Of Narrative and Fact

When I tell people I do science as my day job and creative writing as a hobby, the reaction is usually of dismay. And that’s understandable. Science is about facts, hard-earned data, equations, and numbers. Creative writing is about telling stories, emotionalizing them, and, most distinctively, making things up. A creative pursuit like fiction writing doesn’t seem compatible with the dry, confusing facts of science.

While I believe that science is as much a creative pursuit as any form of art, I have to admit that in this case the observation is right, sort of, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

I believe that the fundamental mode of human communication is always telling of stories. I believe that when scientific textbooks fail, it is because they are so focused on the facts that they lose the readers in the complexity of those facts. The exercise in creative writing is an exercise in telling stories and a space to learn how stories affect readers. By knowing how to tell stories, we can communicate facts better, right?

I went to Royal Ontario Museum a while back and it got me thinking a bit about narratives and facts. It seems to me that every museum old enough to have extensive collection of historical artifacts display them similarly: group them according to the culture they belong and label every single piece with a tag. Those artifacts are bullet points, pieces of history, facts. They are scattered and disconnected and never enough to give anybody a good idea about the culture they came from or the people behind them.

Where is the man behind the mask?
Where is the man behind the mask?

On the other hand, recent exhibitions display artifacts sparingly but with great details about the people, the culture, the lives they lived. Those exhibitions made a lot more sense and encourage people to reflect on the diversity of ideas and their manifestations. These exhibitions are narratives. They don’t have all the (arti)facts, but they have enough to make you understand.

Or do they?

The problem with telling a story is that you can only ever tell it from one point of view. If you’re lucky, you might be able to fit in a few more perspectives, but that is about it. A story needs a POV regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, whether it’s based on true story or is completely made up. Having a POV restricts the facts that are used to support it. Stories can really be compelling and true, but it can’t be the truth. The truth is always too large for a POV to contain. The only thing that ever contains the truth are the large extensive collection of facts.

The problem with facts are that they are so dry and often seemingly irrelevant. Facts require so much time to absorb, digest, and connect. Facts don’t appeal to the mind because they lack emotion and context. Hence, facts become the playground of the specialized and not so much of the general population.

And that is okay. There are millions of bullet points about our world, our population, and our knowledge that are probably of no use to me, and I am okay not knowing them. What we need is an honest way to get to understand the things that matters, probably in narrative form, so we have an idea of what is going on around us.

The key word is honest. Considering that every person wielding pens and papers, tablets, and everything that can put thoughts to words have their own beliefs and agendas, there is a good chance that the narratives are in some way dishonest. I am not saying journalists are not honest people, they are, but their POV’s and needs will distort the stories no matter how much they try to keep the facts straight.

That is why we have disproportionately sensationalized stories in the news, documentaries, political statements, and history books (not all of them, of course, thank goodness). That is why sometimes the things that needed attention most are not recognized. We are hardwired for good stories not important ones, and it is often hard to distinguish between the two. And that is probably why I like fiction so much. Because no matter how good the stories are, they are honest in their dishonesty. They don’t pretend to matter where they do not. That creates a refreshing level of truthfulness that I feel non-fiction writings sometimes lack.

While I think non-fictions are pretty much doomed to incompleteness, I don’t think it is necessary a bad thing especially in this time and age. Stories have limitations, sure, but facts are out there and we can find them. We just need to remember that they are the ones that are true, narratives not so much. And if the facts can’t form a single coherent narrative, it is just how it is.

A lesson in ignorance and cultural sensitivity

At a convocation in a University in Thailand, a mural artwork done by students was put up to congratulate the new graduates. One of the figures on the board was Adolf Hitler.

It is mind-boggling how Hitler and the word ‘congratulation’ can conceivably go together and, yes, it demonstrates the level of ignorance some Thais have for world history. It is quite appalling to find that ignorance in a University where, presumably, is an institution that promote education.

As a Thai, I can tell you it is actually pretty conceivable. To be aware of other cultures and ways of thinking, we need to be exposed to them. Some of us, like myself, is in better position than others and therefore are able to expand outside the box we have been raised in. It is not a matter of which box we live in but rather of how big is box.

