Heat Death of the Universe 1

As of this post, two black holes smashing into each other made breaking news some months ago. It was kind of a big deal, and when astrophysicists get excited about something I try to make it a point to pay attention.

Yet these events sparked something that’s been on my mind. So, let’s get to Heat Death!

To those unfamiliar, “Heat Death” is actually a rather simple scientific concept, and is summed up most *scientifically* in the following Google-found statement:

The heat death of the universe is a historically suggested theory of the ultimate fate of the universe in which the universe has diminished to a state of no thermodynamic free energy and therefore can no longer sustain processes that consume energy (including computation and life).

What this means is that all energy will, eventually, be expended. There’ll be no more energy from the innumerable burning stars out there; they’ll all burn out at some point or another. This is the nature of entropy, and was explored to tremendous effect in Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Last Question.

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Find and read this story.

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, heat will equalize in a given system (our 3rd Dimensional Universe). And, since our universe seems to be ever-expanding, the larger it gets, the more literal space energy will be evenly distributed. That means that whatever heat you feel would be spread out across uncountable light-years, which will make the passage of energy impossible. Without movement of energy, we don’t have time, life, thought.

Or heat.

Here’s a great metaphor from Reddit:

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They also call Heat Death the “Big Chill” or the “Big Freeze.” They explore this and explain it in pretty easy-to-grasp terms on the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt.

Yet I derive a strange sort of comfort from the inevitable HDotU. There’s something liberating in an understanding that the choices made by you, everyone you know, and all your descendants until the extinction of our race will likely have no impact on the ultimate fate of the universe, so there can’t be any “wrong choices” (or “right choices,” for that matter). Assuming morality can even be factored into this equation, it sorta suggests that no matter what you do, in the end it really doesn’t matter.

It’s dangerously close to nihilism. But rather, I find that this line of thought is very therapeutic. It really puts our daily stresses into perspective.

I’ve come across this concept, heard it mentioned once or twice in an occasional game of Cards Against Humanity, though at the time I knew nothing about HDotU. Recently, the timing of multiple events seems to have really brought this stuff to the forefront of my consciousness. Here’re the two major reasons why:

As of the time of this writing:
1) I happened to go visit my ‘hometown’ (Woodstock, NY) at the start of February, 2016. It’s typically cold there that time of year. Yet after staying in tropical Viet Nam for nearly two years, the change in climate was disastrous for me; every time I set foot outside I found myself thinking — exaggerated, of course — about walking on the godsdamn moon.

Friends and family assured me that the region had been undergoing a warm winter, but on some days (and often at night) the temperature plummeted to below zero, plus windchill. Farenheit. Oh, that’s all, some of you might say? Well I already had a -25% Cold Resist debuff when I lived in New York as it was. Now I seem to have a -50% debuff going on.

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The moon if it had trees, oxygen and a place called Cooper Lake.

2) I’ve reached a point in my life where having children has been brought up in casual conversation. This is something I’ve been mulling over for some time. And I, with my Big Picture attitude (HDotU, Nihilism/Existentialism…) — coupled with the effective birth control that my screaming nephew and niece have given me — have spent considerable time thinking about the long-term effects of making biological half-copies of myself. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

I imagine the first scenario — cold rural New York in February — is an easily relateable concept, but how does the second one connect to this?

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Rarely do we ponder our own personal strain on the economy and the environment, for our selfish genes and our egos demand that our survival come first. It is the natural way of things.

Put another way, it is a privilege of the people of developed nations to reach the point of awareness where they wonder “How can we do this more efficiently (and with less of an impact on the environment)?” whereas many humans across the globe are foremost concerned with “How can I not die, and ensure that my family won’t die too?”

This can be illustrated well through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

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By it’s own definition, this is more enlightening than most people will know — if Maslow’s chart itself stands in one of the upper segments.

I don’t mean to put myself on a higher pedestal — I suffer the same selfish desires and impulses as any other living mortal — but when it comes to spawning a brood of my own, my thoughts turn toward the economic, moral, ethical, biological, and philosophical.

  • Economic: Will my child(ren) be “worth” the economic strain it literally costs to raise them? Will their output be greater than what they drain from the economy (or more selfishly, me for that matter)?
    • *Living in an Asian community, I often hear the opinion that a major drive for having children is for the very purpose of taking care of the parents later in life.
  • Moral: Do I deserve to have children of my own when there are innumerable orphans out there in desperate need of families?
  • Ethical: What right do I have to presume my genes are superior to any other and worth spreading? After all, there is something of a history of mental illness in my family (spoilers), so oughtn’t I consider benefiting ‘the herd’ and avoid adding my genes to the pool?
  • Biological: Am I just feeling and/or resisting the urges as per the edict of my genes, as the Dawkins suggests? My genes don’t care about my creative output, or my happiness, or the wellbeing of myself (let alone others). They only care about making more genes.
  • Philosophical: What’s the point of having kids if I’m just producing another vermin to be eradicated when our Robot Overlords rise? Or another fraction of a blink of an existence in terms of geologic time …or cosmic time, for that matter? We crawl inexorably closer to the HDotU, don’t forget.

In other words, what good is there having a child if I know that that child’s life is generally meaningless in the big picture?

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As I delved deeper into these questions, I found my conclusions growing increasingly nihilistic, so I brought in the big guns. Taking refuge within the rough-sawn domicile of a fellow philosopher, fantasist and creative, I brought my concerns before a friend.

After a conversation that stretched long into the the freezing wintery evening, I believe I have come across a satisfactory answer to my ponderings.

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The domicile in question.

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A Call To Arms

I remember when I started this blog a few years ago. I had no precise idea what the purpose of it would be or the range of topics I might cover.

