December 12th

These blog posts are thinning out to say the least, partly because I'm busy, and partly because I've already said a lot of things I wanted to. Which is better, repeating yourself endlessly, or staying silent once you've said your piece?

Quote of the Week

  • "This house has been far out at sea all night, |The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, |Winds stampeding the fields under the window |Floundering black astride and blinding wet |Till day rose; then under an orange sky |The hills had new places, and wind wielded |Blade-light, luminous black and emerald, |Flexing like the lens of a mad eye." - Ted Hughes, Wind

Friday, 31 December 2010

Random Discoveries

I love the internet for its inherent power to access information, particularly new information that delights the senses and feeds the mind.

Number One: Poto and Cabengo

This really strange video is of Poto and Cabengo (Grace and Virginia Kennedy), a pair of twins who spoke their own unique language for the first 8 years of their lives. This is called idioglossia, and in this case is unique because of the duration which the children spoke it.

Number Two: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius was an ordinary bloke who ruled the Roman empire for 19 years, and was considered the last of the five "Good Emperors". He wrote down his thoughts, or Meditations, as they are now known, in his spare time, and though he never intended for anyone else to read them, his Meditations are considered one of the most important Stoic documents of all time. You can find copies strewn liberally across the internet, and I encourage you to look through them when you can - although it would be good to get one that has been translated into fairly modern English. Interestingly, there is a strong parallel between the tenets of Stoicism and those of Christianity.

Number Three: Mahalia Jackson

I stumbled on Mahalia via a friend who sent me a Duke Ellington song, and when I heard her voice my hairs stood on end. Nothing I write here will do justice to the sheer power of her voice, so I won't try. Instead, sit back, shut your eyes, and listen.

Number Four: Hardwired Happiness

Again, I'll let the main man do the talking. There's a massive truth in this that just isn't realised often enough, and whether you buy into it or not, take a while to reflect on how relevant your goals and ambitions are.

I hope that this New Year is an enlightening one.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Millenium I

There's just something about really good books that makes you want to share them with everyone else - this is definitely one of the best I've read all year, and this year I read Joseph Conrad, Bram Stoker and WIlliam Golding. Dragon Tattoo was the one that I absolutely couldn't put down.

For those of you who don't know, Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the first in the Millenium trilogy) begins with a semi-failed financial journalist being placed in an Agatha Christie-styled mystery. From the one-sentence summary, the book could devolve into just another factory-made novel, but doesn't because Larsson throws so many other things into the mix that we sometimes forget that the book is about a missing girl.

Making the main character (Mikael Blomvkist) a financial journalist was Larsson's first major deviation from the formula, and allows him to ground his character in a very different reality from that of the common thriller - we've heard enough about the detectives who always seem to have the same modus operandi, and we've become bored by the everymen who stumble on improbable government conspiracies in every other thriller.

Not every thriller has to be about an amnesiac assassin, and not everything is the fault of powerful people in American or Russian governments. Blomvkist, being the only main character in a thriller who has other things to worry about besides the main plot, doesn't even believe that there is a murder for a while. Instead, he desperately wants a crack at one of Sweden's stockbrokers, a wholly different beast, more elusive and much harder to kill. No matter what the reader thinks of the topic, we feel Larsson's clear disgust at an economy where bankers can lose millions to currency speculation and get away with it.

Henrik Vanger drags Blomvkist into the situation by hiring him to solve the decades-old mystery. Vanger is the former owner of the Vanger corporation, a company that actually produces goods rather than trading stocks. He is a man of industry, represents Sweden's declining manufacturing power, old but still wielding considerable financial and political clout. Through him, Larsson reminds us that there is a distinction between the share market and a true economy based on production.

But Blomvkist and Vanger both take a backseat to Lisbeth Salander, for whom the book is named. She dresses like a punk, acts like she is socially unaware and has no friends, but is capable of digging up the deepest, darkest secrets of anyone with a social security number. She is initially hired to do a background check on Blomvkist, and gets more involved in the mystery for her own reasons. Salander is an enigma, including, we suspect, to Larsson when he first began writing. We understand that something terrible has happened to her, but don't know exactly what (until the next book); we know that she operates on her own set of principles, but can't be sure what drives her to create them in the first place. And because she is such a unique person, we find ourselves waiting to see how she behaves, just so that we can divine more about her mind.

