Thursday, 24 November 2011

Movie Overload!

In conjunction with Keputeraan Tuanku Sultan Johor (The Sultan of Johor Birthday) recently, we had a 'broken' long weekend. A weekend, then working Monday, and holiday again. But that's not too bad at all isn't it? Nothing much to do other than studying for lectures, I decided to dedicate the three days for, moviesss!! I haven't had a chance to see many movies lately, so this is the opportunity for me, and a housemate.

So the first movie in the series, on Saturday we saw The Immortals starring Henry Cavill and Freida Pinto. I remember Henry from the British epic drama The Tudors, as King Henry VIII's 'sidekick'. In The Immortals, Henry is the hero and Freida is the oracle. Well, nothing much to say about this movie really, apart of the quite impressive CGIs. The storyline is also very well known, adapted from Greek mythology. Is there a sequel? (anxiously waiting...)

The second one on Sunday, is Mr PIB aka Puss in Boot! Long a fan of Puss from Shrek, I just could not wait to see this movie that I had been watching lots of videos, trailers and teasers on YouTube. The cat even has his own channel! An enjoyable movie as many would expect, but maybe too many teasers spoiled the movie for me. Few surprises because many of the jokes I had seen on YT. So lesson learnt, do not watch too many teasers before watching the real movie... But I still love the part where the animals dance to Lady Gaga's Americano (this is not considered another spoiler, as it is available on YT ;)

 And the final one in the series, on Monday, is watching the penguins, penguin-turned puffin, sea elephants, krill and icebergs. No it is not National Geographic, it's Happy Feet 2! Who would have thought that Happy Feet has a sequel? At least not me. I think the most enjoyable one out of three, maybe because I had no single idea of what the movie is all about. Amazing graphics too, even in 2D. I guess the 3D version must be brilliant, with lots of eye-popping scenes. Five of my stars for the penguins! But, is the puffin Scandinavian??

My recommendation? Go and see all three.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Summer Solstice 2011

This story was in the pipeline for a few months. Only now I managed to squeeze some time to finish it, in between some other things. Not the most recent event, but an experience that I think worth sharing. So enjoy reading!

My last summer in London was filled with activities that I never thought I would be doing (this included a more intense research and writing up activities) J.  To mark this special period, I planned to do something extraordinary that I had never done before, on the longest day of summer (Solstice, or Midsummer Day). In astronomical words, the summer solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's semi-axis in a given hemisphere is most inclined towards the sun, at its maximum tilt of 23° 26'. ( Or in a not so astronomical terms, the time of the year when the sun is closest to the Earth’s hemisphere. In my case, it's the Northern hemisphere.

The hand-drawn solstice

This year’s Solstice fell on the 21st of June 2011. With two of my good mates, we started off the day as early as possible to make full use of the longest daylight. The sun rose at 4.43 am on that day, but for some obvious reasons, our day started at around 7.30 am. That was not too bad considering that most of our activities seldom starts that early ;)

So the first thing in the morning, a big hearty English breakfast. As with all ‘Engfasts’, it came with fried eggs, sausages, baked beanz, toasts, accompanied by a good milky café latté. Owh and with some grilled tomatoes and mushrooms too. Not my favourite kind of breakfast (too much for me!) but again as this was a special day we chose it over lighter ones. But I kind of miss Engfast after returning to Malaysia.  

The sumptuous 'Engfast'

 Then off onto the tube to the London Monument, which is close to the Monument tube station (hence the name) on the Circle and District lines (London’s slowest line ever!). A bit of history, the monument was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London in the year 1666 (ouch not the luckiest year). The Fire was on a scale so big that it consumed more than 13,000 houses, and even a chunk of St Paul’s Cathedral. Though fortunately there were only a few deaths recorded. Probably this is why nowadays fire regulation in London is so strict, to prevent events like this from happening again. Smoke detectors are virtually everywhere, even in the loo!

The Monument tower

The story behind it 

Well the original intention of going to the Monument was to see the sun rises. But it is not opened to visitors that early (plus as I already mentioned no way we could wake up that early just for sun rise watching). Even as we arrived there at around 9 am, it was still closed. So we wandered around the Monument area, like Bank to kill time. I quite like Bank and its surroundings with all the historic and magnificent façade of the Bank of England, and the Royal Exchange. We took a peek inside the Exchange building, only to be surprised (or rather intimidated) and we felt completely out of place. Especially with all the expensive, charming little shops, and smartly-dressed patrons. We made our way out in no time, seriously!

