Go with a smile!

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Random conversation over facebook:

I've lived 34 years, been highly educated, met all sorts of people around the world, and i still get so easily cheated of my money. I feel like a right fool.

Random A What happened? Where?

Random B ‎:( !

CatOwner One dishevelled and rather fey man walks into my neighbourhood mcdonalds. says hi to the old lady opposite me and the old man behind me, and goes to get himself a cup of coffee. then he just walks up to me, taps my table, thrusts an open palm in front of my face and says "ay miss, give me 20 cents". most normal ppl would, judging the circumstances, tell this person to fuck off. but not me.

"i need it to make a phone call," he says.

"who still pays money to make a public phone call?" i question.

"aiya...i didn't bring my handphone!"

i hand him the money. he walked off. i don't think he even said thank you. but what i thought i DID hear a few moments later, was him telling the old man behind me in cantonese: "she looks like the stupid kind".

and boy, i certainly was, wasn't i. i mean, i can say things like i want to be kindhearted, i like to give ppl the benefit of the doubt if they say they need money, but the truth is i'm just bloody blind. i don't put 2 and 2 together. he could buy himself a cup of coffee but not have 20 cents??? why the fuck don't i see these things and add them up fast enough? i get put on the spot by someone who says he needs help, and i don't want to be a bastard by interrogating someone already humiliated by begging, or look like a selfish rich person brushing off the poor, and so i turn off my bullshit radar and take out my wallet like a zombie.

i don't get it: my mind works so quickly when calculating money. i am unscrupulous when checking clothes i buy. not even the tiniest flaw escapes my eye. but i can't see this neon orange elephant in the room?!? i don't want to go the other way and become this jaded skeptic who thinks ALL ppl who ask for money are con-artists, but i'm sick of being a sitting duck! what can i do about this? am i destined to be not-street-smart forever just coz i didn't learn the skills in my school-going years?

CatOwner another thing which pisses me off: the old man and old woman, watched this happen, and never said a thing. never stopped him, never warned me, nothing. bloody dog-eat-dog world, this is, ay? "he's my friend if he doesn't cheat ME, and if you're dumb enough to fall for THAT shit, you deserve to be fleeced". yup, beautiful world. good morning, CatOwner. now WAKE UP.

CatOwner ‎(i know...it looks like a small incident. but i let this sort of thing happen to me all...the...time...)

Etc etc etc…

Random C Just take it as a donation. you have good karma :D What he does with the 20c is no longer your problem. You've already done your job ;)

SieteOcho You mean you actually thought that you were doing the wrong thing by giving a bum 20c?

Isaac Newton Well at least its just 20cents and not a few bucks

CatOwner Random C, ‎I know that's the case, but i cannot be happy to be made a fool of the rest of my life. this has got to stop.

SieteOcho, you are deliberately complicating the issue and setting up a trap for me by twisting my words and logic. "wrong"? no, but "dumb", yes. "bum"? define "bum".

CatOwner ‎Isaac Newton, yup.

Random C ‎CatOwner just heck care. nevermind, give, give as long as you can. You will get it back in other ways :)

SieteOcho No, you're the one who's complicating things. Some bum comes up to you and ask for - what - 20c. Based on available information, you can only tell he's a bum. (Define bum however you want to define it here.) Later on, he turns around and bites you. So you're confused. You should be lamenting the fact that he's turned out to be an asshole - an outcome that - how would anybody have forseen that? You shouldn't be regretting giving him the 20c. So don't learn the wrong moral of the story.

SieteOcho The real moral of the story is this: every time you are kind to a person, you run the risk of being made a fool. Understanding this risk is crucial to the understanding the meaning of kindness. If you expect that every kind act is going to be repaid with kindness, then you'd be better off being an asshole.

Isaac Newton What kind of warped logic is that? Glad i'm an asshole though

CatOwner it's not about "FOREseeing", SieteOcho. it's about SEEING what is right there AT THE TIME instead of ignoring the warning signs because one is pressured by expectations to be kind and perhaps even having a patronising view of those who you deem less fortunate than you. in my assumption that i HAVE to help someone who asks me for it, i failed to mentally evaluate if the call for help was genuine or if i was being taken for a ride. someone rude, with enough money to buy himself a cup a coffee (which i saw him holding) but doesn't have 20 cents? who said hi to ppl he knows around him but demands money from me, a total stranger? i actually think MOST ppl would have noticed these (except maybe you and me, since you also seemed to miss all these details in my original account).

you really are making too many assumptions and casting aspersions on my thought process and moral character. did i in any way say i expected this guy to REPAY my kindness? no. i know it doesn't work that way. what gives you the right to insinuate that i am an asshole (or would like to be)?

you really have missed what i was getting at here. i don't know how, but you have.