The book has so many extras that it almost defies the Law of Necessary Characters. Notables include Erika Berger, Blomvkist's lover and partner; Nils Bjurman, Salander's guardian; Harriet Vanger, the girl whos dissappearance still influences Henrik Vanger; her brother Martin who has grown to take over the Vanger corporation, and Dragan Armansky, Salander's boss. All of them add their own colour to the picture, and serve to make the book so much more than just another thriller.

Larsson writes so that the plot becomes a tool to allow for character development, which is so far another unique aspect of the book. Part of the way in, I found myself thinking more about why the characters behaved the way they did, than about how they solve the mystery. A clue comes in the book's original Swedish name - Män som hatar kvinnor. Its English translation is Men Who Hate Women.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Nov 4th - Dec 22nd

In my earliest incarnation of this blog, I declared loudly that I wouldn't make it about what I did last Thursday, or who I had coffee with. This post is diary-esque, but I don't think of it as breaking the rules, but maybe bending them a little - after all, I've not truly blogged in a long time, and I want to put down some of my experiences in words before they slip out of memory. Maintaining policy, I've tried to make this more about the ideas that spawned from events, rather than the events themselves - and therefore have cut out a few events about which my ideas are still developing.

When I got back from Malaysia on the 9th, I went straight back to work - the Mental Health block was in full swing, and I buried myself in it as much as I could, to stay occupied. Come to think of it, I really did enjoy the block, even though it was rather bad timing, and involved a lot of travelling between three hospitals - the Leicester General, the Glenfield General and another one in (of all places!) Coalville.

Granddad died on Wednesday November 24th, 2010. He passed away without suffering, and left behind a wife, four children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. I don't think I will fully comprehend how much he did for the country, nor am I sure that I want to. All I know is that he was my granddad, and I will remember him as such.

I flew back for the funeral the next evening (Thursday), arriving in the wee hours of Saturday morning. It was my third flight in four weeks, and I felt it - but what I felt was nothing compared to what grandma and the rest of the family are feeling, and I shan't make a mountain out of it - I managed to make it back for the funeral, and for that I am grateful.

The funeral itself was an outpouring of grief, for us, and for people who'd never met him but were profoundly affected by his governance. But as ever, the politicians and reporters were there, hoping to prey on his reputation. I refuse to let their presence spoil the memory of that event - it was dignified, and it was cathartic. For us, and for the hundreds of people who gave up their time to say their prayers or help in some other way, it was to mourn his passing, and remember his life.

The silver lining was meeting up with family, especially those whom I hadn't met in years, or in some cases, whom I had never met before. But there was little time to get to know them. I spent less than 2 days on the ground before flying back to Leicester and jumping straight back into the block, which was now in full swing.

The weekend after the flight, I went to London for a WHO simulation, and argued my heart out with fellow 'delegates'. I learned a few things about Malaysia - we're apparently the world's 19th largest trading nation (or 21st, depending on the sources you use), and we have our own pharmaceutical industry - most of our companies produce generic drugs, but we do have a few patents, including a 3-in-1 antiretroviral that allows users to take a single pill a day, rather than having to remember them all. The WHO sim was true to life in that we didn't manage to pass any of the major resolutions about drug patents - at one point we were quite literally arguing over a comma, and I felt myself die just a little bit.

On the social side of the WHO sim, we saw the Ameteur Transplants, a comedy duo who were both practicing GPs. They were excellent in every way, although there are some sketches that I simply can't repeat. I met some new and old friends as well, whom I hope to meet again sometime in the future.

Back in Leicester, I was thrown immediately into two subsections of the block - learning disabilities, and elderly week. LD, as it's called, is a junction between neurology and psychiatry, because the brains of LD patients have experienced some kind of insult in birth or early childhood, and comprises a spectrum of disease ranging from Down's syndrome to Autism. The consultant I was attached to was appropriately trained in neurology and psychiatry. LD was incredibly interesting, and looks to be a challenging field - when patients don't communicate the same way that you do, it becomes a Sherlock Holmes-styled detective game to find out what's wrong.

Elderly week was...bad. I could tell the moment the smell of old people wafted towards me on the ward. My suspicions were confirmed by the fact there was a lump of poo and a pool of urine towards one corner of the corridor, and a voice in the distance saying "please God, I can't take it anymore," over and over again.