The box for Thai students can be rather small, and they are not entirely to blame. Here are the contributing factors to the size of that box:

  1. Thai education system does not promote understanding and awareness. The curriculum tends to focus on the facts than the thinking or the people that are related to those facts. This kind of education does not promote empathy or sensitivity, not only for what is going on in the world but inside its own society.
  2. A lot of Thai students cannot adequately communicate in English, which is now the lingua franca, as well as they should. Why that happens is a good question I do not have an answer to, but the effect of it is, without doubt, the somewhat self-absorbed mindset due to infrequent and inadequate communication outside of the culture.
  3. Opportunities to travel and live abroad is very rare due to monetary issues. Expense for traveling outside the country is very high compared to the living-expense and income rate, not to mention that students don’t generally have employment in Thailand. The opportunity for students to do so in a country like Canada is way, way better due to available programs, higher income, and better employment opportunity. This limits the first-hand exposure to other cultures, which is usually the best way to eliminate ignorance, to about null.

Because of these, the only explanation I have for the billboard art and for the girl posing in front of it is pure ignorance — they did not mean anything by it. It is not portraying Hitler as a hero as some headline might suggest despite the other hero characters on the same billboard. They are just that, characters, nothing more. Thailand as a whole did not have as traumatic an experience in WWII as many other countries, limited to mostly being bombed by the Allies and occupied by the Japanese. Those were traumatizing, obviously, but it was nothing close to the horror of concentration camps in Europe or the battle of Nanking in China. Therefore, the Thais’ reaction to anything related to WWII is generally not as strong as anybody else.

And I am not saying this is okay. I am just saying this is an explanation that I can conjure to what had happened based on my first-hand experience to what it is like to be a Thai student which is the group of people that is responsible for the artwork.

An image of a war criminal on a convocation billboard is, I think, globally appalling. But if the artists do not know how terrible the character is, which means the character has no specific meaning to them, can you claim that they are culturally insensitive?

I do not want to defend the students. On the contrary, I think they should be called out for not researching the characters they were using enough which is not a proper thing for artists, professional or otherwise, to do. This is not only because of cultural significances a character or a symbol might have but also for copyright reason. We at least have Wikipedia as a portal now. There is no excuse for not spending some time making sure everything is in order. And precisely because the world is shrinking, there is now need to think about what in a culture and history should be respected and what can be borrowed.

I am raising this issue because we cannot be fully empathic to another culture. A culture implies a way of thinking and therefore we cannot expect people from other cultures, from other ways of thinking, to fully understand what we are and we have been through. And maybe we should not for the sake of maintaining the diversity of thoughts and world views which has help us survive thus far. But we cannot go on being ignorant either, because that way lies conflict and, in an extreme case, the possibility of another mass extermination as we have seen in the concentration camp in WWII, in the conquering of North and South America, in the killing field of Cambodia, and in the civil wars of Africa. I think we all agree, world-wide, that it has been humanity ultimate sin.

But where ignorance ends and insensitivity begins is a matter for debate. And as a debate should go, it should be done among a fairly large group of people. So what I am going to do is putting my version out there and see how it goes.

The case of the Thai student and image of Hitler is ignorance because it can be cured by facts and by interpreting those facts properly. While we will never feel the same horror as the people and cultures who were directly affected by the terror of mass extermination, it is not beyond the ability to empathize if the people and the emotions involved are included in the education. We are always going to be ignorance to a certain degree, and we have to be aware of that.

Cultural insensitivity, however, is not curable by facts alone. Cultural insensitivity is placing judgement on values and identities of another culture using values and identity of one’s own and refusing to respect the fact that people do not operate on the same set of ideas.

Now,we have been doing that in the entirety of history, haven’t we?

A specific example that I found really offensive is in CNN’s interview of Jay Chou, a Taiwanese musician, as they were talking about him living with his mother past the age of thirty (if you’re interested, here’s the clip from about 21:30 on). The interviewer’s reaction borders on condescending and insensitive to one of Asian’s core family value — to take care of your parents as they have taken care of you. Taking care of your family is not a crime in any other standard which means other people have no place judging that value. Jay was actually nice about it and provided the explanation regarding the cultural difference because, as he demonstrated to the point of being annoying, he is quite aware of that fact.

