Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Back Pain

Last week I spent 3 days at home, recovering from a strained back muscle caused by digging at my back yard on Tuesday evening. The pain and discomfort prevented me from going to the office so I did my work at home, not declaring sick leave although I did spend a couple of hours going to the doctor and buying medicine on Wednesday, the day after the incident.  It was a significant week in spite of my pain because we were supposed to go live in a project where I am still an analyst; but due to data discrepancy, the go live had to be postponed to the 2nd week of August. Originally the next date was in September under the assumption that most of the people in the France will be in their usual August vacation but it turned out there will be support during the month; a few members of the team went on vacation early so there will be people present to assist.  By Friday, the problem was addressed so everyone’s holiday was safe. An office wit remarked that threatening a Frenchman’s vacation will surely bring action.

Due to my injury, I got contractors to complete the work in my back yard during the week end; a crew of three people came over to lay down the tiles. But the ground was not leveled as I wanted and, instead, bought more sand to level the uneven earth, before laying the paver blocks and the red concrete tiles. The work was finally completed early Saturday afternoon after so many months delay due to the rain and my procrastination. Now I can play golf although I just bought a pergola and I plan to create a round flower bed with tiles with the help of the crew again. Last week, we also changed our cable to AT & T so quite a few changes: project done, garden tile project done, cable changed and a few improvement at home. Tomorrow I will have a standing desk by raising the surface of my primary work area so my work methods will surely change; standing while working will hopefully keep me alert and active. Some famous writers like Hemingway, Philip Roth and Churchill often work standing up; it is also expected to help me lose weight.

I will try visual thinking to jumpstart my novel, researching and watching video called visual thinking for writers, with the use of white boards and standing easel, techniques like mind-mapping and drawing will hopefully help me be more rational and less emotional when writing. As one of the speaker said, visual thinking gives you space to observe artifacts like drawing or index cards that one can arrange ideas or scenes in a novel, to distance oneself from the work. This maybe my last chance to be a serious novelist, having tried all sort of things, attending workshops and reading how-to books from famous writers. Now all the advice is passing me by. In a way, I am creating a new me, with my CPAP machine, my workout in the morning, my new job, new garden area, hiking and so on that it’s like becoming a new me. I have even tried Kundalini yoga in the weekend, a practice I intend to do regularly. I recall a sculpture who practice Tai Chi before doing work, to calm the mind and increase focus. Maybe that is the missing link, perhaps like Murakami running as a form of exercise.

Journal writing is also a form of meditation, as one tries to focus on one activity, that it becomes an entrance to creativity. I book I browsed this weekend spoke about doing a visual journal, anf one follows this activity by reflection and writing.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


A character in Haruki Murakami’s book ‘1Q84’ designates a new age when she noticed a change in a police man’s uniform. It was like the world had shifted and she missed the transformation; noticing that Japanese police men has new uniforms and high caliber weapons, no longer the quaint officer with an antiquated pistol. The character also missed the major event that brought about this modification, an assault against a highly equipped radical cult group in the mountains that resulted in the death of several officers.  Similar to Orwell’s novel, the world had shifted towards some new state which to Murakami’s character was un-noticeable until someone brought up the change in a bar. Sometimes I feel the same way, like humanity has moved towards a new turn and every one had adjusted except me. Perhaps that is what Murakami’s character had experienced, calling the shift ‘1Q84’. But these days, it’s common; all about revolution whether technology, politics or world events like the Arab spring.

The shift is evident in Jonathan Alter’s ‘The Center Holds’ about Obama’s re-election as president, highlighting the sophisticated data driven campaign the led to victory. Of course, his election as the first African-American is also change, as well as Obama care, same sex marriage, drone warfare, electronic surveillance and so on. Last weekend, I watched a video of a lecture from the London School of Economics by a Chinese official who now works for the IMF, where previously he worked in the Chinese central bank. He talked about the changing patterns of finance and the emergence of Asia as the coming giant in world trade and finance (especially China but with Japan and Korea). Times are a-changing as Bob Dylan would sing, but it is no longer an intellectual exercise but an actual reality. For the past several weeks, I am starting to appreciate tablets and its link to smart television via Google and YouTube, with access to new content like lectures; everything is being created for a mobile world. Perhaps it’s the shift everyone seems to be moving to.