It’s since evolved. To some extent.

One of my earliest posts focused on common writing tendencies — encountered in as much published writing as editing clients’ “books to be” — that bothered me. Like, actually bugged me enough to write about it publicly.

Lately, I’ve been coming across a number of articles (and other things) regarding The Craft that I found useful. Today, I’ll highlight a few of them that I feel are worth your time. I’ll also touch on a couple of the writing terms mentioned that might need some extrapolation.

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Let’s start things off with discussing the use of vulgarities, profanities, swear words. There’s a gentleman whose posts have garnered some steam in the NaNoWriMo group Facebook Group,occasionally circulating amongst us aspiring writers with varying degrees of opposition or acceptance. I, for one, rather enjoyed both what he had to say and the manner in which he conveyed it – that is, with extreme profanity.

The words of John Hartness in these two articles, Five Reasons You Won’t Make it as a Writer and Why Your Self-Published Book Looks Like A Pile Of Ass And Won’t Ever Make You Any Money come off as unsurprisingly irate. I imagine they are written as much to dissuade the dissuadable as to encourage the competent. If one were to read these articles and these articles alone, one could quickly and easily surmise that the anger boiling in this man’s belly is like the stomach acid of a sarlacc.

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Any would-be writer would do well to read these two articles simply on the basis of knowing what’s going on out there; whether or not Hartness’ words are news to you is besides the point. If you find yourself discouraged, then perhaps indeed you must rethink your path. While not in agreement with everything he says and I’m not exactly endorsing him, I will make one quote that I believe in:

“…I’ve spent my life in the arts. Theatre and writing are how I’ve made my living, at least tangentially, since I got out of college. I’ve spoken to many high school theatre kids and I’ve always told them the same thing – if there is anything else in the world that will make you happy, please go do that. This (theatre and writing) is a lonely, bizarre, world-destroying, soul-crushing business where you accept rejection as the norm and the tiniest bit of encouragement is like the first rainbow after Noah docked that fucking ark.

A life in the arts will destroy your health, relationships, and any hope of routinely seeing sunlight. It is not a career, it is a calling, it is an addiction, it is my church. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else – go do that. Save yourself the suffering. …”

But, as has been pointed out by both unknown commentators and even some of my peers, he isn’t saying anything particularly original in these articles. His use of excessive profanity is meant to be attention-grabbing (you will indeed notice a shameless plug for his own work somewhere between the fucks he doesn’t give) but I will say I learned something.

One thing that stood out to me is his mentioning of the passive voice, something I learned about from Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft many years before writing this post, and have since endeavored to reduce it’s usage whenever possible. I do, however, often enough forget the terminology used to describe the passive voice, and why it’s sub-optimal. I, for one, am in the camp that using it does indeed weaken your writing. I also did not know there was term for what’s known as “filter words,” which I’ll talk about in a moment.

A colleague of mine wrote a post in response to John Hartness’ articles I linked, talking specifically about the use of vulgar language in blogs. You can find Joy’s post here – she, too makes a solid point.

 

The Passive Voice 

So what exactly is the passive voice? Perhaps it is best to demonstrate. passive 02

Passive Voice: Tired and blood dripping from the blade, and the sword was gripped by John.

It was, eh? Well, we can glean easily enough that this was a night in the Simple Past tense, but that’s not quite what is meant by a passive voice; it is passive in the sense that stuff happens to the thing, rather than the thing doing something. Compare that with:

Active Voice: Tired from the fight, John gripped his sword, blood dripping from the blade.

The active voice, even in this very rudimentary example, so
unds noticeably more immediate. Stuff’s happening now, and has a more urgent energy to the imagery you paint in your mind. The passive voice is especially damaging to faster-paced action scenes. Also, there’s this nifty trick…

 

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Not sure? Take the example I provided a moment ago:

Tired and blood dripping from the blade, the sword was gripped by John.

[by John] can easily be replaced with [by zombies]. Anything that was written in the passive voice can be capped off with [by zombies]. Or, conversely:

Tired and blood dripping from his blade, John was gripped by zombies.

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What I have read, and what I do,  to avoid this is simply omit the usage of the word “was” as much as possible. Nowadays I see it mostly as a sort of ‘word inefficiency,’ and sometimes, at its worst, I see it as downright lazy. At first, I was ruthless about cutting it out of my prose, because I found strengthened my writing. If you don’t allow yourself to use the word “was,” you force yourself to reconstruct the entire sentence. More often than not, the result turned out to be more expressive and articulate.

I suggest you attempt the same, but one must always strike a balance. I’ll let it slip occasionally, but very rarely in straight-up prose — and when it comes to character dialog, well, they say whatever they say (‘cuz real folks don’t much cotton to grammar).

A final words (at least in this post) in regards to the passive voice from are none other than the King himself.

“[One] of my pet peeves [has] to do with the most basic level of writing, and I want to get [it] off my chest before we move along. Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive voice. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.

Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.

You can find the long version of Stephen King talking about the passive voice here. And if you’re unfamiliar with Stephen King to any degree, you’ll soon learn that he’s not particularly afraid of using profanity and cutting through the bullshit to make a point.

There are loads of articles with similar advice and similar links. Yet we frequently encounter the Passive Voice, and I cannot help but agree with the King in the above quote. We each have our stages, and our paths; perhaps once I was a timid writer but I wouldn’t ascribe to such a label these days. I have restraints, sure, and there are certain topics that make me downright uncomfortable to write about. My stance on profanity is that if it helps further the point of the topic (or if a character is speaking, it does more than just “adultify the tone”), then have fun.

