Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Greenfield guerrilla

The project has gone live. Previous mental fears were proven to be unfounded. Not only in one’s mind but in the minds of other project members. The so-called wobbly application has proven robust and reliant. It’s been running for 5 days (at the time of this writing) since the Tuesday of last week. Despite some initial bumps, the software proceeded along rather smoothly. The result has defied the many skeptics in the site, in the project team and even the stakeholders (or old guards). One did not expect such results in one’s consciousness but one just moved along driven by blind faith. In this situation, faith is a good help. Looking at the preparation, one cannot think of having missed anything, at least from one’s own scope or responsibility in the project scheme of things. There were shortcomings from other members one can dare say but now seemed trivial and minor after the successful launch. It’s the ‘unknown unknowns’ that one must be afraid of.

Thriving on faith and confidence requires courage and stubbornness. The result is magically when one is proven right. It is the ability to hold down one’s doubts and fears and just move forward. Once the deed is done, it’s all pure magic, when one’s inner anxiety dissolves in the wondrous feeling of success and sweetness. One had not experienced this kind of high except in that wonderful project back in Asia long ago. There were just too many skeptics whose doubts were cleverly or politely hidden with false pronouncements of support and hope. But at the back of their minds, an anticipation of disaster; perhaps some overlooked aspect or some forgotten detail that will result in an explosion. A week later, everything is still fine and the skeptics’ attitudes turning into grudging respect but still carefully hidden. It’s the expected result after all.

So it’s on to the next battle field. Actually the main challenge is no longer the software but people ware. To train old veterans and change ancient traditions with new ways. Replacing an application used for nearly 15 to 20 years is not an easy feat. Nostalgia and loyalty to the old system results after long years of working that way. So change is like a revolution, when the technology guerrillas come and uproot old machines and cables, ushering the new. What is the new then? It’s the CLOUD where the application resides in some ethereal space that exists in some far away location. The guerrillas are the emissaries of this new dominion. The war of adaptation and change is fought onsite; when one changes old mindsets in subtle psychological warfare, develop new ways of working, creating workarounds when constraints exist, creating new patterns of thought.  

The guerilla leader is the main actor in the battle. Solving day to day problem; calling comrades (or best described as mercenaries), fixing cable issues, server problems or application shortcomings. Telecommunication is a logistical necessity. Connecting into the grid is paramount; to access intranet chat features, connect to servers, cell phones, land lines and WiFi clusters. These are weapons of the modern guerilla; fighting wherever the revolution is promoted but linked to the grid. The revolution of the CLOUD – sweeping away the old ways like Mao’s communists in China. But the guerrillas are learning too; to adapt themselves to a ‘green field’ environment; something not done before. But despite the skeptics, the central committee has allowed the guerrillas to proceed; like the Politburo authorizing the Red Guards to advance with their havoc.

At the end of the day, it’s a cultural revolution - changing old ways by adapting to the new. There’s a newness emerging everywhere (even in the Middle East). One watches movies over the Internet, read books in electronic tablets, listen to pod casts for the early morning news. It’s a magical existence; a lifestyle inconceivable in the past - brought alive by new technology. Is this the future? Driven by the need for the latest magic, powered by an ever increasing reliance on energy whether oil, nuclear, solar, wind or geothermal. Japan’s recent nuclear problems beget by earthquake and tsunamis are momentary setbacks in the march to nuclear energy. The mental baggage has to be swept away and a new change enforced into one’s lives. A green field environment fraught with risk and danger but it’s the only way forward.

Last night, one watched 2 movies in NetFlix. The highly touted Singaporean film ‘Perth’ – a good movie but marred by excessive violence and brutality. Having lived in Singapore for seven years, one did not see such overt violence though one detects recently a covert anger seething beneath the surface. The anger is due to the rapidly changing economic situation plus the influx of foreigners who take away jobs from the local born. Hence, a subverted desire for more entitlements from a rich paternalistic government. The second film was ‘MILF’ - a lurid and silly movie about college students seeking carnal knowledge from their elders. The magic is not watching these movies but the ability to access movies from the Internet. Perhaps the medium is the message instead of the message itself – an adage criticized by writers like James Gleick in his recent book ‘The Information’.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove home from the site which was located in the countryside. I have been going to the site for the past five days, leaving home early in the morning at about 6 am. It was a pleasant drive back to the city after the go live success. I was listening to Jonathan Franzen’s book ‘Freedom’ in the car’s CD player. I went to the gym, biked for 40 minutes, had a dry sauna, showered and went to the library. I returned books, magazines, DVDs/CDs, and borrowed more. Initially I did not want to borrow anymore because I still had a lot of unread library materials. But it’s like an addiction – an addiction for information; for the new thing. Perhaps an addiction for magic (or is it entertainment?). One’s brain split open by newness; to be at the fore front in a green field environment. To satisfy the need to be a modern guerrilla, riding the wave of the new and subverting the old.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Acid reflux

