Go with a smile!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Home Affairs Ministry / Autobiography

I don’t really know if I have the ability to write something that’s not semi-autobiographical. I have written 4 plays in my life. 2 of them won prizes – small prizes, but still… the other two didn’t. I’m proud of them to some extent – except the last one, which was a total mess. I’m still wondering if I have what it takes to write fiction.

The 2 that were successful, I’ve come to realize, had something in common. They were rooted in real life experience.

In one of them, a bunch of kids try to stage a protest against their kampong being torn down. For some reason, they become media superheroes, and they even end up donning capes and costumes. They were indulged for many outrageous antics until one day, their leader makes a very big mistake that kills another one of their members. Everything falls apart after that.

So yes, it was about a lot of things. It was about modernity, it was about revolution, it was about the manipulation of the media, it was about a person carried away and believing that he was a messiah. But more than that, there was one thing tying everything together: in hindsight, it was really about my anxiety about the end of childhood, and growing up. It was about building a fantasy world that couldn’t stand the light of day. It was about broken dreams. I was 16 when I wrote that play: a lot of it had something to do with my hopes and fears.

In the other one that I liked, a guy sees his younger self making a decision between being a photographer and being a smuggler. He sees his younger self being corrupted, but he refuses to intervene, thinking that the younger person must see the folly of his mistakes instead of somebody telling it to him. In a twist of fate, the police mistake the older version of the person for the criminal and arrests him instead. The best part of this play? I came up with it in 24 hours.

This is quite obvious: the smuggling operation was a thinly veiled analogy for a job that I had signed away my 20s for. I wasn’t 100% sure that I was in the right place, and it was about the – there’s that word again – anxiety.

I don't consider those plays to be autobiographies because the events they describe have never happened in my life. They are not even semi-autobiographical. But they allude to things that are going on in my life, and clearly are related to my situation.

There was another play that I wrote, that I considered a noble failure. In that play, you had 1 person in a jail cell. One of them was a political prisoner, and he tried to pass a message to another person he believed was a comrade. That person turned out to be a jail warden, who had to do the unfortunate task of trying to befriend the person and torture him for information at the same time.
Now this play, in spite of my best efforts, did not work because I simply did not have the life experience to understand how people would have behaved in that situation. I didn’t know how to make it interesting.

I’m suddenly thinking about my old plays because of 2 reasons. First is that my sister recently asked me about how I knew how to write a play. I told her that I had a philosophy when writing the plays: the story is the most important thing. Not the characters, not the brilliant stage props. Focus on the story, and you can’t go wrong. That is not true in general – many movies don’t really have a story. But if you have a good story to tell, it is very hard to go wrong. Writing then becomes very simple.

The second reason is that I finally had some inspiration about a story to write. And yes, it was the recent corruption case in Singapore. Many people think that it’s a crazy thing for the guy to do, to get involved in a love affair with a chiobu when you have a high flying career – I was going to position it differently – the guy is sick of his daily existence, and was looking for escape. He was a straight A student at school, kept his nose clean throughout his career, always said the correct thing in front of his bosses, and this was his one act of rebellion. He’s 50 years old, managed to climb his way to – if not the top, then a relatively senior position. He had a family who he has been dutiful to, but he doesn’t love them. His kids are brats.

He fell in love, and – well corruption is corruption, there’s nothing great about it. But doing something spectacularly wrong and destructive – well that’s the stuff that drama is made out of. I think the twist here is that he doesn’t care if it’s wrong – he’s almost 50, he’s earned enough to retire, completely satisfied with what he’s achieved in his career. He doesn’t care about the people around him, or that he’s letting them down. He’ll have a comfortable life ahead of him no matter what.
But then again, judging by my lack of past experience, I might have trouble making a good story out of it.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese New Year

You will encounter the animal of your birth sign every 12 years, and it's supposed to mark something. The first time I encountered it, I was 11. Now that I think about it, it was a challenge to me. The lunar year of my birth sign were usually fairly uneventful affairs in themselves, but they portended change. So the first time I completed a cycle, I was about to be introduced to teenage angst. The second time I completed a cycle, I was about to be introduced to the real working life. Looking back, maybe those were years when I had the opportunity to ready myself for what lay ahead of me.

