Monthly Archives: January 2013

An Era Ends

Tomorrow morning, one era in my life ends and a new one begins. After years of home-schooling, tomorrow I enter the Australian public school system — albeit from afar. I will do Year 11 (my “Preliminary year” if you’re an Aussie, or “Junior year” if you’re American) through Karabar High School’s distance education department. No longer will I be fully home-schooled.

All my 11 years of study — from when I was four up till the present — have been home-school with Mum and Dad as my teachers. I have never studied at a school — or through a school — in my life until now. I’ve been to school, sure — every Sunday in Australia, because our church meets in one. And once when I went on a youth camp we slept in sleeping bags in a classroom. But I’ve never been in a classroom at classroom hours. Rather, I’m the bloke who makes sure that your desk is not in the same place on Monday morning as it was when you left it on Friday afternoon. Tomorrow, while I still won’t be in class at class hours, I’ll be enrolled.

The style of my curriculum is about to change dramatically. For the first few years of my schooling we used an Australian home-school curriculum, but for the past six years we have used an American curriculum called Sonlight. Sonlight is a heavily literature-focussed curriculum. It is tremendously fun opening the school boxes each year because they are always bursting (underneath the copious paper padding) with delicious new books. Opening the school box this year was fun too, because I had no idea what would be in there, but in the whole thing (school for the several weeks of the year) there was only one non-textbook — which I will have to return when I’m done with it. It seems English this year will be more about analysing a few books in depth than about reading a great deal.

Looking through the notes for each subject was quite different too, to what I’m used to. While Sonlight notes are written to be interesting to read, and the passive voice is almost non-existent (though I know I use plenty of passive voice myself, even though I studied Sonlight…), the Year 11 notes seem to be written for the sole purpose of conveying information — and the passive voice is abundant. It is also chock-full of “course outcomes”, which are quite formal to read: “a student will learn to communicate a knowledge and understanding of historical features and issues using appropriate and well-structured oral and written forms”. I don’t remember seeing any “course outcomes” listed in the Sonlight notes.

While public school work will clearly be very different to what I’m used to, I still expect to enjoy it and I’m keen to begin. I chose subjects I like, so I have no compunction about studying them. Neither have I any compunction about studying from an Australian perspective: Australia is, after all, where I am from, where I hope to go to uni (“college” in American english), and where I might even spend the rest of my life after I leave Cambodia. The lack of a Christian perspective will seem less of a boon, but after studying from a Christian perspective for 11 years it will be good to get exposure to secular education so that secular uni won’t be a complete shock.

In the Australian system, we have what we call “units” for Year 11 and Year 12. Most subjects are two units, for some you can do three units. I am doing three unit English, three unit Maths, and regular two unit Geography, Economics and Modern History. All of these look like they are going to be interesting. English and Maths look tough (they are three units after all). The others seem like they’ll be easier, but all very interesting. For Geography I get to do a year-long research project. Economics will be interesting because it is a completely new subject for me. And History is always interesting. So really I can hardly wait.

The book deficit I can fill on my own: this year I want to read some more Percy Jackson books (Rick Riordan); The Street Lawyer (John Grisham); St. Mallory’s Forever! (Miriam Joy, Charley Robson and Saffina Desforges);  Great Expectations (Charles Dickens); and The Silmarillion (JRR Tolkien) — just to name a few. I also want to reread Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynn Truss); The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien); and the Deltora Quests (Emily Rodda) — again, just to name a few. In fact, there are so many books I want to read and reread that I am almost pleased that I have no school books this year.

So really, while I greatly enjoyed my six years of Sonlight, I learned a lot, and I would not have minded doing it all the way to year 12 — I have no regrets about switching to distance education this year. Tomorrow a new era dawns, and I’m looking forward to it. Wish me luck.


Don’t Live in a Bubble

As the old saying goes, “you learn something new everyday”. For most people this is probably a vast understatement, but even so, with 7 billion people and the whole wide universe out there, all our learning barely scratches the surface — it’s rather like dragging a heavy bucketful of water out of the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless the are so many reasons to learn as much as we possibly can, about as many different topics as we can.

One reason is so that we can learn from the mistakes and successes of those who have gone before us. I once heard someone suggest that history is a useless subject, but I utterly disagree. History is the study of things that have happened in the past, and if we know what has happened in the past we can predict what will happen in the future — and act accordingly. Why should humanity make the same mistakes over and over again? So many wars have claimed millions of lives each within the last hundred years, and if we don’t learn about them they could happen again and again. Humans have such a short memory (there’s a good song at the other end of the link), but if we all learn more about the events of the past, maybe these atrocities will happen less often.

Another reason to learn, and branch out our fields of knowledge, is so that we can appreciate other people better. Everyone has different interests, and interests are the most fun when you have other people to share them with. By studying foreign languages; listening to all different kinds of music; paying attention when our friends talk about their favourite sports — we gain assets which will help us to connect with a broad range of people. We’ll be able to talk to all sorts of people and know where they’re coming from and what they’re talking about. Don’t live in a bubble.

