The three men in my life

And the three men I admire most…
…They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died. ~ Don McLean, American Pie

Life is hard. Then you die. I always liked the finality of those two sentences. Six words that made sense. But lately, since I lost my dad at 91 and two close friends at 45, I have started to re-think those words.

My father and my friends Pako and Ravi never seemed to show that life was hard. It may have been hard for the people who loved them especially at the end, but it never seemed that life took a toll on their day-to-day living. Life, in fact, seemed “easy” for them.

They seemed to have discovered the one truth that few people acknowledge. Life is transitory.

You cannot wrestle it to the ground and put a choke hold on it and say, “I’ll say when it’s over, dammit!”.

Life passes you by even when you are too busy working, worrying, getting depressed, crying over losses, ranting and worst of all: WHINING.

I don’t remember my dad, Pako or Ravi whining. For whining about your life or lack of it is the ultimate sin. We do life injustice when we moan about our work, our spouses and kids or opposingly our single life, our material wealth or lack of it, our houses, our cars, our health, our relatives ~ ourselves.

It is a waste of time. It drains you of your energy. It tires you and throws you into a vortex of worthlessness.

Here are three people who floated through life without seemingly a care in the world. They lived for today. They had found a nirvana here on earth that most of us whiners may never realize before we die. We pine and pray for a heaven beyond this earth that doesn’t exist; creating our own hell, awaiting our own grim reaper.

I lost my father and a true friend Ravi in the space of 10 days this year. I lost Pako over five years ago.

There is nothing in the world that can prepare anyone for the loss of people who are dear to you. You feel the slice of a cold blade in your heart but nothing gushes out, just emptiness and pain.

I found myself tearing up when I was behind the wheel in the middle of traffic. There was no solace in bed at night. The words of every song on the radio resonated and tugged me deeper into melancholy.

I would get flashes ~ like tiny movies playing in my mind’s eye, memories that were so vivid, I could clearly hear their voices, see their smiles, feel their presence.

My father was rushed to hospital on Oct 22 after what was believed to be a stroke.

That night, I spent a night by his bedside. They had tied his arms to the bed rails so that he would not pull against the tubes in his arms. My dad was still able to talk but he no longer could control his bowels and had to suffer the indignity of wearing adult diapers and a catheter.

His health had deteriorated over the last years of his life as a result of the hard drinking and heavy smoking, both of which he had quit for over a decade. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, causing his breathing to be laboured. He would stay awake all night long, and need reassurance from my mother and eldest sister, who bless their hearts, shouldered the brunt of his constant care.

My paternal grandfather had died in a hospital, apparently, the family story goes, from being given the wrong medication. As a result, my father lived with a real fear of hospitals ever since. When he was persuaded to go, because his symptoms had become so severe, he would often make a “sudden recovery” in front of the attending physician just to get out of a night’s stay there.


My dad was a photolithographer. I never understood what that meant except that it had something to do with maps and dad worked for the government at the Survey Department from his late teenage years until he retired.

When asked by my teachers what my father’s occupation was, I was so proud that at the age 8 or 9, to be able pronounce it, spell it and then differentiate it from a photographer, when the teacher mistakenly tried to correct me. “No, he works on maps at the Survey Department,” I would say adamantly, a fact I knew, because on numerous occasions he took me to the office where I would play for hours near his “enormous” work table.

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say ~ Mike & The Mechanics, Living Years

That night, my father awoke repeatedly. He was disoriented and still thought he was at home, shouting out the names “Jane! Jane!” (my mum) and  “Irene! Irene!” (my sister) to an open ward of patients. I tried to calm him and say,”Dad you are in hospital,” but it didn’t seem to register.

He didn’t seem like the typical stroke victim either, with paralysis on one side, or slurred speech. I held his hand and he gripped me back – sometimes so tightly it hurt.

This reassured me more, I believe, than it did him. My dad was never the cuddly type. I don’t remember being hugged by him. As I grew older, and when I reached over to hug him during my visits, he would always proffer his hand instead and say, “Bird flu, bird flu”, to avoid the embrace.

Dad adhered to the stiff-upper-lip resoluteness of his Queen’s English upbringing and was a bit of an anglophile, despite being of Ceylonese descent, and having spent only a few short years in Britain.

But dad was such a gregarious person after a little inebriation. He used to use the word “incorrigible” on others, but I now realize it applied to him best – but in a good way, there was a rascally streak in him that we, his children, may have all inherited.

Dad used to sing at all our family gatherings, along with his two younger brothers the late Uncle Douglas and sole surviving male Kanagasabai and incredibly witty Uncle Cyril. They were a riot with their bawdy and teasing songs – the lyrics of which I remember only in snatches “Around the corner and under the tree, a Bengoli maiden made love to me…” and “If I were a bachelor boy and if I were to marry…”

He always had an appreciation for the old standards by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and the ilk and I remember he also had an odd penchant for Boney M’s Christmas Songs which he would play on endless repeats during the season.

He would often illustrate to anyone who would listen how the music of the present day has devolved by suddenly singing out loud “Who let the dogs out….woof, woof, woof, woof,” barking as we rolled in laughter.

It is late now, most of the patients in the ward are asleep. Dad is gently tapping on my hand with his fingers. There is a machine in the distance going off at regular intervals – theet, theet, theet. Dad’s tapping falls into exact sync with the beeping machine! I imagine that somewhere in his mind music is playing. And he is happy.

At one point in the middle of what I think is sleep, my father suddenly says: “What floor are you on?”

I am caught by surprise, in mid-sleep myself. I know we had told him we had moved to our own apartment, after many long years in rented terrace houses, but he had yet to visit.

“10th floor,” I replied to which the retort came quickly back: “Too high! Too high!” and then he faded off to sleep again.

Later in his hospital stay, my sister related how my father had asked for the wheel chair for the sole purpose of going to the 10th floor. He was on the 9th floor, the top-most floor in Selayang Hospital, so did he mean he wanted to finally come visit or was he ready to go to his maker?

After a fitful night, my mum and eldest sister returned the next morning to the hospital ward to relieve me. I returned home to try to catch up on much needed sleep.

Sometime mid-day on Oct 23rd, I awoke suddenly and checked my phone. There were 4 missed calls. But they were not from my sister but from a friend who was on holiday from Australia.

When I reached him he was in tears. I was told a close mutual friend of ours Ravi, who we called by his petname, Baby, was dead at 45 years old.

It was a shock. Ravi had been to my apartment for his first time only days before and gave his blessing. Now he was gone.


Ravi was the complete opposite of my dad by the fact that he hugged everyone. But Ravi shared my dad’s warmth, friendliness and generosity to anyone, even strangers he met for the first time.

I got to know Ravi after he showed up at the uni his elder brother, Ragu and I were in. Even though he was from a different uni he acted like a freshie asking – mostly women – to be ragged. The ladies adored him.