Who knows what lies ahead of me next?



I was reading some stuff in bed the other day. I’m still reading random books, even though I’m supposed to be studying – bad habit I guess. I was reading this compilation that edge.org publishes every year, when I came across this article, saying that school is a form of childhood.

It didn’t seem that way at the time when I was in Snowy Hill. I think it was a happy delusion for 4 years that it was a form of adulthood, when real adulthood came knocking on the door, it was a shock that took a few years to recover. So what is real adulthood now?

The article says that childhood is like R+D, while adulthood is like production and marketing. You get exposed to a lot of things in childhood, but it narrows down in adulthood, and you are supposed to pick 1 or 2 things to excel and be very good at. That would be your niche. Childhood is like academic learning in school. Adulthood is like actual practice in real life. That way of splitting things up does make things a lot clearer for me. But it is not a lot of comfort.

My first culture shock in the adult world was national service. That was when I found out that I didn’t have a lot of skills that I would later need in life. It was a great relief to be back at school in Snowy Hill, and I actually did think about trying to acquire some of those skills. I was successful at some of those skills, like improving my writing. I did have to formally learn some things about human psychology – I guess I’m not as astute as many other people for whom it comes naturally. And I realized that the traditional way of education – of shoe-horning a person into 1 particular academic subject at the expense of everything else – while it made sense a few hundred years ago, which was when the system was designed, it just wouldn’t do. So I arranged a curriculum that was sprawling and messy. Up till now some people believe I have a maths degree, but that’s because you can learn a lot of different stuff and still call it maths.

Looking back, there are a lot of ways I shunned adulthood. When I was in Snowy Hill, I didn’t specialize. Now, specializing is a bit like the “child” side of the dichotomy because the academic knowledge is concentrated in 1 particular part of the spectrum, and learning too much of the same subject will give you an education that fails to capture the complexity of real grown-up life. But it is also adult-like because becoming really good at something, and being an authority figure and a leader in that segment is also adult like. I didn’t go for research experiences. I didn’t go for higher degrees.

I did have a job, but it wasn’t important enough to count. It was a good experience to be teaching Physics, it earned me 1 good letter, without which I might not have made it to the University of Mexico. But it wasn’t really enough.

I turned away from engineering. I even turned away from computer science. It’s hard to say that I really regret turning away from computer science, because learning maths 10 years ago, and then computer science now is also pretty good. In fact there are very good reasons for putting off learning computer science as late as you possibly can – because it’s a much cooler subject today than 10 years ago, when the internet was in its infancy and stuff wasn’t yet set up. But one thing I sacrificed was my ability to learn how to plan and make decisions. There is remarkably little decision making involved in mathematics – based on the premise that there is often only one correct answer to the question. In fact, I learnt a lot more decision making while writing term papers – in figuring out how to choose between many ways of making an argument. That was a very good skill to have.

When I was at work, I turned away from front-line day to day work, where plenty of decisions had to be made without thinking too much about them. I opted for more long term projects that took more time to bring to fruition, with the increased risk that a lot of them would not make it because the great big hazard about long term projects is the lack of immediate feedback.

I could have joined activity groups. But instead I spent a lot of time reading books. To a certain degree, the books were necessary because I had to fill myself in on all the branches of knowledge that I had only started to open for myself at Snowy Hill. But the book habit did go on for a little too long.

I could have looked for a life partner. That would have taught me something. But there were always other things to do – my work. My books. My long distance running. My application for a post-graduate degree. I just couldn’t balance it all.

I did become a keyboard warrior, and a few disastrous episodes aside, I think I’m a pretty effective one. I can debate effectively with people. That’s a good skill to have, but that is meager reward for all the hours I spent.

