Thursday, August 15, 2013

Writing is the Cure for the Restless Mind

I compared my blog to another made by a young lady who I met long ago, very briefly; a transplant from the mid-west to the Carolinas.  She worked in a book store that fronted for a creative writing organization, sponsoring writing seminars to build a community of creative people in an old city, missing the industrial growth of other counties in the upstate. She took creative writing courses in community and state college back in the mid-west, writing poetry, blogging and focusing on essays, offering her service as an editor. She is a free-lance writer and editor and I liked her friendly, easy attitude, her free spirit in the way she explores her surroundings in the Carolinas. Her blog is refreshing and down to earth as compared to mine which is more abstract, intellectual and full of pretension. Hers on the other hand, is homey and without affectation, expressing a simple outgoing spirit that is characteristic of the very best of young idealistic Americans.

Her experience may seem similar to mine, starting a blog close to when I did, writing to find oneself and to practice writing, expressing her travels and explorations of the things around her, especially her dog and nature, writing of her journey to the South. At nearly the same time, I moved from diary writing to blogging, hoping to learn about the new digital landscape, writing about travels in Asia for my work and recently transplanting my whole family into the American South, a few miles from her new home and meeting a year or so after my arrival in the New World, encountering her in my application to attend the writing seminars that her organization sponsored. Her response to my queries where direct and open via phone and email, and finally confirmed when I actually met her during the workshop and attending a lecture she conducted. I found her petite, charming, similar to my sister, without airs but with a deeper substance belied by her seemingly innocent and naive demeanor.

Much later, I discovered her blog which was very interesting, especially her hikes in the mountains with her dog, camping, discovering rivers and waterfalls, trails and beaches. I admired her sense of adventure, her opportunity and courage, something I envy and would have wanted to do myself; to hike and explore the outdoors if not for my work and family. Her writing was immediate, without the fancy ornamentation of my own, without my high posturing ideas, focusing instead on the immediate circumstances. I, on the other hand, write for therapy, to keep sane amidst the pressures of work and too much activity, dashing out sentences like reading while riding a horse, while she polished her sentences in deep calm and seeming serenity. On contrast to the unleashing of my demons, my fears, my ideas and the all-encompassing feeling of superiority that one gets living in major cities, spending money on silly adventures, getting drunk and having fun; instead of the unpretentious life in rural America.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In a Bar on Friday Night

It was an interesting weekend, starting with a real estate lecture on the early evening of Friday after work, delivered by a group I have not heard of, looking like a scam at the start, which seems to be more of money laundering scheme by the mafia, but enjoying the lecture nevertheless with an office buddy. Afterwards we walked in downtown, the streets filled with merry makers with a band playing, beer sold in the street, people milling about enjoying the music, while I drank beer. We saw some people from the office, chatted a bit, and proceeded to a bar recommended by a friend, waiting in line because we had no reservation, finally entering after waiting for 20 minutes in the curb, and entering into a piano bar with great music requested by the audience. We had fun listening to the music, enjoying the antics of the singer and piano player, and enjoying the crowd as they clapped, danced, swayed to the music and drank beer. I had a couple of drinks with my friend looking at the beautiful audience, and leaving satisfied at past 9 pm, reaching home by 10 pm for a late dinner.

The next day, I attended a conference call on Saturday morning, listening to the business team go over the problems of the go live project, and deciding to stop the roll out due to an incident that occurred yesterday morning when another system sent out wrong data, sabotaging an otherwise good launch. It was decided to resume another call in the afternoon, while I had lunch and drove for nearly an hour to Musgrove Mill State Park to listen to the lecture on the battle, listening to the stories of the American commanders who fought, afterwards walking in the forest trail from the other entry way to get a different view from the previous hike I took last week. It was an enjoyable day, returning home and preparing for mass while I called in for the 2nd conference call for the day, suggesting possible plans of action, sad that the go live did not go ahead as planned. After church, we went back home, had dinner and I watched a beautiful Turkish movie called 'Journey to the Sun', a good compliment to the book I recently read on the Middle East amidst the Arab Spring.