This is not the same as the case of honour-killings that happened in Canada among the people who immigrated from the regions where such practice still exist. While I do not condone honour-killing anywhere on the globe, I understand that for some cultures in some places in this world, this is part of how their society operate. It would be out of bound for someone else to try to run their houses for them, not to mention that trying to impose a set of values on people who do not subscribe to them generally yield really bad results that last for a long time. The only thing we can do in that case is promoting the value that leans away from allowing honour-killing, maybe applying political pressure if we have any power to at all, and hope it ends. But in Canada, honour-killing is killing. It is a crime. Therefore, I think Canadians have the right to condemn honour-killing on their soil and it will not be cultural insensitivity. It is defending the shared value of the people living there from an idea that condones a crime.

Ultimately, I think both ignorance and insensitivity are curable. Ignorance is curable by proper education that not just focus on the fact but the people and emotions involved in those facts. Cultural insensitivity is curable by understanding that there are time and place that one should refrain from placing judgement on the values and identities of others. You might not believe me, but that is actually most of the time.

Because people who are ignorant and insensitive are annoying, but so are touchy people who live only on their own moral high ground.

Demian, the Catcher in the Rye, and Neon Genesis Evangelion

Hisashi Saito's

Hisashi Saito 1980, from Space Teriyaki 2

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”

― Hermann Hesse, Demian

I think the quote above summarize the coming-of-age stories pretty nicely. In every story, we have a protagonist who is trying to overcome a barrier that prevents him or her from becoming an adult by obtaining wisdom that would destroy what was believed to be true. The story is generally about that journey, the rite of passage, before the bird breaks the egg shell and flies to the master of its soul.

It is also the core of all the three distinct stories from three different cultures I stated in the title: Demian, the Catcher in the Rye, and  Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Most people in the English speaking world would have heard of the Cather in the Rye either because they have to read it in school, because they have heard that it is a classic, or because of its notoriety. I am thankfully in the middle group and, therefore, have no business interpreting the story to appease any teacher or worry about any ill-effect on the youth. While a lot of people say that the Catcher in the Rye is about losing innocence, I really cannot see the story that way — unless you describe being an irresponsible, obnoxious sixteen-year-old as being innocent — but I’ll get to that later. I think we have to first define what it is to be a child, what it is we have to lose to become an adult.

Or rather, what we gain when we become an adult.

People are generally nostalgic about childhood. It is the time of one’s life where one is simple, carefree, and secure. All things are good, beautiful, and treasured. The world, you can say, is very clean and unambiguous.

The cover of the book Demian by Hermann Hesse.

The cover of the book Demian by Hermann Hesse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That is most clearly represented in Demian. Written by Hermann Hesse and published in 1919 in German, the reception from the youth in that era is said to be instantaneous. Demain describes the inner life of puberty when not only the body changes but the person in that body also changes.

The story starts with the protagonist Emil Sinclair describing the beginning of the end of his childhood. Sinclair associates childhood with innocence, purity, and righteousness in what he calls the ‘world of light’. He is forcibly ejected from that world due to his association with a particular vicious bully. The event also leads to his association with a peculiar boy named Max Demian who seems to be an adult in a child’s body. Sinclair is fascinated to the point of being obsessive with Demian or, more correctly, obsessed with becoming Demian.

Demian reads almost like a journey to enlightenment. By what I know of Hesse’s interest into Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, I am not surprised that he wrote it that way. Becoming an adult, in Hesse’s view, is about growing within oneself and not by defining oneself with other external measure. It is about seeing the self and the potential of the self for what it really is. That is why there is little going on in the story until close to the end where the First World War starts. By that time, Sinclair has a strong self and is ready for the challenge of facing the world as a adult.

That is, of course, not the kind of coming-of-age story you will get if the author works under a different set of philosophy. The Catcher in the Rye (1951, United State) is the complete opposite of Demian, especially in the narration, in the sense that it doesn’t talk about self at all. Even the narration is apathetic to the person Holden Caulfield is — and that says a lot when Caulfield is actually the narrator. This is a person coming from a place that looks at external things rather than the internal ones. Therefore, he was on the search for an answer to a question he doesn’t know he has internally asked from somebody else who generally doesn’t care about him because they are just as preoccupied with external things as he is (i.e. being ‘phony’).