If you’re one of those types who either don’t yet see “the big deal” with the Passive Voice or who have otherwise staked out a tent in the camp of people who believe that people can write whatever they want, then please understand that I see you’re point.

I just heartily disagree with it.

I’ll get into a list of tips and tricks of the Craft that I follow in a future post. Until then, consider these things when writing and revising.

Happy writing!

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Today’s musical number recommendation comes from Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, the work of whom I fondly came to love while watching Cowboy Bebop. As of January 2016 (some weeks before this post) I managed to, at long last, watch the series in its entirety. Cowboy Bebop my responsible for my interest in soft Jazz.

 

Fixing My Sandals

A 12-Minute Read.

~~~

So I went to Cambodia again.

I saw Angkor Wat again.

And again I ate of the delightful mangoes that country has to offer.

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How many kinds of fruits you see here is directly proportional to the number of reasons why I enjoy living in this part of the world.

 

While passing through Phnom Penh – that mad city of tuk-tuk drivers, charlatan monks and sparrow-catchers – I decided I would get myself a pair of sandals of higher quality than your standard flip-flop variety. More often than not, I frequent markets in an attempt to simply look and browse, and am pretty much the opposite of an impulse buyer.

As I always like to explain to my Vietnamese students, “I am the kind of person who likes to keep the money.” This translates into haggling more than the av-er-age bear, much to the chagrin of merchants and sellers who would otherwise see me as an easy target to price-hike.

Obscure reference is obscure.

In any case, I found a decent pair and talked the stubborn seller down to $12. The label said “Made in Viet Nam,” much to pride of my travel companion – a Vietnamese – and the seller of course assured me of its quality. Off I went, wearing awesome high-quality footwear.

The next day, as I emerged from an overnight bus-ride to Siem Reap, one of the straps broke. With an exasperated sigh, and a sense of stubborn pride, I came to the resolution that I would have the things repaired, rather than simply replaced.

I sought someone to do said work, and while I am no stranger to stitching, often enough I see cobblers on street corners or people in the markets in the process of mending someone’s sole.  Using body language as well as English, I asked on the outer periphery of the Siem Reap Central Market.

“Inside,” one of the sellers told me. I went in, asking another shoe-seller. They shook their head.

“Outside,” someone else told me. I emerged out the other end, asking various people, and following the pointing fingers of a number of sellers – as well as a friendly tuk-tuk driver or two – I made my way to a street just off to the side of the Central Market.

“Down street,” another person said with a gesture. “Unda da trees.”

We continued, until at last finding some lads sitting on tiny, plastic chairs. Their workstation included a coffee can full of various small tools and a key-copying machine.

I demonstrated through hand gestures that the sandal strap was in need of repair, and it took them all but half a second to understand my need. My companion soon discovered that the two boys could apparently speak Vietnamese fluently and, as they began to work, we sat with them. Chatting ensured, though I was, as is the norm, part of possibly 6% of the total conversation.

Turns out the boys’ mother is Vietnamese and their father is Cambodian, and apart from their parents’ mother tongues, they boasted of speaking fluent Burmese as well. Being trilingual is a valuable skill in any crossroads cities, as one might imagine, though their English was extremely limited.

I watched them work, and had bits and pieces of the conversation sporadically translated to me. They were aged fifteen and sixteen, two brothers, though by all appearances (whether a result of genetics, malnutrition, or simply my own lack of ability to guess, I could not say), I would’ve estimated them to be around ten or eleven.

But it was only in outward appearance that these two resembled adolescents. I watched the way they spoke not only to my companion, but to other people – adults or otherwise – who rolled up on bicycles, motorbikes, or sedans to do some form of business or other. Turns out the two kids were quite well-known, able to perform repairs not only for shoes, but the mechanics of motorbikes as well. I saw a multitude of people seeking them out for various purposes.

Through translation and simple observation, I learned that the two young men knew how to do many things, and many other people knew this as well. These were the guys to whom most people seemed to go when they needed something done, and much like how I arrived at their “shop without a sign” they were probably known simply by word-of-mouth.

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The older of the two brothers, sitting and chatting it up as I sat quietly in the shade wearing my tourist-pants.

 

I found the experience rather eye-opening, as well as simply interesting. I saw them hand a pair of shoes that looked noticeably more expensive than my multi-strapped sandals to a car-driving businessman; I watched the older brother pay off a patrolling street guard (common practice for anyone operating a small entrepreneurial — illegal — business like this), and through my companion I asked a few questions.

“Do you go to school?”

“No,” was the translated answer. They said they quit school to work. And I soon found out why: according to them, they made as much as $50 a day doing their various work. Even if these are the hyperbolic words of an emerging teenager, and in fact they made an average of about 20% of that, this is still nothing to sniff at for Cambodia. Indeed, I found myself struggling to reason why anyone in their position would continue going to school when they had a business to run that — proportionately — brought in more cash than jobs I’d done back in America earned.

Hell, if you know where to eat, $50 can feed you for a month in Siem Reap.

They seemed savvy and street-smart, not the type of children you see advertised on television commercials stating “If you send us just $1, you can feed this child for a day.” They played mobile games on a new-looking 5-ish-inch Samsung Galaxy (the exact model of course I could not know), though they wore shoes and clothes tattered and dusty.

“Do you have plans for the future?” I asked them.

“No,” was the simple reply, though the younger of the two brothers said that maybe one day he would try to go to America, where he would do the same work of cobbling shoes. They were quick to jump on the prospect of work, and even quicker to laugh and smile. If there’s one thing that continues to intrigue me about Cambodia, it is the attitude of the people living there. People will over-charge you without a second thought – it is expected and customary, especially in the tourist areas – but there are just as many who’ll gladly give directions or recommendations for “the best” place to go, like where to buy mangoes or get a decent exchange rate for converting money.

