Thursday, November 22, 2012

Being Overwhelmed

Today was a good day because I was able to do a lot of things, mainly because there were few people in the office, being the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday so less distractions in my work. I had a chance to respond to my emails, update problem tickets, follow-up on issues and coordinate activities on the projects I am working on. The quiet time also allowed me to plan and focus on the impending project milestones. It is 2 weeks away from going live on a project I am leading, not a big one but important for me as gives me credibility and a chance to improve my prospects. But I wonder if I am not too late as I have been busy supporting an application which was impacted by another major project going live in Reno. There were some hiccups but not tragic and we were able to recover. Hopefully, it will be better next week though one doubts because Monday will be the heaviest load of the week. Supporting this application especially during network or server problems has given me the biggest stress as well as destroy the strides I have been making with my other projects. I am thrown off balance.

The coming 2 days will be non-working days because of Thanksgiving but I plan to work at home to get things moving. The support team in Europe is working this week as Europe does not celebrate Thanksgiving so I need to correspond with the team if needed. I hope to do some work as well so I am not pressured and stressed out next week when there are more people in the office and when support issues arise. I finally used visual thinking this afternoon – mind mapping – to sort out my thoughts and clear my brain. I should have done it earlier but too much work and stress prevented me from doing this task. Mind mapping has always helped me by clearing my mind (like journal writing) but I am often lazy. I started by drawing the map by hand and realized that it was no longer enough, the plain paper could not hold all the associations and the coming revisions so I shifted to the computer application XMind. Finally, there is some ‘space’ between the tasks and the thinking process that allows me to be more relaxed and analytical. I should have done this much earlier.

The coming weeks will be hectic so I need to plan more and use visual thinking tools often. I will play golf in the coming 2 days to relieve some pressure in another way – by allowing the mind to focus on play while being competitive. I spent some time today trawling the internet and checked out a golf tool called Swingbyte which looks promising for self-taught golfers like me. I plan to buy this tool as well as a 32 inch HDTV, a camera for the TV to allow SKYPE calls and a bike rack which would all cost me about USD $ 550 thinking that I could get some Black Friday deals. But I am hoping to control my spending urges if I am going on vacation in California this December. I think the trip is important for my family, especially my kids so they can connect with their cousins and establish roots here. It is also important for my mental well-being because I have not had a decent vacation since April. The house move and the pressures at work had made me feel overwhelmed but somehow I managed to muck along but not efficiently in some of my tasks. The end of the year is in sight and I am struggling to keep up and make sure I meet my objectives for the year.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Massive Open Online Course or MOOC sites are increasing since the success of, the first online course that attracted thousands of virtual students, an attendance record that cannot be matched by ordinary classroom participation., the online site where I am attending a couple of courses is an example, offering interesting courses like ‘Gamification’ and ‘Modern Poetry’ and conducted by known professors from Ivy League colleges. The attendance record of thousands of students in a single ‘virtual’ class is enough to make any professor happy. Inversely, people like me have a chance to attend Ivy League classes remotely and for free. This is one of the most exciting outcomes of the internet, by engendering the possibility of educating thousands of people without cost, no matter where they live. The courses I have attended so far are well-made and extremely educational; unfortunately I am unable to do the homework or exams thereby minimizing any further benefit I could have enjoyed. But it’s still a great experiment in the democratization of knowledge.

I spend most of my free time attending these courses; last night I attended 2 lectures on investment and world history while this morning before going to work, I attended 2 lectures on design artifacts, a new course I am excited about - being a new topic for me.  I just finished a course on modern poetry last weekend, done well by an erudite and charismatic professor who led the lectures via a discussion group with students from the University of Pennsylvania. An article I read yesterday was critical of MOOC, offering the view that the ‘secret sauce’ of live classroom attendance is missing, where the interplay of student participation and teacher interaction is like a jazz ensemble, where a gifted teacher can really shine and provide a unique experience to the attendees. But this was disputed by the writer saying that the best courses he attended in college were done by student trainees or teacher assistants. Anyway the professor of gamification and modern poetry were exceptional, as I felt I was in the presence of someone unique and engaging. My only problem is that I am attending too many courses like attending college full time while working full time.