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Catcher in the Rye also looks at the coming of age from a different angle, the one that involves more of the external factor than Demian does. Childhood from Caulfield’s perspective is about innocence, and he, like Sinclair in the middle of Demian, also wants to preserve that innocence. However, I don’t think that is the childhood J.D. Salinger shows in the book. What Caulfield has been the entire book is being irresponsible and careless. He has a clear lack of commitment to any decision he makes. He wants to phone Jane, the girl who seems to be his first love, but won’t go through with it. He makes plans, all of which takes him away from his current situation — that is being expelled from school for the forth time and has to face his parents about it — but none of them comes to past.  He even thinks of hitchhiking out West and pretending to be deaf and mute so he doesn’t have to talk to anybody for the rest of his life which clearly shows that he just wants to float through life and not living it, not taking charge or responsibility of himself, like he has always done.

And that is being a child. Children don’t have responsibilities. They answer to nobody. They are taken care of by their parents. They are not fully held accountable for any bad things they did. The ability to embrace all those things readily is an ability of an adult. That is also what Caulfield finally does. He makes a promise to his sister that he will not run away and come home, a promise that he actually keeps. For the first time in the book, Caulfield sticks to his decision although he seems to have done it to appease somebody.

Actually, the fact that he makes that decision because of his sister shows us that he finally comes to realize that his decision or indecision also affects others, and he can make a decision not just for himself but for them. He may not tell us anything beyond this point, but I think at the end of the book relationship starts to matter to him by his remark at the end that he misses the people he mentions in the story no matter how many bad things he has said about them.

The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t talk about relationship, but it does hint that it is an important next step. And there is no other coming-of-age story I have come across that concerns itself with relationship more than Neon Genesis Evangelion.


Poster of Rebuild of Evangelion: 2.0, the teen cast

Actually, I think Evangelion (1995, Japan) talks about all three of them — the self, the responsibility, and the relationship — just sort of backward and overlapping. Starting out being a sci-fi action series, it doesn’t lend itself to the inner brooding of Demian. Shinji Ikari, much like Caulfield, doesn’t have a good sense of self or a direction. He was pulled into the war zone between aliens and humans by his estranged father to pilot the most advance weapon system created by human and, essentially, try to save the world.

Shinji is fourteen.

Before we become absolutely appalled by the absurdity of the situation, let’s sit back and consider it a bit. Shinji is not the first teenage pilot in manga or anime. We have the infamous Amuro Ray of the original Gundam series, a lot of Gundam Maestros thereafter, a lot of pilots from the Macross universe, up to the recent Simon of Earth from the most absurd mecha series ever created Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. They are teenagers because their stories have a lot to do with growing up, becoming a hero, and learning to ‘take shit, get hit’. Shinji has more reason to be in the story than being the channel for teenagers (I am not going to tell you, though). Moreover, he never become heroic like many leads in the genre. He is consistently a boy who struggle to form relationships, to commit to his responsibility, and to find himself. That is why I think he fits more with Caulfield and Sinclair than he does with his fellow pilots.

What he has more than both Caulfield and Sinclair is the responsibility of preventing world’s end, which is pretty terrible for someone who doesn’t even know how to save himself from misery. Shinji is known to throw tantrums and run away when something offends his delicate sensibility. He may take the responsibility of saving mankind and understand to some degree the consequence of that decision, but it is not really his decision in the beginning. Shinji takes the position of the pilot because he thinks it is expected of him. He doesn’t take control of his life because he is still a child and that has strained his relationship with Misato Katsuragi, his commanding officer and guardian who cares rather deeply about his well-being. Misato knows that making life-changing decisions from external influence is unhealthy — as we all know — but Shinji doesn’t care because he hasn’t develop internally enough to take charge of himself.

Relationships and responsibilities, however, changes Shinji but in a very subtle way. Problem is this developments are built on hollow ground. Shinji still looks outward for confirmation of his being and his value pretty much like Caulfield does. When the ties are severed towards the end of the series, Shinji regresses because he is not strong enough to live without those confirmations just yet.