“Are Vietnamese shoes good quality?”

“No,” was the laughing reply with a vigorous head-shake.

In any case, meeting the two Cobbler Boys whose names I couldn’t possibly write here with any accuracy, I reached a minor realization while watching these “adults in the bodies of young people.”

Whenever reading a YA novel or watching a movie based off one, or even simply a film written for the Young Adult audience, I always had difficulty swallowing the premise of characters who spoke and acted like adults. I always felt like novelists wrote such characters more because they were, themselves, adults, and the best they could do was write child-characters as “small adults.”

Perhaps I found my suspension of disbelief strained on account of bad acting, or perhaps indeed due to inept writing, but I will also unabashedly admit that my experience with children (or teenagers who, gods be good, are half my age) is probably limited. Perhaps I simply haven’t met a lot of street-smart young adults to which to compare to characters of which I read in books.

The two Cobbler Brothers had a sense of independence and responsibility about them that I am quite unaccustomed to feeling from people so young. Living in a country as famous for it’s abject poverty as it’s nasty, bloody, recent history, it would appear that these guys are doing pretty well for themselves given the obstacles that a foreigner such as myself might otherwise find discouraging and overwhelming.

In fiction, a few immediate examples come to mind. One being Locke from one of my all-time favorite fantasy books The Lies of Locke Lamora. Another being Liesel, from the The Book Thief. Last, for the purposes of this list, is one of my least favorite characters (at least initially) from A Game of Thrones, Arya Stark. She got awesome later, don’t worry, I ain’t hatin’.

Each of these characters were thrust into situations where they were forced to leave behind their childhood faster than most people reading the books would ever encounter. People who got street smart – fast, and for different reasons – or they would have died early (like many of their peers who simply didn’t grow up fast enough). At various points in their respective stories, I sometimes found myself thinking “Would a child really be talking like that?” They each have their supports, of course.

Locke has an origin making him a bit more than an average human (as revealed in the third book).

Liesel had one of the most wonderful and encouraging adopted fathers in a story I’ve ever ‘met.’

And Arya had the outrage of a murdered family to fuel her will – which in and of itself isn’t unique as stories go, but she seems to stand apart from all the other vengeful young people we see in fiction all the time.

My encounter in Cambodia gave me first-hand experience with street-smart young adults that made me rethink my earlier ideas, and my future perceptions, of such characters. Perhaps such people may even appear in my own fiction-to-come as a result.

Thai Adventures Pt. 3: Bangkok

After my experiences in Phnom Penh and my adventures in Siem Reap, a crossroads lay before me.

My original party of five had dispersed. One pair returned to Sai Gon, where they would spend their remaining days in Southeast Asia during Tet Holiday, then head back home to New York.

The other pair were headed north, to Laos. I had no particular inclination to go in either direction.

Thus the opportunity arose where I instead head east – to Thailand.

This would not be my first time venturing into the Land of the Thais, as some months ago I paid a visit to Chiang Mai to meet an old friend. This time in Thailand, my time would be spent in the mad city of Bangkok, a place legendary for things those of us in the West use as the fodder for juvenile puns and crude jokes.

I can assure you that much of what you have heard about Bangkok is probably true.

I spent less than a week there, with the intentions of meeting another (different) friend of mine, and as it turned out I got there early, and had about two full days of free time to myself before their arrival. This left me with ample opportunities to sample the cuisine at my own pace.

Cranston McHattery looking stylish as he stole my sunglasses again.

And yet, while hoping to enjoy Pad Thai the way I keep expecting it to taste, I was once again disappointed.

To understand Bangkok – I don’t claim to except superficially, as a tourist – one must first take the phrase “East Meets West” and take it a step further. Thailand is a fascinating blend of Indian and (South)East-Asian influences. There were many empires (of which Angkor Wat stands as a remnant) to attest to the rich history of this part of the world. Yet, when we say East Meets West, we often think of the Crusades in the poorly named “Middle East,” or perhaps those wondrous melting-pot cities like Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Though I recently read the opinion of a rather prolific traveler in regards to how culturally diverse the Dubai airport is.

Bangkok is no exception, and the phrase “East Greets West” feels more apropos. Thailand is a highly developed country and it shows in the capital city. I won’t spend time here contrasting to Viet Nam, or Thailand’s little brother Cambodia, as the socio-political intricacies require a degree of precision in history such as I am – currently – incapable of providing in a clear and unbiased context.

Suffice it to say that Thailand opened its gates to the outside world long ago, and has prospered as a direct result. While still retaining aspects of its cultural identity, I could not help but see incredible levels of globalization in Bangkok.

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Modernity with a dash of camouflage.

It is an interesting discussion about how the more “developed” a country becomes, the more “Western” it appears to be, from the fashion trends, to infrastructure, and sometimes even aspects of the government (more on Thai administration later).

But it is profoundly Western-centric of me to assume anything along the lines of other cultures wearing skinny jeans or dying their hair as an attempt to “look more Western.” This is a debate the likes of which I’ve participated many times in the past, and have since come to adopt the opinion that it isn’t “Western” style (whatever that is) that we see around the world, but more of a global style, usually accompanied by individual cultural flavors.

Thailand has no shortage of flavors of its own, and I saw this first hand in Bangkok. The people — while predominantly (assumedly) Thai, are extremely diverse among themselves. This city is, during my limited globe-trotting experience, the very definition of cosmopolitan and metropolitan.

In fact it was very reminiscent of Manhattan. Which is probably why I’ve since decided I don’t like it there.