But the future of education is here and I am glad to experience first-hand, but it’s a curse for someone like me who can accept a lot of input but without the discipline of focus. I am stimulated by new things but I don’t know when to stop, though one benefits from being educated with the latest knowledge. One needs to synthesize all these data to survive or drown in an avalanche of facts. I wonder if I am stressing myself too much by treading too much on the new, where there is no stability of the routine; the serenity of the common place and the mundane. It’s the same at work when one jumps from one project to another, while others keep doing the same thing over and over, being experts in their field (hedgehog) while people with different projects flit from one different task to another (fox). So to synthesize all these knowledge, one needs reflection and journal writing, visual tools to make associations, physical exercise to improve cognition and, most importantly, to sleep and allow the sub-conscious to process the new stimuli (and rest the brain). But since moving to my new home (a stressful event in itself) I seem to have increased my capacity for the new, a survival mechanism in order to live in new surroundings. Perhaps MOOC is a way to give people the ability to survive in the modern age where knowledge is important, but an addiction for people like me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Listening to Books

I have been listening to books non-stop since moving here, taking advantage of my commute time to and from the office; as listening is more efficient than reading plus saving one’s eyesight. I also bring audio books with me on my vacation or business travels, listening while on the plane or during road trips. This brings interesting memories of my trips that merge with the surrounding scenery and with the story that I was listening to at that time. For instance, I listened to Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ while driving along the Pacific Coast highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles so memories of the highway, the mountain side roads and sheer cliffs, the ocean, lonely roads and bridges;  are linked with Kerouac’s story and vice versa. Similarly, recalling Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Enchantress from Florence’ brings to mind the desert between Flagstaff, Arizona and Los Angeles as I was listening to this book while driving home with my family after a visit to the Grand Canyon.

My daily commute is suffused with my images of scenes in  the recent books I read: Ha Jin’s ‘A Free Life’ and ‘A Good Fall’, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘The Angel’s Game’ and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s ‘The Storyteller of Marrakesh.’ Ha Jin is a particular pleasure as he writes about the immigrant experience especially the Chinese of running small restaurants in strip malls in the South like his hero depicted in ‘A Free Life’ who managed a restaurant in the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. Since reading his book, I can no longer look at these Chinese restaurants the same way, as if a curtain has been lifted and I could envision the owner’s struggles as they work hard for a new life in the US. Since coming over I have been sensitive to stories of immigrant experience that I have enjoyed stories by Jumpa Lahiri in the ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ or watching the movie ‘The Namesake’ adapted from her book.

Recently, I bought a couple of books by Carlos Bulosan who also wrote about his migrant experience in ‘America is in the Heart’, a book mentioned by Ha Jin in one of his short stories in ‘A Good Fall’. Bulosan maybe one of the first writers to write about the Asian experience of moving to the US, probably the first writer of Asian migration as previous stories should be the Chinese coolies who were ‘Shanghaied’ to the West Coast to work on the railroads. But the Chinese workers often dream of returning home to China and, more often than not, do so but a considerable number remain as seen in the large Chinatowns like in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the cultural tendency of the Chinese would be to lie low and continue speaking their language and remain below the surface considering the racist attitudes of the time. On the other hand, Filipino immigrants would be versed in English and steeped in the lessons of American individualism and Hollywood movies to be confident in expressing themselves.

