Dec 21, 2008

Office Politics ... Get Me Out of Here!

IT TOOK five months to crystallise my hatred for office politics. When I started work, it was something of a novelty, something to get used to along with the rest of the new job. Now, it's something that slows down work, makes it less efficient, and throws up occasional nasty surprises to be dealt with.

Playing the game is sometimes fun, of course. You can have a laugh about the antics people get up to. It helps if a colleague is sympathetic and sees things the way you do.

I wouldn't say the experience is worthless. It's forcing me to discover what kind of job environment I'd like to work in. When I'm faced with a job task or problem, I don't just like to solve it--I like to solve the general class of problems in that category, and discover and handle the root cause(s). I like to tackle a problem from the ground up, and if necessary, design a new workflow to handle it.

Unfortunately, I can only do that for the relatively trivial tasks which are given to me to do in whatever way I want. For more well-established tasks and duties, things which have been set in their ways for many years, all I can do is follow along doing exactly as I've been instructed--and maybe supplement it with a little more to make things easier in the long run. But in the short run, that always adds up to more work. It's almost not worth it.

I was never into Dilbert much before, but I did know what PHB stood for (Pointy-Haired Boss). After having experienced it for myself, I actually have it like a morning dose of coffee, and I have some consolation that, I'm not the only guy in the world who has to put up with a PHB.

Dec 7, 2008

Stupid Windows Mistake #1

I MADE my first stupid Windows mistake since buying a brand-spanking new laptop a few months ago. It's been running like a dream so far. But a few days ago I tried to download a movie on Bittorrent, and when it was almost done the video file refused to play--even on VLC--unless I went to a special website, downloaded a codec and installed it. Well, I fell for it. But even after installing the codec, the file wouldn't play. I took the bait and caught it hook, line and sinker.

Uninstalled the codec after that, but the damage was done. Past few days, some spyware has been randomly popping up Internet Explorer windows every few minutes, and a resource-hogging Internet Explorer process has been running in the background, restarting itself every time I stopped it. The dud antivirus program Windows Live OneCare failed to find anything, so I got AnVir, which was being given away for free just yesterday apparently. AnVir found some possibly-risky programs in the system, so I got it to rub them out. Then I got rid of AnVir--despite these annoyances, I still don't like having any more programs installed than I have to.

The problem didn't go away. I then installed Spybot Search & Destroy--given rave reviews by PC World--and it found and removed a bunch of tracking cookies. No actual software on my hard drive as far as I could see. Got rid of S&D too.

The problem still didn't go away. By today I was sick of lame-duck software and tried a different approach. Since it was Internet Explorer that was being continually started up at some random ad sites, I decided to get my firewall to block Internet Explorer.

The firewall in question is the slightly enhanced--and more or less easy to use--one that comes with Windows Live OneCare. I'm on a trial version of OneCare that'll run out in about a couple of months, so I'll have to get another firewall up and running then. But for now, this simple block is doing the job perfectly. After I killed off the last couple of Internet Explorer processes that were running, they didn't respawn any more. I guess maybe OneCare isn't so lame after all.

Nov 30, 2008

Viva la Paz

JUST saw Spanglish and loved it. Should've seen it a long time ago. Anyway. I'm in love with Paz Vega.

Nov 18, 2008

The Monash Letters #1

I SET up my Gmail account in Microsoft Outlook recently for easy access and found myself going through old emails that I'd written to family when I started university in Malaysia. Going over them, I was a little surprised at how many emails I had written--I thought I'd written much less than I had. Anyway, I'm going to post some of them here. I just think they're interesting reading. It's like going back in time and meeting myself three years ago.

22 Feb 2005

The international student office is very helpful. I can go to them any time and they will help me out with any dates, deadlines, fees or advice. So I'm not really worried about immigration.

The internet connection is provided by Sunway hostel free of charge.
Of course, it's really paid for by part of our hostel fees. I paid the hostel fees today, by the way. I had to pay RM 1,985, most of it a refundable deposit for my room. The rest was a semester's worth of rent. I have about RM 2,100 in the bank, a few hundred in my wallet, the USD 800 bank draft still being processed. So I'm OK for now. I'm compiling a budget right now, will send it to you guys as soon as it's done.

About drawers, I meant there's no drawer in my desk. There is one inside the cabinet and I keep all my important papers in there. As for the kitchen, there is a medium-sized fridge, and I've put a water bottle, bread, and a sandwich spread in there so far. Technically we are allowed to cook, but not using gas appliances. So a couple of my roommates have got together to buy an electric cooker and use it to cook some of their meals. If I want, I suppose I can buy my share of it and use it too. Right now I'm eating all meals except breakfast outside, keeping daily food expenditure about RM 5.

Had a very interesting time today. The heads of the various departments in the business school talked to us about why we should choose one major or the other. The head of the school talked about the way they expect us to study now (evaluate, critical analysis, synthesis, application, etc.). The student association made us play a couple of games afterwards, like putting on our shoes as fast as possible and striking various poses. Then they gave us a tour of the university building and we had a photo shoot and got our Monash ID cards.

I also allocated my timetable online, from my hostel room, a few hours ago. It works like this: we choose four units to take in the first semester and are enrolled for them. Then we go to the website and choose which classes and lectures we want to attend, by clicking the appropriate buttons. I'm attaching my timetable, so you can see what classes I have. There are lots of abbreviations in it, though. Things like ETW1000 are unit codes. For example ETW1000 represents Business and Economics Statistics. Something like Lt7 means Lecture Theatre 7.
TR3, Tutorial Room 3. 28/2-21/3 means 28 Feb to 21 March.

Tomorrow I have the Diagnostic English Test at 9:30 am (1 hour long). After that I'm more or less free.

Nov 9, 2008

How Did He Get the Crazy Idea That He Could Win?