Cosmopolitan and metropolitan are noble words to have ascribed to a city, but not my kind of city. Although while I compare Bangkok to Manhattan, I believe that Bangkok is significantly more globally-minded. This could be seen in, of all things, some of its most prestigious landmarks: the shopping malls.

This is probably the only shopping mall - styled after an oldschool market - that I actually didn't mind checking out.

This is probably the only shopping mall – styled after an oldschool market – that I actually didn’t mind checking out.

The people of Bangkok – Bangkokese? Bangkokers? Bangkokians? – appear to be largely more concerned with keeping up with fashion trends and expressing their individuality. I was, of course, spending a lot of time in the direct city center where shopping malls stood as legit tourist attractions as much as actual shopping centers, and the mighty Terminal 21 – a mall designed to resemble an airport, which each floor having a different theme based on various interesting cities around the world. Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris come to mind.

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Not to mention it was the Lunar New Year, so they had a bit of a China theme happening.

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No shopping mall is complete without a giant golden dragon.

Thailand, with the evident desire for self-expression and individuality in its inhabitants, makes for what I can only assume is a very open-minded community. I saw just as many Thais walking around with dyed hair as those who kept their hair black. There were piercings, tattoos, and quite a bit of androgyny about in terms of dress.

These things did not come as a shock by any means, but they did stand in stark contrast to my experiences in Viet Nam where, much like the East-Asian neighbors of Japan, China, and S. Korea, conformity is, expectedly, the norm.

And then, of course, there are the ladyboys.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone's throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone’s throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Even as a backpacker tourist, I managed to avoid the famous Khaosan Road, though I now wish I had passed through it at least once. I feel as though I haven’t missed all that much though; the more seasoned travelers, backpackers and expats alike, tend to avoid these tourist havens.

Oh right, the ladyboys.

They are exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what you’ve heard about.

And no, sorry, no pictures. You can look that up on your own.

Nothing compares to walking down Soi Cowboy, that mad carnival of a street, and being hawked by gaggles of sexily-dressed waitresses and gangs ladyboy prostitutes.

I learned after having stayed there for a night that the area in which my hostel was apparently smack-dab in the middle of what I can only respectfully call a huge prostitute zone.

And after a few days of sight-seeing, I found myself starting to look at all this and regard it as normal.

It is true that prostitution is a viable career path in Thailand, and as such it’s kind of a big reason for tourism. Furthermore, I expect it’s difficult for people to explain to their friends and family that no, in fact, that isn’t the reason they’re visiting Thailand.

At any rate, it was a fascinating thing to see the fusion of traditional spirituality and fast-paced commercialism. What I can only describe as open-mindedness towards self-expression and sexuality was apparent wherever I turned. Women dressed like men, men dressed like women, and loads of people dressed like neither – who also happened to be equipped with similarly androgynous faces, leaving my subconscious labeling system as “person” rather than man or woman.

I suspect the LGBT community is big there.

And there are, of course, many other wonderful things to be found here.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

The gods are not so cruel.

Cambodia: The Ancient Past

There will be many pictures in this post.

Phnom Penh left its impressions. Imagery and emotional shadows that I will never forget. And that was but the start of our journey.

Most visitors to Cambodia go for the star event, Angkor Wat. My party and I were no exception, and there was no denying that that was the prime reason for going to Cambodia in the first place.

Things began early in the morning, and as per the adventurous insistence of the Thorneater, we chartered a boat that would take us from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, rather than go the conventional way – by bus.

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 Early in the morning, earlier than lazy people like me have any business being up.

In fact I had just gotten over a nasty upset stomach, which the previous night had me afraid I would be missing out on the remainder of the trip.

Thanks perhaps to the power of garlic bread, I survived.

Our boat, long and thin, was not what we expected. The dock had a number of boats, and we found ourselves eyeballing one of the larger Louisiana-styled riverboats. But then, after waiting around a bit and fruitlessly looking for something to eat, we found ourselves directed to a smaller, albeit no-less charming little boat with ample seats.

As we boarded, I noticed the luggage of fellow travelers being strapped to the roof. Some foreign travelers opted to sit upon the roof along with it, and my party and I followed suite.

In the distance I could see early-risen fisherman at work in the Ton Le Sap river. The day started cool, but soon warmed as the sun climbed.

The boat’s motor started, so loud that only higher frequencies in my companions’ voices could be heard. It sounded like everyone had inhaled a balloon full of helium.

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With little more than a chrome rail to hold onto, the boat took off, and seeing as no one was asked to please take a seat within the boat, we stayed atop it and enjoyed the view.

As we sped north, we eventually left the stretches of Phnom Penh, and urban sprawl on either side of the river gave way to floating shanty villages. The further we went, the more often we saw solitary stilt homes, fishermen casting nets, and floating houses lashed together with ropes and empty-plastic-bottle buoys.

Most memorable of this part of the trip, however, was the people who waved at us as we passed. Adults, children, and sometimes even other tourists. As I admire the palms and stilt-huts, I cannot help but wonder whether the Cambodians, those along this river as well some we had met in Phnom Penh, are genuinely happy to wave and smile, or there’s some sort of agenda running in these SouthEast Asian countries.

I can only imagine that board meeting.

Later, when expressing this thought to Thorneater, we realized we each had the same thought. We wondered whether the parents trained their children, or if there was some sort of secret government conspiracy or program at work, geared towards putting a smiling face on every civilian whenever a foreigner passes by.

