Saturday, April 17, 2004

The Pain of Losing

The Pain of Losing

I hope I am proven wrong: I think Liverpool will not finish fourth in the English Premier League and hence will not qualify for Champions League next season. It breaks my heart to see the team I've been supporting since I was a teenager losing again and again to lesser teams like Portsmouth and Southampton this season.

I haven't been watching much football since I came back to KL--mainly because my Astro subscription does not include the sports channels! Things at home are not exactly customized to my taste because I've been out of the country for the greater part of the last six years. Well, at least I'm spared the torment of watching Liverpool lose. Losing can be so painful.

How does one overcome the pain? I guess I'll have to follow my own advice: let time dissolve it. Sometimes it is more pleasurable for me to watch neutral teams play: one can concentrate on the beauty of the football without being emotionally involved.

From the number of entries that I have dedicated to the subject of pain and pleasure in my blog, it seems like I have some kind of morbid obssession with it. Pain and pleasure to me always come in equal proportions: The amount of pleasure you feel from something is proportional to the potential pain that you will experience in losing it.

Whenever we feel pleasure, we shouldn't be too carried away; and when pain does come, you comfort yourself by saying that it will surely pass. Singaporean leaders like to view the relationship between their country and Malaysia with the same philosophical attitude--and wisely so: There will always be ups and downs and one should not be over-euphoric whenever things look a bit sunny.

I have enjoyed greatly Liverpool's victories in the past. Now I am feeling the enormous pain of their loss.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Kaki & Tangan

Kaki & Tangan

What do you do when you don't know what you are supposed to write? Well, you just write--which is what I am doing now.

I have itchy fingers--whenever my hands touch the keyboard, I'd want to type something. I learnt how to type using an old typewriter when I was a teenager: I spent hours filling blank pieces of paper with that famous line, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", which covers all the 26 alphabets.

Now, everytime I see a blank piece of paper or a blank Word document staring at me, that crafty little fox would leap out automatically from my fingers. Hmm...I wonder if people still bother to learn how to type with 10 fingers anymore. Maybe a quick and nimble thumb is more useful nowadays--to key SMS messages, and to play video games.

Sometimes I'm curious if I am actually born a southpaw. Technically I don't think I can be considered one for I write with my right hand. But the strange thing is that I do most of my other things with my left. I am also heavily left-footed--I played mostly as a left-winger during my footballing days. Which is why I enjoy watching players like Harry Kewell of Liverpool and Damien Duff of Chelsea.

My tendency to use my left hand can sometimes be embarassing--in many Asian cultures, it is considered rude. Fortunately I have no problems using my right hand whenever I'm eating Indian banana leaf rice or Indonesian nasi padang, for I trained myself to do so when I was very young. They sure taste better without the cumbersome fork and spoon. But when it comes to handling money, I have a tendency to fetch notes from my wallet with my left. Perhaps subconsciously, I consider money as something "dirty"?

I also have a habit of using my hands too much to express myself. Even though it is considered good presentation technique to have hand gestures, too much of it can be a distraction to the audience, especially when the gestures are monotonously repetitive. It is so difficult to keep your hands quiet sometimes.

Indonesians are often mildly amused at the way we use the word "kakitangan" (literally hands and feet) to mean employees or crew members. "Karyawan" is the word they normally employ. To them, "kakitangan" carries the meaning of "lackeys"!

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Divine Intoxication

Divine Intoxication

I will try to write a very short entry today as I am pretty tired after spending the evening drinking with my friends at the Hyatt Saujana. Hence, what I write is not to be taken seriously.

I don't go out very often these days but I used to be very fond of frequenting pubs and other nightspots. I admire the enthusiasm of some of my friends who haunt these places almost every night. Nowadays whenever I go to a pub, I feel extremely glad that I have no desire to linger there anymore--the smoke and the crowd turn me off. There's also an air of superficial gaiety in such places that for some reason often plunge me into a melancholic mood.

American writer Norman Mailer--known for his hard-drinking habits in his youth--once said that one drinks to dissolve a sorrow. F. Scott Fitzgerald--another famous writer-boozer--had this to say about drinking: "First you take a drink, then the drink takes another drink and finally the drink takes you".

After a while, we forget what was the "sorrow" that led us to drink in first place. Drinking, like so many other things that are pleasurable, can easily become an addiction.