THAT'S what I've been asking myself over and over again. Obama knew that he's special, but how did he decide to take on the institution of Washington politics to win the Presidency? I mean, what was the point where he sat down and thought, I'll actually get into politics, become a Senator, then after a couple of years, stroll into the White House. I've been obsessing over all this, as you can probably tell.

OK, so it most probably didn't happen like that. But I wanted to know more about the start of his campaign, so I did some digging in the usual serious news sites and found an excellent seven-part piece in Newsweek. Now I'm glad I waited until after it all ended to get my in-depth analysis of the election. Newsweek says the major three candidates allowed its reporters to follow them across their campaign--of almost two years I believe--and observe all the plotting and tensions first-hand, in exchange for their story appearing after the election.

It's gripping reading. I just couldn't stop reading it. (I did skip over a couple of the middle chapters though. Didn't want to read details of McCain's comebacks of earlier this year.)

Oh, and I found an amazing set of candid, election-night photographs of the Obama camp, taken while they were all waiting with bated breath for the results to come in. Here it is. Watch it as a slideshow.

Waiting, watching and hoping. This photo is from the photostream of Barack Obama on Flickr.

Nov 6, 2008

The Skinny Kid With The Funny Name

FEEL-GOOD exercise: Go to Then, scroll down the list of US presidents while reading each name. Finally, read the last name. It goes something like this:

George Washington


Thomas Jefferson


(aside: Benjamin Franklin was never a president? Surprising!)


Abraham Lincoln


the Roosevelts


... a whole bunch of other WASPy names ...

John F. Kennedy


Bill Clinton, the Bushes ...

and then ... BARACK OBAMA.

If I forget everything else that's happened in the US since its founding, I know that in more than 200 years, there's never been anything like this. He's magic, there's no other way to explain it. I hope that the confidence and the faith he brings out in all of us eventually becomes a virtuous cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of global recovery and progress. But in the meantime, I know he's just landed himself in the biggest fight of his life. But then, this is what every US president-elect should be thrown into.

Oct 26, 2008

Kids and School

I NOTICE something strange every morning as I go to work. I see kids of pretty much every age steadily walk to school--braving traffic and crossing roads, stoically and resolutely, come rain or snow. Much like Canada Post deliverymen when you think about it. Alone or in groups, with siblings or friends, walking long distances at 8 am, which was early dawn to me in my university years (i.e. upto last year).

And the strangest part is, the parents are nowhere to be seen. It's like the kids have been brainwashed into thinking they actually have to go to school!

Now take me when I was a kid. You'd need wild horses to drag me out of bed, a court order to make me brush my teeth, and both the carrot and the stick to make me put on my uniform. And if the car wasn't available to drop me off? Back to bed!

Kids these days....

Oct 25, 2008

Alexander & W.

WARNING: this post (probably) has spoilers for both movies.

I'VE recently found myself borrowing a lot of movies from my local library. I always thought borrowing movies made much more sense than buying, but never had an easy, well-stocked, and convenient library system to use. But now I've just gotten the hang of taking out stuff from the local library system.

Anyway, a pattern has emerged. I've been taking out movies by directors who've released new movies recently. For example, after Burn After Reading came out, I took out and watched the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowsky. Will write about that later, maybe. Right now I want to talk about the titular movies.

When W. was released, it was just totally new to me because I haven't been following upcoming movie news from Hollywood. I just learn about new movies from Roger Ebert's reviews. So I thought that W. seemed like an interesting movie to watch. And as it turned out, I did get to watch it last weekend in the cinema. Definitely worth the ticket money.

Seemingly by chance, I'd watched Alexander recently as well--I'd seen it once already but just wanted to refresh my memory. Had forgotten that Stone had directed it, but after watching W. something just clicked and I found that he was behind both the movies. So now, with the context out of the way, I can explain what I found similar between the two movies and their title characters:

First off, obviously, they both focus on a single person on his journey through life and rise to power. If you put the two of them in parallel and look at it like that, it's a very startling similarity. I don't know to what extent Stone wanted to do that consciously, or just ended up doing it because it's his style, but the similarities are definitely there.

Both their fathers are leaders. Alexander's was Philip, king of Macedonia and obviously W.'s father is an ex-US president. They both have something to prove to their fathers--that they're worthy of leadership. Stone tries to show that neither can take criticism--Alexander blows up at his generals when they question his decisions to marry a foreign woman, to keep pushing on into India; and W. angrily crashes his car when Laura tries to critique one of his speeches.

Another thing I noticed, and I don't know how symbolic this is, is that both have armies of conquest in Asia. Alexander in ancient Persia, and W. pits the US into a war in modern-day Iraq and Afghanistan, not too far away. Their armies probably would have crossed each other's paths several times if they were in the same time period.

Ultimately, Alexander is both a tragic and triumphant figure in history--he brings a taste of civilisation and unity to half the known world, he wants to emulate Prometheus, who brought fire to mankind--but it all falls apart after his death. In W., President Bush and his inner circle are trying to bring democracy to the Middle East--they see themselves as lighting a fire of freedom that will spread throughout the region. So what if they really want to secure a continuous supply of oil? As Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) says of Alexander, 'no tyrant ever gave back so much'.

At the end of the movie, in a dream sequence, we see W. tilt back his head in expectation, trying to catch a baseball that's just been hit, the crowd going wild--but the ball never comes down, and the sky is pitch black. This tells me that we've yet to see the outcome of his tenure.

Of course, we have new information since the movie came out, and it doesn't look too good.

Oct 19, 2008

Wrong Answer Every Time!