But I really got to know him when he met a nasty accident and ended up bed-ridden for months in hospital. I dropped by each morning to cheer him up ~ but turns out the happiest guy in hospital was Ravi. He had patients around his bed playing cards or just laughing and sharing jokes, forgetting the dreariness of being cooped up in a hospital ward. Despite his foot looking black and blue and ripe for an amputation, Ravi never showed an iota of concern ~ even though I guessed he must have been hurting inside.

I would sometimes bring him breakfast, before heading off to the drudgery of work, and it turned out Ravi always cheered me up, listening to my whining about my job, instead of me offering a sympathetic ear to his pain.

In the end, Ravi lost half his foot, but it never showed in the fullness of the man he was for the next two decades of his life.

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share

And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother ~ by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell, popularized by Neil Diamond and the Hollies, He Ain’t Heavy

The party never really started until Ravi showed up. And he always made an effort to show up when I asked him to. He always showed he cared. He hugged me like a lover parting for the last time. Or a friend, perhaps, who knew his time was short and made every effort to acknowledge our closeness.

He called me every year just on the stroke of midnight, the first minute of Jan 22, to wish me happy birthday. I was told I was not the only one accorded the privilege of a Ravi birthday call. He must have made a lot of calls in his life. He had many friends who would’ve filled an entire calendar year. I guess it was part of Ravi’s style to remind us all to be thankful of every year we lived.

My friend and I are driving to his apartment after receiving the shocking news. I get lost trying to recall the route, making instinctive rights and lefts. He is on the phone trying to get directions when I overhear him say the name of a hospital. I turn to my right, and there is the exact hospital he mentions!

We drive to the entrance, park and head to the mortuary. We know some unexplained intervention has brought us here early to greet the body of our friend Ravi.

A police truck pulls up shortly after. Ravi is in a black body bag. The police drag his body off the truck and unceremoniously dump it onto a gurney like they were dragging a sack of rice.

Inside, my friend and I are called in and the black bag is unzipped. Ravi is lying there, in familiar shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, and all our doubts of his mortality are confirmed. We both break down. I cry his name out loud, as if to will him back.

His hands are drawn criss-cross on his chest. There is red ash on his on forehead. He looked as peaceful as a saint, almost a hint of a smile on his lips. I knew then that he was gone.


I met my friend Pako when I thought he would make a good interview subject for a news story. I was in Tioman Island covering the sailing regatta for a magazine and noticed he was the only Egyptian in the field.

Pako was tanned and tall and physically the person you would expect to be a sportsman. But he surprised me by also being articulate and erudite and proceeded to enlighten me on the state of humanity and the environment.

Pako was part Egyptian and Austrian and showed the good looks of a person of mixed parentage. When I met him he was the dive instructor of the resort, but he also seemed to have a chip on his shoulder of not matching the doctorates that both his father and grandfather held.

He had applied to all the Commonwealth countries to do his PhD in English, and only Malaysia replied. He signed on to do his doctorate in history in University Malaya, then asked the taxi driver where the best dive spot in Malaysia was and was told it was Tioman island.

He easily secured a job as a dive guide, given his experience, when he arrived at the resort.

A few months later, after the regatta I met Pako in the city. We struck up a friendship that lasted till the day he left us.

Pako taught me that life was too short to be bemoaning our fate. He was constantly curious, his eyes lighted up like a child at discovering new things and he always showed a hunger for new knowledge, questioning dogmas and iron-clad “truths” ~ debates that took us late into the night, after many a beer.

Pako was a physical man who earned his living by showing hundreds, including us, the wonders and beauty of life from where we came from ~ the depths of the oceans ~ but he was cerebral and constantly thinking of new ideas on land ~ ideas he promised to turn into a book.

In the end, he did write a book, with the help of a friend, on his beloved Tioman, the island he called home for most his life in Malaysia.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend?
People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you.
Well they’ll take your soul if you let them.
Oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name and you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again ~ Carole King, popularized by James Taylor, You’ve Got A Friend

Pako collapsed one day back in Egypt. His wife, Susanne, told us it was brain cancer. He survived the first bout through an operation and therapy and we got to see him back again in Malaysia and shared some great meals and laughter together.

I never forgave myself for not visiting him in his native land. He spoke so often of wanting to show me his Egypt ~ through his eyes. “I am from the desert, we sleep under the stars!” he said, the first time he was offered the couch of the living room, much to our amusement.

Like my dad and Ravi, Pako never showed anyone that life was hard. Life dealt them some hard blows. But they seemed to roll with the punches and get on with it. There was too little time to bicker and moan and whine.

Few of us understand that truth. We spend too much time on trivialities, obsessing about little things, being anal and inflexible in our ways.

Yes, life needs constants and some consistency, but life also teaches us to enjoy the ride and go with the flow.

The three men in my life taught me life isn’t hard. Life is actually easy. Or, at least, they made it look easy.

Laugh, be curious and be generous with your time with others. And be a little bit crazy. It may be the only antidote you have against the insanity of this world.

Life isn’t hard. Take it easy. Then you live. Really live. And then you die.

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy ~ The Eagles, Take it Easy

Case study: WWF Malaysia

Anita Devasahayam of Trinetizen Media has written a case study about WWF Malaysia for the latest Social Space magazine, produced by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University.

The paper focuses on the non-profit’s use of media tools to champion its advocacy efforts.

The Malaysia chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-M), like most non-profits, operates on tight resources and struggles to gain attention for the work it does.

It must contend with issues of relevance, credibility and strategic use of media to deliver its conservation message in a world saturated with media messages.

WWF-M currently runs over 70 projects ranging from saving endangered tiger and turtle species, to protecting the highland forests, rivers and seas. The projects are funded through a combination of grants, donations, sponsorships and fund-raisers.

Although WWF-M had the support of big brand names such as Boh Plantations, Honda Malaysia and HSBC Bank Malaysia, there were concerns that the projects did not receive sufficient media coverage and were not reaching the desired audience – namely, the larger public interested in the environment and ecology.

According to its 2009 annual report, corporate sponsors contributed over RM1.91 million in 2009 compared to RM2.15 million in 2008 in financial support to WWF-M, a drop of almost 11 per cent from 2008 to 2009.

Conversely, donations from individuals over the same time period rose by 16 percent. Donations from individuals accounted for 38 per cent of the organisation’s total revenue.

Recognising that a shift had occurred in its source of funding and support and more was needed to engage individual donors from among the Malaysian public, WWF-M was prompted to review their media strategies to meet this objective.

Although mainstream media played a significant role in spreading news pertaining to WWF-M’s activities, twice as many articles were written in the media from 2000-2004, as compared to 2005-2009, though there was an overall increase in the number of conservation issues in the latter period.

One contributing factor to this change is the general increase in access to the Internet across Malaysia over the last decade.

WWF-M recognised that it would have to work with newer media channels, while at the same time coming up with innovative strategies to engage traditional media platforms, to ensure their message reaches the larger public.

