February 2012

Computers have been around since the early 80s, and we have had at least one in the house since ’88. So what is that, coming on 25 years? And in all that time I have never had a computer that I was operating get eaten by a virus. But I did yesterday and I tell you that was a humbling experience.

For all that I use computers almost every waking moment to do my job, I cheerfully admit that I do not know much about the inner workings of them. Perhaps that – and my own innate careful nature – is why I have never been much on taking risks in downloading material or even going to questionable sites. My eldest son, who lives on the edge of technology staring into its vast unfathomable depths for a living, has burned at least a half dozen computer guts that I know about. He wisely doesn’t tell me everything, so the body count is probably a lot higher. But I just had my technological cherry popped, and I am feeling a little chastened.

In my own defence I would mention that is was for the greater good of education. Of course anyone in my position would say that, but I would say that in my case, my argument is justified. My argument runs like this:

I am really, really tired of my students doing their year-end novel study by reading the literature of Dead White (Western) Males, so tired that three years ago I completely revamped the required reading list to include Asian, Latin American and African writers. Despite my efforts, and some increase in the study of world literature, students were still stuck on European writers. I wasn’t getting the results I was looking for. Two years ago I took an IB (International Baccalaureate) course in English and came across their English materials. When a colleague left our program to go to the IB program a year ago I got her to forward me the IB writer’s list, which is truly international in scope.

This semester I implemented the IB list of authors. No one could read outside the list, and they had to show a connectedness between their two novels. As a result I got some truly awesome choices, representing the best of modern international writers. However, this presented the problem of obtaining these books in a culture that practices print censorship and where there are NO public libraries.

This drove me online to find suitable eBook sites. Gutenberg was obviously the first stop. Unfortunately Gutenberg specializes in Dead White Guys. Jsoft eBooks was a good and safe find, offering a limited choice of writers in text files. Other sites were not so promising. Investigating some of these sites is how I probably picked up a virus. However, on my Kindle I can get practically anything almost instantly and at a relatively low cost. But Amazon uses a DRM (digital rights management) format called .azw which can’t be converted using the regular tools. This drove me to Calibre (Thanks Dave!), a free software download (make a donation, it is an awesome product) developed by Kovid Goyal of Mombai. Calibre will convert any ebook format to any other, a very useful tool. But it can’t unlock DRMs, so I needed another program.

A colleague (Thanks Aaron!) suggested I try eBook Converter, a relatively (at $34 US) expensive product that simply unlocks the DRMs by finding the file in your Kindle. Between these two products I have managed to assist my students to get practically every book their newly released imagination has come up with. My own industry and drive has motivated most of them to derive their own eBook solutions. This is an exciting step forward for me and this program. However, there have been costs.

There is always a learning curve with new knowledge, and the cost of my learning how to do all this yesterday was a virus that I had picked up during all this searching that ate my computer, all of its files and all of its programs. Well, so what! No advance comes without setbacks, and I am determined to get my students out of the cultural imperialism that says that the only literature worth studying comes from Western Europe. That is limiting and insulting to the vast panoply of cultures and writers in the world. As for my computer, I had it backed up on a hard drive and the reboot at the shop cost only 50 ringgit ($15) in this tech-savvy country.

I always encourage my students to go to the edge of what they don’t know and jump in. I have always tried to model that myself. I stripped a 550 BSA motorbike to its roots one long winter just to prove to myself that I could. I wooed my wife by restoring an MGB in her parent’s driveway. I have renovated three houses from the studs on out. In none of these things did I have the slightest notion of what I was doing when I started. But in every case I succeeded in doing what I set out to do, and in every case I made a good return on my investment. My return on this investment will be some essays worth writing on some books well worth reading; that, and perhaps some students with a new sense of the value of their own initiative.

The Lord has always provided us with good friends in Malaysia during our time here. None of them have stayed very long, as most of them have commitments elsewhere, and that is entirely understandable. But we have treasured each of their unique qualities and tried our best to keep up with their interests. Our friends for the last year have been Pete and Joan from out West. They knew each other as teenagers growing up in Tanzania as the children of expats there, met again in later life and not all that long ago got married. They are a neat couple who share with us a love of travel and adventure. They are also serious hikers, and Pete has even worked as a guide in the Rockies, so they know their way around the bush.

A month or so ago we drove up into the Cameron Highlands and spent a day hiking through the hills. Yesterday we went again, this time up to Fraser Hill, another outpost on the rocky row of hills that forms the spine of peninsular Malaysia. Fraser is a lot closer than Cameron, and a lot less crowded. We were there in just over two hours and found the place practically deserted. Despite our early start, we were too late to take on the big trek up to Pine Tree, but we got the phone number of a local guide to book for our next excursion and had a nice pot of tea while we plotted out how we were going to tackle that day’s hike.

We started out just south of town, and must confess that the first couple of trails were a little too tame for our liking; too close to town with little wildlife and less adventure. The next two trails were a little more demanding, taking us through some wilder parts of the area with steep gorges just off the trail and plenty of vantage points from which to observe the variety of birds, butterflies and majestic trees with their garlands of lianas. With two decent pairs of binoculars we were able to see dozens of birds: long-tailed drongos and silly wagtails, beautiful blue niltavas, and tiny red flycatchers, but no hornbills, much to my disappointment. After three hours of pretty well-maintained trails we came to a final two kilometre stretch that hadn’t been looked after for some time. Rather than cut back to the road, we forged ahead and were treated to some spectacular views and some really dense jungle. Pete lead the way through this stretch clearing bush as he went and picking out the safest route along the sometimes totally obscured trail. We were all grateful for his careful expertise.

We arrived back at our starting point after about six hours of steady walking to find that two of us had picked up leeches; not an uncommon occurrence for this part of the world. We cleaned ourselves off and clambered back in the car for a leisurely drive through a Malaysian sunset back to KL. Once again we are grateful to the Lord for allowing us the luxury of a vehicle this year, and the opportunities it affords us to see a little more of this lovely country. We are also grateful for active friends that push us out of our comfort zone into interesting adventures that expand our knowledge and appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation. We readily confess that we are a little stiff this morning, but that will pass. The pleasure of all that we were able to do yesterday will linger for some time.

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