SieteOcho I didn't say that you're an asshole. I'm saying that if you don't understand the risks involved in being kind to somebody, you shouldn't be kind. You did not expect to be repaid, but surely you expected him to not call you out as a fool.

What I am saying, though, is that 20c is a very small sum compared to : 1. the mental effort you put into agonising whether the guy asking for help is genuine. 2. You agonising over this after this is over and getting upset.

When you handed over the 20c, that was not wrong, that was not foolish. The mental agony that you are expending over it - now THAT is foolish. Feeling like a fool just because somebody thinks that you are a fool - THAT is weakness. What you did wrong is that you did not walk away with your head held high and congratulate yourself on being a good person.

Isaac Newton It doesn't pay to be kind. Especially in front of self righteous people like those darn stompers.

SieteOcho What I've been trying to say is that there will always be assholes. Therefore that is the risk of being kind. And if you are kind to a lot of people, some of them will appreciate it, some of them will be assholes, on balance you will still gain. Therefore it doesn't hurt to be kind. THAT is the way the system works.

Isaac Newton Yeap they appreciate it so much they put gold taps in their toilets

CatOwner sigh, SieteOcho, no matter how much i've tried to explain it to you, you have misunderstood me, made assumptions and judgements about me, and given me wise philosophical instructions on how to fix myself.

look, even without you telling me, i do understand the risk of being kind means sometimes being cheated. yes 20 cents is a small sum. but this was never about the money! AND I NEVER IMPLIED THAT THE LESSON I WAS GOING TO TAKE FROM THIS WAS "I WILL NEVER AGAIN BE KIND TO ANYONE". that was how you somehow interpreted my meaning. I just vowed to open my eyes a little wider. i said over and over and I MAINTAIN THAT handing over 20 cents would NOT have been foolish, and i would NOT have FELT foolish, IF THIS GUY HAD AT LEAST BEEN A GOOD ACTOR AND REALLY LOOKED GENUINELY IN NEED OF HELP. i maintain that HE DIDN'T, AND I MISSED IT WHEN IT WOULD HAVE BEEN PLAIN FOR EVERYONE TO SEE. i am upset over how i fall short in the powers of observation department. and i am upset about how i ALWAYS fall short in the observation department while everyone else around me at the time says, "you didn't notice??" AS I SAID BEFORE, this is NOT THE FIRST TIME i have missed an OBVIOUS con job. and i am kicking myself for still not being more observant. THAT'S ALL! SIMPLE, RIGHT?

it's not because he called me a fool that i feel foolish. ppl say nasty things about me all the time. i can shrug it off. hearing him say i was stupid just made me realise too late that i had missed all the OBVIOUS SIGNS that he was a cheat. THAT made me feel stupid. but if there were NO SIGNS and anyone could have fallen for his act, then i wouldn't feel bad about it and i would be doing that "congratulating yourself on being a good person" nonsense that you 'recommend'. good people don't have to be stupid. one can congratulate themselves on being a good person but still vow to be a bit wiser. i do not see the two as mutually exclusive, and as this has happened often enough, i am through with merely congratulating myself. i'm going to LEARN THIS TIME, goddammit! (and "learning" does NOT equate to being closed off to all needy ppl henceforth)

y'know i'm spending a lot of time agonising over this only because i keep having to explain to you what i'm actually upset about coz you don't get it! you're practically pulling a ziggy on me. making pronouncements on what "i am" when you are actually misunderstanding the point entirely? please! and if this explanation is still not clear, then i really don't know how else to put it to you, and i honestly don't want to bother anymore. coz if there's anything i hate almost as much as being fooled, is being misunderstood and put on the defensive. and let's not kid ourselves: you ARE being very offensive right now.

CatOwner sorry to everyone else who keeps getting notifications on this thread.

SieteOcho I haven't misunderstood you CatOwner. I know your point of view, I just don't agree with it. I don't regret giving money to beggars, and I don't even think that you should vet them, which is why I think the issue of being "cheated" or being "too blind to realise he's a thief" is not an issue at all. For me at least, 20c is not worth giving a second thought about.

I've put forward a few less gloomy ways to look at things, and you've just rejected them all. The point is not that you're being calculating. This is not a microcosm of other things that are going on in your life. You made an economic decision about 20c, you were given 3 seconds to make it, you made a mistake, and suddenly you're stupid? Good lord. If you had to get every single such decision right you'd have no time and energy left to do anything.

The point (and this is not a trivial point at all - many people including myself sometimes never learn) is: some things are just not worth giving a damn about.


This conversation is not over yet. I know I was being a little obnoxious but it did tick me off that I had to read about shit like that on the facebook feed over and over again.