At work, I am in a new role, though still bewildered despite being in this position for nearly 2 months, struggling with my former position, still working on a project that has not gone live due to several issues. I was optimistic, thinking my mind would handle the changes but like a conservative Republican, missing the mark; now one has to accept mediocrity, perhaps slowed down by age and the maturing brain. I lose track of emails, missing some deadlines and important information, not replying in time and slow in adjusting to the new software that everyone needs to use. Accepting change is not a concept but a reality of adapting; often dissolving into drink or mindless activity (surfing the internet or watching television or movies) that I have reached my own 1Q84. Perhaps this is the new totalitarian entity, the onslaught of change, bedevils GOP conservatives striving to inject vigor by absorbing libertarian ideology from the tea party. One wonders if the center will truly hold.

Actually embracing the change is the key, not the passive intellectual acceptance of its concept, by constantly being in motion, with no time for reflection. Tomorrow I will be traveling to Columbia for the district officers meeting, a new experience since becoming area governor, another new role in Toastmaster. More and more one realizes the benefit of quiet time, of reflection and meditation, whereas one goes to the gym or swim which merges meditation, physical activity and biological upliftment. This is the key to accepting change, where one needs a momentary pause, perhaps via yoga or Tai Chi or mindfulness but also by exercise, running and swimming so the mind is stilled or coursed with oxygen. I still have not finished my project of laying down tiles in my back yard, but already I am planning for the next project - a pergola where I plan to spend some evenings reading articles or watching video in my tablet while I enjoy an outdoor fire place and watching the sky. But when this tomorrow comes, one is confused and looking at the next future.

The antidote to a restless and anxious mind is music. One night I could not concentrate, could not focus on the book I was reading and wondering what do so I listened to Mozart, enabling me to read several chapters and relax. Another is to write; forcing the mind to focus and scribble sentences, but one cannot do so at work, so music is an alternative. I had thought that it was a distraction, but taken in the right light, can be soothing and calming. I guess it depends on the music that one listens too.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Electronic Art

Yesterday during the July 4th holiday, I watched several videos about Nam June Paik, seminars staged in the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, DC. It was a joy to watch especially the concert that Paik used to stage in his youth, in this case, a Japanese musician dragged a violin in the concert hall while amplifying the harsh sound interspersed with video clips from a camera located inside the violin as it was tugged across the room. The concert was called ‘Strange Sounds’ and it brought to mind so-called avant-garde art, a concept I had difficulty understanding until I watched the seminars. In the past I looked confused at samples of avant-garde art in the Singapore Art Museum, samples of video and electronic art, maybe even samples of Paik’s work such as the Buddha contemplating himself with the video loop and maybe various samples shown in screens or projected to a wall. I did not know until I watched the seminars that Paik pioneered electronic art in the 1960s though I appreciate the latest incarnations from younger artist today, who owe their work to Paik, who started it all, while expressing his admiration to the French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Paik’s work, especially examples like ‘Megatron Matrix’ are technically challenging, which require a technical knowledge most people don’t have, using electronic equipment that makes a statement about modern life and the rise of technology, making art that changes perception especially for people like me, involved in information technology. The modern artist no longer use the materials of the past; paint, canvass, dance, poetry, sculpture in their usual expression but integrates them in modern equipment like television, computers and the internet. It is the complex mix of all these media that make it bewildering until I started to understand Paik’s work. I sat entranced as I watched Paik’s ‘Megatron Matrix’ in the Smithsonian; similar to other people who looked mesmerized at Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings in the Louvre or Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel or his sculptures in Florence, like experiencing a revelation or a change in perception akin to reaching an insight.

