Everybody wants to be young forever. Of course, nobody is going to be succeed in that quest. You will get old. The next best thing you can hope for is to look young. If you have enough money, tricks like facelifts, BOTOX, tummy tucks, hair implants etc may help. Those on a budget will have to content themselves with delaying tactics like hair dyes and gym memberships in their battle against the ravages of time. This is not too bad; I’m in this category and I think I have managed to stave off about five years.
Success can be internal or external. External success is easily measured in terms of money and material possessions. The internal one is measured in terms of less palpable yardsticks, like happiness, peace of mind etc. External success is related to extrovert qualities, like articulation, and depends on what others think of you. The internal one, on the other hand, depends on what you think of yourself. It is made up of things like duty, honor etc. Confusing one with the other leads to misconceptions like identifying money with happiness, for instance. You need one for the other, but they are definitely not the same.
Here is a short story about how a cowboy found the secret to marital bliss right after he got married. The ceremony was beautiful and the bride lovely. After the wedding, the bride and groom got on their horse-driven carriage to make their way home, with the bride happy and excited, prattling on about nothing, and the groom staying strong and silent with not a word after the “I do.”
Here is how it happened. I have a neat custom-built home office. One cool feature of my work area is the recessed lighting built into the top part of it. Three nice LED downlights. Sadly, a couple months ago, one of them started flickering. I ignored it for as long as possible, then decided to take a look. From below, it looked impossible to reach the innards of the light. But I’m not so easily stumped. I can always approach a problem from different angles. So I lugged myself up a ladder and tried the top end of the light, above the top part of the built-up study table. To my surprise, it looked neatly paneled with no access to the lights. How am I supposed to change the bulb or whatever? Lousy workmanship, I said to myself, and proceeded to continue ignoring the flickering light. After all, it was above the kids’ PC, not my iMacs. I’m not saying I was stumped, but you have to pick your battles, you know.
A few days later, it dawned on me — you are not supposed to access recessed lights from above. After all, they are usually in ceilings with no “above.” They are held up there using a clever spring-loaded mechanism, and you can just pull them down. I tried it with the flickering light, and it came down fairly easily. No need to hack up top of the study desk. The workmanship wasn’t that lousy after all. Excellent work, in fact. After pulling the light down, I figured out it was the tiny electronic transformer that was malfunctioning, and ordered one on eBay. (By the way, when I explained this to my son he was thrilled because he thought I had ordered a car that could turn into a giant robot!)
When you buy something from eBay, it is impossible not to browse a little. I saw this deal on 50 LED downlight kits, with everything you’d need for a cool project, at about $12 apiece. The dormant DIY devil in me was stirring. Long story short — I bought the sucka. It showed up at my doorsteps in just two days. (Shipped from China, although I bought it from Australia — globalization of the e-kind, I guess.) And I started replacing all halogen recessed lights in the house with LED ones. It is so easy to do it — just pull the old one down, pull out the old ballast transformer, disconnect it, wire up the new LED light and push it back in. The whole thing takes about five minutes, if there are no complications.
Life, however, is full of complications, and the measure of a man is in how he deals with them. On the first day, it took me about four hours to do about thirty lights. By then, I had blistered fingers. Worse, I got one finger caught in one of those darned spring-loaded thingies (which also work like mouse traps, I forgot to mention) and got it squashed pretty good. And the plaster material from the ceiling acted as some kind of catalyst for infection. Long story short again, I’m just finishing the five-day course of Avelox, a broad-spectrum antibiotic that my GP prescribed after a cursory look at my finger. That’s another thing — why are these doctors getting younger and younger every year?
Anyway, despite all these setbacks, I managed to finish the project in about ten days, after ordering another batch of ten LED kits, and ten LED bulbs to replace some track lighting. I think I established my measure as a man, although I did approach my wife with my battle-worn fingers for sympathy and compassion. She dished them out aplenty, and lovingly called me “nasook” — a Hindi expression I’m not quite familiar with. I have to look it up one of these days — something in her tone makes me wonder, did I lose a bit of my measure?