And that is when the story turns to the self.

The most amazing thing about Evangelion, at least to me, is that the series wasn’t planned. Hideaki Anno, the director, just made one episode after another. Somehow, he managed to twist the story around from the end of the external world to the end of the internal world. Shinji at the end of episode 24 is pretty much in mental catatonia. He is at odd with himself because his love and his duty is conflicted. He is at odd with Misato because he is in clear conflict with her principles and can no longer look to her for guidance. He is at odd with the world in general because it doesn’t care, not about him or anyone who is important to him.

With that state of mind, he accidentally triggers the end of the world, and life as we know it disintegrates.

The world that ends there, I think, is the world that the bird has lived in. The bird is clearly discontent and makes the decision to destroy it. What happens next in episode 25, 26 and the later portion of the feature film The End of Evangelion is the story of whether the bird will fly to its god or lie down and wither away.

It is hard to say what exactly does Shinji learn in the end. Unlike both the Catcher in the Rye and Demian, Evangelion does not offer a conclusion in that part. Anno pretty much breaks the forth wall and invites the audience into the process. The infamous ending of Evangelion isn’t really about Shinji Ikari but about us — ourselves, our relationships, our responsibilities to one another. Evangelion isn’t typical in term of storytelling because the ending relies on us. Only when we come-of-age in all three counts can the story truly be completed.

I am one of those people who is not nostalgic about childhood, not because it wasn’t a good time but because I think we gain more and are able to do more once we grow up. To me, childhood is about ignorance, of curling in an egg shell — safe, but also unknowing. Being an adult is risky and complicated, but it also gives us perspectives. In some philosophy (I believe I found it in one of the zen book I read ages ago), innocence can be restored when the mind becomes, once again, simple and free, not because of ignorance but because wisdom gained through experience. Arriving at adulthood can be viewed as the shattering of ignorance and the start on the path to true innocence.

That will also be one hell of a journey.

Storytelling is about innovating, and ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ proves it

Mak was a man who lived in a now suburban part of Bangkok called Phrakanong around 160 years ago. He is known for being the husband of Nak, a woman who died giving birth and became a ghost waiting for her husband to come back from war. The unsuspecting Mak was happy to be home with his wife and child until the neighbors tried to convince him that the life he was having was not real. One by one, they died.

This is a legend I’m certain anyone in Thailand with the age above five can recite (either with great horror or great sympathy, or both). Everyone had an experience of being irrationally cowered by the sight of a pale, stoic, long hair woman standing quietly in the dark. It’s a national spook experience. And we celebrate it again and again through remakes of the story in films, animations, soap operas, stage production, radio drama, comics, novels, and documentaries to the point where we had probably exhausted the ways of telling this story in every possible media, including pornography.

Then Nonzee Nimibutr swaggered into the movie scene with his version ‘Nang Nak’  in 1999 which just made everyone fall in love with this great romance-tragedy-horror all over again. It gained both critical and commercial success which made it the highest grossing Thai movie of the time. ‘Nang Nak’ was so realistic, so historically accurate, and so good that I believe a lot of us thought there couldn’t be another big production of this story ever again.

Then in March 2013, GTH released ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ and it just became the highest grossing movie of all time in Thailand and set to release in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Cambodia after its first regional release in Indonesia.

Like, WTF!?!

At first glance, it looks like a cheesy re-imagination of the same old legend made for the teenage consumption with teen heartthrob Mario Maurer, a Thai-German actor, as Mak. Seeing him on the poster is sort of strange. He looks nothing like the very Thai, very matured, and very macho Winai Kraibutr who by look and statue is a convincing reincarnation of 19th century Thai soldier. Davika Hoorne’s Nak is also a far-cry from Inthira Charoenpura’s who wore the period appropriate short-crop instead of the more known, and less likely to be accurate, long flowing hair. On top of that, the movie introduce four non-canon characters as Mak’s soldier friends and a band of comic relief to turn the most terrifying love story of all time into a comedy.