On Sunday, we had lunch at Robinson Lake, the weather was good but our picnic was spoiled by the buzzing flies which prevented us from enjoying our lunch of fried chicken, Thai tom yum soup, Palabok noodles, hot Thai vegetables, apple cinnamon pie and custard. But we made the best of the situation, delight in the pleasant afternoon, looking at the lake, exchanging stories and leaving before 3 pm as the sound of thunder and rain came across the horizon and as dark clouds traversed the lake. We got home before the rain, watching You Tube videos about politics, healthy aging and New York Times videos. I went to bed at about 11 pm, woke up at 6 am, and went to the gym and arriving at work by 8am, right into the midst of a problem in the warehouse, unable to print the shipping labels and jumping to action straight away.  I could not attend a meeting scheduled in the morning, instead solving the problem, talking to the warehouse, and printing labels while attending the urgent meeting by phone about the Saturday fiasco, identifying the problem and creating an action plan. It was fun working in trouble shooting mode, helping users but by late afternoon, the tempest has passed and back to work with the tedium of my regular assignment.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Extreme Productivity 2

I now realize that I have been offered a unique opportunity. Previously, I cursed the situation I find myself in, much more busy than in the past, but proud to conserve one’s free time for reading books and watching movies. In my new job, I see that this predilection for recreation or escape is no longer possible; therefore I can either slide by, winging it, or hunkering down and doing a swell job. This means working more than 8 hours, striving to be the best and doing whatever it takes, maybe even working on weekends. This seems to be the case as the normal hours no longer suite me and the work that needs to be done. A change occurred at midnight, where the rules of the game suddenly changed and no longer fits whatever education or tricks one has learned in the past. I saw that when I watched that TED video where the speaker emphasized on the changed world.

It is like that character in Murakami’s book ‘1Q84’, who wakes up one day and sees a familiar world, but with slight changes that make her realize that there has been a subtle shift, like having two moons in the evening sky. I guess that has happened to me when this new job was offered to me, thinking that I can just do what I do but with more efficiency, then realizing very quickly that the old ways no longer suffice. My reaction was perhaps trivial; going to the gym in the morning, requesting for a stand-up desk, using the white board for a to do list but quickly realizing that these improvements are cosmetic. In the book ‘Extreme Productivity’, the author said that one must sleep a full eight hours every day to be refreshed, so that would mean that I should be in bed by 10 pm so I can wake and be at the gym by 6:30 am. Often times I persist on my schedule, watching movies or reading books up until 11pm or 12 midnight; coming to work slightly dazed which the standing position at work does not help.

But working standing up has its benefits, it keeps me alert and focused, but more effort is expended, which makes me tired when I get home. Therefore, the change should be deeper and serious, go to bed early, and work more than eight hours including weekends if needed. I guess I have also grown tired of watching too many movies, it only causes the mind to keep moving; one should no longer strive for the ‘super mind’ as one would say ala Sherlock Holmes. The time for silly things is now over as Obama would say to the ideologues in congress and I guess that means me, too. But I have been handed this opportunity and there is no other option but to excel. Clearly, working in the office is not enough with the allotted time, especially with all the incoming work; the volume has increased and requires superhuman effort to be on top of it all or at least until one gets used to it. There are just too many things to do like one has crossed over into a new world where the rules have changed one midnight.

Will there ever be time for me to write? I guess the solution must be systemic; to apply all those tricks in the book ‘Extreme Productivity’ and being aware of the time, there is really no more occasion for childish things, perhaps to allot just an hour each day at home after dinner to do some work and perhaps another 2 – 3 hours during the weekend. There should be clear tasks to do like updating the enterprise PM program, replying to emails and doing whatever still needs to be done like updating the incident ticketing system. The easiest thing to do is to stop watching movies, lessen the borrowing of DVDs and just reserve that for the weekend. I still have not used my electronic gadgets like my tablet for my to do list, but it should be something that I can do easily. The maid obstacle is still the mind which keeps jumping up and down, distracted by whatever it see around. But one still needs to be bold, to throw caution to the wind and initiate the work to get things done; therefore discipline, courage and hard work; that age old triumvirate still rings true.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Stuck in the Moment

One is stuck in the moment, unable to move, unused to the bustle like a fish out of water. Imagine a reflective sort of person suddenly thrust into the role of the man of action, a reluctant participant in the game. I guess many are that sort of person, lost in the contemplative life and adrift in a constantly moving environment. When I asked the former manager, he started shadow boxing, trying to show that one needs to keep punching, basically moving without thinking, just striking out as the assaults come in. I guess the delay is caused by one’s momentary doubt, unsure of the next move. One has been here for nearly  four years, known new people and new circumstances, aware that one has worked all over the world as the supervisor said to him, so the expectations are high, of one who is experienced. Adaptability is one asset but the skill to lead intuitively or maybe acting creatively to resolve a problem is the key ability.

