobe Reader 8 is not problem-free. It can be slow at times, and I really dislike the way it downloads and installs updates automatically (God knows what the Adobe people are sending into our hard disks). Despite those annoyances, Reader 8 (according to some professional opinion, like people in publishing) is the best viewer/renderer of PDF. No surprises here, Adobe is after all the creator of the PDF.

Thank God nowadays we have other ways of viewing PDF files. If Adobe Reader isn't up to your expectations, there's at least two other PDF viewers for Windows you can try. They might others out there, but I've tried these two out and I'm currently using them.

Foxit Reader 2.0


Foxit Reader is not only small and fast, it doesn't require any installation. I loaded Foxit Reader into my USB drive and used it on a friend's laptop who didn't have Adobe Reader. No more worries about PCs without Adobe Reader installed.

Foxit Reader comes with one interesting feature: the typewriter tool. This tool allows us to type in text onto the PDF files like in a word processor (MS Word, and other similar software). I'm not sure if the new Adobe Reader 8 has this feature.

It tested the typewriter tool on a PDF application form, which was basically the PDF version of the hard copy. Typing in simple text strings like names and addresses was straight forward, but getting the I/C no. digits into the separate boxes required a bit of spacing manipulation. It turns out that typed in text using can't be edited or deleted easily, so it's a good idea to use a copy of the original form, not the original.

My issue with the earlier Foxit Reader version was its PDF rendering capability. Compared to Adobe Reader, the the texts PDF files viewed using Foxit Reader 1.0+ sometimes looked jagged (anti-aliased). But the new 2.0 version's rendering capability is comparable to Adobe Reader. Hat offs, Foxit, for the major improvement.

Now for the not-so-good news. Foxit Reader's text selection tool is not as responsive as Adobe Reader's. I had problems selecting texts in the middle of a paragraph in Foxit Reader. If you copy a lot of text from PDF files like I do at work, I strongly suggest you stick with Adobe Reader for the moment.

One of the features I look for is full screen view, which allows us to view the PDF document sans everything else on screen. It helps me to concentrate on reading them. In full screen view, Foxit reader will display an icon on the top left of the screen that will revert the interface to normal view when clicked. I find the medium-sized icon distracting and obstructive, since it does cover the text underneath it (if there's any).

Overall, Foxit is a good PDF viewer. Its typewriter tool feature is a nice one, but still in need of further improvements. The main reasons to have (and love) Foxit Reader are because it's portable, it's free and can do most of what Adobe Reader is capable of.

SumatraPDF



If Foxit reader is Speedy Gonzales-fast, SumatraPDF can run at Sonic the Hedgehog speed.

Sumatra is an open source PDF viewer, something that'll interest you if you're software development. If you're a user like me, you'll be just happy to know that SumatraPDF is a freeware. It's currently in Beta version 0.5.

SumatraPDF is a PDF viewer, no more, no less. Besides common functions like printing, it doesn't do anything else. Totally bare bones.

In the rendering department, SumatraPDF is a shining star, thanks to the MuPDF rendering engine. The graphic and fonts rendering is at par with Adobe and Foxit. I also find it's interface to be simplest and the least cluttered.

On the other hand, SumatraPDF doesn't have any selection tools for text or image, a major reason why I can't use it extensively for my work. Unlike the portable Foxit Reader, SumatraPDF requires installation. And sadly for me, there's no full screen view option. However, it doesn't do any automatic updating like Adobe Reader and takes very little hard disk space.

UPDATE 1: I just found a really clever thing about SumatraPDF. It remembers the last page of the PDF document that I read and opens it on that page the next time I view it. For example, I'm reading a long article in SumatraPDF until page 9 before I exited. When I view the article again, SumatraPDF will start displaying at page 9, not at the beginning. This is great for those long (100 pages or more) PDF documents.


UPDATE 2: (Just found that Adobe Reader also has this feature...)

SumatraPDF does the one thing it's supposed to, but does it very well. Everything a PDF viewer should be, minus the extras, plus the speed.
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