Just found this awesomely hilarious joke. I think it's safe to say that with each question in the joke, I got the wrong answer every time! :-)

Hello Mr. Warren Buffett

This is an old one......but, nonetheless, a "beauty" & is "brilliant".............!!!!!!!!!!!
I bet, you will enjoy reading this.......!!!!!!!!!! And for sure you had all the wrong answers for it...
Beautiful Madam was having trouble with one of her students in 1st Grade class.
Madam asked, "Boy, what is your problem?"
Boy answered, "I'm too smart for the first-grade. My sister is in the
third-grade and I'm smarter than she is! I think I should be in the 4th Grade!"
Madam had enough. She took the Boy to the principal's office. While the Boy waited in the outer office, madam explained to the principal what the situation was.
The principal told Madam he would give the boy a test and
if he failed to answer any of his questions he was to go back to the
first-grade and behave. She agreed.
The Boy was brought in and the conditions were explained to him and he agreed to take the test.
Principal: "What is 3 x 3?"
Boy: "9".
Principal: "What is 6 x 6?"
Boy: "36".
And so it went with every question the principal thought a 4th grade should know.
The principal looks at Madam and tells her, "I think Boy can
go to the 4th grade."
Madam says to the principal, "I have some of my own questions.
Can I ask him ?" The principal and Boy both agree.
Madam asks, "What does a cow have four of that I have only two of"?
Boy, after a moment "Legs."
Madam: "What is in your pants that you have but I do not have?"
Boy: "Pockets."
Madam: What starts with a C and ends with a T is hairy, oval, delicious and contains thin whitish liquid?
Boy: Coconut
Madam: What goes in hard and pink then comes out soft And sticky?
The principal's eyes open really wide and before he could stop the answer, Boy was taking charge.
Boy: Bubblegum
Madam: What does a man do standing up, a woman does sitting down and a dog does on three legs?
The principal's eyes open really wide and before he could stop the answer...
Boy: Shake hands
Madam: You stick your poles inside me. You tie me down to get me up. I get wet before you do.
Boy: Tent
Madam: A finger goes in me. You fiddle with me when you're bored. The best man always has me first.
The Principal was looking restless, a bit tense and took one large Patiala Vodka peg.
Boy: Wedding Ring
Madam: I come in many sizes. When I'm not well, I drip. When you blow me, you feel good.
Boy: Nose
Madam: I have a stiff shaft. My tip penetrates. I come with a quiver.
Boy: Arrow
Madam: What word starts with a 'F' and ends in 'K' that means lot of heat and excitement?
Boy: Firetruck
Madam: What word starts with a 'F' and ends in 'K' & if u don't get it, u have to use ur hand.
Boy: Fork
Madam: What is it that all men have one of it's longer on some men than on others, the pope doesn't use his and a man gives it to his wife after they're married?
Madam: What part of the man has no bone but has muscles, has lots of veins, like pumping, & is responsible for making love ?
The principal breathed a sigh of relief and said to the teacher,
"Send this Boy to IIM, I got the last ten questions wrong myself!".


Oct 14, 2008

Where Do Classroom Essays Go to Die?

I'VE always felt that I did a good job back in middle school with a few short stories, in essay form, that our English class had to write. And I keep wondering from time to time what happened to those stories, the only copies that ever existed, with my writing on them, with those stories that always stuck in my mind. One was about a tense hospital situation where a doctor has to bring the news to a little girl's parents that she may be in terminal condition ... unless they can try a radical new treatment. Another (the better one) was about an Indiana Jones-type treasure seeker who, along with his fellow grave-robbers, fall under an ancient Inca curse and ... well, it's not pleasant.

So anyway, for some reason those two have been really bugging me, especially recently. I know that as soon as they were marked, the class assignments were put away in archival. But for how long? A week, a month, a year? In any case, they were probably thrown out a long time ago.

Kind of makes me shake my head and think about what it would've been like if we'd had the chance to keep a copy for ourselves, type it up and put it online ... silly really. I myself must have written countless little pieces of fiction through my school years. And that's just me, hardly an O. Henry or Mark Twain. Makes me wonder though how many amazing and insightful stories written by young people have been thrown away over the years....


I REALISED after reading David Allen's Getting Things Done (well, most of it) that Gmail has been designed almost from the ground up to make implementing Allen's personal productivity system, easy. Now I realise this is probably not news to anybody, least of all Gmail aficionados (first time I've ever used that word--whew). But I just feel like going over some of the productivity-enhancing features in Gmail that have been going through my head lately.

First of all, the idea that you don't use folders--you just get an inbox and an archive for all messages, and you can tag messages with any--and multiple--tags that you like. The point of this is that you treat all incoming mail as something to be processed, something that requires your attention. And you view the inbox as a place that holds this mail--mail that you need to process as you soon as you get some time. Any mail you don't need to act on--like information for your reference, you might as well put it in the archive. And in fact, you might as well set up filters in Gmail that automatically archive it, if you know that you always get this kind of mail from somebody (or whatever other criteria). For example, I've set things up so that mail from the online vendor I buy bus passes from automatically gets archived, since I don't need to act on it--it's just order confirmations.

So in this way, you get your inbox down to zero messages, ideally. Everything that you don't need to act on, and everything you have finished acting on, has been archived. Anything you didn't want to keep, deleted. Simple, but it feels good to know that you're on top of your email instead of the other way around.

And of course, we do need to categorise our emails--work, personal, sports, whatever--and here we have tags. So you can tag messages any which way, for maximum flexibility, and then just click on the tag name to see all messages tagged the same way.

Of course, the real power of these categories, or labels, is that you can use them to find, say, all emails from friends about school--if you've tagged them as such: just search for `label:Friends AND label:School'. There's a lot of flexibility. After all, Google is all about the search.

So Gmail is all about these two concepts: the inbox, and the archive. Because broadly speaking, you're always either processing email, or finished with it and just keeping it around for reference. Everything else is icing on the cake.

Shameless plug: I highly recommend Getting Things Done. It's the one self-help book that I've ever read, but I can pretty much tell it's the only one I'll ever need to.

Oct 13, 2008

Thoughts on Immigration and Culture Clash

FROM time to time I get to thinking about the difficulties people go through when they immigrate to countries, especially in the Western world. Radically different cultures clash, disagreements arise, and the biggest bugaboo is religion. And every new generation rebels against the old one's ways. So what do we do about this? Should the parents strictly enforce the homeland culture, or allow total integration into the new one, or try to balance the both, as they usually do?