Omar Khayyyam celebrated the pleasures of wine in his Rubaiyat. Yogananda gave a spiritual interpretation of the Rubaiyat, where drunkenness is taken to be a metaphor for the intoxicating nature of the divine experience.

Perhaps there's a fine line separating drunkenness and spiritual ecstasy. What leads us to drink in first place is our natural yearning for spiritual release--to be freed from the limiting bonds of our mortal frame. Unfortunately this release is a temporary one. In the morning, we are cast back rudely to our earthly existence.

Time to sleep and return to earth.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Greatest Asset

The Greatest Asset

I'm trying to blog while watching a live video stream from the BBC website of CIA chief George Tenet being questioned by the 9/11 Commission. I have no idea what I'm supposed to blog about, so I'll just ramble on for a while until I hit on a subject.

Everyone has a most productive period during the course of the day when most of their work is done. For some it is the morning hours before lunch; for others it could be late in the night. Unfortunately I fall into the latter category. Over my years of working, I've often done most of my important work at home, at night and often on weekends too.

Time in the office is for communicating with people--meetings, phonecalls and discussions--which I don't exactly consider "work". I would even feel guilty if that is all I do. Work to me means producing something tangible--a presentation, a report or a computer program; something created out of nothing.

This does not mean that all the activities involved in interacting with people are useless. Without teamwork and communications, things cannot move forward. Having been involved in so many IT projects in my career, I can safely say that the most difficult challenge in most projects is people-related--motivating people, making people deliver quality work on time and getting people to work together--and very rarely the technical aspect of it.

People make or break a project. When there's a team that clicks well together and believes in what they do, they can be quite unstoppable. They will overcome all obstacles that stand in their way and they will go the extra mile to get things done.

A lot of the discussions in the 9/11 commission hearings touch on the organizational weaknesses in government agencies which prevented information from being shared and acted upon. Given enough resources, we can theoretically design IT systems that performs consistently and reliably, but there is no easy solution when people are in the critical path of the delivery system. So much depends on the personal motivation of the individual involved.

So we talk about putting "structures" and "processes" in place. We want to minimize room for errors and ensure that people adhere to a set of instructions to guarantee quality of service. "People, processes and technology"--that's the mantra IT consultants always chant. The problem is, when we have too rigid a structure, we prevent people from having the room to exercise their creativity; and when we allow too much flexibility, we rely too much on the brilliance of the individual to ensure quality. A healthy balance between the two needs to be struck. That's what leadership and management is all about.

People is the weakest link in an information system. But it is also people that makes an organization great. Unfortunately many organizations are fond of only paying lip service to this fact. "People are our greatest assets", they'll proclaim loudly in the company motto. But what do companies get rid of first when they are not doing well? Exactly: their greatest asset--people.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Challenge of Teaching Mathematics

The Challenge of Teaching Mathematics

My teaching experience is limited to an undergraduate course in information systems which I had the opportunity to conduct at a university in Jakarta. Even though the course was a simple one, I realised that the challenge in teaching the subject was making the students see the real-life relevance of some of the concepts taught.

Most of the students were familiar with computers and the Internet; they probably spent more hours on the Net than me, but yet they struggled to understand relatively basic enterprise computing concepts such as ERP, data warehousing or even client-server computing. This is because they did not have the experience of working in an enterprise and see how IT is applied in a business organization.

The challenge for me was to illustrate these concepts to them using clear examples in a jargon-free language which they could understand. A professor at the university once told us that we are all "analog" creatures--an analogy often help us to understand a concept better. Analogies that are close to the students' hearts also have a greater impact.

Example: What is the function of a crystal clock in a computer system? If you tell them that clocks help to synchronize the various electronic events that occur in the circuit system, it will definitely draw blank looks on their faces. You must remind yourself that you are talking to teenagers who frequent discotheques: So the computer system is like a pop band, and the clock is the drummer; all the parts in a computer are members of the band who perform according to a common rhythm set by the drummer. And computer applications are like the different types of music or songs that the band plays.

The challenge in teaching is to come up with good examples and analogies to help explain difficult concepts. For a practical course like information systems, it is not too difficult. But for subjects as "dry" as mathematics, it could be an uphill task. Which is why if I were to get an opportunity to teach again, I'd definitely want to attempt to teach mathematics.

