Tag Archives: humor

Need I say more?

Driving in India

I have had the pleasure of driving in many parts of the world. Being fairly observant and having a tendency to theorize about everything, I have come to form a general theory about driving habits as well.

You see, each place has a set of driving norms, a grammar or a dialect of driving, if you will. In Marseille, France, for instance, if you switch on your turn signal on a multilane street, people will immediately let you in. It’s not because they are polite and considerate drivers (quite the contrary, in fact), but a turn signal indicates the driversintention to change lanes, not a request to let them. They are not seeking permission; they are merely letting you know. You’d better let them in unless you want a collision. In Geneva (Switzerland), on the other hand, the turn signal is really a request, which is usually denied.

Continue reading


If you learn a new language as an adult, or if you learn it as a child from non-native speakers, you will have an accent. There is a scientifically proven reason behind this. Each language has phonemes (basic sound units) specific to it. You can discern only those phonemes that you are exposed to as a baby. By the time you are about eight months old, it is already too late for your brain to pick up new phonemes. Without the complete set of phonemes of a language, an accent, however slight, is unavoidable.

Continue reading

How to Act Young

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.

Continue reading

Internal and External Successes

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.

Continue reading

Replace Halogen with LED

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 kidsPC, 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 meyou are not supposed to access recessed lights from above. After all, they are usually in ceilings with noabove.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 shortI bought the sucka. It showed up at my doorsteps in just two days. (Shipped from China, although I bought it from Australiaglobalization 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 itjust 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 thingwhy 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 menasook” — a Hindi expression I’m not quite familiar with. I have to look it up one of these dayssomething 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.

Retirement — a Wife’s View

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. 当地牧师不在车站,,en,并请了一个邻近村庄的牧师致敬,,en,“女士们先生们,,en,这位尊敬的牧师在他面前的棺材开始,,en,“这里死了我,这是这个村庄的杰出人物,品质卓越,,en,他是一位绅士,,en,一个学者,,en,甜言蜜语,,en,脾气温和,外表宽容,,en,他慷慨大方,微笑着。”死者的遗ow大声疾呼,,en,“哦,我的上帝,,en,他们在埋错人,,en,”,,en,形式真实,,en,这位绅士用另一个故事结束了他的演讲,,en,首先神创造了牛,并说,,en,“您必须每天与农民一起去田间,,en,整日在阳光下受苦,,en,有犊牛,,en,喝牛奶帮助农民,,en, 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. 我给了你六十年的时间。”牛说,,en,“那肯定很难,,en,只给我二十年,,en,我退了四十年。”,,en,在第二天,,en,上帝创造了狗,并说,,en,“坐在你家门口,对陌生人吠叫,,en,我给你二十年的时间。”狗说,,en,“吠叫寿命太长,,en,我放弃十年。”,,en,在第三天,,en,上帝创造了猴子并对他说,,en,“招待人们,,en,让他们笑,,en,我给你二十年。”猴子对上帝说,,en,“多么无聊,,en,二十年来的猴子戏法,,en,只给我十年。”主同意,,en,第四天,,en,上帝创造了人,,en,他对他说,,en,“吃,,en,睡觉,,en,玩,,en,享受无所事事,,en,我会给你二十年。”,,en,男人说,,en,“只有二十年,,en,没门,,en, “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! 我要拿我二十,,en,但是给我四十头牛还给我,,en,猴子归来的十个,,en,那十只狗投降了,,en,那就八十了,,en,好的,,en,上帝同意,,en,这就是为什么我们睡觉的前二十年,,en,在接下来的四十年中,我们在阳光下奴役以养家糊口,,en,在接下来的十年中,我们会用猴子的技巧来娱乐我们的孙子们,,en,在过去的十年中,我们坐在房子前,向所有人吠叫,,en,我设法将四十年的牛年减少到只有二十年,,en,希望我的猴子和狗年能获得类似的折扣,,en,幽默,,en,生活,,en,退休,,en,语言能力,,en,六月,,en,在八十年代末离开印度之前,,en,我可以说一些印地语作为我的第三语言,,en,英语是第二语言,,en,张贴标记的马拉雅拉姆语,,en,我的母语,,en, 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!

Deferred Satisfaction

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.”
“Yeah, so?”
“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. 凭空想像我都不会流利的北印度语,,en,但我可以说得足够好,以免除上门推销员,,en,例如,,en,这正是我父亲,,en,经证实的印地语恐惧症,,en,要求我在一次探访回家时做,,en,会说印地语的纱丽推销员在我们的前廊上徘徊,,en,到那个时候,,en,我在美国呆了六年多,,en,认为我的英语很好,,en,在法国呆了几年,,en,足以知道,,en,英文很好,,en,没什么大不了的,,en,因此要摆脱莎丽·瓦拉,,en,我开始在印地语中跟他说话,,en,最奇怪的事情发生了,,en,这就是全部,,en,与法语相关的帖子,,en,那出来了,,en,不是我的母语,,en,不是我的第二语言或第三语言,,en,但是法国人,,en,简而言之,,en,那天有一个非常困惑的纱丽推销员在街上漫游,,en,真正,,en, 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, 印地语和法语之间有些相似之处,,en,在疑问词的声音中,,en,以及中性对象的愚蠢的男性和女性性别,,en,但我不认为这是导致法国性泛滥的原因,,en,感觉好像法国人取代了我脑中的印地语,,en,我的任何脑细胞连接起来说北印度语,,en,严重地,,en,我可能会添加,,en,被重新布线为法国,,en,一些奇怪的资源分配机制是在我不知情或未经同意的情况下回收我的脑细胞,,en,我认为法国人对我脑部的入侵仍在继续,并吸收了我的大部分英语细胞,,en,最终结果是我的英语全都搞砸了,,en,我的法语永远都不够好,,en,我为自己困惑的脑细胞感到难过,,en,业力,,en,我猜,,en, 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 — 我不应该混淆莎丽推销员,,en,虽然开玩笑地说,,en,我认为我说的是真的,,en,您说的语言占据了大脑的不同部分,,en,我的一个朋友是一个毕业年份的法裔美国女孩,,en,她的美语没有明显的口音,,en,一旦她在法国拜访我,,en,我发现只要她说法语时使用英语单词,,en,她有明显的法国口音,,en,好像英语单词来自她的大脑法语部分,,en,当然,,en,语言可以成为广告素材的工具,,en,我在法国的同事是个精明的英语专家,他坚决拒绝学习任何法语,,en,并积极抵制任何法国同化的迹象,,en,如果他能帮上忙,他从未说过法语,,en,但是之后,,en.

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, 一个夏天,,en,两名英语实习生出现,,en,我的室友被要求指导他们,,en,当这两个女孩来我们办公室见他时,,en,这个家伙突然变成双语,开始说类似,,en,我们在这里做什么,,fr,哦,,en,抱歉,,en,我忘了你不会说法语,,en,通讯,,en,印地语,,en,心情,,fr,语言,,en,为人父母,,en,艰难爱情的另一笔故事,,en,有一次我最喜欢的叔叔给我一支笔,,en,那个叔叔当时是印度军队的一名士兵,,en,士兵们每年大约要回家几个月,,en,并给大家庭中的每个人礼物,,en,整个事情都有一种权利感,,en,送礼者从没想到他们也许也可以还一些东西,,en,在过去的几十年中,,en,事情变了,,en, 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!”

Am I Pretentious?

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.