Reviews, Reflections, Recollections

Just a blog filled with my usual irreverent observations about life and all that.

Location: Singapore, Singapore

enjoys reading and is perpetually trying to find space for all of the books he owns in his room. He also enjoys films, and in particular, going to the cinema. Although a self-confessed trivia buff, reports that he is an insufferable know-it-all are completely unfounded. He enjoys a nice glass of tipple now and then, be it a pint of beer, a glass of wine or a single malt whisky.

Friday, September 01, 2006

A New Chapter, A New Blog

I have created a new blog which can be found here, on account of my having finished at University and closed that chapter in my life. As always, I thank you for your support in reading my blog and I welcome comments, critical or otherwise.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Who Are You?

I am a 24 year old male, genus homo sapiens, called Caleb Liu, with varying degrees of accuracy in pronounciation. The last I checked I was a disenchanted student, attempting to answer some of life's more bemusing questions, such as what is the meaning of life? Is there a God? What is morally right? Not to mention the downright perplexing ones like "How is it that it can go from bright sunshine to rain to hail and back to sunshine again in the UK in a span of 5 hours?".

What are your future aspirations?

Well, I will get over the cliched "I want to be happy and fulfilled" bit, taking that as a given, with the proviso that being happy and fulfilled also involves earning a reasonable income - reasonable insofar as I am able to support a semi-decent lifestyle and not have to live in penury. To be honest, otherwise I don't have a clue what I is going to happen next, what the future has in store, what I am going to do with my life etc. It is both a very very scary thing, and also something that is rather exciting as well.

What is happiness?

If I knew the answer to that question, I would be a very very rich person. Well, only if I could bottle it and I managed to market it effectively, but you get the idea. Happiness has been a very transitory thing for me in recent times. I think I have realised what it means to be really happy (as opposed to being merely content, fulfilled, at ease, or enjoying oneself), but only because I have also understood what it means to be truly unhappy as well (as opposed to being merely anxious, restless, bored, disatisfied and others). I could come up with some trite saying, but I refuse to. Happiness is individual. It is perhaps a state of mind, but also a combination of various chemical (im)balances in your physiological state. I think it is interesting that we can define despair and anger and other dark emotions easier than we can define happiness. Happiness for me is cuddling up to a person you truly feel at ease with or curled up in bed with a really wonderful book, or getting a quiz question right faster than everyone else, or seeing an old friend on the street and enchanging banter with him.

What is love? Is there True Love?

People have asked me what love is. I can only parrot Cole Porter: "What is this thing called love? This crazy thing called love? Who can tell its mystery? Why does it make a fool of me?" Or perhaps the bible "love is gentle, love is kind...." or the fact that love is not selfish. I think love is equal parts need and equals parts giving, but it often isn't perfectly balanced. People tell me it is about seeing someone and being able to tell them and more importantly yourself that there is someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, irregardless of circumstance. To quote Moulin Rouge "Come What May, I will love you, until my dying day". But perhaps that is as much about YOUR state of mind and you deciding that it is time to settle down as about the person who happens to walk into your life just then.

Any authors that have influenced you?

I have read a great many books that I love, and I am particularly not a person who discriminates. I will make an awful book critic if only because I tend to enjoy a book for what it is, no matter what genre it is written in. That said, I urge everyone to read Neil Gaiman, who is an absolute genius and who writes books that are tremendously beautiful, witty, endearing, fantastic and filled with a life all its own. I would read anything by Neil (and I more or less have). I also think J.M Coetzee is a fascinating writer, who has an interesting mix of fiction and philosophy in his work, and who is adept at peering deep into the human soul and its psyche and probing the depths we would rather avoid. Jeanette Winterson is a wonderfully lyrical writer whose works I have enjoyed immensely. Other books I would recommend unabashedly (at the present moment - my list is perpetually changing) are Atonement by Ian McEwan, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and of course the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien.

Music that changed your life?