Most students--except for a particular category of them which we normally refer to as geeks or nerds--are turned off by mathematics. It is dull and its concepts seem to have no relevance to the real world. Mathematics, especially pure mathematics, is full of weird-looking Greek symbols with lots of laboriously rigid rules for their manipulation. Why do we need to study for instance, the properties of a parabola? Why in the world would we want to learn set theory which seems like common-sense anyway? And why do want to struggle to manipulate "imaginary numbers", and bend our minds trying to picture what the square root of negative one is like?

It all seems very irrelevant to the world of people and emotions. Perhaps it is unfortunate that the approach to the teaching of mathematics has traditionally been rather dull and uninspiring--it is in actual fact a very intriguing subject. There's even adventure and excitement in mathematics: Those who have read Simon Singh's book describing how mathematics professor Andrew Wiles figured out a solution to Fermat's Last Theorem which for 350 years was thought unsolvable, would understand the exhiliration of mathematics.

And mathematics do have relevance to the world in which we live in. All the technological marvels that we see around us would not have been possible if say Newton and Leibniz had not invented the mathematics of calculus. I won't be typing these words on a Pentium notebook if the solid-state transistor was not invented; the behaviour of a modern transistor is based on the properties of the p-n junction which at the very fundamental level could only be understood using quantum mechanics, which requires a mastery of probability theory, wave theory and differential equations.

The study of mathematics is certainly not dull. The intellectual rapture one feels in comprehending the concepts of mathematics is not unlike the emotional ecstasy experienced by someone who listens to Beethoven's 9th Symphony . It is a great pity indeed if huge number students are turned off by mathematics just because generations of teachers have failed to convey the sheer grandeur, magnificence and excitement of this wonderful and important subject.

The Mystery of Ibu Inggit's House

The Mystery of Ibu Inggit's House

The love story between Indonesia's founding father Sukarno and Ibu Inggit Garnasih fascinates me. I even read R.H. Ramadhan's book, "Kuantar Ke Gerbang" (Led to the Gates)--in Bahasa Indonesia--which gives an interesting biographical account of Inggit's life and her relationship with Sukarno during those early days of the struggle for independence.

I wrote a bit about their relationship in a previous blog entry (also about how Inggit got her name). Sukarno first met Ibu Inggit, who was 15 years older than him, when he came as a young man to study civil engineering in Bandung. Ibu Inggit was then her landlady. In his autobiography, Sukarno recalls how Ibu Inggit's beauty, grace and countenance captivated him.

Ibu Inggit was not a very educated woman but to Sukarno she was the epitome of the perfect woman--a good housewife and an endless wellspring of feminine love and tenderness. She had only one flaw: she couldn't bear him a child. This was the reason that led to their divorce after Sukarno returned from his exile in Bengkulu. Sukarno married Fatmawati who later became Indonesia's first First Lady and bore him a few children-- among them, the current President Megawati.

History is to record Sukarno as a flamboyant womanizer in his later years. But to me, the woman who made the most difference in Sukarno's life was Ibu Inggit. He was his sole emotional support during his years of imprisonment by the Dutch in Banceuy and Sukamiskin, and later in exile to Ende, Flores and Bengkulu, Sumatra.

There's a road named after her in Bandung and the house at No. 8 Jalan Inggit Garnasih (formerly jalan Ciateul) is said to be the house where she and Sukarno lived after they were married. I visited the house during one of my visits to Bandung and spoke to the caretaker, Pak Djarot.

From my readings, I actually had my doubts as to whether that was really the house where Sukarno lived with Ibu Inggit. When Sukarno lodged at Ibu Inggit's house as a student, she was then already married to a Haji Sanusi. So the original house had to be Haji Sanusi's house and when she divorced him to marry Sukarno, I was quite sure that they shifted out from there.

In fact both Sukarno's and Ibu Inggit's biographies mentioned that they stayed in a rented house after they were married. And I knew for a fact that when Ibu Inggit finally returned to Bandung after her divorce and years of exile with Sukarno, she did not have a place to stay for she had even sold off her parents' house before she left.

I asked Pak Djarot, the caretaker, about it. Even though Pak Djarot knew Ibu Inggit personally before she died in 1984, he wasn't well acquainted with events related to Ibu Inggit's early days with Sukarno. All he knew was that when Ibu Inggit died, she was staying at that No. 8 house, Jalan Inggit Garnasih. He even claimed that this was the house that she stayed with Haji Sanusi before she married Sukarno and it was Haji Sanusi who had to shift out after she divorced him to marry Sukarno!