Finally, if you take the trouble to find out about all sorts of things — not just your pet interests — you just might find something better. You might find a sport more interesting than any you’ve ever watched or played (if you’re looking for one, by the way, try AFL!); or you might find a skill you never knew you had. For Christmas my sister made me three hacky-sacks and with them I’ve learnt how to juggle. By branching out and trying new things we can pick up interesting skills like this. As Liam used as an example, rather than writing traditional fantasy for the rest of your life, try writing some horror or some science-fiction versions of fair-tales.

But even though it’s awesome to seek knowledge, often it’s not very high on my priority list. Like many people (though I do appreciate school) I rejoice at holidays and groan at going back to my studies. Too often I spent my Saturdays playing computer games or on Facebook rather than studying other languages or reading good books. We appreciate the results of learning, but we don’t like to put the effort in.

So let’s apply this stuff. I don’t want to be in the dark about wars that have ravaged our planet killing millions of people each. I don’t want to speak English, and only English, all my life. I want to branch out and learn more — and learn more deeply about what I know already. All this is easy to say and not so easy to do, when it comes down to it. Nevertheless, let’s apply it. Don’t live in a bubble.

A Trip to the Cinema

I rarely hear about a movie until after it comes out, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney was different. I first heard that they were going to make a movie of that book in the NaNoWriMo forums, over a year before it came out. The other day I finally saw it — on the big screen.

Before I launch into my review, I should mention where I watched this most anticipated film: a cinema in Phnom Penh! Perhaps, like me, you can believe that there would be a cinema in Phnom Penh, but you picture tiled floors, hard chairs, rubbish on the floor. If so, you’re wrong. The cinema might almost have been Hoyts or Dendy. The floor was carpeted, the halls were dimly lit, the seats were clean and soft-cushioned, the room sloped downwards. Even the cafeteria sold popcorn and soft drinks and chips (not that I would have cared if it didn’t). The only difference I noticed were the Khmer subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

But we were there to watch An Unexpected Journey — not to gawk at the cinema. So on with the review.

I loved the prologue: Smaug’s destruction of Erebor. When I imagine Erebor, I usually think of the dark, crumbling, smoke-smelling caverns of Smaug’s occupation. I don’t remember it in its former glory as the dwarves do. In the movie, we see see Erebor in all its magnificence before Smaug’s arrival. We see vast caverns, not dark, but filled with light. We see rivers of gold flowing through the mountain. We see hordes of dwarves mining the gold and lovingly crafting it. Knowing what the dwarves were seeking to reclaim — seeing it with my own eyes — gave the quest that much more purpose.

Then Smaug came with fire and fury and drove out the dwarves. I thought the destruction scene was quite good, but I found it interesting that while we saw the dragon’s tail, his feet, and torrents of his fire, we never saw his body. I suspect the film-producers want to save the full sight of this monstrous reptile until the final movie, and it seems like a good plan to me.

Having only watched The Lord of the Rings once, and that not so recently, I don’t really remember how it depicted dwarves. But whether or not they looked the same, the dwarves in this movie were awesome. Short, stocky, with fantastic hairstyles and beard-styles, very rowdy and with voracious appetites, they were exactly the right kind of people to turn up unexpected on Bilbo’s doorstop. Maybe a little bit over-the top that first night, but almost perfect. I really liked their singing too. Nevillegirl said that she wasn’t looking forward to the dwarves’ singing, but while I don’t like songs much in books (I can never think of tunes for them), I really liked it in the movie.

In fact, the music in general was great in this movie. As was it in The Lord of the Rings, as far as I can remember.

Even though the dwarves settled down after that first dinner, over-the-top was quite a consistent trend in this movie. The worst case was with the giants on the Misty Mountains: was it really necessary to make such an unrealistic scene? And while the orc-kingdom inside the Misty Mountains was pretty cool, I thought the battle scene in there was over-the-top. Hundreds of orcs falling off the pathways, probably to their deaths; dwarves falling huge distances, only to pick themselves up and keep running… enough said. Such scenes kept the movie from any possible danger of becoming boring, but they lost it a lot of plausibility.

The film makes a lot of changes from the book, and I like some of them — such as the destruction of Erebor — but I’m not sure about others. A lot of it is not just a question of adding some scenes and cutting out others: the entire plot is going in a different direction to the plot of the book.

For one thing we have Azog, the pale orc who is hunting down Thorin and is bent on vengeance. Maybe it was hard for the producers to make The Hobbit into three movies and not meet the villain until the final movie — especially if the villain, unlike Sauron in The Lord of the Rings — is just sitting complacently on a pile of gold. But even if it is necessary, I’m not sure whether I like this villain addition. Though I’ll grant that he looks awesome.