I met a few lovely ladies, along with the psychiatric baggage they brought with them. Susan (name changed) had frontal lobe dementia, which meant that her mood and personality had been forever altered because the part of her brain controlling it was degenerating. She spent her time shouting at everyone as loudly as she could. Janet, whom I later discovered was the source of both the body waste and the incessant talk of not taking anymore, had full-blown Alzheimer's. Annie, on the other hand, seemed completely sensible except that she insisted to be sent home, and would burst into tears every time I said I couldn't do that because I was a medical student. After about 30 minutes of trying to take a history from a lady who would only talk about going home or cry about the same, I took the opportunity to disappear while she was distracted.

Of course, the unspoken question in geriatrics is, what happens to you when you grow old -mentally, and physically? I suppose I'd have to get used to depending on people, but the idea that my mind is going to slowly decline into nothingness - that doesn't bear thinking about. I value my mind above so many other things: cogito ergo sum, what are we without our minds?

A final week in General Adult just confirmed how fascinating psychiatry is. Schizophrenia in particular is just...incredible, simply because of the things that people see and hear. One thing also quite interesting is the "delusional system", a system of false beliefs that people build for themselves based on something that they see or hear (whether it's a hallucination or a real perception). For example, someone may hallucinate of a little green man which then disappears, but then build a belief that the Martians are sending recon teams to scout the planet before they invade us en masse, and nobody can see them because they disappear when people do.

Depression on the other hand is a completely different kettle of fish. Being severely depressed is like having your deepest darkest fears come true, and then accepting them because you think you're worthless. And then there's depression with psychosis, when people hear voices telling them that they're worthless, and other nice things like they'd be better off dead, and that they aught to commit suicide. Nasty stuff.

The exam, for such an interesting topic, was actually kind of disappointing. There was no mention of eating disorder (up to 10% mortality rate), substance abuse (worth US$40 billion a year for the cartels in Mexico), and just a smidgeon of personality disorder (psychopathy, which is best described in Hannibal Lecter, wasn't covered at all!). We had a few videos and some questions about them - oddly enough, the sad person was depressed, the one who thought God had a personal message for him was schizophrenic (irony?), and the one who was worried in crowds had social anxiety disorder. In all fairness, psychiatry is a massive field, and a single exam probably wouldn't be enough to cover all of it. But at least try, dammit!

Following the short and fortunately sweet exam is the Christmas holiday, and for once it's an honest chance to take a quick breather, and reflect on what's happened in the past few weeks. It's also an opportunity to meet up with friends before the long march to IPE, which brings me to the present moment - sipping at leftover Bak Kut Teh from last night's dinner and listening to Max Richter. I'm going to keep myself busy this holiday, because I have so much to do, and for once I actually want to do it.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Ineffectual Gesture

My granddad had a stroke last Tuesday and is now in a coma. He may never wake up.

The media descended on the ITU almost immediately, followed soon after by the politicians. I arrived, tired and disorientated, direct from England, only after the press had been picking at the news for days.

I know it's bad because almost the whole family has gathered, even the cousin I haven't seen in four years because he moved to America.

We visit twice a day, even after midnight. My aunt, the more spiritual among us, reads prayers in English and Tibetan. She brings monks to chant some more, at least every second day. I've given up trying to understand the spiritual world, but the Tibetan prayers somehow calm the nerves, taking the edge off.

The rest of us whisper into his ear and hold his hand, and on good days we get a few twitches in his fingers, one every few minutes, and we talk more about everything, anything, because we hope he can hear us, and because silence would be an admission of defeat.

On other days, when there's been no response, we sit and stare, trying to divine his fate from the lines running across the screen. So what if his blood pressure has gone up by 12/8? What difference is it that he has a ventricular ectopic after every 8 heartbeats instead of after 9? It's a pointless, futile endeavour - Mum and Dad know it, I know it, the cousins and aunts know it, the doctors know it - but we all do it anyway, because on bad days, the monitor and the chart are the only link we have to him.

Questions are asked - Should we resuscitate if he has a cardiac failure? How long do we want to wait for him to wake up? Four years of training seem useless as I try to help come up with answers.I explain how resuscitation can leave people with broken ribs and punctured lungs, and how it may be better to not resuscitate. As the words leave my mouth, I feel like I've betrayed him.

We visit again, arriving in ITU after midnight and staying for hours, watching the lines move slowly across the screen as the machine pumps air into and our of his lungs. It's an ineffectual gesture, accomplishing nothing. But it's all we can do to show we care, and by God or Buddha or the powers that be, we will do it for as long as we can.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Zen Stories

I was sharing this story with a friend, and realised that it was good food for thought. It's only a story, and whether you agree with it is not important, but understanding it may bring you to understand other things.