It is the same thing for writers, to boldly go forward without thinking, following one’s gut feeling so to speak. Someone with supreme confidence will excel, I guess like ‘winging it’ is the phrase. But unfortunately one procrastinates, listening to music to calm the mind, or write a blog entry which some writer has said is meditative in nature, the focus towards a single task. Indeed writing is like meditation because of the focus  involved, possibly the important thing is to control the mind so one thinks better and not allowing the ‘monkey brain’ to panic, revisiting scenarios like a broken record, the needle stuck in a warped groove. This is the problem in its stark reality, the confused mind running like a headless chicken, all over the place, like Mel Gibson’s character in the movie ‘Conspiracy Theory’, babbling like a maniac as his psychosis works its way through is crazy course.

One must not be afraid to make mistakes as there will be many, and one must not stay in one position but to be constantly moving, with this I mean writing emails, talking to people, making phone calls, writing notes, updating the problem ticket and so on. It is to be in a state of flux, where time disappears and one just becomes the intended role. I suddenly realized that one must call himself ‘manager’ to get in the groove and raise one’s self-esteem, that one becomes a manager like an actor assuming a role. Perhaps to orient the mind into the needed stage, so the tasks become easy like water because one’s self-image has risen. Is it the same for writers? Assuming that the writing skill is there, one just needs to call himself a ‘writer’ and prepare the mind to be one. But being a writer requires more confidence, more creative skill than a manager, though both need to constantly move and evolve as the situation arises. As the EST creator said, ‘just be’ and all will follow.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Free Day

I woke up early today but did not go to the gym as I usually do in the early morning, instead going to work early to complete my personal assessment, meeting the boss man at 10 am but only to find out that he was not around and getting a request to re-schedule our meeting to tomorrow afternoon. The change relieved some pressure as I can take the whole day to prepare.  I did not get a good sleep last night, shifting my position to the other side of the bed at around midnight, thinking about this meeting in the dark but getting some sleep in the early hours before dawn. I was thinking about this encounter the whole weekend, apportioning some time to do some work, but neglected, due to a visit to Musgrave Mill Park on Saturday afternoon, where a lecture on the revolutionary war was taking place. The rest of the time was spent watching DVDs particularly 2 DVDs borrowed from the shopping center on the way back from the park. Sunday was no better with the arrival of the pergola I ordered and consumed most of the afternoon until the evening with my wife and son helping me set-up the structure. But the real issue is the self-destructive urge to keep borrowing DVDs, books and magazines that sabotages any free time in the weekend.

My mind was focused on the seeming threat posed by the boss man, driven by the grilling during the Friday meeting, and some emails which my mind interpreted as hostile to my career, seeing ghosts of the past, of evil bosses scheming to get me fired, the mind going in overdrive while seeing all sorts of demons hiding in the shadows. Nevertheless, my outward demeanor may be calm, reading books and watching DVDs, without a seeming care in the world. The good thing is that my back yard project is nearly done, the tiles lain out and the pergola erected in the patio. The stress of setting up the structure, the pressure at work and other things like planning a picnic all seemed like a burden to me, like making too many decisions, like biting off more than one can chew, all caused stress, though self-inflicted. Sometimes it seems that I am over reaching though I now realize that I can ask help, instead of carrying the whole weight on one’s shoulders. I am picking up the noise and not the signal, as Nate Silver would say, to the detriment of my mental well-being, perhaps not performing the Bayesian method of probability (or perhaps doing so without my conscious awareness) which is like cognitive therapy performed statistically.

I finished reading Nate Silver’s book and Jim Rogers’s elegant tome for his daughters on life and investment, skimming through the illustrated biography of George Washington (‘The Indispensable Man’) and another one about America’s engagement in the Middle East. Last week was hectic especially the personal problems I had to address back home, calling Manila to talk to by brother and sister to discuss and advice on our parent’s care. It is not a good thing to be away while one’s parents grow old, not being able to help in their advanced years except to provide money and guidance. Perhaps this is the true stress that is weighing me down, lurking at the back of my mind, adding to my mental strain. Last night, after dinner, I sat outside in the patio, enjoying the cool air and the sound of the cicadas, the other insects in the trees making their noise, just listening to the hum of the forest and looking up to the sky. The effect was calming, though brief as I left to go upstairs and prepare for the next day, apprehensive of the coming meeting that never came.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Working in the Real World

The last several weeks seem to feel like liberation with the coming end of my major project; problems are fixed, the users are delighted, schedules are redrawn and now close to going live. But now the real world is coming with my new job, more responsibilities and tasks to do, with stiff deadlines. I just emerged from a rough meeting; no hard feelings just the proper brutalizing of the project manager, one just rolls with the punches. Now that would seem to be the normal way but it is really a new game where one needs to be light, emotion less and resilient. Previously, I liked my job, preferring to come to work early despite the harsh challenges; one should not have a thin skin. Happily I have friends to ride the shifting waves, rolling from one high point to another, discussing the quirkiness of each boss man; the matrix organization further causing difficulties. This is ‘no country for old men’ – the adage is turning out to be true. But I am the new ‘me’ – sleeping better and able to exercise more but the going will be rough as it is a new terrain.