Or could it be that people are just genuinely

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Riverside sights. There was a whole of empty river banks, too, as well endless horizon once we hit th Ton Le Lake.

Eventually we landed in a small town just outside of Siem Reap, where a prearranged tuk-tuk awaited our party.

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 And then we spent a night at the hotel, as was arranged by our previous host.

Siem Reap is a mad place. If you have any experience in Sài Gòn, it would be comparable to Bui Vien Street; if you have any experience in Bangkok, it would be comparable to Khao San Road. If none of these names mean anything to you, allow me to paint you a picture.

To understand these various tourist hotspots, one must delve into a realm of lawlessness that can best be compared to the American Wild West. Drugs are prevalent and prostitution is (as I understand it) illegal but in common use. What all these places have in common is a crowd, and subsequent atmosphere, bent on indulgence. People traveling across the world to indulge themselves, and people who live here providing the indulgences.

It’s really not my kind of scene, but it is worth seeing at least once.

To shamelessly copy Thorneater’s words: “There are deep, dark basements in this town where nothing is stopped.”

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Pub Street. A bit more straight-forward in it’s naming as opposed to Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy or Khao San Road, or Sài Gòn’s Bùi Viện or Phạm Ngũ Lão streets.

What makes this city really significant, as in for the good reasons, is it’s proximity to one of the most significant locations in Southeast Asia.

The fortress temple ruins of Angkor Wat.

My party and I rented bicycles. We left before mid-day. Siem Reap has a tuk-tuk madness to it that any cyclist unfamiliar with the rigors of peddling in traffic would find daunting. Yet once broken free of the dusty roads of the main town — and cycling is a most excellent means of transport even if for the sole effectiveness of making the rider tuk-tuk-proof — we made our way north, along one of several main roads, only to find out that tickets were needed in advance.

This is the face of a man in control of his destiny.

This is the face of a man clearly in control of his destiny.

Also, this is the part where I recommend you play this music as you continue reading.

Regrettably, I came to realize that my enjoyment of experiencing Angkor Wat was directly proportional to the agony of the intense sunburns I acquired from the boat ride.

 

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat ("Capital Temple").

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat (“Capital Temple”). Pic taken Thursday, February 27th 2015, approximately 800 years after it was built.

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Two of my travel companions under the bullet-hole pockmarked archway entrance of Angkor Wat.

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We aren’t certain, but after seeing a multitude of places structures similar to this, we figured that – even if it wasn’t true – it would seem quite fitting for this to be full of water.

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Outside the main city, along the outer rim.

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Within any multitude of the structures, I could not help but feel the same sense of stony austerity as I’ve always felt in caves, museums and old libraries.

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Angkor Thom (lit. “Great/Capital City”) was also built over 800 years ago, but one could feel a different sense of craftmanship in the stone.

 


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Throughout my explorations with my friends here, I could not shake thoughts of all the games I’ve played and stories I’ve enjoyed. What I saw was the inspiration for countless temples whose depths I had plumbed for riches and glory, and as I set my feet upon the stone of ages, I found myself looking warily for traps.

We even debated on what the colossus would look like from this place, a la Shadow of the Colossus.

The bloody history witnessed in Phnom Penh inspired awe, the ancient past witnessed in Siem Reap inspired awe as well – but a most different form of the emotion.

Traveling in Cambodia inspired in me quite the range of emotions, and I have garnered memories from which inspiration for my writing is easily drawn.

But beyond that I want to encourage everyone to consider putting Cambodia on their list of places to go.

With common sense in action, it is a safe place to be. The locals are friendly and $10 will feed you for the day even in the touristy areas.

I can very easily dip into the thriftyness and cost effectiveness of this stuff, but I may dedicate a finance-oriented blog post to that sort of thing. This is more about the experience, one I will never forget – both because of the sights I saw, and having shared the sights with the close friends with whom I was traveling.

But the place is the American Wild West, like I described in my last post. Caution should be exercised at all times. Tuk-tuk drivers are generally rather pushy, something for which the country is famous. But, more than once, late at night while walking along the street, there were occasionally more overt propositions.

“Tuk-tuk?”
“No thanks.”
“Okay. You want drugs?”
“No…”
“Heroine? Cocaine? Marijuana…?”

One could argue that this is part of the charm. After all, accessibility to this sort of thing, in addition to prostitution and a whole pile of unaccountability is what draws many foreigners to this place. As such a large chunk of the economy is geared toward this, it is a sad thing to see in practice.

Yet, whether you are in a group, or traveling solo, I couldn’t recommend anything more than traveling.

And you could do worse than Cambodia.

The contrast of life is sublime there. In the face of tremendous tragedy, the people fight to better their lives in the best ways that they can. There is a dark underbelly beneath the ruins of ancient civilizations about which much the world has heard nothing.

I am so glad I went.

Experience: Mũi Né and Red Sands

Those of you following me already already know that I’m not only based in Viet Nam, but have a tendency to get up on the proverbial soapbox, roll up a paper cone, and squawk about the benefits of travel and experience every chance I get.

This won’t be all that different.

After nearing the three-month mark of time spent here in this country, most of that being within the confines of Sài Gòn , I’ve had a variety of adventures. Such things primarily involved experiencing culture and meeting new people. On one occasion, we left the outer-rim of Sài Gòn  to visit a most excellent temple atop a mountain. The place was crowded beyond belief, and since no one was hurt at the end of the day, it’s easy to say I had a great time.