By the way, the flickering light is still flickering. The three-dollar transformer hasn’t arrived yet.
In connection with my recent retirement, my wife sent me an article (a speech given by someone on how to retire happily) which made several interesting points. But even more interestingly, it started with a funny story. Here it is:
In a small village in Kerala, a devout christian passed away. The local priest was out of station, and a priest from an adjoining village was called upon to deliver the eulogy. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” began the venerable pastor with the coffin before him. “Here lies dead before me a rare human being of this village with outstanding qualities. He was a gentleman, a scholar, sweet of tongue, gentle of temper and very catholic in outlook. He was generous to a fault and ever smiling.” The widow of the deceased sprang up and screamed, “Oh my God! They are burying the wrong man!”
True to form, this gentleman concluded his speech with another story.
First God created the cow and said, “You must go with the farmer everyday to the field, and suffer under the sun all day long, have calves, give milk and help the farmer. I give you a span of sixty years.” The cow said, “That’s surely tough. Give me only twenty years. I give back forty years.”
On Day Two, God created the dog and said, “Sit by the door of your house and bark at strangers. I give you a span of twenty years.” The dog said, “Too long a life for barking. I give up ten years.”
On the third day, God created the monkey and said to him, “Entertain people. Make them laugh. I give you twenty years.” The monkey said to God, “How boring! Monkey tricks for twenty years? Give me only ten years.” The Lord agreed.
On the fourth day, God created Man. He said to him, “Eat, sleep, play, enjoy and do nothing. I will give you twenty years.”
Man said, “Only twenty years? No way! I will take my twenty, but give me the forty the cow gave back, the ten that the monkey returned, and the ten the dog surrendered. That makes it eighty. Okay?” God agreed.
That is why for the first twenty years we sleep, play, enjoy and do nothing.
For the next forty years we slave in the sun to support our family.
For the next ten years we do monkey tricks to entertain our grandchildren.
And for the last ten years we sit in front of the house and bark at everybody.
Well, I managed to cut down my forty cow-years to a mere twenty. Here’s hoping that I will get similar discounts on my monkey and dog years!
As you may know, a San Francisco TV channel got in trouble for reporting fake names of the pilots involved in a recent air crash. If you missed it, here is the video — the fake names are around the 43rd second mark.
In light of this TV report, I thought I would post a bunch of fake names that I got through email a while ago. It definitely seems timely, if not appropriate.
|That’s not right||Sum Ting Wong|
|Are you harboring a fugitive?||Hu Yu Hai Ding|
|See me ASAP||Kum Hia Nao|
|Stupid Man||Dum Fuk|
|Small Horse||Tai Ni Po Ni|
|Did you go to the beach?||Wai Yu So Tan|
|I bumped into a coffee table||Ai Bang Mai Fu Kin Ni|
|I think you need a face lift||Chin Tu Fat|
|It’s very dark in here||Wai So Dim|
|I thought you were on a diet||Wai Yu Mun Ching|
|This is a tow away zone||No Pah King|
|Our meeting is scheduled for next week||Wai Yu Kum Nao|
|Staying out of sight||Lei Ying Lo|
|He’s cleaning his automobile||Wa Shing Ka|
|Your body odor is offensive||Yu Stin Ki Pu|
|Great||Fa Kin Su Pa|
The mother was getting annoyed that her teenaged son was wasting time watching TV.
“Son, don’t waste your time watching TV. You should be studying,” she advised.
“Why?” quipped the son, as teenagers usually do.
“Well, if you study hard, you will get good grades.”
“Then, you can get into a good school.”
“Why should I?”
“That way, you can hope to get a good job.”
“Why? What do I want with a good job?”
“Well, you can make a lot of money that way.”
