Saturday, June 05, 2004

That Sublime State

That Sublime State

I took the opportunity today to catch up on my technical reading while waiting at the airport and during my short flight to Bangkok. I had to refrain myself from reading other books to get into the mood for work for I have an important week ahead with the customer. Which is also why I decided to arrive here two days early.

I reckoned I will be more productive here in the isolation of my serviced apartment. KL is full of distractions--but I guess have only myself to blame for not utilizing my time there better. Arriving earlier in Bangkok also gives me precious time to do some planning with Johan (who had arrived yesterday) before we start work for the week.

It usually takes me a great deal of effort ensure that I remain focussed on my work. Certain places make me think and work better--Bandung is one of them. Whenever I'm in Bandung, my concentration is unsurpassed; my head would always be brimming with ideas. Jakarta and Bangkok are not too bad too but KL remains a challenge.

I need to achieve that sublime state of mind where every thought appears crystal clear and sharp. It is not easy for it takes enormous willpower and unerring singlemindedness. I must, minimize distractions. The usual culprits--TV, telephone and the Net must be contained.

Work can sometimes be a tedious and tiresome thing. But when we are focussed and are able to achieve a state of concentration where we and the work are one--like a craftsman at work--it can be quite a satisfying experience.

I'm trying my best to achieve that state.

Friday, June 04, 2004

The Spirit of Science

The Spirit of Science

The late astronomer Carl Sagan, in his book Cosmos, lay down two simple rules which the practice of science abides by:

1. There are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined
2. Whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised

These rules sound like common sense and their application can certainly be extended beyond domains of science. The true scientist, no matter how passionate he or she is about certain theories, must discard them if they prove to be contrary to the facts. Scientists as human beings, could be passionate and dogmatic, but the practice of science is a dispassionate one. And therein lies its greatest strength.

Even after a theory appears to be almost a hundred percent consistent with the facts it is still not considered an absolute truth. They are only true insofar as the observations conducted have indicated. All so-called "laws of nature" derived from the practice of science are not sacred truths--only theories.

The best example is Newtonian mechanics. All the machines of the industrial revolution were based on Newtonian mechanics. They work so well and for centuries no one thought that they could be flawed.

Only when Einstein came up with the Special Theory of Relativity, did we realise that Newton's Laws of Motion were based on foundations that were mere approximations--good enough for our everyday world involving bodies with relatively small masses (compared to planets and stars) and travelling at very low velocities (relative to that of light). We don't need to use relativity theory to design Michael Schumacher's Formula 1 car. Newtonian mechanics will do just fine.

Though many predictions from Einstein's theories have been verified by experiments, scientists are still not satisfied. That is why Nasa recently launched a probe to conduct measurements to further test predictions from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity--which claims that space and and time are distored by the presence of massive objects.

My early training in science influenced my view of life and the world greatly. I've always assumed that nothing is ever absolutely correct. We can have faith and be passionate about certain things; but we must accept that we could be completely wrong. If we are wrong, we must stand to be corrected. Science, by definition, has no dogmas and it is always self-correcting.

A lot of the problems in this world are caused by people who think that they are absolutely right. If we are able to adopt a more scientific attitude towards things, we'll have a much kinder and gentler world.

To me, a good education in science is the best moral grounding one could have. We are all fellow scientists. Life is just a series of experiments which we conduct based on certain hypotheses. Along the way, we try to fine-tune them.

We all behave the way we do because we have formulated certain views about life based on our own personal experiences. What someone finds true for his universe may not be true for other people.

Our worldviews are merely hypotheses--convenient assumptions which we take on so that we can move forward. Without hypotheses, we cannot start doing anything. But we must always be aware of the fact that these hypotheses could be absolutely wrong.

A true scientist never fear being wrong. Any result from an experiment is a good result, for it helps to narrow down the possibilities. To quote Thomas Alva Edison: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work".

That is the true spirit of science.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Career Limiting Moves

Career Limiting Moves

When I was a fulltime cubicle creature with a multinational, I made many career limiting moves. Some of them were done quite consciously because I was never interested in moving up the corporate ladder. I didn't mind getting better pay, but higher position--no. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to be promoted up the foodchain, unless he or she is really interested in management.

I've always seen myself as a worker--something like a traditional craftsman. I'm happy when I am able to use my hands and whatever little brains I have to create something out of nothing. That to me is real work. The reward of work is--good work itself.

Such an idealistic attitude will not bring you far in the corporate world. But I've always felt that I had nothing to lose. Only real work interested me. Not boardroom theatrics or blowing of one's horn.