I grew up with a huge thing for Bon Jovi and any of their songs is still liable to set me loose. Nirvana was something I played when I wanted to let all the demons out, and I still do, though it was liable to make my parents go nuts. Kind of Blue was a seminal album that sparked a huge interest in jazz. Chopin is a great love of mine particularly the Ballades, Waltzes and Noctures. Eva Cassidy has a voice like an angel and can pierce the darkest hour with a ray of sunshine, Damian Rice is liable to depress, but there is a power to his melancholy.

If you had a day free how would you typically spend it?

To begin with, I would sleep in till at least 10am. Sleeping in is one of my ultimate guilty pleasures. I think I am unfit for the real world due to the fact that I love my sleep and I love staying up late. I think I would potter around the room, and spend a couple of hours online reading news, blogging, playing random web games and generally "wasting" time online as it often wont to happen. I would then wander out to have lunch at a cafe maybe, something simple maybe a sandwich with some soup, and I would then wander into a bookshop to browse for a couple of hours or more depending. I think a late afternoon drink at a pub with some company would be wonderful, or tea maybe, catching up with some friends or an old acquaintance or two. Dinner would be at a nice restaurant, preferably with some company, or else with the most trusty company of all - a book. Afterwards would be a movie/play or concert, or perhaps a Pub Quiz at the Turf Tavern.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Extroversion Test

Your Extroversion Profile:

Assertiveness: Very High
Friendliness: Very High
Sociability: High
Activity Level: Low
Excitement Seeking: Low
Cheerfulness: Very Low

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Final Perspective: A Fond Farewell?

I have decided that the time is ripe for me to write a summary of my thoughts and feelings as I prepare to leave Oxford. With my impending final examinations, it has never been more clear to me that these moments represent the culmination of my three years here. That my time admidst the spires, dreaming or otherwise are coming to a close. Tutorials, boat races, nights out at the pub, old rooms up rickety wooden staircases, kebabs after a night out, Blackwell's bookshop, lying on lawns on a warm afternoon, dining while served in hall, glorious and endless shelves of books, one on one tutorials, essay crisis: all these will soon be part of a chapter of my life which will be closed.

What did I expect when I came? A thorny question, probably important to consider as a comparison to the real thing. But Oxford has hardly had it fair, especially after Evelyn Waugh. I haven't read Brideshead Revisited, but the essential characteristics have permeated everybody's perception of Oxford. Of course, there is the no small matter of eight centuries of learning, of old buildings stooped under the weight of learning accumulated there. Libraries chock full of old dusty tomes, croquent on the lawns on a long summer's day. Watching the rowing by the river, Pimm's in hand. Long dinners replete with wine and port and oft-repeated anecdotes in equal measure.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Mirrormask: My 700th Movie

I went to watch Mirrormask at the Pheonix last night. It is a wonderful movie based on concepts by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean and I was extremely desperate to see it. Mirrormask tells the story of Helena, who is born into a family of circus entertainers. After a quarrel, her mother falls very ill and needs to undergo an operation, and Helena blames herself for what has happened. The night before her operation, she finds herself entering a strange unreal world that is based on her own imagination and artwork and is tasked with restoring the balance between light and dark in that world by finding the "mirrormask" and waking the queen of light. As she goes about her quest, with her companion Valentine in tow, they chance upon many strange beings and she realizes that the line between dream and reality is increasingly being blurred and she can see through a window into her world, and things there seem to be unravelling.

To do the movie justice I perhaps have to begin by describing my initial reaction to the movie. Upon leaving the theatre, I found myself in yet more British easter rain, but it didn't matter to me. I felt this wonderful upsurge of delight, this sudden urge to want to forget about buses and bicycles and supermarkets and bars and all that. The rain seemed something to delight in even. I had the most powerful sense that international relations and ethics and epistemology and political sociology were the most terribly bloated and weighted things compared to the wonderful light airiness of the dream-like fantasy I had just left. They say that the best fantasy makes children of us all, and fills us with a special kind of wonder and joy. I kind of felt that at that moment.