“Why do I want money?”
“If you have enough money, you can sit back and relax. Watch TV whenever you want to.”
“Well, I’m doing it right now!”
What the mother is advocating, of course, is the wise principle of deferred satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you have to do something slightly unpleasant now, as long as you get rewarded for it later in life. This principle is so much a part of our moral fabric that we take it for granted, never questioning its wisdom. Because of our trust in it, we obediently take bitter medicines when we fall sick, knowing that we will feel better later on. We silently submit ourselves to jabs, root-canals, colonoscopies and other atrocities done to our persons because we have learned to tolerate unpleasantnesses in anticipation of future rewards. We even work like a dog at jobs so loathesome that they really have to pay us a pretty penny to stick it out.
Before I discredit myself, let me make it very clear that I do believe in the wisdom of deferred satisfaction. I just want to take a closer look because my belief, or the belief of seven billion people for that matter, is still no proof of the logical rightness of any principle.
The way we lead our lives these days is based on what they call hedonism. I know that the word has a negative connotation, but that is not the sense in which I am using it here. Hedonism is the principle that any decision we take in life is based on how much pain and pleasure it is going to create. If there is an excess of pleasure over pain, then it is the right decision. Although we are not considering it, the case where the recipients of the pain and pleasure are distinct individuals, nobility or selfishness is involved in the decision. So the aim of a good life is to maximize this excess of pleasure over pain. Viewed in this context, the principle of delayed satisfaction makes sense — it is one good strategy to maximize the excess.
But we have to be careful about how much to delay the satisfaction. Clearly, if we wait for too long, all the satisfaction credit we accumulate will go wasted because we may die before we have a chance to draw upon it. This realization may be behind the mantra “live in the present moment.”
Where hedonism falls short is in the fact that it fails to consider the quality of the pleasure. That is where it gets its bad connotation from. For instance, a ponzi scheme master like Madoff probably made the right decisions because they enjoyed long periods of luxurious opulence at the cost of a relatively short durations of pain in prison.
What is needed, perhaps, is another measure of the rightness of our choices. I think it is in the intrinsic quality of the choice itself. We do something because we know that it is good.
I am, of course, touching upon the vast branch of philosophy they call ethics. It is not possible to summarize it in a couple of blog posts. Nor am I qualified enough to do so. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, is eminently qualified, and you should check out his online course Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? if interested. I just want to share my thought that there is something like the intrinsic quality of a way of life, or of choices and decisions. We all know it because it comes before our intellectual analysis. We do the right thing not so much because it gives us an excess of pleasure over pain, but we know what the right thing is and have an innate need to do it.
That, at least, is the theory. But, of late, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole right-wrong, good-evil distinction is an elaborate ruse to keep some simple-minded folks in check, while the smarter ones keep enjoying totally hedonistic (using it with all the pejorative connotation now) pleasures of life. Why should I be good while the rest of them seem to be reveling in wall-to-wall fun? Is it my decaying internal quality talking, or am I just getting a bit smarter? I think what is confusing me, and probably you as well, is the small distance between pleasure and happiness. Doing the right thing results in happiness. Eating a good lunch results in pleasure. When Richard Feynman wrote about The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he was probably talking about happiness. When I read that book, what I’m experiencing is probably closer to mere pleasure. Watching TV is probably pleasure. Writing this post, on the other hand, is probably closer to happiness. At least, I hope so.
To come back my little story above, what could the mother say to her TV-watching son to impress upon him the wisdom of deferred satisfaction? Well, just about the only thing I can think of is the argument from hedonism saying that if the son wastes his time now watching TV, there is a very real possibility that he may not be able to afford a TV later on in life. Perhaps intrinsically good parents won’t let their children grow up into a TV-less adulthood. I suspect I would, because I believe in the intrinsic goodness of taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. Does that make me a bad parent? Is it the right thing to do? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
Before leaving India in the late eighties, I could speak a bit of Hindi as my third language. English was the second language, and Malayalam my mother tongue. I wasn’t fluent in Hindi by any stretch of imagination, but I could speak it well enough to get rid of a door-to-door salesman, for instance.