Sooner or later, trying to enforce your own culture on your family, or even trying to make compromises and balance what you think is fairly, will backfire. The kids won't want to pray and go to the mosque, or stay strictly vegetarian, or wear the veil. And it's a matter of religion after all, you can't let it slide. Who knows where it will end. The neighbours will talk, rumours will start, and in general things will be awkward--at the very least.

How about totally integrating into mainstream society? Take your holidays when everybody else does, wish people Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas, have the wife work 9 to 5 and make the kids do chores in exchange for cellphones and computers. After all, you're in a new country for a reason--things didn't work out too well in the old country; too much corruption and unrest; no rule of law and in general, things were going to hell. And here--what a difference! The bureaucracy actually works; things are done fast, online, conveniently, and in general, with peace of mind.

So what's the difference? Why couldn't things work the same way back home? Is it because of religion, cultural attitudes, laziness, corruption--who knows--probably all those combined. So, for all their faults, these people here have been doing something right--they've built roads and highways (and managed to put a street name sign on almost every damn road at every damn intersection), skyscrapers and freight ships. They've speeded up government, maximised efficiency, reduced corruption to a minimum, and made sure people are helped with education, finding work, getting social support--even tax money back from the government.

So, if we do as they do, kind of embrace the culture and values (well, without eating pork or ... whatever), what would the end result be? Who knows? Outrageous idea--it'll never happen. People of pride and dignity, people who hold on to their ancient traditions which have served them so well, are never going to jump in the deep end and embrace the sinful ways of the Western world. But their kids....

Oct 12, 2008

Some Credit Crunch Jokes


Q: What is the definition of optimism?
A: An investment banker ironing five shirts on a Sunday night

Q: What is the one thing Wall St and the Olympics have in common?
A: Synchronised diving

Q: What is the difference between a pigeon and a merchant banker?
A: A pigeon can still put a deposit on a Ferrari

I went to buy a toaster and it came with a bank

Q: What do you say to a hedge fund manager who can't short-sell anything?
A: Quarter pounder with fries please

Q: How many commodities traders does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None, they don't change bulbs; but the trading price of darkness plummets due to oversupply

Entries from a new financial dictionary:
Broker: What my stock adviser has made me
Standard & poor: Your life in a nutshell
Cash flow: The movement your money makes as it disappears down the toilet.

Sep 22, 2008

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I'VE been converted to one of the credit-worshipping masses. Well, not so much worshipping as using. And desiring more of. The story is basically that after using cash all my life, and then taking to debit like a fish to water, using a credit card feels like a natural progression.

Of course, before I applied for one I was full of apprehension. I mean all I knew about them was the high interest rates, and the bunch of fine print that could get me if I didn't read it properly. And of course, the fear of being without a job and stuck with the card bills.

But the thing is, the card company sends you a clear, bold-highlighted bill with a due date each month. Just like any other company which bills you monthly. If you pay off the amount due on time, you're in the clear.

What that means is I actually have to track how much I spend and make sure I actually have that much money in my chequing account. Also, future expenses that I'll have to pay off before I get my next paycheque.

If I can do that, I can reap a lot of benefits--freeing up cash flow for almost a month, earning reward points and cash back, insurance on trips paid for with the card, and so on.

Now, if only I can convince the banks here to give me some more credit....

Aug 26, 2008

Some New Stuff

FIRST post from new laptop and the latest Windows Live Writer. Everything is shiny and new. Vista Home Premium is humming along with whatever I throw at it. The special effects are sweet, although Flip 3D, the Mac-like window-switching effect, is a tad bit slow. Ah well.

The laptop is an HP Pavilion dv6919ca from Wal-Mart, for $598. That came to about $676 with tax slapped on, but I still consider it a pretty good deal. Here's HP's page with all the info on the model. I think the main thing is the AMD processor--that's what cuts the price down so much. Oh, and the Wal-Mart back-to-school sale. I actually would have gone for a Toshiba Satellite that was $50 cheaper and ranked higher on Vista's built-in performance score, but it was sold out. Looks like the people can tell when there's a free lunch around.

Anyway, another thing about this machine is the monster 3 gigs of RAM, which finally gets my mind off worrying about whether I have too many programs open, too many background tasks running in the taskbar, and too many gadgets on the desktop. I'm just piling up whatever I like right now. No doubt it'll slow down a lot later. Maybe by then I'll be proficient enough with Vista to speed it up a bit myself.

Now about the graphics card--the Nvidia GeForce Go 7150M. I don't know much about Nvidia cards and their capabilities on laptops, but from the name this sounds like a mobile graphics card. It shares the system RAM--doesn't have any memory built in--but since I (think I) have plenty to spare, I don't mind. I don't see any heavy gaming in store for this machine so it should be fine.

Btw, Windows Live Writer is surprisingly polished. It's just very well designed all round, and is working with Blogger like a snap. I tried using a Firefox addon called Deepest Sender to do snap blogging, but it errored out on me. Kudos to the WLW team.

Jul 10, 2008

The Entitlement to Being Able to Do Anything

A LITTLE bit of a whimsical title to this post, couldn't really think of anything better on the spot. It's a rant anyway, so you've been warned. Anyway, Paulo Coelho asked something interesting in his blog/video blog. He basically is making the point that there are many things in life that we never try to do because we've been told that we can't do them: start a business, pursue a hobby, or a lifestyle, go into a career, or whatever.

What I want to talk about here is kind of the opposite end of the spectrum. My main idea is this: how many things in this world are being done an endless number of times, with no thought for the environment in which they are being done? Let me give a few examples: how much paperwork is being generated by people and offices around the world just because paper is cheap and abundant? What resources are being diverted by telecommunications companies in big, underpopulated countries like Canada and Australia to set up network range in remote and uninhabited regions where less than 5% of their subscribers will ever go? I mean, they're incurring all these costs of putting up networks in places where most of their subscribers will never want network coverage, and then passing on these costs to the same people who'll never use the coverage.