In the hills of Nepal are set tiny villages, where the locals cling to life by farming, or more recently, by trading with tourists. In one of these villages there is a roadsidestall where tea is sold from a great boiling cauldron, at two different prices - 5 dollars, and 500 dollars. For both prices, the same tea is taken from the exact same cauldron, poured into the exact same cups, and served in exactly the same manner. Some travellers who buy the expensive tea say they have been cheated, others insist that it is the best cup of tea they've ever had in their lives.
There are those who look but do not see, but maybe the pilgrimmage to seek is the more important than the epiphany of discovery. Happy interpreting.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The SLEEP OUT (Part 3)

Every once in a while, you meet someone who simply defies your understanding of human ability. Carl was one of these people - he had been standing non-stop in the cold for 8 hours, with just an extra T-shirt over the one he already had on.

As we tried to bury ourselves in our blankets, Carl looked like he was having the time of his life. He was humming tunefully to himself while strolling around, occasionally looking a student the same way a shepherd might look at his sheep. As the religious drunk continued rambling to the students, I decided to dust myself off, and have a chat with Carl, who turned out to be quiet, unassuming, and really nice. Maybe being homeless changes your attitudes to people.

Carl, as the story goes, was thrown out onto the streets after a disagreement with his wife. He was homeless for 4 days before being picked up by Action Homeless, who put him in sheltered accommodation, and then into semi-permanent housing, where he’d been for about three months. Carl is looking to be an electrician, and I want to think that he’s succeeded in that dream, even though I’ll probably never meet him again.

Around 2am, the night’s revellers began to show up, teetering down the road in ones and twos. Most passed us by curiously and in peace. Some time later, a trio of revellers sang loudly and asked their friends among us to join them, but we scared them away by asking them to donate. But then, another drunkard showed up, and recognising another sleep-outer as his cousin, began loudly abusing him for being on the street.

Within seconds, Carl was towering over the drunk. Without raising his voice, Carl asked very diplomatically whether there was a problem. Given that Carl is built like a tank, and that other members of our group were starting to surround him like zookepers controlling a dangerous animal, the drunkard’s answer was “no”, and he bade a hasty retreat around the corner.

Situation resolved, we got back into our sleeping bags. Carl resumed humming a happy song as if nothing happened. The night wore on, the trickle of drunkards thinned and finally stopped, and things got quiet again.

Around 3.30am – Even after the commotion, sleep remained elusive. A few of us stayed up chatting about Life, the Universe and Everything (the answer is confirmed to be forty-two), and a few others were forced to fulfil a few more basic bodily functions – we turned to the destroyer of arteries, the purveyor of obesity, the murderer of cows... we had no choice, we were defeated. Into the shiny plastic doors of McDonalds we marched.

On our way there, we noticed a sleep-outer in her blanket – she was shivering heavily, and wasn’t particularly responsive to us trying to wake her up. We convinced her to get out of her blanket and led her to the hellflames of McDonald’s to warm up, and fed her a pack of chips [Note: This is the only recorded case in this blog of McDonalds food ever being beneficial to your health, please see here for the McDonalds experiment that made me stop eating McDonalds food].

5am – officially one hour to go, but our job was effectively complete. The garish advertising lights and black of shadow began to fade away, giving way to faded colours of sleep-outers waking up. People were stirring in their blankets; conversations were mumbled. Some started to pack up. We three went one step ahead began planning our escape by taxi.

At 5.30, the heavens opened up. The sleep-outers packed frantically while our getaway car swung into view. It was curtains-down time as the taxi powers away, while we stared at the rapidly dissolving crowd of sleep-outers.


Sunday, 30 May 2010

The SLEEP OUT (Part 2)

10pm in Leicester town square, and the sun had fully set. As temperatures fell and a chill wind picked up, most of us hunkered down in our sleeping bags and thought of getting some warm food in the McD's next door. Conversation began to wane, although a small group remained awake playing frisbee or catch rugby.

Midnight came, and it got even colder. We started to realise just how ineffective our gear was - the wind was going straight through my jeans, and my built-for-the-tropics sleeping bag wasn't really helping. Enter the Salvation Army, run by the nicest old couple you will ever meet. They started distributing blankets (oddly with Australian Airlines logos), then brought groups of us to their main building for some free food - tasty, tasty food. It reminded me of going for dinner at an uncle's place, and they made it really quite difficult for us to leave. My little eating group was an odd bunch - we had a Canadian version of Gok Wan, a girl who was organising for the event, and a postgrad who was technically a year below me. Interesting banter ensued as we munched down on restaurant-quality shepherd's pie.