The results of a survey, targeting senior journalists and editors at local newspapers and broadcast stations, were also eye-opening and gave WWF-M an impetus to change the way they pushed their agenda via the media.

The survey identified three key areas that WWF-M needed to address in order to advocate their message of conservation, strengthen their relationship with their current stakeholders and cultivate the larger public in this media saturated environment.

The three key areas were:

  1. simplify the message;
  2. cultivate media relationships;
  3. ensure that their voice is heard despite the unfavourable media environment.

1. Simplify the Message: Give Me Something Fresh and Easy to Understand
For example, survey participants stated that stories tackling dwindling numbers of leatherback turtles or threatened forest fauna due to intense logging were “typical and usual”, “old”or “recycled.”

What was perceived as urgent or significant news by WWF-M was not viewed as news by the media.

WWF-M’s press releases also tended to be technically complex, with little or no effort to craft the issues in a manner that would be understood by lay-persons.

Furthermore, the alarmist tone that often characterized the press releases issued by the organisation did little to increase its credibility, even among reporters who were conversant with conservation issues.

Some reporters characterized WWF-M press releases as hyperbolic and occasionally inaccurate.

2. Cultivate Media Relationships: Give Me Someone to Talk To
The media stated that it had trouble keeping up with changes in the WWF-M’s communications team. The communications team of the WWF-M also failed to engage with the media on the presumption that the strength of their brand was sufficient to draw attention to the various causes. Mainstream media members generally felt the onus lay with WWF-M to keep editors and journalists apprised of internal changes and new developments.

3. Ensure Their Voice is Heard: Speaking Up Over the Noise
WWF-M was also affected by the economic downturn in the 2008-2009 period. Appeals for donations in the public domain became particularly challenging as a result. WWF-M’s appeals for coverage in broadcast media also revealed that the industry has shifted its emphasis to focus more on poverty, disabilities and unmet social needs. With limited air-time available, conservation and environmental issues were given less coverage through such media platforms. WWF-M needed to work harder to make their issues relevant, timely, and just as important than other matters the media was covering.


WWF-M’s TX2 tiger conservation campaign used an integrated approach combining offline marketing activities such as tiger-face painting and online appeals and outreach efforts via social networks.

Case study: Aela Callan, freelance broadcast journalist

Aela Callan is a 29-year-old Australian producer and broadcast journalist based in Bangkok, Thailand. She works freelance for AlJazeera English and Channel Seven Australia.

She kindly consented to a 20-minute Skype interview ( (Part 1, Part 2) for a case study presentation to a group of lecturers and undergraduates at Taylor’s University College’s School of Communication on Wednesday, Aug 11.

In the interview, Aela provided useful advice to those planning to embark on a freelance career as a broadcast journalist.

Here are the edited highlights:

Aela: I was working for AlJazeera English in Hong Kong. They had a need for somebody in Bangkok and so that was the reason I came here. I’ve been here just over 12 months now.

Bangkok is a good place for journalists to be based especially if they’re going to be freelance because it’s sort of a hub for Asia, you can easily jump on a plane and access anywhere else in the region pretty quickly.

Owing to the fact Thailand has been in the news so very much over the last 12 months, the workflow has been really steady.

My main two clients are AlJazeera English and Channel Seven Australia and pretty much they keep me busy most of the time, although occasionally I do pieces for other networks as well especially when a big story is breaking like the Red Shirts, I’ve been able to be on the other channels as well.

Q: So are you doing this all by yourself, all the recording, all the production, all the editing and submitting all the stories?

Aela: No, I am not a video journalist. I am correspondent/producer so basically I research the story myself, then I employ a fixer and a cameraman/editor to come along with me and basically shoot the story and then I package it up and sell it as a complete cut story.

Most of the time my commissions are driven by ideas I pitched but also I accept commissions based on what a newsroom wants. They might ring up and say, “This is happening”, or there’s a breaking news event on that day and then I basically roll with the punches as it were.

Q: Can we roll it back a bit and perhaps you can explain to us how you became a freelance journalist?

Aela: Well, I was a journalist for 10 years before I went freelance — five years of that was in radio and five years of that was in television — both in Australia. I decided to go out on my own because I wanted to do the kind of stories that made a difference to me. In Australia, news became very parochial, a very cyclical thing.

I knew I could do it. But I didn’t know if I could do it on my own or not. And many people at the time said to me it would be really tough. It is really tough. But it’s also immensely rewarding when you know by the end of it you can land in any country pretty much and function as a journalist.

You become very streetwise very quickly and also learn how to use the resources that are around you to help you with the story, and to keep you going on the road. You know you need networks of people. It is something you really can’t do on your own.

So building those networks is a lot of what I do because I am in television but, really, you can’t do it on your own, particularly if you don’t have the language skills. So you really do need to rely on most networks that you establish and the longer you’re in a place, the more you establish those.

I think because of the limited jobs that exist in the journalism field at the moment a lot of people are choosing to strike out on their own much earlier than what I did. I think that’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing.

It’s never easy when you are trying to do this job on your own. It’s always, of course, much easier when you have a network or a news room that can support you in various ways. However, I think, the emergence of video journalists in my field is a good thing for young people to learn a lot of different skills all at once.

It really is throwing yourself in the deep end but you do learn to diversify and that definitely is the way the industry goes. You no longer just have one role. You are a correspondent and you’re an editor, or you’re a correspondent and you’re a producer, or you’re a producer and you’re a shooter, or you’re a cameraman as well as a fixer, something like that.

So, you really do need to think about diversifying yourself when you’re freelance particularly because budgets are tight. People won’t throw thousands of dollars for the story and sometimes you are doing the story on your own and funding it yourself. Because you know in your heart it’s a good story and that you will sell it at the end of the day. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.

The further you get into it, the more you learn what each newsroom wants and what specific needs of your clients are. And that is something I would suggest to anyone who is thinking on embarking on a freelance career does.

Pick a few specific clients that they target and tailor their needs to them. Because it’s no good if you’re going to be pitching to a huge news network, if you don’t have a budget. You really do need a budget. If you are going to be doing a 20-minute documentary and pitching it for a news channel, quite obviously it needs to go to another slot that has more time to pull that story.

So you really do have to think about what you want to do, who you want to sell to, and talk to them, go over what their specific needs are, watch their content, listen to their content, read their content, whatever the medium that you are working in. Make sure that you are looking very specifically at where their needs gap is and what you can do to add value to their newsroom.

Q: Do you find sometimes when you are on your own, doing work for one organisation, is it hard then to pitch stories to other organisations?

Aela: In television, certainly, because correspondents are a brand effectively. My contract with AlJazeera prevents me from, say, selling a story to BBC or CNN but it doesn’t mean as freelancer I don’t have contacts with them that I can’t help them in other ways — in a producing role or a behind-the-scenes role –if I am not working for AlJazeera. But because I have a specific contract with them (AlJazeera), they are always my first go-to point.