This is exactly what my father (a confirmed Hindi-phobe) asked me to do during one of my visits home when a persistent, Hindi-speaking sari salesman was hovering over our front porch. By that time, I had spent over six years in the US (and considered my English very good) and a couple of years in France (enough to know that “very good English” was no big deal). So to get rid of the sari-wala, I started to talk to him in Hindi, and the strangest thing happened — it was all French that was coming out. Not my mother tongue, not my second or third language, but French! In short, there was very confused sari salesman roaming the streets that day.
True, there is some similarity between Hindi and French, for instance, in the sounds of interrogative words, and the silly masculine-feminine genders of neutral objects. But I don’t think that was what was causing the outpouring of Frenchness. It felt as though French had replaced Hindi in my brain. Whatever brain cells of mine that were wired up to speak Hindi (badly, I might add) were being rewired a la franciaise! Some strange resource allocation mechanism was recycling my brain cells without my knowledge or consent. I think this French invasion in my brain continued unabated and assimilated a chunk of my English cells as well. The end result was that my English got all messed up, and my French never got good enough. I do feel a bit sorry for my confused brain cells. Karma, I guess — I shouldn’t have confused the sari salesman.
Though spoken in jest, I think what I said is true — the languages that you speak occupy distinct sections of your brain. A friend of mine is a French-American girl from the graduate years. She has no discernable accent in her Americanese. Once she visited me in France, and I found that whenever she used an English word while speaking French, she had a distinct French accent. It was as though the English words came out of the French section of her brain.
Of course, languages can be a tool in the hands of the creative. My officemate in France was a smart English chap who steadfastly refused to learn any French at all, and actively resisted any signs of French assimilation. He never uttered a French word if he could help it. But then, one summer, two English interns showed up. My officemate was asked to mentor them. When these two girls came to our office to meet him, this guy suddenly turned bilingual and started saying something like, “Ce qu’on fait ici.. Oh, sorry, I forgot that you didn’t speak French!”
I was chatting with an old friend of mine, and he told me that he never felt inclined to read anything I wrote. Naturally, I was a little miffed. I mean, I pour my heart and soul into my books, columns and these posts here, and people don’t even feel inclined to read it? Why would that be? My friend, helpful as always, explained that it was because I sounded pretentious. My first reaction, of course, was to get offended and say all kinds of nasty things about him. But one has to learn to make use of criticism. After all, if I sound pretentious to somebody, there is no use pointing out that I am not really pretentious because what I sound like and look like and feel like is really what I am to that somebody. That is one of the underlying themes of my first book. Well, not quite, but close enough.
Why do I sound pretentious? And what does that even mean? Those are the questions that I shall analyze today. You see, I take these things very seriously.
A few years ago, during my research years here in Singapore, I met this professor from the US. He was originally from China and had gone to the states as a graduate student. Typically, such first generation Chinese emigrants don’t speak very good English. But this guy spoke extremely well. To my untrained ears, he sounded pretty much identical to an American and I was impressed. Later on, I was sharing my admiration with a Chinese colleague of mine. He wasn’t impressed at all, and said, “This guy is a phoney, he shouldn’t try to sound like an American, he should be speaking like a Chinese who learned English.” I was baffled and asked him, “If I learn Chinese, should I try to sound like you, or try to hang on to my natural accent?” He said that was totally different — one is about being pretentious, the other is about being a good student of a foreign tongue.
When you call someone pretentious, what you are saying is this, “I know what you are. Based on my knowledge, you should be saying and doing certain things, in a certain way. But you are saying or doing something else to impress me or others, pretending to be somebody better or more sophisticated than you really are.”