In the early morning of Sunday, I woke with a burning sensation in my throat. It felt like my stomach’s acid has overflowed back into my mouth. Earlier, I had a large dinner of steamed dumplings topped off with fried pepper flakes and noodles. I have always over indulged my self with dumplings especially after having discovered the spicy delights of fried pepper flakes fried in olive oil. This evening’s immoderation proved too much for my stomach. Strangely I never liked this condiment in the past whether in Singapore or Bangkok. It’s a normal staple in Thai dishes and mixed liberally by the Thais in their food. In the Philippines, it first seemed like fried garlic seasoned with pepper when served in upscale Chinese restaurants like West Villa.  In Asia, this seasoning is usually placed in noodle dishes like ramen served with beef or chicken or maybe steamed chicken and garlic rice and, of course, steamed dumplings. But I never liked its hot flavors until now.

I started to like this spicy condiment only recently. Perhaps it’s an urge for spicy Asian food which I rarely get here in Southern USA. I usually get my fix with a trip to nearby Thai or Indian restaurants but the local adaptations are cooked with the American palate in mind (which means easy on the fiery stuff like chili and peppers). Mexican food is entirely different and lacking in the spicy Asian taste. One needs to make do with home cooking – buying Asian cooking ingredients in the nearby Vietnamese food stores. Most of the Asian groceries are either Vietnam or Indian because Chinese and Japanese dishes have gone main stream. Chinese and Japanese ingredients can be bought in supermarket chains like Wall-Mart, Bi-Lo and Costco. But there is also a wonderful Japanese grocer nearby where one can buy authentic Miso soup, soba noodles, Wasabi and Soba sauce.

This brings us back to Asian or perhaps South East Asian dishes that one tries to cook at home. Ingredients for Philippine, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese and Singaporean dishes can be bought from the Vietnamese grocer along Wade Hampton Boulevard (belonging to refugees from the war). It is about a 30 minute drive from home. So we get to eat Asian fare like kare-kare, green chicken curry and chicken in red curry sauce. The ingredients for dumpling can be bought anywhere but the application of Asian style cooking is the key. In Singapore, one could have a multitude of different Asian dishes any time of the day. Now one has to have a special occasion to have Asian food usually American style Chinese or Japanese food. So one cannot help but indulge whenever the opportunity arises. Hence, my recent problem with acid reflux.  Of course, the problem is not the type of food but really the overeating due to my culinary nostalgia.

One’s metabolism seems to have gone sluggish with Western food – a diet with more meat, bread, potatoes, sugary pastries and sodas. One always had this problem; of bloating, gas and sluggish metabolism which one tries to fix with exercise, sauna and colon cleansing (via laxatives). But no significant improvement due to the Western diet and one’s overeating. So I have been reading Kevin Trudeau’s book ‘Natural Cures’. His views are similar to Dr. Andrew Weill and other alternative medicine gurus. I am following his suggestions by drinking 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar before each meal, taking probiotic supplements with acidophilus and taking dry saunas after exercising (instead of hot tub immersions). I also stopped my cholesterol medication and, soon, my high blood pressure pills to reduce my body’s toxicity. Instead, I will take Vitamin E and explore alternatives like chelation and liver cleanses. Reverting back to a simple diet like oatmeal and almonds for breakfast is also a goal. 

I plan to be more serious in doing Yoga and other physical techniques like Alexander and Fedelkrais method and continuing Tai Chi exercises to handle stress. I am starting to feel old as I get cramps while doing certain physical poses that were so easy to do before. Flexibility exercises are becoming more important with advancing age. It’s a different perspective which started with my reading of Andrew Weill’s work plus Buddhist and Indian philosophy.  One must adapt one’s mindset as one grows old. This weekend, I finished reading a book on Twitter and an article on Cloud Computing in Business week. It changed my perspective on the emerging technology trends. Business week is turning out to be a good magazine under Bloomberg. It’s a changing world so one needs to understand the inner and outer environment that one finds himself in.