Everyone in Bandung assumes that the house at No. 8 Jalan Ciateul is "Ibu Inggit and Sukarno's house"; but did Sukarno really stay there with her or was it just the house where Ibu Inggit lived in her old age? No one could give me a definite answer. Even the people at the Bandung Society for Heritage Conservation wasn't sure.

I later found out, from my research (which I will not go into detail), that Pak Djarot was only partially right. The house was indeed Ibu Inggit and Haji Sanusi's house and Sukarno did stay there as a lodger. After Sukarno married Ibu Inggit, they shifted out and lived in various rented houses until Sukarno's exile to Flores and Bengkulu. When Inggit returned to Bandung after her divorce, she was totally homeless. She too had to stay in a rented house.

Knowing her emotional attachment to the old house, her close friends helped to pool together some money to reaquire the house (Haji Sanusi's house, and where she first met Sukarno) for her. So she did die in the historical house where Sukarno stayed as a student lodger!

Unfortunately the original house was left in a crumbling state after the death of Ibu Inggit. According to Pak Djarot, the government bought over the place and rebuilt the house based on the original plan. Although the exterior and the flooring are new, the layout of the house remained faithful to the original.

I asked for permission to check out Sukarno's room where he had stayed as a student. Pak Djarot led me to the small room located in front, with a window overlooking the entrance gate of the house. Pak Djarot's teenage daughter was using the great Bund Karno's room as her private bedroom. There wasn't even a bed there: only a thin mattress on the floor, with the paraphernalia of a teenager scattered everywhere.

I stood there at the entrance for a while, imagining how Sukarno, as a bright and eager student, spent many late nights there reading the works of the great leaders of the world, and embarked on animated discussions with his classmates about politics and the independence of Indonesia. And I imagined how love blossomed between Sukarno and Ibu Inggit in that very house.

And then, for one crazy moment, I envied Pak Djarot's teenage daughter--for having the privilege to be sleeping on the very spot that the Great Bung Karno used to sleep and dream about a future where a land of 17,000 islands could be united together under one language, to stand proudly as an truly independent nation of the world.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Love & the Impedance Mismatch of Transmission Lines

Love & the Impedance Mismatch of Transmission Lines

When one is young, one has so much to prove--to one's family, to one's peers and to the world at large. Great amounts of energy are used to attain an academic qualification, to build a successful career and to start a family. And in going through all these experiences, one's character is built. Valuable lessons are learnt.

In a previous posting, I wrote how the ferocity of our youth can be compared to the flow of a river near its source--the flow of water as it rushes and dashes against rocks and all other obstacles in the way. We use up so much of our energy in our youth chasing things we think are important--the career, the car, the house and the life partner. And many of us still have more to spare: We release them in discotheques, in sports and for many, in acts of recklessness.

A healthy person would have achieve some measure of stability and equilibrium when all his or her energies are transformed into love and channelled into nurturing the wellbeing of a family and a career. We build beautiful families and contribute to society through our chosen vocations. If there's excess energy, it is diverted into creative works which become treasures of society and humanity. The circuit is closed: energy is released back into the universe. A beautiful ecosystem of love results.

The danger comes when the circuit is imperfect--when there's a disjoint somewhere in the chain. Electrical engineers would say, there's an impedance mismatch--signal reflection, attenuation and noise would result. Husbands and wives do not talk; children avoid their parents; people do not find fulfilment in their jobs anymore.

Energy that cannot flow within the ecosystem of love has to find an outlet somewhere. Anger, hurt and resentment would arise. We hurl ourselves into reckless relationships, with the hope of finding a resolution to all these negative energies. The ecosystem, the circuit of love becomes broken.

How do we avoid all that? Are all relationships plagued by "impedance mismatch"? Not necessarily so. Two transmission lines face impedance mismatch because they cannot self-tune themselves. They cannot readjust their own impedances to minimize noise and attenuation.

But we can. Both sides can attempt to readjust their own behaviour to bring impedance mismatch to a minimum. Therein lies the key to a successful relationship.

Unfortunately this is easier said than done. It only works well when this self-tuning occurs on both sides. In reality, we often behave as stubbornly as those dumb transmission lines. We'd rather reconnect ourselves elsewhere than to attempt to correct our existing circuits.

We are blessed with the ability to adapt and self-correct. Perhaps that's the greatest gift that we human beings possess. I think we can--and we should--do a lot better than cold hard pieces of copper wires.