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Buddhist temple known as Chùa Châu Thới. I’m still not %100 certain how to pronounce that.

What made that day awesome was not only the location, but the company. In fact, the fun I have where I go is multiplied by the quality of people with whom I go; this ought to come as no surprise to even the most socially inept of us, but is worth mentioning anyway.

I once took a day-trip to the Mekong Delta, though not for tourist reasons and certainly not to any of the famous sights to be seen; rather, I went for the express purpose of keeping a friend company as she sought out the expertise of a famous practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Having taken a 3-hour bus ride east and out of Sài Gòn, and being nowhere near popular tourist destinations (closer to the coast), I found myself – not for the first and certainly not for the last time – stared at by locals as though I were from another planet.

That has been an oft-repeated phrase in my mind. From another planet, and it was not I who first suggested this, but how apt the phrase has become. Because of the choices I make and the life I have chosen to lead, more often than not I find myself in the company of people who not only cannot speak English, but have never even met a foreigner/westerner. To many Vietnamese outside Sài Gòn, or any of the tourist hotspots as found in the Mekong Delta, or the port city of Vũng Tàu, or the beach resort of Mũi Né, I may as well have been a settler disembarking from an explorer’s ship weighing anchor off the coast four hundred years ago.

The simple experience of setting foot into the Chinese Medicine place – I’m not sure what else to call it – was, alone, quite the experience. I watched my friend have her pulse checked, describe their symptoms, then be prescribed a giant bag of (assuredly plant-based) white powder to be consumed over the course of a month. My companion was also advised to avoid “hot foods,” (in other words, foods with too much Yang energy), such as chicken and seafood.

To this day I don’t know what lay within the dozens of shelves that lined the wall there, but I saw dried vegetables, fruits, and (presumably) animal parts that may or may not be illegal. I recognized a sack of goji berries, though, and the ‘doctor’ (I don’t know what else to call the lady), allowed us each to eat a handful of the things.

Random, safe, and usually fun experiences like this happen in my life from time to time, but recently I got back from a planned trip.

Aboard the “sleep bus,” I went with a friend to the aforementioned resort town of Mũi Né about five-hours east of Sài Gòn and along the coast.

On the Sleep Bus.

On the Sleep Bus.

We arrived after dark, and being the Low Season in terms of tourists, we found ourselves to mostly be the only people there.

[[Linguistic note:

I can best describe how to pronounce Mũi Né like this: “Moo-ooie [nay?].” 

There’s a glottal stop at the hyphen [like what happens when you say “Uh-oh!”)

and the “nay” is pronounced with a rising inflection, like a question.]]

It was awesome having noone else around.

But, interestingly, the relative quietude and silence of the town rang of a familiar tune; I grew up in small, rural, depressingly poor community, and the small towns nearby (though they were technically hamlets, as they were too small to be considered towns) often relied on tourism – or simply had no economy at all. There was a strange sense of familiarity as I was reminded of hot summers in the sparsely populated towns of my childhood, or working with my father tending to the summer homes of rich people who visited the Catskills once or twice a year. That peculiar sense of hot, desolate, dry air, where people really had no business being around except to cater to visitors.

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Outside my hotel window.

Arriving at night, Mũi Né main street had dozens of hotels, hostels, guesthouses and restaurants, and dozens more shops (most of which were closed), it was easy to see that the town was mostly not happening, but there were a few other folks walking about. The following day was spent mostly atop a rented motorbike, which allowed us to get to see some of the local sights.

Mũi Né, at the risk of repeating myself too often, is a beach city. Catering to tourists, the place is of course a bit ritzy by Vietnamese standards, with prices akin to Bui Vien street in inner Sài Gòn , and as we traveled closer toward the sights, things appeared more busy a few kilometers away from the hotel. The beaches of Mũi Né are long, white and gorgeous, though it is difficult to find a wide patch of sand bereft of plastic bottles or Styrofoam cups.

There's actually the moon a few inches from my nose.

Me looking heroic for absolutely no reason.

As a former local of upstate New York, my notion of a “beach” is that along the likes of North Lake (that is to say, about an arrow’s flight across). My notions of “warm water” are that of what is felt only in a bathtub or a cup of hot cocoa. I’d been to beaches along the ocean in the past, but often at an age too young to really appreciate what I was seeing, and even then the water was freaking cold.

There is something existential about watching the waves continually crash on the sand. When war erupted following the death of Franz Ferdinand, the waves were rolling. When Matthew Perry blew open the gates of Japan, the waves were rolling. When the Roman Empire fell, the waves were rolling. When people penned the first draft of the Torah, the waves rolled. When our ancestors fell out of the trees and learned to eat mushrooms in the wake of wildebeest herds, the waves still rolled. When thunder lizards breathed the same (though different) air of our planet, the waves had been rolling for quite a while already.

I started to realize why some people are in fact drawn to the sea.

Or crawling out of it.

Or driven to crawl the hell out of it.

And yet, the most profound experience I felt in Mũi Né was when we discovered the famed Red Sand Dunes. Oh yes.

Dunes.

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Among the last things I expected to discover in this tropical country were environs that I could, in my head full of fantasy, best describe as something to emerge from the brain of Frank Herbert. It was a veritable desert, and felt as though I had in fact set foot into my favorite novel.

Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.

Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.

Walking along the red sand (okay fine, it’s orange, whatever), I felt the need for a stillsuit. My feet sizzled beneath me, and climbing a hill we made our way to the cover of a lone pine tree. I ventured on upward alone, discovering the dunes to stretch further than I previously expected.

My surroundings here in Viet Nam, on a daily basis, feel surreal as it is, but up there atop a dune of red sand, I felt as a man walking on Mars. Or Arrakis. I wanted to walk to the other side of the expanse, but having left my companion behind in the safety of the pine tree, and having not possessed a bottle of water on my person, I was pretty convinced, in that moment, that I would’ve died in the attempt.