Last Saturday, I attended a Toastmasters conference nearby. It was the second conference that I attended in my Toastmasters life. The registration price is much cheaper than in Singapore. Last year the main speaker was the Toastmaster president (a former aide to Al Gore) while the recent speaker was the 2008 speech contest winner- the first African American woman to win the award. She gave an entertaining and gritty speech – with sections that reveal her life as a Baptist minister’s daughter from Texas and near death experience due to cancer and lupus. She’s a true survivor, achieving a rare spiritual wisdom that one acquires from extreme hardships. The breakout workshops were also good especially one where 3 speakers from different generations spoke about their Toastmaster experiences.

It was a relaxing day as I drove in and out of the conference during breaks, going home to eat lunch, read and attend church; blissfully unaware of the coming acid reflux attack. I also finished ‘No Country for Old Men’ which is one of the best books I have read. I have now started listening to the immense novel ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen which is comprised of nineteen disks as compared to Cormac McCarthy’s seven discs for his classic on the drug trade. The book is actually a meditation on one’s choice of good or evil. McCarthy is more in the Ernest Hemingway mold – brief, precise and robust prose while Franzen is more in the John Updike mode – flowery, elegant and exuberant prose. Perhaps a compromise in style is more effective like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Vladimir Nabokov – both writers that I have fleeting knowledge.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Production Jitters

Is there anything more to do? One asks himself as the project goes live next week. It’s a question that haunts me as one is eventually responsible if things go wrong. But what is there to do? The application has been tested since last year. One estimates that the application has been tested for nearly 9 to 10 months. In one form or the other, the numerous components have gone through some form of testing. These cover the two main programs plus the ‘pipes’ that link it together. More over, two days of live production trials were conducted in the site via pilot runs. So one wonders if there is anything left to do. As always, the mistake is thinking that everything rests upon one’s shoulders. It’s the ego centric feeling of being the hero and, thereby, responsible for everything.

Perhaps it’s the last minute jitters that affect everyone. It’s a feeling that makes one think if one has tested everything, if all angles have been checked and so on. Murphy’s Law will strike as the business leader said. But it’s the ‘unknown unknowns’ that one cannot be prepared for. As Donald Rumsfeld said during the Iraq invasion, ‘stuff happens’ so one cannot really anticipate all events. One can only test those new features and areas which have changed. The quandary is that one is in a position that can be called to task. But in the back of one’s mind is a possible alibi. The alibi to end all alibis – that one is new at the job! One’s been here for only 2 years and one cannot expect to lead such a country specific project. In fact, one comes from Asia - a region as far away as one could imagine in terms of distance and culture.

Unfortunately, this is the game. The situation has come about that defense ramparts are manned by obsolete assumptions, guarded by the weakest tools in the shed. So one needs to outsource the battle to mercenaries who don’t care about one’s welfare but in how much money can be squeezed. But the mercenaries are nice people – good, law abiding, God fearing people who speak good English. It’s a game of chicken between retiring principals, mercenaries and crusading Asians. The other day, a checklist was made to go over all the things to be delivered. The list of tasks is significant once everything is listed in black and white. It was an exercise that allowed the leaders to gain perspective and get back control. The Asian anomaly has sputtered and reached an exhausted state. There’s nothing left so the carpetbaggers come to take charge.

Nevertheless, it was the true goal. To lead when appropriate and recede back into the shadows when needed – like a guerilla tactic when engaging the enemy. It’s like the term ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ a reference to the subtle tactics encouraged in Asian classics like Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’. One cannot help but recall these relics of Eastern strategy. One always needs a frame work for the politicking and behind the scenes maneuvering that one has to master to get things done. In fact, one has brought the project to a level where there’s no choice but for the real principals to step up. The current role is to retreat into the background and allow others to take charge. Everyone has a stake – they have ‘skin in the game’. In this sport, tactics range from Asian strategizing to Southern diplomacy.

Yesterday I missed the lecture I wanted to attend in the library. It was about civil rights. But the schedule changed and I spent the time browsing DVDs and books. I ended up borrowing 2 books on civil rights and 10 DVDs on various subjects. The library seminars are part of the campaign to have people reading Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’  I watched the movie and listened to her lecture. I hope to listen to her book after I finish ‘No Country for Old Men’.  Sue Monk Kidd talked at length about the Southern Gothic Novel. As explained to her by an eastern book critic, the Southern Novel contains distinct elements. I don’t remember all but I seem to recall the following: civil war, slavery, Christian religion, conflict among the characters especially one’s own kin and civil rights. It’s an interesting perspective in understanding the South.

