Monday 20 January 2014

Time Waster

Sitting in a local restaurant the other day, I happened to glance up and notice the table across the room. There sat 3 adults and a child interacting with 3 tablets and a smart phone.  When I walked to the counter, I could not help but notice all of them playing games.  Each and everyone in their own little world, eyes intensely focused on the screen. 

I myself confess to being guilty of using a smart phone or tablet when out with my feeble excuse of only wanting to catch up on the news, do some research or send an email or two.  Now, some will say plenty of people read the newspaper eating breakfast.  Isn’t that the same thing?  True in some respects, but usually some level of conversation is generated by this.  'Zombies V Plants' and 'Angry Birds' don’t reach such dizzy heights.

I am sure you have experienced the bus / train syndrome where people have their heads buried in the screen of their smart phone looking intently at the last Facebook musings whilst listening to music through ear buds.  Almost no one indulging in the old fashion concept of conversation.  My father would be turning in his grave to see this trend.  He would love to talk to anyone who within ear shot and over the years got to know many people through this activity; it was a very big part of his life. 

My own pet theories as to why?

One, time filling.  When we are not sure what to do with ourselves, we resort to pulling out the phone to check.  Checking what really doesn't matter as long as that awkward moment passes.  I myself look at phone some 40 times a day.

Secondly, notice how people who are bored with the surrounding conversation pull out their phone to show, in a not so subtle way “I have had enough”. 

“Facebook is communicating,” I can hear you say.   Can’t disagree with that, for me it’s quite impersonal - communication by remote control.  We become a lot braver when we don't  have to look into anyone's eyes with all the feelings that go with that and say things that we might not or could not say face to face.  

A lot of the conversations on Facebook I find is an exercise in banality, foodie photos, selfie photos, baby photos etc.  All a very self-deluding exercise in narcissism,  which in reality has little appeal outside the sender.  Am I missing something?  To me Facebook is more like, ”In Your Face,” book!

There, got that out of the way.  Back to the topic at hand.  Direct communication or lack of it.  With all the time we spend on our machines being constantly bombarded with stimuli, I wonder whether our ability to concentrate is being severely tested.  Few people especially the young can be seen sitting quietly contemplating, deep in thought. 

And those 3 adults and the child you ask?   All good things must come to an end.  Upon leaving, the child created a scene when he refused to give the phone to his father.  The magic, the spell had been broken.

Sunday 19 January 2014

The Day the Power Left Us

Nothing like a prolonged power blackout to remind you how dependant you are on electricity.  

Yesterday at about 11 am the State of Sabah lost all power. For a place that has frequent outages this one was a doozy - all ten hours.   Seems some issue with a power line in Kota Kinabalu tripped most of the main substations statewide. 

When I was a young lad in Australia many moons ago, I used to get excited about a power outage especially if it occurred at night.  Out would come the candles making the all familiar environment of the house seem strangely unfamiliar; ghost like shadows dancing on the walls to stir the imagination of an impressionable child.   Those days, we were far less reliant on electricity for our daily needs. Apart from lighting, the fridge and the television / radio, very little else ran on electrical power. 

Fast forward to today. 

The first hour without power was more of a nuisance value than anything else.  Living in a hot climate necessitates the use of air conditioning or at the very least an electric fan.  The modern building is predominately concrete, absorbing heat throughout the day, releasing it at night.  In other words, it’s generally hot inside regardless of the weather conditions outside.  Fortunately yesterday was fairly mild due to the preceding weeks' rain.

As the afternoon dragged on, it became apparent this was no ordinary outage.  Up until that time I was using 3G on my phone for the Internet.  Of course we all know modern smart phones may be clever with most things but power consumption is not one of them.  By late afternoon, my battery was almost dead. Disaster, no power equals no telecommunications! 

We all amuse ourselves in many different ways. I suspect these days most activities involve using some sort of power source.  My Achilles heel is the Internet.  I'm an Internet tragic. Not social networking by the way, but information seeking.  No TV for this boy.  Anyway, it didn't  matter, both require a power source.  Lost and hot was my afternoon. 

Offices in town ceased to function due to no computers.  Not all that long ago, give or take a decade, administration workers would have hardly missed a beat.  Everything was kept in files and manually accessed. 