The implicit assumption behind this accusation is that you know the person. But it is very difficult to know people. Even those who are very close to you. Even yourself. There is only so far you can see within yourself that your knowledge even of yourself is always going to be incomplete. When it comes to casual friends, the chasm between what you think you know and what is really the case could be staggering.
In my case, I think my friend found my writing style a bit pompous perhaps. For example, I usually write “perhaps” instead of “may be.” When I speak, I say “may be” like everybody else. Besides, when it comes to speaking, I’m a stuttering, stammering mess with no voice projection or modulation to save my life. But my writing skills are good enough to land me book commissions and column requests. So, was my friend assuming that I shouldn’t be writing well, based on what he knew about how I spoke? Perhaps. I mean, may be.
However, (I really should start saying “but” instead of “however”) there are a couple of things wrong with that assumption. Everyone of us is a complex collage of multiple personas happily cohabiting in one human body. Kindness and cruelty, nobility and pettiness, humility and pompousness, generous actions and base desires can all co-exist in one person and shine through under the right circumstances. So can my weak articulation and impressive (albeit slightly pretentious) prose.
More importantly, people change over time. About fifteen years ago, I spoke fluent French. So if I preferred conversing with a French friend in his tongue, was I being pretentious given that I couldn’t do it five years before that time? Ok, in that case I really was, but a few years before that, I didn’t speak English either. People change. Their skills change. Their abilities change. Their affinities and interests change. You cannot size up a person at any one point in time and assume that any deviation from your measure is a sign of pretentiousness.
In short, my friend was an ass to have called me pretentious. There, I said it. I have to admit — it felt good.
A more complex example of how the rules shape the patterns on the ground is the corporate game. The usual metaphor is to portray employees as cogs in the relentless wheel of the corporate machinery, or as powerless pawns in other people’s power plays. But we can also think of all of them as active players with their own resources engaged in tiny power plays of their own. So they end up with a corporate life full of office politics, smoke and mirrors, and pettiness and backstabbing. When they take these things personally and love or hate their co-workers, they do themselves an injustice, I think. They should realize that all these features are the end result of the rules by which they play the corporate game. The office politics that we see in any modern workspace is the topology expected of the rules of the game.
What are these famous rules I keep harping on? You would expect them to be much more complex that those of a simple chess game, given that you have a large number of players with varying agendas. But I’m a big fan of simplicity and Occam’s Razor as any true scientist should be (which is an oblique and wishful assertion that I am still one, of course), and I believe the rules of the corporate game are surprisingly simple. As far as I can see, there are just two — one is that the career progression opportunities are of a pyramid shape in that it gets progressively more difficult to bubble to the top. The other rule is that at every level, there is a pot of rewards (such as the bonus pool, for instance) that needs to be shared among the co-workers. From these rules, you can easily see that one does better when others do badly. Backstabbing follows naturally.
In order to be a perfect player in this game, you have to do more than backstabbing. You have to develop an honest-to-john faith in your superiority as well. Hypocrisy doesn’t work. I have a colleague who insists that he could do assembly-level programming before he left kindergarten. I don’t think he is lying per-se; he honestly believes that he could, as far as I can tell. Now, this colleague of mine is pretty smart. However, after graduating from an IIT and working at CERN, I’m used to superior intelligences and geniuses. And he ain’t it. But that doesn’t matter; his undying conviction of his own superiority is going to tide him over such minor obstacles as reality checks. I see stock options in his future. If he stabs someone in the back, he does it guiltlessly, almost innocently. It is to that level of virtuosity that you have to aspire, if you want to excel in the corporate game.
Almost every feature of the modern corporate office, from politics to promotions, and backstabbing to bonuses, is a result of the simple rules of the game that we play it by. (Sorry about the weak attempt at the first letter rhyme.) The next expansion of this idea, of course, is the game of life. We all want to win, but ultimately, it is a game where we will all lose, because the game of life is also the game of death.