The impressive Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange story
The Bank of England, with no. 23 bus to Paddington!
Back to the Monument, we were the first visitor there. Paid a few quids, and we began a historic Midsummer climb up the spiral staircases. Looked easy from the outside, but trust me we almost ran out of breath towards the top! We were kept motivated by a bunch of families making their way up. No way we could be beaten by mums and dads and their kids! But the view from up there is spectacular. Almost all, if not all, of London landmarks could be seen despite the cloudy and windy weather. We took a few photos, and head down quicker than our ascend as gravity did us a few favour. And the first real surprise of the day, we each got a certificate certifying that we have climbed the Monument! How proud we were of our achievement J. Actually I have read on the internet about the certificate, but I did not believe that you would actually be awarded with one given the small effort required. But I was proven wrong. Thanks London Monument and the nice ticket lady!

Tower Bridge from atop Monument

The street

Tower Bridge

The City area

Then our driver (aka the tube) ‘picked us up’ again. Next stop, Thames Barrier. It is an architectural and engineering marvel, built to control the tide of the River Thames to avoid flooding the London city. To get there we had to change for the DLR (just like our Malaysian monorail) and got off at Pontoon Dock station. The Barrier is just a few minutes walk away. There is a charming little garden too next to it, but sadly it was closed for visitors. So another photo shoot by the river, next to the Barrier, while admiring the structures. I think the barrier structure look like a row of war ships ready for battle! The visitor centre is at the other side of the river, so we couldn't learn more about it (why didn’t they build the centre on both sides of the river??).

Closed garden

Yes these are the Barriers!

Barrier bee

Desolated Barrier park

Then we decided to make our way to take the ferry to the other side (at a pier that I couldn’t remember the name anymore), the onto the Double Decker Prawn Cracker bus to North Greenwich station to change for the river boat service from North Greenwich pier. North Greenwich pier is just next to the O2 Arena, the alien space ship-shaped building formerly known as the Millenium Dome built to commemorate the arrival of the year 2K. That was my first ever river cruise on the Thames, after being more than three years in London! And the good thing is that, the boat service allows the use of Oyster card, though the charge is not zonal like the Underground (and considerably more). Exciting I must say, viewing the buildings that I have seen ‘terrestrially’ for so many times from a different angle. But what amazed me the most of the river boat service is the efficiency. I had never imagined before that a large boat could stop just for a few minutes at a pier before getting back on their journey, just to pick up passengers. Well that is exactly the case with the Thames river boat. I think this service has a huge potential for London commuters, especially with the speed of the boat itself. So no problem if there is more tube strikes? Hmm maybe…  
The journey passed Greenwich, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, the Millennium Bridge which is next to Tate Modern and St Paul’s, Westminster and the London Eye, before disembarking at Embankment Pier. We got off the boat, then hopped onto a tube, to meet another good mate at University College Hospital. The hospital is close to the ‘museum street’, so I took the opportunity to check Wellcome Trust Museum, managed by the Wellcome Trust, one of the richest grant-giving body in the world, in Biomedical field.  Some weird exhibits later, hungry stomach, we made our way to a nice buffet restaurant somewhere in the area.

Greenwich from the boat 
Another Greenwich from the boat, 2 seconds later...

Warship docked next to the Tower Bridge, again (no this time not viewed from atop a tower!)

Just, Embankment Station! See the sun, that's the sun of the longest day of the year ...

Guess where am I?... Hint, see photo

Castle-like hotel next to St Pancras station

Our Solstice ‘adventure’ concluded with a goodbye get-together at Heathrow Airport, for a friend going back to Malaysia upon finishing his study. A whole day full of useful and insighful activities, the 2011 Summer Solstice was the most  memorable one for me. Because on the next year’s, I would possibly be teaching a group of students a bit of biology, or even share my experience of the previous Summer Solstice! Adios!

Last destination for the day, Heathrow Airport, for real!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Real Steel

Work commitments did not allow me to get something new on this page for a while. But spending some time between lectures and lunch I think is worth while, especially to write about a good movie like this.
So this is about the latest movie that I saw, Real Steel starring Hugh Jackman aka Charlie. Typical Hugh Jackman in the movie, carrying the kind of character we have seen in many of his movies. But what makes it good is the storyline. It is about a robot handler in the year 2020 (Charlie), trying to make ends meet by fighting other robots in fighting rings all over the country.