It can be difficult (at times). I know in the past when I haven’t had a contract, it can be difficult to pitch to other news organisations when your face is on camera because, a correspondent is a brand, and you can’t be popping up all over other different stations, they just won’t do that with their direct competitors.

But I wouldn’t be afraid of shopping a story around if you’ve got a good story. It always doesn’t hurt to have good contacts with all news organisations because then there will other ways and other roles you can help them out with, particularly in radio as well as in print, it is quite easy to transfer these skills. So that is something, if you’re in those mediums, you can do much more easily than in television.

There’s definitely more space for freelancers. I think more often than not, particularly big organisations, are deciding at the products they can get from freelancers, it may be more cost-effective than setting up a huge bureau, having staff, paying overtime, paying superannuation, or things like that if they exist in the countries that you are working in.

So definitely there is more space for freelancers. Having said that there are more people graduating from journalism courses who don’t have jobs who are hitting out on their own and trying to be a freelancer. There’s also another crowd of people that are kind of ‘romantics’, if you like, they had some other job and quit it to become a foreign correspondent and try it out on their own. They’re trying to, you know, fill a gap there too.

It’s definitely not the kind of job you can start without some basic knowledge and some basic contacts. It’s really a lot about who you know. A lot of my contacts come through people I have worked with before, so it’s a bit of Catch-22 situation. You need to have a body of work that you can show people, this is my body of work, this is my experience, this is who I worked with in the past. But without having started on that, it’s a pretty hard space to crack into.

So I definitely recommend starting in a job. I really maintain that I learnt more about being a journalist by actually going out and being a journalist than I did from any university degree from any course, from anything you can read, or do.

I think the biggest thing is just to get out there and start doing stories and start pitching stories, watch a lot of media and if you are trying to become a freelancer also it really pays to look at what the need is.

It’s no good going into a market with 50 other freelancers doing the same thing. If that need is being met and if you can see that there are some other niche that you can offer, or something else you can offer, by all means do it.

But, generally, it pays to do your research on what is needed. Go and meet with news bosses, if you can get the time, and talk to them about where they would like to add coverage — what locations they want more stories from. It’s those little bits of background information that could really be valuable to you when you are pitching a story.

Q: Is there any parting advice you would give to a person who is just graduating from journalism or who wants to get into media or who wants to get into the broadcast field?

Aela: Ummm, I have lots of advice that I could probably give. Don’t expect it to be easy but do expect it to be fun. Never, never give up. But don’t be so persistent that newsrooms are gonna think: “Oh no, not this person again”.

I said to a producer who came to me at the start of the year in Thailand, and she said: “Look I’ve moved here, I’m not gonna get any work, what am I gonna do?!” And I said to her: “Look, the biggest thing is to just stick it out.” A lot of the time, is to sit there and know your patch.

If you’re not getting any story commissions, do your research, go and meet with other journalists. They’ll often be quite generous with their time and giving of advice. Work with people, try not to work against them. A lot of freelancers come in and start thinking: “Oh I want to sell these stories and so I am going to take work off someone else.”

You really do work together as a community of freelancers, there’s enough stories to go around. And people will be quite generous with that. So don’t abuse that.

This producer who came to me and said: “What am I going to do?” I said: “Really, 90 percent of it is just staying here, and waiting for the story to happen. If you’ve done your research, if you’ve done your background, when a big story breaks, you’ll get work.” And sure enough when the Red Shirts happened, she was really busy and flat out and now I employ her quite often as well.

It’s definitely something you need to stick out. Don’t expect to just turn up on the scene and say: “Here, I’m a freelancer. Look what I can do” and click your fingers and get work.

A lot of it is being there and meeting people so that when something does happen and there is a need — a gap to be filled — they think: “Oh that person was here and gave me their card and is around.”

That’s important too. But, like I said, it’s also important too make sure that you’re not unduly hassling people to the point that they are not going to use you, if they do think of you.

You’re able to work with much more flexibility as a freelancer. You can drop in and out of stories. You can continue to follow angles after all the big news organisations have pulled out and forgotten about it.

You can find things and spend time on things that people with a fulltime job do not have enough time to dedicate to it, so enjoy that, use that. Fill the needs and the gaps. Be maneuverable and very flexible in what you can offer.

You might want to be on camera, but you know you may be able to offer producing skills and that might be a way in as well. It’s just a matter of finding what the need is in a client and tailoring yourself to fit that need.

And never really saying no when the phone rings. It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and you don’t feel like getting out of bed but making sure that you still do bother to go those extra lengths and prove to people that you are willing to be there, and you are willing to do the hard yards.

Q: Perhaps, we can end with you just telling us what your Day In The Life was, say, in the last two days, what you actually did in the last two days and what’s it like.

Aela: OK. The last two days, I have been shooting a story in Cambodia which was fairly stressful, as the story changed quite dramatically as we arrived and we had to adjust our needs to be able to continue to do the story. It involved a five-hour trip out of Phnom Penh and I worked probably two seventeen-hour days. I’ve just spent the morning editing those stories, and trying to get them out before I head to Southern Thailand for a couple of stories in Pattani.

Right now It’s pretty manic. And generally for some of the year, most of this year actually, it has been pretty manic because Thailand’s been such a news hub.

However, there were days when I started that I, literally, would just sit there, willing my phone to ring. And sitting by the pool, going: “Oh no, what I am gonna do?” Or sitting at home, you know.

Use that time productively. A lot people get trapped in this sense of “Oh my god, I’m not working, what I am going to do?'” and they really do nothing with their time. You know, I’ve used that time to take some language courses, to try and go and have lunch with people that could be potential contacts in the future and it’s only, over time, that that actually pays off. And, like I said, a lot of it is about being in a place and sticking it out and knowing your stuff at the right time when the big stories break.

But also look for ways to diversify yourself and fill those times when you don’t have a break or a lot of cashflow. That might be writing a blog that can generate some income, that might be selling some photos if you are a good photographer, it might be something completely different, not related to journalism but you can use that as a backup. Definitely, when I was just starting out, it felt like I had my fingers in all sorts of different pies and it wasn’t until, probably, two years in that it started to settle, and I started to have my own clients and get a workflow happening.

It’s nice to know I’m at a point where I do know I have some work coming in. I’m in a pretty privileged position as a freelancer at the moment — being so busy. Having said that, it would be nice to get a day off!

That’s the other thing about being a freelancer, because you are your own boss effectively and you have to decide when to pull the plug and say: “Hey, I am taking time off”, and then there’s always the fear that: “What if they don’t call me when I get back from holiday,” and you have to get yourself into a rhythm again.

You know, that all just comes with time. I really, really enjoy what I do. I would recommend that people do it. As I said, don’t expect it to be easy but it can be immensely rewarding.