This weekend is the Toastmaster conference. I felt a bit weak this morning and had doubts on attending. I drank an energizer drink, aspirin, multi-vitamins, Ibuprofen, Gatorade, ascorbic acid and Omega 3 supplements. In the afternoon I felt a little better but still have loads to do: follow up the remaining things to be done, perform more tests, and go to the library to get my reserved books, swim in the pool, attend the table topics contest and, finally, watch a movie in the evening. I think that doing a lot of stuff will keep my mind from churning and keep me from having anxiety. I just hope that one’s body can take it after sleeping less these past days. I guess I still have valid reasons to keep this schedule. Otherwise, going home and resting would seem like a retiring lifestyle. Perhaps that’s best after all.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Not so Bad

The project is moving along fine. It was not as bad as I thought. That goes to show that one’s churning thoughts often result in paranoia. The go live date has been set for next week. Now the only thing left to do is have the systems ready for go live. Not everything is bright and shiny with a primrose path ahead. There are still lots to do and need to hang on and support production. I would think that the whole thing will stabilize after a few weeks. The challenge now is to get everybody ready to support the application. In other words, the stage has been set and the actors need to perform their roles. My immediate concern is to make sure that everyone knows his function. Actually this should be the concern of the director, but sometimes one wonders if the director knows what to do. In fact, I have been overstepping my job which is really the source of stress and anxiety.

But the situation has dramatically changed from defeatism last week to sunny optimism. We met these past days discussing the next steps and the directors are finally getting their act together. More planning, new worksheets and meetings with all concerned were undertaken. There is better direction and steering now. I guess they realized that one can only do so much. We are finally working as a team than ever before. There are a few concerns especially the main actors of the major systems. But communication is ongoing to keep everyone in the loop. I am doing more testing and hope all the other actors are ready for their coming responsibility. Stepping back from pressure and depression is the real trick to survive. One just needs to keep going despite the many obstacles that one faces. An important lesson for one’s kids.

Last Tuesday, my fiction writing class had a field trip at the city park. It was a nice sunny day and a few of us where lost so we wandered around looking for the others. But it was a nice walk in the grounds beside the stream and waterfalls as the river made its way through the park. Finally, we called our professor and met with the rest in a cafĂ© near the park entrance. We talked about our topic for the day and got to our writing assignment. The professor had to leave at 6pm but we continued writing and one of the student’s husbands, also an aspiring writer and former student in a previous class, continued to lead. We read our work and exchanged feedback. It was a good day all in all and I read the assigned chapter when I got home. The field trip brought my spirits up especially with the turn around in the project’s fortunes.

I have been trying to catch up in my paper work now that I finished filing my income tax return. I review my pending papers, try to resolve them, pay the bills and check my paper mail. I try to do these tasks in the evening or during some free time at work. I spend too much time enjoying myself by reading and watching movies that I neglect my paper work. There’s just too much paper floating around that one needs an efficient system to keep track. This coming weekend there’s a Toastmaster conference nearby and I am debating whether I should attend. I guess I should because it’s a rare time that the division conference is held in the upstate. I have been doing a lot for Toastmasters recently. We just had our weekly meeting last Wednesday. So I had to find time to organize and arrange the gathering since that’s my role in the club. Though I often have doubts, these activities actually help me grow and I should be more appreciative.

I am listening to ‘No Country for Old Men’ which is a great novel. It captures one’s attention unlike the usual books one finds. It’s a good view on the drug problems in the Border States such as Texas. But it’s a classic tale of good and evil, greed and ambition and modern life with great depictions of its characters. Cormac McCarthy has a gift in portraying evil men – the Judge in ‘Blood Meridian’, Anton Shigur in ‘No Country for Old Men’ and the various cannibals in ‘The Road.’ A lot of his books were made into movies which go to show that Hollywood does pay attention to great America writers. Cormac’s work is often filled with dark, senseless and brutal violence as well as disillusion (see ‘Sunset Unlimited’). This dark vision is in contrast to Thomas Pynchon whose works possess an intense zany hilarity that seems to celebrate life.