Now, horror-comedy movie is not a new thing in Thailand and definitely not the first try on the legend of Nak. Quite frankly, we have horror-comedy around all the time since I could remember, usually with slapstick jokes and a lot of male screaming (females usually get the ghost role; i.e. they do the spooking). The thing is there is so much supernatural joke you could make to captivate the audience and it shows. The genre is, like the story of Mak and Nak, exploited to the limit.

How, then, could you mash the most exploited ghost story and the most exploited movie genre and make it work? I haven’t seen this movie yet as it hasn’t been released on DVD. I can only venture to guess based on the interviews, trailers, behind-the-scene clips, and reviews that the secret to its success is that the director, Banjong Pisanthanakun, doesn’t follow the conventional way of telling a horror or a tragedy. Expect the unexpected seems to be the main marketing of the film. Other versions of the story were stuck with Nak’s point of view, her love, her sadness, her rage, and her denial. This version was promised to be from the point of view of Mak who has been re-imagined to behave like a 21st-century youngster and is totally head-over-heel in love with his wife to the point of being ridiculous. That makes the movie a contemporary piece instead of a period piece and speaks better to the contemporary audience. ‘Nang Nak’ was a hit because of the love of the classic. For ‘Pee Mak’, it seems to be the need of something new and fresh that starts the frenzy.

This needs for something fresh might also be the reason another remake of a classic, ‘Khu Kam’, becomes a flop in the box office at about the same time. Originally a novel, ‘Khu Kam’ tells a story of a young Japanese soldier in World War Two who falls in love with a headstrong Thai woman while the Japanese army occupied Thailand. This story is also remade too many time for its own good. While it is said to be the re-interpretation of the story, the trailer looks like a teen romance story which is, to put it frankly, not a new interpretation at all. ‘Khu Kam’ has always been a romantic tragedy. Repackaging it for the younger audience by reducing the historical background which involves the tension between the two nations and cultures and focus on the sap-factor only serves to make it into another teen romance movie in a market that is already saturated with romance movies. Unlike ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’, this ‘Khu Kam’ might try to be contemporary but there is nothing in it that is daring, groundbreaking, or new.

Breaking storytelling rules like this doesn’t just come out of the blue in an industry that has largely been very conservative in what kind of stories are told and how they are told. Mainstream movie in Thailand was one of the least imaginative landscape when I was growing up, and for the most part it still is. On the other hand, Thai literature has grown more diverse over the years. Experimental writing, now widely read, is based solely on throwing the writing rulebook (and less often grammatical rulebook) out the window.  It didn’t take too long for that mindset to creep into arthouse movies like those directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang or Apichatpong Weerasethakul whose ideas alone are light-years from typical. Most people don’t get these kind of movies (I don’t for the most part) and sometimes they fail (they are experiments after all). These movies were never popular enough to be count as mainstream but has been gaining steady following over the years.  The effect of having these kind of media around is that it breaks the expectations set by mainstream media and make people more receptive to alternatives both in terms of story and storytelling. Given that this has been going on for twenty years, it is about time that the mainstream movies start to take on some of the hipster spirit and allow themselves to break expectation and be ridiculous. It seems to me that this is what ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ tries to do.

I think this movie will still have a lot of drama. I think it’s still going to be more or less the heartbreaking love story the entire nation knows by heart. (Take that out and prepare for an outrage.) But the gist I get is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I couldn’t really think of anyone else aside from Banjong that would have the résumé to go through with this vision. Before ‘Pee Mak’, he has enjoyed a string of success in horror (Shutter, Alone, “In the Middle” from 4BIA, “In the End” from PHOBIA 2) and romantic comedy (Hello Stranger). Unlike Pen-Ek or Apichatpong, he is more tied to mainstream media than being an arthouse name. His ability to be innovative most likely comes understanding the conventions of the genres very well but really doesn’t care about them too much. This reminds me of Christian Mihai’s recent post on writing. He, like me, doesn’t believe that there is a hard and fast rule in how to write. I think the success of ‘Pee Mak Phrakanong’ shows that there isn’t a hard and fast rule in storytelling in general. What I want to add to Christian’s observation is that after you have observed the masters and practice, you have to try to break the pattern and own it. I believe there is a saying in Chinese to ‘learn it and forget it’, meaning you can learn all the tricks, but you can only use them effectively and playfully if you are not fixated on what you’ve learned.