Interview, Aela Callan, part 1
Interview, Aela Callan, part 2
Aela Callan Show Reel
Aela Callan: Services and Contact
Thai ‘Orange Shirts’ a transport tool
My presentation on Journalism Entrepreneurship and being a freelancer

Top 10 World Cup Excuses

When the going gets tough, the weak point fingers. World Cup fans have heard it all before. But here’s a list of excuses — some old, some new — now that the tournament is over for 16 of the teams and the blame-game has begun.

10. The vuvuzelas

Some players have criticized the vuvuzelas for interefering with communication on the field. Argentina’s Lionel Messi said they make his job harder. French captain Patrice Evra blamed a disappointing tie with Uruguay on the vuvuzelas. “We can’t sleep at night because of the vuvuzelas,” he said. “People start playing them from 6am. We can’t hear one another out on the pitch because of them.”

Link1: Soccer Players Blame Mistakes On Irritating Vuvuzelas
Link2: Vuvuzelas blamed for flus, hearing loss, stray pets

9. The pitch
Coaches of Slovenia and Algeria have blamed the pitch for the lacklustre performances in the Group C match at the Peter Mokaba Stadium, which features an artificial turf containing millions of synthetic grass fibers woven between and beneath the natural grass.

8. The referees

The USA blamed referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali for a disallowed goal for no apparent reason after the 2-2 draw with Slovenia. Coulibaly has since been blamed for 10 other great blunders (click pic)

Coulibaly was dropped by FIFA for the next round of matches much to the relief of the Americans who made it to the last 16.

7. The manager/coach
Outgoing French coach Raymond Domenech will likely take the most flak for the French team’s petty internal squabbling off the pitch and poor showing on it.

To his credit, Italian coach Marcello Lippi who earlier blamed the “altitude training and fatigue” for the Azzurris poor showing has come clean for their early exit.

“I take all responsibility, all responsibility for what happened. If a team turns up at such an important game like tonight with terror in their heart and their legs, and is unable to express its ability, it’s because the coach didn’t train the team as he should. I failed to train the team well enough, they weren’t ready for such an important match. For an hour and 15 minutes, for psychological reasons I think, nothing worked.”

6. Egos and Fatigue
Highly-paid “foreign” players are often the target for their egos, poor teamwork and lack of loyalty and commitment for their country. The six biggest egos of the World Cup came under scrutiny and will likely be blamed when their teams lose.

Fatigue from busy domestic schedules prior to the World Cup is the same excuse strutted out every four years. “The players play too many games during the [insert professional league] (ie. Premier League/La Liga/Serie A/Bundesliga/FA Cup/etc) that they are too exhausted to perform during the World Cup.” Ho hum.

5. Fans
England’s goalless striker Wayne Rooney turned to cameras after the 0-0 Algeria match and blasted English fans for booing the team for their dismal performance. “Nice to see your home fans boo you. That’s what loyal support is.”

4. Fumbling goalies and the ball

English goalie Robert Green’s fumble cost him dearly and he was replaced by David James, who has a reputation for doing the same. By the way, the Jabulani ball doesn’t seem to be giving the Japanese any probs after two “inch-perfect” freekicks.

3. Their own players
Evra blamed “the traitor among us” after the infamous Anelka-Domenech bust-up in the locker room was reported in L’Equipe. “The problem of France is not Anelka, but the traitor among us. We must eliminate the traitor from the group, because he wants to hurt the team.” Domenech left Evra out in the last game presumably because he was still sniffing around for the rat.

2. The media
Brazil coach Dunga furiously blamed journalists from his country for spreading “fantasies” about players in his team being injured. He was angry for the media taking unauthorised photographs during a closed section of a training session and reporting that Gilberto Silva and Julio Cesar were injured, something he and team doctor Jose Luiz Runco denied. He said: “The press creates certain fantasies and causes panic. They should apologise to Brazilian fans.”

1. Goalkeeper’s girlfriend

Spanish football fans blamed their shocking World Cup defeat to Switzerland on their keeper’s stunning girlfriend. Apparently Iker Casillas was distracted by the presence of TV presenter Sara Carbonero, who stood on the sidelines throughout the match, barely meters away from her beau as the much-touted favourites lost 1-0.

After the match Carbonero, pulled no punches and landed the ultimate blow by asking her shattered boyfriend on live TV: “How did you manage to muck it up?”

“Last night, the web saved my life”

Eight years ago, my web exploits took an interesting turn. I was informed that a website I helped design had saved a life.

It was the kind of news that profoundly focuses your life and makes you take stock.  All those weary, long, late nights of  trial-and-error hand-coding of  HTML pages, testing and re-testing for browser compatibility and griping about the workarounds for Internet Explorer pixel quirks just floated away.

help key

It was as if the Great Documenter had pulled out the file of My Entire Life and stamped it VALID in big, red letters.

But more on my own tale later. The burning question you may be asking is how could a mere website possibly save anyone’s life?

Bev Holzrichter received her own validation of the web’s value  in 2005.

The 56-year-old horse breeder was helping her mare Sierra give birth at KB Hilltop Stables in  Charlotte, Iowa. She was alone and her husband wasn’t due back for three days.

Just after the delivery, another mare named Nifty tried to enter the barn and Sierra protectively lashed out kicking Bev  three times, knocking her to the floor of the barn.

The entire incident, however, did not go unnoticed. Bev had installed webcams in the barn in 2000 and the live video feed was being streamed to hundreds of viewers who loved to watch the foaling  season online.

Passive viewers turned active rescuers as soon as they saw Bev fall.  A friend Bev knew through her website, Wendi Wiener in California, got on the chat room and message board attached to the site and told people in Iowa to call 911.

According to CNN,  concerned viewers  as far away as Germany, the UK and France had phoned the Charlotte Rescue Squad. “When the emergency services arrived 45 minutes later, they were very confused about why they had received calls from all over the world about me,” related Bev.

She was quoted as saying:  “I don’t know what would have happened if it wasn’t for the webcam. I damaged my knee and my leg very badly. My temperature had dropped and I was in body shock by the time help arrived.

“The Internet is my hero. We hear so many bad news stories about the Internet and about webcams but this has such a happy ending. Those people watching are the ones who helped me. If it wasn’t for the technology of the webcam, I’m not sure when I would have been found or what would have happened to me.”

Aid worker Dan Woolley found himself in a similar predicament under the rubble of the recent Haiti quake.

Alone in the darkness with blood streaming from his head and leg, Dan remembered he had an app for that.

“I had an app that had pre-downloaded all this information about treating wounds. So I looked up excessive bleeding and I looked up compound fracture,” he told CNN.

The application on his iPhone is filled with information about first aid and CPR from the American Heart Association. “So I knew I wasn’t making mistakes. That gave me confidence to treat my wounds properly.”

A father of two boys, Dan used his shirt to bandage his leg,  tied his belt around the wound and firmly pressed a sock  to his head to stop the bleeding. Concerned he might be in shock, Dan said the app warned him not to fall sleep. So he set his phone alarm to go off every 20 minutes.