Recently there've been reports of rare metals like gallium, indium, hafnium and such being `threatened' in their supply. These metals are highly essential ingredients to a lot of modern technology. Without them, we can say goodbye to modern airplanes, LCD screens, and some more similar tidbits. While they're not imminently about to run out, these metals are limited in supply. Now imagine them being used up to feed rising demand throughout the world ... going into factories, getting put inside the devices rolling off assembly lines at ever-increasing rates, and then staying in these doodads, the majority of which are not being recycled, but just filling--well--landfills.

Of course, the biggest waste that just gets me every time is water. We just use too much of it. Our baths and showers and toilets and sinks and basins all flush water down the drain as if it's a magical never-ending supply. People leave their taps on and go off and play a round of golf. Stuff like that. We desperately need water-saving washing and toilet systems, but right now they're pretty expensive. Let's hope they get cheaper in the future.

Then there are the businesses which are built on taking advantage of cheap gas (gasoline, petrol) prices. Yes, I said today's cheap gas prices. Because if gas was priced at its real value, home delivery companies which deliver to your house in 30 minutes or less, no matter how small the order, would be impossible. And people would actually be forced to get off their couches, turn off the TV, and go outside and get their own pizzas.

A huge case of consumers getting their way no matter what the cost is the current ethanol situation, and world food prices. Check this out: with rising petroleum prices, the developed countries have suddenly decided to ramp up corn ethanol fuel production and introduce laws forcing food ethanol as fuel on the public. And voila, corn supplies drop, and world food prices jump.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The world today has a culture of entitlement, an expectation of getting whatever it wants, in whatever quantities, and driving up the price of whatever's in short supply--to such dizzying heights that producers almost literally slash and burn anything in their path to fill this demand. There's something wrong with this economics--the economics of entitlement and expectations.

On the bright side, there is something I hugely appreciate about this sense of entitlement by the people of the developed world (I think I appreciate the irony of it). It's the huge advances in medicine that we've made over the past couple of centuries. I know it's a tired cliche, the repeated mantra of how we've eradicated polio and smallpox and malaria and so on, but it bears repeating. And modern medicine, and the expectations and entitlements which drive it, are working on cures to cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's ... the list goes on. Maybe even the cure to ageing. And these cures are slowly but surely getting passed on to the rest of the world.

This actually brings us back to Paulo's question of how much in life we're not able to do simply because we think we can't. What I've been talking about here is how much in life we do and consume just because we think we think we are entitled to them. Ironically, we may end up thinking that we're entitled to the impossible--and then achieving it.

Nine to Five

FINALLY got an honest-to-goodness 40-hour-a-week job. I must be seriously out of shape, because it takes a lot out of me. Still getting used to waking up at 6 am every day for five days in a row, getting home at 6 pm totally exhausted, vegetating till dinnertime, then going to sleep. Planning to join a gym soon, though, so that might get me out of the house and back in shape.

Before starting work, I'd been keeping really wild hours, going to sleep at 5 am and waking up in the afternoon/evening. Still doing that on weekends in fact, so far. But on weekdays I'm forcing myself to sleep by 11 pm and wake up early. It's nice to know I can get up early, have a good sleep rhythm and get enough sleep during the night. Feels like my body's clock is getting tuned. Slowly.

Still need a lot of coffee relative to, say, 5 years ago though, to get through the day. Not sure how much of this is because I'm doing more work than I was five years ago. Trying to have a big breakfast and a coffee in the morning, but at work, by 11 to 12-ish I can almost literally feel my sugar and caffeine high wear off, and drowsiness starts creeping in. Have snacks and lunch by 2--2:30 pm, and a coffee to jump-start the sluggish body again. The coffee at work is really good, by the way. They have a premium brand which smells pretty expensive, a full-fledged coffee maker with the works. It takes a hell of a long time but the coffee is great.

May 6, 2008

The Master and Margarita

I STARTED writing a small review of this book on my Facebook `Books' application, but then realised I had a lot to say about it. And one of the small book-review applications on Facebook is not a good place for a book such as this. (Which is actually a sad indictment of all my other book reviews there. Have to get them out here sometime.)

I heard about this book some time back, while I was in Malaysia I guess, as part of a controversy--a Russian film adaptation had been made, and was being denounced by religious groups there as being demonic because it showed a witch on a broomstick (and other things). If they had read the book, they would have seen how ludicrous that is.

It's a very complex book, hard to describe. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone who loves to read, though. The editorial review on the book's page certainly does it a lot of justice.

Having read it a long time ago, I'm fuzzy on the plot details, but I do remember this: I found the book absolutely gripping, right from the first chapter. It's a story about Yeshua (Jesus Christ) in Jerusalem shortly after he was denounced by Judas Iscariot and brought before Pontius Pilate; the Master (a persecuted and marginalised writer in Soviet Russia), his faithful lover Margarita, and the Devil, Woland. That is certainly a wide-ranging story. And the plots are mixed in such a way that blurs the distinction between story and story-teller.

Bulgakov's imagination is certainly gripping. The characters and antics he dreams up are surreal and, at times, chilling. Woland comes to Moscow with his retinue of disguised demons; wreaks havoc on the Soviet literary establishment and high society; tempts Margarita with the promise of complete freedom from society's rules and boundaries; and in the process causes the Master and Margarita to be reunited, and their mutual story about Yeshua to be completed as they ride off, the Master healed after all his years in the wilderness, and Margarita finally at peace by his side.

Seriously. Read it. Update: read it with U2's Until the End of the World playing in the background.

Apr 30, 2008

Tabbing in Opera and Notepad++


I'll get to Opera in a bit. It took a quick read-through of the source code (hurrah for open source), but I've finally got Notepad++ tabbing set up exactly the way I like it. For the non-techies reading this, Notepad++ is a free and full-featured text editor for Windows which is meant to replace, and beat the hell out of, Windows Notepad. In fact it does such a good job that I'd rather use it than pretty much all the other editors I've ever used.