I went swimming for the past 2 days in the morning – lolling in the water, enjoying something close to freedom, like that care free feeling of youth. I used to think that I could just fudge it, to breeze through work like it was something that one can just wing it, but now it’s the real thing with the boss men coming in to get you. There used to be just one or two hard men but now there are multitudes. Now I can see the edge and the cynicism that reeks in that I did not see before. It was a mistake that I had neglected, preferring to jump ahead and accept the challenges. Perhaps it is just feeling old, the way Obama comes in with the freshness of a morning breeze, and suddenly faced with the ideologues of the tea party, intransigent in their views, blocking any move forward.  Suddenly he finds himself working in the real world, his grace and lightness challenged by these hard men; unable to move with elegance as in his days of youth.

Now I find myself needing to work during weekends or after office; hopefully with better focus now that my main project is done. It was like carrying a heavy load since the project leader changed 3 times during my watch, heaving to drag the efforts forward, while the new guy gets adjusted; and now we are thankfully near the end of the mission. But the center will hold as Jonathan Alter’s book on Obama proclaims, shifting efficiently through the shoals of disinformation and disaster, successfully shepherding himself to re-election. Perhaps that is the way, to focus on the data and move forward with the way it should be, careful to avoid any emotional entanglements. The Bhagavad Gita says that one must not desire the fruits of one’s labor, just to proceed forward and do the job without emotion. This is ‘no country for old men’ and the trick is to continually refresh oneself with new ideas, exercise and sleep more and work more.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Signal and the Noise

Nate Silver book is a wonderful fact filled work that attracts you to read but lacks the interesting insight of Malcolm Gladwell or Nassim Taleb. Silver is like one of those interesting young nerds who spew out facts and interesting tidbits but fail to get to the point. Nevertheless his book is an interesting romp into the realm of statistics and probabilities. One sometimes needs to pause and wonder what he is trying to say amidst the anecdotes and stories that abound. He makes an interesting observation on people – following the common distinction between hedgehogs and foxes; alluding that foxes are good in probabilities, who are able to distinguish between the signal and the noise. It is interesting to note that distinguishing the signal against the noise is a cognitive function – perhaps the distinction between what is the right news to absorb as against trash. One would need cognitive therapy in cases involving psychological problems.

Distinguishing the signal from the noise refers to statistics specifically the probability that an event would occur. This would cover the whole gamut from weather forecasting, to polling in election, to predicting earthquakes to economic forecast. I guess it is trying to distinguish how failures in predicting and forecasting are due to receiving noise instead of receiving the proper signal. It is like saying that perceptive investors like George Soros or Warren Buffett are able to distinguish the proper signals and discard the noise to make insightful decisions that make a lot of money.  Therefore distinguishing the proper signal is like accepting what is true and discarding the trivial facts. It is the quest for truth, a bull shit detector, so to speak. In the realm of forecasting, the best method would be to get the consensus from a group of experts; this consensus often comes close to the final outcome. 

Refining one’s mental reasoning and perception is one way to hone the mind, to allow one to receive the right signal. Like Sherlock Holmes, one must develop a ‘global mind’ in order to have a superior deduction method that could solve mind boggling crimes. Hence, distinguishing the signal from the noise is not just a challenge of probabilistic reasoning or forecasting but a frame of mind. For economist like Silver, this would mean gleaning the correct insight from a mass of statistics or data, while perceptive people like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or any highly smart or perceptive people, who could discern the correct reality underneath the everyday veneer. Hence, one could also do meditation or self-reflection to achieve this frame of mind as compared to a nerd who could find meaning in numbers. The fact that the mathematical abilities of most people are declining especially in the USA as compared to Asian countries like Korea or Singapore make the matter worse.

Silver’s book then is like the work of the Dalia Lama or philosophers like Eckhart Tolle, who provides guidance on correct thinking methods. To control the mind so to speak, so that the person achieve serenity and mental calm. Silver work is the extension toward the field of probability and economics. It is like predicting the probability that a man will have a car crash considering his love of drink and staying late. It is like those truthful saying like ‘a fool and his money is soon parted.’ It is deducting the outcome following logical reasoning of a Sherlock Holmes, but applied in highly complex systems like the weather or economics or political elections where highly linked components work together within a large system, integrated together. Distinguishing the proper signal from this highly complex leviathan is the aim of Silver’s book. For investors, it would be another useful tool to make the right investment decision.