I also bought Carlos Romulo’s book ‘I saw the fall of the Philippines’, a work I enjoyed being a first-hand account of the fall of Manila, an articulate narrative from a reporter who eventually became the head of the United Nations. I have been buying a lot of books by Filipino authors but had not read them yet but most seem to have a tinge of internationalism. For instance, ‘Global Filipino’ by Jose De Venecia, an autobiography of Jose Rizal and the novel ‘Illustrado’ which all have stories of foreign travel and experience. Perhaps that’s the story that needs to be told of my country – a travel abroad to find oneself because circumstances are not right for self-discovery and growth back home. It’s only when one travels that one develops especially coming from a third-world country. It’s sad that most Filipiniana books are not available as audio books so one needs to visually read them.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Modern Poetry

I have been attending a course on modern poetry, an online class available in the website Coursera, featuring videos where an esteemed professor and his students discuss specific poems, a highly effective format in understanding today’s poetry. The session starts with the usual greats: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson and Robert Frost then moving on towards poets in the 40’s, 50s, 60s and so on. The sessions on the today’s poets offer an interesting glimpse on the different modes of expression. For example, one poet takes pictures of things like card catalogues, or folded pages in a book; arranged by the poet-photographer to elicit a kind of poetry from the materials or words at hand. Hence, the distinction between photography and poetry is blurred as the artist fashions her work on these materials which require the literary skill of a writer and the visual-technical skills of a photographer. Others recite their poems in a sort of performance art where poetry need not be written but listened to.

These people are not your father’s artists – now using different modes of expression with today’s technology. Last week I watched a video series from PBS called ART:21 about artists in the 21th century. An interesting show where people like Richard Serra or Maya Lin were presented – artists who combine the discipline of architecture, sculpture and social service with their work. It seems that today’s artists are multidisciplinary – adept at different modes of expression as well as having expertise in different fields. ART:21 focused more on visual art while the modern poetry course focused on literary art but the main theme seem to be the emergence of multi-disciplinary artists. What does that say about the modern age? Does it mean the university’s focus on specialization is no longer valid? Instead a more generalist frame of mind is needed – a master of all trades? Hence, the fox is triumphant and not the hedgehog.

Art is supposed to act like a canary in the coal mine – to give signals of the subtle changes in society and culture before the change becomes apparent and widespread, where artists act like shamans who proclaim an emerging trend before it becomes reality. Perhaps that’s the lesson of the recent election where the incumbent (writer, community organizer, offspring of white and black lineage, who grew up in Asia and US, senator and president) is a mold of diverse mixes against the challenger (Mormon, scion of rich and successful parents, brilliant and technocratic, self-made multimillionaire and white) – a man who seem to embody traditional values, the John Wayne generation that’s receding from view. The incumbent won perhaps because his team was more attuned to today’s diverse electorate than the challenger who seemed wedded to an older model. One seem to evoke poetry while the other an efficient machine.

The election result was met with vitriol and astonishment especially by the conservative establishment, as if the walls were breached by barbarians, like the world no longer made sense and the mix-up threatens the status quo. But the world now belongs to the multidisciplinary man, someone adept in different fields; he can make sense of the disparate threads swirling in today’s culture. White is black and black is white. Imagine a conservative attending an avant garde show, totally bewildered at the performance, preferring to stick to his own world of certainties while the changes sweep the world and upend his neatly constructed world. But there is freedom in change and one just needs to let it sweep through; this is the feeling one gets listening to modern poets like experiencing a breeze of fresh air.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mental Overreach

Last night I watched a 2 hour PBS special on Catherine the Great. The night before I watched a Bill Moyer’s special on ‘Capitol Crimes.’ Both are excellent DVDs that I borrowed from the library. I still have more DVDs to watch: mini-series on ‘The Kennedys’, on ‘Jennie’ (Winston Churchill’s’ American mother), another Moyer special about religion and politics, a special on China, golf tips, Burn’s New York documentary and other assorted films. Aside from these DVDs, I enrolled in six online courses: modern poetry, social networks, modern history, stock investing, digital artifacts and human – computer interaction. Aside from that, I am reading a couple of books on improving my golf score, magazines like Vanity Fair, Wired and assorted Home and Living magazines. On top of that, I wanted to participate in Nanowrimo – a November Novel Writing event and bang out a draft this month. Of course, the last task will never happen.