Dan turned the alarm off once the battery was down to 20 percent. By then, he had trained his body not to sleep for long periods, drifting off only to wake up within minutes.

After more than 60 hours, Dan was pulled from the under ruins of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. The iPhone and the app he downloaded, he said “was like a high-tech version of a Swiss Army knife that enabled me to treat my own injuries, track time, stay awake and stay alive.”

Watch the video of Dan relating the incident to CNN.

Actress Demi Moore and husband Ashton Kutcher are the celebrated Twitter couple of the web. In April 2009, Demi received a tweet from a woman named sandieguy: “I’m just wondering if anyone cares that I’m gonna kill myself now.”

Then a short while later: “Getting a knife, a big one that is sharp. Going to cut my arm down the whole arm so it doesn’t waste time.”

Demi replied: “Hope you are joking,” sharing the scenario with her then nearly 400,000 followers.Some of her followers then contacted the authorities.

As San Jose Police Sgt. Ronnie Lopez told E! News:  “At 4:37 this morning, the San Jose Police Department received a call from a citizen requesting that we check on the welfare of a 41-year-old female. The caller indicated that she had been sending out messages on Twitter. Officers were sent to the address. There were no injuries but officers determined that the woman fit the criteria to be brought in for psychiatric evaluation, which she is currently undergoing.”

An hour later,  Demi tweeted: “Everyone I was very torn about responding or retweeting that woman’s post but felt uncomfortable just letting it go.”  She also posted: “Thanks everyone for reaching out to the San Jose PD I am told they are aware and no need to call anymore. I do not know this woman.”

A few hours later, the celebrity tweeted a confirmation of the events’ validity. “It is my understanding that the situation was not a joke and that through the collective efforts here, action was taken to provide help.”

Husband Asthon chimed in: “wifey reported a suicide attempt based on a at reply tweet she got and saved someones life. the woman is in the hospital now.”

That story was not too dissimilar to my own.

Ten years ago, I had helped activist Ivy Josiah and her team design and develop a website for the Women’s Aid Organisation.  I never met the team physically but trained two enthusiastic advocates for the organisation remotely via email and Yahoo Messenger.

As part of the design, we placed the WAO’s email and phone number on every page of the website. After the hand-off, WAO continued to have dedicated personnel to keep the site updated.

In 2002,  as Ivy later related to me, a distraught mother in Damansara had hung up on her son in the UK. Concerned, the son trawled the Internet to find some organisation to help him. He reached the WAO website and called the organisation’s hotline.

That led to a nearby WAO rep visiting the home of the mother and finding her on the floor after ingesting some pills. The WAO rep then counselled her and took her to the nearest clinic, as reported by P Angelina in The Star.

saving a life

I rarely spoke of my role in this incident to anyone for years. It was the kind of story that you hold dear to your heart and didn’t require repeating, except to your closest of friends.

In the last year or so, as a digital media advocate, I felt a need to share this story publicly.  With all the tech-bashing on Facebook and other social networks, it was necessary to point out that the web is not all that bad.

It is in fact a profound agent of change and we are all in it shaping that change with every tweet,  status update, blog post, comment, uploaded photo or video.

To lay blame on the web for our own human failures is to trivialize this greatest of all human resources.

What we do online today matters. It may affect us tomorrow in ways we may never dream of.

The web may even, one day, save your life.

Useful Twitter apps and links

1. Find people to follow: Twellow | Tweepsearch | Tweepz | TwitDir | WeFollow | CelebrityTweet | Twitterholic or just search #ff in Twitter Search.

2. Find journalists, news orgs on Twitter: MediaOnTwitter | Muckrack | News “papers” on Twitter | List of Malaysian media | List of Malaysian journalists

3. Find those tweeting at specific location and specific subject matter: Nearbytweets | Twitterfall

4. Shorten links before posting: | TinyUrl
Both offer customization of links to something more memorable and also offers stats so you can see how many clicks you are getting from your short link. Just add the plus(+) at the end of a link eg: to find out more.

5. Find out whether the story or link you want to tweet is current or popular or has been tweeted already by your followers: Topsy

6. Use popular Twitter clients: UberTwitter, TweetDeck, Seesmic, Echofon, Twitterrific, Tweetie (recently bought by Twitter). An updated Twitstat list of popular clients.

7. Graph your stats: TweetStats

8. Post and share photos: Twitpic | TweetPhoto | PikChur | yFrog | TwitGoo | Picktor

9. Post and share videos: yfrog | TwitVid | Others

10. Journalist tips and guides: Twitter tips for journalists from Steve Buttry | The Journalist’s Guide to Twitter by Leah Betancourt | 6 Twitter tips for journalists by JD Lasica

Bonus: Great complete guide with best practices and case studies for convincing management on Twitter.

(Attribution: From various sources including Mashable)

“Newspapers Never Made Much Money From News”

“People who visit the auto page are interested in autos. But what ad do you show next to an earthquake story?” Hal Varian, Google Chief Economist.

Hal Varian shares some sober reasoning on why the newspaper industry is in the doldrums. From his blogpost:

The news industry’s financial problems started well before the web came along. Circulation has been falling since 1985 and circulation per household has been falling since 1947! Ad revenue for newspapers was roughly constant in real terms up until 2005, and ad revenue per reader actually increased up until that time. Since then, the drop in advertising rates due to the recession, coupled with a significant drop in circulation, has exacerbated newspapers’ financial difficulties.

In the last five years many more people have been reading the news online: About 40% of internet users say they looked at online news “yesterday.” Higher income households report even larger numbers, making online news readers a potentially attractive audience for advertisers.

However, visitors to online newspaper sites don’t spend a lot of time there. The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day. Not surprisingly, advertisers are willing to pay more for their share of readers’ attention during that 25 minutes of offline reading than during the 70 seconds of online reading. So even though online advertising has grown rapidly in the last five years, it appears that somewhat less than 5% of newspapers’ ad revenue comes from their internet editions, according to the most recent Newspaper Association of America data.

There’s a reason for the relatively short time readers spend on online news: a disproportionate amount of online news reading occurs during working hours. The good news is that newspapers can now reach readers at work, which was difficult prior to the internet. The bad news is that readers don’t have a lot of time to devote to news when they are supposed to be working. Online news reading is predominately a labor time activity while offline news reading is primarily a leisure time activity. One of the big challenges facing the news industry is increasing involvement with the news during leisure hours, when readers have more time to look at both news content and ads.

What about search engines? Many readers go directly to their favorite news site, but a good fraction use search engines to access news specific news topics. According to comScore, clicks from search engines account for 35-40% of traffic to major U.S. news sites. Since most newspaper ads are priced on a per-impression basis, this means that 35-40% of major U.S. newspaper online revenue is coming from search engine referrals. That is a big fraction of online advertising revenue but, as we saw above, online ad revenue is only about 5% of the total.