Not having seen the movie yet, I can’t really say how effective Banjong is in his execution or how good the movie actually is. After all, this is the first movie that he had intentionally break conventions. If the title of highest grossing movie is anything to go by, I’d say he has done something right and has done it quite well. I’m eagerly waiting for the DVD to start shipping so I can have a look for myself what the fuss is really all about. For the time being, I congratulate Banjong and his team for their success. I haven’t felt this intrigued by a movie for a long time, let alone the one that I know the story by heart. For that alone, kudos to you, sir.

Hello there, Apocalypse! Or why I think we need to be scientifically literate.

On December 21st, the world will come to an end… yet again.

We’ve been at World’s End all too often, it seems. There was the turn of the millennium with all the doomsday blockbusters (not counting Y2K), then at least one rapture in 2010 which never came, and now the end of Mayan calendar on December 21st, 2012. Really, by this time we should have seen the pattern and realized that, no, The End is not coming anytime soon.

Somehow, some people still want to believe that The End will come in all its glory in their lifetime.

I will not go into the psychology of why people want The End to come, because I’m one of those that doesn’t feel the need for it to come anytime soon (although it would be interesting). I cannot get into that headspace and find the logic behind it, but obviously there is a group of people who will believe in The End no matter how much evidence speaks to the contrary and even when the Maya hadn’t meant that at all. This group of people dreams up the scenarios that might happen and spreads the word, an act that sometimes I want to label as criminal considering how it affects some people and can potentially ruin their lives.

I think that is the part that I find most distasteful in the whole apocalypse-thingy. I don’t care if anybody believes the world will end, the problem is when the idea is imposed on the wrong person and affects them in a devastating way. Thankfully people are smarter these days and it takes a lot more than the Earth being swept by fire or water; you need a clear explanation as to how that can happen. Unfortunately, the very idea that makes people smarter is also being used to convince people of something that would not happen.

We’re in a scientific age. We know what science and technology brings us, but a lot of us don’t know how science works. We just know that what it says is right. The knowledge is taken by some more or less as a gospel and ‘Science’ has become a sacred word.

This does not only happen in world ending scenarios. Marketers use science and all its complicated terminologies to sell various products and services. Not all of them are completely false, BUT that doesn’t mean they are true either. The ‘scientifically’ explained 2012 apocalypse is just one gem in the enormous pseudo-science treasure chest (and one good enough for a movie, apparently).

I blame scientific illiteracy for these things to persist and continue to prey on people.

It is strange when you think that science is pretty much a part of the curriculum anywhere in the world, and yet people still get duped over science all the time. Is it because they don’t know enough to spot those fallacies? I would say no. There is too much knowledge in the universe for one person to master in a single lifetime, and it won’t be a productive life either. And to my experience, you can know everything you need to know and still get duped. The more important thing is understanding the principles in science and most importantly how science actually works.

That topic never get discussed in the curriculum, does it? Not where I come from at least.

It’s truly a shame that students are put through so many heartaches and headaches, learning about radical ideas (from centuries ago), and come out none the wiser. The people who get a glimpse into what it really is are those studying for a science degree, and some of them come out not understanding as much as they should. The downside to that is that science has in some aspect become an exclusive playground to scientists, almost like a cult with secret teachings and doctrines. But in its purest form, science is open to scrutiny. It’s a system based on the fact that knowledge is obtainable and verifiable by anyone anywhere.

When I think of scientific literacy, there are a couple of things involved. First is how science works. Like I mentioned before, science is open to scrutiny. Knowledge must be obtainable, repeatable, and verifiable by anyone anywhere to be considered fact. An idea or prediction in science must produce a distinctive result which is measurable to be considered plausible at all.

Another thing that I think of as a component of scientific literacy is the understanding of scientific principles: the philosophies, the thinking, rather than the knowledge. These are different for different disciplines in science and require a certain amount of familiarity with the material to understand precisely what is going on. I believe we already cover a good amount of that material in school but make the mistake of not making the connection to the thinking behind it. A student can learn about Darwin in class but doesn’t link it to the fact that (1) all living things change with time in response to the change in the environment (2) nothing in nature can be labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in an absolute term but rather ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’ in a particular scenario. This gets a lot of people duped over health products which claim to have ‘good’ things for you. While that label is okay for general use, it is good to ask how as a follow-up.

