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.
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