16 August 2008

Mad about English

I watched this documentary about some Chinese people learning English in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics at Lido last night. It was entertaining initially but it got tedious later due to its repetitive nature despite being only about 90 minutes long. There were lots of cheap laughs in the form of forgettable, half-formed vignettes, not unlike skits seen in youtube or Saturday Night Life. I thought Mad about English' opened a window to the psyche and hopes of many common Chinese in Beijing. It was by no means a broad-based cross-section but it could be reflective in some aspects. Besides, it was quite entertaining for most parts. 6/10

14 August 2008


I finished reading 'The Martian General's Daughter' by Theodore Judson yesterday.

The basic premise of this science fantasy novel is one of a decaying and decadent empire in the future and the plot is essentially that of a parallel of the reigns of wise Marcus Aurelius, his murderous son, Commodus and the subsequent amoral pretenders to the throne. The wanton murders, the emperor's gladiatorial fights and the resultant succession war afterwards, culminating in the deaths and misery of millions are disturbing and have made for a read that is slightly reminiscent of misery depicted in the fatalistic caste-based culture in Paul Park's masterly trilogy 'The Starbridge Chronicles'.*

I have read Judson's previous work 'Fitzpatrick's War' and I have been impressed by the world-building, the quality of the narrative and the plot which has echoed Alexander the Great's reign.

With regards to the plot of both works, it will not be surprising if one views 'The Martian General's Daughter' and 'Fritzpatrick's War' as cautionary tales of empire-building and also an indictment of Pax Americana but my impressions are that these are more of a straight re-telling of facets of Greek and Roman history that have been transposed to a futuristic setting.

On another point, what I have liked about this work is that it is a nice 230+ pages in length which is a relief given the bloat that one finds in today's science fiction and fantasy works. 800-page tomes like each volume of that dreadful, neverending George R. R. Martin fantasy series 'A Song of Ice and Fire' anyone? The brevity and writing of Judson's work have effectively conveyed the drama and ideas without the overwriting one commonly sees in the two genres of SF and fantasy. Perhaps, Judson has a good editor, I don't know. A final note on 'The Martian General's Daughter', strangely enough, the novel is marred by a few lines of unnecessary Christian propaganda near the end. I wonder why.**

I am also reading 'The Last Colony' by John Scalzi. I guess this is the 'completist' side of me taking over. I should really avoid doing that. This will definitely be my last Scalzi novel.*** The last two which I read 'Ghosts Brigade' and 'The Android's Dream' were, I feel, already veering on the side of the writer's self-indulgence. My impression is that the 'Old Man's War' series appear to have degenerated into a jokey, self-referential family drama, not unlike those continuing fantasy novels by Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, with descendents of the original protagonists going on adventures and so forth. This is my final Scalzi novel as continuing family dramas, not unlike that of soap operas, are tiresome. Yes, it's a space opera without the rayguns.

I read Scalzi's 'Old Man's War' last year which has a tone that harkens back to the gee-whiz attitudes in the old Heinlein classic 'Starship Troopers' and also his SF novels written for kids. That was refreshing in a sense.

I am also continuing with the humourous 'The Man Who Ate Everything' by food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. I started this some months back after reading 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' but was distracted.

I have read bits and pieces of 'Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age' by Peter Paret, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert over the years. Wei Yi had recommended the compilation over a decade ago but I haven't the time and energy then. I have decided to finally finish this volume before embarking on others which I will expand on in a future date.

On a curious note, Condoleezza Rice contributed an essay, 'The Making of Soviet Strategy' in this 1986 volume.

Lastly, I am in the midst of 'God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist' by Victor J. Stenger after finishing that well-written and well-argued Hitchens' volume 'God is not great: How religion poisons Everything'.

What are you reading at present?

* The Starbridge Chronicles consists of 'Soldiers of Paradise', 'Sugar Rain' and 'The Cult of Loving Madness'.
** Two other writers that I have read have shoehorned Christianity into their fantasy works. David Gemmell and Simon Green had made mention of Christianity in their fictional fantasy worlds that had appeared to have almost no connection with our timeline. Odd means of sermonising.
*** There is yet another one, 'Zoe's Tale' in that series. 'The Sagan Diary' is also another perspective. No, I will not be reading them. Enough.

12 August 2008

Illusionary Competitions

This has happened time and again. There are some organisations, which ones, I will not state*, who will put up a request for quotation with an intention of awarding to a fixed party. What happens is that this particular organisation will announce a RFQ or tender with a tiny window and some rather odd specifications, making it rather difficult if not impossible for most submitters to adhere to.

There was a particular time when the contact details of the person calling for the quotation were not even given!**

In other words, the organisation is submitting to the 'letter of the law' but not to the 'spirit of the law'. The transaction has been fixed. The people calling for the quotation has conspired with a particular outside party for that. Oh well. What can I say? This isn't even about huge expensive systems...

In the first place, why do these organisations even bother to call for a competition?

* Well, I haven't stated if these are government, quasi-government, public or private limited companies. I leave it to you to guess.
** No telephone number, no fax number, just an email address that was wrong!