Traffic was chaotic due to no traffic lights.  Cars playing dodgem with each other, no sense of order. He who dares wins.

By evening the full impact was evident.  The hall across the road was conducting a wedding reception. I bet they didn't expect a candlelit dinner.  Very quiet and eery.  Wondered if the bride was thinking whether this was a bad omen or not. You could read a lot into it if you were that way inclined.

By 6.30 we ventured down to the local shopping precinct to get something to eat as we couldn't see in the kitchen.    A few businesses had generators and we're doing a roaring trade. All the banks' ATMs were functioning for the same reason. The local supermarket was packed with people with the car park adjacent over full.  Bees around a lit honey pot.

After returning home and sitting in the dark for another hour or so the power finally came back on.  Up went a cheer from the wedding party across the road and the band immediately started up, amplifier operating at full bore.  After 10 minutes I was wishing the power would be cut again! 

Maybe only maybe life would be a heck of a lot simpler without our electrical appliances, but no, I jest, 10 hours without was enough to convince me that I'm a 21st. century being through and through.  

The Internet for some strange reason failed to realise the power had returned and refused to work until the next day. Ahhhhh!  Life is way too short without the net.

Thursday 16 January 2014

The Science of Superstition and the Supernatural.

As we head towards the Chinese New Year, I have been thinking a lot about superstition, the supernatural and how it rules our lives, if at all. 

I personally don't believe in either and subscribe to the world of the rational.  Unless it has a solid scientific base, I'm just not interested. Of course, I know science cannot explain everything, but it can in most cases, through a process of logical progression.  Just because something can’t be explained today doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.
Superstition, on the other hand, relies totally on an emotive belief system and a reliance on some form of ritual-based practice to comply.

Individual styled superstitions such as, putting your left sock on before the right, tying up the right shoe lace first etc, are quite common.  Sports people are especially prone to this.  What seemed to have worked for one winning game turns into a ritual that must continue to maintain the supposed streak of good luck. Even if all facts point elsewhere, it becomes an ingrained habit unable to be broken. Psychology has a name for this behaviour, Intermittent Reinforcement.  Suffice to say it's worth having a read about.

There is wider form of superstition the group/social phenomena that is taught through traditional "Old wives tales" folklore. Good examples are: never walk under a ladder, it will bring you bad luck; a black cat crossing your path brings bad luck, be careful on friday the 13th; never sweep the floor on the first day of Chinese New Year or otherwise, you'll sweep away good fortune. 

Notice two very powerful underlying themes at work here; no one wants to be unlucky and everyone wants to become wealthy.   Predicting the future as long as it has positive connotations has great appeal to the masses. 

Not much to hang your intellectual hat on here I fear.  Where do these examples come from? No one really knows or cares, but the idea of following a set of simplistic rules to bring the desired results is very enticing to most. 

Now I pose a question. Are we all inherently superstitious or is it conditioned through early childhood?

In my case, my parents did not, as far as I remember adhered to any superstitious behaviour, but I am sure I learnt a lot of the “Old Wives Tales” through my mother. Other members of the family I think have developed their own ideas but to be honest I am only speculating as we have never talked about it.

I suspect the answer is a bit of both. Early man needed to explain the meaning of what was around him.  Superstitions and the supernatural help give reasons for the unexplainable and gave direction for future outcomes.  Science in that age  could not help, so emotive explanations flourished.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition were one has to complete a set of tasks in a ritualist way or feel uncomfortable and in extreme situations suffer severe anxiety.  Sound familiar?  I am not advocating that OCD is linked to most acts of superstition but what about those who  take it to extremes - maybe.  Lots of interesting reading on the subject can be easily found. 

This leads me to the subject of the supernatural.  The supernatural and religion are closely linked and I don’t think many people would disagree.  But superstition and the supernatural and by its association, religion is another story. Most main stream religions are hostile to the idea of linking the two together.  I am not going to go into the reasons here, (material objects vs deities) there is plenty of information on the Internet, but I personally think they are splitting hairs. Both rely on a belief system that is not and cannot be tested by scientific scrutiny.