Of course I was probably overexaggerating things - the movie wasn't really an instant masterpiece and was rough around the edges in a way. But I do love Neil Gaiman's work - it has a earthiness, a wonderous light humour to it that is amazing. Gaiman's fanatasy world isn't completely fairy tale like, or it is more like the fairy tales of old as they were meant to be (before Disney happified them) where betrayal is real, where despair is a possibility. The defining thing about Mirrormask is of course the visual ideas - the characters themselves, but also the set design and concepts. It was alien and eerie in a wonderful way. One scene stands out: the most sinister powerful transformation/seduction scene I have ever seen, when Helena succumbs to the Black Queen and agrees to serve as the substitute to the Black Queen's daughter and is dressed up in velvety black Gothic glory by live mannequins coming out of boxes to the tune of a cracked up electric version of the Carptenter's Close To You. That scene itself is worth the price of admission, not to mention the flying books, the cats with faces and everything else.

Mirrormask is a wonderful feat of the creative imagination, even more so considering that it was made on a budget of only US$4 million. It will cause you to marvel, to wonder, and perhaps even to feel a wonderful sense of mystery again. Nothing is quite like it.

I guess it is quite apt then, seeing my great love of Neil Gaiman and his work, that Mirrormask is the 700th Movie that I have seen (in any medium) according to the list that I compiled and have been periodically updating. I am certain that I may have missed a few here and there, but I am proclaiming Mirrormask my 700th according to my records. I cannot help but wonder what my 1000th movie will be like; I can only hope that it will be something similar to this.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Another Day Goes By

I slept in today again, partly because I wanted to fully get over the headache from last night, and partly because I didn't sleep very well. Finally got into a nice fitful doze past 5am, so had ended up waking only around noon.

It was a nice sunny afternoon, something that I did not realize mainly because I was stuck in my room trying to do work. I emphasize trying. My stunning resolve seems to have fallen apart with a mixtures of various distractions. A chief distraction has been my discovery of Yahoo Answers which is rather addictive - you earn points for helping to give answers to a whole plethora of random queries.

I also finished the book I mentioned in the previous post called "Know It All" which was about one man's quest to read through the whole of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I have to say that I felt a great deal of kinship with a lot of what he wrote, and for his quest in general. To be fair, I did once attempt to read through an encyclopedia cover to cover, but that was when I was all of 7 years of age, and I gave up around "ac" - this being my old 1987 edition of the World Book encyclopedia. I had loved reading the encyclopedia as a kid - the reason I gave up was more along the lines of my enjoying the sense of discovery one got by browsing around and flipping through the pages.

I must admit that I identify far too closely with a number of the remarks that Jacobs makes for comfort. I can totally understand the electric feeling he says he gets when he discovers some totally unrelated and random fact - like the fact that "screeched" is the longest one syllable word in the english language (quite appropriately one would think). I also share his ambivalence about the dividing line between knowledge and intelligence, and whether building up the former has any bearing on the latter, though my love of knowledge is that I cannot refrain myself from cluttering my head with useless information, even if is not only total useless, but in fact detrimental to intelligence. His many attempts to drop a telling fact, and the reactions he received when that happened caused me to wince in sympathy, particularly his description of how the opposite party goes "oh, that's interesting" even as their eyes start to wander off.

However, if one needed any further proof of the essential sadness of my life, it lies in the way that I responded to Jacob's facts themselves. When he mentions that 'bedlam' actually originated from the Bethlehem hospital, I not only went "knew that!" but couldn't help but wonder if Jacobs knew that this is now the site of the Imperial War Museum. When he commented on how Attila the Hun proved his ruthlessness by having the people who buried him killed, I went aha! but that is nothing compared to Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China who had tens of thousands of artisans, and engineers killed - in fact, anyone who had even worked vaguely on his tomb, which was a enormous number of people considering there was an entire army of terracotta warriors buried with him. When he spoke of the Gettsburg Address and how Lincoln was not the keynote speaker, but had to wait for someone to ramble on for 2 hours before he took to the podium, I went "knew that!" immediately, while adding the fact that Lincoln had not composed the speech on the train and scribbled his notes for it one the back of an envelope as commonly believed. (I admit to learning that particular tidbit of information from a Bill Bryson book no less - Mother Tongue - in an extract printed out for my A level class). And so on it went.