After recently being forced to install Ubuntu Linux on my laptop (and loving it), I missed N++ so much that I downloaded and started running it with Wine, a kind of environment which fools a Windows-only program into thinking that it's running in Windows. (I've used Wine before to play Windows games such as Diablo II.)

Anyway, a couple of things were bugging me about Notepad++. Firstly, its tabs couldn't be navigated using the standard Ctrl-PgUp and Ctrl-PgDn keys. The program author doesn't consider them as standard as Ctrl-Tab, and leaves it up to you to change the shortcuts. Well, this I did, but N++'s default tabbing settings also show a small `task list' of open documents whenever you try to switch among tabs. For some reason this task list doesn't automatically disappear under Wine as it would under Windows. You're forced to right-click on it to choose the tab you want.

So this was the situation. What I did was:

  1. Go to Settings > Shortcut Mapper... and, under the `Main menu' commands tab, changed the last two items's (`Switch to previous document' and `Switch to next document') shortcuts to Ctrl-PgUp and Ctrl-PgDn respectively. It's pretty easy--double-clicking on the command lets you choose a shortcut graphically.

  2. Go to Settings > Preferences... and, under the `MISC' tab, disable the `Document switcher (Ctrl+TAB)', which is what N++ calls the task list there.

That's it. With this setup, N++ has tabbing the way God (and Firefox) intended--with Ctrl-PgUp and Ctrl-PgDn.


Opera is the shiznit, if I may use the term. Particularly the latest beta version, currently 9.50. I, a long-time Firefox user, have been enjoying its speed, new `speed dial' feature, new `quick find', built-in Bittorrent downloading and IMAP-enabled email client which lets me access my Gmail. It really gets the job done, and then some. Everyone should seriously try it out. The only thing is, to a Firefox veteran like me, I can't live without my Ctrl-PgUp and Ctrl-PgDn.

Opera has Ctrl-Tab tabbing with a task list by default--almost exactly the same as N++. Here's what I did to get back good-old Ctrl-PgUp & Ctrl-PgDn:

  1. Go to Tools > Preferences..., then the Advanced tab, and the Shortcuts list item on the left side.

  2. Make sure the Opera Standard keyboard setup is selected and then click the second Edit... button to edit the setup.

  3. Type `cycle' in the Quick find search box on top of the Edit Keyboard setup dialog. This shows the page (tab) cycling commands. Double-click shortcut (on the left) for Cycle to next page and change the shortcut to `PageDown ctrl'. Then change the Cycle to previous page shortcut to `PageUp ctrl'.

  4. Type `page left' in the search box and clear the shortcut for the Page left command. Really doubtful I'll ever need to scroll horizontally in screenfuls. If I ever do, I can worry about it later. Then type `page right' and clear the shortcut for the Page right command. We need to clear these because they would clash with our tabbing commands.

  5. Click OK to get back to the Preferences window.

  6. In the Advanced tab, click the `Tabs' item on the top left and under `When cycling through tabs with Ctrl+PageDown', select the `Cycle without showing list' option. This makes tabbing exactly like classic Firefox.

The reason I tackled both these programs here is there's a large similarity between what I had to do with each. Will try to put up screenshots later.

A Shoebox Budget

A recent Lifehacker article gave me the idea of turning my formerly-useless Nokia phone box into a repository of all my receipts:

This way I figure I can follow my dad's advice about reconciling my spending with my monthly bank statements, say, once in a blue moon when I have some free time.

I still have the Expensr webapp, but man it's hard to get back into the habit of using it every day!

Apr 29, 2008

Found in Response to a PC World Article

The article, 18 Features Windows Should Have (but Doesn't) elicited some less-than-reverent responses from readers:

zipzap said at Apr 29, 2008, 05:04: `Oh yea, MS really want to put more built in software... so they can get sued for being uncompetitive and monopolistic and all that rubbish.'

And at Apr 29, 2008, 05:59: `Things PC World should have but doesn't:

1) Brains
2) More Brains
3) A little more brains'


Also, it's a little weird to see PC World so out of touch with its readship--nimble online blogs like Lifehacker often do a much better job at giving us the tips and tricks we need to get the most out of our PCs.

Apr 28, 2008

Hilarious Misuse of `Mullahs'

I found this hilarious new usage of the term `Mullahs' and couldn't resist putting it up here:

`Furthermore, I made the switch because developing Ruby on Rails applications on Windows is such a pain, and most developers know this, so they go out and buy Macs. Well my friends, you can save your mullahs and turn your stock standard Dell into a kick arse development environment for Rails. Just check out the screenshot of my desktop below.'

For those not in the know, mullahs are respected Islamic scholars who often give sermons at mosques. Basically the Muslim equivalent of clergymen. Now what this inadvertent author probably meant is `moolahs'. Lol.

Apr 23, 2008

The Monkey King ... er, The Forbidden Kingdom

VERY enjoyable movie. Jackie Chan and Jet Li together make movie magic--I just had to say it--and give the audiences a compelling show. Ironically, Chan and Li both come from this genre of action movies--chop-socky--but they had to do Western-style action movies to achieve Hollywood star power. And meanwhile, the genre was revived by such notables movies as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers.

OK, now that I've had my say, the movie. The hero is the ordinary and likeable kid in Brooklyn (Boston?) obsessed with old kung fu movies, Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, who perfected the ordinary-guy-forced-to-become-a-hero technique in Sky High, another enjoyable movie--sorry, now I've had my say :-). He frequents the old Chinese memorabilia shop around the corner always in the hope of finding another old kung fu classic.