Furthermore, the real money in search engine advertising is in the highly commercial verticals like Shopping, Health, and Travel. Unfortunately, most of the search clicks that go to newspapers are in categories like Sports, News & Current Events, and Local, which don’t attract the biggest spending advertisers.

This isn’t so surprising: the fact of the matter is that newspapers have never made much money from news. They’ve made money from the special interest sections on topics such as Automotive, Travel, Home & Garden, Food & Drink, and so on. These sections attract contextually targeted advertising, which is much more effective than non-targeted advertising. After all, someone reading the Automotive section is likely to be more interested in cars than the average consumer, so advertisers will pay a premium to reach those consumers.

Traditionally, the ad revenue from these special sections has been used to cross-subsidize the core news production. Nowadays internet users go directly to websites like Edmunds, Orbitz, Epicurious, and Amazon to look for products and services in specialized areas. Not surprisingly, advertisers follow those eyeballs, which makes the traditional cross-subsidization model that newspapers have used far more difficult.

Some have argued that the solution to the financial problems of newspapers is to charge for access. Many people place a high value on news, and there is clearly a significant social value to having a well informed citizenry. The problem is that there is a lot of competition among news providers, and this competition tends to push prices down. News sources that have highly differentiated content may be able to make pay-for-access work, but this will likely to be difficult for more generic news sources.

In my view, the best thing that newspapers can do now is experiment, experiment, experiment. There are huge cost savings associated with online news. Roughly 50% of the cost of producing a physical newspaper is in printing and distribution, with only about 15% of total costs being editorial. Newspapers could save a lot of money if the primary access to news was via the internet.

New tablet computers like the Kindle, iPad, and Android devices may encourage people to read online news at home in the comfort of their easy chairs.

1. Hal Varian presentation on Scribd
2.TechCrunch summary.
3. Martin Langeveld summary at Nieman Journalism Lab.

The messenger is the media

(Above: Painting entitled The Messenger, 1996. by Bill Viola)

If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, would he instead say the messenger is the media?

The media is crass, commercial and aimed at the lowest common denominator. An endless parade of wannabe idols on a dubious stage. You have to have the “whole package” yet “be original’ and then have 14-year-olds decide your fate. Or wipe out.

The media is biased, agenda-laden and orchestrated. It is the coloured ball bouncing around on a snooker table, depending on who’s holding the cue for the day. It gets sunk into holes of its own choosing, only to be retrieved by another, so points can be tallied up for either side.

The messenger is the filter, the curator, the aggregator, the means by which we decide what we want to see, hear, debate. When the messenger massages the media, we like him all the more. We subscribe to his take, his point of view, his clarification of the thoughts we think — but can’t seem to express. No spin, nor hype. Just the truth. Plain and simple.

The media is flawed, the messenger is flawed genius. We like him all the more for that very fact. The messenger validates us. He needs us as much as we need him. We become one with him — momentarily. But we are not so naive as to take him wholesale, all the time. We are, afterall, as empowered as him.

The messenger helps us keep our wits about us when everyone else seems to be losing theirs. He keeps us in the loop and affirms our right to know. He digs down deep, and pushes us to the edge of reasoning. He draws from diverse sources and sieves what needs to be shared, what has to go out, what can’t be bought and sold under-the-table, what can’t be taken from us by those who feel entitled.

The messenger is in our corner. He’s on our team. He doesn’t give us a bollocking at half-time even though we are losing. He restores our faith in what we already know. That we need to get out there and just play the game. The way we know. The way we trained for it. For what is the point of being on the field anyway, if we don’t want to play the game? He gives us a sense of worth and pride.

The messenger puts us all on the same playing field. It may not always be level, but at least we know the rules of the game. The right way, the way it should be done.

The messenger makes us want to aspire for our higher selves. To make things accountable. To stem the rot and change the status quo. The messenger is our avatar. He is blue and larger than life. We live our lives vicariously through him.

The messenger is the media. The messenger is us. We are the new media.

Edward R Murrow on journalism

Just watched George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck again – a slow, absorbing and intelligent film on Edward R Murrow, an American broadcast journalist who was highly-regarded and respected.

Murrow, played by a very serious David Straitham, begins and ends this austere, black and white movie, with a 1958 speech that still has bearing on the state of journalism today. Below are the two halves edited together by a YouTuber Evmonk:

The movie focused on a series of TV news reports that helped lead to the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Some highlights from original speech:

This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television.

I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard that produces words and pictures. You will forgive me for not telling you that instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know….

I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done–and are still doing–to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is–an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate….

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, “When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.” The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.


10 things to do this decade

The noughties are over and the tens are here. Time to get serious about all the things you have been putting off for the longest time.

Plan to deliver some personal goals by 2020 and work out that plan. Make this decade your best ever.

Here are 10 suggestions:

View from atop Otago, New Zealand

1. Go to an exotic destination
Vacations shouldn’t just be about lying around on a deck chair by the hotel pool, sipping margaritas and reading Grisham. Get out, go on a sweaty trek, immerse yourself in a local cultural event, learn something new and strike up random conversations with the locals.

In that gloomy period post 9/11, we went to New Zealand on November 2001 on a whim — and with little planning. Our kids were aged two and four and we spent six weeks that turned out the best family holiday of the last decade.

My recommendation: Choose a place far away and quite removed from anything you’ve experienced before ie. Angkor Wat, Mulu, Halong Bay, Machu Picchu, the Iguazu Falls, the Paos Volcano come to mind.

On a glacier in South Island, New Zealand. First taste of snow.

2. Take up a recreation sport:
I’m no gymrat and waking up at 5am to pay someone to boss you around at an urban bootcamp sounds perverse.

I took up scuba-diving on the persuasion of a great, late friend Pako, an Egyptian-Austrian, who was a bigger-than-life character until his premature passing from brain cancer. My virgin dives were off Tioman Island with instructor Jasper, and buddy Vijay.

In our first ever dive, we surprised a turtle with our flailings underwater, avoiding spiky sea urchins and learned about the dangers of the stonefish, scorpion fish and moray eel. Jasper, and later Pako and Susanne opened my eyes to the wonders of the living coral reef — a world so peaceful and lush with colours.

Moray eel, off Kampung Tekek, Tioman by kinObe / CC BY 2.0

Once I got past the equipment, and figured my buoyancy, dives in the warm waters off the coasts of Malaysia were a solace and comfort, away from the madness, where the only sounds you hear are of your own breathing.

Our best dive was a night dive, off Railay Beach in Krabi, Thailand. Descending into a inky darkness sounds scary, but it’s just as relaxing, although you are more focused with the two torches you need to carry (one as a backup strapped to your wrist) .

At one point, close to the moon-drenched surface, our dive master, made us switch off our torches and in the darkness he agitated the water by swinging his arms and legs. The bioluminiscent plankton lit up all around us. He then grabbed our arms and partnered us off to do underwater waltzes among the “stars”. It was magical and unforgettable.