During my first few years at the job, I was thinking, “I really should get back into academia. That’s where my strengths are.” But academia is very competitive, and if there was a good time for me to get back into academia, I’m probably past it by the time I got here. Still, earning a master’s degree, which was for me the first thing I thought of that I wanted to do after quitting my job, stuck in my head. And it’s just as well that I’m here and getting some needed perspective.

Yes, I’m here because I liked learning academic stuff. I liked learning new ideas, and where better to learn about ideas than computer science, where you have to grapple with every conceivable method of representing knowledge? And I came in here, adjusted to life, learnt more ideas in computer science, got decent results in my first quarter. But at the back of my head, I’m always wondering – what is it that I really want now?

The crux of computer science is not really about academic knowledge. It is about practices. And I’m not getting enough of that. After a few sleepless nights tossing and turning about my future, it occurred to me – finally, I have to think about operating like an adult. Acquire the adult skills.

I didn’t come to the University of Mexico because it was good at teaching. I didn’t come here to attend classes that professors meticulously prepared for me. I came here because it had a good reputation for research. (Same is true for NUS, but well, here’s more of an adventure.) And now I realize that by coming here, I have a better shot at the IT jobs here. That the job hunt and the research have actually superseded the classes in order of importance.

Computer skills – they weren’t going to hand me computer skills on a platter. I already have the ability to learn computer skills on my own, but the really hard work is doing it – practicing by doing things.

It’s not necessarily pleasant, because it involves doing stuff that I’ve studiously avoided doing for most of my adult life. But it’s necessary. And so I suppose I do have another form of focus again.

The other thing is that this world that we live in has become a lot more complicated than when I was a kid in the 80s. Back then, you just had to do the right thing, obey authority figures, work hard, and you probably became moderately successful. Even though you probably did not have a lot of freedom to say what you really thought, and do what you felt was correct. Now, you have to do a lot of crazy things in order to show people that you are special. I remember my parents asking me if I was getting good grades at school. If only it were that simple this time around! No, the grades were probably just the tip of the iceberg. The real important thing that people really wanted to see was the skills. And you had plot your own chart with that.

Around the time that I was mulling leaving my job, I asked myself – you are leaving your old life behind. What do you regret? Of course, regret is a very strong word, because you aren’t suppose to regret, according to the new school paradigm of psychology which states that you are supposed to avoid negative emotions. But regret is important – or at least remorse is important. Only by positively identifying aspects of your life that you wish to change, will you have any chance at all at improving. OK, this division of skills into child skills and adult skills is very useful for my thinking. Now we have that answered, which is good.

What is not so good is that I realise that going back to school was in part a desire for more of that "child" academic knowledge. And I was going to have to put that aside now and focus on the "adult" stuff. It's not nice that I have had to switch targets. I suppose that life does go downhill in middle age because when you're young you learn all the things that you found fun, and you were always leaving the unpleasant stuff out until they all caught up with you.

Being in school is a form of childhood. And for the Singaporean male, it’s something that you only graduate out of when you’re 25. That’s very late, and 1/3 of your productive life is already gone. It’s not only in Singapore that we have an obsession with academic results. In most of the East Asian countries, it’s also the same. A proper education was so important to the growth and prosperity of the middle class that it assumed almost mythical status. But then it didn’t do a lot of good to the people who went through the system. The difference between a person who didn’t study in school, and somebody who studies hard is plain to see. But the added difference between people who study hard – to a conventional extent, and Japanese kids who go to cram school, and put themselves in front of the books 12 hours a day, is not much. And all that extra studying, at the expense of learning more practical “adult” skills in life is probably not beneficial at all.

A lot of the skills that I spent learning in school were terribly 20th century. Physics. Chemistry. Maybe even trigonometry. It’s incredible that I managed to graduate out of high school without learning much about computer science or economics. Or politics. Then I had to scramble hard to rectify that in my adult life. I didn’t learn much about planning, about design. I probably had the chance to learn about leadership, but I avoided it.