Proven principles also help in checking whether a proposed idea holds any ground. This helps if it cannot be confirmed immediately but note that the verification of plausibility alone does not in itself say that it is true. It just makes it more likely to be true. There is a distinct difference.

We’ll get back a bit to the apocalypse a bit to see how some claims hold in terms of scientific evidence. An asteroid or a planet hitting Earth on the 21st of December is obviously out, because an object that could destroy human civilization would have to be big, like 10s of kilometers across. We would see it hanging in the sky on its way to Earth weeks beforehand. A solar flare is also obviously out because the intensity of a flare is not enough to toast the Earth’s surface. Astronomers also have a very good idea of what a star would do so they would, to some degree, be able to detect an anomaly if that happens. So our sun is safe; nothing is exploding in our neighborhood. An epidemic is a more reasonable speculation and a real threat as we have seen from recent outbreaks of influenza, but an epidemic is slow. We can’t give a date to that. Most importantly, a bug that can destroy all of us on its own is very unlikely. If you’ve ever read Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain (a really good science-fiction if I might add, emphasizing on science), you’ll see that there is a compromise between being widespread and being deadly because natural selection will favor the bug that can prolong the life of its host which allows its spawn to survive. A dead host is no good for a bug. Another thing is we also want to survive. On the genetic level, we’re probably one of the most diverse species on the planet right now (aside from plants, insects, planktons, and microbes), a portion of us will have the right genetic make-up to make it through. That also happened with the plague during the Medieval period. If a bug turns up so deadly and frightening, what would more likely to happen is that our civilization would collapse out of panic, chaos, war, and starvation than the bug itself. In any case, there is no report of a super-bug ready to wipe us out.

The list of claims goes on and on and on, but there is no evidence of an apocalypse coming our way today or in any of the next few day. Why do the claims persist then? What I think of is that some scenarios presented sound possible, like the epidemic scenario, and some people treated as if they are true. But, like I said, being possible or plausible does not mean it will come true. A plausible explanation need not be true. That does not mean thinking of an apocalyptic scenario is entirely pointless, though. Thinking of worst-case scenarios can prepare us for when a real calamity arises. It is also a time to reflect on what really matters in our lives.

I think the healthy state of mind is to always be skeptical. Always demand proof and explanation that have evidence to them and not just something that sounds plausible, because that is where the trap lies. Be open to being wrong as much as being right and not just hang on to something simply because it was believed to be true in the past. That’s also the basis for scientific thinking to keep growing.

Photo Essay: Hidden Lives of Bangkok – set 2

This post is a followup of my first photo essay which are a set of photos I took from the old city of Bangkok. This set comes from my second walk on the same project. In this set, I visited places in downtown Bangkok I used to go in my childhood. The great bonuses were actually the small things I found walking from one place to the other. These pictures were taken using Nokia 5000d-2 mobile phone on December 10, 2008. This one concluded in the heart of the shopping district where I remember my first favorite bookstore was. It also houses my current favorites ones.

Photo Essay: Hidden Lives of Bangkok – set 1

So, this is supposed to be a photo essay, but I’m entirely sure what that supposed to mean. I can only warn you that they won’t be pretty, or would it convey something of importance. It’s simply a collection of photos I took around downtown Bangkok for my Project City Walk in which I explored places in the city where I had never been and tried to capture the corner where people rarely looked. While that resulted in a series of essays and a presentation (including a good passing grade for my forth year class), only a handful of photos ended up being used. I recently found the rest of the photos stashed away in a far corner of my external hard drive. Looking at them again, I found that while those essays have their own points to make, these photos have their own stories, too. And they are pretty loud about that, although I’m not entirely sure about what exactly. So here I’m just going to let them tell you.

These pictures were taken using Nokia 5000d-2 mobile phone on November 13, 2008. The walk mainly focused on exploring the old city and me finally seeing what my hometown is made of for the first time.

Easily one of the best thing I’ve ever done.