These are great books worth reading. I am also watching Season Three of the HBO crime series ‘The Wire’. I consider it the best television series I have ever seen. It’s like watching a Shakespearian play mixed with Greek tragedy, filmed in gritty realism by a great Italian director but paced out into a Mexican tele-novella serial. It’s both realistic and imaginative with a great ensemble cast showing a city in its coarse microcosm. Reading Cormac’s work and watching ‘The Wire’, one realizes that it’s a whole new world out there. A world that’s more brutal and senseless than one can ever imagine; more sophisticated and organized in terms of its criminal elements. One wonders if decent life or civil society can ever survive. Except perhaps with the ruthless chauvinism of a fascist right wing where justice is dealt with the rule of a gun than from legislated laws.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The project is in temporary limbo. Last week, the plan was to do a pilot test and go live but that did not happen. It didn’t happen because of a software bug and a delay in pushing an important component to production. Originally the plan was to test on Friday afternoon. But the folks at the business wanted an earlier date - on Wednesday and eventually on Thursday. But a patch was delivered on Wednesday and a bug was found which took a day to fix. Thursday afternoon came but the component was not installed yet. It took some back room negotiations to get the remote team to implement the move. All these work via network chat with folks in India. Meanwhile I conducted more tests after frantic phone calls to our Ohio support, having phone conferences and last minute dealings to get tasks done. I particularly like these behind the scenes action when time is of the essence – it’s like clutch play in basketball with the opponent leading and 2 minutes left in the game.

But the damage was done as the deadline was not met. It was Friday afternoon and we could have proceeded if the original schedule was followed. The schedule was changed because the business and other team members cannot leave a proposal as is. Everyone had to venture out an opinion. My mistake was agreeing to the early date. I should have been the voice of caution and restraint but instead followed the crowd. Strangely it became my decision, passed on by the project manager. A resolution I should have rejected. I should have requested a joint judgment so everyone has skin in the game – by being jointly responsible in agreeing to an early date. We were all eager to get off the ground. So the decision just steamrolled ahead with me as the unwitting fall guy.

The situation became worse even with being only a day late. After so many false starts, it gave the impression that we were not ready and the team was not doing thorough testing. I felt particularly guilty because of my missteps in agreeing towards an early deadline and foolishly accepting responsibility. Hence, it can be seen as my fault entirely. But the project is a team effort and everyone is responsible for rushing the decision. We met again on Friday before noon to re-group but the momentum was gone. By noon, although we were finally ready, having fixed the bugs and moved the component to production, the business avoided us. I guess they had eggs on their faces after working directly with the end users. So more testing is advised and we’re floating in limbo, waiting for some spark or new idea to get things moving again.

The blame game is subtly moving along. Some say the software is unstable, or that testing was not extensively done or the developers are not good or responsive. The bottom line: the project is not managed properly. About 3 pilot runs were conducted in the remote site and despite some blocker issues, the tests were successful. The test proved the software works. Like a proof of concept but late in the game as proof of concept are normally done at the start. Anyway tests have shown that it works and one just needs to iron out the blockers and get things moving again. At the end of the day, poor management is the largely due to recent changes in team’s leadership. Significant alteration in the key roles involving the top people, changes in the pilot site and departures of team members have taken their toll. In fact it’s a miracle that the project has reached this stage at all.

It’s a good thing that the pilot runs were completed. Otherwise, the business folks can use this setback as a reason to kill the project. It’s not personal – it’s just that these folks prefer the existing obsolete solution. Change will only bring aggravation and grief before stabilizing. It’s also a good thing that the pilot runs have allowed us to get approval from the big guns to go live. Now it’s too late and there is no turning back because every one has skin in the game. It would look like these folks are incompetent if the decision is reversed. Unfortunately, I am the newest member of the team and maybe the first to go if heads need to roll. But after looking at one’s chances, one can make calculations that the policy of diversity, employee respect and all around good humor will save the day. One just needs to show up for work each day.

The past weekend was another hectic one. The deadline for tax filing is mid-April. So one had to gather all the documents, make sense of the tax software, enter all the information and file the document electronically. But I had to clear my paper clutter, dig in and search for documents needed in the filing. I woke up early on Sunday morning and started sorting the clutter, throwing out spam mail, shredding documents to prevent identity theft, filing folders and putting aside the important ones needing attention. I still need to look for an efficient way to organize myself and de-clutter my life. The paper sorting was tolerable because I listened to the remaining chapters of Thomas Pynchon’s great novel ‘Inherent Vice’. A noir thriller about a dope smoking private eye in late 70’s Los Angeles, during Richard Nixon’s term - a thoroughly enjoyable work.

I spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening working on the tax filing, watching a Japanese movie while working, fighting a virus that attacked my laptop (and forced me to worked on another computer while the protection software waged war on the invader), scrambling to back up my files, eventually settling on Dropbox and doing a backup of important files into the ’cloud’. It’s a good thing that I choose the online option instead of installing the software locally. It would have delayed me for a day. During that hectic weekend, I managed to read 5 magazines that I had to return to the library and watched 2 movies. So despite the debacle at work, I managed to get things done. I also started a new book - Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men’. Despite having seen the movie, I always enjoy his work as he is probably the greatest American writer of this age, followed closely by Thomas Pynchon.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Khan’s Academy

During the weekend I watched a TED video that featured the internet educator Salman Khan. Bill Gates is actually the person responsible for spreading the word about Khan’s work by inviting him to TED. Although I have seen the app in Boxee, I did not have time to explore. The TED video was a good introduction to his academy. Last night, I watched a few videos about the housing conundrum and the financial crisis. I learned more about the housing crisis than all the books I have read so far. I could have saved a lot of time by going directly to Khan Academy than borrowing all the books on the subject from the library. Although the books do provide a lot of interesting background, the Khan videos are more like the foundation in understanding the main concepts. I guess one needs both resources to get the complete picture. This includes watching documentaries from PBS or NPR or films.

The documentary ‘Inside Job’ was also a good source on the financial crisis. It confirmed the lessons in the Khan video. Now one can confirm that everything is truly in the Internet. Previously one started to purchase education materials from a company that specializes on teaching courses. For example, I had purchased about 5 DVD sets on complexity theory, chaos theory, creative masterpieces, classics of modern literature, writing sentences and critical thinking. Perhaps these purchase cost a total of about US $ 500 dollars. One does not dispute the quality of these DVDs because these are real university lectures from well-known lecturers and professors. The courses are usually 40 or so hours each. On the other hand, the Khan lectures are micro videos of about 9-10 minutes each. Good length of time for today’s attention deficit age. It’s also a good challenge to keep lessons brief by focusing on the main points.

I also found some online lessons on creative writing. I think it was in the Open Courseware – another app in Boxee. I guess so far my investment in creative writing courses are in books, computer software like Novel Writing and attending workshops. Perhaps my total expenditure is about US $ 400. But more and more free resources are popping up in the Internet. The last event I enjoyed about literature was attending a talk by the author Sue Monk Kidd in the main library last week. She was talking about her book ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ and about the Southern gothic novel. The lecture was free and very educational. Her talk is the best so far compared to past events I attended such as book reading events with Anita Desai, Judy Picoult and Jennifer Niven (“Velva Jean Learns to drive”). These are good events to meet actual writers or novelist and realize these people are not special beings but ordinary hard working folks.

Nowadays one can see author interviews and talks in the internet. I have watched authors speak about their works after reading their books. Authors like E.L.Doctorow, Gillian Tett, Michael Lewis and other writers. One can get almost anything in the web and the latest tools like Boxee or Google TV or YouTube all provide the means to get them. An interesting hybrid is New York Times where one can get their Podcasts in Sony Dash, see their videos in Google TV or go directly to their website and read their articles. There is a consensus forming in my mind about today’s indispensable sources of information. This would include magazines Wired and Vanity Fair (as their web presence doesn’t provide the same level of detail) and New York Times in all it’s manifestation plus the TED lectures and Khan Academy. Other important sites worth going to are the following: The Economist, Financial Times, The Guardian and Washington Post. Also, YouTube as most of the videos are posted here.

So getting an education these days is practically free. Borrowing books, magazines, DVDs and attending free lectures in the library. Afterwards, accessing free content in the Internet. One can even visit art galleries and museums online. All these are free information flowing from print, video and audio sources. Watching good movies from NetFlix and other sites that offer free movies are great as well. But one needs to supplement this input with actual practice. One needs a venue to actually perform and practice new skills. Aside from ones actual work and life experiences, one can also participate in Toastmaster meetings and writing workshops although these events cost some money though not much. Nevertheless, it brings one into actual contact with the local scene – meeting aspiring writers and speakers and other folks with a similar life journey.