Concerned bosses used to advise me to "highlight my own achievements"; but I'd never considered what you were expected to accomplish in first place as something worth trumpeting about.

I'd never worried about compensation because I believed if you did good work you would be rewarded--either directly or indirectly. In my years of working, I never had occasion to doubt the truth of this principle.

I knew what I was doing was career-limiting but that didn't matter--I have never looked at work as a career. I don't have a career, only work. Like a farmer or a fisherman, I will always go to bed a happy man as long as I've done an honest and productive day's work. That's all that matters.

Animal and Spiritual Instincts

Animal and Spiritual Instincts

Let me meditate today on the two most basic instincts that guide all of our behaviour: self-preservation, and reproduction.

The instinct for self-preservation is what drives us to work day and night to eke out a living. We all need food, air, water and shelter. But when this impulse is pursued to the extreme, we end up being greedy, selfish and egoistic. We want to accumulate as much as we can so that we feel absolutely secure, protected and respected. Even when our basic survival is already assured, we still strive to accumulate more out of fear of losing what we already have.

Equally strong, if not stronger, is the instinct for reproduction. This drives us to seek the opposite sex so that we can perpetuate our genes. We want to move on to the next logical step beyond survival: creating more copies of ourselves.

Then comes along education, culture and religion which add moderating layers of software on top of this genetic hardwiring. These layers of software temper our instinctive animal behaviour, resulting in an extremely complex system of forces which brings about the whole gamut of human behaviour and emotions that we exhibit in our everyday lives. But deep down inside, all our human interactions are still fuelled by these two base instincts.

There are spiritual people--driven by some inexplicable inner need--who devote their entire lives trying to decouple themselves from the engines of self-preservation and reproduction. They claim that when the Ego or the "I" is annihilated, the Self is dissolved--we don't feel the need to self-preserve or reproduce anymore. The center of gravity vanishes and energy is spread into the universe.

Selfless love, benevolence, magnanimity and equanimity--these are all signposts along the path to spiritual progress.

But why bother? What's wrong with us wallowing in the mud of greed, lust and selfishness? As long as we are not harming anyone, why can't we just sit back and enjoy our rollercoaster ride of pain and pleasure? Let's ride the waves while surf's up!

I suppose we can. But ultimate we will end up with a feeling of emptiness. We feel empty because we attempt to cling on to something that will never last. We cannot fight Nature. It is the tendency of Nature to evolve into more stable states. All rivers flow to the sea. Nature abhors high-energy states. Nature strives to distribute energy evenly.

Yes, we can choose not care about such higher ideals and live our lives in blissful ignorance. By such logic, we can also say that animals are the happiest creatures in the world.

I suppose if we possess the "wisdom" of animals, we will always be "happy". But unfortunately we can't. You see, we have been "cursed" from the very beginning: we ate from the Tree of Knowledge. We know what is good and what is evil.

And thus we are forever condemned: We will never be totally at peace until we find some resolution, some faith, some conviction that there is ultimately, a way out of this Eternal Dilemma. For deep down inside--when awakened--is something even stronger than our animal need for self-preservation and reproduction: our spiritual instincts.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Thoughts at KLCC

Thoughts at KLCC

I'm blogging from San Francisco Coffee at KLCC in between appointments. KLCC seems to be the favourite place for people to meet up these days, and for some reason everyone inevitably ends up at Chinoz. It is the place to avoid if you don't want to bump into anyone you know.

Sometimes I ask myself, do I really feel at home here in Malaysia? I don't know. It is difficult to be objective about your own country; we often over-romanticize our experiences foreign lands, imbuing them with virtues which they probably do not possess.

I also can't deny the fact that I always feel a surge of pride everytime I hear my Indonesian friends speak highly of Malaysia. I feel that if I do not call myself a Malaysian, I have no other identity.

Whenever I get on a MAS flight on my way back from Jakarta, I experience a sense of relief when I hear the cabin crew speaking over the PA system in "proper" Malay. Even though I've grown to love Bahasa Indonesia over the years (and have yet to get rid of my habit of using nggak, udah, kapan and bisa), it is still very much a foreign language to me.

When I hear Malay spoken with a Johor-Riau pronunciation, I feel I'm home at last. Probably it's a bit like how Enrique (Magellan's Malay slave) must have felt when he realised with relief after sailing three quarters of the globe, that the people he met in Cebu could understand his Malay tongue.