Somebody told me that in business school, they had a class who had to do a case study. Basically, somebody said that the stationery was getting depleted all the time. A few groups had to give presentations about what to do with the problem. The group that won came up with the solution which was no solution at all. Do nothing, because the costs of enforcement outweighs the cost of the stationery. I'm assuming that that was the answer that the professor wanted to hear.

When I heard about that case, I was flabbergasted. People pay good money to go to business school to hear about something that they could have learnt in elementary school? Gradually it dawned on me: first, it is a very important point.

Most people, I find, who aren't very good at their work do a lot of things that aren't important. It is a very damaging habit. Second, I think there are other people who fell for the trap of saying you had to go catch the thief. I think that maybe they hadn't thought through the problem deeply enough. Third, given the number of people who never master this point it is probably important and non-trivial enough that it's made in such a spectacular manner.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Loosely Coupled

When I was an undergraduate at Snowy Hill, there was a sizable Singaporean community. I think we didn’t really have to look too far beyond it. I’m still meeting people from that bunch every now and then. I suppose, if you have people in that situation, you become closer. I think that those of you who are foreigners, you will know that you will hook up with ppl from your own country, and that will be the source of a lot of your friends.

I wish that I had hung out more with the natives. But I don’t really regret it that much. That crowd of people was like a family to me. As you ppl know, the most important thing about a family is to have one, and not whether you are very close to each other. I suppose I’m very paradoxical – I’m not the kind of person who gets terribly close to people, but I enjoy being part of a tribe. I suppose – OK, I know this for a fact, people are programmed to want to be part of a tribe. That is the first thing they teach you in social psychology. If you want to know about these things, there are books that you can read (I read “Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson and “Us and Them” by David Berreby). It does make a lot of sense, although since I’m more of a loner than average, I don’t feel these things as keenly as many other people might.

I met up with a few old friends in the States. They seemed happy to see me. We talked for a bit. My sister was there too, since she was doing research in the same university as them. And the funny thing is, we had so much to talk about, after lunch was over, we thought about meeting up for dinner. (It was my last day in that town). So we did that too. And after that was over, my sister said, “that was funny. It was just like I had talked to people and I could operate entirely on instinct. I didn’t have to guess what the American way of thinking, and the culture was. I could just operate on auto-pilot.” She didn’t exactly say that she misses that. And she’s also 10 times better than me at dealing with Americans. But there was that great big sense of relief.

I’m back in university, and by coincidence there are 2 people here from the same year in my school, and they’re both PhD holders. (wtf have I been doing with my own life anyway?) One of them I probably won’t get to meet him. I looked up the other one on Friday afternoon. And I had an astonishing conversation with him. Well he did keep on coming up with stuff to talk about. I said, it’s getting late, why dun we grab dinner? And we went, and then we talked until it was almost closing time. We had old friends that we could exchange stories about. I suppose it was a lot about not meeting these people since JC. And there’s a lot that I saw but I didn’t understand when I was a kid, and a lot that your old schoolmates did as well. Then now you revisit these things through the eyes of an adult, and it’s – to say the least, quite interesting. That was the first time I had an 8 hour long conversation in a long long time. No disrespect to people with whom I’ve recently had 4 hour long conversations with. Anyway I think it did go on for too long but I didn’t really want to stop him. I’m just wondering if, I didn't hang out enough with people, I would end up in that condition, where every old Singaporean friend is a sight for sore eyes.

After a while, I thought about it. I think that Singaporeans were brought up to be tightly coupled. I don’t mean that in the sense of having emotionally intimate relationships. But too many of us will live in only one city, ever, because of the strange existential condition of being in a one-city country. And it will be incestuous. We’ll see the same people in elite schools, and then we’ll grow up, having our own secret code, our way of doing things.

And it’s funny – we would probably understand certain things about each other that other people might not get. We don’t really operate on the emotional level. If I were to talk to an American with that kind of emotionless demeanour that I have, they would probably suspect that I wasn’t really human. But that’s not true, of course. We’ll just do it to each other, and in the end, we all understand that that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Anyway the meaning of tightly coupled would be in the software engineering sense in which different parts of the system have dense and rich interactions. It’s not supposed to be a good thing, because when one part of the system changes, it will have nightmarishly disruptive impact on the rest of the system.

Maybe, I thought, we should be more like Americans – loosely coupled. We have a lot of people, and we can potentially interact with a very large group of people from all walks of life. It’s very unlikely that we will have an extremely huge clique, which is something I think that our schooling was about. But the potential for plucking any old guy out from the crowd, and saying whats up dude to him is there.

I’m just thinking I should really learn to be a little more American in this regard. And as for whether or not that makes me less Singaporean – truthfully I don’t see that happening. I’m a pretty constant person, and it’s a little hard for me to change that much anyway.