Do you believe in ghosts?  A question that most people are asked during the course of their lives.  Most of us hate the idea of there being nothing after death.  That’s one of the reasons religion plays an important part in a lot of people's lives. So what form does “life“ after death take? No one really knows, but early man obviously imagined himself after death being delivered to a divine place to reside in or otherwise wondering around the earth for no apparent reason - lost souls so to speak.

This is the classic ghost.  Haunting because of some misdeed during life or seeking revenge on another. 

Having lived in Asia for sometime I have heard many stories of people seeing and interacting with ghosts; each similar in detail with the central character always being terrified of the experience. 

Never in my 57 years of being on this planet have I seen a ghost.  Why? I simply don’t believe in them.  People who do believe get all the sightings.  Funny, hey?

I’ll try to illustrate what I mean. The other night I was semi-dozing off when through the mist of my early dream I thought  I saw a monstrous rat standing on the window pane next to the bed.  I was startled at first and sat up immediately to observe it but of course, it wasn’t there.  Did it scurry away when it knew I was conscious?  I don’t think so, for I heard nothing and I would have because of a pile of stacked up old cardboard boxes graced the ground below the window. We frequently hear rodents scurrying around there in the middle of the night. Ghost Rat maybe?  Rat revenge?

Alas reality is not so exciting.  A dream me thinks. 

You see for the previous week, we had been catching rats in set traps, so the subject was fair and squarely on my mind.  Entering sleep, my mind in its quest to explain the shadows formed an impression of a rat. ( It hasn't returned since!)

Now, if I was a believer in the supernatural I would have probably read a lot more into what I saw.  The rat ghost could be a symbol or sign of impending problems or perhaps an old foe returning to create great mischief etc etc.  The interpretation would all depend on my original state of mind and / or  traditional background.  

Whatever one has been exposed to when young is a powerful force throughout life. If our parents believed in something and instilled that belief in us at a young age, then the chances are it will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  Even if completely irrational, as an adult we may still not be able to shake the strong imprinted messages that lie deep within our minds.  Our brains have been hardwired from a very early age.

There are many activities like Chinese New Year that are steeped in tradition that involves elements of superstition. Is there any harm involved? I think not.  Just lots of people having fun and trying to keep the old ways alive for another year. 

So there you have it.  I’ve just thrown a pinch of salt over my left shoulder and tapped the wooden desk three times and  with an ounce of luck,  I’ll see you next time. 

Footnote: Since the 1920’s, rewards from numerous scientific bodies have been offered for any one who could demonstrate under controlled laboratory conditions a paranormal or supernatural event.  Needless to say, the money is still in the bank.

Casper....who else?

Tuesday 7 January 2014

A Rat's Life

The sun slowly set over the deep dense green jungle and beyond, the crest was slowly being devoured by the ever- darkening aqua blue sea; time to become active. The household would soon be quiet.  The human occupants go to bed early as they get up before dawn to work in the adjacent plantation.  Their footsteps are a constant reminder that danger is not far away. Though having said that Ratso did feel rather secure in the space below the wooden floorboards where there was only enough room for his friends, family, insects and the odd spider or two.  This didn't mean it was always harmonious, oh no siree, many a time there were scuffles over territory and food.  Ratso and his family easily outmuscled the others and had done so for a long time now; maybe 6 months or more.  No, the only thing they were really concerned about were the humans above.   Making too much noise could prove fatal.  Too many fights or scuffles amongst the underfloor occupants would result in some form of human intervention. 

Over time members of the family and other clans would go out hunting for food and never return.  Rats' memories are not very long so, they were soon forgotten.  The daily struggle for life saw to that; no point worrying about others when your own survival was at stake.

The security of living under the floor boards had its downside, the heat was stifling always and it wasn't possible to leave during the day to find relief.  The cover of darkness proved the only safe refuge for scavengers like Ratso; true kings of the nocturnal household travelling far and wide to find nourishment for themselves and their families. 

The humans help a lot, of course.  They are the perfect species to be living with. Not very clean, they leave plenty of food scraps for the family to eat: a reliable all year round supply that never dried up. 

The muffled sounds of the humans above, dimmed into nothingness as the last of them went to sleep.  Waiting for another half an hour to be certain, Ratso started his nightly routine by forcing his body through a small gap between the skirting and the floorboards. The kitchen was in a greater mess than usual, plenty of pickings tonight.  