It was 1am when our group headed back to the cardboard town. Things had become substantially better and our spirits were up when a drizzle began. We scurried for the cover of a nearby shop... and were told by the organisers that we weren't allowed to lean against the shop windows!

Now, this is apparently what happened - when HOMED contacted Leicester City Council about the event, the LCC designated an area in which we were allowed to sleep - and apparently, this area was literally, an open space with no shade, and no contact with any walls save for that of the Clock Tower - because somehow the tiny tower can magically shade a hundred people from the rain.

Fortunately, it wasn't heavy - and the waterproof gear that I'd brought with me finally proved its worth. We sat it out with a few umbrellas, and I snuggled under the now-warm sleeping bag to get a bit of sleep.

Roughly 1.30am - I woke up to the image of a weathered old man standing over us, saying something about God to one of the students - and since I'm not going into the God argument again, I decide to old my tongue. From what I overheard, he believed that by doing good things such as sleeping out for charity, we were carrying out God's work. I'll leave the reader to mull that one over.

After the God discussion, I spoke to him and it turned out that he was kicked out by family because of a drinking problem. Having nowhere to go and no money to pay fo shelter, he took to the streets clutching a 2-litre bottle of cheap beer, and that's how we found him.What strikes me is that he'd been given medical treatment (I think it was Naltrexone), ran out of it, and relapsed before he could get more - and when you're trying to rebuild your life, one bad day can sweep away everything you've accomplished. The fact that this man could buy 2 litres of alcohol with what money he had probably didn't help either.

At some point in the night (I can't tell exactly when), we were joined by two more homeless people who were looking for a place to sleep. All I know is that there were suddenly two homeless people with us when there weren't any before. They had apparently been looking for shelter and were turned away because everything was full, and therefore had wandered around till they found us. Ironic really that they were trying to find shelter, while we decided to leave ours for a night.

Having been woken up by the religious alcoholic, I got up and spoke to Carl, the man I mentioned in Part 1. He had been standing guard over us since the night started at 6, and had literally not sat down or rested in any form for 8 hours...

To be continued.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The SLEEP OUT (Part 1)

All right, the post you've been waiting for. On May 11th, a not-quite summer evening, I joined about eighty other students on the streets in Leicester for twelve hours, hosted and organised by student group HOMED.

The first question you would probably ask is "why?!" Three reasons I can think of: first of all, it was to raise money and awareness of the homeless. Secondly, I personally wanted to know how it felt to be on the streets. And thirdly...well, when would I ever get another chance to do something as brilliant, and as mad, as this?

No matter the reasons, that night was something more to me than an impulsive moment. I think I've reached a point where I no longer want to just accumulate knowlege - I want to use my time and abilities to do something useful.

In either case, everything kicked off at 5.30pm at the university, where we all gathered with sleeping bags and other kit. After some handing out of food items and mingling, we wandered off to the clock tower, which was conveniently stocked with cardboard sheets. There was a fair number of other people around, including some people from the Salvation Army and Action Homeless, the charity for which we were collecting the money. Also on site was a big man called Carl, who had been homeless and was at the time being housed by Action Homeless.

Let me tell you, if you're ever out on a cold street, cardboard is essential - not to keep you clean (let's admit it, you have bigger things to worry about when you're on a street), but to keep you warm - the concrete pavement is an excellent conductor and will happily absorb your precious body heat, even if you're wrapped up. Dry cardboard, no matter how grungy or thin, will insulate you from the pavement and allow your body heat to build up in that sleeping bag.

Within minutes, a brown field of overlapping cardboard sheets sprang out around the clock tower, and patches of friends had mushroomed up in their own little groups, chatting or playing cards. I planted myself among a few acquaintences and listened as the CEO of Action Homeless gave us some information on what exactly they did, and how the money we raised was going to be spent.

It turns out that the UK has quite a decent support system for the homeless. There are two groups of homeless in Leicester - the ones who want to be, and therefore reject help, and those who don't want to be, but don't have access to help. People from the latter group tend to be out on the streets for about a week before being picked up and provided accomodation in a hostel (A week is nothing really in the tropics, but over here a week in winter is quite literally deadly if you aren't properly clothed). As soon as is reasonable, they get moved out of the hostels into semi-permanet housing, which is provided by Action Homeless and paid for by the government. The challenge after that is to bring these people back to their normal lives - the two major barriers are the lack of available accomodation, and the people becoming habituated in their hostels. Of course, then the people need to deal with whatever reason they were homeless in the first place, mostly revolving around too much drink, too little work, and relationships that go sideways.