Cappucino originating from the Cappuchin monks and the colour of their robes? Easy! George III and his bouts of madness - easy enough again. I could even explain that his madness was caused by a hereditary condition that caused the build up of waste chemicals in his bloodstream (learned this from a lecture given at the Oxford Literary Festival by Steve Jones recently). Even better - he used the metaphor "leaving Iwo Jima before the flag was planted" in his book, and I couldn't help but want to point out that that famous photo was actually staged, as well as the fact that the famous photo of the Russian soldiers placing the flag on the Reichstag is also staged - read it in a book called On Photography by Susan Sontag.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on the 4th of July? That is an old chestnut, along with the fact that Adams' last words were "Jefferson still lives". I admit to not knowing that Jefferson paid a newspaper to libel Adams, but I do know that his house was called Monticello and that he invented the dumbwaiter (most useful of devices). Less spectacularly, I knew that one of the pioneers of the film industry was the appropriately named Lumiere (similar to luminous), but what sprang to mind immediately was that it was also the name of the candlestick character in Beauty and the Beast.

If you haven't started wondering if there is something seriously wrong with me, then you had better look yourself in the mirror. Bandying facts is a hazardous enough pastime; doing it towards an inanimate object and going hah and one-upping a person who is thousands of kilometres (the author lives in New York) away and who doesn't know you exist is completely off the wall barmy. To top it all off, Jacobs describes the thrill of triumph he felt when he spotted an error in the Britannica - that Robert Frost was considered an alumni when he didn't actually graduate from Harvard. I spotted an error in his book, and emitted a sound of triumph that caused a few startled glances (I was sitting in a pub having lunch while reading) - he mis-spelt Chicken Tikka Marsala (it is Masala) - a mistake that Massala, who is actually the nemesis of Judah Ben Hur from everyone's favourite easter movie, might easily have made.

To sum it all off, I googled Jacobs and found that he has a wonderful little website and blog, and I have proceeded to send him an email with regards to how much I enjoyed his book, of course suriptiously mentioning that one error...

Friday, March 31, 2006

Aching Head

I suddenly found myself with a headache, somewhat inexplicably, so I popped two panadols, with coke (I hope that isn't a bad combination in any way, I know panadol with alcohol is not a good idea). I also made myself some chicken and vegetable soup, following the old maxim that chicken soup cures all ills, though mine was of the canned Marks and Spencer's variety and thus probably lacking in any regenerative function. I probably made it worse by zapping it in the microwave instead of simmering it over the fire in a pot.

After all that, I feel quite a bit better (it being 2am now). Not that it has helped my productivity much at all. To give my addled brain a rest (addled from what you may well ask, quite fairly), I browsed a book called "know it all" which is an intriguing quest of one man to read through the whole of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I am sad to say is actually a personal quest which I shall fulfill one day (beats reading through the bible, which is like so passe and so much less of a challenge!). More on all of this later.

Tomorrow is a new day. I need to be more productive tomorrow. I am going to go to bed now and hope for a fresh start.

Lake District

I had promised a post about my adventures in the Lake District, and so I now belatedly comply. I went to the lake district immediately from my recording of Mastermind in Leeds. I woke up late the next morning which was probably due to a combination of stress, tiredness and the fact that me, Barry and his friends (including his daughter no less who was older than me!) sat in the hotel bar drinking and commiserating till past twelve.