Lately, my friends Joe and Gary have gotten into tour and off-road bicycling. I’ve liked the wind and freedom on being on a non-polluting bicycle as a young child and once circumnavigated Peninsular Malaysia with two friends. But the prospects of riding over rough terrain on a narrow seat for long periods sounds particularly painful on the posterior.

Other recreation sports worth thinking about this decade: skydiving, base-jumping, rock-climbing, wind-surfing, mountain-climbing, archery, kickboxing and, maybe, running a marathon.

3. Learn to sing, dance, play:
I am convinced I am tone deaf, although I enjoy live music and dancing. The Susan Boyle phenomenon, Michael Jackson’s posthumous revival, the Idol series, So You Think You Can Dance? and celebrity dance-offs have touched all our inner musical longings.

Did you fail to turn into the musical prodigy your mother wanted you to be by sending you to that intense piano teacher who rapped your knuckles with a steel ruler? Now’s your revenge. Buy that piano, play only what you like and learn in your own time. Why? Because you can afford it and you always liked the music anyway, not the regimented lessons. Challenge yourself by signing up for a public performance, among friends of course, in six months.

Things to do to exercise your musical muscle this decade: learn to dance the salsa (Darlene, my salsa-teaching niece would like to hear this), hip-hop (my 40-something pal took this up in Vietnam recently), ballroom (Tim Ferriss is inspiring) or play the saxophone, guitar, harmonica or tabla, or take up vocal lessons and nail that slow-burn jazz number you always wanted to.

4. Learn a craft:
I fell into photography on the insistence of my boss at a stint at a travel magazine. Learning to shoot pics for my own stories fleshed out my understanding of the story-telling craft.

I used a non-digital Canon EOS SLR which is perhaps the easiest Autofocus/Manual camera to quickly pick up picture-taking skills back then. I shot several covers for the magazine and many other touristy pics and went on to take many memorable photos for family and friends — mostly at weddings, parties and holiday trips.

It’s amazing to see the easy and fluid sharing of digital photos and videos via Facebook, Picasa, Flickr and YouTube. I keep reading the reviews and hope to get back into the stills craft again with the right camera.

Other possibilities: Video-filming, fine-dine cooking, cake-baking, beer-brewing, wine-making, batik painting or any other art, pottery and knitting.

5. Go green:
Can we save the environment in the next decade or will things only get worse? I’ve been inspired listening to Matthias Gelber, Shai Agassi and of course, Al Gore.

I confess, I struggle to cure myself of the addiction to fossil fuels and plastic. Driving and shopping bags are anti-green sins which are hard to give up. I hope to do better in this carbon-credit decade.

6. Grow something:
City-living boxes one into concrete and air-conditioning all day long. We move to an apartment this year, and forsake our closeness to the land, further devolving into the cliched urban settings — all high-living pretense and thin-walled wretchedness.

Suggested ideas: If you have a patch of grass in the backyard try growing your own chillies or tomatoes, invest in an organic farm co-op, take part in some tree-planting activities or start paying more loving attention to your potted plants.

7. Have a kid:
I learnt and continue to learn more about life through my children than my entire pre-children adult life. Unlike the Brangelinas, a pair — a whiny boy and a precocious girl — is enough for us, and we are grateful for their “normality”.

We still have friends sans kids who just don’t get it. Having children is life-changing. And you need to have them to know what that statement really means.

Parenting 101 begins at home. You are both student and lecturer and have to make up the lessons on your own. There is nothing you can ever learn from books to know what it means to change a particularly nasty diaper, or suck the phlegmy stuff from an infant’s nose, or stay up all night with a sick, whimpering child whose fever hasn’t broken. It reaches deep inside and rips you at the core.

Children are true joys and joy-killers, therein lies the contradiction. You don’t need kids to know who you are, but may need the parenting experience to know who you were, and want to be.

8. Trace your family tree:
What could be more fun than finding the amazing universality of how we all came to be? Awhile back, my handyman who came to fix a hot shower, started chatting about his hobby — tracing four Eurasian family trees as far back as he could. The quest was to connect his family to Martina Rozells and Captain Francis Light, the founder of then British colony, Penang.

He was doing it completely by hand and relying on old memories, cataloguing deaths in newspaper obituaries and attending funerals. That led to us to helping him out via the power of computing and the Internet. We got him a PC and a genealogy software called Brother’s Keeper and soon he was off and running, expanding the list into the thousands rapidly through online contacts. Later, we helped post parts of the tree on the net and he soon found a connection between his family tree and ours through a marital branch.

Evolution says we are all connected, somewhere along the lines — we’re a planet of cousins. The concept of Facebook “friending” has accelerated that to a new level. I can imagine you could spend an entire decade having fun with this.

9. Get more social online:
I cringed when a friend in Singapore requested I join Plaxo, a social network that opened his entire friend network to me — photos, personal updates and all. There was something voyeuristic about peeking into these strangers’ lives without consent. I got off it promptly.

Facebook changed all that. It offered a means to hide things and had privacy settings that limited the extent with which I wanted to share — although even that boundary is blurring daily. Since joining Facebook, and promoting it to clients, I’ve begun to understand its power.

Social and mobile networks will be the means we all connect in this decade. We are more likely to know each other via the augmented realities of avatars and online personalities that come through in status updates, photos and videos we upload, games we play and Google Wave-like apps we share, rather than through a formal face-to-face. That’s actually exhilarating and we should see this as an opportunity, not a threat.

Find old classmates and neighbourhood friends online. Connect with relatives and friend’s friends from afar. Interact with the inspiring people you read about — they’re all online.

Being social online is a skill that can only be honed by being online. If you want to fish, you need to go where the fish are.

10. Teach
I am a sucker for what my friend Joe describes as the “aha” moment. Benjamin Zander calls it “shining eyes”. There is nothing more satisfying than guiding a person to reach a point where an understanding dawns on the him/her. Something you didn’t know before, suddenly becomes as a clear as day: “Ohhhh, now I get it!”

Teaching, training, coaching and consulting has helped me become a better person. I would challenge anyone who says he knows everything about a particular subject to teach it. It is only then — when you need to organize your thoughts and present it in a structured manner, or provide the guiding posts that gets a person from point A to point B, that you become truly knowledgeable. You teach in order to know.

Knowing doesn’t make you an expert — guruness is over-rated — but it does put you on the right side of the equation in contributing to life on this planet.

An old geography teacher once told me, she never visited most of the places she taught about. But that never made her feel guilty or wrong. You don’t need to truly know what you teach, you only need to provide the framework for change to occur. As the saying goes – a good teacher is like a candle, consuming itself to light the way for others.

Links worth exploring:
1. 100 things to do before you die
2. The 10 most incredible things to do before you die
3. 50 things to do before you die

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