But why is it that everytime I'm home, I am eager to leave again? Is it just pure wanderlust? Or perhaps I am just fond of being alone and anonymous in some foreign land?

I looked around me at the people in KLCC and I asked myself: Do I really belong here?

And for the umpteenth time, I rechecked my AirAsia intinerary.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Writer, Creator

Writer, Creator

Staring at a blank page or computer screen and not knowing what to write is probably the most dreaded feeling for a writer.

Even if we are not professional writers, many of us would still end up in situations in our jobs where we are forced to write: It could be a reply to an important email, it could be a job application letter or it could be a brief executive summary which we are banking our hopes on to make our proposal stand out among the rest. Like it or not, we are always forced to write; and we are often judged by how well we convey ourselves through those few sentences that we commit to paper.

Whenever I'm faced with a situation where I'm not sure how or what to write, I always remember Ernest Hemingway's advice from A Moveable Feast: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know".

Newton's First Law of Motion states that a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force. This applies to anything we do. In writing, one true sentence is often sufficient to bring you forward.

Once we force ourselves to start, there's a forward momentum and the creative juices would start flowing. A true sentence is one that's simple, concise and clear. If the sentence is true, it will stand on its own and it will have the strength to serve as the foundation for us to build our next sentence, and the next one--ad infinitum.

I suppose God doesn't need to write; but when the Almighty was staring into darkness, He--more or less--used the same principle when he said, "Let there be light", and there was light. That started the whole process of Creation.

Writing is also an act of creation. We get to play God everytime we write. I would even say, we are more powerful than God when we write: whenever we are not happy with our creations, we just DELETE it. No big deal. Imagine, God had to go through the trouble of creating a Flood to wipe out what he didn't like.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

The Price of Pleasure

The Price of Pleasure

Sometimes we don't exactly know why we behave the way we do. Our behaviour is guided by in-born tendencies and past experiences--both painful and pleasurable ones. We often do not have time to reflect on every of our word or action--they just happen instinctively.

Only in the aftermath of our actions and with the clarity of hindsight are we able to attempt to decipher the inner motives and the underlying principles behind them. I am fond of using my daily blogging sessions for such a purpose.

After more than a year of blogging consistently, I realised from all my cyber-meditations that many of my actions are based on a few simple principles (one might even say that these principles are even a bit simplistic). I'll discuss one of them here, with the hope that I can further unravel its inner meaning--if there's any at all.

The principle which I am referring to is this: Everything comes with a price.

Yes, even though this is a bit of a cliche but I think I tend to push this principle to its very extreme. I see almost everything that happens in this world in its sober terms. This principle is nothing but a corollary to the axiomatic Law of Karma which I've referred to either directly or indirectly in so many previous entries: Pain and pleasure comes bundled in equal proportions--pain is the price that one has to pay for the pleasure that one chooses.

What is the price that we have to pay for all the pleasures in this world? Money, time and energy. It is usually a combination of all three. There is no free lunch. If something doesn't cost you a single cent, then it'll cost you a hell lot of time and energy.

For example, if a married man fools around outside with other women, he has to pay heavily in all three departments. True, he could be rich and can afford to throw money around; but he'll still have to spend a lot of mental energy keeping his affairs secret from his family and possibly even his friends too.

He'll have to pretend and lie a lot. The cost of maintaining a lie is a very high one because every lie needs to be supported by a hierarchy of other lies. One misstep, and the whole structure falls.

And because time is finite--there's only 24 hours in a day--work and family will suffer. The man will probably also have to sacrifice his hobbies--could be golf, could be reading--just to be with his lover. Well, I can understand the pleasure, but the extra-marital affair would end up consuming all his time and energy.

If a man is undeterred by its hefty price, then by all means enjoy philandering! In my universe, there's no right or wrong--only the price that one is willing to pay. I like to observe other people's investment portfolios--how they choose to invest their money, time and energy--too see what pleasurable returns they get out of them.

Like many business organizations, we often do not see the hidden cost in things--especially those that are measured in terms of time and energy. We think our energy is inexhaustable. It is not. Everytime we cheat and lie, we have to face the fear of being discovered. Fear saps the mind of its valuable energy. Fear hinders our life severely and forces us to seek convoluted ways to achieve simple things. If we know how to free up all these wasted resources, we can use them to achieve greater things in life.

I know exactly what the pleasures that I seek for in this life. There are many aspects of my life which to other people would be seen as painful--but I am perfectly aware of them. I am willing to live with these pains because they are the very price that I have chosen to pay for the pleasures I seek.