To say it was an adventure getting to the lakes would be a mild understatement. I had to travel to Windemere via Manchester which meant a one and a half hour wait at Manchester to catch the train I needed. I got bored and went to browse at WH Smith's where I ended getting intrigued by a book on Sir Roger Mortimer, who was de facto ruler of England between the reigns of Edward II and Edward III and who was supposedly the man responsible for killing Edward II. The nature of Edward II's supposed death is too great an anecdote to resist telling, so I shall permit myself a brief digression here. Apparently, Edward II was killed by having a red hot poker shoved up his anus, at least according to popular legend. The means of his death was not just sadistic - aparently it was chosen due to the fact that his killers did not want there to be any visable mark left on his exterior. The chronicles are quite specific as to the fact that the kind died, but of course the manner of his passing remains open to speculation. The legend of the red hot poker is, admittedly, almost too good to resist.

Anyhow, things got far more interesting once I arrived in Windemere. Only then did I realize that I had left the piece of paper on which the travel details and hostel information had been written on the train. I could vaguely remember that the town I was supposed to go to ended in "-thwaite" and so I tromped over to the tourist office to check out a map and ask for directions. Seeing "Braithwaite" on the map, and thought that was the place I had to go to and was directed there accordingly. What followed was a wonderful bus ride to a little town in the middle of the lake district called Keswick, though tremendously scenic terrain. We passed clue blue lakes and forest bordering snow topped hills on either side. It was quite breathaking.

Now I get to the adventurous bit. I arrived in Keswick to change buses, and was pleasantly suprised to find the bus to Braithwaite there, so I hopped right on. It was only when I arrived at the town, and a local I bumped into expressed doubt that there was a youth hostel nearby, that I suspected something was amiss. I was pointed down some road, and happily walked down for it for 15 minutes or so when I decided something was definitely wrong. In the end I had to call DT to access my email account for me (where the original hostel details were stored) while I went over to the local pub to ask for assistance. What I discovered was that I was in the wrong town and that I was meant to go to Rostwaite and not Braitwaite and that the former was was 5 miles north of Keswick, while the latter was 2 miles south. What was a greater cause for panic was that the next bus back to Keswick was only due in an hour, which would mean I would arrive in Keswick past 8pm, and that there would be no more buses to Braitwaite. Just then, a couple at a table in the bar, hearing of my predicament, offered me a lift.

Things got even better when I received a phone call from my friends in the hostel. I had tried vainly to reach them on their mobiles, but I couldn't get through, and I only realized later how lucky I was - the simple reason being that there was no reception at the hostel. I was saved due to the fact that I had spoken to Ben the evening before, and told him that I was due to arrive around 6pm, and if not, something would be amiss. It being coming close to seven he decided to call to check in on me using the pay phone at the hostel (despite the outrageous BT phone rates). In the end, Fiona wonderfully agreed to drive down to pick me up at Keswick, while also doing a bit of grocery shopping in the process.

The next morning, we awoke to a wonderfully clear day, practically perfect for hiking. The plan was to drive about two miles to a place called Honigger Pass, where there was parking next to a slate mine, and set off from there. We planned to ascend from there and then head over to Green Gable and Great Gable and ascend those to, if possible, before heading back. The climb itself was invigorating, and probably made even more exciting by the conditions. It was rather cold for this time of year and that meant that there was still quite a large amount of snow on the hills. The snow itself was frozen solid over the night, making the ascent difficult and slippery. If not for the fact that other people had climbed our route before, leaving large holes in the frozen snow we could use, as well as the fact that there was a fence that we were following up, things would have been a great deal more tricky.

Two definite things stand out. One, we passed by a frozen bit of water, and after testing it out with the ice axe I had carried along and certifying that it was frozen very solidly, we proceeded to go for a bit of skating on the surface while stopping for lunch. Another bit was the impromptu sliding down the snow that soon began, which soon turned into toboganning of sorts with the bright orange plastic survival bags as tobogan.

The weather itself was perfectly clear, and the sun was out in full force. There were hardly any clouds at all. I admit to feeling amazed at the wonderful weather, quite unlike anything I had expected. Certainly, I hoped there would be no rain, but not in my wildest dreams did I expect to confront clear skies and bright sunshine. We continued from the frozen pond where we had also stopped for lunch, towards Green Gable. The ascent up Green Gable itself was not much of a challenge, with a well marked trail to follow, and less slippery conditions. Upon reaching the summit however, we decided not to attempt Great Gable, which looked far steeper and a bit foreboding, let alone with the snowy conditions and proceeded to head back to the hostel.

