Sunday, September 27, 2009


The week-long Hari Raya holiday is coming to an end this weekend. I have had time to come up with an interesting post, but lethargy set in and all I can produce is this series of cloud pictures. When I was a child, sometimes all it took to enjoy a nice summer day was to lie in the cool grass and watch the clouds. Why shouldn't it be different as an adult?

(Right: Cumulonimbus building up over South China Sea)

The most dramatic clouds usually are the cumulonimbus, which are those associated with thunderstorms and heavy rain. Living within a few hundred meters of the South China Sea, we typically get cumulonimbus clouds building up during the daytime and realise nighttime thundershowers. These clouds build up from convective cells of air in motion, and draw the moisture up from the ocean, moving inland in the late afternoon. The bases can start as low as 200 meters from the ground, reaching up to 16,000 meters in height. Often-times the tops are pushed sideways forming a distinctive anvil-shape.

Another type of cloud that appears on quite hot and still days are the cirrus clouds, which tend to form at higher altitudes (>8,000 metres) than the bases of cumulonimbus, where there is less moisture, thus, making them thin and wispy.

A famous, or not-so-famous, philosopher once said: "It seems to me that man is truly not free unless he can sometimes just sit and DO NOTHING." If watching clouds = DOING NOTHING, then I guess that I am free.

(Cirrus clouds)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Those Lazy Jerebu Days of Summer

For those who consider the tropics to be a paradise, here are two facts:

1. Vegetation grows fast here;

2. Some residents seem to live to burn that over-zealous vegetation. The result? Open-burning.

Of course, the sky these days is hazy (Malay, jerebu) mostly from the burning of the forests in Kalimantan (slash-and-burn agriculture), the Indonesian state on the island of Borneo which is, oh, several hundred kilometers across the South China Sea from those of us here on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Or it could be from the burning of the peat forests to the south of us, along the coast. Or it could be the countless fires set in yards everyday to burn little piles of leaves that have been raked up or cut from the aforementioned overzealous vegetation.

Whatever the case, here are some side-by-side photo comparisons to show you what the skies look like now. The ones on the left were taken this week. The ones on the right are from April of this year. Both sets were shot from the same position in the same direction, thus, making accurate side-by-side comparison.

I am sensitive to smoke, so these days give me a headache, literally. It is quite amazing what one sees being burned daily by local residents:

1. Newly cut (green, moist) vegetation [don't they know green = smoke?];
2. Small piles of leaves, I mean SMALL piles [cannot compile into one weekly burn?];
3. Baby diapers;
4. Plastic chairs;
5. Newspapers soaked in used motor oil;
6. Old couches;
7. Construction debris;
8. Tree stumps.

The old couches are the worst for they put off a very toxic and stinky smoke: plastic does not burn clean and releases toxins within the smoke. Used motor oil does also. The tree stumps and construction debris gets burned nightly until they are gone. This is also quite stinky for it is slow-burning and thus releases smoke all night long for days to weeks on end.

Come monsoon season, come quickly!!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Fasting Month

The fasting month of Ramadan (known as Bulan Puasa) is from 22 August to 20 September this year. Today is the middle of the fasting month: two weeks down, two weeks to go.

For a partially-fasting foreigner, this is an interesting time of year for the changes in social relations that occur. Colleagues with whom you are used to having tea with every morning are seldom to be seen, while the people sitting close to your cubicle seem more accessible, since they are not off having breakfast or lunch with their mates. People also tend to be grumpier.

One hobby of mine is to observe the cheating that goes on by those who are supposed to be fasting. Yesterday I was at a foodstall having my lunch when four men of a certain race entered the stall and ordered takeout rice meals (styrofoam containers). Since I was only at the stall for 15-20 minutes, the probability is high that many other men of the same race did likewise.

(Right: Ramadan "fasting" trash from well-known takeout window)

Again, this morning, I observed the same thing when I went to the local shop to buy the morning newspaper. A van full of men of this particular race pulled up to the shop and purchased take-out rice dishes. Typically, they go to secluded places where they can eat and dump the trash in peace.

Certain restaurants have back-rooms in which these types of men are seen to enter, followed by plates of food a few minutes later. Since restaurants can get in trouble for selling food to them, it is best not to point out which ones do this. (I mean, why punish the cheaters; easier to punish the restaurants, right?)

My understanding is that the religious law to be followed by these people is that one does not need to fast if: (1) a female on her monthly mense; (2) a pregnant woman; (3) an invalid; or (4) people traveling far from home. Considering that men tend to be the most-likely-to-eat then they must be far from home (hahahahaha).

Of course, as a foreigner, one is really supposed to be like the famous See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys.

I call myself a partially-fasting foreigner for I follow a simple rule: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Since open foodstalls are hard to find during the fasting month (unless you are a man of that particular race!), I fast on the days in which I work and cannot take a lunch break (less than one hour). That tends to be Monday through Thursday. On the other days, I do not fast since I am usually at home with my wife. Part of this stems from the fact that I want to feel what my students feel. Empathy is one of the greatest traits of a good teacher; i.e., the ability to use common sense in dealing with students.

Going without food for one meal is no big deal. What is hard is the foregoing of water during the day, especially given the humidity and fact that I have to lecture for several hours each day.

I do not look down on those who cheat on their own religion, however, since I consider that what religion should be concerned with is to look after widows and orphans, and to keep oneself from being polluted by what one takes in through the eyes and ears. Thus, we are not talking about food or drink here.