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A handful of melange…

Frank Herbert’s descriptions of the deserts of Dune were, I believe, very good descriptions (the man was an ecologist before he was an author of one of the greatest Science Fiction stories of all time). I can remember being made extremely thirsty while first reading it. But standing out there in the hot sand, with a hot sun beating down on my back, and hot air bereft of moisture or wind, well, I feel as though I can truly begin to appreciate what not only Herbert was trying to replicate in his writing, but what real people in the real world deal with when crossing, living in, or otherwise understand. Stuff I had no experience with was laid bare to me, and I caught a glimpse of life — on another planet or otherwise  — that is vastly superior to books or television in terms of sensory input.

I’ve always been interested in deserts, and this experience was the closest thing besides the wide abandoned shale pits and bluestone quarries of upstate New York that I had known. The ocean has always been something of an enigma to me as well, for both of these types of environments remain a stark contrast to the evergreen mountaintops and sprawling deciduous forests of my homeland.

I will be feeding off these memories for years, and have no doubt the things I see, hear and even smell will translate to enriching my writing.

That is why travel is good for the writer.

Inspiration: The Grudge

This is not so much a review of the movie The Grudge as it’s about a topic sparked by its theme.

So The Grudge is a movie from 2004, based on a Japanese horror film of the same name (called “Ju-On” from 2002). I forget exactly when I first saw it, probably a year or two after, as I did not watch it in a theater, and I’m thoroughly glad I didn’t.

Granted, this image is from the Grudge 2, but you get the idea.

Granted, this image is from the Grudge 2, but you get the idea. Most of the images online are a bit too gruesome than I’d prefer to have posted here.

Once, I swore I would never watch that movie again. As of this writing, I only just saw it a second time, with someone new, who insisted we watch ‘the scariest movie I knew.’

God dammit.

The Grudge follows a number of tropes in common with the ever-popular title “The Ring” also from 2002 (“Ringu,” 1998, in Japan). In this humble writer’s opinion, the American versions are significantly scarier, as they retain the psychological horror aspect as found in the original Japanese versions, but with the added American flavor of jump-scare emphasis.

If you haven’t heard of any of these pieces, or are largely unfamiliar with the J-Horror genre of psychological horror movies, I don’t know how to prepare you better than to say: Beware. For many people around the world, this kind of stuff is really bloody frightening.

The common theme among nearly all of these sorts of movies – not only J-Horror, but K-Horror (Korean) as well, and throughout a much of East and South-East Asian cinema, is a paranormal manifestation the likes of which probably everyone in the world would recognize on sight.

I’m talking about what the Japanese call a yūrei, what the Koreans call a gwisin, what the Vietnamese call a ma. You know, ghosts. And, just like the word “ghost” in English can mean a number of things, these are all generic categories. What I’m talking about, though, is a specific type.

The vengeful, Long-Haired Ghost.

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And yet, oddly beautiful. Or am I just a freak?

They’re quite iconic, and almost never pleasant. They’re most commonly spirits of dead folks who have been wronged, and are generally hateful of anyone or anything that interacts with them, or the places/objects they haunt. This, at least, is the common thread linking the majority of these films, and some of us can’t get enough of it.

I went through a phase once, a couple years back, where I watched I watched a Korean ghost movie almost every night – at least once every couple of days – over the course of a few months. This resulted in my seeing shadows in the corners of my eyes during the day for many months after the fact.

Oh yes, those were good times, working in a health food store only to whip your head around to make sure there wasn’t some pale, bloody phantasm creepily herky-jerky-ing its way down the vitamin aisle.

Most of the time it’s been nothing.

But there were some horrendous nightmares that come every now and then. Heck, I still get them sometimes – things I’d actually prefer not to describe at present – so yeah, on that note, let’s talk about why this stuff is awesome.

For one thing, I’ve actually grown braver about a multitude of things. Or perhaps a little desensitized – is there a difference? Certainly, the line between bravery and stupidity is notoriously thin, but then again so is the line between confidence and actual ability. At any rate, the point is that I’ve been able to explore topics and media that in the past I might have otherwise been averse to exploring. Fear is something that interests me, and not only with the Long-Haired Ghosts, but other creepy things, but with other things creepy and terrifying.

As I’ve said once or twice before, things that are creepy are scary.  Just ask H.R. Giger. Man, do I love linking that VSauce video.

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Five Night’s At Freddy’s, one of the most horrifying games I’ve ever seen. As of this post it’s pretty new, too, check it out.

This has, in fact, benefited my writing as well as my outlook on life.

The Long-Haired Ghost is something I’ve found to be repulsive and inspiring. While not directly appearing in my fiction, it has, like I said, allowed me to discover other things – and write about other things – that one might normally find difficult to entertain, or write. On the other hand, situations, creatures, or scenes that might be considered horrific by many are fairly normal to me.

Re: desensitization/bravery. I feel that as a writer, this valuable.

Besides, seeing The Grudge for the second time did raise the hairs on my arms and back of my neck, but it wasn’t quite as scary.

My guest freaked out readily enough, though, so mission accomplished.

~~~

Today’s track is brought to you by A Tale of Two Sisters, a K-Horror that stands as one of my favorites. I’ve seen the movie twice – once, alone, during that phase earlier mentioned, and once with another person and it was significantly less scary…

The soundtrack is actually, in this humble writer’s opinion, much more delightful than the movie itself, though I’ll never forget the initial emotions evoked by my first viewing. Truth is, my mind paints a slightly different picture whenever I hear this music, and the picture in my head is better than the picture on film. Be that as it may, check out the soundtrack, if not the movie, and see what ideas appear upon the paper before you.