The next day again brough pretty clear weather, though it was a bit windier. We chose a different route this time consisting of a hike for about 3 miles followed by ascending a hill and following the ridge line before descending at a tow path and then hiking back to the hostel. The view from the top of the hill was quite wonderful, overlooking as it were a huge area of lakes, hills, valleys, dotted with small farms and little towns. I was quite surprised at how far up we had come (around 800 metres) and the fact that you are never quite aware of the distince whilst you are ascending, only when you reached the top. The last section of the climb was again through a broad expanse of snow dotted with boulders and it was quite stunning.

The beauty of it was sense of overwhelming wonder, the sheer magnitude of nature itself. One person remarked that up where we were, thoughts of University, of impending exams and everything else vanished, almost as if they had never existed. In fact, these petty concerns of life seemed completely insignficant and all that held meaning were the sun, the sky, the snow, the mountains surrounding us and the majesty of nature itself.

Highly Unproductive Day, Condi and Iraq

Woke up late again and pottered around. Got a bite to eat and starting surfing a bit on the net as per normal. Got a phone call from home which was nice - I don't call home often enough and I guess it is only right that I let my parents know that I am still alive.

No idea where most of the evening went. Organized the piles of International Relations notes that have accumulated in my room, and read an article, but that was the sum of what I managed. Listened to Condolezza Rice make a speech on BBC online from Blackburn of all places, where she admitted to the US making 'tactical errors' in Iraq, though defending the overall US policy to invade. I claim that it was relevant to what I am studying, albeit indirectly, particularly in the topic of Democratic Peace Theory. Proponents of Democratic Peace claim that democracies tend to have a special relationship with other democracies, reducing their likelihood of going to war against each other. Realists claim that this is inherently false. The relevance here is that one of the foremost justifications for the war in Iraq was 'regime change' and the Bush administration seems to suggest that one major long term US goal is to encourage the growth of freedom in the region, specifically through the process of democratization.

The problem with that is two fold. Firstly, some IR scholars have shown that countries in the process of democratization are likely to be more unstable in terms of their relations with other states that full dictatorships or full democracies. Second, there is an important difference between a democracy and a liberal democracy as outlined by Fareed Zakaria - a democracy taken loosely merely means a country whose government is brought about through free, fair and representative elections. This has been brought to the limelight by the Palestian elections which were won by Hamas. The US might not want to admit it, but Ahmadenijad, the current Iranian president, who is threatening to develop nuclear weapons for Iran, was elected to his position, even if the elections were not fully democratic. Finally, scholars have also suggested that building basic infrastructure is not enough to bring about significant change and that it will take decades for liberal democratic change to take root, if ever.

Well I had decided to stay at home today and try and study, which was an easier option considering the amount of books and materials that I would have to cart around otherwise. Having realized the futility of this option, it is back to the library for me tomorrow.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Me and Hair

What prompts this random entry is actually a nice little piece of trivia I picked up on. One of the common rants I have had is how the Singaporean army forces us to cut our hair, and will do so even when we report back for reservist training as effectively private citizens. Poor family members and friends have had to listen to me rage on about the gross violation of my civil liberties that this represented. I challenged the army to give evidence that having long hair will limit the combat effectiveness of soldiers and would lead to them being more susceptible to being killed in battle.

Well, aparently all they needed to do was turn, as always, to the good book. Absalom, is remembered as the rebellious son of King David, who led an army against his own father, and for the tearful lament that David cried at finding his body: "Absalom, my son my son, would God that I died for thee, my son!", which incidentally was used movingly at the end of Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Shadow. But back to the point: Absalom got himself killed because his rather long locks were entangled in the branches of an oak tree, and whilst he was struggling thus entrapped, the enemy commander thrust three spears through his heart. Perhaps it does pay to have short hair after all.