One day he finds an ancient staff of power in the store, and the elderly proprietor tells him that it's waiting for someone to return it to its rightful owner ... a mischievous deity known as the Monkey King. The Monkey King is probably the most interesting character in the movie, although he's absent for most of it. (Indeed I keep thinking of the movie as The Monkey King. Hence the accident-on-purpose title to this post.) The legend goes that he was imprisoned in stone after being tricked by the Bad Guy, who we'll come to in a bit.

Almost as if on cue, Jason gets into serious trouble with some of the neighbourhood thugs. Although the thugs do look like they could be from the cast of West Side Story, they are deadly serious for Jason, who is forced to run for his life, with the staff in his hands by accident.

He's cornered by the thugs, who're about to kill him, but the staff mystically transports him into ... The Forbidden Kingdom ... I guess, a faraway ancient China. He regains consciousness to find that some kindly villagers have taken him in, and finds soon enough that the villages and people of the kingdom are mightily oppressed by the armies of the Jade Warlord, who rules over the Kingdom in the absence of the Heavenly Emperor, and has imprisoned the Monkey King by tricking him into parting with his magical staff.

By chance, Jason is saved from some Imperial soldiers by Lu Yan (Chan), a vagabond who drinks wine all day and swaggers along until he's forced to fight, at which time you get to see some MAD skillz. Recognising the holy staff and taking Jason for a monk who is trying to return it to the Monkey King, Lu Yan takes Jason under his wing and teaches him the kung fu he will need to defend himself. They're joined by Golden Sparrow, a young maiden who has her own reasons to go along with them.

Along the way they meet The Silent Monk (Jet Li), who mistakes Jason for a thief and snatches the staff from him, leading to maybe one of the most anticipated fight scenes in movie history, between Chan and Li. Eventually they learn they're on the same side, and share a good laugh over Jason--`He's not even Chinese!'

Anyway, that's the setup, and these four characters are faced with the quest of returning the staff to Four Elements Mountain and freeing the Monkey King from his stone prison, where he's been for the past 500 years while the Jade Warlord terrorised the Kingdom unchecked.

Now, I won't talk about the quest itself--how Jason is trained by the two martial arts masters, how they survive a desert crossing to come to Four Elements Mountain, or how one of them is treacherously shot in the back by the White-Haired Bride (another staple of old martial arts cinema), and what Jason has to do to save that person. But it's all well worth watching, in the theatre if you can, with friends or a girlfriend (I think).

But I will talk about the Monkey King a bit. He is an unbeatable warrior with his mystic staff of power, and a mischievous spirit, always thumbing his nose at authority--especially the Jade Warlord, who is the Commander of the Imperial Army. This is what arouses the Warlord's hatred of him, and maybe what turns him evil. The motivations of the deities aren't examined in full--probably the movie would become an angst-ridden existential piece--but there's just enough there to leave you wondering what kind of politics they would have had in a heavenly imperial court. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

There's one thing I want to rant about. Apparently the consensus in reviews of the movie is `Great fight scenes, but too much filler'. To me, it was just the right amount and length. I've heard about, and been sceptical of, American audiences' apparent desire for `dumbing down' of movie plots, but this movie has an intriguing plot which makes you care about the characters, wonder about the life and times of the setting, and miss it when Jason gets back to New York, as he must in the end. If you don't know some backstory, how can you fill in the blanks in your head with interesting fantasy? That's part of what makes it fun. It's like these reviewers want a made-to-order story with exactly right amounts of setup and payoff, and no lingering anywhere, in case they're forced to think about a fantasy world (<Deity> forbid).

At one point, understandably, Jason's reaction to finding himself in ancient China is thinking it's a dream. There's a moment slightly after this where it's driven home to him how dangerous the dream is. Lu Yan for once sheds his humorous nature and says to Jason something like, `If you die in this realm, you will be found dead where you came from!' A dire warning in an otherwise light-hearted movie. The mix of light and heavy elements is right.

SPOILER WARNING: There is a spoiler (at least by my reckoning) in the comment below. Scroll down to see it.


















































Jan 31, 2008


This is kind of a strange post. The thing is, I see or experience strange coincidences in my life often enough that I've given a name to the phenomenon--synchronicity. Of course, I'm hardly the guy who came up with the word or its meaning. Nor am I the only person who thinks that coincidences happen to them. But I do use the word to describe strange, chance-defying happenings or experiences that, oddly enough, happen surprisingly often--to me.

The reason I'm writing about this just now is that, well, something ... synchronicitous (is that a word?) ... happened just now. Well, it seems like that to me. See for yourself.

First, I was browsing through the BBC News site and happened to come across an interesting graphical illustration of how the US sub-prime crisis happened. I was interested because I'd recently been looking at graphing and charting, and how to make eye-catching charts to visualise a lot of data.

So anyway, the BBC's sub-prime crisis guide happened to use the US city of Cleveland as an example of how the mortgage crisis affected poorer urban populations. I was curious as to why they used Cleveland; but there's a good explanation in the page itself which I will give here, also because it happens to be an important part of why the crisis happened at all.

For many years, Cleveland was the sub-prime capital of America.

It was a poor, working class city, hit hard by the decline of manufacturing and sharply divided along racial lines.

Mortgage brokers focused their efforts by selling sub-prime mortgages in working class black areas where many people had achieved home ownership.

They told them that they could get cash by refinancing their homes, but often neglected to properly explain that the new sub-prime mortgages would "reset" after 2 years at double the interest rate.

The result was a wave of repossessions that blighted neighbourhoods across the city and the inner suburbs.

By late 2007, one in ten homes in Cleveland had been repossessed and Deutsche Bank Trust, acting on behalf of bondholders, was the largest property owner in the city.

So, enough about Cleveland. Not quite, as it turned out.

I then came across this, an article about a couple of books written by one William Cleveland, who is `[o]ne of the pioneers in developing guidelines for comprehensible data graphics'. (By the way, the site where I found the article, Pictures of Numbers, is a blog about charting and graphing with some very good articles, if anyone is interested.) It turns out that Prof. Cleveland developed something called lowess, a statistical technique used in scatter-plot charts.