I have to be fair to my schools – they did teach me critical thinking and creativity, and they taught me well. But there are too many deficiencies in the education system that you really have to fix.

Anyway, I suppose I have loaded myself up with enough things to worry about for the time being.
1. Get involved with research.
2. Get involved with a project.
3. Find that job.

I expect these pains in asses to be with me for quite a while yet. I suppose – better they be pains in asses than twiddling my thumbs and wondering what the fuck I’m going to do all the time.


Blogger visceral said...

I beg to differ. You can be a great planner when you start to appreciate OR and stochastic processes.

3:15 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I was an OR practitioner for a long time. OR is good when it comes to certain tasks. There are tasks for which OR is pretty useless. I remember being taught the Black Scholes equation in an OR class - people now regard that model as worse than useless because it helped to exacerbate the financial crisis. OR does not help a lot when it comes to analysing traffic jams. A lot of calculations in OR make unwarranted assumptions - especially those concerning the independence of events.

And I've also seen people with PhDs in OR not doing very good jobs of planning and executing either.

If you want to talk about OR, you can write to me in real life at metalconduit at yahoo dot com dot sg.

6:02 AM

Blogger visceral said...

I stand corrected. If nothing else, OR should teach us thst we need to plan with the dependencies in mind, and not all tasks must start sequentially

9:03 AM


Friday, January 20, 2012

Annus Mirabilis

There are a few good omens for me, and probably a few bad omens. Somebody told me that for Fengshui purposes, I should be living in the northwest part of a city. Well my uni is in the northwest part of a city. Maybe when I go back to Singapore, I might end up living in Woodlands, and why not because my parents would have moved to JB by then.

The other thing is that the zip code of this place contains a year that I consider to have been one of the most wonderful years in my life, even though that year followed what was one of the shittiest years of my life. Since then, I’ve had 2 or 3 years that were as good as that year, and yes, most of those years were in the US. But that year, when I looked at what I managed to pull off, was quite wonderful.

1. I won an invention competition early in that year. I think that was part of the reason why I felt that I was going to be an engineer of some sort.
2. 10K run to East Coast.
3. I discovered a lot of new music. It’s staggering how much of that music that I found is still stuff I consider my favourites. One of my big discoveries that year was REM, who had just broken up recently.
4. I won an essay competition.
5. Friendship with CEO. We used to talk on the phone for hours. He was a very fascinating person, and he told me all kinds of crazy stories. We hardly talk anymore, but he really shaped a lot of my life, and what I thought.
6. I became very good friends with my sister
7. I had Job week as a scout. Actually this was the second scout week I was involved with, but
8. My Chinese teacher
9. There was a scout camp at the end of the year. I won’t forget that it was a crazy one. So many stories, but I became a patrol leader after my patrol leader conveniently injured himself before the scout camp, and the deputy fell out because of the heat exhaustion.
10. I went to the UK in the June holidays. One of my biggest regrets was that I lost the itinery of that tour, and I’m no longer able to locate many of the places that we had gone to.
11. I went to New Zealand in the December holidays.
12. I watched a play that totally blew me away – it was written by a senior in my school. The craziest thing was that I endeavoured to write a play 1 year later and I actually succeeded in having it staged at a later edition of the same event.
13. I went to a camp in the June holidays. It was an outreach program to nurture people into writers.

There were disappointments during that year, but they were noble failures:
1. I tried, but failed to pass my Grade 8. In fact I had already passed it the previous year (undeservedly, in retrospect) but I tried to get a better grade the second time around, and I failed it. Eventually, I dropped out of piano lessons, so it wasn’t a bad thing at all for me.
2. I screwed up a music project. We had to hand in a project every year, and I tried to do an anthology of all popular music. I overreached, and produced a piece of junk. But when I started, I was so starry-eyed that I thought I was going to do something I always dreamt of doing.
3. I failed to get selected for my school maths team. Frankly speaking, I don’t think I would have been able to cope with both the mathematics and everything else I had discovered.
4. At the end of the June camp, people would submit their work and be assigned a mentor to work with. I didn't get that mentorship but 1 year later they would realise it was a mistake.
5. I made absolutely no headway with my romantic life.