It was about 7pm, and still bright, when we'd finished discussing the ins and outs of everything. The mayor of Leicester appeared, fully kitted up with a man-in-black bodyguard, and stayed chatting with us for about an hour, even after the cameraman stopped taking pictures. I didn't speak to him, but he seemed like a nice guy. The best way for me to describe him was Michael Caine wearing a graduation robe and some serious neck bling.

We got quite a lot of attention from shoppers and other passers-by until it started getting dark around 9pm. As the crowd thinned out, tedium started to set in until a frisbee and rugby ball appeared, both of which would remain on scene for the better part of the night. Still, it made me wonder what exactly the homeless do for fun - and the answer is, not much. Alone on these streets, you rapidly become invisible.

All was well until the temperature started dropping...

To be continued.

Monday, 3 May 2010


Recent discussions with a good friend have brought me back to a very old quote that I put up:

"A reasonable man adapts himself to his environment. An unreasonable man persists in attempting to adapt his environment to suit himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." - George Bernard Shaw
The quote is self-explanatory - to adapt oneself is to lay down one's values, and therefore to keep doing things the same way. For someone to keep fighting for what they believe in, they must keep believing, especially when the environment doesn't let them believe. That's the point when inaction tips over into activity, and people start changing the environment to accomodate themselves.

Yet, constant activity isn't possible - it requires a very manic kind of person to struggle on against improbable odds, and the odds are indeed improbable. The very human desire for improvement is matched by an equally human desire to be content with these improvements. We balance on a see-saw of these two, and finally when one side of the board is grounded for too long, we tip it back up, until our side of the board starts coming back down again.

Now, everyone exists in this state. But some people will spend most of their time in the relaxed, happy side of the board. These are the ones who are the happiest, though certainly not the most productive. A few will be constantly pushing for more, tipping the see-saw towards change. They will never truly be happy with themselves, even though people will admire their sacrifice. And a very small, elite group will have got it just right, so that the see-saw is perfectly balanced between improvement and contentedness - don't we hate them for it.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

I Want Change

A long time ago, a little boy wrote in his blog about changing the world. He expected everyone to rally to his cause, and that everything would happen like the start-to-end linear plot to a World War Two movie, with obstacles swept aside like leaves in the wind.

I realise now that change doesn't happen that way. For the tiniest thing on Earth you want to change, you need to move mountains within yourself. When things are comfortable, you need something else to create change - some kind of stimulus, some build-up of pressure. You need to make yourself uncomfortable, to the point that you can't bear being in a situation which everyone else finds ideal. You need to stop being satisfied with yourself, and being happy with the way you live your life. You need to doubt. And that's something that not everyone is willing to do.

A lot has happened to me to make me take this first step. Please, help me take my second.!/event.php?eid=107755979261034&ref=mf

Friday, 12 February 2010

Sketch Art

Sketch art, as some of you may know, is a pretty big hobby of mine, and since a friend has asked me about techniques, I thought I'd share a few here. I'm not a great artist and don't pretend to be, so this advice is really just about the more straightforward concepts.

Right, so we start off with structuring - this is possibly the most important part of the sketch, since without an outline, your sketch won't look like whomever you're drawing. I'll post a focused set of drawings indicating structure in a while, but in the meantime, if you compare them side by side, my character's head is a little bit wider than the original's. This gives my sketch a broader face, which means that the features are spread wider apart (note the distance between the eye and nose). Poor placement has potential to completely mess up a picture, so be careful with where you place your features - the nose is particularly annoying because there's no good measure of where it is in relation with the rest of the face.

In this picture, the nose is the right length, but separated from the right eye by too far a distance, giving our Spartan queen a much broader face than she really has. Another good measure to place the nose is the distance between the eyes and between the eyebrows. The eyebrows maintain the right distance, but the eyes aren't the right distance apart. One way to make sure you have the right structuring is to draw just the outline of the picture, then compare it against the original until you get the exact proportions right.

Right, moving on to shading. Shading is what gives the picture depth, and without it your drawing won't stand out as being any good at all. I generally use two kinds of shading - hatching (using the tip of the pencil) and blending (using the flat end of the pencil, then rubbing it smooth with tissue paper or a finger). Other variants of shading are listed here, and I'm fairly certain that there are more out there.