It made sense that Paik was a Korean, who studied in Japanese universities and lived in Asia, Europe and US to achieve a leading-edge view; the title of the Smithsonian exhibit is ’Global Visionary’ – a title I agree with.  I think it would take a Korean or Japanese or even Chinese artist to lead the way to a new kind of art, especially with electronics where Korean and Japanese manufacturers are cutting-edge. Paik came from a wealthy family, whose father was an industrialist in the textile business, which gave him the means to delve into electronics and other expensive technology such as the Sony video camera that started his journey. He is now known as the father of electronic art; who coined the term information or electronic super highway. Asian artists like Murakami or even Kurosawa have a unique insight to modern times and Paik is the next Asian visionary who is helping people make sense of contemporary life. But one has to pay close attention to one’s feelings when looking at Paik’s work because it may seem mundane now that technology pervades every aspect of our lives.

I watched Paik’s videos and lectures in YouTube, the perfect outlet for Paik’s work, discovering a way to watch videos in my smart TV, seamlessly synchronizing with my Android tablet. It is a fitting tribute to Paik; to have this facility to be technically proficient; that one can create electronic art out of today’s equipment, a conceit one naively follows by buying the latest gadget in a quest to make life easier, productive, and smart (following Alvin Toffler‘s ‘Future Shock’). It’s a consumption led urge, a materialistic lust driven by marketing delusions peddled by companies like Apple or Sony, something that Paik alludes to, whereas his work provides a detachment; in order to understand this urge. He is the first visual artist who could relate to the modern milieu, similar to the works of William Gibson, whose books are categorized as science fiction and Haruki Murakami.

Perhaps today’s children will not notice or care because of technologies pervasiveness, that these modern manifestation are reflected in Paik’s art. In a way it’s helping one understand technology, not in the ‘walled garden’ of Apple but in the mix and match ‘free’ technology of Google, Android phones and tablets, a low cost but perhaps more difficult path when compared to Apple or Sony. Obviously it is the cheaper alternative, which brings one to Thomas Stanley’s work on millionaires – people who do not really spend a lot but look for cheap deals – preferring instead to buy most things in Wal-Mart. Hence, avoiding the media or marketing delusions that Paik alludes to; advertising that peddle the illusion that one must buy the latest and most expensive product. Stanley tell us to stop acting rich and live like a ‘millionaire’ perhaps like the old American mystics Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman who extoll the simplicity of life in the woods, subsisting off the land. I don’t think Paik was ever wealthy but he found bliss by indulging in his artistic passion that gives insight and liberation to others.
Avant-garde art is meant to break one’s normal patterns of thought, and Paik’s admiration for Duchamp makes sense because his art also breaks ‘normality’ by doing stupid or crazy things. Using technical equipment is an offshoot of the urge to change one’s normal thinking, to break out of the mental box. For instance, a normal concert would have musicians playing their instruments, creating music from a composer’s masterpiece. An avant-garde musician dragging a violin in a concert hall, emitting scratching sounds and amplifying the jangle maybe seen as a concert too because the parameters are the same. This was Paik’s starting point, being a radical performance artist, staging concerts with nude violinists before embarking into electronic art. By using new technology like electronics to express himself, working with the new medium to make art, adapting works like ‘TV Garden’ makes people uncomfortable because it requires an effort to understand. Once understanding is reached, insight is gained that changes one’s perception. Therefore new thinking is developed to make sense of complexity.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

4th of July 2013

I planned to work on my patio in my back garden but it started to rain. I hoped to rent a compactor to level the ground that I had dug up so I can place the tiles but the skies turned dark; but I was hoping that the skies would clear but the rain started to fall in  the early morning. Since working on this project, I started to have doubts after the physical realization that I am no longer young, spending hours during the weekend and a hour or so everyday after work, digging the earth to clear a 12 by 10 square meter area. Now that I have done it now comes the hard work of leveling the ground. It also took awhile to buy the materials: 120 tiles (12 by 10 inches) , 20 sand bags and other stuff needed to complete the project like mallet, back hoe, stakes, black matting to cover the earth, shovel, digger, wheel barrow and sand cement. It took several trips to Lowes to buy everything, often after work or after our Saturday hike, a period that took at least 2 months until I assembled all the needed materials. Then I started to dig, wondering why I started this project in the first place, underestimating the labor and effort required.