Then there is the Necromancer. The Necromancer is only mentioned in passing in the book, and I would appreciate the movie fleshing him out — but the fleshing out hasn’t happened quite the way I expected. In the book, Gandalf knew about the Necromancer the whole time: he managed to sneak into the Necromancer’s stronghold and retrieve the key from Thrain. In the movie, Gandalf didn’t know about the Necromancer until Radagast told him (I don’t know where Thrain was in the movie). I am not sure why this abandonment of the original story was necessary.

While The Lord of the Rings had the fluff taken out, The Hobbit has been fluffed up (though not with anything the least bit slow or boring). This has potential to be a good thing — and it has been a good thing in some parts of this movie — but in some parts I would hesitate to call it a good thing. I hope it helps more in the following movies..

On the whole, while it differed a lot from the book, I very much enjoyed the movie. But I think they might be trying to do too much with it. From my small experience, when film-producers do a sequel (or prequel) they try to make it grander and more intense than the original. In the same way, the producers of The Hobbit are trying to make it grander and more intense than The Lord of the Rings — but I don’t think it should be that way. The Lord of the Rings was an impossibly difficult quest to save the whole of the Middle Earth from domination by Sauron — The Hobbit is about Bilbo’s holiday. Undoubtedly, it was a long, dangerous holiday, one from which he was not guaranteed return — but it was not dangerous on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, and the tone ought to be lighter.

Nevertheless, for all my nit-picking, I very much enjoyed the film. I am looking forward to meeting the dragon Smaug, with whose eye An Unexpected Journey so forebodingly closed.

Rating: 4.25/5

“Nothing changes on New Years Day”

Two nights ago I stayed up until 12:15 a.m — for me, that’s late. Why would I do such a thing? Well the main reason was that a bunch of my often far-flung friends and I were in one house together, playing Risk (having finished playing soccer in the dark). When the rest of my family went home at 10 o’clock, I didn’t want to go — I wanted to extend the moment. But my excuse for staying up was the same as that of millions of others who surely stayed up till midnight that night: it was the last day in the calendar year.

As the New Year drew nearer we huddled around the iPad, bracing ourselves against the bitter 20 degree wind (68 Fahrenheit). The clock ticked by: 11:59:58 p.m, Dec 31st 2012 … 11:59:59 p.m, Dec 31st 2012 … 12:00:00 a.m, Jan 1st 2013!

Nothing happened, I assure you. The sky remained black, but peppered with stars; the breeze remained piercingly chill (for the tropics anyway); the ground stood firm; The clock kept ticking. Just another day. As far as I know January 1st, as a date, doesn’t even have much significance. According to some wonky tradition, it’s the date of Christ’s circumcision, but I’d take that with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it’s a good excuse to stay up late — and a good chance to plan to achieve things, too.

New Year’s resolutions are notoriously ineffective: most people abandon them within two weeks. Nevertheless, if we continue with our resolutions, we can make the world a better place(depending on what our resolutions are). So don’t throw out your resolutions, merely resolve to keep them.

Here is my list for 2013:

(1) Get good at speaking the Khmer language. Considering that I’ve lived in Cambodia for most of my life, my language sucks. Nevertheless, I feel I’ve made some small progress in the last couple of months and I want to keep it up. This is my biggest resolution for 2013.

(2) Re-write a novel. Everybody talks about writing their first novel; I want to re-write my first novel. Generally I plough through my novels pretty well, but once they are finished I don’t touch them again. This year I want to polish up something I’ve written.

(3) Post on this blog more regularly, even if it is only about once a week. I’ve been ridiculously inconsistent in the last few months and while I know I’ll never be posting every day, hopefully I can be at least more regular, if not more frequent.

(4) Run my first Half Marathon. In some ways this is a cheat resolution: I really like running and I’m quite good at it, so this won’t be a chore. But a Half Marathon is a respectable distance, so if I post a respectable time for it I think the challenge will be worth the resolution.

(5) Be more productive. I spent plenty of time “working”, but I think this time could be significantly less if I was more efficient. I need to concentrate harder; refrain from googling things, looking at the newspaper, or checking Facebook while studying; organise my time. The more productivity I milk out of each working hour, the more free time I have!

If I can do all these things in the coming year, I will be happy, but I don’t expect the clock ticking over a new year to make me a better person. I’m the same guy; I have the same struggles and the same strengths. The New Year will not make it easier to do things, or to change habits, it is merely a convenient time to plan to do so. But if we hold firm in our resolve, with God’s help perhaps we can achieve some things in 2013.

So Happy New Year!


P.S Yes, I know it’s now January 2nd, I’m always behind the times.

PP.S I was planning to insert New Year’s Day by U2 here, but I noticed Nevillegirl has posted it on her New Year’s post already, so I won’t bother. Go here if you want to listen to it (it’s a good song).