Here, the majority of the shading is done by blending hatched lines, for example in the forehead. Combining these techniques gives the control of hatching and the convenience of blending, and to further darken the picture I simply added another layer of hatching over the first and blended them together, for example the neck. This allowed me to control the transition from light to dark, and just how bright or dark I wanted my picture to be.

An equally important concept in shading is that of negative space - space that is so light that you don't shade it, but instead the area around it. Note the hair and shoulder on the right side of the picture - instead of shading in the light parts of the hair, I shaded around it. The same applied for the bridge of the nose, the ball of the chin, the shoulder, and the edge of the face further away from the viewer. Filling those spaces in required that I left them alone.

Compare the Batmen. See how much difference a bit of shading makes? Note especially the shoulder and chest on the right. In the first drawing, it looks flat, with little to distinguish what's near from what's far. In the second, the pencil creates two layers - a darker part closer to the viewer, and a lighter part (negative space again) further away.

Shading adds the perception of light and shadow, for example the shadow of the second Batman's head on his chest creates the impression that the light is coming from behind.

Note the hatching above the eyebrows and above the cheeks in both pictures, used to make the face appear closer to the viewer. In the second picture, blending has been added to further distinguish the face from the rest of the head. The blending below the nose, mouth and chin add more layers of depth and shadow to create the illusion of distance, and negative space again applies for the back and sides of the head, the area above the lips, and the shoulder on the right side of the picture.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Development FTW?

Readapting to being in your home country again on holiday is a slow, torturous process involving progress, setbacks, withdrawal symptoms and overcoming dependence. And that's just for my parents. As I leave behind the last of the drowsiness and realise it's 3 in the afternoon, I realise how much of a pain I've been to my family, who've rebuilt their schedule around NOT having to babysit me 24-7. Oh well, I'm only here for two more weeks.

Penang hasn't changed, despite the new politicians in charge, the church arsonry in KL, and the fact that I've been away from it all for so long. Part of me demands an explanation why the island hasn't fallen apart without my leadership, but the rest of me knows that I'm not actually Batman despite whatever childhood fantasies I may have had.

But despite the apparent similarities, Penang has changed for me - the good shops aren't where I remember anymore, I'm still not used to to now-massive (and soulless) Gurney Plaza, and they're renovating the shops at the bottom of the hill. In fact, they seem to be tearing down everything. Housing complexes are growing like mushrooms on the Batu Feringghi hills, as well as pretty much everywhere else in the state. Marinas stick into the sea like pseudopodia. Penang is multiplying, and sooner or later I swear the island is going to split in two to accomodate the population.

Which begs the question, when people talk about development, what do they really mean? For the businessmen development means new roads, new factories, new workplaces. But speak to the everymen and their answers differ. They want an end to the traffic jams, the dirty streets. The youth want more (but cheaper) nightlife and shopping complexes. In uni I learned that development wasn't just about building things - it was about providing opportunities to people. Things like having an art gallery for artists, or better schools for children. Penang, however, disagrees with me - everywhere I go, I realise just how lacking the island is in public, government-provided amenities.

In Leicester, there are two massive parks within 20 minutes walk of my house. Public toilets are fairly common. There's a museum in New Walk, a public footpath which has little gardens built into it. Even some of the shops (the co-operative) are publicly owned, and the hospital has a really decent cafeteria which gives you good value for money. If you're broke or intend not to splurge any money, you can spend your time in a field just enjoying nature or playing frisbee, or pop into the free museum to dabble in a bit of culture. There are so many free art galleries and museums in the London city centre that you can spend more than a week exploring them. Penang is rather different. Our public amenities seem to be places where builders haven't reached, like Penang Hill, or Keracut (although i'm sure they're trying). Even the public beaches seem are the ones which they can't build hotels around. How many public places are there in town? Along any one street, how many buildings can you casually walk into without intending to spend money? Government amenities simply don't seem to exist, or are aimed to serve certain groups in particular (such as businessmen) instead of the public.

I'm not aware of how we intend to address this, or even whether we intend to. But something feels wrong about where we're heading, and the least we could do is to stop calling it development.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Movie Review Time!

Before I begin the actual post, I need you guys to be my witnesses for something. I hereby declare that “I shall not download any more films before I finish watching at least ¾ of the ones I’ve already downloaded”. However, I’ve decided to make some exceptions. Technically, I watched them already on the flight back home and am simply adding them onto my list of greats, so they don’t really count. I’ve omitted reviewing Surrogates and Transformers 2, simply because I don’t really think they’re worth discussing. Anyways, the first of these films is...