The story of my life: to start projects with an optimistic naivete, wondering if I did the right thing or if I overestimated my ability to complete the work, all the more alarming considering the manual labor required, especially since one is no longer young. It became a common theme in the recent weeks as I dug my garden, putting in the hours and working under the sun. Similarly, I am working on my new role, meeting more people, doing more work and wondering why I got to this position without more planning. I now go to work early at least before 8 am, often times at 7:30 am, leaving the house at 6:30 am or earlier to be at the gym. I wanted to exercise early in the morning so I could go home early to work on the garden, or work on my book or just watch movies. I was wasting too much time exercising after work, often a bit late if I needed to complete some tasks in the office, finding for parking in the gym, small talk with my friends and so on.Exercising in the morning allowed me to remove all those distractions, exercise and be at work early. Oil man Getty  advised that one should wake up early and start work early to get rich. Wise advice.

I could now wake up early after using the CPAP machine, after the machine assisted sleeping made me more refreshed with a restful night’s sleep unlike before where my slumber was disrupted by sleep apnea. So it seemed to come together: CPAP + restful sleep + early gym workouts + going to work early + increased work in my new role. This routine made me use my time wisely and more efficiently; less effort and wasted gas. Hence, a good night sleep is the key of the whole new me, a streamlined work - life experience. I would not have moved into thess multiple roles without the amazing machine assisted sleep device. A few weeks back I attended a Toastmaster training in Columbia, for area governor, a new role that I am also starting in July, where I need to visit other clubs, make reports and organize speech contests and leadership seminars. I reflected on all the new demands on my time, the new roles I have to play and many things I need to do: planning, organizing, meeting and doing the needed tasks. I would not have embarked on all these new adventures without all the learning + small changes done in my life to make it more efficient and productive.

I upped my game so to speak, where one needs to go out of oneself and engage with the surroundings, missing the introspective and solitary work of the analyst into the more extroverted role of manager. I needed a new vision of myself which now seems easy after all those meeting in Toastmaster and my experience at work; almost 18 years in the company, gaining all the technical skills to excel at work. For instance, I needed to do work in UNIX servers which I never have done before, working mostly in c computers, but seamlessly succeeding in UNIX because the technical skills gained in the past help adapt into new operating systems. This project is completing soon but getting too much of my time especially as I transition into my new role where I have to prove myself all over again. Its an all new world, new details and perceptions opening up that one did not notice before, where one gains new perspectives with new assignments. I guess it all started when I transferred to my new house last year; getting to know the neighborhood and adapting to new life patterns.

But digging into the earth as I worked my garden, feeling my physical limitations emerge and the loss of youth, I began to doubt whether all these new challenges are wise. The answer is yes. Once must change to grow despite the stress and pressure and one should adapt to the new challenges, it is not the new external circumstances but the change once must do internally in order to succeed. New opportunities are best experienced by the prepared mind, as someone said. The prepared mind plus the machine assisted sleeping and the vitamin supplements (ginkgo biloba, Valerian and st. John’s wort) + morning exercise are the external improvements that mean nothing without the internal changes. I re-borrowed the book ‘Extreme Productivity’ where I hope to learn new tricks. Yesterday was one difficult day where I had to complete many tasks: re-forecast my projects in the system, test the latest patch, present the accomplishments in a monthly meeting, attend other meetings with agitated colleagues, prepare reports and write emails with stiff deadlines due to the holiday. I wanted to relax today by continuing work on my garden but I need to login to check some emails and do some work.