Now, lowess is something I've been coming across in the mathematical software package, called R, that I've been using to make my charts.

And lastly, while finding the above article, I came across another article, by Stephen Dubner, a journalist and one of the authors of Freakonomics. (I haven't read it yet. Hear it's good though.) Anyway, Dubner's article, called `How's This for a Coincidence?', mentions that he was on a plane to Cleveland, where basketball star LeBron James plays for the Cavaliers (I don't know if that's still true). Dubner was blogging about an earlier post by his Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt, in which Levitt had asked the readers what LeBron James had in common with his (Levitt's) wife. They like doing the `have-in-common' thing from time to time.

How's that for synchronicity? (Sorry. Couldn't resist that last line.)

Synchronicity update: the Freakonomics blog has done it again, with their latest post: Levitt's `What Do Lolita and Freakonomics Have in Common?'

Synchronicity update 2: coincidentally, the above blog post talks about a chart of US students' SAT scores compared to their reading habits. I came across this chart a few days ago.

Jan 2, 2008

Life in the Cloud

OK, so suddenly I find myself with the urge to blog a bit about my changing computing habits. If reading techie stuff makes you want to tear out your own eyeballs and pin your eyesockets with two large needles, you should quit reading this now.

So. First off--the title. I'll explain it in a bit, but right now I just want to talk about what's behind it. Lately I've been moving a lot of my personal data online. I mean stuff that I'm used to keeping on my own computer, I'm uploading it for various reasons. For backup being just one of them.

Gmail--The Beginning of the End of an Era
It all started with Gmail of course, with its humongous 1 gigabyte of storage space. We quickly started using it to store our documents and such, a kind of freestyle file manager. And by now this has been going on for some time.

Google Docs
Then Google introduced Google Docs, the lightweight office suite which lives entirely on the web. It too stores files, albeit only documents, presentations and spreadsheets. But if you're whipping up a bare-bones document (assignment, proposal, whatever), and want to share it with friends and co-workers, it's excellent.

Google Notebook
Now we also have Google Notebook, which allows you to manage any textual info you might want to save for later use. These include bookmarks, and regular notes wherein you can keep stuff you've written but aren't sure what to do with it, stuff you need to remember, like an itinerary, or stuff you can't afford to forget, like your passwords. And of course, all of these are available from any web browser that can go online. I've found it very useful to have access to these notes both when I'm at home and at work.

Google Reader
I'm also using Google Reader, which just seems to be getting more and more powerful every few months. At this point I'm hard pressed to decide which is my favourite Google web app--Gmail or GReader. But I digress. If you're not a heavy (and I mean prolific) web surfer, you're probably not sure what exactly Google Reader is. A site that lets you read books, maybe?

Nope. It's a site which collects articles from websites you specify, and shows all new articles in bold highlighting. It actually shows all articles within its own page. This is incredibly useful because it saves you from having to hop around among a dozen different sites that you like. Instead you stay in Google Reader and read one article after another, skimming past the ones that don't interest you and digging down into the ones that do.

Once you pass over and read an article, it's changed back to non-highlighted. So you can always easily tell which articles you've read and which are new. You can `star' articles, like in Gmail, to keep them in a special folder in case you want to look at them later. You can `share' articles, which adds a link to the article on an automatic `blog' GReader creates for you, and which your friends can access once you give them its address.

I'll admit I'm a moderately fast reader, but GReader literally lets me read or skim through thousands of articles every month, no joke. So if you're someone who has to or wants to keep track of some kind of news, GReader will give you a considerable boost. And these days, keeping track of any kind of news is a snap thanks to search engines like Google automatically giving you continuously updated feeds of the search results. For example here's a feed on news about Jamie Lynn Spears. If you add this feed to GReader, it'll show the news headlines, and short summaries, as items almost as soon as they're posted onto the web. (Tip: don't do it, for your own sanity.)

Once you start using GReader and learning more about feeds and just how many kinds of information they can track, you'll be well on your way to becoming a true web guru.

Now owned by Yahoo, and still offering a boatload of free storage space for photos, Flickr is probably the best photo storage site on the web. I've been uploading photos to it left and right. The only limitation for the free service is that you can upload a maximum of 100 MB each calendar month. Shouldn't be a problem for the occasional uploader.

Honourable mention: Google's Picasa Web Albums, a slick photo sharing app that lets you do one thing for free that Flickr doesn't: organise photos into albums. Free Flickr lets you create a maximum of 3 `sets', which are its equivalent of albums. But you can get around that by `tagging' all photos which would go into the same album with a common tag, and then doing a search for that tag.

OK, that is a bit cumbersome. So why do I recommend Flickr over Picasa Web? Because the latter has an absolute storage limit of 1 gigabyte, which feels rather irksome in these days of unlimited storage. But then again, who's going to use up a gigabyte of storage, right? Hmm....

Last but not least, a gem among web apps. If you've ever had to manage money, you might have found yourself asking, Where did all the money go? Expensr tries to answer exactly this question, by making you keep track of all your expenses. It's free and it's fully on the web--once again, you can access it from any device with a proper web browser. (Forget the PC--I've heard people are using their Wiis to surf these days.)

If you take a few minutes to sign up and set up the accounts, you'll be rewarded in just a few days with a day-to-day visual analysis of your spending habits--as a pie chart showing where the money goes, and a bar chart showing how much goes each day. The site is new, but it looks promising. Some of the community-based features are intriguing. You can `tag' yourself as `in my twenties', `in my thirties', `in college', `renting', `a smoker', and so on and compare yourself anonymously to others in these categories.

The Cloud
Now, you might be getting a sense of how much you can put online just for the sheer convenience of it. Nowadays this data space is being called the cloud, and cloud computing seems to be headed for the big time, with Google and a select few others poised to be in the epicentre. And given the quality of their web offerings, I feel pretty good about that.