I think that was the year that a lot of doors were opened. I was in my teens. I had despaired about growing up the previous year. But now I faced the future with confidence. I knew that I had around 3 great talents, in writing, in mathematics and in music. And I was going to make the most of them.

I had become an artist that year. When you are an artist, you have to know what it feels like to be totally swept away by an experience. I experienced that for the first time that year. I knew that what I felt that year was totally special. If I had to tell somebody that I lived a good and full life, that year will be 1 argument that I will always be able to make.

I’ve never again had a year where it was the beginning of so many different possibilities. But that’s OK. I had opened up enough possibilities for half a lifetime. The rest of my life could be a relatively drudgery compared to that one year, but that’s OK, because making good on the promise of youth was always going to be a relatively drudgery compared to that first heady flush of “oh my god, all this is possible!”

Well back to my present life. I have to tell myself that I’m probably living a dream now. Yes, in many ways this is what I’ve always wanted. I spent 1-2 years waiting to do this. This is something more akin to what I should have been doing.

In a way, I could have been doing this even earlier. If I had done this right out of university, I would have been thinking of doing a PhD. I might even have started a PhD 4 years ago. Now, it’s too late. If only I had packed all my reading of books into 4 years instead.

Now, I think about what I could have done in my undergraduate days at Snowy Hill if I knew back then what I know now. I think what I did in 4 years could have been done in 3 or even 2. And now, I realize with a bit of sadness that I will never relive those days again, regardless of the fact that I’m now back in the USA. I am not young anymore, I no longer have the luxury of taking academic courses just for fun, and if I did what I did in my undergrad days, I would get sick and tired of it. But I can do something different, and build up some solid achievement brick by brick, and do some things I should have done in my younger days but didn’t. And there’s no shortage of that.

When I read biographies of great people, I sometimes wonder about their lives. For people who are creative, and I mean people who are remembered for creating things, or ideas, or works of art, it is usually the case that most of what they are remembered for last for less than 10 years. The Beatles were recording for less than 10 years. Brian Wilson wrote most of his great works within 10 years. David Bowie's period of greatness was between 1970 and 1980. Albert Einstein is celebrated for his 4 papers of 1905. There are people who do groundbreaking work for longer than that, like Shakespeare, or Miles Davis. And that is why they are considered extraordinary.

I would need a few more years like the one I just talked about in order to have a good an meaningful life.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Life Inc

I’m starting to wonder how on earth I managed to spend so much time on books during my 9 years of a working life. At first, it was good intentions, but I think that after maybe 2007 I was running on a treadmill, reading a lot of stuff over and over again. Beyond that, maybe the problem was that I just delved into a lot of knowledge that interested me on the surface, I would learn a lot about some random topic, but then afterwards, some crucial context is lost. I would get that knowledge without the surrounding context, and then it would lose a lot of its meaning.

My sister told me about a dream that she had about me – she wanted to eat A but I was on a mission to cook B and to cook a LOT of it. That is sadly typical of me. One of my biggest weaknesses is my propensity to go down blind alleys.

However I have read 2 very good books recently. One of them I had already talked about – “Push” by John Seely Brown. Another one is “Life Inc” by Douglas Rushkoff. In a way this book is similar to “The Corporation” by Joel Bakan, in that it shines a light on the evil behavior of corporations. But I like “Life Inc” better. “The Corporation” is merely about the evil that corporations do. But “Life Inc” is about Corporatism – the logic behind corporations, that has spread like a cancer on all of our values.