Aside from these activities at home, I am testing and managing a small project that expects to go live in December, engaged in another project that is more complicated and larger in scope plus helping support an application that went live last year. A heavy work load that includes starting a guild network, participating in Toastmasters (being the TMOD in yesterday’s meeting) and managing the blog site of the club – an activity I neglected for the past months. It’s no wonder that I seem dazed and confused, wondering if I am getting old with declining faculties but any fool can see that I am over booked. The stress of support is also wearing me down, with different staff in warehouses calling me, requiring me to drop what I am doing and work on the problem, solve the issue and coordinate with IBM. It’s no wonder I am losing my hair and looking stressed out. Add trips to the gym three times a week plus an occasional golf game in the weekend complete the picture of a busy life.

I invited friends over this coming Sunday, celebrating Thanksgiving a week early, with plans to smoke a turkey and deep-fry another one. A celebration to thank the Lord, re-establish friendship plus rejoice on the rental of my old home - relieving me of financial pressure. There’s much to thank for including the enjoyment of my new house plus other pleasurable circumstances. I just don’t know why I need to do more; perhaps to confirm my new conditions by learning a new fact or skill. Sadly, it does not help in my goal of completing a book. In other words I am procrastinating - diverting myself to other areas. Perhaps it’s a natural instinct to learn more and seek a deeper truth after achieving some success. But I neglected my journal writing which contribute to my mental fog, and returning to my blog has cleared my head somewhat. I feel I have emerged from a deep forest and into a clearing; after completing the home purchase, renting out my townhouse, proceeding with my projects and getting things done at work and at home. Unfortunately, I am not doing the right task of novel writing but instead making my time unnecessarily hectic.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reality Sets In

The election is over, one of the most thrilling and expensive spectacles seen today, a nail biting event for some that ended with an outstanding loss for the challenger (and the super-rich), all the more amazing considering that about $ 800 million was spent to unseat the incumbent and grab control of the upper chamber. Instead, the data driven campaign of the incumbent functioned like a machine, each tasks meticulously planned in advance and executed without emotion, like a leviathan inevitably succeeding due to its massive movement.  Wealthy conservatives were astounded: people like Donald Trump, Jack Welch and Karl Rove were victims of reality as the country moved towards the Democrats despite their best efforts to engineer an upset. But their forecast was not supported by polling data, the incumbent leading in all the swing states, notwithstanding the poor performance in the first debate, a well-planned ambush that triggered a sudden move to moderation by the challenger. All for naught as the fundamental truths have not changed despite the horse race in the national polls.

Until now I read everything about the election despite its completion last Tuesday, a political junkie forever enthralled by the analysis of the pundits, borrowing more books and DVDs to deepen understanding. Last week was a milestone for me: the election and victory of the incumbent, the completion of a network event where I delivered a short talk (less than 5 minutes), installation of software in a new environment, significant progress in my other project, golf in the weekend plus watching the new James Bond movie. Life in the new house is also pleasant, more space – physically and mentally, where everything is where I had planned as if all my past furniture was bought for this particular area in the new home. It’s as if everything is now falling into place that I realized that my physical journey has ended. The journey started with my move to Singapore in 2002, living in a condominium (5 years) then a government flat (2 years), then my move to USA; living in a townhouse (3+ years) and, finally, a purchase of a house that I feel I have turned full circle.

The remaining mission is to complete my journey and be a novelist. It’s like the year is settling toward a predestined conclusion: becoming a project manager, completing the projects planned for the year, progressing as a Toastmaster (35 speech projects), visiting New York and meeting old friends, moving house and finally being a writer. The political victory of the incumbent was like a talisman, someone I had studied for a while, reading his books and following his career plus the political events of this country – an activity I have been doing since my youth, before moving here and, finally, witnessing first hand – his growth seeming to mirror my own meager progress. I have learned enough that nothing will add or detract from what I already know – it is no longer the numerous factoids that interest me but the living of life. But serenity has not come yet; I have trouble sleeping recently, my mind churning with ideas that I am forced to meditate; to control my thoughts but to no avail. I seldom do my morning Tai Chi, leaving early for the rush to work, losing sleep; mind and body persisting in disequilibrium – preferring imbalance than balance; thus preventing a return inward.