But the problem is, he is not a good handler, despite having been a good boxer. He then discovered that his ex wife had passed away, leaving him the custody to his estranged son. Custody is also requested by the boy's aunt to the court, which Charlie has no problem granting as a mean to demanding money from the lady's rich husband. The husband hesitantly agreed to Charlie's demand, so to make his wife happy. The deal was done secretly, and Charlie received half of the money. The other half would be given after he returns the boy back to the family. But Charlie, on some rare occasions being smart, said that he wants to spend the summer with the boy first.  I think as a way to demand more money, by making the lady to miss the boy so badly.

So most of the story unwinds during this period. How a non-existing relationship between father and son develops. The best part is of course the robofights, but I think the robots were depicted as being too humanly (including having some sort of weird emotions) with too-smooth a movement. But that does not take away the joy of watching. The emotional parts of the movie are also smartly weaved in between the rough, muddy and dangerous world that Charlie chose to live. Some cool moments too when the boy taught the bot to dance!

Overall, no disappointments, total joy of watching, no cliches. Five out of five from me.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The World Book Night 2012

I learned about this amazing effort by the charity World Book Night Ltd when I was still in London, towards the end of my study (early 2011). The process started by inviting people to nominate the books that they love, and the books receiving the highest votes would make it to top 100. The books would then be shortlisted, and the selected books would be given free on that night. The interesting part is that everyone can register to be a 'giver', whom will be given free books that he/she loves to be distributed to family and friends. What a great way to encourage reading, and at the same time to promote the titles (though many of them need not any introductions!).
This is happening again this year, let's see the books selected for WBN 2012:

The 2012 Long List - ordered by number of votes:
1    To Kill a Mockingbird    Harper Lee   
2    Pride and Prejudice    Jane Austen  
3    The Book Thief    Markus Zusak  
4    Jane Eyre    Charlotte Bronte  
5    The Time Traveler's Wife    Audrey Niffenegger  
6    The Lord of the Rings    J. R. R. Tolkien  
7    The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy    Douglas Adams  
8    Wuthering Heights    Emily Bronte   
9    Rebecca    Daphne Du Maurier  
10    The Kite Runner    Khaled Hosseini  
11    American Gods    Neil Gaiman  
12    A Thousand Splendid Suns    Khaled Hosseini  
13    Harry Potter Adult Hardback Boxed Set    J. K. Rowling 
14    The Shadow of the Wind    Carlos Ruiz Zafon  
15    The Hobbit    J. R. R. Tolkien  
16    One Day    David Nicholls   
17    Birdsong    Sebastian Faulks   
18    The Help    Kathryn Stockett   
19    Nineteen Eighty-Four    George Orwell  
20    Good Omens    Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman   
21    The Notebook    Nicholas Sparks  
22    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo    Stieg Larsson 
23    The Handmaid's Tale    Margaret Atwood  
24    The Great Gatsby    F. Scott Fitzgerald   
25    Little Women    Louisa M. Alcott   
26    Memoirs of a Geisha    Arthur Golden   
27    The Lovely Bones    Alice Sebold   
28    Atonement    Ian McEwan   
29    Room    Emma Donoghue  
30    Catch-22    Joseph Heller 
31    We Need to Talk About Kevin    Lionel Shriver  
32    His Dark Materials    Philip Pullman  
33    Captain Corelli's Mandolin    Louis De Bernieres 
34    The Island    Victoria Hislop  
35    Neverwhere    Neil Gaiman 
36    The Poisonwood Bible    Barbara Kingsolver   
37    The Catcher in the Rye    J. D. Salinger 
38    Chocolat    Joanne Harris  
39    Never Let Me Go    Kazuo Ishiguro  
40    The Five People You Meet in Heaven    Mitch Albom   
41    One Hundred Years of Solitude    Gabriel Garcia Marquez   
42    Animal Farm    George Orwell   
43    The Pillars of the Earth    Ken Follett  
44    The Eyre Affair    Jasper Fforde   
45    Tess of the D'Urbervilles    Thomas Hardy 
46    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory    Roald Dahl   
47    I Capture the Castle    Dodie Smith   
48    The Wasp Factory    Iain Banks   
49    Life of Pi    Yann Martel  
50    The Road    Cormac McCarthy   
51    Great Expectations    Charles Dickens   
52    Dracula    Bram Stoker   
53    The Secret History    Donna Tartt  
54    Small Island    Andrea Levy   
55    The Secret Garden    Frances Hodgson Burnett  
56    Lord of the Flies    William Golding  
57    Persuasion    Jane Austen  
58    A Prayer for Owen Meany    John Irving   
59    Notes from a Small Island    Bill Bryson  
60    Watership Down    Richard Adams   
61    Night Watch    Terry Pratchett  
62    Brave New World    Aldous Huxley   
63    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time    Mark Haddon   
64    Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell    Susanna Clarke   
65    The Color Purple    Alice Walker   
66    My Sister's Keeper    Jodi Picoult   
67    The Stand    Stephen King  
68    Cloud Atlas    David Mitchell   
69    The Master and Margarita    Mikhail Bulgakov   
70    Anna Karenina    Leo Tolstoy  
71    Cold Comfort Farm    Stella Gibbons  
72    Frankenstein    Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley   
73    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society    Mary Ann Shaffer   
74    The Picture of Dorian Gray    Oscar Wilde 
75    Gone with the Wind    Margaret Mitchell   
76    The Graveyard Book    Neil Gaiman   
77    The Woman in White    Wilkie Collins   
78    The Princess Bride    William Goldman  
79    A Suitable Boy    Vikram Seth
80    Perfume    Patrick Suskind   
81    The Count of Monte Cristo    Alexandre Dumas   
82    The God of Small Things    Arundhati Roy  
83    Middlemarch    George Eliot   
84    Dune    Frank Herbert   
85    Wolf Hall    Hilary Mantel   
86    Stardust    Neil Gaiman   
87    Lolita    Vladimir Nabokov   
88    Midnight's Children    Salman Rushdie   
89    Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone    J. K. Rowling   
90    Shantaram    Gregory David Roberts  
91    The Remains of the Day    Kazuo Ishiguro   
92    Possession: A Romance    A. S. Byatt   
93    Tales of the City    Armistead Maupin   
94    Kafka on the Shore    Haruki Murakami   
95    The Magus    John Fowles   
96    The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas    John Boyne   
97    A Fine Balance    Rohinton Mistry  
98    Alias Grace    Margaret Atwood 
99    Norwegian Wood    Haruki Murakami   
100    The Wind-up Bird Chronicle    Haruki Murakami
To read more:
So looking at the long list, it looks like my reading list is still a longg way to go.
Happy reading everyone!

Friday, 26 August 2011

A journey down memory lane: KTM train trip

I had no expectations when buying a KTM (Malaysian Train Company) ticket online for Aidilfitri. Getting a ticket was lucky enough for me, as I was the purchaser of the very last ticket available for the day. But the anticipation grew larger and larger as the day arrived. The first surprise came as I first arrived at the brand-spanking, sparkling new Johor Bahru train station, aptly re-named JB Sentral. Thanks to my two cool housemates for driving me all the way there :)

JB Sentral is located in between the Sultan Iskandar Building (handling traffic to and from Singapore I supposed) and the City Square shopping mall. It is almost 2 times larger than KL Sentral in terms of built-up, but not as busy I think. The railway station itself was opened on 21 October 2010. It is also said to house a bus station, but I did not see any parts of the building dedicated for this. 

Inside the station, there are many shops selling food, drinks, a few restaurants, a bakery. Very convenient, especially during Ramadhan when you need to have the facilities to break the fast. I wandered around, grabbed a KFC Zinger, popcorn chicken and a wrap, then waited at the lobby to board the train. About half an hour before the train departure, the passengers were invited to the 'departure lounge' a floor down. The station officers lined the entrance, handling over food packets (plenty of dates and a bottled water). The fact that there was a photographer taking photos of us made me think that we might be among the first few passengers making a trip home via trains from the station. I boarded the train a few minutes before the scheduled departure time, straight to the first coach. My ticket is for a shared-cabin, sharing with a nice brother working in Singapore. He is more of a frequent train traveller than me. The cabin has a sink, a TV that 'can only be operated by a member of staff', and a cosy double-decker bed. 