“…What?” you ask. You may or may not have heard of Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. It’s a quietly intelligent sci-fi, minimalist in design but punching far above its weight. The premise is simple: Sam Bell is the only man on the moon, overseeing the automated mining station that provides the world with clean energy. Home is 40 minutes away by videophone, thanks to old tech that isn’t going to be upgraded anytime soon, and Sam’s only company is GERTY (an AI with the disembodied voice of Kevin Spacey) and delayed video transmissions from Sam’s wife and his employers. At the end of his three-year contract, he’s just about ready to go home, when things take a turn for the bizarre.

Now lets’ stop and think about this. The film has so far intelligently stuck with exploring ideas that are so-often left out of sci-fi (or glanced over to add pseudo-emotion before tossing in more fight scenes), ideas like how isolation affects the mind, GERTY’s uncanny valley effect which affects us but which Sam has grown immune to, and what happens to people after three years in an automated space station.

At this point, the plot could go anywhere, from the usual sci-fi stuff like aliens and the man-versus-machine battle, to the save-the-world (space station?) disaster movie, or, Lord forbid, the Sunshine-esque horror hack-and-slash. We’ve seen promising films collapse at this plot point, but cleverly Moon avoids this by making Sam have an accident while driving out to fix a roving miner, and waking up back at base. But hang on, how did he get back in from outside the base? Why is he looking healthier than before even though he had a major accident? How come he doesn’t seem to remember anything? And is GERTY really the calm mechanical butler he appears to be, or is he (it?) up to something else?

To elaborate further would be to give away the plot, so I won’t do that. Instead I’ll tell you that Moon explores even more ideas, like what it means to be human, and how people change over time. GERTY’s true role is revealed, leaving the audience simultaneously relieved, disappointed, and curious. Whether or not you spot the plot twist (after all it’s been used before), Moon is so well-directed and well-acted that the twist becomes secondary to the ideas that it conveys to the audience. And that’s the hallmark of good sci-fi.

(500) Days of Summer

This is a surprisingly good film, despite it being a romantic comedy (At this point the more macho of my readers may call me gay, shoot me in the back several times over, and then dump my blog address in the recycling bin and my body into a ditch somewhere). But hear me out, because this one is different.

Right at the start of the film, you’re warned straight up that it doesn’t end with the guy getting the girl, which on its own would make the film stand out against all the other rom-coms. You’re then told what happens, but you’re never told why. In fact, you get the feeling that nobody really know why, another one-up against the Freudian cause-and-effect approach of other rom-coms. Zooey Deschanel’s leading lady Summer remains complex, mysterious, and inaccessible to the main man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the audience. Even as the relationship evolves and grows, Summer declares that she’s interested only in friendship; Tom, who’s a classical romantic, struggles against the contradicting signs she gives him.

The film flits back and forth from good times to bad, not in the slow unstoppable spiral of a crashing relationship, but in the manner of a man desperately trying to understand why everything fell to pieces, and getting no answers. Eventually, we watch as the main man stops asking why the jigsaw is incomplete, accepts it as it is, and moves on with his life. And we can relate to that.

News Recap

Wow, it's been more than a month since I made my last post. Exams have left me thoroughly washed out, which I hope will disappate soon because I want to enjoy learning again, especially about non-medical stuff which i've neglected for a long while. So, in light of the pursuit of new knowledge, I thought it was time to look back at what managed to catch my eye over the past few months:

Bhopal, India, 1984: A chemical factory spewed tonnes of toxic gas into the air, killing thousands and exposing half a million to chronic diseases. A quarter of a century later, villagers say they still feel the effects.

In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled its contents into the Alaskan ocean, wiping out thousands of miles of coastland. In recent news, oil has been detected just under the surface of these gravel beaches.

These stories are reminders that the environment is more delicate than we think.

In other news, animals are smarter than we think, using tools (, mind control ( and disinfectant (, and even being picky in their mates (, although some get a bit confused about the species barrier ( Some mating battles are simply more titanic than others, as proven by the filming of these humpback whales ( And just because nature is cool, here are some pretty pictures:

And we still keep learning from nature, in less desirable ( and more desirable (, and some bizarre ( ways.

To round it off, a few articles that which we so desire, choice:

I'll not say much this time, because if you follow up on all these articles it'll be enough to make your head spin. It's time for you guys to decide what to read, and what to believe.