This is life in the modern age where a semblance of a future lifestyle is morphing into being. A lifestyle facilitated by new devices like tablets, mobile phones and Internet television. The computer or laptop is dead. Other new devices have not been invented yet perhaps in the same niche as Sony Dash. Revolutionary devices that will facilitate the changing media landscape from the traditional print and media format to new distribution channels that use Internet tools like YouTube. One is late in the game but new income and life opportunities made one able to return to geek status. To be wired into the emerging possibilities. One of the pleasures of today is enjoying the classic Baltimore cop series ‘The Wire’ (borrowed free from the library), watching Internet television, surfing the web via tablet or laptops and learning new things from TED and Khan Academy. But it’s still a passive lifestyle that one must actualize by travel, participating in workshops, writing books and meeting people.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

At Play

Writing is like being at play. At play in the fields of the Lord or where the spark of creativity resides in some divine space. The writing class last Tuesday taught me a new thing. Using a visual tool called the plot diagram. After some research, one learns that it’s a well-known tool taught to grade school kids. Now how could one miss this common tool? It goes to show how far one is from having a creative writing craft. It looked like the tools in the book ‘Writing the Natural Way’ which introduced a visual tool called ‘clustering’. This method is more like a mind map to brainstorming or makes associations with various words to write a paragraph. So one can make a series of paragraphs to eventually compose a chapter and finally a novel.

The plot diagram on the one hand is more a top view of the whole novel. One can construct visually the arc of the story. An interesting tool that uses both sides of the brain like mind mapping. I think it’s a good way to break through writer’s block. So I am glad to have proceeded with the writing class. It uses a great book - the NYC Fiction Writing course that is also available in the Internet. One never realized that one is so much lacking on the basic creative writing skills. The attempt was to achieve writing skills via the classic way – by reading tons of books. In my lifetime, perhaps I have read about a thousand books and one wonders how many books one should read to get that kind of creative writing proficiency. One of my fellow students said he read ten thousand books but it sounds like one of those empty boast that are difficult to confirm.

The class is every Tuesday evening from 5 to 6 pm. I arrived in the class from a disappointment. It was production day when we planned to go live. It was supposed to be D-Day so we went to the site early in the morning at around 6:45 am. But the software failed and blew up in our faces. So we went home dejected and sad. It was not a complete loss because I did my homework and attended the evening class. We also had meetings to define and put a fix in place by next week. At least, the issue was found at go live instead of sometime later during production. It would be humiliating to revert back to the old process after many days. This project needs its members to have thick skin especially in my department. The failure and sometime success in front of the users is a harrowing experience. It’s actually an exercise in humility.

The failure seems to indicate that extensive testing was not done. But based on the situation, one cannot help it with the changes in the lead roles such as project manager, business leader and platform head all within a space of a few months. We were in a state of flux so one needs to keep the momentum moving. In other words, play the game of movement. Now that the roles are filled, with new actors and egos, one is nearly back from the previous state of organized chaos. But challenges abound with enemies lurking in corners. There are those who are setting traps so one would trip over during inspired moves onward. Again there is no choice but to accept the challenge and sometimes fail and be bloodied. One should take the measure of one’s opponent to see what stuff one is made off. Hence, one hopes to show his stoic and heroic side.

Sadly it is the lack of courage and leadership that’s stopping the movement. Again the game is played to move ahead and keep the momentum going. There is no other choice so one should expect to feel the pain. Every man and his dog will take a swipe at you, charge you with additional expenses and accuse one of poor planning and preparation. Hence, the only option is to hit back with calmness and serenity in the face of adversity. One will not crumble and weaken like a novice. The game is afoot and one should be relentless. Perhaps it is an all-or-nothing play but one has the ball and one will run with it. At play in the fields of the Lord as one approaches the end game. But it’s a team play and one is leading the charge. It’s the best position to be in.

Now how does that relate to creative writing?  I guess one can say that one is a writer as my instructor said. Just be. It’s playing the game that matters. To know the rules and techniques like plot diagrams and clustering and mind mapping and all those tricks that help you along the road. It’s a humbling experience but also an exciting challenge to be in the game. One is glad that one can choose inexpensive ways to be a writer. Like Bill Gates said, one needs to have the commitment and focus and vision to achieve what he has achieved. To be a player in the game – to have the needed balls (or cojones) and the willingness to face defeat and pain and humiliation in detached coolness. Grace under pressure is the way Hemingway put it and one thinks that’s a good description of the challenge at hand.