Corporations assume that people are rational and self-interested agents, and that the primary relationship between them is competition. Corporations act by turning people into numbers, discouraging direct interactions between people and instead, making interactions go through them. They lure people into a system where people compete against each other, but they work for the benefit of masters of the system.
In fact, one of the key (and startling insights) of the book is that corporatism is very similar in character to Mussolini’s Fascism:

We have succumbed to an ideology that has the same intellectual underpinnings and assumptions about human nature as - dare we say it - mid-twentieth century fascism. ... that we're forced to dance around this F word today would certainly have pleased Goebbels greatly.... The current situation resembles the managed capitalism of Mussolini's Italy in particular. It shares a common intellectual heritage (in disappointed progressives who wanted to order society on a scientific understanding of human nature), the same political alliance (the collaboration of the state and the corporate sector), and some of the same techniques for securing consent (through public relations and propaganda). Above all, it shares with fascism the same deep suspicion of free humans.

One of the most startling passages of this book is a revisionist history of the Middle Ages. This is a story that he brings up in order to illustrate the fact that the money that we use has its own bias. To quote from the blurb:

1. Money is not a part of nature, to be studied by a science like economics, but an invention with a specific purpose.
2. Centralized currency is just one kind of money – one not intended to promote transactions but to promote the accumulation of capital by the wealthy.
3. Banking is our society's biggest industry, and debt is our biggest product.
4. Corporations were never intended to promote commerce, but to prevent it.
5. The development of chartered corporations and centralized currency caused the plague; the economic devastation ended Europe's most prosperous centuries, and led to the deaths of half of its population.
6. The more money we make, the more debt we have actually created.

You can think of the money we used today as being a pyramid scheme, lent out through a central authority, with all other forms of money disallowed. All things have a price relative to that money. The permanence of money allows money to be hoarded, instead of being used as a medium of exchange between products. This hoarding constantly depreciates the value of money because when people build their wealth, the medium gets taken out of the system. Money can be lent, but since compounding makes the face value of the loan increase exponentially over time, when you lend out money, the money automatically multiples in value for the lender. For the borrower, he will have to work that much harder to pay back the loan. The lenders are the rich, and they benefit at the expense of the poor, who often have to borrow just to get by. In other words, the entire money system was engineered to benefit rich people!
In contrast, Rushkoff mentions that the money that was used in Europe in the late Middle ages had an expiry date. It could not be saved indefinitely. It had to be spent. If you wanted to buy something big, you paid in installments. If you couldn’t spend all your money, you had to give it away. It was a system which worked very well, and apparently it promoted the growth of economy, everybody had plenty to eat.

However later on money became centralized, and kings outlawed the use of local money so that they could control and centralize the flow of currency. In a way, money in the permanent and centralized form we know of today was an invention borne of need: you had to have capital in a long term form that was legal tender over great distances in order to make international trade possible.

So the big question today is: can we go back to a system where we have a 2-tiered money system: money that self-destructs, to be paid to individuals as wages, and long term capital, which can be used for long term investments and risk management? Would that make it a more equitable system for everyone?

Anyway, reading that passage was extremely eye-opening for me. At least I found out why usury was once regarded as extremely evil, and why institutions like Oxford and Cambridge mysteriously arose during what was supposedly the “dark ages” of Europe.
There are so many good insights in that book that you probably have to read it yourself to absorb them all. IT is a wonderful book. Of course, you will not agree with everything that is written, but even when you disagree with him, he will make you think. This book is valuable to me because it goes deep into the heart of the hidden logic underlying what goes on in a lot of the world.

Later on, Douglas Rushkoff will write another book, “Program or be programmed”. In fact, I was going to read that and, failing to find that book in the library, decided to go try out “Life Inc” instead. And instead I found that “Life Inc” was such a wonderful book! In “Program or be programmed” book, I think that Rushkoff goes off on one tangent hinted at in “Life Inc”, and talks about how all systems have inherent biases that affect its behavior. (Of course, most of what he talks about in “Life Inc” is about how corporatism is really the sum of how the inherent biases of corporatism influences its character.)