Saturday night was party night.  The human occupants didn't have to work the next day, so enjoyed an evening of free flowing beer, food and music. 

Ratso raised his long triangular nose to the air and like the king of rodents he was, perused the multitude of complex odours that hung in the air. One simply delectable smell caught his attention.  A strong sharp pungent irresistible  odour drew him to a corner of the house he had never previously ventured to.  So powerful was the urge to get to it that he ignored the usual offerings he would normally indulge in. 

Total darkness wasn't a hindrance when it came to finding food.  A keen sense of smell was all that was needed.  This delectable rat perfume was irresistible and drew him trancelike to his final destination. 

He hardly noticed the long steel tubular frame, but as his front paws reached up to finally grasp the prize that awaited him, the snapping sound of metal on metal brought him abruptly back to reality.  Turning quickly to escape, he realised the entrance was no longer there.  Confusion reigned as he ran around in circles in a fruitless exercise for freedom.   

The first glint of sunlight graced the tops of the trees like a sleepy ballerina  trying her first movements out for the day.   Foot steps from in front of the house purposefully strutted down the side path. A hand appeared from nowhere and Ratso suddenly became airborne inside his steel prison.

A loud splashed followed and Ratso felt his fur being penetrated with frigid river water, while a cold shiver of fear ran down his spine.  Lungs engulfed, bursting, struggling to obtain air. Head arched back, legs rotating at a furious rate, frantic mouth movements; then a calming gentle realisation, the feeling of giving in and enjoying the last sensation of settling onto a cushion of the finest duck feathers, sinking deeper and deeper until there was nothing else to remember. 

Rattus Rattus


Friday 3 January 2014


I find exploring retail areas interesting, not so much for shopping which I generally detest, but for observing the goings on. What works and what doesn't.  I'm far from being an expert in these things, so my comments are just personal ideas.  Do feel free to challenge anything I have to say about the subject. 

In central Sandakan, you will find the stock standard strip shops you find in this part of the world with Chinese metal shutters gracing the entire frontage of the premises. Most of these were built during the post-war reconstruction period and have not seen much change, including a coat of paint. These rows tend to have a back lane/small street behind that appears to have little purpose other than to collect rubbish. Even though the shop frontages have little aesthetic appeal, the lanes are worse.

The general feeling is that the centre of the city has been abandoned for new developments further out for reasons I won't go into here.

All the new shopping precinct construction follow a similar pattern. A grid like street-scape  with parallel lanes running behind each row. 

Again an arrangement like the old part of town, taking up a lot of space that never seems fully utilised in a practical sense; very similar to the old part of town. 

Why is this so?  You might ask.  In most cases, it’s convenient for hanging out the businesses washing, somewhere to let the mops dry out or put the rubbish.  Some of the restaurants use the area for outdoor eating.  When the lanes are usable, they’re open for garbage collection and access to the utilities, water, electricity etc, but in most of the newer complexes they are closed off to vehicles.  If you think about it, the overall area taken up by these under-utilised lanes eats into the space for creating wider frontage roads or even space for more shops.

I would have thought having the shopping rows back onto each other would make for a neater cleaner environment. Of course, there may be technical reasons why it’s done like this, but from what I’ve seen, most other parts of the world manage to do it differently.

Interestingly, when these complexes are first offered for sale the footpath in front of each shop is only a concrete slab. This means the individual owners/lessees have to finish off the surface to suit their particular taste or needs.  This leads to a hotchpotch of styles which at best makes it difficult to walk on or at worst dangerously uneven.  In a lot of cases the surface is never finished off, so the look and safety are far from perfect. While we are talking about footpaths, a lot of shops use that space to sell product from; an extension to their store. The local restaurants will put tables on it  and frequently electrical retailers will even have a marquee that extents onto the road.

Does this bother the locals?  Doesn’t seem to too much.  It’s what you get used to as I said earlier.  Here if you want to go to a particular shop you just park out the front whether there is a space or not.  Double parking is king in Sandakan.  The idea of parking and walking any distance to your destination doesn’t enter most people’s minds.  Even in the one and only under-roof shopping Mall, Giant where the open car park is right in front of the building, double parking reigns supreme. 
Notice the difference between a shopkeeper who tries to improve the footpath and ones who don't.

The drain covers are 20mm below the tiled footpath.