This was when another surprise came. Boarding the train makes one feels like transported back in time. Not much has changed since the first time I took the train, about 10 years ago. It is still a diesel-engined locomotive, with overwhelming noise from metals clanging, and doors left ajar. But at least the toilets are clean (relieved!) with plenty of water supply unlike those on planes. Seeing these, my mind travelled back perhaps 20 years to the time when trains were a main mode of transportation and featured heavily on teles. What a nostalgia...  

Not much could be seen outside on the way north, as it was a night train. So I spent more time inside the cabin, reading mags and watching movies. A movie in particular caught my attention, called The Last Train Home. It is about a mass migration in China every Chinese New Year, where migrant workers in big big cities make their way home (very much like our 'balik kampung'). The only difference is that many are from villages thousands of miles away. So every year there is this exodus of people, trying their best to break into stations to get that precious tickets. And once tickets obtained, there is another challenge of squeezing into limited number of trains. So the ownership of tickets does not guarantee a seat on board. Many people even fainted in the stampede, for the sake of going back to their hometown to celebrate the New Year as one family. Watching this in the comfort of my own cabin makes me realise that we are still lucky to have enough trains, buses, flights to get us all back home safely for Aidilfitri. 

As night gave way to daylight, after the pre-dawn meal, I had the chance to wander around the coach. The train was approaching the town of Tanah Merah and fortunately I still had not missed the opportunity to see the countryside. And having the chance to see the train crossed the great Kelantan River was really a bonus! At exactly (or more or less) the time stated on the ticket, the train arrived at Pasir Mas, where I alighted. That completed my journey home for Aildilfitri this year, and an opportunity to see the country from a different point of view.

Along the way, I kept on wondering is it not the right time for us to upgrade our train system. Given the number of passengers it serves, change is imminent. I have had the chance to experience the smooth and efficient train system in the UK. Every time I step foot on the Virgin train, I could not help but imagine how good it is to have such a system here in Malaysia. The journey time from Johor Bahru to Kota Bharu could be shortened to up to a few hours only. I have also let myself be mesmerised by the amazing Japanese Shinkansen. From the bullet-like design to the flawless point-to-point travel, it is arguably the best train system in the world (with of course a hefty fare to pay). But I think again, some things are meant to be preserved. I would not have the opportunity aforementioned if not for KTM trains. Perhaps it should just remain that way for years to come... 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Cowboys vs... aliens??

This is the latest movie that I saw. Comment? Not bad really. A twist from the typical alien or cowboy movies. Combining both seems to work for me, even though the war is obviously one-sided. The cowboys are only equipped with primitive guns and spears, and the aliens with a highly sophisticated supersonic laser watch-style arm-gun. Then comes Dan Craig to the rescue. The movie is also not cliche-ended, and believable storyline. But a question comes to mind, why do all aliens have to be ugly? Are they really that ugly? Until the SETI mission finds something, we will never know...

Do bananas hibernate?

Yes they do! Why? I dunno... But they are still my favourite fruit.
Taken at: Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens, 24 April 2011.

A good article by the Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail

Curiouser and curiouser: managing discovery making

Beware the urge to direct research too closely, says Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail. History teaches us the value of free scientific inquisitiveness.
On a recent official visit to southeast Asia, a prime minister asked me: "What does it take to get a Nobel prize?" I answered immediately: "Invest in basic research and recruit the best minds." This curiosity-driven approach seems increasingly old-fashioned and underappreciated in our modern age of science. Some believe that more can be achieved through tightly managed research — as if we can predict the future. I believe this is an unfortunate misconception that affects and infects research funding. I hear repeatedly, particularly in developing countries: "Applied research is what we need." There is nothing wrong with a nation having mission-oriented research and development to solve specific problems or to dedicate to an outreach programme, such as space exploration or alternative energy. During my visits as a US science envoy, I have emphasized that without solid investment in science education and a fundamental science base, nations will not acquire the ground-breaking knowledge required to make discoveries and innovations that will shape their future...

Aidilfitri (Eid-ul-fitr) 2011

Aidilfitri will be in just 5 days time. I am looking forward to it as this is going to be my first Aidilfitri at home after two years abroad. A novel mode of 'balik kampung' makes it all the more memorable. But in spite of all the festive mood, my Genetic Engineering lecture notes are in the pipeline. Thanks to Dr Chan and Prof Noor Aini for inputs. I will see you new students in the new semester, a few days after Aidilfitri!